On a bright afternoon early in the autumn, the Commander of Castra Cugerna strode out of his quarters and across the parade ground, heading for the Praetorian gate. The men on duty - two on the ground, one each in the two squat towers guarding the main entrance to the small fortress - saluted as he went by. When he stopped at the Confluentes road to fling back his cloak - really, it was quite warm today - the guards clearly assumed that he was out of earshot.
"He's off to that Lupa again, so he is." Sedanius' voice was faint with the distance, but clear enough.
"Wonder what he sees in her?" mused Lugudix. "She's like a briar, that one - all branch and thorn."
Alexios knew that on the one level, he could be offended that his men felt they could comment on which woman he visited down in the canabae, let alone that they offered such frank opinions. In fact, he was mostly pleased: the Attacotti soldiers were speaking Latin, as he had ordered them to do whenever they were on duty. That they were doing so even among themselves, when they thought he wasn't listening, was a very good thing: it spoke well for their respect for him and for the training that was turning them into Roman legionaries.
The canabae - the settlement that had sprung up around the fortress - was becoming a proper town. As he walked along the Rhenus, with the steep drop to the river below him and the ramparts of its gorge above, he could see more than a dozen shops - mostly wine shops, to be sure, but also an apothecary, a shop that sold oil and spices, a baker who specialized in confectionary, a cobbler who was also a good hand at repairing military belts and other leather goods, and off the road on the side nearest the fort, a smithy. The women's houses were mostly on the far side of town, but the home and shop of the woman he sought was right there, next to the confectioner.
Serra was in truth a healer, although the legionaries dismissed the idea because most of her patients were soldiers' women: surely she could not be more than a midwife and more than likely a whore herself. Thus it was that the men of the First Attacotti Frontier Scouts persisted in calling her Lupa, thinking it a fine joke because they were the Frontier Wolves, she was their Commander's favorite, and they had learned more than enough Latin to know that lupa - she-wolf - also meant a prostitute.
Anthonius said otherwise, however. When the old wound in Alexios' arm had given him pain and sleeplessness the previous winter, the doctor had asked about for someone who might be skilled at massage, and Serra's was the name by which all had sworn. Since that time, Alexios had grown into the habit of visiting her shop once a week, even after his arm stopped paining him.
The tiny garden in front of her door was lush with herbs: indeed, the chives and rosemary were yet in flower. Alexios called her name, and the brightly striped curtain over the doorway was pulled aside by a lean and heavily freckled hand. "Ah, the Commander," said Serra. Her voice was low and warm, and she was nearly as tall as he was "Come, then, and be welcome."
The front room of the place was dark once the curtain had fallen shut behind him, but as they entered the cell she used as her infirmary, bright light from the two unshuttered windows picked out her long, bony face and brought out a few sparks of near-red in her wheat-colored hair, braided and wrapped tightly about her head. A fence of woven wattle about the back of the little house made the space private despite the windows. As she placed a fresh sheet of fine linen over the high cot, Alexios felt the myriad little cares and concerns of his leadership dropping one by one from his shoulders. Castra Cugerna, small for a Roman fortress, had become very much a home, but Serra's infirmary was his refuge.
Serra turned to pour some oil into a dish over a little brazier, and Alexios stripped unselfconsciously and stacked his gear and clothes neatly on the bench by the door. At first he had been uneasy doing so, but the whole routine was now comforting. It was almost like preparing for a ritual: one could not face the gods of healing when wrapped about with the armor, weapons, and clothing of the warrior. He lay down on the cot, his face turned toward the window. There were two saplings in the little garth enclosed by the wattle fence, a hazel and an apple tree, and their leaves were showing the first signs of autumn color. The mattress beneath him was stuffed with fresh dry grass and herbs, and the scent was sleepy and soothing. Serra's palms, slick with warmed oil, touched his bare shoulders, and he closed his eyes.
For some time, the only sounds were the breeze in the trees outside, the fluting notes of the birds that perched in them, the soft noises that Serra's hands made on his flesh, and the breathing of the two of them: his slow and close to sleeping, hers quick and strong with the effort of kneading his muscles. As her fingers worked about the long scar on his arm, the last remnants of stiffness were worn away as water wears stone: little by little but with a force not to be denied. It was not until she had him roll over onto his back that any word was spoken.
"The Commander carries troubles in his back this day," she murmured, working gently at the places where his neck met his shoulders. "What is is that has left you in such knots?"
"A certain young recruit. He is so very much in love with a woman of this canabae that his mind is not on his duties, and he does not always mark the hour at which he should return from his time in town."
"Surely that is the way of a young man?"
"He should have his mind on his work. None of the Attacotti were made legionaries by force, after all."
"So. Not force. But they could become slaves, or they could become warriors of Rome. Two hard ways to go."
Her Latin was good enough, but it was not the Latin of someone who had learned it at her mother's knee. "I will not argue with you."
She was silent as her hands drifted downward, kneading the muscles of each arm, finishing the work she had started around the injury, and then continuing to the planes of his chest. At last, she said "Not all men have blood as cool as that of as the Commander. This would be Trexa's man?"
"I cannot tell you that. It is the business of Castra Cugerna. And I don't know that my blood is as cool as all that, especially right now." He turned his head to face her, and opened his eyes to catch her knowing smile. Her pale eyes were flecked like a blackbird's egg, blue and grey and brown.
"I have not yet worked your legs. I will not send you back to the camp without every part of you made new. You must wait."
"You tell the Commander to wait?"
"In this place, I command, not you. Just so at the den of wolves in the pack, the first of the she-wolves tells the chief of them all to hold, or to bite."
He closed his eyes again, grinning. "As you command, O queen among healers."
She worked slowly to the ends of his fingers, and then began anew with his feet. As she worked up his legs, he could feel his lust rising. It was not lust for Serra herself but simply the basic urge of a male being, akin to hunger or thirst. She kneaded the strong muscles of his thighs from knee to groin, and when she stopped to apply some more warm oil to her hands, he had to grit his teeth at the delay. At last she returned and laid her hands where it counted at this moment. She was as skilled at this as she was at meeting the needs of the rest of his body, and it was quite soon that he shuddered and moaned as he reached his climax.
Afterward, having washed her hands, she wiped him off carefully with clean cloths wrung out in hot water scented with herbs, then rubbed him down with vigor. His skin glowed from her treatment, and he felt, as she had said, made new.
"So," she said, as though they had been in conversation this whole time, "You have never felt the love that Trexa's Covainus feels for her?"
"You have not yet met the soul that calls to yours. "
"Perhaps I never will."
"That would be an ill thing. You must have patience, and wait."
Alexios chuckled. "Yes, wise one - I will wait." He arose from the cot and went to dress, and re-arm himself.
"Yes, wait. To one who waits, all things come."
"Did I not say I would?" He laid silver coins on the table with its oil flasks and and jars of salve. She barely glanced at them, her freckled face serious. "Be well, Commander."
"Be well, Serra."
As he walked back to the fort, he turned her words over in his thoughts. It was not that he did not know what she meant, and he could be honest with himself: when Serra laid her strong hands on his flesh, the hands he felt were stronger yet, and they had across their palms the calluses of a man who used a sword and a spear. Such passions could be poison to a military command, regardless of what the Spartans may have practiced in their glory days. Alexios would indeed wait because, like his Attacotti soldiers, he had no real choice.
The shortness of the days could no longer be ignored, and the air was raw and chill as the evening came on. The winter geese had started their yearly flight down the Rhenus valley, and many of the songbirds had fled for warmer lands. The corn harvest was over, and the barley beer was brewing. The last of the apples had been picked, and Roman and Gaul alike had started to hunt the forests in earnest for deer and boar.
The Attacotti were drilling well: not one of them would be mistaken for a raw recruit any longer. Alexios watched them advancing, wheeling, turning, and retreating on the parade ground under the orders of Potitus, the ducenarius they had taken on from the Onnum garrison. Usually Hilarion would be involved as well, and it occurred to Alexios that he had not seen his senior ducenarius since the midday meal.
Hilarion's optio was overseeing the return of the horses to their stables when Alexios found him. "Tutinos, have you seen Ducenarius Hilarion?"
Tutinos rubbed his flattened and crooked nose, perplexed. "Yes, sir - he's still out there with Glaucus. He said he'd be in presently."
That was most unlike Hilarion. He was a competent horseman, like all of them, but never one to spend much time doting on his mount. He'd called Glaucus a fat four-legged rug - and worse - more times than Alexios could count. "What's he about, out there?"
"I think he got a letter at dinner, sir - news from home, maybe?"
That did not bode well. Alexios left Tutinos to his duties and went out by the Decumana Gate. A steep path - made a little easier by having it cast back and forth across the face of the steep side of the river valley - rose to the meadows and forests above. The near-wild land was loud with birdsong in anticipation of the evening. Glaucus was grazing peacefully half a dozen paces from the edge of the gorge, and Hilarion was leaning against him, apparently gazing out over the Rhenus to the frontier on the far side.
His Ducenarius turned his sandy head slowly. "Ah, it's you," he said, and that was all.
"Tutinos said you had received news?"
Hilarion patted Glaucus a few times on his thick neck. The horse looked up, mild surprise in his gaze. "Ah," said Hilarion again, at last. "As to that: I no longer need to worry about what my mother might be up to."
His face had its usual casual expression, save that there was something hard about the line of his mouth, and there were shadows under his eyes, The only thing Alexios had ever heard Hilarion say about his family had been one casually tossed-off remark about his father - or rather, his lack of one. "She has .. remarried?"
"She has died," said Hilarion. "Therefore, I suppose it hardly matters anymore what I thought of her, or her of me."
Alexios thought of his own mother the last time he had seen her, before he had left for Castellum. Although he had found her weeping to be embarrassing at the time, the memory of it made a little warm place in his heart just the same. "Still ... it is a hard thing, to lose one's mother."
"So most would tell me, I am sure. But they would not have requested a posting as far away from their mothers as possible."
"The Legions don't always grant such requests,"
"A fresh record of disciplinary action may have helped. They assumed I wanted to leave my reputation behind me."
"Hilarion, I can't imagine what you would have ... I have heard nothing of this."
"Oh, they expunged the record when I accepted the posting to the Frontier Wolves."
"Why are you telling me this? I don't need to know it, if the record was erased. You are my right hand."
Hilarion turned and started to stroke Glaucus' close-cropped mane, idly parting the mingled grey and white hairs. The horse tossed his head, annoyed, and Hilarion sighed and left off. "Perhaps because you ought to know that your right hand is not as strong as you thought. 'Mere youthful indiscretions,' said my commander at the time, but my mother did not take it in good part. I have no idea how she heard the details, but she always had a keen nose for misery."
Alexios almost opened his mouth to ask what in the name of Typhon Hilarion was trying to tell him, but he found himself unable to do it. When a man joined the Frontier Wolves, they became his tribe and his family. Surely Hilarion could be allowed to leave the rest of his past behind as well. "I can only judge you by what I have known of you myself, and there I have no complaint," he said, at last. "I am sorry for your loss, nonetheless. It must come bitter, not to be able to even attend the funeral. But the men will be celebrating Samhain two days hence. Perhaps ... ."
"Oh, gods above, barbarian rites!" said Hilarion after a moment, in a mocking falsetto. "That won't do, my dear." But he had raised his head and was looking Alexios in the face, at last.
"Well, whatever you decide, of course. But now it is time to come in. Look, the sun has almost gone."
There was a painful wheeze that Alexios hardly recognized as a laugh. "Now you sound as I imagine my old nurse would have sounded - if I'd ever had one. I suppose I should beg to stay and play a moment more, but I won't. Yes, Nonna - I'm just coming."
Alexios rolled his eyes and took firm hold of Glaucus' halter. Silently, carefully, they descended the steep path to the fort. Smoke was rising from the cookhouse, and supper was waiting.
Autumn was drawing to a close in a flourish of bitter weather. A week of slightly warmer airs had brought a mantle of snow, and now the Rhenus gorge and the forests above on each side were like a child's dream, all white sparkle and peaceful blue skies. The sun had just made its appearance on the morning before Midwinter's Eve when Alexios and his senior ducenarius rode down the Confluentes road, trailing a pair of wolfhounds loaned by Dannorix, who lived outside of the canabae. Previously, Dannorix had been their guide on the hunting trail, but with his wife laid up with a newly born son - their first - squalling by her side, the hunter had agreed that the Commander of Castra Cugerna knew the trails well enough to make this expedition on his own.
Wolves had been sighted hunting the outlying farms several miles down the road toward the larger fortress of Confluentes. Alexios had not taken more than a few hours off since well before the harvest was in and had proposed a hunting expedition, as his wolfskin cloak had suffered sadly from being dried too close to a brazier: several sections were burnt to cinders. Hilarion had gravely noted that the Commander ought not to be off in the woods at this time of year on his own, given that Dannorix would not be accompanying them, and had agreed to come along. They turned off the main road at the milestone that had been mentioned and were soon deep into the open woodland of old trees.
The hounds were wise in the ways of hunt for the wolf-kind and cast ahead of the riders eagerly, working back and forth to find the scent. The hunters passed through groves of oak and beech and elm, the last few acorns crunching beneath their horses' hooves. The woods opened out briefly around the remains of a small steading, bits of fenced pens and most of the shell of a stone farmhouse, and then closed about them again as they passed the place, perhaps burned out years since by a raiding party from across the Rhenus. Suddenly the bitch stopped, her head raised. Alexios could hear her faint whine. "Steady on, Aia girl - where is he?"
She looked back at him for a heartbeat, then whipped around and started running silently, nose just above the ground. Her packmate loped after her, and the two men urged their horses to follow. The sunlight flickered through the bare branches as they ran, and then the forest began to break up as the land became less forgiving and more full of stones. The tops of the hills hereabouts were were bare and rocky, filled with crevices and little caves. If they did not run down his wolf soon, it would be lost to them.
As the last of the tall trees fell behind them, the male hound gave tongue, a full-throated baying that made Alexios' heart beat faster, and they could see their quarry, a young dog-wolf, running toward the crags. The crafty hounds, more than twice his age and almost his own size, split their pursuit, strong-chested Acco driving him toward a small, steep walled defile, fleet-footed Aia circling around to prevent his escape.
The wolf saw the trap that was before him, but when he turned to skirt the base of the crags, Aia was there, unafraid and seemingly still fresh, her mouthful of sharp white daggers snarling before him. The wolf turned, panting, and fled into the miniature vale. The two men rode up to its mouth and slipped off their horses, their spears ready to hand. As they advanced past the scrub and struggling small trees, they saw the young wolf at bay, the steep, rocky walls behind him bare of any hope of of escape.
Alexios strode forward, and the hounds fell back, yielding their position to their human lord. As the wolf, desperate, leapt for his throat, he was suddenly overwhelmed by the memory of how he had taken the wolf whose hide was now so spoiled: three years ago, now, another hunting expedition, and Cunorix behind him, and the last bright memories from that bloody time in Britain.
"Commander! 'Ware ... !"
It was Hilarion's voice beyond him, not that of Cunorix, and as the wolf knocked him backward, it was Hilarion's spear that thrust home. The wolf fell to the side with a snarling yowl that trailed off into a feeble whimper, and then the thing was over.
"Alexios ... Commander! Are you ... ?"
Alexios found that in fact, there was nothing much wrong with him. The breath had been struck from his lungs, and the wolf's teeth had scraped three or four bloody scratches on his forearm through the woolen sleeve of his winter tunic, and that was all. "You saved my life," he said, when he could, and Hilarion merely shook his head.
"I spoiled your wolf hunt. We'll have to go again some other time to replace your cloak." He helped Alexios wash the scrapes with wine and bandaged them up. They looked the wolf over, and Alexios found that he had some pity for the creature, who was too young and unwary to know the dangers of hunting near the places of humankind: pity, and sadness for the waste of the creature's life, because this skin could not be Alexios' wolfskin, after all.
"Perhaps we can give the skin to Dannorix, for the new cub," he said.
"Fair enough, but I'm thinking we'd best get to skinning the brute," said Hilarion. "I mislike the feel of the wind."
His ducenarius was right, thought Alexios. The light to the west was fading, for all it was barely midday, and clouds were drifting over the blue sky in that quarter: high and thin now, but somehow full of grim promise. "I hear you. Let us begin."
They had both assisted in skinning wolves before, but always with a skilled hunter taking the lead. This day, the operation was full of pauses as they tried to remember the finer points of getting the pelt from the creature's head, body, and legs. By the time they had finished and were bundling the wolfskin up behind Hilarion's saddle, the sky was the color of lead, and there was no mistaking the scent of snow in the air.
The dogs were tearing at the wolf's carcass. Alexios rubbed his head, watching them. "I suppose we'd better let them have their fill. The horses, too. We should go back directly, without stopping."
Hilarion, who had been draped against the long-suffering Glaucus, straightened and began to rummage in his saddlebag for the measure of corn they had brought along. "They'll need to drink, too. Didn't we pass a burn, just back there in the woods?"
"Just so," said Alexios, opening their meal bag. "Here, have a bite while they have theirs."
By the time they had each eaten a bannock and a strip of dried meat, the first tiny flakes were drifting down. They called Aia and Acco from the kill and headed back downhill. The little burn was there, a mere rivulet running over ice-rimed stones, and they followed it downslope to find a pool that would do for the horses. Hilarion broke the skin of ice on its surface, and all of them had a drink. The water was cold enough to send pains through Alexios' teeth, and now the snow was a drifting veil between the trees of the wood.
Silent and anxious, the two men mounted and rode down along the banks of the burn, hurrying the horses as much as they dared. It was then that the misfortune happened: Glaucus missed his footing and came down hard on an undercut piece of the bank, which gave way beneath his weight. Hilarion, who had flung himself clear as the horse went down on his knees on the icy stones, staggered a step and then collapsed.
Alexios halted Aster at once and slipped down from the saddle. "Hilarion, are you ... ?"
Hilarion was sitting up, snow and mud clinging to his leggings. "Just my ankle - came down on it wrong. What a cursed bit of luck - see to my poor old footrug, will you?"
Glaucus was rolling his eyes and struggling to rise on the slick, uneven cobbles and boulders of the stream bed. Alexios took firm hold of his bridle and soothed him until he was calm, then managed to get him on all four feet. The impact against the stones had split the skin over the joint on both forelegs, and blood was trickling down over Glaucus' hooves.
Hilarion had struggled to his feet, but it was plain that he was not going to walk any distance. The hounds nuzzled him anxiously, and he waved them clear. "Get off, you hairy idiots. Ah, look at the two of us. This cursed forest - as much trouble as an entire tribe of Picts!"
"Let me get you up on Aster. He can carry both of us."
"Are you trying to lame him as well? The footing is bad enough for a horse unladen, let alone one carrying double."
"Well, we can't just stop here. This wind is sharper than a new sword."
"I was thinking of that burned-out steading we passed on the way up. It looked to have at least one corner of its roof left, so it's at least as good as half the inns at Confluentes. It can't be more than a quarter mile off: just a bit of a stroll."
Alexios frowned and then sighed. "That's what we'll do, then: you on Aster, and me leading them both."
"Tie Glaucus to Aster's saddle. He won't want to be left by his stablemate, and that will leave you with a hand free."
Even though they had made sensible preparations, it was no easy journey. The wind roared through the bare trees, driving the snow into a shifting, impenetrable curtain before their eyes. In fact, they might have missed the ruins of the farm entirely, were it not for Aia, who seemed to divine the need for shelter and recognize the smell of humankind - or perhaps it was merely the old scent of smoke - on the broken buildings. She herded them much as she had herded the young wolf, and soon they recognized the remnants of a pile fence and followed it to the farmhouse.
The place had once been two large rooms, one of which was likely also the cattle-shed. The other had been divided horizontally into a living-place and a loft above. Although Alexios would not have trusted the loft to bear his weight, it and the room below provided a dry space that would take all six of them comfortably. There were even a scattering of grain that had fallen through the rough planks of the loft, and a large cracked crock that would do to melt snow, if he propped it just right by the fire. He gathered enough dry wood - much of it splintered furniture that had been hacked apart in a wanton orgy of destruction by the raiders - to start a fire, and left Hilarion to deal with his mud-dampened clothing while he gathered more..
The last signs of daylight were fading by the time he had a respectable stack of wood for the night. As he settled the snow-filled crock at the edge of the crackling fire, Aia leapt to her feet, sniffing the air, and then both hounds ran off. Alexios called after them, but they did not return.
"I daresay they'll be back," said Hilarion. "If they feed themselves, we'll have more to eat."
He was in his linen undertunic and braccae, with his wolfskin cloak over his shoulders, and his muddy outer tunic was drying, draped over the remains of what had been a tall stool. Alexios went to unsaddle the horses and rummage through the saddlebags. Some more dried meat, another two bannocks apiece, raisins, dried apples, wine, enough corn for another sparse feed to the horses, and another roll of bandage linen. It didn't look as though there was enough for both Hilarion and Glaucus.
He brought the saddlebags over to the fire and started to strip down. Hilarion watched him in silence for a moment and finally said, "What in the name of the Furies are you doing? It's near as cold in here as it was out in the snow."
Alexios showed him the bandages. "There's not enough for both of you. Glaucus might still end up as dogs' meat, but if I wrap his knees up, he might do. I'm going to tear up my undertunic."
"You'll itch so much in your winter tunic that you'll wish you had fleas."
"As you say, it's terribly cold. So perhaps not."
He finished the undressing and dressing operation, and found that for now, at least, the heavy wool was tolerable next to his skin. He used his dagger to rip through the tough linen of the undertunic and passed half of it to Hilarion, who joined him in transforming the fabric to bandages. Alexios was none too certain that Glaucus would tolerate his treatment, but in fact, his stoic personality proved to be a boon. There was a single heart-stopping moment when he seized Alexios' shoulder lightly with his yellow teeth as one of the bandages was tightened, but that was all he did.
"Glaucus!" barked Hilarion, and the horse released Alexios and sighed.
Alexios finished the job and slapped the horse's shoulder. "That should do for now, old man. Aster would never have put up with it." Aster tossed his head at hearing his name, then turned back to hunting through the debris on the dirt floor for stray bits of grain.
As Alexios completed the task of dressing Hilarion's swelling ankle, they heard the shuffle of animal feet through the snow outside. Alexios warily reached for his spear, but it was merely the hounds returning, damp and muddy but waving their tails with enthusiasm. Acco had an all-but-untouched leveret in his mouth, and Aia had the gnawed remains of another.
"Oh, you wonderful beasts!" said Alexios. "Look, they've brought us our Midwinter feast." Hilarion chuckled.
"I wonder how many they ate before they thought to bring any back for us. Aia looks far too pleased with herself. And there's not much on a leveret, although I can't argue with how fresh it is."
Alexios tied off the bandage, and they fell to preparing their meal. The fresh meat allowed them to put away a decent amount on which to break their fast in the morning, but after eating, they both felt all the day's weariness. Alexios looked about for anything to use in the way of bedding, but there was nothing left but some dried leaves and pieces of musty fallen thatch.
"I must say, it's terribly inconvenient to have all this snow covering up whatever we might find out there to soften this very bare floor," said Hilarion.
"I'd complain to the innkeeper, if I were you," answered Alexios. "At least we have our cloaks, for all that mine's not as thick as it used to be."
"On the other hand, I'm sure Caliacus will never do that again. The stench of the burning fur was enough to put a stray dog off its dinner." Hilarion pulled his saddlebag over and tucked it under his knee to prop up his injured leg, then settled himself under his cloak, "You know, I think I'm tired enough that the hardness of the floor will hardly matter. The cold, now ... ."
"Well, I can do something about that, at least." Alexios stoked the fire again, wrapped himself well in his cloak, and stretched out next to Hilarion. His ducenarius went very still.
"What is it?" asked Alexios after a moment.
"I ... don't think I'll sleep very well this way."
"Lying on a dirt floor with only three walls between us and a snowstorm? I don't see we have much choice," said Alexios, bemused.
"Nnn ... no, with you against me, I mean." He rolled away from Alexios and crawled off half a spear's length before lying down again. Alexios sat up. He was weary, cold, and annoyed.
"Curse it, it's too cold to get overly nice about sharing a bed!"
"It's not much of a bed, as we were saying. I'll get Aia to share it with me - she's a warm and loving lady. You can have Acco. Here, Aia! Here, girl!"
Aia, dreaming by the fire with Acco, lifted her head to look at him sleepily. Puzzled, she wagged her tail slowly once or twice.
"Look, it will probably take both of us and both dogs to get through the night comfortably."
"It's not a good idea," said Hilarion, stubbornly. "In fact, it's a terrible one."
"That makes no sense! Is there something else you're trying to tell me?"
Hilarion turned onto his side, his back to Alexios. Alexios could hear his teeth rattling with the cold.
"By the Furies! If you're going to insist that we both spend a miserable night and wake - if we do - dying of the lung fever, you can bloody well tell me what this is all about, Hilarion! I thought we were friends," he added, and winced at how miserable he sounded to his own ears.
There was near silence, broken only by the crackling of the fire, the moan of the wind outside, and Hilarion's chattering teeth. Then: "And it was as a friend that I t-tried to tell you once ... ."
"When - " Alexios stopped, remembering that evening above the camp, when Hilarion was apparently fussing over Glaucus. "My fault. I didn't have you say your piece that day, when you got the news about your mother. Can't you tell me now?"
Finally, Hilarion spoke: "Th-the Attacotti love to g-gossip about their officers as m-much as any soldiers, I daresay. Have you ever heard them quacking about your visits to the wise she-wolf of the c-canabae?"
He was seemingly speaking to the wall, but his words were clear enough. Alexios' face flushed. "What has that to do with - "
"Have you ever known me to p-pay a like visit? Even to V-venica of the beautiful b-breasts, or Medda of the lovely eyes? The Wolves of the Attacotti assure me th-that they are exceedingly friendly and generous ladies, and c-clean as well, thanks to your favorite's advice and potions."
Alexios opened his mouth and then realized he had nothing to say. His wits seemed to have scattered to the four quarters of the earth. He remembered Hilarion's oh-so-carefully casual request to come with him to Belgica, and the hints he had passed of his disgrace as a recruit in the Legions. And he recalled his own thoughts after his visit to Serra at the start of the autumn. Here, on the longest night of the year, when they had saved each other from near-certain disaster, Hilarion's truth would require its due.
And had not he himself been waiting for this?
"If the men knew what passed between myself and Serra, they would laugh rather than quack."
"You are a man, and she a woman."
"Yes. But a lover worthy of the name would not merely lie there, with his eyes closed, while his mistress satisfied his lust with naught but her hands."
"You're t-telling me that ... ."
"She is a skilled masseuse. And she uses that skill on every part of me. That's all."
Alexios sighed and looked over at the dogs drowsing by the fire, snug against each other, and wished things were as simple for him. "At first I did not even want to think about it. She did what she did, and it was a comfort. But these last months past, I have found myself thinking about how I have never really wanted to go with women, and at last, I realized that every time she has given me release, I have imagined that the hands upon me were those of a man."
He heard Hilarion roll over again, and turned his head to find his friend watching him. "You are my Commander," said Hilarion, softly.
"This is not a matter in which I want to give commands. And a Commander must think of the good of his men. Favoritism is poison, and the more so when it is an issue of love, and not just liking."
"They already know I am your friend, as well as your second in command."
"Perhaps that will be enough to keep trouble away," said Alexios, after a moment. "It is only natural, for two men to have a deep friendship after what we have gone through together. But ... we will have to be very careful."
"No one knows where we are, tonight. In truth, we could not be more discreet if we had planned it so."
"Does that mean I may keep your back from cold?"
"You may do more than that, if you wish," said Hilarion, with a sly smile.
"Then get back over here by the fire, you fool," said Alexios, and held out his arms.
For a few moments, they just held each other, and Alexios felt his head swimming as though he had drunk strong wine. Then Hilarion kissed him, and he felt that he would never be cold again. When Hilarion released his mouth, Alexios was out of breath, and he simply stared into Hilarion's eyes, pale eyes that were flecked blue and grey and brown, where they weren't reflecting the red-gold of the flames. "Hilarion ... I have no idea of what I am doing."
"I do," said Hilarion, and there was laughter in his voice.
"I have heard ... people say ... that those who follow certain practices ... well. That others can tell what they have been doing."
"People say all sorts of rot," said Hilarion, cheerfully. "My blessed mother used to say that if I pleasured myself, everyone would know, because hair would grow on the palms of my hands. By that rule, ninety-nine of every hundred Legionaries should have paws as hairy as Acco's." And Alexios had to laugh, until Hilarion stopped the laughter with his mouth again.
With their arms wrapped about each other, they were as close as two kernels in a nutshell, and still it was not close enough. Alexios wrapped one leg over Hilarion as well. He could feel the other's hardness against his belly, and knew that Hilarion could feel his, and the thought was the most intoxicating thing he had ever felt. Then Hilarion worked one hand between their two close-pressed bodies and stroked him through the coarse wool of his leggings and the linen of his subligaculum, and Alexios knew that he had been wrong: he had not even begun to lose his reason until that very moment.
He tried to do likewise, to make Hilarion feel what he was feeling, and Hilarion broke off suddenly. "Ah, no! What - what's the matter?" asked Alexios.
"These are the only clothes we have," said Hilarion, tightly, and they both hurried to shift their garments out of harm's way.
Now flesh pressed on hot flesh, and it was no time at all before Alexios groaned as the exhilarating tension broke and he saw flashes of brightness inside his tight-clenched eyelids. And when he had come back to himself and was able to turn his attention back to his friend, he was pleased and a little awed to watch Hilarion's face twist with pleasure and hear him sigh and moan.
They lay tangled together, sweaty despite the cold, and sticky. Alexios reflected that despite all the discomfort, he had never felt this satisfied within Serra's tidy treatment room. Hilarion gave a jaw-popping yawn and reached for the last remnants of Alexios' undertunic. Sleepily, they wiped each other as clean as they could, put their clothing to rights, and snuggled down with their two wolfskin cloaks wrapped about the both of them. Alexios found himself with his head pillowed on Hilarion's chest, and the steady beat of that strong heart lulled him into a deep sleep.
He woke himself with his own yelp sometime later as something cold touched the back of his neck. "What is it?" said Hilarion.
It was Acco, they both realized a moment later, trying to insinuate himself into the warmth of their cloaks. Aia had more tactfully curled up against their feet. "Get off, you hairy lump," scolded Alexios.
"Listen," said Hilarion, and after a moment, Alexios realized that the wind had stopped howling. Outside, the snow was falling steadily, but not so heavily as before. The fire was nothing but a bed of red coals. Alexios gritted his teeth and got up to add more wood, then fell gratefully back into Hilarion's warm embrace.
"It must be midnight," said Hilarion, sleepily. "Half-burnt hare for supper and a dirt floor for a bed: I suppose I've had better Midwinter's Eves."
"I haven't," said Alexios, and kissed him.