Down below in the snow Alexios could see from where he leaned against the fort wall the russet spark of a fox’s fur flash against the white as it pounced in a graceful leap upon some small animal hidden under the thick, cold blanket. It was the coldest winter he could remember, save that one in the South Downs when he was a boy that had taken his British grandmother. Snow draped the high forests and the ramparts of the little fort of Arduonum high upon the hill overlooking the valley, muffling all sound so that it seemed everything slept but the fox below and Alexios himself. The woods here in Belgica felt darker and older than those of Britain, as if anything might come out of them, especially in winter, and Alexios shivered with more than cold as he looked at the black fringe of trees against the snow at the forest’s edge.
He squinted out into the whiteness, scanning the edge of the trees and the snowed-over road up to the fort, but still there was no sign of the supply train from Augusta Treverorum, and the clouds gathering on the horizon spoke of another storm on the way. Behind him was a fort filled with four hundred Attacotti, as yet half-wild and kept idle since the snows began in earnest. They amused themselves as idle men in close quarters did, in gambling and drink and the fights brought on by short tempers. At least they kept the fort surgeon busy, mending cracked heads and patching up knife-wounds.
The Franks, for their part, slept in the warmth of their distant halls and bothies; and it was a queer thing indeed, to not have the boredom of life on the frontier tempered with wariness and fear, for a time. Down in the village the Cugerni farmers worried for their flocks, as the wolves grew lean and winter-hungry and lost their fear, venturing from their dens in the Arduenna Silva into the sheepfold, but that was more of an amusement for the men of the fort than a pressing concern. The occasional wolf-hunt broke the monotony for them, although neither Alexios nor his senior ducenarius Hilarion joined them.
Still, winter would end, and with spring would come the Franks, and there would be greater concerns then than idleness. For now, he had to determine how they would ration out food and fuel until the next supply train, if this one had indeed fallen to bandits and was not merely late. Of course they would not fire the hypocaust that heated the officers’ quarters, and they would have to put the cook-fires first before the bathhouse furnace. Alexios frowned as he pulled his thick winter cloak around himself more tightly and made his way back to his quarters. Food was less pressing; they had stored grain earlier in the year when the hunting was better.
Without the hypocaust fires, Alexios’s quarters were so cold his breath came in white clouds, and he coughed if he breathed too deeply, his chest burning. He had already taken to piling his bed with all the blankets he could find, as well as his spare cloak, and finally he had brought out his old wolfskin cloak and laid it atop the pile. The thick, densely soft feel of it, the faint lingering smell of woodsmoke that still clung like a memory always took him back to that terrible retreat from Castellum, and he slept uneasily, his dreams filled with fire. But it was too cold to do without it, so he endured.
So it was that he was going over supply lists again as the lamp-wick burned lower and lower, sending guttering shadows dancing on the walls of his little office. Every so often he paused to pace around the room, stamping and chafing at his arms, and to warm his hands at the brazier of burning applewood that still gave off the scent of summer. Soon the last of it would be gone and it would truly seem that winter held them forever.
The longer he stayed awake, the longer before he had to lie shivering in bed, waiting to fall into fitful sleep that hardly rested him at all.
The lamp-flame had burned low and sullen, so that Alexios had to squint at his tablet and counting-board; soon he would have to give in and crawl between the cold blankets to sleep, or else fetch more oil.
“Planning to swear off sleep, sir?” said Hilarion, poking his sandy-haired head past the door-curtain.
Alexios scrubbed at his eyes, suddenly feeling the gritty weight of too little sleep for too many days come down on him all at once. “I--no,” he said, coming to his feet and stretching cold-cramped limbs. “It is so cold, that is all, and easier to stay warm if I am moving.”
Hilarion nodded. “It makes the winters of Britain seem sweet as a maiden. Half the Attacotti are bedded down with the other half, and I still swear I can hear their teeth rattling at night.”
It was not a bad idea, Alexios thought, to share warmth; it had not occurred to him, but at any rate he had no one he could ask. “Well, I am to bed,” he said, “unless you had a report for me.”
“I only wished to be sure our praepositus had not yet turned into a pillar of ice,” said Hilarion, with a lazy salute, although he did not lean against the cold stone of the doorway, “but as I see you are yet flesh and blood, I am off to shiver myself to sleep as well.” And then he was off down the corridor without another word.
Alexios blew out the lamp and unpinned his cloak. He was tired, and if there was a way to swear off sleep he had yet to find it. As Alexios laid his cloak over the pile on his bed and stripped off his braccae, teeth chattering, he wondered for a moment what his Etrurian ancestor would have made of such weather. He’d probably have thought his descendant a fool for not seeking a nice post in Syria Palaestina or Egypt. He ducked his head under the heavy, cold pile of blankets and smelled woodsmoke again as he shivered violently. It would have been warmer with another under the covers, he supposed.
He had just begun to grow warm and was nearly asleep when the orange flicker of a lamp and steps on the tile woke him. In an instant he was sitting up, reaching for his sword, but the tall figure limned in lamplight was only Hilarion, his other arm filled with blankets, and Alexios relaxed, shivering again as the rush of tight-strung wakefulness left him.
“Go back to sleep, sir,” said Hilarion, and then the weight of more blankets was on Alexios, “and shove over so there’s room for me.”
Half-asleep again with exhaustion and growing warmth, Alexios rolled closer to the wall as Hilarion crawled under the blankets with him, letting in a draft of cold air.
It was very strange, sharing a bed with another; he was acutely aware of Hilarion’s long, lean body next to him, the warmth that came off him like sunlight, the evenness of his breath as he dropped into sleep. For Alexios’s own part, sleep did not come so easy. He was afraid of waking Hilarion with his movements, of crowding him, of--he was not entirely sure what he feared, only that his gut fluttered with unaccountable nervousness.
After a while Hilarion began to snore; he had caught one of the winter chills several days earlier, and though he was nearly well again his voice was still husky and his eyes a little red-rimmed. He did not snore very loudly, but the irritating irregularity of the sound began to grate upon Alexios, until he thought that this was even worse than being cold, for at least then he had managed to sleep a little.
He gritted his teeth together and tried to ignore it.
When he could not, he finally reached over and prodded Hilarion in the ribs. Hilarion stopped snoring, sighed, and rolled over, draping an arm around Alexios’s shoulders and throwing a leg over Alexios’s hip, twining their calves together. Alexios flushed with embarrassment in the darkness, but Hilarion seemed to be quite, quite asleep--perhaps he dreamed Alexios was one of the girls from the village he saw sometimes--and he was so very warm and Alexios so very tired that he could not bring himself to wriggle out of Hilarion’s embrace, and instead let sleep rise up and claim him.
Alexios woke in the cold gray light before dawn, although he was not cold but for the top of his head. Strange, he thought muzzily, tucking his head down lower into the warm nest of blankets, as it was far too early for spring.
His forehead pressed against someone’s shoulder and a rucked-up tunic sleeve that smelled of damp wool, and he blinked at it, suddenly awake. The shoulder was pale and freckled, and his eyes traveled up the shoulder to the neck, and thence to the equally freckled face of Hilarion, which still held some laughter even in sleep, caught around the eyes and mouth. Alexios vaguely remembered Hilarion coming into the room last night with blankets, and he was suddenly absurdly grateful that Hilarion had done what he could not ask, for he had slept better than any night since before the onset of winter.
Hilarion shifted against him, murmuring inaudibly, and his hip bumped against the growing hardness between Alexios’s legs. Alexios’s face went hot and he tried to move away; of course this happened sometimes in the morning, and he took care of it, half-asleep and with less thought than he gave to the first meal of the day, but it was different with Hilarion there. Before he could hide it, Hilarion shifted again and rolled over, his arm a heavy weight around Alexios’s waist.
“Would you like me to take care of that for you, sir?” he murmured sleepily into Alexios’s neck, and the warmth of his breath made Alexios shiver as if all his skin were suddenly more alive.
He was not a virgin, exactly. When he was very young and new to the Eagles he had gone to a lupanar once. It had been an awkward, unsatisfying affair, and after that he had found that he did not understand why anyone should wish to be so naked before another--and he did not only mean without clothing, but the nakedness of the soul as well--if they did not like them very much.
And lying there with the warm length of Hilarion’s body against his, and Hilarion’s mouth pressed soft and sleep-slack into his shoulder, he thought that he liked Hilarion very much, and he would not at all mind being naked before him.
“All right,” he breathed, and he turned so that they were face to face, and set his hand into the curve of Hilarion’s waist, where the skin was as soft and smooth as a girl’s over the lean flex of muscle. Hilarion’s eyes slitted open, just a little, and for a moment there was no hint of mockery in his expression. “But don’t call me ‘sir,’” said Alexios.
Hilarion smiled lazily, and as his hand worked down between them to push Alexios’s tunic up he said, “But how else would you know it was me, sir?”
“I am quite sure I should know you anyway.” Alexios tried to sound severe, but the laughter threatening to spill from his chest quite spoiled the effect. “You snore.”
“I do not,” said Hilarion, but he was still smiling as he leaned forward. At least one good thing had come of this winter, Alexios thought as their mouths came together, and he did not feel cold at all anymore.