Chapter One: Spanish Fire
It's like a bad déjá vu, with roles reversed. This time, it's Athos who helps d'Artagnan out of a burning building, timbers raining down around them, air thick with smoke. The Gascon is barely conscious and leaning on him, one arm draped over Athos' shoulder, heavy for such a lanky lad.
Athos curses, coughing thickly. He's disoriented. The house is big - a pompous and many-roomed mansion, and he's had to reroute. The way he entered is now blocked by collapsed brickwork and a wall of flames.
He'd known this was a bad idea. They never should've split up. Nothing good ever comes of it, and he'd told Treville so when he'd sent them off in different directions to gather information on a Spanish spy. Athos doesn't want to think about what would've happened had he not followed a hunch and, on his way back to Paris with no results of his own, hadn't taken the detour to investigate how the lad was doing in Colombé, at the former district governor's estate.
When he'd arrived, the estate had been on fire, flames hissing out of windows bursting from the heat. No one had been around, except for d'Artagnan's horse, frantically pulling on the rope that kept it tied to a pillar near the locked front entrance. Athos had slashed through the rope with a single stroke of his rapier, letting the hysterical animal gallop away. Then, heedless of the danger, he'd looked for and found an entry at the back of the building and flung himself into the heat and the flames and the roar of the fire in search of the young Gascon.
Who is now going limp against his side.
"D'Artagnan," Athos shouts at him. "Stay awake! Come on! Stay -" He shifts the lad higher in his grip and coughs again. "I need you conscious!" He slaps the boy's face with his free hand. "Hey! D'Artagnan!"
With a wheeze, the young musketeer shudders back to half-consciousness. Watering brown eyes sway in the direction of Athos' face. His breath smells of wine, and ash sticks to a smudge of blood at his temple. Déjà vu.
"Athos?" Confused. Raw.
"Just hang on. I'll get you out of here."
Easier said than done.
Eyes burning, Athos drags the lad through a door and into a hallway that is wavering with heat, its walls and floor rippling like a fata morgana. From an adjacent room, open door swinging to and fro, tongues of flames lick across the threshold. Every breath Athos takes is saturated with smoke and heat. In his ear, he can hear d'Artagnan's own breath, reduced to choked wheezing.
"Not much further," he coaxes the lad onward. "We're almost out."
Indeed, when they push through a large door at the end of the hallway, they enter a wide front hall which, too, is on fire. Sideboards and chairs along the walls are burning, paintings blackening and melting off their hooks. A chandelier overhead is swinging precariously in the hot gusts wafting down a wide and winding staircase. The whole house is groaning and creaking under the onslaught of the fire.
Aiming for the front door, obscured by smoke and pieces of flaming debris dropping from the ceiling, Athos perceives movement up ahead. The shape of a figure.
It must be the heat, he thinks. An optical illusion.
But it's not. Before he can squint and identify the shadow at the far end, his body automatically reacts to the sizzle and bang of a pistol going off. Shoving d'Artagnan, he dives right, behind the first flight of stairs and lands on top of the lad, shielding him, just as a musket ball blows part of the railing into a shower of splinters above their heads. A second ball follows, nicking the heel of Athos' left boot when it slams into the floor. Quickly, he pulls his foot back.
Who the hell is shooting at them in the middle of a fire?!
Under him, d'Artagnan moans weakly, and he rolls off the boy, pulling his own pistol from his belt.
"Don't move," he hisses. "Stay where you are!"
"Don't. Move." Athos says it with such stony emphasis that the young Gascon freezes.
"YOU'RE DEAD, MUSKETEERS," a coarse voice rings out.
When Athos peeks around the corner, he thinks he's having a hallucination. Blocking the front door, locked with a deadbolt, stands a massive, black-clad figure. A man, long dark hair fluttering in the fiery breeze, face blackened from soot, holding one pistol in each hand. His clothing is Spanish - some sort of officer - , his accent thick as he barks out: "In the name of the Spanish King - you will NOT make it out of here alive!"
"And you won't either!" Athos shouts back, ducking as a smoldering piece of tapestry flutters past his head. "We'll all be dead unless you clear the way!" He coughs. "Why not continue this discussion outside?"
"Over my dead body, Musketeer," the dark voice booms back.
A martyr, then.
Someone must be very intent on wanting them - d'Artagnan - dead. The lad must have gathered valuable informations, perhaps even uncovered the Spanish Spy. Otherwise, whoever that gun-blazing giant is wouldn't be willing to sacrifice himself. Or - and that is another entirely feasible option - he is simply stark raving mad.
"Is this really worth dying for?" Athos shouts over the crackling and hissing of the flames closing in on them.
Instead of an answer, he hears a loud crack coming from the ceiling. The chandelier's fixtures are giving way, the contraption of crystal glass and candles - molten to lumps in the growing heat - drops half a metre until it swings on one final, straining cord. Risking a glance, Athos sees the Spaniard staring at the impending crash.
This is their chance.
"D'Artagnan! Get ready to move! On my command!" The Gascon blinks at him, valiantly clinging to consciousness. Athos can only hope he understands him.
Raining mortar, the ceiling groans. The chandelier jitters. Wax drips down. Then, with a whipping crack, the final cord snaps. The Spaniard looks up as the chandelier drops with a a whoosh.
Athos dives out from behind the stairs, throwing himself into a shoulder roll. Momentum propels him back on his feet, pistol already in his hand. He aims and shoots. The Spaniard has reacted to the movement. He's fast, but not quite fast enough. Athos' shot goes off as the dark man swivels and tries to bring his own pistol up. A grunt of pain. The giant jerks, red blooming on his shoulder, and he drops his pistols, but he doesn't fall.
Athos doesn't hesitate. Metal swishes on leather when, running towards the Spaniard, he draws his rapier. But the other man isn't ready to give up. With a roar, he rips his own sword out of its scabbard. And it is, indeed, a sword, broad and heavy, unlike Athos' slender weapon. When their blades clash, Athos' feels the judder reverberate through his wrist and arm. He has to use both hands to brave the ferocious blow. Grunting, he uses his full weight to shove his opponent off him. Unsteady from his injury, the Spaniard staggers a few steps backwards, leaving the front door unguarded.
"D'Artagnan! NOW!" Athos' voice, deepened by smoke, thunders through the burning hall.
The Spaniard has regained his footing, and Athos' blade screeches and slides against his sword as they engage in a duel that cannot last long. It's expert swordsmanship against brute force, and either Athos will lose to the man's superior strength, or the Spaniard will succumb to the technical prowess of a well-trained Musketeer.
"D'Artagnan!" Athos shouts again, unaware if the lad has moved at all. "Head for the door!"
Pirouetting to deflect a blow, he perceives a figure stumbling through the flickering inferno.
"The deadbolt," he bellows, chest heaving, sweat in his eyes. "Get the deadbolt!"
A thrust misses his midriff by a hair. The Spaniard's eyes glower at him, reddened and with deadly determination. Athos feels his strength draining. There's not enough air - his heaving breaths pull only heat and ash and smoke into his burning lungs - and bright spots appear in his vision. His opponent is flagging as well, his shoulder wound bleeding freely through his black jerkin, but he's drawing on a different kind of strength now: With nothing left to lose, he willingly spends his last reserves.
Athos barely evades a wide sweep of the heavy sword, pulling in his stomach. He attempts a responsive thrust and is blocked by the man's armor-plated big forearm, his blade sliding off the metal, sparks flying.
To their right, he sees D'Artagnan reach the door and drop to his knees, a coughing fit tearing through him.
"The deadbolt, d'Artagnan! Now!"
He parries another blow, his wrist screaming in protest. Their fight has let them drift near the wall where the fire is chewing through the tapestry. A sidestep brings Athos close enough to feel a burst of flame singeing his hair, and he quickly wipes one gloved hand over the side of his head.
D'Artagnan is pulling himself to his feet again, hanging on to he carved crossbeam in the heavy, wide door. With trembling hands, he reaches for the deadbolt locking it, another cough wrecking him.
The Spaniard has realized what's going on and attempts to move in d'Artagnan's direction. It's the moment Athos has been waiting for: When the man drives Athos back with a strike and turns to attack the Gascon, he leaves his right side unprotected for the fraction of a second. Athos lunges, pulling his main gauche from its sheath, and drives the blade deep into the the man's right flank. He feels it stutter against a rib and slide past, burying itself to the hilt. The Spaniard gasps and falters. Athos, not taking any chances, twists the the blade, drawing a scream from his wounded opponent's open mouth, and pulls the dagger back out. Blood spurts. The Spaniard flails, trying to grab Athos along the way, but failing.
When the giant falls, wet gurgles coming from his throat, Athos doesn't take time to pause. He steps across the dying man, legs wobbling with exhaustion. His gloved hands close over d'Artagnan's and, with united effort, they slide the bolt back. The door opens and d'Artagnan falls against it.
Thunder seems to build behind them. The fire has caught up and finds the Spaniard, his trousers breaking into flame with a whoosh. Reaching for d'Artagnan with watering eyes, Athos sees the staircase sway left and right, then collapse. A wall of smoke and debris rises and billows towards them. Groaning, Athos grabs his brother by the collar of his doublet and hauls him out the door. They tumble down a wide set of stone steps, flames and splinters and pieces of mortar shooting over their heads like burning shrapnel, smoke rolling over them in a black wave. Athos throws himself across the Gascon, one arm over his own head, shielding both of them as best as he can as, with a beastial moan, the front of the building collapses behind them.