Catlin crouched shaking in a thick grove of trees just south of where Roman troops had tied their horses. She had counted 25 men in the group. Her teeth began chattering and she looked upward. Snow was still falling relentlessly, and showed no signs of stopping. The group was camped for the evening. Three large fires lit their camp. Tents of heavy fabric had been pitched in the small clearing.
There was nothing she could do but continue south and hope that she would find some sort of shelter. The troops blocked the only path north. A steep hill sloped off on the east and a large river bordered her western side. The eastern route would be too treacherous in the snow and the river looked near impossible to cross even in the best weather conditions.
Quietly, she picked her way through the brush to where her horse was waiting. Standing in the cover of a large oak, she peered about the area. Her eye caught sight of the glint of moonlight off something shiny. She took it for a cloak pin, or perhaps Roman armor. Circling around unseen, she approached her prey carefully, drawing her sword in complete silence. The man was looking back at where her horse was tied, watching for her approach from the north. He did not even sense her presence until he felt the point of her sword at his back.
"Turn slowly. Don't call for help, or you'll be dead before it reaches you," she said in a low, intense voice.
The man turned slowly. Catlin's face broke into a smile as she lowered her weapon.
"Ian, what are you doing here?" she whispered.
"Ach, it's a lovely evening for a walk, isn't it?" he smiled. The smile slowly slid from his face, replaced with concern as he noticed the paleness of her skin and the bluish tint of her lips. "Are you alright?"
"Just a little cold," she said shivering.
"Come on," he said taking her hand and leading her to where her horse stood. "There's a hunting cottage nearby."
Conor paced nervously in his room. He tried to reassure himself that Ian would find Catlin before the Romans did. After all, there was no doubt that Catlin could avoid a Roman scouting party. She was much more careful and agile than they. It was the cold and the harsh terrain that worried him most. Just outside the door, the two guards continued their watch. He walked up to the door.
"Eoin, is it?" Conor said approaching a slight man with dark wavy hair and an unruly beard.
"That's me," he nodded.
"A word?" Conor gestured into the hut. Suspiciously, the man looked to his counterpart, then shrugged and followed Conor into the room. "Have you lived in this village for many years?" He asked the guard.
"All my life..." He glanced at Conor with a slight hint of trepidation. It was obvious he was uncomfortable talking to someone he was guarding.
"My father, Derek was an ally of Ian's father. My father always spoke of your tribe as great warriors... Ian insists now that you are only farmers, looking for peace."
Eoin nodded knowingly. "My father fought in the tradition of our ancestors. But everything changed when we tried to attack the Roman fort. The King was killed in the battle. Our tribe was cut apart. Nearly half our men were slain. Every family lost at least one father or brother or son." The man's eyes became glassy.
"Your father as well?" Conor asked already anticipating the response.
Eoin nodded his head in the affirmative and lowered his voice. "Ian decreed that we would now only fight to protect ourselves, and that we would seek peace at all costs. He sold most of the riches of the tribe and bought seed and animals. We turned to farming... we turned to hiding... Some call him a coward. They say that he disgraces us and his father's memory." Eoin turned to leave but shot a final determined glance at Conor. "I say he's a true hero and saved us from destruction."
"I need your help," Conor said plainly.
The guard closed his eyes and sighed. "You know I can't help you."
"And you know it's wrong for Colin to hold me prisoner here. You know Ian wouldn't want this."
"Colin... he holds power within the Council. If I disobey his orders, I'll have them to answer to."
"My friend is out there. She could die... Please, let me help her."
Eoin wavered for a moment. The decision was playing out on his face. He winced slightly then looked away from Conor.
"I'm sorry... I can't help you."
Eoin gave him a small nod of his head and walked back out into the awaiting cold. Conor sat down on his bed with a heavy heart. There was something troubling about these people, about this place. For farmers at peace there was too much unrest. Outside the wind began to howl. His mind wandered back to Catlin. He hoped Ian had found her by now. It was getting colder.
Ian sat behind Catlin on the horse, wrapping his arms and cloak around her and taking the reins. By now she was shaking violently from the cold."We'll be there soon," he said softly. He held the reins in his left hand and pulled Catlin to his chest with his right, covering her in the cloak. Catlin's shaking subsided slightly, but Ian knew that he needed to get her out of the freezing cold. The icy wind didn't relent and Ian's face burned as the stinging air hit him. The journey to the cottage took longer than Ian had hoped. Catlin was again shuddering, even worse than before. "There it is," he said pointing at a thicket of trees and shrubs. Catlin followed his gaze.
"I...don't...s-see...anything," she chattered."It's well hidden."
Tully sat in the meeting room, talking with Fergus over a mug of ale and a roaring fire."Do you think Catlin and Conor will be back soon?" the younger man posed. "Not likely in this weather. My guess is that they'll weather the storm in Ian's village. Unified or not, I don't remember them as the sort that would throw people out into the cold," the warrior laughed.
"This early winter is a bad sign," Tully remarked nervously. "Every season has its place, but for winter to come so quickly...""Nonsense, lad. It just means that winter will be over sooner and spring can hurry up and arrive."
"I don't like it," he shook his head sullenly.
"Why does that not surprise me?" Fergus chuckled, refusing to let him deflate his good ale-induced mood. Tully stood up to leave. "Where are you off to now, lad?" Fergus said, looking up from his mug.
"It's my turn to stand guard... on Aiobhell." Fergus nodded as Tully left the room. Tully had usually been so carefree. He had never seen him quite so troubled. First love would do that to a man. And he was sure that was what this was, for Tully, at least.
Catlin could barely feel her limbs. It was as if her arms and legs no longer existed. Her eyes slowly opened to the sight of Ian watching her as she slept in the small cottage. Catlin was wrapped in blankets and skins. A blazing fire roared in the hearth.
"How are you feeling?" Ian's voice was a lulling tone. He smiled at her, the light from the hearth made his green eyes shine like fiery gems.
"I can't feel my arms," she said weakly. Catlin couldn't ever remember being so cold. She had passed out shortly after they came upon the cottage. The loss of time suddenly struck her. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Not long..." Ian smiled. He reached down to the floor and brought a cup to her mouth. "Here, drink this." The mixture was bitter. "The healer gave it to me. She thought we might need it," he explained. Catlin drank the liquid down. Her eyes wandered around the little room. It was a sparse cottage. Ian followed her gaze. "My father and I built this cottage when I was a boy." The memory of the place had a clear impact on him. "We picked the spot because it was well hidden. You have to know where to look to find it."
She smiled at him. "It's nice." Catlin's eyes darkened slightly as she remembered what had brought her here. "Ian, how did you know where to find me?"
"My patrol saw the Romans heading south through the woods. I knew they would catch up with you... I've hunted through these trees since I was a boy. I know every trail and gully..."
"Thank you." Her voice was full of sincerity.
"Ach, there's no need," he shrugged.
"I guess Conor and I should have been more prepared for Winter..." she said with a slight smirk.