Caution: sex and extraneous accents.
Trees may bud, and birds may sing
Flowers may bloom, and verdure spring,
Joy to me they canna' bring,
Unless wi' thee, my dearie, O.
Other men in the Highland army might have thought it a cheerless, cold Yule, to be spent on the border in a timber stockade that was more draught than defense. But Culgan was, for his part, glad for the lonely post in the mountains. L'Renouille, while firelit and bright, held a chill in its corridors that could not be shaken off by the most potent mulled wine. Culgan finished reading Solon Jhee's latest communiqué from the capital, on troops and supplies and, in a delicate format that might have been mistaken for a simple commentary on the weather in the Highland valley, on the young prince's alarming and growing influence over the will of his father. Culgan let the parchment snap back into a roll, and smiled almost benignly at a ceiling drip in the far corner of his quarters.
North Fort was as unimaginatively built as it was named, raw and ugly against the woolly winter sky. A fresh fall of thick snow did its best to soften the splintery walls and insulate the chilly barracks, but it was a task even a blizzard might have found daunting. Culgan ducked his head under the low lintel of his doorway and nodded in response to his door sentry's salute. He crossed the courtyard into the early winter darkness, passing by the sound of muted merry-making from the mess hall. Soldiers still on watch greeted their commander with a preoccupied air as he passed, their eyes on the ruddy firelight leaking onto the packed snow paths, longing for the end of their shifts.
Culgan took the stairs to the watchmen's walk two at a time, frosty wind whipping his hair as though in recognition. The wind was colder here, cutting through Culgan's cloak as surely as any knife. He lifted his head into it nevertheless, waiting for the greeting of the sentinel on duty, but none came. In the twilight he picked out the shadows of the two watchmen, shoulder to shoulder at the wall and peering out at the encroaching darkness.
"...There it goes again."
"Blast it all, and just out of bowshot--"
"Gentlemen." Culgan was gratified that his men did not jump in guilt, only starting slightly at their commander's voice. "Is there something amiss?"
"Sir." The elder of them saluted. "We were going to send Tarver down for you as soon as he passed by next. We feared to let this little bugger out of our sights."
"One of the border snipes?" Culgan asked mildly, leaning his gloved hand on the edge of stockade and straining his eyes into the dark line of forest below. "I should think they had enough wounds to lick, after our recent engagement."
"Can't tell, sir." The sentry frowned at the line of trees. "It's been wandering in and out of the forest, but I'm damned if we can tell--"
"Here it comes again!" The younger sentry pointed, but Culgan had already seen the dark figure separate from the forest and waver against the open stretch of snow leading to the fort wall. The older sentry lifted his crossbow, but Culgan placed his hand over the loaded bolt, lowering the weapon.
"Wait," he said.
The strange lopsided shape became slowly distinct as it staggered forward in the fading light. A bowshot from the fort and it was a horse and slumping rider, wounded or dead in the saddle. Twenty yards from the wall the horse cantered to a stop and snorted a white plume in the frost. His rider slid from his back into the freshly fallen snow and lay there, unmoving.
"Open the gate," Culgan said, not waiting for the sentries to call down his order, hurrying down the stairs to the muddy entrance of the fort. The guards saluted him through with obedient confusion, crowding around the gate after he had passed.
The snow was thick and undisturbed here, deep enough to tip down into the tops of Culgan's high cavalry boots and melt unpleasantly into the fabric of his trousers. He slogged through it, leaving a wide trench behind him, and dropped to one knee beside the man lying face down in the snow. Arnhurst's division, Culgan realized, by the colors underneath his torn and muddied coat, once red and white. One hand still gripped the hilt of a broken sword, bare knuckles scraped and bleeding, white with cold. Culgan tore off his glove and grasped him by the armpit to haul him over, feeling a faint flicker of warmth under chilled skin. The soldier's face was distantly familiar, wet red hair clinging to his bruised cheek, the faintest sliver of silver warmth coming from his parted lips. His eyes opened briefly, dark and confused, the broken sword wavering in his hand.
"It's all right, lad." Culgan said. "You're one of ours."
His eyes closed again and he went limp, sword hilt falling from his hand as Culgan scooped him up out of the snow and carried him into the fort, the horse trailing obediently behind.
Culgan indulged in few creature comforts, even here at the edge of the world. One that he did allow himself was L'Renouille's finest scotch, stored in a dark glass bottle and tucked in a corner cabinet of his desk. He was not a man given to excess of any kind, but there were some occasions when nothing was more needed than a good drink. And even though his guest was unconscious in the deep pile of Culgan's sleeping furs, Culgan was not going to be so ill a host as to offer him less than his best.
The young man looked as though he rather needed it.
"It's not often I'm wrong," Culgan said, sitting down on the edge of his cot and brushing strands of hair away from the soldier's face, running his thumb over the purple bruise on his cheekbone. "I would have bet gold not one of Arnhurst's division walked away from that border ambush. And you almost didn't."
His mail had been rent into useless tatters, but most of the wounds had closed. They were superficial, for the most part, though it would have been better if they had been fewer in number. More than once a matter of centimeters had kept him from bleeding to death, and while Culgan had little doubt he would live to see the scars, there were one or two that were not to be taken lightly. All the same, he was remarkably whole, and no doubt wandering hours in the snow and darkness was the worst of his ailments.
The men would talk, he was sure, about their famed frost commander taking a mere boy into his private quarters, when any other soldier would have been sent to the infirmary. Culgan could not blame them their suspicions, even blue to his lips and bloody there was no mistaking the aristocratic bridge of the soldier's nose, or the pleasing mold of his lips. And it was true that the young man's face was the reason Culgan had brought the boy to his own room, it was not for the reason his men suspected.
He had seen this boy before, and not too long ago. For some reason it made him think of Solon Jhee. There was no device on the hilt of his broken sword, in spite of the obvious breeding in his cheekbones. And while his armor had been fine when it was still whole, it was not that of a nobleman. Culgan furrowed his brow in thought, trying to remember the names of bastard officers, and the only ones he could think of were too old.
"Are you going to offer me that drink, or do I have to wrest it from your hands first?"
Culgan blinked, startled out of his thoughts. He was surprised how quickly the memory came when the young man's eyes were open, and his voice not so young as Culgan had thought. "Be my guest," He said, passing his cup as if they had simply met at a banquet in L'Renouille. "...It's Seed, isn't it. You were His Highness' Aide de Camp at the battle of Donagan's Ridge."
He smiled, wryly. "In which case I take it I'm not in the hands of my enemies." Seed took the cup Culgan offered, and sniffed appreciatively. "Not that any border raider would have such good taste." He lifted the cup to his lips and drank deeply.
Culgan watched him, relieved at last to have placed the young officer. Solon would have laughed at him; he was losing his touch.
Seed lowered the cup, licking the traces from the corners of his mouth, and sighed deeply. "That's better. I almost feel alive again."
Culgan topped off Seed's cup, and recorked the bottle. "You look a damn sight better than you did an hour ago. How did you escape the ambush? We searched for survivors, but couldn't find any."
"It was more luck than anything, my horse took a bad step in the snow and we slid off the trail during the battle." Seed raked back his hair, blotting his cut lip on the bandages around his knuckles, and swore. "No other survivors?"
"No. Though we returned the favor, and left the raiders for the wolves, which was more than they deserved."
Seed nodded, and Culgan knew he was tallying men in his mind, listing faces and names and letters that would have to be sent. Culgan had done it often enough in the past. "So," Seed said at last, leaning back on the furs with the smallest wince, as if he knew the firelight turned his skin the color of amber mead, and how the white fur blanket draped up to his hipbone just so. "Do you know everyone's name in the army, or just mine?"
Culgan found it hard to believe that the young man with the smoldering eyes was the same as the frozen half-dead soldier that he had carried through the gates hours ago, much less that the full force of that gaze was directed at him. But then, it was rumored that Seed had slept his way to command, never mind that his sword arm was a more than convincing argument. "Almost not yours. I would have forgotten entirely had you not been promoted to second lieutenant at the same time as Solon Jhee was given his command."
"Ah!" His eyes brightened, and Culgan could see the maps sliding into place behind them, lists and armies moving into play. If Seed had spread his legs for his rank, it had only hastened the inevitable. "You must be Culgan, then. Solon has spoken well of you." Seed shook his head. "I had no idea I'd come so far south. What day is it?"
"Yule, with dawn. You've slept since four, I should think, when we brought you into the fort."
"I would have had us twelve hours earlier and twelve leagues to the north; it would seem my horse has a better head than I do." He considered Culgan a long moment, and then asked with deliberate casualness, "How is the weather in L'Renouille?"
Solon Jhee's communiqué lay four feet away on Culgan's desk. Seed was watching his face and making no effort to hide his scrutiny; Culgan's hesitation already telling Seed everything he needed to know.
"Fair," Culgan said at last. "Though the wind comes from the south, and there will be storms before morning."
"The prince will have full power before the new year." Seed set his cup aside. "How do you stand, Captain?"
"I stand as the sun rises," Culgan said, a little stiffly. "With Highland. And so should you, lad, and it would serve you better to keep your questions to the weather."
Seed laughed then, leaning back his head. "I have often been called reckless, Culgan, but never careless. I just don't believe in holding the dice too long before letting them fly, when the result is the same." The heat was back in his eyes. "Solon says you are trustworthy, and I trust him. There are few enough of us these days."
"All the more reason to not speak of such things, not here." Culgan stood up abruptly, as though there was enough space in the small room to actually put distance between them. "The men here are rough; they are not inclined to the niceties of intrigue."
"Then at the least they will do as they are told." Seed shrugged. "But as you wish. We will leave the weather reports to Solon, and enjoy our quiet holiday." He tipped back his cup, and lowered it empty. "So tell me why an officer of your caliber did not find a better post for himself than this desolate corner of Highland?"
"I chose this post," Culgan answered, wondering if it was Seed's direct tone or the smooth curve of his hip muscle that put him on the defensive. He had stripped Seed of his armor and dressed the wounds himself, having a limited amount of trust in the fort's surgeon and doubting any personal valuables would have made it back into his guest's hands. Culgan had been too busy with blood and bandages to consider the actual body under his hands, but his memory was now more than clear.
Seed smiled just a little, and it must have been intentional, the way he shifted his hips so that the fur slipped deep into the valley between his legs, soft and inviting. "Really," he said, almost mocking. "When you could have had a comfortable room in the capital, or mild weather in the south?"
"I don't care for politics." Culgan went to his desk, straightening papers that did not need it. "And the cold doesn't bother me."
"Doesn't it, now?" Seed rolled over to watch him, and the fur was barely enough over his backside, lamplight shadows puddling at the base of his spine. Culgan studied a map without seeing it. "And not even a boy to keep your bed warm? Rather spartan, wouldn't you say, Commander?"
"I don't indulge in the distractions of other officers," Culgan said, his words clipped and sharp as the ice outside. "I am a soldier, as are you, and I have little time or patience for--" He stopped; Seed was laughing at him. "What?"
"You have no idea, do you?" Seed shook his head. "And you ten years older than me, one would think you'd have a better grasp of things."
"I have a grasp of my command, Lieutenant." Culgan said, arching a sharp eyebrow.
"And I'd rather a grasp of those shoulders of yours, Commander. If you'd any idea how fine they are, which you havenae." Seed's smile became a grin, sharp and flashing past Culgan's lowered defenses. "Or will you be telling me now that you brought me to your room out of concern for my injuries?"
"To make sure that you were no spy," Culgan said, making full advantage of his height in the small room, looming over his bed and the young man in it. "Had I known you were this impertinent, I would have left you in the snow."
Seed rocked onto his side, the fur slipping away so that only bandages remained, wound around his pale lean thighs. "And I'm making you an offer to thank you, Culgan." Seed looked up at him, sharp and dangerous and desirable. "Or had you planned to sleep on the floor?"
Culgan swallowed. His career had always been his best, most faithful lover, but even he had to admit that it had never lay in his bed like Seed did. Seed sat up on his knees, muscles shifting under his skin, hands grasping the lapels of Culgan's uniform.
"Can you kiss, Culgan?" Seed murmured, having to lean back to meet his eyes even now.
Culgan made a small noise in his throat but Seed was quick enough to find his own answers, his mouth open and inviting. He tasted hot and heady, scotch lingering sweet on his tongue. Too soon for Culgan's liking it was over, but Seed's hands were deft and his mouth was greedy for more than simple kisses. Culgan's belt buckle jangled and he groaned, tangling his hands in silk-fine red hair, arching his hips into the ministrations of Seed's mouth.
"Not so cold, now, either of us," Seed whispered, nuzzling Culgan's flat belly, his breath coming quick. "It's been many a day since I've had good company, Culgan, if ever any so much to my liking as you."
Culgan looked for words but found none that would do, and indeed, none seemed needed. The furs on his bed had never felt as good on top of him as they did with Seed underneath him, willing and greedy. Seed tossed his head when Culgan moved into him, the tendons on his neck standing out. His words came fast and breathless, his hand moving between their straining bodies as Culgan drove him as hard as he asked. Seed was all slick heat and tight muscle, and Culgan could not remember the last time his blood had been stirred, to busy with politics and planning to attend to more corporeal matters. Culgan's thoughts stuttered to a halt, his body straining as Seed closed tight around him and came, blooming under his bandaged hands and spilling over himself and the furs, face full of abandon.
Culgan felt himself following, as Seed's nails raked down his back, lifting his hips high to make him thrust deeper. His smile was triumphant as Culgan groaned, driving in hard and going still, his heat flooding into Seed's body. Release spread heat though Culgan's limbs more quickly than his precious Highland liquor and Seed kept him in, trailing open mouthed kisses over his shoulders.
"Madness," Culgan said later, glowering at the fire. He had gone to clear his head and come back with two mugs of Yuletide cheer from the kitchens, and Seed's head rested dreamy and contented on his thigh.
"Mmm, if you think so." Seed dipped his hand between Culgan's legs, bold as brass, and drew his fingertips over the fine skin on the inside of his leg. "Would you have me go to the barracks then?" Culgan flinched and then relaxed, Seed lifting his head and bringing it down again, drawing Culgan into his mouth and sucking gently.
"No I wouldn't, at that. You might be a spy yet--" Culgan's response became a growl down in his throat.
Seed pushed Culgan's thighs apart to reach him better, his own hips lifting in tempting invitation. He pulled away from Culgan with a small regretful sigh and said, smile only barely suppressed, "Although if you'd rather, Commander, we can still talk about the weather."