They approached in silence, each man knew what to do. D'Artagnan moved around the barn, arriving on the other side of the open doors as Porthos waited opposite. Porthos nodded and d'Artagnan moved a few paces away from the door, his gun raised, aiming into the barn.
Aramis was tied firmly to a support post, he was gagged. He was trying to shout through his gag. D'Artagnan wondered if Aramis was trying to communicate something to them. The two Spanish spies were obviously aware of the musketeer's approach as they were standing ready to fight, it had been unfortunate that one of the horses outside the barn had whinnied as they approached. One of the spies, dressed in black, was holding a gun. He was waiting for something to aim at. D'Artagnan decided to give him a target. He aimed his shot at the man closest to Aramis and fired. The shot hit the man in the arm.
The man in black fired back, missing d'Artagnan by quite some margin. Porthos took his cue and charged into the barn, engaging the man in black in a sword fight.
Aramis was still shouting, but d'Artagnan could not discern anything. He walked forward with purpose, reloading his gun as he went. The younger spy had staggered back a few paces when he was shot. The man moved back so that he was closer to Aramis. D'Artagnan wanted to smile, did the spy think he would not risk the shot for fear of hitting the injured marksman?
Calmly d'Artagnan raised his reloaded weapon and fired hitting the man squarely in the chest. The spy staggered backwards stumbling into Aramis. He turned and grabbed Aramis on the shoulder. Aramis' shouts turned to a scream of pain before he slumped unconscious. The young spy collapsed to the floor a second later, dead.
D'Artagnan looked around and for the first time realised there was no sign of Athos.
A cry of triumph from Porthos caused d'Artagnan to turn. The man in black had collapsed to the floor, mortally injured, clutching a wound to his gut. He was still alive, but would not be for long.
'You haven't won…'gasped the dying man, 'you won't find the other one in time…not as long as he can't help you.'
The man nodded at the inert form of Aramis on the other side of the barn. Both d'Artagnan and Porthos looked at each other then back at the dying man. Porthos took a step forward but checked himself as a gun was pointed at him. The man held it shakily pointed at Porthos for a few second before turning it on himself, and pulling the trigger.
Two days before…
The four of them had been given their instructions. Porthos considered it to be a fairly simple, if dangerous task. Some important documents needed to be delivered and there were Spanish spies rumoured to be in the area.
Treville wanted Porthos and d'Artagnan to take the documents via a circuitous route, which would take two days longer than the more direct route that Athos and Aramis would be taking, with fake documents. They were to act as a decoy. Obviously, they were to try and evade any attempt to capture them, but if they were caught they would have nothing that the spies wanted.
Porthos knew Treville did not like sending his men out on dangerous missions. But, on occasion, the need was too great not too. The documents contained information crucial to negotiations between France and Spain. Enemies of the potential peace between the two countries would want to learn what mediations were being attempted.
Once the real documents were delivered, Porthos and d'Artagnan were to return via the direct route, meeting Athos and Aramis on the way. At least that was the plan, Porthos hoped it would be as easy as that.
The genuine documents tucked into his doublet, Porthos kicked his horse into a trot with d'Artagnan at his side. Athos and Aramis would leave the following morning.
'I hate this sort of job,' he said, pulling his hat a bit lower against the afternoon sun.
'I know, I don't like it either, but, we can try to get to Engel's chateau sooner than we are scheduled to,' d'Artagnan glanced across at Porthos, who nodded his approval, 'then we might be able to meet them on the road before any trouble reaches them...not that it will…but just in case.'
They pushed the horses into a canter as they left the centre of Paris. If they were to make up some time, they would have to make use of all the available light.
As dawn broke Aramis mounted his horse. Treville passed the fake documents to him. He reverently tucked them inside his doublet. They had to make a bit of a show in case there were people watching, although they thought it was unlikely.
'I shall guard them well,' he said with mock sincerity.
Athos huffed his disapproval of the marksman's levity.
'Just guard yourselves well,' replied Treville rolling his eyes at Athos. He patted Aramis horse on the flank as they pushed them into a walk out of the garrison. Aramis tipped his hat to his captain as they left.
'It's rumours,' said Aramis to Athos as they picked their way through the busy streets of Paris, 'there hasn't been any concerted efforts by any spy networks for weeks now.'
'I agree,' replied Athos as he caught up with Aramis after they were temporarily separated by a carriage going passed, 'but we should be vigilant.'
Aramis nodded his ascent. He may have been making light of the situation but he would be as watchful as Athos was. They both knew the peace negotiations were of the utmost importance, to both sides and those who opposed them.
They trotted on in companionable silence for a few minutes. As they reached the outskirts of the city and the road became quieter they urged the horses onto a canter so that they could put some miles between themselves and Paris before nightfall.
The following morning, after an uneventful night, they left the small tavern they had stayed in, remounted their rested horses and continued on their way. Athos was wary. If there was a spy who knew about the delivery they would most likely make their attempt today or tomorrow. The previous day they had been within striking distance of Paris and more security. Now they were on their own.
His fear was soon realised when he noted that they were being followed. Not along the road, but from the side. They were travelling along a relatively well used road though a large wood. It was however, currently deserted, which was suspicious in itself.
Athos knew the Aramis was aware of the company. They had both noticed at the same time, and signalled simultaneously to each other of the unwelcome presence. Whoever they were, they were concealed several meters into the wooded area. But there were little indications every so often, they were on horseback, as branches swung occasionally at the height of a mounted man. Athos was on the same side as the person following them, he was sure if was only one. He made a small sign to Aramis who nodded imperceptibly and peeled away from Athos and entered the woods on the other side of the road.
As Aramis had the fake documents he would have to hide them. If they were caught with the documents and they were found to be fake it would be unlikely their captors would allow them to live. If they were caught and the documents could not be found they would need to be kept alive, it would probably not be comfortable, but it was better than the alternative.
Athos hoped that Aramis would be able to hide the documents and return to his side before the man following them noticed. He saw Aramis pause briefly then urge his horse forward again, re-joining the road a few meters from where he had left it. They both kicked the horses into a canter. The man following them did the same.
It was clear their pursuer had realised he had been seen. He did not try to hide his presence any longer. They had barely travelled a few meters before he burst out onto the road behind them. Athos made a quick glance behind him then quickened the horses pace. Aramis did the same a split second later. They galloped on. Thundering horse's hooves shattering the previous calm of the wood.
'Split up,' called Athos to Aramis.
Aramis veered off to the left along a narrower road whilst Athos continued along the main road. The spy followed him, leaving Aramis galloping alone. He managed another glance behind and noticed the man aiming a gun at him. The chances of being hit whilst both men were galloping was very slim, but Athos held the horse tighter in anticipation of the shot.
The documents were hidden in a hollow on a large tree, Aramis doubted they would be easily found. And he knew, that if captured, he would not give up the location easily, despite the fact they were fake. Porthos and d'Artagnan would be in danger if the fake documents were found and the rouse was revealed. The spies would know that the real negotiation documents were being delivered via a different route. Depending on the size of the network of spies his friends could be intercepted before they reached their destination.
Aramis continued pushing his horse onwards. As he split with Athos he realised the spy was following the swordsman rather than himself. He quickly sat up and gradually slowed the horse, he watched as Athos and the spy disappeared along the road. His horse was now down to a canter, he would turn the beast as soon as he safely could and follow the disappearing men.
A gun was fired close by. He was aware of the mare whinnying and rearing. The horse had been hit by the shot. He was unseated and fell heavily to the ground, landing awkwardly. The last thing he knew before the blackness took over was that he was sure he had dislocated his shoulder in the fall.
Perhaps there was some truth behind the rumours after all.