SUMMARY: In which the Seal People really are seal people, and Marcus is very clueless about the hazards of Celtic mythology.
RATING: T for implied violence.
NOTES: For round four of the fanmedia challenge on ninth_eagle, inspired by the photo of the ocean. This is more worldbuilding fic than anything with a plot, but I don't have the inclination right now to write a 10,000 word story about selkies. :-)
The Seal People of the movie being selkies really explains everything weird and unCeltic about them. I didn't pay much attention to traditional selkie lore here, since the setting far predates known selkie stories and I was more interested in trying to explain the movie as we saw it. As 'selkie' is a more recent borrowing from Old English seolh 'seal', I coined a new term, ronoi (singular ronos, feminine rona), by back-extrapolating from Old Irish rón 'seal'. I apologize to the Celticists.
The Seal Prince's name, Cunomor(os), means 'hound of the sea'. It is an attested name, although perhaps later. As the movie's Seal Prince is not really much like either Liathan or Dergdian in the book, I thought he deserved his own name.
Thanks to Bunn for accidentally inspiring this and useful conversation, and Sineala and Lishan for betas.
I am only posting some of my fanfiction to this site, due to FFN's content restrictions; the rest can be found at archiveofourown DOT org SLASH users SLASH Carmarthen. Also, if anyone here is looking for more Eagle or Eagle of the Ninth fanfiction, ninth-eagle DOT livejournal DOT com is Ninth Eagle, where there is a whole lot of stuff by a whole lot of people.
To the Sea Returned
Marcus slid off his horse, wincing as he hit the ground. He and Esca stretched out limbs cramped and sore from riding as the horses bent to crop at tussocks of dry highland grass. For a time the only sounds were the harsh breathing of the horses, the crunch of heather beneath their feet, and the wind whipping past.
"The horses will founder before we are anywhere near the Wall, at this rate," said Esca as he opened one of the saddlebags. He handed Marcus a piece of dried fish. "Don't sneer at it—the longer we can go before that's gone, the more time we buy."
Marcus shivered, half from cold and half because the wind had picked up to a wail and he almost thought he could hear the baying of hounds. "Will they follow us that far?"
Esca shook his head. "The Epidii will not stray far from their fishing grounds, not even for your Eagle. If we are careful with the horses, we will be free and clear in a few days."
The dried fish was tough and salty. All Marcus had eaten since their arrival in that windswept, forsaken village was fish—fish roasted over the fire, fish baked in the coals, dried fish, fish soup—and he was heartily sick of it. The sea-loch country was poor farming land; perhaps they did not waste grain or greens on Roman slaves. Still chewing, he untied the flap of one saddlebag and flipped it open. Now that he was no longer riding, he felt the bite of oncoming winter more keenly. There—the spotted sealskin coat the chieftain's son had worn, surprisingly soft and lush to the touch. It still smelled rather strongly of fish, but it would cut the wind.
Behind him something thumped into the heather and he turned, sealskin coat in hand, to see Esca with his mouth open, white as a corpse, staring at the sealskin with a look of abject horror. "Marcus, what have you done?"
Marcus glanced down at the coat and back at Esca, baffled. "I—I took it as we left, for warmth; the chieftain's son had set it aside during their revels."
"Leave it here." Some color had returned to Esca's face, but he still looked grim. "I do not think that will appease Cunomor, not now, but leave it."
"I don't understand." Marcus bent and laid the coat carefully in the heather. "Surely he has others."
"No." Esca shook his head and began shoving things back in the saddlebags with near-vicious haste. "He only has that one, and he will hunt us to the ends of the earth for taking it. The Seal People are—" He stopped, frowning. "I do not know if you have a word for it. Ronoi—they have two shapes, man and seal, and without their skins they cannot become seals again. It is like—stealing their soul."
It made a kind of sense. That awful day when Esca had bared Marcus's throat for Cunomor's knife, Marcus could have sworn that there was no one on the beach but the women and a few seals basking among the rocks. He had thought it odd, how many seals he saw in the waters surrounding the the cliffs, watching him with their queerly human gazes, and how unafraid they were of a people whose men all wore sealskins. And thinking back, he could not remember seeing more than one fishing boat in the entire village, although he had gutted half an ocean of fish.
"They are like skin-changers," he said slowly. "Men who turn into savage wolves—"
"Well," Esca said with a wan smile, "they are more seals who turn into men, but if you have ever seen seals hunt, you might wonder which shape is the more savage." He took one of the swords from his saddle and came over to Marcus. His hands were cold as death; they shook as he folded Marcus's fingers around the hilt. "Whatever happens—even if we ride the horses to death and must run—keep this on you. The ronoi hate the touch of iron."
Marcus could see in Esca's eyes that he did not believe it, and he laid his hand over Esca's cold fingers and pressed. If death was fated, at least they would die shoulder to shoulder, together. There was not as much comfort in the thought as Marcus might have wished; his leg burned where the wound had been reopened in the fight and his ears ached with cold. He was not certain he could run once the horses went down, or even stand to fight, and he did not want to die with Esca. He wanted to live.
"Oh, Marcus." Esca's voice was quiet and his eyes sad as he trailed icy fingers lightly down Marcus's jaw. His touch burned. "I am sorry. We must ride now. Pray to your gods that it will be enough."
A few days later the wind shifted and they could truly hear the dogs. "We still have the horses," said Marcus, but went silent at the look on Esca's face.
The day after that Esca's horse foundered. Marcus's horse would not be able to carry them both for long, and Marcus could barely keep himself from collapsing over the horse's neck. The Seal People were gaining on them.
When they reached the forest they left the horse and continued on foot, Marcus leaning on Esca's shoulder, past all pride. They half-stumbled, half-ran, ignoring the crunch and snap of broken branches under their feet, the sharp sting of branches whipping their faces and upraised hands.
The river was colder than anything Marcus had ever felt, a bitter cold that he prayed would at least numb the fire in his leg. As the Seal People called to each other above them, their hounds crashing through the brush as they cast about for a scent, Marcus remembered sitting on the beach, watching the seals as he gutted fish.
They had caught a large fish of some kind, and they flung it through the air at each other, catching it in their teeth and tossing it again as the fish thrashed and gasped for air. Sometimes it would seem to escape them for a moment in the flurry, but then another seal's head would break the waves, silver shining in its jaws. At last the fish fell limply into the water.
The seals had not eaten it. Once the fish was dead, they lost interest and swam away, sleek darts in the water, beautiful and cruel. The fish floated belly-up in the shallows until a flock of gulls saw it and flew down to squabble over the meal.
Marcus did not think he and Esca would die quickly when the warriors caught them.
Marcus sat back, shuddering, as the cold waters of the river washed away the last of Cunomor's war-paint. He was younger than Marcus had thought before, hardly more than a boy, his jaw still soft, his mouth lush as a girl's. He looked as though he was sleeping, dark lashes fanned over his cheeks, his hair seal-dark as well.
"He would not like to have died so far inland." Esca knelt down beside Marcus with the stiffness of injury, one hand pressed to his side. With the other he reached out and tugged at the back of the sealskin coat, pulling it up over Cunomor's head.
Marcus had believed—he had never not believed it, for everyone knew about skin—changers, and why not seals who could turn into men as well?—but it was one thing to believe and another to see before his eyes. There was a ripple in the air, almost like a heat-shimmer, and he blinked, eyes watering. When his vision had cleared, the body of a young bull-seal lay in the stream. Its great dark eyes had already begun to film over, but bile rose in Marcus's throat when he realized that the seal had the eyes of a man, white around the irises.
Esca rested a hand on Marcus's shoulder for a moment. "He died with honor, of his own choosing," said Esca quietly. "He could have turned back when he found the skin." He held out his hand and Marcus took it. Esca's skin was warm against his this time, a little sticky on the palm with someone's blood, but undeniably that of a living man.
They burned the body of Guern the Hunter, but it was too wet for more pyres, so they laid out the others as best they could, the living murmuring prayers to whichever gods they worshipped; the prince and the other ronoi they left to the water. All rivers flowed to the sea, Marcus thought, and perhaps someday their bones would rest in their true hunting runs. They had been enemies worth the fighting.
And then the Romans—or Britons, for perhaps the last of Rome in them had also burned with Guern—melted away into the mists and it was only Marcus and Esca again. Esca looked drawn and pale with exhaustion, pain visible in the tightness of his mouth now that the battle-fever had passed. "So."
"So." Marcus summoned up a faint smile. He felt as bad as Esca looked, and his bad leg was trembling. He had not thought of what would happen if they lived, for he had not thought for a long time now that there was any chance they would leave Caledonia alive. There was the Eagle to return, and they would both need to recover, but beyond that—well, a great many things that had been impossible now seemed gloriously possible. "I am glad you are here," he finally said, hoping Esca understood what he did not yet know how to say.
Esca smiled at him then, a smile with no shadows, and they began to limp southwards, leaning on each other.