It is a strange thing to wait for death. It is difficult to conceive a world of not existing, as I can only remember existing. I am inclined to tell myself that this odd, bone-chilling, heart-stopping dread will be worse than the death itself, but it so difficult to lie convincingly to oneself. Even as I stand, barefoot, shrouded in dark, supporting myself on a wall to spare my wounded legs the agony, I wish to cling to life.
My brother claimed we understood death much better than the average Roman since we were suckled at its teat. My mother died in childbirth, all by herself, in a stable. We were found nestled by her breast, the pair of us. We came with death, he said, so death comes with us.
He’s dead now. Cold and rotting. I do not know where his body is. I do not know where his soul is. I have been told so many unfettered falsehoods and rank lies that to believe in anything is difficult. Except death. I can believe in death.
The guard leers at me. The sounds leak through the wooden door like a noxious vapor. Screams and desperate cries. Growls and yells. They say in war, we become as animals. I have experience the fog of battle myself, where it is all but impossible to see beyond one’s face. Where everything blurs and where you can barely recall how you survived ,should you be among the lucky ones who Death stayed. But now, with guttural howls and fierce roars, I can hear it very clearly. I cannot differentiate man from beast. Perhaps we are all the same, in the end.
I wonder if I will shriek. Can I stand bravely and watch my death as stoic as a soldier should? Can I fight when I know I cannot win, instead of fleeing to the edges for just a moment more of precious life. There are some Christians behind me. They pray to their singular God with increasing fervor, but too many have died before them for me to expect it to do them any good. One may believe in God or Gods, but the beasts do not, and they treat us all the same.
I wonder if they know me, which I know is a ridiculous thought when death is so nigh. Do they know what my brothers, my friends, and now I must die for? Do they assume me a common criminal, a ransomer, a deserter, a kidnapper? Do they know that when we fought, we fought for not just our kin, but for them as well, so they might not stand beside me now? The cheering throngs must not know, or perhaps they are convinced that an attempt to usurp a bloody crown is just as vile as taking a sleeping child from its bed.
“Will you pray with us to God?” A young woman asks. She has large eyes, reflecting dimmly against the torchlight. It takes me a moment to realize that she is earnest and is not teasing my condition.
“I know not your god, maiden,” I say quickly.
“He is the one, true god!” she insists, in her last moments, proselytizing in the manner much detested by the public. A patriarch, perhaps her father, begins to guide her gently away with a warning whisper. Then, the door opens.
The light is bright and blinding. Perhaps, death was quick, and I am now stepping into Elysium. But, I hear the wails and cries from behind me and my eyes adjust. The sand is stained with blood.
Did my heart ever beat as it did now? I have faced death so many times, but there was always hope to counter the fear. I have no hope now, as if Pandora has squashed the delicate thing as it attempted to escape from her box. I have never realized how important hope is until now, when it is gone.
Some of the patricians are leaving. Not as a form of protestation, to be sure, but simply because they are hungry and long for some wine to fight the day’s heat. Did I feel hunger once? It is difficult to imagine now. I must own my death, so I walk calmly into the light as the guards push and shove at some of the more recalcitrant Christians.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” an old Christian says to me.
“May death stay his touch,” I return, nodding. Heat glistens against the blood-stained sand, but my eyes are drawn upward by movement. I see the pale beast across the ground. He is stained in blood, from others or himself, I cannot know. I am naked as I face my death.
The blood pounds heavily in my ears. My vision narrows. I cannot hear or see the crowds that cheer my death. Perhaps it is for the best. The lion spots us, raising his noble head, covered with a full and bloody mane. It has dark eyes; it was like staring into the black currents of the river Styx.
I limp forward toward it. I do not know why. Perhaps I am anxious. What must be done should be done quickly, and if I am to die, I should die soon. My brother is already dead. He was also so prone to rush before me, taunting my dogged footsteps behind him. As we were together in life, so should we join in death.
I do not feel pain. Even as its jaw enrapture my arm. Fight comes naturally to me, with my other hand engaging in jabbing at the beast’s eyes and nostrils. I am a soldier. I cannot help but fight. In that same vein, the beast cannot help but savage. I feel as if I am floating away. Emotions and memories fade with each beat of my heart, like footprints on a shore, until there is nothing left but a purity I find difficult to recognize as myself.
The world is darkening, as if a guttering candle has met its end. My brother once said we are living to die, but perhaps we are simply dying to live.