Porthos watched in horror as the smaller swordsman had managed to get a lucky hit in. He sliced Aramis' arm causing the marksman to stagger a few paces over to the right. Porthos could not help himself, he yelled out his friend's name in shock. Aramis turned at the noise and staggered another couple of steps and ended up leaning on the tree.
Porthos reached back for the gun he had dropped before he had attacked the injured man on the ground. He could not take his eyes off the fight occurring in front of him, he knew he would only get one chance. His fingers closed around the butt of the weapon, he pulled it into his grasp. Dragging his arm around he used the body of the man he had killed to rest his arm on, he lined up his shot. He did not think, he just fired. The taller man froze, his sword clattering to the floor as his hand stopped working. The man crumpled to the floor, the trickle of blood sliding down his face the only indication of the injury the ball had caused as it buried itself into the man's head, just above his hairline.
Aramis had managed to push himself off the tree and was trying to bring his right arm up to defend himself. His left arm hung by his side, his main gauche still held loosely and uselessly in his hand.
Porthos knew Aramis would be too slow, he was becoming confused as the shock and pain of his injury took over his senses. Porthos' own injury was plaguing him, but somehow he had pushed the pain to one side, for now. He did not know how long he would be able to focus for.
The man he had killed had dropped a gun, but it was tantalisingly out of reach. Porthos knew he would not be able to reach it.
The shorter man had wasted no time, he had twisted his sword and after pushing Aramis back towards the tree smacked the hilt into the side of the marksman's head. The effect was instant, Aramis slumped to the floor, a crumpled heap leaning against the tree.
The gang member turned the sword back and prepared to run Aramis through.
But Porthos, in those few seconds, had not been idle, he had collected the dagger he had used to kill the third man. He had pushed himself up enough to raise his arm and he had thrown the weapon.
'We can't be far from where we split up from them,' said d'Artagnan as he led the way, gun drawn, along the path.
The further they had walked the more concerned they had become. Athos had expected to find the pair much sooner. He was expecting them to appear around each corner with a glib remark about how he and d'Artagnan should not have been worried about them. Athos expected them to appear telling tales of how they beat off the three men. Athos expected both Aramis and Porthos to come up with increasingly outlandish stories of the sword fight they must have had.
But neither man appeared.
D'Artagnan had drawn his gun several minutes before, Athos was on the verge of pulling his own weapon from his belt. Athos knew something had gone wrong. His friends must have encountered a problem. He found it hard to believe that the two of them, well trained, disciplined soldiers would have had any difficulty fighting off three malnourished gang members, who had probably never been formally taught how to hold a sword, let alone spar.
They continued to follow the path, hoping to find their friends well, but increasingly knowing they would not.
The man who had been about to kill Aramis staggered back, the dagger Porthos had thrown protruded from his neck. Porthos watched, as the man tried in vain to pull the dagger from his neck which was already slick with blood. As the man panicked, the blood flowed quicker from the wound. He turned around and stared at Porthos who had scrambled back and pushed himself up to stand.
The man's face had drained of all colour, he was gasping, his ineffectual fingers clutching but not gripping the dagger. He took a few steps forwards before swaying and sinking to his knees. Porthos thought the man was trying to form words, his mouth worked, but no sound other than a guttural gurgle emerged. A few more seconds of staring at his killer was all the man could manage before he slumped forwards and did not move again.
Porthos wasted no time. The threat was gone, but his friend was still in danger. Porthos could see the blood dripping from Aramis' arm. The wound was still bleeding freely, his friend's life was draining from him as Porthos watched. Aramis was not unconscious, he was staring off into the distance.
'Aramis, you have to come over here, we need to bind the wound...Aramis!'
The marksman managed to turn his head to look at Porthos. The side of Aramis; face was covered in bruises. Porthos realised his friend was concussed and confused.
'You need to come over here. Please, Aramis.'
The pain in Porthos' ankle and the strain he had put on himself during the fight was starting to take its toll. Porthos was worried he would pass out before he could help Aramis. If he passed out Aramis might bleed to death. His friend might just sit where he was and die, confused, not even knowing what was happening to him.
Aramis started to push himself up to stand, he swayed when he straightened up, but remained standing.
'Come over here.' said Porthos as slowly and clearly as he could.
Aramis managed a stumbled, confused walk. It was only a few yards, but to Porthos, it felt like miles as he watched his friend.
As Aramis neared him Porthos reached out and grabbed his friend's uninjured arm. Aramis came to a stop in front of him, his eyes unfocused.
Aramis did not sit down, he looked away, along the path that they should have travelled.
'I have to go,' he said.
'No, you have to sit down, Aramis, please just sit down.'
Porthos tried to gently pull his pale friend to the ground. He could feel his own strength leaving him rapidly.
Aramis pulled slightly at Porthos' hand, he tried to walk away, taking a wobbling step.
'I have to take the documents...that's what you want me to do. You want me to leave you here.'
Porthos rolled his eyes, now that he needed Aramis to stay put, the stubborn man wanted to leave.
'That was before, I need you to stay now.'
Aramis shook his head, which caused him to sway again, 'no, I'm going.'
Aramis tried to walk away again, his journey stopped by Porthos' firm grip on his arm. Porthos knew he only had a few seconds before he could not keep hold of Aramis any longer. If he let Aramis go, the chances were he would wander off and collapse somewhere. If they were not found soon Aramis would die. No. Porthos had to keep his confused friend with him. He could not knock Aramis out, tempting as it was. Porthos doubted he had the strength left to hit him hard enough, and it would be dangerous to the already concussed man.
He reached up with his other hand and grabbed Aramis' left arm, squeezing the wound as hard as his fading energy would allow. Aramis looked at him, his expression one of shock. Porthos did not like hurting his friend, but he had no choice.
'I'm sorry,' he said as Aramis gasped, then cried out in pain, weakly pulling at Porthos, trying to get him to let go.
Porthos continued to squeeze the wound, Aramis cried out again, before slumping forward. Porthos grabbed him and managed to manoeuvre them both to sit on the floor. He leaned his friend against the rock, checked that his breathing was even and quickly went about binding the wound on his arm using his bandana and Aramis' sash.
Porthos looked up when he heard the noise of people approaching. He pushed himself up to stand, it was probably Athos and d'Artagnan. But if it was not, Porthos was determined he would not be killed sat huddled on the floor like a frightened animal.
When they heard Aramis cry in pain they quickened their pace. For their friend to yell out he must have been in some considerable pain. When he cried out a second time, they abandoned all pretence of a silent approach.
D'Artagnan rounded the corner first, he skidded to a halt with his arms held out in submission. He was aware of Athos stopping behind him.
Porthos was stood a few yards away, caught by the ankle in a rusty old man trap. He was standing and aiming a gun in their direction. It took him a few seconds to register who he was aiming the weapon at. With a look of relief, he let his gun arm drop to his side. Porthos swayed then collapsed to the floor, hissing with pain as the action jarred his trapped leg.
D'Artagnan rushed forward and grabbed Porthos before he slumped back into the rocks.
'It's OK, we're here now,' he said.
'Is he alright?' asked Athos looking down at the unconscious form of Aramis.
'Bad cut to the arm, he's lost a lot of blood, and he's concussed, I had to hurt him to make him pass out, he was trying to walk away,' Porthos said as d'Artagnan managed to push him up to lean against the rocks, his trapped leg bent uncomfortably.
'OK,' said d'Artagnan glancing at Aramis, then back at Porthos, 'let's get you out of this thing first, then we can stitch the wound, he's not going to get any worse, now that the wound is bound.'
Porthos nodded, then closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the rock, panting slightly.
Between them, d'Artagnan and Athos prised the trap's jaws apart. Porthos could not help hissing in pain as he pulled his leg free. He was breathing hard and close to passing out by the time he was free.
Athos felt along Porthos' foot and ankle trying to assess if his friend had any broken bones.
As Porthos regained control of his breathing he said, 'I don't think anything's broken, it's just bruised...I'm not gonna be able to walk on it though.'
D'Artagnan watched as Athos eased the injured musketeers boot off. Porthos screwed his eyes shut, panting again. The ankle was swollen and, as suspected, badly bruised.
'See to Aramis,' said Porthos after a few moments, looking at his pale friend with concern.
D'Artagnan undid Aramis' doublet and with Athos help divested their unconscious friend of it. The wound was still bleeding sluggishly, now that the temporary dressing had been removed. Athos lay out what they would need to stitch the wound.
D'Artagnan cleaned and stitched as Athos held Aramis' arm still. The marksman did not stir during their ministrations.
'He's breathing OK. He'll be weak, but he should be fine,' said d'Artagnan as he wrapped a clean bandage around the stitched injury.
Porthos sighed with relief. Athos had managed to get the worried musketeer to drink some water as they had worked on Aramis. Porthos no longer looked like he about to pass out.
'We just have to hope he is more his usual self when he wakes up,' said d'Artagnan.
'Yes, he's stubborn at the best of times, but he was really quite determined to go off on his own earlier,' replied Porthos.
As the silhouette of the rock face came into focus Aramis blinked a few times. His vision sharpening each time he opened his eyes. His head hurt, he knew he was concussed and that moving was not going to be pleasant, but he would have to move at some point.
Slowly he turned his head and found d'Artagnan, which surprised him slightly. The last thing he remembered was running and fighting the other men with Porthos.
'Hello,' said his friend with a smile.
Aramis tried to lift his head, but changed his mind when his world began to spin.
'Take your time,' he heard d'Artagnan say as he felt a steadying hand rest on his shoulder.
As the sickening motion settled down he tried the movement again, but much slower and with the assistance of his friend. When he had reached a sitting position, he had to wait for his eyes to catch up with him. He found he was breathing quickly, he tried to calm his breaths. D'Artagnan had moved his hand to rest in the middle of his back, keeping him upright, his other hand gently lying on his leg.
'Can you manage a drink? You've lost a lot of blood.'
Aramis did not bother to nod, he knew it would not be a good idea. D'Artagnan took the stopper from the water skin and held it up to his lips.
'That will do. How are you feeling? Porthos said you were confused earlier, you were trying to leave on your own. He said he struggled to stop you wandering off.'
Aramis thought for a moment, he did not remember much about the fight.
'Where is Porthos? And Athos?' he asked slowly looking around.
'On their way back to the horses. Porthos can't walk on his injured leg, it's going to take them a while to get there. We could tell you were starting to come around, so they decided to get a head start.'
'But what if I was still...confused?' asked Aramis.
He knew that even with an injury he might have made a nuisance of himself for d'Artagnan.
His friend chuckled, 'oh I took precautions,' he said glancing down at Aramis' arms and legs
Aramis followed d'Artagnan's gaze, his wrists and ankles were tied with his weapons belts. He had not noticed the bindings until they were pointed out to him.
As d'Artagnan began to release him Aramis managed to look around again, he saw the bodies of the three men lined up neatly a few yards away.
'I didn't manage to take any of them out,' he said with a frown, 'Porthos was stuck in a man trap and he was the one that did all the work…'
'I'm sure he will enjoy teasing you about that later. He was too worried about you earlier to really talk about what happened.'
D'Artagnan hooked his arm under Aramis' and slowly pulled the marksman up to stand. Aramis could not help groaning in pain as the action aggravated his headache and pulled at the stitches on his arm.
'Sorry,' said d'Artagnan once he was sure Aramis was holding his own weight, 'we'll take it slow, we'll probably catch the others up anyway.'
Aramis began to walk forward, finding d'Artagnan beside him snaking his arm around his waist as they walked. Normally he would have protested at the apparent mollycoddling, but found it a comfort to know that if he were to stumble he would not stumble far.
'Rest for a few moments,' said Athos, 'I could do with a break myself...this is not the easiest of terrains to traverse.'
Porthos nodded, gratefully, he allowed Athos to lower him onto a low rock. The swordsman sat beside him. They had made good progress considering his handicap. Athos had found a stout tree branch to act as a walking stick, after a few hundred yards of their journey. It had helped speed them up considerably, but the strain of hopping over the uneven ground had tired Porthos quickly.
He looked back along the path, towards the spot they had left d'Artagnan watching the still unconscious Aramis. The marksman had looked very pale when they left, he had stirred a couple of times, which indicated to them that he would awaken soon. D'Artagnan had suggested that Porthos and Athos start to make their way back to the horses. Even if Aramis was still confused when he awoke d'Artagnan would be able to deal with him. As they had left Porthos could not help a chuckle as d'Artagnan began to wrap the marksman's own weapon belt around his wrists as a precaution.
'If they have not caught us up by the time we reach the horses, I will go back,' said Athos who was also watching the path for their friends.
'I'm sure he'll be fine,' said Porthos, 'it was just worrying when I could not get him to come over to me.'
They lapsed into silence for a few seconds. Both men looked up when they heard voices. D'Artagnan and Aramis had nearly caught them up. Aramis still looked pale, his arm held in a sling made from his now stained sash. D'Artagnan was holding him around the waist but did not seem to be supporting the marksman.
'Hello,' said Aramis with a smile, 'I understand I caused you some problems...I apologise.'
Porthos smiled back, 'if you knew what I did to stop you wandering off you probably wouldn't be apologising.'
Aramis frowned, he looked at Athos and d'Artagnan.
'I had to hurt you, I'm sorry,' said Porthos a little contritely.
Aramis thought for a moment, 'well I have no recollection of that, so let's not worry about it.'
Porthos grinned again before saying, 'thank you, for not leaving me there...as you should have done.'
Athos huffed at the remark, 'the chances of any of us leaving one of us in danger are very slim. You would have stayed with Aramis, or either of us,' he indicated himself and d'Artagnan, 'had the roles been reversed.'
Porthos nodded, 'I know. We just have to remember not to let him,' Porthos looked at Aramis, 'get a bang on the head if it happens again, all bets are off then...he'll leave you in a heartbeat.'