I hope you have enjoyed this story, particularly the h/c. It has garnered over 100 reviews which is an outstanding honour. Now, though, it is time to let the boys go home and so the story comes to an end. I have had fun writing and I'm sad to finish it. Please check out my new story, Hunter's Moon, if you get a chance.
To Kill a Musketeer
Despite his protests d'Artagnan was barred from their chamber for the rest of the day. Aramis and Porthos took it in turns to tend to Athos. The screams emanating from the room at irregular intervals made d'Artagnan's blood run cold and the hair on the back of his neck stand to attention. The innkeeper tried to protest. Aramis simply turned on his undeniable charm and, when that didn't work, Porthos intimidated the man into silence.
By mid-afternoon d'Artagnan couldn't listen any longer. He walked back to the docks and secured them passage to Le Havre. Shortly after he returned to the inn, tried to eat and found he had no appetite. Porthos soon joined him looking grim and exhausted.
"How is he?"
"Aramis thinks the worst is behind him. He was sleepin' when I left."
D'Artagnan chewed his lower lip, uncertain about his place in their brotherhood. He would gladly have taken his turn tending to Athos and had been denied that chance. "Why have I been excluded?" he finally asked, feeling uncomfortably like a petulant child.
"We've been through this before. No sense in all of us lookin' after him."
"I might be from Gascony but I'm not naïve. I've seen men in the grip of drugs both at home and in Paris."
"It's different when it's someone you care about."
"Even more reason to help. Unless…he didn't want me there."
"He didn't." Porthos saw the hurt on the young man's face. "It's not what you think. Athos knows how you feel about him. He wanted to protect you."
"I don't need protection," d'Artagnan asserted. "I feel useless sitting down here. I want to help."
"You'll get your chance. Me and Aramis are both as exhausted as he is. When Aramis comes down you can go and sit with him."
"Just be gentle with him. He's been through an ordeal and doesn't have much patience left."
"I know you do. Did you get us a ship?"
"Yes. It leaves on the morning tide. We've to be at the docks at dawn. Will Athos be ready?"
"He'll insist on sailin' whether he's ready or not," Porthos said fatalistically.
Aramis joined them shortly after, dark circles under his eyes. "He stayed asleep this time. That's a good sign. Wine," he called to the innkeeper. "And food."
"He is recovering?"
""He is still very weak but I believe the drug has left him. He will make a full recovery."
"Can I go up?" d'Artagnan asked eagerly.
Porthos and Aramis both graced him with fond looks. "You would be doing us a service by looking after him. Porthos and I could both use the respite. Do not expect too much from him though. He is not to be allowed to tire himself."
D'Artagnan needed no further encouragement. He immediately stood up and headed for the stairs, happy to be of use.
It was a gentle awakening. Athos lazily opened his eyes to find that that sickness which had plagued him for the bulk of the day had passed. His stomach still ached but the cramps had disappeared leaving him feeling pleasantly lethargic. He had no idea of the time. It was still daylight which told him very little given the length of the days in this season of the year.
He quickly realised that he wasn't alone which was no real surprise. Aramis and Porthos had stuck to him like limpets during his ordeal. What he hadn't expected was to find d'Artagnan in the room. The young man had his back to him and was staring out the window.
Athos hated to appear vulnerable and had resolutely opposed d'Artagnan becoming involved in his care. It wasn't that he felt any less of a sense of brotherhood. He just wasn't ready to be seen at his worst and he knew that decision would have caused d'Artagnan grief. So, he rallied his scattered faculties, resolved to deal with the recriminations.
D'Artagnan jerked in surprise and quickly turned to face Athos. The predominant emotion was one of relief at seeing his mentor awake. "How do you feel? Can I get anything for you?"
Athos' mouth quirked upwards in response to the eager questions. "Some water if you please."
His hands still shook, not as a consequence of the drug but because of his debilitating weakness. He allowed d'Artagnan to help him despite his stubborn pride. The water was tepid which didn't make it any less welcome. It soothed his throat, settled on his stomach and stayed there which was a vast improvement upon his woeful inability mere hours ago to keep anything down.
When he made a move to sit up d'Artagnan was instantly there to support him and position pillows behind his back. His wish to please should have been embarrassing. Instead it served to show Athos how deeply d'Artagnan felt about him.
"Is there anything more I can do?" d'Artagnan asked.
"Stay and talk to me. I don't feel like being alone."
The look of pleasure on d'Artagnan's face almost made Athos feel guilty about his earlier decision.
"Of course," d'Artagnan said. "Although Aramis said I wasn't to tire you."
"Aramis worries too much. Tell me, do we have a ship? I fear our continued absence from Paris has played into Rochefort's hands."
"We leave tomorrow if you are well enough."
"I will manage although I don't relish a sea voyage."
"You don't like the water?"
"I prefer to be in control of my destiny and not subject to the vicissitudes of winds and tides."
"It will take no more than two days to reach Le Havre," d'Artagnan said, pulling a chair closer to the bed and sitting down. "It is much better than riding for a week or more."
"That is true. I am weary of travelling. It will be good to be home."
"Do you really think there is a traitor in Paris?"
"Undoubtedly, which should come as no surprise. We have agents in Madrid. It would be astonishing if King Phillip didn't have spies in Paris."
"I don't think I will ever get used to all this political intrigue."
"Don't sell yourself short. You have quite a talent for it."
"A talent perhaps but I have no liking for it."
"No good soldier ever does although we often find ourselves in the middle." Athos took a deep breath, suddenly nervous. "D'Artagnan, I need to explain something to you. I didn't ask Aramis to keep you away because I don't trust you."
"You owe me no explanation," d'Artagnan said loyally.
"Yes, I believe I do. You are our newest and youngest brother. There hasn't yet been time for you to really get to know me. I carry many demons, one of which is my extreme reaction to laudanum."
"We should have listened to you."
"My resolve was weak," Athos said regretfully.
"You can't blame yourself."
Athos had been raised to accept responsibility although he had walked away from his duty to his people. He wasn't proud of that decision even if he didn't regret it either. "I could have refused the drug despite the well-meaning entreaties of Aramis and Porthos."
"I think I understand," d'Artagnan said. "I've made no secret of the fact that I admire you even with all your faults." He smiled to show that there was no insult intended. "Porthos and Aramis had been through this before. They had seen the worst of it. But, understand this. I would never think less of you because of your actions while sick."
"You are a good man, d'Artagnan, and a welcome addition to our brotherhood."
The door banged open to admit Porthos and Aramis, both looking inordinately cheerful.
"I hope you two have resolved your differences," Aramis said. "A sea voyage with both of you brooding will be no fun."
"You can rest easy," Athos said, exchanging a brief smile with d'Artagnan.
"That's good." Porthos laid down the tray he was carrying. "A light broth. You need something on your stomach."
"Now you just sound like Aramis," Athos complained. "Can't a sick man rest in peace?"
"Eat," Porthos insisted.
The broth was in a tankard which allowed Athos to sip it without grappling with a spoon. He drank half of it before laying it down. "I think I would like to sleep now."
"Good idea. We have to leave early in the morning." Aramis removed the tray and fussed around until he was satisfied that Athos was comfortably settled. "Good night, my friend. Sleep well."
Aramis ushered the others out of the room, allowing Athos to slip into a deep and healing sleep.
The voyage and subsequent ride from Le Havre were uneventful. It was late morning when the archway leading to the garrison finally came in sight. Athos closed his eyes and gave a silent 'thank you' that the long journey was over. It had been frustrating knowing that their slower pace had been caused by his injury although none of his friends had uttered a word of complaint. The yard was the usual hubbub of activity with men sparring and others cleaning their weapons and conversing animatedly. The stable boy came out to greet them and Athos slid wearily from his mount. His shoulder ached and he hugged his arm tightly to his chest.
"What happened to you?"
Athos looked up to the balcony where Treville stood watching them.
"It is a tale best told in private," he said.
Treville waved them to come up. "Once you've cleaned up the King wants a report." He entered the office ahead of them and sat behind the desk. "Well?"
"You got the letter?" Athos asked.
"It arrived two days ago. It was fortunate that it did. Rochefort has been goading the King into declaring war."
"There were no Spanish in Hendaye," Athos said.
"We were two days into our journey home when we were attacked. D'Artagnan was shot in the leg, Aramis was wounded in the arm and I suffered this." Athos gestured to his sling.
"Who attacked you?"
"We didn't exactly get a chance to ask them," Porthos said.
"We found this." Aramis handed over the bloodstained note.
Treville scanned it quickly. "I thought you were told to be discreet. How did they know you were Musketeers?"
"We don't know. We were careful and left our uniforms hidden when we entered Hendaye." D'Artagnan surreptitiously rubbed his healing injury. He was tired, dirty and his leg ached. He shot a covert glance at Athos who was displaying no sign of discomfort.
"Attacking King's Musketeers on French soil is an act of war," Treville said. "Rochefort will use this to finally convince the King."
"I don't believe we should go to war just because of this," Athos said. "It would be easy enough to pretend we were attacked by bandits."
"You're suggesting that I lie to the King?"
"The circumstances of the attack are suspicious. It was almost as if they were waiting for us," Aramis said.
Treville had been a soldier a long time and was used to political intrigues. "You think someone told them you were coming?"
"We have no proof of that," Athos said. "Very few at Court knew of our mission."
"If someone betrayed you they are going to be disappointed." Treville folded the note and held it to the candle flame. "Say nothing about this."
For their visit to the Palace Athos removed his sling. It was unlikely the King would be sufficiently observant to notice the after-effects of his injury. However, he saw that Rochefort was watching him closely. He studied the Captain of the Red Guard, seeking any sign that their continued existence was bothering him but he was disappointed.
"You say you found no sign of a Spanish incursion?" Rochefort asked. "My information is usually accurate."
"We saw no sign of the Spanish," Athos said.
"Maybe not or, perhaps, you weren't sufficiently observant."
They all knew better than to react to Rochefort's baiting.
"I can assure you that we were thorough," Athos said flatly.
"There, Rochefort. I told you the King of Spain wouldn't be rash enough to invade France," Louis said, relieved that they weren't rushing headlong into war.
"Indeed you did, Your Majesty," Rochefort said smoothly. "However, it appears your Musketeers haven't yet finished with their tale."
Athos tensed subtly and waited.
"What do you mean, Rochefort?"
"Unless I am mistaken it appears that Athos has been injured."
"Is this true?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. We were attacked by bandits on our return journey."
"Spanish bandits?" Rochefort asked smugly.
"Alas they were all killed," Athos said, locking eyes with Rochefort. "We were unable to question them." Was there the slightest of reactions? By sending word ahead of their return they had potentially forewarned the traitor that his scheme had failed. Was that traitor Rochefort? Athos found that hard to believe. The Comte had been brutally treated by his captors over an extended period of time. It was unimaginable to think that he was now a spy for Spain.
"That was unfortunate," Rochefort said. "Perhaps next time you could avoid being so thorough."
Athos thought he heard a slight growl of protest from Porthos. "We will do our best."
They all bowed and withdrew. At the door Athos turned to see Rochefort bending down and whispering to the King. They strolled back to their horses, each relieved to be back in Paris.
"How's the shoulder?" d'Artagnan asked.
"Improving." It was the truth. The pain was significantly less and his movements were becoming easier.
"D'you think it was Rochefort who betrayed us?" Porthos asked.
"I'm not sure but he bears watching. He is ambitious and ruthless."
"Maybe we need ruthless men," Aramis said. "The anti-Spanish riots are increasing."
"Perhaps you are right," Athos said. "I can't help feeling though that we are worse off now that Richelieu is dead. At least we knew he always worked in the best interests of France."
"Unlike Rochefort who only works in his own best interests," d'Artagnan said.
"Just so." Athos mounted his horse and looked at each of his companions in turn. "We live in dangerous times, gentlemen."
"All the more opportunity for fame and glory," Porthos said with a grin.
"And honour," d'Artagnan said. "Don't forget honour."
"Fame, glory and honour," Aramis said. "All worthy goals."
"Time to get back to the garrison," Athos reminded them. "If we're late Treville will have us on stable duty and there isn't much opportunity for glory in that." He was still pondering the enigma that was the Comte de Rochefort as he turned his horse and led them home.