Players on the Stage
by Jill D.

Chapter One
The Play's the Thing

Admiral Lord Horatio Hornblower paused outside after handing his wife, Lady Barbara, out of their coach. Grayson, Hornblower's flag lieutenant, walked the lady inside as Hornblower straightened his gloves. It was a fantastic night; the air was crisp, the stars were bright, and he longed to be on Chimera, his flagship, out at sea. At least, he reflected, Lady Barbara had chosen Shakespeare over a musical entertainment for the evening.
"Milord, be everythin' allright? " Patrick Granger, Hornblower's groom, looked up at him in concern.
"Yes, Mr. Granger, everything is well. It is such a fine night, I am reluctant to go inside. Besides, Lady Hornblower delights in the social amenities, I shall leave her to it. I am sure we will hear all about who is tupping whom on the way home. " Granger grinned, well knowing his ladyship's penchant for gossip.
"Aye, milord, ye do be right. I'll just take the lads here 'round the block to the stables, then. We'll be back when we spy the crowds comin' out. " The man gave him a short bow, and Hornblower nodded.
"Thank you, Mr. Granger. Good luck with your card game. "
Granger smiled, pretending innocence. "Cor, milord, I thank ye, but luck got naught to do wit' it. "
Hornblower grinned, himself having lost more than one hand of cards to Granger's shrewd playing.
Leaning against the brick of the playhouse, Horatio listened to the ebb and flow of noise around him. After so many years in the King's service, he much preferred life at sea to life on land. He tolerated London's social scene to make Barbara happy.
Hornblower sighed softly. Henry IV was playing tonight. Ancient memory came to him, of clear blue eyes reading Prince Hal to his Falstaff. How he'd been twitted on his stiffness.
"Falstaff isn't an old stick in the mud, Horatio, for goodness' sake. Read him with some vigour! "
A small smile tugged at his lips for a few moments. How many years ago had that been? Forty, fifty? Horatio could hear the clear young voice in his mind as if it had been yesterday.
With a rueful little chuckle, Hornblower ascended the marble steps to the Drury Lane playhouse to join his wife.

Having been seated in their customary box, Lord and Lady Hornblower and Lieutenant Grayson waited for the curtain to rise. Lady Barbara peered at her playbill.
"There's someone new playing Prince Hal, Horatio. I don't recognize the name. " A furrow creased her forehead as Barbara handed the bill over to Grayson. "Paul, do you recognize the name? "
Grayson shook his head. "No, milady, I do not. Perhaps he's new in from abroad. "
Horatio, listening to the exchange in mild amusement, leaned over to see the playbill.
"That must be it, Paul. It's strange, usually there's whisper of new blood coming into the theater. " Barbara shrugged.
"Shh, the play's starting. " Horatio leaned back in his seat to watch.
King Henry left the stage after Scene 1. When Falstaff and Prince Hal walked out, Hornblower felt his heart stop. He watched Hal, leaning forward, squinting. The distance was not great, and his eyesight was still keen as ever.
Hal moved about the stage, reddish-gold hair burnished by the lamps of the theater, in the velvet finery that befit a prince. Partway into the scene, Horatio remembered to pay attention to the dialogue.
Hal spoke again, nearly facing the Hornblowers' box.
" Thou sayest well, and it holds well too; for the
fortune of us that are the moon's men doth ebb and
flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is,
by the moon. As, for proof, now: a purse of gold
most resolutely snatched on Monday night and most
dissolutely spent on Tuesday morning; got with
swearing 'Lay by' and spent with crying 'Bring in;'
now in as low an ebb as the foot of the ladder
and by and by in as high a flow as the ridge of the gallows. "

Horatio rose abruptly, turning to leave the box. Barbara's hand on his forearm stopped him.
"Are you well, my love? " She asked, concern in her pretty blue eyes.
Horatio shook his head, one hand clutching his stomach. "Suddenly, I feel rather ill. I think I shall partake of fresh air. You stay here with Lieutenant Grayson, my dear, I shall be quite all right. "
Barbara, recognizing the tone in her husband's voice after so many years of marriage, nodded. "If you're certain, Horatio. "
"Aye, my lady. Perhaps it is just too stuffy in here. Enjoy the play, my dear. "

Horatio withdrew to the theater's steps, wrapping his cloak about himself. Standing on the stage in the sumptuous silks and velvets of Prince Hal, looking not a moment older than he had when Horatio had last seen him ­ on his deathbed in a hot, stinking military hospital in Kingston, was Archie Kennedy.

 

Chapter Two
More Things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio

"How is he, milady? "
Barbara paused, shutting the door to her husband's study quietly. She shook her head, motioning Grayson and her son, Richard, farther down the hall.
"He's fallen asleep, thank God. I don't know what came over him. Lord, he was up half the night, pacing endlessly back and forth. I have rarely seen him in such a state. "
Robert frowned. "Mother, I shall go fetch the physician. Perhaps there is some aide he might suggest. "
Barbara shook her head, "No, Robjust, he has been uneasy of late. Lord Exmouth's passing troubled him greatly. I am sure it is nothing. If it persists, I shall call the physician myself tomorrow. "
Robert frowned. His ship was due to leave port in less than an hour. "MotherIif you need me, please send word. I'm afraid duty calls me away. "
Barbara smiled, hugging her tall son closely. "I shall, dearheart. Paul is here with us, and the Grangers. We shall be perfectly fine. "

 

Horatio stared out the windows, watching as the sun dyed everything a bloody golden red. His wife had gone, thank the Lord, to visit her brother and sister in law. Love her as he did, if she'd asked one more time if he was certain he was all right, Horatio was quite sure he would have begun ranting.
The wine in his glass was a deep red. Hornblower swirled it slowly, watching the golden sunlight reflect off the facets of crystal.
The blood Archie had coughed out in great gouts, on the deck of Renown, in Horatio's own arms, had been a similar colour.

How
Horatio swirled his goblet of wine endlessly. He wasn't a particularly religious man. He had never been so. Nothing under the realms of Heaven that he had seen, in all his years as a man, an officer, a warrior, had prepared him for what he'd seen last night in the London theater. The man hadn't just looked like Archie. At Archie's funeral, Horatio had met his cousin, Lord Tony Dewherst. Tony had looked like Archie. He had not moved, spoken, laughed the same. He had not had that cocky tilt of the head, the smug little grin that Archie had. There had not been the shared joke, the shared pain and hurt and life that there had been with Archie.
Still, the wine swirled in his goblet.
The man on the stage had been Archie Kennedy. Of that, Horatio was certain.
Buthow?

A knock on the door startled Hornblower out of his speculation.
"Come. "
Andrew Boyce, the butler, poked his head in.
"Milord, there's a young man here to see you. "
Hornblower looked out the window for a few more long moments, carefully resting the delicate crystal goblet on a nearby table. Barbara would never forgive him for breaking one of these.
"Does he say what his business is, Mr. Boyce? " Horatio clasped long hands behind himself, a habit he retained when not on the quarterdeck of his ship.
"He says, milord, that you would know. He says his name is Kennedy, milord. "
Horatio bowed his head for a moment, feeling every one of his seventy odd years.
"Invite him up, please, Mr. Boyce. I shall see him here. "

Hornblower remained where he was, looking out over his lands. The one regret he had about his study was that he could not watch the sea from here.
"Mr. Kennedy, milord. "
Horatio did not turn. "Thank you, Mr. Boyce. "

Silence echoed for a few long moments.

"Hullo, Horatio. "
Archie watched the broad shoulders beneath a fine cream coloured waist coat tighten, saw the long-fingered hands clench. He sighed.
"You cannot exist. " The soft spoken words were measured in a familiar, clipped tone.
Archie winced.
"I saw you die, Archie. I sat with you, in Kingston ­ I can still remember the heat and the stink of the sickroom ­ I saw you die. "
Hornblower turned, pulling himself up to his full height. He still affected the long hair of their youth, Archie noted, in some mad part of his mind that seemed to be taking notes on everything all at once. The dark eyes were unreadable.
"If I'd known you were coming, Horatio, I would have asked the understudy to play the part. "

The two men stared at one another for long moments in tense, unhappy silence. A log popped in the fireplace. Outside, the sun had faded into memory. The sky was become dark velvet, sprinkled with the brightest jewels possible. Still, neither man moved.

"How are you here, Archie? How, in the name of God? " Hornblower managed, finally, hands once more clasped behind his back.
Archie couldn't help himself. "There are more things in Heaven and Earth than can be encompassed by your philosophy, Horatio"
If Horatio had harbored any lingering doubts as to the man's identity, the badly made quotation ended them. Despite himself, Horatio felt a smile tugging his lips.
"By God, Horatio, it's good to see you again. Or, should I call you "my lord' now? "
Hornblower chuckled, shaking his head. "You should have been there the first time I made Edrington call me 'my lord'. "
Archie snickered. "I would have paid good money for that. "

Horatio sobered quickly. "Archie - how - "
The smile faded slowly from Kennedy's face. "'Tis a bit of a tale, Horatio. You might want to make yourself comfortable. "

Chapter Three
...Echoes in Eternity

Horatio sank into his favorite armchair close by the fire. Archie stood,
leaning against the carved mantle piece. He stared into the flames,
obviously trying to gather his thoughts enough to present a coherent account.

Hornblower took the opportunity to examine his old friend while the other man
wasn't paying him any mind. The long golden hair hung loose over a dark
brocade waistcoat. Whatever it was Archie did, it obviously afforded him
some measure of luxury. Hornblower shook his head. There was
something...something unsettled and unsettling in the blue eyes, he decided.
Archie cleared his throat after a few moments.
"There was a woman, Horatio..."
Hornblower chuckled."You don't say."
Archie smiled softly, turning inscrutable eyes to his friend. After all
these years, they had fallen almost naturally into still familiar exchanges.
"Yes, well..."
The mischievous grin Horatio remembered so well played across Kennedy's
lips.
"There was a woman." He fell silent again, lost in a world of his own.
Horatio waited with a semblance of patience.
"She was lovely, Horatio. You've no idea..." Kennedy paused a moment, looking
back into the dancing fire before seating himself on the hearth, back to the
heat.
"Remember, Horatio, the whole time, I thought she was naught but a
fever-dream. She was tall, a hair taller than I am. Her skin was the most
perfect alabaster, her hair midnight curls. She had eyes like Kitty did,
Horatio, do you remember? So silvery blue it appeared as if some inner light
shone through. But more so..." He became sad for a few long moments. Horatio
rose, retrieving his own untouched drink and offering one to Kennedy. Archie
accepted gratefully, sipping the wine slowly.
"It hurt so much, especially before the fever set in. Then the pain
disappeared as the fever ate at my body. I knew from the moment I felt that
ball enter my stomach that I was going to die. I'd seen too many wounds
exactly like it to not know what my fate was. When the fever well and truly
got hold of me, I more or less just gave myself to it. Far preferable to
that pain."
"The woman, Archie?" Horatio prompted.
Kennedy smirked."Patience, milord. Let me tell the tale."
Horatio stood again, stiffly, returning to the nighttime windows.
"I'd been making poor Bush read to me, once he was well enough to sit up for
a little. Gave us both something other to think about...something not the
trial or my wound or your damned honor, or Buckland trying to get us all
hanged. He had a lovely reading voice, Bush did. Anyway, he'd fallen asleep
reading Lear. I couldn't hold the book up for any length of time, not
without hurting myself. So I tried to sleep. That's when she came to me,
Horatio. In the hours just before dawn, when the whole world trembles on the
verge of wakefulness."
He paused, a sensual smile playing about his mouth, sipping the wine.
"She would do the most fantastic things to me, Horatio. I thought..."
The blue eyes softened for a moment. For an instant that lasted as long as
it took for his heart to beat thrice, Horatio truly saw the brother of his
heart that he had known all those years ago.
"She came perhaps three times, Horatio. I welcomed those dreams as respite
from reality. It hurt me more to think of you swinging from a yard than my
own pain. The last time she came was the night before I died."
Horatio turned sharply, grey brows drawing down over his eyes. His left hand
wandered down to his hip, Archie noticed, the instinct of a warrior.
"Imagine my surprise, then, when I woke. For a few moments, I thought I was
back in El Ferrol, Horatio, in that Goddamned oubilette. Then she was there,
helping me out. Out of the earth. Out of my own grave."
Archie looked up, into Horatio's eyes. Horatio, an old man...it didn't seem as
if enough years had passed for Horatio to have grown old. But that was why
he was here, wasn't it...Lord Exmouth's passing had reached him, in far off
Portugal. He had come to pay his respects to the man he had admired so
greatly. Horatio was afraid, Archie saw, afraid of the rest of his story.
"If you died, Archie, how is it you stand before me?" Hornblower demanded,
clasping his hands once more behind his back.
Kennedy smiled humorlessly, rising fluidly from his seat. He walked over to
stand before Horatio, tilting his head to the side to look into the taller
man's eyes.
Then he smiled.
Horatio's eyes widened in horror.
Kennedy's canine teeth grew before his eyes to sharp points.