The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Three - Wanderlust
At the first light of day, Duo sighed in relief. The arduous night was finally over and he had made it through without being carried off by wolverines or demons.
"Perhaps we should stop at a pilgrim's shrine to make an offering?" Duo asked, eager to ease the feeling that they were running from something.
"This is not a pilgrimage."
They had shared no words for miles now, and Duo was tired of the isolation the lack of conversation and the oppressing night had brought. "Then we should stop to eat."
The knight looked over his shoulder and gave a nod.
A small victory, Duo thought.
They were far from the main road, having cut through a field to a narrow cow path that ran along a stream. Duo had watched the play of moonlight on the water most of the night, but had taken little enjoyment in it. His thoughts were too crowded with fear. He had kept that fear to himself and now looked back with pride. He had survived to tell the tale.
At the top of a hill, they dismounted their horses, stretching their legs for the first time in hours. They could see for miles which seemed to be the knight's intention for choosing this vantage point to rest.
The knight untied a bag from the horse's saddle and handed it to Duo. "There's food enough for the both of us."
Duo opened the woolen bag and smiled. "Why sir, you've brought a bit of home with you."
Indeed, Sir Yuy had gathered fare from the Blois family's table. Wrapped in the cloth were apples, nuts, wheat bread, slices of roasted pheasant, and a large wedge of cheese. He had planned well.
Sitting on the grassy hill, Duo watched the knight use his dagger to cut into the bread and cheese, handing him a piece of each. The knight took slices also, but walked off a distance and stood eating as he surveyed the land. Duo frowned. If things continued in this vein it would make for a very long and boring journey. He imagined the knight had seen many things in his travels and it was a shame not to share them. Except for his arrogance, he seemed nothing like a knight of the realm. All the others Duo had occasion to meet or to observe were chivalrous or had the sense to pretend to be. Despite his youthful appearance, this knight's eyes shone with the intensity of years on the battlefield. He seemed to trust no one.
Perhaps he has seen more than he cares to share, Duo thought.
After the short repast, they were back on their horses and cutting through fields. Occasionally they came upon peasants toiling there. Worn, dirty faces looked up at them, curiosity swirling in their eyes, but none foolish enough to question the well-dressed traveler and his armed escort.
It was well past mid-day when they came upon a small village where they found an inn serving hot rabbit stew, fresh bread and ale. Duo was eager to take another break. He had never ridden a horse for that long and it felt marvelous to climb down and stretch his limbs. He mused that the horse was pleased as well, having been ridden at a walk and a gallop alternately to speed their journey.
Inside the inn the knight directed Duo to sit at the table closest the door. They were served promptly, and Duo tucked into his food, savoring each bite.
"Maybe we should rest here for the night?" Duo proposed.
"We cannot stop until nightfall. Tomorrow will be another full day's journey, and a half day's the next."
Duo nodded, knowing it was a great distance to the Duke's castle. "How long would this take traveling the main roads?"
"Twice as long. The roads are crowded and meander from village to village."
"But they're well used."
"We travel as the crow flies, cutting miles off our journey."
The knight turned his attention to several men being seated across the room, allowing Duo a moment to observe him. Sir Yuy was boyishly handsome with his dark hair, clean shaven face, and lean, muscular build. His clothes were finely tailored, but lacked the decorative touches common among nobility. He was proving to be a great curiosity.
Once their meals were consumed, they began their journey again, heading off the main road at a gallop. Duo's spirits were high. With a full stomach he could better engage the day, and began looking forward to his reunion with the Duke. A smile came to his lips. It had been a warm, sunny day such as this when he first met His Grace-or Treize as the man had preferred to be called by Duo. Treize had spied Duo across the room and arranged for them to meet in the countess's garden. There, the auburn haired nobleman had given Duo a rose and wanted to know everything about him. Duo had been embarrassed by the attention of one so grand, but also to reveal his humble background. Treize had been unaffected. "Titles matter not," he had said.
The next few days were a blur as Duo accompanied Treize on hunts, to banquets, even to visit an old man who had fought with the Duke's father. In those few moments when they were alone, Duo was struck by the man's romantic nature. He wanted to bed Duo, that was clear, but he wanted the moment to be perfect.
"Let us be satisfied with these kisses until I can bring you to my home."
It was hard for Duo to wait. He knew well the delights of such intimate play with men, but no one had ever courted him, at least not for more than an hour or two. And yet a powerful man such as Treize Khushrenada, a cousin to the King, who could snap his fingers and have anyone he chose had decided to court Duo over a period of months, sending him gifts and love letters that made Duo warm with the intimacy to come.
Treize had been prepared to take Duo back to the Khushrenada castle then, but things were not well in the countryside. There were large groups of bandits taking advantage of the unarmed and untrained populace, and Treize needed to focus on that crisis. But his promise to return was as good as any Duo had ever heard and so he had waited-until yesterday-when his escort had arrived.
Duo frowned, looking over at Sir Yuy. It was a shame they could not make this an adventure. Surely this type of journey warranted conversation and the bonds of friendship. Treize would want a story when they arrived. Over a great feast they could re-count their days traveling through the lawless countryside to bring two hearts together. It seemed the knight had no intention of getting to know a commoner. This journey was merely a requirement of duty, no more and no less.
The sun was setting and with no village in sight, Duo became nervous. Would they continue on all night? Again tempting the night devils to snatch them from this earthly plain?
"Will we stop soon?" Duo asked, the words croaking from his throat for lack of use.
"A small grove of trees will suffice as shelter for the night."
"Is there no village? No inn?"
The knight looked at him intently. "Too dangerous."
"And sleeping out in the open is not? Surely renting a room would be safer, and definitely warmer."
"Where there are people there is danger."
"But no one knows who we are. I understood when you wanted to leave Valence before dawn in the chance someone knew of our plans, but now... out here," Duo said, waving his arm. "Who would want to harm us?"
"We can't take that chance."
"You'd have me suffer lying on the ground, cold and tired? Surely a bed is not a repulsive thought to you. Or are you against all comforts?"
The knight did not answer.
"We've ridden all day, since before light. Doesn't reason tell us to get a good night's sleep and be on the road early on the morrow? Please, sir knight. Have mercy on your charge. I must look my best when we arrive at the castle."
The knight looked at him and then lifted his chin to the horizon. "There is a town some distance from here. But it will be well past dark before we arrive. There may be no rooms to have."
"I'm willing to take that chance," Duo said, triumphant.
~ ~ ~
As predicted, the sky was black when they arrived in the next village. It was not much more than a dozen buildings huddled together, the street dark save for the occasional lamplight spilling out from shuttered windows. It wasn't hard to find the inn, they just followed the sound of merrymaking. As they dismounted their horses, the door swung open flooding the darkness with light. A drunk stumbled out into the street and quickly slipped into the shadows.
The knight sighed in displeasure, and Duo supposed he was not accustomed to such establishments. He directed Duo to go inside while he stabled the horses and asked about a room for the night.
Duo grinned as he entered the public house. The crowded room felt safe, despite Sir Yuy's warning to the contrary. He found an open table near the hearth and ordered meat pies and ale from a large woman wearing an apron. With so many men around him, looking like travelers, he inquired to their destinations. Most were headed in the direction from which he had come-the market in Valance. He wished them well, a bit gleefully, grateful to be out of his stepfather's reach.
By the time his escort joined him, their meals and drinks had been served.
"Henri Blois will have spent the day shouting at the top of his lungs," Duo said, raising the pint of ale to his lips.
"Why is that?" the knight asked, examining his meat pie as though a live bird might fly out of it.
"I didn't take his stupid letters with me. Letters explaining why he should be the exclusive clothier of the Khushrenada household."
Deep, accusing eyes looked up at him. "This is a business transaction?"
Duo straightened his back, unsettled by that strong gaze. "Yea, but only to my stepfather. To me it is not. Though I am not so vain as to think Treize will keep me long."
"You will abstain from mentioning names in this place."
"Are there spies about?" Duo asked, joking.
The knight's eyes narrowed. "The same two men I saw this afternoon are at this very inn."
"And this is significant... how?"
"I do not expect you to understand."
"Again, you think me simple?"
"This is no game. If we are not vigilant and our journey quick then trouble will find us."
"Then here's to trouble," Duo said, lifting his pint higher.
The knight stared at him, watching him take a swig of the ale and then turned his eyes to the room-ever on guard. Duo shook his head. Enough with the dire warnings that made his head swim, and the relentless journey that made his ass ache. All he wanted was to enjoy his meat pie and to stretch out on the straw bed waiting for him upstairs.
Duo finished his meal quickly, not surprised that the knight kept pace. Lady Luck was on their side, since an attic room was still available. They were given a lighted candle to find their way, and he followed the knight up the stairs, and then up another set of much narrower stairs to the rented room. The knight opened the door first, stepping inside with the candle in hand.
"Let me know if you find any spirits," Duo chuckled as he followed closely. He watched as the room was carefully inspected, and the candle at last set in a holder on a small writing table. "Well?"
The young knight turned to face him. "The window gives us an alternate escape route. These accommodations are acceptable."
"Blessed be the saints!" Duo set his bag at the foot of the bed, and sat down, bouncing on the straw mattress. He could barely contain his excitement at sleeping in a real bed, even though the bed's ropes were a bit loose. He reached down and removed his ankle boots and then slipped out of his hose, wriggling his toes with a happy sigh. When he looked up, the knight was watching. "Don't tell me I have to sleep with my clothes on?"
Sir Yuy seemed to consider this and then turned to the window. "Do as you will. I'll sleep in the chair."
"Surely the bed is big enough for the both of us."
It was the custom for travelers to share beds, even strangers at a crowded inn would be glad to rest on the narrowest section of mattress with someone on either side. But when the nobleman did not respond, and remained with his back turned, Duo realized that this situation was like no other. This knight was escorting him into the Duke's arms. There could be no question as to his fidelity.
"I'm sorry," Duo said a bit humbly. "But let's get you a blanket---"
"My cloak will suffice."
Duo stared at the knight's back. Maybe he had judged this man unfairly. Instead of looking on him as impossibly rigid, arrogant and unsociable, perhaps some leeway was required. He was under a great deal of pressure, and obligated to a task most men would shun.
Now, stripped to only his shirt, Duo sat on the bed combing out his hair. The dusty road made him long for a bath, but tending to his hair would be enough. As he removed tangles he glanced at the knight. Sir Yuy had turned the wooden chair to face the door and the window, his profile outlined by the moonlit night. With his cloak over him and his feet propped up on a small table, Duo worried his escort had made a bad choice-even under these circumstances.
Sympathy in his heart, Duo retrieved his own brown cloak and walked over to the knight. "You'll catch a chill."
"I'll be fine."
"Nay, I think not." Duo leaned over, draping his cloak on top of the other.
The knight looked up at him, silent. Their eyes met as the gesture was completed.
"It's very little, I know, but I want you to be comfortable."
Duo smiled. "Good eventide, sir knight."
"Good eventide, sir."
~ ~ ~
Heero watched his charge turn to the bed. The young man stood before it, hesitating before pulling back the wool blanket. Then unexpectedly, Duo pulled his shirt off and over his head, revealing a lean and very naked, male body. Heero's breath caught. In the light of the quarter moon, Duo's pale form fairly glowed, his hair hanging down to the curve of his behind.
Blue eyes turned away, embarrassed. Why had he watched? And why were his cheeks now warm? The naked form was not unknown to him. It was common enough as armies moved across the countryside and men bathed in rivers. Perhaps it was the intimacy of the moment, and knowing that Duo belonged to another. That glimpse of the Duke's lover was a sin indeed, and Heero would do well not to let his eyes wander again.
As he heard Duo settle with a rustle of covers and straw, Heero breathed deeply, anxious for the morning light.
~ ~ ~
Heero's eyes blinked open before first light. His body was stiff from the awkward sleeping position, but he sat upright and stretched, working out the kinks. He looked to the young man sleeping with his back to him. As far as Heero was concerned, this rest had been a bad idea. He would bear no more complaints about the speed of their journey or the lack of hot meals. He was through making concessions. If all went well, they would reach the castle in another day and a half's ride.
"Good morrow," Heero said, standing next to the bed.
There was no movement.
A little louder this time, "I say good morrow."
Now the form beneath the blanket began to stir. With a yawn, Duo rolled onto his back, his eyes blinking open.
"Why should the morrow be so early?"
Heero swallowed a grin. "I will fetch our horses. Meet me outside at once."
"But the Angelus?" Duo sat up. The blanket fell to his waist, and his hair spilled over his shoulders.
Heero stepped back, feeling the warmth rush to his cheeks again. "I bid you..." He stumbled on his thoughts. What was this strange spell that seemed to be overtaking him?
"Yea?" Duo asked, his head tilting.
Heero straightened his shoulders, determined to stay in command. "Do not tarry." With that he spun on his heel and quit the room.
By some miracle, Duo was waiting when Heero arrived at the front of the inn with their horses. The innkeeper had not been happy to be rousted for the early departure, but knights were seldom questioned or delayed.
The pair was beyond the town limits when the Angelus bell resounded from a distant cathedral. A good start to what would surely be another long day.
~ ~ ~
With each mile, they were drawing nearer their destination, but the road they were on seemed ill-chosen. Travel along this crude road, ancient and all but forgotten amid the forest, made Duo only cling more strongly to the notion that the main highway was best. Why the knight preferred the company of trees to people was beyond reason.
To add insult to injury, his escort had once again taken to not speaking to him, or for that matter, looking at him. Duo thought they had made something of a connection last night. After his epiphany Duo had looked beyond his own discomforts and disappointments and sympathized with Sir Yuy. Was there not some sentiment in the knight's eyes when Duo had shared his cloak? And yet again they trudged along as though strangers.
Duo was about to point out this change in their relationship when the knight pulled up on his horse's reins and signaled for Duo to do the same.
"What is it?" Duo asked, wide-eyed.
"I saw movement ahead."
"It's probably peasants. They're the only ones foolish enough to use this road."
"Nay." The knight looked about, seeming to weigh his choices. "We should cut through the woods."
Duo sighed. That would take them twice as long as continuing on this path. "Sir, knight---"
"By my troth," the knight said, turning steely eyes on Duo. "You will do as I bid."
A chill raced up Duo's spine. Under normal circumstances he would have protested that tone, but there had been something more to it, an urgency Duo did not like. And so he bit his tongue as the knight spurred his horse to a gallop, heading off the ancient road and up an incline into the forest.
Duo followed and stayed alert, but his fears were getting the best of him. Out of the corner of his eyes the trees took on human form. He did not feel safe cutting through the dense woods, hanging on tightly to the reins as his horse dutifully followed the knight's as they navigated the uneven terrain. On and on they went, deeper into the green, away from the road and heading in a direction Duo knew not.
At last they emerged on a ridge that looked over a river valley. "The Rhône," Duo said, smiling.
The Khushrenada castle overlooked the Rhône River some miles yet to the north, but for the first time Duo felt that Treize was within reach. He was suddenly jubilant, feeling as if they'd made it through a great ordeal. Visions of feasts, hot baths, luxurious cloths, and passionate kisses filled his head. "Perhaps we should've cut through the woods sooner?"
"This path will not endure," the knight said. "The ridge is unstable from the rains and it would take us on a jagged course."
Duo's gaze lifted to the sky. Indeed the weather had changed, and rather quickly. The sunny skies of Valence were all but gone, replaced by gathering clouds. "We must find shelter before the storm."
"We must continue our journey," the knight said, flatly.
Duo frowned, but obediently encouraged his mare to follow. The woods enveloped them once again, and Knight Yuy seemed hesitant about returning to the ancient road. Thunder rumbled in the distance, prompting the knight to look up at the sky through the trees.
"Is there no faster way?" Duo pleaded.
The knight ignored him.
"Can we not return to the old road?" As uneven a surface as that had been, it was far better than meandering through the forest.
"It may not be safe."
"Sir, the only safety is to reach the castle at God's speed. This path will have us lost or carried away by wood nymphs." He could see the deliberation in the young man's eyes. "Perhaps those were nymphs you saw?"
The teasing only brought a frown to the knight's lips. "Keep pace."