13. The Wizard of Rhun/The Way Home
As Pallando explained, they hailed from much further east, far beyond the Sea of Rhûn, but often rode westward to harry Sauron's forces whenever possible. That was less and less often in these days, for the black armies were spreading like locusts. This latest raid was the deepest Pallando and his riders had gone in many years, and they had only dared it on the Blue Wizard's insistence.
"A dream," was all Pallando would say about what brought him to their rescue, and they knew enough by now not to press the issue. Nor would he say much about what had driven him from the Sea of Rhûn, for it was clear they were heading straight to the east, not north and east as expected.
Pallando was more forthcoming on his adventures, which were as outrageous as any of theirs, and perhaps had grown somewhat in the telling. He hinted at having roamed Middle-earth for thousands of years, or so Elenya said judging by his many off-hand references to places and people long gone. But he would not say who or what he really was, or where he had come from. Instead, whenever the subject came up, he would regale them with tales of a long-ago dragon hunt or a great battle in the lands of the utter east.
Buffy stood away from the rest of the group, her attention focused on the steadily setting sun. While Pallando and his men set up another camp for the night, she wandered away to be by herself. With little worry about Orcs or that black clad guy anymore, her mind wasn't distracted. She did a lot of thinking on those long rides across Middle-earth.
"Buff, you okay?"
She looked over her shoulder to see Xander just behind her. He wore a concerned expression on his face. A small smile managed to make its way to Buffy's lips. "Just thinking, that's all," she quietly assured him. She let her arms drop to her sides as he joined her, his gaze fixed in the direction she'd been staring.
"About what?" he asked. He hoped she would say about them, but he had a feeling it was something else entirely.
"All of this." She shifted her gaze back to the sun now hanging low in the sky. "How much I've changed since I came here. I don't even know how long we've been here. It feels like decades." Her head lowered, a solemn expression coming to her face now. "Mom probably thinks I'm dead by now. Or she's gone insane from worry. Even if we do get back, what is Sunnydale going to be like? What if we get back and it's not even there? Or the world's ended?"
"I doubt the world will be gone. With the Mayor dead, Faith in a coma, Dead Boy off in LA, who's around to obliterate the place?" He looked over to her as she lifted her head. "We'll deal with it when we actually get back, Buffy. We have to get there first." He put an arm around her shoulders, hugging her a little. "We'll be okay."
She wasn't as sure as Xander, though. They'd been gone months now. Time still marched forward even if they were in the past. The future had no Slayer. For the first time since Rivendell, she didn't want to go back. The fear of what they'd come home to was almost too great for her to bear.
"I hope you're right," she murmured as she let her head rest on his shoulder.
Giles turned around, sighing heavily as he removed his glasses. He worried about Buffy but she had Xander keeping an extra close eye on her lately. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He, too, had been thinking about the future. Not in the way Buffy was but in regard to what he would do when they reached Pallando's place in Rhun.
Elenya took a seat next to him. "You are very quiet this eve," she commented. She cocked an eyebrow when Giles looked over at her. "Something weighs heavy on your mind, Giles."
He slipped his hand over his hair, his eyes closed for a brief moment and he sighed again. "I've done a lot of thinking since the day we met Pallando," he told her. He sat up again and looked back to her. "About the future."
She nodded a little. "You do not mean the future as I think, do you?" she asked. When he shook his head, she nodded again. "Your future, then. What is it that troubles you?"
"I've considered this for quite some time now, Elenya," he began. A pause while he slipped his glasses back on. "Instead of returning to 1999 with the children I would stay here." He paused again to try to judge her reaction, but she was expressionless as she listened. He cleared his throat. "I ... I have nothing in our time. The children have grown into strong young adults, they've no use for me now."
"But ..." Elenya prompted. "There must be a 'but' or else it wouldn't trouble you so."
Giles's gaze shifted back to Buffy with Xander. "Yes, there is one."
Willow sat away from the rest of the group. She had her legs tucked close to her body, her chin rested on her knees as she stared off into the distance. Without really realizing it, she looked to the South - the land of Mordor. Sighing heavily, she shifted her gaze to the ring Galadriel had given her before leaving Lothlorien. She'd not said much to anyone since that awful day when she'd ... She kept to herself as much as possible.
Her eyes closed. And like every other time they closed, she saw Rauko's face - that look of surprise he wore when the sword stabbed him right through the gut. She dreamed about it, thought about it, dwelled on it. She couldn't help herself. It wasn't every day she was responsible for the death of a human being. The guilt was almost too much to bear.
Tears welled up in her eyes as they fluttered open once again. Slowly, the hot tears streamed down her cheeks. She sniffled loudly then rested her chin on her knees once more. Her hand absently toyed with the gift from the Elf queen. The one time she needed somebody, she couldn't look at her friends. They hadn't killed anyone, not even by accident.
[How am I ever going to tell Oz about this?] she wondered. [What is he going to think about me? Maybe I shouldn't tell him. But Buffy and the others know - they won't be able to let me keep it to myself.]
Willow's head jerked up when she heard Buffy's voice. Quickly, she wiped the tears away then tilted her head back. Buffy had a solemn expression on her own face, too, but concern mixed with it. "Oh ... Buffy," she said. "Hey ... how are you?"
Buffy took a seat by Willow, never looking away from the redhead. "I'm as well as I can be. All things considered," she quietly replied. She noticed the redness in her friend's eyes and knew she'd been crying. The group had traveled so far in such a short amount of time that today was the first chance they actually had for a real rest. And for Buffy to talk to Willow about that day. "What about you? How are you feeling?"
Willow shifted her gaze, shrugging a little. "Stupid, among other things," she quietly answered. That was another thing that weighed on Willow's shoulders, the ring.
"About the ring?" Buffy asked.
Willow nodded. "Yeah."
"Elenya and Pallando explained it all, Willow, you didn't have much choice. That ring was a link to a powerful Evil. I think they're amazed you managed to get away from him like you did." She put a hand on Willow's shoulder, leaning forward so she could see her face a little better. "You shouldn't blame yourself. The rest of us feel like it's our fault. We saw what was happening to you and didn't do anything."
"It's more than that, Buffy," Willow said. She shrugged from underneath Buffy's touch as she turned her head so Buffy couldn't see her face. "You don't know what was going on inside my head. I ... I actually thought about killing you. You and Xander and Giles." Her eyes squeezed shut, a strong feeling of shame descended upon her. "I let myself get fooled. He played me."
"Will, you're not totally at fault here -"
"Buffy, no. It is my fault. If you'd tried to take that ring from me, I would've killed you. It was best that you never tried." She opened her eyes. Fresh tears had filled them. "You have no idea what happened, what that ... that evil guy did to mess with me."
Memories of her dreams came back to her. That Lidless Eye, the Dark Lord of Mordor, had used the innocent and pure guises of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins against her. She believed what they'd said. Willingly went along with the lies.
"That's passed. You're Willow again. Our Willow. We'll help you get through it. All of it."
"I'm not the same old Willow again," she said as she looked at Buffy. The tears rolled down her face now. "I'll never be the same." Her lower lip trembled then she finally broke down into sobs. "I can't stop thinking about it, Buffy. I didn't mean to kill him. I didn't."
Buffy wrapped her arms around Willow, letting her cry onto her shoulder. "We know you didn't, Willow," she told her in a soothing voice. Her friend's body shivered in her arms. "It was an accident." She worried for Willow. Unlike Faith, she was emotionally overpowered by the death of someone at her own hand. If she didn't get a grip on it soon, who knew what would become of her?
"That doesn't make the guilt any less," she murmured into Buffy's shoulder.
"I know it doesn't, Will. I know."
"I just want to forget it ever happened."
Not far away from the two girls, Pallando sat and watched them with a sympathetic interest.
"I just want to forget it," Willow sobbed.
Several days later, they reached a hilly country with many groves of silver birch trees, and crossed a mighty river that flowed from distant mountains. Once they had reached the far bank of the river, Pallando lead them through twisting valleys and dense forests, until they had lost all sense of direction and time. It seemed to them that a kind of spell lay over the land that confused them for none could remember anything about the route they had taken from the river.
"Welcome to the Heart of Rhûn!" Pallando finally proclaimed as they crested a high hill and looked down upon a great valley with several tiny hamlets scattered around a white citadel with tall stone walls. Blue banners with silver stars on them fluttered from the towers of the castle, and as they approached, more riders in blue emerged and came forth to meet them.
Indeed, nearly the entire population of the hidden country was lining the roads as Pallando and his visitors drew near the great fortress. They stared in awe at the strangers, the likes of which they had never seen before.
Ignoring them, Pallando lead Buffy and the rest into the white citadel and up long stairways to the pinnacle of the highest tower. There, in a round chamber, there were four stone biers. Upon one lay a weather-beaten man in a faded white tunic, and upon his breast was a short broad blade in a red leather scabbard. His eyes were closed and he slept easily under the light of a glass window.
Giles turned to Pallando. "This would be Darius, then?"
The wizard nodded. "He sleeps until his age comes once again. As will you, as those who sent you here foresaw." Pallando gestured at the empty beds. "Nothing will disturb your slumber until the hour is right."
"Whoa, wait a sec," Buffy said. "There are only three beds. What are we supposed to do, double up on one? No offense, guys, but I don't want to spend fifty thousand years in bed with any of you."
Pallando only shrugged and glanced in Giles' direction. All three teens turned to Giles. Elenya, who stood off to the side, frowned a little. She felt her heart sink in her chest when the teens realized what was going on. None of them spoke for a long moment. They just stared.
"Giles?" Willow asked, her voice two octaves higher than normal. Her eyebrows arched and her chest tightened. [He's not coming back. How can he not come back? How can he do this to us?] Tears welled up in her eyes as Giles nodded a confirmation to her unspoken question. She turned away before anyone could see her tears fall.
"Giles, you're not serious about this, are you? You said you were just thinking about it!" Xander knew it was pointless. The decision had been made - and against Xander's advice, Giles chose to stay behind. More anger was behind Xander's words than sadness. Or perhaps the anger masked the pain and sadness. He glanced at Elenya. [It's all her fault.]
His head bowed then his gaze shifted over to Buffy, curious as to how she'd taken this news. Judging by the look of horrified disbelief on her face, she'd not taken it well.
Buffy didn't react as quickly as her friends, mostly because she thought she'd misunderstood. That had to be it, right? Giles wouldn't throw away his chance to go home. Would he? But the look in Giles's eyes told her more than enough - and it wasn't what she wanted to "hear".
Tears brimmed in her eyes now, a lump formed in her throat and her lower lip quivered. "Why?" she asked in a whisper. [How can you do this to me?]
Giles glanced at Elenya again then over to Pallando - both appeared sympathetic to the situation. Their sympathy, however, did little to ease his pain. "Buffy," he started, his own voice hoarse as he spoke. Finding the energy to speak was hard, especially when he had to see that look on her face. "It ... it was a very difficult decision for me."
"Difficult? It was decided long ago, apparently." She glanced over to Xander and Willow, who comforted each other the best they could. Anger began to replace her initial shock. "Why else would we only have three beds when we got here?" Her hands balled into fists and hot tears rolled down her reddening cheeks. "This isn't fair, Giles! You can't do this to me! I need you to come back with us! You're important!"
Giles closed the distance between himself and his Slayer. Tears of his own now in his eyes as he regarded her. "Buffy, you are stronger than you know," he calmly said. "I've never met anyone as impressive as you in all of my life. Since the day you walked into the Sunnydale High library, you amazed me and haven't stopped. The things you're capable of - will be capable of - you already have that. Inside." He placed his hands on her shoulders. "And you will go on without me."
Buffy shook her head. "I can't!" she declared. Her brows furrowed as a pleading look crossed her features. "Giles, I can't go back without you." Her voice dropped to a whisper, "I can't do this alone."
Giles looked over to Xander and Willow. "That's where you're wrong, Buffy. You're not alone." He nodded to her friends.
She looked over her shoulder then squeezed her eyes shut. Her head whipped around as she opened them. "You can't leave me," she sobbed as she wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tightly. Her face pressed into the fabric of his tunic and she wished it were a horrible nightmare. It had to be. It had to.
"I'm not leaving you," he assured her as he returned her hug. The pain inside was greater than he imagined it would be. But this was the time and the place for it. She had become an adult. The world waited for her and she had to face it. "We are always together. Nothing changes that."
Reality set in on Buffy and she felt her body become numb. Giles had made his choice, nothing she could say would change his mind and she would never see him again. Her body shook with sobs as she refused to let go of him. [Why is he doing this? Why? Don't stay here, Giles. Please.]
"Sleep now, Buffy," Giles said in a soothing voice as he walked her over to one of the beds where Pallando waited. He lovingly stroked her hair then, much like a father would put down an infant, he laid her back on the bed, allowing her head to rest easily on the pillow. Gazing into the reddened eyes of his Slayer, he managed a weak smile. "It will hurt less when you awaken."
Before Buffy could get anything else out, Pallando raised a hand and recited words to an ancient spell, the same one he'd used to commit Darius to an ageless slumber. In a matter of moments, Buffy's body relaxed onto the bed, her eyes drooped shut and she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Giles gently folded her arms over her stomach then brushed her hair away from her face. Asleep she may be until the day he died, but he would never be away from her long. He promised himself to visit her as often as he could and to assure her that she would survive in the future without him. Leaning over, he placed a kiss to her forehead.
"I love you, Buffy," he murmured in a voice that only he and Pallando could hear.
"She has heard your words," Pallando assured Giles with a kindly smile on his face. "She will carry them in her heart until the day the spell lifts from her mind, body and spirit." He sensed the incredible strength within this Champion of Men. She would accomplish great deeds in her future.
Xander stepped forward, next to Giles, and he gazed upon the sleeping Slayer. The tears were still wet on her cheeks. "Are you sure about this, Giles?" he quietly asked then looked over to the man. He and Giles stared at one another for a moment. "When she wakes up and remembers that you're not with us - I don't know what is going to happen."
"You have to take care of her now, Xander," Giles replied. He sighed softly. "I know you'll do that. And you'll do it very well." His eyes shifted back to Buffy. It was the first time he'd seen an untroubled expression on her face since ... he couldn't remember when.
"Good bye, G-Man," Xander said, giving the Watcher a light punch in the arm.
Giles momentarily cringed at the nickname but he didn't say anything. It would be the last time he spoke with any of them; it didn't matter. "Good bye, Xander. I must say you've come along quite a bit in the last few months. I am impressed."
"Thanks. That ... that means a lot comin' from you." He tried to smile despite all of the sadness he felt inside. "Unfortunately, I can't say that I'm okay with this decision, but it's your decision. I ... I hope you do okay here." With that said, he took a seat on the open bed next to Buffy. "So ... what do I do?"
In the same manner as Buffy before him, Xander was placed into a magickal slumber by the wizard Pallando.
Giles turned around. "Willow?" The redhead just stared at her two friends then her gaze shifted over to Giles. "It's time."
Willow swallowed hard. She'd dreaded this, actually. It wasn't because she didn't want to go home. She did, very much. But when she did awaken, she would still have Rauko's death hanging over her like a dark cloud. Her gaze shifted back to the third and final bed, the one that awaited her.
"Maybe ... " her voice was very soft as she spoke. "Maybe I shouldn't go back." She looked over to Giles, who stared at her as though she'd spoken in a foreign language. "Giles, I can't go back. Nothing's ever going to be the same for me. I know that we're all different because of this, but nobody else has -" Her words stopped abruptly. She couldn't say it. Her head dropped. "How will I be able to fit in again?"
"Nothing I can say will change how you feel inside," Giles replied as he came over to her. He placed a hand on her shoulder. When she looked up at him, he saw the guilt and pain in her eyes. She'd taken it so very hard. She'd no time to fully deal with it between then and now. "You're needed in the future. They need you." He nodded to Buffy and Xander. "You're strong, Willow."
She swallowed again, completely unconvinced by his kind words. He didn't have any idea how she felt. He didn't know what it was like. "Yeah." She bit her lower lip then let out a shaky sigh. "Either place, I have to deal with it, I guess. Why not in our own time?"
Giles gave Willow a hug. He wished he could do something for her. But what? "Take care of them, Willow," he said as he pulled back. "I'm counting on you for that."
She nodded weakly. "I will." A pause. "Good bye, Giles."
"Good bye, Willow." He watched as she took a seat on the last bed on the other side of Xander then she lay down.
Pallando appeared over her, a gentle smile on his face as he placed a hand to her forehead. He began to murmur the words to the sleep spell, but in some sort of subconscious manner - much like Galadriel spoke to the visitors at one time - Willow heard other words of his in her mind. "Sleep ... sleeeep..." his voice reverberated. "And when you awaken, you will not remember..." His words seemed to echo in Willow's mind.
"Won't ... remem ... ber," Willow softly whispered as her eyes drooped shut as the sleep spell took its hold on her. [You will not remember ... You will not remeeeeeeember ... ] The words repeated over and again, stretching until they became a nearly meaningless drone as she drifted deeper and deeper into enchanted slumber.
Soon, Pallando removed his hand from her forehead then looked over to Giles. "They slumber now." He knew Giles's next question before the man had the chance to ask it. "The tremor in time - the one that brought you here - when your past selves pass through it, the spell will be lifted." He approached Giles. "It shall be as though they never left your time. With one notable exception."
"You chose wisely, I think," Pallando replied. "Small comfort now, perhaps, but it may be that you are needed here just as your young friends are needed in that distant age. War is coming and it will take wisdom as well as blades if the light of the West is to remain eternal." Then he shrugged. "But who can tell?"
"I rather thought you could," Giles pointed out with a wry grin.
"Well perhaps. What shall you do with yourself, you two?" he asked Giles and Elenya.
Elenya glanced at Giles, curious what he would say. She expected he would want to linger here, at least for a long while, in order to be near his young friends. But she could not stay, not with the darkness growing stronger by the day.
"I... I expect we have much work to do," Giles said, returning Elenya's curious look with a smile. "Wherever the dreams lead us."
Elenya smiled in relief. "Let the darkness fear us, then."
Pallando eyed her for a moment then nodded at both of them. "So be it. I will help you as I can, but I think you will walk distant roads beyond my power. Until then, though, rest here a while. You have both earned it." He smiled briefly, then adjusted his blue cloak and turned towards the stairway. He cast one last look at the three sleeping youths, and then began to descend the ancient stone steps.
Elenya held Giles' hand for a moment then followed Pallando in order to leave Giles a last private farewell.
Giles nodded as she left. He turned back to Buffy, Willow and Xander, fast asleep on their beds of stone. For a long moment, he lingered there then departed with bowed head. Elenya was waiting on the steps outside the chamber, and Giles smiled as he joined her and together they went to join Pallando.
Time marched on relentlessly. The ages passed.
And the three teenagers slept through it without disturbance. Even when everyone who knew of them had died, they slept on. A magickal veil protected them from harm. Buffy, Xander and Willow did not exist on the regular plane of reality. Because of this, the story of the strangers from the future became nothing but a myth. The land of Rhun transformed and shaped itself into its more recent incarnation.
Wars, floods, cataclysmic events and time took their toll on the earthly plane. No place was spared from it - not even the region once known as Middle-earth. Elves moved to the West. Hobbits vanished from existence - by choice or by catastrophe, no one knew. Men rose to become the dominant species in the Earth realm. Soon, such things as the War of the Ring and Middle-earth were resigned to human mythologies. No one spoke of these events as though they were more than just a fairy tale.
When his particular era arrived, Darius awoke safely in his own bed. He believed he'd merely dreamed of his misadventures through Middle-earth and he never told anyone the tale for fear of being thought quite mad.
Then, one June night in 1999, in a small town in Southern California named Sunnydale - it happened.
As the Slayer and demon drew nearer to the school, Buffy began to tire. She slowed a little as she rounded the corner. The demon had tired as well; he wasn't quite as spry now. But it didn't seem to matter - about twenty yards straight ahead of them was a glimmering crack that appeared to be hanging in the air.
[That wasn't there before,] Buffy thought as she slowed a little more, her expression changing upon seeing the "rip" in front of her. "What the hell is that?" she murmured. She didn't have much time to wonder what it was because the demon made a beeline straight for it. She blinked as the creature vanished into the shimmering chasm. "Oh, hell no! You're not getting away from me. Not again."
Willow saw Buffy had stopped and she felt a sense of relief. She was completely exhausted from running all over downtown Sunnydale. The witch-in-training drew in a deep breath of air then noticed the "rip" in the air ahead of her. [What's that?] She squinted at it. If she didn't know better, she could've sworn it was a - That's when the demon jumped into the shimmering hole and vanished. "Oh my God."
Buffy, her energy to tangle with this beast renewed, sprinted for the hole. She didn't hear Willow shouting at her to stop. All she could think of was killing that demon. She wouldn't be bested by it. She wouldn't let it get away again. No way. With no pause, she leapt right into the hole and she vanished just as the demon did.
"BUFFY!" Willow cried out as she watched her friend disappear. She turned around when she heard Xander calling her name. He and Giles jogged her way, obviously just as tired as she. Her head whipped around, attention back on the hole. It'd begun to flicker now and the edges were pulling inwards, slowly at first but with increasing speed with each passing seconds. "Oh, no, Buffy." Wherever Buffy had gone, she was alone. Not for long, though.
"Willow!" Giles called out as the redhead made a dash for the strange anomaly situated in front of the ruins of Sunnydale High school. "Willow, stop! Don't!" But it was useless. In the same manner as Buffy before her, Willow leaped into the light and vanished. Giles closed his eyes, shaking his head. Not only was Buffy missing so was Willow.
"Willow! Buffy!" Xander brushed past Giles and broke into a hard run. "Willow!" He ignored Giles just as Willow had. He couldn't let them be trapped wherever they were all alone. In a moment, he was through the collapsing rip, off to where Buffy, Willow and the demon had gone.
"Oh, sod it," Giles murmured. Buffy was his Slayer, his responsibility and so were Willow and Xander, even if their own carelessness was to blame. Clutching the crossbow tightly, he dove into the glowing split just before it closed on them completely.
Buffy's eyes flicked open as she sat bolt upright at the same time, gasping in a huge breath of air. Her hands flew to her chest as she breathed hard - as though she'd not done so for a long, long while. Blinking a few times, she glanced around her darkened bedroom. Her brow furrowed as her body relaxed while she adjusted to lack of light.
[I'm ... okay,] she thought as she threw back her blankets. Then her eyes went wide when she got a good look at herself. She was dressed in traveling clothes of some other time, some other place. [Middle-earth ... Gandalf ... Pallando ...] Her hands went to the sides of her head as memories flooded her mind and nearly overloaded her senses.
"Giles?" she whispered. Memories hit her from all sides now. Before she could fully recall what had happened to Giles, she was surprised by a groan. She gasped loudly when Willow, a hand placed to her head, sat up on the floor to the left side of Buffy's bed. "Willow?" [How did Willow get here and why is she on my floor?]
Willow squinted in the darkness until her eyes focused on Buffy's face. "Buffy? Did ... did something happen to us? I had this terrible nightmare about Orcs and cursed rings." Her hand fell away from her forehead when she saw the expression on Buffy's face. "That wasn't ... that wasn't a dream, was it?"
"No," came Xander's voice from the right side of the bed. He sat up on the floor, stretching one arm over his head until his shoulder cracked. "Ahh. That's so much better." He wiped the sleep from his eyes then looked from Willow to Buffy. "We didn't dream all that." He glanced around. "Hey ... how did we get into Buffy's room? Weren't we in some far away land?"
Willow looked around the room. "I'm here, you're here, Buffy's here, but where's -" Her words stopped as her own memories returned. She frowned as renewed sadness hit her. She shifted her gaze until she looked at Buffy. "He didn't come back with us, did he?" she asked in a soft voice.
Buffy sat quietly for a long moment as her agonizing farewell with Giles replayed in her mind. He'd decided to stay. And, now, she was alone.
"No," she murmured softly. "He didn't."