Ah, Paris. A beautiful city at the best of times, but at the worst, horrible. The sun shone high that day, and no clouds marred the blue expanse of sky that hung above the city. Water was being pumped from the ground on every street corner, at every well. It splashed into goblets or buckets or troughs, and human faces dunked leisurely into the cool liquid.
Our boy walks confidently. A confidence that can be easily confused with arrogance if one doesn't watch carefully. He passes inns and taverns, gaining glares and curious looks from its inhabitants. Men too old to work, men too lazy to work, or some men who were working at that moment. They all eyes him with a cold, suspicious air.
Brown hair, curled, tied back by a red ribbon. A single curl falls into his dark eyes, and he flicks it away impatiently, only for it to return to the same place. Our boy crosses the path of a wagon layered with corn from the harvest; the smell gets into his nose and sits there, itching at him from the inside.
A finger touches the tip of his nose, and he rubs it carefully. The houses here are built closely, tightly packed together. It reminds him of a fortress, because the market square which he is approaching is surrounded by these houses. He surveys the area with interest, and notices a boy, sitting on a window sill, leg dangling down loosely as he reads a book.
"Interesting?" our boy asks, curious. "Oh, apparently not. I see the holy trinity on the cover, friend."
The boy on the windowsill looks down at him coldly. "You are not my friend. And show some respect for the Lord our God."
Our boy blinks, and a small smile curves his lips. "Ah, so you are a priest's boy."
The boy on the windowsill frowns, and snaps the book shut. "I am nobody's boy."
He reached for a long wooden sword that was tied around his waist with a piece of old string. Our boy admired the wood; a polished length of oak, with rope tied tightly around the handle for grip. Frayed and cracked from use, the boy on the windowsill stroked it protectively.
"Have at thee," our boy welcomed, bowing mockingly. "If you do not fear the wrath of my own blade, imaginary or no."
"Your tongue speaks in poems," the boy on the windowsill jumped down, and returned the gesture. "Speak plainly, so that the Lord might understand your forked tongue."
Our boy laughed, a merry sound that drew the attention of some passers-by. He removed his plumed hat, and threw his cloak to the ground. He held out his empty hands.
"I'm afraid I have no weapon to spar with," he said honestly.
The boy on the windowsill paused, and his eyes, a clear blue, scanned the market before him. A carpenter stood in his stall, filing the roughly cut leg of a sturdy chair. His hands were cracked and blistered from turning coarse wood to smooth. The boys approached, and he stopped his work to regard them with a wary eye.
"Please, Monsieur," the boy from the windowsill bowed. "May we borrow a length of wood."
The carpenter paused, a lengthy wait for a simple decision, our boy decided. Finally, he nodded, and gave a small plank which he swiftly sheared down to the size of a sword; which he knew from watching the blacksmith next door.
"Now, we may begin," our boy gave a flourishing bow.
The boy on the windowsill hesitated. "I am Aramis. Christened René by the minister at Saint Lawrence."
Our boy smiled. "You may call me Athos. Shall we begin, René?"
Aramis nodded, his face forming a small frown as Athos began the duel. A thrust, parry, riposte – the wooden blade was as fast as anything Aramis had ever seen, yet the boy from the windowsill had enough time to block each blow, lest it land on his soft limbs or torso.
"Ah!" the upper hand belonged to Athos, whose eyes narrowed in a vicious glee at the excitement of the fight. His feet moved faster, closer and closer to Aramis did he become, when the opposing wooden sword came close to his left eye. A heartbeat and a parry after did Athos begin to take the boy from the windowsill seriously.
"You fight like a woman!" Athos taunted. "You are too hesitant, you lunge like you're embroidering your newest dress!"
His opponent's face began to change shades to a delightful, if embarrassing, shade of rosy pink. He let out a small cry as Athos narrowly dodged a blow that surely would have bruised him brutishly. He leapt back, as though he were dancing; hands up, feet together, back arched.
"Why-! Scoundrel!" he scowled, returning the blow to Aramis.
The stick caught the boy on the right thigh, and he had time to cry out before blocking the next immediate blow. They paused; blades of wood clashing and splintering with their full weight against them, until finally Athos' weapon snapped clean in two halves, a splinter flew up and hit his cheek, causing a red gash to leak blood down his pale skin.
"Ah," he tapped his fingers to his cheek and held them before him, red. "It seems my own sword failed me."
"Are you well?" Aramis had tucked his own wooden toy back into his rope-belt. "I am sorry if I have hurt you."
"I am not hurt," Athos' pride spoke more than his wounded cheek. "But I would appreciate a bandage."
Aramis nodded, and rushed back to his windowsill, where he climbed up a pile of logs that sat beneath it. Swinging both legs over the sill and into the house, he disappeared into the gloomy interior. Athos took a kerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his cheek carefully.
"You duel well, for a boy," said a voice, from over his right shoulder.
Athos turned, and examined the newcomer critically. A man, little older than himself, dressed in robes of red and white. A jewelled crucifix dangled over his chest, heavy with rich metals and gems. Athos regarded him coldly, and the church-man smiled, before leaving him to stand alone, holding a kerchief to his cheek.
A noise by the window, and Aramis almost fell from his sill. He laughed, his rosy cheeks deepening and his hand holding out a long roll of white bandages.
"Clean," he said, misreading Athos' expression of gratitude. Athos smiled, and accepted the material willingly. Aramis tied it gently around his face, covering the bridge of his nose and the tip of his ears. Athos examined his reflection in the dusty glass of a window, and laughed loudly.
"I look a fool!" he exclaimed. "But thank you, Aramis."
A small smile plumped Aramis' cheeks, and he bowed his head graciously. As Athos began to walk, he made to keep up with him, his steps slightly shorter than that of his companion.
They walked quietly for a small way, Aramis would attempt to question Athos, who would in turn, give the briefest and least interesting answers he could. In years to come, his past would still be a mystery to his friends, and they would not question it.
Athos paused, outside of a small tavern. Aramis looked at the place with distaste, and both boys leapt back when a grown man, of no more than forty, came rolling out of the open doors. His hair astray, his collar askew, his trousers around his ankles; the boys stared at him as if he were a creature that was yet to be discovered. For Aramis had experienced his first drunkard, and Athos his first mendicant.
Following the victim of such a brawl was a beefy lad of no more than fifteen; closely cropped hair and a scowl upon his face. He started towards his quarry but the man had scurried away, uttering curses after the cursed 'du Vallon'.
Athos and Aramis regarded him quietly, as the boy crossed his arms and swayed confidently in the doorway; King of his territory. He saw them eyeing him, and the glower returned to his face, already bruised and battered from his previous adversary.
"You stare as if you've never seen a man before," he claimed loudly, proclaiming his thoughts to any passer-by.
Aramis and Athos exchanged looks. "Us?" they queried.
"Aye," the brawler nodded. "You. Do you wish to challenge me? The remove your gloves, fair sirs, and let us begin!"
The boys looked at their bare hands quizzically, before Aramis realised he meant it in terms of issuing a formal challenge.
"I'm afraid we don't wish to fight with you, Monsieur," his respectful tone mellowed the rowdy boy, who put his fists by his sides, instead of before his face.
The brawler regarded them seriously, before resting his hands wearily on his hips.
"What brings two lordlings like yourselves here?" he asks, running a hand over his short hair.
"A scene," Athos tried to hide his smile. "Created by yourself, we fear."
The brawler crosses his arms, and sways from side to side, leaning backwards slightly, as if to observe them from a greater distance. Finally, he stops, and points at the bandage around Athos' face.
"What is this?" he asks bluntly, and Aramis blushes.
"A bandage," Athos explains. "I cut my cheek."
"Why would you mutilate your own face?" the brawler raises an eyebrow.
"I did," Aramis blurted, and looked at his feet.
The brawler rolls his eyes, and approaches Athos to inspect the wound. "May I?" a hand tucks under the knot swiftly and unravels the bandages gently. He inspects the cut, and shakes his head.
"No, no," he sighs. "Come on, I'll show you."
He leads them into the tavern, beckoning over his shoulder. Aramis grips Athos' sleeve, perplexed at the state that the bar may be in after such a violent brawl.
It was a mess. A mess, actually, is an understatement. It was so filthy and dirty, with furniture thrown everywhere, that Aramis had to refrain from holding a kerchief to his nose, for fear of frightening the glaring, one-eyed bartender who didn't seem to enjoy their presence. Aramis continuously looked at the ceiling, trying not to look directly at any of the three customers in there.
"Here," the brawler appears, holding so strong liquor in one hand, and a basin. "Sit."
Athos sat. He shot Aramis a strange look, and tried not to wince as the brawler held a rag soaked in liquor to his cheek. He dabbed patiently, as if he'd been the subject of this many times, which Athos thought likely.
"You're a friendly ruffian," Aramis said coldly.
The brawler laughed. "Aye, I'm kind, but nobody dares to cross me."
"I'm Athos," Athos smiled; deciding he liked him, a sudden whim that had jumped upon him and surprised them all. "And this is Aramis."
Aramis nodded his head curtly. The brawler smiled, displaying a missing tooth.
"Porthos," he bowed his head. "A pleasure."
"Tell me, Porthos," Athos smiled. "What do you feel about becoming a soldier, or a member of the King's guard?"
Prthos seemed taken aback at the sudden inquiry. His brow furrowed, and he found himself pondering the choice. He shrugged, a lazy gesture which involved the tightening and slumping of his shoulders. Athos raised an eyebrow, curious as to the answer he was to receive.
Porthos nodded slowly. "Aye, I can see myself in a coat of blue, looking out over the Seine, my King's life in my hands."
"It is not a job for the faint-hearted," Athos leaned forward confidently, his grey eyes looking straight at Porthos, who blushed under his intense gaze.
"You believe I am faint of heart?" he challenged.
"No, friend," Athos' hands rose, a gesture of good-will and surrender. "No, never. Only a warning."
"What of Aramis?" Porthos aimed to change the subject of conversation. "Is he brave enough?"
Aramis bristled, and frowned at the brawler, who chuckled. He bit his lip, before nodding.
"I was thinking of joining the clergy," he said quietly. "But a soldier seems just as good."
Porthos laughed, a bubbling, bouncy sound that gurgled up his throat. "A priestly warrior? Never!"
Aramis reached for his wooden sword, but Athos stayed his hand. He smiled dangerously at Porthos.
"He is a good swordsman," he said confidently. "Best not challenge his honour."
Porthos was silenced, and he shrugged. "A rich boy, a brawler, and a priest. What could go wrong?"
Athos laughed. "So much, friend. But I believe a lot will go right, as well."