Fidus Achates
by Sarah B.

Part Ten

The night deepened. For those trapped in the infirmary, it was the most blessed time of the day. The tropical heat and stifling air was banished; the shutters, clamped against the blazing sun, were opened to light breezes that softened the soul into rest. Lamps were turned down, the doctors made their final rounds for the night, and after a time the rooms became quiet, dark-blue pools of tranquility.

In his cot, William Bush stirred and crossed his arms over his chest. He knew he should sleep; Kennedy and most of the other men had succumbed long ago. But his nerves were humming like a violin's strings with worry over his appearance before the inquiry the next day. He went over every detail of the previous six months in his mind, over and over, answering questions that he knew the captains would ask.

What would you say of the captain's state of mind, Mr. Bush? I would say he is a great man under trying circumstances, sir. I can only hope when I am his age my perceptions are as keen. *perceptions, not wits or mind. We all knew how keen his mind was...*

Did you hear any mutinous talk on board? Bush knew that was a dangerous question; he had to phrase his answer carefully, but honestly. Any hint of deception would throw them all to the tigers. Sir, we kept our minds to the tasks before us, the immediate dangers and the rigors of our mission. I heard nothing that made me ashamed to be a British officer. *but not proud either - and a bothersome question if they delve further. Blast...*

Mr. Bush, what do you know of the incident at Samana Bay? That at least was an easy question to answer forthrightly. Sir, I knew of nothing untoward until we found ourselves aground. At that point my objective was to free the ship and save the crew, which we did.

What can you tell us of the doctor declaring the captain unfit for command? Only that by my observation it was necessary for the captain's own safety, sir. We were in a perilous state and our first thoughts were to get him out of it and home.

You refer to his mental state after his fall. Mr. Bush, do you know how Captain Sawyer came to fall down the hatchway?

That was where Bush could not think of how to frame his answer. That was why he was still awake.

An insect buzzed by, landed on Bush's right hand. He slapped it away; the sudden noise made Kennedy start in his sleep. Bush glanced over, but the young lieutenant did not awaken, only grunted a little and shifted onto his side. Relieved that he had not awakened his shipmate - and a little chagrined that he might have - Bush continued his rumination.

He did not know how Sawyer had come to fall down the hatchway. He thought Hornblower knew, but was not telling. Certainly the tribunal had its own ideas, and Bush could think of nothing that would dissuade them from thinking it was a deliberate act, even if it wasn't. Perhaps especially if it wasn't.

Bush sighed and cast his eyes about the infirmary, idly watching the ebony shadows play against midnight-blue walls. Wellard was over there, asleep Bush hoped, and dreaming of England. He had been in the hatchway, and would the tribunal spare him if he could be blamed for Sawyer's death? Sawyer had been insane, had to be stopped, but Bush could never say that. It could not be an accident, heroes did not die from a trip in the dark. Someone had to pay. Someone...

Mr. Bush, how did Captain Sawyer come to fall down the hatchway?

*I pushed him, sir.*

Bush's heart leapt at those words, his own, but where had they come from? It was a conviction, so sudden and unexpected that their appearance startled him. He could not say he pushed the captain, of course; he had not even been in the hold. But...

But would he say them, to set the other men free?

Bush glanced at Kennedy again, saw the red-tinged bandage that just showed beneath the too-thin blanket and thought, he shouldn't die here. Not on some infernal pest-ridden rock where the trees don't grow right and the sun is too harsh and hot; he should be home, the cool hills of England, and Wellard too. Hornblower could take them there. If something should happen to him, Hornblower could -

Bush realized with a start that he was willing to die for them.

No - no, it shouldn't be like that, Bush knew. He was a practical man, not a leader but a follower by nature. Loyal, but not foolishly so; why die for men he barely knew? Why sacrifice himself for the naive notion that none of them deserved this fate?

He was such a practical man. When did that change?

The stitches in Bush's chest pulled, and he put one hand over them and stared at the covers. He knew when it changed. It changed after Hornblower volunteered to blow up that Spanish fort, even though he knew Buckland was simply trying to get him killed. It changed after Buckland had left, and Kennedy tapped his arm and motioned him to follow - him, Bush, a superior officer, and Kennedy was treating him like a friend.

And it changed when Hornblower and Kennedy grabbed him by the arms and made him jump off that damn, bloody, inexcusable cliff into the sea.

They would not leave him behind. Hornblower, afraid of heights, and Kennedy - well, he had to fear *something*. They could have left them, Buckland probably wouldn't have minded at all. But they all went together.

Bush pursed his lips and ran his hand over the bandage, felt the dull pain beneath. Together they went over that cliff, and together they would have to get through this. He could not place himself in the hold and save them, and he was beginning to suspect what Kennedy meant when he said Hornblower was up to something. No - not Hornblower. *Horatio* was up to something. Always with the first names, those two. Not an endearment that Bush was ever likely to be honored with...

Kennedy knew. *Archie* knew what Horatio was up to. Bush suspected, but even if that was the case there was little he could do to stop it. Except come up with some brilliant testimony of course, or hope that Hobbs or someone would intervene and make such a sacrifice unnecessary...but whatever happened, Bush knew they had to look after each other or someone would fall, and in his practical mind that would not do at all. With little else to do, he focused on that.

And a short time later, feeling the pull of sleep finally upon him, Bush closed his eyes and leaned back, several plans for looking after his men already formulated in his head and a firm conviction in his heart: that whatever the morning brought, he knew his duty and he would do it. He could not take the blame but he could deflect it from the others, and then they could all go home. Together.

With that thought in his mind William Bush closed his eyes, and finally went to sleep.

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

Styles had just finished transferring the last of the bedclothes and was coming up the companionway stairs to the topdeck. The last of the daylight had faded, and in the half-lighted darkness he bumped into someone on the stairs.

Startled, he stepped back and prepared to apologize; the figure in front of him shifted into the lanternlight, and he saw it was Hobbs.

The apology turned into a scowl. Styles ducked his head and bit his tongue to keep the sharp words from coming out.

Hobbs spoke first. "Mind where you're going, Styles."

Styles took a deep breath and stepped up to pass. He needed to get away from Hobbs before his promise to Matthews, to Hornblower, and to himself blew apart at the scarred seams. He just needed to get away...

"Styles."

Two steps from the top, Styles turned and looked back. Hobbs was halfway down the stairs, and glaring at him.

"I'm on my guard, just so you know. I'm not a fool, I know what the men think of me. If anything happens I'll know who to blame."

Styles seethed. He couldn't let that pass. "Look in the mirror, mate. If it weren't fer me word to Mr. Hornblower I'd feed you to the sharks meself."

"Hiding behind your word, are you?"

Styles shook his head. "'e's the best commander that ever was. 'e saved this ship. You owe 'im your life too, you ungrateful - "

Styles choked his last words off because they were almost treasonous. But did Hobbs wince at the words he had said? It looked that way; even in the flickering light it was plain his expression changed, but Styles was not an analytical sort and didn't bother trying to figure it out.

Hobbs swallowed and said, "You'd follow him to the gallows, would you?"

"Further than that. Wish you could say the same, eh?"

Blue eyes flashed resentment. Styles knew he was goading Hobbs and couldn't have cared less.

Hobbs tried to hide his hatred with a sneer. "Well, you follow your lieutenant. Him and the whole bloody lot. I'm not afraid of you, in any case."

"Oh, you're not, eh?"

Hobbs shook his head. "I've seen you fight."

Styles took a step down the stairs.

Suddenly, a voice above both of them: "Trouble here, Mr. Hobbs?"

Both men looked up. It was Trent.

"N-no, sir," Hobbs replied quickly, coming placidly up the companionway steps.

Trent's eyes went to Styles. "And you, seaman? Do you have a complaint?"

Styles glanced at Hobbs, then straightened and said, "No, sir, only that I wish to be at sea again."

"As do we all," Trent said with a tight smile. "Now go about your business."

"Aye, sir," Styles replied, and walked away.

He had not gotten far before he heard Trent's voice again, behind him: "Mr. Hobbs?"

A pause. Then, "Yes, sir."

Trent's voice, lower, but still Styles could hear it. "Remember these men are not much removed from the beasts in the pens. Thrust your hand into the bear's cage and you have only yourself to blame if he bites it off."

Another pause. Then Hobbs again, softer this time. "Aye, sir."

Then footsteps, walking away.

Styles kept walking, because he did have work to do and he knew that somewhere Matthews was watching him. He kept walking, but he wore his own secret smile at being called a beast in a cage because that was what he felt like, and he did not mind at all that when Hobbs answered Trent for the final time, there was not only obedience in his voice but something else that Styles recognized, and greeted for a long-lost friend.

Fear.

*****************************************************************************************
The halls of the Admiralty were quiet and dark. A lone sentry stood watch at the door, casting an eye back into the hall every once in a while to make sure the few candles still burning in the building hadn't set anything on fire.

The heat and bustle of the day gave way to muffled stillness, but still the building was not totally deserted. In the mahogany-paneled room of inquiry a solitary figure sat among a sea of papers of books. With tired eyes Commodore Pellew scanned the words against the flickering glow of a solitary candle, until the candle wavered at the slight breeze caused by the great door opening.

Pellew looked up, squinted. "Good evening, Captain Hammond."

"Commodore, sir," Hammond replied, walking slowly into the room, his hat in hand. "A late night, I'll wager."

"Yes, and a trying one. Is there something I can help you with?"

"Hm? Oh, no, no, pray don't trouble yourself," Hammond smiled and continued his walk, slow and measured, around the table. "I am merely concerned for your welfare. After all, you are the senior officer among us, and this tropical air can be quite - unsettling."

"That is surely the case," Pellew muttered, leaning back in the tall chair and running one hand over his eyes.

Hammond sat down in one of the wingchairs by the window and scowled. "Still looking for a way to save your prodigy from the noose?"

"I am looking for answers," Pellew replied in irritation, giving his compatriot a slightly annoyed glare. "Any answers, that could save any of them. Or damn them, if need be."

"Well, don't forget that this business isn't concluded. There's still Mr. Bush to hear from, and that rascal Kennedy."

"I haven't forgotten." Pellew rubbed his eyes.

"And that gunner. What's his name? Hobbs. We haven't heard from him yet either."

"Hm. Yes," Pellew slid one hand over a sheet of paper. "He's on the list for one of the next few days, but it has been noted by some of the other men that he was something of Captain Sawyer's favorite. Doubtless his testimony will reflect that fact, so we must be careful."

Hammond crossed his arms and stared at the mass of paperwork on the table. "Between the men who openly favor Hornblower and the men who won't say boo to a goose, we could hang the whole ship for mutiny right now."

"Oh, let's not," Pellew snapped.

"Don't think I would rule against it," Hammond continued, his scowl deepening. "The air of discontent is a dangerous thing, Commodore. It must be stamped out. These men must be made examples of. Do you want the 'Hermione' to happen again? Officers butchered? I say we must keep discipline - "

"And I say we will not drench the Admiralty in blood to do it. Let the testimony be given, it is now only a matter of a few days. Then we will consider the matter objectively and make our decision."

"Objectively?" Hammond's smile was wolflike. "Come now, Commodore, can you tell me that if your Mr. Hornblower was implicated you would remain objective? I would like to see that, sir. Yes I would. Very much!"

Pellew regarded Hammond for a moment, then said quietly, "Mr. Hammond, for all that you claim I favor Mr. Hornblower, it seems to me you are just as determined to end his military career as soon as possible."

Hammond said nothing, simply stared at Pellew with icy blue eyes.

Pellew took a deep breath and continued. "And yet, for all your passion in this quest, you have never revealed why you see his continued service as such a threat. Would you care to share it now?"

For a long moment there was no sound, and only the palpable stare of Hammond's eyes across the small space of that dark-paneled room. Then Hammond looked away, at the candle flickering on the table, and spoke.

"Commodore, I am a man who hates waste, who hates abandon, who hates anything associated with such - frivolities. Your Mr. Hornblower would say he agrees with me, I'm certain, and for all I know he does. But he has a dangerous mind, a mind that encourages waste and spendthrift action."

Pellew frowned in confusion. "How so?"

"By his ability. By his ambition. He leads, and the men follow, and they are killed, dozens of them, or wounded and rendered unfit for service. His pride leads him to foolhardy action, and when he's alone it's bad enough! But how many of our men did he lead to that fort? How many officers have fallen by his side? Oh yes, I can see the great leader in him, and that's why I say he must be stopped. The average leaders - the Bucklands of this world - they will follow orders, and no one of consequence will die at their heels. But that Hornblower... he'll lead his men to hell, and they'll follow him. And we'll never see any of them again."

Pellew sat silently, absorbing Hammond's words. Images flashed through his mind, the fort in Samana Bay, Quiberon, El Ferrol prison. A Fire Ship, with Dreadnought Foster at his side...

Hammond stood up then, and tucked his hat back under his arm. "You think me a zealot, Commodore, out for young Hornblower's blood. I assure you it's not so simple as that, or a duel at dawn would settle the matter. We need the unrest stopped; we need order and discipline restored to His Majesty's navy. The guilty party must not only be punished, but his wrong revealed. I am determined to do that, no matter what the price. Any loyal subject of His Majesty must be willing to do the same."

"And if the guilty party is not Hornblower?" Pellew asked tightly.

Hammond leveled his gaze. "Then, Commodore, I will hang whoever it is...and still keep my eye on that young man."

He nodded his farewell and walked out of the room, leaving Pellew to contemplate his words and the meaning of them, and to watch the flickering candle slowly melt down, until it was almost nothingness.

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

Horatio stirred from a dream and opened his eyes.

It was dark; there was warmth, and softness. Horatio sighed and shifted again, trying to remember where he was. There was a bed beneath him, but he was still in his clothes. Somewhere in the languid evening a church bell tolled.

Horatio counted the chimes. Seven, eight, nine...

Ten.

Ten o'clock. Horatio remembered, turned over on the bed. Where had he been in his dream? Not in Kingston; not in Jamaica. He had been home, in England, sleeping in his father's garden, a contented six-year-old surrounded by soft ivy and fragrant lavender and snuggled under a blanket of stars.

Horatio drew his hand over his face and sighed again, fighting a surge of horrible loneliness. He was not home; he was not six years old. And his father was not coming to find him.

Ten o'clock, and a long night ahead of him. He was awake now, and restless. I should go visit Archie, he thought, and see how Bush is doing. Slowly, Horatio sat up and stared into the darkness.

But no. Certainly they would be asleep at this hour; the heat was wearing on him, and he was whole and well; it must be exhausting on those recovering from injuries. Archie would likely be dreaming of his mother, or some flight of fancy involving the stage. Bush... Horatio did not know what Bush might be dreaming of. But he did not want to disturb either of them.

A dog barked somewhere. Slowly Horatio sat up, scanning the outlines of his room in the quiet darkness. Light a candle, he thought, find a book or take a walk. Do something; you're not dead yet.

Not yet.

Horatio shuddered and put his feet on the floor, stretching the sleeping muscles out as he thought. The air felt tense, as if a storm was coming, but there was no telltale humidity; still the hackles were rising on Horatio's neck. And the restless feeling remained, the sense that something was about to happen.

*Of course something is about to happen, you fool. Or did you forget that you are all on trial for mutiny?*

Sighing again, Horatio rose to his feet and felt for the taper that sat on the nightstand. Finding it, he padded over to the door; there were candles lit out there, their pale glow lining the doorframe. He slitted the door open and poked the taper out.

"Blimey!"

At that exclamation from the hallway, Horatio hastily withdrew the taper and opened the door a little wider. He was squinting like a mole, but after a moment he could just see a red marine's uniform, and Russell's startled face above it.

"Beggin' yer pardon, sir," Russell said quietly, then added, "I do seem to be in your way, don't I?"

"Light that for me, will you Russell?" Horatio asked, passing the taper out again. "Do you need something?"

Russell took the taper and tapped it onto a nearby candle, then handed it back again. "Officer waiting to see you, sir, if you're not indisposed."

"An officer? Who?"

"First Lieutenant Trent from the Renown."

Horatio started a bit, the taper's flame wavering in his hand. *But we are Renown* he thought instinctively. But of course that wasn't true anymore...

Unsettled. Everything was so damned unsettled.

Horatio drew the taper into the room, its small light shining like a faltering star. From the hallway he heard Russell's voice: "Sir?"

"Yes, Russell," Horatio answered quickly, moving away from the door to light one of the candles on a nearby table. "Give Leiutenant Trent my compliments and I will see him in five minutes."

"Aye, sir," the young marine replied, and Horatio heard the footsteps go down the hall and die into the distance.

For a long moment he simply stood there, the single candle burning on the table and the lit taper in his hand. The room was lit now by a dull, warm glow and Horatio scanned the things that were so familiar to him, yet now were cast as shadows and phantoms by the flickering light: the walls, his clothes, the stack of books from Renown. *It's changing,* he thought, the uneasiness growing. *changing, there are new officers now, a new order, and it may be that there is no place for ourselves in it at all.*

He frowned, forcing himself to walk about the room and create more light before Trent arrived. This melancholy would never do, and if there was a way to sleep without dreaming Horatio hoped suddenly the method could be found as soon as possible. It was the dream, the long-forgotten comfort of his father's security that made Horatio so unnerved, he knew it. Before he had lain down he knew the road that would be travelled, the path that must be taken for his men to be freed and unblemished by scandal. He had been willing to do whatever it took, mindless of the consequences, but now there was a shameful ache inside of him that begged him to stop and consider. Horatio strained not to listen to it.

Knowing he was no longer an officer aboard Renown did not bother him; knowing that someone else now had charge of his men did. Even if his fellow officers were freed they could not serve aboard that ship again and where would that leave the crew? Matthews and Styles were careful enough, but could they manage if another Sawyer came aboard? Hobbs was no prize certainly but he showed promise, unless another bully like Randall appeared or some wronged seaman took revenge for past injuries... Horatio's stomach knotted as he realized the control of his world was slipping and there was little he could do about it.

*knock knock*

Horatio started; had five minutes passed already? A quick glance at the mantel clock told him it had. Damn. "Yes?"

An unfamiliar voice hailed him. "Mr. Hornblower? I'm First Lieutenant Trent from the Renown. I'd like to have a word with you, if you don't mind."

Horatio hastily lit two more candles, decided it was enough and blew out the taper. Arranging his clothes as best he could considering he'd just spent two hours asleep in them, he smoothed his hair and replied, "Certainly, Mr. Trent."

The door opened and Russell appeared, quickly stepping aside to let the other officer in. A tall, slender man not much older than Horatio walked into the room, the gold buttons on his uniform glittering and a definite look of tension on his narrow features.

Horatio nodded to the marine by way of dismissal, and as the door was closed he waved toward the sideboard. "They've let us have a little brandy, would you - ?"

"Thank you, no, I don't indulge," Trent replied, a little nervously Horatio thought but decided that was to be expected; this was not likely to be a social call.

"Then please, sit down," Horatio indicate the two stiff, wide wingback chairs arranged in the center of the room. As Trent bent his rigid body enough to fit into one of the chairs Horatio added, "Tell me, how are things aboard ship?"

"They are fine," Trent answered in the same tight, almost snappish tones. His eyes, which were something between light blue and gray, seemed to regard Horatio with a small bit of resentment. They were like Buckland's eyes, suspicious. Horatio grew wary.

Trent seemed to sense his unease and sighed, shaking his head. "My apologies, lieutenant, nerves are rather frayed these days. The truth is that the captain - Captain James - has sent me here to find out what I can about the men. About the men - you used to command."

Horatio sat down slowly, thinking about this. "I will offer whatever help I can. As I am certain you have seen, the men of Renown are eager to work, and do their work well. You've conducted your interviews by now, I'm sure."

"Yes - yes, of course I have."

Horatio smiled sadly. "Then you know more of my mens' situation than I, Mr. Trent. Perhaps you can tell me how they are faring. For example, how is Matthews?"

Trent's brow knit in concentration. "Which one is he?"

"He's the bosun."

"Oh. Yes, forgive me. Um, long day. He's - able, seems to know his place. His work, that is. Satisfactory."

Horatio paused. He was not sure he liked Trent's choice of words, but let it pass. "Mr. Matthews is very able, I've led his division since my days as a midshipman. If you need a hand with anything he'll be the first to offer it - "

"Not to worry, Mr. Hornblower, I've been a First Lieutenant for two years. I do think I know my way around a ship."

Careful, Horatio cautioned himself. "Of course, Mr. Trent. My apologies."

Trent sniffed and looked down at his hands. "It's nothing, Mr. Hornblower, for some reason I have sensed that my abilities are - doubted - by the captain, that's why he sent me to meet with you. He thinks I cannot read the men, thinks I am...wrong about them. I am trying to amend that fault."

"I see. Every man can better himself, I'm sure..."

Trent's smile was tight. "Every man but you, it seems you are already perfect. You are a legend on board Renown, do you know that? For all that you're practically on trial for mutiny."

Horatio's eyebrows went up, as much for Trent's bitter tone as for the words he spoke. "No, I was not aware."

Trent nodded, not looking at Horatio. "Everywhere one looks there is the shadow of Horatio Hornblower, in every eye and gesture. One might almost fancy that the men regret not being led by you. I confess I do not know how to combat it."

Horatio tried to shrug. "I am sure it is simply the newness of your situation. Certainly you have led your own men, aboard another ship?"

Trent frowned. "I did have my own division, yes. But they were not made of the same stuff as yours. They were - not easy to discipline."

"Neither were mine, at first," Horatio responded with a fond smile. "They were unprincipled, almost wild. If not for a few changes of fortune I might have lost them."

Trent's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

Horatio swallowed. He did not like talking about his mens' past; still,perhaps there was something to be gained by winning this man's trust. "I...inherited my division from another midshipman who had corrupted their minds and made them nearly unfit for service. I was told to make them work or I would answer for it."

Trent nodded, understanding in his eyes. "So you made them work. Beatings, I'll wager."

Horatio started a little; he was not expecting those words out of Trent's mouth, and hastily shook his head. "No - no, I saw no good that could come of physical punishment. They clearly did not trust me to lead them. I had to prove myself in their eyes as a fit officer. Once I had done that, they became an able - no, an exemplary crew. I could ask for no better."

Trent frowned, confusion on his face. "How did you get them to follow you without using the lash?"

Horatio thought a moment; then considered that perhaps Trent was new to the first lieutenancy and had not come across many discipline problems. "Well - there are many ways, Mr. Trent. I do not pretend to know all of them, but acquiring their trust is a good beginning. For example, early in our acquaintance I caught them gambling belowdecks, and - "

"Gambling! You had them flogged for that, certainly."

Horatio paused to consider just how emphatically Trent had said those words. Then he continued softly. "I could have, Mr. Trent, they could have been reported to the first lieutenant for misconduct and no one would have doubted the propriety of it. But I saw a chance to gain their goodwill there, and gambled on taking it. I asked for their word that there would be no more misbehaviour in exchange for my silence. And they were better than their word."

Trent stared at Horatio openmouthed. Then he said, "You didn't have them flogged?"

"No."

"You just let them go? My God, you're joking."

Horatio shook his head. "I knew their former superior, and suspected that whatever depths they had sunk to he had led them there. They knew that I could have betrayed them and didn't; I suspected they had worth as men that they had not yet begun to realize."

Trent's expression grew puzzled, then a bit angry, as if someone had told a joke that was supposed to be funny, only he didn't understand it. Finally he simply shook his head and muttered, "Remarkable."

Feeling the sudden need to take the subject from himself, Horatio said, "My former captain, Pellew, prided himself on gaining the mens' respect by not asking them to do anything he would not do himself. I always took that as a very good lesson."

Trent blinked in astonishment. "Did he!"

Horatio nodded, and could not help smiling slightly as he continued. "Once I'm told he got in a boat and rowed with the men, when his ship was becalmed off the coast of Quiberon. They loved him the better for it."

"Love?" Trent shook his head and stood, heading for the brandy. "Now you've really lost me, Hornblower. No commanding officer can ask anything above servitude from the men below him. Love is for women and schoolchildren to swoon over."

"I don't mean courtly love," Horatio said hastily, "I mean respect, admiration. Have you ever led your men on a mission?"

Trent's reaction to this question shocked Horatio; he looked up from the decanter with a severe frown and anger in his eyes. "Of course I have! Several, in fact."

"Oh - well, did you have any problems?"

Trent filled the scuffed drinking glass with brandy and set the decanter down with a *thud*. "I think we're getting off the subject."

"My apologies," Horatio demurred, "It was my understanding that you wanted to understand your men better."

"No, that's my captain's idea," Trent said a little sourly, raising the glass to his lips. After taking a drink he walked back to the chair and sat down. "He is like yourself, a romantic. I only wish to take that - look - out of their eyes."

Horatio pursed his lips and regarded the brandy in Trent's hand silently.

"Oh, I'm certain you know the look I mean," Trent continued. "Or perhaps you don't. No one has ever looked at you in disappointment, I'm sure."

Horatio thought of Bunting, thought of Sawyer, thought of the bitter resentment that once burned in Archie's eyes years ago, in a Spanish prison. He shook his head sadly. "I do not like to dwell on those times."

"Well, I dwell on mine, I'm afraid," Trent took another drink and leaned back. "I'm forced to, by ratings who are no better than dogs on the wharf, officers blessed with more luck than I and commanders blinded by charm."

Horatio was silent at that, and took a moment to regain his thoughts. Quietly he asked, "For all the luck you think I possess, it is you who can walk about a free man. I may be at the end of a rope by this time next week."

Trent grimaced, but said nothing.

Horatio tried to lower his voice, sensing Trent's temper. "How is it now, on the ship?"

Trent shrugged. "The men are nervous, we have to keep them busy. Captain James has his own opinions about what happened to Sawyer, I'm sure, but he keeps them to himself. Once we set out to sea again I'm certain everyone will relax."

Horatio nodded and looked at the floor.

"Hornblower, there is something I need you to tell me."

Horatio looked back up; Trent was regarding him earnestly.

"There are two men on that ship. What are their names...Styles and Hobbs. What's happening with them? Why are they at each other's throats?"

Horatio felt a sharp burn in his stomach. "Are they fighting? But I -"

Trent blinked at Hornblower, then tilted his head in realization. "You ordered them not to, I'll wager."

Anger swelled, but Horatio kept it down. "Styles has a volatile temperament, and Hobbs was - very loyal to Captain Sawyer. He misses his leadership, and that can...affect a man's judgment. What happened?"

"Words. Only words," Trent said lightly, and Horatio thought he saw a hint of a smile on the man's lips. He hoped he was mistaken. But the eyes said, *not so perfect after all*.

"For their sakes, it must remain that way," Horatio said, nightmare images rising in his mind. "You should be aware, Mr. Trent, under Captain Sawyer's command there were...difficulties between Mr. Hobbs and some of the other men. He should be watched, for his own safety."

The hand with the brandy in it dropped a bit. "Difficulties? You mean fights?"

Reluctantly, Horatio nodded.

"I had heard that Hobbs was a bully," Trent said a little smugly. "If the men want revenge, Hornblower, why stop them? It would only serve him right."

Horatio fought within himself to find the right words. "Because the men should be above this, because it is against regulations. And because - "

"Because you taught them to be so much better than that."

Horatio looked at Trent, surprised at the sarcasm in his voice. But he had to answer it. "I cannot speak for the other men. But the men of my division - yes, I'd hoped they would have shed that side of their nature by now. It cannot serve them well, and could get them flogged."

"Well, let us hope not," Trent answered, taking a sip of the brandy. Horatio did not think he sounded completely sincere. Looking at the ruby liquid in his glass Trent sighed and said, "Very well, watch out for Hobbs. Anything else?"

Eying Trent warily, Horatio thought for a moment. "Matthews has the most level head of any man I know, look to him for guidance and you won't be disappointed. I don't suspect you'll have any real trouble until..." he glanced beyond the sitting room, to where his letters waited, and fell silent.

Trent finished the sentence for him. "Until the hearing is finished. Expecting a court-martial, Hornblower?"

Hornblower met Trent's icy gaze. "I hope not, Mr. Trent. It is my sincere belief that no wrong was committed."

"Of course not," Trent muttered with a maddening smile, and got to his feet. "Well, thank you for the interview, Mr. Hornblower, I should get back to my ship now. I must say it is refreshing to see that you are not the marble god I had been told you were."

"And I am confident the Renown is in good hands," Horatio replied, although he did not mean it. Trent had asked no searching questions about the ship or its men, and there was an impervious air about him that Horatio didn't like. But he had to trust that the Admiralty knew its officers.

"They are in capable hands, I can assure you," Trent responded, setting the brandy down and moving toward the door.

Feeling a sudden rush of helplessness, Horatio followed Trent to the door and said, "Mr. Trent, if anything should arise that you feel merits my attention please notify me immediately. There may be something I can assist you with - "

"No need, Mr. Hornblower," Trent said, turning abruptly and squaring his shoulders as he stopped in the doorway. His expession was one of arrogance. "I will take your advice, keep watch, and deal with whatever happens by the rules of His Majesty's navy. But I will keep you informed; it's the least I can do for the Renown's *former* second lieutenant."

With that he opened the door, and Horatio saw Russell standing in the shadows of the hall. The marine snapped to attention and Trent quickly walked out, pulling his uniform into its proper lines as he went. In a few moments the two men walked down the length of the corridor, and were gone.

Horatio stood in the hall, watching the empty air for a few moments. The darkness seemed endless, and something had left with Trent, some nameless possibility that gnawed at Horatio's mathematical sense of probability. Something could happen. Something was -

Unsettled.

Horatio sighed and walked back into the suite of rooms, closing the door behind him. Suddenly exhausted, he blew out all of the candles but one and sat in one of the wingback chairs, one hand wearily running through his hair. He listened to the silence and felt once again the shameful ache of longing for the security of innocence, the lavendar scent of his father's garden. That was gone now, gone and unreachable. When would it return? Would it ever return?

Horatio turned his head toward the other chair, and although he was not a man of great imagination he almost thought he could see some sympathetic soul sitting there, that he could talk to. For a moment it was Archie, whole and well and with patient good humor in his blue eyes; then it was Pellew, the stern father-figure whose presence had been an anchor to Horatio for his entire seafaring life; finally his mother was sitting there, not as sharply defined as the other two but Horatio remembered her smile, and her eyes. They regarded him sadly now.

He could not seek advice from her; he knew a mother should see only her son's strength, his maturity, the man he had become in her absence. But he could not hide the childish fear that was welling in his heart; the fear that he could not stop his friends from bleeding, or his ship from ruin, or the lives he had so carefully cultivated from exploding into fists and anger and a terrible ending for them all. Shamed, he turned away from the comforting apparition and stared instead into the darkness that yawned before him, stared until sometime - there was no knowing when - the single candle burned out, he fell asleep, and without his consent found himself a child back in the moonlit lavender garden again, this time buried in the softest of embraces and weeping as if his heart would break.

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

Hobbs walked tiredly down the companionway steps, glad that his day was over and looking forward to falling into his hammock.

It had been a restless night, restless and troubling. Hobbs had done his work; some of the gun carriages were in terrible shape, and he had gone around with the gunners and determined which could be saved and which were now scrap. No one had been in a good mood, so the work was slow and ponderous, and they were all glad when it ended. And now he had only oblivion to look forward to.

Over his head, Hobbs heard the ship's bell ring and counted the chimes. Eight bells - midnight, and a change of watch. Strange how hollow that bell sounded now; once it was a comfort to Hobbs to hear the ringing and know that all was right with his world. But since Sawyer's death nothing had been comforting, nothing seemed familiar or right, and Hobbs in his simple way knew why. He had attached himself to Sawyer's bright and brilliant star, and now it had burned out and there would never be one like it again. So he was adrift, and probably would remain so for the rest of his life. Unless...

*I only ask that you consider my proposal, Mr. Hobbs. A chance at a new home; it's not something one gets more than a few times in a lifetime.*

Buckland's words. Hobbs hated Buckland; he hated even having that weaselly voice in his head. But there was no denying the truth of what Buckland had said to him that night. Renown was not a safe place for him, and with Sawyer dead he would have a hard time finding a transfer. But Buckland would make it easy; do what he wanted and get a berth on a new ship, away from glaring eyes. A new start; Buckland was right, that sort of thing did not come along every day.

And all he had to do was betray Hornblower.

Betray? Hobbs knocked the word around as he weaved his way belowdecks, toward his berth on the lower deck. Buckland wanted Hobbs to say that Hornblower pushed Sawyer into the hold, and for all Hobbs knew it was true. And if it was true, didn't Hornblower deserve to be punished? It was divine retribution, after all...

And even if it wasn't technically true, Hornblower and the other lieutenants were certainly against Sawyer; that much was clear. Hobbs remembered clearly the frowns, the whispered talks, the seething anger when Wellard was beaten. Even if Hornblower didn't push the captain, he wanted to. And that was bad enough, wasn't it?

But then - but then - Hobbs sighed and cursed his own indecisiveness as he walked down another companionway toward his hammock. If the inquiry had happened three weeks ago he wouldn't have any problem, he knew it. A few weeks ago, before that damn fort was blown up, he would have handed the lot of them over to the noose and been happy.

But there was something - something in what happened when the three of them jumped off that cliff, the sheer audacity of it, and there wasn't any missing the sheer joy in young Wellard's eyes when Hornblower made it over the side again. It was something Sawyer would have done in his youth. Buckland had left him to die and he'd cheated it. Not only cheated it, but turned it into a triumph. That was uncommon; even Hobbs had been surprised.

But now Hobbs could have Hornblower killed, and he wasn't sure anymore that he wanted that. Hornblower had been hard on him, but not unfair; he had reason enough to hate Hobbs, in any case. Hobbs had not been blinded by the boy's charm as Buckland had suggested, but the thought had crossed his mind - far in the back, where his crushed dreams lived - that Hornblower could have some of Sawyer's fire in him, and that fire had touched young Wellard and who knew how many others. Hobbs wondered if he would be damned for eternity if he had that fire snuffed out for his own comfort.

Hobbs sighed and shook his head again as he headed down the hall, to where his berth lay just beyond the midshipman's mess. Maybe he should just hang back and see how things played out. The world would turn on whether he took a hand in it or not. He could be vague at the inquiry, stay in the middle, and that way if Hornblower was exonerated he would have nothing to regret; if he hanged, Buckland would likely welcome him on his ship anyway.

It wasn't really the right thing to do; it might not have even been the smart thing to do. But it was the easiest thing to do, and as tired and worn-out as he was the idea appealed to Hobbs immensely. Yes, that the road to take: do nothing. Do -

WHAM!

Hobbs slammed to the deck, his head exploding in pain where something had struck him. Alarmed, the gunner quickly rolled over and shook his head to clear the stars away. He looked up, but there was only darkness.

*What the hell* he thought, but swiftly got to his feet, wondering if something had come loose and fallen on him, or if someone was hiding in the shadows. He was in the midshipman's mess, a small room but big enough to hide someone; there was a little light from the corridor, but it showed nothing. Hobbs listened, every nerve afire, heard a slight scuffing noise and -

WHAM!

Hit from behind again, Hobbs pitched against the nearest table and pushed himself upright, primed for a battle. He was angry now. "Who's here?" he demanded.

A shifting in the shadows, and a stocky rating appeared, his black eyes glittering in the near-darkness. He was glaring at Hobbs.

Hobbs glared back, thought a moment and remembered the man's name. Griggs. "You know the penalty for striking an officer?"

Griggs tilted his head and grinned a little, showing rotten teeth. "I didn't strike you."

Hobbs tensed. That meant -

WHAM!

A third blow from behind, and Hobbs fell to his knees. A huge hand gripped his hair, and he couldn't move. Griggs knelt down in front of him and squinted at him with hate-filled eyes. "I didn't hit you then, neither."

"You're out of your minds," Hobbs hissed, "Captain or Mr. Trent hears about this you'll all hang."

Griggs leaned forward, the malice in his expression enough to make Hobbs want to shrink back. He fought the impulse. "Captain's asleep, Mr. Trent's ashore. And he don't care for you anyhow."

Hobbs heard other sounds around him, tried to count how many men he was facing. At least two - three, four - five?

Damn.

The hand gripping his hair yanked upward, and Hobbs rose with it. Two brutally strong sets of hands grabbed his arms, and Hobbs turned to see who they were, but their faces were shadowed; before he blinked again someone struck him in the face and brilliant lights showered in front of his eyes.

"Don't feel so good, does it?" Griggs asked from a hundred miles away. "Divine retribution the first lieutenant called it. Payback, that's what I call it."

A fist slammed into his ribs, and Hobbs grunted at the force of it. Another came, too quickly, and knocked the wind out of him.

"For what you and Randall did, all them years," Griggs went on, as solemnly as a judge passing sentence. "Did you think you could get away with it forever? Not no more, my friend."

Another fist, straight in the gut. Hobbs fought to keep his feet and gasped, "What about your Mr. Hornblower? When he finds out - "

"Hornblower?" Griggs sounded as if he might laugh, "Would that be the same Mr. Hornblower whose man your friend Randall had beaten black and blue? Yeah, I think he'll be real kind to you, Hobbs. I think he'll be very sim-pa-thet-ic!"

Suddenly there seemed to be fists coming from everywhere, and Hobbs realized that these men might kill him. He lost count of the blows and even where they landed; one agony melted into the next, forming one terrific welt of pain. He couldn't see anything but flailing shadows and could not catch his breath to call for the marines. My God, he thought, I'm going to die -

With a fantastic effort he tore one arm free, and grabbed at the nearest thing he touched. It was an arm, he thought, but before he could pull himself up or out he was forced down again and felt only a red blaze of pain, endless and unyielding.

Then, in the background somewhere he heard a voice, "What's going - Jesus, Griggs!"

Styles. It was Styles.

"I was hopin' you'd show up," Hobbs heard Griggs answer. "Take your turn, Styles. You earned it."

Oh, no. Hobbs fought against the tide of tearing hands, and felt a heavy-shod foot stab against his back. He was pinned.

"Go on, Styles," Griggs continued, "Not for yourself if you don't want, but for Wellard, 'e made life hell for the boy. For the lieutenants, 'e wanted 'em dead! And that poor chap that Randall pushed from the riggin'. It hurts, don't it, Styles? Don't you want to get 'em back? Show 'em who's running this ship?"

Hobbs tried to twist his head around to follow the voices, and opened his mouth to do the one thing he never thought would be possible - beg Styles for help. But before he could form the words something bashed him across the jaw with the force of a cannonball, and Hobbs blacked out.

 

To be continued...