As always, rumor was the fastest thing that traveled through the empire, even a split empire, and Hilarion heard about Alexios Flavius Aquila months before he met him. The news came to Castellum one warm summer day when the hills were purple and fragrant with flowering heather, along with a pay-chest that contained not enough coin and grain-sacks that contained not enough food. The centurion who had brought them both was relishing telling the tale—after, of course, he'd handed over Ducenarius Gavros' new orders.
"I've never met your new ducenarius myself, mind you," the man said, leaning forward and lowering his voice so that Hilarion and Lucius had to move closer to hear him, "but from what I've heard about this man Aquila, I don't envy you." And he grinned. Likely he was glad he was not a Frontier Wolf, no matter who was commanding them.
Hilarion gave him his best and most-considered smirk, leaning back again to splay himself across the wall, but then the name jostled loose some half-remembered scrap of information. "Aquila? Is that not the name of—"
"The Dux Britanniarum," said Lucius, at the same time.
The centurion tilted his head in a way that could have meant either yes or no. "He's the war-leader's nephew. Alexios Aquila."
Hilarion winced. He knew what that meant, without the man having to say anything more. No doubt this Aquila was the most junior of officers, a cub promoted over the heads of men with years of experience, solely because of who his uncle was. And the Votadini could be... touchy. He wondered what Ferradach Dhu would make of such an untried young Greekling, and he winced again. He could not imagine the old chieftain being respectful in the slightest to a man like that, not as he was to Gavros.
Even Lucius looked uneasy. "That doesn't necessarily mean—" he began, ever-hopeful.
The centurion chuckled. It was not a nice sound. "Oh, it's worse than that," he said. "This Aquila, he was a centurion in Germania. He was with the Third Cohort of Britons at Abusina. It seems the Marcomanni attacked, and when he ended up in command of the fort, he panicked, pulled out, and lost most of his men in the process. The only reason he's still with the Eagles is his uncle."
Hilarion stared. "And they promoted him?"
He had served with incompetent commanders before, of course. He was almost beginning to make a career of it. But this... this... He couldn't even put his frustration into words, clenching his hands into fists where they lay against the cool stone.
The centurion shrugged. "Good fortune to you."
After the man had left, Hilarion dared a glance over at Lucius, whose face had gone pale.
"The Wolves will eat him alive," Hilarion said, dryly.
Lucius didn't even look at him. "And then they'll turn on us."
The first Hilarion saw of Alexios Flavius Aquila was the hint of a shadow behind Gavros' shoulder, in the doorway of the officers' mess. Without looking at him directly, Hilarion took in the man's nervous stance, the way he hesitated at the threshold, a man unsure of where he was or even how he stood.
Then the man stepped inside, and in the lamplight Hilarion got his first proper look at Ducenarius Aquila. He was a small, slight man, dark like a Greek or a Roman, with the Mithras-brand on his forehead. He was younger, too, perhaps even younger than Hilarion himself. The man's gray eyes darted back and forth, taking in the room, but his face was set firmly into a carefully blank expression that Hilarion would wager the man had spent these past few months perfecting.
Gavros introduced their new ducenarius to Hilarion himself, Lucius, Anthonius, Kaeso, and even Druim, who was lurking as always in the corner. Aquila regarded each of them in turn with the same grave stare, spending the same amount of time on each; if the man was already inclined more to one of them, Hilarion could not say. Either he was a private sort of man, or he was afraid. Hilarion did not know which, but suddenly it seemed very important to him to know.
Then the two ducenarii sat, and over a cup of wine Gavros began to explain the structure of the Ordo to this man who clearly knew nothing of it. He was nodding, politely, like a centurion in a briefing, as though this were any ordinary century and not the emperor's own benighted Frontier Wolves, scouts and horse-archers and tribesmen and the thieves and pickpockets sent to toil here at the edge of the Empire.
He did not understand, Hilarion thought, angrily, springing to his feet to pace the room, while outside the men began to drum and sing. This Aquila, he did not even know to fear them. Hilarion had to know if the man would break. If he would, it was better that he break now, at Hilarion's words, than from the sullen disobedience of distrustful rough men, or worst of all, in battle.
"The Pack is giving tongue," he said, suddenly. "Aye well, it's the full of the moon." When he swung round the edge of the table to look Aquila full in the face, Aquila did not flinch. Hilarion felt himself grinning wildly, and he kept speaking, all sorts of nonsense about skin-changers—let him think the Frontier Wolves came from a tale, eh?—and biting the locals.
"However, we seldom bite them," Lucius cut in, and Hilarion could see Lucius trying to catch his eye, trying to stop him, as Hilarion, still grinning, sprawled across the long bench and kept talking. If Lucius did not understand that this needed to be done, that was his affair.
Gavros laughed, agreeing with Hilarion. Ah, it was a shame for them to lose a ducenarius like Gavros, to have to break in a new commander to the ways of the Wolves. It was, and he said so, and that even got the normally-taciturn Druim to speak, to assure Aquila that they meant no harm by it.
But Aquila had to know. He had to know that they knew about him. If he thought that running to the edge of the Empire would let him forget himself—why, a man could not lie to himself for long, and so his men ought not to lie to him either.
So Hilarion smiled, leaned back against the wall, and spoke lightly, ever so lightly. "Who would ever think such a thing? Surely not the new Commander? He must be as aware as we, of the honor done us by his posting here."
The room was perfectly, completely silent.
Aquila jerked where he sat, like a man pierced through with an arrow, and all the color drained from his face, leaving him sallow. But his gaze, steady and unafraid, met Hilarion's. "I am not sure that I understand," he said, each word dropped precisely into the quiet of the room.
Lucius muttered a few quick words he did not quite hear, and then: "Leave it." But he would not. He had started the thing; he must finish it.
Hilarion grinned again. "Who could have dreamed that the Frontier Wolves would ever come up in the world to the point of being commanded by the nephew of the Governor of North Britain?"
He watched as Aquila's throat worked, but still the man did not look away. After a long while he spoke, and the tone was almost pleasant. "We must hope that the Frontier Wolves prove themselves worthy of the honor done them," Aquila said, and that was it. He had survived the beginning.
Hilarion smiled and pushed the wine-jug across the table.
The meal concluded a short time thereafter—formally concluded, at least, as soon as the ducenarii left the mess—and at once the ire of the entire room turned on Hilarion.
"Ahriman take you, Hilarion," Anthonius said, sharply, from one of the far benches, "are you trying to get him to hate us all?"
Hilarion shrugged and poured himself another cup of wine. "I had to know what would happen. He handled it, didn't he? And wouldn't you rather it be me than... oh... Bericus? Or one of our wild Dalriads? Or, may all the gods help us, the Votadini chieftain wondering why we've insulted him by sending a failure of a man?"
"And what about that?" Lucius jerked his head in the direction of the door, where the two men had left together. "If that's not our new commander gone off to weep while Gavros tells him to heart up, I don't know what it is."
He took another drink. "It's nothing to me if the poor bastard cries himself to sleep," he said, "but if we haven't run him off by the full-dress parade tomorrow morning I think we're stuck with him."
"I'm sure he's happy to be stuck with you," Lucius said, acidly. "Can't you ever keep your mouth shut?"
Hilarion snorted at that and drained his cup. "No, but you like me anyway."
Lucius only sighed, but Hilarion knew he was right.
He was at the practice-ground with Lucius long before the commander—the commanders, he supposed—were to arrive, and he was grateful for the time, because chivvying the Frontier Wolves, Third Ordo, into something resembling an assembly always took time. Oh, it was not that they were undisciplined, or at least not entirely that, but their methods and manners were not the same as the legions'. Hilarion did not think the new ducenarius would look kindly upon them if they could not at least stand in proper ranks.
Hilarion was proud of his men—of course he was!—but he could not help but think, as he looked upon the century, that Aquila might not be. No doubt he was used to seeing fine gleaming armor, scrubbed bright, the men girt with brilliant new arms, wearing crests and feathers proudly. If he had commanded cavalry wings, no doubt they rode the finest Arabians and not, as the Wolves did, the little shaggy ponies of the tribes. For armor, the Frontier Wolves had only dull iron caps with their leather tunics, and patched tunics at that, worn over even duller breeches. If he was lucky they'd all bothered to lace the cross-gartering rightly.
And then there was the matter of the cloaks. Hilarion shivered and pulled his wolfskin up, so that the wolf's own head lay high atop his own. He was not certain what the commander would make of that, not certain at all.
Just as soon as the men and horses were arranged, Gavros and Aquila stepped onto the practice-ground. Aquila's head was held high, and as Hilarion watched, the man straightened up with a little jerk of his shoulders; it was the sort of thing he thought a small man might do to give himself more presence. At any rate, Aquila was still here, and he did not look to have wept all night long, no matter what Lucius had said. At least the man could face them, even if he was likely still afraid. It meant something.
Hilarion dropped back a few steps to call the double-century to order.
"Ordo," he cried out. "Attention!"
He allowed himself a smile as the men drew themselves up, their heads level, their hands steady on the reins of their mounts. Good, very good; they were just as snappy as the legions. Even better, to his mind. They would not put him or Lucius to shame.
Gavros cleared his throat. "This is your new ducenarius," he said, "Alexios Flavius Aquila. I ask that you treat him as well as you have treated me."
Hilarion looked on as Aquila stepped down the lines with a slow, heavy tread, regarding each of the soldiers with the same stony stare that he had favored the officers with last night. Then he retreated to stand next to the three of them, and as Lucius began to call the steps of the most basic drill, Hilarion glanced over and saw that, even though the rest of Aquila's face was perfectly composed, something panicked and unquiet flickered into his eyes for an instant and then was gone. But Hilarion had seen it. And in that moment, Hilarion knew that the new commander was truly frightened of them after all. But he was here, and perhaps they could make something of him.
"And how does the commander find the Wolves?" Hilarion murmured, in an undertone. "Akin to the legions?"
Perhaps surprised to be addressed, Aquila hesitated, and then he coolly raised an eyebrow. "The cloaks, I think, are not regulation."
Hilarion chuckled. "Well, we are the Frontier Wolves, sir. One must make... allowances."
The ducenarius nodded a little, and then he paused. Hilarion watched him lick the dry skin of his lips before he spoke. "Listen—Centenarius Hilarion, was it? About last night, Hilarion—"
"Oh, sir." Hilarion grinned lazily. "No apologies are necessary, sir. I was not at all offended. You were very proper."
Aquila's mouth had fallen open; he made a few faltering attempts to close it, and then he stood up taller again with that little jerk of his shoulders. Finally he shut his mouth and turned a much darker gaze back to the Ordo.
"Mount up!" Lucius cried, and as two hundred men vaulted onto ponies Hilarion turned to the stable-man holding his mare.
In another moment he was astride her, he and Lucius following the bright streaming trail of the Ordo's dragon, leaving the ducenarii behind on the ground. The commanders were likely heading for their own horses already.
"You were never like this to Gavros!" yelled Lucius, over the pounding hoofbeats, followed by "Cullen, get your horse's head around!" to an unlucky soldier further up the path.
Hilarion lifted a hand from the reins to wave it, nonchalantly, the nearest thing he could manage to a shrug. "Gavros was already here." Though as he said it he was not sure it was the only reason.
"So," Lucius began, in a casual tone that was far too studied to be genuine, "I suppose you are wanting to ask me."
Hilarion grinned and tilted his head back, looking across the mess to where Lucius had previously been squinting at his Georgics by the evening's lamplight, as if he had not long since memorized every word. Supper had passed. Hilarion was playing at knucklebones with Kaeso. All in all, it was an ordinary evening.
He stretched, then drew his leg up to his chest as Kaeso took his throw. "What would that be?" he called back, just as casually. There was no sense in seeming too curious about the day's events.
"I know you have not asked Gavros," said Lucius, "and you cannot have endeared yourself enough to our new commander to ask him—"
"He and Gavros paid court to Ferradach Dhu this afternoon," Kaeso put in, pushing the dice across the table. "Or so I heard."
Lucius nodded. "I have an account of it from Garwin, who was part of the escort."
"And?" Hilarion kept his voice light as he shook the dice in the cup and dropped them; his hands jerked too much with nerves and two of the dice hit the floor. He hoped the others would pay it no mind. "What did Aquila do?"
No doubt Hilarion would be tasked with making some sort of apology after Gavros left; being the highest-ranking native Briton in the Ordo often caused him to have to play at being an ambassador, no matter how much he explained that being a half-Cantiaci bastard was unlikely to impress anyone, and here least of all.
Lucius' tone was a gentle tease. "Well, so you do care, eh?"
"I only want to know how many times I'll need to say we're sorry for whatever he's done." Hilarion sighed and let his head tip back against the wall.
The other centenarius smiled, pleasantly enough. "I hear it went well, actually."
"Lucius," said Hilarion, as patiently as possible, waiting for the truth.
"It did." This was from Kaeso, who had picked up the dice and then left them on the table, all pretense of gaming gone. "He speaks British."
Hilarion stared suspiciously at both of them and found that his mind was entirely bereft of useful words. "You're... you're joking."
Lucius moved his head a little for no. "He said he had a nurse from Hibernia and he grew up speaking it. He was very polite, said Garwin, to the chieftain and his sons. He knew exactly what he had to say and do as a guest without anyone telling him first. Very charming."
"He won the old chief over," Kaeso agreed. "And his son too. The older one, the heir."
He couldn't think of what to say. He couldn't think of what to think, but even as he smiled and nodded and picked up the dice again there was a tiny spark of hope in his chest. If Aquila could know the tribes, could respect them, perhaps he could come to learn the Wolves too, and it might not be as bad as Hilarion feared. He realized he wanted Aquila to succeed, and, ah, that feeling, glowing bright and warm, the contentment of a thing that could be done well—
He should not dwell on such things as loyalty, he told himself. It had always brought him more trouble than he needed. And of course he wanted Aquila to command them well, for all their sakes.
"I shan't say obscene things about him in British, then," Hilarion concluded, brightly, and Lucius gave him another disapproving look.
Two days later, Julius Gavros left Castellum for the last time. The morning was cloudy and the skies were dark, promising rain. Aquila was a small, unassuming shape, dwarfed by the fort's Praetorian Gate, whose arch he stood full in the middle of, watching until the last trace of the escort disappeared. And Hilarion... watched Aquila. The man was still afraid, Hilarion knew, even as Aquila gave him a brisk nod in passing on his way to the Sacellum, there to do gods-knew-what; there were none of the usual duties needed for the rest of the day. He was hiding from them, then, and Hilarion leaned against the wall, considering, after Alexios had passed.
It would work, somehow. It had to work. There was something about the man, something good and strong behind the fear; he thought for an instant he had seen it.
The next time they met was that evening, purely by chance; it was not quite dusk, and Hilarion, sword slung across his back, was making the rounds of the gate-guards, since it had to be done and he was not sure whether Aquila was going to take this duty in his place. Gavros often did—had often done—but, well, it was not mandated for the ducenarius himself to do it, and so perhaps Aquila might not know he should, or even want to. But then he saw a man wrapped in a green cloak, still regulation-plain, pacing the edges of the fort in the dimness, heading in his direction.
Aquila stopped, inclining his head toward a pair of sentries. Whatever he said to them caused the men to straighten up, uneasily, a show of doing their duties rather than actual performance; Hilarion knew they had been watching the moors just as well when they had been lazily leaning on their spears. He could not hear the three of them over the wind, but that was to be expected. And for all that it was hardly cold yet, Aquila was clearly unprepared for the north: his cloak flapped open, tossed this way and that in the breezes.
Their routes led them to meet exactly between that gate and the one Hilarion had just left, drawing together in a corner.
Hilarion essayed something that might once have been a salute.
Aquila stared through him at first, seeming not to see him, and did not return it. "They don't like me," he said, barely loud enough to be heard.
Hilarion opened his mouth to speak, but then he heard the words truly meant under the words the man had said: You don't like me. And he did not know how to answer that, nor whether he should try.
"It isn't about liking. They don't trust you. You haven't given them reason to."
Aquila's face, already windburned, flushed red. "Senior Centenarius, if you would kindly refrain from—"
"You're not one of them. And it isn't about Abusina either," said Hilarion, and his stomach twisted as Aquila went even darker, then alarmingly pale. But he continued. "Half of them haven't any idea what happened to you at Abusina, and the other half of them don't care. It's your own affair, and frankly, sir, only you think it's of any importance out here. We've all made our own mistakes."
Aquila stepped forward, and for one dizzy, terrifying instant, Hilarion was certain his commander was about to strike him in the face. This was it. He had gone too far this time. If there had been a line, he had leapt over it long ago. But then Aquila stopped, his face still ashen.
"And what was yours?" Each word out of Aquila's mouth was crisply, coldly enunciated. Hilarion ought to hate him, but deep in his guts where hatred ought to live, there was none, and he found he did not want to think about what might grow in its place. Aquila was not unattractive, certainly, and had this man not been his commander, Hilarion could imagine that there could be more between them. But he had learned his lesson about that, and besides, he was not sure that bedding a man who was idiot enough to kill a cohort was an improvement over the last one.
"Your mistake, Centenarius?" Aquila repeated, just as collected.
Hilarion reached out to clutch at the stones of the wall, suddenly off-balance. He ought to have expected this. He already knew Aquila was not going to break, and it seemed he could strike back just as well; Hilarion hoped the man could not tell how much the memory alone hurt him. In his mind he saw Quintus' face, the last time he'd seen him, harsh and arrogant, denying everything, and his heart hammered against his ribs like the pounding of the tribes' war-drums.
"Poor judgment," he rasped, pushing himself upright and turning to face Aquila, stepping in closer to force the man to look up at him, using his height against him. "I hear it's a common affliction."
He smiled. It was a horrible, horrible smile, the only one he could manage, and he watched Aquila flinch hard.
"Thank you," said Aquila, after a long silence, "for your considered opinion, Centenarius. That will be all."
Turning, Hilarion walked back the way he had come. If Aquila said anything else before he left, the howl of the wind carried it away.
Their relationship over the next few weeks was, Hilarion thought, a tense one. The ducenarius was never impolite, but nor was he friendly. Every comment Hilarion made that did not have to do with the running of the fort was consistently ignored, no matter how sardonic. And although he draped himself against the walls and slouched about as much as ever, Aquila did not even bother to tell him to straighten up and salute; in fact, the man hardly looked at him.
Though Hilarion knew Aquila had been right about one thing: the men didn't trust him. And it was obvious that Aquila was still expecting to wake up to the Wolves standing over him with knives. It was uneasy all round. This state of affairs couldn't continue for long, but he did not know what could be done about it. It was the task of the ducenarius to step up and command; it was hardly Hilarion's fault that the man was unwilling to.
It was a bright day, one of those late autumn days where the sky was gloriously clear but for the skeins of wild geese winging their way to warmer wintering-places, and the air crisp, as if to remind everyone what winter would soon take from them. It was only him and Aquila in the mess this afternoon, the rest of the officers being elsewhere, but that did not mean Aquila was talking to him. For lack of anyone to game with, Hilarion was rolling the dice against himself, left hand versus right. Aquila was squinting at a tablet of inventory as if it were the most exciting thing he had ever read, once again never looking up.
Then came a terrified cry from outside, in the direction of the Quaestoria Gate, calling the words everyone hated most to hear: "Fire! Fire in the store-sheds!"
Hilarion was on his feet in an instant and out the door, aware that Aquila was just behind him.
"How—" Aquila started, as they ran across the fort. "What?"
"Dropped an oil-lamp, most likely," Hilarion yelled back, over his shoulder. "We'll have to hope it's small, or else—"
He did not bother saying the rest.
The offending shed was just outside the fort, built with one side up against the wall. Thick smoke was pouring out the door in great quantity, but Hilarion was relieved to see that the thatch had not caught fire yet, and it was only the one shed so far. But it would not stay that way for long, certainly; there were five or six soldiers about it, moving in uncoordinated confusion, some heading to the bath-house and the well down the slope, others with their iron helmets in their hands and already full of water. It would not be enough to halt it, not if they went about it like this.
Aquila cleared his throat. None of the soldiers heard him.
"All right," he said, authoritatively enough. "I'm going to need— we're going to need—"
No one looked up, and Aquila stopped his attempted speech, swore bitterly under his breath, and turned in the direction of the baths, already taking off his cap.
He couldn't do this, Hilarion thought, desperately, watching. Aquila should not just run at the fires as if he were any common soldier. He was their commander. He needed to lead them.
But Aquila could not, and suddenly, Hilarion knew why. Hilarion had been wrong, wrong all along; it was not about trust either, at least not now. The realization was sharp and stunning. He could not because he was never supposed to handle two centuries on his own. He was supposed to have Hilarion at his back. And Hilarion had not been there.
He could change that. He only hoped it was not too late.
He caught up with Aquila in a few quick strides, reaching out to grab the man by the shoulder. On Aquila's face was a mix of surprise and determination, shading into a wretched misery, and Hilarion knew he was a man who thought himself alone.
"I can help, sir," said Hilarion, urgently. "Let me help you. Please." And he turned back and cupped his free hand to his mouth, calling out full-voiced in his best parade-ground yell. "Frontier Wolves! To me! Orders from the ducenarius!"
Almost as one, the men looked up. Hilarion smiled and squeezed Aquila's shoulder. "They're yours now, sir."
Aquila straightened up with a jerk; Hilarion could feel it under his fingers before he dropped his hand away.
The ducenarius pointed to the nearest man. "You! Centenarius Lucius is with the quartermaster; run and fetch them both, and tell everyone you meet on the way to head here!" He pointed to another man. "You, out to the picket-lines, see if they have feed-buckets going spare. In the meantime, we can use helmets or wet clothing. When the buckets come back, Lucius and Hilarion can help me organize the men all the way to the well. Get to it."
"Sir." The two men saluted and ran through the gate.
Hilarion smiled grimly and went to the well to soak his clothes. The first thing he did when he got back up the hill was give his drenched scarf to the commander. Aquila smiled gratefully and tied it around his face, just as Lucius and Kaeso arrived at the same time as the men with the buckets.
Aquila shouted more orders, getting more men, more water, even beating back some of the fire with his own wet cloak, and eventually the flames subsided. They hadn't even reached the roof, Hilarion saw, and he found he was grinning deliriously. Aquila met his eyes and grinned back. He still wore Hilarion's scarf at his throat.
That night, Aquila looked up, across the officer's mess, and smiled. At Hilarion. Though the other officers were of course there—there was no getting away from anyone, even in a space as large as Castellum—Hilarion was sure the smile was for him alone. It was, Hilarion noted absently, a true smile. And then Aquila was moving to push away dishes and come to his feet, stepping closer, nearly at his side. "Thank you. For your assistance."
Even hours afterward, acrid smoke still burned at Hilarion's lungs with every breath, but that did not stop him smiling back at his commander's words as he leaned against the wall of the mess.
"Happy to help, Ducenarius," he drawled back.
Something softened in the man's harsh face, then, and he realized that this must be what it looked like when Aquila was happy. Aquila's gaze darted away again. "We're off-duty," said his commander, quietly. "You can call me Alexios, can't you?"
"Alexios." Hilarion tried the name out with his best Greek accent. It was not much of an accent, being as the only Greek thing about Hilarion was his name—and perhaps a few favored practices.
Alexios smiled again. His face was transformed, lifted, freed of all the worries and stresses of his command for just an instant. It was easy, too easy, to think of him this way, as if Hilarion had already been calling him Alexios in his mind all this time. He knew he should refuse; if he were wiser, he would, but Hilarion had never been one for wisdom. They could be friends. Surely that was all Alexios—Aquila—wanted of him.
"Well, then, Hilarion." Alexios smiled again, and in that moment Hilarion was acutely aware that he would do anything, anything Alexios asked of him. "I'm off to bed. If you and Lucius could take the late rounds—"
"Certainly," said Hilarion, the word out of his mouth before he had even thought about what he was agreeing to.
As Alexios brushed past him, he pressed a scrap of fabric into his hand. Hilarion's scarf. Their fingers met, and he shivered. He clenched it in his fist as he watched Alexios depart, trying as hard as he could to ignore the sudden tightness in his chest.
"So," said Lucius contemplatively from the other side of the room. Hilarion jumped, having entirely forgotten that there was anyone else in the room. "It's Alexios now, is it?"
Hilarion felt his face flush and knew that Lucius—and for that matter, everyone else—could see it. "Hush," he said, hoarsely. "It doesn't mean anything."
Kaeso chuckled. "But you never called the last one Julius, did you?"
He spread his arms against the wall as nonchalantly as possible, the scarf still in his hand. "Some men like everyone to call them by one name." He shrugged. "If Alex— if Aquila is a friendly sort, what of it? I'm very friendly, myself. Lucius, you can vouch for my charms."
Lucius harrumphed into his cup, and Hilarion thanked all the gods that Lucius was going to say no more of it. In the Wolves, one did not ask what path had led a man here, and Hilarion had been very careful that Lucius should not hear the rumors about him. A violation of military discipline was one thing—most of the Frontier Wolves had done as much, or worse, in terms of the law—but he knew Lucius was a good Christian, and he might think less of him in the eyes of his god.
In the corner, Kaeso was still chuckling. "May you enjoy your friendship, then," he said, and Hilarion saw the sidelong glance and knew that Kaeso had heard the rumors and did not care.
"I shall," Hilarion said, and he reached for his sword, ready to go make the rounds. He would not make the same mistake again. It could only be worse for him.
A few weeks later, the fort had begun to settle once again into its routines heading toward midwinter, and Hilarion himself was finishing the last of the evening rounds when he came past the Sacellum, and found that there was still a lamp burning within. Alexios was likely working late. It was a thing he often did, and the sheer determination with which he set about it had convinced Hilarion that Alexios did it because he thought that it would make him appear more dutiful to the men; Hilarion had tried to tell him that that would not be what it took, but so far he had not yet succeeded. Still, he would go in, he would interrupt Alexios, he would convince him to take to his bed. And if it gave him another chance to talk to him pleasantly, what of that? They could be friends.
He stepped into the center room and found Alexios was not working at all. Instead, he was sitting with his cloak spread out across his knees; Hilarion glimpsed something furred and moving atop it. In Alexios' hand was a twisted bit of rag and there was a dish of milk at his side.
"Oh," said Alexios, surprised, looking up, and the thing in his lap meowed.
Hilarion squinted. "Is that... one of Cloe's kittens?"
Alexios nodded, but all his attention was still fixed on the kitten. "Didn't you hear? She abandoned this one; Rufus the trumpeter's been feeding her. I told him I'd take a turn."
"Very kind of you," said Hilarion, and he sat down across from Alexios to extend his hand to the kitten. "Does he have a name?"
"Typhon, I'm told." Alexios' mouth twitched.
Hilarion grinned as the kitten batted at his fingertips. "Big name for such a small thing."
"I'm sure he'll grow into it," said Alexios, and when Hilarion had said nothing, he tilted his head, curiously. "What, have you no clever remarks to make? My height? Anyone's height?"
He looked at Alexios, deadpan. "I am helpless before the power of kittens, sir."
The effect was rather spoiled by Typhon biting at his hand. Typhon then stalked across the cloak to Alexios' hand and butted up against it, rubbing his head against Alexios' fingers and purring.
"So I have one friend here in the Ordo." Alexios wore an amused grin as he watched the kitten play.
"Typhon or Rufus?"
Alexios laughed. "Then I suppose I have two."
The oil lamp cast flickering, wavering shadows across Alexios' face, outlining the laughter lines. It was a face that was not at all harsh, when he was smiling; he was a man meant to be smiling, and as Hilarion looked at him he was seized with desire, sudden and overwhelming, that Alexios should be so all the time, with him. It was not only that he wanted to bed him, though that would have been better—at least he understood that feeling—but he wanted more than that, things he dared not name, even to himself.
You have three friends, he wanted to say, but he could not so much as open his mouth.
"How do I convince the men to trust me?" Alexios asked, sounding almost idle, as Typhon began to knead his leg through the cloak.
"I don't think you can hurry it. It will be easier once you have earned your wolfskin."
"And that, I cannot have until spring, when I will go with Cunorix." There was a flash of something in Alexios' eyes, warm and approving, as he said the man's name.
It was on the tip of Hilarion's tongue to make his own offer, buoyed up on a wave of unexpected jealousy, but he knew it would not be right to come between Alexios and the chieftain's son. It was Alexios' decision to make, and he had already made it. Besides, it was well to be on good terms with the Votadini. He should hardly begrudge the man his friends, he thought, but at the same time he would have liked to have shared this happiness with his commander, as Gavros had done with him.
"It is not so long now," he said, instead.
"How did you get them to trust you? The same, I suppose?"
"No," said Hilarion, grinning as he remembered the thing. "I broke my arm."
"When I got here, I wanted to... make myself into a Frontier Wolf. The things they knew that I didn't were the dancing and the horse-archery, and I asked for lessons in both."
"So you broke your arm dancing?" Alexios was teasing him, he knew, the corners of his mouth curving up in a smile. At that moment Hilarion would have signed over all his pay in arrears for Alexios to keep looking at him like that.
"Oh, of course," Hilarion said, blandly, and then he held the stare a few moments longer before chuckling. "No, well, you see, part of the training for the mounted archers is to be able to control your mount with your legs alone to have your hands free for the bow. Now, as you know, sir, I would never have jested about any part of this training to the rest of the men—"
"Of course not," Alexios murmured, with a hand over his mouth to hide his smile.
Hilarion dared to extend a finger to Typhon once again; this time, the kitten let him pet him. "Nonetheless," he continued, "there may have been word spread that I claimed I could still ride with my hands tied behind my back like one of the trick-riders. Proper riding, any gaits you wanted."
Alexios moved his hand away; his face was aghast, all stunned disbelief. "You didn't."
"I would have," Hilarion corrected, ruefully, "if my horse hadn't spooked and shied and— well, I was on good terms with at least Anthonius after that. Spent enough time in the infirmary, at any rate, while my arm was healing. And I think that earned me some respect, when they saw what I was willing to do for them. But I wouldn't recommend it for you."
"No," Alexios said, still looking at him rather dazedly. "I don't think I will."
They stared at each other for long moments until Alexios looked down, awkwardly, at the now-sleeping kitten in his lap. "So, I think I should—"
"Yes, perhaps you'd better—"
"Rufus will want—"
"Right." Hilarion stood up. "I'm for bed, Alexios."
If Alexios had been going to— if he had wanted to— well, it was how it had begun with Quintus, very like this. But Alexios had said nothing, of course, for he was a better man than Quintus, and Hilarion did not think Alexios was likely to. It was a frustrating sort of paradox, though not perhaps one that would have intrigued a philosopher. A less moral man would have said something long ago, but he did not think he would have liked Alexios half so much were he dissolute enough to try.
Alexios smiled. "Sleep well, Hilarion," he said, and it was only when Hilarion had reached his own quarters that he thought Alexios might have said his name in a different, friendlier sort of tone, a promising tone, not the sort that sounded like it was another way of saying his rank. Or perhaps he was only imagining it.
They took to dicing together, after that. In any other unit, such a thing might have been small, unremarked-upon, a matter of course; Gavros had diced with them, and as long as Hilarion had been in the army, he had seen officers dicing. With Alexios it was none of these things. Hilarion had a sense of the man now, and he would have bet all his hard-won beans that, even had disaster not befallen him, Alexios would never have presumed he could, and would have been too nervous to ask any of the other men he had served with.
But he asked them.
"Do you mind if I join you?" Alexios had asked him and Kaeso one evening, after the tables in the mess had been cleared. Alexios put his hands on the table casually, leaning forward; it was a thing Hilarion himself did when he meant to seem easy about a matter, but he saw that there was the finest trembling in Alexios' slim fingers.
The worst thing he could do would be to act differently than Alexios would expect, so instead Hilarion leaned back and drawled his answer. "Certainly the commander may dice if he wishes, but perhaps he would prefer nobler pursuits." And he tilted his head over to where Lucius was bent over his scroll of Virgil.
Alexios' gaze was challenging, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a daring grin. "Why, Hilarion," said he, "are you afraid you will lose?"
His voice had gone strange, then, low and unaccountably wicked. Hilarion swallowed awkwardly, feeling heat roll through him like waves lapping inexorably at the shore; surely his commander could not intend to sound thus.
"Why, no," he said, brightly, "for if you win I will make you a stew out of your winnings, and then I will have the joy of watching you eat nothing but beans for days. You will not want to be too good, sir."
"You think me better than I am, to keep myself in check," Alexios replied, quietly, still in that same queer tone. "And I may yet surprise you with my desires."
Hilarion wondered if perhaps Alexios was talking about something other than the game, but there was no way to ask, not when Kaeso chuckled and moved over for him to sit with them. And if Alexios had meant another thing, it was not Hilarion's place to ask, not ever, for he should not be so foolish as to betray himself twice.
They diced every night, then, sometimes with Kaeso or Anthonius but most often as a pair, even on Midwinter itself.
Then came the drums.
It was the beat for the Bull Calves that they were beginning, Hilarion realized with a chill. The last time the Dalriads and Votadini had danced that had been a few years ago, when they had swapped their bitter posca for heather-beer and gone at each other with iron. One man had died, and a few more had lost eyes and hands before the rest of the Ordo could pry them apart.
But Alexios did not move, did not tense. He did not know. He must have thought it like any other dance.
So he told him, as casually as he could, and even so Alexios' eyes widened and he reached for his sword straightaway. Hilarion and Lucius followed on his heels.
When they got to the Dancing Ground, the fray had already begun, and yet Alexios was already walking toward it. Garwin came loping back to tell them of the trouble, and Alexios bade him run for a trumpeter. Hilarion could not imagine what he had in mind. Nothing could stop them once they'd started.
"Sir," Hilarion began, and then, when he did not seem to hear, "Alexios—"
Alexios turned back; in the torchlight his eyes were wide like a new recruit on his first battle-line, but he held himself high, unwavering. "Bide here and be ready to take over if need be," he said. "This is mine!"
And he walked forward into the fight.
He must think it some test, realized Hilarion. He must have thought he had to do this on his own, when last time the three officers together had not been able to hold them back. Alexios, once again, did not know to fear them. And so Hilarion stood at the edges of the Ground by the granary, watching, for that was what his commander had ordered.
He could no longer see him, or hear him over the roar of the fighting, but presently Rufus dashed into the fight as well, cat on his shoulder, clutching the hunting-horn the Wolves used for all their calls. Alexios must have given him some signal, for suddenly, clear and piercing, the break-off began to sound.
And slowly, slowly, the battle began to cease.
"Would you look at that?" Lucius murmured, awed, next to him. "We never thought of that, eh, did we?"
Hilarion draped himself against the granary wall. "You don't think the trumpet sounds well with the drumming?"
Lucius glared at him, and inwardly Hilarion conceded that it was perhaps a poor joke. But Alexios had done it; he had taken the Wolves and commanded them, when they most needed it, and he had made the right decision. They had followed him now, when they had not followed Gavros. It was what Hilarion was hoping had been in him all along, a skill few of his commanders had had, the thing he thought he had seen a glimpse of when Alexios had arrived at Castellum. He was a man men would follow. He was a man Hilarion would follow.
As the wounded were being taken away, Alexios himself came up to them. Lucius chided him gently for being involved, of course, and Hilarion made a jest about it. Alexios would expect nothing less.
Then Alexios stepped forward into the torchlight, and Hilarion saw the bruises beginning to darken on Alexios' face, swelling up about his eye.
"Sir," said Hilarion, quickly. "Your eye—"
He spoke before he thought about what he should say, and so this time it was not a joke, because as he said it he only thought about the last such dance, and poor Midir—
Alexios straightened up—Hilarion was beginning to think he could recognize him from a mile off just by the set of his shoulders—and reached a hand to his cheekbone, not quite touching the skin. "Bruised," he said. "What of it?"
"A man lost his eye the last time they danced the Bull Calves, sir." He knew he was not smiling. "And another one died."
"Died?" Alexios blanched. Ah, he began to see the weight of it now, of what he had accomplished.
Lucius nodded. "We couldn't stop them fast enough."
Alexios stared at them both as if he could not quite believe them, his mouth twisted up. "I thought—" he said, and stopped. "Never mind what I thought. I'll see you in the morning."
"Good night," Hilarion said, but Alexios had already turned away into the darkness, and Hilarion did not know if he heard him.
On any other day, it might have been a small thing: Hilarion had left his wolfskin cloak in the officer's mess that evening. He had not been wearing it while dicing, after all, but he had brought a second cloak against the chill, and it was that one that he had run outside in to face the dancers. So, it was natural, even normal, that he should retrieve his cloak on his way back to his quarters.
He stepped inside the room and found that nothing there was normal at all.
One lamp was still lit. In the corner of the room sat Alexios Flavius Aquila, holding his head in his hands, and he did not look up.
"Alexios," ventured Hilarion, and only then did his commander lift his head.
If Alexios was lucky, he would avoid a black eye; the bruising was worst on his cheekbone, though even now it was darkening more and more all across his skin. A shallow cut ran down his face. It had bled sluggishly, almost to his jaw, and it seemed that Alexios had not even bothered to wipe away the blood where it was drying. But none of that compared to the haunted, terrified look in his eyes, like a man waking up from a nightmare who did not know where he was or what had happened to him.
Then he seemed to recognize Hilarion, for his face cleared, though he did not smile. "It's late, Hilarion," he said, quietly. "You should sleep."
Hilarion stepped closer and picked up his cloak from the bench as he did. "I left my cloak here," he said, which was true enough, and then he dared to say more. "You should get Anthonius to see to your face."
"It's only a scratch." The unbruised half of Alexios' face twisted in annoyance. "I would wager Anthonius has his hands full with the men who have truly been wounded tonight; certainly I will not bother him to say, here, the commander needs his face wiped off!"
He was going to do nothing? It was unfair, it was, that Alexios who had only just arrived at Castellum would care about the men enough to complain to the depot about their rations, their cloth, their pay. He had cared enough to respect the Wolves' customs, and he had not forbidden them the trick-riding or the dancing or the Lady's black stone, as another commander might have. He had even cared enough to help nurse an abandoned kitten back to health. He cared about all of them. And he did not, or would not, care about himself even so much as to clean the blood off his own face! It was wrong.
"Then let me take care of you," Hilarion said, before he could think better of it.
Alexios only stared at him, lips parted, eyes narrowed, as though he suspected the offer of being yet another jest. "Senior Centenarius, this bids fair to be the longest Midwinter Night of my life. It would help if you did not worsen it by offering things you do not mean to gi—" and then he stopped quite suddenly, for likely he had seen how Hilarion was looking at him in all earnestness. "Oh. You were serious."
"I am on occasion possessed of decency, sir," said Hilarion, blandly. "Only pray do not tell anyone."
That got a smile out of Alexios, a very little smile. But it was something. He sat in silence for long moments, his face frozen and unreadable; Hilarion wished more than anything that he knew what Alexios was thinking. Then Alexios tilted his head up and smiled again, this time more broadly. "Well, then, I've water and cloths in my quarters."
He could see at this distance that under the bruising, Alexios' skin had a gray pallor, and his hands on his thighs shook. Hilarion had been in enough fights to know what that was, when after a battle all the strength you had had fled without warning. Indeed, Alexios looked at him, half-despairing, as he struggled to stand up.
Hilarion was at his side, wrapping his own wolf-cloak around Alexios, who shivered and staggered and leaned against him like a drunkard. But they were walking, very slowly, out the hall and down the corridor.
Alexios' hand made a fist in the fur, drawing the cloak up over his head, as they reached the heavy curtain of his quarters. "So," he said, drawing the word out, "does the garb of a Frontier Wolf suit me?"
He had more than earned it tonight, even if the cloak would not be his own for months yet. The wolf-head only made him look fiercer, more powerful, and it was Hilarion's own cloak he wore; the knowledge of that twisted his stomach in an oddly pleasurable way. Indeed, Alexios looked uncommonly fine.
Hilarion swallowed. "I think so, sir," he replied, pushing the curtain back.
Alexios' quarters were bigger than his, and the little high window still had glass in it. Other than that, there was little to recommend the place, for it did not look like a lived-in room, for all that Alexios had been here for months. Alexios had few personal effects, and even the striped British blankets on the bed were, he suspected, ones he had seen in Kaeso's stores before Alexios had arrived. It was the room of a man who did not, even now, think he belonged.
Alexios sat on the edge of the bed, curling in on himself and pulling the cloak tighter. After a little thought, Hilarion lit the lamp and closed the curtain before fetching the ewer of water and a square of linen from the mostly-bare table in the corner. He sat down as well, next to Alexios, and with every breath all he could think of was how close they were, how if he slid over an inch more their thighs would be touching. It was an inappropriate thought at the best of times, and it was even worse now, when Alexios was hurt.
The water had nearly frozen by now, and when Hilarion touched the dampened cloth to Alexios' cheek, Alexios jerked his head back in surprise. "Ah!"
"Better if it's cold, sir." The blood was coming away now, tinting the linen red. "Won't swell up as much." And, he hoped, the shock of it would prevent Alexios from noticing how his own hands were shaking ever so slightly, as he touched him.
They sat there in the stillness of the night for a long time, as the lamp flickered and the water of the pitcher lapped, the two of them saying nothing, until all the blood was cleaned up and it was only now Hilarion with his palm against Alexios' face, just a thin layer of linen between them. Hastily, he dropped his hand.
The color was beginning to come back into Alexios' skin, and he had let the cloak fall from his shoulders. His hands were in his lap now, and as Hilarion watched he twisted the signet-ring on his finger, the one he always wore. Hilarion had only been able to tell before that it was an emerald, but this close he could see that there was a fanciful sort of dolphin intaglio-cut into the gem, with a flaw in it that caught the lamplight in a spark of clear green fire. Some men played with their rings absently, to occupy their hands, but this did not seem to be the reason for Alexios' habit: as he turned it this way and that, he stared intently at the jewel, almost morosely so, his brows furrowing together in concern as though something about the ring itself brought him unhappiness.
"What's that, then?"
"This?" Alexios lifted the hand in question a little in his direction. "It— it's just a ring. It's foolish, really." Hilarion did not have to say anything; the words, unguarded, began to spill out of Alexios all at once, water past a dam, as he talked while staring at the ring. "It was my father's, and his father's before him, and his before him, and before that only the gods know how long it's been in my family. And I look at it, I look at it and I wonder about the men who had it before me, and how they must have soldiered honorably for Rome. How they must have been brave and clever and noble, and what they would make of me." His voice caught. "I think, sometimes, that I would disappoint them terribly, if they knew."
Hilarion reached out, awkwardly, closing his hand over Alexios'; Alexios' hand was trembling ever so slightly in his grasp. "Don't," he said, quietly. "You're— you're the best commander I've ever had. You shouldn't say such things."
"Another joke?" asked Alexios, his voice harsh and bleak, and then somehow he was in Hilarion's arms, still shaking, his head tucked under Hilarion's chin. "I— Name of Light, Hilarion, I'm sorry," he was whispering. "Just please don't tell—"
Did Alexios really think he truly cared as little as he liked to pretend?
"You can trust me," he said, surprised at the fierceness of his own voice. "About anything."
Alexios pulled his head back and looked him full in the face; if he hadn't known the man, it would have been a terrifying look, half-bruised and half-tear-streaked. But he knew Alexios, so he smiled.
And then Alexios kissed him. It was a quick thing, barely a brush of dry lips, but he had done it, and as he pulled back Hilarion could just begin to see the thoughts forming on his face, the disbelief at his own actions, again the hesitation.
So Hilarion wrapped his free hand around the back of Alexios' neck, sliding his fingers through his hair, kissing him harder, daring tongue and teeth. Alexios' mouth opened enthusiastically under his, and he was moaning, they both were, and—
They broke apart, staring at each other.
"You're going to tell me we can't," Hilarion said, softly. "You are a good man, and we can't, and it's wrong, and it's improper." His face felt hot; he wondered if he too was going to begin crying. He should know this, by all the gods, he should have learned his lesson already.
Alexios was still looking at him, wide-eyed. "I can tell you we shouldn't," he murmured. "But that is not the same thing. And a good man, I think you told me once, would never have been posted to the Frontier Wolves."
He had told him he was among brothers, Hilarion remembered. He had to tell him the rest of it, for Alexios was looking at him now almost sympathetically, as if Hilarion were—could ever have been—entirely innocent in this. And he could not be, not with what had become of him. Not since Quintus.
"You asked me once about the mistake I made." He realized he was still clutching Alexios' hand. "I had a commander once. I was young, and naive, and he made me an offer, you might call it. A proposition. And I was fool enough to think he meant more by it. When they caught us, he said I had coerced him. And they threw me to the Wolves, you could say."
He dared a glance, to see Alexios' reaction. There was no shock, no horror, only sadness. And then he realized.
"How long have you known?"
"Almost since I came here." Alexios shut his eyes a moment. "I had to know what sort of man you were, and you would not tell me. I feared you were a thief or a murderer. And then, after I found out, I wished I had never asked Kaeso, for that only made all my... desires worse, knowing that you could, perhaps, desire me in return. I didn't—don't—want to take advantage of you. But I couldn't stop wanting— and I'm sorry—"
And then the realization came to him: Alexios was not Quintus. There was already more between the two of them than that. And they were both here together, at the edge of the Empire, already in its worst unit. No one would care. There was nowhere farther to fall.
"Alexios," he said, toppling back onto the bed, stretching his arms out and grinning. "Take advantage of me."
"I— I—" Alexios stammered.
The lamp flickered once and then went out, leaving the room dark. He could barely make out Alexios' shape, just another shadow in the darkness. Why should they not take this happiness where they could find it, here on the longest night of the year?
"The light's gone out," Hilarion observed, with a laugh. "We'd never know who started it."
They reached for each other at the same time.