Red Sky at Morning, part 3
by Sarah B.
Horatio started awake, the morning sun in his eyes. He blinked in bleary surprise at the sound, rumbling, louder, closer. Mariette was sitting next to his hammock, her form dusky and dim against the shadowed planking of the ship. She was terrified.
"What is it?" She whispered.
"Cannon," Horatio answered hastily, rolling himself out of the hammock and standing up. Thank God he'd slept with his clothes on. "Stay here."
Then he was out of the sleeping quarters, onto the deck of the Indie, and there was smoke and fire everywhere. Horatio choked on the smoke, looked for his men but didn't see them.
Archie. Archie's voice, but where was he? The boom again of cannon, and Horatio covered his ears as the mainsail splintered with a deafening crack, just a few feet above his head. The captain. He had to find the captain -
So much smoke. Horatio turned to find Pellew and caught Mariette at his elbow.
"What are you doing here?" He screamed, but she was gazing at him in an odd, sad way, as if the horrifying rush of war around them meant nothing. He took her shoulders, thought, she's in some kind of trance. "You must get below, quickly!"
"He's dead." She said in a hollow voice. Horatio blinked, saw suddenly that her dress was stained with blood. She lifted one limp arm to gesture, and Horatio saw through the parting smoke the captain, lying on the stairs leading to the forecastle, blood staining his white and blue uniform to starkest red.
Horatio felt himself go numb. "Oh God - get below, Mariette - " He took her shoulders to urge her on her way, at the same time thinking God, God, the captain's dead, he's dead -
Suddenly Mariette gasped, and Horatio felt her stiffen in his arms. He looked at her as the cannon boomed again, thought, no, she can't be dying again, but she slumped against him and as he tightened his grip on her, frantically trying to hold onto her one more moment, she turned to sand in his arms and blew away.
God, the loneliness - the pain - again, and so much worse - Again a cannon boomed, and the ship rocked as Horatio felt a shock run through the boards beneath his feet. Then he was thrown to his knees as the ship keeled.
"Archie!" Horatio cried, flailing on his hands as the ship reeled toward the suddenly stormy sea. There were French soldiers on the ship, where did they come from? They were drifting through the smoke, not even walking but gliding, and at their front was a headless Marquis on a bloodstreaked horse.
Not Archie's voice anymore but the Marquis', strident, arrogant, killing the Indie's crew. The world whirlpooled around him, and Horatio knew he had to find his men, had to find Archie, or all would be lost. But all was lost already, Mariette and Pellew were dead, and the ghosts were everywhere and the Indie was on fire, it was suddenly blackest night and the noble ship was on fire and sinking -
"Archie!" Horatio cried again, his calm stripped, his heart broken and failing. Now it was raining, and the rain was slicing his face. There was the sound of heavy boots, and he couldn't see. "Archie!"
"Horatio," Came the familiar calm voice behind him, perfectly placid as if nothing was happening at all, "Where've you been? Come on, it's all right."
Horatio gasped at the feel of Archie's hand on his shoulder, the gentle pat that had awakened him out his nightmare on the bridge at Muzillac. He turned toward that embrace, his heart sobbing like a wounded child's as he looked at his friend -
- and stared into Jack Simpson's eyes.
The dead seaman leered and held up his hands. In one he held a smoking pistol; in the other he had a tight grip on the neck of Archie's bleeding, bullet-ridden body.
Simpson laughed and said simply, "Hello, snotty."
Horatio screamed again, screamed without his voice, screamed with his entire soul that shattered with a fear no one could ever know, screamed and screamed -
- and suddenly woke up.
Horatio blinked and looked around, stunned by the sudden silence. He lay absolutely still, too shocked and disoriented to do anything else. Only his eyes moved, carefully, around the darkened quarters; everything else was still frozen in fright.
Dark. Night. The ship, not burning or in danger. The sleeping quarters. Quiet. Very quiet.
Heart's going very fast. Can hardly breathe. Horatio thought, remembered only snatches of the nightmare that was still clawing at the edges of his conciousness. Mercifully, only snatches.
Thunder. Distant. Sounded like cannon...but it wasn't.
Horatio took a deep breath, finally moved to run one hand over his eyes. Took another deep breath, it was only a dream. Only a dream...
The ship's bell sounded somewhere above him. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.
Horatio sighed, sat up in his hammock and scratched his head. He had been so frightened - was it a moment ago? Or ages? How long had he been asleep?
The ship rocked a little, let out a mournful creaking noise. Horatio coughed and looked around at the chilling dark. Stay here and try to sleep, or go for a walk abovedecks, perhaps.
He couldn't go back to sleep. He didn't remember what exactly, but something was waiting for him there, and he didn't want to go back.
Stay awake then. Why not? Mariette's ghost would still haunt him, no matter where he was. His failure at Muzillac would still hang on his shoulders, whether he was in this world or another. The shame of his breakdown would remain if he stayed hidden here -
- Leave me alone, dammit! -
- or went to the tavern and called its name for all to witness it. Anything he did, the result was the same.
He was damned.
Horatio rolled out of the hammock, and got dressed.
The air abovedecks was cool and bracing, and hinted of rain. Horatio struggled to fasten his cloak about him as he reached the top of the aftercompanionway stairs. Pausing a moment, he looked around, but aside from a few hands performing odd jobs around the deck, the Indie looked fairly well deserted. Beyond it, Horatio could see the dull lights of the town some distance away, twinkling in the misty night like stars fallen to earth. The sight inexplicably depressed him.
As he walked toward the entry port, the sound of laughter coming from the forecastle made Horatio pause, and out of curiosity he peered around the mainsail's huge trunk to see what was going on. It was Captain Pellew, standing up by the wheel, talking to someone - another captain, by the looks of him. Horatio paused again, and studied him more closely.
He was tall, taller than Pellew by almost a head. He wore a grandly embellished captain's uniform with more gold braiding than Pellew's, and fine ruffled cuffs at his wrists. The man seemed about Pellew's age judging by his face, which was at the moment lit up with a joshing smile, but his dark hair was generously streaked with gray. As Horatio watched, the other captain made a sweeping gesture with one arm, and it was the graceful sweep a dancing master might make. In all, this stranger was the picture of handsomeness and gallant dash, and Horatio mused that on most nights he would be consumed with a desire to know this man.
Tonight, however, he could not have cared less.
Horatio halfway hoped that he could make it off of the ship without being seen. His hopes were dashed, howeve, when he heard the heavy tread of two sets of feet on the forecastle steps, and he looked up to see Pellew and the other captain walking toward him. Knowing he could not hide behind the mainmast and retain any semblence of dignity, Horatio decided to surrender and moved out into plain sight. He caught Pellew's eye first, and gave him the appropriate salute.
"Good evening, sir," he said politely.
Pellew's eyebrow's went up a bit, but his voice was congenial, and he looked almost relaxed, which for Pellew was astonishing indeed. "Good evening, Mr. Hornblower."
"Hornblower!" The other captain bellowed in a deep baritone, delight suddenly shining in his gray eyes as he gave Horatio a toothy grin. "So this is the young hero you've been telling me about, eh, Edward?"
"Ah, indeed," Pellew looked down a bit awkwardly, then back at Horatio, and raised his hand in introduction, "Mr. Hornblower, this is Captain Julius Morgan of His Majesty's frigate, the Courageous. Captain Morgan, may I present the newly commissioned Lieutenant - " Pellew said this last with the slightest hint of happy pride - "Horatio Hornblower."
Horatio mustered his most polite smile and swept off his hat with a bow. "I am honored, sir."
"Oh, the honor is all mine, my boy," Captain Morgan said admiringly as he nodded in return. "From what Edward here's been telling me, you're a one-man British Navy."
Horatio didn't quite know how to respond to that, and so did by blushing to the roots of his hair and stammering, "The captain does me too much credit, sir - I merely did my duty."
Morgan laughed, and looked at Pellew in amusement. "Listen to that - modest as a schoolgirl." He leaned toward Horatio and said, "One of these days we'll talk, my boy, and I'll teach you how to promote yourself. It's all politics, you know, once you make lieutenant. All flash and show."
Not knowing whether to argue this decidedly cynical point or be courteous, Horatio had just decided to raise his eyebrows and feign innocence when Captain Morgan interrupted him with another chuckle. "So, are you off to spark the local ladies, Mr. Hornblower? Don't blame you if you are."
"Um - " Horatio glanced down at his uniform. "I had actually thought to join the officers in town, yes sir."
"Good for you!" The captain thumped one hand against Horatio's shoulder and laughed, "Yes sir, good for you to get it out at your age. For unless your wife is as beautiful and willing as mine, by the time you reach my years it will be a long voyage indeed between ports, eh, Edward? Ha!"
This familiarity left Horatio almost shocked out of his boots, but Pellew merely cocked an eyebrow and shook his head; Horatio deduced these two knew each other, and Pellew was used to Captain Morgan's manner. So Horatio let it pass.
Captain Morgan turned to Pellew and tipped his broad captain's hat. "Well, it's time I was off. Good seeing you again, Edward, we must share a brandy before our ships leave port."
Pellew smiled congenially. "I look forward to it, sir."
Morgan replaced his hat and swaggered past Horatio, who had just enough time for one bewildered look at his captain before Morgan swung around and said, "Say, Mr. Hornblower, since you're coming ashore, why don't you ride along in my jollyboat? Plenty of room."
"Oh - " Horatio blinked, then recovered, "That is most generous of you, sir. Thank you."
Morgan smiled, and waved one elegant hand. "Not at all, dear boy. When you're ready." And he exited the entry port and climbed down the ladder to the waiting boat.
As soon as he was gone, Horatio turned toward Captain Pellew, bursting with a thousand questions he didn't dare ask. Pellew still looked relaxed, but there was some trace of - something - that tugged at the edge of his mouth as he asked Horatio, "So, Mr. Hornblower, you decided to venture ashore."
Horatio looked straight ahead, not at Pellew, and nodded, "Yes sir, if I may. I...I couldn't sleep."
Pellew turned away a little, and Horatio thought he was looking at the lights of the distant town. He didn't say anything for a moment, then he said softly, "You've had the devil's own taste of leadership, Mr. Hornblower. I would not begrudge you any haven you might find to escape it, for a fortnight."
Horatio turned his head a little and sighed. He still felt ashamed for letting himself be so overwhelmed in the captain's cabin, earlier. He'd shed tears, like a child would. And his captain had seen it. Well, what could be done now? The weakness was known, there was naught to do but sail with it.
"But you will have duties come the morrow," Pellew said, a little louder and sterner. His dark eyes fastened to Horatio's, unblinking. "So kindly remember that tonight."
"Yes sir." Horatio smiled wearily. "Thank you, sir."
The captain nodded toward Morgan's boat. "Off you go, then. Mind yourself."
"Yes sir." Horatio saluted, and watched Pellew as the captain turned and walked back toward the forecastle. Horatio wondered again why the captain looked so sad - not entirely sad, just around the rim of his being, a little in the eyes, and in the mouth. Like he was trying not to remember something. It was very strange.
But Horatio knew had to hurry if he didn't want to risk offending Captain Morgan, and Captain Pellew had effectively ended the conversation by walking away. So Horatio put the matter out of his mind and turned toward the entry port, and the boat that would take him to shore.
Matthews didn't like the situation at all.
It was after midnight, the busiest time in this busy tavern, and although he knew he should be relaxing with his mates, Matthews was as nervous as he'd ever been. Maybe more.
Styles and Oldroyd had noticed this, of course, and tried to joke Matthews out of his tense mood. It would work for a few minutes, then Matthews would go back to what he'd been doing since earlier that evening, before the tavern had become noisy and crowded and smoky. He couldn't see across the room very well, and he couldn't be too obvious about it, but he had to keep watch, he knew that. Because something was about to happen.
And it involved Mr. Kennedy.
The boy was sitting where he had been all evening, at the edge of the table by the courtyard door, which was still open. The officers from the Courageous were still out there, had in fact become more in number, and Matthews could tell Mr. Kennedy was keeping an eye on them.
Bracegirdle had gone back to the ship, and most of the other officers had likewise departed, or moved elsewhere in the tavern. But Mr. Kennedy had stayed where he was, alternately hunching over his tankard of ale and getting up to pace around the room. He was never gone long though, and would always glance into the courtyard before sitting down, as if checking for something. Then he would sit down again, and start the cycle over.
Once in a while Mr. Kennedy would rock back and forth while seated, as if he couldn't bear to sit still, but had to. His eyes drifted over to Matthews once or twice, but he always broke eye contact if it were accidentally made; Matthews knew there was something in those blue depths that Mr. Kennedy was trying to hide. And it made him very nervous, because he had a suspicion as to what it was, and felt the creeping dread of helplessness. If something was going to happen tonight, Mr. Kennedy's eyes told him he would be powerless to stop it. Perhaps they would both be.
So there was nothing to do but wait, watch Mr. Kennedy like a grizzled hawk, and worry.
And Matthews did all three.
"So, Mr. Hornblower," Captain Morgan bellowed good-naturedly as the jollyboat neared the pier that fronted the seaport town, "Old Edward's told me you've made quite a name for yourself among the elite. Fancy being a captain someday?"
Horatio sighed inwardly. He desperately wanted to be alone, or at least among those who understood his desire for peace and calm, and he was not getting his wish. But, one had to be polite, so he gave a polite smile and said, "I'm afraid that is more up to fate than me, sir."
"Oh, rubbish!" Morgan waved his hand dismissively and leaned back in the boat, "It's not all out of your hands. As I said on the ship, it's all politics, who you know and how you use your friends. Many a man worse than you has his own ship and hands, and why do you think that is, eh?"
Would this voyage never end? "I am not given to guess, sir."
"This, my boy!" Morgan cried, putting his hand into a pocket of his cloak and displaying it in illustration, "They all do each other favors, the Lords get commands for their friends and sons of friends and relatives of their daughter's husbands and such. It's all corrupt, and there's nothing to do about it but learn to play the game."
Horatio turned his head, saw the pier was very close now. Thank God. "Surely that is not the only way, sir, if I may be so bold to suggest - "
"Oh, suggest away," Morgan said good-naturedly as the oarsmen made to secure the boat to the pier, "One thing I don't mind in a seaman and that's boldness. No, you can get a captaincy without connections, but it's much easier if you've got 'em. Now, take me, for instance," Morgan leaned forward in a conspiratorial way, "I can help you out, young sir. Consider me a friend, and you'll have a ship before you get your first gray hair."
Horatio blinked, didn't know quite how to react. As the boat thudded against the weathered dock he stammered, "That is most generous of you, sir - "
"Ha! Not at all," Morgan stood up and gathered his cloak around him, "I merely know talent when I see it, that's all. You're ambitious and talented, and it don't take a genius to see that you'll tire of being fettered to Pellew before too long."
"Indeed not, sir," Horatio replied as he stood up. Morgan was already stepping onto the dock. "I have much to learn from my captain before I would call myself fit to be his equal."
"Hm," Morgan stretched his legs and shrugged. "Less than you might think, but I might have known, an old salt like me can't tell you young headstrongs anything. Well, you'll see how it goes for yourself. My offer stands, when you're tired of going about things the hard way."
Horatio stepped out of the boat onto the dock, felt that momentary wooziness that always came when he went from a moving ship to solid, unmoving land. He looked around; the pier and streets around them were nearly deserted, save for three sailors and a lieutenant loitering about a nearby street lamp, and a couple of wharf girls who were leaning against a nearby building in their tattered dresses, trying to look enticing. It was all very depressing.
"Well," Morgan took off his hat and swept one hand through his thick hair. "I'm off to join my officers. Care to join me, Mr. Hornblower?"
Anything but that, Horatio groaned to himself. Putting as gallant a face on it as he could, the youth said, "My thanks to you for the offer, sir, but I have business elsewhere, and will find my own way."
Morgan put his hat back on and shrugged. "You have manners, at least. That already sets you apart from most of the captains I know. Good evening to you then."
Horatio nodded, but Morgan had already turned and begun walking away.
It was fairly quiet on the dock, and Horatio took a deep breath, drank in the silence and the light wind and the cool salty air. He still ached, but the solitude felt good, the chance to walk awhile by himself and think was inviting, and he decided to postpone his sojourn to the Peddler's Pig for a little while. Yes, a walk would be just the thing to ease his hurt, even if just for a few moments. Even for just one moment...
Horatio pulled his cloak about him and walked slowly from the dock to the cobblestone street, only barely noticed as he passed the glowing street lamp that the three sailors were still there, but the lieutenant had gone.
The Peddler's Pig was getting more crowded, and noisier. Matthews kept his eye on Mr. Kennedy, but it was getting harder to do it without being noticed, and half the time he couldn't see the lad at all. Then there was Oldroyd and Styles, who badgered Matthews about not paying attention to the game.
"Look at him," Styles groused as Matthews threw the dice without even looking. After a moment, Styles reached forward and turned one of the dice over so a different face showed. Matthews' eyes were searching the room again, and he didn't notice.
Oldroyd stifled a chuckle, and Styles shook his head and looked at his younger friend. "Cheatin' him isn't even fun anymore."
Matthews didn't tell them that the reason he wasn't paying attention - and was in fact willing to forfeit the rest of the game - was that one of the Courageous' officers had just pushed his way through the crowd toward the open courtyard door. He made a special point of passing Mr. Kennedy, who was still coiled at the table, his face flushed and his hand wrapped in an iron grip around the handle of his tankard. Matthews saw the officer, who was a lieutenant, shoot Mr. Kennedy a contemptuous look before going outside. Once there, Matthews saw him meet Lieutenant Creps, who seemed to be lurking just outside the door. The lieutenants took Creps' arm and said something that made Creps smile eagerly and pat the other man's arm. Then they both left the doorway, but Matthews wasn't looking at them anymore.
He was looking at Mr. Kennedy, who had turned as white as the first of January.
In a moment, Mr. Kennedy was on his feet, his blond ponytail whipping through the air as he turned his head toward the door. He seemed to hesitate, turned back, and Matthews thought he'd seldom seen the young man so apparently torn. Then Mr. Kennedy looked at him, and Matthews could see a frantic plan in his eyes. Something was happening, and it made Matthews go cold inside.
Matthews saw Mr. Kennedy leave his table and walk in his direction, very fast. Standing, Matthews met him halfway, wanting to know the worst. Surely the acting lieutenant had to know he had been watching him.
"Beg your pardon, sir," Matthews stammered by way of apology as soon as Mr. Kennedy was within hearing distance, "I didn't mean no - "
Mr. Kennedy took a deep, quick breath, and Matthews saw that the young man's skin was covered with a fine sweat, and he was blinking rapidly. Then he said, "Listen to me, Matthews. Horatio's on his way here."
"Is he? I didn't think - "
"Listen to me!" Mr. Kennedy shut his eyes for a moment, as if he might fly apart if he didn't. Then he opened them again. "You must go find him, he's probably on the main street. Tell him he mustn't come here, not under any circumstances. Do you have that?"
"Er - yes, sir." How did Mr. Kennedy know Mr. Hornblower was coming? Never mind, he looks like he's going to have another fit. "Yes sir, I'll see if I can't find him, sir."
Styles and Oldroyd had stood up, openly curious, and Mr. Kennedy looked at all of them beseechingly. "You two, you can help too. Mr. Hornblower must be found and kept away from here."
Styles nodded, but Oldroyd blinked his bleached-lashed eyelids. "He'll be wantin' to know why, sir."
Mr. Kennedy turned his head to the doorway again, almost desperately. "Tell him he has enemies here, men who wish to - do him harm. I'll explain it to him later."
The three crewmen exchanged looks. Oldroyd cleared his throat fearfully.
Mr. Kennedy looked back at them, his face an open map of purest fear. Then he seemed to check it, pull it into himself a little, and stood up straighter, nodded with some authority. "Well, you - you have your orders."
Matthews backed up a bit, pulling the still-reluctant Oldroyd with him. "Don't worry, we'll get the job done, sir."
"Good." Mr. Kennedy whispered, and as Matthews continued to yank Oldroyd toward the door that led to the street,with Styles right behind him, he looked back to see Mr. Kennedy walking toward the door that led to the courtyard. Then they were outside, and as they started down the street Matthews heard thunder rumble somewhere over the nearby sea.
Cannon? No. Just thunder.
Horatio smiled a little to himself as he walked slowly down the deserted street, his thoughts wrapping around him like a soft iron blanket, shielding him from the world.
No, they weren't thoughts exactly; they were more feelings, a melancholy that felt fitting and right, and comfortable. He was sad, but it did' t matter. There was no one about he had to cheer up for, no men he had to command, no captain to impress. He was alone, and it felt wonderful.
But soon he would have to retrace his steps, and return to the ship.
Horatio looked up at the endless stretch of street before him, the narrow labyrinth of stones and tall buildings that hemmed him in and set him free at the same time. Captain Morgan's words still nagged at him, but somehow they were less important here, almost meaningless. That the man was a well-meaning bombast was obvious, but still Horatio was troubled by the implication that the courage he had been so anguished over, the honor and leadership he had bled to instill in himself, may mean less to the captaincy than having the right friends.
He didn't think so. Certainly Captain Pellew didn't think so.
No, Horatio mused as he listened to the steady clack of his shoes on the smooth stones, there had to be more. It was true that not all captains were gallant and noble and brave, but did that mean one didn't strive for those ideals? Captain Morgan seemed to dismiss them, and he'd done well enough. He had the bearing of a stage actor almost, all sweep and dash, and he had a ship of his own and men to command - but there was something missing from his core that Horatio couldn't place, and was needed.
But Horatio didn't know what it was, and concluded that he might just be jealous.
Jealous of what, the questioning half of his mind wanted to know. Horatio paused in his stroll and removed his hat, leaning his back against the wall of an old building as he pondered the answer.
He'd never felt so much the failure as he had in those dark hours at Muzillac. He wanted to lead, wanted to be fearless and honorable and valiant, but now he wasn't sure it was worth the price. Mariette's death tore at him, the death of those six men and the loss of the cannon shamed him, and even now the dreadful ache those memories stirred seeped around the caul of peace he'd sought to form around his soul, and burned him. He knew what it was like to want to die, for however brief a moment, and the sting of it terrified him.
But here was a man telling him the highest offices were not of necessity born in blood and fire. No, they could be bought and sold like a fisherman's wares, paid for with the price of a new uniform. Clearly Captain Morgan had never known the piercing burden of defeat, or if he had it never bothered him; his handsome face was smooth of worry, his manner free of care, his hands uncalloused by very hard work. Horatio peered out into the quiet darkness and thought of this, and realized that somewhere within himself was a portion that was envious that Morgan had found a way to succeed and not suffer.
It was childish - it was cowardly - it was unmanly in the extreme - but oh, Horatio wanted to not suffer anymore.
Mariette's death, Muzillac's humiliation, his wretched, girlish behavior, crying in the captain's cabin for God's sake...Horatio wanted them gone, wanted to be free of them and not have to think on it anymore. And here was a man who was offering to help him shed the pain of the hard-won victory, to make it easy and effortless instead. It was almost paradise to the youth's tortured soul. It was like a shining apple on the trees of Eden, so tempting. Taste it and fear no more.
Horatio took a deep breath and shut his eyes. Remember there were serpents in the Garden as well. Morgan had what he wanted, but he had lost some honor in Horatio's eyes. Tomorrow, next week, when England is behind me and the pain dulls, I will think better on this. I will know what is the right thing to do. Yes, no course of action until then. Now I am not thinking clearly,
Because now - now - I am almost thinking Captain Morgan is right...
More thunder. Horatio looked up, saw dark clouds scuttling by low overhead, thought it was time to head to the tavern, see what his men were up to. Archie had probably gone back to the Indie, probably still smarting from the rude treatment he had received at Horatio's hands earlier that day. Horatio felt his conscience twinge at the memory of his rebuff. He was only trying to help. You shouldn't treat your friends that way, you don't have that many that you can spare them. The man risked his life for you, and God knows he's had his own Way of Tears to contend with. And you've gone and added to it.
Horatio passed under a stone archway, still kicking himself over his behavior, still bewildered by all of the thoughts passing through his roiling, troubled mind. Ahead, a few streets over, he heard the sounds of song and laughter that told him the tavern was nearby. Yes, time to make way to that port...perhaps there was a haven there from his -
"You sodding bastard, I said get off!"
Horatio stopped, looked around. It had been a woman's voice, not close and not loud but muffled, like she was being smothered. His keen eyes searched the shadows.
"!@#!! stop it!"
There, in a deep doorway some yards ahead. A handful of tattered skirt poking out into the street, mingled with the dirty pants legs of some over-arduous suitor. His hero's attitude alerted, Horatio put one hand on his dress sword's hilt and strode purposefully to the doorway.
The lady - Horatio knew there was some humor in that phrase - was cursing in low tones and struggling to fend off the advances of an unkempt, portly sailor, whose hands were firmly locked on her shoulders as he seemed to trying to steal a kiss. She was not a small woman, but he had her bent nearly backwards and leverage alone gave him a distinct advantage.
Yes, action was called for. Horatio pulled out his sword and cleared his throat. "Excuse me."
The struggle continued. Neither party had heard him.
Horatio stood there for a moment, then said a bit louder. "Is there a problem here?"
The woman's eyes flicked to him, once, but instead of relief or even surprise her eyes held mild irritation. At that moment, the ardent sailor pressed forward one last time and managed to plant a long, meaningful kiss squarely on the woman's lips. Horatio watched, his manly sense of decency shocked to the core.
At the end of the kiss, both parties straightened up and began rearranging their clothing as if Horatio wasn't there. The sailor began to dig in his pockets, and as the woman pulled her dress up produced some coins.
"Thanks, luv," He cooed, handing them to the woman with a grin, "Same time next week, eh?"
The woman smiled back. "Long as you provide the silver, luv."
The sailor grinned again, a gap-toothed smile of satisfaction, and turning left the doorway, glancing curiously at Horatio's drawn sword as he did so.
"Eh!" The sailor exclaimed, looking back at the woman in surprise. "You got a queue formin', luv. Any more of 'em comin'?"
The woman just blinked at Horatio, who blushed to his shoes and hastily sheathed his sword. By the time he opened his mouth, the sailor was walking down the street whistling contentedly.
Horatio was mystified.
The woman sighed tiredly, and continued buttoning and straightening herself. Eying Horatio noncommittally she said, "Give me a minute, dear, and we'll play whatever game you like."
"Oh - " Horatio stammered, "My apologies, ma'am, but I'm not - that is, I'm not here for - I thought that sailor was molesting you."
The woman straightened up, put her hands on her hips and looked at Horatio keenly. "He was. That's the way he fancies it. All as one, to me."
Horatio didn't know quite what to do, and so settled on clearing his throat and giving up. "Well, my apologies if I...disturbed you. I am trained to offer my assistance to any who may need it, and as a fellow seaman and that man's superior I felt - I felt it was my duty to - to - "
The woman hiked up her skirts to pull up her stockings and gave Horatio an admiring smile. "You do talk pretty, luv. Sure you don't fancy a go?"
Horatio looked the woman again. She was perhaps forty, was pretty once, and had long graying blonde hair that was loose and flowing about her shoulders. Her low-cut dress was an old, out-of-date style, but clean and not too patched. Horatio was used to the women of these towns - he'd seen enough of them to not be too naive - but this woman didn't seem like most of the downtrodden, half-dead unfortunates he'd seen haunting the docks. She seemed resigned rather than beaten, like someone's mother roaming the streets for pocket money. Horatio didn't understand it.
Aware she was waiting for his answer, Horatio swallowed his awkwardness and managed to tip his hat without dropping it. "No, ma'am, I must see to my men." Should he thank her anyway? What would Pellew do? That question almost broke Horatio's brain in half, so he backed away from it. He just smiled.
The woman put her skirts back down and put her hands on her hips again, cocking her head. Her smile was curious. "What's your name, luv?"
"Um - Hornblower, ma'am. Horatio Hornblower."
The woman gave Horatio a coy smile. "Well then. Good night, Mr. Hornblower."
Horatio touched his hat. "Ma'am." As she turned away he found himself stammering, "May I ask what your name is, ma'am?"
The woman stopped, turned back with a look of amused skepticism on her once-fair face. A playful look came into her eyes and she asked, "What would you like it to be?"
Horatio's eyebrows went up. "Ma'am?"
"My name. What name d'you fancy for a poor gutter wench like me?"
Horatio frowned, unsure how to continue. Still, his gallant heart would not allow him to be discourteous, so Horatio smiled and said, "Please, ma'am, don't degrade yourself. You're an Englishwoman, no matter what your - circumstance - "He paused and considered his words, then said with as much sincerity as he could muster, "you're as fair a rose as blossoms in the King's garden."
The woman smiled slowly. "What a pleasant way o' talkin' you have there, Mr. Hornblower. Right then, you can call me Rose."
"Rose." Horatio said, slightly confused. He heard the sound of footsteps approaching, but didn't look away just yet.
"I like it." Rose answered, and slipped close enough to put her hand on Horatio's chest. "Quite certain you don't have time for some fun?"
The footsteps were closer. Unexpectedly, Matthew's voice. "Sir?"
Horatio started, looked up. In the black-and-white shadows he could see Matthews almost running toward him.
Rose started too, quickly withdrew her hand and whispered, "You're a gentleman, Mr. Hornblower. Don't let anyone ruin it."
And she melted back into the shadows.
Horatio coughed, certain Matthews would ask him what he was doing in the middle of a deserted street with a lady of the evening. Surprisingly, however, when Matthews reached him the first thing he said was, "Pardon me, sir, was I interruptin'?"
Let it go, Horatio ordered himself, and noticed the crewman looked out of breath and upset. "What's the matter, Matthews?"
"We was sent to find you, sir," Matthews replied, "Mr. Kennedy sent us to tell you not to go the tavern, not under any circum - circumstances."
Horatio could still hear the raucous noise of the Peddlers Pig, two streets over. In fact, it seemed to be growing louder. "Did he say why?"
Matthews shook his head, still catching his breath. "He said he'd tell you the way of it, but you were to stay away from there at all costs."
Horatio began to walk back up the street, puzzling over Archie's behavior. Maybe he was still angry? But no, it was not in Archie's nature to be petulant; he would simply be quiet rather than give offense. Then why?
"We'd best find Styles and Oldroyd," Matthews remarked as they continued down the darkened street, "They're out to find you as well."
"Mr. Kennedy sent all three of you to search for me?" Horatio was surprised.
Matthews nodded. "Of course, it wasn't me who told you, sir, but I think it was them officers off the Courageous."
The Courageous? Captain Morgan's ship? "What do you mean?"
"They're a bad lot," Matthews said ominously as they turned the corner, "Not gentlemen at all, if you take my drift, sir. And one of them was getting under Mr. Kennedy's skin something fierce."
Horatio found all of this confusing. "No more riddles, Matthews, out with it. Do you know what Archie was talking about or not?"
"Them officers," Matthews paused and shook his grizzled head again as the noise ahead of them increased. "They used to be thick with Mr. Simpson."
Matthews faced Horatio with a foreboding look in his eyes. "Aye, sir, as I said, a bad lot. Not the kind you'd leave children alone with, or anything you didn't want corrupted."
Horatio looked up the street. The Peddler's Pig was a few blocks ahead, and it seemed very crowded there, and the noise was increasing. "Where is Mr. Kennedy now?"
Matthews' face clouded. "Last I saw him he was heading right into the courtyard, where those officers was hanging about. I saw his face, sir, there was a storm brewing there for sure."
"I see." Horatio began to walk up the street. "Thank you, Matthews."
"Now - here - sir!" Matthews had to almost run to catch up with him. "Now, you're to stay away from there, if these men are out to harm you there's nothing to stand in their way."
"I can handle myself, Matthews, thank you!" Horatio said quickly, the hairs rising on the back of his neck as he walked closer to the tavern. It was darkest night except for the light around the place, and there were people moving through the light, shimmering through it like ghosts. Light and shadow, noises he couldn't make out, and overhead the thunder rolled. It's like my nightmare, Horatio thought, and prepared himself for the worst.
Two of the ghosts detached themselves from the crowd and ran toward them. It was Oldroyd and Styles.
"You ain't supposed to be here, sir!" Oldroyd blurted out, his face flushed. "We been lookin' all over to tell you - "
"Yes, I know, Oldroyd," Horatio snapped, but he could feel his world fraying and didn't have the energy to be polite. He scanned the crowd for Archie, but didn't see him. "Go find Mr. Kennedy and we'll all go back to the Indie together."
"We can't get back in, sir," Styles said glumly, "I think something happened while we were gone. They cleared the place out."
"Yeh." Oldroyd stuffed his hands in his pockets. "I think somebody got killed."
A image shot through Horatio's mind, the ghostly Simpson clutching Archie's lifeless, bleeding body, and for a brief moment his world froze in horror. Then he made a monumental effort to calm himself, and took a breath. Dreams, that's all those images were. Only dreams. "All right, well, we'll wait out here for Mr. Kennedy then. He's bound to be along presently, and perhaps we can find out what happened.
Matthews nudged his arm. "Look there, sir."
Horatio fought to sweep the last cobweb of fear from his mind and looked. A tall man was pushing his way out of the tavern and into the crowd, which parted before him like the Red Sea. As soon as he was in sight, Horatio's mouth dropped.
It was Captain Morgan.
The captain saw Horatio and strode angrily toward him.
"Can you believe it, Hornblower!" He bellowed, not good-naturedly this time but full of mounting rage. "One of my best officers butchered like an animal! Where in the devil has civility gone to?"
Horatio saw that there was blood on Morgan's vest and white leggings, and managed to gasp, "Are you hurt, sir?"
"No," Morgan growled, "That's the lifeblood of one of my men, Mr. Hornblower, and it will be answered in kind! I would tolerate no man's cowardly attack on my crew, but by God when the aggressor dares to wear the Navy's uniform he will hang twice as high!"
Horatio's crew looked puzzled, but Horatio himself managed to glean the captain's meaning. "Captain, are you saying your lieutenant was attacked by a member of the fleet?"
"I am saying nothing, sir!" Morgan's face was red as he glared at Hornblower, "The murderer is already caught and confessed, and in the morning I will see that his execution sets the highest example in these lawless times. By God, sir!" Morgan was shaking with rage, "To assault a fellow member of the Royal Navy! What has this nation sunk to?"
"I'm - I'm sure I don't know, sir," Horatio stammered, trying as he spoke to once again repress the images of the villainous Simpson, and the nightmares that were coming too close. "I cannot even imagine such a being."
Morgan's eyes flickered to the doorway of the tavern, and he grimaced. "Then turn and look, Mr. Hornblower. And you won't have to imagine him."
Horatio turned around. A brace of guards was shoving its way through the crowds, surrounding a man being led away in manacles. The guards were too many for Horatio to get a clear shot - but - for a moment their forms parted, and suddenly found himself looking right at the murderer's face.
It was Archie.
Time stopped. Horatio found himself caught in a horrifying eternity, unable to believe his senses. The world seemed to tilt beneath him, and the surprised cries of his crew mingled with the rushing panic of his own heart until he wanted to scream. It was as if he were on the bridge at Muzillac again, his world being torn apart to its foundation, and he was frozen and powerless to stop it, could only stare dumbly and scream. But Horatio did not scream. His shock was too deep for even that utterance.
As if he knew Horatio was there, Archie turned his head and looked at him. For the merest second their eyes locked, and Horatio saw a thousand things at once: that Archie looked dazed, that he had a large red mark on the left side of his face, and that there was a lot of blood on his uniform. That his eyes were warning Horatio away, even as they pleaded for help. That he was beyond help, and beyond reach. That he was trapped.
And that he was going to hang for murder.
Then the guards closed in around Archie again, and he was gone, and Horatio found himself standing in a nightmare far worse than the one he had lately awakened from, and did not even notice when the thunder rumbled over his head, and it began to rain.
End of part 3
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