Fidus Achates
by Sarah B.

Part Eight

"Once again, Mr. Wellard."

The morning sun was bright in the infirmary, but Bush had no eye for it; instead, he leaned against the wall next to Wellard's cot and watched Dr. Sankey check the boy's breathing.

Wellard had awakened a half-hour before disoriented and in pain; now, he bit his lip and struggled to breathe as the doctor leaned close to his mouth and put a hand on his chest.

"Hm," Sankey said, which infuriated Bush because it told him nothing. He remembered how Wellard had slept the entire day before, and his grogginess when awake. He did not seem to be deteriorating, but clearly he was not getting better either. Bush was baffled; and this blasted doctor was not helping matters at all!

Wellard breathed again, his dark eyes wide and his face covered in a fine sweat. Sankey nodded and rose with an ingratiating smile. "You have some congestion in the lungs, Mr. Wellard, but that is not surprising given the nature of your injury. Also this damn tropical moisture brings all manner of irritants with it. Are you in a lot of pain?"

Wellard nodded, not surprisingly. Bush felt a little guilty that he was actually feeling well enough to be up and about.

"Well, we can take care of that. Steward?"

The steward was a few feet away, and Sankey went to have a few words with the man. As soon as he left Wellard's side, Bush sidled over and sat down on the chair beside the cot. Wellard looked at him with frightened eyes.

"Am I dying, sir?" He whispered.

Alarmed for the boy's sake, Bush shook his head and tried to smile reassuringly. "No, Mr. Wellard, you're recovering. That's good news."

Wellard nodded, but did not look convinced. As he turned his head to stare at the ceiling Bush noticed that the flat detachment of yesterday was gone, replaced by an nervous edginess that Bush had not seen before in wounded men. Wellard's hands were not twitching as they had been before, but they were both clutching the thin hospital blanket, and wringing it ceaselessly.

"I don't feel like I'm getting better," Wellard admitted, his voice shaking. "You can be honest with me, sir, I was prepared to die before. It - it would not count as a loss with me."

Bush frowned, severely he hoped. "Well, it would count as a loss to the British Navy, Mr. Wellard, so we'll hear no more of that talk! The doctor will give you something to ease your pain and then you can concentrate on wreaking your vengeance on the country that did this to you."

Wellard's look of concentration told Bush he was trying to follow what was being said, but it seemed to be a losing battle. After a few moments Wellard closed his eyes.

"The light hurts," he said.

Bush glanced at the bright sun streaming in through the windows and shook his head. "Yes, it's stronger than the sun in England, eh? But you'll be back to a hundred days of rain soon enough."

By this time Dr. Sankey's steward had walked over with a small blue bottle, and as Bush watched he gave Wellard a hard tap on the shoulder. Starting a bit, Wellard opened his eyes, and the steward held the bottle out so he could take it.

"Laudanaum, as needed," the steward said as Wellard took the bottle; grabbed it almost, it seemed to Bush. "Doctor's orders."

"Yes, sir," Wellard replied, "Thank you."

The steward walked away, and Bush leaned forward to help Wellard sit up a bit, so he could take the drug.

"Thank you, sir," Wellard whispered, and tipped the bottle to his lips.

Bush thought the boy would only take a few drops; instead, he tilted the bottle back and seemed to drink half its contents.

"Easy, Mr. Wellard!" Bush admonished, quickly taking the bottle so Wellard wouldn't choke. He eased the youth's head back onto the pillow and looked at him searchingly. "It doesn't take much of this to have you feeling better."

Wellard nodded, but looked at the small bottle in Bush's hand quizzically. "My apologies, sir, it - it seems to work better when I take more."

"Well, I'm..." Bush sighed and looked at the milky liquid within the tinted glass. He knew little of medicines, and less about their dangers; and it did seem to calm Wellard considerably. But there was something about what happened to Wellard when he had taken the drug that Bush didn't like - the forgetfulness, the blank indifference. Of course, that could have been a side effect of his wound...

Enough of this. Bush put the bottle on the bedside table and leaned forward. "Mr. Wellard, tomorrow I am going to make a statement at the inquiry."

Wellard turned his brown eyes toward Bush and blinked them rapidly. "You are?"

Bush nodded and lowered his voice. "The other night, when we talked...I know you don't remember entirely, but you said something that might help me. Might help all of us, if it is made known."

Wellard's brow knit in consternation. "I..."

"You mentioned Hobbs, that you had told him something that Captain Sawyer relayed to you before he died. Do you remember?"

The look of confusion increased, and Wellard's eyes squinted until they were almost shut. "Oh...yes. I remember talking to you, like it was a dream..."

"It was no dream, Mr. Wellard. You said the captain knew who pushed him."

Wellard blinked slowly; the laudanaum was already having its effect. "The captain said something to me, we were both shot. He said - he said something - "

Bush looked around, then leaned further forward. "Do you remember what he said?"

Wellard pursed his lips.

"The reason I am asking is this," Bush continued, "If you, Mr. Kennedy or Mr. Hornblower was named and Hobbs reveals it, then I wish..." he paused for a moment, then continued. "I wish to be prepared. We have all been through a terrible adventure and if it is to end - if it ends here and now there are things I wish to say, to make known, before it is too late. Do you understand me?"

Wellard nodded, more woozily.

"Do you remember what you said to Hobbs? What the captain said to you?"

Wellard seemed to try very hard; he was almost weeping with the effort. "I remember words, perhaps a name, but - there's too much blood. It's drowning everything else."

He's not making sense, Bush thought sadly, and leaned back in the chair. "That's all right, Mr. Wellard, perhaps later when you're feeling better we can talk again. Get some rest now."

Wellard nodded, his eyes already half-closed. Bush looked at the boy's pale face, and the swath of bandaging that still snugly encased his middle, and felt a stab of guilt; but those words that were chased out of Wellard's memory could kill them all, or any one of them. It was his duty to know. It was his duty to be prepared.

When it was clear that Wellard was asleep and nothing more could be done, Bush slowly rose from the chair and carefully made it back to his own cot. When he arrived there, he looked to the next cot and saw that Kennedy was awake also, and looking at him with a drowsy smile.

"Good morning, Mr. Bush," Kennedy said softly, "I thought perhaps you had tired of the plays and deserted to the first ship out of port."

"Unlikely, Mr. Kennedy," Bush replied as he eased himself back onto the bed, "Even a pressed man they require to walk upright. and draw a full breath. How are you feeling?"

"I feel as if the great pageant is passing by and I'm stuck in the furthermost row of seats," Kennedy grumbled as he shifted uncomfortably in the bed. "I wish we knew how the inquiry was going."

"Well, if anything bad had happened we would surely know by now."

"How is Mr. Wellard?"

"A little better I think, but still in pain. I was asking him for any information that would help at the inquiry, but he's too ill to respond."

Kennedy frowned slightly. "Have you thought about what you're going to say?"

"I've thought of nothing else. But for the good of the service, all I can do is give the facts and let the inquiry make its decision. Nothing more is required, and certainly nothing less can be expected."

"Well, if your words send us all to the gibbet, then at least I will know who to blame."

They were joking words, but Bush caught the undercurrent of anxiety in them. Looking at Kennedy sincerely he said, "That is certainly not my intention, believe me. And if I am gifted, however briefly, with your aristocratic eloquence rather than my workman's tongue, then I know we will have nothing to fear."

Kennedy watched him carefully as he said these words, and at the end of them broke into a slow, lazy smile. "The marine who accompanies Hornblower brought us the books we requested. Are you prepared to be tormented by the bard, Mr. Bush?"

"There appears to be little else to do at the moment, Mr. Kennedy."

"Your choice, then."

Kennedy's gaze drifted to the small table that separated their cots. Bush followed his gaze and saw a new stack of books sitting there, and plucked one off the top. "Hm. 'Julius Ceasar'. Is this a comical piece?"

"Um, no."

"Is the other one? 'Much Ado About Nothing'?"

"Oh, yes. Very."

"Very well then." Bush flipped the small book open, and glanced back at the stack. "I don't see that book of poems you asked for. Mr. Hornblower must have been unable to find it."

Kennedy tilted his head up and peered at the table. "Oh. Well, I shall have to introduce you some other time, I suppose."

Bush turned the pages and, shifting his eyes briefly in Wellard's direction, said, "Well, at least we don't have Mr. Hobbs staring sullenly at us from the corner this morning. He must be getting the Renown prepared."

"Prepared?"

"She gets a new captain today. I overheard one of the visiting officers talking about it."

Kennedy's eyebrows went up a little. "Indeed! Anyone we know?"

Bush shook his head. "Lyman James - I never heard of the man."

"Ah."

"But for the sake of the Renown, let us hope he is a man with his wits about him," Bush sighed, and peered at the small book in front of him. "Scene one, in front of Leonato's house..."

******************************************
"All hands on deck! All hands on deck!"

Matthews' cry, along with the shrill pipe of the bosun's whistle, told Hobbs that the moment he had been dreading all morning had finally arrived: the new captain had come aboard the Renown. He had been on the gun deck, inspecting the wheels on one of the carriages, but at that all-important summons he quickly adjusted his uniform, straightened his unruly hair, and hastened up to the quarter-deck. And all the time trying to ignore the ache he felt that his familiar old ship was about to be invaded by new tenants who were neither worthy nor welcome.

Hobbs was alone in these feelings, he knew. He tried to catch a few of his shipmates' eyes, tried to see if the uneasiness he felt was shared by any of Sawyer's old crew, but none of them would look at him. The expressions he could catch were either cold indifference or a sort of happy curiosity; no one else seemed bothered by the strange new order of things.

Strange new order...Hobbs thought of his conversation with Buckland as he climbed the companionway stairs. Buckland had offered him a new life, a new ship, a new world where the men did not hate him and would not avoid his gaze. And all he had to go to gain that new world was to back up Buckland's claim that Hornblower pushed Sawyer into the hold. It was a pretty fair price for the kind of freedom Buckland was offering...

Oh well, there would be time to think on that later. Hobbs made it up to the quarter-deck and stood with the other petty officers, who were all craning their necks and trying to see the new captain as he came up the entryway ladder. Matthews and Styles were already standing at attention, their faces blank and unreadable. Hobbs looked at them both, especially at Styles, and remembered Buckland's words: *They are a brutish lot...they're animals. You are not safe on that ship, and if you come under attack I can promise that Mr. Hornblower will only remember what happened when Styles was beaten. He will not come to your aid.*

Hobbs studied Styles, knowing that with the new captain so close the seaman would not turn his head and notice the scrutiny. Styles was big, like Randall was, and if he hit you Hobbs guessed that you knew it. And there were others, men who Randall had bullied and intimidated, and now most of them would not meet Hobbs' eyes. What Buckland said was true, he was not as safe on Renown as he would be somewhere else. But it was possible - even likely - that the new captain would not tolerate the kind of abuses that Sawyer was too ill to prevent. Hobbs relaxed a bit; he would not have to toady to Buckland for his own safety after all.

For a moment all was silence, and then suddenly the new captain appeared, head, shoulders, then over the railing and onto the deck. Hobbs blinked his surprise; this captain looked to be Sawyer's age, but at first glance he seemed fitter and altogether quite sane. He was tall, as Sawyer was, with a stern-looking face and long white hair that was very neatly braided into a queue. Captain James stood at the railing for a moment, silently surveying the assembled crew with sharp eyes, then without further hesitation moved toward the poop-deck stairs with authoritative impatience. All the men watched as he swiftly climbed the stairs, his first lieutenant right behind him, and stood at the railing. His eyes swept the crowd; then he took a deep lungful of air and spoke.

"Gentlemen, my name is Captain Lyman James. I have been appointed captain of this vessel, and I intend to turn her into the proudest ship of His Majesty's fleet."

*She was the proudest ship* Hobbs thought angrily, and tried to swallow his emotion. But it hurt.

"I know of the fate of your late captain," James continued, "And I lament his loss, as you do. He was a great man, a lion of vigor and vision. He was a hero, and I for one will always remember him as such. And you are to be commended that he found you worthy to serve beneath him. I salute you all."

Hobbs' eyes opened wider at this. He was expecting intrusion, the insult of a usurper to Sawyer's place of command; yet here was Brutus praising Ceasar, and his men in the bargain. Peculiar.

"If I had my way," James continued, "We would take Sawyer on this very ship to England to be buried in solemn procession. But we have a war to fight - a war to win - and our sacred task before us is clear: to remove the discordant clutter of the past, set our course to the future, and defeat our enemies to the glory of our country and our crown!"

Some of the men cheered; Hobbs looked around and saw them smiling. Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad...

"Now we have a lot of work to do before we leave harbour," Captain James continued, "Obey your officers, do your duty, and we will restore the bright and shining name of Renown and do honor and justice to the memory of the great Captain James Sawyer. God save the king!"

"God save the king!" the men shouted, and before the words had finished echoing in the air Captain James was away from the railing and on his way back down the stairs.

Hobbs smiled, relieved, as he watched the captain retreat into his quarters. There was nothing to fear after all. He could stay on Renown and never fear the vengeance of a lout like Styles, or worry that Hornblower would have any say in what happened to him. He was free.

Hornblower. Hobbs felt a twinge when he remembered the inquiry, the questions, and the whispered words that Wellard had entrusted him with. With Buckland's offer now unneeded, Hobbs realized he could say whatever he liked at the inquiry. He didn't need to please Buckland; let the silly fool be disgraced, what did he care? Hobbs began to walk toward his guns and thought, they'll ask me what happened to the captain and I'll tell them what Wellard told me, plain and simple. Maybe they'll let the boy go and he can get some proper help. Then I can take the guns with a clear conscience. Everything will work out...

As soon as Captain James left the rail, another smartly-dressed officer strode to it and grasped it firmly, standing ramrod straight and regarding the assembled men with diffident, ice-cold eyes.

"All of you," the officer continued in a bright, loud voice, his expression rigid and humorless, "Listen carefully. I am First Lieutenant Trent, and you will be following my orders as the captain will be very busy attempting to buttress this vessel into shape."

His voice was crisp and full of expectant obedience. Hobbs saw the men snap to immediately.

"I will be conducting an inspection of this ship prior to the first dog watch," Trent said, putting his hands behind his back and walking up and down the row of men, "And I'm certain I shall find it in proper condition. Won't I?"

The men replied as one. "Aye, sir!"

Trent scowled, and Hobbs could read the careful indignance on his face. "Doubtless you men have been tried sorely, if the reports I read in the Kingston Gazette are true. Lack of discipline, a blurring of the sense of right and wrong. I want you to know right now that any breach of protocol will be dealt with immediately and severely, on my order. Is that understood?"

"Aye, sir!"

Trent nodded to himself in satisfaction. "Very good. You're dismissed."

The men disbanded, and Hobbs began to turn away when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and looked straight into First Lieutenant Trent's eyes.

Trent looked back cooly. "You're the gunner named Hobbs."

The man was slender, but he had intense gray eyes that were intimidating up close. Hobbs nodded. "Yes, sir."

"I've heard about you," Trent continued, his words low. "From men ashore, the brutality you practiced, the authority you disregarded. As Captain James' second pair of eyes I will not tolerate that type of bullying here."

Hobbs' mouth dropped open in surprise and he stammered, "No, sir. I mean...no sir."

"I've known your kind before," Trent added, his gaze growing even more keen. "Been a victim of them, before I made officer. I will be keeping a special eye on you, Mr. Hobbs, count on it."

Hobbs felt himself growing cold, although he didn't know why. "These events have changed us all, sir. You'll get no trouble from me."

"Good." Trent said with a less-than-friendly smile as he leant back. "I'm a firm believer in divine retribution, Mr. Hobbs. If you've truly redeemed yourself then no harm shall ever befall you. If not...well, about your work now. Those guns need your special attention, I'm sure."

"Aye, sir," Hobbs replied, and watched Lieutenant Trent as the young man walked away. He was harder to read than the captain, and definitely trusted him less...but still there was no danger. Randall and his past were behind him now. Hobbs rolled his shoulders and turned to the guns with a frown. A few more days and he would be free from the mess in Kingston. Free from men who wanted him to lie, free from the worry over Wellard's condition, and most of all free from the weight of his own conscience, which still could not reconcile the bravery of Hornblower with the shadow of his captain's death. It was a complex set of problems, and Hobbs was not a complex man.

I want this over and done with, he thought, and with calloused hands grabbed the cables, satisfied at their familiar roughness. I want to say my words, tell the truth and be out of Kingston. And I want to be left alone.

Hobbs mulled his new captain and situation over as he coiled cables in the climbing sun, never looking up to notice that he was being watched by several pairs of eyes, one gray and thoughtful and the others hiding in the shadows, full of simmering resentment and waiting for night to fall, and the promise of divine retribution.

*****************************************************************
Commodore Pellew lifted his eyes from the sheaf of notes before him on the polished table to stare at the seaman shifting uncomfortably in the the wooden chair. "Now then, seaman Bowrich. Do you remember anything else about that day?"

The seaman, a grizzled old salt who still looked unkempt even though he was in his best clothes, scratched at his head and then shrugged his bony shoulders. "Just that it was 'ot. Terrible 'ot, an' hotter with us stuck in the mud and the captain, well, not 'imself."

"So you say you saw Lieutenant Hornblower relieve Captain Sawyer of his command?" Collins asked, a note of disbelief in his voice.

"Aye sir. Though it was the doctor what said he couldn't go on. He were injured, sir."

"From his fall into the hold." Collins remarked.

The sailor nodded solemnly. "If y'like, sir."

Hammond leaned forward in his chair. "And just what do you mean by that remark?"

The sailor blanched a bit and shook his head quickly. "Nothing, beggin' your pardon, sir. He - it must have been the fall that done it."

"He was all right before?" Hammond pursued.

The sailor scrunched up his face for a moment. "Right as most men, I suppose."

"Until his...accident."

"Aye, sir."

"And then, during this action, you witnessed Lieutenant Hornblower stripping him of his command."

The sailor opened his mouth, shut it again, then sighed in tired exasperation.

Pellew leaned his elbows on the table and folded his hands. "You may relax, Mr. Bowrich, no one is on trial here."

"Yet," Hammond muttered under his breath.

Pellew shot him a sideways glance before continuing. "We are merely seeking to discover the truth of what happened aboard Renown. You are not being accused, and there will be no words said against you no matter what your testimony. So please, man - tell us the truth."

Bowrich's eyes widened a bit, and he looked at Hammond warily before slowly exhaling. After a moment, he shook his head. "Dunno, sir - it was noisy..."

"Well, what did you see?"

"Smoke. Them marines. One of 'em holding the captain, and Lieutenant Hornblower askin' the doctor if he was fit. Doctor said no, and they took the captain off." Bowrich cast his eyes about helplessly, then shrugged again. "That's all, sir."

"And you saw nothing the night of Captain Sawyer's accident?" Hammond asked, a little sharply.

"No, sir. I was with the cook, 'e only has one arm y'know."

"Does he," Hammond leaned back in his chair with a sour expression.

Bowrich nodded, then fell silent, blinking at the three men expectantly.

Pellew spoke first, sighing softly and pushing his papers away from him. "Very well, Mr. Bowrich, thank you for your time." He motioned toward the door and a marine appeared.

"Aye, sir," the sailor replied, and rose witha grateful smile from the chair.

Pellew eyed the marine and said, "Give us a few moments before calling the next man."

The marine nodded understanding and ushered Bowrich out.

As the door closed heavily, Pellew sat back and ran one hand wearily over his face.

"Well," Collins ventured, the weariness in his voice echoing Pellew's actions, "It seems we're no closer to solving this business than when we began. I've never seen an inquiry run in such circles in my entire life."

"Nor I," Pellew sighed, dropping his hand and staring solemnly at the papers before him. "The officers wish to protect themselves, the men want to protect their captain, and somehow none of that pertains to what actually happened."

Hammond took a deep breath and stood. "Commodore, I'm surprised at you. To my ears we have heard enough to draw a very satisfactory conclusion."

"Yes, and I know just what conclusion you'd like to reach," Pellew remarked archly, regarding Hammond with sharp dark eyes. "But let us not rush to judgment, Hammond. We have not heard from everyone yet."

"No," Hammond admitted, striding over to the table where the claret stood, its decanter gleaming in the shuttered light. "But surely even you must admit that young Hornblower has himself in quite a fix. He has been implicated by half the men we've questioned, and he obviously influenced Dr. Clive's decision to render Captain Sawyer unfit. It seems suspicious enough to me to warrant a trial, Commodore."

Pellew's head moved a bit, as if the word 'trial' had somehow physically struck him. Then he said, "Let us conduct all the interviews, captain, and then we shall see. We have yet to hear from the senior lieutenants, and more importantly from the men who were actually there when Sawyer fell."

"Hm," Collins said, picking up a list of names before him, "I see Mr. Bush is due to appear tomorrow afternoon. Is he sufficiently healed?"

"It would appear so," Captain Pellew remarked, "And from what Dr. Sankey tells me Lieutenant Kennedy will at least be able to give a bedside statement by the end of the week."

Hammond's eyes scanned the list. "What about Hornblower? When does he speak?"

"Given the weight of words that may be against him, I have arranged for Mr. Hornblower to appear last," Pellew explained, his gaze challenging Hammond as it held him. "It would only be fair to have the man accused answer for himself before we decide if this should move any further."

"Answer, hm!" Hammond snorted, placing the list none too carefully on the table. "He has a good deal to answer for already."

"Oh, come now Hammond," Collins frowned, regarding his contemporary with a piercing eye, "You've heard the same testimony we have, this is hardly that black-and-white. Look at that Acting Captain Buckland, for example. You can hardly hold him innocent in all this - the man is an incompetent, a buffoon!"

Hammond colored a little and with a stern frown replied, "Even a buffoon can be wronged, sir! Even an incompetent can have one moment of clear thinking and sharp judgement. If we overlook that, we can hardly call ourselves impartial."

"The guards noted that you paid a visit to Mr. Buckland last evening," Pellew noted, his eyes narrowing just slightly. "Might one ask why?"

"To see if he knew anything that would help this questioning, of course. It's no more improper than your visits to Mr. Hornblower, if the truth be told."

Collins sighed and gave a wan smile. "I suppose that means I shall have to go visit the lieutenants in the hospital, just to keep it even."

Pellew winced at the sarcasm and shook his head, "Gentlemen, I believe this heat is robbing us of our senses. Let us try to regain our wits and remember that our business here is determine the cause of the events that led to Captain Sawyer's incapacitation, and accept whatever we may find, but not come to any conclusions until the last word of testimony is given. Agreed?"

"Of course," Collins replied.

Hammond's response was slower, but sure. "Aye, Commodore."

Pellew sighed, "Very well. The day is growing progressively hotter and we have much work to do. Mr Russell, please send in the next man."

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

The day grew warm, then hot. Still, in his suite of rooms, Horatio could not take his rest as the islanders did but paced, paced, paced and thought to the point of exhaustion.

He had been writing letters all morning. A sheaf of them, to everyone he thought would want to know the truth, and then hidden them away for safekeeping. He had written until it was almost noon, and the intense tropical heat made the thin parchment paper stick to his hand and the humidity made the ink refuse to dry properly. Eventually he was forced to stop writing, but Horatio could not stop thinking. So he paced.

The first letter to his father, tucked in Archie's volume of Vaughan poems. Horatio would give the book to Russell only when he knew there was no other recourse. Another letter to Pellew, his captain long before he was a commodore; he deserved an explanation, and Horatio could not bear to have Pellew thinking he had acted rashly, or done anything dishonorable. Pellew was a practical man, a clear seer, and Horatio knew he could count on his silence. Still, the farewell letter to his former commanding officer had proven ... difficult to write.

The other letters came, easier than the first. A letter to Lord Edrington, an old friend who would certainly do what he could to keep Horatio's name from being completely disgraced if he could. Catherine Cobham, whose address Horatio was unsure of, but no matter - certainly her fame would be such that she would be easy to find! Horatio smiled even though his letter to her was a sad one, because he knew that of all his acquaintances she in the end would appreciate best how well a determined mind could succeed at deceit. She would approve of it. He knew she would.

There was a letter to Mr. Bush, who would certainly disapprove of Horatio's course if he knew it, and so Horatio felt he was owed an explanation. Perhaps he knew already; for his stoic silences Horatio knew Bush to be a keen observer of things, so surely he would know the reasons behind Horatio's confession. Perhaps he would have even taken that course himself, if his wound had not placed him in the infirmary where he could not see what was happening.

*Why was Hammond going to see Buckland last night?*

But Bush was blameless in this; he was Horatio's commanding officer, but he had not been in the hold. When this affair was ended he would not be tarred with the brush of mutiny, no, it must not even be hinted at. Surely Bush would understand. Someone had to care for those left behind in this disaster.

Wellard. Archie. Horatio's mind went to them, they were two letters he could not write, and he did not know why. The day grew hotter, the ink seemed to boil in the stand, but still Horatio paced in the shuttered room and could not come up with one word to commit to paper.

Wellard was so young, what explanation would be sufficient? Horatio knew the boy admired him, even though he would dissuade it; blind devotion could be fatal at sea, could rob a man of his ability to see the truth. The gunner Hobbs was a perfect example of that. Horatio almost wanted to write a letter telling the child some lie, some monstrous untruth so he would never venerate Horatio's memory, never hang his hopes on the name of a man who would be hanged for treason and damned forever. But Horatio found himself incapable of that cruelty; to be so dishonest even to protect the lad filled him with such self-loathing that the half-dozen feeble attempts ended up in the chamber-pot, where no one would ever read them. But more honest words would not come.

Finally Horatio admitted to himself that it would be more merciful if Wellard were spared an explanation altogether. Horatio had the uneasy feeling that to know that he had been sacrificed for would send the child on some horrible bend of self-incrimination, or a mad crusade to clear Horatio's name. Perhaps Wellard would even attempt to confess himself, thinking in his naive, untested way that the tribunal would then smile, give Horatio a hero's funeral, and then hang Wellard in turn.

Horatio thought of Wellard's youthful idealism and shuddered. No; Wellard mustn't know the truth until he was old enough to be out of harm's way. It was the only course to take.

But Archie...the only letter left to write, and Horatio knew it would be the most difficult. Horatio had never had many friends, and Archie was the only truly close friend he could claim in the world. As such he knew that by confessing he was saving Archie's life with everyone else's, but Archie would not see it that way. Archie would curse Horatio's name for not allowing him to admit to the crime first.

Sacrifice. Always in their friendship, Archie had been willing to sacrifice himself for Horatio's sake, and it had been a maddening trait. In Spain, Archie had said nothing when Horatio had sat in that cramped and stinking cell and told Hunter, *We'll escape when we can*. Nothing, only stared at Horatio with gaunt and hollow eyes. Why had Horatio not seen the plan that was forming in them? Archie's wits had not failed him, he knew what Horatio's words meant. *we'll escape when Archie is better*. But Archie had lost hope, thought he would never get better, and knew Horatio would not leave without him. So he had decided, quietly, to sacrifice himself. He had come sickeningly close to succeeding.

Sacrifice. Horatio paused by the tall window, leaned against the casement and let the faint breeze ruffle his hair as he ran his hands over his face. Years later he had been crouching sobbing and helpless at the edge of a bridge in France, a bridge primed with explosives but he had not cared. His love had just died in his arms, and Horatio would have been trapped there, trapped and doomed except for the one friend who risked his life to run across that bridge and save him. Risking everything, to save him...

Horatio took a deep, shaking breath. Archie had risked a painful death, torn apart by flame and flying stone, or a more painful life, trapped and forced into imprisonment in a country that still gave him nightmares. Being hanged for a crime he did not commit would be nothing compared to those possibilities. Horatio could almost hear his friend joking about it, *it will be an easy death, Horatio. Quite easy, compared to my life!*

But no. Dammit, no! Whatever Archie said, whatever scheme he might devise for the inquiry, Horatio was determined to contradict it; this entire debacle was his responsibility. The tribunal would listen to him over Kennedy surely, Archie was sick and weak and anything he said could be counted to delirium. *If it comes down to that, I must take the blame for this, no one else. I could not live with myself otherwise.*

But how to tell Archie that? How to put into words a sentiment that defied words, to one who seemed to know Horatio's mind without words being needed? Slowly, Horatio left the window and walked back to the table. He sat down and looked at the blank sheet of paper before him, feeling helpless and isolated.

A breeze wafted through the slats of the blinds, and Horatio closed his eyes and felt the wind caress his face. He needed Archie to joke him out of this dark mood, and Archie was not there. He needed Archie's eloquence, but that gift could not be given to him. He had to face this daunting task alone.

An ironic smile tugged at his lips. Horatio Hornblower, defeater of the Spaniards, terror of the French, fearless and respected leader of men, brought down by the futility of the written word. Hornblower, possessor of infinite courage, unable to express it to one who once fancied himself a coward, but accepted death with open arms. How Archie would laugh.

Slowly, Horatio opened his eyes again and regarded the ivory paper in front of him. Another thought struck him: perhaps he could cheat fate by not writing this letter. Perhaps if Archie was not told, not yet, the stars would somehow not align and all of their lives would be spared. Perhaps...

Of course, it was a silly, romantic notion. Horatio's mind dealt with cold realities, and they were plain enough: a dead captain, a ship divided against them, enough evidence to put all of them in unmarked graves if something was not done. Any of his enemies could seal their fates, and Horatio was not naive; he knew he had enemies. Not vicious brutes like Simpson was, but weak and fearful men who would prey on his men to save their own souls. No amount of wishful thinking could change those facts.

And yet...something in Horatio's mind resisted telling any of this to Archie. He had not minded telling Bush, or his father, or Pellew, but for some reason explaining the method of his sacrifice to his dearest friend seemed - cowardly, as if he was giving up. Horatio knew he wasn't, of course - it was very probable that there would be nothing else to be done - but damn it, he could almost hear Archie's voice, frail and low with the weight of his wounds:

"What? Is the great Horatio Hornblower surrendering so soon? Where is that enterprising spirit of his youth?"

And there was a ghost of a smile as he said it.

So for the sake of his friend's optimism Horatio did not write that last letter just yet, but instead slowly pushed the paper away and sat motionless in the shuttered room for a long time, drinking in the suffocating darkness and wondering over his weak, romantic heart.

 

To be continued...