This is Issue #52 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!
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He imagined if he had not already, he was pissing himself — he had never thought himself too brave, nor too much a coward, but had thought that if he were to die for Ilona, fighting for his nation, that it would be glorious enough, that he would fall, bloodied, having slain a number of his enemies, and his body would be borne back to the inner city, where Nixus would lay a hand on his chest one last time, and whisper a private farewell, and remember him fondly, with pride.
He had not thought he might simply wither of hunger, paralyzed and ruined, or be eaten alive by scavengers as he floundered in a field of blood and shit and flies.
The dog sniffed at his torn sword arm, stiff-legged still.
A realization began to dawn, slowly at first, and then with a sort of relentless acceleration that stole the meager breath he still had.
Panic crawled closer, reached out cold fingers, and began to sink them into his eyes.
He felt a low cry of horror building in his throat, choking him more than the blood he felt thickening in his lungs.
He would die, yes, but it could take hours yet. It could take… days.
Days of lying in the mud, drowning hairsbreadth by hairsbreadth, feeling himself sink ever so slowly into a river of blood and darkness.
“Adiuvo,” he whispered, lying there pinned by both his mount and fallen enemies. “Adiuvo me,” he pled, seeing the rest of his miserable life stretched out before him as an agonizing slog from moment to helpless moment.
No one answered.
The dog watched him warily, and lowered its muzzle to his flesh.
“Adiuvo me!” he cried, and then began to cough in earnest, squeezing his eyes shut.
At first, no one.
But then —
His eyes snapped wide. He knew that voice. Somehow. It spoke his name with a Westlander’s accent, but somehow there was a familiarity. He could picture the face, all at once sharp and soft, with pale eyes and pale skin and a frizz of ridiculous curls.
He’d never in his life seen such a thing — how could he know it?
But know it, he did.
“This way!” it called.
The dog tensed, whining, and there was the report of a gun. The dog fell, tongue lolling.
Legatus Sollerti sobbed aloud. “Huc! Sum huc!”
Suddenly, he was surrounded by a flurry of activity; soldiers masked to keep away the flies were all around him, pulling away the dog, the Krieg, the horse. His shattered body was revealed; he ground his teeth against the agony that was his remaining arm. At least he could feel it.
At least —
And then a soldier was kneeling next to him, pulling off his mask — her mask.
Sollerti stared up into the wild, pale eyes of a milkskinned, redheaded Westlander.
She put her hands on either side of his face, and wept over him, stroking his cheek.
A dizzying fear crept over him as she pulled a knife from her belt. He realized what it was for, and for a moment, panic returned. He could not die. Not yet. Not before he’d told her. Not before he’d given better last words than ‘yes, sir’ to the one person to whom he’d been completely devoted. “Nondum,” he breathed.
He would have fought, if he could.
“Nondum. Ubi est Nixus?” he begged. “Nondum!”
She looked down at him, the knife in her hand working between the edges of his armor, pulling aside a plate. She rested the point of it over his heart, wiped her eyes and said through gritted teeth. “She’s not coming.”
“Is she safe?” The rough tongue felt familiar. Right.
The expression on the woman’s face was almost scorn, but it twisted to honest tenderness. “You know she is.”
He laughed, choking again, and wheezed, tasting the blood he knew had been coming. “I know she is.”
“Any last words, Legatus Sollerti?” Juliana Vernon O’Malley wondered, tenderly stroking the cheek of the man she’d died with only days before.
“Tell her we fought well,” he said softly. “That we made them bleed,” he said, a chill creeping over him. “Tell her not to wait. Tell her she is too glorious to wait–” His eyes widened as his breath faltered. “Tell her –” Panic struck him; he could no longer speak.
Jules leaned down close, and kissed his forehead — and then she leaned into the dagger, and plunged it between his ribs. “Tell her you were honored to be at her side. I know, Sollerti. I will.”
He looked up at her in surprise, and managed to smile, faintly. His lips parted–
–thank you. I want to say thank you. I want you to tell her… the sun rose and set in her eyes. Tell her she is strong. Thank you. I want to say it. Tell her I know she didn’t need me but I was glad to be near her–
Blood ran from his lips.
–and tell her I died well. Tell her I wasn’t afraid. Tell her I admired her brother. Thank you. I want to say I loved that she could not cook. Tell her I loved that she could not sing. Tell her that I loved her for her ferocity. Tell her. Tell her that when death dares to come for her, I will be waiting for her. Tell her I would have followed her into the Westlands. Tell her the whole army would follow her into the Westlands–
There was one last moment of clarity in his eyes. He smiled, blood on his lips, and Jules watched him, intent. He focused on her, as though even though he could not move, could not speak, could no longer breathe, he would hold her still, and make sure she understood the gravity of his message.
–Tell her thank you. Tell her thank–
–but then they were glassy, and his jaw was slack; death had finally been granted to them both.
“Tibi gratus sunt,” Jules whispered, and lifted her hand to close his eyes.
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