Nasir shows up at the training ground while the morning chill still lingers in the air. Barca is already there, leaning against a crumbling wall and looking distinctly unimpressed. He watches Nasir approach from under half-closed lids, not stirring.
Few others are up this early. A small group of Germans is heading out to hunt, and a few of the younger slaves are practising their swordplay in the courtyard. Nasir is secretly glad Agron did not roll out of bed immediately after him, although he sleepily promised to follow. Nasir would rather not have him glowering nearby for this. He’s well aware that there’s no love lost between Agron and Barca.
Truth be told, there’s not much love lost between anyone and Barca. Nasir himself is not sure if he’s ever exchanged more than a handful of words with the man. The Beast of Carthage is a fearsome asset in any battle but apart from Pietros and Crixus, there are not many rebels he holds in close regard. Pietros mentioned to Nasir once that Barca used to be different, more inclined towards drink and boisterous jests with his brothers. That he changed, after Ashur’s betrayal nearly saw him killed. Pietros seemed reluctant to say more, and Nasir did not push. Sometimes Agron wakes with a blood-curdling snarl beside him, or cries out for his brother in his sleep. Nasir knows all too well that no man or woman who escaped the house of Batiatus did so without scars.
As Nasir draws close, Barca deigns to push himself upright. He’s got one hand loosely wrapped about a training spear, the tip blunted so much it’s nearly round. Nasir eyes it cautiously.
“I do not favour early hour,” Barca rumbles.
“Nor I. But Spartacus gave order,” Nasir says, shrugging. The motion sends a twinge of pain through his shoulder, still healing from a Roman sword slice that laid it open nearly to the bone. It’s the reason he’s here, paired in training with a man he barely knows, a man who any rebel with good sense steers well clear of.
“To train you in use of spear, yes.” Barca ambles towards him with the easy grace of a tiger. “How did you come by wound?”
Nasir rolls his shoulder, in defiance of the sore ache. “I took attack too close to mounted Roman. He got under my guard. Spartacus thought I might do better with different weapon.”
He does not necessarily agree, not when his sword lies easy and well-balanced in his hand. But it was Spartacus who taught him the use of it, and taught him to govern his own life besides. He’d trust Spartacus’s counsel in almost any matter.
It occurs to him that so must Barca, or he would not be here.
Barca walks unhurriedly around him, appraising him from all sides.
“I see course of his reasoning. You stand short of height.”
Nasir can’t help a snort of laughter, despite a flare of irritation at being examined like a new slave at the market. “Do we not all, when placed beside the Beast of Carthage?” He’s well-used to having to look up at other men, but Barca towers over most. When he finally stops to face Nasir, his collar bones are barely level with Nasir’s eyes.
Barca doesn’t smile. “It places you at disadvantage,” he states, prodding at Nasir’s sword with the front end of his spear. “Your reach with sword is often shorter than opponent’s.”
Nasir swallows a sharp retort. “I make do.”
Barca nods. “I have seen how. You move quickly and dart in close, striking beneath enemy’s cover. Fierce and fast.”
Nasir smiles, caught off guard by the compliment – he didn’t think Barca ever deigned to notice his existence, never mind his fighting style – and that’s precisely when Barca strikes. His spear seems to become flexible, like a snake that grips Nasir’s sword in several lighting-swift undulations until it’s wrested from his grip. The spear flips, knocking him hard against the chest with the butt end. He would have staggered to the ground, but suddenly Barca is behind him, trapping him back to chest with the spear locked painfully tight across Nasir’s throat. He never even saw him move.
“It works,” Barca says close to his ear, his tightly-twisted locks tickling against Nasir’s neck, “unless your opponent is fast as well.”
Nasir struggles in vain against his grip. Barca has him locked firmly around the throat, and he needs his hands to keep the spear from his windpipe. His sword lies useless on the sandy ground.
“Of course,” Barca murmurs, his voice suddenly dropping to a disconcerting low purr, “short though it is, your body offers other distractions.” His lips are close against Nasir’s temple, and something about the quality of his chokehold changes subtly, shifting from threatening to seductive. “Should any Roman ever hold you like I do now, you might rub that pretty ass against his cock and gain advantage from diversion.”
As if to drive the point home, Barca moves his hips, knees bending slightly to thrust his groin against Nasir’s rear.
Nasir goes instantly rigid, his whole body arching with furious instinct. He slams his head back hard and hisses at the pain of impact when his skull connects with Barca’s teeth. Barca grunts with pain as well, though, and his grip slackens long enough for Nasir to shove his elbow back into Barca’s ribs and dart out from under the spear. He drops into a roll when he feels the spear swishing over his head, grabs his dropped sword in passing and rolls back onto his feet, whirling to face Barca.
“You are fast.” Spear tilted towards him, Barca grins. He looks ferociously amused, although there’s blood on his lip. “You think yourself match for my cock, pretty boy?”
Nasir raises his sword and drops into the first defensive stance Spartacus ever taught him. “Come and see question answered,” he challenges grimly.
The dust swirls up around them as they charge at each other, Nasir ducking low beneath Barca’s spear, trying to get into close enough range to score a hit. The spear seems to be everywhere, moving so fast it blurs. Its quick, darting strikes look deceptively light, but the impact is brutal; Nasir feels each hit travel through his sword up his arm, straining his sore shoulder.
From the corner of his eye, Nasir notices they attract an audience as they spin and turn and stab: rebels gathering around the training grounds, chewing their morning ration of bread and exchanging joking bets on the outcome of the fight. Nasir doesn’t hold much hope for any odds placed on him. He’s seen Barca in battle, of course: they all have. He knows the man is tall and fast and ruthless, but it’s different to have all that concentrated force turned on him. It’s all he can do to stay out of reach, and even that’s not easy.
His eyes flicker for just a moment when he spots Agron striding down the stairs to join the small crowd, and that moment is his undoing. Barca leaps, his spear a natural extension of his arm, and disarms him with a sudden smack against his hand. Even as Nasir’s sword flies out of reach and he clutches his throbbing fingers, he realises that Barca must have held back; a full-force hit at that angle would likely have broken his wrist, or at least a few fingers.
Raising his eyes, he gets just a glimpse of Barca’s smirking face before the gladiator whirls his spear over his head, whacks him hard across the back and sends him face-first to the ground with a well-placed kick to the back of his knees.
Nasir spits out gritty dust and turns his head sideways, sore fingers scrabbling in the dirt. Their spectators look vastly amused, except for Agron. Agron looks fairly murderous, but then that’s a familiar look on him.
Barca brings his spear down across Nasir’s shoulders, pressing hard. His knee edges between Nasir’s sprawling legs, and he grins. “Once again I’ve got you spread for my pleasure. Did you truly fight, or were you longing for my spear to pierce you?” He jerks his hips, a leer audible in his voice.
Across the training ground, Nasir sees Agron’s eyes widen in fury, sees his fists clench and his body tense as he prepares to attack. Nasir narrows his eyes at him and shakes his head minutely, even as he strains against Barca’s grip.
To his relief, the source of interference is not Agron. Barca’s lover Pietros stands near the steps of the temple, with a grim expression on his usually friendly face. There’s another blunted spear in his hand, though he holds it loosely; he is himself one of the most devoted to his training, ever eager to banish his days as a defenceless house slave.
“Remove head from ass, and release him.”
Barca lifts his head, but otherwise makes no move to stir. “Cease fussing. I but give instruction, as Spartacus commanded.”
Pietros frowns. “I think by ‘teach Nasir to fight with spear’, he meant weapon in your hand, not that between your legs. If you would have the latter satisfied again within the week, return to purpose.”
Someone snickers audibly. It may just be Agron, Nasir admits resignedly. It is no secret within the camp that Barca has one weakness, and that anyone who wishes to exploit it need only worm their way into Pietros’s generous heart. Crixus joked once that if Pietros expressed even a passing desire for the moon, Barca would find a way to wrest it from the sky.
With a disgusted sigh, Barca stands, allowing Nasir to roll onto his back, and offers him a hand up. Nasir takes it despite his indignation. He reminds himself once again that Spartacus asked them to try this, and that a lot more needs to happen than some cocky gladiator pawing at him before he dismisses something Spartacus said.
Pietros steps up to them, offering Nasir his spear. “You can’t teach,” he says pointedly, to Barca, “before placing weapon in recruit’s hand.”
Barca snorts unrepentantly and reaches out to grab Pietros by the nape, pulling him in for a kiss. Pietros allows it for a few moments before he places a hand against Barca’s chest and shoves him back. “See to your task,” he admonishes, although there’s a note of exasperated fondness in his tone.
He rolls his eyes at Nasir as he retreats, and Nasir grins back. He has no idea how the boy puts up with Barca, but he’s always liked Pietros. He is younger and gentler than Nasir and has taken more slowly to the art of killing, but there’s a determination in him that Nasir admires: a dogged quality of I can do this. There have been many occasions when the other slaves took to their evening meal while Pietros remained on the training ground, determinedly whacking his sword and shield against whatever target proved handy.
Once again, Barca faces him on the dusty ground, but for a change, the derisive mockery has gone out of his face and tone. He jerks his head at the sword Nasir has picked up out of habit. “Set little kitchen knife aside, and grip spear.”
Nasir puts down the sword and fingers the spear Pietros has handed him, testing its weight. Being made of wood, it does not, at first grip, feel as heavy as a sword, but there is a certain delicacy to its heft. When Barca steps suddenly behind him, arms reaching to frame his own, he tenses, almost attacking automatically.
This time, however, Barca’s touch is impersonal as his hands close over Nasir’s, shifting them down the length of the spear. “Feel balance of shaft,” he instructs. “Too close to spearhead, and you hold useless oversized arrow.” He moves Nasir’s hands back, and the tip suddenly topples gracelessly, dragging his arm to the ground. “Too close to butt end, and deathly weapon becomes old man’s walking stick.”
He steps away and nods at the spear in Nasir’s hands while picking his own back up. “Find balance. Then take position, like so.” He takes a wide-legged stance, holding the spear balanced at about shoulder height. “Never throw, unless you face only one enemy and are certain of hit. Instead, use spear as longer arm with deadly point. On forward step, extend, like so. Stab, like so. On retreat, pull back, like so. Return to first position.”
Nasir has followed the quick manoeuvre closely. It doesn’t look too hard, but when he extends, the spear grows front-heavy, pulling him off balance. Barca deflects it almost lazily. “Old man’s walking stick,“ he reminds Nasir. “Grip closer to middle. Again.”
They go over it again, and again, and then Barca puts him through another few basic moves. Soon, the sweat is sliding down Nasir’s skin and his healing shoulder aches in protest against the unfamiliar motion, but he’s starting to get the idea of it – his mind can sense the symmetry of holding it right, even if his arms still struggle.
Barca grants him no quarter, but in a strange way Nasir is grateful for that. They all fight on the same side but he can still sense a gap, sometimes, between some of the trained gladiators and the former slaves who pick fighting skills up as they go, with varying degrees of success. The aches and bruises are nothing, but he could not stand it if Barca treated him as if he did not deserve to be faced as a warrior.
The blunted spear tip glints in the sun as he steps, extends, whirls, retreats. The shaft lies smooth and warm in his hand, still unfamiliar but he feels almost close to unlocking something. He has to admit he likes it – the heft feels good, and there is more flexibility in the ways the shaft can be flipped and swung than there is in a sword. He isn’t used to having this long a reach and keeps leaning in too far, but he almost understands how it’s supposed to work: darting in, striking and pulling back without exposing himself to the opponent’s weapon.
Again and again, Barca deflects his thrusts and strikes out in response. Nasir has not yet managed to get even close to hitting him, but he does manage to block some of Barca’s attacks. Once, he tries whirling on the spot like he often saw Barca do, to bring the spear to bear against his opponent’s back. Barca moves with him and intercepts him, but he gives him a tiny nod.
He’s starting to feel like he’s settling into a rhythm when all of a sudden Barca drives him up against the temple wall, rushing at him with both hands on his spear. Nasir reflexively brings his own up horizontally to block him, but with nowhere to back off to, he just finds himself pinned by two spears instead of one, and Barca once again pressing close against him. They’re both covered in sweat and streaks of dirt; Nasir is out of breath and even Barca is breathing a little harder than before.
He grins down at Nasir, exerting just a bit more pressure. “Not bad, boy. Still, you overreach and leave your back open like a whore begging for cock. Were I inclined, I could have fucked you wide open a dozen times over.” He shoves a leg between Nasir’s thighs and grinds against him lazily, laughing when Nasir writhes furiously to get away. “So eager!”
“Barca!” This time it’s definitely not Pietros’s mellow voice that rings out across the courtyard. This voice is furious and challenging and very, very familiar. A second later Agron launches himself sideways into Barca, knocking him off Nasir with a punch to the face. “Take filthy hands off him, you fucking Carthaginian shit.”
Regaining his balance, Barca touches his nose. His fingers come away bloody but there’s a smirk on his torn lip. “You have no cause to fear. He’s pretty but my tastes run to longer legs.” He nods over Agron’s shoulder, where Pietros is standing nearby, rubbing a hand across his face in a resigned gesture. A wry pang of sympathy dispels Nasir’s affronted struggle to regain his dignity. It’s hard enough sometimes to stop Agron from getting himself into a fistfight every half hour. He can’t imagine dealing with Barca.
“Agron!” he says loudly. “It was but rude jest.”
Agron frowns at him, conflicting emotions warring on his face. He seems about to back off when Barca gives him a condescending pat on the shoulder. “Indeed. Besides, he’s too small to take anything but your tiny cock.”
It’s all it takes. Pietros’s exasperated cry of “Barca, fucking cease!” is drowned in Agron’s roar. He throws himself at Barca again, but this time Barca is ready for him. Within seconds, they are circling each other, charging and breaking apart, fists flying, while everyone in the courtyard comes running to cheer and watch.
Nasir sighs and resigns himself to letting them have it out.
Agron is tall, but Barca has more than half a head on him. Nasir can see how that vexes Agron; he can tell from the tensing of his shoulders, the way he leaps to throw himself on Barca from above. Looking aside to contain his sour amusement, his eyes meet Pietros’s. They exchange an eye roll, and the younger boy comes over to stand next to him.
“Apologies,” he says, with a rueful smile. “He forever mistakes rude crassness for amusing wit.”
Nasir snorts. “As long as he places gentler hands upon you, I do not mind.”
“He does,” Pietros says, eyes softening for a moment. Nasir smiles at him warmly, nudging him in the shoulder.
“Then think nothing of it.”
The meaty smacks of fists on flesh interrupt their conversation. Barca and Agron have taken their fight to the ground, exchanging blows and insults as they roll on the dusty earth.
Pietros snorts in disgust and bends down to pick up the dropped training spears. “Here.” He hands one to Nasir and grins impishly at his questioning look. “Set spear to proper challenge. Let us separate growling dogs.”
Nasir laughs and nods. They charge together, with blood-curdling howls that drown out the spectators’ cheers, and throw themselves on the mass of flailing, kicking limbs.
About two minutes later, two very dirty, thoroughly beaten gladiators are lying flat on their backs, staring confusedly at the two spears pointed at their throats. The watching rebels are shouting with laughter and roaring their approval.
Nasir is under no illusion that these two would have been as easily subdued had they been facing genuine attackers. He cocks a brow at Agron, nudging the blunt spearhead against his chin. “Have you finished acting like bull stung by tiny bee?”
Agron blinks up at him with a look that manages to be both glowering and deeply wounded. “I came to aid!” he protests.
Nasir rolls his eyes and pulls back the spear, offering a hand to help Agron up. “Aid neither asked for nor required, you hot-headed fool. I stood in no true peril.”
Agron’s face looks like it can’t decide whether to be sheepish or affronted, so Nasir grabs his chest strap and yanks him in for a kiss to help him make up his mind. As distraction goes, it works rather well.
There is some muttering and grumbling beside them, and then someone clears their throat loudly. Nasir and Agron break apart to find Barca standing there, one arm slung around Pietros’s shoulders and a long-suffering look on his face. He makes an unintelligible noise, and Pietros pokes him in the ribs with a stern sideways glare.
Barca sighs the sigh of the deeply wronged. “I overstepped,” he rumbles at Nasir. “Apologies.”
Nasir manages not to laugh, but only because he forbids himself to look at Pietros’s face. “Well received. As was your instruction,” he adds quickly, when he feels Agron tense beside him. “Gratitude for lesson.”
Barca grins easily. “You took to it well, for such a short” – he coughs when Pietros elbows him sharply – “…lesson. We shall make a Hoplomachus of you yet.”
Agron relaxes, slightly. “Well, for now, I am for food. Your feeble punches have worked up appetite.”
“As have your girlish kicks.”
“Food!” Pietros says loudly.
“And then a bath,” Nasir adds. “I reek of Carthage.”
Barca leers. “You seemed to like it, earlier.”
Nasir twirls his spear as they head off in search of their morning meal. It feels good in his hand. It feels like it belongs there.