In The Night
by Nereus

                 

*The blade scythed down, cutting through the boy's neck and sending
the head down into the basket, Lt Hornblower had to will himself not
to back away, to clamp down hard against the rising nausea in his
gut. 

A scream choked in his throat, as the headless body rose from the
platform, and moved down the steps, to stand with a long rank of
others, all with bloodstains gushing from the hideous space where
their necks should have been. He spun round, panicked, and Moncourant
rose from where he had been seated to black his path.  With mounting
terror Hornblower saw the blood soaking through his neck-linen, and
knew that at any moment the severed head might be dislodged from its
balance between his shoulders.*

"Horatio!"  Someone had grabbed at him and he struggled in
horror.  "Horatio, Wake up."  Darkness had enclosed him, everything
was dark.  "Horatio!"  Hand grabbed his shoulders firmly, he could
see nothing, but he knew the voice.  "It was a dream, Horatio, just a
dream."

"Archie," he gasped, and then grabbed for control, as he realised he
was in his cot in the tiny, pitch-dark cabin that they shared, not in
the square in Muzillac.  When he was able to speak clearly again he
said, "Sorry to have woken you."

"You didn't wake me," was the quiet reply.  Hornblower knew Kennedy
did not always sleep well, but it was not something talked about
between them.  He was surprised, therefore, when Kennedy said
softly, "Was it about what happened in France?"

He was tempted to brush off the question, retreat into silence, and
with anyone else he would certainly have done it.  But he found he
did not mind that Archie had heard the nightmares, nor did he mind
letting the officer's mask slip just this once.  This, after all, was
the one person that he knew would not think less of him. And Archie
had had his sleep disturbed several times of late, he deserved some
answer.

"Yes.  About the guillotine."  Although it had not equalled the
horror of the hanging he had seen when he was ten, yet the sight of
those beheadings had been a terrible thing.  Now matter how often he
angrily told himself that he should be used to violent deaths he
could not shake the memory of it, the impersonality of the machine,
the starkness of the mutilation, the sheer horror of seeing a life
cut short in full flow, not in the heat and self-defence of battle,
but coldly and wantonly.  He could not forget.  "I can't describe it."

"You don't need to," Kennedy said, so flatly that Hornblower found
himself trying to read through the darkness in order to see his
friend's expression.  After a moment Kennedy saved him from asking by
saying, "I've seen it."

"How?"  Hornblower asked tentatively, although he could have made a
guess.

"In France.  I was held in a civilian gaol for a while.  There was a
guillotine in the courtyard below my window.  And the cell next to
mine... as my French got better I could talk a bit with other
prisoners.  Most of them didn't seem to know why they were there. 
They weren't even noble or anything.  They never seemed to be there
for very long."  His voice died away.

Hornblower tried to gauge in the dark where Archie must be crouching
or kneeling beside him.  He reached out, blunderingly, made contact
with a shoulder, and gripped it hard.  "Why didn't you tell me?" 
Silly question.  Would he have said anything in Archie's place?  But
it was the nearest he could come to sympathy, and probably the
closest that Archie's pride would let him come.

"What was the point?"  He felt Kennedy shift a little, although not
restively. 

"I thought we were fighting to stop that kind of massacre,"
Hornblower said bitterly.

"I don't know why we're fighting anymore, only that we are."  The
tone was weary. Hornblower had a sudden vivid picture of the boy who
had been bubbling over with eagerness for the fight, back in the days
when they first knew each other.  "It was a mess, you know.  When I
was trying to get away and went through the areas where the royalists
and the republicans had been fighting each other....  I'd no idea. 
No idea that was what land fighting does." 

Hornblower was uneasily aware that he still had very little idea of
what land fighting did, and this did not seem like a good time to ask
for details. 

"You don't have to stay," he said softly, sure that the captain would
give Kennedy an honourable discharge, if that was what he wanted.

"Where else would I go?  And I didn't say I wanted to leave.  I
don't.  Do you?"

That was a hard question, and typical of Archie.  It was not a matter
he wished to confront, but he owed an answer of some sort.

He enjoyed the calculation, whether navigation or the tactical
problems Captain Pellew liked to set his young officers.  Sometimes
he enjoyed the camaraderie.  He did not like the fighting, or the
brutal discipline, or the sea-sickness, or the always damp and smelly
conditions, or the enforced closeness, the lack of solitude.  He did
not like this life, yet if he was offered a chance to leave he would
not have taken it, and all he could have said in explanation was that
it was too late.

"Where else would I go?" he said at last.  It was not an answer, but
it was the best that he could do.

Another shift beneath his hand.  "Do you think you can sleep now,
Horatio?"

"I can try."  He was really dreadfully tired, not that that was
unusual.  "Thank you, Archie."

"You've done as much for me.  Goodnight, Horatio."

"Goodnight," Hornblower said, although conscious of the irony in the
words.  The night had been far from good.