Author's Note: I liked the topic of this challenge, obviously, since I have posted a second entry. This tale is definitely less light-hearted than the Frosty Musketeers and looks at 'frozen' in a different sense. Huge thanks to Moringotho-in-Angamando and JenF, the great betas that assisted with this story. And as always, love reviews and comments.
The weather was turning bitterly cold and as they crested the hill, they were assaulted by a bone-chilling gust of wind. Athos shivered violently as the wind swept over him, managing to find all the minute openings in his blue, woolen cloak. The icy tendrils of wind merrily ran over his already frozen body making him even more miserable.
Aramis had warned him that the blood loss he had experienced from his injury would leave him susceptible to the cold for a while and recommended, given the weather, that Athos not come on this mission. But the senior Musketeer had quickly dismissed the pseudo-medic's advice. The wound on his side from a blade that had gotten under his guard had occurred weeks ago. Other than a small twinge when he stretched, the injury didn't bother him at all. However, as he rode in godforsaken weather he wished he had listened to the medic's advice. But his stubborn sense of duty had gotten the better of him and here he was, forced to suffer for his folly. At least Aramis was being kind enough not to say 'I told you so' even though it was painfully obvious Athos was freezing.
Grey clouds blanketed the sky and there was a definite hint of snow in the air. As if teasing the weather weary musketeers, every now and then a few stray flakes would float to the earth. Given the deteriorating atmospheric conditions, the four musketeers were surprised to ride over the hill and see a crowd of people standing outdoors near a stately tree. They were too far away to tell what was transpiring, though an uneasy glance passed amongst them before, in silent agreement, they urged their horses to a faster pace. The crowd heard the approaching hoof beats and moved aside, offering the musketeers their first glimpse of what lay beyond. A woman, hanging from a sturdy tree limb, dead.
Aramis, Porthos, and D'Artagnan reined in their horses and rapidly slid to the ground while Athos remained on his mount, still as a statue, seemingly frozen in time and space. The other three musketeers led their mounts towards the dispersing crowd to learn what had brought about this woman's hanging. They were halfway there when they realized that they were missing the fourth member of their party.
"Athos? Are you coming?" Aramis called over his shoulder to the mesmerized man.
But there was no sign that his summons was heard by the man sitting rock-still, staring at the dead woman swinging in the arctic wind. Aramis handed his reins over to Porthos and started to walk back towards Athos when he felt a gentle restraining hand on his arm.
"Leave him be," D'Artagnan said in a surprisingly commanding tone. Aramis' raised eyebrows had him adding, "He'll come when he's ready."
With that, the Gascon let go of Aramis' arm and started walking towards the crowd again. After sharing a 'what am I missing?' glance, Aramis and Porthos shrugged, then followed after their protégé.
Athos didn't feel his horse shifting with impatience underneath him as he stared at the tree, though what he was seeing wasn't what was in front of his eyes. Lost in his past, he saw his wife, in her white dress, dangling from the tree limb at his house in Piñon. His breath hitched in his chest and he bit his lower lip to stifle the emotions that were flooding his body. The internal debate that had eaten at his soul for the last five years flared like oil thrown on a blaze.
How could he sit here, feeling sorrow and remorse for her when she killed his flesh and blood brother? She had committed an atrocious crime and it had been his duty to carry out her death sentence. For five nightmarish years, he had lived with the pain and guilt of having ordered her execution. It had made him withdraw from society, preferring to be alone and drown his sorrow in drink. Then he had met Aramis, Porthos and most recently the young Gascon and through their friendship his demons had calmed, at least at times. But this dead woman hanging from the tree in front of him caused floodgates to burst open, drowning him in guilt.
But what was even worse in his mind was that when he found out his wife wasn't dead, a part of him was glad. What did that say of him? His wife was alive, in Paris, reeking havoc and he found himself thinking of her, craving her, longing for her touch. His horse opted at that moment to snort loudly and shake his long, flowing, black mane to indicate his annoyance and that jogged Athos from his reverie.
Gathering his wayward emotions, he brought his attention back to the present where a complete stranger, not his wife, swung from a tree no doubt for a crime she had committed. He knew it was a jaded view, but he found women to be manipulative liars. Finally dismounting, he placed a shaking hand on the pommel of his sword as he led Roger over to join his brethren, who were talking to what appeared to be the town's de facto mayor.
"What was her crime?" Aramis queried not unkindly, as he spared a glance towards the tree where the dead woman was being lowered to the ground by a group of men.
The mayor shook his head with disgust. "Horrible. Killed her brother-in-law. Crazy she was. Making all sort of accusations against him. Sad because he was a good man."
The men standing nearby nodded vigorously, agreeing with the Mayor's proclamations though Aramis noticed that quite a few of the women in the crowded were not as enthusiastic in their agreement with their leader's statement.
"You have proof of her crimes?" Athos bluntly demanded, as he joined the group.
"Oh yes. She confessed to poisoning him. We found the foul concoction she used in her kitchen," the Mayor fervently explained. "She freely confessed to her terrible deed."
"As she confessed to her crimes, hanging her was the proper thing to do," Athos declared a bit harshly in his Comte voice. Glancing back towards the tree, he saw the body was now lying on the cold, hard ground and a man was on his knees next to the stiffening body, crying.
The mayor followed his gaze, and then explained, "Her husband. Jacque. Poor man. He loved her. Even after she confessed her crimes he begged us not to hang her. How he could even stand to look at her, after what she did to his brother, well I just don't understand," the mayor stated, shaking his head ruefully.
For a tell-tale moment, gut-wrenching sorrow etched itself on Athos' face as he stared at the grieving man. But it didn't take long for him to regain control and his features transformed back into his inscrutable mask of indifference. "You did your duty." Turning away from the scene at the tree, he ordered, "Time to go."
"That is not a good idea, Monsieur," a man dressed in the rough clothes of a farmer declared. "There is a nasty snowstorm brewing. Gonna be a real blizzard."
"Still, we need to move on," Athos tersely asserted. He had to leave this place, immediately, before his composure slipped anymore. His nerves were already rubbed raw by the sense of deja vu and he was struggling to maintain his aloof facade under the painful onslaught of memories battering his soul. As he turned to walk away, he felt Porthos' hand brutally grip his arm stopping him.
"How do you know there's a bad storm coming?" Porthos gruffly asked the man while maintaining his death grip on Athos' bicep.
"I have been a farmer all my life and I know the weather in these here parts. Trust me, there is a snowstorm coming and it's going to be bad. You don't want to get caught in it and there is no other shelter for leagues."
The heads in the rest of the crowd were consensually nodding in agreement with the farmer's statement.
"We have a small inn and there is always room for his majesty's Musketeers," the mayor congenially offered. "Not fancy like Paris, but you will be warm and dry." That comment elicited a small smile from D'Artgnan because the musketeers quarters in Paris were quite plain, functional not fancy.
As if to back up the farmer's weather prediction, a few more persistent snowflakes fell from the sky. The increasing flurries didn't dissuade Athos. "Still, we must be..." But Athos wasn't able to finish his sentence because Porthos ripped the leather reins from his hands, tossed them at D'Artagnan along with his own, and then dragged the smaller musketeer away from the group.
"What the hell are you doing!" Athos hissed furiously at Porthos, as he tried to break away. "Have you lost your mind?"
"No," Porthos growled in response, not releasing Athos' arm. "Look at him." He gestured towards Aramis who had a blank expression on his face as he stared at the ever-thickening snowflakes. "Have you forgotten about Savoy? Because he hasn't. If we get trapped in a snowstorm and something happens it will devastate him."
What about me?, Athos longed to scream at his friend. How am I supposed to stay here in this reenactment of my hell from five years ago? But his friends knew nothing of his sordid past, so he could only stand there and stare mutely at the larger man. "Maybe he's wrong about the weather," he finally ground out. As if to mock his statement, the snow began to fall heavier.
"Don't you care about Aramis?" Porthos asked sadly, his tone indicating he couldn't believe Athos could be that cold-hearted.
Athos swallowed hard at having those words flung in his face once again, though the previous time they had been spoken by Aramis. Last time he relented and gave in and that had nearly gotten him killed. He longed to stick to his guns and insist they leave but he couldn't because Porthos was right. It they got trapped in a snowstorm it might mentally destroy Aramis. They had to bunker down here. Athos wasn't sure how he was going to cope, but he would do whatever it took to keep Aramis safe, even at his own expense.
"We'll stay until the storm passes," Athos grudgingly conceded as he looked over at where D'Artagnan and Aramis stood, waiting.
D'Artagnan was chatting with the mayor while keeping an eye on both Aramis and his other two brothers. He knew exactly what was causing Aramis to spook as well as what Porthos and Athos were discussing off to the side. However, D'Artagnan also knew one more thing of which neither Aramis nor Porthos were aware. Staying here was going to be as brutal on Athos as leaving would be on Aramis.
A few moments later, Porthos and Athos rejoined them and D'Artagnan could tell from the tense way Athos was holding his body and the hard expression on his face that he'd agreed to stay. The snow was really beginning to fall and the rest of the crowd had dispersed to their homes to wait out the storm. The mayor instructed the musketeers to follow him and he led them to the town's small, but tidy inn.
With compassion that many people overlooked because of his size and fierce looks, Porthos gently draped his arm over the dazed Aramis' shoulders and urged him towards the inn. D'Artagnan knew such a display of compassion would not be tolerated by Athos, so the boy trailed after Porthos and Aramis, trusting the senior musketeer would eventually join them.
Athos remained rooted where he was and his eyes drifted to the now vacant tree. Again his mind returned to that summer day on his estate, even as the snow fell around him in large, wet flakes. He liked to think he was a courageous man, able to face danger when required, but he wasn't sure he was brave enough to handle this situation. It was like someone had ripped a page from his secret diary and put it on display for all to see. The temptation to simply ride off into the storm and lose himself tugged at him. But he knew if he did that his brothers would come after him. What right did he have to put them in danger for his miserable soul? No, the right thing to do was follow his brethren into that inn and somehow endure what was sure to be an extremely disturbing night.
Roger gave a mighty shake to dislodge the snow that was accumulating on his glossy black coat. The bits of metal and leather on the saddle and bridle clanked and and the horse's noisy shudder brought Athos back to the present. With an apologetic pat on the horse's nose, he led the patient beast towards the inn's stable.
"D'Artagnan, rub down the horses while Aramis and I go inside and get a room." Porthos deliberately left Athos to declare his own intentions.
Athos' face was wearing an inscrutable mask that gave no clue as to the turmoil going on in his heart and soul. But he made it clear what he was going to do. The taciturn musketeer reached over, took Flip's reins, and led the gangly beast away. Porthos let a small sigh of relief pass his lips. He hadn't really been sure that Athos would stay. Turning away, he led Aramis to the in and out of the snow.
By the time Athos and D'Artagnan had finished grooming, feeding, and bedding down the four horses, the ground was blanketed by a few inches of snow. They ventured out into the storm, noting that the wind's intensity had increased.
"That farmer is right. If it keeps snowing at this pace, this is going to be a bad storm," the Gascon remarked as they made their way across the snowy yard.
The two men halted under inn's porch to shake the snow off their cloaks and hats. Reaching over, D'Artagnan placed his palm flat against Athos' shoulder, stopping him from opening the door. "Are you going to be alright?" he questioned his friend with concern.
Tilting his head slightly to peer from beneath the brim of his brown hat, Athos offered the young musketeer a brutally honest answer. "I don't know."
D'Artagnan held Athos' tortured gaze for a solemn moment. "Fair enough. I'm here for you if..."
Brusquely, Athos shook free of D'Artagnan's hold, maneuvered around him, opened the door, and stepped inside the inn's common room.
"...you need me," the Gascon finished to the empty air. With a sigh, he went inside.
The main area had a large fireplace where a roaring blaze was radiating heat into the room. Only a few of the well worn tables had people sitting at them, making it easy for the two men to spot their fellow musketeers. Already, there were steaming bowls of hearty stew sitting on the table along with a warm loaf of crusty bread. As he slid into his seat, D'Artagnan saw that Aramis had pulled out of his despondency and was his usual congenial self. The popular musketeer was smiling and flirting with the woman who was setting a bottle of wine on their table.
Athos sat in the last empty chair, also noting that Aramis, at least on the surface, had recovered from the horrible memories of Savoy that had plagued him outdoors in the snowstorm. Unfortunately, Athos' own horrors were not going to be so easily dismissed, he feared. The conversation in the inn's common room all centered on the hanging of the woman. His heart began to pound and his body grew sweaty as he tried to block out the conversations swirling around him. Grabbing the nearest glass of wine, he downed it with practiced ease, trying to stifle the voices, but it wasn't enough even to make a small dent. As his hand darted out for the bottle of wine to refill his glass, Aramis intervened by shoving a bowl of stew under his nose and handing him a spoon.
"The stew is quite tasty, Athos," Aramis stated mildly, as he ripped off a chunk of bread and shoved it in Athos' other empty hand. "The bread works marvelously to sop up all the wonderful juices."
Somewhat bemused, Athos now had a spoon in one hand and a chunk of bread in the other, thwarting his attempt to refill his wine glass. To keep the peace, he dutifully scooped up a spoonful of stew and placed it in his mouth. Chewing by rote, he tried to ignore the conversations of the villagers, which were triggering the memories of the circumstances surrounding his own wife's downfall. The food in his mouth turned into a sodden mass, which he could barely choke down.
"Husband was doing his duty."
"She killed his brother."
"How could he have been so blind?"
""She got what she deserved."
"Knelt there in the dirt. Crying like a baby. What a fool."
The fragmented conversations swirled around him and were so unnerving that it caused him to drop his spoon. It clattered against the side of his bowl of stew causing some of the contents to slosh over the edge onto the table. In one swift motion, he seized the bottle of wine from the center of the table, rose to his feet and muttered, "I can't be here."
As he started to leave the table, it dawned on him he didn't know where their room was located. "What's the damn room number?" he growled at the seated musketeers.
Surprised at the usually taciturn man's outburst, all three stopped eating to stare at the visibly upset Athos. Without ceremony, Porthos held up the key. "Number four."
Realizing he was still holding the stupid piece of bread in his hand, Athos flung it on the table as he snatched the key from Porthos' fingers. After slinging back a mouthful of wine directly from the green bottle in his hand, Athos hastily departed to head upstairs.
Porthos shook his head with mild disgust. "What's eating him?" he groused, as he grabbed Athos' unfinished bowl of stew and began to wolf it down.
D'Artagnan had a good idea, but it wasn't for him to say so he lowered his head and studiously tucked into his own meal. Aramis gazed at the retreating Athos for a few seconds before shifting his focus to their youngest member. Rubbing his fingers in contemplation over his bearded chin, he watched as the Gascon tried to pretend nothing was amiss.
Aramis' voice inflection told D'Artagnan that he wasn't going to like this conversation.
"Earlier you said something. About Athos. When we first arrived and he was fixated on that poor woman." Aramis made the sign of the cross before dropping his hand into his lap.
A slight flinch of D'Artagnan's shoulders told Aramis he was on the right track. Waiting the boy out, he remained silent as he kept his eyes glued on the squirming Gascon.
"You'd best confess, whelp," Porthos recommended, around a mouthful of food. "We'll get it out of you sooner or later."
With exaggerated care, D'Artagnan placed his spoon on the scarred table's top before raising his head to speak in apologetic tones. "It's not my story to tell."
Porthos glanced at his two companions, snorted and then went back to eating. Let the two of them work it out. Aramis was better at this stuff anyways.
The woman who was serving the wine walked past their table again. "Madame, another bottle of wine if you please. It seems we have lost our first one."
After giving a nod to acknowledge Aramis' request, she sauntered off. Aramis watched her departure with appreciable interest. "Ah, women. It is a shame our friend Athos has frozen his heart against them."
D'Artagnan remained quiet, dropping his head, picking up his spoon and concentrating on eating his meal again.
"Take the Comtesse de Larroque. She was definitely flirting with our dear boy." The waitress brought the new bottle of wine and Aramis gave her one of his most charming smiles and received one in return.
"Yea, but he didn't do anything about it," Porthos pointed out, as he reached for the wine bottle to refill everyone's cup. "Well, other than agreeing to have dinner with her."
"Which I believe he only did to make his point. He felt she was wrong to give false hope to those poor girls. No, I stand by my original statement. Athos' heart is frozen solid when it comes to the fairer sex."
"Maybe he has a good reason," D'Artagnan mumbled under his breath, which of course was detected by his dining companions.
"Care to elaborate?" Aramis asked the Gascon, who reached for the loaf of bread, tore off a piece and stuffed it in his cheeks so he had an excuse not to speak. D'Artagnan shook his head vigorously to indicate he still didn't want to discuss anything.
Porthos finished up the last of Athos' stew, leaned back in his chair and gave his stomach a satisfied pat. "You know what I think? I think something happened at Athos' mansion. When you rode back to get him."
D'Artagnan was not a consummate liar and his face easily gave him away. He tried to school it back into a facade of neutrality but failed miserably.
Porthos was much more astute than people thought. Growing up on the streets, it had paid to note details and store them away. One never knew when they might come in handy. He knew that something had gone down between Athos and D'Artagnan that night but he chose to keep the little clues he had noted to himself until now.
"You two came back hinting of smoke and Athos was definitely sporting a few bruises he didn't have earlier that day. And ever since then he has been moodier and more reclusive than normal. Something happened that night, didn't it?" Porthos stated.
D'Artagnan scowled at his fellow musketeers. "I want it noted I didn't tell you anything."
With an evil grin, Porthos interjected, "Yet."
Aramis rose from his chair, "Now Porthos," he began, as he moved directly behind D'Artagnan so he could place his hands on the boy's shoulders. "Perhaps our young friend was specifically instructed not to divulge the information he is withholding from us. Is that the nature of your dilemma, D'Artagnan?"
"Something like that," D'Artagnan sulked, staring at his bowl and refusing to meet the eyes of either of his friends.
"And," Aramis continued in lofty tones, "it would be wrong of us to ask him to break his vow, even if it meant helping Athos."
"Yea, I suppose it would. Guess there are bounds, even on friendship," Porthos solemnly agreed, nodding his dark, curly head.
With desperation in his eyes, D'Artagnan made his last stand. "I know what you two are trying to do. Guilt me. But I promised Athos I wouldn't say anything."
After giving a final squeeze to the boy's shoulders, Aramis moved back to his own chair and picked up his wine glass. "Well, we don't want you to break a confidence. But," Aramis lazily drawled, "since you have confirmed that something significant happened, but you won't tell us what, we'll simply have to go to the source."
Horrified, D'Artagnan burst out, "Oh no. You can't do that!"
"We can and we will," Aramis stated firmly, as he rose from his chair.
Porthos also stood up. "Damn straight. I'm tired of Athos' moody behavior and he still owes us an explanation for Madame de la Chapelle. I've never seen him so out of control as he was around her. Wasn't right. Wasn't Athos."
Grabbing the bottle of wine, Aramis headed for the stairs. "We might need this," he joked, as he shook the bottle of wine.
"To bribe him or hit him over the head?" Porthos questioned with interest, as he followed Aramis upstairs.
D'Artagnan was left sitting alone at the table and a few of the heads in the room turned to look at him with curiosity. Expeditiously spooning up last few mouthfuls of his stew, he rose and headed for the stairs. "It was very good," he mumbled to the serving girl as he passed by. With that, he bound up the stairs and found his two fellow musketeers standing in the hallway outside the closed door to room number four having a heated discussion. As he approached, Aramis reached out, opened the door and started to enter the room, leaving Porthos shaking his head in the dim corridor.
"I still like my way better," Porthos grumbled, as D'Artagnan stepped up to stand next to him.
Inside the dimly lit room, Athos was sitting on the floor against the far wall, knees drawn up to his chest with his back against the plaster. His head was bowed low and his arms were tightly wrapped around his calves. Opposite him, to the right of the door where they stood peering in, was the smashed remains of the wine bottle he had pilfered.
"I hope it was empty before you did that," Aramis rebuked him mildly, as he walked into the room and spotted the shattered container.
D'Artagnan was the last to enter and he quietly pushed the door closed behind him. Pulling a chair out from the table in the center of the room, Aramis angled it to face Athos before settling into it. D'Artagnan and Porthos chose to sit side by side on one of the two beds in the room. Athos kept his head ducked, refusing to acknowledge their presence. Aramis studied Athos, noting the man's tense posture and his disheveled, dark wavy hair that spoke volumes of his friend's current state of mind.
Deciding to be blunt, Aramis went right for the heart of the matter. "Athos, why do you hate women? What happened that caused your heart to become frozen?"
When he got no response, which didn't surprise him, he pushed onwards. "I know you once told us there was someone special and she died. But that is the past. Can't you let go and give happiness a chance with another woman?"
D'Artagnan, who knew the dark secret Athos was hiding from his friends, wondered if the stoic musketeer would breakdown and recount his tale of woe. The Gascon had been made privy to the former Comte's secret the night he had rescued Athos from the fire at Athos' mansion. Since then, D'Artagnan, had been carrying around the secret and it made him uncomfortable being the only one of the trio who knew the whole tale.
The man on the floor haltingly raised his tousled head and looked at Aramis with eyes that were dark and cold. "Women are deceitful. Liars." The words were spat out by Athos softly, but with utter conviction.
"It is hardly fair to brand the whole female population with the sins of a few," Aramis rebuked his friend. "And if you are referring to Ninon, as I told you before, she wasn't deliberately lying to deceive you, but to save the girls from a fate she felt they didn't deserve. She only had the best interests of the girls at heart."
Athos' unwavering gaze fixated on the broken pieces of glass across the room, as if he were trying to will the particles to transform into a full bottle of wine. Aramis and Porthos shared an aggravated glance, annoyed by the man's stubborn demeanor and frustrated that they weren't making any progress with this conversation.
"The woman from your past, she was your lover?" Aramis candidly asked, trying to draw Athos out.
Without warning Athos stood, stumbled to the table, seized the bottle of wine, raised it to his lips, drank it dry, then flung the bottle against the wall near the first broken one. His body was trembling as his wild, grief stricken eyes locked onto Aramis. His voice was bitter and full of anguish when he spoke. "She was my wife and I killed her."
Aramis and Porthos stared at him in shock, not ever imagining they would hear those words uttered by their leader. They had no idea how to respond to such an unexpected revelation and an uncomfortable silence settled over the tiny space. Athos took their stunned silence as confirmation that they were repulsed by his actions. Not being able to bear what he felt was their censure, he turned away in shame as a flush crept over his pale skin. D'Artagnan, who knew there was more to the tale, quietly waited and prayed Athos would find the courage to continue.
Athos scrubbed a tortured hand over his pain-filled face before running it through his disheveled hair. "I ordered her death and watched her hang. From a tree. Like that woman today." Overcome with remorse and self-hatred, Athos strode across the small room and savagely slammed his fist into the inn's wall. "But I didn't even do that right for she is still alive. In Paris. Causing more pain and suffering."
Turning around, he sagged against the wall before sliding down to the floor. His despondent head sunk so low his bearded chin brushed his chest as he cradled his injured hand in his lap. "She lied about the Comtesse de Larroque and ruined her life. How many other people's lives has she destroyed? How much needless suffering have I caused because I failed in my duty?"
Porthos, who was good at connecting the dots, had an epiphany. "Madame de la Chapelle," he said, flabbergasted. "She was your wife."
Athos raised his head slowly and tilted it back to lean against the wall. His breathing was rapid and uneven and his words, mocking. "A frozen heart," he echoed Aramis' earlier words. "If only my heart was frozen then maybe it wouldn't torture me so."
Unconsciously, his uninjured hand strayed to the gold locket dangling around his neck and he fondly caressed its worn cover. "Her memory invades my mind. Her touch. Her silky skin. The feel of her lips pressed against mine making me feel alive, safe, loved." His voice grew increasingly rougher. "She was my everything. Why I got up in the morning and what I longed for at night."
"You truly loved her," Aramis said softly, amazed at the depth of passion being displayed by the man who was usually imperturbable.
"More than life," Athos lamented, torn asunder with despondency.
"Why did you kill her?" Porthos asked in his direct manner, for he couldn't make sense of this tale. The Athos he knew was a man of honor and murdering his beloved wife didn't fit with his character.
Athos gave a little self-deprecating laugh. "It was my duty," he declared, his voice soaked with irony. "She killed Thomas. My only brother. Murdered him with a knife. I found her. Blood dripping from her hands. And even though I still loved her, as the Comte de la Fere it was my duty to uphold the law and have her executed for her crime."
Tears welled up in his green eyes, as they grew unfocused. "I had her taken from the house to a tree in the yard and hung by the neck. But I wasn't able to watch the deed to the bitter end, so I rode away. I have spent the last five years of my life running from her memory, trying to forget her. Then, she shows up and tries to kill me. Would that she had," he whispered regrettably.
D'Artagnan sprang from the bed, squatted down besides his mentor, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Don't say that! Never say that!" he declared with force and conviction. "She murdered your brother. You did what you had to!"
Five years of guilt weren't going to be erased by the kind words of a youth who had barely experienced life and Athos shook off the boy's words as he did the Gascon's hand. Pushing the boy aside on the floor, Athos struggled to his feet. "Leave me be. I don't want or deserve your pity." He took a staggering step, caught his balance and then rushed from the room slamming the door behind him.
Aramis, always ready with a smart quip in a tense situation, drolly stated, "That went well didn't it."
Porthos shook his head in disbelief. "Can't believe he kept that from us for so long. Must be torture, living with something like that on your conscience."
D'Artagnan, who had risen to his feet, glanced out the window of the inn. "Ah guys. Athos is outside. In the snow."
"Nah," Porthos said moving towards the window to confirm the boy's words. "He wouldn't be that stupid." Peering out the window through the swirling snow, he changed his tune. "Damn. He is that stupid."
The two men watched out the window for a moment as Athos struggled to cross the yard. He hadn't bothered to grab his cloak so he only had on his leather doublet, which was no protection in such bitter weather. The wind and the icy conditions caused him to slip and fall more than once and D'Artagnan winced, remembering 'thos' injured hand and recently healed side.
Aramis remained sitting at the table, well away from the window. "He won't survive if he rides away in this blizzard." His voice held the echoes of the pain from the massacre at Savoy.
D'Artagnan glanced from his friend at the table to Porthos. "That won't happen," and before anyone could stop him, the boy grabbed his cloak, flung it on and was out the door heading downstairs.
"This ain't right," Porthos declared, as he grabbed his own cloak and Athos'. ''Wait here," he commanded Aramis. "I'll bring him back, even if it is unconscious, flung over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes." He lightly patted Aramis on the shoulder before he left the room closing the door behind him.
Aramis sat for a long moment in the chair staring first at the closed door then turning his gaze upon the snowy window. Memories of the horror at Savoy swam through his mind, threatening to overwhelm his psyche. Struggling with his demons, he finally got them at bay, rose, grabbed his cloak and followed his brothers. He'd be damned if he'd be sidelined by irrational fear, while one of his brothers was in danger.
Athos was so distraught he didn't even feel the cold as he flung open the inn's door and stepped into the bitter, frozen landscape being created by the howling storm. Visibility was near zero as he stumbled through the drifts of snow, which were forming in the yard. His good sense of direction worked in his favor as he unerringly steered a course towards the stable. The icy particles whipped against his bare skin and he quickly lost feeling in his extremities. More than once, he slipped and fell on the frigid ground, jarring his injured hand and dusting his body with wet snow. The little heat left in him was slowly leached away by the cold dampness.
His mind ran in disorientated circles. All of his brothers now knew his shameful secret and he was convinced they had to hate him for it. It was foolish of him to have allowed himself to think of them as friends. They would want nothing to do with him now, which broke his heart as much as his wife's betrayal.
When he slipped and tumbled into the snow once again he thought about simply staying there, letting the snow cover him in a shroud of white and letting nature take its course. However, as much as he thought it would be a fitting punishment for him, it would be a horrible burden on Aramis after what happened at Savoy. No matter what they thought of him, he loved his brothers and he couldn't hurt Aramis by being as selfish as to die in the snow. So he fumbled his way to his feet and trudged on until he reached the barn. Once inside, he pushed the door shut and leaned against it, catching his breath. After a few moments, he wobbled across the floor and collapsed on a hay bale before sliding to the dirt. Exhausted, he just wanted to close his eyes and go to sleep.
Porthos caught up with D'Artagnan in the inn's common room and grabbed him by the arm to stop him from going outside.
"What are you doing?" D'Artagnan asked with frustration, as he tried to break free of Porthos' grasp. "I need to stop Athos."
"We need to stop him. But we have to be smart about it. You can barely see three feet in front of you out there. If we get lost and don't make it to the stable, we will all die."
D'Artagnan stopped struggling, realizing the wisdom of Porthos' words. "How should we proceed then?"
With a grin, Porthos let the boy go free. "First, you're gonna fasten up that cloak nice and tight like your mum always told you." Glancing at the coat hooks by the door, he spotted a number of scarves. Grabbing two, he handed one to the boy. "Wrap this around your head, face and neck." He demonstrated how to do it so only his two eyes were left exposed.
Scanning the area around him, Porthos spotted a length of rope. "I'm gonna tie this to the pole on the porch and we're taking the other end with us. No matter what, don't lose your hold on this rope."
D'Artagnan got the gist of the conversation even though Porthos' voice was muffled by his mummy-like couture. After D'Artagnan nodded his head to show he understood, Porthos opened the door and they made their way out into the blizzard.
As Athos lay on the frozen ground of the barn the door suddenly burst open and D'Artagnan staggered in, shaking like a puppy to dislodge the snow from his cloak. Porthos was right on his heels, stamping his feet and muttering about foul weather and foolish friends. "Athos, what the hell are you thinking!" he unceremoniously addressed the slumped over man.
"I need to leave," was the weary, slightly incoherent answer he received.
Porthos stalked down the aisle to where Athos was collapsed. Trying to keep his anger in check, he explained that to leave tonight in this storm was ludicrous. "You'll freeze to death."
"I'm not cold," Athos declared, as he slowly straightened up. His statement seemed to be the truth. The other two men, despite having their cloaks on, were shivering. Yet Athos, sans his cloak was not.
"That's because," Aramis lectured, as he entered the stable catching the tail end of the conversation, "you are lapsing into hypothermia. The blood loss from a few weeks ago has made you susceptible to the cold, the alcohol has also lowered your core temperature, you are wet, and you are losing your ability to shiver, which by the way, helps keep you warm."
Athos sat there in shock, staring at Aramis as if he was seeing a ghost. "You are here!"
"Of course I am. Where else would I be?" Aramis flippantly replied, as he unwound the scarf he had borrowed from his handsome countenance. "When a friend is in need, one has to overcome their fears. And no matter what you do, my messed up brother, I will always be able to find it in my heart to forgive you."
After what happened at Savoy, Athos knew how the snow affected Aramis and the fact that his friend had braved the weather to come to his side humbled him. "I don't deserve your friendship."
With a gruff laugh, Aramis walked past D'Artagnan, took Athos' cloak from the boy's hand, bent down and proceeded to wrap it around their overwhelmed brother. "Only I get to decide who I want to be friends with. And I kind of like you," he replied lightly, before turning serious. "Now we need to get you back inside and warm." He clapped his hand around the back of Athos' neck and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"But the snowstorm. Savoy," Athos murmured, his voice echoing his mind's confusion.
Squatting down to brace his forehead against Athos' pale one, he simply said, "We overcome our fears to help the ones we love." Standing, Aramis pulled Athos upwards with him, pressed his brother's head against his own shoulder and tightly hugged him. It took a moment before Athos' stiff body began to relax and accept the caring embrace. "No matter what," Aramis whispered in Athos' ear, "you will always be my brother. Nothing can ever change that."
Aramis felt Athos' battered body begin to tremble and the medic realized the man was descending into shock. Between Athos' mental and physical stress, his body was shutting down in an attempt to protect itself. Pushing Athos off his chest and holding him at arms length, he studied the man whose pale face was getting even more ashen. "We need to get you back inside."
Wrapping an arm around Athos to ensure he stayed upright, Aramis looked worriedly at Porthos. "It's really bad out there. I could barely see my hand in front of my face. Luckily, I could see the path you two made. However, by now the wind will have surely erased it."
"No worries," Porthos declared with a smirk, as he held up the rope. "We have a guide right back to the inn's front door."
With great sincerity, Aramis complimented him. "You are a genius my fine friend."
For the return trip, they secured the rope around each of their waists. Aramis propped up Athos on one side and Porthos the other, while D'Artagnan took point. Every step was a battle against the elements and Athos was increasingly becoming deadweight as he slid into oblivion. Finally, Porthos had enough and he made good on his promise, slinging the nearly comatose Athos over his shoulder and carrying him the rest of the way.
Once back in the inn, they returned the borrowed scarves and D'Artagnan and Porthos headed back to their room with Athos, while Aramis sought out the innkeeper to gather a few supplies. If the people in the inn's common room thought the musketeers were a bit peculiar, they kept it to themselves, simply wishing the men a warm and pleasant night.
A while later, Aramis showed up with his items. Besides some food, there were a few bladders containing hot water, which he tucked around the freezing Athos as he lay in the bed where Porthos had deposited him. Aramis examined Athos' hand and decided it was battered and bruised but not broken so he simply nestled it against the musketeer's chest. Reassured that Athos was in no immediate danger, he piled a heap of blankets over him and let him sleep. Joining the other three men at the table, he gratefully accepted a steaming mug of soup from D'Artagnan.
"We are lucky the wife always keeps a pot of soup simmering on the fire." The other two nodded in agreement at Aramis' comment. The hot soup sliding down their throats was delightfully warming.
Worriedly, D'Artagnan looked over at his sleeping mentor. "Should we wake him and try to get him to take some soup? It might help warm him up."
"No. Sleep is what he needs now and those hot water bladders will help raise his body temperature," Aramis assured the boy, as he picked up his mug and sipped the contents.
"Hell of a story he told us," Porthos remarked, as he ladled some more soup into his mug. "Makes his drinking a lot more understandable, trying to forget and all."
Aramis set his soup down on the table before running a hand through his brown locks in a worried fashion. "I was wrong. Athos' heart isn't frozen. It's the exact opposite. He loves too much."
"Not following," Porthos mumbled, as he slurped up his soup. Carrying Athos in the harsh conditions had taken a lot out of the giant and the food was helping revive him. "He hates his wife."
"Were it but that simple," Aramis sighed, as he let his compassionate brown eyes slide over the sleeping form of his friend. "He should hate her. He has every right too. But he doesn't. He loves her and he can't reconcile that against his sense of honor."
"Because it is hardly honorable to love the woman that murdered your brother," D'Artagnan spoke up.
Aramis nodded. "Exactly. And he hates himself because a part of him still loves her."
"How do we help him?" D'Artagnan sincerely asked. Porthos stopped eating and the two looked expectantly at Aramis for guidance.
"I'm not sure I really know. It would be nice to try to get him to find a better way to cope than the bottom of a bottle." Sighing again, he quietly thought for a few moments before saying, "Guard him and watch over him with all our hearts."
"Well that's easy then," D'Artagnan cheerily replied. "After all that's what musketeers do right? Protect and take care of their brothers no matter what."
"Got that right, pup," Porthos agreed as he reached over and slapped the boy on the shoulder.
As the two of them started to argue over who would sleep with the frozen Athos tonight, Aramis settled back in his chair with a contented smile. Tonight's revelations would only draw their tight-knit group even closer together. Sure, Athos would come into the fold kicking and screaming, but now that his brethren knew what had happened to him, they would protect him. They wouldn't allow anyone, including Athos himself, to cause further harm to their brother. And when Athos needed a swift kick in the ass, then they would administer it. And when he needed a shoulder to cry on, they would gladly offer it up. But what they wouldn't do is let him ever feel he was alone in the world. No matter what, they would always be there for him.