Red Sky at Morning, Part 8b
by Sarah B.
First Lieutenant Christopher Stephens hummed to himself as he climbed the stairs to the quarter-deck. True, the ship was pitching something terrible, and true, it sounded as if there would be a lot of damage to deal with later. But Stephens cared nothing for that, for his future was secure. And once Kennedy was found and he had time to deal with Lafferty, his past would be taken care of also. So, let a little storm come. He felt he could withstand a universe full of them.
Once on deck, however, his humming lessened a little. There was a riot of debris and chaos, and the roiling seas seemed worse when he could see them; the ship was rocking back and forth like a rearing horse. He smelled smoke, looked up and saw that the mainmast had been partially destroyed, probably by lightning. Damn! He looked around and saw the crew frantically trying to clear the huge splinters from the deck and keep the ship from foundering.
Stephens tried to see through the murk to spy the Indefatigable, and finally saw her, a grey blob thrashing in the water just like the Courageous was, her signal flags still bearing the message that had spurred him to action. There were more flags, telling them not to execute Kennedy, which was a disappointment to many of the men, but Stephens figured it was only a delay, and didn't much care as long as he got to see him die sometime. She's a fine ship, Stephens thought with a twinge of envy. Perhaps if Courageous no longer suits me, I'll see what I can do there. There must be a million opportunities...
But first things first. Here came the sailing master, teetering through the horrid rain, out of breath and it seemed close to panic. "Sir, thank God!" He sputtered, yelling over the driving rain and thunder, "The mast's down, and the wind's up awful fierce. Orders, sir?"
Oh that's right, Stephens thought in surprise, I'm in charge now. He blinked, for it never occurred to him that he would actually have to give commands as captain. He'd made lieutenant by way of a family debt, and certainly never studied seamanship afterward. Good Lord, what did one do in these situations?
There was a terrible crash, and lightning struck Courageous again, rending the fore topgallant sail into charred scraps of fabric that rained down on the deck. Stephens winced and let out a loud curse.
"Sir?!" The sailing master cried, and through the mist and rain Stephens saw other hands looking at him, coming toward him, and he suddenly wanted very much to run and not deal with this. And he would have, if the mist had been any thicker, but...
Suddenly he had an idea. "Abandon the ship."
The sailing master straightened up. "Sir?"
"You heard me. Don't worry, the Indefatigable will pick us all up. Don't you see the sails are gone? She's done for."
It was a rash decision, Stephens knew it, but it was the easiest solution. If everyone was off the ship, he wouldn't have to worry about commanding them. But he would still have his rank, and although he'd be court martialled for losing the ship there were a million excuses he could give, and who would argue with him? Yes, it would work. Feeling a wash of relief, Stephens nodded to himself and said, "Yes...yes, tell all hands, abandon the ship. Now!"
The sailing master looked puzzled, but said quietly, "Yes, sir." And went to make preparations.
Satisfied that he had delayed catastrophe for at least a little while, Stephens decided to go see if Morgan had anything worthwhile in his cabin before it was all dashed to pieces. He turned to go look when something on the side of the ship caught his eye. Someone was climbing aboard. Ah, Stephens thought, the marines from the Indefatigable to get Morgan. Well, dealing with them should be easy...
Only it wasn't just the marines. It was Hornblower.
Stephens stopped in his tracks, thrown. Hornblower brought himself over the side of the heaving ship with a visible fury, and as soon as both of his feet hit the deck he saw Stephens and moved swiftly towards him. Every inch of him seemed about to explode.
Oh, DAMN, Stephens thought in panic, and then Hornblower was right in front of him, his dark eyes blazing amber coals in the pouring rain.
"Where's Morgan?" Hornblower demanded hotly, one hand on his sword. Thunder boomed around them.
Stephens felt his composure slip, tried to hold onto it. "Now look here Hornblower, you don't just come aboard my ship and shout - "
"I said where's your captain!" Hornblower shouted, suddenly taking Stephens by his collar and burning him with the anger in his eyes.
"He's in the hold!" Stephens stammered, his confidence evaporating. "I - I had him placed under arrest as soon as we saw your flags. I...knew it was my duty, so I - "
"Where in the hold?" Hornblower's words were short, snapped at the ends like dry twigs.
"Um - down near the handling chambers, where we store the powder. I'll show you - "
Stephens tried to move away from Hornblower, but the other man caught him by the shoulder and held him fast. "I am not finished with you yet, Lieutenant Stephens. Where is Archie Kennedy?"
The ferocity of that question caused Stephens to momentarily lose his voice, and when he didn't answer right away Horatio's face grew dark and he yanked Stephens closer. "By God if he's come to harm I'll see you keel-hauled under every ship in the fleet - "
"No, no! He's all right!" Stephens squeaked, every cowardly instinct jumping to the fore in the face of Hornblower's wrath. "We had him down in the hold too, but - ah - I let him go. I don't know where he is. But he's not dead, I swear it!"
Horatio threw Stephens away from him, against the two Indefatigable marines standing there. Stephens stared at him for a moment, frightened by the frenzied man in front of him drenched in rain and haloed by lightning and thunder. Hornblower looked like he wanted to kill him.
Instead, though, he looked at the two marines behind Stephens and barked, "I am going to see Captain Morgan. Keep him here until I return, or remove him to the boats if it becomes dangerous."
It took Stephens a moment to realize that Hornblower was talking about him, and took a step forward, only to be held back by the marines. Outraged, he sputtered, "Hornblower, what is this?"
Hornblower leveled his gaze at Stephens, then took two steps forward and came almost nose-to-nose with him, those great dark eyes boring holes into what was left of Stephens' soul. Stephens cowered under that gaze; he couldn't help it.
"You," Hornblower seethed, "are also under arrest, and will stand trial for the beating of Terry Whitehall. And if I find so much as a misplaced hair on Mr. Kennedy's head, rest assured you will answer for that as well." He paused, and his eyes narrowed. "Your filthy kind has won for the last time."
Stephens' mind reeled; this was not at all what he expected. He took a step toward Hornblower, but was jerked backwards and clutched tight. "God dammit, Hornblower, this is my ship!" he cried, angrily struggling with the marine as Hornblower walked away amid the lightning and slicing rain, "I'm in command here, you can't just walk around on it without my permission! Hornblower!"
Hornblower did stop, for one brief moment, to give him the blackest, most hateful look Stephens had ever received, punctuated by another horribly close, deafening crack of thunder. Then he turned again, and disappeared quickly into the companionway.
"You're a dead man, Hornblower!" Stephens shrieked, vengeful pictures of the shattered, empty Courageous trapping Hornblower, Morgan, Kennedy, and Lafferty all to die together, while he sailed triumphantly away. Grinning at that thought, he shook his head and screamed again above the lightning, thunder and crashing winds, "You're a dead man! Count on it!"
The Indefatigable plunged and heaved in the roiling water, and Bracegirdle almost fell three times before he finally made it to Captain Pellew, who was standing at the railing peering through the brutal waves and punishing rain, trying to see Courageous.
"The storm is getting worse, sir!" Bracegirdle bellowed, noticing Pellew's pained look, "We must set ourselves farther from the Courageous, before we're both scuttled!"
Pellew nodded, although Bracegirdle could see it was reluctantly. "Very well, Mr. Bracegirdle!" He yelled back in reply, "Set what boats you can in the water, to pick up men from the Courageous!"
"Aye, sir!" Bracegirdle replied, and huddled himself against the storm to go do his duty, leaving his captain to gaze defiantly into the darkening winds.
It was dark in the hold.
Archie put his hand out in the blackness, keeping the other firmly clasped around Thomas' tinier one, and tried to find a way out of the hold and back into the daylight. But the ship was lurching and bucking, and every shift sent debris flying through the air. Archie could see none of it, only heard crashes and splintering wood, and so every time the ship yawed he crouched down over Thomas until the movement eased, then began the tortuous journey again.
He had no real idea where they were. The passageway that Morgan had come down was now dark and blocked by fallen goods, and they had had to feel their way to get around it. The hold went the length of the ship, and was very far down; just finding their way to a companionway would be difficult, even in good weather; in weather like this, it was almost a death sentence.
If I could find the carpenter's walk, Archie thought, we could get out of here. The carpenter's walk also ran the length of the ship, but was enclosed and did not pose the dangers creeping around the hold did. If they could just -
The ship pitched again, sending horrible noises through the hold as barrels and boxes tumbled together to the deck. Archie threw himself over Thomas again, grunting as something heavy struck his back. As soon as the rolling stopped, he felt for Thomas' shoulders and asked, "Are you all right?"
"Yes," Thomas answered, although Archie could tell he was frightened.
"Good," Archie responded into the dark, "Take my hand, we're going to find a way out of here."
"Is Lieutenant Lafferty going to kill the captain?"
Archie paused, tugged at Thomas' hand but could not move him. "I don't know."
"What if he doesn't, and the captain comes to find us?"
Archie heard the tremor in that young voice, the fear that was making itself known in the darkness that surrounded them. "If he does, I won't let anything happen to you, I promise."
"But you can't stop it."
Archie caught his breath.
"I know you want to, but you can't," There was an edge to Thomas' voice, born of fear and pain and all the raw hurts Archie was reliving at that very moment, "If you kill him, someone else might come, and if you tell they won't believe you. I don't want to go up there where everyone can see me. I want to stay down here, maybe he won't find us down here. I can hide down here."
"Thomas - " Archie began, then gasped as he felt a small tug on his hand, and then nothing. he reached out his hand desperately, but it was no use. There was nothing there.
Thomas had disappeared.
Horatio knew the storm was getting worse.
It was obvious; he could feel it in the frantic pitch and roll of the great ship, hear it in the shrieking, mournful winds that threatened to tear the vessel apart. It was as if God had finally passed judgment on Courageous, and was destroying it.
But He couldn't, not yet. Not yet -
Horatio was down in the hold now, a flickering lantern his only light. Everything swayed wildly, and anything not secured was tossed about the decks like a child's toys. Horatio turned the lantern this way and that, hoping to see a face that had so far eluded him in the blackness. "Archie!"
Nothing. But surely he could not be heard...
The hold was deep and long, and Horatio made his careful way toward the handling rooms, where Morgan was. He called out for Archie as he went, aching to tell him that all was forgiven, that he was acquitted, that he was free. But he shuddered as he looked into that all-consuming darkness, could almost feel Simpson's icy hands holding Archie back. Was Archie hiding somewhere, afraid of being found and handed over to the noose? Or had he tried to reach the daylight, only to be struck down as the ship pitched and rolled? Both images terrified Horatio, and he called out again, louder, "Archie!"
If only he could go look. But he must see to Morgan first, and by the violent swaying of the ship Horatio knew it must be quickly. Quickly -
Horatio's steps grew faster, and he clutched his sword as he thought of what he would say to Morgan, when they met. All of his youthful anger rose within him once again, at the thought of what they had all suffered, and countless others too, all for one man's callousness and ambition. All of the fury and helplessness he had felt at Simpson's hands came rushing forward, and Horatio almost ran. The hopeless anguish of Muzillac joined with it, and he felt his cheeks flushing with an unstoppable rage. All that anger, Morgan would feel. All of the pent-up agony that Horatio had been forced to keep inside would be spent on Morgan, and if there was a Being who was kind he would find Archie first, so he could witness it, and believe it at last. I promise you, Archie, Horatio swore as his friend's face came in to his memory, the powerful and cruel will NOT triumph this time, arrogance and evil will NOT go silently on while innocent souls are torn into Heaven. All of our sorrows and trials will be shown their purpose. And justice will finally be done for you.
Horatio was so focused on this thought that he reached the handling rooms before he knew it. He stopped, feeling the ship rock beneath his feet, and almost gasped at its intensity. He must be quick.
It was very dark in the hold, and Horatio knew he was very far down, almost at the bottom of the ship. "Hello!" He called out, knowing the marines guarding the hold room would answer.
The ship creaked and groaned its protest, but there was no other sound.
Blast this noise, Horatio thought, and came upon an open storeroom door with debris piled and scattered around it. "Hello!" he called out -
- and froze.
Two marines lay on the deck in front of him, half-buried in the detris, one with his throat cut and the other with a great bloody wound on the side of his head. An open purse with the initials JM stitched into the velvet was loosely clutched in the first one's hand; it told the silent story of how the door had come to be opened. And then -
Horatio ran forward and thrust the lantern into the storeroom, his mouth gone dry and his mind shrieking with the mounting wind that tore at the timbers around him.
The room was empty.
Morgan was gone.
Captain Pellew closed his eyes against the whipping winds for a moment, cursing the thick clouds and slashing rain that were keeping the Courageous out of his sight. Daylight was almost full up now, but it seemed as dark as midnight; the storm continued its furious blast, shoving the Indefatigable from side to side and forcing many of the men to go below or tie themselves to their posts to avoid being washed overboard.
And still Hornblower had not returned with Captain Morgan.
The lookout yelled something, pointing frantically, but Pellew could not make it out. Bracegirdle had, though, and ran as fast as he could to the wheel to give harsh orders to the helmsman. Then he made his way to Pellew, his rain-soaked face white with worry.
"Rocks, sir!" He called out, and Pellew's eyes grew wide. "On our larboard side, I changed course so as not to hit them, but our time is running out, sir!"
Pellew nodded, looking at the drenched masses of humanity that were being brought over the sides of the ship, but none of them looked familiar. His eyes went back to the Courageous with a sudden, horrible thought, "Can she clear the rocks?"
Bracegirdle turned and squinted at the struggling ship barely visible in the howling winds and spray, and said, "They're deserting her like rats, sir! Likely there isn't even anyone to steer her!"
"Damn!" Pellew swore, "Where's Hornblower?"
Bracegirdle looked down, his hat and face dripping with cold and chilling rain, and was silent.
"Damn!" Pellew said again, wanting to scream out his fury and frustration. He would go to the Courageous himself - he would find Hornblower and Morgan, and Kennedy, and have his men safe with him again - he would -
Suddenly there was a tremendous crash, and Pellew saw the Courageous shudder and give a jagged lurch.
"She's hit the rocks!" someone yelled.
"Christ!" Bracegirdle breathed.
Oh, God, Pellew thought, not even minding the waves that were building, building, and plunging them all up and down like a tiger with a hare in its teeth. Oh, God, time is not running out.
Time is gone.
"Thomas!" Archie cried, straining to make his voice heard amid the rising shriek of the burgeoning storm. "Thomas!"
The ship lurched again, sending Archie crashing against what felt like stacks of coiled rope. He winced at the pain, but ignored it as he fell to the deck on all fours and cried out again, "Thomas!"
It was dark, so dark. The way the ship was pitching told Archie they were running out of time, that soon there would be water at their feet, then over their heads. He would drown rather than hang -
But he could not leave yet. "Thomas, please!"
He strained his hearing into the darkness and thought oh please, don't let him be lost, not like this. Not in a painful night, not hurting and alone, no -
Then he heard it. Very soft. Not very far away...
Crying again, but not like before. Not despair. Pain.
Archie sat still for a moment, focused on the sound. Then he moved along the deck, quickly and silently, and just when the weeping stopped put out his hand, and touched warm skin. Fingers, a hand. Thomas' hand.
"Oh, God!" Archie almost wept with relief, then quickly felt around, found the boy's arm, his face. "Thomas, are you all right?"
"I thought you'd leave," Thomas whispered, his voice wavering with disbelief.
Archie bit his lip and stroked the boy's hair in answer, then frowned when he felt warm wetness on the boy's shirt. "Are you hurt?"
There was a long pause, and Archie felt the small body shudder under his touch. "N-no..."
"Thomas!" Archie pleaded, "Please, I can feel
it, you're bleeding. Where are you hurt?"
"My shoulder. Something fell on it, then on my leg. My leg hurts worse." Thomas was crying again.
"Oh - " Archie felt around, felt something large and round - a barrel, a heavy one. With a grunt he pushed it away from Thomas' leg, then said, "I'm going to have to carry you, can you be strong with the pain?"
Thomas' breath came in hitching sobs for a moment, then he said in a bewildered voice, "You're not going to leave me here?"
"Thomas, I'd never do that. Put your arms around me, now, as tight as you can."
Archie felt for Thomas' arms, leaned forward so the boy could lift himself up, putting both hands on his sides to help. He felt Thomas' arms around his neck and said, "There you go, that's - "
What came next completely surprised him. Thomas tightened his arms around Archie's neck with a tiny cry, clinging to him with such desperate strength that Archie sat back with a hard thud. The grip tightened further, and Thomas was truly crying now, but the tears Archie felt against his neck were not tears of pain or anguish. Archie recognized the song in those tears, the pure unbridled and exhausted joy of finding a touch that did not hurt, a hand that sought to heal instead of punish. He put his arms around Thomas and held him tightly, very tightly so the boy knew in that endless black and bottomless night someone was there and would not abandon him.
The tears continued, and Archie held on, his own cheeks dampened by the outpouring of a soul that seemed so very much his own. It was as if he had been found at last, a young boy hurting and alone in the shadows, and the child who drew strength from his embrace and courage from his words was himself and this boy both. He cradled that wounded soul, that frightened child, and felt some part of himself take the warmth and draw healing from it. Sighing deeply, Archie held the boy close to him and unashamedly wept.
Slowly, the world came back to Archie once again and he heard the screech of the timbers, and the rising gale outside those night-dark walls. Get the boy out of there, now.
"Hold on, Thomas," Archie whispered, carefully rising to his knees and wrapping his arms around the child so he would know there was no letting go. Thomas obeyed, and Archie smiled to himself. What had he ever feared? "Hold on, and trust in me. I'm going to get you out of here. We're going home."
Lafferty started awake and opened his eyes, and thought he had gone blind.
It was dark, he was in a dark place and the earth was jumping and shifting like a fractured top. What -
Lafferty was thrown around the floor, felt himself struck by several small objects, and some point on the back of his head hurt like hell. As soon as the room stopped moving, he grabbed at some iron object and thought a moment. Where was he? What had happened?
Then he remembered. Morgan. Kennedy. And then -
Lafferty held his breath and realized he was holding onto an iron bar. An iron bar...
A cell. The brig. He was in the brig.
The ship lurched again, a huge shock that sent Lafferty's legs skidding out from under him. He tried to right himself, heard faraway voices crying out to abandon the ship. He realized the storm must have gotten worse, and wondered who had ordered him into the brig. Did Morgan escape? Was he scuttling the ship?
Damn, if only there was some light in here!
Lafferty made a mental note of where he was on the ship, and bit his lip as he used the iron bars to get himself into a standing position. The brig on the Courageous was down low, on the orlop deck, near the back of the ship and just inside the carpenter's walk. If Morgan had escaped, he had to be found, and quickly. But Lafferty had to get out of the brig first -
"Hey!" Lafferty shouted, knowing there would be a marine stationed outside the brig. "Hey!"
Damn! Lafferty shook the bars in frustration. Had Kennedy made it out? Wait a minute - he had someone with him - Lafferty strained to remember, it was one of the loblolly boys, wasn't it? Had they made it to Indefatigable and safety, or had Morgan gotten to them, had he -
Lafferty couldn't stand it. He shook the bars violently and screamed, "Heeey! Can anyone hear me? Hey!"
Lafferty was once again thrown off his feet to the back of the cell, There was another thunderous crash, deafening, and something struck the door to the brig, smashing it into a thousand pieces. When Lafferty made it to his feet again, he felt that the floor was tilted badly, and righting itself with a sluggish reluctance.
Oh, no, he thought. Oh, no...
Then he looked up, and saw light. A weak, feeble light provided by a swinging lantern hanging from a hook over the brig door. The door itself was gone, shattered by a large piece of the bulkhead which had crashed into it. But the bars were still intact, and very locked.
Lafferty stared at that freedom, and yelled into it, "Hey! Is anyone out there?"
Wait - was that someone coming? Lafferty squinted into the dull light, saw an indistinct shape moving through the shadows.
"Hey!" he called out, his hopes leaping. "Hey! Help me!"
The figure paused, came closer. Lafferty grasped at the bars, almost in panic, opening his lips for one final call for help.
The words died on his lips.
It was Morgan.
Or was it? The light was so faint, and while the figure had Morgan's formidable size and shape, it moved not with Morgan's menacing grace but with a lurching, almost desperate stride, not like the man Lafferty knew at all.
Then the figure came closer, and Lafferty saw that it was indeed Morgan, but he was hunched over, one large hand grasping the other shoulder, and the anger on his face was mixed with pain. He's wounded, Lafferty realized, and wondered how that had come about. Then Morgan reached the shattered doorway of the brig, and Lafferty noticed two marines' pistols crossed on his belt.
Oh God, he's come to kill me, Lafferty thought with a gasp, and took an involuntary step away from the bars.
Morgan stopped at the doorway and leaned against it, breathing heavily. The ship lurched again, and he struggled to keep himself upright as he glared at Lafferty.
"Interesting." was all he said.
Lafferty took a deep breath and lifted his chin to look at Morgan defiantly.
But Morgan shook his head and shouted over the screaming of the timbers. "Help me escape and I'll get you out of there."
Lafferty blinked, shocked. He fully expected Morgan to kill him, but -
The ship rocked again, coupled with another hideous, grinding sound.
"The ship is done," Morgan said with a shake of his head, "It's holed, sinking! You'll be drowned in ten minutes. I can save your life. Consider that, lieutenant!"
Lafferty's blood rose at Morgan's words, and he grasped the bars in anger. "And be indebted to you? Never!"
Despite his obvious agony, Morgan sneered, "Don't be a martyr, Lafferty! France is close, I'll be there by day's end whether you help me or not. You might as well help me."
The storm was rising, becoming fiercer. Lafferty felt the ship heave and buckle beneath him, and the shrieking in his ears was almost deafening.
"You ever see a man drown, Lafferty?" Morgan panted, "The helplessness, the agony of your lungs exploding in your chest? You'd rather die like that than help your captain and live to be an old man?"
Lafferty could hear the water crashing into the ship, could almost feel it drenching him, filling his lungs, suffocating him. He took a deep breath, felt faint.
The key to the cell was still hanging on its hook, and Morgan used one hand to pick it off and dangle it in his bloodied fingers. "Hurry up, Lafferty, you're out of time! Be my first lieutenant again, and live in glory, or die like the turncoat rat I'll tell everyone you are."
The ship jumped, slammed down, jumped again. Lafferty lost his footing and fell against the far wall, and when he looked up Morgan was at the cell door, the key almost in the lock, his form a huge, black, looming silhouette in the cacophonous darkness.
"Life or death, Lafferty!" Morgan shouted.
Lafferty's eyes widened at the terrible spectre looming over him, and for a horrifying second the howling winds, the sinister blackness, and the awful helplessness he felt converged into another man's memory -
** Creps wasn't alone. Someone else came - **
- and more memories, years of selfish indulgence and blind ambition, tumbling forward into images of blood and suffering, and the hands that moved to prevent it. His hands -
And with all the strength he had, Lafferty grabbed the iron bars and hauled himself to his feet, staring into the bottomless abhorrence in Morgan's eyes, never wavering from them. When he was upright he took a deep breath and bearing his entire soul in his words said in a low and scornful voice, "I would rather die like a rat...than live like one."
And he spit in Morgan's face.
Morgan staggered backwards, his entire being shocked with rage. Gasping with fury, he jammed the key to Lafferty's salvation in his pocket and yanked one of the pistols from his belt, and aimed it straight at Lafferty's stomach.
Lafferty didn't flinch, only lowered his head a little and stared into Morgan's eyes. You won't see me cower, you bastard, he thought quickly, his last thought on this earth. I'll show you what it means to be an Englishman.
Suddenly the ship gave another gigantic lurch, and Lafferty grasped the bars just as the pistol went off. The shot went wide, burning a hole into the bulkhead behind him. The ship plunged the other way, and Lafferty heard the horrifying, protesting wails of a ship being torn painfully asunder. Oh God, it was breaking apart -
He raised his eyes to Morgan, thought the other pistol would now be used to finish him off. But Morgan was leaning against the wall, his face pale and glistening with pain. He looked behind him, grabbed the other pistol out of his belt, and gave Lafferty one final, deadly glare, marking him.
Then he staggered over the broken door, and disappeared into the shadows.
For a moment Lafferty stood there, hearing only the deafening rush of the winds, the wail of the straining timbers, and the sound of the waves slamming relentlessly against the ship mixing with the frantic beating of his heart. He listened to those sounds, and feared the painful death he was certain now was coming. Then he took a deep breath and said to himself, "The easy death be damned."
And began calling for help.
Horatio was frantic.
His heart beat a thousand times a second; his breath came in short, fast bursts and he felt dizzy. But he couldn't stop, couldn't rest, could not lay down his burden for one moment.
Morgan was escaping. And Archie was lost.
Oh, God, it was tearing his soul to pieces! Horatio ran through the dying ship, feeling it shudder and lurch from one angle to another, heard the tremendous whining and shattering that meant only one thing: she was holed, and would sink soon. God, soon! And Archie was still gone -
The way ahead was dark, treacherous. A few lamps were still lit, but not nearly enough, and fires were scattered throughout the Courageous' decks. She was burning, sinking, dismembering herself in some great pageant of self-immolation, and Horatio could not help but be fascinated by this opera of destruction, this tumultuous riot of death that was occurring under his feet.
But he could not think on it, or anything except he had to get out, had to reach Morgan, had to find Archie. There was no choice, and in a few minutes he would have lost all three. All of them.
The ship keeled over, righted itself. Horatio continued his journey topside, reasoning that Morgan's priority would be escape. He would count on the rough seas to hide himself, rig up a jollyboat and try for France. He might succeed too, and Horatio had to stop him or all hopes of avenging the wrongs that man had done would go to waste. But -
- but he did not know where Archie was.
Damn! Horatio's heart felt as if it would burst inside him. He had to find Archie, had to tell him it was all right, he had been cleared, he could come home. What despair might his friend be in, that he may prefer to die alone on the Courageous rather than be rescued only to hang as a criminal? Damn, he did not know! He did not know -
"Archie!" Horatio cried out into the lamenting air. But there was no reply.
Oh God, and he could not do both! He could not get to Morgan unless he did it quickly, and he could not search for Archie unless he stayed below. The Courageous would be kindling before the next half hour, and if Archie was not topside when Horatio reached the open air it might be too late for him. If he was not already dead, crushed or burned somewhere far below...
No, don't think on that. Don't! "Archie!"
Horatio kept running forward, almost in tears at the terrible choice he was forced to make. He ached and was exhausted, and to know that salvation was so close and yet missed filled him with a rage that his youthful inexperience could not express, except to haul himself closer to the light above him and scream at the same time, "ARCHIE!"
Horatio started, came to a stop. That was a gunshot - close? Not very, distant, but -
He began to run.
It seemed to take forever, but as he came closer to where he thought the shot might have come from Horatio thought he heard shouting.
Not Archie, someone else - a voice he knew. Horatio followed that voice, stumbled over the myriad debris that blocked his path.
"Hey! Hornblower? Over here!"
Good Lord! Horatio peered through the darkness, and suddenly recognized the half-shattered passageway he was standing in.
He was in the brig.
"Hornblower? It's Lafferty! Hurry, I just saw Morgan!"
Horatio's heart started at that voice, and he ran to where the door once stood, now a battered wreck beneath a large barrel. He looked in, saw only shadows and within them, Lafferty's dim outline where Archie had once stood, gripping the bars as he had.
"He's to the companionway by now," Lafferty said urgently, "Hurry, Hornblower, he's going to escape!"
Horatio looked to where the key should have been. It was gone.
"Hornblower, are you listening to me?!" Lafferty's voice sounded desperate. "Christ, never mind me, Morgan's trying for France!"
Horatio pulled his pistol out and said, "Stand back from the bars."
"Hornblower - "
Lafferty jumped, and obeyed.
The ship was tilting so badly it was hard to get an aim, but in a moment Horatio had the pistol loaded and used both hands to steady himself as he aimed at the lock.
With a flash and smell of burnt powder the door swung open, and Horatio reached forward and pulled it the rest of the way.
"You're a fool, Hornblower!" Lafferty said as he hurried through, "Thank you, but we have to catch Morgan, he's - "
"No," Horatio said loudly, grabbing Lafferty's arm to spin him around. He could sense the other man's surprise, even in the dark. "No, listen to me, I will go after Morgan. I need you - Archie may still be down here, and he does not know he is free - "
Lafferty paused a moment, "Hornblower, if he's still down here the odds of him still being alive are - "
He looked into Horatio's eyes, and stopped. Then he said, "I'll find him."
"Thank you." Horatio said quickly, and grasped Lafferty's shoulder in gratitude.
Then he turned and ran back down the lurching corridor toward the companionway, as Lafferty's retreating footsteps tangled with the screechings winds that climbed around them, and was lost.
The little jollyboat that bobbed in the waves next to Courageous was almost full, and still as he hauled men into the cramped space Matthews kept wiping his face and looking at the ship that was now staggering in the water like a blind man, his gray eyes wide with hope.
"In ya go, mate!" Styles grunted next to him, hauling a drenched sailor into the boat by the seat of his pants. As soon as the man was in, Styles shook the driving rain out of his shaggy hair and yelled, "We got to go, Matty! We'll be swamped if we stay!"
"Not without th' lieutenant!" Matthews insisted, "Captain'll skin us alive."
Styles peered at the Courageous, resentfulness and anger in his gaze. "Think 'e'll bring Mr. Kennedy with 'im?"
"Oh, I'm sure he will," Matthews answered confidently as the thunder broke overhead, "'e won't come back without 'im, you know that. Not Mr. Hornblower."
"Aye," Styles said, and there was a wealth of feeling in that simple word. He looked over his shoulder and said, "'ey, the Indy's on a different tack. She's gettin' further out."
"Don't worry, we'll find 'er," Matthews replied as he clung to the sides of the boat, "Everybody stay down now!"
The crew of the Courageous seemed cowed, confused, and obeyed Matthews' order without question. Styles noticed one man, a burly tar with a bandaged hand, was staring at him sullenly. Something about him compelled Styles to ask, "And 'o are you?"
The man didn't blink. "Havers. Bosun."
"What'd you do t'yer 'and?"
"Nothing," came the reply.
Archie could not find the daylight.
He was struggling, and it was getting harder. Thomas was frightened, but his injuries were making him dazed and groggy, and Archie had to keep a strong grip on him so he wouldn't fall. But it made moving much harder.
The deck was tilting, first one way, then the other. They had reached the orlop deck, then the lowest gun deck, but so far it was treacherous going. Water was spilling in everywhere, through the gunports, down the companionways, from places Archie knew meant death for the ship. The constant thrashing of the ship tore guns loose from their places, and Archie could hear them crashing all over the deck. And oh God if one of them struck him - oh God -
Archie put black memories out of his mind, and kept climbing toward the topdeck.
Thomas shifted against him, made a small cry of pain, and Archie could feel the blood on his hand, where it had touched Thomas' leg. He did not pray to God; his faith had never been strong enough to ask favors of a god who seemed so capricious. He prayed to his mother instead.
I've got to get him out of here, Archie thought desperately as he strained to pull himself up the steepened deck. But it's dark and dangerous and the light is so far away. It hurts, everything hurts, but if I can just get him to the light it will be enough...help me. It hurts. Help me.
Thomas roused a little, and let out another cry.
"Are you all right, Thomas?" Archie asked softly.
Thomas nodded a little, a complete lie of course.
If I can get him to stay awake, Archie thought, I can get him home. "Thomas? Thomas?"
"Hm - aye sir?"
Archie grunted as he slipped on the deck, and righted himself. "Listen, I think - I think I should like some song, to go with our little journey. Do you - " Archie paused to grab onto a wooden joint, and pull himself forward, "Do you know any?"
Thomas thought, tightening his grip on Archie's neck as he did so. That's it, Archie thought, that makes it easier. "Just Christmas songs."
"Splendid. Would you - oof! - would you sing one for me?"
It was so dark, and there were terrible sounds all around them. The cold water at his ankles made Archie afraid, afraid that after all this he would fail, he would not be strong enough, and they would be lost. For a moment he rested, one hand against a rough wooden beam, and closed his eyes.
"Joy to the world, the lord is come...let earth receive her king..."
Archie opened his eyes. Over the gnashing winds and death throes of this terrible ship, that one tiny voice, hushed and aching, was absolutely clear.
"Let every heart prepare him..room...and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and natur sing..." Thomas faltered, then paused. "I don't remember all of it."
"That's fine, Thomas. Just as much as you can."
He felt Thomas nod against him. "No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground...He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found...far as, far as the curse is found."
Archie took a deep breath, and pressed forward, the small and wounded voice his beacon in the darkness.
Stephens cursed his rotten luck.
The storm was getting worse. Everyone else on the ship was gone, jumped overboard or dead. The marines who held him prisoner were hunching against the quarterdeck overhang, the rain and wind slicing at them from every angle. He was held fast between them, every nerve primed for escape, and it would be so easy! If only they would try for the boats, they'd be washed over in a minute. The waves were crashing over the Courageous' deck, and in another ten minutes she'd be under the water. But the stupid marines wouldn't budge.
Of course, Stephens sighed to himself, the real reason they weren't moving was that all of the rescue boats from the Indefatigable were full, and they had to wait for an empty one to come back. But why didn't they at least try to get to the railing? He could easily trip one, and once they were down it was a short journey to the railing and the afterlife. And the other would probably try to help them, that ship seemed to be lousy with loyalty...
God DAMN that Hornblower! Stephens wrung his tied hands in impotent anger. If he could just get his hands on him, for one minute! He hated Hornblower worse than he hated Lafferty, because he'd seen Lafferty drunk, knew at heart he was a coward and was just following what was popular. That's what Lafferty was, a follower. But Stephens knew *he* was a leader, and would have a brilliant career if he could just get free and go strangle Hornblower! But that self-righteous little prig would have him tried for beating up that little lawyer, and probably end his career for good. That Whitehall had asked for it didn't seem to cross anyone's mind. Stephens decided he wouldn't mind giving that little snot a couple more kicks, either.
Blast this storm! Stephens squinted into the gray air, saw a couple of little jollyboats making their careful way across the pounding seas and thought, if I just had one of those...just one to myself...
"'ere come the boats," one of the marines said breathlessly.
"'bout bloody time," the other replied, and took a step away from the overhang to hail them.
Stephens started as the marine slumped to the deck, a red puddle forming beneath what was left of his head.
"What the - " the other marine lifted his musket and started out of the overhang.
He flew backward, landing hard against Stephens and collapsing to the deck, a hideous gurgling noise coming from his throat and the terrible wound in his chest. Stephens took a few quick steps away, terrified, and as he tried to untie his hands looked up to see what had happened.
There, hunched over and clinging to the railing on the poop deck with a smoking pistol in his hand, his cape whipping around him, was Captain Morgan. Stephens saw blood running down his limp left arm and total pain and exhaustion on his face. But not defeat.
"Stephens," he screamed hoarsely above the thunder and the rain and the ceaseless winds, "You traitorous little piece of shit. How would you like to make a deal?"
"The last boats are away, sir!" Bracegirdle yelled to Pellew as he made his way up the quarter-deck stairs. "We'll see the last of the Courageous' crew soon!"
Pellew nodded, and Bracegirdle could see the tightness in his face. The sky could not be blacker, the winds more fierce, or the Indefatigable in more peril. Bracegirdle knew Pellew's eyes were fixed, as his were, on the great ship too close and too far away, wraking itself to pieces on the jagged rocks. In the rain and the haze it was hard to judge where she would turn next, and that was the danger; for while the Indefatigable could tack, without her crew the Courageous could not.
And the Courageous had no crew.
For the moment they were safe; the Courageous was facing broadside, and without her mainsails not moving much in the water. But if she turned, or if the waves and wind brought them closer together...
Bracegirdle followed Pellew's eyes to the deck of the Courageous, hoping to see Hornblower and Kennedy, along with the disgraced captain Pellew wanted to cut into little pieces. He saw rain and darkness, and boats full of the Courageous' crew coming aboard the Indy's windswept decks, and a large and dying ship that could tear loose any moment and lumber into them like a great wooden juggernaut -
- but he didn't see Hornblower. And Bracegirdle wondered what the hell was going on.
Horatio struggled along the rapidly tilting passageway, and used his raw anger as a rope to guide him along.
The Courageous did not have much time left; She was dying by degrees, her list becoming more an d more pronounced, her timbers bellowing in rage. She's going down by the starboard side, Horatio thought, and reasoned that Morgan would seek his escape there, where the closer waters would afford him easy escape. If Horatio was just in time -
He was at the middle deck now, dodging the careening cannon carriages that shifted and bounced around the deck as the ship shifted. In the dark this was a heart-stopping game, and Horatio kept thinking of Archie's friend, who had been killed when a gun carriage ran over his legs. But no, Horatio decided, I will not allow myself to die here, to haunt this wreckage of decency. I will drag myself to the Indy if I must wait for the water to carry me there...
This gloomy frame of mind was replaced by the much more immediate need to see and be free of the deck, and Horatio picked his way as quickly as he could among the piled-up wreckage and scattered tables and timbers that blocked his way. Everything was wet and jagged, and he cut himself more than a few times, but Horatio bit away the pain and kept on, trying not to hear the rampaging storm outside, or feel the deck sway and tremble beneath his feet.
And then, suddenly, he saw the companionway stairs.
Thank God! Horatio thought in a burst of unaccustomed spirituality. He paused for a moment and made a quick plan of apprehension. Then, with hands made only a little unsteady by his overwhelming desire to capture Morgan, he loaded his pistol, took a deep breath, and stepping over broken barrels, chairs, and discarded hammocks, he made his way to the stairs, and the raging daylight beyond.
Archie began to fear that he could not make it.
He was close, he knew it; he had carried Thomas up a couple of decks, and knew the daylight could not be far away. But Thomas had drifted off again, the decks were so dark, and everywhere he tried Archie was met with unscalable debris and blocked paths. The way had been tortuous and slow; Archie could feel his strength fading out at the last.
But no. No! This child trusted him. If Archie could just get him to safety, see him to the Indy and a warm dry home, then he could collapse. There was nothing on this ship but pain and death and misery, and this child would not have those as his last memories, never! Oh God, there was so much he did not know, so much that his pleading eyes had told Archie he had been denied.
And he would have those things, if Archie had to die to give them to him.
Archie gritted his teeth and hoisted himself and Thomas over a jagged pile of fragmented lumber, wincing at the pain in every joint as he did so. He had protected Thomas from every danger he could sense, and had been cut and bruised all over his body, but fought the shock and overwhelming fatigue that threatened to engulf him. He clutched Thomas to him with first one arm then the other, but now both trembled with exhaustion and Archie knew soon he would simply collapse. But no, surely salvation was not far...
Just a little more...the ship suddenly tilted again, and Archie crouched against the nearest bulkhead, cupping himself over Thomas' unconscious form as another rain of loose objects fell against him. He was just about to get up when he heard another sound, a terrible shrieking rumbling noise that was coming right at them -
Oh my God a CANNON
The huge object embedded itself in the wall not six inches from where Archie was crouched, and with a sharp cry he jumped forward, wrapping Thomas in an instinctively protective embrace and did not move for several seconds. He trembled, almost wept, every nerve shredding into a thousand painful memories that rose up like hungry demons to clutch at him, his mother's face fading, empty rooms and cold endless days, his early friends lost to death and betrayal and then -
- Jack's missed you, boy -
- first you, then your friend, maybe we'll let you watch -
Oh God he was so tired. So tired and the daylight was so far...
Then, muffled against his chest, Thomas made a small sound of pain.
NO. With a monumental effort, Archie pushed those demons back, forced his cramping joints to move, to stand, to hold. He leaned against the bulkhead for a moment, tears in his eyes, and prayed to his mother with every ounce of strength he had left. He had to save this child. Had to -
Then, suddenly, someone was at his side, taking his arm. "Kennedy! This way!"
What? Archie felt someone pulling him, quickly, and staggered to keep up. He shifted Thomas in his arms, felt himself almost running.
"Come on! The ship's sinking!"
Archie obeyed, unsure whether this was really happening or if perhaps he was dreaming, or dead. Where were they -
Light. Archie saw light.
"Hurry!" The figure said, but Archie felt a rush of new strength at that sight and did not need prompting. He stumbled toward that bliss, felt those strong hands steady him, and miraculously saw the stairs, and the square of sky above them. It looked dark, windy and dangerous; but the sun might as well have been in full vigor, for the tears that filled Archie's eyes at the beauty of it.
His benefactor pushed him toward the steps, "You first, I'll help - "
Archie looked, thought he would see Horatio perhaps, but instead saw a youth with straight dark hair who he did not know. The youth looked at him for a quick second, then reached for Thomas. "Here, I'll - "
"No," Archie said softly, and with a newfound vitality held Thomas closely to him, and stubbornly climbed the stairs into the light, feeling the stranger's hands on his back, in case he should fall.
But he did not fall. And ten seconds later, Archie Kennedy felt the salt air on his face and knew that he had gotten Thomas home.
"I'm Philip Lafferty," The other youth said, springing up beside him. Archie was taking everything in, the roiling storm clouds overhead, the crashing thunder and lightning, the rain and wind that stung as it bit into their faces. And out in the churning waters, not far away -
"The Indy!" Archie cried, and his heart leapt at the sight. He staggered up those last few steps, and stumbled over the deck to the railing, still holding Thomas tightly.
"God, Kennedy!" Lafferty cried out, stripping his jacket off and putting it around Thomas, "Take it easy, God, look at you! What - "
"My crew - " Archie gasped, blinking rapidly, for he could see boats in the water, men in the boats who he knew, Styles, Matthews, Oldroyd - oh God, they were there, he could trust them, they would - they would -
He felt himself fading, cried over the howling winds, "Matthews! Matthews!"
The old seaman looked up, and Archie was surprised he should smile so at a condemned man. "Sir! Thank the Lord!"
Archie shook his head to clear the rain from it, was surprised when Lafferty appeared a moment later with a length of rope that he had fashioned into a sling to lower Thomas down in. Hastily fastening it around Thomas' waist, Archie held the boy in front of him and felt his heart lurch at how pale the child was. And his eyes were closed..."Thomas? Thomas!"
"Huh?" The boy struggled to open his eyes.
Archie took his face in both hands. "Thomas, I'm going to lower you to the care of my crew, they're good men and they'll take care of you. I'll follow shortly after, all right?"
"You're going?" Thomas roused a little, and took one of Archie's hands in his own.
"Not for long," Archie promised, and pressed his cheek to the boy's briefly before very gently setting him over the side.
"I have him," Lafferty said somberly, "Don't worry."
Archie nodded, looking at the waves and knowing that a rogue wash at the wrong moment could rip Thomas away from them, or if the ship should take a sudden, unexpected roll...
Matthews was standing in the boat, and Thomas seemed to know enough to put his hands and feet against the lurching ship, to steady himself. A few heart-stopping minutes later, the boy was nestled in Matthews' arms, and Archie knew he would be all right.
Breathing a tremendous sigh of relief, Archie slumped against the railing for a moment before turning his eyes to Lafferty and saying, "Thank you."
Lafferty just stared at him, his rain-soaked face pale and exhausted. "You look like hell."
Archie squinted at him. "Who are you?"
Just then all hell broke loose.
The ship gave a mighty heave, lifted with the howling winds to plunge itself back into the waves with a fearful vengeance. Gasping, Archie looked up at the sails, saw they were still fully unfurled except for the lightning-blackened mainmast.
"The ship's been abandoned!" Lafferty yelled above the winds, "There's no one to take in the sails!"
Archie looked around frantically. The small boat with his crew in it was rowing away, out of danger, but the ship was careening through the water like a blind bull, the savage winds and pounding waves driving it -
"God!" Archie cried out, "It's headed for the Indefatigable!"
Lafferty's eyes widened as he saw that the Courageous was indeed hurtling towards the other ship. "Shit!"
"The wheel!" Archie cried, and both men stumbled across the slippery, tilting deck toward the only means of turning the great ship from its destructive path.
With strength he didn't know he had, Archie scrambled up the quarterdeck steps toward the wheel, desperate to turn the Courageous aside and halt her murderous course toward the Indefatigable.
Lafferty was right behind him, hands steadying him, almost pushing him up the stairs. The rain was almost a wall of water now; it was hard to see, hard to move through. It was like being underwater.
Finally the wheel was reached, and Archie put both hands on it, looking at the Indefatigable through stinging, rain-blinded eyes. Oh God, she was dead ahead -
Archie wrenched the wheel over. It spun free in his hands and knocked him to the ground.
"Damn!" He cursed over the howling winds. "Her rudder's gone!"
Lafferty's face was white as he bent over Archie and looked at the Courageous' bow slicing through the water. "Shit!"
Archie took two deep breaths, then clasped Lafferty's shirt in one bloodied hand and gasped, "Club haul!"
Lafferty leaned closer. "What?"
"Club-haul, lieutenant! Drop the anchor and cut it when the Indy's out of danger! Hurry!"
Lafferty looked once again at the mist-shrouded ghost that was all too real, and knew there was no time to argue. As Archie braced himself against the wheel, Lafferty ran from the deck to do as he was told.
A short distance away, Pellew was already aware of his ship's peril. His eyes grew round at the sight of the Courageous breaking from her lethargy to lunge toward them like a stalking beast, and above the keening winds he could hear Bracegirdle giving anxious commands, to try and avoid a collision that would surely sink both of them.
Oh God, he prayed, Hornblower and Kennedy are still on that ship, I cannot bear to lose them like this. And my own ship -
He looked in fascinated horror at the unmanned behemoth pitching forward to destroy them, and prayed for a miracle.
At the same time, Horatio was poking his head through the companionway, wincing as the cold slashing wind stung his face. He quickly studied the list of the ship, looked out and saw the Indefatigable heaving up, down, closer, closer.
Oh, Christ. He thought. He had to find Morgan, now.
He heaved himself out of the companionway, both feet landing solidly on the rain-washed deck. The ship was listing to starboard; he reasoned that Morgan would head for the larboard side, hoping to find an empty boat to steal. He would not waste time -
Horatio gripped the pistol firmly in his hand, began making his way forward. All of the boats would be away now, so Morgan would have to count on finding a drifting one, or commandeering one of the Indy's. Horatio swallowed hard, remembering the blasted remains of the marines he had seen; Morgan would not hesitate to take over a boat and kill the occupants. Indeed he would not...
The ship heaved and tilted in its death throes, and Horatio cast an anxious eye to the Indy, saw it closer yet. A vision rose up, he was once on a fire ship, seeing the Indy loom too close as it was doing now. But he could not turn aside to prevent this - he had to -
Horatio turned his head and saw Julius Morgan.
It was difficult to see through the wind and rain, but far forward Horatio could see the great black cloaked man, bent over as if in pain, and another man -
- another man. God, it was Stephens! Horatio grabbed onto whatever he could, making an agonizingly slow progress forward. Stephens was going over the railing - now he was gone - Horatio cast himself to that side of the ship and saw a boat with two oars, and Stephens dropping into it - God -
Now Morgan was reaching for a rope that hung from the foremast, a with a gasp Horatio realized the end Morgan was lowering into his hand had a noose on it. Morgan was making sure the other end was secure, and moving to the railing. No -
With a straining effort Horatio pulled himself against the ship's demonic gravity, and with the last ounce of his energy reached the forecastle and pulled himself upright, drawing out his pistol as he did so. In a voice that cut through the rain and the wind and the deafening thunder he aimed the pistol and Morgan's head and shouted, "STOP!" -
- and an instant later was looking into the cold and corrupted eyes of Julius Morgan, and the marine's pistol aimed at his own head.
"Don't be a fool, lieutenant," Morgan growled, his voice harsh and rasping.
Undaunted, Horatio took a step forward. "You will return with me to Indefatigable," he said in his best commanding voice, screaming to be heard over the wind.
Morgan shook his head and glanced over his shoulder, "You won't shoot me, lieutenant. You want me alive, but I don't mind killing you. And in a minute you won't have any ship to take me to."
Horatio did not want to look. He knew Morgan was telling the truth; but he did not want to look.
Morgan turned to the boat below, with Stephens in it, and grinned wolfishly. "I'm sorry you had to find out life's truths the hard way, lieutenant. Just think, if you'd listened to me from the start you might have saved some lives. But I guess Muzillac gave you an appetite for waste, didn't it?"
Horatio took a deep breath, another step forward, tried to hide the desperation he was beginning to feel. "You will surrender to me, Captain. You are under suspicion of treason and must - "
"Must be damned to you!" Morgan cried into the shrieking winds as he gripped the rope with both hands. "I must survive, lieutenant, and not rot in any cell or bow to any man. I offered you the world and you wouldn't take it, so take death and may your world go with you!"
He moved to lower himself into the boat, and Horatio fired off a shot, singeing the hair on Morgan's head. Morgan started, then gave Horatio a grisly smile and turned to leap from the railing, the rope tied around his waist, toward escape and freedom. Horatio stepped forward to do anything, anything to stop this -
Then, without warning, the Courageous gave a mighty, deafening lurch forward and Horatio was swept off his feet and skidded hard into the railing. Everything tilted at a hard, steep angle and Horatio saw the ocean veer toward him as the ship heeled right over and Morgan -
Morgan, still tethered to the rope, was jerked off the railing and cast cursing into the raging winds. Horatio watched in horrified fascination as he was thrown far from the side of the ship, and then snapped up tight like a fish on a hook. Then the ship jerked back, as if it were snagged on something, and with the loudest, most profane words Horatio had ever heard, Julius Morgan was catapulted back through the air and slammed with the force of a cannon blast against the side of the Courageous.
Horatio heard the sickening thud and winced at the impact, felt the breath rush from his body in response. The ship rocked again, and Morgan, still entangled in the noose, was thrown screaming away from the ship and smashed against it again, then a third time, the entire gruesome display framed in lightning and thunder and burned into Horatio's memory forever.
Then the abrupt movement of the ship eased, and Julius Morgan was dead.
For a few moments Horatio could not think, simply stared in numb shock at the grisly scene before him. The Courageous stopped her movement, and there was nothing but a huge gash of blood on the side of the ship and what was left dangling on the noose of the man who would have killed Archie. For a few moments Horatio could not breathe.
Morgan was dead. And he had died cursing God -
Dead - Archie - Indefatigable - the words pushed their way through Horatio's daze, and he tried to quell his trembling and staggered to his feet. They were caught on something, what? Horatio looked through the rainstorm to see the Indy was no longer looming too close, that something had stopped their destructive descent. He felt the Courageous tug and thought, the anchor. The anchor's down -
Horatio heard rough wooden sounds below him, saw Stephens frantically grabbing at the oars of the jollyboat, and with a low-throated growl reloaded his pistol and shot a hole in the bottom of the boat. Stephens shrieked and raised both hands in the air, looking up at Horatio with saucer-wide eyes before the boat began to sink. Horatio knew he would stay where he was until a boat could pick him up.
Morgan was dead. Horatio saw the taut rope still angling over the side of the ship, but it did not sink in, not quite yet. Morgan was dead.
And the Courageous was dying...
Horatio hurried to the other side of the ship, saw to his relief that Matthews' jollyboat was still there, down amidships. He began to make his way there, desperate to abandon this accursed vessel, but swore silently when he did not see Archie in the boat. Had Lafferty failed to find him? Oh God, he had to -
Without warning the Courageous pitched again, and before he could stop himself Horatio was pitched over the railing, and an eternity later struck the water painfully.
God! He thought, and struggled to swim, but the water was tearing at him, pulling him down, and it was only when he struck something hard and flat once, then twice, that Horatio realized that it was an oar, and grabbed it wildly.
"Thank the Lord, sir!" Matthews said as he hauled Horatio aboard. "Ye all right, sir?"
"Yes, thank you, Matthews," Horatio answered dazedly, vaguely noting the presence of Styles, and Oldroyd, who held a small child wrapped in a lieutenant's jacket. Was this all real?
Matthews looked around, then up.
Horatio guessed what he was thinking. "Morgan is dead."
Matthews' eyebrows came up, but he simply said, "Aye sir."
Horatio sat up, looked around desperately, "Mr. Kennedy?"
Matthews shook his head. "'e was along before, but 'e gave us the child and went back. Ain't seen him since, sir."
The Courageous was truly foundering now, rocking back and forth and disintegrating into the pounding seas. Horatio stood up, not heeding the howling winds or waves that threatened to smash into them at any moment, and yelled, "Archie! Archie!"
Someone's face popped over the side, and Horatio recognized it as Lafferty.
"Lafferty, jump!" Horatio called out, "Now!"
Lafferty swung himself over the side of the shuddering ship, and landed just next to the jollyboat.
"We've got ye, sir," Styles said as he hauled Lafferty aboard by his collar.
"Where's Kennedy?" Horatio screamed.
"He was at the wheel!" Lafferty sputtered, his eyes going to the shuddering hull of the Courageous in fright, "The rudder was gone, he ordered me to club-haul - I just cut the anchor line - damn!"
Horatio searched the tall, forbidding hull in distress. "ARCHIE!"
Then, miraculously, Archie appeared.
Horatio gasped when he saw him. Archie's face was cut, his torn white shirt bloodied and stained. Horatio waved to his friend frantically, saw Archie stand at the rail uncertainly, as if he was thinking salvation over.
"Archie, jump!" Horatio screamed, feeling his throat turning raw. "You'll be all right!"
Archie put both feet over the railing, but still stood at the lip, not jumping. The wind whipped his shirt, his long blond hair that half-covered his face. He looked terrified.
Then Horatio remembered what Archie did not know and shouted, "Archie, a witness was found! You won't hang, you've been acquitted!"
As soon as the words were out of Horatio's mouth he knew he had said the wrong thing. Archie knew what a witness meant, the secrets that had been revealed, and clung to the crumbling hulk of the Courageous as if suddenly terrified to let go. For a long, agonizing moment he did not move.
Then the child Oldroyd had been holding stirred in his lap, and looked up at Archie with eyes that struck Horatio with the age in them. They were like Archie's eyes.
Archie saw this too, and Horatio saw him hesitate. Saw him start to let go -
- then saw the wave, too late. "ARCHIE, WAIT!"
The wave hit.
It almost swamped the boat, and Styles and Matthews both grabbed buckets and began to quickly bail the water out. Oldroyd held the child well out of harm's way, but Horatio stared in agonized horror at the hull of Courageous, now halfway under water, and Archie was not there. He wasn't -
Horatio lurched toward the icy waves, Lafferty at his side. "ARCHIE!"
Matthews grabbed him, "Sir, don't!"
Horatio fought him off, stared mindlessly into the churning waters, unable to comprehend the pain of what he was seeing. "Oh, God! ARCHIE!"
Matthews' voice cracked as he said, "Come sir, we got to get away - we'll be sucked down if we don't - "
"No, damn you!" Horatio pushed him away and cried into the blackness, saw the souls of Mariette and Muzillac and another drifting, too-young soul, and railed against it. "ARCHIE!"
Styles grabbed his shoulder, so hard Horatio cried out, and twisted him around, "Sir, look!"
Horatio could not see through his tears. He blinked, wiped at his eyes frantically, saw nothing but the crashing waves and the deadly sea that he hated, hated, and could never love again -
- then, remarkably, he saw something else. A form moving slowly, agonizingly, along the jollyboat's towline.
Horatio sprang forward with Styles close behind, and together they hauled the towline in, with Archie grasping the end of the rough hemp rope in bloodied fingers which had been burned raw. With a cry of joy, Horatio reached forward and wrapped his hands around Archie's shoulders, pulling him into the boat with a huge groan of effort. They hit the boat bottom together, painfully and with a pair of loud grunts, and as he struggled to his feet Horatio saw that the crew was already rowing them away, and Courageous was sinking quickly beneath the waves, covered in rain and darkness, taking her loathsome captain with her to rot at the bottom of the sea.
Horatio watched that spectacle for a moment only, then turned to the gasping, panting young man before him, who looked as bloody and exhausted as he felt himself. Meeting his eyes, Archie gave a shaky, lopsided salute and whispered, "Thank you, Mr. Hornblower."
Then he collapsed.
The storm passed, the rain cleared away, and that morning for the first time in a week, the sun shone gently over everything that been clothed in darkness. Later that day, as he dressed to go ashore, Horatio thought that it could not have been more fitting.
The Indefatigable returned to the safety of Plymouth harbor, carrying the survivors of the Courageous and one man who was immediately placed under arrest. Exhausted, aching and spent, Horatio nevertheless insisted that everyone elses' needs be seen to first, shrugging to Pellew's anxious expression that he was merely worn out, and in no immediate need for treatment. And the first person he put into the sick berth was Archie Kennedy.
Horatio silently praised his captain's foresight; knowing that their own surgeon lacked the professional touch, as soon as they made port Pellew had arranged for his own personal physician to see to Archie's hurts while Hepplewhite contented himself to look after everyone else. For his part, Archie had said nothing since they had all reboarded Indefatigable and were sent straight to the sick berth. And when he had put on a clean uniform shortly thereafter and gone ashore with Captain Pellew, the silence had not changed. He seemed dazed.
And no wonder! From the moment his feet hit the deck until the storm cleared and he made plans to go ashore, Horatio heard as much about Archie's heroism as he did about Morgan's death, and those two topics were all anyone talked about. The official report was in Pellew's cabin, and that reading was exciting enough; but it was hearing the men talk about it, seeing the animation in their eyes and hands as they recounted what they had seen and heard of, that gave Horatio the uneasy feeling this was all moving into legend. He was not sure he liked that; he would rather it were forgotten, and something like a normal life resumed.
But that was a vain hope, and would be for a long time to come. Everywhere he went, Horatio heard snatches of conversation - "the worst storm I've ever seen," "The ship deserted, and thrashing itself to pieces mind you," "Thrown out like a fish on a hook, then all six feet of him smashed against the hull!" "God! I wager he never thought he'd go out like that - "
No indeed. That was the only part of the tale that bothered Horatio, that Morgan would never stand trial for his crimes, never answer to the countless souls that had fallen before him. Despite Pellew's lavish praise and commendation, Horatio was still trying to think of some way he could have kept Morgan from being killed. It was divine retribution he supposed, if one believed in that sort of thing; he did not, and so felt some shame that he had not been able to achieve a truly satisfactory ending. But still -
But still! If there was anything to bring Horatio out of his melancholy, it was hearing Archie's name heralded on every man's lips as a hero. Horatio was not certain how the truth was first brought to light, but it seemed that once one man knew Archie had given the command to drop the anchor and thus saved the Indefatigable from being destroyed, they all knew. And Archie Kennedy, the one-time victim and shame of the entire British Navy, was now Archie Kennedy, the vindicated hero and complete triumph of English courage and strength over the hardest adversity.
Adversity...Horatio finished sweeping the dust from his clean lieutenant's uniform and sighed. Thank God only a few people knew what adversity Archie had truly undergone. His vindication depended on the revelation that someone had witnessed his beating at the hands of not only Creps but Captain Morgan as well - and it seemed great pains had been taken to ensure that it be known as a beating, and not the more violating and humiliating truth. It was guessed at, of course, but Pellew had told Horatio - and presumably Archie as well - that officially, to the world, there was no grounds to it. The crime was just as heinous - and Mr. Kennedy's redemption just as complete - no matter what the wording. Horatio was glad of that, for Archie's sake.
And now...with a last look at himself in the mirror, Horatio took up his hat and prepared to go ashore and see his good friends and new ones, for the Indefatigable had already gotten her orders, and it would soon be time to go. But still plenty of time left to say goodbye.
The streets of Plymouth were bustling, vibrant; it seemed that every soul was out enjoying the rare sunshine, and talking ceaselessly of the morning's events. Horatio, in Mr. Bracegirdle's company, watched the pageant with an amused smile.
"I haven't seen this many people so happy since the death of King Louis," Horatio commented as he looked about him, "Can they really be so bloodthirsty?"
"Perhaps," Bracegirdle replied with a sideways smile, "But it is more than that, lieutenant. You've not known much oppression, and please God you never will. But from all this I've got a feeling that Morgan had his hands around more throats than one, and now that he's gone and the Courageous scattered to the winds, it's a relief. Until the next tyrant comes."
"Then we shall be ready for him," Horatio muttered, and did not know why his earnest rendition of that comment made Bracegirdle laugh.
They walked on, down the street toward the Dove, and were still half a block away when Horatio heard a familiar voice joyfully calling his name, and saw Terry Whitehall almost running down the street to meet him.
"Good God, Terry, your injuries!" Horatio laughed when Terry came close enough.
"Oh, who cares!" Terry exulted, and moved to embrace Horatio before stopping himself. "I suppose you naval types don't encourage open displays of affection."
Horatio grinned and said in mock-seriousness. "A proper salute, Mr. Whitehall, if you don't mind."
Terry obliged, with the most exaggerated and disrespectful salute Horatio had ever seen. "I knew there was a reason I never wanted to join the navy!"
Horatio laughed and put a hand on Terry's shoulder as Bracegirdle said, "Then I take it you've heard."
"God, are you kidding? It's all over Plymouth - probably all over England by now! Horatio, you are one incredible human being."
"It comes from having the right friends," Horatio returned with a warm smile, "Thank you, Terry, for helping Archie and drafting the letters that set him free."
"Like he needed my help!" Terry responded with admiration. "I heard he stopped the Courageous from running into the Indefatigable - "
Horatio nodded, "With Mr. Lafferty's assistance."
Terry grinned broadly. "Really! I always suspected Lafferty had some decency hidden under all that fear. Good for him!"
"And it seems Archie rescued a young boy he found down in the hold while he was imprisoned, one who had been beaten, it is said. From what Lafferty told me, getting the child abovedecks nearly killed him."
Terry's expression changed, and the joviality turned more serious. "You don't say. Well...that's something commendable indeed."
Sensing that Terry was moved more than he was letting on, Horatio decided to change the subject. "Where is Dr. St. John?"
"Oh - he's at Hood's still, under guard. He's been withdrawn as you might expect, and although I should be furious at him for not speaking up further, I confess I mostly pity him. He was under that yoke for an awfully long time."
Horatio thought a moment. "Do you think Hood would mind if I spoke to him?"
"I don't see why not. Perhaps he'll talk to you."
Horatio took a step backward, and said, "I'll be back in a bit, then."
Terry's grin came back. "All right, you know where I am. Perhaps Mr. Bracegirdle would like to raise a tankard with me and I can hear what it's like to be on a ship during a storm."
Bracegirdle grinned. "Are you so eager to know?"
"Of course. With my height and disposition, it's as close to being in the navy as I'm ever likely to get!"
Horatio took a long leisurely walk to the admiralty, and to his surprise was shown not to Dr. St. John at first, but to Lord Admiral Hood. Despite his clean appearance, Horatio was certain he would make a slovenly and unkempt impression.
"Ah, my boy," Hood sputtered as soon as Horatio walked into his office, "Delightful to see you, congratulations. Well done!"
Horatio came before that ornate, imposing, paper-strewn desk, and was at a loss for words. Suddenly feeling like a failure he said, "Thank you sir, but I regret that Morgan could not be brought to justice - "
"Indeed sir!" Hood snorted, "And what do you call what happened to him? What is justice if that is not? My office has been flooded all morning, people coming from all over to give evidence against the man, you've no idea. I am tired of it already! And along the wind comes and saves the crown the trouble and expense of a court- martial, when the verdict would have been set from the beginning. No justice? Ha!"
Horatio digested this, was uncertain how to respond. "I - trust your lordship's judgment, but I did not do it alone - "
"So I hear!" Hood yelped happily, "That Kennedy has proven himself a marvel, eh? First heroism at Muzillac, and now heroism right at home. It's a good thing we didn't accidentally stretch his neck, or England would have lost a very promising young officer!"
Horatio did not argue was this, but was frankly astonished to hear Hood praise Archie so lavishly. He filed it away, to tell his friend about later.
"Indeed, my lord, and I must thank you for your intervention on that matter. It was most kind of you."
"Most kind? Nonsense! If there's one thing the Crown is interested in, it's justice for all who serve on His Majesty's ships. And it is you I should thank, young man, along with your captain and fellow officers, for ridding the navy of such a terrible and potentially expensive threat to the crown."
"Um - you're most entirely welcome, my lord."
"Of course. Now off with you. I've got to clean up this mess!"
At the same time, some distance down the street, Archie was being attended to by Captain Pellew's personal physician, Dr. Harry Wilcombe. Pellew accompanied him, and when after a suitable length of time the door the the doctor's office opened and Archie emerged, he stood anxiously and looked his doctor in the face.
Wilcombe waited until Archie, still absentmindedly knotting his kerchief, wandered some distance away before saying, "Good lord, Edward. What's that boy been through?"
"More than either of us cares to admit, I'm afraid," Pellew answered in a low voice. "How is he?"
"Well," Dr. Wilcombe replied, "He's got no major injuries, mostly he's exhausted. The cuts and bruises will heal of course, but it's the other scars I found that I'm worried about. They're years old and he seems very sensitive about them - "
Pellew raised one hand for silence and looking toward Archie said, "Mr. Kennedy, you may wait for me outside if you wish, out of this stuffy physician's office air. I trust Dr. Wilcombe's assistance has been satisfactory?"
Archie turned and regarded both men with quiet, withdrawn eyes. "Aye sir, very much so. Thank you, doctor."
"Anytime, Mr. Kennedy," Dr. Wilcombe replied with a reassuring smile, and Archie turned and opened the door to the street, finding his way outside.
As soon as the door was closed again Pellew said, "My apologies, doctor, but there are elements of Mr. Kennedy's past that I would not have him hear us discussing."
Dr. Wilcombe's eyebrows went up. "Anything you wish to tell me?"
"No sir, for I would not care to repeat gossip and Mr. Kennedy has told me nothing himself. Nor will I ask him to divulge anything of that nature that he is not willing to share unbidden."
"I understand. But you - suspect?"
Pellew pursed his lips, and nodded. "I have seen enough of all manner of human nature to know fair and foul when I see it, sir. And sadly Mr. Kennedy seems to have been subjected to the foulest of them all."
"Well, if what you suspect is true," Dr. Wilcombe said, looking toward the door, "Then he's a very remarkable young man. Get him back to Indefatigable, he must have total rest for at least a day."
Dr. Wilcombe began rolling down his sleeves. "I do feel better knowing you'll watch out for him until *all* his bruises heal. After that, I suspect he'll be watching out for the rest of us."
"It will be my privilege to guard him, sir," Pellew said as he replaced his hat, "And you do not have to tell me what I have already been so amply shown."
As soon as Archie closed the door to the doctor's office, he fought with the instinctive urge to run and hide.
He couldn't, of course - he was in the middle of a busy street, the early afternoon sunlight full on him, and there was really no reason for him to be afraid. But that was the way he felt. Afraid and naked.
There was a small alley next to the office, where he could be out of sight and still snap to when Pellew arrived, and Archie headed for it, grateful to be off the street and away from all those eyes. The bustle - the noise - the people startled him, after a week of solitude and captivity, and as soon as he could Archie settled himself on the ground with his back against the wall, and hid his face in his hands.
What had happened? What would happen now? Why had he not died? Archie knew the facts, but still his heart had not accepted them; the little comfort he derived from knowing that the witness to Morgan's brutality had glossed over certain details was thwarted by the fear that someday those details would be known. It would have been easier to die with that knowledge than live with that fear, and Archie was prepared to do the first. He had reconciled himself to it, planned on it.
And now it was not going to happen.
Oh God, that entire morning seemed like a dream! He could barely speak of it to Pellew, and only then when forced. He had not said a word about it to anyone else, and had not spoken to Horatio at all. Horatio, who had fought so hard for him and who should have been the first person Archie confided in, he had not said one word to since their return to the ship. And he was not sure why.
Or maybe he was. Horatio had seen the worst of him, had seen him panicked and failing, imprisoned and condemned to die, had battered the very doors of Hell for him, and Archie was ashamed that his only repayment had been to lie to Horatio and withhold the terrible things Morgan was capable of. But then, Archie thought as he hugged himself, Horatio did not know Simpson's evil either...
And he never would. Perhaps that was why Archie felt so frightened; this new freedom would mean questions, curiosity, and Archie was not used to that kind of attention. He knew that many on the ship hailed him as a hero, and while he was grateful that he was not being shunned Archie had no idea how to take such lavish praise. If only he had Horatio's poise...Horatio always knew how to take a compliment. Well, Archie amended with a tiny smile, not really...
Archie sighed and leaned his head against the wall. He would have to go back to the Indefatigable sometime, and he could not avoid talking to Horatio forever. He could stall it - Thomas had been adopted into the Indy's crew, so he could always go for a visit, and surely if he pleaded a headache or fatigue Horatio wouldn't argue with him. But that was just delaying the inevitable...Archie closed his eyes and began to doze.
Suddenly he was on the Indy, on a bright and sunny day. They were at sea, not far out, and he was standing at the forecastle, the wind in his face. He heard footsteps behind him, and turned, and smiled to see Horatio there.
But Horatio did not smile back, instead looked uncertain, nervous. He looked back over his shoulder, and Archie suddenly realized they were on Justinian, not Indefatigable. He felt a cold thrill of fear.
"I'm sorry, Archie," Horatio said quietly, "But you understand, one has to think about one's self. After what happened to Danny Fredericks..."
Archie started, felt his mouth go dry as he thought, that's what Pierson said to me after Simpson killed Danny, oh God that's *just* what he said. "Horatio - "
"It could have been *me*, Archie," Horatio hissed, coming close so no one else could hear, "You understand that, don't you? It could have been *me*!"
Archie just stared at him, Pierson's words again, from Horatio's lips. No...
"I'm sorry, Archie," Horatio said, his eyes large and sad as he backed away with a shake of his head, "I can't be your friend anymore. I know you understand."
Then he turned around and walked away, the Justinian melting into nothingness around him.
Archie threw himself awake with a gasp, and started when he felt a cool hand on his forehead. He looked up and saw who it was. "Oh! Miss Rose!"
"'ello, Archie," the prostitute said with a kind smile as she knelt opposite to him, "Don't worry, no one will see us talkin'."
"I'm not - I don't care - they let you out?"
"Course," Rose answered with the same smile, "They never bother holdin' the likes of me longer than a night. I was eaten up with worry for you, though." She put one hand on his arm, and Archie saw tears in her eyes. "I'm so glad you're all right."
"Thank you," Archie whispered, looking into those generous eyes and finding himself after a moment, and put his hand on hers. "I mean...thank you, ma'am, for helping me. For letting me talk, I...I don't do that kind of talking much."
"You should," Rose said softly, putting one hand on Archie's cheek, "You're not alone, love. You must remember that, and let people help you."
"You give people too much credit," Archie replied, and drew his knees up to lock his arms around them. "You know how they treat you."
"Not everyone," Rose responded lightly, "That Mr. Hornblower, for instance, 'e's a real gentleman to me. And you - "
Archie's head snapped around quickly. "You know Horatio?"
Rose nodded. "I've met him a few times. All he cared about was seeing you got treated decent."
Archie's gaze dropped to the street. "I can't ever repay him. Or you."
"You think you haven't already? I heard about that child you took up, and how you saved your ship. If I was your own mother I couldn't be prouder."
Archie thought of his mother, and bit his lip to stop the tears. "But Horatio doesn't know what you do, and now..."
"Now you're afraid he'll find out, and it'll change how he thinks of you."
Archie kept his eyes to the ground, thought of the nightmare and those haunting words *you understand, don't you?*. He nodded, closing his eyes.
He felt Rose's hand again, stroking his hair gently, just as his mother used to. He leaned into that feeling, heard her say quietly, "Now you listen to me, Archie Kennedy. You have a life and a future ahead of you that is full of greatness, I can see it in your eyes and in your heart. And Mr. Hornblower, he sees it too. And I got a feelin' he'll keep seein' it, through storms and winds and the blackest night anybody can dream up. And I know he'll be standin' right there beside you, like you'd be for him, right till your dying day. See if he doesn't."
Archie opened his eyes again, sought that pleasant face that had seen him through so many trials, and took her hand in his, squeezing it warmly. "Thank you."
Rose returned his smile with one of her own. "Thank *you*, gallant knight. That boy owes you his life."
Archie got to his feet, and as he did so said, "Oh, I have something of yours - " He reached into his boot, and pulled out the small pick lock she had left for him, so long ago. "I don't need it any more."
"I think you never did," Rose said as she took the instrument back and gazed into Archie's eyes, "You always had the key to unlock your chains, Mr. Kennedy. Believe that."
Archie blushed, and nodded.
Rose turned to go, then looked back over her shoulder and asked, "Mr. Kennedy?"
"Do you have a sweetheart?"
Archie blushed again, and when he looked back down at the ground his expression was sad and wistful. "No ma'am, not at present. I don't..." he swallowed heavily and his voice cracked as he said, "I don't think they'd understand."
Rose paused, then she walked back to Archie and caressed his cheek. Then, slowly, she took his face in her hands and kissed him, slowly, softly, until Archie felt it coursing through every nerve in his tired, aching body. It was a miraculous feeling, sweet and hot, an eternity and a second, all at the same time. Archie was breathless.
Then, just as slowly, Rose drew herself back, and when Archie opened his eyes it was to stare at her in stupefied awe.
She was flushed too, and looked up at him with appreciation and knowledge glistening in her eyes. "You find the right girl, Archie Kennedy," she whispered, "And she'll understand gladly, mark my words. It ain't fair to the ladies to keep all that sweetness locked inside forever."
Archie stared at her open-mouthed. But for some reason he felt nothing but joy.
"Now just in case someone saw us," Rose said, the same naughty glint in her eye, "Mr. future lieutenant, use that big voice of yours to order me away."
"Ahem," Archie said with his wickedest smile, "Away with you, vile strumpet! Can you not see I am about the king's work?"
Rose groaned as she passed him to go back into the alley. "I should have guessed you've seen acting!"
"God bless you, Rose," Archie said just before she was out of hearing.
"You too, love," she replied, and Archie thought he heard tears in her voice. Then she was gone.
Horatio was shown the room where Dr. St. John was being held, and his heart sank when he saw the two marines posted at the door. Summoning his courage, however, he walked past them, knocked on the door, and heard a quiet voice inside say, "Come in."
He opened the door, and went inside.
The room seemed dark, although it was daylight. It was an abandoned office Horatio guessed, there was nothing in it but an empty desk and a few chairs. Dr. St. John was sitting in one of them, in front of a window that overlooked the street, lost in thought. He didn't move when Horatio entered, but said very softly, "He's dead."
Horatio felt those words sink into the silence, and nodded although St. John could not see it. "Yes, he is."
St. John moved then, looked at Horatio with ancient eyes. "Tell me."
Horatio hesitated; then he drew up the other chair, sat in it and looked at the hat he turned in his hands. "He - was trying to escape, to France. He was letting himself over the side when the ship heeled over, and he was thrown against it." He paused, then whispered, "More than once."
St. John looked back out the window again, and said very softly, "Thank God."
Horatio swallowed, did not know what to say to the man.
"What about Mr. Kennedy?"
"Mr. Kennedy is well, he's back on the Indy. Some bruises, but...he will recover."
"And Mr. Lafferty?"
Horatio smiled. "Ah, you would be proud of Mr. Lafferty, sir. He helped save the Indefatigable, and assisted Mr. Kennedy in rescuing a small child from certain death. He is a true Englishman."
St. John slumped a little in his chair, his shoulders sagging as if a great burden had been removed from them. "They all got away. Thank God. Thank God."
Horatio wondered at the doctor's relief; it was almost palpable. "Yes...yes, sir. We are all very happy to finally have this over."
St. John was quiet for a long time, staring out of the window. Then he said quietly, "Lieutenant, I want you to hate me."
Horatio's eyes opened wide. "Hate you? Why?"
"Because of what I did," St. John answered bitterly, "Because I had so many chances to help your friend, and I didn't take them. Because I lack the simple courage that put those bruises on your body and his. Because I've seen evil defile innocence for I don't know how many years, and have never spoken out."
Horatio blinked at this, heard so much self-hatred in those words that he was momentarily taken aback. Finally he said, "I cannot judge you for any action other than the most recent one, and that one saved Mr. Kennedy's life. For that, I shall always be in your debt."
St. John sighed, closed his eyes and covered his face with one bony hand. "Damn your decency, lieutenant. Maybe you don't know what my silence has cost this world, but I do. There are men who are crippled in mind and body because of me, wounds that should have been closed that were left to bleed. I was a blind and stupid man - "
"You were in thrall to a tyrant," Horatio interjected, the cold dim outline of St. John's form against the window painting such a scene of loneliness that he could hardly bear it, "And well I know what that is! I have known men - fine men, good men whose souls cried for the unleashing, who lived as you did, and thought themselves cowards. One of those self-proclaimed cowards gave his life for me, and I can promise you that word will never pass my lips in conjunction with his."
St. John turned to him, his face cast into darkness. "But if I had kept silent, your friend would be dead."
"But you did not," Horatio insisted, his gaze hot and burning, "You came forward, not knowing the end, not knowing there would be no punishing master to come and render in your life a living hell afterward. Do you think I don't know what courage that took? Tell me, if I were to say that Morgan was alive, and coming to claim you for the wrong you did him, would you do the same as you did?"
For a moment St. John's face went pale in the darkness, then he took a deep breath and said, "I couldn't have lived with myself if I didn't. The running, it...oh, it makes your soul so weary! You'd never understand."
"Don't say those words to me," Horatio said with a gentle smile, "But you see, I have known you from the first, Dr. St. John. I have seen you treat Archie with kindness, you bound up his wounds and made the hell he was cast into more bearable. You gave my book to him, when you knew what punishment awaited you if Morgan found out. Even under the direst circumstances, you crept out of the shell of your own fears to render what aid you could. And when the good heart could stand the oppression no longer, you were the bravest of any of us. I would have lost a friend had it not been for you, and I will always be grateful."
St. John looked back out the window, and Horatio winced at the despair he saw there. "Your friend is worth a hundred of the likes of me. I accept your forgiveness, lieutenant, but the way ahead is dark for me and I can't see any light. So you'll forgive my downcast spirit."
Horatio did not know what else to say, and stood, silent for a moment. Then, struck with an idea, he asked, "What will happen to you now?"
St. John shrugged. "Your friend Mr. Whitehall said he would help me, but I want nothing now except to pay for the crime I committed, for killing that boy. Prison, for the rest of my life."
"And what will you do there?"
St. John looked at Horatio. "What?"
Horatio hesitated, then plunged ahead. "Doctor, those men you spoke of, the unhealed wounds you claim responsibility for...do you remember them?"
St. John's shoulders slumped. "Every one."
"And if a way was discovered to find them, to tell them what you know and that it is not hopeless, would you do that for them? Would you help them, now that you have the freedom to do so?"
St. John's eyes widened. "Can that be done?"
Horatio nodded, smiling at the dawning hope he saw in the other man's eyes. "Give me their names, and I will do what I can. Even a letter from you, an acknowledgement that they are not alone and may yet be made whole, will help. I am sure of it."
St. John sat upright, some life coming back into him, "I'll have little else to do in prison, I suppose..."
Horatio shook his head. "Sadly, I think not, doctor. How many poor wretches confined within those walls will have need of an excellent physician, and have so far been denied? You know medicines, cures, helps for sickness. Now that you are free of Morgan you may exercise your talents to their fullest, and never fear the consequences of helping another human being. Prison need not be the end for you, doctor, but a new beginning full of opportunity. I am sure of it."
St. John's expression changed, a little, to one of incredulous hope. Then it dimmed again and he turned back toward the window. "You have more faith than I do, lieutenant. I doubt they would even let me near to help."
"It is not faith, sir," Horatio said firmly, "It is a statement of fact. That your touch cures can be proven, and if there are those who doubt it let them challenge Captain Pellew, and Acting Lieutenant Kennedy, and myself. For that matter, Terry Whitehall will also attest to your abilities. Do not doubt that he will see you placed where you can do the most good, doctor, and once there I can promise you there will be no question of your skill, no matter what your past. Only let the arguments be written and I promise you, you will be given a second chance wherever you are. And I know you will make the most of it."
The doubt in St. John's eyes began to melt away, and what was behind there was satisfying to behold. It was as if a ray of sunlight had entered the room, and he almost looked happy.
"You see, doctor," Horatio said with an answering smile, "There is a reason men like Captain Morgan ultimately fail, and men such as you are left behind on this earth. And it takes no faith, or flowery discussion, to tell you what I believe: you are here because you are needed. That you must pay for your crimes is inevitable; that your talents be allowed to rot while you do it, would be a far greater tragedy."
Dr. St. John did not move for a few moments. When he did, he raised grateful eyes to Horatio and simply said, "Thank you, lieutenant."
Horatio smiled at him and replied, "I have my orders and we will be setting sail soon, but I would be remiss not to convey my gratitude, and that of Mr. Kennedy, for everything you have done. You are a good man, doctor, but you've had to hide it; and now the chains have been taken from your wrists. What you have done for my friend, you may now do for everyone who needs you."
Styles winced with distaste as he wrung the water out of the huge length of sail that he and Matthews and Oldroyd were handling. The severe rains and recent damp weather had rendered all of the stored sails moldy and foul-smelling, and now that the sun had broken the orders were given that they all be aired out.
And Styles was hating it, "Oof, I'd almost rather the rain came back!"
"Oh, quit gripin'," Matthews said as they hoisted the small sail above their heads to unfold it, "Beats shiverin' in the damp."
Together the men pulled the sail open, letting the sun's warmth into the folds where it bounced off and made a brilliant patch where it touched.
As they worked with the sail, Styles looked at Oldroyd and said, "So are y' back then?"
"Who, me?" Oldroyd blinked, and gave a cockeyed grin, "Did I go someplace?"
"You could say that," Styles rejoined, giving the sail a hefty flap.
"We', I'm glad ev'ryting's back to normal, if 'at's what you mean," Oldroyd said, helping his mates lay the sail on the deck where they could inspect it for mold and rot. "I mean - 'at was a close shave, wunnit?"
"Too close," Matthews said darkly, getting onto all fours and running his hand over the bleached canvas. "Never thought we'd end up tangling with the ghost of Jack Simpson."
"Don't say that name, mate," Styles said in grim agreement, removing his knife to cut some coiled rope that lay nearby, "Brings 'im back. And 'e has friends."
Matthews grunted, his eyes on the canvas. Nothing more needed to be said.
Suddenly there was a heavy weight on Matthews' back, and without looking he said, "Now who the hell is *that*?"
"Thomas, sir," came the reply, from just above Matthews' head.
"Ah, well! Off my back with you, Thomas, and we can have a proper conversation."
The weight lifted, and Matthews sat up, taking care not to look at Styles' barely-concealed grin. He looked at Thomas, who was dressed in better clothes and chewing on a biscuit, and said, "Well, now, young sir, I see they got you outfitted proper. And fed too?"
Thomas nodded happily, "I'm to report to you as soon as I'm done eating. And - I'm almost done."
"Are you!" Matthews exclaimed, "Well, then, let's put you to work. Now - what's your age, son?"
"Um - ten. Eleven next month."
"Oh, my goodness! You been at sea longer than me almost! Well, master Thomas," Matthews pointed at the sail, "I need you to find one of the sailmaker's mates, tell 'im we got a sail that needs mending, and we're on th' quarterdeck. Think you can do it?"
Thomas had just finished cramming the last of the biscuit into his mouth, and smiled widely. "Yeff fir!"
"Oo, and mind your manners, lad!" Matthews said, and reached out to tap the boy lightly on the head.
Thomas flinched, ducking away from Matthews' touch as if instinctively, and Matthews withdrew his hand with an apologetic look.
"Sorry," Thomas muttered, obviously embarrassed.
Matthews stammered, "No harm, son. About your work now."
Thomas nodded, not noticing the looks Matthews and Styles exchanged. The day might have continued a little dimmer but for the sudden appearance of another child, a towheaded youngster who ran straight to Oldroyd and threw his arms around his neck.
"Well, hello there, young fella!" Oldroyd said brightly, but Styles shook his head.
"They're comin' out of the woodwork," he muttered.
Thomas turned his head, and as soon as he saw the other boy gasped happily and said, "Jenkins!"
The other boy, who was obviously Jenkins, raised his head and gave a sideways smile, "Toms!"
Matthews leaned back on his knees and raised his eyebrows. "You from the Courageous too, son?"
"Uh-huh," Jenkins said as Thomas came close and slung an easy arm over him, "We look...look out for each other."
"But how do you know Oldroyd?" Styles asked, barely able to contain his humor.
"Oy, Jenkins and me, we're pals!" Oldroyd replied, trading sunny smiles with the boy, " 'e came up to me on deck right after we came on board, ain't that right, mate?"
"Oy!" Jenkins responded joyfully, and put his arms around Oldroyd's neck again.
"Well, they're cut from the same cloth, *that's* for sure," Styles muttered, but only Matthews caught it.
"You got work, Jenkins?" Thomas asked his friend.
Jenkins nodded, "Fetch the holystones. We're going to s...swab the deck."
"I have to go find one of the sailmaker's mates. Come on, I'll look out for you."
Jenkins nodded again, and they both ran away, two bobbing minnows in the sea of work on deck.
Matthews watched them go and shook his head with a smile. "Well, old Jack may have friends, and that's a fact. But good news is, 'e ain't the only one."
"That's damn philosophical, mate," Styles said as the three men resumed tending to the sail, and this time his smile was not in the least sarcastic.
By the time Horatio made it back to the Dove, it was time to head back to the Indefatigable, and his duties. The ship was damaged and needed assessment to see if she was seaworthy for the morrow's sail ; there were inspections to be made, supplies to procure, and his men to look after, and Horatio found himself in the rare sort of mood where he did not want to do any of it. But it needed to be done.
Of course, Terry had to be promised one tankard of ale and stories before Horatio's departure, and that was gladly given. Then it was back onto the cobblestoned streets towards the docks, and Horatio still could not fathom why people looked at him so strangely, or smiled at him as if he had done something spectacular. The attention made him uncomfortable; he could not wait to get back home.
But what a pleasure it was to walk on sunny streets! To see the sky blue and golden above him, and know that everyone he cared for was out of danger. Horatio realized that the brooding he had been doing since Muzillac was not burdening him any longer, and wondered where his melancholy had gone. He thought of it as they made their way homeward, conjured up the images that had filled him with so much shame and guilt, but he saw Mariette's face in his memory and it was at peace. It was the same with the dead men, the martyred French citizens, all of the roiling, painful insanity of that hopeless mission. Horatio realized he could recall it, and not feel totally mortified. Why?
They neared the docks, and Horatio gazed up at the masts of the Indy, glinting in the sunshine. He smiled involuntarily at that sight, the great ship beaten but unbowed, splintered here and there but with her fine fighting soul intact. She had been through the worst and survived, no, thrived on it. See what the world can give me, the ship seemed to say in every gleaming timber and spar, it can batter and assault me but I will not be swallowed by the tumult or corrupted by craven design. I will oppose it, and thus grow ever stronger, until at last I will be unassailable. And live forever.
Horatio stood for a moment on the docks and watched the Indefatigable with tears in his eyes. She was home, she was his life, and they had both seen the storm together, as Archie had. They had all been in the thick of it, felt every nerve and fiber tested, and still they did not yield. And by not yielding, had grown stronger. And unassailable.
"Mr. Hornblower?" Bracegirdle said quietly as he came up beside the young man. "Are you quite all right?"
"Yes, Mr. Bracegirdle," Horatio replied with a covert sniff, "I was just, um...dazzled by the sun."
"Oh, hm. Well, we don't see it too often I don't suppose! Well, back aboard we go then."
"Indeed sir. I was hoping to talk to Mr. Kennedy before I began my duties - "
"Ah! Well, you'll be disappointed I'm afraid. The captain told me this morning that Mr. Kennedy is to rest, and I'm certain he's deep in the arms of Somnus by now."
"Oh. Well, then, would it be possible to talk to the captain? I fear the report I gave him this morning was rather shoddy."
"I'm certain you'll be summoned to his presence soon enough, my boy, but it won't be this afternoon. After seeing to Mr. Kennedy he informed me he was going to pay his respects to Captain Morgan's wife. It seems the proper thing to do, after all."
The ride out to the Morgan estate did not take nearly as long as it seemed to the night before, and Pellew reached the great house of pale brick and ivy long before he was ready. He did not have any idea what he was going to say to Elise. And he had been so exhausted that he had slept most of the way.
She had to know, of course, that her husband was dead. The courier had been dispatched as soon as Morgan's demise was confirmed, and Pellew's duties had kept him in Plymouth for most of the morning and part of the afternoon; so it was near four o'clock when his carriage clattered into the great courtyard of the house, and as he felt the vehicle rumble to a stop Pellew silently prayed that the right words would find him. It would not be an easy conversation.
The house looked so different in the daylight, and in the sunlight in particular. Everything gleamed warm and fresh and new; it did not seem at all the same house dark with suspicion and fear that he had visited last night. But then, perhaps it was not the same house after all.
The great double front door opened, and one of the servants appeared at the door. The servant nodded at Pellew and motioned for him to enter, as if he had been expected. Adjusting his cape and uniform, Pellew followed the man into the house.
And how the house sparkled! None of the shadows of the night before, the closed draperies and cowering beauty. Every shutter was thrown open, every curtain drawn aside, and the house was flooded with light. Pellew marveled at it; it was not a house of mourning at all.
He was shown into a small parlor, and told to wait. Pellew accepted this, took a small glass of sherry from the proffered tray and sipped it, looking around at the pale green walls that caught the light and spread it throughout the room, the fine-cut crystal that splintered it into a thousand tiny rainbows. There were vases for flowers, all empty, and a painted table with a pair of gardener's scissors setting on it, long unused. And Elise had always loved flowers...
There were light footsteps outside, and just as every thought Edward was having flew out of his brain entirely the door opened, and Elise walked into the room. She was dressed simply, in a gray dress with no lace or other finery on it. Her hair was hastily pinned back, and Pellew could see she was wearing no jewelry or adornment. She looked tired and dazed.
"Captain Pellew," She said somberly, motioning to one of the small sofas, "How - how kind of you to visit me. Please sit down."
"My apologies for my rudeness, madam," Pellew responded as they sat, "Both for leaving you so hastily last night, and arriving unannounced this afternoon. But I felt you should know as completely as possible the manner and circumstances of your husband's death."
Elise's eyes came up to him, slowly. "He is dead."
She leaned forward. "There is no mistake? No possibility that you are wrong?"
Pellew swallowed. "No, ma'am, none. My lieutenant Hornblower witnessed his demise, there can be no doubt. Your husband, Captain Morgan, is dead."
Elise seemed suspended in time for a moment, her shoulders forward and her face frozen in an expression of stunned realization. Then she closed her eyes, brought her hands up to her face, and wept.
Pellew brought his eyes down, wishing to respect her privacy, but then he thought of the previous evening and cursed his thickheadedness. Those were not tears of grief or sorrow, they could not possibly be. They could only be tears of release and joy.
After a few moments Elise seemed to remember herself, sat up and drew one graceful hand across her glistening cheeks. She took a deep breath, gazing out of the nearby open window to the gardens beyond, and said, "I'm sorry Edward, I just - I did not believe it when they came and told me, I suppose I knew it was true but to hear it from your lips...and your officer was freed as well?"
"Yes, ma'am. A witness came forward in his defense." Pellew saw no need to elaborate any further.
Elise's drowsy smile conveyed her relief and happiness. "Do you know, I was sleeping when you came. I did not mean to, there are so many things to attend to, but oh, how wonderful it felt! To sleep without fearing the sudden movement beside you, without having to be just awake enough to hear the hand on the door. I have not slept that well in years."
Pellew looked down at the bright sunlit pattern on the floor. "I am...glad, madam."
Elise cast her eyes down also. "I apologize, I know such talk is inappropriate. Decorum and fashion dictate that I be sad and downcast, but I am no such actress. I am happy, Edward, happy! It's so...I had forgotten what it felt like."
Pellew raised sorrowful eyes to her. "I am sorry it was so terrible for you."
Elise closed her eyes briefly and took a deep breath, raising one hand to her face as if to shelter it from painful memories. "No more. Those days no longer exist for me, Edward, please. I - I want to talk only of the future from now on. The future." She opened her eyes and cast her gaze out the window again, shaking her head in tired wonder. "It sounds strange even to say it."
Pellew nodded and said quietly, "All right then, madam, as you wish. What will you do now?"
Elise leaned back, her dress rustling as she stared out the window again. "I don't know. Sleep. I would like to sleep. But not while you're here."
Pellew returned the fragile smile she gave him. "And after that?"
Elise sighed, and pursed her lips together in thought before replying, "I...I think I should like to sell this house and every stick of furniture in it. The Admiralty may take whatever it wants. I will take only my clothes and my embroidery, and the weeds may have the rest."
"And where will you go?"
"My sister's," Elise said, leaning her head against the back of the sofa with a dreamy smile, "...he...did not let me write to her, but as soon as she knew she sent a letter begging me to stay at her home. She doesn't even live that far from here." Her gaze softened, and her voice quivered a little as she whispered, "It will be very good to see her again. And then...and then I don't know."
Pellew looked at her face, saw how drawn and confused it looked, the sleepwalker just awakened, the captive newly set free, with a wonderful new world that is frightening in its scope and opportunity. He had seen that expression before, on Kennedy. But until that moment he did not realize how very much they were alike.
"It's very strange, Edward," Elise said, her voice almost a whisper, "Even now, it doesn't seem real. I half-expect him to come pounding in through the door at any moment, wanting his dinner or..." She sat up, studied her hands with a tight expression. "I feel free, but I feel lost, and I confess I do not know what to do. Can you help me?"
Pellew smiled. "Gladly, madam. I think the first thing you should do, is precisely what you want to do. I think you need to take some rest."
Elise looked out the window again, and nodded.
"And then," Pellew put his hand on hers, gently, and looked into her violet eyes, "I think you should take a slow, careful stock of the world, and find your place in it. You have been far away from the world, and it has missed you. I am certain it will welcome you back."
"But what if I have no place in it?" Elise rose from the couch, her dress dappling into watercolors as she moved through the room to stand at the window. "I am the widow of a traitor, the former wife of an enemy to the crown. I have nothing to offer but a dowry that not even the most destitute gentleman would want. I am afraid of that, Edward. I am afraid of looking inside myself and seeing that after all I am - nothing."
Pellew stood quickly and came beside her, and heedless of the impropriety took her hands in his. "Such nonsense! Listen to me, madam, if you are ever afeared that you hold no value, if you ever doubt that yours is a life that is only now beginning to bloom into its own beauty, then remember that there sails on His Majesty's seas a heart that has always believed - *will* always believe - that once your song is found it will be the sweetest and most beautiful melody in all the world."
Elise blushed, and did not meet Pellew's eyes. He saw tears slipping down her cheeks as she looked out into the gardens, and for a long time she did not speak. When she did it was in a wavering voice edged with tears. "You always did have the poetic heart."
"I speak the truth, madam," Pellew said softly, taking her hands tighter, "Do you remember the bird you used to speak of, the one you set free because you could no longer bear to see it caged?"
Elise nodded, and turned her face to Pellew. "I - I always wondered what became of it. I am certain by now it is dead."
"Oh, not by my reckoning, my lady," Pellew answered, "For I am certain that now, if you listen, you can hear its song through the notes its children sing, and the ones that come after. It sings because it is free, Elise, and praises you for making it so. I know you will hear it one day, and give the song back for all to hear. Promise me that you will."
Elise looked in his eyes for a moment, then tenderly laid a hand upon his cheek. "I promise. I promise because I know I must lose you, and I will keep you bound to me any way I can. And I promise because I have heard the song you have given me. And it is beautiful."
Horatio was exhausted.
The excitement of the morning and activity of the early afternoon turned into an all-consuming lethargy around three that afternoon, and fearing that he would fall unconscious on his feet, and mindful that Archie was sleeping in their cabin, Horatio found himself asking to borrow Mr. Bracegirdle's cabin for some much-needed slumber. Bracegirdle was happy to oblige, but even with that respite Horatio still found himself utterly worn out by the time the ship's bell tolled the time - ten o'clock - and Horatio decided it was time to go to bed.
It feels like it's been years, Horatio thought as he trudged toward his cabin, and wondered at everything that had happened since the last time he had closed his eyes in the night. It seemed like another life, another Horatio who had done those things, offered himself to Morgan, lay in a filthy cell and listened to a litany of brutality, watched a captain die. No, that was not himself, certainly. It must have happened to someone else...
At last, his door, his cabin. Horatio quietly pushed the door open and went inside, and in his sleepy half-awake state thought, oh! I left the lantern burning!
Then his eye fell on Archie, asleep in his bunk, and Horatio felt a jolt of realization. Archie was home.
For a few moments Horatio stood in the dim light provided by the one hanging lantern, and looked at his friend lying on the bunk which had been vacant for too many nights. Archie was curled on one side, his blankets drawn up to his chin, his newly-washed hair loose and half-covering his eyes, which were shut tight in healing slumber. His face, which bore the rosy color of a long and unbroken sleep, was slack and totally at peace.
At peace - but the restfulness in Archie's face was in stark contrast to the bruises which still marred his pale skin, and the cuts that stood out on his cheeks and forehead. One hand was outside the blanket, and Horatio could see that it had been bandaged from where he had burned it hauling himself aboard the jollyboat. And more - Horatio knew that under that blanket there were other bruises, other hurts, and beneath that a torn and aching heart that had always hidden itself, and would likely continue to do so despite all attempts to reach it.
Horatio sighed and crossed his arms. It was quiet in the cabin, and strangely it reminded him of the Spanish prison, after he had convinced Archie to live rather than give in to the despair that had engulfed him. There was a time - Horatio would never admit it, but there was a time when he was at a loss how to deal with Archie's despair, and once he began to recover there was some awkwardness while Archie struggled to regain not just his health, but his dignity as well. Horatio had seen him at his most wretched, and the bitterness at having to be rescued was difficult for Archie to shake off. He had recovered, of course, but slipped again during the Muzillac campaign and now...
Horatio sat down on his bunk and stared at Archie's bruised and sleeping face in thought. Now he did not know what to do. In the frenzy and panic of Archie's arrest and trial, he was so focused on getting Archie free that he never thought of how to deal with all that had happened - all that he now knew - once that happy event had occurred. But he had seen it, in Archie's eyes, so many times in the past week but most clearly just before the Courageous went down: Archie did not want to be known.
And now he was. Every painful, humiliating, degrading detail of Archie's suffering was known to Captain Pellew, and Lord Hood, and to a select few others. It had won him his freedom, but...Horatio shook his head, remembering Justinian and the Spanish prison. Archie had hidden his hurts then, put on a cheerful face or quietly tried to starve himself rather than face his own humanity and bare the scars. And now that he was free from Morgan's brutality, it was unlikely that his behavior would be any different. Tomorrow he would be better, sometime soon he would be fit to resume his duties, but which Archie would be left when the one who was recovering was gone? Now that the tortured past that he had taken such pains to hide had been spread out for all of Plymouth to view, would he remain the smiling, buoyant friend who had stood on the topmast with Horatio to look with eager eyes at a dawning world? Or would he retreat, as he had in the past, from a world that would judge him by others' sins, and stay wounded forever?
Dammit, Archie, Horatio thought as he shook his head, if only you knew! If only I could think of a way to tell you I have seen the hell you have been in, and I respect you for having survived it. You must have feared that I would look at you differently if I knew how you'd suffered at Simpson's hands, and you were right. You are braver, stronger, more resilient than I ever knew; that your heart did not grow black and cold from such horrors is a wonder, and speaks more eloquently of your decency than a hundred of those sonnets you love so much.
But how will you ever know? You will keep it from me, as you kept Simpson's abuse when we first met, and your anguish in prison. You will insist that I am above it, and would turn from you if I knew. But I know, Archie, and it makes no difference except to place you higher than you ever were before. And to know you would have taken such punishment so I would not...
Christ, Archie. That is so much more than I deserve.
Damn it, Archie, I wish you were awake so we could talk. I am always better when the problem is right in front of me, and no more of this confounded speculation. But when you wake you will think I know, or you will wonder what I have heard, and withdraw into yourself. And I cannot think of how to draw you out, without you hating me for what I had to learn to attempt to free you. Perhaps I will never be able to tell you. But if you ever find out that I know, I hope you will forgive me...
With a sigh, Horatio decided he would not find the answer to his dilemma standing half-asleep in his cabin. He gave up thinking with a shake of his tired head, then turned the lantern down and fell into bed and was asleep within minutes.
He might have passed the entire night undisturbed, but shortly after four o'clock in the morning he heard a strange noise in the cabin, and opened his eyes in the dark.
His first thought was that Archie was having a fit, or a nightmare; but it was not that kind of noise. It was a rustling noise, combined with soft thumping, as if someone was crawling on the deck. Alarmed, Horatio quickly sat up and turned the lantern up enough so he could see -
- and found himself staring at a brown-haired child lying wrapped in a blanket on the floor next to Archie's bunk.
For a moment he was shocked; then, afraid the child would wake Archie up he whispered, "What are you doing there?"
The child sat up, clutching his blanket to his chin, and looked at Horatio with what he thought was an inordinate amount of fear. He began to rise, but Horatio rose first and as quietly as he could took the boy's arm and steered him into the passageway, being careful because he noticed the child had a limp.
As soon as the door to his cabin was closed Horatio knelt down next to the boy and said, "What were you doing in this cabin? You should be with the other boys."
The child looked at him with terrified eyes, and although Horatio's grip on his arm was very light, tried to squirm out of it as if it was hurting him. "I'm sorry!" He whimpered.
Horatio realized the child's distress and quickly released his arm, but put his hand on the boy's shoulder to keep him still. "It's all right, I'm not going to hurt you. But you're not in the right place."
The boy turned his long-lashed gaze to the floor, and kept it there.
Horatio took notice of the long cut running down the boy's cheek, and put that together with the limp. "You're the boy Archie rescued from the Courageous."
Still looking down, the boy nodded.
Horatio smiled then, a little. "What's your name?"
"Well, Thomas. Surely you were given your own hammock on the orlop deck. What are you doing here?"
Thomas paused, then traced a pattern on the deck with one bare foot as he muttered, "I didn't like the hammock."
"Aren't you used to sleeping in one?"
A shake of brown hair.
"Where did you sleep on Courageous?"
Thomas shrugged. "Wherever I found room. The captain said we weren't to be wasted canvas on."
Horatio felt his stomach knot, but let it pass. "So you came here?"
Keeping his hand on Thomas' shoulder Horatio said, "Well...I'm certain Mr. Kennedy would appreciate that, but I'm afraid it isn't very safe sleeping on the floor anywhere on board a ship. If we were at sea, and an enemy was sighted, you might be trampled, and that would make us all very sad indeed. Do you understand?"
Thomas pursed his lips, and brought his eyebrows together thoughtfully. "I suppose so."
Horatio smiled. "Good. Now I slept in a hammock for a long time, and I got used to it. I'll wager you can too, with practice."
Thomas brought his head up, and looked toward the door. "Did he sleep in one too?"
"Oh yes, it's required of all of the king's sailors. Makes men out of us."
Thomas' eyes snapped back to Horatio, and they were very serious. "What's your name?"
Horatio smiled at that. And Archie said he was always the famous hero! "Hornblower. Mr. Horatio Hornblower. I am Mr. Kennedy's cabin-mate. And his friend."
Thomas seemed to accept this, and put his tongue out thoughtfully.
A thought occurred to Horatio, and he asked, "Thomas, why did you come here to sleep?"
The boy's eyes lit up a little. "I was scared and wanted to be safe. I knew I would be if I was around him."
Horatio's eyes widened at that. What would Archie think if he knew he was a haven from someone else's bad dreams? "And why did you think that?"
"Oh, I can tell he's hurt like I have. He knows, he heard me crying and he knew. That's why we're friends. We hurt alike. Is that why you're friends too?"
It was a simple statement, but the impact of those words were such that Horatio stared at the child in amazement. For a moment, the Courageous was sinking again, and Horatio imagined Archie carrying this young boy topside, trying desperately to reach the open air before they both were drowned. The relentless thrashing of the ship, the darkness and the horrible noise, and to a child - to this poor, neglected, wounded child - one steady rock of salvation, one tether of hope and the only way out of the darkness, and that was Archie.
And then -
**Come on, Horatio, she's gone. Come on **
Another hopeless situation, heat and dust and gunfire, Horatio had been useless and out of his mind, sobbing with grief. It was the worst moment of his life...and one steadying hand, one tether of hope drew him from the darkness of death and destruction on the Muzillac bridge.
Without knowing how he found words, Horatio looked into Thomas' eyes and said, "Yes - yes, Thomas. I believe it is."
And Thomas smiled at him, the sleepy, happy smile of kinship. A kinship Horatio had never realized he shared with Archie too, until just that moment. They hurt alike. Horatio could not suppress a shudder.
Nor the child a yawn, it seemed. Remembering it was very late, Horatio said, "Well, let's get you back to where you belong, eh son? I'll find someone to show you back to your berth and don't worry, you'll get used to it. And I'm certain you'll find it much more comfortable than sleeping on the hard deck."
Thomas' eyes came back toward the door. "Will he be awake tomorrow?"
"Yes, he will, and I'll tell him you asked after him. And you know, it will do him if I can tell him you got a good night's sleep. So will you do it?"
Thomas looked up at him, and gave him a very proper salute. "Aye, aye, sir."
Horatio found a marine nearby to take the child back to his quarters, and when he retired once again to his cabin paused before turning down the lantern, and looked once more at his sleeping friend. Archie had turned onto his back, one arm flung up next to his head, and his face was turned so that the large bruise that still marked his face was visible, and the bandage on his wounded hand.
Horatio looked at those wounds, so much more obvious than his own, and considered a way to draw Archie out, when the time came that they could have a conversation. He needed only a place where they could talk freely, and the courage to say the words. And then - perhaps - the Archie who resumed his duties, and walked the decks a free man when next the Indy set sail, would be the right one.
With that hope, Horatio turned down the lantern and climbed back into his bunk.
The following morning found Horatio stiff and sore in every muscle and joint in his body. The pain actually woke him up, and once awake Horatio knew that if he did not move quickly, the stiffness would linger and he would be days getting rid of it. That, and he wanted to report to Captain Pellew. So making a mighty, groaning effort, Horatio turned himself over in the bunk to turn up the light -
- and looked right into Archie's eyes.
"Oh!" Horatio exclaimed, unable to stop himself. He had not expected Archie to be awake, indeed in his half-stupor had forgotten that his friend was even there. But Archie was there, and awake, his head turned on the pillow and his blue eyes watching Horatio with all the calmness of a spent thunderstorm. He still looked very tired.
After a moment's hesitation, Horatio cleared his throat and, turning up the lantern as if it were an ordinary day said, "Good morning, Mr.Kennedy. How are you?"
Archie took a deep breath and turned his face to the ceiling. Very slowly he said, "I ache in every cell of my body."
"You've joined the club, then," Horatio replied, wincing as he moved his shoulders to loosen them, "Will you be about?"
"I'm on leave for the next two days," Archie said in the same quiet, detached tone, his eyes gazing carelessly at the timbers as he shrugged. "I don't know."
Horatio paused again, heard the desire for solitude in Archie's voice, the same listlessness that had plagued him in the Spanish prison, and in the gaol. He thought of the previous night, and decided there would be a time to draw Archie out, but this was not it. Retreating, he said softly, "I can see if the cook has anything decent for breakfast. Would you like some?"
Archie made a face, and ran one hand through his hair. "No. I'm going back to sleep."
Horatio tried to find his shoes. "All right then."
Horatio looked up and saw that Archie had stopped moving his hand through his hair, and was staring at his bandaged palm as if it belonged to someone else's body. "Yes, Archie?"
Archie took a deep breath, then another, and when he spoke his voice sounded distant and strange. "It all happened, didn't it? I thought - when I first woke up I thought..." he turned his head quickly, the bruise still large and ugly on his fair face. "What day is it?"
Archie's expression grew irritated. "No, the date."
"God!" Archie let out the word in an astonished breath, turning once more to the ceiling. "I don't remember yesterday."
"You slept through most of it."
"No, I mean..." Horatio watched Archie's eyebrows come together, as if he were thinking about something very hard. "Thomas. Is there a young boy named Thomas on board?"
Horatio tried not to smile too much, "Yes, there is, and he's been asking after you. The captain's brought him on as a cabin boy."
"Oh. Oh, good." Archie closed his eyes, and placed his hand over them. After a moment he gave out another deep and tired sigh.
Taking that as a sign that the conversation was over, Horatio stood up to get his jacket and finish his morning ablutions. These he accomplished quickly, and finally turning to go he saw that Archie had not moved, and began to turn the lantern's bright flame back down so his friend could sleep.
"No, leave it up."
Horatio started a bit, and looked at Archie. The hand had not moved from that lined and exhausted face, but beneath the scratched fingers Horatio could see Archie looking at the flame with something like trepidation, as if he feared that if it went out he, too, would be extinguished. "Leave it burning. Please."
Horatio could not argue. He left the lantern alone, and quietly left the cabin.
As he suspected, as soon as Horatio's presence was noted he was told to see the captain, who had returned from his trip and was anxious to fill his senior officers in on everything that had taken place. The others had been briefed in a meeting that Horatio's condition excused him from; he was therefore required to attend the captain alone.
Horatio's mind churned as he knocked on Pellew's door. So much had happened and had not been
discussed beyond a ten-minute report, made the day before. What his world would be like at the end of this conversation, he did not have the imagination to guess!
Captain Pellew's voice came from within, all the command and authority of the man himself captured in one syllable: "Come."
Horatio opened the door, and found the captain seated at his desk, the morning sunlight bright on the windows behind him. At Horatio's appearance he leaned back and said, "Ah, Mr. Hornblower, excellent. Do come in and have a seat, sir."
"Aye, sir," Horatio said, and did so.
For the next few moments nothing happened. Horatio looked at Pellew, who was looking back at him, studying him for no reason Horatio could guess. It was a peculiar look for Pellew, a mixture of scrutiny and sympathy that Horatio had seen before, but not in such intensity. He felt a sudden inexplicable urge to check his uniform; perhaps there was something on it...
Then Pellew asked, very softly, "How are you, Mr. Hornblower?"
It was not the question Horatio was expecting; nevertheless, he answered automatically, "Well, sir."
Pellew nodded, although Horatio was not certain he believed it. He looked down at his papers and cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should begin at the beginning, sir, please pay attention as I do not wish to repeat myself." He paused.
Horatio realized he was waiting for a reply. "Aye, sir."
Pellew accepted this, then continued. "The first matter concerns yesterday's actions. The court-martial case against Captain Julius Morgan, brought against him by the Admiral Lord Hood, has been written off as untryable due to the captain's apparent suicide."
Horatio's eyes widened. "Suicide?"
"Kindly do not interrupt me, Mr. Hornblower. It is the decision of the Admiralty that Captain Morgan, faced with his undeniable guilt, sought and achieved his own cowardly death and in doing so contributed to the loss of His Majesty's Ship, the Courageous. There being no body to confirm his death, it will be accepted by the sworn statements and signatures of those who witnessed it." He looked pointedly at Horatio.
Horatio's jaw dropped. "Sir, am I being asked to sign a document that claims that Captain Morgan committed suicide?"
"Not precisely," Pellew said, "Only that you made every effort to apprehend him, and that in the end the decision to end his life was his. It's the way the Crown wants it, I'm afraid."
"But - but I cannot sign such a document," Horatio protested, "His death was an accident."
"I am aware of that," Pellew sighed, looking at the documents before him wearily, "Although I confess I cannot look at the manner of his life, then his death, and see anything but the hand of something mightier than mere chance. Still, Hood wants Morgan disgraced, and if he cannot do it in life he is most certainly determined to do it in death. As a suicide, Morgan will get no memorial, no remembrance, no testimony that he ever existed, except as a black mark in a bookkeeper's ledger. As one who appreciates irony, Mr. Hornblower, I do confess that this decision, deceitful though it may be, is highly satisfactory."
Horatio stared at the desk, and thought. Two days ago Captain Julius Morgan was one of the most powerful men in England, someone you dared not cross, who took what he wanted and thought he would live forever. Now he was not even a memory. It seemed incredible.
"The second matter concerns Mr. Kennedy," Pellew continued, as if eager to drop the subject, "As I'm certain you are aware, all charges against him have been dropped, and in fact he has been given a commendation by Lord Hood for his exemplary actions in saving the Indefatigable from being crushed by the Courageous. How is Mr. Kennedy, by the way?"
"Oh - well sir, but still very tired. I suspect he'll be another day recovering."
"As should be expected." Pellew's eyes went to the documents beneath his hand, and his expression changed to one of melancholy. "Now Mr. Hornblower, as one well acquainted with Mr. Kennedy and the circumstances of his release, I must assume you are aware of what these documents contain."
Horatio knew full well what his captain spoke of. "Yes, sir."
"When Mr. Kennedy is himself again, I shall discuss it with him as well, but for your own peace of mind I will tell you that the only men who know of this document are myself, Lord Admiral Hood, Mr. Whitehall, and of course Dr. St. John. For the public record there is...an amended document, one that protects Mr. Kennedy's privacy without compromising his innocence in the matter with which he was charged. For all intents and purposes, it is *that* document, not this one, which is to be regarded as truth. Is that understood?"
Horatio looked at the documents under Pellew's hand, thought with a sad heart of the terror and dark days contained in that small space, regulated to rows of neatly scripted letters. "Yes, sir."
Pellew's hand tightened over the document, and his voice grew tight. "In addition, Mr. Hornblower, I am issuing an order to you now that if you see anything...if you ever, while you are aboard my ship, sense anything that even *hints* at the sort of behavior that is described here, you will report it to me at once, or failing that drag the foul beast who would commit such an abominable desecration and very firmly lash him to the nearest rigging until I am available to render judgment upon him. Is THAT understood?"
"Good." Pellew's eyes snapped as he pushed the document aside, "Now to other matters. The carpenter has sounded the ship, and all officers have reported to me that she is able and ready to sail. We have received our orders, and since the weather has apparently cleared will be leaving for Gibraltar on the evening tide."
It was not unexpected; still, Horatio's heart jumped at the swiftness of it.
His face must have reflected this, for Pellew's expression changed a little, became softer. After looking at Horatio for a few moments with that same sad, sympathetic expression he asked, "Are you certain you're quite well, Mr. Hornblower?"
Horatio hesitated, but knew he could not lie to his captain. "I...confess I am a bit stiff, sir."
"No doubt, no doubt." Pellew stood up, and walked around his desk slowly. "Mr. Hornblower, I have been a sea captain for many years. I have been through many trials but I confess that none of them - none! - has been as harrowing on my soul as I believe this past week has been on yours."
Horatio could not argue this point, so kept silent.
"It is said we cannot make friends in the navy," Pellew continued, "That we as officers must keep our emotions apart. In that, I'm afraid, you have failed miserably, sir. You have been mawkish, sentimental, seeking to save Kennedy's life only because it held value for you, without regard to the impropriety of it and your gross negligence to your other duties. Such attention to an accused criminal, no matter what one's personal feelings, is highly inappropriate and unbecoming an officer in His Majesty's Navy. For that I must reprimand you quite strongly, sir."
Pellew ended this speech by standing at his desk right in front of Horatio, and the younger man could feel his cheeks burning. Knowing a defense would be useless, he merely bowed his head and whispered, "Yes, sir."
There was another pause, and then Pellew's voice again, softer and far more kind. "However. Unofficially, Mr. Hornblower, it was the most heroic and unselfish display of friendship and loyalty I have ever been privileged to witness."
Horatio looked up, stunned. Pellew was smiling at him.
"No matter what the so-called 'truth' was, you held to your conviction that Mr. Kennedy was innocent. You challenged a man who has made those twice your age tremble before him, unafraid. You stood your ground, Mr. Hornblower, and when all was lost and there was no one to stand with you, you walked into that night alone willing to sacrifice everything for what you thought was the only right and just outcome. That is honor, Mr. Hornblower, that is England. I am very proud to be your captain today."
Horatio was lost for words for a moment, then stammered, "I only follow your example, sir. I can only hope I am worthy to stand in your shadow, someday, as a leader of men."
Pellew accepted this praise with a gentle nod, and said, "Now get yourself ashore and say your farewells, lieutenant. Come sunset, it's off to a new adventure."
It was astonishing to Horatio how different Plymouth looked after he'd gotten a decent night's sleep. The buildings, the people, the sunlight glinting off of everything, had been only a hazy shadow the day before, but now it stood out in crisply edged relief. Horatio did not think he had been so exhausted, but certainly it seemed that he had been; the town looked newly minted, like a shiny silver coin. And yesterday...yesterday seemed like last week.
The only thing that seemed the same, apparently, was the fascination with the events of the previous day. People were still talking about Morgan's death, and the acting lieutenant who had just barely escaped hanging. Horatio heard different snatches of it from everyone's lips as he made his way to the Dove, and it was amazing how few of the details varied from one teller to another. The ships actually touched, or they fired at each other; Morgan had a dozen different deaths, including being burned and decapitated; or, in Horatio's favorite version, Archie had appeared from the hold, his chains broken, and shot the cowardly bastard through the heart. And come home a hero.
It was truly a beautiful morning, and Horatio was not surprised that Terry was sitting outside, still nursing his healing wounds, a mug of coffee at his elbow and sheafs of writing paper before him, being held down from the morning breeze by small rocks. Horatio approached and theatrically doffed his hat, "Pardon me, sir, but could you spare a copper for a poor sailor who is anxious for a morning repast?"
Terry laughed and pitched one of the pebbles at Horatio. "And you owe me change! Have a seat, Lieutenant."
Horatio sat down with a grin on his face. "I came to tell you we're leaving port on the evening tide. What are you doing?"
"Writing to Trudy," Terry replied, scratching his face idly, "I'm going to be in town for a while, and she'll come here herself to get me if I don't let her know where I am."
"Please give her my regards," Horatio said, glancing at the neatly scripted letter, "But for heaven's sake, don't tell her I had anything to do with your injuries! She'll kill me."
"She'll kill you anyway, just for being in the same hemisphere and not miraculously saving me." Terry paused, and looked up from the paper. "How's Kennedy?"
Horatio saw no reason to lie, and tilted his head. "He's better. Well, he's gotten some sleep, at any rate. As for the rest...I don't know."
The light breeze ruffled Terry's brown curls as he looked down again at the paper and said, "I know you miss him, Horatio, but don't rush it. He's been through a lot, it takes time to heal from that."
Horatio knew Terry was thinking of his sister, and looked down at the pavement. "I know."
"But he'll make it," Terry said firmly, nodding his head as if to ease Horatio's doubts, "I'm sure of it, Horatio, I know what you're afraid of. After Trudy's accident, there was a long time...until that morning, the one I told you of, I thought she'd never be herself again. Some people aren't, you know, they go through a trauma and never recover."
"But you're sure Archie will?"
Terry's smile was hopeful. "Yes, Horatio, I am. I wasn't sure at first, but what happened at the trial, and again yesterday, convinced me. Once a person gets down so low they can go in two directions - flat down or back up. As a lawyer, I've seen plenty of the 'flat down', believe me. The birds sing, Horatio, but not everyone listens."
"But Archie did."
Terry nodded. "He testified, and I'm certain that wasn't easy. He saved your ship, and most importantly he saved that child, you know it's all people are talking about. He came back up, like Trudy did. He knew what he had to do, and he did it. I don't know about you, but I'm very impressed."
Horatio nodded, knew Terry did not need to be told how he felt about it. "And yet if I remember, Trudy did not heal right away."
"Of course not. She had months of learning to walk again, and terrible nights when she cried because she'll never have children. But you know, once she heard those birds singing that's what she looked for, and she heard it over and over. It kept her going, and she never went all the way down again. And I can tell, for your Mr. Kennedy it's going to be just the same. All he needs is a light on those dark nights, and he'll find his way home just fine."
"So you would say he heard the birds singing?" Horatio asked.
Terry's eyes turned very serious. "Yes, Horatio, he did. And it turned out to be the crying of a child."
Horatio looked down at the rough table beneath his hands, and thought of Thomas, and Archie's steadfast determination to save him. And knew what Terry said was true.
After a moment Horatio looked up again, and spotted Philip Lafferty standing just outside the entrance to the Dove.
"Oh! There's Lieutenant Lafferty," he said, to catch Terry's attention, "I wondered where he'd gotten to. I haven't seen him since we made port yesterday."
To Horatio's surprise, Terry didn't seem surprised at Lafferty's presence; instead he grinned and said, "Yes, there's some interesting news connected to our young lieutenant. You haven't asked me why I'm staying in town yet."
Horatio leveled his eyes at his friend. "I assume it has something to do with Christopher Stephens."
"Ah! We'll make a lawyer out of you yet," Terry replied as he continued his writing. "Yes, as soon as all the captains are in place, Mr. Christopher Stephens is to be court-martialed for losing the Courageous and a host of other crimes."
"Including your beating," Horatio said bitterly.
"Actually, that's being tried as a separate case. I arranged it that way with Hood so I could prosecute his court-martial. As you might guess, I'm rather determined to win this one."
"When are you not?"
"Hm, true. But the news you might find interesting is that yesterday afternoon Mr. Lafferty sought me out - I didn't go looking for him, mind you! - and offered whatever help he could in making certain Mr. Stephens received the justice he deserved. And what's more, since some of the Courageous boys are still lurking about town he offered to, as he put it, 'watch out for me', in case any of them decide to try anything before Stephens is convicted. It seems that once our friend had a taste of what being on the right side is like, he became somewhat ravenous for it."
"Indeed," Horatio said, looking at Lafferty again. The young man was leaning against the wall of the Dove, his arms crossed, looking up and down the street with a casual determination in his face that Horatio had never seen before. The softness was gone from his features, the lax hedonistic leer that so many of the Courageous officers possessed was erased forever. What was left was harder, tougher, angrier. And better.
This led to another thought. "Does he know about Dr. St. John?"
"Yes," Terry replied, a little more sadly, lifting his eyes to gaze in Lafferty's direction, "It was a little difficult to explain, but I think what's harder is that the doctor was the only family Lafferty had on the Courageous, really. He's the only other person who knows what it feels like to shake off Morgan's yoke, and although he hides it pretty well I think Lafferty's a little nervous about being out here by himself, trying to find another ship, without anyone to really talk to who understands how he feels."
**we hurt alike**, Horatio thought suddenly, and realized that those words were true between Lafferty and Dr. St. John as well, the delicate thread that bound them together. They had both been on Courageous, both bartered their integrity for whatever satisfied them, and in the end battled long and hard to win it back, and at terrible cost. And - just like himself and Archie - the battle was not over yet. And could still be lost.
Horatio thought about this a moment, then stood. "I have other business to attend to before we sail, but I will return before we depart. Will you be here?"
Terry nodded, "I'm trying to think of a way to tell Trudy I've been injured so she doesn't kill you. I may have to settle for just making certain you're not too badly maimed." He grinned up at Horatio mischievously.
"Oh, thank you very much!" Horatio replied archly, and taking up his hat left the table.
He made certain his path took him by the Dove's front door, and caught Lafferty's eyes as he approached. The newly-diligent expression relaxed somewhat, and Lafferty gave Horatio a courteous nod. "Hornblower."
"Mr. Lafferty," Horatio replied, stopping in his travels and giving a warm smile, "My thanks again for your assistance yesterday. The men of the Indefatigable owe you their lives, and I owe you my friend's."
Lafferty set his jaw, and looked down at the ground as if trying to think of what to say. After a moment he shook his head and muttered, "I'm glad I could help...but I don't think I did nearly enough. Not compared to what you and Kennedy went through."
"I'm certain Mr. Kennedy would argue that point, considering you helped him rescue a child from certain death."
"Hm - how's the boy doing?"
"Excellent, he's on our ship now. There'll be no more bad dreams for him, or anyone."
"That's good," Lafferty said, lifting his head to look down the street wistfully, "That's something, at least."
Horatio nodded toward where Terry sat, working on his letter. "Mr. Whitehall told me you are looking after him while the court-martial of Mr. Stephens is in progress."
Lafferty turned pink and shrugged. "Well, I...I don't have anything else to do, and you know Whitehall, he's just walking around asking for trouble. And I've seen it, there are...men from the Courageous who haven't found ships, and are just hanging around the docks. I guess..." Lafferty sighed and looked in Terry's direction, his expression grim. "I guess Morgan's not dead yet."
Horatio caught the tired resentfulness in Lafferty's tone, the frustration that destroying one evil did not destroy them all. His stomach wrenched a little as he thought of Simpson; his death did not end Archie's torment; and how much wrong had he and Horatio been forced to contend with since then? And surely there was more beyond what they could see. It was truly daunting.
Not certain what else to say, Horatio thought he might change the subject. "I talked to Dr. St. John yesterday. Terry told me you are aware of his circumstances."
Lafferty nodded, his eyes hard. "I should have guessed Morgan would find a way to hold his ship's surgeon hostage. The only man on the ship who would have known everything that was going on, who would have seen the bleeding and the... and he couldn't do a thing about it. God, that bastard."
Horatio noted the bitterness in Lafferty's voice, saw again in his face the aggravation at recognizing a wrong too late to prevent it. He remembered Muzillac, and felt the familiar twinge of defeat.
"But you know," Lafferty continued, squinting down the sunlit street, "That old man's got more courage than I ever did. It took me forever to move, and I didn't have anything to hide." Lafferty frowned and scuffed one boot on the pavement. "He helped me out a lot, Hornblower. There were times...I thought I was going to go insane, and he talked to me, didn't turn his back or call me a coward, even though I was one. I owe him a lot."
"Then tell him so," Horatio suggested, thinking of Terry's words of family, and other words, we hurt alike. "He might be encouraged by a visit from a shipmate."
"Yes, I know," Lafferty responded softly, gazing down the street again, "I've thought about, I guess I just don't know what to say. I mean, I have my freedom and my future...what does he have to look forward to?"
"Your freedom and your future," Horatio replied earnestly, "And his pride that you have done so well."
Lafferty looked down, blushing again, and did not speak for what seemed to Horatio a long time. After a few moments, he bit his lip.
Knowing it was time to go, Horatio cleared his throat and put out his hand. "We sail at sunset, Mr. Lafferty, but I could not leave without thanking you for your help. I confess I didn't think so at first, but...well, you've been a good friend to both myself and Mr. Kennedy. I shall always be grateful."
Lafferty looked up, then smiled a little as he straightened and took Horatio's hand, "Thank you, Hornblower. I'll think about what you said. And I can only hope...that someday I have some of what you've got."
"My life at sea began not so different from yours," Horatio rejoined dryly, "So I know there is hope for you yet." He glanced over his shoulder before adding, "Please look after Terry for me. You are right about one thing: he does not hesitate to look for trouble."
"Better than looking away from it. Good luck, Hornblower. It's been an honor."
At the same time, back on the Indefatigable, Archie Kennedy awakened from a deep and dreamless sleep, and knew it was time to get up and face the world.
First there was a drowsy pulling upward, the sensation of coming out of a dark soft place to a world of harder edges where there was reality and light, and feeling. Then the reality was there, the feeling of the soft mattress under his body, the pillow under his head, and the blanket that was pulled almost to his chin. For one brief moment the two worlds did not connect, and then they did, and Archie opened his eyes.
He was awake.
He rolled over, still feeling the ache that had not left him entirely, not yet. He stared at the timbers above his head, listened to the quiet creaking and groaning of the ship, smelled the musty, close odor that lived on all ships, no matter how open and well-ventilated. He was home.
Home. Archie shuddered, bit his lip against unanticipated tears. It was home, the way his real home had never been; the sway of the ship on the water, the sounds of men calling to each other and the thudding of shoes on resonant wood, the damp salt air that permeated everything - he had missed this, missed it in a way he would never had believed had he not been forced away, and now that he was back he never wanted to be away from it again. It was strange, he had never had the love of the sea that Horatio did, had never thought of it as inviting and mystical. For a long time it was a prison, an island with no escape, and he had wanted to flee it so badly death would have been welcome. He had almost looked for it. And now...
Now he wanted that life again. He saw a purpose in it.
With a groan, Archie hefted himself out of the bunk and sat up, then gingerly made his way to standing and moving about the tiny cabin. Luckily, he had at least laid his clothes away neatly, so dressing was effortless. A clean shirt, clean trousers, vest, newly-brushed jacket - Archie suppressed a smile at this, he knew HE had not brushed it, but guessed who did. And socks, then shoes, kerchief, and finally it was time to queue his hair back and go see the captain. Taking up the ribbon from his dunnage, Archie turned toward the small mirror that he and Horatio shared -
- and started back in shock as he got the first good look at himself in over a week.
Good God! He thought when thought came back to him. Before they reached port he had been ruddy and healthy, the pallor of the Spanish prison long gone, but - good Lord! Archie ran a disbelieving hand over his face, where a large green-tinged bruise marred a visage that was pale and sick-looking, even after a full night's sleep and more. There were great circles under his eyes, and numerous scratches and cuts that Archie had not even felt. Many were fading, some nearly healed over, but more were the results of his last battle on Courageous, and still an angry, unforgiving red. Only his hair did not look terrible, because it had been washed before he was sent to his quarters by the captain, but it hung limp and framed a gaunt and haunted face. When had he gotten so thin?
Archie stood back from that frightful image, as if it were a stranger to him. He had never paid much attention to his appearance, had in fact always resented his boyish looks and the unwelcome attention they attracted, but now...now Archie was appalled that he looked so young, so fragile, so frightened. I can't go topside like this, he thought, almost angrily. I can't.
Archie was thinking first of the captain, how he would react to seeing Archie in such a state. Pellew would be sympathetic of course, would notice his infirmities in a way Keene never did, but something in Archie's spirit rebelled against being looked at with pity. He gazed at his torn visage again, thought of the past week and the time before it, when his uncertainty and self-doubt had plagued and nearly undone him. It had been painful, crippling, but then - then the bridge was close to exploding, and Horatio needed help...then a horrible threat had been made, and he was forced to act...then a child needed rescuing, who had never had a hand to help him before, and there had been no uncertainty then, no indecision about what needed to be done. Archie thought of those time, there had been no shadow of Simpson's evil in those moments, no small voice questioning his courage or holding him back. He had simply *acted*.
And that man was the one who must face the captain. Not the one who must be pitied.
Archie continued to study himself, and struggled with what he knew must be done. It was safe - familiar - comforting to hide within himself, but somehow Archie knew that time was past. He had been through the fire and come out of it, and not by his own efforts alone; but it must never be that way again. No, not if he was to be a man like Horatio, like the captain, like Terry Whitehall who looked evil in the eye and challenged it. This evil - Morgan's evil - they had challenged on his behalf, and Archie knew that in repayment his charge was to become the kind of man who would fight it for others, and never shrink from it again, or depend on others to fight it for him. To go into battle and never mind the scars that came from it. For England, for his captain and crew, and for the countless victims of wrong that still cowered in dark places and hid their wounds. Archie's jaw set itself in resolute lines. For them, especially.
Archie thought of Thomas.
The child was safe, Horatio had said so. And he would have a home, here on the ship, among a crew and a captain that would never allow what happened to Archie to happen to that boy, never. That was good, but Archie knew that the boy would look to him as much as the captain, and that was another reason that the old Archie had to vanish, for good. The fear, the hesitation, the desire to hide that had been Archie's mainstay for too many years to count, that child could not see in him. He must only see victory, healing, that the night ends and becomes glorious daylight. Archie would be his example. So the old ways had to be put away forever.
Archie sighed, gazed at himself in the closest scrutiny. Could he do it? Muzillac had been terrible, the past week one of the worst of his entire life, could he overcome those quickly so Thomas could look at him and know that it was possible to go through the night and not be afraid? His eyes, there was so much of Simpson's legacy there...could that depart too, so Thomas would never see it, and know how depraved men could be? Because Thomas would look. He had been spared that particular agony, but he would look, and see it in Archie's face. And Archie never wanted him to know about it. Never.
But wait...Archie looked at his face again, and saw something else there, something he had not noticed before when he was concentrating on the bruises and scars and signs of abuse. It was a flush of...anger? Determination? And there was a light in his eyes when he thought of what he had been through, a swell of indignation that swept over him and showed in his eyes in a way that Archie was fairly certain had not been there before. It helped, it pushed the doubts of his life back and the nerve he needed forward. Perhaps if I concentrated on that, Archie mused, Thomas will see it, and not be afraid. Perhaps - perhaps that is how Horatio does it. I'll try it, and see. I must do something. I cannot hide and call myself a man, I cannot cower and think that is just repayment for everything that has been done for me. The old Archie is dead, by the hands of those who wanted him so; but the new one will not be so easy to vanquish.
Archie tied his hair back quickly and neatly, and went to see the captain.
The knock on Pellew's door was tentative at first, then louder. The captain looked up from his papers and said, "Come in."
He was expecting Mr. Bracegirdle perhaps, or Hornblower, returned from Plymouth with letters and news. So he was surprised when the door opened, and in walked Acting Lieutenant Archie Kennedy.
Pellew's first thought was how pale the boy looked as he came through the door. God, how pale, and still marked with an exhaustion that suggested a determination, rather than an ability, to be fit for duty. But still, there he was. Remarkable.
Kennedy approached the desk and saluted. "Acting Lieutenant Archie Kennedy, reporting for duty, sir."
Pellew leaned back in his chair and peered into Kennedy's face. After a moment he said, "Have a seat, Mr. Kennedy."
It almost looked as if the young man would decline the offer, but after wavering for a few moments he said, "Thank you, sir," and sat down.
Pellew watched Kennedy closely as he took his seat. He's still sore, and moving rather gingerly. And his hands, they're not healed yet, better have Hepplewhite check those bandages. Or Wilcombe, if I can get him here in time...dammit, I gave Kennedy the rest of the day, why does he insist on pushing himself when there is no need? Hm.
As soon as Kennedy was comfortable Pellew looked about his desk until he found the papers he had been looking for, and said, "Well, Mr. Kennedy, may I say it is a pleasure to have you back among us once more, and I hope you are feeling up to the tasks at hand."
"Yes, sir," Kennedy replied swiftly, "Thank you, sir."
Pellew nodded in reply, and decided it was best to be brisk. "Now before you resume your duties, there are some matters that need attending to, regarding the incidents aboard Courageous. You are aware, I am sure, that Captain Morgan is dead, and that his death has been ruled a traitor's suicide by Lord Admiral Hood."
Kennedy's bright blue eyes remained locked on him, and an unfamiliar light came into them at the mention of Morgan's name. "Yes, sir."
Pellew nodded. "Now regarding your court-martial, you will be pleased to know that all charges against you in the matter of the death of Lieutenant Trevor Creps have been dropped by order of Lord Admiral Hood, and all of your rank and privileges have been returned to you."
Kennedy's eyes flickered, just a little, but that was the only sign he gave that this news was in any way out of the ordinary. "Thank you, sir."
Pellew pursed his lips for a moment, then said quietly, "Mr. Kennedy, you must know that your release is due to testimony from an eyewitness, and that the testimony was given to both Lord Admiral Hood and myself, and Mr. Whitehall, in preparation for your defense."
Kennedy colored, just a bit. "I understand, sir."
Pellew paused, then said, "Mr. Kennedy, I cannot tell you how sickened and appalled I was to hear such descriptions as came in your defense. That such violence should emanate from officers who are entrusted to protect and uphold the standards of English pride and decency is beyond my power to comprehend. I am deeply saddened that you should have experienced it."
Kennedy's gaze dropped a little, and he started to speak.
"I am not finished, sir," Pellew continued, "For I am also deeply saddened and appalled that you took it upon yourself to bear the burden of this attack, without confiding in myself or anyone else who could assist you. Alone, you were determined to take this crime to your grave, and if you had done so, sir, you would have deprived the fleet of a most valuable and useful officer. That is waste, Mr. Kennedy, and I will have you know I do not tolerate waste!"
Kennedy's eyes grew a little bigger, and he whispered, "No, sir."
Pellew allowed his expression to grow stern. "Now in the future, Mr. Kennedy, if you find yourself under similar circumstances you are *not* to place yourself in danger, but to report any such problems to me immediately, that they may be dealt with swiftly and surely. I cannot run a ship if my men live in fear. Is that understood?"
Kennedy nodded, his face a mixture of chagrin and awe. "Perfectly, sir."
"Good. Now," Pellew's voice became softer as he once again looked at the papers. "If I understand correctly, it is possible that your reluctance to come forward was due to the nature of the attack. Would that be an accurate assessment?"
Kennedy hesitated, then looked Pellew squarely in the eye. "Yes, sir. My apologies."
Pellew shook his head and said quietly, "No need for that, Mr. Kennedy, no need. It is understandable, although as I have related to you entirely unnecessary. No doubt you feared some lack of discretion would cause this information to fall into gossip and rumor, or that you yourself might be tarnished by some false suggestion of cooperation?"
Kennedy looked down, and said nothing.
"I have considered this," Pellew continued, pulling the reports out and placing them on the desk in front of Kennedy, "And in doing so have with Hood's cooperation prepared two reports, the public one of which is amended to protect your privacy, and keep a discretionary distance from unpleasant details."
Kennedy looked both of these documents over closely, his expression one of intense concentration. Pellew watched him do this, then said, "I will not have any of my men keeping such atrocities to themselves for fear of public knowledge, Mr. Kennedy. And you can see that I am determined to have justice done for those who need it."
Kennedy nodded, then put both papers back on the desk. He gazed at them for a long time, then said, "May I speak freely, sir?"
Pellew was a bit surprised at this, but said, "Yes, lieutenant."
Kennedy never lifted his eyes from the documents. "If this amended document goes in the record, it will be as if the attack as I knew it did not take place. It will be remembered as a beating, when it was not. It was - " Kennedy, closed his eyes, took a very deep breath, and when he opened them again it was to stare straight at Pellew, with a fire in them that was startling to behold, "I was nearly raped, sir. It shames me now to say it, even though I have been told I bear no blame. And to speak of it, even to say its name, before you takes all of the courage I possess. But still I must do it."
Pellew saw how pale Kennedy was getting, and the flush in his cheek. "Mr. Kennedy, you do not have to speak of it. I know what you have undergone."
"Yes, sir, and I am grateful that you do not disrate me or wish to turn a blind eye to the problem. If I could tell you the suffering I have undergone because not all captains are as diligent as you! But I fear - I know that I am not alone in what I have been through, that others suffer what I have, not here! On other ships, under other captains who do not know what goes on below their decks, or cannot be made to care. Or even - " Archie took another deep, shuddering breath. "Or even participate in it."
Kennedy's eyes came up then. "You have spoken of waste, sir, but saving my life will not end it. The others who have undergone what I have, many of them feel the same isolation and shame that I did, and thought there was no one to help. But perhaps..." Kennedy's eyes went to the papers again, "perhaps if they knew of what happened to me, what *really* happened, they would have the courage to speak out against their attackers."
Pellew leaned forward, amazed. "Mr. Kennedy, are you asking that the full report be made public? That the true nature of your attack be known to everyone?"
Kennedy's eyes were level, and very serious. "I know what it means, captain, and...and I would be lying if I said the thought does not fill me with fear. But the fear that I once knew was far worse, and I...I never want anyone else to go through it, to think they're alone with no one to help or understand. I am more afraid of that, sir. I want them to know it is not hopeless."
Pellew stared at Kennedy in frank astonishment. Finally he said, "If that is your wish, Mr. Kennedy, I will honor it. But I must warn you, I cannot control how the world behaves towards the victims of such crimes, especially in cases such as this. Be certain you are aware of what you are doing."
"Thank you, sir, but I am aware," Kennedy said evenly, the same fire in his eyes, "And I am determined, captain, never to hide again."
Pellew felt himself under the tremendous weight of Kennedy's stare, and cleared his throat as he put the papers away. "We will be getting underway at sunset, I will see if I can get Dr. Wilcombe to look after your bandages before we sail. In the meantime, if you feel you are fit for duty you may report to Mr. Bracegirdle, I'm certain he will find more than enough for you to do."
"Yes, sir." Kennedy said, and stood up.
Pellew watched him begin to walk away, and suddenly said, "Mr. Kennedy?"
Kennedy stopped, and turned. "Yes,sir?"
Pellew paused, looked at the blond-haired youth with bruises on his face and hands, and the marks of brutality on his body that could not be seen, and his heart untouched by all of it. Finally he said, "It's good to have you back, Mr. Kennedy."
Kennedy paused, then smiled faintly. "Thank you, sir. It is good to be back."
The bells in Plymouth sounded, the slant of the afternoon sun marked the approach of evening, and with Terry Whitehall in his company Horatio walked toward the docks, preparing to bid his friend and his country farewell.
The town had quieted some, people had deserted the streets for home and tea. There were shopkeepers out sweeping their stoops, and the usual motley collection of beggars and sellers, well-dressed businessmen and shabbily-clothed hucksters, and in them all Horatio saw only that he was leaving, and could not wait to be gone. His home was the sea; and most of the memories of land were, at the moment, unpleasant.
Finally he and Terry reached the dock, where out in the harbor they could see Indefatigable waiting like a patient mother. Terry took a deep breath and said, "Well, it looks like it's off to another grand adventure, eh, Horatio? Just smell that salt air. Reminds me of home."
Horatio nodded in agreement, although he was thinking of another home entirely. "I am eager to get back to it. I feel as if I've been away a year."
"You just about have!" Terry said with a wide grin. "With all this excitement, I'm sure you don't even remember what it's like to be on the open sea, but I know you'll get it back soon enough. "You just about have!" Terry said with a wide grin. "With all this excitement, I'm sure you don't even remember what it's like to be on the open sea, but I know you'll get it back soon enough. "
Horatio glanced over his shoulder. "Where is Mr. Lafferty? I thought perhaps he would be dogging our footsteps."
"He said he had an errand to run, and made me promise to be careful. Now don't forget to give Pellew those documents for his records, I want him to know every inch of what's going on ashore regarding Stephens' court-martial."
"I won't." Horatio said, still watching the ship, "I am certain you will be receiving a letter of thanks from Mr. Kennedy, as soon as he has recovered enough to write it."
Terry shook his head. "He doesn't owe me one. If he looks after you, and keeps listening for those birds, that's all the thanks I ask. I even mentioned it in the letter I wrote to Trudy."
Horatio looked at him, startled. "You didn't!"
"Oh - well, not everything of course, why make her madder than she already will be! But I said enough, I think she'll appreciate that someone went through the same thing she did, and came out all right. Who knows, if you ever get shore leave and Kennedy comes along, maybe they can even get together and talk about it. Might help both of them."
Horatio nodded in agreement, and wondered that he had not thought of that before. Oh, well. Turning to his friend and pulling an envelope out of his jacket he said, "Thank you for everything, Terry. Give my love to your father and Trudy, and please give this letter to my father. Tell him that I am sorry I could not see him, but I shall be along to visit him when I am next in port."
Terry took the letter with a smile. "Of course. I'm certain he'll understand."
Horatio frowned at the letter, and said, "I can only hope so."
Terry shook his head as he pocketed the letter. "You Hornblowers and your stiff upper lips! One of these days you'll break right in half, and I'll be there to say I told you so!"
Horatio was unsure how to take this; somewhat flustered, he merely thrust out his hand and said, "Take care of yourself, Terry."
"Ugh!" Terry responded, and before Horatio could stop him wrapped the taller youth in a huge bear-hug. Only after Terry released Horatio did he take the other man's hand, and shook it warmly. "Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Keep yourself safe, Horatio, and write to me so I know how you're faring. Tell Kennedy to do the same."
"I will." Horatio gasped.
The sun was just beginning its downward journey, turning the air golden and warm. It glinted off Terry's face as he looked over Horatio's shoulder and said, "Now I hope you don't mind, but as the lawyer in Kennedy's case I did perform one last duty, on behalf of a witness who begged a favor of me regarding dispensation of gratitude."
Horatio blinked at his friend.
Terry gave him a look of mock exasperation. "Turn around, Horatio."
Horatio did, and found his eyes traveling to the narrow line of buildings that lined the docks, and one particular alleyway.
Rose was standing there.
"The defense rests," Terry said behind him, and patted him on the back. "See you later, Horatio."
Horatio looked at Rose, heard Terry's retreating footsteps and knew he was gone. And found he could not move.
Rose moved, finally, stepping out of the alleyway into the setting sun, her head high and her shoulders back, and a smile on her lips. Finally remembering himself, Horatio met her on the sidewalk, taking her hands in his and for a moment not saying a word. He could only remember the last time they met, the darkness and the terrible words, and when Archie would have so willingly forsaken his life, she alone had found a way to save it.
He had no words. He looked down at Rose's hands in his and blushed.
It was Rose who spoke first, who gently removed one hand from his and, putting it into her pocket, drew out a small red-bound book. "I didn't know where you'd be," she said quietly, pressing the book into his hands, "So I asked Mr. Whitehall to bring you here if he could. I wanted to see you away, and give you this. Mr. Kennedy asked me to keep it for you."
Horatio was still lost, looked into her knowing eyes and stammered, "Forgive me, ma'am, I am unprepared to thank you properly, I..." he gave up, and sighed, looking at the worn book in his hands. "There is not enough time to tell you how grateful I am, or enough gold in the world to repay the debt I owe you. You have been very kind..."
"No," Rose disagreed softly, putting her hands on his, "It is you, who didn't give up when he might have, and who paid attention when higher heads would have turned away and stopped caring, who deserves the thanks. That and every good thing the world has to offer. I hope you get them, lieutenant."
"I already have more than enough," Horatio insisted, lifting his head to look at the Indy, anchored on the sparkling water, "More than I should - a captain I respect, and a ship I am proud to serve on. But they would have gone for naught, and all my fortunes made forfeit, if Archie had been hanged. And you alone were able to unlock his heart, when I could not. Thank you."
Rose smiled graciously. "I only saw what I had to do, and did it. Like him, and you. We can't leave the world alone, can we? It don't know how to look after itself."
Horatio smiled at this, and then cast his eyes about the deserted streets in thought. Bringing his eyes back to Rose he said, "Let me help you. This cannot be the life you want, I can see about finding you some less dangerous way to earn your living. A seamstress perhaps, or a laundress. I cannot bear to sail away and know you are left here, in the foulness of the streets."
Rose did not seem offended by this, as Horatio feared she might be. In fact, she looked at him with astonished gratitude, and what Horatio thought might be humor. Then she shook her head and said, "It's not that I'm not grateful, lieutenant, but you don't understand, I made a promise. I promised a young man, with a heart as big as yours, that I would look for hearts that had been broken like his, and help them. And I mean to keep it. But I'll never find them hiding in a sewing shop, or a laundry, or anywhere people are warm and safe and dry. That's not where they hide. They're in the dark, in the alleys and gutters and the frightening places proper people don't go. That's where I'm supposed to be, where I can do good just like you do. Be happy for that."
Horatio stared at her for a long moment, astounded at this woman who had been beaten, degraded her entire life, and when offered a chance at safety and security chose instead to remain among the shadows, where she could help. Finally he said, "You are a remarkable woman, Rose. I am honored to have known you."
Rose leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. "The honor is all mine, gallant knight. Now go. We both know there are still young innocents to protect, and kingdoms that need defending. Are there are still many dragons to slay."
The sun was just beginning to set as former First Lieutenant Philip Lafferty made his way to the Admiralty. The sky was warm with changing hues, pinks and pale blues and yellows that would ripen later into blazing purple and orange and red.
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailor's delight.
Tomorrow would be a good day.
For now, though, Lafferty had to admit to himself that the immediate future did not look so rosy. He knew the Indefatigable would be sailing at sunset, knew that with it went the only friends he had left in the world. Well, that wasn't exactly true; he considered Whitehall a friend, but that was different. And it wasn't precisely what Lafferty wanted. Now that the trial was over, now that his entire world had changed and been rebuilt, Lafferty wanted to be busy, to try out this new conscience that Whitehall said was such a wonderful thing to have and see what could be done with it.
He wanted to work, dammit. And there was no work to be had.
It was a grim prospect indeed, Lafferty mused as he began to climb the stairs that would take him into the Admiralty's lobby area. There were few ships that even needed officers, and fewer still that were interested in one who could not ship out right away. And when it was revealed that he had served on Courageous...well, it was downright depressing. Downright -
Lafferty stopped, paused on the stairs.
Shouting sounds, scuffling. A fight.
He drew his sword.
Down the steps quickly, and around the corner. There was an alleyway, a dark one, and Lafferty made out three large forms and a smaller one. Pulling himself up to what he hoped was an imposing height, Lafferty said loudly, "Stop that!"
The three large forms stopped. The smaller one fell to the pavement, and sat there sniffling.
Undaunted, Lafferty took a few steps closer, his sword still drawn. "You gentlemen having a problem?"
They backed away, but one of them craned his neck a little and spat, "Shit, Lafferty! That's you, isn't it?"
Uh-oh, Lafferty thought, recognizing the voice of one of the Courageous' officers. "Wittman, what kind of sport is this? Beating midshipmen for money!"
"Beats working for it," one of the others snickered.
Lafferty took two more quick steps forward, planting himself firmly between the stricken youth and his tormenters. "Be off with all of you. I see any more of this kind of behavior and I'll be handing your names over to the beadle."
The sword kept them at bay, but Wittman's voice was biting in the dark. "Well, look who's gotten high and mighty all of a sudden! You're marked, Lafferty, every officer on the Courageous knows what you did. Don't think you won't pay for it either."
Lafferty's stomach wrenched at this, but of course he knew it would happen. He took a deep breath and thought **the only thing necessary for evil to triumph...** "Don't you men understand the King's English? I said go away!"
There was a pause, and Lafferty tried to conceal how hard his heart was beating. If there was a fight, he couldn't take all three of them...but if the child could get away...
Then, like a sail that had lost its wind, Wittman backed down, his shoulders losing none of their defensive posture. He grumbled something to his mates, and they followed him, but as they left Lafferty could see their eyes, and the resentment in them.
No, it was not over. Not by a long shot.
Finally remembering to breathe, Lafferty sheathed his sword - no mean feat considering how badly his hands were shaking, and turned to the child he had been protecting. "Are you all right?"
Then he stopped, and looked around. The child had run away.
Lafferty looked up and down the street, walked back through the alleyway and looked everywhere he could think of. The boy was nowhere.
Damn, Lafferty thought, it may be selfish but a 'thank you' would have been nice. Finally, after five minutes of searching and finding nothing, Lafferty decided it was fruitless and retraced his steps to the Admiralty building, to find out where Dr. St. John was being held.
The Admiralty was a very busy place, and today was no exception. Unfortunately, it meant that Lafferty had to wait for everything. No one knew where St. John was, or who to ask; then the person who knew was busy, and could he wait? With nothing else to do, and ready to explode with frustration, Lafferty took a seat in the large atrium, and thought dark and aggravated thoughts.
The sound of a young voice piping up caught Lafferty's attention, and he came back from ten minutes of depressed wanderings to look toward the door, where the sound had come from. There was the midshipman who had run off earlier, scuffed up and with a bruise on his cheek, but otherwise apparently unharmed. With him was a tall man with graying blond hair, a ship's captain obviously, who was following the lad's pointing finger and walking straight toward Lafferty with a smile on his face.
Oh God, Lafferty thought, and stood as quickly as he could and saluted.
"At ease, lieutenant," the captain said with a smile, "I only want a word with you. Young Mr. Taylor here tells me you gave him some assistance in an alleyway, when some other boys were giving him trouble. Is that true?"
"Well - " Lafferty glanced down at Taylor, was surprised that the youth was grinning up at him like he was important or something, "I heard some noise, and went to offer my assistance. Anyone would have done it."
"Don't say that so fast, young man," the captain said with an admiring scowl, "For we both know it isn't true. What ship are you with?"
"Er - none at the moment, sir. My ship was lost."
"Oh, sorry to hear that. I would have liked to commend you to your captain, mister - ?"
"Lafferty. Lieutenant Philip Lafferty."
"Lafferty!" the captain's eyes lit up, "I know that name. You aren't related to the Lafferty who assisted in the Courageous affair, are you?"
Lafferty sighed inwardly; there was no use denying it. "I am that man, sir. Although assisted is a pretty strong word for my part in it."
"That's not what I hear," the captain said, tilting his head back and looked at Lafferty more closely, "Have you found another ship?"
Lafferty tried to sound optimistic. "No, but I'm testifying in a court-martial case, and then...well, they tell me something should come up soon."
The captain looked down at young Taylor, who looked back up at him. Then he said, "Well, lieutenant, I just may have an opportunity for you. My first lieutenant is taking shore leave next month to attend his wife, who's expecting. It's going to leave me a lieutenant short. Would you like to sign on?"
Lafferty thought this over, it sounded promising but - "Thank you, sir, but aren't there men on your ship who would like the promotion?"
"Well, that's the thing," the captain replied, "None of them do. It requires a lot of maintaining discipline, and at the moment that can be a pretty tall order. Oh, no - " the captain said hastily, as Lafferty's jaw dropped, "Not like that, no mutiny or anything, but...well, let me ask you, lieutenant, you seem to have a pretty highly developed sense of right and wrong?"
Confused, Lafferty answered, "Well...I'm trying to, sir."
"And from what I've seen and heard, you don't put up very well with undeserving, good people being unreasonably abused."
That was an easy one to answer. "No. I don't."
"Well, then, I'll explain," the captain took a deep breath, and said, "I recently hired a new ship's surgeon, and he's half-Spanish. Excellent fellow, and most of my crew adore him, but some of the men, well, it's a hard time adjusting. I need an officer who can see that he does his job undisturbed, and free from any of that kind of nonsense when I'm not around. Do you think you'd like the job?"
Lafferty hesitated for a moment, glanced down at the child by the captain's side. The child was looking up at his captain again, and there was no fear there, no uneasiness whatsoever. This man did not seem like Morgan at all, not bullying or malicious, in fact quite the opposite. In fact, he seemed an awful lot like...Pellew.
Lafferty smiled and said, "If you think I'm worthy of such a task, sir, I would be happy to accept the commission. I can sail as soon as Mr. Stephens' court-martial is over."
"Excellent!" The captain said, and gave Lafferty a welcoming smile, "Lieutenant Lafferty, I am Captain Andrew Turner. Welcome aboard the Valiant."
At last the sun began to set, and another day was drawing to its close.
The light pastels and see-through colors of the afternoon began to give way to the deeper reds and fiery orange that marked what promised to be a spectacular sunset. Everywhere in the sky the banners unfurled, yellow, purple, and brightest crimson setting themselves against the deepening azure, trailing color and light as far as the eye could see. Housewives stopped in their work and leaned out of their windows to admire it, and on the hills farmers paused, and admired the sight.
It was a beautiful sunset. And tomorrow would be a beautiful day.
In his room at the Admiralty, Dr. St. John paused in his writing to look. The waning sunlight splashed across the names he had written down, flowed across them with the promise of new sunrises and days to come, for lives thought forever lost and darkened. For a moment Dr. St. John put down his pen, and walked to where the window looked out on the city street, and turned his searching eyes upward, and saw the sky. The glorious, kaleidoscope sky that seemed to herald the dawn even as it sang itself to sleep.
He sat down in the nearby chair, to watch the colors change. He thought he had never seen anything so beautiful.
There was a swift knock at the door, and suddenly Lieutenant Lafferty was there, all excitement. "Doctor, you'll never guess what happened - "
Dr. St. John put a hand up to silence the young man, and motioned him over. Curious, Lafferty came over, and when he saw the fantastic display said softly, "My God. Look at all that color."
St. John nodded slowly. "It's miraculous, isn't it."
Lafferty watched it for a few moments, then turned his eyes from the sight, and turning his hat in his hands said, "I wanted you to know, I think - well, remember what you said about being on the right side of the wall?"
St. John smiled faintly, glanced to where the names on the paper sat, patiently awaiting their due. "Yes, lieutenant?"
Lafferty looked at him in all seriousness. "I like it here. I'm never going back."
Dr. St. John smiled a little wider, then turned his eyes to the sky, to hide his grateful tears, and whispered, "Neither am I, lieutenant."
And together they watched the incredible promise of the setting sun.
The sunset drew attention on Indefatigable as well, causing men to pause in their work to admire the blazing panoply of color that arched over their heads as they readied themselves for the sea. Even Mr. Bracegirdle took note of it, and as he headed down to the captain's cabin to let him know that they were ready to weigh anchor and head out to the open waters, he thought perhaps he would mention the brilliant sunset to Pellew, who sadly had missed one too many of those while he was hunched over his desk, planning and preparing. Yes, it would do the captain good to see one really beautiful sunset before they left home...
Because he was in that frame of mind, Bracegirdle was utterly astonished when he knocked on the door, heard the captain's voice, and went in to find Pellew staring out of the very windows he usually ignored. Staring mesmerized, as if he had always done it.
Well, hm, Bracegirdle thought, and stood in front of the desk at attention. "Sir, the ship is ready to sail. We will be underway within the half-hour."
There was a longer-than-usual pause, and then Pellew said, very quietly, "Thank you, Mr. Bracegirdle."
Bracegirdle nodded, although with his back to him Pellew couldn't see it. "Sir."
The captain tilted his head and cleared his throat. "Have you seen the sunset tonight?"
Bracegirdle thought about this for a moment; Pellew didn't usually mention such things. "Yes, sir, very spectacular. Hard to keep the men's minds on their work with that display."
Pellew nodded, then turned toward his desk. Bracegirdle saw a very thoughtful, almost distressed look on his face and asked, "Sir, are you feeling well? Shall I call the surgeon?"
"Hm? Oh, no, Mr. Bracegirdle, I'm quite..." Pellew sat down, very slowly, and put his hand to his mouth in thought for several very long moments. Feeling this may not be a short conversation, Bracegirdle sat down, eying his captain warily.
Finally Pellew spoke, and his voice had a wondering quality to it. "I spoke with Mr. Hornblower today, and Mr. Kennedy also. I have no idea what they've been through, as officers or as men, but I know what I have been through this past week, Anthony, and it has exhausted me. And yet I looked upon these young men, who have seen and experienced things that make me shiver, and they are not unbowed. They do not flinch, they do not turn aside, they have not been conquered. I am amazed, Anthony. I am in awe."
Bracegirdle smiled in sympathy. "They are indeed remarkable, sir."
"Remarkable!" Pellew breathed, placing his hand lightly on the desk, "Do you know, Mr. Bracegirdle, that offered the opportunity of a comfortable silence, Mr. Kennedy chose instead to be exposed, for the good of those who do not the courage to speak out against their tormentors? If I were his age, in his circumstance, would I have done the same? And Mr. Hornblower, to sacrifice everything that is important to him, to stare into the mouth of hell itself and draw back a life and a victory, are there a half a dozen youths in history that can claim the same?" His eyes sought Bracegirdle's imploringly, "And how is it that *I* of all men have been chosen to command such young men? Of all the captains of all the ships at sea, how am I so richly blessed? I have thought on it all afternoon, Anthony. I cannot raise an answer."
Bracegirdle saw the light behind Pellew fading, growing richer, breaking into the splendid colors that would deepen into night, and then dawn. With a smile he said, "Perhaps there is none, sir. But we all must do our duty, after all."
Pellew returned that smile gratefully. "Aye, Mr. Bracegirdle. It is our life."
Horatio finally found Archie, after looking for him for the better part of the afternoon.
The Indy was underway; her great sails billowed and snapped in the warm wind, her riggings pulled tall into the sunset sky. Everywhere was business and commotion, and then as the great ship pulled away from Plymouth to her next adventure, the activity eased, and everyone settled in for another long voyage, and more adversity.
It was during this lull that Horatio had finally located his friend, after looking everywhere for him to no avail. He had assisted Mr. Bracegirdle in some things, until the first lieutenant noticed that he was sitting down frequently and ordered him to go get some rest. Bracegirdle thought, then, that Archie had retired to his cabin, but he was not there. He was not in the mess, or anywhere on the gun decks. For a very brief moment Horatio had a moment of panic, thinking perhaps that his friend had gone ashore for something and not made it back to the ship. Dear God -
It was Thomas, finally, who was sitting with Matthews and Jenkins and learning how to make sailor's knots, who noticing Horatio's lost expression gave him a simple smile, and pointed upward. Frowning, Horatio followed his gaze.
And saw a figure sitting alone on the fighting top. It was Archie.
For a brief moment, Horatio considered not climbing up there. He did not like heights, and anyway Archie would be down soon enough. But it would be the perfect place to talk to him, no one would hear...and there was so much to talk of...
So Horatio gave an resigned sigh, and climbed the ratlines to the fighting top.
It was not a bad climb; as he pulled himself upward Horatio's mind turned back, to another warm sunlit day, and another climb. Higher and higher, until the world was under his feet, and the wind and light was in his hair. All of his troubles had gone then, the despair of Muzillac, the burden of his failures, they were all gone and he had simply breathed in the bright white air of future and happiness and opportunity. The night had closed in, and there had been darkness, but for that moment it did not seem real, and there was only joy.
And now he was climbing the ropes again, toward that self-same goal. It was difficult, almost impossible to reach; but it was worth the climb. It always had been.
The way the Indy's sails were set, one could see from the fighting top a vast and eternal sea capped by a blazing sunset that stretched forever overhead and beyond. The sun was almost down, and it was at the point where every hue was at its richest, and every facet was at its most true. Even Horatio, who did not notice such things, marveled at its beauty as he set foot on the metal grating. From there, it was as if one was looking out on a kaleidoscope of endless colors dancing from a timeless sea. It was mesmerizing.
Archie did not even seem to notice that Horatio was beside him. Horatio looked at him, saw the reddening rays of the sun touching his face, turning his fair hair to a burnished copper, and his light skin to a ruddy gold. Archie's eyes were on something below, and Horatio followed his gaze to where Matthews and Thomas sat, the wise old sailor patiently teaching the eager boy while his young friend attended quietly at his side.
Horatio smiled slightly and said, "So this is where one must go to find the hero of the Indefatigable."
Archie glanced at him, then smiled a little in return and said, "Hello, Horatio."
"I have been searching all over for you," Horatio replied, reaching into his jacket and pulling out the small red book, "I wanted to let you know that Rose returned this to me. She told me you entrusted it to her."
"Oh - yes," Archie admitted, shifting a little on the grating as he watched the setting sun, "That where I found the reference to club-hauling, in fact - damned handy, that book."
"Yes, but it does you no good when you are faced with three angry captains and a fire ship!" Horatio replied, and was gratified when Archie laughed. He had not heard that sound in far too long.
The sun went down a few more degrees, and the wind shifted and sighed through the sails. Finally, in a quiet voice that cracked with longing, Archie said, "I did not think it possible to miss anything so much."
"It does seem like forever, doesn't it," Horatio responded, and toyed with the book in his hand.
"It does," Archie said, and sighed, "Horatio, there's something I...I need to talk to you about."
Horatio looked up, saw the anguish on his friend's face.
Archie took a deep breath, then said, "You have been a good friend to me, better than I deserved. After I was arrested, when you were trying to help me, I - I lied to you, I was not honest when you needed me to be. Oh, God, I nearly got you killed! I nearly got everyone killed."
Horatio could see the anxiety in Archie's eyes, and sought to reassure him. "But you didn't, Archie, we are all fine, and that is in the past. Captain Pellew told me - well, he told me you feared Morgan's wrath if the truth were told. He is - was - a formidable enemy."
Archie looked at Horatio sideways. "What did the captain tell you about what happened?"
Horatio held his breath for a moment, then decided to see what would happen if he feigned ignorance. "He told me that Morgan threatened you with a beating, and that was why you remained silent. I must say, in your situation I would have done the same."
Archie nodded, and his gaze traveled downward. Horatio could see that he was watching Thomas, who was laughing at some joke that Matthews had just told him. Squaring his shoulders, Archie said, "It was not - " Archie paused, and closed his eyes, "Horatio, it was not a beating. I suppose you will hear it anyway, I...I asked Pellew to change the report. It was not...*just* a beating."
Horatio felt every nerve go numb, saw the tremendous struggle in Archie's eyes, the battle between freedom and fear. He was not certain how this would come out, and wished to God they were on solid ground, instead of hundreds of feet in the air. He leaned closer to Archie, in case he was needed.
For what seemed like a long time there was only the sound of the ocean beneath them, and the filling of the sails above. Sea birds cried and circled overhead; and all around the gold and crimson of the setting sun. And then, as if it were years later, Archie opened his eyes and stared at the shifting colors as he spoke.
"Horatio, I never wanted you to know this, never, because I was afraid if you did I would lose the one friend I have in the world. But this is more important, if you decide once I tell you that it is too dangerous to your career to..." Archie paused, and sighed, "Well, I'll understand."
Horatio felt a chill at those words. "Archie - "
A quick deep breath, then, "Creps and Morgan were going to rape me."
There it was, out. Very quickly Archie continued, "Creps had heard - he knew Simpson, and Simpson's black heart, you remember him? Do you remember how he used to beat us, well it - with some of us, it didn't stop there. Simpson...from the time, I think I was about twelve, he would..." Archie's expression hardened into something Horatio had not seen before, and finally he blurted, "He would rape me. I -I was ashamed, for years I wanted to die, but I can't hide from it any longer, you see? Some day you'll find out, but someone has to know, and by God I'm sick of being afraid and alone, and it won't happen to him, not to Thomas or to anyone else, Horatio, do you hear me? I won't let it, by God! I won't!"
Archie was almost shouting now, his face flushed with more than the evening sun. Horatio took his arms, briefly, because at that height there was no telling what one moment's unbalance could do. Archie looked at him wildly for a moment, then seemed to relax, and smoothed his hair away from his face where it had blown untended. But his face lost none of its anger; it had not nearly been spent.
"I thought..." Archie took another breath, held it for a moment before letting it out, "Well, dammit, Horatio, you might as well know the whole thing. At first I thought I could stop it, and when I couldn't do that, when Creps had me at the wall and Morgan said - " Archie turned to Horatio then, his eyes blazing so painfully that Horatio could hardly stand to look at them. "He was like Simpson, Horatio. *Just* like Simpson, do you understand?"
"I do," Horatio replied, feeling his anger joining with Archie's, until he was trembling with it, "What I don't understand is why you didn't tell me. Damn it, Archie, we have both felt Simpson's anger. You saved my life; there is nothing you could tell me that would cancel that debt, or make me any less grateful for your friendship. And yet you shut me out, Archie, why? I think you owe me at least an answer."
"I know," Archie said, and there was a note of despair in his voice as he turned his eyes to the horizon, "Believe me, Horatio, I know what you went through to help me. And not only you - Terry Whitehall, and Mr. Lafferty, and you do not know what I would have given to have one person to talk to! But you did not..." Archie took another deep breath, and closed his eyes against some overwhelming memory, "You did not *feel* that weight upon you, Horatio, you've never...felt..." Archie searched for words, gave up, and merely wrapped his arms tightly around himself and stared at the water. "If I had told you - if I had told *anyone* - I knew what would happen, what revenge Morgan would exact, and I could not bear it, Horatio. He was going to slander your name, but I know his nature and he would not have been content to stop at that, not if I challenged him. I was accustomed to being used, but you are not. I would rather endure your anger - your resentment - your pity - than endure the memory of what that man might have done to you. I'm sorry."
For a long time Horatio could not answer. Archie was still trembling, his bandaged hands gripping his arms as if they were the only anchors keeping him to the earth. After a moment Archie ducked his head into his folded arms and kept it there, and Horatio could hear him drawing deep breaths in an effort to calm himself.
"And do you think," Horatio said quietly, without even having to think of the words, "That it would have been preferable to me, to know that you had given your life and your body for my benefit, and died for it? Do you think I would not have moved heaven and earth to help you, if I had only known the cause of your silence? I very nearly did, Archie, I went to Morgan and offered to be placed on his ship if he would spare your life."
Archie's head came up, and the shocked look on his face made Horatio start back. "Oh, God, you didn't."
"I did," Horatio replied, quietly but firmly, "That is how much the life you were willing to discard is worth, Mr. Kennedy. I do not ever want you to forget it."
"Christ, Horatio," Archie whispered, and Horatio could tell he was shaken to his foundation, "You were going to...oh, God, on the Courageous...under that man..."
Archie seemed so distressed at this that Horatio felt the need to calm him. "It would not have been so terrible...Philip Lafferty offered to look after me."
"Oh, God!" Archie said, throwing his head back to stare wide-eyed at the sky, "Lafferty as well! I do not understand, Horatio, so much was risked on my account, you - Lafferty, he could have been killed trying to save me, and Terry Whitehall - God, he was beaten, I would not blame him if he hated me for keeping my silence - "
"On the contrary," Horatio replied, leaning forward so Archie could hear his words, "He sees only what I do, not the long night you have come through but what lies at the end of it. You saved that child, Archie, and you saved yourself. Terry knew you from the start, he only hoped as I did that you would save yourself because we could not. And you did."
Archie's shoulders slumped, and he stared at the deck below them, "God, Horatio, I have made such a mess of things! And all because I did not want you to know what had happened, and it will all come out anyway." Archie hugged himself again, as if he had been stripped of everything, and gazed at the sunset silently. "I could have left it hidden. But it will come out one day, you would have heard it from somewhere I'm sure. And I've decided..." Archie took another deep breath..."If I pretend it didn't happen - if I allow such acts to go unchallenged and unknown - it will be as if Simpson and Morgan won, you see. I suppose - it will have to be worth losing a friendship to prevent that. It must be."
Horatio allowed his exasperation full flower. "Archie Kennedy, for the love of God will you stop saying that!"
Archie blinked, genuinely confused.
Horatio answered that confusion with a determined glare. "Archie, I owe you my life. Do I need to remind you that I have shames of my own, and you have been witness to them? Muzillac, Archie, I was down in the dirt covered with tears, useless to myself or anyone else. Did you turn away from me? Did you discount me because at that moment I was not a man? No, you came across the bridge and saved me, and for that I will be eternally in your debt. Whether you are prepared to receive it or not, Archie, you have my friendship, and learning that you have been cruelly used - and by a man who used me as well, no less! - does not make me hate you. It makes me admire you."
Now Archie looked astonished. "Horatio, you - "
"Yes, Archie, I admire you. I admire your courage and your strength, and a determination that I could never have myself if I lived to be a hundred. Look down below you, what do you see?"
Archie obliged. "Thomas, with Matthews."
"Yes. Thomas, who owes his life to you as well. Thomas, who has one friend in the world who knows his hurts, who hauled him out of the dark, and that is you. Does he think the less of you that you see the selfsame scars in each other? I think not."
Archie brought his eyes back up to the sunset, "Yes, but there's something else...Horatio, what I've been through is not...the Navy does not understand it. And if our association were ever used against you..." Archie shook his head, "It isn't worth the risk."
"It is you who do not understand," Horatio said firmly, and setting a hand on Archie's arm looked straight into his eyes so there would be no mistaking his meaning, "I will say it again and again, and still you will not understand! Archie Kennedy, I would rather be your friend in the lowest gutter of London, than be admiral of all the fleet and have that friendship denied."
Archie did not move, did not say anything, but looked into Horatio's eyes in amazement, as if that was the last thing he expected to hear. Now, with the past he had kept so carefully hidden so completely unfolded, Horatio could tell he was expecting to be turned away, and seemed almost afraid it was not happening. He stared at Horatio as if he was in shock. Then he turned away.
Horatio turned away too, to look at the colors of the setting sun, and as he did so he wondered if perhaps he had taken his anger too far. Archie had been through hell, and would likely have more demons to conquer before he could lay them completely to rest. Horatio cursed himself; he had never had his mother's gift for eloquence...
The sun was truly setting now, the purples and reds deepening on their way to the twilight that would become night. Horatio gazed at it, thought sadly that he had failed once again; another burden to add to the ones he already carried. And there was nothing -
Horatio started. "Archie?"
"Well," Archie repeated, still facing the sun, and he cleared his throat before continuing, "It seems you have caught me at a loss, Mr. Hornblower, I..." He shook his head and gave up. "Oh, Christ, Horatio, I wish you'd hate me! It would make this so much easier."
"Easier for who?"
Archie was silent for a moment, then said, "I'm sorry, but I never imagined my life beyond this moment, when the worst was known. I thought the world would end then, and I suppose I'm a little confused that it hasn't, but I do know - " Archie turned to Horatio, and Horatio saw the serious look in his eye, the unflinching intensity that had always been there, but buried; it was coming to life, now. "Horatio, I am not - used - to mattering to anyone. What you did for me - what Terry Whitehall and Captain Pellew and Lieutenant Lafferty did to try and save my life - it baffles me, Horatio. It's frightening."
Horatio tried to think of words. "Well, yes, but - "
"No, let me finish. It's frightening, but - I thank you for it. Thank you, Horatio, for not giving up on me, when I had given up on myself." Archie smiled and said brightly, "You are an inspiration, Mr. Hornblower, and a steadfast light to those who need it. I hope that I can, in whatever way possible, prove myself to be worthy of your friendship."
Horatio blinked, did not know what to say. Archie was not the wounded, tentative young man he had known at that moment, nor the buoyant youth, nor anyone Horatio was familiar with. This was another Archie, newly born, and Horatio sat back and studied him for a moment before deciding this was the best possible one there could be. Smiling in relief, he put a hand on Archie's shoulder and said, "You have always been worthy, Mr. Kennedy. Remember that."
Archie returned the smile in a shy way, and did not move for a moment. Then he turned to lean back against the mast, and Horatio heard him sigh, as if relaxing into this new body. Horatio moved to settle back against the mast as well, gazing thoughtfully across the vast, sparkling waters, savoring the warmth of the sun and the gentle wind in his hair. For a moment the two young men simply sat there, comfortable in each other's company. Then Archie said quietly, "I'm frankly rather surprised you came all the way up here. Devilish long climb."
"Hm," Horatio said, taking a deep breath, "Well, actually, I was curious - are you free for a game of whist later, or are your hands still bothering you?"
Archie blinked, as if he had trouble coming back to the real world. Then he looked down and flexed his bandaged digits. "Oh - they're getting on well enough."
"Because of Dr. Hepplewhite's attentions, or in spite of them?"
"Ugh! Don't remind me. It's a shame we couldn't bring the captain's doctor on board instead."
"You do remember how to play, don't you?"
"Ah, then it will be just like it was before!"
"Horatio, was that a joke?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well, it wasn't. I'm *very* sure."
Horatio smiled at that, and leaned his head back against the mast to watch the glorious colors of the setting sun. If he had been a philosophical young man, Horatio would have let his eyes drift to the painted heavens and considered all that they had been through, and what it meant to his journey in the world. He would have thought of Morgan, and the Courageous, and Archie who despite all of his efforts had in the end saved himself, and gained something in the saving that Horatio could never have achieved for him, no matter how hard he tried. He would have wondered why the ghosts who had haunted him finally seemed to be at peace, and decided that perhaps it was because he had learned to accept them as the price of not taking the easy path. The ghosts, the pain, the terrible weight of responsibility - they were not a burden to be shed, or a mantle of shame to be hidden from sight. They were the price of doing good, an inescapable part of accepting one's destiny, and beyond the anguish and the suffering there was honor, and wisdom, and strength. It was a price worth paying, at any cost.
But Horatio Hornblower was not a philosophical young man. He did not think on any of these things, although they were in his heart; he was simply not aware of their existence. He watched the sun and knew only that he felt comfortable, that he was glad to be at sea again, and looked forward to the next test of his mettle, that he might prove himself worthy of the captain whose respect he wanted, and the men who looked to him for guidance. He looked into the riot of corals and vermilions that hung over his head and had no overwhelming rapturous thoughts except that he was happy to be there, happy that Archie was at his side, and happy that everything had come out all right.
And it was out of that simple, unpoetic emotion that Horatio thought of one final thing that had not been said yet, and needed saying, to make himself feel completely whole again. He turned his head and looked at Archie, whose thoughtful expression bore witness to the sonnets running through his healing heart, and said, "Mr. Kennedy?"
Archie cocked his head a little, but did not take his eyes off the setting sun. "Hm?"
"Welcome back to Indefatigable."
Archie smiled, his fair face made glowing crimson in the final rays of the setting sun, and even Horatio could see in it the smile of a new dawn, and the grateful silent song of one who had been found, and would never be lost again. "Thank you, Mr. Hornblower. I am very glad to be home."