The Weather Eye
Part 21 - Brother Lead and Sister Steel
by Rhiannon

TO these I turn, in these I trust:
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To his blind power I make appeal,
I guard her beauty clean from rust.

He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.

Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.

S. Sassoon.

The 'Carmen' pitched and tossed, seeming bent upon self-destruction
amidst the towering waves that surrounded her. God knew, thought
Archie Kennedy wearily, that she had ample opportunity to stay afloat.
The sheer volume of the rain which had inevitably come with the storm
that had descended upon them was by now heavy enough on its own to
float a ship, even had they not been at sea. In one moment, nothing
but sky, darkly clouded and hanging over them almost close enough to
touch, could be seen, in the next, they were rushing headlong down a
long slope of water into a deep trough. It seemed as if they must
plunge into the rising wall of water, and plunge they did, green water
covering the deck in a wash. The impact jarred the mast, and with it
the yard that Archie clung to. His numbed fingers slipped on the wet,
cold canvas, and he curled his feet about the footrope he had braced
them to and made his grip more firm. Then, with an almost tangible
shudder, the ship was shaking it off, rising back up through the water
and rushing up the craggy side of the next wave.

"Archie! Move!" The voice came from below him. Clinging desperately
to the ratlines, Horatio was glaring up at him, dark eyes slitted
against the wind and rain, his hair plastered to his skull by the
constant spray. "What the devil are you still doing up there, man?"

Archie groaned inwardly. Horatio, with his fear of heights, could not
possibly imagine that he might actually /want/ to be where he was in
the middle of a storm. He had realised once the storm hit that someone
in command should be up in the rigging with the hands, but they had
long since finished their tasks and fled down the ropes to safety.
Archie had paused for a moment, initially to cling where he was and
gather some strength for the climb down, but then the sheer
exhilaration of being aloft in a howling gale had kept him up there
long after their departure, enjoying the fact that his seaman's skills,
held in abeyance for so long, could once more be used.

At the beginning of Archie's watch, at the first hint of the
approaching storm, Horatio had ordered the sails hauled down and
secured. The rain had hit them first, followed by wind that had seemed
bent on picking them out of the rigging. They had no sooner finished
and regained the deck than the cry came to double reef the topsails and
furl everything else. In apparent response to their efforts, the storm
had promptly got worse. Archie's watch had clambered about the rigging
like rats on floating debris, making fast, close reefing and furling in
response to order after order, until Archie had stopped thinking at
all, only moving to obey Horatio's half-screamed commands. He had not
forgotten why he was there -- indeed, almost of their own accord, his
hands had packed the wet canvas and secured it. Amazing, he thought,
what the body could do even while the mind was numbed by cold and
weariness. His hands and feet were like separate beings, carefully
trained to keep him alive despite his own ambivalence, and he found
himself watching his own movements in fascination, as though they were
a thing apart from his consciousness, belonging to another man
completely.

When he had first rejoined the crew, after the enforced stupor that had
been their days at El Ferrol, he had been burning to distinguish
himself. He had driven himself to do more, faster, better and harder
than even the lowliest of the ratings. Even the repetitious food,
badly stored, the crowded and smelly living conditions he was forced to
endure as midshipman while Horatio, in stark and much embarrassed
contrast, had his own cabin -- even the crudity of those he called
shipmates had all seemed tolerable in his first days aboard once more.
He was back at sea, he was doing something that he had once, at least,
been good at, and at the end of the voyage he had been determined to
have his own lieutenancy to wave proudly at the world that had cast him
off so summarily. He would show everyone who had forgotten him that he
was worth more than they had ever dreamed of, would regain his literal
and metaphorical sealegs -- and he had resolutely set out to relearn
each new ship -- first the 'Indefatigable', which, familiar as it had
once been, had become a stranger to him -- then the 'Petrel', then
Roberts' beloved 'Kaliakra', and now the wholly alien 'Carmen', as
quickly as he could.

But despite his best efforts aboard the 'Carmen', his inexperience on
such a vessel was multiplied by the two years of privation he had
previously endured. This was a Spanish privateer, not a frigate. The
captain's objective was not to get swiftly from one place to another,
pursuing his prey, but to cruise a zigzagging path, seeking to plunder
where he might. The ship carried a far larger crew than would a
frigate of the same size, for in addition to sailing, there must be
enough hands to fight aboard any boarded vessel, enough to maim and
slaughter and be placed in command of the taken ship, and so the
'Carmen' had been, before their arrival, both more crowded and less
clean.

Since his return to the 'Indefatigable', Archie had held fast to his
resolution to work both fast and well, but determination alone had not
ensured his increasing skill, nor made him what he had resolved to be
-- the best sailor aboard. Initially, his purposefulness had dwindled
down into despair, leaving him with the ability only to survive from
day to day, and thinking of little more than that. Aloft, however, in
the storm, his closer command needed even above Horatio's efforts, all
that had finally changed, more even than when he passed his examination
for lieutenant, and he relished his new-found sense of freedom, even as
he hung from the yard.

He held tight to the mast for a moment longer, just out of reach of yet
another wave that swamped the deck. From there to the shelter of the
forepeak, he moved in a series of darting movements and breathless
moments of clinging tight to lines and rails, desperate to stay with
the ship as she ploughed through wave after wave. They'd had three
solid days of bad weather now, yet before the current storm began,
Archie had believed that it could not get much worse. Those hands more
familiar with the climate of these seas had seemed to accept it as part
of a normal season where they were, and although they cursed it,
berating their foully-appellated God and demanding that he end it, they
always ended up telling one another of worse storms they had endured on
far less seaworthy vessels.

"Archie! Christ, man! Get below while there's still something dry to
get to, would you?"

Horatio's words had more than a bit of threat to them, but despite his
tone, he clung tight to the ratlines, waiting until Archie reached his
side, though his own watch was long since over. Together they went
below, sliding the hatch tight shut behind them. They stood below
decks, listening to the rush of water all about them. Archie sighed
heavily, and dashed the water from his face and his arms, bared to the
storm by his rolled-up sleeves. With a nod to Horatio, he made his way
to his cabin, wringing the water from his queue as he went. His
clothing was sodden against his skin, chilling him. Once the door to
his cabin had closed him into privacy, he changed hastily into clothing
that was merely damp, then wrung out what he had on. He shook it out,
hung his shirt and trousers on a peg to drip, and tugged his blanket
out from its hiding-place, where it lay damp and musty, but at least it
was woollen and relatively soft in the flaking harshness of the
salt-caked room. Archie rolled himself into it and curled up as small
as he could in the fusty darkness, closing his eyes and trying to let
go of consciousness with a sense of relief that this was now possible.

But sleep, with its customary perversity at such moments, betrayed him.
Over an hour later, Archie lay stretched out on his back and studied
the wall opposite from him, noting, as he had night after night, how
close it was to his face. //There was a time// he thought ruefully,
//when I would have scorned this for a wardrobe.// Now, however, he
knew exactly what a luxury even such a tiny space to himself could be.
There were at least pegs for his clothing, and a corner that would have
been large enough to hold his sea-chest, had he still possessed it
after the shipwreck, on top of which he could have piled his remaining
and hard-acquired books. Horatio's cabin was not substantially larger,
but, as the captain's quarters, it was at least better appointed, even
on a ship as closely packed as this. Archie was simply grateful for
this tiny quarter of quiet, no matter, he had long since realised,
whether he believed himself to have earned it or not. Staring at the
strange patch of damp on the wall, shaped like the back end of a horse
flicking up its tail, he drifted, slowly and joltingly, into a restless
sleep.

* * * *

Their first sighting of Port Jackson came on a clear, blessedly warm
morning, the coast visible low on the horizon. The other islands
crouched low on the horizon, low and flat, visible as little more than
a series of little more than a series of rocky beaches and sand plains
that simply happened to have been placed fortuitously above the
tideline. Archie squinted his eyes against the salt spray and wondered
what deadly instinct had brought Horatio safely here, where he faced at
the very least a court martial to clear him, the fate of any captain
unfortunate enough to lose his ship, and at the worst disgrace and
death.

They came to lee at about noon, only to discover that they were to be
held at anchor for the next week, waiting for permission to land in a
foreign ship. Horatio cursed at that, cursed as if it were somehow the
fault of the men and his ship that such rules applied, cursed and then
retreated into a sullen silence that all of Archie's attempts at humour
could not shift him from. His was the burden of command and
responsibility, and he had decided to bear it alone and without
comment, whether Archie's irreverent remarks were affecting him or no.
And so they rode at anchor, the crew idle and ill-contented, awaiting
their fate.

The weather held fine for them at first, slightly blustery but with no
hint of the storms that had first beset them as the 'Carmen' sailed
away from Roberts and his pirate-disguised crew. Then came an
afternoon when the clouds seemed to boil into the sky, beginning at the
horizon and rapidly encroaching on the serene blue, the wind honing
itself sharp and keen. Yet the men still remained idle, sparing
scarcely a glance as the clouds built up, tall and black as the
mountains that lay beyond the town. It was only when the storm broke,
driving blinding, heavy rain before it, that they were moved to action
beneath Horatio's frantic command, furling and securing once more as
they pitched where they were fixed, bellowing instructions to one
another over the sound of the howling gale that was the provenance of
summer in these seas.

Once more, Archie found himself aloft, climbing up to the very top
where Horatio could not go for fear of his dignity, once more in
command of his watch as he could never be below decks. Watch to watch,
he found his way, gaining what trust and respect he could, watching his
hands and feet once more as though they were appendages to some alien
body over which he scarcely retained control.

Down on the deck, taking Horatio's place in making the ropes fast while
the newly-appointed and almost reluctant captain caught what sleep he
could, Archie lifted his head to peer around him through the curtains
of rain that fell almost perpendicular to the deck. The chill water
pounded his back and dripped into his eyes, but until that moment of
brief respite, he had almost been unaware of it. In the distance, one
of the men appeared to be speaking to Matthews about something, making
an off-hand gesture in Archie's direction, and Kennedy suddenly knew
with certainty that he was the object of their conversation. He once
more bent his head to his work, his hands flying as he blinked away the
water that ran into his eyes and dripped from his nose, trying futilely
to ignore the small fire of pride that had begun to burn within him.
It was ridiculous, petty work, on a scale that was so far below his
supposed position as lieutenant that it should have been beyond even
casual recognition, yet he was good at it. And it had been so long
since he was able to claim even such a small thing for himself, that
his hunger for such work, and the recognition it brought him, shocked
Archie Kennedy to his core.

They were finally allowed into port late in the evening at the
beginning of the third week. The light was slanting across the sky in
cloud-divided strips of hazy gold, breaking through the bank of grey to
fall almost magically on the town below. Horatio was on the foredeck,
spending the hour before his watch alone. He leaned on the railing and
stared at the blindingly white town that curved around the harbour. He
was completely silent, as he almost always was these days, but lately,
he had begun to find the silence more companionable than miserable.
Archie came up beside him, saying nothing, and Horatio found himself
thanking whatever capricious god currently watched over the 'Carmen'
for his friend's continued and unquestioning company.

After a while, Kennedy pointed at the outcrop of rock nearest to them.

 

"D'you see how the light hits it, Horatio?"

Tiring of his own mood, and willing, as a result, to enter into
whatever the latest fantasy Archie had decided to spin might be,
Horatio turned almost eagerly in the direction to which his friend was
pointing.

"No, what, Archie?"

A trick of the last light illuminated the rock in detail, and
Hornblower found himself hard put to it not to gasp in amazement. It
looked exactly like a dragon, sprawled on its back, the forelegs
clutching at its chest and the wings flung out in the last surrender of
death. Then the light shifted through the clouds, only slightly, but
enough to make the rock seem once more like an oddly shaped boulder,
its lines no more than suggestive of some strange animal. Horatio let
go of his breath with a sense of relief.

"Did you see?" Archie asked him eagerly.

"Hmmm," was all that Horatio would allow himself to reply, but he
slanted a half-smile at the man he had grown to trust beyond all
others. "It's just a rock, Archie."

Archie grinned at that, lowering his voice to the pitch of a
professional storyteller.

"Oh, but no, Horatio, don't you see? That was, once, a real live
dragon....brought down to die when the world was new, and simply
waiting for us to see it, so that, in the sun..." his voice came in an
ominous whisper, "it would -- come back -- to life..."

Horatio spluttered into laughter, his self-enforced silence gone as if
it had never been.

"You, Mr Kennedy, are a credulous fool," he said lightly, and saw
Archie grin with his usual unfailing lightheartedness.

"Why, Mr Hornblower, are you telling me that it /isn't/ a dragon?"

"Mr Kennedy, there are, and never will be, such things," he responded
with a corresponding smile, and saw Archie's grin fade into a smile of
unashamed affection, as he leant forward onto the rail to try and catch
the sun in the same light once more, only to push himself back once
more with a sigh of mock regret.

"Once again, Horatio, logic must win," he said with an evidently
feigned sadness, and was rewarded with the rare sound of Hornblower's
laughter.

* * * *

Only six of them, including Kennedy and Hornblower, were given
permission to go ashore from the 'Carmen', and Archie could not decide
whether to be horrified by the other four men or simply amused.
Horatio had left Matthews aboard, in unwilling charge of those left
behind aboard the ship, but Styles had come along, in great good cheer,
making one jest after another to the crew who leant on the oars as the
boat took them to shore. He wore a decidedly ragged red cap in honour
of the occasion, adorned with cheap brass charms, and had evidently
managed to get more than his fair share of rum even before he set out
for the island. Catching the sunburnt and shaven-headed Oldroyd
stealing glances at him, he tipped him a wink and asked him loudly if
he'd like to tag along to the brothel.

"Likely the girls'd do yeh f'r half price. Lads like you sorta tickle
their fancy's what I hear."

Horatio's sigh was not quite audible, but it was enough to make Archie
splutter into inexplicable laughter as they pulled the little boat up
above the tide line.

* * * *

They came into Port Jackson into good order, the men of the 'Petrel'
disembarking like visiting royalty, purses already ajingle with the
coins Roberts had pressed on each and every man before they left the
'Kaliakra'. Horatio and Archie followed them, knowing that they left
Matthews behind in charge of a group of men who would be well-rewarded
for the postponement of their pleasures to some future date. As Archie
strolled with Horatio up the docks, ignoring the blatant offerings of
the pimps, whores and other pleasure-mongers, he reflected with
pleasure that this time, at least, thanks to Roberts' generosity with
regards to his wardrobe, they would be treated as gentlemen of both
exquisite taste and the money to back it. Whether the governor of the
port would be as appreciative remained to be seen.

Horatio was lost in thought as they made their way up the street, and
Archie was almost glad when he broke his silence, no matter how oddly
unlike him the path his musings had taken him seemed to be.

"Whores," he said quietly. "They make it all so much simpler."

At a loss to know what on earth he was talking about, for Horatio's
dislike of such establishments as Styles had proposed visiting had been
thoroughly demonstrated in the past, Archie cast about him for some
vaguely appropriate response. Finding none, he fell back on his own
thoughts, which had drifted back to England, where winter was no
further than a few weeks sail to the north.

"I've never cared for the cold," he said with apparent irrelevance.

Horatio seemed to smile at that, even if his own mind, judging from his
next remark, had continued to carry along the same inexplicable track
as before.

"No-one does," he agreed. "Not even whores."

"Eh?" Archie blinked at him in the dim light. "What?"

Horatio shook his head, as if to dislodge unwanted thoughts.

"No. Nothing."

Archie looked at him quizzically.

"So I should not place an undue weight on your words?"

"None," said Horatio with a glint of humour, and then, very dryly --
"No more, at any rate, than I tend to place on yours."

Archie frowned.

"Horatio, are you -- no, never mind..."

"In the long run," added his fellow lieutenant thoughtfully, "it could
be said that a whore can cost one more than the most profligate wife."

"What on earth are you talking about? Horatio, youíre usually the one
who makes sense while /I/ babble."

Horatio blinked, coming out of whatever black mood had taken him over,
and shrugging.

"Thank you," he said after a while. "I think."

Archie gave up. Did most madness begin in pairs? Whatever was wrong
with Horatio, too much thinking about it on his own part would, he
knew, lead only to a kind of empty despair as he failed to understand
once again. Better to be a man like Styles, who was probably even now
imagining a blushing virgin in his bed, and was certainly better off as
he was, simply buying a woman who could squeak and blush convincingly.
Better, without a doubt, to be the one alert at this moment, as
Hornblower had evidently decided to ignore his surroundings in favour
of his own gloomy imaginings, whatever they happened to be.

* * * *

In the inn that they eventually decided on for the night, there were at
least three men in the downstairs room who were following their
conversation with the landlady with more attention than seemed polite.
As Horatio prepared to arrange for a meal and a room, Archie found
himself being tugged over by another woman to a candlelit alcove off
the main room. None of the three men who had been watching them looked
particularly pleased to see where he was being led to, and, both
curious and cautious, he glanced behind the heavy curtain.

The girl waiting there was small, and might have been pretty once,
before she was brought to this place, her mouth painted red and her
hair dyed gold, dressed in tight little curls all over her head. She
had been dressed in pale blue, and covered in cheap gilt jewellery,
which jangled harshly as she stood up from the cushions where she had
been seated, in order to smile at him with practised sweetness.

Archie found, from somewhere, the cold, repressive smile he had seen so
often on his father's face to turn on the woman who had led him over to
this alcove, even while his every instinct told him that this was a
trap of some kind. This was no inexplicable kindness to a well-dressed
man, but a danger that Horatio, in his current preoccupied state, had
almost certainly failed to notice.

"I don't play with dolls," he said quietly. "They do not amuse me."

The nervousness he had seen in the older woman's bearing suddenly
became a shrilling of fear in her voice as he turned away.

"But sir!" she protested. "Please! At least try her. If you don't
fancy her, there's no extra charge."

Horatio had already gone up the stairs, noted one part of Archie's
mind, even while all the other parts screamed at him to be wary as he
made his own way up to the room.

"I do /not/ fancy her, so there will be no charge."

The small of his back ached with tension. He had seen the sudden
avidity in the three men's eyes as he started up the staircase behind
Horatio, who was evidently oblivious to their danger.

Softfooted as a cat, Archie padded up the darkened stairs, letting his
sword's tip lead the way. When he reached the door that led to the
narrow stair going towards the top of the inn, he entered it quickly,
shutting the door behind him. Here the stairway bent back upon itself,
and he waited soundlessly around the corner, keeping the chamber door
in sight out of the corner of his eye. If the men below were alarmed
at all -- no, if they were sly at all -- they'd have had men waiting
for Horatio. Archie took a deep, steadying breath, and listened
carefully.

He heard soft, cautious feet on the stairs, counting three separate
footfalls that confirmed his suspicions. The men from below had
followed him, but it was better that he met them here, in tight
quarters with them below him than out in the open of the room where
they would outnumber him completely and have space to manoeuvre. Here,
with a bit of luck, he could take at least one by surprise.

As the first one stepped around the corner, sword in hand, Archie
flicked the tip of his blade up, sending the other man's weapon
spinning a cross the landing, and gave the man a good shove, sending
him tumbling backwards into his two companions and toppling all three
of them down the stairs back into the light of the tavern. Raucous
laughter greeted their ignominious arrival, and from the shouts and
scufflings that ensued, Archie guessed that wounded pride had taken
priority, at least for the moment, over whatever they had been planning
for him. He turned his attention back to the chamber into which
Horatio had vanished, the simple fact that his friend had not appeared
at the commotion a warning in itself.

The door was shut, softly pitched voices coming through it. Men's
voices, at least two. Nothing recognisable in either pitch or tone as
belonging to Horatio, so at least two, and sounding impatient. If they
had already taken Horatio, then why hadn't they simply come for him
once he reached the top of the stairs? Perhaps because they expected
that their fellows would have already overpowered him?

Archie considered this for a moment, then pounded roughly on the door.

"Got him!" he cried hoarsely, and was rewarded by a fool, who opened
the door for him. Archie thrust his sword low at the man's belly, and
dragged it up with all his strength, giving the man a backwards shove
before springing forwards to meet the next man's blade. The other
rapier met Archie's neatly, turned aside his thrust, then thrust in
turn. A gentlemanly approach to fencing, thought Archie wryly, but
wasted on a man honed on sea-battles and a voyageís worth of the
assassin Guido di Cesare's deadly, if somewhat acerbic, tuition. Then
he set the man's blade-tip out of alignment with his throat, and
parried with his own, more accurate stroke, letting the body slide
limply to the ground to lie with that of his companion.

//A mistaken sense of gallantry and showmanship.//

Archie whipped a glance around the room. There was one more man
standing with studied composure before the fireplace. He held a glass
of wine in one hand, but his other hand levelled Horatio's own sword at
his throat. Even disarmed, Horatio was glaring at his captor with
pure, unadulterated loathing, unfazed by the threat that looked at him
with such a bland lack of concern.

"Ah, you finally decide to join us," the man observed lazily. He
angled the tip of his sword a little, cutting the flesh at the juncture
of Horatio's jaw and neck, deep enough so that the blood ran freely.
Horatio's lips tightened with the pain, but he made no sound. "But -- I
do not believe I am in the mood to receive you at this precise moment."

 

The comment was meant to distract him with its sheer effrontery, and,
for a moment, it almost worked. It angered Archie almost beyond
description, leaving him almost dizzy with hatred as he saw the blood
stream down to soak into the collar of Horatio's shirt.

A part of him was aware of a shout behind him, even as he turned
instinctively to counter the downward thrust. He'd have to finish this
one quickly, and then get the one by the fireplace. But even as he
pressed the advantage of his sudden turn, the other man left Horatio,
who dropped almost to his knees as the blade left his throat, one hand
clutching at the mantelpiece to save himself from hitting the floor,
his head hanging. It was evident that it had been only willpower that
had kept him upright while he faced his captor. Ignoring his erstwhile
captive, the man advanced on Archie with his sword. This one, at least,
was not stupid enough to think that fair play had anything to do with
killing, and Archie was not stupid enough to think that he had much of
a chance against two blades.

//A stupid time to die// he told himself, as he parried one blade with
his sword and knocked the other aside with his arm, leaving him more
than thankful for the thick fabric of his borrowed jacket sleeve, which
absorbed most of the impact. Seeing how he must defend himself, his
attackers switched to slashing attacks rather than thrusts. Kennedy
began a constant harried retreat from both blddes, with nothing to do
except defend and evade. The other two men laughed and shouted to each
other as they fought, indistiguishable words that Archie did not listen
to, could not listen to, one moment's distraction meaning his death.
All his attention went to the two blades and the two men who powered
them, no time to spare even to glance at Horatio.

//Time to decide,// thought Archie grimly. //Do I make them kill me
now, quickly, or fight until I can no longer defend myself well, and
they can play cats to my mouse?//

He was as startled as they were when the quilted bedding was snapped
open and was flung over one of them. As the man who had appeared
behind Archie was fighting clear of it, the rest of the bedding quickly
followed, pillows that knocked both men off balance, sheets that draped
his enemies' blades and tangled their feet. One sheet draped over the
man unentangled by the quilt, and he dropped his sword, struggling
against the clinging linen. Immediately, the blade was snatched up,
and reappeared through the drapery, drawing back to create a great
scarlet blossom that grew even as the shrouded form swayed and dropped
to the floor. Archie quickly turned to dispatch the other man,
stabbing him through the quilt as Horatio, his sword retrieved, lunged
to do the same. The thrashing figure beneath the folds of material
stilled abruptly, and fell with a muffled thud.

Horatio and Archie stared at each other in the eerie silence that
followed the man's collapse.

"An unusual -- choice of weapon, Mr Hornblower," said Archie, looking
down at their bedding-wrapped anatagonists with his eyebrows raised.

"I merely availed myself of those items available to me, Mr Kennedy."

They fell silent again for a moment, then --

"What the hell," demanded Archie Kennedy, still slightly out of
breath, "was all that for?"

Horatio pressed his sleeve to the still-open wound at his throat, and
shook his head.

"Your guess," he said, examining his blood-stained sleeve with
irritation, and pressing his arm back against his throat, "is as good
as mine. If -- God damn it, that hurts! -- if I might -- make a
suggestion, however?"

"Please do..."

"Alternative accommodation?" said Hornblower with rare humour, and
Archie started to laugh.

"Indeed, Mr Hornblower," he managed eventually. "Indeed!"
***