"We promise we’ll be good, really," David said, with an insufferable air of patience toward the ailing, aging parents.
"And not get into any trouble, cos we know better," Tariq said. His angelic tone was slightly less offensive, but only just.
"And we’ll call when we get to Aunts Willow and Fred’s house," they finished together.
Giles sighed. His bloody laryngitis precluded any serious paternal reproof, and his boys were looking at him so hopefully, and that sharp November wind from the open door wasn’t doing him any favours either. But damn it, he had responsibilities. "No, I--"
"I’ll drive you two. No discussion," Anya croaked from the kitchen doorway. Her statement would have had a deal more force if she hadn’t been clutching the wall to keep herself upright – his poor darling suffering worse than he from their shared epidemic cold, which they had just barely prevented from galloping into bronchitis and pneumonia. (If they had. Early days yet.)
Their eleven-year-old boys were the picture of rude health, of course, since they’d caught the colds first – a nice mild catching – before sharing with the adults a few days ago. Somewhat belatedly they’d all fled London for the quiet comfort of Swallow’s Nest, leaving Andrew and two Watcher-interns in charge of Investigations and Acquisitions. Giles still couldn’t think of the long, aching drive on the M4 and various A roads without shuddering in horror. Or maybe that was the bloody wind through the door. Christ, it was cold.
It was only a mile and a half between Swallow’s Nest and Yew Cottage, the path relatively well-travelled and going right through the village. Willow and Fred were so kind to offer to keep the boys tonight, really, and if there could be a way to get them there...
"Catcher," Anya managed. "No walking English lanes near dusk."
"Mum," David said, "the Catcher and his dog were vanquished ages ago. And in summertime, whilst this is November. ‘Sides, I know all about repelling evil spirits now."
"Not ‘all,’ surely," Giles said as dryly as he could.
"Well, lots of spirits, then. I’ve been reading. Really, Dad."
"Right," Tariq said. "And anyway, Giles-Dad, you spoke to the coven yesterday when you still had your voice sort of and you know they said everything’s fine out on the moors and tors, and Aunt Willow said everything’s fine too, wasn’t even any supernatural damage ‘round Halloween–"
"--Amateur night, nothing indigenous or anything," David interpolated.
"–so we’ll just be taking a nice walk in the country. Cos everything’s fine."
David nodded emphatically. "We’ll just go on then."
Giles looked at Anya. She looked at him. Amazing how she could still look so beautifully fierce with puffy eyes and red nose. "You sit down by the fire in the lounge, Rupert, you’re worse than I am," she croaked. "I’ll take them."
But his almost soundless protest cut off when she took one wobbly step without benefit of wall-brace and almost fell.
David caught her and her fluttering handkerchief. "Mum, see, we don’t want you to hurt yourself. We’ll be fine."
Tariq took her other side. "Seriously, Anya-Mum. We’ll just settle you down on the sofa–"
"Bring in the tea," David added.
"And call you soon as we get to Aunts Willow and Fred. We’ll leave the mobile within reach."
This double-act had actually taken the three of them into the lounge. Giles trailed vaguely after, trying not to feel dizzy, trying to fish his car keys out of his pocket in an unobtrusive fashion.
Tariq dropped Anya on the sofa with cheerful boyish dispatch, then grinned at Giles. "Seriously, Giles-Dad, don’t even."
"Don’t tell him what to do, he gets cranky!" David hissed in a stage-whisper. Then, in a manner Giles found suspiciously respectful, "Come on, Dad. Don’t you trust us?"
"Perhaps this is the time," Giles managed to say, "to remind you of the incident in Green Park two months ago? The gremlins you’d unleashed swarming toward Buckingham Palace? And then your July adventure with the–"
"Oh, Dad," David said, then looked at his watch. "Gosh, it’s getting late. You don’t want us walking in the dark, do you?"
The wind was rising, swirling through the still open door, and the fire snapped viciously at the surround. Crack went the log, sending sparks upward. Something familiar about the sound and image, Giles couldn’t figure what.
And he couldn’t figure how he’d come to join Anya on the sofa, the tea tray and the mobile on the rebuilt ottoman in front of them. He’d lost time somehow...
"Coats!" Anya croaked from beside him, echo of near past, distant past. He remembered old terrors too clearly.
But now tall, competent David stood in the doorway, winding his scarf around his neck, with Tariq wrapped up just behind him. "Got it covered, Mum," they said, and Tariq waved a torch he must have unearthed from the kitchen catchall drawer. David finished, "We’ll leave the dogs with you to protect you."
Poor old Macallan and Cava stirred, tails thumping gently on the carpet in front of the fire, but showed no signs of wishing to join their charges in the cold. Giles knew how they felt.
Anya sagged against his shoulder, her hand finding his. "Oh, all right," she said weakly. "But call soon as you get there."
Sunbeam smiles from the boys – Tariq had caught the trick from Anya too, Giles thought – and then a swing of backpacks and a rush out the door, taking the wind and noise with them. All that was left was warmth, quiet, and his Anya making a valiant effort not to snuffle beside him.
"They’ll... fine," he almost-voiced. Christ, how frustrating.
But after all these years his wife could read him very well. "We’ll give ‘em ten, fifteen minutes, then call Willow, or possibly text her for clarity, and then follow if we’re not satisfied," she said. Then, on a thick exhalation of pain, she put her free arm around his waist and her leg over his thigh, and snuggled in. "Ow. Ick. I feel every stupid bit of eleven hundred years old right now."
"Darling," he said, and sank deeper into the sofa, with her body to blanket him in the way that always made him feel better.
Outside the wind still rose, higher and higher, and the fire leapt up like a sinuous living thing trying to get out.
Willow moved the candlesticks back from the edge of the table, in the likelihood of tweener boys galloping through the house at several points in the next fourteen hours, and then looked around Yew Cottage’s living room. Seemed safe enough – no magic potions left out, no books that David in particular shouldn’t see (what with his intense curiosity and adventurous nature, which she knew worried Anya and not-so-secretly pleased Giles), no sharp objects except that one athame....
"Don’t worry, Willow," Fred said from behind her, and then warm arms enfolded her. "The kids will be fine."
"I know. Mostly. I’m so happy they’re going to stay tonight, I just, just get a little twisted up in getting ready."
Fred laughed against her neck. "A little? Like a locus of all twistiness in this dimension, I’m thinking."
"Stop teasing." She slapped at Fred’s hand. "If you don’t, I’ll call Oz tomorrow to start our own kids."
Fred laughed harder. "Told you a hundred times that’d be great, and I’ll call Charles too, and boy, wouldn’t that be a fun weekend? Long as we’re doing it the old-fashioned way..."
"Willow!" Fred echoed in a Texas mocking thing which was cute but Willow was hardly going to admit that.
It was so nice to have a partner who got her, who mirrored back those wild impulses inside the good geeky girl she still sometimes was, but who shared the craving for quiet and safety too. Also, she could improvise and hack around almost as well as Willow when the need arose, and somehow it always did....which made them both back off from the idea of kids, really.
Besides, they got to share in the fun of David and Tariq without having to deal with too many of the actual parental headaches. Except times like now.
Outside the wind was rising, starting to howl around the eaves, and a hurled nut or two from their old chestnut tree rattled on the roof overhead. Willow looked at her watch – the boys should have talked Giles and Anya into letting them walk by now, David had told her to expect them around five – and then shivered at the noise in eaves and tree and on roof.
Fred looked up. "That’s not so great. Maybe we should have had the village arborists take a look at our tree too when they were chopping down Old Tertius–"
"No! Those people were awful!" Willow folded her arms. "That tree wasn’t sick enough yet, and it was a guardian tree for the village and everything. It can’t be a choice to destroy something just to control..." She trailed off at the thought of her crazy attempts at control in Sunnydale, her destructive urges written on her own eyes and body and on other people’s broken bones. Yes, they were past, but she still worried sometimes. She tried again: "Fred, sweetie, you know that’s why the coven’s called in that botanist-witch this weekend? Dr Maryam Baker, I’ve made you read her monograph....Anyway, just to make sure that no informing spirit was harmed, because those arborists were butchers. Really they were!"
"Sorry, hon. When you told me before, I missed why she was coming. The lab results that Betsy messed up that day, I was sort of preoccupied... Anyway, wouldn’t any informing spirit, any hamadryad or whatever, actually be killed when the tree was cut down?"
Willow touched the candlestick, caressing the beeswax pillar in a vague attempt to centre herself. It wasn’t that she hadn’t shared her last nightmares with Fred, although she hadn’t. It was more that she couldn’t explain her vision of leaves swirling up like wind-blown fire, couldn’t articulate the image of brown-tinged fingers reaching toward light, couldn’t understand why she’d woken the past two nights since the tree’s felling, the sound of a woman’s sobs filling their bedroom.
She’d walked to the edge of the village this morning in the grey November mist, and stood by the hole where Old Tertius had grown, and felt something, but her invocations and invitations went unanswered. When she’d turned to go home, she’d heard the sobs again, but no one had been there. Nothing but broken branches and crushed leaves and discarded nuts.
The boys would have to walk right by that spot on their way....
"Willow?" Fred touched her arm. "You didn’t answer my question."
Obeying a moment’s instinct, Willow laid her head on Fred’s shoulder and breathed in. It was comforting here, smelling Fred’s handmixed perfume and the lemon cake now baking in the oven, enjoying that nice fuzzy sweater she’d given Fred last winter solstice (despite being asked by Anya if that meant Fred was a muppet underneath, and if so, which one). But she could still hear those woman’s sobs in the rattle of chestnuts on the roof.
"I think," Willow said carefully, "I think we might be dealing with some kind of weird Devon anomaly."
"Would this anomaly be magical in origin?"
Fred patted her shoulder. "So I’m thinking we should walk to the village and meet the boys on the way?"
"Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking too."
Wind was picking up, making the twilight hiss and shudder and do all kinds of things David usually liked. He and Tariq had run the first bit, riding gravity down the hill toward the village and getting all warm, but now they were halfway through, and --
"Maybe we should have stayed to take care of Mum and Dad," he said for the fifth time.
Tariq staggered, hands to his heart in his usual way of taking the piss. "Oi, the pain of the Giles conscience, the burden of it."
"Shut it, you git."
"No, mate. Really, it’s ‘strordinary, the trouble you make for yourself." Tariq grinned at him, then pushed his black hair out of his eyes. Wind was even stronger here in the heart, just by the old post office that Mum and Aunt Willow had saved from closure last year (something about scary Uncle Jools and calling in favours, Dad had been cross about it). "Don’t you think, tosser, that maybe it’s good for Giles-Dad and Anya-Mum to be able to do their cuddling–"
"And sneezing and napping without you and me to worry about? And you know Anya-Mum, she can’t rest until we’re all taken care of."
David didn’t answer right away. They were crossing under Old Secundus, one of the three ancient sweet chestnut trees Aunt Willow and Gillian-at-the-coven talked about as village guardians. The guidebooks even mentioned them, and then David had read a little bit about tree-spirits, nymphs and stuff which were tied to their trees.
He’d asked Dad if it was weird that these maybe nymph-trees had sort of boyish names, Latin ones given years ago by a previous Giles and which had stuck all these generations. Dad had gone quiet, thinking about it, and then had said that real names, true names, were part of everyone’s inside, and it didn’t matter what outsiders called them. Sometimes only someone who lived there – someone like the tree-spirit herself – would be able to speak her own name.
What if we asked politely, just to learn, David said, and Dad said, Depends on the occasion and the need. ‘S complicated, Dad said.
David looked up now at Old Secundus’s branches against grey sky. Topmost ones had been stripped of leaves by the gale –looked like dark fingers or something, stories high. Not like the Catcher’s, but... not really comfortable either. He didn’t think he wanted to know the tree-spirit’s name right now.
"Careful," Tariq said, and just in time pulled David clear of a smallish falling branch. "Conscience bothering you so much, you’re just going to let yourself get all conked on your head?"
"No, no. Just wasn’t...paying attention. Thanks, Ric."
The two of them walked on a bit further, past the old church on one side on the lane, the pub further down on the other. Although the pub’s door was open and light was pouring out, nobody seemed to be around. The pub sign – which was cool, the Three Stooping Trees – creaked sort of dangerously in the wind.
David looked again at Tariq, who was scuffing his trainers through a dry pile of leaves. Ric looked a bit unhappy, like. He got that way sometimes when people talked about family. First time they’d come into the village for stamps and sweets, old Mrs Dannon had asked nastily who Tariq belonged to. Dad had stopped Mum from saying something nasty back – only Dad could stop Mum like that – and then said gently that while it was too complicated to explain, he’d appreciate it if Tariq was recognised as just another Giles.
Sometimes Tariq forgot that true thing, David knew. So he shoved him companionably and said, "Oi yourself, tosser. Are you fighting the weight of a Giles conscience now?"
"Not me, mate," Tariq said then, and grinned again. "I believe in Anya-Mum’s conscience instead..."
"‘Just understand what you did wrong, do better, and don’t brood about it, that doesn’t do anybody any good!’" they chorused, laughing, and they kept on walking, despite a rattle of branches on the lane behind them, despite the cold and falling dark.
Aunts Willow and Fred lived only two twists of the road past the village, but there was one more twist here before the real country began. This was where Old Tertius, the most gnarled and bent of the three guardian-trees, had used to be, but the county tree people had come by and felled it. Rotten at the heart, they said, something about a hollow, diseased core. Aunt Willow had tried to argue, Mum said, but they’d cut it down anyway. David had heard the chainsaws, faintly, all the way up the hill at Swallow’s Nest.
Really dark here, darker than dark, although it shouldn’t be. "What do you reckon, Tariq? The torch?"
"Just what I was thinking," Tariq said, and pulled his backpack ‘round to the front and began to search. This could take a while, Ric wasn’t known for his tidiness.
Also, it was too dark to see, really. And too cold. And suddenly, louder than the wind, louder than the hissing of leaves and clicking of branches once against the other, came the sound of some lady crying.
"What the bloody hell?" Tariq said.
David said, "Come on," and he took the torch out of Tariq’s hand, turned it on, aimed it toward where the sobbing came from.
The hole where Old Tertius had been was dark in the midst of darkness. And in front of it – ripped leaves, and fallen nuts, and broken branches, all swirling together, round and round, up and up, and the branches reached up toward the lowering clouds, like fingers catching up wool.
Words David didn’t know poured out of the swirling shape, harsher than the sobs, and the finger-branches reached out. It looked like a woman, gnarled and twisted, hollow at its heart.
And then the leaves-and-branches shape growled, and from its feet, caught by the wind, a huge branch came sailing for the boys’ heads.