Every battle was unordinary. The earth was different, or the terrain could give advantages, or the freak chance of a spy could give a carefully planned tactic away. In England the land had been stony; cold and harsh, with wind-whipped flavors of moss and dried things. He could taste the acidity in the soil as The Wall was erected and the land he was standing on bowed its personified head to Caesar’s glory. There was a rugged feel to it; a rugged people, a rugged land, and battles were planned and fought and won as cold, bloody, rugged battles.
Then there was Italy - his beloved Italy - with its golden sunshine and soft earth. Still rocky, but the ground was forgiving and as the blood flowed into the ground the fields accepted it in stride. It felt like the warm caress of a lover bathing herself beneath his feet. And Rome had many loves, but of all of them, he loved her first. His earth. His fields, His sweet adoration. The land he had fought for - was fighting for now - tasted so sweet in his memory. Like gardens and flowers and rivers coursing through his veins, he had been tied to her at the wrist; their fates intertwined. He knew each tree and each field, and the people scattered across it; fed by aqueducts like veins to the heart.
The empire- His empire- had felt the same way as he fought across it. Different of course, as no battlefield felt quite the same, or enemy attacked with the same ferocity, but he could feel the land. Touch it. It ran in his bones, straight through his marrow and he could feel a subtle rebellion on the outskirts and feel the course of the battle through the echoing footsteps of running men against the ground. There was the roaring of dying men and the crush of wine underneath the wine press that sank, red like blood, into his flesh. Cold soil; the burning sand. It was him. His empire; his kingdom of glory. Crown of the Mediterranean rising over the centuries; that was Rome.
How soon it felt now. A millenium gone in the blink of an eye. Battles. Wars. Betrayals. Kind emperors. Cruel emperors. Fiddlers. Philosophers. Grecians. Egyptians. Lovers. Rivals. There were all so many they began to blend together and he had to stretch his memory a little to see the face of Romulus, the man who found him all those years ago. (They were destined to meet, he had decided over the centuries. Men who made nations were fated to hold the hand of that nation in the flesh, whether they knew it or not. It was an unspoken law; a kindness of the gods that ended up both wonderful and bittersweet.)
But that aside, Rome didn’t know when the bell curve turned. Perhaps it was a few centuries or so ago during the tetrarchy or the painful move in Constantine’s reign; or maybe it was when he found the tiniest child scowling at the world somewhere near Crotona. But now the void was palpable and unavoidable: an emptiness inside him that rattled inside as he moved. The lifeblood of the aqueducts was cut. His bones were empty and dry. What used to be a joy - hearing angry shouts and the cheerful laughter of children in the villa - crippled him in bed. There were no wrinkles and he was still as dashing as always, but his strength was gone and his knees ached.
He was an old man.
And he was going to die.
They might look for him. Arcadius and Honorius were bound to at least recognize his disappearance when they sent their slaves with messages only to find the boys at the villa (if the two hadn’t run off to partake in some gladiatorial mischief, of course). But they wouldn’t look long, and Rome wondered if he ought to be alright with that. How cruel to know that he wouldn’t be missed; that really, they didn’t care, and their unbelief was why the hill up ahead looked nigh impossible.
For a long moment - mostly stemmed from his exhausted legs and overheated brain - he wondered if he ought to turn back and shake the both of them. He could do that. It was one of the benefits of being tied to the land; they couldn’t rip apart the earth at the seams no matter how many times they stabbed him. But then, with a rather amused glance he continued upward. Yes, he could do it, but if they did feel like stabbing him then, there was a nagging feeling that he wouldn’t recover. He might not die, but the wounds that always healed would close slowly - mortally. The magic that had kept him alive was fading, little by little over the centuries until now, in this age of barbarians, it was almost gone. Rome could no longer feel the earth he was walking on; he could no longer feel anything. Italy remained in his mind as she always did - and perhaps deep, far, far deep in his heart, like a dying ember of magic - but only because he loved her so. That was what was tying him here. Love of a memory; of Agustus and Caesar and those flaming, burning battles that seared through his mind like they were yesterday. A catastrophic din of iron on iron and the acid taste of blood in the soil; dead men piled high and his sword resting against the throat of some unfortunate province. Perhaps somewhere there was a love of the boys too who begged him for stories of heroes with their hearts full of gardens and loam. A new Italy; a youthful, lively duo who would love her with a burning passion.
He remembered being that way once. It was a long time ago. Now, the road stretched in front of him; a long winding snake that felt like he’d walked it before. If he were a few centuries younger, he would’ve been over the top by now, cloak filled with the free wind instead of hanging limply at his back. He was being nostalgic now. Yet didn’t he have a right to be nostalgic? Rome paused in his trek to stare up at the sky: a blue day, seldom seen here in fall with a crisp breeze curling around his face. However, it didn’t speak to him. Even the sky appeared empty and it withheld comment on the sudden pain in his side (probably those damn Visigoths again who couldn’t be bribed off) or the constant headaches he’d been having that didn’t seem to have a specific cause. They were horrible at times; mind-splitting migraines of the highest degree and he had to lie down in agony before he toppled over and hurt himself. Not today though. Today, he would keep going farther where he wasn’t wanted. (Or, more specifically, into what used to be his; what he stole, and then what was stolen back centuries later.) That, Rome had figured when he set out on this journey, would be an interesting, if not quite what he imagined, way to die.
So he raised himself to his feet, cursed the loud creaking of joints that appeared to be fine, and kept walking. It took him two days to get up the mountain; it had rained once, but the present morning had dawned clear again and colder than the rest of the week. When he crawled up to the top after an unholy stretch of climbing and managed to straighten, he stopped dead. Not because Germania was there waiting for him, but there was a knife to his throat.
Rome wanted to laugh. He’d held so many swords to throats in his time it seemed terribly awkward to be on the receiving end of the violence, especially when he’d slit most of them. But he was too exhausted to laugh. If it was possible, he’d drained the last bit of his strength away and as he stood there on the top of the mountain - hill, whatever it was - the last of his endurance drained away like sand and he just stood there looking at the man’s blue eyes, unable to move, unable to smile, and unable to punch the pigliainculo in the face.
So this was what the mighty Roman empire was to come to. A cloudless day on a fall mountaintop at the hand of the man he had battled for millenia. This, of all his battles, would be the unordinary one: something so extraordinary simply because it wasn’t a battle of all.
And for some reason, Rome accepted it. Without thinking he searched quietly in his heart for Italy - Rome, the city where he had appeared at, beaten by Etruscans, whipped by the Greeks, and growing up to slaughter them both - but he could no longer find her. She was gone, and after a moment, even the ability to feel sorrow at her departure to the heart of the boys left him. At that second, the very second he became a shell, the pain set in.
Excruciating pain. There had been pain during battles and burning during wars, but nothing like this. This was unendurable hell, crawling from the center of his core through some awful opening into each of his limbs, killing him from the inside as the being - everything that Rome embodied - quietly dissolved into the void. He couldn’t even move; his face might’ve twisted into a mask of agony, but he couldn’t be sure. Every cell burned violently, eating him alive. He was no nation, no lover, no politician. He had no pride, no dignity; it burned it all away until even his mind seemed empty. No memories, no past, and no future.
Germania was wise, however. Wiser than Greece at times, Rome knew. And perhaps that was why he had come to this spot, this particular day at this particular time because he did know. And while they had always fought, there was a certain knowledge where they knew this day would come. It might come from different sources; it might come from a catastrophe or their own hand, but nobody else had the right to claim that knowledge. Nobody else would dare put a sword to the throat of the mighty Roman Empire and hold it there, the seconds ticking by as the wind tickled the trees.
I am tired... and I am dying. Rome wanted to say, but his mouth wouldn’t form the shape to make the words come. His mind wouldn’t formulate the world please either; and perhaps it was for the best, because to ask for the excruciating, mind-numbing pain to end would be to beg, and a Roman never begged. At least, not out loud.
Yet Germania knew. There was a quiet echo in those blue eyes that said everything. He was a man of few words, unlike Rome, and that too was alright because they’d never needed to speak. Without a word, he lifted one hand and claped it firmly on Rome’s shoulder. It echoed, like the sound of a Arab beating on a hollow drum. Someday, his eyes said. I will join you. I will fade as well, and you will not be alone.
The sword moved so quickly there was no chance for Rome’s eyes to follow it; straight through the chest and clean through the sternum so it punctured his heart. There was no burst of blood as there ought to have been, but time seemed to stand still. The mountain and the world froze for the passing of an empire; a moment. No, an eternity passed as Germania stood there, hand on the sword’s hilt as the unmoving body of the empire stood there before him. Even now, it wouldn’t fall to its knees.
Romans didn’t beg.
Perhaps the wind moved it first. There was the briefest sound like rustling sand, making Germania look down in the grass. The empire’s body was sifting away - never falling, and certainly not collapsing. It was as if magic was holding the nation’s body in the air and quietly returning it to the dust it came from. Seconds passed and slowly Rome’s legs sifted away; his torso, his chest, and finally the small obstinate curl that had refused to be tucked away in his mess of hair. It went last, floating away grain by grain as it disappeared. Germania had always hated it for its belligerence, but the fact that it was finally gone tugged at something in his chest.
However, this was the world. There were nations before. He liked to pretend he remembered them: little things that tried to grow into big things. Often a bloodthirsty power bath as they slaughtered each other. Some lasted days and others years. But eventually they too all faded and gave rise to himself and Rome in their wake. It was the way of nations, and eventually an upstart would dissolve him too. (For some reason, a certain irritating Knight popped into his head and Germania scowled as he turned aside, sheathing his sword.) But for now, he was alive, and when he died as well he could concern himself with keeping his word.