Musketeer's Blood

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Sword And Blood


Sarah Marques

 


In another world, history changes
But heros remain heros

His Duty Formed Him; Like God the World
                                                                  – Fernando Pessoa




Paris, Wednesday, April 9th, 1625

His captors dragged and pulled him past the ruined marble archway, the ropes on his wrists too tight, the ropes on his ankles loosened only enough to allow him the small steps which he must take to avoid falling.  They'd stolen his sword.  His blond hair was matted with blood.  He didn't know whose. 

Three of them held him on either side, their supernatural strength making it impossible for him to escape.

Still, he struggled.  His fevered mind knew only that he must break free from the hands like vise grips on his arms.  He must defeat the bone-bruising grasp of fingers on his waist.  

Pulled into the shadows of the defiled church – its cross broken, its holy statues scribbled with obscenities, painted with leers and fangs -- he twisted, suddenly.  The hands tightened on him, frantic, bruising.  He managed to sink his teeth into one of the implacable fingers holding his arm.

The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth.   The one he was biting – a coarse haired man who must, in life, have been a peasant – pulled his hand free and grinned wide, displaying long
fangs that sparkled in the light of the guttering candles surrounding the blood-stained altar. 

"Oh, good effort!” he said, speaking as though Athos were a puppy or a kitten.  Then, looking up, he said, in quite a different voice, "We've brought him, milady."

Athos turned.  And his mind stopped.

She stood by the altar, as she had stood by quite a different altar, fifteen years ago, when she'd given him her hand in marriage.   You could say she was tall and beautiful and slim and blond – but that much omitted everything she truly was.  The first time he'd seen her, in the humble cottage which the priest of Athos’s parish was given as a prerogative of his office, he'd thought her an angel descended from heaven.

Whatever had happened to her in fifteen years had not changed her countenance, nor her figure.  She retained the perfect oval face, with the too-large violet-blue eyes.  And her hair was still that shade of blond on the edge of silver, and still a straight and glimmering cascade down to her waist.

She still wore simple clothing though much more expensive than it had been when he met her – a white dress or overdress made of velvet, with a collar outlined all in ermine shining like ice around her neck.  A silver belt delineated a waist that could still fit in his two hands.

She stepped down from the altar platform, down the marble steps, between the candles, her steps graceful and so lovely that Athos –  unable to breathe -- could only think that he was seeing her ghost – that she had come down from heaven to redeem him.  To forgive his horrible crime against her.

The last time he'd seen her, he'd left her for dead after hanging her by the neck, from the branch of a young tree.  He looked anxiously at her neck, for signs of the ordeal, but by the light of the candles it looked white and perfect, and he wondered if this was a dream. 

Or if the other had been.  An evil nightmare, conjured by a demon.  Perhaps this whole world they lived in was a nightmare.  Perhaps none of it was true.  Perhaps vampires didn't fill half the world and more.  Perhaps France wasn't at war in all but name.  Perhaps he and this exquisite beauty were still married and their lives whole back in Athos’s domain of la Fere.

He felt his suddenly dry lips move, and heard himself rasp out, "Charlotte!"

She spoke in the voice he remembered, the musical tones that fell on the ears like the caress of soft fingers upon the skin.  "Did you miss me, Raphael?"

Looking like she was dancing in air, she drew close, until she was standing close by him, her scent enveloping him.  So near that were he not still held immobile, he could have leaned down and kissed her.  "Yes," he told her, struggling to embrace her.  "Oh, yes." 
 
And then the fact that she was here and that he had been brought to her by Richelieu's guards penetrated his mind, and he felt his eyebrows knit.  "Did they..."  He was about to ask if they'd captured her, too, then he remembered one of those holding him had talked as if she'd ordered it.  They had called her milady.   They held her in respect.  He looked at her, in horror.  "Charlotte!"

She grinned, displaying sharp fangs he had never seen.  They glimmered brightly, on either side of her mouth.   "What else, Raphael?" she said.  "How else do you think I could have survived that noose?"  She stared up at him, her eyes glimmering.  Then looking away, she told the men holding him, "Strip him."

Athos twisted, pivoted, trying to avoid it, but a hand reached out and ripped his doublet, then his shirt, and finally his breeches and undergarment, leaving him shivering in the spring night, in his stockings and boots.  Then those too were torn from him. 

She said "The altar."

Two of the vampires lifted him and laid him down on cold marble.  They tied him, arms and legs twisted and bent to the columnar supports.

Athos and his friends had found corpses, tied like this and dead.  Blood masses they called these rituals, though Aramis had said no mass was celebrated.  There was no ritual.  Just... a group of vampires, all feeding on the human victim, till he was dead.  A communion, perhaps, but not holy.

The cold, hard altar leeched the heat from his skin, thought from his mind.  He was immobilized, hand and foot.  Atop old blood stains.  They wound a rough  rope around his middle, biting into his flesh.  This was his last hour.  He would die here, bound so he could not move.  He would die here, and his friends would find him, dead and pale and defiled.

He licked his lips and managed to summon voice to his dry mouth, "Listen, Charlotte, I don't... I don't blame you for wanting your revenge."

She checked the knots at his hands, her light fingers just touching his skin as she adjusted the rope.  "Oh, good," she said.  "I would hate to think you withheld your forgiveness from me."

One of the watching male vampires laughed, but stopped abruptly as Charlotte glanced down at him.
 
Athos shook his head.  Before he died, he must make her understand.   "It isn't that," he said.  "I just... I realized afterwards I judged you too quickly.  Just because you ... just because you were branded with the fleur de lis, it didn't mean you were a Judasgoat or that you served the vampires.  I should never... I should have asked you first.  Before... executing you.  Trying to execute you."

She smiled at him and didn't say anything.  Her fingers moved idly from his wrists, as if of their own accord tracing the contour of muscles on his arm, sculpted and defined by his sword fighting day after day for fifteen years.  "I think you've grown more muscular Raphael," she said smiling a little.  "You were not filled in enough when we were married."  Her fingers, at his chest now, moved slowly down, cool and velvety soft, tracing his flat stomach.

"And I see I can still make you react," she said, as her hand traced the edges of his burning erection.

He shivered.  She was a vampire.  Other vampires watched them.  And yet all he could do was to bite his lips together to keep from begging her to touch him, to forget it all, to be his wife again. 

But no matter how much he still needed her – through horror and fear and remorse – and through the mind-snapping craving of his body, the Comte de la Fere could not beg. 

And yet his bound back lifted fractionally off the marble, attempting to arch upward, towards her touch.

She looked up at his face, and smiled, slowly, knowingly, as though she guessed his thoughts and knew the extent of his need.  Then she pulled her hand away and leaned in, so close to his face that he could smell the familiar lilac scent she wore.  "You are right, you know?" she said, confidentially.  "I wasn't a Judasgoat."
 
"No?" he said, relieved and crushed at once, because that meant he had tried to hang an innocent woman, a woman he'd adored with his whole heart, a woman who had survived only to become this.  If only he hadn't been so quick to judge.  If he hadn't been so proud.  If he–

"No," she said, and smiled wide, her soft, sensuous lips glistening, moist and inviting.  "I was already a vampire."

And with that she withdrew and struck, her fangs biting deep into his neck and propelling a scream out of him.  Pain burned into his muscles and propagated like fire along his nerves, descending, tortuously, down his spine, and he screamed till he could scream no more, till – tired, wrung out – he lay, in a puddle of his own sweat, and looked up at Charlotte's eyes which danced with amusement.

He tried to speak, but he could find no strength to, and then the feeling changed and instead of pain, bliss radiated from her mouth on his neck, sucking his life away.  A tingle of pleasure like nothing he'd ever felt – an over-all caress, skin-enveloping, nerve shattering – took in all of him and soothed him.  Transported on its wings, he felt his body react again, excitement gathering, coursing along his veins, pounding, demanding release.

And then she bit deeper and his mind fogged and he plunged into the darkness of death.







Ruins and Fallen Angels


Grief carried D'Artagnan to Paris. Like a tidal wave, swelling from shock to anger it impelled him across the devastated country, riding on lonely roads amid denuded fields.

As it receded, it left him sitting on an ornate chair, in the private office of Monsieur de Treville, Captain of the Musketeers.

"I don't know what you heard, in the provinces," the Captain said.  He was a small man, a Gascon, like D'Artagnan.  Even though silver threads mingled with his straight, dark hair, he   didn't look old.  No wrinkles marred his mobile olive-skinned face and his eyes remained bright.  
He stood behind the great armchair facing D'Artagnan's.  His long thin fingers clasped the frame tightly, dark against the white-painted wood and the threadbare blue-grey velvet of the cushions. "But France is not England.  We are not at war with the vampires.  Our king and the Cardinal have signed a  truce between them.  His Eminence might have been turned, but he still wants what's best for France.  Neither the king, nor the Cardinal – nor I, myself – want to experience here the slaughter and mayhem that engulfs the other side of the canal."

All energy drained from D'Artagnan's body, leaving his arms nerveless and his legs feeling as though they lacked the strength to support his body.  He'd run to Paris to fight the vampires.  To stand for king and queen.  To support the forces of the light.  To avenge his parents.  His parents who'd been turned and had chosen to die as humans rather than live as vampires.
 
"My father said," he heard his own voice echo back to him, aged and flat-sounding.  "That I should come and offer my sword to you.  That whoever else had made peace with evil, you never would.  That you knew darkness when you saw it."

"Your father."  For just a moment, there was a flash of something in Monsieur de Treville's eyes. What it was, D'Artagnan couldn't tell.  It glimmered and vanished.  In a changed voice, the captain said, "Your father and I fought side by side thirty five years ago, when the first vampires came into France from Germany."  He sighed deeply.  "Other times, my boy, other times.  Now there's a treaty in place, and daylighters are not to hunt vampires and vampires are not to turn the unwilling.  And those turned register promptly and become subjects of the Cardinal, restrained by his laws.  Only undeclared vampires, the ones in hiding, could be a danger, and we don't have those."  He opened his hands.  "Different times demand– "

Behind D'Artagnan the door opened.  A voice said, "I'm sorry to interrupt you captain, but...  You said you wanted to know when the inseparables came in?"

Turning, D'Artagnan saw a thin man, in threadbare livery that seemed too big for him looking in at the half opened door.  Just like the rest of Parisians he looked starved, ill-dressed and not so much worried as jumpy.  Ready to run at a sound.   Like a hare amid wolves.
 
D'Artagnan realized that no intelligent Parisian could take the truce or the treaty seriously.  And Monsieur de Treville didn't look stupid.

In fact he didn't look stupid at all, as his fingers released their death grip on the back of the chair, and his eyes filled with an eager curiosity, leavened by hope and fear.  His voice trembling with what appeared to be maniacal relief, he said, "All three?  Athos, Porthos, Aramis?"

The servant shook his head, and looked away as he spoke, as if afraid of seeing the reaction to his words.  "Porthos and Aramis, only, sir.  Should I send them away?"

Monsieur de Treville's face froze,  the skin taut on the frame of his cranium – as though he'd aged a hundred years in that moment and only will power kept him alive.  His tongue came out, nervously, to touch his lips.  "The two?"  Then his expression became impenetrable.  He drew his lips into a single, straight line and he crossed his arms at his chest.  "Send them in, Gervase."

But the gentlemen had apparently been waiting just outside the door, because as Gervase opened it, they came in.
 
They were splendid.  There was no other word for them.  D'Artagnan, who had waited in the captain's antechamber, had seen the rest of the musketeers as something very akin to immortal gods.  He'd listened to them jest about how many vampires they had killed, and taunt each other with the latest court gossip.  He'd heard them -- fearless and unabashed – calling evil by its name and saying that its name was vampire.  Yet, admirable though they were, they admired others.  They too had idols they looked up to.
 
All through their chatter, like a touch-stone, a prayer, he'd heard the names of the inseparables: Athos, Porthos, Aramis.  

They were, according to their own comrades, the best and the bravest.  It was said that in one night the three of them had killed a hundred vampires, single handed.  It was whispered that if France still had a human king, if the throne of France still belonged to the living, it was to the credit of none but those three noblemen who hid under the appellations of Porthos, Athos and Aramis.

D'Artagnan, a Gascon and therefore inclined by nature to discount half of what he heard as exaggeration and the other half as social talk, now felt his mouth drop open in wonder, and thought that, if anything, the rumors had been an understatement.

Though their clothes looked as worn, and their bodies as thin as those of other Parisians, the two inseparables were so muscular and broad shouldered, and stood with such pride that they lent their humble threadbare tunics, their frayed doublets, their mended lace and worn cloaks an air of distinction.  They stood with pride one would have thought departed from amid mortals since the vampires had arrived and taken control.

The smaller one of the two – just taller than D'Artagnan, had dark-golden hair and the flexible build of a dancer – or an expert sword fighter.  His features were so exactingly drawn that they could have graced a not-ill-favored woman.  However old his clothes might be, they looked well matched and better fitted, made of dark blue velvet with no mended patches visible.  The ringlets of his hair fell over his shoulders, disposed in the most graceful of ways, a longer love-lock  caught up on the side of his head by a small but perfect diamond pin.  Other than that pin, he wore no jewelry save for a plain, flat silver cross on a silver chain around his neck, and an antique-looking signet ring on his left hand.

The taller of the two stood at least a head taller than any man D'Artagnan had ever seen.  His chestnut brown hair was shoulder-long, his beard and moustache luxuriant, and the bare patches on his tunic had been sewn by an expert hand and covered in what looked like gold thread embroidery.  D'Artagnan only noticed they were rents and skillfully covered up, because there was no other explanation for the haphazard nature of the embroidery, which meandered over his well muscled torso with the abandon of a gypsy caravan on an endless jaunt.  He wore a ring on the finger of each massive hand – most of them ornamented with stones too large to be anything but paste or glass  and on his chest a thick gold chain, and a cross composed all of rubies and garnets – or their counterfeits dazzling in splendor.

This would be Porthos, D'Artagnan surmised.  He had heard the man was a giant.  And indeed, he had arms like tree trunks, legs like logs, and the most terrified brown eyes that D'Artagnan had ever seen.

His gaze darted around the room, in skittish anxiety and, alighting on D'Artagnan, it made the Gascon wish to make his excuses and leave.  But the musketeers blocked the path to the door.  And Porthos’s gaze moved on, immediately, to stare in abject fear at his captain, whom Porthos outweighed by at least half again as much.

Looking at Monsieur de Treville, D'Artagnan could understand at least part of the fear.  The captain's face had hardened, and his gaze threatened to bore holes in the two musketeers, if it could.  It settled on Porthos, then seemed to dismiss him, focusing instead on Aramis, who bowed correctly.  D’Artagnan who had heard how valiant Porthos was could only imagine his fear in this instance was that common malady known as timidity or shyness in social situations.
Here stood a man who could kill vampires with a smile but who would be forever in fear of offending another human or committing a social faux pas.

"Aramis," Monsieur de Treville rasped.  "Where is Athos?"

Aramis smiled, as if he'd expected this question all along.  "He's indisposed, sir.  It's nothing serious."

"Nothing serious," the Captain said.  He turned his back on them and stared out of his window.  Through it one could just glimpse the broken cross atop the Cathedral, the marble stark white against the lowing sky.  "Nothing serious," he said again, his voice heavy, like the closing of a tomb.  "The Cardinal bragged at his card game with the king, last night.  He said that Athos had been turned.  That Athos was now one of them.  The rumor is all over Paris."
 
"It is... not so serious," Aramis said.
 
"Not so serious," the captain turned around.  "So is he only half turned?   You men and your careless ways.  How many times have I told you not to wander the streets at night, after your guard shift?  Never to go into dark alleys willingly?  And if you must go into them, to guard yourselves carefully?  Do you have any idea what Athos will become as a vampire?  Do you know your own friend well enough to know what a disaster this is?"  His voice boomed and echoed.  Doubtless every word he said was being eagerly drank in by the ears of the massed musketeers in the antechamber. 

Porthos and Aramis bit their lips, shifted their feet, looked down, and let their hands stray to their sword pommels.  It was obvious that had anyone but their captain given them such a sermon, he would have paid dearly for it.

Porthos, who had been squirming like a child in need of the privy, blurted out, "It's just... that... sir!  He has the smallpox!"

"The smallpox?" The Captain asked, with withering sarcasm, even as Aramis gave his friend a baneful, reproachful glance and a minimal head shake.  "The smallpox, has Athos, who is over thirty years of age?  Do you take me for a child, Porthos?"  His voice made even D'Artagnan, over whom he had, as yet, no power, back away and attempt to disappear against a wall-hung tapestry which represented the coronation of Henri IV.  "I've given the three of you too much freedom because I thought you'd at least defend each other.  How can you have allowed Athos to be taken? From now on, I am making sure that none of my musketeers go anywhere, except in a group.  Not after dark.  And if I hear of any of you starting a fight with a vamp–"

He stopped mid word, as steps were heard, rushing, outside, followed by a man's voice, calling out, "I'm here."

A blond man burst through the door.  He was taller than Aramis, almost as tall as Porthos, though of a different build.  It was not so much that he looked lithe and lean, though he looked both, but on that leanness was superimposed a layer of muscle.  The effect was rather like that which D’Artagnan had seen in a book of drawings by someone who had visited Greece.  The ancients had apparently been in the habit of creating sculptures of ideal men, which they placed as parts of their temples, supporting whole buildings on their backs.  The buildings and the men harmonized both of perfect proportion.  Though D'Artagnan imagined this man must be Athos and that he must therefore be over thirty, he looked like a young man at the prime of his days, fully developed and muscled. As though he had halted at some peak of golden youth and from it looked through the ages unafraid, carrying the best of his civilization upon his powerful shoulders.

Like most of the other musketeers, he did not exactly wear a uniform.  Instead, he wore the fashion of at least ten years before – a black doublet with ballooning sleeves and laced tightly, in the Spanish fashion, and black knee breeches, beneath which a sliver of carefully mended stockings showed, disappearing into the top of his old but polished riding boots.

But, it was his face that attracted and arrested one's gaze, as he threw back his head and the golden curtain of his hair with it and said.  "I heard you were asking for me, Captain, and I came, as you see, in answer to your call."

He looked like the angel guarding the entrance to a ruined Cathedral, beautiful, noble and hopeless.  The mass of hair tumbled down his back might as well have been spun out of gold and his flesh resembled the marble out of which such a statue's features might be chiseled: The noble brow, the heavy-lidded eyes, the high, straight nose, the pronounced cheekbones and square chin, and the lips --  full and sensuous, as if hinting at forbidden earthly desires.  All of it was too exquisite, too exact, the perfection that no human, born of woman is entitled to.

He also looked cold, unreachable and lost -- and except for still standing on his feet and moving -- as if he'd died waiting for a miracle that had never come.

Monsieur de Treville's mouth had remained open.  He now closed it, with an audible snap, and advanced on the musketeer, hands extended.  "Athos!  You should not have come.  You look pale.  Are you wounded?"

Athos shook his head.  Then shrugged.  "A scratch only, Captain," he said.  "And you'll be proud to know we laid ten of them down forever.  D'Alene among them."

"D'Alene?  The terror of Pont Neuf?" Monsieur de Treville asked, suddenly gratified.

Athos bowed slightly, and in bowing, flinched a little, and his eyes, which had looked black at first sight, caught the light from the window – as he turned his head – and revealed themselves for a deep, dark jade green.

The captain squeezed the musketeer's hands hard, and Athos bit his lips, looking as if the touch pained him, though not a sound of complaint escaped him.  "As you see," he said.  "We do what we can to defend the people of Paris."

"Indeed.  Indeed.  I was just telling your friends how much I prize men like you, and how brave  you are to risk your lives every night, in defense of the people, and how..."

Athos, who looked pale and wan as if he were indeed wounded, and, in fact, as if he only remained standing through sheer will power, didn't seem able to withstand the barrage of words, or perhaps the additional pain of what must be the captain's iron grip on his hands – so tight that Monsieur de Treville's knuckles shone white.  He made a sound like a sigh, his legs gave out under him, as he sank to the floor,  his body lifeless.

His friends managed to catch him and ease him onto the carpet.

Bewildered, D’Artagnan had just caught that the Captain must be playing some deep game.  The man who’d told him that Musketeers didn’t fight guards clearly was pleased that the Musketeers did.  Which must mean D’Artagnan’s father was right and that Monsieur de Treville fought against the vampires still.  Only carefully enough to not be caught at fault under the treaty.

D’Artagnan took a step forward to help with the fallen musketeer, but the musketeer’s two comrades moved, obstructing his path. 

The young man arrested, staring.  It seemed to him that, as Athos fell -- awkwardly caught by Aramis around the chest and Porthos by the shoulders to ease what would otherwise have been a floor-shaking collapse -- and as his hair moved out of the way, revealing two deep, dark puncture marks on his neck. 
 
Athos would not be the first one to be bitten by a vampire and live to tell the tale.  There was a time, D'Artagnan's father had told him, that this was the basic requirement to become a musketeer – to have felt the bite of the vampire, and his allure, and to have survived it.  But the bite mark combined with Athos’s pallor seemed to indicate the vampire might have gone too far.  Far enough, in fact, that the human thus bitten turned within twenty four hours, and would be prowling the streets for living blood by the next evening.
 
D'Artagnan moved closer.  He was barely breathing, his breath caught in his throat, as he strived to see the musketeer's neck.   Surely, if he'd been turned, his friends wouldn't hide it.  They are musketeers.  Surely–

The two musketeers knelt, one on either side of their comrade, while the captain stood nervously at his feet.  Aramis was purposely unlacing Athos’s doublet, which was sensible if he was indeed wounded and needed air.  Aramis had also, in the movement, seemingly by accident, pulled Athos’s hair to hide what might be punctures on his neck.  Perhaps it had indeed been accidental, but D'Artagnan found it hard to trust anyone.

"Sangre Dieu," Porthos thundered, looking up and noticing that a crowd had come from the antechamber, to watch the excitement.  "Back all of you.  Can't you see the man needs to breathe?"

At that moment Aramis lifted a reddened hand that he had just dipped beneath his friend's doublet.  "He's all over blood," he said.  "He was badly cut in the fight last night."  As he spoke, he undid Athos’s doublet altogether, and showed the red-tinted, soaked shirt beneath.  There was a sound of relief from bystanders.  They released long-held breath like a sigh.

Clearly if the musketeer could bleed still and in such quantity, when he couldn't have fed as a vampire yet, the rumor of a turning would be just that.  D'Artagnan was not so sure.  Such things could be faked.

Aramis pulled back the gory shirt to reveal a cut on the pale, muscular chest beneath – a cut smeared in blood, some of it dried.

"My surgeon," Monsieur de Treville said.

"No, please, sir," Aramis said.  "Athos wouldn't even let us bandage him last night.  You know how private he is and how proud.  He wouldn't like it if it was known he suffered such a wound."  He looked around, and up at the crowd, with worried eyes.  "I hope no one speaks of this."

The mass of musketeers backed a step, then two under that gaze and his steely voice.

Porthos stood, then bent, to pick up his unconscious friend.  "I'll take him to his lodgings, sir, and we and his servant will bandage him up.  His servant has been with his family since Athos was a baby.  Athos cannot resent him.  Grimaud will look after him."

"Yes," Monsieur de Treville said, his gaze heavy on the bloodied shirt.  "Yes.  Do.  Take care of my brave Athos."

"We will, sir," Aramis said, bowing a little.

But D'Artagnan had managed to work out two things.  First, the appearance of Athos’s chest and the blood on it was all wrong.  If he had bled that much, most of the blood would have crusted around the wound.  Instead, it was smeared around the pale skin in irregular streaks, looking like it had gone from the shirt to the wound, and not the other way around.

And second, Athos wore no cross.  While there was no requirement that musketeers – or indeed anyone – wore a cross, almost everyone wore one.  A cross or the chosen symbol of their faith. Something that not only stood between them and the vampires, but which showed to the world that they were, indeed, still free men.

Had a vampire managed to get into the ranks of the musketeers?  And were his friends hiding him?

When the three inseparables left the room, D'Artagnan, himself, slipped out and followed them.



The Destiny of Fools

 
Athos woke up held in living arms.  For a moment, he didn't know whose arms, only that they were strong and too warm and alive.  That last truth communicated itself to him through smell and temperature, through feeling and his own quickened heartbeat and a desperate lust to feed, which made it hard from him to think.
 
He was being held like a child – which even his sluggish brain realized meant that the arms belonged to Porthos.  But more important, more urgent, was that his head rested on Porthos’s shoulder, close enough to hear his friend's heartbeat, close enough to feel the song of living blood through Porthos’s neck veins.  Close enough to thirst.

Athos bit his lips together and tightened his hands into fists, to keep his fangs from extruding.  They’d already descended once today, while he was smearing the shirt.  Even though he'd used mutton, the smell of blood had been enough for the fangs to descend from his gums, alien and demanding, in front of his teeth. 

With his lips bitten together, Athos found he couldn't speak, and  opened them, but clenched his teeth again.  The voice that emerged sounded like something from beyond the grave even to himself.  "Put me down, Porthos.  For the love of–" He remembered in time not to stain the holy name with his lips.  "Put me down."

Porthos looked startled down at Athos.  "Are you sure?" he asked.  "You don't look–"

"Down.  Now."

Porthos started to lower him, and he threw himself at the ground and away.  He half tumbled, half ran out of Porthos’s embrace, to press his back flat against a wall.  The support of stone behind him helped.  The coldness of it seeped through his clothes to steady his mind with sanity.  They were in an alley, like the ones he'd used to get to Monsieur de Treville's office.  Narrow, medieval alleys, surrounded by buildings so tall that the bottom floor never saw the light of day.  Daylight, and the faint sting he could already feel on his skin was a mild bother here.  Not a danger.  On the way to Monsieur de Treville's he'd taken care to make sure his hair and the lace of his sleeves covered every exposed inch of his skin, as well.  It was only in the captain's office that he'd felt daylight on his face.  And even the attenuated light, coming through the window with its half drawn curtains, had been enough to fill him with panic and make him want to writhe in pain.  That and the temptation to feed when the captain touched him, had overwhelmed his senses and caused him to faint.

"Athos!" Aramis said.  "You are wounded.  You bled.  Perhaps they didn't take enough to turn you, perhaps–"

Athos heard something between a gasp and a cackle tear through his lips, behind which, and despite all his will power, the fangs were now displaying fully.  "It was the mutton," he said.  "I cut myself, and I squeezed the mutton that Grimaud had in the kitchen.  I folded it in my shirt and pounded.  I thought that the rumors would have started and you two fools..."  He shook his head, unable to go on.  "Grimaud will never forgive me."  He pressed his palms back, flat against the stone, trying to will its coldness into him, trying to find his fast-evaporating self control.

Heat rose through him like a fever, and he could smell his friends as he'd never smelled anyone before.  Blood rushing through their veins spoke of health and strength and filled Athos with an almost uncontrollable desire. 
 
It wasn't hunger, though it contained within itself the mouth-watering need for bread after a long afternoon of work; and it wasn't thirst, though the pounding of the blood sounded like the singing of a stream on a hot afternoon when he had been hunting all day.  And it wasn't desire, but his entire body strained with the need to bite, to suck the blood, just as his whole body had once lusted to join with the woman he loved.

He kept from striking only by desperate will power, by near-insane force of rationality.  He wouldn't bite Porthos and Aramis.  They were his friends.  He didn't wish his hell on them.  And he couldn't bite anyone – anyone – without surrendering his immortal soul, or his remaining honor.  He had abandoned his name, his lands, his home -- all for the sake of fighting vampires – but he was still the Comte de la Fere.  He wouldn't stain that ancient dignity by becoming a blood-thirsty monster, stalking innocents and condemning them to death or damnation.

He controlled his breathing, as it hissed, ragged, between his teeth.  He shook his head.  "You do me no kindness," he said.  And in a voice tinged with the near-pain of holding back from feeding, "to refuse to kill me.  I beg of you..."

"We don't know that you'll become a vampire," Aramis said.  "We cannot kill you simply because you've been bitten.  Half the musketeers..."
 
Athos’s laughter barked out, startling him.  "Aramis," he said.  "My friend.  Don't delude yourself.  You wouldn't have chosen these alleys as the way to take me back, if you did not know how it stood with me."  He looked up at the distant sky, lost in the shadow between buildings, and decided there was enough light here.  Just enough.  "I wasn't bitten.  After... After I parted from you in that fight, they surrounded me.  Fifteen of them.  They tied me before I knew they were there.  I was taken to a lair and there..."  He realized he couldn't tell them what he'd found there.  The wife he'd thought dead for fifteen years, still alive.  Or at least in that form of death in life that was vampirism.  It wasn't that he didn't wish to.  He couldn't.  His tongue lacked the strength to pronounce Charlotte's name.  "And there I was drained," he said.  "Very thoroughly and carefully, to be at that point of almost full draining at which one becomes a vampire, before the complete emptiness at which one dies."  He shook his head, as the sound of her laughter echoed in his memory, her musical voice telling him, as he woke from human death to vampire life, that his only way out, now, was to kill himself.  "I was turned, Aramis," he said, lifting his upper lip to reveal his glimmering fangs.

Aramis took a step back, and crossed himself, palling as he did so.

"Yes, do cross yourself," Athos said.  "Pray for me, Aramis.  But give me mercy."

"Mercy?" Aramis asked, stunned, his normally agile tongue stumbling over itself.

"Death, Aramis, death.  While my soul is still unstained.  I'm controlling myself by an effort of will.  A... great effort of will.  I came to that office to avoid your and Porthos’s being suspected of abetting a rogue vampire and being branded as Judasgoats because it might be heard you... helped me to my lodgings last night and I have neither registered nor submitted to the Cardinal's authority –  I'd see him in hell first.  And people would think you knew.  You should have known.  Now kill me, and go back, and tell them that you found out I was turned after all.  And you killed me cleanly."

Aramis took a breath, the noise of it so loud it seemed to echo inside Athos’s brain.  He crossed himself again, but shook his head.

"Aramis," Porthos said.  "We are doing him no kindness.  He asked for death, when we found him yesterday.  We should have given it to him.  It's the last duty of every musketeer to his comrade to keep him from becoming..."
 
Athos looked up at Porthos, who was now far enough away that Athos didn't have to concentrate so hard to avoid to tearing into his veins to satiate his unnatural need.  From within his darkening heart and soul, Athos fished a word he wasn't used to uttering, and turning his eyes to his friend, said, "Please."

"Aramis," Porthos said, looking sideways, a panicked expression in his dark brown eyes.  "We must give him final mercy."

But Aramis shook his head again, and, looking up, spoke with the sting of his normally sarcastic pronouncements.  "Why tell me that, Porthos?  You have a sword.  You want to give him mercy, do it."

Porthos’s eyes changed, softening and becoming at the same time a sad mix of horror and fear.  "I can't," he said.  "I... I did it when I had to do it, Aramis.  To those I loved.  And until I came to Paris, I thought my heart was dead to all friendship and love.  Without your friendship – the friendship both of you offered me –  I'd have become worse than the vamp– the things we kill.  You two have kept me alive and human.  I could not....  I cannot kill him.  Any more than I could kill you.  Unless... unless I had to.  To defend myself."

"Well, then," Aramis said, tartly.  "Why do you think I could?"

Athos calculated his distance to his friends.  He could charge them.  He could grip one of them, maybe both.  He could feed.  Then they would kill him, and then–

His heart, straining at his chest, running on insufficient blood, made a noise that sounded like a drum in his ears.  His body, his mind, his need, all told him to attack.  But once he let himself go, he would no longer be able to control himself.  Once he let himself strike, he would be: a beast, intent only on getting what he needed.  And he knew how to fight.  And he had his sword by his side.

Closing his eyes, to blot out the two of them, standing there, like fools, side by side, he could picture it all like a series of paintings behind his closed eyelids.  He saw himself jumping out at them, stabbing Aramis through the heart and seizing Porthos...  Once he closed his fangs on Porthos’s neck, he doubted his friend would fight.  Or kill him.  Beneath the brazen and admittedly larger than life exterior, Porthos was a shy, gentle creature.  Not deficient in courage, but not able to withstand his friend's will.  It would end with Porthos dead, or turned.

Once Athos let go of his self control, this would follow, as easily as a river flowed down hill.  There would be no recall.  Oh, they could fight other vampires and win against great odds.  But he'd fought by their side for years.  He knew their weaknesses.  He could get in under their defenses.

"Traitors," A loud voice called out, to Athos’s right side.  "Traitors all!  You'd allow a vampire to live and call himself a musketeer."

Athos pivoted to face the voice, and saw a very young man running towards them.  Small and slight, he had the olive skin of Gascony, an expression of rage on his face, and his sword drawn.  By instinct, Athos drew his own sword, so that as the man came close enough to strike, he found Athos’s sword already raised in defense.
 
The vampire's reflexes were faster, of course, but the boy seemed to have been made of the skin of the devil himself.  He countered every one of Athos’s attacks, and attacked again, like fury incarnate.  And something in the back of Athos’s mind whispered, you should let him give you quietus.  It would end this and not stain your friends with your death.

But his mind raced ahead of the wishful voice.  If this boy killed him, he would denounce his friends as Judasgoats.  They would be branded and so banned from all lawful contact with humans.  Marriage contracts would no longer apply to them.  Even simple commerce with humans would be interdict.  Their only choice would be to deal with vampires and to serve them.  And if they lied, hid their disgrace from fellow men and were found out, they would be killed.  Aramis and Porthos would be at the very least dishonored and barred from free society.  And at the worst, dead.

"Athos," Aramis said, his voice full of anguish.  "He's just a boy.  What are you doing?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Athos asked.  "I'm fighting for all our lives.  I'd allow him to kill me, but I cannot allow him to condemn you as Judasgoats.  Do you see what you've done?"

As he spoke, he saw the expression of alarm and realization in the boy's eyes.  He also saw the boy's chin jut out in determination.  He was what?  From the incipient moustache on his upper lip and the still-childish roundness of his cheeks, he couldn't be more than nineteen, and Athos would guess closer to sixteen.  Full of righteousness and fury.  Doubtless come to the capital, full of innocent eagerness, to fight the evil of vampires.  And now he must end his life here, futilely, at the hands of Athos, who would truly be much better off dead.

"Halt, in the name of the Cardinal," a voice said, behind Athos.
            Athos, his sword raised, in the act of parrying the boy's sword, glanced quickly over his shoulder.  He could feel and smell and sense Porthos and Aramis, already, moving into position behind him, between him and the boy and the guards of the Cardinal.  He could smell the guards too – the heavy musk that spoke of vampire.  The smell he could now detect on his own clothes, though he knew the living could not.

The man who had spoken was Jussac, one of the most feared guards of the Cardinal.  He had his sword drawn and his fangs bared, and he spoke with an almost slurp, as if he were trying not to drool.  "What have we here?  A rogue vampire and a nice juicy pack of conniving abettors.  Better surrender yourselves, gentlemen.  You've more chance at living with our side."  Beside Jussac arrayed other vampires that Athos had met in combat and who had been good enough fighters to escape with their heads still attached to their shoulders: Bisarac and Cahusac, and two other, nameless adversaries.

"Surrender?" Aramis said.  "Never."

"Not while we live," Porthos said.

"And you?" Jussac said, looking directly at Athos.  "You at least must see it's in your interest to come with us."

Athos spun around.  The boy wasn't trying to fight him – he had gone utterly still, probably dazed by the presence of so many vampires, which had that effect on the living that hadn't become immunized by long habit – and anyway, he wasn't the kind to strike by stealth.  Glaring, Athos shook his head at Jussac.  "I am not one of yours," he said.  "I was not willingly turned."  Something very much like a giggle escaped him.  "I don't hate vampires less for being one."

Jussac leered at him, displaying his fangs.  "Is that so?  And you'd fight us?  When you're a fledgling of less than a night, and you have not fed yet?"

And Athos, thinking the greatest mercy possible would be for him to die here, and not at his friends' hands, though he felt as though he were teetering on his legs and staying up by sheer will power, sneered back, "I would fight you with my last ounce of strength."
 
"Oh, very well, then," Jussac said.  "If that is so.  But the stranger, the boy, there...  The Cardinal needs to at least keep the appearances of observing the pact, and I don't think that boy is of legal age to consent.  I don't think he's of a legal age to be away from his mother's apron.  You, the boy.  Scamper.  You're free to go back where you belong.  And stay away from dark alleys in Paris, even during the day.  That's our territory."

Athos heard the boy draw breath, sharply, as if wounded, and wondered what had brought it about – was it the mention of his mother?  Or the idea that he could not walk where he pleased?

And then breath was drawn again, and Athos heard the boy's heart speed up, and the faint rustle as he lowered his sword-holding arm.  Was he going to run?  Athos thought at the boy's age, he would have.  And as good as the boy was, how could he face these odds?  He'd survived one vampire, but only one vampire who was very weakened and who, in truth, didn't want to kill him.  The guards of the Cardinal would not have such compunctions.

A warm hand dropped on his shoulder, too hot even through the doublet and shirt.  "Sir?" the boy's voice said, hesitantly.

Athos turned around, shaking his shoulder, to flip the hand away.  "Yes," he said.  He wished the boy would no touch him, but preferred to endure the temptation of living contact than to show his weakness in front of the monsters.
 
The boy looked curiously shy, and all the younger because of that.  He was gazing down, his slick black hair half-hiding his face.  He looked up at Athos, at his word.  "Sir, I heard what you said, and if you hate vampires...  That is...  It would do me a great honor if you'd let me fight by your side."

"No," Athos said.  "Save yourself.  Do you see how many of them there are?  And they have been vampires for years.  They're faster and more cunning than any human being.  I know.   Even were I true vampire, I wouldn't be a match for them.  My friends and I will likely be killed here.  I don't have my strength.  It's only two musketeers and a lamed man against five."
            The boy shook his head, his face grave.  "No.  Two musketeers, a lamed man, and a boy against five," he said, and allowed a little smile to appear.

"You don't have to.  You're not a musketeer.  Go.  Fight another day."

The boy threw his head back, and looked up, and his face seemed to age years in moments.  "When my parents were turned and chose to stand in the sun and die, rather than to feed," he said, gravely, his voice cracking.  "I decided I would be a musketeer and fight vampires.  I might not be a musketeer yet, but in my heart, I am.  I must fight by your side."

Athos read the pride and the pain in the boy's face.  He thought of the moment when he, himself, had made the same decision.  He'd been twenty.  The boy looked much younger.  But  grief was the same at any age.  As was the courage.  "Very well, he said."  He turned to his other friends, who were listening in, and, though it cost him in self control, clasped their hands, drawing them together in his strong hand.  "Athos, Porthos, Aramis and... what is your name, my friend?"

"D'Artagnan."

"Very well, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, D'Artagnan, All for One– "

His friends answered, "And one for all."  And D'Artagnan smiled, clapping his hand atop of theirs.

"Well, how touching," Jussac said mockingly.  "Have you made a decision then?  Any chance of a surrender?"

"Oh, we've made a decision," Athos said and grinned, knowing it displayed his fangs.  "We're going to have the pleasure of charging you."



Clean Cutting


D'Artagnan felt as if his heart would burst out of his chest.  The beat deafened him.  His muscles clenched with the urgency to move, the need to strike.
 
Some part of him – some ignored part of him – murmured that he'd come to Paris to fight vampires.  And now he was fighting beside a vampire and the men abetting him.  That he was a traitor.  That he should kill the musketeer, Athos, and his friends.  But the other part – the other part knew, with absolute, unflinching certainty that he was doing what he should do.  He was fighting against Richelieu and his minions, the bloodsuckers that held Paris and France itself hostage.
 
His sword rose like a living thing, pulling his arm up with it, propelling his feet forward.  He charged at the dark vampire who'd called him a child.  The one who'd told him he should go back to his mother's apron.  His mother, by God.  The indefatigable, ever-working wife of a Gascon Lord, busy about her home and her garden.  His mother who would have protected D'Artagnan with her last breath.  Dead because of creatures like this one.

The vampire looked startled, but reacted fast.  Indeed, D'Artagnan had heard that they were faster than any human – striking like the coiled serpent that unwinds when one least expects.  As D'Artagnan charged -- an inchoate scream tearing through his throat -- the vampire unsheathed and parried, and grinned at D'Artagnan, flashing his shining fangs.

D'Artagnan was vaguely aware that the musketeers had engaged in the fight as well.  Porthos, the tall man who looked like a farmer – except that no farmer had ever worn such gold-spangled clothes, such brilliant, if false, jewels – took on the tall vampire, whom he called Biscarat.  They fought while exchanging insults, their voices booming over the group.

Aramis fought like a dancer: striking and parrying, flashing and charging everywhere at once.  He fought two vampires at one time and made it look easy.  His hair – shining dark gold in the dark alley, like the wheat crops France no longer had – flowed behind him as if it had been taught the choreography of this particular dance and knew how to obey it.

Athos – Athos called "Cahusac!" to a dark vampire and charged forward like a wounded tiger.  He fought, teeth clamped on his lower lip, as if every step hurt, as if every thrust and parry were hard won out of a great, unending desert of exhaustion.  Each of his spare and forceful movements, bore the feeling of a suppressed groan and a spasm of pain.

And D'Artagnan...  D'Artagnan was managing to parry – just barely.  The Gascon had almost no practice in dueling.  His father, a staid gentleman, Lord of a small manor, had neither the time nor the habit of picking private quarrels.  He had served in the war, and he had taught his son what he knew and guessed about fighting.  Mostly about fighting vampires since the war his father had fought in had been the first great war against vampires, coming like a tide from Germany.

 D'Artagnan knew – and bore in mind at all times, with startling clarity – that he fought at great disadvantage here.  The vampires could hit him anywhere at all, and there was a good chance he'd die, if not right then, and if not from the bleeding, then from the infection that would follow.  But he had to hit them either through the heart or cut their heads off.  Any other injury would be healed.  Laughed off.

He trembled at the thought, but even as he trembled, he parried and charged, aiming for the heart of the vampire, who laughed at him and danced lightly back.  "Ah, the boy fights by the book," he said, in a tone of great amusement.  "What is it boy?  Salvator Fabris' Art of Dueling?"  The vampire the others called Jussac stepped away from one of D'Artagnan's thrusts, and swept his sword back, with such force, that had D'Artagnan not ducked in time, he would have been beheaded, himself.

"My father had a copy of that," the vampire said.  "With hand colored illustrations."

"And did you suck your father's blood?" D'Artagnan answered, in fury, refusing to see the vampire as someone who could have had a father.  Someone who had once been a human infant and a human child.

The vampire's eyes sparkled, "No, nurseling.  He sucked mine and made me a vampire.  For which I thank him."

He expected, D'Artagnan thought, that D'Artagnan would be stunned by this intelligence that a father might turn his own son.  And for a moment, ridiculously, he was.  The moment almost cost him a sword thrust through his shoulder, before he brought his own sword up, lightening-fast, and parried.

"Ah, the reflexes of youth," the vampire said, grinning, showing feral teeth and sharp fangs.  "Think how much faster you'd be as a vampire."

"Think how much better you'd be as a human," D'Artagnan said, pressing forward.  It had been a mistake of Jussac's to mention Salvator Fabris.  D'Artagnan had in fact been following el signor Fabris's positions, set by set, place by place. The first guard and the second guard, and the extended fourth guard.  He'd been playing it by rote and by memory, as he had learned it from childhood.

But now he was alert.  He was incensed.  And he had remembered Frabris' one immutable rule, which was that if you were in a defensive position, you were already at a disadvantage.  The better chance belonged to him who attacked.
    
His ears ringing with fury at his own stupidity, with rage at the vampire who spoke to him as if he were a child freshly weaned, D'Artagnan attacked.  He attacked fast, madly.

What mattered if he died? He pressed forward, his sword diving under the guarding sword of the vampire, and incidentally, almost disdainfully pushing it aside in its thrust, so that he missed D'Artagnan altogether.

Vampires might be fast.  But their brains were still human.  Or somewhat human.  The vampire was surprised by D'Artagnan's sudden shift in tactics.  His sword went wide, pushed out of its path, and seemed to pull his arm with it.  It pulled him out of balance.  He stepped backwards, arm swinging back, to regain equilibrium

And D'Artagnan's sword found its target in his heart, piercing it through.  The vampire screamed, an ear splitting death-shriek.

D'Artagnan jumped back, letting go of his sword.  He had never before stabbed anyone through.  Not even a vampire.  The weight of the body and the scream undid him.  It lasted only a moment.  In the next moment, he forced himself forward and pulled the sword from the chest of the vampire, even as dark blood flowed as a tide over the creature's soaked clothes, pouring onto the cobbles of the street.
 
The dark blood smelled of corruption – like a corpse, long putrefact.  The stench filled D'Artagnan's mouth and nose, stung the back of his throat, and made D'Artagnan's bile rise, but he would not show it.  Instead, he reached for the vampire's dark cloak and wiped away his fouled sword, as he looked around at his comrades and their opponents.  According to the laws of duel, taught to him from a very early age, he knew he could lend assistance to whichever of the others needed it.

He looked first at Aramis, last seen fighting two opponents.  But one of Aramis’s opponents lay, beheaded, pouring out the same miasma of corruption onto the air as Jussac did.  And Porthos and Brissarac seemed to be evenly matched, with Porthos perhaps slightly the superior, despite the vampire-reflexes of his opponent.
             And then there was Athos.  D'Artagnan was not sure how he felt about Athos.  His father had told him, over and over, until the belief was as real to him as the creed recited every night before sleep:  Trust no vampire.  They might seem rational or even kind.  But their mind is a collective mind and tainted by the evil that fathered them.  They think like insects, like locusts.  Their hunger dominates all.
            Yet Athos had said that he didn't hate vampires less for being one.  And Athos was fighting vampires -- madly fighting -- fighting even though he looked distinctly unwell.  Fighting to keep the bloodsuckers at bay.

D'Artagnan looked over at the older musketeer.  Athos parried Cahusac's thrust, and faltered, his step failing.  Cahusac took advantage of it, thrusting at Athos.  Athos recovered in time, and leapt away, just enough that Cahusac's blade went through his arm, not his heart.

Athos pulled his arm back – free of the blade – and gritted his teeth.  There was no blood on the blade, and if any followed it out of the wound it had made, it didn't go past the sleeve and the doublet.  It dawned on D'Artagnan – thinking of that strangely smeared wound – that Athos would be nearly dry.  He couldn't have fed yet since being turned.  Whatever he was, whatever had been done to him, he was no more guilty than D'Artagnan's parents were.  He too had refused to drink living blood.

"To me, Monsieur Cahusac," D'Artagnan said, calling the vampire's attention.  And to the vampire's curled lip.  "What is it, monsieur blood sucker?  Are you afraid you cannot withstand a boy?"

Athos collapsed onto one knee, his head lowered, breathing hard.
            His strength had failed him.  No, not strength.  He could have none if he'd not fed.  Will power.  Athos must have been standing and fighting through will power alone, and that was the only thing that had kept him on his feet.

Turning his full attention to the combat, D'Artagnan parried Cahusac's thrust, and pressed close.  He remembered the lesson he'd learned while fighting Jussac and attacked, keeping the vampire off his balance.  Cahusac, on the defensive, didn't seem able to fully employ the vampires' speed of reaction against D'Artagnan.  And then, as the death scream of Aramis’s opponent echoed, closely followed by Porthos’s, D'Artagnan could see the sting of fear in the vampire's eyes.  All his comrades lay dead.  He alone stood.

It was almost worthy of admiration that he didn't run.  Even when he was the last of his kind against all of them.

But his form went to pieces, his parrying became irregular until D'Artagnan had him backed against a wall.  He would have finished him then, only Athos called from behind, in a voice that had more breath than words, "Don't.  Please.  Let me finish what I started."

A look over his shoulder showed D'Artagnan that Athos was back on his feet, and he stepped out of the way, as Athos charged Cahusac who attempted to charge him. They met halfway, their swords clashing.  But Athos fought like a man possessed, and his sword swept in a broad arc, detaching Cahusac's head from his shoulders, even as Athos, all strength gone, collapsed on both knees and sucked in air like a drowning man.  The sound of his knees hitting the hard ground of the alley seemed to resound, reinforcing the impression that the man was more sinew than muscles, more bone than either.

D'Artagnan found himself running to help him up, at the same time that Porthos ran from the other side, and set a massive hand beneath Athos’s elbow.  Athos shook his arm free of it.  "Don't," he said.  "Don't."  He looked at D'Artagnan, his gaze half-forbidding, half-pleading.  "Don't touch me.  I'm having enough trouble controlling... don't."

Porthos opened his mouth, as if to ask what Athos had trouble controlling, but Aramis was at Porthos’s other side, pulling at his sleeve, whispering urgently to him.  D'Artagnan had no need of such explanations.  He knew very well what Athos feared.  Losing control over the hunger that must be twisting and biting within him, like a worm eating him from the inside out.

He stepped back, looking at this man that was almost like a golden statue, and yet – and yet, unbearably frail within his strength, defenseless from the beast that had invaded his very being and turned all his power to weakness.

Athos took a breath like a drowning man who crests a wave and who does not know when he will again be able to taste air.  He shook with it, as if the air – tainted as it was with the miasma of dying vampires – carried some needed, vital component that would keep him alive.

"We need to go," Aramis whispered urgently.  "Athos, they will have sensed their comrades dying.  Soon they will be on us.  Every vampire who can get here without going out in the sun."  He looked around, his eyes haunted.  "In these alleys there could be hundreds of them."

Athos nodded, acknowledging Aramis’s words but not showing any response to the emotion beneath them.  As though he understood the danger but not the panic.  He put a hand on his own knee and braced himself into rising.  Porthos retrieved the sword that Athos had let fall, and cleaned it on a dead vampire's tunic, before handing it to Athos who received it and sheathed it solemnly.

"The question is," Porthos said, gravely.  "What do we do now?"
 
Athos looked at the giant.  "You mean, surely, what do I do now?  Or what you do about me now?"
 
Porthos shrugged.  "I mean," he said, his voice resonant, even though he was speaking at a normal volume.  "I mean, what do we do now?  All of us?"

"We get out of here," Aramis said, managing to hem Athos between his hands, one hand not quite touching his back, one not quite touching his arm.  Athos – whose body temperature as a vampire would, of course, be lower, would feel the warmth of those hands, but Aramis was not touching him.  Just... using his hands as brackets, within which to herd Athos forward and away from that alley.  "We get out of here very fast.  D'Artagnan might not know this, but the two of you have fought enough vampires to realize that at this very moment the feeling and knowledge of their comrades' death is flowing through their brains.  That the Cardinal himself, in his day-sleep, in his coffin, will know that some of his favorites have been killed.  He was not a forgiving man when he was human, and he's even less tolerant now.  We must move.  Fast.  Away from here."

Without touching Athos, without yelling at Porthos, whose face had wrinkled in a frown of concern, without saying anything to D'Artagnan, Aramis managed to force them to walk down the alley, and down again, turning twice, into alleys where there was more daylight, even if not the amount of daylight that would burn Athos.  Just enough to make vampires uncomfortable.  Enough that other vampires wouldn't think that Athos had gone that way.  "Go, go," Aramis said.  "Athos, I believe from this network of alleys we can reach the rue Ferou very close to your house, without requiring you to walk in the sunlight until then."

“But... my house...” Athos said.  “The Cardinal will know–”

“Does not matter.  His guards can’t dash from alley to open door.  They will not risk having to stand in the full sun and knock.  They, no more than you, can stand still in full sunlight.”

Athos turned.  He'd been stumbling ahead, as he walked, his expression half-dazed, as if he were sleepy or drunk.  Now he faced Aramis with a calm gaze, his arms held down, his hands open, palms towards Aramis, "Wouldn't that perhaps be the best?"

"To get you home without burning you to ashes?" Aramis asked, his voice heavily tinged with something that might be dark humor.  "I believe so.  It will be very hard indeed to explain to Grimaud that we let you be burnt to nothing."

"Grimaud!  Do you think he'll like serving a vampire?"

"No.  I think he will like going on serving you, though.  He's spent most of his life serving you.  I don't think he now wishes for your death, even if you sorely abused his mutton."

The humor seemed to confuse Athos, who shook his head.  "But you must agree," he said.  "You know that I cannot possibly be... That I am dead already.  I am no longer one of you.  I am one of them, one of those creatures out there, in the alley, and they–"

"You are not," the voice, tinged with a Gascon accent, was so decisive that D'Artagnan thought in confusion that he didn't know either Athos or Porthos could possibly speak with a Gascon accent.  And then his mouth forged ahead, and he realized it was himself speaking.  "You are not one of them.  You said back there, that you would not hate vampires the less for being turned.  And you don't."

Athos looked at him, as surprised as D'Artagnan himself felt at his own words.  "But–" he started.

"There are no buts in this," D'Artagnan said.  "I would not have fought by a true vampire’s side.  Not ever.  I know what I owe my father's memory."

It looked, for just a moment, as though Athos would dispute this, but then his eyelids lifted more, and he shook his head minimally.  "But what do I do?" he asked, in near anguish.

All the time, in front of them, as they advanced, he retreated, step by step, his back turned in the direction he was walking, as he stared at them.  It was, D'Artagnan thought, as though they were pushing him forward against his will, pushing him, like a hunter will push his prey off a cliff.
 
 "What do I do?" he asked again.  "Very easy for you to say I'm not a vampire, that I am not dead."  He looked accusingly at D'Artagnan.  "But my body is one of theirs.  I can no longer eat what... what you eat.  I tried.  Even water tastes stagnant and poisonous to me.  And food..."  He shrugged, and shook his head.  "My body won't retain it, much less derive nourishment from it.  What can I do?  I can't live without eating.  Or rather, I can, because being a vampire, this life I have is already not life.  But I can't go on with my hunger increasing every second.  No.  I would rather die, and die now, than become ... than attack one of you, or Grimaud, or some other innocent."

"You won't," Aramis said.  He seemed very assured.  "You will not. There are things you can take in.  Yes, water will taste foul.  As will other liquids not blood, but you will retain most clear liquids.  And you will derive some nourishment from them."

Athos narrowed his eyes.  "Will it be enough?"

"To live?  Probably.  Though people eventually succumb to the desire for blood, usually."

"Usually?" Athos asked, sounding lost and baffled.

"Other people.  People who are not Athos," Aramis said.  "That is to say the majority of them."  Only a slight smile indicated that he was being facetious, not as confused as Athos sounded.  "Stop, my friend."

This last because Athos had been about to walk, backwards, into the full noonday sun of the rue Ferou, where buildings were further enough apart for the sun to shine all the way down to the cobblestones.  Athos cast a look at it, over his shoulder, and jumped back as if he'd come too close to an open flame.

"I can't–" he said.

Aramis took his finger to his lips, asking for silence, as he walked past Athos.

"But... it is midday.  It was dimmer light, when I went and now–"

Aramis came back, "It is but three doors," he said.  "To your own.  What did you do before?"  He reached for Athos’s arms,  to pull his sleeves down. 

Athos shook his head.  "No.  I'll do it."  He pulled the lace cuffs down forcefully, so the heavy ruffle hid  his hands, and, momentarily lifting his hat, lowered his head, so the mass of his hair surged forward, obscuring his face.

Aramis nodded.  "You, Porthos," he said.  "Go and knock at the door.  And make sure Grimaud is in and opens it.  Then come back and tell us.  Tell him to hold the door open in readiness, and make sure the shutters are up or the curtains closed in the rooms we'll enter."

Porthos was gone what seemed like an eternity.  And yet, D'Artagnan knew that on the street beyond the alley only a couple of people had passed.  It could not have been more than a few minutes, before the huge musketeer came back to the entrance to the alley and nodded.

Aramis herded Athos forward, while D'Artagnan followed.  The house they entered was one of the typical lodgings single gentlemen in Paris occupied.  At least noble single gentlemen.  It took up the second floor over an establishment that appeared to house a drapers – D'Artagnan didn't linger to ascertain the nature of the business, but there were bolts of cloth in front of a shop.  The door beside it led to steep – and darkened – stairs that climbed upwards into deeper dark.

Aramis closed the door behind them and bolted it, while the rest of them started up the polished wooden stairs, which ended in a large landing.  The place smelled of decay and cleanliness, as if great age and scrupulous care mingled here.  From this landing, where three candles burned on candlesticks set upon a low table, three doors opened and a smaller staircase lead upwards.

Athos paused, to pull back his hair, revealing a face that, in the light of the candles, more than ever resembled white marble.  He ignored the one closed door, and the other, which opened into a hallway that lead somewhere, well at the back of the house.

A man who looked somewhere between middle and old age, stood there.  He was built as solidly as Porthos, but in proportion to a considerably shorter frame.  He had hair between russet and white and a face that would normally be grave but was marked now by lines of concern.  "Milord," he said to Athos, and then, as though recalling himself and that his master was incognito in the capital – at least if the stories D'Artagnan had heard were true.  "Monsieur."

Athos inclined his head, then turned slightly, so he could see both D'Artagnan and his servant, "Dear Grimaud," he said, his voice sounding better-bred and softer than before.  "I wish to make known to you Monsieur D'Artagnan, newly arrived from Gascony.  I owe him my life today, so if you prize it, you will from now on consider Monsieur D'Artagnan as an intimate of this house and perform any little services you might for him."

"No, pray," D'Artagnan heard himself saying.  "You did not... That is, I did not save your life at all.  It was only–"

"He braved the terrible Cahusac for me," Athos said.  "And so tired him out that I had an easy time dispatching him."

The servant raised his eyebrows, then bowed to D'Artagnan, and, turning to Athos said, "Yes, monsieur."  But his eyes lingered with concern on his master's pale face.  He seemed to want to ask something but said nothing, as Athos gestured and said, seemingly for D'Artagnan's benefit, as if he expected him, indeed, to frequent the house often in the future.  "Upstairs are Grimaud's quarters.  That hallway leads to the back, where we have the pantry, and a kitchen and the use of a small garden on the bottom floor.  If you should arrive at almost any hour of the day, it is best to come through the garden, and knock on the kitchen door, as Grimaud spends an untold amount of his time there."  He turned towards the doorway where his servant stood, as Grimaud stepped aside to allow him through.  "And these are my quarters proper," he said, as he led them through the doorway into a small parlor outfitted with several chairs, a couple of small tables piled with books, several of them with papers and ribbons inserted amid the pages.

Against the window, across which heavy curtains had been drawn, stood a small writing desk, on which one might compose a quick letter while standing up.  On this desk sat a candlestick with a candle.  Other candles sat on the broad mantel of the fireplace opposite, their light reflected from a gilded mirror, whose frame looked too splendid for the room.

Athos walked, as if by long habit, to the back wall of the room, against which sat a chair  more solid than the others.  It looked old and prized.  As he sat down, it was hard not to notice that the portrait which hung on the wall just above and to the left of his chair represented a gentleman that, though wearing the attire of the time of Francis I, looked almost exactly like Athos himself.  To the other side hung a magnificent sword of about the same period.  Lighter and thinner than today’s blades, it looked graceful and frail, like a toy.  It would be a thrusting and stabbing sword, not a slicing implement.  You’d be able to use it to stab a vampire through the heart – at least if the vampire wore no shielding – but there would be no hope of beheading the undead.

In the fifty years since the vamps had been in France, in the hundred years since they’d been awake in the world, armorers had learned to make metal stronger, the swords just a little broader, with sharp edges, so that they could pierce and slice, pierce and slice even through shielding.

Athos’s graceful ancestral sword looked as beautiful and as unreal as stories of a world without vampires.

Seated between them, D'Artagnan thought, Athos looked not so much like the scion of an old and respected line, as like the statue of such a scion, sculpted in pale stone, and as incapable of life or animation.  An immense tiredness had settled on the musketeer's features.  He removed his hat, almost reverently, and set it atop a small table to his right.   He lowered his face to his hands which met it halfway and covered it.

"Sangre Dieu," he moaned.  "What am I to do?  How can I endure this?"

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