The cold, violent river rushed over the rocks beneath and along the banks, dragging along with it a man as he struggled to fight against the currents, desperately seeking for any chance of survival. Just when he thought death was upon him, Aramis reached out one last time and suddenly managed to grab a hold of the stem of a tree that had fallen out over the water, appearing to have been struck by lightning and split some time ago.
Aramis no longer had any strength in his left arm, so he struggled as he carefully and painfully inched his way along the tree with his one good arm in order to make it back to the shore. It took time, but eventually he finally managed to pull himself out onto the bank and then collapsed hard onto the ground as he fought to breathe in between coughing up water, having swallowed much of it while being thrashed around within it.
Once he got his breathing mostly under control, Aramis painfully rolled over onto his back and looked up into the sky through blurry eyes, knowing that in any minute he was going to close his eyes quite possibly for the last time. As he continued staring above, he weakly reached down to his neck, lifted the gold cross that still hung there, and kissed it, while rasping out a brief prayer until his eyes fell closed, his arm fell to his side, and then his consciousness escaped him, his last thoughts being of his friends and of Anne.
The sun grew hotter now that the rain had finally cleared and as the day wore on, the few surviving bandits who had made it through their assault against the musketeers continued riding away from them until they came to a sudden stop as they heard noise coming from somewhere near the river through the trees. Each of the men dismounted, then slowly approached, and when they cleared the trees, the bandits were surprised to discover one of the musketeers wounded badly as he was lying on the ground unconscious, his legs still immersed within the water.
One of the men slowly approached his enemy and leaned over him as he said smugly, "This musketeer is amazingly still alive, even after I shot him up on that cliff."
Another of the Cardinal's guards looked over at the man put in charge of their task as he asked, "Why can't we just leave him here to die? His wound is deep. Surely his friends won't be able to find him in time to save him."
"Because, you all heard the Captain," their leader answered coldly. "Count Rochefort wants this man to live so he can suffer and then we're to kill him in front of the others once they do arrive and try to rescue their friend."
"Aramis killed one of us during that fight!" the guard that had taken the shot that caused this shouted angrily as she stood up upon examining hm. "I may have been aiming for his friend, but I am glad I shot him instead. There are only four of us left and you saw how the other musketeers fought. We were no match for them with a small army of bandits and killers fighting alongside us. We're certainly no match against them now. Not after this!"
The leader suddenly shot the man arguing with him and when he fell to the ground dead, the soldier responded, "There are actually only three of us left."
He continued speaking to the rest of the men in his charge saying, "Don't worry, we won't be alone for long. The criminals who survived the fight headed off in the direction of the village just outside of this God forsaken forest, which is where we will head as well. Remember, we are still bandits and will be until our job is done. Bandage this musketeer's wound and then carefully lay him upon the back of a horse and tie him down so we can bring him with us as planned. We haven't failed Count de Rochefort after all. Do you understand?"
"Yes Sir, Cap… we understand," one of the men replied, almost forgetting that the man in charge was no longer their captain, then together the three slowly did as was asked of them.
Athos, Porthos, and d'Artagnan were wearily riding along the river in silence as Athos ordered just after they watched their friend fall, all still hanging on to the hope that Aramis was still alive. However, hours passed by, and yet they were still no closer to finding anything that would lead them to him.
Night was approaching and the musketeers' hope was slowly fading, until d'Artagnan suddenly noticed the broken tree reaching out over the water, then a large imprint in the mud at the water's edge and swiftly stopped his horse as he ran over, followed quickly by the others, who noticed the imprint as well, then knelt down to get a better look.
"He made it out of the river here," Athos said, trying to sound hopeful. "Thank God he's still alive."
Porthos quickly answered, "Yes, but where is he? Surely he couldn't have gotten very far with a gunshot wound, especially after having to survive this blasted river too."
D'Artagnan looked around and found more footprints among other markings surrounding the area and then he responded, "It looks like he was dragged off, somewhere heading north. Men on horseback already came through here."
"Our bandits came this way too," Athos replied as he looked down again when what little sunlight remained shined down on something glimmering in the mud, catching his eye, then he slowly reached down to pick it up. "Aramis' cross given to him by Queen Anne. The chain is broken. They must have pulled it off from around his neck before they took him."
"What's going on here, Athos?" Porthos asked angrily as he punched his fist against what was left of the broken tree, his fear for his best friend only intensifying, knowing that Aramis was in worse danger and now completely helpless to defend himself. "First, they attack us up on the cliff and then they kidnap Aramis when they find him wounded? Something doesn't feel right."
D'Artagnan nodded and then said, "I agree with Porthos. Any normal bandits would have either left him to die or would have finished him off, then take off again. Why take him?"
Athos walked over and stood in front of Porthos as he carefully worked to wrap a piece of cloth from his satchel around his friend's now bloodied hand and then spoke up again saying, "It appears they plan to use him as bait to draw us to them. Whoever these men are, they know that we'll come for him. If it's all of us they're after, then we will give them what they want."