The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Seventeen - On the Trail of Rogues
They met in the great hall, gathering around a table with a map of the region spread before them. Duo imagined this scene like those on the field of battle; the general and his men strategizing their attack. Though this attack was not to come at all, at least not by Duo and Wufei, they were merely to facilitate the information needed for a squad of knights to strike at the enemy.
His skin tingled with a sense of pride. This was the closest he had felt an equal to these men. They were looking to him for aid in a dangerous mission, and listened to his comments thoughtfully. Even though he and Wufei were not to engage the bandits, should the bandits discover them, they would become targets much like the patrol had.
Duo's decision to leave the castle and throw his support to this cause had come so quickly that it had not sunk in yet. His training was not complete, but it was time to go. Wufei was a gifted teacher who brought Duo's latent natural ability with a sword, and bow and arrow to the fore. Wufei was also exceedingly charming and was slipping into the role of Treize's lover with the ease of a courtesan. Duo felt no ill-will. He knew love when he saw it, and retreated from Treize's side like no previous lover had?s a friend.
After their plans were set, Duo and Wufei went to the stables to saddle up. Provisions were slung in bags across the horses' shoulders. Once they were mounted, Trowa led them on their horses to the courtyard where Treize and a small entourage waited under a canopy. The view from atop his Spanish roan was grand, and Duo thought this must be how it felt as a knight being sent off by his lord and master.
The sun was bright at mid-day, and he squinted to see the faces of those who had gathered. Of course the Duke and Lord Winner were present, and behind them stood favored servants, and surprisingly, the chancellor who had so disapproved of Duo. He must be pleased at my departure, Duo thought.
Since Duo was not yet a knight, Treize would not allow him a sword. He did, however, gift him with a handsome dagger, and a bow and arrows. These weapons were illegal for commoners to carry, but under the circumstances, the Duke found it necessary. Additionally, it was decided that Wufei and Duo should travel as lesser noblemen, and so their clothes lacked the usual embellishment, but were fine enough to give them an air of authority.
There was no need for lengthy goodbyes, but Quatre's smile looked a little sad. He had learned of the mission only that morning and asked to join them, but Treize would not hear of it. He explained that it was meant to continue Duo's training and take him closer to his goal of knighthood.
With a wave, Duo and Wufei began their journey. As they passed through the castle's gate, Duo turned back once more to see the place that had been home these last weeks. An odd sensation crept over his skin. It was as though he was looking on the castle for the last time. He took a deep breath and turned his eyes to the horizon. The road stretched before them, and vast fields and openness weighed on either side. He was not setting out on his own, but this marked a turning point in his life.
The journey was slow, but by late afternoon they reached the tiny village of Salaise-sur-Sanne, halfway between Lyon and Valance, Duo's hometown. They had taken the main road south, and Duo had been certain they would encounter Knight Yuy and his patrol, but they had not. Salaise-sur-Sanne was smaller than Valance, but had a lively mix of street vendors selling crepes, honey-covered almonds, bells and brooms.
Their investigation into the rogues' whereabouts would begin here, and needed to be subtle. They would pretend to be on their way to Avignon?he opposite direction the rogues were heading.
There was only one small inn, and it was best to secure a room before further explorations. When the innkeeper's daughter took them to a vacant room on the second floor, Duo was reminded of the night he and Heero had stayed at an inn. Heero's caution had made Duo laugh, but he understood now that the world was dangerous. When the girl left, he nodded to Wufei that they should take care. They entered with hands on their weapons, slowly opening the door, and peering under the bed and checking the access from the shuttered window. There was a slanting roof just below the window, easy enough to slide down, but difficult to climb.
"This will do," Wufei said, taking off his cloak and sitting on the bed's lumpy straw-filled mattress.
"Shall we leave our horses boarded for the night?" Duo asked.
"Yea, we can make inquiries on foot in the shops and tavern."
"Do you think the patrol came this way?"
Wufei shrugged. "We only know that their last message was sent from somewhere near Valence."
Duo did not like being this close to home, to Henri du Blois. He had hoped he would never see that man again, or at least not until he had made something of himself and could laud it in his face.
They kept their valuables with them, including coins and weapons, and made their way onto the street. Duo was nervous letting Wufei go off on his own. He was capable in every way, but his appearance as a foreigner brought unwanted attention, although his knowledge of languages and gift of persuasion seemed to enthrall the locals.
"Look interested," Wufei said as they were about to part. "But try not to make any purchases."
The heavy purse hanging from Duo's belt made him a bit gleeful. He had never had this much money and there was power in knowing he could buy most anything that he fancied.
Before wandering down the road, he drifted toward the warm aroma coming from the crepe vendor's cart, and bought two of the treats. Most of the buildings in the village had a trade shop on the first floor and a residence on the second. There were relatively few shops, but he did find the local tailor and couldn't resist venturing inside.
He swallowed the last bite of his crepe and entered the shop. It was not as large as his stepfather's, but had a good variety of fabrics on shelves behind the counter, and an assortment of ribbons on a table.
A young woman came into the room, wearing a gray tunic and white linen shirt underneath. Her hair was tucked under a linen cap. She nodded, "Good den."
"Good den," Duo said with a smile.
"Is there something I can help you find?"
"Not exactly." He stepped to the counter and peered at the bolts of fabrics stacked on the shelves. "I see you have a good supply of linen."
"Yea, it is locally made."
"Do you trade in Lyon?"
"I believe my mother has sent special cloth to the Duke on occasion."
"Yea, it is her shop."
Duo's smile brightened. It was not unheard of for women to run a business, but it often surprised customers. Duo found it pleasing, since it gave him hope that his sisters might continue the trade in Valence and have a way to provide for themselves. He especially worried for his youngest sister, Sophie, not wanting her sent to a convent or married off to a man she did not love. Perhaps when he became a knight, he would send a letter to his mother requesting that she let Sophie live with him.
Since this shop had done business with the Duke du Lyon, Duo moved the conversation toward the trouble on the roads. The girl had heard a good deal about the trouble through the young man who ran their errands. Word was that the rogue band was headed north, and all the citizens of Salaise-sur-Sanne were much relieved. With this bit of news, Duo purchased a length of red ribbon and headed out to make more inquiries.
It was near dusk when he returned to the inn. He waited in the dining room for Wufei, who arrived only moments later. They sat at a table near the hearth and spoke quietly. Their findings were the same, the rogues had gone north, though the locals were not in agreement on when. Some said they had gone days ago, while at least one thought it had been as recent as yesterday.
"We should remain cautious," Wufei said.
"Why do you think there was so much confusion about when they left?"
"It may not be confusion. The band may have split, and left at different times."
Duo's eyes widened. "Then there is a chance one or more could still be here?"
Wufei nodded, but did not speak as a servant girl brought them their dinner of lamb stew and ale.
After their meal, they retired to their room where they were free to talk and to plan. It was dark outside and the village was quiet, except for the tavern's customers who spoke loudly and sometimes broke into song.
Duo was anxious for sleep, but there was the matter of one bed. When he had traveled with Heero, propriety had been of utmost importance. He doubted Wufei had the same concern, but he did not wish to assume. "Shall we toss a coin to decide who gets the bed?"
"We shall both sleep in the bed," Wufei said with such authority that it made Duo's question seem absurd.
They began to disrobe, and Duo wondered how comfortable he could get. "I like to sleep in the nude."
Wufei was standing with his back to him, having taken off his sword belt and tunic. He was dressed only in a loose linen shirt, black hose and boots. He looked over his shoulder at his companion. "Do as you wish."
"It will not make you uncomfortable?"
"Nay, but do not try for my affections."
Duo laughed. "You are most confident in your appeal."
"I am merely vigilant. We can ill afford such distractions."
Duo gaped at the nobleman. "I would not make such a move."
"Under other circumstances we might?
Just then they heard a noise outside, silencing the rest of Wufei's comment. The sound seemed out of place in the context of the merriment downstairs in the tavern. They stilled, listening for it again. A moment passed, and a scraping noise could be heard outside the window.
Duo took a step towards the window, but Wufei put out his arm to prevent him from going closer. He put a finger to his lips, telling Duo to keep still. Wufei grabbed his sword from the table and moved slowly to the window, standing to the side. The noise was louder this time, and Duo's heartbeat quickened. It sounded like something or someone was outside their window!
Wufei moved quickly, jumping onto a chair and throwing the shutters open in one fluid movement. To Duo's surprise there was a man standing on the slanted roof outside the window. The man shouted and lunged for Wufei with a dagger in his hand. Wufei had the advantage, and using the length of his sword and the element of surprise, he plunged his weapon into the attacker's side. The man fell backwards off the roof and to the street below, hitting with a hard thud.
Duo raced for the window and looked down. "The rogues?"
"Yea," Wufei said, getting down from the chair and turning for the door. "There may be more."
A whooshing sound filled the room, and just as suddenly Wufei cried out in pain, falling forward onto the bed. Duo was at his side in an instant, staring aghast at an arrow lodged in Wufei's shoulder.
Wufei slid down to the floor, and propped himself against the bed as sweat formed on his brow. "Get a surgeon."
Duo put his hand to the site of the wound. "Is it bad?"
Wufei nodded, gritting his teeth. "The arrow needs to be removed."
"What about the man who did this? I should go after him? Duo turned to go, and Wufei laid a hand on his arm.
"Nay, forget him. Get a surgeon."
"I can do both!"
"Nay," he said, squeezing Duo's arm tighter. "Treize made me promise to keep you out of danger."
Duo's face warmed. Did they think him a child or unworthy of this task? Treize had put on such a good show of sending Duo off like one of his squires. He had thought the Duke had faith in his growing skill as a warrior, but apparently Treize was not yet convinced.
He placed Wufei's hand near the wound. "Put pressure here to slow the bleeding. I will not be long."
Duo bolted for the door, and ran down the stairs to find the inn keeper who was sharing a drink with friends. He explained the urgent need for a doctor, leaving out the details since the inn was still crowded. The inn keeper directed a young boy to take him to the surgeon's house on the edge of town. Duo and the boy left in a hurry, and once they were on the street, Duo knew this was his chance to track the men who had attacked them. The injured man was not lying on the ground in front of the inn, but there was a trail of blood. He looked to the boy who was anxious to lead him to the doctor's house.
"Go," Duo said. "Tell the surgeon a man has been wounded and needs his assistance at the inn."
The boy nodded and ran off into the dark night.
It was a clear night, but it was still difficult to see where the trail led. Duo followed the blood around one of the shops and then it disappeared. He could barely make out hoof prints, and decided that the archer and possibly another accomplice had taken the man with them. There was nothing more he could do this night, and he quickly returned to the inn to find the surgeon arriving.
The inn keeper helped Duo move Wufei to the bed, and more candles were brought into the room to light the surgeon's work. It was a long night as the surgeon worked to remove the arrow, and then packed the wound with linen bandages. Wufei suffered greatly, but bravely encouraged the doctor as he worked. Once the procedure was done, the surgeon left to brew an herb mixture for his patient to drink.
Duo was left alone with his friend. "We will need to get you back to Lyon."
Wufei nodded in agreement.
"If you are well enough, we should leave at daybreak. I will hire a wagon?
"Nay, I will ride."
"Do not be a fool."
"A horse travels faster."
Duo nodded at the logic, but wondered how Wufei would manage. It had taken them the better part of a day to get here. Still, the sooner Wufei returned to the castle, the better his chances for recovery. He would have access to the best surgeons and an arsenal of herbs to heal the wound. Wufei had once described the different medicines and healing techniques used in his homeland of China. Some seemed strange, but a combination of those methods and the local doctors' practices might be the key to a quick recovery.
After the doctor administered the warm herbal drink, he gave instructions for Duo to call should the patient become feverish.
Duo slept restlessly in a chair he pulled to the bedside. He did not undress, as he feared another attack or the need to run for the doctor. Several hours into the night, he woke to the sound of Wufei's moans. The candle had burned low, but Duo could see the beads of sweat on his friend's skin.
"I will get the doctor."
"Nay," Wufei said. "I will die in his care."
"But you let him remove the arrow and you drank the herbs."
"It was necessary."
"I will tend to your fever." Duo went to tear a portion of the bed linens, but Wufei told him they were unclean. He looked around the room for anything else he could use, and decided to rip the end of his linen shirt like he had done to bandage Heero's wound.
The sound of the fabric tearing brought back memories from that day, but he did not have the luxury to wallow in that brief, shining moment. He dipped the long strip of cloth into a bowl of water, wrung it out and folded it before placing it on Wufei's forehead. The coolness was soothing and after some time Wufei fell asleep. Duo attended to him this way through the night, and by dawn the fever was reduced, but not completely gone. Again, Duo worried that the journey to Lyon would be too much for his friend.
He gathered their supplies and helped to dress Wufei, even making a sling for the arm with the wounded shoulder.
"I need you to eat before we set off," he said, getting Wufei into his boots.
"I could not."
"Porridge will do you good. You need your strength."
Miraculously, Wufei made no more protestations, and allowed Duo to help him downstairs to the inn's dining hall. He chose a table next to a wall, and sat Wufei down so that he could lean against the wall. A servant brought a bowl of porridge for them both, but Duo only took a few bites as he stared at his friend and pondered the question of the rogues. If not for Wufei's injury, they could be on the trail of the rogues right now. He wondered if any remnants of last night's incident would still be visible on the dirt street this morning. If only he could follow that trail, but Wufei had to get back to Lyon to heal properly.
It was their first day out and they already needed help. Might their mission end here? If only they had brought Lord Winner along. Then Duo remembered that the girl in the tailor's shop had told him that her mother hired a young man to make deliveries in Lyon. He must be a fearless fellow to travel on his own. Could he accompany Wufei to Castle Khushrenada?
"Finish your meal, and I will return at once."
"Where are you going?"
"I have an errand."
Duo hurried out of the inn and down the street to the tailor shop. It was too early for the shop to be open, but the family who owned it probably lived on the second floor. He stepped back and looked up at the shuttered windows. He did not want to call out, since that would raise the entire town's attention, so he decided to find another way in. He walked around to the back of the building where there was a small fenced garden and another door.
He knocked, but there was no response. It was not like him to be so bold as to trespass, but this matter was too important to delay. He tried the door and found it unlocked. Saints be blessed! The corridor was dark inside, but he could see stairs leading to the second floor. He took a deep breath and went up, stepping hard so as not to surprise the house's inhabitants.
"Good morn," he called as he ascended the stairs. "Pardon the intrusion."
The door at the top of stairs opened slowly, and the girl from the previous day peered at him.
"Oh," she said with wide eyes. "It is you."
"I am in need of assistance."
She nodded and opened the door fully. "The shop will be open in another hour."
"It is not a new cloak I am after," he said, stepping into their tiny living space.
The girl's mother appeared from behind a screen with a mixing bowl in her hands. "Pray who is this?"
Duo bowed. "Good lady, I wish to hire your errand boy to make a special delivery."
"My errand boy? Are there no others?"
"None that I trust who know the road to Lyon."
"We have no business in Lyon this day."
"I understand, and that is why I will pay you for his time, and when he arrives in Lyon he will receive a handsome reward from the Duke du Lyon himself."
"You jest, good sir."
"Nay, I would not be so cruel. I am one of the Duke's knights." He could not believe how easily he had said that. Though he was not yet dubbed a knight, he believed that honor would come soon.
"What be your name, good sir?"
He cleared his throat, a little nervous to say it. "Sir Maxwell, good lady."
The woman appraised him more closely. Surely a tailor could see the quality of his clothes, embellishments or not.
"And what pray tell is this errand?"
He grinned, knowing she had accepted him as a knight. "My companion, Sir Chang, must return to Castle Khushrenada forthwith."
"Yea, an unusual name to be sure, but a man of noble blood."
"He cannot make the journey on his own?"
Her open curiosity was most unusual, considering that commoners generally did not question nobles, and he realized he needed to be careful with how much he told her. "I need someone to assist me in taking him back to Lyon. He is unwell"
"Not with the plague!"
"Nay, of course not! His arm was injured in a fall. You will be sufficiently compensated."
She studied him a moment longer, and then nodded for her daughter to get the boy. Moments later, a youth not much younger than Duo came running up the steps to meet him.
"Thomas, this is Sir Maxwell. You will accompany him and his companion to Lyon."
The youth nodded and turned curious brown eyes on Duo.
Duo reached into his purse and handed the woman a half dozen silver coins. "For your trouble. His Grace, the Duke Khushrenada thanks you."
The woman, her daughter and the youth all bowed, and then Duo left with Thomas to hurry back to the inn. Along the way, Duo pulled the black tie from his braid and handed it to Thomas.
"Keep this and give it to the Duke when you meet him. Tell him that Duo wishes for him to compensate you for your errand."
"You are not returning to Lyon?"
Duo shook his head, and explained the situation in greater detail. In the process, he tied the end of his braid with the red ribbon he had bought the previous day.
At the inn, Wufei was waiting outside with the horses and was close to losing his temper. Duo had been gone longer than planned.
"Who is that boy?" he said with a suspicious growl.
"Thomas is accompanying us back to Lyon."
"We do not need a guide or a guard."
Realizing they were in too public a place for this conversation, Duo pulled his two companions to the side of a building. He listened to be sure they were alone.
"I am not returning with you," he said.
Wufei blinked, taking a moment to consider Duo's words. "You will return with me, and dismiss this boy."
Duo gestured for Thomas to step away so that he could speak with Wufei alone. He lowered his voice. "We are close to finding the rogues. I am sure they are the ones who attacked last night. If we leave now, we lose their scent."
"Do you think I want to lose the trail? We will pick it up again."
"When? It may be days or weeks before you are healed." Duo stepped closer to his friend and put his hand on his arm. "Listen to me. I followed the trail of blood last night, and with the daylight I can follow them farther. We cannot let them win."
"The danger is most great, and Treize..."
"Treize will understand. After his initial outburst he will see the wisdom in this path."
Wufei shook his head. "I cannot allow it."
"You cannot prevent me from doing this. You are injured, and with every breath you take your condition may worsen, and the rogues are getting farther away." Duo waited for a rebuttal, but Wufei only glared at him with dark eyes. "You know I am right. As my teacher, you must trust that I can do this. I will take cautious steps."
Wufei took a deep breath and looked to the young man waiting several paces away, and then turned his eyes back to Duo. "As your teacher, I wish I had more time." Wufei held up his hand to be certain Duo would not interrupt. "As your friend, I wish you the speed of the Heavens."
Duo smiled, relieved. "Thank you."
Wufei put his hand on Duo's arm. "I know it is madness to let you go, but it may be our only chance to turn the tables on the rogues."
It was agreed that Thomas and Duo would switch cloaks, and all three men would ride out of the village together with their hoods up to conceal their identity.
When they were nearly a mile outside the village, they came upon a grove of oak trees. Duo nodded to Wufei that it was time to part ways. "I will send word to keep you informed," he said, and headed into the covering of trees. He would double back through the fields to Salaise-sur-Sanne and pick up the trail again.
It was harder than Duo thought to part from Wufei, and not ride north with him. He had never set-off on his own before, never felt this vulnerable, but they couldn't let themselves be defeated this easily.
More than likely, Wufei and Thomas would stay out of harms way and arrive at the castle gates before dark. They would receive a warm welcome, and Treize would do exceedingly well at tending to Wufei's wound.
The safety of the castle was appealing, and for a split second Duo considered turning his horse north to catch his friend, but this was not the time for comforts. This was Duo's first true step towards knighthood.
He was alone. It was as it should be.