The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Eighteen - Sorrow's Calamity
Wufei and Thomas rode at a furious pace back to Lyon. The pain in Wufei's shoulder intensified, and became so great he gritted his teeth and clutched at it with his hand. He recalled for the hundredth time the moment he had been struck by the arrow. He had let them all down - Duo, Treize, everyone - because he had underestimated the rogues. Even knowing they had successfully attacked Sir Yuy's patrol, Wufei had been careless.
He did not like leaving Duo, but his condition made it difficult to put up a fight. He felt weak and feverish, and was no good to anyone unless he could get well. Once he returned to the castle, a doctor could assist with the ancient herbal remedies he had been taught as a youth. If the surgeon balked at using Chinese medicine, Treize would listen, and command him to obey. Wufei was beginning to see the benefits of having such a powerful lover.
The gates were still open when they arrived at the castle. Since he had been gone only one day, the sentries were rightfully surprised to see him. He halted his horse in the courtyard and slumped forward in exhaustion. Thomas dismounted and ran to his side, helping Wufei down from his saddle. It was an insult to his pride, but with his discomfort growing he could no longer refuse the assistance.
Thomas supported Wufei with an arm around his waist, holding him up, and calling out for help. They made their way into the castle and were met by the Duke and Lord Winner.
"Sir Chang!" the Duke said, his eyes going wide. "What has happened?"
"Your Grace..." Wufei said, and then everything went black.
"Wufei!" Lord Winner cried out, watching the foreign prince slump forward.
Treize was at Wufei's side instantly, scooping him into his arms and rushing him to his bedchamber. "Get the surgeon!"
In moments, Wufei was stripped and placed in the Duke's canopied bed. While they waited for the surgeon to arrive, Treize turned his anger on the boy who had accompanied Wufei.
"Who attacked him and where is Duo?" he shouted, baring his teeth.
Thomas cowered as he stood in the corridor outside the Duke's private chamber. "Sir Maxwell hired me to accompany Sir Chang here safely. I know not how he was injured."
"Why did Sir Maxwell not return with you?" Lord Winner asked, using the honorific although he wondered why Duo had adopted that title without completing his training.
"He wished to remain in Salaise-sur-Sanne. That is all I know, my lord. He and Sir Chang spoke privately before we exchanged cloaks and left for Lyon."
"Duo would not abandon Wufei in such a state." Treize's eyes focused narrowly on the boy.
"He gave me this so that you would know I am doing his bidding." Thomas reached inside his tunic and pulled out a length of black ribbon.
Treize snatched the ribbon away. "Why would he do this?"
"Wufei will tell us," Quatre said.
When the surgeon and his assistant arrived, all became preoccupied with Wufei's recovery. Quatre asked one of the servants to take Thomas to the kitchen for a hot meal. He remained at his cousin's side, watching the surgeon tend to the wound and waiting for Wufei to wake.
Several hours later, Wufei woke with a groan.
"Are you in pain?" the Duke asked, grasping Wufei's hand.
"My fever has not broke?"
"Nay, the doctor has gone to brew herbs for you to drink. He says the wound has festered. There is plenty of puss."
"Yea, he says it is a sign of healing."
Wufei's brow tightened. "The healers in my country taught me that is a sign of infection." He tried to sit up, but his arm pained him. "Let me see the wound."
Just then the doctor returned, and Wufei immediately began to list the herbs he needed to be made into a paste to be smeared on the wound. The doctor hesitated, but one look from the Duke and he did as he was bid.
"We were attacked our first night in Salaise-sur-Sanne. Duo acted very bravely," Wufei said.
"The boy told us that Duo stayed behind," the Duke said.
Wufei nodded. "He is unharmed, and well."
"Why did he not return with you?" Lord Winner asked.
"He is determined to be useful. I argued with him, but he was right that we must not stop tracking the rogues. He wishes to be your eyes and ears, my lord, until such time as you can send a stronger force."
"That sacrifice is too great!" Lord Winner said. "He is not yet a knight."
The Duke rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and looked to Wufei. "Can he succeed?"
"It is premature, but extreme circumstances have a way of bringing the best out of men."
"Or getting them killed," Quatre said.
Treize turned in his chair to face his cousin fully. "I have every confidence that Duo will use his newly acquired skills and his good sense to see this through."
Quatre blinked, fairly stunned that Treize was not going to send his guard after him. "Do you not value him?"
"Dear cousin, it is my esteem for young Duo that is restraining me from calling for the master of stables to ready my horse and go after him myself!"
The strong chastisement caused Quatre to bow deeply. "Forgive me."
"There is nothing to forgive. Now rise, cousin. Your concern for Duo does you honor."
"Lord Winner," Wufei said, earnestly. "Duo promised to send word... to keep us informed. I trust his ability to vanish among the commoners and see what you and I could not see."
"He stands in two worlds," Quatre said. "When can we expect the patrol?"
"Soon... very soon," Treize said.
~ ~ ~
Sir Yuy burned with the need for revenge.
After the patrol was attacked - a squire slain, his master injured, and three horses taken - Heero's fury had been difficult to contain. The decision to return to the castle was not made easily. The wounded knight insisted they continue in pursuit of the bandits, but Heero knew better. After being on the road for weeks, it was time to re-assess their strategy, rest, and replenish their supplies.
As they progressed towards Lyon, small contingents of knights and squires went out to patrol the countryside, but saw no trouble. The rogues had melted back into the landscape.
It was after nightfall when Castle Khushrenada first came into view. The men's relief at seeing the fortress was palpable, though some felt they should not return without victory in hand. Their desire to serve the Duke and to do right was admirable, but Heero knew their campaign was no failure. They had interceded on behalf of one village, and the sight of them with the Duke's banner unfurled caused the peasantry to cheer. The Duke Khushrenada was much beloved, and his host of knights equally so.
As they approached the castle, it could be seen that the heavy wooden gate was closed and locked, but the sentry recognized the men. A loud call rang out to open the gate, and servants came running to assist as the procession made its way into the courtyard. The injured knight was carried into the castle at once, his broken leg festering with a deep gash. Sir Yuy doubted the leg could be saved, and prayed the surgeon's knife was sharp.
A delay in their mission was unavoidable, and hard to swallow, but Heero commanded his men with an even temperament. "Eat, rest and I will speak with you on the morrow."
He dismounted his steed and strode into the castle. His presence was not expected, but he was confident that at this hour he would find the Duke supping in the Great Hall. As he made his way through the corridors, he noticed a curious lack of activity near the hall. A page darted past, and he snagged the boy's arm.
"Where is the Duke?"
"His Grace is in his private chambers."
"Is he unwell?"
"Nay, my lord, but his lover... companion was injured."
"What?" Heero's heart thumped at the news. Duo was injured?
"The Duke's companion..." The boy's voice trembled and was barely audible, so embarrassed was he to share intimate details. "They sup in his bedchamber."
Heero's jaw tightened. He was not prepared to see Duo again, and find him in the Duke's bed, and perhaps to learn that he was the foreign prince's lover, too. Memories of that last day watching the archery practice, knotted in Heero's stomach. He had gazed longingly on Duo, the fine line of his silhouette, and Duo had met that gaze. The memory warmed him, but it was foolish, ever so foolish. Duo would not be pleased to see him with so much bad blood between them.
He headed upstairs to the Duke's bedchamber. With each step he resigned himself to seeing the beautiful face of the demon lover that haunted his dreams. The unfulfilled desires were Heero's penance for hurting Duo, and betraying the Duke's trust.
As he rounded the corner and saw the servant posted outside the bedchamber, he was reminded of the morning not long after Duo's arrival at the castle. The Duke had immodestly invited Heero to the bedchamber with his lover still abed. The sight of Duo bare-chested and bathed in warm sunlight was enough to drive a man to treachery.
The servant announced Sir Yuy's presence by tapping the door twice with his bare knuckles and clearly speaking the visitor's name. The servant stood still, apparently listening for a response. Nearly a minute passed before they heard footsteps. Heero breathed deeply, steeling himself for the vision that awaited, and made an effort to belatedly brush the road dust from his cloak. He had not bathed in more than a week, but could hardly spare the energy to care.
The chamber door swung open to reveal the Duke dressed in a beautiful crimson and brown tunic and hose, and soft leather shoes. "Sir Yuy!" he exclaimed on seeing his champion. "Welcome! You have returned and the patrol is safe?"
Heero bowed, and his elbow was immediately grasped by the Duke who pulled him into the chamber and swiftly closed the door behind them.
"The drafty air is terrible for my Lotus."
Lotus? Heero wondered at the reference as he kept his eyes from settling on the canopied bed. Indeed, the room was warm and fragrant with a blazing fire in the hearth and vases overflowing with roses.
"Tell me of Knight Aubrey's health," the Duke said, ushering Heero towards the bed.
"He is a brave man, but I fear he will lose his leg."
"The surgeon will send him to his grave if given the chance," a voice called from the bed.
Heero looked up, bewildered. It was not the voice he had expected. The Chinese prince, Chang Wufei, was sitting in the Duke's bed with quilts and silk pillows surrounding him. He was dressed in an exquisite blue and gold brocade robe and one arm was supported by a sling.
"Sir Yuy," Wufei said with a smile. "We have been awaiting your return."
"Here," the Duke said, handing Heero a cup of wine. "You look... fatigued."
He felt sick. How long had he been gone? And where was Duo?
"I was most grieved to hear of the squire's death." The Duke sat in the large decorated wooden chair next to the bed, and took Wufei's hand in his. "Pray tell me of the conditions on the road."
The Duke was forever wanting to know about the roads - the ruts, the blockages, the trade traffic, and the bandits. But Heero could not speak. His mind could not comprehend the changes around him. He drank the cup of wine in one long gulp.
"You appear most unlike yourself," Treize said, watching him carefully.
"I do not mean to, my lord."
"Perhaps you should rest and we will speak again on the morrow?"
The Duke was right. He was not acting like himself. He needed to regain his composure, and present himself as the Duke's first knight, not as his court jester.
"Sire," Heero said, bowing. "My men and I overcame a band of miscreants who had held the Mayor of Tournon hostage until the villagers paid them in gold." This felt right, informing the Duke of their success. He felt much more sure footed now. "We tracked the thieves to their lair in the woods, dispatched their leader, and returned the gold and the criminals to Tournon. The people are most grateful for your aid and protection."
"Well done, Sir Yuy! Please have the men gather in the Great Hall on the morn. We shall break fast together, and I will congratulate and reward them."
"Thank you, my lord."
"Excellent. Enjoy a good night's rest, sir knight."
Heero bowed, but when he stood, he hesitated to leave. He would not be able to sleep unless he knew, unless the changes before him were explained. "Your Grace. Forgive my boldness...."
The Duke's eyes narrowed slightly, and then he nodded in understanding. "Sir Chang is now at my side as you see. He is my consort." There was a pause, long enough for Heero to interject, but he did not. Treize looked thoughtfully, warmly at Wufei and then back to the knight. "Duo and I came to an amicable conclusion to our intimacies, shortly after your departure."
Heero blinked. None of Treize's former lovers had been disposed of as civilly. "I apologize - "
"Duo is gone," Wufei said, suddenly.
Heero looked sharply at Wufei. "Gone?"
"When we received word of the attack, Duo insisted on helping," Wufei said.
"How?" Heero asked.
"The way any knight in training would help," Treize said.
"Duo has great potential, and his training was going well." Wufei said. "We headed out, believing we could be your eyes and ears."
Heero's brow tightened, trying to make sense of these scraps of information. "Is that how you were injured?"
Wufei's lips pursed in apparent frustration. "We were attacked in Salaise-sur-Sanne. I took an arrow in the shoulder. It will be some weeks before I have full use of my arm again."
"Duo was not injured," the Duke said with measured relief. "Lord Winner received a message from him only yesterday."
"He did not return with you?"
"As I said, he is gone," Wufei said. "He is committed to finding the rogues, and I could not continue with him. We parted company six days ago."
Heero gritted his teeth as emotions welled inside him. Had the world turned upside down? What were these noblemen thinking to let a merchant's son pursue a wild band of rogue warriors?
"You left him out there alone?" Heero was furious. His heart was beating faster, pounding in his ears. Had they all gone mad? Duo was not capable of protecting himself.
"He is not a child, Sir Yuy," Wufei said with some resentment. "You abandoned your student when his training had hardly begun. I know better what he is capable of than you! I took him under my wing and gave him the attention he deserved."
"A few weeks of training does not prepare a commoner to fight rogues!"
"Heero," Treize said, gently using the knight's given name in a rare moment of familiarity. "To be fair, you were not here to see all they accomplished. You were my first choice as Duo's teacher, but perhaps this arrangement worked out for the best. Your feelings got the better of you."
"You think me cold to let him go unescorted, but you abandoned his training. There was a rocky moment after you had gone when he was not quite himself, but he soon took to Wufei's instruction."
"Not himself?" Heero spoke in a whisper, a trace of hope skittering across his thoughts. Not himself.
"Let us speak most clearly," the Duke said. "Your admiration for Duo no longer needs to remain private."
Heero sucked in a breath, taken aback by the Duke's directness. "Sire, I did nothing - "
Treize stood and came over to put a reassuring hand on Heero's shoulder. "I never doubted your honor. Now rest. You must be tired from your journey."
Heero stared at his liege, feeling the weight of his hand on his right shoulder and the weight of his words on his heart. He was not ready to be dismissed. He had so many questions. But he was exhausted to the bone.
He bowed and retreated from the fragrant room, allowing the lovers their privacy. As he made his way down the corridor toward his private chamber, his heart continued to beat hard and fast in his chest. Duo was gone... Duo had not been himself... Duo was facing danger alone.
This was not Duo's fight. He was not a knight, nor would he ever be. It was Heero's responsibility to track and engage the rogues.
Heero turned on his heel and descended the servant's stairwell. He came out onto a narrow corridor, and followed it to the kitchen where several servants were having a late supper. They stood on seeing him, but he dismissed them with a wave as he quickly exited through a side door. He was outside, and it took him a second to get his bearings that he was around the corner from the main courtyard. He turned and made his way to the bailey. His intentions now clear in his mind.
The stable hand, Trowa, was tending to the patrol's horses, along with several other servants. They were removing the saddles and bridles, and taking the horses to the stable to be fed and watered.
Heero came within ten feet of Trowa before announcing himself. "I need a fresh horse."
Trowa looked over his shoulder as he unbuckled a saddle. "In the morn, sir?"
"Nay, I need one now."
"The horses have not been cared for - "
"The Duke has other horses. Now, I gave you an order."
Trowa stopped mid-motion and turned fully to the knight. His eyes sweeping over the man's disheveled appearance. "Yea, my lord."
"I do not mean to speak harshly," Heero said, suddenly regretting his tone. The stable hand stepped away towards the stable without another word.
"Supervising the servants?" Lord Winner said with a hint of amusement as he came to stand next him.
"What brings you out here?" Heero asked.
Quatre's blond eyebrows rose as he nodded towards Trowa's retreating form.
"More like mmm."
Heero darted a surprised glance at Quatre for such indiscretion. "Perhaps a cold bath would help."
Quatre chuckled. "It is good to see you again, my friend. I was on my way to my chamber when I heard that the patrol had returned."
"Yea, less than an hour ago."
"That long? I wish I had known. I would have greeted you at the gate, and invited you to supper."
"It is no matter. I must be away."
Heero did not respond. His mind was keen on awaiting the return of the stable hand with a new steed.
"Is there a disturbance in the countryside?" Quatre asked.
Heero shook his head.
"Then surely it can wait." He leaned a little closer and sniffed the air. "You have not even bathed. I will have the servants draw your bath - "
"Why did you not stop him?" Heero asked, abruptly.
Quatre's brow furrowed. "I should think you would be pleased that he is gone."
"Gone to fight rogues? I would have never allowed that."
Quatre made a little noise of discontent. "Did I misunderstand? I believe on several occasions you made it most clear that you had no feelings for him. Shall I quote you?"
Obviously, Quatre was more interested in Heero's feelings than the circumstances surrounding Duo's departure. But there was too much at stake to spend time arguing. Duo had been alone on the road for six days!
"I need that horse now, Trowa!"
"Are you going after him?" Quatre asked in astonishment. "The road will be slow and dangerous by night."
"I have just come from the road. I know well its condition."
"But what is your condition?"
Heero looked at the nobleman sharply. "What did Wufei think he could accomplish by taking a novice, a tailor to track rogues, and then leaving him?"
"Heero," Quatre said, putting his hand on Heero's forearm. "Your feelings have not changed."
With that tender touch, Heero knew his friend was referring to Heero's true feelings, the ones he guarded deep in his heart. The ones Quatre had discovered early on.
"I will do what is right," Heero said with much frustration. "What any one of you should have done. Retrieve him back to the castle!"
Quatre stood there shaking his head, and a smile slowly tugged at his lips. "Which direction will you take?"
Just then, Trowa appeared from the stables with a handsome dark brown steed at his side. He led the horse to Heero, but his eyes fell solidly on Quatre. "My lord," he said, with a slight bow of his head.
Even in the torchlight, Quatre's blush was apparent. Heero sighed deeply. It was no wonder Quatre had stayed put instead of going after Duo. He was too preoccupied lusting after the lanky stable hand.
Heero took the reins of the horse and mounted. His muscles ached in protest. He could use the rest, but too much time had been wasted.
Quatre stared up at him. "You know not where he has gone."
"And you do?"
"Leave at first light, and I will tell you."
Heero's eyes narrowed. "Tell me now."
They stared at one another, the flicker of fire light sharply shadowing their faces. Quatre turned to Trowa. "Ready two more horses."
"Two?" Trowa asked.
"You and I are accompanying Sir Yuy this night."
"Your assistance in this errand is unnecessary," Heero said.
"Is it?" Quatre gave him a knowing look. "And you not certain which road to take?"
"I will ask the Duke - "
"You would disturb him at this hour? With a new lover in his bed?"
Heero nearly growled. "What game are you playing? Why delay me?"
"Because... you are right. I should have stopped Duo from leaving." Quatre placed his hand on the horse's neck and looked up at Heero with sorrow in his eyes. "I am not a warrior like you. I do not bend the world to my will with the use of a sword. I use words, diplomacy, but my words failed. The Duke would not heed my protestations that we should send the guard to retrieve Duo when Wufei returned without him."
Heero's shoulders tensed. Was this the Duke's new method of disposing of lovers? He sympathized with Quatre's predicament. It was true that the nobleman had no interest in battle, though he was a shrewd strategist and often wore a sword at his side. Lord Winner's strength was in diplomacy, and he had always had a strong sense for right and wrong.
"Accompany me," Heero said. "I will be your sword, and you will be my compass."
A moment later, Trowa returned with the additional horses, a satchel of food, and a canteen filled with wine. Quatre spoke to the stable master to explain Trowa's necessary absence. Whether the man liked it or not, he could not protest a request from Lord Winner.
The gate was opened for the three travelers. It was the deepest dark of the night, but it mattered not. There were amends to be made and too much time had been lost already. Quatre pointed them north, and they took the road which had been laid in Roman times, but was in good condition allowing the companions to proceed at some speed.
Little more than an hour earlier, Heero had arrived at the castle looking forward to a long slumber. Now he was heading north, and invigorated by the need to find Duo. It was not something he could put into words, no matter how much Quatre prodded him, but his heart told him he must do this. He had to see Duo, had to learn if he was well, but then what? Each time he reached this point in his thoughts his heart fluttered with uncertainty. He had never taken this path. He was a warrior true and sure, but a lover? Of this he knew not.
Late the next morning they came into the village of Mâcon. They had traveled over thirty miles without Quatre revealing their goal.
"We should find an inn to sup and then begin our search," Quatre said.
"This is our destination?" Heero asked.
"Yea, Duo's letter was written from Mâcon."
"When was that?"
"It was dated the fifth."
"That was four days ago. He could be anywhere by now."
"He is enjoying his freedom," Trowa said.
"He is being reckless," Heero said.
Trowa shrugged. "Perhaps he sees it as adventure."
"Adventure is not something a commoner should seek."
"Heero," Quatre said, leaning over to place a hand on his friend's forearm. "Let us dismount and enjoy a meal then we can make inquiries. Surely someone as unique as Duo will have been noticed."
He surrendered to his friend's advice, and they found a suitable public house to enjoy a thick lamb and carrot stew, and a glass of ale. The moment was reminiscent of the one he had shared with Duo on their way from Valence to Lyon. At the time, he thought only of his duty to escort the Duke's paramour safely to the castle, and wanted to know as little as possible about his charge. Now he wished he had paid closer attention.
After their meal, the three split up to make inquiries. Most of the villagers were suspicious of Heero, his air authoritative. Though they did not openly refuse to answer him, he could see the hesitation in their eyes. The sword at his side was intimidating to peasants and merchants who had no recourse if he chose to use it.
When the companions met on the far side of town, Trowa informed them of what he had learned. The villagers had been far more accepting of him. "Duo was most certainly here," Trowa said as they stood beside their horses.
"We know that from his letter," Heero said in frustration.
"What if he was being clever and only said he was in Mâcon?" Trowa asked a bit sharply.
Heero's brow furrowed and he turned to Quatre. "You have indulged him far too much."
"Perhaps you are right, friend." Quatre giggled and looked to his lover. "What have you discovered?"
"Duo was making inquiries," Trowa said, lowering his voice. "Something about a German sword."
"What?" Heero's eyes widened.
"A peddler told me that a young man with a long braid was asking about rogues carrying Germanic swords."
Heero put a hand to his head. "He is trying to get himself killed."
"Does this have anything to do with the sword you showed me?" Quatre asked.
"I believe so. We will be lucky to find him alive." The realization made Heero's chest tighten. It was a hopeless, helpless feeling, something he was not familiar with.
"Did you learn where he went from here?" Quatre asked.
"He continued on the road north."
"He could be in Paris by now," Heero said, mounting his horse. "You should turn back. I will continue on my own."
"You will do no such thing!" Quatre said. He and Trowa mounted their horses.
"I can move faster alone," Heero said.
"Our horses are as fast as yours. We shall continue together."
"I prefer to do this on my own."
Quatre smiled. "Of course you do, but I will not let you."
Heero sighed as he looked his friend in the eye. "Do you ever take no for an answer?"
Trowa began to laugh, and the question went unanswered.
They were underway again on the main road, agreeing that rogues were drawn to it as a trade route. Heero hoped that Duo would not confront brigands on his own. He did not understand why Duo wished to pursue the men who had attacked them in the forest. He did not seem like someone bent on revenge, or foolish enough to believe he could protect himself with the minimal skills Wufei had taught him. The more Heero chewed on the notion of Duo alone and facing cutthroats, the more a knot formed in his gut. Those men in the wood were not the sort to be merciful, and were likely part of a larger network of thieves and assassins.
"Care to share your thoughts, friend?"
"I am calculating the likelihood of Duo's demise."
"What if we should find him alive? What then?"
"We shall take him back to the castle or to Valence, if he prefers."
"All of this just to put him back in a cage?"
"What cage? He is a free man."
"He may have information regarding the rogues."
"Then this little adventure will have been worth it."
Quatre gave a little smile and shook his head. "Worth it for no other reason?"
Sometimes his friend pushed too hard. "That is reason enough."
Two days passed, and their inquiries along with a hunch led them to Nevers in Burgundy. The roads to the village were in poor condition, but Heero and his companions had learned that rogues had attacked travelers in the area in recent days. Rogues who sounded very much like the ones Duo was tracking.
The village was bursting with activity. There was a jousting match to be held and the accompanying festivities had brought peasants and merchants from the surrounding region, swelling the population to four times its norm. Trowa was sent to secure rooms for the night, and Heero and Quatre continued the search. From atop their horses the noblemen had a clear view of the streets, but with so many people milling about it was difficult to take in every face. In Heero's mind all he needed was a glimpse of that braid, but any number of women wore braids. He remembered the first time he had laid eyes on Duo and thought him of the fair sex. It was trickery to be sure, but Duo denied it, pushing the limits of what was acceptable even then.
The afternoon air was filled with the loud din of laughter and song, and merchants barking their wares. It was a wonder that Heero noticed shouts coming from around the corner. He spurred his horse and Quatre was fast behind him. They turned onto a narrow street in time to see someone thrown into the middle of it, startling chickens into taking flight.
The young man landed with a thump on his rear, and a distinctive braid whipped behind him.
Heero's breath caught. "Duo!"