And a final winter night…
"…and I shall wait, as I always have, with patience and with hope…"
Raoul pulled his horse to a stop. Isabelle halted her mount as well and the young impatient stallion whinnied out his frustration and chewed on his bit. She patted the creature's neck but he shook his head, refusing to be soothed. He had been enjoying the hard pace.
"We should go the rest of the way on foot," Raoul said and dismounted.
Isabelle frowned. "Why?"
Raoul scanned the forest. "Because…" His eyes searched keenly, "…that is what Father would do."
Isabelle got off her own her horse, frowning at the intense concentration on his face. He looked as if he expected a hoard of marauders to come riding out of the gloom. But then he did not know this place as she did. His memories must be almost gone.
"We are not soldiers creeping onto a battlefield, Raoul." She reminded him. "We are here by invitation."
"You are, perhaps." Despite the five and a half years separating them, Raoul was barely half a head shorter than Isabelle and she suspected that advantage would soon be lost.
"I am sure that covers my…" She smiled at him and said meaningfully, "guardian."
Raoul coloured and busied himself with his horses bridle. He had refused to let her come here alone, quoting the lack of propriety in a woman travelling without a guard to protect her honour. He had pulled himself up to his full height, reed-thin and all scrawny arms and legs, as he demanded to be allowed to accompany her and defend her as he was sure her father would want, if he knew. She had wanted to giggle and remind him that she was an excellent shot, with pistol and musket, and she could still best him with the sword and that she would travelling in the guise of a man so her honour was quite safe. But she could not be sure that Raoul's mention of her father was not a veiled threat and she could not risk Raoul going to Aramis.
Isabelle was sure her father would understand and she was quite certain that he would have allowed her come here and would not have insisted on a guardian – Aramis had no qualms about her ability to defend both herself and others – but he would have been…disappointed. And she could not bear that.
She was disappointed in herself but she could not change what she had done.
And she could not forget what she had read.
"I do not think we have far to walk." Raoul said.
"We do not." Isabelle agreed and she took a deep breath, savouring the smell of the wet loam beneath their feet. "I know where we are. I remember."
Isabelle had fallen several paces behind Raoul, lost in the thoughts of times passed. It had been many years since she last set foot here and yet the memories were so fresh, so clear. The trees were bare now and it seemed as if the spidery branches were clawing at the darkening sky above her head. Patches of snow lay around and the dirt between was little more than frozen mud but she could still see it in her head, lush and green, full of buzzing insects and the sounds of birdsong.
"Why do birds sing different songs?"
"For the same reason you are both my moth and mi polilla, Isabelle."
A twig snapped loudly.
Raoul looked back at her, with an apologetic smile, and she began to walk again.
Isabelle saw the thick knot of trees she and Raoul used to climb and remembered the hot afternoons spent lying on the branches listening to the voices and the laughter that used to carry on the wind to the very top.
"You've grown careless, Athos. Your skills have dulled."
"You will find that neither my skills nor my sword have dulled."
They walked on passed the ridge where Constance's name was carved, the wound in the bark healed to a scar now, much like the one in D'Artagnan's heart had. Isabelle stopped and ran her finger along the groove. She could barely remember now what Constance face looked like and had all but forgotten the sound of her voice…
"Isabelle d'Herblay, have you torn your dress already?"
There was too much of Sister Margarita's disapproval in the memory and Isabelle sighed. She lifted her hand to her mouth and kissed the tips of her first two fingers before pressing them to Constance's name.
Then she began walking again, along the rocky outcrop. Isabelle looked down at her feet. There was too much snow on the ground to read the disturbance of the soil but she hoped the footprints of her father's swordfights with his friends were still there.
"Isabelle?" Raoul's voice was soft.
She looked up. Raoul was pointing down at the pool. She followed the boy's finger to see a robed figure sitting on rock at the water's edge. Her heart felt like it turned over in her chest.
"I want to do this alone." She told him, equally softly. "Please, Raoul." She added when she saw his reluctance on his face.
She looked down at the woman who sat so still, so alone… Throughout all the years away, Isabelle had always felt like this place was waiting for her, and only her, and now she knew that it was.
"…and I do not think I can bare the weight of another fruitless journey to Bourbon-Les-Eaux, Isabelle, so now I must beg you: please come back to me…"
Isabelle's feet found the narrow path down to the water's edge without her having to look for it. She kept her tread light, hand on the pummel of her sword to stop it from clanking against her pistol, and walked with her eyes fixed on that silent figure.
The woman sat with her head bowed, her back to Isabelle's approach, with the hood of her robe pulled up to hide her face. The robe looked startlingly familiar and Isabelle wavered, stopping a few yards away, feet frozen in place.
"If I came to your palace, your majesty, could I dance in the ballroom?"
"Perhaps when you are grown, Isabelle."
She had missed the summers at Bourbon-Les-Eaux, even though she had loved the visits to Paris that her father had replaced them with, and she had missed playing here with Porthos and D'Artagnan and laughing with Athos and chasing around with Raoul and swimming and camping with her father but…she had barely spared much of that longing for Queen Anne.
The guilt was sharp and bright.
The robed figure turned and gave a little cry. She stood up and the hood slipped from her head and Isabelle could see it was indeed the Queen. It was difficult to believe even her own eyes. Queen Anne was waiting here for her, just as she had wrote she would.
But then the Queen's face fell as she stared at Isabelle, eyes full of bitter disappointment and sorrow. Isabelle felt like a stone lodged in her chest.
She should not have come.
She would have turned to leave had the Queen not drawn herself up, and said with regal grace: "What is the meaning of this intrusion, monsieur?"
Isabelle looked down at her doublet and britches and then tore the hat from her head and shook her hair free. "Mademoiselle," she corrected and heard her voice waver.
The Queen gave another cry and trembled. "Isabelle?" Her voice was full of hope.
She curtsied awkwardly, "yes, your majesty."
The Queen hurried over to stand in front of her. "Isabelle," she murmured, studying her face with unguarded joy. Isabelle felt gauche under the scrutiny. "I fear I shall I wake up." Her hand came up and hovered and then fell back at her side as if her courage had deserted her. "I had almost lost hope that you would come."
"I…I would…" There was something desperate in the Queen's eyes and it frightened her. "I could not disobey a royal command."
"I did not ask as your Queen." She smiled almost wonderingly at her. "You are taller than me now…"
Isabelle bowed her head.
"…and so pretty."
Mostly the sisters said she looked like her father, "and just as wild too, God love you."
"Yes, your majesty," she replied, because she felt she ought to make some contribution.
The woman looked sad, "I am not the Queen to you, Isabelle."
Isabelle curtsied hurried, "yes…Regent."
A look of utter devastation filled the Queen's face. "You do not know." She turned away from Isabelle. "Do you?"
Isabelle fought down the confusion threatening to overwhelm her. "I do not understand, Regent."
"D'Artagnan never gave you the letters, did he?" There was anger in her voice.
"He did." Isabelle remembered them all. Each folded paper that D'Artagnan had brought to her, in secret, over the years, with their royal seals and her own name written so beautifully on them. "But I took every one to Papa." Unopened. Her father had held that first letter in his hands, with such darkness in eyes, and then offered it back. "He said I could read them, but if I trusted him then I would let him keep them until I was old enough and then he would give them back." She had entrusted him with every one since…with almost every one since…
"But…you knew to come here."
"Papa was away when D'Artagnan delivered your last letter." She admitted, "and I…I…felt old enough." A terrible grief tore at her heart. "I did not know you were asking me to meet you here in them. And I would have come, your majesty, if I had known." She looked desperately at the woman's back. "I promise."
The Queen's head rose, but still she did not turn back to Isabelle.
"I am so sorry that you waited here, every summer," she told her. "I wanted to come back but Papa was so afraid of this place after I fell from the cliff." She could see it now, the fear hidden in her fearless father's eyes, every time she spoke of Bourbon-Les-Eaux. Fear…and something else, something she was old enough now to recognise. Longing…
It hurt to think of this woman, who had only ever shown her kindness and love, waiting here, summer after empty summer, for a growing child who never came.
"And Aramis never told you." The Queen finally said and turned at last.
Isabelle's heart clenched painfully at the sight of the tears staining Anne's cheeks.
"He never told you," she continued, "that I am your mother."
She stared at the Queen and it felt like her chest was constricted by the tightest of corsets so laboured was every breath she struggled to take in. She backed away, suddenly dizzy and when Anne's hand came out to steady her, she turned and fled.
Isabelle ran into the darkened forest, dimly aware of Raoul calling her name. The trees looked so different without the leaves, gnarled and unfriendly, and the blackness of the night was oppressive without the glow of the moon over head but she did not stop.
When she finally stumbled to a halt, she found herself in the curve of a moss covered rocky outcrop. Her feet had found the place her heart knew to be safe.
This was where Porthos set up the camp every year, because it was sheltered and concealed and close to a spring.
"When I am an abbe, we will stay in the chateaux."
"But papa, I like camping in the woods. It is the best part."
She clapped her hands to her ears, because she didn't want to hear her father's voice right now. But this place was too full of memories – happy, carefree memories, she had always believed – and she could not help remembering.
"Yes, papa, but…everything is so different now."
"That is the way of all things, Escarabajo."
"Do not go too close to the edge, Cucaracha!"
"Do not grip so tight, polilla; your hand should be loose."
No. No. No.
"Papa, why do you call me una polilla? I am not a moth!"
And he had smiled at her sadly, "A moth is a butterfly who is forced to hide its beauty away from the world. As you are."
"I am not hiding."
"You will understand one day, Isabelle."
"Papa." She said aloud and began to cry.
Time passed and the silvery glow from the rising full moon began to cast shadows and shapes over the camp. Familiar shadows, comforting shapes… She had passed many nights in this place and each one felt like an old friend.
But all too soon, the chill of the bitter winter night began to leech into Isabelle's bones. She knew she ought to stand up, get off the frozen ground, but she felt too numb, too raw to do anything other than hunch against the rock.
A twig snapped behind her and she spun about, ready to tell Raoul to leave her alone for a while, but the words died on her lips.
Four shadowed figures stood at crest of the dell.
Isabelle stood up.
The men had probably been drawn by the sounds of her heedless flight into the woods, like hawks focusing on weakened prey, and like those vicious birds, they too would show no mercy.
And she had laughed at Raoul for fearing this place…
Isabelle drew her sword.
One of the men came forward.
She had successfully fought two opponents at once in the past but never three…
The man was still walking towards her.
…and four was –
A shaft of moonlight hit the figure.
Her sword, faltered, felt suddenly heavy in her hands.
Her lips moved almost numbly. "Papa?"
Her blade fell at her feet and she ran into his arms.
Isabelle pressed her face into Aramis' cloak and closed her eyes. She didn't understand how he came to be here. Perhaps he wasn't. Perhaps she had lost her mind and he was just one of the memories that seemed to haunt this place.
But he felt so real.
"Papa…" She lifted her head to see the other musketeers crowding around. "You found me."
"I will always find you, Isabelle."
She barely heard him explaining that Athos had returned from Paris early to find his son had gone to the convent at Lorraine. An urgent dispatch from Sister Evangelista had arrived soon after, begging his assistance. She had found Isabelle's letter from the Queen and had been unable to stop the girl from riding out with a young man.
Athos had sent servants to alert Aramis and Porthos and the three of them had ridden out just as the sun began to set.
"Just like old times." Porthos put in.
D'Artagnan had accompanied the Queen to Bourbon-Les-Eaux and met them on the road but the four had arrived too late to anything other than watch from a distance as the Queen spoke to Isabelle.
"I am sorry, Isabelle." Aramis said. "It should not have been this way."
"Is it true, Papa?" She asked and pulled away from him. "Is the Queen my mother?"
He met her eyes. "Yes."
"…my body may visit the beautiful waters once a year, but my heart resides there always, in Bourbon-Les-Eaux, with the memories of you…"
The words, her mother's words, whispered to her and she turned her back on him because she could not think of her mother's sorrow and look at him. "And that is why we came here."
"Yes." His voice was very close. "I did not intend to deceive you."
She drew a shaky breath. "I know." But that did not make it right. She felt his hand rest on her shoulder and she turned her head to look at him. "Father," his face fell at her formality, "please…I do not want to talk to you now." And she turned her face away again so that she would not see the sadness on his face.
"You should not blame your father." Athos' voice came from behind her and Isabelle picked up her pace. "He did what he thought was right."
"To save your life," Porthos continued, sounding a little out of breath, "and the Queens, and ours."
She stopped, "yours?"
"King's tend to get a little executioner happy when they find out someone's been sleeping with their wives." Porthos' grin was wide in the moonlight. "And I wanted my head to stay where it was."
Despite the sorrow clawing at her heart, Isabelle found a small smile bubble up. Porthos could always do that and she loved him for it. "Papa does not deserve you, Porthos."
"I've tried telling him that."
"Everything Aramis did was to protect you." Athos said.
"We stopped coming here, Athos!" She cried. "But she didn't. She came here and she waited and she waited and I did not come!" She began walking again. "How is that protecting me?"
"Louis was jealous of the Queen's love for you. He knew your name, your father's name. We had grown complacent over the years. It would have been easy for anyone at court to discover your aunt's home." Athos' voice was grave. "Too many people knew of the Queen's love for you and Aramis could not risk Louis suspecting the truth."
"Kings and their executioners, Isabelle." Porthos reminded her. "Even boy king brothers."
"I understand you are angry."
"I think…" She sighed. "I think I will be angry later, Athos, but now I just feel sad." She stopped at the ridge above the pool. At the water's edge stood D'Artagnan and a lady in waiting and between them was the Queen. "For myself and for my…my mother."
"…and the page fell open on Luke 9:16 and the story of Jesus feeling the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes. I could not but think of you, Isabelle, and those precious days we spent at Bourbon-Les-Eaux. For if they are all that I shall ever have of you, I pray that like the small morsels our Lord offered the hungry masses they will be enough."
The Queen watched Isabelle approach with a terrible hope in her eyes. Isabelle's legs felt weak beneath her as if they might give out at every step.
Finally they stood face to face.
"Isabelle!" The cry was one of pure joy as she pulled her daughter to her and held her tight.
Aramis stood on the ridge, silhouetted against the pinkish glow of the approaching sunrise. Isabelle saw him there, watching, every time she looked up from her mother. Sometimes with Athos or Porthos at his side, once with Raoul, but he made no move to join them.
Perhaps he thought he was unwelcome.
Perhaps he was.
The queen had asked her many questions about the missing years of her life as the bright moon travelled across the sky. She seemed pleased that the nuns had taken good care of her, that her father had educated her in more than just the sword and the musket, that she now wore a dress for a whole day without so much as a single smudge.
"You were always covered in dirt."
"I camped in forest," she smiled, "and Aunt Matilde would only pack me one change of clothes. I do not think I was completely to blame."
Anne had laughed and promised to bring a set of fine clothes in the summer.
Her mother spoke softly of her sons – Isabelle's brothers – but in many ways that was too much and Isabelle found her eyes straying back up to her father.
Anne's words stilled on her lips and she laid her hand against Isabelle's shoulder. "Go to him."
Her father turned at her voice. He always looked so sombre in his abbe's cloth and now even more so.
"I want to read my letters."
"I will return them to you."
"I wish you had told me. Not then, I know I was too little then. But I have not been a little girl for several years, papa."
"I…did not know where to begin."
At the beginning, she wanted to say, because she must have had one. All people did.
"I am sorry." He told her.
She looked at him. Athos and Porthos and D'Artagnan… They had all aged in the last few years, but little of that had ever appeared to mar her father's face. Until now. "It is done, papa, for good or ill."
"It has been too long, Isabelle, since I thought of myself as a good man."
The admission hung between them.
Finally, she held out her hand. "Come, papa. I want to watch the sun rise with you and maman," and she offered him a broken and tremulous smile, "and next year, we will all watch it here, with... with Philippe…"
This story was first published on AO3 as Five Days of Summer at Bourbon-Les-Eaux (and Two Nights of Bitter Winter)
Notes on the text (for those not so familiar with the books):
Chapter One –
The Bourbon region of France really does have a healing thermal bath dating back centuries.
In the books, Constance is Anne's trusted Lady in Waiting.
Chapter Three –
Constance does act as a go-between for the Queen and Buckingham.
Dumas makes a point of Buckingham's resemblance to Aramis and D'Artagnan does mistake him for the musketeer in low light.
I wrote Aramis as a kiss-on-the-mouth type of parent because I can totally see that.
Chapter Four –
The Duke of Buckingham was assassinated in the book (and in real life.)
Milady does poison Constance.
Chapter Five –
Madame de Chevreuse, Aramis' lover in the books, is Raoul's mother and Dumas take the time to write both Athos and Aramis speaking of the night he was conceived. Dumas was constrained by polite 19th century society but he successfully makes the knowing reader question Raoul's parentage.
Athos does leave the Musketeers and resumes his life as the Comte de la Fere.
King Louis XIV was born in September, 1638
Chapter Six –
Porthos does marry and leave the musketeers.
Louis XIII died in May 1643 and Queen Anne becomes Regent.
I'm not being mean to Louis XIV. Dumas writes the boy king as spoiled, selfish and cruel.
Cardinal Mazarin is rumoured to be Anne's lover.
Philippe, Duke of Orleans was born in September 1640.
Aramis does leave the musketeers to become an abbe in a convent.
Chapter Seven –
Madame de Chevreuse in her guise as the seamstress Marie Michon often wore men's clothes so Aramis would probably not have any problem with his daughter doing the same.
D'Artagnan notes in Twenty Years Later that Aramis hasn't really aged.