The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Four - The Wild Huntsman
They were by no means striking a direct path to the ancient road. Instead their course seemed on the diagonal, leading them to the northwest, or so Duo thought. If anyone again claimed that knights were reckless and hungered for danger, Duo would avow they were the very models of caution.
A drop of rain splashed on Duo's cheek, and he looked up to the sky. It was growing darker by the minute and soon he would not be able to tell if it were night or day. He tucked his braid inside his cloak and pulled the hood over his head.
"What was that?" he asked, as he looked about. There was another whoosh followed quickly by a splintering sound.
"Get down!" Sir Yuy demanded, wide-eyed.
Duo obeyed almost instinctively, though he did not understand the danger. He leant forward grabbing his horse's neck and mane. The knight took the reins from him and led their horses into a gallop. Duo's heart pounded. The danger was real. The knight had been right to be cautious, and Duo now regretted his foolhardy toast at the inn.
The horse moved uneasily over the rough terrain, and suddenly stopped. Duo peeked from under his hood to see five horsemen moving towards them as if emerging from the very trees. They were bandits with drawn swords, and one with a bow. Duo cringed. The threatening sound had been that of an arrow, passing close to his person and connecting with a tree.
He looked to the knight, expecting to see his sword drawn as well. Instead, Sir Yuy seemed at ease, his hands clasped about the horses' reins.
"What have we here?" one man said, his mouth curled in a sneer. "City dwellers lost in the wood."
Duo opened his mouth to protest, but the knight held out his hand, silencing him before a peep was heard. Their eyes met briefly and Duo took some comfort in the young man's steady gaze.
The ruffians drew closer, and from the coarse, dark wool they wore, Duo thought them commoners, but they carried their weapons with confidence. He began to fear these were not simple thieves, but men who had fought in the Crusades. Trained soldiers turned rogue.
"There is a toll for passing through these woods," a man with a heavy beard said.
"By whose authority?" Knight Yuy asked.
The ruffians laughed, and it was then that Duo thought one looked familiar. Could it be one or more of these men had been at the inn last night?
"Now give us our due," the scruffiest one of the lot said. He eyed Duo and the knight carefully.
"We are only travelers," Duo said, panic rising in his gut.
"You are noblemen and will pay before continuing your journey."
Duo was hardly of noble birth, but certainly his attire suggested wealth. "I have but naught to give." He had only brought a change of clothes and little else of value.
"Then let your family pay," the man said, leaning over to take the reins of Duo's horse.
Knight Yuy drew his sword, pointing it at the man. "You dare not."
"What is this? A protector?" the man laughed. "The boy must be valuable indeed!"
Duo shot the knight a worried look, but his escort's eyes were focused hard on the other man.
"Put your sword away," the leader said. "You are outnumbered five to one. Leave him for us to ransom and go on your way. No one will think less of you."
Duo's eyes widened at the mention of taking him away to be ransomed. Henri Blois wouldn't pay ten francs for his safe return, but the Duke would surely hand over Duo's weight in gold. Perhaps these men had followed them. That night at the inn, Duo had spoken Treize's name with no concern for prying ears. If only it wasn't his nature to be brash and speak out of turn. Why couldn't he have followed the knight's example and sat stoically while enjoying his meal?
By all rights, Sir Yuy should abandon his charge now and leave Duo to his fate.
"All know the roads are dangerous," the bandit continued to the knight. "You were brave to bring him this far, now leave him to us. Say you were overwhelmed by outlaws. It happens every day."
"Not to me it doesn't," the knight said.
Duo's breath caught at the dark-haired knight's challenging words. What did he hope to accomplish-their deaths?
The rogue leader and the knight stared each other down. The very forest seemed to be silenced by the intensity in their eyes and their wills. Duo sensed the tension coiling within them. The fact that the thieves hesitated gave him some hope. Perhaps they would let them pass? Then the leader flicked his hand, and his underling grasped the reins of Duo's horse, and pulled the horse toward him.
Instantly, Knight Yuy was in motion, his sword a blur as it sliced the air, severing the reins and freeing the horse. The knight spurred his mount and with a quick blow hit the archer with the flat of his sword, knocking the man from his horse. The archer landed on the forest floor with a thud, causing birds to take wing from a nearby bush.
The knight positioned his horse between Duo and the rogues, extending his sword toward the attackers. "Let that be a warning."
The captain of the band spurred his horse forward several steps, testing the knight's resolve and showing no fear. "What be your name, sir?" When the knight did not respond the leader laughed. "If I do not know your name, how will my minstrels sing it when you are dead?"
"You are the one who will be dead," the knight said.
A chill raced through Duo. He had never been this close to a confrontation of swords. He believed the knight's conviction, but the odds were not good, they had never been good. And now the rain was falling steadily, turning the ground to mud. Should he spur his horse and try to outrun them? But he didn't know these woods, and part of him didn't want to leave Knight Yuy alone in this fight.
Suddenly, the leader rushed the knight, and his men followed, swords clashing with a terrible clang. Duo watched in awe as the knight took on all four swordsmen. The archer, too, was trying to regain his mount, and Duo, seeing a chance to intervene, took up the shortened reins, spurred his horse, and grabbed the man's cloak, pulling him back. The man fell under the horse's hooves and cried out as the animal walked over him.
With one man down, Duo hung back, watching anxiously as the fight waged. He was desperate to do some good, but to wade into the middle of a sword fight without a weapon was suicide. He would wait for another chance. The knight was fast, strong and well trained. His ability to knock a man from his steed was amazing as another fell to the ground. There could be no doubt he was a champion at the jousting festivals.
The knight took the fight deeper into the woods, seeming to be luring the men away from Duo. He slid from his horse, smacking the animal's rump to move it away from the fight. Duo gasped in fear. A man on the ground was no match for a horse and rider.
The men charged the now seemingly defenseless knight. Duo's heart was in his throat as he watched in horror the knight's impending death. But in a heartbeat, the knight took down another man, his sword plunging into the man's side and knocking him from his horse.
Only two horsemen remained, but one of the men who had been knocked down earlier was unharmed and getting to his feet. Duo had to do something. It was three against one, and no matter his escort's superior abilities, those odds were not in his favor. Scanning the ground, he found one of the swords that had fallen. He dismounted his horse and hurried to the weapon nestled in the leaves. His heart pounded as he reached for the double-edged sword, taking it by the grip and holding it out before him. It was heavy, but the knowledge of how to hold it came back to him. A Crusader had taught him how to wield a sword with some authority, but Duo had never used one in a fight. Now wasn't the time for doubt or for wishing he had encouraged the man to spend more time in swordplay.
The fight waged in the distance, the clang of metal on metal echoing in the woods. Duo followed the sound, rushing towards it to find that all men were now on foot. The rogues had the knight surrounded. One, two and three at a time they swung at him, but somehow the knight blocked or sidestepped each strike.
Duo's brow knitted, seeing the knight's growing fatigue. He knew it was foolhardy to wade into the struggle, but if he distracted just one man it would better the odds for his champion. Taking a deep, shaky breath, Duo moved toward the grouping and was quickly seen. As he hoped, one of the men broke away to pursue him.
"Nay!" the knight shouted, but he could not disengage from the challenge at hand.
That protest sent a spike of fear through Duo, and for a brief moment his resolve faltered. But the ruffian had set his sights on him and was approaching with a snarl curling his lips. Duo swallowed hard and said a quick prayer. This had to work.
The man circled him. "You're a pretty one. This fight is no place for you."
"Nor you and your friends. The knight is besting you."
"Ha! This will end the moment I grab you."
Duo stepped back, realizing the man was right. The knight would not risk Duo getting injured.
The ruffian cut an "X" in the air with his sword. "Come here little one."
Duo held the sword before him, his eyes wide with fear and inexperience. All he need do was stay out of striking distance and occupy the man's time. Bettering the odds for the knight was the only way they both would survive.
~ ~ ~
Heero swung hard again, making contact with one man's sword. The blow reverberated through his arm. These men were well trained, but individually no match for him. If not for their numbers and their unified strikes, Heero would have dispatched them by now.
At the moment, he had the added distraction of his charge wading into the fray. What had possessed the youth to tempt fate? Heero had this fight under control. He had faced worse odds, but the upstart wouldn't know that.
The fool, he thought, angrily. How am I supposed to protect him now?
Again and again, the knight cut and thrust at his opponents. They were tiring, but he knew this fight would not end until they were dead. Both men suffered wounds from his blade, but not enough to stop their relentless attacks. With only two left to fight him, Heero's odds had improved greatly. He was able to strike twice as often and twice as hard. Soon he was overtaking them, his greater skill and strength dominating the fight. Their blows struck with less force, and they staggered on their feet-at last giving him a chance to end this.
With rage in his heart, Heero lunged at the leader, his eyes locked on the man as he stabbed him through the stomach. The man cried out, his eyes registering shock and pain. He fell quickly to his knees, and as Heero withdrew his steel blade, fell face down into the dirt.
The man's cohort stumbled back, tripping over an exposed tree root, and landing on his backside. He shook his head as Heero approached. "Please, sir knight..."
Heero's eyes narrowed. He was in no mood for mercy. If he let this one go there was no guarantee they would not meet again further down the road and with more companions in tow.
"May God have mercy on your soul," he said and raised his sword.
The man held up his hand defensively, and just as Heero was about to snuff him out he heard a cry. Heero looked over his shoulder, holding still as he listened. There... again, he heard it. It was the Duke's lover.
With a growl he swung the blade down, gashing the man's leg. The moment of death passed, and so the rogue had received the undue mercy.
Heero turned quickly, gathering his strength to run to Duo's aid. He had no idea what he would face when he found him. Was he injured? Was he captured and being taken for ransom? He crossed the spot where they had stopped. One of the horses stood grazing on clumps of grass, and the archer lay several yards away, unconscious or dead. In the distance, Heero heard the commotion. There was definite movement ahead. Surveying the ground, he retrieved the archer's weapon and was in motion again.
Just beyond the ridge he spotted Duo struggling with one of the rogues. The man was trying to restrain him, but Duo was doing his best to kick and break free. Heero paused. If he approached would the man threaten Duo's life? At present he only seemed interested in subduing Duo in order to kidnap him. With a little patience, Heero could take the man out and save Duo in one breath.
He crept behind a large oak, peering out at the scene. The man was large, twice the size of the Duke's lover, and thankfully unaware of the fate of his comrades. He held his sword, and with the other arm had Duo in a vice-like grip, practically dragging him.
Heero tucked his sword into its scabbard, and drew the bow into position. It was a risk he did not wish to take, but what choice did he have? He could not barter for Duo's release and if he startled the brigand, Duo could be injured or killed.
Heero calmed his racing pulse, focusing on the pair moving between the trees. Duo looked stressed and frightened. Again, Heero thought the youth foolish, but part of him now also thought him brave. Duo had purposely lured one of the men away, risking himself.
With the bow taut and the arrow rested on his hand, Heero waited for his mark. He had one chance, possibly two to take the man down. The moment reminded him of a hunt some years ago. The young King of France had visited his father seeking an alliance. The pact was sealed with a wild boar hunt in the King's honor. The hunting party went out at dawn, but Heero broke away from the group. He had a sense for wild things and knew his father's lands well. He tracked the boar and was ready to make the kill when the King appeared several yards away. He sensed the Royal had followed him, not able to track the beast on his own, but recognizing the youth's abilities. Heero had bowed his head in deference to the throne and watched the King's arrow make a clean kill. It was Heero's kill to make, but his sense of duty was exceptionally strong. The King knew it then, and the Duke knew it now.
He stood frozen and at the ready, never more intent on his goal. Every step Duo and the rogue made, and every snap of a twig under their feet, Heero noticed. Then the moment came. Somehow Duo managed to get his leg between the man's, tripping him up. The rogue stumbled forward, though not completely releasing Duo. He turned, righting himself, and raised his sword as though about to strike Duo with its pommel.
"Mark," Heero said, and the arrow was set free.
It soared, spinning to its target, and struck the man in the left shoulder, sending him lurching forward in pain. It was enough for Duo to break free.
Heero stepped into the open as he armed the bow again. The man saw him now, and stared at him as if hoping to weaken Heero's resolve.
"You were warned," the knight said, releasing the next arrow. It struck the man in the neck, knocking him to the ground instantly.
~ ~ ~
Duo gaped at the rogue's body from several paces away, disbelieving him dead. The way the man had handled him, his strong hands capable of breaking him, Duo had feared for the worst. But now the man was still; not even a breath rose in his chest.
He looked up, blinking the raindrops from his eyes. The knight was standing before him, wet, muddy and heroic. No one had ever saved Duo's life before, and he felt unable to express his gratitude fully.
"Thank you," he said, but the words were inadequate.
The knight nodded in acknowledgement but seemed distracted. He leant forward and took the rogue's sword, examining its blade as he turned it over. "The crest is not familiar to me."
Duo concentrated, trying to hear the knight over the sound of the pounding rain. It rushed over him, falling through the trees with a heavy rustling. He tilted his head back, letting the drops hit his face fully and cool his burning cheeks, and then the world spun. He faltered, and the knight rushed to him, taking him in his arms.
"Are you injured?"
Duo swallowed, and focused hard on the knight's face. The unsteadiness dissipated quickly. "The excitement...." The arms around him were warm and strong, but they did not crush him or dominate him like the rogue's had. "Gentle, sir... I am well."
The knight shook his head. "Be still." He guided Duo to a tree, setting him down at its base. "You need rest. Wait here while I retrieve the horses."
Duo watched with some distress as the knight disappeared into the woods, leaving him alone with the dead man. It was foolish to be overcome now, suddenly weak after such bravery, but he surmised it was the rush of blood through his veins that had done it. He was not used to facing death. His eyes drifted over the lifeless form and he imagined that in time the rain would dissolve him from this place. That if he watched long and hard the man would melt and fade into the mud before his eyes.
Moments later the knight returned with their horses.
"Are you well enough to ride?"
"Yea, I can manage." Duo raised himself, leaning on the tree trunk only as a precaution. He felt a hundred times better, despite his embarrassment. "That's never happened to me before."
"It is understandable."
The kind words bolstered Duo who mounted his horse with only the slightest hesitation. They were under way again, and an odd silence fell over them. Perhaps it was death making them quiet, reflective... and thankful.
He looked to the knight, to his champion. The man sat upright, stalwart on his horse, calm after the battle. Was it second nature to him to kill? He was certainly trained to do exactly that. What must it be like to face men in battle? To be surrounded by the sights, sounds and scent of death? Duo had heard stories of war, of brave men fighting to the last, but until today, he had never witnessed its savagery. The few jousts and swordplay he had attended, even the ones where injuries had been sustained, were civilized affairs compared to the fierce hand-to-hand combat that had taken place here. He wanted to speak, put to words the tangle of emotions he was feeling, but instead he remained silent.
They rejoined the ancient road, following it until it met the main highway. Duo was surprised when they took up the new road, galloping the horses despite the continued rain. Perhaps it was a lingering fear that drove them at this speed and along this path-a fear that there could be more brigands, more trouble at any time.
At last they came upon a village, and the knight took them off the highway and onto a cow path. The trail was muddy and curved with the contours of the land. It eventually passed alongside a peasant's cottage and small barn. The knight stopped their progress and dismounted, going to the door and knocking loudly several times. The wooden door opened slowly and Duo could barely make out the features of an old wrinkled face, looking out into the rain.
"Good man, we need shelter for the night."
The peasant's eyes were wide. "We have but a small house."
Heero nodded. "Pray use of your barn. I will pay for your trouble. You need not be frightened. We will be on our way by first light."
The knight's words were confident and direct, but his voice held an almost gentle tone. Certainly he could see the man's fear and knew that peasants were justified in their suspicions of well dressed strangers. At last the old man relented with a final plea that this was the home of a poor, God-fearing family.
Knight Yuy took the horses' reins and led them to the barn. Duo dismounted and went inside with some trepidation. None of the buildings were well tended and the barnyard looked bleak with the mud.
Inside, after tying the horses to a post, the knight climbed a ladder to check the hayloft. "We can sleep here."
Duo nodded. He was pleased to be out of the rain and out of sight. He checked the stalls; there were three, the first two were empty, but the third held a brown cow. "Good fortune. She is a milk cow," he said with satisfaction. "Would you care for some?"
The knight stood behind him now. "You know how to milk a cow?"
"Yea. Why should that surprise you?" The knight shrugged and Duo smiled as he ran his hand along the cow's back, petting the dusty coat. "She looks in good health, despite her surroundings." He tossed his cloak back from his arms and squatted next to her, continuing the caress. He blew on each hand and then rubbed them together, before running them over her udder. "It's important to have warm hands when you do this."
With a test squeeze of one tit, Duo found that the cow indeed had milk to give. He bent low, pointing the tit towards his mouth and squirted the warm, white liquid onto his waiting tongue. After a quick swallow he laughed and looked over his shoulder. "You'll need to get down here if you want some."
The knight knelt on one knee in the straw, bending low as Duo encouraged. With a bright smile, Duo squeezed the tit, shooting milk into the young man's mouth, and some on his cheek, until the knight held up his hand for him to stop.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and smiled. "You have a way with cows."
"Why thank you, sir. Would you care for more?"
"Perhaps we should enjoy the milk with our meal? I'll get the pack from my horse."
As Heero got up, his cloak fell away from his left arm, revealing a dark red stain.
"Are you injured?" Duo asked.
The knight followed Duo's eyes to his arm. "It is nothing."
"Why didn't you tend to it?" Duo took the knight's hand and encouraged him to move away from the cow to a comfortable patch of straw in the next stall. Heero settled on the straw and Duo unclasped his cloak and knelt before him to have a better look.
"I say it is nothing."
"You saved my life. Allow me this kindness."
Duo looked into the young man's dark eyes, but did not back down from their intensity. He gently pulled the torn and blood soaked fabric away from the knight's forearm. Indeed, he had been cut in the fight, but the wound was not deep and seemed to have stopped bleeding. "I will bandage it to keep it clean." Duo worked quickly, tearing the hem from his tunic, and wrapping it around the knight's arm. He tied it in a knot and smiled. "I know it's not much---"
"Those men were well trained. I should have been more careful."
"The odds were against you, but you prevailed." Duo smiled, gratitude swelling inside him once again. "You were magnificent."
The knight looked at him with something akin to surprise. "You need not flatter me for seeing my duty through. It is I who should be complimenting you."
Duo shook his head. "Whatever for, sir?"
"You showed an uncommon bravery for someone unused to battle."
"Then you are not angry?"
"If you had been the one to be injured, yea, I would be angry."
"I brought this danger on us by wishing for trouble."
"Nay," the knight said firmly. "Those rogues roam the countryside in search of prey." He placed his hand over Duo's, and fixed his eyes upon him. "It may work to our advantage having encountered them."
Duo looked at the hand on his and blushed. He was overcome by its warmth and tenderness. This closeness, this sudden friendship seemed right. After what they had endured together he felt an uncommon bond blossom inside him. He leaned in, wanting to be closer.
"Sir knight..." the words fell away. There was nothing more to say. He pressed his lips against the knight's, kissing him lightly, almost chaste in purpose.
He pulled back slightly to look into the man's eyes and when he was not pushed away, Duo leaned in again. Their hands remained entwined and Duo deepened the kiss. It was a dream, a wonderful dream, all warm and unexpected. Then it stopped.
The knight pulled back with suspicion shadowing his eyes. "What trick do you play?"
"Do you thank all who come to your aid in such a manner?"
Duo gasped. "I am no whore, sir."
"You would do well to keep your charms contained for the Duke."
Duo swallowed. In hindsight, it had been wrong to kiss him, but in the moment it had seemed right. "I did not mean to shame you. I would never tell---"
The knight got to his feet and looked down at Duo who still knelt in the straw. If not for the blush on the young man's cheeks, Duo would think he disliked the kiss. But the man said no more and retreated to his horse where he gathered their food with great alacrity. He handed a portion of bread, cheese and roasted pheasant to Duo, and then took his share outside the shelter of the barn to stand under the eave, watching the rain.
Duo stared after him, dumbfounded. Why had he kissed him? Certainly he had desired to thank the knight properly for saving his life, but a kiss? Duo wanted to explain that he had not meant to embarrass or compromise the knight and his mission, but the moment had been so soft between them. Knight Yuy had been kind, complimenting him, speaking to him almost as an equal. Then Duo had kissed him, and the man had been willing... at first. He had accepted the kiss for a brief moment.
He tried to soothe his guilt with the notion that the knight had liked the kiss, but it was no use. The man had scolded him and rightly so; those kisses were reserved for another. Knight Yuy had been too shocked to react immediately to the advance. After all, the art of kisses was far more cunning than the art of battle.
~ ~ ~
With the barn door closed behind him, and the cool air on his cheeks, Heero felt in control of himself again. What had happened in there? Why had he let the youth get so close? He had vowed after seeing him naked that he would not be distracted again, that he would guard against Duo's charms. That was easier said then done.
No matter how Heero had tried, his eyes drifted to Duo. He reasoned that it was his duty to look after him, that he needed to know where the boy was at all times, but that was a lie. He wanted to look at Duo. He wanted to see the quirk of his mouth hiding a smile, and to see the long strands of chestnut hair spill over his shoulders.
Heero closed his eyes. He was lost. Everything about Duo intrigued him-his violet gaze, his mannerisms, his indignation at Heero's demands. The young man was spirited, independent, and after today's demonstration, certainly brave. But that kiss had sealed Heero's fate. Though he could not be sure of Duo's intentions, Heero had felt his own heart beating as if for the very first time. That kiss had warmed him like no hearth ever had.
It was complete folly and treachery to feel this way. The Duke had entrusted him, in part, because he knew beauty and riches were not a temptation to Heero, and that of all his host, Heero was most focused on duty and life by the sword. Dread overcame him, remembering the Duke's lavish praise before he set-off on this journey. He had failed his liege. Even after he delivered Duo Maxwell into the Duke's arms this mission would be a failure.
He had succumbed.
He had broken his knight's vow.