Free Hosting

Free Web Hosting with PHP, MySQL, Apache, FTP and more.
Get your Free SubDOMAIN you.6te.net or you.eu5.org or...
Create your account NOW at http://www.freewebhostingarea.com.

Cheap Domains

Cheap Domains
starting at $2.99/year

check

To Return With Honour
by Joan C.

Part Eight

Horatio woke at the toll of the watch bell. He sat up cautiously, but aside from localized pain around the slash wound, his headache had vanished. He drew a deep breath and tried to gather his hair into a neater queue without tugging at the edges of his wound. He looked at his bloodstained coat in disgust, and scrubbed at the stains with cold water from the washbasin. It did not help one bit. Exasperated, he snatched up his hat, which he could not wear, and returned to the quarter-deck.

Archie was standing at the rail, looking worried. His expression brightened when he saw Horatio. "Feeling better?"

"More rested, at any rate. Is everything all right?"

"If you mean have the French reappeared? No. Are the repairs progressing? Yes. Am I worried about the men? Absolutely. Satisfied?"

"Well, it was a succinct report, if nothing else."

Archie sighed. "I tell you, Horatio. I am scared. The atmosphere on this ship is worse than the Justinian." Archie's blue eyes scanned the deck and lit on Matthews. As if he sensed Kennedy's eyes on him, the seaman lifted his head. There were deep lines of worry etched in his forehead. His need to speak was plain; as was his fear of it. Archie looked to Horatio. "What are you going to do?"

Horatio set his jaw. "Go down to Matthews, Archie. I'll be waiting in our cabin. Whatever happens, don't let Cleaver see him. Just get him to me as quickly as possible. Where is Campion?"

"Mr. Martin convinced him to get some rest. He's been awake for nearly thirty-six hours, Horatio. He was near collapse."

"God! That means it's just us, Archie. Unless Carlyle can take over."

Archie gave Horatio a sidelong look. "Do you honestly think he can handle this?"

Horatio's mouth set in a grim line. "After you speak to Matthews, go to sick berth and see if Carlyle is fit to return to duty. He must do so, if it is at all possible."

Archie left the quarter-deck as nonchalantly as if he were about to stroll in Hyde Park. He stood next to Matthews, his face tipped to the sky, for all intents appraising the weather. They exchanged a few words, then Archie said clearly but softly, "Make your report to Mr. Hornblower, Matthews."

"Aye, aye, sir." Matthews knuckled his forehead. Archie thought that at that moment, he had not seen an actor on the London stage who could match Matthew's utterly unreadable expression. Archie's anxiety was so intense that his stomach was cramping. *Welcome back to the Navy,* he thought. Given half the chance, he might have fled willingly back to El Ferrol. Instead, he had to rouse Carlyle from his sickbed. Archie turned to the Sailing Master. "Mr. Pyne, the deck is yours. I am going to see how Mr. Carlyle is faring."

He made his way to sick berth, uncertain as to what he was going to say, or if there were anything he could say to move a man to endanger his health, indeed his very life. Horatio would find the words -- God, if he had found the key to revive Archie's will to live, Carlyle's physical wound would have been a negligible obstacle. But Horatio could not be everywhere, and he was already taking far more responsibility than could be humanly expected. How easy it would have been to ignore Campion's plight! Another man would have turned his back, but Horatio was not like that. And because of Horatio, Archie could not stand aside and watch the Skylark go up in flames.

Ross Carlyle was sitting up in his cot, but Archie thought he looked far from able to resume active duty. His arm was in a sling, and he was pale but for two hectic fever spots on his cheekbones. Not a good sign, Archie thought, but he tried to appear unconcerned as he approached Carlyle.

Carlyle looked up. "Mr. Kennedy!"

"How are you, sir?"

"I would get out of here but Mr. Martin seems to have other ideas. How is Captain Campion?"

"Resting, at the moment. All is quiet. Repairs are progressing." Now that he could see how ill Carlyle was, he hated to tell him what was truly happening.

Carlyle sat forward slightly. "Kennedy, I do not know you well, but I am not so ill that you can pull the wool over my eyes. There is something wrong."

For a moment, Archie struggled to deny it, but in the end, he could not. He nodded. "Yes, very wrong. I will know more after Matthews speaks to Lieutenant Hornblower, but I was hoping ... well, that you were well enough to --"

"I am well enough!" Carlyle swung his legs over the side of the cot and clutched at Archie's arms until he was steady on his feet. He was white with the effort, and his mouth was tight with pain. "Get my clothes, Kennedy."

"What the devil are you doing, Mr. Carlyle!" Mr. Martin came hurrying to the cot. "You are in no condition --"

"I am not dying, am I?" Carlyle demanded. "Captain Campion needs help, and I must -- I am bound by duty -- take my place as his lieutenant."

Martin turned to Archie. "Mr. Kennedy, you cannot ask this man --"

"He hasn't asked me anything, Martin." Carlyle insisted. "It is my decision alone."

"Mr. Kennedy!"

"Mr. Martin," Archie led Martin aside and spoke in a quiet voice. "This ship is on the verge of mutiny at the very least. There is a French warship prowling the waters, and Mr. Hornblower and I have no standing in your navy. Captain Campion *needs* Lieutenant Carlyle on deck if it is at all possible. Can you understand that?"

"Mutiny!"

"Sir, please -- this must be kept quiet. Our lives are at stake. And I do not exaggerate."

"You do not comprehend Mr. Carlyle's condition! He has lost a lot of blood. He is running a fever, and his wound is in danger of infection. It could cost him his arm."

"The mutiny could cost him his *life!* Mr. Martin, I promise you, if the danger passes, or he becomes too ill, he will be ordered back to sick berth. But right now, his presence is needed on the quarter-deck."

Something of Archie's desperation must have shown on his face, for Martin's expression changed and he relented. "Very well, but I will hold you to that promise, Mr. Kennedy."

"Yes, sir. Thank you." He returned to Carlyle, and helped him into his uniform. "Are you ready?" he asked, when he had draped Carlyle's blue coat over his shoulders.

"Yes." But his voice was shaking and sweat was beading on his forehead.

Archie's hand dropped away from his shoulder. "I-I'm sorry. I cannot ask you to do this."

Carlyle gave him a wan smile. "After I've gone through all this, you expect me to crawl back into bed? No, Mr. Kennedy. I will be all right. If I can help the captain in any way, I must do it. He has given me a second chance to prove myself, and I will not let him down."

That, Archie understood perfectly. He offered Carlyle the support of his arm and they left the sick berth.
~~**~~

Horatio paced, if you could pace in an area the size of his cabin. He felt as if he were wading through molasses in his impatience. At last, a soft knock at his cabin door announced Matthew's arrival. Horatio jerked the door open and Matthews came in quickly, pulling the door closed tight behind him.

"Well, what news?" Horatio demanded.

"Sir," Matthews drew a deep breath. "Sorry to say it's the devil to pay and no pitch hot. Styles convinced Cleaver to strike tonight, after midnight."

Horatio could not believe what he was hearing. "Tonight! Not to wait for the French attack?"

"Styles figgered it would be better to do what you would do, sir. Take the battle to the enemy. Isn't that what Cap'n Pellew says?"

"Yes, but under these circumstances --" Horatio shook his head. "Never mind, Matthews. This is not your problem."

"Aye, sir. But once the rocks start rolling down the hill, ye can't roll'em back up."

The homey expression made Horatio smile. "No. What else can you tell me?"

"It's not good, sir. But Styles -- he and Oldroyd, they're true, sir. True as a ship sailing before the wind. He says things'll look bad, but to remember that."

Matthews'eyes betrayed his distress as he related the plan to take the Skylark into hell. Horatio felt sick as he listened, but at the same time, he could not keep his mind from seeking the solution to the problem. He feared that this time, there was no solution that would not end in bloodshed, or worse.

"Sir?"

Horatio blinked, realizing that he had been standing silent for several moments, and that Matthews was regarding him with concern. "Thank you, Matthews. What you and the other Indefatigables are doing -- it's quite remarkable. I hope that I have a chance in the future to make it known."

"Sir, ye don't have ta do that. It's us who owe it to you, sir." He knuckled his forehead and excused himself before Horatio could voice a reply to that astonishing observation.

He stared at the door, trying to find some order in the array of thoughts that were crowding his mind. Campion. First, he must tell Campion. The Skylark was his ship, not Horatio's and the ultimate decision on what action to take was his as well.

Reluctantly, he left his cabin and started down the companionway running the length of the ship to the stern cabin. As he approached the crew berths, he heard angry, hushed whispers from behind the thin bulkhead, as if the speakers were reluctant to be heard, and he stood still, tying to catch the words and identify the voices. One of them, the one speaking, was American, certainly.

"... trust you to do the job properly!"

"Ye think I'm so soft I can't kill, eh? I kilt more men than you -- and in ways you ain't even dreamed of. Why the bloody 'ell d'ye think I'm in the Navy?"

*Styles!* Horatio's heart was in his throat; he thought it would choke him.

"Kennedy and Hornblower?"

"They won't even know it's comin'."

"No. You bring'em to me, alive."

"Bugger off, Cleaver. I won't have no part of that. You take the time to play games and ye won't get out of this alive. Now I don't know about you, but I want it quick and clean, so's I can enjoy my new-found wealth. Let me do it my way, and we'll both live easy."

"And if I don't?"

"You need me, mate. If ye didn't ye would've killed me by now."

Horatio heard Styles walk away and held his breath, half expecting Cleaver to plunge a knife into his departing back. There was a scuffling sound, as if Cleaver had kicked something aside in disgust, then retreating footsteps. Horatio leaned against the bulkhead, feeling dizzy and numb. How often did one hear one's death being planned? Even though he would trust Styles with his life -- and evidently he had to -- he was shaken by it, and it was an effort to leave his shelter and proceed down the companionway to the great cabin.

He knocked softly, then a bit harder. "Captain Campion, sir!" Campion opened the door, and Horatio pushed through. "Sorry, sir."

"God, what is it? The Frenchman?"

"No, sir. At least not yet. But about the other ..." Horatio paused. Campion's face was ghostly pale, his eyes red-rimmed and deeply shadowed, and despite the set of his jaw, a nerve ticked in his cheek.

"What is it, man? Campion demanded.

"Tonight, sir. The attempt on the hold will come tonight, during Lieutenant Carlyle's watch. The plan is to kill the officers and any men who resist, raid the hold, and escape in the ship's boats, leaving the Skylark to be taken by the French."

The stark words left enough unsaid; the violence, the betrayals, the failure of a captain to complete a desperate mission. For a moment Campion's shoulders slumped, and he looked so ill that Horatio nearly sent for Martin to attend the captain. Then the look in his eyes changed from despair to a cold resolve.

"How many men does Cleaver have with him?"

"By now, his entire watch, I imagine. Plus those who will take his side once the trouble breaks out, and others who will not fight him because they are afraid."

"And against him?"

"I know my men, sir. They will fight to defend the Skylark."

"Well, nine men plus perhaps twenty who might remain loyal against say ... fifty who will not. Not the best odds. What would you do, Hornblower?"

"I don't know, sir."

Campion gave a sharp laugh. "Come, you don't expect me to believe that a man of your intelligence and abilities has no thoughts on how to save his own life!"

Of course he had thoughts, but was reluctant to voice them, uncertain of their merits and his rights on this ship. But Campion would not allow him to remain silent. "Sir, if there is a way to bring Lieutenant Carlyle and Mr. Kennedy here, please. They need to hear this as well."

"Very well. Give me ten minutes, Mr. Hornblower. And have the marine outside send for them. Instruct him to make it known that we are meeting to discuss strategy in the event the French attack. And see if the steward has a pot of hot coffee on hand."

Horatio smiled. "Aye, aye, sir."

~~**~~

Exactly ten minutes later, when Hornblower returned, Campion had shaved and changed into a fresh uniform. He downed a cup of coffee before Kennedy and Carlyle knocked at the door, and when they did, he felt somewhat refreshed. At least his eyes stayed open on their own accord, he thought wryly, and turned to face his officers.

"Good God, Ross! Are you certain you are fit?" he gasped in shock. Carlyle was as white as the facings on his uniform, and even though he tried to stand at attention, his body was canted with pain as he favored his left arm.

"Yes, sir."

"I doubt it. What was Martin thinking --"

"Sir, please! Mr. Kennedy told me how dire our situation was. I-I am your first officer, and I will do my duty to the best of my ability."

"Very well, but if I order you to sick berth, I expect you to obey."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Campion regarded the three young men standing before him: Hornblower, in his bloodstained jacket, the bandage slanting across his forehead; Kennedy, unharmed, but his fair features marked by stress and exhaustion, and Carlyle ... Campion could not say how deeply touched he was by their devotion. That they would offer their lives to save the Skylark, to save *him* was humbling, and he swore he would do his best to protect them, as well as the Skylark and her cargo.

"Well, gentlemen. Where do we go from here? We know that it is likely that an attempted will be made to take the ship after midnight."

Carlyle turned even paler. "That is my watch, sir!"

"Yes. And you will stand it -- but not alone. You will have several marines with you -- out of sight, but not so far that they cannot come to your aid if it is necessary."

"Mr. Kennedy, you will have command of the Indefatigables, since Mr. Hornblower has vouched for their loyalty. You have my blessing to use them as you see fit. Mr. Pyne can be your second, along with men that he will hand-pick as trustworthy."

"And Lieutenant Hornblower, I would have you with me, at the hold. If we are to stop this mutiny it its tracks, it must be at the point where the fuse meets the powder keg."

He saw Kennedy cast a glance at Hornblower -- one of apprehension and concern. Perhaps even fear. Campion wished he could offer some reassurance, but it would have been an empty gesture. "We have a few hours to lay our plans, and they must be done quickly and secretly. Ross, you are to rest in your cabin until second dogwatch. And if you do not, I shall banish you to sick berth. You will need every ounce of your strength to make it through this night. Mr. Kennedy, speak to your men. And all of you: Trust no one that you are not willing to trust with your life."

They filed out in silence, leaving Horatio with Campion. As soon as the door closed, Campion sank down in his chair. His face was as pale as Carlyle's, beads of sweat stood on his forehead. Horatio, alarmed, poured a glass of what looked like brandy from a wide-bottomed decanter. Campion took it, and downed it in a swallow. "Thank you, Mr. Hornblower."

"Sir, if you are ill ..."

"No. I am well." He drew in a breath. "Send Lieutenant Howard and Sergeant McNally to me so we may plan the disposition of the marines."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Campion's eyes went to the stern windows, which revealed the fading daylight. "It's growing dark," he said.

"Yes, sir." Horatio would not voice the words that came to his mind. That they might not live to see the dawn of another day. Again, he thought of Pellew, to all the lonely pain and enormous responsibility of command. But he also believed that Campion, like Pellew would survive. He did not tell Campion his thoughts; he feared they would sound foolish coming from a mere lieutenant, whose experiences with command had met with more failure than success. He left the cabin, found Lieutenant Howard, and then went in search of Archie.

~~**~~

The lantern over Styles' head swung rhythmically with the roll of the Skylark, throwing shadows across the bulkheads and the timbers like the wavering ghosts of evil thoughts. Right now, he would gladly have changed place with the most miserable beggar in the three kingdoms, just to be rid of the sick feeling that cramped his belly. Jesus Christ! He'd faced the cat without that much fear, fought in battles without blinkin' a bloody eye, seen men die in more ways than he could count, and hadn't felt this way. Only once before, on the Justinian, knowing the black heart and deeds of Jack Simpson, and powerless to stop them, had he felt like this. Like he was caught in a current without an escape. He hated being helpless.

He drew in a deep breath. He wasn't helpless ... he was doin' what he could to save Mr. Hornblower, to save them all. He had to go with the flow of that current, never minding the shoals, and wait for his moment to break free. He would break free, and make that bastard Cleaver pay for his arrogance. *Easy, mate,* he told himself. *Breathe easy. If nothin' else, Mr. Hornblower knows the truth of it, and he won't let ye down.*

He closed his eyes resolutely. The watch bell tolled the end of the first dog watch. Six bloody hours, Styles thought. It seemed only minutes had past when he felt someone poking him in the shoulder.

"Styles!"

He opened one eye, focusing on Oldroyd's face. "What?"

"Ye have to 'elp me get outta this!" He was close to panic. Styles sat up quickly and took a hold of his shirt.

"Are ye daft? It's too late fer that now. Ye hafta see it through or we're all dead men!"

"I can't -- Cleaver, he wants me ta kill Mr. Hornblower."

"Jesus bloody Christ! Did he tell ye that?" *What sort of game was Cleaver playin'? Why ask Oldroyd to do what he had already given to Styles ... unless the bastard didn't trust him ... *

"Just now, e' did. He says ta me, 'I got ye off killin' Carlyle. And I c'n understand why seein' as ye don't bear 'im no grudges. But that 'ornblower, e's a killin' officer -- an' according ta Styles, a mean bastard ta boot.' And I didn't know what he was saying' so I asked 'im what he was gonna do with 'im, and he just laughed and clapped me on the back and said 'Yer gonna kill 'im, ain'tcha?'"

This recitation had left Oldroyd gasping for breath. Styles released his shirt front, and swung his legs over the side of the hammock. He gripped Oldroyd's shoulders and gave them a shake. "Get a grip, lad. Yer not gonna have ta kill Mr. Hornblower. Ye just have ta make Cleaver think that ye are. Ye didn't back off, did ye?"

"N-no ... I reckon 'e thinks I c'n do it. I didn't say I couldn't."

"Good. Now, ye listen ta me. If the fightin' gets to the deck, there'll be enough goin'on ta keep ye away from Mr. 'ornblower, and the way I see it, he'd be a fool not ta stay with the cap'n, right?"

"And if he doesn't?"

"I'll watch 'im, an I'll take 'im down easy if I have ta -- give 'im a knock on the 'ead."

"That's a hangin' offense! Strikin' an officer!" Oldroyd gasped.

"You let me worry about it, Oldroyd. That's the only thing that'll keep ye alive. Do ye hear me?" He was inches away from Oldroyd, his forefinger jabbing into his chest for emphasis. "Do ye?"

Oldroyd nodded, and Styles released him. "Lay low, mate. If it'll set yer mind at ease, I'll talk ta Cleaver. Likely he was just testin' yer mettle."

Oldroyd shook his head and backed away. " 'e'll put the knife in me hand, 'he will and 'e'll stand over over me waitin' like the angel o' death."

Styles felt a shudder run through his body, a cold finger down his spine. *Jesus! What if Oldroyd was right?* Styles could only see one way to prevent it. Cleaver would have to die first.

~~**~~

Archie lay awake in the small, dark cabin. He had not trimmed the wick on the lantern and it was a scant glimmer overhead. He should take care of it before it went out entirely. The darkness it would leave behind could not be more smothering than the despair that was heavy on his soul. He had left Spain with such hopes. The years of imprisonment would at last be behind him, Jack Simpson was rotting in a grave far away, Horatio had restored his spirit, and Don Massaredo's good food, his body. How had they come to this?

There had been no warning from heaven, no instinctive sense of foreboding when he saw the Skylark riding on the waves. Even Horatio in his inbred pessimism, had not foreseen disaster looming on the horizon. At that point, Archie doubted he would ever see England again.

The door creaked open, and Archie half-sat up, falling back on his pillow when Horatio's thin form was outlined by the light from the companionway. "What's happening, Horatio?" he asked.

Horatio drew in a breath. "The calm before the storm, I fear. Are you ready?"

Archie gave a short laugh. "Ready? Command of the men, and the defense of the deck? Do you think Campion would have given me that responsibility if he had known my past?"

The cot creaked as Horatio sat down, but Archie did not look towards him. "What do you mean? He does know."

"He knows I was imprisoned. He does not know that I was captured due to a fit -- that in times of stress I am still prone to them, that I have never been in a position of command."

When Horatio spoke, his voice was low, but his emotion vibrated in those quiet tones. "That is three years in the past, Archie. The last fit you had was brought on by illness. I blame myself --"

"God!"

"Let me speak, Archie. You were willing to lead the men if something happened to me in Spain, and you know they would have followed you. They trust you as they trust me."

Archie laughed softly. "They trust me because you do."

"Do you think I bestow that trust lightly? I don't, you know." His voice dropped to a whisper. "You need to trust yourself, Archie. I know you can lead the men. You have to, for I cannot be in two places at once."

"Oh, yes. I remember, you are only human," Archie said lightly. He rolled out of the cot and reached to nurse the lantern flame back to life. As it flared, Archie saw Horatio's face. The strain there, paring the flesh close to the bones, was painful to see. Guilt-stricken, Archie bent to one knee, bringing himself level with Horatio. His blue eyes were earnest. "I don't know what I have done to earn the trust you have in me, Horatio. But I would rather die than betray it."

Horatio looked shocked to hear those words. "It won't come to that," he said.

"No, I imagine it won't," Archie said. "But I wanted you to know in case ... well, we will do our duty, and when it is over, we will look back on this conversation and laugh at our fears."

Horatio's dark eyes remained solemn, despite the smile that touched his mouth. "When we are old men, perhaps."

"At least then."

Horatio rose with a sigh. "Will you talk to Matthews? Tell him what we expect to happen?"

"Yes. We will be ready, Horatio. Do what Campion needs you to do, and don't worry about the Indefatigables. They are behind you to the last man."

Horatio nodded. He touched his forehead in a salute. "Carry on, Mr. Kennedy."

"Aye, aye, sir." Archie returned the salute gravely. When Horatio left the cabin, Archie bent and picked up the cutlass and scabbard that Mr. Pyne had given him and buckled it about his waist. Its presence would not be remarked upon given the possibility of the Marseilles appearing on the horizon, yet the weight was a grave reminder of why he was bearing it.

~~**~~

Nicholas Campion stood before the mirror in his cabin. The face gazing out at him was stern, calm, rigidly controlled to reveal nothing of the thoughts churning in his mind. Only the grey eyes revealed that turmoil. His red hair, the despair of his father, was brushed smoothly back from his forehead and tied neatly at the nape of his neck. His black silk stock restrained the frill of his shirt, that softness now neatly covered by the severe dark blue wool jacket with the gold braid gleaming dully in the lantern light. Quite the picture of the perfect captain, he thought. How ironic that the reflection was so false; the reality, so different.

"Come," he responded to the knock at his cabin door, and turned away from the mirror.

Hornblower entered and pulled the door closed behind him. "Sir, Mr. Kennedy is preparing his men. Mr. Pyne reports that there is no sign of the Marseilles, and that the weather conditions remain calm, with light winds carrying us west-northwest on course to England."

"Light winds, when we need the speed of Pegasus. Thank you, Mr. Hornblower." He expected the young man to leave then, but he remained, waiting for the formal dismissal. For some reason, Campion did not want to be alone. He turned back to the mirror, watching Hornblower's reflection. "Are you afraid to die, Mr. Hornblower?" He saw Hornblower's eyes widen at the unexpected question.

"No, sir."

At first Campion thought it was youthful arrogance on Hornblower's part. "Why?" he asked.

Hornblower was silent for a moment, and Campion turned away from the mirror, to face him. "Why?" he repeated.

"My father is a doctor, sir. He taught me that death is just another facet of life."

"And so the thought of it does not distress you?"

"I don't want to die, sir. But I am not so much afraid of death, as I am of dying poorly."

Astonishing. Coming from any other man, Campion might have thought it a priggish and smug response. But from Hornblower, it was a mere statement of fact. "Isn't that a rather reckless attitude?"

"No, sir."

Clearly he was not going to speak further on the matter. Campion shook his head. "Well, I am afraid of dying tonight, with my mission unfinished, and at the hands of a mutinous crew, which is entirely my fault for not having foreseen it. And I regret above all else that this affair could cost you and your men your very lives."

Hornblower regarded him levelly. "They know the risks, sir. As do Mr. Kennedy and myself. And it may not come to that extremity."

Campion smiled at that. "That is a fool's hope, Mr. Hornblower. But I thank you for saying it." He went to his desk and pulled out a long envelope. It was not sealed, and he handed it to over. "Read this, now. When you have finished, I shall seal it and lock it away with the ship's log and the other documents. If I do not survive this night, I want to leave this testimony to you and your men, so that our governments will know what you have done to save the Skylark, the mission, and myself."

Hornblower read silently, his expression impassive. When he had finished, he folded the parchment and returned it to the envelope. "Thank you, Captain."

"Now you know in what regard I hold you, sir. No matter what the future holds for our two countries, I shall always remain in your debt."

There was nothing more to say. Campion dismissed Hornblower with the order to eat and rest; and then to go over the planned defenses with Pyne and Lieutenant Kennedy. There was nothing else to be done but pray.

~~**~~

Horatio made his way to his cabin. The interview with Campion had left him unsettled and feeling as if he were standing beneath the sword of Damocles. Was he afraid to die? He had claimed that he was not; but as Archie so fondly reminded him, he was only human, he was only twenty-one, and the future was as wide as the horizon. He was not afraid to die, but he did not *want* to die.

He was standing with his hand on the latch when he heard footsteps approaching; it seemed that lately even the most innocent of sounds set his nerves jangling. He tried to disguise his relief when it was Ross Carlyle making a rather slow progress down the companionway. He nodded, "Ross --"

"Hornblower, may I have a word?"

"Captain Campion said you should be resting."

"Resting? How can I when we may be resting for eternity within the next few hours?" He looked around nervously. "Can we go inside, please?"

Horatio opened the door and Carlyle came inside. Horatio indicated the cot. "Sit down before your legs give out on you." He waited until Carlyle was settled. "Not to sound abrupt, but you haven't escaped from Mr. Martin to brood over our impending fate." There was a sarcastic cut to his voice that he instantly regretted. "Sorry, Carlyle. I'm as on edge as everyone else."

Carlyle's pale features had taken on a flush that was not entirely due to anger, and Horatio poured water from a flask into a tin mug. "Here, drink this."

"I know you were in to see the captain. I-I may not have any right to ask this, but dammit, Hornblower, I am the Skylark's First Lieutenant, at least on paper, and I *do* have the right to know where I stand." He fell silent and sipped the water. "Can you tell me if I am still the first Lieutenant?"

"Of course, you are! I cannot command in your Navy, Carlyle."

"But Captain Campion has given you the right to command this ship, hasn't he?"

Horatio looked away, ashamed and yet unable to deny it. "Ross, you are not fit. You can scarcely stand for five minutes without collapsing. You must admit that."

"And I have no experience in battle."

"No. Not like I have -- though that is limited enough, trust me." Horatio smiled wryly. "Listen, Ross. We both have a hard few hours in front of us. We cannot look any further than that, or it will be to our own peril."

"There is no way to avert this?" Carlyle asked.

"No. I am afraid not. And that is why you should be in sick berth resting. The captain was right when he said you would need all your strength." He offered his hand and Carlyle pulled himself upright with a grimace.

"Thank you, Hornblower." He sighed. "What time is it?"

"We have perhaps five hours. As soon as you are called to your watch, we will all be on alert."

"Very well." Carlyle went to the door, and then looked back. "Good luck, Horatio."

"You too, Ross." He watched Carlyle vanish into the dim companionway, then lay down on his cot and closed his eyes. He would not sleep, but he knew he had to rest, to allow his body to regain lost strength, and to steady his nerves. He would have need of those resources before the dawn of the next day.

~~**~~