In which it all gets a bit much for poor Buffy. Note: this is the penultimate chapter.
Characters: Hiywan (the First Slayer before she became a Slayer), Buffy. See here for a glossary of original characters.
Wordcount: 21,642. This chapter 2373
Rating: 15 (R) (Non-explicit references to sex, nudity, animal deaths, various bodily functions, nature being red in tooth and claw, etc.)
Previous chapters: One Two Three Four
The evening meal went well; after the awkwardness when Buffy first arrived, it seemed that everyone had decided to do their best to be welcoming to her now. It helped a lot that thanks to my lessons, she could at least say, "Hi, I'm Buffy" when people introduced themselves, and she knew "Yes" and "No and "Please" and "Thank you" as well.
There was some confusion when she came to be served first from the antelope she killed, as was her right - but at my suggestion, Ariam performed the ritual with Degu first. He was the one who'd killed the other deer, it turned out, and I nudged Buffy and made sure she was paying attention, so that when it came to be her time to receive the slayer's portion, she'd know more or less what to do. Before she did, Haset rushed over, shy but determined, and pressed into her hands one of the two clay bowls she'd made earlier that day for her to use. Buffy looked taken aback but rather touched, and thanked her gravely. I pulled Haset onto my knee, hugged her and we shared the other bowl between the two of us.
The meal was delicious. I think Buffy enjoyed it too, although she didn't eat very much. That was puzzling - you always eat as much as you can, because tomorrow there might be nothing at all if the Spirits are angry. We'd gone to bed hungry often enough in the last few moons to make this relative abundance doubly welcome. Buffy seemed to have some trouble with the meat, too. Most people just use their hands and teeth to pull it apart, but I was a little surprised to see her take out a knife - she must have kept it from the afternoon, which of course she had every right to do since she was a clan-sister now - and use it to cut up her portion into smaller pieces. She then them ate daintily, one by one. Then she looked around awkwardly, and wiped her greasy fingers on the grass.
Afterwards it was time to put the children to bed. There was the usual drama and parental sternness, and Buffy sat on her tree-stump by the fire looking a little lost and out of it. I contributed my share by getting a torch to light the way to the shelter, and for want of anything better to do my new companion accompanied me. I stood next to the shelter entrance, and gestured for her to hold the curtain open so the torchlight would shine inside. For obvious reasons, we don't allow naked flame into the shelter itself: the roof is piled with dried grasses, the floor covered with dry rushes and animal hides, and our kids sleep in there (as do we).
Buffy watched as the children were shepherded into the hut and settled down there, and the adults made their way out again. She looked at me questioningly, then pointed at herself, at me, a circling gesture to include the whole camp, then pointed into the shelter and mimed putting her head on her hands and sleeping. I nodded. "Yes, that's right".
A look of curiosity on her face, she crouched low and clambered down the short stairway into the shelter herself. Buffy wasn't particularly tall for an adult, but even she had to bend forward to avoid hitting the roof with her head. She looked around, presumably waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dark. Then she knelt down to examine the sleeping furs more closely.
And at that point, she screamed. A yell of genuine horror that caused the children to complain and whimper and some to start crying. And she shot out of the doorway, barged past me without a world of explanation, and ran off into the darkness.
Of course the commotion brought everybody else over to see what was wrong. A few went in to comfort the children, others barraged me with questions. What was wrong? Did something happen to Buffy? Had she gone mad? Reverted to her true demon form? Had I hurt her? I had no answers to their questions, although of course I denied that she had turned into a monster, and protested that I hadn't done anything to her myself.
In the end Belaye reminded me that I was the one responsible for our guest, and ordered me firmly to go and find her, "And make sure she doesn't cause any more disturbances like this". So I set off into the darkness with my torch, while the rest of the clan made their way back to the campfire.
Oh, I knew exactly what the subject of conversation there would be.
I searched fruitlessly through the camp, calling Buffy's name in a loud whisper. In the darkness and torchlight it looked different; far more sinister, all dark shadows and odd shapes. No sign of her. I stood there puzzled, trying to think: where would she go?
The river, perhaps? I made my way over to it. She was not in sight; but there were fresh footprints in the clay along the banks. Not human: or rather, they were presumably the marks of those odd leather bags Buffy wore around her feet. I followed the trail, instinctively dropping into a hunter's crouch, and around the curve of the river I found her.
It was the splashing I heard first; then I saw the pale shape of her body in the water. She seemed from the noise to be scrubbing vigorously at her arms and torso, and as I got closer I could hear her muttering angrily under her breath.
"Buffy? Are you all right?"
She spun in shock, clearly not having heard me coming, and her expression seemed both furious and at the same time somehow lost. She asked me an angry question; I shrugged and made my voice sound placating and concerned as I replied, "We were worried about you. What's wrong?"
In reply I got an angry stream of invective. Buffy's body language was taut, drawn-in and defensive. She'd seemed to lose her self-concern about nudity earlier that afternoon; but now both arms were clamped tightly around her chest once again. I wasn't sure if she was hiding herself from me or protecting herself from the world.
It was hard to tell, but I don't think she was angry at me specifically. I couldn't imagine why she'd be so furious about the bedding in the shelter either, unless her people had some weird religious taboo or something that we'd broken by mistake. But something had set her off, and I felt frustrated and angry myself that I didn't understand and couldn't help.
She obviously felt so too, because after a while she stopped herself, flung up one hand in the air (she'd started to fling both up, then remembered and caught herself) and gestured for me to turn around and leave her alone. I started to comply, but I was still worried about her out here by herself.
I tried to warn her, somehow, but she looked impatient and angry still, and gestured for me to leave once more. So I fumbled in my pouch and pulled out my knife - it was only a feeble weapon, but I hadn't had time to find a better one. And anyway, I had the torch, which was good enough against nightwalkers at least. I offered it to Buffy; she regarded it for a moment, then seemed to get my meaning. I won a brief, reluctant smile from her at least; then she reached out her hand and plucked a piece of wood from the midstream rock she was leaning against. I'd thought it was just a piece of driftwood, but I suddenly realised the end was sharpened to a lethal point. Presumably by Buffy's own flint knife -- and she'd known exactly how to put her hand on it, without even looking around. She gave me a smug smile, as if to say, "I'm not a newbie, kid".
I conceded the point with a smile of my own, and at her repeated gesture turned to go. She obviously wanted to be alone; and while I didn't know why, I could certainly relate to the general feeling. And clearly she'd be safe enough.
When I got back to the campfire, of course everybody wanted to know what happened. I gave as brief an explanation as I could get away with, deflecting any questions with "I don't know" and "We'll be able to talk to her tomorrow". That changed the subject readily enough, even though "Guardian magic" was the only explanation I or Grandmother Heran were prepared to offer. But the clan had legends about the Guardians of old, of course, and how they protected the People from danger; and as we began telling one of those tales the entire group settled down into familiar story-telling mode. There were songs too - yes, unfortunately, including 'Hiywan and the Hyena', and Nataye said that they'd have to add a new verse called 'Hiywan and the White Stranger', and I completely forgot why I'd ever liked him in my desire for his blood. Or even better, we'd have to make up a song about him and his paintings of buffaloes, and make it as embarrassing as possible.
And then there was laughter, and more singing, and drums, and people cleared a space and started dancing, and others paired off and slipped away into the shadows around the campfire. I thought then of looking for Amare, to make him keep his promise from this afternoon; but he was with his wife and I thought it might be awkward to cut in. Then I thought of Nataye, but I had a sudden attack of shyness, and thought that after teasing him so much about his painting he might not want to go with me now, and I was afraid of him rejecting me if I asked.
So I kind of hung around the group he was in, hoping he'd ask me instead, but he didn't. He was too engrossed in some stupid conversation. In the end Assefe came up to me and made some feeble joke about when Buffy and I went swimming that afternoon, and I guessed he was leading up to asking me to have sex with him. So I cut the conversation short and said yes. We went off behind the Fire Hut, and you know, I enjoyed myself a lot; but I can't help wishing sometimes that dealing with men was as easy as hunting antelope.
Eventually, we all made our way into the shelter and settled down to sleep for the night. I dropped off quickly, tired after my long day of exhaustion, and had a very strange dream. It was full of peculiar shapes and human-seeming but oddly different people all talking to me urgently, and there was some sort of weapon that shone like moonlight but was red like blood, and was very important for some reason I didn't understand; and I needed to find it but it wasn't there anymore, or maybe it wasn't there yet; and the voices were all asking me more and more desperately to help them...
And then I woke up. It was still pitch-black, the middle of the night. Snores and soft regular breathing echoed all around me. At this point, I have a confession to make - one you've probably already guessed, but at the time it came as a very nasty shock for me to realise.
All this time, I'd completely forgotten about Buffy.
It's true: since I left her by the river and joined the rest of the clan by the campfire, I hadn't given her a moment's thought. I hadn't set eyes on her either. She hadn't come back. She was still out there. Or dead beneath the claws and teeth of some... thing.
I sat up, looked around to try and see if she was in the shelter. Impossible to tell, of course; the narrow chinks of starlight filtering through the holes in the roof were barely enough even to make out the dark forms of my sleeping clanmates, not to distinguish individuals.
I dared raise my voice, whisper her name; that brought no reply except a couple of grumbled, half-asleep complaints. But no reply from her. Very worried now, I got to my feet and struggled toward the door, doing my best (and failing) to avoid stepping on anyone as I made my way there.
I paused at the entrance, remembering my lessons. Nightwalkers couldn't come into the shelter, but they could grab you as soon as you set foot outside. But I was a Guardian now, not an unprotected little girl. My hand reached into the niche by the entrance where I kept my greatest treasure. Nobody else dared to touch it, save Grandmother; it was a thing of power. Qasafi's own knife, its edge glittering black with death.
Nobody in the clan or even the Order of Guardians knew how old it was, or where it came from. In form and texture it seemed to be carved from wood, about as long as my forearm, with a wicked point and a cruel edge. It had the same effect on nightwalkers as wood does, too; pierced through the heart, they exploded instantly into dust. Yet it was not soft like wood, but hard as stone; harder, even, with a keen edge that never blunted or chipped or cracked. When we discussed it, I'd asked Grandmother if it was somehow wood turned into stone, by the power of the Spirits. She'd told me not to be so fanciful, but she hadn't been able to offer any better explanation. But regardless of what it was, its purpose was beyond question. To slay.
Which made it a good thing to have with me when I planned to go out, all alone, into the darkness of a night that teemed with demons and nightwalkers and more mundane but equally dangerous enemies. Clearly I was mad.
But Buffy was probably out there too, and I needed to save her. Or at least find her.
On to the final chapter