by Hmpf MacSlow (hmpf1998 )
This story was written for the Watcher Lyric Wheel (summer 2000). As is the custom with Lyric Wheel stories, this story has not been beta read, but HonorH thought it was well written, so I guess it doesn't need betaing *that* much. :-)
Writing this story was a totally new experience for me - it was the first time I wrote with a muse, and wow, does it make a difference! I wrote for 9 days solid, not counting 4 days of writer's block (just as solid). I completely abandoned my 'Real Life'. I ate almost nothing. I even skipped one day of school (which is rather a big thing, with final exams approaching).
Well, who would have expected my muse would be an ill-fated Watcher from the Bronze Age?
Credits go to Isolde, for encouragement and suggestions when I needed both.
Lyrics: Autumn, by Fool's Garden, sent to me by Kadira. Muchas Gracias, BABE!
Disclaimer: Don't own the Horsemen, don't own the concept of immortality as presented here, nor the concept of Watching... I do own that particular Watcher, though - poor thing.
For more of my fanfic, including works in progress, as well as some essays, check out . and .
This is dedicated to my muse, the nameless Watcher.
Sometimes We Believe
In the small hours of the night, she remembers the Temple.
In the dark hours, when the night shrouds the tents, when the wind carries a single cry of pain or anguish for prodigious distances, when the deep breathing of the exhausted and the sobs of the desperate are all around her as she is lying wide awake and hurting on the naked floor, her mind detaches itself from her body, and is carried away on the night breeze.
Drifting, swimming through currents of air like a fish through water, it is drawn irresistibly to the west and to the south, beyond the wide and wild lands.
Floating across the nameless deserts, across vast plains of rippling grass, across the roofs of villages under which people sleep quietly or in fear, under which, maybe, they lie in nightmares of the men that own her body but not her soul, she finally reaches it: the Temple. The Temple, whose high walls she had never seen from outside, not until she left their protection behind forever when she was sent away to fulfill the task for which she had been prepared.
Her mind, adrift on the night breeze, enters the outer sanctum and passes through it swiftly, without paying any attention to the garishly painted idols - for she knows they are only that: meaningless idols that hide the true meaning of the Temple. She passes a doorway in the shadow of a column, and finds herself in a different world. A world of narrow passages, gloomy corridors, and winding stairs, at the heart of which those who know the way would find the inner sanctum, the greatest secret in a secret realm: a small room, devoid of statues, unadorned but for the indigo symbol that is painted on all its four walls. This is the centre of her world - ancient and powerful, lit by the eternal golden glow of dozens of oil lamps.
She does not pray. Her whole life is service; it is for sacred service that she was born and raised, like everyone else in the great mud-brick warren that is the Temple. They all bear the tattoo. All except her.
When the day had come when she would receive her tattoo, and when she was brought to the inner sanctum to take her final oath, a congregation of senior Watchers and even a number of Poets in full ceremonial garb had awaited her, talking among themselves. Upon her entry, they grew silent for a moment, to look at her, measuring her up. Then they resumed their discussion.
"She is beautiful. That's an asset in the task at hand, certainly."
"She's inexperienced. Too inexperienced for this."
"They all are. But she's eager to serve."
"Signs of foreboding were observed at her birth. She is a good student, and has a quick mind."
"She has a good memory."
"What makes you think they will let her live?"
"Yes, that might increase her chances - a little."
"You know there is no other way. It is our holy duty to find out the truth. We have to know."
"Very well, then."
An elderly Poet turned to her. "You have been declared ready to watch an Immortal. Those that taught you have expressed great faith in your devotion and abilities. It is attributable to their high opinion of you that we are now considering you for a very special duty. Have you heard of the Four Horsemen, my child?"
"Yes," she whispered. "Although the Epics don't speak of them."
"Without a doubt you know the rumours."
"It is said that they are immortal, but we don't know," she said.
"That is right: we don't know. But with your help, we might find out. If they are indeed immortal, we have to know. A new Epic would have to be written, or, who knows, an old one might have to be continued, for they might have lived different lives before they became the Horsemen - if they are indeed immortal. We need to find out."
"What should I do?"
"You must be aware that there is a very high risk. We will not force you to accept this assignment." She closed her eyes, felt her heart beating fastly. She tried to breathe calmly. Everything in her life seemed to fall in place.
"I will accept the assignment. I feel - I feel that it is my fate."
The Poet looked at her, almost regretfully.
"Kneel down and say your vow, then, my child."
Dawn is creeping up the sky, deceptively beautiful. The silence of night is fading, overpowered by a thousand early morning noises. Pots clanking; a grain mill grinding; a spoon being turned in a bowl; subdued voices and soft footsteps. Slaves move about like shadows in the twilight. The camp is awake, long before its masters toss aside their blankets and put on their armour. These few precious hours before the four of them make their way across the camp, fear spreading around them like fire, are the only hours when the camp knows something like peace. A drab and joyless peace; peace that means nothing but the relative absence of pain, of terror, a short pause for breath in a nightmare that can only end in death.
She is kneading dough. The sun has not yet risen over the horizon, but the sky is already brightening slowly. The pain in her side has grown a little better, and she now feels certain that it will not kill her. A little to her right, one of the new ones is sitting, staring at her face with a kind of terrified fascination. She pauses to smile at the girl. She knows that her face still bears witness to one of Kronos' fits of fury; she also knows there is worse than this. She has been in the camp for a long time. Two years have passed since she let herself be captured. A long time, for a slave in the camp.
The girl blushes as she realizes she has been caught staring. She is young: a few days ago, she was only a simple, innocent village girl. Now she is one of the chosen ones - one of a handful to survive the annihilation of her village. She is holding out better than might be expected, under the circumstances, the Watcher muses as she forms the dough into little flat breads. Maybe she will be one to be recruited, to share the sacred duty with the rest of them. Maybe she will help to preserve the memory - if she survives the first few weeks.
A commotion followed by a hush of almost palpable terror rises at one end of the camp, announcing one of the Horsemen has left his tent. Slaves all over the camp stop whatever they are doing to stand with meekly bowed heads. The man who is swiftly striding through the silent crowd hardly seems to notice them as he curtly orders them to go on with their respective duties. It does not matter. They know he sees everything, knows everything. They know they are in his power.
War, Death, Pestilence and Famine. Without their masks and war paint, they look almost human. To the slaves, they are more, far more - demons, or maybe, horrible gods. Only the Watcher understands what they really are - she and those who have joined her.
A shadow falls over her. Death. Death, she now knows, goes by the name of Methos in what could be called normal life in the camp. He is looking over her shoulder.
"How's my favourite indispensable slave today?"
"Still alive." She does not turn to look at him.
"Turn around. I want to see your face." His voice is neutral.
She finishes the bread she is forming and puts it on the stack. Then she turns.
Half a smile is playing around his lips, but his eyes are serious, very serious - piercing, almost. He squats and cups her cheek in a calloused but clean hand.
"It's a shame Kronos can't seem to hold his horses sometimes," he says, softly.
"It will heal."
"Of course it will." She can tell he is amused. Pointless heroism, or what he perceives as such, always amuses him. She averts her eyes and waits, but he stays silent, so she finally turns back to her work. She feels his eyes on the back of her head. From the corner of her eye, she can see that the village girl has shrunk into herself, so as not to attract the attention of the Horseman. When she takes the first bread from the hot ashes, she hears his clothes rustle behind her. He is getting up.
"Give me that," he commands.
She hands him the bread, watches him take a bite, and smile. For a moment, he looks utterly harmless; a man eating bread. Then his eyes wander to the villager cowering in the sand.
"You. Get up."
The girl complies, shaking. A bit of skin, startlingly white in comparison with her arms and face that have been exposed to the sun all her life, shows through a long rent in her rough, dirty dress. She hasn't been issued with new clothing, yet - only those who have proved their usefulness and obedience to their masters deserve this honour. No use fitting a new slave who still has to be broken with a perfectly good dress that would only be spoilt in the process of taming.
The girl is too frightened to feel ashamed of her naked skin. Death motions her closer, and she takes a step towards him, reluctant to approach, even more reluctant to disobey. She stands with downcast eyes.
He brushes a strand of hair from her face with a carressing slowness, then, suddenly, grips her by the nape of her neck, forcing her to look him in the eye. Her eyes are composed of the essence of fear.
The Watcher, observing the scene from the corner of her eye while baking the next bread, is struck again with the girl's youth. A sudden, burning hatred for the man called Death, the Immortal who has been Death to thousands of mortals, makes her tremble violently for a moment, until she manages to control her body's reaction and remind herself that it is not her part to judge. Observe and record. Observe and record, and nothing else; this is what she was born for and trained to do. Observe and record.
So she observes, as she has been observing for two years.
He lets the girl go at last, and she instinctively takes a step backwards, away from him. His face, that has shown a kind of amusement a second ago, grows expressionless, and he turns away.
"Clean up the mess in my tent." He seems to address the air. The girl glances at the Watcher, who gives her a furtive nod. She hurries to obey the command. The Watcher knows she will likely find a body in the tent, killed in a gruesome enough way to rob her of what little is left of her countenance, but not gruesome enough to spoil the furnishings.
Unlike his brother Famine, Death does not usually relish the spilling of blood. He does not dislike or regret it, but mostly he seems to do it with an almost bored efficiency. More fascinating than the mere act of killing is to him the skillfull breaking of a carefully selected victim's mind. He never chooses those who are broken easily. He enjoys to see them fight back, to see their soul grasp at straws and build hope around illusions. That is why the Watcher is still alive.
"What is going on here?" the voice of Pestilence, debatably the leader of the Four had asked, as she was crouching on the ground, cradling her arm. War had stood over her like a vengeful giant, while Famine was facing him, teeth bared. "Fighting over one of the new girls?"
"Caspian tried to take her for himself but I wouldn't give her to him. He hurt her just to spite me!" complained War.
"Don't whine," Famine purred. "I only broke her arm. If you don't like damaged goods, fine - leave her to me!"
"Aren't there enough women around to satisfy both of you?" the leader of the Horsemen asked, exasperated. "Must be something very special about this one." He grabbed her hair and dragged her upright, looking her up and down. "I see. Still, beautiful or not, a woman is not worth fighting about, and I think both of you deserve a lesson -"
The dagger was already at her throat, nicking her skin, but she knew this would not, could not be the end. Her mission had not been fulfilled, she had only just started, so how could she die now?
"Don't," she said, hoarsely.
"I'm afraid you don't have a say in the matter," he grinned, mirthfully.
"Let her speak, Kronos." Death, for the first time, made his presence known. "It can't hurt. You can kill her anytime."
She ignored the pain in her right arm and looked Pestilence in the eyes, unflinching and proud. It gave her a sort of satisfaction to see the shock in them when, a second later, she grabbed his private parts through his tunic and said: "I can serve you so much better alive . . ."
Death laughed. "It seems she's quite bent on making herself indispensable," he said.
The days that followed made her regret she had convinced them to let her live.
The village girl gone, Death helps himself to another bread. He sits down to eat, with an undeniable grace that makes her think, not for the first time, that, if she didn't know who he was, she would consider him an attractive man. She quells the thought immediately. Looking towards his tent at the sound of a sobbing cry, she sees the girl rush from the tent to retch violently near the entrance.
"So you found a new plaything," she says.
"Don't push your luck." He is still amused, but there is something dangerous behind the amusement.
She was not tattooed. The Horsemen might have recognized the symbol. It was a risk the Watchers did not want to take.
They sent her to the north-east, to follow the rumours of the Horsemen's atrocities. For three seasons, she travelled through parts where they were little more but a tale of horror that people told by the fireside. Then the tales grew more substantial, the people more frightened, and she knew she was approaching the parts where the Horsemen were riding.
A year after she'd left the temple, she came upon the fire-blackened ruins of a village destroyed by the Horsemen for the first time. As she stood looking at the burnt, shrunken bodies, she understood why the natives spoke of the End of theWorld.
She found a village to live in, a beautiful, wealthy village, and a man to marry. She lived the life of a farmer's wife, waiting for her destiny. And destiny came riding over the hills and bore down on the village with the thunder of hooves. Crying, she stood among the burning houses, the fallen body of her husband at her feet, but when they grabbed her and threw her over a horse's back, she felt a great quiet come over her. This was what was meant to be, what had always been meant to be.
War does not exit his tent, he erupts from it, bellowing his enthusiasm for the new day out at the top of his lungs, making the slaves cringe. Looking around, his round face beaming, he spots Death and heads for where he and the Watcher are sitting. He claps Death on the back with a large paw.
"Methos! What are you doing here, sitting on the ground with a slave, eating dry bread?! Is this a breakfast befitting Death of the Horsemen? There's better food to be found!"
Death cocks his head to look up at his brother. "I have always considered it one of the biggest benefits of being a Horseman that there is no common convention that tells me how I should live. Thus, if I decide I want to have bread for breakfast, or even if I should find an unexpected delight in the gruel the slaves feed on, this would indeed be a meal fitting for a Horseman, if only because I declare it so. Besides, this bread happens to be rather delicious."
War is confused. He doesn't like long sentences. While he is still trying to decide whether he has just been mocked, Death smiles up at him with genuine friendliness and says: "However, since you, Silas, have expressed your brotherly care so nicely, I'll be glad to join you for a more appropriate meal."
He gets up and drops the bread. As the two Horsemen are sauntering away, the Watcher hears War talk to his brother in a worried tone.
"That slave, she's been around too long."
"I sort of like having her around."
"We all did, for a while. But it's dangerous to keep them that long. Kronos says she might give the others ideas..."
The Horsemen cannot know that she has already done so. She has given the others the ideas of the Temple. A sizeable number of the slaves in the Horsemen's camp now know of Immortals, of the Game, and of the sacred mission of the Watchers. In utter despair, people will cling to anything that promises to give meaning to their suffering, and so the Invisible Temple has emerged, almost without conscious decision. Those who have been accepted into its rows bear their slavery with a strange kind of confidence. The Watcher has made them take the oaths, and they are comforted by the knowledge that their miserable life now has a higher purpose. Every bit of information that they can glean from the Horsemen's conversations or behaviour is carried to every member of the Invisible Temple in a matter of minutes.
The Watcher realized early on that by multiplying the number of Watchers in the camp she was not only making it possible to collect more information, but also that a larger number of them would increase the chances that one of them might survive and one day manage to escape. Ever once in a while, one of them makes an attempt to flee, to carry the gathered knowledge to the Temple. So far, all of them have been hunted down and killed, often tortured, too, but they keep on trying. Their belief that they will be rewarded for their efforts in the after-life lends to them the recklessness of fanatics.
"Tonight," she whispers to the other slaves as she walks through the camp on her errands, "Tonight," and the word spreads in the Invisible Temple, and an air of expectation lies over its members. Tonight the Horsemen are going on a raid; tonight, when they are gone, one of the Invisible Temple will try and make her escape. They are in favourable country - the hills around them offer plenty of natural hiding places. They have collected and hid provisions for her. Maybe, yes, maybe this time they will succeed . . .
At noon, the Watcher is summoned to Death's tent. She is surprised - after the happenings of the morning, she had believed he would busy himself with the girl for the rest of the day. He is standing with his back to the tent flap as she enters. For a long while, they both stand silent, as if waiting for something. Then he speaks, in a cold, flat voice.
She does as she is told. He does not turn, but keeps talking to the tent wall.
"Tell me about yourself."
"What is there to tell? I'm a slave. That's all."
"Oh yes. Such an exemplary slave, so eager to please. A bit outspoken, maybe, but that only adds to the fun." His voice is dripping with derision. Then, it grows cold again:
"Who are you? Who were you, before you became ours?"
"What do you want to hear? I was a farmer's wife. You killed my husband and everyone else I knew when you burned down our village."
"You are not a farmer's wife. I've been married to farmer's wives. You don't behave like one. Maybe you were a farmer's wife, but only for a little while."
"Maybe. But that is of no consequence anymore, for now I am your slave. I do as you bid me. My life is yours, to use or take as you please. What else should anyone want to know about me?" She speaks quietly, yet with a note of defiance.
"You speak with an accent. Where did you live before you came here?"
"What does any of this matter now?"
He turns. There is something like anger behind the carefully controlled coolness of his face, but there is something else there, also. What is it? What else is he trying to hide?
She has known worse kinds of humiliation, but there is a new and special kind of awkwardness to this situation. It feels, she realizes with a start, as if he is trying to humiliate her despite himself, as if he is just going through the motions.
"Come closer," he says.
She closes her eyes and suppresses a shudder of revulsion, expecting him to touch her, yet nothing happens. Then she feels his breath by her ear, the tips of his hair on her shoulder. He is leaning down to her, whispering in her ear: "You're not a slave, and we both know it."
She opens her eyes as he draws back from her, and sees him stand across the tent, and it is as if a mask has fallen. There is a feverish glint in his eyes.
"What are you?" he says.
The question hits her unexpectedly, and she can't help the shiver that runs down her spine. What does he know?
Silence lies between them like a desert while they stare at each other.
A slave would never meet her master's gaze like this. A slave would never stand so proudly, albeit naked - would never challenge him so openly with her words. As she stands looking at him, she sees a man, immortal though he be, a man and nothing more. A cruel and dangerous man, a man that can kill her, but never more than a man.
What does he see in her eyes? Does he see that she will not, cannot submit, because the oath she has taken does not allow her to serve anyone but the Temple? Does he see that he will never break her, because she will endure anything, for the Temple, and know her soul will be received well in the next world? Does he see that, whatever he will tell her to do, she will do, but for the Temple, not because he ordered it?
He laughs, a short, tired laugh, as if he is laughing about himself. His shoulders seem to slump a little. Maybe it is the simple humanity of that gesture that makes her say, before she can stop herself:
"So you were a farmer, once?" She is speaking very softly, almost to herself.
His eyes grow sharp again at once, and fix her with a long, unyielding glance.
"Maybe," he says.
She lets out a breath she only then realizes she has been holding. She had expected him to become furious, to punish her for overstepping. Dodging his questions as she had done earlier is one thing; posing questions to him is unheard of. She remembers what he said to his brother War, earlier that day: I kind of like having her around. Is that it? The thing she saw behind his coolness, behind his anger? The thing he was hiding from her?
"What happened?" she asks, her throat raw with her own audacity. "What happened to make a farmer become Death?"
The interior of the tent seems to be a world far removed from the Horsemen's camp, far removed from the screams and the laughter and the killing, from routinely dealt death, and even from the Invisible Temple. Time passes differently there, or maybe does not pass at all, for the two inhabitants of that world, the man and the woman, do not notice it.
Then the spell is broken, for the man speaks.
"Nothing. Nothing happened." A wry smile passes over his face. "Time happened. Life happened. Change. When you live long enough, that's the only thing that remains constant. I am not who I was, and I will not be who I am. Today, we control the world, but yesterday, we toiled on our fields and were content. And what we'll be tomorrow, none of us can know. We might even be dead."
He turns away.
"You may go."
She gathers up her clothes and leaves, dazed.
Outside, she hurriedly pulls her dress over her head. Then her legs begin to tremble and give way, the aftershock of the odd conversation arriving full force. She has to sit down on the spot.
What was that?
For a short while, he had talked to her like an equal. 'You're not a slave' he had said, and she understands now what that means: You are free, and I cannot break you. We have to go on pretending for the sake of the others, but I respect your freedom. But she also understands now that he is worried, and confused, and maybe even frightened, because he has forgotten how to deal with this, so that maybe, they have to go on pretending for his own sake just as much as for his brothers'. Her head swims.
If what she has just come to understand is indeed true, then she has to make use of it. She has to win his trust, however much she may abhor him, to find out as much as she can. This is a chance, she realizes, that few Watchers get.
She gets up, and runs to tell the others.
Dusk has fallen and the Horsemen are gone. The slaves, most of them, are already asleep, huddled around themselves on the cold floor all about the camp. At the end of a day of hard work, filled with the fear of death and worse, weighed down by hopelessness, they are too worn out to stay awake or plan an escape. Their sleep resembles unconsciousness, deep and empty, and safe for at least this one night, because the Horsemen are gone, and no one will order them to tend to their needs tonight.
The Invisible Temple, however, although scattered, and pretending to sleep like everyone else, are awake, awake and praying. They do not dare to get up and tell their sister who is leaving farewell. Someone might still be awake and see them, some slave who, for some reason or other, cannot sleep, and who might grow suspicious and betray them, in the hope that it might earn her a reward. They do not dare to get up and walk her to the border of the camp, the beginning of the wilderness, to hug her - "May the Gods be with you forever, and now go, go!" - to see her dark shape disappear in the shadows.
"Get up! Get up, all of you!"
A rough hand grabs the Watcher's dress and drags her half the way up before she manages to scramble to her feet. Caspian, Famine, is grinning wildly at her. He lifts her up into the air, and, throwing her over his shoulder, yells: "She's here! I've got her!"
All the slaves are up, moaning and crying, their eyes large with panic, glittering in the moonlight. The Horsemen, in full attire, are among them, driving them like a herd of sheep. At Caspian's cry, they push towards him through the frantic crowd. Their faces are painted, and the light of the moon, almost full, clothes the scene in the unreal colours of a dream. War, Death, Pestilence and Famine. There is nothing human in them tonight. They are demons, terrible gods of destruction.
She hits the floor hard. A few more ribs in her right side, the side that is already hurt, crack. She gasps with the pain.
Someone kicks her, shouts something at her.
/Suddenly she is a child again -/
What do they want from her?
/Sitting in a sunspeckled courtyard of the Temple under a tree -/
Why are they shouting, shouting so loud?
/With a man, yes, with her father -/
Four predatory faces are staring down at her: three full of greedy, gleeful expectation; one cold as stone.
/He's very serious, her father is. He's explaining something to her . . ./
Pestilence squats down beside her. His unruly mane, a black bird's nest against the moon-bright sky, all of a sudden strikes her as the funniest thing she has ever seen, and she starts to giggle, painfully.
"I'm glad you're finding all this so amusing," Pestilence says, "I would hate to be the only one who has some fun tonight. Because this is going to be a very funny night, for some of us." The painted swirls on his face move, and she understands he is grinning.
"Let me talk to her, brother." Death interrupts.
/"To become a Watcher, you must be very sure of yourself, of your calling," her father explains./
Something is thrown on the ground next to her. It is the body of the woman who has fled earlier that night. Her dead eyes regard the Watcher impassively. Dark, congealed blood is smeared across her face, black in the moonlight like the paint on the face of her killers. Her outstretched arm has fallen so that the tip of her first finger touches the Watcher's hand. Instinctively, she takes the hand in her own. It is still warm.
"Don't worry. She hasn't betrayed you. Not she." He watches her face as the understanding sinks in.
He has known all along.
/"It's a test for the strength of your belief."/
She holds the hand of the dead woman, grips it tightly, as if she still hopes to find comfort in the touch, or give comfort; as if she hopes they may face this together. Sisters, the Watcher thinks, We are sisters. Walk ahead, sister mine - I will follow.
/"You must be ready to sacrifice everything for the Temple. Everything, even yourself."/
"We found out after one of the earliest attempts, of course. There had never been so many attempted escapes before - and never so regularly. We simply had to grow suspicious."
/"On the day when you will take your oath, you will have to search your soul and decide if you can do this: if you can believe strongly enough to go to your own death and not be afraid, because you know you are doing what the Gods meant you to do."/
"So the next time we caught one of your little conspiracy, we talked to her for a bit before we sent her to that place you seem so eager to get to, the next world. We were rather amused."
"A Watcher among the Horsemen!" Pestilence chuckles. "Spying for the Gods! How we laughed!"
Death squats beside her and bares her arm by slicing off most of the sleeve of her dress.
"It was clever of them not to tattoo you." He begins to draw the symbol into the skin of her wrist, slowly, accurately. Bloods wells up in the wake of his dagger. "You must have been born and bred for this task, have you not? They're making quite an effort. I must admit I'm a little flattered."
/"If you believe enough, you will be able to bear anything. Sometimes, we believe like this -"/
"We decided to let you play at being Watchers for a while. It was entertaining, to see what you would come up with. You, especially, made a fascinating subject for study." He traces the lines of her face with a finger, and his eyes are alive with lust, power, need, and something else. Pain. So what she has seen that noon in his tent is true, and he actually cares for her. But he values his own perverted games more than that, or, perhaps, he is trapped in them. Again, she feels a bout of hysterical laughter rise in her throat, but this time, she manages to control the impulse.
"But your game grew tedious to watch, after a while, and so we decided it were time to end it," Pestilence puts in. "It ends tonight, for you and everyone else, whether they be part of your schemes or not. It ends now."
/"Sometimes we believe -"/
She is looking into Death's face and is not afraid.