Author’s Note: Written after the episode “Critical Mass” aired. Like “Beauty for Ashes,” this story came out of my fascination with the Athosian culture and frustration with how little the show itself seemed to want to explore it. Song names and other Athosian words are loosely taken from Latin, to imply an Ancient origin. The title of the story is shamelessly stolen (with her blessing) from a series of Sentinel stories by Medie, who also provided a last-minute beta. Thanks also to Christina for the moral support she provided.
“These are the songs of our people, Teyla. Learn them well, for they will be your companions in both sorrow and joy.”
It was a saying among their trading partners that Athosian children learned to sing before they learned to speak. Each culture had a different reaction to the constant threat of the Wraith, and the Athosians responded by embracing the beautiful things in life: surrounding themselves with art, music and ritual. Most of them were nursed not only on their mother’s milk, but also upon the melodious sound of her voice.
Teyla Emmagen never knew either one. She was born in the midst of a culling; her mother, too weak from the birthing to make it to the caves, handed their child to her father and begged him to save her life. Tegan did as she bade him, and never saw his wife again. It was assumed she was culled by the Wraith, along with the mother–Teyla’s grandmother–who refused to leave her daughter’s side, even though at the age of forty she was considered nearly honorata, one blessed by the Ancestors with a long life unseen by the Wraith. She sacrificed that honor to die by her daughter’s side, just as that daughter gave up her life to save her own child.
The people of Athos mourned Emma Teryagen and Terya Aryngen, but they adopted young Teyla as one of their own: as was tradition for a child born during a culling, she was hailed as a blessing and a talisman of good fortune, life snatched from the grasp of death. The people of her village vowed to share the responsibilities that would have fallen to the mother she had lost.
So it was that Charin Martagen came to be young Teyla’s tutor, chosen to teach her the ancient songs of her people.
“First, the Laments: the songs of mourning for those lost to the Wraith. There are nine: one for a parent, one for a child, one for a sibling, one for a cousin, one for a friend, one for a lover, one for an honorata, one for a family, and one for a village. Learn them well, Teyla, and perhaps if you are fortunate, you will live to see a day when they are no longer needed.”
Strike. Block. Spin. Feint. Teyla moved through the familiar patterns, all her thoughts focused on the sticks in her hands, on the burning in her muscles that was so much less than the steady ache of pain in her chest. Closing her eyes, she could see her father’s face–hear him coaxing, scolding, reminding her to flow as though the weapons in her hands were part of her body.
She wished for a while to forget that she it was something she would never see again.
Strike. Block. Spin. Feint. Do not think about the elders, shut up together in Maron’s doma, arguing in low whispers about her request–no, demand–that she be chosen to sing the Laments for those lost in this culling. She is too young, one would argue. Yet she is Tegan’s daughter, another would respond (she hoped). If he lived, he would be the one to sing Lament for the culled–it is only right that his daughter should be granted the honor, at least until a new leader can be chosen. Especially since if she had not sensed the Wraith coming, many more would be lost…
But she has not even marked her thirteenth year. She is too young…
Teyla did not feel young. Her life, her girlhood felt as fleeting as an Athosian day when compared with the days on other worlds, where the sun hung in the sky so long it began to seem as though it would never fade to night. This night had come too soon, and she felt as though she had been thrust into it unaware.
Her father was gone. Taken by the Wraith, just as her mother had been so long ago. Had she sensed their approach then, too? Cried warning with her first breath, only to be ignored until it was too late because no one understood the language of her infant tongue?
It did not matter. It did not matter–not at the moment, at least–that she had saved lives, perhaps most of their village, by her warning. She had failed to save the one who mattered most.
She heard the sound of canvas striking canvas and spun instinctively to face the intruder, both hands with their batons raised before her body in a posture of defense.
Charin, emerging from Maron’s doma, raised both her hands as well in a gesture of surrender, a twinkle in her eyes. “Be at ease, Teyla. There is no need to beat the council into submission–we have made our decision.”
The others stepped out behind her, and Teyla lowered her hands, a flush of embarrassment creeping into her face. “I…I apologize, Charin. I was…I did not mean…”
Charin calmed her with another gesture. “I know you did not. I, too, would gladly occupy my mind with…other things if I could.”
She glanced behind her to where Maron and the rest of the council were standing. Maron stepped forward. “Teyla Emmagen–”
“Do not call me that,” she interrupted sharply. “I am Teyla, daughter of Tegan. Emma was no one to me.”
“She was your mother,” Charin chastened her softly. “She gave you birth, and saved your life, Teyla. Which is why we honor our mothers so.”
The girl dropped her head, ashamed by the truth in her mentor’s words. Charin glanced at Maron and nodded.
Looking faintly amused, he spoke again. “Teyla Emmagen, daughter of Tegan, the Council has considered your request to sing the Laments at the Ceremony of Remembrance…”
“Yes?” Teyla asked breathlessly.
“…and we have decided to grant it.”
“Then there is the Domicilus, the song of joining. It is a dangerous thing, Teyla, to choose to love another when death lies always waiting just the other side of the Ancestors’ Ring. But how could we say we were living if we did not brave that danger?”
Teyla looked up from her work with a frown. At first, she did not recognize the woman with dark brown hair who waved to her from far across the field, but then she drew closer.
“Miri!” As much as she wished to just drop the faru vine in her hands, she forced herself to finish tying it to the stake with bits of twine before hurrying across the field to greet her friend. They met in the middle in a warm embrace.
“I do not understand,” Teyla exclaimed, delighted. “Do not think I am not pleased to see you…but I had understood that there was much work to be done to rebuild Yarra. Is it done so quickly?”
A secretive smile crossed Miri’s face. “No, the work is far from complete. Oh, Teyla, I have so much to tell you! Look!”
She held out her wrist, and Teyla’s stomach grew cold at the sight of a woven leather band tied around her friend’s wrist with an elaborate knot. She forced cheerfulness into her voice. “You are betrothed. To whom?”
Miri’s smile turned blissful. “To Halling Ryagen.”
Halling–the man who had come to them asking aid to restore his village, which had been especially devastated in the latest culling. No wonder Miri had returned so soon–after the joining, she would probably be returning to Yarra to stay, so she would have the remainder of her life to finish the task of rebuilding it.
Teyla nodded numbly. “Who is to be the third?”
“No one,” Miri beamed.
The cold in her stomach turned to ice. “But if one of you cannot bear children–”
“Then we will do without,” her friend replied joyfully. “Halling is a dutiful man and devoted to the Ancestors, but he says there are other ways to honor them than simply bearing children. Like loving each other.”
“A tercet can be a love match,” Teyla objected, not even sure why she did so except that if Miri found a third here in their village, then perhaps two could more easily than one persuade this Halling to join them rather than taking Miri away.
“Sometimes, yes, but you and I both know there is no one here for me, and there is no other in Yarra for Halling.”
Yes, she did know that Miri had found no one in their own village about whom she spoke with such warmth, she merely wished to deny it. Swallowing hard, Teyla forced herself to smile. “Then you will be leaving us again.”
“Ah, no, is that what frightens you so?” Miri laughed, impulsively embracing Teyla again. “You are my closest friend, Teyla. I could not leave you behind.”
“Then Halling is willing to give up his village and join ours?” she couldn’t quite keep the incredulity out of her voice.
“Men have done so before,” Miri teased.
Teyla flushed. “Yes, but rarely leaders.”
The other woman clapped her hands together and laughed. “That’s why I sought you out. There are not many left in Yarra after the last culling. I have spoken to the council of elders, but they say the final decision is yours–”
“What decision?” Teyla asked, confused.
“Halling wishes not to leave his village, but to bring them with him.” Miri seized her friend’s arms, her voice eager. “Oh please, Teyla–there are so few left, they will not be too great a burden on our resources, I promise!”
Instinctively Teyla wanted to pull away. For a moment, she felt an irrational anger towards Miri, that her friend should place such a decision in her hands–even if the elders had been leaving more and more such decisions to her as time passed, and seemed pleased with the choices she had made. Still…part of her hated the mantle of leadership that seemed to have fallen on her from her father’s shoulders, all because she could sense the Wraith as he had. Even Miri, at seventeen two years her senior, was barely considered out of childhood, and though Teyla had not felt like a child since her father’s death, she sometimes despised the responsibility she had not been prepared to take on in its aftermath.
But then…if the people of Yarra did join her own…
“Halling is leader of his village. Surely he will not wish to concede that leadership to one so much younger than he is,” she pointed out. Truthfully, it would be a relief to hand the task over to him.
To her dismay, Miri shook her head. “No. I spoke to him, and he greatly admired your courage and wisdom when he met with you and the elders to ask for our help.”
There seemed to be no way to win. If she refused, then Miri would return to Yarra with her betrothed to help his people rebuild. If she accepted…the already difficult task of leading a people she did not trust herself to protect would be further complicated by doing so under the watchful eyes of one far more qualified than she. It was unfair, but if Charin had taught her anything it was that life was seldom fair. “How can I say no? As you said, Miri…you are my closest friend. How could I allow you to go?”
Miri smiled like the sun, and threw her arms around Teyla. “Then I have only one thing I must ask, and I pray that you will agree just as readily–will you sing the Domicilus for our joining?”
This question was far easier to answer. “I would be honored.”
“Next, we come to the Natalus, the song of birth. If we court grief by loving, Teyla, then even moreso do we embrace danger when we create a new life. When I discovered I was with child, all those years ago, I knew I took the chance that my child would one day be culled, and I was afraid. I thought of using certain herbs I knew to flush it from my womb, yet even though my fears did eventually come true I do not regret that I chose to bear my son. I may have lost Santo to the Wraith, but I would have lost so much more had I allowed my fear of them to cause me to give up the chance to know him. We seize our small victories from the Wraith not by giving in to fear and destroying ourselves before they can, but by living life to the fullest and praying with every word of the Natalus that the child it honors will live to see a day when the Wraith are no longer a threat.”
If not for the absence of Wraith darts in the sky, it would have seemed to be the night of her own birth repeated.
In his father’s arms, Miri’s son wailed as though he too grieved for the mother he would never be fortunate enough to know. Halling had a haunted look in his eyes that suggested the infant’s cries were all that kept him aware of this world. If the boy too had perished, she had little doubt that he would have known nothing but his anguish.
Miri was dead. For all Charin’s skill, some of which was said to have been passed down from the Ancestors themselves, she had been unable to save her.
Teyla blinked hard to fight back her own tears. Around her, she could hear the low voices of the midwives as they murmured words that were supposed to comfort Halling–Miri had been spared a death at the hands of the Wraith, and for that, despite her youth, she would be remembered as honorata. She had given her life to the Ancestors in exchange for that of her son; surely that was an omen that he would grow to be a great leader of his people. She knew from Charin that people had spoken similar words to her father about her after her own mother’s death, and could not help but wonder if they had provided as little comfort for him as they did for her.
Regardless of the manner of Miri’s death, the dearest friend of her childhood was still gone. Even if she had not been taken by the Wraith, she could not return to them any more than those like her mother and father who had been culled.
She studied Halling’s face, a sharp knife of envy piercing her heart as she saw the peace that seemed to creep into his eyes at the words of the other women. He was a deeply spiritual man–this she knew both from Miri and from her own limited time with him–therefore he would rest easier believing that his wife was assuredly with the Ancestors. Teyla wished that she could take the same comfort.
A hand fell on her shoulder, and she pivoted sharply to see Charin’s kind face watching her. “I am sorry, Teyla. I would have saved her if it was in my power.”
Teyla nodded, once again fighting back tears. “I know, Charin.”
The old woman glanced at the little cluster of women around Halling, like marsh hens drawn to the scent of death. Scavengers, Teyla thought bitterly, just as much as if they truly were marsh hens. Though Halling was oblivious, to her it was obvious that they did not seek to ease a widower’s grief so much as gain a foothold with a suddenly available man who had already proven himself capable of seeding a fertile field.
Charin turned back in time to see the dark look in Teyla’s eyes before she quickly schooled her expression. “They are young, Teyla,” she pointed out kindly. “And the young are often foolish.”
“Am I too, then?” Teyla asked with a trace of bitterness in her voice. “That I cannot be glad that my friend did not lose her life to the Wraith, only that it was lost?”
“No,” Charin brushed a stray hair away from Teyla’s face and smiled a sad smile. “We all grieve in our own ways, Teyla. It is no more wrong to find no comfort in the promises of others than it is to take that comfort.”
The younger woman’s shoulders sagged under her mentor’s knowing eyes. She had not realized how much she resented Halling for accepting that comfort. “It is…hard, Charin. Everyone says we should be grateful, but I cannot feel so.”
“Can you feel grateful for the time you and Miri did share?” Charin asked instead. “There is little of her life that you were not part of: even her husband cannot say as much, nor will her son be able to once he is old enough to speak.”
Teyla lifted her eyes and looked across the room, seeing father and son as if for the first time. She had been so lost in her own grief that she had forgotten how recently Halling had come into their lives. From the time he and Miri had met to this night was little more than a year.
Squeezing Charin’s hand, she forced her own grief for a moment into a corner of her heart, and crossed the doma to where Halling still stood with his son and hangers-on. One sharp look from her–imbued with all the authority the elders had given her–sent the marsh hens scurrying, and when they were gone she laid one hand on his arm.
“I grieve with you, Halling Ryagen,” she stated in the formal words of their people.
He looked at her, and she saw how hollow his eyes were. “And I with you, Teyla Emmagen,” he answered in a rough voice.
For a moment, she saw him with Miri’s eyes, saw the compassion that allowed a man immersed in his own grief to still think of another. This glimpse, coupled with Charin’s words, steeled her resolve. She could not give him Miri back…but she could give him the Miri he had never known, the friend of her girlhood. Maybe in time she would come to call him friend as well.
“Miri and I were friends for many years,” she stated quietly. “I do not know how much she told you of our childhood, but if you ever wish to speak of her…it would be my honor.”
A sad smile broke slowly across his face. “It would mean a great deal to me, and to Jinto. Thank you.”
Jinto. Teyla’s throat closed at the name he had bestowed on his son–the name of Miri’s own long-dead father.
“Would you grant me one more thing, as well?” he asked then, cradling the baby who had finally subsided from tears into quiet hiccups. “I know Miri would have wanted you to sing the Natalus…”
Teyla nodded, no longer trying to quell the tears. “I would be glad to.”
Halling offered her another weak smile, and carefully passed the child over to her. Taking a deep breath as she took Jinto into her arms, Teyla pushed aside the door flap of the doma and stepped outside to where the village was waiting.
She lifted her voice in the customary words of presentation, projecting it into the crowd as Charin had taught her. “For the future of our people, in the hope of a day when the Wraith will haunt us no more, I present to you Jinto Mirigen, son of Halling…”
Then she began to sing.
“Finally, there is the Vicci. You asked if we have any happy songs, Teyla? I believe this is the happiest of all. Why? Because death is not always to be feared, not if one is blessed to live a long life, to become not only honorata but to die because the years, not the Wraith, have sapped all the strength from the body you wear. You may never have the opportunity to sing this song, Teyla, but if you do…if ever you are privileged to perform the Ring Ceremony, sing with all your soul. Sing with pride, with joy, not with sadness. For I can think of no greater honor, no greater joy or victory than to journey to the Ancestors in one’s own time.”