“Your move, sir,” said Hilarion, leaning back until he looked like he would overbalance out of his chair. They were in Alexios’ quarters as they often were in the evenings when they had no duties, playing draughts in a space he’d cleared on his little writing-table and drinking the sour wine that the officers at the great forts had not wanted.
Alexios had been distracted again, watching him. If he were perfectly honest, it was far more interesting to watch Hilarion than think about the game. There were only so many ways a game of draughts could play out, but to watch Hilarion lean indolently back, eyes half-lidded as though it were fully too much effort to keep them open, and then spring forward to make some lightning-quick move all at once, with a faint, self-satisfied smirk—well, Alexios was not bored of that yet. He had not won very many of their games, and not entirely because he was a little light-headed with wine and Hilarion was actually a good player.
He liked to think that he was beginning to understand Hilarion after all these months in Belgica. The other officers were all strangers, and Alexios had naturally felt comfortable relying upon Hilarion—what man would not, after what they had been through at Castellum and after?—as they trained the Attacotti into a proper numerus. The Franks, thanks be to the Lord of Legions, had been quiet enough. He did not yet trust the Attacotti to fight together as a unit and not simply collapse into every man for himself if pressed.
For a moment, in the lamplight, Hilarion’s face reminded him of another laughing face, one more reckless and wild. But Hilarion, under his lazy ways and his jokes, was a man with a shield-shoulder to be relied on. Nothing like Connla—but Alexios shied away from that thought on this night, taking up his wine-cup as he made his move. He took a sip, grimacing at the taste. There was no honey to be had in the Arduenna this autumn for love or money, and the wine badly needed it.
“Surely it cannot still bother you that much to lose,” came the drawl from the other side of the table, and Alexios looked down at the board to see with faint surprise that he had indeed lost. Again.
“Quite so. I ought to be used to it by now.” Alexios smiled ruefully and began setting up the pieces again. “Will you give me another chance?”
“Always, sir, when you ask so pleasantly,” Hilarion smiled at him across the table and began to set up the game-board again.
This time, Alexios did his best to pay attention and was doing none so ill for himself. His wine-cup was down to the cloudy lees when, thinking in a warm, wine-scented haze about second chances and how he had come to know Hilarion, it slipped out: “Hilarion, how came you to the Frontier Wolves? You’re no thief—”
The words died in his throat at the look on Hilarion’s face, all laughter gone and the corners of his mouth tight. Alexios had thought that their friendship could bear such a question now, but he knew at once that he had been wrong. In his mind he heard the words of Ducenarius Julius Gavros, long ago: I do not know how Hilarion came to the Wolves, but if I did I would not say. That is not a thing you ask a man, in the Wolves.
Then Hilarion smiled, leaning forward on the table, all carefully relaxed indolence. “Oh,” he said, “one too many orders disobeyed, one too many litters of kittens in the commander’s bed, you know how it is.”
It was a lie, and they both knew it, but Hilarion had given Alexios a reprieve. “Of course.” Alexios swallowed hard and wished for more wine, or anything to wet his mouth.
They played on, the silence between them now strained rather than comfortable, Alexios wishing in misery that he had never said anything. It was not long before Hilarion stretched with the elaborately casual air of a cat and drawled, “I find I have lost my taste for the game tonight.”
“Another night,” said Alexios, wishing he could apologize but knowing that would only make matters worse.
“If you wish it, sir.” Hilarion’s voice was level, but he did not meet Alexios' eyes or clap him on the shoulder as he left, and Alexios felt a cold distance open between them.
“It is in my mind to go hunting,” Alexios said to Hilarion one day. The crispness of autumn was in the air and the belling of deer carried on the wind from within the forest. Beech and elm leaves had just begun to flame bright around the edges, scarlet and orange and yellow against the deep green of summer and the dark stands of pine, and high in the sky every day long skeins of geese and ducks winged southwards for warmer wintering grounds.
Hilarion pulled his cloak—green as his old wolf-cloak, but only good thick wool, felted to keep off the damp—closer around his narrow shoulders. “The emperor did tell you there was magnificent hunting in Belgica, sir,” he said. He was not smiling, and Alexios found himself sharply missing the ease that had been growing between them. Since that night, he had thought many times of apologizing, but what good would that do? He knew how he himself would have reacted to questions about Abusina, before; it was not his right to ask about whatever shame or failure had driven Hilarion to the frontier. An apology would not undo the question he should never have asked.
“Will you—do you wish to come with me?”
“I would,” said Hilarion, leaning on the wall and peering down at the edge of the forest as if there was something very fascinating down there, although Alexios could see nothing, “but I do not think we ought to both take leave at the same time, should we? Ducenarius Avitus is near as green as you were when you came to Castellum.”
And I did well enough, Alexios thought but stopped himself from saying. The Attacotti were a more difficult command than the Wolves had ever been, and Hilarion was right that Avitus was less than experienced.
“. . . and besides,” continued Hilarion, “I did promise Ivacattus that I would go hunting with him, and I would not feel right about taking more leave than is due to me.”
He said it in a friendly enough tone, without any reproach that Alexios could hear, but Hilarion had never turned down leave before, and Alexios felt a hot stab of jealousy, that Hilarion had already promised to go hunting with another—had not even thought of him! Ivacattus was one of the senior optiones of Hilarion’s double-century, an Attacotti who had learned some writing from a Christian monk in Hibernia and who was well-liked and respected by the men. Alexios had never thought anything but well of him, but in that moment he almost hated poor Ivacattus for having Hilarion’s trust and friendship when he did not.
Of course, Ivacattus had done nothing to lose that trust and friendship.
“I see,” said Alexios, keeping his voice even. “Perhaps later this winter we might hunt boar.”
“We might,” said Hilarion. “Ah, it is cold out here!”
The wind had indeed picked up, and Alexios found himself shivering. Before, they might have shared the warmth of their cloaks as they returned inside, arms about each other’s shoulders, laughing into the wind.
But Hilarion only gave him a salute—a perfectly acceptable salute, neither the lazy one he had previously graced Alexios with nor the perfectly crisp salute he gave visiting officers that he did not like much—and murmured something about speaking to the watch commander, leaving Alexios to watch his tall cloaked form retreat, painted with the warm light of the setting sun.
The use-worn bone dice clattered across the mess table from Hilarion’s dice-cup. “Senio!” Hilarion exclaimed, scooping up the pebbles Alexios had put into the pot. It was not a very good roll, but better than Alexios' own Vultures. As at Castellum, they kept the habit of gambling for sport rather than coin. It was not the habit of the Attacotti, and behind him Alexios could hear a murmur and the chink of coins exchanging hands.
It was not that Hilarion was unpleasant to him, Alexios thought, carefully looking into his dice-cup instead of at his gaming partner. Indeed, he was more pleasant than he had been when Alexios first came to Castellum. And yet Hilarion’s behavior put him in mind of those days when Hilarion had still been taking measure of his new commander. Alexios felt as though Hilarion was watching him, and yet he felt no anger from him, only wariness.
“Five nummi on the praepositus,” said one of the Attacotti.
“Six on Ducenarius Hilarion,” said Ivacattus, leaning over Hilarion’s shoulder. He was unfairly tall, Alexios thought, broad-shouldered and rather good-looking, with his pale hair and strong features. And he laughed often: it was no wonder Hilarion liked him.
Alexios rolled the dice, trying not to mind the men crowded about him, talking and laughing and sometimes jostling against the players. It was not nearly as nice playing in the mess as it had been playing in his quarters, or Hilarion’s, but they did not do that anymore. Perhaps Hilarion gamed with Ivacattus now.
“Venus!” said Hilarion, looking at Alexios' dice, all different. “Well, I need not bother rolling, eh? I’m for bed before that early patrol tomorrow.” He glanced over at Alexios, and his smile faded a little. “Good night, sir.” Then he uncoiled himself from his seat and lounged to his feet with that smoothly elegant economy of motion that still made Alexios blink a bit in admiration. “Sleep well, my lads,” he told the soldiers with a wave of his hand. “I expect to see those of you on patrol bright and early before sun-up, full kit.”
Alexios slipped out of the mess as the Attacotti made the expected noises of dismay over a duty they knew perfectly well was theirs, wishing he had Hilarion to walk with him.
The dark, densely wooded peaks of the Arduenna Silva had more kinship with Abusina than with the fragrant heather hills of Castellum: they were full of hidden valleys and wooded places and trackless swamps, little like the moorland Alexios had grown to love. And yet the first autumn in the Arduenna came mist-wreathed and drizzly as any northern autumn, and as the days grew shorter and darker and the floor-stones of the fort colder, Alexios found himself sinking into melancholy. He woke, he held inspections, he gave the officers their orders of the day, he wrote letters to the command up at Augusta Treverorum complaining about the usual supply problems. He fell into his bed each day exhausted, only to sleep uneasy dreams filled with flickering torchlight and a great plain that seemed to stretch before him into infinity. He knew, with the irrational certainty of the dreamer, that he must cross it, and woke with his heart pounding and a sick feeling in his belly.
He realized one day, quite abruptly, that it was very near the time of year when the Praepositus Glaucus Montanus had arrived at Castellum, setting in motion the events which led to Connla bound to that post in the Dancing Ground and Alexios with a dagger in his hand, and from there to the last time he saw Cunorix, war-paint on his face and torch-light on his blade. He could think of that now without flinching, without pretending that Cunorix had never become other than his heart-companion, but the thought was a bitter ache, like winter in the bones.
O Cunorix, my brother, he thought, pouring himself another cup of wine, not bothering to water it despite the sourness. I did it for you, so your brother would not suffer, knowing it would lie ever between us. It was worse, perhaps, because he had never liked Connla overmuch, with his wild, laughing approach to life, careless of who he left hurt in his wake.
He woke some time later to a hand on his shoulder, his mouth feeling as though it were stuffed with wool and his head already beginning to ache. His neck hurt from sleeping bent over on his writing-table, and the oil lamp he had been working by had nearly burnt out, the flame a last dull glow.
“Sir,” said Hilarion with that surprising gentleness in his voice that Alexios had only heard once before, during his recovery at Onnum. “You’ll be more comfortable in bed.”
So he made himself stand, with Hilarion’s help, his head swimming, and Hilarion bent a little to support him with one arm. “Come along, sir.” The rest was a haze, as Hilarion unclasped his cloak and made it vanish somewhere, a sudden relief of weight on Alexios' shoulders. Hilarion knelt to untie his sandal-laces—like a slave! thought Alexios with vague horror, Alexios who had grown up on a farm worked by free men and who had always untied his own sandals since he was old enough to do so.
Then he was blessedly horizontal at last. He closed his eyes, hoping he wouldn’t be sick. “Don’t fall asleep yet,” Hilarion said, and a moment later Alexios felt the rim of a cup pressed to his lips and Hilarion’s warm hand cupping the back of his neck, tilting his head up so he could drink without choking. “Water. You’ll be glad for it in the morning,” he said, and even though Alexios wanted nothing more than to roll over and sleep, he made himself finish it all, ever-conscious of Hilarion’s fingers against his skin.
“Are you happy now, sir?” he said, but it came out weak, not much of a joke.
Hilarion smiled serenely. “Perfectly.” Then he reached out, his fingertips brushing against Alexios' cheek, and there was a queer expression in his eyes that made Alexios' heart beat a little faster and a faint shiver like the prickle of air during a thunderstorm run down his spine. “You fell asleep on your stylus,” Hilarion finally said, with a wry quirk of his lips.
“I cannot recommend it.”
“I don’t imagine anyone would. Goodnight, sir.” Hilarion leaned over and blew out the lamp, and then Alexios thought, in his wine-haze, that he felt Hilarion’s mouth on his for the barest instant, warming him to the core. Then Hilarion was gone, the heavy door-curtain swinging back behind him.
In the ordinary way of things Alexios arose at cock-crow, but the next day he had a sinking feeling as he awoke that he had terribly overslept. He had just managed to swing his legs over the side of the bed and sit up, feeling exhausted and muzzy-headed but considerably less wretched than he deserved, when Hilarion ducked through the door-curtain, a steaming bowl in one hand and a piece of bread in the other. “Oh good, you’re awake,” he said cheerfully, coming to sit on the edge of Alexios' bed. It was curiously like his recovery in Onnum, except of course this time he did not have to be fed like a babe, and he had only his own foolishness to blame for his state.
“The morning inspection—” Alexios began.
“Taken care of,” said Hilarion. “The fort is quite capable of running without you for a day, sir.”
Alexios leaned back again and accepted the food Hilarion pressed on him. The smell did not make him feel ill, at least, and he blew on the broth and took a cautious sip. “It does not seem right to lie about idle when I am responsible for my own sore head.”
“Sir,” said Hilarion, reaching out and settling his hand on Alexios' shoulder. His pale eyes were unaccountably serious as he met Alexios' own, without even a flicker of laughter. “Alexios. I know what time of year it is, and I do not think you ought to worry yourself about duty at present—although perhaps in a bit you will feel better to be up and working.”
For a moment, as they looked at each other, Alexios felt that aching distance between them that had been present since his foolish question close. In the sudden shared warmth, he set the food aside and reached out to catch Hilarion’s wrist. The skin there was soft and smooth, and Hilarion froze like a startled creature but did not draw away. “I thought last night—”
Hilarion’s stillness might have looked ordinary to someone else, even relaxed, but to Alexios who knew him it was a coiled, wary kind of stillness. But it was again too late to unsay things: better to forge ahead. “I thought you kissed me.”
Hilarion was silent for a long moment, so long that Alexios began to fear he had miscalculated terribly, although he had been careful in his words, enough that he might only lose a friendship already strained to breaking and not a great deal more. Finally Hilarion said, his voice very cool and level, “And if I had?”
He did not look like a man angered or disgusted—although still he had that taut-bowstring tension, and Alexios found he did not like Hilarion’s face nearly so much without the laughter. In the flood of relief and hope Alexios took a deep breath and said, “Then I should like you to do so again.”
“Ah.” Hilarion’s tension eased and he was again himself, not this serious, wary stranger. He turned his arm in Alexios' fingers, until he in turn was clasping Alexios' own wrist, his fingers long and pale against olive skin. “You asked before why I was sent to the Wolves,” he said. “I had a friend, a dear friend, whom I trusted. And because he was my friend, so I came to be a Frontier Wolf and not discharged entirely, or worse.”
Alexios could not think of anything to say to that, so he only squeezed Hilarion’s wrist, and Hilarion squeezed back. “I tell you this so that you know you may trust me,” Hilarion said, and then he smiled, a wicked, warm smile that made heat curl low in Alexios' belly. But even with that smile and the play of his fingers over the sensitive skin of Alexios' inner wrist, Alexios knew the seriousness of Hilarion’s words, and he believed them.
The rest of the morning was very nice indeed, and if the praepositus seemed a little abstracted when he emerged from his quarters, prone to staring at nothing and smiling, no one paid it any mind.
It was not as if this new thing between him and Hilarion chased away Alexios' melancholy. The aching place in him that twinged whenever he caught a moment’s sidelong glimpse of one of the handful of russet-haired Attacotti soldiers and thought he recognized him as another man, long gone, ached no less.
But he had Hilarion to warm his bed as often as they could manage without attracting notice, and he once again felt party to Hilarion’s jokes, so the grayness did not seem nearly so bleak.
And when spring came to the Arduenna, the bright new leaves of oak and beech and elm lit to glowing by the filtered sunlight and the woodland floor carpeted with purple hyacinth, Alexios stood with Hilarion on the rampart as they had at Onnum, hands on each others’ shoulders.
Below them Ducenarius Avitus was putting his double-century through drills, and Alexios could just hear some of the shouted orders drifting up to them on the breeze, still in the Attacotti language, as many of the soldiers had only a little Latin. He let his fingers brush against the bare, freckled skin of Hilarion’s neck, just a little. Hilarion shivered, glancing sidelong at Alexios from under his pale lashes, and a sly smile touched his lips. “Distracted, sir?”
“Often,” said Alexios, and smiled, wishing very much that he could kiss Hilarion at that moment. But they were in full view of everyone below, and so he contented himself with clasping Hilarion’s shoulder again.
“I am rather fond of you as well,” said Hilarion, with enough warmth in his pale eyes to make Alexios nearly blush.
It was spring in the Arduenna, the Attacotti were shaping into a fine numerus, and he had the finest friend and heart-companion a man could wish for. Hilarion’s shoulder against his was warm and steady, and leaning there against the parapet in the warm sun with him, Alexios finally felt something of the tight ache he had borne since Castellum ease a little.
“Somehow, I do not think this was in the Emperor Constans’ mind when he gave me the choice of coming to Belgica.”
Hilarion laughed. “No, I don’t expect so. But it is a fine journey we are on, is it not?”
“I wish us joy of it,” said Alexios.