Love, Eternally
Author:Morgan O'Neill


Easter Sunday, A.D. 402, Pollentia, Italy

For the first time in his life, he knew fear before battle.

Quintus Pontius Flavus Magnus fought his demons and searched the distance. The Visigoths waited there, with their foul witch.

She rode a white horse at the helm of the barbarian forces, weaving back and forth, exhorting her troops to victory. Clad in a snow-white gown. Silver shield, blinding in the sun. A vision of purity, idolized by her people — yet black of heart, to any Roman.

Randegund, the Witch of Rocesthes, drew rein and pointed skyward. Her king, Alaric, fell back with his men. Her pale-blond hair lifted, snaking the wind. The air hushed, but her hair continued to writhe, and men on both sides gaped, still as stone. The omen of evil was not lost on him, but Magnus saw past the conjurer’s cheap trick. Medusa be damned! He raised his sword.

“Nemesis, dark-faced Goddess of Justice, hear me now,” she cried out. “Winged Avenger, Bringer of Doom, may you damn the Roman filth to the deepest realm of Hades!”

The air suddenly whirled black. Thick, acrid smoke from nowhere. A bedlam of men swearing, horses screaming. Magnus swiped at his burning eyes. Coughing, he spotted the witch riding forward, the smoke parting before her, as if swept aside by ungodly breath. The Visigoths followed her in a wedge formation, banging their swords and spears on their shields.

Her eyes glinted ice blue, beckoning a nameless fear.

She must be stopped!

“Soldiers of Rome, unleash hell!” Magnus rode into battle at full gallop, his men following in his wake, shouting their fury. He swung his sword, slashing through a sea of bearded faces. Howls of pain. Grunts. Shrieks. Enemy blood sprayed everywhere and he spit against the vile tang. His warhorse battled, too, trampling men. The Visigoth line broke. Magnus heard wailing and the crunch of bones.

Smoke still whirled, choking him, but he could see banners denoting Alaric’s position. The witch was close, too, so close. Magnus bellowed, his dread abandoned, the rush of anticipation spurring him on.

“Magnus, beware!”

He paid no heed. Visigoths surged in and he cut them down. With each stroke, red sparks leapt from his garnet ring, which bore the likeness of the Goddess of Victory, his patron goddess. With Victoria as his shield, he hacked his way toward his target. Good against evil, goddess against witch.

Driving his horse forward, Magnus pierced the enemy flank. His men followed, attacking in every direction. Ahead, he could see Alaric. The king shouted something to his soldiers, but the furor of battle buried his words.

“Death — death to the enemy!” A roar went up around him, and Magnus drove his mount even harder. “Victoria strengthens this arm — ”

Suddenly, Magnus and his men were surrounded by the enemy, as though ...

He glanced about, searching for Stilicho, but his general’s colors were lost in the chaos. A scream snapped Magnus back, and the Visigoths surged as one toward him, the glint of the sun off their curved throw-swords blinding. A second enemy line tightened behind, like teeth closing on a morsel of food. He and his men were cut off. The Pincer! He knew the tactic by heart, had done it himself many times. Barbarians fell on them from all sides, launching their throw-swords. Screams erupted as the weapons hit Roman flesh and bone. The Visigoths knew they held victory in their hands; Magnus could read it plainly in their eyes.

“Fight, men — ”

Pain exploded in Magnus’s head, and he fell into the wailing darkness.

• • •

Magnus squinted, attempting to make sense of where he was, but the sun blinded him. He needed to block the glare, but could not make his arm obey. The stench of fresh blood, of spilt entrails, the horrible cries of the wounded surrounded him. In agony, he shut his eyes and cursed, realizing he lay back to back atop a dying man crying out for his mother.

Flies swarmed over his face. O, ye Gods! Such an ignoble end for one thought great, fawned over by his emperor. How he wished a mighty blow had provided him a glorious end, instead of leaving his body limp, unable to fend off the plague of flies.

He passed in and out of consciousness, the man beneath him finally still. Horrible screeches brought him fully awake. Vultures soared overhead, raging at the people below. Visigoth women pulled valuables off bodies as their men killed the wounded.

Cursed scavengers. He struggled against the deadness in his limbs. “I command this legion,” he croaked through parched lips. “Emperor Honorius will pay for our ransom. Do not kill my men!”

Faces loomed over Magnus, blessedly blocking the sun. Rough hands seized him, and blood seeped into his eyes as he was slung over a pack mule. He blinked to clear his sight. His arms hung limp, and his gaze traveled their bloody length, wondering where he had been wounded. Magnus had seen men in this condition before. They rarely lived long enough to see the dawn, but an unfortunate few survived, trapped within lifeless bodies. Would this be his fate?

Mighty Victoria, have mercy upon me. Take me now.

As his captors led the mule away, he looked at the battlefield. Another knife thrust, another Roman killed.

“No, spare my men!”

Helpless, Magnus averted his gaze and saw his lifeless hands, not wishing to look upon the truth of his vanity any longer. He sucked in his breath. His right forefinger was bare! He desperately scanned the ground for his ring, but all he saw was a muddy mix of gore and corpses.

His most treasured possession, the touchstone of his fate. Gone. He closed his eyes, sick with grief. He’d received both the ring and his honorific name, Magnus, from the last emperor, Theodosius, after victory at the Battle of the River Frigidus. He was so proud of that ring, and now it was lost. Victoria had indeed withdrawn her favor.

Blinded by shame, Magnus hung his head. If he did survive, if he were ransomed back to Rome, he was finished. He imagined the sneer on Honorius’s face, then looked up to see King Alaric astride his horse, grinning ear to ear.

The Witch of Rocesthes moved her horse forward. Magnus glared into her formidable blue eyes. “Kill me and be done with it.”

She shook her head, her lips thinly drawn in bitterness, the smile as cold as her eyes. “That would be a mercy, and you shall have none from me. Fortune has abandoned you, Roman.”

His vision blurred red and he struggled to move, wanting to rip out her throat, but he could do nothing.