NOTE: So, here we are at the last chapter. I hope you have enjoyed the tale. Thanks for sticking with me even past the holiday season. As always, feel free to leave final comments for I enjoy reading them after a day at work. And yes, I will probably do a piece with Roger and Gui some day. The little donkey is just too much fun to write. Until next time, be well.


EPILOGUE

It seemed like the winter's snow was never going to let up. After the accident that sent Athos and Aramis tumbling into the icy river, Captain Tréville made sure every single horse in the garrison was shoed with snowshoes to include the gelding that had been rescued by the river along with Athos' saddle.

Athos and Aramis had recovered, though for at least a month afterwards, the Captain had assured their assignments kept them close to the garrison as well as inside. While he thought he was doing them a kindness, the two musketeers began to go stir crazy. He wasn't sure which one of the four came up with the idea, though he thoroughly suspected it was Athos.

He'd assigned the four to make a exhaustive inspection of the armory and note what needed maintenance, sharpening, repair or replacement. Whether he saw eye rolls and fugitive glances at each other after he handed out the assignment, he couldn't say for sure, but the four had dutifully trooped off towards the armory. Not giving it a second thought, the Captain headed off to his office to tackle the ever-present paper work required to run the garrison. I was about two hours later, when he heard the sounds of sword fighting in the courtyard, not unusual given their occupation.

Bending his head to study the paper in front of him, he half listened to the comforting ringing of swords. Four, his mind noted professionally and they were good, whichever four were practicing. As an experienced swordsman himself, he could tell by the timing and cadence of the hits. Not just good, he noted, but very good, bordering on excellence even. Familiar.

A suspicion crept into his mind, he dropped his quill as he rose from the chair and headed towards the door. Once on his porch, he leaned on the rail with both hands, elbows locked straight as he scanned the yard. Sure enough, he spotted his four problem children sparring in the snow packed yard. Despite himself, he had to simply watch and marvel at the way the four fought. Poetry in motion, each one using his style to his advantage. Since they knew one another's fighting style so intimately, they had to get creative to gain an advantage. And inventive they were, using anything and everything near them to gain advantage in the mock battle.

A cadet wandered out of the building to watch the legendary four spar, standing with his mouth hanging open in amazement. Treville probably should have called a halt to the battle when a poor chicken became an object of distraction to be used against each other. The chicken, not happy to be part of their game, used its wings to its advantage and escaped the foursome.

But Treville did end it when he realized the four were slowly figthing their way towards the bedazzled cadet. It was so subtle, even he didn't realize what was going on at first. Suddenly, the hapless onlooker went from being a sideline spectator to being in the middle of the battle. The four musketeers, never breaking their rhythm, moved themselves until they were on all four sides of the lad, and proceed to fight around him, with him in the middle.

The Captain had a feeling the boy would need a change of pants by the time the four musketeers got bored with their game. Tréville had no fear for the cadet's safety; the four expert swordsmen could easily fight around him and not a single blade would even brush the cadet's clothes. But the cadet didn't know that and the lad looked about to faint.

"Enough!" Tréville bellowed from his position on the wooden porch.

Being mostly housebroken, the four did cease their sparring at the sound of his command. The cadet sank to the snow-covered ground in a shivering heap that had nothing to do with being cold.

"Is he unhurt?" the Captain demanded as he stomped down the stairs and over to where his reprehensible musketeers stood looking like innocent choir boys.

"Of course," Porthos snorted as if the question was offensive.

"Not a hair out of place," Aramis added with a sniff of his own.

"He is fine," Athos declared with confidence bordering on arrogance.

At that moment, the distressed cadet began vomiting in the trampled snow.

Cocking an eyebrow, Athos added drily. "Mostly."

Scowling and shaking his head, the Captain walked over and helped the wretched lad to his feet after he was done removing breakfast from his stomach. With a fatherly pat on the back, he sent the boy to the barracks to clean up.

"That ain't our fault," Porthos announced after the lad had left. "He needs to have a stronger stomach than that if he is to become a musketeer."

"I seriously doubt when he woke this morning, he expected to be in the middle of a sword fight," Captain Treville declared with a touch of anger. "Just like I did not expect to see you four here when I specifically assigned you to the armory to conduct weapons maintenance.

"But," Athos started in that tone that the Tréville knew only too well. The one that implied the Captain had 'misunderstood' their intent. "That is exactly what we were doing."

He wanted to wipe the smug look off his lieutenant's face, but restrained himself to simply command, "Explain."

"We were ensuring the swords were still in good condition," Athos succinctly explained.

"By sparring?"

"It seemed like a good way to ...test them." With one of the unnerving stares he had in his repertory, Athos stood looking at his superior.

"And the cadet?" Tréville demanded. "Had you slipped."

"Us?" questioned d'Artagnan replied cockily which earned him a glare from the Captain.

"Perhaps..." Athos stated slowly, "That wasn't such a good idea."

"No, it wasn't." The glare he gave his second said it all. He expected better of the man. Athos was the most level headed soldier he knew, except when he wasn't, like now.

"All of you. Back into the armory. Inspect and clean the weapons, but no more testing them out. Am I understood?" the Captain demanded of the four.

Each solemnly bobbed their heads in concurrence. Giving a curt nod to his men, he turned to go when he spotted a messenger coming through the gate. Walking over to the man, he accepted the letter the man was delivering. Glancing at the addressee, he headed back over to the quartet and held the letter out to Athos.

Giving his Captain a puzzled glance, Athos accepted the letter and glanced at the writing on the front. Flipping it over, he only needed to glance at the wax seal before he frowned deeply and shoved it in his pocket.

"I need to...go." With that he spun on his heel and headed for his quarters, leaving his brothers and the Captain wondering what had just happened.

"Who was the letter from?" d'Artagnan asked the Captain who shrugged not knowing.

"One look at the seal and well..." Porthos said looking round at the others. '"He knew it."

"Go. Finish the Armory. Give him some time," the Captain commanded, though not unkindly.

The three did as told, more or less. They went to the armory for thirty minutes, before they headed for Athos' room. They had given Athos 'some time' as the Captain had instructed them, though probably not as long as their commander had in mind, hence d'Artagnan stealthy checking the courtyard before they hurried across it towards the barracks.

—-MMMM—-

Back in his room, Athos slammed the door in a temper. Stripping off his gloves, he tossed them on the table before searching for the nearest wine bottle. Not even looking for a glass, he slugged back a mouthful. After two more generous drinks, he set the bottle on the table, went over to the fire and brought it back to life.

Shedding his weapons belt on the table, he grabbed the bottle of wine again and dropped into a chair by the fire, trying to let is warmth remove some of the tension from his body. Placing the bottle on the floor, he took the letter from his pocket and turned it over and over in his hand. For a moment, he almost thought to toss it in the fire unread, but then thought better of it.

Taking a deep, somewhat shaky breath, started to break the seal, when the guilt began to wash over him. He hadn't delivered the gifts to Pinon and he felt such shame that once again he had failed. They had not gotten back from the Abbey until nearly a week after Christmas. And they had all been ill by the time they arrived home, courtesy of some winter bug. By the time they were better, it was too late to do anything. Pére Noël had long come and gone, but not to Pinon. Shame washed over him again.

The letter in his hand was from the innkeeper, now Mayor of Pinon. Athos was sure it was going to be about the lack of gifts. Maybe accusatory, or even worse, understanding. 'Dear Comte de la Fére. Hope nothing ill has befallen you. Don't worry about the lack of gifts from Pére Noël. Children grow up quickly and understand times are tough. We are blessed to be under the patronage of the de la Fére family and have a liege Lord such as yourself.' Being mad at him he could handle; compassion not, for he didn't deserve it.

"I don't need this!" he growled as he crumbled the unopened letter and tossed it towards the fire. His aim, however, was off for once and the ball of paper landed short of its mark. Picking up the wine bottle, he drowned his sorrows once more.

The knock on his door didn't surprise him at all, only the fact, perhaps, that it hadn't come sooner. The knocked repeated itself, and experience told him even if he ignored it they would not go away. Quickly, he knocked back more of the wine for experience had also taught him they would take his method of coping away from him too. By the time they had knocked the last and final time and barged in, he'd imbibed about half the bottle of what was surprisingly a decent red. As predicted, they came in, took his wine and settled on the floor and the meager furnishings in his room.

"What are we celebrating?" Aramis asked as he stole the wine bottle, raised it to his lips, and drank.

"You left us to do all the dirty work," Porthos grumbled as he dropped onto the floor near the fire and held his hands out to warm them.

Without raising his head, which was lowered, Athos snapped back, "Didn't seem to take you long to finish."

D'Artagnan went to get the bottle of wine from Aramis, but the older musketeer bypassed him and gave it to Porthos on the floor.

Grinning at the youngest musketeer, Porthos lifted the bottle to his lips. "Rank has its privileges," he gloated before drinking.

"You mean age," d'Artagnan retorted with a smirk of his own.

Porthos beckoned the lad and rumbled, "Come over here and repeat that, pup."

"But we digress. We missed you at the armory. You certainly hurried off quickly," Aramis noted turning the conversation back on Athos. He paused to give the swordsman a chance to speak, which of course he did not. "You got a letter?" Aramis prompted.

If anything, Athos somehow managed to fold deeper into himself, conveying the unmistakable attitude of 'go the hell away'.

But Aramis was not one to be denied. "The letter was good news?"

Silence.

"The letter was bad news?"

Silence.

"The letter was not yours?"

Silence.

"The letter was blank?" Aramis stared at Athos then sighed. "What a waste of paper."

D'Artagnan, who had plopped down on the other side of the fire, saw the crumbled letter laying on the edge of the stone hearth. Quietly, he picked it up and held raised it for his brothers to see.

"It would appear," Aramis drawled as he walked over and took the letter from the Gascon, "you didn't open and read your letter." He turned it over in his hand, confirmed it was addressed to Athos, and then flipped it over again and looked at the half-broken seal. "Isn't that your…the Comte de la Fére's… seal?"

Athos raised his head, his green eyes snapping with anger. "Put that down."

"No," Aramis said calmly. "Why don't you want to read it?"

Athos stared at Aramis for a few minutes and the tension in the room grew thick. Finally, he muttered, "It is not important."

Dragging the only other chair in the room closer to the fire, Aramis sat, still holding the letter. "I don't know. Someone, the innkeeper mayor of Pinon I'd guess because of the seal, thought it was important enough to go to the trouble of writing to you."

Dropping his eyes to stare at the fire, Athos muttered, "I told them I wished nothing more to do with them."

"No matter what, your responsibly does not end that easily, Athos," Porthos scolded him. "Say what you want, think what you want, but you have a connection to those people."

"You're the son of nobility. Where is your responsibility to your people," Athos callously spat back, regretting his words the minute they left his mouth.

"I'm the son of a slave and a nobleman, who was raised in the Court of Miracles. Those are my people, no others. And I do take care of them when I can," Porthos said with a touch of anger. "I'm not the first-born son of the Comte de la Fére, one of the oldest noble linages in France. Raised in privilege with a duty and destiny."

"I have no destiny and have long ago sullied my family's duties," Athos declared bitterly. "And that letter just serves as more proof. I don't need to read it to understand I have failed once again."

As his other brothers had been conversing, Aramis had opened the letter and read it. "Judging by what it says here, I'd say you did very well, though I don't know how you arranged it."

All eyes in the room focused on Aramis, but only one person spoke. "You read my letter?"

"You had doubts that I would?" Aramis replied scornfully.

With a sigh, all the anger and bravado drained out of Athos and he slumped in his chair once more. "No, I suppose not. So once more my shame has seen the light of day."

"Shame? What is written here hardly seems shameful to me. Perhaps it is my limited understanding, but I'd say this confirms you are the warm-hearted, generous man I know you to be."

A mirthless chuckle escaped Athos' lips. "Apparently, you hit your head on something hard in the armory for I am none of those things. And Porthos, I am sorry for what I said earlier. I was wrong."

The streetfighter gave him a nod and a small smile and Athos knew he had been forgiven by the kind-hearted man.

"Shall I read the letter aloud and let us all be the judge of what it says?" Aramis asked his brethren, two of which nodded their head in concurrence and one who dissented.

"Majority rules." Smoothing out the paper, Aramis began to read aloud in his melodious voice. "Dear Comte de la Fére. I know you hoped never to hear from us again, and I was respecting your wishes. However, the generosity you showed the children and adults of Pinon this Christmas was so overwhelming, I had to write. Pinon had a very tough year, like most in France from what I hear from travelers. Hunger and sickness were our companions for many months. We lost the very young and the very old this winter season. The bitter cold was not our friend. Then under the guise of Pére Noël, you left such a lavish number of gifts; food, clothes, medicines and toys. Enough to go around for the many in need. I realize you probably are not be thrilled to hear from us, but I had to thank you. God bless you. No matter what you may think, you are a wonderful liege Lord and we are proud to be associated with the great Comte de la Fére. Sincerely, Bertrand."

"Doesn't sound too horrible to me," Porthos said.

Athos's mouth dropped open as he stared at Aramis. "That's not what it says," he blurted out. "It can't."

"I assure you," Aramis stated as he handed over the letter to Athos, who sat up straight in his chair. "It does. I may not have had as vast an education as you, but I'm sure I read that correctly."

Athos' eyes flew over the paper, reading it once, twice, three times as if he expected it to change upon one of the readings.

The musketeers, had learned the previous year that Athos secretly left gifts, in the name of Pére Noël, in the innkeeper of Pinon's barn. In fact, they had helped him make the delivery when an injury almost sidelined him.

"You must have really gotten the gifts to them early this year," d'Artagnan said. "You and Aramis were gone to Le Havre and then the trip to the Abbey. It is good you planned ahead."

A strange expression crossed Athos' face. "But I did not."

"What do you mean you didn't? The letter is proof. You're trying to hide the fact you have a heart and it has gone too far this time." Aramis reached over and snatched the letter. "Here, is the proof."

Slumping once more, Athos muttered to himself. "It can't be true. I mean the letter in the boot…it was from… because he…and the apple." Shaking his head as if that would clear his mind, Athos thought back to his strange dreams. Of a chatty donkey named Gui, who could speak on Christmas Eve. The companion of none other than Pére Noël, who happened to also be the Abbot of the Abbey of Saint-Germain d'Auxerre. A little grey beast who urged him to speak to his horse next Christmas Eve, when all animals are granted the gift of speech and ask him if he liked his name.

Athos slowly raised his eyes and looked at his brothers. "Do you think Roger is a bad name for a horse?" Without waiting for an answer, he dropped his eyes and began muttering to himself again. "Maybe it is an odd name. Maybe I should ask Roger next Christmas Eve."

Frowning at his brother, Aramis inquired, "Just how much wine did you ingest?"

Raising his head, he declared in a commanding tone, "Not enough. Give me back the bottle."

The End