Belesa watches him die at her feet. Spartacus. The great man on the hill.
How strange, that such a man can die at all. It has been only months since she wandered into Sinuessa en Valle, her heart soaring with dreams of freedom. Just past the gate, she bumped into a wild warrior girl who laughed and kissed her, and ever since then freedom has been an uneasy, abstract thing.
That girl is gone now, though Belesa does not know how. Of the handful of fighters who’ve returned from the battlefield, none know of Saxa’s fate, and Belesa knows only this: if she yet lived, she would be here. Laughing and bragging, grabbing Belesa’s hair and shoving her down upon the ground, defeating death the only way she knows.
For the past few months, spellbound by Saxa’s face and touch, Belesa sometimes wondered if she were free at all, or whether she had but swapped the shackles of slavery for some sweeter, more insidious bond: one that tied her with kisses, branded her upon her heart instead of some more obvious place that she could easily denounce.
Standing upon the mountainside, the wind in her hair and the rebellion’s leader dying at her feet, she knows herself to be truly unshackled for the first time; by ownership; by love. It’s the loneliest feeling she has ever known.
She wonders who she is, apart from passion or a cause to fight for. Just a girl at the waning edge of winter. It doesn’t seem like much.
She helps with the grave. It turns out necessary: most of the escaped slaves are too old or too tender of years to be wielding shovels on stony ground; others too soft-bred for strenuous work. Some of the women hang back, like Sybil, fussing with the new mother about her child. Belesa is grateful for the hard labour, something to occupy her body and her mind. Others work beside her: Laeta, mindless of her fine Roman dress, and Nasir, hacking grimly at the hard-packed dirt. Agron, unable to grip a shovel, carries rocks on his muscled forearms, setting them aside for a cairn. It’s hard, dusty works, and Belesa thanks the gods for every moment of it.
The rain keeps falling as they dig. Belesa hears the soft ragged sounds of crying all around her. Beside her, Laeta cries as well, but soundlessly. It might as well be rain upon her cheeks. Belesa wishes she could join her. She hasn’t cried yet; doesn’t know if she can. She spent her life a slave, and has learned early on that crying serves no purpose and yields no reprieve. Her eyes stay hot and dry.
The digging done, she looks on as Agron and Nasir lower the body into the rocky hole. Nasir looks anguished; Agron’s eyes are red, but his face is composed. He lowers Spartacus’s upper body gently down, showing no strain of effort despite his damaged hands.
They all fill the hole together. Anyone capable of lifting a stone or a handful of earth does so. Some throw small mountain flowers, or meagre scraps of fabric. Belesa fills and empties her shovel, again and again. Pale and motionless, the body looks different from the man she’s watched deliver formidable speeches from afar, thrumming with the purpose of vengeance. He looks bloodied and tired and altogether too young for such a legend. She wonders who he was before, this man they’re burying, and whether Agron was right. Whether he’ll be remembered for longer than a year or two, as more than just an irritating tick in the lush pelt of Rome.
She hopes so.
She waits until it seems respectful to ask for other names. Saxa’s brothers in arms. The few friends she herself has made, since she joined the rebellion.
“Castus,” she asks of the handful of warriors who have returned from the field of battle. “Did anyone see Castus? A Cilician, dark of skin and bright of smile, wearing a headdress and ornaments of the sea.”
She’s surprised when Nasir moves to stand before her. She’s never exchanged words with him herself, but she’s spent time with Castus, listening to his wry comments, following his eyes as they traced every motion of Nasir’s graceful, compact body. In a way, she feels like she knows him.
It’s odd to realise he’s of a height with her. Somehow, from Castus’s murmured confessions, it seemed like the boy should tower over mortals, or evade their grasp, as quick as feather-footed Mercury.
“You knew the man?” He has a disconcertingly direct gaze, and his eyes are lighter than expected, almost amber under the errant sun struggling through the rain clouds.
Belesa nods hesitantly, smoothing down her dirty skirts. “He stood a friend among strangers.”
Nasir looks aside and swallows, then trains his eyes back upon her face. “A Roman upon horseback slew him. It was in my arms he fell.”
Belesa briefly closes her eyes, then forces them back open. She tries to smile, although she fears it will look bleak on her face. “He would have considered himself fortunate at such circumstance.”
Nasir grimaces, but before he can speak, Agron joins them, surprisingly light-footed for so large a man. He drapes one arm across Nasir’s shoulders and cocks his head to peer at Belesa’s face. “You are Saxa’s woman, are you not?”
It’s strange to be so closely scrutinised by one of Spartacus’s generals. The only one of them surviving, now, so presumably their leader by default. Stranger still to try to reconcile him with the man Castus spoke of, the man who stood his rival. Belesa shrugs. “I was. My own woman, now.”
A memory rises, vivid and unbidden: Saxa, late of a night, curled nakedly against Belesa’s side and threading her sword-scarred fingers through Belesa’s hair. She didn’t speak – they never spoke that much; even if their tongue came easier to Saxa, she was never one given to long talk – but she looked thoughtful, troubled even.
What weighs mind? Belesa asked eventually, and Saxa shrugged, her eyes never leaving the silky strands of bronze hair sliding through her fingers.
You ask much of me, she said slowly, awkwardly, weighing each word like a weapon she considered wresting from an enemy, and making her own.
I have asked nothing of you, Belesa replied, bewildered. Saxa looked at her then, one of her keen, appraising looks, then laughed abruptly, and rolled on top of her.
It is nothing. Place it from mind, she purred, and kissed her, hands roaming down her body, and Belesa forgot.
She remembers now, and a lump thickens her throat. All those weeks she spent wondering how much of her new-won freedom she had handed over into her lover’s hands, she never wondered whether Saxa felt the same. Whether Saxa ever found herself bemused, bewildered, slightly alarmed at the strength of the fire between them. Whether Saxa ever hated feeling disarmed, undone, stripped bare by the gaze of another, and laid low by love.
She didn’t truly think Saxa capable of such vulnerability, and now it is too late to wonder.
Nasir nods at her, a sparse, jerky motion. “We have lost much in this fight.”
“Yet gained some, also,” Agron states, his voice even and carrying. Belesa can feel heads turn towards him, wet eyes seeking out the one who can still lead. Aware of the need in their gazes, she nods with confidence, although she isn’t sure she believes him.
She doesn’t know where her place in all of this is, now. She is more cautious than the grinning, wide-eyed girl who floated through the gates of Sinuessa. The lover and the friends she’s made since then are gone, whisked away too soon, and once again she’s starting over. Laeta smiles at her exhaustedly after they’re done with the grave, but when they journey on, she walks with Sybil and the young mother with her newborn, and Belesa feels hesitant to join them, like she’ll declare herself something she is not if she walks with them.
Instead, she falls back towards the rear-guard, and finds herself walking near Agron and Nasir. Nasir steps up a pace and offers her a water skin as they walk. She nods her thanks at him and takes a drink. Agron intimidates her still, but she feels like she can walk beside Nasir and breathe evenly, thinking of the man who loved him, the man who was her friend.
When she hands back the skin, she gestures towards the mountain range rising above them, the peaks still white with snow. “What do you think lies beyond them?”
“A new world.” He shrugs and smiles at her. It’s a smile of hope and broken things, muted but lovely, and although she does not favour men, she can see, for a moment, how one could favour him. “A better one, I hope.”
Belesa nods. “If it is not,” she tells him, and does her best to smile herself, “we shall make it so.”