The house of Fabius Aulus Falx was not well-guarded- an unwise decision given its position in the countryside and the threat posed by Spartacus and his army- and it did not take long before the dominus and his family were swept from the place by the rebels, leaving only slaves and smashed crockery in their wake. There were no women of the house, and a blessing that; there was no need to question what was to be done with them. There was only Fabius, a pathetic dribbling old man, his head cleaved from his body with one blow of a sword even as he whined and scratched at the floor like a begging dog. The hand that held the sword was that of his own body-slave, a boy scarcely old enough to have grown a beard, but with stripes still on his back from his dominus’ whip. As the head rolled away, the boy spat on the floor where it had landed.
With Fabius dead and the rebel generals conferring amongst themselves, the slaves of the house were left to their own devices. Some wandered the halls in shock, still unsure that their captivity was truly over. Others swiftly took to the bedrooms and banquet hall, scooping handfuls of gems into satchels, even scraping jewel-toned tesserae from the walls and floor.
Standing against the far wall of the banquet room, Desta did neither. Her fingers curled and opened around the spot on her neck where her slave’s collar had dug into her skin, still not entirely able to believe that it was gone. She had ripped it from her neck as soon as Fabius’s head had rolled on the floor, but instead of freedom, she felt a rush of something deeper and more terrifying- a sense of ropes cut, and of falling through empty air with no binds to slow her tumble. She had dreamt of freedom- yes, by all the gods, how she had dreamed of the day when that wretched collar would be loosened from her neck. But to what purpose?
She closed her eyes. The noise around her slowed as she searched her memory- there had been something. In the confusion and panic of the last hour, she had forgotten, but there had been something-
Adina. Her eyes opened. That was it. That was what she had determined to do, those six months past when she had been taken from the wagon and pushed through the doors of the house of Falx. Just before, when the wagon doors had swing open, Adina had clutched at her hand. Survive. For me.
I will survive to find you she’d promised. And she had meant it. She could not- would not- live in a world that was absent of her sister. Freedom had been granted to her; it was in her power and to her duty to pass the gift along to Adina.
The rebel generals still conferred, and her steps were sure as she crossed the scarred floor tiles to where they stood. “I beg your pardon, but I would have a word.”
They started, and the leader- Spartacus- turned towards her, surprise evident on his face. She felt a twinge of annoyance. Had they expected the slaves to be as silent and obeisant as they had been to their masters? She was no more slave to them than she had been to Falx. Still, he addressed her courteously enough. “What word would you have?”
She pushed the irritation to the back of her mind. More pressing matters called for attendance. “I would know where your path next leads.”
“You are welcome among our number, if you choose it,” said the one behind his right shoulder- heavily muscled (though that was not abnormal, among these men) with a scar across his chest. The idea of her intentions pointing elsewhere had apparently escaped him.
She swallowed her irritation again. “Thank you. But I ask to greater purpose. There is a destination I must reach, for someone waits for me at the end of the road. I would know if your path also travels that way.”
“We make for Rome,” Spartacus said, now examining her more closely. “Where is this place you wish to reach?”
“I know not the name,” she said, and saw one of the other men sigh. “but it is north of this place. Along the Via Appia.” There was no telling where along the road Adina would be- only that the wagon had been travelling northwest, and she had caught the name of the road from their captors. If they had continued along the same road, if her sister had been sold along the way, if they had stopped before reaching the city-
It was a leap, she knew. The men directing the wagon could very well have kept Adina until reaching Rome and sold her amidst the Roman crowds. If they had, she knew there would be no finding her. Not within the labyrinthine city walls where- so the others had told her- it was easy enough for a Roman to lose himself in the winding paths, let alone a pair of slaves who knew only the hard clay and familiar streets of their home.
She would return to that home. And she would have her sister by her side, come all the armies of Rome.
“We travel that way,” Spartacus said, “to Rome.” Her stomach clenched, but she smiled through her teeth. No proof that Adina had been sent to the city; none at all. “How many houses stand along the road?”
The rebel leader shrugged. “Five, perhaps more. The Romans are fond of it as a place to retire from the city.”
Desta’s lip curled. “They will find leisure not to their liking, I think.”
Spartacus smiled at that, and one of the men behind him burst out laughing, slapping him on the back. “The cat bares claws! Perhaps not an unworthy addition to the army, hey?”
She turned a cold eye on him. “I want little of your army.” She was gratified to see his smile falter. “When I find my sister, my path only leads home. I have no other purpose but her freedom and our return.” His face fell entirely at that, and she felt her blow strike home. Let him call her “cat” now. She was no one’s pet.
Spartacus raised a hand, directing her attention back towards him. “What place do you call home?”
“I-” She bit her lip. What name would he recognize? She knew what she called it, of course, but the gladiator-turned-rebel did not hail from her land and did not speak her native tongue; it was plain enough just looking at him. “I hail from a place called Cyrenaica. The Romans call it Carthage, I believe.”
“I know the place.” He examined her now with, if not whole respect, at least some form of understanding. “We do not travel that way. Our path leads only to Rome’s destruction. If you mean to make your way home, you will do it unaccompanied.”
She met his gaze, steadfast. “I would not have it elsewise.”
* * * *
She was drawing water from the well when she saw them.
It was a warm day, warm enough that her hair was already coming loose from her braids and clinging to her neck. Her clothing likewise pressed close to her skin, and she felt the crawling of a thousand insects in the sweat that slid down her back and between her breasts. It was a day to bless the little clothing Domina offered her- blessed because it provided some respite from the stifling heat. Little enough blessing, in this world of blood and shit.
If the gods had truly blessed her, she thought, she would be elevated to body slave, and indoors waving Domina’s fan for her. Instead, she was kept to the kitchen- cool enough at daybreak, but it had quickly grown hotter even than the outdoors, as the oven was prepared for the day’s meals. Some days, it was oppressive enough to believe that she had died unknowing, and the place she thought she served was truly the pits of Hades. If that was true, there would be few consequences if she tried to escape and cut the veins in her wrists.
Or perhaps they would be. Could Pluto rival the caprices and cruelty of Domina and her husband?
As she drew the bucket from the well and straightened, pushing a strand of hair from her face, a flash of light brown skin between the tree leaves gave her pause. Hunters? No; Dominus would never allow them on his land. One of the other slaves? But there was no reason for them to be out amidst the trees unless . . .
Unless they were fleeing.
The heat still pressed against her, but she took no mind of it now. Her heart pounded, palms slick with renewed sweat. Who would dare such a thing? Was it Judoc, who had been whipped bloody only a week before for dropping a jug of oil? Or Cassia who still swore her husband was waiting for her outside the villa’s walls? Or, or, or.
More importantly: would she cry the alarm?
She knew those among the household who would not hesitate to do so, should she attempt to make escape. Nor would she blame them; she had given little enough reason for her skin to be prized above theirs’. But there were others whose escape she would aid- or at least, would allow to proceed undetected. But she knew of none, in either camp, who would risk fleeing in the light of day. Their absence would be noticed within the hour, and hunting parties would find them easily with no darkness to hide their passage. Who among them would be so foolish?
She inched forward, and caught another flash of skin- this time a face. She stopped. The face- the woman- stopped likewise, staring at her with a mixture of fear and- impossibly- anticipation. As she watched, the woman in the trees lifted a finger to her lips in a wordless gesture. Be silent. Be still.
She nodded. She could not say why she did so; the woman offered her nothing. Perhaps it was the stranger’s face that shocked her into agreement- she saw few non-Roman faces outside the familiar slaves of the villa. Or perhaps it was simply that the woman was a stranger who had offered no offence. Whatever the cause, she had disappeared from sight in the time it took her to blink. She glanced back towards the villa. She had taken long enough to fetch a jug of water; if she tarried any longer, she would feel the sting of punishment. She picked up the jug and hurried inside, sparing a brief thought for the woman, wondering who she had been.
She was not left to wonder long.