The Life Laid Down
by Sarah B.
Archie Kennedy knelt in the cold French soil and tried without
apparent success to stop his shipmate and friend, Horatio Hornblower,
from bleeding to death.
Nothing was working; the wound in Horatio's shoulder, created by the sniper who was at that moment pointing his firearm at both of them, was still pouring crimson onto Archie's hand despite the steady, even pressure he applied to it. Horatio's long face was pale, his dark eyes almost closed beneath the jumble of dark brown curls that fell over his brow; if it were not for the strong arms of seaman Styles, who caught him as he fell, Horatio would be lying in the winter-cold dirt instead of slumped against the burly sailor's chest.
Blast it! Archie swore to himself as he hurried to place a clean handkerchief on Horatio's wound. This was supposed to be a routine mission; there was an influenza epidemic on their ship, the Indefatigable, and the ship's surgeon, Dr. Sebastian, had told Captain Pellew that he needed fresh water to assuage the thirst of dozens of recovering crewmen. Horatio had volunteered to lead the expedition into the tiny crook of French coast, and since there was some measure of danger - and since he desperately wanted to prove himself worthy of his recent promotion to acting-lieutenant - Archie had volunteered to help. It would be a short mission, they would get the water, and all be back before the snow that was in the wind could hem them in.
And now this. Blast it!
Archie glanced up, saw five more Frenchmen surrounding them and the barrels of water they had been carrying, five Frenchmen all very smartly dressed and angry-looking. And all pointing their pistols at him. He traded cautious glances with Styles and studied his odds. His heart was pounding like a rabbit's; he had spent three years in prison, mostly French prisons, and had no desire to return. But more, he had no desire to consign Horatio to that fate, especially wounded. But the rest of their detail was with the boat, too far away to help; and in any case, it was only two more crewmen, and they would very likely be killed or captured. Running was out; fighting was out; but there had to be a way to get Horatio out of there...
"Get up!" The tallest Frenchman barked in his native tongue.
Horatio stirred at that sound, but did not open his eyes. Archie saw the pallor in his friend's face, felt his mouth go dry at the prospect that Horatio might not survive the trip back to the Indie in any case. But don't think about that -
"I said move!" The Frenchman growled, and taking two quick steps forward grabbed Archie by the collar and hauled him to his feet.
Archie gasped, not in pain but because he had been pulled away from tending to Horatio's wound. As he watched, however, Styles quickly picked up the handkerchief he had dropped and pushed it against the damning flow that was still soaking Horatio's white shirt and vest. He glanced up at Archie as if to ask, is this right?
Archie only had time to nod quickly. Then he was pulled around, and could no longer see Horatio or Styles.
Instead, Archie found himself facing another Frenchman, a middle-aged man a little taller than himself, in a worn-looking army uniform. As another soldier took Archie's pistol and sword, the man scowled at him and put his hands behind his back. "I am Colonel Marchand. You speak French?" he demanded.
Archie knew better than to answer that question; he gave this man the blankest look he could muster and shrugged.
Marchand's scowl went deeper and without warning he brought one gloved hand up and clouted Archie across the jaw.
"Idiot!" he spat in English as Archie regained himself, "Even the most backward English child knows enough French to know what I asked. Do you think I am stupid?"
Archie dabbed at his jaw and tried to sneak a glance behind him, to see how Horatio was faring. But it was hard to see...he turned his eyes to Marchand and merely smiled.
"Now," Marchand responded imperiously, putting his hands behind his back once more, "Who are you, and what ship do you sail on?"
Archie shrugged again, and kept his silence.
Lightning quick, Marchand grabbed Archie's collar and shook it, holding it in an iron grip. Archie felt the barely-contained violence in the man's hold and felt a quick stab of fear, saw shards of old and painful memories flash upward and vanish, and swallowed his fear. He had to think -
The Frenchman's eyes were bright. "Never mind, I know what ship you sail on. And I'll know more, if I have to beat it out of each of you in turn." He pushed Archie away and nodded toward Horatio. "Starting with him."
Archie staggered back, straightened himself, and felt his heart sink. Marchand turned away to talk to his aide, and Archie took that opportunity to sneak a look behind him to Horatio.
What he saw made his heart tighten. Horatio was lying motionless in Styles' arms, a bloodsoaked handkerchief still held at his breast. He was completely unconscious now, God knew how much blood he had lost. And he looked so pale -
Styles looked up at Archie then, his eyes full of the question, what now? Archie lowered his chin and returned the look with the answer, trust me. Trust me, I'm going to get us out of this.
But Archie had to look away, because he did not want Styles to see what else was coursing through his mind, his frantic attempt to find an answer to this. They were surrounded, unarmed, and outnumbered. And Horatio would never survive a beating - not by this man -
Archie felt more hands grab at him, pull his arms behind him and winced as heavy rope was tied around his wrists. Archie lowered his gaze to the ground and concentrated on what Marchand was saying to his aide. Perhaps if he knew where they were going - perhaps an escape -
" - must be close." Marchand was saying, in French.
"Yes," the aide replied, "Perhaps an exchange...these men for him."
Marchand smiled. "My thoughts exactly. The wounded one for Hornblower. From what I hear, he will not be able to turn it down."
Archie's heart stopped in surprise. Did Marchand say Hornblower? "Excuse me?"
Marchand's scowl returned, and he turned to glare at Archie impatiently.
Archie hesitated; but he had nothing to lose. "'Hornblower'?"
Marchand traded a quick look with his aide, then he turned to Archie with a gleam in his eye and replied, "You know him, don't you?"
There was an avaricious look in the Frenchman's eye that told Archie to be very careful. But Horatio's life was drifting away behind him, and there was no time for care. "Are you - looking for him?"
Marchand cocked his head. "Do you know where he is?"
Archie's heart began pounding again, and for a moment he lost his voice. His thoughts came very fast, why not? Horatio is a hero, of course he would have the enemy looking for him - but this man's never seen him, obviously, of course not, and he doesn't know - he doesn't know -
Marchand brought his head back. "You do know him, I see it in your eyes." His gaze flicked over Archie's shoulder, then back to him again. "I will strike a bargain with you. I will release you, to go to your captain and tell him to surrender Hornblower to me to stand trial for crimes against the French government. If he refuses, the wounded one and your crewman die."
Archie hesitated, just for a second. He looked into this man's eyes and saw only cruelty and emptiness and long, wasted years. But beyond it was a light, the only one he could see, and Archie grasped at it because it was the only hope they had.
He took a deep breath, and brought his gaze level. "There is no need for that. I am the man you are looking for."
Marchand's eyebrows went up. "You?"
Archie didn't blink, didn't waver. "Yes. I am Horatio Hornblower."
"Sir!" Came Styles' voice behind him.
"Quiet!" Archie turned, angry now, this had to work. His eyes locked with Styles', pleading and furious at once, and Styles read them. He fell silent.
Archie turned back to Marchand, who looked skeptical. "You are the famous Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower? I'm not certain I believe you."
"What proof do you need?" Archie asked evenly, "I will be happy to provide it. Only let my men go."
Marchand's eyebrows went up again. "Ah, that is the Hornblower I have heard about. Self-sacrificing to a fault."
"Will you let them go?" Archie asked again.
Marchand cocked his head again and looked at Archie sidelong, as if sizing him up. "Do you know, Mr. Hornblower, what will happen to you now? I only ask because if this is some kind of trick, I can assure you you will regret it."
"It's no trick," Archie replied, calling up his years of hiding behind masks to present a visage of absolute guilelessness. He can't suspect, not now -
Marchand stared deep into Archie's eyes, and smiled in a way that made the young man's skin crawl. "I'm certain it isn't, because no sane man would consign himself to the French system of justice as a sacrifice. You will be taken to Paris and tried for crimes against the Republic, and then - and then you will be punished."
Calm, keep calm. Get Horatio out of here, now. "Do my men have leave to return to their ship?"
"In a moment," Marchand grinned at Styles and said loudly, "Go running back with your tail between your legs, boy, and inform your maggot of a captain what awaits his protege. Tried, condemned, and hanged - or perhaps guillotined, but not before he suffers the wrath of the people. Flogged, beaten, or if they're in a terribly feisty mood perhaps even drawn and quartered."
Archie watched Styles go progressively paler, and he could see the terrible struggle that was going on beneath the sturdy seaman's skin. But it was only in the eyes, and Styles knew. God bless him, he understood.
"Now then," Marchand said almost cheerfully, turning back to Archie, "Knowing that, do you still contend that you are Horatio Hornblower?"
Archie nodded, feeling a strange lightness in himself, a detached sense of acceptance. "Yes, Colonel. My honor compels me to reveal that I am, to spare my shipmates' lives."
Marchand's eyes glittered in a predatory way, and he nodded to his compatriots. "Then I will release your men. They are free to return to their ship."
"Unharmed?" The word leapt out of Archie's mouth; he had to be sure.
Marchand nodded quickly. "You have my word."
Archie only barely stopped himself from sagging with relief. As Marchand turned to say a few words to his men, Archie glanced at Styles, saw him struggling to his feet with Horatio still in his arms. Horatio's skin was chalk-white, and his head lolled against Styles' chest as the larger man held him up.
Their eyes locked one last time, and Archie poured every urgent command into his gaze: get him home. Get him *home*.
Then Styles was surrounded by four of Marchand's men, and roughly pushed away toward the nearby beach, and Archie lost sight of him.
Archie turned back to Marchand just as the Frenchman flicked his hand, and in a moment Archie found himself flanked by two menacing-looking guards, one of whom took his bound hands in a tight and unrelenting grip.
"Now you," Marchand said, staring at Archie like a hunter who has claimed a long sought-after trophy."will come with me."
For a moment the sudden loneliness daunted Archie, the realization that his world was waling away from him and abandoning him to his fate made his throat close with dread. But then Archie brought his head back with renewed resolve; He was an Englishman, by God, and would not cower to this man, no matter what happened to him. The only thing that mattered was that Horatio and the others would make the Indefatigable safe. And if he had to lay down his life to make that happen...
...then it would be a bargain indeed.
The French coast was bleak, leaden; the winter wind raked through the long brown grass, pushing the coarse sand into reluctant piles. Behind the large rocks that jagged against the shore, a small jollyboat bumped and rocked, and the two crewmen in it watched the gray shore expectantly. But no one was coming.
A few minutes passed, then a few more. The first crewman, a short scarred man, looked at his younger partner anxiously; they had both seen the snowflakes falling from the darkening sky; old salts both of them, they knew the weather would soon turn bad. They had to get home.
But they were not all there yet.
A few minutes more, and nothing. The younger crewman turned and looked at the barrels tucked neatly in the back of the boat.
"They got caught," he whispered, "We got to go."
"No," the other answered, "We wait."
So they waited. Hearts pounding, eyes to the windswept skies they waited, and kept their hands on the pistols at their belts. And their gaze to the thick stand of tall trees before them.
And then -
"There they are!"
Both men caught their breath at once. It was only two, and they were surrounded by four French soldiers! Their mate Styles, with Mr. Hornblower, almost carrying him it looked like.
"Cor, they killed the lieutenant," The younger one whispered as both men ducked behind the rock to hide in the jollyboat.
The older man did not answer, but drew his pistol and watched.
For his part, Styles was trying to act calm and unperturbed, but his mind was racing a mile a minute. Mr. Kennedy back there with the Frogs, and Mr. Hornblower bleeding against him! And he didn't trust the men who surrounded him, not one bit. Styles knew what a French word was worth, and as he tightened his grip around Mr. Hornblower's waist to keep him from falling he scanned the waters in front of him for the boat.
There it was. The Frogs couldn't see it; but Styles could.
Bloody hell; what was Mr. Kennedy thinking?
They walked to about five feet from the shore, where the half-frozen waters crept up the icy pebbles, then slid back again. Styles could feel Mr. Hornblower growing colder, and hoped that whatever happened, someone could get him back safe. Wasn't proper at all, after everything the lad had been through, to die like that. Not at all.
As casually as he could, Styles turned a little toward the soldiers and glowered at them. "Time to part comp'ny, mates," he said, not bothering to be polite about it. It was their fault this all happened.
The soldiers looked at each other, backed away a few steps, lowering their rifles. A few more steps...
Go to hell, Styles thought, but said nothing, only watched the soldiers slowly back away amid the flakes of snow that fell like ash from the sky. Everything looked gray and dead. Why was that?
Suddenly Mr. Hornblower stirred in Styles' arms and slit his eyes open. "What - " he slurred weakly.
At that moment all four rifles snapped up.
"Shit!" Styles hissed, and throwing himself over Mr. Hornblower fell forward into the sand.
CRACK! CRACK!! CRACK!!!
Archie started at that sound, faint through the trees and distance but unmistakable. Gunfire.
*crack crack crackcrack*
Behind them, the beach - instinctively Archie drew himself up, stopped walking even though he was in the middle of a group of guards. He tried to turn -
- and was yanked back by Marchand, who was suddenly in front of him. Archie fought to form words, stared into those eyes, like hawk's eyes soulless and cold, and said, "My men - "
Marchand released Archie and took a smug step backward. "They would have told our position. Now they can tell only God, and I can assure you he will do nothing about it."
Archie tried to breathe and nothing happened. Words formed in his mind but only screamed there, with no release. Two more shots came -
And then nothing. A horrible, draining silence.
Then, somewhere, a bird cried out.
Marchand smiled in an empty way. "Now, Mr. Hornblower, let us go to Paris."
Archie could not move, thought no, Horatio cannot be dead, they cannot all be dead. Then he was shoved roughly from behind, and the soldiers resumed their march; Archie walked with them as if he had no conjunction between his body and his mind, which could not form a coherent thought. Archie looked behind himself one more time, and only saw a colorless stand of trees draped with falling ash as dead as the tomb.
Then someone yanked on his hair to turn him around, and he staggered forward as one struck blind, into the gathering gloom.
The beach was silent.
The forms lay bloody and lifeless in the frozen sand; the mournful wind skittered carelessly over them, piling drifts over them as if they were so much rock.
And after an eternity of quiet, Styles looked up from his protective crouch over Mr. Hornblower, and grinned at his two crewmates in the rocks. Those two lovely men, and the smoking pistols they both held in their hands.
"Cor!" The younger one said as he hurried forward. "What happened?"
Styles curled Mr. Hornblower off the sand, cursing himself that the bleeding hadn't stopped yet. Something fell out of Mr. Hornblower's jacket, but Styles did not even stop to pick it up. "Never mind, mates, we got to get Mr. Hornblower 'ome. Now!"
The older crewman nodded like he knew, and together they carried Horatio to the waiting jollyboat.
"That was a close one," The older man said as they hefted themselves in the boat, "Are ya hurt?"
"Nah," Styles lied; Actually, one of the Frogs had grazed his leg, and it smarted like the devil; but his mates had managed to drop them before too much damage had been done, and he'd been through worse.
"Where's Mr. Kennedy?" The younger man wanted to know, looking with curiosity at the trees behind them.
"'e's gone," Styles said, swallowing the lump in his throat; he didn't like all this feeling, not one bit. Worry for Mr. Hornblower, who was looking paler by the second, and needed tending to now, dammit. And for Mr. Kennedy, who jumped in to save all their necks, and was off to another of them damn prisons for his trouble - or no, what had that Frog said? A trial - hanging - drawn and quartered -
Worse than worry. Worse than fear even, because fear was something you felt for yourself. This was fear and anger and helplessness all rolled into one, and Styles looked back at the beach and thought wildly, we could take 'em - how many were there? We should go back and get Mr. Kennedy -
Then Mr. Hornblower moaned in the bottom of the boat, where he was covered by some blankets and a pea coat against the falling snow; and Styles looked at the two other men in the boat and knew it was impossible. There were only three of them, and them Frogs were at least twenty. And Mr. Hornblower couldn't wait...
Damn those frogs to hell.
Styles made a low growling sound somewhere deep in his throat, and shoving the boat off the shore began to row for the Indie.
Dark. It was dark.
Horatio floated in the dark for a while, let it take him where it wanted to and did not fight it. There were no memories there, no thoughts or feelings, only a drifting quiet touched on the edges by candlelight.
There were sounds, distant and muffled, but Horatio did not mind them because they did not seem a part of him, and so did not matter. Wind - surf - voices - all came and went, and Horatio did not mark them except to know that they were familiar and comfortable. He turned over into the darkness and slept.
Something shifted, tilted closer, light? Something else, feeling, the weight of canvas against his back, and scents, just tickling at the edge of his memory: the iron smell of blood and sweat, edged with the aroma of tobacco. Then something else came, a dull and shapeless throb in him someplace, unpleasant and getting worse, getting closer and then too close, oh damn - oh damn -
OH DAMN -
Rough-hewn beams showed dimly over his head, and Horatio stared at them stupidly for a few moments, not daring to move. He couldn't think, his brain felt thick and strange, and except for an exploding pain in his shoulder could feel nothing else. Nothing -
Horatio breathed in tentatively, winced at the awful ache that coursed through him. The scent of tobacco came to him again, and Horatio knew that Dr. Sebastian must be close by, knew that aroma that clung to the doctor's clothes and had come to signal healing and security to all those who knew him. There was something else - words - someone speaking low - Horatio recognized the doctor's deep voice and knew he was close, and talking to someone. Horatio needed him now; he could not remember what had happened to him. Very carefully, Horatio turned his head and after a little searching found Dr. Sebastian.
The doctor was sitting by the small stove that heated the sick berth, leaning far forward and looking at something with both hands. Horatio frowned fuzzily; it was an odd posture for Dr. Sebastian to take, usually when he wanted to get a good look at something he stood and held it to the nearest lantern; he was tall as Horatio was, and stooping over like that would surely make his back ache.
Then Horatio saw something glittering in the doctor's hands, and realized it was Dr. Sebastian's rosary. The doctor was praying.
Horatio felt a muzzy stab of guilt, as if he was intruding; the doctor looked very intent on his devotions, was bent far forward with his long graying hair almost covering his face. He was clearly troubled about something, and Horatio decided not to interrupt. He tried to turn his head away to rest.
Something jabbed him behind his eyes, and he squeezed them shut and grunted in surprised agony.
Someplace in the redness that followed Horatio heard quick footsteps, and Dr. Sebastian's kind and gentle hands were against his face in an instant. "Mr. Hornblower?"
Horatio tried to open his eyes again, succeeded a little, but only saw the outline of Dr. Sebastian's head outlined against the lamp behind him. "Yes."
"Please lie quietly," Dr. Sebastian soothed, and Horatio heard the light rattle of the rosary being tucked away; then the creak of the chair beside his hammock becoming occupied. "Try not to move, you are still very weak."
Horatio took a very deep breath to get the next question out. "What happened?"
"You were shot while on your mission. You were brought back to the ship with a fair amount of blood out of you. You will be taking your ease for at least the next two days."
Horatio closed his eyes, heard the splash of water being poured. Mission...mission...
Oh God! Horatio's eyes flew open as he gasped, "My men?"
"Safe," Dr. Sebastian replied, although with a curious pause just before it; that fact nagged at Horatio as the doctor placed one hand behind his head and raised it up. "Here, drink this."
Horatio obeyed, because he was very thirsty. As Dr. Sebastian settled him back down he realized something about the water and whispered, "Fresh."
"Indeed," Dr. Sebastian nodded, with a bit of a smile, "And the men in the quarantine thank you for it. You have made their roads easier to travel back to their health."
Horatio closed his eyes, cursing his own weakness but satisfied that he had done his duty. "How long...have I been sleeping?"
"Around six hours."
That long! "Are we under sail?"
"Not yet. The weather has turned bad, and Captain Pellew has decided to let it pass before we weigh anchor."
Horatio smiled at the sagacity of his captain, and could feel himself being pulled back into sleep. He slid along willingly, knowing that if he was to rise well he could not refuse the healing power that slumber afforded; at least his father would say so, he had to other patients often enough.
His father...something in Dr. Sebastian's voice had made Horatio think of his father, in an unusual and unsettling way. Something in his tone, the way he spoke to Horatio...there was a timbre to it that Horatio had never heard before, almost like a worry. No, more than that; like something had happened that the doctor didn't want to talk about. It was like...
...it was like when his father did not tell him that his mother was dead.
That thought bothered Horatio, and he tried to open his eyes to ask Dr. Sebastian about it, but they would not cooperate. He felt the doctor's hand on his forehead, stroking it to calm him into sleep, and Horatio thought dammit, I'm not a child. What's wrong, what is that worry in your voice, why were you praying your rosary -
But the thought had such a long way to go, and there was no strength to carry it. Before he could fight it any further, Horatio fell asleep.
The snow was falling thick and fast in the darkness as the French soldier trudged toward the beach, cursing his commanding officer with every step.
There was already a blanket of snow on the ground, and more coming; the smell of it was in the air, sharp and biting. Already it had slowed them, until Marchand had stopped for the night and ordered someone to 'go back to the beach and see that the job had been done'. And he wanted proof.
That someone was this man. And he was not happy about it.
There was the beach, a murky mass of whipping rushes and half-iced rocks in front of an endless curtain of grey-white. The soldier squinted as he stood at the edge of it, grateful that a full moon shone somewhat through the clouds and he could see, at least a little. Yes, enough to see four human shapes lying covered with snow, dark patches showing here and there. Enough to be satisfied in the wind and the cold and the driving snow that Marchand's wish had been seen to, and the Englishmen were dead.
The soldier turned to go, heard something crunch under his foot. Frowning, he moved his boot aside and saw a bloody handkerchief half-buried in the snow, and something glinting silver within it.
The soldier picked it up. It was a pendant, a painted medallion of a lady's head on a broken silver chain.
The soldier smiled to himself; he had all the proof he needed that the deed had been done, without going a step closer than he had to. He pocketed the medallion, and without another thought left the gloomy, windswept beach and its four coffins made of alabaster snow and frozen bits of sand.
First Lieutenant Anthony Bracegirdle watched his captain pace, and felt absolutely helpless.
The cabin was wrapped in gloom. The candles burning within it only heightened that feeling, only illuminated the snow that clotted the windows, trapping them there in enemy waters. Despite the light Bracegirdle could still hear the wind howling outside, could still feel the anger and frustration that emanated from his commanding officer and gathered itself around him as well, echoing and multiplying until Bracegirdle felt the whole ship rung with it.
When Captain Sir Edward Pellew's blood was up, the universe knew it.
He was staring out at the insolent snow at this moment, his head up and his hands clenched behind his back, curling themselves in and out of fists. Bracegirdle could see Pellew's eyes reflected in the glass, piercing and fiery, and wondered what he was thinking. But he dared not ask.
Instead, he asked his own question. "Is there nothing we can do?"
The query came out more plaintive than Bracegirdle intended, but ever since the landing party had returned crippled and incomplete the captain had been silent, and it made Bracegirdle feel helpless. When he saw Hornblower taken to the surgery bleeding and unconscious, he felt fear; when he listened to seaman Styles tell of how they had been detained by the French, then released, then betrayed and nearly killed, he felt furious; and then, when Styles revealed why Acting Leftenant Kennedy was not with them...
That was when the helpless feeling began. And the captain's silence.
But now, at Bracegirdle's question, Pellew turned slightly from the window, and sighed. "For the moment, Mr. Bracegirdle, we can only deliberate and ride out this storm. Once it is past we will see what can be done."
"But you heard seaman Styles, they're taking him to Paris to stand trial. We won't even be able to do a prisoner exchange if he doesn't stay in one place."
"Thank you, Mr. Bracegirdle," Pellew said very evenly, his great dark eyes still on the rushing snow outside. "I am well aware of what seaman Styles has said."
"Sorry, sir," Bracegirdle said contritely, but he wasn't certain how sorry he really felt. "My emotions have conquered me, I fear. That Frenchman gave his word and then almost slaughtered our men, and to think that someone so devoid of principle has one of our officers prisoner - "
Pellew didn't say anything, but he stepped sharply away from the window, and Bracegirdle knew his captain well enough to know he'd struck a nerve. He held his tongue.
There was a soft knock at the door, and Pellew shot an angry glance at it. "Come."
Heaven help whoever came through that door, Bracegirdle thought, but fortunately it was Dr. Sebastian, the one man on the ship who Pellew would not tear to shreds for disturbing him.
"Pardon the intrusion, gentlemen," Sebastian said in that courtly way of his, bowing slightly as he entered the candlelit room, "But I thought the captain would want to know that Lieutenant Hornblower has awakened briefly, and is doing well."
Pellew stopped, and gave Sebastian a relieved look. "Thank you, doctor. Your conscientiousness is most appreciated."
Dr. Sebastian accepted this praise with a calm smile. "I passed Mr. Bowles on the way here, and he wished me to inform you that by his reckoning this foul weather will have broken by dawn, and we will be clear to get underway. But if it is possible, I would like to see if the water that was left behind can be retrieved first. We will very likely need it, and soon."
Pellew nodded shortly, and turned back toward the window.
Sebastian glanced at Bracegirdle and bowed again, but before he departed Bracegirdle caught his sleeve and murmured, "Does he know?"
The doctor met Bracegirdle's eyes, and there was solemn understanding in them. Sebastian shook his head. "He is too weak at present, and such news will be too difficult to bear. But I cannot guard his innocence for very long; sooner or later he will know, and then the real war will be engaged."
Pellew turned at those low words, his eyes wary. "Doctor?"
Sebastian met that challenge with his shoulders squared. "Captain, we all know what kind of a man Mr. Hornblower is. Already they are talking of Mr. Kennedy's bravery, his willingness to lay down his life for his friends. When Mr. Hornblower hears of that, do either of you doubt that he will leap overboard and swim to shore to regain Mr. Kennedy's safety? Or failing that, that he will tie a millstone about his neck and carry it for the rest of his life? Mr. Hornblower will not simply grieve; he will act, and bonds of iron will not keep him down. That is why we must be very cautious in telling him of Mr. Kennedy's capture, and to keep him from killing himself."
Bracegirdle digested this, and cast a querulous eye to his captain. Pellew was staring at Sebastian, his hands still behind his back, and in an instant brought his head back and said, "We will wait until the storm passes, and I will send a dispatch to the Admiralty asking about an exchange. With expediency we can end this matter, and have everyone back with us and whole for a timely end. Is that satisfactory, doctor?"
"If that is what you decide, sir," Sebastian said diplomatically, and bowing once again turned to leave.
He was just outside the door when Bracegirdle took an impulsive step into the hallway and said, "Dr. Sebastian?"
The doctor turned back, his eyes curious.
Bracegirdle paused, then said, "I am aware of your guardianship of Mr. Kennedy, that you were - are - very close. How are you faring in this, sir?"
For a moment, there was a thin veil of sadness in the doctor's eyes, a hint of dread. Then Sebastian looked down at the floor and cleared his throat. "I am praying, Mr. Bracegirdle. Thank you for your concern."
Then Dr. Sebastian gave Bracegirdle a small, melancholy smile, and left him standing there with nothing but trepidation, and the cold winter wind howling its madness outside.
Archie huddled in the corner of the filthy cottage, and tried desperately to think of what he should do.
It was dark and cold. Marchand had set up camp for the night, away from the wind and snow, in a small abandoned village perhaps five miles from the coast. Archie had been taken to the smallest building, a gardener's cottage isolated from the others, and had been shoved inside still bound. There was a guard inside the door; Archie knew another stood without. He was trapped. He was alone.
And Horatio was dead.
No, Archie thought wildly, as he had tried to convince himself ever since he had heard those awful gunshots, Horatio was NOT dead. Styles was not dead either. They were good men both of them, and good men did NOT die in the frozen sand, shot through the back by a treacherous word. They escaped somehow, played dead and then crept their way back to the Indie, and they were safe, safe. And he - well, now he was Horatio Hornblower. Just as he had aspired to be.
Archie glanced at the guard, straightened himself in the corner so it would not seem as if he was cowering. Yes, that was it exactly; Horatio was all right, of course he would be; Styles and the other men were fine as well, and he was in the middle of a fine farce, and excellent charade. These men thought he was Horatio, and by God he would play it to the hilt! He would be all courage and action, as Horatio was, there would be none of the hesitation and doubt that had always plagued the character of Archie Kennedy. None of it! He would be bold and defiant and stand up to that horrible, dishonorable Frenchman, speak bold words as Horatio did, and then -
Why, then he would escape.
Archie knew that was a certainty; he had to escape. The nightmare of imprisonment was edging its way from buried memory to full-blown terror, and as the reality of his situation sank in Archie knew he could not endure imprisonment again. His only bulwark thus far had been his knowledge that Horatio would be dead by now if he had been taken - his wound was bleeding very badly, certainly he could not have survived. So Archie had taken his place - it was an impulse really, they would laugh over it when Archie returned to the ship, of course they would, himself and Horatio. But now the need for the subterfuge was over. Horatio was safe, and all Archie had to do now was tell that Marchand chap a thing or two, and be off. He could escape, he had almost done it before a number of times.
Horatio was NOT dead.
Archie twisted his hands in the biting bonds, and took deep breaths to clear his mind, as Dr. Sebastian had taught him to. He thought of his St. Adelaide medal, the one the doctor had given him a long time ago, and wished he could reach it. The tiny silver medal was in his jacket pocket, and they had not taken it when they searched him. There was something about holding that medallion that had comforted Archie, for all that he barely understood God and religion; it made him feel wanted. Protected. Comforted...
Damn, it was cold. Listen to that wind.
"Ah, there you are! So?"
Outside, near his door. Speaking in French.
"Where is the colonel?"
"Here he is."
"Ah, private. Well?"
"It is done, Colonel."
"Ah, bon! You saw their bodies?"
"Yes, on the beach where you said they would be."
"Well? Tell me."
A pause. "Shot through the heart, all of them. Dead and stiff as a wagonful of kings."
"That is well. The men who shot them are even now searching the coast for Hornblower's ship. It must be close to shore, with this storm blowing."
"I took this necklace from the dark-haired one who was shot. It was - in his pocket."
Breathe, Archie. Deep breaths...
"Hm! Some trinket. Worthless."
"Yes, sir. But she is pretty, no?"
Oh Jesus his pendant. That's Horatio's pendant, the one of his mother. Oh JESUS -
"No! She is an ugly English whore. But still! Tomorrow we commence to Paris, and I will turn Hornblower over to Fouche and restore my good name."
God, Horatio's pendant. And he took it from his pocket -
Suddenly the door crashed open, and Marchand was standing there, something gleaming hanging from one clenched fist.
In two steps he was right in front of Archie, and held his fist aloft, "You see, Mr. Hornblower, what you have sacrificed yourself for. Your men lie dead, and very soon you will join them."
Archie saw Horatio's pendant swinging in this monster's hand, and for a wild moment thought this is a dream. No, Horatio is not dead - he is NOT -
But he was. There was no help for it. Archie began to shiver.
"Yes, your men lie dead in the surf, shot down like dogs," Marchand crowed, pacing a few steps in that tiny room and smiling in contentment. "You see I am not like you. I do not conduct this war on principles. I conduct it to win."
Oh, God - for one brief spiraling moment Archie saw himself curling up, giving in, dying to escape the reality that was now crouching over him, waiting to devour his soul. Horatio was dead, his sacrifice had been in vain, Horatio was dead -
Then like a tiny star the thought broke through: the war is not over. Fight for his memory now.
It was a struggling thought, with not much to hang itself on. The idea of Horatio's death seemed monstrous, huge, and it was so hard to see over it to another side; but Archie looked at this man, this loathsome beast who had murdered his friend, slaughtered his men, and knew that Horatio would not hide. Horatio would not cower or wish to disappear. And as this man thought he was Horatio, his duty was clear. It was all he had, now.
Archie straightened up as much as he could, brought back his shoulders and stared at Marchand with all the fire he could muster. "You have not won yet, colonel, so do not deceive yourself into thinking that you have. I am not through yet."
Marchand chuckled, and dropped the pendant to the stone floor, where it landed with a clatter that made Archie think of coins falling on the floor of a tomb. "You *are* finished, boy. You are simply too stupid to realize it."
Archie didn't flinch, didn't blink. He merely stared at Marchand and poured every ounce of hate into his eyes, so this man would see it. You killed Horatio, you bastard. You *bastard*.
Marchand turned and left abruptly, slamming the door shut on his way out. The guard quickly positioned himself in front of it, staring blankly ahead, and Archie turned his face toward the wall and fought to control his trembling. Horatio was dead - his men were dead - and likely Pellew didn't even know. No one knew but him, and tomorrow he would be taken farther from the sea, farther from those who would watch, and worry, and wonder about all of them. Oh, God, he had to escape - he had to do something -
Oh, Jesus, Horatio was dead.
With that dreadful realization Archie's thoughts fled from him as a great wave of anguish overtook his soul, and he turned his face into the shadows and silently wept.
The dawn came, cold and with a reluctant light. On the Indefatigable, Bracegirdle walked the decks and watched the men clean the snow from the timbers and the break the ice from the rigging. Far above, shivering sailors worked to release the canvas and rope from the relentless grip of winter. The air around them was thick with fog; it was difficult to see the shore now...
Bracegirdle looked at the murky French coast in front of him and shook his head; difficult, but not impossible. He could see, for example, the small jollyboat containing four marines, sent by Pellew to retrieve the water barrels abandoned yesterday. They were under strict orders to go and come back; with the number of men down with influenza, they could spare no one. Pellew was adamant about that.
Bracegirdle turned away from the water and sighed. He knew Pellew well, knew his captain's bluster was to hide his frustration that their current run of luck had gone so badly. Lieutenant Hornblower was still in the sick berth, and would likely remain there for the next day or two, until his wound healed sufficiently. As for Acting Lieutenant Kennedy...
Bracegirdle looked at the distant shore, a translucent sliver of gray-green against the icicle mist, and shivered. Kennedy was not far from them, but he might as well have been in Russia for all that they could get him back. Assaults were not possible, were foolhardy and a waste of men and resources, by the crown's reckoning. Any man who was taken prisoner would have to wait to be exchanged, or if the war ended first he would be released.
There was another option, of course, that would end Kennedy's captivity. But Bracegirdle did not want to speculate on it.
The sun rose a little more, cutting dimly through the gloom around him, and Bracegirdle's eyes went to the taffrail. Dr. Sebastian was standing there, facing the glacial waters, and Bracegirdle knew what he was doing. It was commonly known that the doctor performed his spiritual devotions at the taffrail, and everyone respected that even if they did not understand it.
This was a special circumstance, however. Dr. Sebastian always performed his devotions at night, and it was morning; Bracegirdle guessed the reason for the extra prayers and decided not to disturb the doctor, who had his head bowed and looked deep in thought. Bracegirdle walked as quietly as he could around him.
To his surprise, however, Sebastian lifted his head as he approached and said quietly, "Good morning, Mr. Bracegirdle."
"Morning," Bracegirdle replied, and looking down saw the rosary beads glistening in Dr. Sebastian's hands. "How is Mr. Hornblower?"
"Better, sir," Sebastian said without taking his eyes from the beads that swayed in his hands, "But he is still sleeping, and will for most of the morning I am sure."
"And the other men?"
Dr. Sebastian's smile was slight, but grateful. "Much better, now that they have fresh water to drink. We are melting the snow that has fallen on the ship as well as what was collected. With what is brought back from shore, we will have all we need."
"Good," Bracegirdle saw the concerned look on Sebastian's face, saw those dark eyes gazing at the tiny boat that was slowly disappearing into the mist. Feeling that he should say something in the way of reassurance he added, "The captain is doing all he can to bring Mr. Kennedy back. He's already sent a dispatch to the Admiralty about it. I thought you would like to know."
"Thank you," Sebastian said quietly, and frowned down at the gently swaying rosary in his hands.
Bracegirdle sensed that the doctor wanted to be alone with his devotion, but felt a need to reassure the unaccustomed worry that sat on Sebastian's brow. Patting him on the shoulder he said, "Mr. Kennedy is a remarkable young man. I'm certain that wherever he is, his strength and courage are still serving him."
Sebastian smiled again, this time with fondness. "Mr. Kennedy has walked through fire, Mr. Bracegirdle; but the men who hold him have sprung from its depths, and they would have killed a wounded man without remorse or a second thought. Doubtless you think I am praying for Mr. Kennedy, and I am; but I am also praying for those who keep him prisoner."
Bracegirdle was surprised. "Why?"
Dr. Sebastian turned his head and looked sadly at the shrouded shore. "Because I want him to come home. And I fear in their hands, without God opening their hearts... he will not live to see Paris."
Archie slowly opened his eyes, found himself lying on the floor of the filthy cottage, squinting at a tiny window where murky sunlight was filtering in. It was morning.
He shuddered as his mind came awake, remembering the previous evening and its terrible revelation. The broken necklace was still huddled on the stone floor, the last sad remnant of Horatio's life. The last memorial to everything brave that Archie knew.
He glanced up; the guard at the door looked half-asleep himself, and wasn't looking at him. I have to escape, he thought. Soon. The thought of Horatio's death almost paralyzed him; the shock of his friend's life ending so suddenly when he should have died an old man surrounded by laurels and happiness nearly drove Archie to despair. But the necklace was a reminder, a charge, an undeniable talisman: Archie had a duty to perform.
He would not go to Paris, had no reason to continue this charade, because Horatio no longer needed protecting. He had to escape, return to Indefatigable and tell Captain Pellew what had happened. No one else knew, and Archie could almost see the captain pacing the deck in the morning gloom, wondering aloud where his men could have gone. And Dr. Sebastian, with his patients dying of thirst, he would be wondering as well. Oh, of course they would eventually come to the inevitable conclusion, but then Pellew would have no choice but to weigh anchor and sail away, and he would never know -
- because the bodies were covered in snow, rotting on the beach. No one would ever know.
Archie blinked, cursed the lethargy that plagued his mind. He ached all over, could hardly move. His hands were numb, his back felt as if he'd been in the oubliette for a year.
Oh, God, the oubliette. Prison - oh God -
- stop it. Escape.
Archie coughed, and struggled to sit up.
At that moment the door opened, and another guard came in. He was shorter than the first guard, and his uniform had a slovenly, half-dressed quality about it. He slapped the first guard on the shoulder and jerked his thumb at the door.
"My turn," he grunted, and the first guard nodded sleepily and trudged out the door. His replacement closed the door behind him.
Archie had made it to a sitting position by this time, and stretched his muscles as much as he could to get the blood flowing into them. He kept his eyes to the floor and Horatio's broken pendant; he could not look at the guard, because looking at him made Archie want to kill him, and Archie needed his mind to be clear. Clear, so he could make it home -
- but Horatio is dead. When he got back to the Indie, Horatio would not be there.
And he could not protect him.
The guard sniffed loudly, and crouched down in front of Archie with a smirk on his face.
"The famous Horatio Hornblower," the guard sneered in English. He shook his head in contempt. "You are nothing now, you know."
Archie straightened his posture and thought of Horatio, adopted Horatio's aspect as he stared down this wretched man. He remembered his friend's reticence, and said nothing.
The guard grinned a little, and without warning slapped Archie on the side of the head.
"The colonel will not see that, eh?" he laughed as Archie struggled to right himself. "He does not want you injured, but we must keep ourselves amused, you see?"
Archie shook his head to clear it, wondered at the lights that danced before his eyes. He pressed his lips together against the unwanted sensation of horrible memories, and glared at the guard.
The guard spat on the floor, then looked down.
"Huh!" He said, and Archie's heart seized; the guard had seen the necklace.
The guard cocked his head and picked the pendant up, looking it over. Nodding to himself in congratulations, he opened his patched jacket and stuffed the necklace into it.
Archie felt faint.
The guard stood up and rounded his shoulders, regarding Archie with a reptile's eyes.
Archie licked his lips and thought, now. "I don't suppose your colonel wants me to soil myself before we reach Paris."
The guard blinked, then jerked his head toward the door. "Take a piss?"
Archie nodded, his heart pounding.
The guard shrugged, and reaching out one hand hauled Archie to his feet. Archie nearly cried out as his cramped leg muscles sent pain flaring through his body, but he bit his lip and gave the guard a defiant look.
The guard smirked at him in response. "It will cost you."
Archie shook his head, could not decipher the guard's meaning.
"I saw them search you," the guard replied greedily, "You have silver on you, they did not take it. I want it."
The medallion, Archie realized, but by the time he completed that thought the guard had tugged his jacket open and reached into the pocket. He found what he was looking for and held the St. Adelaide medal in Archie's face triumphantly.
"This will buy me a few drinks later on. Merci," he laughed, and stuffed the medallion in the same pocket with Horatio's pendant.
No, Archie thought automatically, and his stomach wrenched to have that gift stolen from him. Then he pulled his mind back, thought you will get another. Dr. Sebastian will procure another for you, it's not important. Let it go. Escape.
Archie allowed himself one detesting glare at the guard, who sneered at it; then he sealed his fury inside, and kept it there. The guard pulled out his pistol, and Archie was roughly shoved out the door into the predawn chill.
As it was very early, few men were up. Archie looked around, counting, measuring, gauging. He took deep breaths and tasted the air. We are not near the beach, he thought, but certainly it cannot be far...the snow on the ground told Archie what direction they had traveled from, and he remembered that they stopped early. It would be difficult, but he could do it.
He *would* do it. He had no choice.
The guard yanked him along, past a low wall that surrounded the village to a thick stand of trees. Archie bit his lip, saw the snow in the woods behind them churned and broken; they had come from that direction. He had to go back that way...
The guard glowered at him.
Archie took another deep breath. Do it. Quirking a smile at his captor he said, "Sir, unless you have a desire to become better acquainted, I do believe you will have to untie my hands."
All right, that was not something Horatio would have said. But this man needed to be disarmed...
The guard muttered something in French that sounded very rude. Then he brought out a knife and gave Archie a threatening look. Then he cut his bonds.
"Merci," Archie said with the sweetest of smiles, and turned away as if to undo his trousers. As he suspected, the guard looked away.
And Archie struck.
With lightning speed Archie grabbed the guard's head between his hands and slammed it into the tree, throwing him to the ground without even looking. It was over in a second, and silent, and a moment later Archie was running for the woods, not even thinking but only obeying the instinct that was screaming at him to run run RUN -
- to the edge of the woods, beyond it. Voices behind him, but only wordless shouting dimly heard against the blood rushing through his ears. Run -
Then suddenly, savagely, two hands gripped him and yanked him back, and a strong arm wrapped itself around his neck and squeezed it tight, too tight, Archie couldn't breathe. He clawed at anything he could lay his hands on, heard a loud voice screaming curses in his ear and a horrific sudden agony exploded in his head -
- and then silence.
"Christ!" The sergeant came running through the snow with his rifle cocked, squinting to see in the morning gloom. He stopped when he saw the guard holding a handkerchief on his bleeding face and staring at the prisoner who lay unmoving in the snow. "What happened?"
"He tried to kill me!" the guard shrieked, "F*cking English bastard almost split my head open!"
The sergeant gasped when he looked at the prisoner more closely. "Look at all that blood on his head! Did you do that?"
"No!" The guard blurted, "No - of course not - he fell -"
"Yes you did," The sergeant snapped in terror, "I saw you. My God, Colonel Marchand said the prisoner was not to be harmed - "
"He fell," The guard insisted shakily, "I will swear it - "
But the sergeant was shaking his head, "I saw you throw him against that tree. Some of the other men saw it too, they were running to tell Marchand."
The fear in both mens' eyes was vibrant, frantic. Trembling visibly, the sergeant knelt closer and looked at the prisoner's face, which was covered with blood and had gone a ghastly white. He put a hand on the prisoner's neck. "My God, you've killed him!"
"No!" It was almost a scream this time. "No!"
"Don't move," the sergeant commanded, and raised his rifle. "Drop your pistol."
The guard was a little quicker. He brought his pistol up and shot the sergeant in the blink of an eye, and was running away through the woods before his compatriot hit the ground.
Horatio's dream was strange, pain and whiteness, and hollow voices that came out of nowhere and went in the same direction.
**Sir you're hit**
French words mixed with an overwhelming anxiety, swirling into agony and darkness. Then outside of himself, speaking words without forming them -
- Surrender Hornblower to me -
- there is no need, I am the man you are looking for -
- you? -
- Yes. I am Horatio Hornblower -
His words, but he was not speaking them - how -
Then more whiteness, cold, someone supporting him. Then oh God! Noise and confusion, the rocking of the waves and then - and then -
And then nothing, drifting in and out, and very slowly and gently Horatio awoke from his dream.
He felt it as soon as he awoke; the world came at him more sharply, and he welcomed it. The fuzziness in his head was gone, the horrible distraction that left him confused and weak had been replaced by the allover ache and awareness that told him that whatever he had gone through, the worst was over and he was beginning to heal.
Horatio let himself awaken slowly this time, taking careful and methodical stock of himself. Now where was he? The sick berth, that was certain. Was he ill? No. Injured?
Where? Oh, his shoulder felt like it was on fire. And he still felt weak in his body -
Shot. Good Lord, he'd been shot.
The mission. The water. That went all right, didn't it? Didn't Dr. Sebastian say it went all right? Yes, he did, Horatio remembered that clearly. But he'd been shot -
Horatio shifted in the hammock and felt every nerve shriek in protest. All right, not so much moving then. Listen, feel - is the doctor present? No, there was none of the homey smell of tobacco that heralded his presence. He's tending to other patients then, to the men sick with the influenza.
Something nagged at the edge of Horatio's mind, and he dimly recalled being worried by the doctor's demeanor earlier. Dr. Sebastian was usually a very honest man, but didn't he seem somewhat - well - guarded as he spoke to Horatio earlier? Worried, preoccupied. It had made Horatio think of some very unpleasant memories...
But now, with his reason restored and the world firmly set in place, Horatio reasoned that what he thought was some dire circumstance was most likely the doctor's normal concern, blown out of proportion by Horatio's delirium.. Of course Dr. Sebastian was worried; what doctor wouldn't be, with a quarantine of sick men and an injured officer to look after? Horatio mentally shook his head at himself; that was precisely why he detested being sick. It made one so foolish...
Was anyone else about? No, it didn't seem like it - Archie might have been there, but he usually fiddled with something as he sat, or read a book, and Horatio not hear any of the familiar rustling that accompanied Archie's solid presence.
Well, dash it all, Horatio thought. Might as well open my eyes and get it over with.
The light in the sick berth was low, the air quiet. There were a few lanterns lit, and Horatio could see shadows moving against the beams overhead. He risked more pain by lifting his head slightly to see what was going on.
The door to the sick berth was open, and Horatio could see men moving through it, slowly and being helped by the sick berth attendants. The men must be coming out of the quarantine, he reasoned, and relaxed into the feeling that he had been foolish after all; there had been nothing to worry about.
At that moment someone walked by his hammock and glanced down at him; Horatio was surprised to see that it was Styles.
But not as surprised, it seemed, as Styles was to see him; as soon as their eyes met the large man's face broke into a grin and he stopped. "Oh! Ye're awake, sir."
"Yes," Horatio admitted, quietly because his aching head was sensitive to noise. "What's going on?"
"Oh - the quarantine, sir, the men are getting better. Doctor's movin' 'em out so's they can rest in their own canvas."
Styles pulled up a vacant chair and sat down. "How're ye feelin', sir? D'ye want me to get the doctor?"
"No, Styles, that's quite all right, he's occupied enough. I'm feeling much better - " He tried to rise from the hammock.
What a bad idea that was! The world instantly began to swim, and if it had not been for Styles' quick action Horatio would have spilled right onto the floor. But thankfully Styles took his arms and lowered him back into the cot. "Not yet, sir, beggin' your pardon. Ye almost bled to death, ye'll be takin' it easy for a bit."
"Blast!" Horatio uttered, but could not argue with any of the Styles who sat beside him - there were three at the moment. With a sigh he closed his eyes. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Oh - all night, sir, it's mornin' now. You missed a corkin' bit of snow."
Snow, Horatio thought as he closed his eyes, and vaguely remembered cold and wind. his senses reached out to the ship, felt for the familiar movement of an ocean voyage. "We aren't underway yet?"
"No sir, they're still knockin' the ice out of the sails and gettin' the snow off the deck. That's where I'm goin' next; and the captain's sent for those barrels of water we had to leave behind, doctor'll be needin' 'im he said."
"Hm. But he didn't send you?"
"Naw sir, not after...not..." For some reason, Styles paused and cleared his throat. "Captain sent a few marines after 'em."
"Oh." That made sense; their party had been shot at, after all.
Horatio heard the chair creak, and over his head Styles said, "Well, I'd best be off, I'll tell the doctor you're better, sir. He'll sure be wantin' to know that."
"Very good, Styles, thank you. Please send Mr. Kennedy to me, since I am out of action for the present I have some requests to make of him."
No, wait - that's what Styles *should* have said, but he hadn't. He hadn't said anything. Horatio opened one eye, wondering if Styles had not heard him and walked away.
Styles hadn't walked away; he was still there, looking at Horatio uncertainly.
I must be mumbling, Horatio decided. "Styles? Kindly send Mr. Kennedy to me."
Styles then gave Horatio a look that was almost pained, and for some reason that set every one of Horatio's nerves on edge. Opening both eyes now, wide, Horatio said a little louder, "Styles, you did hear me."
"Oh - oh aye, sir, I did."
"Did you have a question?"
"Uh - " Styles glanced at the sick berth door for some reason, then took a quick step backward. "Sorry sir, I'll - I'll get the doctor for ya."
"No - " Horatio cried in exasperation, but it was too late; Styles was already gone, indeed he had practically run for the door. Horatio made to follow him, but as soon as one shoulder was off the hammock he knew he would get no further and sank back with an exasperated sigh.
Now what the devil was *that* all about? Horatio thought. What was so daunting about fetching Archie for him? He should not be far, for heaven's sakes. In fact, it was damn peculiar he wasn't hovering at Horatio's side right then, especially if Horatio had been at death's door...
Horatio cast his eyes toward the vacant chair and frowned. Now there was a question: where *was* Archie? Horatio had suffered his share of injuries and illness, and at every turn Archie had seen to him when he could. Even when he'd been unconscious Horatio had always known when his friend had been there, because there would be a closed book on the floor beside the chair with a marker in it, and most likely some fresh water or fruit beside Horatio's hammock in case he should wake and want anything.
But - there was no book. No water. And no fruit. And Horatio knew he had been unaware for the better part of a day. Certainly in that amount of time Archie should have found a spare moment...
At that moment Horatio heard footsteps approaching, and Dr. Sebastian appeared at his side, Styles right behind him. "Mr. Hornblower, Styles told me you had awakened. How are you feeling?"
Horatio looked straight into the doctor's dark eyes. "Doctor, where is Mr. Kennedy?"
Dr. Sebastian glanced very quickly at Styles, who retreated into the shadows. He opened his mouth to reply.
Horatio saw the hesitation in his eyes and cut him off. "Do not lie to me, doctor, please. He is not here, and unless I am mistaken he has not been here since our return. Your voice and manner this morning - yesterday - is he ill?"
Dr. Sebastian's head came back.
Horatio pressed onward, although he dreaded the answer. "Is it the influenza?"
Dr. Sebastian sighed and sat in the chair next to Horatio's hammock. He leaned forward and clasped his hands together, looking at Horatio earnestly. "No, Mr. Hornblower - no, Horatio, Mr. Kennedy is not ill. Not that I'm aware of."
Horatio felt a cold relief sweep over him, but - but -
The question leapt almost unthought from his lips. "Doctor, did Mr. Kennedy come back with us yesterday?"
Oh God. The only possibility left -
Dr. Sebastian held Horatio with his eyes, and said quietly, "No, I'm afraid he did not. He was taken prisoner by the French."
The shock was so great that Horatio would have leapt to the fighting top two decks above him, if that were possible. As it was, he jerked himself upright in the hammock and cried, "What!"
"Calmly, please!" Dr. Sebastian took both of Horatio's shoulders and gently forced him back into the hammock.
"No - no, I don't understand," Horatio shook his head, ignoring the stabbing pain, "That is impossible! How could we return if he did not?"
"Horatio, you will tear your wound open," Sebastian cautioned, and quickly lifted the bandage that covered the injury to check it.
"Dammit, answer my question!" Horatio rasped, anger and confusion running hot and cold through his veins. "Why were we not all taken?"
"Lie back, please," Dr. Sebastian ordered as he replaced the bandage, "Relax and I will tell you. Mr. Kennedy is safe enough for now, as far as we know, and Captain Pellew is working to secure his release. That should ease your mind - "
"It does not," Horatio snapped back. "Did he fall behind? Was he injured as well? Were we separated?"
"No," Dr. Sebastian turned away for a moment, and when he turned back Horatio was aware of the scent of lavender, very close. Then he saw a small bottle in the doctor's right hand; his left hand went to Horatio's temple, massaging something onto it.
"This is lavender oil, it will help calm your heart," Dr. Sebastian explained, "Horatio, Mr. Kennedy - Archie did a very brave and noble thing. When you were shot, he offered to let himself be taken so you could be brought back to the ship. And his offer was accepted."
Horatio breathed in the soothing lavender, and felt the iron grip of panic ease from his mind. A little. "But - doctor, that does not make sense. I am the superior officer, why would they show any clemency simply because I am injured? Why not take all of us?"
Dr. Sebastian's eyes were gauging Horatio, and still the hand moved against his temple. "Because they did not want all of you. According the seaman Styles, their colonel's interest was singular."
Horatio felt a shiver down his spine then, his dream echoing back at him -
- I am the man -
- you? -
- I am...
"Oh my God," Horatio felt himself go numb all over. He stared at the doctor in shock. "He wanted *me.*"
Dr. Sebastian's eyebrows raised. "You remember?"
"No - not completely," Horatio shifted himself upward in the hammock and furrowed his brow in concentration, "I remember it as a dream, after I was shot - someone asking after me, and - I answered, told them who I was and - and they took me."
Dr. Sebastian put away the lavender oil and sat forward again, placing one hand on Horatio's uninjured shoulder.
Horatio could feel his heart racing, could feel himself hurtling headlong toward some abyss whose horrors he could only guess at. "No - they said they would - I would be taken to Paris, to stand trial, but - but why would they take Archie instead? Why - "
- I am the man you are looking for. I am Horatio Hornblower -
His words, but not his voice. Not his voice -
Horatio shot out of the hammock so quickly that Dr. Sebastian almost did not catch him. But Horatio was still weak, and stumbled when his feet hit the deck, and the doctor had him in both arms before he could take a step.
"I must speak to the captain," Horatio said urgently, "I must - "
"You must lie down," Dr. Sebastian countered, and Horatio half-fell back into the hammock, his head swimming with dizziness and a thousand awful accusations.
But as soon as he was down, he tried to rise again, fighting against those strong hands with a vigorous will. "Let me up, dammit! They have the wrong man!"
"Mr. Hornblower, please!"
"Mr. *Hornblower*!" Dr. Sebastian commanded in the strongest tones Horatio had ever heard him use, and he felt himself being pressed very firmly back into the hammock, until he could only stare up at the doctor with furious eyes.
That gaze was returned to him a hundredfold. "Now listen to me. Captain Pellew is doing everything in his power to return Mr. Kennedy to us, and injuring yourself further will not make his task any easier. Do you understand that?"
Horatio set his mouth into defiant lines and looked away.
Horatio turned back and scowled at his benefactor. "I am fine. I need to see the captain."
"You will, as soon as you are fit to be presented," Dr. Sebastian replied, his grip on Horatio easing a little, "But for now - "
"For now one of the Indefatigable's officers is on his way to the guillotine!" Horatio insisted, struggling once more to rise, "And all on my account. I cannot accept it!"
"And what is your solution?" Dr. Sebastian asked, pushing Horatio back into the hammock in response, and holding him there.
Horatio paused, stared at the doctor blankly; a thousand ideas presented themselves, but they were foolhardy, dangerous. A rescue mission - an offer for reward - the exchange of himself for Archie's safe return - the captain would allow none of them. As he considered and abandoned each possibility in rapid succession, Horatio's frustration grew, along with a terrible anguish and an overwhelming anger. Finally he blurted, helpless and ashamed, "I cannot lie here and do nothing!"
"Nor will you," Dr. Sebastian replied gently, lessening his hold on Horatio's shoulders until it was the lightest of pressure, "You will lie there and heal, and when you are well again you will honor Mr. Kennedy's sacrifice by serving your king and your country until he returns."
Horatio grappled with this reality as Dr. Sebastian leaned back and bent to retrieve Horatio's blanket from the floor. He wanted to leap from the hammock, to shout to the shore, to go to Captain Pellew and demand that this wrong be set right. The realization that he could not do so, that he was trapped and powerless to affect his friend's fate, brought up a welter of fury in Horatio until he finally turned his face away and hissed, "Damn Archie for taking such a horrible risk!" Horatio hissed through clenched teeth, "How dare he set himself on a road to destruction meant for me without asking leave! Has he not had enough of prisons? Damn him!"
It was a childish display, and Horatio immediately felt humiliated that he had said anything; but Dr. Sebastian merely shook out the blanket and with a carefully studied expression laid it over Horatio's shivering frame.
These actions made Horatio more ashamed than ever, and he took a deep and shaking breath. "Doctor, I - please forgive me. This wound and ... I have forgotten myself."
"Hardly surprising," Dr. Sebastian said softly, and settled the blanket around Horatio's shoulders.
Horatio's heart dropped a little further. "No, please do not dismiss it. Only - please tell the captain that I am feeling better, and I am confidant he will expend all the effort in the crown's power to bring Mr. Kennedy home."
Dr. Sebastian nodded and made to rise. "I will. Get some rest now, Mr. Hornblower."
Horatio nodded - he could do little else, his head was swimming like a whirlpool at low tide - but he squinted at Dr. Sebastian as the other man rose from his seat. "Doctor Sebastian?"
Sebastian turned. "Yes, lieutenant?"
Horatio paused. "Those prayers you say - those devotions - are you including one for Archie's safe return?"
The doctor nodded. "Most definitely, since your return I have been praying for you both. Why do you ask?"
"Oh - curious."
Dr. Sebastian gave Horatio a reassuring smile and returned to the convalescents leaving the sick berth.
As soon as he was gone, Horatio noticed a movement in the shadows and saw that Styles was still standing there. After pausing for a moment, the sailor shuffled forward and cleared his throat.
"Beggin' yer pardon, sir," he began, eying Horatio plaintively, "But you don't need to worry over Mr. Kennedy, that colonel wanted to take 'im to Paris. He won't hurt 'im before they get there."
Paris - Archie taken to Paris - to death, to Horatio's death. Oh, damn it all! Horatio shook his head wearily. "Thank you, Styles."
"Just wanted to let you know, sir," Styles' head ducked in parting as he backed away from the hammock, "An' Mr. Kennedy's tough, 'e'll find 'is way back, maybe 'e's escaped already. 'e came back once before, didn't he?"
Horatio nodded, and closing his eyes tried to swallow the bitterness that was in his mouth. He could not; the foul helplessness was still there, and only grew sharper after Horatio listened to the retreating sound of Styles' footsteps, and knew he was alone.
Alone with only his pain and the knowledge that his shipmate, fellow officer and friend was at that moment in the hands of a man who had given his word and revoked it, who had released Archie's men and then tried to slaughter them all. There was no honor in this man, and Horatio knew that there was little truth in Styles' opinion that Archie was safe. Far too little...
...and there was nothing he could do except see to the work before him, and wait for Archie to come home.
Blast it, Archie, Horatio thought just before exhaustion and draining emotion pulled him back into sleep. Damn you for being a brave and noble man.
Archie came back to painful consciousness to feel a hand striking his face, once, then again. He hit hard stone before he could open his eyes.
Archie gasped as someone kicked his ribs, hard. He opened his eyes and found himself in what he could only assume was hell.
He was back in the cottage, lying on the cold floor with his hands once again tied behind his back. Colonel Marchand was glaring down at him in naked fury, his face red and both hands balled into fists.Archie's head was bursting with pain; he felt the dull ache of a half-dozen blows dealt while he was still unconscious. He tried to think but nothing -
Marchand's boot lashed out again, and Archie bit his lip against the hurt and curled in a little.
"Oh, now you are awake!" Marchand crouched down quickly and grabbed Archie's hair in one fist, forcing his head up, "My sergeant is dead, another is missing because of you. Stupid man, do you think now I care whether you reach Paris in one piece!"
Blazing pain across his face again, and Archie felt himself slipping away from it, hiding like he always had. He stared at this man as he tasted blood in his mouth, did not know for a moment how to react except by the instinct he had always trusted: he wanted to shut his eyes and pretend Marchand wasn't there.
But no - no - Archie fought against that impulse, because to these men he was not Archie Kennedy, but Horatio Hornblower, and Horatio had never backed down, never skulked away and hid. Never -
More blows came, until Archie lost count, but remember, he screamed to himself above the pain, remember! When Simpson beat Horatio, it was worse than this, oh much worse, and still Horatio fought. Remember, you were a little ashamed of yourself after you saw how Horatio rose from that floor bleeding and heedless of Simpson's threats. You thought, I could do that. If only I had his courage, I could stand up for myself and go down fighting -
Well, do it. You might never get another chance.
Marchand hauled Archie off the floor and spat in his face. "You English dogs are all the same! You do not know when you are beaten. Well, today you will know, Hornblower. Today you will be taught very well!"
Archie took a breath, as deep as he could because his ribs hurt tremendously, and looked Marchand squarely in the eye as he pulled his shoulders straight. "I take lessons...only from my king."
Fire shown in Marchand's eyes, and he struck Archie across the jaw again, sending him spinning into the wall. Archie gasped in shock as agony coursed through him, could feel himself passing out as he slid down the wall to the floor. No, he cried to his weakened body, don't faint, remember who you are - remember.
Archie could not prevent himself from crumpling onto the filthy floor, but with his last ounce of strength he turned to Marchand and brought up his bleeding chin in a wordless challenge.
Marchand caught the look in Archie's eyes and angrily brought both fists back; it took every bit of self-control Archie had not to flinch away from what he knew was coming, but he did it. Did it and surprised himself.
Before the punishing blows could come, however, the door to the cottage opened and another guard poked his head in. "Colonel?"
Marchand lowered his fists and looked at Archie, almost in disappointment. "Yes, what?"
"Someone is here to see you."
"Oh? Who knows I am here?"
"Well, he asked for the commander. He seems to be on some official business."
"Indeed!" Marchand grinned at Archie, who did his best to glare back. "Well, Mr. Hornblower, you see? Already I am famous for having captured you. Please do not be an idiot and think you can attempt escape again; there are guards all around you, and as you may have already guessed I no longer care if they hurt you."
Hurt you - something came into Archie's mind, slipping past the incredible pain: the thought that if they had taken Horatio he likely would have attempted escape, and now this would be happening to him. Horatio, beaten bloody in a godforsaken cottage by a glory-seeking insect of a man... Horatio, lying dead in the frozen surf on a lonely stretch of beach...
The images infuriated Archie, and with newfound strength he turned to Marchand and whispered, "Attend to your vainglory, colonel. When England is done with you it will be all you have left."
Marchand took one quick, angry step forward. Then he seemed to relent, and as Archie's' senses slipped away from him he was dimly aware of the colonel grunting in disgust, and the sound of stomping feet, and finally the distant but distinct sound of a slamming door.
Then the darkness claimed him, and Archie slid gratefully into it, and passed out.
Marchand stalked out of the cottage and looked around, finding the soldier who had summoned him. "Where is the man who wants to see me?"
"Oh - here, sir," the soldier replied, and pointed to a tall, well-dressed man standing next to a black horse. The man was dark-haired and broad-shouldered and had a military bearing, indeed he was wearing a French uniform, and regarded Marchand with a cautiously curious air.
"Ah!" Marchand affected something like courtesy, and approached the stranger. "Monsieur, I am Colonel Marchand of the French Republic Army. How may I assist you?"
"Good day, monsieur," the man replied, bowing a little in greeting, "My name is Captain Henri Joubert, late of the French navy. I have only recently returned to France, and was seeking some companionship on my return to Paris. I was told your men were heading in that direction, and wonder if I might accompany you."
"Of course!" Marchand said jovially, clapping the taller man on the back, "The more the merrier, eh? Where have you been, that you have been gone from our fair land?"
"Prisoner," Joubert replied as the two men began to walk, "I was captured by the English navy some years ago, and only recently won my freedom. I wonder how much France has changed in my absence."
"Captured by the English!" Marchand repeated, "Well, then, monsieur, you are in luck. I have myself just yesterday captured the greatest thorn the French navy has ever known, and am taking him to Paris to be executed for his crimes. What do you think of that, eh?"
"You don't say," Joubert replied, and if he noticed Marchand's preening he did not reveal it, "Who have you captured?"
"Tell your grandchildren, Captain Joubert. The Englishman Horatio Hornblower."
Joubert stopped in his tracks. "Hornblower!"
Marchand stopped as well. "Don't tell me you know him?"
"He is the one who captured my ship, La Reve."
"Ah!" Marchand grinned and clapped Joubert on the back. "Then here is your chance for revenge! He has already tried to escape, but I put a stop to that, I assure you."
"I - hope you have treated him well," Joubert said uncertainly, "He is a very honorable gentleman."
"Oh please, he is English!" Marchand almost laughed, "They are brutal, they are animals! I have treated him as I would a runaway dog, or horse."
Joubert winced. "You beat him?"
"I showed him who is master in France!" Marchand insisted, "This is a war, Captain, and I have no tolerance for such aristocratic notions as honor. You understand?"
Joubert paused for a moment before glancing back at the cottage where Marchand had exited and replying, "I do."
"Bon! Now let us go to my office. Tell me, have you eaten?"
"Very good, Mr. Hornblower. A little more, please."
Horatio glared up from his position in the hammock and made a face at Dr. Sebastian, who was sitting by his side with a bowl of beef broth in one hand, and a spoon in the other. "No, thank you. I've had enough."
"You've had two spoonsful," Sebastian countered, "And it is all you have eaten since yesterday. Now once again, please."
"No," Horatio said a little louder, "I can eat in the mess when I am out of this accursed hammock."
"That will be tomorrow at the earliest," Sebastian set the bowl on the table, "And by then you will be so thin as to be invisible."
Horatio took this gentle admonition as he usually did, which is to say not at all. "Are we underway yet?"
"No, but we will be shortly."
"So there is still a chance Mr. Kennedy will come to us."
Dr. Sebastian paused, and carefully removed the blankets from Horatio's shoulder to check the bandage. "Perhaps. But it is more likely we will win his release through exchange."
"Hm," Horatio considered this silently as Dr. Sebastian lifted the clean bandage and looked beneath it, "I should very much like to have words with Mr. Kennedy when he returns."
"Oh?" Sebastian was peering scientifically at Horatio's wound.
"Yes. His insubordination and lack of appreciation for my rank as senior officer are quite intolerable."
"They are indeed," Dr. Sebastian said conversationally as he removed the bandage, "but you must lay the blame for his actions at my door, Mr. Hornblower, for he is only acting as the scripture commands, and he and I had been discussing that only two weeks ago."
Horatio frowned in annoyance. "Are you saying what Archie did is in the Bible?"
Sebastian nodded as he produced a cloth with a bit of salve on it, and dabbed it on Horatio's wound, " John, chapter fifteen, verse three: no greater love hath any man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
Horatio considered this for a moment, then shifted uncomfortably in the cot. "I am not, foremost, Mr. Kennedy's friend. I am foremost his superior officer, and he knows I should have been taken instead of him."
"Of course," Dr. Sebastian said with a smile, putting a clean bandage on Horatio's shoulder.
Horatio pressed his lips together for a moment, then staring at the timbers overhead said, "In any case, it is not his life he has laid down, but his service. And when he returns he will have a long list of his services which others have had to take up for him because he decided to go missing."
"You sound very like your captain," Sebastian commented as he replaced the blanket.
"Confound it, doctor, I'm serious."
"I know you are, lieutenant," Dr. Sebastian said sympathetically, and took up the bowl of broth. "Shall we try this again?"
Horatio's impatient moan was interrupted by the sound of the sick berth door coming open, and Dr. Sebastian looked up to see Bracegirdle enter with a marine, and another man in French uniform.
"What is it?" Horatio twisted his head to see.
"Get some rest, lieutenant," Dr. Sebastian replied, rising from the chair and setting the broth aside, "And I will go find out."
Bracegirdle and his company were at the far end of the sick berth, far away from Horatio, and Dr. Sebastian glanced backward to assure himself that they would not disturb his patient before turning back to the first lieutenant. He noticed that the Frenchman was very dirty and angry-looking, and that he had a bad bruise and some blood on one side of his head, along with what looked like claw marks. "Mr. Bracegirdle?"
"Doctor," Bracegirdle said, in a voice that was very low and serious, "Can your patient hear us?"
"No," Dr. Sebastian replied in an equally quiet tone, "Who is this?"
"I am nobody!" The Frenchman insisted, "I am a peasant!"
The marine rattled the Frenchman in warning, and Bracegirdle rolled his eyes. "We've been over this, monsieur, you are wearing a French uniform for heaven's sakes." He turned back to Sebastian, "The marines caught him ransacking some bodies on the beach. His own countrymen, no less."
Dr. Sebastian frowned at the man, who was looking at him suspiciously. "May I examine your head wound?" he asked.
The Frenchman shook his head, despite the fact the action made him wince. "What are you doing here? You're Spanish!"
"I will explain that later," Sebastian peered closer. "Are you certain you do not want me to treat that? It looks very painful."
"Don't come near me."
"How did you get it?"
The Frenchman's eyes darted around him. "I fell. Into a tree."
"I see. And what clawed at your face?"
"Um - a bear?"
Dr. Sebastian crossed his arms and looked at the man sternly.
Bracegirdle broke the doctor's concentration by saying, "We took him to the captain, and he's on his way to the brig. We brought him here in the hopes that he would let you treat him..."
"It seems your hopes are dashed," Dr. Sebastian commented dryly.
"And also," Bracegirdle held out his hand, "Because when we searched him, we found these."
Dr. Sebastian looked into Bracegirdle's open hand. In it were a broken necklace with a pendant bearing a woman's face, and a small silver St. Adelaide medallion.
Dr. Sebastian's eyes darted back to the man. "Where did you get these?"
"They're mine," The man insisted.
"Are they!" Dr. Sebastian took the objects into his own hand, "You have great courage indeed, to be a Catholic in France."
"I - well - yes."
"Who is your medallion of?"
The man tried to look at it. "Umm - "
Dr. Sebastian angrily snapped his hand closed. "You carry the image of your patron saint and you do not even know who it is?"
The man looked at him defiantly, "Well, I have a head wound!"
"Softly!" Bracegirdle glanced at the far end of the sick berth, "We'll disturb Mr. Hornblower."
"Hornblower?" the man looked around in confusion, "Hornblower isn't here. He's dead."
Dr. Sebastian eyed the man warily, "What do you mean? We..." he paused, and cleared his throat, "We received word yesterday that Mr. Hornblower was taken prisoner."
"He was," the man replied, then realization and fear shone on his face, "Oh - oh, is this his ship?"
"No," Dr. Sebastian replied, and when Bracegirdle looked at him he saw a studied caginess in the half-Spaniard's eyes, "No, we are another English ship. What do you know about Mr. Hornblower?"
The man shifted from one foot to another, then said, "We took him to the village last night, and he tried to escape. One of the guards tried to stop him, and they killed him."
For a moment no one breathed. Bracegirdle saw Dr. Sebastian go pale.
"But it wasn't me!" the Frenchman insisted, "He attacked me, knocked me out, that's how I got these bruises. The others told me about it, um, later."
"Hush," Dr. Sebastian said, in a voice choked with disgust and dismay.
"And - and he asked me to keep those," the Frenchman continued, nodding towards Sebastian's closed fist, "That's how I had them. He gave them to me for safekeeping."
Bracegirdle and Dr. Sebastian looked at each other in mutual silent sorrow. Bracegirdle cleared his throat and said softly, "You're certain Mr. Hornblower...is dead?"
The Frenchman nodded, "I would not be here if he wasn't."
Dr. Sebastian took a deep, shuddering breath. Bracegirdle's gaze had dropped to the floor, and Sebastian lowered his gaze as well. For a long moment no one said anything; the air was leaden with grief. Then, silently, Dr. Sebastian crossed himself.
"It was very sad," The Frenchman babbled on, "If he had not tried to escape...you know, we were treating him very well. But it is the same with all you Englishmen, you will never be satisfied with being down. If he had just known his place, your Horatio Hornblower would not be dead."
Dr. Sebastian heard a gasp behind him then, and the sound of wooden objects being knocked over. He turned quickly to see Horatio standing behind him, grasping at a nearby table for support and staring at the Frenchman with wide and painfully comprehending eyes.
"He's dead?" he whispered vaguely, blinking at Dr. Sebastian as if he was coming out of a dream.
The Frenchman snorted. "I have just said so, haven't I? Who are you?"
Dr. Sebastian reached Horatio's side just before he collapsed, and wrapped strong arms around him to keep him from falling.
Horatio said nothing, but stared into the empty air in shock. Dr. Sebastian turned back toward the Frenchman and asked in a voice tinged with fury, "Will you let me treat your injuries?"
The Frenchman looked at him contemptuously, "I would sooner die of them than have a traitor touch me."
Sebastian's eyes snapped to the marine. "Then take him out of here."
The marine did so, but Bracegirdle did not join them; instead, he followed Dr. Sebastian as that man led Horatio back to his hammock. Horatio did not resist, but stared after the Frenchman with eyes that grew increasingly hard and determined; as the doctor set Horatio back into the canvas Bracegirdle could see the folds of Horatio's nightshirt shaking; Hornblower was trembling from head to foot.
As soon as Horatio was safe, Dr. Sebastian sat down on the chair beside him and sadly opened his hand to look at the small treasures that lay within. Horatio saw them too, and without a word reached over and slowly picked the broken necklace out of Dr. Sebastian's palm. He brought it to his chest and looked at it, just looked at it, turning it over and over in his hand as if Archie's last moments were engraved on them somewhere.
Then, after several minutes, Horatio slid the pendant into his palm and closed his hand over it, making a fist. He looked up at Dr. Sebastian again, and his eyes were howling with rage; but still he only trembled, and when he spoke his voice was the thinnest of whispers.
"I should like to see the captain," he said.
Archie sighed and leaned his head against the stone wall; certainly it would not be long now.
What time was it - noon? After that? There was only gloom outside the cracked windows, not sunlight, and it was hard to judge time passing. Archie shifted himself on the rough floor, felt every muscle and bone cry out in protest. No, it could not be long now.
He would die, he knew it. He would not reach Paris, perhaps not even make it out of the province. Colonel Marchand was too angry, Archie thought that he must have nearly gotten away; he must have been close to it, to humiliate Marchand enough to beat him half to death...
Archie tried to work his shoulders, to take the stiff cramp out of them, but it hurt too much to move them more than a little bit. His head hurt in a hundred places; his kidneys ached and he wasn't certain he didn't have a broken rib or two. It felt that way... it hurt to breathe...
...but he had to keep fighting it. It was all the history Horatio had left.
Oh, God, Archie thought as the now-familiar pang shot through him. What was he going to do, now that his hopes of reaching Indefatigable had been so cruelly dashed? He could never escape now, not even if he were capable of it; guards walked by his window every minute, and certainly there were more patrolling the grounds. He would be riddled with bullets before he could take a step toward freedom. Then there would be nothing left of either of them.
Archie sighed again and closed his eyes. Horatio, I'm so sorry. I thought I was protecting you, when in fact I was hastening you and the others to an early grave. I know you curse me now, but you've never been in a French prison. I have. It was worth any risk to keep you out of there. But I was naive; I thought I was dealing with a man of honor...
But you will soon have your chance to curse me in person,
for I fear I will be joining you on the distant shore sooner than
either of us expected. My plan has turned out badly, Horatio,
for me as well as you and the others. It hurts to breathe, and
every movement bring a new source of pain; I cannot run, am not
certain I can walk. And the colonel only stopped beating me because
he was interrupted.
I have but one hope in this, one ambition. As long as these men still believe that I am you I can still impress them in my defeat, if not in my victory. Rest assured that when eyes were on you you died a brave and resolute man, with lips that did not plead for mercy and eyes that shed not a single tear. I pray you died insensible, Horatio, but I fear that luxury will not be granted to me; but as long as that is my fate I will meet it as I know you would have, and deny this monster what you denied Simpson, and the French, and all those who look at England as a creature to be conquered: surrender. It could be that in that I can reclaim a little of myself that was lost, after all.
But oh God, I hope someone tells Captain Pellew, someday. I hope you find your way home. And I hope that the end, when it does come, comes swiftly. Horatio, was it like this when you died? I am so tired...
Archie did not realize he had fallen asleep until the door opened, startling him. He blinked at the door, a small terror gripping his throat. It was the colonel, but he was not alone; another man was with him, a tall, broad-shouldered man who looked at Archie with detached curiosity.
Oh, God, Archie thought, and steeled himself. He tried to breathe deeply and clear his mind, so these men would see no fear in his eyes; he hoped it was working.
"Yes," Marchand grinned, stepping forward and taking Archie's collar to give it a rough shake, "This is the mangy dog who killed one of my guards and caused the other to run away. A fair prize, don't you agree?"
"Certainly," the other man said quietly, and put both hands on the broad belt he was wearing, "Colonel Marchand, would you allow me a few moments alone with Mr. Hornblower? I wish to interrogate him privately."
"Of course," Marchand waved a conciliatory hand, "Only do not damage him too severely - I have still not punished him properly for his escape, and I do not wish my authority diminished by anyone, even a friend."
"Understood," the man nodded, and Archie watched in mounting dread as Marchand and the guard left the room. You will not cower, he ordered himself, don't you dare shrink back, even though the impulse was born in you. Archie eyed the man carefully as he knelt down and the thought was almost subconscious, how long would it take for this man to beat me to death? He is bigger than Marchand, and almost certainly stronger...
Dr. Sebastian would say I should pray. All right. God, make it swift. Archie lifted his chin as much as the ache in his head would allow, and gave this man an even stare.
The man returned the stare with a shake of his dark head and said quietly, "I do not know who you are, but you are *not* Horatio Hornblower."
Archie started a little, then felt his heart sink in dismay. Of course, the worst thing that could happen just did. He blinked slowly and waited.
"You see," The man continued, politely but with just a hint of anger, "My name is Captain Henri Joubert, I was captured by Mr. Hornblower some years ago, and remember him as a man full of generosity and principle. So I do not know your game, m'sieur, but if you have sought a little fame by pretending to be the illustrious Mr. Hornblower, I am glad to see that you have reaped the rewards of such a contemptible practice."
It took a moment for Archie to glean what the man was saying; then it struck him and he was so undone by the accusation that he could not trust himself to speak; instead he turned his face to the wall and closed his eyes.
"Now I will not betray your secret if it amuses you to be beaten," Joubert continued, "But I thought you should know that I have spent some time with the colonel, and he is very interested in seeing you broken. So it may go easier on you if you confess this charade right now."
"No," Archie replied in a choked voice.
"Are you mad?" Joubert asked, and Archie thought there was a touch of concern there, "He thinks you are Hornblower, that you have sunk French ships and defeated French armies. You will pay for all this, for his sins? What the devil for?"
Archie tried to shrug, but the movement brought a gasp of pain. Surprisingly, Joubert winced at this, why Archie didn't know. As soon as his breathing returned to normal Archie whispered, "He was my shipmate. I owe him this debt."
"Your shipmate?" Joubert looked him up and down. "What is your real name?"
Archie paused, but there was no reason to conceal it; this man knew Horatio, and he was dead in any case. Striking as defiant a pose as he could he replied, "Acting Leftenant Archie Kennedy."
"Kennedy!" Joubert exclaimed, "But I have heard your name, heard Hornblower speak of it."
Archie turned his head very slowly. "When?"
"After my ship was captured," Joubert explained, "Mr. Hornblower and I would dine together on our voyage back to his home. He spoke of you as being lost."
"I was," Archie turned back to the wall, "In prison, for years. I had hoped to spare him the same fate, but..." he closed his eyes again.
Joubert's voice cut through the endless ache. "Mr. Kennedy, how is it that you are here?"
Could Archie talk about it? He wasn't certain, but the thought occurred to him that this man might be the last one to talk to him alive. He took a shaking breath and answered, "We were captured - Horatio and I, and our men - not far from here. Horatio was shot, badly wounded, and I could tell the colonel was...cruel. And he wanted to capture Horatio, but he'd never seen him. I told him I was Horatio and he agreed to let the others go. I didn't want Horatio to die in some filthy French prison."
Joubert nodded, and remarkably Archie saw something like admiration in his eyes. "Mr. Hornblower chooses his shipmates well. You have every ounce the heart that he does."
"But it did no good," Archie replied, and tears threatened. He squeezed his eyes more tightly shut to deny them. "He's dead."
Did Joubert gasp? "Hornblower is dead? How do you know?"
"They shot him," Archie sighed, and the words came out in a horrible rush, "I did not know, Marchand - ordered his guards to shoot my men when they arrived at the beach. I heard the shots myself. All of them are dead."
Joubert uttered an oath in French.
"For all that I know his b- he is still lying on the beach, unburied and unmourned. Our captain does not even know that he is dead. Our ship is still nearby, I was trying to reach it when Marchand's man was killed. I can do nothing for Horatio now but bear his name until Marchand kills me, and die as well as I can."
There was a pause, and Archie thought perhaps Joubert had risen without his hearing it. When at last he opened his eyes to look, Archie was surprised to see Joubert still sitting in front of him, contemplating him with a look that could only be described as sympathetic. But that was impossible...
"Mr. Kennedy," Joubert asked suddenly, "Can you walk?"
Confused, Archie looked down at his legs and flexed them cautiously. Searing pain tore through him, and he stopped, biting his lip. "I - I don't know. Why?"
Joubert pursed his lips for a moment and looked at Archie with smoldering ire. Then he said, "All my life I have strived to make my country a place to be proud of, to call home. What it has become since the revolution - what men like Marchand have made it - it is not something I wish to protect. Your friend Mr. Hornblower defeated me, yet he treated me with respect and courtesy, and my men as well. That is what I want to continue. And I am the worst hypocrite if I allow this selfish tyranny of Marchand's to continue without intervening."
Archie squinted at this man, who talked like Horatio almost, and asked, "What are you going to do?"
Joubert glanced toward the door, then quickly stood up. "Stay silent until nightfall, and do not provoke Marchand to beat you again."
Stunned, Archie could only nod.
Joubert sighed and shook his head slightly. "Please accept my regrets concerning Mr. Hornblower. He was an exceptional man."
Archie wondered at these words, coming from a Frenchman. But they seemed to be sincere enough to make his own heart break again, and he did not doubt them. "Thank you."
Joubert walked over to the door and knocked on it. The door swung open quickly, and a moment later Marchand's face appeared. He looked at Archie in surprise.
"He hasn't one new bruise on him!" Marchand exclaimed, almost in disappointment. "Shame on you, Henri, have you forgotten what it is to be victorious?"
"No, indeed," Joubert replied, and cast Archie one last warning glance before exiting into the snowy afternoon.
Archie caught that glance, and huddled against the wall as the guard reentered the little room and the door was closed. He closed his eyes, daring to think that perhaps he might live to carry on Horatio's work for England after all, and tried to go to sleep.
It was with a heavy heart that Captain Pellew walked slowly down the companionway stairs toward the sick berth; he had just left First Lieutenant Bracegirdle standing somber and silent in his quarters, and was at that moment dealing with news that was difficult to bear. And thinking of another to whom that news was impossible.
It was a fact of life that men died, that war and disease should take them. Especially on a ship, death could come from any angle - from shot, or sword, or jagged shards of wood blown from a cannon's strike . It was easy enough to get used to, and as he walked past officers saluting him Pellew considered this with a bitter taste in his throat. That one man had died should carry no meaning, not to one as long at sea as he had been. He should shrug it off, write the traditional black-bordered letter, and get on with his command. That was the caprices of war.
But something about this particular sacrifice was different, Edward thought as he walked up the narrow passage. Kennedy had not been a random casualty, he had volunteered himself in place of an injured comrade. Knowing the risks - perhaps more than most - he had taken that shot, that sword, that jagged splinter and placed it at his own breast. He had done so probably with the hope that it would be a temporary ordeal; now he was lost to them forever.
The sacrificed life...Pellew neared the sick berth and slowed his steps because he did not know what he would encounter in that room. Bracegirdle had told him, in low and halting words, what had happened, and said that Hornblower wished to talk to him when he was well enough. Well, Pellew knew what that meant: Hornblower would steal from the bed when no one was looking and denying his body's protests try to make it to the captain's cabin before he passed out.
No, thank you. Pellew was not about to have his officers fainting on the quarter-deck simply because they were too blinded by grief to look after themselves. No, sir.
And Horatio would be blinded, Pellew thought with a sigh as he caught sight of the sick berth door. Kennedy was a comrade and a close friend, and even under the most accidental of circumstances Hornblower would take his death very hard. Under these circumstances, however...
Pellew thought of millstones, and burdens, and wasted life till his heart was wrung with it; then he put his hand on the sick berth door and pushed it open quietly.
The men in the sick berth were dozing mostly; the ones in quarantine were shut in another room, away from the other men. So the sick berth had an eerie quiet to it, a damp stillness that made Pellew think of a tomb. He shivered and looked for Hornblower.
There he was, lying in a hammock that did not face the door; only the top of his head with its dark brown curls was visible. Edward removed his hat and pressed it in his hands, standing in the low-lighted gloom trying to think of a way to make Hornblower's trial easier. Nothing was coming.
At that moment Pellew's eyes drifted over to the door of the surgeon's cabin, and he saw that it was slightly ajar. There was a soft glow coming from it, and Pellew took a few steps in that direction, intrigued. He knew that Dr. Sebastian must be within, for he was not in the sick berth itself; he thought that perhaps that learned man would have some words for him about Hornblower's condition, and how to remedy that. If any man knew, Dr. Sebastian would.
At last Pellew came close enough to peer through the opening, and the first thing he saw was that the cabin was ablaze with light. Candles were burning, a dozen of them it seemed, all in the base of a shelf that held a statue of the Virgin Mary. Dr. Sebastian was sitting in his chair beside the statue, his jacket off, leaning far forward so that his hair was haloed by the light. A rosary glistened in his hands, and Dr. Pellew saw his lips moving silently; after a moment Sebastian turned his head, and as his long gray hair eclipsed the candlelight Pellew could see his face, and the anguish there.
Pellew withdrew quickly outside the door so the doctor would not see him, and after a long moment approached again and knocked.
There were soft sounds inside, then the door opened. "Captain Pellew."
"Doctor," Pellew nodded, noticing with concern Sebastian's drawn appearance, "I've just been talking to Mr. Bracegirdle and he mentioned that Mr. Hornblower wished to see me."
"Indeed he did," Sebastian opened the door wider and bade Pellew enter, "But if I may, he was going to see you in his cabin later. There was no need to trouble yourself about coming down here."
"I shall be the judge of that, sir," Pellew replied, not unkindly, and his eyes took in the small room with its tranquil statue; an island of hope and light in the midst of chaos. His gaze fell on a silver saint's medallion that was sitting somewhat plaintively in front of the candles. "I think we both know what Mr. Hornblower is capable of, once he puts his mind to something."
"Aye, sir," Sebastian replied as he donned his jacket and motioned the captain to sit down. "Please, captain, if you will indulge me I would like to talk to you before you see Mr. Hornblower."
"Certainly," Pellew sat on the chair, and eyed Dr. Sebastian soberly, "Mr. Bracegirdle did tell me - everything."
Dr. Sebastian's expression changed slightly, and as he sat on his cot he cast his great dark eyes to the floor. "Yes, from what the Frenchman says, it seems we have lost one of our own after all."
Pellew shook his head. "I shall never get over the prodigal way war wastes mens' lives. If I live to be a thousand, I swear I shall never understand it."
Dr. Sebastian was quiet for a moment, then said quietly, "Mr. Hornblower has confided in me why he wants to see you."
Pellew's eyes met his, and they read each other. "I think I can guess."
"He wishes to go ashore and retrieve Mr. Kennedy's body."
Pellew sucked in his breath. "He is barely up to standing, let alone another dangerous mission. And we must set sail before long or else we may be facing the French fleet."
"Both true," Sebastian admitted, his eyes going to the Virgin and resting there. In that gaze Pellew saw a host of things: supplication, reassurance, comfort - and resolve. "Captain, may I speak candidly?"
Pellew looked at his surgeon in mild surprise. "Of course."
Sebastian stood and clasped his hands behind his back. "As your subordinate and a reasonable man, I cannot argue with your objections. However, as Mr. Hornblower's physician and an observer of human nature, I'm afraid I must tell you that his soul has been deeply wounded by this tragedy, to a point where it may never truly heal."
Pellew's heart tightened at the certainty in Sebastian's voice. "A very grave statement, doctor. I am saddened to hear it."
Sebastian began to pace, tilting his head as he spoke. "As I am to say it. However, I have divined a way to satisfy his request, and God willing to grant him...and others...a way to peace."
Pellew sat back a little, and waited.
"By tonight Mr. Hornblower will have recovered sufficiently to be about for small periods of time. With your permission, I would like to accompany him and two marines to the shore where Mr. Kennedy was lost, and bring him back home."
"A risky venture," Pellew crossed his arms, "How will you accomplish this?"
"The Frenchman told us where he saw Mr. Kennedy fall. I will go inland with one of the marines while the other waits with Mr. Hornblower."
"*You* will go?"
Dr. Sebastian smiled and spread his hands wide. "Any Frenchman who sees me will take me for an ally. And for anyone who does not, I will carry a flag of truce."
Pellew looked at the floor and thought about this. After a pause Dr. Sebastian said, "I do not ask for your immediate consent, only that you consider it. For now, I am certain Mr. Hornblower is very anxious to speak with you."
Captain Pellew raised his eyes to the doctor, and saw beneath the kind and gentle smile the soul of a man in mourning. To him the best solutions would always be the healing ones; this in a world where simply recovering was the best that could be hoped for. Without another word, Captain Pellew rose from the chair, and paused only long enough to gaze at the star-dappled statue of the Virgin before slowly donning his hat once again, and following Dr. Sebastian out the door.
Hornblower was sitting up, as high as he could get in his hammock when Pellew approached, and the captain could see his hands on the blanket, one of them moving on something he held in his fingers. As the two men came nearer, he saw it was a small pendant with a woman's portrait on, dangling from a broken chain. Hornblower was staring at it in that focused, hawklike way of his, slowly turning it over between his thumb and forefinger, and nothing else moved.
Except his mind. Captain Pellew could see that was moving, very fast.
As Pellew walked around the hammock to face Hornblower he studied that young man and was satisfied that he was doing well. He did not look so pale as he did the night before, when they brought him in; his face did not look gaunt or feverish. But what was there was much worse, and not borne of any physical ailment. Pellew recognized it, for he had seen Hornblower wear similar expressions before, but not like this. It was anger, white-hot and overwhelming anger, and at an enemy he could not strike back against. It was anger at the world.
That all changed, however, as soon as Hornblower raised his eyes and saw Pellew standing before him. Instantly the repetitive movements stopped, and his face changed to a respectful surprise.
"Captain Pellew," he breathed, still too weak for Pellew's tastes. He tried to rise from the hammock. "I - my apologies, I did not expect - "
"At ease, Mr. Hornblower, at ease," Pellew replied softly, putting out a benevolent hand, "Mr. Bracegirdle informed me of your request, and as I was here inquiring after the influenza patients anyway - " he traded conspiratorial glances with Sebastian at those words - "I decided to see how you were faring."
Hornblower's eyes went back to the pendant, and his fingers went back to turning it. "Sir, has Mr. Bracegirdle informed you that Mr. Kennedy is dead?"
"Yes, he did," Pellew sighed, "A tragedy, to be sure."
Hornblower's sharp eyes went to Pellew then, a universe of unshakable conviction in them. "Sir, I request permission to lead a mission ashore to recover his body."
The words were short, clipped, like steel blades striking each other. Pellew glanced at Sebastian again, and replied, "I admire your courage, Mr. Hornblower, but you are badly injured. I have already lost one valuable officer this day, I cannot afford to lose two."
Hornblower did not argue this; instead he looked down at the broken pendant in his hand, and Pellew saw fiercely fought-against tears start in his eyes. "Sir, Mr. Kennedy was sacrificed on my account. In his death England has lost a bright hope for its future, and I am responsible for it. If you deem me unfit to go, I - I would like to request that you send *someone* to bring him home before we sail. I simply cannot abide that he should be left behind again."
The last words were a whisper, torn so keenly and obviously from Hornblower's heart that Pellew winced in sympathy. Hornblower's face was flushed now, his lips compressed tightly in a battle to stay a man in front of his captain - this after being shot, badly injured, and suffering a painful personal blow in the span of twenty-four hours.
Pellew looked at Sebastian and read his own thoughts mirrored in the half-Spaniard's insightful gaze. Hornblower had locked himself away in a room with no door or key, and surrounded by thorns; there was only one release, and both men knew what it was. But only one man had the power to achieve it.
Pellew cleared his throat and took a step closer to Hornblower's hammock. "I will consider your request, lieutenant. Now follow your physician's advice, and try to get some rest."
Hornblower's eyes flicked up to him then, all the exhausting facade stripped away to reveal the fear and grief that lay naked within. "Aye, sir."
Captain Pellew patted Hornblower's good shoulder and walked away, knowing that Dr. Sebastian was following him. As soon as he reached the sick berth door, he turned and said in a low voice, "Get that damned Frenchman to draw you a map. Take FOUR marines, go at dusk, and be back in one half-hour, is that *very clearly* understood?"
"Yes, sir," Dr. Sebastian nodded with a relieved smile, "Thank you for your indulgence."
"Nothing of the kind. It is not an indulgence to seek justice. And it is not..." Pellew's gaze went to the hammock, then back to Dr. Sebastian, and he thought of the solitary medallion and the two men who grieved for its owner. "it is not an indulgence to see that a son of England is brought back among his friends, so that those who cared for him can bid him farewell. Good day, doctor."
The next time Archie awoke, it was very reluctantly; he dragged himself awake slowly, then faster because something was happening, a sound - something scraping -
When he opened his eyes he saw the same room, and gloomy gray daylight; the door was opening, that was the noise - he turned his head, and almost cried aloud as his cramped and painful muscles protested. The door was opening -
And within it stood Colonel Marchand, and he did not look happy.
"Now then, Mr. Hornblower," Marchand said, walking slowly into the cold room and allowing the guard to close the door behind him, "What were we discussing when we were interrupted this morning? Oh yes - "
One boot shot out, and caught Archie in the side. He grunted and winced, but bit his lip to keep silent.
"I believe you were going to tell me where your ship was the last time you saw it, and where it was heading. Also any other amusing anecdotes you might know regarding where your navy is, and where it is going. Yes?"
Archie shut his eyes again for a moment, focused on what was beyond the pain. Horatio's memory was there, and Captain Joubert's promise that he could get him out of there, and home - even if it was a lie, it was worth holding onto. Archie looked up at Marchand and said nothing.
"Oh, you wish to make this difficult?" Marchand paced in the room, his boots rapping ominously on the hard floor, "It is a long way to Paris, and with the snow as it is it will be a longer journey yet. It will go much easier on you if you tell me what I want to know now - "
The boot lashed out again, this time striking Archie squarely in the stomach. He coughed reflexively, and curled up a little.
" - later," Marchand growled, "Later it will not be so pleasant. Just as I did not make it pleasant for your shipmates."
Archie found he could not draw a full breath without terrible pain; he wondered dimly how much he could take before passing out, and was somewhat ashamed when he hoped that it would not be much at all. He drew himself up further and thought, home. Home. Then he squared his shoulders and glared at Marchand with sincere and righteous hate.
Marchand smiled back blandly. "You are indeed as they said, Mr. Hornblower. I am impressed by your courage, and your stubbornness. It is a pity I must beat it out of you."
With those words he made a fist and quickly struck Archie in the face.
Archie fell towards the floor, only to feel himself snatched up by the collar and shaken roughly. At the same moment, however, he heard another sound through the horrible ringing in his head and the shaking stopped.
"Ah, Captain Joubert," Archie heard Marchand say pleasantly as he fought to remain conscious, "Come to give me a hand with this one, eh?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," It was Joubert, and Archie could hear smooth compliance in his voice, and forced one eye open to watch.
Joubert looked at him, and Archie saw one swift moment of shock before the mask of indifference came down again. "The snow is falling again, and I fear if word of who your prisoner is travels much farther you might not be able to keep claim on him."
"What do you mean?" Marchand argued as Archie suddenly felt himself dropped to the floor. Landing was agony, but he bit his lip against it. "I captured him. The glory is mine!"
"Ah, but for how long? Already I have heard the men talking. Hornblower is notorious, there are many officers who would like to capture him. They might come here while you are waiting for the snow to stop and fight you for the honor of taking him to Paris."
"Ha! Let them try. I have my troops - "
"With all respect, Colonel, I could not help but notice how many of your men are mercenaries. For the right price you may find their loyalties changing in an instant."
Archie could feel his face swelling, but angrily denied it and opened his eyes again. Marchand was towering above him, arms crossed, and Joubert was almost lounging by the door, one hand lazily resting on his sword. Their attitudes could not have been more different.
"I captured Hornblower and by rights I shall march him into Paris," Marchand huffed, "And that is final!"
"It isn't," Joubert rejoined, then after a pause said smoothly, "But it *could* be."
Marchand cocked his head. "How?"
"I have my horse," Joubert said conspiratorially, "And Lisieux is not far from here. I can take Hornblower there and keep him safe from all who would threaten you. When the weather improves, you may come and claim him and march into Paris before anyone can stop you."
"Ha! You simply want revenge. Once he is out of my sight you will simply cut his throat."
Joubert shook his head. "You have my word of honor, Colonel, that I will do no such thing. I only want the rightful people to have possession of him."
Marchand glanced back over his shoulder at Archie, who ducked his head and stared at the floor. He closed his eyes and thought, please God, let this work. There may be no other way...
"Well, as long as you do not kill him," Marchand said, and stepped aside, "By tomorrow the roads should be passable, and I can join you in Lisieux. Agreed?"
"Agreed. My only request is that I be allowed to start on my journey right away, before the snow becomes deeper."
"Well..." Marchand looked down at Archie in an almost reptilian way, but Archie was too emboldened by this turn of events to be stared down. He squared his shoulders and looked at Marchand defiantly.
Marchand greeted this with a sneer. "You think you might escape, eh, Hornblower? Shall I break your legs to ensure you don't?"
"That will not be necessary," Joubert said quickly, and walked over to Archie. A moment later Archie felt himself being hauled to his feet, and breathed in quickly to combat the overwhelming soreness that pervaded every inch of him. "I will make certain he does not run away. Do you have any more rope?"
"Of course," Marchand nodded, and walked out the door to bark orders at his men.
As soon as he was gone, Archie felt himself shaken a little, and realized he was drowsing on his feet. He opened his eyes a little and found a pair of concerned eyes looking back at him.
"Courage," Joubert whispered, and Archie looked into those dark eyes and thought, Horatio would say the exact same thing. But he himself said nothing, and did not even acknowledge that Joubert had spoken to him, because the guard was watching; instead, he leaned over a little and coughed the fullness out of his lungs, trying in his hope to ignore the pain that wracked every inch of him, and the taste of blood in his mouth.
It was dusk.
The boat rowed quietly, stealthily through the icy waters and the swirling snow, hoping that the thick winter gloom would hide them and their purpose. Horatio sat in the back of the boat, bundled against the cold weather and staring resolutely at the shadowy, distant shore. Dr. Sebastian sat beside him, similarly dressed in a dark wool frock coat and gloves. The marines, their bright red uniforms hidden by lighter gray overcoats, slowly brought the boat closer to the hated shore, and as they neared it details became visible: the rocks. The trees. The snow piled and scattered in the winter winds.
"It was near here," Horatio whispered suddenly in a flat, disconnected voice, and Dr. Sebastian looked at him in concern. Horatio's gaze was distant, otherworldly, and he was trembling, but not with the cold. "A little ways down, I think. That way." He looked out into the gathering darkness.
Dr. Sebastian put a hand on his arm. "We will find him, Horatio. And we will take him home."
Horatio's head turned quickly, as if Dr. Sebastian's action startled him. He blinked rapidly and said, "Thank you." Then he took a deep breath and said, "Thank you, doctor, for helping me with this. For understanding..."
"How could I not understand?" Dr. Sebastian replied, "It is elemental. Basic, in humankind. The need for a conclusion."
Horatio closed his eyes and sighed shakily. "Oh, God. I cannot think on it."
Dr. Sebastian moved his hand up, to bolster Horatio's shoulder, and pressed it wordlessly.
They moved closer to the shore in silence.
Joubert guided his horse over a log in the forest trail, glancing behind him as soon as he was over.
"That's far enough," he said, and quickly brought his horse to a stop and dismounted.
Archie was seated behind him on the animal's back, his hands tied behind his back and lashed to the saddle with sturdy rope; he was shivering in his midshipman's jacket, and looked at Joubert with fading eyes.
In response, Joubert shook his head in disgust and in one swift move brought out his knife and cut Archie's bonds. Then, just as quickly, he unclasped the frog on the cloak he was wearing and handed it up. Archie blinked at it uncertainly.
"I am wearing three layers of dry wool." Joubert replied, "Put it on."
Archie did so, hugging the garment around him as if it held a warm fireplace within it.
"Now I am thinking," Joubert said as he squinted toward the diminishing horizon, "If your ship is gone, there are places we can go - safe ports where we can perhaps find a way to contact your captain. For the moment, though, I prefer to think positive."
Archie nodded, and coughed again. "Thank you," he whispered thinly.
"Not at all," Joubert continued as he swung himself back into the saddle.
"No, I mean - " Archie coughed again, and Joubert twisted in the saddle to look at him, "Thank you - for all of this. You took a great risk."
Joubert shook his head and took up the reins of his horse. "Your friend Mr. Hornblower would tell you, sir - it is no risk when you do what is right. Now tell me where you last saw your ship."
It was very quiet when the jollyboat containing Dr. Sebastian and his charge neared the French shore. The doctor marveled at how still everything was, still and silent and muffled under the newly falling snow. He studied the shore, now made a watercolor blur in the fading light, and turned back to see how his passenger was faring.
Horatio was huddled in the boat, clearly suffering but with a bulldog's determination in his eyes. His face was pale except for two frosty spots of red on his high cheekbones; he almost looked ghostlike in the dwindling day.
Dr. Sebastian put a hand on his arm. "Promise me you will stay here. There will be two marines with you; I will take the other two and find Mr. Kennedy."
At that name Horatio's eyes came alight, and he took a quick, petulant breath inward and pressed forward. "I am well enough, let me come ashore - "
"No," Dr. Sebastian said firmly, and gently pushed Horatio back, "You are still unwell. There will be no argument about this."
Horatio gave the doctor a glare, but his shivering was irrefutable corroboration to the doctor's words. After a moment he turned away to gaze sadly at the hated stretch of land before them. A few stray snowflakes lightly touched his hair, then melted away. "I shall write the letters, to tell them he is gone."
Dr. Sebastian followed Horatio's eyes to the shore. "His family?"
Horatio nodded. "Others will want to know too. I'm certain Miss Cobham...and..." he faltered, unable to go on. He closed his eyes.
Dr. Sebastian touched his arm again, then withdrew because he knew that Hornblower was uncomfortable with sentiment, and the marines were guiding the boat behind a large rock. A smaller, flat-topped rock stood next to it, ensuring that they would be able to go ashore without wading through the chilling surf.
"And we will be hidden," Dr. Sebastian said to himself, and began to stand up. "Now stay out of sight, and if there is any danger go back to Indefatigable as swiftly as you can."
Horatio stood up himself in the almost-darkness. "No! Not again - "
"Sssh!" Dr. Sebastian shook his head, "Once, Mr. Hornblower, I should like to express a thought without one of your famous contradictions. I am your physician and superior officer, so kindly do as I say and stay here. You may assist me with Mr. Kennedy once we have him safely with us."
Horatio's face, even though it was by now harder to see, told Dr. Sebastian that he knew better than to argue. He set himself back into the boat, his shoulders back and his eyes ever alert on the shore. "Aye, sir."
"Good lad," Dr. Sebastian said under his breath, and with the two marines proceeding he climbed out of the boat and onto the flat rock, and then found himself standing on French soil.
The gentle snow sifted onto the landscape, obscuring detail and turning the beach and trees into their own kind of natural sculpture. Dr. Sebastian surveyed the beach for a moment, marking it for their return, and began to walk slowly up the small slope with the marines behind him. Then he saw something move in the trees, and motioning to the marines backed against a nearby rock and looked cautiously out.
The dusk was now almost night, and it was difficult to see, but Dr. Sebastian could make out a light-colored horse and rider. Obviously French, by his uniform; perhaps even one of the men who took Kennedy...
Grappling with his own feelings of anger and grief, Dr. Sebastian turned to the marines and whispered, "Stay here." Then he felt in his cloak pocket for the white handkerchief he had brought as a symbol of truck, just in case; when that was in his hand, he stepped out from behind the rock.
The rider saw him right away; of course, Sebastian reasoned, even in near-darkness a man in a black cloak would stand out in a field of snow. He waited to see what the man would do; remarkably, he did not draw his pistol right away. Instead, he walked his horse a little ways onto the beach and dismounted.
It was then that Dr. Sebastian noticed two things: that the man was not wearing a coat, even though it was very cold; and that there was someone else on the horse, someone bundled against the weather and turning their hooded face from the cold wind. The man turned back and carefully helped the bundled figure from the horse. Once on the ground, whoever was wrapped in that dark cloak knelt down in the snow as if sapped of all strength.
Dr. Sebastian remained on his guard, watching the Frenchman warily; the Frenchman turned toward the beach and upon spying him paused a moment, as if sizing him up as well. Why not? Dr. Sebastian thought to himself. He cannot see me very clearly, either.
To speed matters along, Dr. Sebastian took a few steps forward and pulled out the handkerchief. Before he could say anything, however, the Frenchman came forward and asked, "Can you help me? Are you from a ship?"
Dr. Sebastian frowned at this, and surreptitiously pocketed the handkerchief; if this man thought him a friend, it was best not to undeceive him. He nodded.
"I can pay you well," The Frenchman continued, "My name is Captain Henri Joubert. I have a young man here who is badly injured, and trying to get back to his ship."
Dr. Sebastian peered at the figure beside the horse; his posture did indeed indicate that he was in pain. "I am Dr. Luis Sebastian, a physician, I can look after him is you wish. But should he not be in a French port if he wishes to rejoin his ship?"
"No," Joubert answered, and Dr. Sebastian saw the figure's head come up, slowly, "His ship is not French. Before I tell you more, I need to know I can trust you."
"Let us do favors for each other, then," Dr. Sebastian replied swiftly, silently thanking God for this fortunate circumstance, "And then we can be equally bound, for I need assistance as well. Do you agree?"
Joubert tilted his head. "What is your request?"
"I am looking for the body of an English officer killed today, perhaps a few miles from here, inland. His captors called him Horatio Hornblower."
Joubert's expression changed, and he said, "No, m'sieur, I have heard of his death but I do not know where he fell."
Dr. Sebastian nodded and said, "Well, I - "
"The man who had him shot was worse than a murderer, for Mr. Hornblower was an honorable man," Joubert continued, "But our meeting is most fortunate, for I have his shipmate here, and he is very anxious to get home and tell his captain of Mr. Hornblower's unfortunate death. Can you help me in this?"
For a moment the very air froze, and Dr. Sebastian blinked. "His shipmate?"
Joubert nodded. "Mr. Archie Kennedy."
Both men looked towards that sound, a hollow, frantic cry, and now the hooded figure was stumbling through the snow towards them. The hood fell back, and in the muted light Dr. Sebastian saw -
"Dear God!" he exclaimed, and leaned past the Frenchman in numb shock, "Archie!"
Archie fell forward into the doctor's outstretched arms,
and clutched them as he fought to regain his footing. He was
shaking all over, his blond hair matted and bloody and his face
bruised and swollen.
He shook his head frantically, gulping his words as he struggled to breathe, "He's dead, Horatio's dead - I'm so sorry - "
But Dr. Sebastian heard that only dimly. Scarcely believing his eyes, he knelt down on one knee and stared at the young man in dumbfounded amazement. Gently he took Archie's face between his hands to calm the distraught youth down, but also because he was not certain he wasn't hallucinating. "Archie, thank God! We were told you were dead!"
"No - " Archie would not look into Sebastian's eyes, and gripped his wrists as if he was about to fall again. "No, take me to the Indy - I must see the captain - please - "
"Where are you hurt?" Dr. Sebastian asked immediately, peering closely at Archie's face, "Archie, look at me! Tell me where you are injured, and I will get you home."
Archie shook his head again and began to cough, crouching down into the snow. As Dr. Sebastian held onto him Joubert said softly, "I think he has some bruised ribs, perhaps one broken. He was the prisoner of Colonel Marchand, who believed he was Hornblower and beat him when he tried to escape. He did not know that he had already...murdered..."
Joubert's voice trailed off, and as Archie slowly recovered his breathing Dr. Sebastian looked up to see that the Frenchman's face had gone pale in the dimming light. He was staring at something in open-mouthed amazement, and Dr. Sebastian turned his head to see what it was.
It was Horatio, standing in the snow-covered sand holding his black cloak about him, his dark eyes opened wide in unbelieving wonder. He took a tentative step forward and whispered, "Archie?"
Dr. Sebastian felt Archie tense in his arms, saw that battered head raise up, the blond hair stirring in the thin winter air. Archie's blue eyes went wide, and his grip on Sebastian's arm tightened.
Horatio took another step, then almost ran to where his friend was kneeling. "Archie!"
"My God - " Archie whispered, so low only Dr. Sebastian heard it, and then he let go of the doctor and tried to stand up.
"Softly, Mr. Hornblower," Dr. Sebastian said quickly, "Mr. Kennedy is - "
But there was no need for those words. Horatio took Archie's arms and swiftly knelt to Archie's level, looking him up and down in unabashed joy. He tried to speak; no words were coming. Finally he blurted, "Good God, Archie, we thought you were dead!"
Archie laughed, a short burst of mirth that mingled with the tears that had started in his eyes. "Damn me, Horatio, I thought the same of you!"
"No!" Horatio's expression changed to one of overwhelmingly relieved amusement, "You tried to escape - one of the guards killed you - "
"And you were shot on the beach - that bastard Marchand - is Styles alive?"
"Of course! He saved me in fact - "
And at that moment, both young men looked each other in the eye and burst out laughing.
"Oh, God, that hurts!" Archie remarked, but this pain did not diminish the look of happiness on his face.
"Well, another wound to add to your litany, Mr. Kennedy," Horatio commented, and they laughed again.
Not long after that happy reunion, the small jollyboat was on its way back to Indefatigable, Archie and Horatio both curled up in the bow, finally allowing their exhausted bodies some much-needed rest. In the back, Captain Joubert and Dr. Sebastian sat together and watched the marines rowing in their slow and even cadence.
"I cannot make any promises," Dr. Sebastian said, "But in gratitude for helping Mr. Kennedy, I would not be surprised if Captain Pellew allowed you to sail with us to a neutral port, or even back to England if you so desired. God knows there are enough French citizens there dissatisfied with the current regime."
"Hm," Joubert replied, glancing at Kennedy's sleeping form with mild anger, "Dissatisfaction! I detest what my country has become. What it represents, I can no longer fight for. But you mention God?" He nodded to the two dozing youths huddled in the bow, "Certainly one can see His hand in this. I am very glad for the way things have turned out."
"As am I," Dr. Sebastian said fondly, "Mr. Kennedy is a remarkable young man."
"Indeed! I would very much like to tell your captain of his courage. He was determined to die rather than let Mr. Hornblower's name be dishonored."
"And Mr. Hornblower," Dr. Sebastian sighed, "When he thought Mr. Kennedy was lost, was just as determined that his shipmate not be abandoned to an unmarked death. The gates of hell would not have stopped him."
The two men sat and listened to the oars splashing against the water for a few moments. Then Joubert said, "One must think that when they are old men, sitting together in their chairs before the fire, that they will talk of this."
"I suspect," Joubert leaned back in the boat a bit and laced his fingers, "that by then they may know how much their youthful ideals mean to old men like us. I know it heartens me to see it; I think that perhaps hearts like theirs may beat in France."
"Perhaps," Dr. Sebastian looked out over the water as they neared the great ship; he smiled when he thought of the homecoming they would soon be witnessing. Yes, this would be a good night. "And then one day, who knows? Men may gather to drink a toast to each other, instead of shed blood."
"And there will be no further need for honor to be tested," Joubert said hopefully.
Dr. Sebastian nodded in agreement, and looked once more to where Archie and Horatio lay asleep, two young men who had sacrificed nearly everything for each other, and would do so again, Sebastian knew, without hesitation. After a moment he added quietly, "Or lives to be laid down for friends."