Title: "Though Soft You Tread"
Summary: Buried and broken and bound in his duty, he waits.
Spoilers: TW 2.13 Exit Wounds, DW 1.03 The Unquiet Dead, DW 3.11 Utopia
Disclaimer: Not mine, no matter how many DVDs and toys I buy! Everything here belongs to RTD and to Auntie Beeb, who already has my licence fee.
Notes: The funny thing about facts is that, even if always true, they're often only demonstrable under certain conditions. Evidence to date suggests that Jack is one such. Many thanks to mimarie and jadesfire2808 for sterling beta services; any remaining weirdnesses are all mine. Feedback of any variety is very much appreciated but not compulsory – I'll post anyway! I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn...
Grey forms ghosted through the twilight, ears pricked and senses alert as they chased the windborne promise of prey. Bracken brushed against long moon-silvered limbs, broad paws crackling over leaf litter that gave way to deer-cropped grass that gave way to freshly-turned earth –
The pack leader growled as the scents reached him – alien, unknown, the familiar undercurrent of human tempered by layers of newness, of wrongness. Sliding to a halt, the pack's hunting formation dissolving around him, he paced back to sniff cautiously at the disturbed ground, soil catching between his hunt-blunted claws. There had been fear here, violence, but the kill... the scent of the kill-not-kill sent a prickle along the length of his spine, set his heart to pounding, his hackles rising. The traces were fresh, too fresh, the strongest permeating the earth itself with the edge of death never-ending, of life held in winter snow, buried like a seed, like cached flesh, waiting...
Paws planted squarely on the broken soil, the wolf threw his heavy head back, his deep-throated howl carrying tones of fear and sorrow and death-not-death. One after another, the pack added their voices to his, their own discomfort ringing clearly through the darkening skies, and for long moments their song was all there was, filling the world as they mourned for something they could not understand. And then, as silence settled over the glade once more, they turned and wheeled away, vanishing into the moonlit forest.
The pack never returned to that place again.
# # # # #
No movement, no motion, held fast in earth as if in amber, the world reduced to pressure and pain and an endless cycle of burning need. Fear and grief and guilt and desperate desire; resignation, determination and blinding anger bind him in his grave as in his duty, a prison accepted if not actively sought.
The agonies of rebirth are mercifully brief. He carries the whole world upon him, the weight of the earth too heavy on his frame, and the eternal energies that demand his existence cannot draw him back from his confinement – not yet, not fully, not yet. His heart is crushed in more ways than merely one, his lungs too compressed to draw breath, his blood stilled within his body. He is held, helpless and hidden... yet unheeding as the thwarted pulse of life eternal coils around him, threads through him, bleeds into the cloth and soil that shroud him.
Life and death alike denied him, he rests within a single moment – unaware and untouched by time, unmolested by the small beasts and the natural order of things – and waits.
# # # # #
The scents of woodsmoke and freshly baked bread were in the air, lending a warm familiarity to the mist-shrouded chill of predawn. Pacing along the fort's western wall, Caius Maenius Verus tugged his woollen cloak close and wished himself in his distant childhood home of Egara, in his last posting in Ossonoba, even in his own warm bed. The watch had been quiet, with nothing more than the silent passage of a hunting owl to disturb the night air. The forests beyond Tamium's stout stone walls might hide a massed army of Hibernians, but none had seen fit to disturb his watch, no matter how much he might sometimes wish for even a little excitement.
There was a clearing just beyond Caius's post, unremarkable with its fringe of scrub and brambles, that the locals claimed was sacred to their gods. Wolves would not hunt there, no matter the season or the prey, and native superstition held that it was home to a spirit that would repel far more fearsome predators in their too-damp island's hour of need. Caius didn't know whether to feel insulted that their mythical defender hadn't seen fit to concern itself with the arrival of the Legions, or amused that it was using the Roman presence to deter the Hibernian invaders. Either way, it wasn't doing anything to make his life in this wet and windy backwater any more interesting.
Stifling a yawn, Caius glanced east towards the lightening sky and willed the sun to rise and bring his interminable watch to an end.
# # # # #
Time passes, the world changes. Seasons and centuries ebb and flow, the land parching and flooding and freezing by turns. He sleeps dreamlessly on, his broken body held fast in its shroud of endless energy, his existence a constant that the universe can neither release nor deny. Lives pass by above, birth to death, cradle to grave, and he waits for his time to come again.
# # # # #
Rhedyn threw herself into the thicket, curling in on herself and biting her fist to silence her sobs. Her pulse hammered hard in her ears and it was long minutes before she finally convinced herself that there had been no pursuit, longer before she dared to move within her uncertain refuge. The sea raiders had struck under cover of darkness, rampaging through the settlement, and she had fled into the night with her sisters at their mother's shrieked instruction.
There were fires on the coastline, villages burning and lending a bright glow to the horizon. Rhedyn didn't know where her mother or her sisters were – Hafren had been crying about taking refuge in the church – but she knew where she was, knew why she had come here. Her grandmother's stories, rich with the echoes of the old ways, had always carried more resonance for her than the priest's fine words, and the tales of her earliest years had left her with the certainty that the world was far stranger and more glorious than the old man would admit.
The ruined walls of the Roman fort rose dark against the starlit sky as Rhedyn carefully freed herself from the thicket and made her way to the clearing. Her grandmother had told her that the land held secrets no mere mortal could ever truly know, had told her of creatures that could flit from today into yesterday and thence to tomorrow, of beasts that would snatch children to create more of their kind, of flying dragons and fearsome giants and of worlds beneath the world. Had told her that a mighty king slept within the earth, resting and waiting, held by a promise to protect the land and her people. Had told her of this place, this quiet glade in the shadow of past conquest, where beasts of prey refused to tread.
The raiders wore wolfskins and hunted in packs. To Rhedyn, that made them beasts of prey.
Stepping out of the cover of the trees, Rhedyn felt a chill whisper of something course across her skin, a thrill of something more than cold. Sinking slowly to the ground, she looked around in wonder, seeing the delicate beauty of each star-limned leaf, hearing their whisper in the wind as if for the first time. Carefully, she reached out to stroke her fingers through the grass, smiling as she murmured, "Thank you, Great King, for your protection in your holy place."
No answer came, but neither did the raiders, and Rhedyn lived to pass her story to her own grandchildren in turn.
# # # # #
Another human tide washes across the land, taking some and leaving others, a cycle as immutable as the seasons. People, religions, languages... all are temporary, all are finite. All things have their time and all things come to dust.
All but him.
# # # # #
A pair of young boys dashed along the rough, wagon-rutted street, shouting as they chased one another with sticks. They darted past a wooden ladder, setting it rocking, and at its top Cerdic ap Dafydd ap Hywel ap Macsen swore, grabbing at the rafters of the town's new tavern for support. Above him, his arms full of fresh thatch, Edward Fletcher laughed. "Careful there, old man! Tavern's not done yet – too soon to be so unsteady on your feet!"
"Boys need some honest work to keep their hands and minds occupied," Cerdic muttered, pulling himself up to the roof. "Danger to themselves and others, so they are."
Edward chuckled and shook his head, picking up his hammer. "Ah, you were never young, were you, Cerdic?"
Cerdic snorted and looked off beyond the half-thatched eaves, to the great earth and timber construction that formed the Lord of Gloucester's great fortification, a reminder of their Norman masters that was impossible to ignore or deny. Cerdic had indeed been young once, could remember a time when there were only Roman ruins in this place, could remember when the invaders had been a purely English problem. Could remember sleeping in the sunlight in a clearing just beyond the castle walls, dreaming of heroism and tales of ancient Arthur...
But then the Normans had come, and with them their horde of Saxon followers. And they had built their castle atop the old walls and the town had grown up around it, drawing in the villagers and newcomers alike, creating a new focus for the land. Yes, he had been young once, but the world of his youth was gone, reformed in timber and in stone, in the foreign accents of those who now surrounded him and his. Gone but for legend and occasional patches of memory, like the willows by the river and the clearing he carried in his daydreams of childhood, which stood still untouched in the castle's long morning shadow.
Cerdic hoped that it would ever be so.
# # # # #
Time writes its spell across the land as across its people. Flood and flora, wind and winter, storm and season turn and turn again, layering soil upon soil, covering the past with subtle brushstrokes of banked earth and broken stone. Held fast within the ground, he is unaware as his grave grows ever deeper, his lethal burden ever heavier; not sinking but merely remaining in place as the world above him grows towards the stars.
# # # # #
The world was lost in flame.
Running headlong through the searing heat, Arainwen ferch Iorwerth clutched her daughter to her breast and screamed her husband's name. Her voice was lost in the hell-born rush of the inferno, lost amongst the cries of her fellow townsfolk as the fire raged around them. Caerdydd's wooden buildings held no defence against the fire, the flames leaping from thatch to thatch with hungry intent, and Arainwen wept through fear and frustration at the injustice of it, at the destruction being wrought by her own countrymen.
For all that her husband was English, she had always quietly supported Glydwr's rebellion – few in this town truly had much love for their Despenser overlords. But this, this act of vengeance in the name of a man long dead before her grandparents had been born...
Sobbing, young Jane held tight and shrieking against her, Arainwen ran on.
The smoke cleared abruptly, the vagaries of the night winds offering a moment's respite, and Arainwen fell to her knees, choking and gasping as Jane wailed. Grass tickled against her palm as she fought to catch her breath at the clearing's edge, slipped between her soot-stained fingers, the green blades cool and alive despite the crackling heat. Screams and cries rent the air around her, the crack and boom of falling timber, the roar of the flames... yet for a moment, just a moment, she felt safe, felt that maybe the world was not ending, that her life was not yet over.
Arainwen did not know if it was an angel of the Lord that gazed upon her or one of the ancient spirits of the land. She could not say how, or what, or why, but something timeless shivered through her bones to calm her pounding heart, to ease Jane's howls to quiet whimpers. To lend her the strength to push herself up and run on towards the sanctuary of the river.
She did not know, and in that moment she did not care.
But she never forgot.
# # # # #
He cannot feel them, the fleeting lives that pass above, cannot sense their anguish nor taste their passions. Years spin past, centuries, the passage of time less than abstract in his single fractured moment. He is... and yet is not, not quite, not fully, caught a half-step from life as he outwaits the world.
He cannot feel them, cannot know them. But the universe knows him , knows him as intimately as gravity, as time, and the eternal energies that embrace him leach through the land to brush lightly against those who might hear – a reflected echo of strength, of love, of patience, of determination to defend all that is his...
He cannot know them. And yet, in a small and silent way, they know him.
# # # # #
The grey stone walls of the castle stood solid and serene against the afternoon sky, a calm symbol of power, of authority. Gazing up at its rocky ramparts, Morgan Lewis could see the rounded helmets of the soldiers high above, silhouetted against the brightness of the drifting clouds, and wondered what they could see from that vantage.
He wondered if they could see as far as Saint Fagans.
Closing his eyes, Morgan could still hear the screams, could still see men he had known from childhood dying before him, the Nant Dowlais running red with their blood. There had been no glory in the battle, just mud and sweat and blood, the stench of gunpowder and voided bowels, the pleas and shrieks of the wounded as musket balls found their mark and swords whistled brightly through the air to carve through flesh and bone alike. It had been a slaughter, all played out in the sunlight of an early summer's morning, and then finished as soon as it had begun, leaving the field to the crows and the carrion flies.
Colonel Horton had been merciful, at least, disarming those most recently recruited and sending them to their homes while Major-General Laugharne retreated to the west with what remained of his army of traitors, his men out-thought, out-fought and out-manoeuvred by a force less than half their own.
Major-General Laugharne had not looked back to see what had become of his newest recruits, but Colonel Horton had let them return to their homes, to their farms, to their lives.
Those of them that were left.
Sinking slowly to the ground, the sun-warmed grass rough beneath him, Morgan wondered what had become of the world of his youth. So many gone, and for what? Was this the land where bold Arthur had once trod? The land of legends and dragons and heroes?
The sound of the wind through the leaves of the willow held no answers, nor did the faint sounds of industry from the town, nor the croaking cries of the rooks that drifted darkly overhead. Yet... somehow there was a prickle of something that touched the edges of Morgan's awareness, a featherstroke almost like comfort, almost like understanding. A sense that the fight was not yet over, that sun would follow rain, spring follow winter. That the world would continue on, his children growing tall and strong and inheriting a land less torn by conflict, a land where legends and heroes might yet walk.
The battle had been lost. Hope had not.
# # # # #
The universe is a symphony of interlocking cycles – wheels within wheels, worlds within worlds – spinning ever onwards, each part of the whole dancing to its own unheard rhythm. Caught beneath, he cannot feel the turning of the tides, the passing of the years, cannot trace the growth of trees, of towns, of the families that fill them. Cannot feel more familiar cycles close in on their beginning to start once again.
Buried and broken and bound in his duty, he waits.
# # # # #
The flames had finally been extinguished, old Sneed's funeral parlour reduced to ash and rubble, a dark and hellish patch in the pristine white of the late December snow. The gas lamps that lit the streets burned low where they burned at all and Christmas looked to be a fine one for the glaziers if for no one else.
Cardiff's streets were deserted by the time the fire engine – a fine horse-drawn contraption with a steam-driven pump – had been returned to its place behind the Town Hall and the horses bedded down against the winter chill. All that could be done had been done and all that now remained was for the firemen and their civilian volunteers to find their homes and their beds for what little was left of the night.
Brynn Cooper, the youngest of those volunteers, had seen some mighty strange things in his life, but the dying days of 1869 were certainly looking to be the strangest. Blue spirits and animated corpses, explosions and all manner of unearthly things – it quite made the sea monster that had washed up off Penarth the previous summer pale in comparison. Cardiff had always had an oddness to it, creatures and phantasms that lurked at the corner of the eye, but in this age the solid reality of the burgeoning coal trade was all that most cared for. The town was outgrowing its long history of obscurity, reaching for a glorious future as one of the world's great ports, and by the turning of the year the events of Christmas Eve would no doubt be blamed on some freak occurrence at the Gas Works and a little too much seasonal good cheer.
The snow still fell, drifting silently out of a starless sky, but the flurries were gentle and the wind less barbed than it might be, even to one who could still feel the heat of the blaze against his skin. Brynn was in good spirits as he made his way up Westgate towards the Cardiff Bridge and his family's home on Green Street, glancing across the road towards the snow-shrouded trees that flanked the Marquess' landscaped parklands...
He stopped, frowning into the shadows and then quickly crossing to the park's edge. There had been movement, he was sure of it, a too-human form stumbling through the snow. Concerned, Brynn slipped between the trees, stumbling a little himself as the snow swallowed his boots. He almost turned back, but then the moon emerged from the clouds and he saw the movement again, a man's form huddled against the chill as the shadows claimed him once more, and it would hardly be Christian, tonight of all nights, to leave an unfortunate to the depredations of the Welsh winter... Tucking his thick woollen scarf a little more securely around his neck, Brynn continued on.
Cautiously making his way through the drifts, he could occasionally hear a voice cursing softly, savagely, the intent clear in the tone even if the words were in a language unfamiliar to his ears. He could see footprints now, as well, leading back and forth and around at the edge of a clearing, many half-hidden by new-fallen snow. Stepping out of the trees, Brynn frowned, trying to work out which of the tracks was the most recent... then came another unintelligible curse and he looked up to see a small, hard blue light flash in the shadows beneath a tall elm.
He cleared his throat, his breath steaming in the freezing air. "Hello?"
The light abruptly vanished back into darkness. Peering intently at the shadows, Brynn thought he could make out a tall figure clad far too thinly for the weather, with uncovered arms and head, and strange garments that clung too closely to his frame. One hand looked to be clasped over something dark on a wrist – the source of the light? – as the man held perfectly still, shadowed eyes watching Brynn even as Brynn watched him.
"Hello? Sir, are you all right?"
The only answer was the soft crunch of snow underfoot as Brynn made his way across the moonlit ground, hoping that he wasn't attempting to converse with some dangerous ruffian or madman. Whoever this man was, though, he surely shouldn't be –
Brynn stopped in mid-stride as he was suddenly assailed by the... the sense that this was indeed how things should be, that this stranger belonged here, in this time and this place. He could not explain it, nor put a name to it, but in that instant he understood that all was as it should be, as it needed to be.
As it always had been.
Startled, Brynn took a step back... and realised that the man had gone. It still seemed wrong to leave a soul to freeze on a night such as this however, and the tracks led forward and back across the clearing, so he removed his scarf and laid it on the ground. "If you're cold, sir..." he started, then realised how foolish his words must sound. Pulling his coat more securely around himself, Brynn retraced his steps back towards the road and his own warm bed, hoping that the man would be all right.
And knowing, with that same, strange certainty, that he would be.
# # # # #
There is no time in the null-space between life and death, death and life. Pain gives way to... nothing, to everything, to blind freefall though the very essence of existence... and then pain slams him back into reality, into real-time, into the linear world of the physical. Moments or minutes or millennia all register alike in that instant of expansive absence, their passage both meaningless and vital to one who exists both within and without, unchanging in form yet emotionally fluid.
He does not feel the passage of time and yet time still passes, the world moves on, the centuries recede –
– a lessening of weight, so slight, so small, so real –
– towards his starting point, towards his goal –
– his burden grows lighter, his grave shallower –
– back towards the point his too-human mind perceives as now –
– time-impacted soil fractures at assault from above, releasing its claim as energies surge and sing and bone cracks into place –
– towards where he needs to be, towards the stories still left unfinished, towards the fates he might yet influence –
– tissue expands, freed from its long compression; flattened blood vessels peel apart as ruptured organs fill and repair –
– towards family, towards friends –
– a headlong rush towards equilibrium, towards reality –
– towards LIFE.
# # # # #
The world slammed back into place and he surfaced hard, choking on dirt and drowning in air, in air, the smothering weight gone, his fouled lungs free. Pain tore through every synapse, dragging across his senses like broken glass, and he convulsed, hacking and retching, vomiting filth as hands hauled him upright and pounded encouragement between his shoulder blades. For long moments he felt as though he were being turned inside out, his mouth filled with mud and blood and bile, his legs refusing to support him unaided. His eyes and ears were filled with dirt and he couldn't make out who was speaking to him, who was roughly wiping at his face, only that he had been found, had been found, that the ring biting hard into the palm of one cuffed hand had led his team to him across almost two thousand years...
He might not have felt anything more than three brief and frantic revivals before this rescue – struggling and smothering beneath the deepening earth of a fresh grave, swallowed whole by another's madness – but be it two millennia or twelve short, fragmented minutes, he needed to see them safe.
Cloth scraped across his eyes and he blinked and winced as lashes unglued to reveal the glare of a lamp held too close to his face –
Female, familiar... but not Gwen, not Toshiko...
"You're supposed to be in London with Emily – what are you doing twenty feet under all of Mr Brown's hard work?"
The lamp pulled back and Jack felt his stomach clench as Alice Guppy's sharp features came into focus. Alice Guppy, alive and well, glaring at him with that well-practiced mix of exasperation and indignation that he had once taken such delight in provoking, that he had barely thought of in decades. Alice – fierce, fearless Alice – who had never backed away from a challenge, who had drawn him into her world with her quick wit and quicker trigger-finger, with her sharp teeth and strong thighs. Alice, who had died in his arms in 1903.
"Alice..?" he managed weakly.
"Alice?" came a firmer echo from above. "Is everything all right down there?"
Jack tipped his head back and looked up to see sunlight beyond the walls of his grave – had it really been so deep? – and Charles Gaskell's dark and familiar form silhouetted against the sky, one hand resting on the top rung of a long ladder and the other holding a pistol with practiced surety. He had missed them, oh, how he had missed them, but he couldn't be here, not now, not again...
Alice snorted and gave a short laugh. "It's Jack," she called back, tucking her own gun away. "And he knows me."
"Jack? Hark— Our Jack?"
"Could there be another? Looks like he really is indestructible." She pulled a pin from her hair and reached for Jack's wrists, setting to work on his cuffs. "You've got some explaining to do, Harkness," she murmured, her tone promising dire things. "You're with Emily – I saw you off on the train myself, not two days ago. And I've been tracking this signal three days now; four, counting the time it's taken us to get this deep – it's a good thing the Marquess is an understanding man. How long have you been here?"
"How long?" He closed his eyes, biting back all his relief, fear, joy, grief, despair; the frightening edge of hysteria that he could feel suddenly bubbling just beneath the surface. The weight of ages was upon him once more, the mud and stone rearing up around him, and he was too early, far too early, the harsh familiarity of the twentieth century stretching before him once more, unless... "Oh god."
"Not... not long enough." He swallowed hard, tasting dirt and desperation, the enormity of it all threatening to swallow him in turn. "Not long enough."
# # # # #
The unpolished white marble of the cryogenics drawer was cold against his back, even through the filthy wool of his greatcoat. Cold, so cold... but the lights overhead were bright, familiar, and he knew this place, had called it home for more than a century. The Hub had been sanctuary, safety and shelter for most of his long life, the one place that he always returned to, and he could do this, he had to do this.
His team was depending on him.
"Are you certain?" Charles asked again, a frown marring his handsome features. "The morgue is hardly –"
"It's the only way." Jack looked up at him, remembering the years he had fought and laughed and loved and mourned alongside this man. "I don't belong here, not like this. I can't interact with –"
"With yourself. We know." Alice crouched down beside the drawer. "And we can't say a word to you in the here and now. And we won't; if we did – if we had – you'd remember, right?"
"Thank you." Jack reached up to catch one slender hand, pressing it to his lips. It wouldn't be long before Alice joined him in the morgue's cryogenic embrace, but this was how he'd remember her now – alive and vital, helping him to get back to when he needed to be with his frantic focus undimmed by time. "Thank you – for everything. For bringing me in, for making me a part of this place."
"Really?" She arched an eyebrow. "As I recall, you weren't so keen when we first found you."
He smiled, reaching up to brush her cheek. "Wouldn't have missed it for the world."
Charles stepped across to Jack's other side, bending to tuck a neat square of white cloth into a coat pocket. "Here. The embedded drug will remain stable and inert until activated through close proximity to human breath. I'm sure you have more effective methods available to you in your future, but this should do what you need it to."
"All I need is the element of surprise. It should give me that. Thank you." He looked from one to the other, drinking in the details of their concerned features, the cut of their clothes, the scent of their skin. He was going to lose them again, he knew. Alice and Charles – and all of the others over all of the years – had been family once, as dear to him as any on his current team... but their books were closed, their stories done. He was a constant, but they were not, each giving way to another until finally they reached those whose tales were not yet told, those who were a part of his present...
And hopefully his future – for as long as he could hold them, at least.
The past was past, those consigned to its pages lost to him forever. He understood that now, understood it far too well. Alice and Charles were a part of his history, dead and gone. Alice and Charles... and Gray.
He could only hope that the lesson had not been learned too late.
"Thank you," he said again, closing his eyes against the light and against the tears that suddenly threatened to blind him. "I'm ready."
His team was depending on him.
# # # # #
Time slips away once more, not into death but the chill, unknowing sleep of the frozen. Beyond the confines of his cold stone sarcophagus, the world retraces its steps through a century of blood and fire, pain and prejudice. Lives end and lives begin and the town above him grows, becomes a city, a capital, a focus for a nation's pride. He has lived this time once and now he waits –
– no movement, no motion, held fast in ice as if in amber, the future a promise written in frost –
– waits for it all to catch up to him, waits for the circle to close, for his time to come again. Bound in duty, in determination, in love, he rests and he waits...