The Price of Steel
Part Four
by Lady Atropos

 

The Price of Steel, Part IV
by Lady Atropos
Disclaimer: I don't own 'em, I don't sell 'em, I didn't create 'em
Synopsis: wouldn't you like to know. okay, fine:
What if Lady Barbara and Hornblower had met earlier in their lives?
Archive: Yes, please, with the other parts
Rating: er. PG-13 is usually pretty safe to say

~in the bloody aftermath of the pirate attack, how will the crews react?~

Dip. Grind. Splash.

Dip. Grind. Splash.

Barbara's head pounded with every repetition of the rowing noises: dip, grind, splash. The wildness of the battle fury had ebbed, and now left a large empty space in her feverish mind that was rapidly filling with the ghosts of guilt, physical weakness, and a tiny prick of fear that took all of her energy to suppress. She nearly sobbed with the effort it took to keep from breaking down and crying. Her head spun, as if all the blood had drained from it the way it does when one sits up from bed too quickly.

She was in the boat that was pulling back to the 'Retribution.' She had come and gone without enlightening herself about Lady Callowright's view of the situation, without resolving any of the issues that had eventually put her here, in this boat, coming back from killing a man for the first time, even though she had been in such close proximity to the one other person with whom she could have straightened out the whole mess. The pirates were all dead, and in keeping with the character whose role she played to the crew, she should not let out that she had anything else to worry about but that the pirates *would* end up dead, and she would end up still alive. A stowaway boy would have no reason to try and snatch a word with Lady Callowright, and a stowaway boy would not be disappointed that he couldn't. But Barbara was sick of the whole ruse, and not sick of the prospect of labor or risk or discomfort either, but sick of always having to pretend, of knowing that from now on, all day and night she had to plan everything, every action and every word, to create the illusion that she was someone she really was not.

Her first day, and she found herself wanting to give up the whole humiliating adventure! She was filled with disgust for herself, for whatever there was in her that kept telling her to be weak, and give in, and forget about her friend who still needed her to play along. She looked up from her own lap, which she had been steadily staring at, and caught a glimpse of the commander sitting in the sternsheets, his long, bony hands resting awkwardly on his knees, the lean, almost scholarly shoulders hunched and tousled head hanging low. His face was a mask, a wall that prevented any emotion from escaping, and that gave the impression it prevented any emotion from being perceived. All Barbara would ever ask for was an arm to lean on and a shoulder to cry on, but now that she was struggling through this ridiculous charade that she had gotten herself into, those two things embodied in one person outside of herself were impossible to attain. She could not afford to be weak.

The thought of what she had helped do for her friend fortified her, and she filled the rest of the void in her mind with stiff pride. She had aided in saving, even if indirectly, Lady Callowright. That was the second time, Barbara realized, that she had put Lady Callowright into her debt. Her back straitened and her trembling, both mental and physical, ceased when she thought of repaying Lady Callowright for her effort on Barbara's behalf by offering protection in return. Barbara had finally found a way to justify her actions in her own mind, to rectify herself of the lies she had told, the life she had shorn short. She looked again at the commander, and winced as one last mad thought of falling into his arms and releasing all of her grief in his warm embrace flitted mysteriously into her consciousness, and just as mysteriously faded, leaving a slight, tremulous, unfulfilled desire.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

No sound permeated the air that enveloped the 'Cascade' but the moans of the dying and the silence of the dead. That silence *was* a sound, just as distinct as the cry that issued from the mouth of the pirate leader, a cry of despair and defeat, and of fear. That silence was as hard felt as the hole plunged through the leader's heart by the sword of an enemy. It was a lack of noise that screamed out "Not a breath from this nostril, not a beat from this heart!"

And in the midst of all this death lay Lady Callowright, crumpled and withered in a hidden alcove beneath the break of the quarterdeck.

<***>

Over to the starboard side, I saw a large row launch, with a lugsail set, full of people. That was peculiar. They were coming off Navassa Island quite peculiar indeed. I waved cheerily at them; they must be boaters or coastal fisherman. They did not wave back, but the Master standing at the helm fell to the deck, a bullet in his head. In my spinning mind, all I could register was that the situation was becoming more peculiar by the minute. The launch was at the side, and, still dazed, I was swept aside as a wave of tanned faces coursed by, pistols waving and swords bristling. The 'Cascade's' bluff was up; the ship was taken.

They shot both our boys, the apprentices sent here on their first berth! The brutes slaughtered mercilessly, and our crew barely offering any resistance I myself was shoved to the side, and I curled up under the break of the quarterdeck as best I could. From there I witnessed the most remarkable thing.

A party of men from one of the other ships came over our side, led by a tall, skinny man who didn't look like Navy material at all, though he was yelling with a fury, as were the rest of his men behind him. But, for a moment, I thought I saw what must have been a mirage in the heat and the powder smoke. A fair-haired boy who resembled Barbara and in that second I was filled with a terror of what she might have done to protect herself, thinking it was for my sake. Before I could stop him, or her, the fair boy was gone into the turmoil that was our ship, and an unfamiliar, gnarled face was before mine, and a pistol was leveled at my breast.

I gazed steadily over his shoulder, my eyes widening in unspeakable fear. My spectacle must have been convincing enough, because the pirate turned with terrified curiosity to see what could be so horrible. With a twitch of the wrist, I had the pistol in my hand and pointed at his stomach. I pulled the trigger without thinking, and the gun jumped and burned in my hand. I dropped it, stepping back quickly as the pirate crumpled to the deck, and my head cracked onto the bulkhead, rendering me senseless. The world spun to a stop by the doing of my very hands, and I spun down with it, swooning before I even recall feeling the deck beneath my body.

<***>

Lady Callowright picked herself up out from among the dead. Her skirt hung from her hips limply, soaked in the blood of pirates or merchantmen, her hair wafting in knotted clumps beside her begrimed face, decking her out and crowning her as some goddess of death. She grasped the bulkhead for support, and closed her eyes against the blinding sun.

Silence. Dead silence surrounded her, and when she opened her eyes she saw the bodies.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Barbara sat on the forecastle deck, her legs folded in from of her, two lengths of rope in her hands. It wasn't her watch, but she was determined to learn her duties and to acquire basic seamanship skill just as quickly as any of the other pressed men or volunteers. Her resolve to finish what she had begun swelled now with every memory of the action of earlier that morning, and she was spurred on too by the attitude of the bosun, Cramil, whose charge she was to be. He had found her a clean shirt in the communal slop chest, and gotten her as settled in her routine as possible, under Hornblower's orders. Barbara resented Cramil. He was a bulky old Welshman, with a very low tolerance for the inability of the others around him. However, Hornblower had guessed correctly that this strange girl's vivacity and determination would warm the stern bosun to her, and he would serve as a good mentor, and protector to her, if necessary. So, while Barbara was under the impression that her time under the authority of the overbearing Cramil was some sort of weird punishment for stowing away, she was really getting quite good treatment.

Barbara's fingers flitted over the yarns, tugging and tangling and untangling, while her mind wandered over the events of the past few days. Everything was happening so fast that her mind spun at the thought that less than a week ago, if she had acted a little differently, she would not have been here, and she realized that she would have done exactly the same had she had the choice. She was on a real adventure, like the kind that she read about or pretended to be on when she was little and fanciful! She had dreamt of sailing on a ship, like this, and no specters of the dark thoughts she had pursued in the boat back from the 'Cascade' haunted her anymore. She was buoyed back up by her enthusiasm for the task at hand, and she drew on that store of enthusiasm as if it were a vital source of energy such as water or food.

She was done the splice, and as Cramil passed she offered it up to him proudly. He grasped both loose ends in his callused hands, gave one half-hearted tug, and her flimsy knot gave up. Cramil dropped both frayed yarns onto her lap again. Barbara's upward gaze turned inquiring. She didn't understand what she had done wrong, but Cramil misinterpreted that look.

"Diawl! If it won't hold together for me, it won't hold together for a hurricane. Don't bother me again with your sloppy work. Show me when you've *learned* it. Newydd-ddyfodiad twp! Twp, twp, twp" [1]And, issuing many ill-humored mutters in several languages about the uselessness of new recruits who didn't know how to tie a knot, Cramil rumbled away with his broad back turned so Barbara couldn't see the corners of his mouth twitched up.

With a resigned sigh, Barbara lay back on the forecastle deck with her face to the sky. She wondered once again about her friend, Lady Callowright, and she wondered what would become of herself. It was a fun game, but how long would it last? There was a faint breeze carrying them through the Windward Passage, a zephyr, and she closed her eyes briefly, letting the gentle, life-giving air chase the thoughts through her mind just as it chased the low, wispy cloud drifts over the sapphire firmament and across the previously unblemished sun. Opening her eyes again, she reached for her practice strings and started twining them together again. The masts rose majestically above her, the hammock netting and the crosstrees forming a shifting lattice against the sky Barbara had been gazing into. She was so accustomed to the presence of the rigging by now that she had disregarded it as she skylarked up until now. With a closer look, she saw that the ratlines and shrouds held those low clouds out, forming a safe haven for the creatures under their gentle protection. Storms leaked through, and the 'Retribution's' yards could not save the ship's inhabitants from the cruelty of the men beneath her, but still 'Retribution' spread her arms like a welcoming mother to embrace all those who wished to go home.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

The breeze whispering in the hammock shrouds was all the sound that reached Lady Callowright's ears, after she learned to hear past the groans of the dying. Echoes of a pistol shot rang in her head, and as she stepped gingerly out of the shadows where she had lain unnoticed, for what must have been hours by the position of the sun, her hearing and her sight and memory came back to her slowly. She tried as hard as she could to think connectedly, but she was just too muddled.

Something was moaning at her feet. She glanced down, and gasped when she saw the pirate she had shot, writhing weakly and clutching at something. Lady Callowright was so overcome with fear and disgust that she couldn't move-the image of that dying man was burned in that moment permanently on her brain, to haunt her darkest nights and tint even bright mornings just like this one. With a final gurgle, and a last gush of blood from his gaping mouth, the pirate's life faded, and a pitiful example of abandoned flesh was left as an offering to Lady Callowright, pinned once again against the bulkhead.

After a minute's steady gazing, curiosity overcame the Lady and she had a mad impulse to see what the pirate had his fingers curled around. Swallowing a wave of nausea, she stooped swiftly and awkwardly tugged the object out of his warm fingers, pulling so hard that the body rolled over, glazed fish eyes staring grotesquely at the placid sky above.

It was a silver pin, strikingly beautiful. The workmanship was excellent, a twining, abstract design engraved with modest curlicues and rounding gently to lay on a full dress. It was four inches long, and a tiny shred of the pirate's shirt was still hanging from the point. It must have been his most valuable possession, probably stolen from an unfortunate Lady just like herself.

Lady Callowright looked at the pin with the wonder of someone who finds something radiant someplace gritty. Then, with as little warning as when the curiosity had gripped her, she was enveloped in guilt. What was she thinking, taking things from out the fingers of dead men? Her own fingers closed around the glimmering object, and she was filled with the resolve to replace the pin from whence it was taken, whether the rightful owner was dead or alive, or within a thousand miles, when a shadow fell across her face. It was the American doctor.

"We need you-what are you doing standing around up here?" His voice was harsh in its urgency, and she was taken aback. He had never spoken to her like that before. She cast about, fully recovered from her reverie at last. The topsides were nearly completely deserted of living men, just filled with the bodies, strewn as she had noticed them first.

"I said, we need you below!" He grasped her shoulder, and started to pull her bodily away from the nook she had been hiding in.

"But what is going on? Where are they all?" She was confused and afraid. She didn't know the outcome of the attack and defense, but what frightened her more was the eerie desolation of the ship. It seemed to her as though she and Dr. Carroll were the only two live people aboard. She had nearly forgotten the pin in her musing until she accidentally pricked herself with it.

"Wait, I have to"

"No time." And so she hastily fumbled the pin into the folds of the bosom of her dress, as she was dragged below.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Horatio paced the length of his miniscule cabin, barely two steps up and two steps back. Such pacing could practically be called walking in circles, but he would not go up on deck in this state. His face was drawn, lips tight and hollow cheeks accentuated, but his eyes gave away the secret of his thoughts. He cursed himself for not being able to draw his mask over his eyes, but he was disturbed, and his emotions were spiraling out of his control, making him very anxious. He was unaccustomed to having feelings that he couldn't control, because even though it happened to him more often than was comfortable, his obstinate self-analysis didn't allow him to be content with hiding feelings. He tried to eliminate them, and was disappointed in every occasion.

He turned his confounding emotions into thoughts, then, and tried to follow through the train of speculation where they led. Pirates pirates were not a bizarre occurrence anywhere, but because Britain had such a commanding power over the seas, most loose-canon buccaneers were hired by the King or the nations struggling against his naval might as privateers, so that the damage they inflicted would help the country's fight with out burdening her with a over-large, hard to manage enlisted force. However, these pirates were from a nation that need not worry about the size of her armed forces-and Navassa Island wasn't exactly the ideal spot for a base. He recalled the tattered clothes and dirty, emaciated look of the pirates-they were no more than poor men who needed money, or food, desperately. Men were oftentimes turned to crime on sea as they were on land-through an overwhelming want or need that could not be fulfilled otherwise. These men could have had families back on the mainland that would starve now that they were dead. Crude weapons, little organization, and there was the crew of the 'Cascade,' shooting them down like the world was allied against their ship!

Horatio tried to see the other side of the argument, too. The 'Cascade,' though not suffering any actual damage, had only a small crew of no more than a dozen, and the pirates, though not overly bloodthirsty, must have killed nearly half of them, out of what they considered necessity. Necessity through hunger can justify many actions in one's own eyes that are not always correct to the rest of humanity. How would the 'Cascade' sail now? He had promised to send aid to them later that morning, but he could not let his men go, especially pressed men who would snatch at that opportunity like a godsend to escape. He, who had lost no men in his defense, could still not spare even one to accompany a half-crew brig!

The men his mind wandered again, as he thought of the strange girl who had gotten mixed up in it all. Maybe he had been wrong to wait, to let her act the part of a young boy. He chastised himself for being a fool enough to not have revealed her at the first possible moment. He had handled the situation completely wrong, but he still knew nothing about her. He was burning with curiosity now, to know her thoughts and to know her past. What motivated her to do this, and why didn't she come to him now, after feeling the sting of battle? The sting of battle

Horatio's head snapped up to the deck beams with a shattering crash. He clapped his hand to his head in pain and humiliation, as well as with memory. He had led his men to battle, and they weren't even officially his men yet! That first day he came aboard, he had been so preoccupied with his own foolish sentiment that he had forgotten to read himself in! The men must have noticed by now; Horatio hated pomp and unnecessary ceremony, but reading one's self in was a legal matter. Then he remembered what day it was-Sunday. Maybe he could slip it in unnoticed before the Articles of War.

Horatio could now mask his eyes as well as his face, having satisfied his rambling notions, and allowed himself to waste no more time. He strode stiffly onto the quarterdeck, with his gangling limbs making even an authoritative stride into a parody, to his dismay, and spoke as softly and as levelly to Bush as the rising breeze would allow.

"Call all hands, if you please, Mr. Bush."

"All Hands!" Horatio managed by stroke of luck to refrain from jumping backwards at such a high volume of voice so close to his ear. He should have anticipated that, but he had forgotten the loudness of Bush's bellow momentarily in his anxiety.

Barbara looked up, and pulled herself up off the deck as she glanced at the crew rushing to their divisions. She racked her brain for what Cramil had told her about this, and skittered into place just in time. The two yarns lay forgotten on the forecastle.

Horatio had his face set in a stone-like indifference. He would read himself in as if he had been meaning to all along, and then he would let his purposefulness challenge anyone who thought otherwise. He ran his eye over the orderly ranks, and saw the girl as she dashed into position. He felt a flush in his cheeks, and cursed her in his mind for making him lose his countenance. Then, as usual, he found a way to blame it on his own wandering mind, and stolidly refused to look anywhere in her direction again. The divisions settled down, and, without a single word of explanation, he could begin. He took the letter from his breast pocket and began, slowly and solemnly, to read.

"Orders from Sir Richard Lambert, Vice Admiral of the Blue, Knight of the Bath, Commanding His Majesty's ships and vessels on the Jamaica station, to Commander Horatio Hornblower, of His Majesty's ship 'Renown.' You are hereby requested and required to repair immediately on board of His Majesty's prize ship 'Retribution' now lying in Port Royal bay and to take command of the aforesaid ship 'Retribution.' " [2] Now he must act quickly-open the plaque bearing the Articles of War and start reading before any one has time to comment or otherwise commit a breach of discipline.

"Article One" He paused, catching sight once more of the girl standing in *his* ranks, among *his* men. He must be careful; she could become a distraction to him, and for the first time he resented her presence on board just for that reason-for bringing to mind his own faults. No, that was his own doing, once again. "Ha-h'm. Article One"

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

"We therefore, commit his body to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body, (when the Sea shall give up her dead,) and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who at his coming shall change our vile body, that it may be like his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself. Amen." [3]

Lady Callowright stood swaying at the railing, and watched steadily as the body of the master, Samuel Mantle, glided into the ocean. Dr. Carroll's hand rested on her shoulder.

"Come, we have things to finish, and little time for mourning." She followed him obediently back to the orlop. The deck had been cleared of bodies; there were no overly-pious men on board, and in a show of utter disrespect, the pirates' bodies had been chucked over the side with little thought to their lives as human beings. Lady Callowright had not even the chance to replace the pin she had stolen, and it remained hidden in her dress. However, the remaining crew called for some greater solve for their grief over lost companions, so the dead crew members had been sewn up hastily and thrown away with a little more ceremony. Only three men of the seven wounded crew members were still alive and moaning softly in the darker recesses of the forecastle cabin that had been converted into the sinister-sounding orlop.

Lady Callowright had started off on her newly-appointed duty with some fear and a great deal of disgust. She had looked at the miserable creatures in that compartment and felt nothing but an instinct to save herself from that. The atmosphere smelled of hot, flowing blood and vomit, as men's lives leaked out. There were only five of the original crew of twelve left, and three of them lay prostrate before her. There was no one left to turn to when the doctor needed help but Lady Callowright. And she nearly refused.

However, now as she followed him around, tightening bandages and wiping faces clean of sweat and spittle, she had completely removed herself from the situation. She had used that trick many times before, when she had to do something that put herself or another at risk; like when she had stood up for Barbara before her husband. She knew that in a short while the complication of emotion would catch up with her again, but not until she had served her duty, and she could afford to give in to such faint-hearted inclinations, the way she almost gave in before even starting.

Earlier, the commander came over with a small party of his men to aid in the re-reeving of the few lines that had parted and the repair of any other paraphernalia that had been damaged in the attack. They were gone again now, though 'Retribution' remained hove-to near the 'Cascade,' until a conclusion could be found for their problem. The ship could not be sailed with a crew of two able-bodied men, three invalids, a scrawny doctor and lost noblewoman. The elder Lady Wellesley, her own son and Sir Callowright were sailing on beyond them at that very moment. The one time the convoy had actually stirred itself into action was the one time when she couldn't come with it. There was no chance now of resolving her trouble and Barbara's peril until, if then, they should all be together in England.

As her mind was bent on these thoughts, she bent over the wounded cook, who had been stabbed through the ribs when he raised his arms to swing a pot on a pirate's head. Life was strange like that. She felt a prick and gasped. She had nearly been stabbed herself by that treacherous pin in her dress. Her job was done; she sped down a deserted corridor (most were deserted on this ship) and drew the pin from her bodice. A bead of blood pooled just above her heart.

The thing lay in her hand, shining languidly in the half-light, the flow of it no longer beautiful but menacing to her. She almost panicked and tossed it away, but paused. A thought struck her, and she knew how she could innocently dispose of the object that she had nearly begun to fear. She stumbled back up topsides and ran right into the doctor.

"Doctor Carroll, that Navy ship is still floating about out there, isn't it?"

"Why, yes."

"I think some recompense for their help is called for. I say we give their captain this." She held out the pin for his inspection. He looked up, a little puzzled.

"What would the captain do with this? It's a women's brooch."

"Oh, I suppose he could do something with it but it's the best we can offer to them as reward, isn't it?" Carroll studied the pin carefully. It did seem like the most valuable thing they could spare to give as a gift.

"Oh, alright, but we can attend to it later. We must finish our work now." He said these words with a heavy resignation; he didn't understand women, but it seemed the easiest way to resolve this petty complication would be to simply give in. He placed his hand on her shoulder again, and was about to proceed back to the orlop when Lady Callowright paused.

"Couldn't we couldn't we take it to him now?" Her fears and her doubts were returning to her, and she could not spend another minute in possession of this pin, nor another minute in the grimy recesses of the orlop. She didn't need to try and put a supplicating lilt in her voice-it was already there. "The men in the orlop are as well as they can be for the moment. I do not believe we should err in leaving them for such a brief period of time"

"And who shall row us there?" She was close on the edge of crying after his repeated refusals.

"We can signal them-they can send us a boat. We must do this. Please" He searched for the solution. They were desperately short of men as it was, and now this eccentric noblewoman wanted to use valuable time and manpower on a mere whim.

"Tomorrow there will be another boat, as promised, from the 'Retribution,' bearing aid. You can go back on it, if you wish, and give the captain your pin. But you will have to stay there until their captain decides to send another boat back, you understand? We are not to impose on his routines to any extent" He knew he was talking to a woman of title, but he forgot about that as he gave her these instructions to her, like she were a child. In this crisis, this unique crisis in which they were on board a perfectly sound, working ship but were withheld from sailing by something as trivial as lack of men, everyone on board had to pitch in. By the same token, they were more acutely aware of the amount of effort that when into the working of a ship, even a stationary one, and were wary to interfere with another man's routine, knowing who much it could effect the smallest detail that could set in motion another crisis. They were perhaps over-sensitive, but their intentions could not be mocked. It was settled, then, and when Lady Callowright agreed to the arrangement, Carroll couldn't help but sigh in relief-the Lady was a good-natured soul, but she was quickly acquiring the tendency to get underfoot. He turned on his heel, and led the way back into the sickbay at last, where he felt strangely comforted doing the job he had been trained in.

Dr. Carroll aided the sick, but he used their good as an excuse to escape the situation; Lady Callowright wished to proffer an expensive gift upon their rescuer, but merely to rid herself of it. Did the lack of honest intention belittle the usefulness or kindness of these acts? They were all good deeds, but to what end?

to be cont'd.

END NOTES
[1] "Diawl" devil! "Newydd-ddyfodiad twp! Twp, twp, twp" Stupid newcomers! Dumb, dumb, dumb

[2] This letter I sort of plagiarized from "Lieutenant Hornblower," where basically the same letter, from the same Admiral, but with different names inserted, gave Cogshill official power over the 'Renown,' "pro tempore."

[3] From the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Special Prayers and Offices to be Made at Sea.