D'Artagnan had been only semi-conscious when the innkeeper and the stable boy carried him up to their room. Without Athos or Porthos there to help, it took everything Aramis had left in him to get D'Artagnan undressed and settled. It was heartbreaking in his waking moments when D'Artagnan would talk to his father, insisting he was sitting on the edge of the bed while Aramis worked to get a fire going and waited for the innkeeper to bring up hot water and brandy. Eventually the pain in D'Artagnan's head overwhelmed him and Aramis again used his trick of massage until the potent tincture of valerian root could take effect. By the time the young musketeer was asleep, Aramis was spent.
He managed to get his boots and doublet off, but that was the end of his strength. He knew he should check his own wound, but his body with shaking now with chills and exhaustion. It was fever, he knew, but Aramis had little energy left for anything other than to finish off the last of the valerian tea he had brewed for D'Artagnan and curl up under a blanket in the other bed. Athos and Porthos would come up at any moment. They would get him sorted. He knew his brothers would be angry with him for not taking better care of himself, but he knew he would be forgiven given how poorly he fared. With thoughts of his brothers creating an aura of safety and protection, Aramis slipped quickly into a deep sleep, D'Artagnan's rising restlessness going unnoticed.
Athos put down his empty cup, staring into the bottom as if it might reveal something beyond his need to numb his pain. Finding nothing to sustain him, he reached across the table for the half-full bottle and found it immobilized by Porthos's large hand. Athos cocked his head and gave Porthos one of his trademark glares only to be met with a stoic stare to rival his own.
"Ready to talk yet?" the big man asked quietly.
"No," Athos said, releasing his hand from the bottle and offering up the empty cup. Porthos took it from him and filled the glass, but instead of passing it to Athos, he placed it between them.
"If you choose that," Porthos said, nodding toward the cup, "plan on sleeping in the barn. I'm about done here."
Athos sighed, raking a hand through his hair. Despite the wine, he was still angry, still scared, still feeling something when all he wanted to do was feel nothing. But Porthos offered no choices and would make no compromises. While the first bottle had been about comfort, there was no way he would be allowed to dissolve into oblivion this night.
"Alright," Athos said quietly, leaning forward and placing his forearms on the table, "I'm sorry."
"Well that's a start," Porthos said with a small satisfied smile, "But I'm not the one that needs the apology."
"I know," Athos looked down, shame burning his cheeks. He was grateful for the shadows offered by the flickering candlelight that his brother did not have to see his discomfiture. "I am not angry at D'Artagnan." Porthos nodded, encouraging him to go on, "I am worried about him. I am watching a good soldier, a friend . . . my brother . . . " his voice became gruff with emotion, ". . . my brother, lose himself into a world of phantasms and delusions. I am scared, Porthos," Athos said, looking up to his friend, eyes full of despair, "and angry at myself. Angry at how I feel, about what I can't do, about how we can't fix this." Athos paused, struggling to gain control over his emotions, "I am lost, my friend," he added, his voice cracking, " . . .lost."
Porthos reached a hand across the table and grasped Athos around the wrist. He kept his gaze steady as he searched for the right words. "We all love 'im, Athos," Porthos said, voice thick with emotion, "pushing him away now isn't going to make any of this less painful. Whatever is going to happen, you're going to feel it. You might as well accept it now."
Athos reached his other hand across the table and put it over Porthos's hand holding his wrist. They sat in silence, drawing strength and comfort from the solidarity of their brotherhood. Athos felt something inside himself release, as if he had been holding his breath all day and now suddenly could breathe freely again.
"Thank you," he said with a soft smile. Porthos returned the gesture with a dip of his head. "I have to remember we are never in this alone."
"No friend, we are not," Porthos replied with a smile. He released Athos's hands, and picked up the bottle, pouring himself a drink and then pushing Athos's cup back to him across the table. "To D'Artagnan," he said, raising his glass.
"D'Artagnan," Athos intoned, lifting his glass as well in a toast to their brother's health.
D'Artagnan was pushed awake by the thrumming in his head. The sharp, searing pain was intensifying, developing into an almost unbearable agony as it burrowed into the very center of his mind. He could hear it, like thin whine, echoing in his mind. He tried to keep his eyes closed, to press his head deeply into the soft pillow beneath him, but the pain was unrelenting. He felt compelled, driven to open his eyes as surely as if someone commanded it.
The room was lit by the flicker of guttering candles, but before him, clear as daylight was a beautiful woman. Dark hair cascaded down her shoulders, framing a heart-shaped face with dark brown eyes. She wore a white gown that almost shined in the candlelight, an unusual cross dangling from a pale blue ribbon around her neck. Her face seemed familiar, but the cruel pain in his head refused to let him think.
"Who are you?" he asked between gasping breaths.
"Cut him," her voice was too loud in his head, but the words were desperate and plaintive, "You must cut him," she said again, infinite sadness filling her words.
Confused, D'Artagnan's eyes cast about the room, his eyes finally settling on a figure huddled in the other bed. Who was there? D'Artagnan squeezed his eyes shut, trying to think, trying to remember.
"Get up." her tone changed. Her voice was full of terror and threat. D'Artagnan felt as if it came from inside his head. The pain intensified and he curled into a ball, fighting with her overwhelming presence.
"Get up!" she commanded again, her voice echoing in the small room. He didn't want to do it, didn't want to listen, but D'Artagnan felt as if he was being split in two by the soul-piercing fire of her voice. He peered up at her and she glided toward him, eyes full of lightning and skin pale as snow. She stretched out her hand and placed it on D'Artagnan's head. Instantly he felt the fire in his brain blossom to consume his body. He writhed on the bed, whimpering against the pain coursing through him.
"Get up!" she intoned again, her words filling his brain, his heart, his very soul. It was unbearable. Shaking, D'Artagnan pushed himself up off the bed, somehow drawing himself to stand.
"The blade," she breathed, gesturing to his main gauche glistening on the table. He wanted to resist her, but it was as if his will had been chained the moment she touched him. Fighting his own limbs, fear grew in his heart as his body was compelled to take up the weapon.
The long dagger was edged in an eerie blue light, unnatural and born somehow from the demon before him. He stared at it in terror, afraid of its power and what she was forcing him to do.
"Cut him," she breathed again, the words rattling in his mind as the pain flared through his body. He felt he was an instrument of fire, sent to purge an evil from the world with the burning blade in his hand. He lost his resistance as his mind was hollowed out by the force of her will. She stood over the figure curled on the bed, blue fire dancing now from her fingertips and her lightning eyes blazing. She was beautiful and terrifying and he knew he was her creature.
He pulled back the blankets from the bed and looked down at the slender form lying still beneath his blade.
"Cut him," she bade one more time, the urgency in her voice again edging on desperation. Her sorrow was too much. Without further thought he plunged the knife into the man's still form.
The blood curdling scream echoed throughout the Inn, as if death himself had come to claim their souls this All Hallows Eve. Athos dropped the glass from his hand and it shattered on the table. Porthos jumped up, knocking over the tavern bench with a loud crash. The barmaid let out a horrified gasp as a second scream sounded from above. The two musketeers were a blur of motion, drawing their blades and storming up the stairs. Their hearts were pounding in their chests as they flung open the door to the room D'Artagnan shared with Aramis.
D'Artagnan stood stiffly by the bed nearest the window, his hands bathed in blood up to his wrists, a knife held limply in his right hand. He looked dazed and lost as he stared down at the form in the bed. They couldn't see his face, but they knew - with all that was holy in their hearts - that it was Aramis bleeding through the bedclothes.
Athos and Porthos dropped their blades and pushed over furniture in their rush to get to their comrades. Porthos kneeled before Aramis, searching for the wound and a way to stop the bleeding. Athos stopped before D'Artagnan, horror and shock at his protege consuming his ability for rational thought.
"What have you done," he breathed, searching D'Artagnan's dead eyes for some sign he could recognize as his brother.
"I cut him," D'Artagnan said softly, slowly extending his bloody hand to Athos and offering him the blade, "I cut him," he repeated. Athos looked down at the dagger, bathed in the blood of one of his brothers, and choked back a sob.
"Why?" he asked, as he finally found the courage to take the offending object from D'Artagnan's hand.
"She made me," he said simply, looking with despair at the head of the bed.
"Who, D'Artagnan?" Athos felt his eyes filling with tears, "Who is here that would make you do this?"
"Her," D'Artagnan replied, pointing to where Aramis lay, "She is holding him so tenderly now, whispering in his ear" he said, his voice full of emotion, "I saved him. She told me. I saved him," his voice cracked as he turned to face Athos again. Athos felt too many words, too many thoughts swirling in his mind. . Before Athos could form another coherent thought, D'Artagnan's eyes rolled back in his head and his body went limp. Acting simply on instinct, Athos caught him. Fighting tears, he lowered his brother to the floor, sorrow seeping from the crevices of his mind. The pain rising up in Athos's heart was cold and familiar - the pain he had felt when he held Thomas's dead body in his arms.
"Athos!" Porthos's urgent call broke the spell of shock and despair that had settled over him. Athos swiftly but gently released D'Artagnan from his grasp, and shifted to kneel beside Porthos.
"Look at this," he said, lifting up the blood-soaked bedclothes he had been using to staunch the wound. The slice along Aramis's side was clean and precise. The blade had followed the line of the previous wound, neatly slicing through the stitches Athos had placed the day before. There was an odor to the wound, the foul smell of a festering infection. Had the wound not been reopened, the fresh blood flow helping to clear the puss from the body, Aramis surely would have died. Athos's mind reeled. D'Artagnan hadn't tried to kill his brother, he had saved him.
"Get the brandy, the bandages and Aramis's sewing kit," Porthos said through tight lips as he pressed the cloth back to Aramis's side. He placed his other hand on Aramis's chest, over his heart. "Stay with us, brother," he whispered as Athos gathered the things they needed to save his life.
He heard his name. It was the one thing he knew. The one word he recognized in a sea of empty black. It was tugging at him like a rope to boat, pulling him back to shore. He heard it again and struggled to respond, thinking perhaps he had said something, had moved, had sat up, but knowing he had yet to even open his eyes. It seemed impossible. Too hard.
"D'Artagnan" he heard softly again. The voice was tender and pained, full of authority and concern.
"D'Artagnan," it wouldn't let him go.
His eyes fluttered open, lifting the cobwebs of sleep from his foggy mind. He looked up to see his mentor's face, worn with lines of worry hovering over him. He looked sad and happy at the same time.
"Athos," D'Artagnan tried to say with a smile, but it came out as a croak from a throat unused to speaking.
"Here," Athos said, raising him up and holding a cup of water to his lips. D'Artagnan drank, able to raise his hands and hold the cup steady himself. He finished with a grateful smile, but struggled to sit up after Athos released him. Athos helped him to lean forward, then pushed up the pillows behind his back so that he could recline comfortably and with support.
"How do you feel?" Athos asked softly.
D'Artagnan paused, unable to answer that at first. He was comfortable, the bed was soft. He wasn't thirsty or cold. He had no fever, and no pain in his body. He almost felt like he was floating, but a slight ache in his head reminded him he was very much on this earth.
"I'm better, I think," D'Artagnan said, almost surprised, "Was I sick?"
"You don't remember?" Athos asked gently, a look of surprise and worry creasing his brow.
D'Artagnan puzzled this. He was in a bed, but wasn't sure how he had gotten there. He remembered his head hurting terribly, and dreams, nightmares that walked with him. They had been wounded, and Athos attacked and killed. But no, Athos was here. He threaded through a chain of disconnected, impossible thoughts and finally found one horrifying memory . . .
"Aramis!" he called out, trying to push himself up out of the bed.
"Here, D'Artagnan," his friend's soft voice sounded from across the room. Athos sat further back, and Aramis appeared in his line of sight, also propped up by pillows, with Porthos by his side.
"I stabbed you!" D'Artagnan said, horrified at his own actions, "I tried to kill you."
"No, D'Artagnan, you saved him," Porthos rumbled, his voice full of affection, "Somehow you knew, that his wound was festering. You sliced so precisely that all you did was release the stitches so that the blood could flow and draw out the infection. It was a miracle."
D'Artagnan considered this. He closed his eyes, trying to focus on the memories from the past night. He searched his mind, and then remembered her.
"It wasn't me," he said, eyes wide with fascination, "it was her."
"Who?" Athos asked, "You mentioned a woman that night. Who was she?"
"I don't know," D'Artagnan said, "I don't think she was real. She was too beautiful. She had long dark hair and deep brown eyes. She had a maltese cross on a blue ribbon around her neck. She looked familiar . . . like someone I had met before." D'Artagnan looked over at Aramis, considered his face, his eyes. "You," he said, "She looked like you Aramis."
Aramis raised a brow, and gave a gentle laugh, "Nice that even in your delusions you have good taste."
"She sat with you, your head in her lap," D'Artagnan voiced the memories as they came to him, "She was so worried, she was crying. She called you something . . . " D'Artagnan paused, closing his eyes to think, to capture the perfect words, "Mi pequeño cachorro. That's what she said. Mi pequeño cachorro."
Aramis let out an audible gasp, his face going pale, and his hand gripping his heart. "That cannot be," he breathed.
"Aramis, what?" Porthos said with concern, reaching to place his hand over Aramis's.
"My mother," Aramis breathed, "My mother called me that. Mi pequeño cachorro - my little cub." Aramis shook his head as if he was hearing something that could not be there. "She died when I was a boy D'Artagnan. No one has called me that since. No one, no one, knows those words."
Porthos looked over at D'Artagnan, a light dawning in his eyes, "Those were not delusions you saw, those were spirits, D'Artagnan. They walked with you. You are blessed my friend."
The men sat there in silence, trying to comprehend what they knew was impossible. Angel or demon, spirit or delusion, it didn't matter for the heart had seen what the eye could not and had given them back their brother.