All went dark and quiet. He was utterly and horribly alone now, buried without honour under the foul, stinking sludge. The grime filled his nostrils and stung his eyes. His one hand still desperately protruded through the surface.
In those final moments D'Artagnan's only thoughts were of the men he had left in the house.
He should have stayed to fight with them. He should have become a Musketeer. Now he would never get his chance to prove himself. Prove himself to the Captain, to the King, to himself and his companions. He could never tell them how much their support had meant to him, how much he respected and cared about them. He could never say how desperately he had tried to make them proud and live up to their example.
Porthos' smiling face flashed before his eyes, followed by Aramis' roguish grin and cavalier wink. Next came Athos' stoic face, the cold blue eyes unable to hide their mirth. Athos morphed into the shape of his father, his face smiling warmly, his arms spread out to welcome his son.
"Father!" D'Artagnan shouted. "Father, I'm so sorry I disappointed you."
"You haven't my son, not yet," his father responded. D'Artagnan gasped.
"You were always a fighter, son. Don't give up now. Your brothers will have need of you…" his father replied as he faded into the darkness of the murk.
"Father!" D'Artagnan shouted, fighting harder against the muck that was swallowing him whole, its hands grasping him and pulling his further into their muddy depths.
And then suddenly, the darkness faded. Something had clasped onto his desperately flailing arm and was slowly, but surely pulling him to the surface. Arms locked themselves across his chest as his head broke the stagnant water's surface. D'Artagnan began spluttering and spewing, desperately trying to clear his lungs of the sludge.
"Easy! Easy," soothed a voice in his ear.
"'Mis!" D'Artagnan gasped, then went limp in the medic's arms.
"D'Artagnan," someone called to him softly. "Open your eyes," the voice ordered.
D'Artagnan felt a hand run itself through his hair as he struggled to obey the command.
"That's it. Open your eyes," the order repeated.
With great effort, D'Artagnan opened his eyes. He was lying on the table in the home they had been held captive in. Athos was sat next to him, holding the Gascon's hand in his own.
"'Thos," he mumbled. "What happened?" he said and looked desperately around the room. Athos sported a cut above his eyebrow. Aramis was wrapped in a blanket and was reclined in a chair by the fire. Porthos was next to him stirring something in a pot. He winced slightly as he turned at the sound of the young man's voice and approached the table. Aramis was close behind, roused by the big man's movement.
"Ya might need ta be more specific," said Porthos beaming at him. He pulled a chair forward and sat Aramis in it as the marksman swayed slightly next to him.
D'Artagnan shook his head. "I don't understand. How…What happened? How did we get out?"
The three men shared a look. D'Artagnan read identical looks of concern in each man's eyes.
"What do you remember last?" asked Aramis, gently.
D'Artagnan furrowed his brow, trying to recall what had passed.
"You told me to get the horses," he muttered. "The leader of those men…he followed me. We fought in the bog…Had a dagger," said D'Artagnan bringing a hand to his temple and gently massaging it. "I managed to kill him…then," he said, his breathing picking up as his panic grew at his recollections. "Then, I couldn't get out…the mud…felt like hands, pulling me under…I saw…I saw…I saw…"
The Gascon broke off hyperventilating as he recalled the determined pull of the mud and the images it had created.
"Breathe," said Aramis, grasping the man's empty hand. "Just breathe."
The three musketeers shared a look of concern over their youngest's bowed head. They waited a moment as the young man conquered himself, then suddenly D'Artagnan raised his head.
"Then I heard you!" he said staring at Aramis. "What happened?!" he asked again.
Aramis chuckled and began to cough hoarsely. "Maybe you should tell him," he said to Athos as Porthos passed the marksman a steaming mug.
The Gascon looked at Athos, his brown eyes locked on the blue.
Athos sighed. "We emerged from the cellar to find the men relaxing in the living room. Let's say they were surprised to see us."
"I'll say," rumbled Porthos, grinning slightly.
Athos glanced at the brawler, a glint of humour in his eyes. "We were…a bit outnumbered. I ordered you to get the horses, hoping to remove you from the chaos of the room and to hopefully expedite our departure. We managed to vanquish all the gang members. Aramis led the charge to follow you outside – you know how seriously he takes his patients' health. It was Aramis who saw your hand protruding from the mud," he said, lips quirking and eyes sparkling now as he looked at the marksman with both exasperation and pride. "Then, in true Aramis fashion, he recklessly threw himself into the bog after you before anyone could stop him."
"It wasn't reckless," Aramis interjected. "We didn't know how long he'd been under and needed to get him out of that filth."
"That's true," said Porthos looking at him fondly. "But how were ya expectin' to get yerself outta that mess?" he asked, eyes bright with repressed laughter.
"Well I figured you and Athos had to be good for something," he retorted peevishly.
"Thankfully, in this instance you were correct," Athos smirked. "Aramis grabbed you, I grabbed him, and Porthos grabbed me, and together we were able to pull you from the bog."
D'Artagnan let out a brief burst of laughter at the image and immediately began to cough, struggling once more to breathe as the pain in his sides returned with a vengeance. .
"Careful!" said Aramis. "You managed to break one of your ribs in your mud-wrestling match. I was able to stitch the stab wound once we were able to get the grime off of you. So far it has somehow remained miraculously clear of infection."
D'Artagnan nodded as he struggled to regulate his breathing again.
"Rest now D'Artagnan," said Athos, as the Gascon's eyelids began to drift close.
"Thank you," he muttered to the men at his bedside.
"For what?" asked Porthos.
"For not leaving me…for not letting go…" he said as he drifted off.
"Never, brother," said Aramis, squeezing the young man's hand. Three pairs of eyes burned with an identical fondness as they looked down at their injured Gascon, each man silently vowing to spend what life was left to them in the defence of their new brother.
Porthos, Athos and Aramis' eyes met across the body of their fourth.
"All for one and one for all," the vowed in their language that needed no words, a language that in time the Gascon would grow fluent in as well. The blood of their brotherhood was thicker than water; thicker than mud.