Ethan held the horses while Buffy drove the pike into the ground in the center of the village square. The demon head impaled upon it dripped green blood onto the flagstones. Ripper raised the lance with the Slayer’s pennon high and shouted what had become his ritual words of release.
A successful demon hunt: the village’s slave-lord was dead and none of the three of them were injured. The slaver had had an entourage they’d slaughtered in a brief but fierce battle, but no humans had been among them for once. Nothing with a soul had died. Ethan didn’t much care, but then, he admitted such callousness had been the root of their troubles. The Slayer, the Watcher, and the Trickster, soul-takers, soul-saviors. Another village liberated; another act of penance made.
Ethan turned his back on the cheering and led the horses away to the nearest inn. By the time he returned, the celebration had begun. Food and drink, music and dancing, and wood stacked high over the headless body of the demon. The villagers had been under demonic rule for less than a year and they retained their spirit of independence. They had chosen a human leader already. Her first act was to light the bonfire. Smoke and flames rose to the fast-darkening sky. Then she led them in toasts to their liberators. So long as they rode away again in the morning, they would be loved.
Ripper stood with her, stooped a little so he could converse with her. He held the lance in one hand and a cup in the other. He was not drinking. Buffy herself was, as always, standing alone, with the villagers at a respectful distance. If Ripper was a warlord, Buffy was a war-god, with a god’s burdens and loneliness.
Ethan, as their marked blood-servant, was more approachable. It was he the villagers pressed their gifts upon. Food, trinkets, samples of their crafts. The food they’d eat on the road; the trinkets they’d barter with in the next town. The man before Ethan now bowed and presented him with a fired-clay bottle filled with something that sloshed. The bottle was sealed with a lump of wax with ribbons pressed into it. A complex seal set into the wax identified the maker. Ethan had learned enough of the language of this world to know those symbols: water and life. Liquor distilled from the local grain. Whiskey, or as close as they’d taste until their penance ended. He wet his lips in anticipation and thanked the distiller profusely.
Ethan wound his way through the crowd, bearing his prize to Buffy, who was still alone in the crowd, standing by the pike. Closest to her was a group of young humans bearing weapons, boys and girls mixed, gazing at her with open admiration. Ethan held back from her behind the knot of teenagers, admiring her with them.
Buffy was beautiful. And doubly so, in this war-wracked world, for she was a warrior. A vision in black leather and silk, with the great glowing sword strapped to her back. Perhaps even now, someone in the crowd was writing the first poetry about her. But they kept their distance. She was a kind god, but the sword on her back was named Vengeance.
A young man flung himself out of the group and to his knees at Buffy’s feet. He was shirtless, and on his left shoulder was a demon slave-brand. He’d had a narrow escape, then. He bent to kiss Buffy’s boots. His red hair was long and bound in a queue, and his chin was bare. Still a boy, but a mad one. He slashed his palm with his knife and gripped the blade with his bleeding hand. He held it up to Buffy. The blood trickled down his trembling arm. Blade, hand, slow-flowing blood: the blood-bond freely offered. Ethan stepped forward to warn her, but Buffy knew better than to accept it. She handed the knife back, hilt-first. She pulled the youth to his feet and bestowed upon him a kiss.
“You’re a brave one,” she said to him in his own language. “Go show your lover you’re as tender as you are reckless.”
She turned him and gently pushed him away. The Slayer had kissed him, and called him brave: he retreated to the arms of his friends in triumph, and they carried him back to the fire to be feted and bandaged. Ethan watched them go, then went to Buffy. He bent his head to her, as was proper for her bond-servant to do in public.
“That one was good-looking,” he said, in English, smiling with one corner of his mouth. “Should have taken him.”
“And then what?” Buffy shrugged. They both knew well enough that Buffy could tolerate only Ethan and Giles in her bed. “Tired of the hero routine for tonight. We have a room?”
“I think we could have the whole inn if we wished. But yes, we have a room.”
“I’ll grab Giles and we’ll bail.”
The inn was a good one, built from stone and timber, with high ceilings and glass in the windows along the road. Their room was comfortable and the bed broad enough to hold the three of them comfortably. The gear from their horses was already waiting for them. Ethan flushed the fussing innkeeper out and away, and barred the door shut. Ripper pulled a chair away from the rough wooden table and slouched. He stretched his booted feet out toward the fire in the hearth. Ethan slung his pack into the far corner of the room. He set the bottle on the table, next to Buffy’s sword.
“Spoils of war,” Ethan said. “Whiskey. Or the local equivalent.”
Ripper examined the marks on the bottle. “Ah. The name of the village is Life-Water’s Heart. Or something like that. Puzzled me because neither of the rivers is named that.”
“Whether it’s Latin or Gaelic or the tongue of demons, it’s always the same.”
“What are you two talking about?”
Ethan held up the bottle to her. “The word that ‘whiskey’ comes from, in our world, means water of life. They call this stuff the water of life here, too.”
“Is it good?”
Buffy took the bottle from him and cut the wax seal away with her boot knife. She held the bottle to her nose and sniffed, then splashed their clay cups full. The three toasted each other. Ethan sniffed, then tasted. The whiskey was better than good; it was good enough that Ethan understood why the village was named for it. Dark, smoky, smooth, and biting. Buffy smiled as she swallowed and Ethan mirrored her. She tipped her head back and drained her cup.
Ethan liked Buffy, to his eternal surprise. He wasn’t sure what she made of him in return, but so long as Ripper was there it didn’t much matter. Their two hearts beat as one when it came to Ripper.
“Slainte, and may the women live forever,” said Ethan, and he lifted his cup to Ripper. To Rupert Giles the librarian, a broad-shouldered warrior in riding leathers and mail. Rupert raised his cup in return and drank. His eyebrows went up. He smiled for a moment, just a moment, then stripped off his surcoat. He dropped it onto the floor, where his gloves and sword belt already lay.
Ethan refilled Ripper’s cup, but he ignored it. Instead he turned his attention to Buffy’s sword. He unsheathed it and examined the blade. It was a terrifying and lovely thing, that dark-glowing sword, forged in magical fire and quenched in human blood. Only someone with inhuman strength could wield it, it was so broad. It was what she’d used to decapitate the demon-lord who’d trapped her soul. Ripper had promised the world’s true god to pay a price in more blood to get that sword forged, and now they paid it. One demon at a time, one day at a time, a year for every innocent life they’d taken, until their debt was discharged and the world-gate open to them again.
Revenge was a twisty thing. Ethan drained his cup and contemplated his blood-lord, his lover, bending over the artifact he had paid for so dearly. Ripper tutted. Out came the whetstone. The sound of it sliding down the blade was familiar to Ethan now, and comforting.
There were other routines they had after combat. If Giles needed occupation for his hands, Buffy would need another sort of occupation. She, like Giles, had already shed her weaponry. Ethan preferred his own role. Sorcery in this world didn’t need forty pounds of metal and leather hanging from his body. His bare hands and his mind were enough. And they would be enough for the rest of the night. He joined Buffy on the edge of the bed and slipped his arm around her.
“That was nice work earlier,” Buffy said to him. “With the flock of crows luring him. The terrain advantage mattered.”
“Thank you,” Ethan said.
And that was all the seduction and sweet talk he would ever get from her. Buffy wrapped her hand around the back of his neck and pulled his head down to her. She kissed him. She was hot to the touch, Slayer-normal. Ethan wondered what the young man she’d kissed earlier had thought to have this hot tongue in his mouth, these fiery fingers on the back of his neck. Dark, smoky, biting. Ethan knew what he thought. He liked it. He liked Buffy’s directness, her willingness to reach out and take what she wanted from him, and her sweet smile when he gave it to her freely. He liked the way she licked his throat while she tugged at the lacings of his shirt. A fine shirt, crimson silk, the twin of hers.
Black leather, crimson silk, argent cross. Buffy’s livery, as chosen by Ripper. Fallen crusaders, the three of them.
Ethan knelt and unlaced her boots for her. She held her cup to his lips and he drank. Pulled her boots from her feet and set them aside. Unlaced her leather breeches. Unbuttoned her silk shirt. Laid her bare. His lord’s lady, the prize they had won, the war-god they had freed: the Slayer.
Naked, Buffy was as vulnerable as the sword in Ripper’s hands. She was all taut muscle rippling under tattooed skin. Steel glittered where she’d been pierced, nipples and navel, ears and nose. None of that had been voluntary, but she’d suffered the marks to remain after she’d been freed. Reminders, she’d said, that every demon in this world needed killing. Ethan wondered if she’d retain them when they returned through the world-gate, if any of them would retain their augmented power, their youthful potency. Would they want the life they returned to on the other side without this magic?
Ripper had likely never troubled over that question. He’d had one unswerving goal the entire miserable time. Rescue his Slayer. Return his Slayer to her own dimension. He’d give all this up in an instant to see her sitting in a university classroom again. Ethan admired his certainty.
Ethan undressed himself under Buffy’s impatient watch. His own body was nearly unmarked. He had the scar across his palm and the tiny brand on his cheek, both Ripper’s marks, both willingly received the night before the two of them had crossed the gate to come here. Ritual exchange of sweat, blood, and semen, fire and power, and Ripper had taken ownership of him. Those things he’d keep on the other side, because they’d been given to him there. No matter what had happened to mire them here, he had never regretted that decision. And never would.
He rejoined Buffy on the bed. Ripper was still fussing with the sword, rubbing it with oil. He wasn’t paying the least attention to them, at least on the surface. Buffy shrugged at Ethan and pulled him down to lie with her skin to skin. Ethan kissed her lips and let his hand wander to her breast. It was no effort at all to call the power to him and trickle it from his fingers. It grounded itself in the rings piercing her. Buffy gasped and arched upward. Her nipples stiffened. Ethan touched glowing fingers to her body and heard her breath catch. It only needed the least touch of magic to charge the rings and awaken them to their purpose. Pain or pleasure or, at this moment, merely the thrill of arousal. Merely?
Ripper was watching them now, whiskey in hand. Ethan caught his eye and smirked, then bent his head to Buffy’s breasts. His lord wanted to watch, so Ethan would put the both of them on display. Lick the ring, take it delicately in his teeth, tug, and make her cry out. Buffy was writhing under him, already spreading her legs wide to entice him lower.
He kissed his way down to her navel and the stone she wore there, his own handiwork, a rune of defense. No one Buffy did not want could touch her ever again, not while she wore that stone. Ethan kissed the stone and thrust his tongue into her navel. Buffy giggled and dug her fingers into his hair. She pushed at his head, urging him further down. Down to her sweet quim, already wet, already open. Ethan pressed another kiss against her and sighed with his own secret joy.
Buffy was a woman now, nothing more and nothing less. She was human like this. Her scent was the scent of human sex. It was the only time she was allowed to be herself, here alone with the two of them, with the door barred shut. That was why she could never accept the boy who’d offered himself earlier, nor any of the others who’d prostrated themselves before her in gratitude. He’d have trembled and wept and not dared to do what she needed done. Ethan pushed rude hands against her thighs and spread her further open for his convenience. His convenience, her pleasure. What she needed, what Ethan was, a lover who didn’t fear her.
The bed creaked. Ripper had joined them at last. Ethan glanced up. Ripper was whispering to Buffy, sliding his already naked body alongside her. His hand was cupped over her breast. He kissed her neck. Buffy closed her eyes and moaned. Ethan closed his own eyes and concentrated on what he was doing to Buffy’s body. Tongue on clit, on the ring that rubbed against it, fingers inside her. Ripper’s voice urging her on, telling her what he felt about her, sweet sentimental Rupert. Rupert’s duty, Ethan’s duty, their mutual joy, serving their wanton god, the woman straining in their arms, gasping and begging and at last shuddering.
She lay quietly in Ripper’s arms afterward, while he stroked her hair. Ethan sprawled on his side and watched them. The expression on Ripper’s face was tender. As Ripper owned him, so Buffy owned Ripper. Or so Ethan suspected. Ripper had always changed the subject when Ethan had tried to ask about the Watcher magic. Whatever it was, it had been powerful enough to fling him across the barrier between worlds to rescue her, powerful enough to make him lose his grip on sanity when thwarted.
Buffy disentangled herself from Ripper’s embrace and rose. Ethan watched her move across the room. The tattooing covered her left shoulder and ran down the left edge of her spine. Ethan wondered, idly, what she had looked like naked before she had it. He had never particularly liked tattoos after his own disastrous experience with them, but this one suited Buffy. The ink followed the lines of her muscles and laid her power bare. The artist had been a fine one, though his skill hadn’t earned him mercy from a Ripper bent on vengeance.
Buffy refilled the cup with liquor and carried it back to the bed. She drank, then held it for Ethan to drink. Whiskey-warmth, spreading down his throat and in his belly. Ethan licked his lips. Woman and whiskey. The waters of life, flowing. He let her tip the cup to his lips again, then set it aside so he could kiss her and let her taste herself on his tongue. Buffy turned away from him to give the cup to Ripper.
Ethan wiped his face and relaxed back onto the bed. He caressed himself idly, dreaming about Buffy’s body as it must have been. Had Ripper ever seen it unmarked? Ethan thought not.
Ripper’s weight shifted. His knees nudged against Ethan’s face. Ethan blinked his eyes open. Lovely sight, Ripper’s cock, inches away, as hard and unsatisfied as Ethan’s own. Ethan licked his lips almost involuntarily.
Ripper stroked his face and let his hand come to rest on Ethan’s shoulder. “May I?” he said.
It was Ripper’s right, in this world, to take what he wanted from his blood-servant. But Rupert Giles was an Englishman, not a feudal warlord, no matter what he wore. He was their hold on civilization. Buffy would have gone over the edge long before without Giles, and Ethan knew he’d have followed her eagerly. Giles held on, and treated all humans as if they were free men and women. He took Ethan only with caresses. Bit of a change, that, from how he’d been when Ethan had first met him, fresh from a bar fight, knuckles bleeding, rowdy cocky rough trade shoving an eager Ethan to his knees.
But Ripper’s fingers were already slippery with oil, and so was his cock. It wasn’t Ethan’s mouth he wanted tonight. Ethan smirked again, and rolled onto his face.
“Why do you bother asking?” he said into the sheets. “Get on with it.”
Ripper wasted no time. One rough thrust and Ethan was taken, whether he was ready or not.
How often had he lain like this with Ripper astride his thighs, hand on the back of his neck, cock sheathed deep inside him? But now there was Buffy lying beside him, stroking the hair away from his sweaty face, kissing his neck, his cheek, his mouth. Buffy’s eyes meeting his, her whisper in his ear telling him he was beautiful. It was a fine thing to be appreciated properly. Perhaps she liked him after all, as a man and not just as the sorcerer who tricked her enemies upon her command. Ethan kissed her and groaned into her mouth. Arched his back and pushed back against Ripper.
“Is he beautiful too?”
Buffy glanced behind him. Her pupils were wide. “Too fierce for that. Too intense. Not like you.”
“He’s beautiful. You know it.”
“Do you ever take him like this?”
“No,” Ethan said, with some difficulty. “That’s not how it works.”
“He’s about to come,” Buffy said. Her gaze was fixed on Ripper. Ethan expected her to leave him and hold Ripper while he was in the throes, but she stayed with him instead, kissed him while Ripper went still and groaned.
Ripper flung himself onto his back on the bed. He was breathing hard and his face was wet with sweat. A lovely sight, that, Ethan’s lover exhausted, satisfied, pleased enough with Ethan’s body that he had spent himself inside it. Both of his lovers were satisfied. Ethan was sore, well-used, pleased with himself, and now almost desperately aroused. He knelt up between the two of them and took his cock in hand to finish himself off.
Buffy’s fingers closed around his wrist, almost hard enough to bruise. Almost.
“No. Allow me.”
Allow, she said, as if she were giving him a choice. Buffy did not share Giles’s scruples about power, and she knew that Ethan liked that. He relaxed into Ripper’s arms, lay back against his broad chest, and watched Buffy settle herself between his knees. His turn to spread his legs wide for her, to hope he enticed her into licking him, into taking him into her mouth. She smiled at him before indulging him. Was that affection on her face or was he imagining it? Wishful thinking. He ought to purge himself of all sentimentality. Though even as he formed this thought, Ripper closed his arms around him tight.
Ethan let his head fall back against Ripper’s shoulder. Buffy’s mouth was a marvel. The thought came to him that they’d trained her well. Guilty thought. They’d paid for their sacrilege at his hands and Ripper’s. The true god had judged those lives justly forfeit.
Ethan reached up a hand for Ripper’s. Ripper laced his fingers through Ethan’s and held on tight. “Go on, then,” he said, whispering into Ethan’s ear. Ethan went, held safe between the two of them. Safe, between the world’s two most dangerous warriors. Their very gaze was death to the soulless, it was said, and it was as close to truth as made no difference.
Not tonight. Tonight, they’d drink the rest of the bottle and then sleep. Strong drink, desperate sex, and tomorrow they’d ride up the river to do it again. And again. A lifetime to go, and pray only Ripper could lead them home when it was done.