As Clare and I have written several posts about fan fiction now, we thought it would be fun to post two of our favorite fan fiction pieces that we’ve written. Rosemary Sutcliff’s fantastic book The Eagle of the Ninth and the film The Eagle, based on Sutcliff’s story and starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, inspired this piece that I wrote a few years ago.
The story takes place in Roman occupied Britain. Many years before, the Ninth Legion marched past Hadrian’s Wall and into northern Britain, never to return. Thousands of men and their eagle standard, a symbol of Rome, were lost. Marcus, the son of the legion’s leader, now searches for the eagle standard and for information about what happened to his father and the Ninth Legion all those years ago. Marcus travels north of the wall with Esca, a British slave whose family was slaughtered at the hands of Roman troops almost a decade earlier. Their relationship is one of the reasons that Clare and I fell in love with this story, as it is incredibly complex as you can see in this clip from the film.
This piece I wrote tells Esca’s story, as gathered from bits and pieces in Sutcliff’s story, before he becomes Marcus’ slave.
The last image I have of my father is of him backed by the terrible light from fires that were already eating away at the only world I had known, bloodlust and the screams of our people pounding in both our ears. The last words he spoke to me were, “No matter happens you are still Esca Mac Cunoval, a blue shield of the Brigantes, and though they take away everything else, they can never take away your honor or freedom of mind and spirit. The Brigantes live on in you, Esca. Never forget your people or what I have taught you.” He pulled one of his daggers out of its sheath and handed it to me. “Look after your sister and our ways.” He then put a heavy hand on my shoulder and his deep blue gaze met mine one last time, and then he was gone.
He left an imprint of his hand on my tunic, made with the lifeblood of my mother. His quiet words resounding in my mind drowned out the cries of fear and pain from both sides for the briefest of moments as the weight of what he said settled onto my shoulders. I then ran to what was left of our home, the heat from the fires burning my skin. Smoke stung my eyes and filled my lungs, choking me almost as much as the stench of blood and burning flesh. Thank Danu, Aela was still standing where I had left her, unharmed, looking small and dazed and lost. Horror and grief mixed with the blazing light of the fires in her eyes, and suddenly a horrible picture of the flames consuming what made my sister my sister filled my mind. I gritted my teeth, determined not to let that happen.
I crouched down before her, taking her small hand in mine and brushing some hair out of her face, guilty at bringing her back to this hellish present. “Aela,” I said, straining to be heard and understood, “Aela, you need to leave.”
She shook her head. “I’m not leaving, Esca. Not without you.”
I tried not to sigh in frustration at her stubbornness, something I usually found endearing. “I’ll be a day at the most behind you,” I told her, inwardly excusing the lie as something that might happen. “But Father told me to look after you.”
“You can’t do that if we’re separated.”
I placed my hands on both of her thin shoulders and met her eyes, trying to channel what my father had done with me minutes before. “Aela, I want you to hide in the woods. Follow the stream to the cave where we used to play, near the tree hit by lightning. We still have some snares around there in case you get hungry, and there may still be some berries. Stay there for a few days and wait for me. If I don’t come…” I paused for a moment, realizing that I might never see my little sister again. I cleared my throat, suddenly thick with emotion, and tried again. “If I don’t come, go to the Coritani or the Cornovii. They’ll help you.”
I was afraid she would start to cry, but once again I underestimated my sister. She looked grief-stricken, of course. How could one, especially as young as her, be anything but that on a night such as this? But she squared her shoulders and nodded resolutely. “If you don’t come, I’ll find you, Esca. I swear it.”
“That will be impossible, Aela. I’ll either be dead or captured, and those are the two places you can’t follow, dear one.”
In response, I pulled her into a bone-crushing hug, trying to put all the love I felt for her into that embrace as we said goodbye. “I love you,” I told her. “And I want you to be safe, above all else. Promise me you’ll do as I’ve asked. Swear it on our family who have died tonight.”
“I swear it,” she said, her voice even, though one tear left a trail down her sooty cheek. She then wrapped her arms around my neck and one sob escaped her. “I love you,” she said.
“Go now,” I said, disentangling myself from her grasp. “I’ll meet you in a few days if I can.” I ran over to the corpse of one of our warriors, grateful that he was face down so that I could not make out who he was for certain. I grabbed his sword, as well as his bow and arrows, which I handed to Aela, who was even better with them than I was. “Only use these if necessary. Gods know how long they’ll need to last you.”
“I love you,” I told her again. “Be safe.”
“I love you, Esca,” she said and then took off for the woods, glancing back one last time. I stood there, watching until she vanished between the trees, and then turned, sword in hand. I saw a Roman coming at me, his armor gleaming. I braced myself for the impact of his sword on mine, and for the fact that these could be my last moments. I fought as well as I could, but I was no match for the Roman soldier, who was much taller and heavier than I was, still small for my age. He seemed surprised at first, when he realized just how young I was, and then at how long I held my own against him. But in the end, he disarmed me, and I fell to my knees, his sword at my throat.
As his sword pressed against my skin, I could feel my pulse, my life, beneath it, and thought about how easy it would be for him to end my life. I had never felt so fragile before. He yelled something to another soldier in their language, and the other one, who appeared to outrank him, called something back. The soldier raised his sword for what I thought would be the killing stroke, and I did my best not to flinch. I stared down the soldier, trying to put all the hatred I felt for the Romans into my gaze, as a last act of defiance. But then he used the hilt of his sword to club the side of my head, and my vision swam and then blacked.
When I awoke, my old life was ended, only ashes. And that was how my new existence began. I cannot truly call it life, for everything that made life worth living was taken from me that night. I found the thought of going on, into captivity and slavery in some unknown place unbearable. And yet my body betrayed me. Breath still flowed in and out of my lungs, and my body used the little food and drink they forced down my throat to keep me in this world. And slowly, over time, I began to feel again. It was like the sharp pain that signaled the return of feeling to numbed limbs and stiff fingers after a long hunt in the snow. I would sometimes wake in the night, sobs lodged in my throat after a dream about happier times or that most horrible of nights. At times like that I was terrified that I would shame myself while unconscious, and I would shove the pain back down along with unshed tears.
But the feelings were like a tiny, flickering light inside me, and as time wore on, I found it harder and harder to look away. Soon, I began feeding them little scraps and pieces of memories that I became terrified of forgetting. My mother’s low, calming voice and my father’s booming laugh. My brothers’ teasing and the way they ruffled my hair, something I never thought I would miss. My sister dancing and singing a little song to herself in the heather, unaware that anyone watched her. I fed the fire within me each night before sleep, trying to recall all I could about my family and my people, until the sense of loss and anger overwhelmed me.
Before the Romans came to our village, I thought I knew what hatred was, thought I had experienced it in full any time our enemies were mentioned. But I was wrong. Hatred was lying on the filthy floor each night like a dog, chained to a wall, fresh memories staining my sight red and anger singing through me until it drowned out everything else. And each night I would vow to avenge my people- my mother, sister, father and brothers and everything that was taken away from me. I nursed these thoughts in my inner heart until they grew strong. But little did I know that even this could be taken away from me.
The thought did not even occur to me until I lay in the bloody sand of the arena, the gladiator’s sword pressed against my throat, my blood trickling down and mingling with the blood of others in the sand, cries from the crowd for my death clamoring around me. It was then that the dark eyes of the Roman met mine, and I saw him hesitate, and then make the symbol for life. I saw others mimicking his action, and closed my eyes in defeat. The Roman took away my death, and took away my dreams of vengeance, the one thing that made me willing to exist anymore. And then, as the gladiator took his sword from my throat at the Roman’s bidding, I had nothing.