Ship of the Damned, part thirteen
by Sue N.
Styles jumped and whirled about with a foul oath as
the starter landed sharply across his back. But as he
met the cruel, leering gaze of the bosun, he shut his
mouth hard against any further outcries and clenched
his powerful hands tightly into fists, his soul
seething, his eyes dark pits of fury.
Hale only laughed and flicked the starter lightly
against the big seaman's chest. "I told you, mate," he
hissed, "I don't allow no dawdlin'." He looked down at
the deck and spat upon it. "It ain't fit for pigs up
'ere. I want these 'oles patched, I want these seams
caulked, and I want this deck scrubbed white, you
understand me? An' if it ain't done by breakfast, I'll
see you at the gratings."
Styles did not speak, did not trust himself to. His
blood was boiling through his veins, and his chest
heaved as he breathed heavily. It would be impossible
to get the job done properly before breakfast. He knew
it, and he knew Hale knew it, as well.
Nearby, Finney rose slowly to his feet, his thick arms
hanging loosely at his sides, his blue eyes narrowed,
his face twisted into an ugly scowl. Before he could
do or say anything, though, Hale whirled upon him and
lashed out with his starter, catching the big man
across the face. A bloody crease appeared in Finney's
cheek, and Hale laughed aloud.
"Got eyes in the back of me 'ead, Finney!" he spat.
"We ain't 'ad a decent floggin' in three days. But you
pair keep it up, an' we'll 'ave one before noon. Now,
get to work, both of you. And don't forget -- I got me
eyes on ye."
Styles' head and heart were pounding. He had served
aboard Indefatigable long enough to have forgotten
what it was to be treated like an animal, to be mocked
and brutalized for sport. He had forgotten what it was
to hate those above him; but now it was all coming
Hale read the helpless fury in the man's face and
laughed again, delighting in his power over the hands
and in the knowledge that they could not fight back
without sacrificing their own lives. And he knew there
would be no interference from the officers, for Mr.
Thorne was as strong a believer in the lash as any man
had ever been, and the others followed his lead.
So with the captain gone, he had free hand...
He turned back to Styles and sneered, trailing the end
of his starter almost lovingly down the man's chest.
"Remember, boyo, by breakfast, or you've a date wi'
the cat!" He tapped Styles once, then pushed past him.
Styles swore harshly under his breath and whirled
around, but felt a strong hand on his arm. Turning
back, he glared up at Finney, who only smiled and
shook his blond head.
"Not now," the big sailor said quietly. "Not unless
you want to 'ang. Remember, the Good Book says there's
a time for ev'rything under the sun." His smile grew
hard, his eyes harder. "And that bastard's time is
comin', along wiv all the rest of 'em. Don't you
worry, mate, they'll get what's owin' to 'em.
Meanwhile," he released Styles' arm and smiled more
easily, "let's get to work. I don't fancy barin' me
back to that bastard an' his cat today."
Styles nodded dazedly, his mind in a whirl. He was
accustomed to hearing the men about him grumbling.
English sailors had been doing so since they had first
taken to the sea; they considered it their
prerogative, even aboard the Indy. But Finney's words
went beyond mere grumbling to something infinitely
darker and more dangerous.
Somehow -- and he was still not certain just how -- he
had landed in hell, and that hell was about to erupt
and consume them all in its fire.
Archie reported to Thorne in the day cabin and
reported his findings with the guns, careful to lay no
blame nor even hint at incompetence on anyone's part,
yet stating their condition clearly, directly and in
detail, down to the missing equipment. He had
absolutely no idea how Thorne would react, for the man
had a knack for keeping him constantly off balance.
But no man, he knew, could possibly be less than
thoroughly displeased with such an appalling state of
affairs. Even Captain Pellew would, by now, have been
in one of his tightly-controlled but towering rages.
Not that such ever would have been allowed to happen
on the Indy...
Yet Thorne was listening only half-heartedly to
Kennedy's report. He cared little for the particulars
of the guns, knew only they were a disgrace and would
be put to rights, even if he had to order every gunner
in Resolute flogged to make it so. No, what
preoccupied him now -- and brought a thin scowl to his
face -- was Kennedy's appearance. The boy had black
smudges on his face, hands and uniform, streaks of
grease on his breeches, and one of his stockings was
torn. He presented a deplorable appearance.
"Tell me, Mr. Kennedy," he said icily when the young
man had fallen silent, "did you have to crawl inside
the guns yourself?"
Archie blinked and frowned, not certain what Thorne
was talking about. "Sir?"
"Look at you!" Thorne spat, rising abruptly from his
chair and stalking furiously toward Kennedy, his face
a tight mask of outrage. "Good God, just look at your
uniform! You are filthy, sir, filthy! I told you
before, Mr. Kennedy, the officers of Resolute are
expected to maintain a certain standard of dress and
appearance, and this certainly is not it! You, sir,
are a disgrace!"
Archie exhaled sharply and stared incredulously at
Thorne, his blue eyes wide, his mouth open. "Sir--"
"Do not 'sir' me!" Thorne snapped venomously, his eyes
hard. "How are the men to take pride in their
appearance if their officers do not?"
"Sir, I protest!" Archie broke in sharply. "I take as
much pride in appearance as any other man, but if I
have a job to do--"
"And what, exactly, was your 'job'?" Thorne asked
cuttingly. "You said you would inspect the guns, not
climb inside them--"
"I did not climb inside them," Archie said through
clenched teeth, struggling to keep his tone even. "But
guns are a dirty business--"
"Officers do not engage in 'dirty business,' Mr.
Kennedy," Thorne said harshly, standing but a few
inches from the younger, smaller man and staring
heatedly down at him. "That is what we have warrant
officers, petty officers and the ratings for! We--"
"Sir, I cannot know the condition or capabilities of a
gun if I do not see them for myself," Archie
maintained, trying to remain calm but finding it
increasingly difficult. And I am not accustomed to
standing back and ordering men to do what I myself
will not. Aboard Indefatigable--"
"You are not now aboard Indefatigable, God damn it!"
Thorne roared in a rage, causing the young man to
flinch violently. "You are in Resolute, and you would
do well to remember that! The next time I hear you
refer to your former ship, I will have you written up
for insubordination, is that clear?"
Archie shuddered and raised a shaking hand to one
temple, feeling a sudden and sickening shifting in his
Thorne showed the young man no pity, no quarter, but
pressed his attack, stepping closer still and staring
hatefully into those dazed blue eyes. "You listen to
me, Lieutenant," he hissed softly, malignantly, his
entire bearing exuding menace, "I am in command here,
not you, not Edward Pellew, not Reginald Sidney. I am,
Hugh Thorne. And if you cross me, I will see you
broken into so many pieces no one will remember who
you were! You are mine, now, and you will do as I say,
without hesitation and without argument. You are not
required to think, to assume, or to act upon your own
initiative. I give the orders here. Do you
Archie could say nothing, could not think, could
barely breathe. He felt as if all the waters of a
black, heaving sea were closing in about him.
"DO YOU UNDERSTAND?" Thorne shouted, his eyes wide and
wild in his darkly-flushed face.
A small, soft cry escaped Archie and he buried his
face in shaking hands, trembling uncontrollably and
gasping harshly for breath, fighting desperately to
hold himself -- his sanity -- together.
Satisfied -- and deeply gratified -- by the young
man's stricken reaction, seeing in it the collapse of
his defiance, Thorne smiled thinly and turned away,
utterly calm now, utterly relaxed.
"Very well, you may return to the guns," he said
easily, almost amiably, as if the mad rage of less
than two minutes ago had never been. "But, alas, I
fear I can spare no hands for your efforts with them.
You, the gunner, the gunner's mates and
quarter-gunners shall have to put them to rights
yourselves. And do try to hurry," he advised serenely.
"I should hate to meet up with an enemy ship with them
in such disrepair. It would not reflect well upon you,
Archie raised his head slowly and stared at Thorne in
sick horror, his mind and soul reeling helplessly. He
was adrift again, as he had been once before, in that
small boat, had been cut loose from all moorings with
no way to set his own course or even get his bearings.
And he was alone, with no one to call to for help.
"That will be all, Mr. Kennedy," Thorne said in that
same cool, dispassionate voice, with that slight smile
touching his wide mouth. "The men will be piped to
breakfast in less than hour; I doubt there is much you
can do before then." He swept that frozen gaze over
the young man's figure. "I suggest you use the time to
wash up and change."
Archie muttered some assent, saluted as best he could
and rushed blindly from the cabin, sick and shaken to
his soul and awash in a blackness no light could
Hell. Oh, God, he had fallen back into hell!
Thorne watched Kennedy stumble from the cabin, then
smiled thinly, contentedly. Well, that should teach
Pellew's whelp who truly was in command here!
Needing to flee as far and as fast from Thorne as he
could, Archie all but ran away from that cursed cabin,
breathing hard and fast, burning with rage,
humiliation and terror. Adding to his torment was the
very real pain spreading through his stomach and
bringing a sharp, bitter taste to his mouth. Knowing
that pain, that taste, he choked back an outcry and
stumbled down the hatchway to the wardroom, horrified
to see everything about him getting smaller and
farther away, as if he were viewing his surroundings
through the wrong end of a telescope.
At his faint, anguished cry and tumultuous appearance,
Midshipman Stewart looked up from the books and papers
scattered across the table and rose sharply to his
feet in alarm. Stewart called out to him, but he gave
no answer, merely raised a badly trembling hand to his
head and lurched past him, making frantically for his
cabin, desperate to reach some haven before it came.
Even now, it was almost upon him, for the air was
growing painfully sharp, and all about him shone a
glaring white light. Another choked groan escaped him
as he flung himself into the cabin and slammed the
door behind him, then collapsed helplessly with an
involuntary cry as it overtook him.
More than a little frightened, knowing all too well
Thorne's skill at and passion for tormenting others,
Stewart forgot his books and hurried after the
lieutenant, determined to help however he could the
only officer in Resolute who had ever offered to help
him. He stopped at the cabin and knocked on the door,
but got no answer. He knocked again, then heard the
sound of a body colliding with the deck, and went
"Oh, my God!"
Kennedy was convulsing violently on the floor, his
eyes rolled back in his shaking head, his hands
tightly clenched, his muscles rigid through the wild
thrashing. Thick, guttural sounds, sometimes harsh
cries, were being torn from him by the seizure, as if
his very soul were groaning in agony.
"Mr. Kennedy!" Stewart threw himself immediately to
his knees at Kennedy's side, taking him into his arms
and holding tightly to him to keep him from injuring
himself. He knew he could do nothing to stop or even
lessen the fit, could only hold Kennedy and wait until
it subsided on its own. Yet through it all, he talked
softly, soothingly, hoping his voice, if not his
words, might somehow reach Kennedy and offer a measure
The fit was a long one, a particularly severe one.
Stewart soon lost count of the minutes, then ceased
trying to measure time at all. His arms began to ache
and cramp from holding Kennedy, and still the fit went
At long last, however, the convulsions grew weaker,
slower, then stopped altogether. Kennedy gave a last,
wrenching cry and went limp in Stewart's arms, lying
still and silent and deeply unconscious. With the
greatest care, the midshipman lifted Kennedy and eased
him onto his cot, drawing the blanket over him and
smoothing the sweat-sodden hair back from his wet
face. He knew Kennedy would lie like this, almost
comatose, for some time before returning to exhausted
awareness. Exhaling deeply, himself exhausted, he
settled onto the floor, sitting with his head near
Kennedy's, and resolved to stay for a while, just in
case anything else should happen. He knew it was
unlikely another fit would follow, but also knew it
would do no harm to sit watch upon him.
If nothing else, the lieutenant would awaken to a
friendly, understanding face.
Matthews ate breakfast in silence with his new
messmates, listening to their conversation without
seeming to, made deeply uneasy by its tone. He had
taken the measure of the men while on watch with them
last night, and had no desire to be party to their
sullen, dangerous ways. Apparently, one of their
number -- the man he was replacing -- had fallen from
the ship during the recent storms, and no attempt had
been made to retrieve him, though his mates sworn it
could have been done. Thorn had let him drown, they
said, had stood there and watched it happen without
the smallest sign of concern. And now another of them
would feel the leftenant's limitless wrath.
"Oy, they got Willie," one man, Showell, reported in a
low voice, leaning over the table and close to his
mates to keep others from hearing. "One o' the bosun's
mates, that bastard Lewis, said 'e caught 'im stealin'
rum. You know that ain't right! Willie drinks, sure as
the next man, but 'e ain't no thief! I reckon it was
Lewis 'isself who pinched the rum, an' then put
Willie's name t' th' deed. They'll 'ave 'im at the
gratings at noon."
"'Ow many?" another man, Owens, asked harshly.
Showell grimaced and spat. "Seventy. An' this on top
o' the fifty poor Willie got last week. I'm thinkin'
it'll kill 'im. Jus' like it did McLoughlin."
"Aye, an' poor Tony's only crime was bein' Irish,"
Owens agreed, staring into his gruel. "Well, we all
knows 'ow Mr. Thorne feels about the Irish. It's a
wonder we got any o' th' poor sods left among us!"
Showell leaned closer in, and gestured for his mates
to do the same. "I been talkin' wi' Finney," he
whispered, his dark eyes searching the hard faces
about him. "We've all 'ad our fill. We don't 'ave t'
be treated this way. Finney reckons it's time we stood
up fer our rights!"
Another man, Nash, grunted thickly. "Wot, an' swing
from 'Is Lordship's yardarm? 'E'd kill us in a minute,
you know that! An' consider it a job well done." He
shook his head slowly. "Naw. Gib ain't but two, three
weeks out. I reckon I can last that long--"
"Provided ye lives 'at long!" a young man, Lawson,
spat. "The bastard's done sent the capt'n mad, an' it
was 'im made sure Leftenant North was in th' thickest
o' the fightin', 'opin' 'e'd get killed. Poor bugger
didn't know shit about guns, but there 'e was, until
the Dons got 'im. An' what of Mr. Jessup?" he glanced
over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening,
then said softly, "It weren't Capt'n Sidney sent 'im
wi' that frigate. I o'er'eard 'em arguin' about it.
Capt'n was against it, said it would leave Resolute
too short. But Mr. Thorne insisted. 'E knew Mr.
Jessup'd side wi' the capt'n, and would stand for us.
So 'e sent 'im away. Now all's we got are them damned
midshipmen, most of 'em useless. Like that God damned
Mr. George." He spat onto the floor. "Ain't a one of
'em worf 'avin!"
"Oh, I don't know," Owens murmured. "That young Mr.
Stewart ain't so bad, providin' he'd find some
backbone. But I reckon the others've got 'im beat
down. 'E'll not stand against 'em, not after Thorne
caned 'im senseless." He shook his head and frowned
deeply. "No, lads, I reckon we're on our own. There
ain't nobody in this God damned ship who'll look after
us exceptin' ourselves."
Matthews could take no more and rose to his feet,
attracting his messmates' attention. Smiling amiably
into their startled, worried faces, he shook his head
and said, "Got me a new pipe needs breakin' in. Reckon
I'll go up top and smoke a bit before they find sommat
else for me t' do."
Showell stared up and frowned, studying the man
intently. He hadn't said much since joining them, but
had proved himself a solid, skilled hand, willing to
work if not inclined to talk. "You're one o' them Indy
blokes," he said quietly. "I 'ear she's a fine ship."
He dropped his gaze to the table and grimaced, as if
in pain. "I don't reckon you'd understand, then," he
"Oh, I understand," Matthews assured him quietly. "I
been in the Navy near twenty years, now, and I've
served aboard every sort of ship there is. I
With that, he turned and walked away, leaving his new
messmates staring after his departing figure.
He understood, he sighed a few moments later, emerging
into the sunlight. But that didn't mean it didn't
scare the hell out of him...
Archie stirred weakly and groaned softly, completely
drained of all strength and utterly exhausted. His
head hurt mercilessly, and, badly disoriented, he had
no idea where he was. But he vaguely recalled a
gentle, soothing voice in his ear and strong arms
holding him, and knew instinctively he was safe.
At the faint, breathless whisper, Stewart sat up and
turned around, smiling slightly down into those
confused blue eyes. "Are ye all right now, sair?" he
asked quietly. "Ye gae me quite a scare!"
Panic twisted through Archie in hard, cold waves as he
recognized the face, as memory returned with a
shattering force. Crying out sharply, he sat up
abruptly in terror, then fell forward with a wrenching
groan and dropped his hideously throbbing head into
shaking hands as weakness and a sickening wave of
vertigo overcame him.
"Easy, sair, easy!" Stewart soothed in his soft
brogue, placing his hands against the lieutenant's
shoulders and pushing him down against his cot. "Ye
need yer rest."
Archie knew he had no choice, and, swallowing hard
against his nausea, sank back with more need than
grace, shuddering heavily and closing his eyes. His
breathing was fast and shallow, and Stewart, leaning
over him, could see the too-rapid throbbing of the
pulse in his throat. Sweat stood out over Kennedy's
white flesh in a glistening sheen and soaked into his
hair, which clung wetly to his forehead and temples.
He was shivering violently, as if from a terrible
chill, and Stewart could plainly see the lines of
exhaustion etched deeply into the fine features.
"It's all right, sair," he said calmly, pitching his
voice low. "It'll pass wi' a wee bit o' rest."
Archie swallowed again and forced his eyes open,
trying to focus them on Stewart's face. "You-- you--
were here?" he rasped. "You-- you saw--"
Stewart sighed, his green eyes clouding with sympathy.
"Aye, sair," he said sadly.
Shame and horror engulfed him, and he turned onto his
side, away from Stewart, with an anguished groan,
closing his eyes tightly. God...
"Ye were in such a state when ye came in," the young
man continued in that same gentle, consoling voice. "I
was worried. I thought-- Well, I didna ken exactly
what tae think, sair. But when ye didnae answer me
knock-- I thought I heard ye fall, so I came in--"
"Go away!" Archie whispered tightly, his soul writhing
in humiliation. "Please--"
But Stewart did not. Instead, he stayed where he was,
calm and steady, as if he had done all this before. "I
know it's nae easy, sair," he said softly. "But ye've
nae cause ta feel ashamed. It's--"
"What? Natural?" Archie murmured bitterly. "We both
know that is not so!"
Stewart sighed. "Mebbe not, sair. But it happens."
"But it shouldn't!" he cried in torment.
"No, sair," Stewart agreed quietly. "It shouldnae
happen, to you, or to my brother."
Archie stiffened at that, then turned slowly onto his
back, staring warily up at the midshipman. "Your
brother?" he asked softly.
Stewart smiled slightly. "Aye, sair. I know all about
this, I've grown up wi' it. Robin's older than me, and
a guid man he is, too. But all his life, he's had
fits." He shrugged his slim shoulders. "No one knows
why, least of all Robin. But it's somethin' we've all
had ta live with, somethin' we've all had to accept as
part of our Rob." He gazed steadily down at Kennedy.
"I've ne'er thought it made him any less a man, and
I've ne'er seen it as a mark o' shame against him."
The words touched oddly on Archie's raw nerves, and he
had to close his eyes against the sudden rush of
tears. If only one of his own brothers had said that,
Stewart watched the lieutenant battling desperately
for his composure, and supposed he had stayed long
enough. "Well, I'll go now, sair," he said quietly,
rising to his feet, "an' let ye get yer rest. If ye
should hae need o' me--"
"Wait, please!" Archie called softly. Rising slowly,
carefully, he turned and lowered his feet to the deck,
relieved to find the dizziness -- and the headache --
much more bearable now. Raising his head, he fixed a
dark, exhausted gaze upon Stewart. "Thank you," he
breathed. "I-- appreciate--" He winced and dropped his
gaze to the deck. "Not many would have stayed," he
murmured, "and not many-- would have been so kind--
Thank you," he said again.
Stewart smiled and shrugged. "Och, sair, 'twas
nothin'! I couldnae let ye come to harm, and I knew--
Well, it always makes Rob feel better ta hae someone
wi' 'im-- He says he kens when we're near, says he can
hear our voices, feel us holdin' him--"
"Yes," Archie whispered. "I don't always understand,
but-- I can hear-- It's a bit less frightening when--
when someone-- is there--" He looked up suddenly, his
eyes wide and dark in his bloodless face. "Please, do
not tell Mr. Thorne!" he pleaded. "I--"
Stewart laughed shortly. "Tell him? Och, sair, I'd
rather hae me arms pulled out! I'd not tell him a
thing like this, ye can be sure of it. I'll not tell
Archie swallowed and nodded. "Thank you." He reached
up absently and smoothed the damp hair back from his
face. "How-- how long-- was I out?"
Stewart shrugged lightly. "Nae more'n forty-five
minutes, sair," he answered. "The men are still at
breakfast, though they should be finishin' up soon.
Then it's back on watch for all of us."
Archie nodded distractedly, trying to summon up some
strength. But the fits always took so much from him...
"I have to get cleaned up, and then back to the guns--
Ah, God, my head hurts!" he breathed, raising an
unsteady hand to it. But he managed to look up and
grin weakly. "I do not suppose you know anything about
Stewart smiled broadly. "Well, sair, I know ye open
th' ports, point them, and they go boom," he said
"Good Lord," Archie groaned, "have I stumbled into the
only ship in the Navy where the guns are a mystery to
those whose lives depend upon them?" He sighed sharply
and frowned, still staring at the midshipman. "Well,
Mr. Stewart, would you like to know what makes them go
boom? And how to ensure you are pointing them
Stewart blinked. "Ye'd-- ye'd teach me, sair? About
"Why the hell not?" Archie grumbled, rising shakily to
his feet. "I have found it very helpful if, during a
battle, one knows how and where to shoot!"