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Ship of the Damned, part seven
by Sue N.

At table, Pellew forced himself to play the gallant
host, though he even he found his courtesy strained by
Thorneís stiff, cold manner. The man seemed determined
to hold himself aloof and regarded them all through
pale grey eyes that lacked any trace of warmth or
humour. He responded to every question asked him in a
terse, chilly voice, answering in as few words as
possible. Now and again, Pellew found himself
clutching his knife or fork more tightly than was
customary, and had to force back the impulse to jab
them into the manís hand simply to get some more human
reaction.

For his part, Thorne was appalled by Pellewís manner
of condescending to his junior -- exceedingly junior!
-- officers, by his way of seeking their opinions on
various subjects, as if such actually mattered. He
considered a deplorable violation of the captainís
dignity, an unforgivable breach in the barrier
separating commander and subordinates. Hornblower even
presumed once or twice to express disagreement with
his captain, and Kennedy to ask questions which
implied he, too, was entertaining opposing ideas, and
Pellew -- ah, God! -- not only tolerated it, but
seemed actually to condone it! He considered the
opinions, the questions, with an unbelievable gravity,
and even asked questions of his own to draw the two
further along their lines of thinking.

Well, he would soon inform Mr. Kennedy how things were
done in Resolute...

At last, fearing he would not for much longer be able
to restrain his impulse to stab or strangle his guest,
Pellew turned the conversation to Resolute, determined
to settle all pertinent matters and then find a way to
get Thorne out of his sight. He could feel a headache
building...

"About your ship, sir," he began, struggling to keep
the edge from his voice and failing. "You have said
she is short-handed, but little more than that. I am
curious -- what is your present strength?"

Thorne narrowed his eyes and clenched his jaws,
sensing both doubt and derision in the question. But
Pellewís eyes, dark and hard, were full upon him, and
he knew anything less than a complete and honest
answer would not be tolerated. Damn the man...

He slid a hand into his lap and clenched it tightly
into a fist, but made his face an impassive mask.
"Sir," he began in a tight, cold voice, "we began our
cruise with no more than two hundred men, a good
twenty less than a full complement for a ship of
Resoluteís size, and four officers -- Captain Sidney,
myself, Lieutenant Jessup and Lieutenant North. The
captain dispatched Mr. Jessup and a prize crew of
thirty with the frigate we captured, we suffered
another thirty killed -- including Lieutenant North --
and thirteen wounded in the engagement with the second
frigate, and lost five men in the storms. We have, at
present, around one hundred and thirty-five men as our
complement."

"My God!" Pellew breathed in stunned disbelief,
sitting back in his chair and staring at the man.
"Sir, that is-- Even for so small a ship-- How are you
managing? The men must be exhausted--"

"The men have their duties, and are required to
fulfill them," Thorne said tersely. "With discipline,
we have made the situation workable."

Kennedy went very still, and very cold, as the reality
of what awaited him sank heavily through him. Resolute
was at barely more than half-strength, was still three
weeks out of Gibraltar, and in enemy waters--

Hornblower saw his friendís blue eyes widen, his face
drain of colour, and felt a sharp stab of concern.
But, tearing his gaze from Kennedy, he glanced
desperately at the captain, certain the man must now
change his mind. He could not possibly send Archie and
the others to Resolute knowing how matters stood in
her!

Pellew sighed and closed his eyes briefly, raising his
linen napkin to his mouth and trying to quell the
uproar in his mind and soul. Concern for his men
demanded that he rescind his offer to them; but honour
and duty -- ah, God, that hateful word again! --
dictated...

What? God in heaven, where did duty lie? Torn between
two evils, with neither of them the lesser, which was
he to choose?

Oh, God, why did Kennedy have to look so young? And
Thorne so unpleasant? What did one do, when the wisdom
of Solomon was required, and one was, sadly, not
Solomon?

"Sir." Startling all of them, even himself, Kennedy
spoke softly, his blue eyes still impossibly wide, but
his voice remarkably steady. "The numbers-- do not
alter our duty. Indeed, they make it even clearer."
Swallowing hard, he turned that dark, dense blue gaze
upon his captain. "We are needed. And we may not turn
our backs upon a British ship in need."

Horatio wanted to jump from his chair and shout --
scream -- sense at Archie, to grab him and shake him
until he saw reason, to take the captain by the
shoulders and force him to do the same. No! No! They
could not go; he could not send them! It was foolish!
It was insanity! It was suicide! Surely, surely to God
they had to see that!

Pellew could see the anguish in his lieutenantís brown
eyes, could see his jaw working, his lean frame
quivering, his hands clenching and unclenching. He
knew every thought racing through Hornblowerís mind,
knew them as if they were his own. For they were. But
that did not make them right.

"Very good, Mr. Kennedy," he breathed slowly, steeling
himself against the outrage he felt pouring from
Hornblower, and forcing himself equally to ignore
Thorneís infuriating smirk of triumph. When was the
last time he had struck a man full in the face? And
would it be as satisfying as he suspected? Probably.
At least until he hanged for it... "Mr. Thorne, when
will you have our men join Resolute?"

Horatio had to grab his chair to keep from lunging out
of it, had to bite his tongue hard to keep from
protesting. No! No, no, NO!

"As soon as possible, I think," Thorne answered
coolly, oblivious to the shock and torment about him.
"I shall go over now and prepare my men. Shall we say,
in one hour?"

Archie felt sick, and feared he might soon be. One
hour...

"Oh, and Mr. Kennedy." Thorne turned those pale, icy
grey eyes upon the younger man, his mouth curling into
a frown, "please be so good as to bring your best
uniforms. The officers in Resolute are expected to
uphold a certain image. We do not wish to appear
unkempt in the eyes of our men. It lessens their
regard for us."

Archie blinked and nodded dazedly. Best uniforms...?

Horatio scowled deeply, darkly, his eyes seething, his
soul roiling like a storm-tossed sea. Unkempt? On that
bloody ship? A man could go in tatters, and still
outshine that stinking barge...

Oh, God, Styles had been right!

Pellew tossed his napkin weakly onto the table and
rose slowly to his feet, a foul, bitter taste in his
mouth. "Very well," he said curtly, bringing the
disatrous dinner to an even more disastrous close, "we
all have our duties. Gentlemen, you are dismissed. Mr.
Hornblower," good God, his head hurt, "be so good as
to escort Mr. Thorne to the deck and see him to his
boat. Mr. Thorne, my men shall be with you in one
hour."

Thorne bowed his head curtly. "Very good, sir." And,
with grudging deference, "Thank you." He cast a
disdainful glance at Horatio, then stalked from the
cabin.

Pellew stared at Archie, who had risen, but seemed
lost. "Mr. Kennedy..." What? What did one say at such
a time? What words would not be utterly inadequate?
"You made a-- a very difficult decision. I commend--"
No, damn it! Not merely that. "I am proud of what you
did."

Slowly, slowly, Archie turned to his captain and fixed
that blue gaze upon him. "Thank you, sir," he
breathed. He came to himself abruptly, as if waking
from a daze. "Now I-- I suppose I should go--"

"One more thing," Pellew said quickly, coming around
the table to stand before the young man. Not at all
certain where the idea came from, he said quietly, "I
would greatly appreciate it if-- if you would-- record
your experiences in Resolute. Keep a log, as it were."

Archie frowned, not understanding. "Sir?"

Pellew sighed, not really understanding himself. But
it seemed important; instinct assured him it was. "A
log, sir. A journal. Perhaps for your own-
edification-- I would-- consider it a favour."

"Then I shall do it, of course, sir," Archie murmured.
"If you deem it important."

Pellewís insides clenched hard. God in heaven, such
trust! Why did tihs boy continue to trust him so when
he had just cast him into hell? "Thank you, Mr.
Kennedy." His head was throbbing unmercifully; or was
it his conscience? "That will be all."

Archie bowed his head slightly. "Yes, sir. And-- thank
you for dinner, sir," he added, a lifetime of his
motherís gentle prodding coming to the fore. "It was
excellent, as always." He bobbed his head again, then
turned and left the cabin.

And Pellew, behind him, lifted tortured eyes to the
ceiling beams and prayed desperately he would not be
sick.


**********