This will be a set of oneshot AU stories, each taking a different subset of the Leverage crew and plopping them somewhere new. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did writing them!
I will be honest – if I were ever going to do a follow-up to any of these, or expand any one into a longer story, it would probably be this 'verse.
#1: The Phoenix Sword
There was no warning given at all – one moment, the path ahead lay clear and the next it was filled with the shape of a man.
Prince Nathan drew his mount to a halt at once. "What is the meaning of this?"
The man on the path regarded the prince with eyes that were cooler than an autumn sky. His hair was long and unbound, brushing wide and well-muscled shoulders. Though the prince would have stood above him, the man carried himself as if he rode at the head of an army.
Prince Nathan's sharp eyes saw no insignia nor livery upon the man, nothing to identify his lord, but there could be no denying that this was a warrior in the service of someone of the highest rank. No other would dare stare so at a prince of the realm.
"I bring you a warning," the man said, his voice low and gruff. "There will be an assassination attempt against you, possibly before nightfall today. Be on your guard, or prepare to lose your life."
The prince tipped his head, curious. "How do you come by this knowledge?"
The man made a smile that was unkind and all too knowing. "I was paid to kill you myself."
"And yet still I live."
"Why?" The prince threw back his shoulders, snapping the scarlet cape he wore so that it fanned out about him in an appropriately dramatic fashion. The rest of his attire was black, much of it velvet and silk, save for the golden band upon his brow and its matching medallion upon his chest which showed his rank as the fourth prince through both symbol and jewel – the emerald of his station crowned a proud hawk with wings spread wide. Though his face could be round and open, he squared it now, the softness lost in stern command.
But the man on the path, wearing a warrior's browns but no armor, and carrying no weapons, did not flinch nor tremble at the tiny show of power.
"A man's choices should be his own. If you choose to ignore my warning, you may die. But I choose not to be the hand that spills your blood."
"And may I inquire as to who offers gold for my blood?" Prince Nathan asked.
The man shook his head. "I have betrayed him once by sparing you, twice by warning you. I shall not betray him again to name him to you. My honor is forfeit, but I do have some pride."
The prince smiled. "So I see. Then I thank you for your pride, good sir, and I daresay that it is the greater honor to show mercy."
The man dipped his head, just once, with the air of one who bows to no one, heedless of royal blood. He turned to walk back into the forest.
Prince Nathan held out a hand. "Give me your name, sir, that I may know whom to thank properly."
He did not turn around to speak. "I am Spencer."
And he strode off into the trees.
The prince watched him go, deeply interested in one who could be so contradictory and so silent at once. As he urged his mount back to an easy trot, the prince let his mind whirl with the many possibilities.
Of course, the most likely agent behind any attempt against himself was his half-brother, Prince James of Stirling. James and Nathan competed in all things and loathed one another through false smiles and clever intrigues. Prince James, though recognized for his blood, was a son by the king's third wife, and therefore beneath Prince Nathan who was the only son of the king's second wife. Where Nathan was the fourth prince of the realm, James was not content to be fifth. It would be very like his scheming, troublesome brother to try to deprive Nathan of life and title so that James could become Prince of Ford.
Prince Nathan pondered the traitorous plot in such depth that by the late afternoon, he had forgotten the specific warning by the one called Spencer.
Until a band of rogues burst from the trees and surrounded him.
Prince Nathan was a superb horseman, and was able to keep from being thrown to the ground, but only just – the horse stamped and reared and kicked in a panic.
"Get him!" cried one of the brigands, wielding a rough axe.
Prince Nathan drew the blade hanging at his hip, but he could not threaten more than one of his opponents at once, and they moved around him like circling wolves. Many carried axes and thick knives, but two levied spears long enough to pierce the horse's heart without ever drawing close enough for Nathan to harm.
The prince wheeled in place, turning a tight circle that he might keep his eyes upon them all.
The men let out a war-cry and charged.
Prince Nathan braced himself for battle.
And a tempest burst from the forest to one side.
The man called Spencer charged into the crowd, dispatching them with a single blow of the fist and leaving each to fall while he rounded upon the next. The rogues turned away from Prince Nathan to meet this new threat and attacked, levying blade and axe, but it seemed none could reach the man. In moments, every man lay upon the ground, groaning, injured, and defeated.
"I warned you," Spencer said, raising his eyes to the prince once more.
"Indeed you did," Prince Nathan said. "And that is twice you have my thanks."
"Go back to your castle. Do not ride out unguarded again. I was almost too slow to reach you."
"You could return with me," the prince said. "A man of your courage and skill would be very valuable to me. And then you would not need to find me to save my life a third time."
Spencer shook his head. "I won't save it again. If you are foolish enough to offer it to such dullards, I see no reason to help you further."
"A reward, then." The prince reached to a pouch at his belt and drew forth a handful of coins. "For you have rendered a noble service unto me, and it is my honor to repay it."
"Keep your payment, and your honor." Spencer turned away. "If you must reward me, then keep yourself alive, Prince Nathan. That would be reward enough."
And before the prince could speak again, Spencer returned to the forest.
Prince Nathan waited to see if he could follow his mysterious rescuer, but as his attackers began to stir, he thought better of it and instead turned back along his path to return to his castle. He sent the captain of his guard with several soldiers to retrieve those left lying in the forest for interrogation, but by the time they arrived at the ill-fated ambush, all had vanished. Only many boot-prints in the dirt showed that there had ever been a group of brigands at all.
Nathan dispatched a trusted agent to the king's summer palace at Pendragon to investigate the attack, and sent a carefully-worded missive to Prince James as well.
Prince James sent a response within a fortnight, along with a cart filled with armor and shields:
"While I long to see you displaced, brother-mine, if our fraternal blood is to be spilled, I should rather see it upon my own hands, not those of commoner dogs."
"Well," Nathan said to himself, shaking his head at his brother's eccentricities, "at least I know who did not send death to me."
Prince Nathan continued his daily rides through the countryside, though he took Spencer's words to heart and allowed himself to be accompanied by his own loyal soldiers. But many weeks passed and no more attempts were made upon him, either out in the fields and forests of Ford or within the castle itself.
However, there were strange occurrences in Ford – simply none in the presence of the prince himself.
The first report that reached Nathan was of an old woman who had been accused of witchcraft; she was dragged from her home and would have been killed but for the intervention of a stranger. Without doing more harm than a blow to the head, he rescued her from her would-be murderers and stood guard over her until some of the castle soldiers could be sent to remind the people that crimes of witchcraft were fantasies and anyone causing harm in the pursuit of a 'witch' would be punished.
Prince Nathan released a royal decree praising the stranger for his chivalry and courage, and he invited the woman to come work in the castle as a seamstress, which she gratefully accepted – sewing was far easier on her bones than the endless rough of toiling in the soil.
Some days later, another report came of a drunken brawl in a tavern broken up by a man no one knew, sparing the tavern-owners much damage. The prince rode to visit the tavern himself, and was surprised at the number of men who had engaged in such a rout – and yet were all stopped by the intervention of one.
Prince Nathan ordered his soldiers to keep a better eye on taverns, and to prevent such brawls from getting so out of hand when possible, and offered to reward anyone who could identify the man who had spared so many cracked heads and unbroken mugs. But none could.
The third report, however, required far more direct involvement by Prince Nathan.
A small town within a single day's ride from the castle of Ford sent a request for some soldiers to arrest a man and bring him before the prince for judgement. When he arrived in the castle, he told a story Prince Nathan felt certain must be entirely false.
For any man so badly bruised and with many bones broken by a stranger was probably no innocent.
So Prince Nathan engaged the help of one of his most trusted men and ventured out of the castle in disguise. It was a regular pastime for him, to wear the clothing of an average peasant, to let his hair hang free of the circlet that usually confined it, and to adopt the manner of a man merely passing through. The common people of Ford might have heard of a shrewd and honorable man called Nate, who claimed to have been named for the great Prince Nathan, but rare was the man who realized they were one and the same. It was not that the peasants were of low wittedness; rather, Prince Nathan was exceptionally clever, and as Nate he knew how to hide the truth of himself from a person looking directly at his face.
And so Nate ventured into the town to speak to those who knew the man sent to the castle for punishment. What he learned from neighbors filled him with fury.
"Aye, he's a rotten drunk. Thought my Lily was his own wife and blackened her eye a'fore I could stop him."
"I've seen him strike his sons with horseshoes, and he's broken their bones right enough, too."
"There's not a woman or child who will dare go near him, or as like as not they'll leave his presence bloodied."
Nate tapped at the thin, wooden door, and was met by the face of a woman who had been beaten savagely.
"Please," he said, gentling his tone as he never would wearing the gold of the realm, "I only wish to know what happened and if you and your little ones are well. I've a friend in the guard, and if I tell him what I know, he will speak to the prince before the judgement is passed."
The woman let him into her tiny cottage and offered him a small drink, which he refused as politely as he could without betraying his true heritage. Three children, two boys bruised and angry, and a girl who never came out from behind her mother's skirts, added their bits to the tale of their father the drunkard who harmed whatever he touched, and whose only contrition was blame and more anger when sober.
"And what happened last night?" Nate asked.
"A man burst in," the woman said. "A man with lightning in his eyes and justice singing in his blood. He pulled Harold off me, drove him outside, and told me he'd see that man hang before he would ever lay another hand upon us. I do not know what he did with Harold, but I know I slept well and without fear for the first time since we spoke our marriage vows."
"Lightning in his eyes and justice singing in his blood," Nate repeated. "I should like to meet a man like that."
But he was certain he already had.
When Prince Nathan levied his punishment on the abusive man, he did so to set an example for the people of Ford – none may harm even the smallest, weakest, least of those in the prince's realm without paying for such violence with blood. There would be no women afraid, no children broken, not in Ford, not while Prince Nathan breathed.
He hung Harold's head upon the gatehouse wall to prove it.
As for Harold's widow and her children, he sent them to a distant cousin who had need of a woman to keep house for him, and who was kind and gentle and courtly to all. Prince Nathan knew it would only be a matter of moons before his cousin would petition to wed the woman, regardless of her class of birth, and adopt her children as his own. He looked forward to giving his full blessing.
The stories of the avenging stranger continued to circulate – a man whom some called an angel of mercy wandered the lands of Ford protecting those who could not protect themselves and lending a strong arm and a steady heart when danger or hardship were felt. He never gave a name, never stayed once he had served, and never allowed any to repay him in any way.
And Prince Nathan waited.
On the day of the autumn equinox, Prince Nathan invited all his people to gather at his castle, to feast in honor of a year of plenty. He made the invitation well known, and ensured that it was received by those who were poor as well as those of means who sought to curry influence with himself.
And when the feasting was done, and the revels begun, he put Prince Nathan away in his chambers and emerged into the festival atmosphere as only Nate.
As Nate, he moved through the crowd invisibly, looking for familiar storm eyes and square shoulders, for the arm and form of a man who had brought justice to Ford where Prince Nathan could not. He walked amidst the peasants, the soldiers, traveling entertainers, musicians, jugglers, storytellers, and children shrieking in glee as they raced about freely. He walked the tents and wooden benches used as seats and stages outside his castle walls, all the way through the castle town and to the fields where people found quiet and privacy under the moonlit sky for some time away from prying eyes.
Nate heard a single step behind him.
"It's dangerous to walk alone."
He turned to see, at last, the man he had sought for most of the golden summer.
"Is it, now?" Nate asked, affixing a jaunty smile.
"Yes. Particularly for you."
"I am no one. So-and-so's cousin Nate, wanderer of Ford."
"And you are also Prince Nathan." In the dark, Spencer's eyes glittered.
Nate was not surprised that his secret could be so easily guessed by this man above all others – he was pleased. He made a broad, courtly bow, as foolish as the ones given by clowns and bards.
"And it's a great honor of mine to meet you, good sir, who is quickly becoming the Hero of Ford with his selfless acts of courage and kindness."
But Spencer looked away. "I came only to say that I am leaving. You will have to rule your people better from now on, if you wish them to live with justice."
The joviality fell from Nate quickly. He faced Spencer, all the might and focus of his mind in his eyes.
"Why are you leaving?"
"It's as you just said. I'm becoming known here."
"Do you not wish to be known?"
"It isn't safe to know someone like me." And Spencer's mouth twisted up in what should have been a smile but looked nothing like one at all.
Nate regarded the man. "I cannot change what you have decided, of course, but would you do me the favor of walking with me tonight that I might know more of what you have seen in my lands?"
It was a request Nate knew, as he knew his maths and his history, that Spencer would not deny. A man who had bloodied his fists in defense of the people would not deny this chance to speak for them to their prince. And so he accepted the short nod of agreement and began to lead the way from where others would gather, eventually guiding them both to a small stand of trees not far from the castle's western gate.
Nate asked as many questions as he dared about the people Spencer had met and the things he had seen, and while he marked well all the answers and details Spencer provided, he more closely watched the man himself. He could see a brittleness in Spencer's eyes, like the last ice on a pond, that was the final strength of a man whose soul has been broken.
But Nate also saw that soul could still burn with a fire that not only banished evil, but warmed and sheltered all that was good.
And he was not going to let Spencer leave so easily.
"Tell me then," Nate said at last, "why you came to Ford at all?"
"I told you when first we met," Spencer said. "I was sent to kill you."
"But instead you have saved my life and the lives of my people. You are no common fighter, no wandering knave. And yet, I sense you have been such, and far worse."
"Yes," and Spencer barely breathed the word. "I have been worse."
"But now you battle for the light, and not the darkness I sense in your spirit."
Spencer met his eyes evenly, if angrily. "The man I have become is no man at all, but a monster. If I must be a monster, then I will be a monster who hunts its own kind. If I were to live as a monster who feasts upon the innocent for even one more day, I would spill my own blood to the last drop. I shall never again harm that which does not deserve it."
"But, you see, that makes you not a monster at all – you are a lion. A lion's teeth may rend a man's flesh, but he only turns them to the protection of his own pride. And my pride is very much in need of protection, as you well know."
"I am no lion."
"But I say you are." Nate leaned forward. "I have been seeking a lion since I attained my majority. I can do much with the powers of the crown, and more without it. But I cannot do what you have done. I cannot guard my people from the ills that lurk in their own shadows. I can judge and guide and lead, but I cannot be their shield."
"Is that what you think I am?" Spencer asked. "I, whose hands will never be clean of blood? For I tell you, prince that you are, that I have killed more people than you dare comprehend, and some of them women, children, the infirm, and the old. Some of them innocent. Some very guilty. I have killed them all and I must carry their ghosts in my heart every moment of every day for as long as I draw breath."
"No." Nate shook his head. "No, you need not. For the man before me now is not one who has done these things. The instant you spared my life, the man you were perished. From that moment on, you have been a phoenix, risen and blazing and free of the ashes. You may carry them with you, but you are not that man, not now."
Spencer said nothing.
Nate reached out his hands and, daring violence, closed them upon Spencer's shoulders.
"Come. Join me. Be my help and my lion. Stand between my people and all evils, great and small. Be my protector and my ally in this, that we may bring justice and honor to every man, woman, and child in Ford."
And when Spencer flinched, Nate understood all at once the silence and hesitation that had overtaken this dauntless warrior.
The one fear even his boundless courage could not withstand.
"I shall make a bargain with you."
Spencer's eyes, clear and still strangely fragile, met Nate's with a light of hope as pale as a star's lost in the brightness of the moon. But it was hope, and Nate wished to breathe it brighter.
"Be my avenging angel, my agent, my ally. Give to me your will, and shackle yourself to my aims. And then you need have no doubt and no fear. For I shall never send you to strike the innocent. And if a life must be taken, it shall be my will, even if it is by your hand."
Spencer stared at him.
"Be my blade, my sword, my arrow. I shall wield you as a master does their weapon. Put your choice into my hands. And never again will you be guilty of that which haunts you, for any crimes you commit will stand upon my soul."
"You would make me a dog?" Spencer asked.
"No. I would make you free."
"If you cannot trust in yourself, then trust in me. I beg you."
At that, Spencer smiled. "A prince does not beg, my lord."
Nate squeezed the shoulders still in his grip. "Not between us. Never between us. A prince of the realm I may be, but I am merely a man with something to protect. I will make you my sword, but I will make you also my conscience. For that, I could never be your lord."
"I must call you so when others may overhear, or they shall wonder. For prince you are, even if you are not a fool such as most who carry that honor."
"Very well. But only when I am Prince Nathan. Never when I am simply Nate."
"And when are you Nate? How shall I know?"
"I shall be Nate of Ford when we are alone, always. And when Nate of Ford can do more good than all the princes of the realm together."
Spencer nodded. "Very well. But I have a single condition."
"Ironic that you put it so. You must call me by a new name."
Nate was surprised.
"I have been Spencer for many weary years. Weary, bloody years. That name is known to those who ask, though less my face, as I left few alive to see it. I will be your sword, I will help you protect your people, and I will guard you, Prince Nathan, for in you is the honest man and honorable prince every land deserves and so very few receive. But I cannot be Spencer to do it."
"If you are phoenix, you are reborn. It is Spencer, then, who died in the woods the day my life was spared."
"Yes. Let it be such."
"I agree to this condition. Now, if you please, take a knee and receive your honors."
Prince Nathan – for in spite of his peasant clothing he must be a prince now – was amused at the surprise in the face across from him.
"I shall not reveal your title given so that you may be as Nate, a common man amongst common men striving for honor. But if you are my knight, and mine alone, then even my father himself cannot order you away from me. It is my right as prince of the realm to choose a knight who shall be my champion and guardian. I choose you also as sword and shield."
After a moment, he added more quietly, "And perhaps, if I may be so bold, as friend."
Prince Nathan thought perhaps he had said too much, but the man before him simply nodded and dropped to one knee, bowing his head.
Prince Nathan did not have his greatsword, but he carried a fine dagger and this he held up to the moonlight.
"I, Prince Nathan, fourth prince of the realm, do hereby exercise my royal right and privilege to present this man for a knighthood. Do you, good sir, swear by all you hold sacred, true, and holy that you will honor and defend myself and my people?"
"That you will honor and defend all who are weaker than yourself?"
"That you will draw your sword only for just cause, and only in loyalty to myself, honor, and justice?"
"Then." And Prince Nathan tapped his shoulders with the blade. "By right of arms, I, fourth prince of the realm, do dub you by all you hold sacred, true, and holy – once for honor, twice for duty, thrice for chivalry. Arise, my knight."
And the man who straightened up before Prince Nathan had no brokenness to him now. His eyes, which had been so haunted, were turned clear. And the prince knew well that this man's soul may have been saved by this single act.
He resolved to continue to save it with the saving and protection of the land.
"And what shall I call you now? Sword and shield of my people, yes, and staunch defender of righteousness. But a name you need, my knight. One that lives the new life breathed into you this night."
"Choose one for me, my lord. A blade is named not by its maker, but by the will that carries it into battle."
Prince Nathan smiled, finally hearing the man's true voice and seeing his true smile for the first time. Indeed, the land of Ford had never been so safe as it would be from this day forward.
"As you wish. Then let us begin our battle against wickedness, a war that may not find us victorious, but each blow struck a triumph in itself. And when they sing of the sword of justice, the knight with lightning-eyes, the name they will sing shall be Eliot."