I went to see some Romans at the weekend. Look! Actual Romans!
Well, alright. Sort-of Romans. (They are, in fact, the Ermine Street Guard, who were lovely and friendly and actually quite intimidating when they marched right at you in formation… If you get the chance to go and see them at an event, do.)
While I took far too many photos, had a brilliant day and got slightly sunburned into the bargain (pale post-winter skin, meet early May sunshine… sigh), this photo is the one I wanted to talk about.
Every now and again, I get asked about the Fallen in BLOOD AND FEATHERS – why they fell, how they function, what they do… and about hell.
One of my favourite things about the battle on the plains of hell was the fact I got to bring two armies together: one, the angels, was a mix of Earthbounds, Descendeds and Archangels – each with their own distinct fighting style, depending on the status and their Choir.
The other, the army of Fallen, was an entirely different proposition.
This was the home army, defending their turf. We’d not seen them en masse before this, and there they were, lined up and ready to take on their enemies. The angels used to be their brothers – they know them, they’ve fought beside them and against them for endless, endless years (because these guys are old). Most of them have grudges. Most of them have scores to be settled. All of them are scary. All of them are scared of Lucifer and his generals. All the sensible ones are at least as scared of Michael – and every last one of them is scared of Mallory.
How do you bring that many disparate parts together into an army?
You give them a flag.
They were there, on the other side, in a single line. There were hundreds of them, their eyes all fixed on the angels. Mallory landed on a tumbled heap of stone and dust, scanning the line. There was no sign of Rimmon this time, but a shimmering blue figure caught his eye, far to the left of the line. Charon. Beside her was a tall, broad-shouldered man in blackened armour; his shoulders and helmet almost completely covered by a pale, stiff cloak. He carried a standard and banner with him, its high pole topped with a human hand, shrivelled and twisted with age. Mallory sighed. The standard and the cloak of human skin could only mean one thing: that Azazel had been promoted. If there was one of the Fallen he hadn’t wanted to see acting as standard-bearer, it was him.
Mallory stared across the cliff-top at hell’s battle-flag. It had been a long time since he’d seen it – a very long time – and the years hadn’t done it any favours. He remembered it being ragged, but now there was more hole to it than cloth. A scorch-mark ran across the top of the fabric; a souvenir from Michael. Mallory couldn’t recall which particular member of the Fallen had been the standard-bearer that time, but it didn’t really matter. He hadn’t lasted long.
Milton talks about hell’s standard-bearer – briefly – in PARADISE LOST, and it was following his lead that made Azazel my standard-bearer for Lucifer and the Fallen:
Then [Satan] commands that… be upreard
His mighty standard; that proud honour claim’d
Azazel as his right, a Cherub tall:
Who forthwith from the glittering Staff unfurl’d
Th’ Imperial Ensign
But that’s as far as descriptions go. And that got me thinking: what does hell’s standard actually look like? I went lateral: Milton refers to the banner as being the imperial ensign… and what better empire to use as my model than the Romans?
I started by looking at the actual standards carried into battle by Roman troops. There were two: the vexillium (showing which legion the soldiers belong to) and the signum, which acted as a rallying point for each cohort or century in battle. You can see both in this still from GLADIATOR: the red cloth vexillium on the right, showing the soldiers belong to the FELIX legion, and the signum on the left, topped with a golden lion.
Depending on the period and the campaign, the tops of the signum could change – although most common was the image of a golden hand (manus). The soldiers carrying the signum were called signifers, and they wore animal skins over their helmets and shoulders to mark them out as different from the other troops. If you look back up at that photo I took of our lovely Ermine Street Roman, you’ll be able to spot the manus on top of the signum, and the signifer’s animal skin cloak – in this case, wolf.
But these aren’t the Romans we’re talking about; they’re the Fallen. And they’re not very friendly.
So what would the citizens of hell have as their banner? How about swapping the manus for an *actual* human hand? And as for that cloak of animal skin…
Never said the Fallen were nice, did I?
You’ll see from this photo I’ve taken of my original planning notes, I decided to combine the vexillium and the signum for my Fallen banner (complete with not-so-menacing motto on the flag). That was the next thing: what image would Lucifer put on his flag?
In the end, I asked an artist friend of mine what he thought: he came back immediately with the answer.
Everyone sees something different.
The standard showed you your fears, your nightmares, the very worst of your memories: everything you thought you’d boxed up and hidden away in the darkness, running to meet you. When you fought hell, you didn’t just fight the Fallen. You fought yourself.
It’s the ultimate divide-and-conquer tactic: what else would you expect from the Fallen?
So that’s hell’s battle-flag: Fallen by way of ancient Rome. What you see is what you fear, marching towards you carried by a devil draped in human skin.
One more thing: I mentioned the vexillium was to show which legion the soldiers belonged to. As there’s only one for the whole of hell, there’s only one “legion”.
All the Fallen belong to Legion DCLXVI…