To Return With Honour
by Joan C.

Part Nine

The shadows haunting the gundeck of the Skylark deepened as the sun set. The lanterns that were lit, did not pierce the gloom sufficiently to dispel them. Styles walked softly among the slung hammocks. The bell had tolled the end of the second dog watch. There was one four hour watch before Lieutenant Carlyle took his at midnight. Styles felt the seconds ticking away in his heartbeat.

When he reached the empty hold where Cleaver had told him to wait, he sank down on a roll of canvas and rested his head in his hands. He had never felt like this in his life; the closest he had come was standing before the magistrate, waiting for him to pass sentence for the theft of three chickens and a sack of coins from a merchant stall in Cheapside. Styles had expected to be branded and transported for that misdeed; hunger and poverty were no defense when the judge had a reputation worse than Bloody Jeffries. Then, just when the judge was about to speak, a man had stood up -- a big fellow in a dark blue pea coat. His name was Thomas Streep, and he was looking for a few able men willing to sign on to King George's Navy. Would Mr. Styles -- a fine, strong-looking young man, be willing to trade his sentence for a few years before the mast?

The judge had refused until a paper was passed over, set about with red seals and stamps. He read it, looked at Styles over his spectacles, and slapped the paper down. Seemed the Navy was gettin' desperate for seamen with a war on the horizon; ships being commissioned, and no one to sail'em. Would Mr. Styles, that flotsam of humanity care to change one living hell for another?

Styles thought of the fetid London streets running with sewage, rats, and thieves more desperate than he'd ever been. He thought of his strong body that would waste away in the hold of a transport ship, and of the spirit in him that would die in prison. Then he thought of the sea. Rum, sodomy, and the lash ... that's what they said of the Navy. Styles reckoned he had a taste for the first, would kill any bugger who tried the second, and was thick-skinned enough to endure the last. "Aye, aye, sir. I'll make a fine and loyal sailor for King George," he said, and like that, was handed over, marched out of the courtroom and down to the docks before he could change his mind. And that was how he had come to the Navy.

Since that time, he'd seen the worst and the best; been beaten like an animal, abused in spirit, forced to turn a blind eye as innocence was corrupted ... and somehow had been ransomed from that hell and taught honour, courage, and strength. He was not about to let a bastard like Cleaver take that away from him.

"Styles!" Cleaver's hiss made him look up, aware that his hands were clenched into fists, and realizing that he was scarcely a breath away from pounding Cleaver to a bloody pulp. He drew a deep breath and unclenched his fingers with an effort.

"Yeah, I'm here."

"You ready?" Cleaver's eyes glinted.

"As I'll ever be." It was the truth.

"You'd better be, we ain't got much time left fer doubts."

"I know what I need ta do, Cleaver."

"Midnight, be at the armoury. Get yer weapons then take care of Carlyle and t'other officers on the quarter-deck."

"What about Hornblower and Kennedy?"

"You want in on it?"

Like it was a game o'cards, Styles thought, sickened. "Damn right, I do. Payback fer the stripes they laid on me." Styles forced a grin. "It'll be a sweet day, Cleaver, so help me God."

Cleaver pulled a flask from his pocket. "This day we'll all be rich and free." He took a swig of rum and passed it over. Styles tipped the liquor down his throat, fighting the rising gorge of disgust. He wasn't a praying man, but this night he would have gone to his knees if only to ask for an early dawn.

~~**~~

There was never a mutiny born in the light. The Skylark's was fostered in darkness, fed on greed and envy until it was festering and angry, a contagion to be released at the sound of a bell, and the cry of a man as he was murdered.

Matthews felt the threat spreading its dark wings as he stood on the deck. His nerves were pricking like they did before a storm. He saw Kennedy standing at the quarter-deck rail, his hands behind his back, the wind lifting the light strands of his hair. He was still, silent, nervous. Matthews could see the knot of his jaw muscles, the way he closed his eyes as if trying to clear his vision. He did not like the way Kennedy looked, certain sure, but there was no way he could approach him without good reason. Well, he'd have to find a reason ...

Matthews looked up at the mainmast where the canvas was luffing as the wind shifted direction. It was a trifling matter; the wind could quarter back, adjusting the trim as it did so, but it offered an excuse to approach the sailing master with the observation, and once on the quarter-deck, he could speak to Kennedy.

He was turning towards the quarter-deck when he felt a tug on his jersey and Oldroyd brushed past, pausing just long enough to whisper: "Tell Mr. 'ornblower before midnight if 'e wants ter stay alive." Matthews gave Oldroyd's departing back a shove, as if to chastize him for his clumsiness. *Before midnight. Holy Christ.* Matthews went up to the quarter-deck and reported the changing wind directions to the sailing master, and under the pretense of informing the officer of the watch, stood before Kennedy.

"Sir?"

Kennedy nodded. "Matthews. Well, what is it?"

"The wind's changed, sir."

"You reported it to Mr. Pyne?"

"Aye, sir. But that isn't all." Matthews hesitated, "Sir, Oldroyd told me to be ready before midnight. Sounds like the officers 'ave got Cleaver worried. Beggin' pardon, sir. But if it was up to 'im, you'd all be dead men."

Kennedy's clouded blue eyes sharpened. Matthew's words, without being specific, carried enough portent to break through the amorphous worries that had been haunting him. Better the devil you know, he thought. "Start gathering the Indefatigables, Matthews. Make certain they are armed. I will get word to you when they are to report to the stations we have set for them. Mr. Hornblower may have further instructions. If he does, I will tell you." He was surprised that his voice was steady. "You are the acting officer, Matthews. I will try to be with you, but if I cannot be there, you must lead the men as you see fit."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Archie drew in a breath. "That is all, Matthews." A knuckled salute, a look both sympathetic and respectful, and the seaman returned to the deck. Archie passed the watch to the sailing master, and went below. He had thought Horatio might be sleeping since no light was showing below the door jamb, but when his eyes adjusted, he saw that his friend was sitting on the edge of his cot. Horatio's shirt collar was loosened, and his hair a bit mussed, but he did not look as if he had been resting -- as he should have been, Archie thought. And now, the time for that was past.

"What is it?" Horatio asked.

"Matthews just gave me a warning Horatio. If you and Campion intend to prevent this, you must act now."

"Bloody Hell!" He started to thrust his fingers through his hair, and winced as they encountered the bandage. "I must see Matthews --"

"Horatio, I've already given him orders to prepare our men, arm them, and have them on the alert."

"This is it, then." He was pale, his dark eyes grave, his expression stern. He looked as calm as if he had just been told the ship was in good trim and on an even keel. Only instead of reaching for his jacket and hat, he buckled on a sword, and stuck two pistols in his belt. "I will go to Campion, Archie. You take the quarter-deck and stay there even if Carlyle takes the watch. Send Mr. Pyne to Captain Campion immediately."

"Aye, aye, sir." These were official orders, given from one officer to another. Horatio could not hide his concern, but Archie would not give him any reason to doubt in his ability to command. For the briefest moment, their eyes met. Then Horatio left the cabin and Archie returned to the quarter-deck to relay his orders.

~~**~~

Horatio knew that to all outward appearances, he seemed calm, in control. Inside, he felt as if his heart would leap out of his chest, it was beating so hard. The force of his pulse made his head throb, and he hesitated for a moment outside Campion's cabin. Surely it had not pounded so hard when DeVergesse had held a pistol to his breast ... or perhaps he could not recall it. He raised his hand, pleased to note that it did not tremble, and knocked. Campion's response was immediate and carried the urgency of the moment in its tones.

As soon as Horatio stepped over the threshold, Campion's eyes went to the weapons. "Dear God, is it now?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. I have been warned that Cleaver intends to strike early and hard. I believe the armoury is his first target, and once armed, the mutineers will make an attempt on the quarter-deck, kill the officers on duty, and murder the rest of us. If they succeed in that, then they will have control of the ship, the crew, and the hold."

"If they succeed in that, hundreds of good men and their ships will remain hostage to France. And we shall have failed." Campion rubbed his forehead. "I cannot think of that until I am bleeding out the last of my life."

It was hard, at twenty-one, to imagine that eventuality. Horatio's instinct was to offer comfort to Campion, but he did not, knowing that platitudes and false hopes were useless balm when one was under siege. What was wanted were practical maneuvers, possible solutions, a plan for action. "Sir, Mr. Pyne will be here shortly. I have instructed Mr. Kennedy to see to the Indefatigables and to remain with Lieutenant Carlyle on the quarter-deck. That is the point of the greatest danger, aside from the armoury and the hold."

"Very good, Mr. Hornblower. Have the marine corporal outside tell Lieutenant Howard to meet us at the armoury with at least half of his company, more if he feels they can be spared. And above all, tell him this must be done with utmost discretion and as quietly as possible to avoid alerting Cleaver and those other bastards to our plans."

"Sir, will the Marines remain loyal?" Horatio asked. It was a thought which had been nagging at him for some time.

Campion's mouth twisted. "Lieutenant Howard has sailed with me before, as have most of his men. They have had watch over the hold through this voyage and have not been the men plotting to kill me. I pray to God that if I can trust anyone, it is those men."

"Very good, sir." Horatio paused. "What are your instructions for me, sir?"

Before Campion could answer, Pyne arrived. He was already armed, and his normally dour expression was harder and more fierce than when he had been trying to outwit the fury of the storm. He stood before Campion, his legs braced wide; solid, dependable, as hearty as the planks of oak beneath his feet. And the men who would follow Pyne, would be loyal to death. The Skylark needed men like that.

Campion glanced at Horatio. He nodded, deferring to Pyne. Campion settled behind his desk. "Mr. Pyne, I have devised a plan which I pray will result in the fewest casualties for everyone."

"I thought the point was to kill the mutinous bastards, if you will pardon me, sir."

Campion closed his eyes briefly. "My aim is to get through this without unnecessary bloodshed. If we can neutralize the leaders, perhaps those weak enough to follow them will fall away. I have no desire to be a captain of a ship of dead men."

"You would let the buggers live?" Pyne was incredulous. "That is folly, sir!"

"Mr. Pyne!" Campion rose from his chair. "I have no intention of letting the leaders of this foul scheme go unpunished! But I will not have it be murder because it is convenient to dispense justice with the sword! Is that understood?"

"Aye, aye, sir." Pyne looked rebellious, but Horatio could see a grudging admiration in his eyes. Campion was right, of course. To subdue the mutiny in a tide of blood would serve no purpose. Incongruously, Horatio recalled his father speaking of an operation to save a man's leg. *You cut out the rotten flesh and hope to spare that which is sound. In time, the tissue will heal, leaving only a scar. A man can live with a scar, Horatio. But a man cannot live with poison in his blood.* Campion was hoping to do just that.

"To that end, Mr. Pyne, I am putting you, and those men you can trust in the waist. Your duty is to be the first line of defense to protect the quarter-deck. Lieutenant Kennedy and his men will be on the quarter-deck. You know who Styles and Oldroyd are, I take it?"

"Yes, sir." Pyne looked unsettled. "They've both been talking to Cleaver, sir."

"They are unquestionably loyal, Mr. Pyne. And they are to be protected at all costs. All of Lieutenant Hornblower's men, are to be protected."

"Aye, aye, sir." If he had his doubts, he was not giving them voice.

Campion turned his attention back to Horatio. "Mr. Hornblower, you and I will take the marines to the armoury -- see if we cannot strangle the hydra before its reach grows too far."

"And the hold?"

"That is where we must make our last stand. If we cannot, there is no purpose in fighting at all. And if we do not fight, we will die. It is a very simple plan. No great tactics, no glorious battle. No troubadours singing of our noble deeds." He smiled; a bitter, knowing twist of his lip. "A fine way to die, is it not?"

Horatio looked away. He knew there was no answer to that question. Campion dug the heels of his palms into his eyelids, as if he could grind away the visions he was seeing in his mind. "Gentlemen, you are dismissed. When I call you from the quarter-deck, Mr. Hornblower, we will set the plan in motion. Have your men gather at their stations. It will not be above fifteen minutes."

"Very good, sir. We will be ready." Horatio hoped that the fluttering panic in his breast was not betrayed by his voice. He left to find Archie, and to deliver his orders.

~~**~~

Standing on the quarter-deck, Archie felt the familiar sense of detachment building in his mind; as if a wall were being erected between himself and the world around him. He had constructed those walls before; at home, when his mother died, on the Justinian, to block out the horrors of Jack Simpson's abuse, in Spain, when he had wanted to die. Oh yes, he was very adept at building walls. His past had taught him that there was safety in distance, and even now when he knew he could not afford that isolation, the instinctive reaction remained to soften the sharp edges of his vision, to deaden colours and sounds like a fog descending ....

"Archie -- Lieutenant Kennedy!" Horatio's urgent voice pulled him back from the mists. Archie blinked and the world came back. "Sir?"

"Are you all right, Archie?" Horatio asked, his concern urgent, painful in its raw emotion. "For God's sake, if you cannot do this --"

Archie forced himself to look at Horatio. "No! I can do this, Horatio. I *will* do this." The concern and fear he saw in those dark eyes strengthened his resolve. He would not hide from this duty, he could not block it out. That idea should have terrified him: perhaps it did, and he did not realize it. Whatever his feelings, he would not let Horatio see them. "What are my orders?" he asked firmly.

"You and Lieutenant Carlyle are to hold the quarter-deck at all costs with the aid of half the marines, half of our men, and half the loyal Skylarks."

"Is that all?" It sounded absurdly simple. Made him want to laugh.

Horatio looked surprised. "Yes, that is all the men we can spare."

Archie's grin spread, completely confounding Horatio. "No -- I mean is that all I have to do?"

"Y-yes."

"Well then, I suppose half a loaf is better than none," Archie quipped. Horatio looked at him as if he had lost his mind, then the worry haunting his eyes lightened for a moment, and he smiled.

"I'm afraid half a loaf must be enough. In a very few minutes, Campion will call me from the quarter-deck. That will be the signal to put your men on alert. I expect as soon as Carlyle comes on deck, the mutineers will begin their assault."

"I understand." Archie drew a breath. "I wish you well, Horatio. Watch your back."

"You, too." He paused, and the hard gaze of a commander became that of a friend. "Have a care, Archie."

Before he could respond, Campion came on deck. For a moment he stood in the lantern light, the bullion on his uniform glinting, his hair flame-bright. He looked out at the ocean he could not see in the darkness, and at the men of the Skylark; the ones who met his eyes fearlessly, and those that could not. He knew them all. He turned to the quarter-deck. To Horatio.

"Mr. Hornblower, will you come with me?"

Archie heard Horatio inhale sharply. He touched the brim of his hat. "Aye, aye, sir." He went down the steps to the waist. Then he and Campion vanished into the companionway.

~~**~~

The watch bell tolled. Ross Carlyle heard it and paused, one hand clenched on the rail running alongside the ladder leading from the companionway to the deck. He would have given his very soul to go back to the sick berth and shut out the world. He shivered, but could not tell if the chill was caused by fear or the fever he felt rising in his blood. His arm ached fiercely, as if the bandage Martin had wound about it were tied too tightly. He was not stupid; he knew what that meant. What would an arm matter, if he lost his life? And what would his life matter if he lost his honour? Gritting his teeth, he forced his way up to the deck.

It was strangely silent. The chatter that was normally exchanged between the seamen was stilled. The only sounds were the foaming splash of the waves against the Skylark's hull, and the creaking of masts and rigging as the sails were pulled taut by the wind. He looked up at the quarter-deck. Kennedy was there, alone. Carlyle made his way to the rail and stood before him.

"Lieutenant Carlyle reporting for duty, Mr. Kennedy." They exchanged a formal salute, but instead of stepping down from the quarter-deck, Kennedy remained at his side.

"Campion just called Horatio to join him below," Archie murmured. "I doubt we have even ten minutes." He raised his hand to his eyes and peered upward -- an innocent enough gesture for an officer to make on relinquishing the watch to another.

At that signal, Matthews began herding his Indefatigables toward the quarter-deck. It was not conspicuous from the waist, but from his slightly raised position, Carlyle could see them drawing nearer; one man, then another, so gradually that it scarcely seemed a concerted effort. From the corner of his eye, he saw Pyne's hand go to the hilt of his cutlass, and knew that the sailing master was marshaling his forces in the same manner. Pyne raised his fingers in a salute to Carlyle, his expression steely as he descended to the deck.

Kennedy turned steady blue eyes to Carlyle. "Our orders are to hold the quarter-deck at all costs. And so we will."

"Aye, aye, sir." He took his stance beside Kennedy and uttered a silent prayer for deliverance.

~~**~~

It was dark in the lower decks, and it was getting darker as Styles extinguished the lanterns along the companionway one by one. Cleaver was walking in front of him, a lantern held aloft, but behind him there was only darkness. Styles shivered, feeling the it following him like a living thing. He extinguished the next lantern; but before he could take another step, Cleaver's hand came down hard on his arm and he pulled Styles back into the darkness. There was a puff of breath, and he blew out the flame on the lantern he carried. He hissed a soft warning to Styles. Both men stood still. Styles could have sworn that his heart was beating loudly enough to echo down the companionway.

There were footsteps on the ladder leading from the deck, and a curse as Campion realized that he was enveloped in darkness. Styles heard a voice he knew as Hornblower's making a soft, but unintelligible reply. *Damn!* What was the lieutenant doin' down here? Why weren't the officers on the quarter-deck? *Lad, oh lad. Turn around and go back up into the light!* Styles closed his eyes, begging Hornblower to do his will. Instead, he heard Cleaver's whisper.

"C'mon! We've got'em, now. Sittin' ducks, Styles, with golden feathers." There was a rasp of steel against steel as he drew his cutlass from his scabbard. He was about move back into the companionway, when the thud of boots rushing from aft made him cringe back into the shadows. "Goddam marines! What the hell --" He wheeled and grabbed Styles' shirtfront. "Get yer ass up on deck, Styles! Get those men movin' before we're all dead with our cutlasses in our scabbards."

"What about you, Cleaver. You're the bloody brains behind this, ain'tcha?"

"I'm going to the hold --"

"Bloody hell you are! Are ye daft? There's a company of lobsters waitin' fer ya, there! The only gold ye'll see's the coins layin' on yer eyelids when yer dead!"

For a moment, Cleaver's eyes glittered with madness, and Styles feared that he would be Cleaver's first victim; then sense returned, and Cleaver nodded. "Right. C'mon, Krause should be givin' the signal about, now ..."

*Jesus wept. And then he turned his face away,* Styles thought bitterly as he gripped his cutlass. *What the bloody hell am I doin'?*

~~**~~

The darkness made Horatio feel ill. He had thought his wound was better, but it throbbed fiercely, and without visual reference points, he was disoriented. Campion seemed to know the Skylark like the back of his hand; it was all Horatio could do to follow Campion's lead. He could hear the heavy tread of the marines at his back. It was some small security.

Campion halted so abruptly that Horatio nearly ran into his back. "Shield your eyes, Hornblower."

Horatio held his hand up as Campion struck a flint. The brightness of the flame made him wince, and as his eyes adjusted, he realized they were standing outside the armoury. The metal hasp and latch hung open and the door was ajar. Campion cursed foully. The light from the lantern fell on a nearly empty arms locker. "We're too late," he whispered.

As he spoke, a sudden tumult erupted over their heads: the pounding of feet on the planks, harsh shouts, gunfire -- a confusion of noise that drew the blood from Campion's face as he looked up. "It's begun," he said. "God have mercy on us all."

Lieutenant Howard came forward. "Sir, if you don't need all of us, Sergeant McNally and his men could be put to better use on deck."

Campion nodded. "Very well. Four marines and yourself shall stay here. Sergeant McNally, return as soon as it is practical for you to do so. Fight your way back, if you must. Do you understand?"

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Come, Lieutenant. We must set up a defensive position at the hold. There is nothing more we can do here."

Horatio would have argued that like Howard's marines, their presence would make more of a difference on deck, but he swallowed those words. His duty was to Campion and to their mission, even if his heart and soul were with his men. What difference would they make on deck? Just two more bodies to bleed and die. But at the hold, they would be the difference between life and death.

~~**~~