A Deep But Dazzling Darkness
by Sarah B.
Archie was dreaming.
He was in a woods, looking up at the sunlight in the trees. He felt light, young, and knew where he was: he was home. He didn't have to look, he knew the big old house was behind him, knew his mother was inside waiting for him. And more, he knew his brothers were there, and a few other boys who were friends of theirs. If he could only find them...
"Hey!" He called, and could feel the dried grass and twigs crunching beneath his little boots as he ran. The forest was so big, but it was never scary; he could always see his house from it, and the walled garden that was his favorite place because his mother loved it so much. He felt the breeze in his hair, looked over and saw the low buildings that kept the chickens and the geese.
"Hide!" A voice said, one of his brothers; "Archie, hide! We'll find you."
Archie grinned, because he knew this game; there were lots of good places to hide on the estate, and then they'd find him, and somehow Archie knew that Titus Dunbridge was going to look for him too, and - and Horatio too. Horatio was there - of course that was impossible, but Archie didn't think about that. He knew just where he was going to go.
It was still there, the storage bin by the chicken coop; for some reason the wood looked split and old, and something told Archie not to get inside, but he grabbed the edge of the bin and could feel the rough wood beneath his hands; the bin was empty, and it would be a perfect place to hide.
The inside of the bin was dusty and smelled wet and stuffy; Archie reached for the cord to pull the lid shut and wondered why the sunlight looked so bright. He felt like he wanted to look at it forever, but then he couldn't hide. Archie quickly pulled the lid down, and then it was dark except for the edges of sunlight that leaked in around the corners of the lid.
It was quiet there, and Archie could hear his brothers and the others looking for him. He felt lightheaded, giddy; perhaps they wouldn't find him and he would win - that had never happened before! Perhaps -
Suddenly something moved beneath him, and Archie jumped in the darkness. It was smaller than him, and after a moment Archie put out his hand and touched trembling fur.
"He hid the damn fox!" His oldest brother cried, and he sounded mad.
Suddenly Archie's voice began to race; of course, he'd forgotten, he wasn't playing hide and seek; he was hiding in the storage bin because the hunters wouldn't be able to go there, and he was trying so hard to keep the fox safe. Of course - Archie put both arms around the tiny creature that was shaking with fear, and without speaking he said, "They'll be gone soon, and you can go home. I've got you, I won't let you go." He looked down in the dim light to see if the fox was hurt.
And looked into Thomas' eyes instead.
Then suddenly the sun flared and went out.
Sudden, horrible fear gripped Archie's heart. "Thomas?" The child was gone; a sudden wind was howling, shaking the storage bin with its fury.
"Where's that bastard at?" Came another voice, one that made Archie's blood turn to ice. Morgan! He leapt up, the game forgotten, and suddenly he wasn't in the storage bin but trapped below the decks of a great ship, and all around him was the crash and roar of the ship coming apart. He felt with both hands and found a door, but it was wedged shut.
"Horatio!" he called, but the wind was carrying his voice away. He pounded on the door and still it wouldn't open, oh God, he was trapped! Trapped, and Thomas - "Horatio!"
Archie froze, held his breath; were his ears playing tricks? "Thomas! Horatio, save Thomas!"
The door he had been leaning against suddenly fell backwards, and Archie fell with it into a pair of strong arms that were holding him, stroking his forehead and hair, they were not punishing but all Archie could think of was escape and he struggled against them. "No, dammit! Let me go!"
"Archie, wake up!" Horatio's voice in the darkness, just behind him. "Archie, please, it's all right, it's - "
Archie was flying then, shooting through a tight painful tunnel, and without warning the ship and his brothers and the estate all folded away and there was only the darkness and a soothing hand on his brow. He gasped as the pain slammed into his awakening body. "Oh - oh - "
"Shhh, Archie," Horatio was holding him tightly, at an odd angle it seemed; Archie became dimly aware he was halfway fallen out his cot. "Archie, you're all right - Archie?"
"Yes," Archie whispered, and began to shake. A dream. Oh, God, Thomas was all right - it had only been - "Oh, God - "
"Here," Archie felt Horatio lifting him back onto his cot, and groped out with one hand until he found the far edge and pulled himself back into it. As soon as he was safely back in again Archie took several deep, shaking gasps for air.
"Are you all right?" Horatio asked.
Archie's mind was still swirling between sleep and wakefulness. Then he marked the fear in Horatio's voice and asked, "What happened? Did I - "
"A nightmare, I would imagine," Horatio replied dryly, and Archie noticed that he seemed to be calming down. "Now Mr. Kennedy, to my question: are you all right?"
"Yes," Archie stammered, "That is, I - I - " One hand went up to the bandages around his eyes. He tried to open them, and was heartened by the fact that the effort did not awaken horrendous pain in his face. It was more like a dull ache. Quietly he said, "I think...I think I can almost open my eyes."
"Can you see anything?" Horatio asked eagerly.
Archie tried very hard to part his swollen lids, and almost succeeded. But - damn! "I don't know. Everything is still gray. But it - it doesn't feel as bad as it did before."
"Good." Archie felt Horatio pat his arm, and he sank into himself, listening to the horrendous pounding of his heart. God, that dream - the fear in it - he could hear Horatio moving about the cabin and asked, "What time is it?"
"Just past the end of the morning watch," Horatio answered, and Archie noticed his voice was up and away from him - Horatio was at the other end of their cabin. "Would you like some breakfast?"
Archie's stomach lurched at the suggestion of food, and he shook his head. If only his heart would settle down..."No, thank you, I think - I think I'll just sit here for a little."
More movement, and the next time Horatio spoke he was closer, and down at Archie's level. Sitting perhaps? Kneeling? Then there was the hand on his arm again. "Archie, listen to me. The swelling's going down, I can see it. Your face looks better today, by tonight you'll be yourself again and this will all be over. You've nothing to fear. All right?"
Archie nodded, and tried to believe what his friend was saying. But there was something about that dream, a formless dread that clung to his heart, paining it. Impulsively he asked, "Where's Thomas?"
"Hm? He's on deck, I'm sure. Do you want to talk to him? He's been very anxious over you, ever since this happened."
Archie hesitated; did he want to talk to Thomas? What would the boy see, except the one person he was counting on battered and useless? His nightmares would be worse, and they might last for the rest of his life..."No...not yet. Not until tonight, when - when I can see again. I just want to know he's all right."
"He is," Horatio said reassuringly, and Archie heard him walking around again. "In fact, Mr. Fletcher from the Sick and Hurt board talked to him yesterday before he left, told him about you going to live with my father, should it come to that. I think that made Thomas very happy; he's not overly fond of Titus Dunbridge, you know."
"He has company in that regard," Archie said with a slight smile; the anxiety from his nightmare returned, just at the edges, and Archie noticed it raised itself when Horatio mentioned Titus' name, like a cobra answering a snake-charmer's call. But that was an old worry, Archie reassured himself; that threat was past him. Still... "I do hope Titus and my father don't make trouble because of my decision. They're both used to getting their way, and I'm likely to be disinherited because of this."
"Would that bother you?" Horatio asked, somewhere in the middle distance. At his sea chest, it had to be.
Archie considered this. "I never wanted the estate or the trappings; but without the money I shall never be able to repay your father for his kindness. I...I'd like my pension to go to Thomas."
There was a pause at this, and Archie wondered if Horatio had heard him, or been preoccupied with something and let the remark go by. His wondering ceased when Horatio said, with an uncharacteristic stammer, "I think - Archie, I think if you asked my father he would say you have already repayed him for any debt you may incur. He would see anything in money as an insult."
Horatio's voice had a very odd tone to it, and for a moment Archie couldn't quite place its origin. Then he recognized it - Horatio, the ever-restrained and solitary individual, was remembering the Christmas they spent at his father's, and the Easter following it. Father and son, never acknowledging their affection for one another, finally breaking through age-old walls of grief and pain to reach a new understanding that neither of them thought possible. And Archie had been there, and helped.
And of course, he saved Horatio's life, more than once. But that was not what his friend was thinking on. In order to spare him any further awkwardness Archie cleared his throat and said, "Thank you, Horatio, when I can see again and no longer need your father's services I shall write him a letter thanking him for his generosity. In the meantime, however, there are certain - duties - that I am afraid cannot wait until this evening. I know this is poor repayment for your kindness, but - well - "
A pause. "You wish me to attend you to the seats of ease? You flatter me, Mr. Kennedy."
Archie almost laughed. "I merely remember the Spanish prison, Mr. Hornblower. After your ordeal in the oubliette - "
"All right, that's enough, Archie - "
The words were joking, but in his blind state Archie heard the understanding beneath them; he shook his head as he felt a strong hand take his arm and lift him up. No matter what happened, the fox would be safe after all. "We've seen each other at the worst, Horatio. It is good to think - that perhaps I will never be down that far again."
It was some time later, after getting Archie taken care of and seeing to his morning duties, that Horatio decided that he would go report to Dr. Sebastian, and see if he could help with the disembarking of Midshipman Lewis.
As it turned out, the doctor had a surfeit of helpers, for Captain Pellew was in the sick berth as well; Horatio saw him the moment he turned the handle and opened the sick berth door, sitting next to Lewis' hammock and talking to him in low tones. Dr. Sebastian, who was also close by, looked up and saw Horatio enter and quietly came to his side.
"Good morning, lieutenant," Sebastian said softly, "How is Mr. Kennedy?"
"Well, sir," Horatio replied, his eyes on the captain, "The swelling's gone down, and he says it hurts him less and less. I think your prediction about this evening may come to be true."
"That is my hope; but should that not be God's will, did you write the letter to your father?"
"Oh, yes, sir, and sent it off first thing this morning. I'm certain Mr. Fletcher will see it goes on the fastest horse in Plymouth."
Dr. Sebastian nodded, and the two men gazed silently at Pellew
and Lewis for a few moments. Then Sebastian said, "Captain
Pellew is ensuring that Mr. Lewis does not leave without knowing
that he was valued here. Soon he will be going ashore, but given
the way his eyes are shining I think he will carry the captain's
words in his heart always."
"Hm," Horatio agreed, "They should be arriving soon, shouldn't they? It's nearly noon."
"Yes," Dr. Sebastian's dark gaze darted over Horatio's shoulder, toward the door, "In fact, here is Mr. Bracegirdle."
Horatio turned to see that worthy man appear in the sick berth doorway. His manner seemed unusually anxious. "The man from the Sick and Hurt board is here," he said.
"You mean Mr. Fletcher?" Horatio asked, curious at Bracegirdle's uneasiness, "Where is he?"
Bracegirdle shook his head. "It's not Mr. Fletcher. It's someone else. And he's asked to speak with the captain."
A tiny, hollow pinpoint of dread flared in Horatio's stomach, and he turned to where Pellew was; the captain was now standing, and taking Lewis' hand in farewell. Beside him, Dr. Sebastian said, "I do not understand. Mr. Fletcher is our adjutant..."
"Not anymore," Bracegirdle replied somberly, and those words opened the pinpoint of dread wider, until it hurt. "He's been removed from the board. He's gone."
Horatio froze, shocked. He controlled himself, however, and slowly turned to meet Bracegirdle's gaze.
Bracegirdle's eyes were grim as he whispered, "Please tell the captain he'd better come."
"Randall Carlyle, captain, at your service. I apologize for this brief introduction; Mr. Fletcher was called away."
As Horatio stood in Captain Pellew's cabin and watched as the short, stocky man made his captain's acquaintance, he decided to hate him on sight.
Perhaps it was his supercilious air, or the way he came aboard the ship and demanded to see the captain. Or maybe it was simply because he wasn't the sympathetic presence Fletcher had been. In any case, Horatio didn't like the man.
But where had Fletcher gone? Horatio's mind raced as Carlyle planted himself in front of Pellew's desk, spreading papers and forms on it for the captain to review before Lewis was sent ashore. He couldn't have quit; was he sacked? Did he suddenly fall ill? Perhaps he had offered to take Horatio's letter to his father himself...perhaps...
Yes, that was it. Horatio wrapped his mind around this conceit, because it made sense and their plan was still safe. Of course, Fletcher knew time was of the essence and took the letter himself to Waltham Chase. A hard ride, but he could conceivably ride there and back before the ship sailed... and this man was taking his place until he returned. Of course...
Resting himself in this sanguine notion, Horatio watched Carlyle interact with the captain with a detached and somewhat amused air. Pellew had his 'suffering fools gladly' expression on, the kind that any knowledgeable man would take as a distinct warning. Carlyle wasn't, of course; he was leaning too far over and too close, and speaking too loudly. Bracegirdle was standing directly behind the captain, and he seemed ready to leap across the desk at any moment and push Carlyle forcibly away from his superior officer. Horatio struggled to suppress a smile.
"Thank you, captain," Carlyle finally said, noisily stacking the papers together and bundling them from Pellew's desk, "I asked your crew to ready the sling, so we'll have your man off the ship in no time."
Pellew folded his hands and merely nodded, his expression a carefully controlled glare.
"Now then, there's this other matter," Carlyle continued jauntily as he tucked the papers into his satchel, "I understand you have a Mr. Kennedy on board, who was blinded in this accident."
Pellew nodded, his eyes matching the wariness in Horatio's soul. "Yes. Although his blindness may not be permanent."
"Hm. Well, if it is permanent you'll need to get him ashore before you set sail, which as I'm told is day after tomorrow. When do you want me to come for him?"
Come for him...those words made Horatio shiver. Pellew, however, merely looked at the man sternly and said, "If that is necessary I will send word to your office. Until then there is a good chance Mr. Kennedy will regain his sight, rendering this conversation a waste of time."
Carlyle slowly straightened. "Captain, I apologize if my manner seems brusque to you. And I do hope that your man becomes sound and whole again; however, in my line of work I've learned that it's best to plan for the worst rather than the best possibility. Kennedy might regain his sight; my experience has shown me that he probably will not. Therefore I must go in that direction. We can always cancel any plans we may have if they are not deemed necessary."
It was intended as reassurance, Horatio knew; still, the way Carlyle said these things hinted toward sarcasm, as if he saw himself as more knowing than Pellew, and therefore he should not be argued against. Horatio could see Pellew's eyebrows twitch, and knew he was thinking the exact same thing.
"Now," Carlyle pulled out some more papers and laid them on Pellew's desk, "Here are Mr. Kennedy's discharge papers, you don't need to sign them of course, but I thought you should take possession of them to save time should the need arise."
Pellew frowned at them in distaste and said nothing. Horatio stared at them and thought of death warrants and writs of execution. He looked away.
"And these..." Carlyle pulled some more papers out of his satchel, "Hm...well, this bears a little explaining, I suppose. There's a young gentleman named Titus Dunbridge who's offered to escort Mr. Kennedy home, should he need it."
Horatio felt another surge of dread, and fought against it. Fletcher had to be on his way to Waltham Chase...
Pellew nodded his acknowledgement, but with his eyes on Horatio replied, "Where Mr. Kennedy spends his time ashore is yet to be decided, Mr. Carlyle. He himself has expressed reluctance to return to his home, and I will not force him to return to a place he finds less than hospitable."
Carlyle froze, and it was at that moment that Horatio realized that he was firmly in Dunbridge's camp. He hated the man even more.
After an awkward pause Carlyle cleared his throat, "Well - of course, captain, I admire you for your loyalty to your men. But please bear in mind that Mr. Kennedy expressed whatever wishes he had after suffering a severe trauma; he may not have been saying what he meant."
Pellew didn't blink. "What do you mean, sir?"
Carlyle straightened again, quicker. "Captain Pellew, Mr. Kennedy is an aristocrat, born to the privileged class; and he has relatives who want him home, or at least are not averse to his returning there. To not want to return to his home, to a place where he was nurtured and cared for, especially in his condition, warrants some investigation; it is the opinion of the board that his injuries may have affected his thinking to the point where he has become irrational."
"It is *your* opinion," Horatio muttered, before he realized he'd said anything. He glanced up in surprise at himself, and blushed when he saw all eyes upon him.
Carlyle frowned at him. "Yes, Mr. Hornblower, it is my opinion. But then, I am of the board. Lord Admiral Hood is of the board too, and he has granted Mr. Dunbridge permission to accompany Mr. Kennedy home; it is the best course of action for all concerned."
"All except for the injured man," Pellew said archly. "Mr. Carlyle, you cannot think that I would approve such an action, or consign a man to a miserable life he does not want. It is against my conscience, sir. Besides, there is an alternative; did you not receive this morning a letter from Mr. Hornblower, addressed to his father in Waltham Chase?"
"Oh - " Carlyle turned to blink at Horatio uncertainly. "Yes, I believe I did see something like that..."
"And was that letter forwarded to the interested party?" Pellew's eyes skewered holes with their gaze.
Carlyle looked down, as if chagrined to speak. Horatio held his breath.
"Yes, sir," he said.
"Well, then," Pellew said with finality, "May I suggest that Mr. Kennedy be remanded to the naval hospital until an answer is received, and then we shall let him select where he is to spend the rest of his days."
Carlyle's expression told Horatio that he clearly thought himself caught between the horns of two very big and powerful bulls. Taking a deep breath he said, "Captain, I am merely relaying Lord Admiral Hood's wishes. If you would like to dispatch a letter to him regarding this matter I would be happy to deliver it. In the meantime, our main concern is to get these two ashore tomorrow as smoothly as possible."
"*These* two?" Pellew said, not comprehending. He leaned forward and peered at the other paper Carlyle held before him. "Mr. Lewis is going ashore today."
"Oh - no, the other isn't Lewis. Lord Kennedy has asked for assistance in the care of his son once he reaches home, so the board has prepared discharge papers for the cabin boy Thomas. Dunbridge saw how close they were, and has compassionately resolved not to separate them."
Horatio barely heard this last sentence; the shock of hearing Thomas' name mentioned was so great he could not hear anything for a moment. Surely he could not have heard correctly? "I'm sorry ," he stammered, noticing Pellew's angry, surprised expression, "Did you say he's taking Thomas as well?"
"Um - yes," Carlyle replied, blinking uncertainly, "As I said, it is a humanitarian gesture on the part of Mr. Dunbridge. I understand the boy's a volunteer, so there's no pay to worry about, and it's a grand opportunity for him. I wish I'd had his - "
"No," Horatio shook his head, the pinpoint of dread blossoming into a numbing explosion of fear, "Thomas has been put in my care, if need be, and he is to become a midshipman. He cannot go ashore."
"Mr. Hornblower, if you please," Pellew said in the calm razor's-edge tone he employed to calm Horatio down. Horatio fought his pounding heart and stared at the floor as Pellew continued, "Mr. Carlyle, if the admiral thinks I'm going to let some aristocratic dandy snatch one of my future midshipmen, he has obviously forgotten some of our past meetings. While you are preparing to see Mr. Lewis ashore I will draft a letter that I must ask you to deliver to him today, as soon as possible, to protest this wanton disregard for my ship and my men."
Carlyle blanched a little, but when it was clear that he would only be the carrier of Pellew's letter he smiled and said, "Of course, captain. You may write whatever you like and I will deliver it once I've finished my business here."
Pellew nodded, his face grim and set. As he reached for his pen he said, "Mr. Hornblower, see Mr. Carlyle to the sick berth and give him whatever assistance he needs."
As he saluted and left with Carlyle, Horatio's mind raced. Dunbridge wanted to take Thomas? Without Fletcher's intervention, Dunbridge seemed more likely to get his way, letter from Pellew or no...in fact, it would be just like that petty lord to go contrary to Pellew's wishes, simply to spite him. Horatio began to feel the deck tilt underneath him, and swallowed his fear. No, it could not end that way for Archie. His own misery would pale to nothingness compared to his anguish over Thomas losing his youthful dream of becoming an officer. It could not happen; it must not happen.
With that desperately ambitious thought, Horatio led Mr. Carlyle to the sick berth and hoped as he did so that the courier carrying his letter was swift.
Archie curled himself up on his cot and tried to go to sleep.
He felt exhausted, drained; he still hurt, yet the pain seemed to be shifting. It was no longer the sharp, flaring physical pain of his injury but a dull, throbbing ache of uncertainty that was plaguing him; he did not know what was to become of him.
He still could not see; although Dr. Sebastian and Horatio were both optimistic, Archie knew that he might be blind for the rest of his life. He had to prepare for that - somehow accept that for him there would be no more sunsets, no more reading, no more watching a white sail billow against a perfect blue sky. Archie tried to think of that, and couldn't; the prospect was too terrifying to reflect upon.
But there was one consolation, and not a small one. He would not be sent home to sit idle and forgotten in the cold and empty rooms of Kennedy Manor; instead he would stay with his friend's father, a man he respected and who knew him. Archie felt a little better at that, there was some comfort in knowing that Dr. Hornblower and Mrs. Dabney would not let him disappear into nothingness the way his own family would have. So there was that to be thankful for, even if he did remain blind.
Idly, Archie reached for the St. Adelaide medal that was looped around his right wrist by a length of cording; he felt its cool roundness in his palm and held it fast, finding comfort in its promises. Yes, he at least had a future he would not be afraid of; but what would he *do*? Archie hated pondering this, for his soul raged to see again, and if it was denied him he feared that even Dr.Hornblower's best intentions might go for naught. He could not simply sit and do nothing! It was against his very nature; but every avenue was denied him. How would he fill his days, how would he pay Dr. Hornblower back for his kindness? Already Archie was feeling restless, and he knew if he was trapped inside himself forever it would get worse, until if there was no respite from it he would go mad.
That was what Archie feared most.
But thank God, he had found a way to not disappoint Thomas. It was not what he wanted, true, but Horatio had a way with children and if there was anyone Thomas might open up to...and he would make midshipman. More, if he wanted it. And maybe - maybe one day Dr. Hornblower would come to him and say, you have guests, Archie - a commodore and a captain! And a strong hand would grip his and tell him he was looking well; then another would chime in, older and grown but how could Archie not know that voice? And Archie would try to keep from being overcome, because despite his failure - despite his blindness - things had worked out after all, for everyone important to him. That was all he wanted...
With a start, Archie sat up straight and shook himself. He had almost fallen asleep, but he did not want to fade with those thoughts in his head; he fought against the self-pitying complacency that was threatening to strangle his soul. He might very well regain his sight that night, how dare he remove himself from everyone's lives! There was much to do, and he would *not* abandon himself to despair and acceptance. Knowing he would not perish from emotional want was all well and good, but Archie knew he had to fight, to see again. He had to have that hope, for himself if no one else.
Yes, Archie thought, turning the medal in his hand. I must remain faithful, as Dr. Sebastian would say. I will see again. I *will* see again...
Just then Archie heard the familiar squeak of the cabin door opening, but slower than usual. Curious, he turned his head purely out of habit. "Horatio?"
"No, sir," said an unfamiliar voice, "It's Mr. Cahill, of the marines. Can you take a visitor?"
"Who is it?"
"Mr. Titus Dunbridge, sir."
For a moment, Archie froze, and the medal fell from his hand. Then he relaxed; Dunbridge could say nothing to him that would mean anything, and in any case he was no longer a threat. Why not let the fellow come in, say he was 'so sorry' and leave? "Of course, Mr. Cahill. Wait outside, that's all right."
There was some shuffling, and Archie caught the scent of pomade and cologne. There was a pause - probably Titus was looking at him in amazement - and then a deeply uncertain, "Hello there, Archie."
"Mr. Dunbridge," Archie said, almost amused. Did Dunbridge really think he would not see the worst of war in an injured man? "It's - very good of you to come."
"Not at all," Dunbridge replied, in that same unsure tone. As he spoke, however, it grew stronger. "I told the lieutenant from Sick and Hurt that I would meet him on the deck after my morning meal at Regent's, but it seems he's in with the captain and I was told you weren't in the sick - um - sick room anymore. How are you, old fellow?"
Archie shook his head slightly; it was strange how Titus' hypocrisy was so evident in his voice. Why had he never noticed it before? "Well, Titus, as you can see I've been blinded. But the doctor says I might be able to see by tonight."
"Oh - well that's splendid news, splendid."
There was a long pause, and Archie wondered why Titus didn't simply leave. He'd done his part, visited the poor invalided acquaintance...but there was no sound of retreating footsteps and no closing of the cabin door. Finally, becoming exasperated, Archie said, "I regret that I am not much of a host at the moment..."
"Oh - well, you needn't be," Titus replied with a small laugh, "No, I was simply curious, Archie. You didn't want to go home, didn't want to come with me back to Kennedy Manor, and you must know that offended me, and your family. So I've decided to come find out why."
So that was it. Titus' pride was hurt. Of course, the aristocrat who is never wronged. Well, it was a proper question...taking a deep breath, Archie folded his hands in his lap and thought.
As he did so, Titus said, "I mean, really, Archie. They're your flesh and blood, and you cast them aside as if they mean nothing to you. Is that how gentlemen behave? Have you forgotten your upbringing entirely?"
"On the contrary, I've remembered it," Archie said lightly, wondering at how easy it was to trounce Dunbridge when he couldn't see him, "My apologies, Titus, but I don't recall my upbringing at Kennedy Manor with the fondness that you seem to. I have no attachments to that place, and no desire to burden my father with a useless son when he has two perfectly good ones to crow over. So I'm sorry to disappoint you."
"Oh, it's no disappointment," Titus said haughtily, "I merely wonder how you could so thoroughly forget the golden hours of your youth and throw them over for the squalor of a commoner's house. It's quite insulting."
Archie almost laughed. "Titus, I am certain we are not recalling the same childhood. You and my brothers used to torment me, and betray me to my father if I fought back."
"We were merely teaching you self-reliance and the way of the world," Titus declared.
"You would fall upon me and beat me senseless."
"And I daresay it did you no harm! You were always too much like your mother, Archie, too soft and tender-hearted. That business with the fox, for example. You didn't know how to get along and you still don't. We were attempting to do you a favor."
"Well, you failed," Archie snapped, growing weary of Titus' presence, "And now that you have extended your sympathy over my plight you may return to shore and your gaming tables; the Sick and Hurt Board has sent over Mr. Fletcher, and you needn't worry about me anymore. I wish you a pleasant life."
There was a pause, then: "You don't know?"
Archie sighed impatiently. "Know *what*?"
"Oh," Titus' voice shifted uncomfortably, "Well, Mr. Fletcher's resigned. His superior officer told me so. Carlyle, the fellow who's talking to your captain now."
Archie sat up, slowly. I couldn't have heard that right, he thought.
"Just as well," Titus continued, "That Fletcher fellow was far too willing to indulge your misguided notion of not going home. But his resignation has taken care of that."
Pure, unreasoning anger replaced trepidation, and Archie spoke through gritted teeth, "Titus, for the last time I am *not* returning to Kennedy Manor. Can you perceive nothing?"
"Well - I'm not an expert on such things, but I believe it's your Admiral Lord Hood who decides such things; and he seems to think it best, since if you don't go you'll have to stay in a Naval hospital at their expense. One can hardly argue with the man."
Admiral - ? Archie felt a cold panic begin to grip him, and fought to keep it down. No, it was wrong, it had to be - "I am certain Captain Pellew will tell your Mr. Carlyle that a suitable home has already been found for me, with a physician named Dr. Hornblower. We only await his response to a letter that was sent this morning and - "
"You don't mean THIS letter?"
There was the crinkle of unfolding parchment; then: "'Dear father, something terrible has happened. Archie's been blinded in a cannon explosion and unless a suitable home is found for him, he will be forced to return home. Father, you know of the tortures of his past and what sort of decay awaits him should he be given over to callous, uncaring kin who regard him as waste and strove to make his life a misery. Send word by the fastest conveyance you can that he may find shelter under your roof, and I assure you my gratitude, and Archie's forever. Please hurry as we sail on the morrow. Your devoted son, Horatio.' Now, really, Archie!"
His heart was beating fast, his mouth dry as desert sand. "How did - how did you get that?"
"Oh - it was sent to the office this morning, but didn't arrive until Fletcher had left. Pity, we could find no one to transport it. I must say this fellow Hornblower's attitude appalls me."
The letter was never sent - Archie's mind was numb with the realization. He couldn't speak.
"I don't know where he came up with the notion that your past was tortured, or that we made your life a misery. I can only conclude that he is ignorant. You've merely forgotten, and I promise you that once you've returned home you will remember yourself and all will be well again."
Archie shook his head; he had to make Titus understand. "I will not return to Kennedy Manor. Titus - it holds nothing for me. I would rot there, alone and unwanted."
"Nonsense! It's beautiful in the spring, the windows can be opened for you. And - and someone can take you for walks in the gardens, if the weather isn't too frightful."
"There are no gardens there anymore," Archie replied in a rough whisper.
A pause. Then, "Oh, that's right. Well, still! You won't be alone, you know - your father's offered to take your young friend Thomas in as well, to look after you."
Archie gripped the edges of the cot. "Thomas?"
"Yes. So perhaps when he's done with his work he can - I don't know - read to you or something."
"What do you mean?" Archie hissed, unbelieving, "You have no claim on Thomas - he is to remain here, to become a midshipman."
"Oh - well, once perhaps. But Lord Kennedy agrees with me that the child is altogether too useful to be left behind, and it's possible that once he's around *true* noblemen he'll be removed of the idea that we're all ogres. At least, one can hope for the best."
Archie forced himself to take deep breaths. "You can't - Pellew won't allow it. *I* won't allow it, for either of us!"
There was a slight laugh then, and Titus said, "My dear boy, look at you. You're blind; you have nowhere else to go, unless you *want* to die in the streets. And Captain Pellew will do as his Lord Admiral dictates. That is his duty. That is - "
At that moment the cabin door squeaked in protest and Archie heard Horatio's voice, angry and strident, "What in heaven's name are you doing here?"
There was a startled pause; then, "I have a perfect right to be here! One of your marines brought me down - "
"Mr. Carlyle is awaiting you on deck." The words were loud, clipped, and dripping with hate.
"Oh - well. Good afternoon to you both, then," Titus said cheerfully, "And Archie, I'm sorry you are so reluctant to rejoin your blood, but I'm confident you'll change your mind. It's really for the best, for both of you."
Archie couldn't help it; he turned his face away.
A moment later the cabin door was slammed shut, and Horatio's hands were on his arm. "I'm sorry, I had no idea he was even on the ship until Carlyle mentioned it as we were getting Lewis off the ship - Archie?"
For a moment Archie couldn't speak; then he managed, "Your letter - he has it, Horatio, it was never sent - "
There was a sharp intake of breath; then, just as hastily, a cough. "Never mind, it's all right, Archie, the captain has written to Hood expressing his displeasure at this. He won't surrender you, you know that."
"But Thomas! Horatio, he wants to take Thomas - he'll die there, they'll kill his spirit. And I promised him - "
"I know, Archie," One of Horatio's hands was smoothing Archie's hair, almost frantically, "And he knows you would never break it. But I've thought of something, Archie. I'm going to go ashore and see if I can find Mr. Fletcher."
Archie realized he was shivering, and made a conscious effort to stop. "Why?"
"Because I do not believe he resigned, and I intend to discover if there is anything he can do for us. He was determined and sympathetic; I cannot believe he would abandon you or Thomas. But I need your help, Archie, I need you to stay calm and remain here until tonight, when Dr. Sebastian can remove your bandages. All right?"
Archie was almost gasping for air, the carefully constructed future collapsing around him like a house of cards. Still, he managed to nod; the authority in Horatio's words were a balm to him. "But - does Thomas know?"
"Not yet; he's working with Matthews in the cable tier. Do you want to talk to him?"
No, Archie thought - he would die if Thomas saw him as he was at that moment, quivering in fear and helpless with injury. But Horatio would never understand that. "Yes - later, after - after I know. And if it comes down to that... let me tell him, Horatio. No one else. All right?"
"All right, Mr. Kennedy," Horatio said soothingly, and gradually the grip on Archie's arm eased and lifted. "Now how are you feeling?"
Afraid. It was the first word that leapt to Archie's mind, and not the fear he experienced when he first awakened into a nightmare world of pain and darkness; this was a different fear, a fear of a future slipping out of his grasp, of hollow empty rooms and young, frightened animals that could not be rescued from a violent, bloody end...
Archie hugged himself and did not answer.
Horatio's touch was gentler this time, just a light tap on Archie's shoulder. "I have some correspondence to complete. Try to rest, Archie. I'll be at hand until you fall asleep, if you should need me."
Archie nodded, the mere effort exhausting him. He heard Horatio moving about the cabin, and huddled down in his cot, dizzy with anxiety. He thought of that evening, and realized with a sickening lurch of his stomach that he had to regain his sight now; he had no choice. His life was not charmed as Horatio's was, there could be no salvation if Lord Hood had commanded that he return home. He had to regain his vision; if he didn't, he was damned. And worse, much worse, Thomas...
In a weary sort of panic, Archie reached into his sleeve and brought the St. Adelaide medal out again, clutching it in exhausted supplication. Then he felt his body give way to exhaustion, and was asleep before he knew it.
Horatio waited until Archie was deeply asleep before leaving their cabin to go ashore in search of Fletcher. While he waited he composed another letter, intending to hand it to the man and beg him to find a way to get the letter to Waltham Chase without delay. It was the only hope that Archie - and now Thomas - had.
As he wrote, Horatio glanced from time to time at his friend, who had curled up in his cot and was gradually relaxing in the healing bonds of sleep. Then he thought of the smirking carelessness of Titus Dunbridge and had to fight to keep his letter from sounding too angry or outraged; time was too short for such excesses. As soon as it was composed - expanded now to include Thomas' plight - Horatio looked at Archie again, and satisfied that he would not wake and need him immediately, left their cabin and went abovedecks.
It was evening now, and the deck was quiet. A few hands were moving about, clearing the day's work and checking the riggings and sails. The deep scar from the accident was still visible, even in the darkness, and Horatio looked at it mournfully, thinking of all the dreams that may have gone with it.
Then he glanced up, and saw Dr. Sebastian coming up the companionway stairs.
"Good evening, lieutenant," the doctor said as soon as he drew near, "Are you out for the air?"
Horatio shook his head, and noticed how tired Sebastian looked, drawn and weary. It was not like him. "I'm going ashore shortly. Have you spoken to Captain Pellew?"
The half-Spaniard's eyes were sharp in the lanternlight, despite his fatigue. "Yes, after Mr. Carlyle left he explained the situation. Including that he intends to fight it. How is Mr. Kennedy?"
Horatio felt a hot anger course through him. "He's sleeping now, but when I came upon him in our cabin he was in shock - Dunbridge found his way belowdecks while we were moving Mr. Lewis and told him everything, and has purloined the letter I wrote my father to add to the bargain. It was all I could do not to challenge him."
Dr. Sebastian shook his head. "All of Mr. Kennedy's energy should be focused on rest and healing, and instead he is given this to carry as well. But he is fortunate that he has friends such as yourself, to defend him."
Horatio gazed at the shoreline, his brown eyes full of resolve. "I would defend any man against the tyranny of another, be he a Frenchman or an Englishman." he paused, and looked up at the stars. "When are you removing Archie's bandages?"
Sebastian removed his pocket watch and checked it. "He needs to sleep; I will go to him in two hours, and see how he is faring. And where are you heading?"
Horatio pulled out the letter. "To find Mr. Fletcher, and give him this to take to my father. Even if we cannot prevent Dunbridge from taking Archie and Thomas, we may be able to prevent Kennedy Manor from keeping them. I will try every avenue until it is exhausted."
"Then go with God's blessing," Dr. Sebastian said, very seriously. He looked over Horatio's shoulder, and Horatio saw his expression change. Turning around, he saw Thomas, looking very small and huddled, sitting in a small pool of light under one of the lanterns some distance away, paging through a book. His face wore a look of intense concentration.
"Do you think he knows?" Horatio whispered, turning back to the doctor.
"I do not know," Sebastian replied, "But I will go find out. To your mission, lieutenant, and I hope that after tonight it will no longer be necessary."
"Indeed, sir," Horatio replied, and allowed himself a half-smile at the thought of Archie looking up at him in greeting on his return, his blue eyes alive and well again. Yes, that was worth anything...
Without another word, he adjusted his cloak and left the ship.
Dr. Sebastian approached Thomas slowly, not wanting to startle the boy and respecting that, apart from spending time with Archie, he preferred to be alone. He could very well be intruding; but he had an instinctive need to know that the child was all right.
As he stepped nearer, Sebastian saw the boy look up, in that oddly unflappable way he did just about anything. It was as if life had frightened him so often that he had lost his capacity for reacting to it. As soon as his eyes lit on the doctor, however, Thomas merely put his head back down and continued reading.
Sebastian knelt down a few feet away and said quietly, "Good evening, Thomas. I hope I am not disturbing you."
"You're not," Thomas said simply, not looking up.
"Good. I thought you would like to know that Mr. Kennedy is resting comfortably in his cabin, and in a few hours I am going to remove his bandages and check his eyes. Will you be here, that I may bring you what I find?"
Thomas raised his too-knowing eyes to Sebastian and regarded him steadily. "Will he let me visit him then?"
"I hope so," Dr. Sebastian replied with a slight smile, "He misses you very much, but it is important that he rest as much as possible until his sight returns. Once it does, I am certain he will want to talk to you the very first thing."
Thomas pursed his lips for a moment, then asked, "What if it doesn't return?"
Dr. Sebastian thought about this for a moment. "Then I am sure he will want you to visit even more."
Thomas turned his gaze out to the quietly glistening waters. "I heard some sailors talking. They were saying that Mr. Kennedy won't ever see again, and Mr. Fletcher's gone. He promised that Mr. Kennedy wouldn't go home, and now they're going to make him. And even the captain can't stop it." Thomas turned back toward Sebastian, and there were tears in his eyes. "Is that true?"
Dr. Sebastian knew better than to even attempt to lie to Thomas; the child was too acute. Moving closer, he put a hand on Thomas' shoulder and said, "I do not know what will happen tomorrow, Thomas, only God knows. It is true that Mr. Fletcher may no longer be able to help us; but Mr. Hornblower has gone ashore to find him, and there may yet be something we can do. So you must have faith, and pray that God will help Mr. Kennedy through whatever happens."
"I have been praying," Thomas said, looking down at the book, "I've been thinking about what you said, about the darkness having God in it. About how if we're quiet when it's dark we can see God when we might not otherwise. Is that how it goes?"
Dr. Sebastian nodded.
"And I think - " Thomas peered down at the book, his fine brown hair waving in front of his great eyes for a moment, like a veil. Then he turned to Dr. Sebastian and suddenly asked, "If Mr. Kennedy has to go home, can I go with him?"
Dr. Sebastian blinked, thrown for a moment. He looked at that serious young face, so completely devoid of indecision. "I - believe Mr. Kennedy thinks you might wish to stay here, on the ship. You no longer want to be a midshipman?"
Thomas' voice was strong and he didn't hesitate, although he did look out over the water again. "It was dark where I was, too, and - and I don't think God was there very much. But then He told Mr. Kennedy to come and get me, and it wasn't dark anymore. Didn't you tell me about what was in the Bible, about brothers walking in the light? He's in the dark now, and if he goes home it will be worse. I think - I think now he needs someone to get him out. So he doesn't stumble and get lost."
Dr. Sebastian held Thomas' shoulder tightly. "You would do this for him?"
Thomas unlaced his hands and touched the scar on his cheek, very lightly, and looked at Dr. Sebastian with eyes that were deep and knowing. "I think I have to."
Dr. Sebastian sighed very deeply, and turned his eyes to the deck briefly so Thomas wouldn't see the emotion there. This child was prepared to sacrifice everything he had worked for, so Kennedy would not be alone. A dazzling darkness, indeed. Then he looked back and asked, "What are you reading, Thomas?"
"It's a book of poems," Thomas answered in the same matter-of-fact voice, smoothing his hands over the fluttering pages, "Mr. Kennedy bought it for me when we were ashore. He taught me to read, and I've been looking for that poem you told me about, the one about God and the darkness."
"And did you find it?"
Thomas shook his head. "But I found another one, and reading it made me think of what happened, and some of it sounds rather like Mr. Dunbridge." Taking another breath, Thomas turned his gaze to the book and began to read.
"Vain wits and eyes
Leave, and be wise;
Abuse not, shun not holy fire;
But with true tears wash off your mire.
Tears and these flames will soon grow kind,
And mix an eye-salve for the blind.
Tears cleanse and supple without fail,
And fire will purge your callous veil.
Then comes the light! which when you spy,
And see your nakedness thereby,
Praise Him, Who dealt His gifts so free
In tears to you, in fire to me."
He stumbled on some of the words, and paused in a few places, but the poem rang within his voice, and when he had finished, Thomas stared at those words as if reading them still. Then he said, "I thought about that poem, as soon as I read it. It sounded like perhaps Mr. Dunbridge would see that he was hurting Mr. Kennedy, and stop doing it. Holy fire making him see. Do you think that will happen?"
It took Dr. Sebastian a moment to find his voice; when he did he leaned close to Thomas and gently stroked his hair. "Let us both pray so, Thomas. But much has been revealed already, in your selfless and true devotion to Mr. Kennedy's happiness. You know that makes God very happy to see his children help one another."
Thomas smiled a little, then shrugged his thin shoulders. "We're brothers. That what we're supposed to do. He did it for me."
Dr. Sebastian lifted his eyes to the shore, where Hornblower would landing soon and going on his own helping mission, to help one who was a brother to him. "Of course, you are right, Thomas. And we must praise Him for that gift, as well."
Horatio's heart was pounding with urgency as he disembarked the jollyboat and straightened the cloak on his shoulders. It was still early evening, and the streets were lively with people taking in the night air or on their way to the local taverns and theaters. And in all those people, he had to find one...just one...
But where to start? Horatio's first thought was to try the offices of the Sick and Hurt board; but as he feared, when he reached that building it had long since closed for the day. Thinking that perhaps he had frequented one of the taverns or restaurants nearby, Horatio tried those establishments next; but without success. However, as he was leaving the last one, he heard a young voice behind him calling, "Sir! Lieutenant!"
Horatio turned and saw a young boy of perhaps twelve, dressed in working-clothes. "Yes?"
"Beggin' yer pardon, sir," the boy replied, "Heard you askin' about Mr. Fletcher?"
"Yes," Horatio felt a ray of hope break through, "Do you know where he lives?"
"Yes, sir; I stables the horses, and he always used to give me a crown when I looked after 'is, when he lived in the country. Then he moved to town, and walked, but 'e always used to come in and give me a crown just the same."
Horatio nodded, not too impatiently he hoped. "I must speak to him immediately; you said he lives in town?"
"Oh - yes, sir, not too far from here in fact. I can show you if you like. But you won't be able to talk to him."
"No, sir. He came here and gave me two crowns this morning, and said goodbye. He's gone."
Horatio didn't want to believe it. He gave the boy as much money as he had, although that wasn't much, holding back only the five-pound note that was his last resort; and perhaps because he saw the sudden anxiety in Horatio's demeanor the boy very quickly walked him down the street, to a row of nicely appointed townhomes. As they walked, Horatio tried very hard to believe that this was a mistake, that Fletcher was still in town, that the only champion Archie had, the only man who could help him and Thomas, could still be approached and appealed tol
But when the boy stopped in front of one of the homes and pointed to the top floor, the windows there were dark and blind.
"That's it, sir," the boy said regretfully. "Looks deserted."
"Yes," Horatio said automatically, and thought very fast. Where would Fletcher go? Where was his home? No, there wasn't time for that - the landlord -the landlord might know -
Without hesitation, Horatio approached the ground-level door of the home and knocked on it.
A few moments later a serving-girl answered. Her eyes widened when she saw Horatio. "Yes?"
"I beg your pardon, miss," Horatio stammered, "But I must speak to whoever owns the rooms upstairs, about their occupant, Mr. Fletcher. Do you - "
"Oh!" the girl exclaimed, and glanced into the warmly-lit home for a moment before bringing her huge eyes to Horatio again, "Oh, now ain't a good time, sir. The master's all mad at 'im, he lit out wi'out payin' 'is rent, an' told one of the neighbors he might never come back. The upstairs is a terrible mess, things strung all over. You best come back at another time."
Horatio closed his eyes for a moment, to regain himself. Then he opened them and said, "Do you know *where* Mr. Fletcher might be going?"
The girl thought, then whispered, "Master said 'e was from Bournemouth originally; 'e prob'ly went 'ome."
Bournemouth! Days away from Plymouth, days. Horatio stared at the girl in numb shock.
The girl blinked a little, then said, "Sorry, sir. You'd best go and come back about the rooms some other time. G'night."
And she closed the door.
Horatio stepped away from the house, looked up at the blackened windows. His mind raced; but he did not know what to do.
The boy from the tavern was still behind him. Gathering his wits, Horatio turned slowly to face him.
The boy cocked his head. "Did 'e owe you money? Cause I know how to get in there if 'e did."
"No," Horatio answered miserably. Then an idea formed in his head. Looking at the boy seriously he asked, "Who is the fastest rider you know?"
"Oh! The fastest? You mean like couriers and such?"
"Yes," Horatio said, stronger than he had meant to, "Exactly, the fastest courier. Who is it?"
"Hm. That'd likely be Joshua Howard, he works for the bank. He rides very fast when the need arises."
"Well, a need has arisen," Horatio knelt down and pulled the letter he had written from his jacket, "I need to talk to him about sending this letter, there will be ten - no, twenty - pounds as his reward if the deed is accomplished. Can you take me to him?"
The boy's eyes widened, much as the serving-girls' had, and he nodded. "For twenty pounds he'll fly like lightning! He's reading at the tavern, come on."
Perhaps sensing the urgency in Horatio's voice, the boy turned and ran back the way he came, down the haloed and darkening street. Horatio followed, and ten minutes later his letter - and the remaining five-pound note in his possession - were thundering out of his sight and on their way to Waltham Chase.
Horatio watched the courier disappear into the gloom, and as the excitement settled away from his heart listened to the hoofbeats fade into silence with a gathering sense of dread. Fletcher was gone; Tomorrow Titus Dunbridge was prepared and able to take Archie and Thomas away from Indefatigable forever; and the only hope now was that his father had some course of action in mind when he read Horatio's letter. But that might be two days from now, more if the weather turned bad; or to be honest, he might never see an answer or that courier again.
From having a champion in the highest place, Archie's fortunes now rested in the hands of a complete stranger. All of their other hopes had fled, although Horatio could scarcely believe it. Even faced with a darkened room and a fearful maid, Horatio could not understand why Fletcher had deserted them. But it was too late now, to even wonder; the time was past for everything except resolution.
From a nearby church, the bells tolled out the hour. Horatio marked it, and turned his suddenly weary footsteps back to the ship, to return there before Dr. Sebastian removed Archie's bandages. There was another hope, that when Dr. Sebastian uncovered Archie's eyes he would see again, and all would be made right. Horatio clung to that slim chance, because he did not want to tell his dearest friend that he had failed him; he did not want to know that through the cruelest chance, Thomas would never walk on a ship's deck as an officer.
And - most of all - Horatio knew that he did not want to be forced to stand at the railing of the Indy in the harsh morning light of the following day, and bid them both goodbye.
Archie was dreaming.
It was cold; night time, a moon overhead. He was walking in the gardens behind his house, and everything seemed huge and shadowed. He was playing, but something was wrong; it should have been daylight, why was he out playing at night? The long grass rustled beneath his feet, and he stopped and looked around him.
"Hide, Archie!" A voice, his oldest brother's. But Archie didn't see him. "Hide, and we'll find you!"
Archie looked around again, knowing he shouldn't be afraid. They were playing, they always played, but fear was in the air and he thought that he should run away from it. So he ran, through the silvered shadows, and even though something was telling him he should wake up he found himself standing by the chicken coop, staring at the storage bin.
Hide! Someone called to him, and despite the pounding of his heart Archie climbed into the box and closed the lid.
It was so dark in there! Archie put his hands out, felt the rough unpainted wooden planks beneath his fingers, and suddenly there was another noise, horses' hooves. They were pounding everywhere, and over the deafening noise Archie heard a voice cry out, "Where's that damn fox?"
The fox! Archie began to shake, as if he knew what would happen, but could not stop it. Of course, they weren't playing hide and seek at all, he was protecting the fox, keeping it safe from the crushing hooves and the tearing teeth of the hunters' hounds. He huddled into a corner of the storage bin, and suddenly there was a bundle of fur in his arms, shivering and whimpering with fear. Archie hugged it to himself, and he was crying because he had to stop this, had to keep the animal safe, he knew it got away, he released it into the woods himself but why was it dark and why was he so afraid?
"Where's that little bastard at?" Came another voice, and Archie froze. Captain Morgan. The pounding hooves became the thrashing sound of a thunderstorm, and Archie felt water dripping through the top of the storage bin. Frantically he pressed himself deeper into the corner and clutched the fox tighter, only now it wasn't a fox but Thomas, still and strangely silent but clasping both arms around Archie's neck as if he were life itself.
"I've got you, Thomas," Archie whispered, his heart pounding in his ears, "I won't let him get you. I promise."
Thomas was shaking; suddenly the back of the storage bin gave way and Archie found himself in a maelstrom of crashing and splintering sounds, the agonized cries of a ship breaking itself apart. He still could see nothing, but holding Thomas as tightly as he could stumbled to his feet and looked above him. Daylight, there had to be daylight -
"Find them now!" Morgan's voice echoed through the darkness, close and terrifying, "I'm not through with them yet, dammit!"
Suddenly the deck gave way beneath Archie's feet and he fell, hitting something painfully hard. The wind was shrieking in his ears, and when he recovered himself he found he was back in the storage bin. And Thomas was not there.
"Thomas!" he cried, reaching for the boy in mindless desperation. "Thomas!"
The storage bin was shaking as if it would come apart. Archie reached up and found the lid, but it would not open. Oh God, the lock - how could he forget, his brothers knew he was in the storage bin and locked it shut! Frantically Archie pounded on the lid, trying to force it open. "Thomas! Run!"
Somewhere in the distance, beyond the wind and the rain and the thundering hooves of the horses: a child's scream.
"NO!" Archie began to panic, slamming at the lid with a superhuman will. "Horatio! Horatio, save Thomas! Save - "
Then, miraculously, he heard the lock give way.
Archie held his breath as he listened to the metal rasp away from the lock, and with both hands began to lift the lid. "Thomas, I'm coming! I'm - "
"No, Archie. Stay right where you are."
Hands pushed him down. Simpson's hands. Archie went weak with fear.
The noise stopped; there was only a suffocating silence, a horrible thick silence full of pain and secrets. Archie scrambled backwards, hit the wall of the storage bin, and stared into the darkness.
"Quite a lot of fun your friend was," Simpson's voice purred, and Archie heard the quiet squeak of the lid being lifted. "But he didn't last long, I'm afraid. Not as long as you, now that you're where we want you."
"No," Archie cried, unable to believe and he knew he got away, why couldn't he get away? "No, leave him alone, DAMN you - "
"It's too late for that," Simpson's voice was close, venomous, and Archie could not stop his piteous trembling, "But at least you'll be together, and once we've sucked out his soul he'll be exactly like you. Listen, I think it's starting now - "
Oh, God, there it was - distant and helpless, so far away - screaming - screaming -
Then, suddenly, Archie screamed himself awake.
For a long moment he didn't know where he was; there was only the pounding of his frantic heart and the muzzy awareness that he was no longer in the storage bin. Simpson was not there, and Thomas was not screaming. It was not real.
Then, gradually, Archie became aware that he was trembling, trembling from head to foot in the fear of what he had seen. He began to remember, and in the rush of remembering his fear made his thoughts gabble.
Oh God, he thought, my eyes - Thomas - what time is it? Simpson had Thomas - no, no he doesn't, but Dunbridge - we're leaving, going to Kennedy Manor, it will kill him, I know it. My eyes -
With a shaking hand Archie reached up and felt the bandages, felt his eyes underneath them. The swelling was down, it didn't hurt as much. With a great effort, Archie opened his eyes beneath the dark bandage - not much, just a slit, but he knew he was opening them. Oh God, he thought, Oh God - I have to see, I can't wait for the doctor. They'll get Thomas if I can't see - the hooves, the hounds, they'll tear him -
With his breath catching in his throat, Archie reached around his head and with one strong movement pulled the bandage from his eyes and opened them as wide as he could.
And saw nothing.
For a moment he was confused, disoriented. Perhaps he was still dreaming? He dropped the bandage, felt his eyes with both hands. The pain was fading, the swelling down - his eyes were open. Nothing? Nothing?
He couldn't breathe. Even thought escaped him, leaving him with only the instinct that cried, no. No -
He had to see. Something was wrong -
Then he thought, of course. The lamp isn't lit.
How foolish! Archie stumbled out of his cot, could barely walk for the weakness in his legs. His entire body was clamped with tension, and he shook it out as he thought almost hysterically, of course, of course, the lantern is out - no wonder I can't see - no wonder -
He found the beam where the lantern was hung, winced as splinters cut his hands. Find the door, the opening - Archie touched the metal tab and hinged the glass door open and reached inside.
And touched fire.
He screamed again, in pain, and fell back against the cot, his strength shocked from him. He heard the lantern shatter against the deck and cried out again, then again. He shook the melted wax from his hand and thought over and over, it was lit - it was lit - oh, God- oh, God -
Archie groped at the air, desperate to connect with something. He felt the edge of the table and tried to draw himself up, and failed. God, blind! He fell back against the floor, hard, and put his hands to his face, crying out in unreasoning terror. His nightmare was so close, Simpson was right there, and Morgan and Dunbridge and formless, nameless demons who were waiting to haunt him, to hurt Thomas - no, he couldn't let them - no -
Archie opened his eyes as wide as he could, and screamed.
He heard the door open, the hinges squealing in protest like the storage bin, and then hands were upon him. Archie lashed out, calling out words his frenzied mind could not even hear, and began to thrash like a cornered animal. Oh God - he was blind -
He struck a blow, felt his attacker stagger back, then grip him tighter. Archie felt himself slipping, falling into a nightmare world he had not been trapped in for years, but his body was at its limit; it was the only resource he had left. Archie clawed and arched and bit, knowing that if his body betrayed him he would die to protect Thomas - he would die -
He would die blind.
Was he still screaming? Archie could no longer tell. Other hands were on him now, pulling at him, pushing him, pinning him down, and he tried desperately to pull away, but it was no use - no use - and Thomas -
Something within him snapped and broke, and Archie felt himself flailing like a wild thing, but could not hinder or control himself. He gave himself over to the helplessness, and floated apart, watching himself as if the crippled, seizing creature on the floor was not him at all. Surely he would die - surely this would kill him -
"Archie! Archie, please!"
The hands gripped tighter, forced themselves to steady his brow. "Archie, wake up, it's all right! Oh, God, it's all right - "
Archie heard that voice again, and tethered himself to it, latched onto it desperately. Thomas - Horatio, help Thomas -
Other arms were around him, strong and knowing, soothing the fit away. "Archie, relax - you are among friends, you are quite safe - breathe, just breathe - "
The doctor. Horatio. Archie fought his way back to reason, felt himself shuddering with every step. Thomas -
"Archie? Archie, your hand - "
His hand? Oh. It hurt. Archie leaned into the arms that were
holding him and whispered, "I'm blind - I am, really, please
help Thomas - "
Did they hear? Archie opened his eyes, saw nothing, could only feel a gentle touch on his face, over each eye, but he could not stop shaking -
"Doctor, his hand - I think he was trying - "
"Yes, lieutenant." The strong hand brushed his forehead. "Archie, please take some deep breaths for me. They will calm you down."
Archie tried, feeling himself growing heavier with every breath. Leaning into someone's arms...
"Very good," Dr. Sebastian's voice was quiet and compassionate. "Does your hand hurt?"
Archie shook his head, and felt painful tears come to his eyes. "I can't see."
He didn't mean for his voice to sound so small, so frightened; he had to fight, had to be strong, for Thomas. But that part of him had not returned from the nightmare yet. Archie began to shiver again, feeling shame burn through him.
Dr. Sebastian's hand was in his uninjured one, pressing it very gently. "I am here, Archie, and so is Mr. Hornblower. Know that. Whatever comes, you must remember that."
Archie tried to nod; he thought of something, something very far away. He lifted his head to Horatio. "F-Fletcher?"
Horatio caught his breath; after a pause he said, "We're doing everything we can, Archie. Everything, Thomas will not be left defenseless. You have my word on it."
Horatio's word - better than gold. Archie's exhausted spirit relaxed somewhat. But something was still wrong...
He felt himself being lifted, then set down again on something soft - his cot. Dr. Sebastian's hands were on his face again, and he was muttering to Horatio, something about the lavender salve and bandages.
Archie jerked his head away, suddenly frightened. "No more bandages."
"They are for your hand, Archie," Sebastian explained, his hand once again on Archie's brow. "I will not put bandages on your eyes again. The swelling has gone down sufficiently."
Archie couldn't find his voice. He was so tired, and his own body had betrayed him. "I'm blind."
For a few moments there was only the sensation of Dr. Sebastian slowly running his hand along Archie's brow, calming him. Then, very softly, Archie heard words - he couldn't catch all of them, but he knew it was a prayer. The doctor was praying for him.
The words were lulling, soothing, and in his spent state Archie could feel his body once again surrendering to sleep, the deep dreamless sleep that always came after a fit. But -
But no. Not yet. In a hoarse whisper Archie managed to say, "Not me. Thomas. Thomas, please."
He hung onto consciousness only long enough to hear the boy's name mentioned, along with his own. Then a soft grayness claimed him, and he yielded gratefully, and slept.
Horatio felt as if he was moving very slowly; he knew he must be in some sort of shock.
The salve - the bandages - he moved around the cabin like a sleepwalker, trying to remember where he had put them when he had first brought Archie to the cabin, but his mind refused to work. Except to deliver one thought, over and over: Archie was blind.
The cabin was in disarray; broken glass covered the floor, crunching beneath Horatio boots. The table had been knocked askew during Archie's fit, and the small chair had tipped over and was lying at an angle against one wall. Horatio righted it, and thought: Archie's blind.
The bandages, the salve. Where had he put them? Finally Horatio remembered, then as he fetched them thought, he can't stay. He'll have to leave, Kennedy Manor, and Thomas too. Thomas -
With the articles in hand, Horatio turned back to where Dr. Sebastian was still kneeling beside Archie's cot, his tall form thrown into dark shadows by the one remaining lantern that still burned. Archie had stopped moving, had whispered something, and now Horatio could hear the doctor murmuring in low tones; some sort of prayer, but what good would it do now?
Archie was blind, and his world was over.
Horatio did not want to approach that cot. The fresh memory of Archie lying on the floor, his still-reddened face contorted in pain, haunted him. And his eyes - open but unseeing, the bright blue set against bloodshot red, staring at Horatio but not marking him, shut off forever. Horatio shuddered and looked at the fragments of glass and metal on the floor, broken and useless. Archie was blind.
But there was no help for it, and Horatio made his careful way back to the cot, and knelt next to the doctor with the offerings in his hands. Archie's face was slack, his eyes closed; he was clearly asleep, although Dr. Sebastian was still stroking his forehead and saying his prayer as if Archie could hear him. After a moment he gradually eased his hand away, and without comment took the salve and bandages from Horatio and began to tend to Archie's wounded hand.
His hand - Horatio winced as Sebastian opened the jar of salve and gently took the injured hand in his own. It wasn't very badly burned, only red from the melted wax and cut a bit, but Horatio knew the panic that must have caused those wounds. Archie had grown impatient, and removed the bandage from his eyes before anyone could assist him. He must have panicked when he couldn't see, and thought to light the lantern, but it was already lit - and when he knew that, when he really knew that he should have been able to see, his entire world had collapsed around him, and he had been alone - cut off and alone, and Horatio had no words to cheer him. Fletcher was gone.
And Archie was blind.
Dr. Sebastian said nothing as he worked, only kept his dark and serious eyes to his task. Archie's hand remained relaxed as he wound the bandage around it and laid it against Archie's chest. As he did this, Horatio fetched the blanket from his own cot and handed it to Sebastian, who carefully draped it over Archie's sleeping form; he had been laid on top of his blanket, and had no other means of warmth.
When that was done, Dr. Sebastian stood and wearily rubbed his hand over his face and sighed. Horatio looked at Archie, whose fragility had never been more evident, and whispered, "What happens now?"
Dr. Sebastian looked at him; Horatio saw some surprise there, and deep sadness. Then he motioned toward the door, and Horatio followed him into the corridor.
As soon as they were both outside, Dr. Sebastian closed the cabin door until it was open only a crack. Then he held up his hand, and Horatio saw that he still held one of the bandages in it. "Hold your head still, lieutenant, please."
Horatio obeyed, puzzled; it was only after Dr. Sebastian gently took his chin in his hand and began to dab at his face that Horatio remembered that Archie had struck him while he was having his fit, and scratched at his face as well. He had been in too much of a daze to even feel the pain; but when Dr. Sebastian removed the wadded-up bandage from his face, it was spotted with blood.
"I am afraid you will be somewhat swollen and bruised for the next few days; your face is badly beaten," the doctor said appraisingly, tilting Horatio's head and studying his face in the dim light, "Does anything hurt excessively?"
Horatio shook his head, mindless of the damage Archie had dealt him; he thought he was protecting Thomas, after all. "I am fine, doctor. What can we do to help Archie?"
Dr. Sebastian dropped his hand from Horatio's chin and pocketed the bloodied bandage. Looking toward the door he said, "He is frightened, and his ordeal has left him weak. The cabin should be cleaned, and his hand checked for infection."
Horatio nodded; but that had not entirely been his question. His heart sank within him as he said, "Mr. Fletcher is gone, to his home I think. I had hoped - there was only one way - is there still a chance that Mr. Kennedy's sight can return?"
Dr. Sebastian sighed; Horatio knew he would tell him the truth. "A chance, but not so great as before. It was my hope that the swelling of his eyelids was the cause of his blindness. And his eyes themselves are unscarred. I am afraid we must deal with what is plainly before us."
Horatio swallowed; he forced himself to remain practical. "Mr. Dunbridge will need to be - to be notified. He will be here tomorrow, to make arrangements before we sail. And Archie told me that...should it come to this, he wanted to tell Thomas himself."
"Then we will honor his request," Dr. Sebastian said, his voice as sad as Horatio had ever heard it. "But we must not surrender the fight of making his fate as bearable as possible. Can you still contact your father?"
Horatio nodded. "I sent a letter, by courier last night. But by the time he returns, Archie will already be ashore and on his way to Kennedy Manor. I cannot stop it. I've tried - everything I can think, but still - dammit!"
Dr. Sebastian laid a comforting hand on Horatio's shoulder, and gave him a gentle smile. He's praying for me too, confound him, Horatio thought with a little embarrassment; but he let it go. After a pause the doctor said, "Keep working, lieutenant, and in the meantime let us do our duties. You have done everything you can; stay with Mr. Kennedy now, and I will go inform Captain Pellew of what needs to be done. And when Mr. Kennedy awakes we shall bring Thomas to him."
"Yes, sir," Horatio said sadly, and as Dr. Sebastian patted his shoulder and left, he looked through the crack in the door and sighed. What was there to do, but stand vigil? His friend's light had burnt out, his career was over; and soon he would be handed over to callous men to whom he meant nothing, and the struggle to get him away from them would be long and trying. And not his own; Horatio would be far away and unable to help. He could only hope. And Horatio was not very good at hoping...
With a resigned sigh, and a determination to ease Archie's burden in whatever way he could, Horatio went back into their cabin and began to quietly remove the shattered fragments of his friend's last, desperate attempt to find light in a world that was now - for him - eternally out of his reach, and dark.
The tiny enameled clock in the private dining room at Regent's had just chimed nine o'clock when Titus Dunbridge lifted his glass of after-dinner brandy and frowned at the hand of cards he had just been dealt by one of the six well-dressed friends sitting at the table with him.
"I daresay I hope this is not a premonition of the future," he muttered to no one in particular, and cast scrutinizing eyes on his companions, who were all studying their cards with varying expressions of carefully arranged delight or annoyance. Looking at the dealer he said, louder, "You know that dealing poor hands does not encourage a gentleman to wager, sir."
The dealer, a young man like himself, smiled benignly. "Fortune deals the hands, Titus. I simply mete them out as She sees fit."
"I shall have to bully her, then." Titus said sourly, and set down his glass with a loud thump. Tossing away three of the five cards he'd been given, he said, "Give me three."
The dealer obliged. Titus took them but did not look at them, for at that moment there was a knock at the twin French doors; the doors opened a little and the concierge peeked inside.
"Ah, excellent!" The dealer exclaimed, and reaching down pulled an empty wine bottle out of the bucket of ice that had been resting near his feet and showed it to the concierge. "Another of these, if you would be so kind."
"Certainly, sir," the concierge said with a gracious smile, "But first, which of you is Mr. Dunbridge?"
Titus looked up, slightly annoyed. "I am. What is it?"
"Ah." The concierge came forward with a wax-sealed letter, "This just arrived for you."
"Oh-oh," One of the aristocrats joked as Titus opened the seal and unfolded the letter, "Your family's found out about your debts, Titus. You'd best start for the provinces now."
Titus read the entire letter, then folded it up with a grin and tossed it on the floor. "My family has no say about my spending habits, gentlemen, but that is actually the news I've been waiting on. It seems my childhood friend Mr. Kennedy is now permanently blind and will need my services to be taken to his family home in Southampton. The captain requests my presence in his cabin tomorrow morning to discuss the details."
There was an uncomfortable silence, and several awkward glances around the table. "Bad luck," one of the young men finally ventured.
"Terrible luck for him, I suppose," Titus sighed, sitting up and taking the glass of brandy again, "But I do not mind ingratiating myself to his family, they certainly have the money to warrant it; and he will have the chance to remember what it is to be of blue blood. As for his injury - well, that's what you get when you stick your neck out." He looked at his cards and casually tossed a twenty-pound note into the middle of the table. "My luck is changing, gentlemen. And all to my benefit. Who dares to wager against me?"
Dr. Sebastian did not think he had ever seen his captain look so downcast.
The doctor stood before Pellew's desk, hands behind his desk, waiting for the captain to speak. He had delivered the news, had watched as Pellew had penned a swift note and ordered it taken ashore; now he only waited for the conversation that was sure to come.
And now here it was. For a long time after the courier left Pellew said nothing; he simply gazed down at his desk, those great dark eyes full of regret and sorrow. Then he raised them to Dr. Sebastian and asked, "Is there nothing to be done?"
"I can tend to the injuries Mr. Kennedy still has," Sebastian replied, "But the swelling in his face has diminished, and he can open his eyes without difficulty. I can do nothing to make them see. I'm sorry."
"No," Pellew shook his head and rose, "No, you have nothing to apologize for, doctor, your attention to my men has always been extraordinary. If in this case there was anything more to be done for Mr. Kennedy, I am certain you would have seen to it."
"There are cases," Sebastian offered, "Where sight has returned, when a blow to the head has caused it. Over time, this could happen...but it is rare."
"And we sail day after tomorrow," Pellew turned to the night-darkened windows behind him and sighed. "I had hoped you would bring me better news, doctor. Mr. Kennedy is a promising young man, and it is always a tragedy to see such promise thwarted by the vagaries of fate."
"And now I can only hope that Lord Hood sees the reason in my letter to him, and will delay Kennedy's return to his home until an answer can be had from Mr. Hornblower's father. Which he is unlikely to do."
Dr. Sebastian looked at the floor. "Yes, sir."
Pellew sighed again, and began to slowly pace around the desk. "Mr. Hornblower went ashore earlier, and reported back to me that Mr. Fletcher has left Plymouth, so he can be of no help. So I am in a most unenviable position; I must give one of my officers, and one of the children of my ship, to a man I would not trust with a molded sausage. I cannot trust that when I hand Mr. Kennedy and the boy Thomas over to Mr. Dunbridge that I will be entirely civil about it. Do you understand me, doctor?"
"Yes, sir," Dr. Sebastian repeated, looking at Pellew steadily, "You would not be the captain I am proud to serve, if you undertook such a task with anything but bitterness in your heart."
"And yet that is what I am called to do," Pellew
shook his head, "I despise it, yet to refuse is treason.
What is your advice, doctor? What is the best course now?"
"To see to Mr. Kennedy's needs," Sebastian replied without hesitation, "To tend to his injured heart, and calm the nightmares he must now face. And make his journey from here as comfortable as possible."
"And the boy?"
Sebastian smiled fondly. "Thomas has already offered to follow Mr. Kennedy wherever he goes. Although I believe his heart will remain here, he sees it as his sacred duty. But he does not know he will be asked to go to Kennedy Manor; Mr. Kennedy has asked for the privilege to tell him."
"Then he shall have it," Pellew said quietly, and went to the door of his cabin. "But not before I have a chance to thank Thomas for his devotion to duty. Mr. Bradford?"
A marine appeared and snapped to attention. "Aye, sir?"
"Fetch the cabin boy Thomas to me, if you please. You may try searching for him in the mess."
"Aye, sir," Bradford replied, with a crooked smile, "He won't be hard to find at all, sir. He was sitting on the poop, just next to the skylight."
As Bradford left, Pellew's eyes went to the skylight, directly over their heads. Dr. Sebastian's gaze followed his, and after a pause he said, "I do not gamble, but I would wager a hundred pounds that Thomas is no longer sitting by the skylight."
"I do not gamble either," Pellew replied, "But I would take that wager in a moment."
Archie woke up.
It was a drowsy, dull awakening. He floated to it sideways, as if he was drunk. When full awareness came, he tried to move and felt a thunderbolt of protest course through him, stiff and aching muscles crying out in outrage. He groaned.
"Archie?" Horatio's voice.
Archie turned toward that sound, flexed his hands and felt his right one burn. He winced. "What time is it?"
"Somewhat after ten," Horatio replied,and Archie felt a hand on his shoulder. "Can I get you anything?"
Archie's eyes felt sticky, thick. He opened them slowly, but of course there was no miracle; he was still blind. "I hurt all over."
"Do you want something? I can go to the sick berth and see what the doctor has."
At first Archie demurred; it was shameful, but he did not want Horatio to leave. But that was a childish fear, he knew; and besides, he needed to talk to Thomas and at the moment the pain was far too close for him to trust himself when the time came. He nodded.
The hand on his shoulder tightened for a moment, and Horatio said, "I'll return shortly."
Then there were footsteps, the cabin door opening and closing, and Archie was alone.
Alone...Archie touched his face, and mused on this. He really was alone...he could feel his cheekbones, eyelids, his lips. The swelling had decreased, he probably looked fairly close to the way he always had; except that his eyes had ceased to work. He was cut off, as completely as he had been that long-ago day when he had been cast adrift in a jollyboat. Abandoned.
No. With great effort, Archie heaved himself upright in the bed and took a deep breath. There was no time for feeling sorry for himself, not now. He had Thomas to consider, and he would not show that child weakness, not for the world. After Horatio had given him something for the pain - for the horrible, hollow ache that was wrapped like a shroud around his entire body - then he would be ready to talk to Thomas.
But what would he say? Archie bit his lip as tears stung his eyes; he had no reassuring words. They would be together, they would have each other to confide in, but that was only a hope. He was blind, and there was nothing Lord Kennedy detested more than affliction. So Archie had no illusions about his fate at Kennedy Manor; he would be sent to one of its endless suites of rooms, shuttered there, and forgotten.
But Thomas - Thomas was young, strong, and as Titus had said, useful. No doubt his father saw the opportunity to procure a caretaker for his invalid son at little cost, and Thomas would become a drudge, to clean his room and take him meals. That alone made Archie want to weep, but it would not end there; for Thomas' duties would not extend to keeping his master's son company. There were other rooms to tend to, or more likely yard work and other outdoor chores, or dangerous work like cleaning the chimneys, good work for small bodies. Thomas would endure all of this silently, because that was his way. He might even not mind it, for he never shirked from hard work and was a quick learner.
But there was more. And that was what made Archie want to cry aloud.
Thomas knew the shallowness of that titled world, had spotted it in Titus Dunbridge immediately. He would never bow to another simply because they saw themselves as superior, never quell his own spirit lest it overshadow his masters'. He would not hesitate to turn his hand to hard work, but he would never cast his eyes to the ground, never abide foolishness or cruelty to another; it was not in his nature. But he could not survive as a servant at Kennedy Manor with his spirit intact; and so they would take it from him.
If he learned quickly, it would only take one beating, perhaps two; then he would learn to bow and scrape as his masters and their friends walked by, to take a kick and give loud thanks for it. But Archie knew better; Thomas was like Horatio, practical and knowing; and Horatio could not have his spirit beaten out of him; not even when he had almost died from the beating...
So it would be slower. Thomas would be beaten, punished, still question; be beaten again. He would hide it, perhaps cry for reasons he didn't want to talk about when he was allowed to see Archie. Then those visits would become less, because Lord Kennedy would know he could use the permission as a punishment, to be given or withheld at his whim. Then the visits might cease altogether, Lord Kennedy figuring that the child was simply too much of a bother to be of much use. Someone else would tend to Archie's needs, and he would sit in the dark unable to help, unable to do anything but feel his soul dying within him, along with the soul of the only person on the earth whose fate he would have given his own life to change.
And then they would both - either in figure or in fact - die.
For a moment that terrible prophecy hung in front of Archie's mind like a black curtain, calling up every shred of pain and suffering to feed it and give it life. At that moment Archie could see no way to stop it, no help or remedy for what he knew would happen to Thomas, and with a shuddering breath that carried away any fragile defense he had, Archie leaned his face into his hands and wept.
They were hot, bitter, painful tears. Tears of self-pity and anger, helplessness and despair, and every jagged, burning emotion Archie could not put a name to. He wept without marking the time, and sank into his anguish and let it close over his head. He was exhausted, and no longer cared about a world he could not lay claim to.
He wept so intensely that he did not hear the cabin door open, very softly; and did not know someone else was in the room until he felt two small arms encircle his neck, and a soft cheek against his burning face. A breath on his face, a sigh; nothing more.
It was Thomas.
"Oh," Archie cried, and instinctively reached out and wrapped the child in a tight embrace, holding him close in anguished repentance. "Oh, God, Thomas, I'm sorry - I 'm so sorry - "
Thomas held on, his voice calm and aware. "I'm going with you."
"I know," Archie sobbed, not lessening his grip; oh God, he had no words! "I know, I tried to prevent it. I tried, I know you want to be midshipman..."
Thomas sighed again, and released his hold on Archie's neck. Very gently, Archie felt him touch his eyes. Please, don't let me seem a monster, he prayed.
"There's something more important," Thomas said quietly, "I think now God wants me to be your eyes."
"My eyes?" Archie put a hand on Thomas' hair. "Thomas - what do you mean?"
"Dr. Sebastian said brothers help each other find light," Thomas explained, in his matter-of-fact way, stroking Archie's face as he spoke, "And then he told the captain that you had nightmares, and your heart hurt. You helped me when it was dark, and I couldn't find God, even though the doctor says he's always there. Now I can do the same for you."
Archie's speech failed him. He could only wonder.
"In the Bible, blind men had boys to lead them around. So I figure I can do that too."
"But - Thomas, I would appreciate that more than anything, but - do you know where we're going?"
"Oh - I know that Titus Dunbridge wants to take us to Kennedy Manor, but we won't stay there. Mr. Hornblower wrote his father, and we'll be at his place before too long, and he must be a very good man because everyone wants you to go there. And then you can teach me what you know about being a midshipman."
Archie could scarcely breathe. Of course, Thomas saw no danger, no future lined with black clouds and doubt. He only saw hope. Archie felt ashamed of himself. "Thomas - Thomas, you know I can't see anymore."
"I - I can't teach you about being a midshipman..."
"Yes you can," Thomas' small hand wandered to Archie's brow, and rested there. "You said once you could tell me about the cannons, but I wouldn't learn as much if I didn't read about it myself. I can read about it, I can take my books; and you can test me. You still know everything, don't you?"
"Well," Archie admitted, smiling for what he thought was the first time in days, "Mr. Hornblower would say I think I do..."
"You do. So you'll test me. And then when it's time, I'll come back to the ship."
It was so reasoned, so clear. And so much through a child's eyes that Archie wanted to weep again, for joy. He held Thomas once more and silently vowed that no one would touch a hair on this child's head; no matter where they were, Archie would kill them first.
"Do you want to hear a poem the doctor taught me?" Thomas asked, his voice muffled against Archie's shoulder. "I found it in a book."
Archie swallowed hard, and let Thomas go. "Of course."
Thomas faded away, then returned, settling himself against Archie's shoulder. There was the sound of pages turning, then, "I don't think I understand all of it, but... but it's called 'The Night'. This is the part I liked... 'Wise Nicodemus saw such light, as made him know his God by night. Most blest believer he, who in that land of darkness and blind eyes thy long-expected healing wings could see when thou didst rise! And, what can nevermore be done, did at midnight speak with the sun!'"
Healing wings, in a land of darkness and blind eyes. Archie shivered.
"And the last part, 'There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness; as men say it is late and dusky, because they see not all clear. O for that night, where I in Him might live invisible and dim'."
Archie swallowed hard, and whispered, "Your reading is getting quite good, Thomas."
"You won't cry anymore?" Thomas asked, laying his small hand against Archie's cheek.
"I have no reason to," Archie answered, drawing in a deep breath and once more placing his hand on Thomas' hair. "You've helped me, Thomas. Thank you."
Thomas touched Archie's eyes again, and his young voice was full of conviction. "We'll look after each other until the light comes back. I promise."
And it will come back, Archie thought instinctively; why, he didn't know. Except that Thomas believed it, with every innocent fiber of his small being. And it was enough. It was - dazzling.
"I won't let you down, Thomas," Archie whispered in a choked voice, once more wrapping the child in a tight embrace, and it was more than mere words; it was a vow against Simpson, and Morgan, and Dunbridge, and all the demons who were crouching in the shadows; it was a command to himself. "I swear to God I won't."
To Horatio, the next hours held a peculiar charmed quality to them that he could never properly explain. He returned from the sick berth fully expecting Archie to be in pain and depressed; yet he wasn't. In fact, to Horatio's surprise, he found that Thomas had gotten into the cabin and was calmly reading to Archie from some book of poetry; and Archie was sitting against the wall with his eyes closed and a peaceful look on his face, as if he had not a care in the world.
This was very strange; surely Thomas knew that Archie was blind. And certainly Archie had told the child that very likely they would be sent to live in the black depths of Kennedy Manor. It was a situation that called for deliberate thought, not yielding calm and poetry. Horatio did not understand it.
Thomas was a great help that night, to be sure. He unwrapped Archie's hand, asked no questions, and even helped him drink the willowbark tea that Horatio had brought with him, while Horatio cleaned Archie's hand and re-bandaged it. By then it was very late, and fearing that the next day would tax them all, Horatio took command and ordered Thomas to his bed, and sleep.
Thomas obeyed, pressing his hand to Archie's arm in way of farewell; Archie accepted this, and did not say much to Horatio, except that he was very tired. Horatio was wary, but the lines of defeat and despair that had plagued his friend since this ordeal began seemed to be fading; and he had no idea why. But it was good to see nonetheless, and Horatio accepted it and turned out the lantern. He dreaded the following day, and knew it would arrive too soon.
And then - too soon - it came.
Captain Pellew had arranged a meeting in his day cabin for those involved in Archie's transfer. As one of those named, Horatio rose early and got himself dressed, then with a dropping feeling in his stomach looked at Archie, who was still asleep, lying rumpled in his cot with the rosy hue of slumber still upon him. The swelling in his face was nearly gone, and he almost didn't look injured at all. For a moment Horatio hoped that, miraculously, Archie would open his eyes and be able to see. It could happen...
But a few moments later, Archie did open his eyes, and they held the same fixed look, the same featureless stare. And Horatio's hopes were dashed again.
"Horatio?" Archie called out softly, turning his head.
"Yes, Archie," Horatio answered, trying not to sound too depressed, "It's nearly eight o'clock, we've an hour or so. Do you want something from the mess?"
Archie shook his head and ran his uninjured hand through his hair. He struggled to sit up. "I think - I should have a shave, though."
A shave; Archie had not had one since the accident. Horatio tucked his shirt in, came over to where Archie was sitting on the bunk and looked at him closely. There was some growth there - thank goodness, his fair complexion made Archie's facial hair harder to see - but Horatio was unsure what a razor would do to the still-healing skin. Gingerly, he reached out and touched Archie's face. "Does that hurt?"
Archie winced instinctively, and drew back. "A little."
Horatio shook his head. "Then a shave would be torture to you. I'm sorry, Archie."
Archie coughed and sat up straighter. As he worked his nightshirt over his head, Horatio added, "I'm sorry for all of this. We've - you and I - I didn't expect that we would part this way. In battle perhaps, or as old veterans, but - "
To his surprise, Archie actually laughed. "Horatio, an orator you are not."
Horatio frowned in irritation. "Well, no, I suppose not, but - well, dammit, Archie, you know what I mean. I would give anything to have spared you this. I wanted you to know that."
"I know," Archie sighed, and wrestled his shirt from his head, "And I appreciate it, Horatio. I know you went up against Titus, against Carlyle, that you tried to find Fletcher and couldn't. You're a good friend, far better than I deserve. But...I've survived worse than this. I've been down lower, and pulled myself up, with your help and others', higher than I ever thought I could climb. This will not defeat me; I cannot let it."
Horatio was pleased at Archie's optimism, but confused; he had nothing like it, only the practical knowledge that Archie and Thomas were going to a place they would hate. "My father should send word in a few days - even if we are away from port, it may be - he may come to the door of Kennedy Manor. I would not doubt it."
"Yes," Archie said, in a dreamy way almost, "Yes, of course. Can you get me a fresh shirt, please?"
Horatio did so, and on the way back across their cabin happened to catch a glimpse of himself in the shaving-mirror. He winced; the bruises and scratches from Archie's attack were still very much in evidence, dark and ragged against his pale skin. Thank goodness at least that Archie had no memory of doing that to him; Horatio was grateful that Archie had been spared that guilt, at least.
Leaving the mirror, Horatio walked to Archie's side and handed him the shirt. "I hope Thomas was not too upset when you told him."
"He already knew," Archie said, sliding the shirt over his head, "He is an amazing child, Horatio, and if anyone can fight this, he can. I doubted that; I'm ashamed to admit it."
"And you, Archie?" Horatio suddenly asked, sitting on the bunk and facing his friend and those heartbreaking, unlit eyes, "Can you bear it? What do you need, what will make it easier? Tell me and I will grant it, I swear."
Archie paused, both hands still holding the bottom of his shirt; then he slowly reached forward and placed his hand on Horatio's arm. "You have already given it, Horatio. All I need, and more. I've already done more with my existence than I ever thought I could, and it is because your friendship has made me stronger. Didn't you know that?"
Horatio blinked; he had never thought about it. "Archie, that was not me - I can give you nothing you don't already possess."
"But you gave me the light to see it with," Archie replied with a smile, "I spoke with the sun at midnight, and without your help that would never have been possible. You will have my eternal gratitude for that."
Horatio sighed in exasperation; Archie was talking poetry and not making sense.
Archie seemed to catch this, and laughed again, and Horatio's heart wrenched when he realized he would miss that sound. "I'm sorry, Horatio, I'm talking riddles at you. Fetch my breeches, will you? As much as I would like to give Titus the shock of his life, I would never shame my captain by appearing without them on."
After they were both dressed and presentable, Horatio took Archie's arm and carefully led him to Captain Pellew's cabin. Archie looked well - his hair was brushed back and queued, and with the swelling gone it was difficult to tell he'd been injured. Only the blankness in his eyes and his bandaged hand testified to the trials he had undergone; but they were sad enough.
As soon as the marine opened the door to the captain's cabin for them, Horatio saw Archie's posture straighten, and his face arrange itself into determined lines; those lines remained in place as Horatio helped his friend into the room, and he took stock of who was there.
Captain Pellew was there, of course, and Dr. Sebastian; Thomas, who was dressed in the clothes that Archie had bought for him, and was sitting quietly at the doctor's elbow; and at the other end of the captain's table, Titus Dunbridge and Randall Carlyle. Only Titus was rude enough to stare openly at both Archie's sightless eyes and Horatio's battered face; to outward appearances, it seemed no one else even noticed. Horatio let Archie to the chair that Dr. Sebastian had pulled out for him, next to Thomas.
"Good morning, gentlemen," Captain Pellew said, in a voice that was full of compassion, "Mr. Kennedy, I hope the day finds you well, sir."
"Thank you, sir," Archie said, his voice strong and clear.
As soon as they were seated, Captain Pellew cleared his throat and said, "As we all are aware, three days ago there was an occurrence aboard this ship that caused injury to Mr. Kennedy, forcing him to lose his sight. Since his sight has not returned and we are to set sail tomorrow, Admiral Lord Hood has granted Mr. Dunbridge here permission to escort Mr. Kennedy to his family's estate in Southampton. Furthermore, it has been decided that the volunteer Thomas is to accompany him, also as decreed by Lord Hood. Is this understood?"
"Yes," Archie said firmly.
"Yes," Thomas echoed, more quietly. Horatio saw the doctor pat his arm in support.
"Excellent," Dunbridge said, straightening in his chair, "I knew you would come 'round to my way of thinking, sooner or later."
A thick silence followed that, and Horatio looked at Archie in concern; but his friend didn't flinch.
"A transport has been arranged," Captain Pellew continued, "And Mr. Kennedy's discharge papers have been duly completed." So saying, he handed the papers to Carlyle.
"Thank you, captain," Carlyle replied as he took them, "And if I may say so, thank you for making this a smooth process. I was concerned for a while, but the system we have in England is there for a reason. I'm certain this is the best solution for all parties concerned."
Horatio's cheek flushed, but he did not dare speak out in the captain's presence. Still he knew it was not the best solution - it was the swiftest, the cheapest, the easiest. It was consigning Archie and Thomas to loneliness and isolation for the sake of one man's vanity. It was worse than treason.
Then, next to him, Horatio heard Archie ask, very quietly, "Captain Pellew?"
Pellew looked over. "Yes, Mr. Kennedy?"
"You have signed my discharge papers? I am no longer in the British Navy?"
Pellew paused. "Yes. I have."
"Then what I say cannot reflect poorly on you," Archie continued, and Horatio saw the familiar half-smile, "But may be taken as only my own. Mr. Dunbridge, Mr. Carlyle, you may do as you like with me, but you must be aware that I consider you two of the vilest creatures on the face of this earth."
Carlyle and Dunbridge both started in shock; then Dunbridge said smoothly, "Mr. Kennedy, you astound me. I am merely offering you safe passage to your home - "
"Nothing of the kind, Titus, and you know it," Archie seethed, "You are controlling, grasping, bullying, as you have always done. And Mr. Carlyle, I fear, is too dazzled by your lands and wealth to even consider that he is selling a child into slavery."
Carlyle frowned deeply. "Living on a wealthy estate is hardly slavery, Mr. Kennedy. You've obviously injured more than your eyes."
"My eyes are gone, but I assure you my sight has never been more clear," Archie seethed, "And what I see appalls me. The lace and finery hides all corruption and wickedness, and even blind I will not sit idly by and allow you to lay waste to an innocent soul. Not as you did to mine. Never."
There was an uncomfortable pause, and when Horatio looked at Archie he saw a flush to his friend's cheeks, and the same stubborn set to his jaw that he had seen in battle, in argument, running over the bridge at Muzillac. Horatio smiled.
"He's mad," Titus sniffed, "I never laid waste to anyone's soul, it is merely that you were not fit to appreciate our way of life. But that is no matter to discuss here; you're wasting everyone's time, Mr. Kennedy."
Captain Pellew opened his mouth to say something, but before he could utter a word Thomas suddenly said, "But he's right."
Titus blinked, and looked at Thomas in a bewildered way. "What did you say, child?"
"Mr. Kennedy's right," Thomas said evenly, "I'm not signed to the ship anymore either, and you *are* corrupt and wicked. Everyone can see it."
Carlyle leaned forward onto the table, "Captain, about the finances - "
"No," Dunbridge interrupted, and Horatio saw the affront in his eye, "I will hear this ungrateful boy out." His eyes narrowed. "Is that all you have to say?"
Thomas shook his head. "You're vain too, like I read in the poem. You can't even see how terrible you're being. You never asked Mr. Kennedy if he wanted to go home, or talked to me at all. You just want to feel important. You think you're so much better than everyone else, but you're blinder than Mr. Kennedy; and you're the second *worst* person I ever knew."
"Oh?" Titus seethed. "Not *the* worst?"
Thomas shook his head. "There was one worse. Mr. Hornblower killed him."
Horatio made a choking sound, thrown. Titus' eyes blazed, and he stood quickly and said, "I've had quite enough of this. Captain, good day, Mr. Carlyle, come with me. We are leaving, now." And so saying, he walked quickly by the table and before anyone could move, grabbed Thomas by the arm and with a grunt tried to pull him out of his seat. The boy yelped in surprise.
Archie moved so swiftly Horatio didn't even see it. Like a lightning bolt, he started out of his seat and clutched Titus by the throat, his aim as unerring as if he'd had his full vision and a clear blue day. Titus gasped in surprise.
"You touch that child again," Archie growled, in a voice Horatio had never heard before, "And I will tear your throat out."
Titus' eyes bugged; he quickly dropped his grasp on Thomas, and brought both hands to his neck in an attempt to dislodge Archie's grip. It wasn't working.
"I'm all right," Thomas offered, putting his hands on Archie's arm, "He didn't hurt me. You can let go now."
"Mr. Kennedy, that will be quite enough," Pellew said sternly. "Sit down, please."
Horatio could only stare as Archie reluctantly loosened his grasp and dropped it. His face was flushed, and he was breathing heavily. "My apologies, captain." he muttered, and smoothed his hair away from his face, "My apologies, everyone."
"Accepted," Titus said haughtily, rearranging the lace of his collar as he reluctantly sat down. He had a dark glare in his eye, almost hidden by a thin veneer of civility but not quite. You'll pay for this, the look said, and Horatio felt a wave of dread course through him. You'll pay...
Horatio glanced at Archie; his friend was flushed and panting, but did not seem to have injured himself. And Thomas was gazing at him in a kind of gratitude that made Horatio thankful that at least they would not be separated; but the concerned expression on Dr. Sebastian's face told Horatio they had both seen the same hatred in Titus Dunbridge's eyes; it would not go easy on them at all.
"Now then," Pellew sighed as Horatio stared at the table and fought his own anger at the injustice of what he was seeing, "There is the matter of Mr. Kennedy's pension. He wishes it to be placed into a fund for Thomas' education..."
"I think that can be arranged," Carlyle replied, "If the boy shows enough aptitude for it."
Thomas looked confused until Dr. Sebastian leaned over and whispered something to him. Then he nodded and said, "I will, sir. I promised Mr. Kennedy."
Archie's cheek flushed again, with pride this time. That pride was cut short, however, when Titus sighed hugely and got noisily to his feet. "Gentlemen, my carriage is waiting at the dock. I have been immersed in this business at the expense of my own recreation time, and as far as I'm concerned it is well past the hour to conclude it. Now may we please sign whatever we have to so I can take Mr. Kennedy home?"
The peevish tone in which Dunbridge said these remarks raised the blood in Horatio's veins. He looked at Archie, at Thomas, and could not believe that in a few short moments they would be taken by this brutal, self-absorbed person away from their life and their home. But he was out of ways to prevent it.
Captain Pellew's color was up as well; but before he could tell Titus to sit down again there was a loud noise as the cabin door was opened and Mr. Bracegirdle popped inside.
"Forgive me, sir," he said, all excitement, "But he insists on seeing you now - "
"Who does?" Captain Pellew asked, irritation clearly marked on his face. Horatio wondered at the intrusion.
Then, suddenly, standing in the doorway was Lieutenant Naph Fletcher.
Horatio started; Fletcher looked ragged, spent, and was covered head-to-foot in mud and the dirt of a hard ride; the only clean part on him were his eyes, which he trained on Titus Dunbridge in a deadly glare.
"What's happening, Horatio?" Archie whispered.
"It's Fletcher," Horatio stammered back, "He looks - dirty."
"Fletcher!" Carlyle exclaimed, rising to his feet in anger, "Where the hell have you been? Your landlord - "
"You *fired* me, remember?" Fletcher replied archly, striding into the cabin, "I beg your pardon, captain, for my appearance and my manner, but I have been riding like the devil for two days and I'm fairly exhausted." He walked around the table, stopping only when he reached Dunbridge and Carlyle; he put his hands on his hips and declared, "I am here to put an end to what Titus Dunbridge has begun and my colleague has perpetuated. Unless it is Mr. Kennedy's wish, he will *not* go home to Kennedy Manor." Fletcher turned his gaze to Archie, and Horatio saw those ice-hard gray eyes soften. "Mr. Kennedy?"
Archie straightened, and turned his head a little to follow Fletcher's voice. "Yes, sir?"
"I'm sorry, it seems your sight has not returned."
"Would you rather return to your home as Mr. Dunbridge has offered, or stay with Mr. Hornblower's father as we discussed earlier?"
Archie hesitated, then replied, "I would rather stay with Horatio's - Mr. Hornblower's father, sir, if I was to go anywhere. And I would wish for Thomas to remain here and attain his rank as midshipman."
Fletcher leaned back a little and nodded, "Then that is what you will do."
Horatio saw the confidence in Fletcher's eyes and did not doubt him even though he had no power, but Carlyle only gave a hollow snort. "Mr. Fletcher, you are embarrassing yourself and humiliating the Board," Carlyle replied, "Mr. Dunbridge has the permission of Lord Admiral Hood to escort Mr. Kennedy home, and he has been given the authority of the Sick and Hurt Board by virtue of his rank and title to do what he thinks is best for Mr. Kennedy and the boy. Unless you wish to be court-martialed, I suggest that you - "
"Enough of that!" Fletcher snapped, turning sharply on his heel and walking back around the table, "Gentlemen, Titus Dunbridge only *thinks* he has the authority to do as he pleases with other peoples' lives. He doesn't. But I have with me someone who does, over Carlyle and certainly over him."
"Oh?" Titus was unconcerned.
"Yes," Fletcher answered, and as soon as he had said that word another man appeared in the doorway, his dark hair splashed with mud and dirt as Fletcher's was and his face as stern as a storm at sea.
"Gentlemen," Fletcher said quietly, "May I present Marcus Anthony William, the fourth Earl of Dunbridge."
Horatio's jaw dropped. Archie gasped. Dr. Sebastian uttered some holy name aloud. Captain Pellew's eyebrows raised, slightly. And Titus -
"Titus!" Marcus bellowed, covering the small cabin in two strides and standing over his brother like an angry bear. "Is what this man tells me true?"
Titus had gone momentarily pale; however, he stood his ground and said, "Marcus, there is no need to shout. I am merely offering my assistance as a friend to Mr. Kennedy's family. Surely you remember them - "
"Did you write a letter to Lord Kennedy, telling him his son was a waste and it was a fine idea to hide him away at Kennedy Manor where no one would have to look at him anymore?"
Titus blinked, "Why, no! I would never say such a thing - "
Marcus jerked a worn, wet letter from his jacket pocket and fixed Titus with an accusatory glare. "The Kennedy's chambermaid gave it to me before we left."
Titus drew in a sharp breath and said simply, "Oh."
"I'm ashamed of you," Marcus barked, slapping the letter down on the table. Then he turned serious eyes to the group gathered there and said, "Mr. Kennedy - Captain Pellew, on behalf of my family I'd like to apologize for my brother's immature and reckless behaviour. Lord Admiral Hood is in possession of a letter, drafted by Lord Kennedy, acknowledging that his son may be happier living elsewhere than at Kennedy Manor and leaving the decision up to him. I have also drafted a letter, which Lord Admiral Hood has approved, allowing Mr. Kennedy to travel to Mr. Hornblower's in our family carriage as soon as your ship sails tomorrow, if that is his choice."
Horatio's jaw dropped again. He simply stared at this man, incredulous. Archie's face showed similar shock. But it had to be true -
"As for the boy, Thomas," Marcus Dunbridge continued, pulling his muddy gloves off, "He may travel with Mr. Kennedy if he chooses, or remain here aboard ship. Lord Kennedy has been persuaded that his services will not be required, either."
Thomas' eyes were big as saucers as he stared up at this man, whose head easily touched the cabin ceiling. Then, as understanding sunk in, the boy smiled hugely and turned to give Archie an enthusiastic embrace, which Archie returned.
For his own part, Horatio was astounded. His eyes met with Dr. Sebastian's, and he saw joy there; the joy of victory gained for another. It's a miracle, Horatio thought, incredibly, and the doctor's eyes said the same thing; but Horatio would not admit it. Not yet.
Titus was not so happy. "But - but Marcus!" He sputtered, getting to his feet as Fletcher pulled out papers for Pellew to look at, "You can't give him my carriage. How am I going to get home?"
"It's not *your* carriage, little brother," Marcus said in the same stern voice, "It belongs to me. And as for how you're going to get home, Mr. Fletcher here rode on one of our horses. You can use it, this afternoon, when you come home with me."
"Ride through the mud and - like a commoner? Marcus, you cannot possibly be serious!"
At that point Archie leaned over and said, "I would give the rest of my life to see Titus' face right now. Tell me he's appalled."
"He is," Horatio replied, almost laughing. Laughing, and his mood had been so grim! He did not want to believe what he was seeing was true, for Archie's sake; the disappointment would be too keen.
But it was true; Carlyle, Pellew, and Fletcher were huddled together, Carlyle looking none too happy about Fletcher's interference but unable to argue. Marcus was berating his brother into a corner, and Titus was looking more cowed by the moment. After another few sentences passed between them, Titus did not move from where he was standing and was looking at the floor. Marcus left him there and approached the space where Horatio, Archie, and Thomas were sitting.
"Mr. Kennedy," He said sincerely, "I was very sorry to hear of your misfortune. I'd also like to apologize again for the way my brother has treated you. I would have come sooner, but he didn't tell me he was doing this. I'll be teaching him not to do it again, I promise you."
"You must have bullied my father, as well," Archie said with a grateful smile.
"It wasn't necessary," Marcus replied in satisfaction, "I merely suggested that he would look much less arrogant if he gave you the choice, rather than force you to return home. I also told him I'd have Titus' letter plastered in every tavern within a stone's throw of his home. Doesn't look too well on the ruling class, you know."
Archie smiled at that; then he said, "Marcus, this is my shipmate Horatio Hornblower; Horatio - well, I believe you know!"
Horatio smiled at this benevolent man who had freed Archie and Thomas so ably, and noticed how much older Marcus looked than Titus, and asked, "Did you grow up with Mr. Kennedy as well, sir?"
Marcus shook his head, "Fifteen years separate us; by the time Archie was born I was at university in Scotland. But I know how Titus was to him, and his brothers. With all due respect, Archie, I am not surprised you don't want to go home."
Archie accepted this somberly, and put out his uninjured hand; Marcus took it. "Thank you, sir; not for me, but for Thomas."
"Ah, that must be who *this* is!" Marcus said with a smile, gently ruffling Thomas' hair, "Am I right?"
"Yes, sir," Thomas replied with an answering smile, "Are you really Titus' brother?"
"I am; not that I'm proud to admit it at the moment."
Thomas paused, then said, "He's been stumbling a lot. I think you need to help him."
Marcus tilted his head and regarded Thomas thoughtfully, "Thank you for the suggestion, son. I intend to do just that."
"We thought you had gone for good," Horatio was explaining to Fletcher a short time later as the two men walked onto the quarterdeck in the early-afternoon sunshine. Archie was right beside them, Thomas' hand in his; Marcus had his errant brother in tow a short distance ahead, and was almost dragging him to the waiting jollyboat. "I went to your lodging, but the maid thought you'd fled."
"I know," Fletcher replied, running one dirty hand over his matted hair, "I apologize for leaving no word, but there wasn't time. As soon as Carlyle let me go, I knew that if I was going to put a stop to this I had to go to the highest source possible. King George being somewhat unavailable, I settled on Titus' brother. Thank God I made the right choice."
"Yes," Archie answered, his blond hair blowing in the warm breeze, "Thank God you did. I still can't believe you rode all the way to my home and back in two days. Remarkable!"
"Well, we had dry roads and the wind at our backs," Fletcher admitted as they drew near to the railing, "And I was angry. That made the distance seem short."
Horatio watched as Marcus led Titus to the ladder and down it. He glanced over his shoulder at where Captain Pellew and Carlyle were talking, or perhaps arguing, some point. "What will you do now?" he asked Fletcher.
"Well, my job's not done, is it?" Fletcher smiled, his gray eyes glancing from Archie to Horatio. "Lord Dunbridge has petitioned Hood to reinstate me at the Board, so I plan on being very busy indeed! I have a guest to make comfortable, and his needs to see to, until we can hear from your father. Mr. Kennedy, it's not the luxurious inside of a carriage, but I hope a room at the Naval hospital will suffice for you for the time being."
Archie's smile was grateful, "Trust me, sir, I would prefer that to the softest carriage ride to Kennedy Manor. Thank you."
"Yes," Horatio echoed, regarding Fletcher warmly, "My thanks, Mr. Fletcher, for everything. Without your help, this would be a sadder day for all of us."
Fletcher accepted this with a weary grin, then sobered, "I am sorry I did not return to the news that would have made all of this unnecessary. I hope I don't embarrass you if I say that I'll still pray for your recovery, Mr. Kennedy."
"It doesn't," Archie replied, tugging at the small hand that still held his, "Thomas tells me he does it all the time."
Fletcher knelt down to Thomas' level as the boy smiled at him,
"Yes, and then there's you, young master Thomas. You have
your leave now, to go with Mr. Kennedy or stay on board the ship,
whatever you like. Have you made a decision yet?"
"There isn't one to make," Thomas answered immediately. Then said nothing else, merely regarded Fletcher with his wide, somber eyes.
Fletcher paused, then slowly rose and said, "I suspected you might say that. When you make the decision to return to sea, have Dr. Hornblower write me first. I'll find Mr. Hornblower wherever he is." As Thomas nodded to this, Fletcher squinted across the harbor to the great stone arches that were his home. "Well, I suppose I'd best get back to shore. No doubt my landlord has tossed my furniture into the street and cursed my name. I should see if I can at least get the furniture back." He turned to Archie and placed one gloved hand on his shoulder, "Your captain tells me you sail at noon tomorrow; I'll be aboard by ten, to help you with your things. With that be satisfactory - " he smiled down at Thomas again, " - to both of you?"
Thomas nodded, and Archie said, "Yes, sir. And thank you again."
"Don't mention it; it was worth the ride just to see Titus Dunbridge's face," Fletcher grinned, and turned to Horatio, "Take care of your friends, lieutenant. Theirs is a brave and forthcoming spirit; we have few enough of those."
"You do not need to command me, sir," Horatio smiled as he gazed with affection at the gray-eyed man who had just saved two souls, "And I am very glad we have yours, to add to the number."
The rest of the afternoon passed in a sort of hurried blur for Horatio; there was so much to be done. Pellew invited him and Archie to dinner in the captain's cabin, and Horatio had to make certain that Archie had a fresh uniform for the occasion. Then he saw to his own, and while Archie lay down to rid himself of a bad headache went about the course of doing his duties until dinnertime arrived.
Word spread like wildfire about what had happened, and it seemed every ten feet Horatio had to relay the story again. After a time he began to hear of it himself, recounted by those eager to know if it was true that there was a fistfight, or that Archie had thrown Titus across the room when he threatened Thomas, or whether Marcus Dunbridge was really seven feet tall.
Horatio rolled his eyes at all of these exaggerations, but he was touched that there was such interest in Archie's welfare; and this was never more evident than when he went to the sick berth and found Dr. Sebastian in his cabin, quietly lighting candles at his tiny altar to the Virgin Mary. At first he thought he was intruding, and made to leave; but of course the doctor stopped him.
"Come in, lieutenant," Sebastian said with a gentle smile as he blew the taper out, "This concerns you as well."
Horatio blinked, then sought to cover his awkwardness with an explanation. "I - merely came down to see if you had anything...Archie has a headache."
"Yes, that is not surprising," Dr. Sebastian sighed, gazing at the four lighted candles at the Virgin's feet. Their tiny lights wavered and glowed in his eyes as he continued, "The road ahead of him is long, even with the immediate terror taken out; so you see, I have given my supplication that some light may be shed upon his path, wherever he must walk."
Horatio glanced at the candles, and hoped he did not seem rude; but it occurred to him that a greater gift than light on his path would have been the restoration of Archie's sight. "I'm - certain he will appreciate that."
Dr. Sebastian turned his dark eyes to Horatio and tilted his head, "I hear it in your voice, Horatio. The anger - you think there is something that should still be done."
Curse it! Horatio had forgotten how perceptive Sebastian was. Well, he asked... taking a deep breath Horatio plunged in. "Since this began I thought - it seemed to me that the simplest solution to all the problems that Archie's had would be for his vision to return. You and Thomas have both been praying for him for three straight days, and nothing. I don't understand - how does it fit some almighty plan to have Archie blinded for life?"
Horatio had not intended to become angry; but the truth was, with the immediate threat of Titus Dunbridge out of the way, his anguish at Archie's condition was coming to the fore. His friend was blind. That knowledge, before cloaked by an overriding desire to thwart the evil that was being planned against him, was now a raw and painful reality. And Horatio found he was infuriated by it.
Dr. Sebastian, however, did not seem offended by Horatio's outburst. He merely walked to his desk and sat down, the golden glow from the candles providing a serene light around him. "I wish I had an answer for you, lieutenant. It fits no plan that I am aware of, balms no wound, serves no purpose. But I have learned, through my own years of suffering, that to question why a thing happens or what its use is is to drive oneself slowly and surely to madness. Therefore, the energy should not be wasted on it."
Horatio checked his tongue; Dr. Sebastian was no doubt referring to his own past, the deaths of his wife and son, and that had to be respected. Still... Horatio glared at the little statuette and muttered, "I simply wish...there was something I could *do*."
Dr. Sebastian looked up and smiled. "But are you not doing something? Coming to me for something to ease Mr. Kennedy's pain? And will you not be by his side tonight at dinner, and until we must leave tomorrow?"
"Yes - yes of course - I meant something *useful*. Something that...that would help him see again."
"His sight is beyond our power to restore," Dr. Sebastian said sadly, and rose to face Horatio with a knowing expression, "But if there is any kindness to be gained by this tragedy, it is that Mr. Kennedy now knows what will be risked for him, and the devotion that his courage and honest heart have gained him. Is this not so?"
Horatio thought of Thomas, of Fletcher, and nodded reluctantly.
"And he knows, " Dr. Sebastian continued, "That wherever the path he must travel takes him, that he will be missed by those he leaves behind."
The way Dr.Sebastian said these words nearly made tears start in Horatio's eyes; the involuntary action stunned him. Blinking hastily, he replied, "Yes - yes, I suppose I should return with something for his headache or he will be too ill to enjoy dinner."
"You are right, of course," the doctor answered softly, and preceded Horatio out of the sick berth. Embarrassed, Horatio followed, once again cursing the doctor's perceptiveness. Before he left the little room, however, Horatio cast one final look at the placid little statue with her feet of stars, and the mysterious smile upon her face.
You *know* something, Horatio thought suddenly as he gazed at that luminous face; you *know*. He immediately felt foolish for thinking it, and left the room without another backward glance; but he could not throw off the feeling that, somehow, he was right.
And he had no idea why.
The cabin was dark and quiet when Horatio returned to it, carrying a covered cup of willowbark for Archie's headache. The flame in the lantern had been turned very low, and Horatio winced as the light from the outside momentarily flooded the cabin; then he cursed his thoughtlessness. Of course it would not affect Archie at all.
Still, he could hear his friend stir as he turned up the light in the lantern and closed the door. In the rising light, Horatio saw that Archie was lying on his back, a dark handkerchief over both eyes. Archie stirred a little and mumbled, "Horatio?"
"Yes; how's your headache? Better?"
"No," Archie lamented, pressing the handkerchief to his eyes and turning away from Horatio, "I thought dampening one of my handkerchiefs and laying it on my eyes would help, but it didn't."
"Well, perhaps this will," Horatio said encouragingly, carefully setting the cup on the table. "I went to Dr. Sebastian and he gave me some tea for you."
"I'm *sick* of tea," Archie groused.
"Well, perhaps you'd rather be sick at the captain's table," Horatio shot back, annoyed at his inability to make Archie's pain vanish. "Or would you send him your regrets to the dinner he is giving in *your* honor?"
Archie sighed hugely. "Oh, all right, give me a minute. The ship is spinning."
Horatio nodded to himself, accepting this as the small victory that it was, and walked to the other side of the cabin, where his best uniform was laid out. Brushing the lapels, he thought that he should tell Archie, now, how much he would miss him; how the journey would not be same without his solid and loyal presence; and how fortunate Horatio felt he was to be able to call him friend. But the words caught in Horatio's throat; he was adept at argument, not candid expression; and in any case, Archie was not in a state to hear such sentimental talk. He was not even in the mood to thank Horatio for the tea.
So for the next few minutes Horatio puttered around the cabin, getting dressed and casting a look at his friend every so often to see if he was showing any signs of improvement. When he had put on his entire uniform except for his dress jacket and gloves, Horatio decided it was time to try again and carefully placed a chair next to Archie's cot. He picked the cup off the table and said, "Archie."
Archie sighed. "Yes?"
"Yes," Archie rolled onto his back again, pressing the handkerchief to his eyes. "Damn, I thought I was through with these things...or perhaps taking that crack on the back of my head started them again. Damn."
"You'll feel better after you've had some of this," Horatio cajoled, taking the lid off the cup.
"All right," Archie capitulated, "And then I think perhaps I should really shave. I mean, the captain's table and all."
"I'll help you," Horatio said practically, holding the cup forward as Archie removed the handkerchief from his eyes. "Now - "
Suddenly Archie's hand flew out and knocked the cup from Horatio's hand, sending the tea and its holder crashing to the floor.
"Archie!" Horatio said in shock, and his first irrational thought was that his friend had been thrown into a fit, brought on by the headache. But no - no, Archie was sitting up in the cot, not convulsing but absolutely still, both hands gripping the wooden edge and his pale face offset by his wide blue staring eyes.
His staring -
"Archie?" Horatio said again, uncertain. Was it a fit? Archie wasn't even blinking; but he was beginning to tremble. Slowly, very slowly, his eyes moved, shifting in a kind of shock to Horatio's, shifting until -
- until he met Horatio's gaze in stupefied amazement.
Archie took a quavering breath and blinked very slowly. Then he whispered, "Horatio?"
Horatio couldn't believe it; he realized he wasn't breathing, and let out a shaking breath. "Archie, can you - ?"
Archie squinted very hard. "Horatio, did - did something happen to your face?"
Everything stopped. Horatio stared, stared, could not help staring because Archie was *looking* at him, his eyes no longer half-closed and unfocused but open, open and - and -
The cabin erupted in a mutual whoop of unrestrained and very undignified joy.
"Archie!" Horatio exclaimed, taking his friend's face in both hands, "Good Lord!"
Archie couldn't stop laughing; he grasped Horatio's hands with his own and bounced like a child on the unforgiving cot. Tears were in his eyes.
"I can see, Horatio!" he finally gasped, his face flushed with uncontainable excitement, "Horatio!"
"I know, I know!" Horatio laughed, and blinked because he was flustered at the tears that stung his own eyes. He dropped his hands and could not think of what to say; his own head was spinning. Finally he sputtered, "Well - well, there goes your farewell dinner, Mr. Kennedy."
"Oh, my God!" Archie exclaimed again, and ran his hand through his hair, "Oh my - it's - Christ, Horatio. Christ! It's very blurry but - you look terrible."
Horatio grinned, and wiped the tears from his eyes.
Suddenly Archie started laughing again, and exclaimed, "Oh, my GOD!" and bringing both hands to his face, pulled his hair back and took in the room with ecstatic blue eyes. "It looks - it looks - Thomas. Where's Thomas? And Dr. Sebastian - and oh my God, Pellew - "
Horatio laughed with his friend, laughed because he was stunned, amazed, and the thrilling joy in his heart was unknown to him; he hoarded it. Archie was on the verge of hysteria; Horatio put a hand on his arm and said, "Softly, Archie! Breathe, or you'll be falling to the floor again."
"Oh - oh - " Archie was still trembling; he swung his legs from the cot and looked around the room in dazed bewilderment, shaking his head as if he thought perhaps this was all a dream. He took a deep, shaking breath; another one.
"Calmer now?" Horatio asked, although his own heart was fit to burst inside him.
Archie nodded. "I think so."
"I - yes, I - I - " Suddenly Archie erupted in giggles again, and his euphoric smile dared Horatio not to join in. "Horatio, I can see again! Oh, my God!"
And Horatio did join his friend, and they laughed for a good five more minutes before they could compose themselves properly; for every time decorum threatened to reestablish itself, their eyes would meet and the sheer happiness of what had happened would explode in a fresh wave of healing laughter. And Archie's eyes, which had for too long held his soul cloaked and hidden from view, now shone it forth with a dazzling cobalt brilliance; and that soul leapt and sparkled in their depths with such liberated abandon that Horatio laughed at the sheer joy of seeing it again, and knowing that the darkness had been breached and overcome.
Then, finally, mirthful exhaustion set in, and composure was at long last reached. So Horatio went to fetch Thomas and tell Dr. Sebastian and Captain Pellew the happy news, and then assist Archie with his long-awaited shave.
The following evening the Indefatigable was once again sailing away from England's shores. Horatio had the watch, and as he walked the calm and quiet deck he tilted his head up to the stars and smiled.
He was a practical man, and always would be; not for him the giddiness of youth, or the capering of an unrestrained spirit. So he didn't understand - not completely - what had happened over the past day, to inspire such happiness within his usually stoic breast. Except - except everyone else was happy. And that was certainly satisfying.
How could Horatio not smile, remembering Thomas' look of surprise when Horatio told him Archie could see again? And how he ran, not heeding Horatio's following command to slow down, all the way to their cabin to see for himself? Thomas barely slowed down long enough to open the cabin door, had flung himself at Archie's neck and held tight, laughing not much differently than Horatio and Archie had just a short time before.
"I knew it!" he had piped, in the happiest tone Horatio had ever heard from the child. "I knew it would work! Dr. Sebastian said it would!"
Horatio was a little puzzled, at first, wondering what Thomas was referring to. Then he remembered the prayers, and briefly considered the mysterious statue with its knowing smile. But, being a practical man, he knew there had to be a medical explanation rather than a mystical one; and so he had turned to Dr. Sebastian.
But the doctor confounded him. After expressing great joy at the news - as Horatio knew he would - Sebastian immediately insisted on looking at Archie's eyes, just to convince himself that no scarring or other damage had taken place. This Archie happily agreed to, and with Thomas in tow headed for the sick berth without delay.
"They are perfectly fine," Sebastian had said in pleased tones, gently lifting Archie's eyelids to examine beneath, "And I see no sign of infection. Do you still have your headache?"
"No. Well - a little," Archie had replied, and his eyes did look clear, clear and dancing like the blue waters of the sea. "But it's almost gone."
"Hm. And how is your vision?"
"Well - it was very blurry at first, but it's perfectly clear now...it's not going to go away, is it?"
Sebastian shook his head, "I have never heard of such a thing happening, no. Likely the blow to your head caused the blindness; I have seen such things before. But I was never so happy to see such an injury healed." He placed his hand on the side of Archie's face and smiled. "I thank God for it, Archie."
"Yes," Archie answered with a light laugh. "It's - I don't know, doctor, it's..."
Archie shrugged, shook his head, and gave up. Horatio, who still did not know what it was except a very happy accident, decided he was more comfortable leaving that thought unfinished. But he cast an appreciative glance toward the little statue in the doctor's cabin, just the same.
Pellew was overjoyed; word was sent to Fletcher, and he sent back a note of congratulations, and the invitation to call whenever the Indefatigable was in port. Along with Fletcher's note was another, a hastily scribbled missive from Horatio's father expressing not only deep concern for Archie's condition, but absolute hospitality for Archie and Thomas for as long as it was needed. Horatio showed the letter to Archie, who read it silently; then he handed it back to Horatio before turning away. Horatio was curious until he saw his friend dab at one eye with his finger; then he understood, and leaving Archie his dignity went to write another letter, a quite different letter, and tell his father of the - of the -
No, it was not a miracle. It was not, for Horatio was a practical man. But still -
- of the very fortunate occurrence that had taken place.
So, with all of the loose ends tied, the Indefatigable slipped her moorings and set sail once again, and as Horatio walked the deck and gazed at the shimmering sea around him he paused and, for the first time in a very long time, listened to the sounds that he had long taken for granted. Stopped and listened, and found silence in the lapping waves and creaking sails. Then, just for a moment because he *was* on watch, Horatio closed his eyes and felt the darkness around him. But it was not darkness; for even in that quiet, in that blackness, Horatio knew there was light. Knew it because he had seen it - but also because he could hear it, in two softly conversing voices far above him on the fighting top, a light of hope and life that Horatio didn't understand completely, but was thankful for nonetheless. Light passing on, one to another, one brother to another...
Horatio opened his eyes, and shook himself. The stars were clear, and the seas were ahead of them. And he had his watch. So he began to walk again.
But not so far that he would lose sight of those stars, or the light that they gave; and not so far that he could not hear the quiet voices, far above him...
"Very good, Thomas. You know more about the stars than I did at your age."
Silence. Then, "I'm glad you're back."
"It's very good to be back."
"I don't want that to ever happen again."
"Me neither, Thomas."
"It won't, will it?"
"Thomas, you know what Dr. Sebastian would say to that."
"That only God knows what's going to happen."
"I'll tell you what, Thomas. Horatio told me about this. See all those stars up there? Let's pick out two, one for each of us. You know, someday I may transfer to another ship, or you may become a captain; we can't stay at each other's side forever."
"But if we each choose a star, then when that time comes, I can look up from where I am, and you can do the same; and it will be as if we're right here, just as we are now. What do you think of that?"
"That one. That constellation. Castor and Pollux."
"Which one was younger?"
"Well, they were twins, Thomas. But - Pollux, I would imagine."
"Then I'll be him. And you can be Castor."
"If you like."
"I'm glad you're back."
"Thank you, Thomas. I am very glad you were there to show me the way."
There is in God - some say -
A deep, but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that Night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!