Fidus Achates
by Sarah B.

Part Eleven

Bush came out of a dream with the panicked thought, *something's wrong.*

Noises - he'd heard - Screams? Fully awake, Bush sat up as best he could and looked around the darkened infirmary in confusion.

Everything was still, and Bush guessed it was very late, but two attendants were hurrying through the blue-blackness toward the sound of someone crying out. Toward -

towards Wellard's cot.

Damning himself for the injury that forced him to move slowly, Bush maneuvered himself out of the cot and began to walk over, gripping the footrails of the beds he passed for support. Wellard's screams had faltered into frantic whimpering, and as Bush drew nearer he could see the boy struggling with the two attendants, in the grip of some terrible dream.

Before Bush could take a step closer he felt a firm hand on his shoulder and turned to see Dr. Sankey standing next to him.

"Mr. Bush, please go back to bed," the doctor said in his chipper voice, "You'll exhaust yourself."

Bush angrily shook the hand off and moved in on the attendants, who were trying to pin Wellard down. "Leave him alone, you're making it worse."

"Sir, if you'll permit me, these men are - "

With an impatient growl Bush stepped around one of the attendants and faced him. Looking the man square in the eye he said, "Leave off him, let me handle this, THAT is an order."

Startled, the attendant glanced at Sankey, who scowled at Bush but said nothing. The attendant looked at his compatriot, who shrugged, and together they let go of Wellard's arms and stepped back from the cot.

As soon as the punishing hands were gone, Wellard curled onto his side and buried his face in his hands, crying softly. Bush sat down and gently touched Wellard's shoulder. "Mr. Wellard? Report, please."

Wellard shuddered and pulled away. "He's dead."

Bush frowned at those whispered words. "Who is?"

Wellard's hand edged toward his middle and he sobbed, "It hurts - it's loud - "

"I know," Bush soothed, keeping his hand on Wellard's shoulder in an attempt to tether him back to reality, "But that's over, you're getting better now. Look at me, Mr. Wellard."

Wellard obeyed, but the huge and staring eyes didn't seem to see Bush at all.

Bush tried again. "You remember where you are?"

Wellard looked around, the sweat on his face glistening in the low light. Finally he looked at Bush and shook his head. "I didn't mean it."

Was it a fever? Bush tried to put a hand to Wellard's forehead, but Wellard flinched away and hid his face in the pillow.

"Mr. Wellard, listen to me," Bush said, keeping one hand on the youth's shoulder, "You're in the infirmary in Kingston. The captain's dead, but there's nothing you could have done to save him. You need to rest and get better so we can all go home."

Wellard lifted his head slightly, dishevelled brown hair falling into his frightened eyes. "But I am home."

Bush attempted a smile, "Well, after the length of our stay here I'm certain it feels like home, but - "

"It's cold," Wellard interrupted, suddenly clutching at the thin blanket and drawing it up over his shivering body.

Bush looked at the lad in puzzlement; behind him one of the attendants said, "He's lost his bleedin' mind."

A severe glare from Bush shut the attendant up, but a moment later Dr. Sankey appeared again and said quietly, "Mr. Bush? Thank you, but I believe we can take it from here."

Bush looked up and saw what Sankey was holding in his hand. "You're not going to fill him up with laudanaum again?"

"Mr. Bush, I'm surprised at your tone. The boy needs to be calm and to rest, and this little serum has done the trick for centuries."

"But he's raving," Bush replied, carefully rising from the cot, "He's probably fevered, if you make him unconscious you'll never find out what the problem is."

For the first time in their acquaintance Sankey's cheerful demeanor dropped, and he looked at Bush sternly. "Lieutenant, I respect your rank so kindly respect mine. This is a modern infirmary and Mr. Wellard is getting the best treatment possible. The problem is he has a wound, a bad one, and if he's not still and quiet it won't heal."

Bush looked down at Wellard again. The boy had stopped shivering but was still lying on his side, staring at nothing and squeezing the edge of the pillow in one trembling hand.

He couldn't leave it like that. Trying one final time, he leaned forward and touched Wellard's shoulder again. "Mr. Wellard, you know me?"

Wellard blinked, squinted at him, and nodded. "Aye, sir. You're Mr. Bush."

"Very good, Mr. Wellard. Are you still cold?"

Wellard looked confused for a moment, then said, "It's always cold here."

"Where is 'here', Mr. Wellard? Can you tell me where we are?"

Wellard closed his eyes and hid his face again. His voice came as a muffled sob: "The grave."

The words made Bush shudder. He swept one hand quickly over the youth's forehead, very lightly, but there was no radiating heat there. He did not have a fever.

What, then? Knowing he had no choice, Bush stepped back from the cot and allowed Dr. Sankey to move in close, bottle in hand. Bush watched as Wellard was roused, and was not surprised when he eagerly took the laudanaum; it had become mother's milk to him, of late. No harm done, Bush supposed, but something was confusing the young man's mind and giving him nightmares, and drugging him was not going to cure it.

Or, for that matter, help him to remember what Captain Sawyer had said regarding who pushed him.

Knowing he was being wordlessly dismissed, Bush slowly made his way back to his own bed, and fell down into it with an aggravated grunt. He glanced over at Kennedy's cot and was not surprised to see his fellow officer was awake, and regarding him with drowsy blue eyes.

"Is Mr. Wellard all right?" Kennedy whispered.

"Yes, he's fine; go back to sleep," Bush replied automatically. His night was ruined, but he'd be damned if he'd ruin Kennedy's as well.

"Very noble of you, Mr. Bush," came the steady answer, "But I did hear the screams."

Damn it! Why was everyone so much more perceptive than him? "Nightmares. Renown, or something, I don't know. Sankey's giving him laudanaum."

"It won't help."

Bush let out another snort, frustrated by his own obtuseness. He was a simple man who liked simple answers, and Wellard's strange behavior baffled him. Kennedy wasn't aiding him any. "Dr. Sankey is the expert here. I only hope that whatever is troubling Mr. Wellard lifts before he is well enough to be called at the inquiry."

"For his sake or for ours?"

Bush suddenly felt too ashamed to answer; both really, but in what order? "Go to sleep, Mr. Kennedy. I'm in no mood to be disobeyed."

"Aye aye, sir," Kennedy replied, with just enough smirking in his voice to make Bush very irritated.

Bush hunkered down to puzzle the mystery of Wellard's words out, and so was startled a moment later when he heard Kennedy's voice again.

"I'm sure if he was better Mr. Wellard would thank you. It was...good of you to help him."

Bush looked over and tried to put on his best angry frown. He felt like Kennedy's big brother. "You're insubordinate, sir."

"It's my hobby. But you heard me?"

Bush looked away, shook his head. "Pinning a raving man to a bed doesn't calm him down. Someone has to step in, you know."

"No they don't. That's why I thank you for trying."

Bush thought about this for a moment, but wasn't sure he understood it. "What do you mean?"

Silence.

Bush squinted his eyes. "Mr. Kennedy?"

But Kennedy had turned away from him, and was not listening anymore.

Bush shook his head at the darkness and muttered, "Very clever, lieutenant."

Then there was nothing else for Bush to do then but try and go back to sleep, and put Wellard's troublesome rantings out of his mind. So he settled himself down on the thin ticking and hoped that Wellard's terrified words were not a premonition.

************************************
Dr. Clive fumbled in the dark for his wig as he listened to the angry bangings at his door.

"I'm coming, damn it!" he shouted, trying to guess how late it was by how exhausted he felt. He stumbled out of his cot and decided it was far too late to be standing.

The pounding continued, and Clive gave up trying to find his hairpiece and instead tried to locate the handle to his door. That, fortunately, was right where he'd left it, and the doctor opened the door and squinted into the light beyond.

"Who the hell is it?" he demanded; his eyes had not yet adjusted.

"Me," came the reply.

"Who? That's no answer, damn it - "

"Hobbs," said the shadowy figure, and pushed past Clive into his cabin.

Clive turned in some surprise; he wasn't drunk, but it didn't sound like Hobbs. The voice sounded thick and muffled for some reason. "Well, what is it that can't wait till morning? It must be past midnight."

Banging noises, and a sulphur match flared. Squinting again, Clive turned away with an annoyed grunt. Turning back slowly he said, "You might warn a man before you barge into his living quarters and..."

The words trailed off and he stared at Hobbs' face. It was bruised and swollen, and there was a bad cut on the left side. His uniform was likewise battered and dirty, and blood smeared his waistcoat and pants. Hobbs was leaning heavily against the doctor's table, and still it looked as if he might fall. "Good God! What happened to you?"

"What do you think?" Hobbs replied acidly, his eyes flashing. "They were waiting for me down in the hold."

"Well - sit down, before you fall over." Clive went to his box of bandages; Hobbs didn't move. "Who was waiting for you?"

"Griggs, one of the hands," Hobbs touched the back of one scratched hand to his swollen lip. "Some others, I couldn't see their faces."

"Hm," Clive set some lengths of linen on the table and slopped some water into a bowl. "Well, at least in port you won't get seawater for your wounds. Tilt your head back."

Hobbs did, wincing in pain. Clive put his hands on Hobbs' face to steady it. "You're shaking. I told you to sit down - "

"Just get on with it, damn it," Hobbs snapped. "I got business to see to."

"Business?" Clive repeated as he held Hobbs' face in one expert hand and dabbed at a nasty scratch with the other. "Then I take it you haven't reported this yet."

"Ow! Report it, to who? Captain doesn't care, first lieutenant's had it in for me from the start."

Clive finished his dabbing and glanced at the bloodied gauze as he drew it away. "I would imagine the bosun..."

"His mate was in on it."

Clive stopped, looked at Hobbs in surprise. "You mean seaman Styles was there?"

Hobbs was staring into the darkness at nothing and shaking his head. "I was a fool. Only one way out, he's right. Won't live five minutes on this ship no matter how the trial turns out."

"Gad, look at your hands. Here," Clive took one of Hobbs' torn hands in his own, swabbing it with salve as he spoke. "You'll want to wrap these, at least for tonight. Tomorrow you - "

"Tomorrow I won't be here," Hobbs growled, and Clive looked up into his eyes. They were two perfect burning brands against the bloody canvas of his face. "Give me something, I don't care, I got to go ashore tonight. I been a fool and a traitor to the captain's memory and it's gonna end, right now."

"Go ashore? You can hardly walk. Certainly it can wait until morning - "

Hobbs grabbed Clive's sleeve, lightning quick. His expression was frantic. "No, it can't wait. Not anymore. I thought things could be different but they're not, and they never will be. Randall was right, it don't matter where I am so long as I'm not here. And - and there's got to be a reckoning. For this, and for what happened to the captain."

Clive stared into those eyes, burning with a zeal his tired and complacent soul couldn't understand. Finally he looked down to bandage Hobbs' hands. "I can give you something for the pain, and after that what you do is your own business. But I don't know who could be ashore who's going to help things now."

"I do," Hobbs muttered, and hissed something under his breath that almost sounded to Clive like "Buckland". But of course the doctor knew that had to be wrong, because Buckland was an ineffective fool who had done the Renown far more harm than good, and didn't like Hobbs at all.

So it couldn't be Buckland; but then, who was it? And what in the world could be done, for any of them? Clive wanted to ask, but Hobbs' angry, faraway expression told him it would probably be a waste of time; besides, he was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to get the injured man out of his cabin so he could get back to sleep. And really, what did any of it matter anyway? So Clive kept his mouth shut, bandaged Hobbs' raw and bleeding hands, and hated what his life had become.

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

Matthews walked down the corridors of the Renown, swinging his lantern in front of him as he went. The watch had changed, most of the men were settled in for the night, and it looked like it might be another quiet evening. Just as well, because Matthews was tired and needed a good long rest.

As he walked along Matthews studied the way ahead of him, the darkness and light laced together like trees filtering sunlight in a forest. Funny how each ship had it own kind of shadows. His old ship, the Indefatigable, it didn't seem to have too much in the way of shadows at all; everywhere it was bustling and active, somebody needed light to mend a sail or haul goods to the hold. It seemed too busy to have darkness.

Justinian, that was another story. Matthews frowned at the memory; Justinian was a ship-of-the-line, like Renown, and full of black corners and places you didn't want to go. There was an oppresive air on that ship that haunted Matthews, and perhaps it would have been there even if it hadn't been for the twisted, malevolent presence of midshipman Jack Simpson. But certainly he made it worse. Certainly the dark corners and foullness was still on that ship, broken and burned at the bottom of the sea...

Then there was this ship. Renown was an all right place, or at least it was at first; but the shadows here hid things, not bad things necessarily but things that shouldn't have to be hidden. Not if they lived by the laws of nature instead of the laws of King George, anyway; that was Matthews' reckoning. Why, anyone could see that poor old Captain Sawyer was, well, off his twig. Matthews had lived long enough to see many men in such a state, and when he lived ashore such men weren't cooed at and kept in places of responsibility - they were shifted away, put where they couldn't harm anybody, and looked after. Right and proper it was, and if it had gone that way this time they wouldn't be in the fix they were in. It was treason to think so Matthews supposed, but what harm would it have done if someone - like Mr. Hornblower - could have gone to Sawyer and just said, 'Now look, sir, you're not well and it's no use fooling ourselves. Now you go have a nice lie-down and let us run the ship'.

Everyone would have been happier. Perhaps they could have found a way to keep them Dagos from busting the hold, and Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Bush wouldn't have gotten wounded, not to mention that poor chap, Wellard. It was a shame, and sometimes the injustic of it all made Matthews disgusted with the Navy.

Not that he would ever leave it, of course. Someone had to look after these fellows, after all!

Matthews reached the end of his watch, and decided to cut up through the carpenter's walk and make sure there was no mischief being made there - the darkness and solitude of that corridor, running as it did the entire length of the ship, made it a prime spot for plotting and smuggling. And with things going the way they had been, Matthews was not about to take chances.

He found the entrance to the walk and began making his way down that narrow hall, grateful he had his lantern as it would have been pitch black without it. The great ribs of the Renown towered above and arched below, like he was walking along the ribcage of a giant beast. A giant glowering beast, Matthews thought, his keen eyes watching the undulating shadows his lantern made. There was always a hint of danger in this place, always his hair stood on end when he traversed it. Because you never knew...

Something moved in the darkness ahead. Tensing, Matthews squinted and raised his lantern higher. Something dark and close to the deck, just behind one of the timbers...

Not the carpenter. "Who's there?"

A cough that sounded like a groan. Gripping his rattan cane, Matthews stepped closer. Drunken rating probably. "'ere now, when you're spoken to - "

He looked around the timber and stopped. It was Styles.

Styles winced at the light, then looked away with a grunt. "Go 'way, Matty. I mean it."

Startled, Matthews held the lantern away...then brought it closer when he saw marks of blood on Styles' clothes, and even though his face was hidden by his long hair there were scratches there too. "What happened to yeh?"

The other man shook his head, flexing his hands which he held together in his lap.

Bloody hell, Matthews thought. "Styles? You been fightin'?"

Styles continued to shake his head, as if dazed. Slowly he said, "I done a bad thing, Matty. It just came back, like it never left. Didn't think I could ever do that again..."

Feeling his hackles rise again, Matthews leaned back slowly. "What are you on about, mate?"

Styles looked at him then, surprise on his marred features. "He didn't report it then? I figured he would..."

A realization hit, and Matthews lowered the lantern. The shadows rose around him like accusations. "Bloody hell. Hobbs."

Styles' eyes glittered in the dark. "Yeah, Hobbs. I didn't mean to, Matty, but - " he balled one fist and caressed it with his other hand, "Where I come from, you get hurt, you return it, see? Where we both come from, you remember."

"God almighty, Styles, it's a hangin' offence - "

Styles glared. "So was hittin' me. Randall got away with it."

"That don't mean you repay it in kind. You know that, mate! You know that."

Styles frowned and looked down at the aging timbers. Matthews looked at him closely; it was unsettling, seeing Styles like this, crouching in the shadows with blood and bruises on him. He looked almost deranged.

After a few moments Styles spoke. "Yeh, I know it. But somethin'... somethin's been eatin' at me, Matty, ever since that bastard Randall and 'obbs got on us... I took it for as long as I could, but it was like a storm gettin' ready to burst, and when Randall pushed that boy off the ropes...when 'obbs started in on Mr. Wellard... and..." one hand strayed to his midsection, and Matthews knew how painful the injuries from his beating still were, how deep the humiliation went. Finally Styles raised anguished eyes to his friend and whispered, "It had to break, Matty. You know it did."

The lantern lowered a little further. Matthews said nothing.

Styles slumped a little against the bulkhead. "'Spose I really gone and done it now. Might as well be back on Justinian with Simpson. Back to being just another rotten dog."

Matthews took a deep breath, let it back out slowly. "Where'd you leave him?"

Styles glanced up, then shrugged. "I ran off after hittin' 'im once, dunno what happened after." He flexed his hand again and looked at it with revulsion. "Dunno why, but it made me sick, 'ittin' 'im that way. Maybe it just takes gettin' used to is all."

"Now don't go sayin' that," Matthews advised, leaning against the bulkhead and looking at Styles thoughtfully. After a moment he shook his head. "You've got us in quite a fix, mate. If Mr. Hobbs reports you it'll be the gratings at least."

Styles' shoulders slumped further and he stared at the deck. "Got it comin' I guess. Maybe it'll go me some good."

"Good?"

It was an odd thing for Styles to say, and for a moment Matthews wondered if his friend's mind might be wandering; but as he watched Styles bent forward and curled into himself, wrapping his arms around his middle as if it hurt. He looked up at Matthews; hopelessness and fear was etched in every brittle-hard line of his face.

"I want this out of me. Whatever it takes. Don't want to be an animal again. It hurts. Worse than the bruises. Worse than hangin'."

Matthews felt a rush of sympathy, and said, "You're a far cry from what you were, Styles. We both are, thanks to Mr. 'ornblower."

"I know," Styles replied, still hunched over. "I hate thinkin' what he's gonna say when he finds out. I didn't do him no favors, that's for sure."

Styles lowered his head, the long hair obscuring his shamed expression. After a moment Matthews knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder. "Come on, mate. Let's get you 'ome and we'll see what's to do in the morning."

Styles looked up at Matthews and blinked. "Don't you need to report this or somethin'?"

Matthews shook his head as he helped his friend to his feet. "Till Hobbs says somethin' I can keep me mouth shut. No use lookin' for trouble when it seems to find us right enough!"

"I s'pose," Styles muttered, swaying a little on his feet; Matthews placed a steadying hand on his arm..

Styles looked at that hand, then at Matthews, and it was very odd; he had always been a big man, much bigger than Matthews, but at the moment he seemed small, small and very shamed. "Yer a good friend to me, Matty. I don't deserve it. Never have."

Matthews didn't know what to say to that; finally he simply shrugged and said, "Come on, let's get ye home."

Styles nodded, and together they walked down the narrow corridor in the wavering light. After going a few steps Styles muttered, " 'e did have it comin', Matty. I just 'ope 'e don't cause no trouble."

"I know he did, Styles. Let's get you to bed."

***************************
Hobbs walked slowly through the Jamaican night, favoring one leg that had a nasty ache in it and watching his surroundings. He knew what he had to do; still, it was very hard to think that this would make everything all right again.

It wouldn't, of course; nothing could return him to the life of security and worth that he had known under Captain Sawyer. Any illusions that those days could come again had just been beaten out of them, and something exhausted in Hobbs had simply collapsed. His life was over no matter what happened; the only thing he could do now was ensure that it did not end badly.

To do that, he had to get to the Admiralty, to Buckland. But as he walked through the tropical streets Hobbs realized he didn't quite know how to do that. He had been to the infirmary, and knew that Buckland's rooms must be near there somewhere; but he didn't want to arouse suspicions by asking questions that could get him into trouble later. As it was he knew he would always have to watch his back...

As he walked, the thought fluttered through his mind: go to Hornblower. Against his better reason Hobbs wondered if Hornblower might be angered by his injuries, perhaps discipline the men who attacked him. Captain James might order a lashing, but Hobbs knew enough about the men of Renown to know that he would still be a dead man before sunrise; his only hope would be if Hornblower, who was respected by the crew, would take his part.

But could that ever happen? Styles was Hornblower's man, and Hobbs winced as he recalled the smouldering anger in Hornblower's face when Styles had been beaten, and Sawyer had dismissed the charges. Hobbs knew it was wrong, but also knew it was the way Sawyer thought; besides, it came out in their favor, so why not support it? But now the shoe was on the other foot, and he knew it was too much to hope for mercy and redemption. Hornblower wouldn't listen; Hornblower would say he deserved it, and cut him off without another word.

Even if he had warned Styles not to get into trouble. And even if he had given Hobbs the barest hint of respect...

Hobbs shook his head and kept walking. It was late, he was groggy from his injuries, and he was losing his resolve. This had to be done soon. He had to make up his mind.

The large red building that marked the assemblage of the Admiralty loomed ahead, and Hobbs stopped in a side street to think his strategy through. As he ducked into the shadows he heard a door open and voices from a short distance away.

"Thank you for your hospitality, Colonel Beacham, but it is late and I must return to my ship."

Trent's voice. Hobbs shrank deeper into the shadows.

Another voice came, one Hobbs didn't recognize. "Of course, my boy, I'm happy we had a chance to talk. Lucky I caught you in the hallway or I would have missed the opportunity to find out how that family of yours is doing. Give my best to your father, won't you?"

"I will."

"And good luck with that crew on the Renown. If anyone can whip those blackguards into shape I know you can."

"Thank you, sir."

"They're a hard-looking lot, I'm certain you'll have to keep quite the close eye on them."

"Indeed. Strange, but the former third lieutenant said the same thing to me earlier this evening."

"Third Lieutenant? That Hornblower fellow?"

"The same. Captain James wished me to interview him, discover what I could about the men of the Renown."

"Well, I imagine he had quite a bit to say. From what I hear the boy is something of a legend in some quarters."

"But not in all of them," Trent said quickly, and Hobbs thought there was an edge there. "He's had a bad time with the hands, and his lack of discipline has led to this - this unfortunate situation. He as much as admitted it to me."

"Did he!"

"Yes, he practically begged me to watch out for the men, seemed to think they would riot any minute. Men like his gunner."

The breath caught in Hobbs' throat.

"You don't say? He admitted this to you?"

"Yes. Except for his own men, of course. They can do no wrong in his eyes, and they seem to see him as some sort of saint. Very bad for the ship, if you ask me."

"I should think so!"

"Well, I should be going. Good night, colonel, and call on me when this business is through. I'll stand you to a drink at the best tavern on the island."

More words were said, but Hobbs pressed himself against the wall and didn't hear them. Trent's words made him feel more trapped than ever - no hope of help from Hornblower, and no justice against any injuries inflicted by his men. His course was clear.

The footsteps came closer, and long shadows approached in the lanternlight. As Hobbs watched, Trent came walking past with three marines. Just past the alley he stopped and turned to the marine standing just behind him. He said something, by way of dismissal Hobbs guessed, and as Trent and the others walked on the third marine turned around and began walking back toward the Admiralty.

Hobbs quickly stepped out of the shadows. The marine, a young lad with brown hair, stopped short and stared at him.

Hobbs met those eyes and saw the shock there. He knew what his beaten face must look like; a sudden frantic need to save himself came to the fore. "I need to speak to Lieutenant Buckland."

The marine blinked. "My apologies, Mr. Hobbs, but the officers have retired for the night. I can deliver a message in the morning."

I might be dead in the morning, Hobbs thought. "Please, just take me to his rooms. He's - he's expecting me."

The marine hesitated, his hazel eyes doubtful. "I can do as you bid, sir, but he's likely to be asleep. With all due respect, won't he be very angry if you wake him up?"

Hobbs shook his head, and for the first time that night began to feel better about things. "Not when he hears what I have to say. Trust me."

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

The two men walked back towards the Admiralty, down empty walkways and through corridors dark with sleep. And as they approached the rooms of the former first lieutenant of the Renown, the marine Russell decided he didn't like this situation at all.

It had been bad enough when that Trent fellow was about. Russell didn't think himself the quickest of wits - at least his brother always said he was fairly stupid - but there was something underhanded about Trent, for all his fancy braid and polite smiling. From the moment he stepped up to Russell and asked to see Mr. Hornblower to just now, when he left, he had been - well, kind of tightly wound, or like a cannon that was smoking and about to blow up in everyone's faces. And Russell didn't think he liked Mr. Hornblower, at least not judging by the snatches of conversation he had caught while loitering in the hallway waiting to escort Trent off the premises. The words were friendly enough but cutting, snide, like his brother used to talk to him when he'd done something wrong. Not bad enough to ever get caught, but bad; that was Russell's brother. And - probably - that was first lieutenant Trent as well.

And now there was this chap. Russell knew Hobbs, of course; all the marines did, in the old days they were constantly being called to break up a fight that Hobbs had started, or pick him up out of the hold when he and that Randall fellow had gotten drunk and fallen into it - likely that was where he'd gotten the bruises on his face. Hobbs didn't like Hornblower either, and as they neared Buckland's door Russell promised himself to stay as close to the conversation as possible. Something bad was in the wind and he wanted to be close to it. It was his job, after all.

They turned the last corner in the candlelit hallway, and Russell was surprised to see a sliver of candlelight beneath Buckland's door.

"See?" came Hobbs' voice behind him. "Told you he wasn't asleep."

Russell lifted up his hand to knock, then hesitated. He shouldn't be doing this; anyone coming together at this time of night was up to no good, and he was helping it when he didn't want to. He lowered his hand and frowned.

Hobbs shifted impatiently. "Well?"

Russell shook his head, scarcely aware he was doing it. "It's after hours, sir. This is a breach of protocol - "

Hobbs grunted in irritation and reaching in front of Russell knocked firmly on the door. Russell winced.

There was silence for a few moments; then shuffling and bumping. Finally the latch rattled and the door cracked open, revealing part of Buckland's face. It looked bleary and dissheveled. "Yes?"

Russell cleared his throat and tried to meet Buckland's gaze. It was not easy because the one eye that was visible kept darting between him and Hobbs. "Sorry to disturb you, sir, but - Mr. 'obbs wants to see you."

The door opened wider. More of Buckland appeared: a rumpled uniform, hair hanging loosely half-out of his queue, reddened eyes. A veil of alcohol hung in the air around him.

But his expression - at the sound of Hobbs' names there was a moment of confusion, then Russell saw something flash through Buckland's eyes, surprise, then hesitant hope and a mad kind of triumph. It was frightening to see.

As Russell tried to think of something to say, Buckland looked at Hobbs, and the hesitation in his eyes turned to suspicion. "Mr. Hobbs?"

Russell turned to Hobbs; there was a strange expression on that man's face too. "Good evening, sir. I'm sorry to disturb you but I've come to - to report a disturbance. And also... to go over the ship's business we discussed earlier."

Hobbs' voice was a little unsteady, but Russell didn't think he'd been drinking; still, his face was flushed beneath the scratches and swelling. He glanced at Russell quickly, then looked at the floor.

Buckland didn't move at all, except for his eyes. They looked Hobbs up and down, like a predatory bird. "Business? *Pressing* business?"

Hobbs looked up again, and he moved back a little bit as if unsure about something; then he nodded. "Yes, sir. It can't wait."

There was a pause; the door opened wider. Then Buckland looked straight at Russell, with eyes that almost burned him with the fierceness there. "You wait here. Outside, down the hall. I won't have you men sniffing about my door for scraps to gossip about at the mess table."

Russell was surprised; of course he wasn't going to go in, but Buckland sounded more frightened than angry. "Sir, I - "

"It's all right," Hobbs said quietly, nodding to Russell in dismissal. "Wait down there, it's ship's business."

Buckland frowned at Russell imperiously, and the young marine knew he must obey or be sent away - and he had to stay close now, because something was going on that made his stomach hurt. He nodded mutely and edged away from the door.

He didn't see Hobbs enter the room, but a moment after he turned his back he heard the soft *thud* of the door being closed, and knew he was alone in the hall. He turned and looked at the whitewashed door with a sense of dread - first Hammond, then Trent, and now this was going on - Hornblower had no one on his side, no one. Perhaps they were talking about lying to get the lieutenant and his friends hanged - or maybe they just wanted one of them. Either way it was bad.

The voices inside were low, and Russell knew he could go no closer. *I should tell someone*, he thought, but who? The Commodore, he liked Hornblower. Certainly this was suspicious enough that he would ask questions...

But what would he say? It wasn't against regulations for two officers to talk to each other, even at this time of the night, and he didn't know what they were talking about. And it would be his word against theirs - any of them could order him to the brig with half a syllable, and then he couldn't help anyone. Maybe they'd all die, and it would be his fault...

Russell bit his lip and, after a long and thoughtful pause, stood his musket on the ground and leaned on it with a sigh. He hated doing nothing, but if something was going on he was going to make damn sure he knew about it, even if no one else did. Maybe he could do something to undo his brother's idiocy, or help mend it. In any case this was where he had ended up; he knew the only thing to do was make the best of it. So he leaned a little more on his trusted firearm, and waited for the candles to burn out.

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

"You wished to see me?" Buckland said, as soon as the door was closed.

Hobbs looked at his superior officer and winced; the man was clearly drunk, and the entire room reeked of alcohol and self-pity. Christ, he hated Buckland. Still, he had to see this through. "Yes, sir. It's about - it's about Hornblower."

Buckland blinked quickly and glanced at the door, then moved away from it; he motioned Hobbs to do the same, and they ended up in the middle of the main room before he whispered, "You know I'm only seeking the truth. Anything less and we could both be hanged for it."

Hobbs hesitated; then he said, "I understand, sir. I'm not doing this for favors. I'm doing it because it's right."

Buckland peered closer. "What happened to you?"

Hobbs looked down, suddenly ashamed of his injuries. "They caught me out, belowdecks. Should have known better I suppose."

"I'm sorry," Buckland said, and he sounded sincere. "If I had been there I could have prevented it. They're encouraged, you know, by the example of Hornblower and his men. It will only get worse for you."

A surge of impatience roared through Hobbs, and he took a deep, choking breath before looking at Buckland pleadingly. "What do I do, sir? I mean - what happens now?"

Buckland took a step back, his expression turning stiff and blank. "What is it - in particular - you wish to say to me?"

Hobbs knew what Buckland wanted; even if prying ears were about, it couldn't ever be said that the words had been goaded from him. "Sir, I - I have evidence that Captain Sawyer did not fall down the hold."

The words seemed to hang in the air; a false breath and they might shatter. From the look in Buckland's eyes, he could see the letters as they drifted in space. "Do you? How is that?"

"The midshipman - " Hobbs swallowed, hard; he hated what he had to say, but it was necessary. "Wellard, he - he knew what happened. He told me."

Buckland's voice was tight. "You'll testify to that? At the inquiry?"

"If I have to. Yes, sir. It's...it's what has to be done."

"And these events, your - beating, they haven't influenced your decision in any way? They will be most keen on this."

Hobbs paused; but of course, there was no going back. "No, sir. I knew what had to be, I was just too blind to see it. But I know - " Hobbs choked on the words, surprising even himself. "I know how things are now. Nobody's safe."

"Yes," Buckland nodded, in the same stiff bird-like manner; his eyes were shining. "Yes, you're right, Mr. Hobbs. You did well to come and see me."

They stood there for a moment, not moving; then Hobbs let out a slow breath and said, "So will I testify?"

"Yes, eventually," Buckland replied quietly, finally breaking his stance to walk towards a writing desk that stood in the corner of the room. "But I will need your assertion in writing first. I'll have it sent to Captain Hammond in the morning, before the inquiry convenes. He will be pleased that we have been able to bring this - business - to a conclusion at last."

Hobbs winced again as Buckland brought out the quill and paper. He didn't feel pleased; he felt sick. "What about the other captains? The Commodore?"

"Oh - yes, I understand there is some sort of bond of affection between the commodore and Hornblower but he cannot deny the facts. We will make certain he cannot block justice from being done."

Justice - Hobbs looked down at his bruised hands and remembered Styles' bruises. There had been no justice for him, and it had not bothered Hobbs at all. But he would have justice by destroying the man Styles admired, the man he himself almost - almost felt -

No. No more loyalty, the cost was too high. Remember what Trent said, Hornblower would laugh if he knew what had happened belowdecks. Hobbs forced his regrets down, but it hurt. It hurt so much it surprised him.

Buckland glanced up and must have caught the other man's expression, because he paused. Then he patted Hobbs on the arm and said, "It is a difficult thing, Mr. Hobbs, but it must be done. Mr. Hornblower is guilty and he must be punished according to our law. Don't be like the rabble and let his charms dissuade you."

Hobbs glanced at the fancy writing and saw something that made his heart sink. "Can we leave Mr. Wellard's name out of this, sir? Won't help him any."

"Oh - " Buckland began writing, a practiced hand Hobbs could barely read. "I'm afraid not, you see since you were not present in the hold the inquiry will need absolute proof that your assertions are true. I've no doubt Mr. Wellard knew this when he told you Hornblower pushed the captain."

Hobbs breathed in quickly. "But he - I mean, he won't have to go in there, will he? He's half-dead himself..."

"No," Buckland answered as the pen scribbled lightly on the paper. "No, your word should be sufficient."

A long pause. Then Hobbs said, "Oh."

Buckland paused again, looked up from the paper. Then he met Hobbs' troubled gaze and said, "Mr. Hobbs, don't forget that you are doing Wellard a service in this also. You are relieving him of the burden of guilt, and once free of this inquiry I am certain that Captain Hammond will ensure that he has the best of care so that he may recover from his injuries."

Hobbs frowned. "He'd do that, you think?"

"I can insist on it, if you like. After this the captain and I should be the best of friends."

There was something sickening in that thought, and Hobbs forced it out of his head. Instead he focused on the promise in Buckland's words - for all his bombast, they might be true. Certainly if Wellard helped Hammond get what he wanted, the captain would be grateful. Everyone knew of Hammond's family, his money and connections. He could get Wellard back to England in comfort, get him the best doctors. The boy could get well again. And Hobbs would have a new ship to call home...

Yes...yes, concentrate on that. Not the cost of it, but the result. A new ship, freedom from fear and pain, and help. Maybe it would all come out all right after all. Maybe...

With no ship, no safe harbor, and no captain to be loyal to, Hobbs clung to the only tattered hopes he had and watched as Buckland dipped the quill in the ink and wrote, trying not to think how in the candlelight the ink looked red as blood, and how elegant Buckland's hand was as he etched out the words in delicate loops and lines, damning them all.

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

Bush awoke early the next morning, before the sun had even risen; his dreams were too troubling to make him want to sleep. Fortunately, there was enough gray light in the infirmary for him to rise carefully and begin to dress in the cleaned uniform that was sitting neatly folded by his cot. Clean underdrawers, shirt - a new one, without saber cut or blood; stockings, trousers; then vest (very carefully on that one), and finally his jacket.

When he had finished this, Bush looked down at himself and cursed; he had gotten dressed far too quickly, and had nothing to do but fidget and wait until the inquiry, when he would be called to give his account of the events leading to Sawyer's incapacitation.

Fidget and wait. Two things Bush hated to do. But it could not be helped.

He pulled the fingers of one hand through his long, curly hair and glanced around for the queue ribbon; it was not on the chair with his other clothes. The sun had risen further, and the patients were stirring in their cots; Bush noticed as his eyes roamed the room that Kennedy was still asleep, resting on his back with his face turned away. In the corner, half-hidden from view, Wellard seemed to be sleeping as well, which was good news at any rate; if he was awake he would likely be too anxious over the inquiry to do any constructive healing. Better if he was unconscious through the whole thing.

What am I going to say? Bush thought as he hunted for the ribbon; it was not on the floor. He couldn't think about his words at the inquiry anymore, his brain was numb from worrying about it. To be completely honest would be to invite the hangman; to lie would be a far worse trap. He had turned the quandary over in his mind until he had fallen asleep, and his reward was to have visions full of darkness and panic and feelings of suffocation.

He was tired of it. Bush, who in his entire life knew little besides order, discipline, and squared-off rules, could not think of the inquiry for a moment longer. His mind would not allow it.

And he couldn't find that blasted hair ribbon.

"Lieutenant Bush, sir?"

It was a whispered voice, just behind him. Bush turned to see the Marine, Russell, standing there with a puzzled expression on his face and holding a dark blue ribbon in his right hand.

"Didn't think you'd be up yet, sir," Russell whispered apologetically, and held out the ribbon. "It's probably this you're looking for."

Bush took the ribbon with a nod. "Thank you."

Russell nodded back and set his musket in front of him, leaning on it with both hands wrapped casually around the barrel. "I'm s'posed to escort you in, sir, just after eight. You got time if I can get you anything to eat."

Bush frowned as he tied his hair back. "That's not your responsibility, Mr. Russell. The orderlies here do that."

Russell looked down at the floor and shrugged. "I know, sir. Give me something to do, though."

It was an odd thing for a Marine to say, even one who just the day before had been mopping Kennedy's brow. Bush tugged his queue into place and asked, "Are you bored, Mr. Russell?"

"Me, sir? No, sir."

"Nervous, then?"

Looking as if he'd been caught out, Russell's eyes darted again to the floor. "N-no, well, a bit, it's just...I don't like it is all, some of them what are trying you. I wish it was different."

"We all do," Bush replied as he straightened his collar.

"No, I mean - " Russell began, then abruptly stopped. When Bush looked at him again, the youth was wide-eyed with consternation.

"Well?" Bush finally said, trying to keep his voice quiet. "What is it you mean?"

Russell paused, still looking like a fox staring down a bloodhound's gullet. "I dunno."

Bush grimaced. "Russell, is there coffee?"

"Yes, sir, just as you come in..."

"Please get me some."

Russell nodded and darted off, and Bush watched him go with a mixture of relief and anxiety. The lad couldn't know much, but he knew more than he was telling. Who was he referring to, and who was he afraid of? It wasn't Bush he was staring at with frightened eyes, it was someone else. Was the inquiry going badly? Perhaps that was it...

God. And he was going to testify in a few hours.

"Well. So that is what a proper officer looks like."

Bush glanced down and saw that Kennedy had moved his head and was regarding Bush with bleary eyes and a face still flushed from sleep. Smiling at his shipmate he whispered, "Did I wake you?"

"Hard to tell," Kennedy answered in low, raspy tones as he shifted on the cot. "I was dreaming about two magpies arguing outside the window of my childhood bedroom. Either they woke me up or you did."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. The magpies wouldn't have."

Bush had no answer to that, but was gratified that Kennedy's breathing seemed a bit easier, and he had a little more color than the day before. The first good news of the morning. "Need any help?"

There was no reason to elaborate on that line of questioning. Kennedy shook his head. "I awoke a few hours ago, and Sankey's orderly helped me." He paused, then said quietly, "I have every confidence in you, Mr. Bush - or should I say, William. We'll all pull out of this together."

"I hope so," Bush replied, fighting the urge to fuss with his jacket buttons. "The horizon is fairly misty from here, though."

"You should see it from down here," Kennedy deadpanned, but with a hint of a smile. "If you were a romantic type of fellow you could see horizons even *through* the mist."

"That is your peculiar talent, Mr. Kennedy, not mine," Bush smiled back as he double-checked his jacket cuffs. "But at the moment I would give a hundred pounds to be in your place and not in mine."

"Just remember," Kennedy whispered, "you read from the Bard. No one can do that and not be touched."

Not joking words; Kennedy was utterly serious. Bush looked at him, some self-deprecating remark on his lips. But Kennedy had closed his eyes again, and Russell appeared with a steaming cup of very strong-smelling coffee.

"Everything all right, sir?" Russell asked, looking Bush up and down as if assessing his condition.

Bush nodded. "Yes, Russell, I think - I think I had better take that outside so everyone can sleep."

"Yes, sir. You'll want to walk slow. Shall I help?"

"No thank you," Bush replied, even though his wound ached if he moved the wrong way and his breathing was far from easy. He couldn't lean on anyone now; he would stand alone soon and he needed to be ready. He slowly took the cup from Russell's grip and nodded toward the door.

Understanding, the young marine turned and setting his musket on his shoulder stood beside Bush and began escorting him from the safety of the infirmary into the danger that lay beyond the door. Bush followed stride, deliberately swallowing his fear as the door grew closer; be it morning mist or his own folly, he could not see what lay beyond it. He thought he heard a weary voice somewhere behind him whisper, "Bring him with triumph home to his house."

Shakespeare. It had to be Kennedy. But of course that was impossible, because they were too far away to hear him, and he was certainly asleep.

***

Pellew sat in the dark-paneled inquiry room, gazing thoughtfully at his cup of tea with Captain Collins sitting beside him. It had been full half an hour since the two men had arrived for that morning's business and been served their tea and papers. Still barely five words had been uttered.

Finally Collins took another sip of his tea and said, "I hope to God this affair is ended soon. These men should be out on the waters fighting France, not waiting here in idleness while their ability rots away. Who are we seeing first?"

"Second Lieutenant Bush," Pellew replied, and took a sip of tea.

"Oh! Excellent, we should learn a lot from him. Perhaps enough to bring this business to a close."

"Perhaps. He was wounded in the fight with the Spanish prisoners, so his testimony has been delayed."

"Hm."

 

Pellew once again raised his glass to his lips, but at that moment the tall door opened and Captain Hammond strode in, his face florid with scowling emotion. In his hand he held a folded piece of white paper, which he handed the letter to Pellew without salutation. "Commodore, with all respect I think you need to read this immediately."

"What is it?" Pellew asked, taking the paper and unfolding it.

"A letter that was delivered to me early this morning from one of the gunners aboard Renown."

Pellew scanned the letter, then muttered, "Hobbs? That name has come up before."

"Aye, once or twice. Did you read it, Commodore?"

Pellew gazed at the writing again, then set the letter down slowly. "Yes, captain, I did."

"Well? Is it not something we should take seriously? You barely look interested."

Collins slid a hand toward the paper. "Now you've got me curious. What does it say?"

"That there is someone on Renown who *knows* Captain Sawyer was pushed, and *knows* who did it!" Hammond declared, walking around the large table in wide steps. "And what's more, he's prepared to officially say so, at once."

"Really?" Collins asked, intrigued.

"Come now, Hammond," Pellew leaned back in his chair, "From what I remember Mr. Hobbs is an unpopular member of the crew with more than enough reason to seek revenge on his superiors. Why should we give this accusation more merit than any other theory?"

Collins mumbled over the letter and then said, "Hornblower! Really!"

"And why should we give it less?" Hammond insisted, stopping at the far end of the table and squaring his broad shoulders. "Because this Hobbs fellow was disliked, does that make him wrong? This is the first solid evidence we've had yet that Sawyer's death was no accident. His blood demands that we pursue it."

"Oh, belay the melodrama, Hammond," Pellew said with an irritated wince. "His blood demands only that we discover the truth. Which will be much harder to ascertain if we listen to the rantings of every dissatisfied seaman in the fleet..."

Hammond gazed at Pellew for a moment, then shook his head. "Commodore, with all due respect, your blatant favoritism for young Mr. Hornblower is shocking to me. Would you dismiss that letter if it could prove him blameless? Would you toss aside any words that could spare him from the noose? I don't believe it. This man must know the penalty for perjury, and surely he cannot be blind to the world's worship of the lieutenant, yet he comes forward with these words that could solve our crisis once and for all. Are you suggesting that we push it aside simply because it doesn't suit you? Does the Admiralty know of this peculiarity in your nature?"

Pellew glared back at Hammond, the color in his cheeks rising. Before he could reply, however, Hammond tilted his head and stared keenly over the table. "Captain Collins, what do you think?"

Collins started a bit, looking up from the paper in surprise, then shrugged and said, "He has some interesting things to say, that's certain. If he didn't believe it I doubt he would put pen to paper. We should question him, at least. Definitely."

"Well!" Hammond declared, waving a hand in Collins' direction, "Surely you cannot object to that, Commodore."

"But, you know," Collins continued, turning the paper at an angle, "I've seen this handwriting before. Isn't it Buckland's?"

Hammond didn't pause for a moment. "In fact, I believe it is. It wouldn't surprise me if Mr. Hobbs were one step from illiterate. He would need the letter transcribed, and who better than his commanding officer."

"*Buckland's* involved in this?" Pellew spat, his dark eyes becoming even stormier. "Charles, have you lost all sense? You would take seriously the word of a man who ran his ship aground and sent his men to be slaughtered while he sailed away to safety?"

"Not his word, sir!" Hammond's scowl equaled Pellew's own. "His gunner, Hobbs. Regardless of your eagerness to deny it I believe this is a matter worth pursuing, and I intend to do it. The Crown wants us to find out the truth, and I will find it despite your objections. And if you elect to drop the matter I will set a copy of this letter in the king's hands if I have to, to see justice done."

A thick silence fell in the room. Hammond and Pellew glared at each other, and if lightning flashed between them an onlooker would not have been surprised. Volumes of animosity hung in the air; the room was leaden with it.

At length the tension was broken by Collins, who fluttered the letter to the table and shrugged. "Well, I'm certain it couldn't hurt to *speak* to the fellow, at any rate. Who knows but perhaps Hornblower *did* do it?"

Pellew winced, ever so slightly, but Hammond saw it. His reaction was just as slight; a barely perceptable nod, and a subtle gleam in his shrewd, small eyes.

"My attitude precisely," he rumbled. "If we did any less, we would be useless to the king. Now," he sat down opposite Pellew, his triumphant gaze never moving from the commodore's eyes, "before we get on to speaking with Lieutenant Bush, I'd like some damn coffee."

And he brushed the letter aside.

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

 

To be continued...