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RUT

 

Project Paranormal

Author:  Jo

Season 1

Story 3

 

**

 

Rating: PG12

 

Summary:  It’s rutting season for the deer.  Unfortunately, just sometimes, other beings have a rutting time, too.  That makes it a special rut.  Humans get horny.  Slayers get horny.  And vampires get… well, read on.  And there’s other sorts of trouble at t’ mill for humans too.  It’s a dangerous time, when these other beings want to start looking for partners…  And what are all those teenage girls up to in the wilds of Wessex?  What about Giles’ girlfriend?  Just who is she?  Can Angel and Buffy save the day, before any real damage is done?

 

**

 

 

RUT

 

The barn owl flew close enough to him that the pinions on its outstretched wing almost brushed his cheek, but he sat so still that it never knew he was there.  He watched it, ghosting silent and white over the hillside, hunting for small mice and voles.  It was late out – barn owls were more often seen at dusk – and he thought it might be a youngster, hungry for food and territory.  Like him.

 

Oh, he wasn’t a youngster, not by a long chalk, not unless you started counting from his resurrection, but the rest was true enough.  Giles had offered him a refuge – much against the Watcher’s better judgement, he was sure – but it could only ever be a temporary arrangement, a stopgap.  This wasn’t his home, his territory.  Like the owl, he would have to find somewhere, but that wasn’t here.  For one thing, Giles still couldn’t stand the sight of him.  He didn’t show it in public, of course; he was much too well bred to do that.  But whenever they were in the same room, Angel was almost knocked over by the scents of disapproval and distaste.

 

And then there were all the Slayers.  He’d told Buffy that he could look after himself, that they weren’t a problem for him, but that had been a downright lie.  It was one of the very few he had ever told her.  Slayers could sense a vampire, their mortal enemy, and vampires could sure as hell sense a Slayer – at least, one as old as he most certainly could – and the presence of all of them was rasping his nerves raw.  It wasn’t only the reaction between vampire and slayers.  They were teenage girls, with rampant hormones.  The demon within was raging, twenty-four/seven.

 

Then, too, there was the hunger, the sheer overwhelming craving for blood.  It was every bit as bad as it had been when he was newly risen.  Over the centuries, his blood requirement had decreased, even if his blood lust hadn’t.  Before… before he’d been dusted (and it still hurt too much to remember that night), he’d needed comparatively little blood.  Now, he needed several pints a night, far more than Giles provided.  He was too ashamed to say he needed more, all too well aware of the look of disgust, however fleeting, that would mar the Watcher’s features.  So, he’d taken to making alternative provision.  He’d no idea why he needed so much – whether it was a consequence of his return from death, or whether it was some side effect of the presence of so many slayers.  He just knew that he was hungry all the time, and that he had an ever-present urge to sink his fangs into their necks and suck down their powerful blood.  Monster.

 

Worst of all, though, was Buffy.  Her nearness was driving him to the edge, every primal sense urging him to reclaim her as his own.  Every day was torment, and yet now, having spent so much time with her, he couldn’t imagine not seeing her each and every night.

 

A nightjar chirred nearby.  They weren’t common around here, and, summer visitors that they were, they wouldn’t be around much longer.  Like him.

 

It was long past time to move on.  The fact that he had nowhere to move to was irrelevant.  Like the last swallow, he’d outstayed his welcome here.  He leaned a little further back against the bole of the oak tree, burying his fingers in the cool turf.  Over the last few weeks, he’d formed the habit of coming out to these hills for some peace and solitude; to regain his lost balance.  Despite the need to leave Westbury, despite all the very good reasons why he simply had to go, he knew very well that in his present state of mind and body, long term aloneness might be a very bad thing indeed.

 

The barn owl came back, silently inspecting a new line of turf, watching for any tiny unaware creature going about the nightly cycles of life.  Like him.

 

The night was young yet, but he’d have to go back to his flat soon.  Buffy would be there by now, expecting to see him.  Further up the hill, he heard the slight rustle as a deer moved through the small copse of trees.  Summer was fading into autumn, August about to give way to September.  Already the stags and bucks were starting to bell.  He heard them in the pre-dawn, just as he was preparing for sleep.  Most of the red deer in the West Country were on the moors, Exmoor and Dartmoor, but there were odd scattered herds across Wessex, and there were fallow and roe aplenty.  He knew where they all had their territories.  They had, after all, been feeding him for weeks, although he’d never drunk them to death.  Soon, the stags and bucks would be in full rut, completely seized by the male imperatives to establish territory, to stake their claim to females, and to mate.  Like him.

 

It hadn’t been as bad as this at first – surprisingly, almost normal, in fact – but lately, things had begun to change.  He wondered, not for the first time, if he’d come back… wrong.  That was stupid.  He’d always been wrong, but perhaps he was even wronger.  He should go, before he did any more damage.

 

He had money.  Not a lot, but enough.  It had taken a while for his credentials to be re-established at the bank that Angel Investigations had used, and when Giles had realised this, he had given Angel an allowance for whatever he might need.  Pocket money.  That had… stung.  But now, he had access to his own funds, and there was no reason to stay, and all those reasons to go.  A tiny movement stopped his train of thought, diverting him to something much more primitive.  The movement became more confident, and a rabbit hopped out of the hole dug into the root area of the oak.  A glimpse of vampire speed, a flash of fang, and the animal had not even had time to scream before it was dead.  Drained.  Here in England, it was cooler than in California.  In Los Angeles his body, at ambient temperature, had been almost normal body heat most of the time.  Here, he was colder to the touch, and he hated Buffy to feel him that way if her hand happened to brush against him.  He hadn’t had time to hunt down a deer tonight, and Giles’ horses were definitely out of bounds, but even this pitiful amount of hot, living blood would course through his veins, warming him just a little.  He hoped it would be enough.  He tore the carcass of the rabbit into small pieces, and tossed it over the turf for the owl or some other predator to find.  Monster.

 

He almost stood up to go, when he saw two cars draw up in a lay-by on the road at the foot of the hill.  Settling back against the tree, he waited a little longer.  His patience was rewarded when four figures emerged around the bend in the road, heading straight for the two stationary cars.  He knew who they were instantly, without needing to see their faces.  Well, what they were, at least, since he’d never been able to differentiate the individual parts from the mass.  Four of the slayers were loose.

 

It was clear from their behaviour that this wasn’t the first time, and he wondered what they were getting up to.  Perhaps Buffy would have to wait a little longer.  He stalked down towards the two Japanese-made 4x4s.  There were two young men in each.  Bad.  This was going to be so bad.

 

Vampires are built for speed, not long-distance stamina, and he lost them after about 5 miles.  It seemed clear that they were heading for Bath.  Not the bright lights of a capital city, to be sure, but a busy tourist city, where they could get into a lot of trouble.  He set off back to Westbury, trying to remember that this couldn’t be their first time out.  He’d be better prepared tomorrow.

 

************

 

Out in the woodlands, moors and pastures, the deer were becoming restless.  Many a tree carried fresh scars, witness to the stags’ frantic need to rid themselves of the velvet that had protected their new antlers.  Now, as the blood supply dried up, and that soft skin started to *itch*, they set about the task of turning those antlers into deadly weapons, rubbing off the protective coating until it hung in tatters from the tines.

 

Elder stags marked out their territories and gathered up their harems.  Younger stags eyed up the competition and then returned to the practice bouts of the bachelor groups.  For now.

 

************

 

Buffy had been waiting for him in his room, as he knew she would.  She’d been shopping that afternoon, and had bought him a new sweater.  Dark red, the colour of old blood.  He thanked her gravely and took off the black one he was wearing so that he could put on her gift, as the demon whispered to him to sink his fangs into her throat, to let the blood run over her golden body, to find the moment when it matched the colour of the wool.  He didn’t miss the look of naked need that painted her features when she thought that pulling the sweater over his head had obscured his view.

 

They spent the next couple of hours talking, and not talking, exchanging memories and thoughts, yet giving away nothing at all.  Throughout the conversation he sat, calm, gentle, strong, *dependable*, as he clung onto the tatters of his self-control, and thought the demon’s thoughts.

 

**************

 

 

Angel woke suddenly, aware of someone in his room.  It’s never wise to wake the dead unexpectedly.  His instinct was to leap, but whether that would have been towards the intruder, or away, he didn’t want to think.  So, obedient to these years of living with a family of humans, he remained still.  It was one of the slayers.  He dredged through his memories to try and recall which of that mass of noisy teenage girlhood this one was.

 

“Laura…” he hazarded.

 

“Elaine.”

 

She moved closer to him.  A vampire should never let a slayer catch them lying down, and so, slowly and unhurriedly (never show fear to a predator), he got out of the far side of the bed and reached for his dressing gown.  He gave silent thanks that he was at least wearing the pyjama bottoms.  He scrubbed his hands through his hair, and it took him a moment to feel what time it was: less than an hour after dawn.  No wonder he felt thick-headed and slow.

 

“What do you want, Elaine?”

 

He remembered her now.  She was one of the older teenagers.  She was one of those who had been out last night.  She moved silently around the end of the bed, and as she did so, she called back over her shoulder, softly, ‘Vi.  He’s awake.’

 

A second slayer came in.  Another one of those from last night.  He stood his ground (never show fear…) as they both came nearer.  He could smell booze and cigarettes; and something he was damn sure was a banned substance; and desire, which just now he fervently wished *were* a banned substance.  Whatever they’d been doing, they’d just got back.  At least they weren’t holding stakes, although he was afraid that they had something almost equally disastrous in mind.

 

“I said, what do you want?”

 

It was Elaine who answered.

 

“We want to find out what Buffy sees in you.” 

 

Vi giggled, but Elaine’s smile was entirely that of a predator.  He considered his options.  A smack down with two slayers, even if they were still under the influence, in the flat previously occupied by Giles’ mother’s chauffeur, would not sit well with the Watcher.  He wished he weren’t just wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown, but things were never perfect, were they?  They were once, the demon whispered.

 

He stalked over to them, and took Vi by the shoulders, turning her back round to face the door.  She was the more tipsy of the two.  She would be easier.

 

“No.  Out.  Now.”

 

He part pushed, part carried her back towards the half-glazed door.  A thick curtain hung in front of it, but its eastward exposure was still going to be a problem.  As he hesitated for a moment, Vi pressed backwards against him, and then he felt Elaine pressing herself against his back, wrapping her arm around him and running her hand up his chest.

 

Male instinct, vampire instinct, and an instinct for self-preservation all warred within him, and he could feel his demon face trying to surface from the battleground.  Then footsteps sounded on the wooden staircase, and the door was thrown open.  Buffy.

 

He could imagine only too well the picture that was presented to her, and he closed his eyes against the look of pain and anger on her face.  He felt that he had to say something, anything, but only a single word came out.

 

“Buffy…”

 

The word that he made of her name was filled with the anguish and despair natural to a man so out of his depth; a simple and heart-felt plea for help.  Help me now.  Now.  When he looked, the pain was gone, replaced by amusement.  The barely-concealed anger remained, though.

 

“You two.  Out.  Now.”

 

Elaine was brazen.

 

“Why?  You can’t have him.  Why shouldn’t we?”

 

Anger won.  It took Buffy no time at all to bustle the two of them outside.  She shut the door behind them, and turned back to him, her expression nonchalant.

 

“Looking for a younger model, hm?”

 

She could have kicked herself when she saw the hurt flash over his face.  She hadn’t meant it, she’d simply been trying to lighten the moment, and so she gave him a quick, impulsive hug.  That only made things worse.  She jumped away as if his skin had scalded her.  She never knew how close he was at that moment to losing his own control, but she knew very well how close she’d come to losing hers.

 

“I… I’ve had trouble sleeping much after dawn lately, and I saw them in the courtyard.  When they came up here, I just followed.  I… I thought you might have a problem with them.”

 

She felt as if her tongue had cleaved to the roof of her mouth.  Just the sight of him, like this, and everything else fell away.  He nodded his thanks.

 

“I’ll let you get back to sleep, then…”

 

She moved towards the door.

 

“Um, Buffy, will you be needing the Mini tonight?”

 

“Why, Angel?  You off on the razzle?”

 

He smiled.  “Not a chance.  Just something I want to check out.”

 

“Okay, I’ll leave the keys in.”

 

He desperately wanted her to stay, but settled for letting her go.  Again.

 

****************

 

When dusk made it safe, he crossed the courtyard to the main house.  Under Giles’ watchful eye, he regularly helped in the training of the slayers.  It was one small way of paying the Watcher back.  No, not the Watcher.  He was so used to thinking of Giles that way that it was hard to remember, sometimes, that the Watchers were gone.

 

This session, the atmosphere was charged.  He and Buffy demonstrated some Tai Chi techniques, but all the time, he was conscious of the stares of all those slayers, and the aroma of teenage hormones.  When it came time for the slayers to try the movements out for themselves, he handed over to Buffy to correct them, and left the house with almost unseemly haste.  After a quick shower and change, he headed for the Mini.  The keys were, as promised, in the car.  So was Buffy.

 

“So, Angel, we going anywhere nice?  I like this house, but I expect England’s got a lot more to offer.  Something a bit livelier, maybe?”

 

He gritted his teeth against the taunting of the demon as he eased into the driver’s seat.

 

“Buffy, go back and see to the girls.  Please.”

 

“No.  Something’s bugging you, and has been for a while.”

 

He remained silent, and the fear inside her grew.  No matter how long they’d been apart, no matter that death – and worse – lay between them, they knew each other absolutely, without needing to know anything at all.  And she knew that he was troubled.  She almost held her breath, waiting for an answer.  She’d been afraid for a few weeks now that Angel would one day disappear into the night and never come back.  Again. 

 

He felt his hands tighten around the steering wheel.  He’d fed before going to the training session, but he was hungry again.  He could hear her blood pounding through her veins, and the aroma of blood and Buffy was clouding his senses.  It was too much, after the close proximity of the slayers.  He was out of the car and out of sight before she could move.

 

Half an hour later, a female roe deer, compliant and yielding – one would almost say bewitched – provided him a meal of fresh, living blood.  He had enough control not to take too much.  He went back to the house – more slowly than he had fled it – and found the car where he had left it.  So was Buffy.

 

He sat back down in the driver’s seat.  She didn’t look at him, just stared down at her hands instead.

 

“I thought… I thought that perhaps, this time, if I stayed where I was, you might come and find me again.”

 

The simplicity of that statement almost broke his heart.  If he had a heart to break, he reminded himself.

 

“Buffy, nothing has changed.” 

 

“I know.”

 

Just me, he thought.  I’ve changed.  I’m becoming more of a monster.  He tried to focus on tonight, now, and what he had intended to do.  Perhaps he shouldn’t do it alone.  After this morning’s encounter with the girls, perhaps he *really* shouldn’t do it alone.

 

“I… Please, can we not talk about this now?  I’m just having trouble… adjusting.” 

 

That should satisfy her.  She would know that feeling.  She, too, had been dead.  He saw the twitch of muscle as she almost put out her small hand to cover his large one, but she didn’t.  He didn’t say anymore, simply started the car and took them off into the night.

 

************

 

Giles lowered himself thankfully into the old leather armchair in his study.  It was worn and battered, the deep green leather scuffed in places, and studded with tiny pinpricks where the cat had kneaded the arm, but it was still supremely comfortable, and so he kept it.  Even when his mother had still been alive, and living here, this had been his study.  His father had been dead for years now, and there was little trace left of him in this room of books, papers and arcane artefacts.

 

The slayers had all been packed off to bed, with the exception of Buffy who seemed, unusually, to have taken the Mini and gone out, and now he had a little time to himself.  He opened up the evening paper, the Bath Chronicle – this was the first opportunity he’d had today – and steeled himself to search it for the increasingly frequent ‘weird and whacky happenings’, as the paper described them.  Many were just the normal silly season stories, but some were of concern to him. 

 

The front page caught his eye.  There was something else that was becoming increasingly frequent.  Muggings, robberies and burglaries.  No one seriously hurt yet, and mainly low value items taken.  The common opinion was that this was the work of kids, but it just wasn’t the sort of thing that happened in Bath.  Still, that was a perfectly normal problem, just the sort of thing a police force was employed for.  He started to hunt for the things that he was, well, not employed for, but that were his area of expertise.  As he did so, he tried to forget that the vampire in the ex-chauffeur’s flat was out every night.  No, he was being unfair.  That really wasn’t something Angel would sink to.  He was allowing his continuing resentment of the vampire to cloud his judgement.

 

Or perhaps he was just feeling rattled.  He thought there had been an unusual amount of interest shown by the slayers tonight when Angel had demonstrated the Tai Chi movements.  They were always interested, of course.  He was a vampire, after all, but Giles had to concede that he was unusually graceful and good-looking.  Of course they would be interested.  They were growing teenage girls, and perhaps that made it more imperative than ever that he find some alternative accommodation for them.  Or for Angel.

 

But, something else had happened tonight, he was almost sure.  The vampire had left with something like indecent haste.  Buffy had gone shortly afterwards, leaving Giles to supervise the end of the session and pack the girls off to their rooms.  Hoshi, normally one of the more retiring of the group, had hung behind a little.  She had turned those large brown eyes on him, and started to flirt.  He might be a bumbling librarian, but he thought he still recognised flirting when it hit him between the eyes. The arch, come-hither looks, the sultry pout, the reluctance to leave.  Definitely flirting.  More trouble, and he had no idea what to do about it.

 

************

 

The slayers all gathered silently in the largest bedroom.  They knew Buffy was out, but they didn’t want to attract attention from Giles.  Giles had kept the master bedroom, although it was currently more like a master lumber-room, stacked with his possessions, as he had moved things from other rooms to make way for them.  At first, it hadn’t been too bad – they’d had five bedrooms between eighteen of them, including the flat over the garage.  Then Buffy and Angel had come, and Giles had given Buffy a room all to herself, albeit the smallest one, and Angel had the coveted garage flat.  Then, a few weeks ago, Sadie had arrived.  Now there were nineteen of them crammed into three rooms.  They had devised their own way of easing the accommodation squeeze.  Summer vacation just added to the fun.

 

They were drawing lots.  Last night had been the turn of Vi and Elaine, the ringleaders in this piece of mischief, and two of the others.  Tonight, the honours would go to Laura, Sarah and – here, everyone groaned – Vi and Elaine again.  A hurried phone call, and the four girls were climbing out of the bedroom window onto the roof of the breakfast room below, and then running across the grass down to the road.  Game on.

 

**************

 

There was nothing in the Chronicle to concern him, thank heavens.  Giles reached for the glass of wine, and enjoyed the heady flavour.  Then he reached for the telephone.  He often called Ella late at night.  They didn’t necessarily talk for long, but he enjoyed hearing her voice, her gentle laughter, listening to her calm good sense.  He’d seen a lot more of her before Angel came, but he remembered only too well what had happened to Jenny.  He remembered well enough to still have nightmares about it, to walk into his room, and still see her lying on his bed, even though it had been a different bed, a different room, and a different continent.  He knew he’d never forget.

 

Oh, logically, this wasn’t Angelus that he’d invited into his home.  But he looked the same, and it was hard to keep reminding himself of the difference.  He was sure that there had been no… relationship… between Buffy and Angel since they’d been here.  They both seemed too damaged to be able to open themselves out to each other.  Perhaps too much stood between them for that ever to be a possibility again.  He could only hope that it was so.  And, because he was a decent man, he hoped it for both their sakes.  But, the fear of what might happen if… that fear just gnawed at him every single day.  He couldn’t risk Ella.  Not like Jenny.  And so he went to see her at her house, or very occasionally took her to his flat in Bath.  Most often, now, though, he talked to her on the phone.  Her voice seemed to soothe all his cares away.  He dialled the number, and she answered on the third ring.

 

When they’d finished, he almost forgot to ask the one piece of business he needed to check out.

 

“Oh, Ella, I almost forgot.  Have the Coven found any more potentials?”

 

“No, love.  Sadie is the last.  It took us so long to find her because she’s only got some aspects of a slayer’s power – Willow’s spell must have just started to work on her when we managed to stop it from propagating further.  We’ve found them all, we’re sure of that.”

 

He breathed a sigh of relief.  There had been many more potentials, of course, but the agents of The First had killed hundreds.  More had died in the final battle in Sunnydale.  A total of nineteen teenage girls was more than enough, though.  They were all older than Buffy had been when she was called – no doubt a legacy of Buffy’s exceptionally long run as the Slayer – and he really didn’t want any more.  It was going to be hard enough helping this many to make a life of their own on the battlefront between humans and demonkind.

 

He said his farewells to his girlfriend, then, and settled back to brood a little.

 

*************

 

The four slayers and their four escorts tripped and giggled their way up the stairs of the upmarket apartment block in Bath, struggling vainly to be silent.  It’s hard to be seriously stealthy when you’re seriously tipsy.  Elaine dug into her pocket and took out the spare set of keys she’d found.  The keys to Giles flat.  After several false starts, she managed to get the door open, and they all tumbled in.

 

There was a gentle ‘tink’ of glassware, and then the boys were pouring the champagne they had carried up the stairs with a great deal of exaggerated care.  The four couples were on their second glass each when the door opened once more, and another slayer walked in.  The Slayer.  Buffy.

 

“The car’s downstairs.  You four, get in there now, three in the backseat, none of you are driving.  Boys, choose which car you want to get home in, and you’ll be driven back.  You can pick up the other car when you’ve sobered up.  All of you.  Out.  Now.”

 

The boys fidgeted, but the slayers held on to them, and glared at their senior.

 

“And what if we just say no?  There are all of us, and just one of you.  We’ll come back to Westbury when we’re ready.  You can’t make us go back if we don’t want to!” 

 

That was Elaine.  Buffy looked thoughtful.

 

“Can’t I?  And who says I came alone?”

 

She walked back to the door and opened it wide.  Angel, looking big, solid and very sober, leaned against the opposite wall, arms folded over his chest, glowering at the teenagers.

 

“He… he can’t come in here.  You can’t invite him.  This is *Giles* flat!”

 

That was Vi.  She’d always been mouthy, Buffy remembered, even back in Sunnydale when they were fighting for their lives.

 

“You want to bet I can’t invite him in?”

 

In view of the tangle of relationships between them, Buffy reflected, even Angel hadn’t been sure whether she could, and so they had adopted this strategy.  It was so much more impressive than having him bouncing off an invisible barrier, particularly to a bunch of drunken teens.

 

“You don’t know nearly enough about him, Vi.  And anyway, we didn’t want to break up Giles’ flat.  You *are* coming out, though.  Or maybe you’d rather face Giles, or the police?  Instead of just Angel and me, I mean.  Tell them, Angel.”

 

Angel held up the fingers of one hand and started to tick them off.

 

“One.  Great Pulteney Street.  Pickpocketed a middle-aged man, taking one brown leather wallet containing cash and credit cards.

 

“Two.  Gay Street.  Breaking and entering.  Bag full of CD’s and DVD’s.

 

“Three.  York Street.  Fenced the credit cards, CD’s and DVD’s.

 

“Four.  Half a dozen pubs and clubs, then onto here.  Need I say more?  Oh, and Buffy?  All the girls have been here.”

 

He returned to his silent position propping up the wall.  Buffy smiled admiringly, then looked back at the uncomfortable teens in front of her.

 

“Nothing quite like a … Angel for snooping out what someone’s up to.”  She’d almost forgotten the boys.  She hoped they didn’t know things they shouldn’t.  “We’ve talked this over, him and me, and we really, really hope that this crime wave that seems to have hit Bath this summer is definitely going to stop.  Do you think we can rely on that?  From all of you, including those not here?  Or do we have to take more… close up action?”

 

At her words, Angel straightened himself up and loomed even more large in the doorway.  The boys were completely out of their depth, and the girls weren’t drunk enough not to realise that they were in serious trouble.  The bluster turned to peevishness.

 

“You have no idea what it’s like, all of us crammed up into those rooms, while you get a room each.  And we hardly ever get out.  And when we do, we’ve only got pocket money to spend.  We need a life!”

 

Buffy was about to retort that she knew about all those things – she doubted that the memory of those weeks spent with slayers squashed into every nook and cranny of the house at Revello Drive would ever quite leave her – when her sense of justice made its presence felt.  The girls were right.  They had less of a life than she had ever had.  It wasn’t fair.  What the girls had done wasn’t fair either, but the original problem needed to be recognised.

 

“I’ll speak to Giles and see if we can… arrange something.  OK?  But I don’t want you saying you’d forgotten this little conversation, so I’m going to see all of you, tomorrow.  All of you.”

 

That was how she came to take them on a night run, under a huge and heavy summer moon, almost at the full.  Angel went with them, at her request.  She paused in a newly mown hayfield, the fragrance of the drying grass warm and comforting around her.  The teenagers panted to a halt – she’d run them long and hard, with Angel silently bringing up the rear.  When they had been together, he had always had her back.  She wished that there weren’t so much keeping them apart, so much that prevented them even being friends.  Perhaps Spike had been right, after all.  Perhaps they never could be friends.  She wished more than she ever had that somehow, things between them could be made right.  It was that knife-sharp thought paring away her rational mind, combined with the intoxicating scent of him, standing next to her, that made her more acerbic than she had intended.

 

She made it plain to the assembled girls just what she and Angel had found in Bath the previous night.  The revelations were met by a stony, resentful silence.  Her temper snapped.  Afterwards, she thought it must have been that, or she would never have said what she did.

 

“Now look!  You want to spend your time in a police cell, be my guest.  You want to carry on drinking, stealing, smoking some sh.. stuff or other, be my guest.  Angel will know.  You’d be surprised what a vampire knows.  He’ll…”

 

The harsh pressure on her arm stopped her.  Angel was gripping her just above the wrist.  He moved to stand in front of her, face to face, and oh-so-close.

 

“No, Buffy.  Leave this to me.”

 

She started to protest, but he shushed her, bending down to whisper in her ear.

 

“No, not like this.  Go back to the house, and let me handle it.  Please.”

 

His voice was warm and reassuring, and his nearness seemed to be right, to be what she needed, even though it stoked the fire in her blood.  She took a few deep breaths, and saw how she had almost made a very bad mistake.  Angel could never be seen as her sniffer dog.  These girls must have more respect for him than that.

 

“You listen to him, or you’ll listen to me.”

 

Then she was gone.  The little knot of girls started to break up.  When he spoke, his voice was harsh, so unlike his normal dark brown tone.

 

“Don’t move.  You’re thinking you can take me?  Dream on.  You’re thinking that you’re all so much stronger than me.  After everything that’s happened, you have no idea at all how strong I am.”

 

Well, he thought wryly, that’s the literal truth.  And neither do I.  He hadn’t tested himself to destruction, yet.  He had no idea whether he had new limits.  He just knew that he felt different.

 

“Buffy won’t hand you over to the police.  Neither will Giles.  She knows they aren’t equipped to deal with you.  We are.  If we find that any of you have been abusing Giles’ trust or acting like idiots, we are the ones who will deal with it.  And I promise you, we’ll punish you in a way appropriate to silly schoolgirls, and you won’t like it at all.”

 

There were some embarrassed sniggers.

 

“If I find you’ve been doing stuff you shouldn’t, I won’t rat you out to either of them.  I’ll simply do what needs doing.  You know, it won’t bother me at all to beat you in a way appropriate to silly slayers.  Some of you were in Sunnydale, so you know the reality of life as a slayer.  I hope you’ve shared all that with those who’ve never seen that, who’ve been lucky enough to come later.  You know that it’s dark, and dangerous, and that you always have to put duty and responsibility ahead of personal feelings.  Always.  What you don’t know is how lonely it was for the only Slayer, carrying all that by herself.  Now, there are more of you.  You can help each other.  You’re important to humanity.  You protect them from the things that normal protectors can’t.  You aren’t here to be one of the dangers.

 

“You are important, yes, but I’m not saying this just for you.  I’m saying it for Buffy, and for Giles.  He deserves more from you.  He’s taken you into his care, to help you face a life that would get you killed without the likes of him.  Now shape up!”

 

He paused, to gauge the girls’ reactions.  There was some embarrassed shuffling of feet, but he could still scent resentment.

 

“I know that some things still suck.  But, Buffy has promised to talk to Giles, to help him work through some of the problems, and she will.  Now, if there are any more keys to Giles’ flat anywhere, I want them given to Buffy tonight.  I’ll leave you to reflect on that.”

 

And he was gone.

 

That was how, while the girls were all out cooing over the two horses, Buffy came to be talking to Giles the next morning about the need for the slayers to get a life.  Strangely, he seemed to take her seriously.  Strangely, too, a middle-aged man found his wallet pushed through his front door, complete with money and credit cards, a young couple woke up to find their CD and DVD collection wrapped into a neat parcel behind the back door, and a certain fence found that quite a lot of his stock had disappeared.  Four sets of newly cut keys appeared in Buffy’s room.  Angel slept much better that day.

 

**************

 

When Ella arrived at the teashop in Trowbridge, Hilda was already there.  She’d ordered a pot of the house’s special blend of tea, and a selection of cakes.  It wasn’t at all unusual for them to meet here, even considering the matter they were about to discuss.  There were only a few customers scattered around the room, none in earshot, and in any event, all that anyone would hear would be the homely noises of the china and some meaningless small talk.  Hilda would make sure of that.  A simple charm would do the trick.

 

Meeting at Hilda’s had too many difficulties attached.  The other members of the Coven were there, and the magic they were working required all their concentration.  Hilda wanted to discuss with Ella the task she needed the younger witch to perform.  Here was as good as anywhere.  The ground the shop stood on was good, welcoming land, ready to bestow its blessing on schemes conceived on it.  Schemes with a true heart, anyway.

 

She sat down opposite the older woman, and to anyone outside the small bubble of the charm they became no more than acquaintances talking of all sorts of mundane matters.  Inside, though…

 

“How is it going?”

 

Hilda grimaced.  The magic being worked by the rest of the Coven was uncertain, demanding and difficult.  And they were working in the dark.

 

“Until we find out exactly what’s wrong, it won’t go at all.”

 

Ella smiled at Hilda’s acid retort.  The Coven had no leader as such, but Hilda was the leader they didn’t have.  She had the largest heart of any witch Ella had ever met, but you’d never know it from her forbidding countenance and utterances.  Hilda relented a little.

 

“We need you to come back as soon as you’ve done this.  We cannot find the cause of the disturbances, nor can we predict what’s going to happen next, except that *something* will.  And it’s becoming clear that beings… powers… I don’t know what… are pushing at the boundaries of our dimension, and that is somehow linked to the disturbances.  It’s all so… hazy.  We have to be able to see more clearly.  We need all thirteen of us.”

 

“Tell me what you want me to do.”

 

Hilda did.  It took Ella a few moments to consider what had been said, and then she asked, a little faintly, for another cup of tea.  Hilda reached over and took her hand.

 

“You have to manage Rupert in this.  He won’t like it, but it has to be this way.  You understand, don’t you?”

 

Ella did, indeed, understand.

 

“He hasn’t even told me that Angel is there.  Instead of inviting me around, he now takes me to Bath, or comes to my house.”

 

She paused for a moment, and Hilda refused to fill the silence, recognising that there was something else troubling Ella.

 

“Hilda, do you…do you think that he will ever get over Jenny?”

 

“No, Ella, I don’t, and nor should he.  It was a tragedy.  But time softens everything.  The fact that he still loves her and still regrets her death does not prevent him from loving you.  That is why he’s keeping you away from Angel.  He loves you, and he wants you to stay alive.  This has to stop, though.  If Angel is to do the things he needs to do, then we have to help remove the hurdles in his path.”

 

Ella nodded, comforted just a little, and then prepared to take her leave, to put Hilda’s plan in place.

 

Hilda stayed where she was for just a few more minutes, tempted by the remaining tea and a last Florentine.  She watched Ella make her way out of the shop, a striking figure with her Celt-red hair, her creamy skin and her brilliant green eyes.  Ella’s magic was strong, if she could just have the confidence to let it go.  Ella would, eventually, be the one to replace her when…  No, there was no point thinking about that.  There was enough to think about now, with supernatural phenomena cropping up with increasing strength and frequency, powered by something the Coven had so far failed to positively identify; what’s more, some unknown but alarmingly powerful entity appeared to be pushing at the walls of this dimension, intent on ripping through them, presumably to claim this mysterious power.  Or possibly not.  They really had little idea at the moment.

 

The vampire was part of the solution.  How and why, Hilda hadn’t the faintest idea, just a few words of not-so-ancient prophecy.  She reflected sourly that prophecies were tricky things.  They were living things, too, adapting to changing circumstances, *evolving*, without altering a word.  Tricky.  She was intent on making things rather less tricky, if she could.  That was why the Coven had held on to both of Angel’s spirits, soul and demon alike, when he was staked.  That was why they had placed him, for safekeeping and for renewal, in the only being that could achieve that.  Connor.  Everything was connected, but those two more than most, whether they liked it or not.  And the Slayer was the other half of the equation.  That, too, had to be dealt with.  And it would be.

 

*************

 

When Angel rose the next evening, he almost didn’t go across to the house.  He drank his meal, trying desperately not to gulp it, but it was several long minutes before he could master the roaring in his blood, and the flood of hormones and pheromones that threatened to bring the demon out with a vengeance.  It was getting worse.

 

For the last two nights, part of him had revelled in being out with Buffy, in being back in action with her, in using his strengths to fix things for her.  And part of him had wanted to fix a lot of other things for her.  Much darker things.

 

When he did go across the courtyard, hunger assailed him the moment he opened the door and was met by the many-hued aromas of teenaged slayers.  Almost immediately, though, he was mercifully distracted by the sound of a car coming up the drive.  He heard it long before Giles did, and it was Angel that opened the door for the visitor.

 

He didn’t know who she was, but he knew what she was.  Oh, she was a witch, he could tell that, but she was also Giles’ girlfriend.  He knew that from the trace of her scent that Giles often brought back with him.  He never told Giles, though, because it was all too easy to imagine how it might creep the man out, as Buffy would say.

 

He stood back silently to let her in, wishing that he’d not come over, understanding instinctively that Giles had deliberately kept her away because of him.  She crossed the threshold, though, and paused for a moment, surveying him, a red-headed beauty such as he’d seen before in the Celtic nations.  She carried a self-assurance and an inner power that reminded him of Jenny, and he almost cringed.  Before he could, though, she stuck out her hand and introduced herself.

 

“Hello.  I’m Ella.  You must be Angel.  Is Giles here?”

 

Startled, it was a moment or two before he could respond, and shake her hand with an endearingly old-fashioned formality.  Before he could speak, the kitchen door opened, and Giles strode through.  His face darkened as he saw who Ella was talking to, but he greeted both of them as cordially as he could.  Ella looked amused.  There was silence for a few moments, as each waited for one of the others to speak.  Angel was about to excuse himself – there was no mistaking the Watcher’s body language and, anyway, simple manners dictated that he make himself scarce when someone came to visit Giles.  Just then, though, Buffy came downstairs and along the hall to the frozen little tableau by the door.  Once more, Ella held out her hand.

 

“Buffy?  I’m so pleased to meet you.  I’m Ella.”

 

Then she turned to Giles.

 

“Rupert, I’m so glad everyone’s here.  I’ve come to talk to you all about a little job that needs doing.”

 

Defeated, Giles ushered everyone into the study, closing the door firmly behind him.

 

************

 

Ella was more nervous than she looked.  She’d bearded Rupert in his den, forcing a meeting with his two visitors, and now she had a difficult task to manipulate.  She was ushered to Rupert’s own leather armchair, and Buffy was given a smaller chair, which stood by the wall.  One other chair remained, which Angel left for Rupert, whilst he himself went to stand by the wall, almost in the corner, apart from and a little behind the group.  That would never do.

 

“Angel.” 

 

She made her voice confidant, commanding.  “I’m not going to get a crick in my neck whenever I want to talk to you.  Either fetch another chair in or come and sit on the arm here.”

 

She saw Rupert’s face harden and, from his position, Angel couldn’t have missed it either.  For a moment, it almost seemed that the two men locked antlers in some metaphysical way, testing each other’s strength.  She held her breath.  Bad time of year, she thought, well aware of the march of the seasons.  Rutting time.  Then the vampire gave way to the man.  Angel came over to the small circle and sat down on the floor, between Buffy and Giles, his arms wrapped around his upraised knees.

 

At least he’s in the circle, she thought; that’s better than nothing.

 

“You’re aware of the folklore surrounding the chalk figures?”

 

Angel and Giles nodded, but Buffy looked mystified.  Ella started further back.

 

“Buffy, for thousands of years there has been a tradition in England of cutting figures into suitable hillsides.  All around here, and on towards the east, there are chalk downs.  Take off a turf of grass on those downs, and the soil underneath is pure white chalk.  Remove a whole pattern of turf, and you have a figure that can be seen for miles.  Uffington has a White Horse; Wilmington has a Long Man, and so on.  There are different traditions about what those figures represent, but for some of them, similar beliefs have arisen over the centuries about the power those figures have.

 

“Three of them in particular are said to be fertility figures.  Women spend the night there to ensure their fertility.  Couples go there to ensure conception.  This has gone on for centuries, and now something has changed, gone wrong if you like.”

 

It was Giles who responded, a little diffidently.

 

“Ella, we’ve dealt with a lot of different things between us, but fertility problems are a little… er… outside our sphere of expertise.  I would have expected it to be more your thing.”

 

He was blushing now.  She nodded reassuringly.

 

“Yes, Rupert, it really is.  Mine, and all the other witches.  This isn’t about fertility, though.  Or not entirely,” she amended.  Honesty was an abiding fault with her.  “There have been incidents recently.  Visions, nightmares, girls attacked, men dragged away from their girlfriends.  And no one else in sight.  Fortunately, no one has been badly hurt yet.  Frightened, yes, hurt, no.  But it’s getting worse, and we know what it is.  It’s something definitely within your sphere of expertise.  You know about the Seely and Unseely Courts?”

 

Again, Angel and Giles nodded, and Buffy looked puzzled.  This time it was Angel who explained.

 

“Non-humans have wars, just as much as humans do, and often for the same reasons.  A very long time ago, the faeries warred amongst each other, and it almost finished them.  They lost too many of their number, too much of their power, to resist the spread of humans through their territories.  They ended up in two separate courts, with different allegiances.  There’s the Seely, or Good, Court, which is said to be headed by the Queen.  Then there’s the Unseely, or Wicked, Court, headed by the King.  Good and wicked are, of course, relative in these things.  I think they’re just different, not better or worse.”

 

“Faeries…” Her smile was soft, as she thought of all the tiny beings she had seen pictured in her childrens’ books.  Ella reached out to her, and put her hand over Buffy’s.

 

“No!  They aren’t little flowery beings with wings.  These are serious beings, Buffy, with a lot of power.  And they have no reason to feel well-disposed towards humanity.  You need to understand that.”

 

The Slayer frowned in concentration.

 

“So, what has this to do with these chalk figure things?”

 

“Sometimes the Courts come together,” Ella replied.  “Faeries are long-lived.  They don’t have many children, perhaps only one a century.  But, when it’s the right time for the King and Queen, everyone’s affected, and hormones run wild at both courts.  There’s a leakage between their world and ours.  Now’s the time.”   Rutting time.

 

There was a brief instant when no one in the study was quite prepared to look at any one else, and then it was Buffy who asked the question.

 

“So, what’s likely to happen?  Everyone starts feeling horny for a bit?”

 

“If that were all, it wouldn’t be a problem.”  Ella threw a quick look at Angel, who couldn’t meet her eyes.  “Or, not much of a problem, anyway, certainly nothing we couldn’t deal with, and help others to handle, where necessary.”  She continued to look directly at Angel, and he knew that remark was directed at him.

 

She knew he was affected.  When she’d shaken his hand – a greeting, yes, but a test, too – the power had been rolling off him.  His skin had almost scorched her, in a supernatural sense.  Buffy had been affected, too, although not so much yet.  The King always came into season before the Queen… She assumed the other slayers were starting to feel the heat, as well.  It couldn’t be allowed to run its course.  Who knew what would survive at the end?

 

“There’s a lot more, to it.  You will have heard of the stories of changelings, where faeries are said to have stolen human babies and left their own children in their place.  That’s nonsense.  Faerie children are too rare and precious to abandon like that.  The bachelors of the King’s Court – and it’s largely a bachelor group – are all influenced by his need to mate.  Many will go to the Queen’s Court, where most of the female faeries are, but some of them prefer to come here, and find human women, willing or otherwise.  The King does nothing to stop them, and so there will be women in the human realm who will finish up carrying half-faerie children some time next summer.  Some may be left here, but others will be taken back to the King’s Court to raise those children and act as servants. 

 

“At the same time, some of the faeries from the Queen’s Court will take a fancy to a human male, and will tempt him away to father her child.  He won’t be seen again.  None of this can be allowed to happen.”

 

“How do we stop it?”  Buffy’s question was directed to Giles, but it was Ella who answered.

 

“Someone has to go to Court and bind the King and Queen to prevent this.  They control their subjects.  They have the power.”

 

“Very well, then.  Tell me what preparations we need, and you and I will do it tonight.”

 

Ella smiled gently for her lover.

 

“No, Giles.  It isn’t something that you and I have the power to deal with.  This is something only Angel and Buffy can resolve.  They are already connected to those Courts, and that will make the passage possible.  Isn’t that right?”

 

Giles started to expostulate, but Ella put her hand on his arm and shushed him.

 

“Isn’t that right?”

 

Buffy looked sheepish, and said nothing, but she didn’t need to.  Her expression said it all.  Angel looked relieved.

 

“I… Yes, I didn’t know what it was, but I’ve been feeling… well, these last few weeks have been, um, difficult.  I’ve been thinking that perhaps I came back… different, wrong.  Well, wronger, if you know what I mean?”

 

Ella reached out and took his hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.  This was not lost on Giles, but he held his peace on that, at least.

 

“Angel, you may well have come back different, but you certainly haven’t come back wrong.  Believe me.”

 

Angel looked expectantly at her, willing her to say more, but she wasn’t drawn.  Hilda was right.  These two needed to find out whether everything that had come between them had driven them too far apart for a reconciliation to ever be possible.  They needed to do that before complicating matters any further, and they needed to do it by themselves.

 

Giles cleared his throat to break the moment.

 

“So, how does this need to be done?”

 

“Buffy and Angel need to sleep together on one of the chalk figures.”

 

“No!”

 

“What!”

 

“Um…”

 

*************

 

Outside the study door, Vi and Elaine were straining to hear what was said.  The slayers knew who Ella was, of course, and they knew that she hadn’t been here since Giles had brought the vampire and the older Slayer back from Los Angeles.  It looked as though interesting things might be happening.  But even with the sharper hearing that slayers had, the door was still too sturdy, and all they could hear was unintelligible mumbles.  Until now.  Now, there was uproar, with everyone talking at once, sharp exclamations of denial and outrage.  Very interesting.  If only they knew what had provoked it…

 

************

 

“Listen!”

 

The tone was peremptory, and Ella stood up, glowering at all concerned.

 

“I don’t mean *that* sort of sleep together!  I mean go and sleep, in the same place, on the figure!”

 

“No!  I will not permit it.  You don’t understand the dangers, Ella…”

 

“You think that Angel will lose control?  After all the time he’s been here, with Buffy?”

 

“Well… Yes!  The pressures, if things are as you say… The magical effects… You and I should do this.”

 

“No, Rupert.  We haven’t the strength, and anyway, this is the very reason why it *must* be them.  We are human and couldn’t withstand the hormones.  They already have done.  Both of them.”

 

The argument raged on, with Buffy and Angel as unwilling observers.  It was, as expected, Ella who won.  It was Giles who had the last word, though.

 

“Very well.  But they won’t go alone.  They will take two of the slayers.  Just to be certain.”

 

Ella could have cursed, but she knew Giles well enough to know when he had found his obstinate streak.  And so it was agreed.  The pair, accompanied by two of the slayers, would set off soon after sunset on the next night.

 

Giles got out some of his books, and found pictures of the chalk figures.  He showed Buffy the sweeping elegance of the White Horse, and the mysterious stance of the Long Man.  He had meant to leave it there, but she turned over the page and uncovered the attributes of the Cerne Abbas Giant.  Relieved that the arguing was over, she pointed to the club-wielding figure.

 

“Well, if we’re after hormones, that looks like a good one to try…”

 

Giles scoffed.  “That’s a fake. It’s generally held that it was only cut in the eighteenth century, as a joke.”

 

Ella shook her head.  “No, that’s the one.”

 

At Giles’ look of puzzlement, she continued, “It was cut in the eighteenth century, but what the monks who did it never knew was that there was a much older figure there, already.  It was a different one, but that doesn’t matter.  It’s a place of power.”

 

She pointed to a small rectangular feature above the giant’s head.

 

“That’s an earthwork called The Trendle.  In later years, the town’s Maypole was set up there, but before that, it was the site of the autumn Wicker Man.  It has accumulated so much power that you will be able to access the Courts there.”

 

Giles snorted in disapproval.

 

“Wicker Man!  As if anything good could come from the place where those were sacrificed.  There must be a better way, Ella!”

 

“Whoa!  I need more explanations.  I’m going into culture shock already – you guys just have so much *stuff* over here…”

 

Ella smiled a little at Buffy’s despairing cry, and leafed through the book until she found a picture.  It was a huge, hollow, wicker figure.

 

“The people believed that they needed to make offerings to the gods, to celebrate the changing seasons and to help the cycle of life, death and rebirth.  Each autumn equinox, a figure like this was filled with straw, and with offerings from the harvest, and sacrificed by fire.  The Wicker Man represents the spirits of vegetation, the cycle of fertilization, growth, maturity, and death, the cycle followed by all life on earth, no matter how long that might take. The dried stalks of last year's growth are burned and returned to the soil to prepare the way for new growth. Death is always linked to the emergence of new life. Everything enters the fire and is transformed.”

 

“It wasn’t always straw and vegetables, was it Ella?  Sometimes it was animals.  Sometimes it was people.  Tell them about the spring Wicker Man.”

 

“Never here, Rupert.  I promise.  We would know.”

 

She flicked back through the pages until she found a map, and she showed them, with the use of Giles’ ruler, how a ley line ran through the area; straight as an arrow, it cut through the old abbey at Cerne Abbas, through The Trendle, and then on to other earthworks, sites of old settlements, and ancient barrows.  It didn’t quite touch the Giant.

 

“The monks put the Giant very slightly in the wrong place.  That’s good for us.  The King’s power would be too great, his hold over you too difficult to challenge, if you were to summon him by sleeping on a figure that sits on a ley line.  Yet you need the power to give you access.  This is ideal.  By following ancient tradition, and sleeping on the Giant, you will attract the attention of the Courts.  You can get there through the power of The Trendle, and you can get back through The Trendle, as well.”

 

Angel had a dreadful feeling of foreboding.

 

“What do you mean, get there, and get back?”

 

“You’ll be creating a sort of portal.”

 

“Ella, I really don’t know…”

 

“Angel.” 

 

Her voice was gentle again.  She knew how Angel must feel at the prospect of using a portal after what had happened only a few weeks ago.  Apart from the massive trauma of the whole affair, he’d been so ill, both when he’d been bespelled, and again when the spell had been removed. 

 

“It isn’t quite the same – you won’t need Mildred to make you portal sensitive again.  The faerie realms aren’t in different times, or different dimensions, simply in different perceptions.”

 

“Mildred?”

 

“Yes.  She’s a bit strange, isn’t she?  Still, I suppose a life spent being called Mildred might turn anyone’s brain.”

 

She chuckled mischievously.

 

“Did she call you names?”

 

Buffy answered for him, frowning at the memory.  “She called him ‘creature’.”

 

“Well, that’s good.  That’s a positive endearment from her.  She calls me a brazen Irish hussy, even though I’ve never been to Ireland, and neither have any of my family…  She doesn’t get out much any more.  We look after her, but I’m afraid the Meals-on-Wheels ladies will insist on taking her lunch every day.  You should hear what she calls them!  ‘Wheelèd Boudiccas’, I heard once.  She’s got a good heart, though, and she’s a very powerful witch.  She idolises Hilda.”

 

Angel smiled to show his gratitude for Ella’s humorous recasting of what had been a strange and humiliating experience.

 

“So, Buffy and I go to sleep on the figure, and a portal, or similar, opens.  How do we get out again?”

 

“I’ve got something in my car to help with that.”

 

As she tugged open the door, Vi and Elaine were revealed, guilt written all over their faces.

 

“Um, we were just going to the kitchen… erm, glass of milk.” 

 

The girls fled.  No one followed.  When Ella returned, she carried something that everyone else was familiar with.  A sword.

 

“The faeries can’t abide iron, so they can’t touch this.  You can use it to anchor the portal.  Sink it straight into the ley line.”

 

Buffy eyed the weapon fondly.

 

“Can’t we just, you know, do away with the Faerie Courts?  If they can’t abide iron, it would be simple…”

 

“No!”  Ella was shocked.  “No.  All you need to do is nudge things back into balance.  To kill the Courts?  That would destroy the balance that we work to maintain.  There would be wars for centuries to come, to fill that power vacuum.”

 

Angel understood.  Buffy smiled at him, to show that she, too understood.  As the new Slayer, she had had a very simple and uncomplicated view of things.  Experience had taught her that things were otherwise.  She understood, well enough, now.  Sometimes, you kill what seems evil, only to find that it was holding back a worse evil.  No, things weren’t always simple, nor were they always what they seemed.

 

*********

 

The moon was full and heavy as it slipped down over the horizon, wrapped in the mists of dawn.  The bachelor herds were growing restless as the season marched on.  The king stags were fresh just now, strong.  But the hinds were fresh, too, ready for mating.  Close to Westbury, the cycle of the rut, already heightened this year by the power of the King, had been further exacerbated by the channelling of power by so many supernatural creatures in one small space.  Not only slayers and vampires were affected.  In one bachelor herd, a particularly strong contender set out to make his challenge.

 

His antlers, sharp brown bones, were stripped clean of velvet.  His muscles bunched as he walked, his hoofs cutting sharply into the grass.  He was ready.  Ahead of him, the king stag ushered his harem a little further away from the likely field of conflict, and then he roared his warning to the intruder, digging his antlers into the earth and tossing grassy clods over his shoulder, as he would toss the upstart if he didn’t back down.

 

The challenger roared back, pawing the ground.  Then both males started to strut, each shadowing the other’s movements, comparing size and strength and offensive weapons.  They were a match.  If one didn’t back down, there would be a battle.

 

**************

 

The next night found them on the way to Dorset.  They had Giles’ car, to accommodate the four of them with more comfort.  Angel was driving, with Buffy alongside him, turning the map around and around to try and get her bearings.  Vi and Elaine sat in the back, with the blankets and picnic basket.

 

When they reached the Giant, after only getting lost twice at Buffy’s confidant direction, they started up the hillside.  For reasons familiar to men through the ages, Angel was left to carry all the gear, while the girls skipped on ahead.

 

The moon was full, riding heavily on the southern horizon.  It was impossible to properly appreciate the Giant from ground level, even in a light that was almost as clear as day.  By the time Angel arrived there, though, the younger slayers had properly appreciated the figure’s greatest attribute.  He heard Elaine saying, ‘Wow!  Just look at that great big tonker!’  He smiled a little.  Trust a Yorkshire girl…

 

He left Buffy to organise the gear, and walked up the hill a little further, to The Trendle.  It was just an unassuming earthwork that hardly troubled the landscape at all, but he could feel something.  He rejoined the others, and they sat for a little while, the girls eating sandwiches and drinking cola.  Angel tasted something quite different in his mouth, but he tried not to think about that.  He’d had two bags of blood before leaving, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the temptations in front of him.  He had only his willpower to do that.

 

When they’d finished supper, he directed the girls to take their blankets to a spot down between the Giant’s feet and, not incidentally, further away from The Trendle.  He and Buffy spread their own blankets where Ella had instructed, right on the tip of the Giant’s most notorious part.  They were close together, but not touching.  Close, but not too close.  Apart, but not far enough away.  After a brief but lively discussion, and a bit of half-hearted tugging, he kept possession of the sword, and clung onto it like a drowning man does a spar.

 

************

 

He must have fallen asleep, because now he was awake, and he was sure he hadn’t been before.  He turned a little towards the warm body next to him, and a surge of passion flared though him.  Unable to resist, he put out his hand, sliding it around her back and pulling her nearer to him.  As she roused from sleep, she put out her own arms and wrapped them around him.  He had yearned to feel that again for so long, to feel the warmth of her embrace, and he leaned forward to kiss her.  Then, she was fully awake, and returning his kiss, the passion between them wrapping them around with chains of steel.  So long.  It had been so long.  A tiny, despairing voice wailed that it would be a damn sight longer if he kept this up.  He tried to ignore it as he felt the heat of her body warming him, and as he kissed his way down to her neck, where his mark stood out like a brand.  Almost, he let his fangs down, ready to reclaim her once more, but that small, insistent voice became louder, more urgent.

 

And then he found the strength to let her go.  He pushed away from her, breathing hard to help him gain some greater measure of control.  Buffy put her hand to his cheek and held it there, speaking softly: gentle, calming words.  When he looked, he saw that Vi and Elaine had moved up the hill and were crouched just below them.  He shuddered a little at the predatory looks on the faces of both younger slayers.  When he looked towards The Trendle, he saw that a pearly glow suffused the air above the little earthwork.  Holding on to his composure – and the sword – with both hands, he stood up.

 

“Time to go – looks like we have an invitation.”

 

He strode up the hill, followed by the three women.  Had any of them looked back, they would have seen four huddled shapes sleeping uneasily on the Giant.  The two in the centre of the figure lay a careful distance apart.  The sword, though, was gone.

 

He waited for the three to catch up with him before going into the mist – he had heard of faerie glamours, and it would be too easy to become separated.

 

“Stay close to me.”

 

They obeyed, as he quartered the earthwork, feeling the flow of power.  At last, he was sure.  He raised the sword, which now had runes glowing along the length of the blade, and plunged it down into the soft chalk.  He felt, as much as heard, the grating sound as the sword was forced through a much harder, much older rock, and then it was done.  Beckoning to his women he walked on into the mist.  Before he’d gone two steps, he was alone.

 

And then he wasn’t.  The mist was gone, and the landscape around was the same, yet not the same.  He was in a valley, but the hillside in front of him carried a figure of a man.  It wasn’t the Giant, but it wasn’t significantly different in all the important parts.  Except, instead of carrying a club, it wore antlers.  It was autumn here; there were many more trees, and each was coloured like a living flame.  Somehow, Angel got the impression that it had been autumn for a very long time.

 

A group of men approached – well, they looked like men, at least, although their scent was distinctly different.  They said nothing, but gestured for him to accompany them.  He gave a quick glance over his shoulder, to reassure himself that the sword hilt was still there, still visible, embedded firmly into a large red sandstone rock, and he set off with these members of the bachelor court.

 

************

 

Buffy knew instantly that Angel was no longer with them.  She felt him go, somewhere deep inside.  Not gone, as such, just in the *other* place.  It took the other two a few moments to notice his absence, and then they were out of the mist.  The landscape around them was different to the one they had left.  They were at the foot of a hill, in a broad glade.  They could just see that the hillside above them carried the figure of a leaping white horse.  It was the height of summer here, and it was breathtakingly beautiful.  Each tree was perfect in its green garb, none of the greens exactly the same.  Summer grasses, dotted with colour, waved in the slight breeze.  It was perfect.

 

You are in the Summer Country.

 

Buffy didn’t know where – or who – that thought had come from, but she knew it was true. Then a group of girls, apparently no older than herself, dressed in gauzy gowns, and with wreathes of flowers in their hair, came out of the trees to greet them.  They didn’t speak, simply smiled and gestured the slayers on.  Buffy looked over her shoulder, reassuring herself that the sword hilt was still there, safely embedded in an outcropping of warm, pink granite, then she nodded to the two younger girls, and they followed the faeries into the trees.

 

************

 

In Westbury, neither of the stags had been intimidated by the other, and neither had backed off.  They ceased their parallel pacing, and stood facing each other, about fifteen feet apart.  Then, at some signal known only to the pair, they lowered their heads and charged.  The antlers crashed together, then clacked as each manoeuvred, trying to get a lock, to push the other back, or perhaps to twist the other’s neck.  It was a stalemate.  They disengaged, and backed away.  The signal came again, and they charged.  Once more, antlers crashed, and the two stags grunted and heaved, muscles bunched, hooves scrabbling for purchase, veins standing proud with the effort of pumping more blood.  Once more, they broke apart, breathing in ragged gasps, and then they lowered their heads for the next charge.

 

The hinds looked on, quietly munching the late grass, waiting patiently to see whether there would be a new lord for them this day.

 

************

 

It didn’t take long at all for Angel and his silent guides to reach their destination.  Nestled under the hillside was a large rock shelter, surrounded by a clearing beyond which were the trees they had just travelled through, golds and oranges and reds, a tapestry of dying colour.  Beneath the overhang, in the mouth of the cave, a throne had been set up.  It was made of turves stacked into the shape of a huge chair, and hung with deerskins.  Close by was a fire, in a stone hearth, and the remains of the last meal lay round about.  Angel recognised the shape of them.  They had once been human, or something like it.  Yes, he thought, the Wild Hunt.  He wondered if that was where he might end up, hunted through this landscape by the King and his acolytes.  No, he had power.  Ella had said so.  He just had to find it and use it.

 

Then an auburn-haired man emerged from the darkness of the cave, huge and muscled, his skin gleaming reddish bronze in the light of the fire.  He moved to sit on his throne, and as he did so, Angel could have sworn that he saw a suggestion of antlers.  He could also have sworn that the man’s legs bent differently to a human’s, the joints rearranged, like a deer’s.  And then the moment was gone.

 

Why are you here?

 

The sudden question roared in his head; in his ears, though, the noise was the growling of an aggressive vampire.  Perhaps you hear what is meaningful to you, he thought.

 

“Because you and your people are messing with my reality.  I want you and yours out!”  Those were the words he said, and that he heard in his head, but his ears told a different story.  They told of the roaring of a stag.

 

The man leapt to his feet, and strode forwards, until he stood within arm’s length of Angel.  He stared intently at the vampire, and once more, there seemed to be that hint of antlers, that bending of the legs.  Then he bellowed a challenge, and started to strut across the clearing.  He wore dark leather trousers, ragged and badly tanned, decorated with tiny bunches of teeth and bones, but he was barefoot and bare-chested.  As he paced deliberately across the grass, he held himself tall and proud, his muscles clearly delineated in the bright moonlight.  Halfway across, he turned to stare at Angel, a challenge drawn through every line of his deportment.  Sighing, Angel stripped off his sweater and shirt, his boots and socks and then, clad only in trousers, he strode over to his opponent. 

 

He was almost overwhelmed by the mixed aromas of sweat and leather and cervine musk.  His head felt heavier, and the rational part of his being retreated a little.  Instinct was overriding, now.  He knew what to do.  He’d watched the deer many times.  On a line almost within arm’s length of the King, and side by side, he began to pace.

 

*************

 

When Buffy, Vi and Elaine reached a clearing in that tapestried green wood, they were brought to the Queen and her attendants.  She was the most beautiful being they had ever seen.  Her auburn hair hung to her waist, woven with white daisies.  She turned a brilliant smile on them, and gestured to them to come forward.

 

How, thought Buffy, can someone so beautiful and kind be responsible for abducting women and children?  How can these people be a threat to us?  Ella must be wrong.  The attendants brought plates for them, beautifully carved wooden platters in all the shades of colour that wood can manage.  Others brought dishes filled with milky white nuts, rich red berries, golden honeycomb.  Just as Buffy was about to reach for a handful of nuts, Elaine knocked her hand away.

 

“No,” she hissed.  “Don’t you understand?  Don’t eat or drink anything here, or we might never get back.”

 

Something that might have been contempt flashed over the Queen’s features, gone as soon as it had come.  There was plenty of time yet.  She led the three a little way out of the glade, to a small and limpid pool.  Yellow irises clustered obediently to one side, and ferns dipped their fronds lovingly into the mirror-like water.  The Queen gestured to the girls to sit, as she took her own seat on a tuffet of soft grasses.  The sward round the pool was dotted with little star-like flowers of yellow and blue and pink, and they seemed to invite the girls to relax amongst them, to enjoy the heady perfume, and to gaze into that mirror.  As they made themselves comfortable, the Queen’s attendants stood nearby with cups of crystal clear water.  As the sun wrapped them in its warmth, Buffy looked into the pool and saw Angel.

 

***************

 

In Westbury, the battle raged on.  Both stags were lathered with foamy sweat, their breathing laboured, their flanks heaving with effort.  Blood ran from gashes in their hides where razor sharp antler tips had slashed and scored.

 

And then blood sprang from the challenger’s nostrils.  In his efforts, he had burst a blood vessel deep in his lungs.  He disengaged, beaten and unable to breathe.  The king stag lowered his head again, and gouged the desperate beast’s flanks and ribs.  Blood flew from gaping wounds.  The challenger fled, bloody froth hanging in strings now from his muzzle, and he stumbled with weakness as the king continued to punish him for his temerity.  He was strong, but he would be lucky to survive.

 

Satisfied that the would-be usurper was well and truly beaten, the king stag roared his victory to the fields and woods, and to all those challengers waiting to confront him.  Then he returned to sniff at his harem, to determine whether any were ready yet to receive his attentions.

 

**********

 

The pacing was over.  Neither had backed down.  The King’s courtiers formed a circle around the combatants, knowing that the Queen and her ladies would already be watching.  The Queen always knew what was happening in the King’s realm.

 

Angel and the King stood about ten feet apart.  The King lowered his head, followed an instant later by Angel, and then they charged.  As they reached out to grasp each other, it was immediately clear that the King had an advantage.  He was oiled.  Angel’s hands slithered over the oiled skin, but somehow he managed to find purchase, and then the trial of strength began.  As they both pushed against each other, feet slipping on the turf, digging in against the tussocks of grass, the King lowered his head again, and twisted a little.  There was a flash of what might have been antlers.  Angel felt a fiery pain in his ribs, and saw blood spill from a long and jagged gash.   It looked black in the moonlight.  He twisted his own head a little, and heard the click of bone above him.  Then he felt the pressure as the King’s antlers locked with his own, and the King tried to break his neck.  Sinews in his shoulders and neck creaked as he took up the strain.  And then he pushed back.

 

************

 

Buffy was on her hands and knees, now, staring into the pool.  She could see the sweat running down both bodies, the corded tendons as their muscles heaved, and almost she thought she could see their breath steaming in the night.  She had seen how Angel’s hands slipped on the body of the King, but now there was no such advantage.  The King’s hands slipped on the blood that streamed from Angel’s wounds.  There were a lot of them.  The King, too, had his share of gashes, but nowhere near as many as Angel.  This was a form of combat that the King knew well.  Angel would have to learn quickly.

 

The two were in almost mirror positions.  Their hands were locked around each other’s upper arms; each had one foot firmly planted under their centre of gravity, the knee bent almost double with the effort, and the other foot planted well behind, that leg locked straight, almost on the ground, pushing them forwards and preventing retreat.  Their heads were bent down, almost pressing against the other.  For long moments, they seemed barely to move, frozen in that tableau of total effort.  Veins all over their bodies stood out, pumping blood at maximum capacity.  She knew if she were to touch Angel, every muscle would be taut, clenched as hard as steel, an alabaster statue.

 

And then they would break, and circle, and at some secret signal, join combat again.

 

She offered up a silent prayer as the younger slayers came to join her, fascinated by the vision in the mirrored pool.

 

*************

 

Angel knew that he was outmatched in experience.  He wondered if he was outmatched in strength.  Once more, the invisible antlers crashed as they charged at each other, locking together as each sought for advantage.  And then he called on his demon.  The darkness came roaring out, lion strong, and in an instant the King was on his knees.  Angel freed himself from the ghostly tines and shifted their positioning.  Then, he turned his head, just so, took the strain in the corded muscles of his shoulders and neck, and he knew that the King was finished.  Instinct screamed at him to turn a little more.  Just a little more pressure and the King would die, his neck snapped.  There would be a new King in this land tonight.  The women would be his, beyond doubt.  The power was already his.  This land would welcome a new lord.  Just a little more…

 

************

 

The Queen was leaning forward now, frowning slightly.  She had had this King for many, many years.  The challenger was a good one, though.  Different to them, but she could soon change that.  She assessed what she saw, and found it satisfactory.  She sat back, waiting for the final blow, for the snap of bone that would herald a change of lordship.  She was regretful, but content to allow matters to take their destined course.

 

Buffy, her fists clenched into the turf, shredding innocent flowers, felt the roaring triumph that suffused Angel’s body.  She knew, somehow, that the Queen did, too.  She looked at the beautiful, smiling countenance, and screamed in denial…

 

***************

 

Angel heard the sound of a woman scream, and that instant’s hesitation allowed the King to free himself from the locked antlers.  Vampires don’t need antlers, though, especially when they are already in demon face.  As the stress of the torque on his neck was released, Angel dropped his head, aiming unerringly for the throbbing pulse in the King’s throat.  Blood.  That was the thing.  Blood would seal his lordship of this land, make him one with them, master of all…

 

*************

 

Buffy saw what was happening, saw triumph chase regret from the Queen’s face, saw Elaine’s lips form a perfect ‘O’ of horror as Angel prepared to drink the most potent substance in this kingdom, one drop of which would keep him here forever.

 

Her cry rang out across the woodland, across the fields, and across time and space and perception, or whatever else it was that divided the Seely Court from the Unseely Court.

 

“Angel!  No!  Noooooooo!”

 

*************

 

The cry rang through his ears, as it rang through his blood.

 

“Noooooooo!”

 

And that beloved voice stopped him, at the moment that his fangs pierced the vanquished King’s neck.  His head whipped up and he sniffed the air, searching for her.  And then rational thought returned, as the scents of sweat and musk and combat receded to normal levels.  He didn’t move, though.  He turned back to the King, and watched a tiny trickle of blood start to flow from the fang mark on his neck, and remembered the stricture.  Never eat or drink anything offered by the faeries in their own realm.  Anything.

 

“You must agree to my conditions if you want to live.”

 

The King remained silent, wary.

 

“I could kill you where you lie.  I claim the sovereignty of the victor, but I give back your lands and women.  In return, you will ensure that none of your people encroach on my lands or people.  Do you understand?”

 

“I understand.”

 

“Do you accept?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Yes, what?”  This could only hold if he insisted on what he had won.

 

“Yes… lord.”

 

Another scream rang through the air, more ethereal this time.

 

***************

 

They saw the King yield to Angel, and they saw the concession wrung from him.  The Queen leaped to her feet, hissing in displeasure.  Her King must yield to no one.  Buffy thought she saw something… and then it was gone.  She stood and faced down the enraged faerie.

 

“The same applies here.  You’ll keep your people out of my world.  Right?”

 

The Queen hissed again.

 

“You stupid child.  You think you can withstand *me*?  You are nothing.  You are less than nothing, all of you.  You’re no better than fumbling children.  You will never leave here alive, not you, not your own lord.  Never…”

 

Buffy hit her, full in the mouth.  The Queen crumpled in a heap, collapsing into a pile of rags and leather, all her finery gone.  So was her beauty, and the creature that stared back at the Slayer, hatred darkening every lineament, was a far cry from the woman that she had been.  This creature was lean and grey, with huge eyes and a mouthful of fangs.  And then it was gone, and the Queen was back.

 

Buffy grabbed her by the throat and pulled her to her feet.

 

“Give me your oath that you will keep your people from my world, or I *will* break your neck.”

 

The Queen’s image faded, flashing between the gorgeous human and the thin, grey creature.  Buffy had no doubt which was real.  Beneath all the glamour, she could feel the scrawny neck between her hands.

 

“Yessss.  Now get out of my realm.  Your people will be safe until the next rut, and then I make no promises.”

 

“And how long will that be?”  She didn’t want to have to come and do this again next year.

 

“About a century, in your time.”

 

“Good enough.”

 

She let the Queen go, then, and turned to Elaine and Vi.

 

“Come on.  Let’s get out of here.”

 

They ran back to the granite outcrop.  The sword was still there.  She wrapped her fist around it and waited.  Within minutes, she felt Angel’s cool hand cover her own, pulling the sword back out, and then they were back on the chalk hills of home, waking from a deep and troubled dream.  It wasn’t until Angel moved that he felt the fire in his ribs.  As he winced, Buffy reached over and tugged up his sweater and shirt.  His sides were gashed and scored, and bleeding freely.  His neck and shoulders were bruised and bloodied.

 

She led him and the girls down the hill to the car, and there, together, they bound up his wounds.  Then they headed back to Westbury.

 

************

 

Giles and Ella were sharing the big green armchair, and a bottle of wine.

 

“Do you think they’re all right?”

 

Ella reached across to stroke Rupert’s cheek.

 

“They’ll be fine.”

 

“You know, it occurred to me that there might be another reason why you chose the Cerne Abbas Giant.”

 

She eyed her lover over the rim of her wine glass.

 

“And what would that be?”

 

“I read that Cerne comes from Cernunnos, the horned god of fertility.  He’s also the ruler of life and death.  That might possibly be the aspect of the King for which Angel could compete on equal terms, mystically.  What do you think?”

 

Ella simply smiled enigmatically.  She bent over to kiss him, just as they heard the gravel crunch beneath car tyres.

 

“Sounds like they’re back.”

 

She stood up and neatened her dress, patting her hair into some semblance of order.  As the sky lightened in the east, the four came into the study, tired, bloodied, but victorious.  They had a lot to tell, but that would have to wait until hurts had been tended, and breakfast supplied.  It was Giles who brought warm blood for Angel, and pooh-poohed the vampire’s reluctance to drink, and then they went back to the study to hear the full story.  The six of them sat in a rough circle, Buffy’s hand resting lightly on Angel’s shoulder, as if she were afraid to lose contact with him.  Giles frowned a little, but said nothing, as he started to write down the account in his thick, leather-bound journal.

 

Ella reflected on how pleased Hilda would be, as she settled back to listen.

 

**************

 

Afterword

 

Angel had just risen and showered when Buffy brought over a new stock of blood for his refrigerator.  He took the package from her, careful not to touch her (no unnecessary touching; back to the rules again) and started to unpack the bags.  He hoped he was the only one still caught in the mystic toils of a rut that had about six weeks to run.  Humans might feel a bit hornier for a while, but at least they were safe.

 

“So, you’re king of the faeries now, huh?”

 

He gave a small snort of laughter, enjoying the amusement in her voice.

 

“No.  There’ll be a new king before this rut is over, I think.”

 

She was silent, and he looked away from what he was doing, saw the thoughtful expression on her face.  Still crouched on the floor in front of the fridge, he folded his arms along the worktop and rested his chin on his wrists.

 

“Buffy, the Queen will never settle for a King that’s been bested.  She wants a victorious champion.  Also, he knows he’s been beaten, and so do those who might have been thinking of challenging him.  He’s going to spend all this season fighting.  When he gets too tired, one of them will kill him and take his place.  That’s the way they’ve always lived.”

 

Buffy’s brow furrowed as she thought this over.

 

“Does that mean we’ll have to do this again, when there’s a new King?”

 

“No.  You dealt with the Queen, didn’t you?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“She won’t want to go through that again.  She’ll keep the King in line.  Besides, even the challengers will know I beat the Old King.  They’ll remember the fight.  They’ll weigh up how hard it was for them to win, and they’ll remember how I won.  I’m guessing they’ll decide they won’t want to chance having to face up to me.  They’ll keep the agreement, at least until the next rut.”

 

He thought back to the fight.  In the end, after he’d let the demon go, he’d won very easily indeed.  He was stronger now.  Hamilton’s blood, still?  Who knew?  Monster.

 

When he’d finished unpacking the fresh supplies, they talked for a little while, of nothing and everything, as they sat a careful distance apart, and he thought the demon’s thoughts, savouring in his mind the remembered scents of sweat and musk and combat.  And blood.

 

 

 

THE END

March 2005

 

Author’s Notes

 

1          The Chalk Figures

 

People do indeed sleep on the ancient chalk figures to see the people they will marry, or to ensure fertility.  Sleep, that is, in every sense of the word.

 

The White Horse of Uffington

This is the oldest of the existing chalk figures, at around 3,000 years old.  It probably represents the Celtic horse goddess Epona, known to represent fertility, healing and death.  Similar horses feature in Celtic jewellery and Iron Age coins, and there is evidence of horse worship in the Iron Age.

 

The Long Man of Wilmington

This is a figure of a man standing between two straight lines, possibly poles, or perhaps he is standing in a gateway.  Dating the figure is difficult, but again, an Iron Age date of sometime before the arrival of the Romans is preferred.

 

The Cerne Abbas Giant

This is likely to have been cut in the 17th or 18th century, although there is a story that is was cut by the monks at Cerne Abbey, as a joke on an Abbott who was apparently expelled for being a bit of a lad.

 

The Trendle

This is a small enclosure just above the Giant, and was the place where the town Maypole was set up each year.  There is no evidence that it ever housed a wicker man.

 

2          Wicker Man

Julius Caesar, in ‘The Gallic Wars’ reported that the Druids used huge wicker figures, into which they fastened all manner of animals as well as people, and offered them as a burnt sacrifice.  He did not offer this as an eye witness account, however.

 

3          Seely and Unseely Courts (also Seelie and Unseelie)

The world of the faeries is, indeed, said to be divided between these two courts, just as I have described it.

 

4          Cernunnos

"The Horned One" is a Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth, and the underworld.  Cernunnos is depicted with the antlers of a stag.  He is born at the winter solstice, marries the great goddess at Beltane, and dies at the summer solstice. He alternates with the goddess of the moon in ruling over life and death, continuing the cycle of death, rebirth and reincarnation. Paleolithic cave paintings found in France that depict a stag standing upright or a man dressed in stag costume seem to indicate that Cernunnos' origins date to those times.

 

5.     Off on the razzle : this phrase seems not to be used in some versions of English. It means off on a spree, or a night on the town, chasing hot women (or men) and generally having extravagant and glamorous entertainment. Just like it sounds, really.

 

 

 

 



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