A Tyranny of Clocks

Submitted into Contest #125 in response to: All clocks suddenly stop. Write about what happens next.... view prompt

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Drama Fiction

The clockmaker’s mansion overlooked the town. Built on the foundation of a scorched castle, she’d inherited the home from whose window she now watched the sky deepen over the sleepy town. She was tired, too. A full-night’s rest didn’t enter her musings, though–not anymore...

Taking a last sip of tea, she laid down. She didn’t change into bedclothes–she didn’t own any. They seemed pointless and inconvenient, given her nocturnal routine. The town looked sleepy, but she knew better. There, tonight, time would start, stop, or do both; it would change, and she would have to answer its call. She’d inherited her occupation and reputation, also.

*******

“It’s not fair,” Mara whispered. Night air brushed her cheeks, cool where it gentled away the wet. Kneeling beside her brother’s freshly-covered grave, she stared–with red-rimmed, raw eyes that had no more water to give–at a pocket watch. A breath shuddered from her. She kissed his name, delicately engraved on the back of the timepiece, clenched her jaw, and glared toward the dark, looming mass on the hill.

“Never again,” she said, fire in her voice.

*******

“Catherine.”

She sighed in her sleep.

“Catherine,” the voice came, again–whispered, although he knew she was the only one there. A few years ago Catherine Duncan had told him he could come in as needed and given him the only key, other than her own, but he still didn’t like to startle her. “It’s the Bigelows. They need you.”

“Of course,” she answered. The words were flat: no hint of aggravation or sarcasm; only the weariness that laced her awakenings more and more.

She swung her legs off the bed, sitting up in the same motion. She slumped forward, allowing herself another shoulder-collapsing sigh before she stood and searched for her shoes.

“Thank you, Raymond,” she said as the constable lifted the shade higher on his lantern, better illuminating the room. Taking her low-heeled boots from underneath the bedside table, she spoke as she buttoned her feet inside. “Who? Is it Matilde?”

“Old Pearly,” came the matter-of-fact reply. Then more softly, “They were expecting Matilde first, too, but he took a turn for the worse just this evening. …Matilde won’t be far behind, will she, Cat?”

“No.”

She straightened, checking that her hair was still secured in her customary low side knot. It was. The constable had been amazed, the first time he’d come into her house to wake her: she was as polished in sleep as she was awake. But as he’d come increasingly often, he’d seen the reason: she had to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice; and slept so intermittently, these days, that in repose she was nearly comatose and unmoving.

“Raymond?” Her eyes shifted to the closed door nearby. “I need the water closet before we go. Is there time?”

“Go. –I mean,” he corrected quickly, “yes. Of course.”

One corner of her mouth inched up, and she lowered her eyes.

“Thank you,” She opened the door and stepped inside.

“I’m sorry, Catherine. I’m used to giving orders. I don’t really know how much time we have–I know you like to be there with them, if at all possible, …and he’s close. I was thinking about time more than manners.”

“It’s alright, Raymond. You didn’t offend me,” came the answer from the other side of the door.

He shifted his weight and rocked up and down.

“Do you have Pearly’s watch handy?”

“No. I didn’t expect him, tonight. Would you fetch it from the Town Room? Please?”

“Right away.”

Heavy bootfalls on the wooden floors announced his descent.

Raymond sniffed at the familiar odors drifting into the basement hall from two of its three rooms. Grease, paint, and burned metal wafted from the Workroom, and a mustiness of ancient things from the Chronologium. Only the Town Room held the crispness of frequent visits, without the tang of horology. 

Using the key hidden atop the doorframe, he let himself in. The knob jiggled as he opened the door. Raymond frowned, but continued inside. Lifting the lantern, he gazed into the plethora of baubles that dangled from the ceiling like the branches of a willow. There, concentrated in the center of the large room, was a scaled map of the entire town, surrounded by emptiness in anticipation of its growth. From the position of each person’s dwelling hung a timepiece. 

Near the end of Tanner Street, the constable carefully detached a watch bearing the name Percival James Bigelow from its chain. He stared at the words, rubbing his thumb across them.

“We’ll miss you, Old Pearly.”

He glanced back, then carefully removed Matilde Bigelow’s watch, also.

As he pocketed them, a sound came from the Workroom. Raymond froze, listening. He was in the clockmaker’s basement, and no other living thing should be. Sealed tighter than a wine barrel, the Timekeepers hadn’t wanted even mice to enter the rooms.

“Catherine?” he called. No answer. Stepping toward the Workroom, he closed the door behind him and replaced the key.

The Workroom was open, as usual, but he tested the doorknob, anyway. It was secure, its key on the frame, as it should be. The room appeared normal–as far as Raymond could tell by the single lantern light. A wide room, its tables contained piles of metal gears, pins, springs, and shafts, all in a variety of sizes, as well as paints, faceplates, hands, casing pieces, etc. In one corner was a cabinet whose open doors showed shelves bearing wood, sheets of gleaming metal, glass, etc. There were tools strewn everywhere, but that wasn’t unusual: Catherine left her implements wherever she finished with them.

After a long moment, Raymond sighed. Catherine had shown these rooms to no other living soul, and they needed to get to Pearly. 

Swinging the lantern one final time and seeing nothing, he returned upstairs to find Catherine waiting by the door.

*******

Mara listened at the basement door for the others to depart. She hadn’t expected Constable Edgars, but his self-assured clomping had given her enough warning to hide before he made it down the stairs. The door to the first room–it appeared to be the clockmaker’s workshop–had stood open, but the other two were locked. She’d just started to make headway prizing off one of the knobs when she’d heard him coming. She’d darted into the open room and hidden under a table. 

She’d had to douse her lantern, and hadn’t landed on a suitable hiding spot in the blindness that followed. As her eyes adjusted, Raymond Edgars had gone into another room–by his own lantern’s glow she’d seen where he found the key–so she felt her way around the room until she came to the doors of a cabinet. 

She’d tugged one open, hoping to hide within; but it had scraped, just giving her time to duck between the open door and the wall before Edgars entered. She was glad her shoes were worn and dull: if they’d been new and shiny, they’d have reflected his lantern and given her away. As it was, he’d swung the light, again, then returned to the clockmaker.

Mara gritted her teeth at the thought of what they must be doing. Everyone knew what it meant when the clockmaker–or Timekeeper, as she was officially called–left her house. Mara didn’t know if someone would die or be born, but she knew who’d decide. That’s what Timekeepers did.

As a child, Mara heard whispers about the family of clockmakers as she’d picked pockets in the market square. She and her brother had compared loot–their mother finishing the washing for one of the town’s prominent families–and she’d pestered him until he explained the gossip.

“No one knows where they came from or how they got their powers, but the Timekeepers run this town. They’re magic. Somewhere in the old castle dungeons, they make clocks for everyone here–have for centuries. Each one has a name on it. When they start it, you’re born, and when they stop it, you die. Everyone,” he’d nodded.

“They run this town, alright. And if anyone gets in their way, they stop that one’s watch. Try to steal from ‘em, cheat ‘em, or even cross ‘em,” he snapped his fingers, “and you’re dead. Just like that.”

It hurt to remember. 

She’d doubted the stories; but when their mother passed away, the Timekeeper arrived, watch in hand, just before she died. Mara started watching the clockmakers. 

One was there when Mara’s neighbor had her babies, and when Mr. Tucker’s ancient father had passed. Two had been at the Sutton farm on the night of the fire–this woman and her father. They’d come before the fire brigade even got there, so Mara’d heard, the whole family’s watches in tow. They sold clocks at the market and gave a watch whenever someone was born or moved into the village, –Mara assumed that’s how they kept up their facade as respectable artisans, –but they always brought one of their own when someone died. 

People gossiped about the clockmakers, but most got on well with them. Afraid not to, Mara assumed. She’d feared them. 

Then her brother’d been murdered. Executed, the town said, but Mara knew the sentence hadn’t mattered: it was ultimately up to the Timekeeper. Mara’d seen her hold his watch as he’d died. She’d even nodded to the bailiff to take him down. 

Mara’d only half-believed the stories when she’d popped the latch and sneaked into the mansion through a darkened back window, and when she descended the stairs she found as she peeked behind doors. She’d still doubted when she encountered two locked rooms in what did, indeed, feel like the cool of a dungeon.

But when Edgars held up his light, and she saw the dangling mass of timepieces, her blood ran cold. It was true. The life-controlling clocks were real.

One step into the room proved it: a watch for everyone in town, all running…for now.

“What if a watch breaks?” she’d asked her brother.

“They fix it,” he’d shrugged. “You’re fine until one of them stops it. The magic only works for them.”

She looked at the town modeled before her. The clockmaker wouldn’t lord over it anymore. Mara would save it.

*******

Catherine dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and Raymond sniffed as they started the long trek back to her house.

“Thank you, for bringing Matilde’s watch, too,” Catherine said as they trudged. “I should’ve thought of it. I’m glad you did.” She gave him a faint smile, then her eyes fell to the ground before her feet.

“Yeah, well. Truth is, I didn’t want to have to trek to your house and back, again,” he said, returning the smile exactly.

Silence stretched until Catherine yawned, and swayed on her feet. He caught her by the shoulders, steadying her, and looked sharply into her eyes.

“Cat, you can’t keep doing this.”

“I’m fine,” she said, swaying, again.

“No, you’re not. Look at you! You worked today–I know you did, you always do–”

“I have to–you know that. I have to keep the clocks running and have new ones ready–”

“--and you just sat up for hours with a family in mourning. You’re moving at a snail’s pace and you’re falling asleep walking! If you keep this up, you’ll die.” 

She twitched, and he felt his fingers pressing her shoulders. He sprang from her immediately.

“What’ll we do then, eh? With you gone. You’re the only Timekeeper left,” he said, and stepped to resume his place beside her.

“I know.” It was a whisper, but at least she was more alert, now. “I should be able to do this. My family has for centuries, nearly a thousand years, now.”

“Really? That long?” genuine amazement in his voice. “And you have them–the clocks, I mean. You’ve seen them?”

“In the Chronologium,” she nodded. “But I don’t have them all. We lost hundreds when the old castle burned a few centuries ago. Some survived. In the basements. That’s why they’re kept there. It was a good move, I think.”

“And the memories?”

“Still there. I haven’t seen all of them, but some. Especially from members of families lines that’ve ended or all left town. I can’t know if their clocks still exist elsewhere, but I can make sure their memories stay in our copy.”

“Preserving the memories from an entire village is too big a job, Cat. You can’t keep this up.”

She breathed an exhausted laugh.

“But I should be able to! You think I’m the first to be the sole Timekeeper?”

“No, but the village wasn’t nearly so big for the others.”

The argument fell away from her lips. Raymond was right, and she knew it.

“The clocks have to keep running. If they stop, the memories fade and we can’t get them back. We can never watch them, again. Not your parents’ memories, not mine, no one’s. It’d be like losing them again.”

Raymond stared at her for a long moment, then dropped his head and nodded.

“I’ve thought about taking an apprentice,” she said, at length.

“Good.” He looked at her long and steadily. “Who?”

“The man that was hanged, last week. He has a sister–”

“Mara. I know her,” the constable said, grimly.

“She’s a pick-pocket, I know. But she’s young–about fifteen, would you say?”

“As if you didn’t know.”

“Yes, well,” Catherine said, with a grin. “She’s sharp–”

“Sharp-mouthed.”

“--and those light fingers could be good for working with delicate gears.” Her steps were getting heavier. 

“She grew up on the streets. There’s no telling what she’s heard about the clocks.”

“Yes, but I could foster her–give her a home and show her the truth. She’s old enough to help, at least during the day, once she’s learned the trade.” She laughed, and her eyes started to close. “I might sleep, again, or have a life outside clocks. Maybe get to live my own, instead of mark everyone else’s.”

“Cat,” he blocked her wavering steps, hands back at her shoulders. He sighed, and fixed her with another hard stare. “That kid’s got a chip on her shoulder. Understandable, yes,” he added before Catherine could. Her blinks were getting longer, and they weren’t yet at the foot of her hill. “But she’ll be difficult.

“That said,” he swallowed, and took her hands in his, “if it means keeping you, I’m for her.”

Still blinking, Catherine blushed with a slow smile. However, it quickly faded to a frown, her brows drawn together over the bridge of her nose.

“What’s that?” she nodded toward the distance behind him.

Turning, he saw the building ahead of them, as the night sky beyond glowed an eerie red. His eyes widened and his jaw slackened.

“Oh, no…”

The color drained from Catherine’s face.

“Oh, God! Raymond?!”

He was at her side as they raced through the town and up the hill to the inferno at its crest. When they reached it, the entire mansion was engulfed in flames. 

Catherine tried to scream, but the force of it lurched her toward the scaffolded blaze in a fit of retching coughs. Raymond caught her before she hit the ground, still struggling for breath.

“No!” she sobbed, when she could breathe, again. “It can’t be! It can’t!” She sank to her knees before the hell-scape that had been her home. The village’s memories, her family’s legacy, her own past, present, and hopes for the future incinerated.

Raymond bent to her, but a commotion drew his attention. A young woman in singed, ash-streaked men’s clothing was forced toward them in the grip of two officers: Mara, hysterical flames dancing in her eyes.

“I did it!” The words lashed out of her mouth. “I stopped you!” She spat toward Catherine.

“What?” roared Raymond, lifting Catherine to her feet.

“We found her by an outside door throwing these down the stairs,” answered an officer. He unstoppered a label-less glass bottle and held it out to Constable Edgars. Raymond winced at the smell and his eyes watered. “Rotgut. It’s a wonder she ain't burnt worse than she is. From the way she was throwing when we caught her, looked like they’d be landing in the basements.”

“What have you done?!” Catherine said, with desperate rage. 

“Saved this whole, bloody town!” Mara frothed. “You’ll never own us, again, you witch!”

Before anyone could respond, the mansion’s western wing collapsed into the basement, sending a geyser of flame into the turbulent atmosphere.

Catherine’s scream caught in her throat, as she started toward the fiery remains. Raymond caught her, but barely.

“Cat, no! …They’re gone.” he gentled his voice by her ear, but clenched his teeth.

Mara laughed hysterically, then stopped, choking, at Catherine’s livid glare.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve cost us?” she asked.

“Cost us? I saved us. What gives you the right to say when we’re born and when we die? My brother hanged for killing a man, but you’ve killed hundreds! You killed my brother–I saw you! You stopped his watch and he was gone

“I know the stories. I saw the room! With all the watches? Don’t bother trying to get to anyone–I smashed ‘em all before I set the fire.”

“No…” Catherine paled and shook her head.

“Them, and the ones in that other room–once I got the door open.” Struggling against the men holding her arms, she scanned the gape-mouthed faces around her, eyes wild. “There was another room. Did you know that? It had thousands of clocks. Probably people Timekeepers killed to control this town. 

“But I broke the magic. I stopped the clocks before you could! All of them!

Those are just stories!” Catherine cried. “I’m a Timekeeper, a historian! I record births and deaths. When someone dies, I catch whatever memories I can from them in running clocks. They let us see those that are gone. My parents, your parents, …your brother.

“You stopped the clocks! You didn’t save anyone. You lost them…for all of us.”

December 25, 2021 04:42

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