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The King's Man
by
Rhiannon

Chapter Eight

Ye taught my lips a single speech
And a thousand silences...

 

Guido was sitting in the fighting top, high above the deck, looking down despondently. He felt as though his brain had come to a standstill. He also felt incredibly alone.

"Well, of course you're alone," he pointed out to himself. "You came up to the top here so you could be alone."

But it wasn't that. The alliance Will seemed to have formed so easily against him with the two officers had shaken him to his core. Although he knew, in theory, that they were right, that there had to be a way of defeating Lorenzo, he could not think past what his brother was capable of doing. Over the years, he had come, almost imperceptibly, to rely on Will Deveraux's friendship and support - and the thought of losing him worried the assassin more than he cared to admit.

He wished that he was a different man, wished he had learnt how to plan instead of to kill, wished that the books he had read had taught him more than quotations. He wished he could remember more about his brother.

There was a three-year age gap between the two, but for most of their youth, they had been so close that the joke had been if you scratched Lorenzo, Guido would bleed. Guido sighed. He could remember the joke, and knew that it was based on what had once been the truth of their relationship, but he could no longer recall how that had felt, nor who had made the joke and why.

An image came to him suddenly of sleepy blue eyes, and a drawling, slightly affected voice said in his mind,

"Hotspur..."

Guido frowned, and shook his head. Neither the image nor the voice meant anything to him, but they left behind a feeling of restless sorrow, of regret - and of betrayal.

"Whoever that was," he muttered, balancing carefully as he brought out his pipe, "I probably killed them."

He had a sudden memory of play-acting, of laughing in a long hallway, of a perfect English voice teaching him to pronounce Shakespeare...had that been where he learnt his English?

"Doesn't matter," he muttered to himself, shaking his head. "Forget, forget...whatever that was, it means nothing."

But the oddly restless feeling persisted. Guido thought of Will, thought of Lorenzo, and felt his mind bounce from one to the other with pointless monotony. And all the while, in the back of his mind, he fretted away at that one clear memory of the drawling, lazily English voice.

Balancing like a cat on the wood, he stretched out his legs comfortably and took the pipe out of his mouth, staring out into the growing darkness. The moon shone briefly through the clouds, leaving a silver trail on the black waves. Guido followed the light with his eyes, wondering if there was truth in the story of the old fisherman in the moon, who drew the tides up with his line. His brooding face relaxed as he imagined an old man, fishing for the sea each night and morning.

A cloud passed over the moon, and Guido blinked, suddenly alert. At the end of the trail of moonlight had been something - but it hadn't been a fisherman with his rod. It had been a tiny flicker of white on the horizon.

"That was a sail," muttered Guido, all thoughts of his brother gone from his mind. "And I think we're in enemy waters...oh, damn!"

And he swung himself down into the rigging.

*****

Guido stood on the deck amidst what appeared to him to be nothing more than chaos. He had sailed before, to and from France, but never in a frigate - and never with a captain like Pellew.

They had chased the ship through the night, with no success. The sky lightened, and rain poured down from a dark grey sky, soaking the men who strove to clear the decks. Pellew stood above them, his telescope glued to the French corvette, which seemed to have the devil's own luck at evasion. Guido saw no signs of tiredness in him, nor in the officers surrounding him. He supposed, rather vaguely, that the excitement of the chase was keeping them alert. He, on the other hand, felt as though his eyelids had been coated with a thin layer of sand, which was slowly scraping away the surface of his eyes. Everyone seemed to be somehow - what? Happy? Busy, thought Guido wryly. Certainly busy.

Will had got bored hours before, going back to the cabin in a state of tiredness so acute he could not speak for yawning - but Guido had chosen to stay, scarcely able to articulate even to himself why he needed to so, but somehow feeling compelled to watch this out to the end, as though seeing the strip of sail at the end of the moonlight had linked him to the other ship's eventual fate.

Still and silent in the middle of the activity, Guido stood at the rail and watched gloomily as the French corvette outraced the 'Indefatigable'. The whole process appeared to him to be absolutely incomprehensible, and he felt more alone than ever, standing motionless as men raced around him to do their officers' bidding.

"Signor Guido, sir?"

It was Styles, standing at his elbow, having obviously come up with what he thought was an appropriate title for him. Guido sighed.

"Yes, Mr. Styles?"

"Told you. I ain't mister."

"Whatever," said Guido wearily, waving one gloved hand in the air. "What can I do for you?"

"Mr 'Ornblower's compliments, and would you be so good as to go below with Mr. Deveraux," said Styles carefully.

Guido thought for a moment.

"I'm not sure how I should put this..." he said pensively. "Ah yes...Signor di Cesare's compliments, and Mr. Hornblower can go to the devil."

Styles grinned.

"D'you really want me t'say that to 'im?" he asked.

Guido nodded.

"A little - formal, perhaps?" he suggested, his expression quizzical.

Styles' grin widened.

"Nah," he said cheerfully. "But he's not gonna like it." Then he asked curiously, "Wanting to see some action, are yeh?"

"Something like that," said the assassin dryly, his dark eyes flickering around the ship. He was obviously looking for something, though for the life of him Styles could not imagine what.

"Yes."

Styles felt obscurely pleased, as if he had been paid a compliment by the assassin's decision to stay on deck.

"I'll be conveyin' yer message to Mr. 'Ornblower, then," he said with a grin, and hurried off.

Guido watched as he reported to Horatio, hiding his own smile. The lieutenant looked disbelieving, then furious. He glared over in Guido's direction. Guido smiled back, and bowed extravagantly, his elegant grace an insult on a deck cleared for action.

Hornblower left Styles and marched over to where Guido was standing.

"What the hell do you mean by this, di Cesare?"

Guido smiled.

"Don't give me orders again," he murmured, looking out towards the corvette. "I really don't like it."

"Di Cesare, if we catch that corvette -"

"Then I intend to be present." Guido was still smiling, but there was steel in his gaze.

Horatio gave up.

"All right. Guido -"

"I won't get in your way," the assassin promised, but his eyes were searching the deck again. Hornblower was about to ask him what he was looking for, when Guido swore vehemently, pointing over to the other side of the deck.

"Damn it, Mr. Hornblower, what's he doing here?"

"He's a midshipman," said Horatio patiently. "It's his duty."

"He's a boy!"

Horatio sighed.

"It is still his duty," he said sternly. Then he smiled, knowing that humour was the best way of disarming the Italian. "Besides, what do you think the chances would be of keeping him out of danger?"

"None," said Guido grimly, his eyes not leaving the small, freckled boy who was causing more chaos with his excited orders than he was doing good. "I think I'm going to empty my bag when we get to Toulouse and find him in there, listening."

"Mr. Hornblower!" bellowed Pellew from the captain's deck. Horatio jumped.

"Aye, aye, sir!" he shouted back hurriedly.

"A word, if you please!"

Horatio saluted, and hurried off without another word. Guido's eyes continued to scan the deck worriedly. He saw Sanderson, out of sight of the captain, get himself firmly collared by Matthews and put to work, and smiled to himself. Then he looked up to where Pellew stood silhouetted against the lightening sky. Surrounded by his officers, he looked formidable.

"The might of the British Navy," murmured Guido. Then his mouth quirked upwards, the fading bruises on his face adding to his cynical expression. "On display..."

He carried on scanning his surroundings, his dark face intent and brooding, his eyes hooded and very black.

"She's coming about!" That was Hornblower, shouting with excitement.

"Schoolboy," muttered Guido, turning back to the sea. Then he gasped. For reasons known only to the corvette, it had decided to turn around and was now, apparently, trying to turn a circle around the 'Indefatigable'.

"What the hell..?"

"Look!" That was Sanderson, standing at his elbow. Guido looked down at him.

"Shouldn't you be busy doing something?" he enquired irritably.

Then his gaze softened. Sanderson was very white beneath his freckles, his eyes wide with alarm. Guido could not imagine what it was like for him, facing the thought of a battle at the age of twelve. He knew that this was not unusual for the Navy, but he had never met a boy that young - and a midshipman! - aboard ship before. Something deep within the assassin hated the thought of a boy having to fight - simply because some documents needed to get to Toulouse, and Pellew could not gainsay his orders.

"Oh, hell," muttered Guido irascibly. "Just what I need."

"What?" asked Sanderson. He was trying to smile, and Guido felt something long forgotten, something that had once been kind, and had wanted to protect, a flickering memory of the young man who had so loved chivalry, stir inside him as he saw the attempt the boy was making to be brave.

"An assistant," he drawled, hearing echoes of another voice reverberate in his own, and unable to place it. "Mr Deveraux will doubtless be asleep until a cannon ball blows up his cabin - so I will need your help."

Some of the colour was coming back into Sanderson's face.

"How?" he asked, eagerness creeping into his voice.

"Well, I shall need you to describe procedures. The - ah - technical terms and the like. For my report."

"Oh - right," said Sanderson seriously.

"So -" Guido, unused to tact, was finding this almost impossible. He gave up and settled for snapping. "So if you leave my side, even for a moment, I shall throw you overboard! Clear?"

Sanderson, looking completely overawed, nodded hurriedly, and Guido breathed an inward sigh of relief.

"Good," he said curtly, and turned back to watch the French ship. He frowned, considered, opened his mouth to speak, shut it again, then found he had to ask.

"Mr Sanderson," he said curiously.

"Yes?"

"What the hell is that corvette doing?"

Sanderson stared at him in obvious bewilderment.

"Well, she's going to come around us..." he began to explain, when he realised the assassin was not listening. He was, instead, looking around the deck again.

"Guido?"

"Yes?" he answered absently.

"What are you looking for?"

"My bag..." Guido's voice was worried. Then he swore.

"Damn it to hell!" he exploded. "I left it tied to the fighting top!"

He ran for the rigging, and began to climb, ignoring the shouts of protest from Sanderson.

And then, for Guido, it was as if he had walked straight into a scene from Dante's Inferno as Pellew, the telescope still glued to his face, gave the order to fire.

*****

Guido swayed dizzily as the ship rocked, losing the grip of his left hand on the rope and his feet slipping from under him. He swung from his right hand, pulling his long legs up and into the ropes with an effort, the muscles cording in his neck and on his right arm.

"My bag," he said desperately. "My weapons!"

He had a knife in each boot, a sword, but that would not be enough. If the knives had been poisoned, well and good, but they were clean, would have to be used with force to kill - and perhaps rendered unusable after that force. In the bag were two guns and powder, poisons, the leather-sheathed throwing knives...Guido pulled himself up frantically, seeing the bag swing far above him.

The ship rocked again with the force of the explosions, and Guido lost his footing again, his arm jerked nearly out of its socket. He swore furiously, and swung his left arm up with an enormous effort that brought the tendons in his neck into sharp relief. He began to climb again, one hand above the other, resting all his weight on his strong arms, allowing his long legs to hang, balancing him like a clock's pendulum.

Hornblower, down on the deck and shouting his orders, was cannoned into by Sanderson, who looked desperate.

"What is it, Mr Sanderson?" he demanded angrily.

"Guido, sir," gasped Sanderson. "He's gone up in the rigging!"

The thin, black figure of the assassin moved slowly up towards the fighting top. And the corvette's cannons continued to fire at the mast.

"What the hell is he doing?" demanded Horatio. "Can't he see where they're firing?"

Sanderson shook his head. He was almost in tears.

"His bag's up there, sir. He wouldn't listen!"

Guido had no idea of the danger he was in. He was deafened by the sound of the cannons and half-blind with smoke. A man who lived in comparative silence, he was completely disorientated by the noise, his head spinning dizzily.

"This is hell," he muttered. "I am in Hell!"

He was almost there. The bag was in reach, and Guido pulled his legs up, his knees to his chin, and let go with one hand.

"My God..." breathed Horatio, transfixed.

Guido reached into his boot, and pulled out one of his knives. In one swift movement, he severed the leather strap, and caught the trailing end between two fingers as the bag plummeted past him. The knife fell to the deck below. Guido placed the strap between his teeth, and started to climb down, dropping hand over hand towards the deck. He looked down, and saw Horatio and Sanderson, staring up at him. He reorientated himself, managing to block out the noise, and amusement flooded through him as he realised how he must have looked, swinging up there by one hand. It must have been pretty bad, he reasoned, judging from the way they were staring at him. In fact, they seemed quite unnervingly interested in what he was doing.

Guido's sense of humour was maverick at best, and timing was never something he had worried about. He let go with one hand, and waved cheerfully.

"Hallo down there!" he called happily through his teeth, his voice muffled by the leather strap.

Horatio cursed, and strode back to his gun crew. Guido shrugged, laughing, and continued to climb down. The two ships drew closer together.

Guido landed on the deck with a jump, and began to rummage through his bag, pulling out the guns and powder. He looked up at Sanderson irritably, and snapped,

"What are you staring at me like that for?"

"You - you - didn't you - they were firing at the mast!"

"Oh," said Guido, surprised. He blinked, and looked over at the other ship. Then he shrugged. "How odd."

"You could have been killed!"

Guido looked at the boy as though he had gone mad. Then he flung his hands in the air.

"Unlike everyone else on this ship, who, of course, would have survived?" he demanded disbelievingly. "Mr Sanderson, I fail to see the problem. My chances of surviving -"

as he spoke, his long, clever fingers were loading the guns,

"- were no more or less than anyone else's. However, with my weapons -"

he stuck one gun at his waist, threw off his cloak, and rose to his feet,

"-my chances are considerably better."

His hawk-like face was unreadable, his attitude businesslike, and Sanderson could think of nothing more to say.

Even had he spoken, it would not have registered with the assassin. Holding the gun in one hand, centering his supple body to move with all the quickness and strength it was capable of, Guido was distancing himself from all emotion, slowing his breathing and his pulse as he had learnt from his brother. Sounds became fainter, slower, time crawled, each breath in seeming to last a minute. He felt his muscles shift and tense, his eyesight sharpening almost preternaturally, his nerves aware of every part of his body. Had anyone touched him at that moment, they would have died before Guido had even had time to think.

Will's men, seeing this process and fearing it, had called him by a name that had stuck, even in the minds of their enemies. They called him the Angel of Death, seeing the strange, otherworldly serenity of his face as he prepared to kill. It was the process that Lorenzo had taught him - a world where only the senses mattered, and thought processes became so quick as to make all connections almost instant. Guido breathed slow air, and concentrated on regaining his hearing and his sense of time.

Sound came back slowly, but somehow bearable, no longer distracting, but sharp and clear and another weapon to be used. Guido breathed hardly at all now, his pulse slowed almost to nothing. His stillness was so intent, that to anyone unable to see him, there would have been no sense of presence at all nearby. This was the lesson that the assassin had so painfully learnt, the greatest weapon of all...

And the circumstances in which he had learnt it meant that he was sending himself close to a state of deliberate insanity.

*****

Will Deveraux had not needed a cannon ball to explode in his cabin. The one that had hit the side of the ship earlier (and rocked Guido nearly off the rigging) had been quite sufficient. He dressed hurriedly, pulling on long boots similar to those of the assassin's, and opening one of the bags in the corner to reveal a heavily embossed case. He snapped it open to reveal a beautifully chased pair of pistols. He checked them, loaded them, and placed them on the desk carefully. Then he buckled on his sword, sliding it out of the scabbard with a hiss. On the hilt was his family crest, raised in gold. Will pressed it to his lips, closed his eyes for a moment, then slammed the sword back into its sheath and strode out of the cabin.

The moment he saw the assassin, he knew that Guido had made his own preparations. The eyes that met his were blank, opaque, the pupils so expanded as to render the whole iris black. The air around him seemed to crackle as Will drew near.

The spy leader would not have dared attract Guido's attention while the process of distancing himself was in place, but the black, glittering eyes, feverish in an immobile face, showed that it was done.

"Di Cesare," he said quietly.

"Deveraux."

"What's happening?"

"I think -" said Guido slowly, "that they're in range for whatever Pellew has in mind."

His smile was not reassuring.

Then a touch of dark brown appeared in the hollow eyes, and Guido said,

"The boy, Deveraux. Look after him."

And his face closed off again.

Will and Sanderson looked at each other with mutual dislike. Guido's black eyes flickered over to them, and his eyebrows raised.

"Oblige me," he added, with a cold command to his voice that even Pellew would have envied. Will simply nodded. Sanderson glared. Neither of them had the courage to say anything.

Guido moved into the centre of the deck, and looked up at Pellew. The captain's eyes met his. Guido saluted slowly, holding Pellew's gaze with his own. Pellew took a visible breath, and nodded curtly. Then he turned back to the corvette.

"Wait, wait," he muttered, trying to forget the assassin's burning stare. The other ship drew closer, and closer still, by a sheer miracle missing her target with every cannonade. "That's it! FIRE!"

The whole ship seemed to echo with the cry. Guido's eyes flared wide, as he was almost concussed by the noise of the guns. He reeled, barely keeping his footing on the deck as the ship rolled down and the guns roared. In the second's silence that seemed to follow, he heard a strange, high ringing in his ears. Then the corvette returned fire.

And hit what felt to the assassin like everywhere on the ship at once, disintegrating the top of the mast.

Guido, deafened, just out of the way of the falling debris, saw Pellew shouting and could not hear. He looked around desperately through smoke and chaos, his lunatic calm shattered. He was trembling already with the reaction to what he had forced his body into, looking around him to see what on earth he could do now.

Another cannonball had exploded nearby, dismounting one of the guns. Guido guessed that that was why his ears were ringing. Matthews, Styles and Oldroyd were struggling to do something with it - what, the assassin could only guess. Hornblower was nearby, his face streaked with dirt, bending over a wounded man.

Guido saw the sail above him hanging loose and useless, held above by a thread of rope, saw the other ropes tangling with those still working, and stopping all movement. Now that his hearing was coming back, he realised that this was a disaster. They could not get away, and the corvette was near enough -

"Great God..." whispered Guido. "They're close enough to board!"

And he shouted desperately,

"Deveraux! Deveraux!"

Will was helping to move the wounded from where the bits of mast had come crashing down. Two men were dead, crushed beneath falling wood, and Will could have wept. He spied to bring peace, and his spying had brought these men to death...And he worked on desperately, hopelessly, the tears spilling down his scarred face, trying to lift the heavy wood from the survivors.

Sanderson, trying to help, had no strength at all with which to aid him, and was reduced to trying to talk to those already freed, trying to think of words of encouragement while they waited for men to take them below.

Guido saw the devil's features of his commander contort with effort. The scars stood out scarlet against his ashen skin, his face distorted with grief.

"Will -"

Guido ran to help him, his strong, thin arms lifting the other end of the wood, his neck cording with effort. Then he gasped, and heaved up his end of it high, sending it crashing to the side.

"Deveraux, get below," he said urgently.

Will looked over at the assassin, his grey eyes half-blinded by tears and smoke.

"What?" he asked numbly.

"They're close enough to board, Deveraux! Look!"

The sides were crowded with men, firing seemingly at random. The two spies looked at each other in despairing incomprehension of what was happening.

"The documents," said Guido. "Get them. You have to protect the documents!"

"Damn the documents!" Will wanted to stay, to feel as if he were repairing the damage he believed himself to be responsible for. He knelt by the man they had just freed. Guido sprang over and dragged the English spy to his feet, holding his shoulders in a grip like a vice.

"Look around you, Deveraux!" he shouted desperately. "Look!"

The deck was chaos. Officers were shouting orders, men cursing - everyone on the whole ship appeared to have gathered in the one place.

Except Pellew, who stood alone above them, his hands gripping the rail in front of him as he called down orders.

"Go," said Guido quietly.

"What about you?"

Guido shook his head.

"I'm going back up," he said with a gesture.

"What the hell are you -"

"See the loose sail? See those ropes, tangling everything up? That's what's stopping us. If that were gone, we could move further away, or do something, at least! If we can move, we have a chance!"

And that might just be all we need...

It took Will a while before Guido's words registered with him, but once they did, he realised the sense of what the assassin was saying. If the documents were lost, it would be a disaster. But as to Guido's plan -

"Di Cesare, I forbid you!"

Guido turned around with a snarl.

"God damn it, will you all stop ordering me and telling me and forbidding me! I may be only a hired killer, but none of you - not one! - own me!"

Then he calmed himself visibly, and added,

"I am also, in case you haven't noticed, the only person on this ship who can go up there and stay alive! Now GO BELOW!"

He turned and swung himself upwards into what remained of the rigging, his thin body drawing on the last reserves he had. In the last week, he had eaten nothing, taken antidotes that had half crippled him, and slept hardly at all. After the way he had pushed himself into the assassin's trance earlier, he found that every muscle in his body was trembling uncontrollably with reaction, and he was very sure of one thing. He could get to the tangled ropes, and stay up there to disentangle them. He did not think he would have the strength to get down again afterwards.

His strong arms quivering with effort, he looked down, and saw that Will had gone. Sanderson was looking up at him worriedly. Guido, from somewhere, found his old mocking smile, and raised his eyebrows.

"This," he called down, "is not part of what a spy should know, Mr. Sanderson. So if you even think of following me up here, you should know that the first thing I will do is take some of this rope and tie you up with it. All right?"

And he continued his climb.

Sanderson stared up at him.

"Well, you're a spy," he said crossly, "and you're doing it. So why can't I?"

Guido, overhearing, strongly debated the option of getting back down and tying Sanderson up anyway before proceeding. The ebbing strength in his arms, however, convinced him to keep going up, ignoring everything else.

The assassin suddenly realised that he was doing the last thing he would probably ever do in his life. His world had narrowed down to rope and his hands, to the single thought of disentangling the ship. His hearing was fading in and out, and a mist was creeping in at the edges of his vision. He understood that he was going to die, but felt completely detached from the fact, caring only about completing his self-appointed task.

"Honour," he muttered to himself dimly, his arms pulling him up mechanically. "I will have honour, at least..."

*****

Will Deveraux sprinted down to the cabin, grabbed the documents and a jacket, and was about to head back up on deck, when he saw the surgeon hurrying along past him. Small and neat, his sleek head bent as he walked along quickly, he looked more like a secretary, caught out of place. Will recognised him by Guido's description, after he had seen the man asleep.

"A neat little vole of a man, small and dark and sleek. He looks as if he's been smoothed over with varnish."

Will took a deep breath, and followed the doctor, touching him on the shoulder.

"Do you need any help?" he asked, trying to appear calm. The doctor only looked at him, as though assessing Will's strength.

"Always," he said then, and gestured for Will to follow him.

The spy commander shoved the packet of papers into an inner pocket of his jacket, and hurried after the little man.

"Their deaths will be on your head, Deveraux," he told himself. "You carry the blame for this..."

And he followed the doctor into the sick berth.

*****

Horatio, fighting for order amidst chaos, suddenly saw that many of the French seemd to be aiming past his men, and directing the musketfire at the rigging. He glanced over his shoulder, and swore. Guido di Cesare, hanging in space, was coolly cutting the loose ropes free with one of his knives. He had leant far out over the deck, caught only by the outstretched fingers of one gloved hand, and the tip of his booted foot balancing him. He must have been aware of the firing directed at him, yet he remained as thorough and sure in his actions as though he were alone. He worked carefully, methodically, his free hand unwinding rope before cutting it through to fall to the deck in as intact a state as possible. He was evidently considering salvage as well as rescue.

Even as Horatio watched, he thought for one sickening moment that the assassin had been hit, as Guido reeled dizzily, his foot losing its hold and hanging below him, the fingers only just managing to retain their grip. But he was back in place the next moment, working away with renewed fervour, and Horatio could only assume that it had been some movement of the ship that had caused him to lose his balance.

Guido's thoroughness had nothing to do with either coolness or method. He had passed the state of being able to think at all, and was working in a haze of fatigue, his senses swimming in and out of focus. At one point, the mists surrounding him had swirled in completely, and he had felt his fingers loosening only just in time. He tried to remember Lorenzo's teaching, of how to forget exhaustion, to breathe the air so slowly that you ceased to need it, but another voice kept intruding, distracting him from his task, insistent and somehow important, sounding more urgent, even above the sounds of battle below him, than the voice of his brother.

Guido tried to remember the litany that Lorenzo had told him, how to sharpen his senses past this strange greyness that was making his hands feel light and strengthless, but the litany was being drowned by the drawling voice that he had heard earlier...

"Hotspur!" cried the voice suddenly, no longer laughing and amused, but sharp and somehow - what - frightened? - wondered Guido, while his free hand worked away mechanically. "My God, Enzo, what have you done?"

Enzo? thought the assassin wonderingly. And then, in a sudden flash, Hal!

It was the ropes. Guido, half-conscious, barely clinging to his position, remembered being cut free from ropes, remembered an iron collar around his neck, with an edge that sliced into his skin whenever he moved. The world blurred around him, and he felt damp, cold stone against his back, felt water by his feet, heard it trickling down the stone walls that surrounded him...

"Hal..." moaned the assassin, as his knife sliced away at the tangled ropes. "My God, Hal, get away..."

And the last of the ropes came free.

Guido stopped what he was doing with a gasp. He realised that his face was dripping with sweat, that he was hanging out over a great drop by his fingertips, and that he was shaking harder than he had ever been in his life. He felt limp and exhausted, but the mists had gone, and his hearing was back. He remembered nothing of the last few minutes, except that he had done what he had come up there to do. He did not remember the voice in his mind, or the sudden recollection of the ropes and collar that had bound him. He knew, however, that he was quite exceptionally glad to be where he was.

He leant back against the rope he had been clinging to, feeling the cold wind and rain on his face with relief. He thought that, after all, he might just get down from where he was in one piece. And he looked down to the deck.

"It's worked!" Sanderson called up ecstatically, and Guido felt himself grinning. Something had changed in the movement of the ship - something that was freeing her. He could hear Pellew shouting something, and guessed that whatever he had done had worked enough to help.

Guido tilted his head back to the grey sky, feeling the gale whip at his hair and shirt, and suddenly gave a great cry of delight. For the first time in his life, he had done something that did not involve death. The feeling was one of indescribable wonder.

Sanderson heard Guido's joyful shout, and saw what Pellew had already noticed - the sails, free of their strictures, picking up before the wind. He laughed with pleasure, and jumped up into the rigging to join the assassin.

Guido looked down, and saw the boy making his way up. He was about to shout to him out of pure happiness, about to tell him of how it felt up there in the wind, when he became aware of what Horatio had long since directed his efforts towards trying to contain.

It was in his direction that the French were firing their muskets.

"NO!" shouted Guido desperately. "Sanderson, get down! GET DOWN FROM HERE!"

And some of the men from the corvette, realising that the ship's luck had changed, boarded the 'Indefatigable'.

*****

Will Deveraux was choking for air. He had never been in a sick berth before, never seen so many wounded men, or realised that fear and pain could smell so strong. His shirt was filthy with blood and dirt, his jacket long since discarded, lying with that of the doctor. His role was limited to giving water, to trying to make people comfortable, tying bandages, lifting heads to drink.

Dr Morris, imperturbable in the midst of it, was beginning to earn Will's undying admiration. He could not understand how the little man remained so calm as he fought for the lives of others. It was only when he saw the doctor turn away from one man who had died even as the doctor administered to him, his expression one of unutterable grief and weariness, that Will realised that the neat little man, who looked so like a clerk or secretary, felt the burden as strongly as he himself did. Will knew then that he was in the right place, that here was where he could begin to make amends for what he had caused. No matter what Dr Morris asked him to do, he performed to the best of his abilities, not showing by a flicker that he wanted to leave the room, to howl and scream at the sea, at the sky, at an unjust God and two Governments who had caused all this agony. He had seen the same desire in the doctor's eyes, and Will knew that if this quiet, sleek little man could bear it, then so could he.

A hand grasped at his arm, and Will turned.

"Are you the spy?" gasped a voice, almost indistinguishable with pain.

"No," Will answered instinctively. "No - I'm just here to help."

The hand relaxed on his sleeve, and the man nodded sleepily.

"Good," he muttered. "Don't want no-one spying on me now..."

And Will's scarred face contracted with unconcealable pain as the man's eyes slowly closed.

Dr Morris was standing just beside him.

"How do you bear it?" asked the spy commander desperately. The little man looked ready to drop with exhaustion already, and there was still more than half the amount of work again to do. Dr Morris' face twitched with amusement.

"In peace time," he said quietly, "I sleep a lot."

Will stared at him for a moment, then laughed.

"Right," he agreed. "Right. Good plan...

 

End of Chapter Eight