By Blue Fenix
The sunlight hurt the boy's eyes, even within the shade of the carriage. He wanted to cover his eyes, to hide, but too much else was happening. The instant they'd entered the carriage, the biggest man half-carrying him, the priest pounded on the ceiling. The driver shouted at his four horses, and they took off at a gallop. The sudden swaying motion, the din of the wooden wheels over gravel, were almost too much. Bile rose in the boy's mouth. He clenched his teeth, willing himself not to vomit at the uneven motion. He'd been sick once before, inside the mask. He shied away from the memory of that filth against his face; the last thing he needed was one more reason for nausea. Days until he'd felt clean again, even by prison standards. It had almost been worth it to be clean, even when the jailer … the boy buried that memory deeper than the first one.
The escape, the visit from his supposed confessor had happened before his first meal. The familiar pain of hunger helped him this time, making his motion sickness less severe. And they'd put him in one of the seats facing forward, where the jarring of the narrow coach was less disorienting. They'd wrapped a cloak around him too, the loose hood draped over his iron-encased head. After six years alone, he was trapped in a confined space with three strange men. Merely being that close to other people terrified him. The boy curled up in his corner of the carriage, but the plank seat was so narrow that he couldn't avoid contact with the man beside him. The mask was almost a refuge. If the boy moved only his eyes, he could watch them without them being aware of it.
In the opposite corner sat the priest, or the one dressed like a priest, who had rescued him. A very tall man; strong, to carry the boy under his clothes without showing the weight, but lean rather than bulky. His dark eyes were constantly in motion; scanning both the road on either side and his traveling companions. The boy was grateful to him. He would have welcomed this interlude in the sunlight even if there was death instead of freedom at the end. But the priest still frightened him, more than all the other frightening things around him.
In the seat across from the boy, the biggest man. He was both fat and muscular, wide shoulders and a big belly. He looked somewhat younger than the other two -- though all of them were well into middle age -- and seemed the most relaxed. He sank into his corner like a bear into its den. "Four hours to Paris, and you forget the wine," he aimed at the priest. His voice was deep and booming; even so, it barely carried over the noise of the wheels.
"You'll live," the priest said sharply. "Two hours, to where we're going."
"There's an inn every mile on this road."
"Idiot." the priest snapped back.
The third man leaned forward a little. Tall like the priest, far thinner than the big man, his long, thinning hair mixed with gray. "Porthos has a point. We can at least let him out of that thing." Revulsion in his voice; he was the one who'd been most affected by his first sight of the mask.
The priest shook his head, decisively. "It needs tools and privacy, and we haven't either. Not here. We cannot afford to stop." The other nodded a little. The priest was in charge, then.
The thin man spoke again; it took the boy a second to realize he was talking to him. "Does it hurt you?"
A lump rose in the boy's throat at the unexpected pity. He had almost forgotten the kinder emotions, along with so much else. The priest had been gentle enough with him in the process of smuggling him from the prison, but impersonal -- a man doing a difficult and necessary job, little more. This was warmer, authentic concern from one human soul to another. The boy couldn't frame an answer; he shook his head. The thin man looked back at the priest, his eyes growing hard. "Why?" he demanded. As if it mattered, as if what was done to a strange boy touched him personally.
"He doesn't know it, but he is Louis' great weakness," the priest said. "Patience. I will explain everything, when we're in safety." He followed his friend's example and spoke directly to the boy. "Rest. No harm will come to you."
The boy shrank further back into his corner. He did shade his eyes with his hands this time, shutting out carriage and companions until he had something like the dark stillness of his cell. Inside the temporary shelter, he closed his eyes and drew out his one treasure. The only thing no jailer had taken from him, whether they ignored him or taunted him or used him as their toy. Philippe. He had never spoken his own name, or written it on his few scraps of paper, the whole time it had been masked. No jailer had cared who he was, but withholding it still meant something to the boy. Now … if he were truly rescued, it might be safe to be Philippe again. If he were in some new kind of captivity, his secret talisman might give him enough emotional strength to defend himself.
They want something from me. Not … nothing simple.His jailers had misused him for the same reasons they roasted rats alive; he was convenient, and nothing stopped them. This escape was anything but convenient. Philippe had specific value to them. He knew dimly that his life had not been normal, not just the mask but the isolated childhood before it. His value must relate to that same overarching secret. These men could tell him who he was, if they wanted. Friends or enemies, he was in their power now. There will be a price, for being rescued.
Philippe moved his fingers, creating a tiny chink in front of one of the mask's eyeholes. In the seat beside him, the kind one was staring vacantly out the window. His face at rest was harsh, dangerous. Then his focus shifted -- looking not at Philippe but past him -- and some strong emotion took control of him. Sorrow, Philippe thought. Because of what was done to me? The incredible thought seemed true, or partly true. The older man looked at Philippe, as if aware of being watched, and much of the pain remained in his eyes. "You're only a child." Philippe could barely hear him over the sound of the wheels.
Please, Lord, don't let them be my enemies. At least, not like the jailers. At least, not this one.Thirty seconds of kindness, but Philippe felt he couldn't bear it if this particular stranger turned on him. He lowered his hands. "Who are you?" he mumbled.
"Athos," the thin man said, as if it were a complete name. He tilted his head toward the priest. "Aramis. Porthos. We are … we fight together."
My name is Philippe.Only one word, like theirs. He couldn't make himself say it out loud. He'd hidden too long; the nameless, captive part of himself whimpered and snarled inside at the idea of giving anything away. The thin one -- Athos -- didn't demand any answer of him. He watched Philippe with that same mixture of pain and pity. When no response came, he looked sharply across the coach at Aramis. The priest looked bland. "Rest," he repeated. "We can do nothing useful until we reach a safe location."
Philippe got little rest in the swaying, dust-filled carriage, but he did sink into a doze. The half-hypnotic state had filled whole days of his life in prison, when brutality gave way to despair and boredom. He pretended sleep, hoping to overhear these men in conversation, but there was none. Perhaps they didn't like each other, or didn't want to shout over the noise of travel. The one next to him -- Porthos -- seemed genuinely asleep; a few times his snores drowned out the horses' hooves. Philippe hoarded the few scraps of information he'd gained, arranging them over and over in his mind like the paper toys on the floor of his old cell. If these were new enemies, he couldn't hope to stand against them. But if they ever let him out of the mask … the idea brought a mixture of fear and hope. It was very unlikely that the destination of this trip would be as well-guarded as the prison he'd left. At worst, with his own face, he had a chance of escape if things got ugly.
Part of him came back again and again to better hopes, no matter how unreasonable they seemed. They'd taken him out of prison; they'd been kind. Maybe it would be like home. He tried to remember details about the priest and the old woman who had raised him. The memories were too well-worn. He only had impressions left, shadows without faces. But there had been people once who spoke to Philippe with kindness, listened with respect, touched him without meaning harm. A spark of hope, dim but stubborn, grew in him that his life could be that way again.
The carriage tilted and turned. It slowed, as light-colored stone buildings came up on either side, and stopped for the first time since Philippe had been put in it. Men in dark clothes clustered around the vehicle, opening the door. Porthos startled awake. Athos drew a long dagger -- Philippe flinched away from the sudden movement -- but Aramis held up one hand. "They're mine. Jesuits."
He climbed impatiently out of the carriage. The other two followed, sweeping Philippe along with them. The boy turned his head from side to side, trying to take it in. A country house, many times the size of his childhood cottage. It was like heaven, clean and bright in the sunlight. He caught glimpses of trees and fields, a little way off beyond the buildings. He felt unworthy of the place, like some sewer-creature dragged up into the light.
They were leading him toward one of the outbuildings, a low building with open, wide doors and deep shadow inside. Another dungeon? Philippe's steps faltered, and he tried to turn aside. Athos, on his right, prevented it with a gentle grip on his upper arm. "Blacksmith's forge," he said quietly. Philippe squinted through the sunlight and saw he was telling the truth. There was an orange light in the heart of the dark room, and the roar of bellows forcing air through coal.
He let them sit him on the floor, leaning backward at a dizzy angle, his head in the mask propped on a small anvil close to the firelight. Like waiting for the executioner's axe, Philippe thought wildly. Aramis looked over the rows of tools with a terrifying air of combined uncertainty and enthusiasm. "The lock is steel, it has to be the iron around it. Cutting chisel." He caught up something bright and sharp-edged. Grasping a hammer in his other hand, he attacked the back of Philippe's head.
The boy moaned in terror, close to screaming. The other two men were holding his head in place; he thrashed, fighting uselessly against their combined strength. Athos leaned in, dangerously close to the hammer, and whispered to him. "Hold on." The words gave Philippe a moment of courage, enough to bear the agonizing noise ringing through his head. He shivered like a trapped animal, but he held still.
One more sense-numbing blow, and the noise stopped. The hands gripping his chin, the sides of his head let go of him. The mask itself came apart; first the heavy back half and its enfolding framework, then the molded piece over his face. The weight, the slight but endless pressure had been part of him for so long that their absence was almost pain. Like losing part of his own body, even as he rejoiced in the sudden freedom. Numb with conflicting sensations, Philippe stayed leaning against the anvil until Athos laid a hand on his shoulder. Then he sat up, unsteady, thrown off balance by the sudden lightness.
They stood back and gave him room. Philippe had imagined horrors under the mask, his own flesh rotted away, layer of scars from the constant contact. His rescuer's reactions showed none of that, though the priest winced and looked away from him. Philippe ran his fingers over his own face. Tangles of dirty hair, thin beard, but the skin itself seemed whole. The need to see and know gave him energy. A bucket of water stood by the forge. Philippe walked to it and bent over the still surface. His own face, pale and unmarked, looked back at him. After so many years, it was as unfamiliar as a stranger's. The blood pounded in his head like Aramis' hammer, and Philippe barely felt himself falling.