His world was there, compacted into the barely fittable amount of space allotted to him within the confines of the shield wall. Nothing but the gasps and cries of men filled his ears, drowning out the desperate voice of his commander, who stood with his shield raised in the row behind him, yelling the men on. The men either side of him fell with shrill screams and despairing wails, their deaths coming upon like an unstoppable herd of horses, trampled beneath the sandals of the lightly clad mass of plebeians. The air around him was hot and sticky, the smell of blood thick in the air, lingering with the pungent scent of sweat coming from the press of bodies. He cringed. The Romans were forced back, the small band of armored men grappling desperately with the overwhelming numbers before them. It was hopeless. There were just too many. He paused for a split second, risking a glance above the rim of his ovular shield. The narrow street was packed with hundreds of men, some women, pushing and shoving their way forwards. He ducked his head back down again as an older looking man swung a broad board of wood at his head. At the same instant, a shirtless youth, no older than fifteen or sixteen, threw himself at the shield, a frenzy in his eyes fueled by hunger.
He was pushed backwards. He threw his weight behind his shield with all his might, giving a heavy grunt. Desperate to keep himself from stumbling over the corpses of the men who had fallen, he kept his sandaled feet firmly on the ground. He felt his feet begin to slide across the muck covered cobblestones, and risked a glance down. Droplets of blood spattered his eyes as he skidded through crimson puddles littered with gore. His gut clenched in disgust at the sight, and even more so at the thought that his guts may soon be joining those of his comrades. Tensing his shoulders, he squared his opponent up, mindful of his foothold. He could feel the back of one of his sandals catch on an uneven cobble slab, helping to somewhat stop his rapid loss of ground. With his feet now firmly on the ground, he gave a defiant cry from deep in his throat and shoved his shield into the face of his attacker. The shock of the impact against the youth reverberated through the shield, causing his arm to throb painfully. He winced, and quickly thrust out his right hand in an attempt to impale the enemy youth. Seeing the flicker of the blade, the boy leapt backwards, only to be pushed back into the Roman, who took his chance. Without a second thought, he plunged his blade deep into his attacker’s side. The boy howled in agony and crumpled away, stumbling a few steps to the side before he, too, was trampled into the ground.
The Praetorian stopped to take another breath and noticed there was a gap of a foot or two between him and the nearest of the other Praetorians. That could not be permitted. Seeing a break in the battle, he quickly shuffled to the side of the road, careful not to trip over the crumpled forms of men beneath him. He was about to fully close the gap when he heard a swooshing sound coming from the side of his exposed right flank. He turned his head quickly, just in time to see the savagely grinning face of a man less than an arm’s length away from his own. The man brandished in his cracked hands a crude wooden club. If swung correctly, it could easily cause a man damage. And he knew this. The Praetorian tried to lean himself away from the attack, but his movements were not quick enough. The blow landed hard on the side of his head, striking his helmet and rattling his skull. He stiffened as a sharp sensation travel down his neck, reaching as far as the base of his spine. His head snapped to the side with a sickening crack that might have been his helmet or a bone, and he gave a half cry, half gasp of pain as he was momentarily disoriented by the blow. A blinding light flashed before his eyes, his ears filled with a sharp ringing. He felt himself tipping over, leaning to his side as he lost his balance. This was it. He had tripped up. He was done for. His feet finally gave way beneath him, the disorienting feeling of momentary freefalling causing his muscles to tighten as he braced for the impact. He hit the ground, his head striking the solid cobble. He yelled out a weak, defiant curse as the weight of the man fell on top of him, the man’s knee pinning his sword arm at his side. He gave a strangled grunt, trying in vain to tear his arm free. He tried to focus on freeing his arm, but it would not budge. He tried again, growing more desperate as the man on top of him raised the point of what looked like a dagger above his neck. The Praetorian screwed his eyes shut, waiting for the killing blow to be landed. He imagined the pain of the metal ripping through the soft skin of his neck, ending his life forever. He sucked in a deep breath, and then suddenly froze. The weight from his chest had lifted. He blinked his bleary eyes open, his uneven vision, his surroundings becoming distorted beyond recognition. A gasping grunt exploded in his ear, giving way to a warm, sticky liquid splattering his face and neck. He looked up to see another Praetorian standing over him, his sword pommel deep in the abdomen of the man.
His comrade was speaking to him. By the look on his face, he seemed urgent, almost concerned. The Praetorian tilted his head up slight, grimacing at the pain his neck. He squinted his eyes, trying to focus on the features of the man standing above him. He felt a sense of recognition rise within him, and he opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by what sounded like a distant rumble. He watched as a rain of stones fell onto the line of Roman defenders. One of them struck the man standing over him, causing him to collapse on top of the Praetorian’s comrade. Before he could react, he felt himself being grabbed under his arms and was aware of two other men on either side of him. They shoved the body of the fallen soldier aside, regardless of the Praetorian’s struggling. He could feel the ground sliding beneath his feet as he struggled, choking out the name of the fallen man. He heard the urgent voices of the other men around him, but the fallen one did not respond. It appeared that the Romans were retreating. The floor beneath him changed from cobble to a smooth tile, and the heavy, fortified doors of the imperial palace were closed as soon as he was through. The Praetorian fought with a fresh struggle but was firmly restrained by the other men. A Roman in a black tunic ordered something, and the Praetorian was very gently laid down on the cold floor. He felt an uncontrollable shiver, and slowly began to lose his will to fight. He let his head fall against his chest, surrendering to a blackness that filled his vision.
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