Catlin sat by herself at dinner. She had only recently started joining her friends at their evening meal, but remained silent through the conversations taking place around her. She went through a set daily routine with smiles and nods but said little to anyone, even Conor, who had repeatedly tried to engage her in conversation. She woke early and went to bed late. She often offered to take other men's watches, which they gratefully gave up to spend time with their families, or to escape the monotony of sentry duty.
One balmy night, she sat at the outskirts of the Sanctuary in the lower branches of a large tree. Its spreading branches gave her ample cover and afforded her some measure of privacy. These evening solitudes were the only times she truly felt at peace. The low drone of insects, the occasional warm breeze, the blanket of stars overhead—they all made her fall even more deeply in love with her home. Sitting by herself, one leg dangling from the branch, she formed an intense connection with the land. She could feel the tremor in the earth from an animal's footfall. She could hear the trees growing, stretching, planting themselves firmly in the ground. All the minutiae of the world, lost in the hubbub of the day, came flooding into her consciousness late at night.
A cracked twig put her instantly on the alert. With an arrow nocked to her bowstring, she scanned the ground below. At first there was no one, but soon a small, dark figure wandered into view. Catlin relaxed, slid her arrow back into her quiver, and dropped lightly to the ground. The tiny person shrieked, started to run, and tripped flat on its face in the dark. Catlin could hear it snuffling as she approached.
"Ma," it said, sounding tearful and afraid.
"Eavan?" Catlin asked uncertainly, kneeling next to the little girl. The piping voice was familiar.
"Don't hurt me," Eavan said, drawing away.
"It's alright. It's only me," Catlin soothed. She knelt, put down her bow, and stroked the girl's hair.
Eavan lifted her tearstained face from where she had buried it in her arms. "Catlin?"
"Mm-hmm. What are you doing out here?"
Eavan suddenly stopped crying and
sat up in the dirt. "What are you
doing out here?" she demanded with all the sass of her eight years.
"I'm on guard duty," said Catlin. Gently resting a hand on Eavan's shoulder, she asked again, "What's your reason?"
"I couldn't sleep," Eavan said.
"So you went wandering outside of the Sanctuary?" Catlin was little surprised; all the children knew well that anything beyond the borders of the Sanctuary was off-limits when the sun went down. It was one of the first rules they learned.
"I didn't know I was outside it," Eavan said defensively. "I…" She hesitated. "I…got lost," she admitted.
"Well, it's lucky I found you," said Catlin. She gave Eavan a hand up, picked up her bow, and started walking back to the Sanctuary proper. When Eavan didn't follow, she turned around. "Coming?" she asked.
"Can't I stay here with you?" asked Eavan, clutching at something she had dropped. To Catlin, it looked like a small doll.
"No, Eavan, you know it's not safe. I have to take you home." Catlin took Eavan by the hand and started to lead her in the right direction. She stopped when Eavan's tugging on her sleeve grew insistent. "What is it?"
"Please can't I stay with you?" Eavan's large eyes reflected the moonlight, making them look even bigger and brighter, set in a pale, round face.
"I'm sorry, Eavan, but you can't," said Catlin gently. "Besides, what would your mother say if she woke up and you weren't there? We'd both be in trouble." Eavan followed glumly, but without protest. Glancing down occasionally at the child, Catlin noticed that Eavan was yawning. She settled her bow over one shoulder and swung an unresisting Eavan into her arms. Eavan started to snore softly as Catlin made her way home.
The girl lived only with her mother, Mhera, her father slain by Longinus months ago. Catlin always felt guilty when she saw Mhera, who still blamed Catlin for Lochabar's death. Mhera had explained the situation to Eavan several times, but the girl was either too young to really understand, or youthful compassion afforded her the ability to forgive Catlin. Either way, Catlin was silently relieved when she found Mhera sound asleep, oblivious to her daughter's nocturnal stroll.
"Mmm?" Eavan said sleepily as Catlin laid her in her bed.
"Shhh," said Catlin, covering the girl. "Sleep well, Eavan," she whispered, and tip-toed out of the hut.
She spent the rest of her watch with the feeling that Lochabar's spirit was hanging over her shoulder. She had relived his murder dozens of times since the fateful day of their escape. He had only been trying to protect her. She clutched her bow hard enough to turn her knuckles white.
Mhera only made it worse, often commenting loudly on Lochabar's sacrifice and "certain people" who she thought were disruptive, or were playing up to a certain Prince to ensure a favorable position in the future. What had Lochabar ever seen in the woman? Catlin acknowledged the changes that grief could wreak, but wished for peace with Mhera all the same. She had given up trying to apologize and had instead settled for forced politeness.
When the surrounding forest began to turn a hazy gray, Catlin clambered down from her tree and trudged home. She dropped her bow and arrows on the floor and took off the short sword at her waist. Her small cave was dark in the predawn gloom, so she built a fire and lit some of the candles scattered around the chamber. Feeling tired, she lay down on the ledge that served as her bed, intending to take a short nap. But when she opened her eyes again, sunlight was streaming into the cave, indicating that several hours had gone by.
She spent a few groggy minutes searching for her washbowl. The water was only mildly cool, but it revived her well enough. She bundled together what few garments she had and stepped out of her cave, narrowly avoiding several nearby sheep.
Today was a wash day; she would join most of the other women in the nearby river. Some of them liked to do their washing in a stream that ran through the Sanctuary, but the river wasn't much further on and afforded the women a chance to bathe and swim away from the men. For Catlin, it was an opportunity to leave behind the warrior aspect of her life, enjoy female company, listen in on gossip, though she rarely partook.
Things had changed after her return to the Sanctuary. Though she still dragged her dirty clothes to the river once a week, she stayed slightly apart from the others, only listening with half an ear. For their part, they had tried to include her, but hadn't been able to look past her new scars. They were curious and a little scared at the same time. Catlin had become a stranger to them.
At the riverbank Catlin discarded her boots and her short sword, which she always brought just in case. She hid these items under a ground-hugging bush and slipped into the cold water, dragging her clothes behind her. While the other women did the washing not only for their own men but for the entire camp, Catlin only cleaned her own clothes. If a man wanted a clean shirt, she didn't see why he couldn't drag himself down to the river and scrub it clean. If she could find the time, so could any man.
She grabbed her soap bag, an ingenious device that consisted of loosely-woven cloth tied around soap and attached to the washer's wrist, and began scrubbing. All of her clothes were soiled with dirt, ashes, blood, and any number of other substances she had encountered over the course of several misadventures.
She reached for another shirt without looking; her hand splashed in the water and came up empty. Puzzled, she turned in a circle to see if it had floated off, but saw nothing. As she turned, an air bubble popping on the water's surface caught her eye. A hint of cloth waved enticingly in the water. Catlin snatched her errant shirt and its thief from their hiding place behind a screen of tall grass and bulrushes.
Eavan squeaked in dismay and started thrashing in the water, drawing the attention of the other women. One of them started towards Catlin, but was restrained by the woman to her left, who saw that there was no danger. A few of them glanced reprovingly at Catlin; Mhera had convinced them of the girl's guilt and oddity.
"Gerroffme," Eavan shouted, drenching Catlin completely.
"What are you doing here?" asked Catlin, letting the girl go. The water came up to Eavan's neck when the girl finally planted her feet in the riverbed.
"Just watching. Wanted to help with the washing," said Eavan bashfully. She returned Catlin's shirt. "This is yours."
"Why aren't you with your ma?" Catlin took the proffered shirt and began scrubbing it inside and out with soap.
"She's cooking. She said I was getting in the way."
Catlin was about to tease the girl about her habit of making trouble but held her tongue as she noticed the item clutched tightly in Eavan's hands. It was the same item she had seen Eavan holding last night. It was indeed a small doll, made of wood and cut to look like a little girl. In fact, it looked a great deal like Eavan herself. "Did your da make that for you?" she asked softly.
Eavan held the doll close to her body. "Yes," she answered, just as softly. "He gave it to me when I turned eight." Eavan seemed troubled about the circumstances under which she had received the doll, but Catlin chose not to press the issue. Instead, she laid out her shirt to dry on the riverbank, next to the rest of her clothes, and turned back to Eavan.
"Did you come to here to help, or did you really come here for a swim?" she asked, a small smile playing about her mouth.
Eavan looked delighted at the suggestion. She leapt out of the water to put her doll with Catlin's clothes, then leapt back in with a terrific splash. The ripples reached the other women, still involved with their chores. A few smiled indulgently at the sight of the two girls ducking each other under and generally splashing about, but others looked away in obvious disapproval.
Catlin came up underneath Eavan and surfaced with the girl on her shoulders. Eavan shrieked with delight and was about to urge Catlin towards the opposite bank when a voice interrupted with a polite "Ahem."
Catlin turned slowly in the water with Eavan clinging to her head. Conor stood on the bank looking amused. "Having fun?"
Eavan looked down at Catlin, who slid her eyes up to meet Eavan's. "You're thinking what I'm thinking?" Catlin asked Eavan, and the girl nodded.
Together, they lunged for Conor and toppled him into the shallows. He sat up spluttering and with his curly hair hanging in his eyes, giving him a shaggy, disarming appearance, albeit a sodden one. He looked so comical that Eavan began to giggle and was unable to stop despite the wounded look Conor gave her.
Her voice broke off abruptly as a glob of mud splattered over face. "Ow! My eye!" she wailed.
Catlin immediately shifted the girl down into the water to try and rinse the mud out. A concerned Conor came wading over with an apology on his lips, but even as he placed a hand on Eavan's back, she peeked up at him through the mud wearing an impish smile. "Fooled you," she said, and leapt on Conor with a high-pitched battle cry. Child and man went down in a flurry of mud and water.
Catlin burst out laughing as Conor surfaced with Eavan clinging doggedly to his neck from behind, looking determined to do some damage. "Little monster, get off me," Conor growled, tugging ineffectually at Eavan's arms. "Catlin, help me," he said, dragging himself towards her.
She laughed as she hadn't laughed for a long time, never noticing the pleased look that passed between the prince and the little girl.
Catlin was still chuckling at supper that night. She accepted a slice of bread and a small portion of venison; probably the stag she had helped bring down two days ago.
"There was nothing funny about it," said Conor, rather testily. He bit off a piece of bread and shook the rest of it at Catlin. "If you hadn't dragged me into the water in the first place..."
"Sounds to me like the little one bested you," ribbed Fergus. He and Tully joined Catlin in chuckling.
Though he put on an offended air for his friends, Conor was pleased with the day's results. Eavan had found him and asked for Catlin and he, sensing that the child would do Catlin good, had obligingly pointed her towards the river. In fact, he had followed her there and had seen most of her exchange with Catlin before interrupting. He hadn't been able to resist joining them; watching Catlin really smile for the first time in a month had made him feel giddy with excitement. That ear-to-ear smile made her pale blue eyes glow like a sunrise at sea, a thousand glimmers washing over the endless waves, engulfing him in its immensity. He knew, as he had known for a while now, that he was head-over-heels in love with her.
"Catlin, taking watch again tonight?" asked Conor after the meal.
She sobered a little bit, wondering if Conor disapproved, though it didn't much matter if he did. She made her own decisions. "Yes," she said. She got up to walk to her cave and Conor followed.
"Good. I'll join you," he said as he caught up to her.
She stopped, turned in the entrance to her cave, and transfixed him with her gaze. "I don't want to talk about it," she reminded Conor, though her manner was patient and gentle.
"Then we won't talk. Can't I enjoy the pleasure of your company?" Conor asked, resting his hands casually on the pommel of his sword.
Catlin ducked inside her cave, began to strap on her quiver. She said, "You should know by now you don't have to ask."
Conor moved to the inside of the cave and put his hand over Catlin's. She tugged her hand away from the touch and continued putting on her bracer but Conor recaptured her hand and made her be still. "And you should know by now that I can tell when you're in pain," he said. He let her hands drop down to her sides and took her tenderly by the arms. "Show me your heart. Let me help you," he urged.
"I don't—" Catlin began. She stopped short, realizing that she couldn't bring herself to lash out at him. "I can't—I can't tell you what's wrong. Please don't make me do this. Just sit with me tonight," she said.
Torn between necessity and the plea in Catlin's voice, Conor turned away from her to compose himself. One touch of those clear eyes and his resolve melted away.
"Please, Conor," she said, touching his arm.
"Fine," he said. Conor turned around and attempted to smile, but the sadness on his face only made him look like he was pursing his lips. "I'm sorry I pushed you."
Catlin nodded, not trusting her voice to stay strong. She buckled on her short sword and quiver, picked up her bow, and together she and Conor trudged out of camp to Catlin's usual perch.
"So this is where you are every night," said Conor, heaving himself up to sit on a branch next to Catlin. He continued, "I came looking for you, a few times. None of the sentries knew were you were."
"That was the general idea," Catlin admitted. She and Conor exchanged grins, but both quickly grew somber again. "Can I ask you a question?" said Catlin when several minutes had passed.
"What is it?"
"Today, when you showed up at the river…did you send Eavan to me on purpose?" Catlin turned her head slightly to watch Conor's response.
"Well…yes, and no," he said with a hint of apology in his voice. "She asked me where you were. I told her you were at the river, and I suggested that, since you had been sad lately, she might encourage you to have a bit of fun." He twisted his neck to give Catlin a sharp look. "But I never told her to drag me into it."
"Well, I won't say you didn't deserve it," said Catlin. She leaned against the rough tree trunk, one finger idly plucking her bowstring. "But why Eavan? Mhera has told her about Loch. Eavan knows that I—that I left him," she said miserably.
"Catlin, you didn't kill Loch. Longinus murdered him," Conor said firmly. He reached across the space between the branches to hold Catlin's hand. "You saved the lives of a dozen other people. James, Colin, Declan, men from other tribes. The coastal tribes have even sent envoys to the confederation because of you, because you saved two of their own." When Catlin shook her head and looked away, Conor only tightened his grip. "You know what it's like to blame yourself. You know you have to let go. Why can't you spare yourself the pain?"
Suddenly angry, Catlin gave her branch a fierce kick. "Because I was captured. I didn't get to escape. I don't feel guilty because Loch died. I feel guilty because I was angry with him for leaving me alone. I was angry with you and Fergus and Tully for not rescuing me sooner. Being angry felt good, Conor. I couldn't afford to feel anything else. Diana, and Longinus, and the guards…they never let me have peace.
"But after I came home, I couldn't be selfish anymore. And I resented everyone who was kind to me or tried to talk to me, including you. I just wanted to go back to hating everything in peace because it was easier that way. I didn't have to be noble, or thankful, or graceful, or my old self. Being around you, our friends, only reminded me that I didn't have a reason to be angry anymore and the guilt eats at me until I can't look anyone in the eye."
Shocked, Conor said haltingly, "So, what does—what does that mean? Do you still resent me?"
"No, Conor," said Catlin, her voice begging for him to understand. "Don't you see? I don't really resent you. But I just…feel so guilty about not being able to go back to the way things were." She climbed out of the tree and sat down heavily at its base so that Conor would not see the tears stinging her eyes. Conor dropped down next to her anyway and put his arm around her.
"I think I understand," he said slowly. "I understand now why you didn't want to talk."
Catlin cried silently, the tears on her face mingling with the light breeze threading through the trees. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
"I'm sorry, too. I'm sorry you felt that you couldn't tell me these things. I guess…I should've known it was more than just Loch, because I know you're stronger than that. I—"
"No, Conor," Catlin interrupted. "You don't have anything to apologize for. Just…sit with me tonight." She leaned into Conor's arms, soothed by his warmth. They sat together until the sun once again began its slow climb into the sky.
"Do you remember the last time we watched a sunrise?" asked Conor.
"You told me…" Catlin paused, remembering a morning that seemed to have taken place years ago. "You promised I wouldn't be a slave again, as long as you lived."
"Do you still trust me to keep that promise?" he asked.
"I never lost faith," said Catlin truthfully.
Conor rested his chin on Catlin's shoulder. "I believe you. But I wanted you to know there's no mystery left in my heart."
"I think…we both knew that a long time ago, but never truly realized it," admitted Catlin. Conor gave her arm a brief rub indicating that he agreed. "I've been having dreams," she continued. Conor gave her an odd look but Catlin, sitting in his arms, was unable to see his face. "I don't know what they mean, except that they made me realize that you know me better than anyone."
"Does that scare you?" asked Conor, as much out of genuine concern as self-interest.
"No. Not really. It's been a long time since I was able to trust someone to see me for who I am." Feeling bold, Catlin twined her fingers through Conor's, felt him squeeze her hand in response. His rough, calloused palm felt good against hers.
"I dream, also," said Conor, feeling a little anxious about the direction their conversation was taking, but also curious as to its final destination. "They started after you were…" He caught himself before he could utter the words "taken from me." "…captured," he finished, and went on quickly to cover the near-fumble. "They're like a vision of the future. After the first dream, I knew you were alive."
Catlin shifted a little. "The dreams I had were almost real. The places, people, the emotions. While I was—" She barely paused, realizing her next words were distasteful, but that she couldn't avoid them forever. "—a prisoner, I used them to help pass the time. That was almost worse than being hurt, waiting until they came for me again. I was always praying for sleep so that I could see our people."
Conor was not unduly disturbed about the similarity of their dreams, but wanted to know more about what Catlin had seen. "What did I do, in these dreams?"
"You…were happy," said Catlin mysteriously.
"A very good dream, then," said Conor, smiling and giving Catlin a little nudge. She nudged him back with her shoulder.
"And what was I doing in your dreams?" asked Catlin, not daring to hope for the answer.
"You also were happy," said Conor. He could feel Catlin stiffening a little, her body no longer relaxing into his. She pulled away from his arms so that she could turn and look into his eyes.
"Tell me exactly," she urged. Her hand, still holding his, tightened its grip.
"Well, um…" Conor felt like scratching his head. Those dreams were intensely personal. He didn't know if wanted to tell Catlin what he thought about her, at least in the dream world. But her beautiful eyes were undeniable. "I was here. In the Sanctuary. I was chasing someone, and I ran into Fergus, and he told me to go home. I went to my hut and…" He stretched out the last word, trying to screw up the courage to tell Catlin everything.
"And?" she asked, seeming to search him for confirmation of a truth she already knew.
"And I saw you. It wasn't my home. It was ours. And…you were with child," he finished, on the verge of panic.
"I was…with child," she repeated. Her hand dropped away from Conor's. "Conor—"
He interrupted. "I'm sorry, Catlin, it was just a dream, I didn't mean—"
She promptly placed a hand over his mouth. "Conor," she said, and the sound of his name whispered softly was enough to bring him to a screeching halt. "I've had the same dream. I was there, with you. We were going to have a child together. There were other dreams, too. I dreamt of you almost every night. I dreamt that we were married." Slowly, she lifted her hand, saw Conor's eyes go wide.
"The same dream? How—why—" He stood up abruptly, Catlin matching his actions. "You don't think they were real. Dreams. Just because we..."
"Do you love me, Conor?" asked Catlin.
"What?" He walked away from the tree, stopped at the edge of its spreading roots. Here was the thing he wanted most, and he couldn't bring himself to face her.
"I've already told you there's no mystery left in my heart. Why are you keeping me in the dark? It's not fair, Conor." Catlin strained to keep the whine out of her voice. With her frustration mounting and Conor fumbling to give her non-answers, she felt as if she were about to implode.
"I don't…I…" He peered at her intently. "Do you love me?"
She let out an exasperated sigh and began to march away, her hands curling into fists. Conor followed, begging her to stop. Catlin whirled on him and before she quite knew what she was doing, punched Conor in the face. He sprawled onto the ground looking shocked. "Are you daft?" she all but shouted.
Conor stared up at her with wide eyes, his mouth hanging open. He made no move to speak.
Catlin stepped up to Conor's feet, leaned over him slightly and practically hissed, "iYes/i, I love you. And I thought you'd be brave enough to tell me the same, but evidently I was wrong." She turned around and resumed her marching. She left the prince on his rear, one hand hovering over his rapidly bruising cheek.
"Dammit," sighed Conor, and flopped backwards onto the ground.