The rain was relentless, falling in sheets that made Agron glad for the oilskins he wore. The Roman fuck to whom they once belonged was likely less glad, but dead men had no need of material possessions.
At first, there were concerns over whether their plan would be spoiled, given the way the gods pissed their displeasure down upon all their heads, but the promise of coin was enough to bring even the most craven of dogs from his hole. The slaver they sought was more than willing to speak with them, though he would not cease his bleating.
“I don't care for the fucking rain,” he complained, though his displeasure did nothing to halt his steps as he led them onto the deck of the ship. “Nor disturbance at unreasonable hour.”
Agron followed behind, his clenched fists hidden beneath his cloak. He longed to wrap fingers around his sword, the heft of steel a comforting extension of his arm. But no, everyone in their party had a role to play, and Agron's was to be dutiful bodyguard. He was to be a Roman shit like the rest of them, and such a man would hold no ill will toward a slaver beyond the inflation of his prices.
The slaver walked across the wet deck of the ship with the assured steps of a man well-practiced at it. The reminder that this was not the first boatload of men the dog had sold into slavery only served to further inflame Agron's anger. He was doubtless not alone in his observation. Each man in their party, save Lucius, had spent time on such a ship, their thoughts turned toward uncertain future as they huddled below deck. Agron himself could still feel it – the pain from injuries sustained in battle, the despair in his heart, the confusion and resentment, the desire to fight even in the face of such insurmountable odds. He would do it for himself, for the memory of brothers and sisters lost, all that was required was a momentary lapse of which he could take advantage.
He never found such lapse, of course. It had taken Spartacus for Agron to regain his freedom. The knowledge that he was about to provide that same opportunity to a boatful of his kin – men and women ripped from their homeland by savage hands – aided in keeping Agron's emotions in check.
He took his assigned spot near the rail, far enough from Lucius so as not to appear interfering in affairs of business, but close enough to render aid should it be needed. He did not anticipate it being required, not when the guards appeared unfocused and their master eager to get on with their transaction.
“I would have you quickly removed from such concerns,” Lucius said, flicking a disinterested glance in Agron's direction.
It was the agreed-upon signal, and Agron pulled their purse of stolen coin from his cloak and threw it into Lucius' waiting hand.
“And well compensated for allowing eyes upon your latest offerings,” Lucius continued. “In advance of auction.”
The slaver had eyes for nothing but the gold for a long moment, one in which Agron or any of the other rebels could have killed him a dozen times over. That he could not see the danger of their acquaintance, remarkably fortuitous for them, only served to underscore Roman arrogance.
“You must have pressing need to venture out on such a night,” the slaver remarked. Yet another thing that should raise suspicions, but which was hidden by the size of purse in hand.
“I fear the rising sun will dash hopes of being met,” Lucius replied.
“Short of time, long of coin,” the slaver remarked.
Had Lucius actually been an upstanding Roman citizen, Agron had no doubt that the slaver would have been met with sharp words for the comment. This ship was not the only one the port had to choose from – the one from Gallia had arrived earlier in the evening, and that from Damascus would be along on the morrow. Though the transaction took place under cover of darkness, Lucius could have walked away without risk.
No such thing would happen this night, and the slaver was somehow secure in that knowledge. Agron continued to bide his time - the man would get his just rewards soon enough, they had but to wait for the proper moment. It was not yet upon them, though Agron could see Spartacus' hands as they wrapped around the railing, ready to pull himself up onto the deck as soon as it was time to do so.
“What form of slave narrows your purpose?”
That he had to ask told Agron there was more than just warriors chained below.
“I have a desire toward fighting men,” Lucius replied.
Spartacus made move to pull himself up farther, but one of the guards stood far too close to his position to allow him to safely move on deck. Agron gave an imperceptible shake of his head, telling Spartacus without words to stay down a little longer.
“I supplied Rome with many of its finest champions,” the slaver bragged. “Sadly, with the arena in Capua gone, there is less interest in such men, such talent.”
It was not easy to contain his glee at such words, yet Agron somehow managed to keep the joy from his face. The memory of the burning arena would warm him on many cold nights to come.
“Fortunate for my cause, then.” Lucius' voice pulled Agron from pleasant memories. “Come, let us see how you can further aid.”
They headed below deck to review the prisoners, the slaver showing his lack of sense by allowing men not his own at his back. As Agron made his way down the ladder, he met Spartacus' gaze and was almost disappointed that he would not be able to witness the spectacle of blood which would soon take place. No matter, he would have his own opportunity soon enough, and it would be glorious.
The hold brought back many memories for Agron, not simply those that had already returned to haunt him. Beyond the pain of heart and body bruised and bleeding, remembered feelings of gratitude burned, having been so out of place in the midst of such despair. He had not fought the sentiments, though perhaps 'gratitude' was too light a word for how willing he had been to lie prostrate and thank the gods that he faced such horrors alone. It seemed wrong to be grateful that his family was no more, but he would not claw the sentiment back, not even in weaker moments when the burden of memory bore sharply down upon him. No, he would think of them and their ends, and he would feel joy that Rome had been denied six more lives in servitude.
Brothers strong of body and fierce of temperament were struck down before Agron's eyes by an enemy with no honour: Brando and Adalwin, fallen in battle, their deaths glorious as they defended their homeland. Agron fought alongside them, expecting to join them at any moment as the tide of battle turned to favour the Romans, but somehow the gods saw fit keep him alive. Even as he ordered Duro off with Auda and Berhta, beautiful girls tender of heart, and Warin, a boy far too young to wield more than simple practice sword, he thought the gods protected him only so he could complete that most-important act.
But death never came for him, not even when the battle was over and Agron caught sight of a soldier holding a small wooden sword stained with blood. He knew that sword intimately; it had once been his own, and was recently in the possession of a child with wide, fearful eyes. A boy determined to defend his two sisters, even as they fled the destruction of their village, one older brother tasked with getting them to safety.
No, the gods had not allowed him to the afterlife that day – their plans would not be forfeit simply because he wished it so. The very thought of what lay in wait for him was horrifying, but Agron still gave thanks that he would meet it without anyone at his side to share in it. His brothers would not have their noble spirits broken for sport. His sisters would not be forced to endure the indignities which would befall them under Roman rule.
Not for the first time, Agron wondered what the gods thought of his current path, whether they had foreseen the rebellion and if he had always been meant to find his place in it. It made no difference to him whether or not he had their favour, if that was the true reason he had endured so much. The fact that he would soon liberate an entire boatful of men acted as balm to wounded heart.
“Forgive the stench,” the slaver said as he gestured to the men chained before them. “Savages East of the Rhine tend to favour their own shit. I intended to have them scraped and oiled before auction, but I fear it that would do little to improve their natural odour.”
Agron stayed back, appearing disinterested in the business of purchasing men while he took the time to look each slave over, committing their faces to memory. These men and women were his kin, people snatched from their homeland, destined for suffering and eventual death at the hands of the Romans. They would be rescued, offered second life. Should anything happen before they were free of the ship, he would remember them.
Assuming he found himself in a position to do so.
“How do you find their women?”
“As unpleasant as their men.”
Agron ignored the conversation around him, instead drawing nearer to the men chained like animals. It lifted his heart to see defiant gazes, the fire burning in their eyes not yet extinguished despite their rough treatment. Each man glared at him in turn, and the hatred to be found in their gazes almost made Agron giddy. Yes, these people would join their ranks and add to their strength. He would once more be surrounded by his kin, and the rebellion's reliance on fucking Gauls would be lessened.
It took Agron a moment to notice that one man did not look at him, either with hatred in his heart or any other expression. He sat with his head down, though Agron did not believe it was in submission. There was tension in his shoulders and his fists were clenched, two things which belied a man broken of spirit. He spoke quietly to himself, and Agron would have dismissed him as mad had he not been able to make out words mumbled in German, intended for no one's ear save that of the man who spoke them.
“Reunion is near,” the man said to himself. “Auda and Berhta and Warin await.”
Agron must have made some noise at that, for the man finally raised his dark head, his long, matted hair threatening to slide forward and obscure his face. It mattered not that the countenance was so changed, boyhood and laughter stripped away by Roman might and replaced with scarred flesh and slightly vacant look. It was a face that had haunted Agron's dreams from the moment he found himself in shackles.
Agron felt his heart soar at the realization that the gods had orchestrated such a reunion, that they would reward him with such a prize. His brother, near enough to touch after years of separation, years of believing him for the afterlife. Agron wanted to shout, to show his gratitude in the same fervent way he had once before, on a ship so very similar to the one aboard which he now stood. Strange, how it felt like coming full circle.
“Your suffering comes to an end, brother,” he said, lapsing into his mother tongue, at a loss for any words that could possibly be worthy of such an occasion as their reunion.
The vacant look in Duro's eyes did not waver, though he blinked slowly as he took in Agron's words. “You share our tongue,” he said.
“And your blood,” Agron replied in disbelief that his own brother did not seem to know him.
Certainly no god was that cruel as to bring them together only to place such divide between them. Perhaps the Romans had addled his brain – there were traces of blood near his temple, it was possible. Agron would not allow himself to contemplate anything else. This confusion was temporary, borne of mistreatment and long separation. Nothing more.
“Prepare yourself,” he said firmly. “I would see you free.”
Duro looked at him for another moment, as though the words required time to form sense inside his head. Once they did, Agron watched as a flicker of recognition came into his eyes. His joy at that was short-lived.
“The bearded fuck knows our tongue as well,” Duro warned.
The words were barely out of his mouth when the guard attacked, bringing his sword down in a wide arc meant to cut into Agron's shoulder. The move left him off-balance and vulnerable to Agron's own blade. Gladius cut through flesh, nicking bone, bringing to his knees a man with so little respect for human life that he did not deserve to keep his own.
Chaos erupted below deck as the other guards rushed forward. None paused to turn eyes toward their fallen comrade, proving that the bonds of brotherhood did not extend to fucking Romans. Agron took down those he could, hearing, if not seeing, Spartacus and the others jump into the fray. German voices erupted all around him, calling encouragement to the rebels and insults against the Romans in equal measure. Men fought back with the chains which held them, bringing a fitting end to Roman filth. Even women locked away took part, aiding in the killing of one of their captors. Women from his country were fierce when need arose.
“Chains, quickly,” Spartacus yelled. “Release them!”
Agron hurried to comply, beginning at the end of the row of men, though he desperately wanted to start with Duro. His brother had been chained for far too long, and Agron would not see it last a second more than was necessary.
“Your men fight well,” a giant of a man commented as Agron made short work of his wrist shackles.
“These are not my men,” Agron replied. “We follow Spartacus.”
He continued down the row, pausing once Duro was free of heavy steel. He pulled his brother into his arms, much the way he had when they were boys in need of comfort. Agron was not too proud to admit his need for contact, not even among so many strangers. He could feel Spartacus' eyes upon him, feel the weight of questions unasked, but he pushed it all aside. There would be time for that later.
The keys were taken carefully from his hand, Spartacus taking over the task of freeing the others when Agron showed no sign of letting go of Duro, not when some of the tension had finally begun to bleed away and his brother was embracing him, as well.
“I thought you a dream,” Duro said, his arms tightening around Agron a little more now that he was beginning to come back to himself. “I believed you all dead.”
“And I, you,” Agron told him. He pulled back, just far enough to rest their foreheads together. “I saw Warin's sword and knew your party had fallen.”
A stricken look overcame Duro's face, making Agron wish he had not mentioned their youngest sibling. Such a happy boy in times long past, hanging on Duro's every word to the point where Agron himself had been sorely put out by it, believing that hero worship was reserved for the eldest.
“I did not abandon them to the Romans,” Duro insisted. His hands clasped Agron's arms, fingers tightening as if that alone could make Agron believe him.
“I would never believe that of you,” Agron assured him. “The others, Duro. What became of them?”
Perhaps they yet lived. Perhaps Agron would see them again, as well. They would not be the same, their sweetness and light extinguished by their enslavement, but the thought of holding them again in his arms would be enough to drive Agron for years to come. Auda and Berhta would be women now, and Warin still a boy, but one impatient enough for manhood to push away childish things.
“They are in the embrace of loved ones, in the afterlife,” Duro said, the weight of his pain heard in each word.
Agron felt the tearing of his brother's heart, and his own ached the same. Dead, then. Funny how only a short time ago he had been grateful for it, and now he mourned them anew. There were no words to be spoken in that moment, both brothers embracing each other once more, attempting to find strength and comfort in the other.
“You not from our lands,” one of the freed men declared as Spartacus unlocked his chains. Agron watched the situation unfold, waiting for the Thracian's skill as orator to stir the men to purpose.
“And yet I was once bound in chains, by the Romans as you were. A grievance I would see them pay dearly for.”
“Spill more Roman blood?” the giant that Agron had earlier spoken with asked in German. Clearly there was not much trust in him, if he refused to speak the Common tongue, though the fact that he did nothing to hide his understanding of it spoke volumes. This was a man looking to be swayed.
“Cock hardens at the fucking thought,” the man continued, to the ecstatic cheering of their kin.
Perhaps Spartacus had only just then realized from where the slave ship hailed, but the dark look that overtook the Thracian's face might have been cause for some concern on any other day. On this one, Agron was far too taken with reunion to care.
“He says they are with us,” Agron translated, though any fool could have figured that out on their own. “Go, brothers!” he continued in German. “Take leave of this fucking ship!”
He settled his arm around Duro's shoulders and watched as the other rebels, save Spartacus, led the former prisoners out of the hold. Agron watched them go, a smile on his lips as he allowed some of the tension to finally leave his body. They had done it – an entire boatful of his kin free from Roman oppression.
“A fortunate thing,” Spartacus said as he approached. “That we liberate a ship filled with your people.”
“The gods favour us,” Agron said with a grin. His arm tightened around Duro's shoulders as if to illustrate the assertion.
“And will Nasir be in agreement?” Spartacus asked curiously.
Agron could not help but laugh. “When I return with beloved brother by my side? He will give thanks alongside me!”
Spartacus had nothing to say to that – indeed, what words could possibly be sufficient given circumstances? Agron clasped him on the shoulder and dragged Duro toward the ladder, intent on leaving the ship, and that part of Duro's life, behind them.
Rain still fell heavily, but there was enough light from the moon that Agron was able to see the changes in his brother, to catalogue them and vow to revisit each slight tenfold against their enemy. The changes were not only physical, not merely scars like those across Duro's eyebrow, his lip, his cheek, his chest and hands, but other, deeper ones that left his gaze shuttered and wary. Even standing with his brother, among so many capable fighting men, Duro feared reprisal for their escape. Agron himself would not linger, but the way Duro's eyes cut left and right, expecting Roman swords from every shadow, only served to confirm all Agron had suspected about his brother's time beneath the heel of Rome.
“Come, the journey is long and the weather foul,” Agron said, urging Duro a little faster.
They would be better to pace themselves, but that was a concern for later, once the port of Neapolis was long behind them. His brother followed along without a word, his strides meeting Agron's despite a slight limp. Once back in the relative safety of the temple, Agron would properly look Duro over and make sure his hurts were tended to. He would also be able to present Duro to Nasir, who Agron had so recently counted as the only family he had left. While theirs was not a connection forged by blood, it was one forged by heart, the strongest of all links between two people.
“You must meet Nasir,” Agron told his brother, unable to keep the smile from his face as he thought about the Syrian.
There were men who thought love made them weak, but Agron knew the truth of the matter. Once, he had fought only for his own survival, then he fought for Nasir's. Now, he would fight for Duro's as well. Love did not render a man foolish and weak; it made him a giant, towering over everyone in his path when set to purpose.
“There is much he yet does not know, but I would tell him all. It is my wish that you two will be as brothers,” Agron said.
“We were set upon by a clutch of men in the woods as we ran for the river,” Duro replied, though it clearly had nothing to do with the hope Agron had just expressed. He could follow Duro's thoughts, however, and felt a pain in his heart like the twisting of a knife.
“We were so close, I could hear the water. I allowed myself to believe we would make it. We were all four of us strong swimmers, and the current would have swiftly delivered us from the Romans.”
Agron knew well how fond his sisters had been of water. Warin as well – the boy had taken to it as if part fish, a fact for which he was well-teased by loving older brothers.
“I put myself between them and the soldiers, intending for them to flee while I attempted to cut down as many of the shits as I could. Auda was the first to fall, cut down by one man who had crept around us while the rest of the soldiers caused distraction. I did not see the blade pierce her back, but my dreams are most detailed.”
“You did what you could,” Agron said fiercely, stopping in his tracks to place hands on Duro's shoulders and dig determined fingertips into his flesh. “You defended them.”
“Warin was next,” Duro continued, his eyes focused on another place, another time. “You well know he was her pet. He raised his wooden sword and lunged at a man three times his size. I saw steel slip through his ribs, but I was too far to render aid or even hold his hand. He did not linger; such a tiny body could not possibly, after suffering such grievous wound.”
“Duro, stop this!” Agron demanded. He shook his brother hard, Duro's head snapping back and forth as Agron attempted to dislodge him from the memory which held him in its grasp.
“I know not how Behrta died,” Duro said once the shaking stopped. His eyes were clearer, more focused, though he would not be deterred from voicing the thoughts inside his head. “Once Auda and Warin fell, I was gripped by madness. I killed as many as I could before I was overpowered. They would not kill me because I would offer amusement, they said. It was when I was on the ground, tied at wrists and ankles, that I saw her dead eyes.”
“Listen to me, Duro – you tried to save them. There is no dishonour in being alive to remember them – but remember them in better times. They would not want you tormented by their spirits.”
“I failed them,” Duro insisted. “I became known as the shit who let them die. I was a source of entertainment for them, Agron. It's why they kept me.”
No, that was not the way Agron wanted Duro to think. The Romans kept him because the gods willed it, because he and Agron would be reunited in time, once Agron had accomplished whatever it was they wanted of him. Agron had never been a man who loved the gods, but if there was even a small possibility that they had a hand in a German slave ship docking at Neapolis on a night they could raid it, and of Duro being on that ship, then Agron would seize piety with both hands and never let it go.
“You only failed them if you dropped your sword and allowed the Romans to slaughter them,” Agron said fiercely, his hands on either side of his brother's face. “You do not deserve such pain.”
“But I do,” Duro said. “They are dead and I yet live. You entrusted them to my care, and they never even made it to the river. I deserve this.”
“You only deserve it if you enjoyed the sight of them lifeless on the ground,” Agron growled. “Tell me you liked it, Duro, and see me believe that yes, you deserve to join them.”
“I would never,” Duro whispered, the way he flinched at such words telling Agron that his brother was not beyond helping. He would come back to them in time, if Agron willed it hard enough.
“I know,” Agron told him softly, pulling him into another embrace. The others moved around him, some watching with curious eyes, others ignoring the sight. Agron gave them no thought, not when his brother was the focus of his attention.
Spartacus' voice pulled him from the moment and Agron had no choice but to look away from his brother, which was when he realized just how far they had fallen behind. The leader of the rebellion had a concerned look on his face, one that Agron could see even from so far away.
“Come,” he told Duro, urging him to continue on the path. “We must keep moving. But we will speak of this again, and I will tell you once more that you have wronged no one.”
Agron could see that Duro did not believe his words, but his brother did not contradict them. He would be thankful for the small favour and would use the rest of the journey to plot a course of action. He had not been given Duro back only to lose him to vile memories and guilt at perceived failing.
No, they would never be parted again. Agron would accept no other fate.