A Soldier’s Story

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A soldier of the Empire reflects on a battle - and his life in the legions

He sat on the tree stump, exhausted. The smokey dawn light was a perfect backdrop for this moment, but he didn’t care. Hunched over, head down, his mind was racing, trying to find the calm after the storm. Blood spattered droplets painted his bare arms and face a spotty red. Some of the droplets were too heavy, forming long trails that weaved along his skin as a meandering river. His breath was heavy, chest heaving up and down, the exhaled air creating a fog in the early morning air. One of his fingers, his left forefinger was bent outward at the second knuckle, the product of close combat. Normally, dislocation such as this would demand his attention, the pain and uselessness of the flange needing correction. Not now. All he could think about as he bowed head, staring at his blood soaked toes and sandals was what he’d survived. 

As his mind slowed, images began to emerge. Men slashing with their swords forward, backward, up and down, all in an attempt to stay alive. H could hear the whistle of his blade as it cut the air just before penetrating his opponent. His ears still rang with the grunts of determined men trying to drive their weapons through the outer shells of protective armor of their enemies. His mind emptied during battle, obsessed with the single-minded purpose of delivering death at the end of his sword, a weapon forged by his grandfather, wielded by his father, and now in his possession. The blade was stained with the blood and sinew of many an opponent, and this day would be no different. Now, though, in the eerie quiet of the aftermath, his recorded sounds and images haunted him.

He thought back to his early days, the confusion of battle, the different colors, different armor worn even by members of his own legion, the whirlwind of conflict overwhelming all his senses. He fought blindly, striking any moving target as all young warriors do in the swirl of the storm. A small smile crossed his face as he recalled those days. 

But now, the fighting slowed and before each blow delivered, he could see his opponent’s dress and determine his action. He’d always thought it curious how, in the heat of battle, the mind slows itself to help the body distinguish those that should die or live. He called it the vision of the gods, for only they knew who they wanted to call, and he was their conduit.

He raised his head, his mind clearing as though a fog was lifting. As he did, he scanned the carnage of butchered men strewn about, detecting small movements of downed soldiers. He heard their cries for help, of mercy. Some were whispering to the gods, asking forgiveness, others whimpering to themselves and asking for their mothers. Still others, unable to talk, just moved what body parts they could, as though not knowing what else to do.

He was alone here, among the wounded and dead. Already, the smell of death, a stench all too familiar, began to fill his nostrils. He’d never gotten used to the smell as it lasted for days afterward, coloring his taste when he ate. It was a taste of rotting flesh burning in the afternoon sun, a constant reminder of what he’d done, the lives he’d taken. It was also a reminder that he was alive, surviving the slaughter that was war, a living member of the legions of Rome, the mightiest force on earth. He hated the smell, but loved what it stood for.

His knees ached now, stabbing pain ripping through his lower back and up throughout his shoulders as he righted himself. It was not this way when he was younger. He fought all day, never tiring, and after the battle drank and slept, and rose to fight some more, enjoying the taste of his own blood or that of his foes. Now, it was not so. His body was rejecting the call of war, the act becoming too physical, too painful to continue. He was slowing and he knew it, suffering injuries he’d never known in his youth. He survived by his wits, his cunning, his ability to outthink in a blink what his opponent was going to do. He’d seen it all before, and realized that what his father once told him was correct - that there was no substitute for experience on the battle field. He understood all the old lessons taught him by his father, and was grateful for them now.

Finally, after surveying the carnage on his makeshift chair, he stood. He turned in a circle, again soaking in the visions as though recording them in his mind to keep forever. The chill of the morning air was making itself felt on his bare arms, his senses returning to normal. The throbbing in his left hand was also making itself known, and he looked down at the displaced appendage. Without hesitation, he raised his left arm. Grasping the finger with his right hand, he pulled outward. The snap sounded as a small stick being stepped on, the pain a momentary sear, but his face did not belie his pain. Training taught him to never show weakness and so he ate the pain as one would ingest a candied almond. 

As he stood there, he began to wonder what it was all about. In his youth, the thrill of combat, the rush of adrenaline would so fill his mind that he could not contain himself, charging into battle as an excited colt on this first run. He smiled as he eliminated opponent after opponent, glancing down at their still wreathing body and smiling. He moved through men as one would thresh a field. It came easy to him. Even training was easy. Over time, he came to believe that he was a tool of the gods, a tool send to kill other men and send them home. He reveled in it all. The combat, the death, the grunting, yelling and screaming of close combat. He could smell his opponent’s breath sometimes, and even hear his heartbeat. He saw the terror in their eyes when he struck a death blow and it produced in him a rush of adrenaline that excited his heart and sent strength coursing through his veins as though the death of his opponents was his life’s elixir. Soon, the battle was over, his taste for death barely satiated. 

Now, as he stood among those he’d killed, he wondered what it was all for. His life spent on battlefields throughout the empire, a bringer of death and a taker of souls. He was the plaything of the gods, a tool, nothing more. No family, no children, nothing but the blood soaked soil upon which he stood wherever he was. For the first time in his life, in this moment, he felt remorse. It was a strange feeling, as though tasting a new wine for the first time. Unpalatable at first, almost sour. Then, slowly he began to adjust, to embrace this new sensation. It was over, he told himself. It was all over for him. The taking of lives was no longer his life’s passion and he knew it. In that moment, standing among the dead, he knew this life was over.

Just then, appearing out of the lifting fog, a single horse and rider appeared, as though sent by the gods themselves.

“Julius,” the rider said in a strong voice, “Julius, is that you?” Instantly, the warrior knew the sound of the man on the horse. His body reacted spontaneously, and snapped to attention.

“It is I, my lord Caesar,” he responded quickly.

The horse, a white mount as though carved from a single piece of marble made its way to him as easily as he would stroll through a summer field. “Julius, I knew you’d live,” Caesar said smiling. While he was still shrouded a bit by the fog, Julius could hear his lord smiling as he said those words.

Mustering up what courage he could, Julius responded. “I am a difficult man to kill, Caesar. The enemy strewn about has seen this fact first hand.” Caesar laughed out loud. Now, horse and rider were upon him, looking down at the great warrior as a god would look down upon a man. “You are that, my old friend, and much more. You are what being a Roman is about. You are Rome.”

“Caesar,” Julius replied, “I cannot be Rome as I am a simple solider. I do not presume to occupy the status of your body, lord. You are Rome in all its glory. I, well, I am but Rome’s servant, and as such, yours as well.”

“A man as humble as you is to be raised up” the great leader responded without hesitation. “Without men such as you, Rome is little more than a backwater to be ruled by the Gauls. No, it is you, Julius, and men like you.”

“I have no words, lord, but to say thank you for them.” Julius knew what was coming next, for the great Caesar of Rome does not dispense compliments without exacting something in return.

“Are you prepared to continue?” he asked plainly. “Are you prepared to do your duty once more in the service of Rome, and of me?” Julius’ heart fell. How was he to tell his emperor that his time was over, that his spirit to fight was no more. How was he to tell a living god no? Can such a man as he say such a thing to a Caesar? He thought for a moment, a moment that felt as an eternity as his mind raced to find a suitable answer. There was only one he could give.

Snapping his body even tighter, he said, “I am ready, my lord. Your words are my commands, so command me as you will.” He didn’t believe a word of what he was saying any longer. Now, what once was his creed was little more than fallen leaves on dry dirt. After a moment’s hesitation, Caesar spoke.

“Julius, he of my own name, are you well? You seem - distant - just now.” This was the measure of Caesar’s greatness, his reading of men no matter how hard they tried to hide their true feelings. Caesar saw in them often what they didn’t see in themselves. He also saw what they tried to hide, as Julius was now. 

“Lord,” Julius stated, “I - I just need a night’s rest and I’ll be as you know me, as you’ve known me to be all these years. I am older now, that’s all.” Upon those words, Caesar smiled. 

“Yes,” he said, “Yes. Rest will reawaken your soul so that you may fight on, I am sure. I will look forward to seeing you tomorrow my old friend.”

 

“I will be ready, Caesar,” Julius said in return. With that, one last smile and the marble stallion turned as easily as a potter’s wheel and began to walk off the same direction that it came. A moment later, the great horse stopped. Julius, allowing himself to relax again, came to attention.

“Julius, is there something you wish to tell me? You must speak the truth to your lord.” There was a hint of feeling in his voice this time, a tone Julius’ had not heard. He thought for a moment.

“Nothing, lord,” he replied, “nothing at all.” 

“Well, then I’ll see you at dawn. We’ve got a battle to win.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The battle went as planned. the great Caesar won another spectacular victory over the Gallic horde. The fog which seemed to cover the battle field after every conflict was especially heavy this day, the breath of the gods wishing to conceal those whom they decided to take. As the great Caesar, on his white mount walked among the dead and dying, he saw a familiar shape among them, a familiar colored armor. Coming upon the body, he dismounted, stepping gingerly on the blood soaked ground. There he saw a face he recognized. Bending down, he closed the dead man’s eyes as they stared into the abyss. In that moment, Caesar looked about to see who was there, and there was no one. He looked once again at the man whose name was his own. Caesar wept.


Submitted: October 25, 2020

© Copyright 2020 Mike DiMatteo. All rights reserved.

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