Oenomaus wakes to pain, which is nothing new. He’s lived with pain all his life, learning not only to bear it but embrace it, letting it flow through his body and tell it with every twinge and stab and ache that he yet lives. In years past, he has made pain his friend and ally.
They spent much time together, the year after Theokoles.
In recent months, there’s been nothing familiar or friendly about pain. There was no honour in getting sliced to shreds in the pit; in disposing common thugs, or withstanding torture from a worthless shit like Ashur. That pain was poison, slowly leeching his life away as he waited for the inevitable end to claim him.
There wasn’t even any honour in standing upon the sands again. In facing Gannicus after all these years. Looking at that familiar, once-beloved face and hearing his betrayal confirmed, the pain that gripped Oenomaus then was hideous and sly. It bypassed his body entirely, diving straight at his heart, taking the ragged scar it bore and tearing it open, twisting it inside out in a crude mockery of his loss. It ripped out cherished memories and layered them over with images of the two people he has loved the most, entwined and gasping, laughing. Laughing at him.
So when he wakes this time, in a crumbling temple among ragged rebels, his life utterly forfeit and his former idea of honour tattered beyond repair, he welcomes the pain because he recognises it. This is the pain of skin and bone and muscle, sliced flesh and the dull throb of healing burns. He knows this pain. This pain is treasured.
For a few days, he lies in a daze, stretching his aching muscles. Gannicus comes to visit him, unwelcome yet unstoppable. He tries to share the pain; to offer some of his own, in feeble explanations. Oenomaus will have none of it. This pain is his. He will not let Gannicus taint a single other thing that belongs to him.
Spartacus comes to see him, too. He talks of justice and of vengeance. Of causes, and how there’s a place for Oenomaus here, should he wish it. How much they need someone like him. How welcome he is.
A part of Oenomaus understands; another shudders. He did not ask for this new world, bruised and bleeding, where everything he held dear all his life stands empty or betrayed; where savage angry children may rise as heroes, and the order he once held so dear is proven to be founded on corruption, collapsing slowly into muck.
Eventually he rises, straightens his shoulders, and walks into the glaring light of day. He’s found his place in this world once. He’s not so broken or so feeble that he cannot find another.
Oenomaus knows he hasn’t dealt too well with change. It’s true that he’s never had much opportunity to learn: from the moment Titus Batiatus saved him from the pit, his life ran in smooth ruts. Fight. Survive. Honour your house. Later, he learned new layers. Friendship. Love. But the bones of it were always the same, hailing back to when he was a skinny boy made up of rage and questions, and a man he loved turned the questions back on him.
Honour. That was his answer then. Honour and love, wrapped all in one. He doesn’t know how to apply either now. Honour as he knew it is long gone, drowned in rivers of blood and the treachery of Titus’s son. And the only person he still truly loves has turned out to be rotten to the core, tainting his memories of Melitta.
He loves him still. And her. Surely that should make a difference?
It doesn’t. He loves them and despises them, forgiveness a venture far too ambitious for his grasp.
He doesn’t know what honour means these days.
He flounders in the smallest things. Spartacus wishes him to be Doctore to this tattered bunch. It should not be so unfamiliar a task. They are no worse than many of the recruits he’s faced over the years: brash and cocky idiots who think they know the first thing about fighting, just because they’ve won a drunken brawl or three. He knows how to shape wild brutes into skilled fighters, how to turn raw boys into men.
But then there are the women. At first, Oenomaus isn’t sure what to make of them. They do not easily fit into the patterns of the women he has known all his life: one class of Romans, untouchable goddesses swathed in silk and derision; another class of slaves, ever vulnerable to their masters’ whims, treading softly with eyes down, eager to avoid notice in everything they do.
The women of this new world do not lower their eyes or sanction their actions with any man’s permission. They walk and laugh and fight and fuck as men do, attempting no apologies for who they are.
Oenomaus has no clue at first how to go about training them. Never in all his life has he raised hand or weapon towards a woman. He remembers his wife, slender and soft-skinned in his arms, so warm. So breakable. Not for a moment did he ever think her weak, but neither could he picture her with a sword in hands: not his Melitta, who was wisdom and gentleness and grace.
As ever in recent weeks, the thought of her hurts too much to linger on. Gannicus haunts his every step with bruised looks, even when he’s not approaching him to relentlessly prod at the open wound between them. To think of Melitta means to think of betrayal, so Oenomaus tries not to think of her at all.
But there are others here who started like she did. Mira, once forced to offer her body wherever her domina saw fit, now tirelessly at training with her bow and arrows, capable of turning into a whirlwind of snarls and blows when challenged. No one could claim her body now against her wishes, and get away alive.
And Naevia, gently raised like Melitta, elevated to her position after her death. Oenomaus does not recognise the girl he knew in the ragged, reed-thin woman who grimly trains with Crixus hour after hour; a woman covered in scars, with a swirling, aching darkness behind her eyes.
There are others as well. Women of every age and form, with gleaming eyes and weapons in their hands. He doesn’t know where most of them set out on their path – women like the wild girls of the Germanic tribes, who he imagines must have grasped at weapons when scarcely out of the womb, growing up wild and warlike in the barbaric countries of the north. But here they stand, united by loyalty to their leader and a common cause, and here they look to him for guidance.
He cannot fail them. He finds, with some surprise, that he feels passionately about this.
He throws himself into training, eager for something to do. Something familiar. Training recruits gives him an excuse to stay busy, stay far from Gannicus. He spars with each and every one of them, from daybreak until dusk, and falls to his bed with every muscle aching, grateful for the exhaustion that sends him straight to sleep.
Sometimes, despite his fierce resolve not to, he dreams of her. He cannot help it. In his dreams, she looks at him with her chin held high and her eyes square on him, despite the tears that roll slowly down her cheeks.
She bares her body, smiling through the tears. He responds with a groan, reaches out for her, aching with need.
From behind her, Gannicus steps into the light, naked and glowing.
He snarls. They advance upon him, beautiful and unapologetic, placing unwanted hands upon him. They touch him knowingly, bring him to aching hardness. They tease him, stroke him, love him. He hates them. He hates himself. He loves them.
We could not help it, they whisper. Apologies. Apologies. They bruise him with lips and teeth and hands. Their pleas for forgiveness cut him like blades, smother him like cushions. Poisoned wine drips from their mouths into his. It’s choking him. He gurgles, bleeds, gasps for breath. They smile above him, and kiss.
He wakes in agony, and bites his own flesh to keep from crying out.
He takes it upon himself to study the women.
It has come to him that in order to teach them anything, he must first learn from them; must make himself familiar with this new raw strength that’s unfamiliar to him, and find out how best to use it.
The women from the tribes east of the Rhine are the obvious choice. They were not dragged into this rebellion by need and circumstance. They were warriors already, battle-honed since childhood.
Oenomaus sets them against each other, and – despite his lingering twinge of worry – against the men. He watches how they fight: how they compensate lack of sheer brute force with greater speed, more carefully toned muscle. Swift strikes, precisely targeted weak spots.
Jupiter’s cock, some of them are better than just good.
“Saxa!” he calls out one day, and takes the steps down into the courtyard. She spins to face him, teeth bared under her unkempt flaxen hair. He smiles, against his better judgement. “I wish to learn your moves. You spar with me.”
She grins at him, more snarl than honest amusement. “Ich fick dich, bis du um Gnade bettelst, Hübscher.“
He smiles back, somehow reassured by the guttural challenge he doesn’t understand. He’s chosen well. This one needs no carefully withheld punches. She’s every inch a fighter.
They throw themselves at each other to the cheers of the onlookers, and for the first time in a long while, Oenomaus feels the spark of purpose.
Spartacus tricks him, neat as a wolf caught in a hunter’s trap. A contest to settle differences. Of course. The brazen, cunning pup.
He’s struggled for weeks. Gannicus would not stop. He keeps stepping back into Oenomaus’s wall of blades and fury. He knows it’s there, but every day he returns, attempting to scale it. Bleeding all over it without remorse or attempt to retreat. With words of explanation, words of love. With nothing but his face, laid bare in misery, asking to be struck.
The worst thing is that Oenomaus understands. Who could not, if not him? Melitta. He felt the ache of something hot and painful unfurl low in his stomach the first time that he saw her, scared but straight-shouldered at her new domina’s side. He knows how impossible it is not to love her.
Somehow he thought one kind of love was strong enough to undo another. That having loved Oenomaus first, and having seen him claim Melitta, Gannicus would somehow be immune to her, and stay so.
He loved me first.
They fight upon the sands, and it feels traitorously good when they lay Crixus and Agron low like the two inexperienced pups they really are. He glances over his shoulder, smiling without thought, and Gannicus is there, grinning right back.
His heart skips a beat, makes a decision, and beats onwards, without fanfare or the world turning upside down. Some part of him shrieks in outraged protest. This should be hard. It should be agony. It should be betrayal.
Somehow, it isn’t. Somehow, after all that pain, forgiveness is easy.
He spends hours with Saxa, teaching her the knives, until she shouts with frustration and throws them at his feet.
“Beschissene Küchenmesser. Ich brauch’ nicht mehr als mein Schwert und meine Hände,“ she spits at him.
He pushes the blades back into her resisting hands. “I have learned your speed with kicks and punches, and with sword, but these are better suited to you,” he insists. “You throw yourself at enemy and hold nothing back. You bring yourself into close range, so close-range weapons are what you need. Try again.”
She glares and opens her mouth wide, her tongue waggling in mockery. “Versuch’s doch selber, Schwanzlutscher.”
Oenomaus frowns. “Are you sure she understands me?” he demands of Agron, who’s perched on a nearby wall, struggling to contain his amusement. Agron exchanges words with her and laughs at her hissed answer.
“She says she understands enough to fuck you with your fucking knives,” he supplies helpfully, munching on an apple.
Oenomaus sighs, then takes the knives from her, placing them on the ground. “Let us try different lesson, then. You understand my words?”
Saxa stares at him suspiciously, then shrugs a shoulder and nods.
He nods back at her. “Then you must learn to give voice to response in our tongue. Schwanzlutscher.”
Her eyes widen momentarily at his awkward mimicry of her insult; then she laughs.
“Soft fucking tongue. No need.”
They’re the first words he’s ever heard her utter in their language, so badly mangled he can barely understand, but he smiles at her despite the crudeness of her reply.
“You are mistaken, Saxa. Words are power. Like sword. Word. They’re nearly the same, do you hear? Word. Sword.”
She furrows her brow at him, and he pushes. “Word. Sword. What are they in your tongue?”
She hesitates, then shrugs. “Wort. Schwert.” Not quite as similar, but he can see her trace the root of them, following the shape of each word with her lips. Not all that different, in the end.
“Your words hold power, as much as your sword, or more,” he tells her. “Power that I would see shared with all of us. Learn it. Seize it.”
She looks at him long and levelly, weighing his words as she did the knives, earlier. “Word. Sword.”
“Power,” he says, and Saxa grins, nodding.
“I learn. Oenomaus.” She forms his name carefully, as though it were a third tongue that she’s learning. He inclines his head to honour her.
He trains them all together, women and men. He learns from Saxa, and the women, how best to teach.
There is no point in sheltering any of them, because the enemy won’t shelter them. Instead, he focuses on their strengths. They carry less weight in battle. They are faster. The enemy expects less challenge of them, so the advantage of surprise is ever on their side.
He teaches them the weak spots of any man. He tells them to be ruthless. He pairs them with the German girls, who teach them as they have been taught. He watches closely, memorising the ways they move. Squashing a lifetime of instinct, he pitches them against the biggest warriors, and cheers with them when expectation sways the fight in their favour.
He learns, and is humbled. These women are not weak or delicate. They’re brave and fearsome, every one of them. They’re warriors.
He teaches them all he knows, and glows when they cheer for him: a ragged gaggle of women barely past girlhood, rejoicing in their newfound power.
When he least expected it, he regains his purpose.
Sometimes Gannicus watches, and raises a cup to all of them in cheering homage. Oenomaus would never put it into words, but it mends his heart to see his friend smile again. When Gannicus smiles, the colours of the world are richer.
There comes a night he cannot sleep, when a full moon and his ghosts draw him outside. He wanders aimlessly into the woods, far from the temple, until he reaches a clearing near the slopes of Vesuvius.
The moon turns everything to silver. Each blade of grass is outlined clearly in the eldritch light, all colour sucked from the world.
He has no candles, nor any of the small effigies Melitta treasured so, but he drops to his knees, turning his face to the sky.
There are no gods left that he would trust. He’s always believed that a man shapes his own fate. Lately, he’s learned the same is true of women; that they are no gentler nor yet more delicate than any of them. Pain claims kinship with them all.
Instead of gods, he whispers her name to the night sky.
“I understand,” he tells her, softly, then hangs his head. “I miss you.”
He fancies he can feel her lips upon his brow, even if it’s only the early morning mist.
She gives him peace. She gives him purpose, as she always has.
He keeps training with Saxa, teaching her words in exchange for what she teaches him about women who fight. It seems to make sense. She’s still the fiercest of the women, possibly the fiercest of them all. He’s spent most of his life fighting, but he learns something new from her almost every day.
He relishes that. He’s grown complacent in his years in the arena; he isn’t used to learning new things. He finds he likes it.
Perhaps change isn’t so bad.
One day, after a particularly successful sparring session, she kisses him. It shouldn’t come as a surprise – she’s with Nemetes, but he has seen the way her eye wanders, boldly and unafraid, towards better offers – but somehow it does. It’s more of an attack, really, added seamlessly to the finish of their routine: She blocks his final blow, spins, grins triumphantly, and suddenly presses close against him, her mouth on his. She’s slick with sweat and startlingly warm against his bare skin, her breath hot in his mouth as her tongue slips between his lips.
Oenomaus freezes for a moment. He hasn’t touched a woman since Melitta. There were times he considered it, even set steps in motion to slake the needs of his traitorous body, which knew little of grief or honour. But every time he saw himself face to face with some whore or willing slave, he shrank back from opportunity, all desire suddenly doused. He did not know, after Melitta, how to place hands on some stranger’s flesh in an empty parody of what they shared. He never did discover how to uncouple lust from love.
Saxa is not a stranger, though – not anymore – and for a moment his body responds to her all too willingly. She’s slender as a bird in his hands, but not some soft songbird or the gentle pigeons Barca kept – this one’s a bird of prey, wiry with muscle and sinew and sharp claws. He feels them dig into his arms, her pelvis thrusting none too subtly against his stirring loins. Her tongue swirls promises of more inside his mouth, and for a heartbeat or three he feels the thrill of possibility she offers: paths yet unexplored, a reckless plummet that his heart could follow.
Then he takes her by the shoulders, gently, and steps back. He shakes his head.
“Apologies.” He wouldn’t know how to explain his refusal, the nuances of loyalty and memory that spur it, even if she could understand every word.
He might have expected fury or disdain from her. In fact, he’s braced for it, already dreading yet another rift.
But Saxa surprises him. She cocks her head at him and studies him, a small frown line between her eyes, as though she’s trying to identify some strange new beast she considers killing. Then, suddenly, she smiles, leans in and kisses him again, but differently this time: a chaste peck on his cheek, near the corner of his mouth, before she steps away.
“Schade,” she says, and though he does not know the word, he gauges its meaning well enough from the wry regret in her eyes. Pity.
Saxa bends to gather up their training weapons, then jerks her head at him.
He smiles and slings an arm around her shoulder, one warrior to another. “Food would be welcome.”
There is no order to the world he lives in. It’s ragged and dangerous, and doomed, he suspects, to some bitter end.
But it holds purpose. Friendship. Honour.
And pain, his old friend, lies in complacent slumber, not too intent upon reclaiming him.