Chapter 1: On Three
Getting shot with a crossbow bolt bloody hurt. Aramis lay on the ground, trying to catch his breath. The impact had knocked him from his horse to boot.
Porthos dropped down beside him and reached for his uninjured shoulder, jaw tight and dark eyes worried as he surveyed the shaft protruding from the other one. Athos appeared a moment later, kneeling on Aramis's other side.
"Did you get him?" Aramis gritted out.
"Yes." Athos's tone implied they would not be asking questions as to why they'd been attacked on the road. Bandits, mercenaries, it didn't really matter.
"We need to pull the arrow out," Porthos said unnecessarily.
"So we must," Aramis agreed, thunking his head back against the ground as he steeled himself for it. He could feel the arrowhead scraping against the scapula and knew it would hurt worse coming out than it had going in. "On three."
Porthos wrapped a large hand around the shaft, close to the entry wound.
Aramis drew in a shaky breath. "One…"
"Three." Porthos yanked straight up, and Aramis couldn't keep from crying out as searing fire ripped through his shoulder.
"What…happened…to…two?" he gasped out accusingly between pained breaths.
"Was'na you that said anticipation makes it worse?"
"You have said that," Athos put in mildly, pulling some bandages from a saddle bag.
Aramis glowered at them. "Well, it's rubbish."
Porthos merely grinned as he helped Athos wrap the wounded shoulder tightly to staunch the bleeding until they could find a safer place to stop and tend to it. Then they slipped their arms beneath him and carefully pulled him upright. Aramis grimaced as the movement jostled his shoulder and made his head spin. Porthos and Athos finished by securing his arm in a sling.
"Can you stand?" Athos asked.
"With a little help."
His brothers exchanged resolute looks before shifting their weight to take up a ready position.
"On three?" Porthos said.
"Have you remembered the proper way to count in the last few minutes?" Aramis snarked.
"I can count just fine."
"I'll count," Athos interjected, his tone as placid as ever and only the words themselves indicating his impatience to leave.
Aramis was keen to get out of there as well, and so took a deep breath as he felt his friends take a firm hold of him. His strength was swiftly waning, but together, he had confidence they would manage.
"One, two, three."
Chapter 2: Traitor
I know I promised whump, but this one I was still trying to get a feel for the characters, so it came out more lighthearted. The next one has hurt Aramis.
The thrill of a fight may have made Aramis feel alive, but there was a certain allure to the artistry of deception. And the danger was no less severe, should he be found out. But he'd swiftly and efficiently gained a measure of trust from the group of insurgents by "killing" a musketeer before their eyes. Aramis hoped Porthos hadn't over exaggerated his fall and actually injured himself in the staged shooting. The large musketeer had complained that he never got the chance to try his hand at acting. Athos had pointed out that he had, in fact, had numerous opportunities to intimidate people under false pretenses.
"It ain't hard to act threatenin,'" Porthos had argued.
"That's because it's your default disposition, my friend," Aramis replied.
"Come on, I want to do somethin' more."
Thus, this had been the compromise. Porthos's death scene would go down in infamy. Aramis only wished he could have stayed to appreciate it until the end, but he'd had to run, and consequently get caught up in the riffraff who'd been impressed with his daring.
After that it had been a mission of intelligence gathering, trying to put together the murmurings of dissent and learn about solidified plans to move against the monarchy.
Unfortunately, the problem with playing the traitor is there's always a chance of running into a legitimate one.
Gerard was a member of the Red Guard. Aramis took a small modicum of smug satisfaction that the Cardinal's acclaimed men were not above reproach. However, it was looking very unlikely that he would get the chance to enjoy seeing such treachery rubbed in Richelieu's pompous face. Though he had tried to duck behind some cover when Gerard had ridden into the courtyard of the abandoned church, Aramis had nevertheless been spotted.
"That man is a musketeer," the Red Guard said without preamble, pointing him out.
Aramis held back a sigh as he was forced to step out in response.
"He killed a musketeer," the leader said, though there was a flicker of doubt in his gaze now.
Gerard frowned. "No deaths have been reported."
"Perhaps you of grunt position did not warrant notification," Aramis replied blithely.
The guard sneered, then turned sharply to the leader. "I assure you, he's a musketeer. You have a traitor in your midst."
They both turned narrowed eyes on him.
Aramis arched a pointed brow and gestured at Gerard. "He's a traitor as well. Just to be clear."
"Kill him now," the Red Guard demanded.
Well, this could only spiral out of control. Aramis noted some of the men moving closer to him as their suspicion grew.
The leader, Pierre, was regarding him shrewdly. And then he gave a clipped nod, and one of his men pulled out their pistol.
Aramis stiffened and flinched as the shot rang out, but though his muscles had seized in anticipation, he hadn't felt the fire of a musket ball tearing through him. His would-be executioner, however, dropped like a sack of potatoes.
There was a split second of stunned silence before another report cracked the air and a second man fell as three familiar figures swept into the ruins. Steel screeched as swords were drawn from their scabbards, and soon the courtyard was full of the discordant clang.
Aramis spun toward the nearest man and threw a right hook into his jaw. He ducked as a rapier sliced through the air and grabbed the pistol from the man he'd just knocked out. Bracing the barrel on his forearm, he took quick aim and fired before the sword could find his chest. He then discarded the spent weapon and scooped up the fallen blade in time to parry a thrust from Pierre.
But there were two more men advancing on him and he couldn't fend them all off. Fortunately, Porthos's blade was there a second later, sliding down the steel of Pierre's rapier and freeing Aramis to take the other two.
Pierre gaped in shock. "I saw you get shot!"
Porthos gave him a wide, toothy grin. "Convincin,' wasn't it?"
"You had the easy job," Aramis threw out, stabbing one of his opponents through the chest.
"You think dyin' is easy?"
Aramis laughed, taking down the other man as Pierre blustered in the face of them. "I wouldn't know."
He feinted right, drawing Pierre in on his left, and Porthos stepped in to body slam the man, sending him to the ground. Aramis pivoted around and followed through with a blow to the head with his pommel, just to keep him down.
The sounds of battle had started to lull and he looked around to find most of the insurgents dispatched. D'Artagnan was finishing off the last and Athos was bending over the body of the Red Guard and divesting him of his weapon. Presumably he was alive to be taken in for questioning.
"You're early," Aramis pointed out.
Athos stepped over the bodies as he moved toward them. "Porthos got impatient."
"I'd say we was right on time."
Aramis clapped him on the shoulder. "That you were, my friend. Sorry I missed your funeral. Was it good?"
"Very moving," d'Artagnan replied, coming to join them as well. "Not a dry eye to be found."
"There wasn't actually a service," Porthos grumbled. "And I had to stay sequestered in the garrison so's no one from this lot accidentally saw me."
"He's irritated he's missed the card games these past few nights," d'Artagnan whispered none too quietly.
"No one said playin' dead was goin' be so restrictive," he groused.
"One must embrace his role fully and to the end," Aramis said with a grin. "So I take it your thespian days are over?"
"Yeah. I'll stick with fightin' outright."
"Did you learn anything of immediate importance?" Athos asked, ever the pragmatist.
Aramis shook his head. "All the weapons they had are stored here. Pierre had boasted he had a way into the palace, but until Gerard arrived, no one else knew how he would manage it."
"Then we've caught all the traitors involved. The King should be pleased."
"And the Cardinal livid," Aramis added, having almost forgotten that bit of glee to look forward to.
Both Porthos's and d'Artagnan's grins widened at that, and even Athos had a twinkle of anticipation in his eye. It was a small victory against a greater enemy.
Because no matter how many traitors they weeded out, there were always sinister antagonists moving in the shadows with power and the throne in their sights. Thus, a musketeer's duty was never done.
Chapter 3: High Stakes
Here's the hurt I promised. XD
Porthos's thumb and forefinger pinched the cards in his hands, creasing the well-worn paper. He needed a king, but there wasn't one tucked up his sleeve. Not this time. Because his untamed penchant for stacking the deck was the reason they were in this mess now.
He flicked his gaze to Aramis. His friend was standing five feet to the left of the table, arms stretched out tautly as the ropes around his wrists pulled them toward the lateral joists on either side. A strip of cloth had been shoved between his teeth and cinched tightly behind his head, leaving only his eyes to express his tension as they met Porthos's with steady intensity. One man stood to his right, knife in hand, and another stood behind Aramis with a pistol pointed at his back. His shirt had streaks of crimson lining frayed edges, evidence of previous rounds lost.
Porthos's hold on his cards tightened.
"Well?" the man sitting across the table from him prompted.
Porthos finally shifted his gaze back to the game where the pot to be won wasn't coin but spent blood.
He selected his lowest cards and laid them face down. "Two."
His opponent picked up the deck and dealt him the requested cards, then traded one for himself. Beady eyes revealed nothing as the ringleader of this sick game evaluated his hand. He, of course, had nothing of value to lose.
Porthos held his breath as he picked up his last cards. One was a king. He had his four of a kind, but would it be enough?
With every muscle vibrating under barely restrained fury at their captors and his own helplessness, he laid his cards out.
The other player arched a brow at the kings, and then spread his hand across the table, revealing three of a kind and a pair. "Looks like you win this one."
Out of the corner of his eye, Porthos saw Aramis's head dip a fraction in relief.
The cards were gathered up and shuffled, then dealt out again.
Porthos growled deep in his throat. "How long you goin' keep this up?"
"You seemed eager to play the night away an hour ago," the other man said mildly, but his eyes sharpened. "When you were cheating."
Porthos clenched his fists against the urge to launch himself across the table and pummel the pompous bastard into the floorboards. But the pistol trained on Aramis's back and the five other armed men in the room stayed his hand.
"I gave you back all the winnin's."
The man's gaze only darkened. "I don't like being cheated. Now, raise or call?"
Porthos looked to Aramis again, who seemed to be trying to give him an encouraging look, though it was belied by the strain in his arms and the sheen of sweat on his brow. It was Porthos's fault they were here; it was up to him to get them out.
Unfortunately, he just wasn't seeing how. No one in the tavern had bothered to stop the men who'd set upon the two traveling musketeers when Porthos had been caught red-handed with a card up his sleeve. In fact, all the other patrons not associated with these ruffians had fled, including the barkeep.
Claiming they were the King's men hadn't really done them any favors, given Porthos's somewhat less than honorable approach to card games. It'd only ever gotten him into brawls before, which he'd never minded and enjoyed just about as much as the cards.
This, though, this time he felt the weight of guilt like a blade pressed up against his gullet.
His opponent narrowed his eyes. "Pick them up."
Porthos scooped up the cards grudgingly and evaluated them. Immediately he knew he was at a disadvantage with the wide scattering of suits and kinds and nothing to build on. He traded three cards, hoping for something to miraculously be dealt him to spare Aramis the knife once more.
But Lady Luck had turned her nose down on him and he watched with a sinking pit in his stomach as his paltry pair of fours were outranked by a set of three jacks.
The other player, Porthos had never even gotten his name, nodded to his man with the knife, who stepped up to Aramis and dealt a swift slice across his ribs. Aramis grunted into the gag, and Porthos knocked the table as he started to rise without thought. A rough hand clamped down on his shoulder and shoved him back into his seat. He almost snarled at the man the offending appendage belonged to, but a warning tut from the leader drew his attention to the blade now pressed to Aramis's throat.
"I'm done playin' your games," he spat at the man. "You want satisfaction, let's you and me settle this outside like men."
His adversary scoffed. "You cheat at cards, who's to say you don't cheat in a duel?"
Ire rumbled in Porthos's chest. "I don't cheat at duels."
"Forgive me for not taking your word for it. Besides," he leaned forward across the table with a leer, "I'm having plenty of fun right here."
And that was the crux of the matter: these scoundrels were taking pleasure in the bloodletting. And when they'd had their fill, they were more likely to dispose of their playthings than release the pair of musketeers. If only Porthos could see a way of getting the upper hand before either he or Aramis were shot on the spot. But if—when—it came to it, Porthos would rather take down as many of these bastards as he could with him.
The tavern door creaked open and all eyes shot toward it. Porthos shifted in surprise but otherwise tried not to move as a most unexpected guest entered.
D'Artagnan pulled up short, eyeing the situation in apparent nonchalance. "Seems I've interrupted something," he remarked.
"You have," the cardsman snapped. "Get out."
D'Artagnan hesitated. "Well, it's just that…this is the only tavern, and I've been riding all day and could use some wine and a hot meal…"
Porthos frowned at the utter lack of acknowledgement of either him or Aramis. What was d'Artagnan even doing here? He and Athos weren't due to rendezvous with the other pair until the day after tomorrow, thus Porthos indulging in cards when they'd stopped in this village in the first place. Was Athos with d'Artagnan?
The leader rose from his chair into a menacing stance, and his men shifted as well, including the one with the pistol in the back of the room. Porthos didn't really register it until a shot cracked the air and made him jump. He whipped a frantic gaze to Aramis, but it was the man with the gun who fell backward.
D'Artagnan drew his pistol without missing a beat and shot the man nearest him just as Athos came sweeping out from the kitchen with second pistol raised. Another sharp report split the air and someone yelled. The scrape of steel signaled the switch to swords.
Porthos surged from his seat and slammed his fist into the jaw of the man standing behind him. He then spun toward the one with the knife, who had thankfully foregone slitting Aramis's throat in favor of meeting the new threat. He shouldn't have underestimated the marksman, even bound as he was. Aramis drew his leg up and kicked out at the scoundrel's hip, sending him crashing into the table and breaking it in two. Cards fluttered around him as Porthos stomped his boot on the hand holding the knife and ground his heel. He then leaned down to grab the man by the collar and hefted him up, swinging him around and throwing him into the joist. He crumpled bonelessly.
Porthos spun to find the man who had initiated all this and spotted him dueling d'Artagnan. With a raging bellow, Porthos charged forward and clamped his hands on the back of the man's shoulders, propelling him forward and ramming his head straight into the wall. He dropped to one knee and punched him three more times before d'Artagnan yelled at him to stop.
Porthos sucked in a ragged gasp, struggling to control his rage. The sounds of fighting had died down and only the blood roaring in his ears made him feel the battle was still heavy at hand.
A grunt had him twisting back around as Athos undid the gag in Aramis's mouth and pulled it free. The swordsman then quickly set to slicing the ropes.
"God bless your impeccable timing," Aramis said tiredly, rubbing his wrists when the coarse hemp fell away.
"What happened?" Athos asked, surveying the bloody tatters of Aramis's shirt.
Aramis briefly flicked a look at Porthos. "We had a…disagreement with some locals. They weren't partial to our attempts to appease them. Lucky you arrived when you did. We weren't expecting you for another two days. Everything go well?"
Athos ignored the veiled attempt at redirection and roved his gaze over the broken table and scattered cards before settling dark eyes on Porthos. "Did you pay for a room before this disagreement?" he asked mildly, but there was a storm brewing in his eyes.
"Yeah," Porthos replied. "Inn's across the street."
"D'Artagnan, go find some rope we can use to secure these men before transporting them back to Paris. Aramis, go get cleaned up."
"The rope they used still looks long enough," d'Artagnan started to point out, but a single look from Athos had him snapping his mouth shut and nodding jerkily. "Right."
Aramis hesitated, looking torn between staying to stand by Porthos and succumbing to his own exhaustion. Porthos cocked his head toward the door for him to go. He could take what was comin'; he certainly deserved it.
Aramis gave him a sympathetic grimace as he followed d'Artagnan out.
Athos didn't speak as he moved among the bodies, seemingly checking for hidden weapons. Porthos bent to do the same and used the rope d'Artagnan had mentioned to start binding the men who'd only been knocked out.
"I gather the disagreement was over a game of cards," Athos finally said.
Porthos shrugged with a noncommittal grunt. "I tried to give the winnin's back. They didn't think it was enough."
"You know my feelings on cheating."
Porthos crossed his arms. He did know. He just…couldn't help himself. The game of chance was just as fun as the game of sleight of hand.
Athos took an earnest step toward him. "I will not impede a man's vices if he's intent on his own self-destruction. But I will not allow it to bring harm to others, especially not our brother."
Whatever knee-jerk retort Porthos may have wanted to lob back was doused by a fresh wave of guilt and the sight of blood drops on the floor. Aramis's blood.
Porthos ducked his gaze in deference. "It won't happen again," he promised.
Athos nodded. "You can come back in, d'Artagnan," he called.
The lad poked his head through the door, looking sheepish. He had an armful of rope and the barkeep trailing behind him.
"Our apologies for the disruption to your establishment," Athos said to the owner. "We will do our best to make reparations."
The man shook his head. "Just gettin' those swine out of our village and makin' sure they don't come back is enough."
"I assure you, a grave penalty for attacking a King's musketeer awaits them in Paris. Is there a place we can keep them locked up until morning?"
The barkeep nodded. "Sure."
Athos gave d'Artagnan a look that said to handle it and then headed out. Porthos followed, his intent to check on Aramis, which seemed to be Athos's as well since he was heading across the street to the inn.
Once inside, Athos stepped to the side to let Porthos lead the way to their room. They found Aramis sitting on one of the two beds, shirt removed and dabbing at the cuts on his torso with a damp cloth. By the barely concealed winces and hisses at each touch, it was probably soaked in spirits.
Athos wordlessly walked over and took the rag from him, proceeding to clean the cuts himself. Aramis just angled a look up at him but didn't say anything, leaning back to allow the gesture of concern for what it was.
"You alright?" Porthos asked.
Aramis flashed him a grin, but it quickly turned to a grimace even under Athos's careful ministrations. "None of the cuts are very deep. They won't even require stitches."
Lady Luck had smiled on one of them, at least.
His friend's expression softened. "It was hardly your fault you sat down to play cards with a mad man."
"Pissin' off a mad man made it worse. If I hadn't cheated, he wouldn't a' had cause to do what he did."
Aramis shrugged one shoulder, then sucked air through his teeth as Athos gave one of the longer cuts a gentle swipe. "All's forgiven, my friend. Though if you still feel penitent, I wouldn't mind a cup of wine and some food to chase it down. It has been a trying night."
Porthos nodded quickly, eager to help. He paused for a brief moment, waiting to catch Athos's eye. The other man had accepted his contrition in the tavern and his word that it wouldn't happen again, but he had been utterly silent through the exchange with Aramis. Having secured the marksman's forgiveness, which had never been in doubt to begin with, Athos finally looked up and met Porthos's eye, and the absolution was complete.
With another nod, Porthos headed downstairs to get both his brothers some food and drink. He met d'Artagnan and made sure to order a portion for the boy as well. For the lad's part, he didn't even look upon Porthos with the slightest hint of recrimination, just smiled and helped him carry the platter of wine and bread back upstairs.
But Porthos knew their forgiveness and understanding would not be pressed a second time. The next time he decided to sit down at a game of cards, he'd remember what more was at stake should he fail to keep his promise.
Chapter 4: El Francotirador
A lengthy one shot this time with our favorite marksman. Thanks to 29Pieces for beta reading!
Aramis sat against a log on the ground, cleaning and loading his pistols while the din of Spanish voices chattered around him. Amidst the menial bustle of tending camp for the night were also boasts about individual routines and who would impress the King of France more.
"I'll have His Majesty's head spinning just like my plates," Gutierre proclaimed.
Someone laughed and pointed out the dancing would obviously be the man's favorite.
"I don't know," Sabastian put in, poking the tip of his blade underneath his fingernail. "I think my knife throwing will steal the show."
Aramis paused in his task and inclined his head a fraction to listen more intently. He could easily envision a knife thrower turning a performance into an assassination. The man couldn't hope to get away with his own life if he took that route, but it was something to watch out for. Martyrs for a cause were not unheard of.
"I bet the king will be drawn to El Francotirador," someone else interjected.
Aramis could feel their gazes turn toward him, and he lolled a lazy smile their way. "Think they'd be impressed if I shot an apple off King Louis's head?"
That got a laugh and some cheers.
"Then Gutierre can juggle Arias's head when he gets beheaded for trying!"
"He can juggle two heads if Arias shoots Louis's off!"
Aramis forced himself to laugh with the rest, though he found none of it funny. The threat to the king was very real, or at least Cardinal Richelieu believed so. There had only been whispers of a plot though, no proof. But with a Spanish delegation coming to visit the palace in Paris, no one wanted to take any chances.
Which led to Aramis's mission. The Duke of Cardona was bringing along a performing troupe, which was a tad odd but the Duke had insisted, thus arousing the Cardinal's suspicions. And so Aramis had been tasked with infiltrating it, not only because he spoke fluent Spanish and could pass as a Spaniard from near the border, but his skill as a marksman could also serve as a form of entertainment, something he and Porthos had taken advantage of at times to earn some extra coin.
The delicate part had been traveling south into Spain without being caught as a suspected spy, and then meeting up with the troupe in a seemingly random encounter of chance. All of which Aramis had to do on his own, which his brothers had not been happy about. But it had been necessary. And it had worked. He'd been with the company for a couple of weeks now, performing in the towns they traveled through and earning a name for himself. El Francotirador. The Marksman. That was his performance name, but outside of that he went by Arias.
"Alright, that's enough," Lorenço, the leader of the group snapped, breaking up their jesting. "We're in France now."
"So?" someone challenged. "Who here's gonna know Spanish?"
"The King's name and your ridiculous guffawing needs no translation. Now finish pitching the tents. We'll be in Paris tomorrow."
The small group broke apart. Aramis resumed cleaning and loading his guns, then got up to take some stew for dinner. Weeks of being a spy among the troupe and he hadn't uncovered an actual plot against France. His lack of success only frustrated him and weighed heavily on his honor with the recriminations of failure. He was running out of time. And the fact that he hadn't uncovered anything did not in any way convince him there was nothing to be found. There was an undercurrent in the company, something Aramis couldn't quite put his finger on. Yes, there had always been tension and ill will between France and Spain, which accounted for the crude gibes directed at the French monarchy and the occasional invective. Yet there was also a hint of eagerness and anticipation as they neared Paris. Perhaps it was a typical performer's excitement at the chance to impress a royal dignitary; Aramis couldn't be sure.
Later that night as people settled down to bed, Aramis wandered by one of the tents on the edge of camp. A delicate hand slipped out between the canvas folds and snagged his collar, deftly pulling him inside. Lips immediately crushed against his, and he snaked his arms around a petite waist as he kissed back. They stumbled the four feet across the floor before falling onto a pile of bed rugs. Estrella giggled and reached to undo the drawstrings of his shirt. He captured her hand in his, stalling her intentions.
She frowned. "What's wrong?"
He sighed. "Soon we will be performing before the King of France." He shook his head and lowered his voice. "How can you stand it?"
Estrella gave him a sympathetic look and reached out to brush one of his curls behind his ear. "There is a greater purpose to it all."
"Yes, continued relations between our two countries," he muttered.
Estrella smiled impishly. "Maybe. In a matter of speaking."
Aramis quirked a confused brow. "And what does that mean?"
"Shh." She pressed a kiss to his lips, and then down his jaw to his collar bone. His skin tingled from the sensual caresses, and though part of him wanted to push for more answers, he also knew that too much might arouse her suspicions or close her off to him completely. And so he went along with a night of ardor. After all, working as a spy was very lonely.
At the crack of dawn, Aramis slipped from Estrella's tent and returned to his bedroll to pick up his weapons before he headed out into the surrounding forest to relieve himself. The hoot of an owl gave him pause, and when it came again, he turned his head to the left and caught a glimpse of black through the trees. Checking to see no one else was around, he headed further into the woods and broke into a wide smile as Porthos stepped out from behind a large juniper. Athos was right behind him.
Porthos grinned back and clapped Aramis on the shoulder. "Still alive," he commented.
"Had you any doubts?"
Porthos grumbled under his breath. "Goin' off without backup. 'S not right."
"As you can see, I've managed perfectly well."
"Have you found anything?" Athos asked.
Aramis deflated. "Something feels off, though I haven't been able to discover anything concrete."
"The Cardinal is getting impatient the closer the Spanish get to the palace."
Though Athos didn't mean it as a reproach, Aramis took it as one. He was failing in his task.
"I could try to push a little harder," he said. "I've been getting close to one of the women in the troupe. She's the type to be a confidante to men and I believe she may know something."
"Yeah, that's the only reason you're gettin' close to her," Porthos gibed.
"Don't do anything to expose yourself," Athos put in.
"I'm thinkin' that already happened," Porthos continued cheekily, earning an irritated look from Athos.
"You know what I mean."
"We're running out of time," Aramis argued.
"And if you're caught, you won't be able to pass any crucial information on to us."
Aramis conceded the point with a cant of his head. "I should get back." He paused to smile at them again. "It's very good to see you, my friends. And not just because I'm glad for some friendly French faces. It will be nice when this is all over."
"Be careful," Athos intoned.
Aramis waved a hand in acknowledgement as he headed back to the camp. People had begun stirring from their bedrolls and Aramis joined them in the task of packing up. They would be in the city by the end of the day, and due to perform for the royal palace tomorrow. The Duke of Cardona was of course already there, having traveled ahead in his stately carriage. If the threat was to come from him directly, Aramis knew his fellow musketeers would handle it.
The caravan traveled slowly across the countryside, most of them on foot and a few riding on the supply wagons. Aramis participated in the banter among the troupe, but it held no warmth as when done with his brothers. Aramis would be glad when he could finally put aside Arias and resume his true identity.
As they finally reached Paris, he pulled up the hood of his cloak to conceal his face. It wouldn't do to have someone in the streets recognize him now.
Members of the Red Guard met them at the edge of the city to then escort them to the palace. Once there, they were directed around to one of the back gardens where they would be setting up their performance tent and camping out behind it, out of sight of the palace windows, of course.
Everyone set to their appointed tasks in efficient silence. The hostile bearing of the Red Guards did not inspire much chatter, even if they weren't likely to be understood.
Estrella sidled up to Aramis and reached out to tug his hood down, but his reflexes were instantaneous as he caught the hem and held fast. Only a few were privy to his mission, and members of the Red Guard were not part of that trusted group.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked.
Aramis flicked a hooded gaze at her. "Before I found such jocular occupation with my marksmanship," he began quietly, "I may have used it in the employ of some…less than sanctioned exploits in France. Who knows what soldier here might recognize me."
Estrella gaped at him in disbelief. "And you came right to the palace to perform?" she hissed. "Does Lorenço know about this?"
Aramis feigned a regretful grimace. "No…I'd only just gotten employment; I didn't want to risk losing it. Besides, I will merely replace my usual blindfold with a hood when I perform, and that way no one will see my face." He flashed her a coy smile. "Would you do me the honor of escorting me to and from the ring?"
She shook her head in seeming exasperation. "I have half a mind to tell Lorenço the danger you've put us all in." A small huff escaped her lips. "But after tomorrow it won't matter."
Aramis cocked a brow. "That's the second time you've alluded to something mysterious. Care to enlighten me?"
She just smiled and patted his chest. "Let's just say it will be a performance to remember."
Aramis forced himself to keep the affectionate look on his face until she turned and left, and then he finally let it drop to a frown. So whatever was planned was due to happen during the performance. Again, Aramis thought of Sabastian's knife throwing routine. Would they really be so bold?
Anxious to find out more but not knowing where to look, Aramis continued helping with the setup. At one point he spotted Estrella and Lorenço talking privately, too far out of earshot to catch snippets of their conversation. Initially, he wondered if Estrella was telling the troupe's leader about Aramis's backstory, but neither of them glanced his way during the discourse, so he imagined he wasn't the topic after all. Which did not allay his fears.
That night, Aramis slipped away under cover of darkness to find his brothers. He should have known they wouldn't have been far, and two figures cloaked in shadows stepped out from behind the pillars of one of the verandas. Aramis instantly recognized the pair of their builds and stances before seeing their faces.
"Whatever is planned is going to happen during the performance tomorrow," he informed them without preamble.
"They're gonna try to kill the King in front of that many witnesses?" Porthos asked dubiously.
"I don't know. I can't even say for sure it is an assassination." Aramis ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "You should keep an eye on the troupe's leader, Lorenço. Out of everyone, he seems the most apt for putting together some kind of plot."
"We should cancel the performance," Athos said.
"It's the Duke's provision," Aramis pointed out. "He'll take offense."
"Offense will be the least of his problems if the King of France is murdered."
"Yeah, but we don' even know if he's in on it," Porthos put in. "How much trouble would falsely accusin' him bring?"
"A great deal," Aramis pointed out.
Athos shifted in agitation. "How close are we going to let this get to the King?" he asked in a low voice.
Aramis's shoulders dropped a fraction. "I can try searching Lorenço's tent."
"No, we'll do that," Athos immediately countered. "If we're spotted, we can claim we're doing a security check."
"The Duke won't like that either," Aramis said.
"We'll deal with it. Assuming we're caught at all." Athos nodded to Aramis. "Keep your eyes and ears open. And if the show must go on, then at least we'll have one extra body in the thick of it."
Aramis dipped his chin in return. They parted ways and Aramis immediately headed for Estrella's tent, desperate for one last shot at teasing those elusive secrets from her lips. But she wasn't there. Aramis drifted by Lorenço's tent, trying to discern any voices from within, but couldn't. He almost lingered anyway, but didn't want to be accosted and asked what he was doing, so he wandered the camp, keeping his senses peeled for anything amiss.
He found nothing, and soon it seemed as though the rest of the troupe was asleep. Aramis, however, stayed awake and on watch until the breaking of dawn.
When morning came, he assisted with the final preparations before the show, eyeing every single member of the company with trepidation and suspicion. Sabastian was sitting off to the side, sharpening his knives, and Aramis tried to recall if he'd seen Estrella and him talking in hushed tones at some point. Or perhaps Lorenço had. Aramis couldn't remember, and the lack of evidence was grating on his nerves. If anything happened to the King because he'd failed his mission…
With one hand on his loaded pistol, Aramis took his place in the back of the performance tent, concealed in the shadows as the court began to arrive. The King and Queen took their seats in the middle of the audience, the Duke of Cardona to the King's left. Other courtiers filed in around them, bustling with excitement at the entertainment they were about to enjoy. A performance to remember, Estrella had said. But remember in what way? Aramis still couldn't imagine how anyone would think to succeed here today without it being a suicide mission, and that scared him more than anything, because one prepared to die for his cause was the worst kind of enemy—it made them nigh unstoppable.
Aramis roved his gaze around the tent as everyone settled. Lorenço made his way out to the center of the ring to introduce the company. His presence must have meant that Athos and Porthos hadn't found anything incriminating in his tent.
Gutierre went out first, his juggling drawing appreciative nods and small smiles from the audience, who applaud at the conclusion of his act.
When it was Sabastian's turn, Aramis stood rigid as stone, hand on his pistol and ready to draw if the man even turned a quarter away from his target mat. But Sabastian didn't until all his knives were spent and then he bowed to the guests before leaving the ring. Aramis let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. For the first time he began to wonder if the plot afoot was not what they'd initially suspected.
He had to suspend his concerns for the moment as Lorenço went out and announced him next. El Francotirador.
Aramis turned to catch Estrella's eye and gave her a dashing smile before slipping a burlap sack over his head. The material was thin and allowed him to see just a little. Cheating, in any other case, but not when he needed to be ready to detect the minutest threat to his sovereigns.
Estrella came over and took his arm to guide him out to the middle of the ring and positioning him so he was facing right toward the targets. He drew his pistol and held it up. Someone put a coin in a bottle and tossed it into the air. Aramis closed his eyes to make the shot—he did have some pride.
He heard glass shatter, followed by gasps and "ah's" through the audience. A second bottle was thrown and he took the shot with his secondary pistol, hitting the target once again. Applause sounded and Estrella came to lead him out of the ring. Once on the edge, he yanked the hood off and quickly reloaded his pistols as surreptitiously as he could.
Fortunately, everyone's attention was on Estrella, who had taken the floor with her dance routine. The rings on her skirts jangled as she sashayed her hips back and forth to the music being played off to the sides. Aramis was almost tempted to watch, but he spared her not a glance, still too tense by the inaction surrounding the performance. He should have been glad the plot seemed to be proving nothing more than a rumor, and yet his instinct told him that wasn't the case.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Athos and Porthos flanking Lorenço watchfully on the other end of the tent, but the man wasn't making a move.
Beltrán, the fire performer, walked out into the ring without introduction and began blowing great bursts of flame up and around Estrella as she danced.
Aramis frowned; that hadn't been part of their normal routine before. And yet Estrella didn't seem surprised by it, never missing a step as she continued to dance, the firelight glinting off her dark hair and reflecting in her eyes.
Smoke from the torch stick left a haze in the middle of the performance, and it took Aramis a moment to notice that it was inexplicably thickening. Confusion leaped to alarm right before Beltrán unclipped two small devices from his belt and tossed them to either end of the tent. More smoke oozed forth, swiftly obscuring visibility. Murmurs went through the crowd, the audience uncertain as to whether this was part of the show.
Aramis whipped his gaze to where Athos and Porthos had seized Lorenço, but the man wasn't armed and he was standing too far away. Beltrán, also, was heading the other direction, away from the audience.
What in the bloody hell were they trying to do?
And then it hit with sinking clarity who the intended assassin was. Aramis caught a glimpse of Estrella and the glint of a knife being unsheathed from under her skirt before the smoke devoured her.
People were finally beginning to panic, but by the rising clamor, no one could find their way to the exit.
Aramis pushed his way through the smoke but was unable to see what was happening. The cloying brume clogged his nose and throat and made his eyes water, and a cough punched from his chest in an attempt to expel the invading particles. His heart was pounding against his rib cage. He was going to fail. The King's death would be on him…
Aramis closed his eyes and focused all of his concentration on parsing out the harried sounds. He lifted his pistol, narrowing his senses on the jangle of Estrella's skirts. Aramis pointed his gun and squeezed the trigger.
The shot sent everyone screaming and tripping over each other in a mad dash to escape. Aramis started forward, trying to make his way to where his musket ball had landed, but a flash of red emerged from the smoke and Aramis barely had time to throw up his spent pistol to block the swing of a sword. The blade caught the back of his wrist and drew a hiss from his mouth.
The red guard let out a raging bellow and lunged again. Aramis tossed the gun to his other hand as he spun around and clobbered the guard in the side of the head. He didn't see the second coming through the smoke until the point of a main gauche pierced his shoulder. The breath stole from his lungs as he staggered back, tripping over the first guard and landing on his back. Aramis knew the red guard looming over him, knew Claude knew him. But there was no small amount of bad blood between many of the Red Guard and the Musketeers over duels fought in the streets, and there was no hesitation as Claude went in for the kill.
A roar that could only come from Porthos heralded the large musketeer's arrival as he leaped forward, parrying the death blow with his larger blade. Then he body slammed Claude to the floor.
Athos appeared a split second later, eyes blazing. "Stand down," he commanded. "You know a King's Musketeer when you see one."
Claude seethed up at them. "That traitorous dog tried to kill the King!"
"I did not," Aramis gasped, lungs spasming between the smoke and the pain of the stab wound. "I hit the woman trying to kill him."
He knew his aim was true. It had to be. Because there would be no living with the alternative.
The smoke was beginning to clear. Someone had slit open one side of the tent's canvas and the frightened cries had faded as people had escaped. Aramis levered himself up and looked to the side. Purple skirts were spread across the ground. He closed his eyes at the confirmation, both in relief and regret. He took solace that his actions had saved the Crown, but also mourned the vivacious young life he had snuffed out.
He opened his eyes again at the sound of pounding footsteps, but it was only Captain Treville.
"The King and Queen?" Aramis gritted out.
"Unharmed." Treville glanced at the red guard getting to his feet, his gauche stained in bright red. "Go help round up actual suspects," Treville barked.
Claude glowered, but turned on his heel and left.
Aramis curled forward as he stayed sitting on the ground and clutched at his bleeding shoulder. "That was way too close."
"Indeed," Treville agreed. "Richelieu is furious, as is the Duke. This whole thing is a bloody mess."
"But Aramis did save the King 'n Queen," Porthos put in.
Treville made a thoughtful noise as he turned to gaze at Estrella's body. "How did you even make that shot?"
Aramis shot him an affronted look, pressing his other hand to his chest. "Captain, please. Your lack of faith hurts."
"I believe that's the stab wound in your shoulder," Athos contradicted, holding out a hand to help him up.
Aramis eyed it reluctantly for a split moment before giving in and accepting it. He'd have to get off the ground eventually. Of course rising to his feet sent hot flares of pain through his shoulder and when he sucked in a gasp to swallow it, that action ignited a coughing fit that brutalized his shoulder even more.
An arm slid around his lower back to brace him.
"Captain?" Athos queried.
"Take him back to the garrison," Treville replied. "I'll deal with…this."
Aramis did not envy the man the task of sorting through this mess, and he let Athos lead him away without protest.
Outside, other musketeers had already rounded up several of the troupe performers, some of whom gaped at Aramis in flabbergasted dismay; perhaps they'd been witness to his heroic feat.
"I'll probably get to keep my nickname," he mused. "Word will spread among the Spanish of El Francotirador, the best marksman in all of France and Spain."
"I'd be more concerned with keeping what blood you have left inside your body," Athos rejoined.
Aramis huffed scornfully, then regretted it. "You know that bastard recognized me when he tried to run me through?"
"We'll have to teach him a lesson when things settle down," Athos replied.
"Do we have to wait that long?" Porthos grumbled, then coughed into his fist.
Aramis straightened. "How much smoke did you two inhale? You should drink plenty of water over the next few days."
"We got the same amount as you," Athos said drolly.
"I say we drink plenty of wine over the next few days," Porthos countered.
"Mm." Aramis didn't want to admit he was flagging, but the exertion of the afternoon and his injuries were taking their toll.
"Porthos," Athos said quietly, and then there was another presence pressed close on Aramis's other side.
Somehow he made it back to the garrison with his brothers bolstering him between them. Once he was in his room, water, bandages, and medical supplies were fetched.
"Should we send for a physician?" Porthos asked uncertainly.
Aramis tugged the edge of his shirt down to expose the wound and examined it. He gave his shoulder a tentative roll, and while the movement hurt severely, he did have range of motion.
"No. Just clean and stitch it." He lay back on the bed and steeled himself for the disinfecting.
Athos uncapped a flask of spirits and moved to stand over him. "Ready?"
Aramis gave a jerky nod, clenching his teeth in preparation.
Athos tipped the flask of alcohol over the wound and Aramis fisted his hands in the sheets and grunted against the burn. He nearly choked when Athos began wiping it dry, which triggered another coughing fit.
"Water," Athos commanded sharply, and Porthos leaped to get a cup.
Aramis gulped it down like a dying man, the water relieving some of the itch in his throat.
Athos was gazing at him warily. "Don't do that when I'm stitching."
"I shall endeavor to do my best," he replied breathlessly.
Athos still looked displeased and cocked his head at Porthos. "Hold him just in case."
"That is not necessary—"
Porthos maneuvered himself around to the other side of the bed and leaned over Aramis, one hand resting lightly on his chest, the other on his thigh. "Just in case," he replied with a quirked grin.
Aramis moaned. "Well, don't you start coughing in the middle of those stitches."
Athos gave him a dry look before threading the needle. But he did pause before starting to down his own cup of water and clear his throat. "It won't take long," he said and set to work.
Aramis focused on breathing through his nose sharply as each nip and tug against his skin sent shivers along the surrounding flesh and down into his stomach. It was always an unpleasant sensation.
True to his assessment, Athos finished in a matter of minutes and then proceeded to wrap Aramis's shoulder and bind his arm. He then wordlessly took a cloth damp with alcohol and began cleaning a cut on Aramis's wrist he hadn't even felt against the pain in his shoulder. But it was shallow and taken care of quickly.
The door opened and Treville entered. "Everything okay?" he asked.
"Yes," Athos replied, standing to put the medical supplies away. "At the palace?"
Treville shook his head wearily. "Still a mess. The Duke denies any knowledge of the plot, and the troupe leader is refusing to answer any questions. We're interrogating the others."
"I don't think the entire company was in on it," Aramis murmured from the bed.
"We'll sort it out," Treville assured him. "In other news, once I told the King it was you who made the shot that saved his life, he was all too eager to proclaim you a hero. The best marksman in all of France."
Aramis tossed a faint smirk at Porthos and Athos. "Told you."
"Louis would like to honor you for your bravery and exceptional performance of duty," Treville went on.
Aramis grinned wanly. He wasn't in the fight to protect the King and France for glory, but it was nice to have sometimes.
"Can we do it tomorrow?" he asked tiredly. "I have been away from my bed and the company of true friends for far too long, and will happily trade all the praise in the country just to be home again."
Porthos settled a hand on his uninjured shoulder. "Ya are home."
Athos, too, rested a hand on Aramis's arm.
"Tomorrow's fine," Treville answered. "The King is aware of the injuries you sustained and I'm sure will be understanding. Get some rest."
"Thank you." Aramis closed his eyes. The soft creak of wood as his brothers made themselves comfortable lulled him into sleep with the sounds and warm embrace of home.
Chapter 5: They Shall Bear You Up
This one's set about a year after Savoy.
Aramis stoically endured the sharp burn of alcohol against the graze along the side of his neck. He should count himself lucky it was only a shallow furrow. And yet, he found he could not give thanks for that.
Lit candles cast an orange glow throughout the small chapel, sending shadows whispering across the contours of the statues whose granite gazes bored into him with unrelenting ferocity. They seemed more like macabre gargoyles than the empyrean cherubs and saints mortal hands had fashioned them to be. The only statue whose eyes did not meet his was that of Jesus upon the cross. The Savior's gaze, angled down and to the side, did not deign to look upon him.
"Why do you chase death?" a soft voice intruded upon his dark thoughts as Sister Catherine dabbed at his wound again. The gentle nun had not balked when Aramis had pursued a mercenary into the convent's garden, exchanging gunfire over her row of petunias. She had given the slain bandit a grieved look before turning to the King's Musketeer and ushering him inside to tend to his wound.
Aramis had wanted to protest, but Sister Catherine had been near belligerent in her insistence and he hadn't possessed the wherewithal to fight her. Now, though, he regretted accepting her kindness, for she was far too perceptive. She had seen him barrel after the mercenary, heedless of taking cover when the first shot was fired. And the second had come too close.
Her eyes raked over the scars visible on his chest where he'd pulled one side of his shirt down to give unimpeded access to his wound.
"To give God a chance to rectify his mistake," he answered quietly, his private musings having loosened his tongue more than he would normally allow. And though there was no seal of confession between them, this was a House of God, and it would not do to lie.
"God doesn't make mistakes."
"Then I should have no fear of dying if it's his will to keep me alive."
The shadows of Savoy dogged his every step. Twenty dead musketeers. One deserter. And Aramis alone to return. Was it Providence because he was meant for something more? How could he accept that though? There were men more worthy than him who should have been spared. If his survival was not some cruel oversight of Fate, then why should he not face down death at every turn in service to his duty? It had helped him prevent the mercenary from escaping with the stolen documents this day.
"The Devil said much the same to our Lord Jesus Christ," Sister Catherine replied. 'He shall give his angels charge over you,'" she quoted. "And Christ replied, 'You shall not—'"
"'Tempt the Lord your God,'" Aramis finished, shoulders sagging under the admonition.
She arched a pointed brow at him. "If you know your Scriptures, then why do you defy them?"
He bowed his head in contrition. Because there had been no angels in Savoy that day.
The creak of the door opening spared him further admissions, and they looked over at the familiar cloaks of blue entering the chapel, backlit by the afternoon sun.
"There you are," Porthos called. "We've been searchin' the forest for almost an hour."
Despite the hint of irritation in his tone, Aramis could see the relief in Porthos's eyes. Relief that quickly morphed into concern when he narrowed his gaze on Aramis's neck.
"I saw you caught up with the man who tried to escape," Athos said blandly, also eyeing him carefully.
Aramis grimaced, realizing the body must still be lying in the garden. He turned to Sister Catherine. "My apologies."
"There were other pressing matters," she replied, then looked to the other two musketeers. "I assume you'll be taking him back with you?"
Though her words had probably meant the dead mercenary, it was Aramis that Athos looked at when he replied,
She set the cloth aside and rose to her feet. With a courteous, and perhaps too cunning, nod to Athos and Porthos, she excused herself.
Before Aramis could stand, Athos had taken the seat she'd vacated and had reached out to grasp his chin, gently turning his head to get a look at the wound.
"Musket ball?" he asked quietly.
Aramis made a noncommittal sound. "If it requires needlework, I think I shall wait for Sister Catherine to return."
"I don't believe it does." Athos released Aramis's chin and picked up a roll of bandages.
Porthos stood with arms crossed as he watched Athos wrap the strip of linen around the wound. Their concern was a tangible throb that pulsed in time with the shadows from the candlelight. But just like the statues above, they were silent.
Unlike the judgmental stone, however, their presence was close, not distant. Near, yet not hovering. Athos's touch was gentle as he tucked the end of the bandage under a fold so it would hold secure. Porthos's hand settled on his shoulder, giving a small squeeze. Behind the concern was gratitude, and even understanding, all conveyed through gestures of care instead of words.
Aramis picked up his weapons belt, ready to leave. Athos and Porthos could have led the way, could have gone ahead to load up the body they'd be taking back to Paris. But they did not. They strode toward the door in step with Aramis, at his side as they had been since they'd found him in Savoy and brought him home. No matter how reckless he behaved, no matter the trouble he chased down with abandon, his brothers always managed to bring him home.
Perhaps God had given him angels after all.
"In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone."
Chapter 6: Precipice
The screech of steel rang throughout the forest, a discordant chorus of clashing blades punctuated by pained cries. D'Artagnan parried a thrust and jabbed in return, piercing leather and flesh underneath. He spun around before his opponent had completed his descent to the ground in order to meet the next mercenary.
Around him his fellow musketeers fought with the same ferocity, though of different styles. Porthos was brutal in his attacks, wielding brawn as heavily as his sword. Athos was swift and deadly, cutting past inexperienced swordsmen with straightforward efficiency. Aramis, on the other hand, always fought with a certain flourish and relish in his movements, like it was a dance he was delighted to engage in. D'Artagnan still marveled over those three.
They'd taught him a lot and he could keep up with them, but he still wondered if one day he would ever possess the same measure of skill. Not that he wasn't capable. Already he'd slain two of their assailants, though more poured out from behind the trees. Apparently the documents the musketeers were carrying were of significant value to someone if they were willing to pay a dozen men to retrieve them. Of course, the legendary skills of the Musketeers wasn't something to underestimate.
D'Artagnan slashed at a brutish man wielding an ax and ducked the swing aimed at his head. The ax blade thudded into a tree trunk with enough force that the mercenary faltered trying to get it out. D'Artagnan took advantage of that and moved in to stab him through the chest. Another one down.
He quickly glanced at the others, who were of course holding their own. Athos was dueling two men but they were the ones flagging under his relentless assault. Porthos bashed another man's head into a tree. Aramis had just struck one man in the head with the pommel of his gauche, but then another came charging toward him with a roar. Aramis barely turned as he was tackled, and the two went falling backward, rolling through the loose bed of autumn leaves and down the slope they were covering.
D'Artagnan surged that direction, but was stopped by another mercenary leaping out at him. He threw up his gauche to block the blade aimed at his throat and brought his rapier up to slit his attacker's instead. He whirled in expectation of another, but silence had fallen over the forest, the battle over.
Athos wiped his blade clean and roved his gaze across the bodies.
"Where's Aramis?" Porthos asked.
D'Artagnan sheathed his weapons and moved toward where he'd seen Aramis and his opponent fall. "Over here. He got tackled and they both slipped…" He trailed off when he glanced down the incline and saw nothing but a furrowed trough through the leaves…and a cliff's edge.
He launched forward, sliding through the leaves and almost losing his balance in his haste to get to the bottom. He almost trampled Aramis's hat lying in the mulch and skidded to a stop to snatch it up. Other than the small item, there was no sign of Aramis or his opponent.
D'Artagnan scrambled to the edge of the cliff, heart leaping into his throat as he peered over the side. His lungs nearly seized at the sight of Aramis fifteen feet down, sprawled on a ledge barely protruding from the rock face. His right arm was pinned beneath him, his rapier poking out from under his back, and his head and right shoulder were leaning precariously off the edge.
There was no response. Another fifteen feet below his position, d'Artagnan saw the broken body of the mercenary crumpled among the rocks.
Porthos slid down next to him and leaned out. "Aramis!" He immediately started scanning the edge as though looking for a way down, but Athos clamped a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"We don't know how stable that shelf is."
"I'll go," d'Artagnan said. "I'm the lightest."
Athos hesitated only a brief second before giving a clipped nod and turning back to Porthos. "Grab some rope."
Porthos growled under his breath as he rose to his feet and hurried back up the slope to the horses.
D'Artagnan gazed over the edge of the cliff again, this time scrutinizing the craggy face and scraggly roots that could impede his descent.
"Are you sure?" Athos asked quietly, without a hint of judgement. If d'Artagnan didn't do it, Athos probably would.
He gave a resolute nod. "I can do it." For Aramis, he could do this.
Porthos returned with the rope and d'Artagnan tied one end around his waist while Porthos secured the other end to himself. Then d'Artagnan took a deep breath and backed up to the edge.
"Go slow," Athos cautioned.
D'Artagnan nodded and stepped off the precipice. He found a foothold with one foot, then steeled himself to do the same with the other. The rope squeezed his waist as it stretched taut, bearing his weight, and he heard Porthos grunt from above as he maintained the anchor.
D'Artagnan carefully worked his way down, one hand on the rope line and the other guiding his progress as he walked down the side. His foot slipped and he banged against the rock face as the rope compressed the air from his lungs.
"Easy," Athos called.
D'Artagnan took a moment to catch his breath. He heard a moan from below and craned his neck down to look. Aramis was stirring. The marksman's face scrunched up and he started to shift, lolling toward the side of least resistance. D'Artagnan's heart seized.
"Aramis! Don't move! Listen to me very carefully. Do. Not. Move."
"He awake?" Porthos called.
"Not enough," Athos's voice filtered down.
D'Artagnan ignored them, focusing instead on quickening his pace without running the risk of falling and breaking his own neck. He was more than halfway there, and would have jumped the last several feet if Athos's comment about the shelf's stability wasn't still ringing in his ears.
"Aramis, lie still. For the love of God, don't move."
That seemed to pierce the veil of confusion and Aramis ceased his efforts to orient himself.
"I'm almost to you," d'Artagnan went on.
Finally he set foot on the steep and quickly dropped to his knees; he was very close to the edge and didn't want one wrong swing of balance to pitch him to his own death. He reached for Aramis's leg to let him know he was there while evaluating the situation and trying to figure out how to deal with it.
There wasn't a lot of space on the shelf, not enough for d'Artagnan to crouch down on Aramis's left and simply pull him away from the precipice. Not to mention he had no idea if there were any broken bones or how mangled his right arm was.
D'Artagnan carefully inched around to Aramis's side, more or less straddling him as he tried to avoid the sheer drop himself.
Aramis pried his eyelids open and furrowed his brow. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to figure out how to get us out of this," he replied breathlessly. "Can you tell if anything's broken?"
Aramis's frown deepened and he began to shift. A sharp gasp escaped his throat and he instantly rolled the other direction to relieve the strain on his pinned arm. D'Artagnan shot out a hand to grab his shoulder as it started to slip further off the scarp. Aramis's head lolled with it and his eyes shot open.
"Oh merde," he breathed.
"Don't look down," d'Artagnan warned.
"Too late." His throat bobbed and he tried to lift his head to ascertain his position.
D'Artagnan sent him a silent apology before he started lightly squeezing Aramis's limbs in search of broken bones or other injuries. He was pretty sure it was just bruises, except for the shoulder. That looked dislocated.
"I'm going to sit you up," he said.
"Normally I would say I could manage that," Aramis groused. "But in this case I would prefer not to fall."
D'Artagnan snorted. "My thoughts exactly."
He slipped an arm under Aramis's shoulders and grabbed the front of the marksman's doublet with the other. Then he hauled Aramis up in one motion. The marksman let out a cry as d'Artagnan scooted back against the crag and pulled them as far away from the edge as possible, their legs bent at uncomfortable angles.
D'Artagnan finally allowed himself a measure of relief. One hard part down.
"Oi, what's taking so long?" Porthos shouted.
D'Artagnan rolled his eyes. "We're coming."
He shifted to the side so Aramis wasn't completely pressed back against his chest and started untying the rope from his belt. "You can still breathe, right?" he checked, worried he'd missed broken ribs in his assessment.
"Yes," Aramis replied, but he was panting and clutching at his right arm, which was hanging limply at his side.
D'Artagnan thought about offering to set his shoulder before beginning the arduous task of getting Aramis up the cliff face, but decided against it. He wasn't practiced in that.
"We could use a second rope!" he called up as he made a slip knot and helped get it over Aramis's shoulder and under his good arm.
Several moments later, another rope line fell down, thwacking d'Artagnan in the face. Scowling, he tied a slip knot with that one too and maneuvered it around Aramis's legs and up so he could more or less sit in the loop.
"I could climb," he muttered.
"If I set your shoulder first?" d'Artagnan rejoined.
Aramis hesitated, working his jaw. "You're right, there are worse things."
Rolling his eyes, d'Artagnan gave the line a light tug to signal Porthos. "Okay, bring him up!"
Aramis choked on a groan as he was lifted from the ground and slowly hauled up the side of the cliff. D'Artagnan watched with bated breath, terrified the rope would break or Porthos's strength would fail. He should have had more faith than that, and after several excruciatingly long minutes, Aramis was finally pulled up over the top of the cliff.
D'Artagnan sagged and closed his eyes for a brief moment in thankfulness. Then the one rope was being tossed back down to him and he slipped the loop over his own shoulder. He bent to pick up Aramis's sword and called up that he was ready.
Climbing back up wasn't much easier than going down, especially when he only had one free hand to help pull himself along. But he also made it to the top unscathed and Porthos's strong arms immediately hauled him up the rest of the way, and they both collapsed for a moment in the damp bed of leaves to catch their breaths.
D'Artagnan jerked at a strangled sound and turned his head to see Athos had just put Aramis's shoulder back into place. The marksman hunched over to the side, breathing raggedly as Athos put a steadying hand on his good shoulder and started looking him over for other injuries.
"I'll live," Aramis said tiredly. "We should leave in case there are more mercenaries."
"Can you sit a horse?" Athos asked doubtfully.
"Can? Yes. Though I'm sure I will regret it later. Still, you'll forgive me if I'm not keen on setting camp anywhere near here. I've had my fill of cliffs for one day."
"Can't argue wiv' that," Porthos huffed.
"All right." Athos rose to his feet and offered Aramis a hand up, which the marksman took with a grimace. Porthos stepped in to brace him as they started to hobble their way up the slope.
D'Artagnan bit back a moan as he pushed himself up from the ground.
"You did well," Athos told him with a nod of approval.
D'Artagnan blinked, pleased with the praise but also surprised. He hadn't done anything exceptional that the three of them wouldn't have done.
"All for one," he said with a smile and was rewarded with the tiniest quirk of Athos's mouth in agreement.
"And one for all."
Chapter 7: Lost Son, Part I
This one got LONG, so I've decided to post it in two parts. Part II will go up Saturday so you guys don't have to wait a whole week for the resolution.
He woke to soft, muffled voices and the clink of earthenware.
"I think he's finally stirring, Henri."
Wood creaked as footsteps approached. His head ached and he was still groggy, but he felt the urgent need to push through the haze and ascertain his surroundings. Prying his eyelids open took more effort than it should have, and he immediately squeezed them shut again as blinding light speared his skull.
"Easy," a kind, weathered voice said near his head.
He pressed a palm to his eyes and bit back a moan. "Where I am?" he rasped.
"My home, outside of Rosoy. My name is Henri Bircann, and my wife, Prudence, is here as well."
Inhaling sharply through his nose, he forced his eyes open once more. At first only blurry shapes and colors greeted him, but then they gradually coalesced into a ceiling and walls, and an aged man with gray hair sitting in a chair beside the small bed he was laying on, tucked into an alcove. Behind him next to a kitchen countertop was a woman with white peppered hair, hands worn by work and age wringing her apron.
He closed his eyes briefly again as a wave of pain lanced through his head. "What happened?" Even as he clutched at his temple, he felt the bandage secured around it, but could not place how it had come to be there.
"Don't know," Henri replied. "You stumbled onto our farm yesterday afternoon, practically senseless. We think from the gash on your head. Fell off your horse the moment we stepped outside. Brought you in and tended you."
"Thank you," he mumbled automatically. He fumbled his hand around to prop himself up. "I should…" He faltered. He should…what? His breathing hitched as he shot a startled and terrified gaze at his benefactors. "I can't remember. I can't remember anything."
The Bircanns exchanged surprised looks.
"Nothing at all?" Prudence prompted. "What about your name?"
He lay back on the bed and clutched at his head with both hands, digging his fingers into his scalp and wincing from the pain it elicited. "No," his voice cracked. "Nothing."
"I've heard of this," Henri said slowly. "Blows to the head erasing whole years from someone's memory. Never seen it myself."
"Will it come back?" he—oh God, what was his name?—found himself asking, though a distant part of him scoffed that these people could possibly have the answer to that.
The beat of silence was answer enough.
"Well," Prudence finally said. "You're probably hungry. I made some soup. I'll heat it up for you."
The chair creaked as Henri stood and moved away, perhaps to give him privacy. Though he was trying to keep a handle on the maelstrom of emotions roiling through his chest and head, he couldn't be sure he was succeeding, and he kept his hands covering his face. What had happened to him to bring him here like this? And what on earth did he do now?
He wrapped his hands around the bowl, letting some of the heat from the steaming soup seep through the wood into his palms. He'd managed to get up and move to sit at the small table, barely big enough to accommodate the three of them. Henri and Prudence sat on either side of him, watching him carefully. He suddenly wondered if they were wary of this stranger they'd taken into their midst. He wondered if they should be wary of him. He knew nothing about himself. What if he was a dangerous man?
"Does your stomach pain you?" Prudence asked, jolting him out of his thoughts.
He winced as his head swam when he shook it in the negative. "No." He lifted a spoonful of soup to his lips, taking a tentative sip. The broth was hot and aromatic, and he found it oddly soothing as he swallowed. "It's very good. Thank you."
Prudence smiled at him.
He took another spoonful, then another, slowly depleting the bowl's contents. When he was done, the awkward silence increased tenfold. He cleared his throat. "You said I had a horse?"
"Yes, we put him in the barn with ours," Henri replied. He rolled his shoulder in discomfort. "We meant no offense, but we searched the saddlebags. Afraid there wasn't much in there. You did have a sword and some very fine pistols on you though."
"I'd like to see."
Prudence stood up and went to retrieve the bags and weapons belt. She also brought over a brown leather coat and blue sash and draped them over the bags.
He reached out to finger the separate fabrics, then pushed them aside and picked up a pistol next. It was a very fine piece of craftsmanship, almost artistic. But it didn't stir anything in his memory. He set it down and flipped open the saddlebag. There were supplies for traveling: some food and a water skin, and a kit containing an odd assortment of implements, along with needle and thread. Nothing, however, to give a clue as to his identity.
He sighed and put the items back. "Thank you for your kindness. I should probably be going." He made a move as though to stand, but Prudence cut him off.
"Where will you go?"
The question stalled him, and he sank back down. He didn't actually know. "I don't wish to trouble you further."
"It's no trouble," she insisted. "And what about that knock to your head? It's not fully mended yet and perhaps you shouldn't be riding."
He supposed that was sound advice. Based on the medic's kit in his bag, he probably should have known what was best, but it was escaping him at the moment.
He sagged. "All right."
Henri nodded approvingly and rapped his knuckles on the table. "Well, since you'll be staying, we need to figure out what to call you, eh? How about Gaston? Since you're our guest."
He rolled the name over in his mind. It didn't hold any meaning to him, but then, nothing did at the moment. He nodded slowly. "Very well. Thank you."
D'Artagnan landed on his back with an oomph. Shaking his head, he flicked an annoyed look up at Porthos. "I'm never going to win in a fight against you, am I?"
The larger musketeer grinned and rubbed at his beard. "Well…"
"Not by brute strength," Athos put in from the sideline. "You have to adapt to various opponents. Find their weakness and use it against them."
"What's Porthos's weakness?"
"You'll have to discover that for yourself."
D'Artagnan scowled and pushed himself to his feet.
"I'll give you a hint, pup," Porthos said with a toothy grin. "I ain't got a weakness."
D'Artagnan rolled his eyes and wished Aramis was here, because that comment surely would have gotten the marksman going and d'Artagnan might have been able to glean something from the banter. But Aramis was away on a religious pilgrimage or something and wasn't due back for a few days. Which left d'Artagnan training solely with Porthos and Athos and getting thrashed every time. It was exhausting.
Huffing wearily, he nevertheless hunkered down and prepared to go another round.
A couple more days passed and he had yet to remember anything about who he was or where he came from. There had been one more clue—a gold crucifix around his neck. So he was a religious man, it seemed. He tried praying for mercy, for answers, but the silence was as oppressive as the gaps in his mind.
After the first day staying mostly in bed, he'd started to go stir crazy and wanted to be up and active. And so he'd offered to help Prudence with the cooking. Not that he knew how to cook—or remembered whether he did or not—but he could chop vegetables easily enough.
The next day he went out to the barn to check on his horse. The majestic animal nudged him with her nose, almost as though she knew him and was happy to see him. That made one of them. He scratched behind her ear.
The pain in his head was lessening and aside from the healing gash, he wasn't injured anywhere else. Just his mind, apparently.
But that didn't mean he wasn't in possession of his faculties.
"Is there no one else living on the farm with you?" he asked Henri and Prudence one night over supper.
They exchanged a grieved look.
Henri shook his head. "Our sons…they had set off for Paris to seek their fortunes. We received word a few months after that they'd been robbed and killed on the road, having never even gotten there."
"It was many years ago."
They fell silent at that. Gaston had noticed that morning how Henri toiled in his daily chores. The man was getting up there in years and the labor getting more strenuous.
He resolved to help them out while he was here. It would be a way to repay their kindness and keep his hands from being idle.
Athos stood under the balcony, eyes fixed on the gate of the garrison as musketeers milled back and forth across the yard.
"He's late," a gruff voice said, coming to stand next to him.
Yesterday had been cause for curiosity and jesting excuses for Aramis's tardiness. Today as it neared evening, however, was cause for concern.
"I've spoken with the captain," Athos went on. "He can't spare anyone from duty at the moment."
Porthos growled low in his throat.
"He's not overly late," Athos added, trying to assuage him.
"I don't like it."
Athos inclined his head in agreement. Given Aramis's proclivity for attracting trouble, any misstep warranted immediate worry and fretting.
But there was nothing they could do about it right then.
Athos clapped Porthos on the shoulder. "Come."
"Gaston!" Prudence called. "Come down for some water. You've been baking in the sun for hours."
He flashed her a grin before making his way to the ladder and climbing down from the roof. She was waiting for him at the bottom with a cup of water in hand. He took it gratefully, knocking back a long swig before pouring the rest over the back of his neck.
"You're a godsend, son," Henri said, looking up at the roof with unadulterated gratitude.
There had been a leak last winter, but Henri hadn't been able to fix it with his gnarled hands and rickety joints. Gaston was happy to oblige.
"I don't know what we would've done in the next storm."
"Well, now you get to stay huddled inside your nice warm room next to the hearth," he replied cheerfully.
He'd fallen into a comfortable rhythm with Henri and Prudence. Even though they were essentially strangers, it almost felt as though he fit with them. They had been under no obligation to take him in, and he had been under no obligation to stay, but they had and he didn't have anywhere else to go.
Perhaps things were working out for the best. The Bircanns seemed to need him as much as he needed them. The labor was hard and left his muscles aching at the end of the day, but he didn't mind and it spared Henri and Prudence from the backbreaking work.
Sometimes he wondered about what was missing, whether there was someone out there waiting for him to come home. But that night, after Henri had regaled him with the struggles of last winter, he had lain down to sleep and dreamed of a snow covered forest splashed with red and bodies and crows.
He'd woken with a start a few hours before dawn, head pulsing. The soft sounds of Henri and Prudence sleeping in the other room filtered through the house, and he curled up under his blanket in the alcove as a chill gripped him. Was that just some strange nightmare conjured from thin air, or…had it been a memory? What else could it be though? And if it was…he didn't think he ever wanted to remember what potential horrors were buried in his past.
"I'm done waitin'," Porthos declared, pushing past Athos just as he'd descended the steps to the courtyard after talking with Treville, and stormed toward the stable.
Athos rolled his eyes to the sky and pivoted to follow.
"Don' try 'n stop me," the larger musketeer growled. "It's been three days wi' no word. Somethin' must 'ave 'appened to 'im. Not even a pretty woman would keep 'im from his duty."
Athos didn't say anything.
When Porthos reached the stable, he pulled up short as d'Artagnan emerged with all three of their horses saddled and ready. Porthos glanced back at Athos.
"If you're quite done," Athos said, "that's precisely what I told the captain."
Porthos had the grace to look abashed. "S'rry."
Athos took his horse's reins from d'Artagnan and mounted. "We'll take the road to the abbey Aramis was bound for. With any luck, we'll meet him on the way and he'd better have a very good excuse for worrying you."
D'Artagnan flicked a pointed look at him, but Athos ignored it. It wouldn't do to admit he was worried too. Because if Aramis hadn't returned and hadn't sent word, then Athos feared something grave had happened indeed.
He pitched another bunch of fresh straw bedding into the stall he'd finished cleaning out. The task was going slower than usual, for his mind was elsewhere, dwelling on strange flashes of a dirt courtyard and laughter, of riding across the countryside, of a match cord burning in a musket. There were blurred faces too, ghosts of a past that slipped through his fingers whenever he reached for them. He pressed a palm to his eyes, trying to shove them away. If they couldn't deign to reveal themselves, he did not want them haunting him. Especially if the faces just out of reach were the same ones who met a ghastly and bloody end in a winter forest.
Raised voices out front drew him from his thoughts. Frowning, he set the pitchfork against the wall and rubbed his hands on his breaches as he made his way outside. Three men had ridden up and dismounted and were facing Henri.
"Where'd you get the fine horse, old man?" one of them dressed in slightly finer cut cloth asked caustically.
"It belongs to my lodger," Henri replied.
"A lodger? You haven't reported securing extra income from a lodger. That will raise your dues."
"He's- he's not paying. He works for his room and board."
Gaston strode forward. "What's going on here?"
The man who'd been speaking, a wiry fellow with light orange hair, turned toward him. "Ah, this must be the lodger. I'm afraid you're in violation of tenant regulations."
Gaston narrowed his eyes. "How is that?"
"All people living on these lands owe dues to the Baron."
"I believe those dues are paid in portions of the harvest," he replied levelly.
The man's lip curled upward. "That's for working the land. There's additional taxes for the protection his men offer."
"Protection or extortion?"
"Gaston," Henri whispered, "please, just go inside."
He refused to move, however, a sense of righteous indignation at the suggestion of injustice flaring up inside him. "Taxes are collected by the King of France," he went on. "I should like to hear what he would say to a bunch of lowly thugs taxing his people in excess." He blinked, unsure where such a fervent declaration had come from.
The three men exchanged bawdy laughs. "Bold words for a lowly peasant," the leader spat, drawing his rapier. "Either you will pay the fees—and we'll take that horse of yours in lieu of coin—or you're an interloper who needs to be put in his place."
"Lesassier, please," Henri started.
"Stay out of this, old man," he snarled. "Or poor Prudence will find herself a widow."
Rage erupted in Gaston and he surged forward, grabbing Lesassier's wrist and twisting it until the man yelped and dropped his sword. Gaston caught the blade with his boot and kicked it back into the air, deftly catching the hilt with his right hand. Stepping back, he pointed the rapier at Lesassier's throat before he'd even realized what he'd done.
Lesassier, for his part, looked like a floundering fish he was so shocked. But his two companions quickly recovered and drew their own swords. Gaston flicked a wary look at them, which gave Lesassier the chance to scramble backward. Then his men attacked.
Gaston's arm felt like a separate entity, bringing his blade up to block a strike and then twisting to parry the second. Steel screeched and clanged in the ferocious clash of blades. Gaston had no time to think, he could only react, spurred by a fire of reflexes he had no conscious awareness of.
His two opponents bore down on him, but his feet had taken on a life of their own as well, retreating, pivoting, and advancing. He stabbed one man in the bicep of his sword arm, and the man curled away with a pained cry. The other swung at his head and Gaston ducked, lunging with his sword to pierce the man between his ribs.
He staggered back, breathing heavily, not from the exertion but from the stunned disbelief at what had just transpired.
The injured men started limping toward their horses while Lesassier fumed at Gaston.
"You will pay for this," the man hissed.
The click of a musket's hammer being cocked drew their attention to the house where Prudence stood. "Not today," she said fiercely, staring down the barrel at them.
Lesassier's cheeks puffed red, but he started inching back toward his horse. Once he was far enough away, Gaston tossed the man's sword back to him. Lesassier fumbled to catch it and shot him a scathing look in return. Then he mounted up and rode after his wounded companions.
Gaston felt all the adrenaline suddenly drain out of him, and he stumbled back to support himself against the paddock fence. "I'm sorry," he rasped. "I fear I just made things worse for you."
"Don't be sorry," Henri said, sounding and looking at him in awe. "Those men deserved to be knocked off their high horses, ridin' around like they're the Baron's own sons."
"If this has been going on for some time, why have you not appealed to the Baron?"
"He's away," Henri said regretfully. "Which means there's nothin' to stop Lesassier from coming back here to take revenge on you."
Gaston shrugged. Somehow, such threats didn't faze him.
"That was somethin' to watch though, let me tell you," Henri went on.
"Indeed," Prudence said, coming to join them. "You must be a solider."
Gaston thought back to the dream he'd had of a massacre in the forest and felt there could be some truth in that. But he didn't mention it. Maybe he had been a soldier. But he'd been traveling alone on the road before he'd been injured and ended up here. Was he a deserter? Surely he was too young to resign, and he obviously didn't suffer from a crippling injury that would have resulted in his early dismissal.
"Well, whatever life I once led is lost to me," he said, brushing off those musings. "I am now but a humble lodger in your gracious home."
Henri and Prudence exchanged a look.
"Well," the older man hedged. "If your memory don't return and you think you might like to stay…we'd be honored to call you son. With our own no longer of this world, there's no one to inherit the farm. You could make a good life for yourself. Except for Lesassier, but it seems like you could handle him."
Gaston blinked, taken aback. "I…I would be honored," he said humbly.
Prudence and Henri shared beaming smiles, which Gaston couldn't help but return. They had all lost something precious, but had come together and made something new from the shattered shards of broken hearts.
"He can't 'ave just vanished without a trace," Porthos said gruffly, stomping across the road and looking up and down it as though Aramis would come riding out of the Mists of Avalon.
They'd made the half-day's ride to the abbey where they'd learned that Aramis had never even arrived. And there'd been no sign of him on the road between there and Paris.
"What now?" d'Artagnan asked, expression pinched with the same worry and frustration they all felt.
Athos's eyes were dark as his gaze angled toward Paris. Eventually they would have to return to duty, but Porthos couldn't imagine going back without Aramis. He would rather scour the entire countryside until he'd discovered what had happened to his best friend, his commission be damned.
"We'll inquire at nearby villages along the road," Athos said.
"If he was at a village, he would've sent word," Porthos groused.
"Nevertheless, it is that or return to Paris."
Porthos shot him a sharp glower. They were not going back yet.
Athos merely returned a bland look, waiting for him to remount.
Porthos grumbled under his breath and stalked back to his horse. Then the three of them resumed their trek down the road, all the while eyes peeled against the sweeping countryside for any hint of what had befallen their lost friend.
Chapter 8: Lost Son, Part II
And the conclusion.
He woke with a start, a forgotten name dying on his lips. His heart was pounding and he was drenched in a cold sweat. Why must these dark dreams continue to plague him? Was he being punished for a lifetime of actions he had no recollection of?
"Gaston?" Prudence whispered, and he startled to find her in the kitchen, a cup of steaming tea in hand. She took a tentative step forward and offered it to him.
He grasped it desperately, shivering as the warmth seeped into his fingers. He always felt an inexplicable chill after those dreams draped in snow. "I'm sorry I woke you," he said hoarsely, noting that it was not yet dawn.
"I was awake anyway." She paused. "Are your memories returning?"
He shook his head, stopped, and then sighed. "I don't know. I…dream. But it leaves the moment I wake."
"From the way you thrash about, I have to wonder if that is a good thing."
"I believe you're right."
She reached out and carded weathered fingers through his hair with motherly tenderness. He closed his eyes and let her touch banish the last of the haunting revenants and give way to a brief flash of a beautiful woman with dark hair humming softly. But then the vision slipped away, and he wondered if he could mourn what he didn't even remember.
When dawn finally broke, he rose from bed and readied himself for a new day. He was safe here, safe from death and bloodshed.
Except for perhaps retribution from Lesassier, so when hoofbeats sounded outside, he hurried to retrieve the sword stashed under his bed, prepared to fight again. He could only hope instinct rallied to him once more, as he still had no conscious knowledge of swordplay.
But when he threw a quick glance out the window, it was not Lesassier or his lackeys who were approaching the farm, but a different three men in blue capes, heavily armed.
"King's Musketeers," Henri gasped, also peering out the window. "Dear Lord, I never imagined Lesassier would lay charges against you."
He frowned. Henri thought the musketeers were here to…arrest him?
"Stay inside," Henri urged and made his way toward the door.
Prudence followed, stopping in the threshold and blocking the way as she clung to the joist.
Gaston kept his hand on his sword.
"Messieurs," Henri called as he hobbled out to greet the visitors. "How may I be of service to you?"
"We are looking for someone," the one in the middle replied.
Henri visibly stiffened. "I beg of you to listen to the facts before you take him. He was only defending me and he killed no one."
The musketeers exchanged a confused look.
"I believe there is a misunderstanding," the first spoke again. "We're looking for a missing musketeer."
Gaston frowned, and Prudence whipped her head toward him.
"A missing musketeer?" Henri repeated.
"Yes," the larger man interrupted gruffly. "Did you see him traveling this way any time these past few weeks?"
"We've only had one visitor in that time," Henri said carefully. "And he wasn't dressed as a musketeer…"
"He was traveling on personal leave," the first explained, a hint of tautness to his tone. "When did you see him and which way was he going?"
"Was he hurt?" the big one put in, his voice laced with such concern that Gaston felt they couldn't be lying or putting up a ruse as to why they were looking for this missing musketeer.
Vibrating with nervous energy, he set the sword down and moved to the door. Prudence stepped aside for him, and he ventured out into the yard. Three sets of eyes immediately snapped his direction and widened.
"Aramis!" the third musketeer exclaimed.
"Do you 'ave any idea how worried sick we've been?" the larger demanded, dismounting and starting toward him. "What in the blazes are you doin' out here?"
His heart was pattering wildly inside his chest and he couldn't help but take a step back from the force of this man. The musketeer paused, quirking a brow in confusion.
He swallowed hard. "You…know me?"
The relieved expressions faltered.
"Is this some kind of joke?" the large musketeer asked angrily.
"Aramis," the youngest sputtered as he and the other dismounted as well. "Are you saying you don't know us?"
"I'm afraid he doesn't know who he is either," Henri interjected. "When we found him, he'd had a head injury. Hasn't remembered anything since before he woke up here."
The musketeers gaped at him, and he couldn't help averting his gaze from their scrutiny.
"Perhaps you should all come inside," Prudence called.
The lead musketeer, or so Gaston assumed, dipped his head in acknowledgement and led his horse to the fence to tether the reins. The other two did likewise, casting Gaston worried glances that did nothing to alleviate his nerves. By sheer chance, a key to his past had arrived on his doorstep; so why did it fill him with nothing but trepidation?
"I'm Athos," the leader said. "This is Porthos and d'Artagnan."
"My name is Henri, and this is my wife, Prudence. Gas- well, we've been calling him Gaston. But you said his name is…?"
If the name was meant to ring a bell, it did not. In fact, after being Gaston these past couple of weeks, the new name felt almost more foreign than the moniker he'd been given.
There wasn't enough space in the Bircanns' small kitchen. Henri and Prudence sat at the table and Gaston took up position behind them, leaning against the counter. The musketeers stood across from them, removing their hats.
"Perhaps we should begin with your story," Athos prompted.
Gaston let Henri tell it. After all, it wasn't as though he had anything to contribute. When that was finished, the musketeers explained how the one named Aramis left on personal leave to make a pilgrimage to an abbey. Apparently it was a regular journey for him, and Gaston thought about the crucifix that was tucked under his bed with the other items of his unidentified life.
"Since you were not on Musketeer business," Athos continued, "you had not taken your pauldron with you."
"A shame, for that would have been an important clue," Gaston remarked with a surprising measure of sarcasm.
"Gaston," Prudence chided under her breath.
"How could this have happened?" d'Artagnan interrupted. "To lose all one's memories like that?"
"It's possible with head injuries," Athos said, eyeing Gaston again. "And Aramis has a history of head wounds."
"Were you robbed?" the big one—Porthos—asked.
"It didn't seem so," Henri answered when Gaston did not. "He had his horse and some expensive looking pistols."
"Then what happened?" the young one asked again.
"Unfortunately, only Aramis can tell us that," Athos replied.
"We should go back to the garrison, fetch a physician," Porthos said.
Gaston found himself stiffening at the suggestion.
"It's getting late and you've probably been riding for a while," Prudence interjected. "Please, stay for supper and rest your horses. I'm afraid we don't have room in the house, but you're welcome to take shelter in the barn. And perhaps it would be nice if you shared some stories about Ga- Aramis. You know, he has dreams sometimes. Memories might not be completely lost."
The look of hope that ignited in the musketeers' eyes made Gaston's chest hitch. He wanted to know though, needed to know.
"Yes," he said. "I would like to hear about…myself."
Porthos snorted and flashed him a tentative grin. "Just don't go gettin' that ego all inflated again."
The joke fell flat, and the resulting awkwardness was worse than before.
"I'll get your horses settled," he volunteered.
"I'll help," d'Artagnan immediately said.
He wanted to wave him off, but the boy was already heading out the door. Holding back a sigh, he followed, the two of them taking the horses from the fence to the barn and proceeding to remove their tack.
D'Artagnan paused and went straight for the black beauty next to the two work horses. "I'm glad to see you're here as well," he crooned, rubbing the horse's forehead.
"What's her name?" Gaston asked.
D'Artagnan looked over in surprise before his expression softened. "Bern."
"Bern," he repeated. "I like that. I've just been calling her Beauty. It didn't seem right to give her a new name when she wasn't the one who'd forgotten it."
D'Artagnan's smile slipped. "I can't imagine what you've gone through these past couple weeks. Honestly, when there was no word and we went to the abbey and they said you'd never made it, we feared the worst. Finding you dead would have destroyed us. Especially Porthos."
Gaston frowned, voice dropping low. "Aren't I dead though? In a sense? The man you're looking for isn't here."
D'Artagnan closed the distance between them and reached out to firmly clasp his shoulder. "He is. Maybe not whole, exactly. But there has to be a way to restore your memory and we'll figure it out."
The heartfelt declaration was oddly touching, but didn't necessarily inspire the confidence it was no doubt meant to.
Gaston gave a clipped nod and stepped away under the pretense of caring for the horses. He didn't understand why he wasn't more thrilled to have met these men, to finally have a name.
But that was it, wasn't it—he had a name. The one Henri and Prudence had given him, and he'd grown into it, had started to feel like he belonged. Now he was being uprooted by a past he wasn't sure he wanted to claim in the first place…
They spent the evening listening to the musketeers talk about Aramis, what he was like, the things he'd done. There had been some awkward coughs and shifty eyes when Porthos had made a comment about him being popular with the ladies. Gaston asked if there was a woman waiting for him somewhere but only got hedged responses. He gathered that while he had seemingly kept mistresses, he hadn't made any of them an honest woman. The topic embarrassed him in front of Henri and Prudence and so he quickly changed the subject to how long he had been a musketeer.
Porthos was equally eager to regale them with spun tales of heroic deeds, but much of what Gaston heard was of war and bloodshed. Apparently he'd been a soldier before a musketeer, a skilled marksman that had garnered attention when the Captain of the Musketeers was first forming the regiment. These exploits that were obviously intended to make him feel proud and perhaps excited were doing the exact opposite. All he could wonder was how many men had he killed in his time of service? Did he enjoy it? What kind of man did that make him?
But how could he ask for the darker facts and grittier details not fit for gentle company? And what if asking only brought the dreams and memories into sharper focus?
He surged to his feet, interrupting Porthos in yet another yarn. "Excuse me," he said shortly and strode from the house, taking up a lantern and seeking refuge in the barn. Only belatedly did he realize the musketeers were to bunk in there, but at least he'd gotten a moment of reprieve.
A short moment, for a few minutes later he heard straw crinkling under boots and turned to find Athos had followed him.
"My apologies," the man said. "Porthos can be a gregarious sort and overwhelming if one's not used to him."
"But we're friends," he repeated from before.
Athos inclined his head. "Like brothers."
He squeezed his eyes shut and braced an arm on a post. "I am caught between two families."
"The Bircanns are good people. They've looked after you."
"Like a son." He let out a strangled sound and shook his head. "I had begun to accept this new life."
"You have one waiting for you back in Paris."
"Do I?" He shot Athos a sharp look. "The life of a musketeer, a soldier. What kind of life is that?"
Athos frowned. "I believe Porthos painted quite the picture."
He shook his head, completely different images swirling around his head. "I dream of snow and blood," he said in a low voice, with almost an inflection of inquiry.
There was a beat of silence, then, equally quiet, "What else?"
He scowled. "I don't know. Nothing is clear. Just the bodies. And crows." He turned sharply to skewer the musketeer with a demanding glare.
The man didn't balk, but met his fiery gaze with a cool one of his own. "Savoy," he said. "You were on a training exercise. There was an ambush and many musketeers died."
His breath caught in his throat, the tale so easily slotting into place in the glimpses he could see in his mind's eye.
He took a step back. "I'm not sure I want to remember Aramis. You speak of duty and glory but the pieces I've seen for myself are bathed in blood."
Athos, surprisingly, looked all too understanding as he gazed back mournfully. "I would have you never remember Savoy," he said. "But at the cost of losing my friend, my brother? That I cannot wish for."
Gaston finally broke eye contact and turned away. "Neither of us has much say in the matter," he pointed out.
"You're remembering pieces. Perhaps not clearly, but it's cause for hope that more may yet return to you."
"To what end? What about Henri and Prudence? They have no one. How can I leave them?"
There were several long beats of silence.
"You need not decide anything this moment," Athos finally said softly. "But know that we all have darkness in our pasts. You do not let yours rule you. Your heart is too full not to love life and the thrill of adventure, matched by your devotion to king and country and a brotherhood that would follow you into Hell should you need us." He moved forward, close enough to reach out but not breaching that final distance between them. "I would ask you to give us a chance, but also know that whatever your heart guides you to choose, I will support you. Your life and happiness mean more to me than the uniform you wear."
Gaston's throat tightened with welling emotion he couldn't name or understand. What words could he possibly say to meet those of such heartfelt honesty? And so he simply nodded, feeling more and more torn inside.
He headed back to the house but waited outside in the dark until Porthos and d'Artagnan had excused themselves for the night. Then he slipped quietly inside and retreated to his small alcove.
He didn't sleep, afraid to dream. The stories he'd heard started to take shape in his mind and he could almost see them as if he had been there. But beside these jovial faces were the kind visages of Henri and Prudence, and he felt as though he were being strapped on a rack and pulled apart into two separate people.
One of them had to give. But which one?
The next morning when he finished washing up, he found Henri and Prudence sitting at the table, expressions somber.
"You think I intend to leave with them," he blurted.
They blinked in surprise.
"Well, yes," Prudence said. "You belong with them. You're a King's Musketeer!"
"I was a musketeer," he corrected. "I'm not one now. I would have to start my training over like a new recruit."
"It would come back to you," Henri said. "We've all seen your instinct is still there. Perhaps it would even help the rest of your memories return faster."
"And what of you and the farm?"
Their expressions softened, and Prudence rose from the table to come take him by the arms.
"Should you desire to stay, of course we would have you. But if you want to go to Paris, to try to remember your old life…you owe yourself that."
He lowered his head. "I'm afraid I won't like what I learn," he confessed.
She lifted her arms around his shoulders and pulled him in. "Based on how those men outside speak of you, I don't think you need fear that. Only good men inspire loyalty and love like that."
He hugged back. "And a good man would not abandon you."
"Our lives were what they were before Providence brought you to us," Henri said. His shoulders sagged. "I suppose I always knew deep down we were only temporary stewards of the lost soul that stumbled onto our doorstep."
Gaston tensed. "Are you telling me to go?"
Prudence pulled back and patted his arm. "It is your decision. But make it for you, not for us."
His chest constricted. The advice, no matter how wise, did not aid him in this dilemma.
He looked out the window where the musketeers were gathered, loitering by the paddock fence. Taking a deep breath, he headed outside.
They looked up at his approach. Athos's mien was carefully neutral, while Porthos and d'Artagnan were looking at him with barely concealed looks of expectation.
"If we leave within the hour, we can get back to Paris in enough time to call a physician," Porthos said without preamble.
"Porthos," Athos said in a low, cautioning tone.
"No!" he growled. "I'm not gonna pretend there's a choice here. We all know what Aramis would want."
"I'm standing right here and I don't know what I want," he found himself saying. He shook his head in frustration and ran a hand through his unruly hair. "You can't begin to understand how- how confusing this all is."
"It's not easy on any of us," Athos put in diplomatically. "Least of all you."
"What if I come back with you to Paris and I still don't remember?" he demanded. "There wouldn't be a place for me."
"There'll always be a place for you," Porthos said with brusque fervency. "Wiv us."
"You're speaking of a man I don't know if I can be."
"Don't matter." He fixed Gaston—Aramis—with a resolute look. "You're my best friend. Us here…" He gestured between the group of them. "People call us the Inseparables. Through the good, the bad, hell and high water, we stand by each other. We've been through worse than this and we'll come out the other side. Because that's what we do. And it don't matter if you remember or not, because I know you, and I know you're the same man. You just need some time to realize it."
"Please," d'Artagnan interjected. "Give us the chance to show you."
He glanced at each of them, wavering on a precipice of indecision. But each of their words had pierced down to his heart and awakened something within. Not familiarity or recognition, but…trust.
He glanced back at the house where Henri and Prudence were waiting for his decision. Perhaps he did owe it to himself to seek out the truth, to search for the man he'd once been. And one thing was for certain—he wouldn't be going it alone.
"All right," he said. "I will return to Paris."
D'Artagnan swayed back in obvious relief while Porthos gave Aramis a firm nod. Athos's mouth quirked in a small smile.
"We'll ready the horses," Athos said, giving a knowing look to the house.
Aramis turned, a weight on his heart as he prepared to say goodbye.
Henri and Prudence had of course given him their well wishes when he'd bid them farewell, and he'd promised to visit them again, no matter what happened in Paris. But he hadn't been on the road with the musketeers that long and already he was having second thoughts. He pushed them aside though; he'd committed to this course, he would see it through.
"Tell me more about myself," he requested. "Where am I from? Do I have family?"
"Well, you grew up in the south of France," Porthos said. "Not sure which village. Your mother was Spanish, which is how you know the language."
He furrowed his brow. He couldn't for the life of him think of any words.
"Where is she now?"
"You told us she died."
"Oh." That was disappointing. "And my father?"
The musketeers exchanged looks.
"Er, we don't rightly know. You've never told us about him, other than that he took you away to live with him for a while, but then you became a soldier and there was nothing else about him."
"To be fair," d'Artagnan put in, "none of the three of you like to talk about your pasts. Anytime something comes up, it's usually under duress. The Musketeers are your family now and that's what you all prefer to dwell on."
Aramis glanced around and read the truth in that by the hints of shadows in Athos's and Porthos's eyes, thoughts obviously drifting back to unknown times.
"The pup is right," Porthos said. "I left my past behind when I joined the Musketeers. This brotherhood is what's important now."
"Then all I really need to remember is the past few years," Aramis joked.
Porthos flashed him a wry smile. "That'd be nice. But if not, we'll just take the next few years to forge new memories."
Aramis found himself returning the grin, heartened by the sincerity of the promise. For a moment, he could see himself with these men, these brothers, though they were still as much strangers to him as he was to himself. Could such a bond be reforged a second time?
The heavy drumming of galloping horses pricked his ears, and he turned to look over his shoulder as a group of eight riders barreled down the road toward them. The musketeers reined their horses in and turned, postures wary.
The horsemen slowed as they approached, and Aramis recognized Lesassier among them. Oh joy.
"You," the man spat at Aramis. "You will pay for your insolence."
"Is there a problem, gentleman?" Athos asked.
"Nothing that is your business," Lesassier snapped.
"On the contrary, we are King's Musketeers. If you have a dispute with this man, then it does concern us."
Lesassier narrowed his eyes, but then his gaze alighted on the pauldrons with the Fleur de Les and his expression shifted to one of dismay, then fury. "This cur thinks he can go to the King with his complaint?"
"What complaint is that?" d'Artagnan asked, leaning forward against the pommel of his saddle.
"This man has been extorting villagers while the Baron is away," Aramis replied.
Athos's gaze sharpened on Lesassier. "Has he?"
"This man is a vagrant and a liar," Lesassier countered. "He took advantage of a poor old couple, swindled them. Stole their horse." He jabbed a finger at Aramis's mount.
"You are mistaken," Athos said. "That horse is from the stable of the Musketeer regiment."
Lesassier faltered at that but gave himself a sharp shake and skewered Aramis with a glare. "Will you surrender to the authority of the Baron of Rosoy?"
"I am under the authority of the King of France," he replied smoothly. "Perhaps you'd like to return with us to Paris and take this matter before him."
Lesassier stared back at him as though trying to weigh the veracity of his claim. Aramis saw when the realization sank in—and with it a hardened determination.
Lesassier drew his sword, and with that signal his men did the same, swinging down from their horses to attack.
Aramis dismounted and grabbed his sword, though he still wasn't sure exactly how to use it. But the others had dismounted and immediately closed ranks to shield him. He felt a bristle of indignation at that, not that he could object.
Lesassier's men broke upon them like a wave and the screech of steel rent the air. The musketeers were outnumbered and a couple of assailants quickly pushed past them, and Aramis was forced to throw his sword up to defend himself.
Like before, his muscles seemed to have better memory than his head, and he parried and blocked with an agility that belied his lack of confidence.
But knowing his background now, part of him was conscious about not wanting to kill anyone. Which meant that instead of pressing the advance on his opponent, he was the one being driven back, fully on the defensive. Another part of him screamed that he was going to let himself get hurt or killed this way, and he struggled to go on the offensive.
Finally, he locked his blade with his opponent's and managed to flip it out of the man's grip. Then Aramis surged forward and slammed the pommel of his rapier into the man's head, knocking him out.
He whipped his gaze up toward the rest of the fight and saw Lesassier slinking around to come up behind Porthos. And something inside Aramis snapped. He leaped forward with blinding fury. Lesassier spun toward him, perverse eagerness lighting his eyes. Their blades clashed.
Aramis let himself be wholly taken over by this other presence, the one that thrusted, parried, and riposted with swift and deadly efficiency, his sword singing with each strike.
Lesassier's cocky expression morphed into fright as he was driven back, barely able to hold off this storm. Aramis lunged, sweeping past the man's guard and piercing his chest dead center. Lesassier let out a choked sound before crumpling to the ground.
Aramis stood over him, his vision going spotty for a moment as his lungs heaved. He blinked in confusion, several battle scenes overlaying themselves atop one another in his mind so that he was having trouble figuring out which one this was.
Harried footsteps rushed over.
"Are you all right?" someone asked urgently.
Aramis lifted his gaze. "Porthos," he breathed, his knees suddenly feeling weak in a most undignified way, but he couldn't care at the moment, such was his relief.
Porthos paused, eyeing him shrewdly. Then his eyes widened. "Aramis?" he asked tentatively.
Aramis dropped his sword and embraced his friend fiercely. Porthos's blade joined his on the ground with a clatter as he wrapped big arms around him in turn.
"Wait," d'Artagnan sputtered. "Aramis, do you remember us?"
Aramis reluctantly pulled back enough to look at the young man. "The question is how could I have ever forgotten?" He released Porthos to embrace d'Artagnan next, and when he pulled away, there was a conspicuous sheen in the boy's eyes.
"So, you got your memories back, just like that?"
Aramis hesitated, squinting as he mulled over the new jumble in his head. "Well, no," he admitted. "I remember you three. But the journey to the abbey and what befell me is still a blank, along with many of the events I recall you telling me about."
"That's all right," Athos put in. "It's a start." His face was also alight with joy and Aramis moved to hug him too.
He couldn't say he remembered these men in full, but he remembered the love and loyalty he held for them—and they for him. And that lit the void still in his mind with the heralds of hope.
They returned to Paris and reported the whole convoluted situation to the captain, who was somewhat alarmed and agreed to send for a physician immediately.
Unfortunately, the doctor had little to examine, as the head injury had healed already. He said what they all knew: head injuries were tricky and more of Aramis's memories could return over time. Or they might not. It could take days, weeks, or years, even.
The prognosis was not as reassuring as they'd all hoped, but Aramis was not discouraged by it. He'd come this far. And from what he'd gleaned from his comrades, he seemed to have a habit of beating the odds.
It was a bright sunny day when Aramis rode up to the Bircanns' farm, his pauldron strapped to his shoulder. Henri came out from the barn, brows rising sharply, and he called for Prudence. Aramis dismounted and strode forward, removing his hat when he reached them.
"Well, look at you," Prudence said with a smile. "A fine musketeer if I've ever seen one."
"How are you, my boy?" Henri asked, a careful note in his voice that hinted at what he was truly asking. It had been weeks since Aramis had left.
"A few missing pieces," he replied. "But most of my memories have returned."
Prudence reached out to squeeze his arm. "That's wonderful news."
"I wanted to thank you for everything," he said.
"It was our honor," Henri replied.
"We've also sent word to the Baron informing him of the activities that have gone on in his absence," Aramis added. "Hopefully he will return soon, though Lesassier and his men will no longer cause problems for you."
Henri and Prudence exchanged a look, but didn't press for details.
"And you're happy?" she asked.
Aramis smiled and looked over his shoulder to where his brothers waited by the trees on their horses. "Yes. Though I do regret taking Gaston from you."
Prudence shook her head. "It's only right you return to your true family where you belong."
"If you ever need anything, send word to me in Paris at the Musketeer Garrison, and I will come," he promised.
Prudence leaned in to kiss his check.
Henri clasped his forearm. "We will always think of you—Aramis—as like our son."
Aramis placed a hand over his heart and inclined his head in humble gratitude. He did not deserve the love and devotion he'd been blessed with, but he would live his life in faithful service to honor it. Strange, that twice now tragedy had given birth to something beautiful from the ashes. And just when he'd thought himself lost, the bonds of chosen family had tethered his soul and brought him home.
Chapter 9: It's A Rescue
This started with two lines of dialogue from Star Wars that I could see these boys having.
The door to the rickety old barn creaked open, and Athos cracked an eyelid as sunlight streamed like smoke through the haze of dust and motes. It had been a long night trying to catch some sleep while standing, his arms trussed up above his head with shackles hooked to a nail in the beam above. The ache in his muscles was not helped by the morning-after pounding in his head from all the wine he'd consumed the night before. The worst part was he hadn't even been abducted on Musketeer business, but one of a personal nature, and one he was not overly fond of revisiting. Ever.
The leader, a rapscallion by the name of Vincent, had somehow discovered that Athos was a comte who had renounced his title to join the Musketeers. Vincent took that to mean that his lands were available for the taking. Except for that pesky part where Athos was still, by law and writ, the owner of said lands. Vincent's party of twelve men had grabbed him off the street on his way home from a tavern and brought him outside the city to discuss the business proposition of signing over his lands. Which Athos had no intention of doing. Not to these scoundrels.
That had been last night, and Vincent had yet to start any "persuasive" techniques, though it was probably only a matter of time.
So he was surprised when it wasn't Vincent who entered the barn, but two familiar figures, hands bound in front of them with rope. Aramis and Porthos shot their captors withering glares as they were unceremoniously manhandled across the open space toward Athos.
"What are you doing here?" he blurted.
"We're here to rescue you," Aramis said jauntily before being shoved to the right, his arms pulled high to slip his knotted wrists over a hook.
Athos angled his head up toward his own chains, still in place. "Good job," he replied dryly.
"You hurt?" Porthos asked gruffly as he was thrust back against a joist and lashed from shoulder to thigh with more rope.
"Not yet," Vincent interjected, entering the barn behind his men.
"I take it this is the man in charge?" Aramis deduced, wrinkling his brow in a rather unimpressed mien before turning back to Athos. "Whatever did you do to warrant a grudge? Drink the house dry before he could get any?"
Athos rolled his eyes and winced as it made the pulsing behind them worse. "Hardly."
"This business doesn't concern you," Vincent said caustically. "However, since you insisted on joining us, perhaps this can work to our advantage. It wouldn't do to mess up the Comte's pretty face."
"Funny, I thought I was the one with the pretty face," Aramis remarked.
Vincent glowered at him, and with a flick of his hand, one of his men drew a knife and yanked Aramis's head back to expose his throat, setting the blade under his Adam's apple.
Athos tensed. He knew the purpose of the banter had been to establish that they were undaunted by these thugs, for Aramis and Porthos to declare they were with him, like always. But he did not want them becoming collateral in a mess that stemmed from a life before he knew them.
"You're right, they have nothing to do with this," he snapped.
"But you chose them over your title."
"My decision to join the Musketeers came before I met either of them."
"Would it be wrong to say they, in part, now keep you there?"
Athos frowned. While he had no intention of ever returning to his old life, for completely different reasons, it would be a lie to say Aramis and Porthos were not the anchors that kept him from taking that final tip over the edge, whether by the bottle or a gun. Duty could only carry one so far; brotherhood carried him the rest when he could not carry himself.
"What is this about?" Porthos growled, fiery eyes fixed on the man holding the knife to Aramis's throat.
"It's simple," Vincent replied. "The Comte de la Fère's lands sit unclaimed and languishing without a ruler. I'm happy to take them off his hands if he would but sign them over."
"You're joking," Aramis sputtered.
"I'd be happy to prove my sincerity."
The man with the knife yanked back on Aramis's hair harder, eliciting a small grunt.
"I'll kill you," Porthos said, voice low and deadly.
Vincent ignored him and turned to Athos. "Well, Comte?" he sneered the name. "What will it be? A holding you clearly have no regard for or the blood of your friend here?"
Athos gritted his teeth, every fiber of his being loathe to give in to this ruffian. But, in the end, what was he fighting to defend? A graveyard of memories that haunted him no matter where he went? Although, there were still the people who lived and worked on those lands, and he could not in good conscience conscript them to the rule of this reprobate. But neither could he allow his brother's blood to be spilled over something so…meaningless.
Aramis let out a soft snort. "Athos, you should consider the man's offer."
He blinked, taken aback by the casual declaration.
"All those back taxes you owe," the marksman went on. "I mean, yes, you get a moratorium because of your exemplary service to the King, but this way you wouldn't have it hanging over your head for the next few decades. Let monsieur entrepreneur over there figure it out."
Athos stared at him.
Vincent narrowed his eyes. "What are you talking about?"
Aramis scoffed. "You do realize landowners pay taxes too? Granted, usually the nobility have enough wealth to cover them, but unfortunately the Comte de la Fère's longstanding affection for alcohol has put undue strain on his coffers. A musketeer's commission can't hope to keep up. But if you went into the distillery business, and perhaps the keeping of livestock, I bet you could work off the debt in, say, ten years."
Vincent's eyes bored into Aramis, and Athos held his breath as he waited for the man to decide whether the cheeky musketeer was pulling his leg. After several long moments, Vincent looked to Athos next.
Taking a breath and a gamble, he lifted his chin and fixed the man with an unrelenting stare. "I still wouldn't sign my lands over to the likes of you."
Aramis groaned. "Damn your pride," he hissed.
"Be quiet," Athos snapped. "You've run your mouth enough."
Vincent glanced between them, then cocked his head toward the door and stalked out, his men following, perhaps to reevaluate this whole endeavor.
"Well," Porthos drawled. "That was entertainin'."
"Is there a second part to your plan?" Athos asked blandly. "They will return before long."
"Of course," Aramis replied and tried twisting around, but there wasn't much range with how he was strung up. He pursed his mouth. "Er…"
"D'Artagnan's still out there," Porthos said quietly, though they were a good distance from the door and where the men had gone.
"One against thirteen, I'm overcome with confidence." Athos considered rattling his chains, for all the good it would do.
"Thanks for the compliment," a soft voice issued from behind him.
Athos craned his neck sharply and found the young man slinking out from a stall. He grabbed Athos's arms first and bit down on a grunt of effort as he bodily lifted him enough to get the chains off the nail. The key would be another matter.
D'Artagnan hurried to get Aramis down next, using a knife to cut the ropes around his wrists.
"What took you so long?" the marksman huffed.
"I was trying to avoid getting captured like the rest of you."
"At least d'Artagnan knows how to go about a proper rescue," Athos drolled, retrieving a small knife from his boot and moving to cut Porthos free.
"Please, it takes a certain amount of artistry to improvise," Aramis retorted.
"You are fortunate you were able to talk yourself out of getting your throat slit."
Athos rolled his eyes. He was halfway through Porthos's bonds when the barn door creaked open and he went rigid. Aramis and d'Artagnan bolted toward the two lackeys who entered, taking them by surprise before they could give a shout of alarm. With some well delivered punches, both went down in sprawling heaps.
D'Artagnan relieved them of their swords while Aramis fished through their pockets until he pulled out a key, and then he came over to undo Athos's manacles.
"This way," d'Artagnan hissed, moving back toward the stalls.
The one he'd emerged from before had a hole in the wall, which three of them slipped through with ease. Porthos had to wriggle himself between the broken boards, but managed to do so without making too much noise. Outside on the ground were all of their weapons belts.
Athos shot the lad a questioning look as to how he'd managed that.
D'Artagnan shrugged. "They dropped all your weapons by the rest of their supplies, but the ones on guard weren't watching that direction while the others were all in the barn."
"Idiots," Porthos muttered, strapping his belt on.
"They wanted Athos to sign over his lands; I don't think intelligence ranked very highly among any of them," Aramis commented.
D'Artagnan's brows rose incredulously. "Really? That's what they wanted with you?"
"We can discuss this later," Athos replied tartly. "After we conclude this extemporized rescue?"
In wordless agreement, they quickly made their way from the back of the barn and toward the trees. Athos could only hope his friends' horses weren't far.
They'd just made it to the tree line when a shout rose up behind them. Aramis drew his pistol and pivoted, bracing the gun on his left forearm as he took aim and fired. A cry of pain rang out, and Aramis was running again. Athos flung a look over his shoulder to see Vincent's men charging after them on foot, their horses all around at the front.
Several yards ahead, three familiar black steeds stood tethered together around some bushes. The four of them mounted swiftly, Athos swinging up behind d'Artagnan. Aramis fired his second pistol before spurring his horse to follow them. It didn't take long to outrun the men on foot, and they'd be foolish to attempt to catch up. The edge of the city was in sight and the garrison not far. As soon as this entire incident was reported, a warrant for Vincent's arrest would be issued and the man would do well to flee far and wide from the Musketeers' wrath.
Aramis let out a happy sounding sigh as they rode through the streets. "Another successful rescue."
"Another lucky rescue," Athos corrected.
"The two are not mutually exclusive."
"For you, the first is a prerequisite for the latter."
"Didn' you know?" Porthos chimed in. "Like every woman in Paris, Aramis has charmed Lady Luck. She fancies him."
"Indeed she does," Aramis said with a debonair grin.
D'Artagnan snorted. "And how would she have saved you if I hadn't shown up?"
"But you did show up."
"Then perhaps it's me Lady Luck has a fondness for."
"Don't say that in front of Madame Bonacieux."
Athos reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. While he was grateful for the rescue, he was tired, sore, and nauseated. Someone must have noticed, because the playful banter tapered off and they rode the rest of the way to the garrison in merciful silence.
Captain Treville was standing on the balcony outside his office, hands braced on the railing and expression stern as he skewered them all with a look. They were all incredibly late for duty and Athos wondered if the others had even had time to let the captain know what was amiss before they'd ridden out after Athos's kidnappers.
He dismounted, wincing at the stiffness in his joints. A bottle of wine would be really good right now…
A hand gently rested on his shoulder and he turned to find Aramis giving him a kind nod. "I'll make the report."
"It's my responsibility."
"The captain is probably going to yell a bit first, which won't do that headache I know you have any good. He'll understand once he's gotten it out of his system and I explain. You can get a couple hours' sleep in my room."
Athos sighed, but he was too tired to argue. With a grateful nod, he made his way to Aramis's quarters, debating whether to rifle through his shelves in search of a brandy or something.
He didn't have to; Porthos arrived on his heels, bearing bread and a cup of wine. It wasn't the bottle Athos wanted to down, but it would take the edge off enough to help him nap for a short bit. Porthos deposited the items and then left.
Athos sank onto the bed, warmed in a way not even wine could provide. His brothers certainly did know how to rescue him.
Chapter 10: Forever On Your Side
I think this song would make for an awesome Musketeers fanvid, but since I can't make one of those, I have to settle for going for a song fic instead.
"Forever On Your Side" - NEEDTOBREATHE
I won't pretend
That we can control the night
Or what kind of road we're on
Or where we will see the light
But right now I'm talking to ya
I'm looking into your eyes
Right now I'm trying to show ya
That we're gonna be alright
Aramis fumbled to turn the doorknob to his room at the garrison and pushed the door open with his foot. He stumbled over the threshold, a drunk and soaking Athos slumped against him. Porthos shuffled in behind him, supporting the drunkard's other side. They deposited him on the floor by the window and Aramis immediately went to get a fire going in the hearth, leaving Porthos to start peeling off Athos's saturated clothes.
Athos tried to shove Porthos's hands away, but his limbs flopped bonelessly. "Wh't 're you doin'?" he slurred.
"You're gonna catch a chill," Porthos replied gruffly and yanked the leathers off, dropping them on the floor with a wet slap.
"You're not," Aramis said, turning to face the sodden man. "This is more than vice, Athos. You would have drowned face first in gutter water if we hadn't found you."
"And?" the man challenged, a spark of sobriety briefly lighting his gaze.
Aramis crossed his arms. "Is that your intent? Is that what you became a musketeer for?"
"It doesn't matter why I became a musketeer." He was down to his shirt and braes now and was shivering fiercely.
Porthos manhandled him closer to the now crackling fire.
Aramis stepped out of the way, still fixing the man with a stern glare. "It matters to us. What is it you hope to escape from every night?"
"That doesn't matter either, because it never works. I can never escape it," Athos said morosely and shifted his gaze to stare listlessly into the flames.
"Why did you become a musketeer?" Aramis repeated.
There was a long beat of silence, then a whispered, "Honor."
"Is it honorable to lay down and die in the gutter?"
"I didn't ask for your help," Athos snapped.
"You didn't ask for our friendship either, but you have it."
Athos closed his eyes. "I loved once."
Aramis and Porthos exchanged a look.
"What 'appened?" Porthos asked gently.
"She died." Athos's expression instantly closed off with the confession and he turned his head away.
Aramis shared another silent look with Porthos; they would not press for details.
Crouching down in front of Athos, Aramis waited for the man to meet his eye. "I know what it's like to have loved and lost. I know it can seem like nothing will ever be good again, will ever fill that void. But it can, and it will, if you give it time and a chance."
Firelight reflected in the anguished pools of Athos's eyes, and he didn't say anything. Aramis and Porthos finished drying him off and then tucked him into Aramis's bed. The man was out like a light shortly thereafter.
"Guess you're bunkin' wit' me," Porthos rumbled.
Aramis quietly gathered up the wet clothes and draped them over the back of a chair near the fire.
"You think he'll drink 'imself into the grave?" Porthos asked softly.
"We can only wait and see," Aramis replied. "And try to give him a reason not to."
Oh I don't know
What's around the bend
Oh, all I know
Is that my love,
It knows no end
Athos didn't know how it happened, how he'd been enveloped in this unlooked for brotherhood. He hadn't meant to grow fond of anyone ever again, to form attachments. Love made one vulnerable when loss inevitably struck.
But he'd been drawn to these two men like a comet pulled into their orbit. Aramis, with his quick wit and disarming smile, was a force of cheer to Athos's melancholy. Porthos bore himself with the force of a bull, and yet could have the gentlest manner and softest heart. Athos could no more deny this friendship than he could the rising of the sun.
And that's what these two were every morning after Athos succumbed to the darkness of his soul in the night. Never judging, never prodding. Just steadfast and true. And Athos, who thought his heart had shriveled up and died with his wife and brother, loved them for it.
All these pieces they fall in line
Because I'm forever on your side
Take my hand when you can't see the light
Cause I'm forever on your side
I will carry
You every time
Because I'm forever on your side
Aramis blinked rapidly, trying to dispel the vision of snow-covered trees. But it wouldn't leave. The winter thicket surrounded him, and he felt the nip of chill against his cheeks and the crunch of powder beneath where he sat, back pressed up against coarse bark. It couldn't be real, though. Savoy was a year ago. How could he find himself back there?
But he saw the bodies, laid out in the snow with reds of various shades melting the ice where it pooled, hotly spilled from once beating hearts. Carrion crows alighted on the ground, beady eyes piercing Aramis's soul as they opened their razor beaks to croak out the death knell.
He gripped his pistol tight, muscles taut as he fought to keep his ragged breathing quiet to listen for another attack. Someone was calling his name, and it made the forest tilt.
In the next eye blink, Athos was there, kneeling in the snow a few feet away with one hand extended cautiously. "You're not in Savoy," he was saying.
Aramis frowned in confusion, but a snap of a twig made him jerk, and he whipped his gun toward the attacker.
Porthos raised his palms in surrender. "Easy there," he rumbled gently. "Same side."
Aramis squeezed his eyes shut and pressed a fist to them. "No, you can't be here."
"We are," Athos said. "And you're not there."
Aramis shook his head. "I see them. I can't stop seeing them." The first snow since Savoy had done it, had brought it all back with a vengeance. And the cold. It burrowed its hooks into his bones like the talons of Death coming to claim the one that'd got away.
"Then take my hand," Athos said. "And I will lead you back."
Aramis looked up at the arm stretched out toward him. All he need do was cross the distance. It felt immeasurably long, like a chasm gaping between them, the past and the present sundered and restitched into mismatching pieces in his head. Athos waited patiently, never taking his eyes off Aramis's.
He slowly lowered his pistol and leaned forward. Athos moved to meet him halfway, a solid hand grasping his firmly. Athos pulled him to his feet and he swayed. Porthos cautiously moved in and gingerly slung one of his arms over his shoulder. Aramis was shivering violently and his teeth started to chatter.
Athos and Porthos hemmed him in as they half carried him back to a small camp he'd forgotten even making. They bundled him in blankets and stoked the fire, then huddled close. He would protest the coddling if he wasn't shamefully desperate for it, for the tactile feel of warm, live bodies beside him.
But there was no disgruntlement or pity in their eyes, only pure, unwavering devotion.
Aramis knew he wouldn't be left behind in the snow ever again.
They'll beat you up
But don't let 'em keep you down
You're always tough enough
And I'll always be around
Porthos was used to bar brawls and late night duels after sore losers in a game of cards accused him of cheating. Never mind if he was. There was an excitement to those types of fights, a way to let out pent up energy and put some pompous red guards in their place.
Getting jumped by eight men in the street on his way home was something else entirely. Especially when the brutal punches and kicks were punctuated with racial slurs. They called him a mongrel for his darker skin, claiming he stole that musketeer uniform.
That made Porthos bellow with rage and slam a meaty fist into one of them. He'd dealt with racism growing up, experienced it still now and then, but he'd damned well proven himself in the Musketeer regiment time and time again.
He body slammed another thug, but there were too many and he eventually fell under their relentless blows until he was laying on the ground practically senseless, his entire body radiating with pain.
Hands grabbed his arms and started pulling. He grunted and tried to fight back, but his head was swimming and he couldn't see, one eye rapidly swelling shut.
He was dragged into a nearby building. Porthos caught glimpses of what looked like an empty storeroom. He was kicked onto his stomach and then his arms were yanked upward and secured to a post in front of him. He felt a tug and heard the rip of fabric as someone split his coat and shirt open down his back.
"Time to put this dog in its place," someone sneered, and there was a crack of a whip being tested.
Porthos tensed and renewed his struggles, but the rope around his wrists only grated across his skin.
Footsteps moved closer. Porthos sucked in a breath to brace himself.
And then a shot rang out. Someone yelled and shouts went up as a commotion broke out. Porthos tried to twist around to see, but it was dark and blood kept dribbling down his one good eye. He heard the screech of steel, pained cries, and the thuds of bodies dropping.
A hand settled on his shoulder and he jerked.
"Easy," Aramis's soft voice said near his ear.
There was a glint of silver and then the ropes gave way and Porthos slumped sideways. Aramis caught his shoulders and eased him back so he could lean against the joist. He could still hear swords clashing and turned his head just as Athos cut down the last man, the body dropping to join the others sprawled across the storeroom, evidence of the silent fury these ruffians had unknowingly unleashed upon their own heads.
"They all dead?" Porthos mumbled.
"No," Aramis replied, eyes still roiling storm clouds as he surveyed Porthos's injuries. "But I will see them hanged personally."
"'M alright." As much as he wanted these bastards to pay, he also didn't want to be a spectacle for the trial and execution.
Aramis finally met his eyes. "Yes, you are," he said, and it seemed those few words were laced with multiple meanings all rolled into one. "You'll be all right." "You're every bit the man these lowlifes couldn't hope to be."
Aramis put a hand on Porthos's shoulder. "Let's get you home."
Oh I don't know
What's around the bend
Oh, all I know
Is that my love,
It knows no end
Porthos dropped the light parcel box on the yard table where Aramis was sitting, cleaning his pistols. The marksman raised his brows at the package and looked up at Porthos.
"What is that?"
"It's a birthday gift."
Aramis's expression faltered, seeming taken aback. "How did you know that was today?"
"I snuck inta the captain's office and looked up your personnel record."
He'd tried to do the same with Athos's while he was at it, but that one had proven entirely elusive. Maybe Aramis could help him go back and take another look.
Except the marksman looked somewhat affronted by the admission, though it quickly gave way to curiosity and he pulled the parcel toward him. Porthos waited while he took off the lid and lifted out the item. Now Aramis looked stunned as he took in the hat with two feathers—one blue the other brown and orange striped—tucked into the leather band.
"Porthos," he breathed. "This must have cost you a fair share of this month's earnings."
Porthos shrugged. "Athos chipped in, so it's from both of us. He hates your old one. Says it looks like a drowned rat when it rains."
Aramis's mouth quirked, and he slipped the hat onto his head. "This is the nicest gift I've ever been given. I shall treasure it always."
Porthos grinned back at his friend's sincerity. As the months had gone on and Savoy had gotten further and further into the past, Aramis's cheer had become less a put-upon front and more back to his usual, genuine self. Porthos's heart swelled with joy to see real mirth radiating in Aramis's expression now from under the brim of the new hat.
"Now," Aramis said, "are you going to tell me when your birthday is, or will I have to sneak into Treville's office?"
Porthos smirked. There was no such record of his birth date, but he could give Aramis a merry chase for a bit. "Actually, I already have to make a return trip. Couldn't find Athos's the first time."
Aramis's eyes lit with mischief, and Porthos couldn't hold back the ensuing grin at seeing it.
All these pieces they fall in line
Because I'm forever on your side
Take my hand when you can't see the light
Cause I'm forever on your side
I will carry
You every time
Because I'm forever on your side
Oh I'm forever on your side
Discordant screeches pealed throughout the air as blades clashed. Athos parried a strike and delivered a swift riposte. Around him, more mercenaries converged on their position.
Athos blocked another blow, his blade locking with its opponent at the hilt. He didn't have enough time as a second assailant came up behind him. But then a shot rang out and the man dropped, Aramis and a smoking pistol standing a few feet away. In the next breath, the marksman flipped his weapon around and used the handle to bludgeon another attacker.
Athos freed his blade and stabbed the one in front of him. Movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention, and he flung his main-gauche across the road to skewer the man charging up at Porthos's exposed back.
They made quick work of the rest of the mercenaries, the sounds of battle dying down. Which made the gunshot that shattered the air echo that much louder, and Athos felt burning pain crease his leg. Aramis whirled and fired his second pistol, killing the shooter instantly.
Athos toppled onto his side and clamped a hand around his bleeding thigh. Aramis rushed over, dropping down next to him and reaching to pull his hands away so he could examine the wound.
"The ball didn't penetrate," he reported, voice laced with both relief and tension. "But it's bleeding heavily."
Porthos appeared and yanked off his bandana, offering it to him. Aramis took it and deftly tied a tourniquet around Athos's leg.
"We need…to keep…moving," Athos gritted out between clenched teeth. They weren't far from their destination, and the sooner they reached it, the better for them all.
Aramis got up and went to Athos's horse, rifling through his saddlebags. He came back with the flask that was always at the bottom and poured the spirits over the wound. Athos slammed his head back against the dirt as a strangled sound garbled in his throat.
When he'd caught his breath, he bit out, "That was a…waste…of perfectly good brandy."
"Preventing infection is a better use for it than your maudlin bouts," Aramis replied.
He and Porthos each took an arm and hauled him to his feet, and Athos had to stifle another pained grunt. With their help, he hobbled over to his horse and they gave him a boost up. Then they mounted their horses after and flanked him as they rode on.
Oh I can't promise
That a day will never come
Where the ground beneath us
Falls out and we got no where to run
Oh but you won't be alone
When the water starts to rise up
No you won't be alone
My darling when the rains come
The water was rising fast. And while it was only sloshing over Porthos's thighs where he sat on his haunches in the sucking mud, it was rapidly lapping around Aramis's neck as he struggled to keep himself propped up on his elbows, his lower half pinned under splintered wood and squelching earth.
The recent rains and flooding had weakened the ground in the area, priming a sinkhole above one of the old tunnels from the nearby mine, which just had to give way when Aramis was walking across it. The shaft was already damp with standing water at the bottom. And it was still pouring.
Porthos clawed frantically at the mess keeping Aramis trapped, but at a cough and sputter, he swiftly abandoned it and turned to grab Aramis's head before he could go under. Aramis spat water from his mouth, arching his back with a pained gasp to tilt his head back. Porthos worked his knee underneath his shoulders to help hold him aloft.
But he couldn't hold Aramis's head above the water and dig him free at the same time.
"Porthos, my friend," Aramis sputtered. "I'm sorry it has to end like this."
"Don't you dare," he snarled. He'd get them out. There had to be a way to get them out…
He could feel Aramis's arms shaking from exhaustion and cold and knew the marksman wouldn't be able to hold himself up anymore. Porthos flashed a raging look of fury at the pile of rubble, willing it to shift from sheer will alone.
He turned back to Aramis with an apologetic grimace. "I need you to hold your breath."
Aramis's eyes were wide, but he gave a jerky nod in understanding. Porthos waited as he sucked in a huge breath, and then let his head drop beneath the surface.
He threw himself at the debris, yanking and pulling at whatever he could, but every time something shifted, more just seemed to fall in its place.
A bubble of air burst from the water to his right, and he scrambled to bring Aramis's head up again. Aramis coughed and sputtered, and Porthos's heart clenched with recrimination that he'd left him down there so long.
"P-Porthos," Aramis rasped, reaching up to grasp at his sleeve. "It's alright. It's alright."
The absolution for failing to save him only made Porthos want to roar at the heavens and rage at the God Aramis worshipped so devoutly. "If you want him, you'll have to take me too."
The rain pelted from above and the floodwaters inched ever higher. And then a voice screamed out over the howling gales, and Porthos suddenly remembered a fairytale story of a creature that would keen the names of those about to die, and he wondered if such legends could actually be true.
Porthos blinked rain water from his eyes as he looked up in disbelief at the sodden figure peering down at them. "Athos!"
Athos shouted something over his shoulder, and Porthos saw other shapes moving around up there. In another moment, a rope was tossed over the edge and then Athos was rappelling down toward them.
"Hold his head up so I can get 'im free," Porthos commanded the minute Athos splashed down next to them.
Athos wordlessly switched places with him, wedging himself under Aramis and forcing his back to arch painfully, but they needed those precious few millimeters.
Porthos resumed his harried digging, heedless of cutting up his hands. He finally got the right piece to shift and yelled at Athos to pull. Aramis cried out in pain as he was dragged free. Porthos grabbed the rope and shoved it into Aramis's hands, worried for a moment about how shaky with chill his fingers were, but Aramis managed to grip tightly. Porthos gave the line two rough tugs to signal whoever was at the top to start pulling.
Two more ropes had been tossed down, so Porthos and Athos grabbed those and slowly made their way up, staying just below Aramis in case he slipped.
But they made it to the top where several pairs of hands each made to grab for them. Porthos thought he recognized some of the men from the village.
He crawled through the mud to Aramis and grasped him by the arms to pull him into a fierce embrace. When Athos landed on his knees beside them, Porthos hooked an arm around his neck and drew him in as well, clinging to his brothers in the middle of a deluge because they were alive and whole.
Oh I don't know
What's around the bend
Oh, all I know
Is that my love,
It knows no end
Aramis barricaded the door of the abandoned church with some broken pews. He had no idea if their pursuers were close or if they'd lost them, but he couldn't worry about that right now. Retrieving his med kit, he turned to see to his brothers' injuries. Porthos had taken a musket ball to the arm and Athos had some cracked ribs from getting clobbered with a wooden board.
Aramis went to Porthos first, who was sweating and fidgety. The lead was still in his bicep and Aramis needed to get it out. He wrestled the leather coat off and then the shirt, apologizing each time it elicited a sound of pain.
Porthos eyed the tweezers, needle, and thread like a feral animal as Aramis set them out.
"This will probably hurt," he warned in a light tone, hoping to alleviate some of the tension. Not that it was successful. He gripped his friend's arm tightly and inserted the tweezers into the wound.
Porthos flinched, trying to jerk away, and Aramis cursed under his breath as he fought to keep him still. Clenching his jaw, he decided fast was best and pushed the tweezers in deeper until he felt them scrape along the ball lodged in soft tissue. Porthos growled low in his throat, but Aramis got a hold of the offending projectile and yanked it out.
"There, that was easy," he said cheerily.
Porthos glowered at him.
"I have to clean it though," he went on, grabbing the flask of spirits and uncapping it. Porthos hissed when the strong alcohol streamed down his arm. "Now for stitching."
Aramis threaded the needle and leaned close to see properly. He tried chattering idly about anything and nothing to keep Porthos distracted, but the recalcitrant man kept growling and bucking every couple of nips and tucks. Aramis kept having to stop to let him settle and the entire process took three times as long. He was exhausted afterward, Porthos even more so, and the wounded man slipped into a doze soon after Aramis had finished wrapping the bandage.
"Not a very good patient, is he?" Athos commented quietly from where he was sitting propped up against a support column, arm draped protectively across his ribs and breathing shallowly.
"I believe it might do better to knock him out next time," Aramis conceded.
He went over and knelt down to help Athos out of his coat. It was much more difficult and painful than it had been for Porthos, and there was a glistening sheen on Athos's brow by the time they'd managed it.
Aramis palpated the ribs, drawing some pained hisses, but found no breaks. So he left Athos's shirt on and opted to just wrap the ribs over it. Once done, he passed his friend some wine and moved about cleaning up the supplies.
As the night waxed on, his two patients drifted off to sleep and Aramis kept watch at the window. Porthos snuffled in his sleep, and Aramis went over to card his fingers through the thick black curls until he settled. Athos was silent, sleeping upright to ease the pressure on his ribs. His coat had slid down to pool in his lap, so Aramis picked it up and tucked it around his shoulders gently so as not to wake him. Exhaustion pulled at his mind and made his limbs sluggish, but he would not allow himself to become remiss in his charge.
Besides, there was nothing he wouldn't do for his brothers.
All these pieces they fall in line
Because I'm forever on your side
Take my hand when you can't see the light
Cause I'm forever on your side
I will carry
You every time
Because I'm forever on your side
Porthos thought about checking the taverns first, but something gave him pause and he ended up going out to the burial field instead. Sure enough, that's where he found Athos, standing at a freshly dug grave, bottle of wine in hand. It was half empty already.
Porthos wordlessly came up to stand just behind him, gaze falling to the name carved into the wooden cross. He bowed his head in a moment of respect. He hadn't known the new recruit, Simon, very well, but had seen the lad was capable and eager and too young to die.
"It wasn't your fault," Porthos finally broke the pall of silence.
"I gave the order," Athos said tonelessly.
"You couldn't 'ave known about the gunpowder. None of us did."
Athos didn't respond.
"What number is that?" Porthos asked, nodding to the bottle.
Athos shrugged one shoulder as he lifted it to his mouth to take a swig. "I stopped counting."
More silence stretched between them.
"Aramis is worried about you," Porthos tried, and he saw Athos flinch. "He doesn't blame you either, ya know."
"Maybe he should."
Porthos huffed. "He's smarter than that. So are you, when you 'aven't taken to the bottle." He reached out to clasp his brother's shoulder. "Come back to the garrison, Athos. Aramis needs you. Just like you need 'im."
It initially looked like Athos was going to be stubborn, but he finally knelt down and planted the bottle at the base of the cross, then stood on wobbly legs. Porthos ducked in to support him as they shuffled back to the garrison. Athos was heavy with drunkenness. Aramis had been heavy too when they'd carried him unconscious from the site of the explosion. But they were both alive and Porthos was going to see to it they stayed that way.
Oh I'm forever on your side
Oh I'm forever on your side
Oh I'm forever on your side
They stood in a circle, the acclaimed Inseparables, exchanging soft looks after their last harrowing mission. With flickers of smiles, they reached in and put their hands on top of one another.
"All for one."
"And one for all."
Chapter 11: Down With the Ship
Song fic requested by 29Pieces, my lovely beta who deserves a commission for keeping up with everything I write. And since she didn't have a preference for fandom, I picked this one.
"Down With the Ship" - Enter the Haggis
Like ships in a squall we rise and we fall
We're plotting our course through the waves
Some masts are tall with sails so strong
Others are tossed in the gale
D'Artagnan stood at the prow of the ship, looking out in wonder at the vast expanse of ocean, as far as the eye could see. He could understand why scholars of the past thought the Earth was flat. It certainly did almost seem like you could sail right to the edge and fall off. If the edge ever came. They'd been at sea for a couple of hours now and other than leaving France's shores behind, it seemed they'd hardly moved at all, as the horizon stayed just as far away out of reach as when they'd set sail.
"This is a nice change of pace," Aramis commented, standing right up at the edge of the bow, hands on his hips like he was the living embodiment of the figurehead just below him, the wind buffeting through his unruly hair.
D'Artagnan shifted uneasily, torn about suggesting he take a step back.
"What's nice about it?" Porthos grumbled, leaning heavily against the side rail, his complexion looking a little gray. "All this rockin's makin' last night's wine sour."
Aramis continued to smile and spread his arms wide. "Take a breath of fresh air, my friend. It's invigorating."
"Aramis," d'Artagnan finally said warningly. All he got was a beaming grin as the marksman finally stepped back.
Aramis went over and clapped a hand on Porthos's shoulder. "You'll find your equilibrium. It's almost like riding."
Porthos scowled. "Horses move up an' down, not sideways."
D'Artagnan gave him a sympathetic look. He'd been off balance when he'd first boarded too, and it'd been a strange sensation but also an exciting one. He'd never been on a ship before and was looking forward to the new experience as they traveled to England to deliver some very important documents.
"Gentlemen," Athos called from the steps to the main deck. "Supper is being served."
Porthos groaned, and Aramis slung an arm over the large man's shoulders to escort him below.
We try to stay dry with salt in our eyes
No moment to rest or complain
The moon isn't far a clear sky and stars
Red sky at morn on your tail
Athos sat on the deck, nursing a bottle of wine and watching the others as Aramis tried to keep Porthos distracted with card games. Fortunately, Porthos hadn't actually been sick; he was just taking a little longer to acclimate to their new environment.
D'Artagnan let out a whoop as he won the round, scooping the pot of coins toward himself.
Porthos tossed his cards down. "I don' like being out in the middle of nothing. It's not natural." He cast a shifty gaze out at the dark waters, invisible under the cover of night with only the slosh and slap against the hull to remind them it was out there.
"We're not in the middle of nothing," Aramis declared. He tipped his head back and gestured to the sky, speckled with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of glittering shards against a sweeping dome of inky backdrop.
"Where else but the highest mountain would you get such a view?" he went on. "Just look at them, Porthos. The Lord fashioned each and every one, gave them names we could never hope to know in this earthly life. But he set them in the sky to guide us in the darkness, and, I think, simply to display his wondrous works. One of the Almighty's love songs to his children." He let out a small, marveled sort of sigh.
There was a moment of silent appreciation as they all turned their gazes upward, mesmerized briefly by Aramis's flowing words.
Then Porthos cleared his throat. "You wanna be alone with 'em?"
D'Artagnan sputtered out a laugh and Aramis shot Porthos a dry glare as they went back to their card game.
Athos leaned against the mast at his back and contemplated the heavens. He didn't pay any heed to the Creation aspect nor cared whether any god was trying to speak to them from on high. The constellations were useful for navigation and marking the seasons.
Still, he had to privately admit they were a sight to see, with no mountains or trees to intrude upon the panorama. This far away in a remote part of the sea, the stars certainly did seem greater than them. Athos couldn't decide if that made him feel small and alone or watched over and part of something bigger.
The next morning, they woke to find they weren't as alone as they thought; a lookout spotted a ship in the distance, not bearing a flag. Athos didn't like it, and went to confer with the captain, but the man assured him no vessel could catch up to them with the wind in their sails.
I'm not going to stand on the end of the pier
I'm not going to let you go down with the ship
Raise up your anchor it's time to set sail
And I'm not going to let you go down
The wind left them. Aramis took his turn looking through the spyglass at the unknown ship as it continued its pursuit trajectory. It was gaining.
He handed the telescope back to Athos. "Seems we're going to have some excitement," he commented and went to retrieve his sword from where his weapons belt lay.
D'Artagnan quirked a confused brow. "Uh, Aramis, they're still a ways off…"
"Which gives us some time to prepare," he replied and gestured with his rapier at Porthos to come over. "Time to find your sea legs, my friend."
Porthos frowned, looking uncertain, but he nevertheless went and picked up his own sword before moving into a dueling position.
Aramis made the sign of the cross with his blade and then advanced. He was light with his strikes, giving Porthos the chance to get a feel for the footwork when the surface beneath your feet wasn't steady.
After a few minutes, Athos tapped d'Artagnan on the shoulder and they went to the other end of the deck to practice as well.
Porthos started to get the hang of it, and Aramis amped up his intensity. Before long they were sparring with the same fervency they engaged in at the garrison yard, and Porthos's face broke into a wide grin.
Aramis gave him a short nod of approval. When that unknown ship finally caught up to them, they'd be ready.
Like ships we were made to dance o'er our graves
One false move and we could be thrown
Buried alive before our due time
To rest at sixty below
The black pirate flag was raised at the last moment as the assailing ship swept up alongside them and fired their cannons. Thunder and smoke filled the air and the deck lurched beneath Porthos's feet, skewing whatever balance he'd found. He caught himself against the railing, the ship jolting again as they returned fire. The captain called his crew to arms.
Aramis fired a pistol across the way, hitting a pirate in the rigging. He shot his second and then cursed as he dropped down for cover. "My supplies for reloading are below deck."
Porthos quickly handed over his pistols. "I'll get it."
He tore across the deck toward the ladder. No sooner had he descended them, however, than a cannon ripped through the nearby mast. Porthos hit the floor hard and was plunged into darkness as debris filled the space above, blocking his exit.
He couldn't worry about that right now though. Picking himself up, he stumbled toward the crew quarters and snatched up the ammunitions bag from Aramis's hammock. Then he headed through the cargo hold toward the stern of the ship and another set of ladders.
He splashed into standing water.
His heart leaped into his throat as he realized there must be a breach in the hull. Not enough to flood the hold instantly, but water on a ship was bad. Porthos barreled toward the opposite end, only to stop short in dismay when he found that exit blocked as well. He was trapped. On a sinking ship.
He whirled in place, wracking his brain for what to do. Sounds of battle echoed above and he nearly roared in frustration that he wasn't up there helping protect his brothers.
He climbed the ladder and tried to wrench a chunk of debris loose, but it was wedged tight. He dropped back down, water sloshing around his ankles. How long would it take whatever hole to widen and more sea water to surge in? Of all the ways he'd expected to go as a soldier, drowning wasn't one of them.
"Porthos!" a voice hollered from above, and he looked up at the grate covered hatch. Aramis's face peered down at him.
"I'm stuck!" he shouted back.
Then Athos was there and he and Aramis flung the hatch open. A rope was tossed down and Porthos frantically grabbed at it. The wound fiber held firm and he began to haul himself up, inch by inch. When he reached the top, hands grabbed his arms and shoulders to pull him out the rest of the way.
Crew members rushed past him, descending into the hold, perhaps to see if they could patch the leak before it got any worse. Porthos hoped so, because he damn well better not die at sea.
So jibe while you can if there's danger ahead
Stay on your course if you will
I'll throw you a line as waves start to rise
And bail as your ship starts to fill
Aramis ran his sword through a pirate's sternum and swiftly yanked it out again to spin and meet the next. They were being overrun, though he doubted these rapscallions expected to find themselves tested against the might of musketeers.
"I strongly advise you surrender," he told the man in front of him.
He was answered with a yellow, tooth-gaped sneer.
"Suit yourself." He dispatched that one quickly enough and turned to survey the situation. The others were handling the pirates who'd swung over, but those cannons were causing severe damage to the ship. They were lucky they weren't sunk yet.
He tapped d'Artagnan's shoulder during a brief lull between opponents. "Care for a change of scenery? We need to stop those cannons."
The boy's brows rose sharply. Aramis leaped onto some crates and jabbed his sword into a pirate just swinging over, relieving him of the rope. With a wink at d'Artagnan, he held fast and launched himself out over the water in an arc. As he passed over the enemy ship, he let go and dropped to the deck, landing in a crouch. Men immediately converged on him and he parried and riposted with ease.
A few moments later, d'Artagnan was at his side, and they started to veer toward the access hatch to the lower decks. They fought their way below, the cannon minders too stunned at their abrupt appearance to put up much of a fight. Then they cut the ropes keeping the cannons aligned and steady so they wouldn't be of further use.
Unfortunately, that made them start to roll back and forth with the lurching of the ship. Aramis jumped out of the way to avoid getting crushed against the hull.
With their task complete, he and d'Artagnan made their way back up top where they found Athos and Porthos had joined them on the pirate side of the skirmish.
"Feeling left out?" Aramis quipped as he and d'Artagnan seamlessly folded into the fray.
"Of all the reckless stunts—" Athos scowled, cutting off to duck a swipe at his neck.
Aramis swooped in to fell the pirate and then spun around so he was back to back with Athos.
It wasn't much later that Porthos and d'Artagnan captured the pirate captain and the rest of his men still standing were ordered to surrender.
Aramis was breathing heavily from the exertion, but he managed a victorious grin. They'd taken the ship.
I'm not going to stand on the end of the pier
I'm not going to let you go down with the ship
Raise up your anchor it's time to set sail
And I'm not going to let you go down
D'Artagnan stood on the quarterdeck of the pirate ship, keeping an eye on the prisoners tied to the masts as the crew from their own ship split between the two to guide both vessels toward safe harbor.
"That was a reckless charge," Athos chided him.
D'Artagnan frowned in indignation. "It was Aramis's idea!"
"Of course it was," Athos said, sounding unsurprised. "But you shouldn't have gone along with it."
"I couldn't very well have let him go alone," he countered.
"And it worked," Aramis said cheekily.
Athos rolled his eyes heavenward as though praying for patience from a God they all knew he had no love or faith in.
"'M never goin' on a sea mission again," Porthos grumbled, arms resting on the handrail.
"Um," d'Artagnan started, "after we reach England, we do have to sail back."
Porthos glowered at him and Aramis patted his shoulder sympathetically.
"You would make a fine pirate, you know," the marksman said. "Wouldn't he, d'Artagnan?"
D'Artagnan canted his head in consideration and nodded.
Porthos huffed. "Knock it off," he muttered.
D'Artagnan couldn't suppress a grin, and neither could Aramis.
Up in the rigging someone called out, "Land ho!"
Chapter 12: Cold Comfort
Aramis stoked the campfire, orange flinders floating into the air as a charred piece of wood crumbled in on itself. He removed his gloves and set them on a rock to warm near the flames as he went to check on his patients.
He'd laid Porthos and Athos side by side next to the fire so they could share body heat. A bloodied bandage was wrapped around Porthos's head, his complexion almost gray in the chilled winter afternoon. He'd regained consciousness a couple of times, but had been lethargic each instance and had quickly fallen back under. The cold could have been partly responsible, so Aramis tried not to worry too much. There was no give in the skull where Porthos had been struck, so that was a good sign.
Athos was in equally dire straits, having sustained a stab wound in the side. Nothing vital appeared to have been punctured, but it had bled quite a bit before Aramis could close it, and the cold didn't help blood loss either.
For the dozenth time since they'd been stranded in the woods, Aramis cursed winter. Snow lightly dusted the ground and sprinkled the bare branches of trees. The sun was hidden behind a heavy pall of pewter clouds, adding a dreary tinge to everything, and Aramis prayed there would be no new snow. They had already been out there, exposed to the elements, for two days. They'd lost three horses in the ambush, leaving just one, and there would have been no way for the poor beast to carry both Porthos and Athos, the men too senseless to keep a hold of the reins.
So Aramis had told d'Artagnan to take the horse and ride for help. As their appointed medic, it made sense for Aramis to stay and tend to their wounded friends until d'Artagnan could return.
He checked their heartbeats and found them both steady, though perhaps a little slow, so deep in sleep they were. There was no sign of their wounds festering—a miracle indeed, and Aramis kissed the rosary around his neck. He changed the bandages to keep it that way.
His fingers fumbled with the fold of cloth around Athos's abdomen, numbed by the chill in the air. He finished as quickly as he could and retrieved his gloves, letting out a shuddering breath as the warm leather sent painful prickles through his hands. He tucked them under his armpits to keep the warmth trapped a little longer.
Exhaustion and gravity tugged him toward the ground, but he couldn't rest, couldn't leave Porthos and Athos defenseless. He just had to last until d'Artagnan returned.
He started pacing around the perimeter of their camp, both to stay awake and keep his blood flowing. He hated the cold. With a passion. And though this was not Savoy, the image of two of his brothers lying wounded in the snow was stirring up dreaded memories he thought he'd buried long ago.
He hurried back to Porthos and Athos, crouching down and removing his glove to hold his hand above each of their faces in turn. The faint puffs of breath were a relief, and he adjusted the blankets to tuck the edges tighter around them. They lived. And as long as he stayed vigilant, they would continue to do so.
He heated water to drink, desperately trying to thaw the bone deep ache that was settling into his marrow. He coaxed Porthos and Athos to take some when they could, both of them barely conscious enough to do anything but moan and swallow when Aramis prodded and prompted. The sky darkened with the coming of dusk, and Aramis felt a chill of fear at another night to spend in the woods.
He built up the fire as much as he dared. The bandits were all slain, so there was no fear of another attack, leastways not from them. He couldn't imagine anyone else wanting to be out in this cold either.
Yellow eyes glinting in the shadows proved him wrong. They stared at him as he sat by the fire, and he stared back. He should have expected predators to be drawn to the blood, and there had been no time to properly bury the bodies, their corpses left for carrion not far enough away, not when it came to animals that could catch a whiff of more blood trails.
Aramis waited, one hand on the hilt of his rapier.
Eventually the creature slunk forward, firelight dancing over a wolfish snout and hungry eyes.
He slowly rose to his feet, drawing his sword. The wolf paused to consider him, its gaze darting to the vulnerable targets just to his left. Aramis sidestepped to put himself bodily between them. The wolf's lip curled upward, baring its fangs. It was lean from the winter months, but Aramis did not underestimate its brute strength. He bent down and picked up a piece of wood from the fire, lifting it up and out as a makeshift torch.
A low growl reverberated across the scant distance between them. Aramis surged forward a step, wielding the flaming branch in place of his blade. The wolf snarled and scampered back but didn't retreat. Terror sang through Aramis's veins at the thought of his brothers, and he attacked somewhat recklessly. The flames licked the wolf's hide, eliciting a yelp, and Aramis followed up with a swipe of his sword that scored a thin gash along the beast's flank. With a snarled snap, the wolf finally decided the effort wasn't worth it and loped off into the trees.
Aramis didn't move, chest heaving and white puffs billowing past his lips as he waited to see if the beast would return. It was several long minutes before he set the burning branch back in the fire. He didn't sit down again, afraid he would drift off and wake to find himself some predator's morning meal. Or worse, Porthos and Athos, ravaged by wolves while he slept.
No, he had to stay awake.
He gathered more wood and kept the blaze going. He melted snow to drink and checked and rechecked his pistols. The night was endless, only the sound of the fire crackling to break up the shroud of death hanging over the copse. At some point, additional bodies started appearing in the snow, lying just behind Athos or off to the side. Sometimes Aramis couldn't tell them apart when he went to check on them, reaching to find a heartbeat of a ghost that wasn't there. He was surrounded by them now, his lost brothers coming to join him again. He had a duty to watch over them. He'd failed to save them in that ambush; the least he could do was guard their bodies until they could be laid to proper rest.
That became his sole focus come the light of dawn. When a crow alighted on a stump and turned its beady black eye to one of the bodies, Aramis raised his pistol and fired. The shot missed, striking the ground instead. But the noise and spray of dirt sent the bird flapping into the air with a raucous squawk.
Aramis quickly hunkered down to reload, numb fingers tripping over themselves as he wrestled with the powder packet and musket ball. There was no time to rest though. No time.
A low moan had him jerking his head to the side. One of the bodies was stirring. Aramis struggled to his feet again and stumbled over. Shadowy specks floated in the air, but when he turned to follow them, they'd vanished like embers devoured in a frigid gust.
He dropped heavily to his knees beside the frozen form. Dark eyes opened to slits and gazed up at him blearily.
"Aramis?" the revenant croaked.
He gazed back, heart clenching. What was worse: the utter silence of being completely alone, or the ghosts starting to talk back?
The musketeer furrowed his brow. "Aramis," he repeated, forcing his eyes open to more alertness. A hand slipped free of the heavy blanket and reached for him.
Aramis couldn't help but recoil sharply. He staggered to his feet and backed up. "No," he said hoarsely. "It's not my time. I pr-promised Athos and Porthos."
The man's eyes widened in alarm, and he started to shift under the blankets as though trying to get up. Then his face went white and he collapsed back with a strangled sound, clutching his side. "Agh, damn it!"
Aramis moved away. He had to remain on guard. Had to be there for Athos and Porthos.
"Aramis," the firm voice called again, but it was becoming distorted. Everything was blurring and tilting.
He'd reached his limit, he realized with a numb sort of resignation. Perhaps it was his time after all. Or long overdue.
"'M s'rry," he mumbled, and then finally surrendered himself to winter's bitter arms, five years in the waiting.
"I never should have left you."
"You had no choice. And if you hadn't returned when you did, we wouldn't be here now."
The voices burbled around him like a bubbling brook, calm, soothing even. He thought about climbing through the fog to reach them, but he was too heavy, as though a physician had let all the blood from his body and somehow replaced it with lead.
Warmth was a cruel mistress, wrapping him up in her embrace and caressing his cheeks with breaths of balmy heat, but he knew it was fickle, fleeting. The cold would return for him. It always did.
"I got lost on the way back," the first voice spoke again, self-recriminating. "I should have been there sooner."
"Stop blaming yourself. We all survived."
A wooden chair creaked. "I just wish he would wake up."
"He was awake for days. He could use the sleep."
That sounded like a good idea. He let himself drift back into the undulating current of darkness and oblivion.
The next time he woke, it was with more clarity, and he finally felt as though his spirit had settled back into his body. He could now identify the warmth shrouding him as heavy blankets, and the kiss of intense warmth on one side of his face was from a fire. He cracked his eyes open and blinked groggily at the familiar walls of his room at the garrison.
"There you are," a voice as warm as the hearth spoke.
Aramis turned his head to find Athos reclining back in a chair padded with cushions and blankets. His brow furrowed. "A little pampered that, isn't it, Monsieur Comte?" he joked, startled by how raspy his voice was.
Athos's lips twitched. "It wasn't my idea, but d'Artagnan has been a right mother hen lately." He leaned forward to pick up a pitcher from the nearby table, wincing as he did so.
A flicker of memory tried to worm its way through the haze in Aramis's mind as Athos poured a cup of water and then helped him sip it. "What happened?"
"We were attacked by bandits and sustained some serious injuries—"
"Porthos!" he blurted.
Athos put a firm hand on his shoulder. "He's fine. Still a little wobbly on his feet. He's confined to bed, much to his chagrin, otherwise he would be here now. D'Artagnan just went to check on him."
Aramis sagged against his mattress with a sigh, then snapped his eyes open again. "And you?"
"You stitched me up well and proper. We all just have a little more mending to do."
Aramis closed his eyes. "I thought I'd lost you," he whispered.
"And I you. Here I finally regained consciousness only to see you collapse in the snow." Darkness entered his eyes. "I couldn't reach you. I don't know what would have happened if d'Artagnan hadn't returned with an escort of musketeers less than an hour later."
"I don't remember. I just remember…it was so cold. And you and Porthos looked so much like…" he trailed off, throat constricting. He tried to shake the shadows away. They weren't real. They hadn't been real. Not this time.
Athos was silent for a moment. "I'm sorry you had to go through something like that again," he said solemnly. "I'd promised myself if you had to face anything like Savoy ever again that I would ensure I was there with you."
"You were there with me," Aramis murmured.
Athos let out a soft snort. "In the worst way possible."
"Not your fault you were wounded."
"No, but I still regret what it put you through."
"I'm all right," he whispered automatically. Or, he would be when the images in the snow weren't so fresh and a nip in the air didn't send chills down his spine. At least at this moment he was warm.
Athos's eyes crinkled with sadness and sympathy, and he reached out to squeeze Aramis's arm. "We'll all be all right."
Aramis nodded sleepily. That, he could take comfort in.
Chapter 13: Grudge
Aramis woke to a throbbing in his head and wondered for a moment if he had somehow tried to outdrink Athos in the tavern last night. A foolish endeavor, to be sure. But as awareness slowly spread through his limbs, he realized he was sitting upright, back against something firm, and an experimental shift revealed his arms weren't cooperating. No, they were pulled back, and the coarse fiber of hemp scraped along the skin of his wrists.
Well, this did not bode well.
He pried his eyelids open, squinting into the dimly lit surroundings. The air was musty with the scent of straw and dust but lacked the pungent odor of animals to go with it. However, he was clearly in a barn, a shabby one stale with disuse.
Aramis shifted again, tugging at his bonds. How had he gotten into this mess? And what kind of mess was it? His memory was fuzzy, courtesy of the blow to the head he could feel the pulsing evidence of, localized on his left temple. Better he had gone toe to toe with Athos and his liquor.
"Good, you're awake," a voice said off to the side, startling him into a flinch.
Aramis craned his head back as his captor stepped into view. His vision swam briefly but then cleared and he was able to take in the poor cut of cloth, mended several times over, the pair of blades at the belt, and the black doublet. His eyes tracked upward to a pockmarked face with a bushy beard and black hair pulled back at the nape. Cold, ruthless eyes bored into him, igniting a spark of familiarity. Aramis squinted as it took him a delayed moment to place the man.
"Blanchard," he breathed in surprise.
"I'm surprised you remember me," the man remarked blandly.
Of course Aramis did. Blanchard had petitioned to join the Musketeers when the regiment was first formed. He wasn't chosen though. Aramis didn't know why; it hadn't been his place to know. He'd later heard that Blanchard resigned as a solider and left Paris.
Aramis drew his shoulders back against the post. "What do you want?"
The man rested a hand on the hilt of his rapier, thumb stroking the knuckle guard. "I've had a lot of time to hone my skills these past few years. I'm as good as any musketeer." He snorted. "Better, perhaps, as I took down one easily enough."
Aramis narrowed his eyes. "It's not hard to waylay a man from behind. A child and a well aimed stone could do the same."
Blanchard's nostrils flared and his hand stilled where it gripped his sword.
Aramis eyed it warily, aware of the precarious edge he was finding himself veering toward. There was something off in Blanchard's mien.
"What do you want?" Aramis asked again. "To test your mettle against a musketeer? You only needed to come to the garrison and ask. Myself or many others would have happily obliged."
"I seek an audience with someone in particular. Someone who will rue not accepting me into the regiment."
Aramis frowned. "I'm not the one who denied you."
A strange stillness came over the man. "No, you weren't."
Fear slithered down Aramis's spine.
"Sit tight," Blanchard said. "You're only the incentive in this scenario." He turned on his heel and left.
Aramis struggled against the ropes with renewed urgency. He couldn't allow himself to be used as bait for the captain, which was what he deduced was Blanchard's intention. Treville was the one who'd hand-chosen his first musketeers. The fact that Aramis had been targeted was probably not a coincidence, given he was one of the original company.
He sucked air through his teeth as the rope abraded his flesh, but the bonds were secure. However, Aramis's hand brushed against a rusty nail protruding from the back of the post. Working the rope against the tip, he began to move his hands back and forth, back and forth, in an attempt to saw through the ropes.
Treville stared at the missive in his hand, the paper crinkling where his thumb pressed too tightly into it. It wasn't signed, had been delivered by a messenger boy who hadn't been able to describe the hooded man who had paid him to courier it, and lacked anything to substantiate its claim, leaving Treville to question the veracity of it.
Heavy footsteps sounded outside his office before a knock rapped on his door.
"Enter," he barked, looking up and expecting to see the three he'd summoned. Only two stepped inside.
Athos and Porthos came to stand at attention in front of the desk.
Treville swallowed his mounting trepidation. "Where's Aramis?"
"No idea," Athos replied mildly. "He's not in his room at the garrison."
Porthos let out a soft snort. "I'm sure he's in someone's room."
Treville narrowed his eyes. He wasn't unaware of his men's reputations or vices and had given up actively discouraging them long ago, settling instead for disapproving glares when they sauntered—or shuffled—in late for muster.
He passed the note to Athos. His lieutenant's eyes roved over the scrawled words, narrowing a fraction.
"Was any proof sent?" he asked because the man was as practical minded as Treville.
"No. But I can't dismiss Aramis's absence as coincidence."
"And yet, anyone aware of his proclivities could be using them to bluff."
"Proof of what?" Porthos all but growled.
"The note isn't signed, but whoever sent it is demanding a meeting with the Captain of the Musketeers at noon today outside the city," Athos explained. "If the captain doesn't show, Aramis's life will be forfeit."
"And you're willing to bet this is a bluff?" Porthos exclaimed incredulously.
"I didn't say that."
Treville turned and walked to where his baldric and weapons were hanging on hooks on the wall. "We don't have time to verify. I will go to this meeting. And if Aramis is in fact in some woman's bed, I will have him cleaning the stables for a month."
"We'll ready the horses," Athos said.
Treville shot a glare at him. "The note clearly stated I come alone. We don't know who we're dealing with or how many. They could have lookouts."
"All the more reason not to walk into an obvious trap."
Treville held back a sigh, unable to argue. If Aramis was being held hostage, Treville would need his men; if Aramis wasn't there at all, then he himself would need the backup.
He hoped the marksman was with some woman and not, in fact, in serious trouble.
Aramis's wrists were chafed raw by the time he was finally able to cut through the rope enough to slip free of it. He crept toward the barn door, listening for sounds outside. It was quiet. Blanchard didn't seem to have a company of men with him. That was good. Just one lone madman seeking revenge then.
Aramis had two options: escape to warn the captain, or subdue Blanchard himself. The latter wasn't very feasible if he was unarmed though. He cast his gaze around the barn in search of his weapons but didn't see them. He was going to be very cross if Blanchard left them in an alley somewhere.
He spotted a pitchfork against the wall and picked it up. Better than nothing.
Easing the barn door open, he peeked outside. The immediate area was clear. Aramis frowned. Would Blanchard have left, believing his prisoner secure?
There was some woodland several dozen yards away, and beyond the tree line the rooftops of Paris. So he wasn't that far outside the city.
He ventured out further, only to stop when Blanchard stepped around the corner of the barn. The man narrowed his eyes but otherwise seemed unfazed.
"Well, I commend you on slipping the ropes. What was your plan afterward?"
Aramis shrugged and lifted the pitchfork.
Blanchard arched a brow at it and drew his sword. "Hardly a match."
"A musketeer must be resourceful."
Aramis swung the pitchfork up as Blanchard advanced, catching the man's blade between the prongs. He twisted the handle to wrench the sword from Blanchard's grip, but his opponent drew his gauche with his other hand and thrust it forward. Aramis had to leap back to avoid getting stabbed. He brandished the pitchfork, but the motion sent a wave of dizziness through his head and he stumbled. Blanchard grabbed the farming tool and yanked it away.
Aramis threw a punch at him. He wasn't as fond of brawls as Porthos, but he'd picked up a few tricks. Blanchard's head snapped to the side and Aramis grabbed his sword arm. The man retaliated with an elbow to his face, and Aramis's vision went spotty for a few precious moments in which fire speared through his upper arm. Another blow to the side of his head followed, dropping him to the ground in a haze of blackness.
He hadn't fully lost consciousness, but the head injury had him down long enough for Blanchard to grab some rope and start looping it around his wrists. His arms were then forced up so that his hands were just under his chin, and Blanchard began twining the rope around his throat next before securing it to one of his wrists again. He let go and took a step back. Aramis's arms naturally fell lower, which tightened the hemp line around his neck, cutting off his airway.
With a startled gasp, he drew his arms up trying to relieve the constriction. The rope loosened a fraction, allowing him to suck in a ragged breath.
"Best keep your arms up if you don't want to suffocate," Blanchard said.
Aramis gaped at him. He'd never heard tale of a configuration like this, nor would he have ever dreamed of inflicting it on someone, not even a prisoner of war.
Blanchard smirked. "A skilled soldier must be resourceful."
Aramis wanted to comment that Blanchard was no soldier, leastwise not an honorable one, but he didn't have the breath to do so.
Blanchard grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet, then back into the barn. Spinning him around, the man took another two pieces of rope and tied them around his waist and legs to the same post from before, forcing him to remain upright, which was going to make keeping his arms up that much more strenuous. His left arm was already burning from what he guessed was a stab wound.
With a self-satisfied glare, Blanchard turned and left.
Aramis struggled to draw in breath, struggled to keep his arms raised as the noose slowly tightened around his neck.
Treville reined his horse in at the edge of the tree line, Athos and Porthos staying a few paces behind to remain concealed. The meeting place was nothing more than a barn standing out in the open, but it meant there was no way to approach from any direction without being seen. However, there didn't appear to be any guards stationed outside.
"I don't like it," Athos commented, a spyglass to his eye.
"I have little choice." Treville nudged his horse forward and broke cover, approaching the barn at a wary trot.
At the sound of clomping hooves, a man emerged from the building. Treville slowed his mount as he took in the strange figure. No, not strange.
Treville barely suppressed a noise of surprise. The years had not been kind to Blanchard. He had been a decent enough soldier when he'd petitioned to join the Musketeers, but he'd possessed an arrogance that had grated Treville. Honestly, the man would have been a better fit for the Red Guard, though Treville hadn't suggested that when he'd denied the man a commission.
Blanchard sneered in obvious derision at him.
Treville dismounted and stepped away from his horse. "Where's Aramis?" His gut was pinging that the marksman was probably not back in the city with some woman…
Treville's jaw tightened. "We won't speak until I see him."
Blanchard's eyes flashed, but he wordlessly turned and stalked back into the barn.
Treville sidestepped to get a glimpse inside. He didn't see any men, or horses. He quickly held up one finger to signal Athos and Porthos before Blanchard was returning, hauling Aramis in front of him. The marksman's arms were bound up at his neck in a strange fashion and his face was red. It took Treville only a moment to realize he couldn't breathe. Blanchard had a hand fisted at the back of his neck, pulling on the rope.
"Release him!" Treville barked.
"Certainly. I'm not interested in him anyway."
"Then what are you interested in? What is this about?"
"You denied me my acceptance into the Musketeers. I'm here to show you that was a mistake."
"By threatening my man?" Treville demanded.
Blanchard's other hand came to rest on his sword. "By challenging you to a duel."
Treville blinked. Was he serious? Was that what this entire lure was about?
"And what will that prove?" he asked. "Your actions here have already confirmed my original assessment—you could never be a musketeer."
Blanchard yanked back on the rope and Aramis's eyes blew wide as he sputtered and choked. "Choose your next words carefully, Captain. They might be the last ones your man ever hears."
Treville had gone rigid, but now he drew his sword. "Very well. Let him go. Your quarrel is with me."
Blanchard's face cracked into a manic grin and he flung Aramis to the ground, leaving the marksman to cough and gag as he pulled his rapier and advanced. There was no courtesy, no signal to start, only the lifting of steel and the duel began.
Athos watched through the spyglass as the captain met with a man who'd stepped out of the barn. Athos didn't recognize him. He waited tautly as Treville then signaled that there was only one. That surprised Athos. One man was behind this lure? For what purpose?
Then he saw Aramis being dragged out, wrists and neck bound in a cruel fashion. There was blood on one sleeve. The situation looked everything like a hostage exchange, except the captain had nothing to hand over.
The realization struck only a second before Treville drew his sword and the man threw Aramis aside in favor of brandishing his own blade.
Athos wrenched the spyglass down and shoved it back into his saddlebag. "We'll make our way around the rear of the barn," he said to Porthos. "Keep out of sight."
They backed their horses up and turned around, riding back through the woods and coming out once they were out of view of the barn. Then they made a circuitous canter to come at it from behind. There was a horse tethered out back, confirming the captain's signal that only one man was involved.
Athos and Porthos quickly dismounted and crept along the side of the barn, the clash of swords at least letting them know their captain was holding his own. Not that they had to worry. There was a reason he was the Captain of the King's elite guard.
Still, Athos was eager to put an end to whatever this was, and the first thing they had to do was secure Aramis.
The marksman was sprawled on the ground on his side, breaths wheezing sharply in his chest. Porthos drew a knife and quickly cut through the ropes. Aramis coughed raggedly, his entire body shuddering with strangled efforts to breathe.
Ice filled Athos's veins as he turned his attention to the fight. Treville's opponent was skilled but also moved with an almost possessed intensity. Sometimes that proved to be a man's weakness; other times it gave him an advantage.
The man caught the hilt of Treville's blade and twisted, disarming him. He then slammed his body into the captain's shoulder, knocking him to the ground.
"And now I've bested the Captain of the Musketeers," he gloated.
He raised his sword to go in for the kill. Athos pulled his pistol and fired, hitting him in the shoulder of his sword arm. The man fell backward with a cry and Athos marched over to kick his weapon from his hand before he could wield it again.
The felled man snarled up at him viciously. "So much for the honor of the Musketeers," he spat.
"Honor for honor," Athos replied darkly. "And there was none in abducting a musketeer and stringing him up in such a manner. I will see you hang for it. The honorable way."
"I beat two of the regiment's best," the man went on, propping himself up on his elbow. "The King should reward me with a position."
Treville had gotten up and come over to stare down at him. After a prolonged beat, he bent forward and punched the man so hard he hit the ground and didn't move.
Athos arched a mild brow. "Who is he?"
"A disgruntled soldier who didn't have what it took to be a musketeer."
With that, the captain spun on his heel and walked over to Aramis, who was sitting propped up against Porthos. Treville crouched down in front of them.
"Are you all right?"
Aramis gave a jerky nod. There were rope burns around his neck and wrists, and Porthos had his bandana clamped around a bleeding wound in his arm. This close, Athos noticed a contusion on his temple as well.
"Blan-chard…wanted…revenge," he rasped.
Treville nodded solemnly. "And now he will get justice."
"Don' try 'n' talk," Porthos chided softly.
Aramis closed his eyes and leaned his head back against Porthos's shoulder.
Athos snatched up the rope pieces and went over to secure their prisoner. And while he would never restrain someone in the manner this Blanchard had done to Aramis, Athos didn't refrain from making the knots a little extra tight. Athos would see their brother avenged in the manner of the law.
Chapter 14: Flew A Raven Darkly
This one's for Enigma TM, who asked for a tag to 2x6 regarding that callback to Savoy with the bird on the awning.
Wing beats thwacked like drums, a rising crescendo of rushing feathers and trumpeting croaks. Aramis rolled onto his side, white powder crunching beneath him. A large black bird sat inches from his face, one beady eye cocked in a vulturine mien. It opened its beak and let out a shrill scream. Others responded, a cascade of tenebrous shadows detaching from frozen bodies and rising up like a wave to crash upon him…
He came awake with a ragged gasp, thrashing his arms to ward off the razor sharp beaks aiming for his face and limbs. He failed to strike anything, and the snow-covered forest he'd been in a moment before gave way to a dark room. Aramis reached for the candle on the bedside stand, fingers fumbling to light it. The resulting flame sent the shadows skittering like a shower of black feathers. His chest heaved as he scanned the room in search of those beady eyes that had seemed to bore into his soul and pronounced judgement on it. He rubbed his face. There was nothing there.
Just when he thought he'd put the memories of Savoy behind him, some inane thing triggered them again. He'd woken up on an awning under a blazing sun to a raven, of all things, pecking at his body. He was not dead, but to find himself once more the target of carrion scavengers had apparently been more than his mind could handle. It was as though Death's harbingers were determined to remind him that he was not so far beyond their reach. That they knew he'd escaped the fate slated for him back in that forest and would one day come to claim him as was his due.
Interesting that they kept failing. Surely a fall out a window like that would have done the job. Either Fate favored him, or Death mocked him.
He wasn't sure which was worse.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and winced as pain pulsed through his thigh. He leaned forward and gripped the injury where splintered window frame had gouged through flesh and muscle, squeezing tight to send more fire lancing through the limb. Because he hadn't wounded his leg in Savoy, and the pain there reminded him of where he was now, in the present.
It was almost dawn, so he got up and dressed, then went down to the yard and sat at the bench to wait for morning muster. The air wasn't particularly cold, but Aramis couldn't shake a chill that had been stitched into his very bones since Savoy. Like the thwacking wing beats and whispering feathers, it dogged him without mercy.
When morning light began to spill across the sky, Serge brought out some porridge and wordlessly set it in front of him. Aramis scraped at it with the spoon, not feeling particularly hungry.
Athos and Porthos arrived, dropping heavily into the bench seat across from him.
Porthos eyed him with unveiled concern. "You all right?"
Aramis forced a light-hearted smile. "If that trip out the window didn't kill me, this gruel might."
Porthos huffed, but the amusement didn't reach his eyes. They fell into silence which didn't break even with d'Artagnan's arrival. After breakfast, they lined up in the yard. Treville gave out the orders, allotting their group to stay at the garrison and train.
The captain shot Aramis a brief look that warned he was not to participate. Aramis tipped his head in acknowledgement and returned to his place at the table to sit and watch. Sword work was out while his leg mended, but he could have done some shooting. Except that his head ached fiercely.
He watched Athos and d'Artagnan spar for several long minutes, until the image started getting superimposed with that of other musketeers engaged in a battle for their lives. Bodies fell into white among splashes of red. A Stygian bird alighted at the top of the stairs and belted out a guttural gurgle, its eye narrowing in on Aramis.
He grabbed his wounded leg and squeezed, willing himself back to the present. But it wasn't working like it had with the remnants of his nightmare. The pain in his head and the sounds of clashing blades was too overwhelming. He dug his fingernails in. A flutter of wing beats rushed past his ears.
A hand seized his wrist in a vise-like grip, and he snapped his eyes open to find Porthos crouched beside him, looking angry and worried.
"Why the hell you doin' that?" he demanded, yanking Aramis's hand further away from his leg.
"Just rubbing the sore muscles," he said quickly.
Porthos's eyes narrowed sharply and he lowered his voice. "You were somewhere else." He hesitated. "Is this about yesterday?"
Aramis shook his head, paused. "Not exactly." He reached his free hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Perhaps I should get some more rest," he deflected, moving to stand.
Porthos kept a firm grip on his wrist for a beat longer before releasing him, that shrewd gaze still boring into him with almost the same intensity as those beady eyes…
Aramis gave himself a small shake and turned toward the barracks. "I'm fine, my friend," he assured, though the sentiment rang hollow in his own ears. He should be fine. But he wasn't.
He limped back to his room and sank onto the edge of the bed. Rest would do him good but he wasn't sure he could actually sleep. Not when the rush of feathers and Death's mercenaries waited for him on the other side of dreams.
It was only a few minutes later that his door opened and Aramis looked up, surprised and yet not surprised as his three friends entered without preamble.
"Porthos says you admitted to needing some rest," Athos remarked blandly.
"Shocking," Aramis deadpanned.
"Indeed." Athos raked him over with a critical eye that never failed to leave him feeling exposed. "Are your injuries worse than yesterday?"
Porthos growled low in his throat. "You made your leg bleed again."
Aramis looked down with a frown and reached to feel the back of his thigh, surprised to find a slight wetness in his breeches.
"You didn't realize you were clawin' it open?" Porthos demanded.
Aramis grimaced. "That…was not my intent."
"What was your intent?" Athos asked patiently.
He slouched in defeat. "I needed an anchor," he confessed.
"An anchor?" d'Artagnan repeated, quirking a dubious look at him.
"To the present," he explained. The boy had been with them for a while now, but there were some things d'Artagnan couldn't understand the way Athos and Porthos would. "My leg wasn't injured at Savoy. The pain…reminds me I'm not back there."
Porthos's eyes widened in realization and he cursed under his breath. "What brought that on?" he asked in a softer tone than he'd used previously.
"Nearly dying can bring up a lot of things," Athos answered, still studying him.
"It wasn't that, exactly." Aramis rolled his shoulder in discomfort, cringing when it pulled at bruises.
"Then what?" Porthos pressed.
He knew they wouldn't leave it, nor was it fair to ask them to. It just grated to still have this weakness clinging to him after all these years.
"When I woke up on the awning, there was a raven. Pecking at me." He looked away in embarrassment.
In the beat of silence that followed, d'Artagnan spoke up.
"I don't understand."
"When we found the site of the massacre at Savoy," Athos said in a subdued volume, "we had to chase carrion birds from the bodies."
D'Artagnan's eyes widened, while Aramis closed his against the memory. He'd chased the ravens away in the beginning, before the cold, disorientation, and exhaustion had dragged him down, and then he'd barely been able to fend them off from picking at his body as well.
"It's ridiculous," he scowled, mostly to himself. "Yesterday was nothing like Savoy. It's not even cold." He bowed forward and rubbed his head.
"That headache can't be helping matters," Athos commented after a moment.
"Will you let us check your wounds?"
He'd rather collapse into bed, but if he had in fact reopened the gash in his leg, then it needed to be tended first. He waved a hand in vague permission and got to his feet to remove his breeches. The bloodstain on the back of the pant leg wasn't that large, so that was a good sign.
He sat again and leaned down to roll up the leg of his braes.
Porthos knelt beside him and reached for it instead. "I got it."
Aramis only complied because he couldn't see the wound himself anyway, given its location. He winced as Porthos tugged the fabric up over the gash and undid the bandage.
"Tore one of the stitches a'right," he said. "It's weepin' a bit. Probably not worth re-sewin' though."
Athos handed him a fresh roll of bandages and Porthos set to rewrapping the leg. When he was finished, Athos then moved in close to check the back of Aramis's head.
"There's still some swelling," he reported, probing the area gently but still eliciting a hiss of pain.
"I can make that tea you showed me for headaches," d'Artagnan offered.
Aramis gave him a small smile and nod of thanks.
Porthos looked at the blankets rucked up on the bed. "Why didn't you come to me last night?"
Aramis sighed. "It was just a nightmare. I can't run to you every time I have one. At least one of us needs to have had a decent night's sleep and it sure can't be Athos."
Once again, his quip failed to draw out the expected banter.
"Yer not the only one haunted by yesterday," Porthos rejoined seriously. "I'd take you wakin' me every single night than to have lost my brother to that madman."
Aramis immediately gave him a contrite look. "I'm sorry. I know you would never turn me away." He shook his head wearily. "It's just that it's been six years. I laid twenty-one ghosts to rest after Marsac." After he'd finally learned the truth. "When will they stop coming back to haunt me?"
It was a rhetorical question, as there seemed to be no answer, but Porthos replied anyway.
"Not sure they ever do," he said sadly and threw a glance at Athos, likely thinking of Milady. Aramis wasn't the only one whom the past liked to taunt with resurrected ghosts.
"Jus', next time you need remindin' yer here an' not there, talk to one of us instead of inflictin' more harm on yerself, alright?"
Aramis inclined his head. "I promise."
D'Artagnan handed him a cup of the steeped tea, and he took a moment to simply inhale the aroma of the herbs.
"You should get back to training," he said.
"I can stay," Porthos immediately countered.
Aramis reached out to pat his arm. "I'll be fine. Besides, I know where to find you."
Porthos still looked reluctant, but Athos gave him a nod to usher him out. D'Artagnan smiled in encouragement as he left as well, leaving Aramis alone.
Not alone, though. His brothers weren't far. They never were.
Chapter 15: Medic, Heal Thyself
This is a whumpier version of chapter 1 for Deana. Gratuitous whump no plot. And probably a dubious representation of medical practices.
"It's been two days and we've seen no sign of these reported bandits," Aramis commented. "Do you think they need a written invitation?" He reached back into his saddle bag for a small coin purse and gave it a jangle.
Porthos rolled his eyes. "Do you want ta get attacked?"
"That would make finding them easier."
The three musketeers had been dispatched to deal with a group of bandits that had been plaguing travelers on the main road near the northern border, which was severely damaging trade relations. But after three days of riding up and down the road and searching the surrounding area, they had seen no sign of them.
"Per'aps they've moved on," Porthos grumbled.
Aramis huffed in his saddle. "That would be unfortunate."
"Indeed," Athos remarked. "I do not relish reporting back to the King with failure."
Aramis grimaced. No, neither did he.
Something slammed into his right shoulder, jerking him to the side and causing him to pull up on the reins. His horse whinnied and threw its head back, but thankfully didn't throw him. His vision went blurry for a moment around the crossbow shaft protruding from his shoulder. That explained the lack of a shot sounding.
A sharp report did crack the air then as Athos returned fire into the trees. Someone gave a cry of pain.
Hands grabbed at Aramis and pulled him out of his saddle. He stumbled as Porthos set him on his feet behind his horse, grasping the reins to keep the beast as a shield between them as he swung his arm over the mare's flank and fired his gun. The horse shied away at the sound and Porthos released it. Men were charging out from the tree line.
"Guess we finally found them," Aramis grunted as he drew his sword. His shoulder screamed at him and he quickly switched the rapier to his left hand. While not as proficient as with his right, he could hold his own.
He hoped Athos had killed the shooter with the crossbow. Or that the man had abandoned the stealth attack to join his comrades. Aramis met the blow of the nearest attacker, steel letting out a discordant clang. Every thrust and parry sent reverberations up his arm and across to his wounded shoulder, igniting bolts of lightning through the muscle around where the crossbow bolt still clung. He could feel the metal tip grating against the inside of his scapula with every movement. It took him twice as long to disarm his opponent, but he eventually felled the bandit, only to nearly have his head taken off by the next.
Their blades clashed, and Aramis shoved his boot into the man's chest, knocking him back a few steps. As the man staggered, Aramis deftly slipped his rapier into his right hand and pulled his pistol with his left. This close, there was no missing the target, and the man went down with an explosion of gunpowder.
Aramis whirled to meet the next, using his pistol as a bludgeon. The tip of the barrel was still hot from being fired, and the man whose face it struck screamed and jerked away. Aramis dropped the gun and followed through with a thrust of his sword.
The sounds of battle faded and Aramis swayed where he stood as he urgently swept his gaze around for his brothers. Athos and Porthos were still upright, the victors.
"Aramis!" Porthos lumbered over and reached out to catch him before he even registered that he was going to fall. With his brawn, Porthos easily slowed his descent to the ground.
The adrenaline from the fight had quickly waned, giving way to untempered pain. Aramis shifted on his knees, trying to steady himself. The next few minutes were going to be decidedly unpleasant.
Athos hurried over to them. "I believe we killed them all," he said as he knelt down on Aramis's other side. His brow furrowed. "It didn't go all the way through."
"Unfortunately, no," Aramis grunted. The sensation of metal scraping bone inside his shoulder made his stomach churn. "Porthos, if you would please do me the honor…"
Porthos's eyes darkened on the shaft as though it had personally offended him. He helped ease Aramis back to lie down so he'd have proper leverage.
"Wait," Athos said, drawing his small knife. "We don't want the bolt catching on your leathers."
Aramis sighed and thunked his head against the dirt. "I suppose there's already a hole in it."
"I'm sure you can mend it just fine," Athos replied and made a cut through both the coat and shirt underneath.
Once he was done, Porthos wrapped one hand around the shaft. "Ready?"
Aramis steeled himself and gave a curt nod.
Porthos yanked upward and a cry tore past Aramis's throat. There was a snap, and for a second he thought it was bone, but when his vision cleared, he found Porthos reeling back with a look of dismay as he stared at the wooden shaft in his hand—broken. Which meant…
Aramis shifted and sucked in a breath at the resulting spike of pain. The bolt head was still embedded in his shoulder.
Porthos flicked a look of horror at him.
"Well," he gritted out, opting for levity to alleviate his friend's guilt. "That didn't go to plan."
"We need to get him to a physician," Athos interrupted, but for all his collected demeanor, there was a glimmer of worry in his eyes. "Paris is a two days' ride," he said, the unspoken question in his gaze.
Aramis held back a sigh. He would much rather see a Parisian doctor than a back village one, but waiting two days would not be wise if he could help it, nor would riding for that long be advisable. Already there was a tremor in his muscles and he realized the wound was bleeding more profusely with the shaft removed.
"There's a village about an hour up the road," he managed to get out. "Bind this up to stop the bleeding and we'll see if they have a physician."
Athos immediately jumped to his feet and hurried to retrieve the horses from where they'd drifted off to, returning moments later with a roll of bandages.
"Are either of you injured?" Aramis remembered to ask as they propped him up to pack the wound and wrap his shoulder, his gaze searching their clothes for blood.
"I'm not," Athos replied.
"Nor me," Porthos said. "Worry about yerself, a'right?"
"I'm perfectly capable of worrying about all of us," he rejoined.
Porthos snorted, but there was no humor in his eyes.
Once the wound was bound, they hauled Aramis to his feet and helped get him on his horse, then flanked him on their own mounts as they set off to the village. He tried to settle into the rhythm of the canter, but every movement jolted his shoulder with fiery vengeance.
When the village finally came into view, he was ready to fall out of his saddle. But not yet. He forced himself to remain upright—mostly—as they made their way to an inn. Porthos helped him slide off his horse and then supported his weight into the establishment. Athos had entered first and was already barking out a demand for a doctor.
The innkeeper gave them wary looks, gaze lingering a moment on Aramis. "I'm afraid the doctor's not 'ere."
"What do you mean 'e's not 'ere?" Porthos repeated, his voice taking on a growl.
Aramis squeezed the arm supporting him to calm his friend.
The innkeeper shifted his weight. "I mean he got called away to Rue. He ain't due back for several days."
Aramis closed his eyes in resignation.
Athos turned back to him. "Should we continue on?"
Aramis swallowed hard. He'd broken into a sweat and knew the hourglass had already begun to count down. "No. The longer it waits, the greater chance of infection." Assuming the bolt head hadn't been dirty to begin with. Who knew how bandits treated their weapons. He lifted remorseful eyes to Athos. "You'll have to do it."
His brother's brows rose to his hairline. "I beg your pardon?"
Aramis inhaled sharply through his nose. "You'll have to remove the bolt and clean the wound before it festers. I'll talk you through it."
Athos immediately started shaking his head. "No. We'll find you a doctor."
"Athos." Aramis softened his expression. "I'm sorry, my friend, but I don't think it wise to wait that long."
He felt Porthos go rigid beside him.
Athos moved in close, dropping his voice to a hissed whisper. "I could make it worse."
Aramis quirked a lopsided smile at him. "It can't get much worse than a bloody bolt in the shoulder." He then sobered. "Best we do this now, when I'm still able to direct you."
Athos's expression pinched with reluctance, but after another moment he finally nodded decisively.
Aramis turned his attention to the innkeeper. "Might we have use of a table? And hot water."
The man looked unnerved about what they'd just discussed but gave a shaky nod. "Sure. This way."
Aramis bit back a groan as Porthos half carried him after the innkeeper and into the kitchen in the back. A woman in an apron looked up in surprise.
"Apologies, madame," Aramis wheezed as Athos quickly cleared the table in the center of the room.
Porthos leaned him against the edge and started tugging at his sleeves to get his doublet off. The movement jostled his shoulder and he curled in on himself protectively.
"Sorry," Porthos mumbled.
Aramis tried to wave off the apology, but his hand flopped uselessly back down at his side. Porthos got his coat off, followed by his shirt, and then helped him lay back on the table. Despite the fire in the hearth, a chill shivered across Aramis's bare skin, drawing a shudder. Blood loss had that effect.
"If I could trouble you to boil some water," Athos said to the innkeeper's wife.
"My- my med kit," Aramis said hoarsely. "You'll need that too."
"I'll get it," Porthos said and hurried from the room.
The innkeeper stepped forward cautiously. "We have some brandy, for the pain…"
Aramis shook his head. "Thank you, but I'll abstain."
Athos looked over sharply. "Aramis, you can't."
"I need all my faculties to guide you."
"This will be akin to torture."
Athos made a low sound in the back of his throat, one that resonated quite accurately with how Aramis was feeling. He reminded himself he'd been through much worse.
Porthos returned and laid out the med kit on the kitchen counter. "All ready?" he asked nervously. "You give 'im somethin' for the pain?"
"He refused," Athos said darkly.
Porthos shot an alarmed look at him.
"I can't," he reiterated and swallowed. "So, Porthos, I'm afraid I have to ask you to hold me down."
Porthos stalked over to the other side of the table, dark eyes swimming with guilt. "Aramis, I'm so sorry."
"This is not your fault," he said firmly. "If you hadn't tried to pull the bolt out, we'd still be doing this." He focused on taking deep, steady breaths. "Athos, take the scalpel from the kit and heat the blade in the fire."
"Why? We are not cauterizing the wound."
"No, but the heat will help seal the blood vessels when you enlarge the hole. So, a smaller form of cauterization."
Athos's shoulders tensed marginally as he held the blade over the flames. After a few moments, he reached to snag a rag from their supplies and wrapped it around the handle, which had probably grown hot as well. Then he stood and walked over, but as he reached Aramis, he faltered.
Aramis weakly lifted his hand to rest on Athos's arm. "It's all right, my friend. You can do this."
"You're the medic, not me."
"Precisely, and I know what I'm doing. You just have to be my hands this time. Make a small cut above and below the hole."
Athos shook his head, but nevertheless raised his hands to the wound. However, again he hesitated.
"It's just like when you cut the slit in my coat for the bolt to come out," Aramis prompted.
"It most certainly is not," Athos glowered, but it got him moving again.
Aramis felt the light touch of the blade and tensed at the scorching heat against his skin. Porthos leaned over to put his weight on Aramis as much as he could without blocking Athos. Aramis gritted his teeth against the searing pain as Athos made the incisions.
"Now what?" Athos asked.
Aramis gulped down a breath. "Now the- forceps. But you'll have to- determine which way- the bolt is oriented. If the underside isn't lined up with the incisions, you'll have to…" He took in a shuddering breath. "Turn it, so the talons don't tear further on their way up."
Athos turned sharply but halted when he found the innkeeper's wife holding out the instrument to him. With a clipped nod, he angled his focus back to the wound.
Aramis clenched his teeth and groaned as he felt the metal implement dip into his flesh. Pain shot through him like a lightning bolt and he fought not to recoil away from it. The forceps shifted and wobbled, and Aramis slammed his head back against the table in agony.
"Athos," Porthos let out a low warning.
"I can't see," he snapped.
Aramis lifted his head to look, trying to clear his head enough to offer advice.
"Here." The innkeeper's wife stepped in and started wiping at the blood.
Athos's eyes remained fixed on his task as he delved further with the forceps. He spat out a curse. "I think I have to turn it."
Aramis choked on a groan and nodded for him to just do it, his jaw incapable of unclenching at the moment. His stomach lurched at the sensation of the foreign instrument digging deeper. And then there was a sharp tug.
Aramis felt more than heard the collective sigh of relief reverberate down through the arms still holding him. He had to take several shuddering breaths before he could open his eyes to look, but by then Athos had stepped away and there was a small clink as he deposited the bolt head into a bowl.
"We 'ave to clean it, yeah?" Porthos asked.
Aramis nodded. "Flask of…spirits…bag."
"I have it," Athos said, coming back over. He paused to give Aramis a regretful look. "Porthos," was the only warning, and then he tipped the flask over the wound.
Aramis let out a cry as he arched off the table, but Porthos was quick to push him back down. His wound was sizzling and he choked on another garbled scream. He wanted desperately to give in to blessed oblivion but knew the work wasn't done yet.
His breathing was ragged by the time he fully came back to himself and he blinked blearily at his brothers still standing over him. Tilting his head up, he looked down at the wound, trying to gauge its state.
"Is the…hole…bigger?" he asked in barely a croak.
Porthos snorted. "O' course it's bigger."
Aramis shook his head tiredly. "If…too wide…can't be stitched."
Athos canted his head as he studied the wound, his outward calm returned but his hesitation belying how unsettled this was all making him. "I'm not sure," he finally said.
"Try anyway," Aramis said.
He must have drifted because the next thing he knew someone was tapping his cheek.
"Aramis, stay awake."
"S'rry," he mumbled and blinked to clear his vision. Athos was holding a threaded needle. "Right. You've seen me…do this."
Athos shot him a sardonic look. "I've never actually looked at the exact procedure."
"Ah." He couldn't blame them, considering they were usually the patients in the past. "Well, it's rudimentary. Hold…edges together. Needle goes…through both. Tug firmly…holds." He shivered.
A heavy hand settled gently on top of his head. "Why don' you just pass out now?" Porthos suggested.
Aramis shook his head minutely. "Not yet." He shivered again. Had someone opened a window?
"I'm making the first stitch," Athos said, and a moment later Aramis felt the slight pinch.
He tried not to shudder with each nip and tug and breathed through his nose as he willed himself to stay focused.
The movements suddenly paused.
"What's wrong?" he asked blearily.
"It's…" Athos started. "I'll have to tug this section very tight to get it to close."
Aramis nodded his signal to continue. He was trembling now beyond his control, and Porthos placed his arms over his waist and shoulder, trying to keep him still while Athos finished.
Finally, mercifully, the pinch and tug stopped and he heard a faint snip as the thread was cut. That concluded the stitching. Was there anything else he was forgetting?
A warm breath wafted over his face as Athos leaned close to whisper in his ear. "You can let go now," Athos said, tone once more restored to confidence.
So he did.
The next time he woke, it wasn't to a rough table beneath him, but a lumpy mattress. Overall an improvement, though. He heard a fire crackling before he opened his eyes, and registered the weight of blankets piled on top of him. It almost lulled him back to sleep, but there was a terrible ache in his shoulder and his mouth was uncomfortably dry, so he pried his eyelids open.
"Hey," Porthos said softly.
Aramis turned his head toward the sound and blinked until his friend came into focus, seated in a chair by his bed. He offered a tired smile, which was returned in kind.
"Wa—" he opened his mouth to ask, but it came out a wispy rasp.
Porthos seemed to understand though and reached for a cup sitting on a nearby table. He scooted forward and raised Aramis's head a bit to take a sip. The tepid liquid both satisfied and choked as he tried to drink it greedily.
"Easy," Porthos said. "What is it you're always tellin' us?"
He dropped his head back as Porthos took the cup away. "Thank you," he whispered.
"How are ya feelin'?"
Aramis paused to take stock of himself. He hurt, but he didn't feel chilled or overly hot under the blankets, so that ruled out fever, which in turn ruled out severe infection. "Wretched, but it will pass now that the worst is over. How long have I been out?"
"It's the next mornin'," Porthos replied. "We're still at the inn."
Aramis lolled his head to the side to take in the room. He spotted Athos slumped against the far wall in the corner, on the floor, an empty bottle of wine still in hand.
Porthos followed his gaze. "Yeah, he, er, tried to drink the innkeeper out o' business."
Aramis sighed. "I shouldn't have asked that of him. Or you."
"You could've died had you not," Porthos said with surprising ferocity. "You think that's better?"
He blinked. No, it wasn't. Contrary to popular opinion, he did not actively court death.
He slipped an arm out from under the sheets and patted Porthos's knee. "Thank you."
Porthos nodded, then stood. "I'll see if he'll wake." He stomped over and nudged Athos with the toe of his boot. The swordsman came alive with a surprising jolt. "Aramis is awake," Porthos said understandingly.
Athos shuffled to his feet, swaying precariously as he stumbled over to drop heavily into the chair Porthos had vacated.
Aramis offered him a wan smile. "You don't look well, my friend."
"I should get you a mirror."
"Please. I'm curious to inspect your needlework."
Athos's eyes darkened at that. "I never want to do that again," he said in a low voice.
"I'm sorry. It was unfair of me to place that burden on you."
"Your life is not a burden," Athos said with a rare flare of emotion. He looked away. "But it was in my hands. The burden lied in…"
Athos turned back to him. "I don't know how you do it."
Aramis almost shrugged, but thought better of it at the last second. "It is not so different from the burden of watching a brother fall in battle, to know that you failed to get there in time. Learning battlefield medicine…it is my second chance. To…fix an error. I suppose the risk is in failing twice, but then I can only commend souls to God."
Athos was silent for a moment. "I'm afraid I cannot commend your soul to God. I would rather drag your soul back to this earthly world than see you leave it."
Aramis smiled and reached out to clasp his arm. "In that, we are mutually inclined. But I've always been selfish that way." He cocked a conspiratorial brow at him. "So, does this mean I will be teaching you how to be a medic?"
Athos huffed. "No, it means you are forbidden from ever being injured again."
Porthos barked out a laugh. "I second that."
Aramis shook his head with a tired smile as his eyes drifted close. "I will endeavor to do my best."
He did much prefer looking after others, after all.
Chapter 16: For the Love of a Brother
This one takes place early in the Inseparables' brotherhood.
Athos pushed open the door of the merchant's shop and entered, sweeping his gaze over the shelves containing various vials and bottles. The man behind the counter looked up and frowned.
"Can I help you?" he asked, a tad defensively.
While Athos's lineage made him part of this man's normal clientele, he was aware that he did not look it.
"I am Athos of the King's Musketeers."
The merchant faltered and gave him a reassessing look. "Ah. I was just at the palace the other day. Is there something His Majesty would like to add to his purchase? Or…did he find something…unsatisfactory?"
Athos had no intention of using the King's name on personal business, but the insinuation would certainly help move things along. "No, I am here on an errand for another." He did not expound on that and instead roved his gaze along the inventory again. "I am looking for lavender, cinnamon, thyme, clove, and frankincense. I am told you carry these."
The merchant was the preeminent supplier of oils, his stock the finest in the country, and thus he catered only to the royal family and surrounding nobility.
The man arched a brow. "Ah, yes." He moved around the counter and started going to different shelves to pluck down the corresponding bottles. When he returned to the counter, he reached for a tray of small, empty vials.
"No," Athos said. "I'll take the whole bottle."
The merchant's jaw slackened at that. "Uh…monsieur…"
Athos reached into his coat and pulled out the very full coin purse tucked within. He did not usually dip into the coffers of his title, save to keep himself fully stocked with wine, nor had he ever spent this much at once since leaving his life as a comte, but this was an exception. The coins clinked as he dropped them on the counter. Opening up the pouch, he revealed the amount inside.
The shop owner's eyes widened. "I'll, uh, just wrap these up," he stammered.
Athos waited. When the merchant handed him the parcel, he tucked it safely inside his doublet and swiftly left, heading back to the garrison.
The yard was empty when he arrived, everyone out seeing to their duties. Athos strode straight to the barracks and let himself into one of the rooms.
Porthos looked up at his arrival, his expression taut and mouth pressed into a tight line. His hands were clasped between his knees and he was rocking slightly in obvious agitation.
Athos removed his hat. "How is he?" he asked, referring to the pale figure in the bed. He hadn't even been gone an hour, yet Aramis's condition had been rapidly declining since the night before. The sickness that had begun like any other had spread to his lungs. In the stillness of the room, Athos could hear the wheeze issuing past bloodless lips as every fought-for breath eked out.
Porthos shook his head, staunch denial and impending defeat warring within the depths of pained eyes.
Athos moved to the side of the bed and began to unpack his parcel on the small nightstand.
"What is that?" Porthos asked.
"Something I hope will help," he replied, setting out the bottles and removing the stoppers.
Porthos wrinkled his nose. "Oi, that's strong. Wait, you went out an' got perfumes?"
"Oils. Specific ones with healing properties. Undo his shirt."
Porthos gave him a dubious look, but nevertheless reached to loosen the laces on the front of Aramis's shirt, pulling the fabric down to expose his chest. "How's that, anyway?"
Athos picked up the glass dropper the merchant had included with the bottles and dipped it into the cinnamon first. The aroma was pungent, hot even. He held them over Aramis's chest and let a bead slide off the dropper onto his skin.
"I met an apothecary a couple of years ago who was versed in oils, had been studying ancient applications of them. He said new medical discoveries were all well and good, but just because something comes from the past doesn't make it irrelevant. I had nothing to do at the time than to lend an ear, though I confess it was more out of polite boredom than anything. I've never been so grateful I still remember it."
He picked up the bottle of thyme and let a drop fall next to the first, then repeated the process with each subsequent oil.
"Cinnamon helps fights infection," Athos went on. He laid a hand on Aramis's chest and began to rub the oils in. "Clove and thyme treat the lungs. Lavender covers a great many ailments, and frankincense increases the potency of any oil it's mixed with."
"Frankincense? That stuff's worth its weight in gold. Athos…" Porthos lowered his voice. "Where'd ya get all that?"
Athos arched a wry brow at him. "I didn't steal it."
Porthos huffed. "Wouldn't turn ya in if ya had."
Athos's lips twitched. "I dipped into my inheritance." While he'd never divulged his true identity to anyone in the Musketeers, he couldn't hide that he'd come from noble birth. It was in his manner and speech and to deny it would be pointless.
Porthos shifted in his chair as he watched Athos gingerly and methodically massage the oils into Aramis's chest. "Thank you," he said quietly.
Athos paused to give him a look. "He is my brother too."
Porthos straightened and gave a clipped nod of solidarity.
"Boil some water," Athos said. "He can also breathe in the oils through the steam to get them into his lungs."
Porthos surged from his chair, eager to help.
Athos finished rubbing the oils in and reached a hand up to smooth back a lank curl from Aramis's forehead. He was still warm with fever, though not overly. It had already sapped his waning strength and left him sinking further into illness.
Athos moved his hand down to cup the side of his brother's neck, leaning close. "Keep fighting, Aramis," he whispered. "We are not done yet."
Porthos returned with a bowl of steaming water and Athos put a drop of each of the oils in it, then instructed Porthos to hold it under Aramis's face. The marksman's breaths were too shallow to fully inhale the steam, but Athos hoped even a little would be enough to turn the tide.
"So, uh," Porthos said. "How do we know if it's workin'?"
Athos wiped his hands on a spare cloth. The mixed scents of the oils were heady and not easily removed. "We'll repeat the treatment every few hours," he replied. That was why he'd bought the full bottles; he knew they were still in for a long battle.
Porthos nodded in acceptance and they fell silent, save for the occasional rattle from their friend.
Athos kept to a strict schedule—every four hours he'd open the bottles and rub the oils into Aramis's chest, followed by the steam treatment. The first few times yielded no visible results, but sometime in the middle of the night a prickle of unease brought his head up in alertness. The sounds he'd grown accustomed to hearing had changed.
He surged from his chair and went to Aramis's bed. Porthos was seated on the other side, head pillowed on his arms at the foot of the mattress. Athos leaned close, holding his breath in fear. But Aramis's chest was rising and falling and it took Athos a moment to realize that the new quietness didn't stem from the lack of breathing, but from a lack of strained wheezes.
He sank into the second chair and reached out to lay his hand upon his friend's chest, feeling the steady movement that no longer stuttered with each breath. At the touch, Aramis's eyes cracked open. Athos tensed, watching the dark irises still glassy with fever gaze blearily at him. Porthos made a snuffling sound, and Aramis's gaze drifted a fraction to look at him. Then he looked back to Athos and gave a sliver of a tired smile before sinking back into sleep.
Athos let relief finally wash over him. He inhaled deeply himself, the aroma of oils heavy in the air.
They'd been worth their weight in gold and so much more.
Chapter 17: Dangerous Night
Aramis and Anne, what a dangerous night to fall in love.
I heard this song and immediately thought of Aramis and Anne. It'd make a perfect fanvid, though I couldn't find one that's been done with it. So once again I have to settle for words.
All the dialogue is from episodes 1x9, 2x4, and 2x9; they're not mine.
"Dangerous Night" - Thirty Seconds to Mars
We burned and we bled, we try to forget
But the memories left are still haunting
The walls that we built from bottles and pills
We swallow until we're not talking
Aramis followed the nun down to a chamber filled with bottles and distillery equipment. An amused smile quirked his lips.
"You sell this?"
"Saving souls isn't cheap," the Sister replied.
He walked over to the apparatus on the center table. "My father had a still just like this," he reminisced, reaching up to rap the metal. "He made grape and honey brandy all the time." Looking at the spigot, he asked, "May I?"
"Mm-hm," she nodded in assent.
Aramis picked up a tin cup and filled it with some of the brandy. Raising it to his lips, he paused to inhale its aroma, eyes closing as memories of another life pervaded his mind. He took a hearty drink, closing his eyes to savor it, and then opened them in again in mystification. No, he couldn't be imagining it…
"It's exactly like my father's."
But how? What manner of trickery was this on his senses?
"Probably because I use his recipe," the nun spoke up.
Aramis turned toward her, blinking in confusion.
"You still don't recognize me, do you, Aramis?" she said almost sadly.
His entire body tensed. That's right; she'd used his name before he'd even introduced himself to the inhabitants of the convent. He hadn't thought anything of it because these were Sisters, but now with his father's brandy…
A thrill went up his spine. He drew closer carefully. She had her head tilted down and slightly away but did not move as he slowly reached a hand up toward the headpiece acting as a shield.
She looked at him then as he brushed the trailing flap over her shoulder so he could look her fully in the eyes. Recognition speared his heart and he found himself backing away as the shock threatened to unbalance him.
"Isabelle is gone. Now I am Sister Helene."
Aramis didn't know what to say. He could only stare and retreat further from this apparition from his past, one he had never thought to see again, and now here, of all places, after all this time…
Seeming unaffected, Isabelle began speaking of bottles and cloth. "It'll be gruesome, but effective."
He could scarcely catch his breath. She spoke so casually of preparations for war, while it felt as though one of those glass bottles had exploded inside his heart, splintering it into a thousand pieces.
Aramis shook his head. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm a nun. This is a convent," she replied cheekily.
"You know what I mean," he interrupted, moving closer out of a growing inability to keep still as the love of his life stood before him once again and refused to acknowledge their history…
"Aramis," a lilting voice intruded. "Athos needs you." The Queen drew to a stop, eyes wide as she took in the scene.
Aramis held a hand to his mouth, not trusting himself to speak, to breathe. For all he wanted Isabelle to say, words were failing him on his part.
He gave himself a small jerk and turned to the Queen. This was not a reunion to be had with an audience, and yet he could not bring himself to move, to let her slip away from him again.
"You should go," Isabelle prompted.
Aramis looked at her once more, trembling now with roiling emotion while she stood steadfast and calm, perhaps sympathetic to the maelstrom her revelation had evoked in him.
The Queen remained fixed as well, and so Aramis finally tore himself away and made for the stairs. This was not the time. They were under siege. He had to collect himself, find his center for the battle to come.
I…I am a man on fire
You…a violent desire
Aramis checked his musket for the dozenth time, ensuring the match cord was still burning, the hammer cocked, the weapon primed. The movements by rote kept his hands steady and thereby his mind.
The Queen entered the room. "Here." She carried a handful of powder packs and began to stuff them in the pouch on his belt.
"Thank you," he said sincerely.
While most nobles would be reduced to a whimpering puddle in some corner, Anne had done nothing but offer to help since this horrible turn of events started. Aramis marveled at her gentle heart and humility, and her fortitude under such harrowing circumstances.
"That nun," she said, eyes fixed on her task. "The one you were with downstairs."
Aramis's stomach sank at the reminder. This was not a conversation he should be having save for with the woman in question.
"I'm sorry," Anne went on. "My arrival was a disturbance."
"You did not disturb anything," he assured her, discontent to let her bear the guilt of awkwardness.
She finally looked up. "I may be cosseted, but I'm not a fool."
Aramis glanced at the ceiling, torn between brushing her off as was proper or opting for honesty.
"I knew her…once." And then, on an impulse driven by the desperate need to give voice to the tumultuous feelings inside, he added, "We were to marry."
Anne looked briefly surprised, but her expression smoothed swiftly. "And you changed your mind?"
Aramis inhaled audibly and turned to face her. "She fell pregnant," he divulged. "And the marriage was arranged. I was happy." The corner of his mouth quirked. "I was in love, and so was she. But then she lost the child and her father…took her away and put her in here." He paused somberly. "I never saw her again. Not until today."
And she'd had no words for him, nothing but wry quips and talk of brandy.
Anne didn't say anything, though her lips moved as though she wanted to, and there was a look in her eyes that bespoke more understanding than Isabelle had granted him in the distillery.
Athos came into the room. "I think they're about to—"
One of the window panes shattered in the wake of an echoed gunshot, and Aramis threw a protective arm around the Queen as she ducked.
Athos stood there, exasperated. "Attack," he finished.
Aramis ushered the Queen away from the window, keeping her head low.
Athos reached for her. "Come with me to the chapel."
Aramis returned to his post, bracing his musket and sighting down the barrel. A volley of gunshots echoed around him, but he took his time before pulling the trigger, his mark true, and the sniper fell from the trees. He hurried away from the window to reload.
"My parents always hoped I'd end up in a place like this," he shouted over the rabble.
"They wanted you to become a nun?" Athos shouted back incredulously.
He chuckled as he stuffed the musket ball down the barrel. "A priest!"
Athos went to take a shot. "Why didn't you?" he asked when he drew back again.
Aramis grinned and strode toward the window, pistol up. "'Cause I found I was better at dispatching people to Hell!"
What a dangerous night to fall in love
Don't know why we still hide what we've become
He sat bowed forward on the small bench, head in his hands. Death followed him everywhere. Not just the lives he took in battle, but the lives he failed to save. Those twenty soldiers in Savoy. Marsac. And now Isabelle.
But it went back even further than that, all the way back to the first death that weighed upon his soul—that of his unborn child.
Why was he always the one left behind? Why, when he would gladly give his life for those he loved?
"What are they building?" the Queen's voice called out from the room he was supposed to be guarding. It drew him from his morose thoughts and he tuned back into the incessant hammering below.
"A battering ram perhaps," he replied wearily. "Or a ladder."
He knew he should be more concerned. Their deaths were on the horizon, and yet a small part of Aramis thought, yes, it's about time. Ever since Savoy there had been that lingering question of why had he survived when all his other brothers had perished? Why had Isabelle, who'd lived peacefully in seclusion all these years, been cut down the day Aramis once again darkened her doorstep?
But though his current disposition was on the dour side, he also knew that he must, and would, fight to his last to protect the Queen. And though he shouldn't, he ached for that battle to begin now, to not leave him waiting. For in waiting all he had was his guilt and grief.
He ran his hands through his hair again, pressing against his head as though he could release the compression in his chest. He heard the soft foot falls whispering across the stone floor.
"A few years after I married, I too fell pregnant," Anne said.
Aramis looked over sharply to where she was leaning against the archway.
"It was perfect," she went on, voice laden with thick emotion, eyes glistening in the amber candle light. "I could feel my child inside me…moving and kicking." She smiled even as her eyes held tremendous loss. Gaze drifting to the side, her tone took on solemn reminiscence. "I had his whole life planned out. What he would do and…be like. And then…I lost the baby."
Aramis straightened, caught by her words and the story that resonated with the pain in his heart.
"Six years," she said, moving forward. "And I've never forgotten that child, not for a single day. I am certain that Sister Helene never forgot you."
His throat constricted, and he looked away.
"Or your baby."
That lump in his airway tightened and hot moisture pricked at his eyes. He tried to swallow them both back. "All these years I believed Isabelle was the only woman who could make me happy." He paused, heart cracking as the truth became clear to him. "But she was right. It was a lie."
"You're grieving," Anne responded, stepping closer.
"She knew me better than I know myself," he pressed on. His love of adventure, of danger, was a poison that seeped into those around him, long before he'd ever taken up the sword. He saw that now.
"No, Aramis," Anne said earnestly, coming to kneel before him. "You are brave and honorable."
He looked away, unable to meet her eyes.
"And kind," she said, reaching out to grasp his shirt sleeve. Her touch infused warmth where he felt cold before.
He could feel her gaze upon him, could feel the sincerity of her words. Her soft breaths were like a whisper on the air.
"Any woman would be fortunate to be loved by you."
He slowly shifted his gaze back to hers, but found he could not hold it. Nor could she. The moment was suddenly poised on the cusp of something greater, deeper. Anne's fingers flexed and coiled at his arm. The air seemed too close all of a sudden, like gravity had intensified and was pulling them toward each other.
Do you wanna cross the line?
We're runnin' out of time
A dangerous night to fall in love
Aramis let himself slip into it, falling forward until her mouth moved up to meet his. Their hands roved over each other—shoulders, hair, cheeks. Touching, testing, seeking solace in the only other person within these walls who could understand one another's pain.
They broke apart, the headiness paused for a breath's sake. Aramis didn't move. Should the Queen come to her senses, he would allow her to collect herself and never speak of it again.
But with unwavering eyes, she trailed her hands down his chest and took the musket from his lap. He rose then, their gazes locked as assuredly as this tidal force they found themselves spiraling in.
Aramis pressed his mouth to hers, hands reaching up to cup her head. She returned the embrace with equal ardor as they moved fluidly toward the bedchamber. There was no thought of death or dying, only the comforting union of two bodies finding their own light before the breaking of a red dawn.
Started a stranger, a lover in danger
The edge of a knife
The face of an angel, the heart of a ghost
Was it a dream?
The next morning he found it hard to regret his actions, though he most assuredly regretted Athos walking in on them. It was treason, Aramis knew this. However, given their odds of survival weren't looking very good, he could very well take the secret to his grave. And he would protect Anne until his dying breath.
It was just a night, a moment of weakness, of loneliness, and yet that connection they'd wantonly sealed had left Aramis's heart feeling full of something he'd thought lost to him forever. Isabelle wasn't even buried and he'd found love again. It seemed a betrayal almost, save that he knew Isabelle would not begrudge him this. She had chosen the life she wanted, and it had not included him. He had chosen the sword, and it had led him here.
It was easy to indulge these feelings, to smile at the memory of Anne's angelic face, the softness of her melting against him, when there was still a good chance they could die. But then reinforcements arrived and they prevailed, returning the Queen to Paris and the arms of her husband, the King of France.
The fantasy was over. For that was all it could be.
And then came the announcement. The Queen was with child. Aramis felt himself go rigid at the news. The timing…the struggles the Queen had faced trying to become pregnant these past several years… It couldn't be, and yet one look from her and Aramis knew.
I…I am a man on fire
You…a violent desire
He should have cut off his feelings right then, but he had always been a man ruled by passion and his heart so often overruled his better judgement. One chance encounter in the hallway and Aramis had laid eyes on the child—his child. One he could never claim and yet the bond between them was instantaneous, seeded ten months ago at conception.
Aramis's heart and soul was bound to them both, and he could no more deny them than he could deny the breath in his body.
He knew the danger, knew he should heed Athos's warnings. But since when did he ever not bravely face danger head on? For King and country, for honor and duty. For love.
And wasn't that the most treacherous road of all.
What a dangerous night to fall in love
Don't know why we still hide what we've become
Aramis dished up a bowl of soup and carried it over to Anne where she and Constance were "guests" in Emilie's tent. The shock of their arrival had nearly done him in, and it'd taken immeasurable restraint to skirt the line between playing the role of deserter and protecting them against the sought-for violence against the Spanish Queen.
"Here," he said roughly before lowering his voice to a whisper. "With the respect, Your Majesty, are you completely out of your mind?"
"I thought I could help," she replied dismally. "That she might listen to reason."
Constance flapped the blankets on the bed, nervous gaze darting from them to their hosts, or more accurately, captors.
"Faith has little to do with reason," Aramis said. "If Emilie foresees your death tonight, God knows how I'm going to get you out of here." He raised his voice again. "You should try the broth. It's good."
"Take mine," Emilie called from where her mother was helping her remove her coat of chainmail. "I'm not hungry."
"Thank you," Aramis said with a deferential nod. He picked up the bowl and handed it to Constance, whispering once more, "If you need me, I'll be close by."
If he could have stayed in the tent without arousing suspicion, he would have. But despite that risk, the pull was too great, and Aramis knew he could not let himself go there. The more he was around Anne, the greater the draw, as powerful a force as gravity. She felt it too; he could see it in the way her eyes always found his. They were two wayward bodies inescapably pulled into each other's orbits.
Do you wanna cross the line?
We're runnin' out of time
A dangerous night to fall in love
The next morning when Emilie granted the Queen's release, Aramis stopped Anne on her way out of the tent.
"Don't ever do that again."
They had been lucky, no, saved by the grace of God.
"I will always serve my country," Anne replied. "But perhaps this time it was unwise."
Aramis nodded. "Foolish is the better word."
"You are talking to your Queen, Aramis," she said with a teasing grin, settling a hand upon his chest.
Her touch burned through the leather of his coat, setting his heart afire. It pained him to look away.
"We promised each other," he said breathlessly.
Anne slid her hands down to his hips. She was so close he could breathe in her scent of rose and jasmine. "A Queen is allowed to break her promises."
She leaned in to cover his mouth with hers and he let her, his arms coming up around her waist. For just a moment, they were in a dream world again, removed from the reality of court and France.
But the danger was ever present, and the soft rustle of the tent flap had them drawing apart. Constance stood there, slack-jawed, before quickly turning away.
Aramis sighed as Anne hurried after her. The circle of those who knew this secret was expanding, and while he trusted Constance to be discreet, it was just another life put at risk because of his actions. He had started something he could not stop, and a small part of him began to wonder when the hourglass would finally run out on him.
I…I am a man on fire
You…a violent desire
"I never meant to keep any secrets from you," Aramis said on the landing, watching Porthos's tense body language carefully. "But you must understand why I had to."
His friend looked taut with anger, but after a moment Porthos lifted his head and sighed. "Do you love 'er?"
Aramis gave a rueful half smile. "If she were an ordinary woman…it might be possible. But she isn't," he quickly added, eyes downcast.
"You have a child," Porthos nearly whispered, and there was pain and shared remorse in the weight of his tone. Aramis truly wished he hadn't needed to keep this secret, knowing Porthos would have been a solid anchor at his side, sharing this joy and sorrow with him.
But it could not have been. None of it could be.
Aramis let out a despondent breath and shook his head. "I should have just walked away, but…" He looked back at Porthos, hoping his friend would continue to understand. "I've never met a woman like her. Her courage, her endurance, her kindness." Even now, those qualities shone with a radiance in his heart. "And she needed me."
And, perhaps, he needed her. After Isabelle, after all the losses he'd faced. Brotherhood sustained him thus far but Anne filled a void he'd carried for far longer.
Porthos's eyes took on a hardened firmness. "If you really do love 'er, there's one thing you can do to prove it." He paused, as though knowing the weight of what he was about to say would strike as true as any mortal musket wound. "Deny it ever happened."
And it hit its mark. Aramis stiffened at his friend's demand, his chest hitching at the words that followed, an echo of Athos's previous warnings.
"That boy is the King's son, Aramis. That can't change…no matter what."
No matter what. He knew that, he did. But how did he quench the passion inside him? The love that burned so fiercely?
He should have walked away.
But it was too late for that now.
A dangerous night to fall in love
A dangerous night to fall in love
Aramis lingered as the others took their leave of the Queen after settling her into the safety of the convent. He no longer had to keep the reason why a secret, which gave him both a measure of freedom and restraint. And so he held the distance between him and Anne like a chasm.
"In time I must return to confront my enemies," she spoke up.
Yes, that was their plan, once they had a weapon they could use to discredit Rochefort once and for all.
"But you can escape, Aramis," she added more softly. "Live a different life. Far away from danger."
"I've never fled from danger in my life," he replied.
Anne's expression pinched with distress and she took a step forward into that chasm. "Won't you save yourself for my sake? For the sake of my son?"
Her voice quavered, and Aramis could only gaze back solemnly.
Anne dropped her gaze. "Our son," she amended, unable to look him in the eye.
And then that chasm was not so impossible to cross, not when her heart was clearly breaking and all Aramis wanted to do was comfort her.
He closed the distance between them. "How could I live with myself if I abandoned my duty?" His own heart fractured with the palpable force held taut between their tethered souls that could never be acknowledged. "My only concern is for your safety."
And that could be his only concern. Not her heart. Not her comfort. And certainly not his.
"I swear I will not allow anything to happen to you…" He took in a shaky breath. "Because of me."
He turned and started to walk away.
"Aramis," Anne called.
He paused in the doorway to look back.
Anne shifted, eyes pained and fixed away. "Whatever happens…" Her voice cracked, but then she lifted her gaze with soft resoluteness. "I will never regret what happened here."
Aramis hesitated. The words were a balm and a burn, for neither could he.
No matter where this danger led them next.
Do you wanna cross the line?
We're runnin' out of time
A dangerous night to fall in love
A dangerous night to fall in love
A dangerous night to fall in love
It had all come out. Their forbidden love. That one night of passion. The dauphin's true parentage. Aramis had played the gamble in an effort to keep everything he loved close and had lost it all in the process.
But then some miracle painted the truth as lies from a Spanish spy. Rochefort met his fitting end, and all the damage was wiped away. The Queen saved and restored in the eyes of her husband. Aramis, proven innocent of a crime he was, in fact, guilty of. Everything went back to normal.
Except it couldn't. The weight of what had almost come to pass rested squarely on Aramis's shoulders, and he could not chance it happening again. Time would inevitably run out on him once more; perhaps it had been running out on him all along.
He'd made a vow to God should he be spared, yes, but more than that, he'd made a vow to his brothers. To love and protect. And this was the way to uphold that. He'd been selfish before, and it had nearly cost the lives of everyone he held dear. He could not put them at risk again. He could not put Anne and their son at risk again.
He'd told her he would never run from danger, but Aramis saw the truth now—he was the dangerous one. He'd said to Athos once, in the heat of battle, that he forsook the priesthood because he was better at dispatching people to Hell. He was not wrong, but he refused to be the one to dispatch his brothers in kind.
And so for love, he had to leave. For all of them.
Chapter 18: Rescue Me
The devastation of Savoy is far-reaching.
Another song that instantly started bringing to mind images for The Musketeers.
Also, if I had known just how much I would end up writing for this fandom so quickly, I might have posted some of these longer chapters as separate one shots. But since we're already here…onwards.
"Rescue Me" - Thirty Seconds to Mars
Whatever you do, don't ever play my game
Too many years being the king of pain
Ya gotta lose it all if you wanna take control
Sell yourself to save your soul
Treville stands in confusion before the King as he is ordered to divulge the Musketeer training assignment, including its exact location, to the Duke of Savoy. He can't make sense of the decision. The group of musketeers are near the border but are not making an incursion. They will only be there for a week, and when they are done with the training exercise, they will return as though they had never been there. And the location is remote, little chance they will disturb anyone. If this is merely out of courtesy, the Cardinal is the last one to cater to the Duke of Savoy.
So what could possibly be the purpose in this?
Treville catches himself before he can voice his question. The order comes from the King and so he must obey. But there's a look in Richelieu's eyes and Treville is no stranger to the games the Cardinal plays. It pings in his gut with warning, but what can he do except bow to his King and take his leave?
He wrestles with the order late into the night, trying to divine what hidden angles might be behind it. The Cardinal may be quick to find any method of disposing of the Musketeers he hates so much, but Louis values his royal guard, so it can't be anything as overt as that.
For all his battle strategics, Treville cannot see the game pieces on this particular board. So when morning comes, he sends the missive, though it continues to gnaw at him for days afterward.
And then the message arrives—the group of musketeers on the training assignment have been attacked and killed. It can't be coincidence, not with the unusual order to disclose the troop's location, and Treville can't breathe as his complicity sinks in. He needs to see the King, needs to demand answers. How could Louis sacrifice his own loyal men? It doesn't make sense. And if the Cardinal is behind this atrocious act, then Treville will be there to see that justice is done.
He steps out of his office, only to be cornered by Porthos.
"Is it true?" the larger musketeer demands.
Treville pulls up short and then closes his eyes at the thought of Aramis, one of the first he'd recruited when the regiment was formed. The extent of loss is devastating. "Yes, it's true."
Porthos reels back against the railing and runs a hand down his beard. Behind him, Athos is standing at the top of the stairs, and the laconic man drops his gaze to the wooden planks.
"Ride to Savoy," Treville says before considering protocol. There is but one thought on his mind. "Retrieve the bodies and…bring them home."
Leaving them to it, he goes straight to the palace. He's not denied an audience with the King, and his heart burns with hatred at the sight of Richelieu in attendance as well. It seems as though word has already reached them, and Louis at least looks grieved. Treville knows better than to speak out of turn to His Majesty, so he skewers Richelieu with a scathing glare instead.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demands. "I sent word to the Duke of Savoy of the training assignment, as ordered, and now more than half of my men have been slaughtered in their sleep. Care to explain that coincidence?"
Richelieu holds himself unapologetically as always. "It was a tactical decision."
"Murdering twenty-two good soldiers is not a tactical decision!" Treville explodes.
"Treville, I know you're upset," Louis interjects, holding up a staying hand. "It was…regrettable, but necessary."
Treville just looks at him in astonishment.
"It was done to protect France's most valuable spy in Savoy," Richelieu continues. "The Duchess."
Treville blinks. "The Duchess?" he repeats. The Duchess is spying for France?
"We've discovered that Victor's chancellor, Cluzet, is a Spanish spy and was close to discovering the Duchess," Richelieu explains. "We could not risk her exposure. So we allowed the Duke to believe the training assignment were assassins coming for him. It provided the necessary distraction for us to go in and extract Cluzet."
Treville could only stare in slack-jawed stupor. Twenty-two men sacrificed as…a distraction. And him the instrument of their demise. For the security of France, yes, and Treville is not unaccustomed to losing lives in the line of duty.
This, however, has never felt so dishonorable and heinous in that regard.
Rescue me from the demons in my mind
Rescue me from the lovers in my life
Rescue me from the demons in my mind
Rescue me, rescue me, rescue me
Athos and Porthos ride into the village from which the message of the massacre was sent. A huntsman had stumbled upon the scene and reported it, the one bit of fortune in this massive tragedy, for without him the bodies would have lain in the forest for days before they were overdue and a search party sent out. The nearest village had gathered the bodies to wait for the musketeers to come claim them.
Athos keeps a watchful eye on Porthos, aware of how difficult this is for him. He and Aramis were close. Athos had only recently begun to engage in their company, and so he also feels the loss of the exuberant young man. But Porthos has few friends in the garrison, and Aramis is—was—one of those few who looked past his darker skin and upbringing in the slums.
They go straight to the undertaker, who takes them into a barn where the bodies are being kept, the sheer number more than this small town can handle at once. Athos roves his gaze over the covered lumps piled on top of each other and feels sickened. Porthos is shaking with rage or grief or both, his fingers flexing as though he wants to tear into the sheets and find the one face he doesn't want to see.
"We need to procure a cart," Athos says into the silence.
"What about the survivor?" the undertaker asks.
Athos exchanges a confused look with Porthos. "What survivor?"
"There was jus' the one. Didn' know it when the bodies were first found, an' he was mistaken for dead when we were gatherin' 'em up. Looked as though they'd all been out there a day or two in the snow."
"Who was it?" Porthos demands, though there is no way for the undertaker to know the identities of any of these men.
"Where is he?" Athos asks instead.
"At the doc's house."
"Take us there."
They stride through the street, each step increasing in fervency. There is little chance of it, one in twenty-two odds, and yet Athos's heart begins to hammer in his chest. He can see the unbridled hope in Porthos's eyes and knows that if it's crushed, it will be doubly worse than if he'd uncovered Aramis's face back among the corpses.
But then they are entering a house and Athos feels the breath leave his lungs at the sight of the figure in a small bed. A bandage is wrapped around Aramis's head and he's tucked under a mound of blankets.
Porthos immediately goes to his side and reaches under the blanket to take Aramis's hand, clasping it between both of his and bowing his head as silent sobs of relief shake his frame.
Athos barely hears the undertaker introducing them to the doctor whose home they've just invaded. "What is his condition?" he asks.
"I stitched up a stab wound in his side and a gash on his head. But the cold had nearly taken him and I'm afraid that the head injury has caused too much damage."
"What do you mean?"
The answer is interrupted by Porthos speaking up urgently. "Aramis?"
Athos strides over and sees Aramis's eyes are open, but there is a vacant glaze in them, as though he's looking right through Porthos.
"This is what I mean," the doctor says, coming to stand at the foot of the bed. "The heart may still beat but I fear the soul has left his body."
"You don' know what yer talkin' about," Porthos growls, and Athos puts a hand on his shoulder to temper him. The doctor has saved Aramis's life and deserves gratitude, not hostility.
Porthos clutches the marksman's hand tighter and leans close. "Aramis? Can you 'ear me? Squeeze my hand if you can 'ear me."
Athos can't see any movement, but the way Porthos's jaw ticks reveals that nothing has happened. His heart constricts at the injustice of it all, to find Aramis alive, beyond all hope and what was reported, and yet for him to still be lost to them. He lays a hand on top of Aramis's head. The branch of friendship this man and Porthos had extended to Athos was unlooked for and yet he took to it without much difficulty. For half of it to be ripped away like this…he cannot stand the thought, finds it too close to the memories of other loved ones torn away from him.
Aramis's eyes fall closed but then open again. His gaze focuses, tracking up to meet theirs.
Porthos stiffens. "Aramis?" he calls hopefully, desperately.
Aramis is looking at them, but there is such depths of raw emotion that Athos can feel it transcend the space between them.
"We are here, Aramis," he says, his hand lingering on his friend's brow.
Tears well up, and Aramis closes his eyes again.
Porthos clings to the pale hand. "We've got you. Everythin's gonna be okay."
While Athos knows the words are a vital offer of comfort to both of them, he is not so sure of their validity. To have watched his friends be murdered, to have been lying among the dead for at least a day, succumbing to the cold and his own wounds…there will be scars deeper than the physical ones, and Athos can only hope that the God Aramis is so devoted to will spare his soul and mind along with his life.
Whatever you do, don't ever lose your faith
The devil's quick to love, lust, and pain
Better to say yes than never know,
Sell yourself to save your soul
The news of Aramis's survival is like a punch to the kidney, shocking in its miraculousness and devastating in its reality. Tasked with seeing to the other bodies and the subsequent discovery of Marsac's disappearance, Treville has little time to spare for Aramis personally. He is in good hands with Porthos and Athos though, and they give Treville daily reports of Aramis's condition. Which are not encouraging.
The lethargy and fleeting lucidity for the first few days could be attributed to the head injury, but the wounds have begun to mend and Aramis remains withdrawn. According to his keepers, he barely speaks or eats, and his sleep is plagued with nightmares. Treville feels the guilt like a vise against his rib cage.
"Has the musketeer survivor recovered enough to be questioned?" Richelieu inquires one day, having summoned Treville to his office.
Treville's ire sparks, and only the desk standing between them prevents him from grabbing the man's robes and slamming him against the bookcase. Man of God, his arse; the Cardinal is more akin to the Devil himself.
"He will not be questioned," he answers firmly.
Richelieu glares at him. "All of our hard work could be undone if the musketeer can identify any of the assailants. The story of the Spanish raiding party must hold true."
"He knows nothing!" Treville hisses, slamming his palms on the desk. "And it's going to stay that way. Question him and you will arouse suspicions."
He will not let Richelieu near Aramis, and the Cardinal must see that in his eyes, for he backs off.
Treville straightens. "Tell the Duke of Savoy there were no survivors."
Richelieu scoffs. "Everyone is already aware there was one."
His heart clenches as he says, "The survivor was a deserter. His name is now held in contempt. The name of the musketeer who returned will be stricken from the records."
Richelieu squints at him. "That will put an extra bounty on the deserter's head."
"There already is one." And that, Treville cannot change. But he can protect the last man he has left standing.
The Cardinal's mouth quirks upward. "It seems you can be just as manipulative as me when you set your mind to it."
Treville pivots sharply and storms toward the door. "I am nothing like you."
He finally goes to see his wounded man. Porthos and Athos are in the yard taking a quick supper while they can, and Treville slips into Aramis's room.
He finds Aramis half sprawled on the floor by his bed, head bowed over the mattress. At first Treville thinks the man must have fallen, but then the broken words whispered softly in the near darkness reach his ears.
"Why, Lord? We were soldiers, would have gladly given our lives in service to king and country. Why this senseless loss of life?"
It wasn't senseless, and it was in service of king and country, but Treville can't tell him that.
Aramis presses his clasped hands to his forehead. "Why have you forsaken me?"
Treville had thought to give him privacy but at this he cannot keep his silence. "God has not forsaken you, Aramis."
The marksman flinches slightly and looks up, eyes shining but face dry. "Twenty dead musketeers says otherwise."
Treville has no answer to that. It was not God's hand in this tragedy, but his own.
"Trust your faith, Aramis. God has not abandoned you."
He drops his gaze. "Marsac did."
And Treville cannot blame that other young soldier for his dishonorable desertion, for Treville's actions were the worse betrayal. But Marsac will be remembered as a coward and a traitor and Treville shares his secret with two people who had no qualms with it in the first place.
"But the rest of us did not. Trust us, your fellow musketeers."
"My fellow musketeers are dead," Aramis says in a voice as hollow as his eyes.
From what he's heard, Treville gathers this is the most the wounded man has spoken in over a week.
"Not all of us." And Treville knows he has no right to count himself among them, but he presses on, "Porthos and Athos have hardly left your side since they found you alive."
"Alive? Is that what I am?" Aramis's mouth twists bitterly. "No, Captain, I am but a shade. I should have died with my brothers."
Treville reaches down to grasp his shirt firmly, only remembering his injuries at the last second. "Do not say that, Aramis. Would you deliver such a mortal blow to Porthos with those words?"
Aramis pushes weakly at him, and his lack of strength is apparent as he just ends up slumping against the edge of the bed. "I can't stop seeing them," he says, voice breaking. "Please, Captain, just make it so I stop seeing them."
Treville sinks to his knees and Aramis folds forward against him. Tremors wrack his frame though he makes no sound, and Treville pulls him closer. His heart shatters at the ruinous ramifications of what's he done. He wants to leave, to hide, but he won't. Because Aramis's recovery is now his only means of salvation. He'd done his duty, which he will not disavow, but his soul will carry the burden of it for the rest of his days, just as Aramis's will.
Rescue me from the demons in my mind
Rescue me from the lovers in my life
Rescue me from the demons in my mind
Rescue me, rescue me, rescue me
Porthos sits in the dark, back against the wall, and listens. He's become attuned now, ear as sharp as a hunting dog's. So when the muffled sounds of distress come through the wall, Porthos gets up and leaves his room to slip into the one next door.
He goes to the table first and lights a candle, then moves to the bed where Aramis is tossing back and forth and mumbling pleas under harried breaths. Porthos removes his boots and climbs onto the bed, scooting up against the wall and then taking Aramis and pulling him up against his chest in the gentlest embrace he can manage.
"I'm right 'ere, brother," he murmurs in Aramis's ear. "Yer not alone."
Aramis lets out a half strangled sob as he comes awake, his thrashing ceasing. But his body continues to shudder and Porthos holds more firmly until the breathing eases. Aramis turns his head to press his face into Porthos's shoulder.
Neither of them speak. It isn't about words anyway. It's about heartbeats and warmth and waking up to the living instead of the dead.
Porthos and Athos take turns doing this, waiting up outside Aramis's room for when the night terrors come. But despite their vigilance, those demons seem to follow him even into his waking hours, and Porthos, who is used to throwing a fist at anything he determines a threat, is at a loss on how to battle them. Once again, Aramis is left alone to fight a faceless enemy, and it tears Porthos up inside.
The physical wounds heal and Aramis returns to light duty. Porthos and Athos try to coax him into training but he refuses, preferring to sit in the armory cleaning and polishing weapons. They're tasks he can do without focus, giving his mind space to wander as it has been wont to do ever since his return.
Porthos remembers the village doctor's words about the head injury and they make him growl in frustration. Aramis's soul isn't lost; it's in there somewhere. If only Porthos knew how to find it. But Aramis hasn't exactly been an active participant in the recovery.
It is not as though he has tried to push them away, but nor has he held fast to them, save in the tormented throes in the dark of night when the nightmares come. Otherwise he hardly makes an effort. He's a shell of the vigorous and jaunty man he used to be and it pains Porthos. He misses his friend.
"I don' know how to help 'im," he confesses to Athos one night at the tavern as they watch Aramis across the room flirt with the barmaid.
He's been doing that a lot lately—flirting with anything in a skirt. But it's different now; there's a hunger in his eyes and none of his rakish qualities that make Aramis's pursuit of women one born of admiration and infatuation.
"Neither does he," Athos replies quietly.
Aramis kisses the barmaid for several long, impassioned beats, and when it looks as though those two might forget they're not in a private room, Porthos gets up and goes over to pry them off each other. Aramis, surprisingly, doesn't even protest, though the woman does with a squeak. Porthos tells her that's enough service for tonight and reaches down to pull Aramis to his feet. The marksman still doesn't say anything and allows himself to be escorted back to the garrison.
Porthos waits for the expected nightmare, but the sounds don't come. He wonders if they've finally reached a turning point from which things can only improve, and he lays down to catch a few hours of sleep with that hopeful thought on his mind.
The next morning, however, when he and Athos go to retrieve Aramis for breakfast, they pull up short in his room and stare dumbfounded. Aramis must have taken a set of shears to his hair in the night, cutting off a good chunk of it. The discarded locks lay on the floor around the chair.
"What in the blazes is that about?" Porthos blurts.
Aramis merely shrugs and puts on his hat. "I needed a change."
"It is a…new look," Athos says mildly, though his gaze is as scrutinizing as ever. "Interesting approach, doing it yourself."
There's a prompt there, but Aramis doesn't take the bait.
He gets several double takes down in the yard and the captain is the one who stares the longest. Porthos and Athos take him to a barber after that to clean it up. Again, Aramis doesn't argue, as though he wouldn't have cared either way. To Porthos, that's even worse. Aramis is not so much vain as he is proud of his looks, and to hold his appearance in such callous disregard frightens Porthos.
He can't help but feel as though his friend is crying out for help. But he doesn't know how to save him. Aramis is drowning right in front of him.
And by association, so is Porthos.
Sell yourself to save your soul, you gotta, ooh
Sell yourself to save your soul, you gotta, ooh
Sell yourself to save your soul, you gotta, ooh
Sell yourself to save your soul
Treville stands on the balcony and watches his three best men in the yard as they train. It's been two months and Aramis is practically wasting away before their eyes. Not in body or skill; his strength has recovered and he spars with an intensity bordering on cold ferocity. But his spirit is deadened.
Treville sees it clearly, knows Athos and Porthos do too, given the careful way they move in and around the marksman, ever loyal but at a loss to do anything other than just be there. And keep him away from the new recruits.
Treville doesn't know how to help either. He is the source of this tragedy if not the author, and he can't see how to rewrite the ending. All he can do every night is pray for twenty dead souls and one lost one still wandering around in the darkness.
Rescue me from the demons in my mind
Rescue me from the lovers in my life
Rescue me from the demons in my mind
Rescue me, rescue me, rescue me
Aramis sits in his room and contemplates what his existence has become. He can't call it living, for he doesn't feel alive. He draws breath, he walks, he talks—when needed—but there is no joy, no love, no desire.
If it was just himself, perhaps he could find the wherewithal to press on, to at least throw himself into battle in the hopes of meeting an honorable end. But that is the rub—his presence among the musketeers is a perpetual reminder of what was lost. He is a grim reaper sent to haunt his brothers' every waking steps. He can't stand it.
The door creaks open and Athos and Porthos enter, coming to collect him as usual. Aramis doesn't acknowledge them, but he can feel the way they pause and take in the sight of him sitting in the chair, hands folded across his knees, staring fixedly at his pauldron on the table.
"Did it bite ya?" Porthos finally asks.
Aramis knows once upon a time—before Savoy—he would have laughed and jested in return. He doesn't have it in him anymore. He doesn't have anything inside him save a cold abyss. He'd tried filling it with female companionship but it hasn't worked. He dare not touch wine the way Athos does. There is nothing left for him. There is nothing left of him.
"Aramis…" Athos starts.
"I need to leave," he interrupts.
"You want ta get out of the garrison?" Porthos asks. "We can ask Treville to give us patrol duty in the market."
Aramis shakes his head, reaches up to clutch at his tousled hair, and digs his fingernails into his scalp, prickling an echo of pain from the scar that now sits beneath his dark curls. "No, I mean…I need to leave the Musketeers."
The words are surprisingly painful to speak aloud. This has been his home for the past few years and to leave would tear out part of his soul. But that's the problem there—his soul is already sundered.
"You can't mean that," Porthos exclaims.
"I can't stay here."
"Why not? This 'ere is your home. We're your friends. Don' that matter?"
Aramis shakes his head. Of course it matters, but…
"I cannot stand the whispers," he blurts. "The stares that nobody thinks I notice, but I do."
"Everyone is concerned about you," Athos responds.
"I do not want their pity," he snaps. "I do not want to see their grief mirroring my own. I am a walking grave marker, a reminder of everything we have lost! And I cannot live with that burden."
Athos swiftly crosses the room and kneels before him so they are eye to eye. "You are not a reminder of what was lost, Aramis. You are a reminder of what was saved."
"Not one person 'ere would rather you have died in that place," Porthos picks up. "We thought you all dead. To have jus' one of you back…don' make us lose you again."
Aramis drops his head. "I don't know how to do this," he confesses, voice breaking.
"I know," Athos says. "But you will not do it alone. Porthos and I are here, and we will not abandon you."
Hot moisture pricks at the corners of his eyes and a spiky lump settles in his throat. He knows if he leaves the demons will follow, only he won't have Athos and Porthos by his side to help stem the tide of the horrors that haunt him. He won't have them to pick him up when he falters, and he cannot do it on his own. They are his saviors, his brothers.
So Aramis closes his eyes and takes a steadying breath. He will trust and lean on them. For they have held him up this long.
Indeed, they had saved him, in more ways than one. They always would.
Chapter 19: Prisoners of Regret
Tag to 3x8, because one does not hang from the arms for over a day without repercussions. And old hurts have repercussions too.
D'Artagnan was up with the dawn. After the events of yesterday and Grimaud escaping yet again, he'd been hard pressed to find much sleep. He headed down to the courtyard in search of breakfast. To his surprise, Porthos was already sitting at the table with a bowl of porridge. The larger man's sullen body language suggested he was stewing, and d'Artagnan had a good guess as to what it was over. His eyes automatically glanced up toward Aramis's room, still dark in the gray light of morning.
He suppressed a sigh and went to get his own breakfast from the kitchen. He was glad to have Aramis back, but things were…different. It was only natural. Four years was a long time. They'd all changed. Perhaps it was naive of him to wish for them to simply go back to how they were, before the war. Or, really, before Aramis and the Queen, because that had been the catalyst that had eventually led to the sundering of their brotherhood.
But despite the tensions they all fumbled to navigate between them, d'Artagnan still considered Aramis his brother, and so he would act like it. When he'd finished his porridge and the rest of the garrison had begun to emerge but Aramis hadn't, d'Artagnan decided to seek him out. After all, yesterday had been rough on him too.
He headed up to the marksman's room and rapped on the door. He thought he heard a muffled sound from within, but that was all. After a moment, he knocked a little harder. "Aramis? It's d'Artagnan."
That was clearer though still softer than he would have expected. He cracked the door open and poked his head inside. To his surprise, Aramis wasn't up but still lying in bed. "Aramis?"
"D'Artagnan," an exhausted voice replied. "You're a welcome sight."
He quirked a brow. "Are you drunk?"
Aramis let out what might have been a stifled laugh. "If only. I'm afraid I have a problem."
D'Artagnan came the rest of the way into the room, frowning when Aramis made no attempt to get up. His gut pinged. "What's wrong with you? Are you ill?"
Aramis sighed. "I can't move."
D'Artagnan's brows shot upward and he surged toward the edge of the bed. "What?" He roved his gaze over his friend's supine form, noting the creased lines of pain in his face and the way his breathing was restricted to shallow intakes.
Aramis made a frustrated sound that morphed into a pained grunt. His hand twitched but barely shifted from where it lay limply on the coverlet. "Muscles…seized." He squeezed his eyes shut and took several sharp breaths through his nose.
D'Artagnan gaped at him in bewilderment. "What?" he repeated dumbly. "How did that happen?"
"Grimaud had me…strung up on a beam. Hung for over a day. I thought rest would be enough, but I woke up and couldn't feel my hands, and my shoulders and back are…well, as I said, I can't move." His chest hitched and he choked on another sound of pain.
D'Artagnan mentally reeled back. He'd gotten a glimpse of Aramis through the window of the ruins when Athos had spotted him, but it'd never occurred to him his friend would have been held in that position the entire time he was Grimaud's captive.
But why not? The man was a cruel sadist. D'Artagnan silently chastised himself for not thinking to check Aramis over more carefully yesterday. He'd seemed fine when they'd rescued him, certainly better in comparison to their own previous encounters with the madman. And then there'd been that urgent dash to get to the Queen and what happened to Sylvie…but that was no excuse.
"Okay, let me see," d'Artagnan said, reaching for the collar of Aramis's shirt to tug it down. Even that small nudging elicited a grunt, and he froze at the purplish swelling he found. He quickly shifted to run careful fingers over Aramis's shoulder and under his neck, feeling much of the same. And heat. Every touch made the marksman wince. If his entire back looked like this… "My god, Aramis."
He snorted. "God had nothing to do with it."
"I'll send for a physician." D'Artagnan hesitated. "Will you be all right for a few minutes?"
"I'm not going anywhere," he replied dryly.
D'Artagnan swallowed and tore himself away from his injured friend. The yard was bustling with activity now, and he called down to the nearest cadet to order him to fetch a doctor. That got Porthos on his feet in an instant from where he'd still been sitting at the table.
"Is it Sylvie?" he asked.
D'Artagnan shook his head. "Aramis. His treatment at Grimaud's hands was more severe than we realized."
Porthos stormed up the steps. "Fool. Keepin' more secrets, is 'e?"
D'Artagnan blinked, utterly taken aback by the unexpected vitriol. "He didn't keep it a secret. And we didn't ask." He crossed his arms, blocking the path to Aramis's room. "He's in pain, so if you can't keep your anger in check, I'd just as soon you stay away. I'll see he's taken care of."
For a moment, Porthos looked suspended between shock and the urge to barrel right through him. But he tightened his jaw and lowered his voice. "How bad is it?"
"He said he can't feel his hands, and he can't move."
Portho's eyes widened in alarm. "Does Athos know?"
"I'll tell him. And, Porthos…he woke up like this. If I hadn't gone to check on him…" He shook his head at the thought that they all could have gone about their morning none the wiser. It didn't bear dwelling on. "He wasn't hiding it."
D'Artagnan waited for a stilted nod of acknowledgement before stepping aside and letting him pass. He dearly hoped Porthos's worry would override his anger right now.
D'Artagnan crossed the balcony to the captain's office and rapped softly on the door in deference to Sylvie resting within. It was a few moments before it finally opened and Athos poked his head out.
"You can handle morning muster," the captain said in a low voice.
D'Artagnan straightened. "How's Sylvie?" he asked worriedly.
"Fine." Athos immediately sighed at his clipped response. "Her wounds are no worse. I just…I can't right now. I trust you to oversee things." He paused. "Just don't send Aramis on anything related to palace duty."
D'Artagnan grimaced. So Athos was still angry like Porthos. D'Artagnan didn't blame them, but he also didn't blame Aramis for following the Queen's orders, for seeking an end to this appalling war. "Um, actually, I was coming to inform you that Aramis can't report for duty today."
Athos visibly stiffened. "Has the Queen required his presence?"
"No. He's injured from yesterday. I found him in his room this morning. He can't move." Saying it repeatedly was not making it any easier.
The door widened abruptly. "What are you talking about?"
"I'll take care of it," d'Artagnan rushed to assure his captain. "And I'll get the duties assigned. I just wanted to keep you informed."
Athos stepped out and closed the door behind him. "Then inform me as to what exactly is wrong with Aramis."
D'Artagnan hesitated, unsure for a moment whether the truth would douse Athos's anger or if d'Artagnan needed to be prepared to protect the vulnerable marksman from more wrath, especially when Aramis wasn't in any condition to defend himself. But he quickly quashed such doubts. Despite the tensions that had lingered between them after Aramis's four-year absence and then his unexpected return, they were brothers. D'Artagnan believed that mattered more than anything else.
"The muscles in his shoulders and back have all spasmed. He said- he said Grimaud had him hanging from that beam the entire time."
Understanding dawned on Athos's face with a shade of horror. "Have you sent for a physician?"
"Yes." D'Artagnan half turned to walk beside Athos as his captain headed for Aramis's room.
There, they found Porthos inside and standing over their friend's bed, gaze no less thunderous than before. D'Artagnan flicked a concerned look at Aramis, hoping Porthos hadn't been reaming him out for this.
"No need to make this a spectacle," Aramis spoke up, voice tight with barely controlled pain.
"Why didn't you say anything yesterday?" Athos demanded.
"Yesterday I was mobile." His face scrunched up and he sucked in a breath. "It was just…bruises. Strained muscles. I didn't expect…this."
"The physician is on his way," d'Artagnan reassured him.
"Thank you," was the whispered response.
A tense silence settled among them. D'Artagnan didn't know what to do. He'd learned some battlefield medicine in regards to sword and musket wounds, but he was at a loss as to how to handle this.
"You all don't have to stand around waiting," Aramis said softly. "You have, ungh, more important places to be. Athos…"
"Sylvie is resting, and a friend came to see her last night. She's not alone."
"We're where we're supposed to be, Aramis," d'Artagnan added. "Although, I do have to go deal with morning muster. I'll be back as soon as I'm done."
He gave both Porthos and Athos pointed looks on his way out, making it clear he expected them to be civil while he was gone.
He made quick work of handing out duties by telling everyone they were to simply see to what they'd been assigned yesterday. There were several grumblings, and d'Artagnan barked out that if they had a problem, they could take it up with the captain. That effectively silenced any discontent, as word would have spread to all of them by now about what had happened to Sylvie. D'Artagnan wasn't sure about the rumors surrounding Aramis, but it was only a matter of time for that too.
He made a detour to the kitchen to get boiled water, knowing that at least would likely be required. As he was returning, the physician arrived, a Doctor Gallaudet, and d'Artagnan escorted him up to Aramis's room.
"What is the nature of the ailment?" the wiry man inquired.
"He was strung up by the arms fer over a day. Now 'e can't move 'em," Porthos answered.
"Has the patient any feeling in his extremities?"
"The patient is right here," Aramis interjected tetchily. "And yes, I feel pain."
"But you said you couldn't feel your hands," d'Artagnan countered.
Aramis's jaw ticked. "Not when I woke, no. Now…there's tingling. Like wasp stings."
The doctor folded the coverlet down to Aramis's knees and picked up a lax hand. Aramis sucked in a sharp breath as his arm was elevated.
"Oi," Porthos snapped at the physician in warning.
"I have to do an assessment," the man replied unapologetically. He pressed his thumb into Aramis's palm. "Can you feel that?"
Aramis hissed. "Yes."
Gallaudet pushed the shirt sleeve up, revealing dark bruising around the wrist. D'Artagnan could have kicked himself. From hanging by the manacles, of course.
The doctor continued his probing up the arm to the shoulder but then stopped. "I need his shirt removed."
"That's going to be difficult," Athos put in.
Gallaudet waved impatiently. "I need him sitting up to see his back anyway."
D'Artagnan approached the bed. "Aramis?" he asked.
The marksman gave a clipped nod in response, and d'Artagnan looked to Porthos for help. Without a word, the two of them took up positions on either side and slipped an arm underneath Aramis's shoulders. A garbled sound stuck in his throat as they lifted him. Porthos started to raise his arm to remove his shirt, but that brought forth a full cry of agony and Porthos jerked back in alarm.
"Let me," d'Artagnan said hurriedly. He reached for the back of the shirt and rolled it up to his shoulders, then tugged it over Aramis's bowed head. "Sorry," he said at the muffled moans. But he got the article over his head and from there it was easy to slide the sleeves down his arms.
Gallaudet made a clucking sound as he looked at the damage, and d'Artagnan found himself leaning over to see as well. He wished he hadn't.
The bruising was livid all up and down Aramis's back, but it was his shoulders that made d'Artagnan's stomach clench. They looked disfigured from the swelling.
"Are they dislocated?" d'Artagnan asked in horror. They couldn't have been yesterday… He stepped back to give the doctor room, leaving Porthos to fully support Aramis's weight.
Gallaudet poked and prodded at the misshapen muscles. Aramis was barely able to bite back gasped cries with each touch, which ignited d'Artagnan's indignation. But the doctor paid no heed, keeping to a terse and methodical examination.
"Not dislocated," he finally concluded. "But the muscles are strained, possibly torn in places, and the swelling has caused them to seize." He continued to work his hands over the abused muscles, expression taking on a curious mien. "I've only read of cases this severe from victims of the rack."
Aramis let out a choked cry. "Stop," he rasped, body shaking from the pain.
"That's enough," Athos said in a low tone of steel that gave the doctor pause. "What can be done for him?"
Gallaudet stepped back. "I can make a poultice of comfrey…" He glanced back with a frown. "I'll need to make quite a lot. And I can give him something for the pain."
"What about his hands?" d'Artagnan asked.
"The blood flow has been restricted from the inflammation. It should improve as the latter does." Gallaudet opened his bag and began to unpack his supplies.
"Porthos, please, put me down," Aramis said breathlessly.
"Wait a moment while I make the pain draught," Gallaudet said.
Aramis's eyes were squeezed shut and every breath came in short, painful stutters. D'Artagnan wanted to reach out to offer comfort, but there was no place to touch that wouldn't cause extreme pain. As it was, holding him up had to be excruciating. It was only after the doctor had pressed a cup to Aramis's lips and he drank that d'Artagnan realized he hadn't even asked what was in it.
"You can lay him down," Gallaudet said once the draught was administered. "It will take me a few minutes to prepare the poultices."
D'Artagnan moved forward to help Porthos carefully lower Aramis back. Now that he was lying down, d'Artagnan noticed an even darker splotch of bruising on his ribs. Rather than distract the doctor from his medicine making, d'Artagnan proceeded to gently palpate the spot himself.
Aramis grunted. "No more. Please."
"Sorry. Just wanted to make sure nothing was broken."
"Miraculously, no," he said hoarsely, closing his eyes.
"What caused it?" Athos asked, moving closer to see for himself.
"Pistol butt. Grimaud…didn't appreciate me…divulging his numbers."
"Thank you for that," Athos replied mildly.
"I'm sorry," Aramis whispered, eyes still closed. "I never wanted to keep things from you. But I knew you would not…agree with it. And I had no right…to ask for your support." The words spilled forth, having been apparently loosened by the pain draught.
"But you 'ad no problem askin' me to shoot you," Porthos growled.
"To stop Grimaud."
"Not at the cost of your life, Aramis," d'Artagnan put in.
"My life was forfeit years ago," he whispered, voice laden with remorse, and d'Artagnan couldn't tell whether he was referring to almost being executed for treason or something else.
The silence thickened, broken only by the doctor's shuffling at the table and Aramis's harsh breathing. This was not a conversation to be had in front of Gallaudet, and so they all stood like statues and waited until the poultices were finally ready. Then d'Artagnan and Porthos again took up the regretful task of pulling Aramis upright so the comfrey could be packed over every inch of his back. The strangled sounds choking in his throat made d'Artagnan's heart constrict. Finally the doctor was done and they laid Aramis down again.
Gallaudet left a bottle for the pain draught and instructions on the dosage, along with how often to change the poultices. They would have to send someone to purchase some more comfrey, as he'd exhausted his supply on hand trying to cover the sheer extent of damage.
The man packed up his bag. "I will return tomorrow to check on him, though I expect he'll be much the same. He likely won't regain mobility for several days, and that's assuming some of the muscle tears aren't too extensive."
D'Artagnan's stomach dropped at the news. "He was fine yesterday though."
Well, not fine, but not like this.
"I'm still right here," Aramis muttered.
"And that is a miracle from God," Gallaudet said, turning to address him. "You're lucky you didn't suffocate while hanging in that position for so long. It would not surprise me if you had bruising on your lungs as well. But if you truly had range of mobility yesterday, then that is a good sign for your recovery."
That latter part should have filled d'Artagnan with a wash of relief, but mostly he was doused in a cold horror at the previous statement.
Athos thanked the doctor and saw him to the door, then turned back. "When was the last time you ate or drank something?"
"Last night," Aramis replied tiredly. "I had a little bread and water before retiring to bed."
"Had you had anything while with Grimaud?" d'Artagnan asked, because now he was thinking of all the things he should have thought of yesterday.
"A little water. Apparently he needed me alive." Aramis winced. "But not intact."
No, not if the madman was content to let him hang like a slab of meat.
"Do you think you can eat solid food?" Athos picked up again. "Or would soup be better?"
"I'm not exactly in a condition for either."
"Aramis," d'Artagnan chided. "You have to eat." He didn't voice the obvious, that Aramis would have to be assisted.
"Fine," he bit out bitterly. "Soup it is then. Find a new recruit due for grunt work and let him see to it over the next several days. I won't burden you any further."
D'Artagnan blinked. "You're not a burden, Aramis. Of course we'll help you."
Aramis closed his eyes and whispered, "I would not ask that of any of you."
Porthos scowled and started shaking his head, which somehow caught Aramis's attention, as he opened his eyes again.
"I know you're angry, Porthos," he said. "If I could find a way to appease you, I would. But since it seems that everything I do is wrong in your eyes, I'm afraid I'm at a loss. My desire to protect you all is wrong; my decision to leave to secure that protection and my decision to return have brought nothing but contempt from you, and I am sorry that I cannot fix it. Why couldn't you have just taken the shot?"
"You wanna die, is that it?" Porthos snarled, whirling toward the bed and bumping the edge.
"What I want can never be. I've broken the most precious thing I have ever held dear. I could not stay at the monastery, and I cannot stay here. What other course is open to me save to die in service to those I love?"
"Yer a selfish bastard, ya know that?"
Aramis sighed. "Yes, I know."
D'Artagnan's heart had jumped at Aramis's words. "You're not thinking of leaving?" he blurted.
Porthos snorted. "That's what 'e does."
"What do you want from me?" Aramis demanded desperately.
"I wanted you wiv us."
"But I cannot change the past, so what do you want from me now?"
Porthos didn't seem to have an answer for that.
Neither did d'Artagnan. The fractures had been there all along but he'd stubbornly been ignoring them, determined to regain a semblance of the brotherhood he had cherished before the war. He could feel the last of it slipping away now, crumbling through his fingers as he frantically tried to hold tight.
No, he refused to let it. He did not survive four years of war and regain a lost brother to lose him now.
"I want you to trust us," he said. "I want you to let go of this idea that you have to protect us with your silence or absence. If you commit treason again, I want to know about it. I want to be prepared to protect you. I want you to tell me about secret dealings so I can have your back."
Aramis's stared at him in stupefaction, but then his expression became shielded. "I cannot be responsible for bringing you harm…"
"We are soldiers, Aramis. We face the risk of harm every day. I just lived through four years of war. And you know what I've found on the other side of it? Not duty or country or even honor. Just brotherhood. That is what I choose to fight for. Out there on the frontline or here in service to the King, we fight together. And if we die, we'll do that together too."
Aramis's eyes took on a watery sheen. "Except I didn't. I betrayed that vow." He flicked a pained look at Porthos.
"Take it up again," d'Artagnan said. "Right now. Swear to me you will trust us again and I will trust you to uphold it."
Aramis turned his gaze back to him. "That simple, hm?"
"For me, yes." He could not speak for Athos and Porthos, and he knew that if he did not secure their vows along with his own, it would all be for naught, because Aramis needed the two of them more than anything. He always had.
"D'Artagnan's right," Athos spoke up. "I understand your reasons for leaving and do not fault you for them, though I have always disagreed with their validity. You sought penance and punishment and you deserved neither."
"My actions nearly destroyed us all—"
"That was Rochefort. He found a means in you, but if it hadn't been you, he would have contrived another way." Athos took a step closer. "And you're wrong, Aramis. It is and always has been your right to ask for our support." His expression turned remorseful. "I'm sorry you were ever made to doubt that."
Aramis sighed. "I wanted to tell you. I wanted us to tell the King. The Queen…she thought the less who knew until there was real progress, the better."
"And you always do whatever she wants," Porthos grumbled.
D'Artagnan shot him a dark look. This rift needed mending, now, or he feared it would be torn forever.
"Would you have denied Her Majesty's wishes had she asked you?" Aramis said softly.
Porthos shook his head in frustration, mouth pressed into a tight line.
"Is a renewed vow enough for you, my friend?" Aramis asked, voice laden with weariness. "Or would you demand more penance from me? Either way I will oblige, just tell me what to expect."
Both d'Artagnan and Athos were looking at Porthos pointedly now. They had spoken their forgiveness and absolution and now everything hung on Porthos's next words.
His shoulders sagged. "They make it sound so easy."
Aramis gave him a sad smile. "I know it is not."
"Simple does not mean easy," Athos said.
"No," Aramis agreed.
Porthos ran a hand down his beard. "A'right, you want to know what I want? I want you ta stop throwin' your life away. Stop throwin' us away. And…I'll stop givin' ya a reason to keep doin' it."
"No, I was punishin' you. I wanted you ta feel the kind of hurt I did after you left."
"I felt it every single day since I left as well." Aramis closed his eyes. "Athos is right; it was my punishment. I was never trying to punish you. But I see that I did anyway."
Porthos was silent for a moment. "So are you ready to stop then?"
Aramis quirked a confused look at him.
"Stop punishin' yerself for things you think you deserve," Porthos clarified.
Aramis sighed. "I will try. And I will stand by your sides from this day forward."
"That was never in question, Aramis," Athos interjected. "The question is whether you will let us stand by yours."
His eyes wavered for a long moment, but he finally gave a jerky nod, followed by a grimace. "Although, on second thought, it seems I won't be standing for a while…"
D'Artagnan huffed. "No, you won't. But we'll be here." He reached out to tentatively touch Aramis's lax hand, cautious of causing any pain but wanting to offer a tangible sign of the promise. Aramis's fingers twitched in response. D'Artagnan lightly cupped the bruised wrist. "Where's that salve you have for contusions?"
"I'll get it," Porthos said.
"And I'll ask Serge to make some soup," Athos chimed in before heading for the door.
D'Artagnan took a seat on the edge of the mattress. Porthos offered him the tin of ointment, which he dipped his fingers in and began to gently massage into the battered flesh.
Aramis watched for a long moment before his mouth quirked. "So, you expect me to commit treason again?"
D'Artagnan smirked. "If it was out of love? Yes."
Aramis's eyes darkened.
"But love will follow you," he added sincerely.
"I don't deserve it," Aramis whispered.
"That ain't for you to decide," Porthos said a tad gruffly. "'Sides, what's that yer always sayin' about God's forgiveness? It ain't earned by sinners but given—"
"In grace," Aramis finished. "I didn't think you paid that much attention to matters of faith."
Porthos shrugged. "Some of it makes sense, I guess. The parts you talk about. And ain't that what we're all askin' of each other here? Ta grant grace?"
Aramis smiled. "Indeed it is, my friend."
D'Artagnan beamed on the inside, the last piece finally settling back into place. It would not be easy moving forward, he knew that. But they were nothing if not determined, stubborn men. Perhaps now they could at last begin to leave the regrets of the past behind and reforge their brotherhood.
Because that was worth fighting for.
Chapter 20: Nefarious Plots
Aramis is abducted by Spanish agents and it's a race against time to find out why and where they've gone.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The din of the tavern ebbed and flowed with a natural rhythm, broken occasionally by a boisterous crowd. That night, the three Inseparables and their adopted pup fell into the latter as Aramis regaled d'Artagnan with a story of having to chase a badger through the woods when it made off with the missive they'd been tasked to deliver.
D'Artagnan, full of wine, laughed with the force of his entire body. He coughed to control himself. "You're pulling my leg."
Aramis put a hand over his heart. "I swear on my honor it is true."
"Porthos had stashed the letter in his food pouch," Athos put in blandly, his skill at weaving a captivating tale sorely lacking in theatrics. "When the badger nicked the bag, it took off with the letter inside."
"Gave us a merry chase," Aramis confirmed.
"But you did catch it?" d'Artagnan asked.
"Porthos did. Wrestled with it until it gave up its quarry. Beast put up quite the fight too. I think it's the only opponent that's come close to besting him."
Porthos huffed indignantly.
D'Artagnan shook his head. "Is any of this true?"
Aramis laughed and winked at him. "Most of it."
The boy rolled his eyes and took another swig of his drink.
Aramis finished his one cup and picked up his hat. "And with that, I bid you goodnight, gentlemen."
"'Ave a previous engagement, do ya?" Porthos said with a knowing smirk.
Aramis merely grinned. "Don't wait up."
He donned his hat and headed outside into the night. The muffled clamor of the tavern began to recede as he made his way across the street, but no sooner had he passed the first alley that several figures launched themselves from the shadows. Multiple assailants were grabbing at him, and Aramis threw an elbow back into someone's face. He kicked out at one coming at him from the front and caught the man in the knee, causing him to stumble back with a pained howl.
Aramis seized the hilt of his sword, but before he could draw it from its scabbard, a damp cloth was slapped over his nose and mouth from behind. The stench of rotten eggs instantly made him gag, but he couldn't wrench away. He clawed at the arm braced across his chest and holding the cloth, but more hands grabbed his arms to restrain him.
The fumes permeated his nose, making his head swim. In another second, it felt like the strings to his limbs had been abruptly cut, and he felt himself going limp in his attackers' arms. And then everything faded to black.
Athos was nursing his third bottle of wine and only half listening to d'Artagnan telling Porthos some humorous animal stories from his time growing up on a farm.
A woman came up to their table. Athos recognized her as one of the tavern wenches. She was wringing her hands in her dress.
"Yer musketeers, yea?"
"That's right," Porthos replied, raising his brows in curiosity at her.
D'Artagnan straightened in his seat. "Is there something we can help you with?"
"There was another with you tonight…"
Athos rolled his eyes. Seemed Aramis had caught this girl's fancy. He caught every woman's fancy.
"'Fraid 'e's gone for the night," Porthos said with an amused grin. "I'll tell 'im you were askin' after 'im."
"No, I…" She darted her gaze around. "I saw 'im outside. 'E was attacked."
Athos was on his feet only a split second behind d'Artagnan.
"What?" the boy exclaimed. "Is he hurt?"
"They- they took 'im."
The stupor Athos had been working his way toward vanished in an instant. "Show us," he said.
With a jerky nod, she turned on her heel and led them outside the tavern and across the street. They were still in sight of the establishment when she stopped and pointed toward an alleyway. "O'er there."
Guard heightened, Athos put a hand on his sword as he strode over. The vicinity was empty.
"No signs of a struggle," Porthos commented.
Athos roved his gaze across the ground and paused as he caught sight of something near the wall. His heart plummeted. "That's not true." He crouched down to pick up Aramis's hat.
Porthos made an animalistic sound in the back of his throat. "Who took 'im?" he asked the woman who'd brought them out here.
She shook her head. "I don' know. It was dark."
Athos spotted something else on the ground near where the hat had fallen, a white cloth, damp when he picked it up. He brought it up to inspect it and quickly jerked away with a wrinkling of his nose. "Ether, I'd wager."
"They drugged him," d'Artagnan said, incredulous.
"Seems that way."
Porthos turned to the tavern wench again. "Which way did they go?"
She shook her head, tears welling in her eyes. "I don' know. I'm sorry. I was too scared ta move. But I remembered the musketeer was in the tavern wiv you and as soon as I thought 'em gone, I came to tell ya."
"You did the right thing," d'Artagnan said.
"We have to find 'im," Porthos growled.
"The use of ether suggests they want him alive," Athos said. Which, unfortunately, could be so much worse than a simple robbery.
"But for what?" d'Artagnan asked, voicing the very concern clenching Athos's own heart.
"I didn' see 'em, but…" the woman spoke up hesitantly. "I 'eard 'em. Think they was speakin' Spanish."
"Spanish?" Porthos repeated dubiously. "What the hell would the Spanish want wit' Aramis?"
"Unless their target was any musketeer they came across," Athos put in.
"How does this help us?" d'Artagnan asked in mounting agitation.
Athos pursed his mouth thoughtfully. "There's a merchant in Paris, Spanish born but naturalized to France. He's a pillar in the Spanish community in the city. He might know something."
"Then let's go see if he's home," Porthos said.
It was getting late, but considering the urgency of the matter, Athos had no qualms about knocking down the man's door. Aramis was likely alive, but the question was how long he would remain so.
Athos led the way through the streets to a shop set on a corner. The lights were all off, even in the apartments above the store. He indicated the door and let Porthos do the banging.
It took several minutes before the door finally swung open, revealing a short man with curly black hair and a black beard. One hand clutched at the folds of a night robe, the other holding a candle. "What?" he snapped.
"Monsieur Nuñez," Athos greeted. "I am Athos of the King's Musketeers. We are investigating a kidnapping."
Nuñez squinted at him. "I don't know anything about a kidnapping."
"A witness identified the agents as Spanish, and as you are a central figure in the community, you might be able to help us. Can you think of anyone brazen enough to abduct a King's Musketeer?"
Nuñez scowled. "I am not a criminal and I do not keep the company of criminals. I am an honest businessman." He tried to shut the door on them, but Porthos grabbed the wood and shoved it open further. Nuñez staggered back a step, eyes widening in fear.
"We are not here to accuse you," Athos said, impatience making his voice tight. "But I doubt there is anything that goes on within the Spanish community that you are unaware of. A life is at stake."
Nuñez's jaw ticked. "All right," he conceded. "There were four newcomers to Paris from Spain. They arrived a week ago and came asking for directions and information on navigating the city. But that was it, and they did not express plans to stay."
"So they would be returning to Spain?" Athos asked.
"That was my understanding, señor."
"Any idea why they might abduct a musketeer?"
"No. But I can tell you they did not hold hospitable attitudes toward France."
Athos's lips thinned. This did not help them much, but at least it was confirmation that something was afoot with Spain. He gave Nuñez a clipped nod. "Thank you. I apologize for disturbing your evening." He gave Porthos a look to stand down.
Nuñez hesitated for a moment, then said, "One of the men asked after the whereabouts of a cousin living in the city, a man named Ortega who lives in the district south of Notre Dame. I gathered that they were not in contact prior, but it may help you."
"Thank you," Athos said again, more appreciatively.
Nuñez shut the door on them.
"So now we find this Ortega?" d'Artagnan asked.
"We cannot go banging on each door in the neighborhood at this hour," Athos replied regretfully.
"We can't jus' do nothin'," Porthos rejoined. "Aramis is in trouble."
"We'll go back to the garrison," Athos said firmly. "Report this to Treville. Then at dawn we return with a troop of men to conduct a search for Ortega."
Porthos shook his head angrily.
"Remember they took him alive," Athos pointed out. "We have some time."
He dearly hoped he was right.
"Do you think they could be holding Aramis at Ortega's house?" d'Artagnan asked.
"I don't know, but we will find out soon."
Their brother just had to hold on that long.
Aramis woke to a rhythmic jostling through the floor boards he was lying on. It took a moment for his groggy mind to recognize the creak and bump of a cart. Prying his eyelids open, he was at first greeted with brown blurs, but after a few moments they coalesced into crates and canvas, and he realized he was in the back of a covered wagon. His head ached fiercely and there was a tickle in the back of his throat. He tried to move, only to find his wrists bound in front of him with rope.
He squeezed his eyes shut and struggled to remember what happened. He'd been at the tavern, had left before the others, and…he vaguely remembered a fight with faceless shadows that had jumped him just outside the tavern. But then things got hazy.
Aramis lifted his head to peer through the flap of canvas at the back of the wagon. He caught a glimpse of open road and early morning light and blinked in bewilderment. They weren't in Paris anymore?
Two men on horseback brought up the rear, and Aramis knew that tumbling out the back wouldn't get him very far. Better he wait for an opportunity. At least travel by wagon was slow, so maybe they weren't that far from the city… But who were these men and what did they want?
He wasn't sure how long it was before he finally heard someone call a stop. Long enough for him to regain strength in his limbs. But he was perplexed when he heard the order given in Spanish. There was an annoyed reply grumbling about having to travel all through the night, also delivered in Spanish, and a response that they knew why they must; they had to get back to Spain as quickly as possible.
That sent Aramis's heart rate up a notch. He was being taken to Spain? Why? There had to be some mistake.
He pushed himself upright and scooted to the edge of the wagon bed, listening to the footsteps moving about outside, waiting for an opening. When a hand appeared to lift the flap, Aramis drew both knees up and kicked out, catching the man square in the chest and sending him flying back.
Aramis scrambled out of the wagon to land in a crouch, then lunged to snatch the man's sword from its sheath. He got it out just in time as another figure came charging from around the wagon, sword raised. Aramis threw the blade up, steel clashing with a discordant screech. He forced the locked swords down to the side and head butted the man with enough force he went stumbling back.
Aramis flipped the sword he held to drive the point into the ground and quickly knelt to slice through the ropes around his wrists. But before he could succeed, something hard clobbered him in the back of the shoulder, sending him face first to the ground. A boot planted against his shoulder and kicked him onto his back, followed by a sword point to his throat. Aramis stilled, dropping his head back in defeat.
At a gesture from the swordsman, the other men got to their feet and roughly grabbed Aramis's arms to haul him up as well.
"What do you want?" he demanded, speaking French just to gauge things and not give away a possible advantage for discovering what was going on.
The man sheathed his sword and answered in French, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Señor Aramis, France's finest marksman."
His brow furrowed in confusion. So this wasn't a case of mistaken identity?
"You have me at a disadvantage, señor."
The Spaniard merely smirked. "Your reputation is known among those of our…profession."
"What do you want?" Aramis repeated, giving a futile shrug against the hands restraining him. "Why have you abducted me from Paris?"
"We have need of your special skill set." The man's lips curved upward. "You see, there will be an assassination attempt made on the King of Spain. When it's discovered that it was made by one of France's finest soldiers, it will be considered an act of war."
Aramis blinked dubiously at him. "You can't be serious. I would never commit such an act of treason."
"Spain would believe it sanctioned. When your body is found at the scene, slain after you miss your shot, the truth will be undeniable."
Aramis snorted. "That I would miss would be even less credible."
The quip was said to cover his mounting trepidation. They hadn't divested him of his uniform, the pauldron with the Fleur de Lis an obvious mark of his nationality and association, obviously meant to be twisted to these men's uses.
The man shrugged. "It happens to the best of us."
Aramis looked over the man's shoulder at the empty road, fear wrapping cold fingers around his heart. No one would know he was missing for hours yet, believing him with a woman when he failed to show up for morning muster. There would be jokes and laments and threats that he would be mucking out the stables for a week. And when real concern would finally settle in, they would have no way of determining what had happened to him.
Aramis forced himself to remain calm, to think of a way out of this.
The Spaniard smirked again and reached into his doublet to pull out a vial, along with a folded handkerchief. He removed the stopper and pressed the cloth to the top, then tipped it upside down quickly.
Aramis renewed his struggles as the man advanced toward him, but the men holding him were unyielding.
The man pressed the cloth to Aramis's face, and no matter how much he tried to buck and twist, he could not escape. He tried to hold his breath, but it didn't matter; the fumes filled his nostrils and suffused into his bloodstream, and in a matter of moments he slipped away.
After waking the captain and informing him what had happened, they'd been ordered to get what rest they could. D'Artagnan hadn't been able to sleep, however, not with Aramis missing, and he had no intention of going back to his room at the Bonacieux house when a development could happen at the garrison at any time. He had stayed up with Porthos in his room, the two of them stewing in worried silence. Athos hadn't gone back to his apartments either, though he sat in a chair with his hat over his eyes, either sleeping or only pretending to.
Finally when morning came, half the garrison set out to search for this Ortega person in the district Nuñez had directed them to. They pounded on doors and stopped everyone in the street, asking after Ortega's apartments. So far they had found nothing and d'Artagnan was feeling the frustration as palpably as the waves practically rolling off Porthos's shoulders.
Pierre came jogging up the street toward them. "We found him."
Without a word, they followed the other musketeer a few blocks down and into a home where two others from the garrison were flanking a man seated in a chair in the kitchen. He was older, with a weathered face that shot them all a surly and uncooperative glare upon their entrance.
"He says he has no information," Pierre reported.
Athos stepped forward. "Four men recently traveled to the city from Spain, one we believe was your cousin."
Ortega shrugged. "I haven't spoken to my relatives in years."
"If you do not tell us what we want to know, you will be charged as an accomplice to the abduction of a musketeer, which will result in you going to the noose."
Ortega's cheeks flushed red. "I had nothing to do with that!"
"Then cooperate," Athos said.
Porthos shifted where he stood. "Jus' give me five minutes wit' 'im."
Athos held up a warning hand and arched a brow at Ortega. "What will it be?"
The man scowled. "My cousin Alonso showed up out of the blue last week, demanding a place to stay. But he did not spend his days here and I did not ask where he and his friends went off to."
"So he only wanted lodgings from you?" Athos asked.
"And a wagon for their trip home. That's all I know!"
D'Artagnan moved in and leaned forward, quirking a pointed look at him. "Is it?" he asked, holding the man's gaze for a long moment, aware of Porthos pacing like a caged tiger behind him.
Ortega's eyes flicked between them. "Look, I'm not associated with my cousin. He's a mercenary, I'm a tanner. He favors war over peace time." Ortega snorted. "Says it's better for business." He shifted restlessly in his chair. "I may have overheard something about framing a musketeer for an assassination attempt on Spanish soil. But I have no part of it!"
D'Artagnan straightened, shooting a horrified look at the others. That would be an act of war. Surely they didn't think they could get away with something like that.
Athos's expression was grim with fury as he turned to Pierre. "Take this man to the captain to give his statement. Porthos, d'Artagnan, and I will ride out immediately. Send reinforcements."
Pierre gave a stern nod and gestured for the other musketeers to take Ortega.
"He mentioned a wagon," d'Artagnan said. "So they probably left by the main road."
Athos nodded. "That gives us a chance to catch up."
They rode fast out of Paris. Athos hoped the information they'd gleaned was correct and that they weren't being sent on a wild chase while Aramis was, in fact, still within the city. Or that his abductors had taken another road.
This plot to instigate war was unbelievable and mad, but there were mad men in the world. Athos had known unscrupulous businessman before, but one who craved profit from violence was another breed. And perhaps one so brazen as to attempt this.
Despite the slow travel of a wagon, the Spanish agents had a head start, and it took them four hours to finally catch sight of their quarry on the road. At least, Athos hoped it was who they were looking for.
They spurred their horses from a canter into a gallop. The two riders at the back saw them coming and a pistol shot cracked the air but didn't hit any of them. Athos drew his own pistol and returned fire, unseating one of the men from his horse. By then the musketeers had overtaken them and it became a clash of steel as they unsheathed their swords and leaped from their horses.
This little operation seemed to only have four men. Athos quickly dispatched one while d'Artagnan took the one who'd been grazed by the musket ball. Porthos took on the last two, roaring like a raging bull as he bore down on them relentlessly. He clobbered one in the head with the pommel of his sword before disarming the fourth and body slamming him to the ground. Porthos's schiavona swung down, but instead of slicing through the man's neck, it came to a stop at his throat.
Athos was closest to the wagon and he rushed forward, slapping the canvas curtain aside as he jumped into the back. He found Aramis laying on his side, bound and unconscious. Athos dropped his sword and reached out both hands to clasp his friend's neck.
He got no response. Athos yanked one glove off with his teeth and searched for a pulse, relieved to feel the languid but steady beat beneath his fingers.
"Aramis," he called again, giving the marksman a light shake. Aramis still didn't stir. Athos noticed tiny red splotches around his nose and lips.
Looking around the supplies, he grabbed a water skin and plucked his scarf from around his neck. He wet the cloth and then used it to gently wipe Aramis's face, worried about the marksman's continued unresponsiveness. Athos then picked up his sword and cut the bonds before backing out of the wagon.
Porthos shot him a questioning look filled with dread.
"He's alive but unconscious," Athos reported and strode over to the Spanish agent on the ground with Porthos's blade still at his throat. "Are you Alonso?"
The man furrowed his brow just a fraction, which was answer enough. Then he let out a string of Spanish under his breath. Athos caught a curse word or two and the name of his cousin.
"Get him up," Athos said.
Porthos and d'Artagnan reached down to haul the man to his feet.
"You are under arrest for kidnapping and conspiracy to commit treason."
Alonso spat something else in Spanish, though Athos didn't know what it was. It would have been nice to have Aramis awake to translate. But he wasn't, and the fact that he wasn't turned Athos's blood to ice. He stepped forward and roughly searched Alonso's coat, finding the vial he suspected contained the ether.
"How many times did you drug him with this?" he asked, voice level like the calm in the scant seconds between a lightning strike and clap of thunder.
Alonso lifted his chin and didn't say anything.
"Couldn't have him puttin' up a fuss in the back of the wagon on the road, could ya?" Porthos growled menacingly.
Athos rifled through the rest of the Spaniard's pockets until he found a handkerchief. After a moment's thought, he uncapped the vial and doused the cloth with it.
Alonso frowned. "What are you doing?"
"So you do speak French. However, I'm no longer interested in what you have to say." With that, he thrust the soaked cloth against Alonso's face, clapping his other hand around the back of his neck to hold him in place as he thrashed. It only took a moment for him to go limp and crumple to the ground.
D'Artagnan arched a brow at him, to which Athos just shrugged.
"We'll put the Spanish agents in the wagon to take back to Paris. Porthos, help me get Aramis out. Better he ride with you than be lying next to his abductors."
Athos turned and climbed back into the wagon, slipping his arms under Aramis's shoulders and gently scooting him toward the edge where Porthos took him into his arms.
"He'll wake up, yeah?" he asked worriedly.
"Without knowing when the last dose was, there's no way to know how long he'll be out," Athos replied. "But he's alive and we thwarted Alonso's plot."
He grabbed some rope from the supplies before hopping back out and tossed it to d'Artagnan to secure their prisoners, though one was dead and the other would probably die from his wounds before they made it back to the city.
Then the two of them set about loading the bodies into the wagon while Porthos sat on the ground, cradling Aramis in his arms. Athos had not mentioned his concern over the repeated exposure to ether, not wanting to add to Porthos's worry, but he wanted to get back to Paris as soon as possible.
When the wagon was all loaded up and the extra horses tethered in a line, Athos and d'Artagnan got Aramis into the saddle so Porthos could climb up behind him. D'Artagnan then took the wagon and Athos mounted his own horse, and they turned to make their way back to the city.
Porthos hated the way Aramis was completely limp in front of him. He wanted to hear that blessed voice make a joke or complain, or even insist that he was fine and they didn't need to fuss. And then Porthos would make a quip that fussin' was Aramis's job.
But there was none of that. Only the silent, agonizingly slow pace they set back to Paris. Porthos would have ridden back to the garrison with his precious cargo if he wasn't worried Alonso might not have been working alone, and he couldn't leave Athos and d'Artagnan by themselves, not until musketeer reinforcements caught up with them.
Aramis twitched, a low moan catching in his throat.
Porthos pulled back on the reins to stop his horse. "Aramis?"
His friend twisted his head away, eyelids fluttering. He started to thrash against the arms around his middle.
"Athos!" Porthos called, automatically tightening his hold to keep Aramis from tumbling out of the saddle. He leaned forward, tucking his chin over his friend's shoulder. "Easy. It's Porthos. You're safe, Aramis."
The struggles stilled. "P'thos?"
"That's right. You're all right."
Aramis craned his head back to look up at him, still blinking groggily.
Athos had dismounted and now came to stand beside their horse, placing one hand on Aramis's knee and reaching the other up to help slide him down. He couldn't keep his legs about him and practically fell against Athos, who then eased him to the ground, sitting behind him to keep him propped up. Aramis immediately broke into a fit of coughing.
Porthos swung down from his horse and grabbed his water skin, then knelt to give Aramis some to drink. By that time, d'Artagnan had come over to join them.
Aramis gulped down the water desperately and Porthos had to pull it away.
"Easy. What's that yer always tellin' us about not drinkin' too fast?"
Aramis's eyelids fluttered rapidly at him, then up at d'Artagnan. One hand weakly reached back to grasp at Athos's arm. "You're here," he rasped in wonder.
"'Course we are," Porthos said.
"One of the tavern wenches witnessed your abduction," Athos explained. "Unfortunately, it took us several hours to discover by whom and where they were headed. Sorry if we kept you waiting."
Aramis coughed again. "By the…grace of…God," he wheezed.
"What's wrong with him?" d'Artagnan asked.
"Exposure to ether," Athos replied. "Aramis, do you know how many times they dosed you with it?"
"Mm, three? That I remember. After I…woke the…first time." A cough punched its way up his throat. "Don' think they…gave me…much chance again. Had tried to…escape."
Porthos held the water skin to his lips so he could drink more. "We need to get 'im to a doctor."
And Porthos quirked a small smile because there it was, exactly what he'd asked for. "That many doses could equal poison," he argued, because that was his role and though he usually found it aggravating, he was happy to play it this time if it meant everything was as it should be.
"Only if it was given too frequently or in too concentrated a form," Athos put in. "Rest and time for it to dissipate from your body is probably the only thing that can be done, but I would still like a professional opinion on the matter."
Aramis made a humming sound that Porthos took as acquiescence.
Athos shifted slightly so he could look down and meet Aramis's eye. "Do you want to continue back to Paris or rest a while? Your abductors have been apprehended and are trussed up in the back of the wagon. We can afford to wait for the captain's reinforcements to meet us on the road."
Aramis blinked blearily a few times and let out a small cough. "I would like to go home," he finally whispered.
Athos nodded, and Porthos reached out to help him get Aramis up and back into the saddle. Then Porthos swung up behind him.
He put an arm around Aramis's middle and drew him back to rest against his chest. "It's okay," Porthos murmured in his ear. "You can relax. We've got you. Hey…" He reached behind him to pluck the item he'd carried on his saddlebags this whole way. "Look what we found." He brought the hat around and patted it against Aramis's chest.
Fingers clumsily grasped it and held it close. There was a long exhalation and then Aramis let himself slump against Porthos. "Thank you, my friend."
Ether wasn't given that name until 1729 but the substance had been around and in use since 1540. (According to Wikipedia.) I just preferred to use the shortened name than the lengthier "oleum dulce vitrioli" it went by in that time.
Chapter 21: Lies and Vengeance
Athos and Aramis find themselves the targets of revenge.
Athos sat on his knees in the mouth of the cave he'd been dragged to, his hands bound in front of him with rope and a cloth gag in his mouth. He eyed his captors with a menacing glare, but they were paying him little attention, instead poised on the lookout. There had been at least twenty who'd attacked the musketeers in the forest while en route to deliver some important letters for the King. The battle had been fierce, and Athos had swiftly found himself separated from the others and easily overwhelmed. But d'Artagnan was the one carrying the letters, so as long as he escaped…
A disturbance drew Athos's gaze to the right where a group of men appeared, dragging Aramis into the cave, the marksman bound and gagged in similar fashion. They shoved him to the ground next to Athos.
Aramis arched a brow at him in question, which Athos returned. Aramis canted his head in a shrug. Neither of them had been injured, just overwhelmed by the sheer number of this attacking force. Though only about seven had rendezvoused at the cave as of yet. Athos briefly wondered what was in those letters to warrant this.
"The other two?" one of the mercenaries asked.
"Pushed back across the stream," another replied.
"Did Joubert take his men north?"
"He lost three of 'em, but yeah. The musketeers will think to pursue them."
"Good. We'll wait here a bit, make sure it's clear."
Athos frowned and shared a confused look with Aramis. While they were both obviously relieved to hear that Porthos and d'Artagnan were probably all right, Athos didn't understand why these men didn't seem keen on pursuing them instead of the other way around. Not only that, but they hadn't started questioning the musketeers they had taken prisoner about the letters. In fact, they were practically ignoring their captives.
After a sufficient amount of time had apparently passed, the leader signaled his men to move out. Athos and Aramis were hauled to their feet and dragged from the cave. These mercenaries didn't have any horses waiting about and so they made their way on foot through the woods. Athos could see Aramis's eyes darting around in search of a chance to escape, but they were unarmed and outnumbered, so such an attempt would be foolish at the moment.
But Athos's patience was wearing thin. He finally raised his bound hands to yank the gag from his mouth. "Where are you taking us?"
The leader stopped and turned around to walk back, expression neutral. "You'll see," was all he said before resuming the march.
Aramis had apparently taken the cue from Athos to pull his own gag out as well. "Talkative bunch," he commented. He received a shove for his quip but otherwise no one made an effort to silence them again.
Athos's confusion only increased. Perhaps they would be held for ransom, but surely four musketeers were worth more than two, so why hadn't the men seemed more intent on capturing Porthos and d'Artagnan as well? Although, four could also be harder to control than two, and Porthos could certainly be intimidating "prey."
"If it's ransom you want, the King will not pay it," Athos tried again.
"You've already been paid for," the man replied over his shoulder.
Athos and Aramis exchanged a perplexed, tense look at that. Someone had paid for musketeers to be captured…or them specifically? If it was about the letters, they did not have them. But their captors hadn't even bothered to check that so this was probably unrelated to their current mission. Athos wracked his brain for a potential culprit. The Inseparables had plenty of enemies, sure, but he could not think of one who would only care to target two of them and not their group as a whole.
They finally exited the forest into pastureland and veered toward a large building that was in a state of disrepair, with one wall slanted at a slight angle. The field was overgrown as well, suggesting it hadn't been used for grazing in a while.
Athos and Aramis were taken into the structure, which turned out to be an abandoned slaughterhouse, hooks hanging from the beams and carving stations along the walls. All manner of rust colored stains splattered the walls and floor. The entire picture cast a decidedly unsettling pall over their predicament.
The men escorting them came to a stop, and the lead mercenary stepped aside as a figure emerged from the shadows at the back of the building. Athos stiffened sharply at the sight of Victor Amadeus. Of all the people he might have imagined coming face to face with out here, the Duke of Savoy was not one of them. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Aramis pale.
The Duke strode forward, coming to a stop to regard Athos with a cold smirk. "Athos of the King's Musketeers. We meet again."
Athos had a dozen questions but voiced none of them, recognizing that their situation had just gotten more complicated. And dangerous. He narrowed his eyes a fraction and flicked a pointed look at their surroundings. "I take it the King is unaware you've come to France."
"I'm not here on a matter of state." The Duke stepped closer, lip curling up in a sneer. "I have not forgotten the humiliation you dealt upon me."
"You were the one who requested the duel," Athos replied calmly. "Insisted, as a matter of fact. And you signed the treaty afterward. Kidnapping the King's musketeers can be considered an act of treason."
"As you pointed out, the King is unaware I'm even in France."
"And you've gone to all this trouble for revenge?"
Victor's mouth curved upward. "I do not let offenses slide." He then shifted to appraise Aramis, looking him up and down carefully. "So, this is the survivor."
Athos's blood ran cold and the rest of Aramis's color drained.
The Duke studied the marksman. "Yes, I remember you now."
Aramis said nothing. Athos's own heart was beginning to pound. He'd seen the scar on Victor's back from where Aramis had wounded him in the attack on the musketeers in Savoy. That the Duke remembered this did not bode well.
Victor's eyes hardened and he turned to his men. "Start with him."
Athos's fighting instincts instantly kicked in as he was pulled away by two men and the rest converged on Aramis. They cut the ropes binding the marksman's wrists and tried to wrest his coat off. Aramis struggled, kicking and thrashing when he couldn't get his arms free long enough to throw a punch.
The Duke finally stepped forward and slapped a meaty hand over his mouth, sliding up so the crease where his thumb and forefinger joined covered his nostrils. Aramis's eyes blew wide as his air was cut off.
Athos threw an elbow back into the face of one of the men restraining him, but the other grabbed his bound wrists and flung his arms up, slipping the rope over one of the hanging hooks. They left him to hang and helplessly watch as Aramis's eyes started to roll back. Only then did Victor release him. Now barely conscious, the men easily divested Aramis of his sash, doublet, and shirt, then snapped a set of shackles on his wrists in place of the rope. They slung those over another hook above them.
"You want revenge, take it out on me!" Athos shouted.
Victor turned toward him, a malicious glint in his eyes. "In due time."
He took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves, then accepted a water skin from one of the men. Walking back to Aramis, he splashed the marksman in the face. Aramis jerked as the water revived him and he flailed to get his feet under him to relieve some of the strain on his arms. Victor exchanged the water skin for a dagger and set the blade to Aramis's neck, teasing at the rosary and crucifix that hung there. With a mild look, he severed the cords so the items dropped to the dirty floor. Aramis's eyes automatically tracked them, but were drawn back up as Victor pressed the blade more firmly to his throat.
"I will not allow an attempt on my life to go unpunished." He moved the blade down and slashed it across Aramis's collar bone, eliciting no more than a sharp hiss. Victor stepped close, pressing himself against his helpless victim. "I was so sure I'd taken care of all those musketeer dogs," he sneered. "I was quite surprised to learn one had gotten away."
Aramis glared back at him. "Whatever you were told about our mission was a lie."
"I know you were sent to kill me, place my son in my stead," Victor hissed. "My chancellor Cluzet discovered the Cardinal's plans, and that same night he went missing!"
"We had nothing to do with that!" Aramis spat back.
Athos froze as the pieces suddenly started falling into place. Cluzet was a Spanish spy, a threat to the Duchess…in order to protect her, the man had to be captured and locked away in a French prison. Cardinal Richelieu knew of this, had been desperate to keep the Duke of Savoy away when the others had pulled their last-minute deception in Cluzet's cell.
But how to get close enough to the Duke's most trusted advisor to begin with? Unless…the Duke and his men went out to slaughter a group of musketeers he believed were there to assassinate him.
Suddenly the reason behind the massacre all made sense. And Treville…had he known? Athos would never have believed him capable of treachery, but a ploy to protect the good of France? Now the captain's evasive answers and brusque threats were cast into a new light, one Athos could not dismiss.
Victor grabbed Aramis by the throat and squeezed. "I know you were there." He suddenly released him and stalked around, placing the dagger at the nape of Aramis's neck. With a deft downward motion, he delivered a score across his back. Again, Aramis gulped in a sharp breath and arched at the blow, but otherwise didn't give the Duke the satisfaction.
Victor leaned in toward Aramis's ear. "An eye for an eye—now we have matching marks."
"Stop this!" Athos shouted. "The treaty—"
"I know of the Cardinal's treachery," Victor cut him off sharply. "I know Cluzet still languishes in a French prison. The fact that I could not prove it does not make it untrue. If I could string Richelieu up here as well, I would, the treaty be damned."
"That would be a sight," Aramis muttered.
Athos shot him an exasperated glower. "You are making a mistake," he addressed the Duke.
Victor walked in front and slashed Aramis across the ribs, earning a grunt. "It is no mistake."
Aramis flung himself forward against the chains. "We were not assassins!" he raged. "We were on a training exercise! You murdered twenty musketeers!"
Victor canted his head at him. "You'll take your orders to the grave," he surmised. "I can respect that kind of loyalty."
He pressed the tip of the dagger into Aramis's shoulder and slowly inserted it. Aramis's cheeks puffed red with the exertion of holding back a scream. Then Victor torqued the blade and a strangled cry finally spilled from the marksman's lips.
"But there are ways to extract the truth even against such fortitude."
"We were…not…assassins," he ground out, shaking now.
Victor roughly pushed the blade in deeper and then yanked it out. Aramis cried out and sagged, head dropping to his chest.
"I will kill you," Athos said in a low voice.
The Duke turned to sneer at him. He stalked over and Athos held his head up, glad at least Aramis had gotten a reprieve. There was no way out of this that Athos could see; all he could try to do was divert attention onto himself.
Victor scrutinized him. "You wanted to kill me in that duel," he brought up. "You knew about the assassination attempt, knew I'd defeated your fellow musketeers."
"There is no honor in slaying an enemy while they sleep," Athos rejoined. "Assassins or no. Which they were not."
But he saw it all too easily now—the Cardinal sending a false message to implicate the training assignment as such. The question was who else was complicit in it? There could be no doubt Treville had passed on the troop's location as that Savoy soldier had claimed before Marsac killed him, but had he knowingly sacrificed his men in such a heinous manner?
Athos hadn't wanted to ask those questions when Marsac had stirred them up, and now he most likely wouldn't get the chance. He'd been complacent in the face of the lie.
"How much evidence do you need that something is badly wrong?"
"What does it take to make you act?"
Athos felt remorse for not heeding his brother back then. Not that it would have changed their situation now, but had Athos known the danger still lingering after all these years because of that one deception…perhaps he could have found a way to be more vigilant.
"Assassins don't deserve honorable dealings," Victor said with a derisive snort. "Nor do musketeer scum."
"What is your plan? To torture us and then kill us, all to satisfy your wounded pride over events that happened months and years ago? You have a treaty with France now, a duty to uphold."
Victor stepped forward and pressed the bloodied blade to Athos's throat. "I will not be made a mockery," he seethed.
"You are nothing but a mockery," Athos replied. "Everyone at court knows your principality is a pathetic little duchy that France only tolerates for its strategic position."
Victor lashed his other hand up to grab Athos's hair and wrenched his head back. "France needs Savoy," he spat, cheeks puffing with umbrage.
Athos just glared back at him as the dagger pressed against his throat. He was walking a fine line between antagonizing him to keep the Duke's attention away from Aramis and pushing him over the edge to where he snapped and outright killed Athos. The latter of which would not do Aramis any favors, and so Athos held his tongue once more.
Before Victor could decide what pain to inflict on him, muffled sounds outside the building distracted him. He cast a glance over his shoulder.
"See what those two are doing," he ordered the five men who'd remained inside. As they left, the Duke looked back over to Aramis, who was breathing raggedly against the agony of his wounds, red rivulets running in thin streams down his torso. Victor turned to Athos again and smirked. "How chivalrous of you, trying to protect your friend. It won't work. I imagine watching his pain would be worse than enduring your own."
"You are a coward!" Athos spat, but the Duke did not rise to the bait. Instead, he turned back toward Aramis.
Athos's heart dropped into the pit of his stomach, but then a gunshot cracked the air outside, and Victor's smug expression fell away. Whirling around, he rushed out of the building. Athos tugged and yanked against his restraints but couldn't raise himself high enough to get off the blasted hook. Sounds of fighting rose up outside, followed by a raging bellow that could only be one thing. Athos had no idea how they'd been found, but he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
A moment later Victor came dashing back inside. He grabbed Athos's arms and lifted them off the hook. Athos attempted to take a swing at the man, but he was quickly spun around and the dagger placed under his chin, Victor at his back.
Porthos barged in, sword drawn, and pulled up short as the Duke presented Athos as a shield. "Let him go," the enraged musketeer growled.
"I'm going to leave," Victor responded, forcing Athos to take a step.
Porthos's eyes blazed with fury. "Not a chance."
Victor pressed the blade closer, enough to nick skin. "I will slit his throat."
"An' I'll run you through."
There was still the sound of swords clashing outside. Athos held himself rigidly, meeting Porthos's gaze in firm agreement—the Duke was not to escape.
Victor pushed Athos forward another step, bringing them near Aramis. Athos saw the marksman's eyelids flutter, and in the next instant, Aramis was swinging his legs up and wrapping them around the Duke's neck. Athos took a boot to the face and barely managed to wrench away without cutting his neck open. He let himself drop and rolled out of the way as Aramis locked his ankles and held fast as Victor thrashed in his grip.
Victor snarled and stabbed blindly with his dagger, piercing Aramis's thigh. Aramis yelped and dropped away, swinging from the hook, but the momentum flung Victor to the ground. Before he could get up, Porthos charged forward and stomped on the hand holding the weapon, then raised his sword.
"Wait!" Athos called. "We cannot kill him."
"Why the hell not?" Porthos demanded.
Athos got to his feet and walked over, pausing to think about it for a moment. Things would perhaps be much easier if Victor Amadeus were dead and his son the ruler in his stead, with the Duchess's guidance in hand with France's. The Cardinal would certainly appreciate it. But that was not for them to decide.
Victor glowered up at them. "Kill me and France will have war with Spain."
"As you said, no one knows you're here." Athos kicked out, his boot colliding with the man's head and snapping it to the side. The Duke fell limp.
"Shoulda let me do that," Porthos groused, sheathing his sword and moving to Aramis to get him down.
The marksman groaned as his arms were lifted enough to slip the chain from the hook. Then his legs buckled upon making contact with the floor again and Porthos had to ease him to the ground, careful to keep him propped up so he didn't collapse in the dirt with his open wounds.
"Aramis?" Porthos called worriedly.
Aramis let out a grunt in response and fumbled at his bleeding leg.
"Where's d'Artagnan?" Athos asked.
"He's finishin' up outside," Porthos replied, gaze blackening as he took in Aramis's various wounds.
Athos dropped to his knees beside them just as the boy entered. D'Artagnan rushed over, eyes wide as he looked them over. Then his gaze landed on the Duke and he did a double-take.
"This isn't about the letters, is it?" he said.
"No," Athos replied, leaning forward and wrapping his hands over Aramis's to help staunch the bleeding.
"Athos says we can't kill 'im," Porthos grumbled.
D'Artagnan's brows shot upward. "Well, I suppose not. But what do we do with him?"
"See if you can find the key for these shackles on him," Athos instructed.
D'Artagnan moved to do as told, coming back a moment later with the key. "Aramis?" he asked worriedly as he set to unlocking the manacles.
"'M here," Aramis replied weakly.
"Put them on the Duke," Athos said, indicating the shackles.
D'Artagnan carried them over to secure Victor, then returned and crouched down to cut Athos's ropes.
"We need to tend to these wounds before anything," Athos said. "He's already lost a fair amount of blood."
D'Artagnan jumped to his feet again and darted out of the building. He came back with one of their saddle bags and quickly started pulling out linen for bandages. Athos wanted to ask how they'd found him and Aramis, how they knew the other mercenary group was a decoy, but those questions could wait for later.
"Isn't this going to need sewing?" d'Artagnan asked nervously. "And his shoulder…" The lad cut off, expression grimacing at the mangled puncture wound.
"We'll stop the bleeding for now," Athos said. "There's a village not far from here that should have a physician." He nodded to Porthos to hold Aramis up so they could bind his chest.
Porthos caught sight of the slash across his back and shared a pointed look with Athos, who didn't respond. Aramis, also, was quiet throughout the process, barely making a sound aside from the occasional muffled groan or inhalation. Athos tried to catch his eye to discern what he might be thinking, but Aramis had gone distant in a way that reminded Athos of five years ago.
He looked over at the unconscious Duke. They could not kill him, which meant they had to let him go, but doing so did not neutralize the threat the man posed to them, especially Aramis. If Victor was bent on vengeance, he could hire any number of mercenaries to try again. Athos had to find a way to protect his brother while upholding political relations on their end.
"D'Artagnan, the village isn't far. Ride there and alert the physician we'll be needing his services soon, but then return with paper, ink, and wax."
D'Artagnan quirked a confused look at him but nevertheless left to do as told.
"You 'ave a plan?" Porthos asked.
The other man simply nodded and turned his attention to their wounded brother. "Aramis? Hey, how you doin'? Yer awfully quiet and you know how nervous that makes me."
"Sorry," came the muted apology. "I'm tired."
Porthos's eyes crinkled with worry at that, but he shifted so Aramis could recline sideways against his chest, mindful of his wounds. "That's all right."
"Get some rest while we wait for d'Artagnan," Athos added.
Aramis didn't argue and lolled his head away, closing his eyes. Athos and Porthos shared a concerned look, but seeing as there was nothing they could do at the moment, they simply sat in silence beside their brother, steadfast in their presence. Athos reached for the discarded rosary and crucifix and tucked them safely in his doublet.
When d'Artagnan returned with the items, Athos gently nudged Aramis awake and helped Porthos get him on his feet, knowing he wouldn't want to appear beaten in front of the Duke. Athos then took the water skin from earlier and dumped it over the unconscious man. Victor instantly came awake with a sputter, jerking to the side until he felt the weight of the shackles on his wrists. Then his expression turned puce with murder as he glared up at them.
Athos stood over him for a prolonged moment before speaking. "We will let you go," he began.
Porthos made a small noise of complaint.
"You will write a signed confession," Athos went on. "Of your acts here today and of the attack you led on the musketeer troop five years ago."
Victor snorted and shook his head. "I will do no such thing."
"Then I will let Porthos shoot you and we will burn your body so it will never be identified."
"You wouldn't dare."
"We will not turn in your confession," Athos continued. "It will be kept in a secure place and never brought to light." He paused, bending down to look the Duke in the eye. "But if anything happens to me or Aramis, if you come after him again, I will make provisions so that confession is hand delivered directly to the King."
Victor studied him for a long moment, probably trying to work out all the angles. But the one that let them all walk out of here was the best any of them were going to get.
"Very well," he finally said grudgingly.
Athos nodded to d'Artagnan, who brought over the paper and ink and set them on one of the rusty counters. Victor slowly got to his feet and went over to pen the words that would secure their protection in the future. Aramis watched, face remaining impassive.
When the Duke was finished, Athos read it over and then gave a clipped nod. They melted some wax and Victor sealed it with his signet ring. Athos then snatched it away and slipped it into his coat. Forfeiting the rest of the ink and wax, he gestured to d'Artagnan to collect Aramis's coat and shirt. Porthos kept a bracing shoulder against Aramis as they made their way out while Athos grabbed the Duke and propelled him after them. The seven bodies of the mercenaries were sprawled across the ground, Porthos's and d'Artagnan's horses near the tree line.
"Should we ever see you at Court again, we will never speak of this," Athos said, finally releasing Victor and stepping away.
"Forgetting something?" the man said darkly, lifting his manacled wrists.
Athos's mouth curved upward a fraction. He held up the key, turned, and threw it with all his might into the field.
The Duke spun toward him, nostrils flaring with rage.
"To give us a head start," Athos said. "So you can't go back on your word."
With that, he followed his brothers to the horses and swung up behind d'Artagnan. Then they turned and rode away from the Duke of Savoy.
"Do you think he'll follow us to the village?" d'Artagnan asked.
"He would be stupid to try," Athos replied. This entire plot had been executed in secret. If the Duke were to be identified and the King alerted that Victor had come to France without leave, there would be trouble.
They made it to the village where the physician was waiting at the inn. Most of Aramis's bandages had bled through, particularly the stab wounds in his shoulder and leg, but everything required stitching, a long and arduous process that had left both doctor and patient utterly spent by the end of it.
Aramis was now tucked in bed, lying on his side to put the least amount of pressure on his various wounds, his entire torso swathed in bandages. He was pale from blood loss and the ordeal, but his breathing was even.
The others were sitting around the table, Porthos and d'Artagnan having brought up food and wine.
"You should eat somethin'," Porthos said.
"Not right now," Aramis replied quietly. He'd been subdued ever since leaving that wretched place. Athos couldn't blame him. He now had a moment to think on things himself.
After Marsac had been killed, Aramis had stopped pursuing the issue about the massacre at Savoy. Athos thought he'd decided to let it go, lay those old ghosts to rest with Marsac. But what if he'd discovered the truth? Obviously, he'd gone back to being on good terms with the captain, and it was precisely that which had made it so easy for Athos to move on as well and dismiss the entire incident as the ravings of a coward and a deserter.
But now he wanted—needed—to know.
"Aramis, what did you discover about Treville's role in the massacre?"
Everyone stilled, Porthos and d'Artagnan exchanging uncertain looks.
Aramis didn't answer for a long moment, but the silence was heavy with meaning. "Why does it matter now?" he finally said.
"It always mattered," Athos admitted. "I just didn't want to dig too deep. But the Duke of Savoy attacked those musketeers because he thought they were there to assassinate him."
"That's a bunch o' lies!" Porthos exclaimed.
"Lies apparently started by the Cardinal," Athos said. "So the Duke would be away confronting the perceived threat and Cluzet alone to be captured."
D'Artagnan's brows rose sharply. "Wait, you're saying the two are connected?"
Athos studied Aramis for a long moment. The marksman wasn't looking at them, but the dulled expression and lack of response spoke volumes on their own. "Is that what Treville told you?"
"You stopped asking questions after Marsac died," Athos pointed out. "Is that because it was over or because you found your answers?"
"We're soldiers," Aramis finally said. "We follow orders, no matter where they lead us. Just leave it at that."
"Did Treville know?"
Aramis closed his eyes. "Afterward."
Athos felt the sting of truth. They had all been right, and they had all been wrong. Treville did betray the musketeers' location, but not as an act of betrayal.
"Why didn' you tell us?" Porthos asked.
"It was a state secret," Aramis replied.
"And we didn't ask," Athos added, the weight of guilt an equally heavy burden. He leaned forward, resting his arms on his thighs. "We shouldn't have let it go. I'm sorry."
"You trusted Treville. I understand your loyalty to him."
"Our loyalty was to you as well. At least it should have been." Athos realized that now, that it wasn't a question of defending Treville against Marsac's accusations; it was supporting their brother as he wrestled with the truth of what had befallen him and his fellow musketeers in the forest that night. "You know how much we wish you weren't haunted by Savoy. Digging up the past, it opens all those old wounds."
"They are my wounds, and they have never fully healed," Aramis countered.
"I know." And now he had new ones to add to the scars. "Will you forgive us?"
Aramis exhaled softly. "Of course."
Athos hadn't really believed his brother would have held it against them; Aramis was always willing to forgive, but the absolution was a relief nonetheless.
"You understand why we couldn't kill the Duke," Athos went on. "Why we can't get justice for you and those other musketeers."
"Yes. They died in service to their country. That is all we require."
The truth, which Athos had always adhered to, rang hollowly this time. "Perhaps," he said, "but you deserve more." He took the rosary and crucifix from his coat and placed them in Aramis's hand, folding his friend's fingers over them. "And I will swear this to you—if the Duke does not abide by our arrangement and comes after you again, I will see him die by my hand."
"Not unless I get there first," Porthos said.
"Save some for me," d'Artagnan chimed in.
Aramis's mouth quirked slightly. After another moment, he started to push himself upright, wincing at the movement. "Maybe I'll try to eat something."
Athos poured him a cup of wine while Porthos set some bread and cheese on a plate and handed it to him.
They couldn't get Aramis justice, but they could stand by him.
Athos silently swore not to fail in that ever again.
Chapter 22: Clever and Fiendish
Athos and Porthos have been captured, and Aramis and d'Artagnan have to get…creative, with the rescue.
For Uia, who asked for "older bros" Athos & Porthos being captured and their "younger prankster bros" having to rescue them.
D'Artagnan and Aramis slipped through the darkened forest, careful to step softly over the bed of leaves beneath their feet. Mist curled in and around the trees in lazy tendrils, making the ground and air damp. Aramis ducked behind some bushes and crouched down. D'Artagnan followed suit. Peering through the thin branches, they surveyed the enemy camp. It was set at the mouth of a cave, though they hadn't ventured inside. A fire flickered in the center with over a dozen men milling about or taking some rest. And several feet away on the cave side sat Athos and Porthos, back to back on the ground and bound with rope. They didn't seem too badly injured, more put-out than anything.
"What do we do?" d'Artagnan whispered. They were sorely outnumbered.
Aramis's gaze was fierce and hard as he evaluated the situation. He didn't answer, probably because he didn't have one.
The snap of a twig alerted them to two sentries coming near, and they darted back behind a large oak. Both of their hands went to the hilts of their swords, though they waited to see if their presence would be discovered.
"We shouldna made camp 'ere," one of the guards muttered. "These woods are haunted."
The second man scoffed. "Old wives' tales."
"How do you explain this fog, eh? It's unnatural."
"Jus' ask the others," the first insisted. "Luc knows. His cousin went missin' in these woods."
"Stop jumpin' out of yer skin. Yer makin' me nervous."
As their voices retreated, d'Artagnan chanced a peek around the tree and watched their shapes veer back toward the camp. He sighed and turned to Aramis, their original problem still unsolved. The marksman had broken into a devious looking smile.
D'Artagnan frowned. "What?"
"I have an idea."
The devilish gleam in his friend's eye did not fill him with confidence. "What idea?" he asked a tad nervously.
"We'll better even our odds if we can scare some of these men off. And since some of them are already aware of the superstitions surrounding these woods, we just have to convince them the tales are true."
D'Artagnan arched his brows dubiously. "And how exactly are we supposed to do that?"
"The fog will give us some cover," Aramis said, looking around in consideration. "We can pick off a couple of sentries one by one, take their clothes and hang them in the trees to look like headless figures."
D'Artagnan pulled a face. "That's rather…fiendish."
Aramis pursed his mouth as he canted his head. "I was going to go with clever, but alright."
They hunkered down again and waited for the guards to make another round, meanwhile occasionally stealing glances toward the camp to make sure Athos and Porthos were still okay. Fortunately, their captors hadn't seen fit to torment them. It was unclear what they wanted exactly, but best not to wait too long to find out.
Aramis tapped d'Artagnan's shoulder and pointed to where a lone man was heading into the trees, probably to relieve himself. The two musketeers crept around to intercept him, the mist definitely giving them more cover. They came up behind the man swiftly, Aramis clobbering him with the butt of his pistol before he could even turn around. Grabbing his arms, they dragged him further away from the camp and began to divest him of his shirt. While d'Artagnan rolled the unconscious bandit against a log, Aramis tied the sleeves of the shirt around some low hanging branches so the article fluttered slightly. D'Artagnan still had his doubts about this, but he quickly sprinted back with Aramis toward their previous hiding place.
A few minutes later one of the sentries was making another pass. D'Artagnan and Aramis surged from the bushes to grab him, Aramis clamping a firm hand around the man's mouth to keep him from sounding the alarm. They wrestled him behind a tree where Aramis put him in a headlock, holding fast until he went limp in their grips.
As d'Artagnan tugged his sleeve off, Aramis picked up a crossbow he'd been carrying.
"Mm, this will come in handy," he said cheerfully. "Hang up the coat in the branches but keep the shirt."
D'Artagnan just shook his head and did as he was told.
Aramis dropped the unconscious man behind a tree and then started picking up some small stones. He handed a few to d'Artagnan. "Time to spook them."
They spread out a bit, and then with an exchanged nod, began to throw the rocks into the forest away from their position. Some of the men near the edge of camp perked up at the faint sounds, their eyes narrowed against the slinking mist.
"Oi, Brice! That you?"
"Hey, where's Fabien?"
More men got to their feet, shifting anxiously.
Aramis gestured to d'Artagnan. "Hold up the shirt, but as lightly as you can without dropping it." He crouched down on his knees and began checking the crossbow before lifting it to take aim.
"Um…" D'Artagnan scrunched his face up as he held the shirt out by his fingertips, the fabric heavy with that slightest grip.
"To your left," Aramis said, angling the crossbow upward.
D'Artagnan tried not to flinch as he shifted, the crossbow not pointed directly at him but a tad too close for comfort. Not that Aramis would miss.
The marksman waited a beat as he lined up the sight, and then he squeezed the trigger. The bolt shot from the bow, snagging the shirt on the way, and d'Artagnan yanked his hand back as the projectile soared up in an arc, flying the white shroud through the mist. A ripple of gasps went through the campsite.
"Did you see that?"
"Don' be ridiculous."
"Look, there's another one!" Someone pointed urgently toward where one of the jackets was swaying from the branches.
Aramis arched a pointed brow at d'Artagnan, who just shook his head. But he had to admit this crazy plan seemed to be working and now he was feeling inspired.
"I'll sneak around to the cave," he said. "I can throw my voice from inside, make it echo." He'd done it with Vadim in the tunnels beneath the palace.
Aramis's face cracked into a wide grin. "That's the spirit."
D'Artagnan found the smile contagious, and the two split up, Aramis weaving through the mist as d'Artagnan made his way toward the cave. At the moment, the mercenaries' attention was focused the opposite direction where Aramis's ghostly apparition had made its flight. Several had drawn their swords and started forward to where Aramis was darting around. This was a dangerous game the two musketeers were playing.
"There it is again!" someone shouted and pointed wildly at the other coat hanging in the trees.
D'Artagnan had to admit that from this distance and shrouded in fog, it did look rather ghostly. He slipped into the cave unnoticed and cupped his hands, pitching his voice into a low rasp, first with unintelligible words that slithered along the stone walls and into the forest. Those standing closest to the cave immediately whirled. D'Artagnan smiled at their eyes wide with fright.
"Trespassers," he whispered in his most sinister tone. "You're coming too close."
Athos arched a brow, looking more curious than perturbed, but Porthos was fidgeting where he sat, twisting back and forth trying to see what had everyone else on their toes and jostling Athos in the process.
D'Artagnan felt slightly bad for what he was about to do next. "Take the big one," he whispered with a thread of a cackle. "Yes, we want the big one."
Porthos's eyes blew wide. "Aw, hell no! Athos!"
"Let us go!" Athos shouted at their captors, sounding oddly desperate. Perhaps he'd caught on quicker than Porthos had. "Untie us! Don't leave us here!"
Two men promptly bolted from the campsite, fleeing into the hazy trees. That left seven in the camp. Still not great odds. D'Artagnan had lost sight of the ones who'd ventured into the fog, though he hadn't heard any commotion. Hopefully Aramis was picking them off one by one.
D'Artagnan picked up a pebble and chucked it at one of the remaining men, hitting him right behind the ear. The man yelped and whipped around, eyes round as his hand went to his ear. D'Artagnan ducked down in the shadow of the cave.
"We need to leave," another said urgently. "We need to leave now."
"Stay put!" someone snapped, perhaps the leader.
D'Artagnan was debating throwing his whispers again with some of their attention his way, but then an eerie call went up from the trees, a whistle somewhere between an owl's hoot and a bat's screech. D'Artagnan wondered how Aramis managed that.
Three more men abandoned the camp, leaving four. Those that had ventured deeper into the woods had yet to return, though a startled yelp echoed out from somewhere.
"There's no such thing as ghosts!" the leader bellowed.
Aramis strode out from the mist, rapier drawn. "Leastways not here," he said jauntily.
The leader snarled and surged forward with his weapon, but Aramis pulled his pistol and fired. The man went down with a scream.
D'Artagnan drew his sword and rushed out of the cave to join the fight. He and Aramis made quick work of the remaining three men, and then they paused to listen if any of the deserters might have been drawn back by the sounds of the fight. But for all those superstitious men knew, their comrades had been fighting ghosts.
D'Artagnan moved to Athos and Porthos and cut them free.
Porthos scrambled to his feet, expression incredulous as he took them in. "That was all you?"
"And it was quite the performance," Aramis beamed, clapping a hand on d'Artagnan's shoulder.
Porthos rounded on d'Artagnan. "Take the big one!" he hollered.
D'Artagnan grimaced under the fury. "I was trying to save your life."
"Which we appreciate," Athos interrupted. "But I suggest we vacate the area before the others come to their senses and return."
Aramis gave a short nod in agreement, and the four of them headed off. As they passed the clothes hanging in the branches, Athos arched a mild brow.
Aramis flashed d'Artagnan a pleased grin. "Told you."
D'Artagnan shook his head. "Clever and fiendish."
"What's the fun in having one and not the other?"
D'Artagnan broke into a grin as Porthos continued to grumble under his breath about it, threatening them not to make fun of him over this. D'Artagnan crossed his heart in silent promise, but a shared look with Aramis once Porthos's back was turned only made him bust out laughing anyway.
Chapter 23: Aramis, No!
He's going to be the death of them, if he doesn't get himself killed first. Aka, five times Aramis nearly gives his brothers heart attacks with reckless stunts.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Treville listened to the faint sounds of shuffling, an occasional muffled cough, but otherwise the regiment remained quiet, hunkered down on one side of a knoll that sat next to the road. The road the latest Huguenot uprising was currently heading down. The numbers were greater than initially assessed, and Treville had found his regiment of Musketeers was outmatched. Not in skill, certainly, but zealots always fought with a fervor that could give skilled soldiers a run for their money. Thus, they'd had to make a new plan.
So they'd set gunpowder and charges along a rocky slope and lit a long fuse, timing it so the explosives should blow right when the Huguenot army was just passing below. That would block the road and cull their numbers enough that the Musketeers could charge and defeat the rest.
They waited, armed and ready, as the steady beat of horses' hooves drew nearer. Treville sucked in a breath and braced for the ensuing explosion. But it didn't come.
Exchanging a confused look, Athos crept to the edge of the knoll and peered around with a spyglass. He huffed out a sigh. "The fuse went out."
Treville closed his eyes in dismay. They couldn't not attack, couldn't let the Huguenot forces continue on toward Paris, but they would suffer heavy casualties, which was what he'd been hoping to avoid with the trap.
Just as he was about to address the men and give them a short speech about honor and courage, Aramis grabbed a musket and started crawling up the knoll.
"I'll handle it." The marksman slid forward on his stomach at the top, laying the musket out and taking aim. But after a few moments he shook his head. "I need to get closer. Be ready."
"Aramis, no!" Treville hissed, but the man had already gone over the other side, breaking cover.
Treville and Athos scrambled up to the rise, keeping low, and watched Aramis sprint parallel to the road. The Huguenots, of course, spotted him. A few riders broke away to charge toward him. Athos's hand went to his pistol, but he didn't point and fire. If he gave away their location too soon, this would all be for naught.
The bulk of the army continued their march, moving right into position. Aramis dropped to one knee and braced his musket. Treville watched tensely as the marksman ignored the threat galloping toward him, took aim, and fired the shot. The rocky slope exploded in a cloud of smoke and dirt, the vibrations triggering a rock slide that careened down right on top of the advancing forces.
Treville glanced back down at his men. "Charge!"
The Musketeers surged out from the knoll with a united cry. Porthos, however, immediately broke formation and barreled straight toward where Aramis was about to be overtaken by three enemy soldiers.
Athos finally fired his pistol, making it two.
Drawing his sword, Treville descended the knoll to join the fray. The battle was fierce and bloody, but the trap had worked and a good number of horses and men had been wounded in the rock slide. The road had also been blocked, preventing them from breaking through with their mounts and wagons of weapons and supplies. Cries and the clash of steel rang out in a discordant chorus of blood and death. Treville couldn't say how long the battle lasted, but when it was over, the remaining Huguenots had retreated or been captured.
Treville wiped his sword clean and swept his gaze over his men, counting. There were some injuries, and at least two men on the ground, unmoving. He made another turn and found Aramis sauntering toward him with little more than a cut on one arm.
Treville's relief quickly morphed into irritation. "You could have gotten yourself killed," he upbraided.
Aramis merely shrugged. "It worked."
Treville shook his head, unable to disagree.
But that one was going to give him gray hairs.
Porthos wasn't overly fond of escort duty. The carriage slowed their pace and the only times he got to enjoy a good canter was when it was his turn to scout ahead or behind. But as a musketeer, they were sometimes tasked with escorting one of the King's relatives to Paris when they came for a visit.
At the moment, they were stopped so the royals could stretch their legs, though the Duchess's youngest son had stayed in the carriage, pouting while his mother and brother enjoyed the fresh air with Athos and d'Artagnan trailing closely. Porthos silently lamented the delay. He just wanted to be back in Paris at a tavern with some ale and a good card game.
The Duchess's other son of about seven seemed equally bored, as he was picking up pebbles and throwing them into the nearby field. But then he turned his aim toward the carriage, perhaps to goad his younger sibling.
"Jean Luc," his mother chided at the clinking noises the stone made against the carriage.
The boy ignored her and threw another rock, this time at the horses. The pebble struck one's flank, instantly sending the beast into a lurch, its fright transferring to its yoke mate and they both bolted.
Aramis and Porthos, still mounted, spurred their horses into giving chase as the Duchess screamed for her son still in the carriage. The frightened horses ignored the bend in the road and plowed straight through a gap in the tree line.
Aramis was ahead and veering his horse up alongside the coach. If he could gain a little more speed, he could try to snatch the flailing reins and bring the horses to a stop.
But that hope was dashed as Porthos caught sight of what lay ahead—a cliff.
Aramis must have seen it too, but instead of urging his horse to pick up speed, he swung one leg over his saddle, hunkering down on the opposite stirrup as he held tightly to the pommel for balance.
Porthos's eyes widened. "Aramis, no!"
His friend jumped onto the careening carriage, barely grasping at the top for purchase so he didn't fall. Then Aramis swung through the open door to land safely inside. His horse, now riderless, fell back. Porthos kicked his steed into going faster, coming up alongside the carriage in Aramis's place.
Aramis leaned out, holding the boy with both hands, and met Porthos's gaze.
Porthos shook his head even as he tightened his thigh muscles to keep his balance as he reached out both hands. Aramis thrust the child toward him, and Porthos nearly lost his breath as he frantically grabbed at the boy, pulling him onto the saddle in front of him and clutching him tightly. He had him though; the child was safe.
But the horses were still heading toward the swiftly approaching cliff, and though the animals might manage to veer in time, the carriage wouldn't be able to follow, and they'd all go over.
"Aramis!" Porthos yelled desperately.
The marksman was leaning out of the carriage and gazing ahead in grim determination. Grabbing the roof, he hauled himself out and began to climb around to the front. Porthos probably should have broken off, saw the child to safety, but he couldn't abandon his best friend, even though there was nothing he could do. His heart leaped into his throat when Aramis jumped from the carriage seat to the back of one of the horses.
Aramis drew his parrying dagger and swung down once, then twice, before he was finally able to cut the lines. Suddenly free of the hitch, the horses split in their mad dash. Aramis hung on, hands fisted in the horse's mane as he fought to calm her down. The carriage lost momentum and rumbled to a teetering stop just at the edge of the cliff.
Porthos steered his horse around to come up beside his friend. "That was bloody stupid," he growled, forgetting the child in his arms for the moment.
Aramis shrugged one shoulder, his chest heaving too much to form words apparently.
They rode back to the others where the Duchess was collapsed in Athos's arms in hysterics.
"Mama!" the boy cried as Porthos handed him down to d'Artagnan, and then the Duchess rallied herself enough to stumble forward and sweep him up into her arms.
D'Artagnan moved over to the other boy and knelt down, his face serious as he spoke in low words. Porthos suspected the lad was getting a lecture on proper treatment of horses.
"Where's the carriage?" Athos asked, pausing to quirk a look at the horse Aramis had just dismounted, which was most obviously not the one he'd ridden out on.
"I'm afraid we're going to have to procure another means of transportation," Aramis replied.
Athos's eyes narrowed a fraction. "Do I even want to know?"
"No," Porthos growled. He knew that vein in Athos's forehead had a tendency to throb when Aramis pulled these types of stunts. Porthos imagined that one day the marksman might just be the death of their lieutenant.
If Porthos didn't throttle their reckless brother first.
"Gotard, by order of the King's Musketeers, you are under arrest for five counts of murder."
The man in question gazed back at Athos, his expression far too smug for the position he found himself in—surrounded by musketeers with nowhere to run.
"I 'eard you lot was gettin' close," Gotard replied. "I took precautions."
Before Athos could ask what was meant by that, an explosion rocked a building a few spaces down the block. Fire belched through the broken windows, flames curling up and around the frames. In the ensuing moment of stunned stupor, Gotard bolted.
"D'Artagnan!" Athos shouted, gesturing sharply for the boy to go after him as he surged toward the burning building, yelling at people to evacuate the area.
Porthos ran to the well in the square and started hauling up a bucket of water. Aramis was herding people away from the building when a woman threw herself at him, screaming.
"My brother! He's still inside!"
Aramis flicked his gaze to the building. Grabbing the woman's shoulders and pushing her away, he dashed into the burning structure without warning.
"Aramis, no!" Athos yelled, but the man had disappeared into the smoke filled interior. Cursing under his breath, he took up the task of continuing to usher people away as Porthos and some other men returned with water. Athos grabbed a canvas cover from a nearby cart and slapped at the flames around the door, trying to see through the haze within. There was no sign of Aramis. The woman stood across the street, screaming her brother's name.
Athos's heart pounded against his rib cage, but just as he felt he was about to snap, a figure came stumbling through the doorway, dragging a young lad along with him. Aramis staggered from the building and across the street before he deposited his load on the ground. The boy's sister was quick to scoop him up in her arms, sobbing and thanking Aramis profusely.
Athos shouted orders for the water line to keep going. At some point, he caught sight of d'Artagnan returning with Gotard in custody, the wanted criminal sporting a fresh welt on his face.
As the flames began to die down and the surrounding buildings seemed no longer in danger, Athos turned to Aramis, who had propped himself up against a wall and was coughing into his arm. Athos marched over and grabbed his brother firmly by the back of his neck, squeezing insistently.
"Don't ever do that again," he warned.
Aramis graced him with a breathless smile. "You know I can't ignore a damsel in distress." He curled forward under another coughing fit.
Athos sighed. No, he couldn't. His brother was the reckless hero type.
D'Artagnan wove through the crowds of people, surprised by how big this dog fighting event was. He'd never seen the allure in the sport and thought it cruel, but apparently there were plenty of others with the opposite opinion.
"Why meet here?" he asked Aramis as the two kept an eye open for the contact they were searching for, a man who was supposed to have information on a smuggling ring.
"Busy, public place," Aramis replied, twisting to get through the throng without bumping anyone. His gaze strayed to the left and d'Artagnan caught the eye of Athos and Porthos across the way.
Suddenly, a man stepped into their path. D'Artagnan and Aramis pulled up short, exchanging a look before focusing on the bedraggled looking man.
"Can we help you with something?" Aramis asked politely.
"You're musketeers, yeah?"
D'Artagnan arched a brow, but Aramis simply angled himself to the side and lifted the edge of his cloak to expose his pauldron.
The man nodded, eyes shifty. "Had to be sure."
"We understand you have information for us," Aramis went on.
D'Artagnan couldn't suppress an annoyed huff. The man had wanted to meet here in the first place.
Aramis regarded him carefully. "Very well…"
A shot cracked the air, barely audible above the din of the dog fight and jeers from the spectators, but the informant suddenly dropped to the ground, a bullet in his head. Aramis whirled, whipping out his pistol. The people closest startled at the unexpected sight, and then someone screamed as they realized what had happened. The effect rippled through the crowd.
D'Artagnan spotted a man aiming a pistol and shouted at Aramis. The marksman adjusted his aim and fired first, felling the man before he could get another shot off. Now people were beginning to panic, and d'Artagnan fought the pull of the throng as they scrambled around him. He had to figure out if there was just the one shooter.
Aramis jumped onto a table to get above the crowd, his second pistol poised and ready. He suddenly took aim and fired, though d'Artagnan couldn't see what he'd hit. Then the marksman leaped off the table and started pushing his way through the mayhem. D'Artagnan did his best to follow.
They somehow ended up close to the fighting ring, and in the commotion, the fence suddenly broke. The dogs that had been set to fight each other were now loose, and d'Artagnan pulled up short as he abruptly found himself facing down two sets of snarling fangs.
Aramis froze for only a second before collecting himself and darting to the side. He stopped and spun, then whistled, high-pitched and sharp. The dogs snapped their heads toward him.
"Come on," he called, whistling again.
With a gnashing of teeth, the dogs charged after him.
D'Artagnan finally found his voice. "Aramis, no!"
He watched in horror as Aramis ran toward the nearby warehouse where the kennels were, darting inside the open door. The dogs followed him in. There was a yelp, and a moment later Aramis was scrambling back out and slamming the door shut. Then he turned and sagged against it, breathing heavily.
D'Artagnan sprinted over. "Are you okay?" he asked urgently.
Aramis glanced down and fingered a tear in his coat. He thumped his head back against the door. "I'm going to have to mend that," he lamented.
"Better that than your skin. What were you thinking?"
"There were too many people around. Those dogs are primed to kill whatever they set their sights on." Aramis finally pushed away from the door and straightened. There was still chaos and confusion happening further away. He paused though and put a hand on d'Artagnan's shoulder. "Let's not tell Athos."
D'Artagnan just shook his head and jabbed a finger at his friend. "This time."
"You assume there will be a next time," Aramis rejoined.
"With you?" He snorted. "Always."
Aramis quirked a grin.
Aramis cursed himself for the position he found himself in—held hostage by a madman and being used as a human shield before his brothers. The worst part though was the barrels of gunpowder stacked in the orphanage behind him, a fuse already lit and burning down slowly. Aramis had been caught off guard while stamping it out, overpowered by the criminal they'd been chasing who felt that orphans were a scourge on society and needed to be exterminated. After binding Aramis's wrists with rope, he'd relit the fuse and dragged his hostage from the building.
"Back up!" the man snarled, pressing the dagger's point more insistently against the flesh under Aramis's collarbone.
D'Artagnan flicked an uncertain look at Athos and Porthos, whose gazes and aims of their pistols remained unwavering, though they didn't have a clear shot.
"No!" Aramis shouted. "The fuses are lit and the children are still inside!"
He saw their eyes shift to the orphanage. Athos, who was closest, took a side step.
"Don't!" the madman shouted viciously, tightening his fist in the back of Aramis's doublet. The tip of the dagger pierced his shoulder, eliciting a hiss. Athos hesitated.
Aramis saw the indecision warring in his brothers' eyes. How many precious seconds would it take to convince them to act, regardless of his personal safety? Time was running out and he could not allow those children to be harmed. So Aramis reached up and wrapped his hands over the madman's around the hilt of the dagger, sucking in a steeling breath as he braced himself.
"Aramis, no!" several voices shouted.
The man tensed, expecting his hostage to try to wrench the blade away. Instead Aramis thrust the blade through his shoulder with enough force that it punched out the other side—and into his captor who had been pressed right up against him.
The man let out a startled cry and released Aramis's coat as he staggered back. Aramis dropped to his knees, liquid fire shooting through his chest. There was the crack of a pistol shot. Or maybe more than one. His ears were ringing. He tipped sideways and hit the ground, the impact radiating up through his shoulder and sending fresh bursts of searing pain through it. He curled in on himself.
"Aramis!" Hands grasped at his arm and shoulder, jostling a choked moan from his throat.
"The…charges," he gasped out. "H-hurry."
"Athos and d'Artagnan have it," Porthos's rumbling voice sounded above his head. A hand cupped the back of his neck. "You damn fool."
"The…children," was all Aramis could get out between labored breaths.
The hand on his neck squeezed in understanding.
"The fuses are out," Athos's voice announced his return. A shadow fell over Aramis a moment before Athos knelt in front of him and cut away the rope on his wrists. "We need a surgeon," he said, removing his scarf and wrapping it around the hilt to stabilize it.
Aramis stifled a pained groan, his stomach sloshing at the sickening sensation of being skewered like a stuck pig.
"And reinforcements to deal with the gunpowder."
"I'll go," d'Artagnan replied.
"Lord have mercy," a new voice sounded from above. Aramis placed it as Sister Sabina, the nun in charge of the orphanage. "Quick, bring him inside."
"Aramis," Athos said in a low warning before he and Porthos were hauling him upright.
White spots sparked across his vision and his head spun. Nausea rippled through him again at the hilt protruding from his shoulder.
"On three," Athos continued, only giving him a heads-up and not bothering to ask permission. "One, two, three."
He was heaved to his feet, and Aramis clenched his jaw tightly and locked his knees to make sure he stayed that way. But then he was being nudged forward and he had no choice but to shuffle along as he was led inside.
"The children?" he gritted out.
"Upstairs safe," Sister Sabina answered, rushing ahead of them into the refectory and snatching the candlesticks off one of the tables.
Athos and Porthos guided Aramis over and eased him onto it, tipping him onto his uninjured side as gently as they could manage.
"This is…no place…for…surgery."
"And you are in no condition to make it back to the garrison," Athos countered.
"Don' want to…frighten…the children." He squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed a moan. "Knock me out."
"Not until the physician gives his leave." A hand settled on the top of his head and the voice softened. "I'm sorry, brother, but I need you to hold on a little longer."
He tried, focusing on breathing through his nose and keeping his chest as still as possible. Voices filtered in and out around him. When a new, harried set joined the thrum, Aramis paid attention long enough to hear that d'Artagnan and Captain Treville had just arrived with some doctor in tow, and then he finally let go of his tenuous hold on consciousness with a silent apology to Athos.
The next time awareness returned, he was laying on his back on a semi-soft pallet. There was a tightness around his arm and shoulder, and he realized it was because they were bound firmly in bandages. He cracked his eyes open and found that the dagger was blessedly not sticking through him anymore. He had no recollection of it coming out. Which was for the best.
Aramis turned his head toward the voice, eyes finding Porthos sitting in a chair beside his bed. "Waiting long, were you?" he tried to quip, but his voice came out far too raspy to be humorous.
Porthos snorted and grabbed a cup from the bedside stand, leaning forward to help Aramis drink. The tepid water was refreshing, and Aramis briefly closed his eyes to appreciate it. Then he opened them again and looked around at the unfamiliar quarters.
"Still at the orphanage," Porthos supplied. "Sister Sabina insisted. She's very grateful for what you did."
"It was a team effort."
"Yeah, well, Athos is going to murder you."
"That seems counterproductive to all the work put into stitching me back together."
"I've half a mind to murder you too."
Aramis softened his expression. "I'm sorry, Porthos. It was not my intent to die."
"Coulda fooled me," he grumbled, but there was fond exasperation in his eyes. He stood up. "I'm gonna tell Athos and d'Artagnan you're awake."
Aramis closed his eyes. "Must you?"
Porthos huffed. "You scared the hell outta us. Turnabout's fair play."
"So it is," he said in resignation as Porthos's footsteps exited the room. While he was gone, Aramis took stock of his body. His shoulder ached fiercely and burned where he could feel the thread holding his flesh together. The bandages were too snug and his arm immobilized for him to test whether he had range of movement.
The door opened and three sets of boots sounded across the floor. Aramis turned his head to greet his brothers with a small smile. D'Artagnan looked relieved, but Athos's expression was carefully masked as usual.
Aramis sighed. "I'm sorry," he said preemptively. "I know it was reckless, but I couldn't let those children die."
D'Artagnan's mouth opened as though ready to offer forgiveness, but he kept silent, looking to Athos for a cue instead.
Athos gazed at Aramis for a long moment. "Could you think of no other option?" he asked dryly.
Aramis grimaced. "Not within the time constraints." He waited, expression open and sincere as Athos continued to regard him.
"I'd appreciate if you wouldn't do that again," Athos finally said.
Aramis smiled. "If a madman doesn't hold me hostage while waiting for a bomb to go off again, I won't."
Athos rolled his eyes while Porthos shook his head in exasperation. Even d'Artagnan smirked knowingly. They all knew Aramis would continue to push the limits as long as lives were at stake. It was who he was.
And that he would not apologize for.
So the next story I have after this is actually longer than a one shot! I'll be posting it separately starting Saturday.