What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger
Constance sat bolt upright in bed, her hand pushing instinctively against the warm spot that was her husband, though he was not curled around her as usual. In that unguarded waking moment, she knew herself to be a bit relieved Athos and Sylvie were leaving in the morning. With Porthos returning to the front and Aramis moving to quarters at the palace, she might at last tether her wandering spouse to their own bed. Wherever that ended up being while the garrison was in the process of rebuilding.
As the dead sleep of exhaustion began to lift, though, and her mind to process, the sound came to her like a whispering wind, a low keening underscored by sounds she could not identify. Moon shadows cloaked the small room in darkling patches and Constance rubbed at the sleep sand obscuring her vision, turning her head right, then left, in an effort to identify the strange sound.
Likely she would need to fetch her wandering spouse back from Athos' or Porthos' room, though they were both sleeping with companions these days. Perhaps he'd gone downstairs so as not to wake her with his restless tossing and turning, despite the fact she'd told him, repeatedly, she'd rather he stay in bed and wake her, then disappear.
Or perhaps one of the wounded sleeping below in the tavern had woken in pain. Maybe the sound had roused d'Artagnan and he'd gone to investigate. She scooted to her side of the bed and felt around for flint and steel to light the lamp on the bedside table.
An animalistic howl splintered the air as light speared the darkness. The lamp smashed to the floor, Constance jumping out of bed to stamp out the illegitimate child of the spilled oil with her bare feet, heart in her throat.
d'Artagnan had not left the room.
The space was not large enough to get up any speed, but her slippery feet almost pitched her over her spouse when she rounded the bed and had to grab the covers to keep from sliding into him. d'Artagnan, on his hands and knees, did not pause in his frantic scrabbling at the moonlight spilling over the windowsill to paint a bright patch on the rough wooden floorboard.
Constance stifled an embryonic scream.
"d'Artagnan?" She fell to her knees and grabbed for his hands, only to draw back with a yelp. They were spiked like porcupine quills, chunky splinters protruding from torn and bloody fingernails, sticky crimson trails staining his fingers and palms. He had been down here for some time if the blood was already congealing.
"d'Artagnan!" she tried again, urgently, sinking her fingers into the knotted muscles of his bare shoulders. "Wake up!"
He smacked her hands away as if they were nothing but twigs.
Undaunted, she reached to frame his face, but d'Artagnan jerked away, chuffing what sounded like aramisaramisaramis as he resumed tearing mindlessly at the floorboards.
No nightmare was going to steal her husband from her in this manner. Constance took a moment to reconnoiter as Tréville had taught her to do, her mind touching on each object as she quartered the small room mentally, before scrambling over the bed to hunker down behind her spouse in the narrow space between the bed and wall.
"d'Artagnan," she whispered, as seductively as possible given her breath was whistling through her throat like wind in a dry well, and beat back the panic fueling her racing heartbeat. "I need you." She rubbed sensuously against his back, sliding her hands up into his dripping hair, kneading the back of his skull as she cradled her hips against the backs of his powerful thighs. "Come back to me, my love."
His hands stilled, and then his head turned over his shoulder. Without warning he reared back with a guttural screech, slamming her against the wall.
Constance saw stars.
Next door, Athos sat bolt upright in bed, too, every nerve in his body twitching with terror, the darkness reverberating tensely with whatever had woken him. Beside him, Sylvie sat up as well, drawing the sheet up over her chest.
"What?" She put a hand out, but he was out of bed already, snatching up clothes with unerring accuracy even in the dark.
It came again; the sound of a frantic, wounded animal sluicing the night with its pain.
"That's d'Artagnan." Sylvie was pulling her nightgown back on even as she slid out of the bed, striking a spark to light a carrying candle.
Athos knew exactly what that sound meant and rather thought he should have been prepared for it. Cursing his preoccupation with Grimaud, he dragged on his britches and followed his flitting wife out the door of Christophe's room. The next door on the hallway slammed back on its hinges with a crash to wake the entire tavern, if by some chance someone had slept through d'Artagnan's bloodcurdling screams.
Porthos, only a step behind, elbowed past Sylvie.
The moon shadows shrank back as she held up her candle, revealing Porthos and d'Artagnan knee to knee on the floor between the bed and the window, blood dripping onto the wooden floorboards between them. d'Artagnan's lifted, bloody wrists were clasped in Porthos' big hands, his shoulders wrenched back like a captured wild thing, eyes glazed and feral, every muscle rigid with resistance.
Athos was over the bed in a leap and a bound, hands flowing over the flesh and bone of the silent, crumpled body at the base of the wall. "Nothing broken," he reported, blowing out a breath as he scooped Constance into his arms.
"Oh thank God!" Sylvie breathed through the hand clamped over her mouth to hold back the vocalization of her horror.
Light flared brighter as Elodie, holding her wrapper closed with one hand and a lamp lifted high in the other, paused on the threshold.
"OUT!" Porthos roared, attempting, unsuccessfully, to keep d'Artagnan from head butting him. "EVERYBODY OUT!"
"Holy Mother, what's happened here?" When no one else jumped to obey her new husband's command, Elodie stepped into the room, accidentally kicking the fallen lamp so it skittered across the floor to bang against the low chest of drawers across from the foot of the bed. "Is Constance hurt?"
"Fine," Constance muttered blearily, though consciousness yet walked a fine line. "'m'fine, not hu-rt," she mumbled, smacking Athos' chin with her head as she tried to get her feet under her. He rose, lifting her with him, keeping his arms around her as she swayed.
"What's wrong with him?" Constance demanded, her quavering voice rising half an octave as lucidity gained a better foothold. "Why can't I wake him?"
"He'll be alright, I promise." Athos turned her in his arms, carefully cradling the back of her head so her face lay against his heaving chest, away from the sight of her apparently deranged husband. Porthos had given up trying to move d'Artagnan off the floor, though he'd clamped the youth's wrists in one hand in order to dodge d'Artagnan's mindless attempts to throw himself at his captor.
"Oh God, Athos, I can't take this too." Constance folded as if her knees had buckled.
Athos tightened his hold. "Easy now ... easy ... easy." He stroked her hair, deliberately calming his own breath in an attempt to diminish her panic, though he was not too far behind her in that department. Their plans were set, he could not now, at this late date, tell Sylvie they could not embark upon their planned journey. But neither could both he and Porthos up and leave d'Artagnan in this state. Sometimes it took days to bring him around from this particular nightmare.
"I'm ssssss... sorrrrrry ..." Constance stuttered, as tears erupted. The ex-lady-in-waiting-to-the-queen had had to pull herself together over and over again over the last four years, most especially over the last three days, and yet again after her own close brush with the Hand of Death. She could not pull back from the edge as fear and fatigue blasted through all her carefully constructed barriers.
Waking to find her spouse descended into madness was the proverbial last straw.
"You're entitled," Athos said, as he hefted her into his arms to knee-crawl back across the bed. Porthos was not moving d'Artagnan without help and they needed the room cleared to have enough space to maneuver. "But I need you to do this somewhere else so we can take care of d'Artagnan." He put just a touch of command into both tone and words, making his voice sympathetically brusque as he put her on her feet beside Sylvie.
"Elodie, take the candle; leave the lamp."
Constance found her feet moving against her will, Sylvie's arm around her shoulders, Elodie's hand on her other elbow, the pair drawing her wil-you-nil-you out of the room. d'Artagnan's harsh, animal panting followed her down the hall even when her mind told her it was no longer physically possible to hear.
She eluded her companions simply by dropping like a stone to her fundament at the top of the stairs, the tears, now that they'd escaped, soaking her nightdress as Constance slumped to bury her face in her knees.
"Budge up," Sylvie prodded, sandwiching Constance in the middle as Elodie, still silent, sat down on the other side.
"I may be new to this particular scenario," Elodie said quietly, tipping the candle to pour out enough wax to seat it in the middle of the stair below them. "But trust me, the scenario is not new to me. I watched d'Artagnan and Porthos with Athos back in our little forest village, they were like a pair of mother bears dragging him back from the poison and the infection in that shoulder wound. They'll bring d'Artagnan back too."
"Poison?" Sylvie echoed.
"Infection?" Constance sobbed. "Of course it became infected. MEN!" Her sobs increased in volume as her rather vivid imagination instantly began producing reasons for her husband's madness.
Brujon peered hesitantly around the corner. "Uhmmmm ... everything alright, Madame d'Artagnan?"
"Uhhhhhh..." Elodie leapt into the breach, though awkwardly, "A mouse-"
"Nightmare," Sylvie abrogated, repressing an inelegant snort at the thought of the Queen's Musketeer falling apart over a mouse. "Nothing to worry about. We're all fine, but since you're up, we could use a little brandy, and mugs, too, please. Much more lady-like than swigging from the bottle, don't you think?"
Brujon made no attempt to hide his surprise. "Uhmmmm," he said again, with obvious reluctance, "some tea with the brandy?"
"Thank you, no; just bring the decanter from behind the bar. I'll square it with Christophe in the morning."
"Yes ma'am." Brujon's frown disappeared from view.
It was still firmly in place when his head popped back around the corner.
"Please tell the others everything's under control, no need for further reinforcements."
"Right, I will do that." Brujon and his skeptical frown retreated.
"See," Sylvie said practically, "men are occasionally good for one or two things. Besides frightening us to death." She stroked her hand up and down Constance's backbone. "They ..." She paused to consider. "Well, they ... I'm sure..."
"Porthos delivered my baby," Elodie offered. "Right in the middle of a battle with a crazed batch of deserters intent on taking back the gold we stole from them."
"Gold?" Sylvie glanced at their companion with considerably more respect that she'd managed to summon thus far. The ethereal female looked more like a fey faery princess with her frothy golden curls and tiny frame, than a woman of substance, though Porthos had indicated Elodie was a fine archer. "You speak of infection, poison, stolen gold and deserters practically in one breath, as though all these things were common occurrences!"
"You stole their gold?" This was enough to stop Constance's sobs mid-hiccup. "You stole their gold, then got into a battle with deserters over it?" She turned her face to stare incredulously at this new sister. She'd done some crazy things in the last four years, not the least of which had been inveigling the War Minister to participate in one of her mad revenge plots on the Red Guard. She had occasionally had to employ d'Artagnan's old sword and pistol, but stolen gold and rabid deserters were beyond her experience.
"Well, we didn't actually steal it per se, we ran across it while searching the forest for an amenable place to set up camp. No one was there to claim it, we considered it finders keepers. Used it to buy what we couldn't makeshift for ourselves."
Sylvie read Elodie's eloquent shrug for the sloughing off it was. The blonde-tressed archeress was clearly far more than the sum of her parts, frothy curls notwithstanding.
Typically, the men had not spoken of their trip to Epesse. Athos had returned grim-eyed and pale as a ghost, but upright and functioning, despite the black sling he'd been wearing on their return. Sylvie had stopped questioning when the shaggy head had swung around bearing the mien of Athos the Unreadable, and threaded an arm through his elbow to hold him in place as he'd turned to stalk away. Then soothed the savage beast with breath-stealing kisses, to which he'd surrendered, though he'd given only part of himself to the diversion. She'd known his mind had been far away.
"Will you tell us about Epesse? We did not know Athos had been poisoned, was d'Artagnan injured also?"
"No, no. No one else sustained injury and if not for your men, and Porthos, we might have fallen victim to the deserters, but the Musketeers fought right alongside us. While our village was very self-sufficient, I'm sure their assistance saved many lives."
Constance sat up. "How was Athos poisoned?"
"You must understand we were women without protection and some of us ... well, some of us were fiercer than others." Elodie leaned her head against the wall. "The Musketeers came hunting a man named Grimaud, but there had been no male other than Bastian in the camp for well over a month. We'd found him injured in the forest and allowed him to stay because we thought he was harmless. Turned out he was one of the deserters, but that's another story. Athos was ... I don't know ... suspicious, or at least more suspicious than the others. He kept asking and asking if we'd seen this man Grimaud and watching for the answers. Finally, Therese broke down and said she'd seen a man in a cabin in the forest some little distance from the camp. Athos was insistent-"
"Ladies?" Aramis, hat in hand, appeared at the bottom of the stairs, startling the trio. "What a sight the three of you are." He bowed, clasping the hat to his heart. "May I ask why you are occupying the stairs at this advanced hour of the night?"
"Are you just coming in?" Constance demanded, swiftly gathering her composure as she wiped away tears with the back of her hand.
"Not that it's any of your concern, Madame d'Artagnan, but yes. Why are you crying?" Aramis felt that prickle of premonition he'd inherited from his mother. "What's wrong? Did something happen to our war hero?" The hat was on his head and he was up the stairs in three quick hops, stepping around the candle and over the women with his long legs.
Sylvie caught him by a boot, nearly tripping him before he splayed a hand against the wall to catch his balance. "You can't go in there; they kicked us out."
Aramis opened his mouth. And closed it again. "I'll just see if I can ... lend a hand."
"He was calling for you, I think; at least, it sounded like he was repeating your name over and over. Though I can't think why." Constance grimaced. "Maybe you'd better go in."
Aramis tapped and entered without waiting for a response, closing the door behind himself as he heard the ladies greet Brujon, apparently returning with libations. "What the hell happened?" He was across the room in two long steps.
"Nightmare." Delivered through Athos' clenched teeth.
Between them, they had managed to relocate d'Artagnan from the floor to the foot of the bed, though d'Artagnan had fought like a wild thing. His wrists were manacled between Athos and Porthos now, both struggling to hold on to their crazed companion. Every muscle and tendon across the ripped chest and abdomen was engaged, biceps bulging as the youth struggled without volition to free his hands, all the while repeating in a low, insistent drone ... aramisaramisaramisaramis...
And then, suddenly, the resistance was gone, in the middle of an ara...d'Artagnan's eyes rolled back in his head, the rigid muscles went slack and he was limp as wet laundry between the pair of war heroes.
They'd been prepared for it apparently. Porthos scooped up the suddenly pliant body, Athos rose, quickly straightened, then flipped back, the tangled sheet and blanket, waited as Porthos inserted their youngest between the bedclothes, then retrieved the bloody wrists while Porthos drew the linens back up.
This was not the first time they'd practiced the maneuver, Aramis guessed. "What's this got do with me?"
"Good question. Porthos and I would like to know the answer to that as well." Athos sat down on the side of the bed, keeping hold of d'Artagnan's hands. Porthos began ransacking the room for the emergency supplies Constance always kept close at hand.
Aramis tentatively sat down opposite Athos. "Merciful Mother, he's practically cold enough to burn." He'd leaned forward to touch d'Artagnan's face and almost yanked his hand back at the contact.
"Yes, and likely in a few minutes he will be hot enough to burn." d'Artagnan's body seemed to cycle rapidly through repeated stages of cold and hot every time he fell into this hellhole of a nightmare. They assumed it was because he was reliving the four days he had been missing, in microcosm, though d'Artagnan never spoke of this dream. Daytime temperatures had soared into sweltering, then dropped sometimes as much as thirty degrees at night.
"What happened to his hands?"
Porthos turned back to the bed, lips twitching into a scowl. "Tonight it was the floorboards. Sometimes it's the walls?"
"Christ." Aramis peered at the bloody hands before raising an eyebrow at Athos.
Athos experienced a rare moment of dithering. He was used to making quick decisions and snapping off subsequent orders in the heat of battle. This was different - a battle, yes - but one he had no command over. He and Porthos would stand shoulder to shoulder with d'Artagnan while he fought, but it had been evident from the first time this had happened, only d'Artagnan could break the cycle and free himself.
It was Porthos who answered again, over his shoulder, as he resumed his depredations upon the room. "We think it's 'cause he's ... tryin' to get out."
"Out of what?" Aramis reached over to appropriate d'Artagnan's hands.
Athos let him, reluctantly, and without answering the question.
"d'Artagnan?" Pitching his voice to soothing, Aramis stacked the torn, scraped hands and began to chafe them between his own, carefully avoiding the jutting splinters. "Can you hear me? I'm right here. We're in Christophe's inn. Everyone's safe. Constance is fine, you saved her life." He glanced helplessly at Athos. "Stabbing in the dark here. A little guidance would be helpful.
Athos, equally powerless, could only shrug. "He's locked in the nightmare that was Roncesvalles. We have no idea why he calls for you, though every time this happens, he repeats your name like it's a mantra."
"What happened at Roncesvalles?" Aramis' head swiveled between Athos and Porthos, who had returned to the bed carrying the bathing basin and a strip of soft cloth. Both of them looked away. "While the two of you vacillate," he snapped, "d'Artagnan is losing ground. What happened at Roncesvalles?"
"We were captured, but not together." Porthos responded instinctively to that tone. "It got ... complicated."
"He was tortured?"
"In a manner of speaking," Athos supplied woodenly.
The hot Spanish sun beat down punishingly, parching his throat and making speech difficult. He shook his head, squelching the insane need to shout for Porthos, standing right in front of Aramis on the other side of the bed, though in his mind a gauzy haze of smoke and ash separated them. He was back in Spain, watching the carrion crows circling on an updraft even before the stench had reached him on the back of a valley breeze.
If the memories were still so vivid for him, what must they be like in d'Artagnan's nightmares?
d'Artagnan's eyelids twitched and a low moan preceded another round of droning. "Araaaaaaaamissssssssss ... Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr...misssssssssss
Aramis turned the tanned face toward him and shoved his fingers through the sweat-soaked dark hair, leaning down so he could press his cheek against d'Artagnan's cold face. "I'm right here, pup, right here. Can you feel my face against yours?"
"Aramissssssssss ..." Followed by a panting cry as d'Artagnan surged off the bed. "Can't do this! NO! Don't leave me!" And then he was gone again, the contorted features melting into blank and slack, blood trickling from the side of his mouth where he'd bitten his lip.
Goosebumps rose all along Aramis' arms, his spine tingling. He knew this plea, had heard this cry before - in his own nightmares. He remembered it vividly. In the dream, he'd briefly felt d'Artagnan's physical presence standing next to him, waves of terror pouring off the youthful Musketeer. He'd woken in a cold sweat, rolled off his thin mattress to his knees and spent the rest of the night in prayer for his three friends, but mostly for d'Artagnan. Begging God to spare their lives, end the war, and return them home safe and sound, even if he never saw them again.
He had been agitated for four long days, unable to focus on his work, spending countless hours in the chapel in exhortation before the alter. The abbot had assigned more hours on his knees in penance when Aramis had had to confess the sin of not letting go of his former life - yet again. He'd been grateful for the gift of atonement, spending the extra time sharing the fullness of his heart with God, for peace had enveloped him on the fifth night after his nightmare, like one of Porthos' bear hugs. He'd known for certain some of his prayers had been answered, that all of them were safe, and d'Artagnan had been reunited with his brothers.
Aramis shuddered. "What did they do to him?" It was a much plea as command. "Was he raped?" the marksman rasped out.
"No. At least not physically - or not that he told us." Athos' jaw clenched so tight Aramis could hear teeth grinding. "But ... "
"For God's sake, Athos, stop being coy! What the hell happened?! "
Porthos shuffled his feet. "Not our story to tell. d'Artagnan asked us not to 'n we agreed."
"You think he'd rather die trapped in a nightmare?"
"Die?" Athos and Porthos said in startled unison.
"Nah." Porthos regrouped first. "He comes back eventually, it just takes awhile."
"Wandering the astral plane is not safe," Aramis pointed out dryly. "Even for a seasoned traveler. And he's out there alone."
"What?" Athos demanded, instantly grasping the implication.
"Oh no." Porthos' comprehension was only a second behind. "You're not goin' out there too. If that's really the case, we could lose both of you!"
"Not your choice - either of you. Nor can you do it for him."
"Porthos is right, he's come around the others times this has happened. Two of you out traveling the astral plane will be even more dangerous."
"Does it continue to take longer and longer to rouse him?"
"Yeess," Athos admitted grudgingly. "But let's give it some time, we'll tell you what happened."
"Yes, you will, when d'Artagnan is back in his body."
"No!" Athos said sharply.
"I've done this once before, though not purposely, and it involved d'Artagnan. At a guess - exactly when whatever happened that caused these nightmares."
"Whatta' ya need us to?" Porthos cut Athos off. "We're not stopping 'im, best do whatever he says so nothin' happens to either of them."
Athos bared his teeth, but acquiesced. "This is why you are my penance," he growled, though he was more panicked than angry at the moment. "See that you both get back here safely."
Athos slid up the bed to haul the puppy across his lap so he cradled d'Artagnan's upper body.
"Be careful," Porthos admonished as the marksman closed his eyes.
Aramis, with his internal vision, saw the cord immediately, a thin, wavering line tethering d'Artagnan to his physical body, but the glow of it was that of a firefly blinking irregularly. The healer touched it lightly, sending a bit of his own life force ahead of him, both to bolster the thread and alert the puppy Aramis was on his way to fetch him home.
Porthos bit back a yelp, when, beneath the closed eyelids, he saw Aramis' eyes roll back in his head. Water sloshed everywhere as he dropped the basin to grab their former healer, sliding around behind to wedge a knee up against Aramis' back.
Athos bent forward, putting his lips right next to d'Artagnan's ear. "It's time to come back," he whispered urgently. "God is not yet ready for your particular brand of impudence, He still has things for you to do here in your body. Come back now, Porthos is here too, and Constance still needs you. We will fight this thing together, but you must come back to us, d'Artagnan."
Once, long ago, d'Artagnan had done the same for him, when Athos had contracted a deadly illness. The young Musketeer's persistent voice had nagged back into his body as he'd been contemplating walking into that beckoning pool of light.
Athos kept up a steady stream, his words flowing like water from the rock, even after Porthos announced with quiet glee. "He's got 'im, they're both comin' around."
Porthos had felt the ebb of life force trickling from Aramis' frame, now he could feel it slowly returning as he watched d'Artagnan's hands begin to twitch inside Aramis' hold.
Athos had no idea if it had been seconds or minutes or hours, the ribbon of time had shredded the moment he'd felt the rush of life force into d'Artagnan, now he felt the cold, pale skin next to his lips begin to warm and eventually sat up to watch the slow flush of color return. "Don't. Ever. Do. That. Again." He sucked in air as if some supernatural phenomena had sucked it all out of the room.
"Hallelujah!" Porthos shouted quietly, least his jubilation bring the rest of the garrison at a run, sliding back as Aramis shook himself like a wet dog. As it was, the door slammed back against the wall again and Constance threw herself into the mix.
It took a moment to untangle the assortment of entwined limbs this caused. Athos yielded d'Artagnan's still pliant body to his wife, though he did not move from his place on the bed. Constance hung on, gibbering her relief in her husband's neck, as d'Artagnan tried to fit back into the unfamiliar constraints of his physical body, and Aramis slid to the foot of the bed, noting Porthos' relieved grin as he rose.
Porthos stepped over the empty basin to join Aramis, jostling him with a shoulder as he hooted softly, "As good as Grandier! Thank you!" He engulfed Aramis in one of those much-missed, side-armed bear hugs. "So damn glad you're back where ya belong!"
Aramis didn't bother ducking the great smacking kiss Porthos bestowed on his forehead. He was grateful to be back where he belonged as well.
Sylvie and Elodie hovered in the doorway uncertainly.
d'Artagnan, weak as a newborn pup, allowed Athos to help him sit up. He did not have the strength to draw Constance up with him, so she slid down his slippery chest until her cheek lay against his flat abdomen. Her arms clamped around that lean waist with enough strength for both of them, her silent tears - of gratitude now - sliding down his sweat-slick belly.
"Food." Athos did not direct it as a command, rather, it was a general comment, as he watched d'Artagnan like a hawk, worried the youth might slide back into that hellhole if they could not secure him in the present.
"You okay?" Aramis touched the trembling legs beneath the blanket.
d'Artagnan tried to nod, his teeth chattering too hard to speak, but the bob sent a shaft of pain blazing through his skull like a meteor in full flight. "Stay," he bit out, lifting a shaky hand to cram his knuckles into his right eye, bloodying half his face. He was still too caught up in the horror of the nightmare to be ashamed of the naked need he could not begin to curb. Oblivious to blood and splinters, he slid his other arm around his wife shoulders, so their individual tremors became shared shivers.
"Now there's a command nobody is going to contest this morning. Sylvie, some warm water and towels would be most helpful." Aramis usurped authority since both Athos and Porthos were still looking nearly as shell-shocked as d'Artagnan. "Elodie, could you put together some cheese and bread?" Aramis, with his second sight, could see cobwebs of the dream still clinging to the youthful soul.
Sylvie collected the upside down washbasin, barely avoiding jamming herself in the doorway with Elodie as they left the room together.
"I am very sorry, d'Artagnan." It was Athos who broke the first well of silence that engulfed the room. "I've been so busy getting ready to leave, I left you to battle this yourself when I saw the signs creeping up."
Constance hitched herself up, scowling through her tears. "You knew this might happen and you didn't think to warn me? Really?!" She pounced across d'Artagnan, clouting Athos upside the head, the softly shrieked repetition delivered through clenched teeth, "You didn't even think to warn me!"
Athos made no attempt to block or evade the blow, his head snapping on his neck with the force of it. "I'm sorry," he said again, sorrow and shame coloring his voice."It was completely and unforgivably thoughtless on my part."
"Not ... your ... fault." d'Artagnan rested his cheek briefly on Athos' shoulder.
Constance wanted to shriek again, at full volume. That she'd been the one who'd woken to his demented demeanor, her he'd slammed against the wall, she was the one who'd been there for him - despite the fact she'd been unable to help him. Though neither had Athos. It had been Aramis who'd managed to wedge himself back into the inner circle, damn his handsome hide. She was fifty shades of envy fueled by terror mixed with a healthy dose of pissed off - that her husband had turned, again, to Athos.
She settled for shooting a sniffy, squint-eyed, we'll-settle-up-later look at Athos and shifted so she could lay her head on her husband's shoulder.
d'Artagnan was still too unsettled to notice.
The Roncesvalles memories lived like sun-cast shadows, always in the back of his mind, though he had learned to ward them off himself under normal circumstances. The loss of Tréville, the inhumanity of Grimaud's 'present' - the old woman's body sprawled at the entrance of the garrison tunnel - followed by the loss of the garrison and so many of their comrades, had loosed those shadows to stalk him again. Only the constant necessity of countering the rapidly unfolding events had kept them from eclipsing his mind. Digging Clairmont's grave had released them to circle like vultures over a pit of dead bodies painstakingly arranged to appear alive, though abandoned to rot under the blazing Spanish sun.
Knowing sleep would break the last bonds holding them in check, d'Artagnan had made every effort to avoid it, until exhaustion had finally claimed him. Once entangled, he'd been unable to free himself from the sticky web of the Roncesvalles legacy.
Sylvie and Elodie returned together, Sylvie with a basket over one arm, bearing the last of their meager supply of medicinals and bandages, carrying the basin of water and towels over the other arm. Elodie had a heavy tray with quickly warmed stew and hearty bread and cheese, in addition to several mugs threaded through the fingers of her right hand.
"We'll have to share," she announced as she set the tray down on top of a bookcase and drew a bottle of wine from her sagging apron pocket.
"A little wine," Athos asked, holding out a hand as he tacked on a belated, "please. And some of the bread." He tore the bread into small pieces, putting them into the wine before handing the mug and soaked bread to Constance. "We found it's the only thing that stays down to begin with."
Aramis motioned Athos up and reached across to take the basket from Sylvie, then the basin, setting both by his feet. He sat again as Athos took his place beside Porthos, standing at the foot of the bed.
"Will you let me clean up your hands?" Aramis made no move to take them, only waited as d'Artagnan gave his hands - and the bloody fingerprints all over his wife's nightgown - a cursory inspection.
"Constance, you might want to go change," Aramis suggested quietly. "Normalcy will go a long way to grounding in the present."
Constance fed the last bit of soaked bread to her compliant spouse who closed his eyes and sank back against the headboard. "It will be dawn soon, I'll go get dressed," she said, excepting Sylvie's helping hand up.
"I'll just go ... help. In fact, I think we'll get food going to break our fast." Elodie whisked herself to the door after the two women. "I will keep them both occupied until you're done here." She shut the door on her unspoken proposition, leaving her intentions hanging in the candlelit darkness.
Athos studied the door rather than watch the proceedings on the bed. "She's right. This is not a tale the women need to hear, they have enough to bear already."
"They might see it differently," Aramis noted without disagreeing, as he carefully scooped up d'Artagnan's left hand. "Do you still keep your parrying dagger honed enough to splice a hair?"
"They might," Athos acknowledged, turning to hunt for d'Artagnan's knife, "though they don't deserve to live this too; the telling alone will be enough to induce chimeras. I'd have to go back to our room to find mine." He found it on the dresser and handed it over, crossing his arms over his chest to still his twitching hands. He always felt incredibly helpless in the aftermath of these events.
"Not like any of 'em are squeamish," Porthos said, mirroring Athos' pose.
"Fine, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Athos closed the debate with an air of command, moving to take Constance's place on the bed. He took up the abandoned mug and soaked some more bread as Aramis began cleaning the bloody fingers. "d'Artagnan?" He too waited without prodding, until the dark eyes opened and slowly came to rest on him. "Will you try a little more?"
d'Artagnan sighed. "No." He put his head back, barely able to keep it balanced on his wobbly neck. "How long this time?" Aramis was carefully cutting away slices of his torn fingernails.
"Not s'long this time," Porthos said with genuine relief. "Aramis knew where to go lookin' for ya 'n brought ya back real quick like. Good thing he's stayin' around."
"God, I'm a mess. What am I going to do with both of you gone." It wasn't a question, the terror still hung about d'Artagnan like the smoke of Roncesvalles.
"We've had this conversation before; we're all a mess." Athos bent to set the mug on the floor next to the wall. "Like the other memories we carry, this will fade with time." He rubbed his own still-healing shoulder as he straightened. "And, as Porthos just stated, Aramis will be here."
Aramis set aside the parrying dagger, took up the soft cloth Porthos had unearthed and began to clean the bloody fingers. "I was there, you know." He spaced his next words with precision, "I felt your terror, d'Artagnan. If it was a dream, it was as vivid and real as if I had been standing right next to you." He looked up to find the young man staring at him. "Last year some time, I think, though time had little meaning at the abbey. I woke in a panic one night, certain I was in the middle of a Spanish battlefield. You were there, I knew you were there, but I could not find you." Aramis met the intent gaze. "Except it was not a battlefield, was it?"
d'Artagnan's throat closed. "No."
"You'd been captured."
"Yes. My own ... stupid, impulsive ... fault," d'Artagnan grated, breaking eye contact. His breathing had evened out, but it began to come in short gasps again.
"There was malevolence in the very air and I remember hearing voices, but as I recall, it was suffocatingly hot and dark, I could see nothing." Aramis reached for the lacerated right hand and began plucking splinters from beneath the nails. d'Artagnan did not even wince. "I promise we'll keep you grounded here, we won't let it suck you in again if you want to talk about it." He retrieved the dagger to cut away a jagged bit of fingernail on the ring finger, then touched the wedding band lightly and lifted his gaze back to d'Artagnan's. "I know that talking about it will make it real for a time again, but at the same time, it may give the event some needed distance. It's over, long behind you, it cannot touch you here."
d'Artagnan shuddered. 'Oh yes it can.' But he did not give voice to the words. He could still feel the press of bodies surrounding him, smell the putrid stench of death as pervasively as he had on waking to find himself stuffed like a sausage into a host of bodies. The enfolding tremors continued to rack his lean frame, rippling like sea waves as entire muscle groups spasmed with increasing tension. "I remember ... you were ... you were there. You ... were ... you were the only reason ... I ... didn't ... go ... completely insane." Each word or pairings of words came out on a little pant of air.
It had taken awhile after he'd first woken to find himself upright and wedged in so tightly he could move nothing but his head, to understand the mass of bodies trapping him were all dead. And that the stench was rotting corpses. He'd vomited the hearty breakfast Porthos had plied them with before they'd preceded the infantry through the Roncevaux Pass.
Ahhhhhh, Athos dragged in a calming breath, the last piece of the puzzle completed the picture. This was one of their vilest secrets, one they had not spoken of among themselves. From the moment they'd drawn d'Artagnan's limp body up out of that hellacious pit, the topic of Roncesvalles had been taboo. Against his will, because he put every ounce of effort he possessed into stopping the action, his head turned to meet Porthos' intent look, though he spoke to d'Artagnan. "We don't have to talk about this."
"Aramis is usually right about these things," Porthos reminded gruffly, "It's a wound needs cleansing if it's ta heal any time soon." He folded himself to sit on the foot of the bed. "Glad to have the mystery of you repeatin' Aramis' name cleared up, pup. Should'a guessed it'd be som'in like that. But it's up to you whether you wanna talk about it or not."
d'Artagnan knew a thing or two about lancing a wound.
Under the hot Spanish sun, injuries suppurated quickly. To let a closed wound fester was to court prolonged, gruesome death; many a solider had begged a comrade for mercy to end the suffering. Early in their deployment, Athos had been forced to deliver the coup de grâce for one of their own company. He had refused to let either d'Artagnan or Porthos accompany them as he'd carried the man out of camp, returning hours later, covered in dirt, hands and clothes stained with the blood of a friend. He hadn't changed his garments for a month afterwards, driving home the hard-learned lesson without uttering a single word.
Yes, d'Artagnan was very familiar with lancing wounds. He pulled his knees to his chest, huddling in an upright fetal position, arms wrapped over his sweaty chest, chin down. "I don't ... I don't even know where to ... start." He was repeating himself he knew, but could not seem to hold the thoughts long enough to turn them into words and get them off his tongue.
He did not want to talk about these memories, but neither could he live with the debilitating consequences of this dream. He knew he'd been put on a horse between Athos and Porthos on more than one occasion. Wedged there throughout a number of battles he did not remember, his horse responding to the movements of Athos' and Porthos' as if the animal knew he was incapable.
"It was not the first time we'd been captured, though most of the previous times it had been on purpose." Athos, his jaw tight with his own memories, spread his hands over his knees, glanced once more at Porthos and began. "General de la Force's ... intelligence," the word came out with a faint hiss, "had indicated the Spanish had withdrawn from the Roncevaux Pass after decimating the valley below it. de la Force insisted we take it.
We'd already been lessoned in his 'intelligence gathering' and quickly learned to do our own. de la Force knew; he would occasionally ask me for advice in the daily strategy meetings, but he was willing to overlook it as long as we didn't get caught at it, or offer unsolicited opinions. However, on this particular day, the Musketeer company was deployed as the advance guard for the infantry and ordered to stay with them or be cashiered."
"That happened quite a lot," Porthos inserted. "We were de la Force's Uriah."
"Uriah?" d'Artagnan turned a baffled look on Porthos.
"An ancient biblical king desired the wife of one of his generals, so he put the man - Uriah - on the front lines in hopes of getting him killed," Athos supplied. "It's true, we spent a lot of time front and center in the beginning, but for some reason - call it luck, fate, the hand of God - we don't seem to be easy to kill."
"Anyway," Porthos took up the story, "we was first into the pass and by halfway through the haze of smoke was thick enough we could barely see; the Spanish had burnt their own people outta the valley. It cleared a little once we were through, but visibility was little more than a horse's rump in front of ya."
"We weren't ... " d'Artagnan swiped at his eyes with an arm, "we weren't much more than through the pass ... when I heard ... the sound of child ... in distress."
Porthos put out a hand, unseen by d'Artagnan, stopping Athos from taking up the narrative again.
"I veered off ...toward the sound ... into ... forest ... without ... without thought."
Athos planted his elbows on his knees and his forehead in his palms. "Porthos peeled off after him," his voice sounded raw, as though the memories of that ash-filled valley had roughened his vocal chords, "leaving me, naturally, yelling after them to get their asses back where they belonged."
"Except ... he didn't just yell, Athos came after us ... so they were both ... captured as well ... because of me." d'Artagnan's delivery was an unintentionally brilliant mimicry of Athos' old flat tone. "Horse went right through the brush ... covering ... a pit ... threw me ... out 'the saddle ... s'all I knew ... 'til I woke up ... in another pit." In his dreams he heard both the horse and the child screaming.
When the pause lengthened uncomfortably, Porthos sighed. "I'd lost 'im in the smoke, 'til I heard shots and started to'ard 'em. The trees not only bent the sound, they made it impossible to ride in a straight line, and then there was another shot - an arquebus this time - to my left and not that far away." He paused, remembering the scene he'd come upon as if it had happened yesterday: Athos standing next to a branch-covered pit, gun clenched in one hand, the other clamped over his eyes. "Athos had beat me to the rescue." His fists clenched. "'But there was no one to save."
"They'd left the horse alive, both front legs broken."
Aramis added up the shots in his head - and did not like the sum. Athos' body language did not invite questions.
"There was a lotta blood on the far side of the pit, but no d'Artagnan. We started after 'em immediately, didn't even discuss it."
"We trotted right into their reargard," Athos said matter-of-factly. " We would have ridden up to them in any case, it really didn't matter. Much better chance of escape with the three of us together than one alone."
"Except all we got was a brief glimpse'a d'Artagnan thrown over a horse as they escorted us int'a camp. Two of 'em were leadin' the horse away. But they made sure we saw that much."
"Camp was a large cave, or, as it turned out, a series of caves honeycombing both sides of the pass. It was a snug little command post not far from the mouth of the pass."
"Never did get a good count, there was maybe twenty, thirty of 'em, jabbering away, laughin' like those lake loons we used t'hear out 'ta yer folks place, Aramis. Athos wasn't translatin' anything, but his face kept gettin' tighter and tighter 'til I thought it was going to break."
The baton passed seamlessly back to Athos. "It took us some time to free ourselves," he said, passing over the scars he and Porthos carried from those twenty-four hours, "and three days to get to d'Artagnan. We had no location, just a description of an arid, sandy spot in the valley and an old rock quarry filled in with sand where they were storing bodies, packed in standing as if they were alive. They'd found it was motivating to prisoners to take out a dead body and replace it with a live one." He passed a hand over his eyes as his stomach rolled nauseatingly. "I don't know how you survived, shot, bleeding from that leg wound, in the broiling sun by day, unable to move," he said to d'Artagnan, jaw clenched. "His limbs were twice their normal size when we pulled him out, head and shoulders blistered from the sun. I did not think he would live long enough for us to get back to the army."
d'Artagnan's shallow breathing stopped, yanking Athos and Porthos back to the present. Aramis laid a hand on the sculpted chest. "You're safe, remember that you are safe, you beat the odds, you're alive and well, bearing no lingering physical after-effects of your ordeal. The hold this nightmare has on you will lessen with time. You're whole. And well. And safe."
d'Artagnan plucked the hand from his chest and straightened, though the cold sweat began again, streaming in little rivulets down his neck and torso. "I was six feet ... from freedom ... six feet. The press of bodies was ... in those first moments ... comforting. I thought ... I thought if we just worked together ..." He swallowed in an effort to wet his dry throat and licked his lips. "I thought we could ... get out. It took ... I don't know how long ... to realize they were all ... dead. That I was ... the only one ... alive ... there were sounds ... like breathing ... and moans ... and there was movement ... I thought ..." He put his head back again, turning his blank gaze to the ceiling, feeling the twitch of fingers against his own, the jerk of muscles in the legs squeezed against him, hearing the ghostly whispering that had sounded like waves of gossiping old men, when in reality the eerie sounds had been built-up gasses escaping decomposing bodies.
d'Artagnan's labored breathing was the only sound in the room.
"When I finally ... understood ... that the stench was not just ... unwashed bodies, I lost it for a bit." He'd been prepared to die. His first battle had taught him that; friend and foe falling on every side, no more than the range of a pistol ball or the width of a blade from death. He'd expected to die, but he'd expected to die surrounded by his brother's, not alone in a bare and blistered valley, beneath an unforgiving sun, cursing his impetuosity.
The rim of a mug touched his lips, startling d'Artagnan. He wrapped both trembling, bandaged hands around it, though Aramis did not let go, and drank thirstily. The water soothed his parched throat and lent a bit of strength to his voice when he continued. "The first day, I could not move side to side or backward or forward, but after awhile, I thought ... I thought maybe I could lift ... myself ... up ... on my toes. They'd stripped all but my britches ..."
"Strangely modest, those Spaniards," Aramis observed, stifling his horror with a bit of gallows humor to fill up the long gap.
d'Artagnan let go of the mug abruptly, his hands sliding back to the blanket. Aramis, thankful he had not let go, set it beside the basin of bloody water."No boots ... no purchase in the sand. I could see ... freedom ... so close. So close."
He'd quickly lost track of time, though he'd held onto hope until the flat, dry landscape had begun to blur into a mirage of shimmering water. For awhile he'd held onto the thought that there might be some give in the bodies eventually, as flesh shrank and brittle bones began to crack under the intense pressure. He had been able to shift a little on his feet from side to side as he'd watched the glossy black crows land to peck out the eyes of the bodies in front of him. He'd screamed himself hoarse, jerking his head back and forth when they'd begun hopping from shoulder to shoulder looking for further edibles, beaks open as if they were laughing at his puny resistance, heads cocking to inspect him, their bright, beady eyes shiny with the knowledge that they had only to wait.
It had not taken terribly long to realize he'd even be cooked for them. The combination of viciously hot sun and dry wind had sucked all the moisture out of him before sundown that first day. By the time the sun had reached its zenith on the second day, his skull had been hot as a lit firecracker, lips and eyes swollen shut from sunburn and dehydration, the only movement of his body the rippling crawl of flesh as maggots began digging into the wound in his right thigh.
The army surgeon who'd had the care of him once they'd made it back to camp had told him those maggots Porthos had insisted be left in place, had saved his leg, eating away the putrefying flesh around the wound, keeping infection at bay.
"I had no idea how long ... I was there ... last thing I remember ... is you, Aramis, hearing your pray ... remember thinking ... wasn't alone anymore ... you'd see me ... over to the other side."
The last conscious thought d'Artagnan remembered was of murmured prayers for safety and comfort. He did not know when he'd begun hearing them or recognized Aramis as the purveyor of those prayers, but he'd slipped into unconsciousness knowing Aramis would be there to walk with him to the door of Beyond.
"What did they want from you?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. While I was conscious, I never saw a living soul."
"Barbaric," Aramis muttered.
"Oh, there was a purpose behind it." Athos shook his head as if trying to shake loose the recollection. "You were a tool of sorts, to use against Porthos and I. They wanted the usual; troop strength and movements, supply lines, what we knew of the Spanish army, all the while doling out bits and pieces of what they'd done to you, along with promises to end it quickly, before the sun cooked your brains, if we would just tell them what they wanted to know."
"Hell, we sang like choir boys," Porthos said innocently. "Though it weren't the same without you with us, d'Artagnan. Had to hold out a bit longer than usual, since there were only two of us. We let 'em have a little fun 'fore we started drawin' maps, telling 'em exactly how many troops, how general this'n'that moved his company, etc., etc. Told 'em everything we knew- with a few embellishments. Dunno know why they didn't believe we was from St. Sulpice."
"The caves were both a blessing a curse. We were able to lose our pursuers quickly, when we managed to get free, but we lost ourselves too. It took us a day to find a way out."
"Then we had to wait 'til dark to borrow horses," Porthos grumbled. They'd stolen two, their indoctrination on d'Artagnan's captivity making them well aware he would be in no shape to ride when they found him.
Athos saw again the murder of crows that had flown up, squawking madly at their approach, heard the sounds of breaking necks and collarbones as they'd literally scrambled across the heads and shoulders of dead men in order to pull d'Artagnan out and get to the other side. Their captors had described in gory detail how they laid boards across the shoulder-high pit to pull out and replace captives as necessary.
Porthos had shoved d'Artagnan's dead weight up in front of Athos once he was mounted, swung onto his own stolen nag and they'd ridden like madmen for the forest hills without even taking time to find out if their companion was alive.
"So all of you were trapped behind enemy lines, no weapons, no gear, nothing but stolen horses and an instinct for survival."
Porthos and Athos exchanged another glance.
"Yeah," Porthos said, "that about sums it up. We knew d'Artagnan was in the valley somewhere, knew it was a three day ride from the end of pass to the next mountain range, and knew we weren't going anywhere without him, no matter if he was dead or alive."
The French had withdrawn back through the pass, leaving the scorched valley crawling with Spanish militia. By day, they'd had to stay well back from the forest's verge, scouting from inside the tree line, except for the midday hours of siesta. The Spanish held siesta as sacred as their religion.
In order to cover more ground, Athos and Porthos had gone in opposite directions during those hours, battling the fatigue of constant vigilance and their own inflicted injuries, to quarter sections of the valley. Athos had insisted they cover territory again, that they'd already covered by night, lest night's shadows obscure their quarry. And he'd been right, for it had been on a second sweep over ground they'd covered the night before, that he'd come upon the sea of dead men bearing one lone living occupant. It had been no more than another burnt patch of grass in his peripheral vision on first reconnaissance, the scent reaching him just a shade darker than the smell of the burnt timber of the villages and the stink of the charred flesh of those who had refused to leave their homes.
d'Artagnan stared at Aramis, perplexed. " How could I have heard you praying?"
"God knew your need and supplied it." Aramis had no other explanation. "The body can only endure three or four days without water. It's a miracle you survived at all." He'd been to Spain, his mother's family lived in the sun-baked, provincial capital of Almería in Andalusia.
"Thought Athos was gonna forget himself so far as to dance a jig when ya come around. We'd been tendin' a corpse 'til you finally recognized us a coupl'a nights after we found ya."
"How did you get back through the pass?"
"Well now," Porthos said with a grin, "that's the good part. Rather than head straight back to the pass, we went deeper into Spanish territory, up the ridge beyond their camps. Athos found a game trail and followed it 'til we came across an untouched little glade with a waterfall and a pool. Best part was the cave behind the waterfall. Laid d'Artagnan close enough to the spray that it cooled his skin without drowning 'im right off." He patted an ankle. "We were able to forage some of that plant you used to use on burns, Aramis, al-o somethin' or other, out of the ash in the valley, the leaves were kinda cooked, but when ya cut it, it still oozed that sap. We covered d'Artagnan in that several times a day, just rolled him under the waterfall to rinse off the old and then apply the new.
We took to foraging from the Spanish camps for wine and bread when fish didn't set so well with our patient. Took us a few days, but eventually we had a nice little camp behind the waterfall, blankets and food and a stash'a weapons 'n ammunition. Figured if we had to fight our way back through the pass, we'd at least take out a few more 'o the enemy if they caught up to us again. But that didn't happen, 'cause Athos got'ta scoutin' the cave behind the waterfall. Turned out there was a way through that was navigable on the other side. Comin' out, we could see the whole plain on the north side of the pass, 'n the French army sittin' like a big spider just waitin' for its prey to show itself."
"Do you remember the trip down, d'Artagnan?" Athos settled more comfortably on the bed as the muscle strain in his back, shoulders and neck loosened a bit. "We had to makeshift a sort of sling stretcher out of a blanket which wasn't quite as stable as we'd hoped."
"I remember very little after I lost consciousness in the pit, until we'd were back with the army. I don't know how long. But you were both there when I woke up again, screaming, as I recall."
There'd been quite a lot of that the first few days following their stumbling into camp dragging d'Artgnan between them. They'd followed the mountain goats down the steep side, though lacking the goats nimbleness, they'd added quite a number of new contusions and lacerations to their already impressive array. The physician in charge of their care had caused a separate medical tent to be erected and moved them some distance from the main infirmary lest d'Artagnan's unrest disturb the remainder of the recuperating soldiers.
de la Force had informed Athos, with an extremely weary sigh, that he was inclined to shoot them as deserters and be done with the lot of them, then pumped them for every bit of information the Musketeer captain - and then Porthos - could recall. Athos had caught the reluctant gleam of admiration though, and been unsurprised when upon their recovery, the Musketeer regiment had slowly been worked into de la Forces' network of intelligence gleaning spies.
"That yellin' didn't last long either," Porthos lied with a grin, though the months following Roncesvalles had been the start of the habit of sleeping together within touching distance. A restless moan, an incipient shiver, the twitch of a hand or foot was enough to wake another to rouse the trapped sleeper - unremembered in the morning - though their already well-established trust had grown even greater in the days following their ordeal.
"What say you?" Porthos twitched a pair of britches off a wall hook, a shirt from another. "Shall we embrace the coming day rather than return to bed?"
"No." d'Artagnan surprised them all with his staccato response. "No, I don't want this day to start any earlier than necessary"
Porthos twigged to the reason first. "I can put off leavin' for a day or two."
"Pretty sure your new wife will be appreciative of the extra time," Aramis said cheekily, winking broadly at Porthos, who blushed but grinned shyly.
At least for the time being, this purging was done. Aramis doubted the wound was wholly clean, but the reopening would lessen its ability to trouble d'Artagnan's sleep quite so much and Constance would make him tell it again, sooner rather than later. Eventually it would close over, leaving behind the kind of scar tissue that shaped a life.
"I suppose if we are to stay a while longer, I should also share that you were not left out when the queen began handing out honors, d'Artagnan." Athos had not intended to make this announcement in his nightshirt, but if it was to be the gift it was intended to be rather than a nasty jolt, the news was best delivered now. "As of today, you are the Captain of the People's Musketeers. Aramis has a pauldron stashed away somewhere with your new insignia and rank, though I have Tréville's if you would rather wear it. When you gave away our old ones, and I knew the queen would agree you were ready for the command, it occurred to me Tréville's might have sentimental value, too, so I kept it."
d'Artagnan straightened as if someone had pulled an invisible string in his spine. "Captain? But that's ..." he craned his neck to look Athos in the eye, "your job."
"I'm not going to be here much longer and the garrison needs a commander in my absence."
"Uhhhhhhhh .. no," their youngest said decisively, "the queen knows nothing of my experience, she can't make that decision."
"Actually, she knows quite a lot about your experience," Aramis countered. "She's been the one receiving the daily dispatches since the king's illness became known. She is well qualified to make the decision. Aside from that, the honors have all been bestowed by Athos' commendation; being something of a war hero, the queen felt it wise to abide by his recommendations."
"All that fancy talk just means you're stuck with it," Porthos announced, throwing the clothes he'd gathered at d'Artagnan. "Come on, the women are fixin' food and I find myself ready to eat."
"When aren't you ready to eat?" Aramis inquired blithely, heading for the door. "We'll see you downstairs?"
"Yes, shortly." Athos waved them on their way, waited 'til the door closed and turned on the bed so he was facing d'Artagnan. "Porthos will make an excellent general, he's got a mind for strategy and the will to bend even the most reluctant to his command. You, however, are a natural leader. You shine brighter than the rest of us, d'Artagnan, it makes everyone want to be you and if they can't be you, then they want to be near you. They want to be noticed by you, they want your approval. Whether you are aware of it or not, you have developed the knack for using this as a tool of command. And it doesn't hurt that you are approachable and genuine in your dealings with the men. This transition will be far easier for you than it was for me." He rose and peeled back the sheet and blanket, asking seamlessly, "Do you think you can make it downstairs?"
d'Artagnan, pink-cheeked, shoved his feet over the side of the bed and pushed himself up, clutching the iron bedpost to steady himself. "I think so, lest you think I'm going to take this lying down."
Athos pitched the bloody water out the window, rinsed the bowl and poured new water from the drinking pitcher on top of the chest.
"While I'm not averse to a higher pay grade and the new rank, I don't want it at the expense of your quitting."
"I haven't turned in my pauldron." Athos made quick work of sponging d'Artagnan down. "I'm taking a leave of absence. Sit, so I can dry your hair."
d'Artagnan sat, partly because his legs were still unsteady, partly because it meant stealing one more moment with his best friend. When Athos lowered the towel and brushed back the now merely damp strands of hair, d'Artagnan leaned against him and felt Athos' arms come around him. "I know Sylvie has lightened those dark places we could never reach in you, Athos, and I'm glad for that, but I'm terrified that all of us going separate ways ... will break something in me that can't be fixed. You and Porthos ... part of me will go with each of you. I won't be whole until we're together again."
Silently, Athos drew the youth to his feet, kissing the side of his head as he wrapped him in a full embrace. "I must finish the work you and Porthos and Aramis and yes, Constance and Sylvie too, have begun in me. As hard as it is to admit, I cannot do it here in the place where so much of my past overshadows the present. Your work is here, d'Artagnan, rebuilding the garrison, aiding Aramis in the rebuilding of France under the new regent. This war will be over soon, Porthos will retire with a general's pay, and return here to Paris, to settle with Elodie; he's a city boy at heart. You will only be missing a quarter by then and you and Constance will fill that with your love and the children that will follow. Selfishly, I hope you will always miss me, even if it's only a little. But I pray that your life will be so full that there will be no holes to fill eventually."
"You don't mean to return." d'Artagnan's voice was muffled in Athos' shoulder.
Athos was silent for several long moments. He could not find in it himself, as Father Grandier would have said, to make the small lie of convenience, but neither could he bring himself to slam the door shut. "I cannot take back what the queen has bestowed, nor do I want to, but that does not mean we will not see each other again. I am to be a father, d'Artagnan, a thing I had no expectation of ever being. If I am to be a good one, I must follow this road to the end of it. And I do not know where it leads. Perhaps that will be back here to take up some other role; perhaps it will not. But France is not so big as to separate us for the rest of our lives."
"I will take that as a promise." d'Artagnan hugged his mentor hard before drawing back. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger?"
"Eh," Athos agreed with a Gallic shrug, "haven't we proven it time and time again? Shall we go down to break our fast?"
"Mmmmmm ... do you require valet services as well?"
Athos' perfunctory glance was preoccupied. "Oh. I'll just be a moment."
d'Artagnan put a steadying hand to the wall. "I'll wait on the stairs." He plunked himself down, unknowingly, in the spot his wife had warmed not so long ago and leaned his head against the wall. He could still see the blurry outlines of the valley floor, heat shimmering in the insufferably hot air, though he no longer felt the ghostly touches of the dead feathering his arms and legs.
The experience, nightmarish as it had been, had been a significant turning point for d'Artagnan. He'd had innumerable brushes with death prior to Roncesvalles, but they'd been the exhilarating kind, more heart pounding than heart stopping. At barely twenty-four, he'd been young and brash enough that their legendary getaways had become something of the norm, rather than hair-raising escapes as Athos and Porthos had characterized them.
In a way it had been a strangely wonderful time-out-of-time, the elation of winning a near-constant elixir pouring through his blood, revving the inevitable battle high. Until Roncesvalles - when the game of war had turned on him savagely.
He'd never asked, and his companions had never divulged the fate of the child he'd hared off to rescue. Because of him, Athos and Porthos had been subjected to their own little bit of hell - he'd heard the smothered groans, seen the quickly stifled winces as he'd convalesced - though neither of them had leveled any accusations. Neither had he been subjected to one of the quiet withdrawals he'd come to expect from Athos when his rash actions led them into trouble. Both of them had hovered over him like a treasure lost and found again. d'Artagnan suspected it was the lingering guilt, as much as the actual experience, that fueled the repetition of the nightmare.
While neither the experience, nor the guilt, had completely curtailed his impulsiveness, it had certainly reined it in. And it had completely crushed the bit of thrill he hadn't quite been able to eradicate when he'd found himself the beneficiary of the same kind of hero worship he'd experienced trailing Athos like the eager puppy they'd nicknamed him.
d'Artagnan sighed. Perhaps his friends would not leave today after all, but tomorrow or the next day, they would be off to have new adventures and make memories that didn't include him. The hollow in the pit of his stomach housed a thousand fluttering butterflies and not just because of the unexpected role he was shortly to take up.
Athos was an astute and keen observer of human nature. If he saw more in d'Artagnan than d'Artagnan saw in himself, the youthful war hero would just have to dig deep enough to excavate the traits that would help him fill Athos' boots. And he could do that because he'd had the opportunities two heroic men had afforded him in the short time he'd been a Musketeer.
d'Artagnan blinked to clear away the last of fading internal vision, determinedly re-gathering his stolen strength so that by the time Athos reappeared dressed for the day, he was standing straight and tall, feet firmly planted, breathing deeply and freely.
Athos made a mental note to tell Constance to send for Aramis if this happened again, but he had a sense that the marksman - as usual - had been right. Dragging out even the few details they'd shared had created a buffer around the experience, a distance that would help extract the lethal sting of the nightmare.
"All right, pup?"
d'Artagnan squinted rather than roll his eyes - he still had a lingering headache - lest Athos imagine he could use the nickname with impunity. "I will be, though I'm going to miss you and Porthos like amputated limbs."
"Oh yes, exactly the image I needed to take away with me. Thank you."
They continued down the stairs side by side, shoulders bumping in friendly fashion, both of them hoarding away the memory of this moment in time.
Roncesvalles had shaped his past, and it would shape his future, too, because ... what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. d'Artagnan had learned that by heart.