Word had reached the rebels of a caravan that would ride from the docks of Neapolis to the vast city of Rome. They had taken enough gold off the Roman dead to weigh greedy hands and loosen tongues with news of carts loaded to capacity, each easily large enough to fit a score of men - men unused to the shackles of slavery and longing to be rid of them. Men that would want to fight and men that would swell the ranks of a rebellion so decimated by the assault against Glaber and his army. They had been victorious in the shadow of Vesuvius but when the sun had risen and the rush of triumph had left their veins, they were faced with the destruction the battle had left in its wake. They needed to rebuild. This caravan would be the beginning of their reconstruction.
The caravan was slow-moving. On-foot, the rebels had easily outstripped it and now laid in wait at the curve of a road. They were shadows among the trees that lined the path - shadows heavy with steel saturated in Roman blood. The rebellion now had more weapons than they had men, a thing they'd come to when they'd stripped their enemies of anything with an edge. All hoped that this day would see excess weapons to hands willing to further their cause. Those hands would be Gallic ones. Syrian ones. Celtic ones and German ones, too, if the information gathered in Neapolis proved true. These were slaves from every corner of the world, all forced to Rome. No way would they be unwilling to take up arms against the ones that had ripped them from their homelands.
Not if they had any sense, Agron decided. His own people had proved valuable in the rebellion, barring a few mistakes. Without the Germans, they might have never defeated Glaber. Other peoples' kin would have to be put to the same test soon enough. There was the small matter of liberating them first. Alongside the carts walked Roman soldiers, some mounted on horseback and some not. No doubt these slaves were bound for some official's household or were meant for some praetor in Rome - but whoever the Roman was, he would never get his slaves. He would only get news that his men were dead and the lives he'd paid good coin for were no longer his. The very idea made Agron smile, and his grin flashed in the sunlight that filtered down through the canopy above.
The creaking of wooden wheels grew closer and closer, and the rebels crept toward the edge of the trees, their approach no louder than the breeze that gently ruffled the leaves both hanging overhead and fallen underfoot. They seemed spirits of the forest itself - not intruders like the Romans that drew nearer, but part of the wood, welcomed by the towering trees that now concealed them. And the forest would strike out against those unwelcome and unwanted and water the ground with their blood.
Nasir looked at home with twigs tangled in his hair, Agron noticed when he glanced at the Syrian. And to think that once he'd led such a simple and clean life as the body slave to a rich Roman. Now he was wild as the wood that surrounded them all, dark eyes forward and glittering with what they were about to do. Perhaps Nasir felt the gladiator's gaze on him because he turned his head and they looked at one another, and it was almost as though their chests rose and fell in time, their breathing the same pulse that seemed to run through the forest and sound in their ears. In another moment, a cry lifted in the silence and what remained of the slave revolt burst through the trees and stormed the road.
These Romans were not as unprepared as some had been in the past. They were quick to draw weapons and defend themselves against the rebels - but they died just like the rest had, screaming and clutching at wounds opened by more skilled swords. Agron himself crashed upon the soldiers in a wave of destruction, sending four to the afterlife before they could even move to defend themselves. Beside him, Nasir fought just as fiercely, his gladius singing through the air. Agron took pride in the warrior the other man had become in so short a time beneath the tutelage of the late Oenomaus. The flame lit within Nasir since the night they'd liberated the villa he'd served in was still there but put to better use against the Romans, and how they burned.
And how warm it left Agron. A heat flared within him, one adjacent the pride he felt, and when the last Roman before him was slain, he turned to Nasir and strode forward, grabbing the Syrian around the waist and pulling him into a quick, hard, and searing kiss. One ended too soon; Nasir made a short noise against the gladiator's lips before pulling away and swinging his sword, blocking the attack of a Roman come from behind Agron. The man was then sliced open from gut to gullet by the Syrian's hand, splattering them both with blood. The surprised expression on Agron's face at being so caught off-guard melted into a grin and then a laugh escaped him, a sound that seemed so out of place amongst the carnage that surrounded them.
That was when the two were parted, but not before Agron lifted a hand and brushed his fingertips against Nasir's cheekbone, smearing the blood there. With that tender touch, he moved to where the battle still raged on, lending his sword to the other rebels as they all took down each Roman, one by one, even as the slaves in the caravan rattled their chains and shouted and rocked the carts back and forth from beneath the canvas that hid them from view. Soon, all of their enemies were dead or lingering on the edge of it, and that was when the rebels threw back the canvases and freed the slaves into the morning air. Men and women alike stepped from the caravan and squinted into the sunlight, stretching cramped limbs no longer burdened by shackles. It was then that Spartacus called their attention to him and began to speak of the choices they had - to join this cause or live in servitude, never to breathe another free breath.
But Agron paid little attention to what the Thracian said, not out of disinterest but because something else caught his eye. A small group of men stood by the cart farthest from where the leader of the rebellion gave his speech, Donar among them. Suddenly, Donar drew away and Agron saw red blood on his arm, and that was when he moved to see what was happening. Donar was cursing and, with an expression twisted with rage, he peered within the darkness of the cart. He spat out words, and Agron only heard the last few as he approached. "…to the underworld where you belong!"
"What is this?" Agron asked. He could see nothing with the cart, but clearly something had struck out at Donar. It had even drawn blood. Perhaps an animal caged?
Donar had his hands pressed against his arm to staunch the flow of blood. "The gods have sent us another wild dog," he snapped, and seemed none too happy about it. Agron stepped forward and pulled the canvas on the back of the cart aside, letting sunlight into the dark space. A ray of it fell across an eye wide and brown, but then it and the rest of the body attached fled into an obscured corner. That was when the German drew back, laughing for the second time that morning.
"A child," Agron said, giving Donar a sidelong glance. "Did it bare teeth and bite?" The response only further twisted Donar's features. Agron's smile was slowly disappearing, but it wasn't his fellow gladiator's sour mood that stole the amusement from his lips. What was a child doing here? The rest of the slaves had been men and women, some young but none children. It was out of place. It didn't belong.
Donar appeared to share this sentiment. He was drawing his axe from his belt with his bloodied hand. "This is no place for a child," he said, stepping forward again. The man began to climb into the cart, but Agron reached out and stopped him, pulling him back outside.
"You would kill an innocent babe?" the gladiator asked, incredulous. Agron knew Donar to be merciless, but had thought a limit to that trait. Apparently there existed none.
The other man was already at his wit's end, and Agron's question only angered him even more. "Would you have him forever a slave?" he asked. "Or forever marked fugitivus?" Donar shook his head, turning the axe in his hand. "No, death would be kinder." And perhaps he was right. Perhaps there was no place for the child in this world. Perhaps it would have been a mercy to cut its life short then and there, before there was a chance of that life falling to misery and endless pain. But there rose within Agron something defiant. Something that wouldn't allow the murder of one so young and so guiltless. So he reached out and grabbed Donar by the shoulder, pulling him bodily away from the cart before putting himself between the axe-wielding gladiator and the child crouched helpless in the darkness. Or perhaps not helpless, because it had drawn the blood of a gladiator, which was no easy thing.
By this time, the scene had drawn the attention of some of the others. The eyes of Gannicus and Crixus had shifted to where their brothers spoke heated words of argument. Nasir was slowly approaching, his steps wary and careful and his expression guarded. A tension was rising in the air, and there was no wonder; Donar was seething, his temper getting the better of him and curling his free hand into a fist. "Step aside," he said in a low, dangerous voice. It was, perhaps, the first time he'd ever spoken again Agron, who had always been valued friend.
Agron lifted his hand, palm facing out. It was a gesture meant to be non-threatening, but if need be, he would use that same hand to hold Donar back. "Grasp tight to fucking mind," the German said, "for you have almost lost it, brother." But that had been too kind, for it seemed Donar had indeed already lost it, for no sooner had the words left Agron's mouth than did Donar leap forward, tossing aside his axe in favor of swinging fists. They crashed together and Agron was thrown against the cart, the wooden edge of its floor cracking against his back. All the air in his lungs rushed from him and he was stunned for a moment before his strength returned, and when it did, he wrapped his arms around his brother and threw both of their bodies to the ground.
Now Agron's own temper began to surface, as it tended to do in a fight. The two gladiators struggled there in front of the cart and the sounds of it must have reached a certain Thracian's ears, because soon enough Spartacus was quickly making his way toward them, and when he reached the scene he pulled the two apart and to their feet, with some help from Gannicus. The Celt held Donar by both arms, for the man was still trying to surge toward his opponent. Agron was stilled only by Spartacus's hand against his chest, though he breathed harshly and glared a challenge at the one he'd fought, only waiting for the moment he'd break away from Gannicus and they would resume. But the former champion was too strong to let his captive escape.
"What moves you to this?" Spartacus asked fiercely, looking between the two men. There was some blood on the corner of Agron's lips that he tasted with his tongue and cleaned himself of, but he remained silent. He would let Donar explain to the Thracian that he had acted out in rage when denied the chance to part an innocent child with its life. And so he would no doubt condemn himself.
But Donar, too, stayed his words. Perhaps he now recognized what he'd done as madness and was too ashamed to speak of it, or perhaps he was still too filled with rage. So Agron spat the blood from his mouth and answered, though he hadn't wanted to. "There is a child within the cart," he said, and his blue eyes were cold as they rested on Donar's face throughout the entire explanation. "Donar thought it a mercy to slaughter it and I chose to stop him."
Startled, Spartacus turned to glance at Donar. "Does Agron speak true?" he asked in a low voice. When Donar didn't answer, the Thracian moved to find answer somewhere else. He drew back the canvas on the back of the cart and looked within, just as Agron had done not long before. "Come," he said, then, addressing the child. He stepped forward, closer to the cart, so that he could reach inside. "Do not be afraid." And, then, suddenly, there was the flash of steel in the sunlight Spartacus had let into the cart; it seemed the child had found a knife, perhaps stolen from one of the Roman bodies that lay within arm's reach. So the wild dog hadn't bit Donar, but had sliced him open, and Spartacus had almost suffered the same.
He drew back quickly enough to avoid injury, though, and the look on his face was thoughtful rather than angry when he turned to those that surrounded him. Agron was still looking into the cart and he saw a small foot as it was pulled away from the light.
"There was no recognition in his eyes when I spoke," Spartacus said. "Perhaps he does not speak the common tongue." It seemed the Thracian was taking a gentler approach to the child than Donar had, which was a relief, though Agron had not for a moment thought Spartacus capable of ending the life of a child. "The boy is dark of skin," the Thracian continued. "Egyptian?"
At that, Gannicus turned slightly, the corner of his mouth twisting, though he didn't lift his eyes to peer within the cart at the boy. Agron noticed this and it took him a moment before he realized that the man must have been remembering the Egyptian that had taken down Oenomaus. If the boy was Egyptian, Agron hoped he wouldn't suffer for that memory.
But then a voice that comforted the German sounded as Nasir stepped forward. "Or maybe Syrian," he offered. "I could try to speak with him, though I have not tasted my own tongue in some time." Such comfort. Such relief. Neither would Nasir let any harm come to a young boy so helpless and lost. Agron was not alone in this; it seemed Donar was the lonely party, as he should have been. It would be long before Agron found it in himself to forgive Donar this cruelty.
Nasir approached the cart slowly, his footsteps light. Everything he did seemed gentler than anything the gladiators could have accomplished. The way he so gradually pulled back the canvas, hooking it on the side of the cart to keep it open and bathe the boy in sunlight. The way he so gently climbed into the wagon, his weight barely moving the thing beneath him. Agron watched with fascination, and a hush had come over the rest of them, though perhaps they were all quiet so as not to startle the boy, whereas Agron would not have been able to find words to speak if he'd made attempt.
The silence was broken when Nasir called out softly to the boy in a language Agron understood not. It did not roll easily from the Syrian's tongue, though; even the gladiator, who knew nothing of the language, could hear that the words were broken. So long had Nasir spent in the Roman's household that he'd forgotten much of his previous life; he'd forgotten his family - all but a brother - and he'd forgotten his mother tongue - all but his name and the words he now spoke to this child. But perhaps, in time, it would all return to him. It seemed to be doing so already; the boy did not lash out at him as he had at Donar and Spartacus, but instead, when Nasir spoke to him yet again, the child very, very slowly reached out and surrendered the knife to the Syrian man, and at that Nasir smiled. Agron smiled with him.
It took only a few more moments of a very one-sided conversation between the two Syrians before the boy - so young, though Agron could not have guessed what age - finally pulled himself from his huddled position and cautiously went into the embrace Nasir offered him. And so the Syrian slid off the back of the cart, the young boy's arms and legs wrapped tightly around him. There, fully in the sunlight, Agron could see that they were from the same land. They shared the same dark skin, though Nasir's was still stained with blood, the same hair the color of ink and the boy's even curled as Nasir's sometimes did when it was wet. Agron, too, remembered the boy's eyes, though they were now closed; they'd been wide and almost the same brown as Nasir's, only a bit lighter.
Nasir turned and parted his lips to address them but just as he did, the boy in his arms stirred just enough to lift his lips to the man's ear in a whisper that only the Syrian could hear. And then that dark face was buried against Nasir's neck, hidden from sight. "His name is Sana," Nasir said, and in his voice was a certain fondness. In that moment, Agron wanted nothing more than to step forward and press a kiss to Nasir's lips, for whatever reason, but he refrained; the boy had only just given Nasir his trust and might have seen Agron's approach as a breach of that.
The men were quiet as they absorbed this information. Finally, Donar broke his silence, and whatever magic had been in the moment fled. "And what will we do with the whelp? Teach him to wield fucking gladius?" He shook himself free of Gannicus's grip, which had slackened as time had passed.
It was, perhaps a good question as to the boy's use, and it might have pulled from Agron a different reaction, had any of the other men asked it. But his response to Donar was venomous and spoken in a clipped growl. "Close fucking mouth," he snapped, and he would have said more if Spartacus hadn't interrupted.
"He is more deserving of freedom than any of us," the Thracian said. "So he will have it. We will not send him to the afterlife, as Donar wishes." And so Donar was silenced with only a few words and a look from Spartacus. No more would be spoken of killing the boy.
Gannicus spoke. "Then freedom he shall have," the Celt said, "but it should be far from here."
Again, Agron's temper flared, though he didn't know why. Everything concerning the boy - concerning Sana, that was his name - drew from him such visceral reactions. "We cannot abandon him and hope he finds his way. We must take him with us."
"And when we go to battle," Spartacus argued not because he disagreed, but because the issue needed to be raised, "what will come of him if none return?" He looked to Agron not to challenge him, but with the hope that the German would have an answer. "What will happen if the war is brought to our doorstep as it was at the temple?"
To that, Agron had no reply, but he needed only to glance at the boy in Nasir's arms to know that it didn't matter. Sana would be coming with them. Agron had decided this and he cared nothing of what the rest thought on the matter. He would not give the boy his freedom and throw him to the wilderness and pray to the gods he found his way somewhere safe. The safest place would be with those that would protect him, no matter that they were in the midst of fighting a war. Better Sana face the dangers of war with someone willing to keep him safe than avoid it and find himself utterly alone.
"Let us decide this at another time," said a voice previously silent in the debate. "We linger here too long." It was Crixus, and for once Agron was grateful for his words. It would give the German more time to choose his own on the matter, to prepare his argument for when it was needed. Spartacus nodded his agreement and the group dispersed, though some lingered longer than others. Like Donar, who turned hard eyes on Agron, his brother and kinsman, before turning on his heel and stalking away. And Agron himself remained where he was, though he did shift to fully face Nasir and Sana, only watching them for a moment. When his gaze wandered toward Nasir's eyes, the gladiator found the man looking at him.
"You defend him fiercely," Nasir said simply, the shadow of a smile on his lips. He moved slightly, adjusting the boy's weight in his arms, though he didn't let go for even a moment. But even if he had, no doubt the child would have remained where he was, so tightly did he have his limbs wrapped around the Syrian man.
Agron shrugged his shoulders in return. "He cannot defend himself, so I will do it for him." And though he said those words so casually, there was a promise behind them. A promise that he would protect Sana, no matter if the boy never spoke a word to him or even glanced his way. He would lay his own life down to save that of this innocent child. The reason for this was a mystery to the gladiator, for now, but it was of no import. He was decided, and once the German was decided on something, no force would move him from it.
That smile still played pleasantly across Nasir face as he turned his head slightly and whispered in his own language some words into Sana's ear. After a short moment, the boy lifted his head, though he seemed reluctant to do so. And then he turned his wide, brown eyes from Nasir's face and glanced across to where Agron stood, and for the first time, they looked at one another. It was just for a moment; Sana hid himself against Nasir's neck only seconds after - but it had been enough. The gladiator's face split in a grin. He asked for no translation of Nasir's words. He needed none, not in the wake of that briefest of glances.
The rebellion had come to a standstill for this boy, but now it moved on with him in tow. Their numbers had swelled to, perhaps, one more than they needed, but it was a burden they would all bear, if Agron had any say in it. Nasir carried the child on the walk back to camp and the gladiator stayed only a few steps behind, keeping his distance as Sana no doubt wanted, but every once in a while Agron saw in his periphery a pair of the widest brown eyes turn to him before swiftly disappearing again.