Men exist for the sake of one another. — Marcus Aurelius
Cromwell was grateful the rains had ceased before they set out, although the muddy road had still posed some difficulty. Still, traveling on horseback had helped, both in the speed of their passage and in preventing further fatigue from a muddy slog on foot through unfamiliar territory.
After the runner from Doireglas had delivered his message, ceannard Fearghas had gathered a team of his own rebels and ordered horses for himself and them, as well as for the party from offworld. Apparently deciding against implementing the false Jaffa ruse for the present, he'd explained his new plan to Cadogan, Cromwell and Gerlad as both rebel teams prepared to mount in the stableyard of the fort at Rath Tulach.
"Cathmhilidh, we'll get as close as we can to the facility and the fighting, then send scouts to see exactly what's happening. If the two groups of Jaffa are still engaged with one another, I intend to lead one squad of my men into action, ostensibly on the side of Bel's Jaffa. Naturally, we'll seek to take out as many loyalists as we can with our clumsy attempt to help. While we're doing that, I'd like your men to split into three smaller teams and go after specific key individuals, assuming we don't see them right away, engaged in the main action." The Emhaini officer paused, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Our biggest problem will be communications, since we don't dare have any of your men be heard speaking Pridanic. I know, cathmhilidh, that you and Gerlad here speak the tongue of my men, but are there any others with you who also speak it?"
Cromwell spoke up then. "Armagil does. He's my second in command." The colonel knew that his rhaglaw's mother came from among the Albannu on Tir Awyr. He'd learned this upon finding Armagil holding an animated conversation in Alban with the Emhaini messenger Crinan not long after Crinan's arrival in Llanavon with word of the attack on Rath Tulach some three months ago. When asked, Armagil had explained that he'd grown up speaking his mother's tongue alongside his father's Pridanic, in a situation not terribly dissimilar to the way in which Cromwell had learned Welsh from his paternal grandmother as a boy. Apparently, the dialect of Alban in use on Emhain differed little from that used by the Albannu on Tir Awyr.
Fearghas nodded. "Very good; that will help matters immensely. My aim is to send one of my own men with each group of your Wolves, to point out your targets. But none of mine speak Pridanic save one, so having three among your party who speak Alban solves the problem of how to convey that information. Naturally, the rest of you will have to rely on sign rather than speech, lest you be overheard and recognized as being from offworld."
Cromwell nodded. "Understood, Fearghas."
With that, they'd mounted up and taken the sodden road to Doireglas, some four klicks distant, traveling as swiftly as the beasts and the conditions would allow. Arriving within sight of the processing facility, the ceannard had led them off into a farmyard. "This farmcroft belongs to the father of one of my officers. We can leave our mounts in the barn and continue on foot, though I want to send scouts ahead."
Dismounting, the party led their horses into the large, weathered barn and made them comfortable while they waited for the return of the pair of men Fearghas had sent to spy out the current situation at the naquadah refinery just up the road. Once the horses were seen to, Cromwell called his Wolves together at one end of the barn. He looked up and down the line of men ranged before him in the dim light shed by the building's single high window. "Armagil, I'd like you to take Coll, Brioc and Llew with you. Fearghas will assign you one of his men as a guide." The rhaglaw nodded, as did the three other Wolves Cromwell had named.
Turning to the remainder of his team, he continued. "Pyr and Issui, you're to go with Gerlad, and the guide that Fearghas assigns to you."
Both men nodded. "Yes, sir," said Pyr, a wiry blond man with green eyes.
Cromwell turned to Cadogan. "That leaves Tathan and myself to accompany you and our own guide," he said. "Unless you'd prefer ours to be the larger team? For your own safety, of course, since you — "
The cadlywydd cut him off with a shake of his head. "No, Neirin. I'm as safe with you and Tathan as I'd be with twice as many others, and in any case you know I won't send anyone to run a risk I won't take myself. Besides, Sabar gives me an advantage, and makes for another mind on the squad as well."
Cromwell couldn't argue with that, and didn't bother to try. He'd been impressed from the first by Cadogan's preference for accompanying his personnel in the field, rather than just directing their operations remotely the way some commanders in his experience did.
Changing the subject, he offered a suggestion instead. "Cadogan, given the present difficulty of communication between my team and the locals, wouldn't it make sense to train those who are active in the Am Rhyddid and its member groups in some standard language that could be used in joint operations? It's just a thought, but it would certainly make things easier in situations like these."
Cadogan gave him an appraising look. "You know, that thought had occurred to me as well, now that we're ramping up our activities. The question is, which language to use? There are at least half a dozen major tongues in use across the Five Worlds. Sabar has learned them all, which means I can speak them too, but choosing just one common language for the entire movement is tricky."
"Well, you're Pridanic, and so is Gerlad. Seems to me that makes Pridanic the language of the current high command, by default. Why not use it? Either that, or have us all learn Tok'ra or something." Even as he said it, Cromwell cringed inwardly. He didn't exactly relish the thought of having to learn the language of the snakelike symbiotes. Isn't learning six foreign languages in a lifetime enough, even if I'd only call myself fluent in two or three of them? Nevertheless, he'd made the suggestion, and it wasn't any less realistic than expecting the Emhaini or Gallan rebels to learn Pridanic. Besides, it might make it that much easier for all of them to interface with the movement's Tok'bel allies.
The cadlywydd chuckled. "I don't think using Tok'ra is the answer. But Pridanic as a universal language of command for our movement does make a certain amount of sense, even if we can't use it aloud in the field under all circumstances. It isn't any more difficult to learn than any of the others, I suppose, and most of our rebels are pretty bright. You certainly learned it quickly enough."
Cromwell shook his head. "Don't look to me as an example," he warned. "I had the advantage of already speaking a very similar language, remember. But I've had to learn others over the course of my life and career — please don't ask — and it isn't all that hard for most people to learn at least enough to get by."
"Well, the most important part is that you at least can approach this from the standpoint of someone who had to learn Pridanic rather than having it as your native tongue. Since you're obviously familiar with language learning in general, perhaps I should have you take a role in developing the curriculum we can use for teaching at least a basic level of it to our personnel from other worlds? You've already shown that you're a good teacher when it comes to other things, so this ought not to be much of a leap."
Cromwell found that he was simultaneously taken aback and yet warmed by Cadogan's suggestion. He had started out with plans to become a schoolteacher or a professor not quite thirty years ago, when he'd first entered college and then signed on with AFROTC to pay for the education he'd hoped would make that dream a reality. Over the course of what had instead become a long-term military career, the Air Force had utilized him as an instructor on any number of occasions, although never in the field of languages. In his brief time among the Am Rhyddid thus far he'd served as an instructor as well, teaching hand-to-hand tactics and generalized martial arts and even offering pointers on everything from combat strategy to personnel management to other command personnel at the cadlywydd's request. Helping to put together a training program for language education was more than a bit outside the realm of what he'd done previously, but he'd been the one to bring it up just now, so he supposed he was already on the hook. He hadn't let his friend and CO down yet, and now was no time to start.
Cadogan was watching his face closely, clearly expecting some answer. "I suppose I could be of help," the colonel offered cautiously. "Though I doubt you'll want me to handle the entire program. But if you think I'd be useful as a resource, I've no problem with that."
The cadlywydd chuckled again, clasping his shoulder. "We'll talk about it when this mission is over, Neirin. But you've definitely given me some food for thought, and Sabar as well."
The Emhaini scouts returned a few minutes later, and after conferring briefly with them, Fearghas approached with both scouts in tow. They were accompanied by a third man whom Cromwell recognized as Crinan. Apparently the young messenger was under the ceannard's direct command.
"All right," said Fearghas, without preamble. "Machan and Dougal here tell me there appear to be about thirty Jaffa fighting in yon facility, roughly fifteen to a side as far as either of them can tell. The loyalist staff number not quite twenty, and there are already four confirmed dead among them. No one's seen Ailpein, the head of the human staff." He spat on the dirt floor. "Coward that he is, I'm not surprised. I'd like to send Crinan" — he clapped the young man on the shoulder — "with your squad, cathmhilidh, and Machan and Dougal can each accompany one of the others. Unless you've some objection, I'll suggest that you and your squad concentrate on locating Ailpein and dispatching him. Wouldn't surprise me if the no-good toady went to ground at the first sign of danger, and Crinan's a dab hand at ferreting out them what prefers not tae be found." The ceannard's Alban brogue became more pronounced with agitation, some detached portion of Cromwell's mind noted with mild amusement.
Cadogan nodded. "That sounds like a plan. I think we'll have Machan accompany Armagil's squad." He gestured in the rhaglaw's direction, and Machan moved to join him and his three Wolves. "Dougal can go with with Gerlad and his team." The cadlywydd spoke a few words of Alban to each of the Emhaini men, and although Cromwell couldn't follow the gist of what he said, Cadogan's tone was reassuring.
Fearghas spoke again. "I've given Machan and Dougal each an objective of locating certain key personnel among the loyalists and finding a way to rid ourselves of them without its being obviously deliberate. I'll take my remaining five men and join in the overall defense of the facility, so it will look as if we're just locals coming to the aid of our lord's troops. Naturally, we'll have our own objective of taking out any loyalists we reasonably can under the guise of friendly fire." He grinned again. "When things quiet down, we'll all meet up back here. If something prevents your accessing the barn or the croft, do your best to get back to Rath Tulach and the fort. There are any number of trails that will take you there without using the main road, and my men know them all." A nod. "Good hunting."
"Good hunting to you," replied Gerlad, echoed by Cadogan and Cromwell.
Fearghas and his team of five set out first, and Cadogan ordered the three groups of Wolves and their guides to approach the ore-processing facility at five-minute intervals, with each squad coming from a different direction. This required their own team to circle around slightly to the northeast in order to approach via a wooded gully that ran up to the rear of the main building from the river. Crinan took point as they climbed the embankment, being the only member who knew the terrain well. Soon they were creeping along the outer wall of the processing facility, staying close against its rough stone surface. Tathan followed directly on Crinan's heels, with Cadogan behind him. Cromwell took their six, glancing behind every few seconds to be sure they weren't spotted and followed. They'd passed no Jaffa guards, nor were there any human guards in sight, but it never hurt to be careful. He couldn't shake the feeling that they might well be walking into a situation for which no amount of planning could prepare them.
Ahead, Crinan halted at a break in the wall and turned, motioning his companions to gather around him. "This was an auxiliary entrance used by the workers, until some of the brickwork in the entry corridor fell in several years ago. It was never repaired, but the inner end of the passageway was never completely sealed, either. We can enter here and pick our way through, though we'll have to be on watch for falling bricks. Still, I'm fairly sure that whatever was going to fall has likely done so by now, so we ought to be safe enough."
Cadogan nodded. "Where does the inner passageway lead?"
"It should bring us out just a little way from an equipment room, inside the main processing plant. I actually worked this facility for a time last year; the Jaffa draw people from the village in rotation to work for the space of a month as laborers under loyalist overseers." Crinan pulled a face. "Not that we're given any choice, of course. But it'll help us now, because everyone on my ceannard's team has spent time here and understands the layout of the buildings and the compound."
"Where are we apt to find this Ailpein character?" asked Cromwell.
"I expect he may be hiding somewhere in the plant. Ailpein's primary use to Bel and his Goa'uld hierarchy is as an administrator. He manages staff well enough to retain his position, but courage was never his strong point. I doubt he'd put his own life or safety at risk to actually defend this place against an invading force of foreign Jaffa." The Emhaini guide squatted down, drawing a knife from his belt. A patch of packed if slightly muddy earth served as a blackboard while he used the tip of the blade to sketch the basic layout of the compound. "We'll enter here, between the equipment storage and the main processing floor. There are three levels here. The ground level is the processing floor, of course. There are catwalks above, serving the overhead portions of the machinery for separating and refining the naquadah ore, and the basement level is the loading docks for the barges that carry the processed ore downriver toward the chappa'ai." Cromwell was already aware that Emhain's refined ore was carried overland the last klick to be taken offworld. "The docks are only used when there's sufficient supply for tribute, and that's only twice a year."
"Sounds to me like it might make the perfect hiding place for Ailpein, then," the colonel commented.
"It wouldn't surprise me, either," agreed Cadogan. "We'll begin with a sweep of the main floor, then check the docks." He pulled a stubby metallic cylinder from his belt pouch; Cromwell recognized it as a flashlight of Tok'ra design. Activating it, the cadlywydd passed it to Crinan. "I'm guessing our way in will be dark, so use this."
The narrow passageway that led into the facility was littered with fallen brickwork and choked with cobwebs. Cromwell heard a skittering somewhere in the shadows as the squad cautiously made their way through, and once he could have sworn he felt something scramble over his left boot. Ugh, figures there'd be rats in here.
They emerged behind a screen wall that separated the inner corridor from what indeed appeared to be an equipment bay. The inside of the facility was lit by blank white panels set at regular intervals into the stone ceiling. The light they gave was less harsh than the ubiquitous fluorescent lighting Cromwell had been accustomed to in buildings on Earth, but otherwise they reminded him sharply of home.
Crinan handed the 'flashlight' back to Cadogan, who deactivated it and stowed it once more in his pouch. Gesturing for the others to follow, the young Emhaini man moved to check the equipment storage bay. There was no one present, and they soon moved to the processing floor itself. All was strangely quiet here, the rather primitive machinery stilled in what looked like mid-task. Cromwell could hear intermittent sounds of staff and zat fire in the distance, indicating that fighting still took place beyond the immediate area, but not a soul occupied the factory floor. They spent ten minutes on a full sweep of the area, ducking in and out between the various work stations, conveyors and separating machines. Their reconnaissance included a thorough inspection of the catwalks overhead, which proved to be similarly deserted.
The colonel found it almost eerie, and the hair on the back of his neck prickled. Something wasn't quite right. Had every worker been ordered to help in the facility's defense?
Satisfied that the processing area was empty save for themselves, Cadogan gestured to Crinan. "That leaves only the docks to be checked. Lead us that way."
Their guide ushered them through a doorway that gave onto a dimly-lit stairwell. As they descended, he said, "There is also a platform for raising and lowering cargo when barges are loaded or unloaded. We saw the pulleys for it up in the catwalk, but with no one to work them, the platform itself should be on the dock level. If we have to check the shaft itself, we'll need your wee light again, cathmhilidh. Though with luck, we won't have to."
They found the docks seemingly as deserted as the processing floor had been. The underbelly of the facility housed a narrow cave-like space hewn out of the living rock that formed one side of the gully through which ran the river Doire on its way toward the gentler hill country near the stargate. Cromwell assumed this place took its name from the river itself. He knew only a few words of Alban, gleaned from conversations with Armagil, but was aware that 'glas' was the word for 'river'. He had an easier time with 'doire', which sounded very similar to its Pridanic cousin derw, meaning 'oak'.
Within this subterranean space, a level stone work area roughly fifteen feet wide ran along the river itself, bounded on its other side by the cavern wall. More light panels relieved the dimness every ten feet or so, set into the walls this time as well as the ceiling. Cromwell got the impression they were running on a lower power setting than they would when the dock was in use. As it was, however, much of the area was in shadow. He could just make out a long, low shape in the water at the far end of the cavern. Gesturing for Tathan to accompany him, the colonel moved closer to investigate.
A small barge was tied up to a pair of the stone mooring posts set at intervals along the bank. A stout rope passed through an iron ring at the fore, and through a similar ring set into a post. This arrangement was repeated at the aft of the barge, and the craft bumped gently against the pads attached to the stonework just at the waterline, bobbing slightly with the river's flow. Its cargo area was barren and there was no boatman aboard; the poles used to guide it rested on the deck.
Tathan glanced nervously at his commander. "You think this is how Lord Moccas' Jaffa came here?" he asked, sotto voce.
Cromwell nodded, replying in the same tone, "It's possible. Chances are they thought to steal processed naquadah ore and load it up to carry back to the chappa'ai on the barge to bring back to Moccas." He couldn't bring himself to apply the term 'lord' to any Goa'uld, despite the fact that many of the Celts did so casually. It hadn't escaped the colonel that this was something he shared with the Tok'bel of his acquaintance, either.
Cadogan and Crinan joined them, zats at the ready and still keeping a sharp eye out for movement in the shadowy recesses of the cavern. "There shouldn't be a barge here now," observed Crinan in a hushed voice, confirming Cromwell's thoughts of a moment ago.
"I guess we know how our Jaffa visitors arrived, then," said Cadogan quietly. "Of course, that means they'll most likely be coming back this way, probably with stolen naquadah."
"Ambush?" Tathan glanced at his companions.
"Not with only the four of us," replied Cadogan, shaking his head. "The messenger said there were at least fifteen foreign Jaffa present. Assuming even two-thirds showed up for the return trip, we'd be outnumbered more than two to one. Sabar scarcely counts in this instance, as between us we only have the one pair of hands."
"Tactically speaking, I wouldn't want to try it," agreed Cromwell. "Even less with you and Sabar present, if you'll permit me to say so. Too risky, given your importance to the movement."
Cadogan frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but whatever he was about to say was pre-empted by a thud! from the shadows at the rear of the cavern. Cromwell whirled as reflex born of long training brought his zat to bear, aimed in the direction of the sound. Tathan mirrored his response, as did Crinan and Cadogan.
Silence reigned. Cromwell glanced at Tathan, gesturing with a nod for the lanky man to remain with Cadogan in position as a rear guard. With another head-gesture, the colonel indicated that Crinan should accompany him to investigate the source of the sound. Cadogan quietly handed his Tok'ra 'flashlight' to Cromwell.
Together, the pair moved cautiously toward the shadowy recesses at the rear of the dock. Cromwell could feel a slight draft from just ahead of them and realized they were nearing the shaft that housed the cargo lift. Glancing at Crinan, he pantomimed searching upward in the shaft with the light he carried, gesturing instructions for Crinan to keep his zat at the ready in case they should find an enemy. At Crinan's nod, the two separated by several feet to approach the floor of the shaft from slightly different angles.
The lift platform rested on the stone floor of the cavern, empty. The colonel watched for Crinan to get into position, then aimed Cadogan's light up into the shaft touched the switch on the side. The beam stabbed upward and Cromwell squinted as his eyes reacted to the sudden brilliance. There was motion, and a bolt of energy shot out from the direction of a shape clinging to the shaft's wall. It went wild, striking the edge of the platform farthest from both men.
Crinan reacted first, returning fire with his own zat. A stunned form landed with a thump in the middle of the platform, zat sliding from its nerveless fingers. Cromwell played the light over its face. "Ailpein?" he asked.
Crinan nodded. "That's him."
The colonel played the light over the entire interior of the shaft, but no other surprises awaited them. An access ladder attached to the shaft's interior was deserted. "Looks like he was alone," he commented.
Crinan nodded again, taking careful aim at the unconscious figure and firing a second bolt. Despite knowing they had no other choice, Cromwell couldn't quite help a sharp intake of breath as the Emhaini rebel efficiently dispatched their quarry. "What about the corpse?" he asked as the glow of energy faded.
"Fearghas said to make it look as though anyone we eliminated was actually the victim of Lord Moccas' Jaffa, but I'm not sure how we can do that here." Crinan studied the figure of the late and unlikely to be lamented Ailpein as they were joined by Cadogan and Tathan.
The cadlywydd appeared to have overheard this latest exchange. "As long as some of Moccas' Jaffa survive to return to the dock, it should work just fine. What we need to do is position the body near enough to the barge that it appears he was trying to prevent their escape, but obscured in such a way as to not be easily spotted by the returning Jaffa until they're nearly ready to board." He paused, wearing the look that meant he was listening to his symbiote. "Sabar says it would be nice to have a force of our own present to actually prevent that escape, and I agree. We'd both prefer none of them get back to Moccas."
Cromwell nodded. "So Tathan's idea of an ambush isn't a bad one, but we can't do it without more personnel. We'll need to collect at least one of the other teams, then double back here ahead of the Jaffa."
They laid Ailpein not far from the barge, partly hidden behind a large wooden crate of the type used to hold processed ore. In the dim light of the dock, the body was barely visible, zat grasped in one hand. When Cadogan and Sabar were satisfied that the administrator would appear to have been killed in an attempt to prevent someone from boarding the barge, the team retreated to the stairwell and ascended to the main processing floor. Judging from the sound, the fighting had drawn closer.
Clearly, the cadlywydd heard it, too. Turning to Crinan, he asked, "Of our two other teams, which would you think is likely to be closest to our present position, given the tasks with which Fearghas charged them?"
The young man thought for a second. "Armagil's team, most likely, with Machan. If they're not already involved in yon skirmish" — he jerked his head to indicate the direction from which the sounds of battle emanated — "I would expect to find them between here and there."
Cadogan clapped him on the shoulder. "Let's go."
Their guide led the party out of the building and into a courtyard bounded on three sides by the building they'd just exited and two neighboring structures, and by the compound's exterior wall on the fourth. A gap between the wall and one of the neighboring buildings accommodated what appeared to be a roadway for the transport of ore and possibly other materials within the facilty; grooves worn into its cobbled surface gave evidence of the passage of carts. Indeed, two handcarts stood off to one side against the wall of the building just across from the one they'd left. One was half-full of raw naquadah ore, while its companion was empty. The sounds of battle echoed from the stone walls in the narrow space.
Crinan gestured toward the gap, speaking to Cromwell. "It sounds like they're fighting in the forecourt, near the guardhouse. I know Fearghas intended Machan's squad to find and dispatch Ogan, the dayshift overseer, but since we found no one in the main plant he could have been anywhere. This next building is the laborers' dormitory; I expect Machan and your men will have checked there first."
"We'll look inside anyway, just to be sure," instructed the colonel. "I'd hate to skip it and miss something important."
The dormitory was a long two-story building whose Spartan interior reminded Cromwell of the barracks his AFROTC unit had occupied during their four weeks of field training when he was in college. It proved to be deserted, though signs of recent fighting were evident in several overturned chairs, a table on its side with one edge splintered and singed, and a number of bunks that appeared to have suffered similar treatment. The smell of ozone was strongest at the ground floor's far end, and the party cautiously made their way into what looked like a dayroom. There they found more furniture in disarray, along with two human corpses dressed in nondescript clothing and a single dead Jaffa.
"I recognize these two," said Crinan, peering at the dead men. "They headed work gangs when I was a laborer here. They're both loyal to Bel, or at least they were."
Cadogan moved forward for a closer examination of the Jaffa. The ram-horned helmet was open, and the face inside twisted in a grimace, even in death. Cromwell joined the cadlywydd as the latter knelt, reaching out to touch the corpse's forehead.
"Cadogan!" the colonel hissed. "Are you sure that's wise?"
His commander looked up. "Oh, he's quite dead, Neirin; don't worry. Sabar can even sense that this one's symbiote is dead as well. I just want to see what we're dealing with." He pressed a thumb to the tattoo on the Jaffa's forehead. Rendered in what appeared to be black ink just below the surface of the skin, it displayed the same stylized ram's horns as on any of Bel's other Jaffa.
The cadlywydd rubbed the ball of his thumb firmly across the symbol several times. As Cromwell watched, the top layer of 'skin' began to peel and disintegrate, allowing the pigment beneath to smear and smudge. Cadogan rubbed harder, his efforts revealing a second layer which must be the Jaffa's own skin. The cadlywydd paused to draw a handkerchief from his belt pouch and use it to wipe his thumb, then scrubbed the rest of the false tattoo away with it, exposing a different symbol. Like the ram's horns worn by Bel's Jaffa, this one was also composed of a pair of curved lines, but unlike the spiraling curls of Bel's symbol, these curved slightly down, then sharply upward once, their ends not quite touching at both top and bottom. A small dot sat just above the lower end of each of the curved lines, looking for all the world like a pair of eyes.
"The sign of the Boar," said Cadogan quietly. "According to historical sources, Moccas adopted this symbol as his own upon assuming full and independent control of Arverenem after he and his siblings staged their coup against Bel. I'm rather surprised that the Jaffa currently under his control wear it, though. I would expect them to be at least nominally still bound to and wearing the symbol of his patron, whoever that is."
"The Tok'bel still don't know?" asked Cromwell as he leaned over Cadogan's shoulder for a closer look at the Jaffa's tattoo. It did resemble a boar's eyes and tusks, he realized.
"No. A pair of operatives have been sent to infiltrate Moccas' organization, since we do know which world he uses as a home base, courtesy of Bel's own spies. The problem is that Khaletia — that's the planet's name — has been at least tenuously claimed by several different minor Goa'uld over the past thousand years, occasionally at the same time. Moccas could be aligned with any of them." Cadogan folded his handkerchief, tucking it back into his pouch. "I doubt he's been going it alone, however."
Cromwell straightened, offering Cadogan his hand. "Hasn't there been any word from the Tok'bel operatives?"
The cadlywydd grasped the proffered hand and got to his feet, shaking his head. "Not yet. That by itself isn't a surprise, as they've only been gone for less than three months, and it can take some time to get securely into place such that they'd be able to risk a visit back to deliver information, or even be able to arrange to pass it along somehow." He gazed down at the dead Jaffa again. "If Moccas is branding Jaffa with his own symbol, he must be supremely confident — or supremely arrogant. Not that either one is surprising in a Goa'uld."
Tathan, stationed near the dayroom's open window, hissed at his superiors. "Sirs, the fighting's shifted." Sure enough, the distinctive sound of energy weapons discharging was closer now, and shouting could be heard. Cromwell caught what could only be an Emhaini battle cry, its words unintelligible but the meaning unmistakable.
Cadogan cocked his head, appearing to hear something else. "Someone's coming," he said.
Cromwell had grown accustomed to the cadlywydd's uncannily sharp senses over the past year, although he still often wondered whether this were a natural talent in his adoptive kinsman or some effect of hosting a symbiote. It scarcely mattered, of course. The fact that he had them had proven invaluable time and again.
A second later, Cadogan's pronouncement was confirmed as the sound of running footsteps reached the colonel's ears. From the sound, the colonel deduced that several individuals were approaching the near side of the building. A door to the outside occupied one wall of the dayroom; it stood ajar. With a gesture, Cromwell ordered Crinan and Tathan to take up defensive positions using the room's battle-scared furniture as cover. He and Cadogan moved to opposite sides of the doorway and pressed themselves flat against the wall with weapons at the ready, covering the entrance.
The slap of leather soles against flagstones drew closer, and the colonel caught a sob of indrawn breath in the split second before five figures burst through the doorway. "Hold!" cried the lead man, and Cromwell frowned at the man's appearance. It was Armagil, with blood matted in his dark hair, and the skin on one side of his face scraped raw. Behind him Llew, Coll, Brioc and Machan skidded to a stop, eyes wide as they spied Cadogan and Cromwell with zat'nik'tels trained on them.
Clearly registering his filwriad's concerned expression, Armagil gestured to his head. "The blood isn't mine," he said, turning to take aim at the doorway with his own weapon as his men did likewise. "Or, at least most of it isn't. But we have loyalists on our heels. We'd planned to set an ambush for them here."
"Ogan?" asked Crinan, looking sharply at Machan.
"Yes," Machan answered. "With five others and three Jaffa."
Cadogan had said nothing during this exchange, his head still cocked as though listening for sounds from outside. Now he gestured for quiet, adjusting his grip on the zat he still held aimed at the doorway. A moment later, Cromwell once again heard the sound of running, this time accompanied by shouts in both Alban and Goa'uld. It appeared that whoever was approaching this time was accompanied by Jaffa. A glance told him that the rest of his team were prepared to meet their enemy. Nine against nine, he thought. That's better odds than Armagil would've had if we hadn't been here. I'm glad we caught up with them. Gonna be awfully close-quarters fighting, though.
The pounding of booted feet grew louder, and a second later, a swarm of bodies burst through the doorway. A pair of well-timed shots from Armagil's zat dispatched the Jaffa who'd been in the lead, just as the last of the loyalists entered. The room erupted in a deadly exchange of energy bolts from ma'tok staff weapons and zats as both sides opened fire. Cromwell and Cadogan dared not fire into the melee from their positions flanking the doorway, as to do so would jeopardize their comrades should any of the bolts miss their targets.
Cadogan began to move around one side of the general fighting, obviously hoping to reach a position where he would have a clear shot. Cromwell mirrored his motion, bringing the two of them into position where they could fire on their opponents with less risk of catching one of their own men in friendly fire. Crinan had dispatched one of the loyalists, and the colonel saw Tathan take out another as he himself took aim at one of the trio remaining and squeezed a bolt from his zat. His target fell, stunned, and Cromwell fired again. They couldn't afford to leave stunned enemies in their wake, to regain consciousness and possibly identify them. He refrained from administering a third, disintegrating shot. Although he'd seen more than a few of their enemies disappear this way, the idea still gave him the willies and he strove to avoid it when he could.
From the corner of his eye, he saw one of the Jaffa turn and raise a zat, shouting, "Sha'lokma'kor!" His blood froze as he realized the first Jaffa was aiming directly at Cadogan, just a few feet away, who was engaged in an exchange of fire with the second. As if in slow motion, he saw the bolt of blue energy leave the sinuous weapon and strike the cadlywydd, who fell, stunned, in its dancing glow. The horror was magnified as Cromwell realized that the second Jaffa had his own zat trained on Cadogan's still form, prepared to deliver the bolt that would kill him.
A wordless cry escaped the colonel's mouth as he dove across the distance separating himself from the cadlywydd, firing at the second Jaffa even as he sought to shield his friend with his own body. He landed un-gently on the stone floor, heaving himself to his knees between Cadogan and the Jaffa. A searing, tingling heat enveloped him for a split second before the world went dark and cold…
His head was pounding in time with the rhythm of his heart. It was dark, and he felt chilled; chilled and wet. He was lying on his side on a damp, slightly rough surface — he could feel it beneath one cheek — that bobbed in time with a rhythmic thumping far out of phase with his heartbeat. This slower rhythm came from outside him, and he wondered idly what it might be.
Memory flooded back suddenly, and the blood sang in his ears as he recalled seeing Cadogan fall, struck by a zat blast. He struggled against a heavy softness that seemed to be weighing him down. Voices came to him then.
"He's awake." Armagil, close at hand and sounding relieved.
"Thank goodness." Someone with an Alban burr. Crinan? Yes, Crinan, he realized a moment later.
The third voice flooded the colonel with relief of his own. "Here, get him a dry blanket; this one's too wet to be doing any good."
Cadogan! His friend was alive, and from the sound of things he'd regained consciousness first, probably with Sabar's help. Even as he framed the thought, Cromwell felt several pairs of hands grasping at him. The heavy damp softness that held him down was pulled away and replaced by a drier layer of wool, blessedly warm despite its relative lightness. He felt the shivering he'd barely registered begin to slow. Another pair of hands gently lifted his head as a third positioned something soft beneath it — probably a folded cloak, to judge by its scent and feel.
A familiar hand gripped his, while another shielded his face. "Lie back and relax, Neirin, and open your eyes slowly," said Cadogan. "Trust me, the light's going to hurt if you don't."
"It's going to hurt anyway," Cromwell grumbled. "I've had my share of concussions and hangovers; I know how it works."
He heard his friend chuckle. "Have you ever taken a zat shot at close range before?"
"No," he admitted, slitting his eyelids open just a bit. It was like glancing into a thousand-watt floodlight; pain stabbed through his head. Jesus Christ! He clamped his eyelids shut again as he felt tears well up.
"Too much?" asked the cadlywydd, concern mixed with just a touch of humor in his tone.
The hand on his brow vanished, along with the one that had been holding both of his own. There was a faint rustling, and a second later his face was bathed in gentle warmth. He recognized the sensation of Cadogan's healing device as the throbbing diminished. What must it be costing him to do this? he wondered, knowing the cadlywydd had recently taken a similar bolt.
"That's good enough," he told his friend. "I'm all right. Save your strength."
The warmth of the ta'el kesh faded a moment later, replaced by the warmth of a hand placed once more against his brow to shield his eyes.. "Are you certain?" asked Cadogan.
"There's one way to find out."
This time the pain was only minor as his eyes adjusted to the light. After a moment, the cadlywydd drew his hand gently away. His face swam into focus, the hazel gaze still harboring concern. Cromwell felt a different sort of stab as — just for an instant — his mind's eye overlaid another countenance upon the first: brown-eyed, younger, squinting out from beneath the bill of a USAF field cap with exactly the same expression of concern. The image vanished as quickly as it came, however, and the colonel struggled to sit up.
Cadogan slipped an arm beneath his shoulders, helping him to a sitting position. Cromwell surveyed his surroundings, peering over the lip of a shallow depression to do so. They were on a small barge, probably the same one they'd found moored in the docking cavern beneath the processing facility. Which begged the question: how in the hell had they gotten here? A glance assured him that all seven men who had accompanied him and the cadlywydd into the dormitory and the ensuing firefight were present and accounted for. The barge was traveling downriver; the thumping he'd noticed came from the poles manned by Crinan and Machan, who were clearly doing yeomen's work to speed their passage.
He looked back at Cadogan. "The last thing I remember is you going down after one of those Jaffa shot you."
His friend nodded. "Armagil tells me you took the second bolt yourself, before Brioc and Tathan managed to kill both Jaffa." The hand on his back moved up to clasp his shoulder with a fierce affection Cromwell had often felt from the other friend whose face he'd glimpsed fleetingly a moment before. "Thank you." A pause. "Sabar thanks you too."
The colonel shrugged. "You'd have done it for me."
"That changes nothing, and you know it." Cadogan pulled a canteen from his belt, unstoppering it and holding it out. "Drink some water. Trust me, you'll feel better."
Cromwell did as he was bidden, the lukewarm liquid soothing a throat parched raw from shouting and from the energies of the zat. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and handed the canteen back, realizing belatedly that his had somehow gone missing in the confusion. "Thanks. So what happened after that?"
Cadogan related the tale he'd been told upon his own return to consciousness. Apparently the seven men with them had dispatched the remaining loyalists and Jaffa who'd walked into their ambush, then managed to get both himself and the colonel away with the help of the empty handcart they'd seen outside. Opting to return through the main processing plant, they'd descended on the freight elevator platform to the loading dock, where they'd taken to the river on the barge. The blankets and cloaks had come from the dormitory where the fight had taken place, and the dampness was due to a slight mishap while they'd loaded their commanding officers, both still unconscious, onto the barge and into its shallow cargo well, where Cromwell and Cadogan now sat.
"While the rest of them hauled us off to this barge," said Cadogan, "Armagil sent Crinan as a runner to locate another of our squads and let them know what we were doing, if he could, so we wouldn't be thought lost. He succeeded, and doubled back to come with us. Fearghas and his team will rendezvous with the rest of the Wolves, and bring our mounts back to the fort with their own. We'll be able to disembark at the Rath Tulach landing, with only a short hike from the river back to the fort itself. The barge will be turned loose to float downstream on its own with its mooring lines parted and frayed. With any luck, it will appear to have simply come loose at Doireglas." The cadlywydd paused, surveying him with a practiced eye. "How are you feeling?"
"Meaning, can I handle the hike? I'll be just fine," Cromwell assured him. "Your device took everything down to a dull roar. I've had worse hangovers than what's left."
Cadogan chuckled. "All right, then. Until we actually get there, though, it won't hurt either of us to lie low and let the others do their jobs." He stretched his length on a folded blanket laid parallel to the colonel's own, pulled a borrowed cloak over himself, and closed his eyes.
Cromwell stared. Was Cadogan seriously going to take a nap in the middle of all this? Sure, they had both taken bolts at close range, but still…
A moment later, the hazel eyes opened again, as though the cadlywydd were able to read his mind. "I mean it, Neirin. Everything's well in hand, and we'll have plenty of warning if that changes. There are seven men on this barge with us, and all of them are watching for trouble. Even I need a moment's rest after a hit like that, and I know you do. I'd prefer not to make it an order."
Cromwell knew there was no use protesting. He capitulated, lying back on his own pallet of blankets to stare up at the overcast sky — thankfully no longer spitting rain — until the gray clouds blurred and faded…