Porthos watched horrified. He was about to lose a second friend. He was about to watch d'Artagnan die. The bandit holding him was not really necessary, he was still tied to the cart, he could not reach d'Artagnan and Domont in time, even if he tried.
He and Athos were still shouting protests and cursing the men. Athos had tried to struggle free of the man holding him but had not been able to, the punch he had just taken had winded him and sapped what little energy he still had.
It had all happened so quickly, and now d'Artagnan was knelt under the axe. About to die. The young musketeer had looked terrified when he realised what was going on. He had not even struggled against Fabien when he had been roughly pulled away from the cart.
A shot rang out, Domont fell to the ground, the axe still in his hand. They all paused. The man holding Porthos loosened his grip. They looked for the source of the shot. It had come from the right of Domont's position. Porthos found it hard to believe what he saw. Aramis was standing with a gun levelled towards Domont. The gun was held awkwardly in the marksman's still bound hands. For a second he looked across to Porthos, a faint smile played across his face. Then he crumpled to the floor, as if he were a puppet whose strings had been cut. He was quite still.
The shot that killed Domont also pulled d'Artagnan out of his slow-moving world. Up to that point, since he was dragged out and forced to his knees he had felt sluggish and confused. The gun shot snapped him out of it. He pushed Fabien off him, the man was staring towards Domont's body, at the bloody mess that was his head. D'Artagnan dived toward the body and ripped the guns, Aramis' guns, from the weapons belt of the now dead gang leader.
He turned around and aimed at Fabien. He could not help a quick smile as he pulled the trigger. Aramis' guns were very well looked after, he had every confidence the shot would be true. Fabien had time to look surprised. The expression stuck on his face as he fell forward, very dead.
The other bandit that had hauled d'Artagnan to his place of execution took a step towards him, trying to pull a gun from his own belt. He did not get the opportunity, as d'Artagnan fired the other gun he had taken from Domont. Both weapons now spent d'Artagnan looked towards his friends.
Athos pulled away from the man holding him, he swung his bound hands towards the man's face, knocking him down. Fighting, using dirty tactics was not something he would usually do, but in this instance, kicking the man in the head did not bother him in the slightest. The man was unconscious and likely to remain so for some time.
Porthos had managed to grab his man around the neck and rendered him unconscious by throttling him. The man fell to the floor. Porthos looked across to where Aramis lay, Athos saw the worry immediately cross his face. He turned and saw Stephane walking, purposefully, his sword drawn, towards Aramis. But Aramis, who had regained consciousness, was clearly in no state to fight, he was trying to move away from the advancing man. All Aramis could manage was an ineffectual crawl that was made harder by his injuries and bound wrists. Stephane was making a last-ditch attempt to take out one of their little band and he had picked on the one man who could not properly defend himself. Stephane was clearly a coward.
Athos knew that neither he nor Porthos could help Aramis, they were still tied to the cart with limited movement, only d'Artagnan was in a state to do so, but there was no time. He glanced around. The man he had rendered unconscious was wearing a gun. He quickly grabbed it and as he called d'Artagnan's name he threw the gun towards him.
D'Artagnan who had been watching his friends take out their guards had not noticed Stephane approaching Aramis. It was only the fact that Athos was staring in that direction that drew his attention to the danger Aramis was in. When Athos called to him and threw the gun he knew what to do. He grabbed the gun, raised it, aimed and fired. Stephane fell forward landing on top of Aramis who had not succeeded in moving very far. The marksman cried out in pain as the body landed on him.
Athos watched as d'Artagnan rushed over and pushed the limp body off his friend.
Porthos used a knife, taken from the weapon belt of the man he had throttled to cut the rope from around Athos wrists. Athos returned the favour. Once free he made his way towards Aramis. D'Artagnan had helped the marksman to sit up. He did not look well, but he looked better than Porthos had expect him to. Porthos had been convinced the man was dead.
Aramis smiled at him as Porthos knelt. Porthos was a little surprised when Aramis spoke.
'Sorry,' he said, 'I deceived you.'
Porthos did not reply, merely looked at his friend.
'I made out it was worse than it really was…my injuries,' continued Aramis by way of explanation.
Porthos continued to look at Aramis for several seconds before grabbing him in a bear hug. It was only the hiss of pain from Aramis that made him stop, he pushed Aramis away from him and inwardly cursed as he realised he had just caused his friend pain.
Aramis smiled at him again, 'it's OK,' he said simply.
'Why did you collapse, just now?'
'I've been awake since they left me, and I haven't eaten…and they kicked me again…and I really do hurt now.'
It was Porthos' turn to smile. He rested his hand on his friend's shoulder. Aramis was pale and kept blinking, Porthos knew he was in danger of passing out again.
'Let's get you over there, it's shaded, and you can lean on that tree,' suggested d'Artagnan.
They moved the marksman to the more comfortable spot and untied his hands. Porthos found some water and what remained of the bread. He left it by Aramis, but his friend had, indeed, passed out again. They had propped him up against the tree, although leaning on his bruised back hurt the marksman had not wanted to lie down, as that made it difficult for him to breath.
Porthos helped d'Artagnan to move the bodies. They firmly restrained the two men that were still alive, they were tied to the back of the cart, in the same manner that the musketeers had been. Athos ensured the horses were watered and fed, then built a fire near Aramis. They gathered, a short time later, around the fire.
'Are you OK?' asked Athos.
D'Artagnan looked up, he had been poking a stick into the fire, his face impassive. He nodded.
'I don't think it's really sunk in yet…what nearly happened. When they grabbed me, I don't know why I didn't fight them. I just sort of…froze.'
Porthos put his arm around the young man in a friendly gesture.
'Your reaction was quite normal,' said Aramis who had watched the exchange, 'I've seen it in people on the battlefield.'
Athos moved across to the marksman and offered him a cup of water, which was gratefully received.
'Where did you come from, back there. We all thought you were dead, or dying when they left you in the woods,' asked d'Artagnan.
Aramis spent a few minutes relating what had happened to him. Including how he had seen the young bandit drop his gun when he was taking a comfort break in the woods. A most fortuitous mistake.
'When Domont was going to kill you,' said Aramis, 'I knew I had to act, but I only had one chance…if I had missed him…'
Porthos watched as d'Artagnan reached over and grabbed Aramis by the shoulder. Despite the pain it caused the man, he was obviously glad of the gesture.
'You never miss,' said d'Artagnan with a grateful smile.
Authors note: I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for all the great reviews.