Death of a Musketeer
Reign of King Louis XIV, 'le Roi-Soleil'
The inn's creaky sign swung lightly on its hinges in the gusty rainstorm. The wooden planks serving as edifices had seen better days, wearily carried their weight of existence with bored resignation. The moon was obscured by the deep black overcast. Had it been clear, it would have been the Harvest. An eerily luminescent orb one could reach out and seemingly touch; to hold in one's palm for a time…
On the mud sluiced path to the establishment, the proprietor waited anxiously. His cap and coat did little in way of dryness. He squinted through the driving sheets for a sign, a lantern gripped high overhead.
On this last and most inconvenient road out of Paris, a lone rider was driving his white charger with nostril flaring, lung wrenching speed. Hoofs sucked in and out of the sludge with tremendous force, beating the power of nature at its own game. A royal blue cloak drenched and splashed filthy billowed about him, wings capturing the wind to drive on, faster…! faster…!
The bowed head of singular determination pushing through the torrential downpour against him was capped by cavalier's wide brim, a dignified accessory serving as a marker of this man's place in society, and as a small barrier against him and the world without. He never used to wear one, thought them silly and cumbersome; that was in his youth. A boy into a man, learning the man's ways…and bearing the burdens of this man's world without breaking; the cavalier's flappy brim transformed into his hiding place, as it had for countless other brother's in arms. It was something to duck behind and make passing judgements without the Fear in his eyes giving him away. In a man's world, one had to live with Fear; the inherent spirit of survival of humanity pitted against this inevitability served as a healthy deterrent to one walking on without looking back. Lest we forget…
At his side, banging against his leg with the same steady staccatos of hoofbeats, a silver pommeled rapier with a sweeping hand guard in an elegantly constructed scabbard glinted with raindrops. The royal fleur-de-lys of the French Crown was engraved on the face of the leather binding, and on the blade contained within.
He pounded the curve of the road, almost losing the mount under him to an abruptly noticed mud pit created by the deluge. His excellent skill at riding hard saved both. He continued onward, focusing now on the pinprick of light growing steadily before him. It swung side to side suddenly, signaling he'd been spotted. The flickering light drew him in.
This beacon transformed with perspective into the figure of a man merely highlighted by the small flame held aloft, features growing less indistinct with each step. He spurred the beast on, "Go, Tre, go!" The horse knew his name and the tone of its master's voice well, responding quickly. He would not be late for this.
When he was all but on top of the lantern-bearer, he reined in. The horse reared back, landing with a squelching beat to deposit his human.
The innkeeper stepped back anxiously from the commotion, uncertainty tainting his movements as much as the dancing flame above. The rider stood solidly in the slop, head still bent under-brim. A lanky young lad darted from the doorway of the inn to take the reins.
"Monsieur…you are in time. Follow me."
He hurried forth to sweep the door open, shouldering it over the dry-heave hump in the floor. The mysterious rider filled the doorway with his presence, inwardly grateful for the warmth of the inn's fireplace seeping past the cold dampness.
The mark of the King's Musketeers was upon him, the respect due for that position apparent in the barman's attitude. "I shall bring up coffee, biscuits, cheese. Please," he pointed up the rickety staircase, "First room on your left."
A gruff yet sincere "Thank you." and he took the stairs nimbly. He paused outside the aforementioned room, the Fear intimately upon him. Beyond this door, a Lost Brother…found too late, the scent of death crawling about.
Death was the Fear, the doomed fate none could truly escape. Except he had: thousands of times over, with this man and two other such Brothers at his side. He was still running, this Brother no longer could. Fate and the Fear were collecting their dues.
Braziers heated the room, percolating the sticky slick smell that made his nose twitch and his heart flipflop to his stomach: the smell of rot.
In bed, buried in blankets and pillows, the inhabitant was just
visible yet instantly recognizable. Panicked dismay seized him,
clenching his gut with its punch. Time had not been kind to this face,
leaving it heavily wrinkled. The once carefully trimmed, coiffed reddish
brown beard was now wild and grizzled grey, his hair the same in greasy
messiness. He seemed shrunken, disappearing by the second until… The
horseman reached out for the door frame to ground himself, the cruel
agony of it all threatening to sweep him away.
Still, in the engraved crevices and the mottled skin, this man, this Brother, was still…
The name escaped with emotional reverence, the resonance of their bond surely tested but never lost. It was getting the better of him, as he knew it would. His legend spoke of loyalty as ferocious as his appetite for danger and justice. In this he was an odd paradox of myth and truth agreeing.
The bed-ridden figure stirred at the name and the voice invoking it. He tried to sit up, but the rider immediately made it clear there was no need, attentively going to the bedside to sit. "Don't get up on my account." The growled jest elicited a grin from cracked lips, and his jaundiced face lit up with hope. "I don't plan to, thank you."
A trembling hand reached for the hat, the face bent to him to present the opportunity to do so. A quick flourish of motion revealed the rather bedraggled locks underneath. Once a fair brown, it had aged to light blond, with a slender matching beard and goatee. He was all at once the boy of twenty years ago, with his bold smile and everlasting hint of devil may care in his gaze, and then he was this feline featured leader of men, a noble lion at the head of noble pride.
The weight of their separation, all the dirt and turmoil that had kept them apart, crumpled their resolves. They clutched each other's hands in somber wet-eyed relief at the sight of the other.
"My God." Athos hastily wiped his eyes, slipped farther under sheets in awed contemplation of the man before him, "You've grown."
The voice was the same: exacting, each word carefully thought out and chosen for a lilting delivery, a leftover from his aristocratic breeding. A rough undercurrent now permanently cracked this veneer of elegance. Like the other signs of decline, D'artagnan sought beyond to the man himself. His absurd choice of sentiment made the cloaked Musketeer laugh, "Of course. What did you expect?"
"The boy I left, I suppose. Foolish but…you can hardly blame me, you will always be the baby." Athos worked up enough good humor to twitch the corners of his mouth with the enigmatically mischievous grin he'd so favored.
"And you, the old man." His humor stumbled at the morbid appropriateness. "You were never supposed to take that seriously..." This came out in a harsh rush of words. D'artagnan tilted his head, displaying a wide open innocence that seemed incongruous with the adulthood he bore so gallantly well, "They say you are dying, Athos." He whispered, bearing his soul in one sentence, "I wanted to see the lie for itself. It's not right. Not you. Not now."
Athos tried for reassurance but the strength wasn't there for that, so he settled for the truth, "It's not a lie, my old friend. I wish it were. I have missed so much. I have missed you taking your rightful place, as I always knew you would…" He nodded shortly, "I knew you were the best among us."
But he didn't want to hear wistful compliments tainted by end of life woe. He'd lost his own father too suddenly years before and now the only worthy substitute…no, he shook his head against the very idea, against Athos' words, "I have finally found you after all this time… you expect me to just take this, to give you up? I can't, Athos. I won't accept. There must be something they've missed. I have the King's favor, perhaps his physicians-."
Athos stopped him with his most will-bending stare; the one he used to pinion offending members of the Regiment with so they knew exactly how he felt about them. It landed somewhere between aloofness and serious disappointment. "D'artagnan," he all but ordered his silence with that. "Things are what they are." His gaze moved to the window, to the sill, where an empty wine bottle sat lonely against the blankness. A lit candle sat beside it, as if in vigil. "I should have known my choices would catch up with me—all drunkards have to wonder when…Besides, it's nice to know what I will die from, that it won't be a musket ball or a sword point—I never thought it would be anything but. A small consolation, yes?"
Athos' bohemian approach to his own demise was no small consolation at all—it was a frustrating, to say the least, "Athos, please…!"
"No," he stated firmly. "No more." Again, a terse command couched by demanding gentleness. D'artagnan frowned but shut up. A short staring contest held their gaze's locked, a game of wills, until each gave up. The ensuing silence was far more comfortable as Athos shimmied the covers up to his chin, eyeing the younger man with overtly satisfied pleasure, stroking the brim of the removed hat, "Captain of the Guard, well well."
A smirking, "No thanks to you." in response.
Athos held his breath for a second, holding down a coughing hitch, letting it out all at once, "Yes, heh, yes. Rather did leave you all in a lurch, didn't I." He mused at the past this disclosure jogged forth. He could tell D'artagnan was misty-eyed in thought over it too, and saw him working out the courage to dig for more. Athos wasn't ready, there were so much happier, brighter things to catch up on, twenty year's worth. "Don't ask it, my friend. Not yet."
Sharp eyes narrowed with quickened breath, "You're as sharp as ever, aren't you. I swear, Athos, if-."
"—Constance." He injected with a knowing, purposeful arching of eyebrow, "Tell me about your life together. The last I saw you were at the altar, delivering your vows…"
D'artagnan stared then shook his head, rubbing his nose. "Constance." He repeated.
"Your wife, you dolt."
A rough snort of laughter, "What if I've married again?"
"Ha. Stop being difficult."
"She's beautiful as ever. The epitome of motherhood. And spitting mad at you for hiding yourself away as you did…"
"I imagine four boys, all miniatures of you, caught up in her skirts once upon a time…"
He chuckled, "Make that four girls, miniatures of their mother. That, you must know, has been a curse and godsend. A curse, trying to find four willing men to handle them, their mother's daughters, and a godsend for all other reasons."
"Ahhh." Athos nodded, rendering the images in his head anew, smiling, "Constance getting the best out of you yet."
"Anne, the oldest." Of course, after their beloved patroness Queen. "Luce, our second, we call her Lucia. Our third is Aramichelle, after their godfather." Athos smiled, happy to see the homage, "And then…Aporthia," Athos stilled, overcome again by the deep connections that remained…D'artagnan had managed to honor of them…"Although, she prefers Diane, my pet name for her: she's my youngest, smallest, and strongest; a little warrior queen. Has a knack for the sword, too…though we…keep that between us."
"The first three are, yes. Happily. The last…I can't let her go." A new forlorn sadness cropped up, "There's only so many goodbyes...one can take…"
Athos blinked, looking away, anywhere but right in front of him. The innkeeper knocked and entered then, stilling conversation. He swiftly set about placing the trays of food and drink promised earlier. He left with a deep backwards bow. Athos gave the food a quick coarse glance but that was all. D'artagnan, still rather chilled from his journey and without food since that morning, grabbed a biscuit and cut of cheese for himself. He poured two roughly made earthen mugs of coffee, but again, Athos was apathetic to the offer.
Happy to step away from the issue of abandonment they'd been dancing around, D'artagnan picked up on the reaction to food, "You haven't been eating, have you?", He demanded.
"One does not think of one's stomach when one's liver decides to rot one from the inside out, does one?" was the coldly biting response. He was more sick and tired over the fussing than he was of the approaching end. "Damn you, I will die the way I want to! That is my only right left!" The clay cup was smashed against the far wall in short order. D'artagnan looked between the sopping shards and black smear of coffee guts on the wall, and Athos, blandly blinking and swallowing his own mouthful. "I was just asking."
Athos huffed a breath and sank lower in the bed, fiddling with his covers, "When will you learn to take no for an answer!"
"Forgive me…but showing concern and bereavement for dear friend used to be acceptable in our ranks."
"Your sarcasm is not!"
"Athos." D'artagnan leaned closer to him, pleading again earnestly, "This isn't the way! His Majesty has wonderful doctors, especially chosen by the Cardinal Marzen. These men are-."
"-Cardinal's men…some things do not change." He spoke with disgusted cynicism. Considering his last mission as a Musketeer, that was understandable. D'artagnan disagreed, "Marzen is not Richelieu or Rochefort by any means. Nor is he a saintly man, that is easily admitted. He is, however, highly educated and nobody's fool—without the King, he would be but a pawn in someone else's game and he has no desire for that. Hence, learned men of medicine to keep his Majesty in perfect health, always. Let me help you!"
"D'artagnan…" Athos sighed, increasingly indulgent, "You are a soldier. You face death nearly every day, you even send other men to their deaths. It should not be this mystery to you any longer. Accept it."
"What I accept," he countered steadfastly, "Is that death, as everything else, has a place in life. I do not accept its place here."
Another staring contest of wills began, this time with D'artagnan extending of plate of food to Athos. Athos entreated the offering with a pinched face grimace, stubborn to the core. Eventually…a quivering hand accepted, taking a biscuit to pacifying, nibbling on its flakiness.
"Was that so difficult?"
A piercingly unamused glare, one Athos held only for D'artagnan's youthful antics, made the effort worth it. "Tell me, then, where are the other two?"
Not a question of whether they were alive or not, but where they were, such was the trust between them to survive for the sake of the others. D'artagnan leaned back, finding a bedpost, "Porthos…", The named slipped out in between thoughtful chewing of his lower lip, "he's in shipping now. Can you believe that? Has a nice rum running business throughout the Caribbean."
"So, a pirate?" Athos inquired bemusedly.
"But don't say that to his face. He swears it's all legitimate." A languid shrug, "Makes his port of call on the island of Tortuga now; has his own little Court of Miracles."
Often their bearish compatriot had been at odds with his upbringing, the loss of his mother…once, he thought he'd found his father, a member of the nobility no less, but another lie. Porthos had enough lies for a lifetime, and cheating, and stealing—the Musketeers had been a lifeline for this outcast from the Court of Miracles. He'd carved a solid standing, and it only seemed right and fair to Athos, for all that Porthos had done for his country, to have the same after his time in the Musketeers had ended. He foggily recalled the faraway look Porthos would get when he heard of the wonders of the New World. On more than one occasion, he'd spoke of his hopes and dreams of getting a stake there to call his own-to really own something, to cultivate and grow. "Be righ' n proper."
Seeing him as anything but a soldier, a man of action, Athos had difficulty with. Running rum and the like on a fast ship in the open waters with just him and a crew against the world: that was Porthos. "Do you hear from him often?"
"I keep an eye on him. I have friends in high and low places, you know. Just in case the label 'pirate' becomes any more than a joke between friends.
"Did you…tell him about me?"
D'artagnan cocked a look at him, "As soon as I was sure it was you."
"When was that?"
"A month ago."
"You'd been spying on me."
"Spying entails enemies. No. I was hoping to take you in. Give you the sanctuary of the Musketeers. I didn't know then…how sick you were. When I discovered that… when at last your…" he gestured, "Your would –be well meaning innkeeper friend Gervase, here, finally confided in me you were…" He stumbled, settling for, "You were not very well at all, my wishes seemed… shortsighted, to put it mildly. In any case, Porthos is on his way back to France as we speak."
Athos bit back his joy, tempering it, "It's a long journey."
"He'll make it." So will you.
Apparently that passing thought was more clearly visible than D'artagnan thought; new heavy silence enveloped while Athos found the nighttime beyond his window pane far more interesting than his visitor. D'artagnan tried to read him, his thoughts, through his expression, but Athos was resolutely shut off to him, as in the past. Even in his most debilitating emotional trials, Athos was a roiling simmering void. He would stoically observe the outbursts and carryings-on of his more hearts-on-their-sleeves comrades, but would not adjoin unless copious amounts of wine and nagging were applied. His perchance for bottling up his emotions through the bottle…would ultimately kill him. How bloody awful.
Athos cleared his throat, "And our wayward holy man?"
"Aramis." The deep fondness evident in D'artagnan's naming of their last Brother warmed him anew. The relationships had endured. He frowned. Even when he ran from them, the bonds never failed. Funny: he had been fickle, not they.
"Returned to his monastery. He insists his true calling is to God, and you can't doubt that." D'artagnan raised a punctuating finger to waggle, "But…there are times… he could raise a musket and sword again. Heh. Did you know, the King calls on him often? His minister of morality, Aramis made up the title. Always the humorist…"
Instead of sharing D'artagnan's mirth, Athos froze, staring, "…The King?"
D'artagnan waved the overt concern away, yet still took a measured look at their surroundings before continuing this particular conversation, "His Majesty is not aware. He never will be."
Athos gestured widely, "But he…and Aramis: together…?" He would always carry a certain amount of guilt for allowing the transpiring of the series of events that led up to Aramis' affair with her Majesty, Queen Anne. Had he stayed outside the Queen's room in the convent with Aramis as they fought off the assassins…
Well, who's to say France would have had their Dauphin if he had? That Aramis fathered France's future meant a security perhaps the boy's rightful father never could have given, himself. Not to disparage the manhood of good good King Louis XIII, but truly France knew peace and prosperity under a just and great King they might never have known, if Athos had stayed where he should have a fateful night. Treasonous reasoning to be sure but it sustained him.
"To His Majesty, Aramis is figure of lore, an Inseparable, as they call us now. He was a favorite of his mother, a loyal guardian of his father, and the best shot in all of France. He respects Aramis' decision to give up all his worldly gifts and pleasures," Athos raised an eyebrow at that, "Well, most of them anyway—it is Aramis, after all." D'artagnan added quickly, "…and pursue a more devout existence. He is in awe of Aramis, I think, and in need of him too: Marzen is hardly a father figure. He needs guidance. Isn't it perfect then, the way everything is? Aramis a father to his son at last…"
Athos swallowed prickly, "Just as long as it remains professional in nature. We almost lost our heads for it once. I'd rather not a repeat performance."
"Yes, because you wish to die your way." D'artagnan said with dripping dark sarcasm.
Athos gave him a look then asked hesitantly, "Who does he look like?"
D'artgnan's face lit up with his wide contagious smile, "Spitting image of his mother."
"Indeed. Aramis swears it was by God's own hand that he looks like his Mother…and while he won't admit so much himself—humble propriety and all that—it was also God's good grace that has him of royal personage yet grants him to rule like his father, his true father. It is truly a pleasure to watch him carry the Crown as he has." D'artagnan sat forward, happily excited, "And when the King is thinking…you know, just him and his thoughts, the way he holds himself with that distant look in his eye while fully aware of his surroundings, like he has one foot in the beyond, and one foot here in reality…he is Aramis. It's fantastic. Aramis caught a glimpse of this one day, after His Majesty had sent everyone else away so they could speak together privately…he wept. 'My son.' he kept saying over and over to himself. The King called for him then, and the conversation they had was one of their most lively."
"...And the Queen?"
"Queen Anne? She's well. Happy, I suppose, in her dowagerhood. I often carry messages from her to Aramis at the monastery when he's not in Paris. They love on. Quietly."
Athos closed his eyes, immensely grateful life was running so smoothly for all. "Does Aramis know too?"
"Absolutely. He's on his way from the monastery now."
Dear God. All together again. Athos covered his closed eyes with both hands. D'artagnan was immediately hovering over him, "Athos, what is it? Tell me. You're shaking. I'll get Gervase, have his son ride to the Palace. You're getting a royal physician, I don't care-!"
"No!" he cried, sounding choked. His hand clamped harder over his eyes, squeezing the tears from them. "No, forgive me. It's…it's…been so long, I never thought-."
"You'd see us again?" D'artagnan finished lightly, still hovering over him, profoundly lost at having to see a once vital man reduced to this. He took Athos' hands in his, returning to sit on the edge of the bed, holding on to him in comfort. "I want you to live, Athos. For every year we were separated, I want to spend in your company. If…that isn't possible, then we will spend every waking moment we have left, together. The Inseparables once again."
Athos nodded, overcome. "Noble." He managed thickly, "But you have duties, Porthos his business, Aramis—"
"-Our duty is you, now." His tone broached no argument.
Athos regarded him through the remnants of his tears. He shuddered, "I should never have left."
At last, the opening. "Why did you?" The quietly ventured question drove the spike of regret deeper in Atho's heart. "Because, dear D'artgnan, my betrothed- to-be Catherine was right: She consumed me. From the moment we met, I was Hers. Through all the torment and agony She caused, I never stopped wanting Her. Throughout all the treachery and lies, I would have followed Her to the ends of the Earth. …That's exactly what I did."
All the vague "she's" and "her's" were anything but. Milady…
"You went with…? But why, Athos?!"
The mortified hurt twisted the dagger.
"Because I…I saw you and Constance…exchanging vows and I thought… After the Rochefort ordeal ended, She told me She was leaving for England, to be at the Crossroads by twilight. If I didn't come for Her, she wouldn't wait and I would never see Her again. I had every INTENTION of not going." He clenched his teeth in conviction, "EVERY intention…!"
"You deserted for Her? I can't believe that."
"I didn't desert you."
The hearty insistence was of little consolation. "You were standing witness one minute, gone the next. What do you call it?"
"…I came back."
D'artgnan started, skeptical. "You did?"
"Briefly. You see, I went late purposely…to see if I could catch Her in another lie…If it came to that, I would abandoned Her memory forever. …Yet…She waited for me. She swore to me She wanted to be the woman I married, not the monster She'd become. In waiting, She proved She wanted me to be with Her in Her new life. I believed!" He silently beat himself up before continuing sullenly, "I knew war with Spain was coming. I knew…my leaving would be labeled desertion; after all the abuse Rochefort had paid the Regiment in the eyes of the King, I would not allow myself to be the perpetrator of further dishonor. I promised Her I'd follow but that I had to turn over a new leaf as well first. I returned to the garrison in the night…you and Porthos had taken off to the Monastery to retrieve Aramis…Treville took me into his office. We discussed my plans. He had no choice but to agree. He would take my resignation to King, and do his best to smooth my departure with His Majesty. That was that. I left before you two returned, but not before I made him swear you three would never be told the truth. To you I was on scouting mission: very dangerous, on the King's personal command." He shrugged in despair at the memory. "…I had no desire nor will for the farewells or the attempts at visceral persuasion to stay, particularly from you."
"Treville kept his promise. He kept us blind. I cursed him for it." D'artagnan confirmed with poignant crispness, wallowing in his self-held grudge for a moment. He shook himself out of it to ask, "You--you lived in England?"
"With Her. For a time. I was a silversmith, a minor success. Had some of the lesser nobility of England as clientele. …Things shifted when I began to notice She was growing restless. This new life, filled with new bight promise…" Athos spat out bitterly. "She climbed higher and higher in the social circles, applying her skills without batting an eye, setting her sights on the Duke of Buckingham."
D'artagnan couldn't claim surprise at Her finding a foothold in the inner sanctum of the English crown, but he was at Athos for following along, for believing. "Only the best." He replied with similar bitterness.
"I couldn't stop Her. The root of Her evil was too deep, She would never change."
"Did She get Her man?"
"The scandal She caused went to the Crown itself. It was all I could do…to separate myself from Her, to escape Her influence. I ran and didn't stop running until my health escaped me. I returned to France, home…a dying man's privilege not even She could keep me from."
Athos retreated into himself, eyes glittering with angry hatred. He didn't want to die hating but damn Her, even now…he was stuck in the self-loathing pit they'd created together, that he would never climb out of.
"Is she alive?"
Athos stared at him, still entrenched in that black pit. "No."
Brown eyes grew grim under furrowed brows, "Did you kill her, Athos."
The little voice of consciousness in the back of his mind Athos heard daily, berating him for every decision he ever made or didn't make, laughed viciously at the question. Outwardly his lips formed a brittle pale line. "I didn't have that pleasure."
"Who did, then?"
He let loose with a feral grin. "The English Crown."
"…Had Her day with the hangman at last."
They sat quietly together, hand in hand, staring into the same space. The trays of food forgotten, the coffee cold. Athos drifted, eyes lids growing heavy. The bone deep tiredness crept in like clockwork. "D'artagnan, I am sorry…I'm tired now."
"You don't have to stay…"
"Of course I do. I told you. Til the end, whenever that is."
"You accept, then?" A faint smile mustered.
"No, I will never accept. It is…obvious," He sighed, pained by the admittance, "It will happen whether I do or don't."
"It's not so bad." Athos murmured, "Not yet. More overt signs may appear. Eventually, I hope I will go to sleep and not wake."
"Like you said, we won't discuss that right now."
"Forgive me, Athos. We should have followed you, should have made Treville tell us. We failed you. It's not enough She had to cut you to the quick again, it's that we didn't come for you…we left our best man behind."
Athos squeezed their mutual grip. Those capable hands which had carried D'artagnan from orphaned Gascon firebrand, to the Captain of the Musketeers, the King of France's personal guards, with a legend to his name.
He embraced D'artagnan, whispering, "You did find me."
On this last and most desolate of road in and out of Paris, two beleaguered but determined riders converged in the rain. Their heads were bent in submission to the weather, capped by their trusty cavalier's hat. Gilded rapiers at their sides, taken from storage and polished anew, their shoulders wrapped by musty wrinkled royal blue cloaks, taken from the very same storage and shaken out. The crest of the King's Musketeers was worn but visible on their scabbards and saddles.
The innkeeper Gervase resumed his vigilant watch with lantern high, huffing and puffing tight little clouds of air in the chilly fall torrents. The lantern's light drew together the last of France's living history, the last of her great heroes. The Inseparables were home to share one of their own's Final Journey, in their greatest battle yet: saying goodbye.