The Double-Edged Sword
Chapter Twenty-Three - Throw Down the Gauntlet
Instinctively, Duo mirrored his lover's movements and drew his sword. They were on the defense with twenty swordsmen facing them, and he could not quite believe their bad luck. He made a silent plea to Lady Fortune just as the first of the heavy blows rained down upon them.
Pray, protect us, dear Lady.
Duo wielded his sword in a hacking, wood chopping motion, blocking attacks while trying to inflict the greatest amount of damage on his enemy. He held his sword with both hands for stability and strength, swinging it downward again and again. His arms and shoulders ached with the strain.
He was vaguely aware of Quatre and Trowa fighting some distance away. Trowa had found a broom and was using the handle to jab and smack his opponents. Without a proper sword or pike, the broom handle would eventually be broken or sliced through, leaving Trowa vulnerable.
Heero grunted, catching Duo's attention. The knight lunged forward, bashing his left shoulder into his opponent, knocking the man to the ground and running him through with his sword. It was brilliant to witness his lover moving so fiercely and so fluidly in the conflict, but Duo could not glory for long as two rogues struck at him. He deflected blow after blow, pivoting and fading back to avoid deadly strikes. He realized now that the wallop he had gotten from Sir Yuy in the castle courtyard had been severe, but nothing close to the knocks from men who wanted you dead. He wished he had used that humiliation as a lesson and motivation to train that much harder, but this was no time for regrets.
Duo's inexperience could be the death of them, but he would not give up easily. He would not let his lover and his friends down. He had to remain focused, and the words of Sir Chang came to the fore in his mind: Be secure and strong in your stance. Stay on the balls of your feet for better balance and mobility...
By now, Heero had moved towards the center of the road, and Duo had followed as closely as possible. Though there were twenty against them, the rogues attacked in twos and threes. Like an endless stream rolling towards them, the bandits struck hard and then pulled back only to be replaced by a fresh set of attackers. Duo supposed the rogues could have attacked full force and be done with them, but they seemed to enjoy prolonging the fight, especially since the crowd had formed.
The commotion had caused all business and traffic to come to a halt on the main road, and many people had gathered at the sides to watch. Some seemed to think the fight was merely a swordfighting demonstration. They cheered and whistled wildly at the participants, egging on the rogues who subsequently basked in the mistaken accolades.
If he was not panicked for dear life, Duo might have laughed. The very people the rogues had menaced were cheering for them!
Exhausted, sweating and aching to the bone, Duo thought there had to be another way. The best strategy would be for the four friends to combine their strengths, merge on the battlefield, but thirty paces and twenty rogues separated them.
Between strikes, Duo's eyes scanned the crowd for another solution. Noblemen liked to describe commoners as filthy, cowardly animals, but Duo knew better. He had seen men in his village fight-fists pounding faces and torsos, and wrestling each other to the ground. Yea, those fights had been squabbles over money and women, but if that strength could be harnessed now, it was possible to change the outcome of this struggle.
"Citizens!" Duo shouted to those gathered. "This is not a play. These men intend to kill us!"
The crowd roared with cheers and laughter. "Kill them! Kill them!"
Duo sighed, even as he slashed his sword in a horizontal motion trying for his opponent's leg, and missing. In the next breath, he was bumped from behind.
"What are you doing?" Sir Yuy asked, his voice a husky growl.
Duo flicked a glance over his shoulder at his lover. Heero's bangs were matted in sweat on his forehead and streaks of sweat and dust ran down his face. "We need help," Duo said, trying not to sound desperate.
Heero snorted. "We need a miracle!" The young nobleman dashed for his next attacker, leaving Duo's side.
The loss of Heero's warmth at his back, made Duo realize all the more that Death and eternal separation was coming for them. The Devil be damned if he was going to watch his lover die!
With a long, low snarl, Duo spun around, swinging his sword with as much force as he could muster. The move sent one rogue falling onto the ground with a hard thump, and another retreating several paces. It gave Duo enough room to head towards the onlookers. People scrambled to get away, believing he had gone mad and was about to attack them.
"Good people, these are the rogues who rob you on the road and in the woods!" He met the eyes of an old woman and recognized her as the lavender seller. He gave her a soft smile. "Pray, good lady, go to the jousting grounds for help!"
Her eyes brightened as she recognized Duo, too. With a small nod, she moved back into the crowd and was away. Duo felt a flutter of hope, but wondered why no one else came forward. Perhaps the nobles were right. Not giving up, he began his plea once again.
"I am a commoner like you, a mere tailor's son! I joined the fight to stop the rogues from destroying our livelihoods!"
A frightful scream rang over the crowd, and a young girl pointed to something behind Duo. Before he could turn, a lightning bolt of pain shot from his head to his spine.
The world faded into darkness...
~ ~ ~
Heero turned in the direction of the scream just as Duo crumpled to the ground. One of the rogues stood over Duo, and it appeared he had used the hilt of his sword to strike him.
Heero charged towards his lover, but the rogue and two of his companions intercepted him. They stood in a line, their swords held before them.
"Leaving so soon?" one asked.
Heero's eyes narrowed, his breaths heavy, as he assessed this new threat. The exhaustion of the fight was taking its toll, but now he had reason to fight on, stronger and more vicious than before.
"Stand aside," he said.
The men chuckled. "Drop your sword and we will consider it."
Heero shook his head. That would be the death of him. His eyes flicked to Duo's motionless form. Several onlookers had stepped forward in curiosity and were leaning over the fallen swordsman.
How dare they, Heero thought. No one had joined the fight though Duo had pleaded with them, and now they wanted a closer look at his wounds.
"I will kill all of you," Heero said to the rogues. "As I should have in the woods."
That day flashed in his memory as vivid as this moment. The rogues demands had rung in his ears, the smell of dirt had filled his nostrils, and the rain had settled in droplets on Duo's braid. The fight had been fierce and fast, and the kindness-the kiss that had followed-had opened Heero's eyes and heart. He had wandered alone for so many years that he had not realized there was another way. To have found his match only to lose him was an impossibility that Heero could neither live with nor die with.
Duo belonged in his arms.
A warrior's cry burst from Heero's lungs as he rushed the men, slashing his sword down upon them with the might of an army. The wild advance stunned his enemies long enough for the knight to take advantage. He cut one man through, sliced the leg of another, and forced the third to run away. With his path cleared, Heero ran to his lover's side.
He fell to his knees, holding his sword in his right hand, and scooping Duo into one arm. He brought Duo's limp body against his chest, holding him tightly.
"Please, Duo." The words choked in his throat, barely audible.
He glimpsed Tsubarov seated smugly atop his steed, watching with a victorious grin. Heero wanted to rip that grin off the bastard's face, but Tsubarov had good reason to be smug. Half a dozen rogues were stalking towards Heero. He was not in a position to defend, but he held his sword out, as threateningly and determinedly as possible at those who would destroy him and his lover.
"Duo," he said with urgency, giving him a little shake. "Please come back to me."
He cradled Duo in his arms, shaking him again, and watching for any movement. Suddenly, Duo groaned and coughed. Heero's breath hitched. "Duo!"
Duo's eyes opened slowly and his hand came up reaching for his head.
"Be still," Heero said, rubbing his thumb over Duo's lips. "You are injured."
Duo nodded and hissed with the small movement. "H-Heero."
"Yea, be still." The relief at Duo's wakefulness washed over Heero, filling him with warmth and hope. "The fight rages on. I have to leave you here."
He eased Duo to the ground and then removed his cloak, bundling it as a pillow for Duo's head.
"Allow me," a woman said, getting to her knees next to him. "I will look after your friend, sir knight. I am a healer." Her eyes were as brown as nutmeg, and her voice as sincere as any he had heard.
Though reluctant to hand over Duo to another's care, Heero nodded. There was no time to dither. "Thank you."
The woman smoothed her hand over Duo's forehead, and called to a woman standing behind her that Heero had not noticed. "We need to brew herbs."
Heero swallowed his anguish. He was grateful to these women for giving him a small reprieve from worry. He bolted to his feet, ready to charge his enemy with a renewed focus and hatred, when two young men stepped out of the crowd, one carrying a harvest rake, and the other a long strap of leather. Heero blinked in bewilderment. Were these peasants coming to his aid? Were they heading Duo's plea?
He barely had a chance to consider their motives as several more people came forward, men and women of different ages, some carrying tools, others simply a look of strong resolve.
"They will hurt you," Heero said.
"They already have," one man said, lifting his chin.
"If a tailor's son can fight, then so can we!" a youth cried out, holding an iron bar in his fist.
At last, a fighting chance!
Heero led the commoners into the fray. He engaged the rogues on the offense with attacks and thrusts, and deflected their return blows. The men and women behind him fought without finesse, but with such passion and conviction that Heero believed them as strong and reliable as any foot soldier.
Quatre was in view again, moving closer to Heero's position, but was at the end of his strength. His movements were slow and sluggish. His back was hunched forward in fatigue, and his face was bright red with exhaustion. Where was Trowa? Heero wondered as his eyes darted about the fight, looking for the lanky stablehand. He was nowhere to be seen.
The rogues now attacked in waves of five and six. Tsubarov must have given the signal to finish them off. It was all Heero could do to keep them from surrounding him and the villagers. He kept his sword in motion, his precision dwindling, but still he cut them and fended them off.
Unexpectedly, the crowd let out a loud cheer. "Hurray! Hurray!"
The sound of heavy hooves at a galloping pace and metal clanking could be heard over the din. All eyes turned to the vision of Duke Milliardo Peacecraft and a host of knights charging to the scene with the stablehand, Trowa Barton, running alongside them with a pike in his hand. Their entrance was impressive with the Duke's platinum hair billowing behind him and his men wearing red and white ribbons streaming from their tunics and horses' bridles.
The villagers continued to cheer their lord and master as his knights swept into the conflict on horseback. They struck down any rogue fool enough to stand against them. The Duke had his own agenda, immediately fixing his target as Sir Tsubarov. He charged towards him with a fierce cry as he drew his sword.
The odds were now close to even, but the rogues sensed their doom and fought with increased ruthlessness. More than ever, it would take greater numbers to subdue them as they battled with imprisonment and death nipping at their heels.
The commoners could not fight off trained swordsmen for long, and Heero turned his efforts to assisting and protecting them. He was saddened that one had already fallen, and several more were injured yet fighting on. He could not allow this sacrifice. It was his duty as a knight of the realm to defeat the lawless bandits who preyed on the people of France.
He rushed to where a small group of the villagers were fighting off rogues by bludgeoning them with farmer's, carpenter's and blacksmith's tools. Their efforts had lessened Heero's burden, but they were suffering greatly for it. He took the bandits by surprise, dispatching one and maiming another. As he pivoted to engage a third and fourth man, he caught a glimpse of Duo standing at the edge of the crowd with the healer woman at his side. At first Heero was relieved, but then he noticed that Duo was leaning on his sword like a cane, leaning forward as if he might spring back into the fight.
Heero growled, unable to defeat his opponents quickly as he swung his sword and deflected responding blows. He needed Duo alive and not preparing some foolhardy stunt to help him, but he knew Duo well. His squire would calculate the odds, see the need for another sword and take up the fight again. Trowa was now working in tandem with the villagers' efforts, leaving Heero to dispatch his enemies as efficiently as possible.
More shouts rang out accompanied by thunderous hooves. One of Heero's opponents looked towards the sound, and Heero thwacked him with the flat of his sword, knocking him to the ground. With the man down, several villagers rushed over to kick and beat him, and the other man ran off to regroup with his comrades.
With a moment's reprieve, Heero bent forward, his hands on his knees. His head was almost too heavy to keep raised to watch as twelve horsemen led by His Grace, the Duke Treize Khushrenada and his consort, Sir Wufei Chang, as they rode into the middle of the fight. Heero grinned, at last seeing an end to this battle. His knees buckled under him the moment Duke Treize's knights joined forces with the Duke Milliardo's.
In a fog of exhaustion, his head slumped to his chest. Heero distantly registered the sound of steel against steel as the noble forces clashed with the last of the rogues. Then suddenly, warmly, he felt himself surrounded in a knowing embrace.
He smiled at the sound of that voice, and dropped his sword to the ground as his arms went around Duo. The knight and squire held each other for a long moment. At last, Heero pulled back from the embrace, eager to see his lover's face. Duo's appearance was ragged and dirty, a mess from the fight, but his eyes shone with love and relief.
"Are you well?" Heero asked.
Duo grinned. "As well as you."
Heero gave a small nod of understanding. "What about your head?"
"It aches. The healer informed me that I will have a sizeable lump on the morrow."
"You seem... pleased."
"And why not? We survived and I have a fine story to tell."
Heero knew he should not encourage Duo's penchant for adventure, but he chuckled anyways. "You amaze me."
~ ~ ~
A loud commotion turned their attention toward the knights. The noblemen, under Sir Chang's direction, had gathered the surviving rogues into a group, binding their hands behind their backs and sitting them on the ground. The whooping calls, however, were not for this victory, but were directed at the two Dukes who had the biggest prize of all. An unhorsed Tsubarov was bound and walking between the Dukes' horses as they brought him to join the others. The Russian noble seemed as defiant as ever, but when the Dukes dismounted and stood next to him, it was apparent he was well past his prime and had chosen the wrong adversaries. The young Duke Treize and Duke Milliardo were tall, slender and strong, and eager to deal the final blow on Tsubarov's reign of terror.
It seemed an appropriate time for a speech, but the Dukes saw a greater need. There were injured to tend, and citizenry to calm. Duke Treize and Sir Chang set about getting the wounded into carts to be taken to Castle Peacecraft, while a contingent of Duke Milliardo's knights prepared to escort the prisoners to the castle's dungeon.
The Duke of Nevers approached the crowd. Many bowed deeply, and others kneeled before their ruler. Though Heero and Duo were not close enough to hear his words, it was apparent that his presence had a calming effect on his people.
As things began to settle, Duke Treize caught sight of Heero and Duo and walked over to speak with them. "You look like you have met Hell's fury."
The two young men bowed as they stood side-by-side.
"Their numbers and their training were greater than I anticipated," Heero said.
Treize nodded as he looked them over. "You have earned your rest. I am most pleased to see you have survived to enjoy this victory."
"Thank you," Heero said, giving another bow.
"Are you and Duke Milliardo friends again?" Duo asked, boldly.
Treize snorted. "Not quite friends, but I wager you are more than that."
Duo's eyes widened. "Umm..."
The Duke smiled. "There is no need for embarrassment. Your love was written in the stars."
"As was yours?" Duo asked, peering around Treize to see Wufei proudly in control.
When the Duke laughed, Duo bit his lip to keep from smiling and turned to get a good look at Heero's reaction. The knight seemed about to reply, when they were interrupted by shocked murmurings.
They turned to see Trowa carrying Quatre in his arms. Lord Winner was listless and his clothes bloodied.
Duo gasped and ran stumbling towards them with Heero close behind. "What has happened?" Duo asked.
"I found him unconscious," Trowa said, tears brimming in his eyes. "I should not have left..."
Duo began to check the nobleman for injury, but it was difficult to discern. His clothes were caked in dirt, sweat and blood.
Wufei was suddenly there, calling for one of the carts. "We must get him to the castle quickly."
As Trowa laid his lover in the cart, Duo protested the plan. "Nay," Duo said. "Let the healer tend to him first." Duo darted away in search of the woman who had cared for him.
Heero leaned over the back of the cart, examining his friend. "His breathing seems regular."
Trowa nodded, though Heero was not certain he was paying him much attention.
"I agree with Duo," Wufei said, sagely. "A local healer will be best."
Heero noticed the moist dark stain on Quatre's leg. "Here," he said, gently touching the area of the wound. "He has been cut, badly."
Duo found the healer tending to one of the villagers, and pulled her with him to treat his friend.
The middle-aged woman took one look at Quatre and asked that they bring him to her cottage. "It is not far."
Heero nodded and directed the farmer whose cart they were borrowing, to follow the woman. All followed, except Wufei, whose attention was needed in other matters.
The woman's home was clean, but humble. It was located off the main road in a row of similar cottages, and held very little furniture, and only one rug. Quatre was brought inside and laid on blankets in front of the hearth. A fire was started to warm him, and to brew herbs. The young woman who had assisted the healer with Duo came into the cottage, surprised to see guests, but was quick to assist.
Heero, Duo and Trowa watched in silent reverence from a bench as the women worked. They cleaned the wound and packed it with a thick paste made from mulberry leaves, garlic and meadowsweet, and then wrapped Quatre's leg tightly with strips of linen.
"He is feverish," the healer said. "I have an herbal broth that will aid his recovery and reduce the fever, but we will have to wait until he awakens."
"Perhaps we should get him to the castle," Heero said.
The woman nodded. "He will be more comfortable there. I will seal the broth in a wine jug."
As the healer set about preparing the broth for travel, Trowa went to Quatre's side, taking his hand in his.
"Sweet," he said. "Can you hear me?" His long bangs hid the sorrow in his eyes.
Duo swallowed hard, bereaved by the scene. He looked to Heero whose eyes were fast upon the lovers by the hearth. Heero's face was covered in dirt, his hair matted and filthy, the battle still clinging to his skin, and yet Duo had never seen a more beautiful man. Perhaps it was the melancholy of the moment, seeing Trowa suffering at Quatre's side, but Duo realized with crystal clarity the preciousness of life.
"Let us not waste a moment," he said in a whisper.
Heero blinked and turned to him, searching Duo's eyes. "He will not die. I have seen enough men suffer to know."
Heero gently placed a finger over Duo's lips. "I give you my word. We will share a long love."
Duo shivered at the knight's words and with the firelight playing on their faces he wanted desperately to take Heero in his arms and kiss him, but without privacy he could not. Instead, he squeezed Heero's hand and nodded. It would be enough for now.
"He is stirring," Trowa said with much excitement.
Duo jumped from his seat on the bench and planted himself at Trowa's side. He stood behind him, not wanting to intrude too much.
Quatre moaned weakly.
"He is awake!" Duo shouted.
Trowa flashed Duo a hard look, but then relented with a relieved smile. The healer brought a cup of broth. With much effort, Trowa lifted Quatre into a more upright position.
Quatre was looking at them now, his eyes showing some confusion. He sipped the broth, and listened as Duo relayed all that had happened. At last, Heero stepped behind Duo and placed a hand on his shoulder, a silent entreaty for him to stop.
The injured nobleman was eased to the floor again. He was pale and weak, but all were elated to see him awake.
"It was overwhelming," Quatre said.
"Yea," Trowa said, softly. "I should not have left you..."
Quatre's brow tightened.
"We needed help," Trowa said, continuing his apology. "I saw a chance to run to the jousting grounds where the Duke was waiting. When I got there, an old woman was pleading for an audience with him."
Duo realized that must have been the lavender seller. So, she had gone for help, but her status as a commoner had blocked her from reaching the Duke.
"I knew they would deny me, too, so I pushed past the guards and leapt into the grandstand. There was a moment when I thought they would kill me..."
"Trowa," Quatre said in a gasp.
"Shh, my Sweet. The Duke of Nevers believed me and came at once."
With the fight ongoing, Duo had not realized Trowa had gone, let alone might have been the reason they were alive now.
"Thank you," Duo said.
Trowa looked up, surprise etched on his face. "You deserve the thanks, getting the people to fight."
Duo shook his head. "It was selfish. Some of them died."
"Nay, it was necessary."
"It was brilliant... stra... tegy," Quatre said.
Heero slipped his arm around Duo's waist, the intimate touch conveying affection and approval. Duo looked over his shoulder nervously at the women, but they were busy preparing more remedies.
"We will take you back to Castle Peacecraft to recover," Heero said to Quatre.
Quatre nodded and took a slow, easy breath. "Tired."
"We could all use the rest," Heero said.
They were happy, relieved, and exhausted beyond reason.
It took all of them, including the lovely women healers, to lift Quatre comfortably into the cart. Heero paid the farmer for his time and asked him to drive them to the castle. He also arranged with the women to hire someone to retrieve their horses from the stables.
It was well past dark, but the healer provided a lantern to guide their way.
Duo leaned into Heero's side in the back of the cart as it jostled on the road. "Do you think they will let us share a bedchamber?"
Heero grinned in the near darkness. "Yea, and you will finally get your wish."
"What is that?" Duo said in a whisper.
"To have your way with me on a feather mattress."
Duo's laughter rang like church bells, echoing in the clear night.