The Last Spartan – Chapter One
Writer owns none of the Firefly verse, and is not paid for his work. Lawyers take note.
The old man walked across the strewn battlefield, picking his way through the
corpses strewn about the killing ground. Two great armies, meeting in close combat, left many to feed the ravens.
Such waste, he sighed, looking at the dead all around him. The armies had moved away from the plain, still in intermittent contact with one another. No one had bothered with the dead.
No respect for the fallen, he groused to himself. Shameful. In his time, no one would have left valiant dead so disgracefully on the battle field. It was dishonorable. Man had fallen far, it seemed.
As he paused to look over the destruction, a moan drifted to him across the field. Someone yet lived. The old man hurried in the direction of the slight noise.
He found the source, a young man with a terrible wound to the abdomen. He was large for a Greek, the old man noted. He wore the dress of a Spartan warrior, however, and none would dare wear such who had not earned it.
"Water," the man asked hoarsely. "If you have it to spare." The old man smiled at the formal request. Even wounded, probably dying, the Spartan did not abandon his raising. He gingerly lifted the man's head, and lowered his own wineskin to the Spartan's parched lips.
The soldier drank sparingly, and washed his mouth with the last mouthful before swallowing. Trained in rationing, the old man realized.
"Thank you," the Spartan croaked. "A kind act, friend. The Gods smile upon you for it."
"I fear it had been long since any deity has graced me with his, or her, smile Spartan," the old man smiled in reply. "I am Neethos, by the way."
"Janos," the Spartan returned, gasping slightly. "My shield?"
Neethos nodded, and reached for the nearest shield, lying it near to hand, placing spear and sword likewise. The soldier nodded his thanks.
"A great battle, young Spartan," Neethos said, taking a small rag, and dampening it with water. He carefully wiped the younger man's forehead and face, then looked to his wound.
"No need," Janos assured him. "I will soon depart, my friend. The wound is grievous, and I'm sure, mortal."
"Nonsense," Neethos scoffed. It was likely true, he knew, but there was no reason not to offer what comfort he could.
"I've seen much, old one," the Spartan replied kindly. "I thank you for the attempt, but am well aware of my impending departure. A wound such as mine is always fatal."
"You do not seem afraid," Neethos noted. The Spartan scoffed.
"I have no need of fear," he said. "I have achieved that which all Spartan's desire, death in battle, in defense of Sparta herself. The Gods will welcome me."
"So it is said," Neethos nodded, washing blood from the wound. "Your wound does look grievous, Janos, but the bleeding has stopped. And there is yet life in you."
"But only for a while," Janos smiled weakly. "This kind of wound is a lingering death, Neethos my friend. But death will come, none-the-less." The Spartan seemed to take comfort at this. For some reason that bothered Neethos.
"And if you could live?" he asked warily. "What, then, would you do?" The Spartan regarded him for a moment.
"I would watch my sons grow, I suppose," he said after a time. "When I had sons, of course," he smiled sadly. "My wife died in childbirth with our first. I have not yet taken another wife, but would have done, had I survived."
"And if you could not return to your beloved Sparta? What then, if you lived?" Neethos asked.
"Then I do not know," Janos answered truthfully. "What is life for a Spartan, when there is no Sparta? Where, indeed would I go? And what would I do?" He seemed to ponder that question for a time.
"I suppose there are other places where one could serve. Where a soldier with skills and abilities could be useful. I should think, if I could not return to Sparta, then I would seek out such a place." His eyes were sad at the thought, Neethos noted.
"And would such a life be worthwhile?" he asked. "Could you be happy, never setting foot in Sparta again?"
"There is no happiness for a soldier, Neethos," Janos said quietly. "One takes what pleasure he can where he finds it, but I have never mistaken simple pleasure for happiness."
"A wise observation, young Spartan," Neethos smiled. "Tell me, then, my young friend. What if you could live far longer than a few years? What if your life was one of centuries, rather than decades? How then would you spend that time?"
"Centuries?" Janos scoffed. "I am not a learned man, Neethos, but I do know that no man lives so long."
"But if you could?" Neethos pressed. "If it were possible, and such a gift were granted to you, what would you do with it?"
"What could one not do, with so long to live?" Janos countered. He knew Neethos was helping him take his mind from his impending death. And it was an interesting discussion.
"A good answer," Neethos looked pleased. "What, indeed, could a man not do with so many years to live and learn."
"I cannot think of many things," Janos admitted. "Such a gift would be a gift indeed. Though a man living so long would lose friends to age and death, while he himself remained. A lonely life, I should imagine."
"True," Neethos nodded, and Janos saw a shadow of sadness cross the older man's face. "Such a man would know great loss as well as great joys. Watching those he loved fail, and then die, while he was helpless to stop it."
"Is any man ever helpless?" Janos asked. "Man must live, and die, by the choices he makes in life. Should he not desire to see such things, then he would avoid such closeness. Better he should drift through his long life, stopping only a few short years at a time, then moving along. Before such losses can affect him."
"You are wise beyond your years, young Spartan," Neethos smiled sadly. Janos shrugged at the compliment.
"A soldier is accustomed to loss, Neethos," he said quietly. "One cannot change the fact that war is a deadly business, and friends are lost to it. Nor that childbirth is a dangerous thing for both child and mother," he added, a wistful, sad tone to his voice.
"Loved her greatly, did you not?" Neethos asked.
"I did," Janos nodded. "She was, perhaps, not the most beautiful woman in the world. But to me she was everything that was beautiful. Everything that was good in this world. Losing her was like dying myself, in many ways."
"I have known such loss," Neethos agreed. "It is perhaps the cruelest of all. To lose one whom you love above all else, even yourself." His eyes were fixed on some point no other man could see, a memory perhaps.
"That was how it was for me, as well," Janos nodded his understanding. "We married young. Perhaps too young. She was not as strong as she thought. As I thought. Had we but waited, it might have been different."
"And it might not have," Neethos replied. "You gave each other happiness, young Spartan. There is no wrong in that. Nor should guilt be felt. Things such as this happen sometimes. Usually for a reason."
"What reason would there be for my wife and child to perish in birth?" Janos asked. "What reason for my losing her in such a way?"
"This," Neethos said, his voice a hiss. Janos looked to the old man, and was shocked to see. . .
"What are you?" he asked, hand groping for his sword.
"You have chosen well, Spartan," Neethos said through his teeth. "This gift I give you freely. Use it well."
Janos screamed when the needle-like teeth sank into his neck. And then, he knew no more.