Authors note: Everyone gets a bit of a whump and there's not much plot. I will post the chapters daily, but the times may vary along with my shift pattern. I hope you enjoy it.
The Trouble with Stolen Goods
'How much is it worth?' asked d'Artagnan as they slowed the horses down to a trot and an eventual stop by the stream.
They dismounted and allowed the horses to drink their fill as they took the opportunity to dust themselves down. Aramis crouched down by the stream and scooped water up to drink and wash his face and neck. Athos took a few swigs from his wineskin and Porthos wandered off a little way, stretching his arms out as he went.
'I heard,' said Aramis as he stood up, 'that it's worth more than any other jewel in France.'
'I heard,' said Porthos as he returned to the group, 'that the King had planned on selling it...it's no wonder he's so keen to get it back.'
'I bet Richelieu isn't in the King's favour about this. The Red Guard were meant to be keeping it safe,' said d'Artagnan as he held out a carrot for his horse.
'Two men died,' remarked Athos, 'whoever has stolen the gem was determined that they were to have it. This is not a mission to be taken lightly.'
Athos watched as each man nodded. Knowing that two Red Guardsmen had been killed when the gemstone had been stolen was sobering. The Guardsmen would not have been easy to kill. Their injuries were enough to show that they did not die easily. Despite the animosity between the two groups of soldiers the Musketeers had been angered by the deaths.
The King had ordered several groups of Musketeers to be dispatched to hunt for the thieves. Treville had little information to go on, but one thought was that the thieves were Spanish and that the theft was being used to sully any brittle peace the two nations had.
The inseparables had been one group sent to search the main roads to the south of Paris in the hope of finding the thieves. It was a long shot, but with luck one of the groups of Musketeers would come across the thieves and retrieve the stolen gemstone.
Once the horses had drunk their fill they remounted and returned to the main road, pushing into a canter. Each man remained vigilant, looking for anything suspicious.
Porthos slowed his horse as the old man waved at him. The small bent man beckoned them over. Porthos dismounted and handed his reins to Aramis.
'Are you looking for someone?' asked the man, who still had to look up at Porthos even after he was stood on the ground.
Porthos nodded but did not reply.
'There's a group of Spaniards camping in the woods a couple of miles away. They came through here. They spoke French but I could tell it wasn't their first language,' said the man pointing towards the woods.
'How do you know where they are camping?' asked Athos.
The small man looked across to him, 'I had one of my labourers follow them. We all know the woods well, there are some useful herbs growing in there, and I didn't want those men trampling all over them.'
'Why do you think we're looking for them?' asked Porthos.
Porthos smiled, 'thank you, monsieur,' he said as he reached for his money bag.
'Oh, I don't want paying,' said the old man, 'just sort them out. Some of the young men are annoyed about them being there...I'm worried they may get themselves hurt trying to get the Spaniards out.'
Porthos nodded, 'we understand,' he said.
He remounted and as they walked the horses into the woods he saw the old man walking away, towards a small house a few hundred yards away.
'It might not even be them,' said d'Artagnan.
'But it might. We will observe them for a while before we do anything else,' replied Athos.
They approached the camp in silence and found a spot where they were close enough to listen to any conversation but would be unobserved by the men they were watching.
The camp was set up in a clearing well away from the road if the men had not been observed entering the woods no one would have known they were there. The change of seasons into spring had meant a fresh growth of leaves and plants also helped to obscure the camp.
A fire was set in the centre of the clearing, it was burning well with the remains of a meal littered around it. Four men were either sat or lying around the fire drinking.
Five horses were tethered to trees a few yards from the men. A small shallow stream trickled passed on the far side of the camp.
The men were all dressed for travel, they wore heavy-duty cloaks, all dark in colour. They were clearly hardened to a life on the move. None of the men seemed the least bit bothered to be camping on what was going to be a cool night. The two men who were lying stretched out on their bedrolls were already either asleep or dozing. The other two men were talking animatedly and looking at something that one of them was holding.
The two men were talking quietly, probably so that they did not disturb the two men who were already asleep. They were talking in Spanish. D'Artagnan glanced across to Aramis, the marksman was listening intently, following the conversation. His own Spanish was limited so he did not try to work out what was being said, instead he continued to observe.
As the four Musketeers watched the man turned the item in his hand, the fire reflected off its surface. He lifted the item up slightly and turned it so that they could see it better. The gemstone looked dark, apart from the glints of reflected light. It was larger than they had expected. The size of an apricot.
They had found the thieves.
D'Artagnan studied the men carefully, they were all armed. The two sleeping men had removed their weapons but had left them within easy reach. The two men with the gemstone each wore a sword and gun. One of them also carried a dagger, tucked into his belt. There was always the possibility of other weapons being secreted about the camp or even tucked into belts that he could not see.
Athos tapped him on the shoulder and indicated that they should retreat. D'Artagnan nodded and followed his brothers away from the camp. Once out of earshot, but still talking quietly they turned to one another. D'Artagnan noted that Porthos kept his eyes on the direction they had come from throughout their conversation.
'They only intend to camp tonight,' said Aramis, 'they're breaking camp early in the morning and will push on for many miles tomorrow, that's why they have settled early today.'
Aramis paused looking at each of his brothers.
'If we are going to get that gem back, we need to do it tonight.'
Athos nodded, 'I agree. I would rather take them by surprise, this evening, than meet them during the day tomorrow.'
Porthos was still looking towards the camp as he spoke, 'we'll give them a bit longer, hopefully, they will either all sleep or only leave one on guard...are we taking them captive?'
D'Artagnan watched as Athos mulled the question over. The King had not given them specific instructions regarding the men who had stolen the gem. They had only been told to retrieve the stolen item, not what was to be done with the thieves.
'We should try to take them alive, but not at a cost to ourselves,' Athos said.
D'Artagnan had expected the answer that Athos gave. None of them enjoyed killing others, it was part of their lives as soldiers, but it was never a pleasant one.
Athos continued, 'if we can liberate the gem without them knowing it we may be able to take it and leave without any need to fight.'
'Do you actually think we will be that lucky?' asked Aramis with a wry smile.
Athos shook his head, 'no, but one can hope.'
They fanned out around the camp, Athos and d'Artagnan went to the right whilst Porthos and Aramis went to the left. They worked their way around silently. After deciding that they would try to neutralise the men rather than kill them the element of surprise was even more important.
All four men appeared to be asleep. The two men that had been admiring the gemstone were lying further from the fire. Aramis and Porthos crept towards them. Aramis saw that Athos and d'Artagnan had broken cover on the other side of the camp and were edging toward the other two men.
Porthos was aiming for the man who had been holding the stone, as he reached the man's side he crouched down. Aramis did the same by the other man, he looked up and watched as Athos and d'Artagnan closed the last few yards to their men.
But the luck that they had hoped for was not on their side. The campfire crackled loudly for a second as a couple of the burning sticks shifted. The man d'Artagnan was about to reach sat up, as he reached out to take a stout stick, presumably to poke at the fire he saw Porthos and Aramis across the fire by the two sleeping thieves.
D'Artagnan was quick to close the gap, but not quick enough. The man yelled out a warning as he swung his stick at the young Musketeer. A rush of movement ensued. Aramis lost track of Athos and d'Artagnan as he was forced backwards by the man he had been about to neutralise.
As the man had surged forward Aramis lost his footing and ended up on his back with the other man on top of him. Aramis blocked a punch and kicked out at the same time, forcing the man off him. They both scrambled to their feet, Aramis went to pull his gun but found that the fall had dislodged it from its place on his belt, he could not pull it loose quick enough. He had to jump back to evade a thrust of his opponent's sword. Pulling his own sword he was quickly embroiled in an intense, but short fight. The Spaniard had skill but he was slow in his movements, Aramis suspected the man was sleep deprived.
The man made a fatal mistake giving Aramis the chance to push his sword into the man's chest, penetrating his lung. The man gasped as blood bubbled on his lips. Aramis said a silent prayer as he pushed the man off his sword and to the ground. The dying man twitched convulsively as his body fought to take a proper breath before settling back down.
A cry from Porthos and a thud told Aramis that two of the men had been dealt with. He glanced at Porthos who was panting as he wiped blood from his sword. His brother was unharmed, unlike the thief in front of him who had blood pooling beneath his head as it continued to pump from the wound on his neck, his open eyes no longer seeing the sky above him.
Aramis looked across to his brothers who were both still fighting. D'Artagnan was busy pushing his man away a few steps. As the man steadied himself d'Artagnan pulled his gun, levelled it and calmly shot him in the head. Aramis could tell from the fleeting look of regret that d'Artagnan felt he had no choice but to kill the man.
D'Artagnan turned towards Athos and the fourth man, ready to offer help if it was necessary. Although they were each more than capable of taking on more than one untrained man, none of them were above accepting assistance.
The man fighting Athos was a thick set burley middle-aged swordsman, whose use of the weapon was unruly. Athos was not having any issues keeping the man back, it became apparent to Aramis that Athos was wearing the man down. Perhaps he would be the only one of them to successfully take his opponent alive.
In an unusual move that surprised Aramis and unfortunately the swordsman in front of him, the thief threw his sword towards Athos who had to quickly change his tactic to brush the weapon aside. In that same second the man rushed Athos and pushed him to the floor. They were dangerously close to the fire.
As the two men fought on the ground for a few seconds d'Artagnan moved forward but could not get close enough to attempt to pull the thief off Athos. Aramis pulled his gun from his weapons belt but could not fire for fear of hitting their brother.
The two fighting men managed to scramble to their feet, separating for a second. Aramis aimed and fired, hitting the man in the back of the head.
At the same moment, the watching Musketeers realised that the fighting men were not just close to the campfire when they had been on the ground they must have been in it as well. Athos had somehow managed to get burning twigs caught up in his belt. But the swordsman had not noticed, he had clearly been too caught up in the fist fight with the other man. Still regaining his composure Athos was unaware that the twigs were smoking dangerously close to his supply of gunpowder.