In the roman religion there are two area’s that can be described as an afterlife. There is the Plains of Asphodel which is where the common person went after death and there is also the Fields of Elysium where soldiers were said to go after death. They had no eternal damnation like religions of today. This story is the travel of a man trying to find his place as a slave forced into recruitment of the legions because of past mistakes.
“Cold, tromping around in this nasty cold!”
“I didn’t realize we signed up to fight frostbite!”
“I want to know why we have to fight the cold, the German tribes, and your unrelenting complaining!” The Centurion quieted his legionnaires quickly.
Cato was an intimidating man. His girth made the bear skin he wore for warmth come to life. With the condensing breath exploding into the air you could tell he too was tired. His pauldrons were ice clad as if he had sharpened it himself. “Caesum” he roared. As the signal was raised not too far ahead. The column stopped, half the men collapsed in the frost where they stood. We made it. But this was the beginning of this battle. The valley was cold and the tents were made up instantly. Our three legions lay exhausted, but little fires appeared as the men gathered in close groups.
No good has come from this war. Barbarian brutes, uncivilized, untamed land. Who could love such a place? The glory of Rome: it had no power in these lands. Her light can’t penetrate the clouds, let alone the trees. I have seen the insides of men. Involuntarily, in self-defense, mutilations, crucifixions, more ways then I care to admit. As for my scrawny excuse for a soldier, I have no taste for it. I loved the farm, so simple, but most of all my masters maids. They were so beautiful; well, clean may be a better word. As the one he bed in secret was no more woman than swine. As we were caught in the act he chained me. To be sent to the army of all places, was a death sentence. A soldier weighted down by armor is no more use than a shield to the man behind me. More likely to hit him with a javelin than my enemy as well. I was a dead man, an acceptable loss.
“Wolves” a legionnaire pointed into the distant woods. As Cato looked he grunted in agreement.
“Those are some big wolves, bet they’ll be eating well with all you soldiers lying about. I bet a few stragglers get the tooth tonight!” Marcius was a morbid joker. Few liked him, fewer would die for him. “Poor timing I guess. You have anything to drink?” Nothing could shut him up. He howled at them incessantly. I wanted to shut him up but I would die for it. He loves this war. The violence seems to excite him more than the women of the brothels. It had been too long since there was someone to fight, he craved it.
Darkness fallen, our fire kept us warm. Five men circled the flames to keep out the wind. Somehow Marcius had acquired a wine skin. And was more than happy to share his trophy. Still howling, now at the men drinking at least, he began to stumble. The men now had some energy as our bodies now warmed from the inside. And one by one they stumbled back. Only Cato and I were left. He seemed bothered and suddenly jerked forward. “Tacitus o you think we are good men?”
The sudden question threw me. I gathered myself, thought for a while, “I think we are good soldiers. We obey, we march, we fight, we kill, or we die. We have a very small influence in the world. You do as you’re told—
“You’re too smart for this, you don’t belong here! You belong on the steps of the senate. You are alive because you read peoples souls. What else is there? Your head is the only muscle of worth!” He began to anger, a jealous rage. I dare not say another word. That was the most I ever heard him say.
I awoke to the suffocating fall of my tent. As it fell I saw fur for only a moment. “Wolves!” I yelled knowing the camp had not noticed until seconds later. A sound I know all too well. The screams of dying men. As I pulled away from my tent scrambling for something to defend myself, the clash of metal filled the air. They were no wolves, our barbaric enemy thundered into the valley. Cato made quick work of our first intruders, giving others time to gather themselves. I succeeded in getting my chainmail and helmet fastened as their warrior band charged.
“Cursed as A drunkard, blessed as a warrior” Marcius yelled as he joined or ranks. He had arisen fully armored as he had passed out and spent most of the night vomiting. As we collided, Cato led the way. Marcius in toe they quickly disappeared in our enemies’ ranks. In the confusion of man and metal, a man caught my eye. Larger than any man I had ever seen, raising an axe, that was the only thing large enough to chop his tree like figure. In his other hand he held the hair of a newly dead legionnaire. He met my gaze and began to charge at me, throwing the head as a distraction he cut another man in two with his axe.
Gaining speed he raised my end. I was a dead man. Somehow out of fear, I broke my petrified state and dove into his knees. As his shin met my ribs I let out an involuntary squeak, but the howl that followed was much louder. As he fell forward forced to let loose his mighty axe, his misfortune followed, landing chest first on the blade. I turned for a moment and looked for the rest of our Legions. Surely they have heard the battle. But no reinforcement would come. An entire army had split ours into two. Fighting on all sides. We were at the head of the march, far fewer men had come to fight us.
Suddenly I was jerked aside. Marcius had lost Cato in the battle. “Run to the forest.” We won’t be completely surrounded there. A handful of men at our sides we ran, like cowards, but many stayed to fight. I looked for Cato, but many men did not have their armor on, and I saw no bear’s coat. The ping of colliding metal continued to ring in the distance as we ran. I couldn’t look back.
When we heard nothing, we stopped. Seven made it out. Just seven in almost fifty men. The legions were broken, No ambush had ever taken multiple legions by surprise! Everyone was silent, even Marcius.
We found enough brush for a small fire, as to avoid being seen. It wasn’t nearly enough. We shivered, huddled so close to the fire it might have burned if we dared go closer. But what could we do. A sudden crack snapped just outside our camp. Everyone sprang up quickly weapons drawn. Then from behind, a familiar voice roared. Cato had lived. Along with three others, beaten and bloody. One had a massive gash through the back of his arm, rendering it useless.
“Glad you made it out centurion!” as Marcius soon had the pleasure of an elbow to the brow. We sat at the fire, still huddled for warmth and again, we jolted at an unfamiliar noise. We soon saw the glimmer of a roman shield. Lowering our guard a little Marcius yelled, “We may still have a makeshift battalion! Come Romans tell me you have some food!” the figures came closer and more appeared. Smiles emerged from a few. Until we heard a barbarian yell! Arrows began to fly striking two as their grins turned to fear. A javelin took another soon after. Suddenly under attack yet again we charged forward. Clearly outnumbered, fear driven away by shear adrenaline.
Knocked senseless by the butt of a spear I awoke in a daze. Lined up, cold, hungry and beaten, we were nothing except alive. Continued yelling by our captors kept us scared and alert. Then one voice took control. He yelled something, then yelled again in something very different. Finally finding our language in his throat.
“Who is leader?” the dirty barbarian seemed pleased with our reaction to his speech. “Leader, command, WHO? Follow which man?” seemingly growing more frustrated. His face flushed red, he began to pace, kicking someone behind me. Still no one spoke, no one wanted the target on their back, or the responsibility.
“I am their Leader.” Cato began to stand. Relief began to swarm the men. My head fell, I heard sighs from behind me and laughter from the barbarians. I didn’t know what to think but I was relieved I had no part in speaking with those men. A solid thud sounded and the man behind me screamed like a small child in fear. As it started to rain I looked back at him thinking I might calm him, but he was already running away. I looked back, to ensure I did not share his inevitable death, only to see Cato staring at me between my feet. It wasn’t raining, it was the spray of his blood as they decapitated him. The head had rolled between my legs. I shrieked, but couldn’t control my actions I stumbled back away from him. More laughter erupted from our captors as the rest of us were in shock.
They bound the rest of us and began to force us away. We marched deeper into the forest and I soon lost all bearings. The stars barely visible under the trees made it difficult to regain them. We marched for hours with no rest, I began to count trees I was so tired. We stopped at a stream only for them to get water we were kept tied and guarded. Finally the sun attempted warmed our faces, we were going east! The thought gave me hope as I had finally gained something back, however small. The Barbarians started chanting, the booming march created a stir in the distance. As we neared, we were met with young men and boys. The captured man I didn’t know was dragged off in a different direction. A boy had fallen to his knees, blood boiling as he screamed half crying. My fellow roman was revenge, revenge for that boy’s father, or brother, who knows. I was pushed hard as I slowed to see what happened, but his short scream was the only evidence I needed to figure out what happened.
A small village appeared in a small clearing. Randomly placed simple housing spotted the clearing. Entering the village we were thrown in a pit, dug into the ground and covered with pine branches to keep us there. A large rock was pushed onto it making escape almost impossible. Dirty and cold we waited for anything even our end seemed appealing at this point. The pit was hardly enough to stand in, though the rest was welcome. We collapsed shivering and cursing. The faith clearly leaving Marcius’s body. I was a slave now, as before, sentenced to a life of work.
Finally the man who barely spoke, came to us with buckets. “You, Come out. Turn. No kill.” He repeated himself a second time as we both rose. As the men removed the rock he said, “Work, eat, sleep. No work, no eat, die.” We turned away from him as instructed as I saw him draw his knife. He cut the bonds and handed us the buckets. Then he cut the leather holding Marcius’s armor together. We were led down the small hill of the village into the woods once again. A stench filled the air as we continued. I looked at the buckets again. It wasn’t mud that filled the wooden cracks. We were going to the cesspit.
“Take, Fill, Come.” He commanded pointing to the pit of waste and mud. I started my way down the side. Marcius however stayed, disgusted at the task. The others smirked and looked at each other.
“Just do it!” I called out to him. He stared and was fixed. They clubbed him hard on the back of the head and tossed him into the pool of festering swamp headfirst. I wanted to help him but I couldn’t my body wouldn’t let me. He struggled to get upright in the thick sludge. But I heard him cursing uncontrollably soon after.
“Throw me your bucket, I’m already covered in this shit!” He continued to curse at the men who threw him in laughing at him.
“You shouldn’t taunt them.” I told him trying to hold back my own laughter. As he gave me the buckets he flung the waste at them bringing far less laughter and stern faces. I walked back to them and they pointed further east. There were fields. I looked in amazement at the fields so like those I worked before, simply smaller and less decorated.
“Dump there, get all done.” And so I walked, doing the all the legwork. Though I didn’t mind at all. Working as I did before made me forget the cold, for a moment, until the clearing of the field’s wind blew away my warmth. Back and forth I traveled. For hours, always watched. After a while they brought us dried meat, and some sort of plant. Our first meal in days was devoured as soon as it came, I didn’t even question what the meat or plant was. As the sun set we followed it back to our pit, Marcius smelling from head to toe. Protected from the wind we welcomed the cover. And as we slept, we dreamt of nothing.
As the winter thawed and the life began to spring up into the forest my disgusting job had changed. I was cutting trees and clearing more land. Marcius, wasn’t there anymore, a defeated, sour, body remained. He got the terrible jobs, cesspit trips, filling and emptying. Cleaning the areas hunted animals were butchered. He never spoke anymore, and was seldom fed. He wouldn’t last much longer.
As we completed our tasks and were fed we were no longer watched by armed men. They seemed to trust us. Our pits were now floored and roofed and although they weren’t waterproof at least we were cleaner. It was starting to feel normal. I began to pick up their language too. Small things, but enough to know when breaks or food was coming. Leuthar was the name of the man who spoke our language. He and I had a special kind of curiosity. He would often come to my cell at night and attempt to learn more as I did from him. He was clearly the most intelligent of the men, but not the most liked as they questioned him for talking to me. Our campaign had taken many lives and distorted the lands of the tribes that survived. Turmoil within the barbarian camps was something I never thought would happen.
As we the sun fell and we again followed it back we heard screams. At full sprint the men in the fields ran towards the village, leaving Marcius and I behind.
“Quick! Let’s go!” he said quietly. “Come On!”
It was the first I had heard his voice in a very long time. It surprised me and I questioned it. A thought I had never believed to cross my mind fluttered. I could stay and take care of the fields, what I always had done. Or I could leave and try to rejoin the legions. I was frozen. I heard a muffled yell again and then he was gone. It was as if time stood still for minutes at a time as I thought.
Next thing I knew I was sprinting too. Running straight and fast towards the wood. Trying to catch the figure in front of me. Winded I continued until I heard a familiar noise. The howl of a timber wolf directly behind me. The Growl became louder as I ran. Towards the safety of my new home. The land I cared for now. The people who feed me and teach me. My old allegiances vanished, I was not dead, and I was not harmed.
As I raced towards the village I was saved by a well thrown spear. The beast fell but was not finished. Writhing in the dirt I removed the spear and replanted it below its shoulder. The whimpers stopped but more howls continued to sound. I ran towards them with the weapon not thinking of myself. For the first time not fighting for my survival, but others. Two wolves circled a family, a mother and sister protected by the young boy I remember from my capture. He couldn’t keep his attention on one or the other might attack. I watched as his attention lingered too long on the larger wolf. The other quickly jumped onto him as he attempted to fight for his life. The larger wolf backed the women against the side of the house. Without slowing I stabbed the monster through the ribs. It wailed as the two of us collided, breaking the spear as it was bent under our weight.
I stood now defenseless as the other wolf lost interest in the younger boy and came charging at me. As it clawed and bit my forearms I managed not to die. I felt it tear my flesh and blood dripped down onto my face. I felt a piercing pain in my left shoulder. Thinking it was the end I let my mind wander. Half of me useless, I would never be able to work for food. I lost all hope in an instant, until my eyes opened again. The young man’s spear struck the beast but traveled through, into my shoulder. The furry weight now stopped moving and only pain was left. I remember being lifted and a void took me.
As I awoke to a bright light I knew I was dead. But no plains of Asphodel were visible. Only the boy, now a man for his kill had entered. He said nothing, just came to my side. After a minute he sat and a tear rolled down his cheek. He said nothing but placed a spear at my side, and left a shield too large for him against the bed. He didn’t need to say anything, I earned my place. I was finally free.