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Strangers on a Plain

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“Ah, d’Artagnan,” Aramis exclaimed. “Perfect timing. I was just about to beg a bowl of bean soup from the lovely Madame Bonacieux. Thrashing you will whet my appetite beautifully.”

D’Artagnan swished his sword and grinned. “You told me that overconfidence was a fatal flaw and almost a sin.”

Aramis pushed himself off the wall against which he had been leaning. “Not a soupçon of overconfidence in predicting the outcome of our spar, my little friend. But before we begin, why are you out so early on this lovely day? Does not your worthy father have better things for you to do?”

“Papa gave me the afternoon off. Next week we begin harvest, so all hands will be needed. He said to make the most of it, so I am.” He made a perfect courtly bow and flourish, and Aramis applauded it politely. “Why aren’t you entertaining madame d’Athos?”

Aramis shrugged. “She had things to do on her own until after lunch. Strange as it is to say it, I am not essential to all aspects of a beautiful woman’s routine.”

“You’re more like a hindrance,” came from behind him, before he was shoved forcefully by a generously skirted hip. He took the hint and moved. “Do you two layabouts really have nothing better to do but make fools of yourselves in my courtyard? Scaring my ducks and geese at that?”

Aramis bowed low to the brunette-haired virago of his dreams. “My dearest, most treasured Constance. Your poultry are in no danger from us, and I am but ensuring that d’Artagnan has the skills to protect himself once his father throws him out of the house to seek his fortune. As must happen to all heroes at least once in their narrative.”

Constance gave him a baleful look. “As I said, layabouts. Take yourselves off away from the fowl. And if Porthos wants his lunch, you can let him know it’s ready, and that I’ve made him a loaf of bread as well.”

Aramis bowed again. “You are as bounteous as you are beautiful.”

She rolled her eyes, then glared at d’Artagnan. “What are you looking at?”

The boy stepped back, nonplussed. “Nothing?”

Nothing?” Her tone held a warning, and predictably, d’Artagnan was immediately and adorably flustered.

“I mean...I’m looking at you. The most beautiful, bounteous, buxom—”

“Steady on,” Aramis murmured as Constance bridled. “She’s a married woman.”

“Sorry. You’re not nothing,” the boy said, his colour rising. “I was looking at you and thinking about nothing.”

“Hmph. I’m not sure that’s an improvement.” But she smiled at him and chucked his chin as she walked past. “Stay away from my animals.”

“Yes, Constance.”

Madame Bonacieux to you, boy.”

“Yes, madame Bonacieux.”

Aramis heard her chuckle as she disappeared inside the inn. “Let’s fetch Porthos and he can referee before he has his lunch, and you retire to lick your wounds.”

D’Artagnan growled. “One of these days, you perfumed loiter-sack, I’m going to make you eat your boasts.”

Aramis clutched his breast in pretended fear, before straightening up and raising an eyebrow at the insolent boy. “No doubt, my precious child, but that day is not today.”

*************************

“How come we don’t get freshly cooked loaves of bread?” d’Artagnan asked as he spooned the last of the delicious soup from his bowl.

“Because you don’t cut the wood to cook it,” Porthos said. He tore off another piece and ate it with gusto, while d’Artagnan glowered. “Oh, did you want some? Bread’s extra.”

“D’Artagnan thinks he’s ready to defeat me in battle,” Aramis said to his friend. He quickly moved out of the way of the spray of breadcrumbs as Porthos sputtered with laughter.

“This beanpole?”

“That’s not very polite,” d’Artagnan said. “I could take on both of you.”

Eyes rich with merriment, Porthos nodded at Aramis. “Why not? I can spare a minute or two.”

“As much as that, you think? I suppose I have been training him.”

D’Artagnan growled and climbed to his feet. He drew his sword and pointed it at the pair of them. “I’m ready any time you are.”

Porthos dusted his hands. “I don’t have my sword. Hand to hand? Does your papa mind if you go home all dirty?”

Aramis was slightly impressed that d’Artagnan didn’t rise to the bait. “If I beat you, I get the rest of your loaf.”

“And when I beat you, you cut up the load of wood Constance wants.”

“Deal. Well?”

“What about me?” Aramis asked, leaning back and silently predicting a very quick bout. “What do I get?”

“A smack on the ear,” Constance said, reaching for the empty bowls on the table. “I thought you boys were sick of war, and yet every time I see you, you’re either fighting or talking about fighting.”

“All good clean harmless fun,” Aramis said.

“Yeah, not so clean once I’m done with him,” Porthos said. “Come on, brat, show me what you’re made of.”

The result was never in doubt, but given the disparity of skill and bulk between the farm boy and the seasoned soldier, it wasn’t as utterly one-sided as it could have been. D’Artagnan had been paying attention, and dodged some of Porthos’s sneakier moves, even if he could not, in the end, best an opponent who had been fighting dirty with bigger men while d’Artagnan was still in leading strings.

The boy ended up in the dirt with a graze on one cheek, and Porthos stood over him with hand extended, only to have it knocked away by Constance. “You brute. Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” She touched d’Artagnan’s injured face with a tenderness that told Aramis far more than she would have admitted out loud about her feelings for the youngster.

“He’s taller than me,” Porthos protested.

“And half your weight. Come in and let me wash that. Your father will have a fit if you go home in that state.”

D’Artagnan let Constance bustle him off to the kitchen, and only smirked when Porthos called after him, “You owe me a load of chopped wood, don’t forget!”

Aramis put his hat on and tilted it forward. “Well, that was entertaining. Enjoy your bread, my friend. I must away to the house, where milady waits.”

“Milady,” Porthos scoffed. “Don’t she realise it means the same thing as ‘madame’?”

“Yes, of course she does. Who am I to deny her petty amusements?”

“You’re lucky Thomas has lost an arm, or he’d challenge you over her mischiefs.”

Aramis answered in all seriousness. “I would never betray a friend that way, and she knows it. I’ve made it clear. I will fetch and carry, read to her, ride out with her, and permit her flirting, but I won’t make her husband a cuckold.”

“Even if other men do.”

Milady’s reputation was unfortunately well-earned. “I cannot answer for their choices, only my own,” Aramis said. “She’s a beautiful woman and Thomas is too unwell to entertain. I only hope my company keeps her from further indiscretion.”

Porthos shook his head. “Huh. I doubt it.”

Aramis winced. “I did say ‘hope’. I’ll see you this evening, or tomorrow, without fail.” Porthos waved him off.

Aramis set off towards La Fère to keep his appointment with his master’s wife. Anne was a sparkling companion, sharp in tongue as well as wits. He wished she was as gifted with kindness as with cleverness, because her husband—a good, generous, and brave man—sorely needed it. Aramis did his best to plead Thomas’s case for him, but Anne was bored, and repulsed by deformity. Thomas held few charms for her any more, which was a tragedy for both of them.

*************************

Monsieur d’Autevielle found his old friend, Alexandre, eating his lunch outside the kitchen of his farmhouse. “Good afternoon, monsieur.”

Alexandre, now grey with age but still straight and tall, smiled politely. “Good afternoon to you, monsieur. Do I know you?”

“You did once. You sold my father my first full-sized horse, when I was ten.”

Alexandre squinted, then his expression cleared. “My God. Olivier? It’s been fifteen years! We thought you were dead.”

“‘Olivier’ is dead indeed,” Monsieur d’Autevielle said, taking off his hat. “I go by ‘Athos’, now.”

“Athos or Olivier, I don’t care. Come have lunch with me. I insist. Damn, and you’ve only missed Charles by half an hour or so. You won’t recognise him. He’s a grown man now.”

“Many things have changed, I understand.”

Alexandre nodded, his face solemn. “More than you know, I suspect. Put your horse in the stables. You know where it is, and come in when you’re ready. By God it’s good to see you.”

There was no one Athos could have wished to talk to about his return more than Alexandre d’Artagnan, a man whose family had been tenants and friends to his own for generations. Athos half expected to be chided, even abused, for leaving his estate for so many years, but Alexandre understood. Over a simple but generous rabbit stew, he gave his opinion on the matter.

“Your father, God rest his soul, had a temper on him. And old de Garouville encouraged it. She’s married now, your Catherine, to Baron de l’Ouvrier’s son, Edmond.”

“Ah.” Athos felt exactly nothing on hearing this. He’d had no love for Catherine when they had been betrothed, and none when his father had thrown him out of the house because of the dalliances with another which had led to the betrothal being broken. “And...Thomas?”

“Married too, three years ago. A woman called Anne de Winter. Beautiful but cold, they say. She rides out with Thomas’s secretary. Not fit behaviour for a married woman, I say, but it’s not my place to call her to account.”

“No, it’s my brother’s. Why does he allow it?”

Then Athos heard the rest of the news. His father had died four years ago, his mother predeceasing him by six months, and with the heir to the title and estate missing, Thomas had taken charge. Several months later, a woman came to visit, a daughter of a friend of their mother, who had not heard of her passing. Thomas invited her to stay a week or so out of courtesy, and affection had bloomed.

“After the wedding, he looked happier than I’d seen him in a long while.”

“They have children?”

Alexandre shook his head. “Barely had time to make them. The king ordered La Fère to send men and arms to La Rochelle just five months after they were wed. Thomas was gone two years and when he returned, he was a wreck. Lost an arm and his health. If it wasn’t for the two men he brought back with him, he would have died, he said.”

“What two men?”

“Two soldiers. One fair and learned, the other dark and strong as an ox. The fair one works as his secretary—he’s the one who rides out with madame. The other works with Remi, the smith, and lives in the inn.”

Athos had no interest in these strangers. “You say Thomas is still unwell?”

“He took a number of hurts, but more than that, his mind is wounded. The secretary—Aramis, he calls himself—told me he’s seen it before, after battle. The man cannot rest, he’s plagued by bad dreams, and sees dead and dying men around him when there is naught but grass and trees. It’s a sad thing to see.”

“I know this blight,” Athos said, heartsick at the news. If he had remained, Thomas—who had never been trained to fight or go into battle—would never have gone to war.

“Your father regretted his tantrum, you know. But he had no way to find you. Your mother died with her heart broken.”

Athos said nothing. What could he say? He could have returned. He could have written. But the stinging words, the finality of a father’s edict, kept him away until he became such a man who could not bear to return. Only the learning by chance of his parents’ deaths tempted him back, yet even now, he didn’t know how he could announce his return.

“You do plan to go to the house from here, don’t you?”

“I don’t know,” Athos said, unable to lie to Alexandre’s bluff and honest face.

“If you don’t, you could stay here tonight. Meet Charles. He’s desperate to become a soldier. I would that he did not, but I only keep the farm going for him. If he doesn’t want it, then why shouldn’t he follow his dream? My brother can have the farm, and good luck to him.”

“A soldier’s life is hard and brutal. He would be better here in Pinon.”

“As you would have been, I suppose,” Alexandre said, his eyebrow quirked. “I thought not. I’ve written to de Tréville in Paris. He’s a captain in the King’s own guard. I’ve invited him to come to see Charles, and also to find out if he can speak to his majesty about our intendant, LaBarge. The man’s nothing but a thief and a thug.”

“I hope he can help you.”

“Will you stay? Tonight at least?”

Athos shook his head. “I want time to think. I’ll gladly meet your boy, if you wish. But I must decide if it’s as Olivier d’Athos, or Athos d’Autevielle.”

Alexandre chuckled. “Whichever name, you’ll still be that lad who rode like a demon and scared the hell out of me, racing across our fields.”

“I’ve learned a little sense since then, old friend,” Athos said, managing a smile. “Thank you for the meal, and I will return, I promise. I never asked—what happened to Abigail?”

Alexandre’s mouth turned now. “Dead, years ago. It’s just Charles and me now. Has been for over ten years. I miss her still, but my son has been a consolation. He’s a fine man, and I’m proud of him.”

“Some sons are a comfort,” Athos said. “I bid you farewell for now. I pray you, don’t mention my return to anyone just yet?”

“Of course not. It’s going to be tricky, managing this gracefully. But do it for your mother’s sake. It was what she wanted.”

“I’ll do it for Thomas’s. The living have more need of me than the dead.” That earned Athos a look, though he did not recant his words.

He turned his horse’s head towards the village of Pinon, and the inn. Perhaps a word with these two kindly gentlemen would give him a better idea of how to approach Thomas, and the thorny issue of the return of a long-lost heir to the comte of La Fère.

*************************

Letting Constance—Madame Bonacieux—tend his wounds, took more time than d’Artagnan would normally spend on such a trivial matter, and in gratitude, he offered to help in the kitchen, which meant tending the fire while he gazed his fill at the woman he was hopelessly in love with. He didn’t know why sour old Monsieur Bonacieux should have such a lovely wife, and he, d’Artagnan, be left to pine after her. The man was a pig and treated Constance with such brutish insolence, d’Artagnan would have challenged him to a duel, had Aramis not patiently explained it would end either in his death by the sword, or by the hangman’s rope.

“You being dead is no use to your lady,” Aramis said.

“No, I suppose not.” But he did so want punch the odious innkeeper.

Then he had the wood to chop. Not a pleasant task in the summer heat, but he’d made a wager with Porthos, and a gentleman always honoured his bets. Beside, Constance kept bringing him cold cordials and damp cloths and putting her hands on his forehead to make sure he wasn’t risking heat exhaustion....

There were worse things than chopping wood on a hot summer’s afternoon.

But as he chopped, clouds had begun to roll in, the sky darkening rapidly, and the heat becoming thick and ominous. When he and Constance heard the first rumble of thunder, she said, “You should go home. If there’s a storm, your father may need your help.”

He had almost finished the load of wood, and offered to complete the task but she shooed him off. “We’ll manage quite well. Besides, I dare say you’ll be back again and making another foolish wager with those two.”

“One day I’ll beat them.”

She smiled kindly. “Of course you will. Now, off you go and give my regards to your father.”

The first fat drops of rain hit his hatless head two hundred yards from the farmhouse, and with that warning, he urged Achilles into a gallop to beat the worst of it. As they reached the stables, the splats had become a torrent, and he didn’t wait to dismount before he and his gelding under cover. Achilles snorted a little in disgust but stood still as he dragged off the saddle and bridle, setting it on a pole stand to dry.

D’Artagnan led the gelding towards one of the stalls, intending to give him a rub down and feed before searching for his father. Achilles reared up and whinnied in distress at something that d’Artagnan could not at first make out in the gloom. By the time he had calmed his mount, he realised the object in the horse’s path was a man.

Not just any man. His father, lying on the ground in front of his horse, Julius’s, stall, while Julius whickered in concern at his owner’s plight.

“Papa!” D’Artagnan fell to his knees and turned his father over, discovering that there was blood all over his front from a stab wound low in his chest. Yet his father still lived. “Who did this? My God, what should I do? Papa, speak to me, please!”

His father reached out feebly to grasp his sleeve. “Charles...’thos.”

“Thos? Who is Thos?”

His father coughed weakly and blood came from his mouth. “A...thos.”

“Athos? Who is Athos? I’ll get some water. Bandages, yes. Where...my shirt.” He ripped off his shirt and bound it around the wound in his father’s lower chest, but his father’s breathing only worsened. “Papa! Please, just...hold on, I’ll get some water.”

But his father’s grasp on his wrist fell away, and with two last, tortured breaths, his eyes closed, never to reopen. D’Artagnan shook him and cried out for God’s help, but it was no use.

His father was dead. Murdered.

And someone called ‘Athos’ had done it.

*************************

There was no one close by he could summon to help, so, even though the rain still poured down, d’Artagnan resaddled Achilles and rode back to the inn, blinded by rain and tears, and nearly out of his mind with grief and anger. If it wasn’t for the fact his horse knew the way as well as he did, and d’Artagnan had been riding almost before he could walk, he would have fallen.

He left Achilles in the stable, and ran across the courtyard into the inn. “I need help! My father’s been killed!”

Constance came to the door of the kitchen, her hand on her throat. “Alexandre? Dead?”

“Stabbed.” He clung to the bar, his knees suddenly weak. She came over and urged him to sit. “I found him in the stable. Stabbed and left to die like a dog.”

She drew him to her breast and held him while he sobbed. She must have given a signal over his head because shortly after a glass of brandy appeared under his nose. “Drink that, dear. I’ve sent for Porthos.”

He held the glass in hands that shook so violently that the brandy sloshed around and nearly spilled. She helped him drink. “There, better. Henri, fetch a towel. He’s soaked through.”

“My horse,” d’Artagnan mumbled.

“We’ll see to him.” She stroked his clinging wet hair off his face. “Tell me what happened.”

“I went into the stables with Achilles, and Papa was there...still alive. He said, ‘Athos’.” D’Artagnan looked up into her face. “Someone called Athos killed him.”

“Athos?”

That was another voice, a man’s. D’Artagnan looked around and found Monsieur Bonacieux glaring at him as he sat with Constance’s arms around him. “What’s going on?”

“Jacques,” Constance said to her husband, “d’Artagnan’s father has been murdered. He says, by someone called Athos. But I don’t know anyone of that name. Do you?”

“Someone called Athos d’Autevielle just took a room. He’s upstairs.”

D’Artagnan surged to his feet and clapped his hand on his sword. “I demand to see him! Bring him down immediately.”

Bonacieux frowned at being ordered about by a man so much younger, but Constance rose and went to her husband’s side. “We should do as he says.”

“Not without help. Ah, Porthos. Excellent fortune. I need your help.”

Porthos ignored the man and went straight to d’Artagnan, taking his hands in his. “What happened?”

“Papa. He’s been murdered,” d’Artagnan whispered. “The man who did it is upstairs.”

“Then we better speak to him right quick,” Porthos said, turning to Bonacieux.

“That’s what I wanted your help with,” Bonacieux said impatiently. “He’s obviously violent.”

“You have your arquebus, monsieur?” Porthos looked around. “Anyone else ready to help?”

The three other men in the room all nodded, climbing to their feet. “Then fetch your gun, monsieur, and let’s be having this bloke.”

*************************

Athos stared out of the grimy window at the torrential rain, sipping some of the indifferent red wine the self-important innkeeper had supplied. The weather felt like a validation of his decision not to go to La Fère that afternoon, though he knew it was really only his own cowardice that kept him from doing what he should have done years ago. At least a decade ago.

But he had never been sure that doing so would not end in a repeat of the humiliation his father had visited upon him at the age of eighteen, and that experience had been crushing enough the first time around. His new life had suited him better in many ways, though he had often missed the intellectual pleasures that went with his rank. The bowing and scraping and domination of others simply by an accident of birth, the trafficking in weddings and land and eligible children—none of that appealed in the least any more, if it even did.

He wondered if Catherine was happy now. She had only wanted a good marriage and children, and to be the wife of a noble. A baron’s son was a step down from the scion of a comte, but it was decent enough. He wondered if Edmond was a better man than his father, and a more faithful one. He hoped so.

He heard heavy steps on the stairs outside the room, and instinctively reached for his weapon’s belt. Moments later, the door crashed open, and the doorway filled by an enormous dark-skinned man, clutching a piece of firewood like a club. “You. You’re wanted downstairs. Now.” There were men behind him, and Athos thought he glimpsed the pale face of the innkeeper over the shoulder of the giant.

“And how am I to refuse such a charming invitation? Am I not to know why you require my presence?” He couldn’t help it. The aristocratic drawl came back to him as if it had never gone, along with the arrogance that was bone-deep in his caste.

“You’re to answer to an accusation of murder, if your name’s Athos.”

“It is Athos, but I have not murdered anyone lately. Who is dead?”

“Alexandre d’Artagnan,” the giant said heavily, his eyes narrowed with real anger.

“Alexandre? But he was alive two hours ago. I left him fit and well—how can he be dead?”

“That’s what we want to know. Come down and speak to his son, or I’ll drag you out.”

“There’s no need for force.” Unhurriedly Athos set down his weapon’s belt. He had no desire to kill honest men over a mistake, and if Alexandre was dead, and this man a friend of his or his son’s, the anger was understandable.

The giant stood aside to let him out, but made it clear that should Athos move wrong, his neck would be forfeit. “We should tie his hands,” the innkeeper snapped. “He could escape.”

“He won’t,” the giant said, and Athos believed him.

Hustled down the stairs, the man who wished to confront him was immediately obvious. Tall and brown as his father had been, drenched to the skin and face contorted with sorrow, this had to be Charles. The boy drew his sword. “You! My father named you as his killer!”

Athos stood a safe distance from the wobbling epée and spread his hands. “There must be a mistake. I called on your father earlier today, it’s true. But he was quite alive when I left.”

“Your name was on his dying lips! Murderer!”

The boy lunged at him, and Athos dodged and ducked. He wondered if the others were just going  let the lad kill him out of hand, until the giant grabbed Charles’s shirt by the collar and hauled him back. “None of that now. He needs to be taken to the master of La Fère to be examined. If he’s guilty, he’ll hang. That’s the law.”

The boy turned in the giant’s grasp and pleaded with his eyes. “Porthos, my father said he’s the one who stabbed him.”

“Mebbe, but the law is the law. You kill him now and it’ll be you who’ll hang.” Athos was glad there was someone to be the voice of common sense and to restrain Alexandre’s boy from making a dreadful mistake.

“Henri, bring a rope,” the innkeeper said to one of the men behind him. “We must bind him securely. As soon as the rain stops, we’ll take him to the estate.”

“Do you mind if I sit while you make your preparations?” Athos asked, resigned to his homecoming being entirely less pleasant than even his worst imaginings. “And will someone tell me exactly what Alexandre said?”

“You shut your mouth,” d’Artagnan snapped at him.

“Just tell me. Did he actually say ‘Athos stabbed me’?”

Henri had returned with the rope and the innkeeper made a great show of tying Athos’s hands. In truth, he could free himself in moments, so sloppy was the job he made of it, but Athos had no intention of running. Over by the kitchen door, a pretty red-haired woman watched the goings-on, biting her lip, and staring particularly at Charles.

When the innkeeper was done and Athos had been shoved onto a bench to sit, he looked up at Charles. “Well, did he?”

“I told you. He said your name with his last breath.”

“So he could have been saying anything. He could have been saying ‘Athos will help you’.”

“Help me? Who are you to me? Who were you to him?” The boy’s eyes were wild, and again the giant—Porthos—had to restrain him.

Porthos gave Athos a dirty look. “That’s a good question. Answer it.”

“He and I were friends long ago. I have been gone from this area for many years and have only just returned.”

“Liar,” Charles yelled, lunging without success against Porthos’s grip on his collar.

Porthos asked, “Can you prove any of that?”

“Yes, I can. You have no proof that I’ve done anything at all. I am most sorry for your loss, Charles.”

Charles screamed inarticulately and tried desperately to get to Athos, but Porthos restrained him, holding him close and forcing him to calm down. The woman who’d been watching, scowled at Athos as she came over to hold the lad as well, murmuring in his ear and petting his hair. After a bit, it had the intended effect.

“I think you should shut your mouth for now,” Porthos growled at Athos. Athos nodded. No point in poking a man out of his mind with grief.

Athos had not killed Alexandre d’Artagnan. He very much want to know who had. And the best person to help him find that out would be his brother. Unfortunately, a very painful conversation would have to be had before he could ask for that help.

*************************

The rain eased after a quarter of an hour, and Athos was pulled to his feet less than gently by Bonacieux. “Shall we make him walk?” the man asked.

“He’s got a horse, so we use that,” Porthos said. Athos had already observed that though Porthos was apparently in some subservient role to the monsieur, his natural leadership ability in a crisis had led that otherwise pompous individual to bow to his authority in this matter. A former soldier, Alexandre had said. Athos could wish to fight along twenty such men in any battle.

Porthos helped Athos onto Roger and tied his hands—this time, doing a proper job of it—to the pommel, before hopping up behind Charles on his grey gelding, and taking Roger’s reins in hand. Bonacieux followed behind on his own mare, though why he needed to abandon his business and wife to attend to something which had nothing at all to do with him, Athos didn’t know.

But he could easily surmise it was about currying favour with the current master of La Fère.

The road from the village to the mansion was only a mile long, and his father had kept it in good order. Thomas’s absence at war and subsequent had not had any obvious deleterious effects on the estate, but then, the estate manager probably handled it all. At least, Athos hoped so. He had no intention of becoming involved in running things again, even if it meant formally abdicating his title, which he fully intended to do at the earliest opportunity.

At the gates to the mansion, they were denied entrance by a pair of men Athos guessed normally worked as grooms. “We need to speak to Monsieur de La Fère urgently on a serious matter,” Bonacieux said, bringing his horse up to the front of the group. “Stand aside.”

The two men looked at each other. “Madame can deal with you,” the older one said.

“But—”

“It’s that, or you can bugger off. And leave your weapons here. That means you too, boy.”

Charles undid his sword belt and tossed it down at their feet with disdain, though his cheeks coloured as he did so. Porthos had nothing to surrender but his fists, and the arquebus Bonacieux handed over with bad grace would probably have blown up in his face had he tried to use it, so badly maintained did it appear.

Once disarmed, they were bid to ride up to the house. Something was wrong, Athos knew immediately. The men at the gate, the hurried walks, the silence and long looks—what had happened? Was Thomas seriously ill?

A handsome bearded man with a feathered hat appeared to meet them as they entered the stables. “Porthos? What’s going on? D’Artagnan?”

“His father’s been murdered,” Porthos said. “And this gent here’s accused of doing it.”

“My God. When? D’Artagnan?”

“I don’t know. I went back just as the storm started and found him in the stable.”

“And who is this fellow?” the stranger asked, looking up at Athos and giving him the unnerving impression of being able to read this mind.

“I might demand the same of you, monsieur,” Athos said.

“I am Aramis d’Herblay, monsieur. And you are?”

“Athos.”

“That’s a mountain, not a man.”

“He’s a murderer,” Charles said. “Let us in. We need to speak to the master.”

“That’s going to be difficult, lad. Master Thomas was also murdered this afternoon.”

Athos froze. “Thomas? Dead? How?”

Aramis narrowed his eyes. “Shot. In the woods behind the house. Where were you this afternoon, monsieur?”

“In my room at the inn, and then in the company as you see me now. I must see Thomas’s wife, now.”

“Oh, you certainly will. Porthos, bringetg him down, and then all of you, come into the house.”

His hands still bound, Athos walked behind this Aramis, with Porthos and Charles at his sides. Bonacieux was trying to catch up to Aramis and demand more information, but Aramis was close-mouthed. He took them into the hall, and signalled to one of the footman to let ‘Milady’ know.

Athos straightened in shock. “Milady?”

Aramis turned to Athos and smiled politely. “A small but harmless affectation on the mistress’s part.”

“Her name before marriage was Anne de Winter? Not Anne de Breuil?”

“De Winter, yes, but what is that to you, monsieur?”

Just then, Anne came into the hall, dressed all in green with delicate cream lace at her wrists and throat. Athos’s breath caught at the sight of her. “Aramis? What’s going on?”

“I’m sorry, milady, but there have been two murders today. Alexandre d’Artagnan, one of the estate’s neighbours, was murdered on his farm, apparently not long before Thomas was. This fellow is accused of that killing.”

“Let me see him.”

She did not look particularly grief-stricken, but then she had always been good at hiding her emotions. Athos could not take his eyes off her. “Well, monsieur?” she asked coldly. “Did you kill my husband?”

“I did not, and you should know why. Don’t you recognise me, Anne?”

It had been fifteen years and he had a beard, lines, scars, and breadth that he had not had at eighteen. Still, he was surprised she did not know him, for he would have known her anywhere. “I do not.”

“I am Thomas’s brother.”

She clasped her throat. “O-Olivier? You’ve come back now?”

Aramis blinked. “Porthos, I suggest you unbind his hands immediately. The man you have in custody is Olivier d’Athos, comte of La Fère.”

Bonacieux gasped, and when Athos glanced at him, looked about to faint. “M-my lord. I...we...had no idea.”

“Wait,” Charles snapped at Porthos, about to obey Aramis’s request and release Athos. “Comte or not, my father still accused this man of stabbing him. He’s still a murderer.”

“I am not,” Athos said politely. “I swear it on my parents’ grave. Your father was quite well when I left him.” He held his wrists out and kept his eyes on Porthos until his hands were free. “The deaths of my brother and Charles’s father on the same day, in such a short space of time, can’t be coincidence. Anne, shall we all talk in the library and share what we know?”

“Of course,” she said. She had recovered from the immediate shock of his sudden appearance, though she continued to stare at him.

Monsieur,” Athos said to Bonacieux, “you are not involved in this matter, but nonetheless, I ask you to remain a little longer.”

“Yes, of course, monsieur le comte, ” Bonacieux said, bowing deeply. “I will render all possible assistance.”

Athos nodded, then turned to the boy. “Charles—”

“D’Artagnan. No one calls me Charles except...Papa.”

“Of course,” Athos said, bowing a little. “My apologies. D’Artagnan, have you moved his body? Did you come straight to the inn from the house?”

“No, I didn’t move him. I...needed help.”

“And you shall have it. Anne, I don’t mean to usurp your position, but with Thomas dead, it falls to me to deal with this. Do you object?” She shook her head. “Then let’s work quickly, gentlemen. I’m sorry—Porthos, are you at liberty to remain?”

“I reckon Remi will do whatever your lordship asks.” Porthos, at least, was not overwhelmed by his rank or events.

“Very well. Anne?”

She led the way to the familiar room, and Athos’s heart contracted. His father’s touch was everywhere, but here and there, he saw Thomas’s interests reflected also. He couldn’t stop himself running his fingers along the book spines. Had he not been a coward and come straight to the house that morning, Thomas might still be alive. And who knew, perhaps Alexandre too.

“So, where to begin? Anne, tell me what you know.”

“I returned to the house just before the storm,” she said, “and one of the woodsmen told me Thomas had been found shot dead. We had his body brought to the house. It’s in his rooms.”

“Then I would speak to that woodsman, and see the body.”

“I’ll have him come to you there,” Aramis murmured, before slipping out of the room.

“D’Artagnan.” The boy jerked a little when Athos spoke to him. “Your father was still alive when you reached him? If you had to guess, how long before had he been attacked?”

“I don’t know.” The boy had gone pale. “There was a lot of blood. He’d been stabbed here.” He indicated a point near the bottom of the ribcage.”

“Just once?”

“That I could tell. I didn’t strip him to check.”

Athos looked at Porthos. “He could have lived an hour with such an injury, do you agree?”

“Maybe. But then he could have walked for a bit, maybe looked for help.”

“We don’t know that he didn’t. Let’s view the body.”

The body. Not his brother. Not Thomas, his bright, kind, gentle brother. Just a bag of meat now.

He hadn’t changed rooms, Athos was surprised to see. “I thought he would take mine over.”

“He wouldn’t have it,” Anne said with the slightest curl of her mouth. “Your room is still a shrine to his older brother.”

Her tone was derisive, and Athos had yet to detect the smallest sorrow at the loss of her husband.  This was more than emotional secrecy. He needed to learn more, but for now, he went to the bed to inspect the corpse.

He lifted the sheet covering Thomas’s face, and had to grit his teeth against the rush of sorrow at seeing the pale, so well beloved countenance. Athos had missed Thomas becoming a man, and now would never see him grow to old age.

He dragged his habitual stoicism around him like a cloak, and forced himself to focus on details. The shot had been at close range, he thought. A single ball, in the chest. Thomas had either been caught by surprise, or knew his killer. Or both.

“A pistol, I warrant.”

Aramis made Athos twitch in surprise, coming up beside him. “I imagine so,” he said coolly to cover his shock.

“But a blow which was not immediately fatal,” Aramis continued. “May I?”

“May you what?”

“Forgive me, monsieur, but I have a little medical knowledge. I may be able to note a few things. ”

Athos waved his hand. “Go to it.”

“I want to remove his shirt. Help me?”

Together they removed the garment, then Aramis checked Thomas’s chest, neck and, turning him with Athos’s help, his back. “Well?” Athos demanded as Aramis finished by looking carefully at Thomas’s hands and fingernails.

“He didn’t struggle with his killer, and he has not been dead two hours. Milady and I returned little more half an hour ago. I believe he died not long before that storm.”

“But could have been shot some time before that?”

Aramis nodded. “The wound would have killed him, but he might have lived as much as an hour after he was shot.”

“Where is the man who found him?” Athos looked around him.

“Here, monsieur.” A young, brawny man clutching his hat stepped up at Athos’s words.

“Tell me what happened.”

“I was cutting hazel in the coppice. That’s on the edge of the woods. I was walking back with my cart and I saw something white in the undergrowth, so I went to look, and found the master, dead.”

“Lying which way?” Aramis asked.

“Like that. On his back.”

“And he was quite dead?” Athos asked, keeping his voice steady with an immense act of will.

“Yes, monsieur. I ran back to the house, and found the mistress gone, so me and Jean, we brought him back on my cart.”

“The ground will be a mess,” Aramis murmured.

“And you returned just after he was brought to the house?” Athos asked Anne.

“Yes. A matter of minutes, I believe.” Aramis nodded in agreement.

“Very well. Thank you—wait outside please,” Athos said to the woodsman, who looked at Anne for confirmation before making a sketchy bow and leaving the room. “Porthos, you know about horses and such? Could you go with that fellow to where the body was found, and see if there are tracks of man or beast in the vicinity?”

“Of course. But the rain will have messed things up.”

“Do what you can, and return to the inn afterwards, if you please. I’ll meet you there.”

“What about Aramis?”

“I have a need of him. That is, if you are free, monsieur.”

Aramis bowed. “I was your dear brother’s secretary, monsieur. I now work for you, as long as you need me.”

“Good. Anne, it’s not beyond possibility that you’re in danger. The target may have been you, or both of you. So I ask you to remain in this house, and I shall have guards placed to protect you.”

She appeared to be surprised, even horrified by his words. “You...feel that’s necessary?”

“Quite necessary,” Athos said seriously. “I could not bear it if I lost you too.”

She smiled tremulously. “Thank you. Do you...wish me to remain in charge of the house?”

“For now. If you can bear it. A funeral must be arranged, and a priest called. Is there still one in the village?”

“Father Duval,” D’Artagnan said. “He’ll need to see to Papa as well.”

“Then we’ll speak to him. You and I, and Aramis, shall go to your farm and see to your father’s body, and what can be learned from the situation. Are you up to that?”

The boy straightened up. “Yes,” he said firmly.

“Brave lad,” Athos murmured. “Monsieur?” he said to Bonacieux. “You may as well return to the inn, but I pray you, keep this matter to yourself. You may say that the master of La Fère is unwell, but no more than that. If the murderer is still about, we don’t want to frighten him away.”

“Of course not, monsieur le comte.” The man bowed low. “And please, accept my apologies for the way you were handled before...before we knew.”

“No need,” Athos said. “Your actions were entirely proper.”

“Thank you, thank you. We will be glad to serve you as you take up your title and lands again.”

Athos tried not to roll his eyes. “Excellent. Then, please return to your inn, and keep your tongue still. If anyone asks about me, use the name I gave you. All of us will convene there after we have been to the farm. You may leave now.”

Bonacieux bowed and left the room, walking backwards as if Athos was the king, not a noble of uncertain welcome.

“Hideous little man,” Anne said when he was gone. “What do you want me to do with him while you’re gone?”

“Him? Bonacieux?”

“Thomas. Do you wish him to lie in state?”

Athos couldn’t think, and found his eyes turning to Aramis, a man he had known for a handful of minutes, for advice. “It would allow people to pay their respects, monsieur. Perhaps in the chapel?”

“Yes,” Athos said, almost sagging with relief not to have to think of such matters himself. “Have you seen all you need to? I mean, on his body?”

“I believe so,” Aramis said politely.

“Then let him be washed and dressed in his favourite clothes, Anne, and borne to the chapel.”

“Yes, of course. Olivier, can I have a word in private before you leave?”

He didn’t want to grant it, but he supposed it was inevitable. “Porthos, if you would do as I asked?”

“Of course.”

“And Aramis, if you could take d’Artagnan downstairs, and find a couple of able men to guard the lady? Caution all the servants that none of them is to leave the house. I’ll meet you in the hall.”

“Yes, monsieur.” Aramis put a gentle hand on the lad’s shoulder and guided him from the room.

Athos went back to the bed to draw the sheet back over Thomas’s body, but not before placing a kiss on his brother’s forehead. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. Athos had not helped him in life, but he would find his murderer, even if it killed him.

“I never thought to see you again, Olivier.”

Athos didn’t turn. “Nor I. Why are you here under a different name, Anne, and how did you convince Thomas to marry you?”

“Convince, Olivier? We fell in love. I saw him in you, but came to love him for himself.”

Now he faced her. “I see no love now. You haven’t shed a tear, and I detect no sorrow.”

“I loved him truly, but not as I loved you. Oh, Olivier.”

She reached for his hands, but he pushed her away. “Don’t, Anne. He’s not even cold. Grant him some dignity.”

“I’m sorry.” She folded her hands prettily in front of her. “I’m just so overcome, so happy to see you. Where have you been? Why did you not come home? I cried so many tears for you.”

“But none for Thomas?” It was strange. Once he would have died for this woman, and had literally lost almost everything for her sake. Now he felt no echoes of that grand passion, though she was, if anything, lovelier than she had been at twenty. Her green eyes were just as wide and unearthly, her breasts swelled just as attractively, and her voice was just as sultry and held the same promise of delight. But in the presence of Thomas’s body, suspecting that both brothers may have been nothing more than a ladder for her to climb in society, he could not even rouse sympathy for her in his breast.

She did not ask for any, at least. “Our marriage died some time ago,” she said coolly. “He was not the same when he returned from La Rochelle. He was broken in his mind. I couldn’t reach him.”

“Did you even try?”

“I did what I could. At least I was here to do so.”

He met her accusation with silence. After staring at him for a few moments, she turned away. “In any event, my tears won’t do him any good.”

“Your prayers might, if you had a mind to offer them.”

Her hesitation was barely perceptible. “Of course I’ll pray for him. I will pray for you too, and hope that you might forgive me for not waiting for your return.”

“I never expected you to, as I never thought to return.”

“And yet you did. Why now, Olivier? And why do you turn up on the very day your brother is murdered in cold blood?”

Athos turned on his heel, biting back an angry response because it wouldn’t help. “Tend to your husband, madame. I have work to do.”

*************************

Aramis could not stop himself sending surreptitious glances at his companion, so shockingly revealed to be the lost heir of La Fère. The moment Aramis had seen him, he thought there had been something about the man—something dark, something deeply hidden—but the truth was the last thing he had imagined.

The comte rode ahead of them with the air of a man used to command. Already Aramis suspected that he had spent some of his missing years in the army, just from the scars and the way he carried himself, and the readiness to use Porthos, recognising the big man’s innate ability.

Such a background made him a good candidate to investigate these crimes and seek the murderers. But it also made him a good candidate to be the murderer. Though with what motive, Aramis could not discern.

Beside Aramis, d’Artagnan rode with a distant, sad expression. At the house, Aramis had insisted he drink hot wine, and asked for a spare shirt for him to wear, since his own was missing. The comte had seen them together and wisely not interfered or hurried them. The sympathetic treatment of Aramis’s young friend gave support to the idea that this ‘Athos’ and Alexandre d’Artagnan were old friends, though it could equally be that the comte was good at feigning expected behaviour.

“I didn’t even tell Emilie,” d’Artagnan said after they set out. “I just ran from the stables to find help.”

“No one blames you for that. It’s as well that you didn’t move him, if there is evidence of the murderer to be found.”

“Why aren’t we searching for them?”

“Where do you suggest we start? Did your father have any enemies?”

D’Artagnan was silent for a few moments. “No,” he finally said. “He was well-liked. Admired. His tenants were happy, and he was firm but fair. The only man he truly disliked was Intendant LaBarge.” He scowled darkly as he said the name.

“Ah. And had the two argued recently?”

“I know Papa wrote some sharp letters to him, and to a friend of his in Paris. Papa wanted his help to bring the matter to the king, to have him removed.”

Now that was a motive for murder if ever Aramis heard one. “LaBarge is away in Paris just now, I believe.”

“I have no idea. But why kill Papa?”

“Was the house robbed?”

D’Artagnan shifted in surprise. “I...didn’t check.”

“Then we will,” Aramis said kindly, placing a hand on the lad’s arm to soothe his stricken expression.

The comte signalled for them to move up the pace a bit, so they did, which made conversation temporarily difficult. Once they drew close to the farm, the comte bid them to stop and dismount so he could examine the road, all mud since the rain.

“I can’t even see my own horse’s prints, let alone any other,” he noted gloomily. “D’Artagnan? Anything strike you out of place?”

The lad dutifully examined the ground, but came to the same conclusion, shaking his head. “Sorry.”

“It’s no matter. We don’t know the man came by horse at all. Lead the way to the stables first, would you?” The comte nodded to Aramis as d’Artagnan set off, encouraging Aramis to go with the lad. This was a man who knew men.

“Is this how you left things?” the comte asked. “Has anyone been in here?”

“Not that I can tell,” d’Artagnan said, his face gone pale again. Aramis kept a hand on his shoulder as they regarded the ground where Alexandre lay.

The comte grunted and then walked back to the stables entrance. “He was killed outside. Look, you can see the drops of blood. But where outside, we don’t know, because of the rain. Aramis? Please see what you can discover from the body. D’Artagnan, would you come with me to the house?”

D’Artagnan was clearly reluctant to leave his father’s side, but Aramis urged him to. “Go, lad. You don’t need to see this.”

The comte waited patiently for d’Artagnan to move. In Aramis’s experience, patience with lesser beings was not a trait often found in the nobility.

Once the others had gone, and keeping well clear of the hooves of the restless gelding in the stall next to him, Aramis knelt at Alexandre’s side and unwrapped the shirt d’Artagnan had used to try and staunch the wound. The injury itself was small and precise, likely delivered at close range. Almost face to face, Aramis judged. A little higher and the man would have died much faster. Had the killer misjudged, or had it been deliberate to draw out the man’s death so cruelly?

There were no other injuries, nor sign of a struggle, though if the comte was correct, those signs would not be here. Aramis checked Alexandre’s pockets for anything out of the ordinary, and then sniffed the shirt for good measure. A faint floral scent filled his nostrils. Lavender, a common enough perfume. Anne wore it. Some men did too. This could have come from Alexandre picking flowers or herbs, or brushing against them in his kitchen garden.

Once finished, he arranged Alexandre’s clothes and body in a decent fashion, then held his crucifix while he prayed for the departed soul. The body should be taken to the house soon, to be laid out as d’Artagnan, the only living relative to Aramis’s knowledge, wished. Father Duval needed to be called on as well.

He sat back on his heels when he had finished praying, and contemplated the sad fact that the injury suggested that Alexandre had not only known his killer, but had trusted him as well.

Something else which pointed to the newly returned Comte de La Fère as a possible killer. Aramis did not like that thought at all.

*************************

“Where is your housekeeper? Your servants?” Athos asked as they looked around the kitchen.

D’Artagnan woke from his dazed state. “Uh, Emilie and her daughter-in-law do for us, but since there are...were...just the two of us, they don’t live in. One of them comes over with a cooked meal, provisions and so on, each day, takes away laundry, and the two of them share the housekeeping.”

“There was no one around when I ate with your father. That’s normal?”

“Yes.”

Athos looked about at what lay out on the kitchen. Just the bowls he and Alexandre had used, along with the cups for the wine they had drunk, all rinsed and set to dry by the stove. “Would you please check to see if there is anything missing, or if your father left notes, or letters, which might throw some light on this?”

D’Artagnan nodded and moved off, though with no great energy. Poor sod. Losing a father was hard enough without it being murder.

Through the kitchen window, Athos could see the bench on which Alexandre and he had eaten their meal, and the little wooden table that sat out in all weathers for such purposes. Two glasses stood on it. They had not used glasses for their meal.

He went out and examined the vessels, now full of rain water. The glasses were of good quality, clearly not designed for everyday use, and a faint scent of brandy clung to the water. So between Athos’s departure, and Alexandre’s murder, Alexandre had received a visitor and offered them brandy.

That indicated not only a guest, but an honoured one. An old friend? One who drank brandy but left in time for another individual to stab Alexandre? The stables were across the courtyard from the back of the house. If Alexandre had been attacked here....

The rain had washed it all clean...but not quite everything. Athos crouched and used a fingernail to scrape at the join between two cobblestones sheltered by the table, and stared at the red-brown stain on his nail when he was done. A sniff confirmed it. Near-fresh blood. Alexandre was probably attacked right here, by someone who had sat to drink brandy with him.

A friend? Why would a friend in a village where everyone had grown up together, suddenly take it on himself to kill a man whose family had been here for generations.

Alexandre had mentioned a brother who would have the farm if Charles did not want it. Perhaps the brother had grown impatient? But why now and on this particular day when Thomas had died in the same short space of time?

He spent some time looking around the courtyard, and in the kitchen, but could find nothing to indicate the identity of the villain. The kitchen was incongruously tidy and pretty, smelling of lavender. A sweet scent for a day so full of sorrow.

He looked up at a man’s step, and found Aramis entering. “We should speak to the priest, and have the body properly laid out.”

“Yes, agreed. What did you find?”

Aramis stroked his beard. “A single wound, delivered at close hand, I believe. No signs of a struggle.”

“Come and look at this.” Athos took him outside, showed him the glasses, and the blood. Aramis took his time verifying what Athos had observed. A careful man, then. A thinking man. Athos liked that.

“You think someone he knew did this?”

“Or someone who held sway over him. Like an intendant?”

“You heard us talking.”

Athos nodded. “Alexandre also mentioned LaBarge to me. But you say he’s in Paris?”

“So I believe. We should check that. But why would he kill your brother?”

“And why a knife for one, and a gun for the other, when he knew both men? Are you sleeping with Anne?”

Aramis took a step back, startled as Athos intended. “Who says I am?”

Athos regarded him steadily. “Alexandre said your outings with her were not seemly. And you were with her when Thomas was shot. Tell me, what do you know of the circumstances of my leaving La Fère?”

“Ah...perhaps more than you would wish me to. Thomas talked of it often, with the greatest regret. He missed you.”

Athos clenched his fist. “And I, him. But what do you know?”

“That you were betrothed to a woman, but took up with another, and so your father banished you, presumably until you came to your senses. Only you never did and they thought you lost. Thomas would never accept it though. He refused to claim the title, did you know that?”

“No. All I know of him since he was twelve and I eighteen, is what I have learned this day.” Aramis’s gaze was sympathetic, which only made Athos hate himself more. “Anne de Winter. What do you know of her? Is she from this area?”

“Not at all. Her mother knew your mother, and sent her to visit La Fère in her stead, only to find your mother had passed away only a month before.”

“Have you ever heard of Anne de Breuil?” Aramis shook his head. “She was the village priest’s sister. It was she for whom I lost everything in my childish dreams of love and romance.”

Athos turned away to stare over the courtyard. “Anne de Winter is Anne de Breuil, something you need to keep secret for now. She deceived my brother about her origins, and I want to know why.”

“My God.”

Athos turned around. “So I ask you again, are you sleeping with her? Is she sleeping with anyone else?”

“No, I swear I am not. She...has indicated a desire to, but I would not do that to Thomas. I....” Aramis stroked his beard again. “Believe she has lovers. My concern was only to ensure Thomas did not learn of them. He was sick in mind and body, poor man. It would have broken his heart.”

“She says the love between them had died.”

“Not as far as he was concerned. She played the attentive wife whenever I saw them together.”

Athos snorted. “You saw her today. Did she seem to you to be attentive and loving?”

“No. But grief takes people differently.” Athos arched an eyebrow and Aramis pursed his lips. “I couldn’t say that was grief of any sort.”

“No, precisely.”

“Are you accusing her of his murder? Because I was with her every moment when Thomas was being murdered.”

“And that’s the sticking point, isn’t it? Ah, d’Artagnan. Did you find anything?”

The boy stood in the doorway, still forlorn. “Nothing missing, no letters or anything of significance. What have you found?”

Athos looked to Aramis to answer. “We think your father was attacked here and probably tried to get to his horse to seek help. His attacker was drinking brandy with him just before.”

“A friend?” D’Artagnan frowned. “None of our friends would do such a thing.”

“He mentioned your uncle,” Athos said as delicately as he could manage.

“Uncle Gabriel?” The incredulity on his face was all the answer Athos needed. “He lives forty leagues from here. And he and Papa were as close as twins. What are you implying, monsieur

“Just asking, lad. Calm down.” The boy’s impressive brows glowered a moment or two longer until Athos’s steady look wore him down. “We should bring your father’s body into the house and lay him out decently. Perhaps we should send for Emilie and her daughter-in-law?”

D’Artagnan shook himself. “Yes. Um.”

“I’ll go. I know the farm,” Aramis said. “But let’s bring him inside. Do you have a plank we can use?”

The process of transferring his father’s body from the stable to the sitting room left d’Artagnan red-eyed and trembling, so Aramis sat with him for a while until he was calmer. It was getting late, and Athos wanted to see the priest as well as return to the inn to speak to Porthos, but he would not hurry d’Artagnan for anything.

D’Artagnan was the one who finally urged them to get going. “We have things to do,” he said, standing and straightening his shoulders. “The animals, the horses....”

Aramis put his hand on the lad’s shoulder. “Let Emilie’s family deal with them. I’ll call on them and explain. Why don’t you take the comte—”

“Athos,” Athos said. “Let’s keep the news of my return a secret a little longer.”

“Very well. You and Athos call on Father Duval and have him come and do what needs to be done.”

“We should be organising a manhunt!”

“For who?” Athos asked. D’Artagnan glared. “I’m sorry, lad, but we have no idea who’s behind this. I want the murderer as much as you do, but sending men all over the land with no idea who to look for, is pointless. This person isn’t some opportunistic thief, some ruffian who chanced by and killed both your father and my brother. Your father offered him brandy, for God’s sake. We won’t find him hiding in a tree or an abandoned barn.”

“Then how—”

“Let’s approach it carefully,” Athos said. “Aramis?”

“Agreed. Trust us, d’Artagnan.”

The boy grimaced at Aramis. “You, I trust. Him,” he said with a jerk of his thumb in Athos’s direction, “I don’t know.”

“Then trust me and trust my judgement,” Aramis said kindly. “All right?” D’Artagnan nodded. “Good. The priest and then back here.”

“Via the inn. I must know what Porthos found,” Athos said.

“Yes. Via the inn. I’ll meet you back here,” Aramis said. “It’s time to be brave, mon cher.”

*************************

Father Duval threw his hands up in horror at the news about Papa, and said all the expected things before hurrying off to the house to pray for d’Artagnan’s father’s soul. The comte—Athos—had hung back and had only said he had come to visit old friends in the area. The priest hadn’t been curious about him at all.

“I don’t like lying to holy men,” d’Artagnan said as they walked towards the inn.

“I didn’t. I just didn’t tell him everything,” Athos said with annoying calmness. “If you want to tell him the full story, go ahead. I was simply hoping not to obscure the investigation into the murders with people’s curiosity about my doings.”

“Why, are they suspicious?”

“It depends on whether my becoming a soldier and a swordsman makes me more or less likely to have killed a friend and my brother, doesn’t it?”

D’Artagnan clenched his fist. “This isn’t funny?”

“No, it is not, and I wasn’t joking, lad. Do you think me unmoved by Thomas’s death?”

D’Artagnan glanced at him. “You don’t looked upset.”

“Would weeping and wailing and rending my shirt make the situation easier to bear? I have had fifteen years to defeat the tendency to dramatics that led to my banishment. I’m sorry if I can’t become a useless mess to please you.”

D’Artagnan could have punched him. “I think you’re a heartless bastard who abandoned his family and left them to rot when they needed him, and your brother would be alive and happy if you had come back when they did.”

He expected anger, but the man’s expression didn’t change. “You have said nothing untrue, or unjust. I can’t change the past. I can only see that justice is done.”

“And you’ll just walk back into your mansion, kick your sister-in-law out of her home, and become the comte, lording it over all of us?”

“You’re fond of the mistress?”

“I know nothing ill about her. Unlike you.”

“And my brother? You liked him?”

D’Artagnan wanted a fight, not this measured discussion. “He was braver than you.”

“Agreed. A better son and a better man. Did you like him?”

“I only met him a couple of times, with Aramis. He was so sad. He was never well after he came back from the war. He seemed to be a decent master. We watched him and the mistress as they came out of the church after the wedding.” For some reason that made Athos’s eye twitch. “Maybe you’ll marry her now. Isn’t that biblical?”

“Your mouth, young man, will be your downfall. Now, be discreet, whatever you feel about me. That fool Bonacieux should not know more than I want him to.”

On that point, D’Artagnan agreed. Constance’s husband was an idiot, and desperate to be popular. He would spread any gossip he heard in order to be liked.

Porthos had ordered a bottle of wine, but most of it was still left when they joined him at a table in the inn. “Found some footprints, could be boots. That’s about as much as you could tell,” he reported. “But also some hoof prints from a big horse. Draft horse size.”

“Being ridden or pulling a load?” Athos asked.

“Ridden. No signs of a cart except what young Raphael used for his wood and to bring the body back to the house.”

“And you would know who rides a large horse around here, wouldn’t you?”

“I do,” Porthos said in a low voice. “There’s only two. Baron Rénard and Intendant LaBarge. They both ride Boulonnais stallions.”

Before Athos could ask more, Bonacieux came bustling up. “Ah, monsieur. I wondered if you still wanted your room tonight?”

Athos grimaced. “Why, of course, I do, monsieur. Why would I not?” he added heavily, a hint even this idiot could take.

Which he did. “Ah, none at all, naturally.”

“We’re busy, monsieur. Could we have some privacy?”

Bonacieux bowed and went away. “Bet he’s already told half a dozen people about you,” Porthos said. “He has such a gob on him.”

“Can’t be helped,” Athos said with a sigh. “I don’t want to keep you from your work any longer, Porthos. Thank you for your help.”

“Done it for d’Artagnan and Thomas, not you,” Porthos said.

Athos bowed a little. “Then my thanks on Thomas’s behalf. We’re returning to d’Artagnan’s house now. The priest is there, keeping vigil. But he’ll be wanted at the mansion soon. I planned to offer him a ride.”

“Then I’ll keep the youngster company. You’ll be at the mansion then?”

“Unfortunately. I’ll speak to Remi tomorrow. I have need of men with sense in this matter.”

“Men and women,” Porthos said, nodding at Constance serving at the bar. “She’s a smart one. She can be of use.”

“I’ll bear it in mind,” Athos said with a bow of his head. “Shall we go to your house, d’Artagnan?”

“Let me speak to Cons...I mean, madame Bonacieux first.” The two older men exchanged looks, but d’Artagnan was too wrung out to snap at their assumptions. “Can I tell her about you, and the master?”

Athos held his gaze a moment before nodding. “As you see fit.”

Constance exclaimed as d’Artagnan approached. “You look awful.”

“I’m all right. May I speak to you for a moment?”

Constance looked up and down the bar, then stepped out from behind the bar. “Make it quick, my dear. What can I do for you?”

He drew her outside, and hoped her husband wouldn’t come and stick his nose in. “Papa is laid out at home. Father Duval is there.”

“I’ll come by to pray later. Who’s looking after you?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said impatiently. “Has your husband said anything?”

“He said that you were all mistaken about that gentleman, and that the master is very unwell.” Her pretty eyebrows drew together. “It’s worse than unwell, isn’t it?”

“He was murdered. We think at the same time as my father was.”

She gasped. “Oh my God! How?”

“Shot. You can’t say anything yet.”

“Why? Who’s taken charge? Milady? Aramis? Surely not.”

“No, that man.” He pointed back inside. “Athos. He’s Thomas’s brother. The missing comte de La Fère. He’s the magistrate now Thomas is dead.”

Her eyes went wide in shock. “D’Artagnan, no!”

“It’s true. And it’s all a mess, Constance.” He felt his eyes filling. “He...I mean he and Aramis...think the two killings are related. He wants it kept quiet so he can ask around without people being distracted.”

“They can’t keep the death of the master secret for long,” she said. “And why aren’t you all off chasing the murderer instead of drinking wine like men of leisure? I don’t mean you, dear, of course.”

D’Artagnan bit his lip. “Because we don’t have any idea who might have done it. Athos says...the man knew my father, and Papa knew him. It’s not some stranger to the village.”

“One of us? But I can’t believe....”

“You think I want to? And if the deaths are connected, then the same person wanted Thomas dead as well as Papa. It makes no sense.”

“It doesn’t,” she said, her brown eyes full of concern. “But are they connected?”

“Athos say they probably are.”

“What if they’re not? What if there are two killers?”

“On the same day? In the same place?”

“On the same day he arrives,” she said in a whisper. “Can you trust him?”

“I don’t. Aramis does. I don’t know what to think. That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”

She took his hands. “You’re a good, brave man, d’Artagnan, and your father was proud of you. You do what feels true to you, not what this stranger orders you to, comte or no damn comte. What can I do?”

“Just...be here?”

“I will.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Now, you go be with your father, and I’ll be along later. I’ll bring food. If you want to stay here, you’re welcome.”

“Thank you,” he said, the kindness easing a tiny bit of the pain. “I don’t know what to do now.”

“Don’t fret about it tonight. Things will sort themselves out, you watch. God be with you and your poor departed father’s soul.”

*************************

The worthy but elderly Father Duval was blessed with a she-ass in deference to his years, so Athos did not need to offer him a ride to the mansion. Aramis came too, though Athos wondered if he could be more use to d’Artagnan at this time.

Aramis disagreed. “He has Porthos, and Constance, and his friends. You, on the other hand, have an authority and title to establish, and a brother to bury, with no assistance at all that I can see. Unless you intend to rely on your sister-in-law.”

Athos glared, but Aramis didn’t wilt under the examination. “I thought you were fond of her.”

“This is as much for her as for you, monsieur.”

“Hmmm.”

Athos let Aramis be the one to gather the servants, and invite Anne downstairs, now more properly dressed in sombre colours, to greet the priest. Athos himself stayed back. “Madame,” he said to Anne, “the announcement of Thomas’s death and my return should come from you.”

“I can’t,” she said, lifting those uncanny eyes to him. “I’m...too upset. Please, Olivier, don’t make me. Aramis is good at such things.”

Aramis nodded. “I can do this, if you wish.”

“Very well. Father Duval may like to lead a prayer, or whatever he sees fit.”

The old man had recovered from his shock at the news of twin murders in his parish, and once Aramis had greeted the assembled staff and made the announcements, lifted his hands. “My children, let us pray for the soul of our brother Thomas, and for his brother, Olivier, returned to take responsibility for this estate.”

Athos knelt like the others, and the priest intoned a decently brief prayer to all of them in the hall, as well as a prayer for guidance over him particularly, laying hands on his head as he did so. No one questioned his identity or right to return, as he would have done to Thomas had the positions been reversed. None of the staff knew him from before his abrupt departure, which worked for his benefit as well as Anne’s.

It was already eight o’clock, and he was hungry, tired, and desperate for a chance to grieve and think in private. But he still had to go with Father Duval and Anne to the chapel for more prayers over Thomas’s body, now draped in the d’Athos standard and surrounded by candles, and discuss the funeral and interment arrangements. He couldn’t think of small details like that just now. Once again Aramis proved himself indispensable, suggesting that all such matters could wait until the morrow.

Fortunately the priest agreed. “Monsieur d’Artagnan will be buried first, I believe. There is no haste needed.”

“Thank you,” Athos said. “I will pay all your fees. Please don’t bother the son with such things.”

Duval bowed. “Of course, monsieur le comte.”

Athos arranged for someone to ride with the priest back to the village. “I wish to eat supper in my rooms,” he said to Anne. “I’ll use Thomas’s for now.”

She frowned at that, but didn’t disagree. “Then we’ll meet at breakfast,” she said with a curtsey. “Aramis, please come with  me.”

Aramis smiled politely, though it was plain that he thought the invitation as inappropriate as Athos did. “If you insist, madame.”

“I do.”

Athos’s bags and weapons belt had been delivered from the inn, and he ordered them brought to Thomas’s rooms. The bed had been remade with clean linen, and all stood in order.

He could have used his own childhood rooms, but confronting his past in that way was more than he felt capable of this evening. Even dragging himself up the stairs to the bedroom had almost defeated him. He sat slumped in his shirtsleeves, looking at Thomas’s intimate possessions, and wanted to howl with sorrow and anger at his own stupidity and selfishness.

But he could not. A comte didn’t have that luxury, not in his own house. Gone were the days when Athos could run after Anne and pretend that love was the only emotion that mattered. His father had intended to teach him a lesson. He could never have imagined how bitter that lesson would be, in the end.

A knock on the door announced his supper, but instead of the expected servant, it was Anne who bore the tray. “Anne, I can’t—”

“Olivier, I need to talk to you. Please. Don’t shun me again after so long an absence.”

Her eyes pleaded prettily, and though he now knew she was capable of the deepest deception, he had not the strength to deny them. “Very well. Come in. But don’t complain if you get your head bitten off for poking it into the bear’s cave.”

“I had risked worse,” she said, setting the tray on the little table Thomas must have used for this purpose.

“Have you eaten?”

“A little, earlier. Please.” She indicated the plate. “Shall I pour you wine?”

“Did he keep any brandy?”

She smiled, and went to a cupboard to fetch a bottle. “The finest Armagnac.” She poured a glass for both of them, and sat holding hers in delicate white fingers against her modestly clad breast. She still had the ability to make every movement look like foreplay.

“Excuse me, but I’m very hungry.”

“Please, don’t mind me.” She sat watching him as he wolfed down his meal. “Grief hasn’t slowed your appetite,” she said when he was done.

“A soldier eats when he can, regardless of emotions.” He chose not to remark that grief didn’t seem to have affected her appetite either. “I thought you wanted to be with Aramis.”

She stiffened. “Aramis is merely a friend, and a servant.”

“A servant you want to sleep with. Perhaps more than that.”

Her eyes went wide. “Are you suggesting I killed Thomas to be with Aramis? Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t love Aramis, and certainly not enough to give up my station here for him. You’re the only man I’ve truly loved, Olivier.”

She reached for him, and he caught her hand, rubbing it. “And you the only woman. Who do you think killed Thomas? Who would want to?”

“Baron Rénard,” she said without hesitation.

“Him? Why?” He kept hold of her hand. He wanted to judge her reactions as they spoke. “I heard his son married Catherine.”

“There’s your answer,” she said dryly. “She’s been feeding poison into the son’s ear for thirteen years, and the son passes it on to the father. Rénard was also pressing Thomas to claim the title of the estate for his own. Said it was bad for the nobility to have it sitting vacant. Thomas would always say it wasn’t vacant because you weren’t dead.”

“Had he been particularly insistent lately?”

“Possibly. I take care to avoid the man. Can’t stand him or his whey-faced son. Or that wizened bitch you were betrothed to. You escaped a desperate fate there, Olivier.”

He let her hand go. “I would gladly embrace it if my parents and Thomas were alive now.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, leaning forward with concern. “Thomas’s death isn’t your fault.”

“It is. It’s all my fault. Anne, I’m tired. Could we please talk about this in the morning?”

“Of course.” She rose and went around the table to kiss his cheek. He allowed it, but made no attempt to return it.

“One last question. Did Thomas have good relations with the intendant?”

“That oaf? Yes, strangely. LaBarge is personally obnoxious, but Thomas had a taste for such men. Like that dark-skinned brute he brought back from the war.” She shuddered delicately. “Thomas wanted to give him a position here, but I persuaded him working with the blacksmith was much more appropriate. Can you imagine? A blackamoor here at La Fère.”

Athos schooled his features. “Imagine, indeed.”

“We’d have never heard the end of it from Rénard if nothing else. Now, sleep well, my darling. At least I will know you are close for the first time in fifteen years.”

“Goodnight,” he said, opening the door for her.

When he closed it, he leaned on the door, trying to slow his breathing. Anne could be a bitch, he’d always known it, but to a lovestruck eighteen-year-old, she had seemed so wise and sophisticated. So knowing. Now, at thirty-three, he saw her as hard, cold. And calculating.

He should apologise to Porthos too for the way she treated him. Though it was likely Porthos was happier not being subjected to daily scorn here in the house.

Even if what she said about Rénard was true, why kill Thomas now? LaBarge’s motive was even less obvious.

He needed a drink. He refilled his glass with brandy, and sat in a chair to think.

*************************

Porthos had no idea how early the new comte at La Fère rose in the mornings, but he knew Aramis was a lark, so turning up at the mansion and asking for him just after the Pinon’s church’s morning bell rang, would not get his friend out of bed early.

To his surprise, once he’d introduced the visitor to the d’Artagnan farm late the night before, Aramis told them all to come through to the library, where Athos, the comte, was taking his breakfast.  He looked weary but alert. “Gentlemen, welcome. How is d’Artagnan?”

“Sitting vigil over his father,” Porthos said. “Emilie’s keeping an eye on him. I said I’d go back there later.”

Athos nodded, then turned to the stranger. “Good morning, monsieur. I am Olivier, comte de La Fère, known as Athos.”

The man bowed. “I am Jean de Trèville, captain in his majesty’s guard. I came to visit my old friend, d’Artagnan’s father, and heard the sad news. My condolences on your own loss.”

“Thank you. Have you eaten? Aramis, could you arrange food for everyone? Thank you.”

Soon they were seated at the large desk Thomas used to use for maps and books. “Your visit is fortuitous, captain,” Athos said. “As you know, we have two murders to solve, and I, as magistrate, have the task of investigating. If you have time, your help would be most welcome.”

“I’m at d’Artagnan’s disposal, but if he doesn’t need me, I am at yours,” de Treville said. “Where do you want to start?”

“When Aramis returns, we’ll lay out all we know. Excuse me just one moment, please. Porthos? A word?”

Porthos went outside with Athos, at a loss to know what the man wanted. “I learned last night that Thomas’s wife denied you a post here on account of the colour of your skin,” Athos said. “  I wish to apologise, and offer you a post again here if you want it.”

Of all the things Athos could have brought up.... “Thanks, but I’m all right. I figured it was her, cos Thomas was keen, but I don’t want to be where I’m not wanted.”

“You are,” Athos said earnestly. “A man of your calibre is to be desired anywhere.”

Porthos snorted. “Yeah, I don’t think so. But if you could have a word sent to Remi that you need me for a bit, that would be good.”

“I shall have a message sent immediately.” Athos signalled to a waiting footman. “Send in someone to take a note to the village, please. Come in again, Porthos. I’ll write it now.”

True to his word, Athos wrote a brief note in a tidy hand, and sealed it with his ring. “I imagine word has got out about Thomas and me, regardless of any requests for discretion,” he said to Porthos as he handed the note to the boy for delivery.

“Yeah, people are talking. Father Duval said you gave him leave to tell people.”

“I did. Until I say otherwise, I have need of you, understood?”

Porthos nodded. No mucking around with this man, he noted. Good.

Aramis came in. “Milady is still abed,” he advised. Servants set bread and milk before them, and Porthos  gratefully seized a roll to eat.

“Perhaps that’s just as well,” Athos said coolly, somewhat to Porthos’s surprise. “She told me some things last night which bear investigating. Captain, are you aware of my unfortunate history?”

“Regarding your banishment? Yes, word reached the palace. The absence of the estate’s comte did not please the king.”

“I’m sure,” Athos said, his face giving nothing away. “Aramis knows this, but now you need to as well. Thomas’s wife is the same woman I unwisely took up with just after my eighteenth birthday, and for which I was banished. As far as I know, Thomas was unaware of this, and also, as far as I know, the story she gave him of her origins when they met was false. I cannot see a motive for murder in that fact, but it’s certainly a reason to distrust her as a witness.”

“How could she pass herself off as another woman in the same house?” de Tréville asked.

“The servants are all new, and Thomas never met her before I left. Very few people would have seen her. Ah, but Catherine de Garouville would have known her, I think. My former fiancée,” he added for the captain’s benefit. “Now married to Baron de l’Ouvrier’s son. I wonder that she didn’t expose Anne.”

“She and her husband never come here,” Aramis said. “At least not since Thomas’s return from the war. I understand she bears a considerable grudge against the family for what happened with her betrothal.”

“Is that a motive?” the captain asked.

“I can’t see why she would kill Thomas for my failings,” Athos said. “Anne nominated Baron de l’Ouvrier as a likely murderer over that grudge. And Porthos, you said he is one of two men in the parish to ride a large horse, the other being LaBarge. We found hoof prints of such an animal near where Thomas was killed. ”

“LaBarge, the intendant? The one Alexandre had complaints about?” de Tréville said.

“Indeed. A man Anne claims Thomas was friendly with. Aramis?”

“Hmmm. Rénard’s hostility, I can verify. The other...I don’t know. He came to the house once or twice but I can’t speak of their interaction, nor of how their relationship before Thomas went to war.”

Athos grimaced. “I can’t think of any reason either man would want to kill Thomas, although LaBarge might have wanted to silence Alexandre. He is supposed to be in Paris. I want to check this is so.”

“You believe one man killed both of them?” de Treville asked.

“What are your thoughts?”

“You haven’t mentioned Alexandre’s dying words,” the captain said, suddenly pinning Athos with his sharp grey eyes. “Nor explained your own sudden reappearance on the very day they were both killed. You were, by all accounts, the last person to see Alexandre before he was attacked.”

Porthos held his breath, but Athos remained calm. “I can’t explain the first at all. The second is sad coincidence. I learned of my father’s death by chance a week ago, and as soon as I was able to leave to come back, I did. I came by Alexandre’s farm because he was an old and dear friend.”

Aramis stroked his chin. “D’Artagnan reported his father said ‘Athos’. Might he have said ‘d’Athos’? Or been trying to?”

“Would that be significant?” Athos asked.

“Only that there are...were...three people with that surname. You, Thomas, and his wife.”

“Why would Anne killed Alexandre? Had she ever even met him?”

“I don’t know,” Aramis admitted.

“Then that doesn’t advance matters. Captain, do you consider me a suspect?” Athos asked.

The captain didn’t wilt under Athos’s stern glare. “I can’t see a motive, but those facts are against you. Was Thomas an obstacle to you regaining your title?”

“Not at all. And taking on the title was not, is not, my aim. I’d gladly reject all my noble status and fortune. I’ve lost my taste for it.”

“Easy to say,” Porthos muttered. “For them what has it all.”

“He has a point,” Aramis said with a polite smile. “And we only have your word for it.”

Athos threw up his hands. “Then by all means, confine me again, and I place it all in the captain’s hands, if I am under suspicion.”

“There’s no need to be testy, man,” de Tréville said calmly as Athos glared again. “Facts are facts. I don’t actually believe you killed either man, but there’s precious little to implicate the others named thus far. I don’t want to take charge. You’re doing well, as far as I can see.”

“Then will you act as my chaperone? If I do anything you consider suspicious, you agree to place me under guard and take over?”

“If you insist.”

“I do. Aramis, Porthos, you are witnesses to this agreement.”

Porthos nodded, so did Aramis. “So where do we start?” Aramis asked.

“I think the captain should look through Alexandre’s letters and notes. D’Artagnan did yesterday but he can’t have done so thoroughly, and I want to know what his father was complaining of regarding LaBarge and anyone else. Aramis, remain with Anne, but don’t discourage her from talking. I want to know anything she reveals to you.”

“You want me to spy.”

“Yes. For Thomas. Their marriage was based on a lie, and I don’t trust her. Before I arrived, she might have expected to remain here in comfort as the widow of the estate’s master. Now, I have the right to remove her. Her position is uncertain, and given her past, she might be plotting some fraud. If your conscience pricks you, remember she had no love for Thomas, and was attempting to cuckold him with you.”

Aramis’s stiff back told Porthos his friend was uneasy. “I’ll report what I consider important. She has a right to privacy.”

“Not if she’s a killer.”

“She was with me, remember?”

“Indeed. But murderers can be hired.”

Aramis frowned, but Athos ignored him. “Porthos, you and I should look again at where Thomas was found, then we should go to LaBarge’s house and talk to his staff.”

“What about the baron?” de Tréville asked.

“Ah, yes. Delicate handling is required. I wonder if after lunch, you and Aramis might call on him and his son, see if they reveal anything. I’d go myself but—”

“He’d probably put a musket ball in your arse,” Aramis said.

“Exactly,” Athos replied with the tiniest of smiles. “I suggest we meet at Bonacieux’s inn for lunch and share what we have learned. I want to call on d’Artagnan and see how he is, and find out how funeral arrangements are progressing. I don’t want him to feel abandoned at this time.”

Porthos shoved a couple of the delicious bread rolls into his pocket before they left. It was going to be another long day.

There had been no more rain overnight, and the woods were pleasantly cool on what was going to be a hot day. “Did he come here often?” Athos asked as they walked through the trees.

“Every day he could manage it when it was dry. I think it was the place he was happiest.”

Athos stopped, and turned away, going still. Porthos stayed quiet. It wasn’t too hard to guess what was going through his head.

After a few moments, Athos walked on, his jaw clenched. Poor bastard.

Porthos held up his hand when he reached the hoof prints he’d spotted. They’d been sheltered by  leaf litter and the trees overhead, preserving the outline despite the rainfall. Athos crouched to look at the marks on the ground. “A big horse, a big man. And he walked which way?”

Porthos indicated the direction, and together they tried to find footprints distinct enough to identify the owner. They had no luck. Athos looked around. “Which way do you think he came?” The woods were not dense, so there were many paths, but for a big horse?

“Down the same path as Thomas?”

“If from the house. If from the other side from Pinon...there. Where was Raphael cutting wood?”

“Over there. See the coppice? Where the trees are freshly cut.”

“Could you stay here for a moment, please?”

Athos walked over to the coppice and stood there a long time, looking in all directions, before returning. “Why didn’t he see or hear anything? The view is reasonable from there. I could see you clearly.”

“But was Thomas killed here? Aramis said he could have lived for a bit with that wound.”

“You’re right,” Athos said. “So where could he have been shot out of Raphael’s sight, presuming his woodcutting muffled the sound of a pistol?”

They walked all over the woods, which was no great area in size, until Athos found a place where a large horse could walk and which was out of the line of sight of the coppice. “And there it is,” he said. “Look.”

On the bark of a tree, about the height of a tall horse’s tail, were coarse black horse hairs. “Could be one of the estate’s?” Porthos asked.

“Possibly, but see? There’s another hoof print. Which of Rénard and LaBarge ride a horse with a black tail?”

“They both do.” They looked at each other. “But why in hell would either of them want to kill Thomas?”

“I don’t know. LaBarge isn’t even supposed to be around. I think you and I should go to his house sooner rather than later. Do you ride?”

“Give me a horse and I’ll show you.”

Athos smiled. At least Porthos had given him one reason to.

*************************

Aramis and Captain de Tréville were late meeting the others at the inn, but they had their reasons. Athos and Porthos had only just arrived, they said, although d’Artagnan had been there half an hour or so, being treated with much necessary kindness by Constance, who hovered over them even after she had brought wine for them all. She had put them in a corner on their own, well away from the other customers. All of them still kept their voices low.

“Why don’t you join us, madame?” Athos said to Constance. “Your opinions, I understand, are useful.”

“I don’t know—”

“Would you like me to command it, to satisfy your husband?”

She gave him an annoyed look. “Cheek. Let me make sure Marie is all right in the kitchen, and then I will.”

“Are you sure you want to have her listen to all this?” de Tréville said. “It’s not exactly fit for a lady’s ears.”

“Worse than murder twice over?” Athos asked.

“Perhaps not.”

Constance came back shortly and sat next to d’Artagnan who brightened a little when she took his hand. Aramis considered she was almost certainly unshockable, whatever the captain believed.

“Captain, you first,” Athos said.

“D’Artagnan’s father had left a thick pile of notes about LaBarge, in a wallet hidden behind books in his office. I believe he intended me to have them to present to the king.” He drew out the wallet and handed it to Athos. “There are numerous complaints of corruption and sharp practice, even of extortion and threats. Alexandre was collecting them from all over the parish and beyond.”

“At least two people asked me last night, in private, what was to happen about this all now that Papa was dead,” d’Artagnan said.

“And do we know for sure if LaBarge knew what he was up to?” Athos said.

“People talk,” Aramis said. “Even when they’re not supposed to.” He glanced at Constance, who blushed. Bonacieux had not exactly been as discreet as he should have been.

“And Rénard?”

The captain shook his head. “Now that’s a man I wouldn’t like to deal with regularly. He certainly hates you, monsieur. He kept us waiting half an hour, and then refused to answer any questions regarding his whereabouts yesterday. He spent the entire interview ranting about the d’Athos family, Thomas included, before throwing us out.”

“So he’s either guilty, or furious.”

“Or both,” Constance said quietly in response to Porthos.

“Quite,” Athos said, looking at her with a slight frown. “Captain, which would you choose if you had to?”

“I can’t tell. I’ve dealt with nobles guilty of murder and worse, who blustered just the same, and those who treated me like that because they were noble and could. Aramis?”

“If you force me to choose, I would say he’s innocent. At least of the murder. I’m not convinced he wasn’t hiding something.”

“Very well. Anything to add?”

Aramis looked at the captain, then shook his head. “Then onto LaBarge. His household say he departed for Paris the morning of the murders, just after dawn.”

“How convenient,” Aramis murmured.

“Quite. I have no reason to believe that if we wrote to the palace, his presence in Paris now would not be confirmed. However, we found hair from a horse’s tail in the woods near hoof prints of a large horse, in a place where Thomas could have been shot without the woodsman seeing anything. Thomas could have crawled from there to where his body was found without too much difficulty.”

“So LaBarge is the murderer?” Constance said. “But why kill Thomas?”

“I don’t know,” Athos said. “Any suggestions?”

Aramis shook his head, as did the others. “So we have a man who maybe killed d’Artagnan’s father to save himself, and killed another for no reason at all?”

“We have no evidence pointing to him killing Alexandre,” the captain said, “other than a possible motive, and the closeness of Alexandre’s death to Thomas’s.”

“And if it wasn’t LaBarge who killed Papa, that means there’s someone else who had a grudge against him.”

Constance patted d’Artagnan’s hand. “The evidence is all back to front, isn’t it?”

“We need to know who wanted Thomas dead,” Athos said. “So we need to think of who would benefit from his death.”

That made conversation difficult as they ate lunch. Athos asked d’Artagnan how he was managing. “All right. The funeral is tomorrow morning.”

“Would you mind if I attended? I can pay my respects in another way if you wish.”

D’Artagnan was a little startled by the question. “No, come. I mean, why shouldn’t you?”

Athos tilted his head. “You thought I’d killed your father. Do you still suspect that?”

“No. Not any more. I had reason,” he added defensively.

“You did. And I wish I could explain what he said, but I can’t. I’m sorry, lad.”

“It’s all right. Find the man who did kill him. That’ll help.”

Athos gave him a kindly smile. “I will do everything in my power. I’m sure the same goes for your friends.”

Porthos and the captain were to stay at d’Artagnan’s house overnight. “Aramis, I want you at the estate, unless d’Artagnan needs you,” Athos said.

D’Artagnan roused himself. “No, I’m all right.”

“I could come back this afternoon?” Aramis offered.

“No need. But you’ll come to the funeral?”

“You have to ask?” Aramis pulled him over and kissed the top of his head. “I will be with you as soon as Athos no longer needs me.”

“Sooner, if you do,” Athos told the lad. “For now, I have much to do, as I’m sure you do. Farewell until tomorrow. Aramis?”

Aramis joined him at the stables, and mounted up, but was not surprised when their horses did not take them directly to the house, instead scribing a wide path around it to the woods. “What’s on your mind, monsieur le comte?”

“Anne. She told me that Rénard had been pestering Thomas to take over the title. Did you know that?”

Aramis frowned. “No, I didn’t. Why would Rénard care?”

“She said he thought it looked ill for the nobility. The interesting thing is, with Thomas dead, if I hadn’t inconveniently reappeared, Rénard could petition the king for La Fère’s lands. Richelieu would probably object, but it’s not inconceivable that his majesty would agree. Of course now, he can’t.”

“But you said LaBarge killed Thomas.”

“What if Constance is right?” Athos said. “About the evidence being reversed? What if LaBarge killed Thomas, in exchange for Rénard killing Alexandre?”

Aramis whistled. “And they would not be suspected because they had no obvious motive to kill the man they actually killed. How do you prove it, though? Rénard can refuse to talk to us until the end of time.”

“Unless the king becomes involved. I need more to make a case.” Aramis nodded. “Who is Anne sleeping with?”

“Still not me,” Aramis said. Athos frowned at him. “I don’t know. She comes and goes as she pleases, of course. The last couple of weeks she’s asked for my company, but usually she went on her own.”

“You were with her yesterday.”

“Only after lunch. She particularly wanted me then.”

“And not before or over lunch,” Athos said slowly. “When Alexandre was being stabbed. What if he was trying to say ‘d’Athos’?”

“Milady d’Athos. That’s what everyone calls her, or ‘Mistress’,” Aramis whispered, feeling sick. “Alexandre’s shirt smelled of lavender, the same scent she wears.”

“Lavender is common, though,” Athos said.

“Yes, I know. You think she wanted me to be an alibi?” And where had Anne gone that morning, on her own?

“It’s only one interpretation,” Athos said. “Much depends what’s in Thomas’s will, which I still haven’t seen.”

“Then we should find that, shouldn’t we? But he couldn’t leave the estate for her.”

“No, not the lands,” Athos said. “But a good deal of movable property and wealth, and the management and use of the estate until her remarriage or death. Perhaps she was sick enough of the marriage to sacrifice status and take what she could?”

“She didn’t seem that unhappy to me. Besides, she went to a lot of trouble to catch one of you two. The position matters.”

“I note you don’t protest that she would never kill someone,” Athos said wryly.

“I note that you don’t either. And you actually loved her.”

Athos’s eyes flicked away. “Fifteen years is a long time to think about one’s choices. And to reappraise old passions.”

“Are you sure this isn’t you being vengeful because she married Thomas?”

Athos kicked his stallion into motion, forcing Aramis to follow or leave the conversation. “I need to speak to Baron de l’Ouvrier away from his own territory. Do you think he’ll be at the funeral tomorrow?”

“Possibly. He does love to flaunt his status. He won’t go if you’re there.”

“Then please ride back to the village and ask Constance and the others not to mention my plan to attend. Come find me on your return. I assume I can trust you not to mention any of this to Anne?”

“I assume that question means you don’t trust me at all,” Aramis said, a little piqued.

“My brother is dead. The woman I loved is a fraud. I don’t know whom I can trust outside myself.”

He said it so sorrowfully, Aramis forgave him on the spot. “I’ll just have to prove I deserve what you daren’t offer right now.”

Athos nodded, then flicked the reins to set his mount walking towards the house.

“Athos?” Aramis called. The man halted and looked around. “If you’re right about any of this, I’d be careful about what you eat and who you meet in private.”

Athos stiffened. Aramis waited while he worked out what Aramis implied. Then Athos nodded. “Good advice.” He turned and bade his horse to walk on.

Aramis had his own demons, but he would not take up residence in Athos’s head for all the gold in France.

*************************

Athos went straight to his bedroom—Thomas’s bedroom—and began to search through the papers Thomas had left there, as well as anything he might have hidden. He found his brother’s will readily enough. Thomas had left all his personal property to Athos, and then to Anne and any children of the marriage if Athos predeceased him. While Athos remained absent, Anne would enjoy the use and income from that property as well as the entire estate until his return, or her death, whichever came first. Thomas had no right, of course, to dispose of the estate until Athos was proven dead.

Anne had brought no dowry. There were a number of gifts to her of money, jewellery, and fine clothes listed which she was entitled to keep. But on Athos’s return, she was essentially without income or dwelling. She was dependent entirely on Athos’s goodwill.

Thomas’s death was of no benefit to her at all, financially. He could not see how the will was a motive for murder.

Tucked into a small bookcase were some battered books, old favourites like Herodotus, and the condition of them made Athos suspect Thomas had taken them with him to war. He crouched to look at them more closely, recognising some, with a twinge in his heart, as his own, treasured by his little brother and perhaps a consolation for losing his big brother to the unknown.

There was a book with a leather strap, which he pulled out. Opening it, he realised it was a journal, apparently started by Thomas on the day he was summoned to go to La Rochelle. Athos took it back to the desk to read.

By the time he turned five pages, he had to open the brandy and take a large swallow before he could continue. Seeing his own horrified reactions to battle and anguish over the ugliness of war filtered through the innocent, gentle mind of his little brother, made him want to retch. Thomas should never have been anywhere near La Rochelle, or anywhere more dangerous than a farm.

This was Athos’s fault. He had preserved his stiff and unreasonable pride for fifteen years, and yet if he had unbent and returned five years sooner, he might have reconciled with his father and certainly have saved Thomas from what had become of him. And Thomas almost certainly would still be alive, because more and more it looked as if he’d been murdered because of his control of La Fère, not any personal quality.

Athos read through every page, lashing his soul, refusing to spare himself a single word of Thomas’s pain. It was only what he deserved.

He drank more brandy and turned to the last pages of the journal. To his surprise, it was written in code. Thomas had adored codes, and he and Athos had spent many hours composing messages to each other using more and more elaborate versions. But for quick messages, they had used a simple substitution cypher based on each other’s names. This was what Thomas had used to write this entry.

My heart is rent in two. I wish I could distrust de Brunville’s tale, but I cannot. He is a good man and a good friend. My Anne, my perfect Anne—you have lied to me, and destroyed my life even before I knew you. How could you have done this? I am not your enemy to be razed to the ground. God, I still love you, but I don’t know you. You have ruined two brothers now. Has it made you happy? How can I return to you now, knowing what I know?

Athos rechecked his decryption, wanting to be sure he hadn’t made a mistake with the cipher, but he had not. Thomas had somehow discovered the truth about Anne—and yet had done nothing to put her aside or divorce her when he returned from the war.

Did Aramis know? If not, why not?

And did Anne know Thomas knew? She had been adamant their marriage was dead, yet Aramis swore Thomas still loved her. Was Thomas showing one face to the servants, another to Anne?

Or was she lying?

Someone knocked on the door. He put the diary in a drawer in the desk. “Come in?”

It was Anne, bearing a bottle of wine and two cups. “I was told you’d returned. I thought you might come find me.” She set the table on the desk and sat without being invited. Today, she wore grey linen. On anyone else, the colour would have made them dull, but she still shone like a polished gem.

“I’m sorry. I had things to see to. Thomas’s will, for one.”

“Oh yes.” She wasn’t alarmed. “Leaving everything to you, and I at your mercy.”

“You would have been better off if I had not returned.”

She shrugged. “In one sense. But in another I’m grateful for a second chance.” She poured them wine and handed him a cup. He took it, but did not drink from it.

“What do you mean?”

“We can be together now. No father, no betrothal. No one to please but ourselves.”

“You think this is seemly with my brother not even dead for a day?”

“I can’t afford sentimentality, Olivier,” she said. “I wasn’t born rich or titled. All I have are my wits and my looks. I’ve loved you for nearly sixteen years, and damn me as greedy or evil if you must, but I want you. Your return is a miracle to me. Please, do I have to get on my knees and beg you to allow me to approach you?”

She rose and walked to his side of the desk, knelt and looked up at him. “Do not mistake my calmness for lack of feeling.” She rested her head on his knee. “I’m too well schooled in hiding my emotions. I’ve had to be.” She looked up, tears in her eyes. “Yesterday morning, I was a wife, looking forward to decades with a husband who no longer loved me. By lunch, I was a widow, bound to an estate whose tenants do not know me, with duties I’m ill-suited to. By evening, I had hope. My love had returned, when I thought him lost forever.”

Athos clenched his jaw. “Don’t kneel to me, Anne. Please, get up.” He offered her his hand to help her rise. “Never beg me for anything. We’ve known each other too long for that.”

She kept hold of his hand, clasping it to her bosom. “I know you have questions. I know it’s been a long time and much has happened. But is there any hope for me?”

Athos stared up at her, unwilling to hurt her, not willing to lie. Her expression grew cold, and she let go of his hand. “I see there is not.”

“I’m sorry, Anne. I can’t think of anyone but Thomas just now. Two men have died and I can’t speak of love when that hangs over me.”

Her eyes lit up. “But later? Once you have grieved? Don’t refuse me, Olivier. Let me dream a little longer.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not the man I was then. I’ll never be that man again.”

She slapped his face, then stormed out.

He sighed, reached for the cup of wine, then stilled his hand. He couldn’t trust her no matter how much she protested her love.

Love was a poison too.

*************************

Aramis turned up two hours later. “Did you go via Paris?” Athos said when Aramis closed the door behind him.

“I was using my charms to find out who had been seen around the village yesterday. Someone was sure they saw Labarge across a field riding towards this house just after the midday prayer was rung. At least, they saw his big dark bay horse, and a man riding it.”

“Is that so,” Athos said, setting his quill aside. “Anyone seen hanging around Alexandre’s farm?”

“Not that I have discovered. Is there any of that left?” he asked, reaching for the wine.

“Anne brought it.”

“Ah.” He dropped his hand. “Are you all right?”

“I didn’t drink any of it.”

“That’s not what I mean. Did something happen while I was gone?”

“Do you know someone called de Brunville?”

Aramis’s eyebrows lifted. “Baron de Brunville? He was at La Rochelle. He and Thomas were friendly. Why do you ask?”

“I found Thomas’s diary from the war. There was a coded entry, using a cipher with which I’m familiar.” Athos drew out the journal, and handed over his translation.”

Aramis read it, his expression becoming serious. “He knew?”

“You didn’t know he knew.”

“Of course not. I would have told...you think I’m working for her.”

Athos took the paper back and hid it inside the book again, before putting it in the drawer. “Not really. But Thomas didn’t trust you enough to tell you this. Why not?”

“There are any number of reasons. It’s deeply personal, deeply shameful and painful. Thomas was a private, reserved young man. He might not have wanted to share this private failure.”

Athos nodded slowly. “True.” In Thomas’s position, he’d have felt the same.

“You assume this refers to her identity. Are you sure it’s not something else as well?”

“Like what?”

Aramis took a seat. “Before I returned, I had a little chat with the worthy Father Duval, who told me his predecessor, Father de Breuil, was defrocked. Or rather, had never been frocked. He wasn’t actually a priest at all, and Anne almost certainly isn’t his sister.”

Athos exhaled in shock. He rose and found the brandy, and poured some into the glass he’d used the night before. He gestured towards Aramis with the bottle. “You?”

“If you don’t mind.”

Athos set a glass in front of Aramis, then retook his seat. “What do you conclude from what you learned?”

“I’m afraid that it’s likely that you were her target, with the fake priest’s connivance. She wanted to marry you, or at least become your mistress, and misjudged things. Ten years later, she tried again, in the full knowledge of your father’s death, and your continued absence. This time, she got what she wanted.”

“Only her prize was not as glittering as she thought it would be. Where is de Brunville now?”

“Back on his estate, I think. He survived the battles.”

“Then I must write to him.”

He sipped his brandy, lost in thought, only to look up and find Aramis watching him closely. “Yes?”

“You’re taking this well, considering what her actions have cost you.”

He sighed. “She thinks we can be reunited now, with no impediments to stop us. The woman I loved never existed. I don’t know who this person is. She’s a cuckoo.”

“A viper, you mean.”

Athos unaccountably felt the need to defend Anne. “You believe she killed Thomas, and yet none of what we know provides a motive, unless Thomas was about to sue for divorce, or ask for an annulment. I’ve found nothing to indicate that. I’m also sure Anne believed herself capable of winning him back, just as she believes she can win me back.”

“So we’re back to suspecting Baron Rénard?”

“His motive is also weak to non-existent. We’re missing important information. If we stick to the premise that LaBarge killed Thomas on Anne’s behalf, and she or someone working for her killed Alexandre d’Artagnan, we must prove they met and plotted, and that both found the bargain satisfactory. She’s a liar and a fraud. I’m not convinced she’s a murderer.”

Aramis waved his hand at the tray and bottle. “And yet you don’t touch her wine.”

“Not convinced doesn’t mean utterly unconvinced.”

“True.”

Athos sighed again. “I should attend to preparing the funeral. I’m achieving nothing with all this.”

“Actually, I think I have an idea about how we might force matters.”

Athos raised an eyebrow. “Please, go on.”

*************************

The church bell began tolling at seven o’clock. Three strikes, three times, for the passing of a man. Then fifty-six strikes, one for each year of the life of Alexandre d’Artagnan.

Alexandre’s son, Porthos, André their closest neighbour, and Captain de Trèville, lifted the coffin bearing d’Artagnan’s father as the thirtieth strike was heard, and carried it out of the house, followed by the women folk. As they walked towards the little church, neighbours and friends joined them, following behind, and by the time they reached the church, the entire village was with them. Baron Rénard, his son Edmond, and Edmond’s wife, were also there.

Father Duval prayed as they bore the coffin into the church, and while the mourners filed in after it. D’Artagnan couldn’t see very well for the tears, but he couldn’t spot Aramis, nor anyone else from La Fère, among the mourners. It hurt a little, but was nothing against the overall agony of knowing his father was dead.

But as he moved aside from the coffin into the pew, a warm hand clasped his shoulder, and he turned to find Aramis, smiling kindly. “Sorry I’m late,” Aramis whispered. Porthos sat on d’Artagnan’s other side, the two of them giving him strength, along with de Tréville who had been the soul of kindness ever since he’d arrived.

The grave had been dug the evening before, and Father Duval, swinging the censer, led the coffin and the mourners out to the churchyard to lay d’Artagnan’s father to rest. D’Artagnan knees began to shake, so he locked them and forced himself into rigidity for fear of breaking down and sobbing at his father’s grave. If Aramis and Porthos had not been there, he wouldn’t have got through it.

Once the coffin was laid into the ground, the gravedigger could begin to fill the grave. People shook d’Artagnan’s hand,  kissed his cheek and offered condolences, and all he could feel was the great shrieking emptiness in his heart, the desolation of not knowing what he would do.

“Come back to the house now,” Emilie murmured, touching his hand. “You have friends to talk to there.”

Oh yes. The wake. He didn’t think he could face it, but it had to be done.

“Could you give us a few minutes, madame?” Aramis murmured.

“Huh?” D’Artagnan roused himself. Aramis pointed over to Baron Rénard, and suddenly d’Artagnan remember the other thing that he needed to do this morning.

Expose his father’s killer.

Most of the mourners had headed towards d’Artagnan’s house. A little distance away from him, Baron Rénard was still talking to one of their neighbours, his son and daughter-in-law politely at his side. Behind him, Athos, and Milady d’Athos, dressed in modest black and black veil, were approaching.

Why was she there? How dare she, if she was the murderer? D’Artagnan’s fists clenched in fury. “Calm, calm,” Aramis urged. “If this is to work, we all must be strong and hide our emotions.”

“She killed—”

“Hush, lad. It’ll be all right.”

“Baron de l’Ouvrier? It’s been a long time,” Athos drawled. For the first time since d’Artagnan had encountered him, Athos had shed his rough travelling leathers, and wore an elegant dark blue sleeveless doublet with matching breeches, over a fine white linen shirt. He had even trimmed his beard. Now he looked much more like a nobleman.

Rénard turned in surprise. “Monsieur? I don’t believe I know you.”

“Forgive me, monsieur. I am Olivier, comte de La Fère. I was not the comte when I last saw you. Madame, monsieur,” he added with a bow to the son and daughter-in-law.

To d’Artagnan’s surprise, the woman’s face contorted in fury. “You! You dare speak to us?”

D’Artagnan looked at Aramis in confusion. Why did she hate Athos? Aramis put his finger to his lips.

“Father, Catherine and I will return to the house,” Rénard’s son said, scowling at Athos.

“Don’t be so hasty, monsieur, and unless you want a scandal, I suggest you all come with us into the church.”

“Is this about the drivel that man,” Rénard said, pointing at de Tréville, “and the other one, came to my house to spout yesterday? I told them then, I know nothing about any murders, of Alexandre d’Artagnan or your brother’s. I have nothing more to say.”

Athos was wearing his weapon’s belt. So were Porthos and Aramis. And the captain. Porthos walked a little way away and picked up something from behind a gravestone, and returned with d’Artagnan’s sword and belt. “Be ready for trouble,” he said quietly, handing the belt to him.

D’Artagnan swallowed, and nodded as he put it on. Rénard was glaring at Athos now, having said something d’Artagnan had missed. “I only want to discuss certain matters,” Athos was saying.

“I would hate to have to involve his majesty unnecessarily,” de Tréville added.

“Involved the king? In this nonsense?” Rénard bellowed.

“Two men are dead, monsieur. That is not nonsense, and if you and your family don’t do as I suggest, these gentlemen will compel you, I promise.” Athos waved his hand at the four of them. Milady hung back, but she had made no attempt to run. “We simply want to talk.”

D’Artagnan was suddenly unsure he knew what was about to happen. “Courage,” Aramis murmured.

Huffing and clearly enraged, Rénard stomped back towards the church, his son and his wife following with even less grace. Porthos, Aramis, and de Tréville flanked them, d’Artagnan taking up the rear. Thank goodness Father Duval had gone to the house.

Porthos closed the church doors, leaving them in cool, incense-scented silence. “Now, what is this all about, boy?” Rénard barked at Athos. “Do you think this is fit behaviour, accosting us at a funeral?”

“Since the dead man is one of the murder victims, I believe this is entirely appropriate. Baron de l’Ouvrier, I want to know why you had my brother killed.”

Rénard appeared frozen with shock as he stared at Athos.

 Not so his son.

“You bastard!” He lunged at Athos, who didn’t move. Porthos did, restraining the man with ease. His wife launched herself at Athos too, but Aramis was the one to restrain her.

Rénard still didn’t move. “Have you lost your mind, boy? Why the devil would I want your brother dead?”

“To take our lands,” Athos said. “You want to join La Fère to your estate, and without a manager or an heir in place, the king is much more likely to agree.”

“Ridiculous.”

“Not at all. You and Intendant LaBarge plotted to kill the man each of you saw as standing in your way. You killed Alexandre d’Artagnan and LaBarge killed my brother, so that no one would suspect you. As you have been sleeping with Thomas’s wife, no doubt you sought to add her widow’s portion to your own wealth, and even if you couldn’t attain the estate, you could benefit from her usufruct.”

“Athos,” Milady said, holding her throat. “He...and I...never spoke of this.”

“Do you deny sleeping with him?” Athos asked without turning to face her.

“No. It was only a couple of times.” Her expression was hidden behind her veil, but her voice sounded ashamed.

“It was just a bit of amusement,” Rénard said. “All of this is pure invention.”

“Not so,” de Treville said. “LaBarge’s staff report that your daughter-in-law has visited his house several times over the last three weeks, clearly acting as a go between, as you plotted the deaths of two people.”

“I wouldn’t plot with LaBarge over anything,” Rénard said, looking truly offended. “The man’s a buffoon and a thug. Catherine, this is all a lie, is it not?”

To d’Artagnan’s surprise, Catherine had gone pale, sagging in Aramis’s grip. “Yes, all of it,” she whispered. “I never went there.”

“You were seen by several servants, madame,” the captain said. “What other reason could you have for going to his house?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Thomas’s wife sneered. She lifted her veil so her scorn was plain to see. “She was sleeping with LaBarge. Edmond can’t make babies with her, so maybe she thought LaBarge could do what was necessary.”

“You shut your filthy, lying mouth, you bitch!” Edmond leapt for her, but Athos stepped in front of her to protect her, his sword drawn.

“Touch her and you die,” Athos said with the point of his sword at Edmond’s throat. “Move away, or I’ll have put in chains.”

Edmond backed up. “You’ll do no such thing. How dare you slander my wife? How dare you accuse us of such filth?”

“Is it slander?” Athos said calmly. “Catherine, why were you going to LaBarge’s house?”

“I don’t have to answer to you,” she snapped. “Oath-breaker. Adulterer.”

“Careful, madame. Your father-in-law is also guilty of that crime. Answer the question, or the good captain there will arrest you and take you to Paris for questioning. Were you sleeping with LaBarge?”

Her thin face twisted in an ugly sneer. “Don’t be ridiculous. I would never do such a thing with that man, or any man. Why are you listening to that whore? She wormed her way into your family twice by raw deceit. You can’t trust a word she says.”

“So you know who she is?” Athos said. D’Artagnan was now completely confused.

“Of course I knew,” Catherine spat. “I have friends among my class, unlike you. Or her.”

“And did you tell anyone what you knew?”

Catherine tilted her head up. “I told my husband, of course.”

“Interesting.” Everyone turned to look at Aramis, who had been silent until that moment. “Because it isn’t only the baron who could petition the king for the La Fère estate. I mean, not only this baron.”

Athos’s eyes widened ever so slightly as d’Artagnan also realised what Aramis meant. “So, you weren’t acting as a go-between for your father-in-law, but your husband. And the aim was the same—to remove any claimant to the title. Killing Anne wouldn’t achieve that, but you would render her unprotected. You planned, no doubt, to pick her off when it suited you.”

“Edmond? Is any of this true?” Rénard demanded. “Did you make a bargain with LaBarge, and kill a fellow noble?”

Edmond’s jaw was set stubbornly as he put his hand on his sword. “I refuse to answer such questions, or the accusations of a slut. Father, you can’t expect me to.”

“He can’t, but I can,” de Tréville said. “Edmond de L’Ouvrier, I’m placing you under arrest by authority of my position as a soldier of the king and under the instruction of Olivier d’Athos, magistrate of this parish. Catherine de L’Ouvrier, I am also placing you under arrest. Baron Rénard, they will be taken to Paris and questioned. Any attempt to stop me will be met with force.”

“This is outrageous!” Rénard snapped at the captain.

De Tréville drew his sword. “Gentlemen?”

Athos pointed his sword at the baron, while Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan made it clear that Edmond and Catherine were going nowhere except with de Tréville.

“Your best chance of escaping the rope is by cooperating and helping us find LaBarge,” the captain told the prisoners. “You will come with me to the inn, and from there, I will arrange transport for you to Paris. Cooperate, and you can travel comfortably. Cause trouble, and you will travel the entire journey slung over the back of a horse.”

After that, Rénard’s bluster died, and Edmond and Catherine went meekly with de Tréville, with Aramis and Porthos to ensure good behaviour. Bonacieux would be thrilled to have all the gossip dumped right in front of him like that.

The scent of lavender caught in d’Artagnan’s nostrils as Catherine walked past him.

With the excitement over, he felt empty once more. And lost. Athos came over to him as they all left the church.

“I don’t know what to do now,” d’Artagnan confessed.

“Go to the house, eat, talk to those who loved your father,” Athos said. “I’m sorry to have used the funeral in this manner, but it was the only way to get Rénard away from his house without force. I wasn’t expecting...well, all of that.”

“I understand,” d’Artagnan said. He shifted uncomfortably as he added, “Uh, you’re both welcome to come back with me.”

“Thank you, but no. I have Thomas’s funeral to see to, and a difficult conversation to have,” he added, nodding at Milady, standing a little way off.

“I have no idea what was going on in there. Who is she? And why does Catherine hate her?”

Athos clapped his hand on d’Artagnan’s shoulder. “Come to the house when you’re ready, and I will tell you everything you want to know. Don’t feel you have to come to the funeral. It will be a small affair, I think, and you’ve had too much to deal with already.”

“I’d like to come,” d’Artagnan said. “Thomas was a good man, and he died at the hands of someone who hated Papa. Or did he?”

“I suspect LaBarge might not have done the deed in person,” Athos said. “But he was certainly behind it. His trip to Paris was just a little too conveniently timed.”

“If she...I mean, Catherine...did it, Papa was trying to warn you about her. He wanted me to tell ‘Athos’.”

Athos gazed at him kindly, giving no emotion away. “It was entirely in keeping with the good man I knew, that he would try and help a friend with his last breaths. You should be proud to be his son, d’Artagnan. But know this—he was very proud of you. He only wanted the best for you.”

D’Artagnan broke down, and Athos pulled him close and let him weep onto his shoulder. “I miss him,” he sobbed. “I don’t know what to do now he’s gone.”

“There’s no rush to decide, lad, and you won’t be alone. I’m at your service whenever you need me.”

D’Artagnan nodded, pushing himself away from the man and wiping his eyes. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Not at all. Don’t forget Madame Bonacieux will help you too.”

“Oh right. Yes, she will.”

“There. It’s not all bad, then. Will you be all right to go to the house?”

“I’m all right. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Go on, now.”

*************************

“What do you want to do with me now?” Anne asked as they walked back to the horses.

“Go back to the house with Anton. I have letters to give the captain. Anton,” he said, addressing the servant they had brought with them, “have the men I asked to be ready, come down here and meet me at the inn. Anne? We’ll talk on my return.”

She stared at him a little longer, then turned away and let Anton help her mount. Athos waited until they were gone, and walked Roger over to the inn. He tied him up in the stables and went inside.

He found Constance in the kitchen preparing breakfast for everyone, and her husband bustling about self-importantly behind her. “Monsieur le comte, good morning!” he said with a bow. “How very shocking this all is. Have you broken your fast? We have food ready for them.”

“Thank you, no, I haven’t, but I can wait until I return to the estate. Excuse me.” Athos escaped into the dining room, where all but Aramis and Porthos were seated. The prisoners looked resigned to their fate, and the baron curiously diminished, hunched over and looking at no one.

“Captain? I have the warrants and my statement on the investigation thus far.”

De Tréville rose and accepted the papers from Athos’s saddlebag. “I’d be grateful if Aramis and Porthos could come with me. Your men are excellent, I’m sure, but they’re soldiers.”

“I have no objection, if Porthos’s employer doesn’t. But send them back quickly. Young d’Artagnan needs his friends.”

“Of course.” He drew Athos aside. “I’d like to return with them to discuss some matters with you, if that’s all right.”

“With me? What about?”

“I’d prefer to wait, if that’s all right with you.”

Athos shrugged. “As you wish, captain. Safe journey.”

“Thank you.”

Athos went to Aramis and Porthos. “Thank you for your help. It could have been much messier without you.”

“I wasn’t expecting all that,” Aramis said, pushing his hat back on his head. “I almost feel sorry for Rénard.”

“I don’t. Arrogant prick,” Porthos muttered.

“Indeed,” Athos murmured. “I’ve agreed that you should go with the captain to Paris, but come back quickly.” He drew out a purse and handed it to Aramis. “That should be more than enough coin to cover your costs and accommodation.”

Aramis looked inside, and blinked in surprise. “That’s very generous, monsieur le comte.”

“You two have more than earned it. When you return, we should talk about what you want to do with yourselves. D’Artagnan will also need advice.”

“Yeah. Poor bugger,” Porthos said. “I don’t think it’s fully hit him yet.”

“No. That’s why you need to come back. Come to the house when you do. Safe journey, and don’t put up with any nonsense.”

“No fear of that,” Porthos said, smirking.

Athos nodded, and left. It was by no means certain justice would be done. Convincing the king that his intendant had committed a murder if Catherine or Edmond didn’t confess would be difficult, and Rénard might be able to plead for clemency. The law was not the same for the nobility.

But at least he and d’Artagnan knew who had been behind it. Now the lad could spend his energy on finding his way in life, instead of hunting for his father’s killer.

Athos also had to make decisions, not least about the woman that, until an hour ago, he thought guilty of a heinous crime. She was still somewhat to blame, but she had not directed the pistol, or wielded the knife. Whatever else her faults, she was not a murderer.

He asked for his breakfast to be brought to the library, and sent a message to Anne to join him there when it was convenient. He had so much to do. He had yet to fully examine all Thomas’s papers, let alone anything in his father’s rooms. He hadn’t spoken to the estate manager either. He hated every bit of this, and hated Edmond and his shrewish bride not only for destroying the life of his little brother, but also for dragging Athos back into a life he had long since bid adieu.

“My lord?”

He looked up. Anne had shed the veil and changed into a less elaborate grey dress. “Come in. Have you eaten?”

“Yes. You wanted to speak to me?”

He waved at the chair to indicate she should sit. “I have an apology to make. I was certain you had killed Thomas.”

“Whereas I am simply the excuse that loathsome pair used to further their greedy plans.”

“So it seems.” A servant came in and set a tray on the desk, before bowing and leaving the room. “You are, however, guilty of more than that. Thomas knew you had deceived him.”

She went very still. “When?”

“Someone called de Brunville told him who you really were, while he was at war. He was broken-hearted to learn that.”

“He never said...his manner never changed towards me.”

Athos frowned. “You said your marriage was dead.”

“He was impotent...once he returned, we were never intimate again. He always polite and kind, but he couldn’t bear to touch me. I thought he had fallen out of love with me.”

“Perhaps he was ashamed of his injuries, or afraid of your reaction. Learning that the one you adore has betrayed your trust in the most base fashion...and you slept with Rénard, Anne. How could you do that to Thomas, or yourself?”

She held herself straight and proud. “I wanted a protector. Thomas’s health was failing, his mind was so altered. And Rénard pursued me, so I thought why not? Thomas never heard of it.”

“Are you sure? After all, d’Artagnan’s housekeeper had it from her sister, who works at Rénard’s house. How many others knew? Word could have got back to him. Can you imagine what he thought?”

“I never intended to harm him.”

“You got him killed, Anne. Catherine would have heard about you and Rénard, and doubtless the idea that he might remarry, have more heirs, lessen the fortune she and Edmond would have, could only have sharpened her desire for revenge. Give me one good reason I should not throw you out of this house with whatever gifts Thomas gave you, and leave you to live how you will.”

She lowered her eyes. “Would you do that to the woman you once loved so much?”

“Would I do that to the woman who hurt my brother and led him to his death? I don’t love you, Anne. Not any more. Not for a long time. I’ve had fifteen years to consider what I felt, and that was before I knew you were nothing but an adventuress and a fraud.”

“Then do it,” she said. “I want nothing of you or this family. You think I preyed on Thomas? But he loved me, and I did my best to be a good wife to him. The time before he went to war was the happiest in both our lives. I did love him, truly. You have no right to judge me.”

“I have every right.” He rose. “Twice you snatched happiness from me. Twice you stole my family from me. I don’t even know who you really are, where you came from. I have yet to hear a word of regret for anything you have done, or over Thomas’s death. Judge you? I would damn you to hell.”

She got up and stood proud and straight behind the chair. “Then I’d go gladly. Better that than to listen to your prating. You could have come home. You could have reconciled with your father. Thomas would have mediated. He was desperate to try, he said. Yes, I came here seeking my fortune. Did Catherine want to marry you for love? No. She only wanted your title and your land and your purse, same as all the other dried up virgins flitting around. Thomas was plagued by them, but wanted to marry for love. I came, I loved him, I made him happy. Don’t you dare blame me for your own selfishness.”

They glared at each other for some time, before Athos broke the silence, uncomfortably aware of how she had precisely nailed each of his causes for guilt. “I didn’t ask you here to argue. If you remain, you will have the use of the house and an income suitable to your position as Thomas’s widow. If you choose to leave, I’ll pay you a generous sum which can be your dowry if you wish to remarry.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“In all honesty, I don’t care.”

She gave a little sob, and it would have broken him, if he could trust it. But he couldn’t, and that was the tragedy of it. She walked to the door and left the room.

He slumped into his chair with a heavy sigh and a headache pounding at his temples. He couldn’t stay here, whether Anne did or not. D’Artagnan needed a mentor, and there were relationships with his tenants and neighbours that wanted mending, but all he wanted to do was run away as far from La Fère as possible.

He would stay until he was sure the estate was being managed properly, and to hear what de Tréville was going to propose. But his title was a noose, this house a trap, and the reminders of his many failures were everywhere.

He broke his fast, then left the library for the estate’s chapel. He needed some time with Thomas, before his body was laid in the family vault, taking Athos’s heart with it.

*************************

Epilogue

A month after his father’s funeral, and with the harvest finally finished, d’Artagnan joined Aramis and Porthos at the La Fère mansion to have breakfast with Athos before all four of them rode to Paris to join Captain de Tréville’s new regiment, the Musketeers. Edmond and Catherine de l’Ouvrier were being held in the Bastille, while their co-conspirator was hunted. LaBarge was on the run, and no one in Pinon wanted to lay eyes on him ever again.

D’Artagnan’s uncle, Gabriel, and his son, Espoir, had taken over the farmhouse, Gabriel having agreed to buy it and the land for a fair price. D’Artagnan had more than enough money to buy his commission in the regiment now, but Athos refused to allow it. He had paid for all of their commissions, and would not hear any talk of repayment. He had also settled generous sums on Aramis and Porthos in gratitude for their service to his brother.

 “It’s the last time I plan to use my wealth or my title, gentleman. From this day on, I shall be simply Athos, a musketeer, as you are.”

“And the house?” D’Artagnan said.

“Closed. Madame d’Athos departed for England last week, so no one has any need of it. My estate manager will handle everything else.”

“You can retire here,” Aramis said.

“I’ll turn it into a home for old and destitute soldiers before I did that,” Athos said. “It shall never be a comte’s home again.”

“Think Thomas’s widow will be any more trouble to you?” Porthos asked. He, of all of them, disliked Milady the most, though none of them held her in great regard now her many deceits were known.

“I doubt it,” Athos said. “She knows she’s no longer welcome here, and in Paris, her notoriety would not serve her well. Have you said your farewells to Madame Bonacieux, d’Artagnan?”

D’Artagnan flushed. “Yes,” he muttered. There had been tears, and not all of them his. He’d made her promise that if she needed anything—anything at all—she should send to him through the captain. And if she was ever free....

But he was still a child in her eyes. Maybe when he had proved himself, and Bonacieux dropped dead.

“It never does to second-guess Fate, my friend,” Aramis said kindly, as if he could read his thoughts. “Two months ago, you had no idea where you would be going this fine morning, and yet, here you are, about to serve his majesty as one of his personal guards.”

“Thanks to you two.” The captain had put D’Artagnan through his paces when he had returned from Paris, and insisted he had to spend what free time he had until they all left Pinon, training with Aramis and Porthos and Athos.

Especially with Athos. Who was, to everyone’s amazement, known throughout France and Europe as its finest swordsman. “Kept that quiet,” Porthos had said when de Tréville had told the three of them.

Even when he got to Paris, d’Artagnan would be on probation, as the only one of them who had never been a soldier. “Work hard, and you’ll be fine,” the captain had promised. “But fail to learn from your betters, and you’ll be out on your ear. Understood?”

“Yes, captain.”

This morning he felt a mixture of sadness, excitement, sorrow—because he wished this opportunity had not come at the price of his father’s death—and determination. He would honour his family name by becoming the best Musketeer he could, as good as the other three, if not better.

With their meal finished, and their horses saddled, it was time to leave. “Gentlemen, I pledge to be a brother to each of you, and a friend to all of you,” Athos said, holding out his hand.

Aramis clasped Athos’s wrist, and Porthos clasped Aramis’s. D’Artagnan put his hand on the pile, and said the Musketeer oath. “All for one.”

“And one for all,” the others finished for him.

“Shall we?” Athos said, before mounting Roger, and leading them towards a new and exciting life in the service of the king.