Chapter 1: Life 1
The first time I died was rather unremarkable though necessary for telling the story. It was a gloomy, overcast day, and I was a Roman soldier. I waited on the front lines in anticipation of the vast army of snarling barbarians hordes in the distance. The air was damp and smelled of fresh rain. A horrid smell when combined with the bloodshed and bowel movements from the battle to come.
My fellow soldiers were not much older than me, and I could see the fear in their eyes. I tensed my face in the meanest face I could. In hindsight, I probably looked just as afraid as the rest of them. Even though I had only seen seventeen winters, I was ready to prove myself in the art of war and win glory for the Roman Empire. It didn’t matter that I could barely lift the sword or that my shoulders slouched from the weight of the armor. I was ready to die.
However, I wasn’t planning on it. Before the armies assembled on the field, I had been the head stable boy and mucked for the finest steeds in all of the land, and I was proud to scrape horse poo. I was a lower class aqueduct worker’s son who was now an essential part of the entourage of the great Orellicus! I also had taken myself way too seriously back then.
I’m glad that I got more than seventeen winters of life. I would have been an insufferable little snot otherwise. But that sense of duty and honor I felt back then was exactly how Orellicus suckered me into fighting on the front line in a battle where the Romans were almost assured to lose.
It had all started in his tent on the eve of war. The old coot beckoned me forward. He was a crusty fellow with white Roman curls. His robes were the finest in all of Rome, woven with gold and encrusted with jewels. Women who could have been his granddaughters wearing next to nothing surrounded him. They peeled his grapes, fanned him with a palm branch, and poured his wine.
I felt intimidated at the time because he had the presence of a god, and I was a lowly stable boy. He bellowed across the tent, “Orion, come forth.”
Oh yeah, a quick note, my name was Orion. Or at least that’s the name from my first life. I had other names. Almost too many to count, but Orion was the one I like the best. On with the story:
I walked up to the raised platform where Orellicus looked down on me with stern, hollow eyes. “Master?” I sputtered.
“Orion, the hour is late, and I imagine you wonder why I have called you from the stables.” Orellicus began.
I didn’t know what to say. I’d never been in the tent before much less heard more than two words directed at me from Orellicus.
My discomfort didn’t seem to stop him. “Orion, my boy. We are living in grave times indeed. The barbarians are at the doorsteps of Rome, and tomorrow the might and glory of the Roman Empire will be tested.”
“My liege, we will pass this test and defeat the barbarians. That is what Romans have always done. That is what we will always do.” I said. Once, again I took myself way too seriously back then.
Orellicus laughed, “Oh my boy if it were that simple. Do you know how I got all this?” He gestured to the tent full of riches and women attending his every need.
“Strength in combat and victory in battle?” I said.
“That is part of it. The other part is wits boy. You can defeat ten men in battle, but it only takes one to outwit you. Remember that boy. Your wits are how you’ll survive.”
He then bestowed upon me the rank of infantryman and gave some speech about the glory of the Roman Empire. It brought a tear to my eye in my first life, but I skipped it for this retelling, mainly because it makes me barf a little in my mouth everytime I heard it. How naïve I was to think that the greatest general in the world at the time would see me, the poop cleaner, as a warrior when he was padding the front line so his real warriors wouldn’t die in the first wave.
I didn’t know what cannon fodder was that day, but if I knew then what I knew now, I’d asked to be designated first class fodder man over an infantry meat shield any day.
A toothless man in dingy clothes took me away to get fitted for my armor and weapons. The armor was a joke. It was taken off the back of a dead infantryman. The keyword being man. I was a teenager who was a little small for my age bracket, and the armor made it feel like I was being crushed into the Earth.
The toothless man saw my duress and said, “It gets easier the longer you wear it.”
It’s a shame I was only going to wear it one day.
After I was fitted for my armor, he brought me over to the weapons tent and shoved a sword in my hand. It was too heavy to lift, and it clunked on the ground. I tried to ask for a smaller one, but he was already shuffling me out the door and directing me towards the soldier’s tents.
I dragged my sword through the mud with several breaks in between to heave with exhaustion and throw up. I finally made it to a group of soldiers sitting around a fire. They were singing jaunty war songs, drinking, and making merry. I attempted to insert myself around the fire, and they made sure to close any gaps in the seating arrangement.
Dejected and alone, I dragged my sword to a tree that was overlooking a nearby creek. I shed my armor, splashed my face with water, and drank. Afterwards, I sunk under the tree and looked at the moonlight poking through the branches.
Just before I drifted off to sleep, I had a vision. It was myself. I was older and concentrating on something very hard. My hair was cut short but in a very odd hairstyle. A woman snuck up behind me and kissed my cheek. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. Her eyes were deep blue like cracked crystal, and hair was golden like the rays of the sun. It was her face that lulled me into a deep sense of relaxation, and I was able to drift into a deep content slumber.
Also, did I mention that it rained later that night? Fucking nature.
The next day I faced my immediate horrible death from a horde of snarling, angry barbarians. I was in a line of servants, squires, and stable boys who were called to battle. Behind us were the men, the real infantrymen. They were locked into a tortoise shell configuration while only about a half of my unit had shields. In fact, some of my guys only had shields.
The army across the way were large men in hide furs with battle axes. They had painted themselves with blood and were screaming battle cries that would wash over the field to us.
The two armies faced each other at the confluence of the rivers Tiber and Allia, about eleven miles north of Rome. It’s a scenic area and quite serene when the ground wasn’t soaked with the blood of fallen soldiers.
When Orellicus cried out the orders to attack, I raced forward toward the horde. However, my armor and sword slowed me down as I dragged the blade limp through the battlefield. So what was a race for most was sort of a fast shuffle for me. My unit clashed with the barbarians a full thirty seconds before I made it to the battle.
For a brief moment, I was in this weird spot where the barbarians were hacking to shreds all the people who had been standing next to me seconds before to the front of me. Behind me was this tight tortoise shell of shields and spears marching towards the broken line of barbarians.
For maybe a second or two, I thought I could survive. Maybe my fellow Roman soldiers would open a hole large enough for me to fit through, and I could hold a spear instead. My dreams were shattered when I saw an angry man with wild eyes break from the battle ahead and rush towards me.
He was holding a doubled bladed axe above his head with one hand that was the size of a horse’s ass. The man was surely was the inspiration for the titans from the Greek myths. His eyes bugged out as he charged, and I lifted with all my might.
Then, just as he was on top of me, by some miracle, I was able to lift my sword in an attempt to block the axe swinging towards my head. The sword blocked the weapon just enough to deflect the blow from my head to my right shoulder blade where it cut through most of the muscle and bone.
I collapsed to the ground in fear and pain and futilely tried to reattach my arm. It’s weird the thing to do when dying. It was like somehow if I could just pop it back into place, all would be better, and I could go back to mucking.
The barbarian didn’t even slow down when he landed the blow on me. He went right by and was presumably killed by the tortoise shell infantry which passed overhead moments later. I remember being taken aback by their lack of regard for their fallen comrade in arms. They trampled right over me, stepping on my face, chest, and wound.
I spent the rest of the battle bleeding out from the wound. Eventually, the pain receded as my body went numb. During that moment, I took in the clouds overhead. They were the gorgeous wispy white puffs that make the sky look like a grand tapestry. It was a beautiful day. During those moments, I wasn’t sad or angry. I felt proud to have given my life for the Roman Empire. I wept not with tears of regret, but with joy. I was such a sap back then.
For most people, that would be it. Fade out. Roll credits. This was your life. For me, it was just the beginning of figuring out who, or what, I really was. And while I didn’t think about my first life too much, there was one point that I should have gotten sooner.
Most people thought that when a soldier dies on a battlefield, honored to have sacrificed themselves for their country, that’s it. They drift off into the netherworld. But the reality is that dying is a long, drawn out, and painful process. When I finally came to terms with my death, I wasn’t over. I bled, then bled, and then bled some more.
I must have been close to drowning in a pool of blood when I finally saw my first human. At that point, I was delirious and drifting in an out of consciousness. I could no longer tell you that I was part of the Roman empire or that I was proud to be dying for it. I was moments away from my final breath, which was labored and intense even though I was too numb to feel it.
That’s when another teenager about my age, with a mop of dirty brown hair and wiry smile, stood over my corpse. I didn’t know his name at the time, so for the purpose of this narrative, I’m going to call Stabby, for what he did next. He pulled a long, thin dagger from his belt and looked me in the eye and said, “Sorry bro.”
He poked the dagger right through my eye socket and into my skull. I was dead. The weird part was not that someone had come around to kill me. That’s a very normal post battle job, arguably worse than cannon fodder. Stabby had to poke into the skull of all the people who were writhing in pain waiting to die at the end of the battle. Medical attention sucked back then (literally, leeches were a number one treatment for just about anything), so it was better just to kill all the wounded, at least the ones who were too wounded to stand on their own.
The actual cause of death being a poke through the skull after the battle was over wasn’t the weird part. The weird part was that Stabby had said, “Sorry, bro.” I didn’t know it at the time, but “bro” isn’t exactly in Roman or even the Visigoth dictionary. Strange final words for a person who gave his life for the glory of the Roman Empire.