The Promise

by Webmaster

The yellow horse lifted his head and gave a long, joyful whinny as he reached the crest of the hill. The avenues of broad-leaved trees that grew around the outskirts of Paris had given way to denser foliage, and they were in the true, wild countryside of Gascony.

"I know, Sandy. We'll soon be home." The rider patted his horse's neck. He was small, but his face and bearing showed him to be no child but a young man in the prime of his youth. His red jerkin was crisp and bright, though a coating of dust on his boots suggested that he had been riding for some distance, and a yellow plume waggled on his broad-brimmed hat as the old horse marched gamely along.

They left the Paris road and cantered down a dirt track, narrow and winding. This path led only to one small village, and was not important enough to merit paving. Yet the yellow horse never stumbled, for his master knew the trail as well as if he had last ridden it yesterday instead of three years ago.

A group of children ran out of the woods to stare at the horse and rider. Strangers were rare here, and this one's uniform spoke of faraway places and adventure. The cavalier smiled at the cluster of puppies who goggled at him from a safe distance, and reined in his horse. Once he too had been a pup of this village, and had gazed in wonder at a travelling messenger. He felt in his jacket for a bag of sweetmeats - they weren't much, but one could not buy such things in a village this size or even at the nearest town.

"Hey kids, want some candy?" He offered the bag to the boldest pup, who had crept forward and was stroking the horse's nose. Soon every child had a lump of peppermint in its mouth, and they ran behind the stranger as he rode into the village.
"Are you from Paris?"
"Are you a Muskehound?"
"Who have you come to see?" Their shyness gone, the puppies called questions up to him as they jogged along.

The horseman smiled. "Yes, I am a Muskehound. I have ridden from Paris, but I was born and brought up here, just like you. And I have come to see - the noblest man in the village of Béarn!" As he said the last words he broke into a grin at some private joke. His little horse reared and pawed the ground, turning his nose firmly down a side street.

"Hey Monsieur! That's not the mayor's house! You're going the wrong way!" called the leader of the children. But the Musketeer only smiled and shook his head as the horse clopped through a brick archway and into a courtyard.

Dogtanian looked around. Everything was as he had remembered it - the shelter that housed sacks of grain and flour, where he had played as a pup, the steps he had hopped and skipped up to the front door. Here in the courtyard his father had taught him to handle a sword. He had done his homework sitting in the sun, and his mother had brought him hunks of bread and cheese to eat as he wrote.

He saw a face watching at the window, and his heart leaped. He barely had time to dismount and tie his horse Sandy to a post before his mother ran across the yard and folded him in her embrace.

"My son! How tall and handsome you've grown!"

"Mom!" Dogtanian wriggled in her grasp, blushing. He was sure he hadn't grown an inch since he left home - yet his mother seemed somehow to have shrunk a little, as did his father, who now came striding over to greet him.

The grave hound gave a rare smile and clapped his son on the shoulder. When Dogtanian was a pup, he had been almost afraid of the large and powerful dog who never allowed his love of his only son to prevent him administering discipline when he felt it was needed. Now he looked his father in the eye, as an equal. But the knowledge that his dad was proud of him still meant the world to Dogtanian.

The young Muskehound ate ravenously. His mother had been baking and cooking since the letter announcing his visit had arrived a week previously, and the white tablecloth was hidden beneath the dishes of good things. Between mouthfuls he told his parents all that had happened in the three years since he went away.

Dogtanian had meant to come home as soon as he achieved his dream of becoming a Muskehound. But immediately after he entered the ranks of the King's Musketeers he and his friends had been sent away to fight a war in far-off Africa. It was a long and difficult campaign, with many lives lost on both sides. Dogtanian and his constant companions Porthos, Athos and Aramis returned home unhurt but exhausted, and were granted a month's leave. The first two weeks Dogtanian spent with his beloved Juliette, who had not known a good night's rest since he went away. Now he had returned at last to the place of his birth.

He spoke of his best friends, the legendary, inseparable Three Muskehounds, of the cheeky mouse Pip who shared his home, and most of all he spoke of Juliette whom he was going to marry. His parents were delighted at the news and promised to come to Paris for the ceremony in spring.

"And how is Treville?" his father interrupted at last.
"Very well, sir," Dogtanian told him. He had infinite admiration for his commanding officer, who in some respects had taken over the role of father when Dogtanian arrived in Paris a lost and lonely stranger.

The whole family knew how much Dogtanian owed to Monsieur Treville. When Dogtanian's father resigned his commission, Treville, his best friend and the newly appointed Captain of the King's Musketeers, had first begged him to stay then made him promise that, if he ever had a son, he would send the boy to him to be made into a Muskehound. It was he who, three years ago, had sent a messenger to Béarn summoning the young Dogtanian to Paris. Dogtanian had shown a natural aptitude for swordsmanship which delighted his father, but without Treville's help he could never have become a Muskehound cadet and might have stayed forever in the small village where he was born.

At last Dogtanian laid down his spoon with a contented sigh. "That was a great meal. Thanks, Mom," he said, kissing her cheek.
"I know it's not like the fancy food you get in Paris restaurants..." she began. Her son stopped her with an indignant yelp, banging his fist on the table.
"Nothing beats home cooking the Gascon way, and nobody cooks it like my mother! Right, Dad?"

His father nodded. "Now, why don't you show me what you've learned from Treville?"
"You mean...?"
For answer, he took down the steel sword that hung on the wall. One of Dogtanian's earliest memories was longing to play with it and being strictly forbidden to do so. It was a real weapon, the sword his father had used as a Musketeer, and though it was old he had kept it oiled and sharpened. Dogtanian gulped. His mother looked anxious.
"Now, boys..." she began.
"I want to know what the lad's learned! Come on outside, son."

Dogtanian left the table and unwillingly followed his father outside. The last time they had duelled, the day before he left for Paris, he had been afraid his father would really hurt him. The same deadly serious expression was on his face now, and although there were a few white hairs on his head he looked as strong as ever as he warmed up for the fight.

They faced each other, blades drawn. After the initial en garde they circled cautiously for some moments, neither wanting to make the first move. Then Dogtanian darted in, only to be beaten back by a hurricane of blows from his father's sword. The bigger dog closed on him and they fought grimly. Their clashing blades struck blue sparks in the dusk as they met, and the clang of metal on metal rang out loud. As always when he duelled, Dogtanian lost all sense of time - he simply battled on, taking no notice of his hammering heart or the sweat that ran down his brow and into his eyes.

Gradually he became aware that his father was tiring. His parries were as quick as ever but he ceased to go on the offensive, instead standing his ground and fending his son off with skilled, economical jabs. He knew at that moment that this was a fight he didn't want to win. He could not bear to beat his father, the godlike hero he held in awe and who was the standard by which he measured himself.

"I quit. I'm tired," he said, backing away. But his father immediately advanced on him, the point of his sword striking inches from his opponent's chest.
"Dogtanians...never...quit!" he growled, lunging at his son. Dogtanian defended himself instinctively, and somehow his father's blade twisted from his grasp and clattered on the cobblestones and the bigger dog was flat on the ground.

Fearfully, Dogtanian held out his hand to help his father up. Dogtanian père laughed at his stricken expression.

"It's natural for the son to eclipse the father. My prime is long past, but yours is just beginning. I thought when I went into this duel that you would be able to beat me, and I'm glad I was right. I'm very proud of you, son."

His mother hurried out. "You two! I was so frightened! You could have killed each other." She hugged Dogtanian fiercely. "Are you coming in to bed? You must be exhausted after your journey."
"Not yet. I think I'll take a walk round the village first."

At this hour Paris would be all hustle and bustle still, with light and raucous laughter spilling from the windows of the inns and restaurants, lovers strolling in the park and travellers arriving and departing by road and river. This was the country, though, and folk retired early. The streets were dark and the only sound came from a few sleepy birds settling in their nests for the night.

Dogtanian padded silently past the small thatched houses. He could name the occupant of each: the schoolteacher, the doctor, the priest. He knew where his childhood friends had lived - and his enemies. As a pup, Dogtanian had led a turbulent existence. He had the true Gascon spirit, acting before he thought and reacting strongly to any slight or injustice. He was often teased because of his parents' poverty, and this more than anything else threw him into a rage. He had learned early to fight, at first with his fists and later with a stick as substitute for the sword he would later use, and would defend his honour no matter how great the odds against him.

His particular enemy had been a lad named François LaVache. They had quarrelled so hard for so long that their enmity had bound them together as closely as friendship would have done. When Dogtanian rode out of Béarn, the puppies he had tussled with came to wish him well. To his astonishment it was François, always the leader of the village children and usually leading them against Dogtanian, who had organised this guard of honour, and had come awkwardly up to say his farewell.

How François would have loved to train as a Muskehound cadet! Of the village pups he had been second only to Dogtanian as a swordsman. He had often won their duels, being taller and stronger and possessing a quick mind capable of many a devious trick. Dogtanian knew it must have been a bitter blow for him to see the poor kid he had ridiculed setting off for Paris and adventure.

"Dogtanian? Is it you?"

The Musketeer jumped and swung round. The voice which had intruded upon his thoughts belonged to the object of them - François LaVache. He was older and taller still, his shoulders broadening in proportion to his height. Like Dogtanian, he was a puppy no longer. But Dogtanian would have recognised his old rival anywhere.

"Well, if it isn't my old friend François!" Dogtanian began in the mocking tone he always assumed in these conversations. But he stopped. It wouldn't be fair of him to gloat over François, now that he had money and a position of importance.

"I see you made it after all," François said, indicating the other's uniform. "Remember how I used to laugh at you when you swore you'd grow up to be a King's Musketeer? I guess the joke's on me." He rubbed his nose and grinned.

"You know, without you to fight against and keep my wits sharp, I wouldn't be half the swordsman I am." Dogtanian smiled back. "I owe you one. So what are you doing now?"

"My father gave me his farm - as Mayor, he was too busy with important affairs to run it any more." François sounded slightly apologetic; he was old enough now to know that being mayor of a small village was not as important as he had thought when he was a child. "And I'm married. You remember Justine?"

Dogtanian did - a tomboyish girl who was always getting into trouble for playing rough games with the boys instead of keeping herself tidy.

"Justine, married? That I find hard to believe!"
"It's true, and what's more we have a baby son. Will you come and visit us? Justine would be so pleased."

Dogtanian shook his head at the strangeness of it all as he followed his old enemy.

François' home was at the edge of the village, an imposing stone farmhouse looking out over several acres of land. He led the visitor in, beaming at his wife. "I've brought a guest. Guess who it is?"

Dogtanian swept his hat off and bowed low. Justine was just as he remembered her; the dress she wore might not be torn and stained with dirt and grass as it always had been when she was a pup, but she still had her mischievous, boyish expression.

"Dogtanian!" She ran forward and hugged him. "You're a Muskehound - I'm so pleased for you. I've always been ashamed of the way we teased you when we were children. Pups are so cruel. I'm going to make sure Tobias doesn't grow up like that."

"He won't be a coward, though, with both of us to teach him swordsmanship." François winked at Dogtanian. "I always said I wouldn't marry anyone who wasn't almost as good a fighter as me!"

"'Almost'? Why, you..." His wife cuffed him playfully, and they laughed together. Dogtanian thought of Juliette and hoped they would be as happy in their marriage as this couple. Then he looked in the cradle.

The puppy was only a few weeks old, but there was already a look of François in his floppy ears and curled tail. Dogtanian held out his finger and the baby took it in a surprisingly strong grip and transferred it to his mouth, chuckling.

François had made Dogtanian's life a misery. But, as Justine had said, they had just been thoughtless puppies. They had clashed partly because they were so similar in temperament. Now their ways had parted; Dogtanian was a Muskehound of Paris and François was a Gascon farmer. Dogtanian had no doubt that his rival was happy and would not now swap his existence for that of a Musketeer. Yet there was still something he could do for François.

"François...will you grant me a favour?"

"Why, what could I possibly have that a Muskehound lacks?" teased his old rival.

"When Tobias grows up, send him to me in Paris, as my father sent me to Monsieur Treville. I know he will be a fine young man and a splendid swordsman, and I will make sure there is a place for him in the Muskehound Cadet corps."

François and Justine grinned delightedly. "I will do that, Dogtanian. Thank you," François shook him by the paw. "But why me? We didn't always get along, you and I."

"I know that, François. But I'll never forget that you were the last person to say goodbye to me when I left Béarn. In a way, we were as close as Treville and my father. You were my first real friend."

They drank beer to toast baby Tobias and his future, then Dogtanian left for his parents' house happy with the turn of events and with the promise he had made. He felt he had repaid the debt he owed to François - and to Monsieur Treville.

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