Philippe opened his eyes. Though his vision was blurred he knew he was somewhere else other than the cell in which he had lived for the past six years. There was a pain in his head which made him grimace, but this pain was different to the usual one.
The young man understood nothing. The last thing he remembered was being in his cell gripped by a fever. And then he had asked his keeper if he might receive a confessor. But beyond that Philippe had no recollections.
As his eyes focused the young man became painfully aware of the light, not a strong glow but far more than the light he had been forced to grow accustomed to. He squinted as the illumination made his headache worse and tried to find a memory. But there was nothing but a black emptiness which terrified him. He shivered.
"Are you cold?" a voice asked softly.
Philippe started softly, weakly, afraid of the presence of any human being. For many years, he had lost count of the exact number; no man had ever come near him without meaning harm.
"It's alright," the voice said. "No-one is going to hurt you."
The soft reassuring tone affected the young man who had not heard such a tone for the same number of years he had been a prisoner. In spite of his terrible weakness he was able to turn his head and look at the man who had spoken.
"Who are you?" he managed to ask in a hoarse whisper.
The man smiled. He had a kind smile, Philippe thought feebly.
"My name is Athos," the man replied. "You've been very ill Philippe, but we've been taking care of you; me and my friends."
Philippe had not heard his name spoken for so long that he had almost forgotten it.
"How…" he began but his weakness overwhelmed him. He was about to try again, but the man Athos seemed to understand anyway.
"That is a long story, Philippe, one which will have to wait until you are feeling better. For now you must rest and try to eat. You are safe here."
Philippe managed a faint smile. There were so many questions, but he looked into Athos's eyes and believed that he had nothing to fear.
Athos returned the gesture.
"Do you think you could drink something?" he asked with a lot of concern.
Philippe shrugged. He felt nauseous, but his mouth was so very dry.
He watched as Athos went to the stove and poured some liquid into a cup
"Just a few sips," he said as he placed the cup next to Philippe's cracked lips.
Philippe went to drink but for the first time he realised the truth. The cup had touched his lips. That meant…
'The mask?" he asked in barely a whisper.
Athos moved the cup a little.
"Don't worry. It's gone," he replied. "It's gone for good."
The fear had haunted the young man everyday in prison, every hour within that mask, that were it ever to be removed, what would be left behind. He had to know…
"Don't worry, its fine," Athos replied kindly. "Just a bit pale, that's all."
Philippe could not help but breathe a sigh of relief. He wanted to raise his arms and touch his face, but they felt like lumps of lead. Once again Athos seemed to read his thoughts.
"Don't worry," he assured him, "Your strength will soon return. Once we get some decent food inside you."
He moved the cup back to the boys lips his warm eyes willing the boy to drink. Philippe fought the feelings of sickness and took a few sips of the broth.
"Good," Athos said. "Very good Philippe. Now rest. I will be watching over you so there is no need for fear."
Philippe nodded and relaxed back on the soft pillow but he did not close his eyes. Instead he studied his carer more closely.
He was a tall man, not skinny, but well built. His long brown hair was thinned and had strands of grey suggesting that he was advanced into middle age. Behind the kindness and concern in his eyes, Philippe saw dark shadows that frightened him. Shadows like those in his soul.
But the boy was too exhausted to think about such things.
He felt his heavy eyes closing again.
The sound of voices caused him to stir. He did not know how long had passed but when he forced his eyes open, the painful brightness had faded to a sombre twilight closer to what he was accustomed to. Philippe listened. There were three voices, outside the room. The young man strained to hear, but their words were unclear.
He managed to turn his head to where the kind man Athos had been sitting earlier, but he was no longer there. Philippe felt a rush of fear and anxiety. He tried to move his head again, to look around the room but it felt heavy, even heavier than when he had worn the mask. He felt his breath quicken as the door creaked open.
"You're not going to talk to him yet Aramis, do you hear me?" a muted voice said.
Philippe could not help but detect the anger in Athos's tone.
"The sooner the boy knows, the better," another voice replied. This time the tone was cool and calculating. It made Philippe tremble, but he did not know why.
One thing he did know though was that the men were talking about him. He closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.
"Do you even realise how sick Philippe is, Aramis? He needs to rest and get well before we even mention anything about the resemblance."
Philippe's mind raced with questions. He understood nothing. He kept his eyes closed hoping the men would elaborate further for him.
"Of course I know he's sick Athos," the other voice replied. This time Philippe noticed that his tone was more annoyed. "Don't forget it was me who saved him from that place."
"Yes. You're right Aramis. But you still have not told us how you even knew that he was there, have you?"
Philippe hardly dared to breath in the silence which followed this remark by Athos.
"I don't think we should be arguing about this now," the new voice said, this time soft and quiet. "Like you said Athos, Philippe is sick and he needs his rest."
Philippe listened as the man walked from the room and Athos sighed deeply. He heard the creak of the boards as his carer walked to the fire and stoked it up. The boy wanted to open his eyes, to ask questions, but the weakness triumphed again and he drifted back to sleep.
When Philippe awoke again, day had turned to night. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Athos sitting by his bedside again. The young man shifted his head slightly. His carer felt the movement.
"Are you feeling any better?" he asked kindly.
Philippe managed a small nod. In the candlelight he watched as Athos leaned over to soak a piece of clean linen in a bowl of water. He then used this to wipe the perspiration of fever from the boy's brow. Philippe felt unexpected warmth at the man's tender words and soothing touch. But this new, positive feeling was tinged with regret and grief for his nurse who had once cared for him in such a way. Philippe had not allowed himself to think of her in a long time and yet now her image flashed into his mind. He could not help but sigh.
He came back to the present suddenly, aware that Athos was looking at him. There was a lot of concern in his face but to Philippe the most noticeable thing was his exhaustion. The boy could not help but wonder how many days Athos had sat by his bedside without sleeping.
Athos spoke again.
"You feel up to eating something?" he asked hopefully.
Philippe shook his head. "A…another drink…please," he managed to reply.
"Alright," he said. "I'll get you a drink. But tomorrow you must try to eat Philippe."
As Athos rose the boy spoke. "How long have I been here?"
"Six days," the man replied. "And like I said before you've been very sick."
Philippe did not doubt this for a second. He remembered how ill he had been in prison; vomiting, fever and chills. Without Athos's care, he had no doubt that he would be dead by now. He was hit by an overwhelming sense of gratitude but for a moment he dared not to express it.
Athos brought a cup of warm broth back to Philippe and held it to his lips so he could drink. He did not speak, just watched as the boy drank thirstily. When he finished Philippe noticed that Athos looked pleased.
"Well done," he said gently, almost as though he was talking to a small child.
"Th…thank you," Philippe replied uncertainly. His keepers had never taken kindly to gratitude; treating any 'please' or 'thank you' he had uttered as just another excuse to hurt him.
Athos's smile widened.
"You're welcome," he said. "Now try to rest, alright?"
But Philippe did not want to rest. He had questions that he needed to ask. It took more than a moment to summon the courage to speak.
"I…I have to know, Monsieur. Please…Am I your captive?"
Athos paused and looked at the boy. The trepidation rose in Philippe as he waited for a reply.
Athos shook his head slightly.
"No," he replied softly. "You're not a prisoner, Philippe. Not anymore."
"So I…I was pardoned?"
Philippe's eyes filled with relief momentarily as Athos bit his lip.
"Did anyone ever tell you why you were in prison?" he asked softly, so gently it was almost lost to the night air.
The sadness flooded back into the young mans eyes as he shook his head 'no.'
No-one had ever told him anything about why he had been thrown into prison and the mask. In the end he stopped even asking because of the brutality of his keepers at every attempt to learn the truth.
"But you know that you had done nothing wrong, don't you?"
"I know nothing of it, Monsieur," he replied solemnly.
"You must have been just a child," Athos said. "Do you know how old you were?"
"It was…the day after my fifteenth birthday, Monsieur."
Philippe noticed the compassion that came into the man's eyes on hearing these words. He had to wait more than a few moments for the reply.
"We will talk more about this as soon as you are well, Philippe," he said. "But for now it should be enough for you to know you are free and safe. While I am here no harm will come to you, alright?"
Philippe smiled faintly. "Thank you Monsieur." He said with a lot of gratitude. "I don't know why you are so kind to me, but thank you. Thank you so much."
"You're welcome, boy, now rest, alright?"
Another smile came from the kind man. Philippe smiled inwardly as he realised that there would be no more prison; no more masks. For the first time, he was able to close his eyes and drift into an untroubled sleep.
The painful light flooded into Philippe's head as he opened his eyes. He closed them again hurriedly, back into the familiar darkness of his cell. But he knew he did not want to be there, at least the stronger part of him didn't. He forced his eyes open again and squinted, trying to make his eyes adapt.
Athos was there and he smiled.
"Good morning," he said.
With his eyes still just half open, Philippe replied "Good Morning, Monsieur."
"Do you want me to draw the curtains?" Athos asked in a fretful tone.
Philippe shook his head.
"No Monsieur," he replied. "I want to see the light."
"Alright," Athos said kindly. "Now, remember last night you promised me you would try to eat this morning."
Philippe nodded his head.
"I will try Monsieur."
"Good," Athos replied. "That's what I like to hear….just don't expect anything too special. Aramis did the cooking this morning."
"Aramis is one of your friends; the ones you told me about?"
"Yes. That's right. Perhaps you would feel up to meeting them later Philippe?"
Philippe shrugged. He had only just managed to get used to having Athos nearby. He wasn't sure how he would cope with being in the same room as several men. It had been years since he had seen anyone other than his keeper and the occasional priest. Not since….The horrifying memory faded away at the last second, buried back into the darkest recess of the young mans troubled mind.
Athos noticed the Philippe's fear.
"Only if you feel up to it," he said. "If not….then it will wait. They will not mind."
Philippe forced a smile.
Athos simply nodded and brought a bowl of hot porridge to the bed. He ate the spoonful which Athos put to his lips with some eagerness since there was a felling of hunger in his stomach now and not just the sickness. Athos smiled and gave his patient a second spoonful.
"Is it alright?" he asked.
"It's lovely…Thank you," Philippe replied. It was so long since he had eaten anything other than stale bread or the occasional bowl of putrid broth or half rotten fruit that the simple porridge was like luxury to him. As was everything about the place he was now. The soft bed, the warm fire, the comfortable nightgown, they were all long forgotten luxuries.
Athos willingly gave his patient a third spoonful, eager to get the boy to eat enough to restore his diminished strength. Philippe ate hungrily.
In between mouthfuls Athos touched his patient's forehead. His staid, worried expression softened slightly.
"Your fever has gone, Philippe," he said. "That means you're on the mend….we'll soon have you up and about again."
"Does that mean you will tell me more about all this then?" The young man enquired fervently.
"Alright. We'll talk later…but I don't want you to do too much and wear yourself out."
Philippe nodded and ate his fifth mouthful of the porridge.
As he ate Philippe looked around the room, for the first time completely aware of and able to scrutinize his surroundings. Although the boy was oblivious to it, Athos followed every movement of Philippe's eyes his own gaze filed with worry.
"This place is nice," Philippe commented. "It…" He stopped himself abruptly and shook his head.
Philippe was suddenly afraid again. It had been so long since he had even thought about the times before the island prison. He shook his head again.
"It's nothing Monsieur. I was just saying this place is nice."
Like my home was. He willed himself to say it, but the words would not come.
Athos nodded sensing that there were some unspoken words. He tried to cut the tension.
"Yes it is lovely," he said. "A lot nicer than my place."
"So this isn't your home?"
Athos shook his head and smiled.
"No….It belongs to Aramis, my friend."
"You and Aramis must be very good friends, Monsieur."
Athos smiled again somewhat dryly. Philippe was too inexperienced of such emotions to notice the change.
"Hmmm….We have been friends for a long time….since we were about your age, in fact."
"Oh….did…Did you work together?"
"Yes. We were soldiers….King's Musketeers; until we retired."
"You…you were a musketeer?"
Athos could sense the alarm his words had caused to rise in the young man.
"Why does that scare you boy?" he asked gently.
"I….before they put me into the mask, when they took the hood off my head… it was all I saw."
"The crest of the Musketeers. On the tunic of one of the men who held me down. He was one of the men who arrested me."
Athos noticed Philippe shaking with the memory.
His placed a somewhat awkward hand of reassurance on his arm.
"It's alright," He said gently, shaking his head. "I promise that we have no intention of doing you any harm."
"But…I want to understand Monsieur. I have to understand."
Philippe's tone was desperate. Athos forced a smile.
"I know you do, Philippe. I know you do. But I know nothing….you'll have to talk to Aramis."
In spite of his fear Philippe nodded.
Athos raised an eyebrow.
"What now?" he asked.
Philippe managed to nod. He looked really embarrassed.
"I really have to know, Monsieur….to understand."
Athos nodded and stood up.
"I'll just go and get him then, shall I?"