Into the Game
by Pam and Del
Training was underway--at full sail, Archie thought, in one of the rare, odd moments when he was actually alone to think.
"One thing the peace does mean," Carmichael had said that day as they began to discuss Bonaparte. His eyes locked with Archie's. "We teach you everything we possibly can, while we have the time."
Archie had nodded acceptance.
Something had changed--even improved--since then. Perhaps it was knowing that Kilcarron was in London. Perhaps it was being asked what he wanted to learn--even discovering there were things he was *required* to learn and for which he would be held accountable; a return to a more typical order of things that had seemed awry since Renown. Maybe it was even the knowledge that--almost in spite of himself--he was healing.
The days slipped into a kind of pattern. More formal lessons of various types were scheduled for the morning. Weapons practice, just before noon, followed by a meal and rest period. Carmichael, who appeared to have numerous other duties, might be present at breakfast or simply send a written schedule of the forenoon plan. If the latter, he would eventually appear, never later than noon, and direct the remainder of the day's activities. Archie saw Rory for map lessons every other day, but on the whole, there was less structure to the afternoons.
By the last part of the day, he and Carmichael were nearly always afoot. A Latin tag Archie had been forced to learn as a child came to mind; he no longer remembered the original but could produce the translation: "The problem is solved by walking."
"I think better when I'm walking." Carmichael shrugged unapologetically.
"There speaks the infantry," Archie quipped, and pretended to duck.
Sometimes including Rory and sometimes not, the walks at the end of the afternoon were far-ranging--tiring Archie out thoroughly but not brutally--and never silent. Carmichael took advantage of the opportunity to present what he considered further necessary knowledge in the field. And there were discussions of Bonaparte, who, Archie learned, Kilcarron regarded as the greatest threat to Britain's safety in the last half-century.
"He's a devil on land," Carmichael remarked, as they walked down the hillside one twilight. "We haven't found a man yet who can stop him."
"We've beaten him at sea, though," Archie avowed staunchly. "At the Battle of the Nile."
On the Indy, they had read every account of that engagement they could find, from every gazette and chronicle that came their way, and argued the details for weeks.
"Very true," Carmichael agreed with the air of giving credit where it was due. "He doesn't have the same kind of luck at sea--he has to rely on others to do the thinking there. And that might save us. But it's not enough to finish him."
There were more talks that revealed other details--especially, information about Nicholas Crawford and his army of spies.
"Oh, no, Old Nick didn't start this," Carmichael asserted. "Not this whole organization. " Tawny eyes narrowed in concentration.
"I've heard this all started a long way back . . . as long ago as Queen Elizabeth. One of Old Nick's great-great-and so on grandfathers or uncles was an intelligence agent under Francis Walsingham. But even before that--they say there was a Crawford with a network of agents and sources all over Europe that he offered to Mary, Queen of Scots. Since Walsingham's time, the network's been handed down to the twistiest mind in each generation. Not always father to son--sometimes it's been nephews, twice it was even to daughters." Carmichael paused, considering. "I think it was an uncle that handed over to Old Nick this time."
And by now there were organized groups of agents situated in most key strategic locations, Archie learned.
"Two divisions in London," Carmichael explained. "Smith and Seaton see to those. Overseas, the biggest part of the network is the courier system. Beaton's in charge there."
"Seaton, Beaton . . . and Carmichael?" Archie could not keep the amusement out of his voice as he recalled an old Scottish ballad. "Where's Hamilton?"
"Retired last year."
"So the earl does have only three Maries left," Archie remarked, yielding to temptation, then ducked away from the quick swipe, chuckling over Carmichael's scowl.
And then there were the revelations--sometimes inadvertent--about Archie's new colleagues. That Rory and Caillean--a designation she usually preferred to "Miss Dunbar" with everyone except Rory--had both come from Edinburgh. That Latour was French-Canadian and a specialist in poisons and opiates. That the still-absent Grant and Ferguson were married, and that Grant--the wife--was actually half-Portuguese. That Caillean and Ferguson were the two best forgers in Kilcarron's employ. That Jamieson--now on his way back from Amsterdam--often accompanied itinerant acrobatic troupes, juggling clubs, rings, and knives.
In fact, Archie realized, the person about whom the least was revealed was none other than Carmichael himself. He considered it once, searching his mind for patterns and discrepancies, as he was now being trained to do. Infantry: certainly, he openly admitted as much. Family: never spoken of, there probably wasn't one. A first name he never divulged or acknowledged: maybe something outlandish, Biblical, or intensely Scottish, although Carmichael didn't own to any Scottish ancestry beyond the surname. He said he'd grown up somewhere in Yorkshire, and had never known his father at all. Whatever the other details of his raising, it had left him with the north-country accent, and a certain familiar, feral quality Archie had identified after two days' reflection: an old one-eared tomcat that had ruled the stables at Kennedy Manor with the same utterly confident ferocity, along with siring countless litters of kittens.
No way of discovering if Archie's commander had fathered any children, at least not without displaying the kind of impertinence that invited a thick ear. And deservedly so. "We don't, as a rule, pry into each other's private affairs much in the division," Carmichael had said that first day--and Archie himself had reason to be grateful for that courtesy.
Carmichael's division was among the largest and most varied of the groups under Kilcarron, Archie learned; it was not unusual for as many as half-a-dozen agents--though more often in twos or threes--to be sent abroad as a detachment on a particular mission. Which explained why so much of the morning instruction was given over to languages.
Latour gave the occasional French lesson, but much of his time was spent with experiments in his surgery. More often, the French instruction was given by a tall, rail-thin, wispy-haired emigre, simply called Monsieur, who was even more exacting about matters of pronunciation.
More Spanish again, in depth and detail. Beginning German. Italian, after all, even if he couldn't pass for one. ("But you might," Latour said judiciously, "be some inconsequential traveler"). And after two days of prolonged and vigorous argument, "street gutter" French, under Carmichael's reluctant and slightly dubious tutelage.
The last round of arguments had become unexpectedly personal and enlightening.
"Go look at yourself!" Carmichael challenged. "I can see why Old Nick had an eye to you. You're for the salons and those fancy parlors--you'd be wasted on the streets." He frowned fiercely. "Worse--you'd stick out and be noticed."
Oh. The damned face again. Archie did not pretend to misunderstand. "Then shouldn't I know how to tell them to take themselves off?" he persisted.
"Take themselves off?" A faint gleam of amusement from Carmichael.
"I was actually thinking of saying something less--civil."
Carmichael shook his head. "You'd still likely draw too much attention."
I was a fighting man, damn it! But that statement alone would not tip the balance. Somehow, winning this argument had become very important. Archie thought again. "If I look dirty enough, no one will notice."
Carmichael did not respond, but the amused gleam increased slightly. Archie sensed his advantage and pressed into the breach.
"If I look dirty and smell bad enough, no one'll want to notice."
That brought a reluctant laugh from his commander. "Learned that trick already? Very well, you've convinced me."
Beyond languages, there were field techniques, skills involved in passing information from agent to agent.
Three more ciphering systems. Selecting every fourth word to extract the message. In another system, eliminating every third word to reveal the true message. Seventeen agreed-upon places to conceal objects for retrieval inside a room. Twelve agreed-upon unwritten signals to be displayed to other agents and what each one signified.
And memory-work, always--tested whenever his commander felt it necessary.
"How many windows in the dining room?" Carmichael asked casually as they sat on the grass after rifle practice.
"Three--" Archie began slowly, trying not to be caught out as he had been the first day; he saw the eyebrows lifting. "Three on each outer wall."
"Good. And in the library?"
Archie tried to envision the room as if he were standing in the doorway. "Four . . . to the left . . . and one to the right, around the corner."
"How many lamps in there?"
"And how many chairs?"
"Good again. And how many books?"
Carmichael laughed and dodged the handful of grass flung by his exasperated subordinate who had just realized his leg was being pulled.
Other skills, more eclectic and not entirely respectable. But essential, nonetheless, to the success of a mission . . .
Probe. Click. Probe. Click, click. The padlock opened. Archie looked at Carmichael, who grinned.
"Under five minutes. That's better. Shall I tell Rory he gets an extra pint tonight?"
"Tell him you'll get him one tonight, and I'll stand him one tomorrow," Archie replied, pleased. He broke off when he saw what his commander was doing with two strips of black cloth on the table. "No," he pleaded unhappily.
The light brown eyes were implacable. "You'll need to do this at night, someday."
Archie bit his lip and sat still, obedient but uncomfortable while Carmichael used the shorter, folded strip of cloth to cover Archie's eyes, then tied it in place with the longer strip. "Again. See if you can make it in less than five minutes this time and I'll stand you a pint."
The four new ciphers were all related and mathematically based. Archie watched attentively the first day, as the three of them--himself, Rory, and Caillean--dissected them together. But in the middle of the second lesson, Caillean assigned them each a short, separate exercise and Archie found to his dismay that he was making very heavy weather of it.
Figures--the numbers seemed to run together into a jumble. Suddenly it was as bad as Justinian, all over again . . .
. . . The numbers and symbols spun together into a blur. He knew it wasn't right, he'd missed something somewhere. But Clayton was too far away to ask, and struggling himself . . . Simpson was there, too, four places away, doing badly as usual and being reprimanded for it by Captain Keene. As much as Archie hated and feared the older midshipman, he knew somehow that Keene's sarcasm wasn't helping any of them learn. And Clayton had the night watch this time, Simpson would be off-duty . . . alone in the dark with nowhere to run. Archie bit his lip, trying to push away the fear and concentrate on the lesson. Maybe he could find somewhere to hide . . . the navigational formula before him was nothing but an incomprehensible scribble, he'd never be able to get it right . . .
Archie came back to the present with a gasp of near-panic. He saw the figures spiraling down his paper. Wrong again, all of it.
"Are you feeling unwell, Mr. Stewart?" Caillean's blue-green eyes were watching him sharply. "You look like you've one of your headaches."
Archie managed to find his voice again. "No, I--I beg your pardon." He looked down at the paper. "I fear I've lost the reckoning, somewhere."
"It's not that difficult," Caillean reproved mildly. "Most of it's just simple logic." But Archie already knew she was one of the fortunate few who had found mathematics a native language. Like Horatio. I can't learn this without him.
Caillean was picking up his and Rory's papers. "Our time is up. We'll go on with this tomorrow."
"Do you feel ill?" Rory asked as the two of them left the study.
"I'll--do well enough." Archie managed a smile that felt only half-convincing even to him. "Go on--you don't want to be late for your riding lesson." He followed more slowly in Rory's wake as the boy clattered down the stairs. Horses for Rory, rifle practice for him . . . he walked out to the weapons range.
Carmichael was usually waiting for him there--it seemed he'd be late today. Archie selected a rifle, began to practice mechanically, his thoughts elsewhere.
He'd felt himself making progress, in the wide and wild range of subjects they'd been teaching him. And he'd almost been pleased by it--until now. How long until his failure became known? And what were the consequences for such . . . inadequacy? If Kilcarron had anything to do with it, he was sure they would be unpleasant.
From a distance, he saw Carmichael approaching, but not alone. Caillean was with him--he recognized the harebell blue of her dress. Archie's mouth tightened apprehensively. Well, there was nothing to do but take it when it came.
Caillean stopped at the distant end of the practice range, made some last remark to Carmichael that Archie was too far away to hear, and departed.
Carmichael did not mention her when he joined Archie at the shooting line. "Started already? Not bad." He eyed the targets, then pulled an impressively battered watch out of an inner jacket pocket. "Let's try you for time today."
Load and fire. Reload and fire again. Archie repeated the drill silently with occasional covert glances at his superior. Carmichael observed the shooting and his watch with an unreadable expression, called a halt after a dozen rounds, pocketed the watch again, and walked away to their usual resting spot, dropping down on the grass. Archie followed him, still silent, but ventured an inquiring glance.
"Better." Carmichael answered the unspoken question, then smiled slightly. "I think I'm still faster but that will do. Enough to let it go for a few days."
Archie raised curious brows.
"I was talking to Caillean."
Here it came. Archie dropped his eyes, braced himself for the worst.
"This time, tomorrow," Carmichael paused briefly, "when Rory goes for riding, stay on with Caillean. She says she thinks an extra hour for five days or so should bring you around."
Surprise broke Archie's self-imposed silence. "Why?"
"Because she says you don't understand it all yet," Carmichael explained, with the air of one pointing out the obvious. "Why are you so surprised?"
"No, I mean--" Archie floundered, stopped. "Forgive me. I'm . . . not accustomed to so much consideration."
"I told Latour I wouldn't be prying into your troubles," Carmichael declared, somewhat mendaciously. "But I'm tempted to ask--what kind of fools did you used to work for?"
"The same as you, I expect!" Archie retorted, without thinking. Realizing too late what he had said, he felt his face burning, hastened to make amends. "Sorry, sir. I shouldn't--"
Carmichael, laughing, held up a placating hand. "No--wait, I'll be happier not knowing. But what made you think we wouldn't help you if you needed it?"
It was an odd question to hear--in a house full of agents who would cheerfully inform one that they bribed, deceived, and manipulated for a living. Horatio would have acted out of loyalty and friendship; Captain Pellew in his belief--not universally shared--that every man should be trained to perform to the very limit of his ability. Archie opened his mouth, then shut it again, at a loss for words.
"You're not thinking." Carmichael's tone was mildly impatient; this was the true reprimand. "The better you can do the job, the more likely we can all stay alive." He grinned a little, the reproof over. "Old Nick might have dragged you up and left on the roof-beam, but I don't have to let you fall."
Justinian had been no place to learn anything, Archie reflected when he was alone briefly before dinner. And Renown--knowing, learning, and speaking had all been regarded as undesirable. But here . . .
The better you can do the job, the more likely we can all stay alive.
Self-interest, of course. But there was something involved here beyond mere survival.
What made you think we wouldn't help you if you needed it? I don't have to let you fall.
And he didn't have to tell me that. When he had arrived, still feeling coerced, resentful, more than a little resistant, he'd been braced to encounter an entire army of Kilcarrons, as incisive and merciless as their commander in chief. He hadn't thought to find kindness here.
More agents were trickling back daily to headquarters; the lodge was beginning to fill up. As the most recent recruit, Archie held himself a little apart still, unsure yet whom to trust--or distrust among those returned. He had reason enough to know that newcomers anywhere were sometimes subjected to an uncomfortable process of initiation--in which case, discretion was truly the better part of valor.
But there were no monsters here, no Simpsons. Archie knew what to watch for and saw no evidence of it; remembering Wellard's difficulties on Renown, he kept an eye on Rory, who, as the youngest present, might appear more vulnerable. But Rory remained as cheerful and impudent as ever; there were no suspicious changes of mood, no strained withdrawals into silence, and above all, no mysterious bruises or injuries to explain away.
Nor did Archie find himself in an untenable position as the newest man in the organization. The returned agents took their cue from his own behavior, treating him with entirely professional civility or leaving him alone altogether. Perhaps the occasional appraising glance was thrown his way from time to time, but for the most part, his new colleagues appeared to accept him at his own valuation.
The pace of instruction accelerated further. Continuing rifle practice. Knife practice, under the returned Jamieson's laconic eye. Other lessons in skills and techniques taught by individuals who were sometimes--but not always--identified by name.
Then came lessons in close-quarters and street fighting, with a grizzled Edinburgh veteran. Latour sternly ordered Archie only to observe during the first week. To his own satisfaction, Archie found much of what was said during these lessons to be remarkably familiar, once he could decipher his new teacher's words through the heavy brogue.
"You'll do what they're not expecting," was one of his more comprehensible statements. "Watch for the belly and the balls--but everyone knows that. Strike at the eyes, or the throat--or even the knees, no one's watching for that trick. Step on their feet, if they've got a hold on you from the back, or an elbow up to the mouth or the nose." He demonstrated.
"If you're free to move, anything is a weapon. In an alley, look for a plank--or a brick. Inside, try a chair, or something you can smash. A glass, a bottle, even a mirror if it's one of those fancy rooms."
"Seven years' bad luck?" Rory questioned dubiously, and ducked a cuff from Carmichael, who had been sitting in and listening.
"It's unluckier than that, if he has a weapon and you don't, hell-brat!"
Later, as Archie was pronounced more fit, he was allowed to participate in some of the less strenuous physical practices, though not without additional cautions by the physician. There, too, Archie was pleased to discover he was doing well. Fighting, especially during a boarding action, was often nothing else but close-quarters conflict; body-memory returned and he was able to hold his own during the drills. A little better than Rory, who, although up to every dirty trick from the gutter, was still less practiced in actually using them. As he explained, in his previous profession, fighting had served only one purpose.
"You get their hands off you, and then you run like hell."
"Or climb," the Edinburgh man grunted. "I remember the Eel." He eyed Rory curiously. "What happened? You were the best."
Rory flushed a little, and nodded acknowledgement. "Grew a bit. They took me on here."
The older man grinned. "All kinds of skills useful here. Back to work now, gents."
And another, never-to-be-forgotten lesson presented by Latour and Carmichael together.
"There may be times," Latour said, as they sat in his surgery one morning, "though we hope there will be few of them, when certain unpleasant but necessary actions are required."
Archie froze, understanding immediately, and saw that Rory still looked puzzled.
"Our job is information," Carmichael said grimly, making the point unmistakably clear, "not killing. But if you've no other choice--make it quick and quiet and then get out fast because chances are it's all blown to hell."
"Then we don't usually--" Archie began, feeling oddly relieved.
"Killing's noisy. Too much of it and it defeats our purpose."
Archie followed the thought to its logical conclusion. An enemy alerted by too many deaths could easily change its plans--not desirable if one was a spy trying to obtain those same plans.
"Now then," Latour resumed. "The quickest ways." He paused.
"A knife straight to the heart or across the throat," Carmichael began. "But that'll be messy. Remember it's got to be quiet, too."
"In which case, the prime target is the throat," Latour agreed. "Consider the neck. Once you have it in a tight hold, you can apply enough lateral pressure from your grip or manage a blow with sufficient force behind it to snap the bones--"
"What the hangman's knot does," Carmichael supplied the explanation, sounding ghoulishly cheerful.
"Or pressure against the great veins in the throat: cut off blood and air and the victim will suffocate. A briefer pressure can produce unconsciousness--that's another option. It may only be necessary to render an enemy incapable, rather than employ lethal force." Latour eyed Carmichael as if he were expecting opposition from his colleague.
Which promptly came. "If you remember that as soon as he comes round he'll sound the alarm and have everyone after you!" was the scowling response.
Latour continued as though the other agent had not spoken, "A direct frontal blow can crush the windpipe--that's mostly quiet but not necessarily quick."
"Pistol's usually too noisy. But you can muffle the sound with a cloak, or a pillow or cushion if you're indoors--"
Rory was looking a trifle green by now, and Archie felt slightly unwell himself. "A serviceman might prefer a stand-up, open fight." He wasn't sure he still didn't. But this was war, he conceded silently, no less than it had been on the Indy or the Renown. If killing in secret was necessary, then it was best to know how to do it as Carmichael and Latour described it, quickly and quietly.
The physician was speaking again. "In the matter of weapons that can strike silently, or from a distance . . . well, I gather Jamieson has taught both of you how to throw a knife. But there are other means as well."
Archie raised quizzical brows. "Bow and arrow?"
He had meant the question half-facetiously, but Latour gave it serious consideration. "A possibility. Though I would recommend a crossbow, myself. And the attendant paraphernalia--quiver, bolts or arrows--would be difficult to conceal on one's person and to dispose of, afterwards. A child's catapult would be a better choice, if the missile were large enough. Aim for the temple or the back of the head where the bone is thinner. Or, again, the throat."
"David and Goliath," Rory murmured, with an uncomfortable twitch of his shoulders.
Latour smiled thinly. "That was a sling of a different sort. However, slings and catapults are very old weapons. And so is this." Reaching into a drawer, he drew out and held up a narrow wooden tube, somewhat longer than the length of a hand, and less than an inch in diameter.
Archie leaned forward, suddenly reminded of the stables at Kennedy Manor, and games played with hollow straws and dried peas.
"This is commonly used among certain tribal peoples in South America."
"South America?" Rory echoed, leaning forward as well. That continent had been on one of their least-studied maps, Archie remembered.
"A blowpipe, meant to hold darts. You raise it to your lips, so, and--" Taking a breath, Latour suited the action to the word and blew forcefully towards the connecting door between surgery and infirmary.
Something small, light, and alarmingly fast shot from the mouth of the pipe and lodged itself in the door. Archie winced and might have been embarrassed if he had not felt Rory's similar flinch beside him.
Carmichael, looking somewhat disconcerted himself, walked over to the door and gingerly extracted the dart.
"I made that one myaelf," Latour informed them, laying down the pipe. "From one of my spare needles. But any similar projectile will do--thorns, spines, even a fishbone or a sharpened wooden splinter."
"But would that be enough?" Rory looked dubious. "It's so small."
"A direct hit in the eye, or the jugular vein. Too small to break any bones but quite commonly, the darts are--enhanced."
"Poison." Carmichael sounded grim. Archie blinked, recalling wild stories about the French infantry sometimes using poisoned bullets.
Latour nodded. "Poison. Or something equally strong. In South America, these darts are used for hunting. To render game unfit for consumption would, as you have said, defeat the purpose. Instead, the hunters use a drug--a form of paralytic." Seeing Rory's perplexed expression, he explained, "A drug that paralyzes the limbs so the prey cannot move. The limbs, and then the lungs. The animal suffocates, essentially, but its flesh is untainted."
Rory was still struggling with the diminutive size of the missile. "It . . . wouldn't feel like anything more than a bee sting."
Or a mosquito bite. Suddenly Archie's thoughts were wandering far away; memories surfaced, made him shiver.
// Grey infirmary walls, limbs growing heavy and numb until he knew he would never stand up again. Uncomfortably humid air that was nevertheless far out of reach of his straining lungs . . . and preceding it all, the sharp, pricking sensation that he had thought had come from a tropical insect. A minor irritant--or the cause of everything? //
"Stewart?" Carmichael was peering at him, tawny brows knit in concern. "Are you ill?"
Oh, God. Archie shivered again, gulped air, and looked around. Latour and Rory were standing by the connecting door, the boy examining the hole made by the dart.
"I, I--" he cast about wildly for an excuse. "Forgive me--a headache coming on, I think." It was very nearly true. He licked his lips, made himself meet his commander's eyes. "M-may I go, sir? Back to my room?"
Carmichael, still studying him, gave a brief nod. "Do you want the doctor? He's right here."
"N-no--thank you. Just rest." Archie ducked out the other door before anyone could stop him.
He forced himself not to run all the way back to the lodge, kept the panic down at the bottom of his throat until he shut the door of his room behind him.
Weeks ago, after fully drawing the curtains, he'd discovered a small window seat in the corner of the embrasure. He made for it now, huddled there with his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms around them, feeling inexplicably cold and trying to argue himself out of panic.
Why should it make a difference, anyway, thinking he knew how it had been done? Not the draught, after all, but the small pricking of a pin or a needle . . .
. . . the sharp sting of a mosquito, painful enough to draw his attention just before he had been overwhelmed by the greater pain and exhaustion. Archie shivered and leaned his forehead against the window-pane. Memories of helplessness and coercion floated to the surface.
No. This wasn't the same. Not being subjugated by brute force and violent abuse, not being shackled in a prison cell. Remember why you're here. Everyone is safe as long as you keep your word. He had committed himself--but the sensation of being trapped, of being compelled, still lingered.
"I can't get out--I can't get out," said the starling. He wrapped his arms more tightly around his knees, stared unseeingly out the window.
A soft knock at the door . . . Archie looked up, waited--but there was no further sound. Curious at last, he slowly unwound himself and went to open the door.
A small bottle with a note attached to it had been left just outside; as Archie picked up the bottle, recognizing it as one of Latour's, he saw another note had been left beneath it and retrieved that as well.
Latour's missive identified the bottle's contents: he was to take the draught and an hour's rest at least (those last two words were underlined), for the headache. And he was not to forget to eat something at midday.
The second note was from Carmichael. Caillean had just been called away to Edinburgh and Archie would be needed to oversee Rory's handwriting exercises after geography that afternoon.
Unexpectedly, Archie felt his mouth lifting in what might have been a smile, albeit a wry one. Latour *and* Carmichael--formidable as individuals, a damned juggernaut together! Archie knew both men too well by this time to believe that the simultaneous delivery of their messages was coincidental.
Kindness again, along with a light reminder of his duty to others. There were people taking charge of *him* now; he felt it frequently. It was as if the protections denied him as an undersized, desperately vulnerable twelve-year-old were somehow firmly in place. He was being looked after--given additional training and medical attention when necessary . . . and little time alone to brood or feel isolated.
Kindness and duty. With another wry smile, directed at himself this time, Archie unstoppered the bottle and prepared to swallow the draught.
END PART EIGHT