Everything In Its Place
written by Ruth
Rating: FRAO - Giles/OC
Spoilers: Through Season 7 "Grave".
Summary: My version of how Giles first made contact with that ‘coven in Devon’, and what he did there.
Thanks: Dozen chocolate covered Gileses for my friends here: Rari and Gail, thank you, thank you, thank you.
If I could I’d clone you, and let everyone get beta’d like this. Thanks to Stephen for the joke about elephants,
and my local Library staff, guardians of my home away from home, for the poetry books. Any chance of a bulk
discount on ‘late’ fines, ladies?
Author's Notes: a prequel to my fic “Complicated” (see Giles/Willow section). You might like to read that first, or at least the first
section thereof, though this can stand alone. I know squat about ‘real’ magic or astrology; this is just for fun
and any ‘info’ here is from websites or my overactive imagination. So if you know different, there’s no use riding
me about it. :-)
Additional Disclaimers: Poems are copyright as indicated: “Hymn to the Spirit of Nature” P.B. Shelley;
“Never Give All the Heart” W.B. Yeats; “Everyone Sang” Siegfried Sassoon; “One Art” Elizabeth Bishop. Winter
Solstice information used from: http://www.circlesanctuary.org/pholidays/SolsticePlanningGuide.html and the gypsy
stuff is taken from a bunch of sites I didn’t bookmark, likewise the astrology. All else is copyright My Brain, Ltd.
Feedback Author: Ruth
She’d been there for a week now. Every time he went for the morning paper or to buy a loaf, the straight-backed, silver haired lady in the smart coat and sensible shoes was sitting on the bench across the street from his flat. Sometimes she pretended to be feeding the pigeons (a practice Giles privately deplored, as it encouraged them to nest on his balcony). At other times, she was reading a thin paperback that would not have lasted anyone a day, let alone the several she had carried it for. Out of curiosity, he’d stood at an angle to the front window one lunchtime, to see if she ever moved from her vantage point. There she was, precisely eating crust-less sandwiches and drinking something hot from a thermos.
It really wouldn’t do to ask her what the hell she was doing, watching him. Apart from the desire not to appear entirely insane in the eyes of a respectable member of the older generation, it was just possible that she always came here to pass her days, and that he – a recent arrival - was the interloper.
He certainly felt…unsettled. Yes, in a way it was wonderful to be home again, surrounded by familiar accents and comfortable domestic rituals: the morning post landing on the doormat, an evening pint of Flower’s at his local, a cosy converted townhouse mercifully free of Sky Sports and underage drinkers unable to hold their booze. But a part of him remained in Sunnydale. No matter how he had convinced himself that the right thing to do was to step back, to refuse to be Buffy’s crutch, to stop her unSlayerly dependence on him, he felt guilty. He’d tried to explain, to justify himself at the time, but she’d been too angry and hurt to listen. His phone calls since had been fielded by Dawn, who would only assure him that her sister was fine, that they all were, and that he *wasn’t to worry*. What was it about being told not to worry that was so…worrying?
The Council hadn’t been of much help. Quentin Travers was apparently in a week-long extended meeting, if his chinless wonder of a P.A. was to be believed. Giles took the thinly veiled hint that he should wait on the Council’s pleasure, and stopped calling London. He looked up one or two old friends in person, since they lived in or around Bath, and was glad to find them happy and well. There was nonetheless a stark contrast between their ordered, predictable existences and the every way tugging his heart and life had been subjected to over the last five and a half years.
The drama, the triumphs, the anxiety, the ‘alarums and excursions’, the continued physical and mental pressure that were inextricably bound up in the life of a Watcher in the field; after Buffy’s death, he had at least had a sense that these had been brought to a natural, if tragic, conclusion. Then Willow, in her perilous and foolhardy contest with the natural order, had brought Buffy back. Had brought him back, too, to the Hellmouth; to his destiny, to his Slayer, so changed and broken. Giles had always been clear that his place was to be there for whatever Buffy needed of him, whether she struggled or gloried in her calling. But he had never been - she had never before wanted him to be - a carer, a parent, someone to take the burden of her normal life, the life to which she used to cling so tenaciously and which seemed suddenly alien and unwanted.
Buffy was lost, and Giles with her. So he had to make the decision to cut her free of the safety net, lest it become a snare. For her sake, for the world’s, he dared not hold her back. Better that she hate him and grow strong, than be weakened by his too-tender heart.
But if his place was not at her side, then where on this wide earth was it?
* * * * *
Someone rapped briskly on the front door, and he looked up from his book with only mild interest. Giles had the middle flat of three, with the door at street level, so he occasionally found himself directing visitors to his neighbours. His late parents’ house had been carefully converted, and to the casual observer remained one dwelling. He certainly wasn’t expecting anyone himself, and it was getting dark, a little late for deliveries.
“Rupert Giles.” It was a greeting, not a question.
It hadn’t been his overactive imagination after all. The lady from the bench knew very well who he was and had been biding her time for some reason before calling on him. She didn’t expect to be admitted, merely smiled politely and presented him with a single sheet of folded paper. That done, she gave herself a moment to make a careful study of him, surprised as he was into immobility and silence. She nodded to herself as if well satisfied, turned crisply on her heel and marched away without looking back.
It was no use. Clearly she had no intention of responding, so Giles shut the door again and looked at the note. It was on heavyweight ivory paper, and the first thing he noticed as he unfolded it was the Watchers’ Council crest at the top. He closed his eyes for a second, concentrating, and passed his fingertips over the heraldic device counter-clockwise. A faint answering crackle of magic assured him that this was the genuine article, and he read the handwritten text carefully as he walked back down the hall to his study.
Five minutes later he was none the wiser.
‘Go where you are sought.
Render help according to your gifts.
Take only what is needful.
Find a place for everything.
Set everything in its place.’
At the bottom left hand corner was a place name and the old British Rail symbol, despite all the changes in the network, still the shorthand for a train station. Nothing else: no explanation, no signature, no sense of the urgency or otherwise of the mission. But it seemed after all, that the Council had a task for him.
He began, as usual, with research. Digging out a copy of the big national railway timetable, he thumbed through the index, then the individual tables. The station in question was a rural halt without a ticket office somewhere in the depths of the Devon countryside. Its little branch line had somehow escaped the axes of rationalising planners over the decades, and a train from Bath Spa would take him there with two or three changes and a longish wait at Exeter.
‘Take only what is needful’. Well, that very much depended on just what he was supposed to be rendering in the way of help, and for how long. He packed a rucksack for the rail journey to the country, since he had no idea how long he might have to carry it at the other end, or over what terrain. Experience suggested that there were no guarantees about motorised transport; one thing pretty much inevitable in November was plenty of rain and the resulting heavy, slippery going underfoot. Best keep one’s hands free.
Clothes and footwear for an English autumn and winter, sponge bag, spare glasses. Demonology, herbalists’ encyclopaedia, Latin dictionary. Stake, cross and holy water. More reference books. Extra socks – cold feet made for poor concentration. Giles reflected that he really could do with a bigger rucksack.
A sudden subconscious pull drew his gaze to his guitar, where it rested in its case against the chimneybreast. He shook his head to clear the distraction from his mind but the thought wouldn’t leave, and he was prepared to concede that there might be a case here for following one’s instincts. Haring across the country to do God knows what, who knew where, even at the behest of the Council, was scarcely the act of a rational man, after all. Adding some harmless whimsy could scarcely make it worse. Propping the two pieces of luggage next to the door, he set about cooking dinner whist making a mental list of things to do before leaving the flat empty for any length of time.
He also had to make one more attempt to contact Buffy. Concern for her bubbled constantly beneath the surface of his thoughts. Her telephone bell rang and rang: no answer, although he had waited until it was four in the afternoon in Sunnydale, and Dawn at least should have been home from school. The answering machine kicked in, and he left a brief message telling them he would be away from home for a while, “and for God’s sake be careful”.
* * * * *
Giles was the only person to alight at his stop. Pack on his shoulders, guitar case in hand, he stood in the grey late morning light and cast about for a sight of any contact or guide to his final destination. The train pulled away and he was alone on the platform except for an elegant chocolate-point Siamese cat, delicately licking its paws as it sat on a low wall. Beyond, lay what had been the Stationmaster’s house, now evidently the weekend retreat of some City type, complete with spotless four-wheel-drive parked in the gravelled front garden.
The cat easily fitted the house and the lifestyle, and as it jumped down and padded towards him in its stately fashion, Giles paid it little heed at first. He supposed he must just have to wait for someone to realise he had arrived, though this was the first of only four trains to stop here each day. The cat’s cry, eerily like that of a human infant, made him look down to where it wound itself around his legs, arching its back, tail tip flicking. He crouched down and petted it absently, noting the narrow, dark blue elastic collar and dangling identity disc. It bore no name or address, only a pentagram engraved on one side, a half moon on the other. Curious.
The animal trotted to the gate onto the road and slipped through the bars. It looked back at him over one shoulder and froze, waiting, as if…inviting him to follow. The notion was, of course, quite mad, and Giles dismissed it out of hand. Going over to the wall he leaned on it, resting the weight of the rucksack on the top. The cat mewled loudly and jumped up beside him, pacing to and fro. It batted his arm with one paw, the claws sheathed, and again came the sense that it wanted him to come. Its slanted blue eyes met his for an instant and he shivered. This then, must be his pathfinder.
The lithe feline shadow led him past the hamlet of thatched, whitewashed cottages, left down a lane and across the stable yard of a riding school, the cat leaping nimbly across straw bales stacked to one side. Past the buildings, they came to a public footpath and bridleway across fields, and climbing steadily out of the valley along which the railway ran, made for a thickly wooded ridge on the far horizon. Clambering over several stiles, balancing his guitar case with difficulty, Giles trod with care the red Devon earth, sticky with recent rain. They went into woods, a surviving part of the ancient forests that had once covered most of Britain and which were busy shedding their last leaves towards the turn of the year. Giles and his companion must have traversed a good three miles by now, and were it not for the fact that his guide led with uncanny certainty, checking every now and again that he was en route, he might have wondered if he were only getting himself hopelessly lost.
Half a mile further on a winding path, the trees thinned and they came upon the remains of a circle of standing stones around a long barrow, ancient resting place perhaps of some pre- Celtic chieftain four thousand years since. The cat took care to skirt the area, not to cross it, as did Giles, who had once made quite a study of the mystical forces that hung about such places; forces that were not to be engaged without due preparation. They plunged back into a dense coppice of holly, beech, blackthorn and rowan, the tangle of ivy-clad branches crowding the space far above human head height and blocking the view nearly as well as they might have done at midsummer.
Coming this way, they came to the back of the House first. It dominated the clearing in which it stood, a three storey, rendered stone, slate roofed mansion rather incongruous in its rural setting. Passing a couple of outbuildings, they swung around toward the front. The cat suddenly darted forward, disappearing through a cat flap in a side door and leaving Giles standing there with his luggage and muddy hiking boots. An enclosed verandah surrounded the ground floor on three sides; front and centre was set a door with a brass knocker in the shape of an outstretched hand.
Although there had been no discernible movement or sound from within, the hollow rap of metal on wood soon brought footsteps. A generously built woman with brown curly hair and a twinkle in her eye greeted him by name and ushered him inside. He followed her through a second, inner door and into a hallway with doors off and a heavy wooden staircase leading to the upper floors.
With that, she left him. Wasting words was obviously not the custom here. Giles shrugged off his pack and set it and the guitar case down next to the only free chair before sitting down.
Not wanting to forget his manners, he addressed the two women who were waiting with him.
The slight, pale girl with pinched features and dark circles under her eyes only started and shrank further into herself. The other, tall and rangy with an aquiline nose and high cheekbones, looked appraisingly back at him, muttered “Hi”, and returned to chewing her fingernails. Her long thick hair was a combination of tiny plaits and dreadlocks threaded with multicoloured rags and beads. Her eyes were outlined in electric blue kohl, her ears had multiple piercings; every finger was be-ringed, and a silver filigree flower nose-stud only added to the impression of decorative overkill. Heavy bracelets jangled as she moved her hand across her mouth, nibbling on it compulsively. The other hand fiddled with the torn hem of her Indian print skirt. The shy girl was dressed much more plainly but equally poorly, and Giles felt uncomfortable in his expensive American-bought suede jacket, cashmere roll neck and jeans.
“I’m, er, Giles. Rupert Giles,” he offered, trying again to bridge the gap.
“Rowena,” said the tall girl. “Last name, take your pick. I don’t usually bother if I can help it.”
She was unexpectedly well spoken, given her appearance, thought Giles; then chided himself for making assumptions.
“Rupert. That’s a nice name…traditional,” Rowena added.
He looked a little sharply at her, but saw no hint of mockery. It was quite hard in the relative gloom, and underneath all the artifice, to guess her age, but she was definitely a lot younger than he was; his given name usually led to a stifled (or not) giggle from anyone under thirty, swiftly followed by his own silent curse on his parents.
“Tradition is important, don’t you think?” she asked him seriously, but with a smile.
“Um, yes, yes I do. It’s just…”
Rowena indicated her hair and clothing with a sweep of her hands. “…That I don’t look like I do ‘traditional’? You’d be surprised.” He smiled at her sheepishly and she laughed aloud.
Well, he’d settle for surprise over hanging about, any day. As they lapsed into silence once more, Giles rued his lack of skill at small talk, the fear that asking what she was doing here might be thought intrusive. The other girl’s twitchy movements and tight expression didn’t encourage casual conversation anyway. He looked about him, trying to gain the measure of this place. It didn’t look like a Council building: no solid, gentleman’s club furniture or the obligatory collection of antique timepieces that some wit on the Board of Directors no doubt thought would keep Watchers ever mindful of their calling.
In fact there were no clocks at all, and his sense of time passing seemed at variance with the atmosphere here, as if it were something alien. The floor was polished wood, worn with long use. The walls were whitewashed, decorated here and there with occult symbols both familiar to him and strange. The chairs on which they sat were not a matched set, but there was an odd harmony to the space all the same.
He was starting to get *really* hungry, when at last one of the doors in the hall opened and another, different again, woman came out. This one looked energetic and athletic, and she clapped her hands once, lightly, before resting her eyes on the quiet girl.
“Welcome, sisters; sir.”
Two more women emerged to stand beside each of the visitors. With a tilt of her head, Giles’ helper indicated the staircase and he duly ascended behind her. As he made the turn in the stair he could see Rowena in quiet conversation with a slender East Asian girl. She who had greeted them gently extended her hand to the silent figure curled up in her seat. After a beat she took it hesitantly and allowed herself to be led away.
“You’re wondering why you’re here,” remarked the red haired, blue-eyed lady who had been assigned to him.
“I gather I’m here because I’m needed, but I don’t yet know for what, nor indeed *where* ‘here’ is.”
“Don’t worry, all will be clear by moonrise. This will be your room. Call me when you are ready to come and eat.”
She showed him into a plain but comfortable bedroom with a big brass bedstead and quilted counterpane. Giles changed into clean footwear, unpacked, and used the basin and jug full of warm water that stood on the bedside table to wash.
Moonrise. Not so very much time for everything to be made clear. He would, as so often, have to wait and see.
* * * * *
Formed by knocking two rooms into one, this was the largest room in the House. Necessarily so, to accommodate the number of people sharing the meal which was set out on two massive oak trestles pushed together. There were twelve other diners present and Giles was the only male. He liked women, really he did, but it didn’t stop him feeling *very* conspicuous.
A latecomer with cropped hair, in combat trousers and a sleeveless vest even in November, tattoos on both arms, strode in cheerfully, wiping her hands on a cloth.
“OK, generator’s fixed,” she announced. “Now it’s candles only for those as wants ‘em. What’s for lunch?”
She took her place at what might have been the head of the table: it was hard to tell. Certainly it was she who extended her hands over the steaming pots of vegetable soup and the crusty homemade loaves, pronouncing a blessing giving thanks to Mother Earth for her gifts. It was she, too, who once everyone had eaten their fill, tapped her spoon on the table to get their attention.
“Welcome, one and all. Introductions for our newest arrivals.”
She turned to her left, where sat the woman who had answered the door to Giles.
“Meg: enthusiast for new faces, resident mother to old ones. Head cook and bottle washer, and responsible for the lock tight protection spells guarding this, our abode.”
“Lorna and Moira.” Giles had already recognised the person who had come to his street to check him over and to pass on the Council’s instructions. He’d done a literal double take at the presence of her identical twin, both at the duplicate features and at how different they could seem. Lorna, his visitor, would not have been out of place in a Surrey drawing room, with her conservative clothes and neat chignon. Her sister’s hair was loose and wild; feathers and bits of bone were tied in it here and there, and she had a large tattoo of the sun moon and stars on the right side of her face. Her trousers and top were a riot of batik and embroidery in every colour of the rainbow and more. “Two who were once one: they collect and disperse, gather necessary supplies physical, magical and human, and make sure they are put to their right use.”
Next was the oriental girl, with Rowena on her other side.
“Kezia: communicator with spirits, seamstress and weaver. Rowena, first of our candidates. Lorna found her travelling not far from here and sensed her gifts. We hope to appreciate them fully in due time.”
Rowena dipped her head, and her expression was more than a touch reluctant. Whatever her gifts might be, she wasn’t as happy to possess them as she might have been.
“Asha: herbalist extraordinaire; maker and keeper of potions; artist; calligrapher, worker in wood and stone.” The well-dressed Indian woman acknowledged the list of her accomplishments gracefully.
“Maeve: descendant of the fairy folk of Mann, brewer and baker, astral travel and weather manipulation a speciality.”
The number thirteen clicked into significance in Giles’ mind. Witches. The group was a coven, or proto-coven. So what was he, a man and a sorcerer almost entirely from books, doing in this company? His puzzlement only increased when he was skipped in the order of introductions and learned the name of the red haired woman next.
“Rhoda: teller of sacred epics, seer into alternate realities, of futures and pasts, possible and impossible. Our other candidate cannot yet give us her name. For the time being we’ve named her Fianna. She was rescued from an armed mob in Dublin: we don’t know what caused them to pursue her. We only know that she has great power and that she needs a safe haven.”
Fianna only stared back at them all, shaking in her seat. During the meal she had met no-one’s eye and seemed mesmerised by the light reflections off her spoon and glass. Being the centre of attention clearly terrified her, and her neighbour at table stroked her arm soothingly, as if she were a nervous pet.
“Rose, there, may seem simple in the eyes of the world. But she has another learning: the language of birds and animals, the song of people’s hearts. Phoebe and Alice: hand-fasted lovers, marriage of the spiritual and physical. The one a barely containable flurry of energy, the other, seldom content save with a glass of wine and a book of chants in her hand. They keep all in balance, dealing in elemental magic and the wisdom of the whole. And I am Selena, named for the moon, lover of the stars and interpreter of their conjunctions, who likes to show mechanical things their proper place.”
She grinned at this last, paused, and looked at Giles directly. “Rupert Giles, Watcher and man, Sagittarius and Capricorn rule you: the higher purpose worked out in everyday life. How to find your own place in that purpose? Begin here; help us and allow us to help you.”
Some kind of response seemed to be required, so Giles started with the first thing on his mind. “I’m… of course flattered that you think I can help you. But, to be honest, I don’t see how. You seem to have gathered all the talent you need for a powerful, functioning coven, all the practical skills to maintain a household. What could I contribute?”
Selena pointed at Moira with her spoon. “Show him, my sister. Now, we all have work, I believe.” She looked round expectantly and the room became a bustle of scraping chairs, clinking crockery and low voices giving instruction and requesting assistance.
Moira rose from table with the others, and, indicating that Giles should go with her, led him out to the hall and up two flights of stairs to the upper storey. Towards the back, a trapdoor in the ceiling pulled open to let down a ladder and they both clambered up into the attic, which took up all the roof space. Moira flicked a light switch and a single bulb faintly illuminated the scene.
It was stuffed, fuller and more untidily than he’d ever seen a room before. Boxes stood on stacks of books, scrolls and loose sheets of paper flopped precariously half off shelves, held down by crystals and mysterious artefacts of all kinds. Copper blades with the dull sheen of enchantment formed a symmetrical display on a wooden rack. As his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, he could see more of the same under every rafter and in every corner. He and Moira could just about stand in the space by the trapdoor, but the rest was taken up with objects, piled to head height in places.
“I see your problem,” he said, noticing that Moira hung back, a distinct air of tension about her. “Are you all right?”
She shrugged apologetically. “The magicks and energies here are so mixed and confused that it affects all of us. The nearer we are to all this, the worse it gets. We needed someone to sort it all out: someone not a witch, but with practical experience of magic, an appetite for wresting order out of complexity and a facility for languages. And lo and behold, who should come back to England at just the right time, but you?” She beamed at Giles. “In return, we can offer you a haven for a time. Give what you can; take what you need.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Look, I *have* to get out of here now. Come back down and I can explain properly.”
Soon they were seated comfortably on a window seat at the rear of the House. Moira ran her hands through her tangled locks a few times to compose herself, and then began.
“Our late mother left this house to Lorna and me. It wasn’t our family home; we don’t quite know how she came by it, or all the stuff in the loft. In a hundred years, you pick up a lot of contacts I suppose. For a long time we’d talked – the three of us – about finding just the right combination of domestic and magical skill, gathering them all into one place and forming a community that could devote itself to the secret arts. Mother wanted to wait: she must have sensed that things would unfold in its own good time, after she’d moved to the higher plane. Lorna, please, I’m *talking*. No, I don’t know where the grocery list is. Ask Meg to write another.” She rolled her eyes and shifted her attention back to a bewildered Giles, who had not failed to notice that they were alone, but that she seemed to be speaking to her sister. “I’m sorry: one of the downsides to being a magical twin; involuntary thought sharing. As ‘big sister’ by ten minutes, I’m supposed to solve all her problems. Do you have any siblings, Rupert?”
“No, just me.”
“Both a blessing and a curse, I imagine. Watcher families can be a bit intense, from what I hear.”
“They did everything they could to prepare me.” Giles felt compelled to defend his family’s good intentions, even though a part of him privately wanted to add: [except give me the chance to refuse.]
Moira patted his knee in a motherly way. “They did a fine job, I’m sure, and you’ve distinguished yourself in living out your vocation. It’s why we specifically asked the Council for a parcel of *your* time and talents. We need you to find out what’s up there.” She motioned to the loft hatch. ”How it all fits together, who among us has most affinity for what knowledge there, what items. Not in the way of fitting cogs to a machine. It must be organic: our community will only come together as it should if we *grow* into our roles. But I’m sure you understand a great deal about change and growth.”
Change. From Sunnydale to England. From the Chosen Slayer’s Watcher, to Watcher without portfolio. From member of that strange extended family called the “Scooby gang”, to bachelor alone again. Where the growth in those changes might be, remained to be seen.
“I understand it’s the only alternative to stagnation and decline. Beyond that…” He shook his head.
“That’s a good beginning. Speaking of which, if you are to take up this…challenge, my advice is to leave it until the morning. Take the time until then to get to know your surroundings. Meals are all communal here: you’re likely not used to that, but it makes catering so much easier. I’m bound to ask if you have any particular practical skills yourself.”
“Well, I’ve looked after myself for the best part of thirty years. I cook, I clean, I darn: pretty much anything really, though on a smaller scale than this, of course.”
“As good as an extra maid,” joked Moira,”*and* you can reach all the really high shelves.”
Giles chuckled obligingly and then submitted to a brief guided tour ending on the verandah, which had been divided into several sections with interconnecting doors. At noon they would be flooded with natural light, but it was near dusk now. These, he was told, were for recreation; the serious business of the House took place in the inner rooms, some of which had been in use and he had been unable to enter. Various members of the coven had been going about whatever tasks fell to them, but he could indeed sense a lack of true cohesion, a potential not yet fulfilled.
“I accept your invitation,” he told Moira, who smiled a knowing smile and answered:
“You accepted it back there on your own doorstep, you know.”
* * * * *
He was already losing track of time. For some unaccountable reason he’d left his watch at home. Around sunrise, he’d woken from a dreamless sleep and reached automatically for an alarm clock that wasn’t there. Yet the rhythms of life here carried on perfectly well without counting the hours. He’d been able to shave and dress, and still get down to breakfast at the same time as everyone else.
The afternoon before, he’d read alone for a time, inspected the various works of art adorning the tables and walls, been drafted by Moira again to peel and chop vegetables under Meg’s approving eye, helped to lay fires in the bedrooms, and consulted with Lorna as to what supplies he would need to start work on the contents of the attic. Notebooks and pens she had, even three by five index cards; anything more specialised would have to be ordered in her weekly re-stock. Motor vehicles could not reach the House. There was no road, and in any case spells protected it so that strangers could only find it if taken there by animal guides or a resident. Everything the community needed was left in store at the nearest village, the other side of the ridge to the one Giles had come up. A group would be dispatched to fetch supplies and leave a list ordering more. He made a tentative enquiry as to how all this was paid for.
“We all make whatever contribution we wish and are able to,” replied Lorna. “You’re our first guest. I suppose the same applies to you. We’re still making stuff up as we go along here,” she grinned.
Not that all contributions were financial of course: after supper they had pressed Giles to tell them stories of his life in America. He’d kept it light, dredging up from memory funny, clumsy Xander, rambling naïve Willow, laconic Oz and quipping Buffy: early days of innocence, despite the regular brushes with mortal danger. It was easier for him to avoid the pain and uncertainty of more recent experience. When he ran out of tales he felt ready to tell, others chipped in with stories of their own, and all in all it was a merry meeting.
At breakfast, too, the atmosphere was sunny, clear morning light streaming in through the windows of this room at the unobstructed back of the House. The only grey spot was Fianna, her withdrawn posture scarcely changed from the day before, still not communicating with anyone. She was sitting between Rose and someone with a mane of thick dark hair. Her face was turned away, and she was laughing at something Asha had said, with a sound like water falling over stone. As the ‘stranger’ sat square in her chair again, he realised with a start that it was Rowena. She had shed virtually all her ornament, keeping only the flower nose stud, had washed and brushed out her hair and changed into a simple dress in midnight blue that hugged her figure nicely while revealing nothing.
Giles felt the momentary frisson, the tug of sexual attraction, and firmly suppressed it. The humiliation of the last time he’d acted on that particular impulse had been enough to dent his confidence just a bit more and reluctant to invite further disappointment. He’d spent a week screwing up the courage to ask a frequent customer of the Magic Box to have dinner with him, only to have her laugh in his face. Not that she’d meant it unkindly. Anya had pointed out that if he spent more time behind the counter and less in the backroom collecting bruises from sparring with Buffy, he would know that she had brought ‘Like unto Like’ love tokens for herself and her (female) partner only two days before.
Two years of reverses, from rejections both polite and blunt, to promising starts that ended nowhere, or were sabotaged by the ‘crisis of the week’, had left him wondering why he bothered. Perhaps he should just accept that his life reeked too much of ‘weird’ for ordinary women, but that he appeared too middle-aged and staid to the New Age types who patronised his business. If only some of them knew the truth about what went on in their town, and the adventures he’d actually had…
Without being conscious of it, he’d sat gawking like a schoolboy at Rowena for several seconds, and it was only when she caught his eye and smiled a greeting, that he flushed pink and lowered his gaze hurriedly, resolving to keep his mind on the task ahead. Work and study had always been his refuge and solace, a safe place where he knew application and effort would yield results. Personal relationships were altogether thornier.
As soon as Selena had dismissed them all, he made for the door into the hall and staircase, but found his progress hampered by Rose, her childlike moon face and almond eyes looking up at him curiously. She put a stubby fingered hand over his heart and tilted her head, listening.
“She’s still in there,” Rose pronounced slowly but clearly. “You left her, but she’s still there.” At his unspoken question, she nodded decisively. “You know she can do it, don’t you? Don’t be scared. It will be all right. You need to stay here now.” With that, she patted him on the arm and went back to Fianna, whispering softly and reassuringly as she led her by the hand to one of the inner rooms. Rowena went with them, glancing over her shoulder at Giles’ preoccupied expression and raising her eyebrows in a silent query of her own. He could only shake his head. He knew exactly what Rose was talking about, but the thought of explaining the whole tangled mess of Buffy’s death and return, of what he still couldn’t help thinking of as his desertion of her, definitely did not appeal. He would have to feel a bit more comfortable with these people before he did that.
* * * * *
Climbing the ladder to the loft again, he saw that someone had fitted a higher wattage bulb, and it was much easier to see. There were a number of dormer windows shaded by blinds, but throwing natural light onto a mix of unknown magic had its risks, so he left them down for the time being.
Where on earth to start? He set down the box of ‘tools’ that Lorna had provided, and began with the top of the nearest pile of objects. A simple attempt to lift the manuscript from the heap turned into a mini tug of war, as if the inanimate paper not only resisted being moved but actually pulled against him. The same thing happened with the next few things he tried, and he let out a frustrated grunt. From somewhere deep in the recesses of the attic came a faint clink, the sound of something metallic lifting and dropping.
Giles froze, but then, remembering something he had read about the magical significance of certain tones of voice as well as specific words, he tried to reproduce the sound. The response came again. He spoke some common ritual words and phrases but nothing stirred this time. Given all the possible combinations of words in English, let alone Latin and other tongues, the permutations could be endless. He stepped carefully through gaps in the groups of stuff: there did seem now he looked closely, to be a pathway of some sort. Leading off in all directions from the place he had begun. He felt a bit of a fool, grunting away, as if calling a recalcitrant dog, but there was no-one to hear him after all.
At last he located the artefact in question, a pale green crystal pendant on an ornate iron chain, hanging from a beam. It jumped again and again at the sound of his voice, a little more the closer he came, and he was able to lift it off and have a good look. There were no inscriptions or images carved on the gemstone, though it seemed to be missing a small irregular round chunk out of its polished surface, nor any clues in the pattern of the chain. Experimentally, he put the chain around his neck, holding his breath. As the stone settled on his breast without ill effect, he gave a whistle of relief, piercing in the stillness. A glass jar of twisted purple roots careered off a shelf and crashed to the floor.
Swearing under his breath, Giles gathered the contents from among the broken shards and wrapped them in his handkerchief. Clearly the key to all this was indeed sound, but he would need to be very careful. First he recorded the two items and their triggers. His long-ago archaeological training reasserted itself, and he determined also to make an exact plan of the space and the arrangement of objects within it, setting each individual object in its immediate context before trying to move it, in case the arrangement was not in fact as haphazard as it appeared. Someone had been working deep and complex magic in this place, and intended to make this particular cache of power accessible only to those with the wisdom to understand and use it wisely. Giles wanted to rise to the occasion and prove himself to the man or woman who had set this puzzle.
Trying to describe the triggers he had inadvertently discovered, he realised that the precise sound of a human whistle or grunt depended on the person doing it. The only way to render it accurately was to assign a frequency, an actual note. *Music*. Of course! Just as each spoken word had a unique quality, a combination of meaning and sound, making words so potent in magical terms, so too might a musical note. It was a question of finding the right note or group of notes that resonated with each item enough for it to respond but not be damaged. Only then could he even start to look at the details of what was here. Giles stood in the middle of the roof space, surveyed the mass of things, frowned, then grinned broadly.
[Nothing like a challenge.]
Suddenly he heard a commotion from below the open hatch. Leaning down, he saw Fianna’s white face as she clung to the ladder rail, panting in her distress and rocking to and fro. Running footsteps heralded the arrival of Rowena, too, as she tried to pry the other witch’s hands away. Seeing Giles above her, she pleaded:
“Can you help? She shouldn’t be here; her mind is disturbed enough without being near all that scrambled magic as well.” She shuddered. “Ugh. I can feel it from here myself.”
Giles came part way down and shut the trapdoor. Fianna calmed enough to be persuaded to leave the ladder, and then flung herself into Rowena’s arms. Looking at him gratefully over the fair head pressed to her shoulder, Rowena told Giles:
“Well, now, that’s the first time she’s actively wanted contact, so I’d say that’s a start. Thanks. Come on sweetheart; let’s go back downstairs.” She lifted her eyes briefly to the hatch and sighed, half resigned, half resentful, but made no further comment, but turned to go, Fianna slowly following.
Giles would have liked to know exactly what was behind Rowena’s attitude, but he supposed it was none of his business. He suspected that the impulse to ask came at least in part from the mere wish to talk to her, an impulse he ought to pay no heed to. There was moisture on the palm of his right hand, and looking down he saw a spreading purple stain leaching through the white cotton of the bundle he still held.
“Er, Rowena? Could you ask Lorna to find me a spare glass jar?”
* * * * *
Over the next few days, he began to get to grips with the magnitude of his task. Using the combined range of his voice and the guitar, he tried out notes and phrases, testing the reactions of various items, a number of which he managed to free from their surroundings. He was able to start to form theories as to their nature and potential use, to relate them to the known skills of the coven members. Meticulous notes on each, and on its relation to all the others, filled up more and more cards. It was intense and tiring mental work.
There were frequent interruptions also from Fianna, who, despite her evident fear could not seem to stay away and had to be continually retrieved by Rose or Rowena. He tried to work with the trapdoor closed, but since none of the dormers opened, there was not enough ventilation to stop him becoming dizzy after a time. Selena suggested he organise breaks within his working day, ‘shut up shop’ every so often, both for his own sake and for the peace of the House. She was finding Fianna both a mystery and a trial; only her trust in Lorna’s judgement bolstered her willingness to believe that this might indeed be where the Irish waif belonged.
Moira found Giles plenty of odd jobs for his breaks: physical, outdoor work in the main. He was glad of the opportunity to be out in the crisp fresh air, to stretch and use muscles cramped from crouching in a confined space, at least when it wasn’t raining. Maeve had responded to his semi-joking suggestion that she do a little local tinkering on his behalf with a blank stare, then a snort halfway between amusement and exasperation. Perhaps he’d been spoiled with the eternal California sunshine.
It was a rare dry autumn day in England today, and his task was to split the logs stacked for firewood. They were well seasoned and dry; mostly, centring the axe on the grain and making a single swing was all it took. The steady activity warmed him until he was doing it in his shirtsleeves and starting to sweat. One of the logs splintered unexpectedly and he staggered as the axe bit deep into the block beneath. Yanking on it to get it free, the deep scar tissue from the spear wound in the desert protested fiercely and he had to sit down on the log pile for a moment, pressing his hand to his side.
“Rupert, did you hurt yourself?”
Rowena stood under the eaves of the lean-to where the wood was stored, looking at him with concern.
“Just…pulled something…not as young as I was.” Giles tried for a rueful smile but it came out as a grimace. “I’m fine, really.”
“Rubbish. You’re neither old nor ‘fine’. Let me…” She seemed to hesitate, but then continued, “I could help, if you’d like.”
Giles shook his head. “I’ll get a hammer to get the axe-head out.”
“I don’t mean with the axe, though actually I’ve probably chopped more wood than you’ve had hot dinners. I meant…according to the rest of them,” she indicated the house with a toss of her head, “I can …heal people. Will you let me?”
“What about you? Do you believe you can heal?” A lot of his other old injuries were joining in the chorus of discomfort now he was sitting hunched in the cold, breath misting the air. He shivered. “Get my sweater, would you?”
She waited until he’d pulled it stiffly over his head, and sat next to him, careful not to disturb the logs and send them both sprawling to the ground.
“I used to think it was chance. I didn’t want it to be me. But if I’m honest: yes, I do believe it. It works best if I, um, touch your skin. Do you mind?”
Giles pulled the corner of his shirt free, undid the bottom few buttons and held shirt and sweater up and away from his side so that she could see. She hissed in sympathy at the evidence of serious damage and dropped to her knees in front of him.
“How did you get this? Looks like a knife wound, a nasty one.”
“Spear. Then a crash in an extremely large camper van, followed by bursting all the stitches in a swordfight with scabby hobbits and drooling lunatics three days later.” He met her astounded stare with a wry shrug.
“What do you do for an encore, jump from a great height onto a pile of rocks?” she was passing her hand gently over the scar, and took his sudden stillness and straight back for reaction to that. “Sorry.”
He’d closed his eyes at the sharpness of the memory trigger; a few seconds later they popped open in surprise at the sensation of probing, deeper than skin deep but painless, more like the turning of pages, reading and understanding his body like a story. As she went, she healed, down to the bone and beyond. When she was done, she tried to rise but swayed; he grasped both her arms to steady her, and helped her to sit.
“Thank you.” He rubbed his own hand over the scar; although the shiny white surface appeared unchanged, inside it was as if he had never taken that spear throw. “That’s an impressive gift you have.”
“And I should be grateful, I know.”
“But you aren’t.” There was no judgement in his tone of voice, only a wish to understand.
Rowena rubbed her hands together and clasped them in her lap.
“I never asked to be different like this. I filled my quota of ‘unconventional’ a long time ago. I’ve never been to school, never lived in a house until now, never had a nuclear family. And I was fine with all that. But I didn’t ask for a ‘gift’ that makes people nervous of me, avoid me unless they have to ask me for help; that made my own mother willing to see the back of me.”
“Could she not understand that there is good in it?”
“Power is power. In theory I could harm as much as I heal.” She paused, adding in a whisper, ”I think I did, once. Without really knowing what I was doing, but…she was right to be a bit afraid.”
“Magic can be unpredictable. If you meant no harm…” Giles suggested quietly, but she wouldn’t have it.
“I’ll learn to control it better here. If I don’t go mad from being cooped up indoors, that is.” She smiled to soften the remark, but there was the taste of truth in it, too.
“Escaped, did you? What about Fianna, she seems to be a…project of yours.”
“Rose wanted to have another go at ‘reading’ her. She says she doesn’t have the words yet.”
“Rose can’t explain what she sees?”
“No, *Fianna* doesn’t have the words. Rose says that the song of her heart is a sad one, but it doesn’t have any words so she can’t tell why. I don’t know what it means. Fianna seems to understand what other people say to her, and she can see to her own needs. She’s not retarded, just…cut off. We’re not sure if it’s even her choice.”
“Perhaps it’s because no-one understands her that she doesn’t speak, rather than the other way round,” offered Giles. Rowena sighed, thinking perhaps of the lack of understanding that had made her so cautious around her own magic.
“Search me,” she said. “At least she’s safe here.”
For a minute or so neither of them could think of anything more to say. On the other hand, neither made a move to leave, and as the silence became a little awkward, both rushed to fill it.
“Did you really…”
“What was that…”
Both stopped and smiled, then Giles apologised.
“Please, Ladies first.” He was taken aback to hear her burst out laughing. At the look on his face her merriment only increased; she covered her hand with her mouth to stifle it and attempted to look suitably contrite.
“Sorry, but you are such a cartoon public school middle class gentleman, Rupert. It’s sweet, mostly, but you should think about breaking the stereotype, really you should.”
“Since I am middle class, did go to public school and try to behave like a gentleman, I don’t see why,” replied Giles reasonably. “But if you insist, I was going to ask if you truly never went to school?”
“Not for a day. Funny, seeing how I was conceived in one: a Catholic girls’ boarding school, come to that. My mum was only seventeen: hardworking, bright girl, tipped by the nuns for all the honours. The only thing she knew nothing about was boys, and she tried to remedy that with the groundsman. He wasn’t much older than her, and a lot more stupid. That, or he didn’t care. Spun her some tale about how it would be safe if they did this or that. Not the truth, and when the inevitable happened, he did a bunk. She got the “with great regret” speech from the Headmistress; her family wouldn’t have her home. She had me in some Charity place and picked up with a pack of travelling types through one of the other girls.”
“Don’t be. It was all right. It was the life I knew. Mum taught me my letters and numbers; every stop we saw something new, there were always plenty of other kids to play with. After a while, taking whatever temporary work she could get, playing the Social Security, she saved enough to buy an ancient VW van from some bloke, and that was home from then on. People in the group who knew about engines kept it going for years past what you’d expect. We managed perfectly well.”
Her voice was tinged both with nostalgia for her childhood and regret that it had had to end.
“Things changed,” guessed Giles.
“A lot of things. Once I got into my teens, I started to notice odd things happening around me. Friends who were ill would get better once I’d been to see them. Mum used to joke that it was my personality; that they didn’t dare stay poorly. I was pretty bossy as a child. Our dog got into a fight but after I spent a night caring for it, its wounds started to close very quickly, like…like…”
“Mm. As I got older, I earned a bit of a reputation. The New Agers, a lot of them, liked to say they believed in natural healing powers, in Wicca, in herbs and roots and every alternative medicine going. Me, they couldn’t cope with. Not a few thought I was making it up to get attention.”
“Could you and your mother not make them understand that you were genuine?”
“*I* didn’t understand. Magic to me was the three-card trick, rabbits out of a hat, that sort of thing. And Mum, well by that time, she had concerns of her own. A new man, to be exact.”
“Was he equally sceptical?”
“He just didn’t like me. Granted, I was your usual stroppy teenager, resented him muscling in on my territory, gave him more lip than he thought he should take. The magic, that was just one more reason why I wouldn’t fit into his nice little domestic fantasy. He wanted to ‘rescue’ my Mum from that life, you see. Wanted to install her in his cosy flat in Plymouth, make a ‘real home’ and a ‘real family’. Excluding yours truly, for choice. As if I’d have wanted that anyhow.”
“And your mother? What did she want?”
“Him. Enough to throw away everything we’d been and done together. We had a huge row, things were said; I said ‘him or me’ and meant it. Of course he’d already said ‘her or me’. Giving up everything for love sounds wonderful and romantic until someone you love does it, and you’re part of the everything.”
“Yes.” Buffy and Angel. [You have no respect for me, or the job I perform.] Yes, indeed.
“I was sixteen, could leave home without being taken into care as along as Mum agreed. Give her her due, she set me up with funds and stuff, made sure I could look after myself. I decided to leave the group we’d been with for a few years. In the Forest of Dean I met real gypsies for the first time and fancied they’d be a bit more comfortable with my…special features.”
Did they turn out to be?” Giles knew that not all gypsy bands were as open to magic as Jenny’s people had been.
“To start with, yes. I had a kind of protected status: the ‘gadja’ with powers. One of the clan heads took me into his family; I shared a wagon with the unmarried women, learned to speak their language, more or less. Ten years I travelled with them, all over England and Europe: they had branches of their family in Romania and Slovakia.”
“Those countries aren’t too tolerant of their gypsy population, I gather.”
“No, they aren't. A lot of my time was taken up healing boys and young men set upon in the fields or streets while they were just trying to earn a day’s pay. One time…one time, one of them had petrol poured on him and set alight.” She shuddered. “I couldn’t save him.” A darker shadow passed over her face. “And we learned to keep our women and girls well out of the way.” Her knuckles were white with the tightness of the fists she was making of her hands, and Giles had a chilling suspicion.
“You didn’t…you weren’t…I mean, not…” He couldn’t even ask, didn’t want to know, but her distress pulled him in, and the question was there now, in the spaces between his words.
“Not me; but my foster sister, Eva. She was fourteen. I heard, afterwards, that the gang of boys that did it all fell ill, were in a lot of pain for days. You can make the connection if you like. I might not have deliberately set out to harm with magic; though if I’d known it was possible, I might have. I was scared stiff, but I can’t say I was sorry.”
Giles had no intention of telling her she should be sorry. He could well remember the rage and pain that cried out for vengeance, for some justice in this unjust world; was quite sure that had he had her gifts, he too would have used them, and not unconsciously either.
“Is that why you came here?”
“Partly. Actually that…was quite a while ago, the year before last. I persuaded myself it was a one-off, wouldn’t happen again. It was more gradual. In a lot of ways I didn’t fit in to their expectations. I wouldn’t marry; though a few overcame their nerves about my gift and the fact that I wasn’t really one of them to ask Isaak, my foster father, for my hand. He would never force me to accept someone, didn’t have the real authority of a father over me. I really didn’t fancy bringing up a huge brood of kids on the move like the other women did. I could have lived as a kind of honorary widow, a wise woman; but the more I found out about magic, the less I knew I really understood, and the more I was able to do, the more I worried them. When I met Lorna, it seemed like a way forward. We had a big feast the day before I left; Isaak gave me his blessing. They’ll have moved on now; I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again.”
Towards the end of her explanation she had begun to weep, looking out across the clearing to the woodland.
“I don’t know that I haven’t made a terrible mistake.”
Women’s tears: they made him feel helpless, a great fumbling clod in an emotional minefield. He handed her his pristine white handkerchief and said nothing, no platitudes, no false assurances. He only waited patiently for her to stop. At length she looked at him with red-rimmed eyes that were still lovely, sloe dark and searching his face.
“Isn’t this your cue to say ‘buck up, old thing, best foot forward’?” she teased, still sniffing soggily.
“I think I’ve used up my stock of clichés for the day with the ‘ladies first’ and the silent male handkerchief. Besides, why shouldn’t you be allowed to grieve, to wonder if you’ve done the right thing?”
“You wonder as well, don’t you? What’s her name, the one Rose said you left? I mean, if you don’t mind saying.”
“Not at all. Buffy. Her name’s Buffy.”
“What kind of a daft name is that…no, scrap that, I grew up with kids called Sunbeam and Freedom, who am I to judge?”
“She’s American. My Slayer.” Giles frowned and corrected himself. “*The* Slayer.”
“Either it was a *seriously* bad break-up, or there’s some title involved. The Slayer of what?”
“Vampires. Demons. Hell beasts. Giant necromanced snakes. Insect people. The English language.” He grinned at this last, having rather enjoyed the way her eyes widened and her jaw dropped as the list went on. “Didn’t your gypsy family believe in any of that?”
Rowena recovered quickly enough to jest: “The English language was a bit of an optional extra.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “A gypsy can say all he needs to say in Romany. But vampires; in theory, yes; they believed in a lot of stuff: white horses are lucky, don’t mend clothes on a Wednesday or drive a bargain on a Friday, burn a dead person’s possessions or they’ll haunt them. And the undead rise to prey on the living. Good for campfire stories, but I’ve never met one.”
“I’m glad. I’ve met so many, I’ve lost count: thanks to Buffy, most of those were enjoying the last few moments of their existence at the time. She has a sacred calling; the one girl in all the world gifted with supernatural strength and skill to fight and destroy them.”
Rowena was clearly puzzled by the notion. “Just the one? Sounds like a rolled up newspaper in a plague of locusts.”
Giles smiled in sympathy. “I don’t really understand the rationale either. It’s just the way it’s always been. Council records as far back as the start of written history, accounts of oral traditions before then, all agree. She seems to… pop up where she’s most needed. Which is, currently, a small town in California called Sunnydale.”
“The Council of Watchers. They supposedly keep a close eye on the forces of darkness, and one of them is delegated to support the Slayer in person.”
“And that’s you? I’m impressed. You must be quite the blue-eyed boy.”
Giles folded his arms across his chest and regarded the heavens with ironic amusement.
“ Hardly. I was an emergency replacement for Buffy’s first Watcher, who was killed in the line of duty after a few months. I imagine they expected me to last about as long. Buffy isn’t the Council’s vision of a model Slayer; they’ve never quite known how to deal with her, with someone who wants to be more than just a weapon in the struggle against evil. And according to them, I have a tendency to over involvement, to loss of perspective, to useless emotional attachment.” The sneer in his voice told her what value Giles himself put on that opinion.
“You mean they expect you not to *care* that a girl’s putting her life on the line? How on earth can you not?”
“The weight of hundreds of centuries of tradition and bureaucracy doesn’t sit well with the human dimension, I’m afraid. Buffy and I… we found our own way, forged our own bond. Council and tradition notwithstanding.”
“Then something went wrong,” Rowena guessed.
“Not between us, or not to start with. Someone, Buffy’s closest friend in fact, worked some magic that she had no business even knowing about, let alone practising. It may yet rebound on her catastrophically; for now, the person most harmed by it is Buffy. Had I stayed, I believe I would have only compounded the damage, weakened her still further, even put her life in danger. She wanted…she wanted to go back, to be a child in this world. The Slayer cannot allow herself that luxury. Her Watcher…must deny it to her.” His heart mourned that fact, even as it remained convinced of its truth.
They lapsed again into thoughtful silence for a while, then Rowena jumped up and exclaimed:
“Oh! I forgot, I was actually sent to tell you lunch is nearly ready. We’ll be late.”
They hurried back to the House side by side. Apparently everyone else was just starting to converge on the dining room. A voice in the back of Giles’ mind suggested that perhaps there had been just enough time for their conversation. He had learned that the way of time around here was to fit in with the important things of life, rather than the other way round.
“I’m glad we could talk,” Rowena was saying to him. “You’re an interesting man.”
He looked at her, a little surprised. “I haven’t told you all that much about myself.”
The corner of her mouth quirked and she cocked her head as she looked back at him and led the way in to lunch.
* * * * *
Giles had been making slow but steady headway for most of the day, adding to the neatly catalogued assortments of related items grouped in separate piles in a space he had created for a ‘pending tray’. The lifting, twisting and bending this involved had proved far less of a strain today, now that he was free from the nagging ache and pull in his side. He’d finally found the ascending five note scale that opened a massive volume of magical texts dating back to the sixteenth century, and was turning around trying to find a place where he could sit to look through it more comfortably. As he did so, his elbow struck another, thinner book on the top of a stack he hadn’t worked on yet. The mere contact was enough to send it spinning to the floor, and he was bent halfway down to retrieve it, the much heavier volume balanced on his hip, before he realised how odd, in the circumstances, that was. Never before in the attic had he come across an object that did not need sound to move it.
Trusting that using the magical texts as a portable table would not bring the wrath of the mystical realm too swiftly down on his head, he sat cross-legged and rested it on his knees, propping the other book up on it to get a closer look. It turned out to be one part of an early nineteenth century antiquarian society’s series of reports on local sites of historic and prehistoric interest. Leafing through it, squinting at the tiny print of the columns of commentary and admiring the hand-coloured engravings, he stopped at one page. The site had been rather fancifully landscaped in the illustration, but the more restrained text that went with it clearly referred to the stone circle that he had passed on his way to the House.
What was this doing here, this fragment of the records of some Regency gentlemen’s leisure pursuits, hidden away amongst a collation of the arcane and powerful? Giles took the chance that it would be safe to bring it down with him once he’d completed work for the day, and so it proved. Neither Lorna nor Moira could enlighten him as to the origin of the book, nor why it should have been kept where it had been. They were interested in the stone circle, of course, but as yet no-one had made an attempt to investigate whatever mystical properties it might have, and more mundane investigation was outside their area of expertise.
Giles, however, relished the opportunity to brush off little-used skills and, duly prepared with a guided meditation and wearing a scapular provided by Meg, he came to the circle on the first available dry morning. A light mist was lifting from the hollows in the uneven grassy clearing; from a clear blue-grey sky, sunlight threw sharp shadows of tree branches onto the elongated mound at its centre. It wasn’t unusual, he reflected, to find a combination of features like this on a prehistoric site. Sacred places, with their aura of worship and fear, tended to be used again and again over the centuries. The long barrow probably dated from the late Stone Age, the standing stones a few hundred years later. They were local grey granite, unhewn, but chosen for size and rough oblong regularity. The ditch around the barrow must have been the result of excavation of earth to form the earliest structure, rather than being a later addition, as it lay inside rather than outside the ring of stones.
The impression was of an ancient mouth half-filled with broken teeth, the barrow like a great swollen tongue. There were thirteen stones in all, each slightly shorter than the height of a human being. It was on a more domestic scale than many such monuments; the whole site could be crossed in twenty paces or so. Amongst the encrustations of lichen and moss, he could see cup-marks on all the stones, those mysterious circular depressions ground by an unknown hand for some ritual or marking purpose unclear. Passing cautiously inside the circle, left hand touching the scapular hanging round his neck, the antiquarian society’s report tucked under the other arm, he approached the barrow. At the far end was what looked like the main entrance, blocked with a massive ‘door’ consisting of a single flat boulder, but Giles had also noticed an inlet halfway down one side. He judged the one to be a feint to deter sacrilegious robbers. The other was the real way in to the dark passages, where rested the disarticulated bones of millennia-dead farmers, hunters, chieftains and priests.
It was in places like this that he felt most connected to the land of his birth. The Giles family was a fairly recent import. The name derived from the French, and his father’s ancestors had probably sailed over the Channel with William the Bastard a mere thousand years ago. But his mother’s family went back further, if the tales she had told him as a boy were to be believed. He knew little of his mother’s kin now. Marrying into a Watcher family sucked one into a culture of secrecy and distance that was passed on to the next generation. Unless he had children himself – an increasingly remote prospect – and provided he escaped the horrifying fate of being Turned, his essence would one day be absorbed back into the rich English earth, and only his diaries would remain, for other Watchers to read. Of his physical self, no legacy would remain.
Such thoughts, verging on melancholy, had an autumnal ripeness to them that left too long, could rot into depression. He was about to rise from his crouching position near the true entrance to the barrow, when the sound of a voice stopped him. It was high and clear, the voice of an unfamiliar woman, and it came from just the other side of the mound.
“Lamp of earth, where’er thou movest, its dim shapes are clad with brightness and the souls of whom thou lovest, walk upon the winds with lightness.”
A vague stir of memory was swiftly overshadowed by his recognition of the speaker as she rounded the end of the barrow. Fianna stood stock still a few yards from him, looking through the strands of hair that hung over her face, Giles had only begun to raise his hand to bid her stay where she was, when she shot like a greyhound out of a trap and ran, stumbling over the edge of the ditch, clawing her way upright and taking off into the trees. He tried to follow her but she seemed to have a wild animal’s instinct for evading pursuit. Hastening back to the House to tell someone what had happened and organise a search party if need be, he met Rose and Rowena, searching and calling anxiously for their lost charge.
Together, the three plunged off the path, trying to take a short cut to the start of Fianna’s flight. Giles didn’t want to waste time with his revelation that she could and did speak; if they didn’t find her soon, she might be injured or get lost in the world outside, the world where she had proved so vulnerable. After several minutes trudging through bracken, skirting fallen saplings and dodging the brittle, tearing remnants of brambles, they were halted by Rose striking an exaggerated pose of watchfulness with her finger pressed to her lips. She pointed to the left and they could see, behind a tree trunk that was just too narrow, the pale pink of Fianna’s trousers and sweatshirt, the same clothes she had been wearing the first day she had arrived. Shooing Giles and Rowena to a safe distance, Rose tried to coax her out.
“It’s me, Rose. Don’t be scared. I’m your friend.”
Nothing happened for a minute. Rose turned to her companions and told them:
“You go back to the House. This is my job.”
The two exchanged glances, then shrugged and did as they were bid. Once Rose had made up her mind, there was little point in arguing with her: she could be astoundingly stubborn. They hadn’t long reached one of the verandah stoves, huddling next to it and rubbing chilled hands together, when they heard an outer door open and close and footsteps scuttle up the stairs. Rose put her head round the door briefly to tell them Fianna had returned and was in the bedroom she and Rose shared, then left them.
Rowena’s reaction when he told her what he had heard at the circle was spontaneous and excited. She shrieked with delight, hugged him, and rushed off to tell Selena, leaving him to ponder the significance of Fianna’s words, and what Rowena washed her hair with to leave it smelling so wonderful.
* * * * *
“Well, that was a mistake.”
It was a very much more subdued Rowena who returned a while later. She told him how, unable for the moment to get hold of Selena, she’d gone up to Fianna in her room and tried to get her to talk to her, believing that now the ice had been broken, all she needed was friendly encouragement. Fianna’s response had been to push her firmly out of the room, shut the door behind her and put a chair under the handle so that it couldn’t be opened from the outside. Rose was not happy. At lunchtime, she wouldn’t speak to Rowena or Giles, whom she lumped in with Rowena in her blame for the situation; only glowered at them until Selena politely but firmly requested she “knock it off”.
In the event, leaving her alone for a while seemed to be the answer and she appeared at supper, still silent but not apparently unduly traumatised. That evening Giles sought out Lorna and asked her if they used the local Library at all, and how he might go about consulting its resources. She seemed faintly amused and pointed out that he was neither a prisoner, nor a sworn member of the coven and he could do as he liked. He’d so fallen into the mentality of the House that for a second he blinked, then grinned, and told her he’d go tomorrow. Then he paused and realised with moment of panic that he didn’t actually know what day it was. Calendars, like clocks, were absent from any of the rooms he had entered.
“Selena keeps a calendar in her head, and I’ve got a list in the pantry,” Lorna told him. Tomorrow’s Tuesday: Market day. Library’s open all day, ten till seven. Get a bus after breakfast, from the village into Cordford. Moira, ask Meg to do a packed lunch for Rupert, can you?” Giles looked around automatically but of course Moira was not in the room. Lorna patted him on the arm.
“I know. Funny place this, isn’t it?”
* * * * *
Stepping off the bus into Cordford’s busy market square, Giles was struck by how harassed and tired everyone looked. It was raining, *again*, and he was glad of his borrowed umbrella. Dodging puddles, shoppers and discarded cabbage leaves in the gutter, he skirted the open air market, a forlorn encampment of red and white striped awnings dripping water onto the pavement, and spotted the Public Library in the corner of the square.
A solid, neoclassical former Corn Exchange, complete with relief of Ceres and Persephone over the door lintel, it was a good facility for a relatively small town. The interior had been gutted and now was all soundproofed prefab cubicles and municipal sludge green carpeting. The Reference Section on the first floor contained map cases as well as books, so he started by getting a birds’ eye view of the geography of the area. At first sight, it was straightforward. There was the House, ‘Cairnswood Hall’ according to Ordnance Survey, there the stone circle, there the footpaths and bridleways that crisscrossed the district. The coven lived on the outskirts of Dartmoor, away from the moor proper but at a comparable height. Prehistoric remnants were dotted all over the surrounding land: causeways and bell barrows, chamber tombs, hill forts, farmsteads and cairns. Cairnswood…
Giles put away the modern maps and went looking for the earliest one he could find. There was a mid-nineteenth century Tithe Map, but the landscape then was hardly any different. A brief consultation with the Librarian yielded the use of a pair of cotton gloves and strict instructions not to mark, trace or deface any part of the Jacobean estate survey that was reverently unrolled for his inspection. Why this wasn’t at the County Record Office was a mystery, but a very convenient one.
With a sharp intake of breath, he looked closely at the fading ink of the engraving. Four hundred years ago the ridge had contained not one but two megalithic tombs, linked by a causeway running straight between them. One had the thirteen stone guardians that he had recently visited; the other was marked only as an elongated hump among more sparse woodland than presently covered the site; nature had been periodically cut back but was continually encroaching on what was, unmistakably, the site of the House. Giles made a detailed sketch plan and checked to see if there were any other records of the built –over second monument. Nothing. The House in its original form must predate the upsurge in antiquarian interest sparked by the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the so-called Enlightenment. There seemed to be no trace of what had once been.
He was about to leave when a thought struck him. The Library was equipped, as they all were these days, with a brace of Internet-linked computers for the use of those who didn’t have one at home. Willow had initiated him into the mysteries of the Net a few years ago, and although he could never (and would not care to) achieve her ease with it, he knew how to use a search engine. The most promising phrase from the words he could remember Fianna uttering at the circle seemed to be “lamp of earth”, so he typed that in and waited.
[Here we are.]
As well as a couple of references to a pretentious and inaccurate attempt by Aleister Crowley, self-styled “Great Beast” and libertine, to invoke the Occult Powers with doggerel and plagiarism, there was a reference to a poem by Shelley, from which not just the one phrase but the whole of Fianna’s mini recital had come. It was a hymn to Nature and the sun, which Giles remembered from school, but what connection it might have to the circle or why Fianna would use it, he didn’t know. Diligently making a note, however, he filed it away for future reference.
Selena told him not to worry too much on either count.
“The House isn’t going anywhere, and Fianna’s clammed right up again. All we can do is wait and work on them both.”
So for the moment, Giles left both insoluble riddles and went back to work in the crowded attic. There was still considerably more to be explored than he had so far, but some fascinating things had already turned up. At each evening meal, he was able to describe how he believed they might be of use to various members of the coven. Intense and animated conversations were often the result, and he thoroughly enjoyed the to and fro of debate and the open atmosphere of enquiry in the group. Even the wilder ideas – “hey, perhaps it’s for controlling elephants “ - provoked laughter, not scorn. Sometimes he caught Rowena’s eye and she was quite often just sitting looking at and listening to him. He didn’t know what possessed him at such times, but he did acknowledge to himself that, for example, switching seamlessly from one foreign language to another in mid sentence was probably showing off.
Then one afternoon he came across an object that he himself recognised immediately. He hadn’t set eyes on it for almost twenty-five years, and couldn’t fathom *what* it was doing here. So far as he knew, the Mind’s Eye was unique, and its appearance, which was that of a piece of nondescript rock crystal sculpture, belied its power. The Watchers’ Council had made it available to him and his mentor but had said nothing of how they had come by it. Until now he had not given the fact that Lorna had brought him the Council’s instructions to come here much thought. They had asked for his help, so he had given it. They were still, technically, his employers; it was still his duty and his calling.
Now it occurred to him to wonder what the connection might be between the twins and the Council, and to ask himself why he hadn’t asked them a lot more questions about it at the beginning.
* * * * *
“Perhaps because you have enough experience to know whether you’ll get any answers or not,” Lorna suggested calmly as she continued checking her inventory.
They were standing in the pantry, Giles by the stacks of shining crockery that he’d just helped to dry, Lorna in the doorway of the walk-in larder. Her back was to him, so he couldn’t see her face, but he could detect no resentment at his curiosity in her tone of voice; merely an implication that she didn’t have many answers to give him.
“But you knew about us, about Watchers and Slayers, the whole set–up, before we met.”
“Rupert, anyone who is anyone in the magical community knows. And mother was definitely someone. We don’t spread it about outside the family of course, but Moira and I grew up with a sense of the interconnectedness of all things that includes the fact that vampires and demons walk this earth and that there are those whose calling is to find out about and fight them, just as there are magicks and those whose calling it is to find and use them for good. It doesn’t mean we have any particular hotline to the Board of Directors, or that there is some great conspiracy afoot. As to why this ‘Mind’s Eye’ is here, your guess is as good as mine. It might be a simple matter of safekeeping. How far into the sequence are you now?” Giles had explained to them all how he was freeing and studying the objects, and that they could only be retrieved in a particular order.
“About a quarter of the way, I’d estimate,” he answered. “I suppose it *is* a good place to put items of power where they cannot be removed without a great deal of trouble and the good luck to find the key in the first place.” But although he was quite willing to believe that Lorna and Moira were not deliberately keeping things from him, in the back of his mind he kept the question for further consideration.
Rowena was very excited about the discovery of the Mind’s Eye. She questioned Giles closely about it at supper, convinced that by his account it ought to fall within her remit as a healer. She would have liked to take possession of it straight away, but Selena had already decided that they should wait until the whole jumble had been sorted. They should, she had argued, be aware that some magical objects were designed to be used only in combination, and that it wouldn’t do to be premature. Rowena, Giles could tell, was less than happy with the restriction as it applied to the Mind’s Eye.
“But if Rupert and the other Watcher used it on its own, it doesn’t apply. Selena, this could be *really* useful, for, well, *y’know*.” She inclined her head slightly in Fianna’s direction and made a significant expression with her eyes. Giles, meanwhile, was urgently shaking his head at Selena, convinced that it was the last intervention that Fianna needed, but also not wanting to refer to her by name, in case she understood.
“No, I don’t think it’s a good idea to start making exceptions. It’s clear from what Rupert has told us that there is a plan and a pattern to all this and I don’t want anything magical to leave the attic until we know exactly what it is.” Selena’s tone made it clear that the subject was closed, and taking no notice of Rowena’s frustrated sigh, moved the conversation on to other things.
* * * * *
It was a welcome break in a frustrating week. After finding the Mind’s Eye, progress had slowed to a crawl. Giles’ singing voice was becoming hoarse with trying to find the precise notes, most of which were at the top of his range, and the ‘A’ string on his guitar kept unwinding. So when Asha had asked him for help, he had jumped at the chance. She was busy with a potion that needed stirring for the steady count of precisely fifty-four thousand, three hundred and twenty-one, and needed quite a bit of backup to relieve her aching arms and add ingredients at particular moments. She’d wanted someone to go out and look for fresh earth-star fungi in the woods, and so Giles found himself following a rain-swollen brook down to the edge of the wood, scratching amongst the sodden mass of fallen leaves with a stick, taking care not to damage anything that lay underneath.
He’d almost filled the small trug he was carrying, when he heard a stick break under someone’s footfall on the far bank of the stream. A little way upstream, Rowena, one arm curled around a tree-trunk for support, was trying to find a foothold on a fallen sapling to hop over the dark waters. Her hair hung down in front of her face, a wavy mass that she held back from her eyes with her free hand. Her beaten-up tennis shoes were muddy and so was the hem of her skirt; her expression was intent, looking for the safe place to cross. She was a wild child, like a painting by Gaugin or Caravaggio, her natural grace so like a pose that it drew the eye. Giles allowed himself to gaze; it was possible to look at something lovely and not want to possess it. It was, of course also possible to look *and* want to possess it. He waited, entranced and breathless, not sure if she knew he was there, watching the careful placing of one foot, the gathering of her posture, the spring towards the other bank…
Rowena would have cleared the stream had her foot not slipped on a patch of mud; she pitched forward onto her knees, her skirt trailing in the water behind her. Giles rushed over to help her up, and her look of surprise turned rapidly to embarrassment.
“So much for living close to nature for ten years. Can’t even judge a two foot crossing,” she grumbled. She sat on the ground, wringing out her skirt hem as best she could and wiping her hands clean on it.
“Wouldn’t trousers be more practical?” Giles enquired, and she shrugged.
“I like skirts. What are you up to then, Rupert?”
“Foraging for fungi. Thankfully, not involving rooting in the earth with my nose.”
She duly laughed, looking up at him, and on impulse he sat down next to her. The ground wasn’t that wet here, in the shade of a dense coppice, though they wouldn’t be able to sit comfortably for too long: damp and cold pervaded everything. They were into December by now. A clear day was followed by a hard frost; rain had a stinging, sleety edge to it at times. This morning, the air was still, but the winds could howl round the House very impressively at night and on a blustery day.
“Not busy today?” Giles continued.
“Rose told me to take some time off. She thinks I’m upsetting Fianna again for some reason.” Rowena began to chew her nails again, a habit Giles hadn’t observed since their first meeting.
“Why should she think so?”
“Maybe it’s me who’s upset. Here I am, supposedly a healer, and she’s no better than when she came. I can’t even find out what’s wrong with her, and I can’t help her.”
“That’s important to you: that you use your gift to help.” He could sympathise with her frustration in the circumstances.
“Don’t patronise me, Rupert,” she muttered irritably, then instantly repented. ”Sorry. I know you didn’t mean it like that. Yes, it is. It’s what a healing gift is supposed to be for, isn’t it?”
Giles opened his mouth to assure her that indeed it was, when he stopped, frowned, and began again.
“Rowena, among the travellers or the gypsies, were there ever children born who were like Rose?”
“ With Down’s Syndrome, you mean? Sure. Once or twice. Why?”
“You wouldn’t have tried to ‘heal’ them of it, I suppose.”
Rowena rolled her eyes. “Of course not; well, unless they had heart defects or something, and I’d leave that to the surgeons, mostly. They aren’t ill, just put together a different way. It can cause them big problems, yes, but I can’t make someone into a totally different person. I’m not sure I would if I could.” She paused, making the connection. “You mean Fianna might be *meant* to be like she is? That’s an awful thought.”
“Yes. But if it’s true, then she doesn’t need healing, only acceptance and understanding: a form of healing in itself, when you think about it. Just more mundane than the laying on of hands.”
“So, I’ve been wasting my time.” Rowena inspected her ruined nails with a disgruntled expression.
“I didn’t say that. Just that, perhaps, you might be willing to accept a different outcome. It certainly can’t be right that she be terrified all the time.”
“The Mind’s Eye! You said it helps you see yourself as others see you. She would see that we just want to protect and welcome her. Ask Selena, she’d listen to you.” She turned to him eagerly but he was adamant.
“No!” He’d spoken more sharply than he’d intended, but although he softened his voice now, it was no less emphatic. “The Eye has its own way of operating. You can’t control what it shows to those who use it. In the wrong hands it could be a disaster. We don’t know anything of what Fianna has experienced, or how much she understands.”
“But it’s good magic, healing magic. Here we are, with the biggest concentration of magical skill in the country, probably. Are you saying we should just wait for her to get over it?”
Giles nodded slowly. “Yes. It is what I’m saying. Even if she might never fully come to terms with whatever has happened. I’m sorry if it sounds cruel, but sometimes things have to take their course, and interfering, however good ones intentions, is the wrong course of action.”
Rowena sighed, her indignation deflated. “Is that the voice of experience talking?” She wondered aloud.
“Yes. Very long and practical experience.” Giles was glumly aware both of ‘pulling rank’ on grounds of maturity, and of how stuffy it made him sound. His companion said nothing more for a while, until she shivered and began to fidget.
“Cold and wet,” she explained, getting to her feet. Without preamble she hitched up her still-clinging wet skirt and knotted it on one hip to get it away from her skin as much as she could, exposing an impressive length of shapely bare leg, incongruously as grubby-kneed as a schoolgirl. “Yuk. I’d take these shoes off as well if I could. Come on, let’s get back before I freeze. Looks like you’ve got enough there.” Gesturing to the nearly full trug on the ground, she noticed that Giles’ eyes were fixed on the space to the front and side of him and away from her. He didn’t move for a second.
“What’s the matter?” She put her hand on his shoulder. He jumped, turning his head and getting another, close-up, eyeful of what was on display and choking slightly. This was ridiculous, he told himself. She was just being practical, and he was being…tortured. She seemed oblivious to the effect she had on him as she strode briskly ahead up the slope, holding her ratty padded jacket closed with one hand and the rest of her wet skirt away from herself with the other. Giles had always been partial to good legs on a woman, and hers were really exceptional, lean and long, with well-defined muscle at the thigh and narrow ankles, and if he kept on looking too long she *was* surely going to notice. Then she’d be offended and he’d have to tell a parcel of lies about how he didn’t mean anything by it and only sought her friendship. Because if he were honest, and told her that the more he saw of her in every sense, the more he liked, she might well laugh at him, and he wasn’t sure that that wouldn’t be harder to bear than her anger.
She was gathering speed as they neared the House, brushing aside the undergrowth. A piece of it sprang back and she yelped, stopping to inspect a deep scratch above her knee.
“Not my day today, is it?” She licked a finger and dabbed at the wound gingerly, looking sideways at him ruefully, from under her thick lashes. “I must look a right sight.”
Giles wasn’t complaining. He wanted to say she looked absolutely fine, though in truth ‘like she’d been dragged through a hedge backwards’ would be more accurate, but it didn’t matter. At that moment he would have taken her over the most immaculately dressed city girl in England or California, and for a moment he let it show in his face, and knew he had done so.
Rowena stopped tending her wound and pushed her hair back from her face with both hands, considering him. He waited, swallowing nervously, wondering which way she’d go, annoyance or mockery.
“You’re an attractive man, you know, Rupert,” she began conversationally. Stepping over to him she gently put a finger under his chin and pushed. “ Though better without the mouth hanging open, I think.”
“Wh-what?” Surely he couldn’t have heard her properly. Unless the whole thing in the woods had been a performance for his benefit, an extended bit of flirting which, he had to admit, had been extremely effective if so. He didn’t believe, however, that it had been any such thing, and this wasn’t what he would imagine a lovely young woman would say to him out of the blue.
“You. Are good looking. And nice. Attractive. *You know*.” She spelled it out patiently, clearly very amused at his bemusement. “Look, generally, I just prefer to come out with what I’m thinking and deal with the fallout afterwards. You looked like you wouldn’t mind me saying it.”
“Mind? N-no, not at all. I just…wasn’t expecting…” He took off his glasses and folded them with one hand, looking at his thumb and finger grasping the bridge. He took a deep breath. [Come on. Be sensible. Accept the compliment gracefully, but give her a let-out clause.]
“I’m… quite a bit older than you.”
Rowena nodded, but didn’t seem in the least concerned.
“So? Looks good on you. Come on, I want to get warm and dry.” And she was off again.
Once they reached the House she disappeared upstairs, leaving him standing in the hall for several minutes, more than a little bewildered, not sure if her comment were a mere statement of opinion or a declaration of actual interest. Her directness was very appealing, but she lacked the sophistication of someone who really knew how to play the mating game, how to fish for a man and reel him in, once caught. Giles wasn’t sure he wanted her to, either. He just needed to know where he stood.
She came back down, wearing the dark blue dress, barefoot, brushing her hair vigorously to get rid of the tangles. Seeing him waiting at the foot of the stairs, she tucked her hairbrush away on a windowsill and skipped down until, with her standing on the bottom step, their faces were level.
He realised he was still holding the little flat basket of earth-stars, and put it down near his feet. As he straightened she took his face between her hands and kissed him soundly on the mouth.
“You looked like you wouldn’t mind me doing that, either.”
A beat of glad amazement, and he was sliding his hands into her hair and kissing her back tenderly and thoroughly. They drew apart for the sake of oxygen and he planted another little peck on the prominent bridge of her nose. Both of them grinned like teenagers who’d finally taken the plunge. They were about to go another round, when the sound of a door opening made them jump and look toward it. Rose, consumed with her errand, failed to pick up on *all* of the atmosphere, though she gave each of them a curious glance. Their hearts, if not singing, were certainly drumming.
“Selena wants to talk to you,” she informed Rowena. “About Fianna. Me and Moira as well, and Rupert if he wants. In the smelly room.”
Giles had no idea what she meant, but Rowena giggled and followed Rose confidently through yet another door; he trailed along behind them feeling disoriented, not to mention a little disappointed in a rather base way.
Smelly was the word. Someone had indulged in a special offer on patchouli; either that, or some really high-grade hash. Looking at Selena’s alert and expectant face, Giles settled for the former. She was sitting cross-legged on a broad curved stool, fashioned in the African style. Moira sat on the floor to her left. A circle of squat tallow candles surrounded them, guttering as they burned low and further adding to the mixture of odours. Giles’ sensitive nose could discern incense, dried flowers, bitter pungent herbs, the candle grease, and…chewing gum?
Selena parked her gum in a glass dish to one side and greeted them cheerfully.
“Pleased you could come so quickly. Moira and I have been discussing where we’ve got to with Fianna. Or not. I’ve no intention of giving up on her, mind. I just…I wonder if we’re on the right track, here. Any suggestions would be more than welcome.”
Giles and Rowena looked at each other, then at Selena, and spoke together.
“As a matter of fact...”
“Funny you should…”
They stopped, smiled, and began again. This time Giles let Rowena speak first.
“Rupert and I were just talking about it. He thinks we should stand back and interfere less, and he could be right.”
At the others’ questioning looks, Giles elaborated:
“We might have all been proceeding from a false assumption, that Fianna needs help to become more like us before she can contribute to the community, that she’s damaged in some way and needs ‘mending’. All efforts in that direction seem to have been to no avail. I propose we give her more autonomy, let her communicate if and when she’s ready.”
Selena and Moira concurred. Rose was frowning still, and Giles thought she disagreed; then he thought again, and re-simplified:
“Fianna might be the way she’s supposed to be. We should leave her alone and it might help her.” Rose thought about this for a bit and nodded.
“All right,” she agreed.
“Will Fianna be safe, though?” wondered Rowena. “She does have a tendency to wander off and escape.”
“Just keep an eye on her from a distance,” Selena decided. “Rupert, have you had any thoughts on what you heard her say the other day?”
“It was a piece of poetry, but it could be something she learned or heard recently or as a child. Unless and until she says something else or we get a clue towards explaining it, we’re really no further on.”
Moira got to her feet. “Okay. Rowena, you and Rose know her best. Do only what you absolutely *have* to, to keep her safe, but no more. See what happens, and keep Selena informed. Sorry, I have to go and take the next stirring shift for Asha now.”
Giles suddenly remembered the earth-stars, lying abandoned at the foot of the stairs, and started to make his excuses also, worrying aloud that Asha’s potion might be ruined.
“Don’t fret yourself. I’m sure someone…Oh, thank you, dear. Lorna’s fetching them.”
Giles was starting to wish that the twins wouldn’t do that.
* * * * *
Over the next couple of weeks, Rowena and Rose were kept busier than they had ever been. Left to her own devices, Fianna wandered restlessly all over the house and into the woods. Her favourite places seemed to be the stone circle, the door to the attic and one of the innermost rooms on the ground floor of the House. Of her own accord, she came to mealtimes with everyone else, though she seemed most at peace when left to her own devices. Selena declared the new policy an improvement.
Giles was more ambivalent. He was curious to know if what he had heard her say *did* have some significance, and was happy to wait to see if more freedom might encourage her to reach out to the other members of the coven. But it was difficult to find time for him to see Rowena alone. When she was not occupied with Fianna, she was catching up with her magical studies, and her timetable did not mesh easily with his. She could not come and visit him as he worked – they had tried that - because the atmosphere in the attic still severely upset her. They had to be content with whispered conversations in the recreation rooms at odd moments, chance meetings on their way to and from other places; stolen kisses in corners and sweet but brief embraces whenever and wherever they could. It was getting bloody frustrating, as was the relative lack of progress on The Puzzle, as Giles termed it in his head.
Something had troubled him all along. The proper number of a coven was thirteen. Lorna was positive that Fianna belonged with them. However, in his explorations so far, Giles had been hampered by not knowing what talent Fianna might have, and therefore what use she might make of any magical items he had uncovered. So far, it seemed possible to divide what he had already found between the twelve other witches with nothing spare. He was beginning to fear that perhaps Fianna was more suited to be a client than a member of the coven, when he came across a large box in a far corner. When he finally managed to dislodge and open it (two entirely different triggers being needed), he found it full of odd blocks of wood of varying lengths. They were not mere off-cuts, being shaped and polished along the grain and hollowed out on one side. Lining them up in a row, he noticed a clear gradation in size. On a whim, he rapped his knuckles on one of them and heard a distinct bell-like echo. Each block could be ‘played’ thus, but the range of notes was low, and made nothing stir in the silence following.
From down below came the sound of running footsteps and Fianna made it as far as the top of the ladder before she panicked, unable to go further. Rose was hot on her heels, but in accordance with Selena’s instructions she didn’t try to bring Fianna back down, only waited to see what would happen.
Working on instinct again, Giles held out one of the blocks. Fianna touched it with one finger, recoiled, then smiled and tried to get a note out of it. Held in his hand, it didn’t resonate properly and she grabbed it and put it down on the ladder’s top rung, balancing it with amazing accuracy. Satisfied with the sound this time, she looked up at Giles as if to say: ‘Well?’
He collected up all the other blocks, put them back in their box and said quietly to Rose:
“Get Selena, quick as you can.”
Luckily, Fianna seemed mesmerised by the sound of the block that she kept tapping, and the urgent whispered conversation that ensued did not intrude on whatever thoughts she was having. Selena was still reluctant to remove anything. Giles’ considered opinion, that it was the box, but not its contents, which had magical properties swayed her, as did the thought that at last here was something for which Fianna showed some affinity. Finding a cloth bag from somewhere, she gave it to Fianna and allowed her to fill it with the wooden blocks. It was an awkward compromise, but she judged it to be the right one; more so, when Fianna clutched the bag eagerly to her chest and disappeared to her room, from which the sounds of struck wood began to emerge in a doleful sequence.
“I vote you award yourselves some recreation time,” Selena told Rose and Giles. “Rose, I know you want to make decorations for the Solstice; Someone else can stay here by the door in case she decides to come out again. Ask Rowena to meet us here, please.”
Rose padded away purposefully down the corridor.
A minute or so passed in silence. If she expected Giles to leave too, Selena showed no sign of it. He was about to offer to keep watch as well, hoping the ulterior motive wouldn’t be too transparent, when Selena said casually:
“Why don’t you and Rowena go out for a nice long walk, and I’ll stay here. Both of you’ve been working like Trojans lately, I’m sure you could find something, er...fun to do.” She was barely suppressing a giggle at the look on his face, and decided to have pity on him. “Rupert, you’ve been about as discreet about it as any man who’s *really* interested in a woman knows how to be, but if I’d intercepted some of the looks you two give each other over the table I’d have burn marks. Besides, “she added as an afterthought, “Alice, who’s a terrible gossip, saw the two of you engaged in some seriously impressive snogging behind the woodshed the other day. I think most of us have the picture by now. For what it’s worth, I wish blessings on you both. Just… the heart, you know… it’s a demanding master.”
“I swear I’ll not do anything to hurt her.”
“I know. I was rather thinking of you, Rupert.”
Before he could work out quite what she was getting at, Giles’ train of thought was comprehensively derailed by the arrival of Rowena, who obviously hadn’t expected him to be there, but was delighted to see him. She took Selena’s understanding of the situation in her stride, and happily and openly held Giles’ hand as they walked away.
“Does it bother you?” she asked him as they found their coats. “That people know what’s going on with us? We’re not doing anything to be ashamed of.“
“Not ‘bother’. I’m certainly not ashamed of it; how could I be? But I...I value privacy and discretion and all those things you’ll no doubt tell me are repressed and stuffy,” he replied, pulling on his boots and not meeting her eye, yet pleading nonetheless for her understanding. “This...” He stood, and touched her cheek. “This is something I never looked to find here, that I haven’t experienced in a long time. It doesn’t feel...commonplace, something to talk about over tea and cakes...I’m sorry, I’m not expressing myself well.”
Rowena stepped out of the House with him and the cold snapped at their faces. They put their arms around each other and snuggled close. She kissed him quickly on the tip of his nose and smiled softly.
“I think you’re expressing yourself very well. This...is special. So let’s go somewhere private and enjoy it.”
They walked for quite a distance, talking about what they had each been learning and working on over the past few days, speculating on the reasons for Fianna’s interest in the tone blocks and the whole musical theme. Giles’ theory was that it was all about communication.
“If what we want to express can’t be got across with speech, we resort to gesture or music or poetry or art. If everything could be said in words, those things wouldn’t be needed.
If one is cursed with silence or gifted with music...” [or was it the other way round?] He wondered, remembering.
“You can find a way through, use what you do have,” she finished for him. “How on earth the rest of us make sense of it beats me, though. She certainly is ‘marching to a different drummer’.”
They paused to listen to a cock robin, red breast plumped out with autumn grubs, singing its heart out on a branch not three feet away, aware of them but unafraid.
“I wonder what *he’s* saying.” Giles mused as they carried on.
“That’s Rose’s department, not mine. But in general, I suppose, that it’s his territory, all the other robins better watch out, that he’s fit and well and glad to be alive.”
“Communication successful, then. And what about when I do this?” He sang a few bars of one of Schubert’s ‘lieder’ in her ear and nibbled on the lobe. Rowena wriggled away and laughed.
“Stop that. I don’t know that much German. You’re probably saying you’ve got a weird ‘thing’ for my ear,” she teased, but then her face took on a more thoughtful cast.
“You’ve got a lovely singing voice, Rupert. You know, we should make music for the Solstice, all of us! I’ve heard Meg sing in the kitchen, I know she can carry a tune, and Rose says she sings Fianna to sleep sometimes. You’ve got your guitar, and I’m sure I saw a piano in one of the recreation rooms.”
“Well, unless anyone has sheet music, it’ll be down to what we can all remember. Could be an eclectic mix.”
Giles found himself rather looking forward to the idea, and amused by the prospect. They began to compare notes, as it were, finding music and songs in common, anything from The Beatles to Yiddish lullabies. Rowena’s singing voice was husky but true and she could lend a smoky texture to the notes without coarsening them. When they sang in harmony, the pensive and the passionate songs suited better than the light and airy, but that was all to the good. Despite the larking about and merriment as they walked and sang and kicked through the fallen leaves, crisp as cornflakes or sticky as suet, there was an intensity about their way with each other today. A sense of waiting to decide whether and when to act on what they both felt, steps toward a headlong fall that would be no accident, but a dive into sweet waters.
When in the depths of the woods they kissed, feasting on each other, tasting the flavour and texture of lips and tongue, devouring with open mouths every bit of unclothed skin, seeking the rest with greedy wandering hands, they were no longer satisfied as before. The edge of hunger was not dulled, only rubbed keener than ever. Giles knew it first, knew that his decision was made by the leaping flame in his blood and the pressure at his groin, but he tried to hold himself back, unsure if she were ready. He didn’t want it to be about this alone, even as he couldn’t deny that at base it *was* also about this. Meeting, admiration, liking, and friendship: yes, all those things. But so too love, desire, *sex*: God, he wanted her.
Rowena pulled slightly away, though still holding him, and he swayed towards her, gasping. She was looking, with a burning steady question, deep into his eyes behind the glasses. He took them off, fumbling with the frames in clumsy hands, shoving them into his coat pocket, trying to find the words to…what? Apologise? Explain? Plead?
“Rupert.” She soothed him with deep affection and acceptance, and asked for no such words. Instead she pulled him by the hand, back in the direction of the House. As they went, more solemn than they had come, a few flakes of snow began to fall, the first of the year. Flurries swept by the wind twisted through the tree branches and settled damply on their collars; by the time they arrived, it was clumping on the soles of their boots and clinging to their hair. Giles ran his hands through her streaming locks and only succeeded in making them wetter, causing her to laugh at him in mock-exasperation.
“Before we go in, Rose wanted me to get her some filberts, for the Solstice decorations. They’re in the storeroom, beside the back door to the kitchen. Quick, then we can get in and get dry.”
The lean-to storeroom was actually fairly substantial. Although the community bought in most of what it needed, they felt it important to grow or harvest what they could, in acknowledgement of their dependence on Mother Earth. A few fruit and nut trees and bushes were scattered in the immediate surroundings of the House, or here and there in the woods, and all that could be picked or gathered in season had either been used already or sat here, on almost empty shelves now that they were in the midst of winter. In wicker baskets protected from damp and rats, Rowena found the green-husked filberts, bearded stars concealing sweet tapered nut kernels. Rooting in the bottom of a barrel, she found one last rather wrinkled apple and showed it to him triumphantly. She held it out as though she meant it for him, but when he reached for it she plucked it out of his reach, dancing away and shaking her head.
“No, I need it. Have patience.”
Patience: in the House there was time for what was needful. For beginnings, endings, and everything in between: time for the pair to come together, but not yet. First would come the community. Next day was the Winter Solstice.
* * * * *
“Greet the Death of the Year.”
They all stood, in a semi-circle with linked hands, at the Western edge of the woods, watching the setting sun dip below the horizon. As the light dimmed from pearl to rose to iron grey, for a split second they experienced a flash of the awe and terror of primitive man, the fear that the sun might never return. A shiver passed along the line; then they loosed hands, shook themselves and turned back for home, solemn despite all their modern knowledge of the reliable rhythms of the cosmos.
Selena led the way, but when they reached the House she hung back and let all precede her as they stepped over a yew bough laid across the threshold, the symbol of the Old Year past. All lights had been extinguished. Each member of the household visited every living, working and sleeping room, feeling their way if need be, knowing the lack of the Light with every sense, how in their minds it magnified every touch, sound and smell even as it denied the eyes.
Giles alone was able to enter the attic, stumbling and scraping his shins on the rungs of the ladder in the darkness. He could barely make out the outline of the roof beams above his head, and retreated, in case he greeted the Death of the Year with yet another bump on the head. He stopped by his own bedroom, intending to collect his guitar for later, and saw by the moonlight filtering in through the window that he was not the first to enter. Rowena was walking slowly around the room, trailing her hand over the surfaces: his washstand, the jacket hanging behind the door, his pillow. He couldn’t see the expression on her face properly, but the tilt of her head indicated contemplation and affection and he was glad that she was here. As he stepped through the open door way she turned and smiled at him.
“Hope you don’t mind,” she ventured. “I *am* supposed to go into every room. I just wanted to start here.”
“No, it’s quite all right. We…we could do the rest of the rooms together.”
As he hefted his guitar case she brushed her hand gently against his and they intertwined their fingers, squeezing briefly before she led him out to complete their tour. Giles visited parts of the House he had never before been to. A glass–roofed atrium filled with living herbs, cut back and dormant now, but ready to flourish again come the Spring; a room with a central hearth complete with stereotyped hanging cauldron; a small room on the first floor, wood panelled and plush carpeted so deep that their feet would leave prints; the laundry room where Tao the Siamese sat upright and alert in his basket, watching for mice.
As they all gathered in the dining room, Selena used a taper, thrust into the glowing embers of the fireplace to light the large red Solstice candle in the middle of the table. She bade them:
“Remember the Sun.”
“Warmth and Light in our darkness,” all answered, each taking a smaller candle and lighting it from the central one, setting them in spiked holders at their places at table.
“Now we give thanks, and choose our partners for the vigil.”
Light would burn all through the long hours of darkness, watched over by a relay of them in pairs as the rest slept, until all should go out and meet the sunrise. Rose, who was sitting in Selena’s right, offered Fianna her hand and the quiet girl took it, wordlessly accepting the pairing and seeming content with it. Alice grinned at her life mate Phoebe across the table.
“I can’t sleep without you anyway, so let’s stay awake together.”
Moira’s choice was pretty much a given, too.
“Twice my sister, you’ll keep watch with me, won’t you?”
Lorna pretended to look doubtful, until her elder sibling slapped her wrist lightly and she teased Moira back:
“Have to keep your eye on me, I suppose.”
Rhoda chose Kezia, Meg asked Selena. Asha, joking, promised to spike Maeve’s next brew if she refused her. Giles, aware that Rowena now had no choice but him, was caught between happy anticipation and the wish that she’d been called upon earlier, been able to choose him of her own accord.
She understood, and had in any case planned for this moment, following the gypsy traditions she had lived with and in for the previous ten years. Taking from her skirt pocket the apple she’d found in the storeroom the day before, she sliced it neatly across transversely, so that the seed core formed a five pointed star. Keeping the lower half, she passed the crown with its stalk across the table. Giles had to stand to reach for it, and as he did so, felt every eye upon him. He knew that by this token, Rowena was acknowledging him publicly as her sweetheart, and so apparently did the other diners: a little ripple of applause saluted them as they bit into their halves of the apple together.
The whole company feasted, savoury and sweet dishes served amid the greenery that decorated every surface. Holly and mistletoe, laurel and pine were woven in wreaths and swags on the table and hung from the walls; Rose had worked hard for more than a day and transformed the high, plain room into an evergreen forest, strewing all about the place as many of the fruits of nature as she could lay hands on. In this way they would be reminded of how life carried on in nut, seed, and bud until the sun regained its strength and the sap rose with Springtime.
The conclusion to the meal was a huge pie of spiced fruits, the golden pastry crust decorated with an image of the sun in splendour. As they cut into it in turn and passed it around, they commemorated the sun consumed, yet present in the hearts and minds of men and women. Happily stuffed, they pushed back their chairs and cleared the table. The candles burned low now, threads and pools of crimson wax spilling onto the boards, the colour of blood, of animal life amongst the vegetation’s green. Selena took up the stout Yule log, a slice of one massive branch of an ancient oak, and laid it carefully on the fire, to burn slowly until only a remnant was left.
Now they sang, to celebrate the light within and beat back the darkness without. Giles discovered to his surprise that every one of them had an excellent singing voice, save only Fianna who kept mute. Statistically, it was slightly improbable, but it made for a very musical evening. They touched upon madrigals, chant, Celtic, English folk and twelve bar blues, looking for shared harmonies and lyrics that were known to most, or at least were easy to pick up. As well as Giles’ guitar, they could boast a fiddle, a tabor, a harmonica and a penny whistle with which to accompany themselves.
The Yule log charred black, glowed amber, and at length grew a coat of silver ash; the company drank mead and cordials and the fabled heather wine, becoming pleasantly tipsy, but never degenerating into drunkenness. After a few glasses, Fianna slipped out of the room and Rowena shadowed her. When they returned, it could be seen that Fianna had gone to fetch the tone blocks. She began to play them, following each rhythm and melody with instinctive skill, eyes fixed on her task. From somewhere she had obtained or fashioned a wooden beater and the sounds were rounded and full. At first, the others had paused to listen and look, but it seemed she could not bear that, could only function if no-one paid her heed.
At last the oak log was all but gone, and Selena extinguished the fire with spring water, preserving what remained of the log to dry and put away to kindle next year’s fire. It was time for the vigil to begin. Rose and Fianna were to take first watch, with fresh white night-lights lit from the Solstice Candle; then Giles and Rowena, each pair passing on the light by using the dying flames of their watchlights to ignite those of the next pair. Last of all, Selena and Meg would watch for the time until just before dawn, then wake everyone else to leave the House and welcome in the new Solar Year at sunrise.
There was little point in going to bed for only an hour or two’s sleep, so Rowena and Giles did the washing up and putting away in the pantry until it was their turn. Receiving the light, they both returned to the dining room, which was still warm from the fire and the body heat of the diners. Setting their night lights safely on the mantle shelf, they sat side by side on the rag rug in front of the ash-filled grate. It wasn’t meant to be a silent vigil, but now they were alone, Giles, at any rate, found himself tongue-tied. He held her hand in his, and she rested her head on his shoulder, inching closer until they were pressed together from hip to knee. He put his arm round her waist to pull her even more snugly against him and they sat for a long time saying nothing, looking alternately at the two tiny yellow flames and into each others’ eyes.
He could have kissed her a dozen times, but this was neither the time nor the place to rekindle that particular blaze. He knew he was dry tinder, ready to flare at a single spark, but it was much too early in the relationship to even think about this, he told himself. He’d known her only five weeks, been courting her less than three. He had twenty years on her. Though she took delight in romantic walks, kisses and love tokens, the physical reality of his well-worn body might be a less pleasing prospect. There were all kinds of reasons to take it slowly, not to press, not even to expect…
“I want to go to bed with you.” She smiled into his startled face. “I mean, not now, not tonight. But soon.” Closing his open mouth with a kiss, she continued: “I think it’s what you want, isn’t it? Only…” She stopped, searching for the right words. Giles hastened to assure her:
“If…you’re not sure…don’t do it for me, to please me, or because you think you should…”
Rowena shook her head vehemently. “No, it’s not that. I’m absolutely sure. I feel like…I can’t get close enough to you, I don’t want to hide any part of me. I don’t want there to be any place you aren’t welcome, that you don’t know. But I…um…I haven’t done this before. With anyone. I mean, never.”
“Never…*Oh*.... I see.” That added a whole new layer of consideration, of hesitancy.
“I don’t want to be a disappointment to you; you’ve probably had loads of experience…”
Giles sighed and stroked the back of her hand with his fingertips, watching the movement, to and fro, to and fro.
“Quite possibly too much. Rowena… I can’t imagine any circumstances in which you could be a disappointment to me. I don’t know how it is that no-one’s travelled this way with you already…”
“It was the custom of my tribe, of my foster parents. They’re very strict about things like that. I respected their ways. Besides, I liked some of the boys – the young men – very much, but I never met anyone like you, anyone who made me feel like this. I’ve been waiting for the right person, the right time and place, and…here it is. I can feel it *here*.” She struck her chest lightly with a clenched fist, grinned, and admitted more prosaically, “…And other places. Don’t look so shocked, Rupert, I’m innocent but I’m not stupid. I know what goes where, how it’s all supposed to work. I’m an accident, remember? My Mum made damn sure I knew how not to have one. She told me to be sensible and careful, not to get carried away by the moment, to stay in control. But…sometimes, I think you have to take a risk.”
Giles was very concerned. “I wouldn’t dream of asking you to. If we did…do this, I’d…take care of that side of it.” Just as long as he didn’t have to ask Lorna to add them to the shopping list.
“I’m grateful for the offer, but unless you need to for any other reason, you can leave it to me. One of the things I’ve learned while I’ve been here is that it’s a pretty poor witch who doesn’t know how to control her own fertility. That’s not the risk I’m talking about.” She moved away from his side and knelt in front of him on the rug, cradling his face between her hands and touching her forehead to his.
“Rupert, dearest, don’t you know?”
He knew, all right; knew that the risk, for him as much as for her, was of going too deep, too fast. It was not so much the baring of bodies, but the laying open of hearts; they might begin by seeking joy, but find in the end sorrow and loss.
Giles was quite capable of sleeping with a woman he was not in love with; one of his regrets was that, over the years, his idealism in that regard had fallen by the wayside. But with Rowena, it wouldn’t be like that. They had not yet said the words, but words were not everything. If she came to his bed, they would not merely ‘have sex’, albeit he brought every skill that he had to the act. They would make love.
He drew back and kissed her softly, just the slightest brush of his lips on her forehead. “Yes, I know. And yes, if you’re certain, then I want to take the risk…very much. Whenever you are ready.”
He drew her into his arms again and they held each other without urgency now, peaceful and sweet, the promise in hand. For the rest of their watch, they talked quietly about Solstices past, whether celebrated or not, about the hidden blessings of Winter and the open graces of Spring. In the morning after waking, they stooped together under the silver fir branch, symbol of the new Solar Year, fastened to the door lintel. Then they walked with the whole household, eastwards to meet the rising sun. Selena carried a sistrum, a frame with many tiny silver bells, borne by priestesses for thousands of years before her. With its music, she saluted the sun’s disc as it bathed all their faces with light.
“Greet the Birth of the Year.”
* * * * *
Giles was waiting. He’d been waiting since that first morning at breakfast five weeks ago. Waiting since the first word in the damp and cold by the bramble patch, the first kiss at the foot of the stairs. Waiting since the night of the Solstice, three days ago.
This morning, Rowena had stopped him as he started up the ladder to the attic. “Tonight?” was all she had said, then she’d reached up to stroke the hair back behind his ear and traced his cheekbone with one finger, her eyes meeting his. He swallowed hard and nodded. No more was said. At supper she left the table after the plates had been cleared and vanished upstairs. He’d needed to consult Rhoda about a book of sacred stories in the attic, a welcome distraction. It was only temporary however, and now he sat, freshly bathed and clean shaven, waiting.
He didn’t know what she was doing now, how long she was going to be, what she’d make of it all. He had only the haziest memory of his own first time, a drunken, graceless fumble after a College party almost thirty years ago. He wanted so much better for Rowena, the best he could give. He stirred the fire and laid on a little more fuel, though the room was already pleasantly warm; looked at himself in the mirror, put his glasses away, sucked in his stomach and hoped he was up to this. He’d never had any complaints, quite the opposite, but the responsibility of being one person’s entire experience was a new one. Not to mention that the spirit might be more than willing but the flesh lacking in follow-through...
One, two raps on the door.
She’d made the most of the time. Her hair was braided in one thick plait over her left shoulder, threaded with a silver ribbon all the way through. The midnight blue dress (he’d been hoping for that) showed off her ivory skin to perfection; she’d put back on just enough of her jewellery to make it an occasion. She was carrying a fat lighted candle on a dish in one hand, the flame trembling just a fraction; a swathe of clothing hung folded over the other arm. Giles rushed to help her, taking the candle and putting it on the bedside table.
Rowena put her spare clothes in a drawer at his invitation, darting shy glances around the room and steadying herself with calming breaths. When she turned round, Giles could see that she had kept one thing, something like a shawl in white velvet, embroidered around the edge with tiny red flowers. She moved resolutely to the bed and started to turn back the covers.
“There’s no hurry...” Giles started to say, but she was intent on her task. Once she had pulled the top sheet and counterpane free and laid bare the whole bed, she spread the velvet square carefully over the bottom sheet so that it covered most of the surface. Then she put back all the covers neatly, kicked off her shoes and sat on the edge of the bed, facing him.
“It’s my bride-cloth. Elena my foster mother made it for me. I know this isn’t anything like a traditional wedding night, but it seemed...appropriate.” Rowena looked down at her lap, a hint of sorrow in her manner. “It should have been her that I’ll show it to in the morning, but...”
Giles was taken aback.
“*Show it*? You mean you have to give proof that...”
Rowena nodded. “It sounds, weird, I know. But it’s the accepted way. It used to be that the whole encampment had to see, to witness the success of the union and honour the girl’s family for keeping their daughter only for her husband. Not for years, though. Now it’s only a few families and it’s a private thing between the bride and her mother. I asked...I asked Meg if she’d be my mother in this. She knows that I’ve come here and why; we share a room and I had to tell her I won’t be sleeping there tonight. I trust her. Do you mind terribly?”
In truth, he found the tradition barbaric, and the prospect embarrassing, but he wasn’t about to say so. He knew Meg to be a wise and discreet woman, and sensed how important this was to Rowena.
“No. I only hope...that you’ll want to remember this, that it will be a good beginning. Can I sit with you?” He indicated the place beside her on the bed and she gladly consented. She’d anointed herself with some unfamiliar perfume, warm and rich, and he sat still for a full minute with her in his arms, his cheek laid against hers, breathing it in, and underneath the unique scent of her. She turned her face as if to kiss him, but hesitated, and he told her:
“I want you to know, before we start, that anything, *anything* that you feel or say, or want or don’t want is fine by me. There aren’t any rules; every man, every woman is different. So if you’ve heard any tales...” Rowena giggled; clearly there’d been gossip among the women of the tribe.”...Take no notice. Just tell me, somehow. Especially if you...er, change your mind.”
Her response was to put her arms around his neck and press her mouth to the bare skin at his open collar, then his lips, then firm kisses all over his face and throat.
“Not gonna happen,” she promised. “This...*you*...is what I want.”
Giles had vowed to himself that he would take this as slowly as he could bear. He started with her hair, the dark wavy mass that had always fascinated him. At the same time as he kissed her searchingly and deeply, he began to un-braid it, running the strands through his fingers and deftly untying the silver ribbon as he went. When he reached the back of her head he slid one hand down to the nape of her neck and massaged it gently. Rowena’s hands stoked his face and arms as he worked, humming her satisfaction at the feel of his skin and the action of strong muscles under his shirt sleeves. Her fingers moved to his collar and she tentatively undid a few more buttons, sliding under the fabric and pulling it away from his chest and shoulder. Her hand moved down his bare arm, enjoying the bulk and definition of biceps, the roughness of his elbow, the contrasting baby smoothness of the inside of his forearm. She’d dragged the loose shirt virtually off his arm, and he half-stood to pull it free and take it off completely. A flash of memory of the last time he’d done this, and the reaction, made him pause and want to stop altogether for a moment.
“Rupert. I have seen a man without his shirt on before now,” Rowena smiled; then he heard her sharp intake of breath as he leaned forward to drop the shirt on the floor and she caught a glimpse of his bare back. “What happened?” she whispered, trying to take in the mass of old weals and scars and what looked like little round burn marks all over his back and shoulder blades.
Giles took a deep breath. Every first flush of intimacy he had now, would be forever shadowed by those hours in the Crawford Street mansion, by that silky mocking voice, by his own pain and bravery and, finally, by his failure, by the marks he bore like a branding. Angelus knew how to be remembered.
“Vampire in search of information. No, don’t.” She had started to lay hands on him. ”Anything that can heal there has done so. I don’t want to talk about it or even think about it. Only about you and me and what we can be to each other.”
He lifted her hand away from his back and kissed the inside of her wrist, laving the pulse point with his tongue and making her laugh and relax again. He did the same with her other wrist, nosing the two heavy mother-of –pearl bracelets up her arm as he kissed the fine-grained skin, barely skimming it with his lips and then, harder, teeth bared, through the cotton of her sleeve. He drew the bracelets down and off, one at a time, leaning across her to put them on the bedside table. She traced her fingertips all over his chest with pleased sounds of appreciation, skimming his nipples and making him groan softly.
“Sorry, don’t you like that?” she frowned, stilling her hands, but he covered them with his and put them back where they had been.
“I most definitely *do* like it. Take all sounds like that as encouragement. I should warn you, I make a lot of them.”
He proceeded to demonstrate as she explored him, daring to try some kisses there too and stroking his flanks and belly as far down as she could reach, rubbing his thighs slowly through the worn-soft denim. He leaned back on his elbows and threw his head back, closing his eyes and wishing he’d thought to put a soundproofing spell on the room, although it was a fair distance from the other bedrooms. He had a suspicion more people than Meg might catch on what they were doing, but he couldn’t help himself. It was so long since he’d been touched this way; so long since he’d wanted it this much. He fidgeted a bit on the edge of the bed; his jeans were getting uncomfortably tight, but taking them off seemed a little...predatory, especially since Rowena was still fully dressed.
Instead he returned her caresses, but on top of her clothes, skimming her ribs, the path from waist to hip to thigh, gathering the material and using it to emphasise the movements of his hands over her body. She made little sighing sounds, letting his hand slip between her parted knees and inch upwards, pulling the skirts up with it. When his fingers, bunching in the fabric, brushed her bare leg she jumped slightly but didn’t stop him; rather she encouraged the more intimate contact and told him how good it felt, skin to skin, as he repeated his hand’s journey upwards against the inside of her naked thigh, stopping short just a fraction away from her centre then returning to her knee to begin again.
He embraced her and with a low sound of enquiry, asked permission, his hand on the fastening at the back of her dress, his cheek against hers again. He felt the rustle of her hair as she allowed it with a nod, and he popped each tiny button open, all the way down past her waist, feeling her shiver as he reached the base of her spine. He moved his hand slowly up her back, glorying in the creamy smoothness of her skin, unhooked the strap of her bra, asking again before he did so, and eased all the cloth away, all the time kissing and sucking gently behind and under her ear. She helped him by shrugging out of the sleeves and pushing the dress down, standing to get rid of it entirely.
Giles just gazed at her for a few seconds, then he stood too and gazed some more, causing her to blush and look down in a way that might have been arch, were it not so obviously genuine modesty. She moved to put out the room light; he would have been perfectly happy to leave it on, but had to admit that the candlelight introduced a new play of shadow and movement which had its own visual pleasures: the slight sway of high, firm breasts, the flicker of light over her long back, the curve and pull of finely turned calf and thigh.
Now he absolutely had to get rid of those damned jeans, and stripped them off along with his socks, conscious that she was looking, wide-eyed but smiling, at the evidence of his excitement tenting the front of his boxer shorts. He turned back the covers and took her hands, leading her to lie down with him. Fortunately the fire had not yet gone out and they were able to look as well as touch, without needing to cover up for warmth. The sensation of her pressed full length against his body, the swell of her breasts, the curve of her stomach, her long legs winding round his thighs left him panting, and afraid he wouldn’t last out long enough, but something in her sensed it and she soothed him with gentle whispers in his ear, told him it was all right, that he felt so good and she didn’t want it to be over yet.
Nor did he, and despite the cogency of his body’s argument that they should get to it *right bloody now*, he took his time, caressing her beautiful back, behind and over her knees and the whole length of her thighs up to the edge of her simple white cotton knickers. His knuckles repeatedly grazed her collarbone, his lips the hollow of her throat, before he moved his hand downwards and brushed the backs of his fingers over the curve of one breast. She moved restlessly with a sigh, and shifted her body so he could feel it move and swell against his hand, so that he captured the fullness of soft flesh and the roughening peak of her nipple against his palm. Working it sensuously with dexterous movements, he made her start to groan herself, her open mouth tingling against his lips. Her eyes were shining with surprised delight when she looked into his.
“Ohh. That’s so good. I can feel it...not just there, but...”
“Mm-hm. That’s the idea,” he confirmed, and intensified the stimulus, kissing there too and flicking his tongue over her skin, even, after a pause and a look so that she wouldn’t be frightened, teasing the peak ever so slightly with his teeth. She actually cried out, then looked embarrassed, but he only grinned and encouraged her to “feel free”, suckling happily at one side while his hand made the most of the other. The white velvet cloth underneath them shifted and bunched but stayed put, its rich texture only adding to the sensuality and putting Giles in mind of what was to come, both in anticipation, and warning that he had to take care of Rowena in this.
She started to strain forward, unconsciously rubbing herself on him, governed by instinct, but needing a knowledgeable hand. Her hands were moving low on his back, curving over his buttocks, pulling him nearer and squeezing at the firm muscles there. He mirrored the action on her, slipping his fingers under the waistband of her knickers and pulling them down over her legs, as she did the same for him, with a few seconds of awkwardness as she negotiated his erection. She couldn’t take her eyes off it once he was naked, and he likewise took a moment to appreciate the dark tongue of hair that covered her womanhood and emphasised the shadow at the juncture of her thighs.
She wasn’t very nervous now, but she was curious. She put her hand out once or twice and then drew it back, until with a smile he took it and wrapped it firmly round his hardened flesh.
“Strongly encouraged,” he assured her.” Firm strokes, but not too fast. Wouldn’t do to waste it.” He showed her how the foreskin slipped back and the places he felt most pleasure. “The tip’s *very* sensitive, gently does it, just a thumb there is fine.” With a look, he asked if she would grant him the like privilege, and she drew her knees up and a little apart.
“That’s where all the... work you did…everywhere else, ended up. Please, carry on,” she breathed.
Giles smoothed his hand down over her hip, sweeping gently towards the centre, moulding his palm to the shape of her pubic bone and combing his fingers with tiny teasing movements through the hair that covered it. When he began to caress her even more intimately, she swung her hips forward to meet his hand every time he dipped into the growing pool of moisture at the entrance to her body. He was finding it difficult to think straight: she had overcome her first uncertainty, and seemed to enjoy fondling his penis almost as much as he enjoyed her doing it, and to find him vocalising his pleasure very exciting. He had to beg her to stop in a hurry after a few more minutes; he didn’t know how he’d stood out this long as it was. He desperately wanted her to be ready soon, and to have enough time to enjoy it once she was.
Kissing her mouth first, tasting her, salt and sweet, he moved steadily down her body with his lips until he reached her navel. He licked a trail with the tip of his tongue down the centre of her belly, making his way straight to her core. When he reached her pubic hair and kept on going, she flinched, murmuring:
“No…I don’t think I want you to…No, sorry,” and he stopped at once.
“It’s all right, only what you want.” He kissed back up her body, telling her she was lovely and that he wanted her, wanted to please her, wanted to feel her hands on him again. His own hands traced up her sides, down her arms, linked their fingers together, and put her arms more firmly around his waist.
“I want…I want more, I want all of you. Come on.” It was her voice, but speaking his thoughts, her arms holding him, rolling him towards her, drawing the sheet up over his back in the cooling air of the bedroom. A few whispered words and she was underneath him, telling him this was how she’d imagined it, dreamed of him, how she wanted it, the bride-cloth soft for her to lie on in the tradition of her people. He moved against her, resting between her thighs, supporting himself on one forearm on the bed, guiding himself with his hand, pushing and stroking the head of his penis in small movements along her wet core, relaxing and stretching her bit by bit, breathing steady and deep to stop himself going too fast.
He felt her surge upwards and welcome him in far enough so he could feel the resistance deeper inside and he braced himself with his arms at her sides; with a gasp and a hiss of pain she was pushing right onto him and holding very still for a few seconds, trembling. The resistance was gone, only the tightness like a fist held him. He didn’t dare move until she relaxed a little more, her hands going to his shoulders and petting him in delicate circles as they started slow thrusts and counter-thrusts, gradually, sweetly, no hurry or rush. He thought he might have caused her more pain when she pressed her face into his shoulder and moaned, but it wasn’t so; the sensation of him inside her had all but chased away the pain. The sounds he was making, the look on his face, soft with wonder and transfigured with delight, made her forget any nervousness she still had, made her want to give more, to take more.
Giles was giving her every ounce of his self control; taking each subtle movement of hers to add to his pleasure without grasping at it selfishly. It was still exquisite, but in a different way to the more robust encounters he was used to. It was more like the flow of a river with strong, deep currents than the violence of a waterfall, but they would reach the sea all the same. He knew he was going to come, inevitably, in the instant she clutched at him in awed surprise and tightened in waves around his cock, drawing her legs up around his thighs and letting him thrust faster and stronger amid the dying waves of her climax. Success made him dizzy, so glad to have satisfied her that it intensified his own satisfaction tenfold as he released all the tension of the minutes and hours and days since he’d waited for this moment, and here it was, *here*…
“That was…amazing. Sweaty,” Rowena commented as she lay by his side, both of them drifting and sated. “But amazing. I didn’t expect it to be quite like that,” she added, thinking of the ease and depth of pleasure that he’d managed to kindle in her this first time
“Mmm? Why’s ‘at?” Giles murmured, on the edge of sleep, fingers making lazy circles on her stomach.
“Are you dropping off, Rupert?” Old –and young - wives tales did have some truth, then. She slapped him playfully on his side and tried to sit up, winced, and yelped. Instantly he was wide awake again and full of concern.
“Do you feel all right?”
“Bit sore,” she admitted. “And sticky. Yuk. Can you move over so I can sleep somewhere dry? And, um, something to…” He fished out a clean hankie for her and shifted over willingly, stroking her arm as she lay on her side, head on her hand, looking down at him.
“One of the unromantic side effects, I’m afraid. Are you sure you’re…”
“I’m *fine*. I think I…bled quite a bit, but I’ll be fine. I’ll heal it in the morning.”
“You could do it now, be more comfortable,” Giles suggested, but she smiled shyly and shook her head.
“I don’t want it to be as if it didn’t happen. I want the reminder for a while. When I’m healed, maybe we could…remind ourselves a different way?”
* * * * *
“You can come in, Rupert. I know you’re skulking out there.”
The voice was Meg’s, from behind the half-open door of that room with the central hearth which Giles and Rowena had visited in the dark on Solstice night. Inside, she and Rowena had been having a whispered conversation over the stained bride-cloth, which had been stripped from the bed and brought here according to custom. Giles wasn’t sure if he wanted to hear what they were saying: unfortunately his imagination insisted on filling in the blanks. Rowena had said only that she needed to show the evidence of her lost virginity; nothing about an inquest into the circumstances.
The room was quite different in the day. Natural light filtered in through skylights and reflected off mirrors, though they were in the centre of the house. Hand-knotted oriental rugs in deep reds and ochres covered the hard floor; the cauldron was bubbling cheerfully and wisps of steam escaped up the flue in the middle of the room. The walls were decorated with carefully painted symbols and the outline handprints of several different individuals. Meg sat by the fire with Rowena, the bride-cloth folded on her knees. They were embracing as sisters when Giles came in, and both turned to smile at him. Meg beckoned him over. Getting to her feet, first setting the cloth aside, she pressed something into his hand: a sprig of fresh parsley.
“To the conqueror,” she said impishly, and laughed as Giles promptly turned beet red from collar to hairline, catching her reference to the garland awarded the victor in the athletic contests of ancient Greece, “Don’ t worry,” she added, guessing what must be going through his mind. “No details were given. She only told me...that you were good to her. Just as well for you,” she finished, in a tone only half-joking. Giles looked at Rowena, who was covering her hand with her mouth and trying not to giggle.
Giles strove to retrieve what was left of his dignity, and politely offered Rowena his hand to help her get up and go with him to breakfast. As he did so, his line of sight was directed to the edge of one of the rugs, where the fringe seemed to dip into an indentation in the floor. He raised one hand to ask her to wait, and crouched down to get a better look. Folding back the edge of the rug he noticed a group of circular depressions in the irregular block of granite that was one flagstone of several forming the floor of the room. They reminded him of... Asking both women to excuse him, he turned back more of the rugs.
“My God. These are megaliths. All that’s left of the tomb. They built them into the House.”
“What are you talking about, Rupert?”
“I have to talk to Lorna, Moira and Selena about this as soon as possible. These...” He indicated the stones.”...Originally formed the supporting structure of a prehistoric tomb just like the one in the middle of the stone circle in the woods. The two sites were connected in some way; in fact I suspect they still are, and that it’s more than an accident of history - or prehistory. I need to do more research urgently, check the sites again, look at the records...” He was pacing excitedly, raking a hand through his hair and gesturing with the other, caught up in the intellectual and mystical possibilities. The two women exchanged indulgent glances.
“Take me to breakfast first?” asked Rowena, head tilted upward as her affectionate gaze followed his movement round the room. Giles stopped in mid pace and his face fell.
“Rowena, I’m so sorry, I...I didn’t mean to ignore you...” She stood swiftly, went over to him and put her hand up to pat his cheek gently.
“It’s all right. I can see it’s important. Come on, let’s find the others in the dining room.”
The twins were understandably interested in Giles’ revelations. They had never thought to investigate the fabric of the house. The rugs in the hearth room were taken out and beaten from time to time, of course, but as far as they had been concerned the flagstones were just flagstones. As they had told him at the time he found the map in Cordford Library, they knew next to nothing of the history of the house and its grounds. Their mother had left it to them, but had hardly ever referred to it whilst she was alive, and then only as the residence of an old friend. They hadn’t even known it was hers to give them until after she had died. With a tendency not to look a gift horse in the mouth, they had simply been grateful and set about gathering members for their planned community and making the House fit to live in for a large group of people. They were aware, as witches, that some, though not all, such ancient sites had been used for magical purposes at various times, but no-one had been able to tap into any power there so far.
“It might just be that whoever built the house reused the stone because it was there,” Selena pointed out to Giles. She was willing to hear him out, but was concerned that this was a distraction from his work with the contents of the attic. She still had a sense that the community was holding something in reserve for itself, and wanted to see what would happen once ‘The Puzzle’ of magical objects was solved. “We have no evidence yet that magicks were involved back then.”
Giles was aware that he had only intuition to argue with, but it was strong, and on the strength of it, Selena agreed to ask Kezia to try to contact the spirits connected to the time and place of the far, far past when the tombs and the stone circle had been in use, and to those of the first occupants and builders of the House. She spent all one evening at the stone circle, the next in the hearth room. All she reported seeing were the translucent wraiths of the people who had been laid to rest so long ago. They had made no attempt to communicate with her by word or gesture, and she had felt no flash of recognition as of a fellow adept. These had been sacred places, to be sure, but she didn’t think they had used them for magic as such. Of the comparatively more recent dwellers here, strangely, there was no sign.
Selena could see that the surviving tomb, and presumably the defunct one also, was oriented on the compass points so that the sun would strike the entrance at midsummer, symbolically illuminating the souls of the departed. But she couldn’t pinpoint any other astrological significance to the arrangement, nor to the original pattern of the two monuments as sketched by Giles from the state survey, nor the position of the standing stones. She told him as much.
“We’re drawing a blank here, Rupert. I think we’ve given it a fair go, but for the time being I’m going to have to say we drop it. I’d like you to carry on working upstairs. You might find some clues there, you never know.”
Disappointed, Giles had to agree, and went back to his room to put away the notes about the ancient sites. He was just at the door, which was ajar, not closed as he had left it that morning, when he heard a noise from inside. Smiling, he was about to go in, expecting to see Rowena, who had slept with him every night since she had first done so. She kept just a few of her belongings there; they hadn’t wanted to make a public show by moving everything from the room she shared with Meg; but she knew she was welcome there at any time.
He was stopped short by a voice not Rowena’s, but one he recognised, having heard it only once before. Fianna was speaking again; out of sight, and presumably she thought, out of earshot. This time, Giles recognised the words at once; they were those of her fellow-countryman, William Butler Yeats, a poet whose works Giles knew well and admired.
“For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
Oh, never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could give it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?”
The poem, a heartbroken man’s warning that “passionate women” may be more interested in the excitement and ‘play’ of being in love than their serious suitors, seemed to Giles a little near the bone. Rowena would never deliberately hurt him, he was sure. She *was* young, gratifyingly passionate, and undeniably playful both in and out of bed. He loved all these things about her, how they contrasted with and complimented his own more intense and internal nature. But he could not ignore the quiet voice in his head that insisted on counselling caution, on remembering all the things that could go wrong, how unusual their situation was and how uncertain the future. Quite what Fianna was doing following his thoughts like this, giving what seemed like similar counsel but in the words of a dead poet, was a mystery, just as her words at the circle had been.
Giles retraced his steps back along the corridor, trying to make as little noise as possible. He didn’t know where Fianna’s ‘minder’ for the day was. As Fianna emerged from his room he contrived to look as if he were going downstairs again; she hurried him like a pale ghost on the stair, never looking to left or right and acting entirely as if he wasn’t there at all. Rowena’s worried face appeared at the foot of the stairs, and catching sight of both her charge and her lover, flashed a smile both relieved and glad. Giles returned it, telling her he was going back to work, and resolving, once he was out of Fianna’s hearing, to let Selena know what had happened.
“…And it was poetry again, you say? You thought it was aimed at you and Rowena?”
“I’m not certain. It might just be that it reminded me of some questions I’d been asking myself.” Giles fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair. He really would rather not make this a time to discuss his personal life. “It could be coincidence; there might be a completely different reason why she chose that passage. If it’s a matter of choosing.”
“From all I’ve seen I have to agree that the girl is not in full control of herself. She can do many of the ordinary things perfectly well. But as far as communication is concerned, it’s either music, which doesn’t seem to have a specific meaning but just to be music, or these two bits of poetry, which seem to mean something but no-one knows for certain what. She doesn’t speak unless there is no-one to hear her, so it only happens by accident. She isn’t sick according to you and Rowena, nor cursed as such, or Meg would catch the aura of that. She has great magical power but we can’t seem to find out what it is and she can’t tell us. So much for the negatives. What have we got on the positive side?”
“She has been both feared and misunderstood in the past, and is afraid herself. She knows music, has a natural talent but may not have been taught. She speaks in verse given to her by another, whether through learning or some higher power. The words she speaks may be instructions, exhortations, warnings, or may have more than one meaning.”
Giles’ expression became increasingly thoughtful as he laid out for Selena his summary of Fianna’s predicament. Bells were ringing in his mind, not unlike the sound of the sistrum that he could see hanging on the wall, here in Selena’s inner sanctum, small but insistent sounds on a framework of knowledge borne by the hand of intuition. He remembered from school and his studies in comparative mythology, the different ways the gods were supposed to communicate with men and women. The interpretation of dream and vision, the taking of auspices in animal guts or by ritual scrying of natural phenomena: these were available to any with the knowledge, or the resources to pay for someone else’s.
Prophecy was another matter. The gods used their chosen ones for that; men, or more often women, blessed or cursed with the voice of the God in a form not readily understood by mortals, in nonsense phrases or formal verse. The gods’ words were frequently ambiguous, as if they were determined not to allow mankind to blame them for human decisions, to leave the responsibility for challenging or accepting fate in the hands of the petitioner. Many had shipwrecked their hopes by pinning all on the apparent meaning of an Oracle; colleges of priests and recorders gathered around the Pythia of Delphi, the Sibyl of Cumae, and a dozen lesser Oracles, trying to control and codify their utterances for commoner and king alike.
The ancients recognised and honoured such prophetesses, holding them in holy fear. Modern man deemed them mad, a danger to themselves and society. No wonder Fianna had had to be rescued from a mob. Giles experienced a sharp stab of sympathy for the girl. How long she had borne this ‘gift’, there was no way of knowing; that she could never escape it was very probable.
“I’d stake my reputation on it,” he told Selena. “Fianna’s a prophetess, which means we should take everything she says very seriously. The trouble is, how to work out what it means, and harder still, what if anything we should do in response. Remember Croesus. He acted on what he thought was the promise of an Oracle, and led his kingdom to its downfall.”
Selena nodded. “The most we can do for the moment is to ask everyone to keep their ears open whenever she’s around, write down or tell someone exactly what she says, and otherwise leave her be.“
* * * * *
Weeks passed in a kind of bubble. Isolated from the outside world, save for a brief trip to Cordford Library to borrow every poetry book they had, Giles worked and rested, ate with the community and slept with Rowena in his arms, listened out for the voice of prophecy and rarely thought of Sunnydale. For all the singularity of the house and the coven, and the arcane nature of the work that occupied him, in a bizarre way it was nearer to a ‘normal’ life, to life as other men could live it, than Giles had known in many a year. He had more or less fixed working hours, regular meals, adult friends, safety and security, someone to come home to, to hold and be held by. It lulled him, rocked him hypnotically with its rhythms, deceived and tempted him with its promise. Only the visible evidence that this was finite and could not last - the diminishing chaos and growing order in the attic - intruded on the dream.
At odd moments when his mind would wander, fatigued by the tiny details he had to give attention to, he tried to imagine his future. He pictured his elegant flat in Bath, some work for the Council involving a well-stocked library and properly brewed tea; evenings at leisure, safe behind his own front door, sitting in one of the Edwardian armchairs by the fire, looking up from his book or newspaper and meeting her eyes…Except that, try as he might, he couldn’t quite see Rowena in that other chair. She would be like a wild thing caged, in the city. Even here, she had to escape at times. They would go out together into the woods, however cold the weather, so that she could see the frost on the ground, the lichen on the stones, streams of running water and arching stems of dog rose. The buff stone edifices and crowded pavements of Bath could not compare.
Well, then, they would go elsewhere. He would ‘leave his mother and father’s house and cleave unto her’, change his life to make a place for her in it somehow. She herself would not talk of the future, bidding him enjoy the present and not wish his life away on what might be. He pushed away from his consciousness Fianna’s prophetic words of warning not to give all the heart, telling himself not to see interpretations that probably weren’t there.
Then one February morning, a few hours after breakfast, he reached the heart of The Puzzle. A single clear middle C and the very last item yet to be investigated flopped open with a creak of its spine and a whoosh of its vellum pages, thumping emphatically onto the boards and raising a little cloud of dust. It was a book, joy of joys in the life of a scholar, a weighty tome written by hand and illuminated in inks and gold leaf. Giles touched the soapy surface of the page reverently and bent to see what it said. He half expected a mediaeval tale of saints and devils, a mystery play or a catalogue of fiends. But the text was in modern English and in a recent hand, and the illustrations showed human women dancing, a sedate but happy dance around…a place with standing stones.
Turning the pages rapidly, Giles found that someone had inserted a single sheet of paper at the head of one chapter, a sheet of ivory bond with the crest of the Watchers’ Council. This note was significantly older than the one he had received on his doorstep three months ago but equally verifiable and genuine. It bore the single word: ‘Congratulations.’
Letting out a snort of impatience, not untinged with appreciation, he looked to see if there were any other indications that congratulations really were in order. The sheet of paper bore no other markings, visible or invisible. The page it was adjacent to, was ruled carefully off into groups of five horizontal lines, each a musical stave. Nothing was written on it, however, neither text nor musical notation. On the facing page was another illustration of a sacred dance, and Giles did a double-take as he recognised the stone circle not a mile away. It was an exact representation, and what was more, the figures gathered around it were, with the usual allowance for artistic licence, the same ones he had seen around the breakfast table that morning. In the picture, each stone was annotated with a symbol in red ink. Giles copied them faithfully onto the final index card and sat down to think, free-associating on the themes of magic, music, dance and the coven. The symbols he knew from somewhere, not from the stones, which bore no inscription or artwork…
An excited voice captured his attention. Peering down through the trap door, he saw Phoebe at the foot of the ladder, beckoning him to come down.
“Fianna said something more. Poetry again, you were right. Stuff about ‘everyone singing’… maybe she’s remembering Solstice?”
She passed over a scrap of paper on which were written Fianna’s exact words.
‘Everyone burst out singing
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields.’
Giles went to consult his cache of Library books and found the reference: soldiers singing in the trenches, a transcendent moment of beauty amid the horrors of the Western front. Taken at face value, there seemed to be no connection to anything here. Whichever gods had given this gift were certainly wedded to the Oracles’ tradition of obscurity. Phoebe could be right, he supposed. Prophecy was not confined to predicting the future, but revealing inner truth in all its forms, and Fianna had experienced a new freedom as she played her music and listened to everyone else singing. But that explanation didn’t quite satisfy.
“Where was she when you heard her? Is she still there?” he asked Phoebe.
“The one at the heart of the house, with the big fire in the middle and Meg’s stockpot. I think it’s where she starts all her stews,” she added rather irreverently. ”Fianna left not long after I overheard her.”
The hearth room was temporarily deserted, unusually so according to Phoebe. Normally one or other of the coven was supposed to tend the fire to stop it going out, and it was probably sheer chance that Fianna had been able to be there alone. As they looked around, Phoebe carefully raking over the embers to keep them hot, Giles could see straight away that the symbols on the walls were identical to those in the illustration.
“Do you know what these mean?” he asked, touching one, a spare and stylised stick and double figure of eight, which he felt he ought to recognise.
“Asha painted them to represent each of us, not long after we all arrived. And we had to do a hand outline each, too. Took ages with a blow pipe, you should have seen our clothes! Here’s mine.” She fitted her hand in its place and pointed to a set of scales in balance. “Alice’s.” A stepped pile of weights; “Asha’s own.” The stem of a herb with furled leaves. Selena’s mark was an astrolabe, for measuring the turning of the heavenly bodies and the music of the spheres. Fianna had clearly proved an enigma; Asha, not wanting to leave her out, had represented her with a seeing eye, as one who sees all but doesn’t speak. It was, Giles reflected, appropriate also for a prophetess who saw but spoke in riddles. As he looked at the other symbols, he knew whose was under his hand: Rowena, the healer. The drawing was a caduceus, the healer’s staff entwined with snakes. A question occurred to him.
“Why are the hand prints done like that, in outline? Wouldn’t it have been easier just to press your hands in the paint and stamp them?”
Phoebe shook her head. “It’s not the hand that matters, but the space around it. How what each of us does affects others and the world. Well, in theory the world.” She looked to one side, frowning, as if unsure whether to broach the topic, then ploughed on. “To be honest, Rupert, we’re all getting the feeling that we’ve gone about as far as we can go, individually and together. We want to make more of a difference, but something is holding us back. You’ve more of an outside perspective, what do you think? “
“I think,” Giles said after a long pause, connections firing busily in his mind, “that I’ve a puzzle upstairs that needs the final piece put in the right place. I think that we’ll find that knowledge, like magic, is power. Excuse me.”
He met Phoebe’s mystified expression with an encouraging smile and strode away to wield his own particular kind of power.
* * * * *
“It’s marvellous, really; complex, occult in the best tradition, designed by an expert. Everything is connected. Just as in the world, so in the cosmos of this household, this whole sacred grove, if you will.”
Giles laid before the whole coven the open book with the dancing figures and the page of musical staves. He’d spent the whole day carefully transcribing the trigger notes and phrases from his card catalogue, using the order in which the objects had been retrieved. As he’d suspected and hoped, they formed a melody, a melody that could be harmonised by using the wooden tone blocks. He suggested to the company that twelve should sing together, in accordance with the plain words of Fianna’s verse, as she accompanied them. The import of the book appeared to be that they should also dance, and that the stone circle should be the venue. There were thirteen stones and each could be ‘allocated’ to an individual according to the key in the illustration. He speculated that each note also ‘belonged’ to the person who would use the item it triggered, so that it should be she who sang it.
“It seems to fit enough of the facts, though there is obviously always a risk. Quite how you organise it and what the end result will be, I’m not quite sure. Whoever put this knowledge here intended someone like me to find it and you all, specifically, to use it, but the choice, and the risk, is yours. All I can say is that I’ve seen no evidence that anything in your attic was intended to cause harm, only to do good, and the likelihood is that the difficulty in working this out is proportional to the benefit it could confer.”
Selena, who had been listening to his whole presentation with growing fascination, looked around at her coven sisters, her eyes bright with anticipation.
“I believe a group music and dance practice is in order. Who’s with me?”
Giles received due and enthusiastic thanks for his work in solving the conundrum set by the mystery puzzler, indeed he felt rather pleased with himself as well. But as the next few days wore on he became conscious how much he was not one of this community. While he had been busy about his work and they about theirs, it hadn’t mattered. His days had been full and his nights…well; they were very pleasantly occupied also.
Now, he helped with the chores and took long walks, often alone; he went up to the attic and surveyed the neat stacks of artefacts awaiting their owners, and the blank spaces in between. He heard the sound of excited conversation and laughter from behind closed doors and the haunting music of the tone blocks as Fianna practiced, no longer shut in her room but calmly moving amongst the others, giving what she could, as did they all. Rowena was more than happy to tell him how things were going, of course. Plans were in progress, movements worked out, Selena was calculating the right time, by the stars, for the ritual to take place. No, it was fine, he’d done so much already in solving The Puzzle; they were eternally grateful, she was proud of him, she…
He could have sworn she was about to say she loved him. But instead she’d only smiled, kissed him and led him to the bed, and he’d taken the deed for the word, eagerly, greedily, never wanting to let her go.
In the morning, though, he told her not to wait until he’d finished shaving but to go ahead to breakfast without him. A nagging sensation at the edge of his memory had been there since he’d woken, the notion of a forgotten chore or a missed connection.
His card index in its shiny red plastic case stood on the chest of drawers. Giles thumbed through it distractedly, then extracted the front card. It related to the green crystal charm he had found first. Not being able to assign a proper pitch to a grunt, he hadn’t included it in the notation he’d transferred to the book of rituals. He tapped it on its edge against the card case, watching the small movement, the place where white met red, and tried to remember which coven member was supposed to take charge of the charm. He couldn’t even recall discussing it or making a decision.
He was brought up short by the realisation that despite the puzzle being ‘solved’, *none* of the witches had ‘taken charge’ of *any* of their belongings. It was as if the original direction of all his labours had been lost or diverted. That might well be perfectly valid, but the question ‘why’ still needed to be asked.
“You know, that *is* a point,” agreed Moira as she stirred salt into her porridge. “Selena?”
Selena turned her tea mug pensively in her hands.
“I had… a strong sense, more than feeling, than intuition, “she said at last, “that this is what we need to do, that this ritual is a priority. I still do, because it involves the whole coven, together, and the more we act together, the more I’m convinced that the whole is meant to be much more than the sum of its parts.”
Various heads nodded vigorously in agreement.
“It’s possible, isn’t it,” she continued, “that whoever constructed that puzzle wanted to make just that point. If we’d each been able just to take what we fancied and use it according to our own gifts straight away, what would have been the incentive to wait? To build the community as we have been doing, help each other out; look at the deeper currents of magic and not just spells and talismans? The last piece of the puzzle is the key. The ritual should come first.”
It certainly made plenty of sense. [But what about that first piece?] Giles’ mind tossed the thought to the forefront and wouldn’t let him ignore it. The charm didn’t quite fit, and yet it seemed most unlikely that it was there by accident. It didn’t *seem* to have an obvious magical use, had not acted on any of the other artefacts, but it had suggested to him a way to get at them. The Puzzle was, he conceded, much more like a Japanese box needing multiple movements to open it, than it was like a jigsaw, with a neat picture at the end of it.
Clearly the book of rituals was the object the ‘box’ contained. It’s power lay in the knowledge it contained; only enacting the ritual would work whatever magic was intended. Music had unlocked The Puzzle, and would enable the ritual. What had led him to music? The charm, but had it been mere accident, or design? Giles tended to doubt the former explanation. Coincidences occurred, but not in the attic.
Sitting in the dining room once the others had left, he jotted down on the back of the index card a note of progress so far.
Charm -> music ->puzzle ->ritual ->magic
It seemed logical, reasonable, but somehow…mechanical. In his experience, the mystical was rarely so linear. Doodling around the words, feathering and curling the arrows between them, he experimented with another way of picturing the progression.
Thirty seconds later, a neat circle with the words chasing each other eternally around the paper stared up at him. Better: more satisfying, in some indefinable way. Whether it was right, however, remained to be seen.
Giles asked Selena if he might be present when the coven performed their sacred dance, and she was happy for him to be there. She was interested to hear his idea that the charm might be part of a cycle of magic and agreed he should bring it with him in readiness.
“That, and a warm coat, “ she warned. “Ritual’s set for dawn tomorrow, and the forecast is for two below and frost.”
* * * * *
“White orchards and dark-green fields”, indeed. It was not the blossom of Spring, but clusters of ice crystals that sprang from every twig, and the shadows of night had not yet left the hollows of the hills as the company assembled, shivering with cold, but expectant and light of spirit.
Fianna settled herself on a blanket in front of the stone that in the book of rituals bore her symbol. Huddled in a thick shawl, fingerless gloves on her hands, she struck the first note on a block and sustained the continuo with steady precision and downcast eye. Absorbed in the music, she didn’t raise her head as her sisters approached and took their places. As each began to sing her part, they all looked around at each other, reaffirming their sisterhood and common purpose with nods and smiles. They moved and reached to join hands, circling around the perimeter of the stones, the end of the line stopping every now and then and leading the others back in the opposite rotation. Giles, leaning against the sturdy trunk of an ash tree on the edge of the clearing, couldn’t fathom the pattern, but it had, he supposed, been determined by Selena from her close study of the book. She’d certainly been closeted with it for a long while before choreographing the dance.
The usual dawn chorus of birdsong was silent, not out of fear but in awe, in hushed expectation. Giles could feel it himself, not because he was preternaturally sensitive to such things, but because the sense was so inescapable, that *all* here, human, animal and divine, were straining, yearning towards a great conclusion. The melody lifted and swelled, faded and fell, by turns achingly sweet and tinged with melancholy. It filled the clearing, confident, unifying, reaching to the earth and the sky, the stones and the trees.
Giles stood apart from the dancing figures, watching Rowena with her sisters, many yet one. As they sang he thought for a second that he could see them all outlined in light, some trick of the dawning sun, perhaps… But they were in the shadow of the trees, the stones, and still they glowed with inner and outer fire, the palest green of power, elemental and core. It was magic. He knew it, recognised its signature, saw that this was what was meant to be, summoned by the rite of music and dance. The ancient stones glowed not with the reflected light of the sun but with their own vigour, a remnant of the primordial searing heat that had formed them millions of years ago.
The Earth had been young then; the forces of Nature and the battle to make Order from Chaos, all there was. Before life, before demon or humankind, what had been left as the rocks cooled and the seas came into being were traces of that raw power, held fast in the stones and the soil, creeping up through the roots of medicinal plants and sacred trees, pooling in places like this. There existed the means to heal and transform, to link to the reality underlying all matter, to access the non-material realms too, all of them part of Nature, part of the All. To some was given the inborn ability, to some the knowledge, to reach whatever part they could of that All, and there were times, as now, that both innate power *and* knowledge needed to be combined to grasp what was still out of reach.
The song ended, and, as one, the coven dancers loosed hands and reached for the stones; Fianna dropped her beater and did the same. Sparks crackled and jumped from the stones to their hands, their heads and hearts; the ground shook in tremulous waves, contractions of birth, of disgorgement. New stones rose, markers no bigger than a man’s fist, along cordons of raised earth stretching away from the stone circle back towards the House. The causeway, overgrown for centuries, thrust saplings and undergrowth out of its way as it manifested itself, cutting through the middle of the wood.
Selena gathered up her companions with a look; Fianna too, fascinated by the play of light around her and the upheaval in the ground, rose to her feet. She paused only to gather the tone blocks and tie them up in the blanket, holding them close to her chest as she brought up the rear of the procession. The group moved in line towards the House; something about the smoothness and silence of their going alerted Giles, and he looked to see that their feet were only skimming the grass and broken bracken, were floating on currents of air and light along the causeway. Their faces were rapt, ecstatic; they gazed at each other and at the world, seeing everything anew in the white morning.
Giles followed them at a distance, aware of the strength of the magic as it fizzed and sparked around his feet, seeing how it had transformed the landscape even though he was not touched by it as the witches were. The causeway ceased a few feet from the front door, but they knew they were meant to go in. Giles had a good idea where in the House they would go, and sure enough, they congregated in the hearth room. The pale green light began to emanate from the stones set in the floor, and made their faces ghost-like. But there was no pain here, no unresolved loss, only triumph and hope. They fitted their left hands inside the outlined handprints and closed their eyes, waiting for something more, something here.
Nothing for the space of a hundred heartbeats, and the coven looked at each other in consternation, then at Giles.
“Rupert.” Selena pointed to his side, to the hand in his trouser pocket which held the green crystal tightly.” The charm. Try the charm.”
Yes. The trouble was, he wasn’t sure what to do with it. This probably required more than a general purpose incantation. He looked to the source of power in the room, to the massive slabs of granite on which they all stood. Turning back the rugs with swift tugs of his free hand, he saw a place where the surface was pitted by multiple cup marks. All of them were of roughly the same diameter as the crystal, but one was deeper than the rest and uneven, and instead of glowing with energy, it was only a patch of plain grey stone, like a blind eye. Wrenching the charm free from its mounting and chain, he slipped it into the hole, snatching his hand away as it was almost sucked in to the stone with the crystal, as the magicks welded it in place.
The room, the House, rumbled and hummed, but the floor did not heave nor the walls crack. Instead the building actually began to sing, a deep wordless bass vibrato, beautiful and terrible like the magicks themselves. As the echoes of it died away, Selena spoke with greater authority than ever before, not from mere confidence in her right to lead, but out of a calm certainty.
“My sisters, I believe the time has come to take full possession of our inheritance. Rupert, perhaps you’ll be Father Christmas?”
She winked cheekily at Giles, as they all made for the door, laughing and merry, solemn and wise. At the trap door to the attic, he did feel a bit like that fabled bringer of longed-for gifts to the deserving. He passed to each woman what would be the tools of her calling, and they bore them away to every part of the House, exclaiming time and again that *now* they knew the meaning of this, the use of that, that all was indeed connected. His fingers touched Rowena’s as he handed her the Mind’s Eye in its protective box; she looked into his face and whispered that she would give it the proper respect it deserved.
By the time they all met again for a meal, hastily prepared and served mid-day, as new priorities had taken precedence, the buzz of excitement had scarcely muted. They had all begun to exercise their gifts in new and deeper ways. Kezia had made contact with the guardian spirits of the House, benevolent and venerable, sorcerors and witches in life and beyond. Rhoda had been able to make of the whole history of their journeys here and their shared destiny a sacred story to be told and retold. Fianna had been holding court in the hearth room, no longer afraid to prophesy, in fact barely able to stop, according to the others’ report.
“She’s been handing out truths and predictions left, right and centre,” Selena told Giles proudly. “Still haven’t a clue what a lot of them mean, we’re obviously intended to work for it. But at the moment they seem, well, *personal*: for us, as a group, as individuals. It’s this day, I suppose. A time to find out lots of things that we need to know.”
Giles looked across the table at Rowena, trying to catch her eye, to ask her how it was with her. She was deep in conversation with Asha, and both seemed subdued in contrast to their sisters. Not wanting to interrupt important business, he waited until the meal was over before slipping out of his seat to intercept Rowena on her way out.
She put on a bright smile for him, but he wasn’t fooled: something was up and he wanted her to tell him what. She was reluctant to say anything, reluctant even to meet his eyes, muttering only that Fianna had given her something to think about and that she needed time to digest it. She would see him later and talk about it then. It was so unlike her usual frank and easy manner, that Giles was thoroughly alarmed. ‘Later’ seemed to mean ‘much later’, for she shook her head at his enquiring glance over supper ands afterwards made herself scarce again. He would have felt foolish and ill-mannered to go searching for her all over the House, so he forced himself to wait patiently until she was ready to talk.
He was sitting up in bed reading, glasses slipped down to the end of his nose, buttoned up in blue pyjamas against the cold because the fire was out and he hadn’t wanted to rekindle it, when she finally appeared. She stood for a while by the bed, both of them just gazing at each other with half-smiles on their faces, but Rowena’s eyes were sad. She laid a hand against the cover of his book, tipping it closed, and Giles set the volume aside and removed his glasses.
Rowena knelt by his side and took both his hands in hers, head bowed and turned aside, until he squeezed her fingers gently and asked her to tell him what was wrong.
“Not ‘wrong’, exactly. Just not all right. Fianna told me, at least as far as I can see, that this is where I belong. It’s my true home, finally, after all the wanderings. Here’s my centre, my family from now on. I’m to stay here.”
Giles began to understand. She wasn’t going to leave with him, no matter how much freedom he offered her. Freedom in that old sense was no longer what she wanted, what she needed to be completely herself. She needed the coven, the House, its community and its power.
“It’s not *my* family, though, is it?” he said sadly. “I’m only a guest here, a visitor. In the long term there isn’t a place for me here, as there is for you.” He tried to see a way through. “ I could... I could move near here, still see you...”
Rowena knew him better than that; knew herself better, now.
“Would it be enough? To visit sometimes, this place where my future will always be, to have to ask admittance, never to be with me under our own roof ? My calling isn’t a “job” any more than yours is, Rupert. All or nothing.”
Giles knew she wasn’t just referring to the coven. Fundamentally, he didn’t want to settle any more for the kind of part-time arrangements he’d had in the past. But what he wanted, Rowena would not be able to give him.
He wished, he *so* wished that it wasn’t so. The universe was pulling his feet out from under him again. He was getting so tired of this; tired of almost having contentment in his grasp and watching it struggle away. Tired of being stoic and calm and reasonable about it. He let all his pain show in his face and instantly regretted it as Rowena began to cry, fat silent tears dripping onto her knuckles as she held her hands to her mouth.
“I’m sorry, Rupert,” she said at last. “If I knew a spell that would change it…”
“You wouldn’t do it,” he finished. “And I wouldn’t want you to.” [I think…No.]
The temptation to hold on to her by any means, burned in his chest, but he resisted it. Nothing truly good came from a lie. He could, however, double-check the truth…
“You’re certain that’s what she meant? Fianna’s prophecies are, well, not exactly models of clarity and precision.”
Rowena’s slight smile at the understatement faded as swiftly as it had come.
“Yeah, I know. I’ve spent all day looking at it from every angle, but I keep ending up in the same place. Here. Besides, ever since this morning, the ritual, I’ve sensed it myself. There’s a bond between us in the coven, a place for each of us and we’re finally in it. The House can support and protect our power like nowhere else, now. Which is thanks to you, really.”
Her face told him that she was as aware of the irony of that as he was. ‘Set everything in its place’. Everything, everyone; except him. His work here was over, and now he had to be on his way.
[Just a day; just a day or two more with her] he pleaded inwardly.
As if she had heard him, she leaned forward and kissed his brow, whispering:
“Can I stay with you tonight? Just once more? I’m not ready yet…”
Giles took her in his arms and clung to her, glad of a reprieve even for this short time. He loved her with a fervour and tenderness that surprised them both and brought Rowena to tears again in the aftermath. Shushing her softly, kissing her, revelling in the sensation of skin against skin, he did his best to shut out sorrow and concentrate on the joy, fleeting though it was. He told her that he would always remember the time they had had, that he wished for her everything that was good. Her head was resting on his bare chest and he felt, rather than saw, the movement from side to side; then she lifted her head and looked into his eyes; saw both his regret and his acceptance.
“But I can’t *have* everything that’s good. I can’t have you. I…I love you, Rupert.”
Now, finally now she said it. Not that he set so much store by the actual words; he’d always been an ‘actions speak louder’ man. Still…
“Why now, Rowena? Why tell me that now?” he asked her in a gentle, wondering tone.
“Because it’s true. And…you looked like you wouldn’t mind me saying it.”
* * * * *
Next morning, Giles sought out Fianna. She was no longer in the hearth room but sitting in one of the recreation rooms, playing her tone blocks and every now and then listening to the music of the House. The singing, when it came, was audible only to the sensitive now, giving life to all the magic performed within its walls.
He wasn’t sure if he should have brought a sacrifice, as to an Oracle. Awkwardly, he hung around in the doorway and waited until Fianna had finished her melody. Her head snapped up and she looked him straight in the eye, her confidence in stark contrast to the paralysed fear she’d shown back at the circle, when he had first overheard her prophesy, foretelling the outcome of the coven’s ritual.
Before he could ask her anything, she began to chant without intonation in her high, clear voice, poetry he didn’t know the origin of but whose meaning was all too clear.
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master
So many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster.”
She had no hopeful prediction for his future then, only wise but non-comforting advice for the present. He hesitated before turning to go, in case there was more, but Fianna was silent, lost again in her contemplation of inner voices.
No, strictly speaking it didn’t qualify as a ‘disaster’. No lives were lost, save the life they might have had together. No buildings were levelled, except a castle on the sand. He would doubtless survive this: the iron hand that was squeezing his heart until it shrieked was only a metaphor.
He’d better speak to Selena about arrangements for his departure.
* * * * *
Giles unlocked his front door and wiped his feet vigorously on the mat, scraping off the last of the mud that had clung to his feet all the way from Devon. He’d phoned Mrs. Phillips, who had the downstairs flat, from the station, and she’d duly opened a few windows to let the fresh air in. Whilst he’d been away, she’d watered his plants, kept the pipes from freezing and collected his post from the mat. There it was, in three neat boxes on the table in his study: official-looking, personal (much smaller), and junk, just in case the fire proved difficult to start.
He dumped his rucksack temporarily on that table, returning the guitar to its place in the corner. What he really wanted now was a cup of tea, preferably followed by a stiff Scotch, but he cast a cursory glance over the boxes of post first. At the front of the ‘personals’ was a large envelope in a startling shade of emerald green. It proved to contain an invitation to Xander and Anya’s wedding, a few weeks from now. Taking a moment to appreciate that particular unlikely pair, he put it aside to make a decision later. It was still perfectly possible that he would not be especially welcome in Sunnydale, and that they were just short of friends to invite. Idly, he flicked through the rest of the box.
A couple of letters behind the invitation was one addressed to ‘Rupert Giles, Esquire’ in a very familiar hand: Buffy’s. The formality was a trademark of the occasional written apologies he’d been the recipient of over the years: when she’d come back after that long anxious summer of her absence, after Angel’s return, after some quarrel he’d forgotten about now; all the times when she’d not known what to say to his face. He would read her letter properly once he’d unpacked and brewed up. Rose had been right at least, when she’d said Buffy could survive without him. He hoped that she’d also come to see why he’d felt it necessary to leave, and that they might at least be friends.
He reached into a side pocket of the rucksack and drew out something that fitted in the palm of his hand. Taking it through to the living room, he sat in one of the two chairs by the fireplace and admired the workmanship. A wooden carving of half an apple, cut transversely with the stalk left on, Rowena had asked Asha to make it for him as a keepsake, and he had left the House with it that morning, two days after Fianna’s prophecy concerning him. He put it on the mantelpiece, stroking the polished grain with one finger and doubting very much if he would master the art of losing Rowena any time soon.
He sighed and squared his shoulders. He was home now, he told himself, the house he’d grown up in, where he’d first learned of his destiny; the house that contained all the possessions and reminders of an eventful life. He’d done a good job for the coven, fulfilled his commission from the Council, from whoever had set The Puzzle in preparation for the right time, place and people to come together. He had health, full possession of his wits and his calling. The fact that it wasn’t quite enough was one he would just have to live with.
‘A place for everything.’ Well, perhaps. One day, still in the future, he might yet find just where he fitted, could set everything that he was. Although he wondered, after leaving so many different bits of himself in so many different places, just what might remain.