The execution of Milady De Winter was planned and carried out as soon it could be arranged. It was a morning but the gray sky seemed so miserable that D'Artagnan felt it would have been no lighter under a midday sun. When the tragic events of that morning were over, Athos led the discussion of their immediate plans. They were three old soldiers and an eager youngster with a time and a place for an attempt on the King's life. They might have been formally disbanded but they were still the King's guards, his Musketeers. They set themselves up in the same inn where Milady De Winter had held D'Artagnan hostage less than a day earlier. They took possession of a table, a large map of France and a hearty meal.
D'Artagnan had never been in a large-scale battle before, only street-fights, tavern brawls and duels of honour. After throwing his lot in with the three musketeers, he found himself fighting against dozens of mercenaries and winning. Now, hundreds of the Cardinal's Guards stood between them and the King. D'Artagnan was a little disappointed to learn that the others wished to call on their allies. However, he realised the sense in the decision and then realised that he would be permitted to fight alongside not only three musketeers but hundreds. He wondered if such a battle would be like a tavern brawl magnified and whether he would feel kinship with each anonymous musketeer to fight beside him. The next moment he chastised himself for foolishness, imagining the battle as so vast that he would not be able to concentrate on anything except his small corner of it.
D'Artagnan looked to the others but they were still discussing the names of former Musketeers they could summon. They were also trying to make a list of villages to visit to deliver their summons. After hearing most of the names, D'Artagnan was no more informed but the places he recognised. He took up a quill and began to mark the places on the map of France. Athos smiled at him briefly. As the list of names and places grew, Aramis started to suggest the best routes to travel in order to cover as many villages as possible. D'Artagnan dutifully added them to the maps as well. However, Athos and Porthos were still adding names and villages to the list and Aramis' routes became obsolete. D'Artagnan tried to change his marks on the map but the lines became thicker and more complicated. When it had happened for the fourth time, Aramis caught D'Artagnan's writing hand.
"It would be better to wait until our plans are final," he told D'Artagnan, laughter in his eyes. "Or else there will be no unmarked roads in the entire kingdom of France."
"A pity it will take far longer to reach so many villages by horse," said Porthos, with mock weariness. "If only all that were needed were a map and a quill. We would then be able to alert all the Musketeers in France before tonight's supper."
D'Artagnan did not quite laugh but he smiled. He noticed that Athos had leaned back in his chair and begun to gaze at the table in serious contemplation as his friends continued to banter.
"Just as well that is not all that is needed," countered Aramis with a pointed look at Porthos' waist. "Or else, Porthos, my friend, you would be eating supper all the day long."
Porthos' eyebrows drew into an impressive frown that was backed up by his bandanna.
"Aramis, my dear friend, I have an appreciation of fine wood, good food and attractive company. Perhaps a man such as yourself believes in deprivation but what is life without enjoyment?"
It was not unusual for Athos to withdraw from the normal banter but the wine in Athos' cup sat untouched on the table. As Aramis and Porthos' made enough conversation for a full regiment, Athos was free to brood, and D'Artagnan, free to watch. Athos' blond head was bowed over the marked map but the blue eyes saw little. As D'Artagnan tried to guess where Athos' mind wandered, Athos raised a cup to his lips and gulped the liquid down. It was not a cup of wine but a cup of water. A jug of water had been provided with their meal but the water was stale and unclean. D'Artagnan wanted to warn Athos against drinking again but didn't dare end Aramis and Porthos' distraction. He doubted Athos would appreciate being made the focus of his friends' attention in his present mood.
Instead, D'Artagnan watched as Athos drained the cup and refilled it with more water. D'Artagnan was reminded of watching Athos drinking wine in a dark and dingy tavern. The man's misery had drawn D'Artagnan to join him.
He could still hear Aramis' wry observation, "Athos takes his drinking seriously. Don't worry, he'll be his usual cheerful self in the morning."
With their acquaintance so new, D'Artagnan hadn't appreciated the irony of the comment although Aramis' tone had implied that there was a second meaning to his words. Athos was rarely spontaneously cheerful and his moods fit into tavern atmospheres just as easily as Porthos' lecherous celebrations. Now, Athos sat in a clean inn with sunlight shining through the windows, the serving wenches dismissed and his closest friends sitting by his side. Yet, D'Artagnan could still see the tavern reflected in Athos' slumped posture.
D'Artagnan was aware of the facts and words that meant that Athos' wife, who he had believed dead for years, had been revealed to be alive, only to be executed again for turning to a life of crime. If Athos was punishing himself for his guilt by drinking the foul-tasting water, it did not seem to have the intended impact. Athos did not react as the water filled his mouth or as he swallowed it down. His face was so unchangeable that the act of drinking seemed to serve no purpose other than to occupy his hands. Athos poured yet another cup and continued to methodically raise it to his lips.
In the tavern, D'Artagnan's questioning had led to Athos' confession of guilt and grief for the wife he thought dead. The younger man knew too little of their married life together to imagine Athos in love or Milady De Winter as innocent. All he knew were his own memories of Athos in taverns and a pale beauty whose cold orders were followed unblinking by her henchmen. He could still feel the knife against his throat and the panic he had conquered. D'Artagnan would never know her as Athos would and it made if difficult to understand his way of grieving.
As Athos drained another cup of water, and Porthos leaned across the table to poke Aramis violently in the chest, D'Artagnan wondered if maybe Athos had already suffered too much wine on her behalf. D'Artagnan could only think he was drinking water to wash away the wine and the memories that haunted him.