By the time Dawn arrived at The Food Court, her breath was coming in huge gasps. Meghan, Jackie, Brenda and Ginny were seated at the same table they had occupied before and each now had their own individual funnel cake, although Jackie's was about gone and she was eying Ginny's platter. Dawn hurried toward them.
"Have you seen the wren?" she puffed anxiously.
Ginny shook her head. "I saw you watching that cute Centurion fight though." She smiled wistfully. "Was that your ribbon he had round his arm?" She pointed to the circlet on Dawn's hair. "I see one's missing." She sighed and clasped her hands together. "You are soooooo lucky."
Meghan leaned forward and frowned. "Not all the flowers are there either. Did you lose some?"
"It was like that when I got it," Dawn replied impatiently. "The only thing I've lost is the wren. Are you sure you didn't see it?"
"Nope," Meghan told her briskly as she slapped Jackie's fingers, which were snaking toward her funnel cake.
Jackie scowled and then turned to Dawn. "I think he was looking for you earlier."
"Who?" asked a confused Dawn.
"The Centurion," said Jackie with a roll of her eyes. "Get with it."
"Maybe he could help you find what you're looking for?" ventured Brenda.
"Who?" asked Dawn, confusion still reigning.
Four faces stared at her in amazement.
"Oh," muttered Dawn in realization. "I don't have time to find him." She surveyed the area with some desperation. "I gotta find the wren before it's too late."
"The Parade will start soon," Jackie pointed out, trying to be helpful. "He'll probably be in it. Just wait somewhere along the route."
With a laugh, Meghan gestured toward the 'Ear-On-A-Stick' stall. "Look, there's that whiney blond again. He's gonna get himself thrown out if he's not careful."
The whiney blond in question was demanding more butter for the corncob he held in his hand but the kiosk had been abandoned.
"Dunno why he bothered to come," commented Jackie wryly. "He's done nothing but complain since he got here." She looked at Brenda, who was chuckling mirthfully, and seized the opportunity to sneak a piece of funnel cake. She stuffed it in her mouth with great satisfaction and licked her fingers.
With narrowed eyes, Dawn scrutinized the darkened area beyond the Food Court. The bard had appeared on the horizon, sporting a violet cap. His mandolin was suspended over one shoulder and his hands hung idly at his sides. She watched the figure become swallowed by the gloom.
"Is this place getting smaller?" she queried nervously.
The four girls appeared unconcerned. "Means you won't have so many places to search," Ginny told her with a comforting smile.
Dawn's eyes brightened. "For the wren?"
"For the Centurion," snorted Jackie. "Jeez!"
Throwing her hands into the air, Dawn spun on her heel without another word and took off in the opposite direction.
"Good luck," Brenda called out.
Meghan frowned as she looked at her platter. "Did someone steal a piece of my cake?"
Jackie whistled innocently.
"You can't go that way."
The athletic blonde woman who had been with Giles earlier effectively blocked Dawn's path by standing directly in front of the teenager and extending her arms wide. "It's reserved for the performers." She motioned toward a sign reading, 'Authorized Personnel Only'. The blonde surveyed Dawn with a critical eye. "You're not dressed like a performer." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Try down there."
Becoming increasingly distressed, Dawn fled in the direction of the blonde's thumb, but had only traveled a few yards when the woman appeared again. "Can't go that way either," she stated firmly. "This is roped off for the Parade. The Queen doesn't like her visitors wandering around inside the Parade route. They could get trampled by a jouster's horse or nicked with a duelist's sword. She's very particular about the safety of her patrons."
At the mention of the Queen, Dawn opened her mouth to ask a question, but the blonde was already moving away. "Down there," she shouted over her shoulder, indicating the gravel path to Dawn's right.
The teenager glanced fearfully over her shoulder. In the distance, the darkness was inching ever closer, and she could see the faint glimmer of torchlight. "We hunted the Wren for Jack of the Can ..." floated eerily on the breeze and Dawn's breath caught in her throat.
"No," she muttered with gritted teeth before quickly taking the sole avenue that remained open to her. Her feet pounded along the ground, soon echoed by the stamp of boots at her side and a flash of golden chainmail. Dawn didn't question the sudden appearance and Buffy offered no explanation.
Standing amid a small bed of marjoram at the side of the gravel path, Tara watched the pair rush past. She no longer wore the princess hat and had cut away the bottom half of her pale blue gown. She held a small embroidered purse in one hand and swiftly fell into place behind Dawn and Buffy, matching them stride-for-stride.
Willow had likewise disposed of the lower portion of her skirt, but the hem was now ragged as though it had been sawed off with a serrated knife. She had a leather satchel thrown over her shoulder and emerged from a patch of purple hyacinth. She closely followed Tara along the avenue.
Xander loitered beneath the spreading boughs of an oak. With an expectant smile, he held out an exquisitely crafted birdcage as he saw Dawn come closer, but tossed it aside upon noticing the girl's expression of grim determination and the protective attitudes of her companions. He asked no questions as the smile faded and he assumed his place behind Willow, long legs easily covering ground.
Anxiously flipping through the sheets attached to his clipboard as though searching for information, Giles' gaze alternated between the fast-approaching group and the fluttering pages. His eyes glittered like steel behind his glasses as he waited by the trunk of an ash tree until Dawn was level with his position. Then, almost in disgust, he hurled the clipboard to the ground and followed Xander's flying heels. His pace was not as swift as the others. He seemed to be deliberately moving slower, his eyes constantly watchful as he scanned for any threat that might attack them from the rear.
Lounging upon an outcrop of rocks, one arm supporting his head, William the Seeker puffed on a cigarette and watched their approach with much interest. "What's up?" he shouted, but received no answer. "Rumble?" he queried hopefully. Still nothing. He stood up and waved. "Halberd for hire here ... if the price is right." The only one to acknowledge was Buffy, who quickly shot him a sharp look and shook her head as the group raced past.
William frowned as they retreated. He shrugged and ground his cigarette against the stone. "What the hell," he muttered as he jumped down and sped after Giles. Raising his voice to ensure it carried to the entire group, he announced, "I'm bored, so this one'll be a freebie ... but don't expect it every bloody time."
Anya pushed open the door to her kiosk, sharp eyes peering suspiciously into the dusk that had descended. Her expression became infuriated as she spied six cloaked figures vaulting over the turnstile.
"Hey!" she yelled. "You! No getting in without paying!"
As the youths continued walking away, paying her no attention, she frowned to herself. "Though I suppose you were getting out, not getting in ..." A flash of inspiration. "No getting out without paying!" she demanded, but none of the figures spared her even a glance as they continued their inexorable push forward.
Her face crinkling with belligerence and outrage, Anya ran to the turnstiles and dragged a wooden barrier across the path. Racing to her kiosk, she rummaged under the counter until she found the sign she was looking for. In an untidy scrawl it read: 'Keeper of the Coin on break. Absolutely no admittance without prepaid ticket. Wait.' Beneath those words, someone had printed in a neat and precise hand: 'Thank You. The Management.'
She quickly hooked the sign to one of the barrier's upright posts and then hurried back to the booth. Scooping all the money into two canvas purses, she tied the strings together and then slung the entire bundle around her neck like a packhorse. Locking the door behind her, she followed in the wake of the interlopers. They were a good distance ahead by now, but easy to spot given their flickering torches.
Despite her anger, a smile of satisfaction crossed Anya's lips at the cheerful jingle of the bags as she ran. All in all, it had – financially speaking – been a very prosperous day.
Dawn stumbled as she crashed through the undergrowth. Immediately, Buffy reached down and, grabbing a handful of shirt, hauled the teenager to her feet. Dawn's gaze instantly traveled upward at the sound of a plaintive chirp and she could see the vague outline of a nest within a crook of two boughs.
As Dawn raced toward the tree, Buffy positioned herself upon a small hillock, feet astride. Pulling a long-bladed dagger from the top of her boot, she tossed it toward Xander who was standing on her right. He caught it deftly and held it aloft. She then glanced at Giles on her left – the direction of the tree. He was gripping a thin rapier, slashing the air in front of him with considerable skill. She looked over at William, loitering in the shadows by the clearing entrance with a length of wire coiled around his gloved hands.
"What happened to the halberd?" she challenged.
He shrugged. "Must've left home without it."
Buffy nodded curtly and withdrew her sword. Grasping it tightly with both hands, she held it out in front of her, poised and ready.
Tara and Willow had already claimed a spot on the grass. Sitting Indian-style across from each other, they had emptied the contents of their bags onto the ground between them and, with fingers extended, were circling the immediate area. The all-encompassing arc sparkled with bright twinkles as they chanted:
"Morrigu of Raven Forces,
Bless us with your vast resources.
Give us strength to turn the tide
And stand in battle at our side."
Dawn began to scale the tree. It was far from easy – no ladder to lend assistance this time – but she managed by leaping for a low branch and, with some effort and much kicking of feet, pulling herself up. She frowned with concentration as she climbed, stopping only to glance over the treetops, where the flickering torchlight was now at the edge of the clearing, as were the six boys. She squeezed her eyes closed as she heard the lyrics of the foreboding rhyme: "We hunted the Wren for Robin the Bobbin ..."
The sounds of a scuffle quickly followed; weapons being wielded with ferocious efficiency. Dawn scrambled ever higher and stretched out an arm to drag herself closer to the nest. She could almost see the bird now, just another few feet to go, but then, she nearly slipped at the furious voice that sharply penetrated her absorption.
"Giles! Giles! Stop them! They didn't pay!"
Still the sounds of battle covered the area, until Anya's voice once again reached Dawn's ears, this time in the form of a strangled yell of warning. "Xander, watch out!" It was followed by a soft thud and a moan.
Fearfully, Dawn peered down, a look of horror crossing her face. "No!" she yelled defiantly, as though her protest alone had the power to alter the image before her.
Xander was on his knees, hands covering his face, blood spurting from between his fingers. Dawn choked back a sob. Blinking through her tears, she followed the trail of coins that had spilled across the floor of the area. They led her to Anya's fallen body. Cleaved at the neck, she still clutched one of the canvas purses. Dawn darted a quick glance toward the six hooded figures, straining to catch sight of their faces but to no avail. They seemed impassive to the carnage and, as far as the teenager could tell, had progressed no further into the clearing.
"Move it ... now," Buffy hissed in Dawn's direction as she jumped down from her hillock. Although the blonde was dozens of feet away, Dawn heard the words as easily as if they had been whispered directly into her ear. With a deep, steeling breath, Dawn blinked away her tears, set her jaw in a firm line, and inched further along the bough.
A sudden burst of white-hot heat brought the teenager up short once more. Almost too afraid to look, she turned her head to see William engulfed in a blazing inferno. The flames licked hungrily at his thick black cloak and traveled rapidly upward.
Frozen in panic, Dawn stared at the surrounding darkness. It was invading the area, slowly and methodically, gradually drawing a veil over the teenager's vision. William's still-burning body was consumed not only by fire but also by the somber shades until not even a spark remained. Anya was also swallowed with horrifying swiftness. In a flash of gold, Buffy then vanished into the gloom, closely followed by Tara and Willow, eyes closed with hands extended toward each other and fingers intertwined. And still, it seemed as though the hooded figures had not moved so much as a single muscle.
Dawn looked to Giles, who motioned with his head for her to keep climbing. He reached out for Xander, now unconscious upon the ground, but could do nothing to halt the steady march of the encroaching murkiness and the carpenter slipped away. Dawn clung to her branch, her eyes fixed with horror on the scene below, when she heard Giles' voice.
Quickly, her eyes darted in his direction, but he was not facing her and his mouth was not moving. Nonetheless, she heard his voice. "This is how it must be."
He stood alone against the six boys who regarded him solemnly. "We hunted the Wren for every man," they chanted softly.
Giles probed the darkness with his rapier, eyes straining to focus upon the figures in front of him, but the image was wavering. He moved closer and, as a petrified Dawn watched, was devoured by the enveloping fog. Now, only the boys remained – the boys and their flickering torches. And Dawn. Until the youths too faded into oblivion, leaving the fluttering flame of one lone torch, which soon sputtered out of existence.
Dawn gritted her teeth and lunged for the bough above, where the wren was waiting. Her fingernails scraped against the branch and she scrabbled with her feet to maintain balance but her efforts proved fruitless. With arms and legs wheeling wildly, she toppled into the void below as a shimmer appeared around the crown of the tree – a sort of whitish-green glint reminiscent of heat radiating from a stretch of desert highway.
Buffy's eyes suddenly widened. "She's gonna fall." There was no question in the Slayer's voice, it was a certainty, and without hesitation, Buffy took off at a dead run toward the tree. Giles was but a few moments behind.
With arms outstretched, the Slayer caught Dawn before she hit the ground and the teenager blinked at her sister in confusion.
Giles stared at the motionless body of the baby bird laying in the grass. Its tiny beak was open, as though it continued to search for food. The demolished nest had fallen a few feet away – a pitiful pile of dried mud, broken twigs and twisted straw. He shook his head sadly. "I couldn't save it," he whispered.
Xander, Tara and Willow rushed past the Watcher in their anxiety to check on Dawn, who was now standing somewhat unsteadily on her feet and being supported by a diligent Buffy.
"You scared the you-know-what outta us," Willow chastised as she gathered the girl into her arms and held her tight. Xander's addition made the group hug official.
Gently, Tara smoothed Dawn's hair back from her forehead. "Are you okay, sweetie?"
The teenager nodded and then glanced over Willow's shoulder at the little wren. Her lips trembled and she closed her eyes as a tear trickled down her cheek. Tara followed the gaze and then looked at Giles, moving to lay a comforting hand on his arm.
He looked toward her, then his eyes were drawn back to the tiny bird. "I couldn't save it," he repeated, lifting the body and reverently placing it in his hand.
"You tried, Mr. Giles," she told him softly. "It wasn't your fault."
With a deep-rooted sigh, he tugged off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I was just too late."
Kneeling on the ground, Dawn carefully patted the tiny mound of earth, nestled protectively within the gnarled roots of the large tree that dominated the backyard. The others stood vigil around the teenager, solemnly silent as they paid their respects.
"It'll be okay, right?" asked Dawn with undisguised anxiety. "Nothing'll dig it up, like ... like a stray dog or a weasel or something?"
"I think we're pretty safe from the weasels," Xander assured. "But I'll find a nice heavy rock and we can put that on top. Should keep out any digging scavenger-types."
Dawn glanced up at the carpenter with a hopefully expression. "You will?"
"Just as soon as we're done here," he promised with a sad smile.
This was all the guarantee Dawn needed, and she turned back to the little grave. Behind her, looks were exchanged and a general feeling of ineffectiveness shrouded the gathering. Nobody seemed to know what to say, but then Dawn broke the silence.
"I killed it," she muttered in a broken voice.
Immediately, a chorus of protestation filled the air, each person quick to refute the words.
"I killed it!" Dawn insisted from between angry, clenched teeth. Silence once more prevailed, and it was a long moment before the teenager further clarified. "If I hadn't gone up there, it would still be alive."
"Yeah. Maybe," Buffy replied in a gentle, but undeniably factual tone.
As Dawn's head slumped even further, Willow and Xander turned on their best friend with horrified expressions.
"Buffy!" exclaimed an appalled Willow.
"Wait, hold her down, Buff – I'll twist the knife some more," snapped Xander.
Buffy's voice overrode them both. "It's true, and I won't lie to her." Her expression softening, the Slayer placed a hand on her sister's head, and Dawn glanced up with tears brimming in her eyes. "Maybe it would still be alive," Buffy told her. "And maybe it would've lived for another day, or two, or maybe it would've died half an hour from now. But it was abandoned, so the only thing we know for sure is that it would've died." Stroking Dawn's hair, she gazed down at her with a proud smile. "Without you, Dawn, it would've died anyway."
Catching on, Willow nodded her head. "Yeah. Yeah, you tried, Dawnie," she echoed supportively. "A-And that's the true Scooby way: to try, no matter what."
Dawn smiled, just a little, then turned back to the mound, contemplative. Everyone continued to watch her for a minute, lost in their own thoughts.
Buffy was the first to turn away. She placed one hand on Willow's shoulder and the other on Xander's, urging them both to come with her. Without a word, and sparing one final sad glance at Dawn, they followed. As they approached the house, their conversation drifted back to the burial site.
"I-I don't know if I can handle this whole animal responsibility thing," said Willow, clearly frazzled. "The repeated fish deaths, Miss Kitty ..."
Xander was quick with the attempt to cheer her up. "If we ever get a puppy, we'll teach it to attack you on sight so you can't infect it with your wacky pet vibes, okay?"
"You have strange solutions." Willow pointed out.
"Well you have strange problems," Xander counter-pointed.
Only Giles and Tara remained. Giles stepped forward, a mournful and oddly guilty expression marring his features. "Dawn. I'm sorry."
Sniffing, Dawn glanced up. She was still quite obviously upset, but her smile was genuine. "You tried," she stated, no hint of blame in her words. "And that's the true Scooby way."
Giles gazed at the young girl with extreme fondness, then regarded the small grave. "Alis volat proprii," he whispered.
Confused, Dawn turned to the Watcher, but he didn't explain. He simply turned away walked toward the house, fishing in his pants pocket for a handkerchief.
Dawn turned her puzzled frown to Tara, shaking her head. "I don't understand."
Lowering herself to the cool ground, Tara joined Dawn, sitting cross-legged before the tiny mound. She reached out and took one of the teenager's hands, inspecting the broken fingernails and particles of embedded brown dirt.
"It will always need its mother," Tara began in her soft voice, "but it no longer needs its mother. Does that make sense?"
"Kinda," Dawn replied, though she sounded far from sure. Glancing back over her shoulder, she watched as Giles climbed the porch steps, his shoulders hunched and hands thrust deep into his pockets. "At least it was in English."
"'She flies with her own wings.'"
Dawn turned back at those words, and the blonde offered her an understanding smile. Saying nothing more, Tara stood again and followed the others, leaving Dawn kneeling before the little grave.