The ice-covered forest would be beautiful, were it not so bitterly cold. Under a painfully blue sky, the trees are skeletons laden with snow, crystals glittering in the sun. Their horses' hooves crunch through the frozen snow - the only audible sound as the musketeers are making their way back to Paris, huddled deep into their cloaks, hats pulled low to shield their faces from the wind.
With a click of his tongue, Porthos speeds up his mount to catch up with their Lieutenant. Athos, as always, has taken the lead. He has been so quiet, swaying rhythmically to the trot of his black stallion, that Porthos wonders if he has fallen asleep.
"What." His reply, muffled through the scarf he has pulled over his face, is toneless.
"Think we could take a break? Light a fire, eat somethin', warm up? It's still half a day's ride to the garrison, and d'Artagnan looks like 'e's about to fall off 'is horse."
Athos turns in his saddle, his pale eyes barely visible between hat and scarf. Squinting against the brightness, he studies the youngest musketeer riding behind them, half asleep and shivering. Then Athos looks at the sky, apparently calculating time, daylight hours and distance left against the resilience of his comrades.
"Alright," he decides in his usual, cool voice. "One hour."
Porthos grins, already envisioning the warmth of a fire and possibly a few minutes of sleep. "HALT," he yells at the other two, startling Aramis from his frozen stupor and d'Artagnan's horse into a frightened little jump. "Dismount! We're taking a break!"
They hear them coming, but it is too late. There is nowhere to hide, not enough time to get on their horses. What irony that the clandestine band of highwaymen sneaking up on them is exactly who they have been looking for - unsuccessfully - for the last five days. Just when the musketeers have decided to abort the mission and return to the city, their targets find them.
The snow mutes the sounds of their approach, and they have learned to blend into the countryside they inhabit, robbing travellers and disappearing back into the woods for weeks now, leaving behind looted carriages and bodies with their throats slit and their eyes wide open in terminal surprise.
Aramis is on watch while Porthos and d'Artagnan are asleep, huddled close to the campfire, and Athos appears to be dozing, quiet and unmoving underneath his cloak and hat, but, in all likelihood, wide awake.
Somewhere, in the near distance, between the trees, something shifts. Then, the snap of a twig.
Aramis pulls one of the pistols from his belt.
"I heard it."
Athos already has his own pistol in hand, its muzzle peeking out from beneath the folds of his cloak. Aramis hasn't even seen him move.
Quietly, they listen for further sounds. And they come. The barely perceptible crunch of footfalls in the snow. The low nickering of a horse. Brown shapes flit between the dense firs around them, coming closer.
"Do you think it's them?" Aramis whispers.
"Possibly," Athos whispers back, his cool eyes scanning the treeline. "Wake d'Artagnan and Porthos. Quickly and quietly."
"Horses?" Aramis is automatically reverting to the shorthand they used in battle.
"Not enough time. They'll be upon us before we've saddled them."
They have given their tired, sweating mounts a reprieve from their saddles and baggage, wiped them them down and tied them to a tree where they are still dozing, covered merely by their saddlecloths.
"Ssshhhh!" Aramis clamps his hand over Porthos' mouth, placing a finger over his own lips as the big man's eyes find his, instantly alert. "Enemies approaching," Aramis hisses. "Could be Caval and his men. Get ready. D'Artagnan!" Aramis turns to their youngest who jerks awake when he touches his face and receives the same treatment as Porthos before.
"Stay close to Porthos," Aramis admonishes him. "Remember your training."
D'Artagnan stares at Aramis, wide-eyed, then looks at Athos.
His lieutenant gives him a stern nod. "Head over heart," Athos reminds him. "Time to prove we taught you right."
As a dozen figures suddenly crash through the trees and haul themselves at them, screaming, four musketeer pistols go off in unison, followed by the metallic whoosh of rapiers being unsheathed.
Three attackers go down immediately, clutching at bullet holes in their bodies, never to get up again. A fourth scrambles back into the trees, leaving a trail of blood. Caval's remaining men fire back. Porthos flinches as a musket ball digs into the tree beside him, peppering his cheek with splinters. Through the gunsmoke, he sees his brothers raise their swords, and he lifts his own blade to bring it down on a howling attacker, almost slicing him in half.
Being faced with at least two opponents each, the musketeers fight on instinct and muscle memory. There is no time to think. Block, thrust, parry. Lunge, swipe, kick. A fierce and bloody ballet is being performed in that glade, to the sounds of steel on steel, battle cries and shouts of pain.
Roaring, Porthos clashes with a large man sporting an axe. To his right, Aramis is a blur of blades and brown leather, swiping at two men while pirouetting around them. To his left, Porthos sees d'Artagnan smack his empty pistol into one man's face while deflecting a rapier from another. Athos dances past them, raining a panic-stricken highwayman with quick, efficient blows of his sword. Porthos almost grins as the duelling pair disappear into the trees, then he dispatches his own opponent with a neat slash of his main gauche. He barely has time to breathe before another man pops out of nowhere and flings himself at him.
Are there even more than a dozen?
Athos hears Porthos growl as he drives his own opponent deeper into the woods, separating him from his comrades. The man is no real match for him, and he finds himself almost enjoying the fight and the fear in the highwayman's eyes. But he has to end this, get back to his brothers. They're all holding their own, and he does not doubt they can manage without his help, but d'Artagnan does not have a lot of experience and Athos feels responsible for the young musketeer.
With a lunge and a quick step forward, he pins the highwayman's rapier underneath his arm, bringing his own blade to the other one's throat. For the fraction of a second, Athos stares into eyes begging for mercy, but this is neither the time nor the place for such a whim. A deft, clean slice, a spurt of blood, and the man crumples to the ground.
Too late, Athos senses someone move behind him. He pivots, rapier en garde, but all he sees is a darkly cloaked figure swinging the butt of a rifle at his face. The world explodes, then tilts. The snowy ground rises up to him. Then, nothing.