Alexios stopped in the doorway of the officer's mess of the Frontier Wolves, Third Ordo, and he could only stare at the inhabitants, the men he would now be commanding. His two centenarii were there, he presumed, as well as his quartermaster, his surgeon, and, and--
Dizzy, Alexios clutched the doorframe for support. He could see the beasts inside the room watching him, their eyes glittering in reflected lamplight.
He knew now what his uncle had meant about the posting hardly being a promotion. Joining a cohors luporum was not like any other assignment; you could not just leave, not after you had a wolf. No, you were posted for life.
"I thought the name was a joke," he managed, finally, just barely quelling the terrified, hysterical laughter that wanted to come out of him. He hadn't thought postings like this still existed; wolves hadn't been in the regular legions for centuries, after all. "I thought perhaps you wore wolf-hides--"
Behind him, Julius Gavros gave a dry chuckle. "Lad, no one jokes here except Hilarion, and him enough for all the rest of us. Speaking of which--" He raised his voice. "Lucius, Hilarion, come help your new ducenarius to a seat."
A tall, lanky man in the corner unfolded himself and stood up while a burly, darker man sitting much closer turned around and started to rise. Along with them two wolves -- their brothers, Alexios corrected himself -- lifted their huge heads and began to look interested. He would not be frightened. He would not. Perhaps they wouldn't even take him. Perhaps the wolves would reject him. They could not keep him here, not if he did not bond to a wolf. It would be shameful, worse than Abusina, but at least then he would not be trapped here.
The tall man, reaching him first, had an insolent grin on his face that was only matched by the amused -- and how in the world could Alexios tell? -- gaze of his wolf. "Sir," the man said, his hands warm and steadying against Alexios' back, his side. "I'm your senior centenarius. Hilarion. And my brother down here is Laelaps. Welcome to the Third Ordo."
"Only if one of your wolves takes a liking to me," Alexios found himself saying, as Hilarion led him toward one of the benches.
"That won't be a problem."
The voice was Gavros', and when Alexios turned to look he saw that the man's eyes had gone unfocused, distracted, as if talking to someone who wasn't there. The pack. He was being judged. Well, that answered that question.
"Sir," Alexios said neutrally even as his stomach fell. He wouldn't be leaving.
"The Votadini have pups." This from the other man Gavros had called to -- Lucius, he supposed. "We trade wolves and horses with them, sir. And they have a bitch-pup waiting for a soldier."
Hilarion lounged against the wall, smiling. "We'll have a new queen wolf, won't we?" he drawled.
And he was eyeing Alexios with a certain amount of-- well. Alexios did not quite want to think of it, not from a stranger and his subordinate besides, but he supposed it was true what they said about the wolf-bonded men. It would have to be. At least, if he had to have him eventually, Hilarion was not ugly or unkind. He wondered if the man was testing him.
"And she'll be greater than the she-wolf herself, eh?" Alexios replied, as evenly as he could, watching his centenarius smirk in reply.
The pup stared at him, and quite suddenly, Alexios felt her, somewhere in his head where before there had been nothing to feel. There was a smell like dust through the air, a sense of quickness. And he loved her more than any other creature in the world.
"Whirlwind," he said, wondering. "Aëllo. That's your name, isn't it?"
The pup wagged.
Ferradach Dhu smiled an old, old smile in his lined face. "The ducenarius is a leader of wolves and men, eh?"
Alexios bowed a little bow to the chieftain and scooped Aëllo up in his arms. "The ducenarius will try."
The Wolves were his now. He would do right by them. He had to.
The year was good. He learned the ways of his men, the ways of his wolves. He hunted with Cunorix. He diced with Hilarion while Aëllo play-wrestled Laelaps or Lucius' Ferox under the tables. She led the pack, indeed; young she may have been, but all the wolves looked to her, just as the men learned to look to Alexios.
The year was good, until it wasn't.
At least the wolves were warm, Alexios thought, numbly, as a gust of wind blew hard through the gap of his cloak. And at least there was some shelter to be had here at ruined Bremenium, though he himself was now standing outside of it, by the spot where the men had buried Lucius and his brother Ferox. He could hardly feel the pain of the cold through the burning of his injured arm, through the bright new grief in his mind at the death of Cunorix, at all the death. There was another, stranger feeling too, drifting across the edges of his thoughts, a feeling that was neither pain nor sorrow, and he did not know what to make of it.
"Sir," Hilarion said from behind him, and suddenly Alexios' strange feelings transmuted all to fury.
He knew he had snapped the word, and he did not care to think about what his face looked like.
But Hilarion was unfazed. Hilarion was not even smiling, and a small faraway part of Alexios' mind noted that this ought to be a problem. He had enough problems. They still had the rest of the Votadini to deal with. They needed to be heading south again. Whatever it was, it could wait.
"It's about Aëllo, sir," he said, and rage blossomed within Alexios. How dare Hilarion presume to know about his wolf? She was fine. He reached out through the pack-sense. There, she was with the rest of the wolves. There was nothing to worry about.
"What about her, then?"
Hilarion stepped even closer. "Alexios," he said. His face was tight, and Name of Light, he was afraid, and he was never afraid-- "your Aëllo, she's going into heat. And she-- in the cold, in the wild, with you wounded like this, and it being your first time and all... sir, you wouldn't survive it. Not with the whole Ordo chasing her, you won't. You might take one of us and live. You can't handle five. Not in these conditions."
Alexios swallowed. "Habitancum. How far?" There were fort-surgeons there. People who had seen this before. People who knew what to do.
But Hilarion was shaking his head. "Not close enough, sir. Not enough time. I'm sorry."
He felt the mask of blood and dirt on his face crack as he tried to smile, though nothing was funny. "What do you suggest?"
"You're not going to like it."
"Tell me," he said, and in his head he could feel Aëllo starting to burn, a desire that was and was not his own.
Hilarion's voice was nearly drained of emotion. "The commander should pick one man. Someone whose wolf Aëllo likes. Preferably an officer of some sort already, if you want to make the promotions after go more easily. Assuming we live through this." His throat worked. "Then go somewhere secluded and hope the rest of us don't come after you."
"I suppose you have someone in mind?"
"Until two days ago," Hilarion said grimly, "it was going to be me or Lucius, but I'm afraid it's down to me, sir. The breeding-ground here is too ruined to use, but there's a room in the fort that's clear enough. The duty optiones will keep the rest of the pack away, and I can try not to hurt your arm more." His freckled face was pale, nearly white, and Alexios did not think it was the cold. "No promises, though." He paused, biting his lip. "And, sir, I'm... sorry that it can't be a better offer."
Alexios looked at Hilarion, then, really looked at him. To the wolves he was all good things and delights, with his scent-name wafting sweet honey, fruit and cool water, and there was a sort of contentment in the corner of his mind that came from Aëllo. She liked him. She liked Laelaps. There was no problem here.
And he-- liked Hilarion. He trusted Hilarion. He could do this.
"You told the wolves before you told me," Alexios said, amused.
"I couldn't not tell them," said Hilarion, and he still looked nervous, as if he didn't know how Alexios felt. "I wouldn't just suggest this to keep my rank, sir, you know that, and you can choose any of the men instead, if you don't like--"
"Hilarion." Alexios stepped forward. "I'm going to like it."
"Oh." And for once, the man had nothing else to say.
Alexios smiled and held out a hand.
Hilarion took it. "Inside with you, then," he said, grinning and looking a little more like himself. "Bring the wolves and bar the door."