Angels From the Realms of Glory
by Sue N.

Midshipman Archie Kennedy paced the length and breadth of the quarterdeck,
trying valiantly to restore warmth and life to extremities gone numb with
cold. He had drawn the first watch, had still half an hour to go before he
was relieved, and though the sea was calm and the wind light, still the
night held a knife-sharp chill that cut all the way through to his bones.

Though 'twas nowhere near as cold or dark as had seemed the nights spent in
Don Massaredo's oubliette...

He spun sharply on his heel to keep his thoughts from straying down that
path. He was free now, was back aboard Indefatigable, back in the company of
his shipmates. Such awful things as guards and cells and black holes in the
ground were no longer part of his life.

Though still quite a vivid part of his dreams...

"Damn it!" he swore softly, frustrated by his inability to let go of the
past. True, it had been only a month since he, Horatio and their crewmen had
returned to the Indy, and a month was precious short time to forget three
years of hell, but...

But tonight was Christmas Eve, and if ever there were a night when a man
could break the chains of his past, find healing for his broken soul, and
both receive and believe the promise of a brighter future, surely this night
was it!

He raised cupped hands to his mouth and blew across his fingers, staring out
over the dark, still water and then slowly, slowly lifting his gaze to the
sky, alight with its innumerable stars. God, there were so many of them!
What wondrous, infinite patience had it taken to create those countless
points of light? And to what purpose? Was it to ease man's loneliness as he
stood alone on nights such as this, to provide companionship in the
darkness? Or was it to emphasize his very insignificance, to remind him of
his smallness before works of such humbling magnitude?

Or was it merely to keep him mindful of mysteries he could never hope to
comprehend, and of the greatest mystery of all, the One by Whose hand both
man and the stars had been made?

Archie blew across his fingers again, then tore his gaze from the stars and
resumed his pacing, his body as restless as his mind. In truth, he had been
more than a little grateful to have drawn this watch upon this night.
Returning to the Indy had not been as easy as he had hoped. After three
years of imprisonment, much of it spent in solitary confinement, finding
himself once again among some three-hundred souls had been rather
nerve-wracking, and, at times, the confines of the frigate pressed as
closely upon him as any cell. He had yet to settle fully into the routine of
shipboard life, was having difficulty sleeping and had not fully regained
his appetite. He knew his shipmates -- Horatio in particular -- were
concerned about him, and had often seen that same worry mirrored in the
sharp, all-seeing gaze of Captain Pellew and the gentler but no less knowing
one of First Lieutenant Bracegirdle. But he was helpless to allay their
anxieties, for he shared them himself.

God, what if coming back had been a mistake? What if he never relearned all
he had forgotten? What if he never truly managed to leave the dark horrors
of three years of imprisonment in the past? What if he betrayed the trust
Horatio and Captain Pellew had shown in him?

Oh, God, what if he failed again?

He sighed heavily and lifted his gaze once more to the stars, seeking solace
from them as he had so many times in the past. How often had he sought their
light in whatever darkness engulfed him, how often had he used their
brightness to navigate through the storms that battered his soul.
Justinian... Jack Simpson... France... Spain... All prisons of one kind or
another, all tortures that had bent his mind while nearly shattering his
spirit. Yet always, always, light had somehow managed to find him, even in
the very depths of the darkest night.

And almost always that light had been borne by Horatio.

He smiled slightly at the thought of his friend. God, how Hornblower had
changed over the years! Oh, aye, he was still the gangly, long-limbed youth
with far more earnestness than grace, and likely would ever be that. But
gone forever was the shy, hesitant, nervous boy, awed by his surroundings
and intimidated by his peers, replaced by a quiet, steady, thoughtful man
who radiated determination and whose force of will could not be denied.
Horatio shone like a beacon in any night, drew men to him and gave them
strength, filled them with his certainty and inspired them with the courage
he had no idea he possessed. Horatio had brought that same light, that same
strength and certainty and courage into a cold, dark prison cell in Spain
and split open the darkness, dragging from it a soul which had fought him
every step of the way.

<<You are one of us... We do not leave unless you do... We need you... I
will not survive without you...>>

Words of light, spoken into the darkness, and shattering it forever...

<<And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good
tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born
this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.>>

Other words of light, spoken into another darkness so many centuries ago,
and shattering *it* forever...

He raised his eyes once more to the heavens, searching the thousands, the
millions, of pinpoints that glittered against that vast black breast.

"Which of you was it," he whispered, blue eyes sweeping slowly back and
forth, "that shone so brightly that night, that brought light and led men to
a stable where hope had been given flesh? Will you shine upon me now? Will
you show me the path I must take?" He shivered in the cold and dropped his
gaze once more to the darkened ship, feeling more alone upon it than ever he
had before. "It is... more difficult than I had anticipated," he breathed.
"That which for so long was my home and my life is once again new and
strange to me, and the companionship I once craved for my very survival I
now find a source of fear and anxiety. What if their eyes find me lacking?
What if I fail to meet their expectations? What if I should betray or
disappoint the faith and trust they have placed in me? What if I should find
I have only exchanged one prison for another? Where is my angel now with
good tidings of great joy?"

The heavens remained brightly lit but silent, seeming to have no answer for
him. No angel for him. He sighed heavily and bowed his head, painfully
accustomed to having his questions, his pleas, go unanswered.

But, dear God, how comforting an answer would be just now...

>From the corner of his eye, he saw his relief, young Midshipman Hardy,
approaching the quarterdeck, and realized the end of his watch must be at
hand. Just then, he heard the quartermaster striking eight bells, or
midnight. Shaking himself from his melancholy reverie and fixing his mind
firmly upon ship's matters, he turned and crossed to the binnacle, where the
quartermaster stood dutifully waiting.

"Good evening, Mr.... Dawes," Archie greeted pleasantly, faltering only a
moment with the man's name. "We shall heave the log, if you please."

Dawes saluted smartly. "Aye, aye, sir."

Together they walked aft, where two crewmen already stood waiting, one
holding the log. This was a wooden apparatus in the shape of a piece of pie
and attached to a line one-hundred fathoms long with knots tied at regular
intervals. Also at hand was the log-glass, a 30-second sand glass; when the
glass was turned, the log would be heaved overboard. As the sand ran out,
the knots in the line would be counted, and the ship's speed would be
calculated by comparing the amount of time passed to the number of knots
released.

"Make ready," Archie ordered, sending Dawes to the glass and the crewmen to
the taffrail. "Turn!"

At his sharp command, Dawes turned the glass and the log was thrown over.
Once in the water, the lead weighting its arc caused it to float point-up.
Archie clasped his hands loosely behind his back and watched the sands
running through the glass, then the knotted line playing out behind the log.
All the while, he counted the seconds off in his head. Twelve. twenty.
twenty-eight.

"Stop!" he called sharply as the last grains slipped through. Immediately a
clamp was placed on the line to mark it, and the men began hauling the log
back in. As it was brought aboard, Dawes went over to study it. "Well, Mr.
Dawes," Archie asked, "what speed have you?"

Dawes counted, did the rapid calculations in his head, and turned to the
midshipman. "Sir, she's making four knots and three fathom."

"Very good." Archie turned to the crewmen and smiled. "Thank you."

He turned and, with Dawes, went back to the binnacle, where the speed was
entered on the log-board. Then, he checked the course of the ship and
entered it, and took the carpenter's mate's report on the depth of water in
the well. When all was done to his -- and Mr. Dawes' -- satisfaction, he
handed the ship into Hardy's keeping, and left the quarterdeck.

But, God, he dreaded a return to the darkness below...

As he stepped onto the maindeck, he was startled by a tall, broad shadow
that abruptly loomed before him. His breath left him in a hiss, and a tremor
of fear ran through him. Immediately, though, he saw the flash of white
teeth in the moonlight, and heard a deep, familiar voice.

"Beg pardon, sir," Styles said, knuckling his forehead in a salute. "Didn't
mean ta startle ye. Changin' o' the watch, is all."

"Oh, Styles," Archie breathed, giving a nervous smile. "I'm sorry. I suppose
my mind was elsewhere."

"Aye, sir, that's understandable," the big seaman said easily, still
smiling. "Yer first Christmas back aboard the Indy 'n all." His smile faded
as he studied the young man before him, as he remembered all that the young
officer had endured -- and triumphed over -- in his short life. A sudden
knot formed in Styles's throat, and he bobbed his dark head curtly. "Fer
meself 'n fer all the lads, sir, I'd like ta say welcome 'ome, and 'appy
Christmas." Dark eyes shone with reflected starlight. "It's good to 'ave ye
back, sir," he said softly. "The crew weren't never complete wi'out ye."

Archie stiffened at that, his eyes widening, his breath failing him. He
stared up at Styles in wordless wonder, stunned -- and deeply touched --
that this man above all, this hardened and sometimes hard man, had taken it
upon himself to offer such words.

<<For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy...>>

"Thank you, Styles," he breathed at last, his whole heart in the simple
words. "It is good to *be* home. I have missed my ship... and my
shipmates... more than I can say." Try as he might, he could not control the
slight quaver in his voice. "I had almost forgotten what it was to have
Christmas... It was not... celebrated... in the prisons..." His voice broke,
and he bowed his head, fighting to master his chaotic emotions.

Styles had the sudden, powerful urge to reach out and lay a hand on the
young man's shoulder, but had no idea how it would be received. Instead, he
held both hands at his sides, clenching them tightly to keep them in place,
and merely regarded Kennedy through dark and surprisingly gentle eyes.

"I remember... me first few Christmases as a pressed man," he said softly,
not at all certain why he should be sharing so much of himself with the
midshipman who was years younger and worlds above him, but unable to stop
the words. "Torn from 'ome 'n family, thrown into a world I neither wanted
nor understood... I couldn't celebrate, 'n cursed them as did. Kept talkin'
about this star, they did, that lit the night, broke open the darkness, an'
showed men the way to 'ope." He snorted bitterly. "But wot did such as that
mean ta me? Couldn't see the stars from the bilges, darkness all about me...
Where was my 'ope? Where was that star, that angel wi' the good word, when I
needed 'em?"

Archie stared in open-mouthed shock as Styles gave voice to the thoughts,
the despair, that had been his not half an hour ago.

"But," the bitterness left the big man's face and voice, replaced by a deep
pensiveness, "they were there, all along. Only I didn't see 'em fer wot they
was, at first. 'Twas Matty, y'see, sir," he said softly, even now touched by
the wonder of it. "'E was me angel, me 'ope. 'E watched over me, 'e did,
took me under 'is wing 'n taught me the ropes, gave me a reason ta go on,
and a reason ta lift me 'ead. Gave me back me pride 'e did. 'E showed me the
stars an' taught me about 'em, taught me 'ow ta find me way by 'em." He
laughed quietly and shook his head. "I reckon 'e'd be right shocked an'
argue 'imself voiceless wi' me o'er this, but I tell ye, sir, Matty was me
angel, and 'twas 'im brought the stars inta me darkness." He swallowed hard
and nodded. "Summat like Mr. 'Ornblower did fer you, I'll wager."

Archie blinked rapidly, struggling for words. "Horatio... yes," he muttered
thickly, his throat tight, his heart hammering. "Yes, he... he did. He was.
But... there were... are... others..." A slight, tremulous smile curved
about his mouth as he stared in deepest gratitude up at the big man. "I seem
to recall... something about other angels... a heavenly host... Thank you,
Styles," he whispered, his voice breaking again. "You have no idea... Thank
you. And a most happy Christmas to you."

The big man smiled broadly, knuckled his forehead again, then turned and
left Archie to go below.

Archie watched him go, then lifted his eyes once more to the stars. And as a
single tear slid down his face, as a sweet and wholly unfamiliar peace
settled upon his heart, the words of an old carol drifted back to him from
the Christmases of his childhood.

<<Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o'er all the earth...>>

Above him, the stars shone more brightly than ever, and, all at once, the
night did not seem so dark after all.

The End