Notes: AU. I suppose this was inevitable, given that Firesong's crush on Darkwind was the first yaoi relationship I ever read (and Darkwind and Elspeth's ekele tryst was my first lemon, for that matter). This is my humble ode to Mercedes Lackey and one of the beautiful worlds she has created. Also, I must thank Siadea and Jada. This fic had been half completed collecting dust in my room for a long while, but their "Return to Innocence" replenished my muse. Fablespinner's recent artwork led me to their fic, so many thanks go to her as well. I guess this shows that an author is nothing without her friends. ^_~
Pairings: 1+2 and 3+4 I list them in this order because Heero and Duo meet first, but with my love for Quatre I can promise that the 3+4 will be the most prominent relationship.
Beyond Our Borders
by Spencer Valdemar series, by Mercedes Lackey
Duo ducked into a crouch just as the broadsword swung sideways, missing his head by a mere breath. He quickly spun out, slashing at his opponent's legs as he did so. He knew his shorter, lighter weapon lacked the reach to do any damage, but hoped it might goad heightened reflexes into reaction. No such luck. As he twisted away the broadsword caught him across the back in a stinging line. His eyes watered form the pain, but he quickly swung back into combat, blinking back the moisture in his refusal to give up. The cocksure grin never left his lips. His opponent may be stronger and more experienced, but he was faster, and if there was any room for doubt, he could improvise. In the blink of an eye he shot forward, lunging right but charging through when his opponent swung away so that he caught his foot between unbalanced knees, sending them both to the ground in a mass of desperately struggling limbs. Having the advantage of surprise, Duo was a touch quicker, managing to at least maneuver himself atop his opponent's stomach, his blade an inch from the exposed throat. Unfortunately, in the split second before his blade could that inch to meet soft flesh, he felt the cold bite of steel against his own.
"Damn." He smiled ruefully down at his unremittingly victorious opponent.
"Guess I'm dead again?" The woman on her back beneath him chuckled, letting the blade drop from her pupil's throat.
"Don't curse. It does not befit royalty, nor a Herald. Better concentration and initiative, though." He shrugged and slid to the side, allowing her to rise. "What's bothering you?"
With a sigh, quickly turned to a groan by the fresh line of bruises throbbing across his back, Duo stood and sheathed his weapon and replaced it on the wall of training gear. The blonde soon followed, casually patting dust from her functional clothes and well-worn practice armor.
"I don't know, Sally. These new attacks from Hardorn - if that's what they are - just don't feel . . . right." He crossed to the low bench along the wall and collapsed there. Small windows in the thick white plaster walls cut the late afternoon sun into warm golden shafts, illuminating the dust they'd stirred in their practice. Duo ran a hand through soaked chocolate bangs, brushing them from eyes bright with worry. "Every time one of those . . . 'creatures' crosses the border I can feel it."
"How?" Sally had put aside her blade and sat beside the teenager, her gray-blue eyes suddenly alive with curiosity.
Duo's face crumpled into an expression of disgust. "A sort of tingling, a sick feeling in the back of my mind."
Sally nodded, lashes down as she silently weighed the implications and her options. There was not one she liked.
"How long have you been feeling this, Duo?"
"A few days."
"None of the earlier attacks felt this way?"
She sighed, wiping a callused hand across gray eyes as Duo watched, thoroughly confused. "That's a relief, anyway."
"Sally, what's going on, and don't," he caught her gaze and held it, "tell me it's nothing or that it doesn't concern me."
The swordswoman scowled for a moment, pleased by her student's tenacity, but afraid of its consequences, before standing abruptly and striding to a weapons rack on the far wall. She drew a practice dagger and ran her fingers along its rounded edge.
"How much do you know of magic?"
Duo burst out laughing, a reaction she had expected, as she remained somber. His amusement withered quickly, however, as he met her worried gaze.
He snorted, uncomfortable in the silence. "That it doesn't exist." Now it was Sally who snorted, but Duo continued, bemused smile returning, confidence solid in his beliefs. "I know that a lot of strange things happen in the lands beyond our borders, and that the uneducated tend to call anything they don't understand, magic. I also know that if you take a closer, calmer look at these strange 'magics' than most people are willing to, they always turn out to have simple, mundane explanations."
Sally nodded, slowly crouching in the dust to rest the point of her dagger against the packed earth floor.
"It is easy, here, to forget what exists elsewhere in the world, but you will have to trust me when I say that magic does exist. It is simply Valdemar which has forgotten."
Duo still looked as though he doubted her sanity, so she motioned him over. With the tip of her blade, she had drawn a rough map of Valdemar and the surrounding territories in the packed earth at her feet.
"Dekim rules Hardorn," she indicated a jagged shape roughly two-thirds the size of their own country, butting against Valdemar in the northeast. "The Pinetower ridge runs north-south along most of the east, thus his troops attack over our northern border." Duo nodded, gazing down at the sketching. "To the west are several minor allies, none strong enough to help us fight, some of which Dekim has already conquered. He was stopped here," her blade traveled southward along the western edge until it was even with Valdemar's central city, Haven, "by the Scoured Wastes. Not even enchanted armies can cross that charred desert."
Duo blinked, of course he knew intimately the political situation of Valdemar, but 'enchanted' troops?
Sally continued, "Below the desert, lies Rethwellan, an ally strong enough to aid us, as long as Hardorn's attacks remain within our territory, not theirs. They could not withstand a direct assault, but are willing to assist us in any ways possible."
"Which is why Princess Sylvia is here, speaking with Queen Relena as ambassador to her father," Duo interrupted lightly. He knew Sally was leading to a point, she never wasted words, but he couldn't begin to see what it was. "I know all of this. It's why the palace is in such an uproar over the negotiations. If we can form a strong alliance with Rethwellan and the other members invited to the Treaty Council, we may have the strength to keep Hardorn out permanently."
A pause drew across the silence.
"If Dekim is using magic in the most recent attacks there is nothing Rethwellan, our other allies, or our own forces can do."
Duo stood silently, dark violet eyes locked on the shape of his kingdom, commanding it to reveal such dark secrets. Sally knew the difficulty he was having. Born and raised in Ruvan, magic was a familiar practice, much like the farmer's craft, or the healer's. Her father would see the local hedge wizard whenever he needed weather advice for his crops, and she could still remember the year an angry rival had placed a frost spell on their village. Half the crop had been destroyed before they realized what was wrong and could find a mage to reverse the spell. Still, there was so much good that could be accomplished with magic, a safe energy source, protection, mindspeech. Sally knew for a fact that the healers' gift was related closely to magic. As captain of a mercenary band she had witnessed many a powerful mage drain himself to exhaustion supplying energy to an overworked healer. A mage could be an incredible warrior, defender, and ally, and the present Captain of the Royal Guard and Herald (she felt this was the greater honor), doubted she would have survived this many years without magic.
A mage held great power, but mage energy was a neutral force; in good hands it could save a kingdom, in bad ones, decimate it. Everything depended on the person wielding the power, and if Dekim had discovered a way to use it . . .
She shuddered, despite the heat of exertion, catching Duo's eye.
Valdemar, a kingdom surrounded by powerful magics, which some suspected contained its own source of great power, had been, for as long as anyone could remember, completely oblivious to such forces. It was as if an enchantment had been laid on the kingdom - recently Sally had come to believe precisely that. The kingdom's inhabitants seldom ventured beyond the borders, requiring nothing that could not be supplied locally. Foreigners rarely stayed for long, returning to their native lands with stories of a million eyes, always watching. Those who did remain soon contracted the skepticism of their neighbors, dismissing all they'd seen before as parlor tricks and coincidences.
Sally had begun to succumb to this skepticism as well, until being asked to escort the envoy from Karse from their capital city of Solar safely back to Haven for the Treaty Council with Queen Relena. During the few days she spent in Karse, the deeper truth of her memories came rushing back, bringing with it a skepticism not of magic, but of Valdemar and its strange influence. She had intended to speak with Relena about this matter immediately, but in the three days of travel from the border back to Haven the sense of urgency was washed away, and other duties had seemed more pressing upon her return. The matter had slipped her mind almost entirely before Duo's revelation restored it with a jolt.
So how was he to believe her after a lifetime's influence, when her direct intentions had been waylaid in a matter of days?
"What should we do?" Sally blinked in startlement and was caught by an intense stare.
"You believe me?" she asked in wonder.
Duo's scowl deepened at those words as he struggled for an answer. Finally he gave up with a huff. "No."
Sally's heart and resolve plummeted as she turned back to the map, but a warm hand fell on her shoulder.
"But . . . I know you would not lie to me."
Sally couldn't suppress her grin at these words. They held a hundred times more conviction than the denial, and if that was the best she could get, it was certainly enough.
But that brought her back to determining a course of action.
"If Dekim is using magic against us, we have to find a way of protecting ourselves." She turned to Duo. "You said you felt odd when Hardorn was attacking." Duo nodded. "Are you sure it was only during attacks, or have you felt it at other times, too?" Duo began to answer, then stopped himself.
"Do dreams count?"
"Absolutely." Sally nodded with enthusiasm, but this seemed to make Duo edgier.
"Then, yes, I have felt it. At night I've dreamt the same feeling I've had during the day, but it's stronger, and darker somehow." He shivered, and Sally felt the growing chill of worry. "I thought they were only nightmares, but they feel so real."
Sally took a deep breath and held it before releasing it slowly. This was exactly what she had feared.
"The recent reports have been of strange creatures crossing the border. If you're right, he's using magic either to enhance native creatures, or to bring magical beasts here from the Outlands."
"Beyond Ruvan?" Duo asked.
"And Jkatha, yes. That's a long way to form a Gate," this was mumbled, more for her own ears or those of her Companion. "Either of these spells requires a mage of master level at least. If he can do this he is capable of much more, but he hasn't yet tried a direct attack against us." She paused for a moment, before speaking slowly, "I think he's just testing us now, making sure we won't strike back, but he will grow bolder, and we don't yet know how much power he has."
"How do we protect ourselves from something we don't even understand?" The gravity of Duo's tone was becoming unnerving, despite its appropriateness. The young man was much more accustomed to smiles and laughter than this worried frown, and Sally regretted that she had been the one to affect this change.
Still, the boy's quick wit and clear perception remained unaffected as he strove directly to the heart of the matter.
"We need a trustworthy mage who can counter any magics Dekim sends against us."
"We can ask the Council," Duo immediately supplied. "I'm sure someone will be able to help us. They're always hinting about 'powerful forces'." He snickered, a grin beginning to grow - much to Sally's relief - as he planned. "I always thought they were bluffing, just vying for sway with Relena." A mischievous gleam lit his eyes. "It will turn the Treaty Council into something of a tournament. Whoever supplies the mage we need will believe they have won more influence with Relena." He giggled. "But of course she will be fair to everyone, no matter what.
"They just don't understand her, do they?"
Sally smiled ruefully. "No, they don't, and they understand Heralds and Companions even less."
"Oh! When Princess Sylvia's daughter asked me about Relena's 'ghost horse' I nearly died! I took her to meet Shinigami immediately, and I swear her eyes were the size of saucers when Shini nuzzled her. I think she really expected her hand to pass right through Shini's nose." He laughed. "That ought to start some new rumors around their palace."
As their laughter faded, echoed by another set of chuckles rippling through their heads, Sally looked back to the map on the floor. "We can't ask the Council. We'll need to gather every healer and weather witch we can within our own borders, but no one else nearby."
"What? Why?" Duo asked, confused.
"To battle Dekim we need a mage of Master or Adept skill. None of our allied kingdoms has that powerful a force within their court, and I will not risk bringing a rogue with that much power into Valdemar. There's no telling where Dekim's treachery may have reached, and I will not entrust the future of our kingdom to an unknown renegade."
"Then what can we do?" The calm Duo projected was merely a facade, and Sally knew it, but the mask was a good one.
"There is a people, beyond the Dhorisha Plains, who work closely with magic, and who can be trusted with the task." She pointed to a spot on the map, a perfect circle to the soutwest of Valdemar and the lands just beyond. "They are close, secretive and seldom leave their own territory, but if we could convince a single Adept mage to aid us . . ." She left the rest unsaid, trusting Duo to value the outcome of this possibility at its true worth. It might be the only option they had, given the circumstances, and she needed Duo on her side before she approached the Queen with her idea. Convincing Relena of the necessity of this venture would not be easy, but with Duo's help it just might work. Being the prince of a powerful kingdom and first cousin to its Queen had its advantages.
"So an envoy must be sent."
"Hopefully to return with a . . . mage," he still stumbled over the word. A long pause followed, while Sally mulled over who should be sent. The answer was obvious, though Relena wouldn't like it any more than she did. He was an important official of the court, though his presence was not necessarily needed in Haven. He held the power of the crown and could make responsible decisions for the kingdom. He had been trained in defense and tactics. Most importantly, he had just revealed himself sensitive to magic, thus would have an advantage in the realms beyond their oblivious kingdom, and if worse came to worse and no mage was willing to come, perhaps he had enough talent to be trained to wield mage energies himself.
:You know he's the best choice.: A calm voice spoke in Sally's mind.
:You agree to this?: she returned silently, somewhat incredulous that her Companion should be so willing to send the boy out on his own, completely unprepared, into a dangerous quest that may have no prize.
:He won't be alone. Shinigami would never leave him, and you've trained him well. The only way in which he is unprepared is in the use of his Gift, which he cannot learn here.: the voice replied, unremitting in its logic.
:Shinigami agrees to this?:
:Her Chosen is no longer a child. She believes he is capable of the task.:
Sally sighed. No matter how long she had been bonded with Altair, he and the other Companions continued to surprise her. She would never understand how the brilliant blue-eyed creatures could be mistaken for ordinary white horses, and would never know exactly why Altair had Chosen her, a mercenary, to be a Herald, defender of the peace. The only answers she could wrest from him were vague assurances that it was meant to be, and that he had simply been waiting for the right time to find her. It all seemed too deep and pre-destined for her tastes, but over the years she had come to accept that as part of the nature of Companions, and she had to concede that she had never known them to be wrong.
"This is the best solution?" Duo asked, drawing her back from her silent conversation.
"It seems to be."
He nodded once, then headed toward the door. "Then we must convince my cousin to let me go." With that, he was out the door, long brown braid flipping once in his wake.
Sally sighed mentally, reaching for the comfort of Altair's presence in her mind.
:You're sure he's ready for this?:
She sighed, again, but felt a surge reassurance from her Companion.
:Do not worry, my Chosen. He will not go alone. Nanashi and her Trowa want to join them, and Darlian has already convinced her Relena to agree.: Sally couldn't help but chuckle aloud.
:You certainly work fast, don't you?:
:There is no time for delay.: The sudden severity of the gentle voice caught Sally off guard.
:Dekim is using magic then?: she asked quietly.
:We need help.: Was the somber reply.