The Leading of the Vaward
by Pam

"My lord, most humbly on my knee I beg / The leading of the vaward."

So had requested the Duke of York--and become one of the first casualties of
Agincourt.

But at least York had *asked* for his dangerous assignment. The king had not
fixed his royal cousin with a cold, probing eye and volunteered him *for* it.
At least, not in any performance of "Henry V" that Archie Kennedy had ever
seen.

*I need a man to lay the charges.* And Acting Captain Buckland's pale gaze
had bypassed lowly fourth lieutenant Archie and second lieutenant William
Bush altogether--and come to rest on the tense, momentarily startled face of
third lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, Archie's friend and brother officer.

And Horatio--damn his noble, self-sacrificing hide--had accepted the
assignment thrust upon him without a murmur. Archie could still feel the
warm pressure of their parting handshake before his friend had turned and
darted back into the fort.

Horatio had extended his hand to Buckland as well--and Archie had noted well
how reluctant the Acting Captain was to take it and how his eyes had slid
away from those of the man he was likely consigning to death.

The leading of the vaward. Forlorn Hope. Suicide mission. Honor and glory
for the men who returned from it, obsequies and graves--far too many of
them--for those who didn't. And standing on the quay, handing the last of
the Spanish evacuees into the jollyboat, beneath the blazing tropical sun,
Archie felt his blood turn to ice.

*Buckland doesn't want Horatio to come back.*

One man, one very large fort, and god knows how many barrels of gunpowder.
*Let's see if we can improve those odds, Horatio.* Archie stepped away from
the boat, motioned the men to move off. Several pairs of eyes regarded him
incredulously.

"Sir--" one of the seamen began.

"Go!" Archie ordered, gesturing towards the open bay.

No further protest--the boat pulled away from the landing, a sheaf of oars
rose and fell, plying through the pale blue waters, as the evacuees clung
together, babbling in Spanish. Setting his jaw, Archie headed back to the
fort, taking the steps at a run.

In his haste, he tripped over the top step and would have fallen on his face
if not for the strong hand beneath his elbow that hauled him upright again.
Archie turned his head sharply--and found himself staring into the
imperturbable countenance of Lieutenant Bush, who motioned him forward once
again.

Most improbably, Archie felt his spirits begin to rise--Horatio's chances of
survival had just trebled.

***********

As they reentered the fort, Kennedy cleared his throat and began, "Mr Bush--"

"I am the senior officer, Mr. Kennedy," Bush cut in. "By rights, Mr
Hornblower's task should have fallen to *me.*"

His tone brooked no further argument. Kennedy's blue eyes widened, then
unexpectedly began to dance. Face and voice remained perfectly grave,
however, as he inclined his head towards the older man. "I concede your
superior right to be blown to kingdom come, Mr. Bush."

"Exactly so, Mr. Kennedy," Bush returned with equal impassivity. He glanced
around the dim corridor. "Have you any idea where Mr. Hornblower might have
started to lay the charges?"

Kennedy's demeanor instantly became serious. "Unless I miss my guess, he'll
have started from the furthest inland point, then worked his way outwards,
towards the cliffs."

"Not towards the entrance, where we came in?"

The younger officer shook his head. "Water's too shallow, and there's the
danger of falling debris. He'll have a better chance outrunning the blast
out in the open." He took several steps into the passage, tilted his head
slightly to one side, as though listening for what only he could hear.

Two more paces--then a decisive nod. "This way, I believe, Mr. Bush."

**********

*Mad.*

There was no other possible explanation for it, Bush decided, as he loped
through the abandoned fort, Kennedy at his side. *I must be mad.*

Staid, sober, sensible William Bush. Who had never questioned a superior's
order. Who rigorously observed each link in the chain of command. Who had
never in the whole of his impeccable career done anything foolhardy,
reckless, or rash . . .

At least--not until the day he'd set foot aboard the Renown, with her crazed
captain, timid first lieutenant, and two young fire-eaters, the juniormost of
whom had come to a halt a few paces away, his bright hair gleaming like a
beacon in the gloom.

"Mr. Kennedy?" Bush called in a low voice.

"I think--Mr. Hornblower is somewhere quite close, Mr. Bush." Again, the
fair head tilted to one side, the young face assuming an expression of deep
concentration.

Bush's own brows drew together thoughtfully. Perhaps Kennedy *did* have some
special instinct about Hornblower's whereabouts, at that. By this time, he
thought, nothing would surprise him about his juniors.

A study in contrasts, those two. Hornblower, intense and focused, with a
mind and will as tough as a diamond. Kennedy, sharp, glinting, and
quicksilver, thinking with his pulsebeats but no less capable for that. And
the undeniable bond between them . . . Bush had seen a few such friendships
in the service--complementary, close-knit, almost overwhelmingly exclusive.

Somehow, in no way that Bush could understand, the perimeter of that tight
little circle had expanded enough to include *him.* Absurd, perhaps, to feel
so pleased by this development, yet he could not deny that it *did* please
him--almost disproportionately so.

Good company in which to fight, even to die. But far better in which to live
and continue to serve. . .

"There!" Kennedy pointed triumphantly down the right-hand corridor. Bush
peered over his shoulder into the shadows, saw--not ten feet away--the bulky
shape of stacked barrels, heard the faint hissing of a lit fuse--and
something more . . . a pounding, a hammering, rather, coming from overhead.

"He's above us!" Kennedy reported brightly, his face wreathed in smiles.
"And there are the stairs!"

He broke into a lope once more, Bush at his heels. The older man spared an
apprehensive glance for the barrels of explosives, corded around with several
feet of smoldering fuse--a deadly serpent with a fiery tail--as they hurried
past.

"I trust you can outrun a burning fuse, Mr. Kennedy?" he inquired dryly.

"Hmm? Oh, yes. Mr. Hornblower and I both, as it happens. Amazing how
terror lends wings to one's heels. When we get back to the Renown , I can
tell you all about it, if you like."

*When* we get back to the Renown. Bush felt a reluctant smile tug at the
corners of his mouth that, fortunately for decorum, Kennedy--eyes fixed on
his destination--did not see. The fourth lieutenant's optimism was becoming
contagious.

"Very well, Mr. Kennedy. I shall hold you to that."

At the foot of the stairs, Kennedy paused, fumbled in his breast pocket for a
handkerchief. "A sign of truce," he explained helpfully--if
unnecessarily--to Bush. "We don't want Mr. Hornblower having palpitations
when he sees us!"

"Or shooting us before he does!"

The younger officer's mouth quirked. "Exactly so, Mr. Bush," he returned
cordially, drawing and cocking his pistol, as he started his climb. His own
weapon at the ready, Bush followed Kennedy and his waving handkerchief up the
stairs to see--

A haze of smoke and dust, another stack of barrels, and a narrow, strained
young face that looked up at their approach and, ludicrously, became
startled, even indignant in response.

"Archie!" Hornblower exclaimed furiously. "Are you out of your mind?"

Kennedy's face split into a wide white grin, his answer--tinged equally with
amusement and affection--floating back over his shoulder as he sauntered up
the stairs just ahead of Bush. "Very possibly--but we thought you could use
the company!"

END