Chapter 1: Rooftops
Porthos was attempting sleep; had been for the last thin moments of the night.
The sound of a knife hitting wood, a slowly repetitive sound, the time delay between each dull thud just enough for his body to slip back into a relaxed state before the next thunk, was keeping him from falling back into the oblivion he’d been greatly enjoying an hour ago. After the fifth instance of his muscles instinctively constricting, startling him to a semi-aware state and jarring his still-healing back, the big man pushed himself to a seated position on his narrow bed, a growl building at the back of his throat.
Someone was going to bloody pay.
The sun was barely edging the horizon, letting just enough of its light spill over and around the walls of the garrison that the interior of Porthos’ room was gray rather than pitch. The wooden shutters closing off his room from the outside world held enough cracks that light slipped narrow fingers into his only sanctuary, climbing coyly across the rough-hewn floorboards to slip up his bare legs and tease his sleep-swollen eyes.
His body protested as he pushed to his feet, rubbing a hand over his unruly black curls, then dragging it down his face to tug at the tip of his beard. He shuffled to his door, not bothering to dress, grabbing his schiavona – in his left hand as his right still protested the weight – and opened the door. The cool morning shocked his eyes open wide, truly alert for the first time since sitting up in bed.
Clad in only his smalls, his browned, bare chest taking the brunt of the chill, Porthos blinked out into the frosty, not-quite-empty courtyard of the Musketeer garrison. Crystalized dew clung to the hoof and footprints that littered the grounds, turned cobwebs that clung to the beams into lace, and glinted off the table and staircase that led up to Treville’s office.
A man stood in the center of the yard, squared off from the painted targets at the far end – situated right next to Porthos’ quarters, inconveniently enough – his breath clouding before his face and obscuring his features. Porthos had selected this location as it was the furthest distance from the rest of the Musketeer quarters. After spending the first twenty-odd years of his life living practically on top of fifty other people, the concept of space had been enticing. He could find peace here; he was able to actually rest.
Until some lout decided to muck it up with early morning target practice.
Opening his mouth to give the fool what for, his breath caught as a blade flew through the air and hit the painted target dead-center. Following the line, Porthos saw three other knives clustered in that same space and raised his brows, impressed. The knife-thrower was either quite skilled or extremely lucky.
Turning to once more call out to the man, he was surprised into silence when the slim figure of the young d’Artagnan approached the wall, his expression cut by grim lines, his eyes a shade just before black. He hadn’t yet noticed Porthos, so focused was he on his efforts. His weapon's belt and doublet were missing; he was dressed only in his breeches and a loose-fitting white shirt. Porthos could see the chill in the air had taken hold by the red of his nose and cheeks and the way his body involuntarily shivered as he reached to pull the blades free of the wood.
“Oi,” Porthos called. d’Artagnan jumped, taking a step back from the target. He had quite clearly been in his own world. Porthos jerked his chin at the wall. “What’s all this, then?”
“Um,” d’Artagnan replied, looking over at the still-imbedded blades. “Target practice.”
“Before dawn?” Porthos growled.
d’Artagnan looked at him again, blinking at the tone. Porthos knew he could sound rather menacing when he wanted; he used that special skill to his advantage quite often, actually, but he hadn’t meant to scare the lad, and by the expression on d’Artagnan’s face – as though he had just inadvertently startled a bear – he’d done just that.
“Couldn’t sleep,” d’Artagnan offered by way of explanation.
“Neither can I thanks t’you,” Porthos muttered, finally feeling the cold ripple gooseflesh across his bare chest. “Why aren’t you at the Boniceaux?”
d’Artagnan looked down, but didn’t reply. Porthos caught a glimpse of shadows cross the young man’s features and sighed, giving in to the softer side of his nature that only a few people in his life had been able to conjure at will. He hadn’t expected a boy from Gascony with walls up higher than Athos’ internal fortress to be among them, but life had surprised him before.
“C’mon,” he grumbled. “Get’cher things.”
d’Artagnan frowned. “And go where?”
“First,” Porthos started to turn away, then glanced back, glowering, “my room. Then breakfast.”
He heard d’Artagnan swallow as he lifted his schiavona and rested the blade on his bare shoulder, heading back into his quarters.
Something was eating at the lad that was clear. Had been since they collectively contrived to send Bonnaire on his way via a Spanish slave ship. Porthos knew he’d missed something between their visit to Athos’ estate – where the hell had that come from, anyway – and sharing a drink at the tavern after all was supposedly said and done.
Aramis felt it, too; Porthos could tell.
He hadn’t come right out and said so but Porthos read his friend’s eyes well enough by now to know when Aramis was troubled; whatever it was that was chewing on d’Artagnan had not gone unnoticed by the marksman. However, talking with Aramis about the whelp would have to wait as the other man currently had his hands full with Athos’ misguided attempt to drink all the wine in Paris over the course of the last week. Minding Athos when he was in a dark mood was a full time job, and a thankless one at that; Porthos had escaped that particular duty this time around simply because his wound was still healing.
Dropping his sword on the leather weapon’s belt and scabbard he’d set on the small table next to his bed, Porthos went about cleaning up for the day, taking for granted that d’Artagnan would follow him. He heard the door shut as he plunged his face into the bowl of cold water poured from a pitcher he kept filled at all times. Years of going without had taught him that, whenever possible, arming himself with basics like bread and water could be the line drawn between himself and desperation.
Porthos cleared his throat as he dried his face on his shirt before pulling it over his head, his arm still stiff from the wound.
“Tell me.” It came out more brusque than he’d intended.
He heard d’Artagnan shift his weight from one foot to the other, and could tell by the proximity of the lad’s voice when he answered that the Gascon had moved to stand near the window, most likely peering out through the narrow slats.
“What’s to tell?”
d’Artagnan had a low, rough voice. Pleasant enough to listen to, not one that tended to blend or grate on the nerves. Porthos could train him to use it to his advantage when he wanted to sound more menacing than he looked. Aramis would probably advise him to use it to different advantages.
Porthos grabbed his breeches and pulled them on without replying, before turning to face d’Artagnan as he tucked his shirt into the waistband and began lacing up the front.
“You’ve been moodier than Athos for the last week.”
d’Artagnan frowned, his dark eyes trained on something Porthos couldn’t see outside the window.
“Y’think we did Bonnaire wrong.” Porthos made sure it came out as a statement, satisfied when the accusation pulled d’Artagnan’s focus at last.
“No? You don’t think we shoulda protected ‘im like we was told? Sent ‘im on ‘is way all nice and safe like?”
The line burrowing itself between d’Artagnan’s brows was enough answer for Porthos, but he stayed quiet, letting the young man speak.
“He was a slaver, Porthos. We weren’t going to simply let him go free.”
Porthos lifted his chin. “Then what is it?”
d’Artagnan’s eyes slid to the side once more. “Nothing. Everything’s fine.”
Porthos caught his bottom lip between his teeth, watching as d’Artagnan’s eyes rested on nothing, his jaw coiling as though he were trying to break his own teeth. There were things Porthos had learned, growing up in the Court of Miracles, that had taught him how to read people. Such as when a person lies, they have a tendency to look away. d’Artagnan was certainly lying now, but he was also physically holding himself back from speaking a truth. And Porthos had experience with the ramifications of forcing someone to speak when they weren’t ready.
“Fine,” Porthos echoed, grabbing his heavily-studded doublet and easing his arm into the sleeve. “You go get us somethin’ to eat, then.”
At that, d’Artagnan brought his head up, brow furrowed. “Why me?”
Porthos shrugged his doublet in place, tilting his head at the young man. “’Cause you’re fine, yeah?”
“Yeah,” d’Artagnan arched a brow. “But…so are you.”
Porthos grinned as he finished buttoning his doublet and grabbed his weapon’s belt. “There’s that Gascon fire,” he said, clapping a heavy hand on d’Artagnan’s shoulder.
Now that he was awake, he was too restless to stay in his quarters and too hungry to wait for Serge. He made his decision.
“We’ll go together.” He moved past d’Artagnan toward the door. “You gonna stand there with your sword in your hand all day or what?”
d’Artagnan looked down at his hands where he still gripped his weapon’s belt and leather doublet, having left the knives embedded in the wooden target out in the courtyard. Porthos headed outside, watching from the corner of his eyes as the young man shoved his arms inside the sleeves of his jacket, leaving it unfastened, his weapon’s belt gripped in one hand as he followed Porthos outside.
Porthos made his way through the now-quiet courtyard, d’Artagnan at his heels, and sent up a silent you’re welcome to those sleeping souls who were now able to hold onto their peace just a bit longer in the wake of d’Artagnan’s absence from knife roulette. He could hear the young Gascon fastening his weapon’s belt as he trotted to catch up with Porthos’ lumbering strides.
In truth, Porthos was putting it on a bit; his arm and back were still quite sore from the blade he’d taken a week ago in protection of Bonnaire. He’d not slept comfortably for more than a few hours at a stretch since then, but there was no way he was going to let d’Artagnan know that.
“You comin’?” Porthos called back as he heard d’Artagnan curse under his breath.
“Why are you in such a hurry?” d’Artagnan grumbled, drawing a glance from Porthos over his shoulder.
“’m hungry,” Porthos replied.
He wasn’t like Aramis. He didn’t have gentle words or perfectly-timed phrases to draw someone out from behind their walls. That is why Aramis always took Athos when their friend fell hip-deep into melancholy. Porthos cared, of course he did, but he was just as likely to quite literally knock some sense into the man as draw out the poison and eliminate the problem.
Their young friend was enough like Athos that Porthos recognized it would take a crafty approach to determine what was going on behind those dark eyes. Or…he might just find a good excuse to hit the lad and refocus his anger into something tangible. Something he could work out through physical exertion, exhaustion, maybe even a little pain.
Once armed, d’Artagnan matched his stride with Porthos, eyes front.
He was on the thin side, Porthos had noticed, but it was more age than anything. Give him some years and he’d bulk up on muscle enough to match any one of them. As it was, he’d shown he was able to keep up with them thus far. In any case, he’d not disappeared, heading back to his farm in Lupiac as Porthos thought he might after Vadim, safe once more in the peace Gascony offered that was denied him in Paris.
Porthos sucked on his teeth, the tsk sound drawing a glance from d’Artagnan, though the lad remained silent. Porthos wasn’t going to press the issue; a man doesn’t want to talk, there’s a reason. He’d gone through many a month in the Court blending with the shadows to avoid Charon and Flea simply because he hadn’t wanted to talk.
It was exhausting, explaining himself, exposing his heart through his voice. It bared him and made him vulnerable. There were some he didn’t mind seeing that part of him. Aramis, of course. Athos, naturally. Possibly even d’Artagnan to an extent. The lad now knew how he’d heard of the slave ships as a child; had seen how raw that reality had left him. And what’s more, d’Artagnan not used that information against him as some might.
If anything, the knowledge of Porthos’ past nightmares and the experience with Bonnaire seemed to have drawn d’Artagnan closer to them, dark eyes that seemed to watch everything at once settling every so often on Porthos and not looking away.
The duo exited the garrison and made their way through the early-morning streets of Paris.
There was a stench soaking the streets that Porthos had long ago come to recognize as the scent of home. It was the odor of people and animals, fire and rain, dirt and soap, everything, all of it, blending and twisting until it was impossible to distinguish one from the other. It was the scent of life and death trapped in an endless, revolving loop that permeated every breath they took as they journeyed through the waking streets.
The city had grown exponentially in population over the last decade; the majority of people crowded in small apartments and tenements clustered on or near the Seine. The King had commissioned additional bridges be built to connect Left Bank and Right Bank, however all that seemed to do, to Porthos’ way of thinking, was spread the dirt along a wider girth of the city.
People emptied garbage buckets into the narrow streets, sewage flowed – or not – down the narrow ditches dividing the walkways, the offal from animals slaughtered for food lay in putrid piles just outside of doorways. It should amaze him, he supposed, what people could become accustomed to, a certain level of filth being relatively high on that list.
However, after a childhood where the warmest thing he might have on a December night was the arm of the nearest adult draped across him and a youth spent in the shadows watching for the toss of scraps from some of the larger houses, the smell of the Paris streets did little to bother Porthos. He noticed, however, when d’Artagnan would stop breathing for several strides, pulling in a shallow gasp of air only when the alternative would potentially result in him passing out.
He didn’t blame the lad; he’d even caught Athos and Aramis avoiding certain routes through the city so as not to encounter some of the rougher city folk or fouler stench. d’Artagnan had grown up on a farm; Athos and Aramis came from nobility. Paris may be their home now, but they were, in effect, adopted sons.
Porthos was of the city.
Born on her streets, he knew her heartbeat, the way she breathed. He’d seen her protect and kill and knew she was as coy and cold as any woman with an embrace that enticed and entranced. He looked up to see her beauty in the stained glass, sweeping arches, and looming gargoyles. He looked out to see her vengeance and grit in the faces of the people who etched out their living each day. He looked down to see the darkness and deceit that he knew lurked in the heart of every living being.
Even within himself.
Porthos led d’Artagnan silently through the streets, moving further and further away from the garrison, slipping down alleyways and darting through doorways and beneath arches. He’d not started out with a destination in mind; he’d simply wanted to find food and see if he could shake the quiet from the lad. As the city woke around them, though, Porthos felt the familiar energy bleed into him and he lost track of any other intention except movement.
It took Porthos several minutes to register that d’Artagnan matched his stride, only trailing him when the breadth of the passages necessitated it. He began to test both his tired, healing muscles and the young friend by his side, leaping from the walkway to a stone wall framing the river’s edge, then up to a low-hanging shop roof, and up once more to the slanted roof of a connecting house, then to the stone roof of a chapel. A glance to his side showed him d’Artagnan stayed in step with him.
Porthos began to realize he was following a familiar path, one he’d traversed many times in his youth to evade capture or detection, or simply to get away from the streets. Get up, above the people, where the air was cleaner. Where he could think; where he could breathe. He hadn’t needed this type of escape in years. Not since he’d found his brothers in the Musketeers.
Yet the path came back to him, building by building, roof by roof, step by step, as if he’d followed it just yesterday.
Quickening his pace, Porthos slipped to the west, toward the busier part of the city where the larger buildings clustered together. They ran in a low, balanced crouch along the center of a roof where the connecting seams were protected from weathering, their center of gravity shifted low, keeping them from toppling to either side. d’Artagnan was at his heels; he could hear the young Gascon’s breath quickening as they shifted from a brisk walk to a full-on run.
The first jump wasn’t far; Porthos barely felt the landing jar his still-healing wound.
When they gained their feet on the adjoining roof, he grinned, his muscles remembering even after all these years away, all these years of training his body to do something else, be something else. Even with the added bulk and weaponry, his muscles remembered what it was like to traverse the rooftops of Paris, keeping out of sight and yet seeing everything.
He nearly forgot about d’Artagnan; he was simply part of the city once more, feeling her life flow around him with the energy of the people. The stain of memory that had lingered from their encounter with Bonnaire, with the plans for a slave ship, with his shame for having envied the man’s life, began to clear. The lingering pain in his back from the blade that could have ended him had it not been for his friend’s quick thinking and acquired skill began to ease.
He moved from a stone roof to another thatched one, then leapt once more to an edge that required he reach up and grab onto a gutter for balance. So focused had he been on the thrill of movement around him, he’d forgotten his wound. As he reached up to grip the ledge, his shoulder seized and his hand refused to close.
And as willingly as the capricious city had held him, she just as quickly denied him her embrace.
Porthos suddenly found himself hanging from his left arm, too many feet off the ground to land even close to safely. He wouldn’t be walking away from this one—
The hand that gripped his wrist, bracing him, was solid and strong. Porthos looked up, realizing that his breath was hammering roughly from between parted lips, his body almost keening in response to his plight even if he’d not consciously called out for help.
d’Artagnan had made the leap.
Somehow he’d cleared the space and swung his lithe body up to the rooftop and was now leaning over, his dark hair falling across his face and obscuring his expression. He held Porthos tight, giving the big man the moment he needed to find a toe-hold on the top of a window shutter, then leverage himself slowly up, throwing a leg over the ledge and rolling gingerly over on his wound as he caught his breath.
He felt rather than saw d’Artagnan drop down next to him; both slumped against the raised ledge of the stone roof, legs sprawled before them, chests heaving as they worked to recapture the breath that had been wrung from their lungs in the effort.
“So,” d’Artagnan gasped, rolling his head along the stone to blink beads of sweat from his lashes. “Breakfast?”
The laugh barked up from Porthos before he could grab it back and then he was helpless with it. He saw through eyes narrowed against the rising sun that d’Artagnan was grinning at him, his face softening and becoming younger than it had any right to look. Porthos reached out and clapped the younger man on the shoulder, using that motion to push himself to his feet.
He reached down and offered d’Artagnan a hand up. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, all laughter gone. “I mean it.”
“I know you do.” d’Artagnan’s grin surged, then seemed to break apart, dissolving so quickly it left his dark eyes appearing almost hollow.
Confused by the younger man’s expression, Porthos glanced away, working his wounded shoulder a bit, testing to see if it felt like the cut had re-opened; if it had, Aramis was going to have his head. He looked out across the city, the sun having now breeched the horizon enough it was reaching even to the corners of the narrow alleys and glinting off the frothy ripples on the Seine.
“Lookit this place,” Porthos said softly, wondering at the naked, rough beauty of the city that had both saved his life and tried to kill him at different times over the last thirty-odd years. “Never ceases to amaze me.”
d’Artagnan was quiet next to him, eyes roaming the rooftops, skimming from window to window, never landing on any one thing for long.
Porthos used the moment to take a chance. “Used to come up here all the time when I was a kid,” he revealed. “No one saw me. Kept to the shadows, ran on the rooftops.”
“Why?” d’Artagnan asked, his voice low and soft, as if caught in his own memories.
“To watch,” Porthos replied, tilting his chin toward the streets below.
They were near Notre Dame; the beggars came out thicker on a Sunday, he knew. Merchants put out fresher bread on Mondays than Fridays. The wash decorated more windows mid-week than before worship. Some days it was the only way he could tell what day it actually was, by the ebb and flow of the city.
“You grew up in the city?” d’Artagnan asked.
Porthos nodded, offering nothing else. He’d already exposed a fair lot to the lad when they discovered what Bonnaire truly was. If d’Artagnan wanted more of Porthos’ story, he’d have to be willing to give some of his own. And Porthos could tell that despite losing his father, d’Artagnan had not yet been driven to his knees, pushed to a point of willingly letting them close.
Pain had a way of peeling back layers, taking down walls. He glanced at d’Artagnan, watching as the young man’s enigmatic eyes took in the sights of the city below them. It also had a way of shoring walls and attaching locks so thick even the craftiest burglar couldn’t break in.
It was thus with Athos; he was beginning to suspect it might be the same with d’Artagnan.
d’Artagnan glanced at him, humor reflecting in his eyes. “Shall I lower you, or do you want me to get you a rope?”
“Oh, it’s a brat is it?” Porthos cuffed the lad on the back of his head, noting d’Artagnan’s grin. “Try to keep up.”
With that he took off toward the opposite edge of the roof, leaping over with full knowledge that another roof was only three feet below. He crouched behind the dividing wall, waiting as he heard d’Artagnan run forward, panic clear in his breathing, and then grinned wolfishly when he saw the dark head look over the edge.
The relief that washed over d’Artagnan’s features was quickly replaced with good-natured irritation.
“You do realize Gascons are known for their ability to hold a grudge,” d’Artagnan stated as he swung over the edge of the roof and dropped down beside Porthos.
“Careful, little man,” Porthos teased. “You’ll frighten me.”
He stood and led d’Artagnan from the rooftops to the street once more.
“I—“ d’Artagnan stopped, lifting his face and looking around, a puzzled line dividing his brows. “I have literally no idea where I am.”
Porthos clapped his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Paris, my friend,” he said with a sigh, not even noticing the stench that had d’Artagnan pressing the back of his hand to his nose as they walked toward a tavern Porthos hadn’t been inside since moving into the garrison half a decade ago. “And if you treat ‘er like a queen, she’ll not dump you on your ass,” he shrugged, “too often.”
“Good to know,” d’Artagnan nodded sitting across from Porthos and waiting as the big man ordered food for both of them. “You ever bring Aramis or Athos here?”
Porthos shook his head, tearing bread from the loaf placed in front of them. “’aven’t been here since…,” he shrugged. “A lotta years.”
They ate in comfortable silence, but Porthos watched his young friend carefully. d’Artagnan kept his eyes up, taking in the conversations and expressions around them. He wasn’t sure what the lad was watching for, or if he were just cautious, but Porthos had seen behavior like this before. This type of hyper-alertness had never failed to set him on edge. It reminded him of his youth, his days in the Court. The younger ones had been alert, wary, waiting for what little they had to be taken from them, waiting for the stories they’d heard of abuse and violation to manifest into nightmares and bruises.
Porthos had heard the stories as well, but he’d never lived it. He’d been tough, observant, but something – genetics, will, the grace of God – had imbued him with an air of confidence so potent no one had tried to cross him. Once he connected with Charon and Flea, he had companionship and someone to watch his back. He’d been one of the lucky ones, he supposed.
Everything he knew of d’Artagnan, though, contradicted what he was seeing in the young man now, and, if he thought back, what he’d seen in him since they met. Sure the lad was brash, impetuous, hot-headed, stubborn, but when not running full-tilt into a brace of bandits to challenge his father’s killer or barely escaping death by explosion in the tunnels beneath the palace, he was rather quiet, Porthos now recalled.
Alert, wary, waiting….
“You grew up on a farm, yeah?” Porthos asked, drawing d’Artagnan’s eyes.
“Still there, your farm? Back in Lupiac, I mean?”
d’Artagnan looked down at the bread in his hand, then nodded, stuffing a bite into his mouth. “Yeah, it’s still there.”
Porthos tilted his chin, narrowing his eyes. “Not thinkin’ of goin’ back, are you?”
“Why?” This time the lines on d’Artagnan’s face were a challenge. “You think I should?”
Porthos shrugged casually, realizing he might finally be getting to the crux of the problem. “Don’t matter what I think, does it?”
“Maybe it does,” d’Artagnan muttered, looking down once more.
And there it was: the lad needed someone to tell him to stay. Porthos knew, though, that it wasn’t on him to extend such an invitation. This one had to come from Athos. It was the only voice d’Artagnan would believe.
“You been practicing a fair bit with them knives.”
d’Artagnan lifted a shoulder. “I was always pretty decent,” he said without a trace of boastfulness. “It’s the sword where I need help.”
“And combat,” Porthos replied around a mouthful of bread and cheese.
“Thought you said I was getting pretty good,” d’Artagnan protested.
“You’re picking up a few moves,” Porthos conceded, “but you got a long way to go if you’re gonna be able to fight yer way outta four, five deep.”
d’Artagnan arched a brow. “When am I going to be in a situation where I’m fighting five men on my own?”
Porthos grinned wickedly. “Guess ‘at depends on where you spend your free time. You get on the wrong side of the right kind o’ woman, and you could have a whole pack on you.”
d’Artagnan shook his head, huffing out a quick breath. “I bet I can guess who’s been in that situation before.”
“Careful,” Porthos warned, hearing an inference he didn’t quite like in the lad’s tone.
“What?” d’Artagnan shrugged. “Aramis as much as said he doesn’t care whose bed he ends up in at the end of the day. He’s not a soldier like Athos. Or even you. All he really cares about is—“
Porthos stabbed his fork into the table so close to d’Artagnan’s hand he could feel the lad’s skin quiver against the metal.
“Choose your next words very carefully,” he warned.
d’Artagnan looked up, swallowing, silent.
“Let me offer you a word o’ caution, my friend,” Porthos said, his voice dropping as he leaned close to d’Artagnan. “Until you’ve walked in another man’s skin, never assume you know all ‘e cares about.”
d’Artagnan nodded, his eyes on Porthos.
“Aramis stood inside Hell and ‘eard the Devil laugh from the shadows,” Porthos continued, hearing the growl at the edge of his voice. “And ‘e fought ‘is way out of it. Far as I’m concerned, ‘e can bed all of Paris if ‘e wants to, yeah?”
“Yeah. Yes, okay,” d’Artagnan nodded once more. “I understand.”
“Do you?” Porthos felt his brows pulled close, doubting.
“I, uh…I understand that there’s more that I don’t know about you three than I do,” d’Artagnan elaborated, eyes wide and serious. “And until I can reverse that, assumptions will not be made.”
Porthos let his eyebrows relax, then sat back with a nod. “That works.”
He heard d’Artagnan take a shaky breath and suppressed a smile. The lad picked up his bread once more, returning his survey of their surroundings. He’d lost his opening, Porthos suddenly realized, with his vehement defense of Aramis. There was nothing more he was going to get out of d’Artagnan now. He’d have to figure out a different tactic, at a different time.
“You ready?” he asked when he’d finished his breakfast.
d’Artagnan nodded, pushing to his feet. He waited as Porthos dropped coins on the table then tilted his head. “We’re not going back the same way we came, are we?”
Porthos grinned. “You’re not afraid of heights are ya?”
“It’s not the heights,” d’Artagnan replied, his face wrinkling up with confession, “it’s the falling from them that bothers me.”
Porthos chuckled, leading the way out. “Fool your enemies, d’Artagnan. Never take the same way twice.”
Trusting the young Gascon to keep to his heels as he had before, Porthos began to maneuver through the growing crowds on the streets of Paris, exchanging cleaner thoroughfares for the shadows and muck of the back streets as he worked their way back to the garrison. They passed a throng of Red Guards on their way, and Porthos cheekily tipped his hat in response to their dark looks, watching as d’Artagnan skirted the group carefully.
Several broke off as the two passed by, heading in the direction of the palace. Porthos paid them no mind. He could handle the Red Guards with one wounded arm tied behind his back.
By the time they reached the garrison, the chill had completely burned off of the morning. Both were sweating; d’Artagnan’s hair clinging to his face in places.
“You did well,” Porthos commended him.
“You’re kidding,” d’Artagnan gasped for breath, brows bouncing up with incredulity. “This was a test?”
Porthos lifted his good shoulder, gripping his right as the ache from his earlier fall made itself known. “I think everything is a test,” he replied. “It’s why ‘m still alive.”
d’Artagnan drew his arm across his mouth, eyes scanning the courtyard.
“Go clean up,” Porthos instructed. “You can use my room. I gotta find Aramis.” He indicated with a nod toward his shoulder, which was throbbing from the rigorous activity.
He watched the lad move away for a moment, then headed toward the livery to check if Aramis’ horse was stabled. If the big black animal were there, then Aramis had managed to wrestle Athos back to his quarters at the garrison. If it wasn’t, that meant Porthos was going to have to track his friends down. And that meant encountering a potentially confrontational Athos.
He sighed. One brooding brother per day was plenty.
Chapter 2: Memories
Aramis woke that morning to the sound of knives hitting wood and things had gone pretty much downhill from there.
Athos was a mess.
And Aramis was fairly certain he was to blame for it. He hadn’t been watching closely enough. He knew better than anyone that the only way to avoid an ambush was to be on constant alert; Athos’ dark mood had taken his legs from under him and he was now scrambling for balance.
Aramis had seen his friend plummet deep before, but there had always been an edge of control that kept Athos from sinking too low to pull him back up. This time, however, Aramis was truly afraid his reach wouldn’t be long enough. He’d known something wasn’t right the whole time they’d been at Athos’ – or, rather, the Comte de Fère’s – chalet but he’d been distracted with Porthos’ wound and Bonnaire’s antics.
He should have paid more attention. Porthos was forgiven for missing the signs; the man had been in pain from more than the blade to his back. It was clear that d’Artagnan had noticed, however; Athos hadn’t said and d’Artagnan wasn’t talking, but when the young man returned to the chalet in search of Athos that night, Aramis was certain he’d found something more than just their friend.
Whatever it was had been tearing Athos up inside ever since.
The man was good, Aramis would give him that. He’d played his role well, scheming with Bonnaire’s business partner to fool the man into going with d’Artagnan and subsequently boarding a Spanish ship. He’d seemed almost jubilant when d’Artagnan had returned, the deed done, justice served, but when everyone had departed that night, Athos had lingered.
Aramis hadn’t, which had been his first mistake.
When Athos had shown up the next morning in the garrison, Aramis had seen a bruise on the side of the man’s face that he’d not noticed the night before. The swollen eyes and lines around Athos’ mouth were clear indications that the man was hurting. Still, he’d performed his duties admirably, even if he was perhaps a bit terse with the recruits.
Especially when it came to d’Artagnan.
The lad had worn himself out two days in a row during sword drills, each time ending up on his knees, a sword at the back of his neck and Athos declaring, “You’re dead,” in a voice that said it could very well be true and the world would not feel the lack.
Aramis had started paying closer attention the second day, and after observing the way d’Artagnan’s hand shook when he sheathed his sword, had pushed the young man toward combat training, where Porthos was barking orders and insults in lieu of actually participating until his back healed.
He sacrificed two nights away from the company of the lovely Giselle at the Grey Wolf, spending it instead with eyes on Athos, wondering what could have gutted the man so deeply he was now trying to fill that hole with wine and self-loathing. Not only that, but d’Artagnan had grown quieter and kept himself away, though Aramis hadn’t missed the way the lad’s dark eyes followed Athos through the garrison courtyard.
Porthos had offered to take a watch last night, but Aramis knew the man’s wound still pained him and he ordered him to rest. If Athos hadn’t pulled out of his plummet by the week’s end, Aramis was prepared to take drastic measures. What they needed was a mission. What they got, however, were more days off to train followed by more nights at nearby taverns where Aramis found himself half-carrying Athos back to the garrison. As he had done last night.
Finally, something or someone blessedly stopped the repetitive noise of the knives just as Athos groaned himself awake.
Aramis shifted; he had slept sitting on the floor next to Athos’ bed, leaning against the wall, and his backside and legs were rather numb. Pulling his sock-covered feet beneath him, he rotated to his knees, using the wall to gain his footing, and stomped feeling back into his legs.
“Where th’hell ‘m I?” Athos muttered thickly, his eyes open to mere slits.
“Your quarters,” Aramis replied, feeling little sympathy when the older man cringed away at the sound of his voice.
“How’d I get here?”
“I carried you,” Aramis informed him, rubbing the back of his head, his hair a tangle from the long night, loose curls falling across his forehead. “You’re no lightweight, by the way.”
Athos peered up at him, his lips as pale as his face, his eyes swollen from wine and exhaustion. “No one asked you to play hero.”
Aramis tilted his head in concession at that, turning away from where his friend was sprawled across the narrow bed and faced the window. He pulled open one side of the shuttered window, letting in light and fresh air into the cloistered room, sweat and bile and alcohol having left a stamp on the night. He ignored Athos’ groan and poured water into a basin, wetting a small towel and wringing out the excess liquid.
When he turned back to face Athos, he saw the older man had managed to roll to his elbow, but was paused there, gripping the side of his bunk, breathing roughly through his nose in a now-familiar effort to stave off sickness. Wordlessly, Aramis crouched at his side and ran the cold cloth over Athos’ face, the gentle ministrations calming the turmoil inside his friend, and bringing some color back to his face.
After several moments, Athos was able to swing his legs over the edge of his bunk, planting his bare feet on the dusty floor boards and leaning his elbows on his knees. Aramis switched the cloth for a cup of water, which Athos took with a nod of thanks.
“Small sips,” Aramis cautioned. “After last night, there’s barely any fluid in your body as it is.”
Aramis pushed to his feet, a causal shrug in his voice. “That’s what happens when you drink your weight in wine and then spend the next four hours turning your stomach inside out.”
Athos peered up at him, squinting his blue eyes against the sun spilling in through his opened window. “Why are you helping me?” he clarified.
Aramis sighed, sadness that the question was even asked weighing him so greatly he was forced to sit on the single chair in the room. “Oh, my friend.”
Athos buried his fingers in his unruly hair, holding his head up by his palms. “I do not deserve your comfort.”
“Athos,” Aramis said quietly, his voice a hard slap against the air. “You must stop this.”
Athos simply shook his head, not lifting his eyes.
“You are a fellow Musketeer, my brother,” Aramis continued. “Of course I will help you.”
“I do not deserve your brotherhood,” Athos whispered toward the floor.
Unexpectedly, Aramis felt anger surge up, hot and bright inside him. He knew loss and loneliness. He knew helplessness and pain. He’d felt despondent before, unable to see his way through the darkness without his friends, his brothers, to guide him.
Yet he’d never dismissed them; he’d never turned them away. They hadn’t let him turn them away. And he wasn’t about to allow Athos to do so.
Before he realized what he was doing, Aramis was on his feet and had grabbed Athos by the front of his shirt, yanking the unsteady man to his feet. With a heave, Aramis shoved his friend against the wall, feeling a strange sort of satisfaction when Athos grunted at the impact. He let his anger burn bright, let it shine from his eyes as he held Athos upright.
“That is not for you to say, my friend,” Aramis growled. “You do not have the authority to revoke my care for you.” He shook him roughly and watched as the color drained from Athos’ face. His jaw tightened in response, but he didn’t let go. “Once you believe that, this will go a great deal smoother for you.”
Athos swallowed, his pale lips thinning out as he blinked, slowly. Aramis held him against the wall, staring him down until Athos finally nodded. Aramis ducked his head, not letting Athos look away until he was sure the other man was tracking with him. Athos nodded again, this time more alert, the expression in his eyes conveying to Aramis that he heard, he understood.
Slowly, Aramis released the front of Athos’ shirt, stepping away, his hand resting on the other man’s chest until he was sure Athos wouldn’t topple without his grip. Athos began to move stiffly around his small, dust-covered quarters, changing from his dingy, soiled clothes into something more suitable for a Lieutenant of the Musketeers. Aramis moved over to look out through the window, watching as Porthos led d’Artagnan from the garrison.
“Where is my dagger?” Athos asked, as he strapped on his weapon’s belt.
“You lost it,” Aramis replied, straightening his own clothes, rumpled from his night spent on the floor.
“Lost it?” Athos turned to him. “Where?”
Aramis arched a brow at him. “If I knew the answer to that, it wouldn’t be lost.”
“Damn,” Athos’ frown was fierce. “That dagger was special to me.”
Aramis slumped once more on the chair, pulling his long boots up and folding the top below his knee. “Then I recommend not engaging strangers in combat when you’re five bottles in.”
“You saw this?”
“Oh, I saw that and much more.”
“Which stranger? Which tavern?”
Aramis felt his anger coiling inside him once more, its claws stretching and flexing to sharpen themselves on his heart. He stood quickly, noting that Athos was still a bit unsteady as he rocked back, away from Aramis in surprise.
“There were too many to count over the last three days I’ve spent monitoring you to ensure you weren’t killed, so forgive me if all the details elude!”
“Nobody asked you to,” Athos growled once more, his blue eyes starting to come to life. “I can look after myself.”
“Clearly,” Aramis scoffed. “Which is why you’ve now lost this precious dagger. You ask me, you deserved to lose it.”
Athos growled, surging forward as if to strike, but was forced to stop and reach out a hand to brace himself against the wall as the world apparently shifted beneath his feet. Aramis didn’t move. He was tired, sore, and more than finished watching his friend slowly try to kill himself.
“I need to find that dagger,” Athos muttered, eyes closed, still gripping the wall.
“You need to do a great many things,” Aramis returned, his voice clipped, hard, unyielding in the truth he was prepared to roll out before his friend. “You need to stop this foolish and detrimental behavior. You need to lead your men. You need to respect your brothers. You need to stop harassing d’Artagnan. And you need to act like a goddamn Musketeer!”
Aramis didn’t miss the way Athos head came up sharply at the mention of the young Gascon. He plowed forward, the claws flexed, grabbing hold.
“You demand we trust you in battle – trust you with our lives – and yet you didn’t trust us enough to inform us you were a Comte. You nearly let Porthos bleed to death trying to keep your home secret from us.” Athos looked away and Aramis reached out, grabbing his friend’s arm roughly as he continued. “What happened that night when d’Artagnan went back for you?”
Athos tried to shrug out of Aramis’ grip, but was still too shaky from the effects of the wine.
“Aramis, I cannot….” Athos swallowed and dragged his free hand down his face.
“You should not carry the burden of my memories,” Athos said quietly, the plea in his eyes enough to cause Aramis to loosen his grip. “It’s enough that d’Artagnan found….” He stopped once more.
“Is that why you are punishing him?” Aramis asked quietly. “Because he saw something you didn’t want him to see?”
Athos looked baffled, the line between his brows casting shadows on his sleep-bruised eyes. “Punishing?”
Aramis thrust his head forward. “You don’t see how you push him harder than any of the others? How you never, not once, offer him a word of praise or encouragement?”
Off Athos’ slow shake of denial, Aramis continued. “You don’t see how he shakes from exhaustion at the end of the day, or how he doesn’t join us at the tavern for drinks, or how each day he grows quieter and less like the impetuous young man who charged into this garrison looking to avenge his father?”
Aramis felt his heart soften at Athos’ bewilderment, the claws retracting a bit. “I will not push you to share what you are unable to, my friend,” he said softly, “but you have been so wrapped up in whatever it is that you’ve barricaded us away from you, and that I cannot allow. We have stood by you in Hell,” Aramis reminded him, releasing his arm. “We have fought with you and for you and you must know that closing yourself off to us as you are weakens us all.”
Athos nodded, his tongue darting out to wet his dry lips as he listened.
“If your intention is to convince d’Artagnan to leave,” Aramis concluded, noting the flinch around Athos’ eyes as he spoke, “then you are on the right path. If, however, you wish for him to be part of our brotherhood, well,” he spread his hands wide, “you have some reparations to make.”
“I do not know what I wish when it comes to d’Artagnan’s future with the Musketeers,” Athos confessed, his eyes on the spot where Aramis had spent the night, guarding him. “But I do know I owe you and Porthos an apology.”
“No,” Aramis shook his head, resting a hand on Athos shoulder. “You do not. You owe us the return of our friend and Lieutenant.”
Athos nodded and pulled in a breath, drawing himself up straight on the inhale. He lifted his eyes to meet Aramis’. “Thank you.”
Aramis tipped his chin up. “You’re welcome.”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Athos closed his eyes. “I need food.”
“Now that’s a plan I can get behind,” Aramis agreed, pulling on his long doublet and grabbing his weapon’s belt and harquebus. “And just so you know,” he informed the older man as they headed out of Athos’ small room, pressing his hand to the small of his back, “that is the last time I’m sleeping on the floor.”
“I highly doubt that is true,” Athos returned.
“Fine; it’s the last time I’m sleeping on your floor.”
They headed to the common table where Serge had set food out for the men. Breakfast was a rather solitary, quiet affair in the garrison. Men only rose when the different demands of their time – training, orders, social encounters – bade them to. Most weren’t inclined toward conversation. Porthos, Aramis, and Athos had been the exception to that rule, always meeting in the morning to assure each other that they were intact, regardless of the previous night’s activities.
“Where is Porthos?” Athos asked, covering the mess of sleep-twisted hair with his hat.
“I saw him lead d’Artagnan from the garrison earlier,” Aramis replied, glancing up as Mathieu joined them.
“Good thing, too,” Mathieu growled. “Whelp was near to getting the garrison after him, way he was carrying on.”
Athos’ brows drew close in question, but he said nothing.
“That was d’Artagnan?” Aramis asked, remembering the sound of the knives hitting wood that had first stirred him from sleep.
He looked toward the back of the courtyard to the painted targets. Athos followed his gaze and they both saw the cluster of blades protruding from the center of the target. Aramis blinked in surprise, then glanced at Athos who mirrored his expression.
“It was,” Mathieu mumbled around a mouthful of porridge. “’m all for a man facing his demons, but not before dawn.”
Aramis smirked at the other Musketeer as they were joined by Bauer and Agnon, two men who had been part of the regiment before Aramis joined.
“I didn’t realize there was a proper time for facing one’s demons,” he commented, missing the frown that clouded Athos’ face until after he spoke.
“You speakin’ of d’Artagnan?” asked Bauer.
“The same,” Mathieu muttered, handing the bread down to the two new men without having to be asked. “That was ‘im this morning in the yard.”
“Figured,” Bauer yawned wide, scratching at his beard. “Boy’s been wound tight for days now.”
“Why do you say this?” Athos suddenly spoke up, drawing three sets of surprised eyes.
Aramis kept his gaze on his plate, though the world around him suddenly felt a bit sharper, more tactile, edges appearing on the exhales of breath as the men regarded Athos. Something had shifted in the air; his perception was primed like the fuse on a musket; he felt energy suddenly swarm up and around the man next to him.
“You’re saying you don’t see it?” Mathieu exclaimed, surprised. “That boy’s no more than, what? Twenty years?”
“If that,” Agnon replied, his thick, rheumy voice muffled by a mouthful of food.
“Twenty year old boy, he stands as though weighted by forty years of scars,” Mathieu continued.
Athos looked sharply at Aramis, who simply returned his stare.
“You all see this?” Athos asked, not looking away from Aramis.
“We’ve had recruits come and go over the years,” Bauer shrugged. “Some wash out early, some…,” he glanced up at Agnon, who nodded in agreement, “hang in there until commissioned, but it’s pretty clear who will make it and who will not, no matter how noble their family line might be.”
“And which group does d’Artagnan fall into?” Athos asked.
“The first,” Mathieu and Bauer replied in unison.
Aramis saw Athos flinch slightly at this, but still said nothing.
“You’re wrong,” Athos replied, his voice falling to the center of the table like a stone and drawing surprised looks once more.
“He wants it too badly, Athos,” Mathieu argued. “You can see it in his eyes; he has nowhere else to go.”
“I should think that would be incentive to receive commission,” Athos noted.
“You know as we do commission doesn’t ride on heart,” Agnon spoke up again, “but on the will of the King and the eye of Treville. d’Artagnan brings nothing to the table but desperation. It plays out in how he handles himself in training.”
“Take the knives,” Mathieu nodded to his left toward where the blades remained embedded into the targets. “A man fights with that intensity, he burns out quick and fast.”
Athos stood, his fist falling to the table like a gavel. “If there is one thing I’ve come to learn in the last five years serving in this regiment,” he said, his voice effectively ending all argument to the contrary, “it is that sometimes the only difference between survival and suffering is a desperate will to live. If that’s what you’re seeing in our youngest recruit,” he let his cold gaze hit each of the men in turn, “then I say you foster that, as it may one day save your lives.”
With that, he turned from them and headed toward the livery, leaving behind three baffled Musketeers and one grinning Aramis. He’d been granted at least part of his request: his Lieutenant was back.
Standing as well, Aramis lifted his hat in salute. “Gentlemen.”
He followed Athos to the livery, feeling hope surge inside him bright enough to quiet the anger that had been brewing since he woke that morning. He hadn’t seen Athos with this much fire in his belly for quite some time; if saving d’Artagnan from being trampled by life was the key to re-engaging his friend in the world, Aramis was ready to ensure Athos’ full attention was turned to the young man from Gascony.
Even if he had to push d’Artagnan into danger himself.
“Are you off somewhere?” Aramis inquired when Athos stopped at the stall where his usual mount stood dozing.
“I have nowhere to be,” Athos replied, sounding rather angry about that fact.
Aramis sympathized. What I wouldn’t give for a mission right about now.
“Perhaps, then, we patrol Paris,” Aramis suggested. “Assure ourselves the King’s subjects are well in hand.”
Athos half-turned, glancing at Aramis with something that might have been amusement lingering in his eyes. “It is our duty to uphold the law,” he agreed.
“And the people of Paris have quite the knack for getting themselves into trouble,” Aramis sighed, as though regretful.
With a nod, Athos rotated and began striding toward the entrance of the garrison, Aramis matching his steps. They’d barely stepped through the archway before a strange sight met their eyes: a gathering of at least ten Red Guards clustered close together near the entrance. Aramis frowned, exchanging a troubled frown with Athos as they approached.
“A bit early in the day for a scrimmage, but I’m always up for a little action,” Aramis declared loudly behind the group, drawing their attention and causing several to startle. “What say you, boys?”
“This is none of your concern,” replied a large, balding man, his red cloak swirling a bit as he turned to face Aramis. “We are on the Cardinal’s business.”
“At the Musketeer garrison?” Athos inquired.
“Our business is not with a Musketeer,” the balding man sneered.
“And yet,” Aramis glanced around, his frown exaggerated, “here you are.”
The bald man put his hand on the hilt of his sword as if to pull it free. Aramis didn’t miss the small half smile that slipped across Athos’ face as his friend’s shoulders settled into a fighting stance.
“Please do,” Athos implored, nodding toward the Guard’s sword.
“Dueling is illegal,” another of the Guard muttered, warning his companion off.
“It isn’t dueling if he kills you,” Aramis pointed out calmly. “Then, it’s simply…,” he glanced at Athos and shrugged, “pest control.”
“If you have nothing you require of our regiment or Captain, then I suggest you move along.” Athos’ voice belied the suggestion in his words. He wanted them gone and they knew it.
“Athos! Aramis!” The voice beckoning them from inside the garrison pulled the attention of both men for a moment. Aramis saw Mathieu standing in the courtyard, waving them in. “Treville needs to see you.”
Aramis tipped a mocking salute from the brim of his hat. “You’ll be gone when we return, I expect.”
The Red Guard who’d addressed them narrowed his eyes and watched as they turned and headed back inside. As they approached, Aramis saw Mathieu glance over their shoulders with a frown.
“Hasn’t returned,” Aramis replied. “Why?”
Mathieu shrugged. “Treville is asking for the three of you.” He tied a scarf over his head, keeping his hair in place beneath his hat, as he turned toward the livery. “I’ll send him up if I see him.”
Athos nodded his thanks and they headed toward the stairs and Treville’s office. Aramis couldn’t help but foster the dark hope that someone, somewhere, had gotten themselves into trouble. He desperately needed to get Athos out of the garrison and into some sort of action.
Treville looked up from a letter he was reading as they stepped inside, his brow furrowed enough to darken his eyes. Aramis saw his Captain’s gaze dart to the door as the two of them made their way to an at-ease stance in front of his desk.
“Porthos is out with d’Artagnan,” he offered before the Captain could ask. “He’ll be back shortly. The lad needed to…stretch his legs.”
Treville narrowed his eyes slightly at that, but nodded, sitting back. “I trust he received the letter?”
Aramis caught Athos’ confused frown and shook his head. “Porthos?” There was no one Aramis was aware of who could be writing their friend; everyone he knew was here.
“d’Artagnan,” the Captain corrected.
“I have not seen a letter delivered,” Athos replied. “Nor has he said anything to me.”
“Hm,” Treville frowned once more, then sat forward once more. “It arrived at the palace, of all places. One of the Cardinal’s men brought it here, unsealed. I asked Agnon to deliver it to the Boniceaux residence.”
“I’m sure he’s receive it then,” Athos replied. “Was that your concern?”
Treville huffed a brief laugh. “As much as the familial drama from Gascony might intrigue me,” he replied, glancing up as his door opened once more, “that is not why I summoned you.”
Porthos walked in, holding his right arm close to his body and drawing immediate concern from Aramis.
“What have you done to yourself now?” Aramis demanded.
“Just took d’Artagnan on a walk ‘bout Paris,” Porthos replied, holding still as Aramis gently pulled his doublet from his shoulder. “Saw Mathieu in the livery, said you was looking for me,” he nodded toward Treville.
“Indeed,” Treville tipped his head, watching as Aramis pulled Porthos’ shirt low over his shoulder and examined the wound. “Aramis?”
“A walk about Paris, you say?” Aramis practically growled, examining the bruised skin and stretched stitches. Porthos would have had to hang from his fingertips to pull the stitches to such an angle. “What were you walking on, the rooftops?”
Porthos shot him such a look of surprise that Aramis blinked.
“Needed some air,” Porthos offered rather lamely.
“Will he live?” Athos questioned dryly.
“Undeservedly so,” Aramis grumbled, readjusting his friend’s shirt and jacket. “I’ll bandage it once more when we’re through here.”
Looking back at Treville, he saw their Captain was pinching the bridge of his nose as if to ward off an encroaching headache.
“Apologies, Captain. You were saying?”
Treville lifted his head, waving his fingers out in a gesture of thanks and then pushed to his feet. He moved over to the window to look out across the garrison courtyard, as was his habit as he explained orders that were slightly more complicated.
“In three weeks, the Duke of Savoy will be visiting the King under the auspice of signing a treaty,” Treville began.
Aramis froze inside. Savoy.
It seemed to come out of the blue, that word.
It hit the air like an audible strike, shattering against him and filtering around the men next to him like dust from an old battle. Neither Porthos nor Athos so much as flinched, but Aramis felt the room shift, as if he was the only one who’d actually heard what Treville had said.
He didn’t move, didn’t so much as blink, but suddenly everything seemed dimmer, his hearing muffling Treville’s next words. He felt sweat bead on his upper lip and forced himself to breathe slowly so as not to sway along with his fluctuating vision.
“In preparation for this, the King has asked that I select a small company of men for escort and guard duty as the Duke will be bringing his wife, the King’s sister, and their son.” Treville glanced to the side, not quite looking at them and for that Aramis sent a silent thanks up to God as he knew he was losing his battle to keep his reaction to this news cloaked. “Athos, I want you to select the men. We will need at least four, if not five. I assume it will be you three, so you choose who you’d like to accompany you.”
“Yes, sir,” Athos replied, and Aramis could tell from his friend’s tone that he’d not picked up on anything amiss around him.
“This job will require the utmost caution and fortitude,” Treville continued, and turned away from the window and sitting once more at his desk. “A treaty with Savoy may seem minor, but it is imperative to maintaining peace as Spain continues to….”
Five years. Yesterday. They were the same for him. Twenty dead Musketeers, himself the last man standing. Savoy. At the mere mention of the word, every defense against his nightmares, gone. Every carefree smile a shadow.
Aramis knew the Captain was still speaking. He saw the man’s mouth moving, but he suddenly could not hear a thing over the roaring of blood in his ears. His pulse raced, slamming against the base of his throat so hard he’d be willing to swear it was visible. The room around him seemed washed-out and he forced himself to shift his feet slightly in a desperate attempt to stay upright.
The air seemed to thin, as if that word had the power to siphon all life away from him, leaving him alone and cold in a vacuum of darkness and death. He was fading, he knew it, he felt it, and there was nothing to brace him, to draw him back—
The hand on his arm, gripping him tightly at the wrist, was solid and strong and suddenly the room came back into focus and he could hear Treville once more.
“…not that the King is happy about it.”
“Steady,” Porthos whispered, just loud enough for Aramis to make out the shape of sound into a word.
The big man’s grip tightened on Aramis’ arm and he sent out a silent prayer that Porthos did not let go. He didn’t care if Treville saw his friend’s hand on his arm; if Porthos released him, he would shatter, he knew that without a doubt.
“In the meantime, the Queen’s cousin, Talia, has been visiting with her son. The King has decided to throw some sort of…dinner party tonight prior to their departure tomorrow. I want you three there.”
“Guards or escorts, sir?” Athos asked.
Aramis fought to keep his breath steady as Athos carried on the duty of the Musketeers for them.
It was just a word. Just a word, nothing more. He could not allow the Captain to see his weakness.
“Guards tonight,” Treville was saying.
Treville glanced up at them and Aramis felt Porthos’ hand tighten even more. He forced himself to stare impassively back at his Captain, forced himself to register the words the man was saying. Forced himself to listen.
“There is something that troubles her son; I’m not certain of his ailment. In any case, we have information from credible resources that there are those who wish to harm Talia or her son and not see them return to Toulouse tomorrow.”
“How old is the boy?” Athos asked.
Aramis grit his teeth, feeling sweat gather beneath his hat, trailing down his temples and collecting at the base of his neck. He was beginning to shake, a tremble slipping outward with each beat of his heart like ripples on a pond. Porthos rolled his shoulders and stepped forward as if simply readjusting his stance, putting Aramis slightly behind him as he did so.
“He is young. Twelve I believe,” Treville replied. “You will arrive at the palace by five of the evening and remain until the King dismisses you. The focus will be primarily on the guests, but of course you’ll need to ensure the King is secure.”
“Naturally,” Athos replied, glancing askance at Porthos and Aramis as if suddenly wondering why he was left to do all the talking.
“Is that all, sir?” Porthos inquired.
“Yes,” Treville nodded. “Though, Athos?”
Athos, who had started to turn toward the door, paused and looked back.
“Leave d’Artagnan at the garrison tonight,” Treville ordered. “He’s been an asset of late, but he still has a long way to go before we can be assured he’ll perform as a Musketeer should when in direct contact with the King.”
“Understood, sir,” Athos replied. “I’ll let him know when I check to make sure he received the letter.”
Aramis couldn’t escape fast enough. As it was, the moment Porthos released his arm, he felt the quiet trembling inside him roar to a crescendo and he was barely able to grasp the door latch and pull it to him. He moved as quickly as his blurring vision would allow, seeking air, ignoring anyone in his wake. He was drowning, his clothes binding him and his weapons weighing him down.
He had to get out, out, out—
“…have a look at where d’Artagnan got off to?” Porthos was saying. Aramis wasn’t sure to whom at first; he was too busy trying to breathe. “Aramis can fix up my shoulder and we’ll meet you at the livery later to head to the palace.”
“Yes, good idea,” Athos replied.
Aramis could barely see the stairs in front of him. He felt the weight of a long arm across his chest, pressing him back and out of the way and he registered Athos passing him with a friendly, but oblivious, clap on the outside of his arm and then Porthos had hold of him again, the voice in his ear and hand at his bicep the only things keeping him from dissolving into helpless gasps for breath.
“Steady on,” Porthos said, his voice a low growl. “You’re just going to walk forward. Down the steps. One at a time. I’m not letting go.”
Clinging to the voice as if it were the one thing standing between him and an abyss, Aramis followed the instructions and before he knew it, Porthos had propelled him around the far end of the garrison, between the quarters and the livery, where there was rarely any traffic.
“Porthos…,” Aramis heard the rasp in his voice, the panic, “I can’t….”
“Lean forward,” Porthos ordered, pushing Aramis down so that his hands braced his knees and his head hung low. “Easy now.”
Aramis felt as though tiny knives were climbing outward from his lungs, cutting through tissue and deflecting air. His chest grew tighter with each attempted breath and he found himself pressing a hand to his sternum, desperate to ease the burning ache building there. He closed his eyes, hoping that would settle the crazy spin of the world around him and suddenly all he saw were bodies.
Men, friends, brothers, lying with eyes staring sightlessly at a gray winter sky, blood painting their cheeks, their throats, their hands. Blood coloring the ground around them, slipping through the air and turning it crimson, choking him as he stumbled among them.
He felt his knees hit something solid and he choked out a broken cry, trying to dismiss the images, trying to remind himself that was then. That was over.
“Breathe, Aramis,” Porthos implored in his ear. “Come on. With me, one breath.”
A hand at his neck, another gripping his shoulder, a solid, warm body next to his, pressing him close. Real. This was real. Not the blood and the bodies. Not the cold. Not the loss. Not anymore.
“That’s it, there you go,” Porthos continued to encourage.
Aramis tried another breath, keeping his eyes closed, banishing the waking nightmare, focusing on Porthos’ voice, on his hands as they moved down to grip his own, steadying the shaking limbs. The pain in his chest began to slowly ease as he pulled in another breath, then another.
“Steady,” Porthos continued to murmur. “You’re gettin’ it now.”
Aramis opened his eyes, surprised to find them so weighted and looked up to meet Porthos’ dark, worried gaze. He was on his knees, he now realized, Porthos crouched in front of him, one of the big man’s hands on his shoulder, the other wrapped around his clenched fist. Sweat had his shirt and breeches clinging to his damp skin, his hat had fallen off and his hair was plastered uncomfortably to his forehead and neck.
“There you are,” Porthos said, his mouth relaxing slightly into a tentative smile, though his eyes remained clouded with worry.
Aramis slouched back on his heels; Porthos eased him up against the side of the building before removing his hands. He didn’t say anything – couldn’t. He still felt the tremble of his heart against his ribs with every staccato breath, but the world was starting to come back into focus.
Porthos turned until he was sitting next to him, pressing his shoulder close. Aramis didn’t look at his friend, simply nodded as Porthos’ weight against him seemed to ask questions. Breathing seemed to be the only thing he could manage for the moment. Breathing and pressing his hands flat against his thighs, just above the fold of his boots.
“My hands won’t stop shaking,” he confessed on a whisper.
“Give ‘em a moment,” Porthos said.
“I must have steady hands. Steady hands, steady aim.”
“You planning on shootin’ anyone in the next five minutes?”
Aramis swallowed, then shook his head, pressing his hands against his legs as flat as they would go.
“Then give ‘em a moment,” Porthos repeated.
They sat quietly, Porthos staring out at the wall connecting the main building to the livery, Aramis staring at his hands. Aramis began to match his breathing to his friend’s, drawing strength and balance from the easy rhythm. Soon, he felt his heart begin to slow, his chest loosening from the terrifying tightness and his hands steadying against his legs.
“Been a good while since that ‘appened,” Porthos remarked quietly.
“It has,” Aramis agreed, matching his friend’s tone.
“You still ‘aving nightmares?” Porthos asked softly.
Aramis shook his head, contradicting himself by answering, “Sometimes.”
“Scared me to death, first time this ‘appened to you,” Porthos remembered. “Didn’t know what the ‘ell was goin’ on.”
“You weren’t alone in your fear,” Aramis exhaled, dropping his head back against the wall.
“Used to last longer,” Porthos remarked. “You did well this time.”
“That’s where practice will get you,” Aramis muttered dryly.
“How’ve you been keeping…,” Porthos glanced at him askance. “In control?”
Aramis felt the corner of his mouth tug up. “Women.” He closed his eyes. “They are the perfect distraction. Demand and comfort wrapped up in one soft, supple package.”
“’at’s one way to look at ‘em.” The answering grin was clear in Porthos’ voice.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve indulged in that particular…coping mechanism,” Aramis said, clearing his throat. “Athos, has required a bit of…monitoring.”
“Athos didn’t even realize what was happening to you,” Porthos commented, his shoulders swaying a bit as he shook his head in disbelief.
“Why should he?” Aramis commented, rubbing his gritty face with one hand. “It’s just a word.”
Porthos shifted; Aramis felt his friend’s dark eyes pinned to him. “It’s not just a word. It’s a place. A nightmare.”
“It was five years ago,” Aramis argued.
“Aramis,” Porthos warned. “Don’t do that.”
Aramis looked down, away. “I don’t know what you’re—“
Porthos grabbed his arm, hard, painfully twisting it until Aramis rotated to relieve the pressure and was staring at Porthos.
“Don’t dismiss what ‘appened as nothing,” Porthos growled. “You lived.”
Aramis set his jaw. “And they did not.”
They stared at each other another moment, Porthos’ jaw muscles rippling beneath his cheek as he fought to control his automatic response. Aramis knew what his friend wanted to say, had said before. He also knew, however, that Porthos would rein in the anger, stuffing it low in his gut where it would explode elsewhere for reasons no one would be able to identify.
“All right then,” Porthos said, slowly releasing Aramis’ arm, his fingers white from the strength of his grip. “It’s just a word. And a word can’t hurt you, yeah?”
“Right,” Aramis nodded, feeling slightly dizzy with gratitude that Porthos would not push the issue.
It was the only way he was able to turn his back on the raw panic the memories of Savoy generated inside him. It wasn’t a place, a moment, a massacre. It was just a word.
“You gonna be fit for guard duty?” Porthos asked, not taking his eyes from Aramis’ face.
“It’s three weeks from now,” Aramis replied. “I’ve time to—“
“Not with the Duke,” Porthos replied, the slight narrowing of his eyes telling Aramis that any arguments he’d make right now regarding being prepared for the Duke of Savoy to visit would be summarily dismissed. “Tonight.”
Aramis frowned. He’d somehow missed that part. “We have guard duty tonight?”
Porthos raised an eyebrow, then pushed to his feet. “Wondered if you got all o’ that.”
“At the palace?” Aramis peered up at him, squinting in memory. Something about the Queen’s cousin…. “A boy, right?”
Porthos nodded. “You have four hours.”
Aramis took a breath. “I’ll be ready.”
“You should sleep for three of them.” Porthos reached out a hand to help him to his feet.
Aramis scoffed, but stumbled slightly when Porthos released him. “Perhaps you’re right.”
“’Course I’m right.”
Aramis took his hat from Porthos and set it on his now-aching head. “Did we lose Athos?”
“’e’s checking on d’Artagnan,” Porthos explained. “Or so he said.”
Aramis sighed, brushing the dirt from his breeches. “Good. You know,” he said, flexing his fists to ease the feeling of pins and needles in his fingertips. “It would do them both good to…air their grievances. Whatever they are.”
Porthos huffed. “Don’t think that’s likely to happen w’out a lot of alcohol loosening Athos’ lips.”
Aramis grimaced, thinking back to that morning. “And even then.”
“’tween you and me,” Porthos arched a brow and looked to the side, as if making sure they were still alone. “Athos doesn’t need another reason to lose ‘imself inside a bottle.”
“There we are heartily agreed,” Aramis sighed. “We can at least be assured he’s not drinking within the confines of the garrison.”
Aramis offered Porthos a small grin, trying to ignore that he could feel it tremble. “I found his stash.”
Porthos tilted his head. “Oh, no…you didn’t dump it, did you?” He looked forlorn at the thought of all that wasted wine.
“Porthos, my friend,” Aramis exclaimed in mock horror, feeling more like himself as the minutes wore on. “What do you take me for? Of course I didn’t dump it!”
Porthos raised an eyebrow. “No?”
“It’s in the livery,” Aramis grinned.
Porthos laughed boisterously. It was one of the things Aramis counted on with his friend: unabashed expression of delight. It was a sound that kept Aramis grounded when the world sought to slip sideways around him.
“Better be careful,” Porthos warned, resting a hand on Aramis’ shoulder as they rounded the corner and headed for the garrison quarters. “As much time as ‘e spends in there, d’Artagnan’ll find it ‘fore long.”
Aramis quirked his brow. “Fair point. I’ll move it. Last thing we need is both of them brooding in their wine.”
“That’s the truth of it,” Porthos nodded with a grin.
Chapter 3: Blood
He hadn’t cleaned up as instructed.
The way the Red Guards he and Porthos had passed had been eyeing him, d’Artagnan knew their presence near the garrison hadn’t been coincidence. He wasn’t content to simply let it be, not when he’d recently been jailed for dueling, and handled none-too-gently by the Guards during that ruse. Whatever long-standing feud existed between the Cardinal’s Red Guard and the King’s Musketeers, d’Artagnan now had his own reasons for distrust and suspicion.
Once Porthos was out of sight, d’Artagnan turned and headed back out to the archway, ducking into the shadow to peer out at the street.
It was empty of any pointed, silver helmets or red capes. Curious, d’Artagnan ventured out, trying to determine if he could see which way the group had scattered. He’d noticed several break off and head back up toward the palace, but it was the five or six who hadn’t followed he wondered about.
He was too restless to return to the garrison, awaiting the possibility of a mission he could ingratiate himself into that may or may not be enough to prove to the men in the regiment that he was deserving of being a recruit, perhaps one day even a Musketeer. He’d inadvertently anchored himself to these men and it was killing him to wait, day by day, looking for way to further infiltrate their ranks.
Finding a way to save Athos from the firing squad and volunteering for the mission to trap Vadim had worked to engender himself to the men, but hadn’t quite won over their Captain. He knew that if he were able to find more missions where he could accompany the men, prove his worth, then maybe Treville would see him as a likely candidate to be a Musketeer.
Since the journey with Bonnaire, since returning to find Athos collapsed in a drunken, delirious heap inside his burning chalet, d’Artagnan found he wasn’t content to wait for maybe.
Something had shifted inside of him. Something profound. He was no longer simply trying to determine the answer to the question of what now that screamed in his head, morning and night, since his father died. He was no longer seeking to find his next steps in a world that has lost his father’s light and life.
He now had a path, a purpose, a mission. These men, these band of brothers, were his reason. He simply had to find a way to convince them of that.
To show Athos that he could be trusted with the secret of his wife – despite the fact that the bitch had nearly murdered him. Showing Porthos that he was more than a ‘lad’ who needed protected, sheltered. To show Aramis that he had the heart of a Musketeer, that he was willing to sacrifice.
He just wasn’t sure how to bring that all about while also keeping himself fed and a roof over his head. His money had run out a week ago and though he’d written home for more from the proceeds off the farm, he’d heard nothing in return as yet. Boniceaux was close to tossing him if he didn’t pay and as much as he didn’t like him, d’Artagnan couldn’t blame the man.
Alexandre d’Artagnan had never taken charity, though he’d given it often. He’d raised his son to behave the same, but the path of Charles d’Artagnan had veered from his father’s careful planning, and didn’t that just burn in his heart? Being beholden to someone he could one day repay was one thing; the debt he was accumulating would see red in his ledger for years to come.
His darkening thoughts fueled his footsteps as he continued away from the garrison and down through familiar Paris streets – unlike the morning sojourn Porthos had taken him on. His face was pulled tight in frustration and he was completely unaware of the looks of cautious suspicion he was drawing from the vendors and citizens he left in his wake.
Soon enough, his feet carried him home, as his father had often predicted. Only this time, home wasn’t a sweet-smelling farm with the sound of horses and humming voices as a backdrop; it was a small townhouse with a third-floor bedroom barely big enough to hold the bed and dresser that had been wedged inside. It was the smell of cotton from the bolts of fabric stacked around the side rooms. It was just-baked bread cooling on a window sill. It was lavender in her hair.
Somewhere in the last weeks, Constance Boniceaux had become home.
She wasn’t his; could never be unless tragedy befell her husband. The dark thoughts he felt flirting at the edge of his heart every so often brought him more shame than the desire he felt in her presence.
Still, the knowledge that she belonged to another didn’t stop him from breathing deeply the moment he crossed the threshold of her husband’s house or erase the way he felt the tight muscles in his back and shoulders uncoil as she glanced over her shoulder at him with a quick, welcoming grin.
She smiled, quite often actually, but it was that grin that was his undoing. The way it hit her eyes lighting them up from the inside, and quirked her nose just so.
He felt his belly heat up at the sight and it often took every ounce of control and gentlemanly upbringing for him to answer her with a steady voice, rather than gathering her up, pressing her against the wall, and kissing her breathless. Not to escape, not to distract, but to show her the shape of his heart.
He sighed. Paris was going to unravel him completely if he wasn’t careful.
He blinked, shaking his head a bit and focused in on her. “Yes, sorry. What was that?”
“I’ve been talking to you for five minutes,” Constance exclaimed, resting a hand on her hip and tilting her head as her expression shifted from irritated to concerned with a breath. “Have you heard none of it?”
d’Artagnan offered her a sheepish smile. “It’s been a bit of a long morning, I’m afraid.” He sat in one of the chairs at the kitchen table, turning his full attention to her. “I promise I’m paying attention.”
Constance blinked, and if he didn’t know better, he would swear he’d flustered her.
“Yes, well,” she muttered, frowning slightly and looking back down at an envelope in her hand. “This came for you,” she said, not handing it over quite yet. d’Artagnan frowned at the paper, but allowed her to continue before reaching out for it. “One of the other Musketeers brought it by this morning, just after breakfast. I thought you were here, but….”
“I had, uh…,” d’Artagnan closed his mouth, straightening, then grimaced slightly, seeking for a way to explain his restlessness. “Target practice.”
“He said it was delivered to the palace,” she told him, her brows folding together in confusion. “Why would you get a letter at the palace?”
d’Artagnan focused in on the paper in her hand, finally realizing why it troubled her so. “I don’t…I have no idea.”
Constance handed the letter to him and d’Artagnan made sure to not brush her fingers as he took it. “Unsealed?”
“It was delivered that way,” Constance hastened to assure him. “I didn’t read it.”
d’Artagnan looked up at her quickly, then down at the opened letter in his hands. “No, I didn’t think you had.”
The letter was written in the language of Gascony, a dialect not known by many outside of that province. He skimmed the contents first, looking to see who it was from, but then his heart fell as he saw the name at the top: Alexandre.
“It’s to my father,” he said quietly, his voice breaking against the quiet of the room. He sensed Constance sink into a chair near him, felt her eyes on his face, but didn’t look up. Instead, he focused on the thinly scrawled words drafted by a hand he hadn’t seen since he was a young child. “From my uncle.”
“Is it…bad news?” Constance inquired gently.
d’Artagnan wet his lips, his mouth suddenly dry as he read his uncle’s words, felt the man’s anger even through the parchment. There was a page missing; the rant stopped in the middle of a sentence, but there could be no mistaking who would speak to his father in such a way.
“He wants to know when my father will be returning from petitioning the King. Says he’s going to run things his way at the farm if he doesn’t hear word in a fortnight.” He looked up with a worried frown. “He sent this over a week ago.”
“You…. I thought you wrote them?” Constance asked. “For money?”
“I did,” d’Artagnan looked back down at the letter. “I did,” he repeated.
“What does it mean…his way?”
d’Artagnan sniffed, a sudden, unnamed emotion closing his throat. “I have no idea. My father and his brother…they rarely spoke. I haven’t seen the man since I was a child.”
The only communication he’d shared back to Lupiac about his father’s death had been the one letter. The people there had been counting on Alexandre to bring word home of relief from the taxes waged upon the poor provinces and d’Artagnan had failed to follow through. He absentmindedly ran the tips of his fingers over his father’s name.
“He doesn’t even know me, really,” d’Artagnan said. “But it’s clear he wants my father’s home.”
“Your home,” Constance corrected.
d’Artagnan looked up, his eyes burning, chest heavy. “Is it?” he asked, earnestly, needing an answer. Constance simply regarded him silently, her large eyes offering him sympathy, a soft place to fall. “I have no home, Constance,” he confessed, feeling the rough edges of his voice bruise the air between them. “I don’t really…belong anywhere.”
“The Musketeers, though?”
He lifted his chin. “I tried to kill one of them.”
“Don’t be an idiot.” Constance batted the air with her hand. “They’ve forgotten all about that.”
d’Artagnan raised an eyebrow. “I’ve a long way to go to prove I belong with them.”
“Is that what you want?” Constance asked, her voice softening as she leaned forward.
His eyes tracked to her full mouth, unable to look away for a moment.
“Do you want to be a Musketeer, d’Artagnan?”
“Yes,” he breathed, still watching her mouth. “More than anything.”
“Then show them.”
Blinking, d’Artagnan straightened, looking back at the letter in his hand, a sudden realization chilling him. “If they haven’t received my letter in Lupiac, I have no way to pay you.”
“Let me worry about that,” Constance straightened suddenly, her face placid, eyes empty. “You’ll not be dumped on your head because of a delayed letter.”
“Is gone often enough he’ll not know the difference for a bit.”
d’Artagnan frowned. “I should go. Back to Lupiac, to the farm. I should settle this situation before I try to….” He shrugged helplessly, seeking a word that could mean securing a place inside this brotherhood he’d not meant to find but had suddenly become everything to him.
“You’d be gone for weeks,” she predicted, sounding upset enough at the fact that he looked up at her.
She stood suddenly, smoothing her hands down the front of her skirt, her red curls falling over a bare shoulder. He loved that he could see the dip of skin just above her collar bone. He wanted to bury his nose there and breathe in. When she turned to him, he forced the heat from his eyes, somehow managing to stare placidly back at her.
“It’s too long if you’re going to prove yourself to the Musketeers.”
“I don’t know what else to do,” d’Artagnan said honestly, helplessly.
“It took over a week for your uncle’s letter to reach you,” she pointed out. “Give your letter a few more days.”
Before he could nod in agreement, they both startled at a knock at the door. Constance frowned in puzzlement, then turned to open the door, blinking in surprise.
“Athos,” she exclaimed. “What—“
“I must speak with d’Artagnan,” Athos interrupted, removing his hat with a courteous and apologetic nod of his head.
d’Artagnan was on his feet, the letter from his uncle clutched in his hand. Athos saw him and entered, nodding at Constance as he moved past her. The men stood a moment, regarding one another until Constance felt the obvious tension in the room expand wide enough to push her out.
“Right,” she murmured. “I’ll just….” She gathered up two bolts of cloth that had been sitting on the table and hurried to the side room, more or less out of earshot.
“Athos,” d’Artagnan nodded. “Barely recognized you without a sword in your hand.”
Athos smiled tightly. “I suppose I deserve that.”
d’Artagnan looked away. “Porthos would say you are simply trying to prepare me.”
“You trust Porthos.” The statement came out as a bit of a challenge.
d’Artagnan glanced at him. “He’s never given me a reason not to.”
“And I have?” Athos moved toward the center of the room.
For reasons he couldn’t explain, and quite honestly didn’t want to, d’Artagnan backed away, maintaining a radius of safety between himself and Athos. He kept his eyes on the man, feeling something shift in the air between them. An energy. A warning. Electric in its intensity, drawing d’Artagnan’s hands into fists, crumping the letter in his grip.
“You received your letter, then?” Athos asked, eyes darting down to his clenched fists. “The one that found its way to the palace of all places?”
“Yes,” d’Artagnan replied.
“Is there something you’d like to share?”
d’Artagnan tilted his head. “Like what?”
“Like why a farm boy from Gascony would be receiving a letter at the palace.”
It came to him like a beacon, a blinding glimmer of light reflecting off a pond of realization: he had the upper hand. Athos suspected there was something he was hiding from them. He was looking for a truth d’Artagnan didn’t have, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t use that suspicion to his advantage.
“How about you go first,” d’Artagnan challenged, watching as Athos squared his stance, both hands on the brim of his hat, his chin tilted down as he regarded d’Artagnan. “Why not tell me why I had to pull you out of a burning house?”
“You know why,” Athos replied, his voice low, dangerous.
d’Artagnan felt his breath skip around his heart as Athos leveled his eyes. “I know only that the woman you ordered to be hung – your wife – tried to murder you and you did nothing about it.”
He saw Athos flinch, but wasn’t sure which of his accusations had caused the break in the man’s stoic mask.
“And what, exactly, should I have done?” Athos inquired, his tone deceptively mild.
d’Artagnan could see the man practically trembling with rage or memory, he couldn’t be sure which.
“Find her! Arrest her!”
Athos looked down. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Because you haven’t told me,” d’Artagnan replied.
Athos stepped forward. This time d’Artagnan forced himself not to move.
“And why should I tell you anything?”
“Because I saved your life.”
“That hardly obligates me; you also tried to take it several weeks back, if you’ll recall.”
d’Artagnan bit down on his retort, looking away.
“What is in the letter?” Athos pressed.
“Nothing,” d’Artagnan replied, sullenly. He looked back at Athos. “Nothing you need concern yourself with.”
He was confused by the suspicion he read in Athos’ voice. Why would he care about a letter from d’Artagnan’s home? Unless it was the fact that it had been delivered to the palace…. But that had been the last place anyone in Gascony knew he and his father were headed. Not that Athos was aware of that.
He wasn’t even truly a recruit, he reminded himself. Athos couldn’t order him to provide the letter. He was a shadow to them, hanging on to a hope that he would become more in time. A hope that burned bright and hot inside of him, casting fears into shadow. A hope that was reshaping into a dream, a plan that Athos had the power to shatter with his next words.
The older man stared at him a moment longer and d’Artagnan forced himself to meet his eyes unflinchingly.
“We have guard duty at the palace tonight,” Athos said suddenly. d’Artagnan blinked, starting to nod, when Athos tilted his head, continuing. “That is, Porthos, Aramis, and I do. You’ve been asked to stay back at the garrison.”
“I see,” d’Artagnan replied, feeling something dark twist inside him.
There were moments he knew the shadows of doubt were close, despite believing his father’s words that even darkness would pass. That tomorrow would be different, better. That light would always prevail. His father had believed that until the day he died, but it was because, d’Artagnan now realized, his father always had something to hold onto: hope.
d’Artagnan had felt the void, the chill in the world when his hope faded. That chill passed through him once more at Athos’ words. Something must have shown on his face because the older man seemed to soften a bit.
“It’s a minor effort, d’Artagnan,” he said. “Guarding the Queen’s cousin and son from Toulouse until they depart for home.”
“Guarding them from what?”
Athos tilted his head slightly. “Danger, naturally.”
d’Artagnan looked down, shaking his head slightly. “I know Toulouse,” he said quietly, not lifting his head. “It’s between here and—“ He stopped himself from saying home. “Just outside of Gascony. They even know our dialect.”
“Treville will be more inclined to entrust you with such duties when you’re considered an official recruit,” Athos offered him.
“And how should I go about convincing him?” d’Artagnan inquired, looking up at Athos. “Burn a house down around him?”
Athos brought his chin up. “That isn’t fair.”
“No,” d’Artagnan shook his head, dropping the letter on the table and looking away. “No, it’s not.”
After a moment, his blue eyes silently taking measure of d’Artagnan, Athos took a breath. “I must return to the garrison.”
d’Artagnan pressed his lips flat, nodded. “Of course.”
With a last lingering glance at d’Artagnan, Athos turned to head to the door.
“Athos,” d’Artagnan stopped him, puzzled. “Where is your dagger?” He’d rarely seen the man without it, and the empty sheath at the man’s back was disconcerting.
“It’s lost,” Athos replied, his voice heavy with what sounded like regret.
“I’m sorry,” d’Artagnan said sincerely, noting the sadness in the older man’s voice.
Athos simply nodded without looking at him and stepped outside. When the door closed behind him, d’Artagnan forced himself to take a breath. Then another. By the third he was ready to scream. The fourth brought a tremor to his fisted hands. When Constance stepped into the doorway, her too-knowing eyes regarding him silently, d’Artagnan broke, unable to stay calm and quiet as he knew he was expected to.
Without a word, he marched to the door, swinging it open and launched himself outside, leaving the letter from his uncle lying on the floor of the Boniceaux home. He didn’t pay attention to whether or not the door shut behind him; he simply needed to get out.
What was he even trying to do here? Force his way in to a brotherhood that didn’t want him? Prove that he was worth their notice, their acceptance?
He should return home, pick up where his father left off, try to keep the people of Lupiac from being crushed by the weight of the King’s taxes. What was he thinking, protecting a King who oppressed his people?
Stumbling awkwardly out of the way of a vendor’s cart, d’Artagnan closed his eyes briefly against the direction of his thoughts. His people, he scoffed. He had no people. Even before he and his father had left Gascony to strike out for Paris, d’Artagnan had known he didn’t truly belong there.
What he’d told Constance was true: he didn’t belong anywhere.
“Look ‘ere, lads,” a voice behind d’Artagnan caught his attention. It was close, and there was dark intent laced through the tone. “Guess it pays for your boss to bend the Lord’s ear.”
d’Artagnan stopped, his hand on his sword as he half turned, only just realizing that he’d wandered a bit too aimlessly in his anger. He didn’t immediately recognize his surroundings and as he rotated, he saw that was cornered in an L-shaped alley. A rather deserted L-shaped alley, the only other occupants six Red Guards, approaching him from both entries to the alley.
He worked his jaw, taking a step back, the palm of his hand resting on the hilt of his sword, trying to break down the situation as his limited Musketeer training and the lessons his father had started to provide him offered. The odds were certainly not in his favor, no matter how much he’d been improving under the Musketeer’s tutelage.
“How can I help you gentlemen?” Talking. Talking could work.
“Help us, he says?” A balding man, sans helmet, approached him, the arrogance swirling around him like a second cape. He tipped his head back, black eyes raking over d’Artagnan as though he were choosing a piece of meat. “You can let us break you apart and send you back to the Musketeers in pieces.”
d’Artagnan grimaced. “That does not sound incredibly appealing,” he said, shaking his head regretfully. “Afraid I’ll have to pass.”
He was beginning to sweat. Showing fear now would only trigger their bloodlust further, he knew. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep his breath steady, his hands still. They had yet to draw their swords, but with each passing moment, they came ever closer, their collective girth blocking the light from the ends of the alleyway.
“You humiliated us,” the bald man continued. “You played us for fools.”
“Doesn’t look like that takes a great deal of effort,” d’Artagnan commented, buying time, still completely confused as to what the man was referring. “Besides, isn’t this a bit foolish? Attacking a man in broad daylight, on a city street?”
“You’ve cornered yourself,” the bald man grinned. “No one around to hear you scream.”
Then one of the men approaching from his opposite side removed his helmet and d’Artagnan darted a look in his direction.
“No bodyguards, boy,” the second man said. “No one to rescue you this time.”
Then he remembered: the prison. These men had been guards at the prison when he’d escaped with Vadim. His escape had no doubt led to severe reprimand for them. Not that he was all that torn up about their impact.
“I’m sure the Cardinal informed you that was a ruse,” d’Artagnan explained. “I was there on Musketeer business.”
“Ah, but you’re not a Musketeer,” the bald Guard said, stepping ever closer. d’Artagnan could smell a stale odor of sweat, alcohol, and old food emanating from the man and fought the urge to turn his face away. “No, you’re simply a lost boy, aren’t you?”
d’Artagnan narrowed his eyes as the distance between himself and the rest of the Guards closed even further. He darted his gaze from their faces to their weapons, their hands, trying to determine just when they were going to strike. He noticed something odd on the belt of the bald Guard: a dagger, shoved into his belt, but not sheathed. A dagger with an oddly familiar silver hilt….
“Now you’ll be known forever as a traitor,” the bald man continued to threaten, his furrowed brow and hunched shoulders menacing.
“And why is that?” d’Artagnan closed his fingers around his sword hilt.
The man he recognized from the prison stepped forward, a piece of paper folded in his hand. “A letter came to the palace,” he began. d’Artagnan felt himself grow cold. “It was written in the language of Toulouse.”
“Gascony,” d’Artagnan corrected, his voice low, harsh.
“Before it was…destroyed,” the Guard stroked the folded edge of the sheet, “it spoke of a plot by the Queen’s cousin to murder the King and Queen for reparations due to the people of Toulouse. Taxes, you see. They can be so oppressive.”
The tale he was fabricating was shockingly believable; though he knew his Uncle would never threaten assassination, the rest could have actually been contained in the missing page of his Uncle’s letter.
d’Artagnan stared at the man, baffled. “What could you possibly gain from killing the King and Queen?”
“Oh, we won’t kill them,” the man stepped closer, a twisted smile on his thin lips. “We will save them. You will kill them. Or attempt to. After all, the letter was addressed to you.”
d’Artagnan brought his chin up, drawing his sword. “And by framing me, you stain the Musketeers.”
“That is a fortuitous result, yes,” the bald Guard commented. “They seem to have sentiment for you. But the true intent is removing the influence of the Queen’s cousin from a position of influence.”
“Richelieu,” d’Artagnan growled. “He wants to kill her.”
“And you so graciously obliged,” the bald Guard grinned, his wide mouth looking grotesquely stretched in his thick face.
“Over my dead body,” d’Artagnan lifted his sword in en guard.
The two Guards who’d been slowly backing him into a corner glanced at each other and shrugged. “That’s the general plan, yes,” said the bald Guard.
d’Artagnan didn’t let them say more. He lunged at the nearest man with a shout of effort, driving the point of his sword into the man’s soft belly, the surprise on the man’s face his last expression. In an instant, the others were upon him. d’Artagnan dropped to his knees, avoided a blow and slashed out, seeking to hit anything, anyone. He rolled back to his feet and caught another man across the neck with the sharpened edge of his blade. All too soon, though, he was overpowered.
Four men set upon him and knocked his sword from his hands. It wasn’t to be a quick death, he realized. They hadn’t drawn their weapons.
He was held against the wall, immobile, between two men. He bucked, growling like a wild thing, feeling his muscles strain and pull against their grip to get free. As the first fist was pulled back, d’Artagnan suddenly remembered Porthos’ warning about fighting four or five men at once. He tried to steady the frantic fluttering of his heart, the rapid escape of breath. He tried to remember every move, every lesson Porthos had taught him.
There were too many of them. They came at him from angles he couldn’t shield, couldn’t protect.
He took the first blow, his head ringing with the impact and he immediately tasted blood in his mouth. The second and third knocked the air from his lungs as he felt his ribs give under the impact. The fourth had him trying to curl up from the shock, but he was pulled straight once more.
Maneuvering his fingers in the solid grip of the Guard, he was able to reach the dagger sheathed at his back. As another blow to his cheek knocked him sideways, loosening the hold of the man to his right, he rolled a bit and pulled his blade free, driving it hard and fast into the base of a throat, not caring whose.
The arms holding him still instantly released, blood spilling on his face and chest, hot and wet. He pushed away from them, seeking only escape, and started swinging, his grunts of pain and effort turning into cries of rage. His hand throbbed from the impact of his struggle. The others had gloves on, but as he found flesh and bone beneath his fists, his knuckles split from the force of his blows.
His ferocity was short lived, however; he was burning out and the three that remained were working in concert to subdue him. A kick to his gut folded him in half and then it was simply a matter of mass and weight to press him to the ground.
His wrists were held, twisted above his head as one of the Guards slammed another fist into his midsection, knocking him hollow. Before he had a chance to grab back his air, a hand was wrapped around his throat and d’Artagnan felt the world begin to fold around him. Sparks darted wickedly across his visions, his ears began to thrum with the frantic slam of his racing heart, and his breath caught and held painfully in his bruised chest.
In that moment, the young man from Gascony went crazy.
He began to thrash, kicking and writhing beneath the hands that held him down, desperation feeding a fierce drive for freedom. But it was no use. The men were bigger and stronger and he felt the world begin to fade, darkness crawling closer, the shadows growing, stretching, taking the shape of devils.
He didn’t stop; he twisted and gagged, fighting to free his trapped hands, kicking back at the blows still landing on his legs and hips, but he knew.
They were killing him.
“What’s all this!”
A shrill, horrified voice cut through the gray that surrounded him, the slam of blood in his ears.
“Stop it! Stop it at once!”
“This is none of your concern.” That from the man choking him to death.
“Unhand that boy or I shall summon the Lieutenant General de Police!”
d’Artagnan knew this was his only chance. He allowed himself to go limp, hands falling away, eyes slipping closed, body lax. Voices swam around him, but suddenly, blessedly, the hand at his neck relaxed and he was free. Choking and gasping, but free.
“We’re done here, Louis.”
“He still breathes!”
“Not for long.”
“Help! Help, someone!”
The weight on d’Artagnan’s chest suddenly floated up and he let himself rolled to the side, something pulled from his weapon’s belt.
“We’re leaving, old man.” The growl faded and d’Artagnan knew he’d been left on the street with the bodies of the Red Guards he’d slain in defense of his life.
“Oh, dear. Oh, dear.”
A cool, dry hand touched his face and d’Artagnan blinked his eyes open, peering through lashes matted with blood at the wavering image of a black shirt and white collar.
“Father,” he croaked, his voice having been thrashed by the Red Guard’s grip. “Help me up. Please.”
“Lie still, lie still,” the priest clucked. “We will get you help.”
“I need…,” d’Artagnan tried to push himself upright, but pain whipped through him like fire on kindling. For a moment he couldn’t breathe from the intensity, and suddenly found himself once more on his back, staring at a swaying blue sky.
“Musketeers,” he managed, trying desperately to keep his eyes open.
Now that the fight had passed, he felt every blow, every bruise. He felt his breath gather in his chest and then shatter as it exited. His hands shook, his eyes burned. He tasted blood in his mouth and at the back of his throat. Pain dragging at his awareness with heavy, bladed fingers.
He desperately wanted to get up. If he didn’t, he was quite sure he would pass out in the alley and never rise. He rolled to his side.
“No, no, son, lie still—“
“Help me,” d’Artagnan whispered, grabbing clumsily at the priests black robes. “Help me up.”
The priest tried to push him back down, hands at his shoulders, but d’Artagnan used the man’s thin arms as a leverage to pull himself to a seated position. The world swam around him and he coughed, wincing as the effort screamed across his ribs. He spit out blood collecting in his mouth from where his teeth had cut into the inside of his cheek, his tongue darting out to touch his split lip.
Bracing one hand on the ground, the other wrapped around his mid-section, he curled his legs beneath him, ignoring the priest’s fragile protests. With a loud groan that was cut off by a gasp, he was able to get to his knees before he had to pause once more to gather his breath. He couldn’t remember feeling pain like this before; not even Vadim’s barrels had hurt this much.
It seemed to swim inside him, heavy and stubborn, unwilling to dissipate by his will alone.
Gritting his teeth and pushing breath out through his battered lips, he was able to gain his feet, reaching blindly for the wall he knew was nearby to brace himself.
A dead man’s blood smeared his face and hair. His own blood spilled from his mouth and from a cut at his cheek and another near his temple. The tangy copper scent mingled on him and it made him gag. He was forced to lean against the wall and breathe, willing his body to cooperate.
“Let me help you,” the priest was imploring.
d’Artagnan found it hard to focus on the man. His ears were ringing, his vision swaying to the point he had to close his eyes, resting his forehead on his arm as it was braced against the wall. A tremor wracked him; his muscles felt broken, though he felt certain his bones were intact. He bit back a low moan, wanting nothing more in that moment than to collapse in the dirt and let whatever was to happen next simply happen.
The priest touched his back and d’Artagnan straightened up, unaware of the ghoulish image he stamped into the gloom of the alley.
“I need to find the Musketeers,” he stated, then moved away from the priest.
Stepping over the body of one of the Red Guards, he headed out of the alley in a slightly wavering gait. He bounced off the outer wall of a building, crashed into an abandoned vendor cart, finally breeching the opening to the street.
Only then did he realized that in his angry, aimless wondering, he’d managed to end up between the garrison and the palace. As he looked down the street, he was able to distinctly pick out the image of Porthos, Athos, and Aramis riding away from the garrison – and him – toward the palace and their assigned duty.
His knees nearly gave out at the sight.
Gripping the wall of the nearest building for balance, he drew in a breath, feeling it catch on his bruises, and steeled himself for the journey to the garrison. He had to warn Treville of the Red Guard’s plan. He had to warn somebody.
One step into the street and his body finally rebelled. He wasn’t even able to catch himself; he fell to the dirt, the smell of blood on his body mingled with the smell of Paris, enveloping him in a small cloud of dust as he hit the ground. It would be fitting, he mused, if the city ended up burying him.
He hadn’t really felt alive since he arrived.
“I am here.”
Paper-thin hands on his chest, sour breath at his face. Returning to save him. Save him from the death Paris wished to deliver.
“I am here, my son. Let me help you.”
“Boniceaux,” d’Artagnan gasped, but found he could say nothing else.
His strength bled from him as surely as if he had an open wound left untreated. He lay still, not quite unconscious, not quite awake, listening as a voice called out for help and a wagon approached. He felt hands lift him, felt the rocking motion of a wagon’s movement, and then he heard her voice, her sweet, sweet voice, and then she was there.
She was gasping and cursing and her voice fluttered with a slice of panic, but she was there.
“What have you done to yourself,” she murmured, so close to him he could smell the lavender in her hair, even if he couldn’t open his eyes beyond mere slits.
“Constance,” he whispered, reaching for her. “Tell Athos….”
“Oh, I’ll tell him all right,” she grumbled, her voice hardening as she grasped his hand. “I’ve quite a few things to tell him.”
He shook his head, but that only caused the pain to shift inside him, jumbling his thoughts until he couldn’t remember what it was, exactly, he needed Athos to know. That he’d tried? That he’d fought? That he wanted so much to be part of them?
The world blurred around him and he could no longer keep track of the voices, the movement, the light and the dark. He could no longer resist the pull of the shadows, but their blades were retracted. Now they simply held him.
And he wasn’t fighting anymore.
He was running the rooftops with Porthos, seeing Paris as a beautiful lady, stretched out invitingly before him. He was sparring with Athos, earning a nod of approval when he managed to avoid landing on his knees. He was sitting in a tavern with Aramis, smiling as the other man wrapped an arm around the woman on his lap.
He was holding Constance against him.
With a gasp, he opened his eyes, starting forward before he remembered that would be a very bad idea. His ribs cried out, the protest echoed by his head, and bloody Christ, his throat was on fire. He put a trembling hand to his head as he eased back against the pillow. Groaning, he blinked into the grey light of the room around him.
“Hope you’re not planning on making a habit of this.”
Constance. He’d know that humor-laced tone in his grave. He blinked, rolling his head to the side, seeking her out.
“Habit?” His voice sounded like someone had dragged a blacksmith’s rasp along the lining of his throat.
“Passing out at my feet,” she said casually, sitting gently on the edge of his bed. “Forcing me to have someone carry you to bed.”
He closed his eyes. Right.
“’m sorry,” he croaked. “Needed help.”
“I can see that,” she remarked. “Someone tried to kill you. Again.”
It rushed back to him then. The Red Guard, the Queen’s cousin, the plot. He opened his eyes wide, trying once more to sit up. It was slightly disconcerting to discover she was able to press him back against the bed with one hand.
“Shall I orient you to your injuries?” It wasn’t a question. “Might make it a bit easier for you to finish what they started.”
“I think I can feel them, thanks.”
“Is that right?” Constance’s tone arched along with her eyebrow. “Multiple bruises on your ribs, finger marks on your throat, and you’re lucky your cheek isn’t more swollen. You wouldn’t be able to open your eye!”
“Are you…angry with me?” he asked, wishing he sounded less like a boy and more like a soldier.
“Yes!” Constance snapped, standing up so that she could look down at him, both hands at her waist. “What were you thinking, taking on three Red Guards?”
“Six,” he corrected, swallowing thickly and looking away.
She handed him a cup of water, relenting in her lecture a moment to help him sit up so that he could drink without spilling it down his chest. It was only then he realized that his chest was bare. He didn’t dare peer beneath the blanket covering him from the waist down. He really didn’t want to know quite yet if she’d stripped him completely.
“The priest said he chased off three,” Constance informed him, sitting on the edge of the bed once more.
“He didn’t mention the bodies on the ground, then?”
She shook her head, sitting back, her expression a mixture of impressed and horrified. He took the moment she needed to let the information sink in and got his balance. He was stiff, sore, and quite uncomfortable, but the fire-edge of pain that had threatened to disintegrate him had cooled.
“I need to find Athos,” he said, with renewed urgency. “Those men who attacked me are plotting to kill the Queen’s cousin.”
Constance’s eyes flew open. “Cousin? Talia?”
d’Artagnan stared at her. “You know the Queen’s cousin?”
She arched a brow at him. “It might come as a surprise to you, but even a lowly commoner like myself has friends outside of Paris.”
“I didn’t mean—“
“Oh, hush,” she pressed a hand on his leg, effectively silencing him for reasons he dare not explore. “Talia is the Queen’s cousin by marriage. I knew her when we were young.” She suddenly looked at him, alarmed. “Oh, d’Artagnan, if Talia is in danger, what of Luca?”
He frowned. “I don’t know—“
“Her son,” Constance explained. “He’s twelve – or could be thirteen by now, I can’t recall – anyway he is deaf.”
At that, d’Artagnan blinked. “Deaf?”
She nodded. “Talia refused to have him institutionalized. She’s raised him to be like any of noble birth.”
“That can’t have been easy.”
Constance shook her head. “If someone is after her, they will go for her son as well. You need to get to Athos.”
With a small, tolerant smile, d’Artagnan muttered, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Here, easy,” she encouraged, helping him swing his legs off the bed.
He was relieved to see he still wore his breeches, though he could feel the sensitive skin of raised bruises brushing against the material. His right hand was stiff and swollen when he gripped the edge of the bed for balance. Looking down, he saw the skin between his first two knuckles had been split open, though the cut was cleaned.
It really fucking hurt to hit a man.
“I need to wrap your ribs,” Constance told him. “It was too difficult before.”
He nodded, not trusting his voice at the moment, trying desperately not to whimper as the world took it’s time settling into place. Constance knelt before him to get a better angle, and d’Artagnan held his breath. He could feel warmth radiating from her, blending with the small tremors echoing from him, and turning what little of his body that didn’t hurt into a pool of want.
“You need to breathe,” she told him. “Or the wrap will be too loose.”
He exhaled carefully, closing his eyes as she leaned close, wrapping the bandage tightly around him. He grunted when she pulled it taunt against his bruises, suspecting the bones there to be cracked. She moved smoothly, though, and soon he was able to open his eyes and hold still without worrying that he would break into hundreds of pieces.
“I wasn’t able to apply needlework,” she said as she continue to unroll the bandage around him, “though the cut on your hand and below your eye could use it. As well as your lip.”
He darted his tongue out to test the wound there.
“I had witch-hazel and herbs for the bruises. I gave you powders for the pain, which is probably why you slept so deeply. And I stopped the bleeding—“
“Constance,” he said, her name slipping out in a low, rough whisper. She looked up at him. “You were wonderful. You saved me. Again.”
He saw color climb her cheeks and she looked down once more, finishing the wrap, then rocking back on her heels before gaining her feet.
“I’d like you to rest a few more hours,” she sighed, regretfully.
“Hang on,” he frowned. “A few more hours? How long have I been here?”
“All night,” she told him. “It’s just after dawn.”
“Damn,” he muttered, rubbing his aching head once more. “I need to—“
“I know,” she muttered, grabbing his shirt. “Find Athos. Here; I got you a clean shirt. Your other was covered with blood.”
“Not mine,” he hastened to reassure her as he bunched the shirt up to pull it over his head.
“I gathered that once I cleaned it from your hair and face,” she informed him wryly. “Though I will admit it scared the life out of me when I first saw you.”
Dropping the shirt around his waist, he glanced up at her. “I am sorry about that.”
She tilted her head, her eyes going soft and sweet before something shifted within them and the open innocence he so often saw there was cloaked in sadness. “You need never apologize for coming to me for help, d’Artagnan.”
He smiled at her, wanting to chase the sorrow from her eyes. When she turned away, he sighed, bracing himself, then reached for his boots. Pulling them on took more effort than he’d thought possible with such a simple task. Once that was done, however, he stood and made his way on hollow legs to where his doublet and weapon’s belt lay.
Wordlessly, Constance helped him attach the weapon’s belt once he’s slipped on his jacket.
“That’s strange,” he muttered. “My father’s powder flask….”
An image, quick, unbidden, of the Guard who’d straddled him, turning him and taking something from his belt, crashed into his mind and he gasped.
“What?” Constance asked, a hand on his arm. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” he said shakily. “I’m fine.”
“Take your cloak,” she implored. “Today is much cooler than yesterday.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Just…humor me,” she frowned, though it didn’t mar the concern in her eyes.
“Thank you,” he said, catching her hand as she started to turn away. Kissing her knuckles, he let his lips linger just a bit longer than was proper. “For everything.”
“Go find Athos,” she said softly. “Keep Talia and Luca safe.”
“I will,” he said, releasing her hand and staring hard at her, allowing her to see the promise in his eyes.
“I believe you.”
He made his way from his room to the front of the Boniceaux house, his muscles groaning and stretching from the previous day’s abuse and long night. It could no longer matter if they wanted him as part of their ranks. He was there and now they needed him.
d’Artagnan would be damned if he didn’t show them why.
Chapter 4: Volunteer
It had been a long night for Athos.
He’d not been able to shake the strange feeling of loss that had clung to him after he’d left d’Artagnan at the Boniceaux house. The lad had been right; he had saved Athos’ life. And he was owed some sort of explanation.
But he’d also found his way inside a wall that Athos had thought impenetrable. He’d seen Athos’ shame. That was not something Athos was able to easily overcome.
Amazingly, the young man had not passed judgment until now. He’d simply pulled Athos from the flames, cooled him off, and braced him as Athos fought his way free of the ghosts that had suddenly been tangible. His nightmare had come to life and he’d been lost to find a way free of it – hadn’t wanted to find a way free of it – until he’d heard d’Artagnan shouting for him.
It was d’Artagnan’s voice that had pulled him from the Hell he’d been willingly tumbling into.
And he’d turned from him. Pushed him away, no matter how many times he returned. No matter how hard d’Artagnan had fought to find his way back through that wall, Athos continued to deflect him. He couldn’t afford another breech. He wouldn’t survive it.
His only salvation was distance. Aramis and Porthos, for all their watchful eyes and careful guarding, never tried to dismantle his walls. They simply sat on the outside and waited until he reached over for them. But d’Artagnan…the boy was fearless and tenacious. He saw the edge of a truth and he climbed the barricade in a desperate attempt to grasp the full brunt of it, oblivious to the reasons the fortress around Athos’ heart had been built in the first place.
Despite the fact that Athos saw him swiftly constructing walls of his own.
It had seemed wrong, riding away from the garrison without the young Gascon, but orders must be followed, and they had jobs to do. Whether or not it suddenly felt as though their company was incomplete.
Exactly when had the three of them become…not enough?
He’d been mostly right when he’d told d’Artagnan it was a minor duty. They’d flanked the doors, within eyesight of each other and each with eyes on the King and his guests. The Queen’s cousin, a woman about Athos’ age with blond hair and sharp blue eyes, had sat to the left of the King, speaking freely and with much animation about the state of the country, the situation in the lesser regions, the burden the people in the smaller townships were bearing due to the taxes waged, and what the King might do about it.
At first they hadn’t noticed her son, but then Athos saw him sitting behind the group of adults, tucked up into one of the broad windowsills, staring outside seemingly oblivious to the conversation around him. Porthos had positioned himself near the boy and they’d stood, silent guardians as food and wine was served and consumed, ignoring the flow of conversation, as was their training.
Athos had grown weary much sooner than he’d anticipated, the events of the past several nights catching up with him the longer he remained inactive. His thoughts wandered, the way they often did when he didn’t have a distraction – of any kind – to steer him in a particular direction. They slipped along the bank of his memory, finding the crevices that time and circumstance had dug deep into his soul and began to shine a light on moments he much preferred be kept in darkness.
Times past, the only solution to such melancholy had been to consume large amounts of alcohol.
To drink until his thoughts were muddled. Until his hands and feet tingled. Until he couldn’t feel his face. Until the fact that he might collapse in a strange place and not wake was all together acceptable to him. It was clear why Aramis had felt the need to mind him over the past week, but that didn’t really help him this night.
Because Athos had been able to smell the wine.
He’d felt the cells in his body strain for it, thirsty beyond measure. He began to sweat as he held himself rigid, keeping still. He’d noticed immediately when Aramis’ dark eyes had drifted almost too casually up from their charges to rest on him. The marksman’s face had been usually pale and slightly drawn, but his eyes were alive and alert and Athos knew exactly what he was watching for.
The dinner passed without incident, but as their orders were to remain until the King dismissed them, the men had stood at their stations as the King and Queen began to take their leave. As the blonde woman rose, Athos had watched as she turned to the boy, moving close so that she was directly in his line of sight, then held out her hand. The boy had looked up at her then, the first sign of life from him all night, and smiled. Athos had felt his body react, tensing as if preparing for a blow.
He’d seen a smile like that before, full of broken innocence and a fragile hope, like sunshine trapped behind clouded glass. It was Thomas’ smile. d’Artagnan’s smile. And oh, how it had hurt him to see it.
The King had approached him then, asking in the way unique to Louis that was both assuming and requesting in one breath that they escort his wife’s cousin and son home to Toulouse the following day, blissfully unaware of the preparation such a journey would entail. Athos had agreed, and then they’d remained until the last person had retired, the hall empty.
Still, he’d been reluctant to depart as they’d not been formerly dismissed. Queen Anne had apparently remembered them at some point and one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting had entered the hall to bid them go home and rest. Athos led his men from the palace to where they’d tied their horses; no one said a word until they were clear of the palace walls.
“You did well,” Aramis had said to him in a low voice.
“I wasn’t aware that I accomplished anything,” Athos deflected.
“Athos, please,” Aramis glanced at him under the brim of his hat, his face nearly translucent in the moonlight. “Have you forgotten who kept you from drowning in Bordeaux this past week?”
Athos swung aboard his mount, scowling. “Yes, well.”
“The boy,” Porthos managed to break in before Athos was able to take Aramis’ unrequested praise in the wrong direction.
Athos looked over at him curiously, for a brief moment thinking he was referring to d’Artagnan.
“I don’t think he can hear,” Porthos continued.
“The child is deaf?” Aramis asked, shock registering in his voice and face.
“He said nothing the whole time we were there,” Porthos explained. “He never once reacted to the conversation, even when it related directly to him or his mother. I don’t think he heard it.”
Athos nodded, thoughtfully. “The King wishes us to escort the Queen’s cousin and the boy back to Toulouse.”
“When?” Porthos asked.
“Tomorrow,” Athos replied, his tone conveying to his friends what he thought of that order.
“Ah, Louis,” Aramis sighed, as he turned his horse toward the garrison. “Always with a thought for the common man.”
“The Captain is gonna love that,” Porthos grumbled.
“I suggest we rest while we can,” Athos instructed.
“Athos,” Aramis called as the started to canter away from the palace. “No wine.”
“I am perfectly capable of deciding that for myself,” Athos had grumbled, missing the pointed look shared by his closest friends.
The night had tumbled downhill for him from there. Unable to find his collection of wine in his quarters, Athos found himself weighing the validity of seeking out Aramis and demanding he return the bottles or simply heading to a tavern. It was only when he found himself opening the door of his quarters with the intent to find the one tavern close by he knew to be open at this hour that he recognized what it was he doing.
And what he had put Aramis through in his effort to keep him from falling too far.
He’d backed away from the door, sat on the chair beneath his window, and stared at the smudge of dust on the floor where he’d found Aramis sitting just that morning, watching over him. He remained there the whole night, purposely blanking his mind, not allowing himself to sleep and fall into nightmare, not allowing himself to think of Anne or Aramis or, God help him, d’Artagnan.
When dawn broke, he felt it.
The light cut through the black of night, somehow turning the world even colder for a few heartbeats before gray began to bleed through the air outside his room. He took a moment to refresh himself, breaking through the skim of ice on the barrel of water outside his room, washing up and changing his clothes enough so that the sweat of yesterday didn’t follow him into today.
As he was first to the yard, he was surprised to see Treville step out to his balcony soon after Athos arrived at the table. He looked up at his Captain, met the man’s eyes, and waited. Treville said nothing at first, then sighed as if whatever he had to share with his men was too heavy for his voice to carry. Within the next ten minutes, the yard was filled with Musketeers, the stable boy having spread the word that Treville needed all hands on deck.
Aramis stepped up next to Athos, silently bumping his shoulder against him in greeting. Athos felt an automatic smile tug at the corner of his mouth, a rare occasion, but one that seemed always to surface when Aramis was around. Porthos stumbled toward them, eyes puffy from sleep, tying his bandana around his unkempt curls.
The big man regarded Aramis carefully. “All right, then?”
“No worse for wear,” Aramis replied with a tight, but grateful smile. Athos notice then that his friend still looked a bit pale.
“Which one?” Porthos asked, lifting his chin, a smile in his curious eyes.
“Giselle,” Aramis replied, his lips curling to turn his smile rakish as he met Porthos’ gaze.
“Well done, that,” Porthos nodded approvingly.
“What the devil are you two on about?” Athos broke in, completely confused.
Porthos punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Behave yourself and maybe we’ll tell ya.”
Athos glowered at his friend, but before he could summon a proper berating for keeping him out of the loop, Treville stepped up to the edge of the staircase so that he was visible to everyone gathered in the yard.
“Men,” he said. All eyes looked up. “I have a request of you. Let me be clear. This is a voluntarily mission. Whoever elects to take it on will be away from the garrison and Paris for approximately a week, so consider it well with your other responsibilities before you step forward.”
Athos frowned, glancing askance at Aramis who shrugged with his eyebrows.
“The King has requested an escort for the Queen’s cousin and her son back to their home in Toulouse.”
Athos brought his chin up; a messenger had already informed the Captain before he’d been able to. He saw Porthos exchange a look with Aramis, then turned his attention back to the Captain.
“You will need to travel light to accommodate—“
Athos felt himself tense in reaction to the voice; he looked first to Aramis as if to confirm what he’d just heard, then turned – along with most of the regiment – to see d’Artagnan standing just inside the entry archway, his eyes on Treville. The sight of the young man, though, turned Athos’ blood to ice.
Aramis’ whispered exhale echoed the curse that was screaming at the back of Athos’ mind. Neither of them moved toward their young friend, both recognizing the fragility of the moment as d’Artagnan fixed his bruised countenance on their Captain.
Porthos, however, had never been a fan of subtly.
“Bleeding Christ, d’Artagnan!” The big man pushed forward through the troops separating him from their young friend. “What the hell—“
“Captain,” d’Artagnan called, having not shifted his gaze from the man staring down at them from the top of the stairway.
The young Gascon’s voice was rougher than usual, sounding strangled and raspy and as Athos stared he saw why: bruises at his neck to accompany the ones surrounding his eye and mouth. Athos remained still, instinctively putting out his arm to stop Aramis from advancing as Porthos had until Treville was given a moment to speak.
“I’m sorry, d’Artagnan,” Treville began, sounding genuinely regretful, “but this is Musketeer business.”
“A recruit is sent on Musketeer missions,” d’Artagnan pointed out, his voice steady, his eye line unwavering. “To train, to learn.”
“That is correct.”
“I believe I’ve proven that I can match any recruit here,” d’Artagnan pressed. “And what’s more,” he swallowed, wincing, showing the first sign that he felt the marks on his body, “I have information vital to this mission.”
Athos looked away from their young friend, turning to meet Treville’s eyes, instinctively knowing his Captain would look to him. He nodded, imperceptibly.
“My office,” Treville barked. “Now.”
Athos watched d’Artagnan advance through the crowd that swiftly gave way for him, trying to see where else the young man might be injured. The only indication that he was in pain came when d’Artagnan began to climb the stairs. He paused, briefly, grasping the bannister before pushing himself forward.
Porthos was on his heels and Athos saw quickly that there would be no keeping the big man from following the lad into Treville’s office. Clearly sharing his same thought, Aramis moved forward in step with him, both following Porthos up the stairs, leaving the regiment below to stare and wonder. It was telling, Athos thought, that no one questioned their pursuit of the young Gascon.
They filed into Treville’s office, and Athos closed the door behind him. Treville stood behind his desk, eyeing everyone who stood behind d’Artagnan.
“I don’t believe I requested anyone besides d’Artagnan.”
“We ain’t leaving,” Porthos growled, adding as an afterthought, “Sir.”
“Captain,” Aramis spoke up, his voice honey-smooth. “We were just about to volunteer for your mission when d’Artagnan spoke up. Hearing his information first hand would be fortuitous.”
Athos flicked an eyebrow his friend’s way, impressed.
“Very well,” Captain Treville sighed, sitting down. “Let’s have it.”
“Captain,” d’Artagnan stared, but was forced to stop and clear his obviously-sore throat. “There is a conspiracy by the Cardinal’s Red Guards to murder Talia – the Queen’s cousin – and her son Luca.”
Athos blinked at the amount of information d’Artagnan had managed to cram into one sentence.
“And you have proof of this?” Treville asked with admirable calm.
Athos kept his eyes on d’Artagnan, watching as the young man darted out a tongue to wet his dry lips, lingering slightly on the raw-looking cut.
“I can only tell you their plan,” d’Artagnan replied, his brows meeting briefly in a wince, “as they shared it with me.”
Treville brought his chin up. Athos could practically feel Porthos vibrating with anger at what d’Artagnan was revealing to them. He glanced to the side and saw that Aramis had his hands curled into fists, color having returned to his face as he kept his dark eyes pinned to d’Artagnan.
“Why would they share their plan with you?” Treville asked.
“Because they weren’t planning on me being alive to tell anyone.”
Porthos’ growl was heard by all in the room.
“Tell me,” Treville ordered.
As d’Artagnan recounted what the Red Guard had revealed, Athos felt as though he were two people: the soldier who immediately began planning tactics and strategy and the brother who wanted to push d’Artagnan into a chair and tend his wounds. The young man’s report was clear, concise, if a bit stilted toward the end as he tried to recall how he escaped from the alley, but his information felt sound.
“Aside from the page of your letter,” Treville said, as if d’Artagnan wasn’t standing in front of him so tense his muscles looked like they were seconds from cramping, “you mentioned other proof that they were planning on framing the Musketeers.”
“They took my father’s powder horn,” d’Artagnan said. “And I believe they may have Athos’ dagger.”
Athos blinked at that. He had no recollection of how he lost the dagger; only Aramis had been with him at the time. He glanced over at Aramis, but his friend was staring at d’Artagnan with a single-minded focus.
Treville was nodding. Athos pulled his attention back to his Captain.
“Agreed, d’Artagnan,” he was saying. “You will join the men on this mission.”
Athos saw d’Artagnan’s shoulders tremble slightly, but he held it together.
“However, I feel we must change our strategy. Athos?” Treville turned to his Lieutenant seeking input.
“I agree, Captain,” Athos replied, keeping his voice mild, though his entire being wanted to bundle d’Artagnan up and get him out of there, now that his report was concluded. “I suggest we employ the Alsace tactic.”
“A decoy?” Porthos spoke up.
“Have it appear that we are escorting both Talia and her son while one of them actually takes a different route,” Athos said. “Have a company of Musketeers follow the decoy and capture the Guards who attack.”
“Who do you suggest we split off?” Treville asked, nodding along with Athos’ proposal.
“Luca,” d’Artagnan interjected before Athos could speak. Surprisingly, it would have been his suggestion as well. “He is deaf, sir,” d’Artagnan informed Treville. “It will be easier to engage him and keep him safe if he is on his own.”
“It may be more difficult to reassure him without his mother present,” Aramis warned.
d’Artagnan nodded. “Unless she prepares him,” he said. “The danger will be following Talia’s group. She won’t want her son at risk.”
“You know an awful lot about these two,” Porthos spoke up.
d’Artagnan swallowed again; this time it was audible. “It’s merely logical supposition.”
“Or you know someone,” Porthos challenged.
Athos felt d’Artagnan’s sigh. “Constance knew Talia when they were young.”
“d’Artagnan is right,” Athos said. “The boy will be easier to protect on his own.”
Treville was quiet a moment – long enough that Athos thought he saw d’Artagnan sway. Then he stood and stared out at the four of them, his blue eyes hard. “You four will attend the boy,” he said. “I’ll prepare the decoy and set up men to accompany Talia and trail to watch for Guards.” He moved around in front of the desk, his eyes on d’Artagnan. “Will you be ready to ride by noon?”
Four hours. Athos took a slow breath.
“I’m ready now,” d’Artagnan replied.
“Go clean up,” Treville replied. “Eat. Get yourselves ready to be on the road for a week. I’ll see you back in the yard as soon as I speak to the King.”
Athos nodded, turning to face his men as a signal that they should file out. Aramis began to reach for d’Artagnan, but Athos shook his head once, staring pointedly at the exit. Porthos opened the door and stepped out, followed by Aramis, then d’Artagnan, Athos trailing close behind, watching, waiting.
They made it to the top of the stairs before d’Artagnan’s knees buckled.
d’Artagnan thrust out a hand instinctively and grabbed Aramis for support. Athos stepped close, wrapping an arm around the younger man, keeping him from going to the ground, as Aramis rotated, keeping d’Artagnan’s hand on him and slipping the lad’s arm across his shoulders. d’Artagnan’s head lolled forward, a low, helpless moan slipping between his lips, but he somehow kept hold of consciousness.
Without a word, the two supported him down the stairs, Porthos parting the crowd. Athos nodded once at Aramis over d’Artagnan’s hanging head and they made their way to the infirmary.
“The physician is gone for the week,” Aramis reminded him quietly.
“You’ll have to do,” Athos replied.
“Thank you,” Aramis muttered. “Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.”
Porthos pushed the door of the infirmary open and cleared several spare uniforms and a couple of muskets from the bed, stepping out of the way as Athos and Aramis eased d’Artagnan down. The lad groaned as he slouched on the bed, using the hand that had been gripping Aramis’ shoulder to brace himself upright while the other wrapped around his mid-section.
“What didn’t you tell Treville?” Athos asked, his tone coming sharper than he’d intended it to, worry riding roughshod over tact.
“N-nothing,” d’Artagnan gasped, his eyes closed. “There were six. I killed three.”
“That ain’t nothin’,” Porthos muttered.
“Give me a moment, will you?” Aramis shot Athos a look, the frown there folding the thin scar that bisected his forehead.
Athos crossed his arms, watching as Aramis tilted d’Artagnan’s head, pulling at his eyelids and peering at his dark eyes.
“What’er you doing?” d’Artagnan muttered, trying to push the older man’s hand away.
“Checking to make sure your brain is intact,” Aramis replied.
“Maybe you didn’t hear ‘im,” Porthos grumbled. “Idiot went up against six Red Guards. ‘is brain was gone before the bruising.”
“Didn’t—ah!” d’Artagnan winced, pulling away from Aramis’ exploring hands, but then swaying enough Aramis grasped his shoulders, steadying him. “Didn’t go up against them,” d’Artagnan continued, breathless. “They cornered me.”
“They were looking for you,” Athos remarked, eyes narrowing in memory.
Aramis shot a glance at him over his shoulder. “The group in front of the garrison,” he recalled.
“Who had no business with a Musketeer,” Athos recalled, seeing so clearly in hindsight what he’d missed when it was right before him.
“They said that,” d’Artagnan muttered, “to me, in the alley. That I wasn’t a Musketeer.”
Athos saw something dark traverse Aramis’ expression as he returned to examining the bruises around the lad’s eye and the cut on his cheekbone.
“This needed needlework,” Aramis muttered. His thumb gently brushed at the cut on d’Artagnan’s lip, then he lifted the lad’s right hand. “As did this. Got a few good hits in, I see.”
“Not enough,” d’Artagnan grumbled.
“Fool,” Porthos stepped forward. “You killed three Red Guards in one attack. Alone. That’s more’n anyone in this room can say.”
Athos saw d’Artagnan look up at the big man with wide eyes, taking in that information. Porthos nodded once at their young friend, affirming it, and neither Athos nor Aramis spoke up to contradict him.
“It was luck,” d’Artagnan deflected, his broken voice rougher with understanding. “More luck than skill.”
“Luck can be a soldier’s greatest weapon,” Porthos replied, crossing his arms and glowering at the younger man, challenging him to contradict his statement.
The thought of d’Artagnan being cornered and attacked with no one to come to his aid had Athos’ stomach churning, a vice fitting itself tightly around his heart. When had this boy from Gascony come to matter so much to him?
“It’s too late to stitch up these cuts now,” Aramis was saying. “I’m afraid you’ll have to live with the scars. We’ll bandage against infection.”
“’s okay,” d’Artagnan muttered, letting his eyes fall closed. “Constance—“
“You went back to Boniceaux?” Athos demanded, instantly angry, though he wasn’t sure why.
d’Artagnan opened his eyes, glaring. “I started for the garrison, but saw you three riding toward the palace.”
“You should have come for Treville!” Athos snapped.
“Athos,” Aramis warned.
“I would have, but—“
“You wish to be a recruit, perhaps one day a Musketeer,” Athos stepped forward, not realizing how loud his voice had gotten, “then you must start thinking like a soldier. The mission comes first! Over everything!”
“Perhaps if you’d let me be part of your mission in the first place, this wouldn’t have happened!” d’Artagnan yelled back, just as forcibly, his voice cracking.
The moment the words were out, though, he paled, wrapped his hand around his side, and closed his eyes, swaying drunkenly on the edge of the bed. Athos stepped back, contrite, as Aramis gripped the lad’s shoulder for support.
“Easy,” Aramis said, his voice low, soothing. “Just breathe through it. That’s it. Shallow breathing is still breathing.”
Athos watched as Aramis glanced over to where Porthos was hovering.
“He’s shaking like a leaf,” Aramis said. “Can you?”
Porthos nodded, moving in close and helping to brace d’Artagnan upright while Aramis moved to the nearby cabinets to gather some supplies and bandages. Athos saw his friend grab a familiar looking jar of white powder that he knew to be for pain, and his frown deepened. Aramis glanced up at him, feeling his gaze.
“His pulse is racing,” Aramis explained, “and the tremors are not from weakness, but from trying to temper pain.”
“Treville won’t allow him to ride if he’s drugged.”
“This will not incapacitate him,” Aramis promised.
“I tried to go to Treville,” d’Artagnan spoke up, his voice barely above a whisper but loud enough to draw their attention once more, “but I didn’t make it. I collapsed. In the street. A priest found me. The only one I could think would help me was Constance.”
Athos exhaled and looked down, feeling as though he’d been slapped across the face. “I am sorry.”
“Did Constance use witch-hazel?” Aramis was examining d’Artagnan’s bruised throat.
“I think that’s what she said,” d’Artagnan replied. “I wasn’t really in a position to verify.”
“We’ll need more of it. I have some herbs for your throat and these cuts.” He stepped back, crossing his arms over his chest and arching a brow. “You want to show me those ribs?”
“Constance wrapped them,” d’Artagnan argued. “They’re fine.”
“d’Artagnan,” Porthos warned, tightening his hold on d’Artagnan’s shoulders just enough.
d’Artagnan’s sigh was that of a child in Athos’ mind, but he complied. Aramis had to help him with the cloak and jacket. Once his shirt and bandages were off, and the bruises visible, Athos thought Porthos was going to chew through his own jaw as hard as he was grinding it. He had to admit to murderous thoughts himself when he saw the damage visited upon their young friend.
“It’s a miracle nothing’s broken,” Aramis declared after gentle probing. “Wrapping is about all I can do for them. We’ll have to watch for internal bleeding. You should be resting; riding several days on horseback is the last thing you need.”
No one missed d’Artagnan’s rebellious look.
“But as that’s clearly not going to happen, you tell me when the pain gets to be too much,” Aramis told him. “I can bring some herbs that will help.”
d’Artagnan nodded, his eyes drifting closed in relief.
“Aramis,” Athos said, drawing his friend’s eyes. “You get him ready to ride. Porthos and I will ready the horses and equipment. You,” he looked directly at d’Artagnan, “rest as much as you can.”
“Athos,” d’Artagnan said, catching him before he could turn away. Athos didn’t think he’d ever not wince hearing the rough rasp of the young man’s wounded throat. “I did try to get to you. I need you to know that.”
Something shifted inside Athos, as if a brick in his wall had been shoved loose and a small hole appeared. He reached over and gently cupped the back of d’Artagnan’s neck, pulling the lad’s forehead to meet his.
“I believe you,” he said quietly. “Now rest.”
When d’Artagnan offered him a tired smile – a slim shadow of his usual expression – Athos was helpless to do anything but smile back. He stepped away, giving Aramis room to work, then motioned to Porthos to follow him, forced to reach out and take the big man by the arm and lead him from the room.
“They was waitin’ for ‘im,” Porthos growled as he followed Athos to the armory. “We saw ‘em when we came back—“ He shot a quick side look at Athos. “From breakfast.”
“Aramis and I saw them, too,” Athos nodded. “We neglected to suspect them of something this…nefarious.”
“Bastards.” Porthos practically ripped the door of the armory from its hinges as he stepped inside.
Athos began thinking through the weapons they would need, traveling light, enough to protect the child. He began to file through the spare harquebuses, muskets, rapiers, daggers, his mind spinning the entire time.
“He said they had my dagger,” Athos remembered.
“They needed proof to set up their tickery.”
Athos shook his head, brow furrowed in worry. “He should not be coming with us.”
He wasn’t prepared for Porthos to stop, turn, and step directly in his path, his black eyes blazing.
“You stop ‘im from doing this,” Porthos stated, his voice dangerous, “you may as well put a bullet in ‘im now.”
Athos’ frown deepened, matching the expression on the man before him. “I am not trying to deny—“
“Protection means nothing if you’ve lost your heart, Athos,” Porthos spat. “You know this. That boy’s got nothin’ left. ‘cept us.”
“Porthos—“ Athos started, fighting to find words that could explain the fears that surrounded him when he thought of d’Artagnan.
“No.” Porthos shook his head once, then rotated slightly to the side so that Athos could see the fleur-di-lis on his pauldron. Porthos slapped his free hand on symbol, punctuating each word as he spoke. “Equality. Liberty. Fraternity.”
Athos pressed his lips closed, his throat tightening as his thoughts followed the direction Porthos was headed.
“What does any of that mean if we push a brother away from us?”
“He’s so young,” Athos protested weakly. “Has so much to learn.”
“Who better to teach ‘im than us?” Porthos parried. “He needs you to tell ‘im to stay, Athos. He needs to know he belongs.”
Athos picked up one of the rapiers and rotated his wrist. “Being a recruit requires more than just wanting it to be so.” He looked up at Porthos. “You know that better than anyone.”
“I had a patron,” Porthos reminded him. “I didn’t need nobility.”
“And who do you suggest take on a hot-headed, stubborn boy from Gascony?” Athos tilted his head.
Porthos stayed silent, shifting his stance and hooking his thumbs into his weapon’s belt.
“Me?” Athos scoffed.
“’e looks up to you.”
“I can barely keep myself alive,” Athos shook his head. “I’m no one’s mentor.”
“You got no choice in that, my friend.” Porthos dared grin at him. “’e already sees you as that. Now, you just gotta pay the crown to keep ‘im here.”
Athos sighed, clearly on the opposite end of win in this battle. Setting the rapier he’d been holding on the empty workbench he nodded. If he were honest with himself, his decision had been made when he saw that d’Artagnan hadn’t been killed by Vadim. It was cemented when the lad pulled him from his burning home.
“We will tell him when we return from this mission,” Athos stated.
Porthos’ grin widened and he laughed, reaching up to clap Athos on the shoulder, then pulling back suddenly with a wince.
“Does your wound pain you?”
“Only now and then,” Porthos grunted, working his shoulder loose.
“Perhaps you should refrain from traversing Paris via rooftops for a bit, then,” Athos raised an eyebrow at him.
Porthos grinned sheepishly, but then shrugged. “Where’s the fun in that?”
Preparing for the journey didn’t take long. In less than four hours, Athos and Porthos had the horses saddled with spare clothes, weapons, and food for the four men. Aramis had left d’Artagnan to rest in the infirmary and packed medicinal supplies on his horse, putting select items in Porthos’ saddlebags to be cautious.
When Treville returned, followed by a simple carriage, Athos met him half-way across the garrison yard.
“We are ready, Sir,” Athos reported as Treville dismounted. “How did the King take the news?”
Treville did not look happy. In fact, if Athos had been anyone else, he may have backed up from the dark look on his Captain’s face.
“Naturally, he discounted any idea of treason from the Cardinal. The King relies on that man as his backbone too damn much. I fear the day he must rule without the whisperings of that deranged lunatic in his ear.”
Athos brought his chin up, discipline the only thing keeping him from reacting to such a vehement, and slightly uncharacteristic, rant from his Captain.
“However, the Queen felt her cousin was in real danger, and thankfully the King cannot deny her anything, so our plan was approved. However,” Treville sighed, looking across the yard at the men gathered there, “the Cardinal heard every word. So you must be cautious.”
“Did he hear which group would take which route?” Athos asked.
Treville shook his head. “No. Nor who would be accompanying the boy.” He leveled steely eyes on Athos. “If the Guards were specifically focused on d’Artagnan, that could bring more trouble your way.”
“We are prepared to deal with that,” Athos replied confidently.
“Very well,” Treville nodded. He turned to the carriage and opened the door. “Athos, may I present Madam Talia Thibaut and her son, Luca.”
He reached in a hand and aided Talia’s descent from the carriage. To Athos’ relief, she was dressed in plain traveling clothes, her bright hair plaited into a braid. Her son stepped to her side, coming just short of clutching her hand as he stared out at them with wide, blue eyes, his darker blond hair sticking up rebelliously in all directions.
“Monsieur Athos,” Talia nodded at him. “I have heard your plan and my cousin trusts you implicitly. However, I must say…, my son,” she looked down at Luca, resting a hand across his shoulders to draw his eyes. “I do not know how he will react to this.”
“Madam,” Porthos suddenly spoke up, stepping up beside Athos. “We know of your son’s condition.”
Talia looked from Porthos to Athos, questioningly.
“May I present Porthos du Vallon,” Athos nodded.
“Monsieur du Vallon?” Talia looked up at Porthos, her blue eyes wide and calculating.
Porthos, for his part, did not miss a beat. “I have known others who were afflicted with deafness,” he told her. “They always found other ways to communicate.”
Talia nodded. “Yes, Luca is quite demonstrative with those he trusts. I’ve told him of our situation and the reason we must be separated, it’s just that—“
She broke off when several of the men around them stirred, stepping back and making way as someone approached. Athos turned to see d’Artagnan leave the infirmary, looking only slightly better than when he’d first shown up in the yard, and make his way to stand near Aramis and their ready horses.
The damage was still quite visible on his olive skin. Gloves covered his injured hand, but if Athos hadn’t seen the bruises first hand, he’d have no idea that so many were clustered beneath the cover of his cloak and jacket. The Musketeers standing nearby touched the brims of their hat as d’Artagnan passed them.
Athos wondered if the young man realized the significance of that show of respect.
He met d’Artagnan’s eyes and nodded, receiving a reassuring nod in response before turning back to Talia. She cleared her throat, blinking repeatedly as she looked from d’Artagnan to Porthos once more.
“We’ve never been separated before,” she finished quietly. “He doesn’t even communicate with his father, I don’t—“
She was forced to stop once more when Luca stepped away from her and approached d’Artagnan with open curiosity. Porthos and Athos turned, watching as Luca stood in front of the young man, head tilted in question. With so many eyes on him, Athos wondered how d’Artagnan would react, and found it remarkable to see the way the lad seemed to block out everyone around him, focusing solely on Luca.
He held out a hand – his left, Athos noted, as his right was probably still rather tender – and waited until Luca grasped it, the boy never taking his eyes from d’Artagnan’s face.
“My name is Charles,” d’Artagnan said. “You are Luca, yes?”
Eye on d’Artagnan’s mouth, Luca nodded, clearly recognizing his name. He reached up with a hesitant hand and gently brushed the cut on d’Artagnan’s mouth, his face folding into a frown.
d’Artagnan nodded. “Yes, that hurt a bit.”
Luca turned and looked at the large, black horse d’Artagnan stood next to. He laid his hand on the animal’s flank and then leaned close. The horse chose that moment to take a deep breath, blowing a great exhale of air and bouncing Luca slightly away from its side.
Luca leaned close once more, making a low, moan-like sound in the back of his throat. Watching, Athos realized the noise was accompanied by a smile; the boy was laughing. d’Artagnan nodded, smiling back, then waiting until Luca looked at him once more.
“Do you like horses?”
Luca nodded. d’Artagnan glanced up at Athos, his question clear.
“He can ride that one,” Athos nodded. “Your gear is on the gelding.”
d’Artagnan’s eyes slid to Talia. “May I?”
“Please,” she replied, her voice slightly choked.
d’Artagnan looked once more at Luca, making sure the boy was looking at him. “Would you like to ride?”
Luca’s face split into the smile Athos had seen the night before in the palace and he felt his heart clench slightly at the sight. d’Artagnan grinned back and started to reach to help Luca mount when he was stopped by a hand on his arm. Aramis gave d’Artagnan a side-eyed look of warning before stepping in smoothly and assisting Luca up atop the horse.
Once mounted, Luca looked at his mother, his face alight with joy. Glancing down at Talia, Athos saw tears in the woman’s eyes.
“Remarkable,” Talia breathed. “I’ve never seen him take to anyone so quickly before.”
“Madam,” Athos said. “Aramis and d’Artagnan,” he nodded to the two men in turn, “will also be accompanying Porthos and myself as we see your son safely to Toulouse.”
Talia nodded, swallowing her obvious raw emotion, then stepped up to Luca, a hand on her son’s leg. Luca looked down at his mother, his smile softening, and reached forward to brush her cheek with his fingertips.
“I will see you very soon, my boy,” Talia whispered fiercely. “Very soon.”
Luca nodded, smoothing away a stray tear from Talia’s face, before straightening once more. Athos looked to the Captain, nodding that they were ready.
“Jacques will join Madam Thibaut and a company of four on the easterly route,” Treville stated, ensuring the men were clear on the plan. “A second company of four will follow, no more than a day behind at all times. Athos and his men will accompany Luca on the westerly route. When you have safely reached Toulouse, you will send a messenger back ahead of your return.”
Athos felt his chest tighten. Twelve men gone, leaving only ten in the garrison. It would be a prime time for attack, should any of their enemies get wind of this plan.
“We will be temporarily increasing our band of recruits via an agreement with the Lieutenant General de Police until each of you return,” Treville continued, and Athos nearly smiled. The man thought of everything. “Ride safe, men.”
Jacques, the fourteen-year-old orphaned stable boy who had grown up at the Musketeer garrison, approached the carriage, then bowed to Talia.
“Hello, Jacques,” Talia smiled. “I believe we’ll be getting to know each other quite well over the next several days.”
“Yes, Madam,” Jacques smiled shyly.
As the easterly group assembled and headed out, Athos followed Porthos closely to their mounts.
“I didn’t realize you’d had experience with the deaf,” Athos said quietly as he reached for his saddle.
Porthos simply shrugged, clapping his big black hat atop his scarf-covered head. “Not everyone in the Court was a miracle,” he replied. “And Luca is fortunate; his mother has taught him to read our lips. As long as we’re looking at him, he’ll not be alone.”
Athos nodded, settling in the saddle, thinking not for the first time that he rode with a group of extraordinary men. He looked over at Aramis, whose eyes looked less haggard and weary than they had earlier this morning, then at d’Artagnan who was watching him, ready for an order.
“We will ride as far as Rambouillet,” he declared. “I’ll take point. Aramis, you cover the rear. d’Artagnan and Porthos, you flank Luca. Agreed?”
The three men nodded. Athos looked down at the Captain, tipping his hat.
“Be careful,” Treville replied, a trace of worry coloring his words. It struck Athos how difficult it had to be for the man each time he sent his men out on missions, knowing it could easily be the last time he saw them.
“Always,” Athos replied.
They wheeled their horses and rode from the garrison in what was to be one of their longest journeys together.
Chapter 5: Fraternity
d’Artagnan was laughing.
Porthos didn’t think he’d heard that sound in quite a while, if at all. It was a pleasant, rich sound, one that smoothed the sharp angles of Athos’ shoulders and eased the growing knot of anxiety in his belly. He glanced back behind them at Aramis and noticed the man had let his reins fall lax on the neck of his horse and was cleaning the barrel of his harquebus, a reed clutched in his teeth. He hadn’t seen Aramis this relaxed since before Vadim.
“What amuses you so?” Porthos asked, looking askance at their young friend.
They’d slowed their ride to a walk for the next few miles and d’Artagnan had immediately focused on Luca once it was easier to speak. Riding at a canter was hard enough when one was in the best shape; doing so with bruised ribs had to be taking the air from the lad’s lungs at regular intervals. Still, d’Artagnan hadn’t once complained, and was now actually laughing. Lad showed fortitude; Porthos was impressed.
Not that he’d ever tell him that.
“Luca is a wonder,” d’Artagnan replied, the smile in his voice smoothed the rough edged-sound lingering from the damage done to his throat. “See what he does, here.”
Porthos kicked his horse forward a bit to come up alongside the other two, noting that Luca had also dropped his reins to rest on his horse’s neck and was working on something with deft fingers. Frowning with curiosity, Porthos looked up at d’Artagnan and saw that the lad held an intricately folded bit of paper in his hand.
“It’s a dove, see?” d’Artagnan held his bit of paper aloft and Porthos tilted his head, trying to see.
Luca looked up, then, and began to hand something else to d’Artagnan, who shook his head and pointed to Luca’s other side. The boy turned to see Porthos there, smiled brightly, and handed him the folded paper instead. Porthos’ hands suddenly felt large and clumsy as he held his mount with one hand and let the child rest the paper on the flat of his other.
It was a swan, complete with movable wings.
“Would you look at that,” Porthos breathed.
d’Artagnan laughed once more, looking at his dove with delight.
“I’ve seen men put tobacco in paper like this,” Porthos remarked. He lifted the swan in a salute to Luca who smiled in response.
The boy picked up the reins once more, then drew his legs up from his stirrups as though to work out cramps in his calves. Porthos had seen d’Artagnan do the same before, but doubted the young Gascon was mobile enough to accomplish such a thing after the beating he took. Luca looked at home on the back of his horse, though, and Porthos moved up a bit to ride alongside Athos for a bit.
“d’Artagnan’s getting along with our young charge rather well,” Porthos remarked to their Lieutenant.
“That’s because they’re both children,” Athos replied dryly.
“I can hear, you realize,” d’Artagnan grumbled good naturedly.
“We’ve another few miles to go before we camp,” Athos called back. “Let us pick up the pace.”
Porthos glanced back to see d’Artagnan touch Luca’s knees, gesturing that he needed to set in his stirrups once more, before they kicked their horses forward. The evening was drawing colder; Porthos felt it at his nose and the sting of his eyes as they rode. Autumn was a fickle month for weather. One day it was hot enough he wanted to strip to his smalls, the next he was thankful a cloak was part of the standard-issue gear for a Musketeer.
They reached a copse of trees after another hour on the road and Athos pulled them up short. d’Artagnan and Porthos stayed with Luca while Aramis and Athos rode a quick perimeter to verify they were clear any obvious threats, and then they dismounted to make camp. Porthos made sure to watch for any hidden pain from d’Artagnan, but while he paused for a longer period of time after dismounting as though to gather his bearings, he continued to perform his duties without complaint.
The fire would be essential this night, Porthos knew. It was going to be a cold one and though they had packed bedrolls and blankets, some night the cold seeped into bones and brought a morning full of aching joints. d’Artagnan moved Luca to a stump and gestured for the boy to sit and wait for them. Big blue eyes followed their movements, the four men subconsciously making sure they were within the boy’s eye line at all times.
While Athos gathered wood for the fire, Porthos began setting up the circle of stones that would protected the surrounding underbrush from the flames. Aramis and d’Artagnan saw to the horses, but Porthos’ head came up sharply at an abbreviated gasp of pain. He looked over to see a saddle lying in a heap at d’Artagnan’s feet, the lad holding an arm across his chest while he leaned his forehead against the horse’s flank.
Before Porthos could move, however, Aramis was by their young friend’s side, a gentle hand on his back, speaking low in d’Artagnan’s ear. It was telling when d’Artagnan allowed himself to be led to the base of the tree near where Luca sat waiting and let Aramis ease him to the ground. Porthos came over, crouching down, and looked at Aramis.
“He needs rest,” Aramis was saying. “We push too much and those cracked ribs could easily break.”
“’m fine,” d’Artagnan croaked. Porthos winced at the sound. “Or I will be. Saddle caught me wrong.”
“Sit ‘ere with Luca,” Porthos said. “I’ll take the horses.”
Without opening his eyes, d’Artagnan nodded. When Porthos and Aramis completed hobbling the horses and putting out grain for them, they returned to find Luca sitting on the ground next to d’Artagnan, keeping a safe distance from the young man’s wounded side, like a gargoyle of protection. Porthos couldn’t help but smile.
The young Gascon didn’t see it, but he drew people to him, like light on a cloudy day.
Within days of first meeting him, Porthos was hard-pressed to find a reason why the lad shouldn’t stick around. He felt comfortable around him, as though he’d always been part of their group. He would be willing to lay money on Athos and Aramis feeling that way as well, and that being the very reason Athos tried so hard to push the lad away.
The older man was comfortable with chaos. It was familiar to him. d’Artagnan brought with him the possibility of balance and comfort and that wasn’t something Athos dealt with very well.
Within minutes of Athos returning with wood, they had a fire roaring and water boiling. Aramis stirred together several herbs from a pouch in his saddle bags, then handed d’Artagnan a mug of rather foul-smelling liquid.
“Good Lord!” d’Artagnan jerked his head back and away. “Are you trying to poison me?”
“If I were, you would never know,” Aramis replied, his lips tipping up in a dangerous smile.
“Well, that’s comforting,” d’Artagnan grumbled.
“Drink, my suspicious young friend,” Aramis implored him. “It will help with the pain and help heal the bruising.”
“If you say so,” d’Artagnan muttered into the mug, but drank the whole thing obediently.
Food was fixed and served. Conversation ebbed and flowed from contemplation of the Cardinal’s schemes to weighing the physical attributes of the various tavern wenches about Paris – a topic which only Porthos and Aramis were truly qualified to contribute to, though d’Artagnan swore he would catch up.
“Don’t be in too much of a hurry to give away your heart, d’Artagnan,” Athos said softly, his blue eyes pinned to the flames before him. “Your brothers are your only true partners in life.”
“I have no brothers.” d’Artagnan’s voice was low and rough, the firelight reflecting in his dark eyes.
No one said a word, though Porthos caught Aramis’ eye across the fire, both knowing that Athos need only speak up once to contradict that thought forever. Before anyone could say anything else, Luca stood, turning and heading out away from the fire. The four men looked at each other in surprise, Aramis surging to his feet.
“Maybe he needs to…,” Porthos trailed off.
“I’ll follow him,” Aramis replied.
In the quiet of their absence, Athos spoke again. “If the Cardinal informed his Red Guard of our plan, they will send men along both routes.”
“Thought of that,” Porthos agreed.
“If an ambush were to happen, it will be before we reach the river at Châteauroux.”
“If we push it, we could be there by tomorrow night,” Porthos mentioned.
Athos shifted his gaze to d’Artagnan. “Are you able to ride hard?”
“Don’t worry about me,” d’Artagnan replied stubbornly. “I won’t get in the way of completing the mission.”
“You needn’t put up a brave façade for the sake of the mission, d’Artagnan,” Athos told him. “If we are to be a unit, we need to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so that we can account for and accommodate for them.”
d’Artagnan nodded, glancing over at Athos, a rebellious glint in his eye. “Does that mean you have wine in your saddlebags?”
Porthos’ eyebrows bounced up at that. He said nothing, waiting to see how Athos would respond.
“No,” Athos said, his voice clipped, but clear. “Which means you’ll need to prepare yourselves for me being less than pleasant at times.”
Impressed with the man’s honesty, Porthos spoke up, unable to help himself. “How are we to know the difference?”
He saw d’Artagnan’s mouth quirk into a small grin at that. As Porthos continued to stare innocently at the two men with him, he saw Athos’ eyes soften.
“You were right,” Aramis’ voice came at them from the shadows. “We need to check on the boy’s physical needs more often.”
He and Luca returned and situated themselves near the fire, both shivering.
“Gonna be a cold one,” Porthos sighed. “My bones are already feelin’ it.”
“Get some rest,” Athos ordered. “We ride for Châteauroux tomorrow.”
Aramis’ eyebrows went up at that, but he didn’t protest. They trusted that Athos had reasons for his orders. Settling down near the fire, Athos delivered watch rotations, starting with Aramis and ending with himself, leaving d’Artagnan out of the rotation for the first night. To Porthos’ relief, the lad didn’t argue.
In minutes they were asleep and it felt like he’d only just closed his eyes when Aramis was shaking him awake. The cold had gotten deeper outside the circle of the fire and Porthos realized it was actually snowing. He groaned and sat up.
“Wake Athos in four hours,” Aramis said tersely, lying down in his bedroll near the fire.
He pulled his hat over his head, not offering Porthos a chance to check on his well-being. It was just as well; Porthos was not exactly in the caring and sharing mood at the moment. He was cold, and his shoulder hurt where the wound at his back was still healing. He turned his back to the fire, letting the heat ease the ache the wound left behind, snow collecting on his lashes and melting on his folded arms.
Night watch had a way of sending a man’s mind to wandering.
Porthos drifted back to the day before, running the rooftops with d’Artagnan, how easy it had been to slip into his old persona. He wondered after Charon and Flea, if they remembered him, missed him, watched for him when flitting unseen about the city. He wondered if he had changed too much to go back, if he could ever been of the city as he had been as a child.
He thought of d’Artagnan and the dichotomy he saw there – the way the lad was innocent of the city and the people and the hard lines life had in store for him outside of Gascony contrasting with the walls the young man was hastily constructing, his wariness and watchfulness like anyone Porthos had grown up with in the Court of Miracles.
The way Luca had taken to him, as if sensing a kindred spirit, caught something in Porthos’ memory of life in the Court. The little ones were guarded and sheltered. They always found one person they trusted. A person of character who the leaders of the discordant band of misfits knew could be trusted.
This attribute of d’Artagnan’s character had piqued Porthos continuing curiosity about the lad. Though he knew if d’Artagnan was to be a Musketeer one day, he would have to find a way to blend the different sides of his character or he’d burn up from the inside while he was still young.
The first sounds of distress next to him almost went unnoticed. If Porthos hadn’t chosen that moment to turn back around to face the fire, he might have missed the twitch, the frown, the soft moan of protest. Not from d’Artagnan, as he’d expected after such a beating.
Staring in surprise, Porthos kicked himself for not thinking of this earlier. The shock of Savoy was only a day old; one night with Giselle wouldn’t have erased the raw memory completely. Add to that a wooded area and snowfall, and Aramis was sitting square inside a nightmare.
“Aramis,” Porthos whispered, placing a hand gently on his friend’s shoulder, not wanting to wake the others.
With a start like a gun had been fired near him, Aramis jerked upright, his hand coming up and grabbing Porthos’ wrist painfully, his eyes wide, face alarmingly pale. Porthos saw immediately that his friend wasn’t yet awake, despite the desperate stare into the darkness beyond the firelight.
“Aramis,” he said once more, this time pitching his voice just above a whisper, focused only on the man before him and not worrying if the others woke. He could explain to them later. “Look at me.”
Pulled by Porthos’ voice, Aramis turned, his lips parted, his breath puffing out in tiny, rapid clouds. He was dangerously close to hyperventilating once more and if Porthos couldn’t get him to fully wake before he did so, he wasn’t sure how to anchor him. He clapped his free hand over the one gripping his wrist.
“It’s me. Look at me.”
Aramis blinked. “It’s snowing,” he rasped.
“Don’t worry about that,” Porthos said to him. “It’s not the same.”
He reached out and gripped the back of Aramis’ neck; he could feel his friend shaking in his grasp and he pinched his fingers tight on the stiff muscles there. He needed to bring Aramis back to now, to wake him up, to ease the fear he saw written all over his body language.
He was practically screaming it.
“Aramis,” he said again, his voice low, soothing, a call of a friend, not the demand of a soldier. “Come on back to me.”
He shook the man slightly at the neck, feeling a sliver of relief slide through him when the grip at his wrist lessened slightly.
“Look at me; you see me?”
“There you go,” Porthos smiled, though he felt his cheeks tremble with the effort. “You back with me?”
Aramis swallowed, licking his lips and looking around. “Where…?”
“The boy, remember? The road to Toulouse.”
“Boy?” Aramis blinked, his eyes resting on the sleeping figure of d’Artagnan.
“Not him,” Porthos said, nodding in the direction of Luca, who slept on a bedroll nearest the fire between d’Artagnan and Athos. “The other one.”
Aramis closed his eyes; his face seemed to crumple in on itself with an expression of such profound sadness Porthos felt his heart twist, expecting to see tears. But when Aramis opened his eyes once more, they were dry. He patted Porthos’ wrist where he’d been bruising it with his grip.
“I remember,” he said finally. “I remember now.”
“Can I let you go?” Porthos asked.
Aramis nodded, waiting until Porthos complied, then put his face in his hands a moment before rubbing his cheeks vigorously and turning to face the fire, his shoulder resting against Porthos’ as they stared at the flames.
“Do you ever…detect a scent, or hear a voice, or find yourself in a strangely familiar setting and simply…feel something break within you?” Aramis voice was bare, his words so honest they seemed to stab Porthos in areas too raw to not flinch at the impact.
“I do, yeah,” Porthos nodded. “But then I remember I’m not alone. I have you and Athos…and now maybe even d’Artagnan…and the pieces, they….”
“Come back together again?”
“That’s it,” Porthos nodded.
They were quiet a moment. Then Aramis took a deep breath, rubbing his face once more.
“I wouldn’t be here without you, Porthos,” Aramis said, his voice barely above a whisper. “You should know that.”
Porthos frowned, not knowing where to put the feeling Aramis’ sentiment stirred inside him.
“You saved me after Savoy. Athos, too…but mostly you.”
“You saved yourself,” Porthos argued. “I just pointed the way.”
Aramis looked over at him. “A map can be the difference between life and death.”
Porthos nodded, conceding that point. However, he couldn’t help but point out, “You wouldn’t be sayin’ this if Athos could ‘ear you.”
“Of course not,” Aramis answered immediately. “I’m a romantic, not a sadist.”
Porthos chuckled softly. “You’re not goin’ back to sleep are you?”
“Not for a while anyway,” Aramis sighed. “Unless you packed a woman in those saddle bags.”
Porthos suppressed a chuckle. “d’Artagnan asked Athos if ‘e’d brought wine with ‘im.”
“He didn’t!” Aramis looked up at the young Gascon.
“God is my witness.”
Aramis paused for a moment before asking, “What was the answer?”
“’e didn’t bring it,” Porthos assured him. “Maybe ‘e’s turning over a new leaf.”
“I believe I’ll take credit for that leaf,” Aramis said, lifting his chin proudly.
“Well, turn around then, if you’re gonna be up with me,” Porthos sighed, rotating along with Aramis until they were back-to-back, supporting one another. “Gonna be a long ride tomorrow.”
“I’ll take it. Anything is better than waiting.”
“That’s the truth,” Porthos nodded, leaning back against his friend, noting that Aramis instinctively leaned the opposite side of Porthos’ wound.
Aramis may be a soldier, but the man was a healer at his heart.
They sat like that through the whole of Porthos’ shift, Aramis lying down only when Porthos went to wake Athos. The man always woke up disoriented and crabby as hell, his hair sticking up in various directions as if he rolled his head continuously in his sleep. Once Porthos reminded him of where he was and why, Athos was alert and ready for war, should it come. Porthos lay down next to Aramis, pushing his shoulder into the other man’s back to remind him he wasn’t alone in a frozen, wooded field of death.
When morning came, the first thing Porthos detected was the smell of cooking meat. He blinked his eyes open, shoving at Aramis gently to rouse the man, then sat up, tossing the layer of snow that had collected on his blanket to the side. With a groan, he stretched his arms slowly above his head, mindful of his back. Luca also sat awake, his blond hair tousled, blue eyes wide.
“Good morning,” Athos greeted. “Sleep well?”
“What has you in such a good mood?” Aramis grumbled around a yawn.
Porthos glanced at his friend, noting the pallor of his cheeks and frowned. Even with a few hours of sleep, Aramis looked battle-weary.
“No reason,” Athos remarked. “Breakfast?”
Aramis and Porthos exchanged a glance.
“Who are you and what ‘ave you done with Athos?” Porthos muttered suspiciously.
Even the frown Athos tossed his way wasn’t terribly fierce. “Porthos, go wake our young Gascon friend. Aramis, have some food.”
It suddenly occurred to Porthos that while Athos may not have seen Aramis during his moments of raw panic nor realize the connection the Duke’s visit in three weeks might have for the man, he was Aramis’ friend and could clearly recognize suffering when he saw it. What’s more, he may have heard them last night. Whatever the reason, Porthos welcome the slight shift in mood and care for Aramis.
How long it would last was anyone’s guess. These two would die for each other, but sometimes living with each other was tumultuous.
He crawled over to d’Artagnan, putting a hand to the lad’s back and called his name. d’Artagnan didn’t so much as flinch. Brow furrowed slightly, Porthos shook the lad slightly, repeating his name, this time with more bite. d’Artagnan opened his eyes, wide at first, then squeezed them shut tightly before opening them once more.
“’bout time,” Porthos muttered. “Was about to dump water on yer ‘ead.”
d’Artagnan rolled stiffly to his back, his breath coming in short bursts. Porthos winced in sympathy. If he was stiff from a night on the ground, in the cold, it was a wonder d’Artagnan could move at all. He reached out a hand, grasping the lad’s in his, one hand at d’Artagnan’s shoulder, and helped him ease into sitting position.
The stream of curses the slipped between d’Artagnan’s lips caused Porthos to blink in surprise.
“Bit sore, are ya?”
The glare d’Artagnan shot him would have made him grin had he not seen the pain lurking in the back of the lad’s dark eyes.
“I’ll rewrap your ribs before we get on the road,” Aramis offered.
d’Artagnan nodded, then looked over to his left where Luca sat, still staring at all of them with large eyes.
“Has anyone seen to Luca?” d’Artagnan croaked, his wounded voice sounding worse this morning than it had the previous night. He winced and rubbed at the bruises that stained his dark skin.
“Good Christ, d’Artagnan,” Porthos winced. “Those bastards did a number on you.”
“Yes, I realize that, thank you,” d’Artagnan grumbled, swallowing painfully.
“d’Artagnan, help Luca take care of his morning needs,” Athos ordered, “then return and get food and your bandages checked. We have a long ride ahead of us.”
Porthos gained his feet and helped d’Artagnan upright, a loud groan accompanying the effort. He had to hold onto Porthos for a moment to gain his balance before nodding to Luca, who stood quickly next to him. Porthos watched as they moved slowly off toward the woods, their feet leaving twin trails in the soft brushing of snow.
He turned back to the fire, watching his two friends for a moment. Athos handed Aramis a mug. Aramis nodded his thanks, but said nothing. The energy around them crackled, anxiety and wariness rolling from Aramis in waves and a heavy, haunted vacuum surrounding Athos. It wasn’t something easily navigated and if Porthos wasn’t careful, he would find himself sucked into the jetty that their tension created.
“How long you two plan on keeping this up?” he asked, tired of the dance.
He was always one to go right to the source of the problem. If the poison wasn’t removed, the wound festered and became deadly. These two could fester forever until or unless someone forced the issue.
Aramis looked over at him in genuine surprise, but Athos sighed, shoulders bowing in surrender.
“Porthos,” he said, the false cheer from before gone from his voice and something that sounded like regret pulling his tone low and deep. “Don’t ask me for something I cannot give you.”
Aramis turned his surprise toward Athos, but Porthos stepped forward, intent on clearing the air between these two. He had to; he depended on them for his balance. Without them, he had no anchor, no direction.
“I’m not,” he replied. “But whatever is eatin’ away at you, you gotta tell us or let it go.” He glanced at Aramis and saw understanding settle in his friend’s dark eyes. “We are your brothers, Athos. We fight for you no matter the cost.”
Athos pressed his lips closed and studied the ground.
“No more trying to kill yourself with wine,” Aramis spoke up softly, drawing Athos’ eyes. “No more pushing people away in a misguided effort to protect them from you.”
“I have not—“
“d’Artagnan?” Aramis questioned quietly. “What happened to him is like acid in all our veins.” Athos frowned, watching Aramis closely. “This is when we should be reassuring him he has brothers, not sending him outside the barricade with not even a blade for defense.”
“Poetic,” Athos remarked.
“I do try,” Aramis tipped his head slightly in thanks.
“So that’s it, then.” Porthos pressed, needing to know he could draw a free breath around them. “Aramis, you forgive Athos for being a drunk; Athos you forgive Aramis for judging you.”
At that, both men gaped at him, blinking at the simplicity of his statement, then as he watched, they broke out in similar, if not equally as broad, grins. Smiling back at them, he clapped both hands on their shoulders and took a breath.
“Good, ‘cause the tension ‘round here was killin’ me.”
“So it would seem,” Athos replied, then lifted his eyes over Porthos’ shoulder as the sound of feet shuffling through the underbrush met their ears.
Porthos twisted around and stood quickly as he saw d’Artagnan leaning a hand on Luca’s shoulder, the young boy bearing the weight of his new friend with a lifted chin and determined glint in his blue eyes. Porthos moved over to them, lifting d’Artagnan’s arm over his shoulder, bending so the lad didn’t have to stretch, and helped him the rest of the way to the fire. By the time he got there, Aramis had retrieved his medicinal supplies.
“First one who says I shouldn’t have come gets a stick in the eye,” d’Artagnan rasped. “I’ll be fine in a moment.”
The three men exchanged silent glances, but didn’t contradict him.
“Shall I check your bandages?”
“Why not,” d’Artagnan sighed, looking up at Aramis. “You look worse than me, by the way.”
Aramis furrowed his brow. “Not possible. Everyone knows I’m the dashing, romantic hero of this lot.”
“Really? And what does that make me?” Athos said, actually joining in on the banter as he handed Luca a plate of food.
“The dangerous, brooding leader,” Aramis continued as he helped d’Artagnan remove his cloak and jacket. “Our dear Porthos is the roguish pirate.”
Porthos grinned rakishly. “’at’ll work.”
“And d’Artagnan,” Aramis paused, wincing visibly as he removed the wrappings to expose the bruising on d’Artagnan’s torso, “is the young, hot-head destined to be the greatest of us all.”
If Porthos wasn’t mistaken, he saw a blush color the lad’s cheeks beneath the bruises. d’Artagnan didn’t respond, however, as Aramis chose that moment to palpate the bruises and check for any further damage. The young man sucked in a breath and closed his eyes, waiting until Aramis had finished.
Before Aramis could apply the witch hazel and re-bind the ribs, Luca set down his plate and moved closer to d’Artagnan, reaching out gentle fingers to touch the bruising. He looked up at d’Artagnan’s face, his blue eyes clearly troubled, and touched the cut on the lad’s mouth.
“I’m fine, Luca,” d’Artagnan attempted to reassure him. “Aramis is taking good care, see?”
He nodded toward Aramis, who showed the boy the bandages and medicines. Luca’s frown was still fierce, however, and it was clear to all present that he was worried. Aramis put the boys’ hands on the bandages and silently showed him how to wrap the cloth around d’Artagnan’s ribs, wordlessly correcting him with a touch or a shift of position.
Porthos watched as d’Artagnan held himself perfectly still; he was like a statue, save the flash of his throat as he breathed. The big man was impressed; had he been hurting as much, he wouldn’t have been able to not at least want to pull away from the hands on his wounds. When they’d finished, and Aramis nodded in satisfaction, the worry instantly cleared from Luca’s face with his bright smile.
“Would ya lookit that,” Porthos said quietly.
“He’s a remarkable child,” Athos allowed.
“Almost makes ya want to have one of yer own one day,” Porthos remarked.
“Not even remotely,” Athos returned, preparing a plate for d’Artagnan before he began to clean up their camp.
“Are you becoming domestic on us, Porthos?” Aramis inquired.
Porthos grinned. “Nah,” he waved off the thought, rolling up the bedding. “I’ll die a soldier.”
Still, he couldn’t help and think about how he’d been enticed by Bonnaire’s lifestyle, the idea of no longer fighting, no longer sleeping in the open, no longer fearing for the lives of his brothers. The prospect of leaving behind a legacy, someone to carry on his name, such as it was, wasn’t a new concept to Porthos. Simply one he hadn’t spoken of before.
By the time d’Artagnan had finished eating and Aramis had forced another mug of the foul-smelling herbal remedy down his gullet, the horses were saddled and ready. d’Artagnan was moving much more easily, mounting his horse with little difficulty. Luca automatically aligned his mount with the young Gascon’s and Porthos led his horse to the other side of the boy, feeling tense as the sun once more burned away the chill.
“Athos,” Porthos called as his friend swung aboard his horse. “This ride today…I don’t like it.”
“Our only alternative is to return to Paris where the boy could be in more danger,” Athos said, not contradicting Porthos’ worry.
“Still…,” Porthos shook his head. “I ‘ave a bad feeling about it.”
“Use it,” Athos advised. “Keep your eyes up.”
Sighing, Porthos nodded, mounting and checking his weapons in one motion. He pulled out a small canvass package he’d kept on him since the morning he and d’Artagnan had returned from their rooftop journey.
“d’Artagnan,” Porthos rode up beside him before they took off. “I want you to carry these.”
He handed the lad a small bundle of throwing knives. d’Artagnan took them, tucking them beneath his cloak in his weapon’s belt. He didn’t question and for that, Porthos was grateful. He couldn’t have given him a reason beyond a feeling in his gut.
The day had weight, an almost frosted-over glint to it. As if the woods somehow echoed Porthos’ trepidation. Charon would have said that the air tasted of death, and this time, Porthos would have to agree.
Someone who woke that morning had seen their last sunrise.
Chapter 6: Cold
Athos’ words echoed in the back of his mind.
The mission comes before everything.
The woods felt as though they gathered close, dark and deep with threats. The fact that those threats were primarily for Luca made it shockingly easy to ignore the pain that had settled in d’Artagnan’s bones from the beating he’d sustained two days ago.
Bruises were ignored, cuts overlooked, even the stiffness and ache in his ribs were handled with shallow breathing, especially if he continued to hold his body in a certain position as they rode through the morning. Luca’s safety was all that mattered.
Well, Luca’s safety and ensuring he watched the backs of his friends. The pain in his side from cracked ribs was nothing to the sharp cut in his heart at the thought of the mission taking one of these men from the world.
The sun burned away the chill in the air to a more manageable temperature, erasing the snow from their path. Luca kept his horse close to d’Artagnan, but the diamond-shaped pattern the others held ensured the boy was covered from all sides. It was clear to d’Artagnan that the tension he’d felt low in his belly upon walking away from camp that morning was not simply his paranoia.
Athos’ eyes, when d’Artagnan could see them, never stopped roaming. Aramis rode with his harquebus cradled across his arms, one hand on the reins, the other at the trigger guard. Porthos’ scowl was fierce and his shoulders tight; he kept barely a whisper of space between himself and Luca.
No fire was built when they paused to rest their horses at mid-day. They ate in hurried silence, eyes alert and heads on a swivel. d’Artagnan couldn’t pin down just what it was that caused them all to suspect attack; he didn’t know them well enough yet to identify their particular tells, and he wasn’t enough well-versed in battle strategy to put a name to his gut feeling, but he could feel it rolling off of each of them.
The only one who was remotely calm was Luca. d’Artagnan was fairly certain that if he thought he could get away with it, Athos would dig a hole in the earth and shove both Luca and himself inside, then set up a perimeter, Aramis keeping watch while Porthos paced at the entrance, growling.
Mounting again, Porthos exchanged a look with Aramis, muttering that he’d feel much better once they crossed the river and were safely at Châteauroux.
“Agreed,” Aramis said quietly as they rode forward.
There was a feeling to these woods, this path. Something almost sinister seemed to lurk behind the shadows of the trees. He’d never been inclined to superstition; growing up on a farm had taught him that there was a reason for everything in nature, but seeing the look on Aramis’ face as he replied told d’Artagnan this wasn’t simply superstition.
The woods had eyes.
Even with sustained hypervigilance, the first shot still managed to startle him. He saw Athos jerk sideways as if punched, a cry of surprise on his lips. Red blossomed immediately across the blue of his cloak, but then the man pulled his harquebus from its holster and fired back into the trees as he shouted for them to ride!
Porthos shot a look at d’Artagnan; moving on instinct, he grabbed Luca’s reins and kicked his horse into a gallop. The boy quickly absorbed d’Artagnan’s sense of urgency and leaned low over his saddle, drawing his legs up and following the Gascon’s break-neck speed past Athos.
“Go, Porthos! Follow them! Keep them safe!” he heard Athos shout as he passed; he dared a look over his shoulder and saw Athos drop his harquebus and draw his sword.
“You’re wounded!” d’Artagnan heard Porthos shout, far enough away now that his friend’s voice was fading.
“I have him!” Aramis shouted and then he was turning, following the curve of the road, the trees seeming to loom over them, cutting off the daylight and tossing shadows his way that caused him to veer their horses.
His heart was firmly lodged at the base of his throat, practically choking him as it thundered so rapidly he could barely hear over the rush of blood in his ears, the pressure making it hard to breathe. He’d released Luca’s reins once he was sure the boy would stay with him, both hands now tangled in his horse’s mane. The trees seemed to weave together to create a seemingly impenetrable canopy, causing d’Artagnan to peer between his horse’s nearly-flatted ears to find the road before them.
God…he’d left them.
He’d left them behind. He saw Athos hit, saw the man jerk roughly in the saddle, only to turn, immediately engaging in battle. d’Artagnan had seen the red stain on his arm. He didn’t know how bad it might have been or even if the man was still alive.
He’d been acting on pure instinct, his only clear thought to protect the boy and that had meant leaving his companions. His ribs were on fire; he felt each impact of the horse’s hooves with the ground, but he dare not slow down. The harsh shhk shhk shhk of the horse’s breath echoed back up off the path and joined his gasps for air.
Luca kept his horse close, matching d’Artagnan’s stride for stride. They rode until the wooded area around them, which had provided false protection for nearly two days, gave way to open space and underbrush. The canopy of trees created a frame around the clearing, the wide branches blending and twisting until it was hard to determine where one tree ended and then next began.
d’Artagnan darted his eyes to the side, meeting Luca’s terrified glance, and tried to give him a nod of reassurance. The sun had burned off most of the night’s chill throughout the day, but it was still cold and the run had turned Luca’s cheeks and nose a brilliant red.
He looks so young, d’Artagnan thought.
Young and scared. They were all that stood between Luca and tragedy. He had to believe he’d made the right choice, getting the boy out of the crossfire. He hoped that they could leave their attackers behind at the bridge across the Châteauroux River, but first, they had to make it to the bridge.
All of them.
Athos may have lectured that the mission came before everything, but there was no way he was leaving those men behind.
He heard Porthos’ bellow over his own slamming heart and rasping breath and grew dizzy from relief. If Porthos was still alive, that gave him a surge of hope for the others. He slowed their pace to a canter.
“Where are the others?” he called over his shoulder.
“Buying us time,” Porthos pulled up alongside d’Artagnan’s mount. “This way!”
He wheeled them to the side, d’Artagnan circling his mount to position Luca between them once more, and headed in a more southerly direction toward the bridge. d’Artagnan could hear the river; they were close. Then he saw men in black – not dressed in the Cardinal’s red as he’d assumed when the shot rang out – move in on them from the side. The lower half of their faces were covered, their black hats pulled low, shielding their eyes and preventing easy identification.
He shouted a warning to Porthos and they pulled their harquebuses in unison and fired, one shot hitting a target, the other going wide. There was no time to reload, so d’Artagnan shoved the weapon into a leather strap on his saddle and started to reach for his sword. Then he saw one of the black-clothed riders head straight for Porthos, launching himself at the big man and sending them both to the ground. Porthos hit hard, crying out in pain and rage as his wounded shoulder made contact with the unyielding earth.
d’Artagnan’s first instinct was to go to his friend’s aid, but that would leave Luca exposed. He looked wildly around, finding the boy with his eyes and in a desperate attempt to communicate, put his fist up in the air. Luca reined in his horse and d’Artagnan sent up a prayer of gratitude to whatever angel was guarding the boy. He pulled to a stop, slid from his lathered, heaving mount and motioned Luca to do the same, grabbing the boy’s hand and running to a cluster of boulders near the river bank.
The water was roughly five feet below them, the eroding bank a mess of rock, dirt, and exposed tree limbs. He met Luca’s eyes and held up a hand.
“Stay here, Luca. Do not follow me. Do you understand?”
The boy nodded, his eyes wide and terrified, his jaw tight, his lips trembling with unshed tears. d’Artagnan stood and searched the road for Porthos, finding him some distance away, struggling with a man who was, unbelievably, quite a bit larger. Pulling the knives from his belt, d’Artagnan approached them cautiously, painfully aware that he was out in the open and had lost track of their other pursuers.
Porthos gained his feet and ripped the scarf from his head, having lost his hat in the fall, and twisted it into a coiled whip. Even from this distance, d’Artagnan could see the manic grin on his friend’s face. He spied Porthos’ sword several feet from him and knew that he’d have also lost his dagger if he was fighting with his head scarf.
As d’Artagnan advanced, eyes searching the surrounding woods, ears straining over the noise of the river for any sign of Athos’ and Aramis’ approach, he saw Porthos manage to block his attacker’s blade, wrap the scarf around the flat of the sword and pull it from the man’s hands, before surging forward and wrapping the cloth around the man’s throat.
d’Artagnan started to hurry forward when he saw another man in black advancing on Porthos from behind. Without pausing to think, he grabbed a knife and threw, the blade whizzing past Porthos’ cheek and embedding itself into the throat of his would-be assailant. Porthos let the giant of a man who’d first attacked him fall to the ground and turned to look behind him, shock registering plainly.
“Don’t mention it,” d’Artagnan replied, balancing another knife in his grip. “I thought there were mo—Porthos, look out!”
Another man jumped at them from the cluster of trees, a harquebus clutched in his hand like a club. Porthos had just enough time to turn before he was caught across the side of the head with the end of the pistol, falling like a rock and not moving. d’Artagnan threw a second knife which the man deflected with the barrel of the weapon. A third found its mark; however it was only in the meat of the man’s arm, causing him to cry out in anger.
Dropping the empty canvas wrap, d’Artagnan pulled his sword and prepared to meet the attacker. The man pulled the knife from his arm, dropping it to the ground and scooping up Porthos’ discarded schiavona as he advanced. They met in a crash of silver, the schiavona colliding against d’Artagnan’s smaller rapier with a resounding clang. The impact of the blade shimmied up d’Artagnan’s arm and he stumbled backwards.
Now he knew why the big man carried such a weapon; it was large and flat and heavy as hell.
d’Artagnan was nowhere near fighting shape and felt himself weakening after deflecting just a few blows. Recognizing that if he didn’t create a way out of this, he’d find himself impaled on Porthos’ weapon, d’Artagnan did the only thing he could: he charged. The man in black was not expecting such a move and stood stupidly for one moment too long.
With a wild shout of rage, d’Artagnan slashed viciously with his blade, drawing his dagger with his free hand as he moved forward, using the man’s distraction from his attack to drive the point of his dagger home beneath the his ribs.
Unable to halt his forward motion, however, d’Artagnan fell as the dead man collapsed and landed on top of him, rolling to the side as his ribs shrieked from the impact. Gritting his teeth, a helpless, guttural cry of pain voicing the scream from his side, d’Artagnan lay still for a moment, trying desperately to catch his breath. He gasped as he tried to at least roll to his knees.
He had to get to Porthos. Had to protect Luca. Had to—
The world was spinning around him, the velocity of its rotation seeming to increase the more he tried to gain his feet. It was like running in sand. After all this, he’d managed to ended up without a weapon, braced on his hands and knees, head hanging low as he tried to shake away the gathering darkness.
Positioned as he was, he felt the ground tremble before he heard them: horses were approaching.
For a moment he let himself hope – it blasted through his so brightly that the cobwebs cleared and he was able to lift his head. He wanted nothing more in that moment than to see Athos and Aramis ride up, proud and strong and alive, saving the day as he knew they must.
But the horses were wrong. And the riders wore black.
He heard them calling to each other. They’d spied Luca. They were advancing on him from the opposite direction of where d’Artagnan had fallen.
d’Artagnan knew he had to move but he couldn’t bloody breathe.
He braced himself on shaking arms, licking his dry lips, trying to determine how many his enemy numbered. He an approaching horse and dropped flat seconds before the rider’s swinging blade took off his head. As it was, the tip of the blade creased his cheek and he rolled to the side, adrenaline fueling him as his strength continued to retreat.
Luca was watching him. Watching him, not looking behind. Damn!
“Luca!” He screamed, knowing the boy couldn’t hear him, knowing he was too far away to see d’Artagnan’s lips, but desperate to try something to save him. “Luca RUN!”
But the boy stayed where he’d been told, huddled behind the boulders, dangerously close to the river’s edge. d’Artagnan’s heart once more lodged in his throat so tightly he practically choked on it. There was nothing for it: he was the child’s only salvation. He pushed to his feet and began to run toward the rocks, grabbing his sword where it had fallen, leaving his dagger behind.
The man who’d cut his face dismounted and gave chase. d’Artagnan ran faster, ran like the Devil himself was chasing him. He was winded and felt pain shooting along his ribs up through to his aching throat and head but he pushed forward, desperate to reach Luca before the men advancing on horseback.
He skidded to a halt in front of the boulders, his body between the horsemen and the boy, his sword raised.
He had no breath left to cry out when the first sword struck his, but he parried as best he could, trying to watch for the second rider. The first dismounted, swinging his sword viciously and sliding his blade down d’Artagnan’s until he made contact with the younger man’s gloved hand, still tender from the knuckles split the two days prior.
There was a sudden weight at his back as Luca tried to pull him back. d’Artagnan couldn’t shake him off, couldn’t call out to him, couldn’t make him understand a thing since he was facing away. The next swing of the attacker’s blade sliced his forearm. The strength of Luca’s grip increased unexpectedly and d’Artagnan dared a look over his shoulder to see the other attacker had grabbed the boy, trying to tear him away, his harquebus out threateningly, but Luca held onto d’Artagnan for dear life.
His legs trembled with exhaustion. He could barely lift his sword to block the next blow, and he thrust out his free arm to try to keep Luca close. The echo of a weapon discharging at close range had him flinching to the side. It startled the man with a sword enough he momentarily stopped his attack. They both looked to where the man reaching for Luca was staggering back, falling to his side, a bloody hole in his chest.
Luca had his face buried in d’Artagnan’s back, but there was blood on his hand. d’Artagnan wasn’t sure how it had transpired, but the boy had managed to bring the men currently trying to kill him down to one.
And that one was apparently intent on going through d’Artagnan.
Wordlessly, d’Artagnan pressed Luca close to him, pushing them both backwards over the boulders, trying to keep away from the swordsman doing his level best to behead him. Sweat had his hair sticking to his face in random strands, stinging his eyes where it collected on his lashes. He could feel the cut at his cheek lazily seeping blood, the trail of it tickling the edge of his jaw.
He darted quick eyes to where Porthos lay, still as the dead, and spared a thought for Athos and Aramis left back in the clearing where they were first attacked. Watching behind him, he edged Luca along the bank of the river, keeping his sword out, though his arm shook. If he could keep his body from visually betraying him, he might get somewhere.
As it was, the man was relentless in his pursuit, as if he knew it was only a matter of time before d’Artagnan’s trembling arm gave out, his body collapsing, leaving Luca finally unprotected. His black eyes flashed as he advanced, his approach like something from d’Artagnan’s childhood nightmares.
As the man climbed over the boulder to get to him, however, d’Artagnan noticed something: a silver dagger with a distinctive hilt shoved into the front of the man’s weapon’s belt.
“You….” d’Artagnan peered at the eyes of his attacker in shock. “The bald man from the alley.”
The man pulled the cloth covering the lower half of his face down and snarled at d’Artagnan. “Shoulda broken your goddamn neck.”
“Lucky for me, you’re not that smart,” d’Artagnan retorted.
“Thought you’d be clever, didn’t ya?” the bald man advanced. “Thought you’d distract us with two groups to chase. Smart enough to figure that one out, though, weren’t we?”
“Not exactly hard when you have the Cardinal giving you the information.”
The bald man sneered. “’s what I told you before,” he growled. “Havin’ a boss what bends the Lord’s ear works in my favor.”
“Pretty sure God’s got nothing to do with this.”
“Oh, he does, little man,” the bald man stepped forward. “And he’s on my side.”
“You better hope he’s good with a sword.” d’Artagnan lifted his blade a bit higher.
“You want to live, all you have to do is hand over the runt,” the bald man told him.
d’Artagnan reached behind him and grabbed the front of Luca’s coat, shoving him to the edge of the boulders, as far from the man as he could get the boy without lowering his weapon.
“What does he matter to your plan?” he asked, trying to buy himself some time, hoping Athos and Aramis would arrive, or that Porthos would wake. Something. “He can’t hear what you’re saying, can’t expose you to the King.”
“Leverage,” the bald man stated. “Until we do away with the bitch, we can use him as leverage. Then he’s no more use to us.”
d’Artagnan felt his lip curl in disgust.
“Pretty necklace of bruises you got there, little man. Think I’ll add a choker to your collection.” The man pulled the dagger from his belt, now facing d’Artagnan with two weapons, and spun the smaller blade in the palm of his hand. “And then I’ll see how many colors I can turn a deaf boy ‘fore he screams.”
“Stay away from him.”
d’Artagnan lifted the point of his sword until it pressed against the other man’s throat. They were precariously close to the edge of the riverbank.
“No, I don’t think I will.”
The man swung once, d’Artagnan parried, and then the unthinkable happened: the earth fell away.
Beneath their feet, the riverbank crumbled. d’Artagnan had one second to register the look of shock on the bald man’s face before they both tumbled into the river below. He cried out once, helplessly, in surprise then the icy shock of the swiftly-flowing water stole the air from his lungs.
Holy shit…. So cold.
It was like knives, the water. Knives slicing him, stabbing him, cutting away his ability to think, to reason. He gasped instinctively and found himself choking on a mouthful of water. He was breathing it in before he could remember to hold his breath.
He released his sword, needing both arms to keep his head above water. Having grown up spending summers in rivers and ponds, d’Artagnan was a strong swimmer, but the river was swollen and frigid and the speed at which the water flowed was enough to send him spinning in moments. He tried to put his feet down, feel the bottom, but only managed to whack his knees against hidden boulders.
The bald man, formerly of the Red Guard, was thrashing and screaming, clearly panicked. d’Artagnan paid him no mind; his sole focus on getting to shore as quickly as possible. The chill of the water quickly numbed his body and dulled his senses. It was getting harder and harder to keep his head above the surface.
The noise of the river alternated between a roar and a murmur as his head bobbed beneath the waves; he felt his lungs burn as he was increasingly unable to keep from swallowing and breathing in mouthfuls of water. His boots filled, pulling him down, but he wasn’t able to order his hands to move and strip himself of their weight.
God…I can’t…help, someone! Help--
Each time he broke the surface he coughed, his chest lighting with a bright, icy fire as the force of his cough speared his bruised ribs, shooting blades of pain through his body such that he shook from it. There was no safe zone, no relief. He was either beneath the water, suffocating, or above the surface turning his body into liquid fire with the force of his coughing.
His vision blurred, the world visible only through a sheen of water; his body glanced off of boulders, one seeming to reach out jagged fingers to strike him on the head as if reprimanding him for thinking he’d ever survive such a folly as entering this environment. Choking, he flung out a hand, desperate to catch on to something, and felt his cloak snag the arms of a fallen tree, arresting his motion, but dunking him under in the slipstream of water.
The only thing that enabled d’Artagnan to pull up from the eddy of murky water was a singular desperation to live. He had to live. He could not let this river defeat him.
Pull, dammit! DO IT NOW. Pull yourself up, Charles. PULL!
Grabbing the branch with a frozen hand that would barely close, he dragged his head above the water line, coughing and choking, frantic for air.
Blinking blurred eyes, he saw the body of the Guard float past him, face-down. There would be no getting Athos’ dagger back now. He clutched at the branch, for a moment simply thankful to not be moving, then slowly dragged himself toward the abbreviated shore. He was forced to release his cloak part-way there, unable to get it free from the branches.
At last he was able to rest his head, shoulders, and torso on solid land, his hips and legs still caught in the swiftly-flowing river. He coughed, gagging as water was wrung from his lungs, retching as he expelled it from his belly. The pain across his ribs ratcheted up until he was blind from it, unable to focus on anything but breath.
He felt he would cough forever, turning his body inside out until his heart was exposed as the broken thing it truly was.
Goddamn this hurts…. Can’t breathe…can’t. God. Damn. Hurts so much.
After what felt like hours, he was finally able to take a shallow, shuddering breath, nearly whimpering from the bone-deep ache that climbed his spine and stabbed through his skull with vicious fingers, seeking to erase all memory or awareness except pain. He was alive with it; there was nothing else.
“d’Artagnan! Come on, boy, answer me!”
Athos. He was alive. And so, so close.
I’m here. Athos. I’m here…!
Calling out was impossible. He already bruised throat was thrashed; he had no voice left nor enough air to fuel it. Weakly lifting his blood-shot, burning eyes to look up at the top of the riverbank, he knew he wouldn’t be able to climb the five feet to the surface.
His body was shaking so hard he heard his teeth rattling. His breath was coming in short, shallow gasps.
Unable to move further, d’Artagnan reached a desperate hand forward as if he could somehow bring Athos close to him, but his arm dropped heavily over one of the branches of the tree, inadvertently anchoring him, and he sagged against the cold, rocky shore.
The last thought that flipped through his misfiring brain was that he hadn’t seen Luca fall.
Please let him be safe….
Darkness, when it took him, was swift and silent.
Chapter 7: Desperation
They were like ants.
Black menaces that kept scurrying from the tree line toward them, darting close and pulling away. He and Athos had dismounted and were standing back to back, his musket on the ground, useless with no time to reload. Their swords were at the ready, but Aramis could feel Athos’ left arm hanging useless.
He’d killed two men. Athos one.
And they still came at them, slashing and scurrying, the tips of their blades nearly making contact, until all at once, he heard a shout and a whistle, and their attackers were turning, cutting through the thick trees, heading away from them. Aramis allowed himself one heartbeat to feel relief before the knowledge sank in that those men were riding in the direction Porthos and d’Artagnan had gone.
“We must find the horses,” Athos panted, leaning forward to catch his breath.
“Wait,” Aramis said, wheeling around and slipping his sword into its scabbard at his waist.
“No, Aramis, we must—“
“Wait!” Aramis barked, grabbing Athos’ wounded arm tightly to make his point.
Athos went alarmingly white and dropped to his knees, his eyes rolling closed so quickly Aramis reached out and pressed his other hand against Athos’ chest for support.
“Easy, my friend,” Aramis soothed. “I am sorry.”
Athos swallowed wetly, pressing his lips together in a tight line before whispering on a harsh exhale, “You made your point.”
Aramis quickly pulled Athos’ cloak back. The ball had cut cleanly across the outside of Athos’ arm, but it was a deep cut, more of a crevasse than a graze. He winced in sympathy; this was going to be no easy patch job with needlework and a bandage. When he told Athos, however, the man predictably waved him off.
“Wrap it tightly and let us get after them,” he said, his voice thin, but controlled. “They are after Porthos and d’Artagnan.”
“They are after Luca,” Aramis corrected, standing and looking around to see if he could spot his horse.
“And will go through Porthos and d’Artagnan to get him,” Athos argued. “Patch me up.”
“Would that I could!” Aramis snapped, his patience thinning by the moment.
He was helpless, worried, and frightened. Three of his least favorite things. He dragged the back of his hand across his forehead, wiping away a smear of blood put there by a shot ricocheting off a nearby tree and turned once more to peer into the gloom.
“Where are those damn horses?”
As if finally realizing what had Aramis so scattered, Athos exhaled, then whistled sharply. In moments, Aramis heard the clatter of hooves and metal where the buckles from their packs rattled against each other on the empty saddles. Athos’ horse approached, dancing a bit from nerves before settling as he snuffed his nose on Athos’ hair.
Aramis’ mount followed shortly after and the marksman went immediately to his pack to draw out the supplies he’d need to bind Athos’ wound and make a paltry attempt to keep the wound from getting infected. Hurrying back to Athos, he loosed the ties that bound the man’s jacket sleeve to his doublet and pulled the bit of leather away, tearing the cloth of his shirt wider to expose the wound fully.
“This may…sting a bit,” Aramis warned.
Pulling a cork from the bottle of brandy he’d brought for just such purposes, he poured a generous amount over the three-inch gash. Athos stiffened, his cry of pain muffled and subdued by gritted teeth and pride. The moment Aramis lifted the bottle, though, Athos grabbed it from him with a shaking hand and took a long pull before handing it back.
“Much,” Athos gasped, leaning to the side and bracing himself against the ground with his good hand.
Aramis pressed a poultice of herbs, which he’d pre-made in anticipation of d’Artagnan needing it, into the open wound. Athos cursed, low and feral enough to sound rather dangerous, but held still as Aramis wrapped the wound sufficiently, hoping the pressure would stem the bleeding. Once he was finished, he started to pull the leather sleeve back in place, but Athos shook his head once.
“Leave it,” he huffed, straightening. “We haven’t the time and it quite honestly it will hurt too damn much.”
“Right,” Aramis nodded, standing and offering Athos a hand.
Once upright, Athos had to take a beat and gather himself, his color still much too pale for Aramis’ liking, but then he nodded and turned to his horse. Aramis retrieved his musket before swinging up one-handed, and in moments they were both heading in the direction of the riders at a run.
When they reached the clearing, Aramis felt his heart literally stop, freezing painfully in his chest, before kick-starting at a pace so rapid he felt slightly dizzy.
Porthos lay face down in the road, two dead men on either side of him. The body of a third man lay a bit further away, but Aramis had a singular-focus on his friend and the terrifying stillness that seemed to consume him. He rode forward, sliding from his mount before the horse had come to a complete stop and dropped to his knees beside Porthos.
With a shaking hand, he reached out to touch the man’s neck, nearly keeling over when he felt a strong, steady pulse.
“No!” The word came out choked and hollow. “No,” he repeated, steadier. “He’s alive.”
Gently, he ran his hand up Porthos’ back, seeing the stain of blood on the man’s sleeve from where his wound had re-opened. With Athos’ help, he eased Porthos over to his side, keeping the wound on his back from touching the ground, and saw a gash on his friend’s forehead seeping blood that stain his eye and the side of his face a gruesome red.
“Porthos,” he called, tapping the big man’s cheek. “Porthos, wake up, my friend.”
He saw Porthos’ brows furrow, his eyes rolling restlessly beneath his closed lids.
“That’s it,” Aramis encouraged. “Open your eyes, Porthos. I need you to look at me.”
Porthos turned his head, struggling. Aramis could tell his friend heard him, though.
“Look at me, Porthos,” he continued, patting his cheek once more. “Come on.”
“Porthos!” Athos snapped, his voice like a whip in the air. “Wake up!”
The order echoed against the trees and bounced between the three of them with an undeniable force. Porthos opened his eyes, his gaze cloudy and confused at first, but clarity swift to dawn as he saw the faces of his two friends hovering over him. He started to sit forward, and Aramis braced his shoulder as his wounds caught up to him and he groaned.
“That bastard,” Porthos growled, a shaking hand going to his forehead. “Counting coup, he was.”
“Looks like you did your share of damage.” Athos gripped his shoulder reassuringly as he looked at the two bodies near him.
“I only got the one,” Porthos flicked his fingers to the giant man behind Aramis. “d’Artagnan got that other with a knife. Saved my life.”
“Where is he?” Athos asked.
“And Luca?” Aramis chimed in, anxiety filling him once more now that Porthos was alert and talking to him again.
Helplessly, Porthos shook his head, the grimace on his face evidence of how much even that little motion hurt. “’e called out a warning t’me, but….” He closed his eyes tightly, pressing the heel of his hand against his eyebrow. “There were at least two others.”
Athos stood, looking back toward the trees, eyes searching and desperate. “Would he have taken the boy to the trees for protection?”
“Or circled back toward us?” Aramis guessed, carefully helping Porthos to his feet and balancing the big man for a moment once there.
He felt scattered, torn in multiple directions. The healer in him eyed Porthos’ color carefully to see if the change in elevation would send him toppling, while at the same time he knew he needed to check the wound on his friend’s back. The soldier in him sent out instinctive feelers to find Luca, needing to make sure their charge was safe.
But the brother in him was terrified for d’Artagnan.
“We would have seen them—“ Athos started to argue, then flinched, as if struck by something.
Then Aramis felt it, too: a sting on his cheek, like a large bee or the whip of a horse’s tail. He put a hand to his cheek and turned, eyes scanning the clearing, until….
The boy was standing at the edge of the riverbank, flinging something – rocks or pebbles, Aramis wasn’t sure – their way, clearly trying desperately to get their attention. He heard it then, the low moan of Luca calling to them, tears choking his already stolen voice. The river had blocked most of the sound, but now that he saw the boy, there was no mistaking it.
He ran, was next to him in moments, Athos and Porthos close behind, both slowed by their wounds.
“Luca,” Aramis breathed, dropping to his knees before the boy and clutching his arms gently. “Where is d’Artagnan?”
It was only then that he saw the blood on the boy’s hand. He grasped it quickly, checking for a cut or a hole or some explanation, but Luca pulled away violently, inadvertently crashing back against Athos. The other man staggered, catching the flailing boy and setting him upright before frowning and looking down at something beneath his feet.
“What is it?” Porthos asked as Aramis tried desperately to calm Luca.
The boy was pulling at his doublet, moving his hands to either side of Aramis’ face, and turning him to face the river.
“It’s my dagger,” Athos said in wonder. “The one I lost.”
“The one d’Artagnan said the men who attacked him wore,” Porthos remembered.
“They may have been dressed as bandits,” Athos said darkly, slipping his dagger back into its home at the back of his weapon’s belt, “but they were Red Guard.”
“What! What, Luca?” Aramis said finally, turning his full attention to the boy. Luca continued to pull at his belt and turn his face to the river. When Aramis finally pieced it together, he couldn’t believe it had taken him so long. “My God,” he breathed. “He’s in the river.”
“Who, d’Artagnan?” Porthos exclaimed, horror registering even as he asked.
Athos was already moving forward, pushing past them as Aramis gripped Luca’s arms once more. The boy had begun to weep, having finally made himself understood, and was visibly shaking. Unable to help himself, Aramis pulled the boy close in a tight, fierce hug.
“You brave, wonderful boy,” he whispered against Luca’s hair.
Setting him upright once more, Aramis stood, watching as Porthos seemed to instinctively tuck the boy up against him, Luca clinging to Porthos’ weapons belt. Athos was shouting d’Artagnan’s name, his eyes scanning the raging water below them.
“Could he survive that?” Porthos asked anxiously as they followed Athos.
“If anyone could…,” Aramis muttered.
He hurried after Athos, stepping over a forth body near the river’s edge, calculating how long d’Artagnan could have been in the water, if he hadn’t drowned in the fall. Water that temperature would be deadly in minutes. Terror threatened to choke him as they continued down the edge of the river with no sign of d’Artagnan.
“d’Artagnan!”Athos bellowed. “Come on, boy, answer me!”
Aramis saw Athos stumble on the uneven ground and hurried past him, eyes darting between the rushing white-capped water, the boulders, the thin shoreline, the fallen trees—
“There!” He called out, dropping to the sit on the edge of the bank and slide down the crumbling earth to land on the thick trunk of the fallen tree.
He’d spied d’Artagnan’s dark head, hanging low, and the lad’s arm hooked over a branch from the shoreline. Once level with him, though, he saw that d’Artagnan’s legs where still immersed in the frigid water. If it wasn’t already too late to save him, it soon would have been.
Aramis clambered down to the sandy shore next to d’Artagnan and grabbed him beneath the shoulders, momentarily shocked by how cold the young man was. It was like lifting a human-shaped block of ice.
“Athos!” Aramis called, unable to pull d’Artagnan free of the tree on his own and unwilling to let him go.
“I’m here,” the other man panted, having followed Aramis down.
“Free his arm,” Aramis ordered.
Face pale, lips tight, Athos did as he was told, helping Aramis turn d’Artagnan to his back. Athos pushed his dark hair from his ashen face and Aramis felt his heart hit his boots. d’Artagnan’s lips were edged blue.
“My God,” Athos breathed.
“Let’s get him up,” Aramis grunted, pulling d’Artagnan’s legs from the water as best he could.
The young Gascon was completely limp in his arms, his head hanging back, arms dangling. Aramis wasn’t able to fold d’Artagnan over his shoulder and climb; they were going to have to hand him up. It took all three of them – Porthos and Athos accommodating each other’s wounds – to drag d’Artagnan from the river to the bank above.
Once there, Aramis laid him flat and pressed his bare hand to his throat, desperate for the reassurance that drove his fear away when he did the same for Porthos. But there was no reassuring thrum beneath his fingers.
“No,” Aramis breathed, pulling d’Artagnan’s doublet open and tearing his shirt free so that he could press his ear against the young man’s icy chest. He held his breath, listening with everything inside him.
There. Weak, slow, but there. A heartbeat. He moved his ear up to d’Artagnan’s mouth and detected the barest hint of breath. He felt tears burn the back of his eyes.
“He’s alive,” he said. “But he won’t be for long if we don’t warm him up.”
“Porthos,” Athos barked, “get as much wood as you can. Take Luca with you. I’ll get the horses and pull all the blankets we brought.”
Aramis stood and hooked his hands beneath d’Artagnan’s shoulders, dragging him from the river’s edge to a copse of the strange, interlocked trees nearby, the base of the trees acting like a shield against the chill of the air coming off the water. He began to strip d’Artagnan from his clothes, struggling with the wet leather of his boots and doublet, removing the shirt from him completely and then starting in on the sodden bandages.
“Hurry, Athos!” He shouted. “We don’t have much time!”
He heard Athos whistle again and looked up to see that their mounts plus the one d’Artagnan had ridden were standing nearby. He tried to remember what Porthos’ horse had been carrying and decided that it didn’t matter. If they didn’t have it now, it wasn’t going to make a difference to d’Artagnan.
He pushed the wet hair from d’Artagnan’s face, feeling a pain in his chest. The young man looked dead; Aramis knew that if they didn’t warm him now the sluggish beat of his heart would simply slow until it was no more. They couldn’t afford to wait for a fire. Stripping his weapons and pauldron and laying them aside, Aramis struggled free of his jacket, gathering d’Artagnan up against him, and wrapping the dry leather of his jacket around the lad’s shoulders.
He gasped with the immediate chill contact with the lad generated. d’Artagnan’s head lolled forward, his nose pressed into the crook of Aramis’ shoulder and neck. He could count the seconds between his young friend’s shallow exhales as d’Artagnan’s breath ghosted his skin.
d’Artagnan wasn’t even shivering, and that fact scared Aramis to death. Clumsily, he circled d’Artagnan’s narrow torso with his arms, holding him and rubbing his hands vigorously down the lad’s back, trying to get the blood circulating again. Pressed against him as he was, Aramis could feel each fragile beat of d’Artagnan’s heart. He was chilled in minutes, but he dare not stop, not until they had an alternative source of heat.
“Luca.” Porthos’ voice appeared as if from nowhere, startling Aramis from his focus on counting d’Artagnan’s heartbeats. “Sit here. No, you’re good, boy. You did real good.”
Aramis didn’t turn to look at them, but the affection he heard in Porthos’ voice was clear. If anything had happened to Luca, Porthos might not have survived it. As it was, Aramis knew that focusing on Luca was the only thing keeping the big man from coming apart about d’Artagnan.
“We’ll get a fire goin’, you and I,” Porthos continued. “Get ‘im warmed right up. ‘e’ll be okay, you’ll see. Aramis’ will fix ‘im up, right as rain.”
Oh, God, the faith you have in me, Aramis felt the words tearing into his heart, like the claws of his earlier anger had turned on him.
He couldn’t fix this. He wasn’t sure it could be fixed. He clutched d’Artagnan closer to him, continuing his vigorous rubbing until Athos approached, dumping all of the blankets and bedrolls he could find in their packs next to him.
“Good,” Aramis said, not fully realizing how much his voice was shaking. “Put something down on the ground as near to the fire as you can get, then help me move him.”
Wordlessly, Athos complied and in moments, d’Artagnan was lying next to the blaze, so close his hair could be singed if it wasn’t still wet.
“Pull his breeches off,” Aramis instructed as he grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around d’Artagnan’s head and shoulders, then another around his torso. “And his smalls. All of it. Everything that’s wet.”
Athos did as he was told, wrapping blankets around d’Artagnan’s lower half as soon as the wet clothes were removed. Turning the young man to his side, Aramis began to rub his hands along d’Artagnan’s chest and back in repeated circles, nodding at Athos to do the same.
“We need to rub his blood back into motion,” Aramis said. “Be vigorous; we’ll worry about his bruises later.”
After a minute or so, though, d’Artagnan still gave no indication that he was warming or responding to any of their attention.
“Athos, come here,” Aramis instructed. Athos moved around to where Aramis pointed behind d’Artagnan. “Remove your jacket and get as close to him as you are able.”
Wordlessly, Athos complied, removing his jacket and lying down behind d’Artagnan, his larger, broader body blocking any residual wind and providing essential body heat.
“My God,” Athos breathed, his words sounding like the prayer they were meant to be. “He’s so cold.”
Aramis lifted the blanket from d’Artagnan’s torso and instructed Athos to wrap his arms around the young man’s chest, being sure to keep his wounded arm upright. Once he was in position, Aramis covered them both with the blanket, then placed another on top of them, the last spare one doubled over d’Artagnan’s legs.
“Come on, d’Artagnan,” Aramis whispered, crouching near d’Artagnan’s head and grabbing his limp hands in his own to rub them, “you stubborn boy. You cannot let this beat you. Not after how far you’ve come. Do not leave us now.”
Porthos put more wood on the fire and Athos kept his hands moving, pulling d’Artagnan as close to him as he was able. Aramis stared at d’Artagnan’s ashen face, the olive tone gray with cold. There was a new cut on his cheek, dividing the line of bruising and making him appear more fragile than he already was.
“What else can we do, Aramis?” Athos asked.
The fear in the man’s voice was Aramis’ undoing. He felt helpless, lost. He was no physician; he had rudimentary knowledge at best. All he knew was that they needed to warm d’Artagnan, and quickly, or he would die.
He hadn’t realized he’d spoken out loud until he heard Porthos growl, “’e’s not gonna die.”
“I don’t…I don’t know what else to do,” Aramis confessed, rubbing almost compulsively at d’Artagnan’s hands, working carefully around the one with the split knuckles.
It suddenly struck him as incredibly unfair that the wound on his other hand would never get to heal.
He blinked and looked up, surprised to find Porthos so close to him. In fact, the big man’s hands were gripping his shoulders, his coal-black eyes boring into Aramis’ demanding that he do something. Aramis felt the panic descend in that moment, as though it had been lurking in the shadows of his perception, waiting for a crack in his shields, a moment where his guard was down.
He couldn’t breathe.
d’Artagnan was dying. He was dying and there was nothing Aramis was going to be able to do to stop it. He was going to have to sit here and watch the boy slip away from them, after fighting so hard to keep their charge safe, after saving Porthos’ life, after everything, Aramis was not going to be able to—
Porthos’ voice had shifted from fear to anger and it was that shift that snapped Aramis’ attention back to the now as surely as if the man had hit him. He felt himself shaking; his arms, his hands…no, wait.
“He’s shaking,” Athos said. “Aramis?”
“That’s it, d’Artagnan,” Aramis turned from Porthos, not acknowledging his slip of control, not wanting to look too long at those shadows lest they grow teeth and claws and find the cracks in his armor once more. “Come on, boy. Come back to us.”
d’Artagnan’s hands were visibly shaking, his teeth audibly clacking together. Aramis could see Athos working to hold the lad against him, but his arms were shaking with the force of d’Artagnan’s tremors. Porthos moved to the fire, instinctively stoking it and adding wood.
“This is good?”
Aramis nodded at Athos’ question. “It means his body is beginning to respond to the warmth,” he said. “Stay there for a bit longer.”
“I am not planning to move.”
Aramis rubbed at the blanket covering d’Artagnan’s head, drying his wet hair as best he could, then reached to his bruised throat to check his pulse. It was rapid, skipping along as if in a race with itself, but at least he could feel it. Air began to huff from d’Artagnan’s parted lips – thankfully no longer blue – in a sort of a keening moan, soft, but enough that Aramis’ heart clenched in response.
Aramis needed to move, to act. Staring at d’Artagnan as he suffered through the warm up had something inside of him screaming. He rubbed at the lad’s legs, ensuring they were wrapped in blankets and as near to the fire as they could get.
“Keep rubbing circulation back into him,” Aramis instructed, not really looking at Athos as he spoke. “I’ll tend Porthos and then…,” he swallowed, fighting the urge to shrug, “I’ll check on him.”
“You did well, Aramis,” Athos said softly. “You brought him back.”
At that, Aramis did look at Athos, reality seeping into his voice, pulling at him with the weight of inevitability. “He’s not back yet.” Athos opened his mouth to protest, but Aramis cut him off. “Keep him close, Athos. Just….”
He couldn’t finish his sentence. Just what? Just do what he couldn’t? Just will d’Artagnan to wake? Just erase the trauma visited upon his body?
Aramis turned to look toward where Porthos sat near the fire, an arm around Luca, holding the boy close to his side, his head propped up by the heel of his hand, clearly in pain. One of them – Aramis was almost willing to bet it was Luca – had laid d’Artagnan’s clothes out near the fire, letting them dry. At some point, Porthos had wiped the blood from his eye but managed to smear it back into his unruly curls and mat it in his beard.
He was a mess.
Without a word, Aramis went to one of the horses and grabbed a pot from a saddle, then headed to the river, sliding down the side of the bank to where they’d found d’Artagnan near death. Bending to the swiftly flowing river, he filled the pot with water, then paused, letting the icy liquid spill from the top, covering his hands until they were numb.
He could smell the water. The clean shock of it. The way it seemed to cut through the air with a fierce demand.
Out here, away from the city, the noise, the people, where he could hear the world, where life seemed to breathe around him with righteousness and entitlement, he saw himself differently. He saw the fear that lurked within, every day, all the time. He saw what it was he was able to disguise with a coy grin and a lustful stare.
And he hated it.
He had to get control of himself. He could not be shattering at every reminder of that moment, that morning, that nightmare that was Savoy. He could not fear death.
He was a soldier. Soldiers die. It was an accepted part of their life. He knew this. He lived with this knowledge. If d’Artagnan survived…if he became one of them…Aramis knew he could not come apart at the thought that something might happen to him. Athos had the corner on that market.
He had to release these memories, accept that it had happened, and then let them go. The problem was…he didn’t know how.
Taking a shuddering breath, Aramis stood, set the pot of water up on top of the river bank, then climbed up and gathered the water to return to their camp. He heard d’Artagnan before he’d even reached the edge of their circle. The shudders had increased, his teeth chattering loudly, inadvertent moans of misery accompanying the tremors.
“I am simply holding on to him at this point,” Athos replied, sounded hollowed out. The man was wrecked, Aramis knew. His arm was bleeding through the bandage from the effort at warming d’Artagnan. And the toll seeing their youngest so broken was taking on his normally stoic exterior was systematically tearing down the older man’s walls. “I…. Aramis, I dare not let him go.”
“You’re doing fine,” Aramis found himself reassuring the man. “Can you stay just a bit longer?”
Athos nodded curtly, his face pale, lips tight. Aramis gathered several more items from his saddle bags and then returned to crouch down in front of Porthos. He needed to hurry; everyone required care and right now, no one was watching for another attack.
After separating some of the water into a pot to put over the fire, he wet a cloth in the frigid water and reached up to his friend’s wounded head.
“What was that?” Porthos asked softly, though not soft enough for Athos not to hear.
Aramis cleaned the wound, keeping his face impassive. “To what are you referring?”
“You disappeared on me,” Porthos continued.
“I simply went to the river for water—“
“’at’s not what I mean and you bloody well know it.”
Aramis took a breath, cleaning the blood from Porthos’ face as best he could. “This wound needs a stitch or two to keep it from bleeding more.”
“Don’t ignore me, Aramis,” Porthos growled.
Aramis met his friend’s eyes, his jaw setting as well. “What would you have me say? That I am afraid? That we could still watch him die?”
Porthos swallowed, something slipping across his expression that Aramis couldn’t remember seeing before. Porthos was just enough open about his past that Aramis knew not to pry deeper. Something about d’Artagnan, about his presence in their lives, had cracked that door a bit more open and Aramis could see how the thought of losing the young man tore at his oldest friend’s heart.
“You gotta know, Aramis,” Porthos said quietly, pinning him with a look, “that you will be afraid. And you will lose people. And you will go on.”
“I do not want to lose this one,” Aramis confessed in a whisper.
“Neither do I,” Porthos replied. “But you gotta…,” he frowned, his eyes going black as he searched for words. “You gotta stay here,” he finally finished. “You can’t fall back into that place no more. It’s not who you are. It’s not who you’ll be again. You understand that?”
Aramis forced himself to breathe, listening. He nodded, then leaned close to pass the needle tip through the skin, closing the wound as Porthos hissed in pain. He waited as Aramis wrapped a cloth around his head, then turned without being asked so that Aramis could inspect his back. Together they removed his jacket and Aramis winced in sympathy as he saw the fresh bruising around the axe wound, the top part of the newly-healed skin having been torn open at some point.
“A couple stitches here as well, I’m afraid.”
“Just get it over with,” Porthos grumbled.
As he cleaned the needle with brandy, Aramis heard d’Artagnan cry out with what sounded like terror, rather than pain. Porthos flinched at the sound. The only one who didn’t react, in fact, was Luca. Aramis looked over his shoulder and saw that Athos had pulled himself to a seated position, his wounded arm cradled close to his chest, d’Artagnan held between his outstretched legs, up against his chest. One of Athos’ arms was wrapped around the lad and d’Artagnan’s head was slumped a bit, resting backward against Athos shoulder.
Aramis could barely see d’Artagnan’s face in the shroud of blankets, but he could hear him shivering, his misery clear in the shallow gasps for air and low moans of obvious pain. Aramis met Athos’ eyes and the older man simply nodded. Aramis turned back to Porthos and closed the shoulder wound, wrapping it diagonally beneath Porthos’ arm and helped the big man pull his jacket on once more.
They would all need as many layers as possible going into the cold night as Aramis didn’t want to remove a single blanket from d’Artagnan if he could help it.
“You have Luca?” Aramis asked.
Porthos nodded. “We’ll get some food started.”
Aramis took a steadying breath and turned back to Athos and d’Artagnan.
“Let me see to your wound, Athos.”
“I am fine.”
“It’s bleeding again.”
“I do not wish to leave him, Aramis,” Athos confessed, glancing up, something fragile – almost broken – reflecting in his blue eyes.
“You won’t,” Aramis reassured. “Just lay him down a moment.”
When Athos still resisted, Aramis tried another tactic. “If you pass out from blood loss, what will you do for him then?”
Athos met his eyes once more, seemingly still willing to be stubborn, but then nodded. Gently, he extricated himself from d’Artagnan’s trembling body, laying the lad down on the bedroll and ensuring the only exposed skin was that of his face so that he didn’t suffocate.
Positioning himself next to Aramis, yet still an arm’s reach to d’Artagnan, Athos asked, “What did you mean when you said he wasn’t back?”
Aramis removed his dressing, grimacing as the deep groove of torn flesh was exposed. “When his body is warm enough, he will wake,” Aramis predicted. “Only when he wakes will we know if the time in the cold…took something from him.”
Aramis swallowed. “Such as what makes him…d’Artagnan,” he said. “Stubborn, inquisitive, impetuous….”
“Don’t forget focused,” Porthos called out. “Never seen one outside the Court watch people like ‘e does.”
“Loyal,” Athos chimed in, grunting in pain as Aramis cleaned the last of the poultice away. “Innocent.”
Porthos chuckled. “’e’s not so innocent as you think,” he said.
“Is that right?” Aramis replied.
“What do you know?” Athos asked, looking over at d’Artagnan as the trembling young man shifted his head inside his blanket cocoon, mumbling something incomprehensibly.
“I know what I hear, what I see,” Porthos replied. “’at boy’s been through ‘nough to have gotten this far in Paris on his own.”
“It’s not as if he lives on the streets,” Athos remarked. “He has lodging. Means.”
“Constance mentioned they hadn’t been paid in a couple of weeks,” Aramis readied his needle, knowing there wasn’t enough skin still present to stitch the wound completely closed.
“Why?” Athos asked, surprised.
“Anyone ask ‘im about ‘is farm after ‘e told us about ‘is father?” Porthos asked. “I didn’t.”
Aramis and Athos shook their heads.
“Brace yourself, Athos,” Aramis replied. “This—“
“May sting a bit, yes,” Athos interrupted. “I realize.”
“It will…more than sting, I’m afraid. The wound is deep and I can only sew it partially closed.”
“Do what you must,” Athos muttered.
Aramis steeled himself, managing to get two stitches in before Athos’ lock-jawed growl turned into a low, guttural scream of bright, clean pain. He rocked back, causing Aramis to pull his needle, and then Porthos was there, next to Athos, allowing the older man to grip his hand while he spoke of utter nonsense about horses and swords and something to do with blacksmiths.
The stitches finished, Aramis once more packed the rest of the wound and began to wrap it tightly when he felt Athos sway.
“Whoa, easy,” he soothed, instinctively.
“My friend, I believe I may….”
Athos never finished the sentence.
His eyes rolled closed and Porthos caught him as he tipped forward, holding him steady, Athos’ face pressed against his shoulder as Aramis finished wrapping the wound, then together they eased him down so that he lay with the pressure off his arm, near the fire. For a moment, they simply knelt between their two unconscious friends – one still, one shivering violently – shoulders sagging from weariness. Then Aramis saw Luca move over to d’Artagnan, careful to kneel on the opposite side of him from the fire so as not to block the warmth.
As he watched, the boy reached in to the opening of the blankets around d’Artagnan’s face and pressed the flat of his hand against d’Artagnan’s skin. He covered one of his ears with his other hand and as Aramis watched, a tear slipped from his eye and traced a path in the grime on his face. Scooting closer, Aramis saw that Luca was actually touching d’Artagnan’s mouth, his fingers barely ghosting over the young Gascon’s cracked lips.
“What is it, Luca?” Aramis whispered, watching as the boy’s eyes sought his mouth, listening in the only way he could.
Luca removed his hand from d’Artagnan’s mouth and reached up to his own face, pulling his fingers down his chin. Aramis glanced over at Porthos, puzzled. Porthos shrugged, looking just as confused as he. Clearly sensing their puzzlement, Luca reached up to Aramis’ face and gently tugged at his beard.
“Beard?” Aramis asked. d’Artagnan didn’t have a beard, true. But he couldn’t understand what had made the boy cry.
Just then d’Artagnan’s incoherent mutterings grew a bit louder and he twisted in the blankets, his chattering teeth beating out a code that only he understood. Aramis parted the blankets cocooning his face until he was exposed to the firelight and saw that d’Artagnan’s lips were moving, rapidly.
“What is he saying?” Porthos whispered.
“I don’t—“ Aramis started, shaking his head, but then Luca reached up and pulled at his beard once more and Aramis darted his eyes to d’Artagnan’s lips. “Father,” he whispered.
Sitting as close as they were, Aramis felt Porthos sag a bit.
Aramis looked at Luca. “Father?” he repeated.
Luca nodded, his tears coming a bit more earnestly. Aramis reached for him, and the boy stood, stepping over d’Artagnan and allowed himself to be passed over to Porthos.
“Let’s get some food,” Porthos said to Luca, as though out of habit. “Oi, Aramis,” he called. “These are dry at least.”
He handed Aramis d’Artagnan’s under clothes and shirt, his breeches and jacket still damp. Aramis positioned himself in the space Luca had just vacated and pressed his hand to the side of d’Artagnan’s face, relieved to feel warmth there. Checking his neck and then chest, he was reassured that – while still colder than normal – the lad was indeed warming up.
Carefully, he redressed d’Artagnan in his dry under clothes, working to never have him out from beneath the blankets. The torn shirt was a bit more difficult; he would have to forego wrapping the bruised ribs, the lad’s skin sill a patchwork of colors, but his concern now was keeping their young friend warm, not stabilizing cracked bones for a ride.
As he lifted d’Artagnan upright, holding him close as he had before – the lad’s face buried against his neck – so that he could position his shirt, he realized he could hear what d’Artagnan was whispering, and his breath turned backwards. Rapid, disjointed, seemingly incoherent except for someone who had felt those words in one way or another over the last five years, the words tore at something inside Aramis.
He could almost feel the blood trickle from the invisible wound within him.
“S-sorry…’m sorry, F-father…m-me…take m-me not h-him…takemenothim…takemenothim…’m s-sorry…s-sorry…Father, ‘m s-sorry….”
Reaching up, Aramis cupped the back of the lad’s head in an awkward, one-armed embrace. “I hear you, d’Artagnan,” he whispered back, burying his face in d’Artagnan’s dark hair. “I hear you.”
It was the one thing that had never let his wound heal. He’d been the only one left. The only one. And he’d been so very sorry. Not that he’d lived, but that they’d died. He would have given his life twice over if it had meant his friends, his brothers, had lived.
Take me not him….
He’d thought something so similar for so many years and all anyone had told him, if he dared confess such a truth, was that it hadn’t been his fault, he was fortunate to be alive. Only those who’d been the one left standing when Death walked in would understand that fortunate wasn’t the right word. Neither was lucky. Or blessed.
The only word for people like him, for people like d’Artagnan, was survivor.
That held a stigma all its own. All he’d ever wanted, when he’d confessed his own take me not him desperate wish, had been for someone to hear him. To know that deep down, he wanted to live, but he didn’t want them to have died.
“I hear you,” he repeated against d’Artagnan’s ear, practically rocking the young man as d’Artagnan continued to mutter, his words blending and slipping until they were little more than moans of misery.
Aramis pulled the shirt over d’Artagnan’s bare chest, then eased him down, re-configuring the blankets so that there were three spares, leaving the young man fully covered. Only his head was exposed, which he tossed restlessly against the bedroll, his face pulled into a fierce frown.
He looked up to see Athos’ eyes on him.
“Welcome back,” he said, moving over so that he could reach out and aid Athos in sitting up. “How do you feel?”
“How long was I out?”
“Not long,” Aramis reassured him, subtly checking the man’s bandage.
It was growing darker, the firelight swiftly becoming their only source of light. Athos looked around, gathering his bearings, his eyes hitting each of them in turn as though to reassure himself they were all still present and accounted for.
“Has there been any change?” Athos asked, his eyes resting on d’Artagnan’s restless, cocooned figure.
“He’s warming up, but hasn’t woken yet,” Aramis replied. “The trick will be keeping him warm throughout the night. There is already quite a chill in the air.”
“We must do something about the bodies,” Athos sighed.
Aramis wanted to leave them where they lay, but knew that was only his vengeance talking. Athos was right; they were out in the middle of nowhere, the closest sign of civilization a rarely-used bridge. The fire and their voices had kept them safe from animals such as wolves and vultures that would feed on the carrion, but as night came closer, the danger grew more real. Darkness had a way of infusing some creatures with inordinate boldness.
“We’ve no shovel,” Aramis pointed out. “And I don’t want to risk using our only musket.”
“We either toss them in the river,” Athos said, his voice practically devoid of emotion, “or we burn them.”
“Burning them could potentially draw wolves,” Aramis pointed out. “The smell alone….”
“The river it is, then,” Athos nodded, his eyes meeting Porthos’ quiet, steady gaze. “Are you in much pain?”
“I’ll live,” Porthos replied.
“You stay here with Luca,” Athos ordered. “Watch d’Artagnan. Aramis and I will handle this.”
Aramis reached down for Athos’ hand, hauling the man to his feet. They made their way over to the biggest one first, Porthos’ head scarf still wrapped around his neck. Aramis removed it and stuck it into his weapon’s belt, musing that was where it actually belonged.
“Check for any identifying documents or trinkets,” Athos instructed. “If there is any way we can tie these attacks back to the Red Guard….”
“I’m on it.”
They collected what they could, including rings and a flask. Aramis wrinkled his nose at the unwashed stench that emanated from the dead man. It was good they hadn’t waited longer; the wolves would have been drawn to that alone.
They drug the body to the river’s edge and rolled it over the bank. In moments, the swiftly moving water had pulled it away from them. Moving to the body with a knife in his throat, Athos removed the knife, wiping the blood clean on a tuft of grass nearby. He remained crouched for a moment, looking at the sunken, white face of the man d’Artagnan had killed.
“How old were you when you first killed a man?” Athos asked.
“Twenty-three,” Aramis answered immediately. “On my first campaign as a musketeer.”
“I was twenty-eight,” Athos replied.
“You’ve made up for it since,” Aramis commented.
“In the last week, d’Artagnan has killed five men. That we know of.”
“He was acting in defense of his life,” Aramis pointed out. “Of Porthos’ life.”
“I’m not condemning him for such actions,” Athos stated, standing and reaching for the dead man’s wrists. “Simply…recognizing an error in judgment.”
“Who’s judgment?” Aramis asked as they heaved the body over the edge of the riverbank.
Athos gripped his wounded arm briefly, meeting Aramis’ eyes. “Mine.”
They retrieved d’Artagnan’s dagger from the third man, disposed of him, then moved to the last body, this one bearing a large hole in his chest, lying quite near the edge of the water. Neither were sure who’d killed this man, but Aramis suspected Luca had been involved in some way, based on the blood staining the boy’s hand.
“I made Porthos a promise,” Athos spoke up when the last body was in the river. Aramis remained silent, waiting his friend out. “When we returned from this trip, I said I would act as d’Artagnan’s patron for the Musketeers.”
Aramis suppressed his smile, feeling a strange weight lift from his shoulders. “Perhaps you should not wait to tell him,” he offered.
Athos looked at him askance.
“Perhaps, when he wakes,” Aramis continued, “you should tell him then. Hope is a tremendous healer.”
Athos nodded silently, following Aramis back to their camp, the firelight leading the way. They ate in relative silence, the noise coming from the slightly muted roar of the river, the snap of the kindling as the fire ate through the gathered wood, and the relatively incoherent mutterings from d’Artagnan.
His shivering had lessened to the occasional tremor; Aramis tried to get some water into him, but couldn’t be sure how successful he was. d’Artagnan had wrapped his arms around himself, tucking his hands beneath his biceps and pulling his legs up until he was more or less curled into a ball.
Without being told, they’d each situated themselves around the young Gascon, Porthos and Luca sitting near his feet, Aramis at his back, Athos at his head. Aramis had handed out the three extra blankets. Luca tucked his thin body up against Porthos, sharing his blanket. As the night wore on, Aramis noted that each man slumped a bit, their bodies practically linking together, d'Artagnan at the center. With the blankets covering them, it was impossible to tell where one person ended and the other began.
“Rest, Aramis,” Athos implored, adding more wood to the fire. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Wake me in two hours,” Aramis instructed, though they couldn’t see the sky to note the shift of the stars. “Or at least when you feel unable to stay awake.”
“I’ll keep watch,” Athos repeated, sliding his gaze over to meet Aramis’ heavy eyes. “You did well today.”
Aramis yearned to close his eyes, to give in to the weariness that seemed to pull on him. He was so tired. But d’Artagnan hadn’t yet woken and they were far from secure. So many men had been sent after one small boy. As they’d not returned successful, Aramis knew it was only a matter of time before more arrived to finish the job.
Athos draped an arm almost casually over d’Artagnan’s shoulder, reaching with that motion to grip Aramis’ arm reassuringly. He looked over at Porthos, seeing that the big man’s head rested on d’Artagnan’s bent knees, Luca sleeping against his side. Finally relenting, Aramis leaned back against d’Artagnan, feeling the latent tremors still coursing through the young man’s system, and let his head fall forward, the events of the day catching up to him swiftly.
Chapter 8: Inseperable
The cough was wet, rough and shook them awake.
Darkness clung to the trees, almost tangible in its completeness. Athos shifted upright immediately, turning from the hypnotizing dance of the fire and focusing on d’Artagnan. Aramis sat forward and Porthos grumbled, turning away from where his head had been pillowed on d’Artagnan’s legs and curling up once more on the ground. Luca barely stirred.
d’Artagnan coughed again, then groaned, the blankets slipping as he shifted to wrap his arm around his bruised ribs.
“d’Artagnan?” Aramis whispered, turning quickly and resting his hand on the back of the young man’s neck.
“Wh-what…?” d’Artagnan rasped, blinking heavy-lidded eyes toward the firelight.
Athos shifted to his knees as Aramis eased d’Artagnan to his back, alleviating the pressure on his ribs.
“Easy,” Aramis soothed. “Just breathe, d’Artagnan.”
d’Artagnan winced, swallowing roughly, then broke into a fit of coughing once more, curling up around himself. Aramis exchanged a glance with Athos. It didn’t take any knowledge of medicine to know that cough was not good. Athos moved to help d’Artagnan sit forward, hearing the liquid rasp of his breath rattling in his lungs. At Aramis’ nod, Athos moved around behind d’Artagnan, pulling the lad up against him and giving him something to lean on.
Gasping, spent, d’Artagnan dropped his head back against Athos’ shoulder, his eyes squeezed closed.
“I have something in my saddle bag that may help,” Aramis said.
Athos nodded, waiting as the night swallowed Aramis completely for a moment before he returned with a pouch and dropped back down next to the fire.
d’Artagnan rolled his head to the side, blinking slowly. “Ar-Aramis?” he called, his low voice like crushed rock against the quiet of the night.
“Yes?” Aramis shot a look at him over his shoulder.
“I am,” Aramis said, smiling, this time turning to face him a bit more fully. “And what’s more, so are you.”
“Here,” Athos said, putting a hand on d’Artagnan’s arm.
d’Artagnan couldn’t turn his head to face him, but reached up and touched his face, dropping his hand again as though it was simply too heavy. “S-saw you hit.”
“Aramis had me well in hand,” Athos assured him.
“Luca? P-Porthos?” d’Artagnan continued his roll-call, coughing as he spoke.
“They are good, d’Artagnan,” Athos said, curling a bit closer to act as a brace while tremors of pain slipped through d’Artagnan once more. “You did well. You held yourself as a true Musketeer.”
Aramis continued heating what was left of the water he’d gathered earlier, dividing his attention between d’Artagnan and the fire. Both men saw the young man relax slightly in response to Athos’ rare praise. The water heated, Aramis poured a fine green powder into a mug and mixed it with the hot water, nodding to Athos to help him hold d’Artagnan’s head still.
“Drink this,” Aramis ordered. “It will help.”
Eyes still closed, d’Artagnan opened his mouth when Aramis leaned the edge of the mug on his lips and swallowed gingerly as the concoction was poured into him. He gasped when it was finished, keeping his head back against Athos’ shoulder. After a moment he blinked his eyes open, staring at Aramis through lashes tented by tears.
“What is it?” Athos asked worriedly, seeing the naked emotion on their young friend’s face.
“You’re alive,” d’Artagnan whispered. “I was afraid….”
Aramis rested a hand on his shoulder. “As were we,” he said in return, and Athos saw his friend’s chin shake briefly then steady as he was able to bring himself in check. “How do you feel?”
“Terrible,” d’Artagnan replied honestly, his eyes beginning to clear. “What happened to me?”
“Do you remember the river?” Athos asked.
d’Artagnan closed his eyes tightly, drawing his bottom lip in and catching it between his teeth before exhaling shakily. “I do now.”
“Your body was too cold,” Aramis told him. “We thought…,” he shook his head. “No matter. You are back.” He darted his eyes up to Athos who nodded in understanding.
Now the boy was back. Now they could take a relieved breath. Shifting against Athos, d’Artagnan winced, his arm wrapped around his side instinctively.
“Shall I treat your bruises?” Aramis asked.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” d’Artagnan muttered. “Hurts bad enough as it is.”
“It can wait,” Aramis nodded, rubbing a hand through his hair with a sigh, his shoulders bowing with relief and weariness.
“Try to rest,” Athos implored both of them. “We will make a plan in the morning.”
d’Artagnan sank into sleep shockingly fast, though every few minutes he’d cough again, sounding as though his body was trying to wring whatever was left of the river water from his system. Athos leaned back against the tree acting as their wind break and kept d’Artagnan upright against him, easing the effort of coughing.
Aramis lay down across from Porthos, both of them supporting their heads with bent arms. The night seemed to lag, the river muting any sounds of animals or other predators. Alone with his thoughts, Athos found he had to keep a firm hold of their direction. With a mission to distract him, or when there was nothing but battle chaos around him, it was so simple to convince himself to forget about the past.
But it had been more than forty hours since he’d truly slept and he could feel memories drawing close. His body practically wept from exhaustion, his heartbeat was trapped in his arm, and his friends were lying wounded and weary around him. Not only was it difficult to maintain discipline over his memories, he felt as though he could actually see them once again.
Anne in white, the rope falling around her neck, her green eyes pinned to him with sorrow and accusation. Thomas gasping on the floor of the chalet, blood pooling in his mouth, his dark eyes wide, terrified, and confused. Their voices echoed in his mind, calling his name with such clarity he’d jerk his head toward the sound, willing to believe for a fraction of a second that the voice had not been in his mind, but real, tangible, present.
d’Artagnan coughed roughly, the force of it pulling the young man’s body forward slightly, his shoulders and back shaking from the effort. Athos braced his arms, waiting for the fit to subside and d’Artagnan to slump back against him. It didn’t seem that the young Gascon was aware that he was actually lying on Athos; he simply sought relief from the pain that cut through him each time his sleep was disturbed. Athos made sure he was covered by blankets when he eased back, keeping him warm as best he could, remembering the strength in him as he’d hauled Athos from the burning house and well away from the flames before releasing him.
Since the night of the fire, he hadn’t let himself examine the truth. In fact, he’d attempted to drown it completely.
But Anne was alive. He’d survived five years in this world without her, but it had been a lie. She had survived the hanging and had returned to finish him. Paying him back for the hell he’d put her through, clearly.
And then there was Thomas.
His beloved brother murdered at her hands with nothing but lies to explain why. He’d loved Thomas, more than anyone. Until Anne, his brother had been the only person in his life to see him as he was, not as he was supposed to be. See him plainly and still to look at him with a light in his eyes.
Anne took that from him. Even death could not atone for such a sin.
His thoughts were still on Thomas as the world woke up around him. He blinked burning eyes at the coming day, feeling a strength soak into him that had been sapped during the long night. He was always better in the day; the night exposed his weaknesses too clearly.
As he watched, the sunlight peeled back the cloak of night, spilling pale, gray light over the landscape that surrounded their still-burning fire. The air smelled different at dawn, as if the light made it new. Despite the severity of their situation, he couldn’t help but notice the peace around them: the twisted canopy of branches, the moss-covered base of the trees, the velvet cover of grass beneath them.
The symphony of the river simply added to the illusion of serenity; no one would guess the amount of death that had been visited up on this place the day before.
Athos remained still, waiting for his companions to wake. Porthos was first. He came awake abruptly, not quite alert, but working to get there within moments of opening his eyes. Athos heard his sharp inhale and waited until he pushed himself upright on stiff arms before calling his name.
Shifting Luca carefully to the side, Porthos looked around, seeing d’Artagnan sleeping upright against Athos, his young face pulled into a pained frown.
“d’Artagnan?” he asked immediately.
“Woke during the night,” Athos told him.
“Thank God,” Porthos exhaled, rubbing his face, his eyes still puffy from sleep. “Need a minute,” he groaned, gaining his feet and heading off into the trees.
Aramis was next. He said nothing, but turned to help Athos ease d’Artagnan down so that the other man could stand and take care of his morning needs. By the time Athos and Porthos had returned, d’Artagnan was awake, weakly leaning against the tree, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, clutched at his chest with one hand, another covering his legs.
“’s good to see you awake,” Porthos grinned.
“I’d say it’s good to be awake,” d’Artagnan croaked, “if it didn’t hurt like hell.”
Porthos winced. “Christ, lad, you sound wrecked.”
“Do I? Huh.” d’Artagnan arched a brow, then coughed roughly, causing all of them to wince.
Aramis woke Luca and the boy lunged at d’Artagnan the moment he saw him awake, Porthos catching him just in time.
“Whoa, now, go easy on ‘im,” Porthos warned. He set Luca on his feet and he boy crouched carefully next to d’Artagnan, touching his lips with the tips of his fingers.
“I’m better, Luca,” d’Artagnan said against the boys fingers.
Luca reached up and tugged at his chin. When d’Artagnan frowned in confusion, he tugged again, his eyes never leaving d’Artagnan’s face.
“Father,” Aramis translated.
Athos looked over in surprise.
“You spoke of your Father in the night,” Aramis explained.
“I did?” d’Artagnan rasped, looking troubled at the thought. “I don’t…remember.”
“It wasn’t much,” Aramis assured him. “And…,” he looked down at his hands, his brow pulling together. “It hasn’t been long since you lost him, d’Artagnan. It should come as no surprise that you’d think of him when in pain.”
d’Artagnan looked away, not replying. As Porthos cared for Luca and started retrieving food for a morning meal, Athos studied Aramis. His friend was troubled by something, but it wasn’t clear what, and he simply wasn’t the type to ask. Porthos would get it from him, eventually. Athos knew he’d simply have to wait, and be ready.
“Where are my pants?” d’Artagnan asked suddenly, the blankets that had been cocooning him through the night, twisted around his legs.
“They should be dry by now,” Athos replied. “Along with your jacket. Will you need help?”
“No!” d’Artagnan replied immediately, face coloring slightly with embarrassment.
Athos mused that it wasn’t the time inform the lad that he’d been stripped bare in a desperate attempt to warm him. He handed d’Artagnan his clothes and then waited as he worked to extricate himself from the blankets and pull on the pants without actually standing. In moments, though, it was clear d’Artagnan was fighting a losing battle. Sighing, Athos stood, moving over to stand in front of him, and waited until d’Artagnan slumped in defeat.
“Allow me to help you,” he said quietly.
d’Artagnan nodded dejectedly. Athos grasped his outstretched hand, then when d’Artagnan wavered while gaining his feet, gripped his opposite wrist.
“Ah!” d’Artagnan gasped. “Mind the arm.”
“What happened to your arm?” Aramis frowned.
“The bald man,” d’Artagnan started, gripping Athos for support as another coughing fit doubled him for a moment. “The man from the alley,” he continued, his voice paper-thin. “He was one of them. Caught me wrong with his sword.”
Athos braced d’Artagnan as he laced his breeches, leaving his shirt loose for the moment. Aramis joined them, pulling up d’Artagnan’s sleeve to expose the long, shallow cut along his forearm.
“How did I miss this?”
“You had more pressing matters to attend to,” Athos said.
“Such as trying to keep me alive,” d’Artagnan chimed in, turning his hand so that he grasped Aramis’ wrist, tightly. “Thank you, Aramis.”
The emotion in his voice was practically a living thing, stepping forward and standing between them, demanding to be recognized. Aramis didn’t raise his eyes, and Athos saw Porthos move in from the periphery to join them, putting his hand on Aramis’ shoulder. They were once more connected, silent with recognition of the moment.
“We’re a brotherhood,” Porthos said, his voice falling into the quiet and rippling through each of them. “Equality. Liberty. Fraternity.” He dropped his chin so that his eyes met d’Artagnan’s squarely. “You’re part of us, lad.”
d’Artagnan’s smile was fragile, his eyes large and hopeful.
“Go with Aramis,” Athos ordered, braking the moment when he felt d’Artagnan’s grip on his shoulder begin to tremble. “Clean up a bit and then get some food.” He helped d’Artagnan pull on his boots.
Aramis slipped d’Artagnan’s arm across his shoulder and they headed for a cluster of trees. Luca started to get up to follow, but Porthos put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, easing him back down on the log where he’d been sitting, then rubbed his hair reassuringly. He began putting Luca to work repairing a strap on his pauldron that had been damaged the day prior; after seeing the boy’s deft fingers create the folded paper shapes, Athos silently commended Porthos for keeping the boy distracted with a task where he’d shown skill.
“’e’s not going to be able to ride, Athos,” Porthos stated from the opposite side of the fire. “Not today at least.”
“I know,” Athos nodded.
He’d been trying to come up with a plan to distract himself from the dark thoughts that waited until night to press close, but his brain was weary and logic, his constant companion, had chosen elsewhere to linger. Porthos seemed to be struggling under the same burden, a soldier’s worry rolling from him in waves.
“How many were there?” Porthos asked, rubbing the top of his head with the flat of his hand, his brow furrowed in thought.
Athos sighed, reaching for his harquebus and the cleaning oil he always kept in his saddle bag. “I counted at least seven. Three on the road, four here in the clearing.”
“There were five,” Porthos corrected.
“One must have gone into the river with d’Artagnan,” Athos nodded, rubbing the barrel of his weapon with the oiled cloth.
“Think it was all for the boy?” Porthos asked. Off Athos’ nod, he continued, “’as me wonderin’ how many went after the other lot.”
“Or if any of them did,” Athos replied quietly. “How many horses have we left?”
“Three,” Porthos replied, looking to where they’d hobbled their mounts.
“Four,” came Aramis’ voice.
Athos turned to see Aramis leading a horse – not one of theirs, but at this point it hardly mattered – d’Artagnan’s arm still draped over his shoulder. Luca noticed the shift in their attention and looked up to see the others approach. Before Porthos could stop him, the boy was on his feet and loping toward Aramis, holding out his hand for the reins.
Aramis smiled, handed the horse over to Luca and rubbed the boy’s blond hair affectionately. Porthos helped Luca unsaddle and feed the additional mount as Aramis eased d’Artagnan back down on the bedroll he’d occupied during the night. The young man’s face was a frightening shade of grey and there was a sheen of sweat running along his hairline and across his upper lip. It took him several moments to open his eyes after he’d settled.
“I cannot remember ever feeling quite so dreadful,” he confessed.
Athos almost offered him a small smile. “You didn’t take sick as a child?” he asked, working to distract him as Aramis readied materials, clearly intent on seeing to d’Artagnan’s other injuries whether the lad was ready for him to or not.
d’Artagnan shook his head. “Never.”
He coughed, hard, a groan of helpless pain slipping out at the end of the fit as he held his ribs tight. He took the mug that Aramis offered without complaint, barely grimacing as he drank whatever herbal concoction the other man had provided him.
“Broke my arm once,” he continued.
“How did you manage that?” Aramis inquired.
“Came off a horse. Wasn’t supposed to be riding it.”
“How old were you?”
“Eleven,” d’Artagnan croaked, trying in vain to suppress anther coughing fit.
“Before I became a soldier,” Aramis said as he gently lifted d’Artagnan’s shirt to expose the mottled collection of bruising crossing his chest, “the worst injury I sustained was gash on my leg.” He applied the strong-smelling witch hazel with practiced hands as he spoke, then began to wrap d’Artagnan’s ribs, bracing the weakened bone against movement. “Treating that is where I learned how to apply needlework to wounds.”
“Surely you didn’t mend it yourself?” Athos exclaimed.
Aramis shook his head, his lips tipping up in a secret smile.
“Tell ‘im how you got the gash in the first place,” Porthos chimed in, having re-joined them.
“Jumping from a window.”
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with a woman, would it?” d’Artagnan asked.
“Full marks for you,” Aramis grinned.
“How old were you?”
“I was eighteen,” Aramis replied, his grin widening. “Old enough to know better…too young to care.”
Finished with d’Artagnan’s ribs, Aramis moved to clean the cuts on his arm and face.
“What of you, Porthos?” d’Artagnan inquired.
“I was a menace,” Porthos chuckled.
Athos smiled a bit at that, moving from cleaning his harquebus to Aramis’ musket. He could practically hear his father’s stern voice repeating, respect your weapon and it will respect you. Pausing a moment, he realized he hadn’t thought of his father with such affection in quite some time.
“How so?” d’Artagnan pressed, his voice tight as he worked to direct his attention anywhere other than himself at the moment.
“Well, I wasn’t just told how far one rooftop was from another, lad,” Porthos tipped his chin forward, eyebrow raised.
“I was a sickly child,” Athos replied, remembering. “My mother was always completely certain they were going to lose me to one fever or another.”
“And yet, here you are,” Aramis said, dropping a blanket around d’Artagnan’s shoulders and sitting back, satisfied. “Taking shots to the shoulder and striding confidently forward.”
“Indeed,” Athos replied, waving Aramis off when the man tried to check his bandage. It hadn’t started bleeding again and wasn’t paining him unduly. He’d just as soon keep it that way.
“Are you cleaning those to leave them here with me?” d’Artagnan asked suddenly.
Athos looked over at him, taken completely by surprise at the question. d’Artagnan was leaning against the tree, his head canted back, dark eyes studying Athos without expression.
“What are you talkin’ about?” Porthos exclaimed. “Nobody’s leavin’ you.”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” d’Artagnan countered, closing his eyes and pulling his lower lip in, his tongue darting to the cut there. “We still have a mission: get Luca to Toulouse. That hasn’t changed because of an attack.”
“You are in no condition to ride to Toulouse,” Aramis argued, his brow furrowed with worry.
d’Artagnan opened his eyes, looking at him. “I know,” he replied, his low voice taking on a rough edge that concerned Athos. “Which is why I asked if you were leaving the weapons for me.”
“Getting Luca to Toulouse safely is our mission,” Athos said, keeping his voice steady and detached. “Three of us have been wounded, and we are down a horse. I am not convinced those are the safest conditions under which to ride.”
He saw Aramis tip his chin up. “As the only one of us with any medical training, such as it is, I agree. Porthos should not be riding quite yet with such a head wound.”
“And Athos can’t be expected to hold a horse and a weapon with that wound on ‘is arm, if we’re attacked on the road again,” Porthos chimed in.
“I know what you’re doing,” d’Artagnan croaked. “It isn’t necessary. I can protect myself.”
“There is a truth you need to accept if you’re ever to be a Musketeer, d’Artagnan,” Athos said, setting the musket down and leaning forward. “We are stronger together than we could ever hope to be apart.”
Porthos and Aramis nodded, silently. Luca looked up from his task, his eyes darting between the four men, clearly unsure what was transpiring, but recognizing the tension around him.
“What do you mean…if I am to be a Musketeer?” d’Artagnan asked slowly, the blanket shifted from his shoulders as he snaked an arm around his side.
Athos took a slow, steadying breath. He thought of Thomas, his sunlight, his innocence, his blood spilling on the floor. He thought of Anne, her betrayal, her sorrow, her body falling to the end of a rope. He thought of Porthos and Aramis and the second chance they’d offered him through their unity. And he thought of d’Artagnan, the fire, passion, and pain that bled from him starting the moment they’d met.
Either fight me or die on your knees; I don’t care which.
He reached behind him and withdrew his dagger, watching d’Artagnan’s eyes widen in surprise.
“My father gave me two things in this life,” Athos said, his voice pitched low, his eyes on the blade. “A title and this dagger. I used to imagine, after he died, that I could still feel the heat of his hand on the hilt when I grasped it.”
“How--?” d’Artagnan gaped. “The man…the one who took it…he fell in the river with me.”
Athos lifted the blade, then shifted his eyes to the riverbank. He could hear the water even if he couldn’t see it from this angle. “He pulled it on you, yes?”
“Then he must have dropped it when he fell,” Athos replied. “I am quite happy to have it back. Because it reminds me of something.”
Porthos and Aramis sat completely still, watching him. He could feel them waiting for him to come to his point, but neither begrudged him the time it took him to settle on the right words. He looked over at d’Artagnan, noting how the lad was sitting forward, the blanket having fallen to the ground behind him.
“It reminds me that we are each more than we seem, and we each have the potential to become more than we are.”
d’Artagnan rolled his lower lip against his teeth, his eyes pinned to Athos.
“To become one of the King’s Musketeers, you must have more than skill, more than desire,” Athos continued, meeting d’Artagnan’s eyes. “A recruit must be able to prove a lineage of nobility, which comes with a purse, or have a patron that will sponsor him. Until now, you’ve had neither.”
Athos looked back down at the dagger’s hilt, running his thumb over the small stamp of his family crest.
“What you had instead is a passion the likes of which we haven’t seen in years,” Athos said.
“Or…ever,” Aramis offered with a shrug, his expression forced-casual.
“You have exhibited bravery and tenacity that exceeds your years.” Athos endeavored to stay his course.
“Not to mention the fact that you’re bleedin’ stubborn and a bit reckless,” Porthos remarked, earning an arched brow from Aramis. He hastened to add, “Which I like!”
d’Artagnan’s expression had slipped from impassive to invested with heartbreaking speed. The hope Athos saw lighting the young man’s eyes caught him at the throat and made it difficult for him to force the next words into existence. He gripped the hilt of his dagger, feeling the heat there.
“What I am attempting to say is that when we return to Paris,” Athos leveled his eyes on d’Artagnan’s, “I will inform Treville that I will be your patron and sponsor you as a recruit.”
“Athos, I—“ d’Artagnan’s voice choked off, emotion swimming in his eyes. “I don’t know what…. I mean….”
“The words you’re looking for are thank you,” Aramis said in a stage whisper.
“Th-thank you,” d’Artagnan stuttered, the gratitude shimmering from him with such strength Athos knew for certain that if the boy could easily move, he would have crossed the space between them to embrace him. “I won’t let you down.”
“I believe you,” Athos replied. “But I warn you: it will not be easy.”
Porthos huffed. “What, because everything so far’s been a Sunday stroll for ‘im, yeah?”
“He does have a point,” Aramis shrugged. “Since he’s met us, d’Artagnan’s been thrown in prison—“
“Nearly blown to bits—“
“Shot at, twice—“
“Beaten, nearly drown—“
“And practically frozen to death.”
Athos watched the interplay between his two closest friends. “Are you through?”
Porthos and Aramis exchanged a glance, shrugging before looking back at him and nodding in unison.
“d’Artagnan,” Athos turned to the young man once more, relieved to see he’d managed to get his emotions in hand. “There are rules we must follow that you will be subject to. You must do so without question. Soldiers follow orders,” he said gravely, “even if it leads to their death. Do you understand?”
“Good. Because as the highest ranking soldier present, I am ordering us to take a day of rest,” Athos continued. “And we will reassess the situation tomorrow, first light.”
Porthos and Aramis chimed in immediately with a chorus of Agreed and Yes, sir. d’Artagnan simply nodded, his smile relieved, as he lay back against the tree. They set up a rotation to keep watch and gather more food and firewood.
Athos didn’t argue too loudly when Aramis insisted he take the first rest rotation. His head was swimming from exhaustion. Had they pushed on, he was certain it would have been a race between himself and d’Artagnan to see who would keel over first.
d’Artagnan wasn’t quite as accommodating when Aramis insisted he rest, but Athos decided he’d let the other man deal with that. He leaned back against one of the logs Porthos had rolled over to the fire circle, tipped his hat over his face, and closed his eyes. Sleep was swift to gather close and he didn’t remember one dream.
However, one of his comrades wasn’t so lucky.
After an undetermined amount of time, Athos was jarred from sleep by a harsh, ragged cry, cut off abruptly as someone – Aramis, by the sound – interceded to offer solace. Rather than moving his hat and interfering, Athos lay quietly, listening. It had been d’Artagnan, he realized, launching awake from a nightmare.
“You’re here,” Aramis was saying. “You’re safe.”
“F-felt so real,” d’Artagnan gasped, apologizing in his next breath.
“None of us here can say we haven’t survived the same,” Aramis told him. “Do you wish to share it?”
“Can’t…really remember it,” d’Artagnan confessed, his breath stilted as he brought himself under control. “Just impressions. I was…alone. There was…death.”
Athos waited for Aramis to reply, offering some sort of compassionate reassurance or validation. But the other man remained silent. It stretched for so long, Athos nearly peaked out from beneath his hat.
“I know what it feels like,” Aramis said finally, his voice holding none of the light-hearted, jovial tone Athos normally associated with the marksman, “to suddenly find yourself inexplicably alone. It’s difficult,” Aramis cleared his throat, “to navigate your way back from that.”
d’Artagnan didn’t reply at first and Athos wondered if perhaps Aramis’ empathy was off-base from d’Artagnan’s fear.
“But…it’s possible?” d’Artagnan asked, his voice so achingly young and needful of hope Athos nearly caught his breath.
“It’s possible,” Aramis replied, sounding a bit more like himself. “It’s far from easy—“
“I don’t need easy,” d’Artagnan interrupted. “I just need possible.”
“I recognized that in you the day you stormed into the garrison after Athos’ head,” Aramis replied, a smile evident in his voice. “You will do well in this life, d’Artagnan.”
d’Artagnan didn’t reply, but Athos felt the lad’s relief from behind his closed eyes. He let himself slip back into slumber once more until Porthos shook him awake to eat the evening meal. As he sat up, shoving his hat from his face to his head, he realized they’d allowed him to sleep the entire day. When he asked them why, all he got in return were innocent blinks and non-committal shrugs. d’Artagnan’s cough hadn’t eased, but Aramis felt that he had plenty of his herbal remedy to get them through one more night.
As they prepared the rabbit Porthos had snared with the rest of the porridge from Athos’ pack, d’Artagnan sat next to Luca watching intently as the boy took one of the rolling papers tucked into his vest and folded another swan. d’Artagnan was working to patiently emulate him, earning a sunny smile and a gentle pat on the cheek from Luca as he succeeded in one of the more intricate folds.
“They’ve been at that most of the afternoon,” Porthos told him.
“Is he getting anywhere?” Athos asked dryly.
“He can hear you,” d’Artagnan grumbled, and Athos winced at the wet rasp of his voice.
As he watched he realized that d’Artagnan was doing more than connecting with Luca, he was using the concentration required in folding the figures to control his breathing, and therefore his coughing. He lifted his eyebrows in surprise, glancing over at Porthos, who nodded, having recognized the same thing.
“Doubt ‘e’ll leave the life of a soldier to become an artisan,” Porthos replied, “but he ain’t bad.” They speared the rabbit and hung it over a spit on the fire, Porthos musing, “I knew a boy like Luca when I was young. Most people avoided ‘im.”
“Why?” d’Artagnan asked, caught by surprise.
“’e was different. People are afraid of different.”
“Not everyone,” Athos remarked quietly, watching d’Artagnan’s dark head bend close to Luca’s blond one to observe a particular fold.
“No,” Porthos replied, matching Athos’ tone. “Not everyone.”
The night passed without incident, the three men keeping their rotation. Aramis insisted on checking Athos’ arm, repacking it with the poultice mixture. Thankfully, Athos managed to avoid passing out this time.
Athos slept fitfully, having too much rest during the day to sleep so soon again. He found himself wincing inwardly each time he heard d’Artagnan’s heavy, rasping cough and peered at the lad as he wrapped an arm around his middle as if in an attempt to keep his ribcage in place. The lines that pain drew on d’Artagnan’s young face gave testimony to the crisp whip of agony that cut through him each time the cough rattled his already wounded body.
He would need more than Aramis’ herbs to heal from that frigid dunk in the river.
“Paris is closer than Toulouse,” Aramis whispered to him from the dark as he prepared to relinquish his watch.
“He will want to see this through,” Athos replied.
“I do not want his first mission as a recruit to be his last,” Aramis muttered, jabbing a stick at the seemingly perpetual fire.
“Is it that dire?”
Aramis looked over at him, truth turning his eyes dark. “It may be, if we don’t get him proper care.”
Athos nodded, frowning as he crossed his arms over his chest and waited out the night. No memories visited him this time. No errant voices from his past or nightmarish images of death. The only thing filling his senses throughout the remainder of the night was the image of his friends in various states of restless sleep and the sound of d’Artagnan’s rough breath.
When dawn broke for the second time in the clearing, Athos didn’t note the newness of the air or the pearled quality of the light. Instead he saw this place for what it was: a trap. They had only selected it for their camp because it was where they’d found d’Artagnan.
There were no easy escape routes; they were up against a wall with the river. It would truly be the last place he would have selected if given a choice and was certainly not where they could continue to keep Luca safe. As soon as everyone woke, Athos knew, they would need to move out, regardless of how strong d’Artagnan was.
As if in direct response to Athos’ thoughts, d’Artagnan stirred, pushing himself upright, his motion stiff, his face pulled into tight lines of discomfort. Without a word, and recognizing that Athos was watching him, d’Artagnan pulled on his boots and used the tree as support to help him gain his feet. He didn’t reach for his jacket and in the grey of morning looked drawn and thin, standing in only his breeches and torn white shirt.
“I need to walk a bit,” d’Artagnan said to him, his jaw set against any protests from Athos.
His eyes were clear and determined. Athos realized then that the lad had actually been awake for some time and had apparently only just worked up the strength to gain his feet. d’Artagnan was young, but he was far from stupid; he clearly recognized that one day’s recovery was all he’d be allowed and if he couldn’t ride, he put them all in danger.
“Take a weapon,” Athos instructed, handing the young man one of his throwing knives.
d’Artagnan nodded, took the blade, and moved away from the camp as though his legs were made of glass. The moment he’d exited the safety of the fire, Athos saw Aramis’ head come up. He looked over to Porthos and realized the other man was awake as well, lying with a heavy arm across the still-sleeping Luca.
No one moved. Athos couldn’t say how they’d all known to wait, to listen, other than a soldier’s intuition. They worked well as a unit. The first warning that d’Artagnan was no longer alone came roughly five minutes after the lad left camp. With a nod to his companions, Athos carefully drew his rapier and stood, moving toward the cluster of trees, keeping the shadows close to him.
From the corner of his eyes, he saw Aramis lift his musket and move over to take Porthos’ place near Luca, resting the heavy barrel of the weapon on a raised log. He didn’t see where Porthos had gotten off to, but he knew the man was close as he moved through the gloom.
After a moment, he saw d’Artagnan, standing loose-limbed and casual as though he faced dangerous foes daily. Athos stopped, using a tree as his shield, waiting for the opportune moment. Across from d’Artagnan stood three men, all of them roughly Porthos’ size, dressed in black, the lower-half of their faces covered. Clearly from the same group who had attacked them the day prior. One held a harquebus on d’Artagnan, the other two had swords drawn.
“It seems you have the advantage,” d’Artagnan remarked, his low voice bruising the morning.
He lifted his hands to shoulder-level, exposing the only weapon he’d brought. Part of Athos wanted to see the boy throw the blade and end one of the bandits, but he knew the moment he did so he’d be as good as dead.
“Been watching you lot for a day,” said the man with the pistol. “Knew sooner or later one o’ you’d be heading off on your own. Our luck it’s the weakest of the group.”
“What makes you think I’m the weakest?” d’Artagnan asked, his head tilting casually.
“You’re joking, right? You’ve got bruises everywhere!” one of the swordsmen responded.
“You’re a perceptive one,” d’Artagnan remarked dryly. “Full marks.”
“Their own fault we got you,” growled the third man. “They been protecting you for a day and then they just let you wander out here alone.”
d’Artagnan slowly lowered his hands, tipping his head forward, his voice sliding into a dangerous tone Athos barely recognized. “Who says I’m alone?”
The man with the harquebus brought his head up, looking around.
“Catching me was the last mistake you’ll ever make,” d’Artagnan continued in that same tone. “I’m far from the weakest; you’ve yet to see my true weapons. As we speak, three men who are basically little more than trained assassins, are preparing to kill you,” d’Artagnan informed them, the confidence in his voice almost enough to tease up a smile on Athos.
The musket blast was deafening against the quiet of the morning. Before anyone could move, the man with the harquebus flew backwards, a hole where his heart used to be. The swordsmen startled, darting to the side, but d’Artagnan didn’t blink.
One of the men brought his sword up to press the tip against d’Artagnan’s neck, but before the other one could make a move, a shadow seemed to cross the interlocked tree branches above them with unnatural speed, leaping from one tree to the next, then swinging down from the branch directly above the men. It dropped onto the swordsman like a like some sort of avenging angel, the force of the fall enough to render the man unconscious.
Athos chose that moment to step forward, pressing his sword into the neck of the remaining bandit in a mirrored image of his position against d’Artagnan.
“Drop your sword,” Athos demanded, his tone deadly serious.
The man complied instantly.
“Porthos,” Athos called to the man who had been little more than a shadowy specter until that moment. Porthos straightened from his crouch over the man he’d landed on and turned, his eyes cold. “Tie him up,” Athos ordered. “Make it as tight as you like.”
Porthos grinned wickedly at the last man and grabbed a leather belt off his unconscious comrade before pulling the man’s hands behind him and wrapping the leather around his painfully joined elbows. Once his upper arms were secure, Porthos pulled the cloth from his face, twisted it into a make-shift rope, and used it to tie the man’s wrists.
“Aramis!” Athos called. “Is our charge secure?”
“He is,” Aramis replied from where he stood guard back at the camp.
Athos looked over at d’Artagnan. “Little more than trained assassins?”
d’Artagnan shrugged, his grin sheepish. “I needed to make you sound dangerous. They already knew you were Musketeers.”
Athos tilted his head, conceding that point. He looked over at Porthos. “Seems running across the rooftops of Paris has paid off, my friend.”
“When did you see us?” Porthos asked d’Artagnan.
“I didn’t,” d’Artagnan replied, leveling his eyes on Porthos. “I just knew you’d be there.”
“I knew he was bluffing,” the bandit growled.
Porthos jerked roughly on the leather strap binding his arms at the elbows. The man gasped.
“What was that?” Porthos asked mildly.
“Nothing,” the man wheezed.
“I want the name of the man who sent a dozen men after one small boy,” Athos demanded, casually resting the tip of his sword on the underside of the bandit’s chin once more.
“I don’t work for any one man,” the bandit replied, his thin lips trembling as Porthos tightened the strap a bit more. With the position of the binding and the right amount of pressure, Athos knew Porthos could easily dislocate the man’s shoulders.
“You’re no mercenary,” Athos countered, tipping his head in doubt. “Your comrades worked for the Cardinal.”
“Ask ‘im then,” the man grunted.
“Oh, I intend to,” Athos replied, untroubled. “I simply wish to know who else I should pursue for prosecution. Unless,” he lifted his brows as though curious, “you would prefer to be the one to stand trial—“
“Thibaut!” the man bellowed immediately. “Pierre Thibaut.”
Athos exchanged a look with Porthos.
“You’re saying the boy’s father sent you?” Athos repeated, his tone incredulous.
“Don’t know ‘bout a father, just the name of the man what gave the orders,” the bandit grunted in pain as Porthos tightened the strap.
Athos clenched his jaw. This changed the nature of the game. If Thibaut had sided with the Cardinal to silence his wife’s potentially treasonous words and rebellious influence on the King, their work was far from completed by simply delivering Luca to his mother in Toulouse.
He looked at d’Artagnan and saw how the young man held himself painfully still. He looked at Porthos and caught the murderous gleam in his friend’s eyes. Finally, he let his gaze rest on the bandit, syphoning all emotion from his eyes.
“Where are your horses?”
“Over that way,” the man gasped, nodding to the West. The binding was clearly beginning to strain his arms.
“d’Artagnan,” Athos said, calling the young man’s attention from where he’d been spearing the bandit with his eyes. “Go sit with Luca. Porthos, walk our friend here to retrieve his horse and bring him back to camp. Aramis! Help me with this body.”
“On my way,” Aramis replied.
Within minutes, the dead man was disposed of, the unconscious man roused and tied, and the two bandits stripped of their boots, hats, and weapons. They placed one on the back of a horse, his hands tied to the saddle, the other they strapped to the stirrup where he would be forced to run or walk alongside the mount if he didn’t want to be dragged.
“You can’t just leave us here like this!” the bandit who’d been so quick to give up Thibaut protested.
“Not to worry,” Aramis smiled encouragingly at him. “You won’t be staying here.”
He smacked the rump of the horse and the animal leapt forward, slowing only after the rider was able to ease him back and allow for a slower gait for his loudly complaining companion.
Athos turned back to their camp, noting that d’Artagnan had not been idle as they dealt with the bandits. He and Luca had readied their saddle bags with the cook ware, bedrolls, and medicinal supplies and had doused the fire. Athos saw that the young man was currently sitting on the edge of one log, trying to ease his arms stiffly into his jacket, sweat gathered along his brow.
Not asking him if he needed help – he knew what d’Artagnan’s response would be – Athos crossed the clearing to crouch in front of their youngest and help him pull the jacket into place, lacing the doublet as d’Artagnan rested his trembling hands on either side of him.
“I can do this, Athos,” d’Artagnan rasped, swallowing hard.
“I know you can,” Athos replied.
He stood, offering d’Artagnan a hand and tried not to show any reaction when he felt the tremors shift through his young friend’s thin frame. They made their way over to the horses, having secured one more from the last of the bandits. Aramis had saddled d’Artagnan’s for him and as Porthos put Luca safely on his usual mount, taking one of the new ones for himself, Aramis helped d’Artagnan climb aboard his horse.
Athos waited, watching as d’Artagnan pressed a hand against his ribs, swallowing again has he worked to keep himself from coughing. He’d gone pale, his lips tight, eyes closed, but he was upright and steady. When he was able to open his eyes again, he looked to Athos and nodded.
“We stay at a walk as long as we can,” Athos instructed them. “Eyes up, ears open. They’ve already sent a dozen men after Luca. If Talia’s group has reached Toulouse safely, any bandits who went after her could head our way.”
“Toulouse is a day’s ride at a canter,” Porthos pointed out. “We are already late.”
“I’m hoping that will only encourage our men to turn back for us,” Athos confessed.
They shifted their riding position. Porthos took point, d’Artagnan riding next to Luca, Aramis on d’Artagnan’s other side, Athos covering the rear. For the first part of the morning, it seemed they might have worried for nothing. But then Athos saw d’Artagnan’s shoulders begin to sag, his head bowing and snapping upright at irregular intervals, his coughing steadily increasing.
Without being told, Luca moved up to ride parallel with Porthos, and Athos took his place, overtly checking on d’Artagnan. The lad’s eyes were hooded; he was barely conscious, though whatever awareness he was able to maintain was focused on the road before them. Athos could see bright spots of fever coloring d’Artagnan’s pale face and heard the rattle in his chest as he breathed.
His fierce determination to not be the one holding them back was actually killing him.
Aramis met Athos’ eyes over d’Artagnan’s head. They were going to have to split up; there was no other choice. d’Artagnan could not keep riding in his condition and they had to get Luca to Toulouse. He hated to make such a call, but he didn’t see another choice.
As he opened his mouth, however, he was stopped by Porthos.
“Athos!” the big man called. “Riders comin’.”
Athos kicked his mount up alongside Porthos. He could see them in the distance: at least eight men, and what appeared to be a carriage.
“Get Luca and d’Artagnan,” he said immediately. “Get them to cover.”
Porthos didn’t argue. Grabbing Luca’s bridle, he turned the boy’s horse to the trees, calling to d’Artagnan to follow. Athos didn’t turn back, sending a quick prayer skyward that d’Artagnan would follow orders and not insist he could fight.
Aramis joined him and handed him an extra armed harquebus. They moved their mounts to the shade of the trees lining the road, providing them as much cover as possible.
“Ready?” Athos whispered.
“Always,” Aramis replied.
Waiting until the lead riders were within firing range, Athos whispered, “Now.”
Aramis fired a warning shot wide; the ball buried itself in a nearby tree but had the intended effect on the approaching riders and they pulled to a stop. Athos couldn’t see their faces, and saw no distinguishing colors to give them away.
“We are looking for Athos of the King’s Musketeers,” a voice called.
“You have found him,” Athos shouted back. “Identify yourself.”
“Athos, it’s Bauer!”
Athos looked to Aramis. He didn’t clearly recognize Bauer’s voice from this distance, but he wasn’t going to let him get closer without being sure. “Show me your colors!”
He saw movement and then a flash of pale blue.
“One of you may advance!”
The man who identified himself as Bauer rode forward at a walk. Athos moved from the tree line, but kept his weapon trained on the main, knowing that Aramis had him covered on one side and Porthos on the other. As the man drew closer, Athos felt the tension in his chest begin to ease slightly.
“Bauer,” he greeted.
“Athos,” Bauer nodded. “We feared you dead.”
“It seems we should have been,” Athos replied, not moving, not signaling the others to join. Not yet. “After fending off a dozen of the Red Guards disguised as bandits.”
Bauer seemed to sag a bit. “It is as we feared,” he murmured. “They knew of our plan; they had to have.”
“You reached Toulouse?”
Bauer nodded. “Without mishap, and ahead of schedule.”
“Talia is safe?”
Bauer arched a brow. “Talia is…a handful.”
“Why are you not wearing your colors?” Athos asked, looking beyond Bauer at the seven men accompanying the carriage.
“It was Mathieu’s idea,” Bauer confessed. “If the bandits had indeed attacked you, he didn’t want us to be easily identified as Musketeers until we had apprehended them.”
“Clever,” Aramis stated, from the trees. His sudden voice caused Bauer to flinch, and Athos waved him forward. “But don’t tell Mathieu I said so.”
“You all survived, then?” Bauer said, his eyes raking Aramis as though searching for bullet wounds.
“We have one badly wounded,” Aramis informed him. “But Luca is well.”
“His mother will be very pleased to hear that,” Bauer sighed. “May I…?”
Athos lifted his chin in agreement and called to Porthos. “Bring them out.”
The other men and carriage began to advance at Bauer’s wave, but when Porthos didn’t show, Aramis headed to the opposite tree line to search for them. In moments, Athos heard Aramis call his name with urgency and he and Bauer headed to where Porthos had taken the other two for protection.
They found Aramis and Porthos dismounted, d’Artagnan unconscious in Porthos’ arms, his bruises standing out starkly against his pale face.
“My God,” Bauer breathed. “What did they do to him?”
“Beat him,” Aramis replied, from where he crouched next to d’Artagnan. “But the river did the real damage.”
“River?” Bauer asked, eyes still pinned to d’Artagnan’s fragile-looking figure.
“’e fell into the Châteauroux River,” Porthos said, voice gruff with worry, “fighting off one o’ them Red Guard bandits.”
d’Artagnan coughed, but didn’t open his eyes and Athos didn’t miss the tight lines on Aramis’ face in response to that. He looked up at Athos, his eyes dull with fear and worry. “Athos, he is burning up with fever.”
“He needs medicine that we do not have,” Athos told Bauer. “And Paris is too far away.”
“Let’s get him to the carriage,” Bauer said immediately.
“Porthos, you have him?” Athos asked.
Porthos started to nod, shifting d’Artagnan in his grasp, but then cried out in pain as the young man’s weight pulled at his wound. Athos started to dismount, but Bauer beat him to it.
“Allow me to help,” he said, taking d’Artagnan’s legs as Porthos held the lad’s head and shoulders against him.
They headed from the trees, Athos taking the reins of Porthos and d’Artagnan’s horse, Aramis leading Luca forward. When they reached the road, there was a flurry of motion and suddenly Athos saw a bright blonde head streak from the carriage with a cry of relief so piercing he felt his heart shudder at the sound. Talia Thibaut launched herself toward Luca with the strength of a mother’s love, pulling the boy from the horse and falling to the ground with him in her lap.
Athos gaped at the fervor Talia showed upon seeing her son, whole and healthy, and then blinked through the wave of emotion that threatened to swamp him as he saw the tears on Luca’s face, heard the low moaning sound of the boy’s cry as he clutched his mother back, allowing her to rock him and press him close to her. She was saying nothing, too keenly aware that her son wouldn’t hear her, but she didn’t need to.
Athos felt her love for the boy standing as far away as he was from them.
“She came with you, then?” Athos said, keeping his voice under control as best he could.
“There was no stopping her,” Bauer answered, his voice thin and choked as well.
Luca put his hands on his mother’s face, arresting her attention, then turned her to face where Porthos and Bauer stood holding d’Artagnan. Talia gasped slightly, then looked back at Luca. Athos watched as the boy touched his cheek and then pressed the same hand over his heart.
“Of course, my boy,” Talia said, her words clear as Luca watched her mouth. “We will help them.”
“What did ‘e say?” Porthos asked.
Talia stood, pulling Luca with her. She clung to his hand and he seemed content to stay pressed against her side.
“Luca,” she said, putting her hand to her cheek, “and heart,” she covered her heart with the same hand. “He loves you, basically. It’s his way of asking me to help his friends.”
Athos nodded, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “We would be most appreciative of the use of your carriage.”
“Of course,” Talia nodded. “I can ride with Luca.”
Athos looked to Porthos and Bauer who carried d’Artagnan to the carriage. He saw Mathieu dismount quickly and help them position d’Artagnan inside. Bauer turned to help Talia mount before assisting Luca.
“Aramis,” Athos said. “You should ride with d’Artagnan. In case….”
Aramis nodded, grabbing his saddlebag with the most medical supplies and climbing into the carriage as Porthos backed out. Mathieu looked at Athos.
“We will make haste,” he said. “I will send two men ahead to ready the physician.”
“Thank you,” Athos replied. He looked around at the other Musketeers staring solemnly at them. “You should know that he saved us,” Athos continued, looking back at Mathieu, but speaking to all of them. “He put his life at risk for the sake of our mission,” he glanced at Luca, then back again. “And when we return, I will be sponsoring him as a recruit into the regiment.”
He waited for the men to challenge him. These men who’d said d’Artagnan would burn out quickly and fast, that he had too much intensity for the long haul. These men who doubted the boy just as he had.
Mathieu reached out and placed a hand on Athos’ shoulder. “We would be proud to have him as a recruit.”
Feeling oddly weak from relief, Athos nodded, then waited as the carriage was turned to follow the group toward Toulouse, feeling that there just may be hope for d’Artagnan’s survival. They rode the reminder of the day, reaching Toulouse just as the evening fires were lit. Porthos had stayed close to him, the big man uncharacteristically silent on the journey. Both kept their eyes on the carriage, listening for anything from Aramis that would indicate they were needed, that d’Artagnan had worsened.
Talia had thanked them profusely for her son’s safety, but even her exuberance had tapered as she saw their eyes on the carriage and felt the weight of their worry. When they breeched the city limits, she and Luca rode ahead, leading the carriage to the physician’s location. Athos waited until Aramis and the physician pulled a pale, sweaty, shaking d’Artagnan from the carriage, noting worriedly the lad did not once open his eyes in transit, and then followed Bauer to the stables to care for their weary mounts.
“You said a dozen Red Guard,” Bauer reminded him. “You’re sure of this?”
“I’m sure that at least four of them were Red Guard,” Athos replied. He turned to face his fellow soldier, dropping his voice. “One of them gave up the name of Pierre Thibaut.”
Bauer frowned. “Talia’s husband?”
Athos nodded tightly. “Is he in Toulouse?”
“No,” Bauer shook his head. “When we arrived ahead of schedule, we were told he’d traveled to Austria on business. Talia indicated this is a frequent occurrence. It seems the man has difficulty being around his son.”
“Indeed,” Athos spat, his jaw tight. “It would seem sending bandits to capture and kill him is not the best parenting tactic, however.”
“You have evidence that Thibaut is behind this?”
“If you follow the road back toward Paris, you’ll find two bandits who will be able to verify these findings,” Athos replied. “And then, there is this.” He pulled the evidence he and Aramis had gathered from the bodies. “I believe Thibaut is in league with the Cardinal and the bandits who attacked us were indeed Red Guard.”
“We must bring this information to the King,” Bauer declared.
“First, we must tell Treville,” Athos said, reminding him of the chain of command. “It will be up to him when and how to share it with the King.”
“These men nearly killed d’Artagnan,” Bauer snapped, pushing forward, close to Athos’ face.
Feeling something snap inside of him at the mention of their young friend’s name, Athos grabbed Bauer by the shirt front and shoved him back against the wall of a nearby stall.
“I know exactly what they did,” Athos growled. “But we are not mercenaries. We are Musketeers. And we swore an oath.”
Bauer‘s eyes darted from Athos’ face to the hand clutching his shirt front. Athos gently released him.
“We will tell Treville the moment we return to Paris,” Athos said. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes,” Bauer nodded stiffly. “There are four other Musketeers in Toulouse aside from the seven who accompanied me,” he informed Athos, clearing his throat and gaining control of himself once more. “We will leave them to guard Talia and her son when we return to Paris.”
“Good idea,” Athos nodded, not apologizing for his actions, but stepping back outside of Bauer’s personal space. “We will need to have a clear plan before we depart.”
“I’ll see to the men, then.”
Athos lifted his chin, then, after Bauer left, sighed heavily, leaning against the wall a moment to gather himself. He needed all of his strength to do what he had to next. Straightening, he pulled the lines of his jacket tight, set his hat on his head, and crossed to where the carriage was still parked. The door opened quickly to his knock and he was surprised to see Mathieu, Talia, and Luca sitting while Porthos paced the small kitchen.
“Aramis is in there with ‘im,” Porthos muttered. “Said we needed to wait out ‘ere.”
“I’m sure they’re doing everything they can,” Athos said, crossing to his friend and grabbing his arms, forcing Porthos to stand still. “Porthos,” he said quietly. “He will be fine.”
“’e was burnin’ up,” Porthos revealed. “’e hung on as long as ‘e could when we tucked up into the trees and then he just…,” he shook his head. “Didn’t make no noise, either. Just went down. I couldn’t catch ‘im.”
Athos swallowed this new information, forcing himself to take a steady breath for Porthos’ sake. “He’s stubborn; we’ve all seen it. He will get through this. You’ll be running rooftops with him next week.”
Porthos looked at him, his dark eyes fragile as he visibly clung to Athos’ words. Talia stood, saying she would get them some food, and led Luca from the room. Athos sat next to Mathieu, but Porthos resumed his pacing. After what seemed like hours, but what was probably merely minutes later, Aramis stepped out of the room.
Athos didn’t think he’d ever seen his friend look quite so weary.
“He’s taken a fever,” Aramis stated. “The physician was able to provide medicine to help with that and the pneumonia.”
“Pneumonia?” Porthos exclaimed.
“From the chill of the river,” Aramis surmised. “I should have seen it earlier, but I….” He sighed heavily and pushed his hand through his tangled hair. “He’s young, strong. If he lasts the night, he has a good chance of recovering.”
Athos felt the world sway around him at this news.
“If?” Porthos whispered.
“The beating he sustained weakened him,” Aramis said, his tired eyes trained on the floorboards. “Significantly.”
“Those bastards,” Porthos growled dangerously. “If they weren’t dead already, I’d kill ‘em again.”
“I will take three other men and ride back to the garrison,” Mathieu announced. Athos had almost forgotten about him. “We will leave four here to accompany you when d’Artagnan is able to ride. Treville will know of this.”
“Take Bauer,” Athos said woodenly. “He has men to guard Talia and Luca as well, in case Thibaut returns. He must bring the evidence I gave him to Treville.”
Mathieu nodded, then clapped a hand on Athos’ shoulder. “He’ll make it through this, Athos,” he said. “You were right; that boy has a desperate will to live.”
Athos nodded in thanks, barely registering when the man left. He looked at Aramis. “Same shifts as before,” he said. “He is never to be alone.”
Aramis nodded, then put a hand on Porthos’ shoulder. “Come, my friend. We will eat while Athos keeps watch. You will have your turn.”
Athos entered the room and nodded to the physician who was clearing away his medical supplies. d’Artagnan lay in bed, his clothes once more stripped of him, his ribs wrapped in fresh bandages, the white of the linens contrasting sharply with the dark of his skin. His black hair clung to his sweaty face and his brow was furrowed in pain.
Athos listened as the physician gave instructions to keep him cool and when to administer the next dose of medication, then he removed his hat and weapons and sat heavily in the chair next to the bed. He said nothing, though words jumbled inside of him like sand in an hourglass, pouring from his head to his heart and back again.
He simply watched as d’Artagnan struggled, fighting demons only he could see.
Through most of the night, d’Artagnan simply frowned in pain, but there were moments where he would stir restlessly, rapidly whispering words Athos could not understand, could not separate. Whatever it was, though, seemed to cause d’Artagnan significant worry; once, Athos saw a tear slip from the corner of the young man’s eye and he felt his heart break at the sight.
The hours passed slowly as he wiped d’Artagnan’s face, placing the cool cloth on his forehead, squeezing liquid between his dry lips, and administering the medicine as the physician directed. It was a difficult process, getting d’Artagnan to swallow the medicine. He clearly had no idea where he was, why he was hurting, and struggled against him. Athos was no good at soothing words and encouragement. He nearly gave up and summoned Aramis at one point, but tried one last time to order the boy to be still and swallow the strong-smelling liquid.
He’d positioned himself behind d’Artagnan, holding the lad’s head and shoulders up from the pillow, and held the small cup on the edge of d’Artagnan’s cracked lips.
“Damn you, d’Artagnan,” he growled in spent frustration. “You will hold still and swallow this or I will shove it down your gullet, do you hear me?”
d’Artagnan stilled, his mouth opening slightly, and he allowed Athos to administer the medicine. Athos dropped his head back against the wall, exhausted but relieved. Moving out from behind d’Artagnan, he eased the lad back to the pillows and sank onto the chair once more. He was grateful he didn’t have to go through that more than once per shift. He felt a sting in his arm and looked down to see that wrestling the medicine into d’Artagnan had caused his arm to bleed once more.
Aramis was not going to be pleased.
As d’Artagnan slept, twisting fitfully in the linens, he thought how he’d said he’d never been sick as a child. Athos’ own sickly childhood had given him the fortitude needed to be comfortable with solitude and to mask his true feelings – about anything – behind a wall of indifference that had fooled almost everyone in his life, save two.
There was so much about d’Artagnan that he didn’t know, so much the young man kept hidden, secreted away until trust was able to build bridges or ladders or tunnels to get past his walls. But there was more that was raw and real and out in the open for them all to see if they were to simply look at him.
Simply looking at d’Artagnan now as the fever tore away his defenses and spread naked pain across his face had Athos agreeing with Porthos yet again: he wanted to kill the men who dared do this to one of them, to do this to d’Artagnan, all over again. Death was too great a reward. Sighing, he placed the flat of his hand on d’Artagnan’s chest, feeling his heart beating, letting that constant, rapid thrum reassure him, despite the heat of the skin beneath his hand.
When Porthos came in to relieve him, he was almost sorry. He knew it was wise, that he needed to keep up his strength, but he was reluctant to leave. d’Artagnan’s fiercely whispered fever dreams had pierced something in his heart and he felt almost compelled to bring the young Gascon through this by his will alone.
He did leave, though. And he slept. And he ate.
It was deep into the hours of following morning when he returned to d’Artagnan’s room to relieve Aramis only to find Porthos asleep on the floor at the foot of the bed and Aramis sitting in the chair, bowed over the bed as if in prayer, his head pillowed on folded hands. Athos was about to wake them both when he glanced over at d’Artagnan and staggered to a stop.
“Good morning,” d’Artagnan whispered.
Athos blinked. It was such a normal, natural thing to hear him say and yet he realized he’d been truly afraid he’d not hear d’Artagnan say anything again. He settled his stance, finding his balance through a grip on the back of the chair Aramis occupied, and felt his face relax into a relieved smile.
“That it is,” he whispered in reply.
d’Artagnan was still pale, his bruises fading to a greenish yellow adding to the sickly shade of his normally dark-toned skin. His voice was still a painful rasp, and probably would be for several days as his body worked to heal from the pneumonia, but his eyes were clear and his wounded lips were pulled into a small smile. Athos was helpless to do anything but reciprocate.
“Are you smiling?” d’Artagnan asked, his brow lifting in surprise.
“I am happy to see you,” Athos answered honestly.
He glanced down at Aramis, who hadn’t stirred at their voices.
“I didn’t want to wake him,” d’Artagnan confessed. “He looks…tired.”
“How long have you been awake?”
“A little while,” d’Artagnan answered, rubbing gingerly at his bruised face. He winced as his fingers brushed over the cut on his cheek.
“How are you feeling?”
“Tired,” d’Artagnan answered with a shallow sigh. “Confused. Where are we? It can’t be Paris?”
Athos realized the fever must have been coming on for longer than he’d known. “Toulouse,” he reminded him. “Luca has been reunited with his mother, Mathieu and Bauer have headed back to update Treville about Thibaut, and you are being treated for pneumonia.”
d’Artagnan blinked in surprise, swallowing roughly. “You’ve…been busy.”
Athos reached for the water, easing d’Artagnan’s head up slightly, helping the lad drink. The motion stirred Aramis who lifted his head with a start and blinked over at d’Artagnan as though trying to fully comprehend what he was seeing.
“d’Artagnan!” he exclaimed. He pushed to his feet, shoving the chair back and into Athos in his haste, and pressed the flat of his hand against d’Artagnan’s face. “Your fever broke!”
His voice woke Porthos who came upright in a noisy tangle of limbs and grunts of effort.
“So it would seem,” Athos answered for d’Artagnan.
“Thank God,” Aramis breathed, sagging back into the chair, his face in his hands for a moment. “What a long night,” he exhaled behind his hands, his muffled voice still exposing his evident emotion.
Porthos struggled to his feet, rubbing his unruly curls with the flat of his hand. “You gave us a right scare, lad.”
“’m sorry about that,” d’Artagnan croaked.
Aramis lifted his face from his hands, keeping his hands in place, however, as if waiting for his head to fall forward again. “Sorry, he says. Strong enough while unconscious – with pneumonia and cracked ribs – that two men have to hold you down to administer medicine that will ultimately save your life…and you’re sorry.”
“It took both of you?” Athos asked, surprised, and finally understanding why Porthos had defied orders and stayed in the room during Aramis’ shift.
“’e fought me,” Porthos argued, pointing an accusatory finger at d’Artagnan, who managed to make himself look small and fragile with simply a blink of surprise. “I thought I was going to…to…break ‘im.”
“How were you able to…?” Aramis looked at Athos.
Athos shrugged, deciding against telling them he’d nearly called Aramis for help. “I simply ordered him to take the medicine.”
“And ‘e listened to you.”
“Of course,” Athos replied, offering no further explanation.
Aramis and Porthos exchanged an incredulous glance.
“I am sorry,” d’Artagnan spoke up into the quiet. “I didn’t realize I gave you so much trouble. But…in all fairness…it wasn’t exactly my fault. I didn’t intentionally fall into the river.”
“Didn’t intentionally….” Aramis sputtered, dropping his face back into his hands. “You are a stubborn, hard-headed, willful—“
“What ‘e’s sayin’ is,” Porthos grinned, clapping a hand on Aramis’ shoulder, “we’re glad to have ya back. Don’t scare us like that again.”
“And stay away from rivers,” Aramis interjected from behind his fingers.
d’Artagnan coughed, nodding. “Good idea.”
Aramis pushed to his feet, standing with one hip cocked and his fingers hooked into his weapon’s belt. “You gave it a right good effort, though. No one can dare say Charles d’Artagnan is not a fighter.”
“Even when it’s for ‘is own good,” Porthos nodded.
“Aramis,” Athos said, drawing the man’s shadowed, bruised eyes. “You need rest.”
“My friend, I…,” Aramis shook his head slowly, dropping his gaze to the edge of d’Artagnan’s bed.
Porthos and Athos exchanged a glance and Athos reached out to rest a hand on Aramis’ shoulder. Whatever had been digging into Aramis since they left the garrison had finally trenched so far the hollowness had begun to echo from the man’s normally jovial gaze. It actually hurt to look at him.
“You’ve done everything you can; he is going to be fine. Rest.” Athos turned the last word into an order.
“Athos,” d’Artagnan croaked. “What of Thibaut?”
Aramis frowned, looking over at him in concern. Athos took the lead d’Artagnan had so cleverly tossed his way. “The order to come after Talia and Luca apparently came from her husband, Pierre Thibaut,” Athos said, drawing Porthos closer with his gaze, knowing the man had heard the same thing. “We have four Musketeers stationed at her house, but neither she nor the boy will leave here until they know d’Artagnan is on the mend.”
“We should find them,” Porthos nodded, edging Aramis away from the bed with his shoulder. “Make sure all is well.”
Aramis nodded distractedly, looking down at d’Artagnan. “Do not even think about rising from this bed unassisted until tomorrow at the earliest.”
d’Artagnan nodded meekly.
“And take that medicine,” Aramis pointed to the brown vial on the table. “I don’t care how bad it smells.”
“I promise,” d’Artagnan rasped.
Aramis nodded once, looking at Athos, then headed for the door.
“Porthos,” Athos whispered, a hand staying Porthos’ retreat. “Make sure he eats something. And sleeps.”
“I got ‘im,” Porthos replied, with a small smile in d’Artagnan’s direction.
When they’d both left the room, Athos sat down next to d’Artagnan, angling his wounded shoulder away from the young man’s keen eyes. He would need to have the physician look at it before too long.
“How soon will we move out?” d’Artagnan asked.
“We won’t leave until you’re strong enough,” Athos promised. “No need to relapse.”
d’Artagnan nodded, one hand snaking around his side to hold his ribs steady as he tried to suppress another cough.
“We have an assignment in about two weeks,” Athos continued. “It’s a bit of a formality, really, but it’s necessary and the King has requested his Musketeers.”
“So, you’ll go,” d’Artagnan said, nodding.
“I am going to recommend to Treville that you be the fourth man.”
d’Artagnan blinked, pushing up a bit in the bed.
“However, in order to do so, you need to be healed and healthy,” Athos said, leveling his eyes on d’Artagnan’s. “And, clearly, we’ll need to be back in Paris.”
“I’ll be ready,” d’Artagnan replied, managing to leverage himself fully upright, though he was forced to hold his ribs once there.
“That means doing exactly what the physician and Aramis say when it comes to healing,” Athos replied.
“I understand,” d’Artagnan nodded.
“And no more rooftop sojourns until after the Duke departs,” Athos added.
d’Artagnan’s mouth pulled up into a half grin and Athos realized he was going to lose that battle. He pushed to his feet.
“I’ll see about getting you some food,” he said, handing d’Artagnan the mug of water and holding it steady until the lad was able to grip it, forcing his hand to steady. Aramis was right: hope was indeed a powerful healer. “Luca will want to see you. Now that you’re awake—“
“Please,” d’Artagnan nodded. “Have him bring some of his folding papers.”
Athos smiled. Children.
“Athos?” d’Artagnan called as he started to turn toward the door. “Do recruits ever…live at the garrison?”
Athos frowned. “No, I’m sorry, d’Artagnan. Only commissioned Musketeers.”
d’Artagnan nodded slowly.
“Are you having difficulty securing lodging with the Bonacieux?”
“No,” d’Artagnan shook his head, the shutters in his eyes pulling closed once more. “It’s fine; I’ll manage it.”
Athos narrowed his eyes; he would need to pay more attention to that situation when they returned to Paris.
“Oh, but, Athos?” d’Artagnan caught him once more, his eyes clearly troubled. “There was a letter. A page from a letter. My uncle sent it to my father, care of the palace.”
Athos remembered the letter. “Was it troubling news?”
d’Artagnan shook his head. “Merely the typical family quarrels, but…it was written in the language of Gascony which is quite similar to that of Toulouse,” he frowned, clearing his throat. “The bald man from the alley – the one who had your dagger – he was threatening to use it to frame me for murder.”
There was something else about the letter, Athos could see. It was clear the story of d’Artagnan’s family was not a simple one, nor one that he allowed free of his personal barricades. Trust had yet to build that bridge.
“Aramis and I found sufficient evidence on the bodies of the men who attacked you and Porthos to identify them as being of the Red Guard,” Athos told him. “I saw no letter, but as no one but our attackers were killed, I feel certain you will not be tried for murder, d’Artagnan.”
d’Artagnan sank back against the pillows.
“I’ll see to your food now.”
Pulling up short once more, Athos nearly smiled this time when he half-turned to the young man.
“Thank you,” d’Artagnan said quietly, the sincerity in his voice drawing Athos around fully. “You didn’t have to…to trust me, and you did.”
“You earned it, d’Artagnan,” Athos told him. “You earned Porthos’ faith and Aramis’ allegiance and my trust.” He looked down, unable to meet the young man’s eyes as he said the next part. “You pulled me from Hell and you lay your judgment at my feet, allowing me to sweep it away.” He stepped forward, meeting d’Artagnan’s eyes once more. “You earned our brotherhood. All you have to do now,” he half-smiled, “is earn your commission.”
d’Artagnan echoed his small smile. “Is that all?”
“I have no doubt you will,” Athos said, turning once more. “Because we will be training you.”
He exited the room on d’Artagnan’s chuckle, waiting for the laugh to dissolve into coughs and breathing a sigh of relief when it didn’t. The next few days would be long, but when they returned to Paris, it would not be as a group of soldiers, each broken by something and carrying the shards inside them. They would be returning as brothers, d’Artagnan included among them.
Athos knew they had never been stronger.