Snow falls away from our little scrabbled together shelter, crumbling to the ground, as a leather gloved hand knocks it down. More light streams in through the opening and the first thought I have is not for our safety, but that by the brightness of the sun, we have slept much longer than I intended.
“Morning, lovebirds,” Jowanet grins down at us, waving a hand in which she tightly grips her axe in a somewhat threatening greeting. “Thought you could give us the slip?”
“Get that thing out of our faces,” I demand in a voice made gravely by the cold and disuse.
Jowanet sits back on her heels, her lips still curled in amusement, while Peete struggles to sit up and pull his cloak back over his shoulders. I can hear his bones protesting, echoing signs of the awkward night we’ve spent. I make no attempt to move, and it isn’t just morning stiffness that keeps me frozen in place. I can’t process Jo’s presence here or the sun nearly half way across the sky. I lift a hand to grasp my head, trying to hold it together, since it feels like it wants to split without the aid of Jo’s axe blade.
“Do you want to help us start a fire or are you going to just sit there piled up like pups?” she demands.
Us. They’re all here, I realize, blinking up at the other two tall, silhouetted figures.
Peete’s broad shoulder grazes me as he finds his feet and comes to stand between me and the group that stares back at us. At the brush of his body against me, I think of his frozen trousers and how he stilled my hand’s frantic movements, of how solid his muscles felt beneath my hand.
Jo’s free hand rakes through her short hair, spiked with ice. It makes a strange noise, like iced branches clacking together in the wind. How she came to look like a fearsome, frozen goddess is beyond me.
“What happened to you?” I grumble, swiping the back of my hand over my yawning mouth.
“What happened to you?” she asks with a jerk of her chin, and I remember the state I was in last night and just why my head aches like a booming thunderclap.
Another hand reaches into our collapsing shelter and I take it, though I don’t know who it belongs to until I’m pulled upright and Gael glares down at me, his displeasure spelled out as clear as the Roman script carved into the wall that now lies to the north of us once more.
“He give you this?” he asks, tilting my head back to examine the lump and bloody scrape on my head.
His whole body is as stiff as a crouched lynx. If I said yes, he’d be on Peete in a short breath.
I wrench free of his grasp. “Course not. You think I’d let him hurt me?”
“Caledonians,” Peete supplies calmly, as he finishes securing his cloak with his one remaining pin. He seemingly takes my friends’ unwanted appearance and Gael’s threatening tone in stride, although he must realize this jeopardizes our plans.
As he brushes out his tunic, I wait for Peete to touch me. An arm around my shoulder, a hand in the small of my back. Something. I wait for him to place some claim on me, establishing ownership before Gael and Finn. Finn won’t care, but I twist my body away from Gael, not wanting to see the pain I suspect I’ll see there: he will take it personally, my choosing a Roman over them. At least that’s how he’ll see it, because for Gael it has to be us versus them in a fight that fuels his fire and gives him purpose.
But Peete’s touch never comes. He stands, arms crossed over his chest, allowing me to choose how to respond to this challenge to our plans, allowing me my space. I’m not alone though, because when I chance a look his way, his eyes crinkle at the corners, watching me with what looks like unmasked affection.
“You too, eh? Along the shoreline?” Finn asks. “We ran into a group of those ourselves. Big, ugly types.”
“Not every pirate can be as pretty as you,” Jo says with a purse of her lips, and I wonder if she’s over her pique at finding Finn married.
With his hands on his hips, Finn winks back at her and says, “There must be a larger raiding party trolling the waters.”
“They damn near drowned me like a sacrifice to Toutatis,” Jo complains, giving her hair another rattle. “If I never see water again, it will be too soon,” she says, slumping to the ground. “Still managed to kill one of them though. Gael and Finn finished off the other two.”
It’s strange that no one has asked me to explain why I freed Peete or what we’re doing now, when they’ve obviously been chasing after us, but I play along, content enough to ignore what will no doubt cause an argument to erupt amongst us.
“Peete killed two by himself.” We always recount the numbers of our enemies killed, and while Peete might not be proud of it, I am compelled to have the others know just how capable he is. How dangerous if need be.
He’s not just capable, he’s on my side.
I could grab his hand. He still hasn’t moved to touch me, but I could reach out for him. A part of me wants to and if it weren’t for Gael, I think I might just to reassure him that I’m not going to change my mind and abandon him to whatever fate the gods have in mind for him now that my friends have turned up.
But with Gael here, I can’t make myself take Peete’s hand. I can feel Gael’s gaze hot on my neck, and I hate it—the silent accusation from the person who should know me best.
Finn slaps Peete on the back. A lesser man might flinch, but Peete manages to stand straight and only raises a brow in response. “I take it then that the Caledonians are the ones that bloodied you and not our Kat?”
Peete is covered in blood—his and the slain Caledonians. The extent of it is more evident with the sun reflecting off the snow, lighting up all the dark red patches on his trousers and tunic and making his hair look like the palest gold the Romans ever mined from our land.
Finn pats him roughly on the back once more, leaning in to say, “My apologies for breaking this little moment up. If it were up to me, you’d still be sleeping.”
I stare down at the frozen ground beneath my feet. I slept well. Better than I should have in that shoddy little shelter, tucked into Peete’s side on a bed of snow and rock, but now that they’ve seen us, now that Gael has seen us, I don’t want to think about Peete’s warm, solid body or his kisses that set my belly aflame. If I do, Gael will see it in my face and he’ll think I freed Peete for the same reason he takes comfort between Jowanet’s legs or the women of our settlement.
It wasn’t that. It can’t have been, because those things don’t matter to me. They can’t matter, when there are bellies to feed and wars to fight and no safe place. Last night, the kisses, that was an aberration. It still isn’t a world safe enough for Peete and me. One night alone in his arms hasn’t changed that.
I freed Peete because it was the right thing to do. Rescuing him started out as a way to return a favor, repay a debt. If it is more than that, if it could become something more than that, I’d rather Gael didn’t know. I’d rather not have that wedge driven between us before I disappear forever.
Jo groans. “If it were up to me, we’d have a nice blazing fire going.”
I can hear the smirk in Finn’s voice, when he says, “I told these fools that Kat is the one that ran off with you, Peete, not the other way around, and that we best leave well enough alone, but some of us are stubborn.”
Peete. He’s Peete to them now. Or to Finn at least.
“One fool in particular,” Jo adds just as Gael spins on his heel, abandoning the campsite with great, lengthening strides.
It was one thing to be alone with Peete and think of Gael somewhere hating me for betraying them with a Roman, but with Gael here, the breach between us is more real. It’s a physical pain in my gut like a part of me is being ripped out. Peete may have given me the hope to survive with an armful of grain, but Gael taught me how to get on with the surviving.
I tear after him, shaking the sleepiness from my limbs, as I break into a run to catch up. No one tries to stop me.
I shout after him, calling his name, trying to make him stop. “Wait!”
His step falters, but he doesn’t look down at me even as I grasp his elbow and tug. “You’re angry.” And I’m so confused that I don’t know whether he has a right to be or not. Gael is so like me that it’s disorienting to feel that he is in the wrong—like being lost in the fog below the hills on an early morning.
“You left us. I didn’t know what had happened to you or whether you were safe. Yes, I’m angry. I’m furious.”
“I can protect myself. You don’t have to worry about me.”
He snorts, looking over my shoulder, his grey eyes unfocused. “Jo’s right: you’re brainless. I’m always going to worry about you.”
“Well, stop.” We didn’t fight alongside each other all this time for him to start thinking I can’t take care of myself now.
He rolls his eyes heavenward. “I didn’t want to believe Finn, but you really did run away with him.”
“What did you think happened? That he rolled me up in a bedroll and stole me away?”
“I’d been hoping we—you and me, Kat—felt the same way.”
“We don’t.” He hates Peete, but I know him and I know his worth. I can never summon up the kind of anger Gael reserves for Romans, when it comes to Peete.
“Are you sure?” he asks, and his voice is so low, so full of something that I don’t understand that I snap back at him, angry that I feel so differently from him and I no longer seem to know him like I know myself.
“What choice did I have?” I shove my finger into his chest, but he doesn’t budge. “You were going to sell him as a slave, Gael.”
He grips my wrist, holding me fast. “You wouldn’t let me kill him. I was running out of options.” I shake my head at him, my mouth opening and closing. “You do realize that’s what we’d normally do to a Roman, don’t you? He’s a Roman, Cattail. Why can’t you remember that?” he demands, as he lets my arm drop.
“But he’s not,” I explode.
“He bloody well is,” he says, matching my fury. "He’s wearing their red cloak. He’s fought in their wars. He’s killed our people. He’s as Roman as they get.”
“If he’s Roman,” I say, pointing back towards where Peete and my friends stand beyond the trees, “why didn’t he kill me when he had the chance? Why did he save me? I had a Caledonian ready to smash my head in on the beach and he saved my life. He saved me.” I breathe deeply through my nose, trying to slow my racing heart. “And it’s not the first time. He’s saved me before. If he’s such a Roman, then why would he do that?”
Each panted breath Gael expels makes a little angry cloud of moisture. “You really don’t know?” I frown back at him, and he sighs, “I could almost feel sorry for the bastard.”
“You have to promise to stop plotting against him and planning things behind my back. That’s not what friends do.”
“Friends,” he repeats flatly.
“You need to listen to me, believe your friend, when I tell you he saved me.”
His shoulders sag and he shakes his head, as he rubs his beard, his brows drawn heavily together. He stops and reaches out to brush my temple with the rough pad of his thumb. “You’re sure he didn’t do this to you?”
“Caledonians did that. Just like the ones you were going to sell him to. The ones he killed to protect me.”
He lets his hand fall to his side. “That makes it harder for me to kill him.”
“Good. I wouldn’t let you.”
I can see the muscle in his jaw work. “Because you want to be with him?”
My chest swells with a sharp breath. Yes. I want to be with Peete. Or at least I don’t want to be separated from him.
Finn said he thought I was pretending with Peete. He said he thought it was some act to make Gael jealous. It made no sense to me when he said it, but the way Gael looks at me now, the way his eyes burn is unfamiliar. I draw back a step.
Whatever this is, I know that if I tell Gael our plan to escape with my family, he won’t understand. He won’t understand why I’d want to escape with a man he insists on seeing as Roman. Or why I’d want to escape when I could stay and fight, because Gael was born to rebel, as a child of Camulus. What I realize now is that rebelling is something I’ve done out of necessity, because when I look at Peete, I know that what I want is peace. I don’t want battle glory and death. I want a world where our bellies are full, our weapons dull, and where it won’t matter that Peete wears red and I have a long, dark, Votadini braid. If winning against the Romans means selling someone like Peete into grasping Caledonian hands, then we’re no better than the Romans and I don’t see the point anymore.
If I tell Gael our plan, he’ll try to talk sense into me, and I don’t want to hear sense and reason. I want to live in a world where something impossible is possible for once. My friends showing up here is just another reminder that we can’t escape this too small world.
I don’t answer him. I wouldn’t know what to say. Feelings aren’t to be trusted. “We can trust him. I trust him.”
“Let him go and let’s be done with this then. We’ll go home and whatever lies he might spin for his superiors about his whereabouts these past days will have to do.”
Peete’s a good liar, but I don’t have enough faith in the Romans to chance it. “That’s not an option. They’d kill him for abandoning his post. He’s coming back to the hillfort.”
“Kat,” he warns, but I don’t pause to listen.
I make my way back to our little shattered shelter, and although I can’t hear Gael’s careful hunter’s tread, I know he follows behind.
Jo sleeps flat on her back, her roll beneath her, face up to a starry sky, as I poke our fire with a twisted stick. We’ve lost another day, but whatever Jo endured at the hands of the Caledonians, it has taken more out of her than she would like to admit. The men agreed we’d stay put today, though no one gave voice to why that might be necessary.
Gael has gone off, spear in hand, to scout for Caledonians he worries might still be raiding the coast, although I’m not convinced he just didn’t want to get away from me or Peete or both. And as soon as Jo started snoring, Finn got up and walked away without a word, leaving Peete and me in a weighted stillness filled only with the sounds of ice dripping and Jo’s snores.
He’s been quiet since I came back from chasing after Gael. But then, so have I. Quiet enough that when he breaks the silence, I jump, throwing up a shower of embers at the end of my stick.
“Sorry,” he mumbles, shifting on his seat and hugging his legs tighter with his arms. “I just wanted to say that I’ll understand if you changed your mind.”
“I don’t often do that,” I say, jabbing the fire.
He smiles a little crookedly at me. It’s the first genuine smile he’s given me since I returned back to the campsite, and I have to bite my bottom lip to keep from smiling stupidly back at him. “No, you’re stubborn, aren’t you?”
He’s not close enough to kick or jab with my elbow, so I settle for narrowing my eyes at him before tossing the stick into the fire and leaning back onto my elbows.
“And what am I supposedly changing my mind about?”
He takes a glimpse of Jowanet. She’s still snoring, but his answer is vague enough that I know he suspects she could be faking. “Leaving.”
“With you?” He nods. “You didn’t think it was the best idea anyway. Why are you concerned about it?”
He rubs at his yellow beard. It’s as full as any Votadini man’s now and I know what it feels like against my cheek, my lips, my neck. I swallow hard and mimic Jo’s position on the ground to blink up at the bright stars overhead.
“All your plans make me a little nervous. But I’m attached to you.”
I let my head roll to the side to look at him. “Like a goosegrass burr?”
“Something like that.”
I can see he wants to say more, but he’s holding back, whether because of Jo or because of me, I don’t know.
I rest my hands on my belly, lacing my fingers together, where I can feel the rise and fall of my own body, reminding me of the simple process of breathing. With the melting snow, everything smells earthy and alive. Like the world is refusing to give in the winter.
But it will, eventually. Everything succumbs.
“If you’re worried about it, I haven’t changed my mind. Just…” I fumble for my next words, because of the guilt they churn up inside of me, making me feel as sick as if I’d eaten something rotten from being left too long in the summer heat. “Don’t mention it to them.”
“To any of them. They can’t know.”
“You want to just sneak off again?”
“I don’t know,” I admit, looking back up at the night sky. “Last night wasn’t real and they came back and…” Everything became real so quickly again that my head has been spinning ever since Jo shook that axe in our faces. “I don’t know.”
I can hear the rustle of the pine needles below Peete’s cloak, spread out underneath him, as he settles onto his back, still too far to touch with my outstretched hand.
I’d sleep better with him closer, I think, but I can’t make myself say it.
Eventually sleep comes for me and I’m not sure if I dreaming it, when he says, “It was real for me.”