The Parole
By Joan C.




The storm of the last night had departed, leaving the air clear and the sea calm. It was cooler, foreshadowing the coming of autumn and the departure of the summer heat, and for that Don Alfredo de Massaredo was grateful. He would have rather been in Madrid, not stranded at this prison on the Spanish coast, but this was where his services had been required -- and with his assignment had come a title, and a small income. Don Massaredo was not a wealthy man; his estate near Corunna was small, and the drought of the last few years had blighted his vines and his olive trees, leaving him with poor harvests, and starving retainers. The remuneration provided by his position at least allowed him to keep the wolf from the door. But it was lonely, and dull; and promised to be even duller with the sudden departure of his most interesting prisoner; Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower.

Don Massaredo gazed out of his window at the sea. Perhaps Hornblower was dead -- like the man who had washed up on the beach earlier that day -- that troublesome Mr. Hunter. A bad sort that one had been, not worth the pain Hornblower had endured to protect him. The bodies of two Spanish sailors had also been left on the shore, but no sign of Hornblower, or his young friend, or British tar, nor of any other sailor from the Almeria. The currents around the Devil's Teeth were fierce, and the same reef that had holed the Almeria would tear a man's body to shreds and leave nothing but bone -- Don Massaredo had seen it before, but he hoped he would not find the young Lieutenant that way. Perhaps he had survived, perhaps his ship ... what was it? The Indefatigable... had picked up the remaining survivors. He shook his head. Hornblower had given his parole to return, but under the circumstances, Don Massaredo did not expect to ever see the young man again. Indeed, he would not blame him if he did not honour it, for surely no human being would return freely to a prison where he had been mistreated.

The solid tread of a soldier outside his door, interrupted Don Massaredo's thoughts. "Commandante!" The commander of the garrison saluted him sharply. "Senor, a British ship flying a flag of truce has entered the bay. They are launching a boat."

Don Massaredo sighed and settled his cocked hat on his head. "I suppose they are here to claim their dead. Bring them the body of the British officer. I shall be there presently."

He went down the beach. A company of his soldiers had gathered there bearing with them Hunter's body, sewn Naval fashion into a canvas shroud. Don Massaredo pulled out his telescope and focused on the ship in the bay. Dios, she was magnificent! Beautiful, deadly, elegant. The British might be heretics and fools, but they could build ships to set a man's heart to beating. He swung the glass towards the ship's boat approaching the shore, and gasped. There was no mistaking the tall youth at the tiller: Hornblower, come to redeem his parole. Was he mad?

The boat soon beached itself, and Hornblower stepped out, followed by the men of his division who had been imprisoned with him, and the other officer, Kennedy. Impossible! Hornblower, he could understand -- a man who was willing to endure being locked in an oubliette rather than betray a weaker comrade might be expected to be punctilious of honour, but why were the others here? Surely their captain had given them a choice? And Kennedy -- Madre de Dios, had he not suffered enough confinement for a lifetime?

And then they were standing before him. Hornblower looked white and exhausted, but he stood straight as he faced Massaredo. He raised his hand in a salute. "Sir, we have returned to honour our parole."

"So I see, Mr. Hornblower. I have the body of Mr. Hunter, to be returned to your ship for burial."

"Thank you, sir. You should know that he died trying to save the captain of the Almeria. The captain and the other survivors will be returning in the jolly boat."

"Very good. When you have rested, I will expect to see you before me." Don Massaredo looked deeply into Hornblower's dark eyes and could read no emotion other than weary pride in them. "And you will explain to me, why you have returned." Before the astonished Hornblower could respond, Don Massaredo turned on his heel and marched quickly away.

*************************

"It almost feels like home."

Horatio looked around the small, grim cell he had shared with Archie and Hunter. No, it was not home, but it was familiar. He sighed and stepped over the threshold. Well, he had endured it before, and he could endure it again. Surely it would not be forever ... He pulled himself up to the top bunk and stretched out, feeling the aches and pains of the last day in every bone of his body. Why in God's name had he come back? He turned his head towards Archie, sitting on the bed opposite. And why had Archi come with him?

"I'm sorry," Horatio said softly.

"Hmm?"

"I'm sorry for dragging you back here."

"As I recall, I volunteered. You did not force me to come." Archie paused before adding, "It was not as difficult a decision as you imagine."

Horatio turned on his side to better see his friend. "But why? I would have gladly stayed on the Indy. My God, I was never so happy in my life to see her off that shore."

"But you came back despite that," Archie reminded him.

"I had given my word."

"You gave it for all of us."

"And for that, I am sorry. You should not be here. You should be safe, on the Indy, sailing to England, and free. Not back here --" he broke off before he could add, *where you nearly died.*

Archie had no reply for that. Not one Horatio would understand. He scarcely understood it himself. He only knew that the prospect of liberty terrified him after spending nearly two years in captivity; as if the very air of freedom were too heady to breathe. How could he return to duty when Horatio was imprisoned? And to serve under Pellew with the inevitable comparisons to Horatio was so daunting that Archie quailed at the thought. "It was my choice and I made it freely," he insisted. After a moment, he asked: "How long will we be here?"

"I don't know," Horatio admitted glumly. The few hours he had spent on the Indefatigable had whetted his appetite for freedom to a painful edge. The news of his commission had been so startling and wonderful that his heart had broken to leave the ship and enter into this self-imposed exile. He had written to his father, telling him of his capture, brief escape, and promotion. He wondered what he would make of it. Would he call him a fool? Would he care?

Horatio flung his arm over his eyes and was silent for so long that Archie thought he had fallen asleep. "Horatio?" he whispered, and when there was no reply, he turned his face to the wall and drifted off, only to dream of standing on the deck of the Indefatigable with Horatio at his side.

******************

Horatio presented himself to Don Massaredo later that afternoon. He stood at attention before the Commandante as if he were standing before Captain Pellew, for Don Massaredo wielded the same powers and was accorded the same respect.

"You wished to see me, sir?"

Don Massaredo peered at Horatio over his peaked fingers. "I do not understand, Mr. Hornblower, why you have returned to captivity. Surely, your Captain did not expect you to honor your parole?"

"Captain Pellew understood that I had given my word of honour, sir."

"And your men, and Mr. Kennedy? Did they understand?"

Horatio blushed, "Sir, they were given the opportunity to remain on the Indefatigable, but they chose ... they chose to come with me. I do not know why." The last words were wondering, the question clear in his eyes. "Sir, if I may make a request?"

Don Massaredo suppressed a smile. He was not a fool, and if Hornblower could not see why his men had returned with him, he was not about to tear that veil of naiveté away from this young man's eyes. "A prisoner, with a request? Really, Mr. Hornblower! I am not running a charity establishment."

Horatio swallowed, "Sir, I was not implying any disrespect, but my men are here of their own free will, and I would ask that they be treated honourably. They will not try to escape, sir. I give you my word. If they could be allowed the same liberties --"

"But you are an officer and a gentleman, Mr. Hornblower, they are just common seamen."

"Sir, they would not be here if not for me!"

"Be at ease, Mr. Hornblower. They will be treated well. And of course, you and Mr. Kennedy are welcome to privileges according to your rank." Don Massaredo's stern visage softened slightly, those hard eyes warming to regard. "I would be honoured if you both would join me for dinner. And you must tell me how fares la Duquessa. I understand that she was aboard the Almeria, as well."

Horatio's flush deepened. "Yes, sir. She is well, and safely on her way to England with Captain Pellew."

"He is a fortunate man, then." Don Massaredo made a sound that Horatio could only call a chuckle. "Good evening, Mr. Hornblower. I will see you and Mr. Kennedy in an hour or so, non?"

"Yes, sir. It will be a pleasure." Horatio bowed slightly and left. Don Massaredo called out to his servant, telling him to prepare a fitting repast for his guests.

**************
When Archie awoke, Horatio's cot was vacant. He must have gone to see Don Massaredo. Archie rolled over to his back and studied the ceiling. He should know every stone and crack by heart, he had spent so much time staring at it. When he had been dragged, half-mad and weak as a kitten from a month in the oubliette, those cracks had seemed a fantasy landscape of rivers and mountains, and shifting seas. He had walked every mile of that landscape in his pain and delirium.
Archie cocked his head and frowned. He outlined the cracks he had called Gironde -- where he had been found, senseless in the Indefatigable's abandoned jolly boat. His last memory had been of Horatio asking if he were nervous. After that ... nothing. He had awakened to the harsh voices of a French patrol, and to prison. It had been the beginning of a downward spiral into madness and despair.

He was spared going down that road by Horatio's return, but some shadow must have remained in his eyes, for Horatio sat across from him and gave him a concerned look. "Archie, are you feeling all right?"

"Yes, of course."

Horatio continued his study, wondering which of his friend's ailments haunted him this day. "If it's a headache --"

"No! I am fine, truly." Archie went to the window, hoping to hide from Horatio's too keen perception. "You would think I would be used to it by now," he half-whispered. "I never expected to be free again -- but for those few hours on the Indy, I was."

"Archie ..." Horatio's hands moved helplessly. He had no words of comfort. He had already stated the obvious: Archie need not have returned to prison, it had been his own choice. Regretting that choice now was a useless worry. He forced himself to give a cheerful reply. "Don Massaredo has agreed to allow us the privileges accorded to officers. So we will not be confined to this cell, but for the nights, and we are invited to dine with him this evening."

"I'd prefer to stay here, Horatio."

"Why? Don Massaredo is extending a courtesy. It would be rude to refuse it."

"Rude!" Archie rounded on Horatio fiercely. "That man threw you into a hole in the ground for a week -- knowing you were innocent. At least I earned my time by attempting an escape. And yet you dine with him as a friend --"

Horatio sighed tiredly. "Not as a friend, Archie. As an ally."

"An ally? He dines with the French!"

"He has to, Archie! But believe me, it is not his choice. He found Colonel DeVergesse as offensive --" He broke off as Archie made a small, muffled sound of alarm, and turned visibly pale. "What is it?"

"D-did you say DeVergesse?" Archie whispered. "Oh God, Horatio ..." He sank down on his cot and buried his face in his hands.

"Archie?"

"Is he a tall, dark man? Hard-featured, speaking very good English? Blue uniform, red facings?"

"Yes." Horatio's heart sank in his breast. "How do you know him?"

Archie raised his head and replied dully. "He tried to hang me as a spy."

Horatio tried to breathe; his chest felt as if a band of iron had settled around it. When he spoke, his voice was dead calm, but quiet. "I think you must tell me, Archie."

Archie shut his eyes against the familiar aura heralding the beginning of a sick headache. "What good will it do?"

"For one thing, it will explain why DeVergesse was here at all -- what does a Colonel of Infantry have to do with spy-hunting?" Horatio mused.

"Have you heard of Fouche?"

"The butcher of Lyons?" Horatio asked with faint horror. Fouche's notoriety had spread even to Portsmouth. He had been responsible for the murder of nearly two thousand people in that city; many whose only crime was loyalty to their king and queen. They said the cobbles of the streets had literally run red with the blood spilled by the guillotine.

"Yes. He has been named Minister of Police. His job is to find and destroy enemies of the state, including aristocrats and suspected foreign spies. De Vergesse is one of his deputies."

The information jolted Horatio to the marrow. De Vergesse was in league with Fouche? Dear God! He had not realized how perilous Kitty Cobham's situation had been -- he had left her to deal with that man alone. She had debased herself to save his life, risking her own; and he had been insufferably rude, as only a raw boy could be. "I didn't know," he whispered. "I should have known."

"How? By divination? If you recall, I was in no condition to warn you. And if you had mentioned DeVergesse, I might have gone ahead and starved myself, just to stay out of his clutches." Archie said bitterly.

Horatio rose and paced the cell, as if the walls could expand from sheer force of will. "Tell me everything, Archie. Everything you know about DeVergesse."

"I saw him kill a man, Horatio." Archie's reply was so soft it sounded as if it were a far-away echo. "A curate who had come to the prison, to minister to the inmates. DeVergesse claimed he was a spy, and my contact. So he shot him down like a dog in front of my eyes." Archie winced and turned his head to face the wall. "I cannot say more, Horatio. I'm sorry."

It was not an answer to Horatio's question. He doubted he would get one from Archie this night. He sighed and rose. "I will give your regrets to Don Massaredo. Is there anything I can do for you?"

"No, thank you. If I just rest here ..." His voice was muffled, and he had curled into himself, hiding from pain. Horatio reached out to touch his shoulder; then drew back, thinking that at that moment, Archie would not welcome the intrusion. Instead, he pulled the thin blanket over his shoulders. Archie drew a shuddering breath and clutched the rough wool closer. There was nothing else Horatio could do for him.

He heard the footsteps of the guard Don Massaredo sent to escort him to the hacienda. "I won't be gone long, Archie." There was no indication that Archie had heard. Horatio nodded to the guard, and left the cell in growing darkness.

*****************
Don Massaredo set a notable table, but he might have served sawdust for all Horatio noticed what he was eating. He tried to make conversation, but his mind kept going back to Archie, huddled in his blankets and in pain. How had he run afoul of DeVergesse? What had been done to him, and why? The thoughts preyed on Horatio's mind and made his stomach queasy.

"Mr. Hornblower?"

Massaredo's voice finally penetrated his thoughts, and guiltily, Horatio looked up. "I am sorry, sir. I was not attending ..."

"So I have noticed," Massaredo said wryly. He folded his napkin and waited for his servant to clear the dishes from the table. He then gestured to a decanter and glasses set at the far end, and the servant brought them forward and placed them in front of the Don. "Cognac, Mr. Hornblower?"

Horatio's brows arched. "Cognac? It is like gold in England, and Captain Pellew would certainly take you up on that offer, but I -- I don't drink it, sir."

Don Massaredo chuckled. "It is not poison, even though it was a gift from Colonel DeVergesse."

Horatio bit back the instinctive retort that he would not have drunk water offered by DeVergesse if he were dying of thirst. The Don deserved more courtesy than that. "Very well, sir. A small amount." Massaredo splashed an inch of golden liquid in the bottom of a crystal glass and set it in front of Horatio.

"To what shall we drink, Mr. Hornblower?"

Horatio considered briefly. "To the Duchess of Wharfedale, sir. To a safe voyage to England."

"Most crafty, Lieutenant. And most tactful." He watched Horatio closely as he tipped a swallow of cognac down his throat and smiled when Horatio's eyes widened in surprise and sudden pleasure. "It is good, no?"

It was miraculous; like liquid velvet, warm and sweet, with an easy finish on his tongue. Even a palate as uneducated as his distinguished the quality. "It is very fine, sir. I have never tasted anything like it."

"It is a pity your Captain Pellew has been deprived of such a pleasure."

"Yes, but then, he has the Duchess and we do not," Horatio smiled and took another sip.

Don Massaredo laughed heartily. "So he does! I confess, Mr. Hornblower, I am not displeased that you have returned."

"Sir, I wish I could say the same. But honouring my parole was one of the hardest things I have ever done. And to have compelled the others to return with me -- I wish I had not."

"You speak of Mr. Kennedy?"

Horatio's eyes met Massaredo's. It was pointless to deny his concern. "He should not have to suffer the consequences of my actions."

Don Massaredo looked at Hornblower's pale, earnest face. Surely he was too young to feel such guilt -- or perhaps, he was not old enough to recognize that the world did not rest on his shoulders. He shrugged. "And yet, you willingly suffered for Mr. Hunter's misdeeds."

"That is different, sir. I should have prevented the escape, therefore as Mr. Hunter's superior officer, I was responsible. I failed in my duty."

The Don made a dismissive gesture. "Perhaps. But I assure you, Mr. Kennedy knows those consequences as well, yet he is here."

Horatio drew in a deep breath. "Sir, why did you put him in the oubliette?"

Massaredo's expression turned hard. "He tried to escape. I had no choice."

"But for a month! Surely you could see the effect it had on him day after day?"

"You are forgetting yourself, sir." Masaredo said coldly. "It is not for you to judge me."

He looked up at his host. "Forgive me, sir. But you do not seem to be a cruel man -- and a month is a very long time for even the strongest of men. And Archie -- Mr. Kennedy, was not strong." Horatio thought it must be the cognac talking, to make him continue on this tack, but like a ship driven before the wind, he could not stop. "He would have died, sir. And why? Because he dared attempt an escape? I cannot believe you would kill him out of malice and pride."

"Believe what you will, Mr. Hornblower." Don Massaredo set his glass down sharply. "It is late, and you are still my prisoner." He snapped his fingers and a moment later, the guard reappeared to take Horatio back to his cell.

Horatio rose. "Sir, I meant no disrespect."

Don Massaredo's expression was enigmatic. "Good night, Mr. Hornblower. Perhaps tomorrow, Mr. Kennedy will be able to join us."

"If he is well enough, perhaps." Horatio bowed politely and followed his escort from the hacienda back to the cell blocks. It was a lovely moonlit evening; if he were free, he would have drunk in the beauty like cold water. But he was not, and entirely too soon he was being locked back in the tiny, dank cell. The only light permitted came from the torch outside the door. Horatio could scarcely see Archie's dark shape on his cot. It looked as if he had not moved since Horatio had left two hours earlier.

"Archie?" he whispered, but there was no reply, so he stripped off his jacket and waistcoat, took off his shoes, and settled himself as comfortably as he could on the lumpy straw mattress. At least it smelled clean, and if he were lucky, housed no more than the minimum number of fleas. He did not expect to sleep, but his body was more weary than his mind, and soon he drifted off, and did not dream.

******************

The sound of the key grating in the lock woke Horatio the next morning. The guard came in, set down a tray of food, and left. Horatio held his breath, waiting to hear the lock catch again, but it did not. Apparently his impertinent questioning of the night before had not made the Don renege on his promise to allow them the freedom of the compound.

"Archie, are you awake?" Horatio asked. He received a muffled grunt in reply, and eventually, Archie drew the covers away from his face and blinked at Horatio.

"Is it morning?" he asked blearily.

"Yes. Breakfast is here. How is your headache?"

Archie sat up as if he expected to be assaulted by pain, and when it did not happen, he sighed. "Gone. How was your dinner?"

"Very good. You missed an opportunity for some decent food. We have been invited back this evening, if you are well enough." He swung his legs over the side of the cot and slid to the ground. "I don't expect as much from breakfast, however." He pulled back the cover. "Hmmmn. Bread, and would you believe, fresh fruit?" He cut a slice of bread, quartered an orange, and carried it to Archie. "You will eat this?"

Archie gave Horatio an exasperated glance. "Yes, I will eat, Horatio. You needn't worry on that account."

There was no humour in that reply, only resignation. The bread Horatio was chewing on tasted dry as dust. He set the crust aside, and left the cell feeling helpless and weary; unable to believe that twenty-four hours earlier he had been standing before Captain Pellew, being congratulated on his commission. He had been cited for exceptional bravery -- if the Admiralty could see him now, they would revoke that commission faster than a cannon-shot.

"Good morning, sir. It's a fine day, isn't it?"

Horatio looked up as Matthews interrupted his glum train of thought. For the first time, he noticed the sun and blue sky. The salt tang of the ocean was crisp and fresh, and despite the height of the prison walls, he could hear the beat of the surf. He nodded in agreement. "Good morning, Matthews. It is a fine day. Though it would be finer on the Indy, no doubt."

Matthews cleared his throat. "Aye, sir. It would be."

"Matthews, I am sor --" Horatio bit back the apology that would only embarrass the seaman. He took a short breath and amended his statement. "I appreciate your loyalty -- all of you."

"Thank you, sir. I think I speak for the lads when I say that we owed it to you, sir."

"Owed it to me?"

"Yes, sir. specially Oldroyd -- fer listenin' to Mr. Hunter. The Don wouldn'a put you in that there ole, if not for him tryin' to escape."

"Mr. Hunter made a mistake, Matthews."

"That's right generous o' you, Mr. Hornblower. Not many men'd see it like that, sir. Anyways, we're that grateful to you, sir."

Horatio shook his head. "Not as grateful as I am to you and the men for standing by my word. It means a lot to me." His throat worked against the emotions welling in his breast. "I feel certain that we will be home soon."

"I hope so, sir." Matthews squinted up at the guards on the walls. "Sir, um -- I've picked up a bit of the lingo in me time -- and well, the guards, they don't reckon I understand em, and they speaks freely, and well -- it seems there's a Frenchy colonel comes around now and again to check up on the Don -- and new prisoners."

"DeVergesse?" Horatio's heart quickened to double-time. "Was that the name? It's important, Matthews."

"DeVergesse? Maybe, sir. Can't be certain, though."

"Thank you, Matthews. If you hear anything more, let me know. And see if you can't find out for sure about that name."

"Aye, aye, sir." Matthews tugged his forelock and ambled back towards the shaded walk outside the cells. Horatio gnawed on the inside of his cheek nervously. Christ, DeVergesse's return could only mean trouble. Archie would have to talk, consequences be damned. His life, Horatio's life, and the lives of their men might depend on what he knew of DeVergesse. He turned on his heel and walked quickly back to his cell.

Archie was shaving when he came in, and for a moment, Horatio stood in the doorway, watching. Archie was still terribly pale, and obviously not recovered completely from the ordeals of confinement and starvation. Horatio felt a stab of guilt for the action he was about to take, but he had no choice. If he were very careful, perhaps it would not be so bad ... perhaps if he could get Archie out of the cell and someplace where the walls would not close down around him ...

"I have Don Massaredo's permission to walk on the beach, Archie. I know it's not like being on the Indy, but at least we'd be outside of these walls. Will you come with me?"

To his surprise, Archie agreed. Half an hour later, they were strolling on the cliffs overlooking the bay, and the reef known as the Devil's Teeth. Unpleasant memories aside, it was a lovely scene; the ocean was deep blue, the sky just feathered with high cirrus clouds. Horatio squinted into the horizon, wishing he could see the sails of the Indefatigable floating there -- and when he could not, became angry with himself for indulging in fantasy.

There was a large, flat rock near the edge of the promontory where Horatio had walked with Kitty Cobham, and he paused there waiting for Archie to join him. They sat in silence for a while, just listening to the beating of the waves on the beach, each lost in his thoughts. Horatio wondered what Archie was thinking; if he too searched the horizon for the Indy, or if his thoughts turned inwards towards resentment and bitterness.

Finally, when he could stand the silence no longer, Horatio spoke quietly. "Archie, Matthews told me something this morning that I think you need to know."

"What?"

"He overheard the guards talking about a French Colonel. I have reason to believe that DeVergesse will be returning here."

"Oh." For a moment, Archie merely shielded his eyes and gazed out over the waves. "I suppose you want to know about him."

"I'm sorry, Archie. But I feel I must. For both of our sakes -- and the men's, too. I do not know if we can count on Don Massaredo for protection. Even though DeVergesse is no friend of his."

"I thought you said he was our ally," Archie said lightly, but with acid etching his voice.

Horatio winced. "I *think* he is. But realistically, and politically, he is bound to cooperate with the French, even if that means dealing with DeVegesse."

Archie's eyes were bluer than the sea, and the first faint blush of sunburn overlay the prison pallor of his skin. He raked aside the unruly strands of blond hair the wind had blown across his forehead. "I suppose I ought to begin the night we were to cut out the Papillon."

Horatio bit his lip. "How much do you remember?" he asked, praying that Archie did not recall being hit over the head to prevent his convulsive ravings from betraying them to the French.

Archie shrugged. "I remember standing next to you on the deck of the Indy. I had a fit, didn't I?"

"Yes. I-I had to knock you out. I'm sorry." Horatio could hardly speak the words, but to his shock, Archie laughed.

"Well, that explains the knot on the back of my head! I puzzled over that for several days, I tell you." He bent and picked up a smooth pebble and began worrying it in his fingers. "How did I become separated from the Papillon, Horatio?"

"Simpson." Archie's shoulder stiffened against his, but Horatio continued. "I was on the mainmast yard, and I saw him standing at the rails. You were drifting away -- but before I could shout out a warning to someone below, Simpson shot me." Horatio lifted the wave of hair at his temple to reveal a white scar the width of his little finger. "You know the rest of the story."

"God!" Archie shivered despite the warmth of the sun, and for a moment, all the old demons were whispering in his mind. Horatio saw the shadows and touched Archie's arm, feeling him flinch beneath the gesture that was meant to reassure.

"What happened next?" he asked, to draw Archie away from those ghosts.

"I must have drifted to shore on the currents, because the next thing I knew, it was dawn, and a French soldier was prodding me awake with his musket. They took me to a small fort on the Gironde. Two days later, I made my first attempt at escape."

"Why? You could have waited for parole. My God, Archie, your father is Lord Aylesford -- he would have paid a king's ransom for you!"

"You think?" Archie gave a short, ugly laugh. "I knew better, Horatio. So at night, I lay there thinking of my options. It did not seem I had many. But I kept coming back to one. I thought -- What would Horatio do?"

"Archie ..." Horatio felt sick.

"No! Tell me, what would you do? Not as a commissioned Lieutenant -- an officer, who might be exchanged or paroled. But as a Midshipman, with little hope of ransom or exchange, what would you have done?"

Horatio thought for a moment, torn with guilt and incapable of lying to his friend. "I would have tried to escape."

"Of course. So I did, but was foolishly caught. I was sent to a second prison, near La Rochelle, where I had the misfortune to meet Colonel DeVergesse." Archie studied the stone in his fingers. "He was certain I was a spy. He refused to believe that I had nothing to do with the loss of the Papillon. He ... he tried to make me talk, Horatio. Even though there was nothing I could possibly tell him."

"How?" Horatio whispered, his eyes closed.

"The usual ways, I suppose. He had me beaten. He wouldn't allow me to sleep for several days ..." Archie gave a faint laugh. "He did not know that I had been through much worse. Perhaps I should be grateful to Jack for teaching me the true horrors of torture and pain -- he could have given DeVergesse lessons in how to break a man."

"Archie --"

"No, you wanted to hear about DeVergesse, and I would rather tell you now, than dwell on it. " Archie's voice was hard, his young face set in lines that made him seem much older. "But he was adept enough, so that I was certain he would see me dead, if he could not make me talk. Thankfully, he received orders that sent him away from La Rochelle -- and as soon as I was able, I escaped again."

Archie sighed softly. "I made it to Bordeaux before I fell ill with a fever. That's where I was recaptured. I attempted one more escape there, before DeVergesse caught up with me. He is relentless, Horatio. My next prison was a cell in a chateau. Such a lovely word, chateau -- it even makes a prison sound rather elegant. It was not quite as bad as the oubliette, but damned near to it. I was not well yet, and if I had remained in the dungeon, I might have died. Somehow, DeVergesse had learned about my father, and he knew that he could not kill me outright. Perhaps he did harbor some illusions about my relationship to my family -- but whatever the reason, I was taken from the dungeon and given better quarters. Maybe I was delirious -- I don't know. I tried to escape again. And this time when I was caught, I was sent here."

Horatio shook his head. "And you say that I am stubborn! Why did you keep trying, Archie? Surely you knew that it was only making your life more miserable."

"Did you think I actually cared at that point?" Archie asked bitterly. "I wanted to die, and if I died trying to escape, then at least it would be an honorable death; one worthy of a hero. When I failed, and was put in the oubliette -- I couldn't try anymore, Horatio. You were in there, you know what it is like. It accomplished what even Jack Simpson could not do, it destroyed my hope. And I grew to hate you, for giving it to me to lose."

The last was spoken in a whisper. Horatio did not have a reply. He felt as if he had been gutted by Archie's words, as if he were responsible for the despair and darkness in his friend's heart. He bent his head, and was shocked when a tear fell from his cheek to his hand and lay drying in the sun.

Archie looked at the stone in his fingers, rose and cast it as far as he could out into the sea. "That is a pretty tale to tell, isn't it?"

"I wouldn't blame you, if you hated me still, Archie. Why did you agree to honor my parole? I truly don't understand."

"First of all, I don't hate you, Horatio."

"You should," he said.

Archie returned to the rock and sat next to him. He leaned forward on his elbows, his fingers intertwined. "Do you remember what you told me after our first engagement on the Indefatigable? You had found Styles and the others gambling belowdecks, and yet you did not report them to Lieutenant Eccleston. When I asked you why, you said that no one had ever trusted them to do what was right, to prove themselves worthy. They fought better for you that day, than I had seen them in all my time on the Justinian, with a pride and a spirit I did not know they possessed. You saved them, Horatio. You saved me."

Horatio groaned and thrust his fingers into his hair. "I have not saved anyone, Archie! Look what I have led us to -- further captivity, and danger from the very man who would have you hanged!"

Archie laid a hand on Horatio's shoulder. "But he hasn't yet. And he won't. You should have the faith in yourself that everyone else does, Horatio."

Horatio could not help laughing. "Archie, on a good day, I trust that I will not trip over my own feet! I am no one's saviour."

"Like it or not, Horatio. You are. Come on, let's go back. I can feel my nose starting to peel already," Archie said, with a lightness that he did not feel. He was determined that Horatio would not bear this burden alone. It was the least he could do for his friend.

**********************

The late morning sun was high enough to heat the prison walls, and Styles leaned his back against them, appreciative of the warm stones. It had been bloody cold in the cell overnight -- and would get colder still, as the autumn wore on. He did not like contemplating that passage of time. Styles was a big man, used to the hard physical labor of a life at sea. He found inactivity to be nearly intolerable; unlike Matty who was easygoing enough to sit back and let each day take care of itself, or Oldroyd, who was amused by games of chance, even if the pot only consisted of pebbles and the day's ration of Dago wine. If Captain Pellew didn't get them exchanged soon, he'd go stark raving mad, he would.

His eyes narrowed against the glare as he watched Mr. Hornblower and Kennedy return to the compound. Lucky bastards. Allowed to walk on the beach on accounts of an officer's word being worth more than that of a rating. Life was bloody unfair, he thought sourly. As the two men came closer, though, Styles noticed that Mr. Hornblower's face was pale and set, and Mr. Kennedy's downcast. He saw Hornblower touch his friend's arm, then walk slowly towards the Don's hacienda. Kennedy nodded to Styles. He went to the cell door, but paused with his hand on the pull, as if he could not bear to return to confinement. Instead of going inside, he sank down on the bench outside and sat there, his head tipped back against the stones, and his eyes closed.

Styles studied Kennedy. He had known him for a long time; since the Justinian. And what had happened there, at Jack Simpson's hands, should not happen to anyone, much less a boy, as Kennedy had been. Styles still felt shamed by those days -- shamed by his helplessness, his weakness, his willingness to let Simpson bully him into silence with floggings and charges of insubordination. He reckoned he'd been a different man then, and he didn't much like thinking of it. As for Kennedy, the poor lad was still paying for Simpson's malevolence. As if the very name were distasteful, Styles hawked and spit. Jesus, but he hated this place ...

Archie knew that Styles was watching him. He wondered what he saw: a damaged boy incapable of defending himself, a weakling officer who had fits, a coward who had lost his will to live? Archie believed himself to be all of those, so what did it matter if Styles saw that, too?

He would have been surprised by the seaman's thoughts, and was even more surprised when Styles' shadow blocked the sun falling on his face. Archie struggled to suppress the reflexive alarm that shivered through him, that legacy of Jack Simpson that would be with him until the day he died. "Yes, Styles?" he asked hesitantly.

"Sir, beggin' your pardon. But is Mr. Hornblower all right? He looked a mite worried, there."

"Y-yes. He has a lot on his mind."

"It's that Frog Matty overheard the guards talkin' about, ain't it?"

Archie nodded, his eyes slippping away from Styles, so that he would not see the fear in them. "That's part of it, Styles."

"Sir, y'know if there is anything we can do fer you, and Mr. Hornblower, you just ask and we'll do it."

Archie's gaze snapped back to Styles' face. "Thank you, Styles. I shall keep that in mind." He rose, standing as tall as he could. "I know you don't think much of me. God knows I've never given you any reason to -- and I can't claim to be half the officer that Mr. Hornblower is, but I swear you can trust me."

Styles searched Archie's blue eyes for a long moment as if seeking the truth of that statement. "Aye, sir. I reckon we can. You're one of us." He knuckled his forehead and walked back to his seat in the sun.

A blush spread over Archie's face, and with it a feeling he had never known; a sense of belonging and accomplishment. *You're one of us.* Horatio had told him that to pull him from the brink of death, but he had never thought to hear it from anyone else. And certainly not from Styles, who had every reason to despise him ... there were no words to describe that feeling. *You're one of us.* Styles had given him back his future. But would DeVergesse destroy it? Archie shivered, despite the bright sun. He sat back down and turned his head towards the hacienda, wondering where Horatio was, and what he was saying to Massaredo.

*****************

Horatio had spent the better part of the last half hour pacing in the corridor outside Don Massaredo's library. He could hear the murmur of voices beyond the carved oak doors, but was unable to distinguish who was speaking. Not DeVergesse, at least. He would have recognized that intonation beyond a doubt. Finally, realizing that the Don's manservant was glaring at him, Horatio took a seat on a long bench. His fingers drummed nervously on his thighs. This waiting was the worst part of captivity. On the Indy there was always something to distract him from his thoughts. Here, he could only fret; what else could he do?

At last, the door swung open, and a portly gentleman in a heavily embroidered coat exited the library. He nodded curtly to the manservant, cast a sidelong glance at Horatio, and hurried down the hall. The servant went inside. Horatio's spirits sank. He rose and looked out at the prison courtyard. Several of the crew who had returned with him were taking advantage of the freedom offered by the Don; various games of sport and chance were in progress. Yet Horatio had no doubt that they would return to the Indy in an instant, given the opportunity. They were good men, they deserved better than the prison he had committed them to, and the treachery of DeVergesse. Thank God, Miss Cobham was safe on the Indy with Captain Pellew to take care of her.

"Senor Hornblower." Horatio's head jerked up. "Don Massaredo will see you, now."

"Gracias." The servant raised his brows at Hornblower's Spanish, and Horatio's cheeks flamed. Was his pronunciation that poor? "Thank you," he repeated in English.

Massaredo was seated at his desk, his greying head bent over a sheaf of papers. He did not immediately look up, and Horatio's eyes wandered over the walls. The warm air was scented with leather and the aroma of the Don's cigarillos. Oddly, it reminded him of his father's library at home, and the Don himself, was at times curiously similiar to Dr Hornblower. They had the same grave demeanor, the same wry manner of speaking, the same dedication to their work, difficult and distasteful as it was at times. Which was why Horatio had such a hard time reconciling those qualities with the Don's cruelty in imprisoning Archie in the oubliette.

Finally, Massaredo raised his head. "Ah, Mr. Hornblower. You wished to see me?"

"Yes, sir." Suddenly Horatio did not know how to phrase his questions. How could he introduce his knowledge of DeVergesse without putting Matthews in jeopardy, or causing the guards to stop talking in front of him? He thought a moment before continuing cautiously. "Sir, I have learned that Colonel DeVergesse was responsible for Mr. Kennedy's imprisonment. Might I ask if the Colonel knows that Mr. Kennedy is still here?"

Massaredo's eyes narrowed. "How did you hear this?"

"From Mr. Kennedy, sir."

"I see. Surely that is not all that has you concerned?"

"No, sir." Horatio was finding it very difficult to remain still, but he forced himself to stand immobile, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. "Might I inquire if Colonel DeVergesse is a frequent visitor?"

Massaredo sat back in his chair. "Please, sit, Mr. Hornblower. It seems we are going to have a conversation." He waited until Horatio was settled, and then continued. "His return worries you?"

"It is my duty to see to the welfare of my men."

"And mine to cooperate with my allies. Colonel DeVergesse has powerful friends, Mr. Hornblower. It is in *my* best interests to cooperate with the gentleman."

"He is no gentleman!" Horatio said hotly. "A gentleman does not co-erce a lady into bed with blackmail."

"What is this?" Massaredo frowned. "What do you mean?"

"The Duchess, sir. He threatened to have her executed as a spy if she did not --" He felt a hot blush rise in his cheeks. "He gave her no choice, sir. She tried to tell me that she had submitted willingly --" Horatio choked on the words. "But I fear that he took advantage ..." And then, because he could not bear to think of Kitty's shame beneath that brave front she had acted so well, he fell silent.

"The Duchess is far away, Mr. Hornblower. De Vergesse cannot possibly harm her. But what does this have to do with your duty?"

"It was my duty to protect the Duchess, and I failed. I will not fail my men, sir." Horatio's chin lifted slightly.

"An admirable sentiment, but unnecessary."

"Are you saying that my concerns are unwarranted? That I have no reason to fear for their safety?"

Massaredo clucked his disapproval. "I am wounded by your lack of faith, Mr. Hornblower."

"Faith is cold comfort, sir, when the lives of my men are at risk."

"Do you believe they are in danger from me?" A brow rose dangerously.

"Sir, I believe they will be in danger if Colonel DeVergesse returns." Horatio said bleakly.

Don Massaredo made no reply. He studied Horatio intently for a moment. "You and Mr. Kennedy will dine with me tonight, no?"

Horatio's shoulders slumped. He had evidently failed to secure an assurance from the Don. Perhaps he had misjudged Massaredo. "I will be there, sir. I cannot speak for Mr. Kennedy."

"It would be in his best interests to join us, Mr. Hornblower. Shall we say at seven?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you."

The Don watched as Hornblower left the library. He carried the heavy burdens of pride and honour on shoulders that were still slender with youth -- and for that Massaredo pitied him. But he also possessed a formidable intellect, fierce courage, and determination; qualities that bore watching in a potential enemy. He had no doubt that if it came down to defending his men, Hornblower would fight to the death. The Don rubbed a weary hand over his forehead. But whose death would it be? Colonel DeVergesse was a brutal adversary, one that Massaredo feared and distrusted, as one would a viper dozing in the sun. Tonight, he would tell Hornblower and Mr. Kennedy the truth, and pray that the plot he had set in motion would play out before the viper would wake and strike.

***********************

Archie was still sitting in the sun when Horatio returned from his troubling interview. Horatio sat down beside him, and he opened his eyes. "So what news from your friend, the Don?" Archie asked dryly.

"Nothing. He would not confirm or deny that DeVergesse will be back. Perhaps he does not even know. I have a feeling that DeVergesse returns to spy on him as much as he does to keep an eye on the Don's prisoners."

"Lovely. I always wanted to be the main course at a dinner served to cannibals."

"Archie!"

"No, actually I find it amusing, Horatio. Don't you think it ironic that the one person in whom you are willing to place your trust, is the very man holding us prisoner? I find it exceeding odd."

Horatio frowned at the dangerously flippant tone in Archie's voice. It was not an attitude he should carry into the Don's presence. "We've both been invited for dinner tonight. Don Massaredo promises it will be an enlightening experience."

"You can tell me all about it."

"Damnit, Archie! Don't make me pull rank on you -- and I will, if you do not agree to the dinner tonight. You owe it to me and to the men. If something should happen -- and God knows DeVergesse has no reason to value my life, then you will have command, and you will have to find some way to protect the men."

Archie was about to reply that the men would be better off looking to themselves for command, when he cast a sidelong glance at Horatio. There was no laughter in his eyes, no softness to his mouth. He looked old, old and grim. Archie knew he was seeing the man Horatio would become; a man like Pellew who was willing to bear the ultimate responsibility of command. He thought how Horatio had endured the oubliette to spare his men and to save the life of the wounded Hunter. That punishment was nothing compared to what DeVergesse was capable of meting out, and yet Horatio was clearly saying that he would endure that as well, if it would save Archie's life and the lives of the Indefatigables.

"I'll go to dinner," he said quietly. "And I will be civil." For Horatio's sake he forced a smile. "Noblesse oblige, you know -- appearance is everything according to my father. You *can* count on me, Horatio."

"Don Massaredo has something important to tell you, Archie."

"Perhaps he is going to apologize for letting me rot for a month in that hole." Archie's mouth thinned, but when he saw Horatio's eyes harden, he smiled and shook his head. "I gave you my word, Horatio. And I will keep it." He sighed, and stood a bit stiffly. "I'm going to rest. I wish I were not still so tired."

Horatio searched Archie's face anxiously, but saw only the exhaustion of a man recovering from an illness, not the despair that he had grown to fear. "You will feel better in time, Archie. That's what my father would say."

"I would like to meet your father someday, Horatio."

"I hope you have the chance," he replied absently, his mind already beginning to worry at the prospect of the evening's dinner, and what would be discussed. Archie left him and went inside their cell. He lay down on his cot, and stared once more at the ceiling. More than ever, it reminded him of a map -- only this one had no roads to freedom. Troubled, he fell asleep, to restless dreams that eventually faded into darkness and oblivion.

*******************

Their escort came precisely at seven. Horatio had done his best to appear a fitting representative of His Majesty's Navy, but it was difficult when one's uniform was three inches too short in sleeve and hem, and sadly stained. Archie had fared slightly better since he had salvaged a clean shirt and spare jacket from his old sea chest that Horatio had kept safe for the last two years. Unlike Horatio, he had reached his full height at the time he was captured, and due to his confinement and recent illness, his frame had not filled out. But as he studied his reflection in Horatio's tiny shaving mirror, he could not help thinking that he scarcely appeared the flower of the British aristocracy.

He was not looking forward to this dinner. His stomach ached, and his heart was beating too rapidly. But he had made a promise to Horatio, and he did not take his promises lightly. He looked to Horatio and found him polishing the same buckle that he had been working on ten minutes earlier.

"Horatio, are you ready?" he asked softly.

Horatio started as if he had fired a cannon. He grinned rather sheepishly at Archie. "As ready as I'll ever be. You?"

"A bit like going into battle for the first time. You know what you ought to expect, but the reality is entirely different. You've dined with Massaredo several times, Horatio. Why is this different?"

"I don't know." He looked as if he were about to say something else; but at that moment the door opened, and the sentry stood there expectantly. They both straightened their collars and exchanged uneasy glances. Then they followed their escort across the courtyard to the hacienda.

Don Massaredo had taken pains to make them feel more like guests than prisoners. As soon as they entered the hacienda, the guards were dismissed, and a servant escorted them to the long gallery overlooking the courtyard where their host was waiting for them. Despite the chill in the pit of his stomach, Archie looked about him with interest. The furniture was heavy, dark Spanish oak, old but well-cared for. The carpets on the floor were nearly worn through, but at one time they had been very fine. The Don himself wore a burgundy coloured coat heavily laced with silver; it was elegant, but clearly a fashion from an earlier decade. Archie, raised in an aristocratic household, instantly recognized the signs of a proud but impoverished heritage, and was somehow reassured by the familiarity of his surroundings.

"Ah, Mr. Kennedy, I am pleased that you are well enough to join us this evening."

"I am much better, sir." Archie replied. He looked into the Don's eyes, and saw nothing of cruelty or malice there, just concern for the comfort of a guest. "Thank you for the invitation."

"Come, sit." Massaredo gestured to a grouping of chairs set just inside the wide doors. The evening breeze was cool, not yet cold, and scented with the sea. In this room, it was hard to believe that they were in a prison. "Some refreshment, Mr. Kennedy?"

A servant offered him a glass of chilled white wine. Archie took a sip and was surprised by the quality. "It is very fine, sir."

The Don nodded. "Thank you. It is from my estates. Unfortunately the drought the last few years has affected my yield, and this war ..." he shrugged. "I am afraid that both of those circumstances are beyond my control."

Horatio had remained silent throughout this exchange. He watched Archie's conversation with the Don warily. He found it strangely fantastic; the gaoler and his prisoner speaking as one aristocrat to another -- with an inbred courtesy and ease that he would never possess. And yet, he knew that his own rapport with the Don came from an entirely different source -- as men of war, facing hard choices and dealing with adversity.

The Don carefully steered the dinner conversation away from matters military. They spoke of the weather -- unseasonably hot and dry, the hunting -- coursing for hares seemed to be the sport of choice, music -- the Don preferred the sound of a guitarra to orchestral presentations ... until by the end of the meal, Horatio was as tense as a cocked pistol. Why was Massaredo doing this? He seemed to be deliberately putting Archie at ease. Was there a trap being laid? Horatio could not believe the Don could be so cruel as to toy with them like a cat with a mouse. Nonetheless, he found himself watching the tapestries on the wall stirring with the breeze, as if he expected Etienne deVergesse to materialize from behind them.

"Shall we retire from the table, gentlemen?" The Don rose. He gestured to his servant, who closed the doors now that the night was colder. Horatio waited until the Don and Archie were settled, each with a glass of the cognac which he had declined in favor of coffee. He felt he needed his wits about him; which was confirmed when he met Massaredo's calm, stern gaze. The tenor of the evening was about to change.

*******************

The stone walls of the cells did not retain the heat of the day, and the only light came from the lanterns lit in the courtyard. Styles lay on his cot, staring at the patch of night sky visible through the barred window. Above him, Oldroyd snored gently, and though across from him, Matthews was quiet; something in his stillness told Styles that he was still awake.

"Matty?" he whispered.

"Aye."

"Did y'see Mr. Ornblower and Mr. Kennedy goin' ta dinner?"

"Aye."

"They haven't come back yet, then?"

"No."

"Wonder what they're talkin' about? Maybe we'll be out of here soon, eh?"

Matthews shifted on his cot. "Maybe. But I doubt it. Cap'n Pellew hasn't had time to get us exchanged. Could be weeks, months, before we're sprung."

"Give me a morsel o' hope here, Matty! Jesus, but I hate this bloody place."

"Aye, I'm none too fond of it, either. And Mr. Hornblower, e's right worried about that Frenchy Colonel."

"There's something there, Matty. I don't know what yet. But I feel it. Same as I felt it on the Justinian. Leaves a nasty taste in me mouth, it does."

"Aye." Matthews fell silent. He'd felt it too, and that unease did not come from the presence of Don Massaredo, who seemed a decent enough chap, despite his imprisoning Mr. Hornblower. After nearly twenty years service in the Navy, Matthews had seen wanton cruelty -- putting Mr. Hornblower in the hole, well, that had been unjust, but once the sentence was served, he couldn't fault the Don's treatment of the lad. He'd been seen by a doctor, and fed decent grub. Allowed to walk on the beach again, too, just for giving his parole.

"Matty?" Styles spoke from the darkness. "Are you sorry you didn't stay on the Indy?"

"Are you?"

Styles snorted with laughter. "Christ, someone has to take care of Mr. Hornblower! I reckon we owe him that much. He'd ave come back alone, wouldn't he?"

"With Mr. Kennedy," Matthews reminded him. "He was the first to step up."

"Well, he's right daft!" Styles said, but Matthews caught the softer tone to his voice and smiled to himself.

"I reckon we all are, just for bein' here. G'night, Styles."

Styles replied, but even after Matthews joined Oldroyd in a chorus of snores, he lay awake, waiting to hear the paces of Hornblower and Kennedy returning from the Don's.

*********************

The candles on the dining table had nearly burned down, leaving part of the room in shadow. The small area where the three men sat was lit by a hanging lantern and the tapers in an elaborate candelabra at Don Massaredo's side. The golden glow lent an aura of intimacy to the scene; a misleading impression of ease and indolence. Horatio sat upright, his fingers taughtly laced together, his brows drawn level as he watched Massaredo. The Don was swirling his cognac in his glass, frowning into the amber depths, as if debating his decision to speak. Of the three, it was Archie, with the greatest stake in Massaredo's revelations who seemed the most relaxed.

At last, the Don tipped the last swallow of cognac down his throat and sat back in his chair. "So now, we have come to ... what I have promised." He looked at Horatio. "First, I will tell you this, Mr. Hornblower. Above all, I am a Spaniard. This, I think you will understand."

Horatio nodded gravely. Yes, he understood. So Pellew might sound if he stated the same words, *Above all, I am an Englishman.*

Massaredo then turned to Archie. "And as a Spanish gentleman, I extend an apology, sir. If there had been a better answer to the dilemma I was facing, perhaps I was not wise enough to have seen it."

Archie swallowed, his jaw working visibly. "I do not understand, sir. But I --"

Massaredo lifted a hand, staying any further words from Archie. "To understand you must first listen. It is not a tale I am proud to tell, but I realize now, that I owe you at least an explanation for what seemed to you unimaginable cruelty." He sighed deeply. "My country has not always chosen its allies wisely; here in El Ferrol, we are very close to France, and France these days, is sadly aggressive. My government has sided with the tiger, rather than be savaged by it. It is not my place to question the wisdom of their Excellencies in Madrid."

"However, the French do not trust us, particularly here, so near to the French border, and so near to the sea -- where your navy has established themselves as a force. So, they send to us men such as Etienne DeVergesse, to ensure that we do not act in a manner contrary to our government's wishes."
"And that is why he comes here?" Horatio asked. "I thought as much," he added softly.

"Then you are most observant, Mr. Hornblower. And this then, became my dilemma when Mr. Kennedy was sent here." He leaned forward, looking into Archie's eyes. "At first, I did not understand what made you, of all the prisoners I held here, different. Why DeVergesse should take most particular care that you should not escape. You did not seem to me to be a dangerous man ... despite DeVergesse's insistance that you be kept in close confinement. I admit, I am responsible for being lax in my vigilance." The Don chuckled beneath his breath. "Ah, Mr. Hornblower, your friend is a most devious young man. His attempt at escape caught me completely unaware."

Archie felt himself smiling, despite the pain of the memory. "I am afraid that the surprise was not that I ultimately failed, but how nearly I succeeded." He looked at Horatio. "I stole the padre's cassock and cloak from the sacristy as he was saying Mass. If he had given a longer homily, I might have made it out the main gate before he raised a hue and cry over his missing clothing. Apparently, the Lord was not amused by my effrontery. And neither was the Don, if you will pardon the impertinence, sir."

"On the contrary, I was most amused by your originality. A week in the oubliette would have more than satisfied my need for vengeance. But you had the ill-fortune to time your escape to coincide with a visit from the Colonel. If you had not already injured his pride by escaping from France, I might have been able to spare you. However DeVergesse left me no choice but to make your confinement as miserable as possible. I am afraid he suspected some sort of collusion between us. He would not leave, Mr. Kennedy. A week became two. And even after he was called away, he left several men here. After a month, I knew that you would die if I continued to hold you there; and so I *allowed* you to die. A burial was held, your *death* was reported to Colonel DeVergesse, and I released you to find that you might as well have been dead. Two days later, Mr. Hornblower came to grace us with his presence."

Archie and Horatio were both stunned into silence by the Don's tale. Archie's face had quite lost its colour, and the Don motioned to his servant to refill his glass with cognac. "Along with my explanation, you have my deepest apologies, Mr. Kennedy. I am sorry that you had to suffer."

Archie took his glass in a hand that shook slightly. "Sir, I-I don't know what to say." Lacking words, and feeling as if he had been concussed by a shor from a cannon, he sipped his cognac, and tried to digest what the Don had said.

"Sir, Colonel DeVergesse believes that Archie is dead?" Horatio asked, not quite comprehending what he had been told.

"As of now, yes. But I am afraid your punctilious sense of honour may cost you dearly. If Colonel DeVergesse should learn that Mr. Kennedy is alive, then the consequences will not be pleasant. And as for you, Mr. Hornblower, I am afraid that the Colonel is determined to find information confirming his suspicions that you are indeed a spy."

Horatio felt a deep despair. He was not a spy! Or was he? Pellew had no notion what was in those dispatches when he handed them over. That they contained valuable information was undisputable fact. He glanced at Archie, whose colour was slowly returning to normal. His throat tightened as if the noose were already in place. "When will DeVergesse return?" he asked quietly.

Don Massaredo shrugged. "I do not know, Mr. Hornblower. He is unpredictable, I am afraid. Every other week, perhaps. Sometimes less, sometimes more. And sometimes without warning, as the night he spent here when the Duchess graced our company. I have, however, taken a step that may solve your difficulties."

"Sir?"

"The gentleman you saw earlier, he is my -- man of affairs, as you might call him. He has sent a courier to Madrid with an account of your heroism in saving the crew of the Almeria. If their Excellencies view it in a favorable light, your exchange may be expedited."

Archie sat forward at bit in his chair. "Sir, how expedited? Madrid is nearly three hundred miles away! It could be weeks before any action is taken -- longer, if your government works as efficiently as ours," he added wryly.

"Alas, Mr. Kennedy. I wish I could say things were different in Madrid. Meanwhile, I hope you will rest assured that I will do whatever necessary to help you."

"Thank you, sir."

"And DeVergesse?" Horatio questioned darkly.

"That is up to God. Perhaps he will have mercy on us."

Horatio had no faith that he would. At last his restless nature won out over his polite stillness, and he rose and went to the balcony. He felt as if the Don's gracious quarters were as sickeningly claustrophobic as the oubliette. He feared that the only place he would ever feel free again was on the deck of the Indefatigable, with the wind filling the sails overhead, and the rush of the surf breaking against the bows. He closed his eyes against the tide of emotion, taking a few seconds to compose himself before he turned back to the room. "We had better get back to our quarters, Archie."

Archie took the last sip of his cognac, appreciating the warmth as it flowed down his throat. Perhaps it had numbed him already; perhaps he no longer had the capacity to care if DeVergesse returned. Perhaps he was just too tired. "Yes," he said. He turned to Don Massaredo. "Sir, thank you for the explanation this evening."

"You are welcome, Mr. Kennedy. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."

Archie shook his head. "That will not be necessary, sir."

The Don's eyes narrowed with laughter. "What! I have humbled myself for no reason? Mr. Hornblower is a poor influence on me, I fear. He will turn me into an honourable man, after all!"

Horatio heard his name and stood before the Don. "You are already that, sir. Thank you. Will you call the guard, sir?"

"I cannot trust you to return to your cell without an escort?"

Horatio laughed, then. "You can trust me, sir. As for the elusive Mr. Kennedy ..."

Archie bowed slightly. "The elusive Mr. Kennedy gives his parole."

The Don watched as they left. He felt faintly envious of their friendship. Pray God it would see them through their times of adversity. And pray God that the envoy he sent to Madrid would ride swiftly and safely.

As they walked back to their cell, Horatio paused for a moment and looked up at the stars. He could have fixed their position from them. Where was the Indy? Sailing to England by now, with the Duchess and the dispatches under Pellew's watchful eye.

Archie stood patiently at Horatio's side. His thoughts were not with the stars but with his friend. He glanced at Horatio's profile; the fine, fierce bones and determined jaw. You never could tell what he was thinking. Half the time he was tying himself in knots, the other half, trying to analyze whatever situation he was facing at the time, whether it was a complex navigational problem, or how to save the lives of his men. Archie wondered what occupied his thoughts at this very moment. Was he worrying about DeVergesse? Was he considering what the Don had told them this evening? Was he wishing he were back on the Indy, or beating himself down over a decision whose consequences he could not have foreseen in a thousand years?

Archie's acquaintance with Horatio was not long in duration; perhaps six months, and yet he had known what he was like from the first weeks on the Justinian -- and he had not changed over the years. The boy who had befriended him despite his fits and secret shame, was not so different from the man who had with singular determination, forced him to choose life over the beckoning darkness. He did not know how he could repay those debts. He sighed, and Horatio drew a deep breath, returning from where his thoughts had wandered.

"It's late," he said. "And I wish I knew what tomorrow had in store for us."

Archie smiled. "My old nurse, Pegeen, had a saying, Worrying about tomorrow is like trying to hold water in a sieve.'"

Horatio laughed softly. "Your old nurse, and my father's housekeeper must have read the same book of well-meaning advice. Margaret would have said, Don't borrow trouble, Master Horatio, or you'll soon have more than you need."

"Ah, troubles come not singly but in battalions," Archie quoted.

"More Pegeen?"

"Shakespeare, you heathen! What on earth did they teach you at school, Horatio?"

Horatio grinned. "Shockingly little, apparently."

His voice was lighthearted, but Archie suspected that the more off-hand Horatio sounded, the more worried he was. "I'm sure if it wasn't spherical trigonometry you thought it had no importance," he retorted.

"I learned French," Horatio said, but not happily. He sat down on a bench. "Archie, what did you think of Don Massaredo's story this evening?"

Archie sighed and shrugged. "If I believe him, then I have no reason to hate him."

"Do you believe him?"

He thought for a moment, his brow furrowed. "Yes. I never sensed any real malice or cruelty in him, even though I did not understand why I was being tortured. After two weeks, I stopped caring about anything; I don't remember what I felt after three, except wanting to die. I honestly was so confused, Horatio, that I was grateful to him for hastening me to that end."

There was nothing Horatio could say to that. He rose, and tried to keep the depression from his voice when he spoke. "Well, it is late and that sentry has been staring at us for the last five minutes." Together he and Archie went into their cell. As the key grated in the lock, Horatio shuddered. It seemed a very final sound.

*********************

The fine weather broke that night. Archie was awakened by the sound of rain and wind lashing against the cobbles outside the window. A flash of lightning illuminated the cell, followed by a growl of thunder that made him tense. He had not cared for storms as a child: he recalled his mother sitting with him in his room and telling him stories to distract him from the chaos. He had outgrown those fears, and acquired a set of new, more terrifying demons. He moaned under his breath. They came at night, when he was vulnerable, when the child was close to the surface, not hidden beneath a cloak of false bravado. They lurked: the darkness of the oubliette, the pain as the muscles in his legs and back cramped, the rats and the scent of garbage -- those phantoms came first, for they were the most recent. Then on their heels, came the mature ghosts: the shadowed recesses of the Justinian's lower decks, the fear and the helplessness, and then, Hell.

NO! Archie commanded himself silently. You will not think on it! But inevitably, he did. He recalled Simpson's hands; thin and hard and rough. The fists that bruised, the rasp of Simpson's breath, the press of his body, and then the horror of that moment when he was claimed and all that he had been, or hoped to be, was destroyed.

With a sound that was not quite human, Archie curled himself as tightly as he could around his meager straw pillow, and prayed that the whispered name had not escaped his lips.

Horatio lay perfectly still, willing his breathing to remain slow and steady. He did not know at first what had waked him, but he knew now. How could he ignore those choking sobs, so desperately suppressed? He had to; Archie would have been shamed beyond endurance to know that Horatio had heard them. Jack Simpson had ceased to haunt Horatio's nightmares once the last clump of earth had been thrown on his grave. He had hoped the knowledge that Simpson was dead would banish them for Archie as well. Clearly, it had not. And if Simpson, who was dead, could reach from the grave to touch Archie's mind, how much worse would it be if deVergesse learned that he was still living? Horatio mentally figured how long it would reasonably take for the Don's courier to reach Madrid and return with possible salvation. The mathematics came easily; the answer did not. Two weeks.

And so they lay there, each young man lost in misery and unable to share his fear with the other without laying bare his soul. Finally, exhaustion won over them both, and dreamless sleep came as a mercy.

After that night, it was a shock to wake to sunlight and a stiff, chilly breeze. Horatio rose slowly and called to the guard to open the cell. The man came, and Horatio cast a look at Archie, still huddled around his pillow. He did not have the heart to wake him. God only knew when he had finally slept. Outside, Horatio drew in a deep breath. None of the men were in the courtyard yet, for which Horatio was grateful; he knew he would have to tell them some of what Don Massaredo had revealed last night. Perhaps if he had a chance to talk to Matthews ...

"Good morning, Mr. Hornblower," Don Massaredo strode across the courtyard. "That was quite a blow we had last night -- a bit like the day the Almeria was lost." His sharp gaze noted the shadows beneath Hornblower's tired eyes. "The wind, it kept you awake?" he asked, not unkindly.

"Yes. The wind, and my thoughts."

"Ah, DeVergesse?"

"Among other things," Horatio answered. "Sir, may I tell my men what you told Mr. Kennedy and myself last night?"

The Don frowned at him. "I am not certain that is wise, sir. I shall be seen as a weak man, and that is a reputation I do not wish to hold."

"Sir, I give you my word, that the men I would tell are trustworthy. I will not undermine your authority in any way. If they know that there is some chance for exchange, they will not chafe at their captivity. All they need is hope, sir."

"It is a faint hope, at best, Mr. Hornblower."

"Sometimes that is enough, sir," Horatio said quietly, thinking of Archie fighting his demons in the night.

"Very well. I will trust in your discretion."

"Thank you, sir."

Massaredo saw him shiver a bit in the sharp wind. "I will have some coffee sent with breakfast, Mr. Hornblower."

"Thank you, sir. I would be most grateful. And might I ask for tea for Mr. Kennedy?"

"Am I running a posada here, Mr. Hornblower?" But the words were softened with a glint of humour in his eyes. "Very well. Tea for Mr. Kennedy." He turned towards his quarters, followed as usual by several attendants at his heels like faithful dogs. Horatio could not help smiling. In that, the Don was much like Pellew, for his men too, followed him out of loyalty, not sullen obedience. It never occurred to think the same of himself.

Reluctantly, Horatio returned to the cell. Archie was awake and dressed, though he was sitting on his cot, his back against the wall and his knees drawn up. He looked fragile. Horatio forced his voice to lightness. "I saw the Don this morning. He is sending coffee and tea with breakfast."

"Tea? God, I'd forgotten it exists," he gave Horatio a wan smile. "How did you manage that?"

"I asked." Horatio sat across from Archie. "I'm going to tell Matthews what the Don told us last night. About DeVergesse, and about the courier to Madrid. He can tell the others. They have to know that the Don is not our enemy. They will need to trust him if DeVergesse returns."

There was no need for Horatio to speak the rest of his thoughts for Archie to read them. The men would have to trust Massaredo, if for whatever reason, he and Horatio were no longer able to lead them. He studied Horatio's sharply drawn features. Was he aware that he was preparing as if for battle, or was it an instinctive reaction? Archie had been in the Navy for nearly eight years. He knew the logistics of warfare -- how to prepare shot and shell, the maneuvers a captain had to take to be successful in a fight, the order of command. And yet, he doubted he could do what seemed to come naturally to Horatio. How could he ask the men to trust him, when he did not even trust himself?

Before the silence grew too long, the guard came with their breakfast tray, and a basin of warm water to be used for shaving. Horatio drank his coffee and ate quickly, then shaved. He tied his stock as carefully as if he were going to see the Don. When he had finished he turned to Archie. "I'm going to see Matthews, now." Archie nodded, but did not speak. The constraint of the morning still lay between them. Horatio shrugged into his coat. "Perhaps you could walk on the beach," he suggested.

"Yes." That was all, that and a glance from haunted, weary eyes. Horatio wished this was one battle he didn't have to fight.

********************

Horatio found Matthews in the courtyard. He was propped up against a pillar, whittling away at a piece of wood with a pocket knife the Don considered too small to be much of a threat, given the parole Horatio had offered. He looked up and smiled at Horatio. "Good mornin', sir. Bit nippy, eh?"

"Good morning, Matthews. It is nearly autumn. Were you warm enough last night?"

"Oh, aye. T'wasn't as cold as the orlop deck gets in winter, sir. Don't worry about us."

"I hope we will be gone from here well before winter."

"'ave you heard somethin' then, sir?" Matthews asked, his faded eyes hopeful

Horatio sat beside Matthews, startling the seaman. "Be at ease, Matthews. There is something I need to tell you. You and Styles, you have the men's confidence. You are my petty officer -- the next in command after Mr. Kennedy if something should happen to me."

"Beg pardon, sir. But I don't much like the sound of that!" He gave an uneasy glance at one of Massaredo's guards strolling the courtyard.

"Last night, the Don told us two things -- he confirmed what you had heard about Colonel DeVergesse. And also what I had suspected. The Colonel is no friend of the Don's. And he is likely to return. Also, the Don has sent a courier to Madrid with news of our rescue of the crew of the Almeria. He is hopeful that we may be more quickly exchanged if their Majesties are impressed by our actions."

Matthews seemed to digest this. He ran the blade of his knife over the stick of wood, leaving the pale curling shavings to fall on the ground. " ow far is it to Madrid, sir?"

"Three hundred miles," Horatio admitted. "We are looking at two weeks minimum."

"And when does that Frog officer come back?"

Horatio met Matthews' calm gaze. "Your guess is as good as mine. And there is one more thing -- something I want you to tell the men they must swear to on their honour as Indefatigables."

"Sir?"

"Colonel DeVergesse has been led to believe that Mr. Kennedy is dead. No one must tell him otherwise. It is a matter of life and death, Matthews. Nothing less."

Matthews never doubted that for an instant. Mr. Hornblower was not a man given to exaggeration. If he said it was life and death, then it was. Matthews nodded grimly. "Aye, aye, sir."

"I want you to tell Styles, first. Then the two of you decide how you want to tell the others."

"Us, sir? Won't you tell them?"

Horatio sighed. "I am an officer -- and one who has returned them to a situation far worse than I imagined. They trust you and Styles far more than they trust me."

"Beggin' pardon again, sir. But you're wrong. There's not a man jack among us, what doesn't trust you, sir. We followed you this far, we're not about to jump ship now." Horatio blushed, seeming so painfully young, that Matthews' kind heart ached for the lad. "You've seen us through some tight spots, sir. You'll see us through this one, I reckon."

"Thank you, Matthews. That means a lot to me -- but I want you and Styles to tell the others."

"Aye, aye, sir. Don't you worry about that. Ow's Mr. Kennedy, sir?"

"He's fine, Matthews." There was no way on earth he would reveal to another human being what Archie had been through the night before. He rose, acknowledging Matthews' salute. He felt reassured by Matthews' response, certain for once that he had made the right decision and left the compound to see if Archie had taken his advice.

********************

Archie's first impulse on reaching the shore, was to wade into the surf until he could draw one deep lungful of water and put a period to his existence. But even as he envisioned it in his mind, he knew that he could not do it. Not out of cowardice, for he had no fear of death, but because lingering at the edges of that vision was the awareness of what he owed Horatio, and what he owed to the men. He did not want to die with that debt on his soul.

And as he sat on the rocks, with the wind tangling his hair, and the sun barely warm enough to take the chill away, a gradual peace came; as if the burdens of his past were slowly ebbing with the flow of the tide. Last night had been Hell. If not for Horatio's presence just a few feet away, he might have tried to kill himself then and there. But Horatio had been there; and Archie, even in his despair, had known that he was not alone, and had clutched at that knowledge with the desperation of a drowning man to a floating plank.

He gazed out over the waters, wondering what would become of him. Did his family believe he was dead? Not that it would matter; he had been dead to them for a long time. In eight years, he had exchanged five letters -- one a year, just enough to tell them that he still lived. And nothing since his captivity. The third son of Viscount Aylesford, bent his head and blamed the tears in his eyes on the sunlight that dazzled off the waves.

"Archie?" Horatio's light touch on his shoulder made him look up quickly; he had not heard him approach. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

"How far is it to England, Horatio?" Archie asked.

"About six hundred miles."

"Then I was about six hundred miles away," Archie smiled slightly, and Horatio was relieved to see though he looked very tired and drawn, some measure of peace had returned to those blue eyes. "Did you talk to Matthews?"

"Yes. He and Styles are going to tell the men. Matthews will have command if something happens to both of us. They will trust him."

"They will follow him more readily than me, Horatio."

Horatio felt a surge of anger at Archie's words, but reluctantly admitted to himself that there was some truth in them. "You are an officer, Archie. They will follow you."

"Would you?" Archie said.

"W-what?"

"Would you follow me? A weakling and a coward, prone to fits in times of stress --"

"That is not how they think of you!"

"It is! And if you will admit it, Horatio, it is how you think of me, too."

Horatio was stunned for a moment, and then he spoke. "I think you are the bravest man I know, Archie."

Archie laughed, a bit on the edge of hysteria. "Oh Lord, Horatio. Are you mad?"

Horatio shook his head, but something in his eyes held Archie's, and he looked into them and spoke patiently. "Listen to me, Archie. A week in the oubliette nearly drove me insane; the only thing that kept me from screaming at the top of my lungs, was the thought that you had endured a month in there, and that if you could survive a month, then one more day would not kill me. Every morning, that was the first thing I thought, and every night, when I was alone in the darkness, I thought of you, in that place. It was what saved me. You saved me."

"Hardly that, Horatio."

"I know what you did while I was in there, too. Matthews and Styles told me how you took care of Hunter, how you made him eat, and exercise his leg. How you helped all the men stay calm, and not do anything irrational just because the Don was punishing me. The men respect you, Archie. I have seen it."

Archie sighed. "They only do so, because of you. And if something should happen to you, they would follow me not out of trust, but because it is what you would have wished. I have no illusions, Horatio. I know what I am."

"So do I, Archie. And what I said holds true."

Archie blushed then, wondering why Horatio insisted on believing him to be something he was not. But he also held it close to his heart, for it was precious to him to know that perhaps he did have some value and some place in this world. He swore someday to repay Horatio for a gift that was beyond price. He was also wise enough to realize he could not express that sentiment in words Horatio would accept.

They stood for a while looking out over the ocean. "Do you think the Indy is out there?" Archie asked finally.

"Somewhere. Nearly to England by now."

"Will we ever see her again?"

Horatio's brows leveled. "Yes, I think so. I don't know why, but I believe we will."

Far above them, on the cliff overlooking the beach, Don Massaredo reined in his mount and saw them standing side by side, gazing out over the waters. Their yearning was palpable, even from that distance. Madre de Dios, they were young, he thought. Too young to have been thrown into the crucible of war, to face torture, to kill and be killed. But that was the world they lived in, by choice or not, and it was not in his power to change it.

****************

Three days passed. Three days that Horatio counted as blessings, for each hour past meant the courier was drawing closer to Madrid. He was afraid to hope that something might come of Don Massaredo's intervention, but hope he did. If he had not, he did not think he could have lived.

On the morning of the fourth day, he sat on the boulder overlooking the shore. It was overcast, and the sea was nearly the same colour as the leaden skies overhead. There had been a storm offshore, and the beach was littered with flotsam, which a flock of gulls picked at rapaciously. He was alone. Archie had been attempting to read the copy of Don Quixote Massaredo had given to them, and had refused the invitation to join him. Horatio wished he had not. He had no desire to be alone with his thoughts, for they were as heavy as the skies and as tumultuous as the seas.

He stared out at the horizon, with the mist beading on his hair and eyelashes, and though he was cold, he would not return to the compound just yet. His time on the beach was deceptive; it was his only escape from De Vergesse's shadow, and the enormous responsibilities that he felt bearing him down. He lifted his face to watch a gull wheel and scream overhead, catching the currents of air beneath its wings, much as the sails of the Indefatigable bellied full with a fair wind. But the Indy was for England, and he was tethered to Spain by his word of honour. Weary, he bowed his head.

"Senor, Senor!"

The rather breathless hail hit him like lightning. One of Massaredo's sentries was scrambling across the rocks towards Horatio. "Senor, the Don sent me. You are to return with me immediately."

Horatio leaped up, careless of the rough stones beneath his feet. The first thought in his mind was De Vergesse. It could not be the courier from Madrid. And on the heel of those thoughts -- Archie! He stumbled slightly, felt the guard take his arm, and shook him off, to hurry forward. The sentry at the gate shut it behind them as soon as they were inside. That in itself was a bad sign; Massaredo had been leaving it guarded, but open the last few days.

Still breathing heavily, he was shown into the Don's quarters. Masaredo was pacing -- another bad sign, Horatio feared. "You sent for me, sir?" he managed to say without gasping like a fish out of water.

Massaredo halted, and the face he turned to Horatio was grave. "I have bad news, Mr. Hornblower. It seems Colonel De Vergesse will be arriving tomorrow. He has heard of the Almeria. Naturally, he is not pleased with my actions."

Horatio swallowed. "Does he know we have returned, sir?" He coughed; his throat was dry as dust; whether it was from his hurried arrival or fear, he would not allow himself to admit. However, he was grateful when the Don poured a tumbler of water and offered it to him. "Thank you, sir."

Massaredo waved his gratitude aside. "Of course he has been told. How he views it, I cannot say. We will undoubtedly find out at dinner tomorrow."

Horatio's dismay was clear, and the Don made a small sound of sympathy. "I have no reason to treat you differently than before, Mr. Hornblower. You are an officer, and I will extend the same courtesies, regardless of the Colonel's disapproval. However, Mr. Kennedy, for obvious reasons, will have to be confined to his cell."

"I am sure Arch -- Mr. Kennedy will understand. For obvious reasons," he echoed wryly.

Massaredo chuckled. "You and I, we shall have to deal with the devil."

"Yes, sir. But better the devil you know ..."

"Be careful, Mr. Hornblower. You do not know El Diablo as well as you believe," Massaredo cautioned. "My protection can only extend so far."

Horatio bowed slightly. "I will be careful, sir."

"I pray you will, Mr. Hornblower," Don Massaredo sighed. "I will see you tomorrow. Be prepared."

"I will, sir. May I tell the men as well as Mr. Kennedy?"

"That is why I have told you."

Horatio bowed. "Thank you again, sir." He left the Don, feeling as if every step he took were weighted with lead. Styles, Matthews, and Oldroyd along with the other members of his division had gathered in a small group near the hacienda. The Naval scuttlebutt seemed to be functioning even in Spain.

Matthews approached him first. "Sir, is it the Colonel?"

Horatio's eyes met each and every man's before he spoke. "Yes, I'm afraid that it is. Don Massaredo has told me that Colonel De Vergesse is expected tomorrow. I'm sorry, but you will be confined to quarters for the duration of his visit."

A low murmur of dissatisfaction ran briefly through the ranks, but Styles stepped forward. "We understand, sir. What about Mr. Kennedy?"

Odd that it should be Styles who thought first of Archie. "Mr. Kennedy is dead, remember that, men." It was hard to say. "He will be ... hidden safely. The Don has assured me of it."

"Sir, d'ye trust him?" Styles asked.

"Yes, I do. And therefore, you must, too. No matter what happens. Do you all understand?"

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Thank you, men. If we can keep our wits about us, all will be well." He tried to say it as stoutly and as confidently as Captain Pellew, but feared he sadly lacked conviction. He could not allow the men to see his doubts. He turned away, and with his shoulders squared, went towards the quarters he shared with Archie to deliver the next round of bad news. He would have given his soul to avoid doing it. He paused for a moment to gather his courage and rehearse his speech before he went inside. He needn't have bothered. Somehow, Archie knew as soon as he saw Horatio's expression. "He's coming back, isn't he?"

"Yes."

"When?"
"Tomorrow. The Don just told me. I'm sorry, Archie."

"Why? It's not as if you brought him here."

Horatio sat down, miserable with guilt. "In a way, I am responsible."

"Rubbish!" Archie closed the book with a sharp snap. "You're no more a seer than I am, Horatio. So stop beating yourself with it. Tell me what is likely to happen." Archie's voice held a note of determination that Horatio had not heard from him before, and his eyes met Horatio's steadily. "I won't break, Horatio."

But I might, Horatio thought to himself. "I wish I knew. The Don advises that you be confined here. It is doubtful that De Vergesse will soil his spotless uniform by coming to the cells. So, you should be safe enough. And I have told the men that they are to consider you dead." He flinched a bit as he spoke the words.

"That should not be difficult," Archie said softly. "Seeing as they thought I was for the last two years." He gave Horatio a penetrating look. "That takes care of my situation. What of yours?"

"I will be treated as I was before."

"As long as Don Massaredo can protect you."

"Yes," he replied, with a cold feeling of fear in the pit of his stomach. "At least he will try."

"You gave your parole!" Archie exclaimed. "Surely your word of honour --"

"What use is a word of honour to a man who has none?" Horatio said bitterly. He rose and went to the window. "Dear God, but I have no taste for confinement!" He hated being vulnerable. He feared weakness and cowardice more than death, and he was guilty of both at once. He flung open the cell door, startling the guard outside and nearly bolted into the courtyard.

Archie pulled on his jacket and with a glance at the guard followed Horatio. He found him leaning against one of the pillars, his head shielded by his arm as if to hide from the world. Archie paused, discomfited by seeing Horatio in distress. It was so rare; he imagined panic was not an emotion Horatio was used to feeling. Hesitantly, he laid a hand on Horatio's shoulder and felt a tremor run through his body.

"It takes you like that sometimes."

Horatio looked up, his eyes hot with shame. "I'm all right!"

"Of course, you are," Archie said prosaically, as if the sight of a senior officer breaking down were perfectly normal. "You are as human as I am, Horatio. I know that must come as a shock, but there it is."

Horatio continued to glare at him for a moment, then the irony of Archie's words came to him, and he straightened away from the pillar with a sigh. "I am a coward, Archie."

"Oh yes. Any fool can see that. Surely only a coward would risk his life for his crew; would volunteer for a punishment he doesn't deserve, would face a monster without a moment of hesitation to save the life of a friend. All marks of the most craven sort of coward. Clearly, you are one of them."

"Sarcasm doesn't become you, Mr. Kennedy."

"And cowardice has no place in your heart, Horatio."

"For a moment, I swear I could not breathe."

"Hmm, like a bellows with all the air squeezed out of it?" Archie's blue eyes glinted with laughter. "Panic, pure panic, Horatio. Alas, I know it well. So does most of the human race. Welcome to humanity."

"I have never pretended to be anything else," Horatio protested.

"No?" Archie raised a skeptical brow, and Horatio finally conceded the point.

"I've been found out, then." His smile was wistful, and he wished, Lord, how he wished he could admit to his fears, and lay some of them down as he used to lay his head on his mother's lap when he was a child. But he was not a child, and there were shadows that a mother's touch could not banish. "I'm going to walk a while. I cannot bear to be in that cell, right now."

Archie nodded. He did not offer to accompany Horatio. He knew there were times when a man wanted to be alone, and he could see that need in Horatio's face. He watched for a moment as Horatio stepped from the portico and began a measured pacing of the courtyard. He had a sudden, very clear vision of Horatio on the quarterdeck of a ship, pacing, pacing, with his hands clasped behind his back and his head bowed with the weight of command. He would not wish for that weight on his own shoulders for the world.

*********************

The French came at dawn, the loud clatter of iron-shod horses announcing their arrival. They startled Horatio from his only deep sleep of the night. He had lain awake for hours, afraid to move lest he reveal to Archie that he was unable to sleep, and completely aware that Archie was doing the same thing for his sake. Finally, as the darkness was fading to pale false dawn, he slept, worn out with wakefulness and tension.

He jerked awake, senses alert as if he had been called to battle stations on the Indefatigable. "Archie?" he whispered.

The straw rustled as Archie shifted on his mattress. "I hear it, Horatio. It's very early." A pause and then the quiet question. "Did you sleep?"

"A bit, yes. You?"

"The same."

They were silent with their thoughts for a few moments; then Horatio swung his legs over the edge of the bunk and slid down. There seemed to be no point in laying there, waiting for the fall of the ax. He would rather go out and face the enemy than wait for him to strike. He gave Archie a guilty glance. Archie had no option, he had to stay hidden. Horatio was certain that he would not have been as accepting of that fate as his friend. He went to call out to the sentry to open the door, but the sound of a number of men marching down the gallery made him back away quickly.

"Archie, you'd better take cover," he said and turned to find that he already was huddled beneath his blankets, and scarcely visible in the grey twilight of the cell. The key grated in the lock, and the door was opened. Don Massaredo and two of his men stood there, and behind them, seeming part of the shadows, Colonel Etienne De Vergesse.

A staggering wave of emotion swept over Horatio; fear, hate, contempt, anger ... He had not thought himself capable of such strong feelings. He tried to keep his composure, to stand straight and mask what he felt. He met the Don's eyes, and for a moment, saw comprehension and empathy in them, before Massaredo resumed his own mask. His gaze barely flicked to the cot where Archie lay.

"You will come with us, Mr. Hornblower."

"Of course, sir. If I may have a few minutes ... " He gestured vaguely to his stubbled chin and state of undress. He felt De Vergesse's contemptuous gaze sweep the length of his shabby figure, and it made him even angrier.

The Don nodded slightly and turned to his guards. "Clean out this cell while we are away."

"Si, senor." The guard remained outside the door when De Vergesse followed the Don from the corridor.

Horatio drew a tremulous breath. He knew with a certainty that Archie would not be there when he returned. He could only trust that the Don would be true to his word and protect his interests as well as Archie's life. "Did you hear?" he asked quietly.

"Yes." Archie emerged from the blankets and sat up again. "It doesn't sound good, does it?"

"No. But this is the point where we must trust the Don to do what is best."

"Best for him, or for us?" Archie asked dryly. "How do we know that he hasn't been mending his fences with De Vergesse?"

Horatio shook his head. "No, I saw his expression and you did not. He has not changed his mind about the Colonel. There is no love lost between them. Of that I am sure."

He pulled a cleaner shirt from his pack of belongings he had brought with him from the Indefatigable. The guard had not given them hot water that morning, so he was forced to shave with cold. When he had finished, he studied his reflection. He looked pale, his dark eyes burned like holes in paper, the skin stretched taut across his sharp cheekbones.

Archie had been watching him silently. Any apprehension he felt for himself was nothing compared to his concern for Horatio. Even if the Don chose to put him back in the hole, it would not be forever. He had withstood one month, surely another few days would not kill him. But Horatio -- he had to deal with that devil De Vergesse. *I would rather be in the hole,* he thought. The rats at least, had no treacherous intent.

"You mustn't worry about me, Horatio. I will be all right. Look to yourself, first."

Horatio paused in the act of tying his neck cloth. "That is not the duty of a captain. The lives of the men come first."

"Our lives depend on yours!" Archie said fiercely. "None of us would abandon you."

Horatio finished tying the knot, even though he knew his fingers were trembling. When he was satisfied, he turned to Archie and fixed him with that dark, intense gaze that seemed to bore right to the core of his heart. "If something happens to me -- if I am not able to continue, you will have to abandon me. I would expect -- nay, I would demand it. It is your duty, then."

"It will not come to that," Archie said softly.

"Likely it won't," Horatio said with deceptive calm. "But I had to say it."
Archie nodded. The loose strands of blonde hair brushing his cheeks made him look young and fragile, but Horatio knew that despite everything, he would find that last bit of courage to do what was right.

"I will try to find out from the Don, where he is keeping you. I believe he will tell me. I swear you will not be alone."

"I know. Horatio, be careful. De Vergesse is no fool. If he can lay a trap for you, he will. Believe me, I know his kind far better than you can imagine."

Horatio shuddered. His imagination had expanded greatly since his innocent first days on the Justinian. He longer needed any warnings of the acts of treachery and cruelty men were capable of committing against each other. "I will." He pulled on his jacket. "This will be over soon."

"I hope so!" Archie gave him a glimmer of a smile. "I prefer being the Don's guest, to being persona non grata any day. Until then." He held out his hand, was shocked to feel Horatio's was like ice.

Horatio nodded and left, following the guard outside. Archie buried his face in his hands. "Dear God, where on earth will I find the strength if something happens to him?" he whispered desolately. He looked up when the guard returned. "Yes?" he asked.

"Come with me, Senor." Archie took up the volume of Don Quixote, trusting that wherever he was being taken, he would not be deprived entirely of light. He followed the guard past the row of cells to the room the sentries used for their own. He watched with wide eyes as the guard pulled aside a small table, moved the rug beneath it, and revealed a trapdoor. Another oubliette? he wondered. Reluctantly, he followed the guard down the ladder, not to a cell, but to a tunnel carved into the rock. The air was damp and cold, but fresh. The tunnel stretched slightly downhill for perhaps a hundred feet, ending at an iron grate closed over the entrance to a cave. The guard lit a torch on the wall from his lantern and opened the grate, indicating that Archie enter.

Archie looked about him curiously. The room was lined with barrels, leaving a space of perhaps ten feet square cleared. The rush of the surf was much closer here and the scent of the sea was sharp and fresh. Suddenly, Archie understood. The Don was a smuggler! He caught his breath on a laugh of relief. "It could be worse," he said. The guard gave him a puzzled look Archie nodded at the man. "Gracias, senor." He might have spoken Greek, for all the reaction he received.

The guard closed the iron gate over the entrance, and Archie turned to study his new surroundings. There was a barrel with a lantern set on it and several candles. A small box contained flint and tinder. There was a cot with blankets and a slop pail. And curiously, a wooden cross hung from a nail pounded into the wall. Feeling oddly light and reassured, Archie lay down on his cot. It seemed the Don was as good as his word, and no immediate harm would come to him. Then like a kick in the stomach, he thought of Horatio.

********************

The guards herded the men from their cells, gathering them like so many sheep into the courtyard. They had come with little warning, and with the French watching them, were not chary of using the butts of their muskets to prod laggards into line. Styles took a shot to the ribs from one of them, and would have taken his head off, had Matthews not restrained him.

"Watch it, Styles! What good are we goin' to be to Mr. Hornblower if we're clapped in irons," he hissed.

"Bastards!" Styles muttered under his breath. He shook off Matthews hand, but also subsided into seething calm. "What's appening?" he asked.

"Them Frenchies is back, I reckon. Remember what Mr. Hornblower said about the Don. We've got to trust im."

"I wouldn't trust King George himself in this place, Matty."

"Ye don't have a choice, so look lively there, Styles." At that point the guard nudged Matthews with this gun and halted their exchange.

They were all formed up in a line. Matthews, Styles, and Oldroyd, who still looked half asleep, next to each other. The others ranked behind them, with guards standing near. The Don and Colonel De Vergesse came from the cell blocks, and Matthews gave Styles a worried look. "Where's Mr. Hornblower?" he asked softly.

Styles stiffened. "Jesus!" And then fell silent as De Vergesse strolled slowly down the ranks. He paused in front of Styles.

"Your name?" he asked.

"Styles." He dared him to ask for a respectful title.

De Vergesse sneered. "You look like a troublemaker, Styles."

"I am." A hint of threat glinted in his eyes, and De Vergesse knew that he was looking at a killer.

"Cause trouble here, Styles, and it will cost you dearly."

"I gave my word to Mr. Hornblower." Styles fixed his gaze beyond the Colonel's epauletted shoulder.

"Of course, the honourable Mr. Hornblower. We shall see what it is worth, n'est ce pas?"

He moved down the line, took a look at Matthews, standing small and quiet, and dismissed him. *Bloody sod!* Styles thought and risked a sidelong look at his friend.

Matthews nudged him. "Look!" Hornblower had emerged from the gallery and was walking across the courtyard. Matthews studied him intently. He looked to be undamaged; just pale and edgy. Well, who could blame the lad? There was no sign of Mr. Kennedy; perhaps the Don was protecting him as promised. He saw the Don and Hornblower exchange a glance, and something inside of him relaxed its tension. All was well -- no, not well, but at least as good as could be expected with the Devil taking their measure.

Horatio thought he would be ill, his stomach was so unsettled, but he drew in a deep breath as he stepped into the courtyard. Then he saw his men being surveyed by De Vergesse, and his stomach lurched again. He crossed quickly to where Don Massaredo was watching De Vergesse stalk around the small group of British sailors.

"Sir, I protest --"

Before the Don could respond, De Vergesse turned on his heel. "You are a prisoner of war, Monsieur Hornblower. You have no right to protest anything."

"I have given my parole, sir." Horatio said coldly. "It holds for myself and for my men. And as it has been given, they are entitled to be treated humanely."

"You have not given it to me," De Vergesse replied with a thin smile. "And what am I doing that is inhumane? I merely desire to have an accurate count of the men imprisoned here. There was another officer, was there not? A blonde man ..."

"Mr. Hunter was killed attempting to rescue the Captain of the Almeria," Horatio said quietly. "He died a hero."

"Ah, a hero. Such as yourself, Lieutenant." The sneer in De Vergesse's voice turned the word hero into an insult. Horatio stiffened, but bit back a reply that would only infuriate the Frenchman.

Don Massaredo cleared his throat. "The Capitaine of the Almeria would see him as such, as he did survive thanks to Mr. Hunter and Lieutenant Hornblower. And now, Colonel, since you have seen the men, may we go inside? Your arrival has disturbed my morning, and breakfast is waiting. You, of course, are welcome to join me." He gave a low-voiced order to his captain of the guards.
Horatio scarcely had a chance to exchange a warning glance with Styles and Matthews before they were marched away. Then he was escorted back to his cell, and the long day began.

********************

"As to the form of masts and yards, the general method is to quarter the masts from the partners to the hound, and the yards from the slings to the yard arms; so that both yard arms are exactly the same except the mizzen yard. The diameters at the quarters are in proportion to that at the partners or slings ..."

Horatio groaned and flung his arm over his eyes. He had been running through theorems, Latin verbs, and now Murray's treatise on Shipbuilding and Navigation in his mind for the last five hours, and had nothing to show for it but a burgeoning headache and an awareness that time had never passed so slowly in his life. Even in the oubliette, the sounds of activities in the courtyard had reminded him that he was not entirely alone; but in this cell, with no idea as to Archie's whereabouts and the men confined to quarters, he felt abandoned and isolated.

At last he heard footsteps outside the door. He swung his legs over the side of the bunk as the lock turned and the door opened. A guard came in first with a tray of food, and when he stepped outside, Don Massaredo entered. Horatio straightened. "Sir!"

"Ah, Mr. Hornblower, my apologies. Colonel DeVergesse's arrival has entirely upended my household. I trust you have not grown faint with hunger?"

Horatio shook his head. "No, sir. Merely half-mad with boredom. I'm afraid that Mr. Kennedy took Don Quixote with him for amusement, and left me with only my own dull company."

The Don gave him one of his half-smiles. "Then perhaps I was not mistaken in thinking you might like this --" He pulled back the cover on the tray, revealing in addition to a tureen of soup and some bread, a quarto-sized leather-bound book. Horatio took it up eagerly. "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire." Part One. In English. Horatio could not contain his surprise. "Thank you, sir!"

"I thought it might be to your liking. When you have finished part one, I will gladly supply the others."

"I did not think to ever see this in Spain, I confess," Horatio admitted. "And in such a fine binding. My father was given a similar set by a grateful patient. How did you come by yours?"

Massaredo chuckled. "Again, Mr. Hornblower, you ask me questions that I cannot answer. Suffice to say that I too, received them in payment for a service rendered. I am afraid that Colonel DeVergesse continues to expect you to dine with us. Enjoy your reading while it is light, for I fear he would not care much for a prisoner to be coddled with such luxuries as a candle after dark"

In his pleasure, Horatio had nearly forgotten his duties. "Sir, before you leave, is Mr. Kennedy safe?"

"You do not trust me?" Massaredo asked, and then when he saw Horatio's chagrin, he nodded. "Mr. Kennedy is as safe as I can make him. On my word of honour." Then he bowed slightly, and left.

Horatio was lost in the past for several hours before the light grew too dim to continue. He normally read quickly, but now he forced himself to savor every word, to hoard each one as a man on a desert island might hoard drops of fresh water. He laid the book aside reluctantly to ready himself for dinner. It was an occasion he looked forward to with the same anticipation as one might have for one's execution.

He trusted the Don, but he feared DeVergesse. Archie's few terse words on the man's character had been damning, and had only added to Horatio's disgust at the Colonel's morals. Cursing, he jerked at the knot of his neck cloth, which suddenly seemed to have taken on a will of its own. He flung the cloth down at his feet, and stood staring at it, his breath coming too quickly, and his pulse beating wildly at his temples. Dear God, why did he not have the equanimity and the wisdom of a Pellew? Think! he ordered himself. What would Captain Pellew do? He would not allow his fears to overset his reason. He would not panic, he would not shake and tremble so badly that he could not tie a decent cravat! God, I am hopeless. He picked up the length of silk at his feet, and sat on the cot, his head bowed for a few moments until his heart settled.

He had to view this like a battle, with lines drawn, and strategy laid out. That is what Pellew would do. Assess the strength of the enemy position, never assume that a situation is safe, be on the alert, and anticipate your opponents movements. Horatio had learned to consider a battle as a game of chance and wits. That was all this was, really. Chance and wit. He had underestimated DeVergesse once before; he would not do so again.

He tied his neck cloth once more, his fingers steady now. His face in the mirror was solemn, the line of his mouth severe. He ran a bone comb through the thick curls of his hair and tied them neatly back. He heard for a moment, an echo of Mr. Bracegirdle's voice, *"There, you are as ready now as you ever will be."* He drew a deep breath. "Yes, I suppose I am," he whispered to himself. When the guard unlocked the door, Horatio followed him calmly to the hacienda.

*********************

Don Massaredo and Colonel DeVergesse were seated in chairs drawn close to the fire to ward off the evening chill. A manservant positioned a third chair for Horatio, and he bowed to the Don before he sat down. "Thank you, sir. For the invitation." He merely inclined is head towards DeVergesse. "Colonel."

"Mr. Hornblower. How passed your day?" DeVergesse asked in mock civility.

Feint, Horatio thought. And now I parry. "It passed well enough, sir. We men in the Navy learn to occupy our time, for we do not have the opportunities for amusement afforded to the army on dry land."

The Don chuckled beneath his breath, admiring Hornblower's cool demeanor. "I should find it very dull," he said.

"No, sir. It is not dull at all," Horatio replied. "The hours on duty pass swiftly. Even when there is no enemy to be engaged, there is work enough, and when work is done, the sea provides an endless variety of challenges."

"Such as disciplining the common seaman?" DeVergesse's tone of voice left no doubt as to the insult intended. "I have lost count of the number of men I have seen with stripes on their backs. Even your men, Mr. Hornblower."

"I will not deny it, sir. In the hands of a harsh captain, the cat can be a weapon of oppression as well as discipline. However, a good captain leads by example, not fear." Horatio knew he was echoing Pellew, and he was not ashamed of it.

"Is that how you would command?" DeVergesse mocked. "By example? Par bleu, are you such a paragon of virtue that you believe those men in the courtyard would follow your orders without question?"

"It is how I hope to command," Horatio said softly. "And yes, those men have followed my orders at the risk of their lives. That is why I respect them."

DeVergesse's brows rose at Horatio's refusal to be baited. "You have a great confidence, Mr. Hornblower. It is a mark of youth and inexperience. Refreshing, but scarcely practical."

Horatio felt his cheeks redden. Painfully, DeVergesse had touched his weakest point. It was his overconfidence that had led La Reve into disaster; that had made him believe he could bluff his way out of the middle of the Spanish fleet, that had misled him into thinking Hunter would not be able to lead the men in their escape attempt. He could make no reply, but look down into his wineglass and wish he could drown in its depths.

The Don cleared his throat. "Gentlemen, I believe our dinner is ready to be served. Let us talk of things less military at the table. Perhaps the Colonel will give us the latest news of Paris and Madrid. It is so dreadfully dull here in El Ferrol. Tell me, Colonel. What is the latest news at court? Is it true that the Marquis de Granada challenged the brother of the Archbishop to a duel?" He linked his arm in the Colonel's and led him to the supper table, leaving Horatio to recover his lost equilibrium.

The Don felt as if he were dining between a powder keg and a length of slow match. Despite their polite conversation, there was no mistaking the tension between Hornblower and DeVergesse. Hornblower's dark eyes were wary as a wild creature's and though his voice was low-pitched and steady, his body was rigid and his jaw set hard whenever DeVergesse spoke. He could not blame the lad, for DeVergesse had the instincts of a predator; those ice-blue eyes alert for any sign of weakness or untruth. Massaredo had known him long enough to be on his guard. He could only hope that Hornblower's customary reserve would see him in good stead this evening.

It was almost a relief when his manservant entered bearing a message for him. The Don read the note silently, folded it, and handed it back to his man. "I am sorry, gentlemen. But there is a matter I must attend to. Please, I will not be long. Enjoy your cognac by the fire, and I will rejoin you shortly."

Horatio glanced at Massaredo, his eyes questioning. "Sir, is it my men?"

"No, Mr. Hornblower." The Don gave him a slight smile. "It may surprise you to know that I do have other concerns besides the welfare of your friends. This is estate business, nothing more." He inclined his head to DeVergesse, and left them.

The servant handed each of them a glass of cognac. Horatio wished he could refuse, but from the way DeVergesse was watching him, he did not dare. It would have been just like the Colonel to consider his refusal as a personal insult. A matter he would undoubtedly take out in some way on the Idefatigables. So Horatio sipped his cognac, and marveled at its taste, and watched DeVergesse's heavy-lidded eyes regarding him lazily as a snake's.

"May I speak frankly, Mr. Hornblower?" DeVergesse asked, just when Horatio felt he was about start squirming beneath that basilisk gaze.

"You will whether I agree or not, so please do, Colonel."

DeVergesse laughed unpleasantly. "You would do well to remember that I am your superior, Mr. Hornblower."

"Sir, with all due respect, you are not my superior. You are not an officer in the British Navy, nor am I a lieutenant in your service."

"You would deny that Don Massaredo and I have authority over you?" He sounded rather astonished.

"I accept Don Massaredo's authority because I respect his position."
"But you do not respect me?"

Horatio knew how dangerous was this game he was playing, but for the sake of Kitty Cobham, he was determined to see it to the end. "You have done nothing to earn my respect, sir. You have debased a lady I hold in some regard --"

"That actress-whore! I am disappointed in your judgment, Lieutenant," DeVergesse's eyes burned cold. "And I assure you, she was quite willing --"

"She feared for her life! And to a gentleman, that is the same as if you had taken her against her will. If you will excuse me, Colonel. I would go back to my cell, where the company is more to my taste." Horatio rose from his chair. As quickly as a big cat, DeVergesse was on him, gripping his shoulder and stopping him in his tracks.

"I think not, ami," he hissed. "Don Massaredo is entirely too accepting of this vaunted parole of yours. You forget that you are nothing more than a prisoner, and as such, you will stay until I say you are to leave."

The last person to lay a hand on Horatio in that heavy, possessive manner was Jack Simpson. The memory made him feel ill. He closed his eyes and swallowed the bile in his throat, then turned slowly to DeVergesse. Without a word, he shrugged off the Colonel's hand and returned to his chair. He would have taken a deep swallow of cognac, but was afraid that his hand would betray him by shaking.

"I am surprised that if you find confinement so onerous, you returned willingly to El Ferrol." DeVergesse spoke as if the last five minutes had never happened, and it caught Horatio off-guard. He answered quite truthfully, his defenses down.

"I chose to honour my parole, sir. I did not return willingly. Nothing short of dishonour could have compelled me to return to this place."

"Not even so excellent an opportunity to continue to spy on your enemies?"

"I was never a spy!"

DeVergesse gave him an ugly smile. "You cannot expect me to believe that your precious honour was the sole reason you and your men returned here! You, I might believe in your youthful folly -- but not those men in the courtyard. They are illiterate seamen -- drunks, thieves, and murderers. What do they care for honour? I could hang every one of them, one at a time, until you admitted your crimes."

Horatio knew he went white; he could feel the blood drain from his face and his lips grow cold and numb. "I gave my parole," he whispered. "You would not dare --"

"You do not know what I would dare, Mr. Hornblower. The name of your ship, the Indefatigable, was it?"

"Yes," Horatio nodded, too horrified by the threat to be wary.

"I held a prisoner once, from that ship. A midshipman Kennedy, I believe was his name. Did you know him?"

A stillness came on Horatio, a feeling of dread that drained all courage and strength from him. "Yes. He was lost on a cutting out expedition near Gironde."

"Indeed, or so he claimed. I very nearly believed him until he tried to escape, not once, but four times before I sent him here to Don Massaredo. Do you know what happened to him here?"

Horatio closed his eyes and prayed that he would be able to maintain the lie of Archie's death. "Don Massaredo had him thrown in the oubliette for a month. He died as a result of that imprisonment."

"And this is the man you respect?" DeVergesse laughed, a mirthless sound that chilled Horatio to the marrow. "Never mind, Mr. Hornblower -- the irony struck me for a moment. I ordered the punishment, and if your Mr. Kennedy had not died, I would have had him hung as a spy, and left his skeleton to rot as a warning to all other British criminals who seek the ruin of France and Spain."

Horatio's nausea threatened to choke him. "Am I to consider myself warned, Colonel?"

"Most definitely, Mr. Hornblower. Any action by yourself or your men, no matter how small, and one by one, you will hang and rot. I swear it by the blood of France." He leaned forward, his eyes intent. "Do not look to the Don for salvation, for he is bound to honour *any* request by his allies." The words were laid out, stark and undeniable. DeVergesse waited for their impact to sink in, then he lifted his hand and snapped his fingers to call the guard. "My dear fellow, you look quite done in." He turned to the guard with a cold smile. "Take Mr. Hornblower back to his cell. And give Don Massaredo his regrets. I fear his dinner did not agree with him."

Horatio was past caring what DeVergesse said about him; but he would not be thought a coward. His shoulders straightened and he tried to recover his shattered dignity. He thought that if he spoke, his voice would crack, so in silence he inclined his head slightly, letting the Colonel see that his spirit was not quite as broken as DeVergesse had hoped and followed the guard back to his cell.

It was the longest walk Horatio had ever taken. Despite his show of arrogance to the Frenchman, he knew he was shaking like a scared cat. His knees were as weak as if he had suffered a prolonged bout of seasickness, and his stomach roiled with acid. But he did not realize the depth of his emotional shock until the cell door closed behind him and he was alone in the dark.

The chills started when he lay down on his cot, and not even the blanket he took from Archie's vacant cot could warm him enough to stop his shivering. The cold was in his very heart, in the center of his soul. He wondered if this were how Archie felt alone in the shadows of the Justinian. He had thought the oubliette suffocating, but it had not been, not like this solitary isolation. He had no one to share this burden; it was his alone.

*You have tasted the bitter brew that is a Captain's life ..."* Pellew's words came so clearly to him that he sat up, peering into the night as if the man himself would materialize before him. Of course, it was just a fancy, but to Horatio it was like a candle in the dark. Pellew had entrusted him with the lives of his men, and he would not fail him without losing his own.

He remembered his resolve earlier in the evening. What must he do to prepare for this battle? He would find out where Don Massaredo had concealed Archie. He would warn Matthews and Styles about DeVergesse's threats, and he would play whatever game DeVergesse had in his mind, as long as it would buy enough time for the Don's messenger to return from Madrid. Perhaps I should pray, he thought. And though it seemed a very faint hope at best, he petitioned God, Fate, or whatever power guided the safety of his Majesty's Navy, to deliver him from evil. He lay back down as the last tremor slowly released him, and curled into his blankets. His last waking thought was not of Pellew, or DeVergesse, or even of Archie, but of his mother's soft voice whispering that the night was always darkest before the dawn.

**************************

Archie read until his eyes ached. Then he closed his book with a sigh. His Spanish was better than Horatio's but reading a foreign language and hearing it spoken were entirely different matters. Perhaps he should have left the book with Horatio, who would undoubtedly have analyzed it, comparing the grammar to Latin, Greek, and French, and finished with a complete understanding of the structure -- and absolutely no comprehension of how it was to sound. That conceit made Archie smile. He might not speak grammatically, but his accent, honed by years of theatrical mimicry was nearly perfect. Together he and Horatio would have made a formidable team if Hunter's idiotic escape plan hadn't forced Horatio's hand prematurely.

Horatio. The thought of his friend caused Archie a pang of guilt. Here he was, concealed in perfect safety while Horatio was contending with not only the problems of command, but with Etienne DeVergesse. *I wish I knew what was happening.* He imagined that he was not far from Horatio's cell, perhaps even directly below it, but how many feet of solid rock separated them, he could not say.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming down the passage, and the bobbing torchlight that preceded them. Archie shrank back into the shadowed recesses of his cell, but as the men came closer, he recognized Don Massaredo's voice and came forward. The Don waited for the guard to unlock the gate.

"Mr. Kennedy, I fear I must disturb your solitude. The tide has come in, and with it some business I must take care of. If you will stand back for a few minutes ..."

Three burley attendants came into the cave and began removing barrels. Archie watched with interest. "Sir, do you need help?" he asked.

"You think to escape me again, Mr. Kennedy?" Massaredo asked dryly.

"N-no, sir!" Archie stammered. "Even if I had been, I would not leave, sir. Not without Mr. Hornblower."

The Don chuckled softly. "I did not think so, Mr. Kennedy. And yes, you may help. Colonel DeVergesse's presence has added an unwelcome need for urgency to my enterprise."

For the next twenty minutes, Archie and the three other men rolled the barrels down the passageway, emerging into a small, sheltered cove where a schooner with the raking masts and clean lines of a cutter sat riding the low waves. Two ship's boats made speedy runs from the beach to the cutter and back again until twenty barrels of contraband spirits were loaded. When they had finished, the Don signaled with a lantern, and Archie followed his guard back to the cave.

Archie flung himself down on his cot. He was still not as strong as he would like, and the barrels had been heavy and awkward, but he felt better than he had for a long time. He opened his eyes and found the Don looking down at him. He sat up quickly. "I'm sorry, sir. I thought you had left."

"Thank you, Mr. Kennedy, for your help. However, now you know my secret."

Archie smiled. "I had guessed as much as soon as I saw this place." He gestured to the remaining barrels. "French?"

The Don laughed softly. "Some. Some is from my vineyards. The question is, can I trust you, Mr. Kennedy?"

Archie cocked his head and considered the Don. "Horatio trusts you, sir. That is good enough for me. I will not betray you, as long as you do not betray him."

"Then between gentlemen, we have a bargain." He held out his hand and surprised, Archie took it. Massaredo's grip was firm, his gaze steady and clear. Their eyes met, and Archie understood why Horatio was willing to risk so much on the Don's honour.

"Between gentlemen," Archie quoted solemnly.

The Don nodded. "I must get back to my dinner. I am afraid I have abandoned Mr. Hornblower to Colonel DeVergesse's tender mercies for too long."

"Sir --"

"Yes?"

"I know what the Colonel is like. Horatio suspects, but he cannot know, not the way you and I know, what the Colonel is capable of doing. And he -- he would rather put his life in danger, than risk any harm to the men, or to me."

Massaredo's hard features softened. "Yes, I know it. We have ten days, Mr. Kennedy." He picked up his lantern and with a brief nod of farewell, left Archie to his thoughts.

*Ten days.* A lifetime. Archie picked up a loose piece of stone and scored the stone wall nearest him. One down and nine to go.

*******************

The guards woke Horatio before dawn, bringing him a breakfast of unappetizing gruel and bitter lukewarm coffee. Horatio ate a few mouthfuls before his stomach rebelled, and drank a sip of coffee, not because it was comforting, but because the taste was more palatable than the watery paste passing for a meal. He grimaced. It seemed his days as a pampered officer were at an end. He only hoped that the Don was feeding Archie well, for he did not think his friend would thrive on a starvation diet. He made himself as neat as he could, and went outside into the chilly morning light.

The men had been mustered there. Horatio's heart sank. He had to speak to Matthews and Styles, but it seemed DeVergesse would not tolerate that interaction. He approached DeVergesse. "Sir, why have you called out my men?"

"To count them, Mr. Hornblower. To be certain no one has escaped in the night."

"That is absurd!" Horatio objected. "They have given their parole. There is no reason to treat them as if they had not."

"If I do not trust you, Mr. Hornblower, then why should I trust them?"

"I will place myself in bond, Colonel." Horatio said quietly. "If any of my men attempt to escape, you may do with me what you will."

DeVergesse brought up his riding crop and laid the leather against Horatio's cheek. "Truly, you may come to regret that statement, Mr. Hornblower."

Styles uttered a strangled sound of anger and lurched forward before Matthews could stay him. In an instant, one of DeVergesse's soldiers brought up his rifle and cocked the hammer. Horatio caught his breath. "Styles! Enough!"

The big man halted in his tracks, his eyes focused not on the rifle aimed at him but on Horatio's white face. "Sir --"

"Go back to your place. I am all right. The Colonel and I have reached an understanding. Colonel, may I have a few moments with my men to explain our agreement?"

DeVergesse's expression was hard, but he nodded. "Be certain they understand quite clearly, Monsieur. Your life depends on it."

Horatio walked over the ranks and paused directly in front of Styles, Matthews, and Oldroyd. He drew a breath and looked into Styles' dark, angry eyes. "I am all right, Styles. But your temper will cost us all dearly if you cannot control it. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir. But that bastard, he --"

"It was a threat, nothing more. No matter what happens to me, you must honour your parole. It is the only way you will get out of here alive. Mr. Kennedy would tell you the same thing, if he were able." He let the words carry their own weight. "Do you swear that you will do as I ask?"

Styles cast a rebellious glance at DeVergesse, and Matthews hand tightened on his arm. "Stow that look, Styles. D'ye want Mr. Hornblower to be in trouble here?" Matthews nodded to Horatio. "We understand, sir. You take care of yourself."

Horatio was moved by Matthews' concern and reassurance. He did not know if he deserved such loyalty, but he could not deny that it was a comfort to him. "Thank you, men." He inched closer and spoke very softly so that only Matthews and Styles could hear him. "We have ten days, perhaps less before the courier returns from Madrid, hopefully with a negotiated exchange. We must hold on to that hope, and we cannot jeopardize it with hasty and ill-considered reactions."

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Good." Horatio stepped back and turned towards DeVergesse. "They understand quite clearly, sir."

"For your sake, I hope so." He gestured to his guards. "Take them back to their cells. All but Seaman Styles."

Horatio whirled. "Why?"

"He disobeyed an order, Mr. Hornblower. What is the penalty for that on a British Warship? Flogging, I believe -- twenty-four lashes, n'est ce pas?"

"You bastard!" Before he could move, his arms were captured and held by two French soldiers. DeVergesse raised his crop and struck Horatio across the face. If he had not turned slightly away, his cheek would have been laid open. As it was, the crop left an angry weal like a brand running from his temple to below his jaw. Dizzy with pain, and half-stunned, he sensed a flicker of movement amongst the Indefatigables. "Hold ranks!" he ordered hoarsely. "Hold ranks, by God, or I'll have you flogged myself!" Miraculously, they stood.

DeVergesse laughed. "Take him back to his cell."

Horatio was roughly seized and dragged away. The welt on his face burned fiercely, making him dizzy and weak. The French soldiers shoved him into his cell and he collapsed on Archie's cot. His cheek throbbed and his eye teared from the shock of the blow. He lay there for a few minutes, waiting for the agony to subside. As it faded, he became aware of the sounds from the courtyard. He stumbled to the window, looked out, and wished he had not.

Styles was tied army style across a gun carriage. His shirt had been stripped and the scars from past floggings criss-crossed his back. They were old and silvered, for he had not been beaten since he had come to the Indefatigable. The Idefatigables had been gathered into a small cluster, ringed by French soldiers with drawn muskets. Matthews was standing slightly to the fore, and Horatio could see the strain on his seamed face. But his expression was calm, his posture straight. He stood as an example to his fellow seamen, and they followed it.

A muscular French soldier stood before the gun carriage. He held a red baize bag, which surprised Horatio. It was ironic that Styles was to be beaten with a cat o'nine tails in the tradition of the British Navy by a French soldier; but it would not lessen the pain because it was familiar. As Horatio watched, the soldier took the cat out and shook the strands of knotted rope loose. Why were they waiting? Horatio wondered.

Then he heard the cell door open and DeVergesse entered, followed by two more soldiers. "Good, you are well enough to stand. You should have a better view than one afforded by this window -- then you will truly appreciate what your arrogance has wrought."

"Where is Don Massaredo?" Horatio asked.

"Alas, called away by a domestic emergency. Something about a fire, I believe. Such a pity. His home was quite lovely." He gestured to his soldiers and in French ordered them to bind Horatio's hands. "In the event you should be moved to do something insanely heroic."

He was led out into the courtyard and positioned at the head of the gun carriage. When Styles raised his shaggy head, he could look directly into Horatio's eyes. Horatio was deeply ashamed that he had failed in his promise to protect his men from DeVergesse, but he would not dishonour Styles by turning away from his punishment.

Styles' dark eyes were unflinching. "It's all right, sir. Ain't like I never been flogged before. His mouth twisted slightly. "The bastard done a right proper job on yer face, sir."

"Styles --" There was no time to say more, even if he had known what to say. The Frenchman raised his arm and the cat came down. Styles greeted the first lash with a foul curse, and then the silence was broken only by the hiss of breath between his teeth. Twenty-four times, and Horatio saw each stroke in Style's eyes. But he would not look away, not even when the blood began to run down the seaman's shoulders and drip onto the dry ground.

When the twenty-fourth stroke came, DeVergesse paused, just long enough for Horatio to think that he would continue the punishment. He looked at the colonel, daring him to order one more lash. DeVergesse's lips thinned in a grimace. "That is enough." He flicked a glance to the soldier holding Horatio by the arms. "Untie him. I doubt he will be going anywhere." Horatio felt the ropes binding him loosen, and the painful throb of blood returning to his wrists. He shot DeVergesse a murderous glare, and DeVergesse narrowed his gaze. "Look at me again like that, Mr. Hornblower, and I will have this man thrown in the hole, where he will surely die."

"I wouldn't give the bastard the satisfaction," Styles muttered. He was cut loose, and with an effort that made Horatio wince with sympathetic pain, he straightened his broad and bloody shoulders.

"Styles, have a care," Horatio cautioned. "He will kill you the next time."

Styles looked at his lieutenant. The lad was as white as if he were the one bleeding on the ground, and the mark of DeVergesse's whip was livid and obscene on that pale, fine-featured face. "I'll be fine, sir." He managed a hint of his old devil-may care smile. "The ladies, they like a striped back, so they does. Makes em all soft and sorry like." He took a few wavering steps and then stood, swaying slightly. He felt bloody awful, he did. Before he could protest, Matty was there, catching him beneath one shoulder, and Mr. Hornblower was at his other side, supporting him. "Sir!" he protested. "T'isn't right --"

"It is an honour," Horatio said. Together he and Matthews half-carried him back to the cell. They laid him face down on his cot, and Oldroyd, utterly silent for once, brought a bucket of water and one of his own shirts to the cot.

Horatio wadded the shirt into a pad. He soaked it in the water and as gently as he could laid it across Styles' ravaged flesh. The seaman scarcely flinched, and Horatio imagined that he was only half-conscious, and mercifully so.

"Sir, let me." Matthews took the cloth from him. "You shouldn't be here, sir. You could use a bit of tending yerself."

Horatio rose wearily. Matthews was right. There was not much he could do that would make any difference. "Keep putting water on his back, Matthews. That will keep the swelling down."

"Aye, aye, sir. I reckon I know what to do. You should get some cold water on your face, sir. And don't worry about us."

Horatio could not help smiling. "It is my duty to worry, Matthews. But thank you. And I am more sorry than I can say."

"Fer what, sir?" Styles whispered with an effort. "You didn't bloody beat me."

*But I am responsible.* Horatio thought. "You rest, Styles. Matthews, look out for him and for the others. God knows what will happen before the Don returns."

"Where is he, sir?"

Horatio shook his head. "The colonel implied that there was an unfortunate accident at the Don's estate."

"An accident?" Matthews' skepticism mirrored Horatio's. "Bloody timing fer it, sir."

"Yes." Horatio sighed. "Best lay as low as possible. No matter how difficult it is, it is better than being flogged for no reason at all."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Horatio left the men and crossed the courtyard. It was deserted now, the only soldiers in evidence were standing on the ramparts. DeVergesse was no where in sight, but Horatio felt his presence like a miasma in the air. He went into his cell and lay down. He could not recall feeling so utterly drained in his life, not even when Clayton had died. His wounded cheek burned and ached, and his temples felt as if a band of iron were tightening around them with each beat of his heart. He closed his eyes, and saw again the rise and fall of the cat, the spoor of blood scattered by each stroke, and the pain in Styles' eyes as they locked on to his. This morning, he had waked with hope. Now it was scarcely noon, and hope had died with the first fall of the lash.

**********************

Don Massaredo returned to El Ferrol from Corunna in the late afternoon. He was bone-weary and his clothing reeked of smoke. Fortunately, the messenger who had arrived before dawn with news of the fire, had been mistaken in both its extent and its location. His house and happy memories of his late wife were intact. However, one of his winery buildings had been destroyed, and with it a valuable press -- a loss he could ill-afford. Dios mio, such was life. He rode slowly through the gate into the courtyard. As he slid from his mount's back, he noticed how deadly quiet it was. Naturally Colonel DeVergesse would have kept the prisoners in their cells, but this silence was different ...

The Don looked around with narrowed eyes. A gun carriage had been moved to the center of the yard, and ropes dangled loosely from the struts as if something; no, as if *someone* had been tied to it. Massaredo tore off his gloves with a curse. He strode rapidly towards the cells, went to Lieutenant Hornblower's and ordered the guard to open the door.

He was about to demand an explanation when his eyes made their final adjustment to the darkness. Hornblower was on Mr. Kennedy's cot, laying very still. Massaredo came forward. "Mr. Hornblower?" The boy did not move, and when the Don bent closer, he saw the raw weal and the disfiguring bruise marring his pale complexion. DeVergesse! Para Dios, he would kill that man for betraying his trust! The Don laid a firm, gentle hand on Hornblower's shoulder. "Mr. Hornblower, wake up."

To Horatio's credit, he did not leap out of his skin when Massaredo touched him, but he did sit up more quickly than was wise and paid for that action in pain. "Sir!" he gasped, then sank back down with a sound that was disgracefully like a sob.

The Don went to the door. "Bring water, Diego. For drinking, and washing, and a rag. Quickly."

"Sir," Horatio tried again, and the Don crossed to his side. "No, lay down. You will make yourself ill. Rest for a few minutes, and then we will talk." When the guard came with a pitcher of water and a basin, Massaredo poured a cup of water and held it to Horatio's lips. "Drink this first."

The water tasted like nectar and Horatio was grateful, but embarrassed to be so weak. He took the cup from Massaredo and drained it, then before he could ask for another, Massaredo refilled the cup and waited until that too was gone. He wrung the cold water from the rag and held it out to Horatio. "Put this on your face, and then tell me how this happened."

Horatio winced when he laid the cloth against his cheek. "Colonel DeVergesse felt I was insolent when I objected to his command to have Seaman Styles flogged."

"Flogged!" It was beyond imagining. "But why?"

"For as close to no reason as I can say, sir. I am certain Colonel DeVergesse will have a different answer."

"Colonel DeVergesse has a lot to answer for, evidently." The Don took the cloth from Horatio, soaked it and wrung it out again before handing it back to him. "And I swear, he will answer to me! I will not tolerate such abuse under my authority."

As the cool water drew the searing pain from his wound, Horatio was able to think more clearly. He remembered what DeVergesse had said about the Don's house. "Sir, your home, is it all right?"

"Yes, yes. The fire was confined to a building in my winery. How did you know this?"

"The Colonel told us, sir." Horatio's worried brown eyes met Massaredo's. "Sir, you once advised me to be cautious, now I would ask you to remember that advice."

"What do you mean?"

"The fire, how did it start?"

Hornblower's suspicion was so transparent that the Don nearly laughed. "Unless Colonel DeVergesse paid a half-witted worker to fall asleep with a lit candle in a room filled with wood and straw packing, he cannot possibly be held responsible. It was an accident, Mr. Hornblower. Nothing more."

Horatio felt as if his brain were stuffed with cotton wool. "But sir, why would Colonel DeVergesse imply that he was responsible?"

The Don took the rag from Hornblower's lax fingers once again, and soaked it. "I warned you that DeVergesse is like El Diablo, no? He would have you believe that he is that clever, and that powerful merely to force you to doubt yourself. And he succeeded, did he not?"

"Yes." A dull flush crept into Horatio's pale cheeks.

"How is Seaman Styles?" Massaredo asked.

"In pain. But his shipmates will take care of him."

"If it will ease your mind, I will have a doctor out to look at him. And you, if you should require it." He studied the welt on Horatio's face. "He meant to mark you permanently, I fear. Another few inches and it might have cost you your sight."

"Yes." That knowledge made his stomach turn. It was what he had feared the most. He pretended to shrug it off. "Lord Nelson has lost an eye."

Massaredo chuckled. "And so if you aspire to be a Nelson, you must as well?" When Horatio's blush deepened, he shook his head. "It is a pity you and I are enemies, Mr. Hornblower. You are a most original young man."

"Sir, I do not consider you my enemy. Our countries are at war, but we are not."

Massaredo smiled. "And Colonel DeVergesse? Is he your enemy?"

"He is."

The Don's smile faded. There was something so implacable in that young voice, so calm and deadly, that it left no doubt as to the hate behind it. "I cannot help you in your revenge, Mr. Hornblower," Massaredo said quietly.

"I would not share it willingly, sir." Horatio regarded the Don. "Where is Mr. Kennedy?"

"Safe."

"I would like to see him."

"I do not know if that would be wise, not with DeVergesse so near."

"Please, sir."

"Perhaps tomorrow. Tonight, you are not well, and you need to rest. I will have Diego bring you fresh water. Could you eat something?"

Remembering the gruel from the morning, Horatio laughed. "Sir, I could eat paste!"

"I will try to do a bit better than that, Mr. Hornblower. Take you some rest. Do not worry about Colonel DeVergesse. I will deal with him in my own fashion."

When the Don left, Horatio sank back against the wall, relieved that some part of his crippling burden had been lifted, if only temporarily. And tomorrow, he would see Archie.

*****************

Massaredo asked to see Colonel DeVergesse in his library, less than half an hour after he had left Horatio. The Colonel strolled in, all arrogance and innocent blue eyes, to be confronted by the Don in a cold fury. He was taken rather aback by the change in the courtly commandant who had always seemed accommodating, if not warm, and willing to accept DeVergesse's orders with a shrug. DeVergesse had no doubts as to what had occasioned this transformation, but he did not understand why. And he asked so, point blank.

Massaredo closed the ledger in front of him with a thump. He rose and paced to within two feet of DeVergesse. Despite the Colonel's advantage in height, the Don in his regal indignation was intimidating. His eyes narrowed in anger. "You flog a prisoner under my protection! You strike his officer viciously across the face! And you ask why I am angry? How dare you order that man to be flogged! What crime did he commit that he deserved to be beaten?"

Etienne DeVergesse looked at the Don as if he had suddenly lost his mind. "He was insolent, and he made a threatening move at me, I had every right to use him as an example."

"He was defending his officer! Whom you had struck with a whip! Dios, have you lost your mind? Lieutenant Hornblower has given me his parole -- his word of honour! And you whip him as if he were a disobedient whelp! You have shamed me."

DeVergesse laughed. "Shamed you! Hornblower is hardly a guest here, Senor. He is a prisoner of war, most likely a spy, and an enemy of France. And as such he is also your enemy. Have you forgotten who your allies are?"

The Don regarded him coldly. "I am only too well aware who they are. But your actions sicken me, sir. I have seen what you have done. And worse, I know what you intended to do."

"If you have no stomach for your duty as commandant of this place, perhaps another less onerous posting can be arranged for you."

Massaredo's expression hardened. "My commission has come from Madrid, sir. Not from Paris. I take my instructions from their Excellencies, not from you, Colonel."

There was no reply to be made to that assertion. DeVergesse made a small, curt bow. "For the moment, Commandante. But if their Excellencies should learn that you have sympathies contrary to those of Spain --"

The Don slapped his hand down hard on the table at his side. To his deep satisfaction, DeVergesse could not repress his reflexive start at the sharp report. "My loyalties and my honour are unquestioned, sir. And I say that you have overstepped your bounds. Do not think that you will have that opportunity again."

DeVergesse's only reply was an ugly smile. "You threaten me?"

The Don was suddenly all innocence. "Ah, Colonel. I never make idle threats. That, sir, was the promise of a Spanish gentleman."

He watched with satisfaction as the Colonel turned on his elegant heel, and marched from the room. He allowed himself to enjoy that sensation for a moment before somber reality set in. The Colonel had no real power to interfere with his authority, not yet. But uneasy prescience made the Don feel like a juggler in a carnival, keeping an impossible number of balls in the air. He rubbed his eyes, realizing that his clothing still reeked of smoke, and that he was hungry and weary. He called for his servant to run a bath, prepare a meal, and bring him fresh clothing. He would not invite the Colonel to join him this evening. The thought of dining with that man disgusted him.

When he had bathed and eaten, Massaredo made sure that the Colonel was involved for the evening with his officers. Then he went to the cells again, to see Hornblower. He was awake, reading by the guttering light of a candle, his eyes narrowed a bit as if his head still ached. Of course it must, the Don thought, fresh anger burning at DeVergesse's actions. He ordered the door opened, and Hornblower looked up. The swelling on his face had gone down considerably, but the bruise was darkening and spreading. He looked as if he had been beaten.

"Sir?" Horatio closed his book and rose courteously.

"How are you feeling, Mr. Hornblower? Have you been able to eat?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you. And I am feeling better."

"Your head still aches, no?"

Horatio shrugged. "Not as badly as it did, sir."

"I think it best you see your friend tonight, while Colonel DeVergesse is occupied, rather than wait until tomorrow. I am afraid that we have had words. I believe he will be watching both of us more closely."

"Sir, I never intended --"

"Shh! And I never intended that your parole be so cruelly abused. I am ashamed to call DeVergesse my ally. Come, now. We have only a short time."

Horatio followed him into the guard room, watched in amazement as the trapdoor was revealed, and feeling as if he were in a very bad novel, let the Don lead him down the ladder into the darkness of the tunnel.

**********************

*Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage,* Archie murmured. And thought that if he repeated it often enough, he might convince himself that it were true. The day had seemed interminable -- he could not help smiling. That was Horatio's word; *How was your walk,* Hunter had asked, and Horatio had replied, thinking it was the best way to answer, *Interminable.*

Archie had come to rely on Horatio's presence to bolster his fading courage and self-confidence, without it, he felt rather lost. No one had come to see him since the guard had brought his mid-day meal, and even though Archie had tried to engage him in conversation, the man had remained stubbornly mute. Archie did not think it was because his Spanish was unintelligible. He wondered if Don Massaredo were planning another smuggling run that evening. Perhaps that would explain the guard's reticence. Archie was about to open his book again, when he heard the footsteps in the stone tunnel.

The door was unlocked by Don Massaredo. Archie rose. "Sir!" And then he saw the man behind Massardo. "Horatio!"

Horatio stepped reluctantly into the light, his face slightly averted. But he was not able to hide the marks of DeVergesse's whip. Archie gasped. "What happened to you?"

"Etienne DeVergesse and I had a bit of a clash. He flogged Styles."

"What! Why?"

Horatio shook his head. "It is of no consequence. How are you, Archie?"

"Bored to tears," Archie sighed, and then remembering the Don's presence, blushed. "I am sorry, sir ..."

Massaredo was amused. Captivity had not suppressed Kennedy's ingrained courtesy. "My apologies, Mr. Kennedy. Unfortunately, it is a situation I cannot remedy. But if you will excuse me, I have some business to attend to for a few minutes. I will not be long," he warned, and then left Archie and Horatio alone.

Horatio sank down on the cot. "I'm glad you're safe, Archie."

"Safer than you, evidently." He frowned at Horatio's bruised face. "My God, it looks like he struck you with a riding crop."

"Is that your aristocratic version of flogging?" Horatio asked acidly, and instantly regretted his sarcasm when he saw the hurt look in his friend's eyes. "It was not my finest hour."

"You were defending Styles, Horatio. Do not lie to me."

Horatio turned away from Archie's perceptive gaze. "You know DeVergesse, Archie. I thought I could protect the men from him, and I failed. We are all in greater danger than ever from my actions."

For a moment, Archie was speechless, then he started laughing. "And you were also responsible for the expulsion from the Garden of Eden! Truly Horatio, you must learn that not every evil in this world is the result of a failure on your part!"

"I never --" Horatio began to protest, but on review, grudgingly accepted that perhaps once, Archie was right. "I do not know what to do," he admitted reluctantly.

Archie sobered and sat next to Horatio on the cot. "DeVergesse needs no provocation on your part to resort to cruelty. He craves it, it is in his blood. He is like Simpson, but infinitely more dangerous because he wields real power; not just fear and intimidation."

"Yes." Horatio drew in a deep breath. "I hate being helpless. On the ship, even on the Indy with Pellew looking over my shoulder, there is always something I can do to change what is happening. I can *see* the enemy, I can judge the angle of the guns, I can tell the men what they should do. It is like breathing to me. But here --" He made a resigned, hopeless gesture. "I am utterly adrift."

It was that rarest of moments; Horatio vulnerable, his heart revealed. Archie looked away. He could scarcely bear to see it. How often had Horatio extended his friendship and support to him? From the first encounter with Simpson when Horatio had learned of his fits, to the challenge he issued, to his determination to bind Archie to his will to live, he had never let him walk alone in the dark places.

"Adrift, but not alone," Archie said quietly.

But the words meant to comfort, only wounded. Horatio looked up with stricken eyes. "God, Archie. I never meant to compare my situation with yours."

"W-what?" Archie was confused, and then realized what he had said. They stared at each other in consternation. Archie spoke first, determined to lay that demon to rest. "I don't blame you, Horatio. I never did, and I never will. Even if I had, you have ransomed my soul twice over, so let it go. Please. And if I know you, you have been beating yourself with it over the last two years. It is time to stop."

"Colonel DeVergesse will be only too glad to take on that duty," Horatio said wryly.

"You cannot allow him to goad you into reacting," Archie warned. "He will use your own anger and resentment as a weapon. Believe me, he is a past master of the art."

Horatio thought on Archie's assessment of the Colonel. Recalling the morning, he could see that what Archie said was true; DeVergesse had threatened Horatio to make Styles react, and then when he had, the Colonel had struck Horatio and flogged Styles. It was a fencing match, a battle of skirmish, advance, and retreat. "Yes ... of course, I see that now."

Archie watched Horatio's expression change from one of confusion and defeat, to thoughtful confidence. That alone was heartening. "Eight days, Horatio."

"Hmm?"

"Eight days until we can reasonably expect to hear something from Madrid."

Horatio sighed. "Eight days, and then you will be out of here." For the first time he looked about him curiously. A slow smile spread across his face as the significance of the barrels dawned on him. "Tell me that I am wrong about what is in those casks, Archie."

Archie grinned. "I helped load a cutter last night." His eyes gleamed with humour. "And the really delicious thing is that some of the contraband is French. A fine way to treat one's allies, if you ask me!"

Horatio laughter died as an idea came to him. "There is a way out of here?"

"Yes, a sheltered cove ... Horatio, you cannot be thinking of escape!"

"No! Well, not exactly -- what I mean is not at this time. I would not betray Don Massaredo's trust. But I swear if DeVergesse raises a hand against any of us, I would not hesitate to take advantage."

A shadow fell across the entrance to the cave. "So, you would not hesitate to abuse my trust?" Don Massaredo stood there, and Horatio felt his stomach lurch. He rose slowly, feeling like a schoolboy caught cheating on an examination.

"Sir, you did not hear the rest of my statement --" he objected, a slight desperation in his voice. "I would not arbitrarily --"

The Don came in and stood before him, his eyes holding Horatio's. "It is not unwise to plan for the worst, Mr. Hornblower. However, I would discourage the abandonment of the cautious plan in favour of the audacious."

"Yes, sir. That is what Captain Pellew would advise." He cast a glance at Archie. "Sir, thank you for allowing me to see Mr. Kennedy."

"It is time for us to return. The Colonel may decide to inspect the cells before retiring."

Horatio and Archie shook hands gravely, their eyes saying more than they would ever voice. Horatio followed the Don out to the tunnel and Archie turned back to his cot, wishing he could walk out with his friend. He might have been surprised that Horatio was wishing the opposite, to stay somehow sheltered from the storms that awaited him outside.

**************************

Matthews lay quietly on his bunk, his ears attuned to the sounds of his cell mates; to Oldroyd's rhythmic snores, and to Styles' shallow, tense breaths. Aye, he recognized the sounds of a man trying desperately to deny that he was in pain, and afraid to move lest a wave of agony engulf him. Matthews was that rarest of men, a seaman who had never been flogged by dint of his intelligence, his talents, his level-headed responses to orders. But he had known enough men like Styles, who accepted floggings as a part of life. Didn't make the pain any easier, though.

"Styles, you all right?" he whispered.

"Aye, Matty. Bloody sore is all. And thirsty."

Matthews went to the bucket of water in the corner and drew out the dipper. He carried it to Styles, and held his head up enough to allow the water to trickle into his mouth. Styles sucked in a breath of pain, but drained the dipper. "Thanks, mate."

"D'ye want some on yer back?"

"Nah, let it dry. It'll heal faster that way. ave you seen Mr. Hornblower?"

"No. But the Don is back. He'll look out for im, I reckon."

Styles was silent for a while before he spoke again. "He wouldn't look away, Matty. He just stood there with his eyes starin' into mine, like he was feeling ev'ry stroke with me. Not many men'd do that. Hell, I couldn't bloody do it."

"Aye, he's a rare lad, he is. We've got to be strong fer his sake. Can't give that Frog any reason to urt him."

Styles snorted derisively. "D'ye think e needs a reason, Matty? e's like Simpson. He'd kill a man as soon as look at im."

Silently, Matthews nodded. "Get some rest, mate." He went back to his cot and lay staring into the dark until he heard Styles' breathing deepen and slow into the rhythm of natural sleep. He turned over, whispered an old prayer his mam had taught him, and closed his eyes. Tomorrow would take care of itself.

***********************
It seemed that Horatio had no sooner closed his eyes, than the guard was waking him for the morning muster. He sat up and rubbed his face, sending an immediate throb of pain shooting from chin to temple. Damn! He had been so soundly asleep that he had forgotten about his injury. Tentatively, he pressed against the bruise, and though the swelling was better, he could still feel the raised track of the welt. He looked in his shaving glass and winced at the sight. The red welt surrounded by angry bruising did nothing to improve his thin, pallid countenance. But at least the skin had not been broken, and it was unlikely it would leave a scar. Still, it seemed rather pointless to shave one side of his face, so he shaved neither and went out to the courtyard.

The men were assembled in ranks as they had been the previous day. Styles, standing somewhat stiffly and looking unusually pale, was supported on either side by Matthews and Oldroyd, but he gave Horatio a brief knuckled salute. DeVergesse was not in sight, so Horatio crossed over to his men.

"Are you well enough to be out here, Styles?"

"Aye, sir. Layin' about only stiffens you up, sir. Better t'keep moving."

"Very well, but if you start feeling ill, I want you back in your cell."

Styles grinned. "If we were on the Indy, sir, you'd expect me to do my duty, not coddle me along like a bloody idler."

"If we were on the Indy it is unlikely either of us would be in this predicament." He turned to Matthews. "I have seen Mr. Kennedy. He is safe for now. But we must be very careful, men. Colonel DeVergesse will not tolerate any infraction of discipline, not the slightest move, or he will strike back."

"We understand, sir. We'll be meek as lambs, sir."

"Styles?"

"Not a bleatin' word, sir." The old grin flashed again, and Horatio was heartened at the sight.

"Thank you, men. Eight days, and with luck we may be exchanged."

A stir behind him heralded the arrival of DeVergesse, and with a feeling of dread, Horatio turned to take his place at the head of his men. DeVergesse came forward until he was standing before Horatio. His eyes traced the line of the welt on Horatio's face. "So, I have marked you, after all, Lieutenant."

Horatio felt ill at the implication that DeVergesse had any claim to him, body or soul. "It will fade, sir."

"But not for a while. Perhaps when you look in the mirror you will remember the price of your insolence." Horatio's calm eyes met DeVergesse's, taking him aback. He had expected fulminating rebellion, and instead found this cold indifference.

If Horatio had learned anything from his time on the Justinian, it was that bullies liked nothing better than to provoke an emotional response from their victims. He looked away from DeVergesse's face and focused beyond his right shoulder. "Yes, sir." That was all, not a flicker resentment, not a flicker of resignation.

DeVergesse turned his attention to the men behind Hornblower. The man he had flogged, Styles, was standing there, his scarred face as utterly devoid of expression as his commander's. Nom de Dieu, but these Englishmen were as tough as old nails. DeVergesse stood before him, looking for some sign of weakness, and found none.

"Seaman Styles."

"Sir?"

"I am impressed. I hardly expected to see you here."

"It would take more'n a tickle with a cat to lay me out, sir." Styles' chin came up proudly, but his stolid expression did not change.

"So it seems." Deliberately, he focused on Hornblower's bruised profile. "I suppose your Lieutenant is equally stoic, hmm?"

Styles' breath drew in sharply, but at the same instant, he felt Matthew's elbow nudge his, quelling his instinctive retort. He swallowed his words, looked away from the Colonel's cold, blue eyes and replied, "I figure he is. Sir."

DeVergesse made a dismissive, derisive sound and walked away. "Confine them to their cells again --"

"I think not, Colonel." Don Massaredo advanced rapidly across the courtyard. "It is better for the prisoners to have fresh air. Their cells are being cleaned today. And if you feel that I am being too lenient, may I remind you that the health of your men depends on the health of the garrison?"
DeVergesse was infuriated by Massaredo's interference, but he could scarcely argue the point. Horatio allowed himself the luxury of sneaking a glance at Don Massaredo, and saw an answering glint of humour in the Don's eyes. It was such a small victory, but Horatio could not curb his smile. It tugged at the corner of his mouth and threatened to become a full grin, before it was suppressed by his determined impassivity.

Styles saw the tell-tale deepening of the dimple in his lieutenant's cheek. They might pay for this later, he thought, but it was bloody worth it to see that Frog put in his place by the Don.

DeVergesse stalked away, summoning his men with a wave of his hand. Horatio waited until he had vanished into the hacienda before dismissing the Indefatigables and approaching Don Massaredo. "Thank you, sir."

"I have the welfare of my men to consider, Lieutenant," he spoke sternly, but his eyes still held a hint of warmth. "Will you require the attention of a physician for yourself or Seaman Styles?"

"No, sir. We are both on the mend."

"Good. Then you will join me for dinner this evening?"

"Yes, sir. Will the Colonel be there as well?"

"But of course. However, perhaps a reminder that you are an officer and a gentleman is in order. Otherwise, he will conveniently forget that you have given your parole."

"He has done that already, sir."

The Don nodded grimly. "But better to dine with the wolf than be the wolf's dinner, no?"

"Yes, sir." This time there was no need to restrain his smile. It was rare, and warm. Don Massaredo thought that it made him look very young and innocent. Deceptively so; for though he was still a youth, Hornblower's innocence was far past, stripped away by war and the evil in men's hearts.

*********************

Archie paced the cave. Fifty steps from front to back, twenty steps from side to side, not counting the stacked barrels. Lord, but he was weary of confinement. He was grateful that the air in the cave was fresh, if damp and that the distant murmur of the surf reminded him of being on board the Indy. He had been in worse places, but the very fact that Horatio was near and in danger, made this gaol nearly unendurable.

He had no way of measuring time, but his stomach told him that it would not be long before his midday meal arrived. Archie picked up his volume of Don Quixote. It was rapidly losing its charm. A pity, for he might have enjoyed the challenge under other circumstances. The words blurred before him as him mind wandered. He thought back to last evening, and Horatio's visit. Although Horatio had denied thinking of escape, Archie wondered what would happen if escape became their only hope? What if DeVergesse moved against the Don?

Archie's family was political. He had grown up hearing his father and older brothers talk about the machinations necessary to maintain power. And though he had not always understood, he had listened. He believed Don Massaredo was engaged in a balancing act that he might not be able to justify for much longer. If and when that eventuality came to pass, escape might be their only option. How would he escape? Archie thought, and then smiled wryly to himself. After a month in the hole, the last thing he wanted to contemplate again was escape. And yet here he was, doing just that.

He considered what he knew: the number of guards, how frequently they made rounds -- of course, DeVergesse's men complicated that. Where he was, where the other cells were. How many men, where the cave was in relation to the shore, the nature of the cove ... That he did not know, he had last seen it in the dark, and could not judge the shoreline, or the duration of the tides. He was certain Horatio would have the tides memorized by now. It was the sort of mental calculation that he reveled in puzzling out. Would the Don help? Would they have to time their escape with the arrival of the revenue cutter?

All of this Archie thought. He summoned the guard at the end of the tunnel, and politely requested a pencil and paper from the Don. The guard gave him an odd look, but seemed to understand the basic gist of Archie's request. He was certain the Don would grant him this favor. Now, if he could only see Horatio ...

Archie stopping thinking, stunned. He was doing what Horatio would do, what Pellew would do if preparing for battle. His other escapes had been ramshackle affairs, nothing more than seizing an opportunity, which was most likely why they had failed. And this attempt was mere conjecture; no more than an unrecognized sail on the horizon. A slow, but triumphant smile came to Archie's mouth. He did not have Horatio's instinctive reactions, nor his gift for incisive thinking, but he did have the ability to observe minute details, and a near perfect memory. Surely those were gifts, as well. He lay back on his cot and closed his eyes, visualizing what he had seen the night of the smuggler's landing.

When the guard brought his meal, Archie pulled the cover from the tray. Along with the usual bread and soup, there was a pencil and several sheets of parchment. And beneath the parchment, folded into quarters, was a map of the coast of El Ferrol and Corunna. Archie's laughter made the guard pause and shake his head. *Loco Ingles,* he muttered, before he ascended the ladder.

*******************

As quickly as the time was passing for Archie, it dragged for Horatio. He dreaded being in DeVergesse's company. He recalled a saying of his father's -- something about what looks fair and feels foul, and every time he looked at DeVergesse, that was what he thought. Beneath those hard, handsome features was a dark soul. Horatio had seen glimpses of it; when the Colonel had threatened Kitty Cobham with discovery, when he had raised the whip to Horatio's face, when he had watched the lash bite into Style's flesh. The memory made him want to vomit. And he would have to eat with that man? He would rather be in the hole with the rats!

At least he was freed from his cell for the day, and could walk the compound. If he had been confined, he would have surely gone mad. As he paced, he was aware that the men were watching him, yet none would speak. Matthews was sitting quietly. He did not dare pull out his pocket knife, but a length of rope kept his hands busy as he tied and untied knots. Styles refused to give the French the satisfaction of returning to his cell to lay down; he sat gaming with Oldroyd and several other Indefatigables. There was a tension in the air, like a thunderstorm boiling on the horizon. Horatio was uneasy. They could not afford to make any mistakes. One wrong move, and a flogging would be the least of their worries. And Archie? Horatio envied him, for he was away from DeVergesse, and his only enemy was boredom. It was uncharitable of him to feel that way, for isolation was a far worse prison.

As he thought of his friend, he missed him with such a sharp ache that it stopped him in his tracks. He stood for a moment, his eyes closed against the light that seemed suddenly glaring. Whether it was anxiety, or a lingering effect from DeVergesse's abuse, Horatio felt dizzy. He stumbled a little, and in an instant, Matthews was at his side.

"Sir?"

"It's nothing, Matthews. The sun ..."

Matthews looked up at the milky sky. "Beggin' pardon, sir. But you should go inside, mebbe take a lie down fer a bit."

Horatio held up his hand, hoping to dissuade Matthews from tagging along like a worried mother hen. "Some shade is all I need. Thank you." He forced himself to walk steadily towards the hacienda. There was a gate built into the wall, leading to a pocket-sized garden, now sere and barren, and a chapel. Horatio had never entered it before. He was not religious, and certainly not a Papist. But the chapel promised shade, and coolness, and perhaps someplace to collect his thoughts away from both the French soldiers, and the Indefatigables. He pushed the door open and went inside.

The thick walls insulated the sanctuary from both heat and sound. It was dim and quiet. There were only six pews, and a narrow aisle leading to the altar. Horatio sat down in the pew farthest from the altar. He leaned forward, his head in his hands, and closed his eyes. After a few minutes, he was able to look up without the walls spinning around him. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he began to notice details. The sanctuary lamp was ruby glass and gold, as were the candelabra on the altar. There were plaques on the wall, carved of dark oak, depicting Christ's journey to the cross. And suspended over the altar was a crucifix so realistic, that Horatio shuddered. The form of the crucified Christ was shocking in its depiction of suffering, reminding him not of salvation, but of failure, agony, and hopelessness.

Horatio's sharp mind was made for the analytical, not the metaphysical, and he jeered at his own self-pity. What kind of commander was he, indulging in the despondency? Captain Pellew would not see his situation as hopeless, and the only failure was the inability to act, to think clearly, to lead. Whatever his own fears were, he could not let the men see them. He straightened and was about to rise, when the darkness of the chapel was lit by a spill of light as the door opened, silhouetting the unmistakable form of Don Massaredo. Their surprise was mutual.

The Don came closer, genuflected before the altar, then joined Horatio. "Ah, Mr. Hornblower, I have never taken you for a religious man. I hope I have not disturbed your devotions."

Horatio was slightly taken aback by the suggestion that he had been at prayer. He shook his head. "No, sir. I don't --" He was about to admit that he did not believe in prayer, and was highly skeptical of God's existence, but considering where he was, and not wishing to offend Massaredo, he faltered. "It was cooler in here, sir. I am the one who should apologize, for taking advantage of this place."

"It is quiet, and cool, and there are many times I come here not to pray, but to think. Perhaps that is what you were doing?"

"Yes, sir. Not very fruitful thoughts, I fear."

Massaredo shrugged. "Then at least you found some peace away from Colonel DeVergesse. I shall see you at dinner?"

"Yes, sir. Sir, how is Mr. Kennedy today?"

"Keeping occupied." The Don's smile was completely enigmatic. Horatio bowed and braced himself to return to the courtyard and his troubles.

His troubles were awaiting him with a vengeance. He had no sooner closed the garden gate behind him, when DeVergesse and several of his men galloped into the courtyard. Their horses skittered to a stop, sliding on the gravelly soil, and Horatio grimaced. He could not claim much knowledge of horsemanship, but DeVergesse's flashy entrance was the equivalent of Dreadnought' Foster firing a broadside to announce his entrance into Gibraltar. Horatio tried not to smile, for he had a sudden vision of Captain Pellew frowning on the Quarter-deck of the Indefatigable. *I will get out of here," he thought. *There is nothing DeVergesse can do, short of killing me, that will prevent me from returning to the Indy and Captain Pellew.*

That thought buoyed his spirits through the rest of the long afternoon. But as the day wore on and the light faded, he felt slightly less confident. He shaved, despite the pain it caused him, and dressed as neatly as he could given the ragged state of his wardrobe. Feeling slightly guilty, he appropriated one of Archie's shirts to replace his own worn and stained garments. Perhaps it would bring him luck; at the very least, it served as a reminder that no matter how grim the situation, he was not alone.

The wolf was wearing sheep's clothing that evening. If Colonel DeVergesse was displeased by Hornblower's appearance at the hacienda his dark features did not reveal it. He somehow managed to be charming and threatening at the same time, forcing Horatio to be defensive and wary of the unseen traps that were baited by every remark. Don Massaredo made every effort to defuse the growing tension, but it would have been easier to prevent a volcano from erupting. At the end of the meal, he sighed, set down his wineglass and moved away from the table. "Gentleman, some cognac?"

Horatio tried to demur. "Sir, I would rather return to my cell. I am not --"

DeVergesse interrupted. "Oh, but Mr. Hornblower. It would be unforgivably rude to refuse to drink with us. Surely you would rather forget that you are nothing more than a prisoner here?"

"Colonel, that is one thing I never forget," Horatio replied. He stood rather stiffly, his eyes going to Don Massaredo's, the silent plea to be released from DeVergesse's taunts quite clear in his expression. To his disappointment, the Don gestured to a chair.

"Please, Mr. Hornblower. Accept my hospitality."

He sat down gracelessly. As he reached for the snifter of cognac offered by the Don, his jacket sleeve rode up, exposing the cuff of his shirt.

"How odd, Mr. Hornblower, that you should be wearing a shirt monogrammed A.K."

Horatio's stomach knotted. God, he had not noticed, but embroidered on the cuff in pale blue thread were Archie's initials. He could not deny it, the evidence was irrefutable. His mind raced to what he hoped would be a logical explanation. He met DeVergesse's mocking eyes as calmly as he could. "Not so very odd, Colonel. Archie Kennedy and I served together. His sea chest remained on the Indefatigable. Before I returned here, I took his shirts. What need does a dead man have for clean linen?"

"You do not feel guilty that you have survived and he does not?"
Careful, Horatio warned himself. He drew a breath. "Do you deny that in the Army, after a battle, you loot the bodies?"

DeVergesse laughed. "So unfeeling! You wound me, Mr. Hornblower. No, I will not deny that. Cruel necessity makes vultures of us all."

"Archie Kennedy was my friend, sir. We had long since made a pact that if either of us would die or be lost, the survivor would take what he needed from the other's sea chest."

"It is kinder to look at it that way, certainment. And of course, it must remind you of your *friend.*" The slight emphasis on that word made Horatio shudder, and he hoped DeVergesse had not seen it. The colonel continued. "I too, was saddened to hear of his death. Mr. Kennedy provided me with a great deal of entertainment,' shall we say."

White hot rage spilled through Horatio's heart, and he would have leaped at DeVergesse's throat and torn it out without compunction if Don Massaredo had not interposed. "Colonel DeVergesse! You speak of the dead --"

"He speaks of a friend, sir!" Horatio choked. "Who had more courage in his heart than that rabble of soldiers the Colonel commands!"

The Don laid a restraining hand on Horatio's shoulder. "Please, Mr. Hornblower, accept my apologies."

"You have done nothing, sir." He turned his fierce gaze on DeVergesse. "I will see you in Hell before you slander Mr. Kennedy's name again."

DeVergesse rose. He was as tall as Horatio, and much broader; he seemed to loom over him like a dark and oppressive shadow, but Horatio would not back down or look away. DeVergesse raised his hand as if to strike Hornblower. As the Don took a step forward DeVergesse spoke in a low, threatening voice. "That would be most unwise, Don Massaredo -- to lift a hand against one's ally to defend this inconsequential boy." As he spoke, he ran a long finger down the weal on Horatio's cheek. "Most unwise. You were lucky, Mr. Hornblower. Once. The next time, it will be your back laid open to the bone. Or perhaps Mr. Styles will offer himself to the lash instead. But I think it would be most entertaining to have him watch you, as you watched him. Two dozen lashes to a man with a scarred hide like his is nothing. But yours ... white and young ... tender. Two dozen might kill you."

"Colonel!" It was too much. Massaredo struck DeVergesse's hand away from Horatio's face. "You are drunk, sir."

He had provided an excuse for DeVergesse's behaviour, though the man was nowhere near inebriation. DeVergesse looked at Massaredo's guards standing with primed muskets at the door, to the Don's outraged figure, to Hornblower's impassive face. He backed away slowly. "It is very interesting whom you defend, Don Massaredo." He bowed to the Don, gave Hornblower a searing glance, and left the room.

Massaredo turned to Hornblower. He remained perfectly still, and then a shudder seemed to ripple from the ground he stood on and he swayed as if he would fall, measuring his length like a tree. Massaredo caught his arm just as his knees buckled, easing him back into his chair and forcing a glass into his cold fingers.

The heat of the liquor hitting the back of his throat made him cough. His dark eyes focused, colour returning slowly to his face. He blinked and met Massaredo's concerned gaze. "Sir --"

Massaredo forestalled what he imagined was an unnecessary apology. "No, Mr. Hornblower. The only thing you have done wrong is to refrain from killing that bastard. I apologize for preventing you from ripping out his throat."

A ghost of a smile touched Horatio's lips. "Then we both would surely hang."

Massaredo nodded. "There are things a man has to do for his soul, no matter the consequences to his body." He rose and looked down at Horatio. "Go back to your cell, Mr. Hornblower and forget this night."

"Yes, sir." He tried to sound as if he could. But once in his cell, as he pulled Archie's shirt over his head and stood with the air chilling his skin, he thought back to DeVergesse's threat and felt ill. He could not forget it, try as he might. He could still feel the touch of that finger against his cheek. When he closed his eyes, he could see the blood-soaked cat cutting into the flesh of Styles' back, and he knew, dear God, he knew that he could not survive that punishment with the same stoic dignity as the seaman. And that was what he feared more than anything; to be shown a craven coward in front of his men.

With a sudden cramp of wrenching nausea, Horatio bent over his slop bucket and threw up what little dinner he had managed to eat. His stomach heaved until there was nothing left to come up but bile. He staggered over to his cot and shivering, pulled the blankets over his shoulders. Alone, in the darkness, he believed he had become what he despised most.

*************************

The smuggler's boat came in again that night. Archie was awakened shortly after midnight by Don Massaredo opening the gate to the cave. He threw back his covers, put on his shoes, and again, helped load casks into the cutter. The moon was full, but frequently obscured by clouds that seemed to be thickening. If the autumn rains were about to begin, he could understand Massaredo's need to get as many casks out of the cave before the weather broke. His profits no doubt depended on their delivery. To wait out the winter would have cost him dearly. When the Don finally called a halt to the loading, the cave was half again as empty as it had been, and Archie's lantern chased the shadows far into the depths.

The Don tapped a cask and handed Archie a cup of the contents. Not the finest cognac, but rough Spanish brandy. Archie gasped at the first swallow, and the Don laughed softly. "That will heat your stomach, Mr. Kennedy."

Archie raised the cup in a salute. "Or burn a hole in it, sir."

"Nonsense, you would not be so tender!" Massaredo's chuckle fell silent for his words had reminded him of DeVergesse's taunts. Archie noticed the sudden change in the Don's expression, and it sent a warning shiver down his spine.

"Sir, is something wrong with Horatio?"

"Mr. Hornblower was well when I left him, Mr. Kennedy." But a slight uncertainty at the end of that statement made Archie's heart pound. "Sir," he begged. "Please. Horatio is my friend, as well as my commanding officer."

Massaredo drew in a breath and seemed to peer into Archie's soul. When those blue eyes did not falter, he came to a decision. "Mr. Kennedy, if you had to choose between remaining here, safe in this cave, or revealing yourself to spare Lieutenant Hornblower's life, what would you do?"

The colour drained from Archie's face. "This is about Colonel DeVergesse. What has that bastard done to Horatio?" He beat down his rising panic, and caught at Massaredo's arm. "I know what he is capable of, sir! You said Horatio was well --"

"He is, Mr. Kennedy. For how long, I do not know. But you have not answered my question."

Archie swallowed. "I know Horatio would say that he is unimportant, that the lives of the men come first. He would say that as the commanding officer, it is my duty to protect them. But sir, I owe him my life, and to repay that debt, I would do whatever is necessary."

"I hope it will not come to that, Mr. Kennedy. However, I felt that you should be warned."

Archie's face hardened. "Sir, I know Colonel DeVergesse. And it will come to that unless he can be forestalled long enough for the messenger to arrive from Madrid." He pointed to his wall where the slashes gleamed white in the lantern light. "Seven days, sir. Six, tomorrow. What are the chances?"

Massaredo shook his head and looked grave. "If I were a gambling man, like your friend Mr. Hornblower, I would say less than an even chance, Mr. Kennedy."

It was bleak. After Massaredo left him, Archie sat staring at the map. Would he have to use his knowledge of it to escape? Would their lives depend on it? He had seven days to prepare no matter what the outcome. He would not allow himself to imagine what it would be like to leave without Horatio. As he studied the map, trying to memorize the inlets and shoals, he found himself wishing that he had some counsel. Matthews, God, how he missed that wise presence! And Styles, always there with a strong shoulder and a grin, even in the most dire situations. Oldroyd, not the brightest mind, but the best shot and willing to work.

Archie paused. This was command. This is what Horatio faced everyday. Decisions, loneliness, the welfare of his men, the dangers of warfare. The constant, wearing concerns. *Horatio, I wish I could tell you that you're not alone. I am sharing this with you.* He could not reach him though, did not know that Horatio was shivering, could not imagine that he was in despair. Archie studied his map for a while longer, then blew out his lantern and lay down; vague worry at the edge of his mind slowly ebbing as his body relaxed into sleep.

*************************

Horatio slept very little that night, and what rest he did take was broken and fearful. Each time he drifted toward sleep, he was jerked awake by the echo of Jack Simpson's taunts and DeVergesse's threatening words, I'll flay you alive!' ... The next time it will be your back laid open to the bone ...' He would startle, sweat streaming down his body. Several time he could have sworn it was blood. In the end, he sat awake, his gaze fixed on the window until it finally showed the light of dawn. Yet when dawn did come, and the guard led him outside, he felt the same calm as he did on the quarter-deck of the Indefatigable in the moments before Pellew gave the order to commence fire. It was inevitable: you lived or you died. Nothing else came into play but those two cards. *I have an even chance ...*

Horatio slid out of bed. It was a ghost of a creature that stared back at him from his shaving mirror; gaunt, pale, black eyes deep in shadowed sockets. In the days since DeVergesse's return, he had eaten so little that his slender frame had become skeletal, worn down by worry and exhaustion. If DeVergesse decided to make good on his threats, it would not take two dozen lashes to cut to his bones, one good stroke would suffice, Horatio thought grimly as he pulled on his shirt. He was about to reach for his jacket when the Spanish guard outside was shoved aside by one of DeVergesse's men. *"Venez avec moi, maintenant!"* he ordered harshly, and grabbed Horatio's arm. *"Vites!"*

He had no choice but to go. His men were already mustered in the courtyard. It was a cold morning, overcast and windy. The sound of the waves beating on the cliffs made a mockery of their imprisonment. Freedom was achingly close, and impossibly distant. The pale light faded the colours of the landscape. The walls of the fortress and hacienda were dun, the sky overhead, a dingy grey. The faces of the men assembled there had the pallor of long confinement. And all was silent save for the sea.

Styles shuddered as Hornblower stood before them. In his breeches and white shirt, he looked weightless, as if the wind could knock him over. And his face ... "Jesus, " he whispered to Matthews. "Wot's that bastard been doin' to im? e looks like death!"

Matthew's seamed face hardened. "Watch'er mouth, Styles. We won't be doin' Mr. Hornblower no favors by makin' that Froggy colonel mad as a hornet."

Styles grunted. "When we get out of ere, it's me that's gonna do the stingin', mate."

"Hush!" Matthews hissed as DeVergesse came from the hacienda. He looked anxiously for the Don, hoping that he would follow the Colonel, but he did not and Matthews' heart sank as low as it could. He swore it was down in his guts. God Almighty, what was on that devil's mind, he wondered. And what of Mr. Hornblower?

DeVergesse came slowly towards Hornblower. His sharp eyes noted the livid colour of the bruise on his pale cheek, the force of the heartbeat jarring the frill on Hornblower's shirt, the dark shadows beneath his eyes that spoke of sleepless nights and unrelenting stress. He was that close to breaking, DeVergesse thought triumphantly. One more step towards the edge, and he would be confessing everything. DeVergesse felt a surge of exultation and power. This boy who claimed to be a captain, who so arrogantly professed to be innocent, who had the temerity to assume an aura of command -- soon he would be nothing, a cipher.

DeVergesse turned to the soldier at his side and held out his hand. "Your pistol, Thibaud." It was given. DeVergesse cocked it, and that click seemed thunderous in the silence that had fallen.

Horatio swallowed convulsively, and promptly cursed his inability to control that response. Just another battle, he told himself. You are standing on the Indy and a French ship is near enough to fire. There is no difference. *You have an even chance.*

DeVergesse had seen the involuntary movement of Horatio's throat, and a sneer curved the corner of his mouth. He raised the pistol and set it against Horatio's breast. He could feel the beating of his heart shivering the barrel of the gun. "So, Mr. Hornblower, it seems you are human after all."

Through the rush of blood in his ears, Horatio heard quite clearly Archie's laughing voice. *"You are as human as I am, Horatio. I know that must come as a shock, but there it is."* Had he ever been anything else? For the first time, Horatio looked at DeVergesse directly. He saw hatred, triumph; avarice that had nothing to do with money and everything to do with power and possession. He had faced that down before, and he would not yield to it now. His chin came up fractionally, his shoulders shifted slightly, but everything had changed. The men standing behind him knew it, and so did DeVergesse.

He saw Hornblower's thin body straighten, his dark eyes harden with resolve, and knew he had lost the advantage. He did not consider it a defeat, but rather a strategic retreat. His enemy had revealed unexpected resources, but resources were not infinite, and he would break this slender boy; it was just a matter of time. He released the hammer slowly, the pistol dropping away from Horatio's heart, and came very close to him so that when he spoke, his breath was warm against Horatio's cheek. "I will have your secrets, Lieutenant."

Horatio did not waver. "The last man who said that to me is dead, sir. And he took none of them to his grave." He heard the gasp from the men behind him, an exhalation that rose in a crest of suppressed laughter, and his heart which had been so heavy soared with pride and affection.

It was a short-lived victory. DeVergesse's face crimsoned with rage. "Take them back to their cells, all but the Lieutenant. Throw him in the oubliette, and leave him there." He turned away, and did not watch as his soldiers seized Horatio with rough hands and forced him into the hole. As the iron grate clanged shut, Horatio sank to the cold ground, all strength fled. Perhaps it would not be for long. Perhaps Don Massaredo would intervene on his behalf. Perhaps the rats would stay away ... Somehow all of those hopes seemed as vain as whistling in the dark.

********************

Don Massaredo watched in disbelief as DeVergesse held the pistol against Hornblower's breast. Surely he could not murder the lad in cold blood? And yet there was nothing he could do to intervene without endangering everything; the lives of Hornblower and his men, the life of Archie Kennedy, the very nature of the alliance between France and Spain, his livelihood and that of the many people on his estate who depended on him. He closed his eyes and uttered a fervent prayer, and when he opened them again, he saw Hornblower standing straight, slim, and proud, and DeVergesse stalking away in defeat. Before he could even express gratitude to the Almighty, the soldiers seized Hornblower and shoved him towards the oubliette. Damnation! He would not allow that boy to be subjected to more torture to salve DeVergesse's pride. Massaredo snatched his hat from his desk and hurried down to the room DeVergesse used for his headquarters.

The door banged hard against the stucco wall as he burst into the room. "Colonel, what are you doing? Why is Hornblower in the oubliette?"

"Insubordination," DeVergesse said flatly. "He is a bad influence on his men, fomenting revolt."

"I saw no revolt this morning, Colonel! I saw a boy being bullied, being threatened, and refusing to back down. And if you think Hornblower is inciting a revolt, then I would rethink your actions as well. Those men of his worship him. Do you think that they are blind to his courage? With every act against him, you are merely enraging them. That is an incitement, Colonel. And entirely your fault."

DeVergesse sat back and regarded Massaredo through slitted eyes. "Then let them attempt to escape, to riot. When it happens, my men will be waiting with muskets and sabres to cut them down."

"That is murder!" Massaredo exclaimed, horrified.

"No, Don Massaredo. That is war."

The Don returned DeVergesse's hard gaze. "I cannot allow it, sir. You are not in France, and I am not under your command."

"Vraiment?" DeVergesse straightened in his chair. "Lieutenant Thibaud!" He hailed his guard. "A moi, s'il vous plait." The door opened and Thibaud stood there, a pistol in his hand, trained at Massaredo.

"Oui, Monsieur?"

"Escort Don Massaredo to his quarters. He will be resting there for the remainder of the day." He aimed a cold stare at Massaredo. "You see, Senor, that is my authority. I would think very seriously about your position. You are dangerously close to treason in this matter."

Massaredo drew himself up, very much on his considerable dignity, and faced DeVergesse squarely. "At least I have not betrayed my honour. There is no need to hold me under house arrest, Colonel. I shall not interfere with your duties." He nodded curtly and brushed past Thibaud.

The lieutenant looked to his Colonel for instructions. DeVergesse shook his head. "Never mind, Thibaud. I believe the Don realizes his position." He peaked his fingers for a moment. "However, keep an open eye, and post a guard at the oubliette. I do not intend to have Hornblower released before I am ready to deal with him."

Standing outside the door, Don Massaredo listened carefully. Dios, but that had been a narrow escape. However, he still had Hornblower locked in the oubliette, his friend Kennedy in the cave, and a prison filled with rebellious Englishmen who were bound only by their commander's parole. The question was, could he balance them on the same scale with DeVergesse? The Don stared out at the grating covering the oubliette. A French soldier stood guarding it. It would be cold this day. Massaredo turned away in anger. How much further could he push DeVergesse without inviting disaster? How much could he risk?

Massaredo gave a command to his guards to have food and water sent to Hornblower. If DeVergesse wished to argue that point, then Massaredo would be only too glad to oblige him. Then, with the understanding that he needed at least half an hour of privacy, he went to the cave to speak to Kennedy.

**********************

"The oubliette, sir!" Archie gasped. "Why?"

"For a perceived insubordination."

"Horatio wouldn't --"

"Colonel DeVergesse held a cocked pistol at his breast, and your friend refused to cower in fear."

Despite his horror, Archie could not help smiling. "No, Horatio would rather die than be a coward. It is his greatest fear."

"And your greatest fear?" Massaredo asked quietly.

There was much that Archie could say. But the words that came first to his lips were the most true. "That *he* will die."

Massaredo appraised him silently. "DeVergesse would break him, Mr. Kennedy. I am in a very precarious position, for I cannot interpose myself between the Colonel and Mr. Hornblower without being accused of treason. And I fear if that were to happen, you, Mr. Hornblower, and your men would lose your lives." He cocked his head speculatively. "Would Mr. Hornblower commit treason to save the life of a friend?"

The question was posed, but Archie was not sure if the Don were expecting a reply. When Massaredo remained silent, he answered honestly. "No. Horatio would die for honour, would give all for honour. Even my life." When he saw the surprised look on the Don's face, he hastened to explain as best he could "I do not mean to say that Horatio would not care, you understand. He would bear that guilt to his grave, and admit to no one that he was hurting. But at least he would have done his duty. I would expect nothing less from him."

"And you?"

Archie shook his head. "I am not so noble, sir." His troubled blue eyes met Massaredo's. "Even if it would require that I come forward, sir, to save Horatio, I will do it. He stood by me in my darkest hours, and I will not desert him to save my own neck."

Massaredo looked in surprise at this young man who had been subjected to such cruelty. Less than six weeks ago, he had been nearly destroyed by illness and despair. Massaredo had never thought him to be in the least like Hornblower, and now? Now the light in his eyes was a reflection of that brave spirit which Massaredo had seen not only in Hornblower, but in his men. And now he was offering his life. The Don shook his head. "I do not see what good could come of that, Mr. Kennedy. Your friend would never forgive me if I allowed you to surrender to DeVergesse."

"Oh, Horatio would forgive you, sir. But he would not forgive himself."

Archie's light words were betrayed by the pain in his voice. He seemed to be seeking some sort of solace from Don Massaredo, and he could not help but be touched by such loyalty. He looked deeply into Archie's eyes. "There is a song I have heard the English Sailors sing -- Corazones de --" The words escaped him ...

"Hearts of Oak," Archie whispered.

"Yes. I do not think I shall hear it again without thinking of you and Mr. Hornblower."

Archie blushed, but his eyes shone with pride. "Thank you, sir."

Massaredo cleared his throat. "Very good, Mr. Kennedy. I will do what I can to free Mr. Hornblower from the oubliette.

"Sir, if - when you do get Horatio out, may I please see him?"

"I will try to arrange it, Mr. Kennedy. You have my word of honour."

After Don Massaredo had left, Archie lay down on his cot, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Brave words were one thing, facing DeVergesse quite another. He had been tortured by DeVergesse before -- he had not told Horatio entirely what had been done to him, and the memory made him want to find someplace to run and hide, like a child seeking refuge in his mother's skirts. Archie pulled up the sleeves of his shirt and studied the silvery scars that braceleted his wrists. Two years ago the wounds had been made by iron manacles chaining him to the prison walls while he was beaten. The bloody welts had become infected, and the infection had nearly cost him his life. Would he endure that again, even for Horatio? Could he be that strong? The questions troubled Archie, for even now, in his new-found resolve, he was not certain of the answers.

***********************

He was cold. He had not been this cold since Lieutenant Eccleston had ordered him lashed to the riggings on the Justinian. It had been February then, and sleeting. Through the length of two watches he had endured that freezing hell, and when he had been cut down at last, he had been half-dead. The memory, while not pleasant was a comfort to him. It was cold, but at least it was not sleeting, and there was no cutting wind, just creeping damp. I stood it then, he thought. I can stand this now, and he hugged his knees closer to his chest as if to conserve what body heat he had left.

He heard the guard overhead engaging in some sort of argument with someone -- one of Massaredo's men? The grate opened with a metallic creak and a basket was lowered on a rope. Bread, a portion of dried sausage, a flask of water. Not warmth, but comfort. Horatio ate, and resigned himself to a long day ... and most likely a longer night.

Exhaustion came quickly. He had not slept in two nights, had not eaten much, had depleted his emotional reserves to stand up to DeVergesse. He felt himself drifting. He dreamed of the Indy, of standing on the quarter-deck in the sunlight. He dreamed of the past; of his mother's garden and the roses that bloomed there, releasing their fragrance in the summer heat. And nearly wept when he woke to find that he was still imprisoned, and still cold.

It was growing dark. The sky revealed through the grating overhead was twilight grey. Horatio shivered and tucked his hands under his arms to warm his fingers. He was miserable, and ashamed to admit that he was feeling sorry for himself. The cell that he had grown to hate, now beckoned as a haven of warmth. There seemed little hope that he would see it that night. What would he feel like after twelve hours, freezing to death? God, he thought. What an inglorious end ... to die in a hole in the ground.

As he shivered, his mind wandered again in confused dreams, until at length, there were no more dreams, just the darkness and the cold.

*************************

Don Massaredo stared out of his window overlooking the courtyard. Hornblower had been in the oubliette for nearly eight hours, and it was growing dark. The chill in the air promised a hard frost tonight, and if that happened, Hornblower most likely would be dead by morning. The Don could wait no longer. Damning the consequences of crossing DeVergesse, he called to his aide Diego, and together they went out into the gathering dark.

The sentry at the oubliette barred his way. "Monsieur, I cannot allow interference with the prisoner."

"Oh, I think you can, senor." Massaredo showed a cocked pistol. "And if you fear Colonel DeVergesse's reaction, I assure you I will speak to him myself on this matter. Now stand aside."

One did not argue with a cocked pistol at one's face. "Oui, monsieur." The guard stepped aside courteously. Massaredo unlocked the grate and Diego and the sentry reached down into the darkness.

"Lift him up, carefully -- carefully, now." Don Massaredo watched anxiously as they raised Hornblower's limp body from the oubliette. "How is he?" he asked, when Diego stood before him with Hornblower in his arms.

"Cold as death, senor. But alive." Diego hoisted Hornblower over his shoulder. "The rats were waiting for him."

"Dios!" Massaredo crossed himself. "Take him to the infirmary and start a fire. Get blankets and warm water. I will be there as soon as I take care of some business with Colonel DeVergesse."

He strode across the compound to the Hacienda. Brushing off the sentry's objections, he burst into DeVergesse's presence with the outraged valour of an avenging angel. "I have taken Hornblower from the oubliette, Colonel."

DeVergesse rose, his face suffused with anger. "How dare you go against my orders!"

Massaredo met his fury calmly. "I dare, because I must. You have pushed too far, Colonel. Lieutenant Hornblower is not a criminal, he is a Naval officer who has given his parole."

"He is a traitorous spy! And you, sir, are committing a treasonous act. Earlier you gave me your word that you would not interfere with my duties."

"Your duties and mine do not include murder, Colonel." Massaredo was weary of the verbal fencing match with DeVergesse. An idea came to him suddenly, and it was difficult to suppress his jubilation at the inspiration. "Lieutenant Hornblower is now in my infirmary, where he will remain in quarantine."

"Quarantine!" DeVergesse spluttered in his outrage.

"Yes. There are rats in the tunnels, Senor. And rumours of the plague in El Ferrol. As viceroy of this estate, it is my first duty to protect *everyone* in my jurisdiction. Including my allies." The Don gave DeVergesse a sly smile. "Good night, Colonel. Sleep well." It was with a sense of satisfaction that Don Massaredo left the fuming DeVergesse staring at the door as it shut behind him.

Much of the Don's elation left him when he returned to the infirmary. Diego had stripped Hornblower and wrapped him in heated blankets, but he had not regained consciousness. His skin was still cold to the touch, and very pale. Massaredo shook his head in concern. "Try to wake him, Diego. See if he will take some broth or hot tea. I shall return shortly." He had promised Archie Kennedy that he would allow him to see his friend, and now could only pray that it was not too late.

********************

There had been a time when Archie had thought it would have been impossible to sleep too much. He had used slumber as an escape from reality, and had often found the waiting nightmares as fearsome as his waking ones. However, he slept more soundly in the cave than he had anywhere since he was a child. He was certain it was nothing more than a false sense of security, but welcomed it nonetheless. This night he could not sleep; his worry for Horatio gnawed uncomfortably at his thoughts. He had tried to concentrate on the map, but it was engraved in his mind's eye and studying it further would not make it more clear than it was. Don Quixote's adventures seemed paltry compared to the troubles outside, and the sound of the waves beating on the shore only reminded him of Horatio and the Indy.

With a sigh, he turned and stared up at the ceiling. Where was Massaredo? He had promised that he could see Horatio. What had happened? None of Archie's speculations were comforting ones. He rose with a sigh, and in an unconscious imitation of Horatio, began pacing the length of the cave. When he heard Massaredo's footsteps, he turned, his breath catching in his throat. "Sir!"

"Mr. Kennedy," The Don's expression was grave.

"Where is Horatio?" Archie asked quickly.

"I have come to take you to him. Come ..."

Archie stood immobile. "Why must you take me to him? Is he all right?"

Massaredo was stricken by guilt. What could he say? "I was -- unable to free him from the oubliette until an hour ago. I am afraid it was very cold --" He looked at Archie with sorrowful eyes. "He was unconscious when we took him out."

"I will kill DeVergesse," Archie swore. He started towards the entrance, brushing past Massaredo.

The Don caught his arm in a strong hold. "No! Mr. Kennedy, anger is not the solution here. I came to take you to Mr. Hornblower. Your friend needs you alive. DeVergesse can wait to die."

For a moment, Archie chafed at the restraint, then yielded. Massaredo was right. He nodded. "I know." His shoulders drooped a little, and his eyes grew dark with worry. "I would like to see Horatio, sir." He followed the Don up to the guardroom. Before they went into the gallery running alongside the cells, Massaredo halted and peered into the darkness. With Hornblower out of the oubliette, DeVergesse had pulled his guards from the courtyard, and all was quiet.

"Come quickly, Mr. Kennedy." Archie pulled his jacket tight over his white shirt and keeping to the shadows, followed Don Massaredo to the infirmary.

In the future, Archie thought much later in the evening, I will not care to remember these hours. He sat in a chair, weary beyond belief, and studied Horatio's face, now quiet, and faintly flushed with warmth. The oubliette had nearly proved deadly. Horatio always thought he was so strong. If strength were measured by courage and honour, then his heart was second to none, but it was not; and Horatio's physical reserves were not unlimited. And I suppose he will blame himself for that, as well. Archie rubbed his aching eyes and slumped down in his chair. He counted down another day. Six days, five more nights. They only had to survive for that long ...

He was warm, blessedly warm. Horatio's eyes fluttered open briefly, then closed as his mind took stock of his physical state: in bed, his naked body swathed in a comforting nest of wool blankets, not in the oubliette. Rescued. How? His last memory had been confused, he had thought he was back on the Justinian, and Clayton and Archie were trying to revive him after his spell in the riggings. Funny, how the mind played tricks. He could have sworn he had heard Archie's voice.

A rustle of clothing and a sigh caught his attention, and this time he forced his eyes to open despite his drowsiness. Archie ... God, Archie! His voice came out as a rusty squeak, but he might have shouted it to judge from his friend's reaction. He sat bolt upright in the chair, his blue eyes wide with surprise.

"Horatio!"

"Archie, what are you doing here? Is DeVergesse gone?" It was a hope too good to be true.

"No. But you're safe, thank God. We weren't sure you were going to make it."

Horatio dismissed Archie's concern. "I'll be fine. I'm tired, is all. You shouldn't be here." He struggled to sit and was defeated by his own weakness. "Damn!"

"Lie back, and be still!" Archie poured steaming tea from a pot at the bedside. "Drink this, first. Then talk." He sounded so stern that Horatio subsided meekly and allowed him to hold the heavy china mug to his mouth. The tea was hot and cloyingly sweet. Horatio tried to push it aside.

"That's disgusting!"

"Drink it. You need it for warmth and strength."

Horatio could not argue with that. He sipped obediently until he could take no more, then lay back, daring Archie to force more down his throat. "Why aren't you in the cave?" he asked.

"Because Don Massaredo was afraid you would die before I could see you again. Lord, Horatio, you nearly did."

Horatio shook his head. "It was a terrible risk, Archie. What if DeVergesse should decide to pay a sickroom visit? I wouldn't put it above him, to crow over my misery."

Archie laughed. "He won't! Don Massaredo told him that you are in quarantine for fear of the plague."

"The plague?"

"Brilliant, isn't it? Massaredo is really quite extraordinary. I don't know how you managed it, but the old boy is set on getting us out of here, even if he has to whisk us away from beneath DeVergesse's Gallic nose." Archie's eyes were sparkling with the adventure of it all, and Horatio managed a smile for his sake.

"He is an honourable man, Archie. I had nothing to do with that."

"You're wrong, Horatio. You have everything to do with it."

Horatio opened his mouth to argue, but he was really too tired to put forth the effort. His muscles were aching, and his eyes felt as if anchors were attached to their lids. "Go back to the cave, Archie, please. I shall be quite all right in the morning."

"As soon as you're asleep." The words were scarcely out of his mouth, before Horatio's eyes closed and his hands relaxed their tension. Archie breathed a sigh and a prayer of relief. But he would not leave Horatio's side until dawn.

***************************

Across the courtyard, Etienne DeVergesse peered into the darkness. The taste of defeat was bitter; more so since it had been dealt by the hand of an ally. He had never trusted Don Massaredo, and frequently felt that he was the object of the Spaniard's resentment at being forced into an alliance he found distasteful. Indeed, as the duration of the treaty between France and Spain wore on, he found Massaredo increasingly evasive and difficult to deal with. Massaredo had always treated him and his men as if they were an inconvenient and unnecessary burden. He was about to discover exactly how inconvenient a betrayal of France could be ...

And then this -- this incomprehensible empathy with his prisoners and that traitor Hornblower! Did Massaredo believe that his ridiculous tale of rats and plague had fooled DeVergesse at all? That was nothing more than an excuse to interfere with his duty to defend France from her enemies, to cull out spies and traitors. And for what? A parole! In this new world that was being born, honour was as worthless as the blood of the aristocrats spilled in the streets of Paris. Power, and the strength to seize it were the new coin of the realm. It was time Don Massaredo and that pup, Hornblower, learned that reality. DeVergesse crushed the heavy velvet drapes in his fist. Paris ... perhaps this effort to contain the reluctant Don would result in an appointment to an elite corps, not this miserable battalion stuck on the Iberian Peninsula. He would make his mark here.

DeVergesse's ice-blue eyes narrowed as he looked at the small shuttered window of the infirmary. Yes, Hornblower would have a perfect view of the courtyard, and starting tomorrow, he would have something to watch and consider every morning of his counterfeit quarantine.

**********************

Archie woke with a start. He sat up, his heart pounding in a baseless panic. Most times he could recall what nightmare had roused him; this morning it was not a dream, but a sound. He tried to recapture it, but the echo of it was fading. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. It was scarcely daylight, and the illumination coming through the shuttered window was very dim. Horatio lay perfectly still, the covers over him rising and falling with each breath. Archie frowned in concern. God, he must have been utterly exhausted. He reached out a hand to touch Horatio's forehead and was halted in mid-motion by the soft clink of the outer gate being shut. Recalling the earlier sound, Archie went to the infirmary door and tried to open. it Locked from the outside, but why?

With a cold feeling in his stomach, Archie went to the window and peered through the shutters. They too, closed from the outside and while he could not open them entirely, he was able to clear an inch between them to see through. As the light strengthened, Archie could make out the forms of DeVergesse's soldiers filing into the courtyard. They ringed the perimeter, save for five armed men who stood in a small group near the center. He cast a worried glance at his friend. Should he wake him? For what? An exercise? Surely that was what DeVergesse was doing, some sort of drill in case of an attack. Yet even as Archie tried to convince himself of that, he knew it was not so. He looked out once more and drew in a sharp breath. The Indefatigables were being marched from their cells. This was very wrong.

Archie bent to shake Horatio's shoulder. "Horatio! Wake up -- wake up!"

Over the past three years, Horatio had become used to summons at odd hours and the attendant need to wake with one's faculties intact and functioning. Despite these instincts, he had to claw himself up from his exhausted slumber. For a moment he blinked at Archie in confusion. "What?"

"DeVergesse!" Archie said impatiently. "He's up to something, and it's not good, Horatio."

Horatio wrapped a blanket around his middle and stood by the window. As Archie moved aside, he put his eye to the crack of light and gasped. "My God, it looks like -- Archie, my clothes --" He looked wildly around and saw the tidy pile on a chair. God, he felt like he were moving through molasses still. He pulled on his trousers and shirt. "What's happening?"

"I don't know. They're waiting for the Colonel."

"We've got to get out of here. Come on." He tugged on the door. "Why won't it --"

"Locked. I tried it earlier. And not a single one of Massaredo's sentries in sight." Archie cursed the tremor in his voice. "It seems we have a mutiny on our hands."

Frantic with worry, his heart pounding so hard that his hands shook, Horatio returned to Archie's side. It was lighter yet, but still not full dawn. DeVergesse appeared, impeccably dressed, his sword slung and jangling as he walked across the courtyard. He paused to speak to Captain Thibaud. Horatio strained his ears to hear the orders, but the sound did not travel in the still air. It hurt to breathe.

His eyes went to his men, standing in ranks. To Matthews, stoic as always, Oldroyd, looking like a scared child roused from sleep, Styles. Horatio closed his eyes and prayed that Styles would not do anything rash. Nothing was worth the punishment he would receive from DeVergesse this time. Ten men, in all. And he was powerless to protect them.

DeVergesse went slowly down the ranks, pausing at Jack Dawlish, eighteen years old, the youngest Indy. He made a small movement of assent toward Thibaud. At that, three of his men seized Dawlish, tying his hands behind his back then marching him toward the same gun carriage that Styles had been lashed at. He was quickly secured, but not like a man about to be flogged -- more like a man about to be executed.

It happened in the space of a heartbeat, before Horatio could draw a breath to scream. Five muskets roared, deafening in the dawn silence, and Dawlish hung for a moment, eyes wide in horror, caught in death at the very moment of realization. His shirt blossomed red, and he fell, jerking against his restraints. Then there was nothing but silence and the stench of gunpowder lingering in the air as the first rays of the sun rose over the fortress walls.

"NO!" The cry ripped from Horatio's throat. Archie turned to him. For the first time, Archie saw his own torment reflected back in his friend's expression. There had always been, even in his bleakest moments, a shining invulnerability about Horatio. That light was gone now, and in its place was the darkness that had lived in Archie's soul from the moment Jack Simpson had touched him. "No!" Horatio repeated softly. He staggered against Archie's shoulder, and then with a sigh sank to the ground, bearing Archie with him.

"Horatio!" Archie took one of Horatio's icy hands in his. He chafed it between his own, but they were scarcely warmer. "Come on, Horatio. I can't do this without you."

As if he had heard Archie's pleas, Horatio's eyes fluttered open. Archie could see the momentary confusion yielding to remembrance. Horatio sat up slowly. "Dawlish?" he queried, as if the answer would have changed.

Archie looked away. Horatio rose slowly, feeling his knees trembling. He could not afford weakness. He walked unsteadily to the window. The Indefatigables remained standing in ranks; they could not move with twenty muskets trained on them. Dawlish's body still hung from the lashings, the blood on his shirt already drying in the Spanish sun. Horatio felt sick. "I have to go out there," he said.

Archie caught his arm. "You can't. Look at me, Horatio. In the first place, you can hardly walk. And even if you could, the door is bolted from the outside."

"Then help me make a hellish noise, so someone will get me out of here!"

"You? What of me?"

Horatio looked at him as if he had quite lost his mind. "Archie, you have to go back to the cave. I can't allow that devil --"

Archie shook his head. "My time for hiding is past. You need help, Horatio. What kind of friend would I be if I went off and cowered in a cave? What kind of officer would choose his life over the lives of his men? How often have I heard you say that?"

Horatio would have argued that it was his own life, not Archie's that he was willing to sacrifice; but at that moment, the bolt was shot back with a hard snap, and the door was thrown open to reveal DeVergesse standing on the threshold. Horatio moved instinctively to block Archie, but it was too late. DeVergesse had seen him. For a moment that seemed frozen in time, they stood quite still. The Frenchman was clearly shocked. His ruddy complexion paled and his mouth opened in a silent "o" of surprise, an expression so unexpected and ludicrous on that hard countenance, that Horatio nearly laughed with triumph. That victory was short-lived. DeVergesse righted himself with the instinct of a cat. He exhaled sharply, and a cynical smile touched his mouth

As he stepped closer Horatio felt Archie tense, every muscle drawn tight. A shiver ran through Archie's frame and Horatio straightened his own shoulders, hoping that Archie would feel that gesture of support and courage. Perhaps he had, for his head came up and he met DeVergesse's gaze without flinching.

DeVergesse appraised him with those cold, hard eyes that could make a man's heart quail in his breast. "Mr. Kennedy, I am ... astonished. It is not everyday that a dead man comes back to life."

Archie was taken with a sudden, unexpected fury. "It seems Seaman Dawlish won't be so fortunate, sir," he said, with acid dripping in his voice.

With a motion as quick as a snake's, DeVergesse struck Archie across the cheek. The blow was strong enough to send Archie staggering back against Horatio with a small sound of pain. The Frenchman's lips curled in a sneer. "And neither will you, Mr. Kennedy. I assure you, I will not be as lax in my attentions as Don Massardo. Bring them outside, Thibaud." He turned sharply and left the cell.

Horatio touched Archie's shoulder in a gesture of comfort, and felt a warm splash like a tear fall on his hand. Not a tear, though. DeVergesse's heavy signet ring had cut Archie's fair skin, and blood was flowing from the slash and dripping from his jaw. Horatio dug in his pocket for his neckcloth. "Archie, here." When there was no response, he pressed it into his hand. "Archie --" He shook his elbow, and Archie blinked.

"I'm all right, Horatio. It's just a scratch." He looked at the crumpled silk in his palm, aware of it for the first time. "Thank you." He wadded it against the cut. "Well. I've done it this time. I should have taken my own advice and not bearded the lion in his den."

"It wouldn't have mattered." There was no time to say more. Thibaud returned with two other soldiers. They reached for Archie, and he flinched away, not from pain, or fear, but from the memories of other rough hands. Horatio heard the breath catch in his throat, and he spoke to the guards in French. "We will come, willingly. You do not need to force us." Thibaud nodded his comprehension, and Horatio and Archie followed him from the cells to the courtyard.

As they stepped out into the sunlight, Horatio tried to keep his eyes from Dawlish's body. It was a bitter accusation indeed. He had failed miserably in his duty to protect his men and Archie from DeVergesse. Why had he requested their parole? He did not regret giving his own, but what hubris had prompted him to pledge theirs when he could not foresee the consequences? He had betrayed their trust, betrayed his best friend, betrayed his captain and his country. The penalty for betrayal was death. But not Archie's. Dear God, not Archie's.

*******************

Styles had seen many men die. He had killed more than a few himself. He had thought himself beyond feeling remorse or shock. But in that instant that Jack Dawlish saw his own fate before his eyes, he had felt like a hole was torn in his heart.

That weren't nothing but cold-blooded murder, he argued to himself. And that sod DeVergesse hadn't the courage to kill Jackie himself, but had ordered, *ordered* his soldiers to do it for him. Bastard was too good a name fer the likes of him. Jack Simpson'd been like that -- using his power to force good men to do his dirty work for'im. Cept that which gave him pleasure. DeVergesse were the same sort o' bent rubbish. Anger surged like lightning through Styles, but he would not look up at DeVergesse. He kept his eyes on the gravel at his feet, and his murderous thoughts to himself. It's fer Mr. Hornblower and Mr. Kennedy, just hold it in fer their sakes. They'll need every man to get out of this alive, certain sure.

"Styles!" Matthews nudged him sharply. "Jesus God!" he uttered an oath under his breath.

Styles raised his head. "What?" he whispered. Then he saw them. Hornblower and Kennedy were marched out into the courtyard, and neither one of them looked anywhere near fit to fight. "Where the bloody hell is that Dago Massaredo?" Styles hissed. "If he's gone and kissed that Frenchie's arse, I'll cut out his heart, I will."

"Shh!" Matthews said beneath his breath. "Watcher mouth. Don't go makin' things worse than they are."

"How the bloody hell could they be worse?" Styles' contempt made his whisper louder than was wise, and the nearest sentry prodded him into silence with the butt of his musket.

Horatio saw the movement from the corner of his eye, and it jolted him from his thoughts. He met Style's angry glare, and pushed his self-pity aside. He had eternity to contemplate his failings, but perhaps only moments to make expiation. He took on the posture of the quarter-deck, his shoulders back, his eyes focused on DeVergesse. He felt Archie's presence at his side and determined that nothing short of death would keep him from honouring his parole. Not the words he had spoken to Don Massaredo, but the words he had spoken to Archie to bring his heart back to life. *You are one of us ...* Simple enough to say, but meaning the world. "Archie?" he whispered.

"Yes?"

"No matter what happens, you are one of us."

Archie risked a glance at his friend. A breeze came up, stirring Hornblower's loose, dark curls. Pale, exhausted, bruised, and he still looked like a bloody hero. And had the heart to match. The corner of Archie's mouth twitched. "I know." And stood to attention.

DeVergesse saw that minute shift, and knew he had lost. Oh, he still had the power of life and death, but not the power of fear, and that was the victory he craved. He stepped forward angrily, first facing Hornblower. He did not say a word, but stared into those dark, impenetrable eyes. "You, I will hang. But not today. First, you will see the cost of your deception." He pointed to Archie. "Take this one next."

It was more than Styles could bear. Standing not five feet away, he had seen first the anguish and then the calm come to Hornblower's face. He had heard the soft words spoken to Kennedy, the same words he had uttered just a few days ago to give the lad heart, and had seen that heart grow in resolve and courage. He would not see it shot through by DeVergesse. Gathering his muscles in one long, agile leap, he launched himself from the line.

And found himself facing a yard of steel.

DeVergesse's hand was steady as he held the point of his sword at Styles' throat. Another inch, and the seaman's jugular would have been pierced. "If anyone else moves, I run him through. A word from you, Mr. Hornblower, and he dies at your feet like the dog he is." He jerked his head in Thibaud's direction. "You have your orders. Cut down that body, and tie Mr. Kennedy to the cart." He turned to Archie. "Your last escape will be a very final one."

So this was what it came to; as all life did. He would have liked to have lived a bit longer, to have served again on the Indy with Horatio, to have made his mark in a way that would set him beyond the reach of Jack Simpson's shadow forever. If he could not do it in life, perhaps he could do it in death. He stepped forward, ignoring Horatio's soft protest. "Put your sword away, Colonel. And you will not have to tie me," Archie said quietly. "Seaman Styles will do nothing more to interfere. Nor will Lieutenant Hornblower. I give you my word of honour."

Horatio was paralyzed. He could not move to save one of the other without endangering all their lives. It was his nightmare; the one he woke from sweating and shivering -- to be helpless. "Archie, do not do this!" he entreated.

"No, Horatio. It will be all right. This, I can do." His blue eyes met Horatio's. "It is my choice, not your fault. In five days, what will it matter?" He looked back to DeVergesse, his sword still threatening Styles. "Colonel?"

DeVergesse's cold eyes appraised Archie's outstretched hand. "Take him, Thibaud. I have a matter to finish --" Horatio saw his grip tighten on the sword hilt, his arm tense, his expression become avid and cruel. God, he was going to strike!

"Styles!" Horatio cried, but his voice was drowned out by the roar of a musket, and the sword spun from DeVergesse's hand in a glittering arc. The Colonel grunted in pain and grabbed his hand as the blood pumped through his fingers. Horatio caught up the sword, expecting to be rushed by DeVergesse's troops, but as he whirled to face the threat, he looked up. There ringing the ramparts was Massaredo's entire garrison, aiming their weapons at the French soldiers below.

"Captain Thibaud, if you will be so kind as to release Mr. Kennedy?" Don Massaredo spoke from his position on the rampart. "And tend to your Colonel. He seems to have met with an unfortunate accident."

Horatio stared up at the Don. He was suddenly weak. He slowly dropped the point of the sword until it rested on the ground. Archie came to his side and took it from his numbed fingers. "I told you it would be all right," he said in a voice as shaky as Horatio's hand.

Horatio tried to swallow, but he had no spit. He cleared his throat, hoping to overcome the lump in it that swelled and ached, and made tears come unbidden to his eyes. "Of course," he managed to croak, and embarrassed, turned to Styles and the other Indefatigables. They seemed about to rush him, and he held up his hand. "Hold your ranks, men. Wait for Don Massaredo. Styles, go back to your place. I will speak with you later."

Styles, paler than usual, still managed a slight grin. He knuckled his forehead. "Aye, aye, sir."

It seemed an eternity, but Don Massaredo finally made his way across the courtyard. He stood first over Colonel DeVergesse, down on his knees, and having his wrist bandaged by Thibaud. "Order your men to stand down, Colonel. I want them, and you out of my jurisdiction as soon as you are able to travel."

DeVergesse, his face tight with pain and anger, nodded to Thibaud, who rose and gave the order. He rose slowly to face Don Massaredo. "What you have done is treason, Massaredo. Your ministers will hear of this."

"Colonel, I do not think that would be wise. You see, I have evidence that you have been using my cove to smuggle contraband to England, where you no doubt sell it for a pretty profit. Such an abuse of trust cannot be tolerated between allies, no?"

"You lie, monsieur!"

"Prove it, Colonel. I dare you to prove it." There was nothing DeVergesse could say. He turned on his heel and stalked towards the hacienda. Don Massaredo turned to Hornblower and Kennedy. "My sincere apologies, gentlemen. I could not intervene until all my men were in place. As students of military tactics, I am sure you can appreciate the necessity of strategic planning. Alas, I was too late to prevent a murder." Massaredo's voice softened with regret. "I shall write to Madrid, but I cannot predict that any action will be taken. The French are still are our allies, and you still our enemies."

"I understand, sir. We are at war." Yet even as he spoke, he could not fix the blame on anyone or anything, but DeVergesse. He looked away from Dawlish's body and back to the Don. "Thank you, sir. You saved our lives."

"And you saved the lives of the men of the Almeria." He smiled at Hornblower and Kennedy.

Horatio found himself blushing and tongue-tied. Archie spoke up to spare him. "Sir, I know Colonel DeVergesse, and he will try to press his point. Your kindness will likely prove more costly than you anticipated."

The Don shrugged. "Can you tell me, Mr. Kennedy, what is the value of a man's word of honour? No matter the price, it will not cost my immortal soul." He nodded curtly. "I think your men may be dismissed, Mr. Hornblower. They have the freedom of the courtyard for the rest of the day. And I would be honoured if you and Mr. Kennedy would dine with me this evening. I find I have a taste for cognac." He turned to Diego. "Keep your men on guard until the last of Colonel DeVergesse's troops have left. And now, I shall have to draft a letter to my superiors in Madrid, explaining how I was so foully deceived by the Colonel." His eyes crinkled with his smile.

As soon as the Don entered the hacienda, Horatio turned to the Indefatigables. They were watching him gravely, expectantly, and he did not know if he had the words to express his gratitude. He had to try. "Thank you, men. You have brought honour to England, to the Indefatigable, and to me. I will tell Captain Pellew that you have acquitted yourselves in the finest traditions of the service." The words sounded pompous to his ears, but the quaver in his voice robbed them of stiffness. He turned away to hide the tears that he no longer had the strength to hold back.

Archie looked at Horatio's shoulders and saw the tremor that betrayed him. He stepped forward to face the men. "You are dismissed. Thank you." They drifted away, all save Matthews, Oldroyd, and Styles. "What is it?" he asked.

Matthews spoke first. "Sir, about Seaman Dawlish's body --"

Archie could not look at those sad remains. "Yes. I think Don Massaredo's men will help with that. I shall ask if we may have a service tomorrow. It won't be a burial at sea, but we will honour him, I promise you."

Matthews and Odroyd walked slowly towards the body. Styles hesitated a moment longer. He looked at Archie with the full respect of a seaman to a true officer. "Sir, you offered your life for mine. I reckon I owe you thanks fer that."

Archie shook his head. "You risked yours, first. Styles. I think we may say we are even."

"Even it is, sir." Styles grinned and knuckled his forehead. "Fer now."

Feeling oddly pleased by a salute that would have been taken for granted by most other officers, Archie turned to find Horatio watching him with a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. "Well," he said a bit defensively. "It's a start, I suppose." And was utterly baffled when Horatio broke into laughter.

*********************

The days dwindled rapidly down. Five, four, three ... Each tick off the calendar meant they were that much closer to possible freedom. Horatio refused to allow himself that much hope. DeVergesse was gone. But a prison, even with a gaoler as benevolent as Don Massaredo, was still a prison. He walked each day on the cliffs, gazing yearningly out to sea, as if the Indy could be willed to appear on the horizon.

One more day. Horatio stood looking out over the white-capped waters. Archie had chosen to make use of Don Massaredo's library, and declined his invitation. He could not say that he minded. He preferred solitude this day.

He heard the beat of horse's hooves on the stones and squinted into the sunlight. Don Massaredo and several of his staff were cantering towards the headland. They reined in, and the Don dismounted and approached. He handed a parchment to Horatio. His face was impassive, and Horatio's heart sank. Apparently, the petition had been denied.

"A letter has come concerning you, Mr. Hornblower. From their Excellencies in Madrid."

Horatio's heart started pounding. "Yes, sir?"

"The First Minister has informed me that in recognition of your courage in saving life at the peril of your own, you and your ship's crew are to be set at liberty."

Horatio was speechless. He had hoped for an exchange, but this -- "We are free to go?" he asked, unbelieving.

Massaredo was trying not to smile. "That is what I understand liberty usually to mean."

"Thank you, sir." It seemed inadequate. "I-I am honoured by their Excellencies' consideration."

"Hmm. I wonder if their Excellencies realize they are setting free a man who will doubtless be a thorn in their sides for many years to come."

Horatio looked down at the letter with its promise of freedom, and at the Don's deceptively stern expression. He smiled. "I shall endeavor not to disappoint them, sir."

Massaredo's eyes warmed, and he nodded briefly before remounting and riding away with his men trailing closely behind him. Horatio turned back to the ocean and drew the first breath he had taken as a free man since the day La Reve had been captured. There was someone who had been waiting much longer. Horatio turned and hurried back to the fortress to deliver the incredible news. Freedom.

*************************

Epilogue

They stood on the shore watching as the ship on the horizon drew closer over the moonlit seas. Archie recognized the cutter's raking masts and clean lines. Massaredo, not trusting DeVergesse's influence, had decided that it would be best for the Indefatigables to leave Spain with as much speed and secrecy as possible. The cutter anchored and soon the ship's boat was put into the water. Freedom was so close that Horatio could taste it on the sea air.

He turned to Archie standing at his side. "We're almost home, Archie."

"I never thought to see it again."

"Better get the men together. We don't have much time. The captain won't want to lose the tide."

Archie grinned and saluted him. "Aye, aye, sir." As he stepped away, Horatio heard voices coming from the tunnel, and Don Massaredo emerged. He stood before Horatio and handed him a small parcel. "I hope you will accept this token of esteem, Mr. Hornblower. It has been an honour and a privilege to know you. Please, open it," he urged, when Horatio hesitated.

Horatio pulled the burlap wrapping aside and smiled at the sight of the leather-bound book. "Gibbon, sir? Thank you, I shall treasure it."

"I hope reading it will bring only the good memories, Lieutenant."

Horatio thought of Dawlish, of the blood and fear on his face, of the oubliette, and of DeVergesse's dark shadow. Forgetting would come hard, and the pain would always be there. "I cannot forget what DeVergesse has done. But I am sorry that we had to meet as enemies, sir."

"Alas, that is the hand that was dealt us, Mr. Hornblower. However, if France continues on her current path, I foresee a day when your country and mine will meet as allies, not adversaries."

"I look forward to it, sir."

"As do I. As do I." Don Massaredo extended his hand and Horatio took it gladly. This man had been gaoler, tormentor, guardian, and friend, and he would be missed. There was much to say, but no words to express his feelings.

"I hope we will meet again as well, sir." He looked up as Archie came towards him.

"Horatio, are you ready?" His smile was irrepressible.

"Yes, I am." He turned to Massaredo once more and gave the Don a proper salute. "Goodbye, sir."

Massaredo's eyes glinted as he returned the salute with solemn dignity. "Goodbye, Mr. Hornblower. You are free to go. Your parole has been redeemed."


The End