This is Issue #50 of DeathWatch, Book II: tentatively called Heart Of Ilona, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find DeathWatch, the first in the series, or start from the beginning of Book II!
* * *
The messenger stared blankly, his expression nearly comical, while Jules looked up at Coryphaeus, her eyes wide, wild. Her strangely vibrant laughter faded, and suddenly she looked panicked. She made a low gagging noise and reached up, up, past Coryphaeus, as though struggling to keep from drowning, trying to reach higher than the surface of whatever painful thing she was living, reliving, knowing.
“Get him out of here,” Coryphaeus said dully, carefully lifting Jules up into his arms.
“Coryphaeus,” Nixus said, looking worried. “Cory, y–” She sighed, shaking her head, and let him leave, saying to the messenger, “Tell Mother we’ll join her as quickly as we can.” She followed Cory, then, back into the room where he was laying Jules on the bed, tipping her to the side as her eyes rolled back into her head. “Cory–“
“Get out,” Coryphaeus said quietly, without looking at her. “Go. Be with mother.”
“I’ll come if I can,” he added.
“We need to–“
“I need to be here,” Coryphaeus said quietly. “He’s not getting any more dead, and if there were ever a chance for us to have mended the way things were between us–” He paused in his talking, his expression seeming pained, his brows knitting. “–it’s long gone.” He wouldn’t even turn to look at his sister; he fussed over Jules, who looked pained and broken, all at once.
Nixus moved to put a hand on his shoulder.
He flinched away from her, tensing. “I will only say it once more,” he whispered, and she could see his cheeks shine with tears. “Get. Out.”
She pulled back from him, stunned at the level of vehemence in his voice. “I–” she began, but then shook her head, sorrier than she ever knew she could have been. She turned to go.
* * *
It all happened so fast.
The slip closed over Jules head like dark water, and she couldn’t breathe.
He awoke in the mud, pinned beneath his slain mount. His legs were crushed, and his back broken. Dozens of dead Kriegsmen lay weltering all around him. There was a savage pride in his heart, to have taken down so many. The ground was a sucking mess of black mud that reeked of blood and death and earth, and it claimed him now. In his adrenaline-rush, he knew he’d killed scores of Kriegic monsters; he had brought pride to his homeland, and for that, he was grateful.
The gratitude faltered, the longer he lay there, barely breathing, the heat of his body leaving him. Cold, crushed, he began to realize the extent of his injuries. Not only was his body broken, but he could not fight through the pain to get free — he could not move his legs at all. He could not feel his sword arm, and his other arm was trapped beneath another foe, pinned in such a way he could not pull it free. He felt the way his hand had been twisted so thoroughly, the wrist must be broken.
But as for the rest of him, he could barely move.
In fact, he could barely breathe.
The haze of battle cleared, and soon, the world was simply full of the sounds of the dying.
Who had won? It was impossible to tell, from where he lay. If he called out, who would find him first? Enemies or his own men? It didn’t matter; he could not draw enough breath to cry out.
He could do nothing but lay still, suffocating helplessly.
He had been a fierce warrior, a fighter of great reknown. He’d been Legatus to Summus Nixus. They had found much glory together, had first learned to obey, and then learned to command. He had shared both battlefield and bed with her.
He remembered the tenderness of her mouth, and the strength of her command. He remembered the determination of her gaze, and the pure fire of her fury.
He remembered that he had nearly begged to be given lead of the column that rode ahead in the fight.
He remembered his last words to her were nothing more than duty. It wasn’t too hard to bear; he’d have said more, had he known, but isn’t that always the way?
“Hic est finis?” he said aloud, his voice ragged and choked. He laid there, looking at the sky as though it had some answer for him. Is this the end? He turned his head, looking this way, that way — it was the only bit of him left that moved. “Haec est finis… mihi?” This is the end… of me?
He thought of that, for awhile, as what felt like hours passed, and imagined he could accept it.
It could be the end.
That would be all right, wouldn’t it? That would be fair. This life — it was enough, perhaps. He had fought for Ilona, died for Ilona, lived as he believed, and his blood would make the soil rich for years to come. He would be a part of his country, and he would live on in memories.
If this was to be the end, that would be enough.
But it wasn’t.
It wasn’t the end.
Oh, by all that was wrong with the world, it was not the end at all, but the beginning of what seemed an interminable wait. His lungs burned and his head ached; he could not move, but he would not die.
He lay for what had to be hours; the light on the field never quite changed, because the clouds were so thick — it was neither day, nor night, truly.
He felt his throat quiver, and he wondered if he might cry out, wondered if tears were a sign of strength or shame.
When a sense of quiet blankness began to descend over him, he felt a blessed relief, and–he was strangely pleased to note–no shame, as tears slid from his eyes.
The end — it was finally coming, and the relief was palpable.
* * *