Love's Musketeer --- Chapter Nine
Whispering quiet words of assurance, Monsieur Henri Phillipe attempted to calm the nervous horses still harnessed to the overturned coach. The driver, who lay a few feet away, was beyond his help and was taking his last dying breath when Henri heard the thunder of hoofbeats approaching. He waved frantically at the three riders, who showed no signs of slowing down. As they drew closer, Henri recognized the uniforms the men wore and, without a thought to his safety, stepped into the path of the lead horseman.
"Stop! Musketeers, stop!"
He jumped out of the way as the riders reigned in their horses and the animals reared in protest at the abrupt change of course. Instantly identifying his fellow comrades, Henri caught the bridle of Athos' horse, pulling hard to keep the animal from unseating his rider. The large, coal black stallion wrenched his head away, ripping the leather bindings out of the Musketeer's hand. His large body danced wildly, legs and hooves thrashing in the empty air and Athos cursed as he struggled to bring the huge beast under control. Man and animal fought each other briefly, battling for dominance, muscles straining and flexing. A final rebellious rearing and the stallion admitted defeat, dropping to all fours, his sides heaving from the exertion of the fight.
Henri cautiously stepped forward and recaptured the horse's bridle, grimacing at the heaving bellows of hot breath blustering across his face. The animal pranced slightly away before allowing his owner to dismount and Henri immediately released his hold. Wasting no time, he grabbed Athos by the arm and pulled him to the edge of the nearby cliff. With an impatient wave of his hand, Henri motioned to the other Musketeers to follow and directed their attention to the precipice.
"I am in dire need of your assistance, my comrades. On my way to the harbor I came upon this wreckage and I believe a robbery has occurred." He looked back at the crumpled form near the overturned coach. "While attending to the driver, I heard a faint cry for help." Henri pointed to the cliff. "It seems the passenger of the carriage managed to escape but fell and is lying injured on a ledge far below."
Athos cast his eye over the debris, his mind calculating the delay. D'Artagnan's life was in danger and a second's delay could mean death for his young lover. But his engrained belief in duty and honor would not allow him to abandon one in serious need. He yelled at his companions, stripping the carriage horses of their tethers and reigns.
"Hurry! Form a rope with this and let us be about the work of saving this unfortunate individual. Aramis! Look for some suitable material to bind any wounds this person may have."
Athos and Porthos quickly tied the leather strips together and, after testing the strength of the rope, Athos moved to the edge of the cliff. Porthos and Henri slowly lowered the large man down, maintaining a secure grip on the rigging.
The Musketeer moved with assured grace down the rocky face and, within minutes, had reached the ledge. Squatting down carefully, he quickly assessed the situation, noting the injured was a young woman, her face obscured by blood-stained curls. With a quiet gentleness, he brushed the strands of blonde hair away and immediately his heart ceased in its rhythm as he gazed down upon the features of his supposedly dead wife.
"Mon dieu! Charlotte!"
Rage bubbled to the surface and boiled over and, mindless of the further injury he may be causing, Athos encircled the woman's slender neck and began to shake her, his fingers slowly squeezing the life from her.
"Where is he? WHERE IS D'ARTAGNAN?"
Strangled gasps for air and faint cries alerted the Musketeer to the brutality of his grip and he removed his hands from her throat but not from her body. Cursing, he gripped her shoulders and again shook her violently. "You evil, conniving Jezebel! How dare you live! And how dare you join forces with that devil, the Cardinal."
Athos lifted the woman and leaned her against the rocks, ignoring her whimpers of pain. Mercy and kindness had not been extended to him the night his wife had stolen all his gold and left him for dead, three of her jeweled daggers embedded in his body. Assured by his friends that his devious wife had been captured and executed, Athos had sworn off the gentler sex and given into his secret hunger for men. How Charlotte had managed to escape the hangman's noose was a mystery but Athos would damn his soul to eternal hell before offering compassion to this ghostly whore lying before him, this woman who, once again, had cheated him of happiness.
His eyes filled with hate, the Musketeer examined the richly dressed woman. "You are about to take your last dying breath, Milady. If you wish to visit with the angels instead of the demons, I suggest you tell me where my young friend is."
The woman struggled feebly to get away from the enraged Musketeer, her hands clutching at her torn bodice as she cursed the man in front of her. "Do… do not touch me, you heathen. I hate you!" She spat at Athos before attempting to crawl away, her shattered legs preventing escape. Cruel contemptuous laughter greeted her clumsy attempts and she began to sob.
"You are wasting precious minutes, Milady. Minutes I cannot spare. Tell me where he is and I will make sure you have a Christian burial. Deny me and I will leave you as food for the vultures."
Charlotte Backson, Comtesse de la Fere, Milady de Winter glanced up at her former husband, her jealousy, even in death, knowing no bounds. Summoning all her strength, she slapped Athos across the face and, with her last breath, condemned his lover.
"D'Artagnan is lost to you." The dying woman struggled to speak, her whispered words now barely discernable. "He goes to his death." Seizing Athos' tunic, she pulled him down. "You lose again, my dear husband." Milady's final breath mingled with the wind. "You… lose."
The sky darkened and the clouds clashed with the screaming wind, the heavens splintering from the roar that erupted from Athos' throat. He slammed the lifeless body of his wife down to the ground and stepped closer to the edge of the rocky bluff, his body trembling with unrepressed fury
Athos lost focus of the presence, his gaze mesmerized by the waves crashing violently against the boulders scattered along the coastal shoreline. His mind struggled to maintain a hold on the reality of the moment as his heart retreated from the excruciating pain of loss. He stood transfixed for minutes before the agonized cry of a raven snatched him from his nightmare trance. Cursing his fate, Athos ripped his tunic open and clutched the silver cross that lay against his heart. His fingers tightened into a death grip as he brought his sword up and touched the gold bracelet that tangled around the blade's hilt against the unadorned crucifix.
"D'Artagnan," Athos whispered the name of his beloved, the anguished sound mingling with the falling raindrops.
A rugged hand gripped Athos' shoulder and pulled him back from the precipice. Porthos held his old friend close, offering a silent moment of comfort before placing an understanding kiss against the Musketeer captain's furrowed brow.
"Do not despair, Athos. Look." He held out a tattered piece of paper, the rain attempting to obliterate the scrawled penmanship.
With a last glance for the dead woman at his feet, Athos shook himself free and took the offered note, his hope strengthening as he read the simple message.
Milady, Once you have delivered your package to the Duke, return to the Abbey. Richelieu
Athos crumpled the small piece of parchment and dropped it on the body. "Damn the Cardinal and his schemes." He lifted his head and gazed at the coast, seeing a lone ship moving swiftly out to sea. His sight zeroed in on the person standing at the helm, conversing with a younger man who was dressed in rich finery. Rochefort. The gentleman beside him turned slightly, his short brown hair tossed by the wind. Buckingham.
Closing his eyes, the Musketeer took several deep breaths and attempted to calm the inner turmoil of his mind. With a tilt of his head to the side, Athos released his breath and reached out across the distance between him and the ship, gathering in the many sounds, filtering out each one until he identified the familiar heartbeat of his lover.
Athos turned to Porthos as he gripped the rope that would take him up the cliff. "Come, my friend. We're about to embark on an English holiday."
Porthos pulled his cape tighter, attempting to shield his large bulk from the storm. Muttering a curse at the fickle weather, he looked out into the darkness, searching for his fellow Musketeer.
Silence. Securing a hold on a nearby beam, he stepped out into the rain, the wind tearing at the edges of his cloak. "Henri?" Porthos raised his voice, hoping his call could be heard above the storm. It was several minutes before he detected a low drawn out moan of distress. Holding his lantern aloft, Porthos located the huddled form of the young Musketeer and, with a laugh, pulled him to shelter. "My son, you look like a drowned rat!" He threw a heavy woolen blanket around Henri's shoulders.
"I feel even worse." Another moan issued forth, this one more miserable than the last.
Porthos looked down at the sickly Musketeer and his eyes sparkled with merriment. "I take it you are not a man of the sea?"
Henri hugged the large beam, resting his head against the rain soaked wood. "If the Almighty had wanted men to sail the waters of the deep, He would have given them fins."
Porthos chuckled as he tugged on Henri's arm. "Come below, dear boy, where it's warm and dry."
Henri nodded and moved a few steps forward. At that very moment, the ship lurched, tumbling the men sideways. Porthos watched as the young man recovered his footing and raced for the railing. He called out the Musketeer's name in concern. "Henri?"
A flash of lightening allowed him to see the weary hand waving him away. "There's a warm dry bunk down below for when you're feeling better." The simple sound of retching was his only answer and Porthos shook his head in sympathy as he cautiously moved towards the ship's bow.
The older Musketeer cursed again at the increasing ferocity of the storm. He watched the waves crash higher and higher against the ship's sides, sending torrents of water over the railings as the large vessel fought its way through the rough sea. Timbers groaned in protest and the sails snapped and wrestled with the squalling winds.
The darkness of the night seemed to increase tenfold and the light of Porthos' lamp barely pierced the murkiness. Heavy rainfall blanketed the twilight hour with a bone-chilling dampness that invaded even the heaviness of garments. Hungry for the warmth of his lover's lean body, Porthos shuddered and clutched his cloak tighter. Aramis was tucked safely below in their cabin and, more than likely, snuggled under the covers, reading his precious poetry.
"Soon my precious one. Soon," the large man whispered into the wind. Wiping the rain from his face, Porthos continued in his search.
A roar of curses directed his steps as he struggled forward. Pushing several loose crates out of his way, Porthos discovered his captain wedged into a hidden alcove and he frowned at the appearance of his old friend.
With his hair plastered to his head and his cheeks red from the cold sting of the rain, Athos sat on a wooden barrel, a half empty flask of whiskey dangling from his hand. His uniform was a crumpled mess, his tunic cast off in the corner, his white linen shirt wrinkled and open to his waist.
Ignoring the bloodshot eyes that glared at him, Porthos laid a gentle hand on his friend's shoulder. "Athos, come below. You're soaked. You need to change into some dry clothes and rest." He shook the younger man, trying to wrestle him free from whatever demons were plaguing his mind. "We reach England tomorrow, Athos. Think of D'Artagnan. Concentrate on the details of our plan." Porthos gripped Athos' chin. "This… this drinking yourself into oblivion is not going to help you save your young lover. Athos!"
Athos wrenched free of Portho's grasp and snarled as he threw the whiskey bottle at his friend. Porthos ducked to the side, watching the bottle sail through the air and splinter into pieces as it crashed against the lead mast. Tiny shards of glass were caught up by the wind, flying back into the Musketeers' faces, slicing small cuts in their skin.
Athos stood and faced the raging storm, his fist raised to the darkened sky. Black clouds seethed across the firmament, flashes of lightening illuminating the man's angry stance. His voice mated with the howling wind as his words hurled into the storm's tempest.
"Damn the Cardinal! Damn his evil soul to hell!"
Athos fell to his knees, his hands clenched in hate, his fists beating against his thighs. The rain mixed the blood from his wounds with the tears from his eyes. "I swear on my honor, on my very life that that bastard will die by my own hand! And I promise his death will be very slow and extremely painful."
Athos gripped the silver crucifix that hung from the chain around his neck, his voice breaking under the weight of the pain in his heart. "I swear, my beloved, he will die."
Porthos knelt beside his friend and sheltered him with his cloak. Silently, he pulled the man to his feet, guiding him across the deck and down the stairs to his cabin. Removing the sodden clothes and boots, he tumbled Athos onto his bunk and covered him with several blankets.
The shadow of heartbroken blue stared up at Porthos as Athos gripped the front of the older man's tunic.
"I love him, Porthos. I will die without him." The Musketeer captain reached down into his saddlebag and collected the slender circlet of gold he had removed from his sword. Holding it to his mouth, he bestowed a tender kiss on it. "D'Artagnan is my life. He is my true soul mate." Athos then pressed the bracelet to his heart. "He has given me a love I never thought I would have."
The younger man pulled his pillow from under his head and crushed it to his chest. "Before D'Artagnan, I was a mean and angry bastard. I can't go back to being that man again, Porthos. It would be the death of me." Quiet sobs escaped the solemn and desolate soldier, his heart starving for the love of his beloved companion. The silent weeping soon faded as Athos slipped into a restless sleep.
Porthos hovered over his comrade for a quarter of an hour, watching him with concern. Touching Athos' head lightly, he whispered, "Do not worry, my friend. Your D'Artagnan will be found and returned to your loving arms."
The older Musketeer moved to the cabin's door, his eyes resting momentarily on the blade that lay beside the sleeping man. "And yes, Athos, the steel of your sword will be stained red with the Cardinal's blood. I promise you this." Porthos extinguished the lantern and quietly closed the door.
"Sleep well, dear friend. For tomorrow we ride into hell to fight the devil himself."
End of Chapter 9
Cast of characters featured in this chapter: Athos-Jim, D'Artagnan-Blair, Porthos-Simon, Aramis-Rafe, Rochefort-Lee Brackett, Cardinal Richelieu-Garett Kincaid, Lady de Winter-Carolyn Plummer, Duke of Buckingham-Stephen Ellison, Henri Phillipe-Henri Brown