Worth More Than Riches
"A horse is worth more than riches." ~ Spanish proverb
You can tell a lot about a man from looking at his horse, or so Athos had always thought. Porthos tended to scoff at him when he brought up the subject, and Aramis rolled his eyes; though that might have been due mostly to the fact that Athos had to be deep in his cups before the idea occurred to him as a suitable topic of conversation.
Athos' favoured mount was descended from hearty Friesland stock, much more robust than Aramis' hot-blooded Spanish stallion or Porthos' rangy, race-bred gelding. Most who saw the animal and its rider would notice only a dour man on a well-muscled horse with a generous length of mane and tail. Without access to the Musketeer's stable, it was unlikely that a casual observer would notice the twisted scar tissue on the gelding's belly, as well as the right flank, where it was hidden by the edge of the saddle cloth.
The first time Athos saw the horse, another musketeer was dragging it angrily through the garrison's courtyard by the reins. Antoine's cloak was smeared with mud and his face was scraped and dirty, cheeks flushed with high colour.
"This mangy beast is fit only for stew meat!" he snarled. "That's the third time he's thrown me, and I swear it will be the last- I'll have nothing more to do with him! The animal is afraid of his own shadow; no mount for a soldier."
Antoine handed the horse off to Michel, the stable boy, and stalked off with a slight limp, still muttering to himself.
An affinity for challenging horseflesh was one of the few aspects of his childhood at La Fére that had remained with Athos after his transformation from Comte to King's Musketeer... and the animal was a very fine-looking one, for all that it was currently dripping sweat and blowing like a bellows. Giving in to a moment's urge, he followed boy and horse into the stable.
"There, now, Jude," crooned the lad as he loosened the cinch. "You're all right. We'll soon have you sorted, eh?"
He pulled the saddle off, and Athos was surprised by the ugly stretch of hairless scarring that was revealed along the animal's side. He approached the beast for a better look and raised a hand to touch, mindful when it flicked an ear back and flinched, tensing the muscles around the old wound as if to protect it.
Irrational fears and hidden scars, Athos thought, unbidden.
"Sir?" Michel's surprised voice broke into his reverie; the lad nervously juggling the heavy saddle in suddenly awkward arms. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there. What did you need?"
"Tell me about this horse," he replied.
"Old Jude, you mean? Had a rough start, didn't he... the farmer who bred 'im said he was caught in a fire with 'is dam when his barn burned. The mare was lost, but one of the lads pulled the colt out before the roof came down. They didn't know if he'd make it on account of he was so young."
He patted the animal's neck. "He did, though. Grew up into a fine horse. Well, except for... you know..."
"The burn scars, yes, I see," Athos said. "And, of course, the penchant for unseating riders."
"Yeah, that too," Michel said sheepishly.
"Why 'Jude'?" Athos asked. "It seems an odd name for a horse."
"It's for Jude the Apostle," Michel said, looking up at Athos through his fringe. "You know- patron saint of lost causes?"
Indeed, Athos thought.
Aloud, he said, "Tack him up for me tomorrow morning. I will take him out when I go on patrol."
"Yes, sir!" Michel said, nodding and wide-eyed.
Athos inclined his head in acknowledgement before turning and walking away. He paused in the doorway.
"Oh... and he'll need a new name," he said, not looking back.
Jude-who-really-needed-a-new-name was, in fact, afraid of his own shadow. Also flapping cloth, dogs, carriages approaching him from behind, bridges, gunfire, squawking poultry, and- perhaps unsurprisingly- open flames. After the hundredth time or so that day that the animal skittered sideways and attempted to bolt, Aramis stopped giving Athos subtle, sideways looks and stared at him directly.
"You do know that horse dumped Antoine three times in the space of a week, right?" he asked.
Athos shrugged, pointedly ignoring the way that his small movement caused not-Jude to jump in place, resettling his weight evenly over all four legs in readiness for another bolting attempt.
"He's a work in progress," Athos replied, unperturbed.
And indeed, not-Jude had a very particular way of spooking. The initial startle was small, but was followed almost instantaneously with a giant leap sideways, head high and mouth gaping... in expectation of the rider's vicious jerk on the reins, Athos suspected. Fortunately for the animal's abused mouth, Athos was both a naturally low-key individual, and unnaturally unconcerned about the possibility of breaking his neck- which to his mind seemed an appropriate end for himself in the grand scheme of things; perhaps even a restful prospect.
So, each time the horse jerked and spun away from some imagined danger, Athos sat relaxed in the saddle, bringing the gelding back under control with a gentle hand and proceeding as if nothing had happened. By the third day, the spooking had acquired a decidedly half-hearted aspect. By the fifth day, a scare merely precipitated a strong flinch and a few seconds of dancing in place before not-Jude settled.
By the ninth day, he only tensed and flicked an ear back toward his rider when the King's houndsman passed behind him with four baying dogs straining at the leash; willing to accept Athos' judgment and reassurance as to the safety of the situation.
Porthos raised his eyebrows, pulling an impressed face. "Did you switch horses on us when we weren't looking?" he asked.
Athos raised an eyebrow of his own in return, and Aramis laughed.
"Nonsense, he's merely worn the beast down," Aramis said. "The horse finally realised it couldn't get rid of him, so it's given up trying. Same thing he did to us, really, if you think about it."
"And here I thought it was me trying to get rid of you two all this time," Athos replied, dry as dust but with a gleam of humour in his eye. He was rewarded with Porthos' deep rumble of laughter, and allowed the corner of his mouth to curl up slightly in return.
"So, Athos, tell me- does this reformed equine of yours have a name?" asked Aramis.
"It's a work in progress."
That, of course, ended up being an open invitation for Aramis and Porthos to suggest the most ridiculous names they could think of.
"Fifi," offered Porthos.
"Daisy. Or perhaps 'Armand'*," said Aramis, "since he was so bad-tempered at first. There's even a slight resemblance about the face, wouldn't you agree?"
"There's always René**," Athos returned, deadpan, and Aramis glared at him good-naturedly while Porthos laughed.
The little girl who approached the three of them as they stood at parade rest couldn't have been more than nine or ten. The small crowd was quiet and calm as they awaited the Queen's appearance on the balcony above. Aramis and Porthos continued to scan their surroundings for potential threats, freeing Athos to give the young lady his full attention.
"Your horse is very handsome, monsieur," said the child in a sweet, high voice. "May I touch him?"
Athos inclined his head politely, touching the brim of his hat. "You are kind, mademoiselle. Allow him to sniff your hand first, and then you may stroke his forehead."
The girl extended her hand, palm down, and the large beast stretched down to blow snuffling breaths across her fingers. She laughed lightly at the tickling sensation, and reached up to scratch under the leather straps of the bridle, where the sweat made the skin itch. The horse released a deep, hitching sigh and lowered its head even further, closing its eyes with obvious enjoyment.
The child grinned. "He is very gentle," she said. "What is his name?"
Athos paused, caught out, which unfortunately gave Aramis- who had been following developments with occasional covert glances- an opening to jump in.
"Roger, mademoiselle," he said, straight-faced. "His name is Roger the Horse."
Athos heaved an inward sigh, defeated.
"Yes," he agreed after a slightly too-long pause. "Fine. What he said."
Forgive me, my friend, Athos thought silently as his mount trembled violently under him, seemingly frozen in place. I would not ask this of you if it were not absolutely necessary.
The flames roared around them as Athos focused in on a section of wall that was partially collapsed. He dug his heels into the horse's sides, filling his entire being with the unambiguous intention of being on the other side of that burning barrier.
Beneath him, the horse sucked back in fear for a bare instant before gathering himself and plunging forward into the fire. Smouldering timbers gave way beneath the onslaught of hooves, and horse and rider entered the furnace of Hell. Coughing on smoke and the smell of burning hair, Athos searched his surroundings frantically with watering eyes.
With a cry, he jerked the reins sideways and his mount- ears flat back and eyes rolling with fear- stumbled toward the figure half-collapsed against a pile of crates.
Aramis gasped in surprise, choking on smoke and soot as his rescuers materialised in front of him from the haze of heat and flame, but his grasp was sure and strong as Athos offered his arm, swinging the other man up onto the saddle behind him. As soon as Aramis gained a steady grip around his waist, he kicked his horse into a spin, galloping for the same gap through which they had entered.
Wood and stone crashed as the roof collapsed behind them, and Athos did not pull up until they were well away from the flames and the air around them cool and clear of smoke. He felt Aramis slither to the ground in an exhausted heap at the horse's side, and leaned forward against Roger's shaking neck for a moment as the poor animal stood, legs splayed, head hanging down as he snorted and blew.
Gathering himself, Athos dismounted and fell to his knees beside Aramis.
"Are you hurt?" he asked in a hoarse croak.
Aramis shook his head, and Athos felt the tightness in his shoulders ease by a degree.
"Singed only, I think," Aramis said, his voice in no better shape than Athos'. "You?"
"Minor burns as far as I can tell. Though these breeches may never be the same," Athos said, examining the charred stripe of leather across his right thigh.
Both of them turned to the horse at the same moment.
"Is he injured?" Athos asked. He and Aramis started going over the animal, one on each side. Some of the longer hair along the horse's pasterns was singed into short, ragged curls, and half of his tail was burned away. A thin trickle of discharge tracked down from the corners of his eyes like tears, but the skin was not raw or blistered. Sooty snot dripped from the wide nostrils, but the exhausted blowing did not sound overly laboured or wheezy.
"No more than we are, I don't think," said Aramis finally, and the last of Athos' tension bled away, leaving him slightly light-headed. Aramis clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, brother, it doesn't appear that he'll have any new burn scars to add to his collection."
With that pronouncement, Aramis turned and unashamedly embraced the shaggy neck.
"Thank you, my four-legged friend," he said. "And forgive me for ever even suggesting the name 'Armand'."
At that moment, the sound of clattering hooves drew their attention. Roger raised his head and nickered softly as Porthos pulled up next to them and dismounted.
"Thank God!" he exclaimed, giving the two of them a quick once-over before pulling them both into a rough embrace. "When I saw the roof collapse, I feared the worst. Athos, how did you get him out?"
Athos started to speak, but was overcome by a fit of coughing, so it was Aramis who answered. "He rode through a partially collapsed wall like a knight of old on his charger. Most impressive way to make an entrance that I've ever seen!"
Porthos whistled in admiration. "Not many animals out there as would run into a wall of flames on the say-so of a human being. Especially not a beast that had as much reason to fear fire as this one."
He ran a big hand admiringly down Roger's sweaty neck. Roger blew out a sigh and leaned into Porthos' gelding, taking comfort as his familiar herd-mate nuzzled him curiously.
"Now," Aramis said, "if we could only train his rider not to take suicidal risks in a misguided attempt to save our sorry skins..."
Porthos squeezed Athos' shoulder companionably.
"Guess that's still a work in progress, eh?" he said with a grin.
* Cardinal Richelieu's given name is Armand Jean du Plessis.
** Aramis' given name is René d'Herblay, according to Dumas.
A/N: Finally, 30+ years in and around the horse industry ended up being useful for something besides losing large amounts of money. In other news: how this managed not to be crack!fic, I have no idea.