SUMMARY: Esca has always been able to see Death. (Sort of a crossover with the musical Elisabeth, but only insofar as I had that particular anthropomorphic personification of death in mind; canon knowledge not required.)
CANON: Eagle of the Ninth (book)/Elisabeth
CHARACTERS: Esca and Death
RATING: T for themes of death and possibly mild suicidal ideation; offscreen death of a child
NOTES: Well, I'm not sure this is the story about Esca and Death that I wanted to write, and it's pretty weird, plus I'm rather out of practice writing Esca, so idk. Tried some experimental stuff here, just for fun. For the third fanmedia challenge at ninth_eagle on LJ, round one, inspired by the picture of the moon.
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.
Through the little slot-window high in the wall of the cell, Esca could see the waxing moon, the same moon that had shone down upon him two years earlier, the night before his world was trampled into the blood and muck of the battlefield. Tomorrow he would die: he had been a warrior, once, but a young one, and it was two years since he last held a sword. Certainly he knew nothing of playing the crowd, nothing of the actor's tricks that gladiators used to live long enough to win a wooden foil.
Perhaps it was for the best, he thought, curling his palm unconsciously over the old spear-wound in his side. He should have died with his brothers: Brigantia could only have spared his life for vengeance, and what had he done with that borrowed time? He had been a good slave, a meek stable-boy, bowing to his Roman masters so that he might live. At least if he bled out on the sands of the arena tomorrow it would be over; he would never have to pretend again that he was not angry, to bite back what he truly wanted to say and murmur As you wish, o master.
And yet he was afraid; he did not want to die.
A cold prickle went down Esca's spine and raised the fine hairs on his arms. The sudden sensation of wrongness, of a presence at once so unnatural it reshaped the world around it and so familiar Esca felt he had always known it, rose up in his throat and choked his breath short.
It looked like a man, or something with the semblance of a man: tall and pale, the hawklike bones of his face a little too fine, a little too perfect, his motions so tightly controlled that Esca shuddered to imagine that control snapped.
He wore braccae and tunic the shining black of a raven's wing, a deep blue plaid clasped at his shoulder, and the heavy silver torc around the whiteness of his throat was capped with raven heads, beaks open to croak; yet the working of them was also wrong, almost Brigantes but not quite. Everything about him was wrong; even the moonlight on his face, as if he carried his own colder light and the moon shied away from it.
Esca pressed back against the wall, covering the old wound in his side with his hand. The scar ached, and he rubbed at it a little, not looking away from the creature in the moonlight.
"Esca, son of Cunoval," he said, gliding forward, his hand outstretched. Before Esca could move away, he had slipped his hand under Esca's, fingertips pressed to the scar, so cold they burned. "I have missed you," he said, and now he was whispering in Esca's ear, lips nearly brushing against his neck, so close that Esca should have felt the heat of another man's body, should have felt breath against his skin.
There was no heat or breath, only that terrible cold, stealing into his side, numbing and seductive. If he permitted it the cold would take away grief and guilt and anger. It would take away everything.
"No," he said, and Death drew back, fingers curving into claws for a moment, snarling and impotent.
"You will come to me in the end," Death said in a voice like the rushing of wings, the echo of the battlefield in it, ravens and the clash of steel, "all things do."
He remembers the muck and stench of the ditch, his hands slippery with blood where he pressed them to his side, the horrible weight of the man lying across his legs with a Roman spear in his back. He remembers the alternating dizziness and clarity, his own certainty that he was already dead.
He remembers that face, bent over him, that terrible alien curiosity, the gentle touch of a chill hand on his face, trailing down over his collarbone and chest to rest against the hole in his side. He remembers dark hair that seemed to glow in the moonlight, falling in a curtain around his face; he remembers the promise of the end of pain, of noble death in battle, of seeing his family again in the land beyond the sunset.
He remembers the hands of the slavers, pulling him out of the ditch, and the rough-handed surgeon, muttering about a waste of effort, patching up half-dead barbarians who likely wouldn't even fetch a decent price.
He remembers pain.
The first time he saw Death, he had been very young, young enough to still be sleeping in the Women's Place with his mother and sister, and not with his older brothers and the other boys who had begun the warrior training.
His sister, weak since birth, had taken one of the damp autumn fevers that came with the rain and the mists from the swap. She had slept fitfully in her cradle, half-waking sometimes to cry, but even that was a thin echo of what it should have been.
Esca could not have said later what woke him from the warm nest of furs. His mother slept slumped over by the cradle, her hand resting on its edge and her back to the wall, her face slack and weary in the reddish glow of the banked embers. No sound came from the cradle, not the rustle of childish limbs against the blankets, not the muffled whimpers of pain Esca had not yet grown accustomed to, and a sick feeling took him in his belly, a paralyzing dread he had no words for.
The man bending over her cradle was unfamiliar, tall and noble of face, a chieftain's silver torc clasped heavy around his neck and a plaid of some curious dark stuff thrust back from his shoulders. Esca watched, unable to move, as he reached into the cradle and took the girl-child up against his breast, his motions slow and studied. He brushed a fingertip against her cheek and she sighed a little, but did not open her eyes, and then he bent over her, kissing her with the tenderness of a father but without the joy.
She did not move again.
Esca was still watching, his voice caught in his throat, when the man turned, his eyes widening in surprise for a moment before his face stilled again: a funeral mask cast in silver. His hand moved, a graceful gesture.
The wailing of his mother's women woke Esca; or perhaps it was his mother's stony silence amidst them as she clutched his sister's lifeless body to her breast, her lips pressed so thin and tight they were near bloodless.
A dream was only a dream.
His sister was dead.
The weight of the Fisher's net tangles around his limbs as surely as slavery around his heart, binding him in iron, and he looks up into the indifferent eyes of a man he has eaten with, a man who just that morning clapped him on the shoulder and bade him good luck. He looks away, at the crowd, the wolves in linen and wool who laugh at destruction, and with a jerk, he lets his arm fall back to his side. He will not beg them for mercy; he still has that much pride.
Death stands at the Fisher's shoulder, long pale fingers wrapped around his where he grasps the trident, prepared to plunge it into Esca's breast at a sign from the crowd. It will not be an easy death, Esca thinks, and wonders for a moment what would have happened the night before, if he had not turned Death away.
He looks away from the avid, dark gaze of Death, the lips drawn back in a predator's snarl, and catches instead the eyes of a young man in the crowd, a man with a Roman face and a kind mouth, an arrogant nose and stubborn chin. For a moment it is as if there is no one else in the amphitheatre but they two: it is like a spark passing between them, a kind of recognition of each other's souls that Esca has never known before.
The man in the crowd raises his hand, and Death shrinks back.
Esca closes his eyes, his heart pounding, limbs shaking.
Life. It is life.