Into the Game
by Pam and Del

PART TEN

 

"Remember to close the a's or they'll look too much like u's," Archie advised his reluctant pupil. "And try to make your s's and f's more distinct from each other."

"But they don't look distinct on the page!" Rory objected.

"Not at first sight, perhaps," Archie conceded, "but there are some detectable differences nonetheless."

Caillean had been occupied with some urgent "other business" earlier in the day, and Carmichael had again appointed Archie to supervise Rory's handwriting lessons. While not exactly insubordinate, the boy had nonetheless abandoned the stiffly polite demeanor he exhibited in front of "Miss Dunbar" and had made his dislike for these sessions patently obvious.

Dipping his quill once more into the inkwell, Rory grumbled, "I'll bet Jack Sheppard never had to practice his letters!"

"Jack Sheppard?"

"The king of English housebreakers?"

"Yes, yes, I know who he was--someone wrote an opera about his adventures. But how do you know of him? He was well before your time."

"M'lord told me."

"Kilcarron?"

Rory nodded, green eyes glinting. "No other lords hereabouts, Stewart." He rubbed his chin in an almost-parody of Carmichael's gesture, looking reminiscent. "Happened when I'd been here six months or so. M'lord wanted to know about my progress, how I was coming along. I suppose he liked whatever Carmichael had to say--anyhow, he'd an idle moment afterwards and he told me about Jack Sheppard."

Archie blinked--he was having a hard time picturing Kilcarron ever having an "idle moment," much less an indulgent mood. It was seldom his imagination failed him, but it did so now.

Rory was continuing enthusiastically. "He escaped four times from prison--and the last time, he was all weighted down with chains too. But he got free and diddled 'em good, 'specially that thief-taker, Wild!"

"But they did finally catch him," Archie pointed out. "Did Kilcarron tell you that Jack Sheppard ended by swinging at Tyburn?"

"Ye-es," the boy admitted reluctantly. His chin tilted up with a hint of defiance. "But he still had a good run of it--and he didn't hang until after he'd made them all look right fools chasing him!"

Archie rubbed his temples, a saying of his former captain's coming irresistibly to mind. "I despair," he murmured. "I really do."

A rap on the study door--both looked up to see Carmichael standing there.

"Stewart, Rory," the senior agent greeted them with a nod. "There's something new planned for this afternoon, downstairs in the armory. Come with me."

Archie and Rory exchanged a mystified glance, but hastened to obey.

*****

By now, Archie had become familiar with the lodge, and the armory was one of the rooms he visited more frequently, usually after weapons practice, when he and Carmichael brought back whatever arms they had been using that day. Nonetheless, he stopped short at what he saw waiting for them--not rifles, pistols, or even knives, but a pair of slim foils.

"Fencing?" he asked, darting an inquiring look at his commander. "Isn't that a bit--noisy?"

"Bloody noisy." Carmichael scowled, disgruntled. "And not a chance in hell you'd ever actually need to do it. But Latour said the stretching would be good exercise. Rory can attack--you just defend."

"Mm." Archie took off his jacket and picked up one of the foils--clearly meant as practice weapons only, the buttons still in place on the tips of the blades. He tried a slow extension, as if drawing the blade from its sheath, then thrust forward. Damn Latour for being right; he could feel the strain of even that simple movement in the stiffened scar tissue of his wound.

Carmichael handed Rory the other foil and directed them both into position. "Don't get carried away," he added, giving the boy a quelling glare. "It's only practice."

Metal scraped on metal. Rory pressed forward. Archie gave ground and let him advance. The boy attacked again with youthful enthusiasm. Archie discovered he was grinning, a little reluctantly, retreated, and then tried a feint.

"Oh!" Rory stepped back, surprised, then returned to the offensive.

Forward and back, back and forward. The blade he was used to was wider, heavier, and shorter. Forward and back, thrust and block, thrust and block. Cutlass drill, when he was a midshipman.

But they didn't warn you about the close quarters of it, Archie thought, stepping back again as Rory advanced. Fighting on a ship became as much hand-to-hand combat as any drilling with weapons. There was often too little space to swing a blade fully, a knife was almost better, or a pistol . . .

. . . he was at the bottom of the staircase, struggling to reach the quarterdeck. He'd seen Bush, ahead of him, fighting in shirtsleeves, and Styles with a cutlass, somewhere off to the side. God, but they were hard-pressed.

A man fell ahead of him--he couldn't tell if he was friend or foe, but saw the pistol drop from a limp hand onto the deck. He scooped it up and fired left-handed at the Spaniard who had appeared above him. The enemy collapsed, his body blocking the stairs before it tumbled down. More delay. He could just see Gunner Hobbs, at his self-appointed post protecting Sawyer's door, but he'd lost sight of Wellard. Where was the boy?

"Renowns, to me!" Bush's usual words, but in a different, familiar voice. He felt a quick surge of relief. Horatio, thank God, with reinforcements. Finally reaching the deck, he glimpsed Matthews at the edge of his vision and plunged into the fight with renewed energy. It was his turn to attack . . .

. . . his forward swing was blocked

Archie blinked. They were standing still, foils locked together at the hilt.

Not Rory facing him now. Carmichael. Half-grinning, tawny eyes studying Archie. "What brought that on?"

And Rory, a dozen feet behind him, round-eyed and silent.

Oh. Oh, God. Archie's arm dropped, the tip of the foil scraping the floor. What had he almost done?

His vision blurred and he began to shake, not violently but persistently, the hair-fine tremors racking him from head to foot.

Seeing it, Carmichael took the foil out of Archie's hand, set both weapons aside. "Rory," he ordered, without turning around, "go wash. Find Caillean--she should be free now--and tell her I said for you to practice your maths."

Rory vanished without a word. Archie felt his jacket being flung over his shoulders, tried to speak but failed.

"Walk." Carmichael's voice in his ear. "You'll be all right. Walk it out."

Hand on his shoulder, guiding him out of the building. Into the open . . . he was still shaking.

"Just keep walking." The hand went on steering him, he followed blindly, not noticing his surroundings but sensing himself walking up an incline, several inclines. He did not know how long they went on . . . their steps slowed at last and he found his vision clearing; they were nearing the outskirts of a thicket.

Archie reached out to a branch that presented itself just at eye level and held on to it for dear life, then leaned sideways against the tree trunk; a small detached part of his mind noted that he was still trembling. A canteen appeared from somewhere and he drank thirstily, handed it back to Carmichael.

"What's--" he wanted to say, "wrong with me?" But that seemed dangerous somehow so he revised it. "What happened--in there?"

"You lost yourself a bit." More than that, really, but Carmichael wasn't going to say any of it just now. "Something I should've thought of."

Archie closed his eyes as the tide of memories pulled him under again . . .

He had felt it first as a heavy, staggering blow, not fully realizing that he had been shot. Sword locked hilt to hilt with his opponent, each of them pushing and circling, seeking the advantage or at least room to maneuver in the swirling mass of bodies, he'd been intent on nothing else. Then, at last, enough room to disengage his blade and strike home.

Behind him he heard the barked Spanish command to surrender, and weapons falling to the deck. But he felt oddly disconnected from the events going on around him. Weak and giddy all at once, he sat down. Shock, his mind disclosed but refused to return to his body properly.

Wetness against his chest and side . . . he did not want to look. He would not look. The shock kept him still for a time, then the pain began, burning like hell's own torment.

A familiar presence beside him; he wasn't even sure what he was saying, his mind still floating away from the pain taking him over. A familiar, endearingly stern voice, sharpening into urgency.

"I said, is that your blood?"

Hands unfastening his jacket and waistcoat . . . revealing what could never be fixed. A stricken voice, stripped of its commanding tones, saying his name. Salt taste of his own blood in his mouth and desperate arms holding him as the pain sent him lurching into darkness.

More pain in the long dragging days that followed. A sensation of heaviness as he tried to breathe, and a fever that waxed and waned but never quite left. Finding Bush beside him on his own sickbed, hearing vague words: Wellard, and Sawyer, and Buckland. And at last the words that had daunted them all, long ago in the hold.

Trial for mutiny.

The prison infirmary that had been very little improvement over sick berth on Renown. Awareness of the looming danger that threatened them all, but somehow centering, finally, on Horatio.

A decision made. Help from Bush, and more reluctantly from Clive. Facing the courtroom and what he had told them . . . pain, exhaustion, and collapse into darkness . . . what he had thought was death.

Then awakening, and the full impact of loss. An angry confrontation and then . . .

His life is forfeit.

Four words to twist his thoughts into nightmares. Archie pulled away from the memories with a gasp and a start.

"Are you back now?" Carmichael asked.

Archie nodded jerkily, looking down, temporarily beyond speech.

"Where'd you go?"

He shivered. "Remembering too much." When I was shot. But he wasn't able to say that.

"Do you hurt anywhere?"

Did the soul count? But that seemed another dangerous question, and he knew what Carmichael really meant, so he only shook his head.

"Do you want a drink?"

Another headshake. A pause while Carmichael considered his next words.

"Should we keep walking?"

Archie raised his head wearily. "What, all the way back up to the river until I fall over?"

"Figured that out, did you? But if it's what you want--"

"N-no." Archie's head drooped. "I don't think I can take another step right now." Embarrassing to admit, but he owed that much truth.

"Sit down and rest then. Do you want the doctor?"

He shook his head again--if he sat down, he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to get up. Nor did he feel equal to dealing with one more person just now, not even Latour.

"Mmm." Carmichael made a dissatisfied sound, studying his subordinate and not liking what he saw. The blue eyes were dark and bruised-looking in the pale, drained face, and he remembered the shivering under his hand. He'd seen that look before--in soldiers who had endured one battle too many, and then, for a time, left part of their minds on the field. If they were lucky, and opportunity permitted, they recovered them again.

"You," he said thoughtfully, "look like hell. And Old Nick's still in London, so for once it's not his doing."

Archie raised his head but couldn't find any words. He was a little taken aback by the calculating, slightly vexed expression on Carmichael's face that seemed unnervingly familiar: Horatio, with an uncooperative maths equation or Rory, confronted with a new map.

"If I thought there was a chance in hell that you'd actually do it," Carmichael remarked, "I'd tell you to get a brandy, a hot bath, and go to bed until tomorrow."

Archie regarded him warily. "You think I'm incapable of acting sensibly?"

"Do you really want me to answer that? I had an earful from Latour--all about patients who make themselves worse."

Eyes dropped, then closed. Pale skin flushed painfully pink.

"Not that much to choose between you and Rory, sometimes," Carmichael concluded, not unkindly.

Archie exhaled in a long, long sigh, then opened his eyes. "No brandy, thank you. But the rest--very probably." He blinked as a surprising thought struck him. "You could have made it an order."

"Thought you should decide for yourself." Carmichael shrugged laconically. "Feel strong enough to walk back yet?"

Archie gave a faint nod, letting go of the tree. They started back to the lodge--not a great distance ordinarily, but today it seemed to take twice as long. Archie concentrated grimly on putting one foot in front of the other . . . as he had once before. Four months and another lifetime ago.

Crossing the threshold, he stumbled, managed to catch himself, and leaned thankfully against the nearest wall for support, feeling as weak in the knees as a newborn foal. He sensed Carmichael's critical eye on him and pushed himself upright again with an effort.

His superior jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "You won't make it up the stairs. Go get a bath in the laundry room." Carmichael scowled. "You haven't looked this bad for three weeks at least--I've a mind to send you that brandy anyway."

"Then I'll never get up the stairs!" Archie pointed out. "Leave off--I can make it there myself. And I can wash my own ears too," he added testily, turning to leave.

"Wouldn't think of offering," his commander said dryly, and waved him off down the hall.

*****

But he'd been thinking about other things, Archie discovered later as he let himself into his room after bathing. Carmichael had been here too, and gone again. And left something . . . a small, familiar-looking brown bottle on the night table, with a note attached.

"Latour gave me this for you some time ago. Thought you should decide for yourself about this too. C."

Archie weighed the bottle in his hand. All the pressure and pain of the memories and the nightmares that had accompanied them. Surcease and oblivion.

A decision left up to him, that no one else need know about. And a small restoration of his own will.

It might have been minutes or hours later when he finally pulled open the drawer of the night table and closed it again with the bottle inside. Undressing, he dropped his clothes onto the nearest chair and climbed into bed, drawing the blankets close around him.

He'd thought--feared--that the memories awakened by today's fencing match would keep slumber at bay for hours. But the body's fatigue overrode the mind's distress in a matter of minutes. Letting it all go, he slid gratefully into sleep.

 

END PART TEN