"Achoo!" Tesni sneezed as another cloud of dust sailed out of the heavy rug that hung over the stout rope stretched across the yard behind Bennaeth House, the large stone dwelling occupied by Idris, Anwen, their children, and sometimes by Cadogan and his aide. Tesni herself had grown up in this house, she'd told Cromwell, and remembered most of the rugs from her childhood. The intricately woven patterns of green, wine and tan in this particular specimen had fascinated her as a little girl, she claimed. The colonel could see why; the rug was indeed beautiful.

At the moment, it was also very dusty. The colonel recalled helping his brother and his naina Cromwell beat rugs when he was growing up. She'd had a vacuum cleaner, of course, but at least twice a year the area rugs were taken up off the hardwood floors in his grandparents' two-story frame house near Nanticoke, Pennsylvania and brought outside to have the dust beaten out of them, in addition to their weekly vacuuming. He and his older brother Nick had been given the task of helping during the early years when they and their parents lived nearby, and were often put to work on it at some point during the summer months that they both lived with their grandparents after their mother had insisted on herself, her husband and their two sons moving to Tennessee to be near her own family, outside of Knoxville.

The colonel had been eight at the time of the move, with Nick not quite thirteen, and he recalled his grandmother's firm admonition to his father to make sure that he sent "her boys" to spend summers with her and their grandfather. Owen Cromwell had acquiesced, something that pleased both of his sons, even if Nick did pretend to complain a bit the year he was sixteen. From just a few days after school let out for the summer until a week or so before it began again in the fall, the two of them lived with their father's parents, enjoying the freedom of the wooded hills behind the house and the company of friends they'd known since before the move. Not that there weren't friends or places to play in their rural Tennessee neighborhood, but it was nice to not have to completely break ties with their old friends, and their grandparents doted on both boys. Summers were often a bit cooler in northeastern Pennsylvania, too, compared to the sticky humidity of eastern Tennessee in July.

Cromwell pushed the memory aside and aimed another set of blows with the rug-beater, raising a fresh cloud of dust and causing his partner in the endeavor to sneeze again, this time twice in a row. "You all right over there?" he called.

"I'm fine," responded Tesni with a smile. "I just need to time my breathing a bit better, that's all. Inhaling while there's that much dust flying about is a bad idea, but I keep doing it."

The colonel frowned. "It sounds that way. You weren't having this much trouble before, though."

"This is the worst of the rugs. It gets all the traffic through the north end of the great room." Tesni shrugged. "I'll be all right."

"Do you have something to tie over your nose and mouth? That might help."

She shook her head. "I should have thought to do that. I could have brought a handkerchief or something, but I forgot to, or I'd have probably put it on a while ago."

Pulling a folded square of linen from his belt pouch, Cromwell offered it to her. "Well, mine is clean, if you'd like to use it for that."

"You don't mind?"

"If I did, I wouldn't offer." He chuckled. "Go ahead; take it."

Tesni took the linen square, shaking it out and folding it into a triangle, which she then tied around her lower face to keep from breathing in the dust and grit. Cromwell didn't seem to be having the same problem, and he was perfectly happy to loan the item to her if it would help. She looked comical with it tied over her face, though. He could only see her eyes.

This was the last of the rugs they were going to beat for Anwen. Tegwyn and Ris had vied with them over the opportunity to tackle this particular chore; not surprisingly, he and Tesni weren't the only people looking for tasks they could do outdoors rather than indoors on a day like today. They'd agreed in the end to split the work, with Cromwell and Tesni doing the first five rugs, then turning the task over to Ris and his sister to do the other five. Once the colonel and Tesni finished this rug, they planned to absent themselves for an hour or so and go for a hike in the forest, returning in time to help in the kitchen with dinner preparations.

Working quickly, they completed the task and rolled up the rug to carry it into the house. Untying the handkerchief from her face, Tesni shook it to remove some of the dust it had collected. "I'll wash this and then get it back to you," she said, grimacing at the still-grimy fabric. "Thank you, though; this was much better than all the sneezing."

"You're welcome." The colonel lifted his end of the rolled-up rug. "Let's take this inside and tell Ris and Tegwyn it's their turn, and then get out of here for a while."

Soon they were beyond the village wall and on one of the trails that wound through the forest, Tesni carrying a fabric bag slung across one shoulder, in case they encountered any useful plants she might wish to gather, despite the earliness of the season. The ground beneath their feet was soft but not muddy, littered with fallen pine needles and a few of last year's leaves. Birds chattered overhead. Somewhere, a jay scolded, hidden among the branches. Leaf-buds swelled on every twig, a few already bursting forth with nascent foliage, just enough to give distant branches a pale green haze. They passed a patch of spiky shoots, where some early plants were poking their stems up through the leaf mold on the soft forest floor. Cromwell stopped to examine them, kneeling for a closer view. Too large to be crocuses, they looked for all the world like the daffodil shoots that always showed up early in the springtime in his grandparents' garden. "Tesni, do these grow to have yellow flowers with a cup shape in their centers?"

She nodded. "They do. We call them croeso gwanwyn, the welcome-spring."

Good grief, that's very nearly identical to what Naina called them in Welsh. Once again, the colonel found himself plunged into memories of home.

Every time he turned around, it seemed he found something else here that reminded him of Earth. More and more those memories were coming to center on three things: his childhood days, especially summers spent with his grandparents, and — when Cadogan or the Am Rhyddid were involved — various aspects of his Air Force career, or of his friendship with Jack. The first two made sense, given his current environment and work, but he was still at a loss to explain why Cadogan reminded him in some ways of Jack. The two were nothing alike in personality or temperament, beyond sharing one or two interests, such as chess, and of course both were military like himself. While Jack was by nature somewhat reticent unless he was indulging in humor, where he tended toward the sarcastic, Cadogan was open and genial. Then again, Cromwell reflected, most Pridani are like that, at least to some extent. It appears to be cultural.

He wondered idly what Jack O'Neill would be like had he been reared in Pridanic society. Or for that matter, himself. He knew that just by virtue of living here among the Pridani and passing himself off as one of them, he found himself absorbing at least some small portion of their habits, for protective coloration if nothing else. Cromwell knew he was still regarded as unusually reserved by most of the local folk, but he took care to appear open and approachable enough not to stand out unduly. Part of that was the simple necessity of command; his own personnel and his fellow officers both needed to feel that they could communicate effectively with him, and a certain amount of camaraderie was essential to any successful military unit. Beyond that, however, he had to admit that he did feel more comfortable now with the Pridani than he had several months previously.

Abandoning that train of thought in favor of simply enjoying the nice day and the pleasant company in which he currently found himself, the colonel stood, brushing pine needles from the knees of his trews. He noticed Tesni watching his face. Her own wore an expression of curiosity. "You've seen the croeso gwanwyn before, then?" she asked.

Cromwell nodded. "They grew in my naina's garden, so finding these reminds me of home. A lot of things around here do that, actually." He smiled, the action demanding only minimal effort. "I'm learning that in many ways my world isn't as dissimilar to Tir Awyr as I may have thought."

"You still miss it, though." Not a question; a statement of fact. If anyone he'd met since his arrival here almost nine months ago could read him, it was Tesni. Not surprisingly, when she had been the first to begin to know him.

"You're right; I do miss it. Who wouldn't miss the place they're from, especially if they hadn't planned on leaving?" He saw her face take on a look of concern at his words, and found himself wishing to dispel it. Tesni and her family tried so hard to make him feel as though he belonged here. And in truth, he was grateful for that, just as he'd told Cadogan only a week previously. "It's all right, Tesni. As much as I still want to go home, it doesn't mean that I'm unhappy here, because I'm not."

She nodded. "I understand, Neirin. I'm sure I'd want to go home too, if I were you. But at least you do have a home here, too. I know that it isn't the same, but…"

The colonel smiled, this time without effort. "It isn't, but Tir Awyr has its own merits. I honestly have no complaints in that regard. And if I haven't said this to you before, thank you."

"For what?"

"For helping me to feel at home, that's what. Between you, Cadogan and the rest of your family, being here is a lot better than I expected when I first woke up in the compass circle last summer. Once I saw those stones, I was pretty sure there were people here, but I had no idea what kind of people, or how I'd manage to get along. Not that I ever expected to be here for anywhere near this length of time, but if I had to be, then I've been very lucky to have friends. So, thank you."

Tesni smiled and laid a hand on his arm. "Neirin, it isn't any work at all to be friends with someone who gives friendship back in return. Things like helping me today, and helping Anwen, just for example. I might just as easily thank you."

A jay scolded directly overhead, the sound causing them both to look up. "I think we're in his garden," Tesni commented, laughing. "Come on, let's keep walking. I want to gather some willow bark while we're out here, and I know the perfect stand of willow trees."

"I think I know the place you're talking about." Cromwell pointed up the trail. "About half mile that way, to the fork in the trail, then down the right-hand path for a quarter-mile?"

"That's it, exactly. You can help me with the bark." She grinned at him. "I honestly invited you to walk with me for the sake of your company, but as long as you're here…"

The rest of her words went unheard as Tesni was treated yet again to the sound of laughter.

.

.

.

"…and the aforementioned personnel to be rotated home on leave for the next three weeks, replaced by the personnel on the attached list." Cromwell finished dictating the report to his clerk, Armagil. The young man wrote quickly, using a bronze stylus to scribe the characters into the soft wax of a diptych, the wood-cased, two-leaved wax tablet-books in common use among the Pridani and other Celts for short-term record-keeping and other written material of a less-than-permanent nature. The diptych was simply two shallow wooden trays bound together with leather thongs like a book, their inner surfaces coated with a layer of beeswax to make a writing surface that could be inscribed with the use of a stylus. When not in use, the stylus was stored in a small leather sleeve attached to the tablet's cover.

Finishing the report, Armagil passed it to his commanding officer, who extracted a bronze seal from his belt pouch and pressed it lightly into the wax, leaving an impression, before returning the diptych. Tucking the seal back into the pouch, he said, "No sense in sending that on to Dinas Coedwyg. The cadlywydd is due back at Bennaeth House tomorrow; just take it there and see that it is delivered." He paused, then: "On second thought, I'm going that way myself later, so I'll deliver it in person." Holding out his hands, the colonel took the diptych back from Armagil. "Were there any incoming messages to attend to?"

"No, sir." The clerk shook his head.

"Then I think we're done for today. I'll see you tomorrow morning." Cromwell gave his clerk a nod of dismissal, watching as the young man rose from his seat at the small writing desk and made his way to the door. Since the colonel took command of his twelve-person unit, the cottage that served as his quarters had also come to function as his office, as he found it helpful to handle the paperwork ubiquitous to any military unit in a quiet, private space. That the "paperwork" in question only occasionally involved actual paper in his current setting was of little consequence, as reports and records were much the same regardless of the medium in which they had their physical existence. With one major exception, he reflected.

Settling himself in a chair by the window, where the light was strongest, he propped an ankle on the opposite knee and rested the diptych on his lap, at arm's length. Opening the cover, he peered at the report he had just dictated and then set his seal to. Armagil's lettering appeared bold, scribed into the waxy surface of the writing tablet in a firm, clear hand.

Try as he might, the colonel couldn't make head or tail of it, despite knowing what the report said.

He pursed his lips, his eyes following the lines of text. It wasn't a problem of focus, for all that he held things a bit farther away now to read them — or to try, in this instance — than perhaps he had three years ago. Anyone could expect to do that at some point after reaching the north side of forty, he knew, and he counted himself fortunate to have made it to forty-four before that particular need had even begun to manifest itself. Carrying a pair of reading glasses was a damned annoyance in the field, however, and one he didn't want to deal with any sooner than he absolutely had to, so he'd steadfastly refused to bow to the necessity until he had no choice. He hadn't reached that point yet before his fall through Earth's stargate; and he still hadn't, he reminded himself. No, the problem was one that glasses wouldn't have helped, even if he'd had a pair. Or even if I needed them, which I don't, yet.

It was at once both simpler, and yet vastly more complicated than that. Cromwell had never encountered a writing system like this one before in his life.

He'd be damned if he wanted to ask someone to sit down and teach him the alphabet as though he were a kid in school. It was one thing to learn another language, even to learn to read a bit of Arabic writing, under the auspices of the Air Force. There, he'd been in the company of others with a similar background and reasons for learning. Here, he was an anomaly: the only adult in Llanavon, as far as he could tell, and possibly in the entire Pridanic culture who was illiterate in the script in which all written business hereabouts was conducted. Worse yet, he was supposed to be passing for a Pridano, a member of the people among whom he lived and worked. He knew his skills in spoken Pridanic passed muster; he'd worked hard to perfect them, and what slight accent he still retained showed up only when he was tired or stressed, affecting only a couple of vowel sounds in the language. No one had ever questioned him on it, though if that occurred, he planned to pass it off as the remnant of a childhood speech impediment, despite having suffered no such condition in reality. Having a fully fleshed out cover story was essential, however, when assuming another identity for any length of time. This left him with the rather thorny problem of literacy.

Asking openly for help would reveal him to have had no access to the Pridanic educational system, which he now knew to be fairly comprehensive, especially for a culture that in many ways approximated Europe's late medieval period or early Renaissance in terms of technological sophistication. Socially, it was much closer to his own native twentieth-century milieu in a great many ways, including the importance placed on at least a foundational education for every individual at all levels of society. Naturally, that included literacy, so to admit that he could not in fact read and write in the Pridanic script would be to reveal himself as a foreigner and invite questions, as well as possibly imperiling the way he knew he had come to be viewed not only by the men and women in his own command, but by his fellow officers.

Oh, sure, he knew he could ask Tesni or someone else in the cadlywydd's close family circle for help, since not only did they know full well that he was not in fact Pridanic, but also would guard his secret. But there, pride took a hand in things, too. Cromwell knew himself to be an intelligent man, and once he'd realized that the Pridani were indeed a literate people, he had been certain that he could figure out the local script on his own, given a little bit of time to tinker. He had read for pleasure since childhood, and never had a problem; surely, he could adapt on his own to a different alphabet. Besides, for a man who had not only completed a bachelor's degree in order to receive his commission, but also a master's while on active duty and logged countless hours of classroom time in military-specific education besides, the thought of needing someone to teach him to do something as simple as read all over again seemed ludicrous.

Except that he'd spent several months poring over examples of Pridanic writing, often material he'd dictated himself, and he was no closer to actually reading their script than when he began. He thought he had a few of what might be consonants figured out, and a couple more symbols that could conceivably represent vowels, but he wasn't completely sure of that. For one thing, he wasn't even certain that the Pridani used a fully phonetic system. There were more characters than the twenty-six used in the alphabet to which he was accustomed, and he was having a hard time matching them directly to sounds in the spoken language. The fact that, as in the modern Welsh he'd learned as a child, certain elements of spoken words might mutate according to context didn't help any either, as he didn't know whether this extended to the written language as well. He suspected that it did, but thus far, a coherent pattern in the written text still eluded him.

It also didn't help any to reflect that he'd originally thought to be long gone by now, rescued by a team from Earth and returned to where he belonged, and where the nuances of Pridanic writing would be little more than an interesting academic question. Not that he found life among the Pridani unpleasant, but damn it, where was Jack? Or if not Jack, then anyone from the SGC? The longer he was here, the more he began to suspect that no one would be coming for him, and to worry about how he was going to find his own way home without having to reveal knowledge of Earth that he still feared might accidentally find its way into unfriendly hands at some point.

He shook his head, abandoning that line of thinking for now. At the moment, he had work to do here. No matter how badly he still wanted to go home, while he remained he had a duty to the Am Rhyddid as well as to Cadogan, who had gone out of his way to befriend him. Whatever he did in the long term, he would find a way to do it without letting the cadlywydd down.

In fact, that was another part of what drove his struggle to learn to read and write Pridanic. Thus far, everything that had occurred in the field involved only verbal instructions; he hadn't yet had to deal with the written word while actively on a mission for the Am Rhyddid. That all came afterward, when it was time to write reports, or in preparations beforehand. For those activities, he had early on designated one of the men who served under him as a sort of company clerk, charged with handling everything of a written nature that came either from or to the unit or himself as its commanding officer. Armagil was a pleasant and capable young man, and as far as the colonel could tell, suspected nothing of the truth about why he held the position of clerk or why the man he knew as filwriad Neirin was never seen to deal with written material directly. Armagil took his position seriously and in fact seemed rather proud of his role in helping his filwriad with the smooth functioning of the unit. His own good fortune to be in a position where he could detail someone else to do for him the one thing he could not do for himself was hardly lost on Cromwell; however, he suspected that it was only a matter of time before he found himself encountering written orders or other information in a situation where he could not delegate their management to his clerk. And when that day came, he feared he would indeed be letting down not only Cadogan, but also his own personnel, with potentially lethal results.

He shifted the angle of the diptych and studied it again, tracing a line of text with a finger, in a vain effort to cause it to reveal its meaning. No revelation came, however, and after a moment he closed the tablet, snorting in irritation. It was no use; he was going to have to get some help with this, and soon. Either that, or resign his position as filwriad — interestingly, the term translated, as far as he could tell, as something close enough to "colonel" as made little difference, in the same way that cadlywydd approximated "general" — and let someone more competent take over the small unit before his lack of facility with written Pridanic somehow led to disaster for his team in the middle of a mission.

A knock on the door interrupted these less-than-pleasant musings, and he glanced out the open window to find Ris standing on the small porch that fronted the cottage. "Sorry," he called through the window to the youth. "I got busy with some work, but I'll be right there." Rising from the chair, he placed the diptych on the writing desk again before turning to the door and his student.

After their midnight scuffle on Cromwell's first night in Llanavon, Ris had made it clear that far from being bothered by having come off the worst in the altercation, he was envious of the colonel's skill as a hand-to-hand fighter. While still nursing a bloody scrape along one cheekbone and a rapidly blooming black eye, he'd conveyed, via his aunt, his desire to have Cromwell instruct him in the art. Nonplussed at the moment, the colonel had nevertheless felt kindly toward the teenager, and not a bit chagrined at having injured him despite the fact that Ris had attacked him and he'd had no choice at the time but to defend himself. Once he'd found his feet to some extent, and the boy's injuries had healed — the latter being aided by Cadogan's use of the Tok'ra healing device — he had reminded Tesni of the request. She in turn brought it to the attention of Idris and Anwen, who were more than willing to give their consent for Cromwell to teach their somewhat headstrong son the proper way to handle a fight. That they regarded the colonel quite highly for having saved the youth's life the day after their initial encounter, regardless of Cromwell's own account of events, was perhaps instrumental. Whatever the reason, the colonel had found himself teaching fighting techniques to a willing and attentive Ris, both unarmed and with the use of wooden staffs not unlike the one with which he himself had been armed on the night Ris attacked him.

Between instructing Ris in the martial arts and also coaching him in the analytical skills and presence of mind necessary to not only surviving and winning a fight if need be but also to knowing when it was better to avoid a direct confrontation altogether, the colonel soon found himself in the position of overall mentor to the boy. Ris respected and looked up to him, something that Cromwell found oddly gratifying, despite having for years denied any reason for anyone to view him in that way. Perhaps it was the fact that Ris was still a youth, on the cusp of manhood perhaps, but not quite fully there yet. The colonel had fathered no offspring, despite genuinely liking children, and something in him responded to Ris in much the same way he felt he might have toward his own son, if he'd had one. Or toward Charlie, at this age, had he lived to reach it… and with his father speaking to me.

Jack and Sara's boy had been the closest thing he'd had to a son of his own, back in the days before the Gulf. Cromwell had missed out on the last several years of Charlie's life, however, due to the events in Iraq that had driven a wedge between himself and his best friend. When he'd heard of Charlie's accidental death due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound from Jack's own personal weapon, he had grieved as deeply as though the child had been his own flesh and blood. In unguarded moments, he admitted to himself that this likely formed part of the reason he was adamant about giving Ris every advantage of both skill and self-control that might stand to protect him in what the colonel knew would likely be a dangerous future, as the youth was determined to take his place among the Am Rhyddid just as soon as he had reached the age of majority among his people, in what was now another year and a half.

Taking up a jug from the dining table and the long wooden staff that occupied the corner by the door, Cromwell went out to meet his protégé. Ris was dressed for practice, and carried a similar staff of his own. The colonel gave group instruction to many Am Rhyddid personnel in the same techniques he taught Ris, but his sessions with the teen were almost always held separately, and sometimes included his sister. Among the Pridani, women made up a not-insignificant percentage of the rebel fighting force, and according to everything he'd been told by both Tesni and by Cadogan, Pridani women had taken the field alongside men since time immemorial, even numbering among some of the Pridani's most revered military commanders in the ancient days before the various tribes brought by Bel to Tir Awyr had settled their differences and united against a common foe in the Goa'uld and Jaffa, leaving the Pridani and the Albannu as the two primary cultures. Tesni herself was no novice at the same activities in which the colonel coached Ris, and was often seen sparring with her niece, but often on days when her aunt was away or otherwise occupied, Tegwyn had taken to asking Cromwell to include her in her brother's lessons.

Despite being at first somewhat uncomfortable with the thought of teaching fighting techniques to a fourteen-year-old girl — not because of any prejudice against her learning them, but simply because it was something he'd never done before — he had quickly gotten past it when he realized that Tegwyn already had a reasonably good grasp of at least the basics. Having seen Tesni instructing her, the colonel could understand why. Tesni herself demonstrated an impressive amount of skill. The nature of Special Forces combat operations as constituted in the US military had dictated the use of all-male teams for the sort of work in which Cromwell had been involved, but over the years he'd seen his share of female military personnel who could mop the floor with most opponents of either gender in hand-to-hand fighting. Tesni certainly impressed him as someone who, if exposed to the same level and intensity of training, could probably do likewise — if she couldn't already.

The colonel's one concession in teaching Tegwyn and Ris together was to demonstrate something, usually with Ris, and then set brother and sister sparring against each other to put it into actual practice, while he observed and coached them both. In height, Ris now nearly matched Cromwell's five-foot ten; he'd shot up at least two inches over the winter and seemed poised to mimic his father, who at six feet was easily one of the tallest men the colonel had thus far encountered among the Pridani. The boy was still lightly built, however, having not yet come into his full growth. Tegwyn, on the other hand, was short and slight, much like her mother. If Cromwell had to guess, he'd say Anwen was all of five-foot one on a good day, and weighed maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. Having Idris for her father meant that Tegwyn might yet have some height coming, but if so, she hadn't gotten it yet, topping her mother by only an inch at present. What she did have, however, was both an incredible amount of agility and the same feisty attitude apparent in both her mother and her aunt, and Ris did not always come off the victor in his contests with her, despite having advantages of both weight and reach.

Today, only Ris awaited him, Tegwyn having already taken her own practice session with their aunt, according to her brother. Heading out onto a patch of recently-cleared land just beyond the village walls, where trees had been felled both to allow for extra training ground and also for building materials to add to the local housing stock necessary to accommodate the increased population resulting from the same buildup of personnel that had led to Cromwell's being placed in his current command, the colonel put the teen through his paces before introducing a couple of novel moves. Nearly an hour passed as they practiced in the warm sunshine, working up a sweat. Both mentor and protégé were glad of the cool water in the jug that the colonel had brought along, and at the end of the session they were both equally grateful to repair to the public baths.

Bathed and dressed in clean clothing, Cromwell once more reflected that while Llanavon might be decidedly lacking in the sort of high-tech creature comforts that characterized life on Earth as he had known it — when he hadn't been camping in the field or sharing whatever primitive lodgings might be customary among a group like the mujaheddin or the contras, for instance — there were some elements that equaled or surpassed what he was used to back home. The baths, at once both simple and yet a luxury in their own right, were one such example, and the general friendliness of the locals was another. Even someone like Ris, who was young and who might be forgiven for or even expected in modern-day America to be perhaps less mannerly than the adults around him, hewed for the most part to a standard of courtesy that the colonel found refreshing.

For a moment, he considered Ris in terms of a solution to his dilemma with regard to written Pridanic. At the age of sixteen, the youth had just finished his formal schooling, and was certainly as literate as any of the other locals. He was aware of the fact that Cromwell lived his life among them under an assumed identity, and that he was not from any of the Five Worlds. The two of them shared a bond, and the colonel knew he could trust Ris both to help him and to keep it a secret just as he already kept the secret of his identity. Still, something in him balked at the idea of asking someone young enough to be his son for help in a matter such as this, despite the fact that the two of them already spent a fair amount of time together, which would provide the perfect cover for reading lessons. Laying the idea aside for the moment, he vowed to find a better solution.

There was one thing Ris could do for him, however. The two of them had left the baths together, and were walking back toward Cromwell's cottage, where Ris would turn off to continue up the street toward Bennaeth House, the name given to the house occupied by Idris and Anwen, and by Cadogan when he was in Llanavon. "Ris, will you take a report home for me, and put it on your uncle's desk in the study so that he has it first thing when he arrives tomorrow?"

"I'll be happy to, but aren't you coming by the house this evening yourself?"

Truth be told, Cromwell had been planning to stop by, as had become his habit. On many evenings, the various members of Cadogan's household tended to gather at the large house to pass at least a portion of the evening in conversation or games before those who did not live there drifted off once more to their individual homes. This was especially true when the cadlywydd himself was present, although even in his absence the family gathered frequently. However, the colonel's earlier train of thought had left him in the sort of introspective mood that often led him to crave solitude in which to contemplate whatever was bothering him. You mean brood, don't you? his inner voice chided. He bade it hush, shaking his head. "I might, after dinner, but it's been something of a long day, Ris. If you don't see me later, it means I've gone to bed early."

The youth cocked his head, a look of mild concern on his face. "Is everything all right?"

"Everything's fine, son. I just didn't sleep well last night, and I'm a little tired." Which wasn't entirely true; Cromwell had slept perfectly well the previous night. It was tonight that he worried about. He rarely had insomnia as a general rule, but what he did have were nightmares. Not every night, nor even often, but when he did have them, it was usually when he had something especially troubling on his mind and was at a loss for a solution. He'd learned over the years that this particular mindset tended to trigger something in his subconscious that would then have him reliving one or more of the most stressful or terrifying events of his life — some of which were pretty intense, given the nature of his military career over the past quarter-century — until the dreams finally forced him awake, after which he would often be wakeful for the rest of the night. Given his current concerns regarding the need to get up to speed on the written language, though he still had no more idea how he was going to do that than he had before, and the fact that thinking about that dilemma had led him onto the question of how or whether he was ever going to get home again, he knew he was quite likely primed for a disturbed night. Then again, if he was going to have nightmares and a restless night, did going to bed early really matter? What was better about going to bed early only to be awakened by his own subconscious at, say, midnight and then being up until dawn, as opposed to going to bed later, and having the same scenario take place closer to sunrise?

"I was hoping to talk you into playing chess with me tonight," said Ris.

The plaintive note in the teenager's voice brought a half-smile to the colonel's face. Having helped to make the chess set for his uncle and his mentor, Ris had quickly taken to learning the game. Given the opportunity, he'd have played daily. He was also working on another copy of the game board, and had announced his intention to carve chessmen for it out of wood this time. Knowing Ris, he's got them half-done already, too.

"I may change my mind," Cromwell told him as they reached the cottage. Mounting the steps, he opened the door, ushering the youth inside, where he gave him the diptych. "Here. Take this for me and put it on your uncle's desk, and maybe I'll stop by later on with the chess set anyway. No promises, but if I do, we'll have at least one game, all right?"

"All right. I hope to see you later, then."

The colonel clapped him on the shoulder. "We'll see. Now go home and get your dinner before your mother wonders what's keeping you."