The End is the Beginning, by Carrie Clevenger
I drove my horse as fast as she would go, not Servo, that one died in Egypt, but another, a sorrel mare, light and quick as an arrow loosed from the fletcher’s grasp in test. We dashed through the streets, turning this way and that until we reached the gates, just in time, for they were closing.
The light from the city fell behind, leaving me with the thundering hoof beats, the jingle of the bridle, and the harsh breath of my mount as I fled Rome’s grasp. For me it was Rome that took my life. I only intended to finish the job. My dagger was a branding iron for the accused, burning into my thigh, the weight of which felt like stone laid across the muscle.
I’d been warned by the physician not to ride, lest my hip not heal properly, but this was to be the last ride, and none of it would ever matter again.
It was honorable to dispose of oneself, a sacrifice to the gods lest I hurt another. Lest I kill one more innocent and become the horrible thing I’d battled against all those years. Scalding tears blurred my vision and I let my mount gallop randomly, seeking only the cover of the surrounding forest; a deep grove that I might take my leave of this world undisturbed. It was a special grove—a place that Mehet took me to play as a child while she and her sister sat and talked, a small basket of bread and wine nearby. No one else knew of it. No one else would think to look there, and after the scene I’d caused at the villa with my supposed wife, I could not chance a discovery and swift arrest.
I would harm her, just as she had harmed me. To await a point of vulnerability that I might not retaliate, and then—I could think on it no more. We’d arrived. I pulled back on the reins and the mare came to a skittering stop in the damp grass, her breaths hot and deep, her nostrils moist and flared, her heart hammering against her sides. I’d nearly killed another one. I seemed to be good at pushing my mounts to their absolute limits for after my Servo, they were but beasts of burden; disposable and replaceable, just as I was.
I was replaceable. I was disposable. I was a soldier. A wolf sounded nearby as I slid down from the mare’s back, removing her bridle and unbuckling her saddle to allow it to drop to the ground. She nickered and regarded me with dark and shining eyes.
“Go,” I whispered, shoving her head away from my shoulder. With an almost visible shrug, she turned and walked back towards the way she came.
I drew my dagger and gladius, clutching one tightly in each hand, in case the wolf I’d heard decided to investigate the human out here in his territory. I do not know why I feared harm, and not so much death, but it was as if each heartbeat was measured as a countdown to my final breath.
The proper way to dispatch one’s self was to drive the blade upwards into the abdomen, causing a searing streak of intense pain, followed by massive internal bleeding and of course, death.
I stalked through the dense thicket until I broke out into the small grove where I could imagine my mother’s spirit could inhabit, if she had not yet fled this world or passed over to the other side. I was alone. The moon slid behind a copse of clouds high in the sky as if hiding from what I willed myself to do. The night was quiet. A breeze that halted as I glanced upwards, whispering words I have long since forgotten. Prayers, no doubt. Selfish phrases to guide my soul into the other realm where I would be received as an eternal warrior.
I was no warrior. I was a fool and a coward, but I felt that should I remain among the living, it could no longer be in Rome. It could no longer be with Junia. It simply could not be.
I did not want the child to grow up a fatherless son, she’d said to me. The military is all you care about. You haven’t been home in months. No letter. No word at all whether you were alive or dead.
Yet she’d done the unthinkable, and just a short period of time after I received the letter, it was done. Over with.
I glanced down at the dagger in my hand, and the moon greeted me as if to say farewell. My eyes locked on the celestial body, I reversed the blade and drove it into my gut, pulling up to rip my intestines apart. The pain was immense; I sunk to my knees and sobbed as my insides wept over my clenched fingers.
“Such a waste of fine blood.” She stood before me: A petite woman, stark-black hair, glittering indigo eyes; red, red lips like a courtesan.
“Magnus,” she said almost tenderly when my knees buckled. I struggled to speak, but I was dying.
“You would rather take your own life, than demand the others give you theirs.”
I shook my head, confused. My blood-starved brain struggled with the meaning of this and settled on the reasoning that this woman was clearly an apparition. Perhaps she’d come to take me to the next life,yet from what I could tell, she was real. Her smile broke the serenity of her features; I eyed her tiny fangs. Fell into her as my life extinguished but she pushed me away to hold me at arm’s length.
“You are not done here.”
My lips parted to respond, but only blood welled up and out.
“Do you truly wish to die Magnus?”
It’s Arcien, I wanted to say. Magnus was a military nickname, there was no greatness here, only a pathetic dying young man whose heart hurt worse than any dagger-wound.
“Why?” she said, and I realized I was blind. The feeling and strength was gone from my hands and arms and I felt heavy. I sagged against her with labored breaths.
She gripped the handle of the dagger protruding from my chest. Pulled. I cried out, blood spilling over my tunic. I felt the point of the blade against my cheek. Shivers threatened, but I had no strength for those either.
“Just. Let me. Die.” I gasped, and she gripped me tighter.
“No,” she said, her breath sweet and cool, like an evening breeze. “Come and serve as my warrior. Command my militia.”
I panted, straining to stay conscious. Blackness filled my brain. “It’s too late,” I said, and saw a shining light in the distance. A white figure. Drawing closer.
She shook me and I swayed in her arms.
“Serve me instead. Want for nothing. No pain. No sorrow. A fresh start.”
I recognized the figure then and smiled weakly. “Servo,” I whispered and she shook me again.
“Do not go Magnus.” She touched cold fingers on my cheeks. “Let me salvage a fallen warrior.”
Barely perceptible, I moved my head, just as my dead horse arrived and waited. A strong urge resided in me to go to him. To ride with him. I nodded at the woman, hoping her promises would ring true, but I believe I was justifiably dead.
I felt a solid form at my lips, and then a trickle. I was thirsty, so thirsty. The liquid flowed over my mouth and I managed it open a notch, tasting it and finding it to be good, and a burst of energy flooded my being. It drove out the blackness of Death and filled me with a cold that emanated from the marrow of my bones. I clawed at her breast, tearing at it with flat human teeth until I felt an ache inside of me, a slight tingle in my jaws, and was thrown back like a weightless rag. I lay sprawled on the grass with the taste of her blood in my mouth and a desperate desire to get more.