The sky was red.
Not even the burnished bits of gold that edged the horizon as the sun climbed from the shadows tempered the inflamed morning. It meant something. A sky like that, it was a portent, a warning.
“We must move quickly.”
A whispered voice, the words urgent, almost frantic as they slapped the chilled morning air. The field before him lay quiet. He breathed through that quiet, marveling in the ability to fill his lungs. Relishing the completion of a simple act he had taken for granted his entire life.
The burgeoning light seemed to strike each blade of dew-heavy grass, turning the acres into a blanket of silver. It felt as though, if he stared at it long enough, the peace stretching across that field might actually be real. Something he could hold onto, believe in, trust.
“You will need to keep very close to us.”
The cry of a hawk cut the morning; the world seemed to have held its breath until that moment.
He blinked slowly, his eyes heavy with pain that lingered in his bones, his soul resigned to feeling it forever. He followed the flight of the creature as it cut down from its aerial surveillance and dove, down, down, wings folded close until at the last moment it stretched them, buoying its descent just so. The aborted screech of a mouse reached his ears and he saw the hawk collect the creature in its talons, its wings beating the dew from the grass as it ascended once more.
Death. He remembered now. The red sky warned of death. Blood had been spilled in the night and it stained the morning.
Hands were at his shoulders, their weight almost too much, the pain from muscles pulled past the point of resistance screaming through his body at the contact. He couldn’t stifle the shuddering groan that slipped from his heart outward, like ripples on a pond, ending at his fingertips and lingering in his hands.
The grip softened, loosened, but didn’t depart.
A figure stepped between him and his view of the peaceful, empty field. The hands slipped from his shoulders to his face, palms at his cheeks, fingers cupping the back of his head, forcing his eyes front, demanding he focus.
Aramis. Blood on his face, framing his eye, slipping from the corner of a wounded mouth to mat his beard. His was part of the blood that stained the sky.
“Look at me,” Aramis demanded, his voice soft but his tone that of an order, as though he would accept nothing short of d’Artagnan’s full cooperation.
d’Artagnan blinked once again. He saw the man before him, heard his words, but they seemed to fall from Aramis’ lips and float in the air between them, hollow and meaningless. They were simply sounds, nothing more. The pain seemed to scoop him out, the pressure of Aramis’ fingers at the base of his skull enough to send spikes through his head; his vision grayed a bit at the edges, folding inward as he tried to focus.
“If you stay close us, Porthos and I will protect you,” Aramis said slowly, not releasing d’Artagnan’s face.
“Look at ‘is eyes, Aramis.” Porthos. His voice an imprint of strength in the fragile morning. “‘e’s slipping from us.”
Porthos was suddenly standing next to Aramis, their shoulders overlapping in such a way it seemed to d’Artagnan they were one person.
Perhaps they are, he mused with a strange sense of detachment.
There didn’t seem to be a time in recent memory where one was without the other. They breathed in concert, his brothers. They breathed for each other when necessary. These men who had become his family. These men who had offered him a purpose. These men who would die for him.
“Focus, d’Artagnan. Focus on my voice.” It was such a monumental task, this request.
“Go easy, Aramis,” Porthos was saying, “’e was barely breathin’ when we found ‘im.”
“We cannot let him fade,” Aramis whispered, that urgent, frantic tone tumbling against d’Artagnan’s ears once again.
“’e needs rest,” Porthos argued. “Can’t even…lift…on ‘is own!”
The words seemed to be sliding around in the air, tinny and thin. d’Artagnan knew he needed to do…something, but he couldn’t remember what. The persistent flirtation of darkness was once more tugging at his awareness and he yearned to give in. He wanted to sink to the ground and allow it to blanket him in oblivion. The pain in his head spilled down his neck like liquid fire, burning through his shoulders until his body longed to retreat from it.
To say he hurt would be a frightening understatement.
d’Artagnan felt something pinch the taut muscles where his neck met his shoulders. Hands. Aramis or Porthos, he wasn’t sure which, but someone was gripping him tightly, trying to direct his focus.
“d’Artagnan,” Aramis called his name once more. “Look at me. Right here, at me. Are you with me?” Aramis patted his cheek with a glove-covered hand. “Let me see your eyes.”
d’Artagnan blinked, shifting his gaze until he was once more staring at his friend as if through a veil. Pain dulled his perception and clouded his memory. There was something he was supposed to do, something….
“’e should stay ‘ere,” Porthos growled, though not in anger, d’Artagnan recognized. In fear. Fear for him.
“We can’t leave him alone,” Aramis argued, not looking away from d’Artagnan’s eyes. “In any case, we need him.” He glanced quickly to the side, toward Porthos. “Athos needs him.”
“Athos,” d’Artagnan breathed, frowning, piecing the memories together.
“We will get him, d’Artagnan.” Aramis spoke the words like a pledge.
Athos. Bleeding on the floor of the barn, eyes closed, mouth silent, body still. Athos bleeding for him, to save him. It was Athos’ blood in the sky as well.
“He wasn’t moving,” d’Artagnan found himself saying.
He hadn’t registered the words before they slipped free, as if someone else was suddenly in charge of his mouth, his mind numb in defense against the pain.
“’e’s tough, our Athos,” Porthos said, still so close to Aramis he blocked the light from the rising sun. “’e’s got plenty of fight in ‘im.”
d’Artagnan peered at Porthos through his bangs. “They shot him.”
“’e was breathing,” Porthos snapped, worry turning his voice harsh. “Didn’t come out ‘ere to lose anyone. Don’t plan on changing that now.”
“Came for me,” d’Artagnan whispered.
“Followed this idiot,” Porthos muttered, bumping Aramis with his elbow.
“This is not your doing, d’Artagnan,” Aramis said, clearly hearing a doubt that Porthos had missed in d’Artagnan’s disjointed muttering. His dark eyes drew d’Artagnan’s once more. “You held out longer than I could have.”
“They still got him,” d’Artagnan mumbled, the slightly dazed detachment slipping over him once more as he listened to himself speak. He felt himself sway drunkenly, Aramis’ grip the only thing keeping him upright for a moment. “Didn’t matter…didn’t protect him.”
“You did,” Porthos growled, moving closer still, until d’Artagnan was able to see the bruises across the big man’s cheek, his eye stained red. Porthos’ blood in the sky. “You bought ‘im time. Bought us time.”
With a step and a nudge of his shoulder, the big man moved Aramis to the side and squared off in front of d’Artagnan. He didn’t touch him, d’Artagnan registered, but he didn’t have to. His proximity was enough contact to brace d’Artagnan for his next words.
“There is no shame in what ‘appened to you.” He dropped his chin, leveling his wounded eyes with d’Artagnan’s numbed gaze. “They tortured you, but you’re still alive, yeah? And that means one thing.” He lifted d’Artagnan’s arm, carefully avoiding the torn and bleeding skin around his wrists, and set a dagger in his palm, wrapping d’Artagnan’s fingers around the hilt and closing his fist around the grip. “You end those bastards.”
d’Artagnan saw his friend’s lip pull up in a snarl, his dark eyes slip to black with intent. Something shimmered in the air between them, Porthos’ words sparking a fire in d’Artagnan’s wounded heart. He had been sitting, slumped, on the tree stump where they’d rested him after their escape, but he started to push to his feet, holding Porthos’ gaze.
His body keened in protest at the movement; the muscles along his ribs and across his shoulders seized painfully, the damaged skin at his wrists gasped when the cloth from his loose shirt slipped over the tears, and his head throbbed where his skull had been cracked, blood matting his hair and sliding down the side of his face to paint the edge of his jaw.
He could taste it from where his teeth had cut his lips, his cheek. He could smell it from where it stained his shirt, his skin. He could feel it down the back of his neck, on his face, on his hands.
His blood in the sky.
By the time he managed to stand, one of Porthos’ hands on his fist, the other at his opposite elbow, balancing him, he was dizzy and breathless.
“Can you hold a harquebus?” Aramis asked him, frowning as he tended to do when he doesn’t register he’s being watched.
d’Artagnan looked down at his hand where Porthos still helped him grip the dagger. The big man stepped carefully away, slowly releasing his hand. The moment he was absent the loan of strength, d’Artagnan dropped the dagger, unable to command his trembling hands to obey. He simply had no strength left in his arms. He swallowed, then looked up at Aramis and shook his head slowly.
“No matter.” Aramis muttered, then staggered slightly, a hand to his head as if in pain.
Porthos stuck out his free hand to balance the other man, keeping his hand on d’Artagnan’s elbow. d’Artagnan watched as the sunlight split the trees, dancing in pale beams across Aramis’ face, turning the blood there from wounds into war-paint. With Porthos standing between them like a bridge, Aramis and d’Artagnan regarded each other, waiting.
d’Artagnan was the first to nod. They had saved him, and it may have cost them Athos. He would not betray them now with weakness. No matter that the pain left him feeling small, overwhelmed, lost. He squared his shoulders as best as his torn muscles would allow.
“What will you have me do?” he asked, forcing strength he did not feel into his tone.
“We will move quickly,” Aramis said, his voice hurried, the words practiced. Behind him the red sky was diluted by light, turning the horizon into a bruised, violated dawn. “They’ve not had enough time to take him from the barn as Porthos set their horses loose when we arrived.” He reached for d’Artagnan again, clasping his free arm in a painfully strong grip. “You get to Athos. That is your only thought. Get to Athos.”
“What of you?” d’Artagnan asked, drawing strength from his friend’s grip as he would heat on a cold day. “What will you do?”
Aramis looked at Porthos and d’Artagnan saw something slide between them that could not have been contained by mere words. It was a silent conversation a decade in the making, one that d’Artagnan had no hope in translating, on his best day. Porthos simply nodded once, his eyes looking dangerous in the growing light of the morning.
“Whatever we must,” Aramis replied.
As d’Artagnan waited, forcing himself to stand steady and not waver as his body so wanted to do, Aramis and Porthos armed themselves as best they could with the weapons they’d managed to keep with them on their rescue mission. He saw Porthos pull a fist-sized iron ball, a thick black wick protruding from the top, from a pack on the ground. The big man slipped the bomb into his doublet, resting it atop his weapons belt, then glanced up at d’Artagnan.
“For luck,” he said, the quick grin that crested his mouth stopping just short of his eyes.
“My friends,” Aramis said quietly, drawing their eyes. “We return together, or not at all.”
d’Artagnan nodded, ignoring the sway of his exhausted body, the tremble of his hands. Whatever energy he still had, he would give it over to them. Porthos stepped up next to him, pressing his shoulder gently against d’Artagnan’s as if somehow knowing it was the one way to offer the younger man strength. d’Artagnan drew on that and braced himself to move forward.
As they turned their backs on the peace of the field beyond and headed toward the barn that would haunt d’Artagnan’s dreams for years to come, the sky behind them slipped from red to blue, sunlight cutting through the shadows.
Two Nights Prior
Despite what Athos had claimed as they’d ridden away from the palace after the news of the King and Queen’s heir-to-be, d’Artagnan knew the heartache in Aramis’ eyes was not from a chance encounter with the Mellendorf woman as Athos claimed. Porthos knew as well – and, d’Artagnan suspected, suspected the root cause, though he wasn’t saying. The swarthy man spent an inordinate amount of time keeping a close eye on the marksman, as though afraid if he looked away, Aramis would fade into the melancholy that seemed to track him like a predator.
Aramis covered his pain well, as always. He attended his weapons, he bantered with the men of the garrison, he frequently visited his lady friends. If one wasn’t looking closely, it would appear as though they had survived the ruse with the Cardinal collectively unscathed.
Some, it would seem, better because of it.
Athos’ step was noticeably lighter without the weight of his wife’s sin around his neck. d’Artagnan had even caught his friend smiling on more than one unexpected occasion, especially when teased about the attendance and emotion exhibited at his mock funeral. Porthos, with the exception of maintaining a vigil over his friend’s well-being, was as lustful for life as ever, though he tended to try his luck at a few too many card games for Athos’ liking.
For the sake of the others, especially Athos’ new-found internal peace, d’Artagnan worked to maintain the same sense of contentment – or at the very least emulate Aramis’ skilled performance. If he claimed to be whole long enough and loud enough, then surely it would become his truth. Or so he thought.
Then one day, Aramis saw through the smoke screen that d’Artagnan wasn’t yet skilled enough to maintain.
Perhaps it was because their misery was shared; perhaps because Aramis was simply more astute at identifying problems of the heart. Whatever the reason, nearly two weeks after they’d saved Constance from Anne’s nefarious plot, and after several nights spent trapped in a restless parody of sleep, an attempt was made to rescue d’Artagnan from himself.
Aramis arrived at his quarters and, without a word of invitation, physically hauled the young man out into the courtyard of the garrison and then beyond.
d’Artagnan, for his part, gave not one thought toward protest. He was desperate to release the tension that had been coiled in his gut, hot and sharp like a serpent’s teeth, since Constance had told him goodbye. He’d acknowledged her reasons – his father had raised him to be a gentleman, after all – despite the fact that he didn’t agree with them. The knowledge that she was with that coward, that warden, bound by a prison of vows that offered her no love, no happiness, ate at him a little more each day.
What good was love if honor kept it at bay? What good was feeling anything if acting upon it only damned those for whom his feelings were generated? What good was having a heart if it was only to be broken, splitting him in half and bleeding him out with each exhale?
“Where are we going?”
It was the only thing he’d said to Aramis when the man grabbed him by the front of his doublet and dragged him from his quarters. Instead of answering, Aramis had offered him a rakish smile that turned his eyes to obsidian: black mirrors that gave away nothing. It was a dangerous look, one that d’Artagnan had learned to guard himself against in the year since he’d first met these men.
Aramis was liable to do anything when his eyes held that light.
d’Artagnan followed the older man through the darkening streets of Paris, the smell of the city, the people, permeating the night and pressing against him like a hand at his back, urging him forward. The darkness was cut here and there by a lit street lamp, but the further they traveled, the less light was offered. Before long, he realized where Aramis was leading them: the Barley Mow.
While it fronted as a tavern, serving food and drink, it was really little more than a brothel. Porthos only showed his face when he was in desperate need of a card game. Athos only walked through the doors to haul Porthos out before he got in over his head.
But the moment they stepped through the doors, d’Artagnan realized that Aramis was enough of a regular he was recognized almost immediately. This worked to their advantage; they were seated and had wine in their hands before Aramis had been able to tip his hat. There was something about the air in this place, heavy with the scent of tobacco and some other sweet-smelling substance that turned the room dim and cloudy, which seemed to disconnect d’Artagnan from the cares of the world outside the flimsy wooden door.
“It is in a place such as this,” Aramis said, low enough his words were meant only for d’Artagnan, “that affairs of the heart can be forgotten.”
“I thought you came here for love,” d’Artagnan commented, surprised to find that he had finished his first cup of wine so quickly.
Aramis poured him another from the full, green-glass bottle sitting between them on the table. He shook his head, the edge of his mouth tipped up in a slight grin. “This is not love, my young friend. This is release. Liberation.” He tipped his chin down and leaned forward slightly. “Sex.”
d’Artagnan was glad the shadows in the confined room hid his blush. “I wasn’t aware there was much of a difference.”
Aramis sat back, his eyes slowly roaming the room as though assessing each occupant. “And that is why you sit here next to me, wounded so deeply it’s practically visible.”
d’Artagnan had told them all of Constance’s decision when he’d returned to the garrison that night she’d said goodbye. They’d been sympathetic and quietly supportive, but since then had said not one word about it. He’d assumed they’d thought he had put it behind him, choosing to move forward with his life. It wasn’t until Aramis’ words that he realized he hadn’t fooled them for a moment; they’d simply been waiting for him to bring it up.
Apparently, Aramis was tired of waiting.
“She made her choice.” d’Artagnan’s words came out darker than he honestly intended.
“And now you must make yours,” Aramis said, touching the brim of his glass to the one gripped in d’Artagnan’s hand. “Women are the perfect distraction from the hell we allow to live inside us, feeding on our fears and weaknesses until it becomes such an all-consuming fire it threatens to destroy us entirely.”
d’Artagnan looked at his friend, naked surprise on his face. Aramis often spoke passionately, but rarely were the words so personal. He watched as something played across the man’s features, turning his handsome face and seductive gaze into something frigid and furious.
Aramis had eyes that could carve words into another’s skin; the look in them now, though, could easily cut so deep they would kill.
“What is this new hell of yours, Aramis?” d’Artagnan whispered the question, unable to give too much strength to his voice. “What is going on with you?”
Aramis looked at him and for a moment d’Artagnan couldn’t breathe. The last time he’d seen such raw pain, he’d been looking at Athos the night he pulled the older man from the burning remains of his family home. For a stretch of several heartbeats, Aramis didn’t move, didn’t blink, but then someone across the room dropped a glass and the sound of it shattering broke the spell of the moment.
Blinking slightly, Aramis smiled – an honest, genuine expression – and rested his hand on d’Artagnan’s shoulder.
“We are not here because of my hell,” he said. “We are here because of yours. I know how to manage the balance of my heart. You,” he gripped the tense muscle in d’Artagnan’s shoulder, just above his collar bone, “do not. You may have lost Constance to circumstance, but you still must live.”
d’Artagnan felt his breath catch at the mention of her name. “I am living.”
“You are existing,” Aramis corrected. “You are moving through the motions, erecting a false front, putting on a performance. And doing so quite well, I might add.”
“I learned it from the best,” d’Artagnan jabbed, lifting a brow at his friend. Aramis dropped his hand and sat back. “Isn’t this all a bit ironic coming from you?”
“No,” Aramis replied shortly, his tone matching the serious expression in his eyes. “This is practical.”
“How do you figure that?” d’Artagnan pressed, finishing his second glass and pouring himself a third.
He wanted to be numb, or at least distanced from the pain of Aramis systematically destroying the protective walls he’d built around his heart. He noted that Aramis had yet to finish his first glass; had Athos been with him, they’d be well into their second bottle by now.
Athos was quite accommodating in that respect.
Aramis sat forward, resting his forearms on the table, his fingers clasped around his wine glass. “You may have many loves in your life, d’Artagnan, or you may have just this one.” He sighed noisily, his words carrying a bit. “But if there is anything I’ve learned in the years I’ve been a Musketeer it is that we are not truly meant for love.”
d’Artagnan wondered at the manner in which Aramis had used that word. What it meant to him clearly didn’t align to d’Artagnan’s definition. He found himself wondering what it meant to Athos, to Porthos. Where was the line drawn for these men between desire and devotion? Was it more than the fire, the passion, the need he felt with Constance? Was it more than the escape Aramis sought in a place such as this?
“That can’t be true,” d’Artagnan protested weakly.
He saw two men sitting at a table close to them shift to look their way. One, wearing a garishly red cravat and stroking his pointed beard in an almost leering way, had his eyes directed at Aramis and made d’Artagnan decidedly uncomfortable. He was about to rest his hand on the hilt of his sword in a warning when he realized one of the many women in the tavern was striding their way. The man’s attention shifted from Aramis to the woman walking past him and d’Artagnan relaxed his guard.
“Oh, but it is,” Aramis continued quietly, oblivious of the men. “Take our friend Athos,” he went on. “Love nearly destroyed him when it warred with duty. It spent five years driving him to drink and melancholy and then nearly took his life.”
“One example hardly—“
“Porthos considered leaving the Musketeers for love,” Aramis pressed on. “I bet you didn’t know that.”
d’Artagnan shook his head, surprised.
“But he realized that he could not change the marrow of his bones and chose to remain a soldier.”
“Hang on,” d’Artagnan shook his head, leaning forward, the empty cup hanging from his fingers as he pointed at Aramis. “You have fallen in love more than anyone I’ve ever known. How is it you can say—“
“That is where you are mistaken, my young friend,” Aramis interrupted, his eyes turning rakish once more as he reached out an arm and snagged a pretty blonde, her corset cinched up so tight her breasts all-but spilt over the top.
Her skirt was basically a petticoat and seemed to be torn a bit in the front just below her knees, hanging longer in the back. Aramis swept her up and planted her firmly in his lap as though she weighed little more than a feather.
“It isn’t love that finds me, but a respectful appreciation for the female form and the pleasurable distraction it provides.”
The girl grinned, the curve of her lips wrinkling her nose in a way that Aramis apparently found quite appealing as he slipped a hand to the back of her neck and pulled her mouth to his, kissing her as though she was his first taste of water after a day in the sun. d’Artagnan watched openly, the wine making him slow to recognize his voyeurism.
The girl reached up to grasp Aramis’ shoulders, holding herself steady as he pulled away, both of them taking a moment to gather their breath before Aramis looked back over at d’Artagnan. The girl followed suit, her lips bee-stung, her chin slightly red from the friction of Aramis’ beard, her eyes bright with desire. d’Artagnan swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.
“You are not innocent,” Aramis said quietly, his dark eyes on d’Artagnan. “We all know this.”
d’Artagnan glanced down. He could still not think of her as Anne; that had been the name of Athos’ wife, his love, his betrayer. To d’Artagnan she was simply Milady DeWinter and Aramis was right: seducing him those many months ago had not required a significant amount of effort on her part. Constance had been his first taste of love. Of knowing what it meant to take someone in his arms and give them a piece of himself. Of knowing completeness so true that every day without it he was crippled.
“But if you do not find a way to direct that tension you carry within you like a weapon,” Aramis said, sliding his hand from the girl’s neck to her small waist, bringing her close enough to him she was practically sitting on his hip, “it will become a liability.”
d’Artagnan poured himself more wine. “As will I,” he said, bringing Aramis’ unspoken warning to conclusion.
“This is a very serious conversation for such good looking men to be having,” the blonde spoke up, her voice carrying with is a lilt that caught both their attention. She was not French, but d’Artagnan couldn’t place her accent and it clearly mattered little to Aramis. The man was leaning forward to kiss her once more and only stopped when she pulled back slightly. “Let’s find someone to keep your friend company so we can go elsewhere.”
d’Artagnan felt suddenly nervous. He knew this was exactly why Aramis had brought him here and he also knew it was exactly why he’d willingly followed, but now that the moment was upon him, he didn’t want Aramis to leave, didn’t want to be alone, facing a stranger who would expect…something from him. Not love, clearly. Perhaps not even affection.
But at this point he wasn’t sure he could even generate an appropriate amount of lust.
“Do you have someone in mind?” Aramis asked the blonde, his mouth a breath away from her swollen lips.
“Yes,” she whispered, her eyes fluttering closed, the expression on her face enough to heat d’Artagnan’s belly and make him wonder where Aramis’ other hand had gone. “Isabeau.”
“And is she nearby?”
“Just there,” the blonde nodded to the table of men d’Artagnan had noticed earlier.
A slim brunette in a red dress – one that covered her a bit more than Aramis’ companion’s – stood just out of reach of the men at the table, a look of distaste folding features that had clearly seen more than her share of bawdy, drunken men. She was too weathered to be beautiful, but there was a handsomeness there and something about her eyes caught d’Artagnan’s attention. They were large and blue and absolutely nothing like Constance.
“What is your name, ma chére?” Aramis whispered to the blonde, his voice rough.
“Enora,” she replied.
“Go rescue your friend from those scoundrels, Enora,” Aramis ordered, the hand cupping her face turning his words into an invitation, “and we shall all retire upstairs for the night and forget the world.”
Enora smiled, then slid from Aramis’ lap, causing the older man to suppress a slight groan at her movement. d’Artagnan shot a look at his friend, then over to the women and back. His body was tense – to the point the muscles were nearly quivering. His mouth was dry, his eyes burning. He was not ready for this. Not like this.
“Yes, you are,” Aramis replied, gripping his shoulder once again, dragging d’Artagnan’s eyes up. He hadn’t realized how loudly he was telegraphing his panic. “She is not yours, d’Artagnan. You need to let her go, move on. And this is the best way for you to do so.”
“It’s your way,” d’Artagnan argued. “I don’t know if it’s mine.”
The women approached their table and Aramis sat back, smiling. “You are about to find out, my young friend.”
“Bonsoir,” Isabeau said, her voice a husky contrast to Enora’s light tones. She leaned against the table near d’Artagnan side, then hitched a leg up on the table so that her ankle rested at his thigh, leaning forward and crossing her arms at her bent knee, her position pressing her breasts together in such a way it was nearly impossible for him not to stare. “Enora says you’re looking for me?”
“My friend recently survived a broken heart,” Aramis supplied as d’Artagnan found that he’d completely lost his grasp on basic communication skills. “Is this something you’ve dealt with before?”
Isabeau smiled and d’Artagnan watched in fascination as the expression changed her features from hard and suspicious to yielding and inviting. He felt the corners of his mouth tugging up in an automatic response of their own accord. She reached out a slim finger and gently traced his jaw line, the soft brushing of a beard just beginning to shadow his skin.
“Yes,” she said softly. “Yes, it is.”
Aramis needed no further encouragement. He stood abruptly, sweeping Enora into his arms and turning toward the stairs at the back of the small room. A man stepped in his path, but before d’Artagnan had a chance to worry, Aramis implored Enora to fetch a small leather bag from his doublet and had her toss it to the man, nodding backward toward d’Artagnan.
“For my friend as well.”
The man hefted the pouch, the unmistakable sound of coins clashing within, then moved away. d’Artagnan registered what had transpired, knowing he was now committed to the task and finding himself almost too deep into the wine to even find his feet. Her smile softening as though she recognized his reasons for hesitating, Isabeau reached down and took his hand, stepping away from the table and tugging slightly. He had no choice but to stand and follow her.
As they moved to the stairs and upward, catching sight of Aramis disappearing through a doorway and kicking it closed behind him, d’Artagnan began to actively blank his mind. I am not who I am. I am not what I am.
He was simply someone here with a willing woman, seeking to lose himself in an act that had satiated him time and again. Seeking to forget. Seeking to distract. Seeking to feel.
To allow himself to feel something other than pain or tension or loss or sorrow or anger. Something other than the overwhelming desire to find Constance and take her and let that be the end of it.
Isabeau opened the door to a small room, much like the one he’d stayed in the first night he’d arrived in Paris, where he’d slept with Milady. It smelled of sweat and stale breath and, inexplicably, roses. He imagined she used rosewater to cover up the stench from her previous clients, and appreciated that small attempt to make the room inviting.
He stood at the foot of the bed, feeling the wine sing through his veins as his heart pumped rapidly, fueled by anxiety. Isabeau faced him, her head tilted in curiosity, studying him as she pulled pins from her dark hair and allowed it to fall heavily around her shoulders.
“You remind me of someone I used to know,” she said softly, her gaze traveling up from his boots to linger at his eyes.
d’Artagnan found himself nodding, remembering the person he’d been before Paris, before Constance. Before his heart had rusted and he’d lost himself to only one purpose: the Musketeers.
Without another word – knowing her job well enough to recognize when words were not only unnecessary but problematic – Isabeau stepped forward and worked his weapon’s belt loose, carefully removing the leather and swords, setting them on the floor next to the bed.
d’Artagnan couldn’t help but remember how Constance had torn them from him, minding little about where they’d landed, so desperate had she sought contact, skin, his touch. Isabeau moved close again, her throat exposed to him as she looked up, her blue eyes sweeping his face and something close to sorrow finding itself at home on her face. He ignored it, grasping her waist, feeling her curves under his splayed fingers.
She began to remove his doublet, parting the leather and the white shirt beneath, finding his skin. Her fingers were soft and cool against him. d’Artagnan closed his eyes as she traced his collar bone, slipping up his throat and skimming across his jugular, pausing at his thrumming pulse, then let her thumb push against his bottom lip and, Christ, d’Artagnan thought, Jesus bleedin’ Christ.
He kissed her, his mouth slanting over hers, too hard to be nice – not as he’d kissed Constance all those many times – and felt her hands crawl up into his hair, twisting it enough to hurt just a bit, pulling his lips closer, her tongue slipping between his teeth. She tugged at his hair, her body arching up toward him, seeking contact, but he didn’t want to touch her anywhere else, not yet.
He didn’t want to feel all the ways she wasn’t who he wanted.
Isabeau was skilled, however, and in moments she had him against the end of the bed, a post at the small of his back, the pressure of her lithe body forcing him to shift so that it didn’t bruise. She moved her hands inside his parted doublet, lifting the loose cloth of his shirt and for a moment he lost himself in the way her breathing was so common.
She could be anyone in that moment.
Pressed against him as she was, he could feel the way her supple breasts were firm, easy, soft against the hard lines of his chest. As she maneuvered him to the bed, backing him up until he had no choice but to tumble onto the straw-filled, dusty-smelling mattress, d’Artagnan told himself he wanted this. He wanted her. He wanted to bury himself inside her and lose himself completely.
And then he opened his eyes and he simply stopped. Everything stopped but the slam of his heart and the rasp of their breathing.
“Shit,” he mumbled, trying to push away without hurting her. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“Close them. Close your eyes again,” Isabeau implored. “I can be her. I can be her if you need me to be.”
But she wasn’t and she couldn’t and this might work for Aramis but he was not Aramis and he needed to leave. He needed to leave now.
He elbowed himself back on the bed, away from her curved body. She must have seen something that looked like terror in his eyes because she straightened up and stepped away from the bed, allowing him an escape.
“I’m sorry,” d’Artagnan breathed, gathering up his weapons in a clumsy, sweaty grip. “I’m sorry.”
“Go,” Isabeau sighed, her expression slipping once more to hard and disinterested. “You’ve already bought the night, just go. I’ll join Enora and visit your friend.”
d’Artagnan stumbled out into the hall, feeling chilled and too warm at the same time. His body had responded to her, unable to quite help itself, apparently, but his mind and his heart were stronger than simply carnal lust. Still, it made it quite difficult at first to get himself under control. He paused outside her doorway, leaning back against the wall, sweat gathering his hair against his forehead and neck and tenting his lashes as he closed his eyes, forcing himself to slow his breathing.
In moments, however, he heard the unmistakable sound of pleasure from behind a closed door and realized he was just outside of the room Aramis and Enora had disappeared into. Curling his hand into a fist, he pounded on the door.
“Aramis!” he shouted through the thin cracks. “I am leaving.”
A thud as something was thrown at the door was his only answer and the gasping, throaty cries began to escalate. d’Artagnan turned and charged down the stairs, crashing into the same gate keeper who’d stopped their ascent moments before. d’Artagnan hadn’t taken time to look closely at the man earlier, too distracted by the idea of Isabeau, but the man was huge. He would have dwarfed Porthos, for sure.
“Excuse me, Monsieur,” d’Artagnan mumbled, working to slip around him.
The man planted a hand on d’Artagnan’s chest, easily holding him back. d’Artagnan looked up and realized that the two men who’d been speaking with Isabeau earlier were now staring his way once again. He shifted his attention directly to the man preventing his escape.
“Your charge is quite well, I assure you,” d’Artagnan stated. “I simply have to leave.”
“My…charge?” the man rumbled, a thick, wiry brow arching up. After a moment he let out a deep, mocking chuckle and removed his hand. “Couldn’t get it up, that it?”
d’Artagnan felt no need to justify his departure to a procurer. Fastening his weapon’s belt around his waist, the buckle closing his loosened doublet, he moved around the large man only to find himself stopped by two drawn swords and the men who’d been eyeing their table earlier.
“Where is the other one?” the man with the impressive cravat asked, his accent thick and decidedly not French.
d’Artagnan sighed. “Not that it’s any of your business, but he is otherwise engaged. Now, if you would please stand aside.”
“You are a Musketeer,” the man continued, lowering the point of his blade so that it was close to d’Artagnan’s exposed throat, his eyes going to the pauldron at d’Artagnan’s shoulder.
Realizing that the men had been listening to their conversation for some time before Isabeau had made her presence known, d’Artagnan wasted no time in pulling his own sword, but kept it low, not crossing the other man’s blade.
“Stand aside,” he repeated, his voice low and dangerous. “Before I run you through.”
The pair of them easily outweighed him and were a battle to be waged by hand-to-hand alone, d’Artagnan knew he wouldn’t stand a chance. However, d’Artagnan was the kind of lean muscle with a level of raw energy that served him well in a swordfight; Athos had recognized and honed that skill over the last several months. d’Artagnan regarded the two men with complete confidence that if they engaged him, he would emerge victorious.
Either recognizing this or deciding he wasn’t worth the effort, the men lowered their swords and moved out from in front of the door. Not bothering to glance back, d’Artagnan pushed through the doorway into the muggy night, sheathing his sword the moment he was free of the tavern. The streets were shadowed, the only lights burning on an occasional street corner or in a scattering of windows. The rounds of the night watch were scattered and inconsistent in this part of town.
d’Artagnan could barely see through the gloom of night and moved on pure instinct toward the garrison.
He was a coil of nerves and unsatisfied want. Silently he cursed Aramis and his assumptions. He cursed himself and his inability to release. He cursed Boniceaux for simply existing. He cursed Constance for honoring her vows.
So intent was he on his black thoughts he didn’t see Porthos until he plowed directly into the man, pulling roughly from his grasp as Porthos set him back on his feet.
“Oi! Where’re you off to, then?”
d’Artagnan blinked, looking around, getting a sense of his surroundings. They had collided on a street corner, one lamp burning behind his friend, turning this tiny bit of night a muted gold. He realized he wasn’t near the garrison at all. In fact, he was roughly two steps from Constance’s street.
“My quarters,” he replied, a bit dazed to find himself so close to the Boniceaux home.
“Aramis with you?” Porthos looked past d’Artagnan down the darkened street.
“No,” d’Artagnan shook his head. “He’s back at the Barley Mow. Will probably be there all night.”
Porthos started to grin, but then looked d’Artagnan up and down, taking in his disheveled appearance and less than together attire. “Why aren’t you there?”
d’Artagnan rested his weight on one hip, his palm dropping to the hilt of his sword. Unable to come up with a response, he simply shook his head, looking down the road. The streetlight burned out and cast them into almost complete shadow.
“’e took you with ‘im sos you could ‘ave a brush, yeah?”
“You could say that.”
“Don’t guess it worked too well, then,” Porthos muttered.
“What do you know of it?” d’Artagnan grumbled. His eyes adjusted enough to a night solely lit by starlight he could see Porthos shift his stance, hooking his thumbs in his weapon’s belt.
“Nothin’ ‘cept you’re wound tight enough you could be a fuse.”
Frowning at the big man, though he had no idea if Porthos could even see his expression, d’Artagnan deflected, “Where were you tonight?”
“’ad some unwinding of my own,” Porthos replied, his teeth showing in the gloom as he allowed himself to grin. He tapped his pocket and d’Artagnan heard coins clack against each other. A card game, apparently. Porthos’ primary means of working out whatever tension built inside his enigmatic friend. “What, you didn’t like the wench?”
“The wench was fine,” d’Artagnan signed, his blood beginning to cool from his anger-filled journey. “It’s me. I’m wrong.”
Porthos sighed a bit and d’Artagnan felt him shift closer. “There’s nothin’ wrong with you, lad. Jus’ gotta give it time.” His voice was low, a comforting whisper against the night.
“Aramis said I would become a liability.”
Porthos was quiet a moment and d’Artagnan found himself leaning a bit forward in the dark, seeking a sign that his friend had heard him.
“Aramis means well,” Porthos finally replied. “Remember that. But ‘e sometimes gets…lost in ‘is own escape and ‘e don’t realize it might not work for others.”
“You know what’s going on with him, don’t you?” d’Artagnan asked.
Porthos didn’t reply and d’Artagnan felt him step even closer. He could smell wine on his friend’s breath as he spoke. “C’mon back with me, d’Artagnan. Paris is not a lady at night. Too many trulls about in the dark.”
“I’ll be along in a moment,” d’Artagnan replied, looking back down the street where the Boniceaux house waited.
“You’re certain?” Porthos asked, clearly hesitant to leave him to his own devises. “Athos’ll be lookin’ for you to return. Got early training on the morrow.”
“I’ll be fine, Porthos,” d’Artagnan assured his friend. “I’ll see Athos in the morning.”
For a long moment, Porthos didn’t move. A bellman began to approach from the side street, moving slowly on the stilts that allowed him to reach and relight the street lamps. d’Artagnan remained stubbornly silent until Porthos sighed, his shoulders bowing with recognition that he’d lost this battle.
His posture speaking clearly his feelings on the matter, Porthos began to head slowly back in the direction of the garrison, side-stepping the bellman as a wick was lifted to relight the flame in the lamp above them. d’Artagnan stood still until he knew Porthos was far enough away and then made his way slowly down the street toward the Boniceaux home.
It was a mistake; he knew it was a mistake. His instincts screamed at him to back away, follow Porthos, return to the garrison and his life without her. But he ignored each screech of his conscience.
Once he reached the back lot, he leaned against the tree that stood just a few feet from her back door, looking up toward where he knew her sleeping chamber to be. He hadn’t ventured this way since that day she’d told him goodbye. He’d thought about it each day since, but he’d not allowed himself to get this close.
Which, as it turned out, was a good thing.
Because now that he stood here he wanted to be closer. He wanted to be there. Where she was. And it was probably the wine talking and it was probably mostly the fact that he’d not let Isabeau do her job and it was probably the fact that it was night and everything felt and looked and was different at night…but he allowed want to take over.
He moved toward the house, no clear thought in his mind, no plan, just Constance.
When the door opened, his heart stopped, curling up in his chest. She stepped outside, clad in a loose, white gown, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, her hair free and spilling around her shoulders. She had a basket hooked on one arm and it was clear she intended on being outdoors for only a moment, but then she saw him.
There was five feet between them but it may as well have been an ocean. Her large, dark eyes seemed to drink in whatever pale light was allowed by the moonless sky and he saw the flash of her throat as she worked to bring her breath under control.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered, her voice quivering slightly.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “I—I didn’t mean to come.”
“We can’t…,” she let the basket slip from her arm, stepping forward and allowing the door to shut behind her. “We can’t.”
“I know,” he replied, his voice choked as he worked to keep himself in check, to respect her choice, to control the want. But she was looking at him with starlight in her eyes and her hair was loose and he could smell lavender. “I’m sorry.”
He took a step back, but she moved forward as if connected to him by a taut string of need and he froze. The look on her face was open and desperate and bloody hell, he thought.He knew what she felt like, what she tasted like and goddamn but he wanted that again. Wanted her again.
He’d heard her say his name many times, but not like this. Not with that hitch and that break and that thread of desire slipping through it and Christ it made his blood heat as though she’d touched him. He felt himself shudder.
He didn’t bother asking her please what because if he was wrong, he didn’t deserve to be here and there had never been anything right between them. He stepped forward, not giving either of them time to take a breath, and collected her, nothing but a nightdress hiding her shape from him as her shawl fell to the ground. He captured her mouth against his and it felt right.
d’Artagnan trembled against her, feeling her hands reach up and wrap around his neck, pulling him close as she curved her body flush against him, slipping her fingers into his hair as though they belonged. With one hand he held the back of her head, the other reaching down to circle her narrow waist. A distressed sob slipped around the moan at the back of his throat and he wanted to press her against the wall and take her. There, now. Under cover of night.
“I love you,” she whispered the word desperately against his mouth when he allowed her a moment to breathe. “I love you I love you I—“
He cut her off with another kiss, feeling her tongue in his mouth, her teeth tugging his lower lip closer, her hands at his face, his neck, fingers digging into his flesh as though to anchor herself in some way. d’Artagnan knew he had to step back, now, before he couldn’t release her again.
But damn if he could let her go.
“We can’t,” she sobbed against his lips. “It’s too much.”
“I can’t remember what it was like to breathe before you,” he confessed, his forehead to hers. “I can’t remember who I was before you.”
Pulling her face away, but not releasing him, Constance looked up at him, her eyes searching his. “You were brave and wonderful just as you are now.”
“How do we do this?” he asked her, realizing suddenly that the tears on his face weren’t only from Constance. “How do we not have this?”
Her chin trembled and she pressed her hands to the side of his face. “Carefully,” she replied. “A little more each day.”
“I hate him,” d’Artagnan confessed, his lips curling in a snarl. “I would celebrate his death.”
“You don’t mean that,” Constance shook her head, sniffing. “I know you don’t mean that.”
“How do you know?” d’Artagnan challenged, his brows pulling close as he stared, unable to tear his gaze from her eyes.
“Because I wouldn’t love you so much if you did.”
His face folded, sorrow pulling his lips into a frown, his eyes welling, though the tears held.
“You have the heart of a Musketeer, Charles d’Artagnan,” Constance whispered, stretching up to her toes and pulling his face down to her. She kissed his forehead and as she sank to her heels he caught her and held her in a fierce embrace, his face buried in her hair.
“It’s yours,” he whispered in return. “It will always be yours.”
He stepped back slightly, still unable to completely release her, and let his head fall to her shoulder, his hands at her waist. She pressed her cheek to his ear, her hand at the back of his neck. They stood that way for a heartbeat and then he backed away, slipping into the shadow of the tree cast by the faded starlight. Constance sobbed once, watched him melt from her sight and then with a shuddering breath turned, gathering her shawl but leaving the basket, and stepped back into the house.
The heart of a Musketeer.
A heart not truly meant for love. Duty, honor, brotherhood…but not this. He had made his choice, just as Constance had made hers. He was a Musketeer and he must honor the path life had taken them both down.
He released a tight breath, his lungs feeling battered, his eyes gritty.
It wasn’t right or fair, but d’Artagnan knew that if he was to move past this pain he was going to have to make a decision. Several, in fact. One of them being to not traverse this street unless absolutely necessary. Another was to avoid brothels, even those fronting as taverns, until he was certain he could lose himself in the casual connection as Aramis did.
Taking a moment to steady his breathing and dry his eyes with the back of his hand, d’Artagnan stepped out from the shelter of the tree, his only thought to retreat to the garrison and the safety of his quarters where he knew he could eventually wear himself out training. He never thought to check the cloaked recesses of the buildings around him. He never thought to be on his guard.
It was a mistake for which he would pay dearly.
The blur of motion came at him from the right leaving him only enough time to throw his arms up in surprise and instinctive protection. The blow exploded through his skull and sent him reeling, dazed, to the street. He heard his sword clatter as it hit the stone path and he tried to roll to his back, his movements clumsy and disjointed.
“Quedarse abajo, cachorro!”
The words came at him, foreign and confusing and he tried to push upright when he felt a boot slam into his ribs, lifting him from the ground with the force of the blow and driving the air from his lungs. He choked, coughing for air when another blow caught him across the cheekbone and the world went dark.
He came aware in stuttered glimpses of the world, as though consciousness were the surface of the ocean and he were bobbing within it. The world was faded at the corners, fog-like shadows collecting at the edges of his perception and rolling toward center. Noise splashed around him, disjointed, meaningless.
d’Artagnan would have been happy to simply slip back into the embrace of shadows if fire hadn’t licked down his ribs as something bit into his wrists, tugging his arms forward. He grunted helplessly as his body slapped the unyielding ground, sparking his sense to full awareness. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep his groan in check.
His head throbbed; something sticky and wet plastered his hair uncomfortably to the side of his face and stung his eye. His left eye wouldn’t focus and there was a strange ringing in his ear that seemed to echo off of his jaw bone.
Though he could still feel the chill of night, he could tell he was no longer outside. His jacket was missing; the thin cotton of his shirt rucked up to expose the skin of his back. He was prone, stretched out on some sort of wooden floor, the boards beneath him broad and rough-hewn; straw tickled his nose and poked the side of his face. Cautiously he looked up, realizing suddenly that his hands were bound together at the wrists with strong, thick rope, his arms extended over his head. His pauldron was missing, as were his weapons.
And three sets of boots were at his eye line.
“You have read the Bible, yes?” The voice was low, foreign, the accent thick.
d’Artagnan’s ear was not as attuned to languages as Aramis or Athos. He only knew when it wasn’t French or of Gascony. This man’s accent was neither. When he didn’t answer, one of the booted feet nudged him roughly in his bruised ribs and he flinched, pulling his arms down instinctively.
It was then that he realized they were tied to something, arresting their movement.
“Responder a la pregunta!”
“What?” he gasped, resisting the urge to draw his legs up and protect his side. Spanish, he realized. The man was shouting at him in Spanish. Suddenly he wished he’d paid closer attention when Aramis tried to teach him simple words.
“The Bible! You know it, yes?”
“Yes,” d’Artagnan replied, lifting his head further to get a better view of his surroundings. He felt the weight of a boot at the small of his back.
“The crucifying,” the man continued, his voice returning to the calm, almost conversational tone. “You know how it is they die?”
d’Artagnan began to feel a cold knot of dread curl up in his gut, shivering outward. He didn’t answer, looking over his shoulder, trying unsuccessfully to focus on the man who held him down. The unnatural angle of his neck sent a hot stab of pain through his eye and he was forced to lower his head once more.
“They, how you say…suffocate.”
The word caused d’Artagnan to draw a slow, shallow breath, his forehead against the straw, the foot at his back pressing down harder.
“They hung by their arms,” the man continued, crouching down so that d’Artagnan could feel his breath on the side of his face, his words a poisoned whisper in his ear, “the weight of their bodies too much. Their lungs could not fill. Their hearts could not beat. But it took hours. Days.”
The man reached out and moved d’Artagnan’s hair from the side of his face, then grasped his chin and turned his face upwards, twisting his neck roughly.
“This is what we will do to you.” He saw the man now, the pointed beard, the small eyes, the lavish red cravat. It was one of the men from the tavern.
Should have just run the bastard through.
“J-just,” d’Artagnan suppressed a wince of pain as the other man shifted his weight to press harder against his back. “Just so long as…it’s not drawn out,” he said on an exhale. “Don’t want to suffer.”
The man holding his chin frowned, releasing his face so that it hit the floor. At that, d’Artagnan did groan slightly, unable to bite it back quickly enough. The man spoke in rapid Spanish to his comrades and d’Artagnan felt the foot at the base of his spine release. He was able to take one full breath before he felt hands under his shoulders, dragging him roughly to his feet. He stood, his hands hanging down, weighted by the thick rope, two men flanking him and holding him upright.
“You mock me,” the man growled, stepping up to face d’Artagnan, his breath stale and smelling faintly of curdled milk.
d’Artagnan was surprised to see that the man was shorter than he’d first thought. It hardly mattered, though; the men who held d’Artagnan up, their grip keeping him from doing little more than shifting his feet, towered over him.
“You think you are brave, yes?”
d’Artagnan ignored the question, taking a moment to look around. He was in a barn – an empty one by the smell. No live animals, no heated bodies, nothing he would normally associate with such a structure. Just tall wooden beams and old, moldy straw. Cool night air slipped in from the opened doors at the front and what looked to be a ventilation hatch above the hay loft. A lantern hung from a hook behind the Spaniard, and near the door was a table with two chairs, a cluster of candles spilling wax over the wood in the center of the table.
He could hear only silence outside – no voices, animals, nothing. It was as if Paris existed in another world. The harder he tried to think about where they could have taken him, the more his head hurt.
“I think you are not so brave at the night, though,” the man continued.
Unable to help himself, d’Artagnan arched a brow at his captor. “This is night,” he said, waving his bound hands a bit in front of him. “That’s what they call it when it goes all dark like this.”
A snarl twisting his thin lips, the Spaniard backhanded d’Artagnan with surprising strength, cutting the inside of the young Gascon’s cheek against his teeth and sending his already aching head ringing, his vision slipping in and out of focus. A ring from the man’s hand sliced open d’Artagnan’s cheek just below his eye.
The man issued a command that d’Artagnan didn’t understand, but the tone had the hairs on the back of his neck standing attention. Before he was able to think of an appropriate reaction to the slap, his hands were jerked roughly upwards, a rope fixed to his bindings tossed over the broad cross-beam above them.
One of the two men who’d held him upright pulled the loose end of the rope and d’Artagnan was suddenly stumbling backwards, scrambling for purchase, even as his arms were stretched tightly upright. He had a half second to grab a hasty breath before the man yanked the end of the rope once more, pulling d’Artagnan off his feet completely.
He couldn’t bite back the harsh cry of pain as his shoulders screamed from the weight, the skin on his wrists tearing beneath the coarse coil of rope as his body bounced slightly. He instinctively searched for ground, pointing his toes as much as his boots would allow, but finding only air. The muscles along his sides stretched painfully and as he brought his head up, he realized how difficult it was for him to draw a full breath.
“You see, now, yes?” the Spaniard approached him.
d’Artagnan didn’t reply; he was too busy giving serious thought to spitting in the man’s face.
“You see,” the man nodded. “And now, you will talk.”
“I have…nothing to say,” d’Artagnan gasped.
The man smiled enigmatically. “You will.”
He lobbed words in the direction of the man holding the rope and d’Artagnan felt his body lifted slightly higher before the man tied off the end of the rope, stepping away and leaving d’Artagnan hanging by his wrists. Without another word, the three men walked from the barn, leaving the candles burning, but taking the lantern with them.
d’Artagnan was alone in the semi-darkness of the barn. He dropped his head back, trying to see around him – a ledge, a stall, a bench, a discarded chunk of wood, something he could use as leverage. There was nothing. He may as well have been hanging in the center of a deserted island.
Bringing his head level once more he realized he was beginning to breathe a little too shallowly, his vision graying out. By twisting his hands just so, he found he was able to wrap them around the rope supporting his weight and pull himself upwards just enough to grab a lung full of air before letting himself back down once more.
It wasn’t ideal, but it was something. He could keep that up until his brothers found him. Or until his hands went numb. Or he lost strength in his arms. Whichever came first.
As he stared at the pitch dark beyond the cracked opening of the barn door, he replayed his night, wondering what he’d missed, how he’d ended up in this mess. He’d been foolish, distracted, angry. He should have paid more attention to the men at the tavern. He should have paid more attention to his surroundings when he left the tavern. He should have returned to the garrison with Porthos. He should never have visited Constance—Constance!
No, she was safe. He’d seen her disappear inside her home before the world went dark. Boniceaux – could he have arranged…? But the Spaniard had been at the Barely Mow. How would Boniceaux have known where Aramis had planned on taking him that night?
Aramis! The men had recognized him as a Musketeer; was Aramis also captured, trussed up somewhere, unable to call out?
“Hello?” d’Artagnan tried tentatively, his voice bouncing hollowly off of the dark. “Anyone there?”
Only the muted chirping of frogs greeted his ears. They were near water, then. It was something. He had no idea where they’d taken him. It couldn’t have been far; it was still night, but what he didn’t know of Paris and her outlying areas could fill a book. If Porthos had been with him, the man would mock him for not being able to even hazard a guess as to how far outside of the city he now resided.
If Porthos were here, you wouldn’t be in this mess, d’Artagnan chided himself, pulling up on the rope once more to take a breath.
The big Musketeer was truly a wonder, having gotten himself out of more scrapes in the time since d’Artagnan had met them than he could remember. His swarthy appearance and quick grin both set people on edge and put them at ease. Those who didn’t know him were not always able to determine quite what to make of Porthos, but there was no one else d’Artagnan would want next to him in battle.
Except perhaps Athos.
There were times d’Artagnan had found himself simply watching in wonder as Athos bested man after man as they trained. d’Artagnan was never quite sure if he’d found himself seeking to connect with Athos because he’d initially tried to kill the man and still searched for trust and absolution, or if there was something in the older man’s stoicism that d’Artagnan found familiar, comforting. Much like d’Artagnan’s own father, Athos held himself to a different set of criteria than others, forcing himself to stay just a bit aloof, enough away from the men that he could watch them carefully.
Watch over them. Guard them. He missed the man right now. Missed his steady gaze and calm demeanor. Where most saw coldness, d’Artagnan saw control. Where others saw judgment, d’Artagnan was learning to see caution.
Tugging in another breath, d’Artagnan wondered about the things Athos was always so busy not saying. It was as though whole paragraphs of feeling were held in the man’s eyes, simply waiting for an avenue to reach the surface, but before they could escape, Athos built a wall.
He was an expert craftsmen of internal architecture.
As the gray of dawn crept over the world beyond the barn doors, d’Artagnan mused that Athos was teaching him more than just how to handle a sword. He had learned to shield himself over the last year. If he hadn’t, there would have been no surviving Milady’s coy seduction. However, d’Artagnan was in need of a refresher course if he was to survive in a world where Constance was forever out of reach.
His thirst began to war with his shallow breaths as the gray morning became an overcast day. When the storm rolled in, d’Artagnan felt the clash of thunder in the stretched sinew of his joints, his heart thudding like a panicked bird as he tried to stretch out the time between breaths longer and longer, his arms trembling from the effort and his hands long-since numb.
The candles had burned out at dawn, a river of wax hardening on the table in a faded, yellow smear. Somehow keeping his eyes trained on that lump helped him maintain focus, able to press the fear down low, into his gut, where it couldn’t choke him. When the Spaniard and his two companions walked back into the barn, the rain had stopped and the air in the shadowed space was close and muggy.
“You are still here, I see?” the Spaniard said, chuckling at his own joke.
“Th-thought I’d h-hang around awhile,” d’Artagnan managed, his voice a rasp against the quiet of the barn.
“You must like my company, yes?”
d’Artagnan rested his aching head on the inside of his arm, the pain exacerbated by his position and incredible thirst. As if sensing his particular pain, the small Spaniard pulled out a flask, tossing back a swallow of its contents and smacking his lips in satisfaction. d’Artagnan didn’t even realize that he’d caught his lower lip in his teeth.
“You like this, yes?”
He looked away, not willing to give the man the satisfaction of seeing his need. He missed the visual cue that preceded the hit, and before he was ready or braced for it, the taller of the two men reached up and belted him in the mouth with a large, closed fist, causing his head to snap back painfully, his lip to open and his arms to pull with a white-hot pain that sent his body swaying and senses reeling.
He didn’t even hear himself cry out.
“Hush, now,” the Spaniard soothed, placing a hand on d’Artagnan’s hip to stop his body from swaying.
The feel of the man’s hand on his taut muscles was enough to make d’Artagnan want to cry out once again, and he bit his lip in an effort to stay quiet, the blood gathering in his mouth.
“We will talk now.”
d’Artagnan waited a beat until he could feel the blood sloshing a bit in his mouth, then he spat it at the Spaniard, coating the man’s face with a spray of red. Without flinching, the man curled his hand into a fist, the rings adorning his fingers becoming weapons, as he drove the fist into d’Artagnan’s gut.
This time, he didn’t have air to cry out. The rings hit his bared skin where the loose white shirt skimmed the top of his breeches and he felt something crack inside of him. The pain that rocked through him whited out everything else until the world faded to nothing.
For a brief, wonderful moment, d’Artagnan felt peace.
Fate, however, was not to be that kind and a shock of cold water brought him around, the force of the water’s impact causing his body to swing on his bound wrists. This time the man didn’t stop the motion, letting him swing painfully, his shoulders straining to a breaking point.
“You are awake?” the man asked, peering up at him. “Good. You will tell me where I can find Athos of the King’s Musketeers.”
“Go to Hell.” He barely recognized his own voice. It was low, feral, empty of everything but hate.
The man began to speak rapidly in Spanish and for a moment d’Artagnan thought he was once more giving instructions to his cohorts until he realized the words were being flung his way. The man paced in front of him, waving his arms as though to punctuate a thought or emphasize a word; d’Artagnan could do nothing but stare.
He couldn’t understand a damn thing the man was saying.
After a moment, he tried to pull himself up to grab air when the man who’d raised him aloft in the first place jerked on the rope, causing d’Artagnan to grunt in pain. The Spaniard whirled to face him, his narrow face red with anger, his lips so thinned they disappeared within his neatly-trimmed beard.
“I ask you again! Athos! Where is he?”
“Ask all damn day,” d’Artagnan gasped.
“Do you know what it is to suffocate?” the Spaniard asked, surging forward until his face was close enough d’Artagnan could see where flecks of his blood still splattered the man’s face.
“I’ve…a pretty good…idea.”
“You will panic, your heart pounding,” the Spaniard whispered, his breath hot on d’Artagnan’s skin where the laces of his shirt gaped, exposing his sternum. “Your head will ache so you wish it to…explode.”
Spittle from his lips peppered d’Artagnan’s chest and throat. He didn’t let the man know that he was pretty much already at that point, thanks to whatever they hit him with the night before. He stared at the man, schooling his features and trying for dangerous, but pretty sure he fell somewhere in the neighborhood of terrified.
“Perhaps, if you knew why I seek this man, you would divulge his location.”
“Doubt,” d’Artagnan felt a shudder of pain slip through him, stalling his breath and capturing his voice for a moment, “you wanna buy him…a drink.”
“He killed my sister.”
d’Artagnan remained silent. He wanted the man to take it for denial, but in truth he could no longer draw breath to speak. It was difficult enough to stay conscious.
“He seduced her, bedded her, and in a drunken rage, murdered her.”
The man moved away from d’Artagnan and reached for something that lay in a pile next to the wax-stained table. It took d’Artagnan only a moment to realize that it was his pauldron. If there had been strength in his body he would have growled, but he could barely focus. His heart was slamming wildly, sweat turning his shivering skin clammy, his lips tingling as he gasped, over and over, hungry for air.
The room around him grew dim and from a distance he realized the man was still talking, but he could no longer hear the words. It could have been French, Spanish or even his native Gascon dialect and he wouldn’t have understood him. His head hung low, no fight left in his body.
And then…relief. His feet suddenly rested on a platform of some kind and his arms sagged. Choking on breath, d’Artagnan gasped himself aware, swaying precariously on the bench he now stood upon, his wrists screaming as he wavered enough to pull at the ropes. He dragged in ragged gasps of air, blinking his eyes clear and searching the room for his savior, only to find the narrowed, beady-eyed gaze of the Spaniard.
“You will not die until I allow it.”
d’Artagnan swallowed, feeling true fear for the first time since he’d woken in the barn. This man clearly had no problem taking him to the brink and dragging him back from the edge of peace. His body wept with even this small relief from the pain and trembled from the anticipation of the pain to come.
“Athos. Of the King’s Musketeers,” the man repeated, this time thrusting d’Artagnan’s pauldron in his face so that he could smell the leather and see the shallow strike marks from where his friend’s swords had buffed out the newness on the fleur-dis-lis.
“Fuck you,” d’Artagnan growled.
When the bench was kicked free, d’Artagnan dropped to the end of his rope, and his body screamed. The world spun around him as the muscles along his lean torso began once more to squeeze the air from his lungs. A spike of pain stabbed through his head, making his vision waver.
“You are loyal to this Athos, yes? He is…how you say…your brother-in-arms?” the Spaniard mused, running his fingers lightly over the pauldron. “You have love for your brother, yes? You think he will come for you. Save you.”
d’Artagnan simultaneously yearned for that and feared it. He knew the man saw the desperate hope on his face at the word save. He couldn’t help it, could stop the gasp of longing at the thought of salvation and relief. But Athos could not come for him, not when that was exactly what this man wanted.
“You feel the same for the others, I think. The man you left at the tavern, perhaps?”
Panic gripped d’Artagnan the likes of which he could not recall. “Leave…him….”
“What? You wish he would not see harm, yes?” the man leaned forward once more, so close he blurred in d’Artagnan’s vision. He shoved the pauldron against d’Artagnan’s cheek. “Athos.”
d’Artagnan held his tongue, trying only to keep breathing. It did not take long for the man to grow impatient when he did not speak. Muttering at the other men, he tossed the pauldron back on the pile that d’Artagnan realized now also contained his jacket and weapons, and stormed from the barn, his comrades at his heels.
Alone once more, d’Artagnan tried to pull himself up to grab air and found his arms trembling so violently he was barely able to find even a small amount of relief. As he hung by his wrists, his body shaking, his mind buzzing, a tear slipped from his burning eyes to blend with the blood on his face.
Continued in Part Two