Athor's note: For this story, I have deviated from the progression of the story from the point where Philippe is being trained by the three Musketeers. For the flow of my story, I have changed this location from a chateau to a medieval walled city. Also, for plot purposes, in my story, it was D'Artagnan who wrote the letter to Raoul's commanding officer. There are likely to be other small changes apart from the more obvious ones.
Standing in his stirrups, gripping his galloping mount's sides with his knees as he leaned low over the gracefully arched neck, D'Artagnan urged more speed from the tiring horse. The strong black gelding, taller and stockier than the gray stallion he typically rode, responded instantly to its rider's request.
The gray, well-known to many as his favored mount, had been left in its stall in favor of the unrecognizable black. Seen standing outside any establishment, the stallion was a beacon to bystanders that D'Artagnan, Captain of the Musketeers, was inside, and during this trip, it was important that he remain anonymous. He could not risk being identified, so he had selected the gelding from the herd of unassigned horses at the Musketeer's stable. His uniform had also been left at the palace in favor of the black breeches and plain black coat that would allow him to blend in with the citizens he would encounter. A black cloak floated and billowed over the horse's hindquarters in rhythm to its long strides.
The countryside sped past in a blur of grassy green fields and colorful crops, and the Musketeer knew that the latter risked confiscation by the king to feed the army, an act which was forcing many citizens of France into poverty and starvation and was inciting widespread rebellion against the king and his representatives. No matter how many times D'Artagnan had tried to speak to the young king about his responsibilities, he remained oblivious to the suffering of his subjects.
In the curving road far ahead of him, he saw a column of supply wagons lumbering across a bridge which spanned a narrow stream, and his sharp eyes recognized the royal blue uniforms with the silver crosses tipped with gold fleur-de-lis as those of His Majesty's Musketeers. They were the men he had sent to retrieve supplies from neighboring communities to help relieve the burden of hunger on the starving Parisians, a temporary fix to an ongoing problem. He was pleased to notice that all the wagons appeared to be loaded to capacity.
Even out of uniform, he would be immediately recognized by his troops, so he sat back in the saddle and checked his horse's speed, then reined the animal off the road, and cut across the countryside. He entered a grove of trees upstream from the bridge that would help conceal him from the Musketeers.
The horse adjusted its speed again as they galloped down the gently sloping ground toward the slow moving water. As they approached the stream, D'Artagnan leaned forward and gave the horse its head. Its ears flicked nervously at the moving water, but a light touch from its rider's spur eliminated any notion of balking, and they sailed over the stream and landed smoothly on the other side. A steep embankment loomed ahead of them, and D'Artagnan nudged the horse's sides again when he felt the animal hesitate. Throwing its weight forward, the gelding galloped up the bank, and was then guided back in the direction of the road.
As they emerged from the trees, D'Artagnan cast a quick glance over his shoulder, and saw that the wagons and Musketeers were continuing to move slowly toward Paris, unaware that their captain was on a very personal mission that he hoped would solve many of the country's problems.
When he reached a fork in the road, he took the branch that meandered off to the right, noticing that the road narrowed considerably. Tall grasses grew on either side, and grass encroached on the road itself, indicating that it was rarely traveled.
He had passed a number of small villages during his ride from Paris, and judged that he was nearing his destination. Rest stops for the tired horse had been less frequent than he would have liked, but urgency necessitated the rapid pace. However, he knew that to continue for long at such a pace would kill the horse. Settling back in the saddle again, he drew in the reins, gradually pulling the animal down to a walk to allow it to take a breather.
The black's sweat-drenched sides heaved with exhaustion, and D'Artagnan patted its lathered neck with his gloved hand. "We are almost there, my friend," he said to the horse. "I regret the mistreatment, but a little farther and you will have a good rest."
The animal snorted and panted, as if wondering why it was being abused, but it plodded obediently beneath the anxious Musketeer. It was a young animal, and even though exhausted, there was still a spring in its step and an arch to its neck.
Anxiety filled D'Artagnan's heart at the slower pace and he was eager to be off again, for the news he carried to Aramis was critical, but he kept the horse at a walk a while longer. It would not serve his urgency to find himself on foot.
Glancing up at the position of the sun, he estimated that the time was the middle of the afternoon. By leaving the road and cutting across country whenever possible, he had made excellent time, but he still felt the importance of his mission and the necessity for quick resolution.
The gelding sensed its rider's urgency, and after about fifteen minutes it moved into a canter without being asked.
Adjusting quickly to the change in stride with the ease of an experienced horseman, D'Artagnan patted the animal's sleek neck again. "You have a good heart, my friend. When I return to Paris, I believe I will claim you as a second mount. If we both survive this trip," he added.
The gelding flicked its ears, unable to understand the words, yet understanding that it had pleased its rider.
D'Artagnan did not press the animal harder. Continuing on, alternating the controlled canter and a walk for another hour, he soon emerged from behind a low rise of ground and the village he sought came into view. Here, he shortened the reins again, and pulled the tired horse to a full stop. The black immediately lowered its head and its sides moved in and out rapidly, but the Musketeer hardly noticed. All his senses were focused entirely on the stone buildings that comprised the village, for here the danger to his life increased.
It was an ancient village dating from medieval times, as evidenced by the circular watch towers and high stone walls that had once protected the residents from warring tribes in those dangerous times hundreds of years earlier. A low rail fence extended from the high stone wall and continued down toward the river, containing a herd of milk cows, which grazed contentedly in the tall grass. Somewhere nearby he could hear the bleating of sheep. The community appeared peaceful, but he knew that looks could often be deceiving.
He had suspected for some time that a group of Jesuit rebels had been congregating in this township, possibly plotting to overthrow the king, but he had not attempted to obtain sufficient evidence to justify an assault on the village to eradicate the organization, confident that he and his Musketeers could deal with any attempts on the king's life. He was certain that it was to this place that Aramis had brought Athos and Porthos to prepare for their revolution. And D'Artagnan was well known as a staunch supporter of the king; hence, the need for disguise. Entering the village in his uniform would have been suicidal, but even in civilian clothing he would have to proceed with caution, for his countenance was well known to many. The problem he now faced was locating his friends, for questions from a stranger would be regarded with suspicion.
Dropping the reins on the horse's withers, he opened the satchel on his saddle and removed a musket pistol and checked its readiness. It was loaded and primed, so he reached beneath his cloak and tucked it into the back of his breeches, concealing it from view. Next, he grasped the hilt of his sword and partially withdrew it from its scabbard, making certain that it would draw smoothly with no obstruction. Satisfied, he pushed it back into the protective sheath. He hoped to avoid violence of any kind, but he would protect himself if the need arose.
Taking up the reins again, he nudged the horse's sides with his heels and followed the road as it approached the north wall of the village toward the entrance, keeping the horse at a slow walk. His entire body was alert and his eyes scanned the tower windows as he passed, looking for anything that might appear threatening, but all were dark and empty. Finally, the high wall parted, and he found himself at the head of the street that ran between the tall buildings toward the south end of the town.
The buildings on either side of the street were made primarily of stone and weathered gray wood, which appeared to be in an excellent state of repair. The avenue was unpaved, but it was wide and easily accessible to two way traffic, with several side streets branching off from the main artery. Curiously, the streets were clean and free of the garbage and litter typically found in villages and townships. Tufts of grass grew along the foundations of some of the buildings, and winding tendrils of creeper climbed up the walls, finding suitable irregularities in the rocks to grip and entwine. Planter boxes outside a few homes were filled with colorful flowers, suggesting occupancy, but there was a near deserted quality to the village which made him immediately uneasy, and he was concerned that he might have been seen and recognized before he had even reached the village.
Riding slowly past a side street, he glanced down it and saw a woman sweeping her stoop with a straw broom. The fingertips of his right hand immediately touched the brim of his plumed hat to acknowledge her.
She paused when she saw him, shading her eyes against the sun with her hand, then stepped back inside her home and closed the door.
Keeping the horse at a slow walk, he proceeded down the street, thinking about the suspicious look he had seen in the woman's face as she had observed him. Obviously, strangers were not well received in this town.
As he approached an alleyway between two buildings, he saw a hay wagon standing unattended just inside it, a suitable place to conduct an ambush. Positioning his hand on his right hip, where he could easily access his pistol, he cast a wary glance at the wagon as he passed, but nothing dangerous materialized from beneath the hay. Then he saw a movement in the shadowy alley behind the wagon, and his hand moved under the cloak toward the small of his back, where the pistol was nestled.
A young peasant girl, no more than sixteen years of age, leaned back against one of the buildings and giggled as a young boy pressed close against her, nuzzling and kissing her neck, apparently tickling her with his breath. Both were blissfully unaware that they were being observed.
It was just a tryst between young lovers. Lifting his eyes from the couple, D'Artagnan looked past them, toward the open yard at the end of the alley, but saw little of interest there. The edge of a circular well could be seen just beyond the corner of one of the buildings, and farther out, he saw freshly washed clothes fluttering in the mild breeze on a rope strung between two posts.
A smile twitched his mustache, realizing that the girl's mother had probably assigned her daughter the task of washing the clothes, and she had sneaked into the quiet alley for a rendezvous with her lover. Removing his hand from beneath the cloak, he continued his cautious advance up the street.
He had hoped to conveniently spot one of his friends outside in the open, so that he might not have to ask about them, but he knew that was an unrealistic expectation. He continued to be troubled by the fact that no one was moving about town that late afternoon. Aside from the woman and the young couple, he had seen no sign of other people, a fact which increased his concern that he had been recognized.
The hair prickled on the back of his neck as if disturbed by icy fingers of foreboding, and he jerked the reins sharply, bringing his mount to an abrupt halt in the middle of the street. The black snorted in protest, spraying froth from its muzzle. Turning in the saddle, D'Artagnan looked behind him, studying the empty street with unease. Athos had occasionally claimed that he had the eyes of an eagle, but as those sharp blue eyes darted from point to point, they failed to detect anything unusual except the abnormally deserted quality of the street itself.
Still, the awareness lingered, a nagging sensation that he was being watched by an as yet unknown entity. Facing front again, he lifted his eyes to the second floor windows of the buildings that lined the street. Most were empty, but in one of them, a curtain dropped quickly back into place, sending a ripple of alarm down the Musketeer's spine. His eyes held that window for a long, tense moment, but nothing threatening materialized. Still, the sensation lingered, and he was convinced that there was someone in that room who continued to observe him through the gap where the curtains did not quite meet, hidden within the shadows of the dark interior. Gazing intently at each building in turn, he saw nothing else that was noteworthy.
With one final glance at the window with the curtain, he took up the reins again, and the horse moved forward, its hooves clopping on the hard packed ground of the street.
When he reached a wide three-way intersection, he glanced down the juncture and noticed the remains of a thatched barn that appeared to have recently collapsed. A wagon was parked beside it, and two men were gathering up broken boards and clumps of thatching and tossing them into the wagon to be hauled away. Both men paused in their work to watch him as he passed. He dipped his head in a formal nod of greeting to acknowledge them, but they did not respond. Like the woman, they shaded their eyes and watched him in a decidedly unfriendly manner.
Dismissing the two men with a puzzled frown, he shifted his gaze back to the primary road ahead of him and continued to survey the quiet buildings on each side as he passed. Ahead of him, the main road continued until it wound out of sight in the tall grassy fields south of town.
He had nearly reached the end of town when he glanced down another narrow side street and noticed a tavern sign at the far end of it. Given Porthos' penchant for drink, the tavern was the place most likely to be able to provide him with the location of his friends, so he turned his horse down the street and proceeded toward it.
The tavern was a low one story building tucked quietly away in the shadow of the high stone wall. The perpendicular sign hanging over the door bore no writing, but simply displayed a painting on the wooden plank depicting a mug, tipped so that the foamy drink was spilling out of it. He stopped near the entrance.
Next door to the tavern was a two story building that could only be the brothel, another of Porthos's favorite places. A young woman dressed in ruffled bloomers was strolling casually around the balcony, presumably oblivious to her state of near-undress. She quickly caught sight of him, and moved to the corner for a better look. Apparently, she liked what she saw, for she smiled and waved at him in a beckoning fashion. "Come on up, handsome!" she called, leaning over the railing to give him an enticing view of her ample bosom.
D'Artagnan ignored the invitation and looked away. More than twenty years ago, he might have been tempted, but now his heart belonged to one specific woman, and women like the one on the balcony no longer held any interest for him.
This was the disreputable district found in nearly every village and town, frequently tucked out of sight from the main thoroughfares in smaller communities so that the residents who did not approve of them could pretend they were not there. Yet it was here that the men would sneak away for a drink or two, and where young boys solved the mysteries of the opposite gender.
Slowly, D'Artagnan dismounted and tied the reins to the corner post. After one final, wary perusal of the silent town, he opened the door and went inside.
Even with the window shutters open, the interior of the building was dark and shadowy in comparison with the brightness of the sunshine outside, and he paused just inside the door to allow his eyes to become adjusted to the low light. While he waited, he removed his riding gloves as he looked around the establishment.
The tavern was nearly empty. Only two people were present inside the room, seated at a table near a side entrance, engaged in a conversation which came to an immediate halt when they saw the stranger standing just inside the doorway. One of them stood up, and D'Artagnan estimated that he was probably the proprietor.
"May I be of assistance, Monsieur?" the man asked.
"I have traveled a long way," D'Artagnan said, casually. "I could do with a drink to break the dust."
"What is your pleasure?"
The man removed a small tin cup from the shelf on the wall and pulled a bottle of wine from beneath the counter, popped the cork, and poured a serving into it. He pushed it toward the edge of the countertop.
D'Artagnan withdrew his coin pouch from his pocket as he approached the counter, and tossed a piece of silver on the roughly hewn wood surface, which was quickly scooped up by the owner. He then lifted the cup to his lips and tasted the wine. His grimace of disapproval was only slight, but it was noticed by the proprietor. It was a cheap grade of wine, bitter without the sweetness of a quality aged product, and had clearly been weakened with ordinary water. Still, it was wet, and helped soothe his parched throat, although he believed that water straight from the well would have been more satisfying.
He could feel the eyes of the other man at the table scrutinizing him with unmasked curiosity, but when he glanced his direction, the man looked away, pretending to concentrate on the imperfections on the tabletop. D'Artagnan observed him a moment longer, wondering what interest he held for the man.
Noticing that his companion had attracted the stranger's attention, the proprietor attempted to divert that attention away from him. "I have never seen you around these parts before, Monsieur. Do you live around here, or are you just passing through?" It sounded like an attempt to make casual conversation, but the Musketeer sensed an underlying nervousness which told him that the proprietor was suspicious of him, as was everyone else who had seen him, with the possible exception of the prostitute on the balcony.
"Just passing through," D'Artagnan replied.
As he spoke, he removed his hat, and placed it on the countertop beside him. At that moment, he caught a blur of motion out of the corner of his eye, and as he turned toward it, he saw that the chair where the second man had been sitting was now empty. He had fled out the side door. D'Artagnan fixed his eyes quizzically on the face of the proprietor.
The man cleared his throat nervously and avoided his gaze as he busied himself by wiping out some of the cups with his apron. He glanced out the front window at the black gelding that stood resting at the corner post. "Looks like your horse has been ridden far and hard."
"Regrettably so. I have urgent business to attend," D'Artagnan replied, evasively. "Is there someplace I might I find a room for the night?"
"Well, I also own a small brothel next door. I suppose I might let you have a room for the night. It is up to you whether you share the bed with one of the ladies or not. Price is the same either way."
"I am not looking for company, and I was hoping for someplace a little quieter. The last time I was forced to room in a brothel, the banging of the headboard against the wall next door kept me awake."
The man laughed, nervously. "Well, that is the nature of the business, you know. Men usually go there for a good time, not to sleep."
"Yes, I know. Is there no other place that might suit my needs?"
"We don't see many travelers here, so we have no public lodging available." The man seemed to be growing more edgy at the prospect of the stranger staying overnight. His hands fumbled apprehensively with his apron. "However, if you don't object to sleeping outdoors, there is a quiet field beyond the bridge west of town. You can bed down out there, and your horse can graze and rest in the grass."
That was not exactly what D'Artagnan had in mind, but he found that a starry sky and a bed of grass were preferable to the noise and confusion of a brothel.
The tavern owner reached for the bottle again and started to tip it over the cup. "Your drink is almost empty. Would you care for another?"
D'Artagnan placed his hand over the cup, preventing the proprietor from filling it again. "No, thank you."
The proprietor shrugged as he corked the bottle. "I know; it isn't very good. We're a farming community here, Monsieur. No one around these parts can afford the good wine, like the nobles in and around Paris enjoy. Here, we have to make due with this."
"I would have thought that a farming community would be making a far better grade of wine than this," D'Artagnan replied.
The propriety looked startled. "Well . . . "
D'Artagnan nodded, understanding. "You save it for your regular customers, correct? And you serve this watered down, inferior product to strangers passing through."
The man shrugged, guiltily. "My apologies, Monsieur. The truth is, someone has recently purchased the bulk of my finer product for his own use. I haven't much left, so I must conserve where I can. I can open a bottle, if you wish," he offered. "No extra charge."
"No, that won't be necessary."
He lowered his gaze, studying the liquid that remained in the bottom of his cup. He suspected that the person who had purchased the finer wine was probably Aramis, for his taste was discriminating. It would be just like him to demand the best. He was wasting time, when he needed to locate his friends. However, he knew that to ask where he might find Athos, Porthos, and Aramis would incite increased suspicion, but Aramis was now a priest, so he decided to begin with that.
"Would there be a priest in the village?" he asked.
"A priest?" the man asked, uneasily. His hand moved faster, scrubbing the cup in an agitated fashion.
D'Artagnan observed him with growing unease. "You seem very nervous."
The proprietor glanced at him quickly, then looked away. "What would you need a priest for?"
"A private matter."
"Oh, well . . . " he began, then stopped when the door opened again. He quickly sidestepped away from the Musketeer, away from the line of fire, D'Artagnan realized. From the direction of the door, a voice whispered urgently, "That's him."
D'Artagnan started to turn around to face the new entries, then froze when he heard the sound of a musket pistol being cocked. Given the deserted quality of the tavern, it was easy to deduce that the musket was directed at him.
An authoritative voice behind him commanded. "Raise your hands and turn around slowly. Don't make any sudden movements."
D'Artagnan recognized the voice immediately as that of Aramis, but with his back turned and dressed in civilian clothes, he knew that the Musketeer-turned-priest had not yet recognized him, so he decided it would be prudent to implement caution.
Slowly, he raised his hands as if in surrender and turned around to face his old friend. Aramis and Athos stood before him with pistols leveled at him.
There was a pause as the two former Musketeers exchanged surprised glances.
"D'Artagnan!" Aramis exclaimed, shocked.
Excited murmurs could be heard from the proprietor and the man who had notified Aramis of his presence, the man who had vacated the chair by the side door minutes earlier. Everyone had heard of the legendary D'Artagnan.
Ignoring the exclamations, he gazed steadily at his two friends, who made no move to lower their weapons.
"It is good to see you again, Aramis." He shifted his eyes to Athos, who stared at him with more hostility than he had ever seen from the man who, until a few weeks earlier, had been his best friend for more than twenty years. "Athos." Now that he had been recognized, he started to lower his hands to his sides.
"Don't move," Athos warned. He made a threatening gesture with his pistol. "Keep your hands up."
D'Artagnan obeyed the command, but felt somewhat offended by the order.
Athos passed his musket to Aramis, and stepped forward to conduct a search for weapons. Given no choice, D'Artagnan submitted to the search, allowing the former Musketeer to investigate his person for items of interest. Athos paused at his lower back, feeling the hard protrusion that was the pistol he had placed there earlier. Glaring directly into D'Artagnan's eyes, he lifted the cloak and removed the pistol, then unbuckled the leather baldric that supported his sword and removed it as well. Then, he backed away to D'Artagnan's right side, holding the items up for Aramis to see. "He was armed."
"What are you doing here?" Aramis asked.
"Looking for you," D'Artagnan replied.
"We need to talk."
"With weapons?" Aramis asked, suspiciously.
"The roads are dangerous for a lone traveler."
"What was it you wanted to talk about?"
D'Artagnan glanced at the other men in the room. "A private matter, if you please."
"How did you know where to find us?"
"I have known for some time that this place was a haven for Jesuits. Knowing who you are, I suspected you would come here."
There was a nervous shifting of weight from the other men as they exchanged apprehensive glances at the news that their village was under suspicion. Aramis appeared troubled as well.
"Did you come alone, or should we expect to see a platoon of Musketeers riding in?" Aramis asked warily.
"I am alone, and I am not here to bring trouble. I came to talk about a matter of great importance to your life, Aramis."
Aramis looked at him for a long moment, as if uncertain whether or not to believe him. "To my life?" he asked, lifting an eyebrow with curiosity.
"You are in grave danger."
"I think maybe you had better explain." His attention was suddenly diverted, and he exclaimed, "Athos, no!"
D'Artagnan started to turn toward Athos, but before he could, he felt a hard blow behind his right ear. Brilliant lights exploded inside his head, and he felt his knees buckle, unable to support his weight. Staggering against the counter, struggling to remain on his feet, he pressed his hands to his head, trying to stem the excruciating pain. Unable to remain standing, he sank slowly down the front of the counter until he was seated on the floor.
Athos stood over him, a murderous expression on his face, and D'Artagnan knew he had been struck with the hilt of his own sword that was still clutched in Athos' hand.
"You didn't . . . have to do that!" D'Artagnan told him. His voice sounded strangely weak, even to him, and what little light existed in the dark room seemed to be fading at an alarming rate. Slowly, he slumped onto the hard floor.