The Weather Eye
Part 13 - Into the Fire
by Michele

Horatio was getting stronger by the day. When duty permitted, Archie
was his most frequent visitor, always bringing either water, milk,
food, or just a smile and a story about what was going on abovedecks.

"What news, Archie?"

Kennedy sat down in a chair beside his friend's hammock, adjusting
Horatio's blanket. "Captain Roberts has noted no sign of his quarry
on that island we were on."

Horatio smiled gratefully at the untiring care his brother officer was
providing. He thought back to a time when their positions were
reversed, and to Archie's words 'but you're not, and you never WOULD
be..'

"So what is he going to do?"

Archie sighed. "He's thought to move on. The word is we may be
making for Port Jackson."

Hornblower brightened and raised his head from the striped-ticking
pillow, despite his still-weak condition. His brown curls were all
pushed forward, from his head lying flat upon the pillow so much; he
looked more like a tousled little boy than an officer in his
majesty's navy. "Archie -- might we possibly complete our original
mission after all?"

"Perhaps we could indeed," Archie smiled. "It seems the logical path
for the renegade navigator and his cohorts might be between our
former landing place and our ultimate destination."

Horatio's brow furrowed and his lips pursed, as he leaned his head
back down again. "But there must be dozens of islands between there
and the Continent."

"Aye... that there must..."

*********

"But sir -- with respect -- hadn't we ought to concentrate on
pursuing Britten and the other mutineers?" Sterling pleaded.

Captain Roberts looked at his first officer. The sunlight coming
through the aft windows in his day room illuminated every line in
Sterling's weathered face, and every nuance behind the man's blue
eyes. Roberts had served with Sterling for a few years in his
majesty's spy service, but it just occurred to him, *How well do I
really know this man?*

"We ARE pursuing them, Mr Sterling -- their logical course would have
been to Australia, to meet up with their known associates there."
The Captain's voice was calm, controlled, yet as firm and taut as a
well-made-up bunk. "May I remind you that they are wanted mutineers,
and they know as well as our intelligence does that they are going to
require assistance if they are to avoid capture indefinitely, and yet
still expect to live some sort of civilised life, and not spend their
remaining years on some forsaken atoll somewhere with only savages
and and scorpions for company!"

"Captain -- Mr Trevelyan's orders --"

"Mr Trevelyan's orders will not be overlooked, sir. But according to
standard procedure, our first priority is to assist his majesty's
officers to their cause. Do I need to remind you of the volatile
situation in Botany Bay? If those soldiers are not paid, and the
prisoners liberate themselves, it will hardly make any difference
recapturing three or four renegades, now, will it?"

"Aye, sir... I mean, no, sir..." Sterling did not sound totally
committed, and Roberts knew it. It was times like this Roberts
wished he really WAS a pirate -- then he would be free to deal with
doubting subordinates as he saw fit. Inwardly he sighed, his steely
grey eyes closing for a moment, then fluttering open to that midday
sunlight.

"Now, Mr Sterling, to your duties, if you please. I need for you to
implement our new course. I shall be resting until I am needed."

"Aye aye, sir." Sterling saluted and left the Captain's cabin.
Roberts waited for the door to close, and catching a glimpse of the
guard posted outside, felt strangely comforted. He removed his
buccaneer's jacket, loosened his colourful neckcloth, and opened his
collar button, allowing his shirt ruffles to be splayed apart, one
collar point to his shoulder, one to his clavicle; and he dropped
onto his bunk and closed his eyes. This time he allowed himself a
heavy sigh before murmuring to himself:

"I'm not going to tell anyone how dangerous these waters can be... We
may be fortunate just to sail past the next island...."

********

For the first time in what seemed forever, Horatio was able to make
it abovedecks without being carried, to take the late afternoon sun.
He leaned heavily on Archie, however, still using his right arm
rather than his left. The breeze felt all the fresher, and the sun
so much the brighter, for Hornblower having come to be here mostly
under his own power. Having done so with Archie's assistance was
more like having done it on his own, so much now had he come to think
of Kennedy as a brother, and almost an extension of himself.

"Do you need to sit down, Horatio?" Archie's voice was gentle and
solicitious.

"I'm fine, Archie; I'll just lean on the rail." Hornblower thought
to himself how much he had been longing to do that. *It's funny,* he
thought, *it doesn't even hurt my arm to lean on here now... It's the
most natural thing in the world...*

For a time the two officers stood side by side, feeling the salt-
tinged breeze blowing their hair, occasionally whipping their queues
round their necks to the front as they turned their heads to take in
all the sights and scents. Finally Horatio spoke, and he looked as
though suddenly, something disturbing had occurred to him.

"Archie, there's something bothering me..."

Kennedy turned toward his friend, and once more his queue was blown
forward, where it clung to his neck for a moment. "Yes, Horatio?"

"No-one is supposed to know we're a British spy ship, right?"

"That's right."

"Well, is there any evidence aboard that we ARE?"

Archie looked thoughtful, as though he hadn't thought of this
before. His blue eyes twinkled. "You mean aside from your
uniform?"

"ARR-chiee....." Horatio rolled his eyes.

"I don't know, Horatio..." Kennedy was once again serious. "Captain
Roberts has been in his majesty's spy service for some time -- I
doubt he would have overlooked anything... And anyway, what does it
matter, as long as we keep up the charade?"

"There might be one instance in which it WOULD matter, Archie, and in
which the discovery of so much as a single log entry or a caddy of a
certain kind of tea -- OR a British uniform -- might make all the
difference in the world...."

Archie suddenly had the same thought as his friend, and at once his
expression became just as grave.

*******

Captain Roberts hadn't realised he'd slept quite so long: Instead of
that brilliant yellow sunlight that had strangely lulled him to
sleep, he awoke to a red-pink glow bathing his cabin. He sat up and
blinked a few times, running a half-asleep hand over his brown hair,
and stretched. *This is going to be a spectacular sunset,* he
thought, rising and going to his washstand. Roberts poured some
precious fresh water from the pitcher and sank his hands into the
bowl to prepare to wash his face. As he washed, several drops came
together to water-stain his collar and one cuff. He cursed to
himself and pulled on his jacket anyway.

"I hate mornings," he muttered to himself, even though it was late
afternoon, starting into early evening.

*********

Emerging from below, Roberts found Mr Sterling on the quarterdeck, on
the watch. On his way he noted Horatio and Archie still at the rail,
and smiled to himself, relieved that Mr Hornblower was doing so much
better. He still felt badly over his initial treatment of the
Lieutenant, but at that point he still hadn't been a hundred percent
sure it was not one of the renegade ratings, or even Britten himself,
so closely had Horatio matched the description of the wanted
navigator.

But a few moments on deck set off the Captain's internal alarm;
something was not quite right -- things just didn't FEEL right.
Everyone's actions seemed just a bit more urgent -- orders were given
and replied to in hushed, anxious whispers rather than hearty hails
and aye ayes.

Roberts joined his first officer on the quarterdeck, and went right
to business. "Report, please, Mr Sterling."

Sterling handed his spyglass to his Captain; Roberts noted the man
trying to conceal the shaking in his hand. "There, sir." Sterling
pointed abaft the beam.

The new arrival turned, put the glass to his eye, then lowered it
slowly, looking as though he had suddenly gone numb. Even his speech
was slow.

"Oh no... No, I can't believe this... What in the bloody seven seas
are the Dons doing down HERE???"

"Have they seen us, Mr Sterling?"

Sterling looked at once downcast and nervous. "I believe they have,
sir..."

"Well then, why the devil didn't somebody CALL me???"

"Were just ABOUT to, sir, when here you be."

Roberts looked annoyed. "Well, never mind that now." He raised his
voice and turned for'ard. "HANDS TO QUARTERS!! HANDS TO QUARTERS!!!"

At once Horatio and Archie were on the quarterdeck.

"Sir?" Hornblower enquired. Was it as he had feared?

"Spaniards, Mr Hornblower," Roberts said calmly, as all around him
the hushed urgency quickly became a fevered rush. "Gentlemen, it
appears we are going to have a fight on our hands..."

**********

Hornblower was silent for a moment, uncharacteristic for him in such
a situation. *What if... no... no, this can't happen again...* He
looked at Archie, who had become quiet as well, his blue eyes looking
down at the deck. Then Horatio looked down at his own left arm,
still feeling the residual weakness in it. *I can't let him down,
not AGAIN...I can't let ANY of them down.... Please,* he prayed,
momentarily closing his eyes, *please give me the strength....*

**********

That quiet moment indeed DID last for only a moment, though Horatio
and Archie felt quite deeply what had just gone through their minds.
But now, at Roberts's direction, the two Lieutenants went below, each
taking charge of a gun crew, and forcing their concentration to the
task at hand. Despite its outward appearance as a pirate ship, the
spy vessel was, unfortunately, not of a heavy armament. While almost
the size of Indefatigable, the Kaliakra carried only 24 guns; and the
ever-approaching Spanish vessel, it now became apparent, carried 74.

*'Guns, 74...'* Mr Hunter's words suddenly rang in Horatio's head,
and he groaned inwardly. Nonetheless, he directed Styles, Matthews,
and Oldroyd, making certain the cannon was loaded, and that plenty of
shot, powder -- and the fire-buckets -- were to hand. He looked up
at Archie, who was performing the same duties, not showing for even
one moment the fear and dread he too was feeling inside. Hornblower
smiled, despite himself. *I could not ask for a better ally in
battle, or a better friend,* he thought, in the midst of the growing
chaos and noise.

A moment later he hastily removed his uniform jacket and vest, and
tying them into a ball with a small amount of shot in the center,
tossed them out through the gunport and watched them sink, hoping
against hope that his remaining garb would not be easily identified
as that of a British Naval officer....

*********

Archie could not keep from shuddering, as the first shot to hit the
ship thundered above them, embedding itself in the rail where moments
before he and Horatio had stood. Fire control parties doused the
ship's wound with water as a precaution, grateful it was not red-hot
shot. Kennedy's personal feelings did not prevent him from issuing
the order to fire, and this time from above -- and all round him --
came a loud cheer, as his volley found its intended target. Horatio
looked up, his classic features already stained with smoke and sweat,
and gave his friend a quick, encouraging nod.

"Fine shooting, Mr Kennedy," he called.

"Thank you, Mr Hornblower," returned Archie, all business; but the
encouragement was just what he had needed at that moment. He leaned
over to take a sight picture as his crew reloaded, then straightened,
squared his shoulders, and yelled, "FIRE!!"

The cannon's loud report echoed at the same time a Spanish volley hit
the Kaliakra, not far from where Archie stood. It did not penetrate
the hull, but the din was nearly deafening.

********

A nervous young man, apparently equivalent to a midshipman on a man-
o'-war, scurried to Horatio's side.

"Captain's compliments, Mr Hornblower, and to make every shot count,
sir. It's -- well, sir, things are not going well..."

Archie looked up when he heard this, and his eyes met Horatio's.
Hornblower could read everything his friend's eyes said, and his
heart tugged within his chest. Determined, he answered the young
messenger, his confident, self-assured tone belying his own fear and
apprehension.

"My compliments to Mr Roberts, and as he wishes." The young man
hastened away.

***********

"Blast it all, Mr Sterling -- we don't seem to be getting ANYwhere!"
Roberts roared, lowering his glass, and no longer making any effort
to maintain his calm facade. He was angry, and he was apprehensive,
and being apprehensive made him even MORE angry, because he didn't
like feeling so out of control. "For every shot we fire, the Dons
come back at us with three more! We've already lost part of our
foremast, there is shot embedded in almost every quarter of the ship,
and she's fast approaching. And... at this range -- well, I don't
even want to say it..."

"Aye, sir," Sterling concurred, helplessly.

"Very helpful, Mr Sterling." Roberts thought to himself that he
didn't like himself very much in this sort of a state; he made a
mental note that he would have to work on that sarcastic streak of
his.. IF they made it out of this alive.

The young messenger who had been below presented himself to the two
officers on the quarterdeck, looking even more nervous than before.

"Yes, report please, Hayward?"

"Shot and powder running low, sir. Gun crews not sure how long they
can hold out..."

"Blast..." Roberts turned away for a moment, to compose
himself. "Surgeon's report?"

"Not much better, sir... a dozen dead, 23 wounded."

"Blast..." the Captain repeated, not wanting to use a stronger oath
at a time when it was becoming increasingly clear that the Almighty's
intervention was most certainly going to be needed....

***********

Horatio and Archie instinctively looked up when they heard the all-
too-familiar thud of wood-on-wood, then they looked at each other,
their glance again conveying volumes.

"They're boarding, sir..." Matthews said softly, his gaze going from
Hornblower to Kennedy, and then back again.

"Yes, Matthews, it would appear so..." Horatio's voice was quiet for
only a moment before he swallowed hard and ordered all men on the gun
deck above, and to arm with pistol and sword.

**********

The hollering, whooping throng heading abovedecks emerged to join the
din of other shouting voices, steel meeting steel, pistol fire, and
the continuing barrage being fired from the Spanish ship. Oldroyd
paused for the slightest moment to look up at the enormous enemy
vessel, felt his heart jump into his throat, and then, with Styles's
urging, forced himself into the fray.

Archie, with his quick blade, despatched one, two, three invading
Dons. Horatio put two to the sword, and felled one by the pistol.
He was grateful that his strength was holding out. Matthews, Styles,
and Oldroyd did their fair share, using whatever was to hand; in one
case, Styles used his massive fist to drop an enemy seaman to the
deck. Oldroyd did well with sword and dagger, and Matthews, as ever,
was as handy with a pistol as he was with a boarding axe.

Man after man on both sides fell, some with wounds which, though
agonisingly painful, would not allow them to depart this world;
others into eternal sleep. The horrific noise, the terrible smell of
burning wood, acrid smoke, and death, and the fierce battling went on
for half an hour; all the while the sun sinking into an ever-fading
explosion of red, pink, and orange. Men on both sides fought
stubbornly and valiantly, the Kaliakra's exhausted crew doing all in
their waning power to hold their ground, and keep their ship.

Suddenly, with one thunderous roar, a red-hot Spanish cannonball
cracked into the mainmast, bringing a massive oak timbre and a flurry
of sails down onto half a dozen men. Those who were still alive
screamed in pain. Flames quickly erupted from the fallen piece of
mast and from the portion still upright. Fire control crews picked
their way laboriously through the body-littered deck, not quickly
enough to contain the fire until it had consumed what was left of the
mast and a portion of the deck. Quick thinking by their comrades
prevented the wounded in the vicinity from incurring further injury,
as their broken, pain-wracked bodies were pulled below.

In the midst of this great confusion, destruction, and growing
despair on the part of the Kaliakras, a tall, dark, muscular, finely-
uniformed man stepped ceremoniously onto the spy ship's quarterdeck,
two slightly younger uniformed men following him. The tall man's
hand was on the handle of his sheathed sword as he approached a weary
but still-defiant Roberts, whom the visitor had presumed to be the
Captain. Roberts pointed his sword at the man, but half-heartedly;
he knew there was no further hope.

"Capitan Rodriguez, of Esplendor. You must surrender, sir," the
visitor declared, in Spanish-accented English, drawing his own
sword. "We have your ship; there is no hope of escape."

Roberts made one last attempt to advance his sword a couple of inches
through the air, but at the same time he looked round him and saw too
many groups of Spaniards standing over his crewmen, threatening
injury; even Sterling was engaged in a losing sword-fight, his
opponent's blade now at the Englishman's throat.

"Very well, sir," Roberts murmured, lowering his sword and handing it
to Rodriguez, who accepted it smugly. "Captain Roberts, pirate ship
Kaliakra -- but if I may, sir, I have but one question."

"And that is?"

"Of what possible use could a simple buccaneer's conveyance be to
their Excellencies in Madrid?"

Rodriguez harrumphed. "Pirate ship? If you, sir, are a pirate, then
I am your Admiral Nelson... We know who you are, and we are prepared
to take you and your crew... And --" he looked round until his small
brown eyes came to rest on Horatio and Archie where they stood,
exhausted, dirty, and breathing heavily, their swords lowered in
defeat, but uninjured. "Ah yes... THERE they are... We have been
looking for you two for a LONG time...."

Hornblower and Kennedy exchanged glances, holding their heads up in a
brave gesture intended to hide the shudders of terror that were
running through their bodies....

*******

"Well, I suppose it's better than the brig... I've spent ENOUGH time
in cells..."

Archie was trying his best to joke, as he looked round the small
cabin in which he and Horatio had been locked a short time before.
There wasn't much to see, considering the small lantern, and the fact
that the tiny room was windowless and empty save a single barrel,
which held a pitcher and basin, two hammocks and a couple of blankets
(which had been tossed in after them), and a chamberpot. TRYING to
joke, because inside he felt a growing dread, and he was beginning to
feel as though the walls were closing in on him.

Horatio, pacing, and already deep in thought, had no inclination for
jesting. He was perfectly serious when he countered, "Archie, I
expect there will indeed be more such time to come..."

Kennedy managed a smile. It was times like this when his friend was
MOST successful at humour -- when that was not his intent. He knew
that if he were to react as such, it would irritate Horatio, so --
with very little effort -- he held what feeble laughter he might have
forced on such an occasion. Archie instead used his nervous energy
to begin stringing the hammocks.

"I believe you're right, Mr Hornblower..." he said absentmindedly,
trying not to think of their possible futures.

Horatio abruptly stopped his pacing. The pacing, of course, was a
very difficult thing to do, considering that 5 paces in each
direction constituted one pass, and that he could only go in the
direction of the beams, lest he bump his head. "What I don't
understand is, why are we here, and not in the brig, or the hold,
with Captain Roberts and the rest of the men?"

Kennedy had just succeeded in suspending the first of the hammocks
from the low ceiling beams. It was a challenge to avoid the hanging
lantern. "Why argue it, Horatio? The fact is, we ARE here, such
as 'here' is, and... at least they've not separated us...."

Hornblower perceived the very subtle way his friend's voice cracked
on those last few words. He knew exactly what Archie was thinking,
what he was fearing, and he smiled despite himself at the thought of
Kennedy being so brave about it. *You're worried it might happen
again... just like those two long years alone in Spain....I won't let
it, Archie, I won't...no matter what....*

Low light notwithstanding, Archie caught his friend's gaze. "I know,
Horatio..." he said softly.

"Archie?" Horatio was afeared his friend might have read his mind.

"Honestly, I'm -- well, I just hope they don't -- I mean...." Archie
turned and busied himself hanging the other hammock. "Horatio..." he
finally continued quietly, "what do you think they're going to do
with us? And what did that Spanish captain mean when he said he'd
been looking for US?"

Hornblower gave up on his pacing, deciding he was too exhausted from
the recent battle, and took the other end of the hammock, helping
Archie hang it. Perhaps some rest might help.

"I just hope they don't take us for spies," Horatio finally replied
quietly, and frankly, climbing awkwardly into the newly strung
hammock. "It's one thing to be taken for an English officer, but
quite another to be thought a spy...."

Archie climbed into his own hammock and pulled his blanket over him,
in a subconscious attempt to block out the world -- and an uncertain
future -- with it. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes. He was
sure Horatio would be thinking of the men -- how they were being
treated, were they all right. Kennedy himself had these same
concerns, with a few of his own. It had been a horribly exhausting
several days, both physically and emotionally, and during that time
he had worried dreadfully about Horatio. Now his friend was
stronger, but was he strong enough to face whatever might come? And
Archie wondered if he himself was strong enough to face yet another
imprisonment.. or worse.... He feared the fits might return. He
feared something happening to the men, or to Horatio. He feared...
once more being alone....

Exhausted beyond all endurance, Archie Kennedy squeezed his heavy
eyelids closed more tightly, and a single tear was forced down his
left cheek.

"Archie?" Horatio called softly, but with some urgency. He didn't
like his friend's sudden silence, and inwardly he berated himself for
what he had just said.

Kennedy cleared his throat. "I'm all right, Horatio..." he almost
whispered, so that his voice would not crack again. "Just... just
tired...."

"It was a fierce battle, Mr Kennedy." Hornblower tried to sound
matter-of-fact.

"Aye, it was indeed, Mr Hornblower."

Silence.

"Archie...."

"Yes, Horatio?"

"Whatever is going on here, whatever Rodriguez wants from us, it's
going to be all right... We're going to get out of this, and the men
are going to be safe, and we're all going to make it to Port Jackson
to complete our mission."

"Our mission...." Kennedy murmured, in the despair that often comes
with exhaustion.

"And then we're going to make it home. Home, Archie... Shore
leave... Good meals, soft beds, clean, fresh air... ENGLISH air...."

"Home...." Archie fell asleep with the word on his lips.

"Home..." Horatio repeated, right before he, too, succumbed to the
blessed escape and respite of slumber.....

***********