Author's Notes: Thanks, as always, for reviewing and following! As promised, this chapter will bring a return of the action, as the story is nearing its conclusion. There are a total of twelve chapters, with an epilogue, so hang on a little longer. You're almost there!
Chapter 10 –The Clamort Estate
Athos and D'Artagnan rounded the tree line and came across the entrance to the Clamort Estate. It was a residence that was the size of two garrisons, with windows along many of the walls, and it stood at least three stories high. The entrance to the property was bordered by a stone wall with an opening towards the courtyard that was large enough to fit two wagons through side by side. Pink and yellow flowers were connected to a series of green vines that grew along the wall, giving a splash of color to what would normally appear as a gray and bland barrier.
Entering the courtyard, the two musketeers found a groom scurrying towards their tired horses. Athos quickly dismounted from his steed, with D'Artagnan following his lead.
"Where is Baron Clamort?" Athos asked hurriedly.
"In his study, possibly napping at this hour, but he will be delighted to see musketeers again," the groom, a man older than Athos said. His black jacket and boots were covered with stable dust, but he showed no concern about his appearance, as he simply took the reins of the horses in preparation for brushing them down and feeding them.
"You don't understand," D'Artagnan pressed before the groom could get very far. "We have word that Baron Clamort's daughter is in danger, and we need to speak with him immediately."
The groomsman's face suddenly dropped in worry, and he started moving quickly, despite his aged appearance with wrinkles along his brow and thick gray hair that was cropped close to his ears. Calling across the courtyard, the groom flagged down a female servant who was younger than he was by perhaps a decade.
The middle-aged woman was dressed in a simple blue dress with a white apron overlaying the fabrics, and for a moment her clothing reminded the musketeers of a nun in a convent more than a house servant. The servant's brown hair was hanging down her back, with a braid that kept the sides from her face, and her skin contained a healthy glow that offered evidence of how well the baron cared for his servants. Aramis and Porthos had mentioned that the baron treated his personnel with graciousness, and so far their observations had been correct.
"I am Mary, one of the baron's caregivers," the woman said as she stepped away from the flowers she was gathering off of one of the vines, holding the miniature basket of fragrant blooms in her hands. "Please, sirs, come with me, and I will take you to him."
Following the young woman, Athos and D'Artagnan were led inside the main staircase at the front of the house into a small parlor that had some furniture and a fireplace. She motioned for them to continue following her, and she led them down bright hallways with windows allowing for the sunlight to enter. The white walls reflected the brightness, and the musketeers could see just how well the baron's servants cared for him. Everything was clean and well-kept, and while the man was no king, his home was portrayed to look as though he was.
Rounding another corner, Mary opened two large doors and had them enter into a study that was filled with parchments and books. There was a round table in the center of it, along with at least three chairs scattered in the room.
At the far end of the table, dozing quietly was an elderly man, who looked as though he was somewhere in or near his eighties. He had deep wrinkles near his eyes, the ones that appear from many years of laughter, and his gray hair was pulled from his face in a ponytail that fell to the back of his head. There was a bristly layer of gray stubble over his cheeks and chin, giving the impression that he was either starting to grow a beard or recently had it removed.
Baron Clamort was leaning against the cushioned side of the chair, with a blanket wrapped over him, and his chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm. Sitting on the table before the baron was a book and an inkwell, with the quill lying beside the opened manual. There was a bottle of wine and a glass goblet that was still half-full of the dark liquid.
Mary moved slowly to the baron's side and set the basket upon the table. Then, she gently shook his shoulder, her gestures reminiscent of someone accustomed to Clamort's habits. Softly, she said, "My Lord, there are musketeers here to see you."
The old man stirred and then he blinked his eyes tiredly, the blanket falling to reveal the fox brooch upon the lapel of his jacket. As Baron Clamort recognized the shoulder pauldrons of the King's Musketeers on the men visiting his study, Mary helped him to sit up straighter, and he smiled warmly at his guests.
"Two more of you!" he laughed quietly, deepening the wrinkles near his eyes.
Despite the urgency in their abrupt attendance, Athos could not help offering a kind smile. "You met with our friends the other day, Aramis and Porthos."
"They were such fine fellows," Baron Clamort nodded, awakening further after taking a sip of the wine from the glass near his book. "They had the most wonderful tales for me! I don't suppose you could indulge an old man in some of your adventures? I like to write them down so I can read them during my long and confined days."
Athos stepped closer, "I'm sorry to say that our visit is not of the pleasant variety."
D'Artagnan followed Athos' lead and moved closer to the baron. He knew that Athos could occasionally be blunt, and he decided to take the lead and ease the blow for the old man. "When was the last time you saw your daughter – Gabrielle?"
"She left the morning that Aramis and Porthos arrived," the baron said, his smile fading. He glanced between the two men, and his cordial demeanor had considerably diminished, as concern had etched onto his wrinkled face. "Has something happened to her?"
"A witness saw her carriage attacked," D'Artagnan continued, easing the old man into their findings, not sure what was wrong with Clamort's health and not wanting to be the one to set off a delicate heart, if he had such an ailment. "We investigated it, and came across evidence of mercenaries and a man you know as Reginald possibly behind the attack. We believe this Reginald has taken Gabrielle, along with the chest that she was transporting."
"Had we known that Aramis and Porthos would be arriving that morning, I would have convinced her to wait and have them escort her to the office of the church in Paris," Baron Clamort said softly, shaking his head. "However, Gabrielle believed she would be safe with her entourage, and I admit that I was naïve enough to agree with her. Are you certain it was Reginald? Neither of us had heard from him in close to two weeks."
"We had surmised his involvement based on the evidence that was found in the numerous attacks he had launched," D'Artagnan explained.
Clamort looked down, his eyes clouded with concern, and mumbled to himself, "She was right not to trust him."
"What was in the chest?" Athos asked, bringing the old man back to the present.
"A significant donation for the church," the baron offered, looking up again at the men in his company. "I've already taken my fortune and had it noted in my will to divide it amongst the staff and my family. I know my sunrises are growing fewer with each day that passes, and a reasonable percentage of my fortune was to be given to the church so that my name would be remembered in good favor."
Softly laughing without humor suddenly, Clamort continued, "I don't much follow religion anymore, but I know that the church preserves histories, and without a proper donation, my name would just be forgotten, never archived. The people who live here would have their home taken from them, and that donation was to ensure that the people in my care keep these lands for themselves."
"Is there anywhere you can think of that this Reginald would take your daughter?" D'Artagnan asked.
"I regret ever allowing him into my home," Baron Clamort scowled, as his eyes clouded over with memories. "Three months ago, he came to my house offering his goods – and he had produced exceptional wine. Over the course of a few weeks, he had enamored Gabrielle and myself, and I thought she would finally have someone to take care of her. But, it did not last, and when he fell out of favor with her, she found him in my office. She caught him petitioning a sale – in my name – with him as the sole buyer. He had already embossed my seal on the letter, with an insultingly low offer, his forgery noting that I had accepted it. At that moment, Gabrielle had him thrown out of the house and told him to never return, making certain to burn the letter."
Making a loose fist, as the age of the baron's bones would not let him make one any tighter, he muttered, "Thieving bastard."
Athos took a step closer, leaning his hand gently upon the table near the old man. "Baron, I understand your frustration, but none of us know Reginald's intentions for your daughter or the donated money. I need you to think of anywhere he might possibly take her."
Rubbing a bony hand over his tired face, Baron Clamort looked to the musketeers in his study. His dark, aged eyes pleaded, as sadness and concern glazed over them. "Reginald has a vineyard just to the north of here. That is the only place I can think of where he would take Gabrielle. If he has any other property, he never divulged it to me."
D'Artagnan took a step forward, "We will do everything we can to find Gabrielle."
Touching upon the book in front of him, Baron Clamort took a worried breath. "I know you will. But, I must ask one thing of you before you go."
Both musketeers shared a quick glance and then brought their eyes to the baron's dark irises as he looked up to meet their gazes, noticing now that for as fragile as Baron Clamort appeared on the outside, inside him was a man who was full of fire and intelligence, and he was merely living in a dying husk of his former self. They could clearly see that if he had a young body, he would have taken it upon himself to march into battle on his own to get his daughter back.
"When it comes to my daughter's safety, know that I don't care about the money or preserving my family history. Give Reginald the money if it will satisfy him and free Gabrielle from him," the baron told them strongly, "But, also know that I care about Gabrielle more than anything in this world, and if Reginald has dared to harm one hair on her, you kill him. I won't consider you men of less honor if you do because if Reginald succeeds in his plans and makes the loyal people in my service homeless, then he deserves no justice."
Athos and D'Artagnan both took a deep breath, but it was Athos who spoke. "I assure you, Baron, that we will do all we can within our jurisdiction. We must adhere to the laws of the king by all means first, but if that is not possible, I promise you, there will be the justice you seek."
D'Artagnan gave a weary glance to the man he considered his mentor, and he wondered just how much Athos said was to appease a dying man's wish and how much was truth. However, they also needed Clamort to do them a small favor as well.
D'Artagnan addressed the old man with his request. "Baron Clamort, Aramis and Porthos will be along sometime soon. Please let them know that we will be riding northbound to rescue your daughter."
"Go," Clamort instructed solemnly, his eyes glancing between the two musketeers. "I will ensure that they know where to find you."
Turning from the old baron, Athos and D'Artagnan rushed out of the study and followed Mary back to the courtyard. The groom had provided them with fresh horses from the baron's stable, assuring that their horses would be rested appropriately and that they would be ready for them when they return.
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Aramis and Porthos were able to make the final leg of the journey to Baron Clamort's estate without needing to stop for Helene to rest. As they arrived at the large building, Helene had been in complete awe at the size of the home, and Aramis could only imagine what she would think of the palace. Along the ride, he had silently considered the tour of Paris he would give to Helene and tried not to think about where he and Porthos would leave her when it was time for them to part ways.
In the meantime, the three of them had been greeted with fondness by the baron's staff, no doubt due to Porthos and Aramis having made a very memorable impression during their previous visit. However, the pleasantries were quick, and after their greeting, they had been informed that their companions had ridden north, pursuing the only lead they had on Reginald and where he might be holding Gabrielle.
They were offered fresh horses, but Porthos and Aramis had insisted that their steeds were fine, as they did not ride them hard. Aramis had asked Baron Clamort if it would be within reason to leave Helene with him and his servants, as they did not want her caught in a crossfire between Reginald and his men when they confronted them. The baron had been more than accommodating, his actions showing that he was overjoyed to have a child in his company.
Helene, unfortunately, had not been so certain about being separated from Aramis and Porthos. She wanted to stay with her musketeer friends, but Aramis reminded her that there was the chance that they would be involved in a lot of musket fire. Helene's protests had quieted with the memories of the musket noise, and when one of Baron Clamort's servants had offered the child a dessert tray with cakes and fruits, her face had lit up at the sight of treats she had never known before.
The baron had appeared to grow ten years younger while Helene had taken a chair at the table in his study. As Helene had set Marie on the table to enjoy her slice of cake, Clamort had assured the musketeers that the child was welcome in his home during their absence and that he would see that his servants took appropriate care of her. All he asked in return was that they ensured his daughter was safe and brought back to him at all costs.
As they left the study, Aramis heard Baron Clamort asking Helene about the adventures that led her to meeting the musketeers. He heard her briefly mention Marie and the Baptiste Brothers, but the further Aramis and Porthos walked away from the study, the less they could hear of her reply, and then Aramis knew that his attentions were required elsewhere. He had no doubt that Helene was safe with the baron, and with the way he cared for everyone on his estate, she would probably never want to leave.
Riding hard now to make up for time and find their brothers, Aramis and Porthos had kept their conversations to a minimum, concentrating only on moving forward. They had kept their thoughts to themselves, watching the scenery blur past as they maintained their observations for any signs of their brothers or any indication of danger from Reginald or his men.
On more than one occasion, Aramis had taken the breath he needed to tell Porthos about his son and his emotions for Anne, ruminating over Jacqueline's advice about Porthos never beseeching him. However, he also had Athos' stern warning warring within him, and every time he dared to talk to Porthos, he found his mouth closing tightly. It was the fear of condemning Porthos to the noose that continued to stop him from talking. It was bad enough that Aramis, Anne, and Athos might still end up on the gallows, but the last person he wanted to condemn to that fate was his greatest friend. And, it was because of that fear that Aramis kept fighting against telling Porthos everything.
"I kind of miss the little sprout," Porthos muttered about Helene, breaking Aramis' dark thoughts. "She's good company."
"That, she is," Aramis agreed quietly, grateful for the distraction. At least he could talk about Helene with Porthos, as she somehow satisfied his fatherly instincts when he could not be with his son.
Laughing to himself, Porthos couldn't help but ask, "Can you imagine the captain's face when we bring Helene back with us?"
In spite of the turmoil that Aramis was feeling, even he could not help but give a small laugh at the thought of Captain Treville being rendered entirely helpless by a curious little girl and her faithful doll. If Aramis thought of himself as Helene's father, he wondered if Treville would think of himself as Helene's grandfather. And, he felt a twinkling in his eyes at the vision of Captain Treville tripping over himself with trying to discipline a child, rather than a regiment of adult men.
A musket shot echoed in the distance, and it quickly sobered the two men, ending the light-hearted joy that Helene had brought them. With their attention shifted now to their brothers' safety, Porthos and Aramis wasted no time and urged their horses harder. When the wooded trail they had been riding upon opened to a landscape of rows upon rows of vines growing on wooden structures and a distant, but humble-sized home, Aramis and Porthos knew they had arrived at Reginald's lands.
They saw another puff of musket fire, followed by the crack of the gunpowder further down the vineyard, and when they were close enough, they slowed their horses. Dismounting, they crept behind the latticework, using the thick vines for cover, listening for the sounds of Athos' or D'Artagnan's voices.
Holding their muskets in ready positions, Aramis and Porthos ran from one thick lattice to another. They maintained their distance from the house, but drew close enough to assess the situation and determine their actions. They saw eight men in various positions on the front porch, each of them ducking for cover behind pillars or an overturned table.
From inside the house, they could hear a man shouting, "Hold them back!"
"They are all protecting the front of the house," Aramis noted quietly to Porthos, peering between the vines of the grapes before him to study the layout of the house.
"Maybe D'Artagnan or Athos are already covering the back," Porthos suggested.
"Or, maybe they think D'Artagnan and Athos are us," Aramis surmised, turning his attention away from the house to catch Porthos' eye.
Porthos nodded, realizing just what Aramis' thoughts had concluded. "They are only hired mercenaries after all, not the smartest men."
"Right," Aramis explained, "The last they knew there were only two of us – you and me. The other four men in Helene's village were all killed so there was no one to report back to Reginald our true numbers. If I'm right, they won't be expecting an additional two musketeers."
Porthos smiled in his agreement of his brother's plan. "So, the back door it is then."
Keeping their distance from the house, Aramis and Porthos kept low and moved about the thick, vine-covered lattice work. They ducked and weaved quietly and slowly, covering as much ground as possible without bringing attention to themselves. They only hoped that Athos and D'Artagnan would be able to keep the men on the porch distracted long enough so that they could get into the back entrance.
As they traveled the land, Aramis and Porthos heard Athos sternly calling for their cooperation. The only reply he received in response was a hail of musket fire, and when the smoke cleared, two of Reginald's men were no longer standing. One was crumpled over the railing, unmoving, and the other was missing, presumed dead on the floor of the porch.
Staying hidden within the foliage near the back end of the house, Aramis and Porthos found two men standing on the small porch, lazily scanning the area with their muskets. Their body language made it very clear that these men had been convinced that the two musketeers at the front of the house were their only adversaries. Confident about his earlier guess that the men were expecting only two musketeers, Aramis was satisfied enough now to implement his plan.
"I'll take the one on the right," Aramis proposed as he raised his musket and steadied his hands.
Porthos made no protest, knowing his friend was the better shot as the man on the right was trickier to target than the one on the left, and they needed to take these two out at the same time if they didn't want the firefight to shift to them.
"On three?" Porthos asked.
Aramis breathed softly. "No, wait for the muskets to go off in the front of the house. Let the noise of their volley cover ours somewhat."
When the next round of muskets fired from the opposite side of the house a few moments later, Aramis and Porthos pulled the triggers on their weapons, the explosion of gunpowder following only a half-second afterwards and getting lost in the volley of shots. It was close timing, and they hoped it was enough to hide their firing. The two men on the back stoop both crashed to the ground in a heap of death. Wasting no time, Aramis and Porthos scurried to the back of the house and ducked as they reached the small porch. They listened for more men to come their way while they hurriedly reloaded, and then without warning, Porthos stood and kicked in the back door.
Bringing the musket around, Porthos peered inside and saw nothing but an empty kitchen area. He stepped through the doorframe warily, with Aramis against his back as the marksman kept watch on the open area of the yard. Moving as one, the two men who had adopted each other as brothers, cleared through the kitchen and moved toward the next room. Their eyes shifted all around them, looking up, down, left, right, and when they turned, it was a perfect waltz of each partner knowing what the other was doing without having to ask.
Their dance carried on as they moved into the empty dining room that was adjacent to the kitchen. It was in the dining room that the lone person they encountered was a woman that they could only presume was Baron Clamort's daughter. She was dressed in a bright red gown, her light brown hair loose around her head and falling in wavy strands down past her shoulders. A meal had been placed upon the table, with one plate half-eaten in front of an empty chair that they assumed was where Reginald was sitting before Athos and D'Artagnan had arrived. The other plate was before Gabrielle and appeared to have been barely touched.
As they neared her, they saw the bruise across her left cheek that blemished the pleasing symmetry of her face. She was younger than either of them expected, considering how old her father was, as she looked to be no older than twenty-years-old. Her brown eyes, though, were very much her father's and the baron's distinguishing chin was an exact match to hers.
Moving closer to Gabrielle, they saw that she was tied to the chair, her wrists bound to the arms. The young woman looked up to them and took a breath, about to either speak or scream, but Aramis was quicker, as his free hand raised to his lips, and he signaled for her to stay quiet. Porthos pointed to his pauldron, showing her the musketeer symbol, and she took a relieved breath instead.
"You cannot take my wife!" Reginald shouted from the next room over, the sound of a musket following his words.
Gabrielle sucked in a breath of fear, her eyes pleading with the musketeers in the room to free her. Whispering in desperation, she told them, "If he comes back, he'll shoot you both."
"Did you really marry him?" Porthos asked softly while Aramis pulled a dagger from his belt and began cutting at the elaborate twist of ropes on one of her wrists.
"Not intentionally," she whispered back, her eyes swelling with tears. "He…threatened a priest into performing the ceremony, and…I…I had no choice. Reginald…wants my father's estate, and will do so through any means."
Porthos growled softly, and Aramis looked up at his friend for a brief moment, letting him speak. "This ends now. That man has no respect for anyone. He kidnapped an innocent woman, he tried to murder a little girl, and he tried to kill my best friend."
Aramis gave his brother a forgiving look, knowing that Porthos was probably the most righteous of them all. His moral compass guided him on a path that was far more decent than he could ever hope to follow, and as Aramis thought about Helene, he knew exactly why Porthos felt as he did. His best friend – his brother in arms who shared the blood of battle – needed this closure in his life.
Aramis gave a little smile, reciting the long-forgotten phrase shared between them that neither had used in weeks. "May your musket target accurately…"
"And your blade be swift," Porthos finished, his grin lighting up the room, happy to remember the words in their personal mantra.
Gabrielle looked up, and her breath caught in a pained gasp. Aramis and Porthos saw a man that they presumed was Reginald standing in the doorway with a musket aimed at them. He was dressed in fabrics that showed he was well-to-do, but not rich. His white shirt was stained with gunpowder and sweat, and his brown pants and boots were worn, a sign that he handled his own chores. His hay-colored, blonde hair fell past his neck, the strands on his forehead nearly poking into his light brown eyes.
"You vowed to me, Gabrielle," Reginald seethed angrily at the sight of the musketeers near her.
"No, I didn't," she whispered, her body trembling in fear. "You ignored my refusals."
Aramis watched Reginald and the musket he held while it wavered between him and Porthos, as though the wine-maker was deciding which of the musketeers would be his first target. Aramis had only managed to free one of Gabrielle's wrists, and her other one was still tied to the chair. Porthos stood near the table on the opposite side of him, and his friend's musket was in far too relaxed a position to raise and fire accurately before Reginald would release the trigger on his weapon.
Unfortunately, the split seconds that passed were not enough to cause a distraction, and Reginald had not even paused to give them a moment to speak. Aramis watched the man's finger tighten around the trigger, and all he remembered was shouting at Porthos to move while he dropped his dagger so he could cover Gabrielle as he threw her and the chair she was still tied against onto the floor.