Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, "These wounds I had on Crispin's Day."

--William Shakespeare, Henry V

 

PART NINE: "War Wounds"

 

"And early tomorrow afternoon you will call upon the Dowager Lady Amhurst--a public demonstration that you are among her acquaintance. Agents Grant and Ferguson will be present as well--that should establish you further as being intimates, so no suspicion will arise later if you are all seen together. Also, M. LeGrande and Edmond DeGuise are expected, the latter with his betrothed." The speaker paused, frowning, as Archie shifted slightly; a note of impatience crept into the languid voice. "Attend to me, please. Then, on the following evening--"

"Please stand still, if you would, sir," the tailor's assistant broke in with equal disapproval.

Archie's mouth tightened as he attempted to obey both sets of instructions and still avoid the pins that were being driven into the sides of the jacket.

With Agent Barrington now dispatched to assist Carmichael and Archie temporarily transferred to Smitty's division, a new mentor had been assigned to acquaint him with the London operations. Agent Sir Reginald Augustus Tiverton had presented himself as Barrington's replacement toward the end of the afternoon. Though it had been some years since Archie had been in London for any significant length of time, he recognized Tiverton's kind immediately. If Barrington had represented the man of fashion, Agent Tiverton crossed the line all the way into "fop," with his elaborate dress and mincing manner. And the ubiquitous quizzing glass, which Archie had had ample opportunity to observe during Tiverton's detailed inspection of the modest collection of garments Archie had brought down from Edinburgh--to judge whether they were acceptable by London standards.

"Adequate, I suppose," Tiverton had said, after the whole of Archie's current wardrobe was lying on the bed in two piles. He tapped the quizzing-glass idly against his palm, a gesture that was beginning to grate on the younger man's nerves. "But--no more than adequate, in truth. We shall have to arrange some new suits if you're going to be made fit to be seen. Fortunately, I had already sent for the tailor."

The London agent had led Archie off to a large workroom, where he now stood uncomfortably before a full length mirror, trying not to fidget as the tailor's supply of partially-made garments were pinned and fitted to his measure. Tiverton alternated between advising the tailor as he worked, and apprising Archie of his future schedule.

"The following evening," Tiverton continued, "there is a drum, hosted by Lady and Colonel Kendal-Jones, who are in fact, more of our associates. The Honorable Justin Ainsley is expected to be in attendance, as are the Vicomte and Vicomtesse DeGuise. This time, you and Agent Munro will be joining Ferguson and Grant, but they will have preceded you to the affair by an hour or more, in company with Lady Amhurst and Doctor Latour."

"If you would raise your right arm, sir," the tailor himself now interrupted, holding up a measuring tape.

Resisting the temptation to make a rude gesture instead, Archie complied, letting the man measure the distance from shoulder to wrist. Fortunately for his fraying temper, he was permitted to remove the jacket a few minutes later, which apparently concluded the fitting.

"Now then--these," Tiverton indicated the clothes Archie had been trying on, "will be finished in two days, but you still need something suitable to wear now, and it will do no harm if it appears to be well-worn. One does, after all, come to London expressly to purchase new attire." He walked in a thoughtful circle about Archie, as the tailor carefully folded each garment and his assistant swept up the bits of thread and overlooked pins from the floor. "Agent Arundel should be about your size--he is usually on-duty until eight o'clock." Tiverton consulted his pocket watch, as ornate as the rest of his accoutrements. "It lacks but a quarter of an hour to that now. Most satisfactory."

Satisfactory for whom? Archie nearly asked, foreseeing another dreary fitting session ahead, but he managed to refrain from saying so . . . barely.

*****

Arundel, as it turned out, was the brown-haired man who had been talking to Caillean and Jamieson earlier. He listened attentively as Tiverton explained what was required.

"You'll want my toff clothes, then," he responded, tilting his head to study Archie.

"Won't you have need of them yourself?" Archie asked.

"Not at the moment. I've been on clerking duty, and that won't change for some time," Arundel replied, turning to open a sizable wardrobe.

Examining Arundel's offerings had taken two hours or more. Tiverton, spurred on to greater thoroughness, had sent a servant to Archie's quarters to retrieve his 'acceptable' clothes, then considered all the different permutations now made available by combining those garments with Arundel's wardrobe. He vetoed a burgundy jacket, expressed approval of two more in walnut brown and bottle green, and accepted, with some reservations, another in pale grey.

At last, it seemed a pinnacle was reached.

"Excellent," Tiverton pronounced, surveying Archie fully arrayed in Arundel's second-best suit, a modest slate-blue in color. "Exquisite. Delicious, in fact." His tones were once again mincing and affected.

Arundel made a sound resembling a snort. "Mind your manners!"

"My dear!" The fop's drawl issued forth in full glory. "May I not be permitted a moment of purely aesthetic appreciation? Recollect, if you will, that it is only the duskier beauties who capture my heart!"

Archie blinked. Arundel snorted again, and made a gesture that Archie suspected Rory would have recognized. "Oh, get along with you, now!" he ordered, in a tone of amused exasperation. "You're being tiresome!"

"Indeed? Too fatiguing to argue with you, my dear." With a wave of his hand, Tiverton strolled languidly away.

Archie stared after him, then turned somewhat uneasily to Arundel. "What did he just--?"

"He likes to play the fool," Arundel said matter-of-factly. "A bit overmuch, on occasion. We all know about it--you needn't concern yourself."

******

It was well after ten o'clock--closer to eleven, in truth--when Archie returned to the sanctuary of his quarters, relieved to have escaped at last from scissors, pins, and measuring-tapes. He remembered one of his sister Margaret's letters, humorously describing their oldest brother Malcolm's aspirations to the fashionable life. If Malcolm would willingly undergo hours of these interminable fittings, perhaps he had more stamina than his younger brother had ever credited him with.

Closing the door behind him, Archie frowned at the pile of "less acceptable" garments still heaped on one side of the bed, and saw, with a rush of gratitude, that water for washing and a supper tray had been left for him. He made use of the former, then sat down with the latter, fortunately still warm enough to be palatable. He had not realized how hungry he was; nonetheless, he made himself eat slowly, savoring every mouthful.

Supper restored his energies enough so that, afterward, he felt no immediate desire to sleep, despite the lateness of the hour. Besides, bed immediately following a meal was conducive to indigestion--or nightmares. No, far better if he found some harmless diversion to occupy him for a while. Something to read might be calming--he did not want to venture as far as the great library at this hour, but there had been a bookcase in the common room.

Still in his shirtsleeves, he slipped from the room and headed downstairs again.

*****

In marked contrast to that afternoon, there was a sizable complement of agents in the common room, though grouped somewhat oddly to either side of the place, and strangely silent. Archie did not notice the latter until some moments after he entered, then realized as a familiar voice was heard, that the silence had been no more than a momentary lull in an exchange of broadsides.

"It shouldn't have been her out there," Carmichael was insisting heatedly.

"She would not permit someone else to undergo the hazard. Remember she was a commander. Just like you." Smitty was cold steel to his flint.

"She had no business to take such a risk!"

"We all knew Jacques would speak only to her," Smitty pointed out. "I was on-duty that night--even if I had known, I couldn't have prevented her. Are you saying you truly think you could have stopped her?" She shook her head, staring unblinkingly at Carmichael. "Don't take more on yourself than you have a right to. She wasn't your subordinate--no more than I was."

Silence descended again, abruptly. Archie stared as Carmichael's face grew tight and still. Another near-minute passed, then, on a slowly indrawn breath--"You fight dirty."

"Remember who taught me." Smitty's face and voice were both unyielding. "And I'm right about what I said before: you shouldn't be on this job."

A near-snarl. "Try and keep me out!"

"You know it yourself, Carmichael--you're too close to this! If it were anyone under you, you'd say the same and take them off the mission."

"I told you I wanted to be in at the kill. You think I'd walk away now?"

"What you meant was that you wanted to lead the whole damned hunt!" Smitty corrected him furiously. "Let it go and leave this to us."

Immediate as the touch of a lighted match to powder, the explosion came. "We left it to you already and look what's happened!" Thick, north-country scorn. "Don't forget we were called down to pick up the pieces!"

It was Smitty's turn to go still and pale. "This isn't your kind of work," she repeated at last.

"Say what you're thinking--I'm not good enough for your lot?" The mounting vehemence in his tone would have intimidated most agents, but Smitty stood her ground.

"You're good, but this isn't the place for you! It's for the drawing rooms, and the domestics--"

"And you don't think I can pull it off?" Tawny eyes narrowed into slits. "I'll lay you five guineas I can get myself up so you don't even recognize me!"

"I'll wager ten guineas to your five--and be glad to lose it as long as you don't get us all killed!" Smitty fired back, finally exploding in turn. "Remember what's at stake--you wouldn't risk so much in any other case. You're not thinking clearly anymore, and that's dangerous," she concluded stonily.

The silence that greeted that remark was not a calm one.

"Carmichael," Smitty began, trying to take control once more. "I know what Seaton meant to you. How do you think it's been for me and for the rest of us? I understand your feelings but--" she saw her misstep too late.

"You understand nothing!" A definite snarl, again. "You lot don't even know who killed her!"

"I know enough to see why you shouldn't be here!" Smith reiterated fiercely. "If it were up to me, you'd be on your way back in Edinburgh!"

"But it's not up to you, is it?" Carmichael asked, with equal ferocity. "Last time I looked, Smitty, Old Nick was still in charge. And he sent for us!"

"And will make whatever dispositions are necessary." The cool voice cut in before Smitty could reply. Archie winced. The earl was speaking from the armchair by the fireplace--he must have witnessed everything, but why hadn't he made himself known sooner?

"Agent Lennox?"

The use of his own designation took Archie by surprise; recovering quickly, he ventured, "Sir?"

Keen blue eyes studied him. "I understand from Commander Carmichael that you have acquired some experience in the more advanced areas of disguise. I would be obliged if you would render him your assistance."

Archie caught himself before he could answer with the long-accustomed "aye-aye." "Yes, sir."

The earl was already turning his attention elsewhere. "Commander Smith."

"My lord?" she responded alertly.

"Your concerns have been noted."

"Yes, my lord." Mouth tight, her expression abruptly shuttered, Smitty turned on her heel and left the common-room.

Clearly unnerved by Kilcarron's presence, the other agents also began to drift from the room until only Archie, Carmichael, and Kilcarron remained. Archie was taking a tentative step towards his erstwhile commander when Kilcarron's words again dropped into the silence.

"'Old Nick'?"

Archie froze. Carmichael straightened to attention, face impassive.

"Really, Carmichael. I had hoped for something a trifle more--original."

"Yes, sir." The Edinburgh commander remained expressionless and at attention; Archie could see traces of the former infantry sergeant showing through. After a moment Carmichael added, "Hard to find a name everyone understands, sir."

Archie held his breath. Kilcarron rose from the chair, frowning but apparently not taking further umbrage. "I leave you to your duties, gentlemen."

The room suddenly felt as empty as it appeared, after the earl's exit. Carmichael stalked to the window, then let out a long, long breath.

"What is it?" Archie asked, into the uneasy stillness.

"Bloody London." Carmichael glared out the window. "Not enough room for a proper walk."

"I'll go with you," Archie volunteered. "How long a walk do you want?"

"Long enough to forget she's right."

It was an unexpected admission. Archie stared; Carmichael bared his teeth.

""I would take anyone else off the job--but I'm not walking away or leaving this alone. Not now--not ever."

He flung away from the window; Archie followed him. But the commander did not make for the door after all, only turned back, approaching the hearth and falling silent again.

"She favored that seat." Carmichael gestured toward the armchair Kilcarron had used. "Tell me, Stewart--did you ever know your grandmother?"

Archie blinked, taken slightly aback by the query. "Well--only for a little while. One died when I was two or three, the other before I was born."

"I barely knew my mother." Carmichael shrugged. "I never knew my father at all. But Seaton--" he broke off; Archie sensed the control stretching very thin.

"As close to a soldier's grandmother as you could wish for. A fine, fierce old lady. No airs to her, and no nonsense, either." Carmichael's voice softened into reminiscence.

"When Old Nick first borrowed me out of the Army--he had business in London for a month or two. She was the first of the London sort not to give me any grief about the damned brogue."

Archie shook his head in disbelief. He had become so accustomed in the last two years to receiving praise, criticism, orders, and valuable information alike from that voice with its north-country burr, that he'd overlooked its significance in socially-conscious London circles, only having it recalled to his notice in the last few days.

Carmichael had continued. "Old Nick'd brought me back--that was good enough for her." He stopped, moved restlessly to the table with the decanter. Archie followed, remembering Latour's words.

"A single knife thrust, directly to the heart. Death was instantaneous." To an elderly woman Carmichael thought of as his grandmother. Archie bit his lip.

Carmichael had poured two glasses of whiskey, passed one across the table, exhaled wearily. "And now--I can't even get drunk."

"Why not?" Archie asked, puzzled. The older agent shook his head.

"Not in the middle of a job. And not while I've got her command." Carmichael's mouth twisted. "Do you know command, Stewart?"

"I -- thought I did," Archie said cautiously.

Carmichael was looking into some dark, faraway place. "Command is training men, and teaching them--in the way you've found best, to stay alive--until they can work together, even without you. Drinking with them," his lips twitched slightly, "swearing at them. And one day--" he paused, his gaze going even further away.

"One day you must look them in the eyes and say, 'I need you for rear guard.' And if they're the men you've trained--if you've done your duty and they know theirs--they look back at you and they say, 'Yes, sir.'"

Aye-aye, sir, Archie thought, but kept silent, his curiosity and concern alike roused by the flow of memories he was hearing.

"But you owe it to them--to face them. And not to ask for any careless or hasty reason."

"Or for personal gain," Archie heard himself saying, remembering Acting-Captain Buckland.

Carmichael glanced at him, surprised. "No, never."

Archie nodded and fell silent again. Carmichael drank, then looked down at the glass, mouth twisting lopsidedly as other memories returned. "And I had to ask it, one time too many, for the worst of all reasons."

Archie eyed him questioningly but did not venture any words.

"To cover a fool's arse. That was another time I couldn't get drunk."

"When?"

"When old Nick came and found me. Because everything else was lost." Carmichael emptied his glass and pushed it away.

"I was a sergeant--I've told you that before." What was almost a smile flickered into being, then died. "I was a damned good sergeant but I was only a sergeant. He had a captain's commission, bought and paid for with the ink still wet." His face hardened as he recalled the futility of attempting to prevent the devastation. "He'd never seen a battle--only two years of parading about in Horse Guards. I tried to tell him--all the quiet ways. But he didn't have to listen to me. And even now," Carmichael came back to the present with a slight shake of his head, "I wonder if I should have just shot him outright, there on the field."

Archie was frankly staring.

Carmichael shrugged, a little uncomfortably. "Oh, they would have hanged me, I suppose. Or I might have found the chance to desert. But the men would be alive." He shook himself again. "Bad thoughts, to wake up with in the middle of the night. But I shouldn't trouble you with them."

"No, that's all right," Archie assured him, his own memories stirring. "I was in an action almost like that, once. We weren't with the main force--they were completely lost, as if the enemy had known everything in advance. Word got about later--a courier had been killed in the streets outside the Admiralty, and the plans stolen from him even before the mission began."

He shook his head, remembering the price that had been paid at Quiberon--and Muzillac. "We thought a disaster like that would never happen again. But what we did experience was worse."

Unwanted, uneasy memories of Renown came flooding back, and he shivered a little. "The captain--has the power of life and death aboard the ship. And he was . . .unstable, erratic--volatile. Incapable, really, in his mind. My closest shipmate said he thought the captain wanted to die." He shivered again.

"The longer it went on, the worse it became. He made accusations of treason, conspiracy, ordered punishments . . ." He remembered Wellard, flogged insensible, and Horatio, denied sleep for the better part of three days. "We ended--by doing just what he claimed, coming together to discuss our options, and how we might remove him from command. He got word of it and came hunting for us."

Words he had never spoken to anyone came out slowly. He'd seen Buckland and Bush going forward, but Horatio and Wellard had been unaccounted-for. He'd circled back, trying to cause a diversion.

"I was almost the very lowest in rank. Insignificant, really. I thought, if I showed myself--he might be less . . . fearful. That he might calm himself or put his weapons away, or if not, then pay me so much attention that my other shipmates could escape. But I did not succeed."

Archie closed his eyes but could not block out the mental picture. "He'd sent some of the Marines down the hatchway, into the hold. We never thought he'd forget himself that it was there. And no one was able to reach him in time . . . he backed over the edge and fell."

He opened his eyes, reluctantly recalling Sawyer's last, cruelest delusion that had built the deadly trap. "When he was conscious, he swore he'd been pushed from behind. And no one could say: that's not what happened without--" his voice trailed off; Carmichael picked it up without hesitation.

"Without admitting you'd seen it all."

"It was a hanging offense, just to be there. To say anything at all was to damn ourselves."

Archie fell silent, unable to believe he was revealing so much of his past. But something--the lateness of the hour, the knowledge that someone else had faced a similar, if not worse, set of circumstances--had lowered his guard. Staring into the fire, he found his thoughts drifting into other memories.

The trap. Taking the fort. The escape by the Spanish prisoners and how it had ended. Lying in the Kingston infirmary, aching and feverish, hearing Clive answer Bush's questions about the trial. Seeing Clive shake Horatio's hand with a nearly funereal courtesy, and realizing painfully there was only one way out of the trap . . .

The chiming of the hour returned him to the present--not a ship's bell but the mantel-clock.

One. Two.

Shadowed blue eyes met haunted tawny ones. Carmichael's mouth twisted in a mirthless smile.

"Look at us--we're a right bloody pair!" He went on as though reading Archie's mind, "No use even trying to sleep after all that."

"No." But what should they do?

"Finish your drink. Then--set me up."

"What?"

"You said it could be done. Set me up so Smitty wouldn't recognize me. For the honor of the division. Remember, I put five guineas on it."

"Oh, yes." Archie straightened, rallying himself. "Well, we can't have you losing your money."

Relieved at having an immediate task to hand, he followed Carmichael out of the common room.

*****
INTERLUDE

Flanders, 1794

 

Carmichael stared into the flickering campfire: still, silent, and tearless. The flask in his hand was more than half-full--and untouched, there was not enough whiskey in the world to wash this away.

Less than a dozen left in the company, and half of those wounded. Talk among the higher officers of absorbing the few survivors into other regiments. Not enough left of them even to keep the company's name. And the new Captain Cedricson mortally wounded, not expected to live until morning.

A good thing he's dying or I'd shoot the bastard myself. Carmichael reviewed the battle again, unable to stop himself. He'd tried to convince the captain --tactfully at first, then more directly--that the position was weak, the enemy too numerous along that line of approach. His objections had been cut short.

I gave you a direct order, sergeant!

There had been no options after that--it was obey or be shot. And they had been led directly to annihilation. Only the intervention of another company had prevented them from being overrun and the retreat from turning into a complete, panicked rout.

But we avoided that. One small piece of good news. Except there was no one left to hear it. He was one step away from murder, two steps away from desertion.

Movement in the shadows at the edge of the firelight. A form emerged, neat and composed even after the events of the day. But the Earl of Kilcarron had been directed to avoid participation in combat; his was a watching brief only, to observe the movement of the troops.

Carmichael's tawny eyes rose to meet Kilcarron's cold blue ones, almost inimically, then looked away. Their paths had crossed before.

Kilcarron was holding a flask. Observing Carmichael thoughtfully, he neither drank from it, nor offered it, but sat down by the fire in his turn. Long minutes passed before he spoke.

"I'm sorry, sergeant."

Carmichael looked up in surprise, but there was only a regretful sincerity in the remote, fine-featured face.

"This should never have happened."

The one thing he could have borne to hear--how had Kilcarron known? Carmichael closed his eyes, inhaled slowly.

When he opened his eyes, the earl was still there, watching him steadily. Carmichael took another weary breath, met the other's gaze.

"Thank you, sir," he said quietly. "I'll be there tomorrow."

 

END PART NINE