The musketeers had finally finished explaining to Aramis their task given to them by the King and the Cardinal, then went on to tell him about Count de Rochefort arriving back in Paris and being granted a full pardon. Aramis seemed to pale even more than he already was, not because he feared the Count at all, but because he was already weary from the taxing report of Adele's death and Rochefort being back only added more to the weight he was carrying on his shoulders.
His companions noticed, but they knew better than to address his distress any further and so they continued preparing their horses for their journey, then made sure they had all of their gear needed, including plenty of musket balls should they get into an encounter with their thieves and killers, or anyone else.
"I just can't believe that Rochefort has been granted a full pardon after all he's done against us and all of France," Porthos complained. "He's committed treason for crying out loud!"
"So has the Cardinal if you recall and the Queen has thought it wise to let his actions go for now, unless he commits another act of treason," Athos replied as he mounted his horse, then waited for the others to follow suit. "We ought to do the same for Rochefort, for now."
Porthos shook his head as he responded, "I know that you're right, but I still don't like it."
D'Artagnan rode beside him as he stated, "No one said you had to like it. So, where exactly do we begin our search? The forest is a large place and our bandits could be hiding anywhere."
"I have a feeling that we won't find them, but that they'll be the ones to find us," Aramis answered while looking around him in anticipation of the danger ahead. "All we have to do is look enticing enough for them to want to rob us as well. It shouldn't be too hard. It doesn't sound as though these men are very worried about whom they rob and kill, nor do they sound to be too bright."
"I agree," Athos replied as he too looked around him.
Porthos thought about the Cardinal telling them about some of them possibly being from the place where he once lived before becoming a musketeer, then spoke up again saying, "Those from the Court of Miracles are poor and hungry. I am not implying that what these criminals are doing is right, but I'm saying that I may understand why they're doing this. They're probably doing so because they were forced to and feel they have no other option."
Aramis nodded and responded, "If these men are plundering and killing in order to survive or because they were forced into this kind of life by the world's cruelties, then we will see to it that they are well taken care of and given a fair trial before the King."
"Aramis is right," Athos answered as he turned to look over at his friend. "We will help them, but if they are committing these crimes for other selfish reasons, then they must be held accountable and will most likely be executed."
"There aren't many thieves and killers I've run into who do so because they are just fighting to survive," d'Artagnan replied. "Most of them do it for pleasure or greed."
D'Artagnan was about to say something until he was interrupted when his horse suddenly reared and continued to back up as it became spooked by the loud cracking of a tree branch nearby, nearly knocking its rider off. The others' horses followed suit, though didn't appear as startled, but each of the musketeers were now alert and prepared to fight for whatever invisible attack was about to happen.
Porthos spoke again as he said, "We couldn't have run into them already. This was way too easy."
Aramis dismounted and slowly approached the tree with his pistol in his hand when all of a sudden a young woman bolted out from behind it and tried to attack the musketeer with a dagger raised high. However, Aramis was easily able to avert her and pull the weapon away as he grabbed a hold of her and forced her down on her knees before his companions. She screamed as he did so, but quickly stopped when she looked up at the others who were also holding on to their own weapons should she try to attack again.
Aramis spoke first in his usual, playful manner saying, "Gentlemen, I believe we found us a thief, though I do not believe she is who we've come to find."
"I think you're right, but the question is, why would a single young woman be trying to rob a solider when he has three more companions travelling with him?" Athos asked as he looked down at her while she glared at each of them."
"Because I'm starving and have not a livre, piece of silver or gold coin to my name," the girl wearing ragged clothes and covered in dirt and mud responded angrily. "I wasn't exactly thinking of anything else, but trying to get whatever from you that I could. Let me go!"
Aramis put his pistol back in its holster on his hip, then knelt down in front of her, and answered, "Only if you promise not to attack me or my friends again. If you calm down, we can all talk like civilized people."
When he released her arm, she rubbed it and then replied, "We have nothing to talk about. Unless you plan on arresting me, I'd rather just leave so I can get back to…"
"Get back robbing more travelers as they continue to pass through these woods?" Porthos asked mockingly.
"We don't really want to arrest you, but unless we can believe that you won't harm anyone again, which frankly I don't see how we can, then I'm afraid we really don't have much of a choice," Athos responded. "What do you think D'Artagnan?"
The young Gascon looked over at Athos, then between Porthos and Aramis, who stood back up and walked back to his horse, and answered, "She may try again on the next traveler who comes through here, but I don't believe she's really dangerous."
Aramis nodded in agreement as he replied, "I am inclined to agree with d'Artagnan, Athos. I don't believe she really wanted to kill me. She was only startled like our horses."
"Very well, we'll leave her be, but I suggest you head into the city and buy yourself some fresh food and anything else you may need, Miss," their leader responded as Aramis pulled out a bag of coins and tossed them to her.
"Why are you doing this for me?" she asked as she stared up at the man she had tried to attack moments earlier in bewilderment. "No one has ever cared enough about me before, especially those I try to steal from."
Porthos smiled as he answered, "Because unlike most people around France, we happen to be honorable men and we can see that you're no criminal like those we've arrested or killed."
D'Artagnan quickly stated, "Although, perhaps you can help us as well. We're looking for a troupe of bandits running around thieving and killing, who may also be plotting something more dangerous. Have you heard of them at all? Is there anything you can tell us that may help?"
"I'm afraid not," the young woman replied. "I mean, there are many thieves in these woods, many of whom I'm sure would kill someone if they had to, but I haven't heard of some kind of plot against the King or anything like that. I'm sorry, but thank you. Thank you all for this money. Goodbye!"
"Too bad she wasn't much help," Porthos said scornfully as the girl quickly ran off again, while Aramis remounted his horse and the four of them continued to ride deeper into the woods surrounding Paris.
Aramis responded, "If she had any information that could be of use to us, she would have told us."
Athos looked over at his friend as he asked, "Where did you get that money you just gave to her?"
"You three all have your own frivolous expenditures whereas I to not," Aramis answered half jokingly.
"What frivolous expenditures?" Porthos asked again.
Aramis smiled as he replied, "Well Porthos, you've got your gambling habits. You can't deny it. We all know how much you love to beat the Cardinal's guards at cards, even if you have to cheat to do it. However, you still somehow end up coming out poorer than when you begin. Athos wastes his money on all of his drinking, and d'Artagnan… D'Artagnan spends most of his money having to constantly pay for new garments and weapons because he is quite reckless with them. Poor Constance can't possibly keep up with how fast he wears holes in his clothing. I prefer to save my earnings if I can."
Athos smiled as well, then responded, "Unless of course you spend your earnings on a gift for a beautiful woman."
"At least my earnings go to something more practical," Aramis answered when the playfulness suddenly drained from him again as he looked down and continued to focus only on his surroundings while he remained quiet.
"You may not be able to have the kind of love you long for with our Queen, Aramis, nor with Adele, but one day, you will find someone else and be happy," Athos replied, knowing that his friend was thinking about how he could no longer be with Anne, even in secret, and that he'd never be able to be a father to his child.
Porthos responded, "Athos is right."
Aramis finally broke his silence as answered sadly, "You're wrong. I cannot afford to love again, not when the cost of my love is death."