Title: Rupert Giles vs The Headless Horseman
Setting: Between seasons 2 & 3
Written for the Halloween prompt at giles_shorts. It got a bit long. Sorry.
Although his cab driver had slowed to a crawl to drive through the wooden covered bridge that served as the town boundary, Giles still felt very apprehensive as they crossed. He assumed this was because the top structure looked very weather worn in places and the trackway underneath made a howling noise as if in pain.
“Are you sure this is the best route?”
“It’s the only route. Relax, pal. Been a bridge here for a couple of hundred years, be one here long after you’ve gone.”
Giles sat back in his seat, very much doubting it could last another week the way it creaked and groaned under the weight of the vehicle. Mercifully they emerged back onto a muddy tarmacked road and rounded a bend to pass the local church. Giles always took a professional interest in consecrated ground and whilst he admired the plain style white wooden church itself, something about the clustered, untidy graveyard they passed made him shiver.
“You OK, buddy? You look like someone has ridden over your grave.”
“I’m fine, thank you. Is it far to Mr Drummond’s house?”
“A mile maybe. You can see it up there.” Giles looked up the hillside they were climbing to the rundown farmhouse with no lights. The accommodation did not look appealing. “Don’t get many English guys round these parts,” mused the cabbie. “But don’t worry. Aint nothing to lose your head over.”
The farmhouse didn’t get any more inviting the nearer they got. The porch was worn and green and there were weeping willow trees that trailed long branches slyly across the whole property. His taxi driver hustled him and his bag out the cab and didn’t seem terribly anxious to wait to see if anyone was home, not even for the promise of a return fare.
“No, no. It’s getting dark,” he explained. “My wife likes me to be home.” At which he sped off, creating a mini surf wave of mud and shale and leaving Giles in the growing shadows. He knocked confidently on the fly screen door, and then again on the main door.
It was a strange place for Charles Drummond to have washed up having left the Council six months previously. His family had money and Giles remembered him as the annoying little snob at the Academy who never let you forget it. Hiding out in what was barely more than a shack in Upstate New York seemed out of character, but then the rumours of him losing his nerve and taking to the bottle had come as a surprise too. Giles had always thought Drummond an arrogant shit, but one that was too stupid to imagine he would ever do anything so plebeian as fall down on the job.
“Charles, are you in there, Charles?” Giles pounded the frame with the flat of his hand.
The silence was a bit unnerving. He put his shoulder to the door and let himself in, quickly appraising the meagre possessions on show - the books on the table, the food in the kitchen, the empty whisky bottles by the door - all the signs of a life not quite relinquished. He hollered up the stairwell, “Charles!” and this brought the shock of a grunt, and then the squeal of some bed springs and finally the sound of feet on bare floorboards above him.
Giles retreated to the kitchen space, folded his arms and leant against the table, waiting for his host. It was a shock when he first saw him. Charles Drummond had been the golden boy at the Academy in both prospects and in looks, but all that had gone now. His hair was lank and grey, his face had sunk in among his cheekbones and he wore a frayed blue towelling bath robe that looked like he slept in it too. The smell of cheap whisky was all too obvious. Giles realised it would be a tad impolite to ask him how he’d been keeping since he left the Council. Not when he could smell the answer for himself.
“Rupert.” Drummond’s face lit up. “You came. Just when I thought all my old friends had deserted me,” he added theatrically.
If Giles thought it pushing the truth to be included among his friends, old or otherwise, he let it lie.
“Your telegram said to come immediately,” he replied, shaking the other’s clammy hand reluctantly. For the past month, he’d been sending out messages to everyone he could think of for help and Drummond’s reply summonsing him had sounded important enough to put himself through the ordeal of a long haul flight across the continent. “What news have you got about Buffy?”
“Buffy?” Drummond almost tasted the word as he tried to make sense of it. “Nope, sorry. That’s not a thing I’m familiar with.”
“Buffy Summers, the missing Slayer. You replied to my general alert for information.” Giles felt his resentment start to rise. “You told me I had to come here.”
“Buffy Summers,” the other sang dreamily. “Americans. What extraordinary names they give their young. Missing eh? Your Slayer eh? You’ve done well for yourself there then. Mind you, bit careless of you to mislay her, old man,” he added with mock reproach.
“Right. Fine,” Giles replied, grinding his back molars. He’d been duped by the self-pitying bastard into coming but it didn’t mean he had to stick around. He looked about for a telephone to call a cab. “How far is it back to town?” He moved swiftly about the room, brushing off Drummond’s attempt to stop him, lifting untidy piles of books and searching work surfaces.
“They won’t come out now it’s dark. You can’t go back across the bridge. Not now. You have to help me, Rupert. Now you are here.”
“I shouldn’t be here. I should be looking for Buffy. She needs my help.”
“Oh not as much as I do.” Drummond’s eyes had puffed with emotion. “I have no-one else to turn to. You can’t stab a fellow countryman in the back. The Council won’t even take my calls. I’m stuck here.”
Giles was still angry but embarrassed enough by the man’s circumstances to misunderstand and pull out his wallet. “Charles, if it’s a question of money-”
Drummond laughed. “I don’t need your money. What good is money to me now? I can buy you out six times or more, always could.”
“Fine.” Giles had had enough of being vaguely insulted. He picked up his bag to walk back to town now the sky was darkening. “No, no, no. You have to stay. You don’t understand.” Drummond pawed at his jacket and said in terror, “He’s coming for me, Rupert. He’s coming for me tonight.”
The man had crumbled in front of him, and common decency made Giles catch him and hold him as he’d babbled on incoherently into Giles’ shirt buttons. Then he’d taken him upstairs, (looking in vain for clean linen), and gone about trying to put him to bed as one would a child. Drummond however rather defied that imagery by pouring himself a generous slug of cheap whisky from the night stand and taking most of it in a single swallow. Giles sighed and washed a glass from the bathroom and pulled a couple of fingers for himself. He sat on a rocking chair opposite the bed and waited for an explanation.
“It’s this town,” began Drummond when the scotch had helped him to more coherent sentences. “I came here for the solitude. To work on my autobiography after I decided the Council were a waste of time.” Giles had heard rumours that didn’t quite support that version of the story but then, he didn’t feel he’d exactly covered himself with glory over events that led to Buffy’s running away, so maybe it didn’t pay to listen to gossip. He nodded in what he hoped was an understanding way.
Drummond continued. “I just wanted to take stock, to sort myself out in a nice little backwater. But I found myself here, and this place, well, it just leeches into your body, into your mind. Everyone here sees things. Not just the gifted or those with any magick. Everyone. It hooks your soul, pulls you inside out and shows you the darker side of the world.” He looked across hopefully. “You can sense it too, can’t you?”
Giles tried. He really tried. “No, I’m afraid I don’t, but then I live on a Hellmouth,” he added apologetically.
Drummond waved a hand dismissively. “Not the same, not the same.”
Giles was getting accustomed to having to swallow his minor irritation with the man. “So why don’t you just leave here then?”
“Because then I’ll die.” Drummond whispered so softly Giles had to lean forward to hear him. “I can’t leave. He watches for me you see, by the roadside. He’s waiting for me to try to leave.”
“Is this a vampire we are talking about?” Giles found he was professionally piqued. “Or a demon of some sort?”
“He’s bitter you see. Quite lost his head about it.” Drummond laughed loudly as if he’d hit upon an excellent joke. “He wants his good name from the British. Any name.”
Giles shook his head in frustration. “Charles, what are you talking about?”
“The Devil,” Drummond asserted, wide eyed with conviction. “The devil on horseback but with no head.”
“The rider. Bloody hell, Rupert, keep up. How can a horse gallop with no head?”
Giles wondered how a rider could manage similarly impeded, but bit his tongue. It was clear that Drummond was a sick man whose brain had snapped, though whether this headless rider was the cause of this illness or the fanciful result of it, he couldn’t say. He poured them both a refill.
“We are talking about a ghost then?” he hazarded.
“A ghost then?” Drummond mocked his tone. “Don’t say it as if it is ‘only a ghost’. That I’m some child afraid under the blankets and you’re Uncle Rupert, come to make everything alright.” Giles ignored him. He’d had an aunt once that had had a nervous breakdown. She could turn her mood on the spin of a dime, anger, recriminations and then forget that almost at once to show sweetness, love, need. Giles had learnt the art of silence when dealing with her so he sipped his drink and waited for Drummond’s dime to stop spinning.
“More than a ghost, my friend.” His voice returned to a calm and rational register. “Other people have seen him. The locals,” he scoffed. “He just chases them. Gives them a bit of a fright. But there are records of sightings going back two hundred years. They talk of him being a Hessian soldier, shipped in as part of the British troop contingent to crush the rebellion.”
“The War of Independence,” Giles mused. “There were battles around here?”
“Plenty. George Washington slept in every barn for a fifty mile radius if the gift shops are to be believed. The story hereabouts is that our chap got his head blown off his shoulders by a fiery cannonball.”
“I can see why that would make someone bitter,” Giles agreed, supressing a smile but his companion wasn’t really listening.
“And I think it must have been one of ours,” Drummond confided with a child-like pride as if he’d worked the secret of long multiplication.
“A British cannonball, that’s what did for him. Friendly fire from the artillery rank and file.” He spoke with something close to glee. “And now he wants to kill an Englishman in return. Other people who encounter him, the Dutch settlers, the Americans, he merely frightens all of them, but me, me he is going to kill.” And he looked slyly across to Giles. “Or maybe now you are here, he is going to kill you.”
Now he was here. Drummond grew drowsy with his fanciful ramblings and Giles took the glass from his sleeping hand and left him to make up a bed on the couch downstairs. Now he was here. He didn’t know what that meant. It wasn’t California certainly. He knew they weren’t far from the Hudson River, but other than that he was a little hazy as to his exact position. He wondered what the hell he was doing there, why had Drummond summoned him? Why had he thought he could trust Drummond, a man who at the Academy had a reputation as a user of others? Charles could well be imagining everything, possibly the local kids had been playing tricks on him and Giles had travelled three thousand miles to listen to his drunken self-pitying paranoia. Well damn the man. Giles closed his eyes and knew he was being harsh. In the morning, he would get a cab and take Charles to see a doctor. Then he would call the Council and get him a plane ticket back to England. The man had been having problems with his nerves before his breakdown. And whilst Giles generally knew better than to dismiss talk of supernatural events, it was possible the isolation in this farmhouse had made Drummond susceptible to paranoia about local superstitions.
Giles yawned and looked at his watch. He must have fallen asleep without realising it because it was after 3am. The cheap scotch had woken him and he used the bathroom. He pulled on his pants, shoes and shirt, doing a few buttons for modesty’s sake and stepped outside onto the porch.
There was an impressive glittering of stars above him. He thought he could see colours beyond the usual whites and lemons. The trees in the wood below him must have been twenty foot tall but he could see over their tops and even caught a shimmer of moonlight on what must have been the Hudson. It was a beautiful landscape. Giles looked in awe about him, surveying the panorama and wondering why so few of the town’s inhabitants had opted to build this side of bridge. It seemed like prime real estate to him.
And then the air grew colder, and Giles could see the clouds start to form. The weeping willow trees around the farmhouse started to shake their tendrils, sweeping the property with some urgency. The crickets grew quiet and even the fireflies hastened away from him. Giles had the impression he’d been drawn into the centre of a giant spider’s web.
He took a deep breath to fight his over-active imagination. Perhaps this was what had happened to Drummond? The circumstances that led to Buffy’s departure still affected his sleep patterns but he’d held up mentally. Charles had not been so lucky. He just needed to get him a good doctor, he told himself. And perhaps they both needed to get away from the sense of malevolence that haunted this place.
He rubbed down the hairs on the back of his neck and was about to return to his make-shift bed when he saw in the distance a rather clumsy figure, unmistakably sporting a blue bathrobe even at that range, furtively climb over a fence leading down to the glen. Drummond was too cautious to be sleep-walking but too stupid to have dressed more appropriately for the terrain. He was looking anxiously around him and sometimes back to the farmhouse, as if he were leaving something behind.
Giles thought to the geography of his taxi ride earlier. Before the church, they had crossed that covered bridge that way-marked the end of town. Drummond was evidently trying to run away from his crazy nightmares and break through to a place he thought he’d be safe. Giles knew there were legends that some spirits were contained by water and couldn’t cross natural barriers such as rivers, and evidently Charles had a similar notion. Well, damn the man. Giles was wont to leave him out there. He’d had far too good a start to chase on foot, and if he wanted to play silly beggars and hide in the treeline, why should Giles care? He blew out his cheeks at the silliness of it all but then something compelled him to look across the hilltop to his left. It was then that he saw him.
And he was impressive.
Because there were no two ways about it, as headless horsemen go, he looked incredibly real. He was an apparition of no little stature and if Giles had harboured suspicions that Drummond’s neighbours had been playing tricks, they dissolved in an instant. The horse was huge, dark and very still. Its rider equally powerful, yet controlling the beast with infinitesimal touches. He wore a long coat with military cape about the shoulders: shoulders that bore no evidence of a head. He imposed himself effortlessly on the skyline, making Giles feel of as much consequence as the fireflies that wisped on the porch. The rider had sensed him too, he knew Giles was there. But he had also aware of Drummond, and Drummond was a lot nearer to his position.
Gracefully, man and horse slipped to a trot and then a canter though it didn’t seem to Giles that the hooves touched the ground. He tore his eyes from the hypnotic figure of the horseman and ran round the farm house to explore the meagre outbuildings. Drummond was in genuine danger, damn him, and he had to find a way to help. There was no car, Charles never had the patience for anything mechanical, but he did find a rusting dirt bike half hidden among agricultural junk that must have belonged to a previous tenant. The tyres looked good and he shook the spiders free of the cables. As he pulled the bike clear, it lurched over; spilling gas freely from the tank whose cap was lost. It liberally covered his trousers and shoes but he fought it upright, wheeled it outside, climbed astride and prayed the kick-start would generate enough motion to start the engine without actually sparking the whole death-trap alight. His luck held as the engine spluttered and then took.
“This is a really, really stupid thing to do,” he muttered as he toed it into first gear and tentatively released the clutch. “Really, really stupid.” But nevertheless, helmetless, weaponless and in shirtsleeves and pants covered in flammable liquid, Giles set off down the road on an intercept mission of his own.
When Giles pulled up near the spot he’d last seen Drummond, the night had completed its transformation from open skies to oppressive malevolence. Dark clouds had steepled overhead, locking out the breath from the stars and there was an almost electrical charge to the air around him. He looked up along the track but there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Cutting the engine, he shouted for Charles and on getting no reply, dismounted and walked back to where there was a possible shortcut into the trees.
“Are you in there?”
His voice whispered around the branches but only came back with empty pockets to mock him. There was a chorus of crickets beating a hypnotic background lull that seemed to be getting louder. The chilled night air began to cling to his sweaty chest like a hand had been placed there.
He took an involuntary step backwards but his shoe was caught up in something, and retreating further only caused the dry twigs beneath him to snap with sounds akin to multiple pistol shots. Startled, he looked down and saw something else had recently been snagged on the thorns. Giles immediately dropped to his haunches to investigate and found it was a torn strip of towelling material. Somehow he knew it would be blue in colour even without the aid of the headlights from the bike. As he played it through his fingers he became aware that he was no longer the only one there. Crouched, alone, and vulnerable to attack, he felt the hot breath on the back of his neck from something that was clearly very, very close to him and it was also very, very large. There were no sounds, just the rhythm of heated breath caressing the hairs on the back of his neck.
Giles jumped up sharply, snatching a great handful of the thorny branches and slashing wildly behind him. He made contact with the huge black horse, but lost his grip and fell backwards. The horse was confused and provoked by the stinging attack. It reared up, its eyes indignant and the headless rider pulled on the reins to control its sudden shock. The pair danced backwards and Giles half-stumbled upright and took his chance to run back to his motorcycle, but his hands shook to work the choke and the kick-start failed him. Behind him, the rider was demonstrating tremendous skill and patience to cling to his bucking horse and calm it down. Giles kicked the starter again and it spluttered and then stalled.
“Oh some time tonight, please, please, please,” he coaxed. As the headless rider settled his steed and advanced towards Giles brandishing a sabre, the bike’s engine finally gave a roar. Giles ducked and skidded out of reach of the murderous sword, pushing up the gears recklessly as he spat gravel and dirt and hit, so it seemed, every pothole in the county. He rode hard and recklessly, sensing his opponent was gaining without daring to turn and look back.
He flashed passed the white wooden church but took the corner of the road that led to the bridge that marked the town boundary a little too wildly. The back wheel slid out alarmingly and Giles put a foot down and pointed the handlebars crosswise. All the time, the rider was still silently gaining on him.
As Giles exited the bend, the back wheel found some traction on a patch of solid tarmac and accelerated obligingly. He could see the wooden covered bridge now, and he could see Charles laughing and jumping up and down in his ridiculous bath robe. And it occurred to Giles, for the briefest of moments that Drummond’s sneaking out at night had less to do about his own escape and rather more about leaving him behind to deal with this ghostly adversary. He certainly looked gleeful about events, shouting encouragement and clapping his hands. He even came closer, stepping off the bridge to get a better view.
And Giles was going to make it too. He only had a few yards to go so he risked a glance over his shoulder to see where his pursuer was, but an appalling sight met his eyes. The headless rider was throwing something, not his sabre, but an object the size of a soccer ball, and as it left his hand, it burst into a fireball and propelled itself directly towards Giles and Drummond.
Giles braked hard in panic and even Charles stopped laughing. But the adrenaline that had been keeping Giles alive spiked, and he foolishly braked a little too sharply for the front wheel. It locked up and he was unseated over the handlebars. The bike smashed into side of the bridge, the wood splintered, and Giles went straight over the top and plunged into the tributary river below. He thought he heard an explosion and a scream and smelt the gasoline fireball that engulfed the bridge. Then there was darkness and only his own racing heartbeat as the dark waters filled his ears and nostrils and pulled him deeper down to silence.
He thought he was done for. Thought some malevolent force was dragging him downwards to drown but logic won out over blind panic and he realised it was only his heavy leather shoes doing the pulling. A more determined arm motion compensated for the drag and he chanced breathing out through his nose until the sweetness of the night air met his nostrils as he broke through to the surface. The creek that ran to the Hudson was deeper than most but perhaps not as vast as his terrified imagination had told him. He hauled himself out to the bank, cleared his ears and ran his hands through his hair. There was tenderness and blood from a scalp wound, but he paid it little heed.
There was no reply.
After climbing up and back to the bridge, Giles inspected the damage. He’d expected it to be burnt through but surprisingly it looked completely unscathed by the explosion albeit as rickety and as dangerous as when he’d crossed earlier in the taxi. Even the part he knew he’d smashed through and splintered was undamaged. There was no sign of his bike either; it was as if nothing untoward had happened at all. He cried out for Drummond again but there was no indication the man had ever been there. Above Giles’ head, the clouds began to part and the electrical charge in the air dissipated.
There being nothing else he could do, he drained his shoes and began the long squelch back to the farmhouse. Possibly he would find Charles there, tucked up in bed and gloating with his whisky? Giles rounded the corner he had so nearly lost control at, when something made him pull up sharply and hold his breath.
The headless rider and his horse were waiting for him.
His pursuer had dismounted and was stroking the horse’s head patiently with his back to the bridge. Giles stood breathless for what seemed like a lifetime, conscious of every noisy drop of water that was falling from his clothes. The rider turned his shoulders slowly to face him, and Giles, with nowhere to hide, nodded in grim recognition. The dark pair then began to walk together back up the road and Giles followed cautiously behind.
They didn’t journey far, just to the gates of the Church where the rider slackened the girth of the great saddle and removed it and the rest of the tackle from the animal. Steam rose from the its back as he did so and the horse stomped its feet impatiently as if it didn’t want to be rested. Giles watched as the rider fed the animal something from the pocket of his coat and rubbed the beast to calm it down. Then he left the animal and walked to an untidy corner of the graveyard where he stopped in front a stone as if reading the inscription. Giles watched the horse take a few steps, hunt for grass and suddenly stop still as if turned to stone. Its rider, too, was now motionless and the air was thin and silent about him.
Giles waited a full five minutes, not quite understanding but not yet daring to move himself. He checked the clock face of the church again to tell himself that time itself had not stood, it was just these two. The rider and his mount were as dark statues. He swallowed hard and cautiously walked around the horse. Its eyes were open and unblinking. He reached a hand out to touch it but pulled back at the last minute. Instead, he entered the graveyard and approached the headless figure.
He had been a big man in life and Giles felt threatened by him even in death. He stood facing a worn gravestone half hidden by weeds. His hands were clashed together. Had he had a head, Giles felt it would have been dropped in some act of respect. He stood next to the figure and gingerly knelt down, not daring to take his eyes of his companion, lest this was a last trap, but there was no movement, it was as if he had turned to stone. Giles reached out a hand and moved the vegetation. The stone bore a simple inscription:
October 28 1776
The horse at the gate suddenly gave a surprising snort. Giles whirled round in time to see it and the riding tackle vanish into thin air. He turned back swiftly and found the rider had gone too, leaving him completely alone on his knees. Then he looked once more at the gravestone and finally understood. If there was a score to be settled then it had been. Giles rose and nodded his respects to the grave. He understood why he would not find Drummond back at the farmhouse gloating with whisky. Probably no-one would ever ask what became of the Englishman on the hill, though Giles looked at the earth and had a pretty good idea.
The stone had changed as the rider vanished. The simple inscription now read:
October 28 1776.