Hey guys! Guess who's back! Sorry for the wait, hope you haven't forgotten about Claude completely! I'll be trying to update as often as possible, but as you might have guessed, life is busy, and gets in the way, so please be patient.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy it, and that it was worth the wait!
Chapter 6 - The château in the woods
The road was uneven, holes pock marking its surface and great big clods of muddy earth. Every time the cart's wheels dipped into or bumped over a rut it sent a sickening jolt through Claude's pounding head. The noon-day sun was bright, too bright in fact, causing her to screw up her eyes against the glare as she kneaded her forehead. Curse this blasted head ache, and curse the drink!
"Suffering there lass," The old man broke his steady silence. "Had a bit too much to drink last night did we?"
Claude considered not answering for a second. "How can you tell," She replied dryly.
"I've nursed a few headaches in my time," He gave a small chuckle. "And you smell like you slept in a brewery,"
Claude absently sniffed the sleeve of her jerkin, wrinkling her nose in disgust. The smell of stale wine made her stomach flip.
"Well it'll be the last drink I have," she muttered, but the old man only laughed again.
"That's what we all say the morning after. Until the next one," He paused for a moment, the rattle of the cart wheels and solid thuds of the horses hooves the only noise breaking the silence once more. "I do wonder though, what could have driven a young woman to drink so wildly and run so swiftly?"
Did she dare tell him anything? He seemed kind enough, but what if he was a bit of a gossip? Before she could reply however, the old man had decided to guess. Maybe it was more entertaining for him that way.
"There wouldn't be a young lad involved would there?" He gave her a knowing smile.
"It's more complicated than that,"
"But it's a yes!" He gave a roar of laughter, rocking back in his seat. "See, nothing gets past old Maurice! I've been around long enough to spot a broken heart when I see one-"
"I don't have a broken heart," Claude bit back, perhaps a tad too sharply.
Maurice gave a snort. "No? Then tell me lass, what ails you?"
"I just-" Claude gave a sigh, shaking her head. "It's complicated," She repeated.
"Don't want to talk about it? That's fine. Sometimes talking helps though," He lapsed back into a comfortable silence.
Claude ran her tongue over her teeth, her mouth feeling thick and dry. The last thing she felt like doing was discussing her life story with a random old man. In fact, the one thing she wanted most was to curl up in her warm, soft bed, listen to the deep rumble of the men talking outside, the sound of sword on sword as they practiced, a familiar, comforting mix of sounds to lull her to sleep. But it was too late for that now. She'd made her choice.
They traveled in silence once more until the road swept down to the west in a gentle curve, the trees on either side beginning to thin until houses started to come into view; small cottages, some looking a little worse for ware. There were people too, and the distant sound of hammering. Maurice clicked his tongue, pulling on the reigns, and the cart came to a gentle stop, his horse giving a snort of hot air.
"This is where you live?" Claude asked, eyeing the village square warily. A few of the inhabitants looked her way curiously, but they continued with their work, their backs bent, a defeated air to them. Many of them wore scabby clothing, the village having a general downtrodden air to it. Not a pleasant place to stay, by any means.
"No no, my farm is a few miles out of the village. I noticed Malory's been walking funny. Need to visit the blacksmith before she ends up lame," It took Claude a few seconds to realise that he meant the horse, and by that point, he'd clambered down from the cart, and started to unhitch her. Looking to repay his kindness, Claude clambered down after him, and approached the horse.
Malory was a deep chestnut colour, with big, dark black eyes that watched the young woman warily as she approached. The horse gave a nervous snort, her ears flicking back. Claude made a comforting sound, slowly reaching a hand out, and leaving it there for a few seconds. With another huff of breath, the animal gave a short stamp of the front hoof, but calmed slightly. The girl took that as a good sign, reaching forward to give the beast a reassuring clap before starting to unhitch the cart at her side.
"Well I'll be!" Maurice chuckled. "She's usually not that good with strangers! Got a way with horses do you?"
"I wouldn't say so," Claude shook her head. "But I work- I mean I worked in the stables. Got used to calming the more nervous beasts,"
They led Malory across the square, past a well in the centre, and into the double doorways of one of the largest buildings there. The smell of hot metal reached Claude's nose, and the sound of hammering was much louder now. A large burly man looked up as they entered, putting down his hammer and wiping his hands on the thick apron he wore. His hair was a mass of brown curls, matched by the tight beard on his chin, which a friendly smile shone through.
"Maurice," He greeted. "How have you been?"
"Ahh not bad, not bad. How's business? Settled in yet?"
"Can't complain. There's a lot needing fixed around these parts. Just a shame no one seems to have the money to pay for it. Your last blacksmith kept a good forge though, it's not been too difficult getting it running again,"
"Good to hear," The old man gave a gap toothed grin. "Now if only the Comté would come back and fix up the rest of the place,"
The blacksmith gave a guffaw of laughter. "Not likely, from what I hear. Now old man, what can I do for you? She needing shod?"
"That's what I'm thinking," Maurice handed the reigns over. "Been limping the last few miles or so. I can pay you in full now,"
Those words were enough for the blacksmith to start right away, gently lifting Malory's front hooves, checking for damage. He seemed to find what he was looking for, and strode over to the forge to collect his tools.
"Who's this then?" He nodded towards Claude, and she found herself folding her arms across her chest, looking down at her feet. The last thing she wanted to do was draw attention to herself, and there was something in his voice that made her nervous, a carefully guarded curiosity. Before she could speak, Maurice was answering for her, and it wasn't an answer she expected.
"One of my wife's nieces. Bit of a wild one, her mother's hoping a trip to the country will calm her down a bit,"
Claude gulped, frowning over at the old man. He turned, giving her a quick but meaningful look.
"Hah, good luck," The blacksmith chuckled. He was silent for a second, but when he spoke again, his voice had the same tone to it, as if feigning disinterest. "I only ask because I had a couple of lads in earlier. Said they were looking for a young woman, dressed in men's clothing. A criminal or something,"
Claude's blood ran cold. She fought to keep her face neutral, but it felt like her heart was going to race up her throat and out of her mouth. The men were here, and they were looking for her. Suddenly the village didn't seem safe at all, and all she wanted to do was run, get as far away as possible. This blacksmith was in need of money, he was never going to keep his mouth shut. Maurice was talking again and she forced herself to listen.
"Well not this one," He gave a small laugh. "Better not be anyway, her mother would kill me,"
"Hmm," The blacksmith was silent until he finished the job, only giving a small nod of thanks when Maurice handed the coins over, a thin, forced smile on his face. Claude could feel his eyes on her back as they left, in fact, it felt like there were eyes everywhere, the village square now horribly exposed. Her hands shook as she helped to hitch the cart once more, and she was glad of Maurice's silence, which he didn't break until they were on the road again.
"I reckon you're in a bit of trouble. Am I right?"
Claude hesitated. "You might be. Thanks for covering for me,"
"You seem like a nice lass. Wouldn't be fair to throw you to the lions without even knowing you," He tutted. "What have you gotten yourself into,"
"I pissed off the wrong man," She muttered bitterly under her breath, ignoring the disapproving look she got for swearing. "He doesn't like loose ends,"
"Is this your young man? The one who's broken your heart?"
"He hasn't broken my heart!" Claude spluttered indignantly. "And no! It's someone completely different!"
Maurice gave a snort. "You were right, is complicated. We got a problem now though lass,"
The young woman looked across the cart at him, heart sinking. "They know where I am? That I'm with you?"
They lapsed into silence, and Claude watched the scenery go by, thinking. She couldn't stay with Maurice, it would only put the old man, and presumably his wife, in danger. She needed a place to go, somewhere to lay low for a while. Where though, was the question.
The land had opened up past the village, a vast swath of green that swept over as far as the eye could see, reaching up to a small hill. There was a lone tree sitting there, swaying in the breeze, the scent of summer on the air. Perhaps the answer lay in that direction, off the road, and into the countryside of France. Making a split second decision, Claude gently started to swing her legs out of the cart.
"Where do you think you're going?!" Maurice exclaimed, reigning in Malory, who gave an affronted whiny at the sudden stop.
"I need to leave. Now. It's not safe for either of us,"
"And where are you going to go?"
Claude shrugged, before jumping down to the muddy road with a thud. "I suppose I'll find out when I get there. Thanks for your help Maurice. I can't tell you how much,"
The old man bowed his head solemnly. "Stay safe lass. Things'll come out right in the end, you'll see," He flicked the reigns, clicking his tongue, and with a wave, the cart drew off.
Claude watched it go for a few moments. "I hope so," She muttered to herself, before checking over her shoulder nervously, and breaking into a run, off the road, and up the grassy slope before her.
They were saddling the horses when Treville found them, making ready to start the pursuit. The Captain took once look at them, his brow immediately furrowing disapprovingly.
"What are you doing? Where's Athos?"
The musketeers exchanged uncomfortable glances, before Porthos finally decided to speak up. "Claude's left Paris. He went after her,"
"Then I'm sure Athos is perfectly capable of sorting out his own private life. He doesn't need all three of you to help him. I have work for you,"
"Well I'm sure he is Captain, but-" Aramis looked around them conspiratorially, taking a step closer, and lowering his voice. "Claude's already had an attempt on her life this week, and there have been men following her every move. We think someone may be trying to silence her. Dalvaux's benefactor. The most powerful man in Paris," He lifted his eyebrows, hinting.
Treville sighed. "Why is it never easy where that girl is concerned," He shook his head, clearly coming to an uncomfortable decision. "I'm sorry, but I need you to complete your work. As you well know, the Queen is making her annual pilgrimage to the springs next week. Scout ahead and secure the route. You have five days, then I want you back here to report,"
"Five days?" D'Artagnan asked incredulously. "That's more than enough time for a simple scouting mission, we-"
Porthos gave him a quick elbow to the ribs, producing a grunt from the young musketeers lips, but successfully shutting him up.
"We'll leave straight away then Captain,"
Treville gave them a grim nod, before leaving them to finish saddling the horses. A look of comprehension dawned on D'artagnan's face.
"He just gave us an excuse didn't he?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Aramis returned innocently.
Claude had paused at the brow of the hill, taking in the view before her, chest rising and falling as she gathered her breath once more. The land sweep down in a gentle slope to a light forest, the roof of a building clearly visible through the trees. The long grass rustled in a gentle susurration as it bent against the wind. She reached to her neck, giving a small wince as she pulled the scarf away, before tugging the string from her hair, and letting it free to blow in the breeze. For the first time a weeks, Claude gave a contented sigh. She hadn't felt as free as this in years.
Her attention turned to the tree beside her, an old soul that's branches reached up to the clear blue sky above. It was thick with a deep, green, summer foliage, that sent dancing shadows across her face. The thickest branch, she noticed had an oddly worn line around it, as if something had worn the bark away completely. Odd. But there were more interesting things to look at. AStuffing her scarf in her pocket, Claude started the descent towards the forest.
When she reached the cool shadow of the trees, she realised that the land dipped suddenly, an embankment before her that led to a leaf strewn road. It ran straight in both directions into the woods, and she carefully looked both ways before stumbling down the slope, and onto the muddy road. The recent rainfall had left large, thick puddles across the surface that she had to jump over to reach the dryer land. The building had appeared to be to the south, so she set off along the track in the general direction, hoping that it wouldn't be too far. Her guess rewarded her, and before long, the sight of stone walls greeted her through the trees.
But as she emerge into the clearing, it became obvious that the house, no the château, for it was a grand structure, was no longer in use. In fact, it was a complete ruin, a burnt out shell. Still, its skeletal appearance did not detract from the fact that it was the largest house Claude had ever seen, save for the palace. She found herself, mouth gaping, eyes wide, staring at the structure in front of her in a mixture of shock and admiration, slowly approaching its front door. What had happened to leave it in such a ruin? And who had lived here? Surely the owner had to have been as grand as the house?
Claude had to stop her self rushing over to explore. Who knows who could be creeping around here? Instead, with a surprising amount of self control, she tip toed up to the door, checking over her shoulder. The smell of burning still lingered in the air, causing her to shiver with a thrill of anxiety. But this was a far cry from the tiny cottage on the outskirts of Paris.
The door was half off its hinges, and had been made of thick, strong oak. She squeezed inside, careful not to knock the perilously hanging remaining wood, and looked around at the room she found herself in, a grin of pleasure slowly spreading across her face. A grand staircase wound up to the higher floors, ornately carved out of solid stone. Charcoaled wooden beams blocked the entrance to the rooms to her right, but the doorway to her left was clear. After a moments hesitation at the bottom of the stairs, she decided to stay on the ground floor for now, tip-toeing through the doorway into a long, high ceilinged room beyond. The remains of a blackened dining table, which was so large it could have easily sat thirty people, lay crumbling on the ground. Framed paintings lay smashed on the floor, the subjects of which long reduced to cinders. Another doorway at the edge of the room lead to a long, darkened corridor, wide flagstoned floors echoing her footsteps as she crept along. Light seemed to be pooling at the end of it however, and she finally found the source; The kitchens lay beyond, and were mainly intact.
In fact there was more to it than that. Fresh vegetables lay on the old, thick wooden table, herbs and game hanging from the rafters. The walls had little smoke damage, and still showed the thick terracotta plaster that covered them, a crucifix propped up against the one on the far-side. Clothes had been chucked over one of the kitchen stools, and the curtains were tied back, letting a stream of light in to illuminate the floating moats of dust. Someone was living here.
Claude's stomach rumbled hungrily as she spied the food on the table, and noticed a handful of green, crisp looking apples. Surely one wouldn't be missed? Looking around to check that no one was watching, she quickly snatched one up. The first bite she savored, enjoying the cool, refreshing taste of the fruit, before beginning to swiftly devour the rest of the apple.
She was wiping the line of apple juice from her mouth when she heard it. The sound of horses hooves on the earth outside. Claude froze for a second, her hand still at her mouth before scrambling to the back door, pulling the scarf from her pocket and quickly wrapping it around her throat.
The horse had stopped by the sound of it, and there was a thud as the rider dismounted, nearby. She looked around desperately for something to defend herself with, anything, her eyes falling on a large iron pot on the table. The young woman crept over, grabbing it swiftly, before returning to her position at the door, pressing herself against the frame. Her ears strained to hear any noise of footsteps through the sound of her own thundering heart, which felt like it was beating in her throat. A crunch of feet betrayed their position, and her worst fears were confirmed. The rider was coming her way.
Claude waited until the very last second, raising pot above her head, before swinging it down with a cry, her eyes screwed tight shut, hoping to feel an impact, hear someone knocked backwards. But the pot stopped suddenly with a dull clang, before being violently wrenched from her grasp, sending her stumbling backwards into the room, the loud ring of metal clattering against the stone floor. Her feet became tangled together, and she tripped, hitting the ground hard with a jarring thud that ran up her right arm. The air rung with the sound of a sword being drawn from the scabbard, and Claude brought her numb arm up over her face, cowering, awaiting the blow that was sure to follow. But instead there was silence. Silence, and then a voice that she hadn't expected to here again.
"Claude?" Athos asked, his voice uneven.
The girl slowly lowered her arm. How...it couldn't be...why was he? She reached up and brushed the hair from her eyes, and there he was, standing in the doorway, light pooling in around him. His sword was still pointing at her chest, unwavering, even in his shock.
"Why- why are here?" She asked, her voice coming out barely louder than a whisper.
"Trying to find you,"
Claude opened her mouth, but found herself completely lacking a reply. He'd come after her? She pushed herself upright until she was sitting. The blade was still uncomfortably close to her rising breast, and she eyed it warily. Athos seemed suddenly aware of her discomfort, sheathing his blade quickly, before reaching down to take her arm, helping her to her feet. "My apologies, you took me by surprise,"
"I wasn't expecting it to be you coming through that door," Claude muttered a reply. "Not that my choice of weapon would have helped apparently," She finally looked up, meeting his eyes for the first time, surprised by the sudden onslaught of emotion that appeared there. She couldn't read his features, but the grip that he still had on her arm was tight, desperate. Athos gave a small, sharp exhale of breath, before suddenly letting her arm go, and stepping back. When he finally broke his silence, it was through gritted teeth.
"You left without saying farewell? Why?"
"I don't much like goodbyes," Claude replied quietly, leaning against the wooden table. "Seemed easier just to disappear. For everyone involved,"
"Not everyone," He muttered quietly.
The sound of his horse whinnying floated through the crumbling doorway, and the musketeer took a step back, peering carefully around the frame. His back was tense, hand hovering over the butt of his pistol as he scanned the horizon, eyes, narrowed.
"We shouldn't stay here," He told her. "I spotted men on the road, heading in this direction. And I'm not too eager to find out what they're looking for,"
"Men?! How many?" Claude spluttered. More of them? So soon?
"At least three, maybe four. Judging by the route they were taking, they originated in Paris,"
So it must have been them. Claude raised a shaky hand rubbing at her face, distracted. They had followed her all the way here. How far did she have to go before the Cardinal deemed her no longer a threat? It seemed she was destined to be the play thing of one tyrant or another. First Dalvaux, now the most powerful man in France himself. Suddenly, escaping to the countryside didn't seem far enough. Perhaps England, Spain. Claude looked up to find the musketeer watching her carefully, feeling a flicker of doubt in her stomach. A whole new country did seem awfully drastic.
"Come," He nodded out of the doorway. "We must talk Claude. But away from this place. I'd rather not dwell here any longer than necessary,"
It was then that Claude realised that the musketeer's air of unease went deeper than watching out for would be attackers. His eyes flickered around the ruined kitchen, as if searching for ghosts, and his face was gaunt, drawn, as if in some kind of pain. He hesitated at the threshold, waiting for her to join him, before swiftly stepping back outside, out of view. Curiosity peaked, after a few moments pause, Claude followed him out.
Athos was gathering his horse's reigns, peering up solemnly at the skeletal remains of the house before them. As Claude approached, he seemed to visibly tear his eyes from the sight, fixing the young woman with an exhausted gaze before walking off, leading the horse back into the trees and away from the house. With a final look back at the manse, Claude hurried to catch up.
"You know this place," It wasn't a question but a statement.
"Is it that obvious?"
"You look like you've seen a ghost Athos,"
The musketeer was quiet for a moment, his mouth opening as he considered his reply. When he finally spoke, there was a reluctant edge to his voice. "I used to live here. This was my home,"
Claude stopped dead in her tracks, eyes wide. This was his home? She had known he was a Comté, but this, this was far grander than she could have imagined. This wasn't just some large house, it was practically palatial, at least in her eyes. Never before had she felt so utterly different from the man in front of her, as if they were from different worlds entirely.
"You- yours?" She finally managed to choke out, her voice coming out as little more than a whispered squeak as she took another amazed look at the building behind them. "It's so- it's so...grand,"
"I did tell you who I once was," He replied, brow furrowing at her reaction.
"I know its just...seeing this place. I'm not sure what I expected, but this is beyond my imagination. I've never seen anything like it before. And to think it belongs to you! Why-"
She was suddenly aware of how uncomfortable the man looked, as if the very subject of his former titles was torturous to him. And here she was, gushing about his old home as if it was something to be ogled at, as if he was something to be ogled at. Perhaps it was a tad insensitive. Reigning in her disbelief, she gently changed the subject.
"What happened to it?"
"It burnt," He told her evenly. "I was here when it happened. Intoxicated on wine and my own self-loathing. I thought I was going insane, seeing my dead wife walking the halls. When in fact she was alive and well, returned from the dead to burn the house to a crisp, with me inside,"
"She did what?" Claude stopped in her tracks, rooted to the spot. Athos realised she was no longer beside him once again,turning to find her jaw clenched, fists balled tight. "She tried to kill you?"
"She blames me for what happened. Quite rightly so,"
"No," Claude shook her head quickly. "I don't believe that. You did your duty. He was your brother. And that woman-" Her sentence tapered off into a frustrated grunt.
"You truly believe that?" He asked quietly, raising an eyebrow in question. "I'm not even sure of what happened that day. It all seems so muddied. Perhaps she was protecting herself, and I tried to have her killed. What sort of a man does that make me?" He did not wait for an answer, instead, swinging himself up onto his horse. He did not look at her again, staring straight ahead the darkening trees in front of them. Claude realised that he was waiting for her, and approached the horse apprehensively.
"You're going to make me go back, aren't you? To Paris?"
"I don't wish to make you do anything against your will. But it's growing late. There's an inn, an hour or so north of the village. We can rest for the night, and discuss what you plan to do from here. Preferably away from any suspicious eyes," Athos extended his hand down to her. Claude looked at it for a second, before accepting, and clambering up onto the horse in front of him, if not rather ungainly. Once righted, Athos gave a click, and the horse started to trot into the woods.
"I ate one of the apples. From the kitchen," Claude burst out sheepishly, and was surprised to hear a chuckle burst from the musketeer's lips, feel the rumble of the laugh in his chest behind her.
"You don't need to confess, they hardly belong to me,"
By the time they arrived at the inn, it was dusk, the sun having set below the distant hills. The road had been quiet and uneventful, with no sign of the other unwelcome travelers. As the musketeer behind her reigned in his horse, Claude found herself stifling a yawn. The thought of a comfortable bed was extremely tempting, regardless of whatever uncomfortable conversation tonight was sure to bring. She wondered idly if Athos would postpone their talk until the morning, when her mind would be less jumbled.
The stable-hand took the horse and let them enter the inn, a wave of heat hitting them along with the smell of mead and warm bodies. It was busy tonight, and Claude caught a couple of faces staring curiously at them from a table in the corner of the room. She pulled her collar closer to her face, and tried to ignore the feeling of dread that was sitting in her stomach like a great, heavy stone.
"You'll be wanting a room for you and the Mrs then?" The inn keep asked, checking his ledger. Claude felt her face light up a deep beetroot. Married! Them?!
"We're not married," Athos replied smoothly. "Two adjacent rooms would be preferable if you please,"
"You'll be lucky, we're nearly full tonight," The man pushed his spectacles further up his nose. "No luck, just the one room left. You still want it?" He looked between the two of them uncertainly.
"I'm sure we can make do. We'll take supper in the room,"
They followed him up a staircase so narrow that his rotund belly could hardly fit, and down a long corridor to a room at the very end. The door opened with a high pitched creak, and Claude peered past Athos into the gloom. There was a small fireplace crackling at one side, a large rug on the floor and a rocking chair beside it. At the opposite side of the room was a small double bed, barely enough room for two. This was going to be an interesting night.
A maid bustled in behind them with two frothing bowls of soup, albeit ones of an unknown flavour. There was a thin layer of grease floating on the top, but the smell made Claude's stomach rumble all the same. The inn keep shooed the woman out, before closing the door behind him. And with that, they were alone.
Athos stalked slowly to the door, turning the key in the lock before giving the handle a cautionary tug. The door rattled in the frame, its hinges squeaking.
"Well, at least we'll know if someone tries to break in," Athos commented dryly, before turning back to the girl. "Eat Claude, before you start drooling,"
Not needing to be told twice, Claude swiftly grabbed a bowl of the soup, plonking herself down on the rug by the fire, not bothering with the chair. There wasn't much flavour to it, in fact, it was closer to hot water with floating bits, but she gulped it down all the same, burning her tongue in the process. The musketeer watched her for a few moments, before unbuckling his sword belt with a sigh, hanging his weapons and hat on the bed frame, within easy reach. He ran a hand through his mussed up hair, while the other started to undo the buttons of his jerkin. Claude felt her face begin to flush once more, rising from the throat, and forced herself to look away before she became too giddy to focus on her soup.
"You can take the bed," Athos told her. "I'll have the chair,"
"You look exhausted!" Claude protested between mouthfuls of soup. "I can sleep on the rug. I've slept worse places before,"
"We're not paying these extortionate rates to have you sleep on the floor," Athos drawled, but he clearly was too tired to argue, and didn't press the matter. Instead, the musketeer stifled a groan as he peeled the jerkin off, flexing his left shoulder and reaching a hand up to massage the scarred flesh beneath his shirt, sinking onto the end of the bed with a heavy sigh. It was then that Claude noticed the deep bags beneath his eyes, and realised that he was as tired as she was, and in a great deal more discomfort.
"You're shoulder," She asked, placing the empty bowl on the floor. "It hurts?"
"It's just stiff after riding," He muttered, waving her off. "Nothing to worry about. Now. What do you plan to do tomorrow?"
Claude sat the bowl gently back on the ground, picking at a small hole in the leg of her jerkin. "I was going to go to Le Havre," She replied quietly.
"I'm not so sure anymore. I just don't know what the right thing to do is,"
"You have a life in Paris you can return to Claude,"Athos leaned forward, placing his arms on his knees. "This doesn't have to be final,"
"But do I really have a life? I don't think you quite understand Athos!" Her voice was rising now, with a sharpness to it, a spike of anger suddenly flaring in her chest. "It's not as simple as being a street rat one day, and then a functioning member of society the next!" She dragged herself to her feet, and began pacing the room. Athos was silent, watching her from underneath a furrowed brow. "So I have money to live now. Great. But I'll constantly be under scrutiny, everyone is waiting for me to slip up. And those kids on the street, I could help them, get them a safer life. But they will constantly waiting for me to sell them out,"
The musketeer opened his mouth slightly, processing before he spoke. "I may understand your situation more than you realise. A Comté living as a soldier? There are reasons why I don't allow that fact to be common knowledge,"
"But you're not likely to get carted off and br-" She stopped herself, gulping down her words before the secret slipped out. "Carted off the jail just because of who you used to be," Claude finished weakly.
Athos dipped his head in acceptance, and was silent once more. Claude began pacing restlessly again.
"These men Aramis mentioned. Tell me what happened. From the beginning,"
Claude came to a stop once more beside the bed, giving a heavy sigh before flopping down on her back, staring up at the flaking ceiling, arms spread.
"We were at the market. Aramis spotted a man following us. He went of to investigate but lost him in the crowd. I thought it was maybe just a cut purse, but Porthos and him, they didn't seem to agree,"
"With good reason," Athos' voice came to her right, and she turned her head to find him twisted around in her direction on the edge of the bed. "Their gut reactions are usually on the mark,"
"I didn't believe something was up until the day after our...argument. A girl came to the stables, told me you'd fallen from your horse and were badly injured. I followed her into the city, and by the time we reached the docks I realised something was wrong. Some guy appeared, tried to kill me. I got away, and Aramis mentioned something about the Cardinal being involved? Do you know what he's talking about?"
Athos grimaced slightly. "What Dalvaux told you, about his benefactor being the most powerful man in Paris. We had our suspicions at the time about who he was referring to,"
"And you didn't think to tell me?" Claude asked incredulously.
"I hoped we wouldn't need to tell you. We were both recovering Claude, there was no point in causing undue stress when the situation had apparently resolved itself,"
"Well it hasn't," She stated bluntly. "I saw men on the road early this morning. I'd stopped to rest in the woods at the edge of the road, and I woke up to find them searching for someone. Three guesses who that probably is," Claude finished bleakly. "And they were asking about me in the village apparently. I think the blacksmith will be willing to sell me out, judging by the way he was acting,"
"They must be the same men I saw on the road. In which case, they may already be close to the inn. We should leave in the early hours before the other occupants rise,"
"And go where?" Claude asked quietly, looking back at the ceiling above her. She jumped, startled as she felt another hand gently take hers.
"Wherever you choose. We can decide on the road. Regardless of your destination, we need to be sure that anyone following has lost the trail. We need to be sure you're safe,"
"Safe," Claude snorted, turning her head to look at him again. "Not too sure what that feels like,"
Athos gave a small smile, his eyes crinkling, slightly, before grimacing, reaching his other hand up once again to massage his shoulder.
"Are you sure you're alright?" Claude's voice was heavy with concern.
He nodded resolutely, but the look on his face said other wise, as he gritted his teeth, kneading his fingertips into the tough flesh. Claude sat up, shuffling across the bed until she sat behind him, and hesitantly reached a hand out. She stopped before making contact, waiting on Athos to pull away, but the man only gave her a wary, questioning look in return. Hand shaking slightly, Claude reached out and pulled the collar of his shirt away from his shoulder, inspecting the skin beneath. The wound had healed well, but there was still a knot of white scar tissue where the shot had entered, and it was here that she began to gently prod, eliciting a soft grunt of approval from Athos. Encouraged by his acceptance of her touch, she began to apply more pressure.
"Aramis was under the impression that you had other troubles," Athos voice was low, quiet. "Ones that he insinuated were yours alone to tell. I will not not press you to tell me. But I would hope, in time, you would trust me with them,"
Claude hesitated, suddenly aware of the brand beneath the rough material of her scarf. What would he say? He seemed to trust her, at least in part again, but if he left now, it would be doubly painful. With a quaking hand, Claude reached up, and pulled the scarf from her throat. Perhaps showing him the brand, showing that she trusted him with this secret, would be what it took to mend his opinion of her fully.
"I suppose you would find out eventually," She muttered. "Better that I just show it to you," Claude pulled the scarf away from her throat, feeling the skin smart as the cool air hit it.
Athos face drained of all colour. He stared at the brand, jaw set so tightly she could see the muscles working away. It seemed as if long minutes had passed, but in fact, it had only been seconds. Claude swallowed heavily, taking a shaky breath.
"Please, let me explain. It's not what it looks like,"
"Oh, what a relief," Athos replied dryly. "For a second, I thought you'd been branded,"
Claude fixed him with a pleading gaze.
"Go on then. Explain,"
"It was the evening I was supposed to meet Constance. I spotted some boys, pick pockets, in the square, and so had the red guard. I tried to warn them, let them know, but the guards thought I was in on it, snatched me up. They sentenced me straight away, dragged me off, and then this-"
The musketeer was quiet, his face unreadable. His eyes flickered up to hers, and back to the brand again.
"I kept thinking someone would show up, someone would stop it, but it never happened. It all happened so quickly. I couldn't stop them," She babbled. "I was just completely-"
"Alone," Athos interrupted quietly.
"I didn't know how to tell you. Didn't want you to think I'd been lying, that was picking pockets behind your back. And then Milady showed up, invited me into her carriage. But I didn't know it was her Athos, I swear, until she mentioned you, and it all fell into place, I just- I'm so sorry!" Her voice broke dangerously, and she bit her lip. "Please say something,"
The musketeer was still silent, his mouth opening as if to speak, before shutting again. He hadn't taken his eyes off the brand, and his silence was making the rising panic in Claude's throat almost suffocating. Just when she thought he would never speak to her again, he broke his silence.
"You tried to help a group of orphans, and received this in return. And you thought I would hate you for it?"
Claude looked down, unable to meet his eyes. "I just couldn't bare to disappoint you," She murmured. "I thought this might be the last straw. You've been so...distant at times. And I thought that being branded a criminal would push you away completely,"
"If I have given you cause to think I no longer care for you, I apologise," He seemed to be choosing his words carefully. "That is not the case Claude. At all. I just didn't want to mislead you. I can't give you a normal life, a normal relationship-"
"What if I didn't want a normal relationship?" She interrupted. "I just wanted you Athos,"
The musketeer lifted a hand to her face, cupping her cheek gently and leaned down, his lips tenderly pressing to hers. She huffed out a breath though her nose in shock, and when he pulled away, she found with surprise that her cheeks felt damp. Before he could pull back further, Claude reached up and pulled his head back down, her fingers entwining in his mess of hair. Her lips were desperate on his, eyebrows knitted together and eyes tight shut, until they had to pause for breath, chests rising in sync. There was a strange look in Athos' eyes, one that she did not recognise, as they flickered down to her lips, but it awakened a unfamiliar feeling in her and she found herself grabbing at his shirt, pushing herself backwards across the bed. The musketeer followed, kicking his boots off with such fervor that they went flying across the room. His hands were at the buttons on her jerkin, making swift work, pausing only when she grabbed the bottom of his shirt and pulled it over his head. His skin was hot to the touch, and Claude's mouth was seeking his again as she attempted to kick off her own boots. And as suddenly as it started, it stopped, Athos propped up and panting for breath above her.
"What? What is it?" Claude huffed, but he wouldn't meet her eyes once more.
"We can't," was the only reply she got.
"For the love of God Athos, please give me a good reason why, before I go insane!" She pleaded flopping her head back into the pillow with a groan.
"I can't-" Athos stopped, shaking his head as if to clear it. "I can't marry again Claude. And I refuse to ruin you-"
"Ruin me?" She spluttered. "Is that what its about? Athos, I was a cut purse! I don't have a reputation for you to ruin!"
He hesitated. "You're sure?"
"I've never been more sure of anything in my life," She stated honestly, before a deep blush began to spread up her neck, and into her cheeks. "Only- only I don't really know. I mean I've never-"
"Experience isn't everything my dear," His mouth curled in a slight smile, before placing a light kiss on her jaw. "And you're quite sure?"
Claude gave a frustrated sigh. "Stop asking questions!"
And with that she wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling his lips back to hers. Her boots shortly joined his on the floor.
I hope that was alright. Been planning that scene since I started this ruddy sequel. Feels like such a big deal! Especially getting the tone right!
I don't know if this constitutes as M rated now? Might still be a T as there's nothing explicit? Let me know if you think the rating needs to go up.