The Crisis, Part Two
by Nereus

 

"So far, so good," Kennedy said, three nights later. 

They were in a stables, at a large coaching inn some way inland. 
Things had indeed gone smoothly so far, no-one had questioned the
party of travellers.  The two British officers had concentrated
mostly on keeping their mouths shut and looking as stupid as possible
(Hornblower considered that Kennedy had overdone that somewhat, much
of the time he had looked positively half-witted).  The Spanish and
French had fulfilled their roles effectively, although Levallier's
dislike of Miranda was barely concealed, no-one seemed to think this
at all odd.  ("It probably isn't, when you think about it," Kennedy
had said, "I expect the alliance between the Spanish and the French
is pretty uneasy.")

Nonetheless Hornblower was not so well satisfied with the way that
things were going. So far the journeying had actually taken them
further from El Ferrol, which lay on the western tip of Spain's north
coast, for long study of the maps had shown a distinct lack of good
roads on the northern coastline.  Couriers wishing to travel at speed
would be forced to take an inland route.  Going inland had been
necessary, but he was starting to fret about the amount of time that
was passing, their travel being slowed both by the roads, which had
been very poor, and the need to make absolutely sure they did not
unwittingly cross over the courier route.  He was also worrying over
whether it had been wise to land so far east.  Balancing time against
the chances of arousing suspicion by appearing near the fleet it had
seemed the right decision in London; now he felt days sliding past
them far too fast.

"We really need to concentrate on identifying the courier routes and
finding the right place at interception," he said now.  "And
quickly.  Who knows how much time we have to spare?"

"Agreed, but *we* can't do it.  It's a job for Miranda and the
French."

Hornblower nodded, although not very happily.  "Miranda mostly.  I
wouldn't count on Levallier to discover anything, and d'Atigny's
pretty green."

"Spoken like a greybeard."  Kennedy smiled and then sighed, rubbing
at an eye reddened by dust from the sun-baked roads.  "All right I
don't like it either."

"Don't like what?"

"Having to just watch, whilst others do the real work.  Makes me
wonder why they even wanted a naval man for this mission, never mind
two."

Hornblower actually laughed.  "That's easy, Archie.  To keep an eye
on the foreigners."

It was a minor embarrassment that Escudero, the secretary, chose this
moment to enter the stables, followed by d'Atigny.  There was a
reason for this, the stables were less likely to house listening ears
than the inn itself, and it had already been agreed that any
conferring needed should be done there, after dinner. 

"Have you learned anything?"  Hornblower asked, with a sharpness that
drew interested reactions from the two nearest horses.

"No, I am merely concerned."  Escudero replied.  "I think there is
something amiss with M. Levallier."

"We already know that."  Kennedy said impatiently.  "He doesn't like
any of us - except possibly M. d'Atigny."

"Something apart from that," the secretary replied, with a slight
flicker that might or might not have been amusement.  It was
difficult to read expressions in the faded half-light that was all
the stables held.  "He hardly ate at all tonight and he barely seemed
even to be aware of the General's presence."

"Oh," Hornblower said, rather blankly.  "Did you notice this, M.
d'Atigny?"

"I merely thought that he was tired," d'Atigny relied.  "But there
might be more to it... I don't know."

Hornblower was tired himself, his muscles sore and aching from the
unfamiliar form of travel, grit from the roads scratching against his
skin.  He did not want to have to think about Levallier.  "Have you
spoken of this to General de Miranda?"

"No," Escudero replied.  "The General seldom notices the moods of
other men, and never knows what he should think about them.  That is
why I came to you."

"Perhaps the mission is straining his nerves?"  Kennedy suggested. 

"Perhaps," Hornblower agreed.  It would be a straightforward
explanation anyway.  "M. d'Atigny, perhaps you could convince him to
speak of it.  He certainly won't do so to any of the rest of us."

"I'll try, but it's unlikely I shall succeed," d'Atigny replied.  He
hesitated, with obvious unease.  "You don't think... no, it's absurd."

"What are you speaking of?"  Hornblower asked sharply.

"He has been very angry.  I have heard him expressing himself in the
strongest possible terms, against all of you gentlemen.  He is even
angry with me since I attempted to defend you.  I wondered... perhaps
he no longer wishes the mission to succeed...."

"You mean he might be thinking of betrayal?"  Hornblower considered
for a few moments, then shook his head.  "No.  He might abandon the
mission, but he wouldn't betray it."

"I daresay you are right.  Probably it is simply the mission.  I-I am
finding it something of a strain myself."  D'Atigny gave a rueful
smile, and before anyone could make further comment said, "I will
speak with him," and went quickly out.  Hornblower hoped that would
be all for now, but Escudero lingered a little longer. 

"No doubt that is all that can be done on that matter."  Hornblower
was about to make a brief agreement when Escudero added in the same
dry tone, "I trust you two gentlemen are not finding the your duties
too onerous?"  It took Hornblower a moment to realise he was speaking
of horse-care, and then he could not tell if the question was
intended as a joke.  Escudero had so far spoken little to either of
the naval officers, having been laid low by seasickness for most of
the voyage out; Hornblower had not yet learned if he possessed a
sense of humour.

"No.  No, not at all."  Not onerous, but not exactly his choice of
passing the time either.  As a boy he had been expected to care for
the old cob horse, a quiet, good-natured beast, on which his father
did his rounds, but he had never much liked horses in general.  Nor
did he enjoy riding, it continued to be a source of bafflement to him
how people could do something so uncomfortable for pleasure. 
However, duties to date had consisted largely of keeping an eye on
the ostlers employed at wherever they were staying, most of whom did
not want interference.  At least it was not necessary to sleep with
the beasts; the party hired cramped indoor accommodation for the
two 'grooms'.  Not for the world would Hornblower admit he missed the
precarious privileges of a captain's life.

"I wish you both good night, then."  Escudero said, still in the same
deadpan tone which made it impossible to tell whether there was any
humour behind the words.  He left again as swiftly and quietly as he
had entered, leaving a slight, but inescapable, disquiet behind.

The two remaining men eyed one another in doubt for a few moments
before Kennedy said, "We may as well get some sleep," and moved to
follow Escudero from the stables.

"What do you think?  About Levallier, I mean?"  Hornblower asked
abruptly.  Although he had spoken with certainty earlier, he was none
too confident about his judgement of other men.  He had missed
Kennedy's appraisals on Hotspur, knowing that, if sometimes cynical,
they were usually clear-sighted.

"I think you're right.  He'd probably like all our guts for garters,
but he wouldn't sell us out to Bonaparte.  Let's hope it is only
nerves - or if not that d'Atigny can learn the real trouble."

There was little more that could be said.

~~#~~

The next evening saw them at the large town of Burgos, established as
usual at a busy inn.  Also as usual the two `grooms' could pretend to
check on the horses well after the others had gone inside, having
fobbed off the local ostlers with a display of limited Spanish.  A
large stables was a surprisingly good place for private conversation,
even when busy.

"We need information quickly, Archie," Hornblower said in low tones. 
Burgos was on a major crossroads, and the westward road offered a
likely route to El Ferrol.  "There's a very strong probability the
couriers come this way.  If so, they may well stop here.  If not, we
need to find out *now*, so we can look elsewhere.  Every day counts."

Kennedy eyed him thoughtfully.  "What are you planning?"

"Find out if there are other large inns here ­ and pay them a visit."

"You don't mean `have one of the others pay a visit', I suppose?"

"I think we are capable of managing this, Archie."

Kennedy did not argue.  Plainly Hornblower was deeply frustrated at
having been pushed to the sidelines, and was determined to actually
do something.  At least he had said `we'.  Besides he was rather
pleased at a chance to see something of the town.  Routine travel
from stable to stable made a dreary round, especially in the wilting
heat of a Spanish day.  He supposed the scenery was decent if you
liked that sort of thing, but he'd seen more than enough Spanish
countryside during his attempts to escape the peninsula, and now
simply found it alien.  Observing people was more to his taste,
despite the danger.  The town would be bustling as the heat of the
day wore off and travellers must be reasonably frequent here.  They
should be safe enough.

It was approaching dinner hour.  It was easy enough to seek out one
of the ostlers, who, although puzzled by the foreigners' desire to
know what other hostelries existed in the town, gave information
quite willingly.  A little later the two men were ordering a meal in
a large inn a few streets distant.  To Kennedy's inexpert eye there
did not seem a great deal to choose between this building and that
where they were staying in either size or position.  That, however,
rather proved Hornblower's point, couriers might stay at either.

For that matter the building was not so very different from large
coaching inns in England, built to the same pattern with dusty,
plastered walls and storied wings surrounding a central courtyard.
The main difference was that, since the day was warm, they ate their
meal outside, in a lesser courtyard with trellised vines running
above to provide shelter from the sun.  There were quite a number of
customers, but a generous tip made the man who served the pair
loquacious.  If he found the curiosity of two Dutch travellers (they
did not mention being part of a larger party) peculiar, he gave no
sign.  Kennedy, enjoying his portrayal of a rather simple stranger,
wondered if the Spanish took odd behaviour by foreigners as much for
granted as the British did.

Yes, custom was good here.  Yes, many travellers stayed at the inn. 
Yes, foreigners were frequent, and French the most frequent.  French
officers sometimes, they were a mean lot.  Those who travelled for
their own pleasure were best, but there were fewer of those in time
of war.  The war was hard on all simple folk, well there was nothing
to be done.

The look that Hornblower gave Kennedy after the man had finally gone
to attend another customer said it all.  This sounded very much like
the couriers' stopping point.  They did not risk discussion, nor did
they hurry away, but stayed where they were, downing their drink
slowly to keep up the innocent appearance.

Suddenly Hornblower pushed back, as if trying to blend into the
dimness near the wall behind him.  It was evening, and the courtyard
was heavily shadowed.  Kennedy looked a question, and received in
answer a slight movement of one hand, a wordless instruction to do
nothing.  Minutes passed, then Hornblower relaxed.  Still he did not
speak, but after a few minutes more got up and left at a pace that
was not quite as casual as he tried to make it.

"What is it?"  Kennedy asked when they were well away.

"There was a man.  A Frenchman."

"A courier?"

"No, at least I don't think so.  He wasn't in uniform. There were a
couple of others with him."

"If he wasn't in uniform," Kennedy said, "how did you know he was
French?"

"Because I know him," said Hornblower grimly.  "His name is Etienne
De Vergesse.  He was a guest of Don Massaredo at El Ferrol.  I had to
sit through an excruciating dinner with him once."

"That's unfortunate," Kennedy said wryly.  "He didn't see you?"

"I don't think so."

"Could be worse, then.  What do you know about this man?"

"Unfortunately not much.  He was a colonel, which means he could be a
general by now."

"If he's still with the army.  You realise we have to warn the
others?"

"Yes."

They walked two turns in silence before Kennedy said
softly.  "Horatio.  Have you considered what we are going to do when
the couriers do show up?"

He had of course.  "It might be possible to exchange the papers and
leave them none the wiser."

"And if it isn't?"

"We'll confront that if it becomes necessary."  Oh, who was he trying
to fool?  He certainly wouldn't succeed with Kennedy.  "If it becomes
necessary ­ this is war and preventing an invasion is worth more than
one life."  It had to be true, but that didn't mean he liked the
prospect.  This was not like battle.  "We *have* to do this," he
said, and wondered uneasily which of them he was trying to convince.

"It needs doing, yes." He wished he could read Kennedy as easily as
Archie could read him.  "But it's as well to be prepared."

"Right now," Hornblower said, glad to change the subject, "we have
more immediate problems."

The two Frenchmen proved to be away from the inn, the Spanish
(neither naval officer found it easy to think of them as South
American) took the information there was most likely a senior French
officer in town seriously but without alarm.  It was agreed that they
should take over the task of finding out whether French couriers did
indeed stay at the other inn, whilst the British officers lay low to
avoid attention.  Hornblower was not happy about leaving matters in
other hands, but realised it was the only sensible thing to be done. 

This mission was turning out to be a strain in unexpected ways.  The
constant pretence was less difficult than he had expected, after all
it was not so very different from wearing the captain's mask aboard
ship.  What he had not anticipated was to have such trouble
navigating a clear path through his colleagues.  The intransigent
royalist was at least straightforward: the elusive Spanish were in
danger of driving him to distraction.  In fact the glimpse of De
Vergesse had been almost a relief, for here was a concrete problem,
and one he had himself recognised and, at least for the present,
evaded.  Something substantial, not mist that slid away between the
fingers.  Yet it also increased their dependence on the foreigners, a
source of irritation and increasingly of worry.

~~#~~

                        Chapter Ten

The next morning brought further cause for concern.

"M. Levallier did not return last night," Escudero said baldly.

"He went off on his own straight after dinner," d'Atigny confirmed,
looking worried.  "I attempted to find him, I wanted to try again to
get him to explain what was on his mind, but I could not find where
he had gone."

"That's difficult," Hornblower said.  "We don't want to draw too much
attention to ourselves.  And where can he be?"

"One would not think there was anything here likely to delay him,"
said Escudero, apparently by way of agreement, although it was hard
to be sure with the secretary.  A slight man, dark enough to make it
seem likely his blood was not all European, Escudero possessed an
imperturbable air that Hornblower found simultaneously frustrating
and rather enviable.

"I don't like this." D'Atigny was shaking his head.  "I can't help
feeling that any explanation is likely to compromise the mission."

"You surely don't suggest abandoning it?"  Kennedy said sharply.

"I do think it might be wise."

"Try and pull yourself together!"  Hornblower snapped, then regretted
his sharpness as d'Atigny's face went stiff.  Getting angry with the
young man wouldn't help.  "We don't know yet that anything has
happened to threaten us," he went on more moderately,  "And we knew
when we agreed to this there would be risks."  Still, here was
another thing to worry about: d'Atigny's nerves were evidently
frayed.  Hornblower noted that his normally cheerful face was pinched
and hollow-eyed.  It had surely been unwise of the Admiralty to
choose so young a man for a mission such as this.

"I still don't believe Levallier would go over to the enemy," Kennedy
argued.  "He might desert us, perhaps, but I'd have expected him to
make it very clear what he was doing."

"We all made a choice," Hornblower said, looking firmly at
d'Atigny.  "We cannot back out at the first sign of trouble." 

"Agreed," Kennedy supported him unhesitatingly.  Escudero nodded, and
after a moment, d'Atigny did too, more slowly.  "But what do we do
about Levallier?"

"I don't believe there's much that we can do," Hornblower answered
reluctantly, "except perhaps try to make some discreet enquiries."

"Is that wise?" d'Atigny asked.  "We should not be drawing too much
attention."

"I feel we must try," said Hornblower, "He may be in trouble of some
kind."  Kennedy gave a snort, which said as far as he was concerned
Levallier could extract himself from his own difficulties, but
Hornblower was not to be deflected.  "If M. Levallier is in trouble,
we must help him.  At the least we should try and find out what has
happened."  Secretly he was fretting over the possibility that the
disappearance might have something to do with his expedition of the
previous evening.  He had gambled on his own slender acting skills,
had Levallier paid the penalty?

"Torrellos will be best placed to ask the questions that we need,"
said Escudero, referring to Miranda's valet.  Hornblower hesitated a
moment, then nodded tautly.  "I will see to it," the secretary said
calmly. During the few days of their mission it had already become
usual for Escudero to act as a go between for the naval officers and
the other Spaniards.  It made good sense, for the whole Spanish party
to fall into the habit of frequenting the stables would be asking for
suspicion.  Still, Hornblower was uncomfortable with the dividing of
the party in two, nor did he like the sense it gave him that Miranda
was putting himself above the concerns of the others.  Once again,
however, there was little to be done about it.

D'Atigny continued to hover after Escudero had quit the place.  "I
don't wish to make trouble," he said nervously, "But I'm beginning to
think there was more in M Levallier's opinions than I ever gave him
credit for... Some of the views that General de Miranda shared with
us a couple of days ago... he is even more of a Radical than I had
thought."

"We didn't enter on this to be turned back by our allies." 
Hornblower said firmly.  "Moreover flaunting his views openly is no
way to go about a betrayal.  Although perhaps if Miranda wished to
sabotage the mission...."

"Why?"  Kennedy said.  "That doesn't make sense."

"Do the sort of views Miranda holds make sense?"  Hornblower snapped,
with more irritation than logic.  It occurred to him that d'Atigny
might not be the only one whose nerves were fraying.  He rubbed at an
itch, and wished that he could have a bath.

"Presumably to Miranda."  Kennedy shrugged.  "After all the Frog- 
er, French hold views that make no sense to us.  Republicanism and
the like."

"Not all Frogs," d'Atigny said gravely, giving Hornblower a chance to
enjoy a rare moment of discomfiture on the part of his friend.

"Well," he said, trying to calm things, "If Miranda intended to
betray us, I really don't think he'd show his hand so openly.  As to
the rest - I suppose we should expect odd views from a bunch of
Dons."  Even d'Atigny smiled at that.

~~#~~

A light tap came on the door of the dingy room where the two naval
men were trying to occupy their time by playing cards for straws,
Kennedy having flatly refused to play any game for money against his
friend.

"It's not my fault if you haven't made a proper study of the skills,"
Hornblower had said, with the note of humour he never risked with
anyone else.

Kennedy snorted. "Skill? You *are* skilful, Horatio, but you've
also got the devil's own luck. Oh yes you have, you know. Well, you
know what they say, 'lucky at cards unlucky- in love." Realising the
slip just too late he tried to mend it, "As well that you're a
settled man."

Hornblower gave a slightly strained smile, Kennedy cursed the moment
of carelessness, he'd quite forgotten Horatio's marriage. Maria
Hornblower was a nice enough young woman but as a wife for Horatio...
how could an intelligent man be such a fool? Why had Bush let him be
such a fool? Why hadn't he himself been in Portsmouth, so he could
have banged Horatio's head against the nearest wall until he'd
knocked some sense into it?

"Anyway," he said "I'm not green enough to let you clean me out,
*Captain*. Not even out of Spanish money." So they played for
straws.

The tap was Torrellos, the valet. A colourless man who was so much
the typical 'good servant' it was hard to think of him as possessing
any character.

"There are three pieces of news that I believe you should be
acquainted with," he said. "One is that I have been to the other
inn, representing myself as enjoying a little leave from a demanding
master. French couriers stay there frequently. The last one was
over two weeks since, quite a long gap in time." Under other
circumstances this might have been a cause for excitement, the news
bringing their goal tantalisingly close. Now, however, there was too
much else to worry about. "The second concerns the gentlemen you
wished to learn more of, General De Vergesse."

"He is a general now, then?" Kennedy said sharply.

"Apparently, although not currently on active service. He has a
house in the district, he entertains, and he has many visitors. Some
open, and some not so open. The general opinion is that he is here
to watch the Spaniards for his master, Bonaparte, and perhaps to
conduct matters of intelligence. He is a man that nobody speaks ill
of, yet I think few would be comfortable if he were present in the
room." There was a pause whilst the officers considered this
illuminating description.

"What else?" Hornblower asked at last.

"The last piece of news is that a man's body has been found, in a
ditch on the outskirts of town. He was stabbed and robbed. The
description fits M. Levallier."

There was a shocked silence. Perhaps not wholly surprised, but
nonetheless shocked, and dismayed.

"Could it have been a genuine robbery?" Hornblower said slowly.

"Perhaps," Torrellos said. "They do occur. General de Miranda has
gone with the intention of discovering whether the body is indeed M.
Levallier."

"Oh, has he?" Hornblower said grimly, "Well, I will want to know
when he returns."

"What are you meditating?" Kennedy asked sharply, when the valet had
deferentially withdrawn.

Instead of a direct answer, Hornblower said, "It *might* have been
just a robbery."

"He was troubled," Kennedy said. "Everyone agrees on that. He was
troubled and now he's dead and that's too much of a coincidence for
me. I'm sorry, Horatio. If I hadn't antagonised him, he might have
told us whatever was on his mind."

"No point dwelling on that, we'll never know." Hornblower got up and
began to pace the little room. "He quarrelled with Miranda, we know
that. Maybe he did hit a deeper nerve than anyone suspected. I wish
we weren't so at the mercy of these Spaniards, how can we ever know
how much of what they say is truth?"

Kennedy shook his head. "I can't make sense of any of this,
Horatio. I fear I'm not cut out for this kind of work."

"I don't *wish* to be cut out for it!" Hornblower said
violently. "I just want some reasonable answers! Dammit, Archie,
you're the one whose so friendly with Miranda, what do you think is
going on here?"

"I told you. I don't know." Kennedy met the spurt of anger
levelly. "All I know about Miranda is what he told me. If that was
pretence, I know nothing. And if he's as much in the dark as we are,
then nothing I know about him is going to help. Certainly I can't
think of *anything* that throws the least light on all this."

"Except for de Vergesse perhaps." He did not look at Kennedy as he
spoke.

"I doubt it. Levallier was acting strangely before we ever reached
here. And he really vanished too soon for our trip into town to have
anything to do with it." Why did common sense always seem so much
more convincing from someone else's lips? "But that still leaves us
none the wiser about what *did* happen to him."

"There must be an explanation." Hornblower sat down again, anger
gone and ran a hand wearily over his face. "But we're in a fog, the
landmarks can't be seen, and we've no training for this kind of
navigation." He set his mouth in determination. "We have to learn
as we go along, and time is very short."

~~#~~

"You should have consulted me! This is a Royal Naval operation, and
I am in command!"

"And what was there to consult over?" Miranda asked calmly. "We
needed to learn if the dead man was indeed M. Levallier. It was
clearly necessary that I should be the one to go, for a groom to do
so would have looked very odd. We now know for certain it was he."

"It might have been better to avoid drawing attention to ourselves,"
Hornblower insisted.

"It would have most certainly seemed strange if we had simply ignored
the disappearance of a member of our party. Now we know the truth,
it would be sensible to take precautions. It was most likely mere
robbery and murder, but we would be foolish to count on it."

"We do not abandon the mission," Hornblower said, glad of a chance to
assert his authority.

"Of course not," Miranda said, in the casually dismissive tone that
infuriated Hornblower more than any other. "I am removing with
Escudero and my valet to a village some two hours travel from this
town, that is all. It would be unwise to stay here, but we cannot
yet quit this place entirely, the removal will, with good fortune, be
enough that our new hosts will know nothing of our stay here.
Torellos is already packing my belongings. You and the others may
come with me if you prefer, but it might be better to keep an eye on
things from close quarters, since you have not drawn attention to
yourselves a poorer inn should be a sufficient shelter."

"I assume," Hornblower said, in cold fury, "it did not occur to you
to consult me before forming your plans?"

"What was there to consult about? The wise course is obvious."

"I am in charge of this party," Hornblower insisted, "By God if you
were a Royal Naval man I could have you charged with insubordination!"

"But I am not," Miranda said, unanswerably. "And my rank and
experience are far greater than yours, captain."

Hornblower was forced to quit the room before he throttled the man.

~~#~~

"Failed to make a dent, did you?" Kennedy asked, leaning back in the
rickety chair. He'd chosen not to attend the confrontation with
Miranda.

"The man's impossible!" Hornblower fumed. "He doesn't seem to
possess any normal standards, or even to comprehend them. I don't
know what he thinks he is."

Kennedy gave the question some genuine thought. "You were a
classical scholar, Horatio. Do you remember the phrase *'deus ex
machina'*?"

" 'The God in the Machine'. Yes, of course." Suddenly his mouth
twitched. "Yes, you're quite right, of course. That's just how he
sees himself. A god in a machine, raised above the heads of other
people. Probably expects to swoop down and rescue we mere mortals
all the time!"

"And it would be too much to expect such a lordly individual to
concern himself with trivial details, such as what we should do next."

"Actually," Hornblower admitted, "he does have a scheme." He
outlined it quickly. "Better not waste time. Unearth d'Atigny and
see whether he wants to come with us or with the Spanish." Having
cooled down he could acknowledge Miranda's plan was quite a good
one. However arrogant, the man was not a fool.

On the whole Hornblower, still uneasy about the state of d'Atigny's
nerves, hoped that he would opt for the slightly greater safety of
accompanying the Spanish party. However, although he looked
distinctly haggard, the young Frenchman set his jaw firmly and
insisted that he wished to stay in Burgos, and, if possible, learn
what had happened to his compatriot. Since it would plainly be
unwise to force him, the two naval men did not try. The three of
them were able to remove quite swiftly to a run down tavern in a
poorer part of town. The landlord looked at his guest as though he
found them odd, but took their money without question.

The change of inn, however, proved not enough to satisfy d'Atigny.
After an evening meal which made naval food look rather good, he
argued that something further should be done and, on a slightly
exasperated Kennedy demanding what he had in mind, proposed they
should examine the spot where Levallier's body had been found.

"What good will that do?" Hornblower asked impatiently.

"It might suggest something... at least an idea of what he might have
been doing in that area. At all events I feel we should make an
attempt to learn what happened."

This was close enough to Hornblower's own feeling for him to accept
it on the spot. "Well, it can't do any harm," he said, and then,
realising that sounded a bit ungracious, "It's certainly worth a try."

Kennedy pushed back his stool. "No point in delaying then."

"Perhaps one of you should stay here?" d'Atigny suggested uneasily.

"I don't see why. The more pairs of eyes the better. Lead on,
Macduff."

"Lay on," d'Atigny corrected.

"Same thing. Let's go."

~~#~~

"I can't imagine," Hornblower said, "what can have brought Levallier
here."

'Here' was a little distance from the last buildings of the town, at
the edge of a rather straggly piece of woodland and some way from the
nearest road. Hornblower had unconsciously been imagining a
backstreet district, the kind of rough area a visitor to the town
might wander into accidentally. But no visitor would be likely to
come to this place without a reason. What reason? A rendezvous,
perhaps? With whom?

A good place for a murder. Cautiously he laid one hand on the pistol
that was thrust into his waistband beneath his coat.

"He could simply have fallen a victim to footpads or brigands," said
Kennedy, "The trees would be an easy place to hide."

"True. But that doesn't explain what he was doing here at all." As
Kennedy moved a little way away, in exploration of the woodland,
Hornblower stood frowning. There was something that had been
bothering him, but he hadn't quite placed it. Something d'Atigny
hadn't said... ah, yes.

"Who told you where the body was discovered?" he asked. "Torrellos
just said to us that it was found in a ditch on the outskirts." He
was surprised by the young Frenchman's look of discomfiture.

"I, er, I heard it."

"Heard it? From whom?"

"An acute question, Monsieur," another voice interrupted
deliberately, "Although asked a little late."

Three men had come out of the trees behind them. Two were holding
pistols and had the stolid look of those employed for brawn rather
than brain. The third was in the lead, and had not bothered to hold
a weapon. Hornblower had drawn his own pistol even as he spun
around, and now trained it on the man, who did not seem perturbed at
all.

De Vergesse had changed with the years. Hornblower, perhaps with a
touch of prejudice, remembered a man who smacked as much of ballroom -
or boudoir - as of battlefield. Now he looked like a man who would
carry the echo of killing wherever he went. His hair was liberally
silvered and he had put on some weight, which added to, rather than
diminished, the sense of command he carried. A scar like a sword cut
down one cheek was not disfiguring, yet gave him a sinister air.
There was nothing of the ladies' man about him now, but the hard face
held not a trace of scruple.

De Vergesse's eyes were fixed on Hornblower, and his face held a look
of some surprise, although not that degree of surprise that makes a
man look vulnerable. "Lieutenant Hornblower. An unexpected
reunion." His voice was grimly sardonic, a harder tone than any the
younger Hornblower had heard from him.

"Captain Hornblower," he corrected, playing for time. "I gather you
were not expecting me." Controlling his voice whilst fear and anger
competed in his gut took a great effort, but he managed it.

"Not you in particular," de Vergesse said, "M. d'Atigny did not give
me a name. I think you should put down that pistol - Captain."

"Can you give a reason?" He couldn't really think of a way out of
this, but there was no need to anticipate the inevitable.

"How about having you're compatriot's brains blown out?" Kennedy was
pushed out of the wood by two more men with a pistol held to his
head. He did not look at Hornblower.

"Why should I care?" How much did de Vergesse know? He could at
least attempt to make a lie stick. "He's only a common seaman. A
troublemaking one as well." D'Atigny could expose that, he turned
the attack on the young Frenchman. "So what really happened to
Levallier, *traitor*?"

"I am no traitor!" D'Atigny flushed scarlet, he looked very
young. "I serve my country! My parents are fools, they and their
like, refusing to support the greatest leader France has had in
generations, preferring that fat fool who calls himself our king,
only because of his ancestors." His head came back proudly. "All
true Frenchmen should follow Napoleon Bonaparte!"

"How long have you been spying?" No answer, d'Atigny merely raised
his chin and tried for an unwavering stare. "Were you in contact
with de Vergesse all along?"

"No." It was de Vergesse who answered. "The young man is fairly new
to his business. He seems to have had some idea of frustrating the
mission without betraying yourself."

"I did not wish...." d'Atigny stammered, his attempt at assurance
crumbling swiftly. "I thought if I could steal the papers... but M.
Levallier became suspicious. He saw me going into the wrong room the
first night ashore, I lied it off, but he must have kept watching.
Last night he caught me at a second attempt. But he did not want to
think ill of a titled man. I lied again, said there was another
traitor in the party and I could prove it if he would only come with
me...." To this point the words had spilled out in a desperate
torrent of self-exculpation, but now they dried up.

"And so he killed the man," de Vergesse said, "and afterwards he
panicked and came to me. If it interests you, he tried to argue that
there was no need to arrest the spy, but I was able to convince him
where his patriotic duty truly lay and he agreed to bring you here.
Even then he misled me, I was not expecting two men."

"No doubt he thought that one insignificant," Hornblower said, his
mind working rapidly. D'Atigny had told de Vergesse as little as he
could, but that would never last, he would plainly tell all under
pressure from a stronger will. He cursed himself for over-confidence
but regrets would not help now.

"Is this heroic stand serving any purpose?" de Vergesse asked with
almost casual arrogance. "You could shoot me, Captain, but you have
only one bullet and my men would kill you slowly and painfully."

"You have the advantage," Hornblower admitted. He made as if to
lower the pistol, then, seeing de Vergesse's men relax slightly,
pivoted fast - and shot d'Atigny in the throat at point blank range.

He had just time to look de Vergesse in the eye and say with as much
force as he could manage, "But that is no reason to let a traitor
live!" before he was knocked violently to the ground. A boot
connected with his ribs, then de Vergesse spoke sharply in French and
he was hauled, coughing in pain, to his feet. His hands were
wrenched behind him and tied tightly. Hornblower dragged his head up,
shaking with shock and fury at the roughness of his handling.

"A foolish gesture," de Vergesse said. "You will regret it. Now,
tell me what you are doing here."

"You don't... honestly expect that," Hornblower gasped. D'Atigny's
body lay sprawled on the ground, blood seeping over the rough,
parched grass. Although not looking directly, he could not fail to
see.

"One way or another, I will learn." De Vergesse took a pistol from
one of his men, and pointed it at Kennedy. "If he will not tell me,
perhaps you will."

"What do ye want tae lairn?" Kennedy spoke in the Scots brogue he
sometimes used for a joke in the mess. So he'd caught the words
about a common seaman. It might not help, but yet it might. De
Vergesse had never seen Archie Kennedy, could have no idea who he was.

"Who you are would be a start," de Vergesse said.

"Name's McTavish, if that's any matter to you."

"Nothing at all. I want to know what kind of man you are."

"I were an able-seaman, 'til they tairned me off at the peace. Then
I crewed on a Spaniard, it were a trader nae a fighter, but when it
were taken *he* said I'd be hanged for a traitor unless I gang alang
on this affair. And noe ye'll execute me for a spy." The whole was
delivered with a fairly convincing imitation of lower-decks
sullenness, eyes on the ground. Good! Hornblower applauded
silently. Not good enough to fool a Britisher, but it would probably
do for a Frog. He wouldn't count on his own ability to make social
distinctions among the French, if called upon to do so.

"So what is this business?" De Vergesse was, if not obviously
accepting the story, at least not openly denying it either.

"Our mission must come first!" Hornblower exclaimed, with all the
force he could manage, he wrenched at his bonds, as if trying to
twist free. "It comes before our lives. Our country is at stake
here. Understand me!" For a very brief moment his eyes locked with
Archie's and he tried to pour everything he had into the look that
passed between. Understand, you must understand....

Deliberately Kennedy spat on the ground, and turned back to de
Vergesse. "He said we was lairning the minds of the Dago's see if
they could be turned agin ye. But I reckon he were after mair than
that, he was ver' set we should come here. But why I dinna ken. I
were just alang on account of knowing a bit o' the land and the
talk. Mair than he did."

"And these papers my countryman spoke of?"

"He had yon in his bags. That's all I ken. Some sort of orders I
reckon. But he never telled me."

"And why should I believe your story?" de Vergesse asked.

"Why would I be lying? I don't owe anything tae *him*."

"But why should I believe you are only the common seaman that you
claim?" Hornblower cursed inwardly, that was their weak point, no
proof. Of course not.

"Get your men tae let go o' me, and I'll show ye." Kennedy jerked
free, striped off his rough jacket, then his shirt and turned his
back to the Frenchman, revealing the scars, old and faded now, but
unmistakable.

Officers in the British Navy were not flogged, nor were young
gentlemen in training to be officers. The beatings midshipmen
received sometimes did not leave scars such as marked the backs of
many ratings. But Archie Kennedy had such scars, had them from his
time in the French prisons. Hornblower knew they were there, but
he'd not seen them often. And he had not remembered now. But Archie
had.

De Vergesse eyed the scars coolly, "I see. Now...." he stepped a
little way away, then drew out his sword, and to Hornblower's
surprise, used it to cut something from a tree. A thin, whippy
branch, like a switch. He then moved round in front of Kennedy, who
had not seen what he was doing, and, in one swift movement, brought
the switch up and across his chest. Taken by surprise, Kennedy
stumbled a pace back, Hornblower heard his gasp of pain and shock and
had to school himself not to react.

With open deliberation de Vergesse raised the switch again, and
brought it down across Kennedy's cheek. This time Kennedy was braced
for the blow, and met it squarely, without flinching or making any
sound. He held himself rigid as de Vergesse raised it a third time
and Hornblower bit on his own lip with the effort to hold still.
Then de Vergesse lowered his arm, the blow still undelivered.

"Dress," he said, "And tell me where your baggage is. If I find you
have spoken the truth then you may live."

Kennedy did as directed, and Hornblower had to summon all his self-
control not to openly relax. So far de Vergesse knew nothing of
Miranda, and if they could only keep him diverted the mission might
yet succeed. There might even be a chance for Kennedy to survive.
For him there would be none, but he must not dwell on that lest it
numb his brain and paralyse his nerve.

To fight off the temptation of letting his mind sink into torpor he
set himself the challenge of puzzling out what de Vergesse had meant
by that sudden attack. If he was trying to beat the truth out of his
captive he had not taken it very far. It had been more as if he were
looking for something, something he had found, or not found, before
he lowered the switch. Something in Kennedy's reactions, then. But
what?

His captors had turned him roughly and were propelling him across the
uneven ground, taking a route around the outskirts of the town, he
tried to mark the distance and direction, to keep watch for any
landmarks. Not that it would help. He stumbled and one of them
jerked him upright with casual roughness, causing him to jerk away
from the hands in indignation, the man laughed and pushed him again,
he seethed and had to force himself not to fight against the ropes.

That must be it. Realisation came. De Vergesse had been looking to
see what reaction his blows brought. He expected that an officer
would boil with open outrage and disbelief, probably lash out,
however hopelessly. Most would have. *He* would have. Archie...
had not.

It was nothing to do with courage or even pride, simply what a man
was used to. Kennedy had suffered beatings enough in his past to
accept them as a part of life, accept them, not easily, but with
stubborn endurance rather than outrage. And though that time was
years past and he had changed, still those memories must be close to
the surface in Spain, in enemy hands. He had reacted as a seaman
would, not without defiance, but with smouldering anger, not blazing
fury. And de Vergesse had been satisfied. For now.

~~#~~

It was a makeshift prison they had pushed him into, a small room with
old rotten shelves that must have once been used as a store. They
had manhandled him a bit, but not too badly. Kennedy rubbed at some
of his bruises, then leant against a wall and worked at steadying his
breathing.

He had not been comfortable with small, enclosed places since his
time in the oubliette. Shipboard cabins were all right, the
structure was so flimsy that they hardly felt closed in at all, but
the further down he went in a ship the less easy he felt. Now, still
shaken from rough handling, with memories of a hideous past closer
than they had been in years... deliberately he counted the space
between breaths, reminding himself of just how many years had
passed. He wasn't a midshipman now, nor was he responsible only for
himself. He had to stay calm.

That was better. The walls were still yammering insistently at his
nerves, but he was not about to lose control. Now, *think*.

God, what would they do to Horatio? The bluff seemed to have bought
him reasonably good treatment, at least for now, but Hornblower would
have no such immunity. De Vergesse wanted information, and he was
plainly not a man to observe the rules of war. It was hard enough to
think of the kind of pain he might be capable of meting out, but
worse than that, Horatio was not used to physical mistreatment.
There was always the chance he would do something really stupid in
response. Especially as he might well have given up on his own life
already. He was far too prone to cast himself in a doomed role, not
through lack of will, but from genuine conviction his life should be
of small importance. Usually his sense of responsibility was there
as a counter, but if he had decided his use to the mission was
over....

Stop it. Worrying wasn't going to help. The only thing that would
help would be to find a way out. He would have the better chance of
doing that. Get out, rescue Hornblower, rejoin Miranda and complete
the mission. Right. A good plan, if he could just work out the
details.

Better be quick about it too. De Vergesse would be checking out the
inn quarters now. When he didn't find any papers, which he wouldn't,
because Miranda had them, he would return and demand more
information. And not politely. He shivered with fear, then cursed
himself vigorously. This was no time for that.

But he knew too well what men like de Vergesse were capable of
towards those in their power. And why should he restrain himself,
where self-admitted spies were concerned? No-one would care about
spies, probably not even those who sent them, who would care mostly
to avoid embarrassment.

*Stop it.* The brunt wouldn't fall on him anyway. Not that that
thought helped, in fact it made things worse. He'd take the
punishment for both of them if he could ... but no chance of that.
*No.* Stop dwelling on things. *Think.*

Thinking didn't seem to be helping much, rather the reverse. So he
straightened up, and started exploring the dim interior of the
makeshift cell. And made a surprising discovery.

Against the far wall there had once been a window. Now a wooden
cover, two planks roughly held together, covered it over. It was
not very securely attached, shifted under his hands. A bit of work
would probably pull it away from the wall completely. And the window
was not so small. Almost certainly it was large enough for a man to
get through.

Too easy. Surely it was far too easy. Every bone, every nerve and
memory that had been made wary and distrustful through far too bitter
experience cried out that this was far too easy. It had to be a trap
of some kind. Didn't it?

He crouched down in a corner, thoughts scurrying like rats. Escape?
Remain? Surely it had to be a trap. But if it was not? What other
chance might there be of escape? Perhaps none. Time was passing,
the night must be almost half over now. And not just his own escape,
it might well be Horatio's only chance.

Horatio would be all right, he always was. Ah, but even the most
wondrous luck had its limits. And perhaps this was the luck, perhaps
it was up to him to seize the chance? But was it really likely de
Vergesse would make such a foolish slip? It had to be a trap. But
if it was not?

Round and round.... What kind of trap? What harm in trying? If it
was one, then there had to be some harm. He wasn't subtle enough to
guess how de Vergesse's mind might work. But he should not let
himself be paralysed by indecision. But if the right decision was
not to act? Round and round.

Footsteps. Drawing a long breath he stood up and braced himself,
determined that when - if - the door opened he would not flinch. A
flicker of humour told him he would feel pretty foolish if the
footsteps walked on by.

They did not. However the intrusion hardly justified the effort he
had taken to prepare himself. A guard appeared and dumped a pitcher
of water and an empty tin bucket, looked him up and down briefly,
then left again without a word. He heard the bolt scrape back into
place with a once familiar constriction of the throat. Then - more
footsteps, drawing near, not the guard retreating again. A greeting
in French, it sounded informal.

His captors had made an effort to find out whether he spoke French.
He hoped to have convinced them he did not. Now he moved close to
the door, pressed himself against the rough wood, in an effort to
hear what was passing between the men.

The French was rapid and colloquial, as well as being somewhat
muffled despite the fact that the door was not well fitting. He
could make out though that one of the men was baffled and irritated
by the orders he had been given and was looking for enlightenment
from his colleague.

Both pairs of footsteps moved away at last and Kennedy leaned against
the door with closed eyes and tried to order the information that he
had been given.

Fragments. "The General's orders... keep watch...the other one...
the window... way out... the other one... watch and see... find the
truth."

A pattern. A terrible pattern.

He'd been right it was a trap. Or a test. The way out deliberately
left, to see what he would do when he discovered it. Another attempt
to tell if he was in truth what he claimed. The man he claimed to be
would run as soon as he escaped. But if he had lied, if he were a
willing participant, especially an officer participant, such a man
would make every effort to find and release his colleague. Of course
he would.

De Vergesse's test. Wherever Hornblower was held must be most
carefully watched. To see if his fellow spy would attempt to free
him.

And that meant... that meant if there was any chance of escape it
could only be alone.

'The mission comes first,' Hornblower had said, and 'understand me!'
He understood all right.

Damn you, Horatio. Damn you for doing this to me.

And damn the mission.... But he couldn't damn the mission. No, he
couldn't remember the devastation he had seen in war torn France and
risk missing a chance to avert that for his homeland. It was too
easy to picture.

Besides, he always did what Horatio asked, didn't he?

*Damn you,* Horatio. But he was damning Horatio, by leaving him to
De Vergesse's hands.

He would do it. He had no choice about doing it.

Whether he'd be able to live with it afterwards was another matter.

~~#~~

Of course none of it would be of any use if he was caught. And he
did not suppose that de Vergesse really wanted either prisoner to
slip through his fingers.

He needed to think about this. There wouldn't be a guard right
outside, de Vergesse would need his victim to be unwary. Very well,
then, the first step had to be to get outside and see what was
there. He only retained a vague memory of the building from the
evening gloom in which he had been hustled inside. His own fault
that, he should have concentrated harder. But now he needed to get
out.

The board came away quite quickly and quietly and there was no glass
in the aperture. Getting up to it was not so easy, nor was squeezing
through, he felt uncomfortably like a cork in a bottle, and could not
forbear from picturing how horribly caught he'd be if a guard should
happen along whilst he was halfway through.

By the time he was out his heart was hammering so loud it seemed that
half of Spain must hear. But no-one came. First step accomplished,
but that was the easiest. Arranged for him indeed.

Another shocking thought, what if the overheard talk had been a trap,
a further subtlety of de Vergesse? Could it be so? Perhaps - but
surely unlikely, he'd only just caught the vital words, surely de
Vergesse would have made the conversation plainer if that were his
intent. No, it was more likely that even the subtlest of plans could
be let down by relying on fallible humans. Anyway, he was committed
now.

He was in a courtyard. The main body of the villa was to his right,
wings stretched out from it behind and directly opposite. To his
left, a couple of outbuildings almost closed the square but not
quite, a wide gap between them gave out on what he believed from his
dim memories of being brought here to be open country. Now, what
would de Vergesse be prepared for?

The obvious thing was to head straight for that gap to the outside
world. So that was just what he must not do, it was sure to be
guarded. He slipped along the inner wall instead.

This was no private house. The ground floor windows had bars on
them, and surely there would be no door that was not either locked or
watched. That left only one possibility. Yes, most of the upper
floor windows on the main building were open, letting in the cool of
the Spanish night, anyone who kept his windows shut in this country
would stifle. And there, in the corner where the main building
joined the wing, a convenient drainpipe. He must chance being seen.
Even if he was, any watcher would probably assume he meant to look
for his companion.

No. There wouldn't be a chance. That decision had already been made.

It was not a particularly difficult climb and the room inside was
entirely empty. It was the work of a few moments to slip out of the
room, across the corridor, and into another, equally empty, on the
other side. Up with the window, and out. He let himself dangle by
his hands, willing his body to relax, then dropped. Fortunately it
was grass beneath, he landed a trifle jarred but otherwise unhurt.

With any luck, that would be one thing de Vergesse hadn't expected.
But he could not linger. A fast escape then, and a roundabout one,
to shake any pursuit there might be.

Don't look behind. Don't think. Just go.

There were enough stars out still for him to get his bearings
easily. There was only one possible place to head for, the village
where Miranda and his companions were established. They had to be
warned. They had to know what had happened, so a plan could be
formed to act upon it. Which was why he had to do this, when every
fibre screamed against it.

~~#~~

It took hours. Skirting Burgos carefully, taking as many precautions
as were reasonably possible to ensure that he was not being tracked
by de Vergesse's men, doing all of this without drawing undue
attention - he hoped - from the Spaniards, and finally locating the
inn he needed, all of that was slow and taxing. And left far too
much time for imagination to run riot. De Vergesse must have learned
of his disappearance by now, and he had an easy target for the
inevitable anger....

But he had to keep his thoughts reigned in, had to avoid any slip in
concentration.

Fortune was with him for once, there was only one inn in the small
village, and Escudero was actually leaning against a wall outside.

Whatever else one might say about the South Americans, they were not
easily perturbed.

"If this man does not know about us then we still have an advantage,"
Miranda said, his countenance as confident as ever. "He knows
nothing of the real purpose of the mission, so it should still be
possible to intercept the couriers."

"We've lost both our substitutes, though," Kennedy said grimly. "So
unless we can swap the dispatches without the men knowing - which
would be very difficult - someone else will have to take on the
task. Who amongst you has the best French?"

"Unless you have a good reason otherwise, Commander," Miranda
said, "I believe you should take the dispatches. You have the most
need to be away from here quickly."

"I'm not sure my French is up to it." A pretext. He was very
reluctant to leave Burgos.

"Not all of Bonaparte's officers speak French as their first
language. And I believe the risk must be taken. Of those of us who
remain I am the only one with a fluent command of the tongue, and I
am rather too old for rapid rides."

"There's getting to be too many risks." The truth was that he hadn't
given up hope of somehow getting Horatio out of de Vergesse's
clutches. "We needn't decide before the couriers show up though. In
the meantime, what about de Vergesse - and what about Captain
Hornblower?" Now he had allies again the position was starting to
look rather less hopeless than it had seemed last night.

"We can't just abandon him," he said flatly, reaching the decision in
the same breath that he uttered the words. "There *has* to be a way."

Now the resolution had been made, he was prepared to argue long and
hard, but Miranda surprised him by saying immediately, "Yes, you are
right. There has to be a way. We do have one great advantage, and
that is myself. De Vergesse knows nothing about me. But if we are
to act it must be fast."

"Yes, it must be fast, but how? A raid on the place? I don't like
the odds. He may not know about you, but if he's the man I take him
for, he'll be prepared for something." He did not at all like the
fact that he seemed to be arguing against the proposal, but a failed
attempt would be worse than no attempt.

"Then," said Miranda, "we must find a way to reduce the odds."

~~#~~

"Are you sure?" Miranda asked.

Torrellos, just returned from Burgos, was quite sure.

"I suppose we should have expected it," said Kennedy, eyes bright
with tension, "Troubles never come by single spies, but whole
battalions." Seeing Torrellos look blank, he added, "or in the
vernacular, it never rains but it pours."

The valet stared at him for a moment, still uncomprehending, then
said, "We will need to plan rapidly."

"Yes. We will." Here was the crux, the moment so much more
important than anything in his career or life so far. He was a
little annoyed with himself for feeling relief that his companions
seemed so thoroughly equal to the situation, producing plans as
calmly as though it were a matter of everyday. At the same time it
was easy to regret having felt even the slightest suspicion of these
men, however reasonable it might have seemed. Yet there was little
time for such feelings, and it had not surprised him when Miranda
brushed aside his attempts at thanks. Probably they would part on
similarly hasty terms and he would never see the men again and that
had to be accepted.

Now there was room for concentration on one thing only. They had to
get this right.

But not, please Heaven, at the cost of Horatio's life.