Winter descended upon Belgica with a gasping, heady rush. It was not the damp and chill affair to which Hilarion was used. Castellum had winters that sunk cold teeth into skin and refused to let go, but the bitemarks were only sharp little pinpricks.
Here, in contrast, winter seemed like something monstrous waking from a slumber beneath the earth. Game became scarce in the woods, meat necessarily rationed, and soldiers had to compete with wolves for their kills. The sloping hills, vibrant in the summer, overgrown with beech and fir trees so tall a man could walk beneath them without glimpsing sunlight for days, now stood wrapped in snow.
Soon, the year’s longest night would choke the last vestiges of warmth from both land and men. The numerus, sequestered in the easternmost fort of Gallia Belgica, was barely a hundred miles from the frontier that had brought legions to their knees.
Hilarion stood at the ramparts, his wolfskin pulled around his shoulders and up to the chin, and watched his breath turn into a prickling cold mist with each exhale. The moon hung low over the woods that stretched far into the east, and the night sky was the colour of gangrene and badly healing bruises.
“Ducenarius Hilarion, sir.” Footsteps behind him, and the familiar voice of one of his centenarii. Felix stepped in next to him, at a respectful arm’s length distance. “It is too cold to be out here, even on your watch.”
Hilarion spared him a sideways glance. Felix was young, pleasing to the eye and dark of features, hailing from Palaestina. The northern winters were not kind to him: he was shivering very slightly without the benefit of a wolfskin. His teeth chattered, but darkness swallowed the noise.
“Oh, it’s not my watch,” said Hilarion. “I value peace and quiet. What’s toward?”
Wisely, Felix chose not to call Hilarion on the lie. “It’s the Attacotti, sir —”
Hilarion barked out a laugh, and the wind pushed it back into his mouth before the sound could carry. “When is it ever not?” He turned his back to the woods and the moon, and ignored the sense that something old and treacherous watched from within the fabric of night. “Come on, you can tell me on the way. If there is to be bloodshed, I want to place my bets.”
“Sir,” said Felix, with infinite patience, and obediently trotted after Hilarion, down to the hall in the principia where most of his ordo who were not on duty would be spending their time, soaking up whatever warmth their bodies could snatch from fire and watered wine.
The air was no warmer, closer to the ground, though the sturdy palisade that embraced Perfugium allowed its occupants some shelter from the wind. The fort itself was barely more than a winter garrison, devoured wholly by the woods encroaching on all sides. It housed the First Attacotti, but would struggle to fit even a century more. It had the feel of something aged, something that would rather welcome the wolves baying at its walls than the soldiers within.
Hilarion had dared hope never again to see a fort as pitiful and remote as Castellum, but the gods did like to mock him, it seemed. Burrowed deeply like a tick in the chilled skin of the empire, Perfugium was worse.
He swung the doors to the hall wide, prepared for the sight of a storm brewing and a hair’s breadth from the first crack of thunder: the braziers guttering, forgotten, his soldiers at one another’s throats. His senior centenarius was facing off with Idarnoin, whom he had himself appointed optio from within the ranks. Hilarion marvelled that the two had still not killed each other. They either moved as one in perfect synchrony, or hissed at one another like angry cats.
The men, at least, did not seem cold. Several stood bare-chested, despite the pervasive chill, with their blue-inked markings stark against pale skin.
Hilarion draped himself across the doorway, letting in the freezing draught, so that his voice would carry when he said, in British, “Do my eyes deceive me, or is my ordo in sooth about to toss about on the floor like ragpickers’ brats?”
Centenarius Titus looked away from Idarnoin, and snapped to attention with such alacrity that Hilarion heard the crack of his spine across the hall. “Sir! No, sir!”
“Of course not,” said Hilarion lazily. “You’re all venerated soldiers of Rome, for all the good that does the immortal empire. Are you not?”
Idarnoin shifted from foot to foot in plain discomfort. None of Hilarion’s men were fully at ease with the fashion in which he held command, but he had no need to issue corporal punishment yet, and so the Attacotti had no reason to hate him.
“So we are, sir.” Idarnoin’s own British was heavily accented. “There was a misunderstanding.”
Hilarion stopped smiling. “Misunderstandings such as these tend to lead to ten mile drills under full pack, optio. And discipline doesn’t wait for good marching weather.”
Idarnoin straightened, coming to his full height, but not in the way of arrogance, or anger, and the tribesmen flanking him relaxed at a signal that Hilarion could not quite discern.
“Yes,” he said. He looked at Titus, again at Hilarion, and nodded.
“Then I’m glad that we understand each other. Keep the fires going, gentlemen: we’re in for another chilly night.”
And he took a brisk stroll to the praetorium, leaving the ordo to fend for itself, content that no blood should need to be scrubbed from the floors come morning. He heard murmurs at his back, but not mutinous murmurs, and soon enough the wind took the men’s voices and drowned the sound in fresh snow.
By the time Hilarion walked across the open court of the principia, the fur of his wolfskin was dusted white and his cheeks burned, as though the cold pushed tiny needles into his skin. Beyond the ramparts and watchtowers, beyond the palisade, a solitary wolf gave voice to its hunger.
Hilarion lifted the door curtain and ducked beneath, did not shiver at the cold, and threw himself bodily into the chair facing Alexios’ desk, limbs falling into an easy sprawl. For a long moment Alexios did not lift his head from the scroll he was reading by an oil lamp. It stood in the corner of the desk, casting odd and trembling shadows over the walls and over the panes of his face.
Hilarion tipped his head back, then to the sides, waiting for the telltale crack of bone. When it came, it felt like a tug at the coil of tension in his stomach, and he let it unspool.
“Come in, ducenarius,” said Alexios, belatedly but without rebuke. He carefully rolled up the scroll and put it in its case, and only then looked up at Hilarion. His mouth was a crooked line that spoke of quiet amusement. “How goes the night watch?”
“Cold.” It was how Hilarion began all of his reports, and Alexios made a soft noise that was not a laugh only because he kept it within himself. “Titus and Idarnoin are at it again, like children. Do you know, sir, I think I miss the Caledoni frontier. At least the tribes just wanted to kill us. The ordo want to make me go grey and bald with frustration first.”
This time, Alexios did laugh: a warm, dry sound and a thinning at the corners of his eyes that made him look very young. “You can’t be grey and bald at the same time.” He leaned back in his chair, tucking his hands into the sleeves of his long tunic to preserve even a flicker of warmth. “You’re doing well, Hilarion.”
“Oh, I know I am. Seeing as I haven’t been strung by the innards from the praetorian gate yet.”
“Would they do that, really? I recall being told that the Attacotti eat the flesh of the men they kill.”
Hilarion pulled a face. “Thank you, sir. I will sleep better, knowing this.”
“It could be worse,” said Alexios, and made a move as if to reach out, but the fingers of his shield arm caught on the fur padding of his cloak, and he subsided. His injured arm. In the light of the oil lamp, Alexios’ skin looked golden and his eyes were bright with humour; he did not wince. “I’m sure your ordo would be gentler than the wolves outside.”
“How truly heartening.”
Alexios let his smile grow wider. He could never maintain the veneer of mocking disaffection for long, and so he watched Hilarion in an easy silence, as though he could read Hilarion’s thoughts across his face, or perhaps in his eyes. The meticulous regard pulled at another thread of tension in Hilarion, until some of the chill that seeped into him at the ramparts finally bled out.
He folded his hands behind his head, stretching, and looked back.
“Have you eaten, sir?” He did not chance a drop of formality.
“This grain shipment report put me off food. I’d rather go to the tepidarium so my hands can finally thaw.” Alexios dropped his gaze to the scroll case before him. He would re-seal it within the week’s end, and send it to Augusta Treverorum with other correspondence. “The Mosella is frozen.”
“Not a lot of things here that aren’t.” Hilarion stretched once more, loosening the stiff bunch of his joints, and rose. He felt Alexios’ eyes on him; he could not help but return that regard, intent for intent and mocking for warmth, even if it meant skirting the precipice of insubordination.
“It’s long past your watch, sir,” he said, idly fixing the fur lining of his wrist guards, “to be exiled here so late.”
“It isn’t your watch, either.” But Alexios smiled: where Hilarion would have remained insolent, Alexios took the bite out of his words. “You should sleep. If it’s as you say and your ordo is driven to distraction, a longer marching drill might help.”
“If any gods look kindly upon me, they’ll freeze the entire sorry rabble. I should have them crack the ice over the river, so they might have their choice of marching or swimming.”
“Then they would hoist you from the ramparts. Go you and rest; if it’s to be your last day of service, ducenarius, make it count.”
Hilarion did not salute; it was too cold to unstitch his arms from beneath his cloak again, and he was beginning to feel comfortable. But he did smile, and knew it was too honest for his own good, and that he should give Alexios a mocking retort. That not to do so bared him, as one bared nerves from the shelter of the body, and left him open to injury.
Injury like this: the viscous light of the oil lamp, shivering as it fell across the sweep of Alexios’ cheekbones, burnishing his features like copper or bronze.
He left, elbowing the door curtain aside only far enough to duck under it, aware of Alexios’ gaze on his back.
It began to snow as he stepped into the open court, like the fall of a veil, and night-time noises were choked into a reverent silence. Hilarion watched the slow drift of wind, painted white by the sparse light spilling outside from the other buildings of the principia, and felt as though it was the ground that moved while the air remained immobile; he stopped blinking, transfixed, until a few fat flakes fell across his eyelashes and his vision began to blur.
And if he did not sleep for long hours, marked only by the fade of one watch shift into the next, then it was because of the baying of wolves outside as they circled hungrily the perimeter of the fort.
His ordo did not hoist him from the ramparts. They took to the drills as they took to all Roman training: with clear eyes and shields glinting as white as the snow laid across the forest floor, and with determination and pride in place of true loyalty.
But it would come later. They saw that Hilarion was of the northern tribes, and an officer; and likewise Taxiles’ centenarii in the second ordo. That there was honour in serving under the eagle standard, though perhaps not the kind of honour that they might have envisioned for themselves when they had first set out to war.
He watched his ordo marching back toward the fort’s centre across the frost-packed via principalis. The footprints they had left in the morning were already covered, swept over by wind and fresh snowfall. Their breaths rose in a white mist, their faces pale with red splashed across like crushed spring flowers.
Perfugium stood less haunted in daylight, and in the shade of the left principal gate Hilarion huddled close to Anthonius over a brazier. Anthonius had gone out with the ordo, overlooking the practice with his medical case at the ready. Watch fires were burning already, and in an hour, perhaps two, the sun would drown itself in the horizon.
A small group of men from Felix’s century, led by Bodiccius and Fidaich, carried upon their shoulders quartered slabs of deermeat, still so fresh that it let off clouds of steam. Their footprints were blood-red in the snow. A wolf pack would go hungry tonight, Hilarion thought. They would venture nearer to the walls.
A week to midwinter, the numerus was set to digging and maintaining paths in the snow within the fort’s perimeter, so that the via principalis and the via praetoria remained passable, and a grid of trenches emerged to connect the fort’s quarters. At night, from the ramparts, Perfugium seemed a darkly illuminated labyrinth.
Anthonius had to take a knife to one of the men’s fingers: frost made two of them grow black at the nail. And although it was not Talorcan’s sword arm, Hilarion still put him on a double watch duty, so in fighting drills he may re-learn the new weight and momentum of his damaged body.
Athonius told no one of where he took the severed scraps of flesh, for fear that hunger might make the men act foolishly.
“Sir, we must order half-rations.” Felix’s skin was sallow, warm brown gone grey. “If we do, we’ll have two more weeks of supplies.”
“Then pray you to your gods that we can send someone south by then,” said Hilarion, and ordered half-rations, and resigned his men to eating the last of the meat from their final hunt, which even without curing had gone so dry that it tasted like sandal straps.
Four days to midwinter, Hilarion saw his commander wincing in pain as he threw his dice.
They were sat around what passed for a command table in the hall, long past supper and into the night. Officers’ quarters were emptier, and so colder than the barracks, and Hilarion was not surprised to see Alexios reluctant to adjourn to his.
They played dice, as they had at Castellum more than a year past. Many things had changed, but not this: Hilarion could sit sprawled in his chair, with the lazy, loose-jointed impertinence of a cat as he cheated without a shred of subtlety or shame. He could watch his commanding officer untwist the knot of tension from his shoulders, one dice roll at a time, until he laughed as readily as if he were a little drunk.
But he did not laugh, now. His brow was creased and a flush clung to his cheekbones, twin stains against skin that seemed pallid in the uneven light. The colour made his eyes bright, and although Hilarion initially thought it borne of chill, that single wince made him realise Alexios was in real pain.
“Is it your arm, sir?”
Alexios glanced at him sideways. “What?” He shifted, infinitely subtle, but Hilarion saw that he favoured his left side: it left him leaned at a slightly protective angle.
“Well, sir,” said Hilarion, with a lazy grin that, from any other superior, would have earned him a beating, “I flatter myself that it’s not my company making you look like a rat died up your —”
“It’s not.” The tone was flatly amused. “Not yet. Don’t push it, ducenarius.”
“You’re welcome to try to stop me, sir. But in the meantime, you should come with me; I can help.”
It should not have surprised him that Alexios followed, for no other reason than Hilarion’s asking.
The sky outside was so overcast that not even the moon and stars could provide light. Snow lay still upon the ground of the principia’s court, and all footprints were long filled-in. Beside Hilarion, Alexios gasped at the sting of freezing air.
“Bracing, sir, isn’t it?”
Alexios snorted. His breath came out in a white cloud. “That’s one word for it,” he said in British.
“Bloody cold,” Hilarion agreed in the same tongue.
“So where are we going?”
“The baths, sir,” said Hilarion and, accordingly, started walking. Not quite swiftly enough that he missed Alexios turning toward him in wary surprise. “Anthonius, in his infinite wisdom, advised me to make sure you keep your injured arm warm and the muscles easy. Else you might lose feeling and not even know when frostbite sets in.”
After a moment, he heard Alexios follow behind him, footsteps nothing but a dry, laborious crunch of snow. “He told you that, and not me.” It was not a question, and Alexios sounded amused and irritated in equal parts.
“Said you never take his advice.” This with a hint of reproach. In truth, Anthonius had said: you’re the one he listens to, and had to wait for Hilarion to stop laughing before giving him a mixture of warming oils, the smell of which made him sneeze.
“I’m not the commander’s dog,” Hilarion had said, and bore the look that Anthonius’ had given him, which seemed to know him better than he would have liked. As though Anthonius could read the truth buried beneath the veneer of metaphor when Hilarion spoke of Attacotti shield-brothers as one would speak of a life that might have been his.
“If you’d check on the fires, sir,” he said, now, once they had crossed the principia and took the via praetoria to the southeast quarter where the baths stood, empty at this hour. “I’ll bring the supplies.”
Dark shapes moved across the ramparts, the guards on watch duty pacing the perimeter of the fort. Their stride seemed puppet-like, for their faces went unseen. Every man in the numerus could be nothing more than a spectre. Even voices spilling out of the barracks were muted, and none of them could ever hope to carry further than a sandal-throw in any direction.
A whisper of wind prickled at the back of his neck. Hilarion tried to bury himself in his cloak, but the old matted fur of the wolf he had killed now refused to warm him.
He stayed chilled all the way back from the barracks to the tepidarium, where Alexios waited as Hilarion had bidden him. The fort could afford only bare necessities, and the floor heating struggled to support a numerus almost five hundred strong. It had no filtration for the steam and smoke coming in from beneath the floorboards, so that the ceiling and walls were caked with grime and charcoal dust.
The air was damp but warm, and becoming hotter still. Hilarion felt his skin itch and prickle as it thawed, and the air of the tepidarium stuck to him like a film.
Alexios sat on one of the benches, barefoot, stripped down to the waist with his tunic and subarmalis laid beside him. Not even the short winter days could wash the gold from his skin, and though he gave no indication of discomfort, his head was angled just slightly to the side, away from his shield arm, as if he hated even to look at it. The knotted scar tissue left-over from where the flesh of his arm had been laid open, where the infection had nearly proven fatal, was very pale. A stark contrast to the rest of him, and all the more visible for it.
Hilarion did not think it was vanity that made Alexios turn away from the sight of himself, but memory. Or perhaps grief.
Having left his wolfskin at the entrance, Hilarion unfastened his wrist guards and pulled his sword belt over his head, to lean it against the bench. His dagger followed, and without weapons, he felt as naked as Alexios was. More, when he felt Alexios’ gaze on him as one would feel a touch. Hilarion knelt before him.
“Anthonius swears by this, sir,” he said, in a warning tone, and uncorked the bottle he had brought. The oil smelled like peppermint and clove, and ginger; a little acrid, altogether. Hilarion warmed it in his hands. Alexios scrunched up his face in distaste, but did not resist when Hilarion took his hand between his own.
He hissed at the first press of fingers into tendon, but did not pull away. He watched Hilarion work his way up the forearm, slowly pulling muscle and ligament looser, forcing warmth into chilled skin. He watched Hilarion with sharp, bright eyes, and colour high in his cheekbones.
Steam and smoke filled the tepidarium like a layer of gauze, too warm as it travelled inside Hilarion’s lungs. He felt sweat gathering at the nape of his neck, and at his temples, and briefly regretted not stripping out of his tunic. But it would have felt more contrary to the rank separating him from Alexios, to which a part of him needed to give tribute, if only by kneeling.
Was it not how followers of the young god from Judaea prayed? On their knees. But of course, Alexios was a Mithraean.
He flinched, the first time Hilarion touched the scar on his forearm. It was a long, ragged thing: the sword had caught him beneath the hem of his short-sleeved mail and subarmalis, and ran a jagged line to the elbow, where the angle of the bone must have tipped it aside. Roman soldiers were trained to thrust, instead of slicing, to inflict more damage. But this scar was not given to Alexios by a Roman, and the skin of his arm had been nearly flayed.
“It’s not so bad as that,” said Alexios, quietly, and Hilarion realised that he had stopped moving. Stopped breathing, as well, at the sight and the feel of Alexios’ scars. He still remembered how all that blood had looked, spattered in an arc over trodden snow. “It could have been my sword arm.”
“Little good your sword arm will do you, if you can’t hold a shield properly.”
“I won’t have to.” An odd note in Alexios’ voice made Hilarion look up, and he saw Alexios watching him, unguarded, unadorned. The expression softened the arrogant cast of Alexios’ brow. “Not when I have you.”
“The numerus.” Hilarion did not allow himself disappointment, and even if he had, it would be brief. Alexios placed his free hand on his shoulder: his thumb fit into the hollow at Hilarion’s clavicle, and his palm into the shape of muscle where it met Hilarion’s neck.
Alexios said, “And you.”
It was a careful hold that he had on Hilarion, but ungiving, precise in the way that swordsmen were precise. Hilarion found it difficult to breathe. No light-hearted remarks came to him, perhaps because his heart seemed to beat only in the place that Alexios touched him and his own hand remained moored at Alexios’ injured arm, pale and freckled in contrast to Alexios’ golden. And in the hollow of Alexios’ elbow, the silver-quick thrum of blood beneath thin, vulnerable skin.
He knelt before Alexios, anchored in place, and dared not move. It was an old ritual, one that lived in their bones, together with the language they had known since before Latin.
Then Alexios dug his fingers into the nape of Hilarion’s neck and pushed, ever so slightly, and Hilarion bowed his head until his forehead rested on Alexios’ knee in supplication.
“Am I wrong?” Alexios said. It sounded like a formality. He already knew the answer.
Hilarion breathed out, and wished that Alexios would push with more force. “You’re not wrong.”
Smoke prickled at his eyes, so Hilarion let them fall shut. He stayed kneeling, bound by Alexios’ touch. Proprietary, but as Hilarion’s only superior out here in this wretched nowhere part of the empire he had a claim to Hilarion that no one else had.
But their swords were laid aside and Rome had no place between them now, and Hilarion let himself be handled, and held. Held down. All he had to do was surrender. It came, perhaps, too easily.
He drifted until his body bled out its tension, unmindful of the dampness of the air in the tepidarium and the sweat that made his tunic feel heavy and clinging. Without hurry, or deliberation, Alexios began to push his fingers through the short-cropped hair at the back of Hilarion’s neck. Back and forth. His nails scraped lightly over the nape, but Hilarion was too loose even to shiver.
He could not remember the last time he had been touched in this manner. Castellum, certainly. Yet even there he would not have allowed himself to kneel at the feet of another, holding himself still in an offering that he could not quite voice.
“You’re sprawling,” said Alexios.
Hilarion laughed. The sound was rusty. “Don’t gloat, sir. It doesn’t become you.”
He could not say how long they might have remained like that, but the distinct sound of laughter and voices finally came from outwith the tepidarium, and with a mournful sigh Hilarion slipped out of Alexios’ grasp.
That night, he could not say that it was the wolves that kept him awake.
Midwinter Night came upon them wrapped in silence, insulated from the outside world. Not even the furtive, hungry animals that preyed at the walls of Perfugium gave voice to their displeasure. No wolf howled at the pale swelling moon, and no fox darted into the cover of night with only a flash of yellow eyes. It snowed unceasingly.
But even hunger, and exhaustion, and a slow trickle of anxiety carving shallow groves in the already tenuous morale, could not have stopped the men from taking heart in whatever custom the year’s longest night required them to observe.
They gathered in the principia, without being ordered, to await the rising of the first sun in the new year: the Attacotti in their fashion, the Romans variously in theirs. Hilarion, who had no god to thank for the lengthening of days, took careful but surreptitious census of his soldiers, like the man who came to the border-town of his childhood before sending reports to fuel the machine of imperial bureaucracy. But instead of counting coin and grain and households, Hilarion tallied every injury and sore and limp, every inch of visible skin that looked discoloured, that Anthonius may see to them.
He measured the bleakness of the men’s gazes, the fear stubbornly held at bay, and tried to weed out those closest to breaking.
He took census of his commander, too, where he sat huddled with his officers by one of the braziers. Wrapped in furs he seemed as far removed from Roman rule as one could ever come in this part of the world. He had about him a sense of belonging amongst the men of the tribes. A rightness.
With dry resignation Hilarion thought, watching Alexios and the men and all of their gods and faith, that he would follow Alexios to his next command, and the one after that, if he lived long enough. If even they were ordered into the violence of Germania, where good generals were sent to die.
“Well, Hilarion, are you just going to stand there, getting snowed on?”
It would be mocking, but Alexios had it not in him to make it so. Yet the challenge was clear. He watched Hilarion from across the hall, and his eyes reflected the orange glow of embers. Lit from beneath, he seemed haunted, unearthly: the ghost of a thousand soldiers before him, a legacy of conquest weighing him down.
Hilarion had no wall or doorway to lean against, and so he sauntered over to stretch his legs by the brazier. Taxiles made space for him, and Hilarion made a point of dusting the snow from the shoulders of his wolfskin. It drifted to the ground, to melt atop dirt and ashes.
“It’s strange,” he said, to all the officers gathered but truly addressing only one, “to think there’ll no Bull Calves to call off. Midwinter almost seems wrong without the customary mayhem. A broken jaw or two, at least.”
Kunaris raised his fair head, curious. “The Bull Calves?”
Without prompting Alexios began to explain the tribal politics that ruled Castellum, and he did so with fond nostalgia pulling a smile across his face. As if, despite the ill luck that had dogged them and despite the ordeal with Cunorix, not all memories he had of the British frontier were soaked in pain.
Conversation flowed from there, as Felix talked of the internal politics of his first station, in Palaestina, where he had been born; and Taxiles, hailing from Anatolia, picked up the thread that Felix left loose.
It was still a short while to the twelfth hour when Hilarion thought it time to go, to give the men privacy with their faiths.
“I’m for bed. Give my thanks to your gods for the new year, will you?”
“Have you no gods, sir?” asked Crito.
Hilarion shrugged, and stretched his arms over his head. “If any ever get offended by it, I’m sure they’ll let me know.”
As he moved to stand, so did Alexios. “I’ll come with,” he said, and there was little that Hilarion could do, even if he genuinely did not wish for company. But as it was, he only made a sweeping gesture with one hand, that made Alexios snort quietly and the other officers laugh, and they walked out into the open court of the principia together, to see that it still snowed.
There was no wind, so it fell with an odd gentleness of movement: thick, light flakes that came to rest on their shoulders and melt on their skin. The sky was clouded over, and not a star, nor even much of the moon, was visible from beyond their cover. Alexios stopped midway to the officers’ quarters, and it took a moment for Hilarion to realise that the crunch of snow beneath his feet was not echoed. He turned to watch Alexios hold out one gloved hand as though to catch a shaft of sparse moonlight, catching white powder instead.
“Winter was never like this in Britain. And Abusina —” He stopped, and looked at Hilarion with a sad kind of amusement. “Well, Abusina was far better supplied, and the fort wasn’t nearly as remote. We’d always have a surplus century of units just coming through.”
With an inward start it came to Hilarion that he had never heard Alexios speak of his first command. But of course, he didn’t have to. At Castellum, they had all known his failure, and his shame. No one came to the Frontier Wolves as a reward.
Alexios did not wait for a reply. They arrived at the officers’ quarters in comfortable silence. Diligent optiones made sure that it would be warmer inside than out, though near no light penetrated the walls and shuttered windows that looked, from outside, so much like the empty eyes of skulls.
“I’ll send for aid in two days’ time. There’s no use waiting until starvation sets in,” said Alexios, the first words spoken between them in what seemed a longer time than it must have been in truth, when Hilarion pushed aside the door curtain and made to light the room’s single oil-lamp. Then, when Hilarion simply nodded: “It’s in my mind that you should go.”
That caught Hilarion’s attention. Not so much the words as the challenge in Alexios’ tone, as if he were presenting a dare to be taken up at Hilarion’s leisure.
He said nothing, choosing instead to stare at Alexios and put the whole of his incredulity into his gaze. It spoke, he felt, volumes.
Alexios nodded. “But then I would put you in a position where you’d have to disobey orders, wouldn’t I?”
“That’s right.” Hilarion would rather take the caning, if Alexios wished it, and stay at Perfugium.
He heard a noise like a distant roll of thunder, but it was not a storm: the sound came from nearby, from the principia, and it reverberated through the floor until Hilarion could feel it within himself like an echo of his own heartbeat. Drums, so much like those played by the Votadini on nights much the same as this, but this music — once music emerged — was sadder, somehow, with an ache buried deep into its rhythm.
Alexios tilted his head to one side, as though to hear better. “It doesn’t sound like the Bull Calves at all,” he said, with a touch of regret.
“It sounds like they miss home.” Hilarion shrugged, and draped himself over a window sill at an opposite angle from where Alexios stood.
Without thinking, Hilarion shook his head. “What’s to miss? All I need, I have with me.”
The drumming quickened, and Alexios began to unfasten his gloves. They came off slowly, a finger at a time; and they were lined with fur on the inside, a luxury that would have seemed spurious had Hilarion not known that warmth, in winter, was the only thing keeping Alexios’ shield arm from seizing. As it was, Alexios bared his hands, the gesture as studious as it was private. Any closer Hilarion would see the tiny, shallow swordsman’s scars that dotted Alexios’ skin up to the wrists, but he knew they were there, and it was enough.
Alexios caught him watching, and this time, when he smiled, it was not sad. “You know,” he said, and started to loosen the tie that held his wolfskin cloak tight at his collar bone, “you’re not like anything I expected.”
“It’s been said.”
“They never told me —” Again in that mild undertone as if he were speaking to himself and Hilarion’s presence was incidental. Alexios shook his head, and tossed his gloves onto Hilarion’s single creaky cot. “There’s really no one like you,” he said, but now he sounded present, and the words were directed without ambiguity: Alexios’ stride, as he crossed the room, was purposeful.
The drums rose, out in the principia, swelling to overtake other night-time sounds that sifted through walls and doorways. Hilarion paid them little heed, for Alexios was on him; he had only a moment to note that Alexios really did come on the barely generous side of short, his eyes level with Hilarion’s throat, and then he could note nothing but the feel of Alexios’ hands twisting in the rough fur of his wolfskin and pulling him down until the difference in their heights mattered none at all.
If Hilarion’s mouth was not otherwise occupied, he would have said: you smell like smoke, sir, it’s really rather unappealing, because Alexios did and it was. His hands were warm, from his gloves, where they brushed the skin of Hilarion’s neck. Hilarion took measure of phenomena adjacent to what lay at the centre, Alexios kissing him, but once he thought the words with conscious effort, he could think nothing else.
Alexios kept one hand wrapped firmly in his wolfskin, but took the other away. The warmth of his palm was more pronounced where he lay it against the side of Hilarion’s neck, at the seam of his jaw, so that his thumb brushed Hilarion’s cheek, that Hilarion thought would never feel warm again.
And then it was over, and Hilarion stood blinking at the empty air before him and wondered if frostbite had set into his mouth for it to itch so. Or perhaps it was the feeling of sensation returning to a cold body, and he could breathe once more.
“You’re not wrong,” he said quickly, when Alexios opened his mouth to speak, with a look about him that was almost boyish in its sudden, awkward uncertainty.
“Well. I assumed I wouldn’t be. In this.”
“You assumed right.”
It became very apparent to Hilarion that he had not used proper terms of rank or respect in quite some time, and two thoughts followed: that, in private, he would be content not to use terms of rank or respect unless Alexios demanded it, and that he would be equally content to use Alexios’ name instead. The transgression was too much to entertain, for the moment, but Hilarion let the thoughts take root.
He stepped into the space that Alexios had left between them, and did not ask for permission before taking to the ties of Alexios’ wolfskin, picking up where Alexios had stopped fidgeting with them.
“I’ll have to go back out soon. Our Mithreans asked me to lead the rituals.”
“It’s the longest night of the year. Plenty of time for you to make up for one absence,” said Hilarion, with an air of insolent satisfaction that made Alexios smile, intimate and knowing.
For what seemed like the first time since setting foot within Belgica, Hilarion felt completely at ease inside his bones and skin and uniform. At ease, and where he belonged; he might have missed the milder winters of the British frontier, the familiar landscapes, but he had no home to miss.
All he needed, he had with him.
Sometime in the night it had stopped snowing, but the wolves remained silent all throughout.
Two days later, Hilarion watched a decuria of men ride south, and studiously thought of nothing at all. Not the dwindling half-rations, nor a few more fingers that Anthonius had to saw off before infection set in. A steady grind and crush of packed snow announced that he was not alone, and he stepped aside to make room within the cramped space of the praetorian gate.
“I hope they’ll bring back some better wine than what we’re left with.” Just that, dryly amused without crossing the line into indecorous, which Alexios never was. He asked for no reassurance or comfort, and so Hilarion offered none.
“It looks like Titus and Idarnoin might come to blows again,” Alexios said. His tone was that given to an afterthought, but when Hilarion turned it was to see him smiling very slightly with one half of his mouth. “I thought you should like to place your bets before the bloodshed starts.”
“I wouldn’t miss it, sir,” said Hilarion, and turned his back to the impenetrable mass of snow and wooded darkness that spread before him on all sides, and followed Alexios into the fort.