Disclaimer: I do not own any of the main characters or even the plot. It was all borrowed from Joss Whedon and the owners and writers of “Ladyhawke.”
Author’s Note: This is my first sort-of crossover and my first time posting on this site. I apologize for my clumsiness. I’m afraid I don’t know how to activate italics, bold, etc. So… [Characters thoughts will be bracketed] and ~Willow’s narrative will be indicated by these little squiggley things.~ I’m sorry of this distracts from the story! Gloss over my ineptitude and enjoy as best you can!
A fool’s work was scarce as of late, and Xander the Fool was currently unemployed. Of course, when your employer, or ex-employer as the case may be, gets burned at the stake for heresy, you cannot really expect any letters of recommendation to be forthcoming.
His stomach growled angrily at him. “Now settle down,” he soothed desperately. “As soon as we reach the castle of Lord William the Bloody, we’ll eat. Even if I have to steal scraps from the rats, we’ll eat. Maybe we’ll eat the rats. Mmm…rat stew, rat pudding, rat sausage…” His stomach howled. He placed a hand over it to comfort it. It didn’t work.
Then he smelled it.
A delicious aroma floated on the forest air. His mouth watered achingly and his feet followed his nose.
He came upon a small settlement. Not quite a village but more than just a farm or hermit hut.
The enticing scent was the busy smokehouse.
The busy unguarded smokehouse.
A fool is not necessarily a thief but starvation will make thief of king. And poor Xander was no king. He wasn’t even a fool anymore.
He dashed to the smokehouse and tore open the door. Thick, oily smoke roiled out, choking and blinding the unfortunate ex-fool. He reached forward blindly and clutched the first thing he felt. It was heavy and greasy and felt delicious under his fingertips. Saliva fell past his lips and down his chin in a gush.
He could almost taste the handful of meat as he brought it towards his waiting maw. He didn’t hear the rushing, thudding footsteps behind him. He did feel the rock upon his head before he blacked out.
He awoke to a fetid stench. It came with the growl, “Do you know what we do with thieves?” The query was accompanied by a cruel kick to his ribs. “Answer me, you pathetic slug!”
He curled upon himself to protect his face and head. A handful of his hair was grabbed and his head was yanked back. “That smoked ham belongs to Lord William, thief! Stealing William the Bloody’s favorite smoked ham earns you a free pass to his dungeon. And you’ll find where he got his namesake!” Foul smelling laughter wafted over him.
“Please!” Xander begged. “Have mercy on a poor, starving fool!” Tears of fear leaked out of his eyes. The sound of hoof beats approached the two men.
A new, yet familiar feminine voice floated gracefully down to the pair. “What have you caught, Lawrence?”
Xander’s hair was abruptly released and his head fell back to the earth as Lawrence hastily stood. “Just a thieving wretch, Your Highness,” he said obsequiously. “He was trying to steal Lord William’s ham from the smokehouse.” Lawrence kept his head bowed in the presence of the king’s beloved daughter. “I was just doing my duty of beating the thieving scum before turning him over to Lord William.” He then added under his breath, “For a finder’s fee.”
She peered down at the cowering man and gasped with recognition. “Xander?”
He looked up at the sound of his name. When he saw who she was, he scrambled to his feet and bowed low. “Your Highness,” he said humbly and hopefully. “Please forgive my appearance and criminal behavior.” He flushed with shame at what he’d been reduced to and hoped with all his might that the princess was as merciful and kind as he remembered. “I have come upon very hard times. I haven’t eaten in days and, I confess, I was quite overcome by the smell of the smokehouse.”
Princess Elizabeth cracked a half-smile. “Understandable, Xander. These folks are known for their smoked ham and pork sausage. I daresay you would have broken down the doors even if you had a full meal in your belly. If I remember correctly, you have a love of all things edible.” She turned her gaze to Xander’s captor. “Release him, Lawrence. I will pay you your ‘finder’s fee.’” Both men sighed with relief. “And for God’s sake, get him some food and wine.”
Xander hid the tears of gratitude by bowing his head. “Thank you. You are as kind and beneficent as ever you were, Your Highness.”
“After you have eaten, I’ll wish to speak to you.”
Lawrence, now assured of getting paid, was a very different man. He led Xander to his small hut and sat him down at his table. Without a word, he began to place a modest feast of hot stew, fresh bread, cheese and fruit in front of the salivating Xander. He fell upon it ravenously. Again, he felt the fist of Lawrence grab his hair. His head was pulled back, away from the food. The big man growled, “Eat slowly, else you make yourself sick. The food is yours and will not run away or disappear.”
Xander took a deep breath and nodded. “I thank you sir.” With enormous effort, he slowed down and ate his fill. When he finished, he leaned back and patted his now bulging stomach and released a satisfied belch.
He started when a satchel dropped on the table with a heavy thump. “That’s yours,” said Lawrence. “That ought to keep you fed for a while.”
“Again, I thank you, sir. You have saved my life.”
“That would be the princess, did that,” answered Lawrence. “She seeks an audience with you. Go now, lest she become impatient and collect her finder’s fee from Lord William.”
Xander nodded, grabbed the satchel, and rushed out of the hut. The king’s daughter was not difficult to find in these humble surroundings. Her fine and healthy horse stood outside a small but neatly kept cottage. Xander knocked upon the door and entered when bid.
She was smiling warmly at him from her seat by the fire and he relaxed. “Feeling better?” she asked.
“Yes. I cannot thank you enough. I am certain you saved my miserable hide.”
“How could I not, Xander? You, who entertained my dearest friend with your antics. If I had known you were in such difficulty, I would have intervened much sooner. As it is, I am glad I could be useful. And just in time.”
She looked different from the girl he knew. Her eyes were hard and her face thin and a bit haggard. “Please forgive my impertinence but I notice that you seemed to be dressed for travel,” he said. And indeed, she wore no elaborate finery just well-made loose, leather trousers and a light-weight tunic over a plain shirt. “And what are you doing on Lord William’s lands? I thought you hated the man.”
Her sour expression told him he was correct. “I am… looking for someone,” she said hesitantly.
“Perhaps I can help? Please, Your Highness. I must be allowed to repay you for your kindness.”
“Xander,” she said quietly, “long ago, I gave you leave to call me by the name given to me by my best friend. I would hear it again for I have not seen either of you for too long a time.”
He nodded and his heart gave a sympathetic beat at the sorrow in her voice. “What troubles you then, Buffy?”
Her eyes filled with tears at the sound of her name. “Many things,” was all she would say for the time being. Her smile turned from morose to mischievous. “Do you still do that dance? The one that would have us in tears of mirth?”
He smiled big at the thought. “The Dance of the Well-Pleased Dog? Oh yes. However, it only serves to entertain you and Willow. The rest of the country was not willing to pay me a meal for it.”
Buffy laughed at the image of Xander dancing to a hissing crowd. “I will pay you well for such mirth and memories. For I have had too little levity these past few years.” Her face clouded once again.
“Do you know how Willow fares?” he asked, hoping for good news. It was her father who was recently burned at the stake. Luckily, she was away at the time. He had sent her away at the first sign of trouble.
“I have heard that she is well. I am on my way to see her, actually.” Buffy stood, resolute. “And you will accompany me. I am certain Willow will be overjoyed to know that you are alive and well.”
“Alive, to be sure. But I am well only through your kindness. And your fondness for fools like me.”
“Well the day burns too fast. We must leave now for I can only travel while the sun is in the sky.”
“With a full stomach, I am ready for any and all things, Your Highness,” he said with a flourish and bow.
Once they were underway, a pall darkened their journey. Xander walked next to her as she rode on horseback. He would glance at her every once in a while. This weary and despondent Buffy was not the carefree girl he remembered. She and Willow used to giggle and chatter and hide away to discuss secrets of an adolescent nature. This Buffy looked as if she would never be happy again.
She also scanned the underbrush as if expecting someone or something to jump out at them. Not that he would be much help on that count. Buffy was always the better sword fighter of the trio. Willow was always deep in her studies and Xander happily provided the comic relief.
Memories of past contentment were a stark contrast to their current situation. He felt a disquiet fall upon him like a thick, morning mist. And twice, he swore he saw a flash of something slivery out of the corner of his eye. [There is magic about.] The hairs on his forearms stood up at that thought and would not lay flat the rest of the trip.
As the sun began to sink lower and lower, Buffy grew more and more anxious. When they came upon a village, she visibly relaxed and took a room at the inn. Xander insisted on taking care of her horse and gear.
“I…I shall retire early and eat my supper in my room,” said Buffy. Xander was disappointed but nodded his understanding and she disappeared to her room for the evening.
He ate in the tavern and listened to the chatter of the townsfolk. It was mostly local gossip and not very interesting to someone not from the area. But when he heard the words “enchanted princess” his ears perked up. At first it was just to have a fun and interesting story to tell Buffy as they traveled tomorrow. He didn’t think he could stand another day like today.
The snippets he heard of the enchanted princess, however, began to feel more and more unnerving.
“…she is followed by a dark figure who haunts the night…”
“…wherever she goes, chickens are left slaughtered, their eggs stolen…”
“…owls swoop into open windows…”
“…one man was murdered in his bed…”
“…nay. He was not murdered, he was slashed across the face…”
“…aye. Permanently scarred, he was…”
A barmaid interrupted his eavesdropping. “Pardon me, good sir, but someone has told me that a thief is trying to take your horse.”
Xander jumped to his feet and, offering a quick thank you, rushed out into the cool night.
To his relief, the horse was still there. But someone was leaving the stall quickly and silently. Unbidden, a thought snaked its way through his consciousness. [She is followed by a dark figure who haunts the night.] A cold, cold chill slicked its way down his back as he watched the figure. It moved with furtive, oily stealth. The black, hooded cloak it wore made it difficult to detect any distinguishing features.
“Halt!” shouted Xander. The figure paused and turned toward him. His mouth went dry at the sight of a pale face and seemingly black eyes, hollow and haunted. Its features, surprisingly had a feminine cast to them. As he stood frozen, an owl, smoky and silent, swooped in with a graceful arc to land on the shoulder of the shadowed figure. Xander sucked in a breath of fear and dread and wonder as she caressed it absently in greeting.
Before anything else could be said, it… she… was gone. Melted into the night.
Xander rushed to check on the horse. It stood calmly chewing hay as if nothing had happened. Xander leaned against the docile, solid animal as the icy sweat on his brow evaporated.
He decided to sleep in the stable with the calm horse. [Just to make sure that it stays safe.]
Buffy was in better spirits the next morning. “So,” she chirruped cheerfully, “anything exciting happen last night?”
Xander answered, “Actually, yes.”
“Oh? Do tell!”
“A dark, hooded, phantom woman tried to steal your horse and then left with her owl familiar.”
When he heard no exclamations, only silence, he turned to look at Buffy. She’d gone pale.
“Did she…” her voice shook with emotion. “Was she… Did she say anything to you?”
Buffy looked disappointed. “Nothing at all?”
“Not a word. Not a peep.”
“What of the owl?” This question was uttered tightly, her eyes flashing with dull, resigned anger.
“It swooped in soundlessly and settled upon the phantom’s shoulder.” He paused closing his eyes as he relived the fear. “She then reached up to stroke its feathers. Then she disappeared.” At this, Buffy gave a heart-felt, trembly sigh and whispered, “She follows. Thank God she follows.”
They were silent for several minutes as they walked. He pondered her last statement. [Who follows and why? More magic.] He was afraid to utter these questions aloud. Instead he said, “There were rumors flying about, of an enchanted princess roaming the land,” ventured the fool, hoping to lighten the mood. “And that she is followed by a haunting figure that prowls the night for lost souls.” Buffy made no comment, merely looking deep in thought.
“I cannot help but notice that when a princess appeared in that small little village, so did a dark, shadowy phantom.” Xander took a breath and continued. “You should know, Buffy, that I would follow you anywhere and do anything you asked of me. I am your loyal servant, not because you saved me from starvation and torture, but because you are strong and noble and you have called me your friend.”
A few tears escaped her eyes to roll down her cheeks.
He kept on. “A dark cloud has settled over you and I know not why. I want to help in any way possible for a fool like me. Even if it’s nothing more than to lift your spirits.”
There was a long silence before she said, “I am not enchanted. I am cursed.” Her head was bowed and her voice was soft and resigned. “I have been wandering the countryside for two years now, Xander.”
“Have you been home at all?” His voice was calm yet his heart beat frantically in his breast.
“No. My father has bid me gone.” Her voice broke. “He has told me quite clear that I have brought this curse upon myself. I am not welcome until it has lifted. The money he has given me will run out soon and I have yet to find a cure.”
“So you go to Willow for help?” When Buffy nodded he asked, “Why have you not sought her counsel sooner?”
Buffy’s face grew stony, her jaw clenching. “She is the reason this curse was put upon me.”
“What?” He was aghast. He could feel the gathering storm of intrigue and magic. And in the middle of it all were his two best friends.
Then Buffy sighed. “Of course now, I have realized that it was not done purposely. She meant well and the main reason it all turned out so badly is that I didn’t tell her everything.” Xander was shaking his head, confused and befuddled. Not noticing, Buffy continued. “My own folly is partially to blame. But Willow, if I know her as well as I think I do, wants to help fix it. And up ‘til now, I have denied her this opportunity.”
By now, Xander’s head was filled with questions and he would have started to ask them if it hadn’t been for the thundering of hooves as Lord William’s guards came rushing upon them.
Buffy drew her sword and rushed to fight. Xander, with no weapon and no skill backpedaled as two menacing men on horseback advanced upon him. When a third and fourth joined them, Xander considered running. But he spied the princess fighting so valiantly and he could not desert her. The guards dismounted and stalked over to him. He put up his fists and the men laughed. One drew his sword and moved to engage with the unarmed man.
Poor Xander was no match for them. He soon found himself on the ground bleeding and trussed tightly with rough rope, watching helplessly as Buffy was also overtaken by the vicious guards.
Somewhere, off in the distance hidden in the underbrush, a high-pitched yelping could heard.
The armed men busied themselves tying the princess tightly while Xander lie face down in the dirt. She struggled and kicked and screamed out curses yet the guards were careful not to hurt her. Xander took a small measure of hope from that.
Once she was secured they began to move. One guard glanced at the prone Xander. “Do we take him with us?”
“We’d better,” was the gruff answer. “Lord William said she’d be traveling alone. He’ll want to know who this is.”
Two men took Xander by the arms and hauled him to his feet and the entire group began the walk back from whence they came. They were accompanied by the soft sobs of the princess. Xander’s heart ached and he silently cursed his uselessness.
The group soon came to Lord William’s camp. Xander was pushed unceremoniously to the ground as Buffy was brought struggling to the smug, waiting lord. “Where is the fox?” he queried his men.
“There was no fox to be seen,” answered the leader. “Only this skinny-armed lout,” he added indicating poor Xander.
Lord William dismissed him with a derisive snort. Turning back to Buffy he said, “So your fox has left you then?” When Buffy didn’t answer he scowled. “No friends, no family, no lover. Just a pathetic servant boy. Perhaps my offer doesn’t seem so unattractive now, does it?”
He received only a mutinous thinning of lips as a response.
He tilted his head thoughtfully and then ducked into his tent. When he came out he was carrying a large wire cage in one hand. Buffy’s eyes widened in horror. “No. You wouldn’t,” she whispered desperately.
He gave her a significant sneer. “Of course I would. And you know very well that I would.” He nodded to his guards and they pushed her into the lord’s tent as she began to struggle and protest, fear making her voice shrill.
As she disappeared into his tent, the arrogant lord strolled over to the prone Xander. “You’ve stumbled into quite a tangle, haven’t you, boy? Your mistress has a terrible curse plaguing her and all those who surround her.” He leaned close. “Now where is the silver fox?” he murmured.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” answered Xander truthfully.
“Your misplaced loyalty will only get you a long and very uncomfortable stay in my dank dungeons, boy. Now, where is it?”
“I tell you, I have absolutely no idea what you mean! I have seen no fox!”
Lord William sighed and stood to gaze at the sky. “It will be dark soon,” he said ominously. He then turned on his heel and said, “I will deal with you later,” as he walked away.
Xander’s mind was awhirl. [Dark, shadowy figures, enchanted owls, cursed princesses, cruel lords, and now foxes. What in blazes is going on?]
Then he felt the strangest sensation. Something cold and wet on his hands. His body jerked, startled, and the sensation went away as if startled by his abrupt movement. He craned his head around to see what was touching him.
At first he saw nothing and he wondered if he’d imagined it. Then a pair of glittering, animal eyes caught his eye. They were hiding in the bushes behind him. He held his breath as he stared at the animal.
It was a silver fox.
As he lay still, hardly breathing and his heart thundering in his ears, the silver fox crept closer to sniff his bound hands. He slowly turned his head back around to check the guards. No one seemed to notice him or the silver fox. [If Lord William is looking for the fox and Lord William is bad, then I don’t think he should get the fox.]
Pleased with his logic, he very carefully kept his face expressionless when he felt the fox tugging at the rope around his wrists. The animal tugged and pulled and shook. Sometimes making too much noise in Xander’s opinion. But still, no one seemed to notice.
Sweat beaded on his brow as the fox worked and the sun sank lower in the sky. When the sun was almost gone, the tugging suddenly stopped. Xander ventured a glance over his shoulder to check on its progress.
The fox was gone.
He tested his fetters. They loosened and fell away. Offering a prayer of thanks to whatever gods watch over small, cunning predators, he waited until all eyes were looking away. He then rolled into the bushes and crept away, his heart pounding in his chest. When he was far enough away, he stood and ran listening with dread for the sound of guards giving chase.
At length, slowed to a stop and bent over panting from anxiety and his exertions.
The sound sent him into a crouch. “Who’s there?” he whispered as he peered around into the darkening forest.
“Over here!” hissed the voice. He spun towards the sound and there, crouching behind a bush was the dark woman from the previous night.
Her dark eyes had lost their hollow look but remained haunted. “Wha… who… who are you?” he asked, frightened of the answer.
She stayed crouched in the brush showing only her pale face framed with dark, wavy hair. “Umm… would you happen to have something I could wear?” she asked with a breathy, throaty voice, rough from lack of use.
“I… uh… What?” That was the last thing he’d expected to hear.
“Something to wear. A tunic or shirt, maybe?”
When he glimpsed a bare shoulder he realized that she was naked or close to it. “Oh! Of course milady,” he said and quickly pulled his heavy tunic over his head and tossed it to her.
“Thanks,” she said, grateful, putting it on with a sigh of relief. It was heavy, woolen warmth.
Again Xander asked, “Who are you?”
“There’s no time for explanations,” she answered curtly. “We have to get her out of there.”
Xander’s heart quickened. “She’s in Lord William’s tent,” he offered, eager to contribute. The mystery woman stood and immediately headed for the camp.
“Wait! Don’t we need a plan or something?”
“Already have a plan,” she said. “You’ll need to get her horse and gear. I’ll create a diversion and you take the horse. While they’re chasing you, I’ll get B.”
“While they’re chasing me? What if they catch me?”
The woman stopped walking and turned to face the young man. “We’re stacking diversion upon diversion,” she explained slowly and carefully. “I distract the camp and you steal the horse. You stealing the horse will create the next distraction and I’ll get Buffy. Our getaway will cause Lord William to call the guards away from you because he’ll want Buffy a lot more than you. Do you understand?”
“...uuhhh Yes. But I’m not much of a take-action sort of chap,” he said nervously.
“But you’ll do it for Buffy,” she said, already knowing the answer.
He nodded, looking determined.
As they walked with speedy purpose towards the camp, Xander asked again, “Who are you?”
“I’m Faith,” she said absently. Then she snuck a sidelong glance to look at his face. “Are you Xander?”
“Yes,” he answered with surprise. “How do you know who I am?”
“Buffy and Willow used to speak of you fondly.”
“You know Willow too?”
“Uh huh,” she whispered. Then she stopped walking and crouched down indicating for Xander to do the same. “We’re close to the camp.”
They could hear Lord William the Bloody berating his men for letting a servant escape.
“Perfect,” she whispered. “They’ll be wanting you enough to give chase.”
Xander’s palms were starting to sweat. [For Buffy. Do it for Buffy.]
Faith’s urgent whisper broke through his apprehensive musings. “The horse has no gear. Wait here. I’ll get your stuff.” And before Xander could say or do anything, she crept off into the dark.
Xander stayed huddled in the underbrush watching the camp. He kept expecting to hear the seemingly inevitable alarm but it never came. Lord William’s men never saw her. Every once in a while Xander would catch a glimpse of Faith’s shadowy form as she made her way around the outskirts of the camp. He couldn’t help but be impressed at her stealth.
After an achingly long period of time, Faith made it back to Xander, her hands filled with their belongings.
“I saddled B’s horse for you but I couldn’t pack the rest of the gear. The sentry was getting too close.” She handed his tunic back to him. “Thanks for the tunic, by the way.” She was wearing the black cloak from the night before.
“How?...” started the stunned Xander, amazed at what she’d accomplished in such a short time.
She put up a hand. “No time for that now. Follow me and keep low and quiet.”
Xander imitated her crouching walk through the underbrush until they reached the horses. In a soft voice, she whispered into his ear. “When the guards run away, ride the horse at a noisy gallop, maybe add some loud taunts to Lord William.” She grinned cheekily at him. He smiled back, unable to resist. She continued in her raspy whisper. “Ride to Willow’s. Buffy and I will meet you there.”
“I don’t know where Willow is,” Xander replied in a panicked whisper.
Faith rolled her eyes. “She’s in a village about twenty miles east of here called Fisherton. I don’t know exactly where she lives, so you’ll have to ask around.” She fixed her dark eyes on his and he suddenly noticed how beautiful she was. “Now, go steal Buffy’s horse.” She gave him a grin and a nudge towards the horses. He reluctantly headed in the direction he was bid. He paused to glance over his shoulder to smile encouragingly at her but she was gone. Huffing out a deep breath he went to wait for his cue.
William the Bloody was seriously put out. How could a servant boy escape from under the noses of thirty trained soldiers? Out of so many men, surely one of them was bound to be competent enough to keep track of one little man.
He still had his prize, though. She struggled in his tent, every once in a while she would shriek with rage. He smiled at the sound every time. A sweet melody to his ears.
A shuffling sound reached his ears and he turned to look. His blue eyes met a pair of startled dark brown eyes. Both sets of eyes widened and two curses were muttered. The cloaked figure turned and ran into the dark while the lord’s voice bellowed, “To me! To me!” Lord William pulled out his sword and gave chase, still bawling out orders to his men to follow.
Xander knew this was his chance. The sentries scrambled like hounds after a fox, frantically grabbing for their weapons. When they were a good distance away, Xander made his move. “Noisy gallop, noisy gallop,” he reminded himself with a mutter. The horse was standing placidly, waiting for him. He took hold of the reins and, as quietly as he could, mounted the animal. The horse then began to prance a bit, feeling the anticipation in the air. Xander waited until Lord William’s men went deeper into the dark before he gave the horse a loud, “Hyah!” and kick. With a snort and whinny, the horse bolted, its hooves thundering against the earth.
Xander took a deep breath and yelled, “Catch me if you can, bloody William!”
Faith observed from her hiding place in the tree sheltering Lord William’s tent. She chuckled when she heard Xander’s shouted comment and nearly laughed out loud watching Lord William and his men trip over themselves as they chased after Buffy’s friend.
Her glee turned to concern when she heard Buffy shrieking and thrashing with rage in the tent. “Be calm, Your Majesty. I come for you,” she whispered. She hopped down from the tree and crept soundlessly into the tent.
Lord William felt anger turn his stomach to acid humiliation as he chased after the upstart servant. [I will flay his flesh from his bones a strip at a time.]
And then the back of his neck itched and he brought his horse an abrupt halt. His mount reared a little and shifted restlessly thudding his hooves upon the ground.
The lord’s head whipped around in time to see a dark, shadowy figure emerge from his tent. “No…” he whispered. “NOOOOOO!” His vision went red with rage as he viciously pulled his steed around and kicked the animal into a gallop back toward the camp. The upstart servant forgotten as he called to his men.
He knew he was too late. Defeat had a sour, bitter taste and it made him crave revenge. When he drew near, he dismounted and hit the ground running. Throwing open the tent flap he bellowed his wordless wrath at the sight of the empty tent. He then proceeded to tear through the interior, stomping, crushing, pounding everything within his reach, saving the empty wire cage for last.
The guards stood around, trembling with fear and hoping the lord’s gaze passed unseeing over them.
Xander’s heart beat a matching rhythm to the horse’s galloping hooves as they pounded over the terrain. When the labored, heaving breaths of the fleeing horse encroached upon his awareness, Xander pulled the animal to a walk. He strained his ears for the sound of an inevitable pursuit.
Faith’s plan worked.
Strangely, even though he had never heard of this woman or her seeming connection to his friends, he believed in her.
He had to.
He reached Fisherton by sunrise. The town was already wide awake as the fishermen pushed their boats out into the water. Some townspeople regarded him suspiciously as he rode by but most didn’t seem to care. He found an inn called The Fish Tail. After seeing to the tired horse, he asked the innkeeper about Willow.
The innkeeper’s eyes squinted with distaste. “She resides with the witch on the outskirts of town,” he told him.
After paying for some more detailed instructions, Xander was pointed to a small cottage, indeed, on the outskirts of town. A young blond woman was tending a pretty herb garden in front of the house. Xander approached her hesitantly. [Mustn’t alarm a witch.]
“Does Willow reside here?” he asked the woman when she looked up at him.
She blinked blue eyes at him and nodded wordlessly. Then abruptly jumped up and scurried into the house. Unsure, Xander waited outside.
A young woman with bright red hair exploded out of the house shrieking, “Xander!! Xander!!” and jumped into his arms. Soon, she was sobbing into his neck. “O Xander. I wasn’t sure if you were alive or dead.”
He chuckled as he held her tight. “I wasn’t sure, myself for a while. I would have been here sooner but I didn’t know where you’d gone.”
She pulled her head back and peered at him through her tears. “How did you find me?”
With a big smile he said, “Faith told me where to find you.”
She jerked out of his embrace and put her hands over her mouth. “Faith?” Her voice was small and scared. “You saw Faith?” Xander nodded. Her voice got even smaller, “Was Buffy with her?”
“Yes and no,” he answered. Willow’s eyes filled with tears. “We had to rescue her last night from the clutches of William the Bloody.”
She gasped with alarm. “Did you… did you succeed?”
“I know not. I was the diversion while Faith rescued the princess. They are to meet me here. Hopefully by tonight at the latest, for they might still be on foot.”
“Buffy’s coming here?” She looked scared and hopeful.
“That was the plan.”
“Well, come in, come in.” She tugged at his hand insistently. “You will have to tell me everything about the daring rescue.”
The interior of the cottage was dim and comfortable, filled with pleasant scents of flowers, herbs, and cooking food. “I will happily tell you everything you need to, Willow. But first… What the blazes is going on?!”
The red head stared at him. “Has Buffy not told you?”
“She didn’t get the chance. I encountered her only three days ago. I spoke to Faith for the first time last night. There has been no time for exposition.”
Willow sighed. “Sit down Xander and I will tell all that I know.”
~Elizabeth Ann, the only child of King Henry, was adventurous to a fault. Her favorite game was to leave the safety of her father’s castle and venture out into the city in disguise.
During one of these excursions, she encountered a group of ruffians who attempted to take advantage of her beauty. She fought fiercely but there were too many of them. All seemed lost until a street urchin by the name of Faith came to her aid.
A secret friendship began between the two. Faith showed Buffy the hidden parts of the city… until the king found out. He, of course, threatened to send Faith to the dungeons. Buffy then confessed to her father, telling of her excursions and the confrontation that led to her first meeting with Faith.
Upon hearing that this street thief saved the life of his daughter, he changed his mind and welcomed the young rogue into his home. He assigned her the task of staying close the princess’ side and protecting her. A bodyguard in disguise.
The two girls became even closer.
And when Buffy came to me, confessing that she was in love, I thought she meant Liam. Though their forbidden infatuation had cooled when she discovered his drunken, womanizing ways, I thought perhaps he’d changed. I thought they had renewed their secret vows.
But I was wrong. When I approached Liam about their possible elopement he was eager and hopeful and we went to find Buffy.
We found her.
We found her in the garden in an amorous embrace with Faith. Liam did not take this news well. He went out and got stinking drunk with his good friend William the Bloody. And when he was deep in his cups, he confessed the whole story.
Lord William approached Buffy the very next day with an offer of marriage. Buffy refused, knowing that he was after the throne. What she didn’t know, was that Lord William had been obsessed with her for some time. It seems that the combination of royalty and beauty was too much for William the Bloody to resist and he was sure that the offer of his hand in marriage would be accepted. Especially when he offered to turn a blind eye to her dalliance with Faith.
This was not enough incentive and she rebuffed him again, making it very clear that she would never accept him.
Enraged, William the Bloody sought out the mad witch, Drusilla. He commanded her to curse the princess and her lover, hoping that this would bring Buffy to him, begging to be released.~
Willow paused her narrative and a look of anguish fell upon her features. “I witnessed the curse take effect and I saw the torment that Buffy went through when Faith changed.”
Xander waited for Willow to collect herself and resume her story.
~Buffy came to me, angry and hurt, asking why I had gone to Liam. “Because now, Lord William knows!” she shouted, tears of distress flooding her face. Faith stood in the doorway with her arms crossed glaring at me.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!”
“William is going to do something drastic!” she said, wringing her hands. “He might even try to kill Faith!”
“I can handle myself, B.” Faith was calm and confident, as always. “No penny ante lord can get the best of me.”
But I was worried for the two of them. “He likes to use dark magic, Faith. Have you ever dealt with magic before?” I asked her.
Her dark brows drew together in a frown as real worry flitted across face. Then her head tilted, as if she heard something curious. She took an uncertain step into the room and suddenly pitched forward, falling on her face.
“Faith!!” Buffy shouted, her voice shrill with alarm.
“I feel funny, B,” said Faith with a small, scared voice.
Then she began to shrink and contort as Buffy screamed her name and clutched her.
In seconds, Faith had changed into a silver fox. I stood aghast while Buffy cried and screamed. The fox that used to be Faith struggled and squirmed in Buffy’s arms, scratching and biting her until she finally let go. Once free, she darted out the open door. The quick and agile fox was gone before Buffy could even follow her.
And the worst was yet to come.~
“Buffy becomes the owl at nightfall, doesn’t she?” said Xander, his heart heavy.
Willow nodded. “We didn’t know that would happen to her. After Faith escaped, Buffy turned to me and slapped my face in a rage.” Tears filled her eyes as she recalled the painful memory. “I didn’t know what to do, how to fix it. And I was laden with guilt.”
~When Buffy started out the door calling Faith’s name, I stopped her. “You won’t be able find her,” I told her, but she didn’t listen. She ran out, calling Faith’s name over and over.
When she returned, hours later, weeping and despondent, I didn’t know what to do, how to help her. She fell to her knees and cursed me and William and Liam and everyone she could think of. When I tried to comfort her she pushed me away. And when the sun went down, her sobs turned to screams.
The screams became so loud and high-pitched, they hurt my ears. And she began to change… and as you have already guessed… her hair turned to feathers, her arms formed into wings and she shrunk in size.
And all I could do was watch, helpless, in horror as my best friend in all the land… princess, daughter of king… turn into a barn owl.
And when I tried to grab her and hold her, she hopped out of reach and then flew through an open window.
I thought she was gone forever. I thought my own folly and carelessness caused this horrible fate for my friend.~
Xander listened to her account with wide eyes. If he hadn’t already seen the fox and the owl with his own eyes, he wouldn’t have believed her. He’d have thought her mad.
“Then what happened?” he prompted.
Willow shook herself back to the present and continued her tale.
~I, myself, fell to my knees and sobbed until I thought my guts would spill to the floor, such was my despair. I was startled out of it by a slap to the face. My second of the day.
It was Faith, fully human and fully cognizant. My wretched tears ceased immediately as I stared at her.
“Faith?” I asked, not daring to believe mine own eyes.
“Where… is… B?” she asked. I could see the dread and despair in her eyes.
I hung my head in shame.
She crouched down beside me and said very gently, “Tell me what happened, Willow.”
I could barely get the words out, such was my shame but I managed to tell her everything.
“I turned into a fox?” she asked, aghast.
“I don’t remember. I know something happened and I know I missed the passing of the afternoon but I have no memory of what I did or where I went. I merely woke up on the forest floor with no clothes. So I came here.”
I saw she had borrowed some my garments and I was glad she had. I wanted to help them so badly, any small thing I could do, I would do.
Over the course of the next couple of days I was able to observe the pattern: Buffy was human by day while Faith was a fox and Faith was human by night while Buffy was the owl.
When they are in their animal form, they are also animal in mind. Unable to communicate or even remember their own humanity.
Buffy was still so angry with me, she could barely stand my company. She bore my presence only to get news and word of Faith, her love.
Faith was more tolerant. She put the blame on William the Bloody, the feckless Liam, and of course, the mad witch Drusilla. Faith would hold my hand as I cried and told me to be strong and to wait for my friend to come to her senses.
But Buffy could not take it, and after a while she left. I begged and pleaded with her to give me a chance to make it right. She left early one morning nearly two years ago and I have not seen either of them since.
It seems, even in their mindless animal forms, the one will follow the other… such is the strength of their love.~
As her tale trailed off, Xander sat drained and dazed. “And all this time, I never knew.” He shook his head. “I haven’t seen my friends in over three years and now I am helpless to be of any assistance.”
Willow sniffed and looked at him with fondness and affection. “You’re here now and you have helped. You rescued the damsels and they will soon be here!” She jumped to her feet. “There is much to be done, dear friend, and I will need your help!”
Buffy stumbled through the little fishing village wearing Faith’s clothes and cloak. She was quite a sight covered with dirt and twigs. Whenever she tried to inquire about her whereabouts, people would walk quickly away shaking their heads. She was about to give up when she heard Xander’s relieved shout.
She turned to see her friend running towards her. Grateful tears sprung to her eyes and he caught up to her just in time to catch her as her knees buckled.
“Come, come,” he chided, “it wouldn’t do to have the royal princess of the land wobbly-kneed in front of these peasants.” His grin was infectious.
“Oh Xander. You have no idea how weary I am.”
“Well… Our friend Willow had a very interesting tale to tell. So I might just have some idea about how tired you must be.”
She sniffled, overcome. “It’s such a relief to be able to share this burden, Xander. I wonder why I have waited so long to seek help. I feel foolish and prideful.”
“There is no better lesson than for royalty to learn the value of humility,” he said.
Buffy looked at him in surprise. “Why Xander! I do believe that is the most profound thing I have ever heard. And it sprung from your brain and your lips!”
“Three years can sometimes be a very long time, can it not?”
She nodded, once again overcome and unable to speak.
“Willow is eager to see you,” he said. “And she has a plan.”
Buffy sat in front of a merry fire with a bowl of rich soup in her hands.
Willow was busy imparting the details of her plan to the princess.
“…so Tara says that the curse can be fooled. Especially when Xander told her that the Faithfox pulled the ropes from his wrists. That means that your humanity is becoming stronger and the animals’ hold on you is becoming weaker.”
“What will happen when you… fool… the curse?” asked Buffy.
“Well, if we do this correctly, then we will fool your owl/self into thinking it is actually daytime and you should change into your human form. Especially if your humanity is becoming more dominant.”
Buffy nodded her understanding. “Then what will happen?”
“This part gets a little tricky,” Willow sighed. “Fooling the spelling won’t break the curse. To break the curse permanently you must do two things. Since the curse uses your love for each other as its power source then you must use your love to break it. which means you must exchange a kiss of true love in front of your family.”
Buffy looked alarmed. “My only living relative is my father! Does he know? Is he here?”
Willow was shaking her head. She looked at Tara the Witch with helpless frustration.
Tara spoke in her soft hesitant voice. “It doesn’t have to be a blood relative. It can be s-someone that you have f-familial feeling with.” Her gentle eyes went back and forth between the two friends. “You must h-heal the rift between you,” she said softly.
Buffy set her bowl aside and launched herself into the arms of her friend. The women clung to each other and sobbed in relief, each exclaiming their apologies and entreaties of everlasting devotion. Xander and Tara watched, their own eyes welling up at the sight of the long awaited reconciliation.
When the two had cried themselves out, Xander said cheerfully, “Well that ought to do it!” and the four erupted in cheerful laughter.
“There is an-nother power source to the curse that must be addressed,” said Tara, bringing them all back to earth.
Willow picked up the instruction. “Ah yes,” she said, “Lord William’s obsession.”
Buffy looked worried. Willow smiled reassuringly. “That just means he must also be a witness to your kiss of true love. Once these three things occur- both of you being human and kissing in front of us and Lord William- then the spell will be broken permanently.”
They bustled about, making preparations. Xander and Buffy planned how to contain her so that they could restrain her owl alter-ego. They knew once Faith was human, she would seek them out. In fact, they were fairly certain her fox-self was already lurking outside.
Xander even tried to coax her inside, calling, “Ladyfox! Laaaadyfox!,” and holding a piece of meat in his fingers. But she did not show herself.
Buffy smiled at his nickname. “Ladyfox,” she murmured. “I like it.”
“It does have a certain grace to it, doesn’t it?” smiled Willow. “I think it suits her.”
And to complete their plans, they’d heard that Lord William was on his way and would come upon the village by nightfall.
It was all turning out perfectly.
As the sun set, Xander watched the terrible transformation of human into owl. The leather slipknot around Buffy’s ankle was tightened by Xander as she changed. By the time the transformation was complete, the leather string around her leg was secure and she could not fly away. The humans did their best to calm the panicking bird as they waited for Faith.
Alas, Lord William found them first. His men surrounded the little cottage and he bellowed at the inhabitants, causing the Buffybird to panic and flutter about uselessly.
“Come on out and bring the owl!” he shouted.
Xander peeked out the window at the fuming lord. He seemed unwell. There were dark shadows under his eyes.
Suddenly struck by an idea, Xander asked Tara, “How long will Buffy be human once you cast fooling spell?”
“About a quarter of an hour,” she ventured.
He nodded thoughtfully.
“What are you planning Xander?” asked Willow.
“We need to lure Faith out into the open. If she continues to hide then we cannot cast the fooling spell.” He took a deep breath. “This is going to sound insane,” he said.
“Ohhh… I don’t like plans that start this way,” whined Willow.
“I have one more question , Tara,” said Xander, looking at her intently. “How close do you have to be to Buffy to cast this spell?”
“No farther that twenty feet. She must be able to hear my voice for the spell to take effect.”
Xander’s smile turned gentle and cajoling, “You’re going to have to shout this one,” he said. “We’re going to give Buffy the owl the William the Bloody.”
“And when Faith sees that, she’ll come out in the open!” added Willow.
“And I’ll cast the spell and Buffy will transform while she’s close to Faith.” Tara didn’t stutter this time.
Willow grinned at Xander. “You’re right. It’s crazy. But I think it will work.”
Xander went to the window. “Lord William!” he shouted. “I will bring the owl out to you but first you must send your men away!”
Xander watched the lord consider this idea. “The princess is the only one among us who can fight and she is quite unable at the moment! Send your men away!”
“What about Faith?”
“What about her? She’s not here and if she were, surely a skilled fighter like yourself is more than a match for a street rogue like her!” [Oh, I hope Faith doesn’t kill me after this.]
Drusilla appeared from out of the darkness. “O they are tricky, my love. Buffy has a sword in her feathered hand and she will run you through while she smiles at the moon.” She smiled mysteriously and gazed up at the stars.
William rolled his tired eyes at the crazed witch and savored thought of having the owl once again in his possession.
He ordered his men to disperse. They gratefully retreated and soon the rest were alone.
Xander took a deep breath and, holding the owl as she perched on his hand, he walked out of the cottage towards Lord William.
Drusilla started to rant. “No no no. She’s not an owl she’s a princess. A scheming, tricky princess who will slaughter you like a pig!” Her subsequent shriek caught everyone by surprise.
Xander looked on in horror as blood, black under the light of the moon, bloomed on the front of her dress. When Drusilla opened her mouth again, she said in a bloody gurgle, “I always found it so vexing that I could never see my own demise.” A dribble of blood cascaded down her chin and she fell forward.
Faith stood behind her, holding a wicked, bloody dagger.
Xander turned to the house. “Shout, Tara! Shout it loud and clear!”
Lord William grinned at the rogue and drew his sword. “I am so going to enjoy killing you.”
They circled each other as Xander held onto the struggling, flapping Buffy. When she clawed at his face he inadvertently let go. “No!” he shouted, his heart sinking with dread.
Meanwhile, Lord William kept Faith quite busy. And even though he was fatigued and desperate, he was also a skilled sword fighter. He pressed his advantage.
Faith dodged and twisted and spun but soon he would overtake her. She knew it. Lord William grinned wickedly at her. “You’re outclassed, peasant,” he snarled.
Then, without warning, a flurry of dark feathers and sharp claws fell upon his face. He gave girly shriek and stumbled backwards.
Faith quickly stepped in and stabbed at the first part she could reach. Luckily, it was his sword arm. He screeched again and dropped his weapon.
Xander chased after the frantic owl who hopped away. He tripped over Drusilla’s lifeless body and crashed to the ground muttering curses.
Faith pounced on the unarmed lord and prepared to stab him to death. She stopped at the sound of Xander’s frantic voice. “No! Don’t kill him Faith!”
“Give me one good reason why,” she ground out, her dagger poised at his throat.
“Faith?” Everyone stopped at the sound of Buffy’s very human voice. Xander breathed a sigh of relief. Willow and Tara had emerged from the cottage and now gazed at the two lovers as their eyes met for the first time in two years.
Faith swallowed with emotion, her throat working as tears welled up in her dark eyes as she gazed at her one and only love.
Buffy stood watching the two fighters, their struggle stilled at the shock of seeing her. Xander wrapped Faith’s cloak around Buffy’s chilled, naked form.
Faith smiled through her tears. Then her eyes darkened with rage as she turned back to Lord William whom she still held at knifepoint.
As the tip of her dagger started to push into his skin, Buffy’s gentle voice could heard again. “Faith, stop. Don’t kill him.”
“I have to. You know I have to.” Her rougher voice was choked with tears and fury.
“Please just trust me. Stand up and walk over to me.”
Lord William sighed with relief as the pressure from the deadly weapon eased and Faith stood as if in a dream and walked over to Buffy.
The princess gave a beautiful smile as the rogue drew closer to her. As always, that smile made Faith’s heart beat faster in her breast. When she stood close to Buffy, the smiling princess ordered, “Now kiss me.”
And Faith did.
Her desperate lips conveyed all the emotion she was feeling and Buffy returned that love as she kissed back, wrapping her arms about Faith.
Xander looked back and forth between Lord William and the kissing pair. When he was sure that Lord William had gotten a good look at them, he whooped with joy, startling everyone.
Faith pulled back and gazed into Buffy’s eyes.
“The curse is broken,” Buffy said simply.
As Faith looked at her in confusion, Lord William bellowed in wordless rage. His hands clenched into fists and he launched himself at them. Faith stepped in front of Buffy and prepared to fight for her love.
Buffy felt the hilt of her sword being pressed into her hand. She turned and saw Tara standing close to her with a half smile and determined blue eyes.
Buffy smiled back as her fingers closed around her weapon. Then she turned and prepared to mete out her righteous judgement.
Lord William never made it to Faith.
Buffy stepped forward and thrust her sword into his throat. He had no defense for this unexpected turn of events. Her weapon met no resistance.
William the Bloody died quickly under the watchful eyes of Buffy, Faith, Willow, Xander, and Tara. They stood around him and stared silently, not daring to move until they were sure he was gone.
The silence was broken by Faith. “So, what did I miss?”
Princess Elizabeth stood proudly but nervously before her father the king, her friends behind her at her insistence.
“I see you have returned,” he said impassively. “I am assuming the curse is broken?”
She nodded. “It is, father.”
He sighed with obvious relief. “This quest has given you the two things I could not,” he intoned. “Maturity and self-assurance. And trustworthy, loyal friends who will stand by you even when you are exiled and alone.” He cast his gaze at the small group of friends. He smiled warmly. “And the quality of these friends and the strength of your friendship is a testament to your character, daughter.”
Buffy was confused. She had come, expecting to argue and fight with her father. Instead he seemed happy to see her, proud even.
He continued. “Although, I must say, I did expect you sooner. But you are stubborn like me.” He looked at Faith. “As for your love… I am a mere mortal and I do not understand the mind of our maker. I want only your happiness and I want you to be a strong monarch for our people and lands.”
He stood from his throne. “We have much to discuss, daughter. But I think first we shall celebrate your return. The details of state can wait.” He opened his arms. “Come give your father a hug.”