I'm sure you have all forgotten about this story. I returned to work from my medical leave and have been too tired to write. Now I have taken medical retirement and I found the energy and inspiration to complete the story. Enjoy the last chapter.
Nowhere to Run
Athos didn't betray his thoughts by word or gesture. He simply watched the Baron steadily. "That would be a mistake, My Lord."
The Baron's face flushed with anger. "You dare to defy me?"
"I am merely cautioning you against making a rash decision."
"It is my right."
Those were the words that had haunted Athos for years. The family priest had urged restraint. At his other shoulder had been Catherine, spurring him on to vengeance with a vehemence bordering on hysteria. He had been almost paralysed with grief. His beloved younger brother lay dead at his feet at the hands of his equally beloved wife. She hadn't for a moment denied her guilt but, at the time, her excuse had lacked credibility. Now he was faced with another young woman with a similar story. He was determined that she would get the justice he had denied his wife.
"Neither I nor my men will follow that order. That leaves you with Vayle and Darcell and I can't see Vayle agreeing to hand his own wife. Let us take her to the nearest town to face the magistrate." Athos had made a conscious decision not to tell the Baron about Clair's allegations, sensing that it would only strengthen the Baron's resolve.
"You are only postponing the inevitable."
That was likely true. Was he doing her any favours by prolonging her life by a few days? Might she not prefer a quick death instead of the time t contemplate her fate? Yet he still believed her story should be told.
"Perhaps. That is for the court to decide."
"Have it your way, Musketeer," the Baron said grudgingly. "But you remove her from this house today."
"As you wish."
The nearest town of any size was three hours ride away and it was already early evening. Porthos was dispatched to get the horses ready while Aramis prepared their prisoner.
Athos, out of a sense of duty, sent for Vayle. He received him in the study with d'Artagnan for company. All the arrogance had drained from the steward's demeanour. His face was pale and his hands shook.
"Please sit," Athos said gently.
"Is it true?" Vayle asked, his throat dry and hoarse.
"It certainly looks that way," Athos said. "We are taking her to be tried by the local magistrate. She will have her chance to tell her side of the story. You are welcome to accompany us."
"I can't watch her die."
Athos understood. He, too, had turned away before the fateful moment. "The choice is yours."
"Can I see her?"
"I will have her brought here. You understand that we can't leave the two of you alone."
"Yes. Thank you."
"I'll go and get her," d'Artagnan said.
Athos and Vayle sat in silence. When the door opened Vayle jumped to his feet. Clair was accompanied by Aramis who had a loose hold on her arm. She looked preternaturally composed. Aramis let go of her and tactfully backed out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Vayle walked hesitantly towards his wife, stopping without touching her. "Why?"
She glanced at Athos. "He didn't tell you?" Something in her husband's face must have betrayed him. "He did but you didn't believe him."
Athos withdrew as far away from them as was possible to give them a semblance of privacy. He could hear the soft murmur of her voice without being able to distinguish words. After she had spoken for a few moments Vayle drew her into his arms.
"Why didn't you come to me?"
His angry words easily reached Athos' ears although her reply was indistinguishable.
Finally silence fell and they stood locked in each other's embrace. There was a knock at the door and Porthos slipped inside.
"The horses are ready."
"Are you coming with us?" Athos asked Vayle.
"I will follow tomorrow." He kissed Clair on the cheek and released her.
She left the room without a backward glance. Aramis, waiting with the horses, helped her to mount and they left the chateau de Berreyer behind them.
The magistrate, a middle aged overweight gentleman, was less than pleased to have four Musketeers show up at his door just as he was getting ready for bed. He was even less impressed to hear that they had an accused murderess with them. By the time all had been explained and Clair had been locked up it was very late.
They took rooms at the first inn they found and Porthos bullied the landlord into providing food. Orva, who had ridden with d'Artagnan, was falling asleep. D'Artagnan picked her up and carried her to the small chamber where she would sleep. The bed was small and narrow but infinitely preferable to the lumpy mattress she usually slept on. She fell asleep quickly, worn out by the events of the day. He looked at her pityingly. Her greatest ordeal was yet to come.
By the time he rejoined his companions the food and ale had arrived. It was a simple meal of cold chicken, bread and cheese, but they all fell on it eagerly.
"We can't all stay for the trial," Athos said. "There are the King's letters to deliver. I suggest that the three of you continue with our mission. I can take care of things here."
"What about Orva?" d'Artagnan asked apprehensively. "She trusts me."
"I will see that she is well looked after."
The others had to concede that Athos was right. They had their duty to perform and couldn't return to Paris with the news that the letters had been delayed.
"I can stay if you wish," Aramis said.
Athos knew what had prompted the offer. "Thank you, but I was in charge of the investigation and should give evidence."
When they retired to bed all four were thinking of the lovely young woman whose life was almost certainly going to be snuffed out at the end of a rope.
Two weeks after parting company with Athos, Aramis arrived back at the garrison. He dismounted and unfastened his saddlebags. The stable boy came out and led his tired horse away. He stretched to work the kinks out of his back before strolling across the yard. There were footsteps on the stairs leading to Treville's office. He looked up and smiled. Athos, who rarely smiled, nodded his head in greeting and walked down the last few steps.
"Welcome home," he said. "I'll fetch some ale."
"They should be back any day."
Aramis sank onto the bench at their usual table and waited for Athos. Once they both had a mug of ale in front of them he took a moment to scrutinize his companion. "What happened with Clair?" he asked.
A shadow crossed Athos' face. "She was found guilty and hanged."
"Didn't they listen to her explanation?"
"She didn't offer one. I tried to persuade her but she said she deserved to die for what she did. I don't know how much difference it would have made. The Baron was there pressing the magistrate to impose the death penalty."
"As was his right I suppose. It still seems wrong, though, that there is no protection for someone in her situation."
"She killed a man, Aramis, in a brutal fashion. I'm not unsympathetic but there can never been any justification for murder."
"You see things in black and white, my friend. Sometimes there are shades of grey."
"Not where the law is concerned." He sighed. "Was it wrong that the Baron could take advantage of her with impunity? Yes, of course. No woman deserves to be put in that position. But, she had a simpler remedy. She could have told her husband."
"Who may not have believed her. Even if he had, what would they have done? They had a good living at the chateau and work is hard to find."
"Do you excuse what she did?"
Aramis hesitated. "I understand her motive but, no, I can't condone her actions."
"Perhaps one day there will be more equality between men and women," Athos said thoughtfully.
"Not in our lifetime."
"Probably not but we can hope."