Aramis pushed aside the tent flap and shuffled outside. The fresh air slapped him in the face and was a shock to his lungs after the cloying stench of the sick and dying within the med tent. It was one of the unavoidable horrors of war. Two years into the conflict with Spain and it hadn't gotten any easier.
Outside, the moans and whimpers were muted by the clanging of tools and practice blades, the creaking of wheels as cannons were moved, and the nickering of horses crowded together in a makeshift paddock. It was March and the trampled ground of the encampment was slushy from recent rains, turning everything into a squelching, brown mire that reflected accurately the overall mood of the soldiers forced to bunk in it.
Aramis walked with heavy steps across the camp to a couple of supply wagons and lifted a ladle of water from an open barrel, taking a long draught. The crisply cold liquid quenched his thirst but also triggered a brief spike of pain behind his eyes. Dropping his head between his shoulders, Aramis scooped up a handful of water and splashed his face, then the back of his neck. He shivered as the nearly freezing liquid dribbled down past his collar, yet it was also somewhat soothing to his tight muscles.
Mud-stained boots plodded through the muck and stopped in front of him. "You all right?" Porthos asked.
Aramis shrugged. "Harold probably isn't going to make it through the night."
Porthos was silent for a moment. This was their reality now: violence and suffering and death.
"You did all you could," he finally said.
Aramis didn't respond. He knew that, but it didn't make losing brothers in arms any easier to bear.
Sometimes, in dark moments like these, he wondered what things would be like had he stayed at Douai instead of forsaking his vow when his brothers had come for him. He had been torn over that decision, just as he had been over the one to resign his commission in the first place. But in the end, he knew he could not live with himself should he let his brothers go off to war on their own; he had to be there to watch their backs. He'd told himself his vow would still be there when the war was over—and may God forgive him for the tally of sins in lives taken he racked up until then.
Aramis tried to balance the score some by helping in the infirmary tent when he could. His skills as a battlefield medic had never been put to such frequent use.
Sometimes it worked, and he felt as though his penance was accepted when men lived.
…And other times it didn't.
"You should get some rest," Porthos said, breaking through his morose thoughts. "The regiment jus' got orders to move out tomorrow."
Aramis gave him a wan half smile. "I'd like to take in a little more fresh air first. Go on, Porthos, I'll be fine."
His friend looked reluctant but nodded in understanding and let him be.
Aramis bowed his head, his lips moving in soundless prayer for absolution, strength, and for Harold's soul as late evening deepened toward twilight.
He looked up in surprise at the odd address. An older man in peasant clothing with weathered skin and hair that seemed prematurely gray stood at the back of the wagons, his body posture hesitant. He seemed familiar, though Aramis couldn't place him.
"I'm Bernard Focault, from Montaut," he said as though realizing Aramis didn't recognize him.
The names did the trick and Aramis suddenly remembered—the Musketeers had been out that way ten months ago to engage a troop of Spanish soldiers that were attacking French villages. Montaut had been the site of the final skirmish that finally saw the Spanish troop dead or retreating.
"Of course," Aramis said, turning to fully face him. "It's been a while. What are you doing in this region?"
"Many people have been driven far from their homes because of the war," Bernard replied.
Aramis's lips thinned. Of course. Refugee camps were cropping up everywhere in response to the displaced citizens.
"It seems fortuitous, seeing you here again." Bernard glanced around, then cocked his head in invitation. "Would you walk with me?"
There was still an hour of daylight left, so Aramis nodded and rolled down the sleeves of his shirt before following the older man into the surrounding woodland. This late, in the transitory time between day and night, there was little wildlife activity. The silence only added to the desolate feel that blanketed half the French countryside because of the war.
It was cold and Aramis shivered without his doublet, but he craved the crisp air to peel away some of the lingering sweat and fetor from his time in the med tent.
"How is your daughter?" he asked, then added after remembering, "Giselle." She had taken a musket ball while fleeing the Spanish in the battle at Montaut. The wounded citizens had been brought back to the Musketeer encampment and Aramis had dug the ball out and stitched the wound.
Bernard's already drawn face fell further. "She died eight months ago from sickness."
Aramis faltered at the news. "I'm sorry," he said, the words like lead and entirely insufficient.
"Food is scarce in the refugee camps," Bernard went on. "And the conditions are filthy. Disease is rampant."
Aramis had nothing to say to that, for it was another unavoidable byproduct of war.
"We need supplies and a doctor, but no help comes." Bernard's voice grew impassioned. "The King sits safely in Paris and persists in this war, but does he give any thought to how his people suffer for it?"
Aramis hesitated. "The King believes he is protecting France."
Bernard drew to a stop and eyed Aramis earnestly. "Do you agree?"
Aramis shrugged helplessly. "I wish there was no need for war between men. But the machinations of evildoers brought it about."
It was a woefully inadequate answer, not to mention incomplete. Aramis's role in Rochefort's accusations against the Queen had only added fuel to an already out of control fire. And when Rochefort had been proven a Spanish spy, the heinous nature of his crimes had spurred the King into declaring war. Aramis's involvement in the plot had probably not influenced the outcome that significantly—had the Queen not been accused of infidelity with him, Rochefort would have found something else to slander her with—but he knew he shouldered some of the guilt for the entire mess. Guilt that had driven him to a monastery, and then into the midst of a war that had been spawned as a direct course of his misdeeds.
Bernard studied him for a long moment, so much that Aramis wondered how far Rochefort's rumors had spread from Paris.
"And we do what we must," Bernard finally said sagely.
Aramis inclined his head in agreement. "We do."
Bernard nodded, almost to himself. "Then I hope you understand."
Aramis furrowed his brow, but before he could ask what the man meant, he was grabbed from behind, several pairs of hands seizing his arms and shoulders. One slapped a damp cloth over his mouth and nose, and the stench of rotten eggs filled his nostrils. Aramis struggled and slammed his head back, managing to throw off one, and the cloth fell to the ground. He twisted an arm free and threw a punch up over his shoulder, successfully making contact with a cheek bone.
But there were four men and two still had a grappling hold of him while the ones he'd hit recovered quickly and jumped back into the struggle. Bernard stood there watching with a remorseful but resolute look in his eyes. He stepped forward and picked up the cloth. Aramis jerked back as it was pressed into his face again, the fumes overpowering. He tried to buck away but the hands holding him were unyielding and a fog began to roll across his vision.
His heart lurched, and then he felt himself sinking into darkness.
Aramis woke to a throbbing headache and a tickle in the back of his throat. His mouth felt like cotton and he swallowed convulsively a few times. He felt heavy and groggy and it took him far too long to pry his eyelids open, squinting blearily at blurred tans, off-whites, and browns swirling above his head. Groaning, he reached a hand up to press his palm against the pain in his temple. What the hell hit him? A cannon ball?
He furrowed his brow as he registered the feel of a soft bed beneath him, which was entirely incongruent with the cots in the med tent. It was also strangely, unnervingly, quiet.
Aramis forced his eyes fully open and blinked rapidly until the blobs took on the solid shapes of beams and ceiling corners. He was not in a tent.
Pushing himself up onto his elbows with a grimace, he looked around a decent sized room with a large paned window along the wall adjacent to the small bed he was lying in. Across in the opposite wall was a fireplace. The room might have been a bedchamber or sitting room, save the only other furniture were two long wooden tables set perpendicularly to each other and stocked with piles of folded linen, bushels of dried plants, and small bottles of some kind of liquids. Two rickety chairs bookended them.
Aramis sat up the rest of the way and swung his legs over the side of the mattress, looking around in disconcerted confusion. Where was he? He glanced down at himself, taking note of his trousers and boots but no coat, just his shirt. His head pulsed and that tickle in his throat drew forth a small cough. He tried to remember what happened. There had been a skirmish with the Spanish, Harold had been severely injured. Aramis had spent hours trying to patch him up, but the wound was too deep and to the abdomen. The poor man really didn't have a chance. Aramis had gone for some fresh air and…he'd run into Bernard Focault. They'd been talking, and then…
Aramis pushed himself to his feet. Dizziness swept through him, but he staggered his way to the window and looked out from a second story at crowded streets lined with tents and shanties backed up against each other, and his confusion only grew.
"Good, you're awake."
Aramis whirled, his vision tilting abruptly before correcting itself. Bernard had entered the room.
"You were out for the entire night."
Aramis shook his head, still trying to dispel the lingering daze. "You drugged me?" he accused.
"It seemed the most efficient way to get you here," the man replied, giving him an evaluating look. "I'm sorry, I've heard the aftereffects of inhaling ether can be as uncomfortable as a hangover. There's fresh water on the table there, and I'm sure you can make use of the herbs available."
Aramis's gaze skittered over said items but he didn't take a step toward them. "What is this place?"
"A refugee camp a little over an hour's ride from the Musketeer encampment."
Aramis drew his shoulders back. "Why did you bring me here? For some kind of vengeance for your daughter?"
Bernard actually looked horrified at the suggestion. "No! You saved my daughter. What happened to her later, that was the fault of the King's war." He shook his head. "No, I brought you here because we need your help. There are many sick and injured who need a doctor."
"I'm not a doctor," Aramis pointed out.
"But you are a very skilled medic and that is better than nothing."
Aramis reached a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose, not quite able to believe what he was hearing. "Bernard…you can't just go around kidnapping soldiers. My regiment is due to leave this morning; I have to get back."
Bernard's genial demeanor hardened a fraction. "They'll have to do without you. You're needed here more, so someone else's daughter doesn't die!"
Aramis gaped at him in bafflement. Did he honestly believe that Aramis would simply turn his back on his duty to accommodate him after the man had kidnapped him?
In fact, Bernard seemed wholly undaunted as he turned back toward the door and waved someone to come inside. A man entered, gently nudging a little girl with blond hair forward. She was perhaps six years old and shuffled her feet reluctantly, her gaze downcast and her arms tucked up tightly against her small body. One hand was wrapped in a dirty bandage.
"This is Madeline," Bernard introduced. "Madeline, this is Aramis. He's our new medic."
A muscle in Aramis's jaw ticked. This was absurd; he couldn't just stay here and play nursemaid. And yet this was a child who hadn't done anything wrong and how could he turn his back on her when she was in need?
Biting back a frustrated sigh, Aramis moved to take a seat in one of the chairs and beckoned the girl forward. She stood her ground, clutching her hand protectively to herself.
"Madeline, is it?" he asked softly.
He offered her a warm smile. "I'm Aramis. Will you let me look at your hand?"
By the constipated pinch in her expression, she most certainly didn't want to, but outnumbered by three adults, she reluctantly came closer. Aramis carefully took her wrist and brought it forward, then began to unwind the cloth bandage, revealing a badly infected cut across her palm.
"That looks like it hurts," he remarked.
She tried to yank her hand back, but he kept a firm yet gentle hold of it.
"I can make it feel better," he offered.
Madeline bit her lip, then gave a small nod.
Aramis looked at Bernard. "What herbs do you have?"
The man gestured to the supplies laid out on the tables. "We've tried to get a bit of everything. Some of it is labeled, but not all. You can organize it how you want; this will be your work room."
Aramis gritted his teeth at the presumption he would be staying. "I thought you said supplies are scarce," he commented instead. "It looks like you have a lot here."
"As I said, we've tried to get everything we could."
Aramis's mouth turned down. "You mean you've been looting."
Bernard shrugged. "Needs must."
As though that justified everything the man was doing. Aramis wanted to point out the immorality of his actions but wouldn't in front of the child who was too young to understand what was going on and was just in pain.
So he forced a smile on his face when he looked back at her and patted the top of her hand. "I'm going to make a poultice to help draw out the infection."
"Will it hurt?"
"Perhaps a little," he admitted. What he was holding back was he would need to lance the wound first. "But you seem like a brave girl. I bet you wouldn't need a prince to rescue you from a dragon; you'd save yourself."
Her mouth quirked tentatively.
Aramis stood and rolled up his sleeves as he surveyed the supplies, picking out the herbs that would be of use. "I'll need hot water and some old bread," he said to Bernard. "And a knife."
Bernard nodded to the other man, who left the room, and then he went to the hearth to heat some water.
Aramis laid out fresh linen and found some towels. When the bread arrived and water was heated, he mixed up the poultice to have it ready. Bernard's man also handed him a small knife, which he surreptitiously cleaned without Madeline seeing. Then Aramis gestured for her to sit in the chair and crouched in front of her.
"Now, I do have to be honest and tell you I have to drain the infection. It will hurt, but just for a bit and then it will feel better, I promise."
She looked at him with wide, fearful eyes and he smiled reassuringly.
"I had to sit through this once," he began to reminisce as he picked up the knife. "I was a little older than you and got stung by a bee. Have you ever been stung by a bee?"
Madeline shook her head.
Aramis angled the tip of the knife toward her palm and made a careful slice across the inflamed and infected tissue. She hissed air through her teeth.
"I don't recommend it," he continued. "They leave their stingers behind. Anyway, it got infected, all red and swollen. Much like this here."
Aramis prattled on about the bee sting as he carefully massaged the area around the wound to drain the discharge onto the dirty bandage. His voice rose and fell with the rhythm of storytelling in sync with his ministrations. Madeline was eventually more focused on him than her hand.
When he had drained as much as he could without pressing too hard and causing further damage, he gently wiped the area clean and began to apply the poultice, finishing up by wrapping it in a new bandage.
"Keep this dry for several hours," Aramis told her seriously. "And you'll be feeling better in no time."
She finally smiled back at him shyly. Aramis stood as Bernard's friend escorted her from the room.
Bernard was gazing at him knowingly. "See? You'll do a lot more good here."
Aramis opened his mouth to argue that he couldn't stay when they were interrupted by another person being brought in, this time a young man hobbling on a crutch with a bandage around his thigh.
Bernard introduced them, explaining how the lad had been injured and how without treatment it wasn't healing.
Aramis clenched his jaw in vexation. He couldn't do this.
And yet his heart did go out to these people, and he didn't know how to say no when they were in clear need standing right before him.
So he swallowed his consternation and turned his attention to helping this next patient.