by Hillary Stevens
Resting his elbows on the ledge of the cell's window, Archie Kennedy studied the dark Spanish fort. The guard had just changed, making the hour at least two but possibly three given the lack of punctuality he had noted in their captors. Other than the measured step of the sentries on the outer walls and the occasional murmur of their voices, all was quiet. Yawning, he rested his chin on his folded arms. Since the sun had set, the air had started moving and now felt cooler against his skin, but the heat of the past few weeks had not relented. Even the thick stone walls had soaked in the heat, making the fourteen days of confinement in the small cell more unpleasant.
'If that were possible...' he thought drowsily.
Yesterday, though, had seen a change in their circumstances. Horatio had been released at last from the oubliette and had given Don Massaredo his parole not to escape. With that promise, all privileges had been returned to the imprisoned crewmen. Alerted by the cheers they heard coming from the ratings, he and Hunter had met Horatio at the door, taking hold of him as the guards unceremoniously dragged him in.
Their meals had also shown improvement over the leavings from the soldiers' mess they had suffered for the past fortnight, returning to the rations the guards themselves ate. Certainly not the finest cuisine, but the meals were at least eatable. Archie shuddered, remembering the day of cold, watery gruel which had answered his single protest about the food.
Pouring a cup of water from the pitcher they kept on the window ledge, he crouched down beside the single bunk. Horatio lay on his side, his legs still painfully cramped. He slept fitfully, never quite waking, yet not resting. Archie thought of the long weeks following his own time in the hole when he had awakened to the echoes of his own terrified cries. He shook his head. He had hoped it would not happen to Horatio, but the night terrors, the waking dreams plagued him.
Archie gently put a hand on his shoulder and whispered, "Horatio."
Dark eyes opened to mere slits under swollen lids and slowly focused on Archie's face. "Wh-what?" Horatio managed between badly chapped lips. He held a hand up to shield his eyes from the dim moonlight coming through the window.
Archie held up the cup. "I want you to drink this. Come on, I'll help you sit up." He slid an arm under Horatio's shoulders and raised him. Horatio reached for the cup with shaking hands, Archie helping him guide it to his mouth.
Taking a sip, Horatio sighed and closed his eyes. "Ah, that is good." He pushed the cup away, but Archie shook his head.
"More, if you please, Mr. Hornblower," he ordered in a tone and cadence familiar to everyone aboard Indefatigable.
Horatio managed a ghost of a smile. "Aye, aye, Captain."
Archie held the cup to his lips and watched him take another swallow. "I wonder where the Indy is right now," he said, trying to engage Horatio's attention long enough to finish the water. "Is she still patrolling the blockade? Has she sailed for England?"
"I'd wager she's bedeviling some Frogs," a voice from across the cell rejoined, "if the Captain has anything to say about it."
Archie smiled into the darkness as Horatio took another sip. "Ah, you're awake then, Mr. Hunter?"
"It's not much a night for sleep, Mr. Kennedy, not with this infernal heat. I was just thinking of standing on the quarterdeck during the Middle Watch. Right uncomfortable it was last winter, but on a night like this..."
Nodding, Archie raised the cup to Horatio's mouth again. "There's only a drop left," he encouraged, but Horatio shook his head and pushed the cup away. "Well, that will do for now."
As he tried to settle him more comfortably on the narrow bunk, Horatio's eyes drifted closed. Satisfied he was asleep, Archie set the cup back on the window ledge. In the dim light, he saw Hunter sitting on the edge of his bunk.
"Mr. Hunter, you really should sleep," he whispered.
"You haven't slept at all. I'll keep an eye on him," Hunter replied.
"If you're to recover your strength, you will need rest," Archie insisted.
Hunter shook his head and made his painful descent to the floor. "This leg of mine is plaguing me tonight, and you are asleep on your feet, man. I'll call you if you're needed."
He dragged himself to the rickety stool Archie had set beside the head of Horatio's bunk. He nodded toward the bunk below his own, and Archie gratefully stretched out on it. He had barely drawn a breath before he fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
Archie was on his feet before he came fully awake. For one horrifying instant, he thought Horatio was suffering from a fit. Precariously balanced on his good leg, Hunter attempted to hold him still. Horatio fought him, his eyes open but unfocused.
Leaning past Hunter, Archie put his hands on Horatio's shoulders and pinned him against the thin mattress. He looked at Hunter and met a gaze as panicked as his own. "What is happening?" he demanded.
"Nightmare and a bloody awful one. I can't wake him."
With all the calm he could muster, Archie ordered, "Horatio, wake up. Don't fight us." Horatio tried to pull away from his touch. "It's all right, Horatio," he tried again, "it's all right. You're back among us."
Slowly the dream's hold subsided, and Horatio quieted, falling deeply asleep. Hunter sank onto the stool, rubbing his wounded leg. Archie stood up and stretched, the muscles in his back protesting the angle at which he had been bending.
"Brave lad," Hunter offered into the quiet.
Archie poured a little water into the cup and handed it to him. "He is indeed."
Downing the water in a swallow, Hunter handed the cup back, and Archie poured himself a bit. "How did you endure a month in that hole?" he asked, leaning back against the wall.
Archie sat down on the floor against his bunk and rubbed his face with his hands. "Too stupid to give up."
"Too stubborn is more like it."
Archie glanced up in surprise. He had never considered it in that light and was surprised Hunter would. "Believe me, had I known what lay ahead on the first day they stuck me in there, I would have not survived. As it was, after the first week passed, the days ran one into the next until I couldn't remember a time I hadn't been in there. I couldn't envision ever living outside that hole or these walls." He paused, remembering the despair. "I lost all hope."
"But, when we arrived, surely it helped."
"I was certain I had well and truly lost my reason." He looked over at Horatio. "What were the chances of men from my old ship led by my closest friend arriving at an out-of-the-way Spanish prison? The odds are staggering."
Hunter nodded slowly. "Never looked at it that way."
Yawning, Archie agreed. "We're both in need of rest, Mr. Hunter. I believe our patient will sleep for a time."
Hunter nodded and limped over to their bunks. With Archie's help, he climbed into the upper one and stretched out. Archie lay down on his own bunk and listened to the sounds of the night outside their window as he kept watch.
The day dawned to the same blazing heat with which the previous one had ended. The sky was cloudless and the air perfectly still as the sun beat down on the parched earth. Although the exercise yard had little shade at any time during the day, it was nonexistent in the morning. The prisoners, though, hurried outside as soon as the guards unlocked their cells.
"Morning, sir," a few of the men murmured as Archie stepped into the dazzling light.
Blinded, Archie held a hand up to block the sun until his eyes grew accustomed to it. "Good morning."
"Sir, we was wonderin' how Mr. Hornblower was doin' today," Matthews asked.
Archie lowered his hand and realized he was in the center of the small group. "He seems more comfortable this morning."
Matthews nodded. "Take more than a spell in the hole to break him."
Their breakfast arrived with the clanging of the gate. Two guards carried in a large kettle of the expected gruel, handing each prisoner a bowl and a ration of water as he advanced through the line. As Archie sat down at the table the officers used, he heard the heavy metal gate open again. Don Massaredo's second-in-command appeared, followed by two more guards, one carrying a basket. Capitan Carlos Juan Luis Antonio Miguel de Rivera had been nicknamed Captain Whatever by the ratings, a term Archie found most fitting. From the oversized cockade on his hat to the perfectly polished shoes on his feet, he was a man obsessed by rank -- his own and everyone else's. His only desire was to achieve Don Massaredo's level of importance in the small world surrounding El Ferrol. He saw no reason, however, to exert himself in attaining that goal.
Archie arose and met the Captain halfway across the yard. He was aware that every man behind him had stopped eating to watch. A few had risen to their feet, and he sent them a warning glance over his shoulder. "Good morning, Captain."
"Good morning, Mr. Kennedy," the Captain said in his careful English as he dabbed his temples and lips with a lace-trimmed handkerchief. "Another hot day, I think we shall have."
"So it appears."
"I do not see Mr. Hornblower this morning."
"He is resting."
"Ah..." He straightened to his full height, putting the brim of his hat even with Archie's nose. "On the orders of His Excellency Don Massaredo..."
Archie braced himself to hear the full litany of the Don's titles. It happened whenever the Captain found the opportunity to announce them. He had heard them seven times since his arrival, and Horatio had already endured them an additional three. 'One more time,' he thought, 'and I will recite them as well.'
"...of the Third Order, I have brought oranges, Mr. Kennedy. His Excellency most graciously thought of his prisoners when informed the trees of his orchard were over-burdened with fruit. Were it not for his gracious " he paused, searching for the word.
"Graciousness?" Archie offered.
De Rivera glared at him. "Generosity, these would be given to His Excellency's pigs." He glanced at the man behind him and delicately gestured toward Archie with his handkerchief. The guard stepped forward and held out his burden.
Without turning, Archie called, "Styles!"
Moving to stand beside him, Styles asked, "Yes, Mr. Kennedy?"
"His Excellency has most graciously charged the esteemed Captain with personally supplying us with a most generous gift of oranges. Take them, please."
"Aye, aye, sir." Styles took the basket, then stood a step behind Archie on his right.
As the Captain watched the exchange, Archie read mistrust in his expression, as though he thought there might be mockery behind the exchange but could not quite decipher its meaning. For his part, Archie had chosen Styles knowing the man could be slyly insolent without giving anyone just cause to punish him. Finally bidding them a good day, the Captain turned and walked away. A moment later, the heavy gate clanged shut behind him.
"Well done, sir," Styles murmured as they turned back to the rest of the men.
Archie took an orange from basket. When he looked up, he saw the ratings were watching him. "Come on, men. We shall eat this fruit. The good captain informs me we have risen to a step above His Excellency's pigs, and I think we should celebrate it."
Oldroyd looked up, perplexed. "Celebrate, sir?"
Archie grinned. "We have the fruit, don't we?"
As he returned to his table, they fell upon the basket and, with good-natured arguing, each chose a piece. Putting aside his bowl of gruel, he peeled the orange and popped a section into his mouth. It was, after months of prison rations and two weeks of offal, an incredible treat.
As he swallowed the last piece, Hunter appeared beside him. "Mr. Hornblower is awake," he said, his eyes opening wide as he took in the men enjoying the fruit.
Anticipating his comment, Archie arose and walked over to the basket. Selecting the largest of the remaining oranges, he tossed it to his fellow midshipman. "A gift from His Excellency, Mr. Hunter. You'll find it superior to our diet of late."
Catching the fruit, Hunter looked at Archie and nodded his head to the right. The two of them walked to the far side of the yard together, away from the men still seated at their table.
"How is he?" Archie inquired, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed.
"Still not himself, from what I can tell."
Archie nodded. He had worried about this throughout the early hours of the morning as he waited for the sun to rise. "We must give him time, but this concerns me."
Horatio lay squinting up at the ceiling, thankful for a moment alone. Since his release, Archie had kept a constant watch over him. Throughout the long night and into the hours of dawn, whenever he had opened his eyes, Archie had been lying awake in his bunk. Although grateful for his care, Horatio found himself embarrassed by the need for it.
Every movement, it seemed, caused the muscles in his legs and back to cramp. Yesterday, the pain had been breathtaking in its severity. One cramp had led to another until he had thought the chorus of spasms would permanently cripple him. Throughout the long afternoon and evening, Archie had stayed beside him, kneading the muscles until the cramps released and forcing him to drink more than his share of the water. The few times Archie had not been there, Hunter had taken his place with a compassion which stunned Horatio. He had not said very much, but his touch was gentle and sure as he tried to settle Horatio more comfortably.
Taking his neckerchief and drenching it with water, he had wiped Horatio's face clean. It had felt impossibly cool and wet as he wiped away the rivulets of dirt.
"Good thing you have that razor, sir," he had murmured as he completed his task. "Perhaps tomorrow we'll put it to good use."
Now as he put his hand to his jaw, Horatio silently agreed. Two weeks' beard was unacceptable for an officer in His Majesty's Navy, even an imprisoned one. Moreover, he wanted to eradicate any trace of the past two weeks.
With every blink, he felt sand scratching the already raw surface of his eyes. The guards had amused themselves by kicking sand and pebbles down on him any time they passed the grate. Although he had ordered Archie not to, Archie had insisted on using part of their water ration to rinse them, but Horatio had not felt any improvement.
Along with all the physical aches was the unbearable knowledge of failure. Not of the escape, the odds of Hunter's plan succeeding were, at best, slim. It was his own failure at command which had tortured him throughout his stay in the oubliette.
He had lost Davy Williams to a French cannon and his own inability to insist the ship's surgeon see to the wounded sailor immediately. Too much time had been wasted in fruitless arguing, time Hepplewhite should have used to save Davy's life. Finch had died of fever and starvation at anchor off Gibraltar. A poor death for a man fifteen years aboard a fighting ship. Engrossed in his studies for the examination for lieutenant, he had not noticed when Finch had first grown weaker. If he had, he could have spoken to the Captain and begged some indulgence for the little man who had saved his life. Bunting he had killed with his own hand. Half mad with grief over Finch, some part of Bunting must have wished for rescue from his demons, of that Horatio had no doubt. And in not reaching him, he had again been remiss in his duty as both an officer and a man. Over the past two weeks, he had replayed those last minutes by the waterfall again and again. Bunting had been so desperate, so angry. The instant he had cocked the pistol and pointed it at the man, Horatio had effectively signed his death warrant -- the one Bunting had held out for so long. Now Johnson was dead after the failed escape and Hunter wounded, perhaps crippled for life. The plan had been a disaster from the first, but he had done nothing to stop it.
He beat his fist against the wall in frustration. Had he learned nothing from the officers around him? Captain Pellew would have sidestepped the traps Bunting had so cleverly laid and brought him safely home to England. With his easy manner and calm, Lieutenant Bracegirdle would have thwarted the escape attempt with a quiet word to the men. For the first time since leaving Gibraltar, Horatio found himself relieved he had so clearly failed the examination. He had brought only misery to his own division, what possible good could he do a ship's company?
The sound of footsteps coming along the corridor interrupted his thoughts. Archie, no doubt, come to bring him breakfast.
Archie had already endured so much. Months of imprisonment, first by the French and then by the Spanish. Horatio thought of that horrible instant in the jolly boat when he had struck Archie with the tiller. He still winced as he remembered the horrible thump the heavy slab of wood made when it struck Archie's skull. Now barely six weeks had passed since Archie had almost succeeded in starving himself to death. Horatio shook his head. Once again he had failed Archie, not seeing him grow weaker by the hour. Archie had held the men together during Horatio's absence, but Horatio knew he had not fully recovered and swore not to add any more to the burdens he already carried.
Archie grabbed an orange on his way inside. Pausing outside the open door of the cell, he looked in. Horatio's face gave away the melancholy nature of his thoughts. As Archie watched, he hit the rough hewn wall with his fist and shook his head in response to some inner quandary.
Turning away, Archie walked silently back along the corridor and then retraced his path to the cell door. Forcing himself to appear relaxed, he walked in, querying, "Are you awake, Horatio?"
Horatio raised his head, his expression far from the one he had worn just an instant before. "Good morning, Archie." He was still hoarse, and it was painful to listen to him.
"I have brought you an orange," Archie said, handing it to him and pulling the stool forward.
Pushing himself up so he sat with his back against the wall, Horatio looked first at the orange and then at Archie. "Where did this come from?"
"His Excellency's most excellent orchards. El Capitan paid a call this morning."
"Did he? He so rarely honors us with a visit."
"He did the Don's bidding with only two guards in attendance."
Horatio held the orange until Archie took it out of his hand and peeled it. "Isn't it a wonderful smell? It reminds me of Christmases as a child."
"Perhaps for the Kennedys. A country doctor could not afford such luxuries, even if they had been available."
"My grandmother sent a basket from her hothouses every year. How I looked forward to that. Cook always made certain I had one the moment I arrived from school." Handing him a section, Archie cautioned, "Eat this slowly. I'm not certain it is the best thing for your first meal."
Taking a bite, Horatio nodded. "It is good."
"You said that about the water last night."
Archie nodded. "I felt that way. I found myself dreaming of those soggy biscuits we had aboard Justinian. Just having something to eat was marvelous."
"I was in the hole during the spring rains. My problem was somewhat the reverse of yours."
Horatio looked away. Handing him another piece of orange, Archie tried, "The men asked after you this morning."
"They are well?"
"And in good spirits. Came through without a hitch, according to Matthews. Although I do not envy Oldroyd."
Archie leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Styles and Matthews had both warned him not to throw his lot in with Hunter. When the plan failed..."
Horatio chewed thoughtfully. "Justice was meted out."
"Swiftly and continuously, if I know Styles."
"You must keep an eye on Styles, Archie. He will not relent. Matthews does his best, but it is best to let Styles know you are watching. As for Oldroyd, has he learned his lesson?"
Archie hid the grin he felt starting. One way to engage Horatio's attention was to mention the men. "Without a doubt."
"What of Mr. Hunter's leg?"
"Still paining him although he does not complain of it. He exercised it as best he could in here. He dreads being left behind when the time comes for our escape."
"And you, Archie?"
Archie shrugged. "I am quite well. Bored to distraction by our confinement, but otherwise well."
Horatio swallowed a yawn. "Everything is in good order. Well done, Archie."
"I did very little. We have all endured as best we could." Archie set the stool back against the wall. Horatio's eyes were already drifting closed. "Is there anything you require?" he inquired as he helped him lie down.
"Hmm? No, thank you..."
In the late hours of the afternoon, the prisoners sat in small groups in the shadows of the high walls, quietly talking. On cooler days, the ratings had thrown dice of their own making or made wagers on the progress of insects climbing the walls, but today it was simply too hot to do more than sit.
After the long sleepless night, Archie had dozed off. When the outer gates clanged open, Matthews awoke him with a touch on his arm.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, nodding toward the gate. "We're about to have some company."
"Well, I doubt it is Captain de Rivera returning." Archie stood and dusted himself off as the inner gates opened.
Don Massaredo himself appeared without the escort of guards the Captain felt imperative to his safety. A single man followed him, dressed in a severe black coat and carrying a leather bag.
"Good afternoon, Your Excellency," Archie said as he walked across the yard.
"Mr. Kennedy, I hope I see you well?"
"I wondered if I might see Mr. Hornblower," Don Massaredo said.
Archie blinked. A jailer requesting to see one of his prisoners as if this were a social call?
"If that would be possible?" the Don pressed.
"Of -- of course, Your Excellency. He is lying down." Archie led the two men to their cell.
Horatio was asleep when they entered. Archie leaned over him and gently touched his shoulder. "Horatio, you have visitors."
"I do?" Horatio mumbled, still dazed with sleep. With his hair falling in untidy curls from its queue and his collar undone, he looked no older than fifteen.
"How are you, Mr. Hornblower?" Don Massaredo inquired.
Archie hid a smile as Horatio sat up at attention. Anyone else would look ridiculous, but he managed to look like an officer.
"Good afternoon, Your Excellency. I am well, thank you."
His Excellency stepped closer to the bunk and looked at the young man through his quizzing glass. "Forgive me, but you do not appear well."
"I am recovering, sir."
"Ah yes, the resilience of youth." He put his hand under Horatio's chin and tilted his head to the light. As the sunlight touched his face, Horatio jerked away. "The light bothers your eyes, I see."
Archie felt a hot wave of anger sweep over him. Although His Excellency had practically begged Horatio not to take the responsibility for the escape attempt upon himself, Horatio had insisted, and the Don had ordered his punishment. This then was the man responsible for the torment Horatio had endured for two weeks. How dare he act surprised upon seeing the results?
As he opened his mouth, Archie felt Horatio's hand on his leg and looked down at him. There was an order in those dark eyes not to speak, and Archie nodded his assent as he turned away to the window.
"This is my personal physician, Doctor Montoya," the Don continued. "Perhaps you will allow him to examine your eyes."
"I am recovering, sir," Horatio insisted. "I would only waste the doctor's time."
His Excellency shrugged and gestured toward the man. "He has ridden here on a hot afternoon, Mr. Hornblower. Would you have him come all this way for nothing?"
"No, of course not."
"Then it is decided." He turned to the doctor and spoke a few words in Spanish. "He does not speak English, so I shall stay and translate."
"Mr. Kennedy speaks -- "
Setting his bag on the end of the bunk, the doctor said a few words to Don Massaredo who laughed.
"He finds you quite stubborn."
Archie turned from the window to watch as Doctor Montoya took Horatio's head gently between his hands and tilted his face toward the light.
"You must stay still and keep your eyes open," His Excellency translated. "This will not take long."
One of the doctor's hands cupped the back of Horatio's head to keep him from moving. Horatio gasped as the doctor opened each eye in turn, leaning down to peer into it.
Archie moved to stand beside the cot. "Here, squeeze my hand." The resulting pressure elicited a hiss of pain.
Clucking sympathetically, Montoya completed his examination. As he reached for his bag, Horatio sagged, tears pouring from his eyes. Archie put a hand on his shoulder as he gently opened and closed his damaged hand behind his back.
His Excellency strolled around the cell, pausing to look out the window. Picking up the pitcher, he peered in. "You have no water."
"We have finished our morning ration, Don Massaredo," Archie told him.
"That is nonsense in this awful heat! Who ordered such a thing?" He turned and called for the guard. Shoving the pitcher into the man's hands, he barked out an order. The man blanched then ran from the room. "Whose order was this?" he repeated.
"We have been on half rations for the two weeks."
"But you are no longer."
The doctor said something in his quiet way, and His Excellency walked to the window and called out another order. When the guard returned with a full pitcher, he was accompanied by one of his comrades who carried a basin of water, taking care not to spill any.
"The doctor wishes to cleanse your eyes, Mr. Hornblower. They will grow worse if he does not."
Archie thought Horatio looked more willing to return to the oubliette than have his eyes tended. He watched the doctor sprinkle a powder into the basin of water and stir until it dissolved. Murmuring quietly in Spanish, he dipped a clean cloth in the basin and, holding Horatio's chin in one hand, gently held the cloth to his eyes. Archie winced as he heard Horatio's sharp intake of breath.
"I think it is more difficult for you, Mr. Kennedy, to watch these things."
Archie shook his head. "No, he is the one who must endure this, not I."
"Ah, but you must observe your friend's pain."
When the doctor finished, Horatio's eyes looked painfully red, but less swollen. Opening a small pot of salve, the man applied some to each eye and then unrolled the bandage he had taken from his bag.
Seeing it, Archie protested, "No, por favor, Signor!"
Don Massaredo turned back from the window. "A problem, Mr. Kennedy?"
"Yes, Your Excellency. Is it necessary to bandage his eyes?"
"I am certain it is only protect them, Mr. Kennedy."
Archie paused and tried to think of a diplomatic answer. When none came to mind, he plunged on. "He has endured days of bright sunlight, sir. Now the doctor would have him endure darkness. I know I could not bear it."
Looking from Archie's worried face to Horatio's now distressed one, Don Massaredo spoke to the doctor. There was a quick discussion, then the doctor rolled up the bandage and put it away. Closing the pot of salve, he gave it to Archie along with a few envelopes of powder and the cloth he had used, issuing a few rudimentary instructions for their use. Archie understood most of what he said, asking questions in Spanish to clarify. The doctor smiled. Turning to His Excellency, he said something so rapidly Archie caught only a few words.
"Doctor Montoya is impressed with your command of our language, Mr. Kennedy. He wishes he understood as much of yours."
Archie smiled and half-bowed to the doctor. "Signor, usted es la mayoría de la clase."
Pleased with Archie's graceful acknowledgement, Don Massaredo smiled. "I will bid you good day then, Mr. Hornblower. I hope to see you well soon."
"Thank you, Your Excellency."
"Mr. Kennedy, if I might have a word?"
Archie nodded. "Of course. Horatio, I will return immediately."
Once they were in the yard, Don Massaredo spoke to one of the guards who hurried away. Turning to Archie, he said, "I think we should perhaps move Mr. Hornblower out of his cell. He would benefit from a few days of the doctor's care. Doctor Montoya feels there is a great chance for infection to set in."
"Your Excellency, I doubt he would agree to such a proposal."
"I had hoped you, as his friend, would convince him."
Archie shook his head. "Even if I were to try, sir, I am certain he would not consent."
Don Massaredo gave an elegant shrug. "I thought you would say as much. I will keep an eye on his recovery, though. Should I feel it necessary, I will move him to other quarters."
Their conversation ended with the appearance of the sergeant of the guard. The man arrived breathless, still buttoning his tunic. His Excellency demanded to know why the prisoners' water rations had not increased since their release from confinement. After first staring at him, openly dumbfounded by the question, the sergeant looked at Archie for help. With a disgusted wave of his hand, the Don issued an order to have a cask of water immediately brought to the yard and kept full thereafter.
Archie escorted Don Massaredo and Doctor Montoya to the inner gates, thanking them for their visit. The doctor said nothing but bowed. Archie bowed in return.
"I will be watching," His Excellency told him as the gates swung open, "and not only Mr. Hornblower's health. I have had some interesting reports about you, Mr. Kennedy."
When the gates clanged closed behind them, Archie let out the breath he had been holding and hurried back to the cell. Horatio had not moved since he had left.
"What did he want?"
"He is worried about you, Horatio. He wants to move you from here until you are recovered."
"That is exactly what I told him you would say. He agreed that you will remain here as long as you continue to improve."
"Then I must endeavor to do so." His movements stiff and painful, Horatio swung his legs over the side of the bunk.
"What are you about?"
"Help me stand, Archie."
"I do not believe you are ready!"
"Nevertheless." Putting his hand on the wall, he managed to drag himself erect. Archie sprang forward and steadied him as he swayed. When he finally balanced, Archie let go and stepped back. Horatio started to say something, but his legs, still weak from confinement, gave way. Archie caught him just before he hit the ground.
"I warn you, do not say 'I told you so'," Horatio advised when he regained his breath.
"Not I." Archie helped him back onto the bunk and shook his head. "You cannot rush these things, Horatio." Archie sat down on the edge of the bunk, his eyes serious and dark. "No one knows better than I what you have gone through. You will endanger your health if you overtax yourself."
"I will run mad if I do not have some activity."
"You must take things slowly. You cannot spend two weeks in that hole and expect to pick up where you left off. You have been sadly mistreated."
Horatio looked down at his hands. "I am tired, Archie."
"Then I will leave you to rest," Archie arose and walked to the doorway. "I warn you, though, His Excellency will not be the only one watching your progress."
The evening meal was served, as always, after the guards had finished theirs. It was a relief to have the food arrive after the sun started its descent behind the highest tower. As hungry as they all were, Archie doubted anyone could have eaten in the heat of late afternoon. He took a plate before sitting down with Hunter.
"I could use one of them oranges," Oldroyd commented as he looked at the plate of stew he had been given.
"Dead right about that," Matthews said. "It's too bloody hot for this tonight."
Styles put his spoon down with a clatter. "Bloody dagos with their bloody mut'n. What I wouldn't give for a bit o' beef."
"Can't blame them," Hunter said quietly to Archie. "I'd like some beef myself."
Archie nodded and forced himself to eat another mouthful. "This is dreadful stuff, especially if this is indeed the same food the guards eat."
"I'd have the cook at the gratings straight away."
"I was thinking of flogging round the fleet myself." Archie pushed the plate away and drank deeply from his cup. "Fresh water, though."
"Aye, that it is. Not something we get on the Indy, eh?" Hunter glanced at the ratings who were talking amongst themselves. "What did Don Massaredo want with Mr. Hornblower, then?"
"He brought his doctor to examine Mr. Hornblower."
Hunter almost dropped his cup. "You're having me on!"
"No, His Excellency is most concerned with his recovery."
"Is he now?" Hunter shook his head. "Will wonders never cease?"
"Your surprise is no greater than mine," Archie allowed. "It was as if he were paying a social call."
"First the Governor of Gibraltar, then the Duchess, now Don Massaredo. Mr. Hornblower certainly keeps good company." Glancing up, Hunter looked stricken. "I didn't mean -- "
Archie shook his head. "I understand, Mr. Hunter. Although Horatio is the last person who would attempt to curry favor, it seems others would foist it upon him."
"Excuse me, Mr. Kennedy."
"I wondered if I might take Mr. Hornblower's food in to him. I've finished me own, and I see his is growing cold."
Archie nodded, handing Matthews the tin plate he had set aside. "He may be awake by now. I doubt he will manage the...ah...stew, but encourage him to eat some bread. He has not had more than a few pieces of orange since his release."
"It's this damn bloody heat, ain't it?" Styles offered from his place at the next table. Seeing Archie's eyes on him, he added, "Sir."
"Belay that, Styles," Archie warned. "Complaining about the weather won't improve it. Sooner or later, it will rain. Until then we must simply endure the heat."
"Aye, aye, sir."
When Archie looked up, he surprised a gleam in Matthews' eyes. "Go along then, Matthews," he ordered.
"Aye, aye, Mr. Kennedy."
He was drowning. His lungs burned, and he fought the urge to let out the bit of air they still held. Above him, the hot sun beat down on the ocean's calm surface, but here, all was still and cold. It drew the remaining strength from him as he drifted down toward the seabed. His arms and legs were growing heavy and numb, refusing to propel him upward. Finch had saved him off the Papillon. Where was he now? Remembering was too difficult an undertaking. There was something he needed to do, something he needed to find, but he could not recollect what it was. That thought faded as he finally allowed himself to exhale and draw a breath.
"Wake up. There's a good lad."
Still caught in the dream, Horatio heard the familiar voice echo around him. It was comforting here in the growing darkness, but it also brought a renewed sense of concern. He was neglecting his duty in some way.
"Come on then, open your eyes."
It was supremely difficult, but Horatio obeyed. He couldn't stop the gasp for air which escaped him as he tried to focus his eyes. "Archie?"
"No, sir. It's Matthews, come to bring your supper."
"Matthews," Horatio repeated, struggling to sit up. He could not shake the terror of his dream, the awful sense of the water closing over him. In the same instant, he was horrified that anyone had seen his weakness.
"Let me help you," Matthews said. He settled Horatio with his back against the wall, then turned away to pick up the plate and cup from the seat of the stool.
Horatio, valuing the man's discretion, used the moment to quiet his thoughts. As he had in the oubliette, he reviewed the facts of the matter -- he was in a prison on the coast of Spain in early summer in command of seven of his shipmates. Just being in possession of this knowledge calmed him, and his breathing slowed.
"How are you, Matthews?" he inquired, surprised his voice did not waver.
"We're all fine, Mr. Hornblower." Matthews handed the cup of water to him. "Just you have a drink o' that, sir. Nice 'n fresh it is from Don Massaredo's well."
Horatio did as he was bidden. The water was not cold, but cool enough in the awful heat. "Thank you," he murmured.
"Try a bit o' bread," Matthews encouraged, setting the cup on the floor next to his foot.
Horatio looked at the small hunk the sailor had ripped off and shook his head. "I think not."
Matthews looked at the coarse, dry bread and then at Horatio. "I know it ain't the best thing, sir, but we've eaten worse."
"I have no appetite."
"Aye, you got out o' the habit." He gestured toward the rest of the plate, and Horatio felt his stomach flip. "I wouldn't be insistin' you eat this slop, sir. None o' us've touched more than a mouthful, not even Oldroyd." He held out the bread again. "I'm just askin' for the bread. You need to start buildin' up your strength."
Horatio took the food from Matthews' hand and read quiet determination in the man's eyes. Finally, he took a bite. The bread was dry and hard. The taste assured him it had been baked weeks earlier and stored in the damp caves just above the water line along the beach.
"Some water, sir," Matthews said, holding the cup out.
Horatio drank deeply, trying to swallow the bread which threatened to choke him. Before it was half gone, he was exhausted from the effort of chewing and swallowing. He continued with dogged determination.
"That's enough for you, Mr. Hornblower," Matthews finally said. "You ate most of it. Don't want to take on too much for your first meal."
Horatio took the metal cup and drained the last bit out. He let out a tired sigh as he handed it back.
"Would you like to get some rest, then?"
Horatio shook his head. "I would like some fresh air, Matthews."
"I'll just ask Mr. Kennedy, sir."
"Help me up, Matthews," Horatio demanded.
Matthews stood and walked to the door. "Let me ask Mr. Kennedy," he repeated.
"I gave you an order! Mr. Kennedy is no longer in command." Horatio heard the petulance in his tone, but could not contain it.
"Beggin' your pardon, sir, but you ain't in much of a condition -- "
"That is hardly your concern, Matthews!"
"What is going on in here?" Archie asked as he walked through the door. "Why are you shouting, Horatio?"
"Mr. Hornblower wants to go out to the yard, Mr. Kennedy," Matthews reported. "I thought it best if I was to check with you."
"You are dismissed, Matthews!" Horatio snapped.
Matthews looked first at him, then at Archie. Archie nodded his head toward the door, and he left.
"Well?" Archie inquired softly.
Horatio looked away. "My apologies, Archie. My disposition seems rather uncertain at the moment."
"As could well be expected, given the events of the past fortnight." Archie walked to the window and looked out into the gathering darkness. His hands were clasped behind his back, and he rocked back on his heels for an instant as if he felt the movement of a ship beneath his feet. "This is your command, Horatio."
"Archie, it was my temper speaking!"
Archie continued as if he had not heard the protest. "Last night Hunter asked me how I endured a month in that hole."
"I have wondered that as well." He turned toward Archie, wishing he could see his face clearly in the darkening night.
Archie continued looking out the window as he answered. "I was in there by myself, Horatio. I had no other concern than making it through the next minute, the next hour, the next day."
"As did I."
"No, you took all of us with you. You did not have the luxury of worrying solely about yourself, as I did. I could have given up at any time, but perhaps, as Hunter says, I was simply too stubborn. You had no choice. You had to survive, don't you see? You had to survive for the rest of us. Hunter is unfit to command, and I -- "
"You assumed command!" Horatio protested.
"I have been away for a very long time. The men obeyed me because you told them they must. Now you have returned, and the quarterdeck is yours once more." He turned from the window, and Horatio could just make out a gentle smile on his lips. "They -- we are all concerned about you, Horatio. When Matthews deferred to me, it was due only to his affection for you. Have you forgotten that these are men who cannot disobey an officer? A friend, however, may intercede regardless of rank."
Horatio looked down at his hands, then back at Archie. "I will apologize to Matthews for my behavior."
Archie nodded. "Do you still wish to take the air, Mr. Hornblower?"
"It is nearly full dark, so, as your acting physician, I see no problem having you go outside. I will get Styles and Oldroyd to assist you."
"Could you not..."
"Let them." Archie left the cell, and Horatio heard him call the two sailors. In a moment, he returned with them in tow.
"Evenin', sir." Styles said, knuckling his forehead.
Oldroyd hesitated but, after a glare from Styles, ventured, "Good t' see you, sir."
"If you could assist Mr. Hornblower to the yard?" Archie asked.
Styles stepped forward. "I'll jus' carry you, shall I, sir?"
"I shall see you at the gratings first!" Horatio told him, but a smile softened the words. "If you would just help me stand. Mr. Kennedy doubts my ability to do so."
"Through the evidence of my own eyes," Archie replied. "Oldroyd, support Mr. Hornblower on his left. Styles, on his right."
From the first instant they had him on his feet, Horatio knew he would disgrace himself by collapsing. The blood drained from his head, leaving him faint and dizzy. The cell dissolved into white light, and he closed his eyes against the brightness of it. His legs protested the increase in circulation with excruciating pain, folding under his weight.
From a great distance, he heard Archie's voice. What was he saying? It was not until a cup of water was pressed to his lips that Horatio realized he was lying flat. When he came to himself again, he heard Oldroyd's quiet question. "All righ' then, sir?"
Managing a nod, he replied, "Fine."
Archie's face emerged from the darkness. "Too much for one day, Horatio. We will try again tomorrow."
"Yes, tomorrow." Horatio tried to focus. "Styles?"
"Would you ask Matthews to come in? I must speak to him."
"Horatio, you're exhausted. That will wait until morning."
Horatio tried to sit up, but strong hands held him still. "Now, please, Styles."
"Aye, aye, sir."
He heard water pouring and the rustle of paper, and squinted through the gloom. "Archie?"
"It's time to bathe your eyes again. Oldroyd, would you move that stool next to Mr. Hornblower's bunk?"
As gentle as Archie was, the pain was breathtaking. Oldroyd dismissed himself to wait in the corridor.
"I know it's painful, Horatio, but -- "
"It is necessary," Horatio panted. His hands found the wooden frame of the cot and gripped it until his knuckles turned white. When Archie finally deemed the process to be at an end, Horatio exhaled the breath he had been holding.
"They are much improved. I will put the salve on before you go to sleep." Picking up the bowl, he started out of the cell.
"Archie," Horatio called after him.
Archie turned, one eyebrow lifted in question.
"It is no more than you have done for me."
Matthews and Oldroyd stood together quietly talking in the corridor as Archie left the cell. In the faint light, he was surprised to see Oldroyd was deathly pale.
Matthews straightened up and glanced toward the door. "Is it all right to go in, Mr. Kennedy?"
"Yes, he is waiting for you. Matthews, take care he doesn't exhaust himself further."
"Aye, aye, sir." The sailor nodded to Oldroyd and disappeared into the darkened cell.
"I'll take that, Mr. Kennedy," Oldroyd offered, and Archie handed over the bowl to a pair of remarkably shaky hands.
"Oldroyd, are you all right?" Archie asked as they walked toward the outer door.
Oldroyd almost slopped the contents of the bowl on himself as he looked at Archie in surprise. "Sir?"
"You're white as a sheet, man, and your hands are shaking."
Oldroyd stared at the bowl as if its contents contained the answer he sought. "It's Mr. 'ornblower, sir," he finally mumbled.
"I'm responsible for what happened t' him, just like Styles says. All that torture he went through is because o' me."
"Oldroyd, Mr. Hornblower doesn't blame -- "
"That's it, sir! I'd feel a mite bet'er if he was angry with me. I deserve it." He shook his head. "I don't know wha' I was thinkin' listenin' to Mr. Hunter."
"You were desperate, Oldroyd, and desperate men often do things of which they are not proud afterwards."
"But I'm one o' 'is division, sir!"
Archie put a hand on his shoulder. "Oldroyd, listen to me. You made a mistake. No matter how much you wish it, you cannot call it back. Mr. Hornblower will mend, and when he is recovered, he will get us out of this place. All of us."
Oldroyd's face split into a grin. "That's what Matty says!"
"Our job until then is to help him in any way we can. He has suffered, and it will be a time before he is healed." Archie smiled. "Indeed he may need you as his crutch for the next few days."
"Not a problem, sir!"
"But the last thing Mr. Hornblower wants is to have any of us dwelling on what happened or what might have happened. He expects we will follow orders and do what is expected of us. Do you understand?"
"Aye, Mr. Kennedy, I do."
"Then empty that bowl, and rejoin your mates. It seems we have been given leave to enjoy the night air." Archie watched Oldroyd walk away and suddenly felt weary to his bones. He dropped onto the ground beside Hunter and sighed.
"Everything all right, then?" Hunter inquired.
"For the moment, at least.. Matthews is with Horatio now, but I hope he will soon be asleep." Archie leaned back and rested his head against the wall. "It is a beautiful night, Mr. Hunter."
"Indeed, Mr. Kennedy."
Archie watched the sailors playing some game of chance they had created. The prize was the single orange left over from the morning's basket. It seemed to be making the rounds as one won it, then lost it to another. Matthews rejoined the group, nodding to Archie as he took his place among them.
"Mr. Hunter," Archie inquired, "may I ask you a question?"
Hunter turned to look at him. "A question?"
"We have been imprisoned now for quite a some time, and it has just occurred to me that I don't know your Christian name."
Hunter paused for so long that Archie thought he had been ignored.
"My name is Tresillian." He turned to Archie and shrugged. "Don't use it much."
"I -- I have never heard that before. Is it...?" Archie paused, unsure how to finish.
"Cornish, it is. My ma was born in Cornwall. She gave my brothers and me names from there." His eyes flicked away to watch the sentry on the wall. "Could be worse, though."
"You don't have a brother called 'Land's End', do you?" Archie asked.
Surprised, Hunter looked at him and then started to laugh. It was, to Archie's ears, a rusty wheeze, as if this man rarely allowed himself amusement of any kind. He saw the ratings look up from their game and then at each other.
"'Land's End'," Hunter chuckled. "I ain't heard that one before. I'll write that to Ma when we get out of here."
"Are there many of you?"
"I have five brothers living," Hunter replied.
"All in the Navy?" Archie inquired, studying the stars that were starting to appear overhead.
"Nah, just me. My oldest brother's a fisherman. Our uncle took him on and apprenticed him when he was nine. The others are all mining coal in Yorkshire. That's what our da did as well."
"Is that where you lived?"
"We grew up wherever Da could find work. He had a temper and a bit of a problem with the drink." Picking up a stone, Hunter rolled it between his hands. "I started in the pits on my eighth birthday, then ran off when I was twelve or so. Lived rough until I was fifteen. Then I joined up."
Archie continued his inspection of the night sky. "What ships have you been on?" he inquired. "You must have joined Indefatigable shortly after my departure."
"A month after, from what I've heard. Before that, there was Valiant, and Tiger before her."
"Brave sounding ships," Archie commented idly. In one corner of his exhausted mind, he marveled at the ease of their conversation. Even in the close confinement of the past two weeks, they had not spoken more than a few words and those out of necessity.
Again Hunter surprised him with a chuckle. "Aye, at least in name."
The clang of the gates announced the arrival of the sergeant of the guard. He said a few words in Spanish and looked expectantly at Archie.
"Gentlemen!" Archie called across the yard.
There was some grumbling as men arose and started to make their way into the cells for the night. A few stopped at the water cask, filling the cups they had kept from dinner. Archie and Hunter followed them in, each with his own thoughts. As they reached their cell door, Archie heard Hunter murmur "Land's End" and quietly chuckle. The sound was not unpleasant.
"You, Mr. Hornblower, are a disgrace to this ship and to this navy!"
Pellew's words echoed in the close confines of his cabin. Standing at attention, Horatio fought the desire to protest. From the corner of his eye, he saw Lt. Bracegirdle and Mr. Bowles standing to his left, their faces grave. His head ached with the effort of trying to recollect what his infraction had been.
"So you offer no defense, do you?" Pellew continued.
Swallowing hard, Horatio answered, "N-no, sir."
"I suspected as much." Pellew walked to the windows and stared out at the gray sea beyond and the leaden sky above it. "You showed much promise, Mr. Hornblower. Perhaps it is my fault, I thought you could be taught."
"You shouldn't blame yourself, Captain," Bracegirdle interjected. "You gave him more than his share of opportunities. He failed them all."
Shaking his head, Pellew picked up the piece of paper from his desk and reread it. "To be a bad officer is one thing, but to cause the deaths of men under your command? Seven die, but one lives. How can that be explained? There is only one conclusion any honorable man can reach. Cowardice, sir, cowardice!"
Horatio's head reeled. Dead? Archie, Matthews, Styles -- all of them -- dead? It couldn't be. He put a hand on the back of a chair and steadied himself.
"Sir, I do not understand -- "
Pellew crossed the cabin in three strides, standing so close that Horatio instinctively took a step away. "Nor do I, Mr. Hornblower. A simple mission and only one man -- the officer in charge -- returns. There is no explanation which would satisfy why that would be so."
"Sir, if I might have a moment -- "
"Permission denied!" Pellew stalked back to the windows, nodding to Bowles. "As you will, Mr. Bowles."
Bowles grabbed Horatio's arm and dragged him from the cabin. In the passageway, two marines took up positions on either side of them. The ship's company awaited him on deck, and he felt the hate radiating from the angry men. Hail struck him with hard, icy pellets, and he realized they had taken away his coat and shoes. It was cold, damnably cold. His teeth began chattering as he climbed the steps to the quarterdeck. He slipped and fell hard, tasting blood as Bowles yanked him to his feet.
The rest of Indefatigable's officers were already assembled, Eccleston, Chad and Clayton standing in their ranks. Clayton stepped forward and tied Horatio's hands behind his back. As he yanked the knot taut, he hissed, "I did not die a coward, Horatio. I regret only that I died protecting one."
Shaking with cold and fear, Horatio turned to him, but Clayton walked back to his place without another word. The marines jerked Horatio back, forcing him to face the crew. It was not the well-ordered, disciplined ranks of men he knew, but a faceless riot jeering him from their places below. The derision and taunts deafened him, and he barely heard Pellew read out the indictment. "Dishonor...disgrace...cowardice in the face of the enemy...to be executed..." Handing the parchment to Bracegirdle, Pellew drew his sword. Harsh hands forced Horatio to his knees, and he looked up at the topgallant, praying for the strength not to humiliate himself further. The hail stung his face as he waited for the stroke of the blade. They were dead, his men were all dead...