THE FIVE MUSKETEERS: THE MARK OF DISHONOUR

France; 1650

It takes a love story to to cure you of love - of fascinating women.

Athos

The road to Blois was rutted deep and frozen beneath a thick covering of snow. Puddles of ice stood in the marks of the horses' hooves and the grooves left by the wheels of carriages and carts. The snow was still falling, wet and sticky and clinging to cloaks and hats with malicious tenacity, melting and seeping through many layers of garments to chill the skin beneath. The two horsemen, picking their way slowly along the treacherous track, doubted whether they would ever be dry again.

The lights of the inn had been on the horizon for at least the last hour; it was the only habitation short of Bragelonne, and the Captain and Lieutenant of Musketeers had rarely allowed their gazes to leave its golden -windowed promise. The thought of a meal and a draught of wine taken by the inn's ample fireside, albeit followed by another dark and cold ride to the Château de la Fère, was all that kept them so firmly to their course. It was madness to travel at this time of year; they had known that before they left Paris, but the lure of Christmas at Bragelonne had been greater than any imagined difficulties of the journey and they had set off, sending a servant in advance to warn of their arrival.

Captain Jean d'Artagnan was at this time a little over forty years of age, his fair hair darkened to a becoming light brown but his sharp blue eyes still holding the candour and warmth that had endeared him to his companions and subordinates in the regiment. After twenty-two years as a serving soldier he remained fit and agile, only the deeper lines on his face and the slightly thickened waist distinguishing him from the wild and illiterate Gascon farm-boy who had helped to save the highly questionable honour of the Queen of France from the evil machinations of the Cardinal Duc de Richelieu.

Lieutenant Raoul, Vicomte de Bragelonne, a slender, studious, dark-haired young man, rode beside him. As the adopted son of Armand, Comte de la Fère - known throughout France by his nom de guerre of 'Athos' - Raoul had accidentally become embroiled in the more recent adventures of the notorious Inseparables as a result of a chance meeting with Justine de Winter, an agent of Oliver Cromwell. A commission in the King's Musketeers had been Raoul's reward for his heroism, and it was inevitable that he had found himself serving under the command of Captain d'Artagnan.

Both travellers were already known at the Forge Inn. The ostler, stepping forward to greet them as they passed beneath the porch and entered the comparative warmth of the stables, addressed them by name and enquired solicitously about their journey. They exchanged a few words with him and d'Artagnan pressed a coin into his hand before once again braving the night to stride across the cobbled yard from the stables to the inn, attracted by the warmth, the light and the sounds of merriment as much as by the smell of food.

Pausing in the doorway d'Artagnan swept the arrogantly-plumed hat from his head and beat the accumulated snow from its brim, at the same time stamping to return the blood to his feet.

"Sweet Heaven, Raoul, what a night!" he exclaimed in annoyance. "I know you have summers here, I've seen them - but I never saw a winter as foul as this. I swear the weather was never so bad when Richelieu was Cardinal!"

Raoul, struggling out of his drenched cloak and handing it to the Inn's servant, found the energy to laugh. "Well, this one is Italian," he said. "They're notoriously temperamental."

The servant, a thin-faced woman, hung their cloaks close to the fire and indicated an empty table in a nearby corner. D'Artagnan stood in front of the fireplace for some time, relaxing his muscles slowly in the warmth of the flames, before joining Raoul at the table. The serving-woman had brought a bottle of dark red wine and poured a measure for each of them.

D'Artagnan took a long swallow from his glass, then wiped his mouth with the back of his gloved hand in a most elegant gesture. "Food!" he declared urgently. "We're starving!"

"There's beef stew and bread and cheese," the woman told him, with an unfriendly glare. "Will that suffice for your honours?"

The Captain smiled his most captivating smile. "Admirably, madame, admirably."

The woman left them for a moment, returning to deposit two plates of greasy stew on the table. While she fetched the bread and cheese Raoul sniffed the mess on his plate suspiciously. "This smells more like goat than beef," he complained.

"A soldier eats whatever is set before him," d'Artagnan told him, mildly, scattering salt liberally over the unidentifiable contents of his plate. "One never knows when - or if - one will eat again."

He hauled his purse out of his tunic and paid the woman what she asked. When she had gone, Raoul glanced up from his plate and spoke in a low tone.

"It is said Mazarin has married the Queen," he murmured, conspiratorially.

"It is also said that the moon is made of cheese," was the older man's dismissive reply.

"Then you don't believe it?"

D'Artagnan paused, a forkful of stringy meat halting on its way to his lips. He considered a moment.

"I believe that Mazarin is a man without principle," he said, slowly. "It would be quite in character for him to be secretly married to the Queen. As to her character ... " His words trailed off. As an idealistic young man he had risked life and limb in the service of Anne of Austria, but over the years he had been disillusioned about her. She could hardly be blamed for the desperate measures she had resorted to in order to secure the succession; Louis XIII being quite incapable of fathering a child it was only natural that she had submitted to another man's embraces for the sake of producing an heir. That much was plainly her duty; a flaunted liaison with Mazarin, on the other hand, was enough to cause even the Queen's most ardent adherents to question their loyalty.

"There are so many rumours," Raoul sighed. "Does anyone know the truth?"

"Ah ... and what is truth, anyway?" laughed d'Artagnan. "That this stew, which tastes so much like goat, is really the finest beef? That this red vinegar is an excellent vintage? That the King is Richelieu's son and that the Queen's virtue is beyond question? Any of these may well be true, but as Musketeers it is our duty to accept what our superiors tell us. Any doubts we may have, we would be wise to keep to ourselves."

Raoul accepted the timely warning with a smile. "Yes, Monsieur," he said, respectfully, acknowledging d'Artagnan's authority over him.

"Hah! Your father will hardly believe what a dutiful young officer you've become, Raoul. I doubt he'll recognise the boy he sent to Paris in my care."

Carefully the older man steered the conversation away from the dangerous political waters into which they had strayed, and for the rest of the meal the safer and happier subjects of Athos and Christmas at the Chateau de la Fère entertained them. Now that d'Artagnan's parents had both gone to their eternal reward and his elder brother Charles was running the family's holding near Tarbes - with his fat wife and his five fat children around him - the Gascon had made Bragelonne his home and Athos and Raoul his family, something he could scarcely have envisaged when he first set eyes on the man who had become the dearest of his most dear friends.

In Paris a bare two hours young d'Artagnan had presented himself at the establishment of M. de Treville, the commander of the King's Musketeers. The scene that met his eyes when he entered the building was all he could have dreamed of; uniformed Musketeers were talking, gaming and skirmishing in the huge open hallway of the building, and everywhere he looked he saw exemplars of the kind of man his father wished him to be. His father did not wish it any more than he did himself, however; his life-long dream had been to follow the elder d'Artagnan into the Musketeers and make as distinguished a name for himself as his father had.

At the foot of the stairs he encountered two Musketeers engaged in friendly banter over the cost of a gold-lace belt one of them wore; Porthos and Aramis, as he later learned. Easing past them, only half his attention on where he was going and the other half firmly fixed upon their conversation, he had almost failed to notice that a third man sat halfway up the stairs having a sword-wound attended to by M. de Treville's surgeon. He had thrown a casual glance in the man's direction - and caught his breath suddenly and with no discernible cause. The man drew his gaze like a moth to a flame; d'Artagnan could not bear to look away. Dark and saturnine, having black hair, beard and moustache, he carried an air of menace and misery combined that reached out to d'Artagnan and almost caused him to lose his balance. He recovered himself in time and turned away, recalling his mission to M. de Treville, but wondering what there was about this unknown Musketeer that had set his heart beating in so undisciplined a manner. It had been, as he later discovered, his first glimpse of Athos.

Upon second acquaintance Athos produced a still greater impression on him. Emerging from M. de Treville's cabinet some minutes later in pursuit of the one-eyed villain who had robbed him on the way to Paris, d'Artagnan ran full-tilt into the dark-visaged Musketeer and accidentally re-opened the wound the surgeon had just succeeded in closing. His hurried apology had not been sufficient; Athos had issued a challenge to a duel at the convent of Carmes-Deschaux two hours later and d'Artagnan, mindful of his father's instruction that he fight as many duels as he could, accepted the challenge. Not only that, but as he left the building he somehow managed to find himself accepting challenges from Porthos and Aramis as well - the last issued in tones almost of apology.

A duel with Athos would suit him very well. He had arrived early for his appointment at the Carmes-Deschaux; the noonday heat slammed down mercilessly on the black-clad figure seated in the courtyard as d'Artagnan strode forward without fear and made a respectful bow to his opponent. Athos scarcely glanced in his direction as the courtesies were observed, but d'Artagnan had time to notice that the man's eyes were of a stunning sapphire blue and held a bold, yet wounded, quality. At so many years' remove he wondered whether he could, in fact, have drawn his sword against Athos in earnest, either then or at any time since. He had never needed to put it to the test; the arrival first of Porthos and Aramis and shortly thereafter of M. de Jussac and a troop of the Cardinal's Guard had made any such question academic - and yet it was during that first, glorious battle beside the men who were later to become his dearest friends that d'Artagnan had received another shock, apparently trivial in itself, which had fixed the course of his existence from then on. Wounded, disarmed and beset, Athos had called out to him - to d'Artagnan, the acquaintance of only moments - for aid, and d'Artagnan had been at his side on the instant, beating off a Cardinal's man armed with a sword in each hand who would have torn Athos to pieces. The guard had been routed; d'Artagnan remembered with warmth the affectionate way Athos had acknowledged his assistance - and that any question of challenges issued and accepted was from that moment forgotten between the four of them.

That same evening d'Artagnan found himself being entertained in a most oddly-decorated suite of rooms in the Rue Ferrou, the guest of his three new friends in the lodgings of M. Athos.

Porthos handed him a full measure of champagne as he wandered around the dark-panelled room staring in some mystification at the objects with which Athos chose to surround himself. An ancient sword with a jewel-encrusted hilt sat in lone splendour on the mantelpiece, while up above it hung the portrait of a man in antique costume - a man who bore a passing resemblance to his host.

"This is ... some ancestor of yours, perhaps, sir?" he asked, almost humbly, realising that the man in the portrait was certainly of noble birth.

A wince from Aramis told him that he had said the wrong thing, but Athos replied mildly enough.

"That? No, merely part of the furnishings of the room; the landlord may know something about it. I find it a gloomy thing - one of these days I must take steps to dispose of it."

Intelligent enough to recognise that he had strayed into forbidden territory, d'Artagnan accepted Athos's words at face value. "Quite," he agreed politely, and received a nod of approbation from Aramis. "I should do the same in your place."

"Well, young Gascon," boomed Porthos heartily, "tell us about yourself. Your father was a Musketeer, you say?"

D'Artagnan welcomed the change of subject and saw relief, too, in Athos's expression. "Yes," he agreed, seating himself at the table. "A close companion of M. de Treville, some twenty years ago - but I have no story to tell: I was born and raised on my father's farm, and I have scarcely left my home province in my life. My only desire has been to be accepted into the Musketeers - but M. de Treville says I must prove myself first."

"Well, that chance may come," Athos told him, wisely. He was lighting a long-stemmed clay pipe and merely glanced at d'Artagnan, but his eyes cut like knives.

"I hope so. Won't you tell me something about yourselves, instead?" he asked, wheedlingly. "How did you first become acquainted?"

"Aha!" A roar of delight from Porthos was accompanied by a refilling of glasses. "Well, that's easy enough to answer. Why, it must have been six or seven years ago. Athos was newly come to Paris and we met ... refresh my memory, my dear Athos, where was it again?"

"In a wine-shop," was the sardonic response.

"Ah, yes, of course!" Porthos's reply was cheerfully heedless of the irony in Athos's tone. "We were playing dice in a stew of a tavern when some ghastly ruffian started a fight; before we knew where we were the pair of us were out in the street on our backsides."

"Porthos, of course," Athos took up smoothly, "was not inclined to take this insult lying down. Between us we ... made considerable alterations to the tavern, and managed to make our escape before the Provost Marshal came looking for us. I was not yet a Musketeer, you understand - but Porthos was, and in uniform too."

"Fortunately, as Athos says, we got away," resumed Porthos, as though they had rehearsed their tale many times, "and continued our drinking elsewhere, without further inconvenience."

"I myself was still in the seminary at that time," Aramis put in. "It was two years before I happened to make their acquaintance - and from that time onwards we have been known as the Three Inseparables."

"And how did you come to meet?" asked d'Artagnan, turning to him, fascinated.

Aramis did not meet his eyes. "Oh, I was in some little difficulty ... over money, that is ... and being temporarily in funds they were able to assist me. Since I had no way of repaying them I abandoned my priestly ambitions and joined the Musketeers myself. I do still intend to return to the seminary and complete my training ... but there are so many other calls on my time..."

"Most of them utterly charming, my dear Aramis," declaimed Porthos happily, raising a glass to toast his old friend.

"The ladies," acknowledged Aramis smoothly, recovering his composure and lifting his glass to Porthos.

Athos drew down a monstrous gulp of wine and regarded d'Artagnan measuringly over the brim of the glass. "In short, young man, if you wish to make your way in the world," he advised with considerable gravity, "you will avoid gambling, brawling, women and, of course, drink."

D'Artagnan's earnest blue eyes turned on him in blank amazement which quickly became delight "Naturally," he said, bowing to his elder respectfully, "I will be scrupulous in following your example."

Porthos's bellow of laughter and hearty slap on his back heralded the general disintegration of the evening into a drunken revelry which had even at the time eluded the reach of memory; in the snow on the road to Blois two decades later d'Artagnan could recall no more than brief bright glimpses of the happy exuberance of himself, Porthos and Aramis presided over by the more morose and unyielding Athos, still carrying his secret pain so close to his heart he had shared it with no-one, not even his oldest friends. He had learned a great deal about Athos that first day, but there was so much still to be learned.

The hour was late and the night blacker than pitch by the time Raoul and d'Artagnan returned to the Blois road. They were obliged to ride slowly, picking their way with caution along the darkened track, their path illuminated only occasionally by the fickle light of the moon. Conversation was impossible, muffled as they were in the folds of their still-wet cloaks, only a grim determination and the prospect of the warmth of their reception at Bragelonne to keep them to their self-appointed task. Approaching the small church at the entrance to the Bragelonne estates Raoul turned to glance at d'Artagnan and even in the gloom his look said all that was in his mind.

D'Artagnan's chin lifted and he stared straight ahead of him, his thoughts tumbling through the past and fixing with their usual savagery on the bitter memory of Milady de Winter. As Anne de Breuil she had come to this place from nowhere and with her beauty had induced the local landowner to fall in love with her; not knowing who she was or where she came from he could, without dishonour, have made her his mistress - but he had chosen to marry her, here in this tiny village church. He had loved her deeply; so deeply that even thirty years later he still bore the scars of her deceit. The Comte de la Fère had died the day he discovered the branded mark of harlot on his wife's shoulder; from his ashes had risen the drunken, brawling but courageous Musketeer known as Athos.

D'Artagnan hunched down over his horse's ears, squinting at the treacherous road ahead. In his mind's eye were pictures he had carried with him for more than twenty years, pictures he returned to in moments of darkness and pain, pictures he would never relinquish until the moment of his death. He drew them out again now, reviewed them, wrapped them around himself like a dry cloak and let the memories flow.

The summer of 1628 was hotter than any they could remember. Even on the long journey from Tarbes to Paris to present himself to M. de Treville, which he had accomplished in the spring, d'Artagnan had been aware of the overpowering heat, and by the time the summer was well established it had brought with it numerous complications such as drought and disease which made the city an unpleasant place to be. Throughout July and early August, too, rumours abounded about secret meetings between the Cardinal Richelieu and agents of various foreign kings; it was known that the Cardinal had spies in every court in Europe and that usually he was discreet in his dealings with them, but word had been received that he had been seen to visit a certain inn at Montereau where he met with various people among whom was a fair-haired woman of the nobility.

"Fair-haired women!" growled Athos disgustedly, reining his horse at the side of the road to Montereau one bright morning towards the end of August.

D'Artagnan, who had been riding a few paces behind him, caught up just as the older man slid from the saddle and reached for a flask of wine.

"Did you say something?" he asked, innocently.

"Nothing of any consequence; merely that fair-haired women invariably seem to carry trouble with them." As d'Artagnan dismounted Athos ofFered him the flask, which the younger man accepted and drank from eagerly. "Or so I've observed," added Athos, casually.

They were dressed as master and servant, d'Artagnan in the plain garments he'd brought with him from Gascony, Athos in a paned doublet of faded blue and grey with a falling-collar of ivory lace at his neck. Even in the uniform of a Musketeer Athos could hardly be mistaken for any but a nobleman; with clothing of good quality on his back the impression of high birth was overwhelming. D'Artagnan found little difficulty in acting the lackey to someone so obviously accustomed to the presence of servants, and had fallen easily into the role. In order to travel without attracting notice the four had split into pairs, Porthos and Aramis having set out several hours earlier before the heat of the day had assumed its present ferocity.

"A rest, d'Artagnan," Athos said now, in a tone that brooked no argument. "I know this road well, there's hardly any shade for the next three leagues. Beyond that line of trees there," he added, indicating a dark line between two fields of ripening corn sprinkled with wide scarlet poppies, "is a stream. I suggest we pause here to refresh ourselves - and our horses - before we proceed. We'll see clearly enough if the Cardinal passes along the road, and Porthos and Aramis should be safely installed at the inn by now."

D'Artagnan fanned his scorched face with the brim of his hat. He was accustomed to hot weather, being from the south, but this ride along a stony path in searing heat was beginning to take its toll even of him.

"I have some food in my saddlebags," he ofFered. "Planchet wrapped it up well, so it should still be cool."

Athos's look of approval was all the commendation he needed. "Well, then, let's be comfortable," the Musketeer said, leading his horse aside to the path that ran along the edge of the cornfield.

A few moments later they were in the shade of a grove of trees that bordered a tiny, clear stream. Although apparently much reduced from its former vigour it still ran energetically between sun-baked rocks and d'Artagnan led the horses to a place where the bank dipped down to the water and allowed them to drink.

Athos removed his doublet and threw it over the low branch of a tree, opening his shirt almost to the waist. D'Artagnan, with this example, took off his shirt altogether, allowing such breeze as there was to flicker across his tanned chest and shoulders and cool his skin. He pulled bread, cold meat and fruit from his saddle-bag, as well as a further flask of wine. Athos's servant had been less provident than Planchet, but between them they had sufficient for a fair enough repast.

"Will my lord take wine?" d'Artagnan asked lightly, approaching Athos with the flask held out towards him.

"Whenever he can get it," was the almost jocular response. D'Artagnan noted with approval that notwithstanding the seriousness of their purpose Athos was inclined to treat this expedition as an entertainment, which suited his own mood well enough. Three months in the broiling heat of Paris drilling the tedious routines of M. des Essarts and his troop of King's Guards had fitted d'Artagnan for an adventure of some sort, and when the Musketeers sought his aid on this sortie he had agreed without hesitation.

He slumped down onto the grass beside Athos, attacking the wine and food with single-minded intensity. They ate in silence for several minutes, watching the horses cool themselves in the stream. When the meal was finished d'Artagnan lounged on one elbow and stared up through a pattern of leaves to the unrelenting sky.

"I don't believe the Cardinal intends to travel to Montereau - today or any other day," he said, sagely.

"Oh?" Athos's response was delivered around the neck of the wine-flask. "Why not?"

D'Artagnan turned towards him. "Because ... if we have heard the rumours then no doubt he has, too. He has the best spies in France."

"He certainly has the most," acknowledged Athos. "So, then?"

"Well, if it was known he was in the habit of visiting a certain place ... wouldn't he change that habit?"

"Or did he perhaps start the rumour himself? Had you considered that?"

"Why? To ... lure his enemies to the inn at Montereau? What would he achieve by that?"

The dark-haired man shrugged. "Our Cardinal," he said, with decision, "has a mind so devious you would need to be as evil as he is to comprehend it fully. I thank heaven, child, that neither you nor I will ever understand him. An end to all Cardinals," he added, more briskly, drinking deeply from the flask.

"An end to all Cardinals," repeated his companion, mirroring the action. "But Athos, why do you always call me 'child'? I'm one-and-twenty, all but a few weeks."

"Ah, well, compared to myself ... "

"Nonsense! You're ... no more than a dozen years older!" averred d'Artagnan, sitting up. "Younger than Porthos, at any rate!"

"Child, almost everyone you meet is younger than Porthos," was the gently cynical response. "But beside you ... beside your innocence ... I feel ... older than the hills... "

"Ah, you're breaking my heart! Poor, aged Athos!"

Athos glowered at him, half-amused and half-enraged. "I warn you, d'Artagnan ... "

In a movement of stunning suddenness d'Artagnan grabbed for the other wine-flask and twisted it out of Athos's hand, leaping to his feet and darting out of reach as he did so.

"Poor ancient, withered, toothless old man!" he taunted, playfully. He stood for a moment with one flask in each hand, laughing down mischievously into Athos's deep blue eyes, then turned and with a shout of pure glee ran away from him up the slope and into the corn. Without conscious thought Athos was on his feet and after him in a second, ploughing behind him through chest-high corn that rustled and crackled as it parted, bellowing incoherent indignance. Older though he was, and heavier, his progress was not noticeably slower and he had no difficulty in catching up to d'Artagnan in the middle of the field, reaching out and trapping a flailing arm and roughly pulling the younger man close against him.

"I warned you, boy; be very careful what games you play," he told the young man, menacingly. "Flirt with whomever you choose - man or woman, it's nothing to me - only leave me in peace. I don't flirt, and I don't love."

"Not since the fair-haired woman?" asked d'Artagnan breathlessly, his voice pitched on a low and confidential note, only too aware that despite Athos's harsh words their mouths were perilously close together and that the heat of Athos's nearness was flooding his bare skin.

"Golden hair and blue eyes," whispered Athos, hoarsely, "make for a dangerous combination, boy, in both women and men."

The words carried a peril d'Artagnan had courted consciously since the battle of the Carmes-Deschaux. Aramis and Porthos he loved deeply, as colleagues and friends for whom he would willingly lay down his life at a moment's notice: Athos, however, could command more than merely his life; his soul, his body and his honour were also at the Musketeer's disposal.

"I'm not flirting," he assured Athos in a tone of wounded pride. "And neither am I dangerous - at least, not to you. Perhaps to myself. I only want ... "

"And the fact that you 'want' makes everything right, does it? Gascon, your arrogance is beyond belief. Do you have any idea of the risk you are expecting me to take? Do you know what the Cardinal does to men who ... who 'want'... ?"

"No doubt we would be made to suffer," d'Artagnan whispered, not heeding his own words as his left hand slid up Athos's full sleeve and gripped his shoulder in a movement somewhere between despair and possessiveness, increasing their proximity.

"Child, believe me, he would burn us," was the scarcely-voiced reply as Athos closed on him and caught his mouth in a grip of peremptory fierceness. D'Artagnan let it happen, let the warm lips conquer his own, let the strange excitement flood him; the unfamiliar graze of beard and moustache against his face sent quivers of delighted anticipation running through his veins and for an instant stunned all reaction out of him, but he recovered quickly and gave himself into the kiss with alacrity, his eyes closed, his body complaisant.

Athos tore himself away, turned, and scrubbed a hand across his mouth in denial. "You're playing with fire, d'Artagnan," he said, unsteadily, "and we have business in Montereau, remember?"

"Not ... not more urgent than this, surely?"

"God's wounds, boy, how can I answer you?" It was a shout of rage, torn from the turmoil that was Athos's conscience. "Are you in such a hurry to court your own damnation ... and mine? Stable-boys and farm yokels may bed together without fear, but not gentlemen!"

"Well, I am a farm yokel," d'Artagnan told him, defensively. "I never claimed to be a gentleman!"

"But you are," Athos told him, a break in his voice as he turned back to direct a look of unbearable pain at the younger man. "And so was I, once."

"Why do you say that?" Distressed by the anguish in Athos's tone and expression d'Artagnan reached out and gripped the older man's hand, pulling him closer. "What could you have done that was so ... dishonourable?" he asked, mystified.

The stunned look in Athos's eyes told of the complete bludgeoning of his free-will, the utter defeat of all his objections, the half-unwilling capitulation to an irrational desire for d'Artagnan so powerful that it was no longer possible to suppress it.

"Oh, child, I hope you never learn of it," the deep voice told him in a tortured whisper, as Athos lifted his free hand to sift through the spun gold of d'Artagnan's hair so that the sunlight became caught in its strands, "but I have perjured my soul and for that and for the crime I am contemplating it is certain I shall never be forgiven."

"What crime? I forgive you already," d'Artagnan told him, blithely. "After all, you want the same as I do."

"To you it all seems so blissfully simple," murmured Athos, closing to d'Artagnan again, cupping his chin and looking into his eyes as though they held all the secrets of past, present and future.

"Why must it be complicated? I promised you I would abjure dice, drinking, duelling and women; I made no such promise about men. You never asked it of me."

"How could I, when I wanted you for myself? And in any case, young Gascon, you have broken each of the other promises in turn. I don't believe you are capable of being true to your word."

"You insult me, sir," was the answering whisper. "Honour demands satisfaction ..."

"Child ... child ... "

His words were swallowed as d'Artagnan moved to close the gap between them, claiming Athos's mouth with a determination and an authority normally evident in his character only in duels of a more deadly variety, commanding the bearded lips and scarcely allowing Athos to catch his breath as they unleashed on one another the full force of desires and wishes that had been kept under careful control since the chance encounter at the Hotel de Treville several weeks earlier. In a confusion of touches and kisses and half-heard whispers Athos drew d'Artagnan down to the ground between the sheltering corn-stalks where the sky was a bright blue disk framed by gold and only a few lazy insects disturbed the summer quiet with their whirring and chirping, and in this inviolable sanctuary from public censure made love to him so skilfully and satisfyingly that d'Artagnan's cause - with his heart - was lost from that moment forward.

"Are you afraid?" Athos asked him, afterwards, soothing back the wayward fair hair from his forehead, his voice schooled to a tenderness d'Artagnan had never hoped to hear.

"Of you? Never. Of the Cardinal ... " D'Artagnan paused to consider. "Yes. Mortally."

"So you should be. I doubt he knows you exist yet, but when he learns it ... he'll mark you for death. You're a loyal King's man and a friend of the Three Inseparables; it makes you a target for all his ill-will. And if he knew what we had just done ... he would order brushwood and flames for us both."

"Ah." D'Artagnan nodded thoughtfully, allowing the spectre access to his mind for a mere moment.

Athos reached for his discarded shirt and hauled it around his shoulders. D'Artagnan had time to notice and enumerate a great many sword-scars on the muscular torso before they were shielded from view - then shook his head sadly and reached for his breeches and boots, struggling into them maladroitly as he stood up.

"We are an hour or more behind our time," Athos told him, glancing at the position of the sun as he completed dressing, "and I doubt we'd have noticed if the Cardinal passed this way with a hundred horse and a fanfare of trumpets. At least our horses are rested and we can make better speed from now on." There was a coldness in his manner as he picked up the two discarded wine-flasks and handed one to d'Artagnan. "Aramis and Porthos will think us murdered."

"Athos, I ... " Stepping away from the little patch of flattened corn-stalks and crushed poppies d'Artagnan felt a knife of regret slide between his ribs.

Athos turned back to him and for a long moment their gazes locked. Then the older man held out a hand and briefly d'Artagnan's fingers twined with his.

"Another time, boy," he said, hoarsely, "when we are not already late to meet our friends." His grip tightened on d'Artagnan's hand, squeezing the blood from it, then released it as he turned away.

Content with what was almost a promise, d'Artagnan followed him back to where they had left the horses.

Porthos was stretched out on a bench in the late afternoon sun in the courtyard of the Inn at Montereau, his hat resting lightly over his eyes. Aramis was nowhere to be seen. Dismounting, Athos and d'Artagnan handed their horses to the ostler and strode across the courtyard, Athos snatching the hat from the sleeping man's face.

"Monsieur," he said, cuttingly, offering a mock-bow as Porthos sat up, blinking.

"Athos? D'Artagnan? Here so soon?" Porthos ran a hand through his hair and smoothed the lace of his collar back into place, recovering his hat from Athos as he did so. He got to his feet stiffly.

Athos's expression lacked something in tolerance. "The wine is cheap here," he observed.

"Yes, and excellent value for money," responded Porthos with a shrug.

"Where's Aramis?"

"What? Oh, there's a daughter ... " observed Porthos casually, as though it explained everything.

"Abjure wine, and brawling, and women ... " d'Artagnan mused, not quite to himself, missing the look Porthos shot in his direction.

"The word is," the eldest Musketeer informed them both, in mild tones, "His Eminence is expected here tomorrow at noon. There are no sleeping apartments, but we can sleep in the stable or the common room for the price of our meals. When Aramis gets back we can ask him about the accommodations in the stable, but the room looks comfortable enough; they have straw pallets we can use."

"If the rats haven't made use of them first," observed Athos, sourly. Then he sighed, his humour returning. "Very well, when Aramis has concluded his ... devotions ... we'll see whether the cooking here is better than the sleeping quarters. You have some money left, I hope?" he asked Porthos, with a sidelong look.

"A little."

"Good. Our exertions on the journey have made us hungry."

He took Porthos by the arm and led him towards the shady sanctuary of the inn's doorway, casting a brief glance over his shoulder just in time to notice the delightful stain of a blush creeping across d'Artagnan's hitherto innocent young face.

Dinner at the inn was not of a high standard, but as Athos had remarked the wine was plentiful and cheap. The household retired early leaving only the elderly landlord to attend the quality in the common room, and when he began to yawn Aramis took pity on him and sent him off to bed. With the outside door barred and bolted and all but the last candle extinguished, the four made themselves comfortable for the night, removing their doublets and boots and pulling down the straw pallets that were lodged in the rafters. Contrary to Athos's suspicions they showed no signs of having been attacked by rats, but were none too clean for all that.

Although the day had been warm the night and the stone floor between them were cold enough to warrant cloaks as blankets, but even wrapped comfortably and settled in a corner away from the draft d'Artagnan could find no repose in sleep. After two hours of restless staring at the ceiling he moved stealthily from his pallet to gaze out of the window, trying to calm his seething thoughts.

"D'Artagnan?" An urgent whisper from across the room caught at his consciousness.

"Athos?"

The bulky figure of the older man rose up from a pallet at right-angles to his own, where Athos had been sleeping next to Aramis.

"Are you ill?" Athos asked, standing close to him in the shaft of moonlight. The shutters were wide open but the window closed tight against insects. "That food was quite enough to ... "

D'Artagnan smiled at his obvious concern. The sound of Porthos shifting uncomfortably on his pallet made him take an involuntary step closer to Athos, but the hand that stole slowly across Athos's chest to his heavily-muscled neck was directed by his own will.

"I don't love, boy," Athos reminded him softly. "I warned you."

"But I do," was d'Artagnan's confident response. "Athos, I think I love you."

Athos shook his head. "No. Your pretty dressmaker you might love - for an hour or two - but I assure you d'Artagnan you do not love me."

"Why not? Why do you say that?"

The older man sighed, as though he were dealing with an idiot. "Because love is pain, and I think we want to spare one another that." Nevertheless his arms closed around d'Artagnan and held him in a comforting embrace. "Pleasure we must take where we find it - but never, child, never speak of love. A week or a year from now one of us may be required to die; if there was love between us, on that day we would both die."

There was a silence, a long, long silence from d'Artagnan, and then, eventually, barely-breathed words. "Of course. I see now how mistaken I was; it's Constance Bonancieux that I love, not you at all. It's Constance who will have my heart for as long as I live."

And now I have perjured my soul, too, he thought, as his lips lifted to meet Athos's, and just like you I will never be forgiven.

Two decades later the memory still had the power to stir d'Artagnan. Athos had awakened him to feelings he could neither express nor deny, had accepted and rejected him almost with the same breath. He knew, without understanding, that some grief that concerned a fair-haired woman had driven Athos to this painful course, and he damned her soul without knowing her story.

Gradually he had learned, too, something of the secret griefs of the other Musketeers; Aramis's disastrous yearning for a beautiful young man at his seminary, with its too-brief consummation, had resulted in a hideous aftermath which was only alleviated by the expenditure of every sou Athos and Porthos could raise between them. For love of Aramis, Porthos had sold off most of his furniture, leaving his house in the Rue de Vieux Colombier almost empty and effectively cutting himself off from the level of society he so craved to enter. All three had turned their backs on family and friends and even their original identities, banding together for safety and protection against the Cardinal.

En route to England by command of the Queen to retrieve a collar of diamond studs from her lover the Duke of Buckingham - in order to foil Richelieu's plot to expose and disgrace Her Majesty - d'Artagnan and Aramis had taken shelter in a barn during a thunderstorm whilst Porthos and Athos scouted the road ahead of them. In those few brief moments d'Artagnan had learned all he would ever need to know of the true depth of the loyalty the Three Inseparables held for one another - and now for himself as well. A chance remark of his own had prompted it, some unremembered sentiment of concern for the safety of their colleagues that had provoked a flood of good-natured laughter and a little gentle teasing.

"My dear d'Artagnan," Aramis had laughed indulgently, despite the chattering of his teeth, "it's most apparent to me you care a great deal more for Athos than for Porthos - or for myself."

"No, I ... "

"Don't trouble to deny it, young man, you make it too obvious for that," chided Aramis, from the lofty height of a handful more years of life. "Whatever you may say about your little dressmaker, your heart is engaged elsewhere. You may as well know, Porthos and I were awake and heard every word that night at the inn at Montereau when Athos told you how unwise it is to love."

D'Artagnan accepted the information calmly. "He was wrong," he said, with a wry smile.

"He was right," Aramis informed him, a heavy tiredness in his tone. "D'Artagnan, love would make you prisoners of one another; as you are, you're both free. Otherwise, you might one day be forced to choose Athos's life over Porthos's or my own, and that would scarcely be justice."

There was silence for a moment, and then d'Artagnan shrugged. "You're right," he said, almost casually, "that would be less than just - but Aramis, you know that Athos doesn't love me. You heard him say so, and as he is a man of honour we must take his word. Why would he lie to me, in any case?"

"Oh, d'Artagnan, you can't be so naïve - or can you? There are many difFerent kinds of truth; Athos merely tells you his own truth as he sees it. It is not fit for gentlemen to love one another - and since you are both gentlemen, it follows that it cannot be love."

"But I'm not a gentleman," d'Artagnan reminded him. "At least, not yet."

Aramis stretched out a gloved hand and patted him familiarly on the shoulder. "Indeed," he conceded. "You, my dear d'Artagnan, are a peasant who wishes to be a gentleman. Porthos, however, is a gentleman who wishes to be a nobleman, and Athos ... "

"Yes?"

The smile Aramis turned on him was merry and free of malice. "Athos is a nobleman who wishes with all his heart he could be a peasant," he concluded, with a little laugh.

"And you?"

"I? I am a Musketeer who wishes to be a priest."

D'Artagnan returned the smile. "Then I hope you will get your wish. I hope we will all get what we wish."

"So we may, if the Cardinal is kind enough to spare us," came the gruff tones of Porthos from the doorway. He stepped into the dim circle of pale candlelight. "Come along now, you two, Athos is waiting, and there's an inn a few leagues from here where we can pass the night - the Inn of St. Martin at Chantilly, we should be safe enough there."

How illusory that safety had proved to be! It was at the St. Martin the following day that the four had been parted; Porthos falling victim to a drunken swordsman who accused him of insulting the Cardinal, Aramis shot at from ambush and thrown unconscious from his horse, and Athos - after a magnificent battle waist-deep in a river, hampered by his heavy cloak - skewered through the throat and hanged like a common criminal. Even at this remove the image of that moment brought chill tears to d'Artagnan's eyes, tears that blinded him to a danger far more immediate than that of the long-dead ambushers of Chantilly, emotions that dulled the razor-edge of his judgement and allowed him and his comrade Raoul de Bragelonne to fall into a trap deadlier even than any set by the Cardinal Duc de Richelieu in those far-off days when life - and love - had seemed so very much simpler.

"More wine, M'sieur?"

The Comte de la Fère glanced up from the ledger in which he was writing only long enough to nod in Planchet's direction. The fat servant poured another full glass and returned the jug to its niche beside the fire.

"Your master is very late," observed Athos, mildly.

"Yes, M'sieur. He should have been here two or three hours ago; perhaps the road was so bad he decided to stay at the Forge Inn."

Athos considered the possibility. "Yes, I suppose so," he conceded, reluctantly. "No doubt he and Raoul will arrive some time after breakfast. All the same ... "

The rest of the sentence was unnecessary. As if the weather and its hazards were not enough, the winter brought more than the usual number of lawless men out onto the roads - men who had no way to keep from starving but by robbery. Ordinarily d'Artagnan and Raoul would be equal to any half dozen armed thieves, but the bitter cold and scything wind with its burden of snow would sap their energy and leave them easier prey. He and Planchet should have ridden out to the inn to escort them home, but he knew how much the pride of the two younger men would have been hurt by such an implied criticism. Sometimes, he reflected, action was a great deal easier than inaction.

Planchet was by the window, peering out through the gap between the shutters.

"Horsemen entering the courtyard, M'sieur, two of them," he announced, delightedly.

Athos pushed the chair back from the table at which he sat and abandoned his accounts without another thought.

"Cloak, Planchet!" he commanded, striding towards the hallway. The valet scurried around him, throwing open the door and reaching for Athos's heavy fur-lined cloak where it had been thrown casually over the back of a chair. As Athos left the library with its warm gold reflections of candle-light and entered the darkened hallway the cloak was wrapped around his shoulders and he fastened it as he stepped out into the bitter chill of the frozen courtyard.

"Raoul! D'Artagnan!" he roared to the two figures dismounting only yards away at the stable entrance.

"My dear Athos, you wound me!" was the calm, slightly amused response.

"Taken for a Gascon, indeed!" added a second, deeper voice. "Come, Aramis, let's go where we are not so insulted!"

Athos had reached the horses' heads now, and paused to stare at his visitors in blank amazement. "Porthos! Aramis!" With a huge, expansive gesture he pulled first one and then the other into a crushing embrace. "How are you here?" he demanded, mystified. "I looked for d'Artagnan and the boy some hours ago, but never thought to see you two!"

Aramis was hauling a travelling valise down from his horse; Porthos had his already in his hand.

"Well, the fact of the matter is," the cleric said, slowly, "the Bishop of Tours is dead."

The three turned towards the house and the steps where Planchet waited, leaving the horses in the care of the groom.

"What?" The remark was so obscure Athos demanded clarification.

"Ah, well, y'see, Athos, we were visiting His Grace," Porthos supplied. "He kept a princely table and was precious fond of hunting; it seemed like a good enough way to pass the Christmas festival."

"Only two days ago His Grace fell from his horse and was inconsiderate enough to die of it, and I was required to conduct a funeral mass for him," added Aramis, sourly, preceding Athos and Porthos up the steps and slapping Planchet on the shoulder as he passed. "You well know how much I dislike the duties of my office, but on this occasion I could not avoid them. We left as soon as we decently could."

"In search of a less dismal house," finished Porthos, in triumph. "At least there's always wine and comfort in your establishment, my dear Athos, and often the company of old comrades. I confess I had expected Raoul to be here - but not d'Artagnan."

"Nor had I, until Planchet arrived this morning to warn me of his change of plans," conceded Athos. "Well, gentlemen, wine and food? Planchet, go to the kitchens and see what you can find. Come into the library, gentlemen, there's a good fire and plenty to drink."

As Planchet scurried off into the darkness Athos wrapped an arm around each of his friends and ushered them into the library.

When Planchet returned, bringing cold meat and bread and more wine, the two travellers were seated at their ease in front of the fire.

"It's all I could find, M'sieur," he said, apologetically. "Unless you want me to get the cook out of bed, and you know what her temper's like."

Aramis cast an amused glance at his host; Athos could fight dragons and bring down Cardinals and build and break fortunes, but like most of his household he went in fear of the cook.

"Leave her in peace," he said, wisely. "Raoul can charm her tomorrow, she loves him best."

Porthos raised his glass. "To Raoul and d'Artagnan," he said. "May they have an easier journey of it than we did. You expected them tonight, you say?"

"Some hours since. No doubt they've stayed at the Forge Inn."

"Then we'll see them in the morning, as ravenous as a pair of young wolves," commented Aramis, softly.

"And meanwhile," continued Athos, "we can drink in peace. Planchet - more wine."

A lifetime's carousing had left Athos with a head as hard as a rock. Consequently, although he had undoubtedly consumed enough wine to float a warship, the following morning found him wide awake, reasonably clear-eyed and fully dressed at an early hour. He was at the window of his bedchamber staring out over the chateau's courtyard when the respectful knock of a servant sounded at the door and Planchet entered the room carrying a tray.

"Planchet? What the devil do you want?"

The fat servant swallowed nervously and took a few steps further into the room. Although presenting the appearance of a dignified and prosperous gentleman of advancing years, with his grey-white hair and beard and his suit of burgundy velvet over immaculate linen and lace, the Comte de la Fère still carried about him that air of menace which had so disconcerted the young d'Artagnan at their first meeting and a great many others since. Planchet was not exactly a timid man, but he feared the Comte's displeasure almost as much as his master did.

"Your breakfast, M'sieur."

Athos advanced towards him. "I ordered no breakfast," he said, calmly. "I never take it."

"Captain d'Artagnan's orders, M'sieur. He instructed me to bring you a cup of chocolate every morning."

"A cup of ... what?" Suspiciously Athos lifted the delicate porcelain cup and sniffed its contents. "It's made with milk," he said, returning it to the tray in disgust. "What does d'Artagnan think I am? An infant? Or a dotard? Which?"

The cup rattled on the tray as Planchet trembled. "Only the finest ingredients, M'sieur. M. d'Artagnan thought it would do you good ... "

Planchet had already begun retreating towards the door when Athos reached out and took the cup from him again, but although he turned swiftly and was partly shielded by the door he was unable to move quickly enough to avoid the full cup of chocolate that was hurled at him from several paces away across the room and hit him squarely on the right shoulder, the cup shattering into a dozen pieces. He froze in the doorway, hot liquid eating into his arm, casually dipping the fingers of his left hand into the mess and tasting it.

"Hmmm, very good, M'sieur. You really ought to try it, you know."

"Clod!" roared Athos, advancing on him with murderous intent.

"Ah, now, it wasn't my idea; my master ... "

"Oh, your master," murmured Athos, almost mildly, as though that explained everything.

"Where are they? Where are they?"

A shout from the far end of the passage interrupted Athos's thoughts and sent Planchet scurrying for shelter in the lee of an armoire as bare feet spattered along the highly-polished wooden floor bringing towards them a figure barely recognisable as a dishevelled and nightshirted Baron du Vallon, hair awry, drawn sword in hand.

"Athos, what's to do? Where are the villains? I heard a crash....."

"My dear Porthos," the Comte told him with maddening calm, "there are no intruders here - only Planchet, with nonsensical orders from his master."

"Oh, d'Artagnan's here, then? I didn't hear him arrive. Where is the dear boy? D'Artagnan?" The final word was a roar loud enough to send servants running for cover all over the estate, but it failed to produce any answer from d'Artagnan. Instead, the urgent opening and closing of the door into the hallway and the sound of booted footsteps reached up to them.

"Porthos, was that you bellowing?"

Porthos, Athos and Planchet leaned down over the bannister to behold the cloaked and spurred figure of the Bishop of Nantes in the hallway below.

"My dear Aramis, I thought we had been invaded ... "

Aramis, obviously returned from some excursion in the snow, hurried up the stairs towards them. Athos was the first to read and interpret the expression of dazed concern on his features.

"What's amiss?" he demanded urgently.

"Blood. Blood in the snow," Aramis told him, with simple economy. "I awoke early - my morning prayers, you understand - and decided to ride out to the inn and breakfast with d'Artagnan and Raoul. I arrived there an hour since and learned... "

"What? Speak up, man!"

Aramis's expression became, if anything, graver still. "That they had been there yesterday, but left after taking a meal. Further along the road ... close to your family chapel, Athos ... the snow is much cut about and there is a bloodstain at the base of a tree. Someone has tied a rope across the road to bring them down, and then ... "

"There are no ... bodies?" Athos was pale, his eyes sharper and colder than Planchet had ever seen them. Aramis and Porthos both recollected, with a shudder, the moment Milady de Winter had been condemned to death; the same look had been in Athos's eyes then - a compound of fear and flinty determination.

"No. They are taken."

Athos's head lifted, and the frantic working of his eyelids told of fierce suppression of the tears that almost disgraced him.

"Porthos, put some clothes on," he said, coldly. "Planchet, go and see to the Baron's needs."

"Yes, M'sieur." The fat servant all but grabbed Porthos by the elbow and propelled him along the corridor, and as they did so Athos stepped aside and allowed Aramis to precede him into the bedchamber overlooking the courtyard.

Aramis paused in the doorway, surveying the shattered cup and its spilled contents. His host strode past him, ignoring the mess, and from a chest in the window embrasure drew a masterfully-worked mahogany box with brass inlay which he threw open to reveal a pair of pistols. As Aramis watched he silently began to check and load both guns with a methodical determination that was somehow far more chilling than rage.

"Has there been ... some kind of accident?" Aramis cursed himself for the foolishness of the words, but any sound was welcome that would break the fearful silence of Athos's preparations.

"It was Planchet. D'Artagnan ordered him to bring chocolate for my breakfast." The alien words fell uncomfortably from Athos's lips. "If the boy had been here I should have taken great delight in throwing it at him instead."

"Boy!" Aramis quibbled pedantically. "D'Artagnan is more than forty years old and a Captain of Musketeers, and yet you ... " He paused abruptly, stilled by the expression in the cold blue eyes that fastened unwaveringly on his face. "My God!" he breathed, shocked into a reverence that had very little to do with his professed faith. "You are still in love with him, even after twenty years. My dear Athos, I had no idea ... You gave no indication ... "

"Of course not." Athos returned his concentration to the pistols as though the subject had not been raised.

"But all that was many years ago, when we were fighting Richelieu for the Queen's honour ... " stammered Aramis, unable to reconcile what he had learned of Athos's most private emotions with the knowledge that he and d'Artagnan had scarcely met in the last twenty years. "And he was in love with you; Porthos and I distinctly heard him say so - at Montereau, the night we waited for the Cardinal."

Memories of that scene came flooding back, an indiscreet tide of images that had been fixed in Aramis's consciousness ever since; an unshuttered window against the moon, and young d'Artagnan, the naïve country boy with the courage of a lion, falling blissfully into the arms of the enigmatic Athos, their kisses supplying ample evidence of a devotion their words denied.

"Ah, of course." Saddened by the realisation Aramis sank down onto the foot of the bed, his hat dangling listlessly from his hand. "You have never told him that you loved him, have you?"

"No." Athos was tightening on his sword belt and scarcely glanced at his old comrade.

"Why not?"

The Comte's movements halted, and the gaze that rested on Aramis was icy. "For the same reason that you have never admitted to Raoul that you are his father," he said, with rapier-like sharpness, wounding with the accuracy of a practised swordsman.

"You know I cannot, I ... " The protest was almost routine, dragged from unwilling lips with heedless fluency like a prayer learned by rote.

"No more can I," concluded the Comte de la Fère, shouldering past him towards the exit, fully armed now for the chase, and closing with intended finality what had to all intents and purposes been merely another rehearsal of an old, old argument normally kept within himself.

"Athos! Athos!" Leaping after the other Musketeer to the head of the stairs Aramis leaned over the bannister rail to call out to him as he descended the steps.

"What is it?" Irritated, the nobleman paused but did not look up.

"If they are captured ... it is by someone who wants to ransom them. Surely we have only to wait here until their demands are known?"

"You would wait, when kidnappers have your son and my ... Porthos can wait, Planchet can wait - so can you, if you have the stomach for it - but not I. Groom, my horse, this instant!"

Before Aramis had a chance to set his foot on the top step in pursuit the Comte de la Fère had thrown on his cloak, jammed his hat onto his head, and was pulling on his gloves on the way to the stables - and woe betide any fool of a servant unfortunate enough to get in his way. Aramis, feeling less like a seasoned campaigner and prince of the church than a green recruit facing his first engagement with the enemy, made the best speed he could to follow him.

The hour was still early, the weather crisp and cold. Athos and Aramis rode in silence to the site of the ambush, less than a league from the Chateau, where Aramis dismounted and wordlessly waved a gloved hand towards what was undoubtedly spilled blood among the roots of a tree. Under the tree and in the shelter of the chapel's wall were footprints, marks of horses' hooves and the tracks of cartwheels, but there were no such prints on the clear, snowy landscape around them. On the tree's trunk a large raw patch of displaced bark indicated where a rope had been fastened, and automatically two pairs of eyes swivelled to a second, more slender, tree on the opposite side of the path.

"A man in wait at the Inn, I presume," Aramis said, remounting. "He knew they would arrive, but not when; he recognised them by their uniforms, of course."

"They are both known at the Forge; no doubt there was someone there to call them by name," contributed Athos, slowly. "And while they ate, he slipped out to warn his cohorts and between them they set this trap. They tipped them from their horses, overwhelmed them by numbers, tied them and carried them off on a cart - by the road, so as to leave no traces. It is ... how I would have planned it myself."

"Raoul and d'Artagnan had no cause to expect any attack so close to Bragelonne and your Chateau, but I think from these marks they wounded or killed at least one of the villains. Do you believe Justine de Winter to be responsible for this?"

Athos looked away, but his stray glance fell on the family chapel and he returned his attention to Aramis immediately.

"Who else hates me enough to strike at my home and my family?" he asked, bitterly. "Since she escaped from d'Artagnan and Raoul in the Ardennes I have expected some attempt at revenge; she's unlikely to have forgotten or forgiven the way the five of us interFered with her plans."

"She is still trying to avenge the death of her mother?" Aramis digested the information with difficulty. "But she can hardly have known her, and Milady was not renowned for her maternal devotion!"

"You scarcely know your son, yet if harm came to him I think you would forget all your pious scruples," shot back Athos, sharply. "Or ... so I believe. You were in the right of it, Aramis; she will demand a ransom, and until she does they are safe. A dead hostage would be of no use to her."

"Then we return to the Chateau and await word?"

"Yes."

D'Artagnan awoke to a darkness as complete as any he had ever known. He was wedged in an agonisingly uncomfortable sitting position with his back against a cold, damp wall and his legs splayed out across a scarcely warmer wooden floor. Shackles around wrists and ankles secured him to the wall, giving very little scope for movement. Groaning, he wrenched his stiff limbs into a less extreme position and eased his back with the closest approximation to a stretch he could manage. It was icy cold, the sort of cutting cold where breath freezes on the air, and his cloak and doublet had been removed leaving only breeches and a thick linen shirt between him and the winter.

"D'Artagnan? D'Artagnan, do you hear me?" The whispered words carried an insistence as though they had been repeated more than once. "D'Artagnan?"

"Raoul? Where are you?"

"Thank God, I thought she had killed you!" exclaimed Raoul from the darkness. "You were struck down from behind, and when I saw you fall I thought..." Raoul paused, as if becoming aware that fear - even for a comrade's safety - was not considered appropriate in an officer of Musketeers.

"There were six or seven, at least," recalled d'Artagnan, aware of a thundering pain behind his eyes which bore out the veracity of Raoul's words. "I believe I accounted for one of them."

"Certainly, I saw him fall. I may have killed another; I was hauled off him and half-strangled before I could make sure. It seemed to me, d'Artagnan," Raoul added thoughtfully, "that I had seen one of those swordsmen before. It was dark, of course, but there was something about their leader ... "

"Yes."

D'Artagnan's single syllable was almost neutral, but Raoul understood his meaning. "Then it was Justine."

"Yes. And since we are alive and not butchered, we must presume she intends to ransom us. It follows that we are near enough to your father's lands to be returned to him once he has paid what she asks; you had no idea where we were being brought?"

"None," Raoul advised him sadly. "I was blindfold."

"That woman," muttered d'Artagnan, bitterly. "As vicious as her mother, but with less reason. Women with golden hair and blue eyes are to be avoided at all costs, Raoul."

"So I've learned." Silence fell between them as both contemplated the effects of their kidnap on the Comte de la Fère. "My father will pay what she asks, I suppose?"

"For all the good it will do. She has killed him already, Raoul, although he doesn't know it yet. First she'll empty his treasury, then she'll present him with our bodies. Oh, he's lived with loss and ruin and disgrace before, but he was a young man then. Now, without the two of us ... " He paused, letting the conclusion form on the frozen air. When he resumed, his tone was mournful. "I'm afraid, Raoul, that Justine and her foul parents have beaten Athos at last."

"Barbarous!"

Aramis stood behind Porthos, reading over his shoulder, one hand clamped firmly around the older man's sword-arm. The note, in handwriting of an unfamiliar English shape, bore a crude sketch of a fleur-de-lys instead of a crest and its origin would have been impossible to mistake even without the subscription at its foot.

"She addresses you as 'My beloved father', Athos, and signs herself 'Your dutiful daughter, Justine de la Fère'." Porthos's puzzlement was obvious; an intelligent man, he simply had no stomach for guile or deviousness of any type and could not fathom the twists and turns of Justine de Winter's mind.

"It had not escaped my notice." The reply was mild, almost serene, although Athos passed a weary hand across his eyes as he spoke.

"She isn't your daughter, though?"

"Porthos!"

Athos ignored Aramis's alarmed interruption and made a calm explanation. "She is the child of Milady de Winter and Count Rochfort, but since at the time she was born her mother was still legally my wife I suppose she might consider that makes us kin. It is merely another weapon to use against me, Porthos; ignore it, if you please. Planchet, if you can read you may also see what she has written."

D'Artagnan's servant took a step forward. Unaccustomed to being summoned when the Musketeers were in council of war he had - like Athos and Aramis - remained standing, his hat twisted between his hands. He had a great fondness for the young Gascon whom he had served - on and off - over the last two decades, and was now very much concerned for his safety.

"Er - no, M'sieur; at least, not well enough."

"Very well. Mademoiselle de Winter requests the sum of 10,000 livres of gold, in exchange for which she will return one of her hostages - the choice to be mine. The other she will not return."

"As I say," breathed Aramis, stepping closer to the fireplace, "barbarous."

"And ingenious. She twists the knife by forcing me to choose."

"Impossible!" Porthos ran a despairing hand through his white hair, his anxious glance fastening on Athos. "We must treat for them both. No man should be asked to make such a choice."

"It demands the wisdom of Solomon," Aramis told him, returning to sink down into one of the heavily-carved chairs ranked beside the dining-table. He exchanged a look of pained bewilderment with Porthos.

"It is a far easier matter than you seem to think," Athos told him, coldly. "D'Artagnan is a Captain of Musketeers, fully capable of fending for himself even against such as Justine. Raoul is younger, less experienced; he is also another man's son. My deep regard for his true father and my personal affection for Raoul make the choice a simple one."

"But have you no 'deep regard', no 'personal affection' for d'Artagnan?" demanded Porthos, scandalised. "You'll pardon me, Athos, but it seems not so many years since ..." He paused awkwardly, with a sidelong glance at Planchet who was doing his level best to look as innocent as a newborn. "No, I don't suppose it's news to you, is it?" he asked the servant, in a lowered tone.

Planchet shuffled his feet. "Musketeers get drunk, M'sieur, and cry into their wine like other men," he observed, sympathetically.

"And somehow Milady's precious daughter knows of it too; her words here make that quite apparent." Aramis's outraged remark was directed at the servant.

"It matters little how she came to know it," returned Athos, with lordly disdain. "What took place at Montereau was many years ago."

"Montereau?" The name wafted past Porthos like an hallucination. "Wasn't that where we sat up all night waiting for the Cardinal? And where you ploughed the Innkeeper's daughter, Aramis?"

"The same. Twenty-two years ago," conceded Athos, guarding his words like jewels. "Well, Porthos, you're accustomed to dealing with large sums of money; come to my treasury and help me count it out."

"You keep that much gold on the premises?" the older man asked him, rising to do his bidding. "Incredible."

"Planchet, we'll need a horse and cart to transport the gold; go and give my orders to the groom immediately."

"Yes, M'sieur."

"And then find some other clothes for M. du Vallon; something drab enough for him to pass as a servant. You are too fine today, Porthos; brocades and gold lace will make you too conspicuous for what I have in mind."

Porthos accepted his sentence with resignation. "The ignominy of it," he muttered, good-humouredly. "And I don't suppose we're even to be told the purpose of this masquerade, eh, Athos? No, I thought not. Ah, well, Planchet, I place myself in your hands; do your best, lad."

"Yes, M'sieur."

"And ... I?" Aramis seemed to shake himself, with difficulty, out of a stupor. "Surely there is some part for me in your scheme?"

The look Athos directed at him was withering. "It's possible you were seen making enquiries at the Inn," he said, "and when you and I rode out to the chapel. I'll need you to help me drive the cart to the rendezvous so that Porthos and Planchet can be elsewhere. Until that time, I suggest you do what you do best, my dear Aramis. Pray."

A slight fluctuation in the darkness and a sudden inrush of cold air told of the opening and closing of an unseen door. Approaching footsteps halted close by d'Artagnan's out-stretched feet and a kick to his ankle coincided with the sudden blinding unveiling of a dark-lantern's light only inches from his eyes. Blinking painfully he favoured his assailant with a few well-chosen Gascon oaths.

"Such language, madame!" Justine de Winter's lightly mocking tone chided him with a fine cruelty her mother would have applauded. "So very unfeminine. I have the honour, I think, of addressing the second Comtesse de la Fère?"

"You're quite insane." D'Artagnan's verdict was delivered with frosty contempt as he drew himself together into a more readily defensible position.

"Do you think so? Perhaps. But not one quarter as demented, I fancy, as your lover will be when I force him to choose between your life and that of his son." The conversational, almost flirtatious delivery counterpointed the undoubted menace in her words.

"You're demanding a ransom for us?" Raoul put in, anxious to stem rantings he could not decipher.

"For one of you, at least, my dear Vicomte." The smooth, assured voice hung like an icicle on the air. "Ah, if you knew how much I have longed for this meeting; since first encountering you in the forest I have known that our fates were linked." Her tone was sweetly condescending, addressing him as if he were a particularly backward child. "It will be interesting to discover whether the Comte de la Fère will choose to ransom his beloved son ... or his equally beloved catamite," Justine went on, coldly. "I have learned what you are, d'Artagnan of Gascony. If my mother had known what I know now, Richelieu would have ordered you and your lover burned at the stake. What was a crime in those days is equally so now that our dear Cardinal Mazarin rules; perhaps I should exact a similar penalty upon you now."

"I don't understand," Raoul put in, breathlessly, trying to halt or at least interrupt the tirade which fell on them out of the darkness like a vicious rain.

"Then no doubt Madame la Comtesse will explain it to you, my poor innocent sweetheart," their captor told him. "I have no patience with either of you. M. de la Fère has until this evening to decide which of you he wishes to have returned; the other will remain here to ... keep me company these long winter nights. I shall take great pleasure in devising entertainments to keep you amused."

"Tortures," spat d'Artagnan, disgustedly.

"Naturally. What else would one of your kind expect? You, M. de Bragelonne, will no doubt be free in a few hours' time; your father will scarcely wish to compromise his secret by ransoming his lover and leaving his son to die. If he must choose to betray one of you - as he must - there is little doubt which it will be. Until this evening, gentlemen."

Snapping the lamp closed she swept out as suddenly and dramatically as she had arrived, taking with her no swirling of layered skirts but rather the half-muffled clinking of sword in scabbard. She must be dressed as they had so often seen her, breeched and booted like a man. Outside the door, murmurs were exchanged between Justine and a man who was presumably on guard. D'Artagnan's ears strained to discern their conversation, but they spoke too softly for him. Then no further sound could be heard, not even that of Justine's retreating footsteps. Their prison was effectively lightless and soundless, and as such gave no clue as to its location.

For a long time no word passed between the two chained prisoners, but at length Raoul asked softly; "Are you my father's lover?"

D'Artagnan's reply carried no trace of embarrassment, although perhaps he was grateful for the concealing nature of the darkness that hung between them. "No, but many years ago - for a brief time - I was."

"That's why she calls you 'Countess'?"

"Yes."

Again Raoul fell silent, assessing the information carefully before he made any further remark.

"How could she learn of such a thing? Surely it was a secret?"

"Of course it was a secret!" snapped d'Artagnan, bitter at being challenged. "You heard what she said; Richelieu would have had us burned at the stake. Do you think either of us would have risked that for the other? No-one knew; ourselves, Porthos and Aramis, naturally - and my servant, Planchet. No-one else."

Raoul's mind flickered back through the months to his first meeting with d'Artagnan; in pursuit of a fat rogue whose clumsiness had disrupted an afternoon's studying he'd encountered a sharp-tongued Lieutenant of Musk-eteers who had sent him about his business in no uncertain terms. D'Artagnan, as he now knew, had been hiding Planchet from his justifiable revenge. The recollection had been a source of amusement since, but it brought with it old doubts about Planchet's honesty.

"Could he have betrayed you?"

"Planchet? Unthinkable!" d'Artagnan declared loyally. "At least," he added, sounding a great deal younger than his years, "I hope not."

"And yet the secret is known. How could Justine have found out?"

"I have no notion! Certainly she didn't learn it from me; I could never knowingly place your father's life in danger."

"I know that. You love him - do you not?"

"I ... enjoy his company," was the careful response. "You know it is wrong for gentlemen to love one another, Raoul. If we sought to take our pleasure together rather than with women that was all it could be, don't you see? We didn't speak of love; we did not consider it a fit subject for discussion. Don't despise your father for this weakness, Raoul. He was bitterly hurt by Milady's deceptions. He only wanted some ... little diversion. He'd learned to distrust women, you see."

"And with good reason!" averred Raoul, animatedly. "Oh, I see the merits of that course, d'Artagnan, believe me. No, I could never despise him ... or you ... for what was done out of affection. If I despise anyone it is Justine for using this knowledge to hurt you both. Her crime is the greater."

A long, weary sigh escaped d'Artagnan. "Well said, Raoul, and I thank you for it," he commended, gently. "By God, I wish you had been my son; I should have had good cause to be proud of my achievement!"

Dusk was falling as Athos's groom and Planchet finished transferring boxes of gold coin from Athos's treasury to the flat-bedded cart drawn up in the courtyard and the groom, armed with two pistols, took up a position seated on top of the ransom money. As a cold orange sun slid behind bare-ribbed trees the Musketeers foregathered in Athos's luxurious dining-room to partake of a desultory meal. Changed out of their finery and sobered by the events of an anxious day they made poor company and Planchet was hard pressed to get any response from them as he waited on table, his hands still grimy from the loading.

"Will you take more meat, M'sieur?" he asked, standing close to Aramis's elbow. The Musketeer, sunk in thought, took his time over answering.

"Planchet? Did you speak?"

Planchet's eyes turned ceilingwards and he drew in a breath. "M'sieur would like some more meat?" he repeated, patiently.

"No, I don't think so. What is it, anyway?"

"Hare, M'sieur."

Aramis shrugged. "It has no taste."

At the other side of the table Porthos, who was eating steadily, paused a moment and stared at him in disbelief, then continued his meal. Dressed in some clothes of the groom's, Planchet's being far too large for him around the waist, he was an incongruous figure at a nobleman's table with his leather jerkin, grey woollen shirt and breeches and hose of some indeterminate brown. His feet were stuffed into battered shoes that had been repaired a great many times and which pinched in any number of places so that he hobbled like an ageing countryman and cut a comical figure.

"What's troubling you, Aramis?" he asked, with rough compassion. That he cared a great deal for his fellow Musketeer was no secret - since their first meeting Aramis had had no more devoted friend than Porthos - but he was a man for whom emotion created difficulties and whose feelings were therefore most often hidden behind a mask of jovial indifFerence. "It's an excellent dish - your cook has done us proud, Athos."

"How can you always think of your stomach, buffoon?" demanded Aramis, harshly, pushing the dish away with finality. "And you, Athos, are you quite heartless? You sit there eating when your d'Artagnan might be suffering at the hands of that ... harpy."

Athos paused long enough to glare at him. "D'Artagnan's cause will be better served if I am not distracted by hunger," he said, smoothly. "And my heart and its disposition are my own business."

Distractedly Aramis took a long draught of wine, wiping his mouth afterwards and holding out the glass to Planchet in a silent demand for more. "How could Justine know ... what she knows, Athos?"

With a heavy sigh the Comte de la Fère rose from the table and turned away, staring out of the window unseeingly towards the clock above the stables. "There was a Cardinalist spy concealed outside the Inn at Montereau," he said, painfully. "He observed, through the window, the ... affection between d'Artagnan and myself. The following year he came to me and told me what he had seen. I bought his silence. I continued buying it for the next ten years."

"That Inn; that blasted Inn!" Porthos said, sourly. "A night on a cold stone floor waiting for a Cardinal who never appears and spies who don't exist, and it comes back to haunt us twenty years later! I don't even remember what the filthy place was called, but it seems I can't escape it."

"It was the 'Bell'," Aramis told him, flatly. "The family were called de la Cloche."

"You have a better memory than I, my dear Aramis," commended Porthos, returning his attention to his meal.

"I'm unlikely to forget it," was the dully-voiced reply. "Marie de la Cloche was Raoul's mother."

Aramis lifted his head slowly, aware of the stunned scrutiny of both Porthos and Planchet but focusing only on the suddenly widened blue eyes of his host which had fastened on his with an unbreakable grip and commanded him to continue.

"Our Raoul? Raoul de Bragelonne, d'ye mean?"

Ignoring Porthos's interruption, Aramis addressed his words only to Athos. "You have sacrificed d'Artagnan's love for my sake - and my son's; don't let his life be forfeit also. Raoul and I already owe you more than we can ever repay, Athos; I can't allow the debt to grow any greater."

"You will acknowledge him as your son?" The unexpected disclosure had animated the Comte de la Fère's expression, stripping away the weight of years and leaving instead a startling portrait of returned hope.

"I do acknowledge him, here and now, and will do so publicly if you think it necessary, Athos. Raoul de Bragelonne is my son by Marie de la Cloche of Montereau who was briefly my wife and who died a few days after his birth. I have never had a moment's cause to be ashamed of him, but I believed he might have reason to be ashamed of me."

"Ridiculous!" put in Porthos, speaking without due forethought. "Why should the young man feel any shame? You married his mother, you say? You have the papers to prove it? Witnesses still living? Well, then, acknowledge him and give him the chance to be proud of his father!"

Aramis turned to him and smiled sadly. "You forget, my friend, that whatever I have done these last twenty-five years there is still an old scandal attaching itself to the name of Henri d'Herblay; I couldn't ask Raoul to bear that burden."

"I forget nothing. Pierre and his foul father are no threat to you any more, Aramis. They are both dead. Some years ago, it seems, they tried to blackmail a man living in the Rue de Vieux Colombier and he killed them both - or so I hear. Only right and proper that a man who could use his son's beauty to entrap other men should end up hanged, eh, however it came about? I'm surprised, though, Athos, that you should submit to blackmail; surely you could have broken the fellow's neck?"

"He was occasionally useful to me," Athos observed, noting - as Aramis had not - Porthos's determination to change the subject. "It was he who kept me informed about Justine's career - and about Richelieu's mach-inations. After the Cardinal died this man was imprisoned in the Bastille and our association ended."

The distraction proved effective. "Rochfort? You paid for Rochfort's silence?"

"Oh, it's simple enough, Aramis," Athos told him, almost kindly. "He needed some ally on the Royalist side in case events should turn against his precious Cardinal. He always went in fear of Richelieu ... and of the woman, of course. He was glad enough to take my money and talk to me about his daughter, in case the day ever came when he needed to claim my protection. Sometimes the last friend a man has is an enemy who truly understands him."

Into the silence that followed this astonishing remark, Planchet's words crept almost timidly.

"M'sieur, pardon me, the time ... "

"What?"

"It's after six, M'sieur."

Athos collected his thoughts with difficulty. "Quite right, Planchet, we should set off. Porthos, you know what I want you to do?"

"Yes, yes, Athos, Planchet and I will be where we're supposed to be, never fear. Who'll think anything of two old country fellows out stealing firewood, eh, Planchet my boy? And you two take good care not to fall into that creature's clutches - and make sure you bring Raoul back safe and sound; I think that young man has a few surprises awaiting him."

"And so, perhaps, has d'Artagnan," added Aramis, embracing Porthos briefly as he and Athos took their departure.

The eldest Musketeer glanced across at the determined expression of their host, and smiled. "Well, perhaps so," he acknowledged, sending Aramis on his way with a friendly hug. "Perhaps so."

"Raoul?"

D'Artagnan's voice penetrated the heavy silence in the room and cut through the younger man's morbid deliberations on the subject of spies and faithless servants.

"Yes?"

The Musketeer spoke slowly, as though choosing his words with care. "When ... you are released, tell your father I have prepared a plan of escape. Tell him not to put himself to any exertion to rescue me."

"Are you mad?" Raoul was scandalised by the very thought. "How could he leave you at Justine's mercy - and how could you expect it? You know as well as I do what she intends for you."

"Nevertheless ... " There was pained insistence in d'Artagnan's tone. "You must not allow him to risk his own safety to free me, Raoul. If you care for either of us you will do everything you can to prevent it."

"Stay my father from any course he's decided upon? D'Artagnan, it's impossible. He's the stubbornest man I have ever met, and whether ... whether he loves you as a lover or esteems you as a friend he'll do everything in his power to get you away from Justine."

"Then I will just have to escape before he can launch a rescue," d'Artagnan told him, pragmatically. "You know what revenge Justine would take on Athos if ever she could get her hands on him, Raoul; at all costs we must keep them apart."

Raoul assimilated this proposition thoughtfully. "Very well," he said, "I'll promise you that; all I can do to protect him from Justine, I'll do. Will that satisfy you?"

"It will."

Silence fell briefly, and then Raoul spoke again. "You said that you wished you had been my father," he reminded d'Artagnan. "I admit that for a long time I believed you were. You have been so close to ... to M. de la Fère ... for so many years, it would not be surprising if he had helped you bear the consequences of some youthful indiscretion."

D'Artagnan laughed softly, a gentle rebuke in his tone. "Well, you're right in that," he said. "He would have done exactly the same thing, that's certain. But no; I've been with women enough over the years to learn that like our late lamented Louis XIII I simply cannot father children. There are no bastard d'Artagnans to bring me honour - or dishonour - and I regret that you are not my son."

"Do you know who my natural father is?"

"No, but I believe I could guess. You have probably reached the same conclusion yourself. If you knew the name of your mother ... but it's an idle debate, Raoul; whatever the truth of your parentage, Armand de la Fère has been your father these seventeen years and he loves you as dearly as if you were his son."

"I know that; but d'Artagnan, I need to know why my real father doesn't acknowledge me. I need to know ... "

A heavy sigh from the older man halted Raoul in mid-sentence. "Young men always want to know everything," he said, wearily. "Often it's far wiser to cultivate a complete absence of curiosity. I can't solve your mystery for you, Raoul; you must ask Athos to tell you the name of your true father. Pray don't question me on the subject any further; there is nothing I can tell you."

Two faceless ruffians hauled Raoul out of the darkness less than an hour later; one, with a lantern and a loaded pistol, remained in the doorway while a burly man with a bandaged arm loosened Raoul's chains and dragged him out, stumbling on weakened legs. Although the young Musketeer managed to turn his head and exchange a look with his fellow-prisoner both recognised the utter inadequacy of words to express their feelings at this particular parting; the impression he retained was of d'Artagnan, huddled against the cold and blinded by the light, but otherwise more sanguine than a man in his position might normally expect to be.

The pose of confidence lasted until Raoul and the light were gone. D'Artagnan sagged back against the wall, its coldness seeping through his veins and chilling his heart. He had, indeed, formulated a plan of escape which, with a year or two of patient endeavour, might possibly be effective. His chances of escaping before Justine returned to exact her painful revenge were negligible, and although he knew there was little likelihood Athos would adhere to his request not to involve himself in a rescue it seemed unlikely that by the time he arrived there would by anything of worth left to be rescued.

Justine has killed us all at last, he reflected bitterly. Myself, and Athos, and Raoul ... and through him, perhaps, Aramis too. She has won.

With cold determination, but with little hope, d'Artagnan returned his attention to his increasingly slender chance for escape.

The Vicomte de Bragelonne was gagged and blindfolded before being bundled down the staircase, his feet scarcely touching the floor as he was wedged firmly between the two men who conducted him. At the bottom of the stairs, in an echoing area which seemed to him to be a marble-floored entrance-hall, he was halted and a cloak thrown round his shoulders. He heard a door opening, and from the room within the sounds of a fire crackling and the exquisite silvery chiming of a little mantel-clock reached him, overlain with softly murmuring voices. Then several sets of footsteps moved towards him and he was soundly cuffed to get his attention, after which the same two ruffians laid hands on him again and dragged him out, still chained, into the winter cold and rolled him onto the flat bed of a cart which almost immediately was set in motion.

The jolting along rutted roads seemed to continue for some hours; during the journey a sharp flurry of snow fell, catching in the folds of the cloak Raoul held around his head and shoulders with fingers already firmly frozen into position. At length the movement stopped in a sheltered spot where the icy wind was tempered through the branches of trees and the snow could be heard settling in the stillness. Then Justine's voice reached him across the thin air, challenging the frozen night, her tone as assured and as completely devoid of the taint of reason as her mother's had ever been.

"Well, M. le Comte - dearest father - here is one of your precious angels restored to your care. My men will relieve you of the responsibility of that consignment of gold, messieurs!"

Raoul's ears strained to interpret the sequence of movements he heard; the restless footfalls of riding-horses on either side, the creaking of a cart as someone climbed down from it, the ring of footsteps on iron-hard ground, the grunting of men lifting a heavy weight. Then a booted foot struck him firmly in the backside and he fell awkwardly onto the rutted road, to be hauled into an upright sitting position by fingers scragging into his hair and the muzzle of a pistol jammed against his temple.

"The gold is accounted for to the last sou," a calm voice declared. With a sudden jolt of a hope he could scarcely name Raoul recognised the urbane tones of the Bishop of Nantes. Aramis here? Then could Porthos be far behind? And that being the case, perhaps the Musketeers could field a larger force than Justine had reckoned with? "I trust your hostage is unharmed?"

Another fierce kick, this time landing on his thigh. "Oh, almost completely, Your Grace. Perhaps a little ... second-hand? ... but otherwise in good condition. And I take Your Grace's assurance concerning the gold; it is a pleasure to do business with Musketeers, your ridiculous sense of honour makes you so predictable. M. le Comte, I would be pleased to carry your last salutations to your lover."

Athos's voice, confident but with an edge Raoul had never noticed before, carried clearly across the shivering darkness. "Your servant, ma'am, but I fear you are misinformed - no doubt by one who intended mischief to us both. I had the honour to serve in the same regiment as M. d'Artagnan and to count him among my friends, but the attachment is no deeper than that. Whatever you intend for him does not involve me; return my son, if you please."

"Unchain him." Justine's brief command was directed at one of the ill-smelling men who had thrown Raoul into the cart, and strong hands wrenched his wrists and ankles into position for the removal of the irons. He was dragged to his feet and propelled forwards, unguided and unseeing, cramped limbs frozen into unfamiliar shapes, until he impacted firmly against a solid wall of flesh and a bearlike embrace closed about him, almost completing the work Justine's minions had begun. Then the gag and blindfold were stripped from his face and he realised he was once again on the endless road that led to Blois, not a dozen yards from the spot where he and d'Artagnan had been kidnapped the previous evening. He was held tight against the warm bulk of the Comte de la Fère whilst Aramis, pistol drawn, kept sharp eyes trained on Justine and her men.

"Keep your wits about you, boy," Athos whispered, close to his ear, embracing Raoul with fatherly affection. "There's treachery afoot, and we'll have need of your sword."

"Yes, father." Although the words were directed at Athos, Raoul's eyes were on Aramis; not a flicker of reaction crossed his face.

"Get on the cart," Athos ordered, more audibly, roughly releasing him and slapping his shoulder with overdrawn heartiness. "Aramis, we are ready to leave."

Two of Justine's men were securing the boxes containing the gold onto the bed of Justine's cart. A third was at the horse's head calming it, while a fourth and a fifth flanked their leader, drawn pistols trained on the three Musketeers.

"They are five and Justine," Athos muttered softly, passing close to Aramis's shoulder, "and we are old men. If you wish to see d'Artagnan alive again, Aramis ... no quarter, my friend, and no prisoners."

Aramis's fine features remained set into a grim expression. "No quarter," he agreed, so that only Athos could hear him. "These are not gentlemanly days."

As if to underline the truth of these words an attack was launched on them with sudden brutality, the two men from the cart throwing themselves through the air at Athos and Aramis whilst Justine and one of her bodyguard pulled Raoul to the ground once more and the ruffian began to belabour the young man with the liberal use of both fists and feet. Raoul, his limbs heavy and painful from the slow return of blood, had a burden of indignation and anger still to be discharged; he fought free of the larger man's superior grip and, awkwardly at first but with increasing facility, began to give as good as he got.

Aramis's pistol discharged wildly, the ball missing the ruffian who closed in on him. He sidestepped, launching out with a kick as his attacker landed in front of him, then pivoting to hack the man in the calves and knock him off his feet. It was gutter fighting at best, but Athos had sanctioned it in the cause of freeing d'Artagnan, and that was good enough for Aramis. The move gave him time to draw his sword, but as it cleared his scabbard a second blade crossed it and the ring of metal on metal echoed sharply off the walls of the chapel and reverberated into the night.

"Justine!"

The woman's smile was feral, insane, almost triumphant. "Your Grace will not decline to duel with a lady, I trust?" she demanded, her weight on their crossed blades forcing Aramis backwards.

"Not at all," he told her, with the merest suspicion of a polite bow. "There are ladies ... and ladies," he added, his tone making it quite clear that she might consider this an insult. With an unexpected and ungentlemanly show of superior strength he threw her backwards against the cart, and when they met again sword-for-sword it was at last on equal terms.

Athos shrugged off the bully whose hands were grappling at his throat and in passing threw a vicious flying kick at the man tending the horse. This individual doubled over in pain, groaning for breath, drawing a startled reaction from his charge. The cart jolted backwards and tilted to one side, its load slipping dangerously close to the edge. The first bully, recovering, grabbed at Athos's sword arm and rammed it up hard behind his back, but Athos's left elbow thundered backwards into his chest and forced all the air from his lungs in a single stunned gasp.

The remaining man, delegated by Justine not to leave the gold, still had a loaded pistol in his hand which he was attempting to aim at Aramis, his battle with Justine being carried on between the cart and the trees on the side of the road opposite the chapel. Aramis, caught a glancing blow on the upper arm which tore through doublet and shirt and laid his pale skin open to the chill night air, flinched back against the trunk of a tree momentarily and paused to snatch a breath, remaining still for the fraction of a second it took for the gunman to be sure of his aim. The weapon was levelled unwaveringly at Aramis's chest when the man who held it cried out abruptly and let it fall as a cloud of black and blood-coloured stars burst in his brain. Planchet, unnoticed by any of the combatants, had crept around behind him and caught him a punishing blow on the vault of the skull with what appeared to be a hammer.

Aramis's eyes widened in utter disbelief. Planchet interpreted the look as a comment.

"Not at all, Your Grace," he bowed, jauntily, wiping his hands in satisfaction at a job well done. "I don't suppose he'll get up again," he added to himself as he stepped over the fallen man and took control of the frightened horse. "Come on, my beauty; you're going to like it at Bragelonne - lots of other horses to talk to."

The man whom Aramis had kicked had resumed his feet, caught his breath and drawn a sword, almost in one and the same movement. He was working his way slowly around the outside of the mêlée, his attention set on Raoul who was still tussling with the great ape of a man who had pulled him from the cart. Smaller and lither, despite his recent captivity, Raoul was dodging and diving like a fairground prizefighter while the bully staggered after him, only occasionally able to make his greater strength tell. The swordsman's intentions were obvious; if he could position himself correctly behind Raoul his simian associate could force the young man back onto the exposed blade and run him through. Even if he were not killed instantly the wound would incapacitate him long enough for the fatal blow to be struck.

The swordsman's progress, however, was halted by a friendly hand on his shoulder and a cultured voice close to his ear.

"Ah, no, my friend, I can't allow that; stab him from behind? Not the act of a gentleman at all. Although," the Baron du Vallon added, coming face-to-face with his startled adversary, "perhaps you're not a gentleman so one shouldn't expect it. Ah, well, then ... "

Without completing the sentence Porthos landed a thundering two-fisted blow in the man's stomach. The bully rocked on his heels, momentarily stupefied, then recovered himself and flourished his blade threateningly under Porthos's nose.

"A sword, somebody!" the eldest Musketeer called out, sidestepping with remarkable agility and cursing the countryman's disguise that had not permitted the wearing of a sword. A black-clad figure with a tumble of grey-white hair spun briefly into one shred of his frayed consciousness and placed a sword in his hand, and was immediately snatched back by the chaos.

Porthos's grunted thanks reached Athos just as his first opponent recovered sufficiently to recollect the knife he had tucked into his boot on setting out. Wrapping several thicknesses of his winter cloak around his right arm for protection Athos edged towards the man, parrying his feints as he and his opponent locked gazes in the gloom and looked for one another's weaknesses.

The horseman, catching the glint of the blade, retired from the conflict and looked around for an adversary more to his liking. As he stepped backwards, out of range of his cohort's wilder thrusts, he found himself stumbling over the body of the man Planchet had killed and a sudden inspiration seized him. Throwing himself to the earth he fumbled around in the darkness until his hand settled upon the loaded pistol and he drew it to him in delight. Close to the ground he wriggled through the mêlée, avoiding the battle between Raoul and the man-ape only by dodging sharply to one side, and fetched up behind a tree close to where Aramis still held Justine at sword's length in a contest of equals. The pistol would after all be the Musketeer's downfall, he resolved, reversing it and using it as a club to crash down violently on the back of Aramis's head.

It was an error; the loaded pistol, thus jolted, discharged into the face of the man wielding it. He was dead even before Aramis, insensible, dropped to the ground.

Raoul de Bragelonne's concentration wavered for the merest fraction of a second as Aramis fell.

"Father ... ?"

The half-involuntary exclamation reached Justine even as she stepped forward, the point of her sword at Aramis's throat, intent on delivering the coup-de-grace; it was not her victory, but the kill would be hers. The clash of blade on blade sent her sword flying from her hand before she could thrust it home, however, and she found herself looking fleetingly into the impenetrable dark eyes of the Baron du Vallon.

"I think not," he said, the breath catching harshly in his throat as he bent to wrench Aramis's sword from his loosened grip. Then, armed with one sword in each hand, he took a step towards Justine. "Surrender, Mademoiselle, or I shall be forced to kill you."

"Buffoon!" spat Justine, whirling away from him. "Kill me now and d'Artagnan will die slowly, alone and in darkness - is that truly what M. de la Fère wants?"

Porthos's confusion, however brief, was enough for Justine to lunge forward, kick him viciously in the groin, and spring to the back of the nearest riding-horse while the two swords dropped onto the rutted road from hands suddenly needed elsewhere. Behind Porthos his opponent the swordsman sought to take advantage of his discomfort, but the touch of a gun-muzzle at the back of his neck discouraged him. Planchet, having secured the horse and cart among the trees, had returned with one of Athos's exquisite duelling-pistols clutched in his fat hand.

"Your sword, M'sieur? Thank you." With admirable economy of movement he kicked the man in the backside and immediately thereafter brought the stock of the pistol down safely onto the man's head, knocking him unconscious to the ground. "Not loaded," he said, blithely, throwing the pistol to the astounded Porthos and unhitching the belt from his breeches to bind the captive's hands.

Raoul and his opponent were standing on the flat bed of Athos's cart which was wedged sideways across the road, trading blows and curses to the great discomfiture of the horse. At the side of the cart Athos, weary and staring-eyed, still fended off the insanely-grinning knifeman with a cloak that was now a collection of torn threads held together by willpower alone.

The sharp agony of his breathing was audible even above the sounds of battle, although only an occasional gasp betrayed the scorching of air in his labouring chest. Porthos, kneeling close to Aramis and temporarily distracted by the pale stillness of his countenance, recollected himself enough to retrieve one of the two dropped swords from the roadway and hand it to Athos - who, true to his own decree, in most ungentlemanly fashion ran his opponent through without demur.

Crowing for breath he leaned against the side of the cart, his huge frame racked with pain, his face greyed and suddenly cold with streaming sweat. Planchet gripped him from behind, one hand in each armpit, and pulled him backwards away from the fray and down to sit among the gnarled roots of an ancient tree whose bare branches scraped across the chapel roof.

"Stay there, M'sieur, and don't move," he ordered, quite seriously, forcing Athos's head down until he was almost curled into a ball. "Stay there and get your breath back; Captain d'Artagnan's orders."

An odd phrase, Athos reflected, but exactly the right one. Nothing but the thought of d'Artagnan's safety could persuade him to inaction when Raoul was still in need of assistance, and only the necessity of rescuing d'Artagnan could prevent him using up the last of his strength here and now in a lesser cause. When he had breath again he must remember to congratulate Planchet on the quickness of his thinking.

"Come along, Raoul, there's a good fellow," Porthos said, nonchalantly. "Finish him off, my boy, and then we can go after Justine."

Justine? Athos looked up in alarm, only to have Planchet's palm slam down on the top of his head and subdue him again.

"M'sieur le Comte, please," the servant insisted officiously.

Athos reversed his earlier mental note and decided instead to have Planchet horsewhipped at the earliest opportunity.

Raoul staggered, exhausted, and slipped at the feet of his equally weary opponent, his body half on and half off the bed of the cart. He hung there, retching on scalding air, limbs shaking, head and eyes throbbing, and from some unknown and unsuspected source within himself drew out the last remaining shreds of his courage and launched one final, violent attack on the man, who lost his footing, slithered backwards, and fell from the cart with his head tucked underneath his body. Bones cracked and sundered and head and body fell at unnatural angles, the neck that joined them shattered.

For some moments afterwards that ominous snapping sound hung on the air as Raoul floundered in the cart. Porthos remained on his knees beside Aramis, studying his face for the first signs of returning awareness: Athos leaned, wheezing, against the tree-trunk. Only Planchet was ambulatory, methodically making the rounds of their harvest of corpses.

"This one's still alive, M'sieur," he said coolly, indicating the man whose wrists he had bound with his belt. He addressed his words to Porthos, evidently judging him to be the only Musketeer present capable of a coherent reply.

"Leave him," was the dismissive response. "We'll need him to tell us where Justine was going."

"Naaaa ... " Raoul half-fell from the cart and stumbled towards them. "Know ... where..."

"You know?" Athos's voice was a mere whisper as he lifted his head and met Raoul's troubled gaze.

"Belleville ... "

"Chateau Belleville? Monsieur le Duc is at Saint-Cloud with the King....." Regaining strength with breath, Athos found his mind sharpening also. "The house has been empty."

"D'Artagnan ... at Belleville," insisted Raoul, kneeling, energy spent, in the roadway midway between Athos and Porthos.

The Comte de la Fère nodded. "Belleville," he repeated, hauling himself unsteadily to his feet by gripping onto the trunk of the tree. "Whoever is fit to ride may go with me. Porthos?"

Glancing briefly at Aramis, beginning to recover his senses, Porthos stood up abruptly.

"Your servant, sir."

"Raoul?"

"At your command ... " Stubbornly the young man lurched to his feet. Aramis groaned, doing his best to rise to a sitting position with Planchet's assistance. "A moment, Athos ... A moment, and I shall..."

"M'sieur, are you sure ... ?" Raoul's breathless intervention caught Aramis with the force of a blow and he flinched from it visibly. "You are hurt, perhaps you should return to Bragelonne?"

"It's good advice," Athos told him. "Don't risk yourself again."

Head spinning Aramis allowed Planchet to drag him to his feet and stood, shaking, his weight resting on the man's conveniently-sited shoulder. "All ... for one..." he said, with some emphasis.

"All for one?" Athos repeated the words as though he had never heard them before and their meaning had yet to reach him. "Well, d'Artagnan would do as much for you - for any of us. Come, gentleman, let us make haste to rescue our Gascon friend while some of us still have a little breath in our bodies." He turned away and headed towards the sturdiest-seeming of the riding-horses.

"M'sieur, about this ... you won't leave him alive, surely?"

"Cut his throat, Planchet, would you please?" Supremely disinterested in the death of their captive, Athos swung himself up into the saddle and made ready to ride out.

"Me?" The servant's exclamation was a squeak of alarm. "Me? But I can't ... I mean, I've never ... "

Sighing with exaggerated tolerance, Athos returned his gaze to his colleagues. "Porthos," he asked softly, "did you not once own a house in the Rue de Vieux Colombier?"

Porthos's expression altered and he bent to pick up the villainous blade the knifeman had dropped.

"Ah, Athos," he sighed, wearily, "do you suppose murder becomes easier with practice?"

His hands were as steady as rock as, with a single ruthless cut, he slit the swordsman's throat. He did not look towards any of his comrades as he mounted the nearest riding-horse and prepared to accompany Athos.

Justine broke away from the road as soon as she was out of sight of the Musketeers, turning her horse through a shoulder of woodland and out again onto the rutted surface of a ploughed field, skirting with caution the rough dwellings of the Bragelonne estate workers. Even by the shortest route it was over an hour's riding to Belleville and recklessly she put the horse at every obstacle in her way. For a woman who had killed a King the perils of riding across ice-held farmland at night were of no account; d'Artagnan and revenge mattered more.

D'Artagnan had been an unlooked-for bonus. She had thought him safe in Paris with his regiment, and her plans had been laid around the expected return of Raoul de Bragelonne to his father's estate for Christmas. When her scout at the Forge Inn had reported that the Vicomte had a travelling companion named d'Artagnan she had recalled the contents of the letter brought to her only recently by an unsavoury little man who had been a turnkey at the Bastille, and to whom Rochfort had promised a purse of fifty pistoles on delivery. Tempted to throw him out on his ear, she had paused long enough to read what he brought and had, to his astonishment, paid the sum he asked without demur. That her father had possessed this secret knowledge about the Comte de la Fère and not made use of it in his lifetime infuriated her; the burning at the stake of de la Fère and d'Artagnan would have caused a scandal all France would have relished, and would have been a fitting memorial for her mother.

However, burnings at the stake were the province of the public executioner; it was not a thing easily accomplished in private. There were, though, several tricks of the headsman's trade that naturally adapted themselves to private use. Justine had made it her business to amass sufficient of these to make d'Artagnan beg for death by burning; even without the gold and with most of her men dead on the Blois road there would be a measure of triumph for her in destroying something the Comte de la Fère held dear.

Scarcely reining in her horse in the courtyard at Belleville she threw herself from its back and was halfway up the steps to the entrance before the beast even realised she had dismounted. Slamming the door open in exhilirated haste she called at the top of her lungs for the man she had left on guard.

"If you were blindfold, how did you know you were being held at Belleville?" Athos asked Raoul as they guided their horses, cautiously, along the route Justine had previously taken.

"I didn't," the young man told him, frankly. "Not until they took me from the house to bring me to you. Then I heard a clock chiming; I recognised the Duc de Belleville's little Italian clock, I've heard it many times. And there were seven steps down from the door to the courtyard; we have six, Chateau de la Valliere has nine ... It must be Belleville."

"The benefits of education, eh, Raoul?"

"Yes, father."

"And ... how was d'Artagnan, when you left him?"

"In good spirits, speaking of escape. He has a plan - but he wouldn't tell me what it was. I know that what Justine says about you and d'Artagnan is the truth, father; he admitted it to me. I see no reason why it should shame either of you."

"I'm not your father, boy," Athos told him, gruffly. "You've known that all along. You know your father's name now, I think? Did d'Artagnan tell you that, also?"

"He didn't know it. He told me that as he is unable to father children I should be able to guess at my father's identity - and it seems to me that it can only be Aramis."

Athos shot him a measuring look. "Yes," he said, economically. "He has acknowledged you before Porthos and Planchet, and promises to do so publicly if ... if you require it. God in Heaven, Raoul, all this time you have worried away at the matter you had only to look in the mirror; you're his living image!"

There was pain in Raoul's expression as he turned to face Athos. "I know. I understand that now. But father, there's something else I must tell you ... "

The older man stared at him in astonishment, but learned by his appraisal that the title had been no mere slip of the tongue.

"Go on," he encouraged, gravely.

"Nothing has changed for d'Artagnan; it may be twenty years since you were lovers, but for him it's only yesterday. I was watching his face when Justine taunted him - she called him 'Countess' and 'catamite'. He loves you. He'll die by her hand - or by his own - to keep you safe."

Drawing his horse out of the woodland and onto the open field beyond Athos directed one last, anguished gaze at his adopted son.

"God's blood, Raoul, do you think I don't know that? Do you think I would stand by and let him suffer? D'Artagnan is ... my sword-arm; without him, I'm crippled, useless. I'll save his life tonight or lose my own in the attempt. Are you with me?"

Raoul's response was calm, firm, and preceded the spurring of his horse across the white-barred earth.

"That you should ask!" he complained, woundedly.

Left alone in the darkness after Raoul's departure, d'Artagnan had wasted no time in locating the rough head of a protruding nail in the floorboards under the window and brought the sharp metal edge of the wrist-iron on his left hand down to meet it. In working the iron underneath the flattened edge of the nail-head he pinched the soft skin of his inner wrist between two metal surfaces and felt something cut slowly and jaggedly through it where the blood ran close to the surface. A moment later and blood began to flow down his fingers and onto the floor, and he cursed his own clumsiness.

The animal gnaws off its own limb to escape the trap, he thought, grimly.

It had occurred to him that a long, square nail such as had probably been used to lay the flooring in this room would make a good enough lock-pick and that if he persevered long enough he could prise up this protruding nail and perhaps use it to free himself. True he would still be trapped even if he escaped from the irons, but the door would have to be opened at some stage and if he was behind it when it was there was a fair chance he could overpower whoever came in and make good his escape.

At least, he amended honestly, twenty years ago I could have done it. Now I'm too old and too cold, but if I die of it at least I'll die honourably.

Memories of the late summer and autumn of 1628 returned in force. His affair with Athos had lasted into the winter months - a tentative, half-denied association which went by the name of expediency brought to an abrupt conclusion by a frank assessment of the risks they were running.

Aramis had returned to his seminary, Porthos had resigned his commission and was spending all his time courting a wealthy widow; Athos and d'Artagnan remained as serving Musketeers, their closeness reined back within the normal boundaries of friendship, until the spring of 1633 when word was received in Paris of an orphaned child with some claim on Athos's protection. Athos had left the regiment immediately, returned to Bragelonne, and taken up his existence as Comte de la Fère once again, adopting Raoul as his son. Or so d'Artagnan had learned later. At the time there had been no explanation, no proper farewell, no promise of any future contact; in a snatched moment of privacy in the shadow of a deep doorway Athos had drawn him close, kissed him with unaltered passion, and walked away from him while he still gasped for breath. They did not meet again for sixteen years, but when they did and Athos's arms tightened around him and crushed the breath from him again d'Artagnan knew that his feelings for the man were still the same and that whatever the intervening years had done to him he would love Athos until the day he died.

Which is probably not too far distant now, he reflected.

His musings were interrupted by the sudden opening of the door and the entry of Justine and her minion - the man with the bandaged arm, whom Raoul had wounded during the previous day's battle.

"Madame," Justine said, jauntily, stepping closer to him. "I trust we do not inconvenience you? I have seen your lover, de la Fère, this evening; do you care to know how I left him?"

Despite himself d'Artagnan straightened and met her gaze. "How?"

"Between life and death; an old man, unarmed, fighting one of the roughest bullies in France ... I think he is dead by now, don't you? And His Grace the Bishop, too, perhaps; I left him gravely wounded. Your servant and du Vallon were there also, but I doubt you can expect much from them."

D'Artagnan waited, but there was no mention of Raoul. He did not raise the subject. "And what do you intend for me?" he asked, without emotion.

Justine's smile was the cruel gleam of a swordblade in the half-dark.

"Oh, it's very suitable," she said, blithely. "You see, my mother was murdered to make way for you; my father's letter made that clear. The Comte de la Fère disposed of the old love to make way for the new. My mother was an inconvenience to him; she would have learned of his preFerence for the Italian vice and your ... services. He ordered her killed because he no longer wanted her - he wanted you."

"Your mother, Mademoiselle, was a killer without conscience," he told her, spiritedly. "She arranged the death of the Duke of Buckingham - who was a gallant gentleman, despite being an Englishman - and with her own hands killed my mistress, Constance Bonancieux. Until he saw Milady at the Red Dovecote Inn where she went to meet Cardinal Richelieu, Athos believed she was dead."

"You try to excuse him? Such devotion!"

D'Artagnan turned away.

"So you see, you take my mother's place. It's only fitting that you should wear her mark."

"I ... "

The meaning of Justine's words dawned only slowly on d'Artagnan, and when they did they brought a horror he struggled to suppress. He did not fear pain; he knew he had the courage to bear whatever Justine might decide to do to him. The mark of harlot had only one conceivable purpose, however, and that was to be seen; a hidden brand could be of no value. Somewhere, somehow, his branded corpse was to be displayed to Athos's despair and dishonour - and there was nothing he could do now to prevent it.

He kicked out at Justine as she approached him, but her fist in his face temporarily drove the senses from him and he was only vaguely aware of the ripping of cloth as she tore the shirt from his shoulder. The red glow of the heated branding-iron drew close; Justine flourished it so near to his eyes that he could feel the heat from it beginning to singe his eyebrows and for a moment it seemed that she would plunge it viciously into his face, but perhaps she had reserved that delight for later. While the henchman held him steady despite his struggles, Justine brought the iron down firmly onto the exposed pale skin of his left shoulder.

His cry of agony was a disappointment to him; he had been determined not to give her the satisfaction of hearing him cry out, but the violent searing of his chilled skin had brought greater pain than he had ever imagined possible and suddenly he faced the awful possibility of making a bad, undignified death. The iron left his skin but the torment did not abate; the flesh throbbed and wept, giving off a foul odour of burning, and his stomach lurched dangerously before he brought it under control.

Justine's horse, still loose in the courtyard, was all the indication the Musketeers required that they had come to the right place. The house seemed to be in complete darkness; no lights could be seen even in the servants' quarters, kitchens or stables. It was known that M. le Duc had taken a substantial establishment with him to Saint-Cloud, but there should be at least a remnant of his household safeguarding his Chateau and his possessions. Their absence was additional proof that all was not well at Belleville.

Athos, shivering from the effects of a long cold ride without the benefit of a cloak, slipped down from his horse in the shadow of the stable-block and gestured to his companions to do the same. Planchet, who had been detailed to secure the gold in the chapel before following them, had caught up only in the last few minutes, his bulk jolting noisily on the back of a broken-winded nag scarcely fit for carcass meat. Athos wrapped his arms around himself by way of shelter as an icy wind cut through the little group.

"Porthos, with me," he said. "We'll take the lower floor and the cellars. Aramis, you and Raoul take the upper floor and the tower. If you see anything, fire your pistol."

"What about me, M'sieur?" Planchet asked, wheezing.

"Stay with the horses," Athos ordered, sharply, as the four turned towards the house.

"Oh, thanks very much," the servant muttered, cowering into the lee of the stable building. "Planchet fetch the horses, Planchet stay with the horses, Planchet more wine ... Planchet hide the gold, Planchet kill the prisoner; nice reward for saving two lives, I must say!"

One of the hunched retreating figures peeled off from the group, returned to him and grabbed him by the collar.

"Stop moaning. You can come with us," Raoul de Bragelonne told him briskly.

The door of the Chateau opened without a sound. Stepping into the hallway Raoul recognised the cavernous, empty feel of the place and the smooth cold of the marble floor beneath his feet.

"That room, there," he whispered, indicating to Athos a partly-open door behind which could be seen the sullen glow of an untended fire. "They used that room, certainly; it's the room with the Italian clock."

"Very good. You go upstairs," Athos commanded. "Porthos ... "

The older man moved to Athos's side as, using all the caution they could muster, they edged towards the door. They had no idea how many men Justine had at her command, and although they had left several corpses outside the de la Fère chapel there might be an equal number of living men concealed in the darkness of this house.

Raoul, Aramis and Planchet stole silently up the stairs, even Planchet moving with a soundless grace surprising in such a large man. At the first landing they paused, and Raoul gathered the other two to him with a broad gesture.

"There were more stairs," he whispered, close to their faces. "Look for another stairway opening off this landing ... I think at this end."  Separating, they crept along the dark landing with its row of closed and anonymous doors, Aramis and Raoul with drawn pistols and Planchet wielding the hammer with which he had killed one of Justine's men. After some minutes of searching a low whistle from Aramis brought the other two at speed to a corner of the landing.

"Voices," he said. "I can just hear someone speaking. My God, that was d'Artagnan!" Even muffled as it was by walls and doors the cry of pain had lanced through him, and he shuddered.

Raoul's hand landed on his arm. "I can feel a cold breeze on my face; there must be a hidden doorway. Take your gloves off and feel along the wall, see if you can find it."

Aramis, still fighting back the cobwebs that threatened to close again on his consciousness, did as his son instructed. Floundering around in the dark searching for irregularities on the surface of the wall he found himself muttering a prayer he had certainly never learned in the seminary - unless he had learned it from Pierre and his father when they demanded money to restore his honour all those years ago.

"It must be here somewhere," Raoul whispered in frustration. "Planchet, have you found anything?"

"No, M'sieur," Planchet hissed back, stuffing the haft of the hammer into the belt of his breeches - which he had retrieved from the dead prisoner - and putting both hands to the wall. He reached out sideways and up above his head, tracing every slightest indentation on the wall's surface, finally locating a cold, narrow groove. "Is this it?" he asked, softly.

Aramis shouldered him aside, his fingers tracing the line Planchet had indicated. "It's a doorway," he confirmed, "but how does it open? Raoul.....?"

"Please, Messieurs, my master ... " Planchet, agitated, could bear the frustration of being balked no longer.

Raoul completed a survey of the doorway. "There are no hinges," he said. "It opens inwards. We can break it down."

"Not without alerting whoever is inside," Aramis pointed out.

"True, but ... I'm not afraid, father; are you?"

Despite the circumstances, Aramis found himself laughing softly. "Not in the least, Raoul. Come, let's break it down; I think I would like to see Athos and d'Artagnan restored to one another before I die."

"Me too," Planchet put in, sourly, "but we won't do it by talking."

"Quite right, Planchet. On the count of three, then," Raoul ordered, with all the confidence of a Lieutenant of Musketeers. "One ... two ... three!"

The door shattered inwards abruptly, Planchet falling forward onto the steep, narrow staircase beyond and having to be extricated by Aramis and Raoul who had only just saved themselves from falling on top of him. The crash of sundering wood was enough to awaken the dead, yet Aramis still spoke in hushed tones when he pulled Planchet from the doorway.

"Fetch Monsieur Athos immediately," he said.

Planchet cast an anguished glance at the stairway; Raoul was already disappearing upwards, pistol in hand.

"M'sieur, my master will need me."

"Use some sense, Planchet, it's not you he'll need now. Quick about it, man."

Without further delay he abandoned the conversation and plunged upwards after Raoul.

The stairs were curved, and at their head was a landing with a single door leading from it. Despite the noise they had made the door remained closed; Raoul knelt by it and pressed an ear to the wood, but there was silence from inside.

"In here," he whispered, "but they're ready for us."

Aramis nodded. "So be it." He stepped to one side, giving Raoul the space he needed to draw back his foot and kick the door open with an unsuspected violence. In the very moment he did so, a shot fired from inside the room slammed into his arm and sent a spray of blood fountaining from it.

"Damn you, Justine," he cried out, lunging into the room at floor level. He was vaguely aware of the presence of d'Artagnan, still chained and now gagged also, and of Justine drawing a second pistol.

Aramis pulled the door towards him, using it as cover as he made a rapid inventory of the room. On the floor, d'Artagnan and Raoul, both wounded but one at least combatant. To his left, an unknown man with a drawn sword and Justine, aiming a pistol at Raoul. Her second shot could scarcely miss at that range, but despite abilities that would have made her a superior soldier in any regiment she had allowed the thought of revenge to distract her from her purpose. She was so intent on Raoul she scarcely registered Aramis's presence; with cool deliberation he aimed his pistol at her head and shot her through the right eye. Justine fell into a sickening pool of her own blood, and her body spasmed and jerked convulsively as though a thousand devils were being driven out of her.

Aramis turned to the man behind the door, who had crept back to the wall and was pressing against it as though he wished to sink through it, which no doubt he did. His face was small and grey and cold with fear, his eyes huge and terrified. Aramis smiled at him, slowly and wickedly, his calling forgotten in the joy of the conquest. Then, without preamble, he threw a punch of blistering savagery into the unknown man's face and had the pleasure of seeing him slam into the wall and crash to the ground.

Raoul had crawled over to d'Artagnan, ignoring the thick mass of Justine's blood on the floor, and ripped the hastily-improvised gag from his mouth. As he did so, he noticed for the first time the evil wound on his comrade's shoulder.

"Cover it!" d'Artagnan ordered, anxiously, a wealth of anguish in his tone. The sound of footsteps on the stairs, and of well-beloved voices approaching them at speed, made the matter one of some urgency. Raoul scrambled to his feet, dragged the cloak from around Aramis's shoulders and had just time to drape it around d'Artagnan's chilled form before Planchet and Porthos forced their way into the room.

"The rest of the house is empty," Porthos said.

No-one heard him. Athos, drawn sword in hand, stood silently in the doorway, his grim gaze directed at d'Artagnan, and suddenly all attention was on him.

His cold eyes flickered away from the captive's face and he glanced at Aramis. "Is Justine dead?"

The cleric looked down at his victim and belatedly made the sign of the cross over her. "Quite."

"And him?" He indicated the fallen man in the corner.

"Not yet."

Athos spared the limp bundle of rags on the floor a second glance.  "Guillaume - the Duc de Belleville's steward; obviously he preferred Justine's service to his faithful duty. Porthos, he has the keys."

Obediently the older man knelt and retrieved a bunch of keys from Guillaume's belt, but he made no move towards the chained man.

"Release d'Artagnan," Athos prompted, turning to glare at him.

"Not I," was the mild response. Porthos held the keys out to Athos, who slowly glanced around the room at the faces of his friends before, reluctantly it seemed, accepting them.

"Very well."

Sheathing his sword and stepping across the room, he knelt in front of the calm, silent figure of the prisoner and, almost without seeing what he was doing, unlocked the shackles from wrists and ankles. He held the left wrist a fraction longer than the other, noting the deeply-gouged wound on its inner face but reacting with a mere compression of the lips.

"Can you stand?" he asked.

"A moment," d'Artagnan breathed, reaching forward to rub at his freed ankles with his right hand.

Athos pulled two papers from the front of his doublet and dropped the first into d'Artagnan's lap.

"A lettre de cachet to the Governor of the Bastille," he explained, dully.

D'Artagnan flicked the paper open. "It has my name on it - and Cardinal Mazarin's seal," he added, mystified.

"That is Justine's scrawl," Athos told him, indicating a place on the document. "It must have been given to her sealed but blank. She merely filled in your name. You could have rotted there thirty years, boy, and I would never have known."

The shake in his voice betrayed the first cracks in his monumental composure.

"It would be a shame to waste such a useful document when it could just as well be used for another," Aramis suggested, indicating the unconscious Guillaume. "Although the name of d'Artagnan would not sit well on him."

"Commendable plan, Aramis," Porthos enthused, appearing not to notice that no-one else seemed to have heard a word that was said.

"Will you help me to my feet?" d'Artagnan asked Athos, his tone even.

Athos reached out and took both his hands, and with some difficulty drew him upright. The younger man's light brown hair flopped into his face, and with a characteristic gesture d'Artagnan reached up to push it back, and in that moment Aramis's cloak fell to the floor. Raoul had dived for it and retrieved it in seconds, but the damage was done; the bitter wound with the shape of a fleur-de-lys was revealed to Athos's stunned gaze.

D'Artagnan remained calm, his face betraying no emotion although both fear and a terrible hope coursed through him at once. Athos's fingers touched the unmarred skin close to the wound, and his eyes met d'Artagnan's.

"The mark of dishonour. She has branded you," he said, unnecessarily, trying to come to terms with the awesome malignity of such an action. "That you should suffer so much on my account!"

"This is not suffering," d'Artagnan told him, as though repeating some courtly ritual demanded by etiquette. "I ... would have gone to the fire, Athos; you knew that."

"Yes." The words seemed to shake Athos's equanimity still further, but he continued. "Justine's mother wore this mark with good reason. What she has done to you is beyond cruelty. You have no need to conceal it, d'Artagnan, no-one could believe you had earned it. I'm sorry that she is already dead; I would have made you a present of her."

"No matter," d'Artagnan told him, with distant civility. "I have no stomach for revenge."

An impatient shuffling of the feet behind Athos interrupted this stilted dialogue. "Athos, in God's name, do you intend to stand there making speeches all day? Have you no heart?" Aramis demanded, raggedly.

"No heart?" Athos repeated, glancing briefly at his colleague. He turned back to d'Artagnan and with exquisite assurance touched his fingertips to the younger man's cheek. "My heart is here," he said, tilting d'Artagnan's face to his and kissing him softly on the mouth.

If he had experienced a moment's doubt as to his likely reception it was dispelled when d'Artagnan's hands clawed into the front of his doublet and held him fiercely as the younger man responded to the kiss with every ounce of spirit he possessed, holding Athos to him when he would have broken the contact and drawn back.

"Aaaaah," Planchet sighed, watching in delight.

"Just so, just so," Porthos chimed in, cheerfully. "Lovers reunited, father and son together at last; just like some old ballad, eh, Raoul? I do enjoy a happy ending. Planchet, there must be something to drink in this place ... see what you can find, will you? I think we've earned it."

With some slight trace of embarrassment the lovers broke apart but, sensing no animosity amongst their companions, remained close together with Athos's arm around d'Artagnan's shoulders, carefully avoiding the hideous wound left by the branding-iron. Aramis bent to retrieve the gag Raoul had taken from d'Artagnan - a kerchief, none too clean - and bound it tightly around the bullet-wound in his son's arm.

"Porthos," Athos said, gently, "do you recall the name of the man in the Rue de Vieux Colombier who killed Pierre and his father?"

Aramis paused and turned wide eyes towards his friends. Porthos looked for a moment as if he would refuse to answer, but at length he said; "Isaac du Vallon."

"You, Porthos? You killed them?"

"For what they did to you, Aramis, I would have killed them a dozen times over. Murder to protect those one loves is not half as reprehensible as paying blackmail to vermin like that. You would never have got back into the seminary if I hadn't made sure they were out of the way."

"You knew this?" Aramis asked Athos, bewildered.

"I guessed it, just as Raoul guessed who was his true father. Perhaps we are not all the swaggering sword-bullies Raoul once took us for, eh?"

The youngest Musketeer laughed indulgently, and from somewhere Athos found a smile to match his. It had been so long since a smile of genuine pleasure crossed his face that he had begun to wonder whether he had forgotten how.

"And this paper?" d'Artagnan asked, taking it from Athos's hand as Planchet returned to the room bringing an armful of winebottles.

"Rochfort's letter to his daughter," Athos supplied, gratefully accepting the opened bottle Planchet handed him.

"Does it ... does it accuse you of murdering Milady de Winter out of love for me?"

Athos almost choked on the mouthful of wine he had drawn from the bottle. He swallowed it carefully and turned a bemused glance on his lover. "It merely tells her what he saw at Montereau and that she must use the information however she chooses," he explained. "My dear Jean, do you mean to tell me you still cannot read?"

D'Artagnan looked sheepish but exalted, the use of his name having registered more deeply with him than the rest of the sentence. "Well, I....." He shook his head, the uncertain, illiterate Gascon peasant boy again. "Only my own name," he admitted.

Athos hugged him close. "Then I shall have to teach you," he concluded.

The younger man's cool blue eyes scanned his face. "Do you think that would take long?"

Athos handed him the wine bottle and watched him drink from it. "Several years, I should think," he replied, smiling. "Of course, it would be easier if you lived with me at Bragelonne."

D'Artagnan nodded. "No doubt it would."

"But ... no more attempts to 'civilise' me, boy," warned Athos, affectionately. "You may have chocolate for breakfast - every day, if you choose - but kindly do not inflict it on me!"

"Very well," laughed d'Artagnan. "If that's what you wish, M. le Comte."

"It's what I wish, my own heart," was the devastatingly persuasive response as Athos drew him close again.

"Good, good," Porthos intervened, from around the neck of the wine bottle. "Too much civilisation's not good for a man. What's that you always used to say, Athos? It isn't suitable for gentlemen to love one another? What's the point in being gentlemen, then? I should abandon all civilised habits forthwith."

"So we will no longer be five Musketeers but five uncivilised peasants?" queried Raoul, lightly. "It seems fitting, somehow."

"At least we are still five," Aramis told him, with some emotion. He raised his wine-bottle in a toast. "All for one; one for all," he said softly.

Athos, d'Artagnan, Porthos and Raoul turned towards him as he drank. D'Artagnan lifted the bottle he held and echoed the sentiment. "All for one; one for all."

Planchet sat for some time staring intently at his bottle of wine, licking his lips in anticipation. At length he raised it to his mouth and inhaled deeply.

"All for one," he said, firmly, and swallowed its contents without drawing breath.

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Author's note:

I have taken a great many liberties (other than the obvious one!) with M. Dumas's original.  I have changed the ages of the characters, Raoul's parentage and the location of Aramis's bishopric.  However if you regard this as being set in the Richard Lester movie universe rather than the books these alterations may perhaps be considered slightly less annoying

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