Hey, thanks so much for reading and reviewing, and I hope you enjoy the second part.
"This is all wrong," proclaims Porthos.
Aramis looks at him, wine bottle poised at his lips. "What is, my friend?" he enquires. He sounds cheerful but Porthos knows it is calculated; Aramis feels the gloom of the house as deeply as any of them. Except, apparently, young d'Artagnan who is clearly – and thankfully – oblivious. Which reminds him:
"This!" Porthos waves a hand expansively, encompassing the pile of belongings waiting to be loaded onto the cart, the wine bottles clutched in the hands of both his brothers, and the distinct lack of d'Artagnan at their side.
Aramis frowns, then takes a defiant swig before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and passing the bottle to Porthos who takes it with a frown of his own, then plonks it down decisively. "I'm going to give 'im an 'and." He slides off the cart, landing nimbly on his feet, and turns to look expectantly at the others.
Athos ignores both of them and continues staring into the neck of the bottle he's holding. Aramis looks at him, then at Porthos. "Can't leave him like this," he shrugs. Athos has been behaving oddly since they returned from Le Havre with Bonnaire; drinking more than he has done for years, and prone to bouts of prolonged introspection. Today, for reasons of his own, is a day he is clearly finding hard to negotiate.
Porthos just looks at him. Aramis sighs, knowing full well what Porthos is not saying. Their current location outside the house has nothing to do with Athos and everything to do with the reputation of the Angevin family who'd owned it. Rumours of dark arts and witchcraft had circulated in court for years and although little had been heard of the Angevin dynasty in recent years, local people still stepped warily around the house. None of them believe the rumours, of course, being far too sensible... but they all feel the same sense of unease upon entering, and Athos, in particular, has found the atmosphere almost overwhelming.
It is with a sense of relief that they notice the Gascon, in his ignorance of the house's reputation, is clearly unaffected by the ambience and they retreat, one-by-one, to the more savoury work of loading the cart in the fresh air. It is not until Athos disappears to buy wine that Porthos begins to feel guilty about leaving the lad to do all the inside work. Aramis is genuinely concerned about Athos, but also supremely reluctant – for reasons he cannot name – to re-enter the house, so resents the reproachful look Porthos sends his way.
Before he can muster an argument, however, there is a blood-curdling scream from inside the house, and all hell breaks loose.
d'Artagnan threads a cautious path to the window. The darkness in this last room is intense and he can see nothing at all, even with the door open. He toes his way warily across the bare floorboards, but even so cracks his shin on something solid, making him yelp and hop backwards, rubbing his leg and muttering to himself. He finally makes his way to the window and pulls back the curtain – leaping backwards gracefully as the material rends and ripples to the floor; he has learned from his mistake.
The trickle of light that struggles past the murky glass of the window is barely enough to touch the shadows in this room, but he sees enough to know he will need help. It is crammed full of furniture, writing desks, chests and even some stuffed animals, for goodness' sake: an owl on a bookcase, and what looks like a moth-eaten cat on one of the writing desks. There are books piled everywhere, and glass jars, and there is also a pile of black feathers in a corner of the room. He feels his skin crawl and tells himself to get a grip.
He turns to open the window and call the others up, but when he sees the trio comfortably supping wine he feels a surge of anger. Enough is enough. A smile creeps over his face as he hatches a plan. He takes a couple of steps backwards so as not to be seen, and opens his mouth. A full-blooded Gascon scream should do it, he thinks, smirking to himself as he imagines their reaction. He takes one more step backwards – and collides with something solid, and warm.
Whirling, hand already reaching for his sword, he finds there is nothing behind him but dust motes floating on a tiny shaft of pale sunlight.
He can hear the blood pounding in his ears as he searches the room with his eyes. There is nothing living in here, and definitely nothing warm. Yet he cannot deny what he just felt against his back – can still feel an echo of it, in fact.
The hairs are up on his neck again and he feels a stirring of air, as if someone is standing directly behind him, their breath cooling his neck. He knows there can be nothing there except the window from which he has just turned, but even so it takes more strength of will than he would have thought possible to turn and check.
There is nothing there.
He heaves in a shaky breath, then begins coughing. The dust is snagging in his throat. He's had enough of this place, and turns to the window again, trying to pull in enough breath to carry out his plan to frighten the others with a scream.
The sun has gone in, he thinks, as he realises the light has gone from the windows. In fact there's a shadow between him and the outside world, which he can't understand, but it's there: a thick mass of dark, swirling dust, growing bigger with every second. He blinks, feeling his vision blurring, and realising he has still not drawn a breath. Cannot breath, in fact; the shadows are surrounding him, stifling him with a sense of chilling evil that seeps into his bones, sinking into him through his mouth and nose and eyes, muffling the world around him until he feels it again: the solid pressure on his back and shoulders, crushing the air from his lungs, sinking him to his knees. He has time to think that this is a ridiculous way to die, then everything goes black.
Porthos is moving even before the scream stops, and the others are close behind him, all reservations about this house with its reputation of curses and spells forgotten. The scream doesn't sound like d'Artagnan, but the house is empty apart from him: who else can it be?
As they burst through the front door they hear an astonishing racket from upstairs: thumps and crashes, splintering wood, and a deep noise that is felt through the bones, like the wind that precedes an earth tremor. Dust trickles down from above, followed by something more substantial: pieces of plaster dislodged from the ceiling and smashing onto the tiled floor.
Porthos hears someone curse and then Athos is pushing past him, leaping three at a time up the stairs.
They race along the landing together. There's no doubt where the racket is coming from, and if any of them take an extra deep breath before pushing the door open, none of them have the time or inclination to comment.
Athos is first through the door but stops dead, the others cannoning into him. In any other circumstance it would be funny but right now, it's the only thing that stops them from being caught up in what looks like a whirlwind. Chunks of wood and masonry are flying through the air, and the noise is incredible. They can only see a few inches; the rest of the room is obscured with a whirling dust that looks solid. Athos takes one step forward and disappears into the blackness. Without thinking, Porthos shoots his arm out and grabs blindly at the air, feeling grit flaying his hand until he touches leather, grabs it and yanks. Athos erupts back out of the darkness, coughing and flailing his arms as Porthos drags him out to the landing.
Aramis slams the door and the racket is muted a little, but they can still hear it on the other side and the strength of the – whatever it is – rattles the door even as Aramis holds the handle.
"Are you okay?" Porthos whispers to Athos, who is standing with his hands on his knees, struggling for breath. He straightens slowly and Porthos gasps when he sees his face, which is covered in a hundred tiny scratches, as if someone has taken sand to his skin and rubbed it viciously until he bled.
"What is that?" Aramis hisses, hanging on to the door handle which is shuddering as if someone's trying to open it from the inside.
Athos doesn't answer him but tells Porthos tersely to "find d'Artagnan!" Porthos blinks, realising it's possible the lad is not in there with that devilish whirling thing, and lurches into action, racing down the landing calling d'Artagnan's name and flinging all the other doors open.
Athos and Aramis wait as the seconds tick by, each searching the other's face desperately hoping for enlightenment. Neither have a clue what is happening but it becomes increasingly obvious that d'Artagnan is nowhere else in the house and therefore has to be inside this room.
Porthos rejoins them and they communicate wordlessly. On a silent "three!" Aramis flings the door open, the roaring noise assaults their ears again, Porthos grabs Athos' belt and they hurtle through the doorway together.
As they pass him, Aramis grasps his cross and steps after them, not knowing what he's doing or why, but following a deep instinct. He starts to pray, calling on God to help them, to bring light into the darkness and find good in the evil that festers in men's hearts...
And everything stops.
Athos has already disappeared back into the roaring darkness, leaning on the air which feels like a solid barrier. When the noise stops, the shadow vanishes instantly and Athos clatters to the floor, dragging Porthos with him and leaving Aramis gaping into the room from the doorway, still holding his cross in one white-knuckled hand.
The room is devastated. They don't know how it was before, but it is clearly not meant to look like this. Amidst a rain of dust and grit, tatters of material – curtains, thinks Porthos absently – drift slowly down to the floor and he follows them with his eyes, where he has rolled to his back to release Athos from under him. From this position he can see chunks of masonry mingling with shards of wood littering the whole floor: there is no furniture left intact.
Beside him Athos gasps and he rolls instantly towards him, seeing Athos scrambling urgently to his feet. Porthos does the same and immediately sees what Athos has seen: a huddled shape in the centre of the devastation. d'Artagnan is surrounded by broken wood and masonry, and the familiar tan doublet is tattered and torn. Porthos feels a lurch of fear and shoots to his feet, but Aramis has already hurdled them both and is crouching beside the limp figure, fumbling for a pulse.
By the time Athos and Porthos reach them, Aramis is running hands over d'Artagnan's torso, flinching as several splinters catch his palms.
"Aramis?" Athos' tone is urgent, almost frantic.
"He's unconscious but I can't feel any major wounds..." Aramis is still checking, but a creak from above has them all looking up and ducking as another chunk of ceiling crashes down.
"Let's get him out of here!" Aramis starts to drag him by the shoulders towards the door; Athos grabs his feet and hefts him up, then Porthos scoops him up, turning and running through the doorway as more ceiling collapses behind them. Coughing, Athos and Aramis bundle out after him and follow him down the stairs as the whole house seems to shudder and rock on its foundations.
"What on earth happened?" Tréville's voice is incredulous as he strides across the courtyard. Athos slides off his horse and turns immediately to Aramis, who holds d'Artagnan's body close to his chest across the saddle; the Gascon's head lolls on his shoulder, only half aware. Athos reaches up to gather d'Artagnan in his arms and Tréville hastens to help, yelling at someone to bring blankets and hot water to Aramis' room. He knows the medic will choose his own room over the infirmary.
They lower the youngster carefully to Aramis' bed. He grunts with pain as his back touches the mattress, and Aramis quickly rolls him onto his front before gently divesting him of his doublet. Underneath his shirt is blood-stained and ripped in too many places to number, so Aramis simply pulls his main gauche and slices the collar so he can strip the tattered material away. He catches his breath, and the others are silent, looking at the ruined skin underneath and the swollen patches where bruising will soon appear.
Someone appears with water and lingers in the doorway, gaping, until Tréville sends him away with a glare, then turns his ire on Athos who has slumped onto a chair, staring at the young Gascon as Aramis begins to clean the blood from his back. "What happened?" he demands again.
"A ceiling collapsed on him."
His response is terse and not altogether enlightening. Tréville considers this, notices the sharp look Aramis sends Athos and feels his temper escaping him. "This was a simple task, Athos, one from which you two return unscathed while d'Artagnan looks as if he's been in a bloody stampede, and where the hell is Porthos? I know you measure words like gold dust but I would appreciate more than five words of explanation!"
Athos sighs, and looks at Tréville, who softens a little at the bleakness he sees in his lieutenant's eyes. "Porthos is fine. I sent him to the Palace with the goods we'd gathered, to make sure everything got there safely. We were outside taking a break from loading the cart, and d'Artagnan was finishing the upstairs when we heard a..."
He hesitates, and Aramis gives him another look. He's finished cleaning d'Artagnan's back and it actually looks worse now they can see the number of cuts and scratches littering the tanned skin. There must be splinters as Aramis is now bending over checking each wound with silent intensity, tweezers poised.
Tréville clears his throat impatiently and Athos drags his focus back. "A shout," he says firmly. He refuses to call it a scream. "We heard a shout, and then a... an ..." He trails off, struggling to describe the noise.
"Sounded like the roar of an explosion." Aramis is blunt, with no time for niceties as he carefully extracts a two-inch long splinter of wood from a gash on d'Artagnan's shoulder.
Athos blanches, remembering the feeling of terror invoked by that noise. The morning had been difficult for him; the deserted house had reminded him too much of the return to his ancestral home in Pinon, a few weeks earlier, where he'd been confronted by his 'dead' wife. It had shaken him to the core, and for all his cynicism, the echoes of sadness in the house they were clearing, combined with the stories about the old woman's witchcraft that had kept Paris entertained for her declining years, had left him feeling deeply unsettled. He'd escaped outside as soon as he could, but his melancholic mood had shattered as soon as he'd heard the unearthly racket and known d'Artagnan was in trouble.
He refuses to allow his thoughts to run away with him, and sets his jaw, determined to bring some order to the morning's events. "The house was mostly sound but the last room looked rotten. We don't know what happened, but perhaps d'Artagnan moved something, or tripped..." He struggles to imagine what could have provoked such a cataclysmic destruction, but carries on, firmly ignoring Aramis' arched brow. "Most of the ceiling had come down on him, and part of a wall, destroying the furniture and weakening the floorboards. It was quite... dramatic."
Tréville looks at him carefully, sensing undercurrents, but at that moment d'Artagnan groans loudly and turns his head, then erupts upwards from the bed. His flailing arms knock over the pan of water and send Aramis – who had been kneeling on the bed to reach a wound on his far side – tumbling to the ground. He's shouting hoarsely, but they can't make out the words. Tréville helps Aramis to his feet as Athos tries to calm d'Artagnan with touch and word, and slowly the youngster subsides, sinking back to the bed and putting a hand to his head.
Tréville checks Aramis is alright, then retreats, watching as the two men reassure d'Artagnan and try to persuade him to lie back down but he is adamant, and Tréville suddenly works out what d'Artagnan had shouted. It was in Gascon, and he'd been begging someone – Aramis, presumably – to get off him, to let him breathe. He mentions this to Aramis, who sighs, knowing he still has to dress the wounds on d'Artagnan's back, but acquiesces and asks Athos to fetch more pillows so d'Artagnan can sit upright. Eventually order is restored and Tréville leaves Aramis to finish his ministrations, motioning to Athos to follow him.
Outside he watches as Athos gulps in the fresh air greedily. Both men turn as Porthos clatters into the courtyard, leaping off and striding over, looking anxious. Athos hastens to reassure him and he disappears inside to see for himself that the lad is conscious and not dying.
Tréville asks quietly: "Is there anything else? Those rumours about the house, and the family..."
"Are just that: rumours." Athos is firm, and Tréville knows he is unlikely to hear anything more on the subject. He nods, and asks Athos to organise a second team to arrange the removal of any other items from the house, suggesting they take a builder with them to ensure the house is safe to re-enter. Athos looks far from enthusiastic, but nods, sighs, and heads off, gathering 'volunteers' as he goes.
Porthos finds Aramis trying to persuade d'Artagnan to take a pain draught. The youngster is agitated and keeps pushing the cup away. As Porthos enters both men look up and d'Artagnan exclaims in relief. "Thank God! I was afraid he had got you!"
Porthos and Aramis exchange blank looks. "Who?"
"That man! The one that tried to smother me!"
There's a small silence before Aramis ventures to speak. "d'Artagnan, there was no one there. The ceiling collapsed on you." He feels uncertain as he voices the explanation Athos gave: it doesn't seem enough to explain the swirling black dust in the room, and remembers his complete inability to step into it without his crucifix in his hand. Porthos is silent and Aramis can see his expression is equally troubled, but neither of them have another explanation for what happened.
d'Artagnan is not to be diverted. "There was a man. He was – he tried before, in the other room. I thought it was you but when I got free of the curtain you were all outside." This doesn't make a lot of sense to his listeners but he is oblivious, words tumbling over themselves in his agitation. "Then I saw her, and she was lovely - beautiful red hair - but that last room was evil, and he was waiting there, and I couldn't breathe, Porthos, he was on me and I was just drowning in the dust!" His deep brown eyes are intense, looking from one to the other, drawing them in. "Then she came and she was fighting for me, telling him to leave me alone... and then you were there, and it all ... stopped." He stops too, panting a little, then sinks back into the pillows. He puts a hand to his head again and groans, then pushes Aramis away as he fusses.
"What woman?" Porthos asks, dubiously. He's not sure whether to encourage d'Artagnan in his version of events, but he can't resist his curiosity. The lad seems so sure even though his words sound outrageous.
"Janette, I think her name is. He was screaming at her... but there was so much noise I can't be sure."
Aramis frowns. The widow's name was Antoinette. The rumours about her were well-known in Paris: perhaps d'Artagnan had overheard someone gossiping in a bar, and misheard the name. He might not have realised where they were headed, that morning, but the creepy atmosphere in the house – and being alone upstairs – must have brought the gossip to mind and spooked him. It is all explainable.
They settle d'Artagnan and Porthos chats amiably as Aramis finishes patching him up. d'Artagnan is intractable in his refusal to lie face down, and Aramis gives in, remembering how they'd found him with half the ceiling on his back. The lad's reluctance is understandable. So Aramis arranges him so he leans on Porthos' chest, head cradled on the warm shoulder, and he almost falls asleep as Aramis stitches, then dresses, the deepest wounds.
They stay with him while he dozes, and Athos finds them here when he returns, bearing sustenance from the mess room courtesy of Serge. They eat, and drink, and save some for d'Artagnan when he wakes, while Athos tells them he'd taken ten men, the second time, and they'd worked in teams of three and four to empty the rest of the house. He shivers as he remembers looking in on the destruction in the end room before closing the door firmly. None of them talk about the way the house made them feel, and he thinks they never will. He can't articulate it, for one thing, and he is a Musketeer, for goodness' sake. Their world is clear-cut: they cannot believe in witchcraft or black magic.
Athos tells them about the neighbour who had come to talk with him about the family while the second cart was loaded. He'd seemed fond of the old woman who had locked herself away after her husband's death, and commented on how beautiful she had been when she first came to Paris from Ireland.
"Ireland?" Aramis sounds startled and Porthos looks at him, before realising. d'Artagnan's lady had been red-haired, as many Irish women are. They fill Athos in on the lad's version of events, and he looks ashen-faced when Porthos mentions the name d'Artagnan had heard.
"Athos? What is it?"
"The neighbour knew them for years. He said the husband was controlling and cruel, and hated her name so he changed it to Antoinette when they married..." Athos hesitates, looking reluctant.
"Athos..." Porthos sounds rattled so Athos hurries to finish.
"Her birth name was Janette."
The silence is intense as they all look at each other. Eventually Aramis clears his throat. "Surely people must have known... d'Artagnan might have heard the name..."
"The old neighbour said she only told him when she was dying. Wanted to be buried with her real name. Said it hadn't been spoken in years... she cried when he called her by her proper name."
After another silence, Porthos spoke hesitantly. "Even so... d'Artagnan could have..."
"Visited her grave? Before we even knew we were tasked with clearing that house?" Aramis sounds angry. They all turn to look at d'Artagnan, sleeping soundly in spite of his injuries, a bruise showing clearly on his cheek.
"Maybe it's true what they say."
"What?" Both Porthos and Aramis sound desperate to make sense of their morning.
"That 'there are more things in heaven than are dreamed of in our philosophy'."
There's another long silence, then Porthos begins to laugh. Aramis stares at him, and Athos glares. "Who the heck says that, Athos? Not summat I've ever heard, that's for sure!"
Athos begins to explain about Shakespeare, in more detail than Porthos needs, but suddenly Aramis doesn't care. Witch, or lonely Irish woman; haunted house or dilapidated ruin; evil or accident: what matters is that d'Artagnan is safe, and his brothers are ... slightly mad. He watches them arguing, a smile twitching his lips.
Behind them, unnoticed, d'Artagnan stirs and turns his head to the window, where a pale beam of sunlight creeps through the pane and lingers for a moment on his cheek, warming his skin.
Hehe, I had fun with this - hope you did too! Thanks for reading, 'see' you soon.