The trees whisper ancient tales of friendship and battle, weaving their branches through the canvas of leaves above us, watching, waiting, as the children venture through their midst. Drifting through the woods like the shadows themselves, sinister and silent, we watch them, too. Our curiosity gets the better of us sometimes. We become the air, the breeze, the soil, the trees, we walk as though the wind carries us. We have seen this moment coming, and although we always perk up at the thought of a change of the new dawn that the trees only ever hint at in their stories, we know what will happen. We have lived for centuries, watching age and wagon wheels wear away at the path, watching plants grow, then bloom, then wither, leaving space for new plants to break through the surface. We have watched the sun stream through the trees, dappling the ground in mystical patterns, painting the future on the earth. We have seen snow fall, footsteps taint the soft white blanket, then days pass and more layers gently settle over the memories of those boots. The children wander along the path, further and further until they reach the heart of the forest, where we live, and we watch as they come closer and closer. We stay silent, and focused, peering through the undergrowth. They will never see us coming. There is a reason we are not called the Givers, or the Takers, or the Speakers. There is a reason that we have only been known by one name for our entire lives. There are many reasons, in fact, for why they call us the Watchers.
“I have something to tell you,” one whispers, as they both perch in a hollow in the sheltering arms of two great oak trees. Two numbers blink above their heads, granted to them from the city that lies beyond these woods. They are dark and burdensome, trailing them like shadows, their destinies already engraved in stone.
“What is it?” the other asks, with an eager grin. But the other child’s expression remains solemn. Some of us chitter in a sort of pity, although none of us truly sympathise with the creatures that call themselves humans. The wind rises in a bitter cackle, the sound of crackling flame, or the growl of a beast, our mocking laughter echoing through the woods. No. Ha. A funny thought. Of course not. We shall never truly feel anything for them. We shall never truly feel. After all, we are not called the Loving, the Tearful, the Joyous. We are the Watchers, for that is what we do. We listen. And we watch. We turn our heads, and there is only the slightest noise, one that might be mistaken for the rustling of leaves, or the snap of a branch underfoot.
“It’s important,” the first answers. “It’s a secret, and you must promise never to tell.”
The second child’s voice grows hushed. “Never. I understand.”
“My number. It’s not right.”
“What do you mean?”
The first seems frantic. “It’s not right. It’s not supposed to be how it is.”
The other one smiles. “No, Via, there must be a mistake. The numbers are always right. Why? Aren’t you happy with yours?”
“No, no, there is a mistake. The bit that says- where is it- 539.”
“That tells you you’ll be a writer, when you grow up. Don’t worry, we can’t right now. But you’ll be able to when you’re older. Otherwise, why would your number say so?”
They grow more desperate, their voice higher in pitch. “I don’t know why, but it’s wrong. It flickered, and changed one night, when I was awake after a… nightmare.”
“Nightmare? What’s that?”
“A dream. But one that isn’t happy. We’re not supposed to have them. Mother gave me medicine, but it didn’t help. More came, and more. There were monsters!”
Monsters. Some people call us monsters. The cackling sound stirs again, as we contemplate it, as the thought pulses from one interconnected mind to the next, flowing through all of us until we reach a consensus. Of course not. We do not do good, or bad. We are not called the Heroic, or the Evil. We merely watch. We are the watchers.
“Monsters don’t exist, silly.”
“Maybe not, but in my dream they did. People with weapons, too.”
There is a rustle in the trees. More footsteps. Not the children. We begin to growl, a thrumming, low note that resounds through the trees. The older men look around, gazing wildly through the trees. The growl becomes another cackle. We cannot be seen. We are silent, not invisible, but hidden, like shadows. Hidden in plain sight. Of course, they cannot see us. We are not the To Be Seen, the To Be Heard. We are the Watchers.
But the children have already left, chased by the adults out of the woods and back into the wretched hole the humans call a city.
FOUR YEARS LATER
The same children come through our forest. We remember. We always remember. We remember everything. They have not changed much, but their shoulders slump with the weight of the years, their eyes dull and the flickering flame of hope has been extinguished, the flowering joy they have nourished and watered over their childhood has withered. It has only been a few years, and already their souls are tainted. This is what the city does to those who live within its walls. We, the Watchers, understand the ruin that comes with society’s perfection.
“Who were those people?” one child asks.
“Remember when I tried to tell you? When I was seven, and you were six, and I told you my number was wrong.”
“I might believe you if you explained what you meant. Where have you been all this time?”
“I was right. My number wasn’t supposed to be 539. It was supposed to be 678. They passed it off as a rare glitch, but you know the city could never mess up three numbers. This was deliberate. Someone was trying to hide who I was. Who I am. I’m not supposed to be a writer, and I never was.”
A deep breath is taken. “I’m meant to be an assassin.”
“No. There has to be some mistake,” the other says. “You’re eleven. You can’t be serious.”
“I am. This whole time, I’ve been doing missions for Ciaran for two years now, and before that I was training.” They shudder, and the cold that sweeps through the forest is an echo of their fear.
“Ciaran?” the other says, more viciously than they must have intended. The first child’s head snaps up to face them.
“The Head Assassin.”
“This is wrong. This can’t be true.” There is a short, sharp laugh, which sounds more like a bark. “No. You’re lying. You couldn’t have kept this from me for four years.”
The first child smiles, a smile so raw and sorrowful that we let out a small chitter. We don’t understand sympathy, but we do understand pain. We have suffered much of it. And while we do not care for the people of te city and their haphazard ways, we do know the torment these children are suffering. But, of course, we do not feel bad for them. We cannot. The forest doesn’t work this way. We only watch and listen. For we are not the Feeling, the Pitying, the Fearing, the Dreaming, the Hoping, or the Grieving. We are watching. We are the Watchers.
“I’m not lying,” the first one says. “I promise.” And then the scurry of boots on the soil rings out again, louder and louder, closer and closer, and then they are gone. Gone. Gone.
We know what happens now. The children grow old, and further and further apart. Oaths are broken, secrets slip from their grasp, and eventually, the dreaded day arrives. Although, they do not dread it. We cannot dread it, for we do not feel fear, or concern. We do not feel. But it arrives, all the same, and we can feel the sense of dread wafting through the air, an acrid, bitter smell. Two years later, the watchers watch, the trees whisper, and the children come to the forest once again. But this time, one has a dagger to the other’s throat.
TWO YEARS LATER
Tears streak down their faces, their fingers tremble around the knife, but there is a skill in the way they hold the knife, and precision that one could only have learned with years of training in the art. Of course, that is what the first child has had. The man who calls himself Ciaran has taught them well. Ciaran. The sounds of the forest churn and swell, becoming a hiss, a growl. Oh, we know Ciaran. He has had many names, over the centuries, but we shall always call him the Reaper. Eventually, the blood drips down. The body slumps to the ground. There is another rustle in the trees. The older one, the Reaper, the Ruin, the Curse, finally finds the younger children, but this time, there is only one to find. The other is dead. The man who calls himself Ciaran smiles. “Well done.”
“No. You monster. I had to – you forced me -”
Monster. That word again. If only they knew his name. Then they might start to understand. Reaper, the forest hisses.
“No, sweet child. You did it all by yourself. And I am proud of you.”
The man grins, and the grin grows wider. Wider. Wider. The first child follows him back to the city, their mournful expression barely visible as they hang their head low. The body remains in the forest, and we all crowd around it, until the soul of the dead child flits out. This happens every time. The pattern repeats every ten years. Another four before it happens again. The soul is sad, lost, quiet. But we welcome it. The forest begins to cackle.
One more to join the Watchers. The cackle grows louder. Louder. Louder.