Chapter 26

Half a dozen farm lads, hacking away at the tangle of brambles and nettles that choked the roadside ditch. A gaggle of peasant women, staggering along with laden baskets of vegetables on their way to the market. An elderly herdsman letting the scrawny cattle in his charge wander aĺl over the road. No threats to three armed men on horseback. No sign of Porthos or his escort of Red Guards, no trace of the gang the Calverts had hired to mete out their misdirected vengeance.

Athos rolled his shoulders to ease the tense muscles left by many hours of their fruitless search for Porthos and his guards. Mile after mile of moonlit road had passed without a hint of their quarry. The girl from the Court of Miracles told them that the hired thugs were to attack that night, but now the long shadows of early morning stretched before them on a road crowded with bustling peasants. What little hope he'd nursed in Paris had shrivelled in the sunlight; visions of Porthos, broken and bloody, his vacant eyes dimmed by a cruel death haunted every moment.

On his left, Aramis whispered a fervent prayer, the latest in an unbroken string of appeals for Divine intercession that had begun as soon as they left the garrison. Aramis found it a comfort; but if God heeded the pleas of His faithful to protect their loved ones, Athos had seen little enough evidence of it in his time as a soldier. So many good men cut down in their prime, so many women and children crushed by the pitiless machinations of politicians who never faced the human consequences of their choices.

He had to be strong. For Aramis, who would descend into misery and self-neglect, only dragging himself out of bed to spend hours in prayer and confession. For d'Artagnan, who in spite of everything still believed that there was some justice in the world and would otherwise throw his life away on some pointless quest for restitution. And for Joan, source of all his weakness and folly in this business, who would surely be broken by another death laid at the door of the Circle. It was the same every time—he achieved a brief period of happiness and then others paid the ultimate price for his sins. First Thomas and now Porthos, dead because of his foolish pursuit of a home and family he could never deserve. A better man would offer Joan an honorable escape from their arrangement, a chance at a safer life, far from the poisonous dangers of Paris. He couldn't do it, not now, or ever. From that first moment in Treville's house when she'd accepted him as he was, desired him in spite of his sordid past, doubtful future and wasted fortune, he was lost.

They crested the hill and his horse snorted in relief as it started down the long slope into the next valley. Sweat streaked the black neck, but the horses had been well rested at the start of the journey and should be good for another ten miles at least. Even d'Artagnan wasn't reckless enough to ride hard through the night on the broken surface of the roads that stretched from Paris to the provinces. Athos and his companions had travelled as fast as they dared, but either they had passed Porthos and his escort on the road when their quarry stopped to rest their own mounts, or they had missed the signs in the dark and would find his body on their defeated ride back to the garrison.

"Look!" d'Artagnan sat straighter in his saddle, pointing at the opposite hillside where the road headed up the slope through an untended mass of brambles and rough grazing.

A group of men sat by the road, their horses tethered beside them. Athos tried to make out the details without squinting; d'Artagnan had enough fun mocking his advancing years and failing eyes as it was. A party of travellers that had stopped to share a simple meal and rest their mounts before they continued their journey. Bread, cheese and sausage he supposed, a bottle of wine passed from hand to hand, the common fare of everyone on the road. Three sprawled on cloaks that made a vivid splash of red against the turf, three sat apart, a tall figure in black flanked by two men in red.

Porthos. Alive and well enough to sit unaided, though he must be chained if the guards thought two men sufficient to watch him. Dizzy with relief, Athos didn't try to suppress his smile. No need for an altercation with the Red Guards, tempting though it was. Better to wait for the messenger the Cardinal must have dispatched in response to Treville's ultimatum.

Twenty yards up the hill from Porthos, three men scurried between the gorse bushes, backs bent and heads low. Athos cursed and scanned the hillside. Two more, crouched in a tangle of weeds to the left. Four—no, damn it—five crawling on their bellies down a sheep path that emerged near the Red Guards who lay at ease on the turf. And half-a-dozen hanging back at the crest of the slope, the cowards who had thought better of attacking five of the Cardinal's personal guard when sobriety doused their wine-endowed confidence. The Red Guards, outnumbered two-to-one, at best. Porthos in fetters. Too late. There would be no joyful reunion with Porthos—just a chance to witness his end.

Every peasant and farm animal in the district seemed to have crowded on to the road between him and Porthos. "Out of the way!" Athos bellowed, urging his horse to a gallop. He had to try. Aramis and d'Artagnan kept pace, forcing a path through the mass of cattle, carts and startled people who scrambled to the verges to avoid them. Pandemonium reigned as frightened sheep bolted into the crops and a flock of geese dashed out of danger with an explosive flurry of clipped wings. The Red Guards continued to enjoy their rest, lounging in the early sun with no awareness of the host of attackers who would pounce any moment.

They'd never be heard at this distance. Unless… Athos fumbled for his pistol, hoping that the powder had stayed dry enough through the misty night. The shot, over the heads of the crowd and safely into the empty field, brought cries of fear from the peasants. As he swept past, Athos saw an old woman, her face white with terror, mouth wide with a scream that was inaudible in the din, clutching three small children to her skirts. The Red Guards had no interest in a crowd of simple labourers, no matter how much noise they made, but a gunshot always attracted a soldier's attention. The fellows lying on their cloaks scrambled to their feet, staring at the road. Facing the wrong direction.

"Porthos!", Aramis yelled, his voice almost lost in the tumult of the panic they had created on the road. Athos could barely make out the words so there was no chance Porthos and his guards would hear. "Behind you!" His arm waved frantically, gesturing up the hill in a signal familiar from countless battles. The figure in black began to move just as the attackers launched their ambush.

A gang drawn from taverns by promises of coin, they had no strategy beyond surprise and overwhelming numbers. They rushed the guards, who scrambled to form a tight ring around their prisoner. One of the guards staggered and through a momentary gap in the tangle of struggling figures, Athos glimpsed Porthos, arms raised to ward off a blow with the heavy chain that connected his wrists.

Rage boiled up, clouding his vision as a hot surge of bile rose in his throat. As long as he'd known Porthos, his friend had suffered nightmares born from the stories his mother and her compatriots had told him as a child. Tales of slave ships; men, women and children crammed together in stinking darkness, of whips, starvation, cruelty beyond imagination, and of chains. Always chains. If he had to slaughter every man there with his bare hands, he would do it, if it meant that Porthos wouldn't die in shackles. Athos crouched low over the stallion's neck, driving his heels into the surging flanks.

One of the rabble dropped as blood sprayed from a slash in his throat, but his companions closed ranks and pressed harder. Uphill, two of the stragglers broke and ran for the crest; the others headed down the slope to join the assault.

The gap between the fight and the plunging horses narrowed. A hundred yards, fifty, twenty… They couldn't fight on horseback on this slope and treacherous ground. Ten yards from the struggle, Athos brought his horse to a halt and flung himself from the saddle

He took the first fellow from behind with a thrust to the kidney, the next in the neck before the villains noticed the Musketeers' approach. Perhaps this would end well, if Porthos still lived somewhere in this mayhem.

"Athos!"

At d'Artagnan's shout he half turned and caught the blow of a heavy cavalry sword on his blade, his wrist jarred by the force as metal screeched on metal. His opponent stabbed at his belly with a poniard and Athos stepped back half a pace to avoid the blow. A loose stone turned under his foot and he staggered sideways, then threw himself back to escape an overhand strike at his chest. He landed heavily, with a sickening wrench as his left shoulder struck an outcrop of rock. Broken? No time to investigate. He swallowed the vomit that rushed into his mouth and narrowed his eyes against the black that threatened to overtake his vision; if he faltered now, he was a dead man. He tried to move his arm and a wave of agony that almost brought him to his knees. If anything touched it, he'd likely faint from the to finish this.

The man with the cavalry sword strode forward, an exhilarated grin twisting his features at the thrill of battle. Athos turned to keep his wounded arm out of reach, as he set his feet in a firm stance on the rough ground. The sounds of fighting were quieting now, but he had no chance to check who had the victory. All his focus was on the sword facing his; nothing else mattered. The man surged forward, a massive thrust with all his weight behind it. Athos swayed back out of the point's path as he deflected the blade with his own, letting the the heavier weapon skid off his hilt. The grin slid off the man's face, replaced by a horrified grimace as he lost his balance and stumbled down the hill. The stout leather jerkin he wore offered little resistance as Athos plunged his sword into his enemy's undefended back.

Done. Athos turned and looked up the hill at the aftermath of the skirmish. Three surviving Red Guards stood and stared wild-eyed at Aramis and d'Artagnan. Porthos, his left cheek slick with blood from a cut on his temple, was hemmed in by the Cardinal's men but stood upright with a broad grin for his friends.

"Leave Porthos with us and go back to the Cardinal," said Athos. Years of experience kept his voice steady as he came up the hill. Better to end this part without a fight, and the Red Guards would have no appetite for more bloodshed. If he convinced them that keeping Porthos prisoner would cost them dear, they'd likely give him up.

The two younger Guards looked at the eldest, who straightened his shoulders and raised the point of his blade. "Our orders are to escort the prisoner, not to hand him back to you."

D'Artagnan and Aramis had no obvious wounds. They could take the Guards if they had to, even if he wasn't fit for anything. "The Cardinal's messenger is only a mile or so behind us. You'll meet him on the road. Treville made a bargain for Pothos' release."

"Why should we believe you? You'd say anything to get him back."

True enough, but not relevant. "We'll take him if we have to. You're tired and outnumbered. Don't make it worse for yourself." To his right, Aramis and d'Artagnan prepared themselves to strike. The one on the left was his. Make it fast, stay on his feet, keep his wounded arm protected. He could do this, for Porthos. He straightened his spine and bit back a cry as the movement jostled his shoulder.

"There's three of us, to three of you. Can't you Musketeers count?"

With a gentle clink of rusty links, a heavy chain slid over the man's head and settled against his neck, tight enough to press into the soft flesh below his jaw.

"I make it four on our side," said Porthos. The Red Guards froze. "Now, why don't you put your dead on their horses and ride back to your master? You've got miles to work out how it was all their fault."

"Alright, let me go."

Porthos lifted the chain and the man rushed out of reach. With venomous looks at the Musketeers, the three Red Guards began the grim task of tying their dead comrades to their reluctant mounts.

"Keys," said d'Artagnan. "One of you must have carried them."

The eldest Red Guard spat on the ground and turned his back. The click as Aramis cocked his pistol stopped him in his tracks. "We asked you nicely."

The keys hit the ground and Athos crouched to pick them up. Better for him to do it and leave his uninjured friends free to fight.

Porthos held out his arms. Blood soaked his cuffs and his wrists were swollen and discoloured where the fetters had torn his flesh. Some of the damage was fresh, where Porthos had caught swords with the chain during the fight. Other bruises were older, a silent testament to his bitter struggle against the restraints. The chains fell and Porthos caught Athos in a bone-crushing hug. "Thanks. I knew you'd come."

Don't scream, don't faint. Wait until the Cardinal's dogs have gone. Athos sagged in Porthos' arms and pressed his face into his friend's chest to muffle his agonized swallowed and concentrated on the familiar scent of Porthos—leather, gunpowder, horses and sweat—to steady himself. Porthos stiffened and bowed his head until his beard tickled Athos' ear. "Is it bad?" he murmured

"Just a sprain." It might be true. He hadn't heard a bone snap, and couldn't feel any bleeding.

"That's what you said that time in Calais."

"It's not that bad."

"Good. We almost lost you then, and Joan will have our balls if anything happens to you."

"Only because you've no money to take instead. She got Richelieu for you - there really will be a messenger." Joan's iron-hard certainty about the Cardinal's inevitable capitulation left him no doubt of that.

Porthos chuckled. "All the more reason to keep her sweet. Ah - they're off at last."

Athos turned to see the Red Guards disappear into the crowd of peasants, who eyed the soldiers with sullen resentment as they recovered their scattered goods and runaway livestock. Aramis dropped to his knees and vomited, his shoulders heaving as his fingers dug into the scrubby turf.

"Aramis?" d'Artagnan knelt and placed a tentative hand on his back.

"I'm alright. Hit my head. Better now." Aramis sat up carefully and wiped his pale face with a trembling hand.

"And you didn't think to mention this before?" said d'Artagnan. He took Aramis' hat off and investigated his friend's head with careful fingers.

"Red Guards - didn't want to give them ideas. Ow!"

"That's quite a lump. Can you see straight?"

"I can when you're not poking at it."

"Wonderful," d'Artagnan cocked his head at Athos. "And what's wrong with you?"

"I hurt my arm." No need to tell them more. Between them they could protect his left side on the ride back. Once he got home, he'd seek proper help. Treville's friend d'Angoulême was a doctor with gentle hands who helped more patients than he harmed... Blazing agony radiated from the abused tissue as Porthos ran strong fingers ran up his arm and probed the shoulder joint. "Hells teeth! What are you doing?"

"Your shoulder's out. Hold him for me d'Artagnan."

"D'Artagnan, no! When we get back to Paris…"

"You can't ride back to Paris like that. Anyway, according to you Porthos and I outnumber three Red Guards even when he's in chains, so you've no chance of stopping us." D'Artagnan stepped close and put both arms around Athos, holding him in place.

Athos' protests dissolved into an incoherent scream as Porthos manipulated his arm and restored the joint to its proper position.

"Done now," said Porthos. "There's a coaching inn in that last village we passed. We can get you some brandy and hire me a horse. Come on."

Brandy. Brandy sounded wonderful. After the second bottle he might not feel so bad. Leaning heavily on Porthos, Athos stumbled down the slope to the scrubby gorse thicket where the horses were grazing. A rest at the inn and then back to Paris. On horseback, for all the endless, teeth-rattling miles of this God-forsaken cattle path that claimed to be the King's highway. He hoped the inn had a fine cellar, because he wasn't riding anywhere until he'd drunk most of it.

TMTMTMTM

Every bone and muscle in Athos' body ached, with the constant grinding throb of his shoulder a sharp counterpoint to the steady plod of his horse. The pitiful pace that had been all he and Aramis could stand meant hours on the road, and the brandy from the inn (without doubt the worst thing to pass his lips outside of a siege) had worn off hours ago. The weary beast picked up its pace as the little party rounded the corner and saw the garrison gate and it found a last burst of energy at the prospect of a familiar stable and attentive grooms. The warm golden light of the torches spilled across the street, a glowing promise of soft beds, warm food and laudanum. Joan would be asleep by now, tucked away in a guest chamber with Luc and Clothilde. Best not to disturb her—she'd been tired these last few weeks, working too hard on the letters again. He could peep in from the door and then go to his rest knowing she was safe.

Jubilant shouts greeted them as they clattered into the yard. The stable boys rushed to the horses' heads and Porthos almost disappeared in a crowd of well-wishers as he dismounted. Athos slid out of the saddle, careful not to jog his arm, which was cradled in a sling fashioned from the sorry remains of his shirt. Treville kept laudanum in his office, a few drops in a cup of wine and he might be able to get some sleep.

"Athos!" Slender arms encircled his waist and a warm body pressed against his uninjured side. "I was so worried. What happened?"

He rested his cheek on the tousled brown curls for a moment, then dipped his head further for a gentle kiss. The scent of rosewater washed over him like a balm. "We met the Calverts' ruffians. They won't trouble anyone again."

"Your arm?"

"Dislocated shoulder. Aramis says it will be good as new in a couple of months." Aramis looked better now than he had after the fight. Head wounds were unpredictable, but this one had caused no more than a headache and a tender lump above his friend's right ear once the initial dizziness and nausea had passed.

"You'll rest at home then," she peeped up at him through her lashes, a mischievous smile on her lips. "I'll take care of you."

Oh God yes! Why had he said a couple of months? In the same circumstance, Aramis would have said three at least, four if he fancied his chances. Still, he'd never get a better opportunity than this to broach the subject. "Joan, about our home… Would you like a house of our own? I thought perhaps the one next door to Treville?"

This kiss was anything but gentle. Joan's fingers twined in his hair and her body pressed tight against his. A couple of the men cheered and whistled, but he didn't care, lost in her warmth, her scent, the taste of wine on her lips.

When they finally broke the kiss, Athos smiled down at Joan, watching the flickering torches reflected in her eyes. "It should only take a week or two to arrange. Simenon can hire the servants for us and you can choose whatever furniture and linens you please." She'd wrought such a change in his fortunes he could well afford it.

Joan nibbled her lip and stroked his cheek. "It sounds perfect. Can Simenon hire a nursemaid, or should we ask Constance if she knows someone?" Her eyes searched his face, as though she was anxious about his reaction. A nursemaid? Surely Luc and Clothilde were a little old for…

"You're sure?" If he were uninjured, he'd have swept her into his arms. He settled for tightening his grip on her waist. It didn't show yet, but maybe when she took the dress off...

She nodded. "These last two days, I felt it, the quickening. I was going to tell you, but then Porthos was arrested." The mischievous smile reappeared. "You look pleased. Is it because you want to be a father, or just that you are glad to have been proved right about the settlement?"

"The baby. Our baby. I love you." Carried away in the moment, he moved to embrace her with both arms and stopped short, wincing at a jab of pain.

"I love you too, but I think you should come and lie down before you fall. You look exhausted"

"Treville will want a report," he protested.

"I'm sure d'Artagnan and Porthos can manage." She tugged on his good arm. "Come to bed."

The mark of a good soldier is knowing when to surrender.