No one was chasing them, after the bloody scene they’d left on the road behind them; no man, at least. Aramis was doing his best to drive them forward, hideously aware of d’Artagnan’s laboring breath against his side, and the steady trickle of blood sliding between the boy’s fingers where they were clenched against his belly. D’Artagnan made no complaint at the pace, but Aramis thought his silence was due as much to weakness as to pride. The wind lapped at their heels, pushing them on.
He drove them as long as he thought d’Artagnan could stand, and then longer, stumbling over roots and rocks, until at last d’Artagnan tripped over something, perhaps his own dragging feet, and folded to his knees with a breathless sound of pain.
Aramis caught him, propping him up; the boy’s face was bloodless beneath its olive tone, beaded with sweat and stiff as a mask with the effort of control. Aramis heaved him up again without a word. D’Artagnan made it halfway to his feet and then drooped senseless against his friend’s shoulder. Aramis knew he was done, knew he’d pushed himself beyond all strength to get even this far, but he couldn’t stifle the little tendril of unreasonable anger that curled itself beneath the roar of fear in his mind. He wanted Porthos here, to hoist the boy to his shoulders as easily as he would a saddlebag; he wanted Athos scouting their way ahead, he wanted a pistol in his own hand, covering their escape from behind. He wanted d’Artagnan jumping at every sound, ready to draw and fight, not bleeding out beneath his hands.
And the moon and stars in the sky, and Anne your wedded wife, while you’re at it, he snarled at himself, and tried to get d’Artagnan up again. It was no good; the boy flopped against him and his eyelids didn’t so much as twitch. Aramis laid him down again and pulled his sodden shirt away from the wound, packing more strips of his own ruined shirt into it and strapping it tighter. D’Artagnan’s face creased slightly at the pain, but he didn’t stir. His breath was getting shallower. No one was chasing them; the hellish cross-country stumble had been a flight from the pale rider, but he was at d’Artagnan’s shoulder now. They were hopeless miles from any town. Aramis couldn’t postpone this any longer.
He straightened the boy’s body, pulling his arms decently against his sides and pushing black hair off his face. Aramis knelt beside his friend, spat on his own hand, drew a cross on d’Artagnan’s forehead, and began Extreme Unction.
It shouldn’t have been like this: the last prayer for the sick should be said over old men dying comfortably in feather beds, by priests with blessed oil – not over a boy bleeding out against a tree, with only a debauched musketeer to speak for God. It was probably blasphemous anyway. God can take the shock, Aramis thought as he murmured the familiar words, and then realized that his mind was drifting and wrenched it back to his task. If he could do nothing else for d’Artagnan, he would do this, with his whole heart. Confession should come before anointing, and the Blessed Sacrament after, but both were plainly impossible, and this pathetic enactment of the holy rite was all he could do. D’Artagnan, he was sure, would not need much to commend him to God.
He finished quickly, and remained kneeling, his hand on his friend’s damp forehead, exhausted and at a loss. He had spent the last hours desperately resisting the surrender to death that the last rites evoked, and now that he had given in, he had no idea what could follow. It was as if d’Artagnan were already dead.
Aramis had just enough time to recoil from this thought before he began to hear indistinct noise; far off, but unmistakably drawing nearer. After a few moments he could hear shouting. He jerked himself to his feet and drew his sword, still bloodstained from their encounter by the road, and planted his feet next to d’Artagnan.
Two horses burst from the brush opposite him, and he nearly fell across d’Artagnan in relief. It was Athos and Porthos, of course, on strange horses, faces dirty and drawn with long travel. They saw Aramis, and then their eyes drew in unison to d’Artagnan, flat on his back with his head on a tree root. Athos was dismounting in an instant, and Porthos not far behind, and Aramis finally regained his senses and shouted “No, wait!” to his friend. He turned to Athos, already beside him. “He’s alive, but not for long. Help me.”
Porthos, seeing the plan, had swung himself back up on his horse, and his two friends, with no time to be gentle, pulled d’Artagnan upright and passed him carefully up to Porthos, who settled the boy against himself and set off the way he had come without a word. Athos and Aramis mounted up in equal silence and galloped after him.
Many hours later, after a ride that was already a blur in Aramis’ memory and a nightmarish span of time spent sewing d’Artagnan up in a hot bright inn-room as Porthos held him down, he watched his friend sleep. Athos was asleep as well, wrapped neatly in his cloak in the corner of the room, and Porthos had gone to fetch clean washing-water. D’Artagnan lay just as limp and silent in the inn bed as he had done on the forest floor, but the terrible rasping breathing had eased, and his face and chest were clean. Aramis looked round as Porthos came in with a basin and several cloths, dousing one and rubbing it over his own face. Aramis did the same, and Porthos ran an affectionate hand over his shoulder before he turned away to undress. Aramis sat back down by the bed, watching d’Artagnan again, and on an impulse he doused another cloth and began carefully to rub away the cross of spit, long-since dry, that he had drawn on his friend hours earlier, as if he could wipe away the blasphemy and the fear together. Forget this, please, he said to God, and d’Artagnan turned his head, eyelids twitching, before settling again, his breathing easing out long and steady into a healing sleep.
The rustle in the corner had stopped, and Aramis turned to see Porthos watching him, but neither of them wanted to speak. The silence in the room was warm and heavy. Porthos went past him, touching his shoulder again, and lay down next to Athos, and Aramis leaned back into his chair, reached for the basin again, and washed the cloth clean.