Heaven or Hell
by Dunnage41


Some three years ago, Mellaithwen posted an HH fic on the FanFiction.Net boards called "Taken" that provided an AU in which Hornblower was taken prisoner with no chance of escape. I've taken that basic framework as inspiration and created my own fic, with thanks and apologies as they may be due to Mellaithwen. Faithfully, Dunnage41.
//
Once the darkness had fallen completely, Horatio Hornblower gave an experimental tug to first his right hand, then his left. Each was still securely shackled to the stone wall against which he leaned, and neither showed any sign of weakening. The only effect his efforts produced was to send fresh trickles of blood along his inner arms from where he had newly abraded his wrists. He did not bother with his ankles. They were too raw to consider any further effort.
//
Tilting his head back, he swallowed hard, ignoring the flare of pain the movement produced, and thought back to the events of his capture. Was there anything he could have, should have, done differently? The answer must be "of course," as here he was, but for his life, he could not think of what it might be.
~*~*~*~*~
"Moi soutenir que vous se rendre," the French officer had bellowed, and Hornblower had paused long enough to shoot the seaman approaching him from behind before roaring his reply:
//
"Moi regretter – jamais."
//
Then, too quickly, two pairs of burly arms had swept him off the deck and he felt himself flying weightless through the air. A viciously hard blow as the side of his head struck something unyielding and he knew no more.
//
Mercifully he was spared the knowledge of the men in the boat binding and gagging him, yanking him upright, his head lolling weakly to one side, legs buckling feebly as he fought for consciousness. Spared the knowledge that he'd had a knife to his throat and spared the hoarse French cheers as the boat made off with its prize. Spared the knowledge that the French ship the Indy's crew had boarded had itself been taken by thieves only hours earlier. When the horrible mistake had been realized, the Indy had fired a last desperate broadside into her and recalled the Indy's own men. It had cost Pellew two officers and six seamen ... as well as Hornblower. Thieving a French ship and sailing it, under French colors, right into a battle against a British frigate. It was against all the Articles of War but this lot seemed to be unfamiliar with said Articles.
~*~*~*~*~
A dull clank recalled him to the present. His heart sank as he saw the two largest seamen entering his cell behind the man he had come to think of as the Keeper of the Keys. Smaller than his muscle men, yet muscular himself, he seemed to be the ringleader of the shore crew, the remnants of the larger knot of brigands who had rused the Indy. He dressed not in uniform nor even its remnants but in loose duck trousers ragged from wear and a once-fine waistcoat over his bronzed torso.
//
"Se lever," he snapped.
//
Hornblower automatically started to rise, then abruptly sat down again. Pain had shot sharply through the bones of his bottom, now raw from sitting and abuse, and the shackles had ground against his filthy wrists again. The way he was chained he could neither stand nor lie down, and they knew it. The Keeper of the Keys laughed shortly, then strode over and unlocked the shackles. He knew also that Hornblower was now in far too weakened a condition to pose any threat. He jerked his head toward the larger men, and they stepped forward and dragged him out. His bare feet scraped the rough ground, adding to the abrasions already there, and he bit his lip till the blood came to keep from crying out.
//
Then he was tossed to the ground. He tried to raise his head and glare at his captors, but a fortnight of near-starvation and hardly any water had enfeebled him. He bit back an oath as he felt his greatest efforts producing scarcely any movement.
//
Then the first blow came..
//
This time it was a kick to the belly and he curled protectively inward for the next flurry. God! A heavily booted foot had caught him in the back and he winced, wondering about the damage to his kidneys. Whoever had delivered the kick had found pleasure in it for he followed it with several more. The blows rained down and he could dimly hear from his captors' voices that they had found a source of liquor even before some of it sloshed onto the threadbare shirtsleeve clinging to his arm. The smell made him gag and he would have braced himself but had no strength to do so. Instead, beyond caring, he felt his body wrack with coughing as his innards tried to disgorge the contents of an all too empty belly.
//
After an eternity of kicks and blows, the leader decided his men had had their fun and roughly ordered him to be dragged back to his cell and rechained. No one cared that he had fouled himself. He had a hard time making himself care.
//
Somehow, beyond all expectation, sleep came upon him. It scarcely refreshed him but when next he was aware of his surroundings, the dull light of dawn penetrated the opening of his makeshift cell, a cave on a rock ledge surrounded by forest.
//
He breathed deeply, wincing as pain shot through his ribcage. Gingerly he tried what limited movement his shackles allowed him and clinically took stock. His head had received a fresh blow, but it had not been a severe one, he guessed. He felt no blood there. His face had new bruisings over the old ones and his left eye was newly swelled shut. His lip was no longer bleeding. His throat remained raw and the constant stabbing pain in his left shoulder spoke of a broken bone. His chest and back felt dull with the aftermath of a flurry of kicks and his bottom was raw from the unrelieved seated position in which he found himself. His knees were stiff; carefully he flexed them, grimacing at the newly pulped sensation in his feet..
//
He should have died.
//
He should have knocked his head backward against the man holding him in the boat, swung the weight of his upper body against one of the men, struggled, flopped overboard and, hands and feet tied, drifted slowly and inexorably into the cool eternity of the ocean rather than cause such a logistical nightmare to his captain and crew. Now they were surely wasting time and resources and making themselves vulnerable searching for him. He knew that his jail was not far from the ocean because he could hear it, but the ears can play tricks on one, and his left ear was unreliable since he had dived below to examine the hole in the Marie Galante. Perhaps he was only imagining the closeness.
//
Something liquid trickled where he sat and instinctively his body jerked in revulsion. Then the smell came to his nose. Not urine. He had become accustomed to that. This was blood. There was a fresh raw place there and now it was bleeding. He closed his eyes and wished for death. Death was embracing, death was forgiving, death was warm and healing. In death he could never disappoint, in death he could never fail, in death he could never endanger his comrades. In death there would be no duty. Death seemed to offer only benefits and he was beyond desiring anything in the vale called life, a vale that now consisted of armed, drunken misfits who delighted in beating a weakling, a dodger and a pitiful soul who demonstrated the worst of a British officer – cowardice.
//
He was a coward certain sure. He made no attempt to escape, no attempt to resist his captors, no longer swore at them or struggled against the blows. He only lay inert and waited for them to stop. He expected that before long they would tire of their plaything and casually send a bullet to his brain. It was the only hope he felt; the hope that one of them would kill him without realizing how merciful an act it would be.
//
Dimly he heard an argument. "Je disais a vous devoir fair surveiller lui pendant le jour ainsi que," the leader growled.
//
It was the same argument. The Keeper of the Keys insisting that he needed to be guarded during the day as well as after dark. Then the unexpectedly soft voice of one of the others.
//
"Pas de une viendront pour lui. Le fait pas substance."
//
Hornblower felt bile rise in his throat and fought the urge to vomit; he knew his belly contained nothing to disgorge. Feebly he spat the small amount of blood and watched dispassionately as it trickled between his feet. "They will not come for him. It does not matter."
//
He was right. They had wearied of their plaything. The beating last night had been almost perfunctory. Soon, very soon, they would shoot him. He closed his eyes and found himself praying for death. He neither knew nor cared to whom he addressed his petitions.
//
The men found other ways of occupying their time. In the afternoon the Keeper of the Keys came in and poured filthy water down his throat with mock gentility, bowing afterward. He shoved a section of potato into Hornblower's mouth and bowed again before turning his back and quitting the space. "Je suis votre serviteur, monsieur," he said, the deliberate pauses between each word making the false servitude all the more mocking.
//
Hornblower dully chewed and swallowed, despairing at the crumbs that escaped him and mocking himself for his despair. Once more he prayed for death. Sleep came instead, and when his eyes opened again the night was full dark. He heard the men carousing, shouting, snatches of song, the occasional gunshot fired into the air. Somewhere they had procured a quantity of liquor and displayed no forethought about storing any for the future. They were drunk as lords, Hornblower thought wearily. He could not make himself care. He expected that another beating would come next. Perhaps this time they really would shoot him. Would it dawn on them how much he wanted it? He must not let his face show it, if he had not already given himself away.
//
The noise died down as the night wore on. First one, then the next, then the third man, stupefied by liquor, fell asleep. Renewed by the knowledge, Hornblower engaged all his limited strength in trying to disengage the chains from the wall. Again he achieved nothing but fresh streams of blood. He swallowed back the cry of despair that rose in his throat. The noise must have awakened the men because he heard shots in rapid succession, one, two, three ... then nothing. They were likely reloading.
//
"I see a future in you, Mr. Hornblower," Pellew had said softly. Dear God. Whence had that tortured thought come? Pellew would be furious. Long after Hornblower was mercifully dead, Pellew would torment him for his inattention. He blinked. He could all but see Pellew in front of him. The blue broadcloth of his back, the neat graying queue, one hand raised, holding a lantern. He blinked again. Perhaps this was death, perhaps as the veil fell upon his enfeebled shoulders he would be graced with the sight of Pellew's face, stern but kind.
//
A cough racked Hornblower's skeletal frame. The apparition of eternity whirled and Hornblower saw Pellew's face, looking not kind but shocked.
//
"Mr. Hornblower!" Pellew hissed. He turned his head. "Indefatigable to me!" A clumping of feet and there stood several marines and a midshipman ... Hether? Hornblower squinted. Now Pellew had a gun in his hand.
//
That was it. He was dead. He was surprised that he still felt pain. He was unsurprised, however, that in his final delirium his deliverer should turn out to be Pellew himself.
//
Dully he watched Pellew aim the gun ... and shoot off the lock from the cave. In an instant Pellew's warm hand cradled Hornblower's cheek, matted and filthy and with hair clinging disgustingly to it. "Hornblower," he repeated, softly, and Hornblower heard him swallow, hard. He held out his other hand and the marine laid a pistol into it. God, what a queer thing the brain was. Pellew was going to guide him paternally into his death.
//
Pellew gently moved his hand from Hornblower's face and lifted a wrist, grimacing in answer to the involuntary grimace of pain Hornblower showed.
//
"Have a care, Mr. Hornblower," Pellew warned softly, and with skill shot open the manacle. Then another gun, another shot. Hornblower's arms fell limply to his sides. Surely death should bring surcease of pain. As in a dream he heard shuffling of feet, two more shots. His legs fell sprawled uselessly, but he had no more sounds for the awful pain that accompanied the involuntary movement.
//
He felt himself lifted from the ground. This was it; this was death at last, and soon he would feel her welcoming embrace. Death's warm embrace, oddly, felt like nothing so much as being carried in strong arms. Hornblower lapsed into semiconsciousness. He failed to see Pellew's face darken as the doctor laid a hand to the grime- and blood-soaked brow and pronounced a fever. He failed to register the chills that swept his body and even the cough that wracked his frail frame. He failed to see the line of blood that trailed after him past the three dead thieves, taken off guard by the element of surprise. He slept, lulled by the waves, as the boat made its jerkily rhythmic way through the water. He slept as he was carefully arranged in a sling and hoisted aboard the Indefatigable. He slept as the doctor and his assistant sponged him all over and sluiced away the grime and the dried blood and the remains of maggots that had begun to feast. He slept as the
doctor examined him, only occasionally moaning in pain but without opening his eyes. He slept with skin paler than milk and cheeks flushed with fever, with bones jutting and frame without strength. He slept and slept and slept. At last he was home.
//
He smelt coffee. At last. The awful transition had ended and his life was now over. Heaven or hell, he had arrived and the sailor in him itched to know where he had made port. He forced open his eyes as much as he could. The right one opened, blearily; the left one was still swollen shut. He saw a blurred familiar figure sitting on a chair and drinking coffee.
//
"Ah, Mr. Hornblower." The familiar greeting. What the devil! The possibilities whirled. Surely he was dead. At the very least his pains had greatly eased. Something was cushioning the raw soreness of his backside and his shoulder and ribs now ached only dully. His face appeared clean and even newly shaved. His hair had been washed and pulled back.. He must be dead; and if all this had been done in his behalf he must in fact be in heaven, though he doubted his worthiness for admission. But here was Pellew.
//
Hornblower opened his mouth but only coughed feebly. "Moi vouloir pas s'entrenir a vous," he croaked. Dear God. He must be in hell, for here he was speaking French; moreover, he had just told the Devil, who looked uncannily like Pellew, that he would not speak to him.
//
A smile creased Pellew's face. "As you wish, Mr. Hornblower," he said gently, and sat back, taking another sip of coffee.
//
Hornblower tried again. He must – must! – know who this personage was. "Sir," he croaked.
//
"H'm? Yes?"
//
"Sir ... where ..."
//
"Aboard the Indefatigable, sir," Pellew said gently. His eyes met Hornblower's one functioning eye and their look was dark and infinitely sad. "Aboard your own ship."
//
"N–not ... mine ..."
//
"My dear Hornblower." Pellew was amused. "The Admiralty will be most pleased that we have rid the world of that knot of traitorous thieves who also happened to be French deserters – and finally captured their ship in the process. Your noble gesture gave us the very excuse we needed."