Thank you guys so much for all the support I've received, it means so much to me. Here we go with the fourth and final chapter of this little story. I'd love to hear your thoughts. I hope you enjoy!
If they had initially believed that they had the element of surprise on their side and could overpower the Spaniards, they had quickly been forced to realize that they had run straight into a trap.
Porthos had experienced quite a bit the past few months and in his whole life in the regiment. But if that damned artillery destroyed his plans one more time, he would crush these cursed things with his bare hands.
It had ended up in chaos, and his group had been forced to split up in order to escape the cannon fire. He and Aramis on the other hand had stayed together, almost naturally. And now they were here, encircled by enemies and without a way out.
He had lost his beloved broadsword, when exactly, he could not remember. He did not remember much of what happened anyway. He recalled being separated from Aramis, thanks to a cannonball, and shortly after, he had been attacked by three men at once.
The next thing he could remember was Aramis who had stood halfway over him, shouting his name, not looking at him but grimly fending off any man who came too close to him.
Porthos had regained consciousness with an aching head and a stab wound in his shoulder. But thanks to his rapidly building adrenaline, he had let himself being pulled back on his feet by Aramis.
Side by side, they had then fought their way through the hell of the battlefield. Aramis had told him that one of the houses where Athos had planned to go to with his troop had exploded. Porthos could not find out whether it had been a deliberate action or not, but they had no time for details anyway.
The Spaniards should not have been prepared. At least not to that extent. Porthos was sure someone had betrayed the musketeers. But right now, he needed to concentrate. He stood back to back with Aramis, surrounded by enemies, armed with nothing more but a dagger and his god-given strength. Aramis knelt behind him in a visibly twisted position because his right leg could not carry his weight.
His comrade had been dealing with a single man of the cavalry at one time. Although Aramis had been able to pull him down the horse with a tight grip, he had been overpowered from behind at the same time. Porthos had rushed to his aid, but he had not been able to prevent Aramis from receiving the gaping wound above his knee.
Somewhere, Porthos had been able to spot a fire around a cannon, and he hoped that this could be a sign for Athos and d'Artagnan.
Once he and Aramis had come no further, they had decided thanks to their silent communication to contest their hopefully not last fight here. Aramis was occupied with Porthos' pistol as well as his own, while Porthos used his large body to protect his friend in case of emergency, while warding off everyone who came within his reach.
He was angry. Angry at the cannons, angry at those thirsty for his blood. Angry at whoever had betrayed them all and fed them to the guns. A small part of him was furious that there still was no trace of Athos or d'Artagnan, but his common sense was stronger and gave him the reasons why they weren't here.
Damn, he had told Athos that splitting up was a bad idea.
The wound in his shoulder threw waves of pain through his entire upper body, and his head throbbed uncomfortably, but his unbridled anger dampened all those sensations and made him fight like a berserk.
The puffs of smoke from the fire cleared a little bit, and Porthos narrowed his eyes only to see the musket aimed at him in the distance.
"Aramis!" he shouted distinctively and his friend changed positions with him in a not-so-elegant manner, firing his pistol just in time to prevent the musket from being used and finding its target.
As much as Porthos loved fighting, as much as he liked to be tested, every fiber of his being was being consumed by the desire for a cup of wine, a hot meal and a warm bed. It was just enough.
They had survived the scheming and plotting of the cardinal. They had saved France from the hands of Rochefort. They had convicted traitors, they had been imprisoned, and they had hunted criminals all over the country on behest of the King.
But no one had been able to prepare them for this. And in situations like these, Porthos made it his task to protect his men, especially his friends. It might be selfish, but it was part of his survival instinct. He and Aramis were used to fighting together and forming a unity.
Even though they had previously led the attack to protect the King and the country from the enemy, one now only fought for the man standing at one's side.
"Porthos!" he heard Aramis' voice from behind. His tone wasn't panicked, but very insistent, and Porthos turned around to see a Spaniard swinging his sword at Aramis, who was still busy reloading his weapons.
In a single movement, Porthos threw his dagger, his last weapon, at the man and saved Aramis, who could barely escape with his wounded leg from ending up on the other end of the Spaniard's sword.
Porthos now felt something, or rather someone, approach from the side, and he was about to threaten him with his fist as he recognized the two figured hurrying towards them.
"About time!" Porthos growled as a greeting.
Even over the battle noise, he heard Athos snort scornfully.
D'Artagnan on the other hand laughed audibly.
"And I thought you like a good challenge!"
Before Porthos could answer, Aramis jumped in from behind with a dry remark.
"Well, what can I say. We prefer that there is a chance to keep our heads." Shortly after, they heard the sound of one of Aramis' pistols being fired.
Porthos felt Athos' gaze rest on him, and he knew the Captain was considering giving him one of his weapons, since Porthos seemed to be unarmed. As if to answer the unspoken question, Porthos grabbed a hostile man and knocked him out with sheer manpower.
Athos left that uncommented.
The four of them resembled a rock in the chaos of the battle. From time to time, muskets thundered through the night, the fire hissed and men screamed in anger or agony.
But it was another sound that drew Porthos' attention now. The thundering of hooves. But not from the isolated Spanish cavalry soldiers. The earth trembled under the number of animals galloping towards the battlefield.
Porthos turned his head to look north. A large horde of riders galloped down the slope and headed towards them. Frantically, Porthos searched for a sign, an indication to whose side these riders belonged.
Finally, he discovered a standard-bearer, and he was carrying a simple, white flag. Without the cross of Burgundy. So it was a drapeau blanc. Relieved, Porthos lowered his arm.
"General Lantier!" he shouted at his companions over the roaring noise.
Behind him, he heard Aramis laugh, but the relief was evident.
"Does he want to claim the glory for this battle as well?" the marksman yelled, but no one was unhappy about the arrival of support.
Athos on the other hand turned to Aramis, leaving it to Porthos to protect him from a sword in the back.
"Aramis. Do you see the cart back there?"
Porthos followed Athos' gaze and looked at one of the transport carts with which the Spaniards were transporting their supplies. He noticed the boxes next to the ammunition, and couldn't help but grin. He saw Athos pulling a musket from a body in the dirt and holding it out to Aramis.
"Can you hit that?"
Porthos stifled a smile.
"Can I hit that?" Aramis repeated insulted before snatching the musket out of Athos' hands. "I hope you are joking, Captain."
Aramis deliberately addressed Athos with his title, Porthos noticed. They liked to do that to annoy Athos whenever he did not contribute to the mood with his broody and discontented behavior.
"You're injured, Aramis," Athos countered imperturbably while he threw his dagger at an upcoming enemy.
Porthos couldn't see Aramis, and he was too busy to look, but he could vividly imagine the sour look his friend was for sure giving the captain right now.
"Do I need my leg to shoot?" Aramis asked and Porthos saw Athos rolling his eyes.
"D'Artagnan, I need your help!" Aramis demanded and the youngest of them froze during the chokehold he had one enemy in.
"You need me to fire a musket?" he asked in disbelief.
"I have nothing to steady the weapon here. Just lie down in front of me and shut up for a moment."
D'Artagnan looked offended, but complied.
"Cover us!" he said to Porthos and Athos, before he lay down in front of Aramis so the marksman could prepare the musket.
Porthos and Athos circled around them protectively, making sure they were not being attacked, but the number of enemies had diminished since the General's support had arrived.
If Aramis managed to hit the cart, that could be the last step towards their victory over the Spaniards, and they would retreat before this ended in a total massacre. At least Porthos hoped so as he watched Lantier's men sweep over the Spanish infantry like a hurricane.
"Aramis, come on and get done with it!" Porthos growled impatiently.
"Patience is a virtue, my friend!" Aramis replied in a disgustingly soothing voice, at least in Porthos' opinion, and judging by a quick glance, his friend had everything in position. He only had to aim.
Looking at the cart however, Porthos realized what prevented Aramis from shooting. It's not like it was a large distance, but a group of Lantier's man was too close to the cart. Porthos bent down, picking up one of Aramis' pistols and getting rid of one attacker.
"Porthos!" Aramis voice sounded from behind. "If you want to keep your leg unscathed, I suggest you take a step aside."
Porthos cursed and quickly stepped sideways towards Athos, and moments later, he watched Aramis use the musket.
The bang came a few moments delayed, at least in Porthos' dizzy brain, but Aramis' aim had not failed them. The cart went up in flames, and slowly Porthos began to wonder whether that was all they had achieved this night. To set things on fire.
But it had the desired effect. The remaining Spanish troops fled. "Retreat!"-shouts were heard all over the battlefield and the men stopped fighting and started to run.
The General's cavalry chased them westward for a while, but at some point, the enemy's forced managed to escape.
The silence that now settled over the battlefield was murderous. After all the noise, all the screaming and the thunder of the guns, Porthos was convinced that he now really and truly had become deaf. He inspected the battlefield with his eyes, not moving a tiny bit, and from the lack of movement from the other three, he was sure they were doing the same.
With the constant fire now finally being over, the smoke, which lay like a shadow over the field, cleared a little bit and they could see the reddish light of the rising sun.
The ground was soaked with blood in many spots, the earth torn apart by cannon and musket balls, almost grotesquely decorated with bodies and broken weapons. Some men were already standing up, other didn't move. The remains of burning cannon racks occasionally provided another source of light in the slowly brightening morning.
Porthos' eyes were burning, from the smoke as well as from the realization of what they had just been through. It wasn't their first battle, it wasn't their second. But it also hasn't been the easiest, and Porthos felt like the longer they fought at the front, the harder it became.
Many men had talked of indifference, when this life had slowly become their routine. But it was always difficult for Porthos. He knew why he was doing what he was doing, and he knew his three friends felt the same way, but the only thing he wanted to cheer for at the end of the day, or, in this case, the beginning of the day, was the fact that he and his friends had survived.
The mantle of silence that had enveloped them eventually loosened, and slowly but surely, the sounds of screaming men and frightened, roaring horses reached his ears again. As the adrenaline in Porthos' veins slowly faded, the stabbing pain in his shoulder, as well as the throbbing in his skull, returned. He took an unsteady step forward and felt like everything was spinning.
A firm grip on his upper arm held him upright, and Porthos looked up into Athos' cold and pale eyes.
"I have to report to the general. Can you take care of the situation?"
Taking care of the situation had become Athos' standard phrase to ask them to look for the wounded and help out everyone who needed it. Porthos noticed Athos skeptically scanning his bloodied shoulder, but Porthos gently slapped Athos and nodded his head into the direction of the general.
Athos bowed his head in gratitude and hurried towards the general, while Porthos turned to his two remaining comrades.
Aramis had reached a half-kneeling, half-standing position, resting his body on the musket he had rammed into the ground. He was quite pale due to the blood loss from his knee injury, but he seemed to control his pain.
Porthos was about to bend over to help his friend, but Aramis declined.
"You can barely stand…on your own," he said, giving Porthos the hint of a smile.
Porthos answered with an approving grunt and looked around to search for d'Artagnan. The young man stood with his back to them, seemingly about to go after Athos.
"Hey, d'Artagnan!" Aramis attracted his attention as their young friend seemed to have forgotten about the limited mobility of his comrades for a moment. D'Artagnan turned and raised a questioning eyebrow until his gaze fell on Aramis, who was breathing hard from the effort of holding himself upright.
"A little respect for the older ones, if you don't mind," Aramis panted, a soft, humorless laugh escaping his lips. He held out a hand to d'Artagnan.
The Gascon, embarrassed that he didn't come up with the offer himself, ran back to his two friends, grabbed Aramis by the arm gently and pulled him to his feet, before putting Aramis' arm around his shoulder. The two hobbled ahead, while Porthos, whose vision was still slightly blurred from his head injury and whose shoulder still hurt like hell, trudged after them.
"D'Artagnan!" Porthos said, looking at the musketeer through heavy eyelids. "I'm afraid you're going to have to take care of the situation on your own." As if to underline his statement, he swayed on the spot and blinked several times to dispel the dizziness.
D'Artagnan raised an eyebrow and stopped abruptly which made Aramis curse and complain, and drained all remaining color from his face.
"Did you really think I would take you two on an expedition across the battlefield now?"
Porthos looked startled.
D'Artagnan snorted in disbelief.
"I'll take Gérard and a few of the other men with me. You two…," he said, and pulled up Aramis, who was barely holding some of his weight on his own. "You two will see a medic as soon as possible."
Porthos opened his mouth to say that this could wait, but d'Artagnan silenced him.
"Don't even try to argue with me Porthos. Come on."
The sun was already high in the sky when Athos joined them again. Porthos and Aramis had been taken to the camp, which was placed down in the woods, and their wounds had been taken care of. Even though it had taken them a little longer than expected. Aramis had insisted that the others were being treated first. Then, he had personally grabbed Porthos and looked after his injuries. To Porthos displeasure, Aramis afterwards had helped treating the others, which ended up with him collapsing on a bench due to exhaustion and Porthos cursing him.
But that was their usual way of dealing with the aftermath, and situations like these were no news to Porthos. D'Artagnan had arrived later with Gérard and the others, listing the victims which this battle had demanded.
Now, with the Spanish threat out of reach for a while, they were sitting outside, letting the faint autumn sun shine on their skin.
D'Artagnan sat cross-legged on the ground, in front of the campfire with the remains of a chicken that they had just eaten. Aramis, whose leg was wrapped in a broad, though slightly blood-soaked bandage, sat on a broken tree stump. The rest of the tree probably had fallen victim to the guns last night. Aramis' color looked a lot healthier, and even though Porthos knew each one of them was still dealing with the events of last night, it was good to sit with his friends and have a casual conversation.
Porthos was sitting on the floor, leaning against one of the supply carts, and now looked up to Athos, who just jumped off from a horse, wherever he got it from.
"And?" Aramis asked, before unconcernedly returning his interest to his cup of wine.
"Did the General curse the men again for incompetence?" d'Artagnan added in a bitter voice.
Athos shook his head.
"Not even Lantier has such a low opinion about the worth of the lives of these men that he would dare to treat them disrespectfully now."
Athos sank on the hard ground with a sigh and took the cup of wine d'Artagnan held in his hands. The younger's protest was drowned out by Porthos' question.
"How did Lantier know about this?"
"Well, it was him who sent us here. He expected my report two days ago, but how were we supposed to get away from here? So he thought he'll come and check it out himself."
Athos ran a hand over his face and beard, a little upset.
"He did not curse the men, but of course he never misses an opportunity to let out his anger on the four of us. He called us incompetent leaders, and that we can be glad he arrived in time."
"What a shithead," Porthos growled indignantly.
"Unfortunately, he is right," Aramis threw in bitterly, and started to clean his pistols. He looked up again when he seemed to feel the three pairs of eyes resting on him. "Well, you know, the part about the victory we probably wouldn't have achieved without the arrival of the cavalry."
D'Artagnan and Porthos grunted in agreement.
"So, what's the plan?" Porthos asked, knowing it was a question nobody had dared yet to speak out.
Athos carefully looked between him and Aramis.
"New formation of the troops. The injured will be brought back to Paris as soon as possible."
Porthos nodded, acknowledging the statement. Athos didn't seem to be finished yet and he cleared his throat nervously.
"That also concerns the two of you."
His gaze again wandered over Aramis and Porthos.
Aramis froze in the middle of his pistol-cleansing motion and frowned.
"We…," he began but Porthos interrupted him.
"…are certainly not going back to Paris." It wasn't easy to say that, but as much as Porthos longed for his rooms in the capital, his home was where his brothers were.
D'Artagnan seemed to be on Athos' side, at least superficially.
"Look, your group really has been through a lot last night. You both did not get out of it unharmed and that…"
"…is my fault," Athos finished, receiving nothing but surprised stares in response.
"How exactly are Spanish cannons your fault?" Aramis wanted to know and stared at the captain blatantly serious.
"No, not that," Athos replied, making a dismissive gesture. "But the affair with Sandre. I should've known. I could have foreseen that."
"Sure, you could have," d'Artagnan retorted, rolling his eyes. "If he had announced his betrayal aloud."
"But he didn't," Porthos added, giving Athos a look of sympathy.
"It's not your fault, Athos," Aramis put in calmly. "None of us could have foreseen this. But we survived. It's over."
Athos grimly stared at the ground, but the corners of his mouth twisted into a crooked smile.
"Alright, so…," d'Artagnan said and cleared his throat. "Paris?"
He looked back and forth between Porthos and Aramis. Porthos, on the other hand, searched for Aramis' gaze. His decision was made, but he still needed to see the icy resolve in Aramis' eyes again before he verbally announced the answer.
"Not without you two."
Aramis snorted in agreement.
"You're not shaking us off so easily," he added.
"In Paris, you can recover safely," Athos said, his gaze absent-mindedly focused on the fire. "And you could be working as the King's personal guard again."
"And bore me to death again at the parades?" Porthos shook his head. "No, thanks."
"Besides, who would make sure d'Artagnan doesn't move his ass out of the damned cover when I'm not here?" Aramis added with a grin, and d'Artagnan let out an agonized moan.
"You're not giving me a break, are you?"
Aramis raised an eyebrow.
"You almost ran into your certain doom. Alone," Aramis replied dryly.
A mischievous smile spread over d'Artagnan's face.
"Are you saying you wouldn't have run after me to protect me from this fate?"
"I did not have to, after all, I saved you from getting out of that pit in the first place." Aramis granted him a dull but teasing grin and Athos only rolled his eyes in exasperation.
D'Artagnan, who was used to these kinds of exchanges with Porthos and Aramis, only leaned over to Aramis to give him a friendly pat on the shoulder.
"So, you don't want to go to Paris?" Athos asked again, apparently ignoring the previous conversation.
"Sure, I'd love to," Aramis grumbled. "If you two come along as well."
"That's not possible," Athos replied.
"Then, you'll be stuck with us for another while," Porthos said and d'Artagnan faked an annoyed sigh, and even Athos smiled relieved at his cup of wine.
Of course they were safer in Paris. But each of them preferred to know where the others were and how they were doing. In secret, Porthos knew that Athos and d'Artagnan were glad they stayed.
"You have no idea how glad I am that we're all sitting together here and today," Aramis murmured again more seriously.
"That was definitely too close for my taste," Porthos sighed.
"But all of us are here," Athos said, looking up. "And I think we owe it to each other."
Porthos gave a barking laugh.
"That's out of question."
"Hey, d'Artagnan!" Aramis said, handing the young man a full cup of wine after his first one fell victim to Athos' thirst.
Aramis then reached out and held up his own glass.
"One for all?"
The other three leaned over and they slammed their cups together.
"And all for one."