To Return With Honour
by Joan C.
Throughout the day and into the night, the privateer retained her distance, never quite out of sight, and yet drawing no nearer. The concern from the quarter-deck filtered down to amidships where the men stood watch, or idled. The presence of the brigantine on the horizon kept men on decks that might normally have remained below, and though the ship remained on alert, the guns were not run out, but sat waiting, black and deadly.
Styles sat coiling and uncoiling a length of rope in his fingers. He was not on duty, but his nerves were hopping in the pit of his stomach, and his seaman's instinct would not allow him to relax. As his eyes scanned the deck they caught Cleaver's. He gave a brief nod and the big American came over and crouched next to him.
"Hey, mate. What d'ye think Hans is doing out there, just watchin' us?"
"I reckon that's wot 'e's doin'. Can't do nuthin but wait."
"I figger he's after them jools." Cleaver's grin split his face.
Styles snorted in disgust. "Yer daft, Cleaver."
"See if I am, mate. Wait and see." Cleaver moved away and Styles laid the rope aside and went in search of Matthews. He found him off duty, resting in his hammock. Figured. Matty was the only man he knew who could sleep until beat to quarters and wake as fresh as a daisy, ready to fight. Styles shook the hammock slightly and Matthews opened his eyes. "Matty, wake up!"
"I weren't sleepin'. Just catchin' forty-winks." He heaved himself up and out of the hammock. "What d'ye want?"
"I heard somethin', Matty. And I don't like the sound of it."
"Is it the Dutchman?"
Styles loosed a puff of air from his lips. "Don't I just wish! That bloke Cleaver -- he's a rum 'un. Up to no good, he is, or my name ain't Styles. Goin' on about 'jools' in the cargo hold."
"D'ye think he's plannin' on liberatin' some of it fer 'imself?"
"You got it, mate. But I don't know if I should tell Mr. Hornblower without proof."
Matthews gnawed at his lip. He reckoned Mr. Hornblower had enough troubles of his own without adding another one -- and one without substance. His eyes narrowed as he considered his choices. "Can you stay close to Cleaver? Keep yer eye on him?"
Styles looked disgusted. "'E's not me favorite mate, but I can stay close, chat 'im up, like. Who knows, 'e might sing in me ear."
"You hear anythin', mate. You come ta me. Then we c'n go to Mr. Hornblower. But not before," Matthews cautioned. "This ain't the Indy."
"Yer got that, mate." Styles grinned and clapped Matthews lightly on the arm. "See ya later."
"Styles -- keep an eye on Oldroyd. He's just daft enough ta take on with Cleaver."
Styles nodded, and hesitated at the companionway. "D'ye think we c'n tell Mr. Kennedy? Mebbe he'd tell Mr. Hornblower. Might mean more comin' from another officer, eh?"
"It might. If ye get a chance to speak private like."
"Gotcha, mate." He left Matthews and returned to the deck. The Dutchman was still to starboard. Styles figured it was going to be a long day.
By sunset, the brig was appreciably closer, but the greater threat was from an enemy they would both have to fight. Horatio stood the first dog watch on the quarterdeck with Campion and watched the sun set behind a looming bank of clouds. The pitch and roll of the Skylark was becoming more pronounced with each hour and he could not help but be grateful that the first two days at sea had been calm enough to allow his body to acclimatise itself before throwing him into the teeth of a storm.
The prospect of dirty weather did not seem to be making much of an impression on Campion. He stood beside Horatio, his head lifted as if scenting rain, the rising wind tangling his hair. Horatio wondered if there were Viking blood in him, for that is what he looked like; tall, strong, fearless, relishing the prospect of danger.
Campion must have noted his study for he turned to Horatio with a grim smile. "It seems the Skylark will be tested by more than enemy fire, Mr. Hornblower. A fine situation, indeed."
"Yes, sir. However, it will even the odds with the Dutch. They will not be able to make much headway into this wind, and if she has a compatriot to the east, they too will be hard pressed to hold station."
"Tell me, Hornblower. What would your illustrious Captain Pellew do in our situation?"
Horatio thought for a moment, and in that instant missed the Indy with an ache that was as physical as any bruise. "He would take whatever advantage he could to get the Indy out of harm's way -- from the enemy and from the weather."
"He would run?"
Horatio narrowed his eyes, thinking of Dreadnought Foster and that long-ago dinner when he had been too naive to avoid the trap that had been laid for him. He smiled slightly. "Captain Pellew has taught me to value the life of my ship above my own, and the the lives of the men above all else. And yet when there is an advantage to be seized, he will take it without hesitation. There is no one I admire more."
Campion smiled. "He and my father must be very much alike. What of your father, Mr. Hornblower? Is he a Naval gentleman as well?"
Horatio thought of Dr. Hornblower. He had not had not heard from him since his return to Spain under parole. "No, my father is a physician. The closest he has been to the Navy was as a doctor practising in Southwark years before I was born." He drew in a breath and spoke softly. "I have not seen him since my first day as a midshipman."
Campion caught the wistful tone in Hornblower's voice. Unintended, he was sure, but distinct nonetheless. He had forgotten how young the Lieutenant was, and how lonely the last years must have been for him. "Mr. Hornblower, I hope we will be able to deliver you safely to England. At least, I will do my best."
"Thank you, sir."
They stood for a few moments in silence before Campion spoke again, deliberately. "Half my crew has never been tried in battle, and the other half in only limited engagements. Including Ross Carlyle." He hesitated. "I have no doubts as to their courage, or their abilities; I have drilled them well, but a battle is not a drill."
Horatio thought of his own experiences, of his first taste of combat: the sheer noise of it, the dense smoke from the gunpowder that clung to the linings of his nose and mouth, the metallic tang of blood that permeated the sick berth, the screams of the wounded, the ordered chaos of the gundecks, the shouts of the gun captains, and above all, Pellew's great voice orchestrating a symphony of destruction. And then when it was over, the utter astonishment that he had survived unscathed.
There had been other actions since then -- his own battle which had been won despite his ignorance and raw audacity, the quick taking of the La Reve, and several other less daunting encounters. Yet despite that, he hardly considered himself a seasoned veteran. What did Campion expect him to say? His brows drew together. "If you have done all you can to prepare them, sir, then you can only wait." He cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the feeling that Campion seemed to be looking for some sort of reassurance from him. "If you are asking about my men, I can tell you that they have fought many more battles than I have, and they will do their best for you."
Campion could not help smiling at the gravity of Hornblower's reply. "I rather think that they will be doing their best for *you*, Mr. Hornblower." To his amusement, Hornblower coloured, and awkwardly cleared his throat again. Campion touched his hat in a salute. "If you will excuse me, Lieutenant, I am going to speak to the gun crews. The deck is yours, sir."
Horatio stood still, feeling the rise and fall of the waves increasing beneath the Skylark. In the twilight, the seas were taking on an oily, pearlescent glow. The troughs between the long swells were growing deeper and more shadowed. A rising wind tugged at Horatio's queue, and when he looked up, streamers of ragged clouds were chasing across the stars. When he looked to the horizon, even with his glass, he could not see the Dutch brigantine. *Rain,* he thought, and drew his cloak more tightly about him. He thought of the chart he had studied earlier. They were in the span of ocean between the Iberian Peninsula and England, as far from the French coast as they could reasonably sail without losing valuable time. On a map, it did not seem so great an expanse of ocean -- but to be on a ship, surrounded by enemies, it was the loneliest place in the world.
He heard someone ascending to the quarter-deck, and a moment later, Archie came to stand beside him. He drew in a deep breath. "Hello, Archie."
"Horatio." Archie looked over the waters. "The weather is deteriorating."
"So I noticed," Horatio replied wryly. "Can you not see my delight at the situation?"
Archie smiled at his friend. "It has not affected your sense of humour."
Horatio grimaced. "Very funny, Mr. Kennedy. You jest at wounds who never had a scar."
Archie put his hand to his breast and took a step back in mock surprise. "Good God, he quotes Shakespeare! The situation must be dire indeed!"
Horatio's smile turned grim. "It is not good, Archie."
Archie sobered. "I know. Are you well, Horatio?"
"Yes. I have to be, don't I? Even if I were hanging over the rail heaving out my guts, I could not leave my post."
"It is not your post," Archie said quietly. "You have no obligation here, Horatio."
"Don't I?" His dark eyes bored into Archie's. "I have an obligation to bring my men -- all my men -- back safely. I have an obligation to protect England's interests on board this ship now that I know what is at stake. I have an obligation to an ally to support him in whatever way I can. If I do not, I have no right to call myself an officer in his Majesty's Navy."
"That is rather an uncompromising position," Archie said, unsettled by Horatio's intensity. "I merely meant that if you are unwell --"
"I'm not! And I will not be."
If force of will could dictate that, Archie was certain that Horatio was right. But he had not come on deck to argue with Horatio. He had information for him that could not wait. Styles had approached him earlier with the news of Cleaver's intentions. "Horatio, I had a few words with Styles."
"He has some concern that the bosun's mate, Cleaver, may be plotting something if the Skylark is attacked."
"Plotting -- as in breaking into the hold?"
"Yes. At least that is what has been inferred. Cleaver
is smart enough not to spell it out in so many words."
"Campion should be told."
"Horatio, there is no proof! Not yet. Just Styles' word against Cleaver. And that so called plot was whispered about while Cleaver was three sheets to the wind last night."
"I don't believe anything will happen unless the Skylark comes under fire." He gave Horatio a sidelong look. "What are you going to do?"
Horatio's first impulse was to tell Campion immediately, but as he looked over the deck of the Skylark, at her sailors making preparations for the storm, he knew that if they were wrong, the ship would be torn apart. Animosity would flourish between the officers and men, distrust would be fomented, mutiny encouraged. It would destroy the Skylark like a cancer even as a gun was aimed at her heart. He could not do it.
"I can't tell him, Archie. Not unless it is imminent. We need every man loyal to Campion and dedicated to keeping the Skylark afloat. You cannot fight a ship if the men are looking only to themselves." He gnawed at his lip. "What did you tell Styles?"
"I told him to keep an eye on Cleaver. So far, he is the only man whispering about the cargo. Matthews is watching out for Oldroyd and the others. We're safe for the moment."
Horatio gave Archie an appraising study. "Thank you, Mr. Kennedy. Your handling of this situation is exemplary."
Archie grinned. He knew that Horatio had just paid him a high compliment, not as a friend, but as a commanding officer. It felt good. His shoulders straightened. "I will keep you informed, sir. " Still smiling, he touched the brim of his borrowed hat. "Now will you please go below, sir, and take some rest and refreshment. Lieutenant Carlyle will be coming on watch shortly."
Despite his unwillingness to admit to fatigue and increasing nausea, Horatio did not argue. He touched Archie's shoulder. "Thank you. I'll see you in a few hours."
The hot tea and stew prepared by the cook warmed and settled Horatio's stomach, and after eating, he went in search of Styles. He found him lying in his hammock, his watchcap tipped to his nose, a snore fluttering softly from his lips. Damn, he could not with any reason wake the man, not with half of the Skylarks watching and wondering why an officer was strolling through the hammocks.
Wrapping himself in his cloak, he went on deck and found Oldroyd coiling cables out of the way in the event the guns were to be run out. "Oldroyd, a word, please."
Oldroyd's blue eyes widened. His first reaction was to try to figure out what he had done wrong whenever Mr. Hornblower spoke to him. Nothing came to mind, so he knuckled his forehead, "Aye, sir?" Apprehension quivered in his voice.
"I need you to do something for me, and I don't want any questions. Do you understand?"
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Go below and wake Styles. Tell him he's wanted on deck."
"Aye, aye, sir." Oldroyd gave him a curious look, but did as he was told. Five minutes later, Styles emerged, his hair tangled and his eyes still heavy with sleep.
"I would not have awakened you, if I had any other choice." Horatio did not know why he felt guilty -- it was not an officer's place to offer apologies or explanations for his orders. Styles just looked at him with those dark eyes and nodded.
"I reckon I knew that, sir."
Horatio moved to a quiet spot on the railing and looked about for Cleaver. He was not on deck, and Horatio uttered a silent prayer of thanks. "Mr. Kennedy told me about Cleaver's plans. Do you believe he is serious?"
"Oh, aye, sir. He's bloody serious. But he's no fool. He won't be movin' until the time is right, if you take my drift."
"You mean if the Skylark is in danger of defeat?"
"Aye, sir. He reckons if the Dutchman or any one else is about to board, he c'n take advantage and break into the hold."
Styles snorted. "Reinforced! I took a look at it, sir. A good charge of powder'd set that door off its hinges in no time. And as for the padlock -- any lad raised on the streets could pick it if he 'ad the right tools."
"Does he have the right tools?"
"I don't know, sir. He and the armourer are mates. If that means anything."
"Thank you, Styles. You can go back to rest, now."
Styles raised his scarred face to the stars and the scudding clouds. "I won't be takin' more rest, sir. Not if this weather comes on strong. But a cup o' grog would taste mighty fine about now."
"Then go below and get it before the cook douses the fires."
"Aye, aye, sir." He gave Hornblower a measuring look. "I've got me eyes on Cleaver, sir. Don't you worry."
Reassurances were fine, but they did not relive Horatio of his responsibilities, or of his concern. Was he wrong in not warning Campion of Cleaver's intentions? Perhaps. But in his mind his argument still held. No captain, short of hands and facing peril, could afford to alienate himself from his crew. That was suicide.
He had Kennedy, Matthews, Styles, and the other Indefatigables at his back. They seemed a woefully slender defense. The wind drove a plume of rain and salt spray across the decks. Horatio drew his cloak about him, and returned to his cabin. He could not sleep, but he knew that if he did not husband his physical reserves, he would be of no use to Campion, the Skylark, and the men who were depending on him to bring them safely home.
Archie watched Horatio as he spoke to Styles and went below. It was a relief to know that Horatio was aware of Cleaver's duplicity. It had not been easy carrying that knowledge alone. The watch bell tolled and Lieutenant Carlyle came on the quarter-deck. He saluted Archie, then greeted him with a smile. "Filthy weather, isn't it?"
"And getting worse," Archie agreed.
"It is the same for the Dutchman as for us, at least." He braced himself as the Skylark plunged into the trough between two swells. "Master Pyne!" he called out. "Take in another reef on the mainsail, if you please!"
Pyne squinted up at the spread of canvas overhead, judging the winds and the growing seas. Apparently, he concurred with Carlyle's assessment, and roared out the orders that sent the topmen aloft.
Archie shuddered as the men hurried up the mast to the yards. He had no particular fear of heights, but that was the least of their concerns. The yards would be slippery from rain and spray, the ship was pitching in the heavy swells, and the darkness was nearly absolute. He was grateful that it was not his duty to climb the masts this night. He closed his eyes and uttered a silent prayer that the sailors would be safe. This time, his prayers were heeded, and the men were down the ratlines safely.
He had been so involved in watching the men above that he had not noticed that Horatio had come to stand beside him. He turned and nearly ran nose-first into Horatio's chin. He gasped with surprise. "Lord, Horatio. I never heard you!"
"Not surprising with the racket this storm is starting to brew up." Horatio squinted into the darkness. "The wind is starting to howl like a wolf."
"A hungry wolf," Archie replied, and for some reason that image made him shiver. "It will be a long night. I thought you were going to stay below."
Horatio shook his head. "I can't. At least the fresh air keeps my stomach settled. Deuced inconvenient to be seasick at a time like this." He tried to smile, but even the ruddy glow from the nearby lantern could not dispel the faint greenish tinge underlying his pallor. "However, you should go below and get the last hot serving of grog. I heard the Captain give the order to douse the fire."
It was all he had a chance to say before Campion came on deck. He wore an oilskin buttoned to his chin and he looked grim. "Ross, Mr. Kennedy, go below and get something warm to drink. We are abandoning formal watches this night. It will be better for all concerned." When Kennedy and Carlyle had acceded and gone below, he turned his attention to Hornblower. "Are you well, Mr. Hornblower?"
Horatio was heartily tired of the question. "Yes, sir. I am perfectly well."
"So I see." Campion did not believe him, but he could not order him to go below without reason. And there was something in the set of that hard jaw that spoke of a stubborn nature that would not admit to weakness. "It will be a long night, Mr. Hornblower. If you need to take some rest, I will not begrudge it to you."
"Thank you, sir. But that will not be necessary."
Campion grinned. "I will remind you of that in a few hours, sir."
*By then it may be too late,* a small voice whispered a warning in Horatio's mind, but he did not speak it out loud. He merely broadened his stance and fixed his eyes forward. He could see nothing but the seething phosphorescence of the whitecapped waves, like jagged milk glass. And always, beyond his sight but not his thoughts, was the presence of the privateer. Where was she? And was there a wolf in the shadows?
By the middle of the night, Horatio was wondering if there had ever been a time when he had not been cold, or wet, and the ship had not been pitching and rolling beneath his feet. The only mercy was that for some reason, his stomach had adjusted to the motion and his nausea had subsided to the point where it could be ignored -- or perhaps it was merely that his other discomforts outweighed it. The Skylark was a small ship, and not heavily laden, unlike the Indy whose weight and bulk made her a more stable vessel in a storm. Campion had won his admiration with his steady nerves and impeccable seamanship, but there was no doubt that the Skylark was taking a beating. Several spars had snapped earlier when a particularly nasty gale had risen, and three of the Skylarks were now in sick berth, attenuating an already meager crew.
"Mr. Hornblower, I am ordering you below. Take half an hour at least and get yourself some dry clothes."
"It isn't necessary, sir."
"Your lips are blue, Mr. Hornblower," Campion said in a kindly but exasperated tone of voice. "Get yourself below, man, before you freeze. It is time for Mr. Carlyle to return to this station."
"Aye, aye, sir." Horatio left reluctantly. He passed Carlyle in the companionway. He did not seem appreciably drier or less exhausted than he had when he had left the quarter-deck the last watch.
"Hornblower, you look like death," he grinned.
"And you, like death warmed over," Horatio managed to quip despite his chattering teeth. "Captain Campion is expecting you."
"Oh, aye. I know that. Mr. Kennedy is in sick berth."
"Oh, not because he is ill, but because that is the one warm place on this damned ship. Mr. Martin keeps an iron bucket of hot coals at hand, if he needs to heat his cauterizing irons."
"God," Horatio shivered, and not from cold. "I hope that won't be necessary."
"May the Almighty be in charity with you on that matter, Hornblower. I'll see you in half an hour?"
"If not sooner." Horatio glanced up as the Skylark rolled in a deep trough. The stem of the mast groaned in its fittings, strained by the weight of canvas and by the stress of the wind. "We'll have to shorten sail if this keeps up." He exchanged a worried look with Carlyle. They were both aware of the presence of the Dutch, and none too hopeful that they would escape once the weather moderated. Carlyle's mouth twisted in a wry smile, then he continued on his way.
Horatio staggered to the sick berth. Inside, the ambient temperature was a few degrees warmer than the companionway, and it was well-lighted, which added to the impression that it was warmer. Archie was helping Mr. Martin reduce and set the arm of one of the injured seaman. Horatio winced at the man's shriek of pain as Martin bound the arm with splints and linen strips. Archie looked up briefly and nodded at Horatio before turning his attention back to the patient.
Horatio sank down on one of the straw pallets spread on the floor and closed his eyes. Five minutes, he thought. Five minutes of relative peace and quiet. That was all he needed. To close his burning eyes ... to warm his body, to rest ...
And was jolted awake by a sound he knew too well. He sat up, certain he had been dreaming, but when he saw both Martin and Archie with the same startled look he imagined he wore, he realized it was no dream. And certainly it had not been thunder. That flat, resonant thud could have only been made by cannon fire.
Before any of them could move, the beat to quarters rang through the ship followed by harsh voices calling the men to their stations. Horatio lurched out of the sickbay, throwing his cloak over his shoulders, his mind as logy as if it had been drugged. The slap of rain on his face remedied that as soon as he set foot on deck. He heard Archie's footsteps behind him. They raced up the ladder to the quarter-deck where Campion and Carlyle stood peering through their telescopes. At what, Horatio could not imagine. He could scarcely see his hand flapping in front of his face.
"Sir, can you see her?"
Campion handed his telescope to Horatio. "Nothing, dammit! I can't see a damned thing. I had to call the topman down -- to hold him there was murder -- and then ... Well, can you see anything?"
Horatio narrowed his gaze. His vision was acute, but he could discern little through the rain, the darkness, and the wild seas rearing up over the bow. Nothing. Not a pinprick of a ships' lantern, and then it came. A flare of yellow, far away, but not far enough. "She's firing, sir!" he cried, and even as the words left his lips, came the flat report and a splash off the bow. "She hasn't the range, sir."
Campion was still cursing. "Mr. Pyne! Douse the lanterns! And let down those reefs. We need to put some distance between us and Hans. Mr. Pyne, turn us west on a larboard tack."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Sir," Horatio swallowed hard, knowing he was about to contradict the orders of a commanding officer. "Please consider that action may be just what the Dutchman wishes us to do. To drive us east into the guns of her compatriot."
Despite being soaked, angry, and alarmed, Campion managed to raise an appraising brow at Hornblower's audacity. "Have you seen a second ship, sir?"
Horatio was aware of Archie standing at his side, and of Matthews watching him from just below the quarter-deck. "No, sir. But I know how this game is played. That Dutch brig is no match for our speed and weaponry, Captain. But she has come close enough in this weather to put a shot across the bows. She would not risk that unless there was a ship waiting to catch us. She has been herding us, sir." He struggled to keep the wind from snatching away his voice. "Sir, if we set a northerly course we may yet slip between them." The speech emptied his lungs, and for a moment he could only gasp for breath.
Campion's gaze would have bored a hole in the hull of the Indy had he stared at her like that. He gave a curt nod. "Very well, Mr. Hornblower. I will take your counsel in this matter. Though I do not like the idea of meeting this storm head on. Pyne! Belay my first order and set her on a northerly course. But watch her, sir. She is our life. Hornblower, meet me below." He turned sharply and headed down the ladder.
Horatio was sick, but what else could he have done? He was right! Dammit, he *had* to be right! But despite his certainty, he felt the gnawing doubt in his own judgment; that voice that nagged at his self-confidence. He stifled it ruthlessly and turned to Archie. "Hold tight, will you?"
"You are right, Horatio. You must know that."
"Must I?" He smiled slightly and followed in Campion's wake.
The great cabin was half-filled with the eight-pound guns and their carriages. It bore little resemblance to the small, elegant chamber they had dined in that first night. Campion stood by the windows, though there was naught to be seen in that darkness. He spoke to Horatio, seeing his faint reflection in the windows. "Lieutenant, I believe I must prepare for the worst, even though I pray it will not happen. If Ross Carlyle and I should become ... incapacitated ... in any way, you will have command."
Horatio's mouth went dry. "Sir? What of Pyne? As Master he surely expects the responsibility to devolve on him."
"Pyne knows his limitations. And he is of far greater value in his capacity as Master than as a commander -- particularly if we should become involved in an action. He will sail the ship, but you must order her, Mr. Hornblower. You and Mr. Kennedy."
Horatio was stunned. What Campion was asking was unthinkable; and yet at the same time he was very proud that this man would trust him with this ship and his life. "Sir, we are not even your countrymen! What right do we have to take command of this ship?"
"The right I have given you, Lieutenant." Campion turned from the windows to face Hornblower. The lad was even more pale, if possible. Campion smiled sympathetically. "I am appealing to you as a fellow Naval officer, Hornblower. Nothing more. I've watched you with the men, and you have a gift of command. Your seamanship is impeccable. I would be a fool to ignore that. And to ease your mind, I will take every precaution to preserve my health and well-being. You are my insurance. And knowing that you accept these orders will put my mind at ease."
"Captain, what of the cargo?" Horatio asked.
"If we are holed, or taken, it must go to the bottom of the sea, Hornblower. There are no other options. We cannot allow it to fall into the enemy's hands."
Horatio nodded, guilt prodding at his conscience. The enemy was closer than Campion dreamed; and it was an enemy who would attack from within. He could not allow the captain to remain entirely ignorant of the danger. Desperately, he sought for the right words. "Sir, might I suggest that you put extra guards at the hold. Men that you trust implicitly. The crew must suspect that the contents are valuable -- and that is a powerful lure to any seaman."
For a moment, Campion's eyes hardened to shards of grey ice, and Horatio felt as if he could see into the depths of his soul, baring all his secrets. He did not flinch away but met the captain's gaze steadily. Whatever he saw in Hornblower's expression seemed to reassure Campion. He drew in a breath. "Yes, I have thought that every day since I took it on board. How to protect it, how to shield my crew from its influence. They are not stupid men, Hornblower, and if I were to say that I am immune to temptation would be the grossest lie imaginable." Those steely eyes softened with humour. "How much greater it must be for them. I have already posted an additional marine guard, Lieutenant."
Horatio flushed. "I-I was presumptuous, sir. I am sorry."
"No, Lieutenant. You were concerned. There is a difference." Campion staggered as the Skylark pitched and her timbers groaned as she rose to meet the next wave. "We had best get back on deck."
The Dutch brig had vanished into the night. For the last three hours, there had been no sign of her, and no way to know if she had been left behind, or was traveling in their wake. The storm had not moderated, but it had not become more severe, and the Skylark was holding her own despite the battering she had taken earlier. The sound of the pumps being worked echoed through the lower decks like a reassuring heartbeat.
That is how it sounded to Archie when he finally made his way back to the sick berth after his watch. He was so tired that the air seemed to shimmer in front of his eyes. He knew the signs of an approaching headache and prayed that if he could take an hour's rest it would stave off the pain. He did not want to add his weaknesses to Horatio's list of worries. He was nearly to the sick berth when Cleaver stepped out of the shadowy darkness. He was startled to see Kennedy, and that surprise made Archie suspicious.
"What are you doing here? Why aren't you on deck, Cleaver?" he asked sharply.
Cleaver snatched his cap from his head. "Nuthin', sir. Just gettin' warm. Mr. Pyne, he gave me leave to, sir."
His eyes darted away from Archie's. There was something furtive and guilty in his manner that set Archie on edge, but he had no reason to accuse him of any misconduct. And even if he had reason, it would hardly be wise. The seaman towered over him, his bulk threatening even in his submissive posture. Archie's head gave a vicious throb. "Very good, Cleaver. Return to your post."
"Aye, aye, sir."
His tone held a hint of insolence and he did not move, blocking Archie's passage to the sick berth. Archie felt a moment of panic; fear never far from his mind, but he fought to control it. "Then do so, or I'll report you to the bosun."
There was a momentary flicker of something in Cleaver's eyes that nearly broke Archie. Then from the companionway, there came a voice. "Oi, Cleaver! You'd best get yer sorry arse on deck afore Mr. Pyne sets the bosun on yer."
Styles. He came towards them. Despite being soaking wet and grey with fatigue, he still managed a grin. "Sorry, sir. I didn't know yer were down 'ere."
Cleaver shot a resentful look at Styles, but lumbered down the companionway to the forecastle. Styles approached Kennedy. God, he was shaking. "You all right, then, sir?" he asked, concerned. "'E didn't say nuthin -- I mean -- 'e's a right mean bastard that one."
Archie blinked his eyes back into focus. "N-no." He hated his stammer. How could he expect the men to respect and follow him when daily they witnessed his failures? "We startled each other is all. But thank you, Styles." He nodded, struggling to regain his dignity before he proceeded to sick berth.
Styles tugged his forelock, turned and headed towards the gun deck and his waiting hammock. He hadn't liked what he had seen at all; Cleaver towering over Kennedy's slighter frame, and that look in his eyes that boded no good. Bloody hell, one more thing to worry about. He rolled into his hammock and not even his troubled thoughts could keep him awake.