Nightmare
by Jan L.


The storm wore on outside the prison infirmary, the wind blowing and
howling, the incessant beat of rain, an occasional rumble of thunder. A
fire crackled cheerfully on the stone hearth. And Archie Kennedy slept
through it all, while Horatio Hornblower sat, and watched, and reflected
on his own incompetence.

How could he have been so stupid, so utterly blind? Why hadn't he seen
that, far from getting stronger, Archie had been fading before his eyes,
growing weaker day by day? Why in God's name had he ever -- ever! --
thought that Hunter was looking after the younger midshipman, after
Hunter made it clear that he considered Kennedy some sort of drag anchor,
to be cut loose as soon as possible?

There was no answer to any of the questions, other than gross negligence
on Hornblower's part. He had been so delighted with his two hours of
freedom each day that he had, without a second thought, abandoned his
sick, tortured friend to the cold indifference of a man who wanted him
dead. //If Archie lives through this, he'll likely never speak to me
again.//

But he'd have to, wouldn't he? At least as to a superior officer. What
a bitter jest. The rank was as unreal as his authority, and he could not
order Archie to live, any more than he could order his men to ignore
Hunter's hair-brained escape plan.

As if seeking its own escape from the present reality, his mind darted
off along that other path... the one that ran into a dead end each time
he traversed it. Four guards, yes -- four on duty at any one time. But
they served in three-hour shifts, and there were at least three different
sets of guards, during daylight hours. Twenty-four hours meant that
there could be as many as eight different shifts, which meant thirty-two
guards, plus the three that followed Don Alfredo de Massaredo's every
step. And the fortress looked large enough to house many times that
number.

Why the Spaniards kept such a garrison in this Godforsaken bit of nowhere
was anyone's guess; perhaps they feared the bay could serve as a base for
invasion if this castle were taken by the English. Whatever their
reason, it meant that there were more Spanish soldiers than nine unarmed
Navy men could possibly overcome. Especially with one of them half-dead
from starvation.

Archie didn't look so bad at the moment, though. The warm light of the
candles put some color in his skin, masking the bloodless blue-white so
evident in the courtyard's cold wet daylight.

Had Finch looked like that? Hornblower couldn't quite remember. Didn't
want to remember, if he were honest with himself. Though if there were
anything he ought to remember, as a responsible officer, it was how to
identify the early signs of starvation-induced illness in his men. But
nobody had known how sick Finch had been; the old sailor had always had a
toughness that belied his scrawny, half-starved appearance, and even
Matthews had been surprised that he took sick after only a couple of
months on short rations. What stuck in Hornblower's mind about Finch's
illness was the mental wandering, the confusion about where he was and
what was happening. Archie hadn't been like that, he had known it was
raining outside... "No walk for you today, Horatio."

//I'm sorry, Archie.// The remorse was almost a physical ache,
tightening his throat like a vise. Had Hunter been eating Archie's
rations, or did he just send the food back out with the wooden bowls and
spoons? It didn't really matter, but he should have known. And he did
not. //Won't you please wake up and talk to me?//

When he first brought Archie in here, he had begged Don Massaredo for
something nourishing, and a bowl of gruel had arrived shortly after the
Duchess left. Perhaps he should have asked her to wait outside, while he
got Kennedy out of his soaked clothing and under the blankets. Archie
had been willing to talk to her, even if all he did was recite that
rambling sort of poetry. Oh, God, was he babbling like Finch had? //I
should have asked Her Grace to stay, Archie might have let her feed
him...//

But how could one ask a Duchess to play nursemaid like that, even to a
younger son of the nobility? And by the time Archie was decent -- it had
taken awhile to dry his shirt by the fire, and wrestle it back onto him
-- he was deeply asleep and could not be roused.

He had been that way for hours, now. Hornblower had trickled a little
water between his lips, but very little of it had gone down. He needed
to wake up, and pay attention, and at least drink some more water. It
was raining now, but in the past few days' heat, dehydration was even
more dangerous than starvation; a man could last much longer without food
than without water.

Hornblower leaned forward as Kennedy began to mutter and move about,
hopeful that he was near to waking. But as the minutes passed that
became less likely; Archie was dreaming, now, writhing in distress.
Hornblower wasn't sure whether he should waken him. He'd seemingly had
some kind of unpleasant dream earlier, for a minute or two, but it had
passed. Perhaps he needed the sleep more than sustenance?

But this nightmare was getting worse, and Archie suddenly sat bolt
upright, babbling, blue eyes open but unseeing. "No-- Simpson--
Simpson--"

Hornblower leaned forward, a hand on his arm to steady him, trying to
soothe him out of the panic. Kennedy blinked, consciousness returning to
his eyes, and the panic slowly drained from his body. Like a puppet
released from its strings, he sank back to the pillow.

Relieved to see him awake at last, Hornblower patted his shoulder
reassuringly. He took up the pitcher, pouring some water into the little
amber glass, reaching to help Kennedy raise his head. "Here, drink."

But Archie pushed the glass aside and scooted as far away as he could on
the narrow bed, turning his face as though trying to pretend Hornblower
wasn't there. Turning away. Trying to die... "He wants to die,"
Hunter's voice echoed in his mind. "It's no good thinkin' on him."

Fear and anger battled for the upper hand, and anger won by a hair.
"You're going to drink," Hornblower said firmly, hoping the note of
command would somehow break through Archie's resistance. "You're going
to eat, and you're going to get better. And then we're going to get out
of here."

"No."

What ailed the man? "Or don't you want to get back, hm?" How could he
not want to escape? How could anyone not want that, for God's sake?
Hornblower himself yearned for freedom so badly he woke sometimes at
night straining to hear the surf beating against the shore, so far away.
"Stand on the deck of the Indy, hear the wind in the rigging..."

"...and hear how Horatio Hornblower rescued his shipmate from prison,"
Archie finished bitterly, not meeting his eyes.

After getting himself and all his men captured in the first place?
Hornblower stopped at the foot of the bed, puzzled. "It wouldn't be like
that."

"It would be just like that," Archie said miserably.

His illness was making him foolish. "You'd do the same for me if I were
in your shoes--"

"But you're not. And you never would be." One hand opened in a gesture
of futility, then closed into a fist. "Look at me, Horatio. I can't
even stand up straight, for God's sake! What are you planning to do,
carry me on your back?"

"You'll get better, Archie--"

"Damn, you, Horatio, don't you understand? I am not like you!" His
anger was astonishing; Hornblower was taken completely aback. "Look at
you -- you're an Acting Lieutenant already. You've captured a ship--"

"--and been captured myself--" he interjected, but Kennedy didn't hear
him.

"--the men respect you, you can go strolling about on the cliffs on the
strength of your word as an officer. You always know what to do. I'm
not like that, Horatio. My damned body doesn't even work properly. I
have fits, or had you forgotten?" He paused, panting, like a hunted deer
brought to bay. "I heard Hunter. He meant me to hear him. You're lucky
I didn't get you all killed during that cutting-out."

The grief of that loss was as sharp now as it had been two years ago,
worse even than Simpson's bullet. The state Kennedy was in now was a
direct result of Hornblower's own negligence in not guarding against that
bastard's treachery. "Archie, I am so very sorry about what happened
then--"

"What difference does it make?" Kennedy's voice cracked on the last
word. "I'm not good enough, I was stupid to think I might be. It
would've happened sooner or later, anyway." He swallowed, stared at
Hornblower in accusation. "I was almost free, Horatio. I didn't hurt
anymore. Why the hell did you have to bring me here?"

It was Hornblower's turn to look away, in pain at hearing him say such
things. "To save you, Archie. To help you get better."

Archie closed his eyes. "I'm not going to 'get better.'" he said flatly.
"If you had any sense you'd do what Hunter was doing--let me go. I'm
nothing but a drag on you all. You'll be better off without me.
Everything you do works. No matter what happens, you'll be all right."

For some reason, he had a sudden flash of memory: The Justinian, looming
impossibly high above him, and a cheerful, waterlogged stranger calling
reassurance to the frightened new midshipman: "Jump! You'll be all
right!"

That was Archie's true self, not this sick, starved remnant of his
friend. And he needed that friend desperately, especially now, needed
someone who knew him without the acting rank that he hardly deserved,
someone who wouldn't undermine him the way Hunter was doing. "Archie--I
won't survive if you don't help me. None of us will."

"You don't need me." Again, that turn of the head, shutting him out. He
knew if Kennedy had had the strength to walk, he'd have left the room.
Well, he couldn't get away. He wasn't going to get away. Not even by
dying. There had to be some way to get through to him.

Hornblower moved around to the side Kennedy was facing, sat on the edge
of the bed and leaned in close so that Archie couldn't edge away.
"You're one of us. We don't leave unless you do." He started to tap on
Archie's chest, then realized with horror that he'd assumed almost the
same position Simpson had, during his damned Inquisition. He softened
his voice, pleading, his fingers plucking at the edge of Kennedy's shirt,
knotting in it. "You can't let us down."

Archie's eyes were everywhere else, his breathing harsh and shallow.
Hornblower hated to put him through this, but if the alternative was
letting Archie die... better to lose the friendship than the friend.
"You must get strong," he implored, bringing the cup up very slowly.

Archie glanced up for an instant, finally meeting his eyes, the quick
fearful look of a cornered animal expecting a bullet. Hornblower held
the look, letting Archie see his own fear and uncertainty. Archie looked
down again, quickly, but he did not turn away.

"Now, drink," Hornblower ordered, holding the cup to Archie's lips.

He drank, finally, one hand coming up to grasp at the cup, his desperate
body overriding the strength of his will. Relief swept over Hornblower
like the rush of strong drink.

Archie took only a few sips -- he probably couldn't deal with much right
now -- then dropped back, a little spilled water pooling in the hollow of
his throat.

"I'm sorry," Hornblower said, dabbing at the water with the cuff of his
sleeve.

Kennedy smiled crookedly, then the corners of his mouth abruptly turned
down. He closed his eyes; a tear trickled along the side of his temple,
into his hair. "I'm sure you will be," he whispered, and fell asleep
once more.


end.