SUMMARY: It is not that Cunomor of the Seal People wants to kill his only son: it is that he can see no other way.
RATING: M for violence and canonical murder of a child
NOTES: I have some issues with how the Seal People are portrayed in the film, and I also think that the child murder (both the Seal Prince killing his son and Marcus killing the "rogue warrior" boy and wanting to kill the Seal boy) is gratuitous and doesn't really make sense, particularly in the case of the Seal Boy. So this story is about me trying to come up with a version of the Seal Prince that makes sense with what we see in the movie, but also makes sense sense, insofar as I can within the constraints of canon. I have given the Seal Prince a name (Cunomor means 'hound of the sea'), as well as named some other members of the tribe and given him a wife and daughter.
Many thanks to Sineala for cheerleading and suggesting drugs to explain the kid's behavior and to osprey_archer for the beta, which pointed out some key flaws. Without her this story would make even less sense.
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.
Traitor or True
The sight of the little wooden fish in Letos's grubby hand was like a knife to the gut. He, Cunomor son of Deinorix, who would be chief of the Seal Clan of the Epidii after his honored father, felled by a child's toy.
Custom bound as heavily as the chains of Darini slavers. There was only one punishment for betrayal, no matter how young the traitor, no matter that he had meant nothing by it. How could a boy understand that when a guest gave him a gift and left in the dark hours that it meant betrayal of the clan and of the secret mysteries that he was too young to even know yet? But that would not matter: if Cunomor were not strong enough to deal with a traitor, the clan would say he was not strong enough to hold off the Darini, or to stand against the Caledoni raiders, or keep their fishing runs safe from the Creones to the north.
Cunomor had not meant to strike Letos; only he was afraid, and he could not see a way out of this trackless marsh. The Golden Eagle that had been brought out to firelight and song when he became a man ten turns of the seasons past was gone from the secret place. Esca son of Cunoval was gone with it, and that Roman dog with him; and their lies and betrayal had taken Cunomor's son as well.
His wife Vindomora screamed when he told her, the high piercing shriek of one of the benas-sidon, the women of the mounds. The sound raised the hairs on the back of his neck; it felt like claws in his ears. "You cannot do this!" She looked like a madwoman, her dark hair hanging in wild curls over her face, her eyes fierce. "You cannot kill our son! He is only a boy!"
Cunomor swallowed, the words stuck in his throat. His paint itched, and his chest ached dully, like a bruise. He knew what he ought to say: that Letos was a fool, that the clan could not afford fools, no matter how young. That he could not treat his son differently.
What came out, when he opened his mouth, was, "I am sorry." His voice sounded harsh and horrible, raw as a raven's croak (Letos would be left for the ravens, he thought, and had to turn away, for if he wept before his wife he knew he could not do it.)
"I will divorce you," Vindomora said, low and vicious. "I will take Mesalca and go back to my father's people."
Cunomor bowed his head. It felt as though she were gutting him, with the little skinning knife she wore at her belt, but he had known in his heart that he could not keep her or Mesalca if he did this. He had known since they found his father, still wearing the sacred robes, his blood staining the earth of the secret cave, that there would be nothing left for him down this road. "That is your right."
She stared at him, her eyes as dark and liquid as a seal's. "You are cold," she said, "as cold as the sea. I should never have left my father's house for you. Well, then, let you always be cold. I curse you, Cunomor son of Deinorix. May your seed rot in the earth, for your cruelty to the son of your body. May you never lie in a woman's arms again, unless it is the cold arms of the Mororiganis. And if you wander from sunrise to sunset, to all the corners of the world, may you never know joy or warmth again. This curse I lay on you, and may the gods hear and witness it!"
He turned and left the house, curiously numb. Behind him Vindomora's shrieking turned to sobbing, terrible wracking sobs that sounded wrenched from her, and then the wind blowing off the sea-lochs caught even that sound and bore it away, until all Cunomor could hear was the whistling wind and the crying of seagulls, out over the waves. But that, too, sounded like a woman's grief.
He could go to where Letos is kept, in the chief's place. Letos is guarded, of course; Cunomor is not chief yet, and not all among the warriors trust in him to be a chief instead of a father. Certainly they do not trust Vindomora; everyone had heard her screaming earlier. But in his imagining he walks past and they do not see him, as if he is cloaked in mists.
No one has washed Letos's face, and tear-tracks streak the dirt smearing his cheeks. He is very young: nine years have passed since Vindomora first held him out, a tiny red squalling thing that had seemed immeasurably fragile in Cunomor's hands. Every year had been a gift, another year for the boy to grow stronger, when so many children died. Even the fever that had taken so many two winters past had spared him.
He cannot do it, he realizes. He cannot spill his own child's blood.
Cunomor kneels and presses his hand over Letos's mouth. The boy wakes instantly, dark eyes already trusting, but makes no sound. He catches Letos's hand, so small in his, and leads him out of the house.
The guards do not see him.
The mist thickens, swirling through the village, turning to strange, scarcely-seen shapes the houses and racks of drying fish, the boats pulled up for mending. Everything is silent, even Letos.
Vindomora and little Mesalca also wake in silence, and follow him without question. The horses come easily when he whistles a blackbird's call to them, softly. They are saddled; he lifts Mesalca up before Vindomora, mounts his own horse, and swings Letos up in front of him, where the boy nestles back against his chest and smiles up at him.
Vindomora's father is a clan chief of the Damnonii to the south. They welcome Vindomora with gladness, and they do not turn Cunomor away. It is not their custom to kill children. But they know, also, that Cunomor failed his people: that he was not strong enough to be chief, to follow the customs of his tribe, and they do not respect him for it. And so they are out-dwellers, never quite a part of the tribe.
The distance from her kin hurts Vindomora: he sees that every day. She is lonely. But she tells him it does not matter, for they have two living children, and each other. It is enough.
Three years later, a trader brings word of a burned-out village to the north, where once the Seal Clan of the Epidii had their hunting-runs. The gods must have turned their favor from the Seal People after Esca and the Roman stole the Eagle.
And Cunomor looks at his son, growing tall and lanky, laughing as Mesalca chases after him through the barley-field, and tells himself it is enough.
They gave Letos a little of the beer brewed with sacred herbs, to keep fear away so he would not struggle or try to run. It made him slow, and he could not keep up with the men and the scent-hounds for long anyway, so they took it in turns to carry him.
That night they made camp for a few hours, and a fire, and ate some dried fish. The warriors spoke quietly, so Letos would not hear, but that also meant that Cunomor could not hear them, either. "I am cold," Letos complained, shivering in his sealskin tunic. "When will we see Mamma?"
Vindomora had been gone with Mesalca before the warriors had even called out the hounds. They could not let her see Letos first, not if they were to take him on the war-trail. Cunomor had saddled her pony; she had spat in his face, while little Mesalca wailed and wailed, reaching for her father. I hope that Brigantes and his Roman dog kill you, she said, and kicked the pony into a gallop.
Cunomor had watched them grow smaller and smaller against the brown autumn heather, until at last they had crested a ridge and vanished southwards.
"You'll see her soon," he said to Letos, and perhaps it was only half a lie; it was dangerous for a woman and child to ride alone. "Hush, try to take a little sleep."
And despite his fear, Letos nestled back against him and dozed. But Cunomor could not sleep, only gaze down at his only son, whose dark lashes swept softly over his freckled cheek. He took after his mother. Cunomor raised a hand to stroke Letos's hair, but stilled when he saw Eburos looking at him. The older man's face was drawn into grim lines, his mouth sour and pinched. "Do you be minded of your duty," he said. "The Seal People must have a strong chief."
Like your father, Eburos did not say, but they all thought it. Deinorix had doted on his grandson, but everyone also remembered that he had killed his own brother for being drunk on watch, the dark moon night a Darini slave-raider had landed on the beach below the village.
Deinorix would not have hesitated. Cunomor let his hand fall back to his side, and Eburos nodded once and then closed his eyes and fell into the light sleep of a hunter.
The next day Letos was pale and quiet; he looked about to cry, but he did not fight them. Even with the drugged beer, how frightened must he be, to hold still like a mouse caught by the gaze of an adder? The warriors took it as a sign that they were right, that Letos was too weak and stupid. "Seals do not nurse weak pups," one of the others murmured as they paused at a stream to drink, thinking Cunomor could not hear.
Cunomor tried to imagine never feeling Letos lean against him again, warm and trusting; never seeing him come out of the cave with the mark of manhood on him under the spread golden wings of the Eagle; never holding his own grandson. He tried to imagine setting a knife to his own son's throat, the blood flowing over his hands and the life fleeing that little body, and shied away. He could not.
At last he closed his eyes, dozing in a world half-waking and half-sleeping, Letos's weight against him the only thing tying him to the world.
Again he shakes Letos awake, and this time the boy smiles sleepily at him. "Are we going home to Mamma?" he asks, and Cunomor nods. He will explain later, when they are safe, why they cannot go back, or seek out Vindomora.
As before, they pass through the circle of warriors standing guard as if they are invisible. The mists roll up, wreathing the trees, hiding everything except the path ahead of them, which remains clear. Far in front of them on the trail, a deer that shines pale in the moonlight lifts his head and stares at them, before turning and walking slowly away.
Cunomor takes Letos's hand and follows. The white stag is not sacred to his people, but he remembers dimly a story Vindomora once told, when Letos was sick with marsh-fever. Perhaps the gods of her people are looking after her son now.
They walk in that timeless dreamland all night, until all at once the stag vanishes, and with him the cloaking mist. The forest is trackless and dark, the trees barely touched by the first rays of dawn. Somewhere nearby an owl calls, softly, and it begins raining, a steady, unceasing downpour that soaks everything in the forest.
He does not know if the warriors will follow him or the Eagle-he thinks the Eagle is more important than a failed chief, for it has been a sign of the gods' favor on the Seal People these twenty winters-but everything is sodden and damp from the cold rain, with no way to build a fire. Surely they will soon come across shelter.
But they do not, and they must rest eventually. Letos is only a boy, exhausted and hungry, and his arms around Cunomor's neck already feel too cold. He is shivering violently.
Cunomor's legs buckle under him at last. He is tired, so tired he can hardly see, but there at his feet, half-hidden by dead leaves, is the skull of a deer, its once-proud antlers half-eaten by squirrels and mice, and he knows this is the end of it.
But at least he is with his son, and they will take that sea-road beyond the sunset together; Cunomor does not have kin-blood on his hands. "Are we sleeping now?" Letos mumbles, as Cunomor sinks down against a tree and gathers him up. "It feels warmer now..."
"Yes," Cunomor chokes out, "yes, we are sleeping." And he tries to sing a song he remembered Vindomora singing once, about a white bird on the highest branch, but he cannot remember most of the words. It is warm, warm as summer, and he is so tired, sitting here in the forest with his son.
He closes his eyes and wakes.
He looks at them, Esca the traitor and his Roman cur, and he hates them. They have taken everything from him: the sacred Eagle that his people paid for in blood, his father, his wife and daughter, his son, and now his honor, and they will pay for it in kind, they and the twice-traitors at their backs, in their rusting Roman armor and Selgovae wool.
"Esca!" he shouts, pulling Letos to stand in front of him. Letos is breathing quickly, frightened, but he clings for a moment: he does not believe his father will do it. "This is what happens to those who betray their own people!"
And he does it. He draws the knife across his son's throat, watching the face of the Brigantes traitor. Let him see what he has wrought.
He catches his son's limp body and eases him down gently into the river. The traitors bring up their shields into a wall, swords at the ready.
Then Cunomor raises his axe and leads the charge.
The sunset, when it comes, will bleed across the western sky in crimson and purple, orange and blue. It is bright, the setting sun, so bright that Cunomor has to look away. Water streams away from him when he sits up, washing away his paint. He no longer feels cold.
Out of the brightness steps the figure of a boy, the light behind him so that he seems full of light himself, like Lugus of the Shining Spear. "Father," he says, "Father."
Cunomor scrambles to his feet, stumbling and nearly falling in his haste to reach Letos. I'm sorry, he wants to say, but he cannot speak. My son, I'm sorry.
"Father," Letos says, and now Cunomor can see his face, deathly pale, with his eyes set in it dark like bruises. His throat is a bloody mess. "Father, why did you do it?"
The blood runs and runs and does not slow, until Cunomor can see nothing else.