Two more days passed before Rupert roused beyond the level necessary to drink the tamlin pod tea. Buffy continued to treat his wound and guard him through the night. After the second night, she didn’t have much trouble from the vampires and demons. It seemed that just as Rupert had said word would quickly get around that they were vulnerable, word had also spread just as quickly that Buffy had beaten the three top local vampires in one fight. And if none of them knew just how close a thing it had been, well, that was just fine with Buffy.
On the morning of the fourth day after the Qujarka attack, Rupert woke on his own. As his eyes opened, Buffy could see they were clear and focused.
"Hey, Watcher,” she greeted him. “Ready to get back to Watchin’?”
Rupert smiled in response and shifted onto one elbow and one hand, in apparent intent to get to a sitting position. Buffy was on him immediately. “Whoa, there. You’re not supposed to be moving around, remember?”
Rupert started to speak, but ended up coughing instead. Buffy held the ever-present cup of tamlin tea for him to drink.
“Thank you, Buffy,” Rupert acknowledged. “As to moving, I believe the worst is past. If you can get me some more water, and a bit of food if we have anything left, I’m fairly sure I’ve enough strength now we can get out of here.”
“No – no, I think we should wait until we're certain moving you won’t . . .”
“It won't – I wouldn't say if it weren't so.”
“Sure,” Buffy scoffed. “You’d never say anything that wasn’t 100% true if you were trying to protect me.”
Rupert struggled to sit up and Buffy helped him this time. He cleared his throat and looked directly into her eyes. “Be that as it may, Buffy Summers, on my honor as you Watcher, I am telling you the truth.”
Buffy held his gaze a moment longer, then relented. “’Kay, I know you don't mess with the oath and honor stuff."
“And you, Buffy. How are you faring?” Rupert gestured to some of her still-healing scars.
“I’m okay. Was a close call, though. If you hadn’t made that shot, it would have been a different story. How on earth did you make that shot anyway?”
“You were in danger,” Rupert replied simply, as if that were the only explanation required.
Buffy held her Watcher’s gaze a moment, then remembered something. Reaching into her jacket pocket, she withdrew the cross bolt that had taken down Long Coat and held it out to him. “I believe this is yours,” she said, harkening back to their time at the Henge when Rupert had returned to her the cross bolts she had fired to save his life.
Rupert took the bolt from her hand. Instead of placing it in the pile with the others, he tucked it into the left breast pocket of his shirt. Wordlessly, he reached out his arm to Buffy’s shoulders and pulled her against his side. She didn’t resist the closeness as she might once have done. Instead, she tucked her head against his chest beneath his chin, and stayed there for some long contented moments.
Over the next hour or so, Buffy helped Rupert get something to eat, and helped him with a brief wash-up of face, hair and hands at the stream. He was still fairly weak, and she kept him from falling in at least once.
Afterward, they sat resting under the shade of a tree at the edge of the forest. Buffy watched Rupert closely as he took a few moments to put some stitches in the back of his coat, remembering how the coat came to be torn in the first place.
“Are you going to scold me about that,” Buffy asked, gesturing to her Watcher’s damaged coat and the lack of focus on her part which had been the cause of it.
Rupert set his needle down and looked into his Slayer’s eyes. “Do I need to?” he asked.
"I kind of think I learned my lesson.”
“All right then. Lesson learned,” Rupert acknowledged, and returned to his sewing.
After a moment, Buffy continued. “I really don’t like you throwing yourself in the fire for my mistakes.”
“Buffy . . .”
“Rupert,” Buffy cut him off.
“Buffy,” Rupert continued more forcefully. “As you are the one who has brought it up, I feel compelled to answer. My job as your Watcher is to protect you and train you. Some days it is more about protection - some days more training. I have long since accepted that, and so should you.”
“It’s just that the fact that you’re willing to do it makes it even worse for me when you do.”
Rupert pulled his glasses off his face and started to fiddle with them, as was his habit. After a moment he looked up to Buffy’s face once again, and she found herself deep in jade green, unfettered by glass.
“Ours is not an easy business, Buffy,” Rupert began. “We both know that very well. So, we just . . . we do the best we can, and try to minimize the times of danger and pain, and maximize the times of friendship and, and . . . well, . . . joy.”
Rupert finished with one of his warm smiles, the ones Buffy had tried to deny melted her heart, and she found herself returning one to him. “Okay,” she replied simply, joyfully, and busied herself with cleaning and packing up their gear.
Two days further on into their journey to a distant village, Rupert was anything but well.
While he did not seem to be getting worse, and his wound seemed to continue to heal, his strength was not returning. A mere two hour’s walk since their breakfast, Rupert stumbled badly and would have fallen had not Buffy caught him.
“I’m sorry, Buffy, but I fear I need to take a rest already.”
Buffy helped him to sit at the foot of a nearby shady tree, and knelt back on her heels beside him. She placed her hand on his forehead. He was warm, but not overly so.
“I hate to bring up the oath and honor bit, Rupert, but I need to know why you aren’t getting better.” As she spoke, she unslung his sword, satchel and water skein from his shoulders to make him more comfortable.
Rupert shook his head, puzzled as she was. “I don’t know, Buffy. This isn’t how it should be. I should be completely well by now.”
The confusion in his voice convinced her of the truth of his words. “Okay, well, why don’t you rest here for a bit. I’ll go fill up our skeins and see if I can catch something for dinner. I’ll be back soon, okay?”
Rupert nodded his head and shifted so he could lay down beneath the tree. He watched as his Slayer departed, and his eyes slowly closed. His last thought before he fell asleep was that he wished he weren’t so damn useless to her.
Buffy managed to bag another rabbit and a nice clump of blackberries, and with filled skeins, she made her way back to her Watcher’s side.
She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him. Or rather, them.
Buffy blinked twice to be sure she was seeing correctly. It appeared she was.
There was a dapple gray horse standing over her Watcher. It was nuzzling gently at his face, and he appeared to be sleeping through it all. She couldn’t bring herself to allow the possibility that it had stomped the life out of him. No, she chided herself – if that had been the case, she would have had warning of danger to him – she knew she had developed a sense for that. At the moment, she sensed only peace.
Buffy jogged quickly up to Rupert and his new pal and attempted to shoo the horse away. The horse walked off a few paces, but clearly had no intention of leaving.
Buffy shook her Watcher. “Rupert. Rupert! Wake up! There’s some sort of horse thing here trying to get fresh with you and it won’t go away. This clearly falls into the Watcher Weirdness category of our business, so it’s all yours.”
Rupert stirred slowly. “Horse?” he muttered.
“Yes. Big gray thing with spots, long neck, four legs, hoofs, mane and tail. It seems quite taken with you.”
Rupert turned onto his side to face his Slayer. “Where,” he asked.
Buffy gestured in the appropriate direction.
Rupert turned his head and brought his eyes to focus on the animal in question. “Belle!” he exclaimed in surprise, a smile lighting his face.
The horse took Rupert’s look and the sound of her name as an invitation to come forward again. She pushed her head in between Buffy and Rupert and began to nuzzle his face and chest once again. Rupert reached to pet the animal’s soft gray nose.
Buffy huffed in mild annoyance. “Would either of you care to tell me what’s going on?”
“I’m sorry, Buffy. I just haven’t seen her in so long. I know this horse.”
“Not in the biblical sense I hope?”
Rupert grimaced. Buffy could get so petulant and impatient sometimes. He kept his voice level. “She lives with a friend of mine. Her name is Belle, I believe, is it not, girl?”
Belled snorted happily and nibbled on Rupert’s hair.
“So,” Buffy began, “Out here in the middle of nowhere your friend’s horse shows up to give you smoochies? Why do I detect an oncoming round of wonderful Watcher Wackiness?”
“I believe she may be here to lend a hand, er hoof - four of them, actually.” Rupert struggled to his feet, using the horse’s sturdy shoulder for support. “Help me mount her, would you?”
“Rupert, threesome with horse is so not my idea of fun.”
"Buffy, please. Help me get on her back. I believe she’s here to take us to my friend – an elder in a rather powerful coven of witches not all that far from here – perhaps two days ride or so. They can probably help me – that’s almost certainly why the horse is here. They must have seen we needed help.”
“As in far-seeing – a magical ability to see present and future events remotely.”
“This particular coven has a long relationship with the Council of Watchers, and with my family in particular.”
“Okay, well, you could have just said so.”
Rupert let his head sag to the horse’s withers, no energy available for additional repartee with Buffy.
“Okay, going up,” Buffy said, and Rupert felt two small but extremely powerful hands on his buttocks, lifting him upward and swinging his right thigh across Belle’s back. Belle stood patiently through it all.
“Thank you,” Rupert grumbled. “Now you and our gear. Belle’s more than strong enough for us both.”
Buffy slung her crossbow over her back, and then she tied hers and Rupert’s satchels, skeins and sword sheathes together and placed them gently over Belle’s neck in front of Rupert. “Arm, please,” she asked, and Rupert crooked his left elbow down to her, and she swung herself up behind him. Once she was settled, Belle immediately began to walk on, and in a slightly different direction that then one they’d been traveling themselves.
“She does know where she’s going, right?”
“I imagine so. She did find us.”
“Is she some sort of magical unicorn or something?”
“Don't be ridiculous, Buffy,” Rupert chided. “No horn.”
Buffy snorted, but didn’t reply. She could sense Rupert going under again. She wrapped one arm around him to steady him as he sagged forward onto Belle’s neck.
As Rupert had said, it took about two days to reach the Coven. Buffy was amazed to find that it was Belle who picked their camping spot each night - always a comfortable spot near fresh water. Buffy noted the horse remained vigilant through the night, keeping watch over them, even when she would have expected the animal would need to sleep after walking all day. Buffy was also amazed to note that not one vampire or demon crossed their path, and Buffy’s bad guy senses did not go off once. She wondered if the horse had something to do with that as well.
About mid-morning on the third day, Buffy saw some sort of village in the distance. As they came closer, Buffy noted that it was a fenced compound, with thatched cottages of various shapes and sizes, a central well, a smith’s shop, and the like. It seemed exactly like a normal village, and yet there was something very “other” about it as well. Mystical symbols adorned certain buildings.
As Belle approached the gate, an older woman in a long dress, apron and bonnet swung it open.
“Good day to you my dear,” the woman said, “and to your Watcher.”
“Thank you,” Buffy acknowledged politely, not having any other idea what to say.
“Walk on, Belle,” the woman said to the horse as she swung the gate closed behind them, “and welcome home to you as well.”
Belle snorted and walked steadily up to a large, central building, where a number of similarly dressed women appeared to be awaiting them.
Buffy took hold of Rupert’s shoulder and shook him gently, leaning down to him. “Rupert,” she whispered. “Rupert!” she tried again, more urgently this time. “You’ve got to wake up. I think we’re here.”
Rupert roused at Buffy’s urging and managed to open his eyes and lift his head a bit as the horse stopped right in front of the gathered women. “Witches,” Buffy reminded herself.
One of the women, who seemed to be in charge, reached out and rubbed the horse’s nose. “Thank you dearest Belle, well done.”
Buffy observed the woman who spoke. Although similar in dress to the others, she had a startling face – at once beautiful and intimidating, with striking ice-blue eyes. The craggy lines about her eyes and mouth did nothing to take away from her beauty, and when she smiled, her face lit up with a goodness and peace Buffy could not begin to fathom. She practically crackled with what Buffy guessed was magic.
The woman stepped around the horse’s left shoulder and looked up into Rupert’s face. As she gently placed a hand on his left thigh, their eyes met and she exclaimed, “My Dear Boy, you look like shite!”
Buffy wasn’t sure what she had been expecting – an incantation or some archaic language or what – but it hadn’t been that. Somehow, the woman’s casual speech instantly put her instantly at ease.
“I’m afraid I feel it, as well, Mother,” Rupert replied softly.She patted his thigh gently. “We believe we know what ails you Rupert, and hope we’ll soon put it to rights.”
Buffy was still trying to catch up. “Mother?”
Rupert struggled to sit up a bit further. “An honorific, Buffy,” he explained. “Minerva is Senior Elder of this coven.”
“So this is your Slayer?” Minerva’s voice was filled with affection and approval.
“Indeed she is,” Rupert’s affection and pride was evident as well. “Mother Minerva, may I present Buffy Summers, my Slayer. Buffy this is Mother Minerva, she presides over this coven here by Devon.” It was about all he had strength for, and he felt himself leaning heavily on Belle’s neck once more.
“Indeed a great pleasure, Buffy Summers, Rupert’s Slayer,” Minerva returned, squeezing Buffy’s hand briefly. “Alas Rupert's considerable illness demands we see to him immediately. We shall share many more words later.”
“Thank you,” Buffy acknowledged quickly, both to the greeting and to the understanding that these people apparently possessed the ability to help her Watcher. She slid quickly to the ground, then reached to help Rupert down as well. By the time she had him down, four women had appeared with a stretcher, and she guided him lie down onto it.
Minerva knelt at Rupert’s side a moment and took his left hand in hers. “We will do our best for you, Rupert.”
“I know you will,” he replied softly.
“Time for you to rest now,” Minerva said, and she reached her right hand to touch Rupert’s forehead. Buffy tried not to panic as she saw his eyes drift closed.
Minerva stood, and at her nod, the four witches picked up the stretcher and carried Rupert into the building.
Minerva extended a hand to Buffy. “Come with me, my dear. You will have a hand in his healing.” Buffy took the wrinkled but powerful hand and followed the old witch into the building after her Watcher.
In the center of the main building was a ritual gathering space. Around the perimeter, circular benches lined the walls in concentric rows, and the Sisters of the coven were filing in respectfully, and taking their places. Candles and incense burned at regular intervals around the room. There was a large pentagram drawn on the floor, with candles burning at its five points. It was to the center of the pentagram that Rupert was taken. The stretcher was slid away, and the witches positioned him so his head, arms and legs were aligned with the pentagram’s points.
Buffy felt her stomach churning. The stories she’d heard of scenes like this were ones of dark magic, torture and death. Sensing her distress, Minerva was at her side instantly.
“Magic is neither good nor evil, light nor dark. It is in how it is employed that the good or evil manifests. I assure you, ours is a place of good.”
“Thank you, I’m trying to remember that,” Buffy returned honestly.
Minerva stepped into the pentagram and knelt at Rupert’s left side. She motioned Buffy to a similar position on his right.
“We suspect what ails him, but now we will confirm it. Then, we shall know how to proceed. Place your hand above his heart.”
Buffy nodded and placed her right hand above her Watcher’s heart as she was told. She could feel the warmth of Rupert’s body through his shirt – a warmth that told her he was still alive. She could only hope that when all this was done, he’d be both alive and healed.
The feel of Minerva’s hand resting atop her own broke her reverie. She looked sideways and saw the old witch had her right hand to her temple, and appeared to be in deep thought, or perhaps a trance. She returned her eyes to Rupert’s face and tried her own deep thinking. “Fix him, and get him well, and get him back to me,” she repeated internally to herself.
After what seemed only a few short moments, Buffy felt Minerva’s hand leave hers. She looked at the older woman, whose eyes were again open, and who was now standing and turning to face the assembled coven.
“My Sisters,” Minerva addressed them. “It is as we suspected. The demon which wounded our brother Rupert was indeed cursed, and that curse has transferred to him. A perfidious thing, it has left him with a darkness that saps his strength. If we do not intervene, he will die within a matter of weeks, perhaps less. We here do not wield our magic with disdain. Well we know the dangers of practice without control, as Rupert himself learned first hand in his youth. In the case before us, we find a Watcher in good service to his Slayer, and a Slayer in need of her Watcher to continue her good works against the Darkness. I propose to you that this case warrants our intervention. Our decision must be unanimous. If any dissent, tell me now.”
Buffy held her breath. She hadn’t realized that Rupert’s life would be put to a vote. She wanted to scream out to them and ask what the hell they were thinking. But once again, Rupert’s training prevailed. She had to be patient. He trusted these people to know what they were doing. They seemed to know him, and know what to do for him. And what was that bit about his youth, anyway? She shook her head. Patience, trust. If these people were good, they’d make the right decision. She had to believe that. After a year in Rupert’s company, she really did try to believe that.
Not a word. Not a peep. Not a raised hand.
Minerva’s voice broke through Buffy’s thoughts.
“It is decided. We will do all we can to restore Rupert to his health and to his role as Watcher.”
(On to Part 4)