With the energy of battle still racing through their blood, they ran as though pursued by wolves, one behind the other-Agron, Spartacus, Crixus, Saxa and Naevia, leaving Donar behind to assist the newly freed slaves in securing the villa. For the second time that night, they followed footsteps left in Roman wake, though the lingering darkness made it difficult to distinguish old tracks from new as they made their way towards the dark mass of woods that hugged the two hillsides that lay some distance from the villa.
The going was hard. The downpour that had already hampered their progress had left the ground a dangerous quagmire of hidden puddles and slick mud that threatened to send them sprawling from their feet without warning. Yet they pressed on, uncaring of their harsh breaths and the mud that spattered their calves and thighs, clinging to their every limb as they ran towards the pale strip of sky, far in the distance, that signalled the coming of dawn.
It was not long before they found themselves deep within a maze of trees, surrounded on all sides by thick, trailing undergrowth that hid both rocky ledges and wandering roots that seemed designed to trip and tangle. Only the fading stars above lent them some direction, enabling them to spread out and search for any sign of Nasir's flight. Fortune was not with them, however, for they found only a mass of tracks looping round each other in every direction and crossing in confusing circles. Though no one uttered word of it, each knew the tracks were those of the soldiers sent in pursuit of Nasir upon his break from the villa's walls.
Though the knowledge weighed heavy on them, they nonetheless moved quickly amongst the tall tree trunks, scanning for sight or sound of Nasir's whereabouts. The woods were mostly silent, broken only by the coughing bark of some animal and the occasional wet slap of leaves across bared skin as they ducked one after another under a low-hanging bough. Occasionally, they heard a faint crack echo through the night, a remnant of the now far-off storm that had caused them so much delay. The tracks, however, led them continually in that same direction and so they followed, with the sound getting louder with each passing step until they came to a halt in a slight break between the trees where the path seemed to diverge, with many tracks leading off in different directions.
Agron glanced around, his shoulders rigid with tension as he took in the chaos of tracks scattered over the muddy ground, noting that there were many hoofprints as well as signs of men travelling by their own worth. Anxiety mounted within him. Nasir, small and fleet of pace, might have been able to evade capture by soldiers travelling by foot, yet those on horseback would have proven more difficult for him to outpace.
'Which way do we turn?' he demanded of Spartacus shortly as the man came up behind him, his own brow furrowed as he examined the wealth of tracks.
Yet his question was answered as another sharp crack shattered the quiet of the woods, louder than the others had been, and this time followed by a pale cry almost too faint for their ears to pick up on. Agron's heart froze inside his chest. He knew that voice.
He did not have to give instruction to the others to follow him. As one, his companions had turned towards the sound and as it came again, a crack then a cry, they broke into a run around him, making for where the noise had come.
Agron raced in front, throwing caution to the wind as he barrelled through the trees, trusting only to the gods that he would not trip nor stumble. He ran uncaring for the fierce slap of branches that hit his face and chest, nor for the roots that made attempt to wrap their wet, clinging tendrils around his legs and arms to drag him to the ground. He dodged obstacles where he could but otherwise wrenched his way through with brute force, blind to the blood he left behind as the branch of a tree ripped across the flesh of his shoulder even as fierce thorns tore at his chest and legs. He could hear crashes behind him as the others followed in his wake, but another sharp crack and cry drew him on, his heart beating as loud as a battle drum against his pounding chest as he raced through the ever-lightening wood with the sole purpose of finding the source of the sound.
The next crack that split the air seemed to come from by his very feet. He froze mid-stride, then braced his legs and threw back his weight in a desperate attempt to avoid plunging off the top of a steep hill that dropped down into a small, circular clearing in the trees. He pin-wheeled for an endless moment then found his balance, only to be hit from behind as Crixus barrelled into him, a dead weight that sent him reeling forward. It was Spartacus' clutching hand that saved him, seizing in the buckles of his armour and dragging him back as Saxa and Naevia did the same for Crixus, preventing them both from crashing headlong down the hill and into the cluster of Romans gathered at its foot.
With Spartacus' steadying hand still upon his shoulder, Agron froze as he stared down at the scene before him. A squadron of Roman soldiers, bristling with swords and spears and flaming torches that were becoming almost unnecessary under the paling sky, stood gathered amidst a bare circle of earth that was clear of vegetation except for a single tree that stood at its very centre as though put there by the gods themselves.
Bare to the waist, Nasir was strung up from the tree so that he hung limply by his arms from one of its lower limbs, his wrists chained together and bound by thick ropes looped around a solid branch high overhead. Through the press of bodies that surrounded him, Agron could just make out the bloodied lines that crisscrossed Nasir's back, forming cruel, slashing patterns. Blood dripped from his nose and mouth and harsh bruises were clearly visible against the pale skin of his arms and legs, even as the sun struggled to continue its climb above the horizon.
A man, tall and lean and cloaked in a light blue robe, stood in front of Nasir, with a woman at his side whose hair was as pale as that of her companion. As Agron watched, with a red haze of fury seeming to sink into place before his vision, the woman stepped forward and tugged at a thick black collar that was fastened around Nasir's throat, jerking him forwards and pulling yet another stilted cry from his throat. There was blood smeared over the fine bones of her pale face. Agron tensed, his grip tightening on his sword. His dream of seeing Nasir bearing collar once more was coming true before his very eyes. And he knew how it ended.
Beside him, Spartacus held up a cautioning hand, his muscled chest rising and falling in harsh pants from their desperate sprint through the forest. 'Hold position until order is given,' he said, his voice no more than a bare breath in Agron's ear.
Agron glanced at him, then back to the scene before him where Nasir hung bloodied and bound. 'Fuck that,' he muttered. With a cry that resounded throughout the woods and echoed into the pale dawn, he broke from cover and charged down the hill, making for the Romans, leaping over bushes and feeling his legs move ever faster as he gained speed. Within seconds, he made out Crixus at his side, sword outstretched, and Saxa only step or two behind, her long legs eating up the ground as she unsheathed her daggers, with Naevia running at her heels. Then Spartacus was there, roaring his battle cry so that it mingled with Agron's own.
They were upon their enemies almost before they realised they were there, and the Romans fell in great swathes around them. Agron gloried as his blade parted Roman flesh, uncaring for the carnage he left in his wake. He saved the pale-haired ones for last, the image of the woman's hand grasping the collar that bound Nasir's neck seared into his mind like the mark of the brotherhood. He drove his sword into her chest before turning to pursue her companion, who had broken for the far side of the clearing, abandoning the woman to her fate upon first sight of the rebels' charge. Agron caught up to the man in a few easy steps, then, with one swift blow, removed first an arm before going for his neck, relishing in the ease of his victory. The man's body toppled slowly to the ground, his head coming to rest some feet away, and Agron drew to a halt, breathing harshly.
He swept the clearing with a sharpened gaze, assuring himself that the last of the Romans lay dead and provided no further threat. Around him, his companions were dealing finishing blows, though Naevia was still caught in battle with one of the Roman guards. Crixus stood near, his coal-dark eyes satisfied as he watched Naevia drive her short blade through her opponent's ribs before slashing his throat open with a wild scream.
Satisfied that danger was removed, Agron looked to Nasir, who was hanging limp and bloodied from the tall tree, showing no sign that he even realised the rebels were there.
A strange roaring started in Agron's ears, similar to the noise of the arena. It drowned out all else, blocking both light and sound, until all that was left was Nasir hanging before him, still and unmoving. He stepped forward, then again, and then once more until he was running, desperate to set eyes and hands upon Nasir, knowing only that for too long had he been absent his side.
He came to an abrupt halt before him, dropping his sword to the ground as he skidded slightly in the wet earth that had turned to mud under the churning of feet. 'Nasir?' he said hoarsely. His voice caught in his throat, which suddenly seemed far too small for any words to pass. Carefully, he reached forwards and palmed Nasir's cheek, stroking the soft skin there with its slight stubble, caressing, and then, when that caught no movement, he cradled the familiar, stubborn chin in his fingers and raised Nasir's face upwards, begging, pleading, praying to the gods for a response, for movement, for the lightest breath of the living.
Innumerable moments passed before Nasir's eyes finally cracked open, dark and pained. A wounded gaze settled on his own, drifting in and out of focus, and cracked lips parted, a hiss of sound escaping them.
As the familiar sound of his own name fell upon his ears, Agron thanked every god in the heavens. Words failing him, he leant forward and pressed his forehead against Nasir's own, the deep pit that had settled in his gut the moment he had heard of Nasir's plight finally retreating before fading altogether. Slowly, he took a long, deep breath, drawing sweet, damp air into his lungs. Nasir was safe and in his arms once more.
Footsteps sounded and Agron knew without looking that it was Spartacus who approached. He moved back infinitesimally, allowing his presence, and a strong hand reached out to grasp Nasir's bloodied shoulder, careful to avoid the torn flesh of his back.
'You did well, Nasir,' he heard Spartacus say over the ringing in his ears that had yet to fade fully.
Agron felt Nasir nod against him and he echoed it, murmuring his own praises and managing to bring a faint, ghosting smile to bloodied lips. Mirroring it, he drew back and, taking the knife that Spartacus proffered, reached upwards and cut the ropes that bound Nasir's arms above his head before lowering him to the ground and settling him carefully on his side. Gingerly, he leant over him, brushing back sweat-damp strands of dark hair that smelled strangely sweet and cloying, and that clung to his fingers as he pushed them away from Nasir's forehead so he could better lay gaze on the pale face.
Nasir had closed his eyes, seemingly exhausted, but Agron could feel faint pressure as he leant his head into Agron's hands. Heat pricked at the back of Agron's eyes and he fought to keep his face quiet and still, instead focusing on the welcome distraction of Naevia, who had approached blood-spattered and silent. She knelt down beside them to examine Nasir's back before turning her attention to the wounds that Agron could now see upon his leg, arm and chest. At her urging, he quickly ripped strips from their clothing to bind against them to prevent further loss of blood, then together they studied the chains that bound Nasir's wrists, realising quickly that it would be no simple task to remove them.
'Key to bonds must wait back at villa,' Naevia said, her voice low and anxious. She pressed the back of her hand against Nasir's forehead. 'He remains cool to touch. Fever has not yet taken him, though I fear for infection.'
Agron nodded absently, still running his hand softly over Nasir's hair, frowning as he found a patch of matted blood near Nasir's left temple. He could hear Crixus talking somewhere behind them and let the growled words drift over him, his body feeling suddenly heavier than it had moments before, as though all the exertion of the past few days had descended upon him all at once.
'Haste must be seized with both hands,' Crixus was saying to Spartacus, his voice hushed. 'Soldiers will come when discovery is made of villa's fate. We must return there to ensure safety of all who remain.'
Though Agron heard him give no assent, Spartacus seemed to agree, for he approached the small trio on the ground. 'Agron,' he said, his voice patient but firm. 'We must move.'
Agron nodded, not looking up.
'Can you bear weight? Or shall I give aid?'
'I would walk.'
The hoarse voice took all gathered by surprise. As one, Agron and Spartacus turned to Nasir, whose eyes were open, if not completely alert, as he struggled to sit up, paying little heed to Naevia's restraining hand upon his shoulder. 'I would walk,' he said again.
About to protest, Agron caught the look on Spartacus' face. Pride was there, and no small amount of respect. Agron looked back at Nasir, and saw the determination etched on his pale face. Slowly, he nodded. 'So you shall.' Gesturing at Naevia to shift back upon her heels, he reached one hand gently underneath Nasir's armpit as Spartacus did the same on his other side. Together they levered Nasir to his feet, where he stood, swaying slightly, but upright.
As Spartacus left to inform the others of their plans, Agron pressed calloused fingers against Nasir's chin, tilting his face up so that he could see into Nasir's dark eyes, which had finally started to regain some focus. 'Are you certain of this?' he asked. When Nasir nodded, he carefully slung an arm low around Nasir's waist, supporting him as best he could without doing further injury to his back. About to move off, he stopped as Nasir resisted.
'Hold a moment.'
Slowly, Nasir reached up about his own neck. Bloody fingers fumbled, then fastened around the collar that still rested dark against the pale skin of his throat. With one harsh tug, he pulled it free and cast it upon the ground where it lay in the mud, gleaming slightly in the light of the newly risen sun. Together, the two of them stared down at it.
Nasir's voice was soft but determined when he finally spoke. 'Never again shall my neck be bound by that collar.'
Agron nodded, making his own vow. 'Never again,' he said, his throat clenching as he wrapped his arm tighter about Nasir's waist and helped him make his slow, halting way towards Spartacus.
The hiss that escaped Nasir was soft and low, almost indistinguishable from the faint crackle of the torches as they burnt steadily in their sconces on the walls of the temple corridor. Agron paused, waiting until Nasir had quieted again beneath his touch before he continued his careful ministrations, laying soft strips of cloth against the ugly cuts gouged into the otherwise smooth flesh of Nasir's back.
Nasir shifted beneath his hands, finally resettling himself where he lay flat-stomached against the pile of rugs and animal pelts that made up their sleeping pallet, with a loose-woven blanket pulled up about his waist. 'Apologies,' he murmured, sounding almost half-lost to slumber already.
Agron's lips curved in a smile, quietly amused that Nasir could find rest despite the treatment of his wounds. Still, he supposed that exhaustion must yet linger in Nasir's every limb and muscle, if not from his capture and escape then from the injuries themselves, not to mention the further sapping of his strength from the exertion of their homecoming underneath the shadow of the great mountain, Vesuvius.
It had been a long journey back to the rebel temple, moving at slow enough pace to account for the twenty slaves who had chosen to join Spartacus and also for Nasir's injuries. They had been fortunate to have taken possession of some horses found tethered by that cursed clearing in the woods, and still others had been revealed in the stables of the taken villa. The beasts had eased the journey, bearing coin and precious foodstuffs taken from their Roman owners, as well as those least able to walk.
The girl, Aemelia, had been one of the slaves who had chosen to accompany them back to Vesuvius to take up with the growing rebel army. She had hovered over Nasir for most of the journey, offering help in tending his wounds and plying him with food and water until Agron, growing impatient with her attentions, had sought audience with Spartacus and persuaded him to distract her so he could tend to Nasir alone. Though Spartacus had heaved a sigh, he had acquiesced, and Agron had spent the rest of the journey in relative quiet, with occasional assistance from Naevia, versed in the tending of wounds from her time in the ludus of Batiatus. The sight of Aemelia trailing behind Spartacus, plying him with questions of every sort, had brought unintended amusement to all and had so lightened the journey, though Agron held suspicion he would be spending many nights on watch on the temple walls in recompense as soon as Nasir had returned to full strength.
Turning his thoughts away from the journey home, Agron refocused on the task at hand, covering another of the lash-marks that marred Nasir's back with a clean piece of cloth. 'I would not have you concern yourself,' he said. 'You have suffered much.'
Nasir shrugged sleepily, then let out a soft 'fuck' as the slight movement jostled his injuries.
Agron frowned. 'You forget yourself,' he chided. 'Strength returns only with rest.'
'It yet returns too slow,' Nasir murmured stubbornly, sounding more like obstinate child than the warrior he had proved himself making escape from the villa of Secundus Lucius, however ill-fated his attempt had proven.
Agron laid the last bandage on Nasir's back then nudged him fully awake before helping him to rise so he sat upright on the low pallet, his arms wrapped around his bent knees. Kneeling behind him, Agron gathered a longer length of cloth in his hands and began to pass it around Nasir's chest and back, binding the bandages in place. 'Better slow than not at all,' he said sternly. 'Caution favours those honour it.'
Nasir huffed a laugh as Agron secured the final piece of cloth, tucking it back upon itself so it did not come loose. 'And if I yet refuse to show such caution? What will you do? Keep me in golden cage until danger fades from sight?'
About to press a kiss to the back of Nasir's neck, Agron stilled as the memory of a forgotten conversation reared its foul head. Sitting back, he reached up with one hand and slowly trailed the backs of his fingers down Nasir's uninjured arm, watching as small bumps developed in their wake before dropping his hand down to his side and reaching for the remainder of the bandages that lay discarded on the side of the pallet. 'You think this of me?' he asked lightly, feeling a tension he knew revealed itself in his halting words. 'That I impose such prison?'
Nasir twisted round to look at him. His dark brows were furrowed. 'Words spoken were in jest,' he said. 'Their intent was not to cast shadow.'
Agron remained silent, choosing to focus his attention on turning the strips of cloth between his fingers, binding them into a roll ready for next use. Nasir, however, shifted so he was facing Agron, wincing briefly as the movement stretched the long, healing cut that reached along his thigh. His eyes were searching. 'If thoughts burden you, I would have you share weight.'
Agron set the bandages aside, regretting having voiced his concerns at all. 'It is nothing,' he said dismissively. 'Only words spoken by another in anger, soon forgotten.'
Yet Nasir had that look on his face, the one that meant he would not let subject of discussion be put aside. 'Spoken by one here?' he demanded persistently.
Agron shook his head. 'It is nothing,' he said again. He leant forward and began to kiss the same path his fingers had just walked, letting his mouth whisper over skin that had yet to resume its usual gleam. 'Other matters remain to be remedied, ones that would bring far greater pleasure than simple words.'
Nasir reached out to him, running a hand over the back of his head only to catch at the short strands of hair there in order to tether him at arm's distance. 'I would have you speak,' he said firmly. 'Or you must seek remedy for such matters elsewhere, both this night and for those beyond.'
Agron sat back with a sigh. 'Fucking Syrians,' he muttered, knowing when to accept defeat. He toyed with the frayed edges of the blanket that pooled around Nasir's slim waist. 'Words spoken were that of Crixus.'
Nasir raised a dark eyebrow. 'How long was I absent that you now seize upon words uttered by the Gaul? You know the man a fool.'
'In most. Yet not in this.' Agron flicked a gaze towards Nasir before glancing away again. 'He claimed I would keep you in gilded cage,' he said abruptly.
Nasir frowned then shook his head. 'He is wrong,' he said simply.
Agron shrugged, rising upwards from the pallet in one swift movement to stand before the blanketed wall of their makeshift tent, his hand clenching and unclenching as his nails bit into his palm. 'You say it so? Heart's desire would see you safe from all harm.' When Nasir did not immediately reply, he turned back ready to demand answer, only to be met with Nasir's amused smile.
'You speak as if such thought is owned only by yourself.'
'It is not?'
Nasir huffed a chuckle. 'For one who calls himself elder, you often linger far from wisdom.'
Stung, Agron turned away, only to be pulled back by Nasir's quiet words.
'I have not told you of events that passed under the roof of Secundus Livius.'
Agron stilled. He had let Nasir keep his tale to himself despite his own punishing desire to hear it, not wanting to stir the troubled memories already reflected in Nasir's dark eyes, memories that yet haunted sleep and caused Nasir to wake with a suddenness that often startled Agron from his own dreams of the arena. Silently, he shook his head, his gaze fixed on Nasir who lowered his gaze, a habit learnt from his days as a slave that Agron had always done his best to discourage.
'The Roman shits sought to make me body slave once more.'
Agron nodded. He had known that from the words uttered by the dominus of the villa as he had stood over him, sword bared and bloody. 'You escaped…' he began.
Nasir hesitated and Agron felt his heart seize within his chest. Had he mistaken the words of that shit who had called himself dominus? Or had the fuck lied through his teeth about Nasir and his fate in attempt to have his life spared? Yet then he saw Nasir shake his head, clearly realising what thoughts his words had provoked.
'I made escape into the night,' Nasir said, 'yet not before seeking other method of flight.' His eyes flicked up to Agron's before darting away again. 'Dark thoughts haunted mind, threatening madness. Escape hung in swift reach and I bore weapon in hand to achieve such end.'
Confusion gave way to comprehension and Agron felt his body turning numb as he realised what he had almost lost. Slowly, he took seat at the other end of the pallet. 'You had mind to take life.'
Nasir nodded, his fingers twisting in the blankets. 'Thought of unwanted touch made path to such action clear. I desired escape from such fate and sought it at end of blade.'
Agron cleared his throat, unsure whether to voice the thought that jumped immediately to mind. 'You bore such familiar touch for many years,' he said carefully.
'As Tiberius. I am him no longer, in more than name.' Nasir huffed something that was almost a laugh. 'Perhaps I grow too proud, that I put honour above prolonging life. Naevia-'
'Do not think to compare situation,' Agron retorted fiercely. 'Choice is one's own. No one may know what they would do to survive such a thing, if given opportunity to do so.'
'I was fortunate opportunity struck,' Nasir admitted. He raised his head suddenly, the light of the lamps lending his gaze a fire that was echoed in his next words. 'Though choice to fight was mine, thought of you provided much needed spur.'
About to speak, Agron found himself silenced as Nasir leaned forward and laid both hands upon his face, forcing Agron to match his gaze. Nasir's eyes were serious but resolute, as though he was determined to make Agron see his point. 'Were it not for lessons you gave in battle breath would now be absent body. Of that I am certain.'
'Spartacus-' Agron began, yet Nasir shook his head.
'Spartacus placed sword in hand, yet it was you, as much as him, who taught me to fight, to know my enemies, to seize upon their weakness. Such an act…it was not that of one who harbours intent to keep me safe behind walls no enemy can scale. Crixus spoke with false tongue. There is no cage but that from which I have been freed.'
Agron nodded, finally accepting the truth of Nasir's words, and Nasir offered him a soft smile before leaning forward to press a kiss to his lips. His heart easing, Agron returned it before breaking off and catching at Nasir's chin with his fingers.
'Desire to see you safe is strong. I cannot promise that instinct will lose to intent.'
'You protect me. As I would you. There is no guilt in that.' Nasir's eyes lit up with sudden mischief. 'Which brings to mind another thought, one of far greater concern. Lugo stands burdened with much guilt for time spent again as Roman slave. I have only to lift finger and he appears at side, offering aid.'
Agron snorted. Letting go of Nasir and gathering the leftover bandages in his hands, he stood and crossed the tent to the small bundle of herbs and ointments that Mira had left them that morning when she had barged her way unannounced into their quarters, intent on seeing that the treatment of Nasir's wounds met her own high standards and quite uncaring of the privacy they had hoped to claim by drawing the cloth walls of their small enclave closed. 'As the man fucking should,' he said, dropping the bits of cloth into the woven basket.
'You hold him to fault?'
'Had he not been fool enough to have leg skewered by fucking boar, you would never have been in Roman sight.'
Nasir shook his head, clearly fighting back a smile as he eased himself back down onto his stomach on the pallet, folding his arms beneath him and laying his head on them. 'And what would you have him do to earn forgiveness?'
'That I do not know. Nor does Spartacus.'
'Spartacus holds him to account?'
'Lugo believes he does. I see no reason to correct him.'
Nasir grinned. 'Crixus stands not alone in bearing false tongue, I see.'
Agron's mouth tightened as Nasir's words stirred dark thoughts. 'At least Lugo admits guilt. Unlike that fucking Gaul. He stands as much to fault yet does not utter word to same affect.'
'He made apology, though he was absent need.'
'Crixus made apology?' Agron demanded. 'Do we speak of the same man? He offers apology to no one!'
Nasir yawned widely before managing answer. 'On journey home. You were lost in talk with Spartacus.'
Agron rolled his eyes. 'I swear by the fucking gods, soon you will have every rebel in this camp begging at heel.'
Nasir just shrugged drowsily, his eyes closing. Agron shook his head. He made his way over to Nasir and rested a gentle hand on his head, smoothing the dark hair beneath his fingers. 'Come,' he urged. 'I would have you rest. It will give much aid in healing wounds.' When Nasir nodded sleepily beneath his touch, Agron reached down and pulled the loose-spun blankets over him before leaning down and pressing a kiss to the crown of his head. 'Til morning then.'
There was no answer and the corner of Agron's mouth curled upwards as he looked down at Nasir, taking in the youthful features that were swiftly becoming ever more familiar: the soft lips, so ready to part in a smile upon sight of Agron, the stubborn chin, the dark flicks of hair that often did their best to cloak affectionate gaze.
Carefully, he ran a soft finger down Nasir's cheek, stroking gently over grazed skin which still bore all too clearly the cuts and bruises from harsh treatment and recent days. His eyes caught on one particularly vicious cut, gouged deep into the skin by Nasir's ear, that looked as though it had come from the tail-end of a whip. He frowned and let his eyes fall from it only to move to a gash on Nasir's arm, now cleaned and stitched, that was nevertheless an ugly reminder of where sword's edge had cut. Unwilling yet somehow unable to stop himself, he allowed his gaze to rove over Nasir's body, cataloguing the heavy count of his injuries, both minor and severe, until finally his eyes fell on Nasir's back, where many strips of white cloth hid bloodied wounds cruelly dealt not just to punish, but for fucking pleasure. And those were only the wounds to Nasir's body. Another sort had cut far more deeply.
Removing his hand from Nasir' cheek, Agron brought it stiffly back down to his side, where it tightened into a fist almost without intent. He glanced at Nasir one last time then turned and strode from the alcove, throwing aside the blankets that gave them privacy to emerge into the temple corridor, where he could see the flickering play of a campfire's flames against shadowed stone and hear the cheerful shouts and cheers, no longer muffled by heavy cloth walls, of the rebels celebrating Nasir's homecoming, as well as welcoming the new recruits.
His mouth curled disdainfully. How could they celebrate when Nasir lay so wounded, his dreams still shadowed by days he had thought forgotten? When hundreds, nay, thousands of slaves even now suffered similar threat of injury or even death at the hands of their self-proclaimed masters? When those same masters could even now be advancing on the temple, silent shadows in the night, ready to deliver death to all within the temple walls, even as they lay asleep and injured in their fucking beds?
Turning on his heel, he strode off, away from the festivities. Yet he had gone only a few steps when he found himself checked by the strong hand of Spartacus against his shoulder.
'Apologies,' he grated, shrugging off Spartacus's hand and turning to take his leave of the man. He was no longer in the mood for conversation that night. He strode off, only to become aware that Spartacus was following at his heels as he made his way towards the central courtyard, echoing the path he had taken some day back, when Lugo and Crixus had returned to camp absent their companion.
Ignoring Spartacus, as well as the men and women who slapped him on the back and arms as he passed, Agron headed for the same bit of wall he had scaled the morning he had first heard of Nasir's plight and soon had hand and foot against the stone, ready to propel himself upwards and away from the fools who sounded such rousing cheers. Feeling a presence at his back, he paused, turning to cast Spartacus a glare that would have made lesser men quail.
Spartacus, however, returned it evenly and even when Agron began to climb, making for the same vantage point where he had looked out on the dawning world that fateful morning, the man echoed his movements, scaling stone and rock with graceful ease before taking seat beside him as he stood upon the stone ledge, his eyes narrowed and watchful for the danger he knew lurked beyond.
They remained as such for some time, watching the mysterious shadows of a world lost to the night until the shouts and laughter below them had quieted to a low rumble of conversation as the rebels gradually took to the beds, some with and others absent company. Finally, when the flickering flames of the campfire had all but died, Spartacus spoke. 'Nasir?'
Agron stared out at the long-distant horizon, lost as it was to darkness. 'He is well. Or, as well as the gods could allow after such trials.'
'He has suffered worse injury. He will heal in time and take his place once more amongst the brotherhood.'
Agron snorted, his mouth twisting bitterly.
Spartacus raised an eyebrow. 'You fear for him,' he said levelly.
Tempted to hold his tongue and refuse words, Agron realised that he could not. He owed Spartacus answer, for his loyalty over the past days, for his determination to see Nasir free. With a heavy sigh, he dropped to sit upon the temple wall, his legs hanging over the rough stone edge. 'It is like Duro lives once more,' he muttered. He cast a frustrated glance back towards the temple, where Nasir slept sound and safe, for the time being at least, in their bed. 'Yet at least my brother stood somewhat higher from the ground.'
Spartacus chuckled. 'Do not think you are the only one to own this feeling. Such is the curse of sharing one's heart- we live forever in fear that they will come to hurt. Yet I would not have you despair. Nasir's efforts these past days have proved he has learnt lessons taught. He stands strong and fights well. As such, he stands superior chance in forthcoming battles.'
Agron threw Spartacus a sardonic look. 'You say Nasir now stands as fucking warrior, yet you fail to promise he will survive days to come.' He shook his head. 'I thought it the duty of one held as leader to give hope to those fallen low in spirit.'
'I would not give you false hope,' Spartacus answered. 'Yet do not cast it whole from mind, for it is a precious thing. Chance remains that we will all see life beyond current situation.'
Agron bit his lip as he thought on Spartacus' words, the pressure causing blood to well warm and damp in his mouth. 'Do you ever think of it?' he said finally.
'After. Of what our lives will be?'
Spartacus shook his head, a silhouette against the night sky. 'I cannot. For I have lost what came before. Thought of starting new life…it is a thing shrouded in mist.'
'Hidden by ghosts of the past?'
'Perhaps.' Spartacus was still a moment, then he raised his hand and clapped it on Agron's shoulder, breaking the tension. 'Let us turn our thoughts to happier things. Tonight should be cause for celebration, not fear and doubt. What of you and Nasir?'
Agron raised a mocking eyebrow, but not before an image flashed before his eyes, of he and Nasir crossing the green slopes he remembered from his childhood, of the lands he had once known as well as the back of his own hand as he roved over them with his brother at his side, climbing every mountain they came across just because they could, of swimming in deep pools of the darkest blue, of lying amongst windswept grass that smelt of summer sun, and sheltering in a large hut as a winter storm howled outside, unable to break past the circle of warmth cast by a dancing fire and the company of his parents, brother and youngest sister, now all lost to time.
He cast the memories from his mind, knowing that such days were long gone. 'I know not. What would you have us do?'
'You and Nasir?' Spartacus smiled, his teeth gleaming pale and white in the night. 'Choice would be yours. You could settle upon farm…grow seed or raise cattle, goats, whatever you wished.'
Agron snorted. 'Goats? They are creatures cursed by the gods, good for nothing but the meat they bear.'
'Nasir holds a fondness for them.'
'I speak truth. He confessed so once to Mira, upon seeing some of our people return successful from a hunt with three of the animals slung across shoulders.'
'Mira mocks us both.'
Spartacus tilted his head in acknowledgement. 'Perhaps.' He jerked his chin in the direction of the temple. 'It turns late. I will remain on watch, yet you should seek your bed. Nasir will wonder what has befallen you if he wakes with you absent his side.'
Acknowledging Spartacus' words, Agron gathered his legs beneath him and made to rise. 'I would not suffer his displeasure, nor be the cause of it.' Before he was able to gain his feet, however, Spartacus reached out a hand to him, fingers wrapping about his wrist.
'If we do fall, it shall be as free men. That I swear.'
Agron nodded slowly as he climbed to his feet. 'Or perhaps,' he said, thinking of he and Nasir roaming unhindered across the lands east of the Rhine, 'we shall not die at all.'
He saw Spartacus return his nod before he pushed himself off the edge of the wall, dropping nimbly to the bare earth of the temple courtyard. Knowing that Spartacus would keep keen watch for any danger that threatened, he found his heart beating calmer than it had for many days and he turned with purposeful strides towards the alcove where Nasir waited for him, lost to slumber for the moment but able, upon waking, to protect himself as he fought for a cause they both shared, to preserve their own freedom and that of those held close to heart, as well as to gain it for many others currently bound in slavery to cruel masters.
Pushing aside the blankets, he glanced down at Nasir and, finding him still asleep, began to remove his armour and setting it aside, all the while lost in thought. Though Spartacus' words had not laid his fears to rest, they had at least reminded him that hope remained for Nasir to live out this battle, even if others did not. He, Agron, had taught Nasir well, and would continue to do so until Nasir could stand down any who faced him on the battlefield, especially if Agron stood with him.
And, as he climbed carefully onto the sleeping pallet and tucked himself around Nasir, who stirred sleepily but did not wake, Agron knew that for that night, at least, he would not dream of Nasir on the burning sands of the arena with sword in hand and a collar about his neck. Rather, he would dream of him striding through the cool grass of the lands east of the Rhine, strong, unhindered and free.
Thank you all so much for reading, and for the kind reviews. I really enjoyed writing this story, and I hope you enjoyed the final chapter! :)