The Wild Hunt

by
Whichclothes


Vampires do not celebrate Christmas. There were a few who had a fondness for Easter, what with the theme of rising from the dead and all, but vampires definitely did not go caroling or write letters to Santa or camp out in car parks for Black Friday or send out cheery missives boasting of their annual accomplishments.

However, Spike reckoned, a vampire might celebrate the winter solstice. And why not? It was the longest night of the year, something the sunlight-aversive might very well find joyous. Besides, he’d learned at Cambridge—well, William had learned—that the Yule celebration originally involved death and the underworld, both of which were matters a vampire might approve of. He opted to skip the Yule log, however, as he considered chunks of wood and flames more fatal than festive. Instead, he splurged on a bottle of 25-year-old Macallan and Mark Twain’s autobiography, he turned his thermostat as high as it would go, and he curled up in his most comfortable chair.

Vampire solstice celebrations were, he decided, quiet and solitary affairs.

In any case, it was a very good night to be cozied up indoors. The wind was rattling the windows of Spike’s little flat and, despite the furnace, he felt chilled to his bones every time he happened to walk by them. He’d stuffed a towel under the front door to keep out the draft, but it didn't muffle the sound of the gale moaning and screaming, of the leafless tree branches rattling like skeletons, of sleet pounding against the roof. He almost found himself missing California, where a few gentle raindrops were considered a storm.

Spike read that the Clemens family once owned 75,000 acres in Tennessee. He was trying to imagine a tract of land that large when someone rang his doorbell. He hated the doorbell. It had an obnoxiously chirpy chime and he would have ripped the bloody thing out of the wall long ago if it weren’t for the fact that it was hardly ever used. And that he wouldn't get his apartment deposit back.

Swearing under his breath, he put down the book and tumbler and stomped across the room. His mood wasn’t improved any when he yanked open the door to reveal a man in an olive-green parka. The man wore heavy gloves and a poorly knitted orange and blue scarf. His fur-lined hood obscured most of his face, but Spike caught a glimpse of a black eye patch.

“What are you doing here?” Spike growled.

“Freezing my ass off.” Xander Harris pushed his way inside and then kicked the door shut.

“Oi! Didn’t invite you.”

“Not a vampire. Don’t need an invitation.”

“ ’T’s called manners, wanker. Ever heard of ’em?”

“Great. Now I have to deal with the undead Emily Post.”

Spike restrained himself from ripping the man’s throat out. Despite the fact that he’d taste lovely: hot and fresh. “Why are you here?”

Xander pushed his hood back. In spite of the cold-weather gear, his nose and cheeks were bright red and he sniffed loudly. “My nose hairs are frozen. You got a Kleenex?”

“Vampires don’t need Kleenex, berk.”

Xander shrugged and sniffed again. Then he stomped his feet a few times, getting slushy mud onto the ugly carpet. “It’s nice and warm in here. I guess vampires don’t worry about their heating bills either.”

It was at this point that Spike remembered the precarious pile of timber that Xander called home. The little house had been built in roughly the same era William was turned, and it hadn’t been well cared for in decades. Xander was always nattering about fixing it up, but between the patrolling at night and the grocery store managing during the day, he didn’t have much time. Spike felt a surprising and ridiculous stab of guilt over his own relatively generous budget, thanks to the dosh he’d demanded from his brooding sire before they left LA.

“Don’t tell me you went out in that storm just to come warm yourself at my expense,” Spike said.

“Nah, I was just taking a moment. I came ’cause there’s a thing.”

“A thing?”

Xander waved his gloved hands about. “A demon-flavored thing. Rudy heard rumors and passed them on.”

Rudy was good for that. He was one of Xander’s underlings at the grocery, a scrawny boy with terrible acne and a Hterfil demon grandmother. Hterfil were harmless enough—in fact, this one had been the only one to raise the boy after his worthless human relatives ended up in jail or on drugs—and Rudy made a good informant. Also a passable shelf-stocker, according to Xander.

But tonight Spike didn’t care about rumors. “Let the Slayer deal with it. ’T’s her job, innit?”

Xander looked pained. “They’re having a holiday party tonight. I didn’t want to disturb them.”

“And you weren’t invited?”

“I was. But … it’s kind of a couply thing, you know? Buffy and Angel, Willow and Faith, Dawn and Twerp-Who’s-Not-Good-Enough-for-Her. Even Giles has that history professor lady he’s been seeing. I’d be a ninth wheel.”

Spike shrugged, pretending that he wasn’t all too familiar with the feeling of being … superfluous. “They can deal with your thing tomorrow.”

“Rudy says it’s a one-night gig.”

“What is it then?” Spike’s book and scotch were calling him and his patience was nearing an end.

“Dunno. It’s got dead guys and hellhounds and monster horses, Rudy said. And it’s bad news. It was in Wyoming yesterday. Did you happen to catch the news?”

Spike had. Five dead semi drivers at a truck stop near Laramie, and no sign of who had killed them. Or what, more like. He sighed and contemplated how much easier it would be if he didn’t have a soul, if he could simply go back to his drink and his reading and not give a damn what happened to the fair citizens of Lincoln, Nebraska. “Right then. Any idea where this mayhem might be found?”

Xander tried to rub at his missing eye, recalled that he was wearing gloves, and let his hand drop again. “I-80, I guess. I mean, they were in Laramie last night, and there was trouble in Salt Lake City the night before.”

“Which none of your lot bothered to notice.”

“Yeah. But they’re kinda tied up with the whole Christmas/Hanukkah thing and the being in love thing, and Buffy wants Angel’s first holidays as a new human to be like a Hallmark card, so …” His voice trailed off as he made a sour face. “They’re distracted.”

“And you’re not?”

“Christmas has never really been my thing. I’m mostly worried now about whether the store’s got enough cheap champagne in stock to get us through New Year's.”

With a useless scowl, Spike went to the cupboard where he stored the weapons that had survived LA. You never knew when a sword might come in handy. He strapped a sword belt around his hips and, after a quick check of the blade to ensure it was in good condition, slid it into the scabbard. Xander watched impassively, still snuffling. Then Spike pulled on his duster and began to walk to the door.

“Is that it?” Xander asked. “Don’t you have a hat or something?”

“Hat?”

“The windchill is, like, sixty below zero, and—”

“Vampire. Won’t get frostbite and don’t have any body heat to keep in.”

Xander cocked his head. “But you feel the cold, right?”

“Of course I bloody feel the cold! And I’d much prefer to be in here, snug and comfy, maybe even with a cuppa at hand, but some tosser is insisting I go take care of his thing.”

Xander snorted inelegantly. “You might wanna restate that, Bleachie.”

Spike decided to pretend as if Xander wasn’t acting like a twelve-year-old. He threw the front door open and strode outside, not bothering to look back to see whether Xander was following. The gust of wind that caught him was nearly strong enough to push him off his feet, and Spike snarled at the sky as if the weather was an enemy he could beat.

Xander came up noisily behind him. “We can take my car.”

“We?”

“It’s bad enough I’m taking on another round of demons—I’m not risking my life with your bald tires on the icy streets.”

“You’re not facing any demons. I am. Go home and put on your footed pyjamas and watch It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“I’m a Christmas Story kind of guy, actually. And I’m going with you.”

Feeling exasperated at standing in the middle of a storm and having this conversation, Spike said, “To do what?”

But Xander just grinned before wrapping his ugly scarf more snugly around his neck. “Same as usual. I’m going to almost get myself killed—maybe I’ll go for a head injury this time. Haven’t had one in weeks. I’ll question my own sanity, hope I don’t piss my pants, probably end up with some kind of slime on my clothes that will never wash out.”

Between the dark and the sleet and the parka hood, it was difficult to get a good look at Xander’s face. But Spike thought he saw stubbornness there, and a certain desperation that he didn’t understand at first. Didn’t understand, that is, until he was grabbing the keys from clumsy gloved hands and climbing behind the wheel of Xander’s little Ford. Xander needed to feel useful. There was nothing wrong with a position as a grocery manager, but it wasn’t a job that was likely to make a man feel necessary and important, especially when his friends were busy saving the world.

When Spike turned the key in the ignition, Vince Gill began to bellow “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Spike winced and turned the radio off. “Thought you weren’t much for celebrating.”

Xander’s coat crinkled when he shrugged. “It’s just what they’re playing. You can’t get away from it. All day long at work we have Christmas songs on the loudspeakers. One more round of ‘Silver Bells’ and I’m gonna go postal.”

The wind buffeted the car as Spike pulled out of the car park. Xander had been right about the slick roads, and it took a great deal of attention to avoid sliding off the pavement. At least it became warmer in the car, the heater fan blowing noisily and the air toasty against Spike’s bare hands. “Christmas was a quieter affair when I celebrated it. There was caroling, of course. A big dinner, small gifts. I always fancied the Christmas crackers when I was a boy. I’d help mother trim the tree …” He allowed his voice to trail off. He hadn’t any idea why he was sharing these memories with Xander Harris. It wasn’t as if Xander would care. Hell, it wasn’t as if Spike cared. Those memories were nothing but faded antiques; he had been a demon for a very long time.

“Now I’m picturing you as Tiny Tim, and you’re ripping out Scrooge’s throat when he’s being an asshole to Bob Cratchit.” Xander sounded amused, and the meanness that had once barbed his words had smoothed away. Spike wondered when that had happened, and why he hadn’t noticed before.

As they neared the interstate highway the wind died down, and the sleet slowed and then stopped altogether. By the time Spike pulled over near an onramp, the clouds had cleared too, revealing the stars spread in a sparkling tapestry and a moon that seemed nearly as bright as the sun. The temperature was dropping as well. The dead grass crackled loudly under their feet and Xander’s breath plumed in front of him, reminding Spike uncomfortably of dragons.

And then they stood on the highway shoulder, the two of them, watching silently as the occasional car roared by. Spike didn’t understand why he was here when he could be anywhere in the world. He’d known the minute that Angel’s heart began to beat that his own chances with Buffy—however tenuous they had been to begin with—had evaporated. But he had come with Angel to Nebraska anyway. And he’d turned down offers to supervise new Slayers elsewhere in the world, even though every time he saw Buffy and Angel together his own dead heart shriveled a bit more.

Maybe he was just a bloody masochist.

Xander stomped his feet a few times and clapped his gloved hands together. And then he was suddenly peeling one of his gloves off and rooting about in a voluminous coat pocket. “Here,” he said, holding something plastic-wrapped towards Spike. “We’ve been selling a zillion of these as stocking stuffers. Forgot I had it.”

Spike took the item and turned it over in his hands while Xander replaced the glove. “What is it?” Spike finally asked.

“A chemical warmer. Just snap that little part there and stick it in your pocket. It’ll work for a vamp, right?”

Spike blinked a few times. “Why are you giving this to me?”

“ ’Cause just looking at you is making me feel colder.”

More than a little bemused, Spike activated the chemical pack and let it drop into his duster pocket. It did feel lovely and warm under his palm. Perhaps he could persuade Xander to bring him a few more of the things.

He turned to ask, but before he could open his mouth, his sensitive ears caught a strange sound approaching from the west.

“What?” Xander asked, tensing.

“Shh!” There was a hard clomp-clomp like a galloping horse and the heavy gasps of an animal running full-out. Spike unsheathed his sword; out of the corner of his eye he saw Xander drop his glove and produce a knife with a wicked-looking blade. Good. He was as likely to stab himself as to harm an enemy, Spike thought, but at least he hadn’t been stupid enough to come unarmed.

The thundering hooves came closer and Spike realized that it couldn’t possibly be a horse approaching; whatever was coming towards them was too large and, although Spike was no expert, the gait sounded off somehow.

And then it appeared out of the darkness, as if it had been there all along but had only become visible as it neared them. Spike’s first thought was dragon, but that wasn’t quite right. The beast was as large as a dragon, perhaps even larger, but it resembled an enormous stag with a black pelt, towering silvery antlers, and eyes like molten metal. Spike was so distracted by the twin plumes of breath forced from its nostrils, like steam from a train, that it took him a moment to notice that the creature wasn’t running on the road but above it, its hooves pounding at least a foot above the pavement.

“What the hell is that?” Xander asked.

Spike only gripped his sword more tightly and stepped into the stag’s path.

But the beast barely looked at him. With little visible effort and without slowing down it leapt right over him, clearing his head by a good ten feet before continuing to fly down the freeway.

Xander whistled, long and low. “Holy shit. Maybe we can catch it in the car.” He took a step in the direction of the Ford.

But Spike held out a hand to stop him. Spike cocked his head and listened. “Something’s chasing it already,” he announced. Loads of somethings, from the sound of it. He heard many hooves this time, and shouting voices, and the excited baying of hounds.

Xander pushed back his hood, revealing hair that was too long and a bit tangled. His cheeks glowed with hectic spots of color and he was breathing very fast—not from fear, because his lips were curled in a smile, his white teeth flashing. His eye-patch was slightly askew and Spike could have sworn he saw a flash of green in the man’s remaining eye. “What is it?” Xander breathed.

Spike was going to answer that he didn’t bloody know. But then the pursuers appeared and Spike did know, but the shock of what he saw stole his explanations away.

The Wild Hunt.

There were a dozen or more men, each riding on a coal black horse bigger than any draft horse Spike had ever seen. These animals weren’t meant to draw plows, however. Destriers, his squirrel’s nest of a brain informed him, each steed looking as wild as any animal Spike had ever seen. Like the stag, the horses ran in mid-air.

Equally wild were the men seated on the horses, riding without saddles. Robed in furs, their pale hair flowing behind them and their throats warmed by chest-length beards, they whooped and called as they galloped forward, their mouths wide open in feral grins.

Black dogs ran before and beside the herd of horses. Lean and long-legged, the dogs were nearly the size of ponies, and had short, blunt muzzles like a mastiff’s.

It was very clear to Spike that he and Xander hadn’t a chance of defeating this horde. He turned to tell Xander, to explain that sometimes discretion truly was the better part of valor. But Xander dropped his knife, ran into the highway, and howled.

As the horsemen drew closer, Spike was certain that Xander would be trampled. But the lead hunter—a bear of a man with bushy eyebrows and bright blue eyes—only laughed and bent, and through some complicated maneuver Spike couldn’t quite track, the man hauled Xander onto the horse behind him.

Spike gaped only for a second. Then, cursing, he jammed the sword back into his sheath and took off running. He was just barely fast enough to leap onto the back of the rearmost horse. He clutched at the furs of the man in front of him—another huge bloke—and the man turned his head long enough to laugh and shout something at him. Spike couldn’t understand him. Couldn’t even identify the language, in fact, although it sounded a little like German.

The horse thundered forward and Spike held on for dear unlife.

He had the chance now to smell the man in front of him, and wasn’t especially surprised to discover that the bloke wasn’t human. Spike wasn’t sure what he was; he smelled old and Spike pictured peat fires and squat stone castles. The beast on which he rode wasn’t exactly a horse, either, and it was just as ancient as the rider.

The dogs yipped and called, and at the front where Spike couldn’t see him, Xander bayed right back.

The roadside here was empty save for dead grass and weeds, and it was difficult to judge their speed. Fast, though. Very fast. They rode and they rode, and eventually low hills rose beside them and they passed over a flat and shallow river. Spike realized he was enjoying the ride, the feel of the frigid air against his skin, the sense of movement that could never be rivaled in a motor vehicle, the primal thrill of the chase. He buried his face in the warm fur in front of him and joined the rider in drumming his heels against the horse’s flanks, urging the great beast a bit faster yet.

They reached Omaha, where the cars came a little more frequently, but the horses jumped over them as if they were of little regard. The city’s odors offended Spike’s nose, which was odd, as he’d usually preferred urban landscapes. Now, though, he wanted tangled forests and lonely heaths. He was pleased when they left the city behind them, galloping over the Missouri River and onto the bluffs beyond.

Somewhere in the midst of farms and open fields, the sky ahead of them began to brighten just a bit. Spike’s skin itched as it always did when sunrise approached. But he didn’t want to stop the hunt and he continued to hold on to the rider’s cloak. He was surprised to hear a shout at the head of the pack and to feel the horses slow to a halt. Spike’s mount stood impatiently, blowing and stamping, as the lead hunter circled back. Xander was still seated behind him, windblown and grinning hugely.

“Time to leave before you turn into a pumpkin,” Xander said. “A burning pumpkin.”

Although Spike would have wagered that Xander had never ridden a horse before, Xander dismounted as smoothly as though he’d done it a thousand times. Then he walked over and held out his hand to Spike. After a moment’s indecision, Spike took it. He slid down to the ground with a jolt.

“G
ód huntoð!” bellowed the lead rider, smiling widely and giving a little bow. To Spike’s amazement, Xander bowed back, looking only slightly awkward as he did so.

And then the riders were off, leaving Spike and Xander in the middle of the freeway where they were apt to be run over even before Spike could burst into flames.

Xander grabbed Spike’s arm and dragged him off the road, down a slight embankment and across a frozen field, arriving at a small metal shed. Although the door was secured, Spike had no difficulty in breaking the rusty padlock. They both collapsed onto the cold dirt floor once they were safely shut inside, Xander still panting heavily.

“You’ll want to ring the Scoobies,” Spike said after a while. “The Wild Hunt is meant to be a sign that a catastrophe’s coming.”

“Another apocalypse. Goody.” It was too dark in the shed for Spike to see Xander, but he heard the jaw-cracking yawn. Then he saw the little glow of light as Xander activated his mobile phone and sent a text. “We’re gonna need a ride back anyway.”

“You’re going to freeze waiting for them.”

“Nah, I’m okay. My parka’s rated for forty-five below. Here, I’ll share.” Xander scooted across the floor until his bulk was against Spike’s body. Then Xander shoved his hand into Spike’s pocket where the chemical pack was still nice and warm.

They remained there like that for a few minutes, until Xander’s phone chirped and he fished it out to glance at the screen. Perhaps it was just a product of the electric light, but again Spike thought he caught a flash of green in the single eye. “Our ride’s on the way. Giles is borrowing an SUV from someone and bringing some blankets. I figure that’ll be comfier for you than a trunk.”

“Cheers,” Spike replied, surprised at Xander’s thoughtfulness. But then he stiffened as another old memory surfaced. “You’ll have to set the Watcher and the rest to researching how to save your hide.”

“Oh?” Xander didn’t sound especially concerned.

“If a mortal sees the Wild Hunt he’ll be brought to the land of the dead. Reckon that’s what happened to the poor sods in Laramie.”

“Oh. But we were just brought to Iowa, Spike.” Xander sniffled and scrunched a little more snugly against the vampire. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be the land of the dead. Maybe the apartment of the dead is good enough.”

Spike raised an eyebrow, even though he knew Xander couldn’t see it. Perhaps Xander could hear it though, because he laughed. “I’ll get some shuteye when I get home—gave myself the day off—and then tonight I’ll come on over. Your place is way warmer than mine. I’ll bring cocoa and my Christmas Story DVD, and I just might have the fixings for homemade onion rings.”

Vampires do not celebrate Christmas. Vampires do not celebrate Christmas Eve. But perhaps, Spike mused, they just might celebrate an extended version of winter solstice. He settled back into Xander's warmth, and smiled.



The End