A/N: This is my first long-form fic! I plan to post chapters weekly. There is no way this would have seen the light of day without the encouragement, support and beta-reading skills of the lovely Issai. I don't own any characters, but the mistakes are all mine. Thank you for being such a welcoming and generous community - I would not have been brave enough to write this without such a supportive group of people.
D'Artagnan arched his back and stretched in the sunshine beaming down in the courtyard. The ground was still wet and muddy from two solid days of rain, but the air had an inviting warmth that promised a glorious early spring day. The Musketeer garrison was just coming to life in the rosy morning light. Two stable boys were already about their business, and Serge had something on the fire that made D'Artagnan's mouth water and his stomach rumble expectantly. However, after two days of idle, indoor activity D'Artagnan needed to move more than he needed to eat. There is only so much time one can spend cleaning firearms and sharpening blades without going mad. This is probably the real root of Athos's foul moods, D'Artagnan snickered to himself.
He moved to the center of the empty courtyard, drawing his rapier and main gauche and started the very same practice drills his father had taught him years ago. It was always the same with D'Artagnan, unless some duty prevented it, he preferred to start his day with sword drills the way he had every morning with his father since his 11th birthday. He had been given his first sword that day and stepped into the barnyard to learn his first combination of steps, thrusts and parries that were the foundations of swordplay. He was awkward and gawky, learning the patterns for both feet and hands, trying to hold up the long steel blade while staggering with herky-jerky steps through the chickens at their feed. He had been tempted more than once to give up, but watching his father's practiced grace inspired him. And this was something they could do together that wasn't work, or church, or the business of just living.
D'Artagnan's simple drill gave way to more complex patterns, and a sheen of sweat appeared on his face. He felt his muscles, resistant at first, stretching and uncoiling as he swung his rapier in broader circles, and moved his main gauche in a staccato counterpoint. His feet marked a spiralling pattern in the mud and he shifted his focus enough to be aware that his footing was hampered. The drill began to look more like a dance, coordinated motions of arms, feet, and torso spinning through space. The morning sun flashed off his blades, his heavy breathing providing a steady rhythm. Thoughts of his father and his past fell from his mind as his eyes followed the focal point of his rapier. He discarded the stable boys pausing in awe to watch, and Serge, emerging from the kitchen with porridge for both of them, settling at the table he often shared with his comrades. His only concern was the next place to put his blade, his shoulder, his foot, his hand.
While he couldn't say that he was consciously counting the number of rotations he had completed, some corner of his mind always kept track, and after the eighth time through, he knew it was time to stop. He finished the last form with a flourish, crossed rapier and dagger rasping against each other in salute to an imaginary foe before dropping his arms to his side. He was breathing heavily, his shirt was damp with sweat, but his face was relaxed and smiling. D'Artagnan stripped his gloves from his hands as he walked slowly to the long table and his waiting breakfast. He deposited sword, gloves and dagger on the table next to his brown leather doublet and smiled at Serge, his eyes dancing still. Serge met his gaze, eyes narrowing.
"Spoons," Serge grunted, pushing himself up from the table and retreating back into the garrison common room. D'Artagnan shook his head and rolled his eyes. There was never any telling with that man.
D'Artagnan sat on the bench with a heavy sigh, his back to the table. By now his companions would typically be gathering for breakfast before muster. But Athos and Aramis were away on an errand for the King and not expected back until mid-morning and Porthos . . . D'Artagnan let a knowing smirk play across his lips. While he had not fully taken his young friend into his confidence, Porthos had let it be known to him that there was a lady in his life. He had been tight-lipped about the details, but more and more evenings had seen him absent from the card and dice games he was well known to frequent, and late to muster more mornings than not. D'Artagnan had suspected a lovely widow they had met while on guard at one of the King's garden fetes, but tease him as he would, Porthos had not seen fit to share her name.
D'Artagnan certainly didn't begrudge his friend the comfort of a woman's embrace, but he was dismayed that for the third day in a row, there would be no sparring after muster. Porthos would hardly be in the mood for it and the other musketeers in the garrison tended to avoid D'Artagnan's rigorous training style. He hoped he might be sent on some assignment by Treville, but D'Artagnan knew that as a new recruit, unless he was dispatched on a mission with his companions, he was not likely to be given any solo duty other than back in the armoury for another tedious afternoon. He sighed again. The day that had looked so promising before was losing its appeal despite the sunshine.
D'Artagnan's attention was pulled from his brooding by a shout. He looked up to see a young girl running through the arched entrance to the garrison, flushed and frantic, crying out for help. D'Artagnan was on his feet and moving toward her in the same swift motion. He took three long strides to intercept her in the middle of the deserted courtyard where he had just been practicing. He grabbed her by the shoulders and steadied her on her feet. He looked past her, but it didn't look as if she was running from pursuit. So what then?
"Hey, hey," he said, gripping her tightly and trying to get her to focus on this face, "steady there. Look at me. Take a breath." The girl finally focused on him and nodded, taking in deep gulps of air while her eyes remained locked on D'Artagnan. D'Artagnan smiled at her encouragingly, taking in the details of her face and clothes. She had to be about 10 years old, scrawny and underfed, wearing ragged clothing that hung too loosely on her small frame. Damp blond hair reached her shoulders while sharp blue eyes fiercely met his brown ones with intelligence and urgency. Her breathing grew more steady and he gave her shoulder what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze.
"There now," D'Artagnan said gently, "tell me."
"I need help, we need help, I mean," she said getting flustered. She reached up and grabbed his shirt, tugging urgently," You have to come with me to the Court! I'm supposed to bring a Musketeer!" she pleaded.
"The Court?" D'Artagnan exclaimed, "What's happened at the palace? Is it the King?" he pried her hands from his shirt and strode to the table to gather his weapons.
"No, no!" the girl sobbed, "not the palace, the Court! Where I live! I have to bring a Musketeer! You have to hurry!"
D'Artagnan paused and took her in again, his leather doublet forgotten in his hand. The girl was no palace servant, even a scullery girl would be better fed and clothed than this. "The Court of Miracles?" D'Artagnan asked. She nodded her head vigorously. "Why do you need a Muske – " D'Artagnan cut himself off abruptly. Porthos. Porthos was there and had sent for a Musketeer. It was the only explanation that came to D'Artagnan's mind as to why anyone from the district of beggars and thieves would want a Musketeer in their midst. D'Artagnan's heart started racing and he felt his stomach twist. Something must be horribly wrong that Porthos was back in that place again. He spared a glance to the empty courtyard. There was no other soul in sight and while he technically might not be a Musketeer yet, he was not about to leave his comrade without aid.
It didn't dawn on D'Artagnan to ask for permission, to leave a note, or even to shout up to Treville's office. He fleetingly considered that it might be some kind of trap to lure him from the safety of the garrison, but dismissed that as unimportant to the matter at hand. If Porthos was in need, he had no time to waste drumming up reinforcements and if the entire thing was a ruse, then they would have to face one angry musketeer . . . well, almost musketeer. The only thing he had the presence of mind to do was leave his doublet on the table and instead, grab Serge's discarded cloak where he had left it by the cooling porridge. He had limited experience with the Court of Miracles, but he remembered quite well how unwelcome the Musketeers had been in their uniforms and fine leathers. He pulled the ragged cloak across his shoulders and raised the hood, bathing his face in its shadow.
"Now, then," he said, taking the girl by the hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze, "show me." Clutching tightly to D'Artagnan's hand, the girl pulled him through the archway and into the still sleepy maze of Paris streets.
D'Artagnan kept his hood pulled low over his face while the girl led him through the twists and turns of the back alleyways of Paris. They slipped through narrow and rough streets that he didn't know had existed – a Paris hidden from sight to all but the lowest and most desperate of its citizens. A nobleman making a wrong turn at night could have his purse stolen and his throat cut mere yards away from the Opera House or even the Court House with no one the wiser. To the rich Parisians, these streets were invisible but this child was wending her way through them with the surety of a schoolgirl on her way to church. D'Artagnan was grateful for his guide and for the early morning hour as the streets had been more or less deserted, but now as the sun was climbing, Paris was waking, and he and the child were starting to draw some attention as they passed. D'Artagnan's free hand slipped beneath his borrowed cloak and rested on the butt of his pistol.
His guide must have made a mistake, because when they made the next turn the alleyway dead ended at a long stone wall. D'Artagnan paused but the girl tugged at him.
"This way," she said, pulling at his hand, "please, hurry!" Frustrated, she dropped his hand and ran on ahead.
"Hey," he called softly at her retreating form, "wait!" and he trotted after her.
The wall turned out to be the charred remains of a burned out tavern, the dead end a tiny courtyard that would have been a place to tie horses. Black scorches showed where fire had licked through the upper windows and the vines and trees growing from the crumbling façade showed it had been long ago. The main entrance to the old inn was a crumbled ruin, but to the far left, a small iron door stood rusted and partly open. He followed the girl as she ran inside.
D'Artagnan had expected that they would be stepping into the burned out shell of the inn, but instead found himself in another street, ramshackle stalls and rickety wooden walkways leading to upper levels. The remains of the Inn had long been scooped out and all that was left was the wall and its door, an opening into another world.
The girl was waiting for him at the other side of the door and he caught her by the shoulder before she could run off again. "Where are we?" he asked her.
"Pony-side," she said as if he should have known that. He stared at her quizzically and the girl rolled her eyes but explained as one might a small child, "This door is to Pony-side. It's the market. In the Court."
"Why Pony-side?" D'Artagnan asked. The girl rolled her eyes again.
"The Inn," she said, exasperated and gesturing at the ruined wall behind her, "It was called something after a pony. Can we please go, we are almost there."
"Where exactly are you taking me?" D'Artagnan finally thought to ask for the first time in their journey. He silently chided himself. Athos was right, he had to use his head more.
"To the King's Hall, we are almost there," the girl whispered, "and we have to hurry. She said to be quick," the girl urged.
"She?" D'Artagnan asked. He had assumed it would have been Porthos who sent specifically for a Musketeer. He felt the knot tighten in his stomach again. "Please, what has happened?" he asked softly, his intense eyes belying the forced calm in his voice. He could see the girl was getting upset with his refusal to keep moving.
"It's terrible," she whispered, her eyes filling with tears, "She said to find a Musketeer. She said to hurry. You have to come!" she let out a small sob, "Please you have to come!" and she started to pull at his hand again.
D'Artagnan's mind was screaming at him that following her blindly into the Court of Miracles with no notion of why he was even going was foolhardy, but his fear that something had happened to his friend was stronger. He allowed himself be led again, paying careful attention to the route they took in case he had to get out on his own. Focusing on that kept his worry about Porthos at bay – at least temporarily. It only then dawned on him that no one knew where he was. He cursed himself again for the impetuous nature that always seemed to land him in trouble.
The girl had been truthful that their destination was close. At the end of the market street, they turned to the right, up a narrow track between leaning buildings and then to the left to an open courtyard filled with tents and temporary structures. D'Artagnan marvelled that people could live in these conditions. The courtyard belonged to a large building with a crumbling colonnade and peeling façade. The broken lettering said it had been a theatre once. The girl led him to the side of the large building and slipped in through a side door. A back entrance to the King's Hall.
He stepped through the door, out of the Paris sunshine and into the murky coolness of the old building. Before his eyes could fully adjust to the dim light, figures emerged from the shadows. Half a dozen men at least he counted as he heard the clicks of their cocking pistols. D'Artagnan moved the girl behind him with a gentle gesture and then slowly raised his hands to show they were empty. He took a long inhale and wondered how he was going to get himself out of this one.