This is an amateur effort and not intended to infringe on the rights of Mercedes Lackey, Larry Dixon or any other copyright holder. No monetary profit is being made.
Thanks go to Lis for beta reading.
Merry Christmas CC!
This story is set a bit before Black Gryphon.
Something has to be wrong with the lock-breaker, Vikteren thought with growing exasperation. He had checked the spells only this morning, and everything had seemed in order then. The lock picks hadn't been exposed to any other magic, they had not gotten tangled, and nobody had touched them. He had even made certain that the beads were clean and polished.
But something had rendered them useless. Normally Vikteren would have gotten through most of the doors in the tower without needing more than a dozen spells; he had done it often enough to know which places were difficult and where he had to expect changes in the spells. Still, his master always claimed that nobody would venture far from the spells he normally used, and that the most difficult task always was the first lock. After that, finding the right spells to open doors was merely a matter of drawing the right conclusions.
It seemed that Urtho was proving to be the exception to that rule. Not that Vikteren was particularly surprised by that. The Mage of Silence appeared to view Vikteren's occasional visits to the tower as something of a game, and Vikteren could have sworn that Urtho was changing his spells according to some intricate pattern to keep him from wandering around too easily. Surely there could be no other reason for the spells to be altered so frequently.
Perhaps Vikteren's master had warned Urtho that he was going to send his apprentice on another trial run that would explain the new lock spell on the door to the staircase, and also this one. The hallway Vikteren was attempting to enter didn't warrant any particular protection; it merely led to the top of the tower. Nothing valuable was hidden behind that door except for an admittedly spectacular view of the surrounding country. Vikteren had been there several times before, always on training runs ordered by his master. If Urtho had known of it, then he would certainly have prepared. Which is unfair, but I doubt he would agree with me.
There were only three of the lock picks left, and those contained spells Vikteren doubted he would ever get to use in his life. His master had told him that they had not been in use for at least two hundred years; only the greatest of lock-masters would attempt anything so complicated. And certainly not for a simple door leading to a balcony.
The first two spells showed no effect when Vikteren tried them on the lock. That left him with one last bead before he would have to acknowledge defeat for the first time since his tower wanderings had started. His master would be disappointed and Urtho would probably enjoy his little victory. Vikteren imagined Urtho's face, smiling at successfully keeping his doors locked against friendly would-be trespassers. That sight would be worth a defeat, he decided as he reached for the last spell.
Vikteren had not really expected any effect, and so he was not particularly surprised that the lock did not react at all to the spell. It disappointed him to some extent that he could not manage to get through that door; he liked the view from the tower top in the night, when the campfires below would be reduced to small lights that seemed to mirror the stars in the sky. But it seemed as though he was not going to see them tonight.
"So my door has defeated you for once?" a familiar voice behind him asked. "I thought I would never see this day."
"I will have to think a bit about this lock," Vikteren admitted, turning around. "Whatever you did, it is effective."
Urtho smiled. "I have spent much thought on it," he said, stepping closer.
"The effort was worth it." Vikteren took a closer look at the other mage and frowned when he spotted signs of exhaustion. They were swiftly becoming a familiar sight on Urtho's face, and yet nobody seemed able to ease his burden. Partly because what Urtho did required abilities far beyond those of the normal mages. But partly it was also Urtho's stubbornness about delegating that was at fault. He claimed that he did not like to bother others with what he could just as well do himself. Vikteren also suspected that he preferred the knowledge that everything was properly done, exactly as he imagined.
It was plain to see that Urtho would not be able to continue like this for much longer, but he refused to see it. Vikteren had tried to convince him more than once that others could be trusted with some of the tasks, and that at least Snowstar would easily be able to take care of them. But whenever he tried, Urtho merely smiled at him, kissed him and told him not to worry.
This was not going to continue, Vikteren decided.
"Do not look so displeased," Urtho said, mistaking his frown for unhappiness about the lock. "I have no illusions that the trick I used is going to work more than once with you."
"It is not the lock that concerns me," Vikteren said. "Though I would like to know what you did. None of the spells worked."
Urtho clearly was amused by that. "None at all?"
Vikteren shook his head, glancing at the string of bespelled beads in his hand briefly before pocketing them carefully. They might not have been of use this time, but that did not mean that he was going to risk ruining them. Too much work had gone into them to be careless.
"None. And I am certain I tried them all. I kept count."
"I am sure you did." Urtho leaned close, his voice low as he whispered in Vikteren's ear. "Let me tell you the secret."
"Yes?" It was tempting to turn his head and kiss his lover, but Vikteren was too curious to give in quite yet.
"There is no spell on the door."
It took a moment for the words to register, and even then Vikteren doubted he had heard correctly.
"I know you can get through any door locked by magical means. So I thought to try something more conventional. Like a key."
Vikteren was not certain whether to be angry with Urtho for playing such a trick on him, or with himself for not thinking of something so simple. In the end, he settled for a deep sigh and a shake of his head. It was far too rare these days that he was left alone with his lover; he was not going to ruin the moment by petty anger.
"I should have paid more attention," he admitted, tilting his head just a bit so his cheek rested against Urtho's. He could smell a hint of smoke and ashes in the grey hair, telltale scents of the workroom.
"You are a creature of habit, as are we all," Urtho said.
"Yes, I am. But I will know better next time."
He felt Urtho's nod. "Of that I have no doubt I hope you are not angry with me for this. I merely wanted to keep your little excursions interesting. And there is no lock spell I know that will keep you out any longer."
"Good. You have no reasons to keep me out." Vikteren hesitated for a moment. "Or do you?" he asked, uncertainty creeping into his voice. Urtho was involved in so many things, and there was much he kept secret even from the other adepts.
What if he does not think I can be trusted with everything any longer?
Urtho drew back at that question to look into his eyes. "Of course not," he said. "Why would you think so?"
Vikteren held his gaze for a moment, then looked away. "I don't know," he said quietly. "It's just you seem so far away sometimes when you disappear in your study or the workroom for days."
"I would not spend so much time there if I could avoid it."
"I know. Never mind me." Vikteren summoned a smile, even though it took some effort. "Let me have another try at that lock. With a more conventional approach."
The expression on Urtho's face told him that his lover was not going to forget his last comment easily. But after a moment the mage returned his smile and gestured at the door. "By all means. I would like to see how you will do this."
At first Vikteren tried the door handle, breathing a small sigh of relief when the door did not swing open at the touch. That would have been a bit too embarrassing, especially when Urtho was watching. At least his master wasn't here to see this.
"I did lock it," Urtho stated. "It would have been too easy otherwise."
"It's not a matter of whether you lock the door or not, it's realizing what you did with it," Vikteren explained, peering at the mechanism for a moment before reaching into his pocket and drawing out a short slip of metal. He had pocketed it yesterday, when he had visited the blacksmith about some troublesome iron, and had almost forgotten about it.
"Remind me to never put my hand into your pocket There is no way to know what it might encounter there."
Vikteren grinned. "You have to admit that the contents can be useful sometimes," he said, concentrating on the metal. It was no longer difficult for him to form it into the shape he desired; that particular spell had taken him almost a year to master, but now he found it surprisingly easy.
The lock pick was finished quickly, and Vikteren slipped it into the keyhole. It was a matter of moments to shoot the bolt, and he pushed the door open with an expression of triumph on his face.
"That was quick," Urtho commented. "I would have given you the key if you had asked, you know?"
"It is more interesting this way."
"I see Do I want to know where you learned this? Surely Barien did not teach you, did he?"
"No. He is a master of bespelled locks, but I don't think he would trouble himself with something like this." Vikteren stepped through the now open doorway, trying not to think of times when he had needed such talents. "So are you going to look at the stars with me?"
Urtho seemed to waver for a moment, and Vikteren prayed that it was not because there still were duties awaiting his lover tonight. It wasn't an entirely selfish thought; of course he wanted to spend time with Urtho, but he also wanted him to get the time to rest at least a little.
"For a little while," his lover said. Vikteren's relief must have clearly shown on his face, because Urtho reached out and drew him close. "I have neglected you, have I not?" he asked softly, looking into his face.
"I know that there are so many important matters that need your attention," Vikteren said evasively, leaning against him.
"Most of all you " Urtho sighed. "When the war is over "
He left the sentence unfinished, not voicing what both of them thought. When the war was over, they might not be alive anymore.
"Do not worry about me. I am glad for every moment I can spend with you." Vikteren wrapped his arms around Urtho's waist. "It's not enough, but it wouldn't be enough even if I could be with you for every hour of the day."
"Then you will just have to break into my tower more often," Urtho teased, but the smile did not quite reach his eyes.
"I might just have to do that. If only to make sure you do not exhaust yourself completely." Raising a hand, Vikteren gently touched his lover's pale cheek. He wished he could just take the weariness away, but even magic was helpless against that. "I do not like to see you so tired."
"There was a lot of gate-work to be done today. I will have the chance to rest tomorrow."
Unless something urgent comes up, like it always does, Vikteren thought, tightening his hold on Urtho for a moment before releasing him.
"Come, I want you to see the stars," he said, drawing him along, away from the semi-darkness of the hallway and the oppressive feelings the walls caused. This was a moment to be cherished, not to be wasted with wishful thinking.
They stood on the platform that formed the top of Urtho's tower, quiet as they both looked up to the skies. It was a clear night, the air crisp with the first chill of winter, and the stars shone brightly. The waning moon was just rising, adding its light to that of the stars without interfering with their own radiance.
"I had almost forgotten how beautiful the night sky can be," Urtho said softly, wistfully.
Vikteren turned towards him, wordlessly embracing his lover. He wished he could make the war end, or find someone who could take Urtho's place.
Wishful thinking again, he chided himself.
"I will gladly remind you," he said, leaning close to kiss his lover.
The smoke he had smelled in Urtho's hair also lingered on his lips, obscuring his taste and reminding Vikteren once more of work and exhaustion. He did not want to think of that, so he did not break the kiss until not even a hint of smoke and ashes remained behind. It was hardly significant, but it made him feel better.
For a while they stood in silence, enjoying each other's closeness and the night surrounding them. Vikteren listened to Urtho's breathing, steady as it always was, and let the sound reassure him. It was something that never failed to soothe him; a sign that all was well and that he was not alone.
"Teach me how to build Gates," he said into the silence.
Urtho looked at him in surprise.
Vikteren held his gaze. "You should have help when you work with them," he said.
It was not difficult to see the disagreement in Urtho's eyes. "The other Adepts are needed for their own tasks."
"That is why I want to learn. I am easily a Master already, you said that yourself. I should do more than the small duties I have. So teach me, then my abilities won't be wasted any longer."
"Vikteren " It was Urtho who looked away first this time. "Is there anything I can say that will make you forget about this idea?" he asked.
"I will not mention it again if you wish," Vikteren said seriously. "But I have thought about this, and I want to be able to help. Not just with the minor issues - there are enough apprentices here who could do that. I should be on the front lines with the other Masters. Not that I want to be there But I want to do whatever I can to help you. That is why I joined you in the first place, and that feeling has not lessened." He paused for a moment, then continued in a softer voice. "I hate seeing the exhaustion in your face whenever you build Gates. Let me help."
For long moments Urtho remained quiet, and Vikteren resigned himself to a second failure this night. But while the lock had only stung his pride a little, this hurt him deep inside. He glanced at the stars, telling himself that he was going to have to accept Urtho's decision.
"It will be difficult."
Vikteren turned sharply to look at him.
"More difficult than the locks," Urtho added.
"I know that," he said, a bit indignant.
Urtho laughed softly. "I should have realized that this would not daunt you," he said.
"You should have," Vikteren agreed with a smug smile on his face. "After all, I did not let myself be deterred when I fell in love with you, and look where we are tonight. Surely you don't think a mere Gate spell is going to worry me?"
He was not nearly as confident as he pretended to be, and of course Urtho knew it. But his lover did not mention it. Instead Vikteren was drawn into another embrace and they kissed once more, this time without the taste of smoke.
I will do my best. You have my word on that.