The setting sun lit the scene with a golden glow which could have been cheerful given the season and its promise of a warm evening lulled by the dialogue of a couple of nightingales, bathed in the perfume of the freshly-cut hay and the young flowers of a big lime tree. Its old branches gave a welcome shadow during the hot hours of the day and protected from the evening cool breeze. For him, however, the golden light looked like the eerie glow of a wake. Swaying slightly in his saddle, d'Artagnan tried to straighten. They hadn't even departed yet but the whole world seemed to move and swirl. He tried to arch his back, to suppress the unbearable sensation of a sticky sweat soaking his shirt. The still too hot sun hitting the black leather of his uniform increased the uncomfortable feeling.
"Is everything alright?"
Someone was talking to him and had probably repeated this question because the tone was worried and impatient.
"Yes. Fine." He mumbled, his tongue feeling swollen in his dry mouth.
"Obviously." Aramis replied and his low voice could have been mistaken for Athos'.
D'Artagnan tried to concentrate on his surroundings rather than on his own misery. The trees, the sparse grass, the darkening blue sky above their heads. He closed his eyes firmly. It was a bad dream. Probably caused by the fever due to his exhaustion, the nasty blow he had received on the back of the head, or a wound. A hand gripping his forearm and a leg brushing his, coupled with a shudder running through his horse's flanks made him open his eyes again. He hadn't noticed Aramis approaching him and closing the gap between their stallions. The two beasts were as used to working and moving together as their riders were, but d'Artagnan's young Friesian was as jumpy and hotheaded as the young man.
"Are you ready?"
D'Artagnan nodded, breathed in deeply and, gripping the reins tightly, forced himself to look down at the wagon he would have to follow during their short journey back to Paris. The royal flag covered Tréville's body but the unmistakable darkening stain soaking it made real what d'Artagnan had tried to deny or forget. He closed his eyes when his vision blurred and swallowed his saliva which felt as thick as the sweat that his body seemed to produce in an unusual amount. He almost recoiled when he opened his eyes again and met the concerned look of a pair of grey green irises whose pupils were reduced to the size of a pin head in the blinding horizontal last rays of the sun.
"What is it?" Athos asked Aramis, ignoring, probably rightly, d'Artagnan's presence.
Aramis shrugged and they exchanged a silent conversation. At last, Athos nodded and guided his horse towards the head of their small procession consisting of a wagon driven by the farmer who had lent it, three grieving musketeers, a skinny dog and a no less skinny filthy child who had decided that the whole thing could be interesting.
"Oh, P'tit* Louison, go back to your mother and take your mangy rat with you." The farmer yelled at his son.
"Please, I want to…"
"You want nothing. Ouste* !"
At last, they departed, but it wasn't a relief as he found it more and more difficult to stay in his saddle. His horse made a few nervous jumps sideways when he felt its master squeeze his calves against its flanks in an unusual way. The young man had to keep going, for their dead former Captain, for his friends, for himself. He looked at Athos' figure, ahead of the wagon. He noticed how stiff his back looked, how his horse seemed to feel its rider's grief and anxiety. He flinched when the band of iron circling a wheel of the wagon produced a few sparks as it hit a stone. They were definitely riding too fast for his own liking. For two reasons : he was dizzy in a way he had rarely experienced even after receiving a whole barn on the head and the bumps of the road made Tréville's body jump under the royal banner in an incongruous and sickening manner.
D'Artagnan felt the intense stare of Aramis beside him. He didn't need to look at him to know that any minute, a question would come about his state of health. He tried to put on a brave face and straightened his back again, but a sharp pain flared through his whole body.
He heard Aramis cough slightly and ignored it. The buzzing in his head worsened suddenly. He tried to figure out where it came from. Through the fog in which his head was wrapped, he saw Athos come towards him, exchange a few words with Aramis who took his place at the head of the convoy. The Captain rode silently beside his young brother.
The droning wouldn't stop. Blinking, d'Artagnan understood where the noise came from. Two big bluish flies were drawing irritating spirals above the body. It was suddenly too much for him. Sliding heavily from his horse without bothering to stop it, he rushed towards the side of the path where he fell on his knees, clutching at his stomach with one hand while the other came to his mouth. He hiccuped helplessly for a few seconds, the spasms bringing tears which leaked between his tightly closed eyelids.
"Hey, what is it?" Athos whispered in his ear, his tone worried and sad.
D'Artagnan hadn't even heard him dismount and approach him. He couldn't answer, too busy trying not to make a fool of himself. He shook his head but the world spun and his willpower was suddenly not strong enough to keep his stomach from ridding itself of what little he had eaten since the morning. One of Athos' hands on his head and the other gripping his biceps was the only things keeping him from collapsing on his side. He felt his Captain's long slender fingers run through his hair as if trying to find something.
"I'm not surprised." Athos murmured. "Why didn't you say anything?"
He had found it, then, and honestly, d'Artagnan couldn't have told him because he had forgotten the strong blow he had received from Grimaud's silence told him that the wagon had stopped. A pair of dusty boots appeared in his field of vision, then a wet handkerchief followed by a waterskin.
"Will you tell us now?" Aramis asked.
"I'm fine." D'Artagnan managed to articulate.
"I'll go ahead and warn the Palace of our arrival. In the meantime, take your time. No need to hurt yourself further." Athos said, his voice forbidding any objection.
"I can ma …"
"No, you can't." Athos asserted, standing up and leaving his young friend to the care of Aramis.
D'Artagnan immediately missed the warmth of Athos' hands even if Aramis had already taken his Captain's place -Athos had probably explained the situation with his famous silent language made of frowns and raised eyebrows-. Aramis knelt next to the young man and moved his hand up and down his arm. D'Artagnan cursed himself for being so weak. Surely his friends had more right than he had to mourn the loss of their former Captain but they looked so strong. Athos hadn't even shed a tear, his face barely showing his sorrow. Only the lines around his eyes seemed deeper and his complexion even more pale than usual. Drinking gratefully from the waterskin, d'Artagnan was able to stand up without help, to put his foot in the stirrup merely stifling a whimper. Once in the saddle, he squeezed his legs a little too strongly. The beast pulled on the reins with a strength and an abruptness that threatened to throw the Musketeer over its head. Aramis seized the bridle very close to the bit to calm the horse and let the young man recover his balance.
"Any information about your health you would share with me now?"
"I'm fine." D'Artagnan mumbled glaring at his friend. "I'm just … tired … and …" He stopped, not trusting his voice or his eyes.
Aramis reached out to squeeze his forearm, nodding understandingly, but he was still unconvinced.
"I will take the lead. Can you stay at the back on your own? Just call if … "
The dark feverish glare he received was enough to stop any further interrogation.
Of course, he needed to prepare for their arrival, of course, it was his role as the Captain. Of course, it was necessary… and of course, he was a hypocrite. The truth was that he needed to escape. It was selfish, he knew it. He tried to forget the faces and looks which were printed behind his eyelids. The dying blue eyes, looking at the sky in their last instants and the dark sorrowful eyes looking at him with such despair, silently begging him to stay. He pressed his left leg against his horse's flanks urging the animal to gallop. He needed the feeling of the big stallion's muscles rolling underneath him, he needed the warm wind in his eyes, blurring his vision. His horse's harsh breathing in rhythm with their gallop lulled his mind. He ignored the drops of foam that the wind brought to his face as the big beast nervously chewed at the bit. He ignored everything until he reached the first walls of the city. Pulling on the reins and straightening in his saddle, he slowed down and righted his uniform and hat.
When he saw the massive walls of Le Louvre, casting a dark menacing shadow over the streets as the last rays of sun made the building look like a huge copper treasure chest, he felt his heart miss a beat. He didn't know what he would find there, how he would announce Tréville's death to the Queen, to … to Porthos. He shook his head angrily, as if trying to empty it of everything. He dismounted, grimacing as his sore muscles reminded him of the ordeals of the past days and hours, deciding that continuing on foot would help him to calm down and prepare his speech. He felt his lips twitch in a bitter half smile. He knew perfectly well that all the words he always managed to put in order in his mind and all the sentences he took time to mentally repeat would refuse to leave his mouth when he needed them most, only to be ready again hours later when he needed them no more. He had made an art of a form of silent language his friends had learnt to understand but his position as the Captain had forced him to translate it into sounds and real words.
Walking slowly along the Seine, he reached the large gates of the new Cour where he let a stable boy take care of his horse. Then he headed towards the royal apartments. He was relieved when he was told to meet the Queen in the small gardens at the back of the new wing Louis had ordered a few years before and where a few workers were drinking in the shadows of the evening after their long tiring day. He would at least avoid the stifling air of the large over furnished rooms, their painted ceilings heavy with too much gold making him unable to breathe properly.
The small garden was agreable in the evening air. The high walls bringing a refreshing shadow after the so hot hours of this day. He leant for a moment against the cool stone of the archway, hidden behind the pillar, to compose himself and watch the scene before him. The Queen sat on a low bench, smiling fondly at her son who was running and giggling between the flower beds bordered by low hedges of boxtree. The boy in this instant was just a boy, not a king, not a former fugitive. The tableau could have been perfect and cheerful but Athos noticed how the Queen had her hands crossed on her lap, her fingers twisting nervously between her knees, crumpling the silk of her dress. In the background, he noticed two shadows walking slowly arm in arm. Sylvie and Constance. He took a deep breath. He needed to reassure them, so he needed to show himself.
A movement behind him made him turn around abruptly, a hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Athos? Where … The others? What happened?"
Porthos had gripped his elbow, recognising in his friend's features all the signs he knew how to read. Athos opened his mouth and closed it tightly.
"Athos? What happened?" Porthos murmured as Athos had averted his gaze to turn towards the garden.
"They are coming … With … I came ahead to …"
God , again, his words deserted him. He turned towards Porthos, his eyes trying to say what he couldn't, his eyebrows drawn together, a deep crease in the middle of his forehead. Porthos' grip changed to something more comforting as the big man sensed how upset his friend was. Athos felt his thumb brushing his arm gently to urge him to speak.
"After you left … with … the King … the fight …"
Porthos let go of his arm and brought a hand to his mouth fearing the worst.
"Aramis?" He murmured, behind his gloved hand.
In any other situation, Athos would have smiled fondly at Porthos' reaction. Aramis was still the first in his mind, in his heart, even after all their disagreement, after the years which had broken their friendship. This friendship of which so many pieces were still missing, hidden behind the shadow of unforgiven things, of unsaid words.
"Aramis and d'Artagnan are … fine. At least … they say so. They are coming but …"
"The … Tréville ...?" Porthos said slowly, his eyes suddenly veiled.
Athos nodded sadly feeling his throat constricting, his eyes fleeting towards the little boy running on the grass.
Athos bowed his head, Porthos' question reminding him too well that he hadn't managed to stop the monster before his new murder.
"Athos? How?" Porthos repeated his voice wobbling with grief and anger as he seized Athos' collar with his big hands. "Look at me, Athos? Who? How? When I left, he was just … just… He was still ..."
"Grimaud. He shot him. We … I was … too late." Athos whispered barely audible.
Porthos let go of Athos' uniform as if afraid of his own brutal reaction, as if afraid of hurting the already broken man. For a few seconds, he kept his hands open above Athos' shoulders, his eyes empty, his breathing too fast...
"Porthos?" Athos softly called, frowning.
A ragged breath answered him and suddenly he found himself engulfed in Porthos' embrace, the man's fingers digging in his shoulders and back. Athos had stumbled backwards under the weight of his friend, spreading his arms in his surprise, but he slowly closed them around the large shaking back, clumsily trying to comfort his brother and secretly wishing he could allow his own grief to be washed in such a childish flow of tears. But he couldn't, his eyes were dry, he couldn't even close them for the only things he saw were Tréville's dying clear blue irises, and the growing pool of blood in the dirt.
"'m sorry Athos, sorry, sorry …" Porthos mumbled in his hair.
Sorry? I am the one who should be sorry, Athos thought, but once more the words evaded him and he just tightened his embrace. They didn't hear the gravel screeching under three pairs of shoes but the muffled " No, please, no !" made them pull apart. Athos turned towards the three women and raised his hands when he saw Constance, with her fingers over her mouth and her eyes wide with fear, Sylvie's arm around her waist. The Queen, her eyes shining with unshed tears, had a hand under Constance's elbow. Only her rank made her try no to give way to her anxiety.
"No, Constance, he is … no, d'Artagnan…He is fine." Athos said in a hurry, stumbling over the words. Suddenly, he froze and, bowing towards the Queen, he added more calmly not sure if what he was about to say was allowed by the etiquette . "Your majesty… Aramis is well… but … "
A sigh escaped the women's mouths.
"Minister Tréville ... " He began before taking a deep breath.
"Minister Tréville has been killed." Porthos helped, his hand squeezing Athos' shoulder.
"Aramis and d'Artagnan are on their way with his …" Athos continued.
The Queen laid a fine white hand on his forearm and nodded calmly, her eyes shone, her lower lip trembled slightly but she remained a Queen in everything. The grieving woman hidden behind the mask of the monarch.
"Captain, can we talk elsewhere? Constance, please, take the King to his appartements, my son trusts you. Mademoiselle Bodin, please, stay …"
"Thank you, your majesty." Sylvie whispered shyly with a clumsy curtsy, as the young king slipped his little hand in hers, looking up at her with his big clear eyes, trying to understand what was happening.
"I will wait for them here." Porthos said crossing his arms over his chest in a I-will-stay-here-as-long-as-necessary stance.
To be continued...