There are eleven children set to burn as innocents in sacrifice to Taranis. Each of them a face I know from somewhere. Most of them are our hillfort neighbors, hungry little children that daily dash across my path, when I’m heading out to hunt with Gael. Instead of voices raised in play, their tanned faces are frozen in fear and pain, their mouths stretched in silent screams. Sometimes the Druids use criminals in their sacrifices, but innocents work better to appease the gods, and times are as bad as ever, requiring greater sacrifice.
This is the sacrifice that is supposed to bring us all together in a blaze of hope, but it fills me with nothing but horror.
I blink and the scene shifts from one of sacrificial flame to a vast cooking fire, which I know in my gut is not right—creatures of what size must they intend to cook there. My eyes water against the acrid smell of smoke, blurring my first glimpse of the fresh terrors. Rubbing at my eyes to clear them, I recognize it as a Caledonian fire pit over which the same children are skewered and ready to roast like piglets, to fill the bellies of the pirates that escaped our revenge. The children’s throats are all slashed, mocking red smiles staring back at me, as I turn in frantic circles helpless to save them.
Not just neighbor children. There are more faces I know both dark and light.
Rowena with her dark hair and eyes so wide I can see the whites.
My sister. Primula.
Someone screams, high and loud, someone so panicked that they sound more dying animal than human. Someone who sounds as if they might rather be dead. And I want them to stop, I’m begging them to stop, because the sound is so painful that I don’t know how I’ll survive it, but it goes on and on until the screams fight with a deep voice in my ear, whispering my name—Katell—begging me to stop.
I suck air and toss my head like I’m drowning—like Jowanet must have fought, when she was held beneath the freezing water of the bay, desperate for air—desperate to stop my own screams from tearing apart my chest. I’m not the only voice in the night. There are voices, agitated voices arguing in the dark.
Then strong arms wrap around me, pulling me into a firm grip, into a chest that smells like wool and leather and man, stilling my frenzied thrashings. I give one good jerk that does nothing to free me of the arms that hold me tight before I realize by scent and feel that it is Peete and allow myself to collapse like a heap of sun bleached bones into his embrace.
The arguing continues around me, a buzz of low, angry sounds made indistinct by my gasping, choked breaths, but I twist and tuck my face into him and cover my ears with my hands, shutting everything out, until all I know is his arms and the rise and fall of his chest. I match my breathing to his with his big hand cradling the base of my skull, and a sleep less torturous than before comes on little cat’s paws.
It’s a meager banquet of two dormice I found in the crook of a nearby tree hibernating for the winter that Jo watches me prepare, while the men take care of whatever morning business they have to attend to. She crouches on her haunches with a sour look on her face, as I turn the spit that reminds me painfully of the content of last night’s dreams.
“Are you waiting for an apology?” I finally ask, when she won’t give up her glaring. “I’m sorry I woke you up.”
“Wasn’t just me. You woke up the whole bloody world. Anyone inside the Roman Empire,” she says, pausing to spit, “and anyone outside of it heard your bellows.”
“Nightmares. The goddess Satiada herself must have sent them to me.”
As the watery, winter sun rose, my eyes opened to Peete’s face and I whispered the contents of my dreams, letting them spill out like poison from a wound, as he listened with his brow pressed to mine.
“You about gave me nightmares.” Jo’s got dark bluish circles under her eyes that make me wonder whether my nightmare fueled screams weren’t the only thing keeping her up. She might be haunted by her own animated frights. “It sounded as if you took your knocks.”
“Wasn’t me that was suffering in the dream.”
She bites her lip, chewing it thoughtfully. “It’s worse watching someone close suffer. Better if there’s no one left to hurt you with.”
Jo’s family is dead, killed the same way my da and Gael’s da were killed. Gael and I still have family left, people that we worry and fret about until life’s just one long game of trying to keep them safe and fed and get revenge against those who’d hurt them. Knowing what that’s like, I see what she means by her little bit of wisdom, but I don’t losing kin doesn’t put a stop to caring. Jowanet’s kin might be dead, but there are still people left for her to worry about, people whose pain could make her shout. Every new tie is a potential new spear wound to the chest. I figure there are only so many times you can recover from the losses until you end up like my mà.
“If there are Caledonians around these parts, like Gael seems to think, or any Roman patrols, they know about us now.”
I resent the implication, even if my terror filled night did potentially expose us. It’s not something I can control and I’d happily do without my night visitations.
“We’re still alive.”
“For the moment,” she agrees halfheartedly with a one shouldered shrug. “Might have saved us when your pretty boy quieted you down. Worked like a charm, once he got his way.”
I glare right back at her at that, but she merely gives me a toothy smile, completely unaffected by my gall.
“I heard you all arguing.”
She picks up a rough stone and chucks it out of the campsite and then her eyes are back on the ground, searching for something else to toss. “There was no arguing on my part. I only told you to shut up.”
There’s the sound of movement in the underbrush, branches brushing against shins and feet on snow softened ground, the sound of one of the men coming back to camp, ready to break his fast.
I speak softer, intent on saying my peace before the rest of the group returns. “Sure you weren’t arguing over who would get the honor of slitting my traitorous throat and put an end to my bleating?”
Gael feels personally betrayed by my escape with Peete, I know. I’d like to know where I stand with Jo before we go any further together, whether we are still allies or something else.
“More like the pair of them were arguing over who would get to stroke your hair. Yellow beard won the draw.”
Jo must be up to something, speaking that way. Might be an attempt to stir up trouble. I don’t trust her words, because I can’t ever imagine Gael wanting to calm me the way Peete did. Gael has helped feed my fitful flame of anger, but he’s never cooled it.
Peete breaks through the brush and gives me a warm nod, when his eyes meet mine. He looks better than he did the day before. While Jo’s face shows signs of lack of sleep, Peete walks straighter and doesn’t have the dull look of pain in his eyes that marred the lover’s cornflower blue of them before.
I shouldn’t feel the jolt of warmth –surprise?—at seeing him emerge from the brush. Of course it is him. Gael and Finn would not be so carelessly loud as to announce their approach that far in advance.
Jo gives him a little wave and doesn’t bother to lower her voice, when she says, “He looks better with the beard. Less like an overgrown boy that only counts twelve years. I can almost see why you lashed out all knees and elbows, making a fuss until he was on top of you.”
He’s probably heard her, but there’s nothing I can do about it except be glad Gael and Finn weren’t here to give witness to Jo’s teasing.
In fact, they’re not close behind, barely giving Peete enough time to sit alongside me and mumble a good morning before their bobbing heads appear, but unlike Peete’s uneven tread, I don’t hear them until I see them. Finn’s face is about as serene as Peete’s was, when he emerged out of the underbrush, but Gael looks as if nothing but blood and fire will sate him.
“A little meat in your belly will help that scowl, Gael,” Jo calls out to him, and I can’t help but smirk.
“A very little,” he says with a jerk of his head at our food.
“You’re free to find something better,” I grumble, my smile disappearing, as I disassemble the spit and pull my knife from my side to divvy up the meager portions.
“Romans think dormice an indulgence,” Peete offers cheerfully. He must know full well that this pronouncement will only make Gael more irritable about his morning meal. “They raise them by the dozens to eat between their regular meals,” he continues blithely, as Finn and Gael arrange themselves around the fire. Who has enough food to eat between a meal? “We’re dining well by their measure.”
Gael grunts, cutting off whatever other culinary details Peete might have intended on sharing with us. “It’ll do until we’re back home.”
Jo’s head snaps up at Gael’s pronouncement and Finn’s copper brows crawl up his forehead, as he turns slowly to face Gael with his hands on his hips.
“Home?” Jo demands a little loudly, holding out an outstretched hand for a morsel of overcooked meat.
“Yes. The settlement.” He taps his foot with barely contained impatience. “Isn’t that right, Cattail?”
The group’s astonished attention swings on me as quickly as it fixed on Gael a moment earlier.
“That’s right,” I say calmly, holding out a piece of meat to Finn.
“With our Roman friend?” Jo asks, already swallowing her small portion.
Friend. She thinks it a mockery to call him that. I throw the term she uses to mock my innocence back in her face. “With my friend, yes. Why, did you want to voice an opinion about it?”
No one speaks. Even Peete, who I assured last night of my continued intention to take him to my hillfort and leave with my family, looks too shocked to say a word, although his silence might be born of possessing the smarts enough to know when best to be quiet. Surely he hasn’t gotten along in the Roman army on brawn alone after all.
It’s Finn who finally says something vague enough not to raise my ire but put an end to our steely three way staring contest. “Well, sounds awfully cozy.”
With his arms crossed over his chest, Gael looks as if he has another opinion of the arrangement, but he doesn’t share it. We’re at a standoff. I didn’t tell Gael the rest of my plan and I have no intention of telling Finn or Jo either. It is my secret to keep, although Gael’s grey eyed stare feels strained by dread like he suspects I’m lying by omission, knowing me as well as he knows himself. My refusal to be totally honest has widened the gap between us, and I’m not sure we’ll ever be where we once were. Especially with not much time to repair the breach. I’d take him with us—Gael and his family both—and put things back to rights between us if he wouldn’t be so angry at me for wanting Peete to come along.
“If that’s the plan,” Finn says, as he licks his fingers clean, “I’ll see you all home and then we’ll part ways, since I best be home myself. To Annaig.”
His last words seem meant for me alone, since his green eyes settle on me and hold my gaze while he pulls his index finger from his mouth slowly enough to be considered flirtatious if I didn’t know better. Finn might think me as stupid as Gael does, but at least he understands the stupidity, the folly of being unable to leave someone behind.
We make good progress with Peete and me taking up the rear. I keep close by his side, because I don’t want to end up separated from him after everything and this close to the settlement. Not when a sort of tense anticipation has coiled in my belly at the thought of introducing him to my sister. Primula is the only person I know who would sit for hours in a meadow, picking through scrubby growth to find the tiniest pink flowers for a posy, except for Peete, I suspect, who won’t stop commenting on the effect the changing weather is having on the colors of the world around us. It all just looks increasingly grey to me and less likely to give us food.
My mà is like to be less pleased than Primula by the handsome, broadly framed Roman I’ll be bringing home, but if she means to lecture me about men, it’s a mite too late for that, when I might have started my own home by now all without her notice. Getting her to leave, however, will no doubt be less difficult to manage: she’s not Votadini and has no ties to the place with my da dead. I think it might hurt her far less to say goodbye forever to our hillfort than it will me. She might even welcome the thought of never catching sight of it again.
I tell Peete in hushed tones about what we might expect, how things might be, when we get to my settlement, while we walk along, close enough to each other that his red cloak brushes at my right calf, and he watches me spin my suppositions with a smile that is a shade shy, as if meeting my family isn’t just important to me but means something to him as well.
Reaching out for my hand, his fingers curl around mine, stopping my fidgeting and stopping our forward progress. My eyes flick towards the others, who pick their way more silently than us, aided by the thinning underbrush as we approach the road that leads to our settlement. My gaze is drawn back by his struggle to knot his cloak around his neck.
My brows knit together, baffled by the necessity of this readjustment, until he holds out his last remaining cloak pin in the worn palm of his hand. He takes the pin between his fingers and reaches for my dark fur, fumbling to slip one hand beneath it to pull it slightly away from my body.
“I want you to wear this,” he explains, pinning the beautiful ornament through the skin of my fur, his knuckles lightly brushing and bumping my collar bone until he pulls away to admire his efforts.
I look down too. I’ve never had anything this beautiful, never been given such a treasure. I shouldn’t take it, shouldn’t accept something that belonged to his da, but I want it. I like the look of it there against the sleekness of the fur.
“Thank you, I…” I struggle to find the proper words, fiddling with my braid, pulling it over my shoulder and twisting the leather tether between my fingers, overwhelmed by the feeling of warmth filling my chest again under the glow of that smile and the long tangle of his pale lashes. It’s not the heat from the night I kissed him, but the warmth I experienced upon seeing him this morning and the warmth of knowing it is his arms that cage me tight, making me feel safe.
He catches me off guard with a touch to my cheek. His fingers trace my cheek bone, moving slow enough over my skin to raise bumps on my arms, until they slide over the ridge of my ear to tuck a wayward lock away.
It can’t be his intention to tidy my appearance, because his hand slides into my hair, loosening the braid itself, his fingers wending between the strands and spreading against my scalp. His thumb presses along my jaw to tip my head back, making my mouth fall open as his lips descend on mine. It’s just a gentle press of his lips against my chapped ones, a hint of what I know him to taste like, what I know a kiss between us two can feel like. Two small kisses, nothing more than a tease, but my heart flutters like the wings of a moth drawn to a candle flame by the time he presses his third and last unhurried kiss to the corner of my mouth, while he smoothes my hair back with his hand.
The others, quickly leaving us behind, have not seen. If Gael had seen this exchange, this kiss, would he guess that the hillfort is not our final destination? Would he guess at my ultimate betrayal? And for what am I betraying my oldest friend? A fantasy? I squeeze my eyes tight, trying to hold fast to the warmth and forget the twisting pain thoughts of Gael bring on.
“Hey,” Peete says softly, his hands coming to rest firmly on my shoulders. I force myself to open my eyes to look up at him. “Kat. It’s all right,” he assures me, but there are things he can’t fix.
“When we leave,” I murmur, licking my barely kissed lips nervously, “we’ll never be safe.” The feeling of safety with Peete is a false one, in that while I might be safe enough with him—he will never hurt me—we will never be safe. “We’ll always have to run.”
There’s a flash of disappointment that creases his brow, but it melts away like yesterday’s snow, leaving his face deceptively unlined. “You don’t have to do this for me. Even if running into a hapless Roman is the best thing that’s happened to you,” he teases.
I twist my boot in the ground, digging into the soft earth. “I don’t remember saying that.”
“I may have thought that part,” he admits with a little upturn of his lips. I stare at them for a half beat, wanting them on me again, my body and mind at war. “But I’m a man grown. As long as you’re home safe, I’ll be fine. No need for you to risk yourself any further.”
He’s misunderstood my hesitancy.
I shake my head. “No, I’m doing it for all of us. Escape will be better.” I say it firmly, trying to convince us both. His thumbs brush the fur wrapped around my shoulders, and I exhale. “I just…in the wilds, it will be hard enough to keep my family alive. I can’t complicate it any further.” No babes. Not ever. No matter how much his kisses set my heart to pounding.
I hope he understands my inexpert words, because I don’t want a repeat of my embarrassment in the cave, when I vowed that I had no intention of sharing his bedroll for anything but warmth.
“It’ll be just like your friend Finn said, you, your sister, your mà, and a shaggy haired Roman sitting around a fire. Very cozy.” I’m about to ask him if he minds this little scene that lacks for any of the comfort Jo and Gael take in each other, when he rocks me towards him with a tightened grip on my shoulders and whispers, “Doesn’t matter, Kat. I just want you.”
Something darts off to my right. I grip his elbows, keeping him still and slowly turn my head to see what it might be that is here in the brush with us now that we have been almost entirely left behind by the rest of the group.
There’s another quick flash of movement. Red and white in a blur between two bramble thickets.
It must have been hidden in the thickest part of the growth, as the others walked by, and after they were gone been emboldened by our lack of movement.
It is a mistake I intend to capitalize on.
I let go of his elbow, holding up one finger to my lips and then turning my palm flat , instructing him wordlessly to stay where he is. I crouch, balancing my weight over the balls of my feet, as I move forward as noiselessly as possible. The deer moves quickly, frightened by the realization that we are not just strange looking forest creatures that mean it no harm, but it has to move through the brush or head for the road and if I move fast too, I have a chance to bring something back to the hillfort. Something I can share with Gael and his family. Something in the way of an apology.
I’m slowly losing ground to the deer and must take my chance soon before it is out of my throwing range. My hand reaches up and back to grasp my spear, tied to my back, and pull it free as I jump over a fallen log and begin to dash in earnest, pushing through the burn in my chest, towards the deer before it reaches the road and makes it into the high, dry grass on the other side. I pump my arms and suck air through my teeth, dodging obstacles. I bring the spear above my shoulder. Close, so close, as it darts around a rock. I have no time to slow my steps or steady my arm, as I pull the spear back.
I trip, falling to my hands and knees, jarring my teeth together, at the sound of a booming shout that make my head twist back.
The shouts come from behind me, but though the voice is deep, it is not Peete who shouts in the Roman tongue, and then another one, just as loud, joins the clamor. Maybe two more or even three.
Siste! Nunc siste!
I scramble to my feet, my boots slipping in the muck. With my feet underneath me, I spin back around, leaving my spear, broken by my fall, behind and foregoing quiet for pure speed, as I rush back towards Peete. Urgency makes me careless and a branch I fail to duck hits me in the face, drawing a thin slash of blood, but I push forward, my hands outstretched as I dive straight through a bramble, making as much noise as Peete ever does, as I crash through the brush.
I shouldn’t have left him.
I pause, momentarily disoriented, and scream his name. It gives away my position to whoever might be shouting after him, but I need Peete to call back to help me find him. I can’t go home without him.
There is nothing in return, even the shouts of what must be other Romans have stopped, so I run again. This time towards the road, where I might better see what is happening, with my feet pounding hard over the ground.
I’m not yet to the road when I go to scream his name again—Peete!—but my voice is cut off with a sharp smack of a hand over my mouth and a tight arm around my waist, pulling me up painfully short and taking my legs right out from under me, as the attacker hauls me against his chest. I bite the hand that covers my mouth, making my captor curse, and I kick my legs as hard as I can, attempting to throw whoever it is off balance, but I’m already being dragged backward, away from Peete.
“It’s Romans,” my assailant hisses. “Hush,” and my churning mind finally recognizes the voice, the accent as belonging to Finn.
I kick harder, trying to make contact with his shins or something more sensitive. I land one solid blow and his hand slips from my mouth.
“Let me go,” I beg.
“It’s no good. There’s too many of them. They’ve got him already.”
I beg, a broken string of pleases, as tears begin to course down my cheeks. He’s big, too strong to fight, as he tows me away.
“Kat, I’m sorry.”
Whatever I might say in response is lost. He recovers his grip on my mouth, sealing off any bargains I might make to secure my impossible future.