Although Tara could barely see the small shape in the distance as it moved around the battlefield, she could picture Willow's rapt expression as clearly as if she were standing right next to her. The red-haired head bobbed excitedly as she scribbled notes on her pad or crouched to examine something on the ground that interested her. As always when she was watching Willow from afar, Tara found she could not relax, she was always poised on the edge of springing into action.
Here, in this place, it was all the more imperative that she remain focused and not lose herself to nostalgic thoughts as she was prone to do. Tara felt a slight chill run down her spine as she gazed out over the Covasna battlefield. It was the last place she had ever wanted to see again, even just looking at the dead inhabitants from a distance made her ill, dredging up the one memory she needed to suppress in order to be able to face each day. She felt like closing her eyes, shutting out the place but she knew she would not be doing her job. Instead she kept her gaze fixed determinedly on Willow...and that was part of the problem in the first place.
It was plainly obvious to Tara that the redhead did not actually remember visiting Covasna or the events that happened over one hundred years earlier. She moved about the battlefield as though the place was one life-sized book, the characters taking on physical form for her enlightenment and research. There was none of the revulsion or fear that would have clouded Tara's own movements out in the middle of that place.
For a moment Tara was relieved Willow didn't remember what had happened to her here. She already knew that any remembering of those events would be traumatic...and it would also undoubtedly be the end of the awkward, hesitant relationship that she had managed to re-kindle with Willow. Yet at the same time she knew that Willow had to remember...and in bringing her to this place Tara hoped to rekindle a spark of something, anything of her former life. If any place could do that to Willow...it would be the field upon which she died.
Tara's skin crawled as she sensed another presence join her in her vigil on the end of the battlefield. She did not need to turn around, the foul sensation she felt in her gut told her exactly who it was and she had to make a supreme effort to suppress the anger she felt at his interference.
"You did not need to come," Tara said coldly through gritted teeth. She left unspoken the other thoughts that were running through her head...first and foremost, that he would ruin everything by deviating from the plan. "I have everything in hand."
"I have absolutely no doubt that you do, Tara."
Tara could hear the thinly veiled sarcasm in his reply but did not let it affect the blank expression she maintained on her face. She turned to face her companion and she knew that he was searching for some form of weakness, the slightest twinge of her lips that would give away her feelings for Willow and would lead him to further suspect that she had an agenda different from his own.
"Never have you been one for tact or subtlety, Angelus...I am simply concerned that your presence will upset the delicate order of things," Tara spoke, inwardly pleased as his own expression changed to one of mild fury. He had never been as adept at masking his inner emotions, especially his anger. "The master himself charged me with this task and I alone will see that it is carried out, I do not need help from you or William or any of your moronic sycophants."
She refocused her gaze on Willow who had not seemed to move from the last moment she had saw her. Already she was irritated that Angelus had managed to distract from the task at hand, too much hinged on events progressing in a natural order.
"A state of affairs that you know I fought hard to rectify," Angelus growled in reply, "I was disappointed that he did not favour my approach, one that no doubt would have yielded results far more swiftly than your pathetically soft-hearted tactics!"
"Because he is far wiser than you," Tara had not intended to bate him, especially considering she knew just how dangerous he was.
"Bah!" Angelus roared in disgust, "You did me further disservice in rendering me your messenger boy."
"Disservice?" Tara arched an eyebrow, "I thought it was trust...I knew how difficult it would be for you to stand in her presence and not be able to lay even so much as a finger on her."
Tara heard him pacing in the undergrowth behind her; she heard fallen branches snap beneath the pressure of his boots as they thudded down into the earth with the force of his anger.
"Difficult!" Angelus' voice was tight with the effort it required him to keep his temper in check, "It was almost impossible to stand in front of that little wretch and not rip her head off...especially given her current state in which she knows absolutely nothing, she's helpless...I'm amazed she's even got this far."
"Did she recognise you?" Tara kept her voice under control.
Angelus was silent for several moments before replying, "I smelt her fear...but it was not fear brought about by recognition, familiarity perhaps...but nothing more. We exchanged very few words and I removed myself from her presence almost immediately after giving her the map. To stand there, in front of the woman who killed so many of our kind and appear to be helping her...even you would have to appreciate the irony of the situation."
"I appreciate your restraint," was all Tara said in reply.
She could hear Angelus grinding his teeth as he continued to pace. As she tried to ignore him and concentrate on Willow, a tiny thought began to tug at the back of her mind. If conceived through to fruition, it was an idea that would undoubtedly lead to the removal of the thorn in her foot.
Tara wondered if their master would notice Angelus' disappearance...
As Willow was in her element, moving further and further out into the battlefield, Myles and Alex continued to watch her from what they considered to be a safe distance. Myles shifted awkwardly on his feet, while he had no desire to follow her out amidst those piles of bones, he did not think he was discharging his duty very effectively by not being at Willow's side. Just as he was about to suggest this to Alex, both men heard the clattering of hooves on hard ground. They spun to see the horses Myles had left untied bolting.
"God dang it!" Alex slammed the palm of his hand against his thigh as he saw the beast's tails disappearing in the distance, back down the trail the way they had come. He pointed a firm finger at Myles, "You stay with her, don't let her out of your sight...I'm going to get those bloody animals!"
Myles watched rather hopelessly as Alex turned and broke into a run; soon he too had disappeared back down the mountain. He turned and looked at Willow, now some distance away from him, still moving slowly around the battlefield taking her notes. With a sigh, he started walking towards her, careful not to step on any dead men as he went.
"Isn't this all particularly fascinating, Myles?" Willow said enthusiastically as she heard footsteps behind her.
Myles reply sounded much further away than his footsteps and she spun to see that she had not been addressing him at all. The young man stood some metres away from her, while in front of her was a tall dark haired man with pale skin. Willow's jaw dropped in recognition.
"You gave me the map..."
He only had time to smile before a second person morphed into being at his side, Willow also recognised this next shape...it was Tara Maclay. Her heart immediately skipped a few beats despite her Tara's expression was stern and her gaze directed towards the dark-haired man. Willow looked back and forth between the man and woman and her initial suspicions were confirmed. The stranger who had given her the map was indeed a vampire...and he too was standing in broad daylight.
"What is it with vampires these days?" Willow snapped in an exasperated voice, completely forgetting that they were usually merciless demons and she ought to be running for her life, "Can you all walk around whenever you please?"
Tara did not break into a smile, her expression remained serious, almost angry but Angelus laughed openly.
"Adorable as ever, isn't she Tara?" Angelus reached out and linked his arm with Tara's, Willow was pleased to see her jerk it away immediately, "You see Willow...some of us are older and more powerful than others, we are not bound by the same constraints as some of the weaker members of our race."
"Some of us are indeed more powerful than others," Tara gave her companion a pointed look, "Some of us are also wiser...and know when we are overstepping the mark...don't we, Angelus."
Willow could sense the tension that radiated between Angelus and Tara but she did not go as far as too sense danger. Somehow she knew that Tara would continue to protect her as she already seemed to do. Myles on the other hand was not convinced and he was eyeing up a rusted battle axe lying at his feet. Willow gave him a furious shake of her head to indicate he was not to try anything foolish.
"These times call for different methods, our time is running out, we need the skull and that scrawny little human knows where it is!" Angelus growled, turning to give Willow the force full of his baleful stare.
"What skull?" Willow squeaked, shrinking back slightly, she glanced down at a nearby skeleton and saw his toothy grin, "There are thousands of skulls here, I'm sure these chaps won't miss one or two!"
Tara stepped between Willow and Angelus, her patience wearing thin as he refused to bow to her authority, "Threatening the girl will not deliver what we need!"
Willow glanced at Tara with a confused expression, "What we need? I say, what exactly is going on here?"
Angelus ignored Willow's question and expressed his frustration as a roar, baring his fangs as he did so. Both Myles and Willow stumbled backwards with frightened yelps; however his fury in this instance was directed solely towards Tara.
"As your elder I hereby remove your rights to watch over our master's interests in this matter!" his tone backed his words, deep and full of authority, "Your head is clouded with impure, irrelevant thoughts...when I explain this to him, he will realise his mistake and accept that my actions are the best course of action...we need to get this information out of her, we are running out of time!"
Tara's face morphed into a mask of pure fury to match that shown by Angelus. So fearsome was her countenance that both Willow and Myles had to take yet another step backwards. Despite being physically shorter than Angelus, in her wrath Tara seemed to tower over him. Angelus would not back down; he faced Tara eye to eye.
"We will do this my way!" she growled firmly.
Angelus pointed his finger directly at Willow, "The red-headed whore knows where it is, that bastard of a brother told her and I'm going to get it out of her my way!"
"Angelus please, Abraham has been dead for years...how could he have told her himself? Tara backed off slightly, trying to reason with him.
"I don't know...but I know exactly how I can get it out of her," his eyes flicked to Willow, with a flourish he drew the sword he carried and for an awful moment Tara thought he was going to strike Willow, instead he levelled the sword directly at Tara's neck, "I know what you are...but I also know that decapitation troubles you just as much as the rest of us."
Before Tara could say a word she saw a flash of red hair between her and Angelus.
"Willow, no!" she reached out towards Willow, intent on pulling her back.
Before she could reach the young woman, Angelus lashed out. His mighty hand struck her a glancing blow. Willow was tossed aside as easily as a rag doll with his powerful shove; she stumbled backwards and tripped over a thigh bone before she could arrest herself. Her arms wind-milled futilely before she fell, landing on her back across an armoured skeleton. The skeleton immediately crumbled beneath her weight but the awful sound Willow heard was not the shattering of bones and rusted armour but instead the tearing of flesh and fabric. She lay on her back, immediately feeling foolish at her rather clumsy manoeuvre and tried to think of an offhand quip to conceal her embarrassment. When no words came to mind she tried to spring back to her feet only to feel a searing pain across her entire torso that radiated throughout the rest of her body. She awkwardly glanced up to the figures standing above her to find twisted expressions on their faces, even the vampire Angelus appeared surprised...perhaps even horrified.
Willow furrowed her brow as she lifted her chin slightly to see a foreign object protruding from her chest, somewhere just above her left breast. She tried to bring her eyes into focus to work out what it was and why it was there but could not hold her head up any longer. It took every ounce of strength she had to reach up with her right hand and try and touch it. She felt a pitted, rough object surrounded by an awful dampness, when she lifted her fingers in front of her eyes all she could see was bright red blood. It dripped from her fingers and ran down her wrist. As it fell, she continued to watch with some sort of morbid fascination, marvelling at just how red blood actually was.
While Willow herself felt as though each of her movements took an eternity, mere seconds had passed since she had fallen and those left standing had now only just begun to react to the horribly unfortunate accident.
Tara had been moving to help Willow back to her feet while throwing a tense glare over her shoulder at Angelus. She saw the surprise on his face and her gaze darted back to Willow to see immediately what had Angelus' attention. Her lips moved wordlessly as she cursed the fates for being so cruel. Willow had fallen onto a centuries old sword, it had slain the warrior beneath Willow and now it's rusted and broken length was protruding from her chest.
Tara whirled on Angelus, a heart's breath away from burning him to a crisp where he stood, "You fool! We need her alive, not dead!"
She dragged herself back under control and fell at Willow's side, now seeing nothing except the redhead lying as pale as a sheet beneath her.
Behind her, Angelus took several steps backwards, away from Tara and the dying human woman, "I did not intend..." He shook his head several times before he was unable to face the scene before him any longer. Angelus turned and fled, shoving past Myles before he disappeared into a dark mist. The mist hung above the battlefield for a moment before fleeing into the forest.
Tara did not notice Angelus leaving; she only had eyes for the dreadfully wounded Willow. She lowered her gaze to meet Willow's as hot tears ran down her cheeks, her heart breaking at the sight of the rusted weapon that had broken Willow's flesh and the shattered bones that lay scattered around her.
"You silly child!" she sobbed loudly, "What on earth did you think you were doing?"
Willow reached up and awkwardly brushed Tara's pale cheek, leaving behind a smear of blood as her fingers fell, she whispered, "I was protecting you."
"You don't even know who I am," Tara whispered, catching Willow's hand and holding it tenderly to her lips.
"Yes...I do," Willow heaved with a tiny, spluttering cough, "Y-you're the woman of my dreams."
Tara knew she had to pull herself together but the sight of Willow again lying bloodied on the field at Covasna was too much for her to accept. She crumpled over the redhead's body, cradling her head in her hands as she wept with great, heaving sobs. The helplessness that overwhelmed her was almost complete, each of Willow's tiny gasps for breath only served to drive the sword further into her own heart. Tara did not hear the urgent footsteps behind her, then someone was shaking her roughly by the shoulders, forcing her to straighten up, she turned to see the boy standing above her, his own face white with fear and concern.
"Don't just sit there crying!" Myles pleaded, he dashed away the tears stinging his own eyes, "Please help her!"
The boy's urgent words drew Tara out of her despair. She felt wretched at her own helplessness and the fact that it took a human and a mere boy at that to jolt her to her senses.
"Come here and take off your shirt," Tara demanded coldly.
"What?" Myles asked numbly, stumbling forward to stand beside the female vampire.
"Your shirt!" Tara repeated, "We need something to pack against the wound when I get this sword out of her.
"Oh," Myles nodded dumbly, throwing off his jacket first and laying it down on the ground beside Willow. He then tore of his shirt, not even bothering to undo the buttons and deftly shredded it in two.
"You'll have to help me here," Tara seized the scraps of fabric that had once been Myles's shirt and motioned him onto the other side of Willow's body, "I'm going to try and break the top of the sword off and then we'll lift her up...there will be blood, and lots of it, are you going to faint on me boy?"
Myles shook his head, the pallor of his cheeks suggesting otherwise, "No ma'am...and it is Myles."
Tara nodded curtly and turned her attention to Willow, who was by now even whiter as though all the blood had drained from her entire body. She reached out tendering and brushed the tangled strands of hair out of Willow's eyes.
"Will...we're going to have to get this thing out..."
"I heard you," Willow interrupted in a tiny whisper, "I trust you..."
With trembling fingers Tara reached out and grasped the rusty sword just above the wound with one hand, holding it firmly, she told a hold of it with the other and prepared to snap it. The metal was already weakened from lying exposed to the elements and it snapped effortlessly as Tara applied her inhuman strength. Simple and effortless as it was, Willow cried out in pain, more blood gushing from her wound. Tara looked at the bloodied shard in her hand for a second and then threw it aside with another angry curse at the cruel fates.
"Boy...Myles, I need you to help me lift her, one quick movement," Tara commanded, placing her arms beneath Willow's body, she hated to see the redhead wince in pain as she did so but nor could she leave her with the rusted sword in her body. "Lift!"
Tara and Myles lifted together, both hearing the awful rasping sound the sword made as it withdrew from Willow's flesh. The wounded girl cried out just once as she was lifted, a strangled, wailing cry that brought tears to Tara's eyes. She lifted her into a sitting position and deftly used the pieces of Myles's shirt to staunch the blood that soaked Willow's back. Then, cradling the shaking girl against her body, she wound a length around Willow's chest to hold the pieces in place. Already her blood was soaking through the makeshift white dressings.
Myles crouched in the dirt next to Tara, waiting to spring into action at her next command but as the seconds ticked by nothing happened. The vampire remained cradling Willow's trembling body against her own, her cheek pressed against her head, eyes closed with a thin trail of tears snaking from beneath the lids. Willow was deathly pale, her entire body trembling as though she had a chill. When Myles reached out and touched Willow's limp hand, he found it icy cold. He looked up at Tara urgently, willing her back into action and out of this funk she seemed to have slipped into once more.
"What next?" he prodded insistently, "Shouldn't we cauterize the wound or something? Stop the bleeding?"
Tara's eyes peeled open to look at Myles but she remained holding Willow instead of moving to put Myles's suggestion into effect, "I would, but flakes from the sword have broken off in the wound, if I seal it, the wound will fester and she'll die...slowly and painfully."
Myles's mouth worked soundlessly, a sign of his frustration at being helpless as Willow grew weaker and weaker in front of his eyes. "What are you going to do then?" he demanded of the woman, knowing that they could not just sit back and let her die, especially not when she obviously meant so much to both of them.
"I don't know!" Tara snapped in reply, her own frustration manifested in anger, "There's nothing I can do, I can't help her...not as I am, I cannot heal, I can only kill..."
Frowning, Myles did not understand what she was trying to explain...all he knew was that Willow was running out of time. As he crouched, his fingers drumming urgently against the dirt in front of him, he saw the vampire look up sharply and study him through her cold blue eyes as though she were sizing him up for some purpose. He met her gaze steadily, despite the fact that she made him decidedly uncomfortable.
"How old are you?" she demanded abruptly.
"Ma'am?" Myles was taken aback at the odd question...odd in their current circumstances at least, and coming from a vampire but he saw a flicker of hope in her eyes and he replied, "I'm sixteen and a half, ma'am."
The tiny flicker of hope was extinguished almost as soon as it had appeared and Tara's shoulders sagged, she whispered in a broken voice, "Too young...using you as a conduit will undoubtedly be fatal."
Myles still didn't understand exactly what Tara was saying but there was one concept he could pick up on, "There's a way I can help Willow?"
Tara looked at the eager expression on the young man's face and knew that he would be prepared to go to any lengths to save Willow's life; she suspected that he would indeed die for her. This didn't surprise her at all; she had always known that Willow was the sort of person that would inspire people to do something like that for her. She was an inscrutably good person, and the last thing she deserved was to die in such a futile manner. For a full moment she allowed herself to consider using the young man, taking his life to save Willow's. She justified the thought with the fact that he was willing...but eventually came to the decision that she could not do it, not even to save Willow's life.
"No, Myles," Tara replied softly.
"Damn...straight there's not," a tiny, weak voice whispered defiantly in her ear, "No one will die for m-me."
Tara couldn't resist a pained smile at Willow's defiance; her brave words did succeed in reviving her somewhat, breaking her out of the despair she had felt and she looked back in the direction of the forest with some degree of hope.
"Will, dearest, I'm going to lie you down," Tara explained, she felt Willow's head jerk in a weak nod and she gently brought her down to rest atop Myles's jacket. As she looked down at her, she saw the shirt was soaked completely through, stained with the blood that was seeping from her body. She forced her gaze away and looked to Myles, "There are plants which I can use to pack the wound, perhaps they may have the effect of cleaning it..." It was an interim measure at best, Tara knew that there were no plants that could restore the amount of blood Willow had lost, "You stay here, try and light a fire."
Myles nodded as Tara rose swiftly to her feet, throwing off her coat as she did so. She laid it the length of Willow's body while Myles was already up and moving towards the few bare trees that had managed to take route in the midst of such death. She cast one last look down at Willow, her face stark white against the black of the coat, before turning to make her way towards the forest.
No sooner had Tara turned around than she felt a solid weight slam into her body, she was knocked to the ground and landed hard with the weight still atop her. She found herself gazing up into the furious expression of Willow's brown haired friend, Faith. There was a hastily carved stake clutched in her fist, raised above her head as though she were just about to plunge it into Tara's heart.
"What the bloody hell have you done to Willow, you bitch!" Faith was breathing heavily, exhaustion hidden beneath the intensity on her face, "Speak now or you're dust!"
"I'm trying to save her life!" Tara replied quickly, keeping one eye firmly fixed on the stake which could end everything in seconds.
Behind them both, Myles had spun at the sound of raised voices and his eyes widened when he saw Faith had joined them. Although her appearance seemed nothing short of miraculous, she was about to destroy the vampire that was working to save Willow's life. He dropped the small armload of sticks he carried and ran at the pair of women, intent on grabbing Faith's attention before she made a horrible mistake.
"She's a friend!" Myles yelled, no quite sure why he was waving his arms but it seemed to grab Faith's attention, he was gasping for breath as he drew up beside her and he had to wait a few seconds before continuing, "Please...don't stake her."
Faith glanced from Myles back down to the woman lying flat on her back beneath her and finally to the deathly pale body lying just behind them. With the stake still clutched in her fist, she slowly drew back and allowed the vampire to stand. Both women kept each other in view throughout their movements. Faith's eyes were narrow with suspicion even as Tara kept glancing worriedly at Willow as though she expected the redhead to breathe her last at any moment.
Meanwhile Myles, pleased enough with himself at having successfully averted an unwanted vampire dusting, was now looking at Faith as though he were sizing her up for something.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he awkwardly managed to attract Tara's attention, cheeks reddening somewhat as she turned to look at him, "You said something about me being too young to help Willow...what about Faith, she's old enough right...being that she is pretty old?"
In any other circumstance, Faith would have taken umbrage at Myles's impertinent remark, as it was she heard the words ‘help Willow' and her attention was fully focused. Tara too studied Faith as Myles had, as though she were sizing her up.
Tara nodded curtly, "You look strong, I think I can use you if you're willing."
"If it will help Willow of course I'm bloody well willing," Faith shot back, "I haven't tracked you all the way here just to stand back and watch her die...just tell me what the hell I have to do."
"Strictly speaking, you do not have to do anything, but I need you to act as a conduit between the two of us...Willow and I," Tara was already rolling back the sleeves of her black dress as she regarded Faith calmly, "I can do magicks..."
"So you can heal her?" Faith interrupted, un-phased by the mention of the word ‘magicks,' in her line of work, it was hardly unknown, "What are you waiting for then, heal her for godssake!"
Tara remained calm as she settled on the ground beside Willow and drew back the coat which covered her body. Willow was barely breathing; the shirt staunching her wound was completely stained with blood. Faith was far from calm however as she joined Tara on the ground next to Willow, her jaw dropping when she saw the bloodied dressings that had been hastily applied to Willow's sagging chest.
Tara continued talking as she carefully but swiftly removed the dressings, "There is light and dark to everything...as someone like you would well know, being a vampire I have nothing but the dark variety within me..."
"Meaning?" Faith's voice had disappeared to a mere croak as Tara uncovered the jagged tear in Willow's pale flesh.
"Meaning I can only destroy, not heal," Tara tossed the bloodied dressings aside and took Faith's hand in her own, she placed it directly atop the wound, "but in using you as a sort of conduit I think I can heal her to some extent...enough to increase her chances of survival."
"What are you waiting for," Faith's expression was twisted into a grimace at the feel of the wound beneath her palm; she was distressed at Willow's complete lack of reaction to her touch.
"This is not going to be pleasant," Tara cautioned, taking Faith's remaining hand, "You will act as a filter for the darkness that resides within me..."
"Enough talking, I'm ready," Faith snapped impatiently.
Tara nodded in reply and closed her eyes. Faith did not know whether she ought to follow suit but did so anyway. She tried to block out all external distractions and concentrate solely on what she was touching, Willow's wound with one hand, and Tara's hand with the other. When nothing seemed to be happening she peered through one eye to see Tara's face a mask of serenity as though she too were concentrating intently. Faith quickly squeezed her eye shut once more.
Slowly but surely she felt a distinct warmth transferring from Tara's palm to her own, gradually moving up her arm and across her chest. Faith shivered slightly despite the warmth. In her mind's eye she could now see Willow's wound and just how terrifying close she was to death. The object had very nearly pierced her heart. She watched as tiny particles of rust were cleansed from her flesh, everything which should not be inside Willow's body was stripped away. Slowly but surely the torn flesh and severed vessels began to knit themselves together. Willow's heart began to beat with a steady rhythm.
So far the process was far less intrusive than Faith had at first thought; the sensation was almost pleasant despite the vampire's warning. However, when an indefinable amount of time had passed, Faith began to feel sick to her stomach, her insides started to churn uncomfortably and before long she felt as though she would surely vomit. The images of Willow's wound inside her mind were replaced by a fractured series of moments in time, none making sense to her as she did not recognise the people. The images eventually came so fast that they melded into a blur, only a few moving slowly enough for her to understand. They were mostly faces...none she recognised until she saw that of a redhead she knew all too well.
The images were definitely clearer as though they were complete, cherished memories. Willow. It had to be Willow...and yet there was something about her that Faith knew was not the Willow she knew so well. The Willow she saw in the vampire's mind was confident, vivacious and obviously completely at ease with who she was. There were flashes of sensual, languorous fucking where two sweat-coated bodies were entwined, almost inseparable. The Willow in that embrace was one she had never seen, she made love to the blonde whom Faith was surprised to see was not a vampire at this moment in time.
Those images were gone as quickly as though they had been snatched away, replaced by something altogether terrifying. The images were once again blurry and incomplete, as though they had been determinedly suppressed. What little Faith could make out was of a man, a savage, cruel beast of a man as he raped the woman the vampire had once been. As hard a woman as she was, Faith felt hot tears flow down her cheeks as the woman's cries intruded every corner of her mind.
He was gone, replaced by an all-encompassing blackness that further increased the nausea Faith felt. Although she could feel her legs firmly folded on the hard earth beneath her she felt as though she were falling, her body hurtling through the blackness at speed. She felt her gut heave and she fell forward. Her face hit the dirt and seconds later she vomited, losing her grip on the vampire's hand as she needed both to clutch at her gut. Her mouth was filled with a substance the consistency of tar that tasted vile. When she opened her eyes she saw the ground directly in front of her was covered in a thick, black liquid. She lurched forward again and another spurt erupted from her mouth. Behind her she heard the vampire moving but she did not care what she was doing, all she cared about was cleansing herself of the stuff inside her body.
She heard the vampire breathe a sigh of relief and whisper two words, "Thank god."
Faith tuned slightly, wondering why in hell the vampire could breathe a sigh of relief at all...and why she was thanking an entity that she ought to be cursing. Then there was her relationship with Willow which also defied explanation and all common sense.
"Who are you?" Faith whispered seconds before she slipped into unconsciousness and fell face first into the dirt at Tara's side.
Several hours later, with darkness well and truly settled, Faith finally woke from her exhausted slumber. She sensed a presence nearby and knew instinctively that it was the vampire. Even before her eyes fluttered open she was asking about Willow.
"Will she live?" Faith croaked, still tasting the residue of the tar-like substance in her mouth.
Tara knelt in the dirt next to Faith and tenderly examined the brunette for any sign of affect effects from the spell. It appeared to have taken a lot out of her but other than being exhausted, she was fine. As Faith's eyes opened, Tara pointed a finger in the direction of a small shape bundled beneath blankets not too far away from her.
"Much of her strength has fled her body...but she will now be able to survive the journey down the mountain," Tara intoned quietly, "The wound is clean and I was also able to begin the healing process before you passed out."
"Thank god," Faith said with all sincerity in her voice, with Willow safe she turned her attention to the hollow feeling n the pit of her stomach, an aroma of something strong was making her mouth water, "I'm starving..."
Tara inclined her head towards the haunch of what looked like some sort of deer roasting on a spit above the fire. Myles gave her a little wave from where he was tending it. Faith sat up slightly, propping herself up on her elbows as she eyed the hunk of roasting meat.
"How the hell did you kill that?" Faith asked in a voice torn between scepticism and amazement.
Tara arched an eyebrow as if to ask how Faith could even doubt her skill as a huntress. She settled back on her haunches and watched the other woman peel the blankets away from her body and lift herself into a sitting position. Her movements were slow, as though she were testing the strength in her body, but Tara could tell that she had recovered quickly despite the traumatic experience of being used as a conduit.
"I know you just saved Willow's life," Faith said as she unfolded her body in a cat-like stretch, "but what is your business with her, vampire?"
"My business with Willow..." Tara repeated Faith's words, drawing out the words as one would if they were reluctant to divulge a plan, "My business with Willow is my own concern, suffice to say it is vital."
"Vital to what?" Faith growled. She was annoyed at being continually kept in the dark, first by Lara and now by this vampire who seemed to be the perfect antithesis to the rest of her kind.
Killing vampires was one of Faith's favourite pastimes due to the immense variety of methods available to dispatch the creatures, killing this one was still an option regardless of her twisted relationship with Willow.
"Vital to the fate of millions of people across Europe," Tara added simply.
Faith raised her eyebrows, "Willow has to save millions of people? That Willow over there, snoring like a train...the Willow that would much sooner read a book about a demon than actually meet one face to face, the one that couldn't save herself let alone millions of people?"
Tara nodded, smiling a little at the mention of some of Willow's traits, "Yes...that Willow."
"Does she know this?" Faith demanded, her voice betraying her concern for her friend.
"But she will?" Faith interrupted, "Because the sooner someone tells Willow and I what the hell is going on around here the sooner we can start trying to keep ourselves safe! How the hell can I protect her if I don't know what she's up against...and then you come swooping in with your bloody condescending manner, seeming to know everything and refusing to tell the people that actually matter what the hell you're doing...and why in hell do you have images of fucking Willow in that twisted mind of yours?"
Tara could hardly fail to notice the protective intent behind Faith's words. She had already proven earlier the strength of her love for Willow. It was now written very plainly on her face as stared right back at Tara, her gaze challenging and direct, demanding that Tara explain herself. Such was the intensity of it, that it was Tara who had to break away first...although this was also due in part to the speculations that were running unchecked through her mind as to the true nature of Faith's friendship with Willow. While she had not observed anything pass between the two that confirmed such speculations, it was a distinct possibility that Faith's feelings for Willow went beyond that of friendship.
Tara smiled sadly, for all her watching and longing, she had always known that she could never reclaim what she had once shared with Willow. Even had Willow wanted it, as she had the night she was drunk, Tara would have denied her...there was no doubt that the denial would be difficult of course, but Tara knew she could not bring herself to do that to Willow.
She meet Faith's gaze once more, the smile lingering on her face for a few moments, "The images mean nothing...you will start down the mountain tomorrow at first light, I cannot stay at your side but I will be watching over you...please take care of her."
"Wait...where are you..." no sooner had Faith started speaking, Tara was done...she simply disappeared.
Faith sprang to her feet and looked across at Myles, although he had clearly been much too intent on shoving a hunk of venison into his mouth to notice Tara leaving.
"Where'd she go?" he asked a moment later, struggling to get his words out around his chewing jaws.
Tara watched as Faith shrugged in reply to the young man. Of course there was no way that she could see the fine dark mist of her non-corporeal form in the blackness.
Faith's attention was quickly drawn away however as she saw a shape emerging from the darkness, it was Alex leading two horses. The man was a mess, caked in mud from head to toe, a bleeding scratch running the length of his cheek. His eyes widened when he saw Faith and even further when he saw Willow lying pale beneath her blankets.
"What the hell happened here?"
"A better question would be where the hell you were Alex Harris...I told Lara I didn't trust you to protect her, and as luck would have it I was right!" Faith fired back, her strength returning as she was fuelled by anger.
Unseen, Tara left the pair of humans to their argument, she lingered over Willow for but a moment before she was gone, once again resuming her role as an unseen protector, although she knew that after the events of this fateful day, her role would never be the same again.
Willow found herself standing on the battlefield at Covasna, it was in the dead of night and a wild wind whipped her hair about her face. Somewhere in the distance she heard the rumble of thunder. She remembered standing in the same place with Myles and the vampires, Angelus and Tara but she was alone now. Alone save for the thousands upon thousands of dead men littering the field, only illuminated with a flash of bright lightning. The rumbling thunder followed, closer now. The rain it heralded began to pelt down, a few drops at first and then a massive sheet of water followed with little warning. Willow glanced down at her own, already soaked body and saw a dark stain spreading outwards from her chest. Protruding from the middle of the stain was the point of a sword.
Another lightning flash, Willow looked up to see herself surrounded by dark shapes. The following thunder shook the ground beneath her feet.
The next sheet of lightning was so bright it hurt her eyes but at the same time she saw the dark shapes were the warriors of Covasna. They were no longer fleshless skeletons but breathing, walking men.
Willow was again shrouded in darkness but she could hear the breaths of thousands pounding in her ears.
Without warning, the sword that had been rammed through her body was withdrawn in one smooth movement and she fell forward into the mud at her feet...still hearing the breathing in her ears, coming closer and closer...
Willow woke. Gasping for air with short, urgent breaths, she clutched at her chest and found the heavy bindings covering her wound. She winced slightly with the pressure and found that she could not lift herself from the bed in which she lay. Her eyes darted around the darkened room but wherever she was, it was alien and unfamiliar.
Again she clutched at the wound in her torso but frowned when she realised it was in a different location to where she had been stabbed in her dream. In the dream, the sword had obviously gone straight through her heart while she was now feeling the wound just above her left breast, obviously having narrowly missed her heart. Willow felt that same organ now pounding wildly, sending resulting waves of pain flowing through her body. Everything hurt like hell so she was definitely alive.
She craned her head slightly to take in the entire room and froze with fear at the sight of a dark shape leaning against the wall. It passed when her eyes grew adjusted to the dim shadows and she was able to make out the now familiar long blonde hair. When the figure stepped forward she could also make out her blue eyes as they shone in the darkness. Willow quickly realised the woman's eyes were shining with relief and a small smile tugged at one corner of her lips.
"I would ask how you feel but I would think it obvious," she began lightly.
"Sore," Willow responded, her own voice coming out as a weak croak that sounded strange to her ears.
"That is understandable...you survived a terrible wound and an arduous journey."
"A journey?" Willow squeezed her eyes hut for a moment, "I remember being at Covasna, falling, the blood...and then nothing until now," Willow opened her eyes once more, "Waking up in this room."
"Faith and Myles and that lump of a guide brought you down out of the mountains, you remained asleep for much of it...and you were not lucid when you did wake," Tara explained, having watched almost every moment from afar.
"I don't understand how...I should have died."
"Yes," Tara replied quietly, knowing full well that if she had not been there and able to use Faith as a healing conduit, Willow would have died before even commencing the journey back to Klausenburg...for all the cruelty of the Fates, they also knew when to pull off a miracle.
"It is hard to believe...at last I will have a scar to match the best of Faith's," Willow found one positive point to note from her horrible wound, "I hope it is impressive."
"You nearly die and you are concerned about a scar?" Tara asked in disbelief.
"Well I've never almost died before...I'm not sure how I should behave," Willow frowned, her small body seeming rather helpless as she lay confined in the bed, "I am grateful of course...to you...to Faith...and Myles...I am not sure how I survived..."
"You survived because you and your friend Faith both have hearts of lions," Tara smiled, allowing herself to reach out and cup Willow's cheek briefly before drawing back to avoid further contact. She refused to notice the fact that Willow had leaned into the touch as though she craved it, "Faith seems to be a formidable woman...and a very loyal..." Tara paused for a moment before finishing lamely, "...friend."
"She is!" Willow replied with an enthusiasm that far outstripped her level of strength, "She can be vexing at times but I love her dearly."
Not half as much as I love you, Tara thought with an awful twisting sensation in her gut. At the same time she forced herself into a state of acceptance. Faith was strong; she would protect Willow with her life. However more importantly, Faith was whole and uncorrupted...while she was a travesty, neither human nor demon. It was a tortured existence that Tara could not share with anyone, not even the woman she knew to be her soul mate.
She watched as Willow fought a losing battle with her exhaustion and knew she ought to leave and let her sleep. The redhead's eyes slid slowly closed despite her valiant efforts to keep them open, her head tilted to one side as she sank back into the pillow. Not wishing to disturb her, Tara moved towards the window. Her movements were reluctant, she wanted nothing more than to remain at Willow's bedside and still be there when she woke if only to see her green eyes again.
"I wish you would stay," Willow whispered, apparently not fully asleep.
"You know I can't, Willow," Tara said, turning her head slightly but not daring to look at Willow lest she give into her wish, "I have things to do...there is one ‘friend' in particular whom I must pay a little visit."
Tara's mind turned to thoughts of Angelus, where he would be and what he was doing...and most importantly whether he knew she was coming for him. Willow had almost died; of course he knew she would be coming for him. She entertained no further thoughts of staying with Willow as this new purpose took root in her conscience. This she had to do to keep Willow safe, although she knew full well that the consequences could be severe.
"Answers..." Willow pleaded.
Still Tara did not turn around; she moved towards the window and placed a hand on one cold pane, "Read the rest of the diary, Willow, there are enough answers contained within its pages to lead you on the next step of your journey."
"It is naught but...gibberish," Willow protested weakly.
"Try Willow...you'll find you knew the words all along..." the end of Tara's sentence died away as she gradually dissolved into her misty self and left Willow's room to begin her hunt for Angelus.