A/N - I'm not entirely sure that I've managed to achieve exactly what I was trying to write with this, which was to explore what makes a nation a nation...or something along those lines. But I think I got close to what I was aiming for. There was one small piece of formatting that FFN won't let me use, either, but oh well. I hope you enjoy this ficlet anyway :)
The Death of Rome
The blade was cold and sharp as it rasped against Rome's bones and punctured almost gently through his lungs. The empire died – was dead already, cracked and lifeless at the seams – and the hollow shell of its human shadow gasped hoarsely at the pain.
Rome felt the point of the sword exit through his back, and the sickly warmth of blood on his skin, blossoming through his shirt. The pain was deep and layered like an orchestral symphony: the sharp, shrill melody of a flute tore mercilessly through the surface of his skin, and the low moan of a cello thrummed in the severed tissue of his insides. The sword had slid between his ribs but missed his heart, and the loud, slow beat of the thing was rhythmically drumming him closer to his death.
But this would not be like the other deaths that he had suffered before throughout the centuries. No, those had been human deaths, more or less. Nations in human form could die, and they often did as they spun through the centuries of wars and diseases. The difference was that they would always open their eyes again, climb to their feet again, brush themselves off and wash off the blood again. To them, death was an inconvenience rather than an end.
Now this – this icy metal blade that was penetrating Rome's most life-giving organs – this was an end. The empire was dead. Rome could feel it, had been feeling it for days, every time he drew a breath of meaningless air down into his lungs. The land that had once formed a part of him now beat to a mismatched mesh of pulses, none of them his. Even the soil of Italy felt like the new, unblemished skin of children – two of them; one of whom was even now waiting for his return – instead of the weathered, sun-beaten tan of his own flesh.
The empire was dead. The people knew it. The other nations knew it. The sun that had risen and set on his horizons a hundred thousand million times – it knew it too. The trees and the cities and the blades of grass in the fields and the tiny, trickling mountain streams all told him he was dead. They wanted to bury him, but couldn't. Not yet. Not yet when he was almost still alive.
But that was fading now.
Rome lifted his gaze and looked up at the sky. The clear, blue cloudlessness stretched out and curled around the edges of a country that wasn't his in a world that had no place for him anymore. There was an oldness and a timelessness in the sky that made him feel as though his empire had never even mattered. How could it have mattered? There had been great nations before him, and there would be more great nations who came after him and built their foundations on his ashes. Years ago, he had taken in an island child and taught him Latin to amuse himself. The child had learnt without a fuss, but only so that he could make a promise:
"One day I'll have an empire too, and it'll be ten times bigger than yours!"
At the time, Rome had laughed so hard that the child had stormed off in an adorable fury. At the time, Rome had thought that he would live forever. That dream was nothing more than a gleam of freedom in a child's green eyes by now.
But a part of him would live forever. A part of him, somewhere, after this final death had sunk into his bones, would draw in a first, new breath and open its eyes. Rome knew that now. The future had burst into his mind with utter clarity as the sword had burst into his chest and the taste of copper blood had bloomed on his tongue.
The empire would live on.
Not like it had done. Not like the fading remnants of power and energy; the flux of life and death; the clash and cries of battle, of conquering, killing; the construction of new borders, cities, temples, civilisations. Not like the screams and the sighs and the sorrows and songs and the strength of humanity, travelling the long, straight roads, and laughing and loving and losing and winning and living for an instant, blind to the merciless eternity that was ripping Rome apart.
Not like that.
Oh, the sun would still shine on the hills and the valleys and the people who lived in the old cities of the empire and didn't spare a thought to whose ghost's footsteps they were treading in. And Rome supposed that it would shine on him too in whichever world the dead awoke in. But it wouldn't be the same.
He could remember...
He was the dusk and the dawn. He was the language formed in the shape of the lips and the teeth and the tongue. He was the shade of the darkness, the voices in dreams, the gods in the heads of the people who lived in his lands. He was the clash of the sword and the point of the arrow. He was the turn of the spokes in the chariot's wheels, the stories in thunder, the echo in forums.
He was the sand on the new shores; he was the conqueror. He was the blood that sank into the earth that was him. He was the victor. He was the footsteps of soldiers, the vastness of mountains, the prayers of gladiators.
And he could remember...
...everything that was coming to an end, right now, as he died here, skewered on the point of a sword.
As the blood trickled further over his skin, Rome felt again, for an instant, the empire trembling in his leaking lungs and his fingertips. His human body was swept away by the wind, leaving him as nothing more than a legacy of greatness, unfolding effortlessly through the centuries. In a hundred years, or a hundred hundred years, as long as the temples and bones of the Romans existed, even time could never quite erode him away.
The sword slid out of him, and Rome vaguely felt his human knees hitting the earth. The memory of everything he had ever been and felt and thought and conquered moved aside, and he felt the ground beneath him as he collapsed onto the Italian soil. Humanity stole into him again, lingering on the outskirts of the empire in his mind.
Germania crouched down in front of him, with the blood of a thousand thousand fallen Romans on his hands, and the tears of a single, personal grief on his face.
"I'm sorry," he whispered brokenly. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Rome reached up a shaking hand to touch his murderer's face, mixing his blood with the tears on the cheeks of his friend. Germania seemed so small and human now. A part of Rome – the part of him that clung in desperation to his human form – wanted to say something to him. Goodbye, perhaps. I love you. Don't cry... but he'd forgotten how to speak. He had no need for words now, nor the breath to voice them with.
As Germania held him close and wept, Rome looked back up at the endless, immortal sky. The light was fading out of his vision, and the colour was deepening, darkening until there were only the shadows of shadows in front of his tired eyes. The pain was leaving him now with the heat of his blood, and the warmth of Germania's body and the sound of his sobs were sinking into the ground. The fall of the empire was smothering them.
And that was the death of Rome. The empire was dead, but the world had already known that. Except for a small child, who continued to wait patiently, secure in his faith that his grandfather would return home with a smile and a story and box of new paints for his grandson.
The empire was dead. But Rome was not ended. The death of a nation is never the same as the death of human, and empires can never truly end. The ground on which Rome walked still carried the ghosts of his footprints, and the sound of his voice in the darkness was never forgotten.
The death of a nation is just like the death of a star; it might have died more than a lifetime ago, but its light still lingers night after night in the sky...
And somewhere, in the light of the sun that shines on whichever world the dead awake in, Rome opened his eyes.