In the darkness, in the fire, something stretches. There’s a prickle like nails dragged across bare skin, but that can’t be, because it doesn’t have skin. It hears its name being called, like a whisper in a thundering tempest of clamouring voices - help me and curse you and fuck yes and God, God no, and it laughs at that, long and low until the earth shakes and cracks, and it is pulled from the nothingness in one long rapturous, shuddering breath.
Porthos flickers a glance over towards the benches, where Aramis sits cleaning his arquebus with a fastidiousness that’s excessive, even for a man who likes to expound that a soldier should treat his weapons with the same care and devotion as he would a lover.
Something’s going on, something that Aramis won’t tell him, and it spikes a hot burr of rage at the pit of his stomach. They’re usually so honest with each other, and even when they can’t find the right words, they can tell. A glance, a shrug, there’s an eloquence beyond words in that, and they share it all.
But not anymore, it seems.
And worse, it’s clear that Athos knows what’s going on. Porthos wouldn’t expect more from him, stoic as he usually is, but the thought that Aramis would tell Athos and not him sets his nerves jangling. D’Artagnan he’s not so sure about - the boy could either be oblivious or far more skillful at lying than the other two. Still, Porthos can’t help but feel that familiar rise of his hackles. The sense of being deceived, excluded, is the one he hates the most, and in his frustration he can hear the whole world laughing at him in his naivety.
He could just ask Aramis, nicely, when they’ve drunk a little and the other man has reached that point where he can’t stop talking. Or perhaps not so nicely, pushed against a wall with Porthos’ fist to his face. But something in Porthos makes him shy away from the thought: because he shouldn’t have to, because if he asked and Aramis refused, or worse, lied, Porthos doesn’t know what he would do.
The big Musketeer huffs a breath and concentrates on his opponent once more - d’Artagnan is circling him, looking for a line of attack. Porthos bobs on his knees, the pleasing and familiar sense of muscles flexing and ready, elbows bent, hands curled in loose fists and raised. He flicks his chin in invitation, grins in a way he’s been reliably informed is infuriating.
Perhaps he throws d’Artagnan over his shoulder and to the ground with a little more force than necessary, but the rush of adrenalin and movement buzzing through his veins makes Porthos feel a little steadier, a little more sure of himself.
He looks over towards Aramis, but the man isn’t watching. Porthos’ brows lower in a frown.
He’s reaching out a hand to help the boy up when Athos descends the steps from Treville’s office, the Captain at his heels.
“Get ready to leave,” Athos says, and there’s something hard in his voice. “We’ll be gone for some days. Aramis and Porthos, leave by the Porte St Denis, d’Artagnan and I will go by the Porte St Honore. We’ll meet outside the tavern in Clichy. Make sure you’re not followed.”
“Followed by who?” d’Artagnan frowns.
“Anybody. Be watchful,” Treville says.
“Are you going to tell us what this is about?” Aramis asks casually, not looking up from where he cleans his gun.
“When we get to Clichy.”
“Good enough for me,” Porthos says, wanting Aramis to disagree with him, wanting to push. The other man just shrugs and collects his things.
The ride from the city gate to the small village of Clichy is passed in silence. Aramis tries to make conversation every now and then, but Porthos’ mood grows darker every step they take from Paris. Besides, why should he make idle chatter when Aramis himself is so disinclined to talk, with this great secret between them, whatever it is?
The sky to the west is dark and ominous, lowering thunder clouds with edges trailing wet and frayed. The warm spring afternoon in Paris seems further and further away as the minutes pass, and Porthos feels something like the clouds sitting at the edge of his mind, threatening and full of darkness. His shivers, hears his heart thud loudly in his ears.
After forty minutes or so it begins to rain, and Porthos pulls low his hat, wraps his cloak a little tighter around himself. Either Aramis has got the message that Porthos does not care to talk, or the dark sky they’re heading towards has had a similar effect on his mood, and he lapses into silence.
By the time they reach Clichy Porthos is soaked through and wants nothing more than some warm wine and a fire to dry his boots beside, but it seems this won’t be the case. The other two men are already waiting for them outside the tavern, and as they approach Athos turns his horse and heads for the road out of town, bidding the others to follow.
“So?” d’Artagnan prompts after a few minutes of silence.
Athos looks around cautiously, but they’re out in the open and there’s no one around to hear.
“Treville has been approached by the Cardinal. There seem to have been some...unsettling reports coming from a village called Avernes, about a day’s ride from Paris.”
“Unsettling?” Aramis queries.
Athos takes a moment, and looks straight ahead when he speaks. “Overnight crop failures, unseasonable weather, lightning storms, cattle deaths. The villagers awoke one morning to find all the fish in the lake laying dead at the surface. The earth quakes. There have been reports of…” he quirks his lip, but his voice is steady, “...a rain of toads.”
Aramis’ short burst of laughter makes Porthos jump, his horse startling. He turns around to glare but the other man only smiles. “The Ten Plagues of Avernes?”
“Don’t jest, Aramis,” Porthos says angrily, “You of all people.”
“Because I have faith, it follows that I should believe in everything?” Aramis asks.
Porthos dislikes the look of teasing laughter in his friend’s eyes. “There’s things you don’t know about, out there,” Porthos says, voice grim. “There’s things you’ve never seen.”
“I should hope so,” Aramis smiles. “I like new things.”
Porthos riles, but is cut off by Athos. “Gentlemen. Regardless, this is serious. The villagers petitioned the Cardinal, the Cardinal sent his men, who have not been heard of since.”
“Red Guards? Likely lying drunk in the local tavern,” d’Artagnan comments.
“So our orders come from the Cardinal?” Aramis asks, disbelieving.
“Our orders come from Captain Treville. And they will not be questioned, no matter how ridiculous you think they are, Aramis.” Athos spurs his horse and trots ahead, calling the discussion to a close.
They take the longer, quieter roads west, avoiding villages and towns where they can. Athos casts a look behind him every few miles though there seems to be no one in sight, much less following them. The rain stops just as the light is beginning to dim towards dusk, but the air is hot and heavy and stifling, the temperature rising slowly until Porthos is sticky and uncomfortable in his damp clothing.
The path that winds through the woods looks like it hasn’t been used regularly in some time, the rutted wheel tracks either side of a strip of tall waving grass beginning to be reclaimed by the undergrowth.
It’s a surprise then to find a horse grazing unattended by the side of the track, and in the dimming light it looks pale and ghostly. Dipping its head low to tear at the thick weeds growing lush after the recent rains, it seems utterly unconcerned.
Porthos looks about - there is no sign of the horses owner, but there’s something still and strange about the forest. It might be in his mind, but the sky seems to darken, for a moment, as though a shadow just raced across the lowering sun, and the world seems slightly dimmer.
Athos dismounts and crosses to the lone horse.
“The Cardinal’s mark,” he says after a moment, holding up a paper found in the saddlebag. His mouth is grim and set.
“One of the Red Guards?” Aramis asks, shifting in his saddle to look about for the horse’s owner.
“It would seem so,” Athos agrees. He’s about to speak again when something seems to catch his eye, and he crosses to the other side of the road, beckons silently for the others to follow.
Porthos dismounts and checks his pistols, hand resting heavily on the comforting weight of his sword’s basket hilt at his waist.
Just off the road is a clearing, but as soon as they step into it Athos stops short, and Porthos almost plows into his back. There’s a man on the ground, wearing the red and black of the Cardinal’s guards. He’s stretched out on his side as if curled into sleep - his eyes are closed and there’s a bedroll laid out beneath him - but the crows are fat and bold in the clearing and the air hangs thick with the smell of old blood.
The man’s throat is gaping wide and dark, skin puckered at the edges of the clean slash, deep enough for Porthos to see a glint of bone amongst the meat within.
A gunshot cracks through the clearing, and Porthos jumps at the sudden noise. One of the crows falls to the ground with a tangle of crushed feathers, the others hopping and squawking about. Aramis drops the pistol with a curse and fumbles for the one hanging at his other side. He shudders, skin sallow, and it’s only when Athos puts a steady hand against the flinch of his shoulder that he makes a broken sound and clutches at the cross hanging in the fold of his jacket.
“Get them away,” Aramis says, high and desperate, “Fuck...fucking crows…”
“It’s alright,” Athos soothes, and there’s that note of steady command in his voice. “Aramis it’s alright. You’re here with us.”
The look in Aramis’ eyes, the thin rattle of his breath hits Porthos with an awful sort of familiarity, though it’s been a long time since they’ve been here: five years ago there were nights when they had needed to hold Aramis close and tell him again and again that he was not in Savoy anymore.
Aramis’ hand comes up to grip tightly at Athos’ own hand, on his shoulder, and there’s something desperate and compulsive in the gesture. “Come away,” Athos says. “Come away, now.”
“What was…” d’Artagnan asks, as Athos leads Aramis back to the road.
Porthos shakes his head, turning to follow the others, and brushes past the younger man. He has no patience for explanations now.
“Porthos tell me-”
“Savoy, alright?” Porthos snaps, throwing the words over his shoulder. “He doesn’t want to talk about it, and neither do we.”
There’s a stubborn jut to d’Artagnan’s chin when they get back to the horses, and Porthos can see something like anger in his stilted movements, his dark eyes.
“Should we go to the nearest town? Ask around?”
“We can’t attract attention,” Athos says, simply.
“But we can’t just leave him here,” d’Artagnan says, incredulous, “We should bury him, at least,” the boy says, looking between the other Musketeers. Aramis is readjusting his saddle with his back turned, but the tight hunch of his shoulders is evident.
“With what?” Porthos asks.
“I don’t know!” d’Artagnan snaps, “But what if it were your friend? Or...someone you knew.” The boy colours angrily, “If it were someone you knew, dead on the road.”
“We’ll come back,” Athos says, and catches d’Artagnan’s eye. The boy nods, after a moment, and goes to led the dead man’s horse off the road, stopping to cut a mark to the side of a nearby tree so that they might find the place again on their return.
Athos takes the dead man’s cloak from where it lies hooked across the saddle of his horse, and heads back to the clearing to cover the body.
The road is too wide for four men to ride abreast, but Porthos is grateful that while he stays close to Aramis’ side d’Artagnan is ahead, and Athos a steady presence at their rear, calming Porthos’ nerves a little. Aramis won’t let his eyes drift from the road ahead, and after a while Porthos feels the anger creep back to replace the concern for his friend. He wonders if Aramis would talk about it to Athos, if he were the one riding alongside him, if Porthos were not here at all.
“Athos,” d’Artagnan asks over his shoulder, and the darkening light seems to make his voice sound closer than it is, younger than it is. “Do you think whoever killed that Red Guard had something to do with whatever’s happening in Avernes?”
“A man can slit another’s throat,” Aramis says, breaking his silence with a voice that’s curiously blank. “Just a man. We’re still miles away from Avernes.”
“Well then, who would want to kill the Cardinal’s men?”
If Porthos were in a better mood he would snort at that, since the Red Guards are probably the most disliked regiment in France, let alone Paris, and they themselves have killed a few in their time. But his skin prickles with fear, and he knows that he would pick the Cardinal’s guards over whatever he is beginning to suspect might be waiting for them ahead.
“It may have been any disagreement. He may even have been killed by one of his fellows,” Athos states.
“Who’ve disappeared rather than face justice back in Paris,” Aramis’ voice is only just beginning to ease out into something normal.
“You don’t believe that, do you Athos?” D’Artagnan asks. The group has drawn steadily closer as the night descended, and now they’re close enough for Porthos to see the intent look on d’Artagnan’s face. He directs his question to Athos again, and it’s clear it’s his words that d’Artagnan needs to hear.
“When we get to Avernes we will make enquiries,” the older Musketeer says simply, after a moment.
There’s something like annoyance on d’Artagnan’s face for a moment. He frowns, and turns back to the road, letting his horse widen the gap between them again as his heels dig into its flanks, just perceptibly.
They push on until the cool of night has settled over them, and stop sometime before midnight. There are no houses within sight, and Porthos suspects Athos would deem a tavern out of the question in any case, so they make camp in the woods a mile or so outside Pierrelaye. Porthos struggles to start a blaze in the damp wood but manages a small, smoky fire after a while.
“You’ve been too long in polite company, friend,” Aramis teases, and the forced tone of his voice almost makes Porthos cringe. “There was a time when Porthos could set something ablaze almost just by looking at it,” Aramis explains to d’Artagnan.
Porthos gives him a look that might, indeed, lead to his immediately bursting into flames, rises to his feet and moves to the edge of the circle of meagre firelight. “Going to get more wood.”
Away from the camp the still of the forest settles in around him like something suffocating and heavy.
"You seem out of sorts."
Porthos jumps at the sound, hadn’t seen Athos follow him into the trees. He scowls and hefts the firewood in his arms.
He doesn’t want to tell Athos that his disquiet is growing with every minute, that there’s anger hot and hard at the bottom of his throat threatening to choke him, that something like fear is buzzing through his veins. Fear, real and suffocating, the likes of which he hasn’t felt in many years: fear of losing his friends, fear he might already have lost them for reasons he’s yet to work out. But a child’s nighttime fear too, of the dark and the things that lurk there. He doesn’t want to go to Avernes, wants to grab the others and force them all back to Paris.
"Do you believe we might find something... other at work in this village?" Athos asks carefully, voice deceptively light.
"I have found the world to be a surprising place. Often unpleasantly so,” he says grimly. “I try to keep an open mind."
Athos quirks an eyebrow in question at Porthos.
"In the Court," Porthos swallows, "I've seen things I couldn't explain. People get desperate..."
"They look for help."
Porthos nods. "Not everyone has Aramis' faith in God."
"Hmm,” Athos agrees, bending to reach for a broken branch, hefting its weight in his hand. “You’ve hardly spoken to him. Are you going to tell me what's going on?"
"Are you?" Porthos counters.
Something hard and impenetrable closes in behind Athos' eyes, and Porthos feels the anger swell and flicker in him.
“There’s nothing to tell,” Athos says, with a shrug, and heads back through the darkened trees towards the little firefly glow of the camp.
Porthos does not sleep that night. He sits awake in the long hours of darkness, starting at every pop of the fire and afraid that should he close his eyes, his friends will be gone when he opens them once more.