It was stupid of me to insist on launching the Caledonian’s boat after our long night, when neither of us were in any condition to row or navigate and the stars were hidden by clouds, but I couldn’t stay on that beach. Not after what happened to Rowena.
It was careless, when we can’t afford to be careless. We could have easily drifted off course with the choppy waves and the strange fog in my head muddling my sense of direction. We could have gotten ourselves lost, rowed in circles until there was no way we could dip a paddle in the water one more time, but we see shore no later than we should and manage to drag the boat ashore, though my muscles scream from the pain of the trip and my breath comes short.
With solid ground beneath my feet, I bend over, gripping my knees, trying to fight the urge to collapse on the rocky shore, because I know how sharp and unforgiving these rocks can be. But exhaustion and the realization that we’re alive and I might actually see home again is so overwhelming that my body weaves back and forth over my feet dangerously.
Peete catches me under my arm and pulls me upright.
“We might make it,” I gasp, looking up into his face, as I sag against him. His lips are almost white with cold and there are ice crystals from sea spray coating his shoulders. He looks like death: I doubt I look half as good. “We might actually make it.”
“That’s what I’m hoping for, but we both need to rest.”
A new day might be upon us and we might be closer to home than ever before, but I have nothing left in me to continue forward any further. I nod my assent, because that’s all I can manage, and we trudge away from the shore, dragging our feet, as we look for cover with Peete’s arm wrapped around my waist.
What we cobble together isn’t much in terms of shelter and not nearly as good as the cave we left on the far shore. It’s nothing more than a natural outcropping of rocks no higher than Peete’s waist that we make into an almost closed ring using the hard packing snow that fell over the course of the previous day. Some broken pine limbs we force into the ground help cage us in too, creating a windbreak that does nothing to keep out the grayish glare of the dawning sun rising over the snow. It will do, I think, as I squeeze inside beside Peete. With the sleep we desperately need, none of the limitations of this shelter will likely matter.
There’s barely room for the two of us. Peete can’t stretch out his legs and I have to press into his side, so I don’t threaten our hastily constructed walls with my impossibly heavy feeling body. He raises his arm, letting me slip underneath and tuck closer to him, and then lowers it over my shoulders, hugging me close. I’m too tired to pretend I don’t want to turn my cheek into his chest and breathe him in—leather and salt and blood. It’s still oddly comforting, because he’s here with me, breathing and alive, and I know I can trust him. I’m done doubting him.
Gael thinks I’m being reckless. In some ways I am, but I know now that I doubted Peete for longer than I needed to. He doesn’t need to prove himself to me again.
Once we’re pressed in together, I can see that it isn’t just the broad shoulders of his red legionary cape that are crusted with ice. His trousers are too. If he wrestled that hulking Caledonian in the water, it’s no wonder. He must have been soaked through, as we built Rowena’s funeral pyre, and I didn’t even register it in my dazed fog.
I stretch the fingers on my right hand, flexing them to get feeling back after handling the snow that cages us in. When I’ve gained some control over the frozen digits of my dominant hand, I slide my hand over his thigh to the area where the crystals start. And I rub. I rub my hand briskly across the rough fabric, breaking off the thin layer of ice, so it won’t have the chance to melt with his body heat and leave him wet again—a dangerous prospect in this cold.
I’ve not made much progress, when he clears his throat and grabs my hand, dragging it away from his thigh and into his chest. He holds our hands there, flattening my palm over his heart. It’s hammering away just as fast as mine does once I realize he’s not like the unconscious men that are brought to our dwelling to be tended by my mà. He’s awake and capable of doing for himself. Capable of other things too.
I’ve said I wouldn’t lay with him, and then I touch him in a way I’d never think to touch Gael, in a way I have no business touching anyone.
Dear gods, his thigh was firm under my touch, hard with muscle, and it’s not the first time I’ve noticed it. I squeeze my eyes shut.
“I appreciate the thought, but…”
I can hear his thick, dry swallow, as his voice trails off.
If there was space enough to escape from him inside of this shelter, I’d pull away and curl into myself. But there’s nothing to do but remain pressed up against him, nothing to do but say something, anything to break the awkward silence my actions have woven with expert incompetence.
I can hear Jowanet teasing me with a sultry shake of her shoulders. Pure.
“You’re strong.” The observation itself does nothing to alter the mood, so I continue, “The ice…it’s from struggling in the water with that man.” The one with his neck broken, floating like a dead fish in the waves. Peete’s strong enough that he killed a big Caledonian with his bare hands.
“My brothers and I used to wrestle,” he says tightly. I feel his breath ghosting warmly over my temple, as his breathing changes. I can see it too, fogging the air.
“You could have left. You could have run and left Rowena and me to whatever fate the gods intended. You could have escaped, Peete.”
“Leave you?” His hand presses mine harder into his chest and I can feel his whole body stiffen around me. Rowena and I would have both died without his help. There would have been no one to go back to my mà and Primula, but Gael has always promised that if anything happened to me, he’d take care of them. I’ve vowed much the same to him, for Gael has a home full of hungry mouths to feed too. “You didn’t leave me to my fate.”
“That was different,” I argue. It was different, because I owed him. I couldn’t leave him to be sold as a slave, when I still owed him for the grain that saved my family’s life. For the hope it gave me. “I owed you for the grain.”
He huffs. “The grain? I think you can let that go. That was years ago, and you saved me from your friend’s need to take my head as a trophy.”
“You could have gone back to join your legion.”
He lets go of my hand. “You know I don’t want to go back there,” he says, sounding almost angry at the suggestion.
“But you’d rather not have killed those barbarians either.” And if he’d left—just turned and run in the other direction on that beach—he wouldn’t have had to snap or slice anyone’s neck. I saw his hands shake afterward. I saw how taking their lives affected him.
“They were just barbarians,” he says it lightly, his tone changing, shifting smoothly, but as easily as he does it, I don’t believe his lie.
“You don’t want to hurt people.”
And I like that about him. It might be what I like best.
“It was the only thing to do. I’m trained to kill. I just prefer to have some choice in who and why.” I twist in his arms to look him in the face to see who it is that sits beside me. I’ve never thought of Peete as a killer. From the moment we drug him from that roadside, I thought of him as gentle, much gentler and much less of a threat than any of the rest of us. “The Romans put a sword in my hand and marched me in enough exercises to get me from here to Rome. And the first time I saw battle, I spent most of it trying to avoid killing anyone. When I finally did though—kill someone—I found I couldn’t forget their faces even in my sleep.”
I’ve killed in battle. I’ve had to. I’ve killed alongside Jo and Gael, and I know what he means: you’re not the same after. Spilling blood changes you, and I added to the burden Peete carries, when he chose to fight for me.
He’s strong—physically strong—and that’s what enabled him to kill those Caledonians with as much skill as Jo or Gael or Finn, but he has another kind of strength too. It isn’t weakness that makes Peete a bad soldier. It’s compassion. It makes him a terrible soldier, but it makes him someone I’m willing to risk things I didn’t think I’d ever risk.
“If you made an offering, something to Belatu-Cadros, it might ease your spirit.”
He shrugs with one shoulder and I raise my thumb to my mouth, chewing on the chapped skin that threatens to crack and bleed as I worry it with my teeth. It was stupid to suggest something so beneath him. Even for our people, Belatu-Cadros is the war god of the lowliest amongst us, for those like me—rebels, whose homes are on the outside ring of the hillfort, the least important in our own leaders’ eyes. Peete has a look of nobility about him that isn’t erased by mud and blood, like he was someone before his family died, which would explain his elaborate remaining cloak pin. A man like Peete wouldn’t make offerings to any of my sorry gods, who can’t even save their own people.
He watches my nervous movements until I put my self-abused hand behind my back and scowl at him.
“Or…whichever of your gods might appreciate the gift of a warrior,” I amend.
“I don’t think that’s necessary anymore.” His mouth quirks on one side. “I sleep soundly with you.”
I want to snap back at him for being so presumptuous, but he might call me on my overt friendliness just a few moments earlier, when I couldn’t keep my hands off of him, so I tuck my chin and cross my arms over my chest, as if I’m cold. And I am. I’m not certain I’ll ever be warm again.
He brushes my brow with the calloused pads of his fingers. A lank of hair that’s escaped from my braid shields me from his questing gaze and I bite my lip at the softness of his touch. It’s not the touch of someone that could hurt anyone. Killing hasn’t made Peete a killer.
“You’ve got quite a bump here under that cut.”
I fight the urge to lean into his hand. “My head’s a little achy and I don’t know what I was thinking getting us into that boat, but I’ll recover.”
He withdraws his hand, as he says, “Well, we made it across. That was your plan.”
I exhale noisily. “My terrible plan.”
“Not so awful if it worked,” he says, shifting against the rocks that must make for an unpleasant backrest. “Which it did. But what do we do now that we’re here?”
I wasn’t entirely sure until I finally felt I could trust Peete. “You’re going to think the rest of it is even worse.”
“Worse than what we’ve already survived? That’s something I’d like to hear,” he teases, jostling me with his bent knee.
“We’re going to my hillfort.”
He stares at me for a moment, before shaking his head. “Kat.”
“I know,” I cut him off. It’s the very thing he’s warned against—bringing the wrath of the Romans down on my settlement by associating the murder and capture of a legion soldier with my people. It’s wise counsel, but I can’t heed it and still do what it is I want. “We won’t stay long. Just long enough to gather supplies, and then we’ll take my sister and my mà and we’ll leave.”
It sounds ridiculous when I say it out loud. Even more ridiculous than it has sounded in my head, as waves lapped at the boat and I pictured myself trying to explain Peete to my mà. Taking my mà and Primula out into the wilds isn’t safe, and there’s no real place to escape to. The kids in the village used to talk about a place beyond the hills, almost always covered in ice, where Romans never set foot. But nothing like that exists. All that’s north of here are the Caledonians, and I’ve seen firsthand how welcoming they might be.
All we can do is run. Until we’ve fallen off the edge of the world.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” His face contorts. “Your friends hate what I am.”
“They don’t know you.” And because of their perfectly understandable prejudices, they don’t want to know Peete. They can’t fathom, though Peete wears Roman red, we’re all victims of the same empire.
“Maybe not, but they’re not wrong. I hate what they’ve made me too. I’m not my own man, Kat. I’m owned, body and spirit.”
“That’s not true.” He does what he knows is right, instead of what his superiors demand. He sees beyond the differences of his gods and mine, or painted faces and ones shaved clean. Peete is more himself than anyone I’ve ever known.
“I’m a sorry weapon in their imperial arsenal. No better than a gladiator.”
I kick at his ankle with the toe of my boot. “Do I look like the kind of girl, who would waste her breath on a bloody Roman?”
“Well, I don’t have much competition at the moment,” he says, raising his brows at the spaces beyond our snowy shelter, to the empty world around us that is seemingly devoid of people.
But they’re out there: Votadini and Romans both. Closer than we might think.
It would be easier to announce I was tired and close my eyes, but it’s like I have the gods themselves whispering in my ear, telling me, “Say it! Say it!” Urging me to take the chance.
I dig my fingernails into the palm of my hand, forcing myself to speak. “You don’t have much competition anywhere.”
And this time I lean in. My hand splays over his chest, steadying my upper half as I twist to find his lips. He makes a low noise in the back of his throat that almost sounds like pain, when my lips press against his, but it’s needier sounding and makes me feel hollow and needy too like I need more of him, of this. It makes me press harder, makes me suck at his lower lip until his arm wraps around me, an insistent pressure against my lower back, holding me fast to his chest. Pressed against the hard planes of his chest, it still isn’t enough. I’m still not close enough, but he must sense that, because his right hand comes up to sweep the loose hair from my face and run along the length of my jaw, tipping my head further to the side.
It’s a better angle. It gives me access to more of his mouth, and I feel slightly off-balance, as his mouth opens over mine and his tongue traces the seam of my lips. My fingers tighten in the fabric of his heavy tunic at his chest, at his waist, where I grip him with both hands. I thought I’d never be warm again, but when his tongue sweeps over mine, I’m no longer cold. It’s his lips and his tongue and his beard rubbing against my skin. It’s the sound of our mouths meeting and his soft noises stirring something inside of me until I’m lightheaded. Everything is warm and tingling and unfamiliar and I want more of it. Gods, I want more.
And then with a terrifying dip, it all disappears and I see black.
I realize with embarrassment that my forehead is pressed heavily against his shoulder. My breath comes too fast and little pinpricks of light pop in my vision, as he draws me back, whispering my name.
Did I stop breathing?
I blink back at him. It isn’t as bad as on the beach, as I come back to him. The world isn’t so distant. My limbs not so deadened. Maybe I was only gone for a moment, and that’s why I can see him clearer with every blink of my heavy lids. His lips are rosy, the color returned to them. From our kissing…
He tilts my head again, but I don’t get another kiss. I’ve spoiled the moment. Or my body has. He squints at my forehead before pronouncing that I need to lie down.
“Your head is worse than you think. You need to rest.”
It’s pointless to object, when my body sways as soon as he lets go of my waist. But I insist he lies down with me. It’s not as safe as if one of us kept watch, but even the gods must sleep sometime, so perhaps our heavenly tormentors will let us have this time to rest. As we maneuver in the shelter for a way to ease our bones into sleep, he gives me his arm for a pillow, making me more comfortable than he must be with his knees pulled up and mine pressing into his side.
I do get another kiss, but it’s just a light one on my cheek, as I sink into unconsciousness.