"You ever wonder if we're really doing any good?" Joe asked, one evening. Just the two of them, him and Methos, alone at the bar. Afterhours, the lights mostly out, and a half-bottle of whiskey between them on the table. Just the right time, in hours and alcohol, for the doubts to start creeping in, and the wondering.
Methos looked up at him curiously from his contemplation of his own hands, slouched back, feet stretched out to the side and balancing on two legs of his chair. Insouciant, incautious, uncaring. Or so one would think, to look at him.
"Pardon?" he asked, lightly enough, watching Joe out of the corner of his eyes. Oblique, as per usual. Was nothing ever straightforward, with this man?
"The Watchers," Joe clarified, realising belatedly that 'we', here, between the two of them, could cover an awful lot of things. Life had become real complicated, of late. "I mean, when you think of everything we've done ... I've done, here with Mac ... You ever wonder if there's any point to the Watchers? If our ... our history ... If it's really worth anything? For us, I mean. Hell, for the Immortals." He frowned, nudged the glass a bit, fingers playing idly in a spill as he looked down, away from the far-too-penetrating stare suddenly pointed his way. "Not going to make much difference to the Game, are we?"
Methos didn't answer, not for a long, long minute. Long enough for Joe to look up again, long enough for him to watch the immortal's eyes go distant and vague. Not a flashback. Or at least, not the kind of flashback Joe watched Mac have. He wasn't sure, after 5000 years, how that kind of thing worked for Methos anymore. But he thought this was something else. Something he recognised. A researcher's consideration. The thoughtful pause of someone who's been there.
"The Game isn't everything," Methos said, at last. Head tilted back, still staring out at something beyond the ceiling, voice contemplative and heavy. "And history ... remembrance ... It means more than you might think." He looked down, tilted his head sideways to flash Joe a tiny grin. "The pen is mightier than the sword, Joe."
Joe snorted. Inelegantly, but it was a fools game to try being elegant around Methos anyway. The man was simultaneously on of the most graceful figures in the room, and one of the most vulgar. Joe, he was just going to have to settle for the vulgar. "Is that so?" he asked, rhetorically. "Given the last few fights I've seen, I'd have to question that one, Old Man."
Methos just smiled, sphinx-like, serene. "As I said. The Game isn't everything." He rolled sideways, dropping his chair to the floor and gathering his legs under him, focusing now on Joe, smiling at him with glittering eyes across the table. "Shall I tell you a story, Joe?"
Joe squinted at him warily. He knew that look. He knew that look all too well, and it should have warned him, years ago, seeing it on the young, innocent face of Adam Pierson. That hungry light in the man's eyes, that mysterious smile. He remembered that look, alright. You couldn't trust a word out of the man's mouth, once that look came into play. But ... He nodded, despite it. What the hell. Lets hear him out.
Methos grinned, a sly flicker that said he knew exactly how thin the ice on which he skated, delighting in it. For a supposed coward, the man could be damned reckless, in his own, calculated, very specific way.
"Once upon a time," the Immortal purred, grinning at the look of disgust Joe shot him. "Once upon a time," he continued, undeterred, "in a great and prosperous river kingdom, there existed a cult. A group of men and women who were the devoted followers of something they considered a god, and others considered a demon, but that was common enough in those days. One man's god was often another's demon. This cult, though small in number, was great in influence, secretly favoured by a number of members of the royal household. Slowly and steadily, over the past two generations, this cult had been gaining in power, looking to become the official religion of the kingdom. They were well on their way to succeeding.
"But their success was not won without bloodshed. Was not without price. The enemies of their faith, those who spoke out against it, were often ... dealt with. In secret, or increasingly, as the years passed and the cult grew in power, openly and with prejudice. The power of the cult was bought in blood, of innocents and enemies alike."
"Hnh. Sounds familiar," Joe grunted morosely, glaring down at his drink. Methos flashed him a small smile, a flicker of something dark and wry and old on that youthful face. There were times, knowing what he now did, that Joe wondered how anyone had ever mistaken this man for a youth. How anyone had ever thought he was young. Even the damned Watchers, who were supposed to spot these things. How had they missed him?
"It's a story as old as civilisation," Methos agreed quietly, still with that sphinx-like smile. "Most of the great stories are. They play out, over and over again. You'd be surprised, really. How much things change, how little difference there really is. But we digress. May I?"
"Work away," Joe answered, with a cavalier wave of his hand. Not wanting to stop the flow now, even if he didn't see how this actually related to anything. But he wasn't ever one to stop Methos, famously close-mouthed, from revealing some snippet of his past. Presuming, of course, that that's what the story was, and not simply some fairytale. But either way ... "Don't let me stop you."
"Never," Methos grinned, with a sketched little bow and a far too knowing smile. "Now, you must understand, for this next to make sense, that it was an article of faith for this cult that their god was manifested on earth by the calling of his name, and that only true believers were to know that name. That way, the god was only summoned by those who deserved his attentions, and would act only in his people's defence."
Joe frowned, suddenly. "This god ... We're not talking about something real, are we? I mean ... not like ... Ahriman?" A few years ago, he wouldn't have asked. A few years ago, he wouldn't even have thought it. But, well, that was a few years ago. And Methos, rather than dismissing the question, only frowned.
"I don't know," the ancient immortal mused, eyes going distant again. "At the time ... at the time, all gods were real. People knew gods were real. Whether or not it's real now is another question, and one ... one I don't know the answer to." A shadow flickered over his face, a dark wondering, and he muttered, almost absently, "It would make it all the more cruel ..."
And Joe knew, in that instant, knew then, that this story was real. That even if it was a fairytale, with all the names changed to protect the guilty, it was still real. And Methos had been there, or at least known who was.
"Anyway!" Methos came back, smiling brightly in a way that reminded Joe forcibly of Adam, of the bright young kid he'd thought the man was, once upon a time. "Whether or not the god was real, he was stupid. In his name, his cult decided to do a very, very foolish thing. They turned their attentions to a young family, living on the outskirts of the kingdom's capital. The patriarch of this family had spoken against them in the past, and the cult decided that this family was to by made an example of. Their power had grown such that they could do so publicly, with fire and terror, and not fear retribution. At least, not from the kingdom.
"But they made a mistake. And that mistake was the daughter of the family's new husband. A pale stranger from the north, a childless man, who married her after her first husband's death, to help support her and her children. A man who loved her very greatly, who loved her children very greatly, even her father, for all he thought the man foolish and loud, for speaking of such dangerous things. A pale man who, when the people of the cult fell upon the house in the night, fought back, with great ferocity, and was killed for his troubles. A man who, the next morning, awoke in the scorched ruins of the house."
"An immortal," Joe said quietly. Of course it was. The only question was, which one? And Joe ... thought he might know the answer to that.
"An immortal," Methos agreed, grinning faintly at the eager look Joe knew he was wearing. That sly, mysterious smile, teasing as always, and then ... then Methos apparently decided to throw him a bone. "One that's not mentioned a lot in the Chronicles, but you can find references to him in the older ones. Not by name. By a title. A title he earned in this very story ..."
"Which is," Joe interrupted pointedly, glaring at the man's grandstanding.
Methos snickered at him. "You'll see in a minute. Patience, Watcher. You don't want me to spoil the ending, do you?"
"I don't know. Are you ever planning to get to the ending?" Joe shot back, grumpily. "This isn't Arabian Nights, you know. Drawing it out isn't going to save your life, and might cost you in beer if you don't hurry up ..."
"Then by all means," Methos grinned, wrapping one elegant hand protectively around the bottle in front of him. "Lets finish up. Now, this man, this immortal the cult had rather mistakenly targeted. This immortal did not react at all well to the deaths of his family. To the deaths of the children he'd come to love as his own." Darkness flickering, once again. Oh, Joe was no fool. No fool at all. "But unfortunately for the cult, this immortal was no youngling. He wasn't some inexperienced warrior looking to take vengeance on the edge of a blade. This immortal was older, and more subtle than that. This immortal knew that a sword would only buy him so much vengeance, and no sword, no matter how sharp, could defeat a god. So this immortal, angry and patient, decided to pursue a different vengeance.
"First, he waited. Years, a full half-generation, the death of one king and the crowning of the next. He waited, while the cult grew in power around him. Waited, and watched, and when enough of them had forgotten the pale man whose family had burned, he acted.
"He took a job as a scribe, as a writer of histories, and ingratiated himself into the royal family by writing a most flattering history of the now-dead king, insinuated himself into the good graces of the new one with promises to do the same for him. Years, this took, long years, but the immortal was patient. He had all the time in the world to cement his power, to cement his influence. And to learn, in the intervening years, everything he could of the cult, of how far it reached, of every noble and merchant and hall-sweeper who blessed the name of that god. He learned, slowly and patiently, and in time insinuated himself into the cult. In time, professed to be a believer, took the initiations, took part in the ceremonies. Killed, even, as his family had been killed, to prove his loyalty. There was nothing this immortal would not do, in pursuit of his quest. And eventually, some thirty years after the loss of his family, thirty years in which he had wormed his way into both the royal family and the cult ... the immortal took his vengeance."
There was a pause, for a moment, as Methos took a sip of his beer, wet his throat and gathered himself, and blinked to find Joe staring at him, with an expression that would have done Methos himself proud for inscrutability.
"Thorough, this immortal," was all he said. Was very carefully all he said. Methos smiled anyway. A cold, quiet, unpleasant sort of smile.
"You have no idea," the Old Man murmured, with a dark curl of his lip. "Trust me, Joe. You have no idea. But, since we're already here, I'll give you one.
"This immortal, this scribe, now trusted advisor to the young king, had gathered quite a following himself, over the years. A very carefully chosen following, among those nobles quietly resistant to the cult, among the servants and the sweepers and the slaves. And that following, over the course of one night, in the darkness, fell on those high-ranking members of the cult that lived in the palace. Slaughtered them, almost to a man, as thirty years before a pale man's family had been slaughtered. A night of blood and fire, but only the beginning, only the tip of the immortal's vengeance. It was the next morning, and the next few weeks, that the full extent of his plans were revealed.
"For among that careful following had been the mother of the new king. Among the voices that spoke beside his, this lowly scribe, was a Queen, and generals, and a King himself, young and untried, and desperate to please the man who held power to write his history. The man who would decide how this king was remembered. And when the cult stood up to protest, to cry vengeance for the blood of the night, that king turned on them. Ordered his armies into the streets, following the information that the scribe had so faithfully gathered, and pulled them from their homes and their places of worship. Name after name were given to the king, to the soldiers, and name after name were hunted down and destroyed. By king motivated not by a sword, but by the promise of a pen, and the weight of history.
"And then, the final act of vengeance. For the pale man, the scribe, remembered the foundings of the cult's beliefs. He remembered their god, who could only come to earth at the calling of a people who knew his name. And when the last of them were gathered, the last of the leaders, the scribe went to them, and he said:
"'When you are dead, when your blood waters the soil as the blood of my family did, I will go to your houses. I will go to your temples and your tombs. And I will destroy every scroll, will carve out every name of your people, of your god. I will go to the histories, and wipe out your names, wipe out every mention of your people, will destroy every memory of you and your god. With fire and chisel, with brush and ink, I will wipe your names from history, and lock your god forever from this earth. I will make him a nothing, in destroying his people. I will cast out his name from the world, and make him meaningless. I will make everything you have worked for, everything you have bled for, everything you now die for, worth nothing.'
"And they screamed at him, wept as they went to their deaths, but the scribe did not care. The scribe did not hesitate. And the scribe kept his word. Over the years and centuries that followed, patient as only time could make him, he wiped out every stone, every scroll, every tomb carving and graffitio that mentioned the name of the god, of the cult. Even over centuries. He wiped a people from history, as fully and completely as if they'd never been. First, until only there was only the knowledge that something existed, and had been destroyed, enough that those who Watched immortals even then gave him the name, knew what he had done. And then, over the centuries that followed, until there was no memory even of their destruction, no memory that they had even existed at all, and even his name became unexplainable, an artefact without meaning.
"An immortal written about in the older Chronicles, without name himself. Nameless, Destroyer of Names."
Methos paused, there, sucked in a breath as he came back to the present, as his eyes lost that distant sheen of an immortal lost in memory, and refocused on Joe. Who stared at him, in something close to horror, in something close to awe.
"Sweet Jesus," he whispered softly, and watched something wary flicker in the immortal's eyes, something rueful and fearful and wry. Something that knew, that knew full well, its own darkness, and never once apologised for it.
"The pen is mightier than the sword, Joe," Methos said softly, with that same strange smile. "What people remember, what they write, matters. It can destroy a people. It can destroy a god. It can carry a king forward into history as a great ruler, or a despot, and it can spur a king to act to ensure which. It can justify anything, build anything, destroy anything. What people write matters.
"And so do the Watchers. So do we, Joe. No matter who wins the Game, no matter who fights and dies, who wins or who loses. What we write matters. The histories we write matter. Because three hundred years down the line, a thousand, five thousand ... what we write is all that's going to remain of the people who fought here and now. What we write ... might be the only thing that tells us what the winner is worth."
"And what if what we write doesn't make it five thousand years down the line," Joe said at last. Not quite accusingly, not quite a question, but damn. And Adam Pierson, and Methos, a Watcher ... "What if someone decides, sooner or later, that the names we write need to be wiped away. That the histories we write need to be changed. Huh? What then?"
And Methos smiled. Nameless, Destroyer of Names, he smiled a sphinx's smile, raised his beer in silent toast, and didn't answer. Didn't say a damn thing.