Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space--were it not that I have bad dreams.

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet

 

PART THREE: "Past and Present"

 

Two more days until London.

Archie exhaled deeply, descending stiff-legged from the carriage. They had made good time, traveling this far in just under a week. Despite the speed, the journey had been long and uncomfortable--and not merely in the physical sense.

Jamieson had spent much of the time withdrawn into brooding silence. Rory, actually inhibited for once by the prevailing mood of his elders, had only made desultory attempts at conversation for most of the journey and had alternated between sleeping and staring out the window. Archie found he was engaged in that pursuit very often himself, when he wasn't reading to the point of developing a headache. His final avenue of distraction from the tedium of the journey was speculation about his colleagues in the other carriage.

When the two groups reunited during the infrequent stops, the forbidding mood lingered on. Laura Grant and Caillean still appeared to be clinging together, Ferguson hovering nearby. And Carmichael . . .

The previous morning the commander had joined Archie's group in their carriage. For nearly an hour he had drilled Rory fiercely on the coastal towns of the Iberian Peninsula; the boy had managed--barely--to keep pace. Archie had braced himself to be the next target for scrutiny---possibly with regard to mathematical ciphers---but Carmichael had lapsed into silence after Rory's "examination", staring out the window as if assessing an enemy troop massing for the field.

At the midday stop he had rejoined the carriage with Ferguson and the women. Archie, exhaling in silent relief, had found his eyes meeting those of the usually taciturn Jamieson and felt himself almost smile at what must have been their identical expressions. Even Rory was wide-eyed with surprise.

"I don't know if I've ever seen him this way," Archie mused doubtfully. "As angry as this --?" he glanced at Rory who shook his head.

"I haven't, either," the former housebreaker answered. At Archie's raised eyebrows, he colored faintly but stood his ground. "No, not even that time."

"What I wonder," Jamieson came out of his silence," is if he's drinking. It would be interesting if he is, and even more interesting if he's not."

Archie stared at the older agent in patent surprise.

"But," he began, and then stopped. Although Carmichael's taste and capacity for whiskey was a joke among the division, Archie realized that he had never seen his commanding officer in an inebriated state that was anything more than lively.

"Not to incapacity," Jamieson agreed into the quiet that had fallen. "But he's been known to take a drink when things are bad. He won't drink at all when things are dangerous. Which suggests so many possibilities about this London mission." He paused, frowning, and glanced briefly out the window at the countryside. "I've only just remembered. Smith should be there."

Rory made a sound that resembled a growl. Archie looked up curiously.

"Smith?"

"Agent Smith. Agent-Commander Miss Smith," the other elaborated. "She's a division leader in London, now; the last time she was up in Edinburgh was maybe three years ago. About six months before you came," he nodded to Archie. "Rory'd remember her."

Rory growled again. "She and Carmichael--"

"Have interesting conversations," Jamieson finished. "I wonder what will happen this time?"

"What do they talk about?" Archie asked.

"The last time, it was over how she beats Carmichael at cards. It drives him mad. She says she cheats."

Archie stared, puzzled. "She . . . cheats?"

Among gentlemen, the accusation alone was grounds for mortal challenge. Horatio, he recalled with a reminiscent chill, had meant to fight Jack Simpson in a duel, ostensibly for that very reason.

"She says she cheats," Jamieson corrected. "Carmichael's never caught her at it. He'll say he's not the cleverest player--which could be true--but it makes him daft that he can't spot the tricks she's playing. So he says she's not--and they argue. And no one else can tell, either way!"

*****

Elderly agent-commanders who were somehow killed in action, other veteran female agents who claimed to cheat at cards---the London circle of Kilcarron's subordinates sounded a highly varied lot. Archie puzzled over it while they waited for supper in the inn's private parlor. The women had retired early and were having their evening meal in one bedroom, but Ferguson and Carmichael had joined Archie and his companions. There was silence around the table until nearly the end of the meal.

"When did it happen?" Jamieson asked, with the air of one poking a long stick into the lion's cage.

"It'd be nearly two weeks now."

"And how?" The stick poked between the bars again.

"A knife, they said." Carmichael was frowning.

The stick was acquiring tooth marks but prodded once more. "What else do they know?" Jamieson persisted

"What else do you need to know?" Carmichael snapped. The stick was promptly reduced to kindling and splinters. "It happened, we're a commander down, and there's an end to it!"

Even Jamieson was silenced by that outburst. Archie looked down and busied himself with his bread plate.

Mouth shut, eyes down, try and make yourself unseen . . . how often had he and Horatio had to resort to that strategy on Renown? Avoid being noticed, show nothing on your face--he was better at that now. And Carmichael wasn't Sawyer; anger was making him volatile but not irrational. Yet, as the heavy silence resumed, that thought brought no comfort. Perhaps even more disturbing: that their usually rock-steady leader was turning unpredictable. It took little deductive reasoning to guess Carmichael was in a near-killing rage with someone. Not Jamieson, not Archie, not any of their companions: someone in London, perhaps? And what had Commander Seaton been to Carmichael, that her loss was affecting him so intensely? Though not only him, if the other agents' reactions were anything to judge by. Once again, Archie felt the frustration of not knowing enough, of missing something vital to understanding the puzzle.

*****

"A commander down."

The words resonated again and again in Archie's mind, evoking uneasy memories as he retired to bed upstairs. Rory, sharing the room with him, fell asleep almost immediately, but slumber eluded Archie. The mattress was surprisingly hard but he had experienced worse--and after some tossing and turning, he felt his eyelids growing heavy and thankfully let them close.

"A commander down."

Down, down, down -- into the darkness of the hold, darting through the narrow passages, seeking cover among the barrels and crates. Deliberately rattling the grate to draw the hunt after him . . .

And somewhere in that darkness, hiding . . . two comrades, unexpectedly cornered.

An attempt at flight, overheard by the wrong ears and a much older voice barking a command. "Stay where you are!"

Then, horribly, those authoritative tones turning plaintive and querulous. "My men. Where are my true men?"

A split-second decision and he had made his own move, pushing open a door and stepping into what there was of the light. "Sir?" he began tentatively, advancing with caution and trying to appear small and insignificant--as he had learned years ago. Rock-still, he faced the leveled pistols, but it was the armed man who retreated uneasily, his eyes wide with fear but showing no real recognition.

A step and a rustle betrayed the others present: he sensed rather than saw Horatio, with Wellard partially shielded behind him. But his gaze remained locked with that of their adversary, still regarding him with trepidation and suspicion.

"Keep your distance!" The pistols trembled in unsteady hands as their bearer took a step back, then another . . .

"Sir?" A second attempt, as he tried to keep his voice low and placating.

Two steps, three--then Horatio and Wellard were bursting forth from their hiding place and, in the confused tangle of hands that followed, an old man was suddenly hurtling backward over the brink, into a vortex black as midnight. He went on falling, down and down, his mouth open in a silent scream -- there was no bottom to the pit that they could see as they peered over the edge . . .

Then a wind rose out of the void, strong as a storm-gale, buffeting them all. He staggered, falling to his knees, saw Wellard caught up, tumbling soundlessly over the edge. Then he himself was swept into the blackness, making his own endless descent . . . he thought he saw Horatio, sprawled flat beside the abyss, reaching out a hand towards him, but the distance was too great and Horatio was growing smaller and smaller, as though seen through the wrong end of a spyglass. . .


. . . Darkness. He was struggling in the darkness and there were hands on his shoulders. Panicking, he struck out --but the hands were experienced and quick; they released his shoulders and caught his wrists, firmly but carefully, before the blows could fall.

"Steady now--steady. It's all right, wake up now. Wake up--it was only a dream then."

Archie's ears recognized the voice before the rest of him did; the panic and tension drained from his body even as his mind took longer to clear. He dragged in air and opened his eyes, saw his commander's concerned face hovering over him, just visible in the gloom.

Carmichael released him. "Are you awake, then?"

Archie licked his lips and exhaled slowly, feeling his face burn. "Sorry about the show," he managed thinly.

"Not at all. Took my mind off things for a bit."

Archie pulled himself into a slightly more upright position, knees close to his chest, arms clasped loosely around them. His senses seemed blurred: as though half his thoughts were still panicked, the other half still sleeping.

"I've heard you speak--differently." The words emerged incautiously, of their own volition. "Why--sorry!"

He'd stopped himself too late, his fuzzy thoughts not grasping in time that he was headed into very unchancy waters, and that his commander's mood had been volatile for the last two days.

"Why sound like bloody Yorkshire?" A faint amusement could be perceived through the burr; unexpectedly, Carmichael sounded far more like his usual self. "I'd never thought about sounding like anything else--unless it was a mission. This way, everyone who hears know it's me. *You* did," he added, unanswerably.

"Well . . .yes."

"Besides, if I changed now--that London lot might think I was ashamed of something." A faintly colder note had crept into Carmichael's voice.

Archie tilted his head and looked up, studying the senior agent cautiously. "You sound as if you don't care for them very much."

"Who? The London group?" Carmichael frowned in consideration. "They're clever enough--but they don't always have a bloody lot of sense."

Before Archie could venture further, the tables were turned.

"What was the dream about, then?"

Archie rubbed his forehead, suppressed a shiver. "Remembering too much." He felt Carmichael's eyes assessing him in his turn.

"I was fourteen years in the Army," his commander said abruptly. "And ten years after that, working for Old Nick. There's not much you'd have seen that I haven't--you just did it on a bloody big boat, that's all."

"Ship," Archie corrected, in a slightly despairing tone. Sometimes he suspected Carmichael of saying it intentionally, to get a rise out of him.

"Call it what you want. But if there's anything you'd choose to speak of--" Carmichael let the suggestion dangle, eyes narrowed. "Or I could just put Latour onto you, once we reach London. You look like you've been dragged through hell and back out the other side."

"Then that's two of us," Archie fired back. "Why weren't you asleep?"

"Remembering too much."

This last was followed by a fierce scowl and Archie felt the barriers going up again; changing the subject quickly, he asked, "What is the time?"

"If it were closer to midnight I'd say sit up and have a drink, but it's near on five now. You might as well get up for breakfast--Rory has." Tawny eyes scrutinized him with a hint of sternness. "And no more brooding. 'Nobbut a dream, lad.'"

Archie glared at him, fully aware this time he was being teased.

It took little enough time to wash, dress, and head downstairs to breakfast. Jamieson and Rory were both there, and Archie took a seat beside them and helped himself to food. Plain fare, but plenty of it--and steaming hot coffee. More attuned than he had been previously, Archie sensed Carmichael's watchful gaze lingering on him during the meal. Mouth tightening, he intensified his efforts at casual conversation with Rory, while launching an occasional covert glance of his own in his commander's direction.

*****

Carmichael noticed the slightly defiant blue flickers and was inwardly amused.

Stewart had improved greatly from the fragile, withdrawn, near-invalid who had trailed Kilcarron across the practice range two years ago. He'd proven good material to work with: as steady and capable an agent now as any in the division. But still high-strung; he was none the worse for a bit of looking-after now and then, even over his own objections. Likely they'd all settle down once they'd reached London.

London. The thought made his own mouth tighten. Seaton killed in London; there would be hell to pay. And he would see to it personally that the devil collected.


*****

INTERLUDE

Scotland, 1773

"Look, Nicholas!" Ian MacAlister pointed out the open window of the coach. "There's the bridge! Less than twenty minutes, and we're home."

"Your home." He hadn't meant it to come out like that; far too self-pitying. Ian frowned and cuffed his shoulder.

"Father wrote your uncle, remember, to ask for his permission for you to stay over the holidays? You know you're always welcome with us. And it's not so far away--we can always ride over to Kilcarron and pay your uncle our respects for the New Year."

"You're right." He managed to smile a little. "And it hasn't truly been that long since we were home."

"No. Just our first term away at school." Ian was looking out the window again. "I wonder if they'll say we've changed?"

*****

"Ian! Ian! Oh, you're so tall now!" A small scream of delight came from the little girl who had flung herself at her brother as soon as he descended from the coach. Ian laughed.

"And you haven't changed! Still shameless!" he teased, reaching out to embrace not only his shrieking youngest but her slightly older sister as well. "Where's mama, Ellen?"

"She and father had calls to make," the older girl explained. "They'll be back tonight for supper--"

"But you can have tea with us in the schoolroom!" Cecily, the youngest, had relinquished her hold on Ian's middle and was happily jumping up and down. "Please, Ian? Our governess said you might."

Ian's eyes went to the familiar upright figure a few feet away. "If you have permission--"

"Master Ian." The governess smiled slightly, then followed Ian's gaze to his schoolmate, positioned, like herself, just a little outside the family circle. "And Mr. Crawford. You would both be most welcome. We would all look forward to hearing about your experiences at school. I trust your scholastic efforts have been rewarded."

"Of course." Ian's smile was knowing but rueful, recalling how the governess had rigorously tutored both himself and Nicholas in history and maths during the preceding summer. "But I don't think I disgraced you, in any event. And Nicholas did as well or better," he raised his voice to recall his friend's wandering attention.

"Yes, indeed." Ian's prompting had brought the other boy back to himself. "We'll be happy to join you for tea. And thank you for your kindness in inviting us, Miss Seaton."

 

END PART THREE