Into the Game
by Pam and Del

 

WARNING: Angst. Swearing. Reference to corporal punishment. Whiskey and
women. Nasty Jack Flashback (touching on sensitive subjects)

 

PART TWELVE

 

"The mission was a success?" Latour asked the following morning, as he and
Carmichael sat together in the surgery.

The other agent nodded. "Went better than expected. For both of them."

"So, the mind is engaged, and the body is, in fact, almost fully recovered--"

"Which should mean smoother going from this point on." Carmichael paused,
subjected the doctor to a sudden probing gaze. "Shouldn't it?"

"Perhaps." Latour allowed. "However--you should know that I've had a letter.
From London."

Carmichael swore resignedly. "When?"

"A few days, I expect."

"Do you think--"

"Has he told you anything further?"

"Not yet."

"Then--I think we should continue as we have."

*****

"This page is completely illegible," Caillean declared in her most censorious
tone. "You cannot suppose this to be acceptable work, Mr. MacCrimmon."

Rory glowered. Caillean stared imperiously back. Archie bent over his own
task and maintained a diplomatic silence. The working relationship between
these two was always too formal to be entirely amicable, and every now and
then he could sense the onset of a battle of wills, with Caillean usually
triumphant.

As she was now. Rory expelled a pent-up breath and squared his shoulders
before responding. "No, Miss Dunbar." He sounded as though he would have much
rather said something else - something that would have resulted in him getting
his mouth washed out with soap.

Or being taken down cellar, as Carmichael had threatened, before the night
mission. Archie frowned to himself - did that mean what he thought it meant?
Under the circumstances, he decided against asking Rory; few youngsters
enjoyed discussing their chastisements.

Caillean consulted her watch.. "It's nearly noon, and I know Erskine does
not like to be kept waiting at the stables. But I expect you to copy this
page over - twice - in a fair hand, for tomorrow. You may go, Mr. MacCrimmon."

Rory inclined his head stiffly. "Miss Dunbar." He rolled his eyes at
Archie, who gave him a slight commiserating smile, as he left the study.

Caillean sighed as the door closed behind her recalcitrant pupil. "There are
some tasks," she said darkly, "for which Kilcarron simply *cannot* pay me too
much!" Rising from her chair, she shook out her skirts and made her way to
Archie's side of the table. "How are you progressing with that new cipher,
Mr. Stewart? Do the maths seem less difficult now?"

"I - believe so," Archie ventured. He caught the light scent of lavender-water
as Caillean bent over to examine his work.. She was very fine today, he
noticed absently, in a frock he had not seen before. A primrose muslin, with
dashes of violet ribbon at the sleeves and bosom, that flattered her dark
hair and fair complexion. Someone else, he remembered with a sudden pang,
had also looked well in that shade; he thrust the memory away ruthlessly.

Caillean straightened up, smiling. "Good work, Mr. Stewart. You appear to
have a satisfactory grasp upon the material."

"I've had a good teacher," Archie replied, smiling back.

Her smile widened. "Ah, but a good teacher is at her best with a good pupil.
I could wish certain of my *other* pupils were as diligent!"

Rory, of course. A thought struck Archie. "Caillean - what happens in the
cellar?"

Her expression changed to one of surprise. "The wine ages?" She shook her
head. "I'm sorry - if this is a joke, I really don't know the answer."

"Something to do with Rory, I think. Carmichael mentioned it, a few nights
ago."

"*Oh.* Oh, yes." Oddly, she flushed a little, glanced down, then up. "I
remember now." She cleared her throat. "Well, when Rory first came, Kilcarron
brought him straight from Edinburgh gaol. He had lice, he was so filthy he
*stank* - he bit Dr. Latour the first time he was being washed - and he had a
vocabulary to match his appearance. Kilcarron didn't have time to do much
more than bring him here and leave him--*he* was called away to London on an
emergency. So there was no one at headquarters whom Rory recognized."

"That must have been difficult for him," Archie mused.

Caillean's aquamarine eyes flashed exasperation. "It was hard for the rest
of us too!" she said with some asperity. "Carmichael could deal with him but
he was finishing up an operation in Edinburgh and had to be *there* most of
the time. Rory had to be taught to read and write - he wasn't too bad about
learning those, I suppose he thought it might give him an advantage - but he
ran wild every other chance he got. And he wasn't very cooperative about most
other things. Like washing."

"I - see."

"I'm not so sure you do. He was like to send us all daft. Carmichael finally
took him down to the cellar and *spanked* him to make it clear he had to
behave."

Archie raised quizzical brows. "Wasn't he . . . a little old for that?"

"That was part of Carmichael's point. Because he said no one had ever taught
Rory manners when he was nine or so. And Carmichael gave him four rules: not
to bite anyone, not to swear at the women, to wash when he was told to, and
to stop acting as if he were nine."

"How do you know so much about it?"

"Who do you think Rory was swearing at?"

"Ah."

Caillean continued, "I'd told him he stank like a midden - which he did - and to
go bathe. He took exception. Carmichael was walking by, and five minutes
later, Rory was down the cellar." She colored slightly. "Then it was my
turn."

"He didn't take *you* down - "

"No, no - not quite like that," she broke in. "But Carmichael *did* tell me
I'd handled the situation poorly and that I might have had more patience. I
said, perhaps unwisely, that if I'd wanted to chase after babies, I'd have
married the first nice man in Edinburgh who asked." Her flush deepened. "He
told me I was acting just like one of those stuck-up pieces' I claimed to
dislike so much." She looked at Archie with a wry smile. "Not one of my
better days. But in fairness to Rory - it hadn't all been his doing. And it's
how Carmichael works."

"What do you mean?"

"Just - if you're going to make a mistake, make it in front of Carmichael, not
Kilcarron." Another wry smile at Archie's puzzled expression. "Carmichael
will make you just uncomfortable enough to remember not to do it again."

Thinking back, Archie was obliged to admit her description was accurate.
"And Kilcarron?" He could not imagine the earl making an erring subordinate
feel anything less than acutely uncomfortable.

"Oh, Kilcarron will do the same - but you won't have any skin left, afterwards."

"Because he's the commander?"

"Because he's a Crawford!"

Archie winced, acknowledging the truth of that as well. Once again he
silently thanked providence that Kilcarron was still in London.

 

The note was waiting for Archie when he came back to his room after weapons
practice with Jamieson and a quick meal downstairs. He unfolded it, saw the
familiar scrawl: "Stewart. Stables, two o'clock. Walking, not riding. C."

Odd. Archie puzzled over the message. The stables seemed an unusual place
for a rendezvous, if what they were going to do required no horses. Still .
. . Carmichael was not one to do things from sheer caprice. Clearly, there
had to be a reason.

He glanced at the pocket watch his commander had lent him for the night drill
and then suggested he keep. About three-quarters of an hour until the
meeting. Time enough to rest a little - always a sensible idea where Carmichael
and walking were concerned - and make his preparations for whatever exercise
they would be performing.

Ten days and more since the night drill. Well, perhaps he was overdue for
another change in the schedule. He wondered if Rory or any of the others
would be taking part as well.

But when he presented himself at the stables at the appointed hour, he saw
that Carmichael was unaccompanied. The division leader greeted him with a nod.

"Afternoon, Stewart. Something different today, just for us." Carmichael
adjusted the pack strapped to his back, and tilted his head to the left.
"We'll be taking a different path than the one you take with Erskine."

Archie fell into step slightly behind him. "Will we be leaving the grounds?"

Carmichael shook his head. "Not quite - but it's a fair distance all the same."
He picked up the pace, almost to a quick time march. Archie followed,
relieved to discover that he could, in fact, keep up.

Little opportunity, though, for conversation, even if they had had the breath
to spare for it. And the terrain was growing rougher - scrubby grass and
pebbles, giving way to brush and stones. There had never been a riding path
here.

They'd been walking perhaps half an hour when Carmichael halted, pointed at a
distant slope ahead of them. "Look there."

Archie obeyed, then looked again, eyes widening. Ruins he had seen on great
estates, and *sham* ruins as well, but this was different: a massive,
rough-hewn construction that looked like a castle keep. No, he corrected
himself, more like a fort, dating back to Norman times--battlements,
ramparts, even a tower. Except that no Norman fortress had ever been designed
to accommodate *modern* artillery, as this one had been. And surrounding the
fortress on all sides . . . a deep, sloping trench, like a moat, but without
water.

Glancing questioningly at Carmichael, he found the older man removing a
spyglass from his pack. "So, what d'you make of it, Stewart?" he asked, with
a jerk of his head towards the fort.

"Impressive," Archie said cautiously. "It's - a model, isn't it?"

Carmichael nodded, bringing the glass to his eye and adjusting it with the
skillful ease of long practice. "Old Nick's grandfather had it built just
for the purpose."

"But what purpose?"

"An exercise in observation. So observe," Carmichael handed him the spyglass.

"What am I looking for?" Archie asked, lifting it to his eye in turn.

"Everything. Take your time."

Archie raised his eyebrows but obeyed, studying the fortification and its
surroundings. When he thought he had seen enough, he looked back, scanning
the whole area one more time before folding the glass and passing it back to
Carmichael. "Now what?"

"Now we walk again!" Carmichael tucked the spyglass back in his pack, and
swung off at his brisk soldier's pace; Archie scrambled briefly to keep up.

Twenty minutes of additional walking brought them back to smoother terrain,
and - to Archie's surprise--parallel to the lodge at its more distant face. As
they passed the building, Archie saw Latour coming out from a side door; the
physician stopped when he saw them and swept his arm in a wide hailing arc.
Carmichael, grinning ferally, returned the greeting without breaking stride,
and kept on going until they had crested the rise and were looking down the
other side.

Carmichael halted, and the rough tomcat grin turned in Archie's direction.
"Now that Latour's said that you can ride--think you have a run in you?"

"A run?"

"Just down the hill to the trees." The grin became very slightly mocking.
"I'll give you a head start, if you like."

"You will not!" Archie retorted, suddenly nettled. He tagged Carmichael's
arm, then charged down the slope.

For a moment, they were neck and neck, then, despite the pack's extra weight,
Carmichael was drawing ahead. Archie managed one late burst of speed but not
enough to catch him before he disappeared into the grove. Dropping back to a
walk, Archie reached out to the first tree and leaned against it, breathing
deeply. It hurt, but not as much as it would have a month earlier.

"Just don't start bleeding," Carmichael said, coming back from his foray into
the trees. "Latour would kill me."

"I won't . . . tell him if you won't," Archie answered between gasps. He let
go of the tree and dropped to the ground, settling his back against it.
"What now?"

"Work," his commander said simply. Sitting down himself, he shrugged off the
pack, dug through it, and took out the canteen and a hinged wooden box. Out
of the box came paper and a stick of charcoal. Carmichael closed the box,
positioned the paper on top of it, desk-like, and passed the whole
arrangement to his subordinate.

"Map it out. Good enough for Rory to follow."

He meant the fortification, of course. Archie picked up the charcoal,
started from the center of the paper and took his time. The final result was
accurate, he thought, if not perfectly to scale.

"Good." Carmichael nodded approvingly. "Now--there's a force of six hundred
inside, three cannon mounted here," his finger pointed the guns out on the
map, "and possible reinforcements on the way from this direction." Again, he
pointed out the route. "Which would be the best place to launch an attack?"

"Here--or here." It was Archie's turn to point out spots on the map. "West
and southeast. The terrain gives better cover there . . . "

"How many men would you need?"

"Any number greater than six hundred would be ideal," Archie said dryly, and
saw the tomcat grin again.

"Could you do it with less?"

"You could do it with five hundred, but only on the western approach--it's
shorter and that's an advantage. Make it a night attack--then that's
surprise and darkness on your side."

The questions continued. Describe the terrain. Could you attack with four
hundred men? What if you had field armaments? Would an attack from the north
be possible at all? What about a siege action, instead of a direct attack?
How would you prevent the reinforcements from arriving? Could you split your
own forces and attack on two fronts? If you knew the area had frequent
storms, would that be enough cover to plan a northeast attack?

Despite weeks of other lessons, this was unquestionably the most intensive
work yet, but Archie found he was actually enjoying himself searching for
answers. There had been a very special kind of frustration on board the
Renown: after years of being trained, guided, and even pushed, to think
strategically, it was suffocating to be expected to do nothing but stand
quietly and listen passively to orders because any other response would draw
fire . . .

"All right," Carmichael's voice broke into Archie's reverie, "let's try on
the other shoe. If your orders were to hold the position, what would you do?"

That was not a question he had ever dealt with in training . . . but it
shouldn't be impossible to answer either. "With what resources? Artillery?"

"Artillery--you have five cannon." The feral grin was back. "Only three
hundred men, though. Where would you put the guns?"

Archie grabbed the map back--Carmichael didn't object--and tried to think
from the other perspective. If he was still attacking, where would the guns
give his forces the most trouble? Of course . . . "Two here, and two here.
And the last one--overlooking the western side because it seems the most
likely point for an assault."

The answers came more slowly, made him think harder each time, but they came.
The only question he had to declare himself stumped by--and he pleaded lack
of experience--dealt with the deployment of cavalry.

"But still," Carmichael declared, drinking from the canteen and passing it
over, "better than I expected. You've a good, trained eye."

Archie detected the faint note of surprise in his voice and stared at him,
feeling the sweet, amused satisfaction that comes with disconcerting one's
superior officer. "You didn't think I could do it. You thought I'd fall on
my face!"

"I didn't *know* you could do it," Carmichael corrected, unperturbed by
Archie's reading his mind. "And better fall on your face with me than with
Old Nick."

Archie took another drink and returned the canteen, then leaned back against
the tree. He still felt pleased with his work, but was just as glad it was
over for now. After a few minutes, though, his memory stirred. "What was
that about, back at the lodge?"

"Hmm?"

"Dr. Latour. He waved at you--that's not his usual greeting."

"Oh, that. Nothing much."

Carmichael's tone was so perfectly casual that it roused Archie's suspicions.
Trying to sound equally casual, he said, "I thought he was in London."

"No, he's been back these three days--" Caught out, Carmichael stopped and
glared sourly at Archie. "You little git! Maybe you're better suited for
this work than I thought."

Archie ignored that, intent on his own discovery about Carmichael and Latour.
"Then he's been telling you--the two of you have been--*why*?" he ended,
finding himself suddenly unable to produce a completely worded inquiry.

Carmichael grinned. "Why keep Old Nick off you?"

Archie nodded.

"Because he's not one to deal with if you're not up to fighting weight."

"Oh," Archie said, in a very small voice. It was startling and disconcerting
to learn that, despite his recent progress, he had been measured, judged, and
found--*still* vulnerable. In need of protection, again. He remained
grateful for it, but it was becoming . . . a little embarrassing. Not to
mention somewhat mortifying to his pride. *I shouldn't need protection at
my age, damn it.*

Carmichael seemed to be trying to relieve that embarrassment. "Latour said
he reckoned you were still grieving."

Archie started to reply . . . and then discovered abruptly that speech was
beyond him. The sound that did emerge from his throat was nearly twin to the
one in the infirmary when Latour had found that unhealed spot--a small moan
of total, unexpected pain.

*Still grieving * . . .

It was a great deal too much truth in five minutes. He tried one more time
for words and found his throat locked up completely, panicked, and drew his
knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them, and ducking his head to
hide his face as the overwhelming enormity of loss crashed down on him, like
a storm wave crashing over the bow.

*Grieving* . . .

Suddenly and terribly, he missed them all . . . his sisters and their
families . . . his betrothed--the memory was too painful for him even to
*think* her name. One-and-twenty in March; they had been counting the days
when no one could stop them from marrying at last. As he wrenched his
thoughts away, the pain of the other losses struck with equal intensity. All
the companions of his daytime hours: poor young Wellard; Bush, who had just
started becoming a friend; other and older friends left behind on
Indefatigable; Captain Pellew, Matthews, and Styles; and then, aside from
*her*, the hardest, most painful loss of all . . .

He still found himself looking for Horatio--that was part of it. Looking and
half-expecting to find him. Ahead of him on the stairs, or beside him
unexpectedly, or just beyond his shoulder. Horatio would have been in his
element here, like a fish to water. But instead he was out there, somewhere,
thinking Archie was dead and probably blaming himself for it in some way.
>From the depths of his own loneliness and misery, Archie could guess very
accurately at Horatio's.

The *sound* slipped out of his throat again. Archie hugged his knees tighter,
felt himself shivering, fought desperately for control. Oh God, oh God . . .

*****

*Oh shit! That just made everything worse!* Carmichael watched in dismay as
his newest subordinate hunched himself into a protected ball like an unhappy
snail. Mentally, he kicked himself. *You had to keep talking,
wood-for-brains. You couldn't shut up for once? Bloody, bloody hell.*

*And what do I do now?*

Carmichael rubbed his jaw with the back of his hand and considered. He had
seen an abundance of battlefields, and the attendant grief afterwards, it
wasn't hard to guess what was happening to Stewart right now. If the tears
came, they came, and the younger man deserved his privacy. Or if, as seemed
equally possible, he was trying *not* to weep . . .

If he *was* trying not to weep, then touching him or saying anything kind
would be a mistake that could far too easily tip him in the wrong direction.
And as for saying anything other than kind . . .

That was the sort of trick that Old Nick himself might pull, and Carmichael
suspected that Stewart had been pushed and pulled more than enough in that
way, if Latour was to be believed.

No. Find some other solution. Carmichael turned away from Stewart and
pulled his pack over, making an extended and slightly over-noisy business of
packing up the map-making kit and storing it in its box. Digging through the
pack, he first unearthed the whiskey flask, then found serendipitously, three
apples and half a loaf of yesterday's bread.

For a moment, he wished he smoked a pipe--apparently getting one to light and
draw properly was a complicated and lengthy business. But he had never had
the opportunity or the inclination simultaneously, and as for the money
involved . . . well, in a choice between whiskey or tobacco, one preference
would win every time.

Lacking a pipe, he picked up an apple instead, laid the pack down for a prop,
leaned against it with one elbow for support and Stewart solidly within his
range of vision. Let him settle himself, without outside interference.
Ordinary life was going on, and when Stewart was ready, it was waiting for
him to rejoin it.

*****

He did not weep, in the end, but it was a close-run thing. The pain did not
recede, only dulled down slowly to a more bearable level. Archie did not
raise his head but turned his face away from his knees at last, feeling the
cool air against his skin.

Carmichael considered the flushed, ravaged, but dry-eyed countenance of his
subordinate with some satisfaction, then silently passed him the whiskey
flask.

Archie had just enough awareness to note it was *not* the canteen, and took a
very small swallow accordingly. The raw fire burned in his throat and choked
him slightly, then set off a coughing spasm that lasted nearly a minute.
When he could finally speak again, the words he managed to produce were not
the ones he had anticipated.

"What *is* that? It's--" further description failed him, "it's bloody awful!"

"They told me it was whiskey," Carmichael answered, reclaiming the flask and
drinking from it himself. "I'm thinking they lied."

"They were if they told you it was *good* whiskey," Archie muttered. He
leaned his head back against the tree, concentrating on taking deep, slow
breaths.

"Who was it, then?" Carmichael asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral. He
saw Stewart's head come up, saw the anguish in the blue eyes that closed
quickly as Archie shook his head.

"No . . . it wasn't them." Archie stopped shaking his head, unhappily opened
his eyes. Carmichael passed over the flask again and he took it, suddenly
wanting a drink. This time, better prepared, he took two swallows without the
previous disaster. "They didn't die, *I* did."

Carmichael waited.

"I was--gallows bait. Not quite like Rory. But I was badly wounded and
everyone thought . . . I thought it, too. And there was someone else in
danger. So I confessed and they believed me. And I believed I was dying . .
. and then I didn't."

"And you woke up a week later, and Old Nick had you. You need another
drink." Carmichael leaned back and studied the sky briefly. A slight change
in subject might be helpful. "When I first came to work for him," he
reminisced, "someone warned me: if you shake his hand, count your fingers
after."

"Then why do you work for him?" Archie grasped at the distraction.

"Because I like the money?" Carmichael suggested, not without some
amusement. "Because he's got the sense not to sack me for insubordination?"
He saw Stewart's mouth twitch in what was not quite a smile. "Because . . .
he can see trouble coming, years ahead, and I've never known him to be wrong
about that yet. And because he'll get you out alive."

"Always?"

Carmichael's tone was quelling. "As often as possible. We don't get
guarantees, in this business." He paused. "So Old Nick said he had a claim
to you and you didn't like it--I had that from Latour. But there was more,
wasn't there? Something Old Nick did. What's the rest of it?"

Archie's breath caught, and he felt the blood draining from his face.
Carmichael saw the panic come into his eyes, took a chance, and caught him
quickly and lightly by the shoulders, holding him back before he could curl
up again.

"*No,*" Carmichael said firmly but not loudly. Tawny eyes locked steadily
with stricken blue ones. "No more of that." He felt the balance wavering,
tipping . . . saw Archie's breathing quicken and the rapid pulse at his
throat. The older man went on, his voice level.

"You're ours, now. We may all depend on you one day. If there's something
that makes you come apart, we need to know about it. No more jumping down a
hole and pulling it in after you."

The balance swung, shifted . . . Archie struggled to control his breathing
again.

*You're one of us* . . .

*You can't let us down * . . . Oh, God.

Did he dare to trust anyone? Could he bear not to, after so long a time?

*We may all depend on you one day.* They were trusting him already . . .

He felt his fingers digging into the grass, anchoring him, managed finally to
capture one long, long breath and leaned back against the tree. Carmichael
released him but stayed close, watching.

The words seemed to come from very far away when he found them, as if they
were being dredged up from the bottom of a well.

"I told him," Archie said faintly, at last. "I told him I was a
self-confessed felon . . . a *dead* self-confessed felon, and I didn't have
anything left to lose." He shivered suddenly, and Carmichael realized he was
seeing what Latour had seen.

"And?" he prompted.

Another shiver. "And he showed me I was wrong."

*****
*****
(Three months earlier)

"It was a foolish attempt."

Archie kept his eyes down and did not respond.

"You will not be permitted another."

His body wanted to react; he forced it to remain unmoving. Old lessons,
learned painfully from a terrible time and place. Kilcarron was deliberately
provoking him, baiting him for reasons of his own. Why?

"Did you think I would *not* learn that you were trying to starve yourself?"

Then you *are* having me spied on! Some instinct prompted Archie to hold
back the words.

"It was also a bit . . . unworthy. Might I remind you, Lazarus, that the
debt is on your side now?"

"I don't deny the debt," Archie said carefully, looking up. His eyes met the
earl's colder, harder ones. "I do deny that it gives you the right to order
what's left of my life."

"And yet you were willing to throw that life away, in what you believed a
worthy cause. If I restore what you had ceased to value--does that not leave
me with some proprietary rights? The extent of your indebtedness is hardly
inconsiderable. To preserve your life, conceal your identity, even provide
for your funeral." Kilcarron seemed to be attempting some heavy-handed form
of graveyard humor. "The entirety of the proceedings took no small effort on
my part. It would seem that I own you, Lazarus. Body and soul."

He did not see the shock that went through his listener.

 

// "Say it."

Pinned down on the floor of Justinian's cable tier, tasting tears and blood.
He had already been beaten so badly that movement hurt, and breathing hurt,
and lying still hurt. And worse than beaten--that had happened too, and his
body ached in places that made him sick to think about--but even that horror
was almost less than the violation being forced on him now.

"Say it," Simpson repeated, and the point of the knife pricked just under
Archie's jaw. "We both know it's true, boy. I *own* you. Say it."

Archie turned his head away, feeling Simpson's weight on him, trying to find
a rhythm of breathing that would be less painful.

"Say it."

"No!" Archie whispered in hopeless defiance. The single word was all he
could trust his voice to say without sobbing in pain, and he already knew the
likely consequences.

The knife drew away. Simpson's backhand caught him across the mouth. Archie
felt his lip bleeding, beginning to swell. He twisted about, still trying to
resist, and found suddenly that one hand had slipped loose from the jacket
sleeve that had trapped it under him.

With one last, frantic surge of energy, he tried to roll over, struggling to
dislodge Simpson and grabbing desperately for the knife. His frenzied desire
for escape lent him a brief advantage, but it was his child's strength and
size against a grown man bent on cruelty. After a moment of surprise in
finding Archie had freed his hands, Simpson fought back expertly and
ruthlessly, hitting Archie once in the solar plexus and knocking his wind
out, then grabbing his hair and striking his head twice against the boards,
and last, shoving his knee into Archie's chest, pinning him down again.

Stunned and struggling for breath, Archie felt the tears of despair in his
eyes and shut them. It was a pitiful, weak defense--he couldn't hide the
tears, any more than he could hide the bruises--but it was all he had.

Hard fingers closed around his throat, and he opened his eyes.

"I'm not finished with you yet!" Simpson snarled. "Now say it, boy." One
hand caught Archie's hair again, pulling his head back, the other hand laying
the tip of the knife just next to his left eye. "Say it. 'You own me, Mr.
Simpson.'"

Archie inhaled in one brief, choked sob--then heard his voice whispering the
shameful, terrible words. He hated himself for saying them, hated his
tormentor, and felt the trapped, helpless rage as the words burned his soul
like hot iron. They could never be taken back--both he and Simpson would
always know he had been forced to say them.

The gloating voice was in his ears already. "You'll remember now, boy.
Remember who owns you--body and soul." //

 

 

No! Archie jerked himself back from the memory, shook his head slightly.
How old had he been? Fourteen? Twelve? Although his desperate attempts at
resistance had always met the cruelest defeat and punishment, there had been
times when the price of *not* resisting had been too much to bear. But he
was no longer that defenseless child.

Why remember that now, and so vividly? Whatever else, he was not in physical
danger . . .but he was undeniably in someone else's power. The realization
of his own helplessness was hot and galling.

"No," he heard himself say aloud, in a low voice he barely recognized, his
muscles trembling suddenly with shock and anger.

Kilcarron was studying him, his forehead creased slightly into a frown. "No,
what?"

"No, you don't own my soul. Or my body or any other part of me that I don't
agree to." Archie felt the words tumbling almost feverishly from his mouth,
and tried to stop them. He needed cold control to deal with this adversary,
but it kept slipping away, into the burning, pent-up rage caused by pain,
anger, and an underlying fear. "I'm not your puppet. If that's what you
would make of me, then I'm no better than your prisoner. And even a prisoner
might prefer death to captivity! If I wanted to take my life, I don't think
you could stop me!"

The line of Kilcarron's mouth tautened. "There are ways to prevent it. They
may be somewhat--undignified--but effective. You could be restrained, if
necessary, or simply kept sedated until we made land."

Archie's mouth went dry at the suggestion. "You wouldn't" suddenly seemed a
very dangerous thing to say. Instead, he struck back, recklessly. "Then I
*am* a prisoner."

"No." Kilcarron sounded nettled. "Very well. Say--an involuntary guest."

"A conscript, then. My duty would be to escape, in any possible way."

"*If* you were still a serving officer."

Archie barely kept from flinching at the caustic reminder. But seeing the
faint flush on the earl's own pale skin, he felt a possibly unwise but
vindictive satisfaction. *This time, I provoked HIM.*

"Nevertheless," Kilcarron continued, "neither binding nor drugging you would
be considered acceptable by your physician. And I do know, ultimately, a
better way to elicit your cooperation."

Archie maintained his silence.

"You *were* an officer--it would appear, at least, that you remain a
gentleman. You will give me your word that you will make no further such
attempts."

"Like a parole? Then you're confirming I'm a prisoner."

"Not--" Kilcarron was growing noticeably vexed. "Why do you persist in
regarding your situation in that light? I can assure you, you have been far
better treated. But your skills are required and necessary--if you attempt
to deprive me of them, then you invite certain consequences."

"What are you threatening--that if I attempt to commit suicide you'll have me
hanged? I'm already a confessed felon--a *dead* self-confessed felon--I
don't have anything left to lose."

"Except your living--the ones you left behind you. Something to reconsider
when you are acquainted with these additional facts. I know what happened
that night in the hold."

*That* was a blow Archie had not expected; he felt his heart and breathing
quicken, tried to suppress any sign of fear.

"You can't know! Now, tell me you had a man of yours on the Renown!"

"But I did, Lazarus. You."

Archie froze.

"You had--quite a lot to say, under the opiates. Shall I give you the
details?"

*While he had been unconscious, or drugged into deep slumber . . . oh God.
Oh my God . . . *

"You met there, all of you, because it was becoming clear that Captain Sawyer
was dangerously unstable. And later, when he fell down the hatchway . . . you
weren't alone."

Archie's mouth was dry again, his stomach trying to tie itself into cold,
hard knots. He could not tell what his face was showing--only that Kilcarron
was undoubtedly reading it. And that suddenly he didn't trust his own voice
to respond. But he didn't have to--Kilcarron was speaking again.

"Let me make myself understood. I have the power to get that trial
re-opened. In England. I can have questions asked that you went to
considerable lengths to prevent being asked. And I can have these questions
put to someone you took even greater measures to protect. Someone on his way
to England. And I shall do it--unless you give me your word: that you are in
my employ, and that you will cease trying to end your life. Because I
promise you--if you do succeed in putting a period to your existence, I shall
regard it as theft. And there are penalties for theft. He is, after all, of
no particular use to *me*. His life is the price for yours."

Archie felt the trembling start, deep in his bones, felt the blood draining
from his face as it had drained from his wounds in the courtroom. Reason
faded, leaving only two thoughts chasing themselves in frenzied circles
inside his head. Horatio--still in danger? The trial re-opened--and
Horatio convicted on evidence taken from Archie's own mouth? A monstrous,
screaming void yawned before him--he was going to fall into it just as Sawyer
had fallen . . .

His mind whirled, but could not find a way out of the trap; he could no
longer control his breathing, now coming hard and fast . . .

Kilcarron was pressing his advantage. "Give me your word--on all
conditions--or his life is forfeit."

*****
"So you gave him your word," Carmichael said without surprise.

Archie nodded, eyes closed. He took three long, careful breaths, struggled
painfully to bring the words out. "I would have said . . . or promised . . .
or done *anything* to keep him from . . ." The shivering took him over before
he could finish. "What he told me I'd said . . .while I'd been sleeping--"
Abruptly, he lost his voice again.

"That would have leveled anyone. And after that," Carmichael stopped. He knew
the rest from what Latour had said. Shock, nerves, and nightmares.

The right thing to say--neither kind nor unkind. They had spent the day in
the professional vein--maybe that was the solution.

"First thing I would say is," Carmichael resumed, considering how to bring
his subordinate out of the mental pit he had plunged into, "it's likely he
hit you harder than he meant." Or needed to, but Carmichael wasn't going to
say that, for reasons of his own. "Then on *your* side--poor tactics. And
damned bad strategy, twice over."

"What?" Archie stared; Carmichael's eyes meeting his were sternly
disapproving.

"If I have this right . . . Latour wasn't letting you out of bed yet. And
you tried to take on Old Nick by yourself when you couldn't even stand up."

Archie flushed uncomfortably. "Well, yes, but--

"If you were Rory's age, you'd get a thrashing for that much foolishness. Or
at least a thick ear."

Coming from the person who continually missed Rory's ear, that was
provocation. "A thick ear to match a thick head?" Archie retorted, stung.

"Or eating your dinner off the mantelpiece. It was more guts than sense, and
you know it."

Unfortunately, Archie discovered, he couldn't find an answer to that.
Carmichael went on.

"And then swallowing the rest whole."

"What do you mean?"

"He played you, boy. Played you like one of those damned pipes, and you
believed every word."

"But--do you mean--he wouldn't--" Archie faltered, then stopped, dizzy and
confused in a way that had nothing to do with the whiskey.

"Oh, he has the power to do it, if he says so. And he might even have meant
it, at the time, if you'd gotten as well under his skin as you thought. But
he wouldn't waste a man's life. Most likely, he'd try and recruit him in
your place."

"N-no." Archie shook his head. "He said he had no other use for him."

"Maybe not the same way he intended to use you. But he'd find some way to
serve his purpose. He's a Scot, remember. *Thrifty.* He'll squeeze five
pence ha'penny until he makes six out of it."

"But he told me--"

"And you *believed* him," Carmichael repeated, severely.

Archie stared at him again, suddenly seeing a new side of his commanding
officer--beyond the cheerfully insubordinate tomcat and the canny infantry
sergeant. Here was the king's agent, with a mercilessly analytical mind
trained by Nicholas Crawford himself.

"Think again," Carmichael challenged. "You've known him more than three
months now--do you really think he'd tell you the whole truth if he thought a
half would do?"

Archie's jumbled thoughts came to an abrupt standstill. It was like looking
through the glass, when everything finally came into focus.

Horatio was not in danger.

*Horatio was not in danger.* And Archie had given his word. And . . .

He wanted to faint from relief. He wanted to swear. He wanted to weep. He
wanted to break things. He wanted to vomit. He wanted to hit Nicholas
Crawford. Completely at a loss for words, he put out his hand, and Carmichael
put the flask in it.

He didn't know how much longer he sat there, the poisonous tension draining
out of him at last, . . . but when he remembered to look up he saw
Carmichael's knowing expression.

"You're saying I let him do this to me." Ten weeks and more of being haunted,
hag-ridden, and ill. "And then I did this to myself."

A nod. "Don't do it again."

*Oh God, what a fool I've been.* Archie felt himself going limp, then caught
Carmichael's eyes again. Another debt owed . . . he struggled to sit up
straighter.

"There's something else you need to know. You and the division." The second
fear that had crucified him for nearly three months.

The tawny eyes sparked with interest. "Go on."

Quietly, drained of emotion, Archie told him about the fits that had plagued
him since childhood. "Sometimes I would know when they were coming--but not
always. And I haven't had one for more than six years. But I suppose they
could start again. I was . . . worried they might, on the ship, all the way
to Scotland."

Between wounds and weakness, he had been afraid that a seizure might kill
him. Unwilling to live on Crawford's terms, but afraid to die due to the
threatened consequences . . . the two fears had racked him for the remainder
of the voyage.

"That's a bit of a facer." Carmichael's tone was thoughtful. "Does Old Nick
know about it?"

Archie turned his open hands up helplessly. "I don't know."

"Latour *doesn't* know," Carmichael mused. "Or he would have told me.
Unless Old Nick didn't bother to tell *him.* That's still quite possible.
He's a right bastard nine days out of ten--no, nine *minutes* out of ten.
But you say they've stopped for years?"

"Yes." Archie nodded wearily.

"Latour *should* know--but we won't worry about it otherwise. For now."
Carmichael got to his feet. "Got another run in you?"

"Another . . .?" Archie lifted his head away from the supporting tree trunk,
felt a different, familiar dizziness blurring his vision briefly. "I'll be
lucky if I can stand up after that!" he said frankly, gesturing at the flask.

"Oh." Carmichael laughed, briefly and silently. "I forgot--you needed it
more than I did." He reached for the pack, dug out the canteen, and tossed
it over. "Finish that one off, too."

They shared out the apples as well, and the remainder of the bread. Chasing
a mouthful of bread with a mouthful of water, Archie at last began to feel as
though he might be able to stand up without falling over.

"Carmichael?"

"Mm?"

Archie forced himself to meet the tawny eyes again. "I won't . . . come
apart. On you or the others. It's just that . . . it--hurts, when I think
about them."

"There's not an easy answer for that," Carmichael said slowly. "But if
there's no other way--then stop thinking." He reached over, gripped Archie's
forearm in reassurance. "Don't think. Just--get on with the job."

*Concentrate on the task at hand. It'll help keep your mind off the pain* . .
.

He wondered if one's own advice was always so difficult to take.

*****

After a time, his sense of balance restored, Archie clambered to his feet,
using the tree trunk for support. Carmichael watched with raised brows but
did not comment as they began to walk back.

Although the pace was leisurely, Archie still felt light-headed. Not
precisely drunk but "having drink taken," as one of the Irish seamen aboard
the Indy had said once. But light-headedness was preferable to some of the
alternatives.

Falling into the abyss . . . sheer, mindless terror . . .

Kilcarron's threats had touched off a whirligig of shock and panic . . . a
furious Latour had promptly barred the earl from the sickroom. The danger to
Horatio from what his unconscious words had already revealed had terrified
Archie into silence - and more. Desperately, he had struggled against sleep,
lest he betray himself and Horatio further . . .

Until his exhausted body and mind together had betrayed *him*, with the
nightmares.

No! Archie returned to the present with a start, shook himself a little. He
would *not* remember those - fragments of old, past horrors mingling with
terrifying visions of the future he had sacrificed everything to avert.
Pressing his lips together, he concentrated grimly only on his feet.

Carmichael, flicking a calculating glance at his subordinate, noticed the
taut mouth, downcast eyes, and dogged silence. A small salutary jolt might
be in order.

"A question," he said aloud, and saw the younger man glance his way. "What
makes you think you're the only one who ever turned him down?"

Blue eyes widened in surprise. "You?"

"It was a long time before I came to work for Old Nick." Carmichael smiled
slightly. "I was a soldier . . . I was a *sergeant* and a damned good one.
Old Nick came around and offered me a post. And I said, Thank you sir, but
not now.' And later on he came back again and I said, Thank you sir, but
not now.' And then things changed. " Carmichael stopped, tawny eyes
shadowed with unwanted memories. "There were too many . . . " he shook
himself. "That's a story for another day. But Old Nick came around one more
time, and I said, Thank you sir, I'll be there tomorrow.'"

"It seems - I'm lucky that you did," Archie muttered, after a brief pause.

Silence fell again - but a far more amenable one--that lasted for the remainder
of the walk. As they came at last within sight of the lodge, Archie
discovered that his whole body was sagging with fatigue. He was neither as
drowsy as he had been after that first trip to the river, nor as jangled and
unstrung as he had been after the fencing bout, but still -

Leaning against the wall outside his room, he blinked almost owlishly at
Carmichael, who had accompanied him up the stairs.

"I think I should stop going for walks with you," Archie mused, enunciating
each word with careful precision, as the whiskey once more made itself felt.
"I always seem to come back . . .con-considerably the worse for wear."

An unrepentant tomcat grin showed itself at his words. Carmichael opened the
door for him. "You need to go sleep it off."

This time, Archie managed clothes, shoes, and blankets by himself.

*****

He had expected to sleep the clock round, but found himself opening his eyes
some time before first light.

*What?* Archie turned over, discovered his body drawing certain matters
sharply to his attention.

*Oh. All that whiskey. And the water, afterward.*

He found what he required, and dealt with the need. Afterwards, he glanced
over at his bed, but his mind was clear now, and restless. Trying to go back
to sleep would likely prove futile. Wrapping a blanket around his shoulders,
Archie wandered over to the window-seat and curled up there, watching the sky
slowly lighten.

He did not feel quite empty - or quite free. But the poison had been drained
from the wound, the worst of the fear had gone. And after weeks of studying
and working with his new colleagues, much of his resistance - caused by his
sense of coercion--had crumbled too. There was some anger left - the memory of
Kilcarron's manipulations could still make him seethe - but the anger had not
kept him from learning.

And the grief would always be there, for the ones he had left behind. He
would never stop loving them, never stop feeling their loss. But for the
first time, he felt as though he might not die of the pain. And perhaps it
was *not* a dream, or totally impossible that one day . . .

"Eat, rest, and have hope." Latour had said that, months ago. Archie had
chosen uncertainty then, and whatever remote hope was possible, that somehow
they might all be restored to each other. And until then . . .

They would go on with their lives. However painful that realization might
be, he could not wish it otherwise. They would make decisions, choose
futures--in which he played no part. But that was how it should be. He
wanted them to be happy, even without him.

And he had his life too - what would he do with it? He was being trained for a
profession into which he had been conscripted, that he had not chosen.

*You did not choose the Navy, either. But you made what you could of it.*
And he had succeeded, in many ways.

Could he succeed here, as an agent? Continue until there was a chance that
his distant hope could be realized? And after?

Leaning his forehead against the cool glass of the windowpane, he saw the
pale, misty colors streaking the sky: saffron, rose, and blue.

In a new day--all things seemed possible.

 

END PART TWELVE