We live in the hearts of those we leave behind
Only in their eyes to we ever truly shine
What we do often lives for all time
There's more lives to matter here than just mine.
Quintus Magnus slumped wearily against the old rock wall. A small piece of it crumbled off and tumbled to the floor, echoing as it rolled across the once tiled but now mostly dirt, floor. Of all the places he'd imagined dying, this certainly wasn't it.
Of course, I never expected to live this long, what with all the mistakes I've made in my life.
Rubbing his eyes to remove some of the ever-present dirt and grime, the general looked around. His men – so few of who were once so many – merely looked back at him, their eyes as empty as his and their features every bit as exhausted. What had started out as a simple weeklong mission had turned into a siege of months. Instead of delivering an important message to a provincial governor, they were locked up in this tiny citadel outside the city, surrounded by rebel forces no one knew existed. All attempts to get a warning out had failed, and they watched with despair as the army outside grew and grew. They watched with horror as the threat to Rome became insurmountable.
His second-in-command, Lucinius, met his eyes. Lucinius was a young man, not even an officer – he was just the highest ranking one left among them, aside from their sixty-three year old general – and he was scared. Seeing the despair on the other soldier's face, Quintus winced and turned away, angry at himself for not being able to give them the confidence they needed or knowing what miracle to pull out of heaven to save their lives. Lucinius was right, his heart said. We're all going to die here.
There's no way out.
He'd been denying that for three months. Like any good general, he'd kept his options open. He'd considered every idea. He'd tried everything… and he'd lost nine out of every ten of his men. Quintus had lost men before, but never this many, and never like this. There had always been a purpose before. There had always been an end in sight.
Now the only end in sight was death. He stared at the broken tiles beneath his feet and tried to hold back a groan of frustration. He'd never felt so tired, and he just did not have this kind of miracle left in him.
I don't think I have any kind of miracle in me at all. It was heart-rending to admit that, but it was true. This was going to become his tomb, and it was really a sorry excuse for a burial ground for so many good men. So close to Rome – under thirty hopeless miles – but still so far away from the friends and family that the blessed city protected. An image of Nicola's beautiful face flashed in Quintus' mind, and in his ears he heard his children's laughter. Suddenly his chest felt tight and his heart grew heavy. Now he would die so far from his home and family, all because he wasn't quite good enough to do the impossible.
I wish Maximus were here.
When faced with adversary, humanity always wishes for the impossible. It wasn't because Maximus was the best in the world and could have found a way to escape. It wasn't even because Maximus would never have gotten stuck in that awful situation in the first place. No, Quintus just wished his old friend were there so he could apologize for all he didn't do.
I failed you, my friend. And I am sorry.
"They're coming again, General," Lucinius suddenly said, breaking the oppressive silence that the Romans had shared for the past few hours. Each knew they would be their last.
A muffled thud sounded against the rock wall. This time the rebels were trying to break through places other than the old gate that Quintus and his men had previously defended so well. The old general found himself winching once more. As the siege progressed, his enemy was getting creative rather than careless. Unfortunately, that marked them as smart. They knew that if one single soldier escaped to tell of their growing revolt, their entire movement would die when the full rage and power of Rome descended upon them.
Quintus gasped in surprise as the truth hit him. They didn't have to win. They only had to get a rider through…
His head snapped up. "Change in plans," he announced. Raised eyebrows met his proclamation, and his men waited for their orders, but their faces told him that they did not care. They knew they were dead.
Projecting as much force and confidence into his voice as he could muster, Quintus continued. "We're letting them in."
"What?" Marcellus gasped, speaking for his comrades as well. "That's courting death."
"And staying here isn't?" the general challenged, finally feeling the blood moving in his veins again. He pushed off the wall, ignoring his old and aching body. Just give me one more battle and then it's over, he promised his ancient legs. Just one more day, then I'll leave you alone. "We don't have anything to lose. They do."
Some of his men had the decency to look curious. The others just looked tired and defeated, but Quintus pushed on anyway. "All we have to do is get one man through, to Rome, to warn them about this rebellion," he said with determination. "We've been trying to escape since day one. All of us can't get through. We know that now. But one of us might make it if the rest of us buy him time."
"How, General?" Lucinius asked quietly. "We don't have anything left."
Despair threatened to overtake his soul, but Quintus refused to surrender. "Don't have anything left?" he spat. "What kind of Romans are you to lay down and die? Don't you have any pride left?"
"It's over, sir," Marcellus said quietly, as if whispering the words might lessen the impact on the general whom they all surely saw as losing his wits.
Some of the others nodded in silent agreement, and Quintus' heart shattered as his shoulders slumped. How he wished for a return to the Felix Legions, whose men would kill themselves for the honor and glory of Rome. What had his world come to, to die without a fight, to give up before his last breath…
"I'll go, sir."
His head snapped up in surprise to face the youngest of his men. Presario, a good kid from a family of soldiers, but himself unproven in battle until this mess, stared back at his general, back straight and head held with pride. "If we get someone through, these last three months won't be for nothing," the young man said quietly.
Marcellus and Lucinius looked at each other, to Presario, then back to their general again. Somehow the confidence and determination was contagious. "Let's do it, sir."
Pain flared; then it traveled mercilessly from his already aching knees to his once-dependable back as Quintus half-knelt, half-leaned by the weakest part of their hastily fortified wall. It had held up for three months and would probably have lasted another one or two had his men not carefully destabilized the support beings they'd so carefully set up at the beginning of it all. Now, like his body, the wall didn't have to hold on much longer. It just had to last long enough to fool the rebels outside into thinking they cared. The general's legs, however, clearly didn't care, and made that plain to him as a muscle spasm suddenly tore through his old knees to shake Quintus' entire lower body.
Not now! he thought desperately. Just give me a few more hours then I'll shut up and leave you be. Just give me a few more hours…
"Ready, General?" Lucinius whispered at his side, and Quintus nodded through the pain and focused on the near future that somehow seemed so far away. Just here, and now, he told himself, inwardly finding his old pre-battle calm. This is all that matters. Like so many times before, Quintus reached inside and found the strength to win just one more battle. Survival no longer mattered, for the dream was greater than any one man. He had fought for Rome during his entire adult life, lost half his teenage years to her wars, and watched emperors live and die. It was time.
Game faces, gentlemen.
The old adage was suddenly in his mind, and Quintus fought the urge to look over his shoulder, shake Maximus' hand and hear the expected words, "Strength and honor." It had been too long, until now.
He nodded to Presario, briefly thinking of how proud the boy's father would have been of him. A long time praetorian, the elder Presario was probably at his emperor's side even now, wondering where his youngest son was and if he'd ever see him again. The young soldier nodded back with the frightening calm that often overtook men forced to become heroes.
"Let's do it, boys," Quintus said quietly, and as one, his men moved forward. Just one last time… For Rome.
As a new sun beat heavily on the bloodied field, a second battle raged. The rebels, outnumbering their opponent and feeling confident from the victory of the day before, did not turn tail and run at the sight of the famed lion adorning the standards of the incoming Roman troops. There was only a legion, they reasoned, and a few hundred horsemen besides. So they fought on, and underestimated the strength of determined and well-trained men. Legio Victrix Felix IV and the II and III Companies of the Felix Cavalry Regiment tore the rebels to pieces.
Meanwhile, Quintus Magnus lay dying beneath the warm Italian sun. The ground had claimed his body hours before, yet something inside him was still conscious enough to notice the that man kneeling by his side was his Caesar, the embodiment of the dream that the old soldier had given his life to protect. At peace, Quintus closed his eyes and saw no more.
The Emperor of Rome reached out with a trembling hand to close his general's half-open eyes. "Strength and honor, my friend."
But Dreams only die if we let them.