Aramis pushed aside the tent flap and shuffled outside. The fresh air slapped him in the face and was a shock to his lungs after the cloying stench of the sick and dying within the med tent. It was one of the unavoidable horrors of war. Two years into the conflict with Spain and it hadn't gotten any easier.
Outside, the moans and whimpers were muted by the clanging of tools and practice blades, the creaking of wheels as cannons were moved, and the nickering of horses crowded together in a makeshift paddock. It was March and the trampled ground of the encampment was slushy from recent rains, turning everything into a squelching, brown mire that reflected accurately the overall mood of the soldiers forced to bunk in it.
Aramis walked with heavy steps across the camp to a couple of supply wagons and lifted a ladle of water from an open barrel, taking a long draught. The crisply cold liquid quenched his thirst but also triggered a brief spike of pain behind his eyes. Dropping his head between his shoulders, Aramis scooped up a handful of water and splashed his face, then the back of his neck. He shivered as the nearly freezing liquid dribbled down past his collar, yet it was also somewhat soothing to his tight muscles.
Mud-stained boots plodded through the muck and stopped in front of him. "You all right?" Porthos asked.
Aramis shrugged. "Harold probably isn't going to make it through the night."
Porthos was silent for a moment. This was their reality now: violence and suffering and death.
"You did all you could," he finally said.
Aramis didn't respond. He knew that, but it didn't make losing brothers in arms any easier to bear.
Sometimes, in dark moments like these, he wondered what things would be like had he stayed at Douai instead of forsaking his vow when his brothers had come for him. He had been torn over that decision, just as he had been over the one to resign his commission in the first place. But in the end, he knew he could not live with himself should he let his brothers go off to war on their own; he had to be there to watch their backs. He'd told himself his vow would still be there when the war was over—and may God forgive him for the tally of sins in lives taken he racked up until then.
Aramis tried to balance the score some by helping in the infirmary tent when he could. His skills as a battlefield medic had never been put to such frequent use.
Sometimes it worked, and he felt as though his penance was accepted when men lived.
…And other times it didn't.
"You should get some rest," Porthos said, breaking through his morose thoughts. "The regiment jus' got orders to move out tomorrow."
Aramis gave him a wan half smile. "I'd like to take in a little more fresh air first. Go on, Porthos, I'll be fine."
His friend looked reluctant but nodded in understanding and let him be.
Aramis bowed his head, his lips moving in soundless prayer for absolution, strength, and for Harold's soul as late evening deepened toward twilight.
He looked up in surprise at the odd address. An older man in peasant clothing with weathered skin and hair that seemed prematurely gray stood at the back of the wagons, his body posture hesitant. He seemed familiar, though Aramis couldn't place him.
"I'm Bernard Focault, from Montaut," he said as though realizing Aramis didn't recognize him.
The names did the trick and Aramis suddenly remembered—the Musketeers had been out that way ten months ago to engage a troop of Spanish soldiers that were attacking French villages. Montaut had been the site of the final skirmish that finally saw the Spanish troop dead or retreating.
"Of course," Aramis said, turning to fully face him. "It's been a while. What are you doing in this region?"
"Many people have been driven far from their homes because of the war," Bernard replied.
Aramis's lips thinned. Of course. Refugee camps were cropping up everywhere in response to the displaced citizens.
"It seems fortuitous, seeing you here again." Bernard glanced around, then cocked his head in invitation. "Would you walk with me?"
There was still an hour of daylight left, so Aramis nodded and rolled down the sleeves of his shirt before following the older man into the surrounding woodland. This late, in the transitory time between day and night, there was little wildlife activity. The silence only added to the desolate feel that blanketed half the French countryside because of the war.
It was cold and Aramis shivered without his doublet, but he craved the crisp air to peel away some of the lingering sweat and fetor from his time in the med tent.
"How is your daughter?" he asked, then added after remembering, "Giselle." She had taken a musket ball while fleeing the Spanish in the battle at Montaut. The wounded citizens had been brought back to the Musketeer encampment and Aramis had dug the ball out and stitched the wound.
Bernard's already drawn face fell further. "She died eight months ago from sickness."
Aramis faltered at the news. "I'm sorry," he said, the words like lead and entirely insufficient.
"Food is scarce in the refugee camps," Bernard went on. "And the conditions are filthy. Disease is rampant."
Aramis had nothing to say to that, for it was another unavoidable byproduct of war.
"We need supplies and a doctor, but no help comes." Bernard's voice grew impassioned. "The King sits safely in Paris and persists in this war, but does he give any thought to how his people suffer for it?"
Aramis hesitated. "The King believes he is protecting France."
Bernard drew to a stop and eyed Aramis earnestly. "Do you agree?"
Aramis shrugged helplessly. "I wish there was no need for war between men. But the machinations of evildoers brought it about."
It was a woefully inadequate answer, not to mention incomplete. Aramis's role in Rochefort's accusations against the Queen had only added fuel to an already out of control fire. And when Rochefort had been proven a Spanish spy, the heinous nature of his crimes had spurred the King into declaring war. Aramis's involvement in the plot had probably not influenced the outcome that significantly—had the Queen not been accused of infidelity with him, Rochefort would have found something else to slander her with—but he knew he shouldered some of the guilt for the entire mess. Guilt that had driven him to a monastery, and then into the midst of a war that had been spawned as a direct course of his misdeeds.
Bernard studied him for a long moment, so much that Aramis wondered how far Rochefort's rumors had spread from Paris.
"And we do what we must," Bernard finally said sagely.
Aramis inclined his head in agreement. "We do."
Bernard nodded, almost to himself. "Then I hope you understand."
Aramis furrowed his brow, but before he could ask what the man meant, he was grabbed from behind, several pairs of hands seizing his arms and shoulders. One slapped a damp cloth over his mouth and nose, and the stench of rotten eggs filled his nostrils. Aramis struggled and slammed his head back, managing to throw off one, and the cloth fell to the ground. He twisted an arm free and threw a punch up over his shoulder, successfully making contact with a cheek bone.
But there were four men and two still had a grappling hold of him while the ones he'd hit recovered quickly and jumped back into the struggle. Bernard stood there watching with a remorseful but resolute look in his eyes. He stepped forward and picked up the cloth. Aramis jerked back as it was pressed into his face again, the fumes overpowering. He tried to buck away but the hands holding him were unyielding and a fog began to roll across his vision.
His heart lurched, and then he felt himself sinking into darkness.
Aramis woke to a throbbing headache and a tickle in the back of his throat. His mouth felt like cotton and he swallowed convulsively a few times. He felt heavy and groggy and it took him far too long to pry his eyelids open, squinting blearily at blurred tans, off-whites, and browns swirling above his head. Groaning, he reached a hand up to press his palm against the pain in his temple. What the hell hit him? A cannon ball?
He furrowed his brow as he registered the feel of a soft bed beneath him, which was entirely incongruent with the cots in the med tent. It was also strangely, unnervingly, quiet.
Aramis forced his eyes fully open and blinked rapidly until the blobs took on the solid shapes of beams and ceiling corners. He was not in a tent.
Pushing himself up onto his elbows with a grimace, he looked around a decent sized room with a large paned window along the wall adjacent to the small bed he was lying in. Across in the opposite wall was a fireplace. The room might have been a bedchamber or sitting room, save the only other furniture were two long wooden tables set perpendicularly to each other and stocked with piles of folded linen, bushels of dried plants, and small bottles of some kind of liquids. Two rickety chairs bookended them.
Aramis sat up the rest of the way and swung his legs over the side of the mattress, looking around in disconcerted confusion. Where was he? He glanced down at himself, taking note of his trousers and boots but no coat, just his shirt. His head pulsed and that tickle in his throat drew forth a small cough. He tried to remember what happened. There had been a skirmish with the Spanish, Harold had been severely injured. Aramis had spent hours trying to patch him up, but the wound was too deep and to the abdomen. The poor man really didn't have a chance. Aramis had gone for some fresh air and…he'd run into Bernard Focault. They'd been talking, and then…
Aramis pushed himself to his feet. Dizziness swept through him, but he staggered his way to the window and looked out from a second story at crowded streets lined with tents and shanties backed up against each other, and his confusion only grew.
"Good, you're awake."
Aramis whirled, his vision tilting abruptly before correcting itself. Bernard had entered the room.
"You were out for the entire night."
Aramis shook his head, still trying to dispel the lingering daze. "You drugged me?" he accused.
"It seemed the most efficient way to get you here," the man replied, giving him an evaluating look. "I'm sorry, I've heard the aftereffects of inhaling ether can be as uncomfortable as a hangover. There's fresh water on the table there, and I'm sure you can make use of the herbs available."
Aramis's gaze skittered over said items but he didn't take a step toward them. "What is this place?"
"A refugee camp a little over an hour's ride from the Musketeer encampment."
Aramis drew his shoulders back. "Why did you bring me here? For some kind of vengeance for your daughter?"
Bernard actually looked horrified at the suggestion. "No! You saved my daughter. What happened to her later, that was the fault of the King's war." He shook his head. "No, I brought you here because we need your help. There are many sick and injured who need a doctor."
"I'm not a doctor," Aramis pointed out.
"But you are a very skilled medic and that is better than nothing."
Aramis reached a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose, not quite able to believe what he was hearing. "Bernard…you can't just go around kidnapping soldiers. My regiment is due to leave this morning; I have to get back."
Bernard's genial demeanor hardened a fraction. "They'll have to do without you. You're needed here more, so someone else's daughter doesn't die!"
Aramis gaped at him in bafflement. Did he honestly believe that Aramis would simply turn his back on his duty to accommodate him after the man had kidnapped him?
In fact, Bernard seemed wholly undaunted as he turned back toward the door and waved someone to come inside. A man entered, gently nudging a little girl with blond hair forward. She was perhaps six years old and shuffled her feet reluctantly, her gaze downcast and her arms tucked up tightly against her small body. One hand was wrapped in a dirty bandage.
"This is Madeline," Bernard introduced. "Madeline, this is Aramis. He's our new medic."
A muscle in Aramis's jaw ticked. This was absurd; he couldn't just stay here and play nursemaid. And yet this was a child who hadn't done anything wrong and how could he turn his back on her when she was in need?
Biting back a frustrated sigh, Aramis moved to take a seat in one of the chairs and beckoned the girl forward. She stood her ground, clutching her hand protectively to herself.
"Madeline, is it?" he asked softly.
He offered her a warm smile. "I'm Aramis. Will you let me look at your hand?"
By the constipated pinch in her expression, she most certainly didn't want to, but outnumbered by three adults, she reluctantly came closer. Aramis carefully took her wrist and brought it forward, then began to unwind the cloth bandage, revealing a badly infected cut across her palm.
"That looks like it hurts," he remarked.
She tried to yank her hand back, but he kept a firm yet gentle hold of it.
"I can make it feel better," he offered.
Madeline bit her lip, then gave a small nod.
Aramis looked at Bernard. "What herbs do you have?"
The man gestured to the supplies laid out on the tables. "We've tried to get a bit of everything. Some of it is labeled, but not all. You can organize it how you want; this will be your work room."
Aramis gritted his teeth at the presumption he would be staying. "I thought you said supplies are scarce," he commented instead. "It looks like you have a lot here."
"As I said, we've tried to get everything we could."
Aramis's mouth turned down. "You mean you've been looting."
Bernard shrugged. "Needs must."
As though that justified everything the man was doing. Aramis wanted to point out the immorality of his actions but wouldn't in front of the child who was too young to understand what was going on and was just in pain.
So he forced a smile on his face when he looked back at her and patted the top of her hand. "I'm going to make a poultice to help draw out the infection."
"Will it hurt?"
"Perhaps a little," he admitted. What he was holding back was he would need to lance the wound first. "But you seem like a brave girl. I bet you wouldn't need a prince to rescue you from a dragon; you'd save yourself."
Her mouth quirked tentatively.
Aramis stood and rolled up his sleeves as he surveyed the supplies, picking out the herbs that would be of use. "I'll need hot water and some old bread," he said to Bernard. "And a knife."
Bernard nodded to the other man, who left the room, and then he went to the hearth to heat some water.
Aramis laid out fresh linen and found some towels. When the bread arrived and water was heated, he mixed up the poultice to have it ready. Bernard's man also handed him a small knife, which he surreptitiously cleaned without Madeline seeing. Then Aramis gestured for her to sit in the chair and crouched in front of her.
"Now, I do have to be honest and tell you I have to drain the infection. It will hurt, but just for a bit and then it will feel better, I promise."
She looked at him with wide, fearful eyes and he smiled reassuringly.
"I had to sit through this once," he began to reminisce as he picked up the knife. "I was a little older than you and got stung by a bee. Have you ever been stung by a bee?"
Madeline shook her head.
Aramis angled the tip of the knife toward her palm and made a careful slice across the inflamed and infected tissue. She hissed air through her teeth.
"I don't recommend it," he continued. "They leave their stingers behind. Anyway, it got infected, all red and swollen. Much like this here."
Aramis prattled on about the bee sting as he carefully massaged the area around the wound to drain the discharge onto the dirty bandage. His voice rose and fell with the rhythm of storytelling in sync with his ministrations. Madeline was eventually more focused on him than her hand.
When he had drained as much as he could without pressing too hard and causing further damage, he gently wiped the area clean and began to apply the poultice, finishing up by wrapping it in a new bandage.
"Keep this dry for several hours," Aramis told her seriously. "And you'll be feeling better in no time."
She finally smiled back at him shyly. Aramis stood as Bernard's friend escorted her from the room.
Bernard was gazing at him knowingly. "See? You'll do a lot more good here."
Aramis opened his mouth to argue that he couldn't stay when they were interrupted by another person being brought in, this time a young man hobbling on a crutch with a bandage around his thigh.
Bernard introduced them, explaining how the lad had been injured and how without treatment it wasn't healing.
Aramis clenched his jaw in vexation. He couldn't do this.
And yet his heart did go out to these people, and he didn't know how to say no when they were in clear need standing right before him.
So he swallowed his consternation and turned his attention to helping this next patient.
Athos roved his gaze over the Musketeer regiment, all geared up and ready to move out. Save for one detail.
Porthos stomped over, mouth pursed in a thin line. "I can't find him anywhere."
Athos frowned. It wasn't like Aramis to disappear. Seek solitude, yes, but always within sight of the camp, that lone sentinel sitting on the outskirts with head bowed and a rosary worrying between his fingers.
"When was the last time anyone saw him?" Athos asked.
"Last night," Porthos replied. "He knew Harold…" He trailed off and shrugged; the young soldier had passed during the night. Another name for Athos to add to the list of casualties to report back to Paris. And the death would have weighed heavily on Aramis, as they all did.
"How did Aramis seem?" Athos inquired.
Porthos sighed. "Withdrawn and burdened, but that's nothin' new. Maybe he needed ta clear his head, but he would've been back by now; he knew we were movin' out."
A soldier from another company that was loitering nearby let out a snort. "Maybe it became too much for him to handle."
"Aramis would never desert!" Porthos snapped, making a menacing move forward.
Athos sidestepped to intercept and gave him a warning look, then tossed a glance over his shoulder to the soldier. "Go back to your duties."
With a huff, the man shuffled away.
Porthos fumed. "Aramis wouldn't desert," he repeated staunchly.
"I know." But Athos did see the toll this war was taking on their brother. On all of them, really, but Aramis had been tormented to begin with after the ordeal with Rochefort and the Queen and nearly being executed for treason. It was what had driven him to resign his commission.
Still, he would never abandon his duty. Not only because that wasn't who he was, but also because abandonment held a particularly sour form of disgust for Aramis after Savoy and Marsac.
Athos looked over the other waiting musketeers. "Make a sweep of the area outside of camp."
The men spread out to do as ordered. Athos cast his gaze around the encampment, wondering if there was a place Porthos had missed. He decided to check the med tent, even though he was certain Porthos would have looked there.
Aramis wasn't inside.
Athos headed back out and waited for his men to return. Pair by pair they rejoined him, shaking their heads in the negative.
"There's no sign of anything," Pierre reported.
Athos shook his head; this didn't make any sense. Had Aramis left…?
D'Artagnan jogged over. "I found his horse out behind the infirmary tent. His weapons belt and doublet are still with his bedroll." The boy's expression pinched with confusion and worry. "I don't understand, where could he have gone?"
Athos turned to the others. "And you saw no signs of an attack?"
They shook their heads.
"Well he didn't jus' ride off," Porthos growled.
Athos reached a hand up and rubbed the back of his neck. The Musketeer regiment was expected in Neraco and he couldn't hold them back for one missing man. But he also couldn't just write Aramis off, not when the evidence suggested something had happened, even if they didn't know what.
"The regiment has to move out," he said reluctantly but looked at Porthos and d'Artagnan. "I can spare you two to look for him." He pursed his mouth unhappily. "You have two days. After that, you'll need to rejoin the rest of the regiment."
He hated putting conditions on their search, but he couldn't end up having three derelict men on his hands. And while he would have rather stayed to search with them, he was Captain now and had responsibilities.
Porthos and d'Artagnan nodded stoically, then mounted up and rode off in the opposite direction. Athos watched them go with worry niggling at his gut. He hoped they'd find their missing brother and that something horrible hadn't befallen him.
With a heavy heart, Athos ordered the rest of the troop to move out.
After hours of treating patient after patient, from festering wounds to persistent coughs and fevers, Aramis was exhausted. The headache he'd woken up with from being dosed with ether had only gotten worse, likely compounded by the fact that he hadn't eaten that day. There'd been no time; as soon as one patient left, another was immediately brought in, a line having formed out in the hall. And each time, no matter how much Aramis wanted to say he needed to leave, he couldn't. The sheer amount of misery the innocent were forced to endure because of this war weighed heavily upon his heart, and he wished there was more he could do.
But he'd spent a full day here already and Athos was likely to be furious with him for holding up the regiment. If the captain had delayed them. Athos wouldn't be able to ignore orders because one man had disappeared. Lord, what must they be thinking of his abrupt disappearance? Were he under any other commanding officer, they would label him a deserter. He knew his brothers would never think thusly of him, but he most definitely needed to get back now.
There was finally a lull in patients, so Aramis rolled down his sleeves and strode toward the door, only to be stopped by a pair of sentries apparently standing guard in the hall. Aramis paused at the sight of pistols on their belts.
"Gentlemen," he said with forced geniality. "I must be going."
Neither of them moved. Aramis faltered. They didn't seem like trained soldiers; he could probably subdue them easily. But he was hesitant to exact violence on the same group of refugees he'd just spent all day patching up.
Footsteps down the hall drew his attention as Bernard appeared.
Aramis held out his palms placatingly. "I've helped you, but now I really need to get back."
"But we will need your help tomorrow, and the next day. Those you treated will need follow-ups, and more sick and injured will come."
"I feel for your plight," Aramis said sincerely. "But I'm a soldier, not a doctor."
"You're also a medic," Bernard persisted. "And I know you fear God. Do you not feel a moral obligation to help those who are suffering when you have the means? Your skills as a healer are needed here more than your skills with a sword are out there."
"I can't." Aramis inhaled sharply and fought to keep his voice level. "But I can send word to the Minister of War in Paris and present your need to the King and Queen. I'm sure they will find a way to send you aid."
Bernard shook his head. "The Crown won't help." Then he sighed sadly. "I had been hoping this arrangement would be more mutual, but I have prepared for your refusal."
As though that was a cue, the guards drew their pistols and pointed them at Aramis, gesturing for him to go back inside the room. He gritted his teeth and backed up. He should have taken them before they'd drawn their weapons. In close quarters like this, even an amateur could get off a successful shot. Not that shooting someone they needed alive was going to achieve their purposes, but they also clearly weren't planning to let him leave.
Bernard walked over to the back corner of the room and picked up a set of chains that Aramis hadn't noticed were on the floor. He tensed as the man carried them over, but the two guards now closed in and grabbed one of his arms each, the barrels of their pistols pressed into his back.
"Bernard…" Aramis started, but the man didn't even hesitate to lock the shackles around his wrists. There was a length of chain from each one that stretched back to a ring bolted into the wall. "Please, don't do this," Aramis pleaded.
"We have no choice," Bernard said gravely. He picked up the knife from the table, nodded to his men, and the three of them left.
Aramis strode over to the ring and gave the chains a fervent yank, but they were sturdy and didn't appear to have any give. He pulled again in frustration before pivoting and heading back toward the door. There wasn't enough slack to reach it, just enough to move around the workspace, bed, and chamberpot. Bernard had planned for this indeed. Had he come to the encampment scoping out any field medic he could grab? And the fact that he had recognized Aramis was just, what, his idea of Providence?
Aramis pulled up short and looked around helplessly, stunned at this situation and at a complete loss as to what to do. No one knew where he was, would have no idea where to look for him. He struggled against the chains some more but only succeeded in bruising his wrists. He sank into the chair, trying to work out how he was going to get out of this.
A short time later, Bernard returned with a bowl of supper that he placed on the table beside him.
Aramis looked up beseechingly. "Bernard, this is wrong. Surely you must realize that."
The man did look aggrieved. "You said it yourself: we do what we must."
"This is not what I meant!" Aramis hissed, giving the chains a sharp jostle.
Bernard, however, remained unmoved. "A messenger reported the Musketeer regiment moved out earlier today."
Aramis's heart dropped into his stomach.
"There are plenty of soldiers to march off to war," Bernard went on. "But not enough of those with the ability to help pick up the pieces of it."
With that, he turned and left, closing the door behind him.
Aramis dropped his head into his hands and clutched at his hair in helpless frustration.
When morning dawned the next day, Aramis rose from the bed, the chains dragging along the floor. He'd barely slept and was exhausted, though it wasn't like he hadn't been worn out before this; war exacted a heavy toll on soldiers as much as civilians.
The door opened and Bernard came in carrying a plate of some kind of mush, which he handed to Aramis.
"Our rations are probably as horrible as the military's," the man commented amicably. "But we do what we can. I'll start sending patients up in half an hour."
Aramis exhaled sharply in consternation and set the plate on the bed. "Bernard, you must listen."
The man didn't look at him and instead picked up the bowl of stew from the night before and simply walked out.
Aramis clenched his fists and slammed them against the wall in frustration. Then he dropped back onto the bed and bowed his head in supplication, praying that someone would come and put a stop to this.
When Bernard returned, the little girl with the infected hand—Madeline—was with him. Aramis's jaw tightened at the blatant manipulation of using a child to get him to start cooperating in the first place. But the wound did need to be checked and Aramis couldn't refuse when she was standing right there. So he swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth and forced himself to act casually as he crouched in front of the girl.
"Good morning, Madeline. How's your hand feeling today?"
"Better." Her gaze slid across the manacles on his wrists but she didn't say anything.
Aramis pulled a strained smile. "Why don't you sit and I'll take a look."
She went over to the chair and hopped onto it. Aramis knelt before her and unwrapped the bandage, removing the dried out poultice from yesterday. The wound was still inflamed but much less swollen with fluid.
"I think one more poultice should do the trick," he said.
Madeline shifted in the seat. "Do you have to cut it again?" she asked fearfully.
Aramis patted her knee. "No."
She looked relieved and gave him a tentative smile.
He stood and went to the table, the rattle of the chains trailing at his feet a perverted incongruence to the affected normalcy of the situation. They clinked against the table edge as he mixed up the poultice and herbs.
Aramis applied the medicine to Madeline's cut and wrapped it in a fresh strip of linen. Then he gave her a light chuck under her chin. "There you go."
"Thank you," she exclaimed and jumped from the chair to dart out of the room.
Aramis straightened, his posture tense as Bernard made his way to the door and waved in the next patient. One by one they were brought to Aramis just as the day before. And none of them seemed interested or bothered by the fact that they were being treated by a prisoner. There was a dullness in most of their eyes, a ravaged, war-torn weariness. Perhaps they could not be bothered by the plight of another when theirs was already so harsh. Perhaps they were all complicit in Bernard's scheme.
It was several hours before Aramis was given a reprieve, and he slunk back to the bed to slump on the mattress. The plate of breakfast was sitting where he'd left it and his stomach cramped with the reminder that he hadn't eaten a proper meal in over a day. He picked up the plate and began to spoon the cold gruel into his mouth.
He hoped his brothers were looking for him. Though, the likelihood of them searching as far away as this refugee camp was probably small. Still, that seemed to be his only hope at this point.
"It doesn't make sense!" d'Artagnan railed. "Aramis couldn't have just vanished into thin air!"
Porthos worked his jaw as he stood at the edge of the encampment, arms crossed in equal frustration. Their two days were up and they had been up and down the entire surrounding area. There was no sign of Aramis, no body that had suffered some kind of accident, no indication an enemy scouting party had gotten this close and whisked him away. His horse and belongings remained where he'd left them, now saddled and ready beside Porthos's horse. D'Artagnan was right: it just didn't make sense.
Porthos shouldn't have left Aramis alone that night. He should have stayed, kept an eye on his friend, even if just from a distance since Aramis wanted privacy. Then he would have at least seen where he went off to. He could have followed, could have stopped him from…what? Aramis hadn't left them. There was no way on God's earth he would have done that.
Porthos clenched his fists. He was loathe to give up, but there just wasn't any place else to look.
D'Artagnan exhaled loudly and shook his head. "Athos will be expecting us," he pointed out reluctantly.
Porthos swept his gaze over the countryside, deceptively peaceful looking in its stillness. He knew what they should do, he just didn't want to. Because he had never given up on Aramis and he couldn't now.
"Maybe Aramis will catch up," d'Artagnan suggested, but it was half-hearted at best. Neither of them believed that. It had been two days. Whatever had happened, it wasn't some idle detour.
But the two of them were at a loss.
So Porthos gathered up the reins of Aramis's horse and mounted his own. Then they turned to head for Neraco, Porthos feeling like a traitor the entire way.
Rain drizzled down the window pane in patterns as bleak as the view outside. A fire blazed in the hearth, but it wasn't enough to sufficiently warm the room. Aramis sat at the table with his arms folded across it and head bowed. He wasn't unused to being cold, having just spent a winter out on the front, but it was still uncomfortable. He tried to look on the bright side that he wasn't out in the rain…but it was a paltry attempt to soothe his melancholy. He didn't belong here; he belonged out there with his brothers in whatever squelching mire they were hunkered down in.
He looked up wearily from the table as the door opened and, not for the first time over the past several days, considered refusing to do any more, to see any more patients.
Bernard entered, leading two men who were carrying a litter with an elderly woman lying on the stretcher. Bernard directed them to set her down on the floor in front of the hearth.
Aramis pushed himself to his feet. As much as he wanted to stand his ground, how could he punish those who were suffering through no fault of their own? He slogged over to the fireplace, the weight of the chains growing heavier by the day, and knelt on the floor beside the woman. She was terribly thin, her gray hair little more than frayed wisps fanned out around her head. Her complexion was pasty and breaths rattled weakly past bloodless lips. Aramis placed a hand to her forehead and felt the simmering heat of fever.
"Elaine's husband died when their village was burned down by the Spanish," Bernard said. He always did that—told Aramis the stories of these refugees to create a connection with them that was harder to turn away from. "Her health has been declining since, but last night the fever set in and we haven't been able to wake her."
Aramis lowered his head and closed his eyes for a brief moment. The weight of the miracles these people expected from him were growing as heavy as the shackles. He looked up and met Bernard's gaze somberly. "I may not be able to save her."
Bernard nodded sagely. "I know. Just do what you can."
They left Aramis alone with his charge. Sighing to himself, he stood and moved the pot of water to heat over the fire. Then he picked through the herbs on the tables for ones to help with lung congestion and fever. When the water was hot, he ladled out some into a mug and sprinkled the herbs in to steep for a few minutes. Elaine slept on. She was so weak that not even the discomfort of her fever made her twitch or moan.
Aramis picked up the cup after it had cooled some and knelt beside her again, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Elaine?" She didn't respond. He cupped his hand under her head and lifted it, then pressed the cup to her lips and dribbled some of the liquid into her mouth. It spilled out the corner.
Aramis rocked back on his haunches. There was little he could do if she wouldn't take anything.
"Elaine, I need you to drink this," he tried again.
And again, the liquid trickled down her chin as she refused to rouse enough to swallow it. Aramis set the cup aside and rubbed a hand down his face. After a few moments, he rose again to scoop some cold water into a bowl and grabbed a small towel. Then he sat on the floor again and bathed the old woman's brow. She didn't stir for any of it.
Bernard and his men came by that evening bearing more supplies—fresh water, some more linen for bandages and towels, an extra blanket, and some bread and cheese for supper.
"How is she?" Bernard asked.
Aramis shook his head regretfully. "Does she have any family here? They…might want to sit with her."
"None," Bernard said sorrowfully. "Her sons enlisted at the start of the war and both were killed early on. It was just her and her husband. Until the Spanish took that from her too."
Aramis had nothing to say to that. He knew what it was like to be the only one left behind among the living, to be adrift without the ties of family, whether those of blood or not. He'd survived, had found brotherhood again and managed to rebuild.
But Elaine was up there in years and the older one got, the harder it was to start over. She didn't even have a home to go back to. It was little wonder she had lost the will to live.
Bernard had gone again, and it was just Aramis, Elaine, and the crackling of the fire.
Aramis tried once more to wake her, but when she failed to, he sat at the table and nibbled on the bread and cheese himself. Night fell, darkening the window and dousing the corners of the room in shadows as orange firelight tickled the edges with undulating fingers.
Aramis lit some candles and fiddled with the items on the tables, delaying retiring to bed himself. Were it one of his brothers on that pallet, someone would be staying on watch all night. His thoughts turned to them as they often did in these quiet spaces when he was left alone. The regiment would be in Neraco; had they engaged the Spanish yet? Were they fighting now? Or were they lying in an infirmary tent without Aramis there to tend their hurts?
He forced those thoughts away since he could do nothing about them. Focusing on the patient before him instead, Aramis tried repeatedly over the next few hours to get Elaine to drink and failed each time.
Until at a late hour past midnight, he knelt by her side and her eyes slitted open. Aramis froze for a second and then greeted her with a smile.
"There are those pretty eyes," he said.
She blinked at him languidly. "Jacques," she breathed, voice as threadbare as the gossamer web of her hair.
"My name is Aramis. Can you drink this for me?"
He brought the cup of long-cooled tea to her lips but she lifted an arm and pushed it away, her eyes fixed on Aramis's with an intensity that belied her infirmity.
"Jacques," she repeated. "I miss you."
Aramis frowned. "I don't—"
She flailed a hand at him. "Have you come back for me? Please, please take me with you."
Aramis reeled back. Jacques must have been her husband.
He placed his other hand on her forehead and spoke softly. "Elaine, you must be strong."
"No," she begged, voice cracking. "Do not leave me again. Please."
Aramis's throat constricted, and he set the cup aside in order to take her hand in his. "You'll be together again soon," he promised.
"Don't leave me," she whispered breathlessly, gaze clouding.
Aramis closed his eyes. "I won't," he whispered back.
She smiled then and her eyes slipped shut, raspy breaths whistling in and out. Aramis held her hand and didn't move, not until one final exhalation depressed her chest, and then it was still.
Aramis laid her hand over her breast and bowed his head. "Nothing that suffers can pass without merit in the sight of God," he murmured. "Amen."
He picked up the ratty blanket and draped it over her head, then let out a shuddering breath of his own. He felt every loss of life poignantly, and even though Elaine's death here was a mercy, really, he could not help but grieve over his inability to help her. His hand strayed to his neck out of habit, but his rosary wasn't there. It was in his coat pocket somewhere in a battlefield camp. The gold crucifix he'd once treasured he'd sold on his way out of Paris to Douai, the last act of severing all ties to the ones he loved but couldn't be around without endangering them.
Aramis rose stiffly and shuffled his way to the bed to finally lay down, though sleep eluded him for most of the night, as it had these past several. He lay on the mattress and stared at the ceiling as light gradually suffused through the window, the previous day's clouds finally parting for the dawn.
When Bernard arrived with breakfast, he took one look at Elaine's shrouded body and left the food without a word. Aramis dragged himself from bed to eat, the hard bread tasting like ash on his tongue.
Bernard returned with some men and they bore Elaine away.
"Bernard," Aramis spoke up. "Please, let me go."
The man sighed in growing exasperation. "You're helping people here." His expression turned sympathetic. "I know you can't save everyone, but you are doing a lot of good, more good than you would be doing with a sword and musket, perpetuating this suffering."
"I have been fighting the soldiers trying to destroy your homes and villages!"
"And that fighting is still happening," Bernard rejoined. He took a breath to calm himself. "Some new refugees are coming in this morning. From what I've heard, there are several wounded." He turned on his heel and strode out.
Aramis closed his eyes and sagged in mounting defeat.
Athos sat at the small wooden table that served as his desk inside the captain's tent, holding an ink quill over a piece of parchment. Minister Treville was addressed at the top, but there was nothing more. The quill hovered over the blank page as Athos wrestled with how to phrase the missive he was writing. He had to report Aramis's disappearance, but he did not want the marksman being labeled a deserter, the penalty of which was death. Assuming anyone ever found him. It had been almost two weeks, and Aramis hadn't made his way back to them.
But despite the lack of evidence to the contrary, Athos could not believe in his heart that his brother had forsaken his duty. Or even if he had somehow been driven to that, he would not have forsaken them, his brothers. He had turned his back on the monastery and his vow—something Athos knew Aramis took very seriously—to come to war with them. If he had changed his mind after two years…no, Athos thought he would have seen an indication of that, but there had been none.
He set the tip of the quill to the parchment, only to scritch an aborted line before stopping again. If it was just Treville who would lay eyes on this correspondence, Athos might be willing to be a bit more frank, but there were spies and other Council members to be wary of, not to mention Athos didn't want Aramis's name being brought before the King in a dishonorable fashion, again. Even two years later, casting aspersions on Aramis's character would not do anyone any favors. Besides, how did Athos explain what they themselves didn't even understand? A person did not simply vanish from the face of the earth without a trace. Unless one believed in witchcraft, which Athos did not.
His tent flap opened and closed with a thwack as Porthos and d'Artagnan came in, both of them looking as burdened and aggrieved as Athos felt. It had been shattering when he saw those two riding into Neraco, Aramis's horse riderless beside them. The devastation at returning empty-handed had been clear to see on their faces as well, and Athos hadn't known what to do with that. For the past two years he'd had to face the possibility that one of his brothers would fall in battle. There had even been some close calls.
But this…to not even know what had happened to Aramis. Somehow that made it so much worse.
Porthos looked at the unwritten letter on the desk. "You're reporting it?" he said gruffly.
Athos set the quill down. "I have to."
"He's not a deserter."
"I intend to make that clear." Somehow.
D'Artagnan stood with his hands folded under his armpits, mouth pinched in displeasure. "But what happened?" he asked, repeating the question they had been wrestling with for the past eleven days. The answer had not changed.
Athos took a breath and leveled a grim look at them. "It's time we faced the fact that Aramis is gone, to where and why we cannot know. And never will unless he returns to us on his own."
"If he even can!" Porthos snarled.
Athos didn't balk under the anger; they were all angry and frustrated. "We have a duty to uphold," he went on calmly. "Our focus cannot be compromised."
"Of course it's compromised!" d'Artagnan said incredulously. "This is Aramis."
"I know that. But we've exhausted all avenues in an attempt to find him." He paused, then in a lower voice said, "Maybe he doesn't want to be found."
"You jus' said you weren't gonna declare him a deserter!" Porthos snapped.
"I'm not. We don't know what happened to him. That's the point. The evidence suggests he didn't leave on his own, but there's also no evidence to contradict it."
"You can't really believe that," Porthos growled.
Athos sighed wearily. "No, but it doesn't matter what I believe. Without proof or any leads, we must move on."
It tore him up inside to say so, but he was Captain of the Musketeers now and France was at war. No matter his love and loyalty to Aramis, he could not forget that, even if he wanted to.
He picked up the ink quill, but instead of trying again to write the letter explaining the situation, he picked up the report of recent casualties. At the bottom of the list of names he wrote:
"Aramis—missing in action."
Another four days passed of Aramis caring nonstop for an influx of refugees. He treated everything from burns to broken bones, abrasions, and bruises. Each and every face haunted him: the lackluster sheen in their eyes and the white stained tear tracks through grimy cheeks that bespoke of hours spent in mourning and anguish. He felt for them, he did, but he couldn't keep this up.
Unfortunately, planning an escape was proving challenging. The primary obstacle was picking the locks on his chains. But though he often needed use of a knife for his work, it was never left in the room once the patients were done for the day. Aramis had been over the entire room in the evenings he was given solitude and hadn't found anything that would be useful in that regard.
Then an opportunity finally came, though only because a poor man whose town had been under siege had taken some shrapnel from cannon fire and his entire left side needed to be debrided.
Aramis gestured for the men who'd brought him in to remove the patient's shirt before laying him on his side on a third table that had been wedged into the room. "Tweezers would be best for this," he said, eyeing the reddened and inflamed tissue critically. Being small, the wounds hadn't festered too badly in the time it'd taken the refugees to flee the active battle sites, but it would be an arduous task digging out the debris.
Aramis rolled up his sleeves and washed his hands as someone fetched him the requested item. Normally he was left to handle tending patients himself while the guards oversaw things, but this time Aramis ordered them to help—one to wet a towel and start by wiping the skin clean of any surface debris, another to boil water, and a third to hold the bowl for Aramis to drop the extracted shrapnel into. They'd hesitated uncertainly at first, but Aramis had a command voice not unlike Athos's when he had a mind to use it.
Deftly and experientially, Aramis set to work. It took over an hour to complete with the poor man writhing underneath his hands, but eventually every single wound had been seen to and cleaned out. Aramis had kept his "helpers" busy the entire time and it had quickly become natural for them, their attention now more absorbed with the patient than with watching Aramis.
So when they were done and all that was left was to wrap the man's arm and side, Aramis faked tripping over the chains trailing around his feet and caught himself on the table, sending a bunch of supplies crashing to the floor. He let out a low curse and quickly dropped to his knees, grabbing a towel to soak up the spilled water.
Someone moved forward to help, but he raised a hand to wave them off. "I got it," he said and grabbed a roll of dry linen to toss at the man. "Wrap his wounds." Having spent the past hour obeying Aramis's commands, the man easily turned to do as told.
Aramis picked up the knife from the floor and set it back on the table in clear view for his guards to see. But the tweezers he surreptitiously slipped into his boot. He stayed hunched over on the floor cleaning up as the men finished bandaging the patient and then led him away. Automatically as they always did, someone picked up the knife to take with them.
Aramis waited a few beats to see if they would return, either with another patient or because they'd remembered the tweezers. They didn't.
He quickly pulled the implement from his boot and stuck one of the thin prongs into the lock of his right manacle. With a little fiddling—thank you Porthos for those lessons—the lock clicked and the cuff opened. Aramis threw a harried look over his shoulder at the door, his heart rate ratcheting up. He picked the left manacle, the iron thudding heavily on the floor as it fell free.
Aramis jumped to his feet and went to the window, which immediately looked out into an alley between the makeshift shanties and the old chateau the refugees had made use of. He had a fleeting memory of balking at that far a jump once upon a time in another life, but thankfully along the wall of this particular window was a trellis of climbing vines.
Aramis pushed the panes open and swung one leg over the sill. Leaning out, he grabbed the wooden trellis and swung himself out onto it. The wooden frame shook under his weight but didn't immediately snap. He tried to climb down carefully yet hurriedly, the plants snagging at the billowy sleeves of his shirt. When he'd climbed at least half the distance, he jumped the rest, bending his knees to absorb the impact as he landed.
The back of the alleyway was blocked by a shack, which forced Aramis to head toward the main streets of the camp. He crept to the edge of the alley and glanced up and down the crowded street. He didn't see any of his normal guards or Bernard.
Keeping close to the outhouses and tents, he carefully moved up the street, not too urgently as to draw attention, and ducking his head furtively to avoid anyone's gaze. He wasn't entirely sure what he was going to do once he escaped the camp; it would be a long walk back to the military base with no horse or coat—assuming the base was even still there at this point.
But first and foremost, he definitely needed to get away.
He almost bumped into a fellow who'd stepped out of a tent in his path, and the effort to avoid him sent Aramis into the street. Two people pulled up short and stared at him. Aramis ducked around them, quickening his pace. But the crowd of refugees milling about their business all gradually began to turn their attention to him, and Aramis realized with a sinking heart that many of them knew his face from when he'd treated their ills.
Soon the street was filled with a mass of bodies standing in his way. Aramis turned in a circle as more pressed in on him. He tried to nudge his way past men and women but they stood their ground like granite sculptures, unmoving save for the way their dead eyes tracked his every move. Aramis didn't want to hurt anyone, but he shoved harder to get through.
That triggered a response, and suddenly several sets of hands were grabbing at his sleeves and the back of his shirt. Aramis tried to twist away but there were too many. Shouts went up and he was being pushed back by the tide of people. The morass parted to let Bernard's men run in and they seized Aramis more firmly, wrenching his arms behind his back and dragging him back down the street. He let out a frustrated bellow as he thrashed futilely against them.
The crowd followed, an impenetrable wall surrounding them so that even if Aramis did manage to throw off those restraining him, there was nowhere to run.
He was brought to an abrupt stop as Bernard met them in the street. The man sighed at him in disappointment.
"You would abandon us?" he asked as though he had any right to accuse Aramis of betrayal.
"I don't belong here!" he yelled.
Bernard shook his head. "I hate to do this, but you're giving us no choice." He cocked his head for his men to follow and the crowd started moving again.
They passed the chateau and turned down a side street. Aramis strained and dragged his feet but was helpless against the mob propelling him forward. Bernard led them to an outbuilding with a smoke stack and what looked like a forge through a set of open doors.
"Peltier," Bernard called.
A man wearing a heavy leather apron and gloves came out, looking the crowd over with the same dispassion they all possessed in this moment.
"We need another set of chains," Bernard said.
The blacksmith flicked an apathetic look at Aramis and went back inside his shop. He came out a moment later with a set of shackles linked by a chain between them. "You're lucky I haven't melted these down yet," he commented as he passed them over to Bernard.
Aramis gritted his teeth and struggled on principle as the man stalked over and snapped the cuffs around his wrists. "How can you do this?" he shouted to the crowd. "This is wrong!"
A few people looked away but none spoke up in his defense.
"We do what we must," Bernard repeated gravely. He turned back to Peltier. "He picked the locks of the other shackles. We need that more long-term fix for these that we discussed."
The blacksmith nodded and went back inside his shop. Bernard gestured to his men, who began to shove Aramis inside as well, and directed them to drag him over to a work table. Aramis struggled harder, not sure what they were planning to do, but someone kicked out the backs of his legs, driving him to his knees in front of the work station. One arm was forced straight and slammed onto the table, bruising grips on top of his elbow and fingers holding him in place.
The blacksmith picked up a pair of metal tongs and used them to retrieve a thick container from the forge. Aramis's heart skipped a beat with trepidation.
"What are you doing?" he asked, a tremor in his voice betraying his fear.
"You brought this on yourself," Bernard chided.
Peltier carried over the container, and Aramis caught sight of molten iron undulating around the rim. He bucked instinctively.
"No, don't do this!"
The blacksmith carefully poured the liquid iron into the key hole of the shackle. Aramis's arm jerked frantically in an effort to escape, but the grips holding him down were too tight. The metal around the key hole began to heat from the molten substance, mildly warm at first but growing hotter and hotter. Aramis sucked in air between his teeth and writhed, unable to escape the increasing burn against his skin.
The blacksmith set the container back on the hearth and reached for a ladle of water from a bucket, which he poured into the key hole next. It sizzled as it cooled the iron but did nothing to alleviate the burn searing its way into Aramis's flesh.
His arm was finally released and he yanked it against his body, finally letting out a grunting cry of pain. But then his other arm was wrenched up and laid atop the table, and the process was repeated, sealing the manacles shut against lock pick and key.
When it was done, the restraining hands released him and he rocked back on his haunches, unable to hold back sharper gasps of pain as he twisted and contorted around his burning wrists. Sweat broke out across his brow and his eyes stung. Bernard was saying something to the blacksmith, but Aramis forced his head up to look at the crowd of refugees watching from outside the doors.
"Don't you see what you're doing?" he yelled. "God would not condone this!"
"Perhaps it's your faithlessness God would not condone!" Bernard rejoined sharply. "Turning your back on those in need."
Aramis reeled back like he'd been slapped. Though Bernard had meant these people here, Aramis couldn't help but be reminded of the vow he'd made to God to give up everything and devote his life to serving the Lord—only to change his mind and ride to war. But he believed he was serving God, in a way. Defending King, country, and brother at the risk of his own life had to be acceptable in the eyes of the Lord…
Bernard nodded to his men and they hauled Aramis up. The refugees parted as he was dragged out of the blacksmith shop, not a sign of any qualms on their deadened expressions.
Aramis was brought back to the chateau but not the infirmary. He looked around in confusion as he was led down the hall toward a descending staircase.
"I don't trust you won't find another way to be resourceful," Bernard said as he grabbed a torch off the wall and lit it. "Another contingency I prepared for."
Aramis was losing the heart to struggle as he was forced down the stairs to the level below ground, then down a dark stone corridor lined with cellars and into one in particular. It was dark within until Bernard used the torch to light two more fixed in wall sconces. Orange light spilled out to fill the empty corners of the stone prison.
There was a clinking of metal and Aramis craned his neck to see some men bringing down the chains from upstairs. The grips on his arms tightened as Bernard knelt down to yank his boots off and toss them aside. Then the shackles he'd picked earlier were cuffed around his ankles this time and the ends of the chains locked to a ring bolted in the cellar floor. A third chain was attached to his wrist manacles and affixed to the others as well. The slack afforded him range of movement as he'd had upstairs but the extra chains were far more cumbersome and Aramis's shoulders dragged downward from the weight of it all.
"We'll move the infirmary supplies down here and tomorrow you can resume your work," Bernard said.
Aramis just stared at him in stupefaction. He had wanted to yell and scream in these people's faces but knew it wasn't going to make one bit of difference.
As Bernard and his men filed out, Aramis shuffled to the wall and slumped against it, sliding down to the ground where he cradled his still stinging wrists in his lap. The cuffs were too thick to slide up and down his arms, so he couldn't get a look at the damage underneath. He snorted in derision at the thought that the lengths these people had gone to keeping him here might lead to their precious medic getting infected burns.
Noise outside drew his attention toward the door as Bernard and several men returned. Aramis watched as they carried in armloads of supplies from upstairs and started piling them along one wall. Someone else brought in a straw pallet, which they deposited in the back corner along with a blanket. The tables were carried in and set up, along with some shelving cases. A few more torches were put in wall sconces and a crate of candles was set on a table as well. Bernard directed the placement of a few items, musing out loud over the best positions, as though he were trying to make Aramis's living arrangements as comfortable as possible.
Aramis himself wasn't consulted, for which he was grateful. He didn't know how much more of this farce he could take.
Once everything had been brought down, everyone left again. Aramis heard the door get bolted from the outside, and then he was alone.
He sat on the cold stone floor for a long time before finally hauling himself up and shuffling toward the table. The cuffs had since cooled but his wrists felt raw. Even if he'd wanted to appeal to Bernard's sense of compassion or simple rationality of treating their own medic's wounds, there was no key that could open these manacles anymore, leaving Aramis to fumble his way through trying to tend them.
He picked through the medicines until he found a burn salve, then debated whether to try washing the wounds. He could pour some water down the gap between the shackles and his wrists, but he wouldn't be able to dry the area. It likely wasn't that dirty since it hadn't been exposed to anything, so he decided to stick with the salve.
Scooping some onto his forefinger, he tried to wedge it underneath the cuff, hissing as the motion chafed at the burns further. He attempted to shove some salve in from both the top and bottom of the shackles; hopefully as it warmed it would trickle down to reach the center. It was a paltry attempt at care but the best he could do.
Once he'd finished with both arms, he was utterly spent, so he trudged over to the pallet and lay down, trying to find a position that was easiest on his pulsing wrists with the multiple chains draped around him.
"Lord have mercy on my soul," he prayed. "Is this punishment? I made a vow and broke it, I make no excuse. Just…is there not more than one cause You find acceptable? I did not break my vow selfishly."
Aramis let out a shuddering breath.
"Or perhaps I did. It was not done lightly, nor permanently. Should I survive this war, I do still vow to dedicate my life in service to You."
He closed his eyes.
"Lord have mercy on my soul," he whispered again as despondency began to settle over him.
Sleep was hard to come by between Aramis's tumultuous thoughts and the pain in his wrists. He didn't even know it was morning until the bolt on the door of his prison was slid back and Bernard entered with two men, carrying in some more supplies.
"Set up the cooking pot right here," Bernard directed, pointing to a spot halfway between the door and the pallet where Aramis still sat. "A torch can be used to heat water."
The men carried over a large cauldron and a metal rack to set up to hold it. Bernard was carrying a plate of breakfast and started making his way toward Aramis.
Aramis pushed himself to his feet. When Bernard held the plate out to him, he refused to take it. The man simply sighed and moved to set it on the nearby table. As soon as his back was turned, Aramis flung the chain of his wrist irons over Bernard's head and yanked back, pulling the man against his chest and cinching the metal links around his throat. The older man gave a startled gasp, hands flying up to scrabble at the chain. The other two men froze.
"Unlock the chains," Aramis demanded.
The men shifted and exchanged uncertain looks.
"Now!" He yanked back on the chain around Bernard's neck for emphasis.
"You would kill me in cold blood?" he gasped out.
"You're not giving me a choice," Aramis spat the man's own words back in his face. He shot a scathing look at the other two men. "Now get the key!" He may not have been able to unlock the wrist cuffs, but he could unchain himself from the bolt and get the hell out of here.
"These people are depending on me, on you," Bernard continued. "I know you're willing to die for your cause; so am I. Are you willing to ruthlessly murder innocent people for it? Because that's what you'll have to do." He lifted his chin and gave his men a staunch look. They nodded back, holding their ground.
Aramis held Bernard against his chest, the seething urge to tighten the chain that much further making his hands shake. Nobody moved or spoke. It was Aramis's move, and it seemed his opponents weren't going to blink.
The standoff lasted a few more fraught minutes before Aramis finally jerked his arm up in frustration to release his hostage and shoved Bernard away from him. He couldn't do it, damn it, couldn't kill an unarmed man.
Bernard stumbled away and reached up to rub his neck. Despite his proclaimed bravado, he looked shaken. He nodded to his men and the three of them left, closing and locking the door behind them.
Aramis pivoted and slammed a palm against the stone wall. Shame and reproach burned at him, though for his weakness in giving in or for threatening to murder an unarmed man, he didn't know. Either way, his recent feeble attempt at escape hadn't gained him anything. He wondered what punishment Bernard might have in store for him because of it.
The raw stinging of his wrists dragged his shoulders down further. Defeated, he made his way to the table and tried to get more burn salve under the cuffs again. He had as much luck as the night before, the process once again chafing the burns until Aramis finally gave up in frustration.
His gaze slid to the plate of cut potatoes and a bruised apple, and after another despondent moment of consideration, he picked it up to eat. He'd need to keep up his strength if he was going to get out of this, though his avenues had been drastically reduced to almost nothing. At this point his only hope was for someone in the refugee camp to come to their senses and report what was going on. But what were the chances of that, given what Aramis had witnessed of these people?
Long minutes passed that turned into at least a few hours before the click of the latch outside alerted him to the men finally returning. He braced himself for retribution, but it was only two of the guards and Madeline. Bernard was not with them.
The little girl looked around cautiously, small nose wrinkled in distaste as she crossed the cellar chamber toward him. "Bernard wanted you to check my hand," she said. "I told him it's all better but he said best to have a medic say that." She presented her hand to him for inspection.
Aramis's fingers twitched with the urge to furl them into fists. Of course Bernard would send her in first even though there was no reason for Aramis to check her hand—it had been healing just fine a couple of days ago. It was like the man was daring Aramis to try something again in front of a child…daring him to threaten violence against a little girl in a bid for freedom.
Madeline faltered when Aramis didn't respond to her, and she slowly lowered her arm.
Aramis forced down all his frustrated fury and mustered the barest smile for the girl as he beckoned her to show him her hand again. The wound had healed and all that remained was a pink line. "It does look all better," he managed to get out.
Madeline quirked a smile at that, but then glanced down at the irons now not just on his wrists but ankles as well. "Are you the Spanish enemy?"
"No." He took a breath to soften the indignation and bitterness that had seeped through his tone. "I'm French, like you."
Madeline nodded approvingly. "That's good. I don't like the Spanish. They're evil."
Aramis's heart gave a pang at the conviction in her voice. It disheartened him that children were being taught to hate, which would only breed more dissent in the future and jeopardize any true prospects at lasting peace.
"The Spanish aren't evil," he said, taking a seat on one of the wooden chairs to be more at her eye level. "Their soldiers have been ordered to fight just like the French have. Somewhere there is a little Spanish girl just like you whose home was destroyed by this war, and she's living in a refugee camp just like this one."
Madeline's brow furrowed thoughtfully for a moment. Then she reached out to touch the manacle on his left wrist. "If you're not Spanish, why are you chained up? Did you do something bad?"
Aramis flicked a look at the two guards, but neither of them said anything. He turned back to Madeline. "I want to go back to my brothers, but the people here don't want me to leave."
"I don't have any brothers. How many do you have?"
Aramis couldn't help but smile softly at the mere thought of them. "Three. They're off fighting in the war and I should be with them."
"Oh." Madeline pursed her mouth thoughtfully again. "I'd like it if you stayed here though."
Aramis bit back a sigh. He wondered if Bernard had put her up to saying that or whether it had just come from her childlike innocence.
"Time to go," one of the guards called.
Madeline looked reluctant for a brief second but then walked away. The door wasn't closed behind them because another patient was brought in after that. Aramis closed his eyes for a moment before standing to meet them. He put together a couple of pouches of herbs to steep in a tea for the man's congested lungs and gave him instructions on how often to take them. After that was someone with stomach troubles, and Aramis rifled through the tonics from the supplies in case there was something already made for that; there was. Then came a man with a broken hand and they both had to sit through Aramis setting the bones, which was a delicate and excruciating process.
There were no more patients after that and Aramis was left in isolation in the cold cellar with only torch and candle light for company until supper was brought. Then he spent another restless night in pain and mental torment. It was cold, and his feet quickly chilled in only his stockings. He debated trying to wrestle his boots over the shackles but knew that would be a futile endeavor. And so his misery increased.
The next day there were fewer patients and Aramis kept gazing at the supplies over and over. Idleness had always irked him and this was no exception, even though he hated himself for even considering it. He didn't want to give in.
And yet sitting in the corner brooding felt like giving up, and so he finally dragged himself over to the table and began to organize things, simply to have something to do. He went through the bottles and vials trying to identify what they contained. Some were labeled, as Bernard had said, but some weren't. He tasted a few and was able to discern their ingredients, but a few he couldn't and set those aside to be removed. Despite his vexation over the situation, he wasn't going to unwittingly poison someone.
He organized the bottles alphabetically on the shelf case that had been brought in, then set about doing the same with the herbs. He found a blank ledger among the items, which he chalked up to more of Bernard's "planning." There were some sticks of charcoal, so he began making a list of the inventory. He soothed his pride by reasoning that once he was gone from here it would make things easier for the refugees.
Down in the cellar without daylight, the only way to mark the passage of time was by the visits to bring him meals and empty the chamber pot. Aramis tore the last page from the back of the ledger and began to make tick marks to count the days.
He didn't see Bernard for three, one of the guards always delivering his meals instead and keeping a cautious distance when they left the plates on the end of the table closest to the door.
Bernard reappeared on the fourth evening after the stream of patients was done for the day.
"I brought you something," he said, holding up a pair of thick wool stockings in one hand. "It is pretty cold down here. And these." In his other hand he held up three books. "Thought you might like something to do in your spare time."
Aramis gazed back at him blandly. He had nothing to say to the man, nor did he care for a "peace offering" whilst he was still in chains, the throbbing in his wrists a constant thorny reminder that these people were not friends. Bernard's kindness only extended as far as Aramis doing what he wanted.
Bernard waited a beat, then set the items on the table and left. After a few minutes, Aramis did get up to retrieve the stockings and put them on, folding the tops down and then stuffing them up under the shackles to add some cushioning.
A few more days passed in monotonous repetition. Someone brought him breakfast, then there were patients to tend throughout the day, and at the end someone left him supper. Used to military rations, the meager meals were tolerable and Aramis's hunger pains were no worse than they had been on the front.
The guards stopped removing the knife from the room at the end of the day, confident now that Aramis wouldn't use it against them. He could use it to pick the locks of his leg irons, but he didn't want to invite Bernard to meld those shut too, so he left them alone.
He rearranged the furniture in the cellar to cut down on how far he had to slog in the chains, moving a work table lengthwise down the center of the room near the back, creating an aisle between it and the straw pallet. A second table he set at the end, also lengthwise, for severely ill patients to be laid out on. For those that weren't, he put one of the wooden chairs near the cauldron and the second over by the work table in the back. Since the shelf unit had already been stocked, he wasn't going to take everything off and move it, though it was furthest away against the opposite wall.
He picked up the books Bernard had left: two novels and a book on astronomy. Aramis dropped them back on the table.
Bernard came every evening attempting genial conversation and Aramis ignored him each time. The man was pleased with the work Aramis had done "making himself at home," which made Aramis's heart burn with fury and something akin to shame. He was not making himself at home; he was…just trying to pass the time.
The tick marks began to accumulate on the page he kept tucked under the straw pallet where he slept, and each one siphoned away a little more of his strength and courage each day. The mild burns on his wrists decreased in intensity but still hurt, unable to fully heal as they were constantly chafed by the cuffs. As far as he could tell without actually being able to see, they weren't becoming infected. Small mercies. They ached from bruising though, as did his ankles, which was a natural byproduct of such long duration wearing them. Aramis started applying the salve to both as best he could to mitigate the damage.
He tried to take care of himself in other ways too, as trivial as they might be—he used the knife to keep his beard trimmed and boiled water to wash himself with a towel.
Bernard's visits were like a taunt.
"Are these books not to your taste?" the man asked one night. "I can find something else."
Aramis was silent.
Bernard waited, as he always did, before he sighed and started to leave.
"Wait," Aramis spoke up, pride twinging.
Bernard paused and looked back.
"A Bible," Aramis forced out.
Bernard nodded. "Of course."
Aramis clenched his fists, hating asking that man for anything. But he was losing faith and needed something to cling to, something to give him strength through this challenge.
Bernard brought him a Bible the next day and Aramis spent every moment of solitude seeking solace from God. He read the Psalms, some of the laments more poignant now than they had ever been in previous readings. He recited the words as his own prayers, asking for deliverance and struggling to find the conviction that God would in fact deliver him from this tribulation…
Thanks to tessseagull for the Spanish!
Also, possible trigger warning for death of a child, but it's brief here at the beginning.
There was so much sickness in the refugee camp. It was unavoidable, given the living conditions and lack of proper nutrition. Aramis did what he could with herbs and tonics, but it felt like a stopgap on a self-perpetuating problem. The young and the old were particularly susceptible, and over the past few weeks, Aramis had been forced to watch a handful of them die. He was no stranger to death, both in meting it out and in failing to stave it off, but that had always been in the context of battle. When it was children…that was a new level of hell he was unprepared for.
He retreated to the back of the cellar as a woman threw herself over her three-year-old son's body, his last breath having eked out only moments before. Aramis had done everything he could, but the boy's lungs were too compromised, and none of the treatments had been able to give him enough of a push toward recovery. For the past two nights Aramis had toiled almost ceaselessly, an extra pallet having been brought in and placed near the door for those too ill to make the trek back and forth each day. In those times, the door wasn't locked but a guard was stationed outside. And Aramis didn't have it in him to try to fight his way past a child in distress.
The mother's wailing echoed throughout the cellar, piercing Aramis to his core. A spiky lump constricted his throat, and he bowed his head in prayer. Their Lord would never turn a child away, as hollow comfort as that was in the face of such tragic loss.
Aramis suddenly found himself assaulted with thoughts of his own son. Was he well? Wealth and privilege did not protect from disease or accident, the great equalizers of men. A flash of memory reminded him of when the Dauphin had been sick as a baby, and all that worry and fear he'd felt bubbled up as though fresh, spurred by this mother's own worst fears come to life.
Men came in and tried to comfort her while simultaneously pulling her away. She keened and fought against them at first but then fell into the arms of the nearest person, sobbing. Another carried a sheet and wrapped the boy in it before bearing him up and away. Aramis might as well have been invisible.
He slumped back against the wall and slid to the floor, dropping his head into his hands to stave off the hot moisture pricking at his eyes. No one else was brought to him after that. As though in kindness, Bernard usually gave him a reprieve after he lost a patient. Aramis didn't know whether to be grateful for it—or furious for having been forced to bear witness to these people's grief after failing to prevent it.
He hadn't moved by the time the door opened again and didn't bother lifting his head to look. Footsteps moved softly around the chamber and he heard the faint clink of earthenware being set on the table.
"Come eat, Aramis," Bernard's voice spoke kindly.
Aramis was too worn out to shoot the man a baleful glare nor was he very hungry. He thought Bernard would leave as he usually did, but after several moments of not hearing the door shut, Aramis finally looked up. Bernard was standing at the end of the work table going through the ledger.
"I'll take some men to look for more supplies," he commented as though Aramis cared. "Is there anything that should be a priority? Anything we don't have that we should try to get?"
"You mean steal," Aramis said bluntly.
Bernard glanced over. "Something that would have saved Catherine's son?"
Aramis clenched his jaw and looked away.
"I'll just make a list of what we've been going through the most."
"Bernard," Aramis blurted before the man could leave. Chains clinking, he pushed himself up to stand. "I could train someone in everything I know about medicine. Herbs, wound treatment. Then they could take over as your medic and you can let me go."
Bernard canted his head in consideration. He nodded slowly. "That's a good idea. I'll see if I can find someone who would be interested."
Aramis's shoulders slumped in relief. It wouldn't be a quick fix; he'd accumulated his own knowledge base over years of experience. But it was the best idea he'd had for working his way out of this forced servitude, and it at least gave him hope and an end to keep his focus on.
He ate his dinner and then settled on his pallet for the night, picking up his Bible and resting his hands on the cover. There were faint purple and puce ringlets on his skin around the curve of the manacles and sometimes they ached too much to hold the Bible up to read. He had many passages memorized, and he found comfort in simply having the physical token to hold onto.
Closing his eyes, Aramis lifted his prayers to Heaven. He prayed for his son back in Paris, and for Anne, the family that could never be his. He prayed that she would be strong in this trying time; this war was against her home country and her brother, after all. He prayed for his brothers, for their safety and health. He asked for God's protection over them on the battlefield.
And then he selfishly prayed that by some miracle they would come for him, as they had always done in the past.
And when his voice was spent, he curled up on the straw pallet under the soft torch light and drifted into a nightmare plagued sleep where his prayers weren't answered. Not a single one.
The crack of muskets and whistling of cannons rent the air in a chaotic cacophony that would disorient any sane man caught in the midst of it. Athos gripped his sword and raised it high.
"Charge!" he bellowed, signaling the Musketeer regiment to push forward against the Spanish army.
The clash of steel pealed beneath the barrage of munitions fire, but none of that was able to drown out the screams of men being cut down all around the battlefield. It was chaos, and Athos soon found himself fighting alone, having lost sight of Porthos and d'Artagnan.
He slashed and thrusted, no elegance or technique in his attacks, just an adrenaline-fueled frenzy to come out of this alive. Swordsmanship had no place in war, only the ability to cut down one's enemy before blade or ball took you out instead. Athos ducked under a sword that came arcing toward his neck, one knee hitting the ground as he jabbed upward at an awkward angle to stab the enemy soldier though the chest.
Just as he was lurching to his feet, a cannon ball struck several yards away, the impact wave slamming into Athos and throwing him to the ground. Dirt and grass rained down on top of him and he twisted frantically, his ears suddenly ringing louder than the roar of fighting. He needed to see the next threat coming at him…
A hand grabbed his arm under the armor plating and hauled him up in one strong jerk. Athos flinched instinctively, fingers grasping air—where had he dropped his sword?—but then Porthos's face was swimming into view inches from his. He immediately clutched back at his brother's arm desperately.
"'Ey, y- 'ight?"
Porthos's lips were moving but Athos couldn't hear him. The ground shuddered from the impact of another cannon ball. Then the noises filtered back in, loud and deafening.
"Athos!" Porthos gave him a sharp shake.
He bent down to pick up his sword. "I'm fine."
It was a ridiculous answer in the middle of a war zone. He swept his gaze around the field and the men locked in combat with swords and spears. Concerted movement caught his eye and he snapped his attention to where d'Artagnan was leading a charge toward the enemy's cannons. Athos huffed; he could thrash the young Gascon for the brash move.
But the cannons weren't able to turn quickly enough toward the oncoming threat before the musketeers reached them, cutting down their operators with swift vengeance. In wordless synchronization, Athos and Porthos rushed to join them.
Taking out the Spanish cannons turned the tide of the battle, and it wasn't long after that the French claimed victory. A few Spanish soldiers fled, but a good handful had been taken prisoner. Athos stood and watched as they were chained together while others picked their way through the carnage.
"Over here!" d'Artagnan shouted.
Athos turned and quickened his pace toward where d'Artagnan was crouched beside a fallen soldier—Luc. The man was alive and conscious, shaking on the ground. He'd been shot in the chest.
D'Artagnan bent over him, ripping the hole in his uniform wider. "I don't think the ball went too deep," he said. "I should be able to dig it out."
Athos marveled at how much the young Gascon had grown. He had already been learning from Aramis when they first went off to war, and had learned even more in the initial two years, but in the two and a half months since Aramis's disappearance, he had stepped up as their unit's unofficial medic.
Athos's heart clenched at the reminder. The pain had not dulled in that time and he was constantly having to push it aside in order to do his duty.
He straightened and called over two men to help d'Artagnan get Luc off the field and back to the encampment that was just over the knoll north of the battleground.
Porthos stomped over, expression hard. "We gonna interrogate the prisoners before turnin' 'em over to one of the prisoner camps?"
Athos could have sighed but didn't. Porthos had been questioning every Spanish soldier they managed to capture, asking if anyone had information on a stealth attack on a French camp almost three months ago or a musketeer prisoner of war. They'd yet to get any answers, and Athos didn't honestly think they would. There had been no signs of foul play. But even so, the horrible truth was Athos thought Aramis was likely dead. Because there was no version of events where he could fathom the marksman having left them on his own.
Still, he knew what it was like to hold onto desperate hope no matter how small. That was what made this so hard for them to let go and move on: not knowing what happened.
So Athos nodded. Porthos turned and marched toward the prisoners, barking at them to get slogging back to the camp. Athos lingered until the rest of his men had finished searching the field before they all headed back.
He checked in at the med tent and found Luc lying on a cot as d'Artagnan sewed up the hole in his chest. Athos took that to mean the ball had successfully been extracted. He waited for d'Artagnan to finish, watching as he snipped off the thread and then wrapped Luc's chest in linen. D'Artagnan grabbed a waterskin and helped him drink, then eased him down with an order to rest. Only then did he look up and seem to notice Athos was there.
D'Artagnan picked up a towel to wipe his hands and walked over.
"Will he live?" Athos asked.
"If we can keep the wound from becoming infected. I cleaned it twice, just to make sure."
Athos nodded. "You did a good job."
D'Artagnan's shoulders slumped. "I hope so," he said, sounding young again. "I know I've done everything I can, everything Aramis would have…" He trailed off and looked away. There was a tangible throb that their brother's absence left, both in the air beside them and in the space behind Athos's sternum.
He reached out and gave d'Artagnan's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "You should get cleaned up."
D'Artagnan canted a wry look back at him. "Clearly you haven't looked in a mirror. Those cuts need cleaning too."
"In a bit. I need to check on Porthos."
D'Artagnan's mouth turned down and he nodded grimly in understanding.
Athos exited the tent and made his way across camp to where the Spanish prisoners were standing in a line in front of Porthos and the translator.
"Answer me!" Porthos was yelling. "An' maybe we can make yer stay with us a little less painful."
The translator relayed the message. "Responded a la pregunta. Podemos hacer vuestro alojamiento más agradable."
"No tenemos ningunos prisioneros mosqueteros," one of the soldiers said. Then he chuckled. "¿Habéis extraviado uno? Tal vez el cobarde fue un desertor."
The translator hesitated.
"What'd he say?" Porthos demanded.
"He said they have no musketeer prisoners. And…suggested the coward deserted. His words," the translator added earnestly.
Porthos's face turned puce and he whirled toward the Spanish soldier, grabbing him by his shirt front and shaking him hard enough for his head to snap back and forth. "You bloody scum—"
"Porthos!" Athos launched forward and grabbed his shoulder, but the large man was impossible to control when in a rage. Two more musketeers took their captain's cue and jumped in, and it took all three of them to haul Porthos off the prisoner.
"Take a walk!" Athos shouted in the man's face, pushing him back another step.
Porthos's nostrils flared as he seethed at the Spanish soldier, but after a fraught moment, he shrugged it off and stormed away.
Athos let out a breath and turned back to the prisoners. The one who had taunted Porthos had a smirk on his face that Athos wanted nothing more than to smack off. But he didn't.
"Get them ready to transfer to the prisoner camp," he instructed his men.
He then went after Porthos, who'd removed himself to the edge of camp and was pacing like a wounded bear. Athos stopped with a fair distance still between them and didn't say anything. There wasn't anything he could say.
After several minutes, Porthos finally wore himself out and drew to a stop, hanging his head in anguish. Athos walked over and put a commiserative hand on his shoulder. Neither of them spoke. They stood there in silence under the crushing weight of shared grief and fading hope.
Possible trigger warning - Aramis treats a rape victim in the third scene of this chapter.
Aramis sat at the work table, his Bible laid open before him and the chain between his wrist manacles pooled in his lap. It was sometime in May now, based on the tick marks he'd counted on the page kept stuffed under his pallet. The weather must surely be warmer outside, not that it pierced this deeply underground in the cellar. There was still a chill that nipped at him with only the thin layer of his shirt to protect against it but at least he wasn't left to freeze and had a pile of blankets on the pallet for when he slept.
They were little comfort though.
With bowed head, Aramis reread the passage of Scripture about waiting on the Lord. He had been waiting, with no sign of deliverance on the horizon. How much longer was he expected to endure?
He mentally chastised himself. If he was being tested, he would not stray. "Wait on the Lord, be of good courage," he read aloud. "And he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord."
The bolt on the door slid back with a grating sound and Aramis sighed wearily. He rose to his feet as Bernard walked in with a young man who didn't appear injured or ill in any way.
"Aramis, this is Claude," Bernard introduced. "He's interested in learning medicine."
Aramis straightened at that. This was progress, and he suddenly found his hope for an end to this madness renewed.
"It will be an honor to learn from you," the young man said. He had a mop of floppy dark hair that hung over his ears and a lean face with angular cheek bones.
Aramis nodded in greeting.
"I'll let you get started then," Bernard said and turned back toward the door.
"Are the chains still necessary?" Aramis asked, holding his shackled wrists up.
Bernard regarded him for a prolonged moment. "You're an honorable man, Aramis. But you're also desperate. And I know what desperation can drive one to."
Aramis clenched his jaw and lowered his arms. It figured that was pushing his luck.
Bernard left, leaving Aramis and Claude standing awkwardly in the cellar.
"Well," Aramis said to break the silence. "I suppose we'll start with herbs. Do you have any knowledge of them?"
"Only what my grandmother used to put in her tea," Claude replied.
"Right." Aramis took a seat in the chair by the table so he could rest his arms in his lap. There was no reason to exert himself by schlepping back and forth. "Bring over the first two items on the shelf over there. We'll just go through each of them one at a time."
Claude did as he was instructed and Aramis began to tutor him in each plant and their various uses. The young man was an attentive student and eager to learn. He reminded Aramis of d'Artagnan in some ways, but that thought only brought him a pang of longing and homesickness for his brothers. He wondered what they were doing right now, if they were on a battlefield, or perhaps training a fresh troop of new cadets…if they were wondering about him.
"Can't too much of this be poisonous?" Claude asked, interrupting Aramis's morose thoughts.
He gave himself a sharp shake and tuned back into his task. "Yes," he confirmed. "You would not want to put more than a teaspoon into a mixture at a time, nor have the patient take a dose more than twice a day. But with those restrictions, the plant can have many medicinal benefits."
Claude nodded along. It was a lot to take in all at once—and unrealistic to expect him to remember it all after one lesson. There would be many more, Aramis knew. But this was progress, he reminded himself. Something to move forward with to eventually gain his freedom.
For the next few weeks, Aramis spent a great deal of his free time tutoring Claude in herbs and medicine. And then of course the best teacher was hands-on experience, which was in daily supply. Aramis instructed the young man in mixing up remedies for sick patients and constantly quizzed him on the usages and dosages. Sometimes people came in with injuries and Aramis would demonstrate the techniques of wound care. They would have to wait for another case or two for Claude to be able to then practice those skills himself.
Aramis knew he couldn't rush this, not if he was going to leave these people a capable medic, but he was also eager to get Claude ready so he could get out of this wretched place. His captivity-enslavement-cooperation was wearing on him mentally and emotionally just as the chains did physically every second of every day.
One morning Claude arrived with a knitting needle and proceeded to fasten a thin strip of cloth around the pointed edge. Aramis watched in idle curiosity.
"To help get the bruise balm under the cuffs," Claude explained. "I've seen you struggle with that."
A muscle in Aramis's jaw ticked and he had to force his expression to remain neutral as he accepted the proffered tool. The casual disregard for the fact that he was being held against his will combined with small kindnesses was grating and also chipped away at his raw mental state.
But the instrument was helpful and he was able to swab all the way underneath the manacles. He mustered enough politeness to thank Claude, who looked thrilled that his idea was a success.
The lessons continued.
Madeline showed up one day without an adult while Claude was out searching for fresh herbs.
Aramis looked over with a frown. "Madeline, what are you doing here?"
She held up a raggedy doll made of sewn sackcloth. "She has an owie. Will you make it better?"
He sighed, but since he didn't have anything better to do other than sit alone and wallow, he didn't send her away. She was just a child.
He patted the table top. "Let me see."
The girl stepped forward and reverently set her doll down.
"Where does it hurt?" he asked.
Madeline pointed to a stubby hand. "It's a bee sting."
"Ah, well I have just the thing for that. Will you bring me that bushel of herbs at the end of the table?"
Madeline skipped down the length of the tables to retrieve the dried plants. Meanwhile Aramis ripped off a tiny strip that could be spared from a piece of linen, not even an inch long. Then he snipped off the bottom of a plant stem, set it on the doll's hand, and wrapped it with the cloth, tucking the end in securely.
He picked up the doll and held it out to Madeline. "There, all better."
She beamed at him. "Thank you!"
Aramis gave her a wan smile in return. "You're welcome."
"Do you think Bernard would let you come outside and play with me?" she asked. "For just a little while?"
Aramis's smile turned stiff. "I don't think so. I have a lot of work to do here."
"Oh, okay." She dropped her gaze in disappointment.
"You should run along now," Aramis said. "And watch out for those bee stings."
Madeline nodded. "I will." With a tentative smile, she turned and left the cellar.
But she came back the next day, and the one after that. She seemed to have taken a liking to Aramis. No one stopped her from visiting, though she had to be told to wait outside if he was with a patient. And no one came looking for her, angry for her running off to places she shouldn't be. Aramis didn't have the heart to ask why.
May turned into June, but other than the changing weather, conditions in the refugee camp remained the same.
"Do physicians keep their own herb gardens?" Claude asked as he and Aramis were stuffing sachets to stock on the shelf.
"I don't know," Aramis replied, gaze in his lap. Fingers that had once deftly loaded gunpowder packets in under thirty seconds while under fire now moved with aching slowness as he favored his wrists whenever he could.
"It seems like it would be beneficial," Claude went on. "Especially since some remedies are more potent fresh."
Aramis didn't respond. If Claude and Bernard wanted to plant themselves an herb garden, they could have at it. He certainly wasn't going to grow one down in a dungeon.
A scuff of shoes heralded Madeline's arrival. "What are you doing?" she asked without preamble.
"Making herb pouches so they'll be ready when someone's sick," Aramis answered.
"Oh. What's this for?" She pointed to one of the herb piles.
"That's feverfew. It can be used for fevers, headaches, stomach aches, and some other maladies."
"What about this one?"
"We are busy," Claude interrupted. "Leave us alone."
Madeline's face scrunched up and after a brief moment, she spun on her heel and stormed out.
"You should not rebuke her curiosity," Aramis chided. "When she's older she may wish to learn these things just as you are. And the people could certainly use more healers, couldn't they?"
Claude ducked his gaze, looking only somewhat abashed.
They finished their work in silence and then the young man left for the evening, closing and bolting the cellar door behind him. Sometimes Aramis wondered whether he even realized what that action signified, or if it was simply habit he barely gave any thought to.
Picking up his Bible, the spine creased and edges crinkled from use, Aramis settled on his pallet and bowed his head, praying for strength and patience.
Aramis rarely acknowledged the men who brought him meals and took out the chamberpot. They were nameless guards as far as he was concerned, and as far as they were concerned, for all the effort they put into treating him as anything other than a prisoner, even a revered one. But they brought him things when he asked, like a blank book so he could make a reference guide of the things he'd been teaching Claude. Every little bit helped, he told himself.
The bolt on the cellar door slid back, announcing the first patient of the day. Two guards escorted in a woman whose gaze was as skittish as a rabbit's. She held her arms tucked against her chest, hands fisted tightly in the collar of her dress. Her face was a mottled array of purple and black bruises. One cheekbone was split and swollen, as was her lip. One of the guards held his arm out to gesture for her to take a seat and she shied away from the movement.
"Whoa, easy," the man said. "This is our medic. He can treat your wounds."
"What happened?" Aramis asked as he made his way over.
The guard's mien hardened. "Spanish bastards. Soldiers raided her village, decided to make off with more than just grain."
Aramis's blood turned to ice as he took in the marks of brutality painted across this young woman like a canvas. He could only imagine what she was concealing under the tightly clutched collar of her dress.
"She finally got away," the guard went on. "But by then her village had been burned. Some other refugees brought her here."
Aramis turned to the obviously frightened young woman and lowered his voice. "What's your name?"
She didn't answer and tried to fold in on herself more.
His heart clenched. "I'm Aramis. Here, sit." Holding his arm out without touching her, he guided her to take a seat on the table. "I know you've been through a terrible ordeal, but will you let me see?" he asked gently. "Your injuries should be treated."
Her shoulders were shaking and she darted her gaze over the guards.
Aramis glanced at them. "Would you mind waiting outside?"
They exchanged a look but one of them nodded and so they stepped out into the corridor out of sight, leaving the door open. Aramis knew they wouldn't have gone far.
The young woman's wide eyes snapped fearfully to Aramis now that they were alone and he was standing mere inches from her.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said softly.
She flicked a nervous glance at his chains.
"I'm being held against my will because of my knowledge of medicine," he explained. "But that doesn't mean I'm not going to help you."
He stepped away, giving her some breathing room, and went to warm some water in the cauldron. Claude was currently away with Bernard, using his learned knowledge to help the older man get fresh medicinal supplies, so Aramis had to do everything himself. He grabbed one of the torches off the wall and leaned it against the brick that held the lit end propped up under the cauldron. Then he moved to the shelf to start picking out the items he was sure to need—salve, bruise balm, bandages. He didn't need the water boiling and so removed the torch after a short time, and then scooped some of the warmed liquid into a bowl and carried it back to the table to set down with the other supplies.
He'd stalled as long as he could and stood facing the poor woman again. "Will you let me clean those cuts?" he asked, nodding to her face.
She fidgeted, ducking her gaze, but then gave a jerky nod.
Aramis picked up a towel and soaked a corner of it, then lifted it to her cheek. He dabbed gently but she still flinched.
"Sorry, I know it hurts."
Her eyes flicked up to his and away again. "Lisette," she whispered.
Aramis paused. "I'm sorry?"
"My name is Lisette."
"Lisette," he repeated. "I'll try to be gentle."
He cleaned the wounds on her face and applied a salve. There was little else he could do for them. Next came the more sensitive task of figuring out what other wounds she bore. With some coaxing, Lisette relinquished the white-knuckled grip on her collar and undid the laces, tugging it down her shoulders. Finger shaped bruises circled her neck and upper arms. Aramis had to look away for a moment, sickened by the heinous things men were capable of.
He spoke softly as he treated her hurts, informing her of every little movement he was going to make before he did it. He checked for broken ribs, heart clenching in sympathy as she flinched under each and every touch no matter how gentle.
The examination was intimate yet violating. Aramis knew it was much worse for Lisette than it was for him.
"Are there more bruises…" He gestured uncomfortably toward her legs. This was not an aspect of medicine he'd ever had to face before.
Her cheeks flamed red and she looked away.
He picked up a tin of the bruise balm and held it out to her. "Massage this in up to three times a day." He hesitated. "I'm sorry I can't do more."
Lisette waited a beat before taking the tin with trembling fingers. "Thank you," she whispered. Her gaze shifted to his chains. "Is…is there something I can…?"
Aramis straightened. "If you see any French soldiers in the area, tell them—"
Lisette immediately shook her head and slid off the table. "No, no more soldiers."
She scrambled toward the door. "No more."
Aramis watched helplessly as she disappeared. One of the guards poked his head in, but his expression was one of grim understanding rather than accusation. Aramis sank into the chair and dropped his head into his hand, hating himself for having insensitively driven the poor girl away and also cursing that no one seemed to care enough about his own suffering when he was expected to fix theirs. It was a selfish thought and yet it had been gnawing at his soul for months now and he was so tired.
When Claude returned, eager to continue his training, Aramis could barely muster the energy to care. His responses to the young man's questions were laconic and eventually Claude got the hint and suggested he call it an early day. Aramis didn't stop him.
Sometimes he wondered what the hell he was even doing.
Bear with me, everyone. Only two more chapters of suffering (this one and the next one). Then the boys find Aramis! Though the actual reunion won't be until chapter 11. But we're getting there!
Warnings in this chapter for stillbirth and suicide.
The next few weeks slogged by, each subsequent day a repetition of the previous one. Aramis soldiered on because there was no other alternative. When the blacksmith, Peltier, came in for a burn—ironic—Aramis had Claude treat him and merely stood back and watched.
Claude was just finishing bandaging the man's arm when a commotion outside drew their attention. A long, belting scream reverberated down the stone corridor, and a moment later four men carried in a stretcher with a woman half lying, half sitting on it, one arm wrapped protectively around her swollen belly. They hurried to set her on the table as she threw her head back and screamed again.
Claude hastily finished the bandage and Peltier quickly took his leave.
"The baby is early," one of the men reported. "And the midwife was called away to another town a day's ride away."
"So you brought her down here?" Aramis asked incredulously.
The men shot him dubious looks. "You're the medic."
"This is beyond my expertise!" he hissed, remembering at the last second not to raise his voice too loudly and alarm the poor woman in labor pains. "Surely there must be someone more qualified."
The men looked at each other uncertainly.
Aramis jerked a hand toward the door, rattling the chain of his irons. "Go find someone and bring them down here!"
Two of the men jolted and then darted out.
Aramis turned to Claude. "Boil water, quickly. You—" He gestured at the two remaining men. "Get towels. Lots of them."
Claude ducked his head toward Aramis. "Do you know what to do?" he whispered urgently.
Aramis grimaced. "No."
He approached the table where the woman was grunting and groaning. Her hair was soaked in sweat that ran down her face and neck. He put a hand on her shoulder.
"Steady now, breathe," he coaxed for wont of anything else helpful to offer. "You can do this."
She lifted pain-glazed eyes to him. "It hurts."
His jaw tightened. "Just keep breathing. What's your name?"
"M-Marie," she gritted out.
The men returned with towels and Aramis instructed them to bunch a few behind the woman and to pile the rest at her feet in preparation. He ordered one man to bring down cold water next while they waited for additional help to arrive. Aramis grabbed a small towel and wiped the woman's face down.
"What now?" one of the men asked.
"I told you, I have no experience in childbirth. Has someone sent for her husband?"
The man's expression pinched. "He's dead."
Aramis briefly closed his eyes under a wave of empathy. "She should not be delivering her baby in a dungeon," he snapped under his breath.
The man had the shame to avert his gaze at that.
"Water's ready," Claude announced.
For all the good it did since Aramis didn't know what to do next. Thankfully the other men returned shortly after that with an older woman in tow.
"This is Patience. She's willing to help."
"Have you experience with difficult births?" Aramis asked.
"Been through three myself," she rejoined, rushing to Marie's side. "Don' know what you men were thinking, surrounding her with your useless arses. Go back outside and make yourselves useful finding me more help. Of the womanly kind!"
The four men nearly stumbled over each other in their haste to retreat. Claude stood by the cauldron, looking lost.
"I would gladly give you privacy," Aramis quipped bitterly. "But…" He held up his manacled wrists as evidence.
"Hm," Patience hummed with a hint of distaste. "Young man," she called over to Claude, "bring that water here. It's doing no good over there."
Claude fumbled to lift the cauldron off the hook and hauled it over.
He faltered, casting an uncertain look at Aramis.
Aramis just shrugged, so Claude hesitantly backed out of the room.
Patience stroked back Marie's sweat-plastered hair. "Stay strong, dear." She moved to the foot of the table and lifted Marie's skirts.
Aramis stayed where he was at the woman's head and continued to bathe her brow with a towel.
"I don't necessarily agree with Bernard's methods," Patience spoke up.
Aramis glanced toward her but she wasn't looking at him.
"Yet he's done a great deal for us. His heart is in the right place."
Aramis clenched his jaw and tried to focus on Marie instead. He'd heard enough of Bernard's reasons from the man himself and didn't need it from anyone else.
Patience didn't say anything more, and when Aramis flicked a look back toward her, he found her gazing at him sadly. "I will try to speak with him," she said.
Aramis had nothing to say to that. It didn't matter at this point anyway. Claude's training would be finished soon and Aramis could just put this whole ordeal behind him.
A guttural cry from Marie echoed through the room and they returned their attention to her. Two more women eventually arrived, though none had any experience as a midwife. Aramis watched them and Patience try their best, but when Marie gave one final push and finally collapsed back on the table, there was nothing but silence in the room.
Patience gazed down in utter sadness while the other two women hung their heads. Aramis lowered his eyes and sent up a silent prayer.
"Wh-where?" Marie gasped, trying to lift her head.
"I'm sorry," Patience said gravely.
"No. No, no, no."
Aramis stood and retreated to the back of the cellar as Marie broke down into gut-wrenching sobs. Yet another person who had lost everything in so short a time. What comfort could anyone offer in the face of that?
Aramis leaned against the wall and squeezed his eyes shut, listening to the shuffling sounds as the women wordlessly cleaned up and eventually departed, leaving him alone once more to silently wonder where God's love and mercy was in the midst of such suffering.
Two days after Marie's baby was stillborn, Lisette came to see Aramis. It had been a few weeks since she'd been brought to him and he'd wondered if she'd moved on from the refugee camp. Apparently not, or perhaps she was returning. Aramis briefly wondered whether she'd reached out to French soldiers after all on his behalf…
"Hello," she greeted hesitantly, wringing her hands in her skirts. "I don't know if you remember me."
"Lisette, of course," he replied. "How are you?" Her bruises had faded on the surface but there was a gauntness in her face and eyes that hinted at deeper scars.
She glanced over her shoulder nervously. At the moment they were alone. "I'm pregnant," she said in a hushed voice, her eyes welling with tears.
Aramis's heart sank at the implication.
"I cannot bear the shame of carrying a Spanish bastard," she whispered hoarsely. "Please, help me."
Aramis instinctively wanted to reach out and offer comfort, but he held himself back, not wanting to spook or offend her with a man's uninvited touch. "I'm sorry."
"Help me get rid of it."
Having just witnessed a child lost, the sharp words pierced him to his soul. He swallowed around a thickening throat. "I cannot imagine what you're going through," he began. "But…perhaps this does not have to be a curse. Life is precious, and one half of this child's heritage will not determine who he or she is, but how you raise them. You may come to love them…"
Lisette's knuckles whitened in the folds of her dress. "No! I want to abort it! Will you help me or not?"
"I don't know how," Aramis replied. "I've heard there are plants that can do it but they can be dangerous."
"Which plants?" she demanded.
Aramis spread his hands helplessly. "I don't know. I was trained in battlefield medicine, not…not this."
He didn't think there was enough training in the world for the likes of this.
A tear streamed down Lisette's cheek. Then, without a word, she turned on her heel and stormed out, nearly crashing into Claude as he was coming in.
The young man paused to watch her go, then turned to Aramis. "What was that about?"
Aramis sighed. "There will come a time, Claude, when a patient will come to you for a fix that is beyond your power to give. And it will be a hard burden for all involved."
Claude canted his head in thought for a moment. "Tell me about some of the maladies you've encountered that we haven't seen here. I would like to have some idea of things I might face in the future."
Aramis sank into a chair, sifting back through his recollections. "Well, we haven't discussed poisonings."
Claude pulled the other chair over and sat down, eagerly attentive as always.
"There are some poisons that act too quickly to do anything against," Aramis went on. "But others can be treated with an emetic made of mustard seed and castor oil. It induces vomiting to help purge the harmful substance. It's not a guarantee though. The patient will still be in distress until the rest of the poison leaves their body."
"How do you identify it's poison?"
"The victim is usually struck by a sudden fit. There might be froth in the mouth. I suppose there's no specific answer to your question, just that you'll know it's not a regular malady when you see it. Though I also doubt that unless you work amongst people of the Court, you're not likely to see assassination attempts through poison."
Claude's brow furrowed. "I suppose not. What about other types of poison? A snake bite, for instance. When I was a child a neighbor got bit by an adder and died. Is there treatment for that?"
Aramis grimaced. "Nothing that's proven effective. An actual physician would probably tell you to bleed the wounds, but you must be careful with that."
Claude nodded. "Wouldn't want the patient to lose too much."
"Exactly. Which is why I do not agree with many doctors' prescribed treatments of bleeding or leeching. As a soldier who's had my share of wounds, I know that losing blood only weakens someone."
"Leeching?" Claude asked.
Aramis went on to describe the procedure, much to Claude's disgust. From there they discussed other treatments and Aramis shared some of the beneficial things he'd learned from Doctor Lemay back when the man had been the Court's physician. Before he'd needlessly lost his life.
They took a break for Claude to go fetch them supper and then resumed their discourse over the meal. Usually there were no patients that late in the evening, but they hadn't even finished half their plates when shouts echoed down the corridor outside. Aramis and Claude surged to their feet as Bernard rushed in first, followed by two men carrying a young woman between them. Aramis's lungs seized. It was Lisette.
She was limp in their arms, and the man who had his arms under hers was holding her wrists tightly in his hands, which were smeared with blood.
"What happened?" Aramis demanded.
"She was found down by the stream," Bernard said. "She must have only just done it."
The men laid her on the table and let go, revealing the slashed wrists splashed with crimson. Aramis immediately grabbed two rolls of linen and tossed one to Claude. "Bind it tightly!"
The lacerations would need to be stitched closed, but they had to staunch the bleeding first. Aramis tied a strip of linen around the pale wrist and knotted it.
"Get two bowls of water and towels," he snapped to whomever would obey. "Claude, thread two needles."
The young man scampered away to grab the supplies and Bernard went to get the water.
Aramis leaned over Lisette's head. "Don't do this, Lisette," he pleaded.
Her eyes were open to mere slits, her complexion white as porcelain. Aramis placed a hand over her heart and felt the sluggish thump already petering out.
Claude darted back over with the threaded needles. "Do we stitch at the same time?"
Aramis felt the last stuttering heartbeat give out beneath his palm. He closed his eyes and shook his head. "No. She's gone."
Silence hung like Death's scythe in the room.
"But…" Claude started.
Bernard put a hand on his shoulder. "It's all right, lad."
Aramis stepped away from the body and looked at his bloodstained hands. She'd come to him for help and he'd failed her. He wasn't a real doctor, only masquerading as one because these people forced him to. And now he would carry the weight of these failures when by all rights they weren't his to bear.
"I'll find a sheet to wrap her body," Bernard said and left. The two men who'd brought her in followed.
Aramis dunked his hands in one of the bowls of water to wash the blood away.
Claude didn't move, the threaded needles still in his hand, his eyes fixed on Lisette. Aramis realized this was the first time the young man had been in the room to witness the loss of a patient. He should offer the poor lad something…but the truth was Aramis barely had the strength to deal with this himself.
"You will not be able to save everyone," he said, settling on the cold hard truth.
"We didn't even get a chance to try," Claude murmured.
"She wouldn't have wanted us to."
It was still a senseless loss of life, in Aramis's view, one traced back to this war as its source. When would it end?
Bernard and the men returned to wrap Lisette's body.
Exhausted in more ways than one, Aramis tiredly pointed out that the blood on the floor should be cleaned up, and then he slogged his way to the back of the cellar to lie down on his pallet. Let someone else pick up after death this night.
After two whole months of training, Aramis declared that he'd taught Claude everything he could. The young man was proficient in the basics, and only practice and experience would hone his skills further.
Aramis handed him the completed reference book to assist him from this point forward.
Claude took it and actually bowed respectfully. "Thank you. I hope to become as good a medic as you one day."
"I'm sure you will. Perhaps even a full-fledged physician."
Claude's cheeks flushed but he seemed pleased by the idea. "Farewell." He turned and left the cellar.
Aramis waited for Bernard to come and finally release him. His boots were still lying in the corner from the first day they'd been tossed aside, so that was good. At this point he wasn't sure whether these people would bother to give him a horse or even a coat after everything he'd done for them.
He sat at the table, stood and paced a bit, then sat again, anxious energy making his skin itch. But as the hours ticked by, that anxiety morphed into irritation. He'd fulfilled his end; where the hell was Bernard?
One of the guards brought his evening meal and Aramis felt his anger bubbling up.
"Where's Bernard?" he demanded.
The guard faltered. "Busy. Would you like to speak with him?"
The guard blinked in surprise and quickly left.
Aramis paced as he waited, ignoring the pain in his feet as the shackles bumped against his ankle bones. It only fueled the fire raging in his gut.
Bernard entered several minutes later.
"Did you speak with Claude today?" Aramis snapped without preamble.
Bernard arched a brow. "Yes."
"And he told you I said his training is complete? He's ready to take over being your medic."
Bernard nodded slowly. "Yes. We're very grateful to you for preparing him in this field. He's left for another refugee camp to lend aid there."
Aramis gaped at him in stupefaction. "What?"
"There is great need everywhere. But now there are two of you, and if you both apprentice someone and they go out and continue that work, a great many people can be helped."
Aramis shook his head, unable to believe what he was hearing. "We had a deal!"
Bernard drew his shoulders back. "I'm sorry if you misunderstood, Aramis, but that was never the arrangement I agreed to. If you would just stop fighting us and accept—"
"What?" he raged. "Accept this?" He thrust his shackled arms out toward Bernard. "You are a despicable, abhorrent wretch of a man! You spout God's work but God will judge you for your actions here."
"If he judges me for the lives I've helped—that you've helped—then that is a judgement I can take," Bernard rejoined. "I'll leave you to get some rest now."
He turned on his heel and left, shutting the heavy cellar door behind him with a resounding thud.
Aramis swept his manacled arms across the table, sending various supplies crashing to the floor. He grabbed the chains in both hands and yanked over and over in a furious rage until his palms ached and his energy was spent. Then he collapsed on the floor in exhaustion and despair. He couldn't keep going like this, a slave to his own countrymen. The war could last for years more and would Bernard keep him chained down here all that time? More even, as rebuilding would take even longer?
Aramis shook his head to himself. No. It was time to stop. He had tried to compromise, tried to cooperate, but no more.
The next morning he rose from his pallet and cleaned up the mess he'd made before the guard came to deliver his breakfast and empty the chamberpot. He ate the food he was given. But when a patient was brought in with a fresh cut on his arm, Aramis didn't rise to meet him.
The guard kept glancing at him uncertainly where he stayed seated at the back table. "This man has a wound," he spoke up.
Aramis gestured vaguely. "The medical supplies are right there. I'm sure you can figure it out yourselves."
The men exchanged confused looks.
"But," the guard tried again, "you're the medic."
Or tomorrow, or the next day, or for however long Bernard wanted to keep this up. Aramis had been whittled down to his last nerve and he was done.
The guard vacillated for a few minutes before finally fumbling around to at least bandage the patient's arm, however clumsily. Then they left. It didn't take long for Bernard to come storming in after that.
"What are you doing?" he demanded. "You refused to treat someone?"
Aramis lifted his chin staunchly. "I'm refusing to treat anyone. I'm done."
Bernard's cheeks puffed as he blustered in dismay. "You would turn on your own countrymen?"
"You're one to talk," Aramis snapped.
"Don't do this, Aramis," Bernard warned.
Aramis's expression was like cold steel. If Bernard wanted to resort to torture, then so be it. At least then his two-faced mask would finally be shed. Perhaps if the people here saw what a monster he was, they would change their minds about blithely following him.
In any case, this was the last ground Aramis had to stand on, and he wasn't giving it up this time.
And may God forgive him.
Over the next three days, the guards would bring in a patient in the morning to see if Aramis would treat them. He ignored their presence. Bernard tried different tactics to get him to change his mind—yelling at him for being selfish, withholding food, throwing his Bible in his face and declaring him a faithless wretch. Aramis was only mildly surprised he hadn't resorted to more physical torture.
He fasted and he prayed. At this point he didn't know whose side God was on, or whether he condemned them both. Aramis didn't dare to pray for mercy or a miracle anymore. He'd gotten one in exchange for a vow he'd later broken. God would be right to forsake him.
Yet he kept to this path for it was all that was left to him and he confessed his sins regardless of whether they would be absolved or not.
Then, on the fourth day, a group of men burst into the cellar with frenzied shouts as they hurried in with a man on a stretcher. Aramis scrambled to his feet on instinct, only remembering at the last second to hold himself back.
"He's been shot!" one of the men shouted to him.
"Are you going to let him die?" Bernard demanded, sweeping into the room behind them. "You're the only one skilled enough to save his life."
For a dark moment, Aramis wondered if Bernard was the one who had shot the poor fellow in a reckless dare to call Aramis's bluff.
"The ball's still in there," another man said urgently as they dropped the stretcher on the front table. The injured man let out a ragged gasp at the jolt.
Aramis clenched his fists in indecision. He'd sworn not to help them anymore, not to be their willing slave. But it was one thing to turn away minor cuts and fevers, another thing altogether to stand by and let a man die.
He crossed the room, the chains dragging behind him, and shoved one of the men out of the way to get a look at the wound. "What happened?" he asked curtly as he ripped the shirt around the hole high in the man's chest.
"Marauders came to raid our supplies," someone replied. "Lambert spotted them and raised the alarm. They shot him for it."
So it wasn't Bernard. Not that it changed Aramis's opinion of the man.
"I need wine and tweezers." He felt around the entrance wound trying to gauge how deep the ball had gone. Not enough to pierce the lung, it sounded like based on the lack of choking wheezes. Aramis thought he could see the lead. "Someone bring over more light!"
The men moved around him, not knowing where to find everything but fumbling to do their best. Someone handed him the tweezers and another held a candle above his head.
"The wine," Aramis snapped. "I need to clean the wound."
A few moments later a flask was thrust into his free hand. Aramis poured the liquid into the wound and the injured man let out a guttural gasp as he arched off the table.
"Hold him down," Aramis instructed.
Several pairs of hands jumped in to keep Lambert still as Aramis bent over the wound and inserted the tweezers. When the metal scraped lead, he snagged the ball and yanked it out with a squelch.
Bernard held one out and Aramis dropped the ball and tweezers into it, then turned back to flush the wound again.
"Sewing kit's on the top shelf over there," he said, tossing his head that direction.
Someone brought it over and Aramis wiped his hands on a towel before taking up a needle and threading it. Lambert was barely conscious at this point, which was for the best. Not everyone took their stitches very well.
Aramis bent to his task of sewing the hole closed, noting with chagrin the slight tremble in his fingers. Not enough to disrupt his work, but the effort to keep steady made his bruised wrists ache fiercely. When he was finally done and had snipped the thread off, he let the needle drop on the table carelessly and his arms hang at his sides.
"Will he live?" one of the men asked.
"If infection doesn't set in," Aramis replied in a detached sounding voice.
"We'll leave him in your care for the night," Bernard said.
Aramis was too weary to be angry. He absently reached for a roll of linen and bandaged the wounded man's chest while his friends held him up. Then those men transferred him from the table to the patient pallet by the door. When it was time to leave, instead of guards being stationed just outside, two of them took up vigil beside Lambert. Aramis didn't care; it'd be easier if someone else could watch throughout the night and wake him if needed.
He slogged back over to his end of the cellar and reached for the tin of bruise balm on the table. All that flurried activity had bounced the cuffs against his wrists repeatedly, flaring up the bone-deep bruising. He sat heavily in the chair and applied the salve. It was easier now; he'd lost weight and muscle mass in his months of captivity and the padded knitting needle slid completely under the cuffs without having to force it.
Aramis lay down to sleep but was awoken later by one of the men worried about Lambert feeling too warm. So Aramis dragged himself from bed and went to check. There was a mild fever, perhaps from the trauma more than from a developing infection. Aramis checked the wound and didn't find heat there. He made up a tea and had the men give it to their friend as he went back to sleep.
In the morning, the patient was awake and lucid, though in obvious pain. Aramis checked the wound again and declared it was still free of infection. Lambert should make a full recovery.
"Thank you," the man said sincerely.
Aramis had nothing to say to that. His soul was conflicted. He could not have lived with himself had he let Lambert die, yet it also felt like his final defeat. Because no matter how much he may have wanted to stand his ground, he would cave the moment life and death were put into play. And weren't they always in play? For as long as this war continued to ravage the country there would be suffering and death. What was Aramis's will in the face of that?
A few hours later Lambert was removed from the cellar to rest and recover in his own bed. Bernard remained standing in the doorway, studying Aramis.
"Lambert has three children," he said. "Their mother passed away years ago, and thanks to you, they haven't lost their father along with everything else. Why will you not embrace the role you have here so we can all work together? Your work matters here, Aramis."
"I matter out there!" He gestured sharply to a world beyond these stone walls that he hadn't seen in months. "My brothers are out there fighting a war to protect you all and that is where my place is. Nothing will ever change that!"
Bernard's jaw visibly tightened. "I didn't want to tell you this…" he began. "But we heard that the Musketeer regiment was wiped out a few weeks ago."
Aramis stared at him numbly for several long moments. "You're lying," he blurted.
Bernard's face grimaced with an expression of sympathy. "I'm sorry."
Aramis staggered back until he hit the chair and then sank into it.
"Don't you see?" Bernard went on. "I saved your life by bringing you here, Aramis. And you're still saving lives."
Bernard hesitated, but then nodded solemnly and left, closing the door behind him.
Aramis stared at the floor, paralyzed. He didn't want to believe it. Bernard had every reason to lie. And yet…what if it was true? War claimed many lives, many soldiers. The Musketeers were the best of the best but they were not invincible. What if they had finally fallen in battle? And Aramis hadn't been there to watch their backs. Not that his presence alone would have changed their fates, but at least he would have died on the battlefield with them where he belonged.
He pressed his fists against his eyes and shook his head in denial. How could he know whether it was true or not? Should he ask anyone else who came into the infirmary, there was the chance they already knew to play along with Bernard's deceit.
…And if they weren't, if they confirmed it because it was true…Aramis wouldn't be able to bear it. His brothers…Porthos, Athos, d'Artagnan. Images of their broken bodies strewn haplessly across a bloodied field filled Aramis's mind and once he saw it he couldn't stop seeing it.
The tears broke free with a shuddering sob and he wept, long and hard. In dreaded fear that they were in fact lost, in crushing grief that whether weeks ago or weeks from now there would be no changing their fate. Or his. No matter what was real or lie, Aramis realized with sinking despair that he would never see his brothers again.
A numbness began to seep into his heart after that, as though the pain had been too much and something had broken. Aramis felt hollow, cold, not unlike those early weeks after Savoy. Food began to make him feel ill and so he ate sparsely and more out of absent-minded habit than anything.
Patients were brought in and he treated them mutely and dully, simply going through the motions until he started becoming too dizzy to see straight. He overheard one of the guards speculate that he'd fallen ill. They brought him heated bricks to place under his blankets and hot broth, not that he could bring himself to care. He used them because he was cold.
He stopped marking the days on the sheets of paper. Without patients to break up the bookended meals, his existence was one endless cycle of sleep, broth, grief, and heartache.
Bernard came every day.
"Aramis, you must rally yourself," he persisted. "When my daughter died, I thought I'd lost everything too. But I found a new cause in these people and so can you."
Aramis ignored him. He'd been through this all before: the sole survivor of tragedy, stripped of everything he loved and believed in. He'd built himself back up once before with the help of new friends, new family. They'd repaired the void in his heart left by loss and betrayal.
He just didn't think he could do it again.
His brothers were gone. All of them. He would never be a part of his son's life or with the woman he loved. Fate had left him bereft.
Why was this his curse, to always be the one to remain? What sins had he committed before he was even a man that were so heinous as to set him on this path of always ending up alone? Why was love always his crime? And if love was his treachery, then why on earth would he open himself up to it again?
And he certainly wasn't going to do it with a bunch of people who had kept him enslaved for the past several months.
Aramis sat on his pallet, slumped against the wall, and stared at his closed Bible. He had been through it cover to cover and found no answers. Perhaps he'd had it right before—this was his punishment and he deserved it.
With penance in mind, he attempted to treat patients again. But no matter how he tried to keep up his strength, food no longer agreed with him. He grew more tired and lethargic every day until he realistically wasn't any good to anyone.
"Look at what you've done," an upbraiding voice drifted in from out in the corridor.
"He just needs time," Bernard insisted.
"He is withering away."
"He's being stubborn."
Aramis closed his eyes as he lay on his pallet and tried to shut them out.
"I hope you're proud of what you've wrought, Bernard Focault," the woman snapped.
"I've saved us!"
"At what cost?"
"I did not bring this war upon us."
"No, but that young man's fate be on all our heads on the Day of Judgement. Especially yours!"
For what? Aramis idly mused.
"Aramis?" a small voice intruded.
He blinked languidly until his vision cleared and he found Madeline standing at the edge of the pallet.
"Bernard says you're not feeling well. He said I should keep you company."
Aramis closed his eyes and turned his head away. Could not the man leave him in peace after everything?
The straw pallet crinkled as Madeline climbed over to sit next to him. "What's wrong? Are you sick? Maybe I can make you medicine to feel better."
Aramis sighed, lolling his head against the wall at his back. "I'm not sick in that way."
"In what way then?"
His chest constricted with the words he hadn't allowed himself to speak until now. "I'm heartsick," he said around a tightening throat.
He swallowed thickly. "My brothers died."
"Oh." She dropped her gaze. "My parents died too."
She shuffled closer and snuggled against him. Aramis slipped an arm around her, the chain of his manacles resting over her legs. She didn't seem to mind.
They sat together in silence and shared mourning.
Next chapter, his brothers finally get the lead they need to find him!
Athos walked a field of victory the French had just won, gaining ground back in the war. He hardly felt celebratory over the triumph. Two weeks from now the Spanish would push further into French soil and another few weeks from that the French would push into Spanish land. The war was a constant ebb and flow of wins and losses, resources being thrown into a constant stalemate on the grand scale. Two and a half years into the conflict and there was still no end in sight. Athos had come to believe that it wouldn't be won with the pawns on the chess board but by the players far away on thrones of gold finally deciding to cease their squabbles.
But with wounded prides at stake, such concessions could still take a very long time.
A horse-drawn wagon with a group of refugees crammed into the cart slogged along the edge of the field. Athos made his way toward them, eyes raking over the haggard, dirty faces. Some of their clothes were splattered with dried splotches of blood. The young man driving the wagon pulled back on the reins at Athos's approach.
"Where are you coming from?" Athos asked.
"A small village just yonder," the lad answered, thrusting his chin south. "We didn't get out before the Spanish came and seized our homes. Forced us into labor until you just ran them off."
"Does anyone require medical attention?"
The young man glanced into the back of the wagon. An older gentleman gave a small head shake.
"No, thank you."
"We can offer aid," Athos pointed out. It was perhaps not very regular but the regiment had escaped without too many casualties in this recent battle.
"That's very kind, but we're heading to a refugee camp just a few more hours away. We've heard they have a trained medic there."
Athos took a step back to let them continue on their way. The young man snapped the reins and the wheels creaked as they lurched forward.
"Wait," Athos said.
The lad pulled back on the reins again, shooting him a questioning look.
"What camp is this?" Athos asked.
"The one outside Tournon."
Athos nodded. "I'll spread the word to any other refugees we come across."
He moved back and the cart resumed its journey. Athos stood and watched them go until they turned a bend far ahead and disappeared. Something was nagging at him, though he couldn't say what or why. Captain's instinct? There had been nothing suspicious about the group of peasants. Athos shook it off and went back to his men, giving the order to return to base camp.
There was some mirth among the men because of their victory and they praised the brandy they would be opening up this day. There wasn't much to go around and it was sour at best, but they had to take what small pleasures they could. For Athos's part, he'd found his penchant for wine had waned over his time at war.
They spread out upon reaching the camp, each man to decompress and clean up after the battle. Porthos made a detour to the med tent and immediately gave a shout.
Athos stiffened and went charging in after him, drawing his sword in expectation of an attack. He did not expect to find the back end of the tent folded up with a tree branch and three men scrambling to flee as Porthos bore down on them. Porthos snagged the back of one man's collar and yanked him back, the saddlebag he was carrying flying out of his arms and spilling supplies across the ground. Athos ran to the tent gap and looked out in time to see the other two men disappearing into the trees.
Huffing in consternation, he sheathed his sword and turned back to the one Porthos had caught. It was just a young lad, thrashing in Porthos's grip but unable to shake the large musketeer off.
Athos looked at the items that had fallen out of his sack and toed a roll of linen bandages. "You were stealing our supplies? That carries a severe punishment for such a crime."
"The people need it," the boy countered passionately.
Porthos gave him a harsh shake. "Soldiers fightin' this war to defend you need it too!"
Athos pursed his mouth in sudden thought. "Are you from the refugee camp outside Tournon?"
The boy stiffened. "No," he denied, but it was far too quick to be convincing.
"I hear there's a trained medic there," Athos went on. "A trained medic would need supplies."
The thief just stared back at him. He had gumption, that was for sure, and obviously believed in his cause.
Athos, however, found himself distracted by a niggling memory. This area wasn't far from where Aramis had gone missing. "Do you know this medic?" he found himself asking.
The boy shrugged.
Now the boy's eyes were skittering about as though searching for an exit. Porthos gave him another rough shake.
"Answer the question!"
"Dark hair, beard," the lad said sullenly. "I don't know. He helped my father and now I help where I can."
It wasn't much to go on but the cogs in Athos's mind were turning now. "Let him go," he told Porthos absently.
"What? Athos, he was stealin' from the regiment."
Athos waved a dismissive hand. "Now we know to set a guard." He cast a look at the boy. "And if you try to steal from another company, I assure you they will not be so lenient."
Porthos bristled unhappily but finally released the young man, who darted out the back of the tent as fast as he could.
Athos yanked the tree branch away to let the flap fall back down.
"Want to tell me what's goin' on?" Porthos asked, crossing his arms and fixing Athos with a glare.
"There's a medic in a refugee camp outside Tournon. Apparently he's becoming well-known and people know to flee there."
Athos looked up and met his gaze. "That's not far from where Aramis disappeared."
Porthos's brows shot upward. "You can't be serious," he blurted. "You think Aramis ran off an' left us to go be a medic at a refugee camp?"
Athos shook his head. "I know it sounds crazy." He didn't truly believe it himself. Aramis had a heart for helping the wounded and sick when he could, but even that would not supersede his calling as a musketeer.
"What sounds crazy?" d'Artagnan interrupted, coming into the tent. He slowed as he took in the scattered supplies on the ground. "Everything okay?" he asked tentatively.
"We walked in on some men trying to steal our supplies," Athos answered.
"An' Athos let one of 'em go," Porthos added brusquely. "An' now he thinks Aramis is up at a refugee camp playin' doctor!"
D'Artagnan glanced between them in confusion. "Wait, really?"
"As I said, it's a crazy idea," Athos repeated. "I suppose I was just reaching for an explanation still after all this time."
A moment of commiserative silence passed among them.
"Well, I could go check," d'Artagnan spoke up. "Do you know which one?"
Athos pulled his shoulders back. "Outside Tournon. But we'll all go. The regiment is in a holding pattern for a few days after winning this recent battle."
And Athos wasn't going to stay behind this time. He didn't know whether this prickling hunch was real or just a fool's hope, but he was going to find out.
Upon arriving at the refugee camp, the three musketeers tethered their horses to some bushes outside the settlement and proceeded on foot through the streets. The poverty was staggering and reminded d'Artagnan of the Court of Miracles. Tarpaulins stretched from rooftop to rooftop, creating makeshift tents between shacks. The weather was warm and doors were left hanging open to allow circulation of air, giving a view of dirt floors and straw pallets within. Cooking pots outside boiled rabbit stew that was more water than meat. People milled about their business, though the moment they noticed the musketeers, they ducked their gazes and avoided making eye contact.
Athos tried to catch one hastening past. "Excuse me, we're looking for the medic in residence here."
The man shook his head mutely and darted away.
"Friendly," Porthos muttered.
They tried to ask some others, but each time they were ignored and the people fled like frightened rabbits. D'Artagnan supposed he could understand their skittishness around soldiers; he'd heard tell of some troops taking advantage of peasants—demanding quarter and food in exchange for the "protection" they were providing. But still, he found it confusing that not a single person was willing to at least speak to them.
"Let's split up and look around," Athos said.
D'Artagnan headed off one direction, trying to navigate the maze of streets and alleys. Any people he passed parted like he was the King himself—but not in a good way. He found himself crossing an alley that brought him to the outskirts of the settlement and was about to turn around when he spotted a little girl a short distance away picking flowers. She immediately straightened and tensed upon seeing him, eyes widening.
"Hey there," d'Artagnan said. "Don't be afraid, I'm not going to hurt you."
"You're not Spanish?"
He gave her a genial smile. "No. I'm a musketeer. My name is d'Artagnan."
The girl shifted uncertainly. "My name is Madeline."
D'Artagnan glanced around. "I'm actually looking for my friend Aramis. Is he here?"
Madeline's expression brightened. "Aramis is my friend too."
So he was here. D'Artagnan almost couldn't believe it. All this time Aramis had just up and left them? Why? What had happened to drive him away without a word?
"Can you take me to him?" he asked.
Madeline shrugged and turned on her heel to make her way along the edge of the woodland. D'Artagnan followed, his heart rate increasing in nervous anticipation. Madeline led him around the back of an old chateau to an underground entrance where the rusted gate was hanging off its hinges, then through a tunnel to a main corridor. He grew confused when she didn't head toward the stairs at the end of the passage that led up to the main level. Instead, she made her way to a cellar door and stood on her tiptoes to pull the bolt back.
The door opened into a chamber lit by torch and candle light. First glance revealed a work room of some kind, so d'Artagnan supposed there would be reason to lock it, but he also supposed that meant Aramis wasn't in at the moment.
There were tables and shelf cases stocked with medicinal supplies, a straw pallet by the door, and a cooking pot setup. D'Artagnan thought it rather strange to set up an infirmary in a cellar. Surely one of the rooms upstairs had to be more accommodating.
Madeline headed down the aisle on the right side of the tables, and d'Artagnan's gaze naturally shifted that direction. There was another pallet in the back and what looked like a figure lying under a pile of blankets…and a trail of chains from that figure to a ring bolted into the floor.
D'Artagnan stared in incomprehension for a suspended moment. What the hell…?
"What are you doing in here?" a sharp voice demanded.
He whirled to find an older gentleman standing in the doorway.
Madeline paused halfway down the room. "I brought Aramis flowers to make him feel better."
The man swiftly moved around d'Artagnan, putting himself between the musketeer and the girl. "That's very thoughtful," he addressed to the child, voice taut. "But he's resting now, and you are not allowed to bring people down here. You can visit later."
Madeline's expression fell in disappointment and she set her bushel of flowers on the table before shuffling out.
The man waited until she was gone before narrowing his eyes on d'Artagnan. "Who are you?"
"I heard this settlement had a medic," he said quickly. "I have a friend who's very sick and came to ask for this Aramis to come see him."
The man shifted his gaze to the armor across his shoulders. "You're a soldier."
Recognizing that wasn't earning him any trust just like it hadn't outside, d'Artagnan grasped for a story. He suspected the truth wouldn't be wise here. "I've been traveling through the war zone. Found some armor left behind and thought it'd be good protective wear."
The man regarded him suspiciously, and he had to admit it wasn't his best lie.
"Please," he beseeched. "My friend is at a camp north of here."
"Aramis can't leave," the man said stiffly.
Yeah, d'Artagnan could see that. His gaze automatically flicked past the man to where their "medic" was obviously a prisoner and who hadn't stirred at their voices at all. D'Artagnan wanted nothing more than to clobber his jailor and get him out of there, but he thought it'd be wise to get Athos and Porthos first. He couldn't tell what condition Aramis was in and d'Artagnan might need help getting him out.
"Then it looks like I wasted a trip," he said and started to back out of the room.
The man followed, herding him out into the corridor and then shutting and bolting the door behind him. D'Artagnan clenched his jaw and had to force a neutral expression when the man—he hadn't gotten a name—looked at him pointedly. D'Artagnan turned and headed for the stairs. The man followed, staying close on his heel to escort him out. D'Artagnan wondered if he knew about the tunnel entrance, but they walked right past that juncture without a second look.
Upon reaching the ground level, d'Artagnan thought he'd have to feign knowing how to find his way out, but the man seemed intent on walking him straight to the door, which made that easy. D'Artagnan strode out into the street, only casting a surreptitious look back once he was a block away. The man was talking to two others now. It could have been about anything but d'Artagnan quickened his pace and disappeared around a corner.
He hurried through the streets looking for Athos and Porthos and spotted them at the end of the next street on the edge of the settlement near where they'd left the horses.
"These people are avoidin' us like we got the plague," Porthos grumbled as d'Artagnan jogged up.
"He's here," he said breathlessly. "They're keeping him chained up in the cellar of the chateau."
"Chained?" Athos repeated dubiously.
D'Artagnan's expression pinched. "I don't think Aramis came here willingly. But the cellar he's in has been set up as an infirmary, so he is the medic we've heard about."
"What are you sayin'?" Porthos exclaimed. "These people have been keepin' Aramis as some kind of slave?"
D'Artagnan shrugged, and all three of them glanced around at the camp. Now they understood why the people were nervous about them being there.
"We should move," he said. "A man found me in the cellar and was suspicious. I gave him a fake story but I'm not sure he bought it."
Athos nodded and they headed back to where their horses were tethered.
"Did you see Aramis?" Porthos asked urgently.
"Not up close. He was either asleep or ill, I'm not sure."
"We have to get him out."
"I'm thinking the people here might try to stop us," d'Artagnan said, casting a wary look over his shoulder as they reached the edge of the woodland. "At the very least, I saw the man apparently in charge of Aramis talking to some others after I left. I don't know if he'll set up a guard as a precaution."
"A bunch of French soldiers attacking a French refugee camp will cause an uproar across the country," Athos put in.
"There's a tunnel entrance in the back," d'Artagnan said. "We could at least avoid a large confrontation."
Athos pursed his mouth in thought. "We'll go back to camp," he declared. "Round up the musketeers and return."
"That'll take us hours," Porthos protested. "An' what happened to not attackin'?"
"Hours in which these people will hopefully believe we've gone and let their guard down," Athos responded. "And we won't be attacking, but I want a show of force if need be." He grabbed his horse's reins and flipped them up over the animal's head. "Because the next time we return, we are not leaving without Aramis."
And now what you've all been waiting for!
The musketeers approached the refugee camp from the woods on the eastern side to conceal their movements and numbers. Having set an urgent pace back to base and then mustering the regiment as quickly as possible, they had made it back to the settlement by mid-afternoon. Porthos had hated every minute of it, even though he'd recognized the tactical wisdom of Athos's decision. It was just that after all this time, Aramis was within reach and Porthos was loath to wait another minute to get him back.
He'd known something had happened, known that Aramis hadn't abandoned them. But he'd never imagined this scenario as the cause of his brother's disappearance. He'd suspected the Spanish—not their own countrymen.
D'Artagnan led the way through the woodland up to the back end of the old chateau. Athos instructed most of the regiment to remain under the cover of the trees and on guard while he, Porthos, d'Artagnan, and Etienne dismounted and made their way down to the tunnel d'Artagnan said would lead them inside.
They approached cautiously, but the entrance was unguarded. D'Artagnan led them down the tunnel and to the adjoining corridor, then down that toward where he had seen Aramis being kept. There wasn't a guard posted there either; likely if any had been set, it was upstairs.
A door ahead creaked open and they all froze. A man stepped out of a chamber and closed the door behind him, not noticing them until he'd bolted it shut. Then his eyes blew wide. D'Artagnan surged forward to grab him before he could run to sound an alarm and swung him against the opposite wall. The man's eyes darted over the rest of them, sheer disbelief blanching his face.
"How…" he uttered. "What are you doing here?"
Porthos thought that an odd question given the circumstances.
Athos stepped forward then, pushing a hand against the man's shoulder. "I remember you."
D'Artagnan furrowed his brow. "What?"
"You were with the group of refugees from Montaut," Athos continued. "A year and a half ago."
Porthos's brows shot upward as he recognized the man now too. What was his name, Bertrand? Ballard?
"You were with the half of the regiment that hemmed the Spanish in from the south," Athos directed to d'Artagnan. "We helped some villagers wounded in the attack, including Bernard here."
The rest of Porthos's memory slotted into place and he shoved his hand into Bernard's chest hard, knocking him against the wall at his back. "Aramis saved your daughter's life!"
"And the war still killed her!" he raged back. "People are sick and dying. Do you know how many Aramis has helped since he's been here? We needed him! We still need him!"
Porthos lurched forward, ready to rip the man's bloody head off, but Athos stepped in and pushed him back.
"You and d'Artagnan get Aramis," he snapped, grabbing Bernard and thrusting him toward Etienne.
Clenching his fists, Porthos wrenched himself away from the bastard and turned with d'Artagnan to the door he'd come out of. They swung it open and charged inside, and Porthos got his own look at what d'Artagnan had described to them. It looked just like a working infirmary, save for the lack of beds or cots. There was an empty pallet up front and another in the back where Porthos could see someone lying. He surged forward, rushing across the chamber to kneel down next to the unmoving figure and touch his shoulder.
Gently, Porthos rolled him onto his back, and his heart stuttered at finally seeing his brother. He hadn't doubted Aramis was here, but until he saw it for himself there had still been a tense knot of trepidation coiled in his gut that this would all be some cruel red herring. That some other poor medic was chained up in this cellar.
But it was Aramis. Wan and waxen, hair longer and limper under his head with dark circles under his eyes. He moaned and prized his eyelids open, blinking lethargically for several long beats before his pupils blew wide in shock.
"Porthos?" he whispered in disbelief. He lifted a shackled, shaking hand toward Porthos's face, but it fell short as though too heavy and clutched at the bottom of his shirt instead. "He said you were dead."
Porthos's fury reignited, and he clasped Aramis's fingers. "'M not dead."
Aramis continued to stare at him in stupefaction before he noticed d'Artagnan picking the locks of the leg irons. He pushed himself upright, his blanket pooling in his lap. "D'Artagnan," he breathed and reached out again as though to check they were real.
D'Artagnan flashed him a pained smile as he removed the leg irons and then shifted closer. "Let's get those chains off."
Aramis's gaze fell to the manacles. "You can't," he said tonelessly.
D'Artagnan frowned and reached out with the lock pick, only to find the key hole blocked by something inside. "What the…"
"I tried to escape once," Aramis said, still in that frighteningly deadened tone. "They poured molten iron into the key holes so I couldn't pick them again."
D'Artagnan's eyes widened in horror, while Porthos's wrath burned as hot as that molten iron must have been. Someone was going to pay for this.
"Okay," d'Artagnan said a tad too quickly. "We'll just get this other chain off and deal with the cuffs later." He picked the padlock of the chain that led to the ring in the floor and unhooked it from the set of wrist irons. Then he glanced down at Aramis's stockinged feet. "We need to find you some shoes."
"My boots are in the corner," Aramis replied, jerking his chin over d'Artagnan's shoulder.
D'Artagnan jumped up to bring them over, and Porthos noticed they were coated in a thick layer of dust from disuse. Aramis's fingers fumbled to pull them on and Porthos's own twitched with the urge to help but he managed to make himself wait. Once the boots were on, Porthos gripped Aramis's arm and helped him to stand. Aramis stumbled and Porthos slipped an arm around his waist, alarmed at how light he seemed.
They shuffled their way out of the cellar and into the corridor where Athos and Etienne were still detaining Bernard. Aramis pulled up short to gape at Athos as well.
Athos immediately closed the distance and reached out to cup the back of Aramis's head, drawing him forward to kiss his brow in a rare display of unadulterated joy and affection. Porthos felt Aramis shudder in his hold.
Athos looked at the manacles on his wrists. "Do you need the key?"
Porthos couldn't hold back the growl deep in his throat as he shot a scathing look at Bernard. "The bastard fused the key hole so they can't be opened."
Athos craned his neck back toward the man, eyes flashing to steel like a strike of lightning.
"It was a regrettable necessity," Bernard said.
"Why you—" Porthos jerked slightly but couldn't attack the despicable worm without letting go of Aramis. He shifted to tighten his hold on his brother instead.
"You will account for your crimes," Athos declared and nodded to Etienne, who seized the back of Bernard's coat and started hauling him down the corridor toward the tunnel exit. The rest of them followed.
Aramis's pace faltered as they approached the rusted gate but it wasn't until he fully stepped outside that he abruptly flinched backward, squeezing his eyes shut and recoiling sharply. D'Artagnan swooped in to catch him and alarm zinged through Porthos. Had they missed some injury or ailment?
Aramis ducked his head and pressed an arm over his eyes, and Porthos realized it was the sunlight causing him such distress.
"How long have you been down there?" he exclaimed, automatically shifting in a futile effort to somehow bodily block out the light.
Aramis made a pained sound, then asked hoarsely, "What month is it?"
"September," d'Artagnan answered.
Aramis went rigid at that. "A…a long time," he croaked.
Porthos once again shot a murderous glare at Bernard. He turned back to Aramis and softened his tone. "Come on, we're gettin' you out of here."
Aramis stumbled over the uneven ground, barely able to open his eyes enough to watch where he was going. Porthos and d'Artagnan kept firm grips on his arms as they guided him toward the tree line where the Musketeer regiment was waiting.
"Captain!" someone called in warning.
They all drew up short at the sight of a crowd gathered at the edge of the settlement. It looked like some tents had been folded back to make room for them to file through and stand in opposition to the mounted musketeers. Murmurs of discontent started up as Bernard came into view, being shoved along by Etienne, and the crowd began to shift and move forward as a mob.
Porthos nudged Aramis toward his horse a little too urgently. Aramis caught himself against the saddle and pressed his face into the leather to hide from the blinding sun. Porthos and d'Artagnan stepped protectively in front of him, arms splayed to keep the throng back. The horses behind them shifted and nickered in response to the nervous energy as the people shouted in protest at Bernard's arrest.
Athos whipped his pistol out and fired a shot into the air. "That's enough!" he bellowed, quelling the din. "Stand down or you will be arrested for crimes against the Crown. An attack against a King's Musketeer is paramount to treason!"
"You're taking away these people's only source of aid!" Bernard interjected.
"Shut up!" Porthos snapped at him, keeping his eyes on the disgruntled crowd. He didn't want this to escalate into a fight; he'd seen too many atrocities in this war and never thought he'd find himself on the precipice of committing one, but he was damn well not letting them take Aramis back.
The refugees hung back, still muttering amongst themselves as Bernard was bound with rope and put on a horse. Porthos wasn't ready to turn his back on them yet, but he didn't have to; Pierre came over and gave Aramis a boost up onto Porthos's horse. With the other musketeers in the saddle and hands on their pistols, the rest of them turned to mount up as well.
"You should all be ashamed of yerselves!" Porthos shouted at the refugees before swinging up behind Aramis. He nudged his horse into a trot, and the rest of the regiment started to ride away, soon leaving the settlement behind.
"May they all burn in hell," he muttered.
"They were desperate," Aramis spoke up quietly.
"You can't be defendin' 'em?" Porthos exclaimed, staring incredulously at the back of his friend's head.
"No. They just…they didn't choose for war to destroy their lives."
Porthos frowned and wished he could see Aramis's face. He didn't like him showing any modicum of sympathy for the people who had held him prisoner for the past six months.
But Aramis was bowed over the front of the saddle, one hand clumsily trying to shield his eyes from the sun.
Another musketeer rode up beside them and passed Porthos a hat. He nodded in gratitude and reached around to hold it in front of Aramis. "Here, lean back."
It took a moment, probably for him to peel his eyelids open enough to see what Porthos was talking about, and then he straightened stiffly, taking the hat and placing it over his face as he finally sagged back against Porthos's chest. "Thank you."
Porthos adjusted his hold. "I got you, brother," he whispered in Aramis's ear.
And he wasn't letting go.
The ride from the refugee camp to whatever military base they were headed to was hard on Aramis. Months of inactivity had weakened his muscles. His legs cramped from clenching against the horse's flank, his back was killing him, and his head was pounding from the glare of daylight that pierced his skull like spears, even with the hat to shield most of it. He hadn't seen the sun in so long, had yearned for it, but his return was nothing but punishment for he could not bear its gaze.
It was a couple of hours before they reached an encampment and the regiment slowed to a stop. Porthos dismounted behind him and immediately reached up to brace him as Aramis struggled to slide out of the saddle, joints stiff and locked from the journey on horseback. He cursed his weakness, hated how it made him look. And he still wore the wrist irons that jangled with each movement and marked him more like the musketeers' prisoner than as one of their own.
But Porthos's touch at his side was both gentle and firm, determined not to let him fall. Aramis was still so stunned by his unexpected and unlooked for rescue after all this time that he'd forgotten to actually be grateful for it. So he paused where he stood and closed his eyes, lifting thanks and praise to God. He'd been granted a miracle after all. Two of them—he was saved, and his brothers were not dead.
"You okay?" Porthos asked, hovering close. "The light still botherin' ya?"
It was, though less harshly, as it was nearing sunset and the offensive sun was behind the tree tops now.
"I'm all right," Aramis said quietly.
Porthos guided him over to a stump. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bernard being taken away to somewhere else. Athos brought over a stool for Aramis to sit and d'Artagnan joined them a moment later with a sharp tool and a hammer. Aramis leaned his arms over the stump, and d'Artagnan set the tools to the hinge of one of the manacles. Aramis ducked his head and steeled himself for the pain.
The first strike reverberated through the metal and jarred his bones. The second broke the hinge and for the first time in longer than he could seem to remember, the heavy weight fell away. Aramis kept his head bowed until d'Artagnan had removed the second cuff, and then he lifted his eyes to get his first look at the state of his wrists.
They were a sight—purple and black and red around gaunt bones. Aramis brought them into his lap and turned them over to see the spots where he'd been burned. There was some grated scarring from blistering and the skin was hard and red from being chafed nonstop. It was a miracle nothing had festered even with his attempts to treat them.
A sharp intake of breath reminded him he wasn't alone, and he looked up to see his brothers staring at the marks with murderous expressions. For a long moment, no one moved or spoke. Aramis shifted uncomfortably under the stares and folded his arms across his stomach.
Athos cleared his throat. "Use my tent," he said and then walked away.
D'Artagnan reached out to help Aramis stand, and he and Porthos led him across the grounds to one of the larger tents. The captain's accommodations had more amenities than the common soldier's bunk: fur rugs to cushion the ground, a cot with plenty of blankets and a pillow, a cozy fire ring, and a desk with a chair. It also afforded privacy.
Aramis sat on the cot and waited while d'Artagnan went to fetch some supplies. Porthos hovered, and Aramis probably should have said something to him—he'd thought him dead after all—but everything hurt and he just wanted to close his eyes.
D'Artagnan returned and set his items on the ground next to the cot. He then pulled the chair over to Aramis and took a seat before reaching for one of his hands. Aramis tried not to wince in anticipation of the bruises being touched, but d'Artagnan was gentle as he lifted a wet cloth to his wrist and carefully wiped it across his arm with as little pressure as possible. The water felt cool and soothing.
Aramis watched the ministrations in almost a trance as d'Artagnan applied some salve to the abused flesh and then tenderly wrapped the wrist in a bandage. It was an oddly novel experience; Aramis had treated everyone else's hurts for so long.
D'Artagnan finished with one wrist and then went through the same process with the other.
"You've gotten good at this," Aramis remarked, then grimaced as he realized the young Gascon probably had to, with Aramis gone.
D'Artagnan gave him a small smile. "I had a good teacher." He tucked in the end of the second bandage and leaned back. "Do you have any other hurts?"
Aramis shook his head. He hurt everywhere, but it wasn't anything that could be treated.
"I should check your feet," d'Artagnan said anyway.
Aramis bent over to remove his boots, but his wrists were twinging after being cleaned and bandaged and he struggled to get a firm enough grasp. D'Artagnan wordlessly leaned down and helped. Aramis felt a prick of shame and tucked his hands into his lap again.
D'Artagnan rolled down his stockings, revealing some moderate bruising around his ankles, dark but not as much as his wrists were. He left them alone.
The tent flap gave a small thwack as Athos came in carrying a bowl. He waited to see if they were finished before holding it out to Aramis. "Some broth."
Aramis took the bowl, cupping the bottom in his hands instead of trying to hold the sides. He raised it to his lips and took a tentative sip, but his stomach immediately lurched. He tried to ignore it and swallowed, but it was difficult.
An uncomfortable silence hung in the air as he felt his brothers watching him with an unnerving intensity.
"What had you thought all this time?" Aramis asked just to break the silence. "Was- was I declared a deserter?" He didn't know why that was the first thing he said. Athos, Porthos, and d'Artagnan exchanged looks, and he immediately regretted asking because now he didn't want to know the answer.
"We didn't know what ta think," Porthos said. "We looked fer you fer two days, but there was jus' no trace."
Aramis's mouth tightened. "Bernard planned for everything.'
D'Artagnan leaned forward in his seat. "What happened that night?"
That night that felt like so long ago.
"I recognized Bernard from Montaut. He wanted to talk, or so I thought. Some other men jumped me and knocked me out with ether. I woke up in the refugee camp and Bernard told me I was to be their medic from now on." Aramis let out a bitter snort. "He would not take 'no' for an answer."
The room fell quiet again.
"We never thought you deserted," Athos put in. "I reported you missing in action to Treville."
Porthos reached over and squeezed the back of Aramis's neck. "But yer back now."
Aramis nodded and closed his eyes, exhaustion quickly taking hold. He was back, and his brothers were alive and well.
So why did he still feel half dead inside?
Athos stood at the tent flap, watching Aramis asleep in his cot. The "bed" was nicer than anything in the main barracks or med tent, and after hearing the conditions Aramis had been living in for the past six months, Athos was only too happy to give up his bed.
He couldn't believe this had happened. They faced so many dangers and horrors in war, but for Aramis to have been taken and enslaved by their own countrymen…that was unfathomable. And all this time he hadn't been that far away—how many times had the regiment crossed back and forth across this area? Aramis had been right there, had needed their help, and they hadn't known.
They couldn't have, but the knowledge still rankled.
Porthos sat in the extra chair they'd brought in by Aramis's bedside, head craned back as he slept. He'd have a crick in his neck when he woke, but he'd refused to leave Aramis's side that night and wasn't likely to let the man out of his sight for a single minute lest he disappear again.
D'Artagnan walked across the encampment, balancing three bowls of gruel in his arms. It was morning and the camp was slowly rising. "They awake?" he asked.
Athos shook his head, but even as he did, Porthos let out a soft snuffle and jerked as he woke. His eyes latched onto Aramis first, and then roved around until he spotted Athos and d'Artagnan hovering at the entrance. He stood and quietly made his way over.
"There's no fever or cough," he reported. "But he's weak an' has lost weight."
"He may have been ill before we found him," d'Artagnan theorized. "He had trouble getting the broth down last night. A dungeon isn't exactly a good place to recover from illness, even if it's supposed to be an infirmary."
Porthos's expression darkened. "What are we gonna do wit' Bernard?"
"Send him to Paris with other prisoners of war to be charged accordingly," Athos replied.
Porthos harrumphed in dissatisfaction, but it wasn't up to them to mete out justice. There wasn't really a precedence for his crimes, but given that this was war time, even the smallest infractions carried the weightiest penalties.
Aramis groaned within the tent and flopped an arm over his face, twisting away from the open tent flap that was pouring in the pale hue of dawn. It wasn't even direct sunlight but was still too much for him to bear this soon after being released from his imprisonment underground.
Athos took one of the bowls from d'Artagnan and the three of them moved inside and closed the flap behind them. It didn't dim the interior of the tent significantly, as the material was slightly porous canvas and light was still able to suffuse through. But hopefully it was soft enough to help Aramis gradually reacclimatize to it.
Porthos hurried to the marksman's side and retook his seat. "Hey, how're you doin'?"
Aramis blinked at him dazedly for a long moment through watering eyes. "You really found me," he finally breathed hoarsely. "I feared it an elaborate dream."
Porthos leaned forward and squeezed his forearm. "Yes, we really found ya. I'm jus' sorry it took so damn long."
Aramis let out a shaky breath. "I'd prayed for so long for someone or something to put a stop to it, or for by some miracle that you would come breaking down that door. But then…" His chest hitched. "After Bernard told me you were all dead, I'd given up hope."
"Why would he tell you that?" d'Artagnan asked incredulously.
Aramis took a moment to steady his breathing. "He wanted me to accept my new place at the settlement, but I continued to refuse as long as my brothers were out there. I suppose Bernard thought taking that away would convince me to stay willingly."
Athos's chest tightened with anger at Bernard Focault, but he kept it off his face.
"We never gave up hope," Porthos said staunchly.
Athos's heart gave a pang at that because they had come close, so close he could still taste the bitterness of it on his tongue.
"Can you eat some breakfast?" he asked.
Aramis pushed himself up to sitting, wincing as he put pressure on his wrists. D'Artagnan passed him a bowl of porridge and offered the second to Porthos. Athos set his own on the desk to eat later.
A grimace skittered over Aramis's face as he tasted the food.
"Haven't had ta taste military gruel in a while, have ya?" Porthos quipped, but the attempt at levity fell flat.
"The food at the camp wasn't much better," Aramis replied. "I just…haven't been able to get much down lately."
"I could get some broth instead," d'Artagnan offered.
Aramis shook his head. "I'm fine."
Athos watched him struggle to take another bite and noticed Porthos and d'Artagnan doing the same. He understood why, understood their worry and need to hover like mother hens, but he also knew Aramis wouldn't appreciate it. So he picked up his porridge, managed to catch Porthos's eye, and indicated pointedly that he should focus on his own breakfast for a few minutes. Then he took a seat at his desk and did his best to only glance over occasionally.
Yet by the time he'd finished, Aramis was still working on his. He'd only managed a fourth of the bowl before finally shaking his head and setting it aside on the cot, face pinching in distress.
D'Artagnan quickly took it and moved it out of the way. "Are you going to be sick?"
"No, I just…I'm done."
"Are you sure?" Porthos asked. "You need ta get yer strength back."
"Not right now."
"It's fine," d'Artagnan interjected. "You can try again later."
Aramis leaned his elbows on his thighs and rubbed a hand across his face. Now that he'd been fed, his injuries tended, and gotten a good night's rest, Athos could no longer delay the conversation they needed to have.
He stood up and dragged his chair around the desk to set at the foot of the cot, then took a seat again. "I need to hear your report of what happened."
Aramis shrugged. "I was kept as a medic to treat people when they were sick or hurt. That's it."
Athos could see by the haunted look in his brother's eyes that that wasn't it at all.
"You said you tried to escape," Porthos prompted. "That's when Bernard melted the locks on the irons?"
Aramis nodded and absently ran his fingers over the bandages of his other wrist. "I think it was a week. I managed to get my hands on some tweezers and picked the locks. Made it outside, but the refugees…" He trailed off. "Bernard wanted to ensure I couldn't pick them again."
Porthos growled low in his throat. "That bastard deserves to hang."
"I'm not sure he should be executed for only looking out for those in need," Aramis said quietly.
Porthos made a sound of disbelief, and Athos shot him a quelling look.
"Bernard's sentence is out of our hands," he said. "The law will handle it."
"What about the rest of the refugees there?" d'Artagnan asked. "They were all party to this."
Aramis's expression pinched in distress and he dropped his gaze. "They were just following Bernard…"
Athos's mouth thinned. Porthos had shared his concerns last night about Aramis's reaction to his captors—not loyalty as such but perhaps misguided sympathies. It happened with prisoners held by enemy nations for prolonged periods. These people had not held Aramis prisoner out of cruelty or malicious intent, but that did not make their actions any less reprehensible or heinous. Athos would gladly punish each and every one who had a hand in this, but realistically it would take an army to arrest them all. And he knew that doing so would not ease his brother's suffering.
"Can you say they will not continue Bernard's example with someone else?" Athos asked carefully.
Aramis's brow furrowed. "I- I don't know."
Athos nodded. "We do not have the resources to wage war on our own people, but I will be spreading the word to other regiments to be on the lookout, and inspections should be periodically made of the settlement."
Aramis didn't seem to have anything to say to that. Athos was considering trying to push for more details, but Aramis started squirming in obvious discomfort and squinting against the light that had gotten brighter.
"I can get you some willow bark for your headache," d'Artagnan said.
Aramis nodded mutely.
D'Artagnan left the tent, careful not to open the flap too wide as he slipped out.
Aramis let out a garbled laugh. "I wished to see the sun again for so long, and now I wish for darkness."
Athos reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "You will readjust with some time," he assured him.
Aramis just buried his face in his hands. Athos exchanged a pained look with Porthos.
D'Artagnan returned with some willow bark both in a tea and to chew on, along with a mug of broth. "You can just sip it throughout the morning," he said, setting it aside for later.
Aramis murmured his thanks.
Athos lingered for a moment, reluctant to leave, but he had duties to attend to. All three of them did, really, but Athos wouldn't dare suggest Porthos leave Aramis's side. So he forced himself to rise and excused himself. D'Artagnan followed.
As it turned out, though, the rest of the musketeers had already begun to take up the slack in responsibilities, freeing them up to remain with Aramis. Etienne had even gone so far as to run interference with one of the generals at the camp who'd wanted to know why the Musketeer regiment had up and left for half a day. The men were glad to have their marksman back, and they each took turns stopping by the captain's tent to tell Aramis so.
Bernard was handed off to a prisoner transport that would be heading back to Paris in a couple of days. Before they departed, Pierre pulled Athos aside and told him what they'd learned after several interrogation sessions: how Bernard had tried to give Aramis decent accommodations in the beginning before he'd tried to escape, how Aramis had trained another to become a medic, and all the people he had helped. Pierre's tone was clipped and brusque, incensed by the fact that the man had constantly maintained that what he'd done was necessary for the people to survive, that he'd taken care of Aramis even when the medic had been recalcitrant.
Athos had listened stoically while anger had kindled in his heart. It was a good thing justice was not in his hands.
Aramis's recovery was slow going. He tired easily and struggled to eat, though he managed to drink the rich broth d'Artagnan kept bringing him. His tolerance of daylight also gradually improved, though direct sunlight was still too much for him to bear and gave him a splitting headache. He wanted to go for walks at dusk though, to begin building up his stamina again.
It was on the third evening while out meandering through the camp that he pulled up short and stared at Athos's and Porthos's belts. "You have my pistols," he blurted.
They both glanced down, having forgotten they each had one clipped next to their other weapons.
D'Artagnan shifted, his hand going to the hilt of the rapier he carried, which was Aramis's too. "We wanted to hold onto them for safe keeping," he said. "Didn't want to throw them in with the other armory supplies and risk someone just taking them."
Aramis was silent for a prolonged moment, a myriad of emotions flashing across his face. Then he lifted his gaze. "Did- did you keep my rosary?" he asked tentatively.
D'Artagnan's brows furrowed in thought before rising sharply. "Yes."
He rushed off, and the three of them waited where they stood for him to return. He came back a few minutes later with Aramis's coat draped over his arm. The nights had been so warm they hadn't thought to dig it out of their bags where they'd packed it.
D'Artagnan held out a fist, the simple wooden cross dangling from it, and deposited it into Aramis's hand.
Aramis fingered the beads reverently, his expression an odd mixture of gratitude and contemplation. They all knew how important Aramis's faith was. Athos began to wonder what state it was in after this whole ordeal. They'd tried again multiple times to ask him about his experience, to get him to talk about it, sometimes broaching it together, sometimes separately. But each time he rebuffed them, repeating that he'd treated the sick and wounded, nothing more.
Athos understood his reluctance to speak of things so traumatic the words themselves had the power to suffocate, while it drove Porthos mad to no end. They wanted to help with the emotional wounds as much as the physical but wouldn't be able to until Aramis opened up. And given the man's propensity for stubbornness, that could take a rather long time.
Unfortunately, time was not something they had. Intelligence had come in about the Spanish army's movements and the musketeers would once again be required to ride into battle. And once again, Athos found himself facing an impossible decision. Or, not so impossible, as he knew what needed to be done, but his heart was loath to see it through.
It was early on the fifth morning after they'd gotten Aramis back and the man was sound asleep in Athos's cot. Athos was glad he was able to find rest each night; he obviously needed it. Aramis had protested sleeping there once he'd been aware enough to realize he was monopolizing Athos's bed, but Athos would hear nothing of him moving. He was keeping Aramis close.
But now that had to change.
Porthos and d'Artagnan, who'd been sleeping on the floor of his tent as well these past few nights, were already awake, all of them used to rising with the dawn. Because the dawn had always been there for them to see. With Aramis's head buried under the blanket, he was likely to sleep a bit longer.
Athos silently beckoned for the other two to follow him outside. It was getting easier for Porthos to let Aramis out of his sight for brief periods, as long as he remained close by. The three of them filed out, letting the tent flap fall with a soft swish behind them.
"What is it?" Porthos asked quietly.
Athos took a breath. "I'm sending Aramis back to Paris."
Porthos and d'Artagnan blinked in surprise, though d'Artagnan's expression quickly fell with understanding. Porthos, however…
"We jus' got 'im back!"
"I know. But the front is no place for him right now, or the near future. By all rights, he's been a prisoner of war for the past six months, albeit by our own side. I will not put him back into battle after that, which we will be expected to march to in a few days' time."
Porthos's face pinched with distress. "But…"
Athos laid a hand on his shoulder. "He will be safe in Paris at the garrison where he can recover."
Porthos looked torn at that. After all this, they wanted nothing more than for Aramis to be safe. Unfortunately, safe was not with them.
Athos turned to d'Artagnan. "Do you think he will be fit to travel tomorrow?"
D'Artagnan shrugged. "It won't be easy on him. But…it'll be a while before it is," he conceded, inadvertently supporting Athos's reasoning to send him away from the fighting. "So, yeah, I think he can leave tomorrow."
Athos nodded in satisfaction even as his heart clenched. "You'll go with him. I'll have reports for you to deliver to Treville."
D'Artagnan looked taken aback by that decision and flicked an uncertain look at Porthos, though the larger musketeer didn't immediately protest. He did, however, look distraught.
Athos squeezed his shoulder. "It's what's best for Aramis."
"I know," Porthos grudgingly agreed. "But he won't like it."
"I know," Athos echoed. That was one difficult conversation done; now he had one more.
He went back into the tent, alone, and took a seat in the chair by the cot. The blanket had slid down some as Aramis shifted, and Athos visually traced the sunken contours of his brother's face and the bandaged wrists peeking out from under the coarse blanket.
Since Aramis was becoming more acclimated to the light, it was a little while before he finally began to wake. He let out a muffled moan as he rolled over and opened his eyes, then startled slightly at seeing Athos. He immediately started to sit up.
"Porthos all right?" he asked.
Because someone else was sitting in the larger musketeer's spot.
"Yes," Athos replied with a flicker of a fond smile, but then he sobered. "I wanted to speak with you."
Aramis's expression immediately became guarded, as it did every time they asked him to talk about what he'd been through. It only affirmed Athos's resolve that he was making the right decision.
"You'll be heading back to Paris tomorrow."
Aramis jerked his head up sharply, eyes narrowing. "Me?" he asked carefully.
"Not the regiment."
A muscle in his jaw ticked. "Why?"
"You need time to recover."
"I'll be fine," he protested. "I just need to get my strength back a little more, start up some practice sparring."
Athos shook his head. "It's more than that, Aramis, and you know it. You've been through an ordeal…"
"It's not like I was captured and tortured by the enemy," he said gruffly.
Athos gazed at him sadly and reached out to tenderly cup a bandaged wrist. "There are different kinds of torment. And there is no shame in needing to heal from them. Which you cannot do in the middle of a battlefield."
Aramis averted his gaze, the fingers of his other hand picking nervously at the frayed edges of the blanket. "I understand," he said bitterly. "I'm extra weight now. You cannot afford a liability in battle."
Athos's heart clenched at both the inaccuracy and truth in Aramis's words. "You will still contribute to the war effort. New recruits are coming into the garrison and they need to be trained. You have exceptional skills, Aramis. You may not be able to use them in the field, but they are not useless."
Aramis shook his head, angry tears welling in the corners of his eyes. "I have spent the past several months wondering where you all were, if you were all right or dead. I can't do that again!"
"It was the same for us," Athos said solemnly. "We feared you dead, because what else could keep you from us?"
Aramis ducked his head and pressed a fist against his eyes.
"This way we'll know you are safe, in Paris and recovering."
"But I won't know the same of you," he rejoined sharply, flashing Athos a look of betrayal.
Athos just returned it with a look of sympathy. "The three of us have each other. And if it were within my power, I would have us with you." He shook his head regretfully. "But we all have our duty. And for now yours is going to be in Paris as my second-in-command at the garrison."
Aramis looked away again.
Athos reached out and cupped the back of his head, pressing their foreheads together. "I can bear your hatred as long as you are alive and safe," he breathed.
Aramis shuddered and moved his arms up and around him, fisting a hand in the back of Athos's coat.
Athos adjusted his arms to hold onto Aramis as well and didn't move for a long time…for all too soon he would be required to let him go.
Thanks to everyone who's read and commented and left kudos thus far! Only one more chapter after this.
On a personal note, if any of my readers are prayer inclined, I could use some. Am going through my own kind of torture with some medical issues and am really struggling both physically and emotionally. But my queue of finished fics will carry us into January, so I'm gonna keep following my posting schedule to bring you new content. I just may be a few hours later than usual sometimes, like today.
The next morning, d'Artagnan and Aramis stood by their saddled horses, ready to ride for Paris. D'Artagnan had shed his armor for only his doublet and cloak, as the extra weight wouldn't be needed for their journey north. Aramis's coat hung too loosely around his shoulders—another stark reminder of the ordeal he'd been through.
Athos and Porthos stood facing them to bid farewell, Porthos looking downcast and forlorn. D'Artagnan had almost suggested to Athos that he spare Porthos to come with them, but it would take them several days to reach Paris at the altered pace d'Artagnan knew Aramis was going to require, and every capable soldier was needed here.
Porthos unclipped Aramis's pistol from his belt and held it out. "You should have this back."
Aramis just looked at it for a long moment without moving, then shook his head. "Keep it. It will be of more use to you here."
Porthos's expression pinched in concern. "Are you sure?"
Aramis nodded. "Yes. This way I'll still be watching your backs, in a fashion."
Porthos smiled and pulled Aramis into a fierce hug that lasted several long beats. When they finally broke apart, Aramis turned to Athos, who looked somewhat hesitant. But Aramis embraced him as well.
"Take care, Aramis," Athos said.
Aramis nodded again sagely. "And you." He paused for a breath. "All for one?"
Athos smiled, but instead of placing his hand on top of Aramis's as was custom, he clasped his forearm with one hand and cupped the side of his neck with the other. "And one for all."
D'Artagnan stepped closer and clapped his hands on both their shoulders. Porthos did the same on the other side, completing the circle.
And then it was time to separate, as loath as each of them was to do so. With somber miens, d'Artagnan and Aramis turned to mount their steeds, Aramis with effort but on his own. Then, with one final nod to Athos and Porthos, they rode off.
D'Artagnan kept a close eye on Aramis, knowing this was going to be a taxing journey for him, which was why d'Artagnan was going to keep their pace under strict check. When he called for a rest only an hour after they'd left the encampment, Aramis bristled in irritation.
"I'm not an invalid," he said stiffly.
"No, but you are currently my patient," d'Artagnan replied cheekily. "Which means my orders stand."
Aramis glowered at him, but d'Artagnan had already swung out of his saddle. Aramis could either follow suit or stay sitting up there awkwardly for a bit. He gave in with a huff and dismounted with obvious effort and discomfort. D'Artagnan stood at his horse's head and scratched her muzzle as Aramis tried to walk around and stretch his muscles. He was doing better compared to when they'd first found him, but it was going to take time to return to his normal strength and stamina.
After twenty minutes, d'Artagnan suggested they continue on. He didn't ask if Aramis was ready, knowing the question would only grate on the man's nerves. Aramis was too stubborn and prideful sometimes, particularly when afraid of showing weakness. Even if that weakness was well-founded and understandable.
They mounted up again, and d'Artagnan had to grit his teeth against offering aid when Aramis grimaced as he pulled himself into the saddle and then clutched his still bandaged wrists against his stomach. D'Artagnan had no idea how long the deep bruising would take to heal…if it ever fully would. He watched Aramis loosely entwine the reins around the fingers of one hand and then simply let his hands rest in the saddle. His horse would follow d'Artagnan's lead anyway.
They took several more breaks before stopping to make camp for the night. Hopefully there would be some inns in subsequent days just to make things easier for Aramis, but for tonight they were still miles from the nearest village and d'Artagnan wasn't going to increase their pace just to reach one.
D'Artagnan unsaddled their horses—Aramis hadn't even tried to help, his wrists obviously aching too much to bear the weight of swinging the bags down. Instead, the marksman had slumped on the ground against a tree and hung his head despondently. D'Artagnan wordlessly set about making camp. He gathered kindling and wood, got a fire going, pulled out some jerky and bread from their bags for supper, and heated some water to make tea for Aramis.
When everything was settled, he took a breath and turned to face his brooding friend, approaching cautiously and crouching down in front of him. "How bad are your wrists?"
Aramis tipped his head back against the trunk and closed his eyes in resignation. "Bad," he whispered.
D'Artagnan had figured. "I brought the salve. Why don't I tend them before we eat?"
Aramis shrugged listlessly.
D'Artagnan got up and retrieved the tin from his bag, then sat next to Aramis on the ground and took one wrist into his lap. He unwound the bandage carefully and laid it aside to reuse, then inspected the marks. His heart fell at the still puce-colored flesh. Gingerly rotating Aramis's wrist, he examined the burn scars next. At least the raw redness was fading, but it only let the near black-purple underneath show through more.
D'Artagnan massaged the pain-relieving balm into the discolored area as gently as he could, but it was impossible not to cause some pain. Then he rewrapped it and moved on to the next to repeat the process. When he was done, he leaned back and studied Aramis's face, which was pinched with pain that probably bespoke a myriad of other aches from riding all day.
D'Artagnan got up and poured the now heated water into a cup and added some herbs to steep. He then passed Aramis some bread, which the marksman nibbled at half-heartedly. He was making an effort, but his stomach was still unsettled a lot of the time. D'Artagnan didn't have any ginger root on hand, but he made a mental note to get a good stock of some when they reached Paris to leave with Aramis.
They ate in silence as the sun set and night blanketed the countryside. The quiet made d'Artagnan's heart ache for the jovial spirit and humor he'd always associated with Aramis. Their time away at war had certainly dampened it, but now his brother was completely withdrawn into his own troubled thoughts that he refused to share. D'Artagnan and the others had asked him again and again if he wanted to talk about it, but Aramis's response was always that there was nothing to talk about.
They weren't going to be able to set a watch for the night, but they'd set camp far enough from the road and under the cover of trees that they shouldn't have any trouble. D'Artagnan had also become a light sleeper from his time on the front.
They set their saddlebags out to recline against and settled down for the night. D'Artagnan wasn't tired though, and he kept glancing over at Aramis, who was also still awake and gazing up at the stars. D'Artagnan thought he saw a glint of tears in the corners of his eyes. Maybe it was the bright light of the fire, maybe something else.
"I'm not going to break," Aramis said quietly.
D'Artagnan startled; he'd been trying to be furtive in his observations but had apparently failed. "I wasn't thinking that," he immediately said.
Aramis's jaw ticked as though he didn't believe it.
D'Artagnan rolled onto his side and propped himself up on his elbow. "I was thinking I'm not sure I would've been able to do it: continue helping those people. I was thinking it takes remarkable strength to have compassion on those that don't deserve it."
Something haunted flashed across Aramis's face and he turned his head away. "They did deserve it," he replied, though his voice was taut with some emotion d'Artagnan couldn't identify. He paused for a long moment. "War makes everything muddy and gray," he went on. "Morality gets lost."
D'Artagnan didn't know what to say to that. He wanted to say that wasn't an excuse, but he'd seen atrocities in this war for himself. Aramis had experienced it first hand.
When the silence stretched too long with nothing more said between them, d'Artagnan finally lay back and looked up at the stars as well until he fell asleep.
The following morning d'Artagnan rose first and quietly began to pack up camp. Aramis woke with a groan and a muffled grunt as he tried to sit up, using his elbows instead of his wrists to lift himself. His face scrunched up in obvious pain and he looked like he was biting back any further sounds of distress. His muscles had probably stiffened overnight, which would make this day's riding even worse than yesterday's. D'Artagnan needed to map out their route and plan for an inn when next they stopped.
He debated taking time to start the fire up again so he could steep some herbs in a tea, but their progress was already slow enough as it was. So he regretfully settled on giving Aramis some straight willow bark to chew instead.
When everything was packed up, d'Artagnan led Aramis's horse over to a small mound so it'd be easier to mount. The look of shame that colored Aramis's cheeks at that made d'Artagnan's heart twinge, but he remained silent and patient as Aramis shuffled his way over and painfully pulled himself into the saddle. It was going to be another long, agonizing ride.
"Constance is going to be so happy to see you," d'Artagnan said, hoping to distract him. He'd written to Constance throughout the war, had written to tell her when Aramis had been declared missing. She was going to be so relieved that they'd found him at last.
"I think she will be so happy to see you," Aramis quipped, though his voice was laced with strain.
D'Artagnan couldn't help but grin; he was looking forward to seeing his wife after two and a half years—he suspected that was why Athos had given him this responsibility instead of Porthos. But he also knew there wouldn't be much time for a romantic reunion. After he'd delivered his reports to Minister Treville, he'd probably only be granted a day of rest before he was expected to return to the regiment.
And then he'd have to face the same thing Porthos and Athos just had—leaving his brother behind.
By the time they reached Paris, Aramis could no longer sit straight in the saddle. Not a single muscle didn't ache and willow bark had lost its effectiveness against the sheer amount of pain and stiffness that assaulted his joints. His legs constantly cramped; his back twinged no matter what position he tried to hold himself in. He couldn't believe how low he'd been brought, and he cursed the depth and breadth of his weakness.
Their horses approached the garrison gates, and Aramis felt emotions start to overwhelm him. It had been almost three years since he'd been here—his home. Out on the front lines, the vision of returning one day when the war was over was a far distant dream, yet reachable.
Sitting in that cellar, chained, that dream had become a wistful wish, and finally a lost one, for Aramis had begun to believe he would never see anything outside of those four dingy walls ever again.
They rode under the arch and into the courtyard, and Aramis was struck by how everything was both familiar yet strange. So many young faces that he didn't know milled about. Things had been rearranged: the target stands were now stacked against a different wall, wagons with supplies sat in the yard, and the table and bench under the balcony was gone. His gaze drifted up to the captain's office which sat empty with Treville now Minister of War at the palace and Captain Athos on the front with the rest of the musketeers. Aramis suddenly felt out of place and his chest tightened. The things that made the garrison home weren't here—his brothers, his friends—and so all he was coming back to were four walls and a barracks.
D'Artagnan dismounted and came around the front of Aramis's horse to help him down. He bit the inside of his cheek but didn't refuse the aid. He could barely move at this point and he didn't want to simply fall out of the saddle, which would be more humiliating.
D'Artagnan clasped his shoulder with one hand and braced his back with the other as Aramis stiffly swung one leg over and slid down to the ground. His knees refused to unbend when they touched the ground and he had to catch himself against the saddle to keep from falling. D'Artagnan kept a steady grip on him too, waiting with silent patience for joints to unlock so he could stand on his own.
Aramis closed his eyes and grimaced in derision at himself. He was an invalid. How could he possibly take up command of the garrison like this? Perhaps Athos had only been humoring him when he said it to make him more cooperative about going back. The thought burned as memories of Bernard bombarded him. He squeezed his eyes tighter and shook his head. No, Athos wasn't Bernard; he would never manipulate him like that.
"We should find a place to sit down," d'Artagnan said, casting his gaze around the courtyard with furrowed brow. Aramis wondered how the garrison looked to him.
"D'Artagnan?" a voice suddenly exclaimed.
D'Artagnan straightened and looked over the neck of the horse.
Aramis patted his arm. "Go."
He hesitated for only a brief moment before leaving Aramis braced against the saddle and sweeping around the horse toward the sound of his wife. Aramis lifted his head and watched him scoop Constance up into his arms, her eyes wide with disbelief and elation.
"What are you doing here?" she asked in amazement. "I hadn't heard anything about the regiment returning…" She glanced over his shoulder at the archway but there was obviously no troop of soldiers returning. "Are you…?"
"I'm only here to deliver some reports to Minister Treville," he said regretfully. "And something else." He angled himself to the side, and Constance followed his gaze, her eyes widening in astonishment.
"Aramis," she gasped.
She picked up her skirts and hurried around the front of his horse to reach him, looking ready to throw her arms around him too, but faltered at his stiff posture. Her eyes raked over him, and he knew she could see how thin he was and the bandages on his wrists that peeked out from the sleeves of his coat. She took a step forward and tentatively reached a hand up to his cheek, then shifted to embrace him, however gently. Tears pricked at his eyes because she was another loved one he never thought he'd see again.
When she pulled back, her own eyes swam with joy, worry, and numerous questions, but she didn't ask any. "I assume you're here to stay," she said. "Come on, let's get you settled. You look like a brisk wind could knock you over."
"I have to go the palace," d'Artagnan put in. "But I'll be back as soon as I can."
Constance nodded in understanding and watched him mount his horse and ride away. Once he was out of sight, she turned back to Aramis and took his arm. "Can you make it up the stairs? I'm afraid your room hasn't been aired out in a while, but I'm sure Athos wouldn't mind you using his office, seeing as he isn't here at the moment."
Aramis cringed at the thought of the stairs, but the captain's quarters would offer him a bit more privacy and he was already becoming uncomfortable with all the curious looks being directed their way by the cadets.
"Yes," he said meekly.
Her expression furrowed with a flash of concern before she smoothed it away. "Henri!" she called across the yard. "Bring these bags up to the captain's office."
One of the cadets nodded and darted over to Aramis's horse.
"D'Artagnan mentioned you were running things," Aramis remarked as she started leading him to the steps.
"I hadn't meant to," she replied. "Things were so hectic at the palace after Rochefort. I didn't feel comfortable there, around some of the red guards… I would have stayed, of course, for Her Majesty, but she could tell and gave me leave to move into the garrison. And then with the men away, someone had to take over the daily running of things."
Aramis managed a small smile. "I could think of no one better."
She shot him a skeptical look as though searching for teasing, but he'd meant it. Her expression softened. "Thank you."
They stopped talking as they ascended the stairs, for it was an arduous effort on Aramis's part. He pushed himself to keep going, envisioning being able to finally sit down at the end of it. Constance took more and more of his weight and he apologized between breaths.
"Nonsense," she chided.
They reached what used to be Treville's office and residence and what was now Athos's, and Constance opened the door. She steered Aramis toward the bed in the corner and helped ease him onto the mattress. He let out a strained gasp and focused on taking several controlled breaths. Constance moved away and directed the cadet where to set the bags when he brought them up.
"Are you hungry?" Constance asked. "There isn't much with the food shortage, but Serge knows how to make a stew last."
Aramis shook his head. "Maybe later."
She frowned at that but didn't comment and dismissed the cadet, closing the door behind him. "Do your injuries need seeing to?" she asked next.
"No injuries," he said quietly. "Just…sore."
She skeptically glanced at his bandaged wrists. "A hot bath would help with that."
He pursed his mouth; he wasn't sure he had the energy for that right now. In fact, he wasn't sure he had the energy for anything anymore. He had wanted nothing more than to be reunited with his brothers, and they had been forced to send him away. He didn't blame them. But now he was sitting in an empty room that didn't belong to him and he felt the same soul-deep weariness he had while chained up in that cellar, now a prisoner to his own infirmity and helplessness.
Suddenly the wall he'd been stoically holding up broke and everything came crashing down on him. For everything he'd been given back, he still felt a sense of profound loss. He dropped his head with a hitched breath, no longer able to hold himself up.
Constance crossed the room and caught him, cradling his head in her arms, his forehead against her stomach, and stroked her fingers over his hair. "Oh, Aramis."
He knew he should feel ashamed or appalled at the impropriety, but he couldn't stop. The tears fell in silent streams down his cheeks with only his shuddering breaths to disrupt the air.
Constance didn't chide or shush him. She simply stood there, bowed protectively over his head and dropping her own silent tears into his hair.
Aramis knew Athos had believed that him returning home would aid in his recovery, but so far it wasn't. He felt adrift in the one place that had been his anchor for so long, and that loss struck him as deeply as all the other wounds to his soul that he carried in silence.
D'Artagnan had left, having barely gotten any time alone with his wife whom he hadn't seen in almost three years. Aramis knew he was to blame. They had both helped him get settled in, tended him…hovered over him. He'd wanted to resent it, but they'd both feared him dead and he understood all too well the desperate need to keep such loved ones close when they'd been miraculously returned.
He knew d'Artagnan had told Constance what happened; he'd overheard them talking quietly at the captain's desk when they thought him asleep. Thankfully she had not brought it up since, though she'd taken on overseeing his recovery like it was a personal mission. The day after his return she'd all but bullied him into taking a hot soak and had spirited his clothes away while he was in there, leaving fresh ones behind for him to change into. They weren't his and he didn't know where they'd come from, but they fit and he felt much better in clean garments and the bath had loosened his muscles. He'd been so drowsy afterward that he'd laid down for a nap and slept straight through the next five hours.
Constance aired out his old rooms and put fresh sheets on the bed, then helped him move. Not that he had much to carry with him. But he did find his old Bible in the nightstand drawer, the worn and crackled leather and vellum pages greeting him like an old friend.
Constance also enlisted Serge's help in trying to think of all kinds of creative ways to get Aramis's appetite back. Theirs were the only familiar faces in the garrison and helped blunt some of the pain he felt at being left behind. But he still struggled over the next few days and didn't understand why it was so hard. He was free, he'd gotten his life back, he should be fine now.
So why wasn't he?
He stood in his room practicing sword maneuvers with slow and fluidic movements, trying to limber up his muscles and get his arms used to bearing the weight without making a fool of himself in front of the new recruits.
A knock sounded on his door and he relaxed his stance. "Come."
He expected Constance or Serge, but the person who entered was dressed in too much finery with a now silver beard distinguishing his face.
"Captain," he said in surprise, then caught himself. "Sorry, Minister."
Treville gave him a faint smile. "It's good to see you, Aramis." He glanced at the sword in his hand. "I came to ask after your recovery."
Aramis laid it on the table, afraid the tremble in his arm would be too noticeable. "I'm fine."
Treville regarded him for a long moment, and Aramis was reminded of all the times the captain had seen right through him. Treville moved to the small table in the room and took a seat. "Good. Then I'll ask for a report of your time in captivity."
Aramis stiffened. He didn't know why he hadn't expected this. Athos had surely made a report of what details he knew, and while his friend may have been hesitant to push Aramis for more, Captain—Minister—Treville would not be.
Treville skewered him with an expectant look and gestured for him to take the seat across from him.
Aramis moved woodenly toward it. He didn't want to go over it again. But he was a soldier and Treville his commanding officer. So he sat down and drew his shoulders back into a rigid posture and began to recount it, laying out the events in concise, emotionless facts. A man he'd met from a previous battle site had approached him. He'd walked off with him to talk. Some other men attacked and drugged him. He helped a few people before trying to leave, and that was when he was put in chains. It took him several days before he had an opportunity to attempt escape, which failed. He was moved to the cellar after that.
"What did the room look like?" Treville interrupted.
Aramis blinked. "What?"
"Sounds, smells? Who did you treat and what were their ailments?"
Aramis clenched his fists in his lap. "A variety of things. What does it matter?"
"Because I asked. Did you know their names? Did they come to you more than once?"
Aramis surged to his feet, scraping his chair back a few inches. "Why are you doing this?" he seethed, voice betraying him with a crack.
Treville leveled an unfazed look at him that was both sympathetic yet also would give no quarter. "You know why. Or have you forgotten those months after Savoy when you struggled with the devastation of what happened?"
"That was different," he bit out harshly.
"You need to talk about it."
"What do you want me to say?" Aramis snapped. "That I gave in and did their bidding too easily? That I wanted to refuse but they paraded child after child in front of me and how could I turn them away when they were innocent? How my first week there they brought in an old woman dying of grief because her husband had been killed in the war. I held her hand as she passed, and when she was gone, there was another, and another. Everyone's suffering brought to me to fix but I couldn't. I'm a battlefield medic, not a doctor! Do you know how many children I watched die!"
Aramis spun away, anger and grief and frustration and so many other torrential emotions he couldn't name if he tried erupting like a volcano.
"And all that time each and every one of them treated my imprisonment with casual disregard, offering small gestures of 'kindness'—" he sneered the word, "—while I stood there in chains with burns and bruises I couldn't even treat myself." He flung his bandaged wrists up as evidence.
Treville didn't say a word, just sat there giving his full attention and letting Aramis get it all out.
He was suddenly spent, and he sank onto the bed, dropping his head into his hands. "I started to believe I deserved such punishment for my sins," he said brokenly. "I'm still not sure being found and rescued signifies it wasn't. And then the worst of it is I finally broke. I started to waste away from grief and despair. I thought all of my brothers were dead, thought I was never going to get out of that place." He clenched his fingers in his hair. "I fear a part of me didn't."
Several moments of silence passed before Treville finally spoke. "You did not deserve this, Aramis. You were a victim of a mad man who believed his cause just and convinced those around him of the same, but that didn't make it so. No one can come out of that unscathed, in body or mind. You are wounded. You need time to heal."
"I don't know if I can," he whispered.
"You've overcome tragedy before. You doubted then whether you could but you did."
Aramis whipped his head up with a fiery glower. "Maybe I don't want to do it again. I'm tired."
Treville nodded in understanding and got to his feet. "I believe you have it in you to rise up from this, Aramis. You are the strongest young man I have ever had the honor of knowing." He paused and moved closer to place a bracing hand on Aramis's shoulder. "But if you wish to retire to Douai again, I will understand, and I will make sure your discharge is honorable."
Aramis blinked up through vision abruptly turning watery.
Treville's expression held nothing but sympathy. "Just think about it for a bit first and don't rush to any decisions. You have people who love you and will stand by you through this. I know the others are away right now, but do not doubt their thoughts are always with you. And there are those here who will also help you to come through this."
He gave one last reassuring squeeze and then quietly turned and walked out, leaving Aramis to think on what he'd said.
It hadn't really crossed his mind to retire to a monastery again, even though hadn't he promised to eventually? Now would certainly be the time for it, since he was no longer needed on the front. Or did it even matter anymore? His vow broken, life shattered, and faith in tatters, what was there for him in the Church except a life of penance? What if he was beyond redemption at this point for all his wrong choices?
Constance came by to change the bandages on his wrists and apply more balm to the now sickly colored bruising. Aramis stared at the chartreuse yellow and green splotches and thought of how painful it was to grip a pistol, how his arm still trembled when he swung a sword. He wasn't fit to be a musketeer anymore, so maybe he should go back to Douai.
"I should be with the others," he let slip out in response to the morose thoughts.
Constance gave him a commiserative look as she picked up a roll of linen and began to wind it over the discoloration to remove it from sight. Even though the bandage wasn't necessary, he preferred the concealment and cushioning.
"It's hard for me to be here too, waiting, wondering if they're well," she replied. "I would give anything to have d'Artagnan home, to have all of them home. You've all become like my brothers." She offered him a warm smile. "So I don't regret that you at least are here with me now."
Aramis dropped his gaze away from hers. "Treville said he is willing to discharge me. If I want."
Constance's hands stilled for a moment before she resumed carefully wrapping the bandage. "Is that what you want?"
"I don't know," he said honestly. "I don't know whether God would accept my devoting my life to him now. I…sometimes I think what happened in the refugee camp was punishment for breaking my vow in the first place."
Constance knelt down in front of him, taking his bandaged wrists in her gentle hands as she angled her head to catch his gaze. "I can't claim to know what God's will is, but I do not believe he would be so cruel. Nor hold your good intentions against you."
He let out a soft snort. "I'm not so sure, given my good intentions nearly led to the downfall of the Queen and the French Crown."
Aramis suddenly realized that he hadn't seen Anne or their son in nearly three years. He'd walked away, intending to keep them safe, and now he was back. His son would be a toddler now, walking and talking. What would happen if Aramis ever had to go to the palace on Musketeer business?
He shook his head in anguish and whispered, "I don't know what to do."
Constance was quiet for a moment before releasing his wrists and getting to her feet. She reached into a pocket of her dress skirts and pulled out a folded piece of parchment. "D'Artagnan left this for you. Told me to wait to give it to you until you really needed it. I think that time is now."
Aramis frowned in confusion as she handed it to him.
"Whatever you decide, Aramis, your family will support you."
She leaned down and planted a kiss on his brow, then left him to his privacy.
Aramis opened the letter to find d'Artagnan's scrawling hand.
"Aramis, I know you don't want to talk about what happened, and since my time in Paris is short, I'll have to wait you out by letter. You're right: war breeds desperation and people sacrifice their morals and values in the name of survival. But that doesn't make it right. What those people did to you was wrong. It was cruel, and pretending it wasn't doesn't absolve them. Your decision to forgive them does. Maybe that's bordering on blasphemy, but thankfully I'm several hundred leagues from Paris and don't have to endure a theology lesson."
Aramis chuffed out a strangled snort.
"My point is we have both seen many horrors in this war. We absorb them, we cope with them, but we do not accept them. You taught me that when I became a musketeer.
Anyway, I don't know what you'll have to say to this. You can try writing a reply, though letters don't always get through. In any case, I'm sure if you're still not ready to hear this that Constance will have something to say about it.
Be well, brother."
Aramis stared at the letter for a long time, then bowed his head in humility. How had he ended up with such devoted friends—brothers—and how was it that they had rescued him from hell yet again, against all odds?
He slid off the bed and got down on his knees, elbows resting on the mattress as he pressed his clasped hands to his forehead. "I have no right to ask for your guidance," he prayed. "But I am. I have always striven to do what was right, and yet so many times it seems I have ended up doing what was wrong. What would you have me do to make things right now? Do you require more penance? Have- have I been forgiven?"
His chest constricted and he paused to take a breath.
A breeze wafted through the open window, picking up the letter from the bed and blowing it against his arms. He leaned back to pick it up again, the parchment crinkling between his fingers. And for the first time in a long time, since even before his imprisonment, he felt a sense of peace and calm descend upon him at the sight of the words on the page.
Shoulders loosening with an exhalation of tension, he closed his eyes in gratitude and nodded. "I think I get the message."
Aramis stood under the balcony, leaning against a post as he observed the cadets practice their sword fighting. He had never seen so many green soldiers in one place. There were also some new recruits who looked as though they hadn't even picked up a sword before today. The task set before Aramis was beginning to feel overwhelming.
Constance came over to stand beside him and watch too. "They're so young," she remarked.
"So was I when I started."
She smirked. "Yes, well, I'm sure you were an exception."
He quirked a grin at that, but then sobered. "There was a little girl at the camp," he began hesitantly. "An orphan. She became…attached." He worked his jaw, unsure why he was even bringing it up save that Treville was right, he needed to talk about it.
Constance waited him out patiently.
"Her name was Madeline," he continued, throat thickening. "I know she wasn't my responsibility, but I can't help but think about her, still there in that poverty and suffering with no one to look out for her."
"You didn't make her an orphan, Aramis," Constance said.
"Didn't I?" he countered. "I know I didn't start this war, but my actions…"
"Rochefort's actions. He was a Spanish spy, remember. The other things…he was a sick, perverted man and the Queen his target. But he was still working for the Spanish."
Aramis sighed. "I know."
"Do you?" she pressed.
He grimaced. "Sometimes," he admitted.
"I suppose that's something," she huffed.
There was a beat of silence.
"The children are the worst victims," he said quietly.
Constance's expression softened. "We are all victims of this war in some way or another. And those that survive will be the stronger for it."
Aramis knew that too.
Constance hooked her arm in his. "Come on. We've got a garrison to get in shape. After all, we want everything in order for when Athos and the others return."
Aramis smiled at her and nodded. He knew where his place was. And he would not let his family down.
The End. And of course his brothers return eventually. And Madeline will be alright; Patience is probably looking after her. ;)
Thanks so much everyone! I'll have a new story to post Saturday.