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We Were Strangers In the Snow

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Castus isn’t used to cold like this. Storms on the water he can handle, wind lashing salt-soaked garments, and the crisp cool starry nights upon the winter sea. But this is different. The wind on Melia Ridge is never-ending, and it bites deeper than flesh, an insidious freeze seeping through every pore to settle in his very bones.

Others around him have at least the comfort of company, huddling together under blankets, foul-smelling no doubt, but at least fractionally warmer for it. No such luck for one suspected traitor; certainly no such offer from the one his eyes seek out on every occasion.

His stupid, smitten eyes.

They do it now, trailing after Nasir as he walks away, leaving Castus with no more than a nod of appreciation for his proposal of joining their fight. Ah well, it was still worth the offer. It was worth the spilled soup, whose warmth he would have cherished despite the foul taste; worth the dull throb of the punch Brictius dealt him. Even worth the grim scowl Agron throws his way as Nasir joins him, dark head leaning close. Castus returns Agron’s gaze levelly. Some perverse delight in self-torture keeps him from looking away, even when Nasir turns that gorgeous smile on Agron at some grumbled comment, and reaches up to lay a palm against his cheek. Agron lets go of Castus’s gaze then, looking only at Nasir, and his grim expression softens, lips quirking in amusement that transforms his face. When he leans down to cup his hand around Nasir’s chin to press a quick kiss upon his lips, Castus knows better than to think it’s a display for his own benefit. Far likelier that Agron has forgotten he even exists. Castus knows that he himself would forget his own name, were the full force of that smile unleashed on him.

He sighs and draws his shoulders up higher, huddling into himself.

“Fucking cold.”

When snow crunches under someone’s approaching step, he lifts his bound hands in tired apprehension. If it’s another round of punch-the-pirate that they’re after, he fears he doesn’t have much sport to offer.

A woman in a tattered cloak stands before him, long brown hair blowing in the rising wind. She’s frowning, but at the spilled stew at his feet, not him. She has a small loaf of bread in one hand, a jug in the other.

“Only a great fool would waste food in challenge when so many go hungry,” she says.

Castus shrugs. “I don’t think Brictius stands overly possessed of wits.”

She laughs at that, and takes a step closer. “No.”

He looks at her warily. She carries no weapons but it would not be the first time he’s been kicked or spat at by one of the women of the camp.

“You’re the Cilician, are you not? I’ve seen you brought to camp.”

“I am,” Castus says distractedly; he can’t quite take his eyes off the bread. His stomach rumbles loudly. If she’s come to taunt him, she’s picked a painfully easy moment.

“My name is Belesa.” She holds the bread up, still out of his reach. “Would you share food, and company?”

Her dress beneath her cloak is flimsy, he sees; a shifting of her legs bares a long thigh, goose-pimpled with cold. He clears his throat, regretfully bidding goodbye to the bread.

“Apologies – I do not favour women’s charms.”

Belesa’s cautiously friendly expression drops away as if shoved off a wintry cliff. She rolls her eyes at him. “Nor I conceited idiots or snow-shrivelled cock,” she snaps. “If your offers of friendship are so numerous, I’ll see myself removed.”

She’s taken three steps already before Castus can rally. “Wait!”

She stops, frowning at him over her shoulder. He takes a deep breath and deliberately sets aside suspicion and tense misery. “Apologies,” he says, and offers her a rueful smile. “You caught me mired in dark concern and ill-prepared for kindness. Please, stay. I’d be most glad for the company.”

Belesa considers this with brows drawn close. Castus holds his smile, open palms turned towards her. “Please,” he repeats.

She nods abruptly and turns back, sitting down beside him. “Here,” she says, tearing the bread in two and offering him the larger half. “It isn’t much but empty stomach makes cold worse.”

Castus is already stuffing chunks of it into his mouth, not minding the hard crust or stale taste. The wasted stew was his first meal since before yesterday.

“Gratitude,” he says between hasty chewing. “You save me indignity of scraping frozen swill from ground, once hunger grows too fierce.”

She smiles. “Here,” she says, holding out the jug. “If you would name stew swill, I dare you to come up with better term for this.”

He takes a sip, makes a face at the sour taste of the wine, then takes another and rolls it experimentally around his mouth before swallowing. “Piss from diseased donkey fed on nought but bitter thistles?” he attempts.

Belesa bursts out laughing. “You have a way with words.” He decides then that he likes her: her easy laugh, the hand extended to a stranger in bonds. If she’s a spy, well, he has little to hide. And if she’s what she seems to be, she’s right: he’s short of friends in this grim place, and too sociable a creature to do well in solitude.

He takes another swallow before he hands back the jug. “Gesture well received, absent regard for taste,” he says. “It warms stomach.”

Belesa drinks as well, then leans back against the thin-walled shelter. “So. What concern?”

“What?”

She turns her head to face him, one brow cocked. “You said you stood mired in dark concern. What form does it take?”

Short, dark, and fierce, with a smile to rival sunlight. Castus sighs and casts a quick glance across the trampled snow, but Nasir and Agron have disappeared.

“A matter of the heart,” he tells her, figuring that the sharing of wine requires some sort of honest answer. “Begun as wayward desire of the flesh, then somehow twisted deeper.”

She passes back the jug and he takes another swig. Perhaps if he has enough, it will stop the stupid yearning of his stupid heart, as well as the cold.

She’s listening still, leaning close to hear him above the ominous howling of the wind. “One not inclined towards you?”

Castus shrugs. “Perhaps he might be, if another had not got there first. Agron.” He makes a face, twisting his lips about the name. Blast Agron.

“Agron. Tall angry fellow from East of the Rhine?” she asks, and Castus chortles at the description. “The very same.”

Belesa nods. “I’ve noted him. He stands often with Ganni- I mean, the generals.”

Castus cocks his head at her hasty recovery. “Gannicus, eh?”

He grins when she turns her face aside, cheeks flushing. “The eyes of many women follow him in this camp,” he offers encouragingly, seeking to draw her out.

Belesa frowns. “My own not among them. Again you mistake purpose.”

He twists to catch her eye, welcoming the chance of distraction from his own infatuation.

“Apologies. Not Gannicus himself, then. One close to him, though?” He casts his mind back but he’s only been in this one place, with not much chance to learn the hierarchy of command.

She smiles wryly, drinking deeply of the terrible wine. “Saxa. The woman by his side.” Her words recall to him the most fleeting of impressions, a lean fierce blonde striding among the tents as if she owns them all.

“The fair woman from northern lands?” Belesa says nothing, but her glance aside tells him enough. He pokes out an elbow to nudge her. “And is it idle fancy, or…?”

She shakes her head. “She kissed me, in Sinuessa. I don’t think it meant more to her than that day’s meal, but… she lingers. In thought and blood.”

Castus sighs, and shuffles closer to her, awkwardly lifting his cloak to drape around both of them. Snowflakes have started falling, thick and white. “We stand united, then, in folly and affection.”

She tugs the cloak in place and spares a corner of her own to cover his unprotected knees. “Perhaps. And would you smother unwise flame, if given means to do so?”

He considers: attempts to see himself absent the sudden spark of Nasir’s smile, and fails. “No.”

Belesa laughs, and lifts the jug. “Nor I. Let us drink to foolish hopes.”

They drink, and huddle close against the gathering storm.