Face claimMichael Fassbender
The man’s hands drove deeper. Had he not resisted, Tarbus was certain he would have oozed out of himself and into an undignified puddle upon the floor. He could not recall the last time he had been touched so fiercely yet with such kind intention. Since the raid upon his tribe – his last contact with men, he supposed, and how dreadfully that had ended! – Tarbus had kept decidedly to himself.
Begrudgingly, he relaxed a fraction beneath the masseuse’s hands. The conversation certainly helped to distract Tarbus. “Yes, it’s much better than the games. Although I’d sooner there were no chariots.”
Galloping along upon horseback was far superior, but Tarbus scarcely had chance to explain as much. If he had not been touched so in some time, if ever, then the compliment (was it a compliment, or was he mocked) proved more disarming still.
It had not escaped his notice that the masseuse was a handsome man. Different: well-built, but hardly rough ‘round the edges like those Tarbus was accustomed to. Just as, er, vigorous.
“Well,” Tarbus was began, willing his voice not to sound as strained as he felt his breath in his throat, “it is quite… hard.” Gods save him. “I s’pose both of us work up quite a sweat.”
Beyond the boundaries of the tent, sounds of the camp stumbling to life coaxed Tarbus loose from his fitful doze. Sleep had not been generous to come to him as he both wished and required it, but in many ways, he thought himself fortunate for that.
For in the night, memory invaded bearing the cloak of dreams. Nightmares, in truth. At length, Tarbus considered himself a resilient man; he had not endured great hardships in his life, beyond the minor scrapes and miscellaneous incidents that a boy whose destiny was to become a warrior must endure, but he considered himself made of stern stuff. Like the iron that had lacerated him – betrayed him – brought him to this gods-forsaken place.
And how undignified was such a fate. The ropes that bound Tarbus bore fiercely into his flesh. He felt rather like a pig strung up before the fire, to be gutted and devoured. With his arm sliced to ribbons, he certainly looked it.
It might’ve been appropriate, then, to suffer embarrassment before the Roman who stood before him now. The man’s gaze was vexing: Tarbus glared beneath the weight of the sweeping, appraising look, but doing so was insufficient. The water they had provided had been scarcely enough to wet his tongue, never mind erase the filth that had been ingrained into every pore of his skin.
Jaw clenched and tight, Tarbus continued to glare till the bloke at last piped up.
“I’d say you could release me from these binds, but I won’t waste my breath,” he sneered. Instead, Tarbus demanded, “What have you done with my family?” Likely, he would not know any more than Tarbus did – every triumph was the same, he supposed – but asking was all that stood between Tarbus and utter helplessness.
Ah, yes. The boy’s tongue. Tarbus did not know what misfortune had befallen Azarion in the time that preceded his arrival in Rome, but he did not doubt, either, that it was an agonising ordeal. If Tarbus’s own suffering had been keen, both psychologically and physically, then he conceded that it was nothing set against Azarion’s terrible loss. His own scars would heal and perhaps one day he might wield a sword again; Azarion would surely not speak again.
It did not surprise Tarbus that Azarion had found some solace in caring for the horses here: a shred of familiarity, perhaps, the likes of which Tarbus had been keen to retain himself.
He followed the boy’s gaze. “The horses?” For a moment, Tarbus paused, attempting to parse his meaning. Was it not so bad because of the horses? Did it prevent him from working efficiently with them? He settled upon the latter. “I’m fortunate that it doesn’t affect my work with them. I’ve been around them since I was a boy. My father was the stable-master for our tribe. I s’pose I would’ve taken after him, if it weren’t for… Well.” He gave another shrug, his expression rather more grim this time.
His life had been one marked by scars, though few of them had caused him as much anguish as the one that curled like a viper around his arm. When his fingers went to brush the leathered skin there, Tarbus endured in brutal flashes the day that had snatched his freedom away. Ferried around like a prized slab of meat, rather than a man.
The bruises and nicks and wounds gained during the natural life of a warrior was nothing beside that great monstrosity, then. Tarbus supposed a fellow slave, even one as young as Azarion, must understand better than most.
“My tribe was attacked,” he explained. That much was likely obvious. “By Romans. I tried to protect my family, to fight back, but… Well, this happened. I was brought here after that.”
Those days had passed in a bleak, painful blur. Much of Tarbus’s time in Rome had eddied along in a similar manner, though much of the sting that he endued was the indignity of it all. The physical pain in his arm had abated, though the same could not be said for his pride.
With that, Tarbus withdrew his arm and shrugged: a jaunty thing, aided by a crooked, sheepish smile. “It isn’t as bad as it looks,” he said, though in truth he thought it far worse.
The thought of a lady prancing around Rome’s cobbled streets on a horse named Ferox was positively laughable. As the masseuse rubbed oil into his shoulders, Tarbus was distracted enough by the vision for a smirk to curl onto his expression rather than the jolt of alarm that almost certainly would have followed instead.
Proudly, as ever, he lifted his chin. “Certainly not. I train the charioteers and their horses. For the races. For Factonis Album.”
That he could ever derive some pride from the fate that had been forced upon him was as repugnant as accepting a massage from a Roman sycophant, but with some resignation, Tarbus acknowledged that he was a mite boastful of his achievements with the faction. After all, his years as a boy had been marked by his father’s efforts in the tribe’s stables. Such sandals had been fairly large to fill, but Tarbus considered himself triumphant.
Then, the masseuse’s fingers dug fiercely – satisfyingly – into a particularly fearsome knot in his shoulder. Tarbus grunted and subsequently flushed scarlet.
“Have you been to see the races?” He asked through gritted teeth. Concentrating upon his work would be the closest thing to distraction he could attain with the other man’s fingers so… slick, gods, on his back.
Warily, Tarbus approached the low couch and did as he was bidden. Sitting before the man so pliantly felt disarming; he found himself ashamed by how promptly he had followed instructions, by a man no more his superior than the sodding stable boys. Evidently, Rome had already taken its toll. He had endured the yoke of the city for far too long.
The baths had once performed for Tarbus the precarious act of salving at least a fraction of his worries. These ones in particular were favoured by ordinary folk to such an extent that Tarbus considered it a lagoon of respite in the city he had grown to despise so fiercely. To him, Rome was the beacon of all he had striven to fight. That he continued to conspire against.
Getting a fucking massage, then, made him positively Roman.
As if to protest his reluctance, Tarbus’s back gave a fierce twinge. He grimaced. “It’s tense all over, really, but I think I pulled it a bit earlier. It’s near my shoulder, really. Ferox was being an irritating bastard,” he grumbled. The horse would be a fearsome opponent to train, but even more fearsome a competitor once he made it onto the tracks.
Yes, that was it: Tarbus hadn’t liked the thought of being tied up, either. It struck him as a morbidly shrewd representation of what he felt in Rome anyway, without adding literal binds to the equation. Slaves bound to chariots, to horses, roaring towards a precarious victory (if they were so lucky). Were it not for his work with the horses, Tarbus would have scorned his own fate, working for the racing factions.
Azarion, at least, understood that. Hadn’t been absorbed into that life with promises of riches and glory, or not yet, anyway.
Tarbus followed the boy’s gaze towards the chariots. His brow furrowed.
“I don’t think I could stand racing one of those,” Tarbus confessed. He could hold his own in one by the necessity of training the charioteers, but careening around the track in one, tied to his death, struck him as deeply alarming. “Besides,” he continued, “I’m not sure how good I’d be in the long run with this damned thing.”
The short sleeves of his tunic fell back further as Tarbus lifted his right arm, displaying the vicious scars that wound like bands around his flesh. It was the reason he hadn’t been simply shoved into the colosseum, after all, and why he was reluctant to enter into those treacherous races, too.
Of all the peculiarities of Rome that Tarbus had been forced to navigate, the thermae were amongst the more pleasant. As a boy he had grown accustomed to a frigid dunk in the river or in the rear of the stables: less of a luxury, but far more efficient than the lengthy pilgrimage through the bloody baths. In the beginning, Tarbus had been quite alarmed.
Soon enough, however, the disconcerting stretch of dithering and bathing and lounging (not to mention the scrubbing) had been mitigated by the bone-deep satisfaction it afforded Tarbus after a long week with the horses. At times it felt that the dirt he accumulated could not be eroded by mere mortal hands. Fortunately, those at the thermae seemed in possession of loftier digits.
Never, though, had Tarbus strayed towards the masseuses. The thought of them touching him so—Augh! He grew hot at the thought. He could not bear it.
It’d been a long week, however. A handful of the newer purchases (horses, not slaves, though Tarbus was chagrined to find that the distinction grew ever narrower) were pesky blighters: Ferox and Astutus lived up to their nomenclatures, it seemed. The former had tugged ferociously against the reins that morning; Tarbus’s back was subsequently smarting.
Reluctantly, Tarbus trailed towards the brightly clothed masseuse and admitted, “My back. The horses were troubling me this morning.” He considered it a challenge to be overcome, not shied from, but he could only do so when his bloody back didn’t pain him so.
Tarbus knew little of the lad who stood before him. He knew, vaguely, that Azarion was young, though maltreatment had apparently stunted him. Not for the first time since arriving in Rome, then, Tarbus was grateful for the privilege that years of freedom had afforded him. Strange: he felt better equipped to fight, somehow, or to resist, even if both were impractical.
Between himself and Azarion, Tarbus knew little of what they had in common. Perhaps that didn’t matter. The horses were apparently enough.
“With great difficulty sometimes,” Tarbus replied with a grin to that final gesture. The four horses. How unnatural it had seemed to him, at first. Only by necessity had he grown accustomed to it. “I don’t understand why they can’t just ride the poor things properly. Race them properly. Why involve the chariots?”
Still, they were easier to sabotage.
But none of that. Not here. “It’s more difficult to feel the horses that way, but I think you have an advantage anyway, knowing them like you do,” Tarbus decided. Some of the charioteers who’d emerged, ready (or not, as the case often was) to be trained, were damned useless.
But for the steady huff of the horses’ breath in the heady air around him, Tarbus felt – as ever in these stables – that he was alone, a novel sensation in a city that swirled with intrigue and interference. By rights, his time was not his own these days. The shackles of ownership steered him, mostly, even if he had been released at least partially to the finer act of training horses and riders.
In truth, Tarbus did not understand the Romans’ compulsion toward chariots. They were dangerous, as most man-made things were in the end, and one could not feel the beast beneath him in those great, monstrous contraptions. Perhaps that was why Tarbus had resisted racing himself, though the pulse of promised glory lingered as a temptation. Training others and seeing, at least partially, his hand in their victory would suffice. For now.
The crunch and rustle of footsteps amongst the hay drew his attention from the warm flank of the gelding to which he currently tended. In the illuminated light of the doorway stood the scrawny figure of the stable boy.
Tarbus turned. “Azarion,” he piped up in greeting and lifted an eyebrow. “Had enough of racing the chariots, have we?”