Notes: Oh so very AU so you're going to need to pay attention. While I'm using Connor, Dawn, Willow, and Xander as the main characters of this story, don't expect them to be as you last saw them. I'm playing with the timeline quite a bit, so expect some strange situations.
Breathe in, breathe out. Just breathe in and breathe out, eyes squeezed shut, and hands clenched into fists. Just breathe Willow, just breathe.
My initial reaction of utter and blind panic hadn't helped much so I decided to gather my senses and then figure out what had happened to me. Calm came slowly, almost unwillingly, and soon the frantic thumping of my heart had slowed down and my mind was cleared of the panic that had plagued me before.
Now that I've gotten myself under control, I'm confronted with a dilemma. I have the option of opening my eyes and acknowledging what is around me or I can stay there with my eyes shut until someone or something forces me to see what I did not want to see. The first option wasn't exactly the best one by any means, but the second had its shortcomings as well. I was nothing more than a sitting duck for any malevolent creature if I just sat stupidly on the ground with my eyes shut.
Eventually, I had no choice other than to open my eyes and deal with what was in front of me. It wasn't the high school, that's for darn sure, and possibly more frightening, it didn't seem to any part of Sunnydale at all. All the trees and the flowers had confused me initially, and I briefly wondered if I had somehow managed to sleepwalk from the school to the park. That idea was quickly thrown out because if I had gone sleepwalking around Sunnydale at night, I wouldn't have woken up alive. And besides, wouldn't have Giles and Xander noticed that I was walking blindly into danger? It was hard enough to stay alive in Sunnydale when you were perfectly lucid, and my friends and I like to keep me alive.
And I was definitely alive. I was breathing and my pulse was steady. Other than being a little sore, I was in perfect health, much like I had been before I ended wherever the heck I am now. It didn't take much of a search of my surroundings to figure out that Giles and Xander were nowhere to be found. So it begged the question, how did I end up here when last I remember I was doing computer research for Giles in the library?
I don't think this is Sunnydale at all. The landscape is way too different. The trees are too large to be from any section of the park, and I have never seen flowers like these growing freely in my hometown. And that leads me to my second question: if this isn't Sunnydale, then what is it?
I squirmed a bit, my heart starting to thud harder in my chest once more. The panic was coming back as I looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings. There was no sign of my friends, no sign of rescue, and no sign of my home. And to top it off, I was very much on my own.
I scrambled to my feet and brushed the dirt and twig off my legs and backside as I took a good look around. The trees were very tall but not so densely collected that I couldn't see the area around me. I noticed what looked like a trail, albeit a very small and rough one, and not much else. Just dirt, trees, flowers, rocks, and grass as far as the eye could see.
"Okay, calm down," I whispered to myself as the panic started to flare up once more. "Just calm down. Freaking out is not going to get me anywhere. I just have to find some help or something."
I screamed. It probably wasn't the coolest thing to do, but I still did it. I screamed good and hard, not to mention I jumped nearly a foot in the air when I heard that voice. I whirled around, not seeing anyone or anything in my immediate vicinity. Instead of making me feel better, I felt infinitely worse. There was something in this forest with me and I couldn’t even see it.
“You have nothing to fear from me child.”
Again, the voice seemed to come from just behind me. I turned around and still found that there was nothing to be seen. My fear was growing by leaps and bounds. I pressed myself up against the nearest tree, falling down into a squatting position as I tried to hide myself from whoever was there.
“Who are you?” I asked as I stifled sobs of fear. “Where are you?”
“You mean, you cannot see me?”
“No,” I replied in distress. “You know that. Why are you playing these games? Who are you? Where am I? Where’s Buffy?”
“Your Slayer cannot help you here,” was the only response I got. My heart sank almost down to my stomach. I pushed myself further against the tree and whispered my next question.
“What do you want from me?”
There was only a sigh in response. I waited for my invisible companion to respond, but for several minutes there was nothing but silence. The only thing that I that could hear was the sound of my own shaky breathing. After a bit, I started to hope that perhaps the thing had gone away and left me to myself. Not likely, but I could hope couldn’t I?
“Hello?” I called softly. “Are you still there?”
Again, there was no response. But this time, I felt something. More specifically I felt the tree behind me move. I stopped dead in my tracks, not even breathing for a split second. At first I thought I had imagined the whole thing, but then it happened again. The tree moved.
I gave another loud scream and jumped back away from the tree. Some old gnarled roots tripped me up and sent me sprawling to the forest floor. But still I scrambled away from the tree, practically crawling in my attempt to put some distance between it and myself.
“Child, you are going to injure yourself. Stop it.”
And I stopped, mainly because my companion seemed to becoming irritated with me and I wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to irritate. I slumped down on the ground, my eyes trained on the dead leaves scattered around me. I knew that it was behind me, and I knew that it was waiting for me. But I didn’t want to turn around and face it, whatever it may be.
“I can wait.”
It sounded just like my mother right then. I felt like I was getting scolded for not acting my age. It made my cheeks burn with embarrassment and I realized what a display I had made. I had never been accused of excessive bravery, but still, this was kind of foolish even for me. Mind numbing fear out of the way, I still had to find what where I was and how I ended up here. And so I turned around.
I don’t know what I had been expecting, I just know that it wasn’t what I found when I turned around. I had seen some strange things since I became friends with Buffy, but this was beyond anything I had ever experienced. It looked like a female, but I couldn’t be sure. I certainly hoped it was a female because otherwise its, um, endowments were going to be very disconcerting. It was tall, almost eleven feet was my guess, and had the most beautiful face I had ever seen. Again I couldn’t be sure of the gender, heck I didn’t even know if it had a gender, but still it was beautiful to look at. Its skin was brown, and I didn’t mean the shade one got by tanning or anything. It was brown like the dirt that was between my fingers. It had a perfectly shaped nose, a generous mouth, high cheekbones, and a well-defined forehead.
But the eyes grabbed my attention more than anything else. Its eyes were brown, red, orange, and yellow-all at the same time. The colours merged together harmoniously and looked quite stunning. The eyes were framed with long, curled eyelashes and thick eyebrows that looked like they had been plucked to perfection. Its hair was as blonde as Buffy’s hair, though there were strands of gold mixed into it. It was piled on top of its head in a sort of bun, with loose curls coming free here and there to frame that lovely face.
It had two arms that I could see, but no legs that were visible. It was possible that they were hidden by the dress that it wore, but I didn’t think to ask. The dress itself explained why I had mistaken it for a tree initially. It looked like it was made of tree bark with vines encircling it from the waist down. It was the most magnificent, and the most frightening thing I had ever seen.
“Are you ready to talk child?” it asked me. I could only nod, fighting the urge to skitter away backwards when it took a step towards me. The earth shook lightly from that one movement, and it was the only movement that the creature made. It towered above me and watched me with a curious look on its face.
“You are smaller than I would have thought,” it began thoughtfully. “But I suppose that size should not really matter. Perhaps it will give you an edge for what is to come.”
Oh I didn’t like the sounds of that. I think it realized that because it suddenly smiled wide and uttered a small laugh.
“Do not fret child, I mean you no harm. I cannot guarantee that you will not come to harm, but know that I carry no ill will towards you.”
“That’s not that comforting,” I managed to squeak out. “Who are you? And what do you want from me?”
“Who am I?” it laughed again and turned its face up towards the sky. “Oh child, if I could only make you understand the answer to that question. But I fear it is hopeless. There is no way for me to explain what I am to you. Your mind would not be able to grasp it.”
That sounded kind of like a put down. And who was this thing to say that my mind couldn’t grasp it? My mind had been grasping things long before anyone else in my age group even realized there were things to grasp.
“Do not be cross,” it chided me. “I do not mean to insult, only to tell you that humans have no words or concepts for me.”
How the hell did it do that? “Do you read minds?”
“No,” it replied smoothly. “I cannot read minds, I can read only yours.”
“I chose you as my champion. It is my privilege to hear your thoughts.”
Wait a minute. “Champion?”
“Yes, my champion,” it smiled at me again. “It is you who will represent me when the time for the game has come. And I know that you will do me justice child.”
“Um, I hate to burst your bubble, but I’m not a champion. I think maybe you were looking for Buffy and just picked me up by mistake. I’m just Willow. I’m the Net Girl, not the Champion Girl.”
“The Slayer is not who I need for this,” it answered, the smile still on its face. “You are who I need. You may not understand it, or even accept it right now, but you are a champion, my little Weeping Willow.”
“Please,” I tried to beg of it. “I’m not the girl you want. Please just send me home and I promise I won’t even tell Giles about this. It’ll be our little secret. Just send me home before my friends freak out.”
“Your friends do not know you are here,” it said plainly. “Simply because you are there as well as here.”
“I took you as I needed you, from the time I needed you,” it continued. “Free of the taint that the coming years would bring.”
“Taint? What taint?”
“The taint of black magic.”
“Okay, now I know you have the wrong girl. I don’t do magic, of any kind. Maybe you really wanted Amy. Her mom was a witch, I bet she’s all down with the black magic taint.”
“I am not some foolish spirit who would make such a mistake,” it snapped suddenly, the smile gone and a frown in its place. “You are my champion and you will learn to accept it. And when the time comes, you will know it as surely as I do.”
“Time for what?”
“For the game, the most dangerous game that has ever been played,” it replied. The creature went silent for a moment and looked at me with a somewhat sorrowful face. “It will destroy much before it is ended. You are my hope that it will end well. There will be others, some who will be your allies and some who will not, but know this: you are the one that I bless with all that I am.”
The fear had started to creep its way back into my body. “Who are you?” I asked again, my voice betraying my unease.
“My name is not something your ears could stand to hear. You may call me Heilerde, though, if you must call me anything. But come on child, you must make haste and move. Those you need to meet will soon make their way to the Grey Havens. You have not much time.”
“Grey what?” I shook my head. “I don’t know what that place is. I don’t know what this place is. I don’t think I want to know. Please, just send me home.”
“For now, you are home, Weeping Willow,” it said firmly. “This forest is called Bindbole Wood. Travel down that trail and it will take you to the Shire, just on the outskirts of Bag End. Bag End is your destination, and Frodo Baggins is the one you seek.”
“No more hesitations, my child. You must move quickly. Time is of the essence.”
I shut my eyes in defeat and a few tears leaked out. The creature sighed and moved once more. I felt its hand on my cheek suddenly and I flinched away. I opened my eyes and was shocked to find that Heilerde was gone. I looked around me frantically, but I could find no sign of the thing that claimed to have brought me here, to this Bindbole Wood or whatever.
My cheek was still warm where it had touched me. I cautiously lifted my hand to my face. I felt kind of strange for a minute, and then the feeling passed. I was left sitting alone on the forest floor, with only one trail stretching out in front of me. Should I follow it? Did I have any choice? I couldn’t stay here forever, though I was sorely tempted. And what was all this talk about champions and games about? The creature had shared a lot without explaining all that much.
I was confused, scared, and with only one option. And so I stood and made my way down that trail as cautiously as I could. Heilerde said the one I sought would be in Bag End. I hadn’t known that I was seeking anyone, but hey, I didn’t know I was a champion up until five minutes ago. Life seemed to be full of surprises at the moment and who was I not to just go with the flow? I figured that I couldn’t come to too much harm by just finding this person, but that didn’t mean I was all keen on the idea of this guy.
I mean, what kind of name was Frodo anyway?
Heilerde: German word meaning ‘healing earth’.