A Deep But Dazzling Darkness
by Sarah B.
"Now, Thomas, stop here on the walk and let's see how you look."
It was an uncommonly bright day in Plymouth, bright enough to make Lieutenant Archie Kennedy squint as he exited the darkness of the tailor shop and stepped out into the street. The boy accompanying him had, as he asked, stopped and had turned back to him with a puzzled frown. He was dressed top to toe in a new pair of corduroy trousers, a checkered shirt, and a small dark blue jacket to cover it; but he did not look happy.
"Well, just as I thought, you look exactly like a proper sailor," Archie encouraged, "And I got a good price for those clothes too, so we have enough left over to stop at the book shop. Then it's back to the ship and you can help me with the gunnery practice."
Thomas nodded, seriously just as he did everything else, but his large brown eyes stayed on Archie's face without moving. "Thank you, Mr. Kennedy," he said solemnly.
"Heavens, Thomas!" Archie laughed, "I appreciate your gratitude, but you act as if I've consigned you to the guillotine! What's the matter?"
Thomas' frown went a little lower and he raised one small hand to scratch his side. "It itches."
"Ah!" Archie replied as he tapped Thomas' shoulder and they began to walk together, "That's because it's new. You've had new clothes before, I'm sure."
Thomas walked close beside Archie and shook his head. "I don't think so."
Archie paused at this. "Oh. Well...well, now you know what they feel like."
They walked in silence for a few steps, then Thomas said, "I might have had new clothes when I was a baby. I don't remember."
Archie glanced down and saw that Thomas' eyes, set just above a faint scar that ran down his right cheek, were looking ahead, but not at the people or the Plymouth street; rather, at something in the past that he had never looked at before. Impulsively, Archie asked, "What do you remember of your childhood, Thomas?"
The boy shrugged, in the matter-of-fact way that had always been his. "I remember living on the street with my brother Peter, until we were both taken to the ship. I don't know when that was. Then he died and I was by myself."
So candid, those words, said without thought or feeling. Archie bit his lip and hoped Thomas wouldn't look up at him just then. Thomas had been aboard Indefatigable for about six months, after Archie had saved him from a sinking ship, the Courageous. There was a reason that Thomas didn't name that ship, and seldom talked about his time there. The scar had come from his former captain, the vicious and depraved Julius Morgan, and what little he revealed about his life on board Courageous reminded Archie of the depression and isolation he had felt aboard his first ship, Justinian. Thank God they had both been rescued.
Archie tried to think of some cheering words to lift Thomas away from his memories, but as usual the child surprised him by shrugging and saying, "But, that's over and I don't have to think about it any more. Are there any books in the book shop that will help me make midshipman?"
Unsuccessfully hiding his smile at Thomas' practical optimism, Archie replied, "I'm certain that there are, but I have some very good books back aboard ship. There are other books too, adventure books and stories about countries like Africa and China. Do you think you'd like those?"
Thomas considered this as a coach-and-four rattled past them down the street. "Are they like the stories Dr. Sebastian reads me out of the Bible?"
Archie's smile grew wider, "Yes, I suppose."
"Stories about David and Samson and Jesus?"
"Many stories are like those, yes. Brave men who fought for what was good and right, like - like Mr. Hornblower and the captain, and all of our shipmates."
Archie paused and coughed away his surprise; he was unused to anyone thinking of him as being brave, and was always caught unawares by Thomas' opinion of him. "Well - well, I have your example to live up to. And once you've studied your books and made midshipman, you will be able to go as high as you like, captain or commodore or even admiral if you want to."
Thomas did smile then, a little, but then his smile dimmed a little. "It will take a very long time to read all the books I'm supposed to. Can't you just tell me what's in them, like when you teach me about the guns?"
The coach-and-four clattered to a stop just down the street, and Archie took Thomas' shoulder to steer him away from the jittery horses. "I could just tell you, but then you wouldn't learn nearly as much."
"But you'll help me study?"
"Of course. I'm not going anywhere - "
At that moment the door of the coach-and-four opened and Archie was brought up short to avoid running into it. He ducked out of the way and pulled Thomas back, then sighed in exasperation and looked around the open door. "Now see here - "
A tall, well-dressed young man who had just gotten out of the coach eyed Archie with pompous annoyance for a moment; then his pale eyes lit up in surprise. "Bless my soul, if it isn't little Archie Kennedy!"
Archie blinked back, thrown for a moment; after a pause he whispered, "Good lord - Titus?"
"Of course!" The man replied, striking a hand-on-hip pose and smiling effetely. He was practically glowing with aristocracy; his clothes were impeccably tailored and of the latest design, and he was holding a perfectly brushed silk hat and a gold-tipped cane. "Why, good heavens, it's been years!"
"Several, actually," Archie replied with a small laugh that he hoped did not tell Thomas that he was suddenly ill-at-ease, "I think the last time I saw you we were both barely out of curling locks."
"Yes, I remember. That fox hunt at your father's. Ha!" Titus pointed at Archie with the cane, and looked at Thomas with a disbelieving expression, "What do you think, boy? We're trying our hardest to bag the only fox at Kennedy Manor, and this young gentleman goes and hides the bloody thing! Saved its scrawny little hide! Did you ever hear the like?"
Thomas merely gave Titus a confused look and said, "Yes, sir. Mr. Kennedy does that all the time."
Titus' smug look wavered for a moment. Then he looked Thomas up and down and said, "Ha!"
"Um - " Archie interjected quickly, "Forgive my rudeness, I haven't made the introductions - Thomas, this is Titus Dunbridge, a friend of my family's for as long as I can remember. Titus, this is Thomas, a young gentleman who I am tutoring to be a midshipman."
"It will be *Lord* Dunbridge if my dear brother ever takes a fever," Titus replied with a cold smile, barely acknowledging Thomas' perfect bow, "Although for the moment I'm content to live the prodigal life and see what pans out. So, the navy, eh Archie? I see you've finally found *something* useful to do with your existence."
"Yes," Archie replied, a hint of steel in his voice for Thomas' sake; he'd be damned if he let the child see him cower to anyone, "Very useful, actually. I made lieutenant myself this year, on the Indefatigable."
"Did you!" Titus snorted, and turned back toward the coach, "Anyone can get in then, it seems, eh? And tutoring, what a lark! Say, master Thomas."
Thomas raised his solemn eyes to the young man.
"Are you certain you want to stay on a ship? Wouldn't you rather stay on land and learn how to behave like an aristocrat instead?"
Archie held his breath, and hoped Titus wouldn't say anything he would have to ask satisfaction for. He realized he had unconsciously tightened his grip on Thomas' shoulder, but the boy didn't appear to notice. "What's an aristocrat?" Thomas asked blandly.
"Why - why, I'm an aristocrat!" Titus replied proudly, "A titled man, with land and money and horses; I have a brother who an aristocrat. Mr. Kennedy is an aristocrat too, but not a very good one I'm afraid. Aristocrats are rich and well-known, and they influence the world! You'd like that, wouldn't you, eh?"
Thomas shook his head. "No, thank you, sir. If you're what an aristocrat is I don't think I'd be very good at it."
Archie stifled a laugh, and was very glad that Titus was merely flustered instead of angry; after an uncertain pause he simply smiled and said, "Yes, well, it's off to dinner for me. Good to see you again, Archie. The next time I meet with your father I'll tell him how well you're doing. I'm certain it will be quite a shock."
After he was gone Archie hurried Thomas down the street, hoping the boy wouldn't notice the flush on his cheek and see that he was angry.
Thomas had not lost his keen perception, however, and too quickly said, "You don't like that man, do you?"
Archie took a deep breath and framed his answer carefully, "I don't remember him very well, Thomas, he is from my past. But from what I do remember, he didn't treat me very kindly. I hope I was polite to him, however; that is the honorable way to behave, even when you don't like someone."
"He wasn't polite to you," Thomas replied, "And he didn't act like he liked you either."
"No," Archie said regretfully, "But then not everyone can be a fine young man like yourself, or Mr. Hornblower."
Thomas seemed to be thinking about this, then said, "Dr. Sebastian told me that the Bible says anyone who hates his brother walks in the darkness and doesn't know where he's going because he's blind."
"Does he?" Archie mused, "Well, the doctor is a very wise man, so you should listen to him."
"He also said that anyone who loves his brother walks in the light and doesn't stumble." he paused. "I wish I remembered if I loved my brother."
"I'm certain that you did," Archie answered, putting his hand on Thomas' shoulder protectively. "Because you're not stumbling at all, Thomas, you're walking straight and true and you're going to make a fine midshipman. He would be very proud of you, as I am. And I'm certain he loved you as well."
Thomas straightened his shoulders a little at that, and as he did so the clouds parted overhead, and the sun shone through them. Thomas stopped and looked overhead, his dark eyes soaking in the sunshine as if he'd never seen it before.
"I'm glad you're here to be my brother now," Thomas said, never taking his eyes away from the sky. "I'm glad you're here to help me so I can become a midshipman."
Archie stood there for a moment stunned at Thomas' straightforward declaration, and struggled not to show how overwhelmed he was at the boy's words. Then he cleared his throat and said, "Well, master - brother - Thomas, since you have appointed me to the post - the book shop?"
Thomas smiled and nodded. "You can show me what books I need. And maybe some adventure?"
"Of course," Archie returned the smile and took Thomas by the shoulder once more, "And then gunnery practice, and then more studying. We'll have a grand old time!"
"You're not mad about Mr. Dunbridge anymore?" Thomas asked as they walked along together in the sunlight.
Archie thought about, really thought about it and smiled confidently, "Of course not, Thomas. It's - well, it's like you said before, Kennedy manor is like your ship - it was unpleasant and dark, but it's in the past. I have a good ship with a good captain and a good crew to return home to, and I have my gunnery practice and games of whist with Mr. Hornblower to look forward to - and then there's your tutoring, isn't there?"
Thomas smiled and nodded.
"Well then," Archie replied with a happy shrug, "With all of that ahead of me, the past is something that's over, and I don't have to think about it anymore. And if Titus Dunbridge wants to go on hating me - "
"Then he can stumble around in the darkness." Thomas said firmly.
"Exactly," Archie agreed with a smile, ruffling Thomas' hair as they walked toward the book shop and the great tall masts of the ships beyond it, "Because I much prefer the light."
Later that afternoon, Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower came onto the quarterdeck in his crisp blue-and-white uniform, carrying a small satchel of writing paper in one hand. He smiled at the fine day and the warm security of being in port on a fine ship; then he spied what was going on on the deck, and saw a familiar figure busying himself with checking his cannon over. Smiling, Horatio made his way among the ropes and cannon blocks and noisily cleared his throat.
"Well, then, Mr. Kennedy!" Horatio exclaimed cheerfully as Archie looked up, "It seems you've returned from leave with a new library that has taken over our cabin. And, I'll wager, empty pockets to boot."
Archie returned his friend's smile and straightened with a rough sigh. "Well, at least I'll be the best-read chap aboard Indefatigable, and won't tire the ladies with talk of algorithms and percentages."
Horatio's eyebrows raised. "You may have such ladies, Mr. Kennedy, for I haven't the time for any woman who would find the perfection of numbers tiresome."
"Yes, any woman *would* rather hear about Euclid than her pulchritude," Archie grinned, and neatly sidestepped Horatio's good-natured swipe. Then he took off his hat and wiped his brow, looking his friend up and down. "So where are you off to?"
"The mess," Horatio replied, "I've finished my duties, and thought I might get a word to my father while we're in port. It should reach him before we set sail."
"Oh. Well, remember me to him then," Archie's eyes darted about the deck, searching for something, "He's a grand old chap."
"Thank you; I'll tell him you said hello."
Archie nodded quickly, then whispered, "Oh! Here comes Thomas. I bought him some clothes today, the first new ones he's ever had, seems like."
"Really?" Horatio was not surprised at Archie's generosity; since Thomas' rescue from the Courageous the two had been like Socrates and Plato, one tutoring the other and both learning from it. "Well, that's most kind of you I'm sure - "
Archie's eyes were melancholy as he looked over Horatio's shoulder. "It's so sad, Horatio, he lived on the street - I don't think he's ever known a proper home at all."
"Well, he has *now*," Horatio whispered, just as he felt a familiar tug on his trouser leg. He looked down and said, "Good afternoon, Thomas."
"Good afternoon, sir," Thomas replied, saluting crisply.
Horatio crossed his arms and looked the boy up and down. "Well, now, master Thomas, by looking at you I would say that you are getting to be quite the young gentleman. You'll be fit for a coach and four soon, and you won't want to be seen with the likes of us, eh?"
It was intended as a joke, but Thomas' eyes clouded and he shook his head. "The clothes are new, Mr. Kennedy bought them for me. But I don't want a coach and four, and I don't want to become an aristocrat. They're mean, like the one Mr. Kennedy talked to. They don't like either one of us."
Horatio frowned and turned to Archie. "What's he talking about?"
Archie's eyes were just as mysteriously veiled as Thomas', and ignoring Horatio's question he looked down at Thomas and said, "Thomas, go fetch me some fuses and wadding please."
"Aye, sir," Thomas replied quickly, and was off.
As soon as he was gone Horatio eyed his friend and said, "Now will you tell me what Thomas meant?"
"Oh, just a lot of bother," Archie replied in irritation, turning toward the cannon and fussing with it obsessively, "We came across one of my childhood acquaintances while we were in town. Titus Dunbridge."
Horatio marked the way Archie said this. "Not a friend?"
"Ha! No. More like assistant tormenter to my brothers; together they made my life such hell that going to Justinian seemed like a salvation. I would have just brushed him off, but he insisted on trying to bait me. I held my tongue for Thomas' sake, but..." Archie let the sentence trail off and shook his head.
"I'm surprised you let it get to you," Horatio answered, studying Archie's face closely, "After all, it's not likely you'll ever see him again."
"I know," Archie straightened up and shoved his hat back from his forehead angrily. His blue eyes fixed on some point on the Plymouth shore. "It's just - I've tried so hard to forget that life, forget the miseries of my childhood and Justinian and just get on with it, and then what does fate do but throw it up into my face. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever escape it completely."
"You will," Horatio encouraged, glancing down at the cannon that Archie was so meticulously tending, "You have. Look at you, Archie. You're a loyal lieutenant, a talented gunner, an accomplished officer and, I might add, a tremendous if somewhat over-read friend. No matter what snobbery this Titus Dunbridge practices, he can't take that away from you. Or Thomas either."
"No," Archie's expression grew determined as he leveled his gaze to where Thomas would soon be returning. "That's the important thing. His life started out like mine, Horatio; abandoned, alone, friendless. It won't continue that way; he's going to make midshipman, I'll make certain of it. It gives my life a... well, a purpose I suppose." He swallowed, then looked down. "It sounds foolish, I know - "
"On the contrary, Mr. Kennedy," Horatio smiled, clapping a hand on Archie's shoulder, "It sounds as if Thomas has found a champion, like the one who pulled me across the bridge at Muzillac, and has stood by me through a hundred trials. And he could not have a better teacher on this entire ship."
Archie glowed under the praise, then took a deep breath and looked around at the men bustling about them, "Well, as soon as Thomas returns with my supplies, we'll be starting the gunnery drills. You'd best be about your letter-writing, Horatio, I'm off to save England single-handedly."
Horatio groaned and took a step back, "Once you've saved her *again*, come to the mess and you can write an addendum to my father's letter. That is, if you still deign to sit with a lowly lieutenant!"
"No worry about that," Archie smiled as the gun crews swirled about him, like a lone ship on a sea of calico and canvas; Horatio saw a light in his friend's eyes, the signal that he was doing something he truly loved. "No worry about me returning to that life, ever. I'll see you later, Horatio."
Seaman Patterson was a pressed man, part of a gunnery crew because he was big and strong, and could take the intense heat and pressure that was part and parcel of the big guns. He did not do his job out of love; he hated the navy, the officers and everything about his life. Right now he hated that Plymouth was just over there, and he couldn't get to it. He wanted a woman, and gambling, and a night on the town. And he wasn't going to get any of it.
So when he took his place as rammer in the gunnery drill, Patterson's mind was not on his work. He glared at the officers who barked orders at him, resented their authority, and hated the fact that he had no one to take it out on. He hated that a lot.
The officer in charge of his division was a midshipman whose name was Conrad - a broad dark-haired chap, some prissy son of nobility, like that other officer down the line, Kennedy. All the men knew who Kennedy was; he talked to the men a lot, had even tried talking to Patterson, but he just grunted and made sure he didn't do anything that would send him to the gratings. He'd been forced into the navy, but damned if he was going to be chummy about it.
"One!" Conrad barked.
Instantly the men clustered around Patterson leapt into action; the man to his left jumped forward holding a long pole with twisted hooks at the end; he shoved it into the cannon's mouth and pulled out a mass of ashes and a few fibers of cloth.
The next man ran to the barrel with another pole, this one with a dripping sponge at one end. He pushed it in and turned it, swabbing the inside of the barrel and dousing any errant sparks.
Conrad nodded in satisfaction as the man finished his task and stepped aside. "Three!"
A small canvas container of gunpowder was hastily inserted into the cannon's mouth and Patterson rammed it home.
The fourth man, the gun captain, jumped forward with a small quill in his hand and tucked it quickly into a small hole at the top of the cannon.
"Ready, sir!" the man hollered.
"Run it forward!"
Patterson reached down and grabbed the rope clustered at his feet and with all the other men pulled, hoisting the heavy cannon beast forward until its barrel was almost completely through the gun port.
Patterson jumped backward just as Conrad yelled, "FIRE!"
The gun captain touched a light to the fuse and Patterson leaned away from the cannon and covered their ears.
Patterson held his breath against the choking smoke as he heard Conrad say, "Too slow, dammit. Do it again."
"We need more powder," Patterson growled, then remembered to add, "Sir."
Conrad made an impatient noise and called out, "Powder monkey! More powder here!"
A young boy ran forward and handed Patterson a canister of fresh gunpowder. As he took it, Patterson noticed that the boy was wearing brand-new clothes. New clothes! And he couldn't even get to town! Feeling a beast's rage boil within him, Patterson glanced at the canister and found the outlet he'd been looking for all day.
"Hey, you," he snarled, grabbing the boy by the arm and shaking him roughly, "Can't you see this canister is cracked?"
The boy stared up at him with frightened eyes; that made Patterson feel better. "Sorry, sir."
"You don't know 'sorry'," Patterson tightened his grip, and enjoyed how it made the boy squirm, "I should teach you - "
"Is there a problem here?"
Hearing the iron voice of authority, Patterson looked up and found himself looking into the ice-cold eyes of Lieutenant Kennedy. He hastily released the boy and, trying to vindicate himself, held up the canister. "Boy gave me a cracked lot of gunpowder, sir. Could be dangerous."
Kennedy nodded, but the stern set of his eyes didn't change. Without breaking his gaze he said, "Thomas, go fetch a proper canister of gunpowder."
"Yes, sir," the boy squeaked, and was gone.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Kennedy whirled on the midshipman and snapped, "Mr. Conrad, you must discipline your men. On this ship we allow *no one* to abuse the boys, is that understood?"
"Yes, sir," Conrad replied meekly, keeping his eyes ahead.
"And you," Kennedy turned his fierce gaze to Patterson, "You're very fortunate the captain didn't see you mishandling that boy or you would have been in for the thrashing of your life. Attempt that again and I will make *certain* the captain knows of it. Is that understood?"
"Aye, sir," Patterson replied, cowed because he had to be. Inside, he seethed.
"Good," Kennedy said tightly, just as the boy returned with the powder. Kennedy took it from him and thrust it into Patterson's hands. "Now about your work."
Kennedy stalked away, and Patterson glared knives into his retreating back. Conrad began barking orders, but Patterson was already entertaining visions of revenge as the first gunman wormed the cannon's mouth. He'd start with the boy, little one like that could get lost anywhere, couldn't he? Then maybe roll some shot when that lieutenant wasn't looking.
The gun was swabbed, but Patterson wasn't even watching. He saw that Conrad wasn't watching either; he was looking at Kennedy, his cheeks red with embarrassment at being dressed down like that. Patterson risked a glance down the line and saw that Kennedy was looking at them intently. He frowned, burning with hatred. You're next, he thought; after the boy.
The gunpowder was placed in the cannon's mouth, and Patterson hoisted his rammer to push it home. He saw some movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced over to see Kennedy running toward them, his hat in one hand.
The seaman frowned; he'd be damned if he'd follow Kennedy's orders. He caught Kennedy's frantic gaze and though, damn your eyes! With a defiant snarl Patterson gripped the rammer and violently pushed the powder home. He only had time to hear Kennedy shout three words:
" - sparks! You have - "
Then the cannon exploded.
The thunderous roar ripped through the officer's mess, startling Horatio so badly his pen jittered across the letter to his father. For a breathless moment he stared at that black scratch and wondered what was that? What -
"Good Lord!" Bowles exclaimed, and when Horatio looked up in a daze the older man was already on his feet, along with several of the other officers.
Oh no, Horatio realized numbly, hardly knowing when he rose and followed the others out the narrow door, the cannon, that was too loud, too close, it wasn't - Jesus, the *cannon* -
And his heart suddenly in his throat, Horatio raced up the companionway stairs.
The scene that met Horatio's eyes as he ran onto the deck was as bad as any battle, worse. The thick, acrid smell of burnt powder and human flesh still hung in the air, and a hazy cloud hung close to the deck, shrouding it. Everywhere Horatio heard men groaning and screaming, and as he stumbled after Bowles and the other officers he squinted through the smoke, trying to see who needed help. It was a nightmare.
Archie's gun - Archie's gun - Horatio's eyes screamed to see it, but the smoke hid everything, turned the deck into a ghost-ridden nightmare where nothing could be seen but there were screams - screams -
"Archie!" Horatio yelled, staring wild-eyed at the men who came from nowhere to run past him into nothingness. "Thomas!"
Nothing returned to him, no familiar voice shouting that he was all right, no youthful cry of reassurance. The groans and screams continued, mingled now with harshly barked orders, and Horatio dimly recognized Captain Pellew's voice. He stumbled towards it, half-falling over broken timbers and the unfortunate remains of a man cut in two by the cannon's blast, and scorched by its heat. A seaman's trousers, not Archie - but - Horatio slipped, and his hand touched the deck and came up bloody.
"Archie!" He screamed again, his throat burned raw by the white-hot air. "Ar - "
A tug on his jacket halted Horatio's cry in mid-word. He whirled around and saw Thomas, covered in ashes and blood and gazing up at him with eyes that were glazed with shock. Instantly dropping down to his knees Horatio took Thomas' shoulders and asked, "My God, Thomas! Are you all right?"
Thomas nodded wordlessly, his eyes blank.
"Are you certain?" Horatio ran a quick hand over Thomas' hair, felt nothing but cinders and heat. "No pain anywhere?"
Thomas shook his head and blinked, his small hands reaching out to grip Horatio's jacket tightly. He swallowed and said in a hollow voice, "Mr. Kennedy's hurt."
Horatio froze. No - oh, no - "Show me, Thomas. Quickly."
Without another word, Thomas took Horatio's hand and pulled him over behind the great mast, to a jumble of shattered crates and tangled ropes. For a moment Horatio saw nothing there but more smoke and crumbled wood, but his eyes stung and it was so hard to see -
Then Horatio did see, and fell to his knees with a wordless cry.
Archie was lying among the blasted debris, both arms flung over his head and his face turned towards the sky. He was covered in blood, his own and others', and the skin on his face was a vivid red against the black powder that was smeared there. Patches of black covered his skin and both eyelids were blotched and rapidly swelling beneath his loose and tangled hair. And he wasn't moving -
"Archie!" Horatio choked out, and with shaking hands he gently pulled the collar of Archie's jacket away from his neck and felt for a pulse; there was one, fast and light.
"I'll go get Dr. Sebastian," Thomas said in a stunned voice, and without another word he was gone.
As he ran into the clamorous smoke, Horatio felt Archie stir under his touch; as he leaned forward anxiously, Archie moved his head slightly and groaned.
"Don't move," Horatio cautioned, laying his hand on Archie's shoulder; tears welled in his eyes for his friend's pain. "Lie still, you're hurt."
Archie moaned again, and weakly pulled his arms closer to his face. "N...no..."
"Archie, don't move," Horatio said again, a little louder, and pressed on Archie's shoulder to keep him quiet. "You're all right, just - "
Without warning, Archie's body curled violently inward in a great spasm of pain, and he sat upward with a heartwrenching cry. He was struggling to see, but his eyes were almost completely swollen shut. Frantically he brushed at them, trying to regain his vision, and continued his wordless crying.
"Archie!" Horatio wrapped his arms around his friend's shoulders, fighting the animal strength that tremendous pain had given him. "Archie, it's all right! It's - "
Archie screamed again, a ragged, hopeless sob, and he clutched at Horatio with desperate, clawing hands. His words were half-formed, nightmarish cries, but Horatio caught one name - Thomas.
"He's all right," Horatio said, loudly so Archie could hear him above the noise on deck. "Archie, Thomas is fine!"
"Nnn - noo - " Archie gasped roughly, struggling weakly to get out of Horatio's grip. He began to cough, great shuddering spasms that racked his injured body. He heaved in another great breath and screamed, "Thomas!"
Something came into Horatio's mind then, and he stared for a moment at Archie's face, now inches from his own; at the terrible scorches marred with black powder, and the tear-streaked eyes that were closing to the world, and worse, at the complete panic in that pale visage. Complete, and unreachable. "Archie - can you hear me?"
Archie took two more rasping, deep breaths and slumped against Horatio's side, completely exhausted. But still his lips moved, calling Thomas' name in a weak, dazed voice.
Oh no, Horatio thought numbly, and just then Archie turned his head slightly, his eyes fixed as if he was staring at some spot on the deck. With panting breaths he raised one hand and laid it on the side of Horatio's head, touching it as if he was trying to decipher something by it. Grasping at a handful of curls, he whispered, "H - Horatio?"
"Yes," Horatio nodded, thinking something he didn't dare voice.
Archie began to tremble, a violent tremble that seemed worse to Horatio than any fit. "Thomas - find Thomas - " he began to cough again, and curled against Horatio as he gasped out, "Can't - see - "
Horatio froze, speechless with dread. No, not his friend. Not now - not knowing what else to do, he ran one hand over Archie's brow and held him tighter in a desperate attempt to calm him.
"Cannon blew - " Archie's voice was tight with tears and pain, and his words came between heaving gasps for air, "Find Thomas - please - "
At that moment there was a movement in the dense smoke over Archie's shoulder, and Horatio saw the slender form of the Indefatigable's doctor, Luis Sebastian, being led by Thomas to where Archie was huddled against him. Horatio started at the sight of the tall half-Spaniard and choked out, "Doctor - "
Dr. Sebastian swiftly knelt by Archie's side, his great dark eyes searching that wounded face intently. "Lieutenant, what can you tell me?"
"He - " Horatio swallowed; he did not want to say these words. "He can't hear or see anything. He's only been awake for a few moments."
As Dr. Sebastian opened his medical bag Archie took another deep, hitching breath and whispered, "H-Hora...find...Thomas..."
At those words Thomas' eyes grew big, and he came up behind Archie and wrapped his small arms snugly around Archie's neck. With a gasp Archie brought one bleeding hand back and touched his hair. "Thomas?"
Thomas nodded, his cheek right by Archie's so he could feel it, and Archie almost sobbed in relief as he pressed the boy close. Horatio could feel Archie's body sagging against him as a world of tension left it, and for a few moments Archie and Thomas simply held each other in mutual appreciation for a worst fear denied.
As Thomas comforted his foster brother, Sebastian's elegant hands moved swiftly, removing a jar of salve from his bag. "Has he broken anything?"
Horatio blinked, then gazed at Archie's battered form blankly. "I'm not sure. I don't know how to ask him."
Sebastian nodded, and leaning forward gently placed his hand on Thomas' elbow. Understanding, Thomas slowly took his arms from Archie's neck, but he kept his hand on his hair; Horatio found himself wondering dumbly if Archie would disappear if he wasn't kept tethered by a touch. He decided he did not want to find out.
Archie's brows came together uncertainly when Thomas withdrew, but his confused look eased as Sebastian gently took his face in his hands, very slowly so as not to startle him. After a moment's obvious confusion Archie whispered, "Doctor?"
In reply Sebastian laid his hand on the side of Archie's face, a gesture they both knew well. As Archie smiled a little and relaxed, Horatio wondered how he had known so quickly who it was; then he caught the scent of tobacco that was always on Sebastian's clothes and knew. Even in the stink of blood and powder, it was evident.
"Can't see - you," Archie breathed, his voice wavering. "Or hear - help me."
Dr. Sebastian gave Archie's cheek a quick touch of assent, and removing his hand from Archie's face brushed the hair away from the damaged eyes and looked at them closely. He then tilted the young man's head and quickly looked at both ears, then carefully placed his hand on the back of Archie's head.
Horatio saw Archie wince and gasp reflexively. Dr. Sebastian frowned.
"He has hit the back of his head very hard," Sebastian muttered, and Horatio wondered whether he was speaking to them or to himself. He pressed on Archie's arms and torso, then stood a little and pressed on Archie's legs as well. When that produced no obvious pain he straightened and quickly removing his bottle-green jacket rolled it up and placed it behind Archie's head.
"Ease him down, lieutenant," Sebastian commanded, and Horatio carefully laid Archie back against the makeshift pillow. An attendant appeared with a basin of water, and Dr. Sebastian took it.
Archie was still shivering as he lay on the deck, his eyes swollen and pitiful-looking; impulsively, Horatio laid a hand on Archie's arm and was surprised when Archie clasped it, like a drowning man grasping at a reed in the river. Alarmed at Archie's violent trembling and his harsh breathing, Horatio turned his gaze to Dr. Sebastian and asked, "Can you help him?"
Dr. Sebastian's eyes flicked to him, just for a moment. Then he set the basin down and Horatio saw that there was a clean cloth in it. Sebastian wrung out the cloth and said quietly, "Please take Mr. Kennedy's head, Horatio. Not too tightly."
Horatio nodded, and gently taking his hand from Archie's arm did as he was told. With the practiced ease of longtime service, Sebastian gently cleaned Archie's face of the soot and ash that covered it. Archie moaned a little, but as soon as he made the first sound Thomas was at his side, both small hands on his shoulder, stroking it to soothe him. The boy's eyes never moved from Archie's battered face, and Horatio was gratified that Archie seemed to be calming down.
At length Dr. Sebastian set the cloth aside and picked up the jar he had taken from his bag. He opened it and leaning forward spread some kind of salve over Archie's swollen eyelids; As he continued to hold Archie's head steady, Horatio caught the scent of lavender, and heard Archie's ragged breathing ease a bit. It must be helping, he thought a little desperately. It had to help.
As soon as Sebastian was done administering the salve he stroked his hand across Archie's forehead until he saw Archie's face relax and heard his breathing ease further; then he stood, his handsome face full of concern. "Mr. Hornblower, please bind Mr. Kennedy's eyes and take him to the sick berth. He is confused and in pain, and he knows your touch; that will calm him immensely."
Horatio looked up and nodded, unimaginable thoughts clamoring in his brain. "Is he going to be all right?"
Dr. Sebastian's gaze traveled to where Thomas was sitting quietly by Archie's side. "Mr. Kennedy's hearing should return, most of the men here have suffered some damage from the explosion. His eyes, on the other hand, have been burned, and it will take longer to know if the damage is permanent."
Horatio shuddered; he knew what that meant, and looking down at Archie's terrible injuries all he could think was: he doesn't want to go home. He doesn't want to leave...
"Bind his eyes, and give him anything he needs for the pain," Dr. Sebastian said quietly, and setting the jar close to Horatio stood and picked up his medical bag. "I will see to him in the sick berth as soon as I am able."
Horatio nodded, squinting up through the smoke and dust as he felt his heart race in desperate gratitude. "Thank you, doctor."
As Sebastian smiled reassuringly and disappeared into the haze, Horatio coughed and turned his gaze to Archie, who had stirred beneath his hands and was weakly calling Thomas' name. His face marked with knowing solemnity, the boy responded by placing a reassuring hand on Archie's head, a tiny white anchor against the dark and isolated ship that was threatening to be pulled out to sea.
Horatio fought back sudden and fearful tears and thought numbly that what he was seeing was impossible; Archie could not be stricken blind when his life was just beginning. He could not be torn from the ship when he had told Horatio that this was his only home. And surely - surely Archie could not be taken from Thomas' side when he had only just found his purpose. No - certainly this was some kind of nightmare -
Archie stirred on the rolled-up jacket again and moaned, trying in vain to open his eyes which now were completely swollen shut. Wincing in sympathy, Horatio stripped off his neckerchief and flattened it out as best he could. He was glad for the smoke and the haze, for it hid the tears in his own eyes as the numbness gave way to grave reality: his friend might be blind forever.
Angry at himself, Horatio pushed the fear away; there was enough time for that later. Help first. "Let's get you belowdecks, Archie," Horatio whispered hoarsely, and with a desperate hope that Archie's nightmare would not last forever, he began to wind the neckerchief around his best friend's sightless eyes.
Not very far inshore in the harbor city of Plymouth there was a collection of military buildings, great halls of marble and polished wood that bustled with activity and importance. Officers and clerks dashed to and fro among the hallowed halls, each trying to outpace the other to make himself look more hurried and therefore more occupied. There was one man, however, who was making his way swiftly down a flight of curving steps with no thought to how it looked; he was tall and wore a lieutenant's naval uniform and was carrying a small satchel. He paused at the bottom step to set the satchel aside and hastily button his jacket.
A door opened above, and a voice yelled down the stairs. "Fletcher!"
The man looked up, his grey eyes sparking with annoyance as he reached for the satchel. "Not now, Carlyle!"
The door closed, and a moment later an older, heavy-set man in a similar uniform came halfway down the stairs and stopped. "Oh yes, now. Where do you think you're going?"
"You can't tell me you didn't hear that!" Fletcher retorted, grabbing his satchel and straightening his light-blond queue. He turned for the door. "I'm going to see what I can do."
"No you're not!" Carlyle pounded down the rest of the stairs. "Whatever's happened I'm certain their surgeon will submit a report when he's ready. You get back upstairs and finish those requisition requests."
"Confound it, Carlyle, their surgeon might be dead!" Fletcher reached for the door handle. "The request can wait until I've found out what's happened and what's needed - "
He was interrupted by Carlyle appearing in front of him and blocking the doorway with his considerable girth. "Don't you have any memory at all? You've only been back from your trip to the Colonies for two months, and already you're in trouble. Lord Admiral Hood himself has dressed you down for spending too much of the Sick and Hurt Board's money on injured officers - "
"That's our duty, remember?" Fletcher's gaze was iron. "When a British sailor is injured in the line of duty, we help him. That's why we have hospitals and medicines and surgeons and, incidentally, our jobs."
"Which might be gone by the end of the year, to hear the way everyone moans about the budget! Fletcher, if you run out there now whoever runs that ship will be happy to throw his wounded straight into the military hospital and save himself some lint and bandages. Hood wants the *families* to take up the chore of convalesence whenever possible, and that never happens when they come to visit and their son or husband is cozy in a Board-funded bed!"
"Your sympathy astounds me," Fletcher said flatly, adjusting his coat, "As does the frugality of the British crown. Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to do as I was appointed and see who's injured and how badly. Please do me the courtesy of standing away from that door."
Carlyle stepped aside, but he was shaking his head as he did so. "You're walking a fine line, Fletcher. Any more unauthorized benevolence and the board won't stand behind you."
"That doesn't surprise me," Fletcher said as he pulled open the door and headed out into the noisy street. "I'd likely run over them coming back, and they think bleeding costs money!"
As Fletcher feared, the docks of Plymouth were crowded with curious gawkers staring out into the harbor and squawking among themselves. As he pushed his way past the fringes of the crowd he looked out over the water and saw a frigate anchored some distance away, gray and black smoke mingling over its quarter-deck. The smoke was thickest at the railing.
"Damn," he muttered to himself, "A cannon, probably." He glanced around to see where a path to the dock lay, and saw there wasn't one. Sighing, he continued to press his way through.
The bumboat woman standing on the pier gave him a lazy glare. She was clearly not the most reputable sort, but Fletcher didn't care; he pulled out some coin and asked, "What ship is that, burning?"
The woman didn't hesitate. "Indefatigable." Her mouth struggled a little to get around the word.
Fletcher nodded, and thrust the coins forward. "Take me there immediately, please."
The woman spat into the water and shook her head. "I'll lose me boat, captain finds out I was takin' folks out to watch - "
"Oh! No, I'm not a spectator - " Fletcher held up the satchel, "I'm from the Sick and Hurt Board, this is official business."
The woman merely grunted, but Fletcher knew how to play this game; he doubled the coins in his hand. "How about now?"
With a sneering smile the woman nodded, and Fletcher climbed into the somewhat rickety-looking boat. As the bumboat woman picked up her oars, Fletcher glanced at the crowds pointing and gaping at the burning ship. Among them was a small group of well-dressed young men, aristocrats most likely; they were staring at the ship almost indignantly, and one of them crossed his arms and shook his head.
"You'd never get ME on one of those things," he was saying in condescending wonder, "Not for a thousand pounds!"
One of his companions, a stocky dark fellow, laughed in agreement. As the boat began to pull away, he caught Fletcher's eye. "Say there, you! What ship did she say that was?"
Fletcher gazed at the boy indifferently. "Indefatigable."
"You don't say!" He turned to the first young man and said, "What do you think? I know someone on that ship. I wonder if he hasn't been blown to bits."
Fletcher looked down so the contempt in his eyes wouldn't be seen, and listened gratefully to the lapping of the oars against the water, which would pull him away from the pier.
Not soon enough, however. As he clasped the satchel in his lap Fletcher heard another aristocrat say, "I wonder what would possess anyone to stay on one of those great beasts."
"Ha!" Came the jaded reply, "I have no earthly idea."
Horatio could not sit still.
He sat down, he stood up, he paced back and forth, and then sat down again, only to rise and repeat the process. It was no use.
He could not endure what was happening. And sitting still made it worse.
Archie was lying in the sick berth hammock in front of him, his eyes carefully bandaged, and it hurt Horatio to look at him, to know the horror of what his friend now faced. His face and hands had been cleaned, but that had only made clearer how red and swollen they were, cut and bruised in a hundred places by flying shrapnel and burning ash. His eyes had been carefully salved and bandaged, but now in the low light of the sick berth Archie looked cut-off and vulnerable, and Horatio knew too well what that strip of white concealed. And what it might portend.
And of course, Archie had been brought here, where he would be safe and kept still and comfortable, but even that gave Horatio no reassurance. Other injured men were there too, being tended to by Dr. Sebastian, and their moans and gasps of pain only made Horatio more aware of how quiet Archie was, how alone and unreachable. And it reminded Horatio of the anguish his friend would feel if his sight was gone forever.
God! Horatio found himself shaking with frustration. Archie was trapped, trapped in a world of silence and dark, and Horatio did not know how to help him. This was not a wall he could scale, or an enemy he could thwart with cunning and skill; this was his friend, lying shattered and helpless, his hands scratched and red, his face bruised and swollen, and his eyes -
No. Dammit, no. Horatio jumped to his feet and paced a few steps to remove the terrible reality from his mind. He could not bear to think on it.
Finally Horatio sat down again, and looked at Archie's still form lying beneath the rough woolen blanket. Was he awake? Horatio carefully laid his hand on Archie's arm, but there was no response. Asleep, then, or too weak to answer.
Dammit, how to get in! Horatio fought the urge to leap to his feet again, knew that if Archie was awake he needed that touch, needed to know that someone was there. He had to be frightened, he needed an anchor. Thomas had been ordered to get some rest; Horatio was more than willing to take up the task. Until Archie came back to them, it was the only link to the world he had.
The only link...Horatio thought of this and shuddered. He had seen men injured in this way before, when he was a child. His father knew a man who had been in the war with America, and had lost his sight and hearing when a shell exploded too close to him. The man could not have been more than forty, but he seemed ancient; he sat alone in a small room at his daughter's house, and once a week Dr. Hornblower would go sit with him and see to his health.
Once Horatio's curiosity got the better of him and he had asked, "But father, what do you do?"
"What do you mean?" was the reply; Dr. Hornblower always wanted an explanation.
Horatio had tried to think of one. "You can't talk to him; you can't even show him things. So when you see him, what do you do? Why do you even go?"
In explanation, Dr. Hornblower had proposed a game; he led little Horatio to his room, and sat him down in a chair by the window. Then he stopped Horatio's ears with cooled candle wax, and placed a heavy black blindfold across the boy's eyes. For a moment it was fascinating; Horatio had never known such a world of solitude. It was, truthfully, rather soothing.
But after a couple of minutes Horatio realized he didn't know if his father was still in the room or not. Opening his eyes did no good; the blindfold let no light in. And the wax had rendered him completely deaf.
Horatio did his best, but after ten minutes sitting still in that void got the better of him, and he began to tremble. Just as he did so, however, he felt a hand on his arm, soft and gentle, and the breadth of it made Horatio gasp; he had never felt it that way before, not in a world where he was distracted with all the sights and sounds of country life. It had been a touch, that was all.
But at that moment, in the darkness where there was nothing, no sound, no sunlight, no trees or whitewashed walls or his mother's face...at that moment when that touch was all he had, it was monumental. It was all comfort, all assurance, all the eternities of home and haven and rest, and it came at Horatio so strongly that he grasped the hand that was on his arm, felt his way up until he found his father, and then with a small cry embraced him in a tight fierce hug that was part love but a bigger part fear because it was all he had - all he had, and he didn't want it to ever go away.
After a startled moment his father hugged him back, then removed the blindfold and the wax and told Horatio to go kiss his mother. After that, Horatio knew why his father went to see the blind and deaf man who had been in the war.
And now...Horatio tightened his grip on Archie's arm, and felt tears start in his eyes. Now Archie was in that world, only for a while perhaps. His hearing would likely return, but until then Horatio did not know where his friend hurt, could not help him except by guessing. Only guessing, but still Horatio knew how it felt to have the haven in the darkness, and the strong hand to guide him home...
Home to a small room, in Kennedy Manor probably, locked away in an eternity of darkness and far away and not in the Navy - not -
Horatio shook his head. *stop it.* It would not end that way, not if he had any way at all of preventing it. And maybe there was a way of reaching into the prison where Archie was trapped now...maybe...
Horatio blinked uncertainly at that noise, a low and quiet moan. Then he saw Archie's head move slightly. "Archie?" he said, laying his hand on Archie's shoulder so he would know someone was there.
Archie's reply was another moan, louder and more frantic. He brought one reddened hand up to the bandage and felt it gingerly; this set off another groan, and Horatio felt Archie begin to shake.
"Eyes - " Archie gasped, his words a half-choked whisper, "My eyes - "
After a moment Dr. Sebastian emerged from his cabin off the sick berth, and Horatio tightened his grip on Archie's shoulder and called out, "Doctor, come quickly!"
Sebastian looked up, and hurried over. As soon as he reached Archie's side Horatio said, "He's awake."
"Archie?" Dr. Sebastian said, leaning close and placing his hand gently on Archie's face so the young man would know he was there.
Archie felt this, or seemed to, and his labored breathing increased. He reached out one trembling hand and grasped at Sebastian's sleeve desperately. He struggled to rise from the cot.
"Gone?" he breathed, his voice small and so weak
against the noise of the sick berth; still it held a world of
urgency. "My eyes - gone?"
Horatio's heart sank at seeing his friend so upset, and there were no words to comfort him. He watched helplessly as Sebastian gently brought Archie's other hand to his face and placed it there so Archie could feel it when he shook his head no.
Archie slumped back into the cot, swallowing thickly. "Hurts."
Sebastian glanced at Horatio. "Lieutenant, I need a draught of valerian, quickly. My mate is preparing batches of it on the stove."
Horatio nodded and rose swiftly to do the doctor's bidding. He hated having to make his way among the suffering wounded - it seemed scores of men were injured, although in reality it was mostly shock and bad cuts and bruises. Still, Horatio was not surprised that Dr. Sebastian's attendant was preparing a large pot of rank-smelling sedative; many of the wounded men were in a great deal of pain.
"Thank you," Dr. Sebastian said quietly when Horatio returned with a brimming cup of the draught. He had been gently examining Archie's swollen face, and leaned away to take the cup from Horatio's hands. "Now help me please, lift his head so that he may drink this. Mind the bump on the back."
Horatio positioned himself, and as carefully as he could put his hands behind Archie's shoulders and lifted him a few inches off the hammock. Sebastian slowly brought the cup to Archie's lips, and without thinking Horatio blurted, "He'll burn himself."
But Dr. Sebastian shook his head, "Archie knows what this is, by the smell of it. I have often given this to him to help him when he cannot sleep. He knows it will help him ride out the pain."
Sure enough, as soon as the doctor brought the cup to Archie's lips Archie began to drink it, almost eagerly. Then he sank back, exhausted, and Horatio eased his head back onto the hammock pillow.
Archie kept his battered hand on Dr. Sebastian's sleeve, clutching it weakly. Horatio watched his fingers grasp at the cloth and thought of his father.
"Is he going to be blind?" Horatio asked quietly. He had not thought to ask it; suddenly he simply had to know.
Dr. Sebastian paused, then finished arranging the blankets and stroked Archie's hair to calm him into sleep. But his eyes were somber. "I don't know."
At that moment a loblolly boy appeared and piped, "Doctor, Captain Pellew wished me to tell you he's on his way with an officer from the Sick and Hurt board. He needs your report right away."
Sebastian nodded acknowledgement and gently took Archie's hand from his arm. As he stood Horatio said, "I will sit with him, sir, until he falls asleep."
The doctor gave him a searching glance, but did not ask questions. "Thank you, lieutenant. I will return as soon as I can."
As he left Horatio sat down once again at Archie's side, hating that his friend was in so much pain and he could not reach him. Horatio also knew what would happen if the man from the Sick and Hurt board saw Archie's condition; he would be forced to leave the service...
Archie's hand was out again, searching, and Horatio put his own hand near it; Archie touched it, grasped it gingerly, wincing from the pain even that light pressure caused.
Archie's head moved a little, and he breathed in tenuously. In a half-dreaming voice he whispered, "H-horatio?"
Horatio put his hand on Archie's arm in response. "I'm here, Archie." *even though I know you can't hear me.*
Archie took another gasping breath and said, in a tiny voice like a sob, "...it's over...everything... blind..."
Damn, Horatio thought, turning his own weak eyes to the deck. His own helplessness frustrated him; Archie was hurt and terrified and trapped, and he knew a ghost of what that feeling was like. Archie needed to know he was not alone - what if he awoke in the night and there was no one there? Father would know what to do, Horatio thought in bitter self-recrimination. Father would -
Archie's jacket was bundled on the ground beside his hammock, and by chance Horatio's eye fell upon it. Glistening there, sticking halfway out of an inside pocket, was a circlet of silver.
Archie's religious medallion. His St. Adelaide medal.
Bending carefully so as not to disturb Archie's rest, Horatio picked up the medallion and looked at it. It would have meant little to him, except Archie had once lent it to him when he was in pain; he was never certain that he believed in God, and never less so than now, when Archie needed help and there was little to give. But it was a touch in the dark, and Horatio remembered what that medallion meant to Archie, the comfort and security he said it had given him. Moving slowly and carefully, he slipped it underneath Archie's hand that lay over his, and saw those swollen fingers jolt a bit at the movement. Then, sensing what it was, Archie's fingers slowly closed over it, and he sighed.
"Just use it, Archie, however it's done," Horatio muttered, laying a hand on Archie's arm and remembering the eternal darkness of which his father had given him a taste. His eyes fell on the sick berth door, where Dr. Sebastian was greeting Captain Pellew and the officer from Sick and Hurt, who had the power to take Archie away forever. Forever, to a darkness no friendship could penetrate, unless..."Just use it. And get better. Please."
Several hours later, Fletcher finally reboarded the jollyboat that would take him from the Indefatigable to the gray and misty shore of Plymouth harbor. He had left that small conveyance full of duty; he returned to it a saddened, sobered man.
Oh, he knew it would be bad; Fletcher sighed as he settled into the boat, and looked at the satchel of reports and observations sitting on his lap. He had seen countless scenes before, knew what explosions and fires could do. But that never made it easier. And today it had nearly brought him to tears.
Why that should be, he didn't know. Perhaps it started when he first saw the ship close up; the smoke and damage that on the shore was a distant dimness was now a frightful reality. There was blood and matter on the deck, and scorched and shattered debris was still being cleaned up by a crew stunned in numb sluggishness by the tragedy. Everywhere there was the thick and choking stench of destruction and death.
But that had only been the start; surely that would not have moved Fletcher at all had he not seen the eyes of the ship's captain, Pellew, when he attended him in his cabin. They had gone to survey the damage together, and Fletcher thought it was as if one of Pellew's own children had been hurt; he could swear the man's eyes misted when together they looked at the smashed cannon, the pitted deck, the bloodstained roping. Or at least, that was Fletcher's opinion at first.
But he was wrong; the pain in Pellew's eyes was not entirely due to the damage done to his ship. This was made abundantly clear when the two men ventured to the sick bay, and Fletcher witnessed firsthand how much this man, who was just short of a legend in the British fleet, truly cared for the men under his command.
And that was when the unaccustomed emotion began.
Fletcher had guessed from the condition of the deck that there would be many casualties, and was surprised when Pellew told him the actual number of men killed; it was lower than he expected. As they walked in silence to the sick berth, Fletcher braced himself for what he knew would be the standard litany of medical horrors. He had seen enough sick berths to be jaded to the horrible stench, the pitiable cries of neglected wounded, and worst of all, the drunken, indifferent surgeons. The board had passed enough of them, and he had seen their papers; it was the part of this business he detested most.
But he was wrong again, and happily so; for he was shocked to find that they were at the sick berth door, and he had not been able to smell it from a mile off. He was equally shocked to see that despite the fact that there were many wounded men in that low room the place had not degenerated into chaos and unrelented misery. Instead, there was a prevailing sense of order.
Then Pellew introduced him to the surgeon, and Fletcher had received the greatest shock of all.
His first thought, irrationally, was that Dr. Luis Sebastian must have been captured somewhere, and bargained with the captain to grant his services for a safe passage. But when Sebastian spoke, it was with an English accent and great authority on the English naval system. It was also with a great deal of knowledge that Fletcher knew no Surgeon's Hall had taught him. As Sebastian began to show him around the sick berth, Fletcher developed a quick and somewhat penitent respect for this man; whatever his nationality, he knew what he was doing.
Despite Sebastian's obvious care, it was still difficult to move among those hammocks and look into those suffering faces. Fletcher knew he had to, the board would want to know who was hurt, what their condition was, and where their families were so they could be notified of what had happened. There were sixteen men wounded in all, seven severely enough to require a long stay in the sick berth; these were the men Fletcher talked to, with the help of Dr. Sebastian and under the compassionate eye of the captain.
Fletcher had done these interviews dozens of times, maybe hundreds; so why had it been so hard? As the jollyboat was quietly rowed to shore, he brought his head up and squinted at the blocky Plymouth shore, and tried to figure it out. Of the seven badly injured men, five were able to speak to him. He had asked the standard questions, and gotten weak and faltering responses, mostly because they had been given something for their pain. One man had a very badly lacerated arm and chest; another had broken his leg after being hurled through the air by the blast. Fletcher expected them to try to put a brave face on it for their captain, and they did; what he did not expect was Pellew's reaction to it.
In his career Fletcher knew very few captains who showed sympathy to their men; most saw it as a sign of weakness. So why had Pellew been so quick to put a comforting hand on one man's shoulder, and tell him he would be all right? And why had he helped the doctor give water to another man who could not help himself? It was extraordinary; and Fletcher could see when he asked about these men's families that they did not want to leave the Indefatigable's company.
That he was on a most unusual ship, Fletcher was suspecting more and more as the tour went on. At every hammock it seemed, there was someone to tend to the injured, and when there was not Dr. Sebastian spent extra time making certain that man was comfortable and had all he needed. Seaman Lewis, the man with the badly burned torso, was unconscious, so Fletcher could not talk to him; rather than merely pass him by, however, Sebastian excused himself so that he might check the man's bandages, and place a cool cloth on his fevered brow. Used to cold callousness and outright resentment of the injured, Fletcher could only nod his permission in amazement.
As Sebastian tended to his work, Fletcher looked around and saw that there was only one man left that he hadn't seen yet, a few hammocks down. Fletcher winced when he saw the young man's bandaged eyes and puffy, reddened face and hands. He must have been looking right at the cannon when it blew, he thought; poor devil.
There was another young man sitting next to the hammock, and as he studied him Fletcher felt his heart sink. He knew that young man's posture, sitting forward, hands clenched together, eyes gazing at the wounded man in angry, self-reproaching helplessness. These two were friends, had served together for years perhaps. Two lieutenants' jackets; came up in the ranks together? Damn. Damn.
How many times had he seen it, Fletcher wondered as the shoreline drew closer. Two shipmates torn from their surrogate brotherhood by the caprices of war. It was a familiar litany, Fletcher knew it by rote: the injured friend, the plaintive questions, isn't there anything you can do? He'll walk again, won't he? When is he coming back to the ship? Sometimes the friends were more distraught than the injured man, and as Dr. Sebastian finished his work and they had made their sad way to this last hammock Fletcher could not still the dread in his heart. It was written plain on this officer's face; the questions would be very bad.
Still, to business...trying to retain his official air, as they came to the side of the hammock Fletcher took up his writing board and pencil. The injured man did not stir, but the officer glared up at him with eyes fatigued with worry. Fletcher tried to ignore him.
It was Sebastian who spoke. "The injured man's name is Lieutenant Archie Kennedy."
Fletcher nodded, noting with some relief that the other young man had returned his gaze to his stricken friend. He cleared his throat and asked quietly, "How is he?"
"He suffered some burns to his face," Sebastian explained as Pellew, for some reason, walked around the hammock and stood by the officer's side, his eyes full of compassion. "And his hands also. The blast from the cannon has affected his hearing, but that should return with time. His eyes have swollen shut, and they have been bandaged until they heal."
Fletcher wrote this all down, noting how the words seemed to strike the officer like a blow; he clenched his hands tighter, and the look he was giving Kennedy a look that held a world of memories. Damn, Fletcher thought again. But he had to ask. "Is he blind?"
"I do not know," Sebastian replied, "He has said he cannot see, but it will be a few days before I know if it is permanent."
The officer winced visibly, and Fletcher stifled an inward groan. There were going to be many angry, frantic questions when this was over. "And where is his family, that I might send word to them? The board wants to give them notice, in case they need to take him home."
"No," the officer said, suddenly and forcefully, looking up at Fletcher with eyes that now shone with a singular determination.
The captain put a cautionary hand on his shoulder. "Mr. Hornblower, silence if you please."
That was all; no barked command, no cowering before his captain. Hornblower ducked his head, and Fletcher could see his jaw working, clenching tight.
It was Dr. Sebastian who answered. "Mr. Kennedy has family in Southampton, but I would like to speak with you further over their ability to care for him, should it come to that. May I?"
Fletcher hesitated, keeping his eyes on his writing board as he thought furiously. Carlyle's words came back to him, as well as the stark reality that once the board knew Kennedy had family, they would most likely want him sent there - fast, convenient and most of all, cheap. It was not the board's duty to worry about an injured man's happiness once he was no longer in their service; the board thought only to dispatch him with due haste, and let him be forgotten.
Still - Fletcher's eyes met Hornblower's, and he saw something there that made him look at Sebastian and say, "Certainly, doctor. I'll return tomorrow, and we can discuss Mr. Kennedy's condition then."
It was a compromise, but it had put him in no real danger. A hundred things could happen before tomorrow. Sebastian smiled his thanks, and Fletcher turned to Captain Pellew, who was still regarding Kennedy with a father's eyes. What an extraordinary ship this was! "Thank you, captain, for allowing me access to your ship. I shall return to Plymouth and turn my report over to the board, and we'll work to get the most badly wounded to the hospital, where they can be more thoroughly treated."
"Thank you, lieutenant," Pellew replied, and he sighed as his brown eyes wandered the sick berth. "I detest losing my men, whatever the circumstances. It is a comfort to know they will be in good hands."
"They already are," Fletcher said sincerely, turning to Sebastian with a grateful smile, "Thank you for your time, doctor, and for taking such splendid care of these men. If there is anything at all you need, just let me know and I'll have it requisitioned for you."
"That is most appreciated, lieutenant," Sebastian answered with a slight bow, "I will have a list for you by morning."
They began to move away from the hammock then, out of the sick berth and back to the cold grey light of the afternoon. Before he had moved completely away, however, Fletcher saw Hornblower rise and thought, here it comes. The lieutenant's dark eyes met his own, and he paused and waited.
But instead of the blurted question, there had been a soft, stammering apology. "Forgive me, sir," Hornblower had said, "I apologize for my rudeness. You are only doing your duty, and I cannot punish you for your diligence."
Fletcher raised his eyebrows at this; then he said, "Not at all, lieutenant, I understand. It's..." his gaze traveled down to where Kennedy was still lying, his battered face slack and too vulnerable beneath the bandage. "I can see that his welfare is important to you. I promise you I'll do all I can to ensure that he is comfortable, wherever he is."
"Yes," Hornblower nodded, but he was looking at Kennedy, "You do not know, of course, but - he would not wish to return home. Even wounded, he would not. Especially wounded."
Fletcher was immediately curious; but he checked that curiosity, except that he thought it odd that both Hornblower and Sebastian had brought it up. "Well - perhaps that won't be necessary. If his sight returns, he has only to convalesce, and he can do that here. I'll keep a good thought for him."
Hornblower gave another absent nod. "Thank you, sir."
And that had been the end of it.
Well, not really. As the jollyboat docked and Fletcher departed from it, he continued to replay that scene in his mind. The Indefatigable was a superlative ship, with a captain and crew that seemed linked to each other; what one suffered, they all did. Having seen too much of its opposite, Fletcher decided he could not disappoint such valor by ignoring the misgivings of Kennedy's shipmates; this needed to be looked into. Once Kennedy regained his hearing, Fletcher would ask him whether he wanted to go home; if he did not, something else would be arranged, and the board be damned.
Yes. As he neared the Sick and Hurt offices, Fletcher decided that whatever the reasons, he owed it to Kennedy and those who cared for him to find another place, if returning home was out of the question. Perhaps he had a sweetheart with a generous family, or one of his shipmates could offer lodging. Oh, they couldn't do anything without the board's consent, but a few weeks in the hospital while permissions were obtained would not be difficult to manage; it seemed as if there were enough men concerned for Kennedy's welfare that they would pay for it out of their own pocket, if the Board got stingy enough about it...
The Sick and Hurt Board offices were dark now, everyone having gone home for the day. Unlocking the front door, Fletcher went inside and without bothering to light a taper began to ascend the circular steps. After the tenth stair, however, he saw how dark it was at the top and decided to light a candle after all.
When he turned to go down, however, something made Fletcher stop, and he turned back to gaze at the blackness that now shrouded his familiar world in nothingness. Curious, he walked carefully up the stairs into that void, and stood motionless at the top step. Keeping one hand strongly gripped on the railing, he stood wide-eyed in the blackness and knew what it was to be blind.
His eyes were open, but he saw nothing. The world was around him, the doors, the walls, the bookcases; but they were beyond his reach. He was at once unencumbered by boundaries, but very aware that they still existed; he just didn't know where they were. He felt dizzy.
Hornblower's eyes came to his memory then, and Fletcher recalled the determination in them, the steely defiance of an overwhelming reality. Somehow Hornblower knew this darkness, and wanted to rescue his shipmate from it. If not physically, then...well, spiritually? Whatever lay in Kennedy's past held a darkness deeper than mere absence of sunlight; and Hornblower seemed particularly keen to protect him from it.
For what seemed to him a very long time Fletcher gazed down at the dim light that still shone through the first-floor windows at the base of the stairs. He would light a candle and write his report, post the names of the wounded on the public boards, and in the morning see to Dr. Sebastian's requisition requests; later, if necessary, he would help find a place for Kennedy where he would be content and cared for. Fletcher would do all those things, because it was his job and he very much wanted to see the men of that ship taken care of. But for the moment...
...for the moment he was content to stand in the darkness that was a ghost of what Kennedy knew, and know that he could fight it, and win.
The board be bloody well damned.
The night came, and Horatio had first watch. He left Archie's side reluctantly, and then only after Dr. Sebastian insisted that Archie would sleep through the night; but Horatio had his duties to see to, after all. He paused only long enough to find a small length of cord and thread it through the St. Adelaide medal that Archie held in one relaxed hand. He fastened the ends together, then gently curled the loop around Archie's wrist so that if he should move in the night the medal would not fall and be lost. Then he went to relieve the watch and begin his own.
It was during his watch, some time later, that he was walking across the quarter deck and saw Captain Pellew strolling thoughtfully on the opposite side, his commander's cape swaying slowly from side to side as he did so. Summoning his courage, Horatio approached and saluted. "Permission to speak, sir."
Pellew looked at him, and returned the salute. "Mr. Hornblower."
"I - wish to offer my apologies for my conduct this afternoon, in the sick berth. It was most undisciplined of me, and it will not happen again, sir."
Pellew accepted this without comment, and Horatio relaxed a little; he had been veering all afternoon and evening between intense fear over Archie's condition, and virulent shame that his captain had witnessed his childish outburst with Lieutenant Fletcher. And been forced to chide him for it, besides! Between the two emotions battling each other, he was exhausted.
Horatio waited to be dismissed, but instead Pellew regarded him with what seemed a sympathetic eye and asked, "Since you are here, I will save an intrusion on the doctor's time and ask you. How is Mr. Kennedy?"
Horatio winced at the anxious pinch in his stomach, and answered honestly. "He is asleep, sir, but there is no change. He gives no indication he can hear us, and his eyes ... they are still very badly swollen, sir."
The captain was silent then, for a few moments. Then he sighed and looked out to the small lights of the Portsmouth harbor. "We make sail in four days, Mr. Hornblower; I have this afternoon received word from the admiralty. I will need your assistance in helping Lieutenant Fletcher move the wounded men ashore before we leave."
"Aye, sir," Horatio answered, and he thought, three days. It seemed like forever; it would come much too soon. "Captain, if I may ask..."
"I believe I know the question, lieutenant," Pellew smiled slightly, "If Mr. Kennedy's sight has not returned by the time we set sail he will be taken ashore for his own protection. You have no quarrel with that, I am sure?"
"Oh - no sir, but..." Horatio took a deep breath and plunged ahead, "I wonder, sir, if I might write a letter home to my father, in the event that Mr. Kennedy is put ashore; I am not keen on the regulations in such matters, but if he must be left behind I do not think the Sick and Hurt board would force him to return home if he had somewhere else to go."
"Are you so certain that Mr. Kennedy would not wish to go home?" Pellew asked, glancing at Horatio searchingly. "You're taking much of his decision onto yourself, sir."
Horatio hesitated; Pellew did not know Archie's history as he did, but there was something in his manner that suggested he trusted Horatio's judgment. "I - will do nothing without Archie's permission, of course; once he has regained his hearing his wishes will be known, and in any case I will not send one word to my father unless it is necessary. I merely wished to make my plan known to you, so if needed you could negate it. I will do as - as the Crown dictates, sir."
Horatio hated saying those words; but he knew them for fact. He could only tell Pellew what he wanted to do, but he knew he had no real power when it came to such decisions. But Pellew had met his father; he admired him. Surely if that had any weight...
Pellew's eyes told Horatio nothing; but his countenance did not harden at the suggestion, nor did his posture take the precipitous bearing that it did just before he erupted like Mt. Vesuvius. Instead, he merely put his hands behind his back and stared out to the shifting waters of the harbor. "We must all do as the Crown dictates, Mr. Hornblower, and should Mr. Kennedy be unfit for service it will be the board's decision where he shall be sent; even I do not have a great deal of influence over their decree."
Horatio felt his insides sting with defeat, and looked at the deck sadly.
"However," Pellew continued smoothly, "Mr. Fletcher is of the board, and he seems to be an intelligent man. If he will grant you an audience tomorrow when he returns to the ship, you may present your proposal to him then. That is all I can do for you."
Horatio looked back up, surprised. But he hastily checked his enthusiasm; Pellew's bearing was still every inch the captain's, even though his words and his tone were those of a father indulging a wheedling boy. Clearing his throat Horatio said, "Thank you, sir. That is most generous."
In response, Pellew turned and gave Horatio a commanding glare; but there was a smile on the edge of his lips. "See to your duties, Mr. Hornblower."
Horatio could not help smiling, the first time he had felt anything but grief and worry since the accident. "Aye aye, sir," he replied, and returned to his watch feeling a strange sort of relief. Archie would be looked after, and cared for, no matter what happened.
No matter what happened...Horatio's happiness was sobered into anxious realization as he walked to the other side of the deck and looked over the rippling waters. He knew Archie did not want to be looked after or taken care of; what he really wanted was to recover, and resume his duties. But the shock of Archie's injuries was so new, and he had barely been awake all day; Horatio wondered idly if his friend fully realized what had happened to him, and what would happen when he truly awakened. Horatio shuddered and let his eyes wander to the black skies above him, studded with stars. He could not pray, but he did what he had always done when he was troubled. He sought out the Northern star, and finding it sent his worried thoughts there, where his mother was.
*He's trapped and alone, mother,* Horatio thought solemnly, *Help him, until he comes back to us again.*
Then, as he always did, Horatio glanced around himself to make certain that no one had seen him indulge himself thus; for there was a part of him that was embarrassed at his own foolish fancies, even though the idea of it comforted him immensely. When he was assured that he was unwatched, Horatio then adjusted his cape about himself, and satisfied that he had done all he could, resumed his watch.
Archie drifted in a soft black world of sleep, and cared about nothing.
It was an odd, silent sleep; there was something wrong with it, but he did not know what it was. Or perhaps he did; he wasn't certain. There were memories, vague and shapeless things, but Archie couldn't make sense of them and very soon gave up trying. But still...
Light. There was light; a sharp, painful light - he knew that. A noise, huge and overwhelming, and then -
- and then what? Archie didn't remember.
No - no, he did. When he edged toward real thought, Archie knew that something had happened, and it had to do with the silence he was in, and the prickly, undefined pain that sat somewhere beyond the boundaries of his consciousness. He was flying through the air in a maelstrom of heat and fire, and then hitting, very hard, and his eyes -
- that was the memory he backed away from and could not face. Every time he came close, a wall came up and he pressed against it, but at the first sign of resistance faded back into the dreaming realm where he was safe and free, and let it go.
Archie drifted, and knew only feelings; there was no time or distance where he was, and he had no use for either. Hands were touching him, lifting him, placing something cool and soothing on his face. The homey scent of tobacco hovered close, drifted away, came back again. Archie remembered speaking, saying something, but could not hear himself. Why?
He inched towards waking, felt a hot warning against it, and inched back. Not yet.
Words floated through his mind, images and strong emotions together. Thomas - dead? Injured? No - no, here, thank God... strong capable hands helping him...Horatio? And the doctor, always the compassionate touch, and in a vague way Archie felt as if he was sinking and all these hands were holding him up. But he was slipping...
No. Not yet. Archie felt a presence, a solid one made of silver and bright things, and if he put his hands out he could touch it - hold it - he flexed one hand in his sleep and the presence was there in his palm, small but comforting. Not slipping after all, but floating...floating...
Then, unexpectedly, there was twinge of redness, a flare of something too close and terrible, and Archie instinctively flinched from it. It was a painful black void, and it frightened him so that he felt himself struggling to get away from it. He wasn't sure why but he had to, had to -
Then it was upon him, and Archie cried out.
Why was it so dark? Why did the darkness hurt? Archie tried to know these things, but his mind was full of confusion and drugged sleep and he couldn't think. There were knives on his eyes and he tried to touch them but there was a great sheet of pain there, and he cried out again because he was suddenly terrified and the silver presence was -
- it was in his hand. And another's hand was over it.
There was no sound, no words, but Archie knew it was the doctor and curled into that reassurance. He caught the sharp, bitter scent of valerian and felt a kind hand lift his head, and knew in his delirium that he was being given something to drink. The liquid was rank and hard to swallow, but Archie drank it because the world was edging too close, and somehow he knew he had to stay away from it. There was fire there, and burning and terrible pain. No, he could not stay there. He did not want to stay there...
The valerian did its work, and Archie felt himself sliding back into a shapeless doze. A strong hand stroked his hair, and Archie felt the silver presence again and as he drifted away thought perhaps it was his mother. Why that should be he did not know, because his mother had been gone for a very long time. But it was her lullaby that soothed him to sleep, and her words that he heard as the soft darkness claimed him once again.
Her voice, saying: Rest, Archie. Soon you will need all your strength to fight.
Fight what? Archie couldn't remember. And anyway, it likely wasn't anything important. He cuddled himself up within the loving protection of his mother's arms, and slept.
The church bells were ringing eight o'clock the following morning as Fletcher turned the handle on the Sick and Hurt board's front door and went inside. He had passed a slight and restless night, and was eager to get to work.
"Fletcher!" Came Carlyle's voice as soon as Fletcher had closed the door. "There you are! Good lord, were you on that ship all yesterday afternoon?"
"Yes," Fletcher replied as Carlyle's rotund form appeared at the top of the winding stairs. "There was a lot of work to do. There still *is* a lot of work to do."
"So I saw," Carlyle stood still as Fletcher climbed the steps. "Sixteen men wounded? Seven severely? The board wants details, Fletcher."
"They'll get them," Fletcher said wearily, "Has anyone from the ship brought over a requisition list? the doctor said he'd write one for me - "
"Oh, it's here, but deal with that later!" Carlyle exclaimed as Fletcher hit the top step, and taking his arm began to pull him down the hallway. "I have someone in here you need to meet. Now you mentioned on your report that one of the wounded was named Archie Kennedy, correct?"
"Uh - yes," Fletcher replied, beginning to get irritated, "Look, I really need that requisition - "
"Later! There's someone in our office, was waiting at our doorstep this morning. Turns out he's an old friend of Kennedy's and he was worried sick when he saw on the post that he was injured. The best part is he's offered to pay for anything he needs, even offered him an escort home if he's discharged. Of course Hood is thrilled that the Admiralty is going to save money. We were just chatting when I saw you coming down the walk."
"Chatting?" Fletcher said in surprise as Carlyle steered him toward the office they shared, "I've never known you to 'chat' with anyone, especially at eight in the morning. And even if Kennedy is discharged, I'm not certain where he'll go."
"If it's free, he's going home," Carlyle said in a chipper tone, and happily guided Fletcher into the office. "And I'll happily chat with a lord any day."
"A *lord*?" Fletcher yelped, and turned around to find himself facing the same fop who he had seen at the docks the day before. He stared.
"Well, almost," the young man said, and gave an exaggerated bow, "Titus Dunbridge, sir, at your service."
Fletcher bowed back, a little, and eyed Dunbridge closely. "Lieutenant Naphtali Fletcher, pleased to meet you. You're a friend of Mr. Kennedy's?"
"Yes," Dunbridge replied with a tight smile. "For years. How's the boy doing?"
"Er - well, he was hurt rather badly yesterday, so not very well I'm afraid. I'll know more when I go back over there later this morning." He paused, looking the aristocrat up and down, thinking that perhaps more questions as to Kennedy's welfare were forthcoming. When Dunbridge said nothing else he asked, "Am I to understand that you've offered to take Kennedy back to his home?"
"That's correct," Dunbridge said lightly, "I've already written his father. Your admiral was very happy to have my assistance."
"I'm sure," Fletcher said cagily, "But you ought to know that although Kennedy was unconscious yesterday, both the ship's surgeon and one of his senior officers expressed doubts that he wished to return home. So I'm afraid I might have to disappoint you."
Dunbridge's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and Fletcher saw Carlyle's eyes pop open. After a moment's hesitation Dunbridge gave a small laugh. "Yes, well, Kennedy was always the odd sort! But I'm certain once he's up he'll be happy to give lie to his surgeon and his senior officer. And in any case, if he's blind as a bat who else will have him? He's an aristocrat, for all that he pretends he isn't one. He belongs with his family."
"Well, we'll see," Fletcher replied archly, taking his eyes from Dunbridge and looking around the office, "Now if you'll excuse me, Almost-Lord Dunbridge, I have a requisition list to see to."
He could almost feel Dunbridge's scowl on the back of his neck, and before he had turned away completely to see to his work Carlyle was muttering a hasty apology and a moment later was at his elbow.
"Dammit, Fletcher, will you behave!" Carlyle hissed, too low for Dunbridge to hear, "What do you care where Kennedy is sent? This man has the Lord Admiral's blessing!"
"Well, if it's Hood I'm not surprised," Fletcher whispered back, rummaging through a stack of papers on the desk in front of him, "But I *don't* like this man talking about any man like he's a sack of flour or a lame dog. Look at him, Carlyle - he can't possibly understand Kennedy's condition!"
"Spending that time in the Colonies has addled your brain," Carlyle posited, "And unless you want to find yourself out of a job I suggest you give Mr. Dunbridge any assistance he requires, and keep your lofty and expensive opinions to yourself."
Fletcher glared at him. "Where is the requisition list?"
"It's on my desk," Carlyle replied crisply.
"Fine," Fletcher snapped, and turned to see Dunbridge admiring himself in a nearby mirror. He caught Fletcher's look in the reflected glass and smiled.
"I hope seeing to those requisitions won't take too long," he said, "I want to be back from the Indefatigable in time to rest before gaming tonight."
"Back from the - " Fletcher whipped back to Carlyle and growled in a low but very angry voice, "What?!"
"Calmly, Fletcher," Carlyle warned, putting a restraining hand on the younger man's arm.
"Calmly, nothing! I am *not* taking that pampered peacock into a ship of wounded men! It's an insult!"
Carlyle's grip tightened, and he stared at Fletcher with white-hot eyes. "Lieutenant, you *will* do as the crown commands you or you *will* be getting the lot of us into very large reams of trouble. Once he lays eyes on Kennedy he'll likely be so disgusted he'll back out anyway, so do as you're told and ride this out. That is an order direct from Admiral Hood."
He practically flung Fletcher's arm out of his grasp, and for a moment Fletcher simply stood there, staring at him. Then he turned to look at Dunbridge again, and saw that the young man was adjusting the lace on one sleeve with an angry yank.
"Damn!" Dunbridge cursed, "It's ripped. I'll have to throw the whole shirt out."
Fletcher hoped the revulsion he felt was not mirrored too plainly in his eyes. He felt a piece of paper being thrust into his hands and Carlyle whispered, "Your requisition list. Now go do your job, lieutenant."
"Yes, sir," Fletcher sighed, and caught Dunbridge's eye, "I have to see to these, and then we'll take a boat over. Say, in an hour?"
Dunbridge gave him an empty smile, and as Fletcher trudged out of the office he caught sight of the Indefatigable out of one high-paned window, and silently sent a prayer her way. He had a feeling that, over the next few days, she was going to need one.
At that same moment Horatio was making his way through the dark and low-ceilinged passages of the Indefatigable to the sick berth, walking as swiftly as he could.
He had not slept well. The previous evening, in the cabin he and Archie shared, Horatio had tossed and turned, unable to close his eyes for the alarming images that sprang into his mind whenever he sought the darkness. Archie, unconscious and bleeding on the scorched deck, the smell of death and burned flesh thick around him; Archie, crying out in fear at his afflictions, and Horatio utterly unable to help except to bind his wounds and take him from that horrible place. And then Archie, lying helpless in a sick berth hammock, his eyes swollen and useless and his face twisted in pain. And torn from everything he knew...
They were terrible images, stark and ragged, but they were not the worst. The worst images came when Horatio's mind leapt forward, like a demon bent on tormenting him; then Horatio saw the future, Archie discovering that his vision was gone, that the ocean and the sky and every sight he loved was gone from him forever. Archie, sitting mute and still as his discharge papers were signed and his belongings packed away. And then...Archie, leaving Indefatigable and Horatio and the only real home he ever knew, to be taken to a dusty room and rot in idleness for the rest of his life.
No! Horatio had shivered at that vision, wrapped his blanket around himself tightly as if it would somehow ward the images off. No, dammit, it couldn't happen that way. There had to be something Horatio could do, something...
But there was nothing to be done, except stare into the night and and hope that the dawn would bring better news. So that was what Horatio had done.
And now dawn had come.
Horatio entered the sick berth with trepidation, knowing what he would find. The injured men within would be awake and suffering, and Horatio held no illusions that it would be a pleasant visit. But he wanted to see Archie, and help him if he was awake. And he had to know that the nightmares would not be real.
The lights were low when he entered, the air thick with the scent of herbs steeping and running underneath, the iron smell of dried blood. He looked around and quickly found Dr. Sebastian, sitting some distance away by the cot of the burned man, Lewis. Lewis was clearly in some pain; Horatio could hear his muted sobs even from that distance. But Dr. Sebastian held one strong hand in his, and with the other was administering something that Horatio was certain would help ease the man's agony. Not wanting to disturb the doctor's work in any way, Horatio turned and made his way to Archie's hammock.
Before he reached it, however, one of the loblolly boys approached him and said, "Mr. Hornblower?"
Horatio looked at the boy; he was a little younger than Thomas perhaps. "Yes?"
"Doctor says if you came that you could sit with Mr. Kennedy," the boy said flatly, "But mind that he'll likely be hurting and confused when he wakes up. Mind him, the doctor said."
"Oh - " Horatio glanced towards Archie's hammock, where his friend lay apparently still asleep. "Yes. Yes, thank you."
The boy scampered off, and Horatio continued to Archie's hammock, feeling his gut wrench in sympathy as he came to Archie's side in the low lanternlight. Did he look worse than last night? He seemed to; his face glared an angry red, stark and terrible against the whiteness of the bandage that still hid his eyes. His hands were lying on the rough woolen blanket, and Horatio winced at how swollen and marred they were.
With a heavy heart, Horatio sank down in the chair next to Archie's hammock and fought against the fear that gripped his heart. Archie was active, curious, full of life; he was not this still and silent apparition, tethered off from the world and lying wounded in the shadows. The visions of the previous day came flooding back, and Horatio bit his lip as he heard Lewis continue to groan behind him. He desperately wanted to heal Archie, and couldn't. And he did not know what else to do.
He saw that Archie still held the St. Adelaide medal loosely in one hand, the loop he had made for it wrapped tightly around his wrist. Fearing it might pain Archie if he moved his hand, Horatio reached for the loop and carefully tugged it until it loosened a bit.
As soon as he had done so, Horatio saw Archie's hand jerk a little, and heard a slight moan. Archie slowly turned his bandaged eyes in Horatio's direction and moaned again.
Horatio bit his lip; he did not know whether Archie could hear him yet, but..."Archie?"
His friend's response was another moan, louder than the first, and Archie's left hand moved uncertainly on the blanket.
Encouraged, Horatio leaned closer and tried again. "Archie? Can you hear me?"
Archie gasped then, and tried to lift his hand. "H'ratio?" he whispered faintly.
"Yes," Horatio smiled in relief, leaning closer and putting his hand near Archie's, careful not to touch him where he knew it would hurt. Then, joyful tears stinging his eyes, he said, "Yes, Archie, it's me. You're going to be all right, you're in the sick berth. Can I get you come water?"
Archie's hand inched onto Horatio's; he licked his lips and nodded tenuously.
"Right," Horatio spotted a pitcher and cup on a nearby table and fetched them; he could scarcely contain the pounding of his heart as he poured the water. Archie could hear! It was the first step. Perhaps his sight would come back soon... the cup filled, he set the pitcher down and very gently put one hand on the back of Archie's head, careful not to touch where he had struck it. "Careful, now. Drink."
Archie took a deep breath, and his right hand sought out the side of the cup; the St. Adelaide medal still dangled from it. Once he found it, Archie tipped it up greedily, spilling the liquid onto himself but managing to drink some of it. When he seemed to have had enough, Horatio tipped the cup back and pulled it away.
"You'll get stronger, I promise," Horatio said as he leaned over to set the cup on the deck. "How are you feeling?"
"Hurts," Archie whispered vaguely, and took a gasping swallow as his right hand uncurled and shook off the loop that held the St. Adelaide's medal. That hand then traveled slowly up to touch his head and his disheveled hair, leaving the medal lying on the blanket. "Wh...happened?"
Oh, Horatio thought, and tried to frame his words carefully as Archie lightly touched his hair. "You were...there was an - accident, a cannon exploded. You were in the thick of it, but you're going to be all right. Do you remember anything?"
Archie's movements were slow, awkward, and his breath ragged but quickening, as if he was dreaming; shaking his head a little he said, "Nn...no..."
Horatio heard a precipitous panic in those words, and thought of the loblolly boy's warning. Glancing over to where Dr. Sebastian was finishing with Lewis, Horatio put a comforting hand on Archie's shoulder and said, "Now - now, Archie, it's going to be all right. The doctor's here, I'll get him and he can...Archie?"
Archie's hand had slid from his hair and was gingerly touching his face, his forehead, the bandage that covered his eyes. His breath was coming even quicker, and Horatio could feel him begin to shake beneath his hand.
"Oh, God," Archie's voice was thin as paper as he placed his hand on his swollen cheeks and eyes, "Oh, my God...my - my -"
"Archie?" Horatio tightened his grip on his friend's shoulder.
"Blind," Archie answered, his words trembling, "I'm blind - "
Horatio opened his mouth, but before he could reply Archie grasped the bandage and in one swift move tore it from his face. As Horatio stared horrified at the swollen and discolored flesh there, Archie brought one hand up slowly, and touched the bruised, discoloured lids, first on one eye, then the other. Then, as Horatio tightened his grip against the storm he knew was coming, Archie brought both hands to his face and cried out.
It was not a cry of physical pain; it was the cry of a soul shut out forever, who has only just realized its exile. Archie's body curled reflexively toward Horatio, and they both tumbled to the floor.
"Archie!" Horatio called out, wrapping both arms around his friend and holding him tightly as he heard footsteps running towards them, "Archie, it's all right, listen to me! Archie!" He twisted his head and saw, in a blur, Dr. Sebastian coming towards them.
"No," Archie was gasping, his hands trembling as he held them just in front of his wounded eyes, as if he was terrified to touch them. He was shivering violently, "No! Oh, no - "
Then Dr. Sebastian was there, one hand on the side of Archie's head and his voice like oil on troubled waters, "Archie! Archie, can you hear me?"
Archie turned his head, his long blond hair half-obscuring his battered features. One hand shot out, imploring, and Dr. Sebastian took Archie's arm firmly.
"Help me," Archie whispered frantically. His pain and confusion were evident, as the doctor had warned Horatio they would be; Horatio could feel it radiating from him like heat from the sun. "Hurts - "
"Sh, Archie," Dr. Sebastian said soothingly, smoothing the hair away from those swollen eyes. He repeated those words until Archie's trembling ceased, and he gradually loosened his panicked hold on Horatio.
"Are you better, Archie?" Sebastian asked, his hand never leaving Archie's brow.
Archie nodded vaguely.
"I want to get some salve on your face, it will take away the pain. Do you think you can stand?"
Archie nodded again, and with Horatio and Dr. Sebastian helping managed to make it to his feet. It was clearly disorienting; he swayed and frantically held his hands out to balance himself. He nearly fell.
"You will be all right, Mr. Kennedy," Dr. Sebastian said gently, putting his arm around Archie's shoulder to steady him.
Archie bit his lip and turned toward Dr. Sebastian's voice; Horatio could see that he was still shaking, and utterly drained. "H'ratio?"
A pause. Then a small voice, speaking with great effort. "Please...go."
No, Horatio thought immediately, and was about to say so when he met Dr. Sebastian's eyes and saw the commanding authority and knowledge there. Of course - Archie was embarrassed at his helplessness, just as Horatio had once been when he was badly injured and his own father had tried to help him. Respect his wishes, Sebastian's look said, and Horatio had no choice but to obey. He touched Archie's arm in farewell and said, "I will go look after Thomas. He will be glad to know you can hear us again."
It was meant to be encouragement, but Archie's reaction to Horatio's words were puzzling; he almost seemed to cringe against Dr. Sebastian, and covering his face shook his head as if thinking of some terrible thing. Horatio did not understand these actions until he realized that Archie was just becoming aware of what had happened to him. He was bruised and shattered, his sight taken from him, his world cut in twain, and with it his place in Thomas' future; and the sound of that boy's name had brought those terrible realities home.
And Horatio could do nothing. He could only watch in despair as Dr. Sebastian led Archie toward the roundhouse, his strong arms supporting Archie's fragile, stumbling form carefully. Unbidden, Horatio's nightmare came back to him: the dusty room, the useless days, the vital spirit trapped in the fragile, broken body...
Hold him, doctor, Horatio pleaded, and he blinked back sudden tears. The first step had been made; but there were so many more to go. Then he collected himself, and went to see if he could find Thomas.
As it turned out, Thomas was very easy to find. As soon as Horatio came on deck he spied the boy sitting cross-legged by one of the guns, studiously mending a frayed piece of roping. As Horatio neared he saw that Thomas was still wearing the new set of clothes Archie had purchased for him the day before; they had been washed, but still bore the marks of soot and other peoples' blood.
Thomas looked up as soon as Horatio's shadow crossed him. "You've been to see Mr. Kennedy."
Horatio held his breath for a moment; the child had a prescience that tended to unnerve him. Then he squatted down to Thomas' level and nodded.
Thomas' dark eyes searched him, and his serious expression didn't change. "He's not better."
"He can hear us," Horatio offered hopefully, "And he is very anxious after your welfare."
Thomas set the rope down in his lap. "Can he see yet?"
Horatio hesitated, then decided to be as optimistic as possible. "The doctor's working on that with him, it should be any time now."
Thomas' eyebrows came together, and Horatio could tell he was not believing him. "Can I go to visit him?"
"Ah - " Horatio thought of Archie's heartbroken state, "He's still very tired, Thomas. I think it would be best to let him get his rest."
Thomas stared back at him, the entire being of his young soul right there in those huge brown eyes. "He's leaving, isn't he? They're going to have to send him home."
"No," Horatio said, a little desperately perhaps, but Thomas was voicing the terrible doubts of his own soul and he had to deny them, he had to. "No, Thomas, he's going to stay here with us and get better. He's not going anywhere, I promise."
But Thomas was shaking his head. "You can't promise that. Dr. Sebastian says only God knows what's going to happen."
"Well - then I suppose we'll just have to wait and see, but in any case..." Horatio cast about for something to say to brighten Thomas' spirits. Then his eyes fell on the rope. "In any case he's getting all the sleep he needs and the doctor's right there taking good care of him, so we'll just have to do our part so that when his sight comes back it's a clean and mended ship he sees. All right?"
Thomas' eyes never left Horatio. "Are you praying for him?"
Horatio blinked; he had no idea how to answer that question. "Are you?"
Thomas nodded vigorously. "Dr. Sebastian told me that's what you're supposed to do when you can't do anything else. I still have the medal he gave me - " Thomas reached into one pocket and drew the small silver medallion of the angel Raphael out. "And I held it all last night, until I fell asleep."
Horatio looked at the little medallion helplessly. He hoped his doubting nature did not show in his eyes. "Did it make you feel better?"
Thomas nodded and tucked the medal away.
"Good," Horatio said, and was thinking of some other word of encouragement to give when he heard the officer of the watch shout, "Shore boat ahoy!"
Horatio stood up as he heard an answer. "Ahoy, Indefatigable! Lieutenant Fletcher from the Sick and Hurt Board to see Captain Pellew!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Horatio saw Thomas' head come up as the officer had walked over to the railing to await the approaching boat. A few moments later the officer extended a hand and helped a tall, broad-shouldered man with ash-blond hair onto the deck. His lieutenant's uniform was spotless, and he carried a sheaf of papers under one arm.
Horatio's memory worked, and he said to himself, "He was in the sick berth yesterday."
"And who's this?" The officer asked as he extended his hand again.
Fletcher turned, his cloak flaring about him. "He's here see one of the men injured yesterday. He understands that it's under the captain's orders only."
"Hm!" the officer replied, and pulled the visitor up over the railing. Horatio was somewhat surprised to see that it was an over-dressed aristocrat, perhaps a few years older than himself and, judging by the way the officer had to haul him over the railing, totally unused to anything remotely nautical. After much struggling, the aristocrat was on deck and pulled his silk hat away from his face for the first time.
Thomas gasped. Horatio looked down and saw that the boy had gone as white as chalk.
"Your name?" the watch asked.
"Dunbridge," the aristocrat answered, adjusting his cape. "Titus Dunbridge."
Suddenly Horatio felt a small hand grasp his trouser leg, and when he looked down Thomas was gazing up at him with frightened eyes. Startled, Horatio knelt down quickly. "Thomas?"
"He knows Mr. Kennedy," Thomas breathed anxiously, "He treated him badly, Mr. Kennedy told me so. They grew up together."
Horatio tried to piece Thomas' words together, unsettled by the total fright in Thomas' eyes. He looked up as Dunbridge stood next to Fletcher, who was talking to Bracegirdle, and saw little more than an overly-dressed fop trying to keep his elegant cloak from getting soiled. "Perhaps he is merely inquiring after Mr. Kennedy's health. I'm certain it's no cause for alarm, Thomas."
Thomas didn't look convinced; Horatio saw Dunbridge walking toward him and stood up.
"Ah, there's the young rascal I met yesterday morning," Dunbridge said to Thomas, swinging his cane as if he was walking down a park boulevard. "And how are you, young sir?"
Thomas looked up with squinting eyes and replied automatically, "Fine, thank you, sir."
"Excellent," Dunbridge said with an insincere smile, and Horatio felt his nerves prickle with an instinctive loathing. Dunbridge turned his small eyes to Horatio and looked him up and down. "Ah, lieutenant, is it? Titus Dunbridge, of the Dunbridges of Southampton. A pleasure to meet you."
Horatio narrowed his eyes, and tried to imagine this popinjay as someone Archie grew up with. He tried to be polite. "The pleasure is mine, sir."
Dunbridge grinned and replied, "Perhaps you've heard of me, eh? Or my family? We're quite well known in London."
Horatio refrained from wincing, and merely tilted his head. "My apologies, sir, your name is unknown to me."
"Oh; I take it you're not of the noble classes, then?"
The nerves prickled sharper. Horatio tried to ignore them. "May I inquire of your business with the captain?"
Dunbridge sighed and glanced around. "I'm here on special dispensation from Lord Admiral Hood, to see an old friend of mine who was injured yesterday. Name of Kennedy?"
"You mean *Lieutenant* Kennedy?"
"Oh - " Dunbridge was unperturbed. "I think he might have been; truthfully I don't recall."
"I do know Lieutenant Kennedy," Horatio replied, "But you need not disturb the captain to inquire after his health. I have just this morning seen him."
Horatio began to feel a headache start behind his eyes. "What do you wish to know?"
Dunbridge made a small noise of impatience. "Well, how's the boy doing? I heard he was blown half to pieces."
"Then you heard wrong," Horatio was never more glad to correct someone in his life, "Mr. Kennedy suffered some slight burns, and his eyes have swollen shut from the heat. That is all."
"No it isn't," Dunbridge frowned, and looked behind him at Fletcher, who was showing Bracegirdle some documentation, "From what the Sick and whatever's post said, he's deaf, and might be blind for life. I obtained Lord Admiral Hood's permission to come here and arrange for his transport back home, which the old man was very appreciative of I might tell you! So you may stop your lying, lieutenant - lieutenant - "
"Horatio Hornblower," Horatio seethed.
Dunbridge started back. "Oh, you're joking."
"You're not joking? Oh good Lord, how dreadful! Anyway, Lieutenant Hornblower - "
Horatio's eyes followed the voice and he saw Lieutenant Fletcher beginning to walk away with Mr. Bracegirdle. Fletcher was looking at Dunbridge expectantly, and a little angrily, and as soon as the aristocrat turned he snapped, "Come along, the captain is waiting for us."
"Ah, very good." Dunbridge replied, and turned back to Horatio with a smug look on his face, "Lieutenant Hornblower, it has been a pleasure meeting you. Have a pleasant morning."
Horatio watched Dunbridge go, then turned swiftly to where he knew Thomas was sitting, holding his breath. "Don't worry, Thomas," he whispered, "The captain wants to keep Mr. Kennedy here as much as we do. It will be fine, I pr - I will make sure of it."
But Thomas' eyes were on Dunbridge, not on him, and Horatio thought he had never seen the boy look more frightened. After a moment he nodded, however, and as Horatio straightened he saw Thomas pull the medallion out of his pocket once more, and hold it in one small hand.
He shuddered as he watched Bracegirdle take Mr. Dunbridge and Fletcher to see the captain, and wondered what Dunbridge meant by having Lord Hood's permission to take Archie home. He hoped that whatever help Thomas was calling on, it would not be needed.
Archie found that he could not stop shivering.
He was walking in darkness, being helped by Dr. Sebastian's strong hand on his arm. He felt confused and thick, as if he was in the middle of a dream from which he could not awaken. He stumbled, and heard himself cry out.
Dr. Sebastian's hand tightened protectively, and through a red haze Archie heard: "We're almost there, Archie."
Almost - where? Archie's face felt numb from the salve the doctor had put on it, and although the doctor seemed to know without asking that he needed the roundhouse, the trip had been disorienting and deeply humiliating. And now...
"Here we are," The doctor's voice again, and Archie felt his hand being placed on rough canvas. The hammock. Dr. Sebastian began to help him in.
Still Archie could not stop shivering. His memory was foggy but he remembered feelings very lucidly - panic, oblivion, horrible pain. Desperation, then a formless sort of despair. Then everything was floating and detached.
Until now. Until Archie awoke into this nightmare.
No - no - it couldn't be, Archie thought wildly as Sebastian helped him into the hammock. Open your eyes, Kennedy, you're fine! Open them, dammit! But every time he tried he was shot through with blazing pain, and his eyelids wouldn't budge, and Archie had to bite his lip so Sebastian wouldn't see how desperately he was hurting. How damaged he now was -
Oh, God! Archie slumped into the hammock and let himself be swallowed in the desolation that yawned before him. Blind - no, he couldn't be. Beggars were blind, old people were blind. Sometimes children were blind, but you never saw them except on the streets. Like Thomas, out on the streets -
Jesus, Thomas! Archie clutched at the blanket Sebastian had drawn up to his chest and tumbled down into a new cataclysm of horrifying thought. What would happen to Thomas if he had to leave? The child opened up to few people, and if he should be left behind - if one moment's carelessness should cost not one soul, but two -
No. It couldn't happen.
But what could he do? What - Archie's thoughts became blurry, and he realized he was exhausted. He wanted to sleep, in fact it was dragging at him, but he fought it. No, he had to think - had to find a way out of this hellish darkness before it consumed him. And Thomas -
Gentle hands covered his then, lightly, and Archie felt his St. Adelaide medal being cradled into his palm.
"You dropped this, I think," Dr. Sebastian's voice said calmly. Then, "Archie, you're trembling."
Archie swallowed, his mouth dry with fear. Of course, Dr. Sebastian would notice it. Too tired to fight anymore he struggled to form words. He clutched the medal and came up with, "Frightened."
The doctor's hand again, on his shoulder. "Don't worry, I am here and I will not leave you. And neither will she." His hand tapped the medal in Archie's hand.
Archie tried to calm himself down; what the doctor said was true, he tried to believe it. Tried to. But he had to ask - "When will...I know?"
"The swelling is worse today, because your body is healing itself," Dr. Sebastian explained patiently, "And the salve is helping keep it down. By tomorrow night it should have gone down enough for you to open your eyes."
Tomorrow night...he would know how he would spend the rest of his life. The sounds and smells of the sick berth crowded around Archie, assaulted his senses with their severity; and it might last forever. Alarmed in a bleary sort of way, he huddled within the blanket and whispered, "Then?"
The hand moved from his shoulder to stroke his hair, and Archie relaxed a little, knowing that Sebastian was aware that this was what his mother did to soothe him, many years ago. "Archie, your body is very tired, and I think you need to sleep. Know that whatever happens you will be cared for, and give all of your pain over to God."
Archie felt as if he could have cried, had he been able to. He was at once drunk with fatigue and worry, and relieved at the reassurance that he would not be facing this alone. The lines of reality began to blur, and it seemed to him that it was his mother, not Sebastian, stroking his hair until he could feel himself slipping into a rich and heavy slumber. He roused himself only long enough to think, does God want my pain? Then take it. Take it and heal me, please. I can't leave Thomas alone.
Then he felt himself falling softly, and his thoughts scattered like ashes in a soft wind.
"Well, captain, there it is in black and white."
Captain Pellew spared only the merest of glances at the well-dressed young man who stood before his desk and pointed to the letter that the captain held in his hands. Lieutenant Fletcher's business being concluded - the supplies he had brought with him were even now being delivered to the sick berth - this man had presented himself with the most baroque of flourishes and bows, and obviously hoped Pellew would be impressed.
But Pellew knew better; he had seen too many aristocrats send men to their deaths to take a flashy bow as a sign of worthiness.
But this man - this Titus Dunbridge - did not seem to mind Pellew's indifference, in fact he seemed to take it as some sort of challenge. Sniffing importantly he had announced that he was there on Admiral Lord Hood's personal invitation - a sure sign of trouble, Pellew sighed to himself - and produced the letter that Pellew now held, crowing over it as if it was a badge of honor. A thin and filmy thing, apparently much like Dunbridge's honor itself!
Nevertheless, it did have the Admiral's seal, so Pellew felt obliged to read it. And did not like what he saw.
"Mr. Dunbridge," he said, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice, "I must confess some surprise at your eagerness to remove Mr. Kennedy from His Majesty's service; for he was only injured yesterday afternoon, and the hope is that he will recover sufficiently to only require a short time's convalescence."
"So I've been told," Dunbridge admitted as he eyed Pellew earnestly, "But to be honest, sir, I believe that's wishful thinking; his injuries are severe, and I'm told you set sail in three days' time. My only desire is to make certain that Mr. Kennedy is cared for by his own people, and not left in some Naval hospital to rot."
"Well, you may be assured that that will *not* happen," Pellew replied, with a glance to Fletcher, who stood a few paces back, his face a map of apology and scorn. Pellew felt as if he was looking at his own reflection. "However, although your motives are noble, sir, you must be aware that even if he is blinded Mr. Kennedy will only wish to return to his home if that is the best place for him."
"But it is!" Dunbridge insisted, swinging his arm on his cane, whose tip was firmly planted into the floor. "Come sir, you have a title yourself; certainly you would not argue with the logic of Kennedy being tended by those with means; his family is rich."
"Yes, but estranged, from what I hear," Pellew stood and put his hands behind his back, "Is that not so?"
"Oh - " Dunbridge waffled for a moment, then shrugged, "Well, I do seem to recall some friction in his younger days, he and his brothers were never what you'd call birds of a feather...but damme, that is not the point. The point is that Kennedy has drifted away from his roots, and this whole thing may be a blessing in disguise, a - a chance for him to return to them. His family has money and housing, he'd never want for anything! He'll be fed and clothed and - and kept clean, and it won't cost you a sixpence."
This last sentence was said with considerable force, as if Dunbridge was certain that Pellew would leap with happiness at such news. Instead, Pellew let the ire he felt be shown plainly in his eyes. "Sir, I would hardly call being blinded at the mouth of an exploding cannon a blessing for anything, and the fact that you have deemed it such only leads me to believe that you can never understand his condition, and that in fact you have never been nearer true danger than the sharp hooves of a racing horse."
Dunbridge blinked at this; it was clear he was not used to being spoken to in that manner. However, after a moment he mustered himself and drawing himself straight said, "Captain, I am presently myself to you mainly as a formality. As you can see, Lord Admiral Hood has given me leave to take Archie home, and I intend to do so. Whatever your misguided opinions of our ability to care for him, I can assure you that once there he will be treated exactly as he deserves. That will suit you I am sure, as he will no longer be your responsibility. Now," Dunbridge sniffed again and glanced from Pellew to Fletcher, "When can I see him?"
Pellew sighed in exasperation and gave Dunbridge the hottest glare he could manage. "From what my surgeon has reported this morning, Mr. Kennedy is still far too ill to receive visitors. And I do not open my sick berth to civilians, no matter what their status on land."
Dunbridge tilted his head, his expression one of very civil contempt. "Captain, I'm sorry but it seems we've gotten off on rather bad footing. Since Lord Admiral Hood has granted me - shall we call it guardianship - of Mr. Kennedy, I am certain you wouldn't object if I return tomorrow? Perhaps he can receive me then."
"Your lordship may do as you please," Captain Pellew said, feeling an aching tension build between his shoulder blades, "But until I discharge Mr. Kennedy from the service he is under *my* guardianship, and I take that responsibility *very* seriously. Is that understood?"
Dunbridge's mouth twitched; but his gaze was even. "Yes, or I suppose I should say, aye aye, captain. Pity, I could have slept in this morning. Now it's all been wasted." He turned toward the door. "Come on, Fletcher, we should go."
"One moment, my lord," Fletcher said, not moving an inch, "The marine outside will show you to the deck, I have some final business with the captain."
Dunbridge hesitated at the door, then waved his hand impatiently and walked out.
As soon as he was gone Fletcher approached Pellew's desk and said, "My deepest apologies for that, sir. Believe me when I say none of this was my idea - "
"Yes, Mr. Fletcher, I know," Pellew sat down with a sigh and gazed sadly at the parchment letter on his desk, the royal seal on it like a wax bloodstain. "If you had not told me in words certainly the look in your eyes when that man spoke would have told me as much!"
Fletcher's eyes also fell on the letter. After a moment's pause he said, "This might make it difficult, if Kennedy doesn't want to go home."
Pellew snorted his derision. "I am well used to difficulty from the admiralty, Mr. Fletcher. If this Mr. Dunbridge thinks he can force one of my men to do anything based on his title, he will find himself sadly mistaken. And he will have Mr. Hornblower and Dr. Sebastian for opponents as well."
Fletcher's expression changed to something deeper. "You trust their judgment."
"With my life," Pellew answered, one elegant hand reaching out to take up the letter, "Mr. Hornblower has offered to find Mr. Kennedy a home with his father, an excellent doctor in his own right, but this mandate will not make it easy for him to do so, I'm afraid. On the other hand, Dr. Hornblower is a very stubborn and persistent man. Somewhat like his son."
Fletcher sighed and shook his head. "The way I see it, captain, the best thing to do now is to pray that Kennedy recovers his sight before you set sail. If he doesn't, I'm afraid I'll be asked to discharge him into Dunbridge's hands. Frankly, I very much don't want to do that."
"I understand, Mr. Fletcher," Pellew sighed, and looked at the carefully scripted handwriting on the letter as if it was a nest of snakes, "And believe me when I say I share your fervent prayer. I very honestly do."
For Horatio the next several hours were an exercise in frustration. He had duties to attend to, and so had neither the time nor the opportunity to visit either the sick berth or Captain Pellew's cabin; yet he burned to know what had happened, and whether Thomas' misgivings had any merit. He asked Mr. Bracegirdle, but that worthy man knew nothing except that Fletcher was returning that afternoon and he was to be shown straight to the sick berth, and - in his opinion, not to be repeated -- Dunbridge was a horse's ass and not worth commenting about.
As it happened, however, Horatio had the watch later that afternoon when Lieutenant Fletcher returned to Indefatigable. As soon as Fletcher came over the railing he gave Horatio a warm smile and said, "Good afternoon, lieutenant - Hornblower, is it?"
"Yes, sir," Horatio replied, "I'm to show you to the sick berth, if you'll follow me please."
"Certainly," Fletcher replied, and Horatio turned to lead him to the sick berth. As they made their way to the companionway Fletcher looked up toward the poop deck and asked, "Lieutenant, who's that boy up there?"
Horatio looked up, following Fletcher's gaze; Thomas was sitting just beyond the railing, continuing his work at mending the ropes; at the moment, however, he was staring at Fletcher with wide, anxious eyes.
"Oh," Horatio replied, in a low voice so Thomas couldn't hear them, "He's one of the cabin boys, his name is Thomas. Why do you ask?"
"Well, I noticed Dunbridge talking to him this morning, and it seemed to make him upset. I wanted to make certain he was all right. Is he?"
Horatio nodded as they approached the stairs, "Thomas is studying to be a midshipman, under Mr. Kennedy. He is very concerned over Mr. Kennedy's welfare. As we all are."
"Poor child," Fletcher shook his head as they began to descend down the steps.
Horatio marveled at this; few people would have even noticed Thomas, let alone worried about him. Emboldened by Fletcher's charity he said, "Thomas is worried that if Mr. Kennedy is to be sent ashore, that Mr. Dunbridge will petition to have him sent home. Do you think he will?"
Fletcher winced. "He already has."
Horatio felt himself go pale. "To Lord Admiral Hood."
"Yes. But don't worry, your captain wants to do right by Kennedy, and personally I'd like nothing better than to tweak Dunbridge's nose a little. Captain Pellew mentioned that your father might take Mr. Kennedy in, if he needs it."
Horatio nodded, the darkness of belowdecks suddenly becoming close and uncomfortable. "But I need to send him a letter. What if a reply doesn't come before we set sail?"
Fletcher thought about this a moment, his fair face rippling in and out of the shadows as they walked. "I can stall Dunbridge if I have to, for a few days at least. Write your letter, lieutenant, and bring it to me tomorrow morning."
"Yes, sir. Thank you," Horatio said softly. Then, suddenly he had a thought. "Well. In fact, this might not even be necessary. Have you been told that Mr. Kennedy's hearing has returned?"
Fletcher smiled, "Yes, it was in the doctor's report. I can ask him myself what he wants, and for me his words are iron. It's splendid news, lieutenant. Let us hope there is even better news to come, for all the men."
"Yes, sir," Horatio slowed as they neared the sick berth door. "Well, here we are."
Horatio showed Fletcher in, then hung back, not wanting to intrude on his work but anxious to see how Archie was doing. The berth was fairly active; Dr. Sebastian had apparently employed a few of the powder monkeys to help him, and they were moving among the wounded men, assisting them with whatever they needed. The doctor himself was tending to the badly burned man, Lewis, and as Fletcher approached him, Horatio took that moment to look over at Archie's cot and see how his friend was faring.
Archie was asleep, or appeared to be; his reddened hands grasped the drawn-up blanket loosely, and Horatio could see the dull gleam of his religious medal lying against the fabric. His eyes had been carefully bandaged, but the flesh beneath them was still pitifully swollen and painful-looking. Horatio remembered that morning, and felt his heart sink.
Dr. Sebastian had finished tending to Lewis and was talking to Fletcher, his arms crossed and his face thoughtful. Fletcher would say a few words to him, then turn to Lewis, who was still conscious, and ask him a question, or make a statement. In that manner a three-way conversation was going on, and Horatio realized that they must be talking about sending Lewis ashore.
Would Archie's fate be the same? Horatio's eyes went to that still figure, and he swallowed hard, thinking of Titus Dunbridge and his idea to take Archie back to Kennedy Manor. The thought sickened Horatio, and he was still thinking about it when he looked up and noticed that Fletcher and Sebastian were both walking toward him.
"Good afternoon, lieutenant," the doctor said in his smooth manner, "I wonder if you might do me a small favor? I have matters to discuss with Lieutenant Fletcher in my office, and would not leave the sick berth untended. Would you stand watch for me, and fetch me if there is any need?"
"Certainly, sir," Horatio responded, "Is Mr. Kennedy awake?"
"He drifts in and out," Sebastian answered in a melancholy tone, turning to look at Archie as he spoke, "But if you would like to sit with him, he has calmed greatly since this morning. And I am certain he would appreciate the company."
Horatio accepted this with a grateful nod. "Thank you, sir."
With that, Sebastian showed Fletcher the way to his cabin, which doubled as his office, and Horatio quickly took his place by Archie's side. Archie didn't move as Horatio sat down, and only the sound of his breathing marked that he was alive at all; still Horatio watched him, and hoped.
The sick berth was not quiet; a few of the wounded men were moaning in their sleep, and Lewis in particular seemed to be in a bad way, although Horatio knew the doctor must have given him something for the pain; and he had a shipmate with him as well. Still, there was coughing and moaning and the thick close smells that were inescapable in a place of sickness, and Horatio marveled that Archie could sleep in the midst of it.
Archie...Horatio leaned forward and clasped his hands beneath his chin, studying his friend's battered face closely. It was still raw and puffy, and the bandaged eyes gave Archie an air of anonymity, as if he was suddenly no one. His injury had made him transparent, a void; Horatio almost moved to touch him, just to know that he was still there.
God, he had to get better; what if he didn't? Even at Dr. Hornblower's, what would Archie do with his days if he was permanently blind? England made no provision for the unfortunate, no allowance for those who could not work; they were simply left to the streets and kind relatives. But Archie needed more, and if his sight did not come back...Horatio thought of Archie's youth and how long he would have to live in darkness, and it made his heart ache. Years...how many, forty? Fifty? Dull and endless, idle years...
Horatio's hands clenched without him being conscious of it. The *waste* -
As he took a deep breath to compose himself, Horatio heard a sharp intake of breath and looked up to see Archie's head stirring on the pillow. Without even thinking about it he leaned forward and whispered, "Archie?"
The movement stopped; Archie was plainly startled. "Horatio?"
"Yes. How are you feeling?"
Archie took a long, deep breath, and slowly let it out. "Water."
Horatio turned to the water pitcher that was sitting on a nearby table and quickly poured Archie a cup. Gently taking the back of Archie's head he touched the rim to his friend's lips. "Here."
Archie drank, reaching up with one hand to steady the cup, and when he was done he sank back against the hammock pillow, exhausted. "Thank you."
"Is that better?" Horatio asked, marking how even that minor exertion left Archie gasping for breath. Concerned, he put a hand on Archie's arm. "Do you want me to get Dr. Sebastian?"
"No," Archie replied weakly, shaking his head a litte, "No, I...I'm just...what day is it?"
"It's Thursday. How are you feeling?"
"Thursday..." Archie said the word vaguely, as if trying to grasp its meaning. Then suddenly he said, "The cannon. It...exploded."
Horatio knew what his friend was asking. "Six dead; everyone in Mr. Conrad's division. Seven hurt badly, including yourself."
Archie moaned. "God. God." His right hand moved up to touch the bandages again, not panicked like he had been that morning but almost curious. He lightly grazed his face with his fingertips and flinched. "Am I blind, Horatio?"
Horatio hesitated; then knew that hesitation was the worst answer to give. "The doctor says we'll know that within the next few days, before we set sail again. In the meantime you're to rest and get better. Do you need anything?"
Archie ran his hand over his hair and swallowed hard. Then he reached over to Horatio, his hand wavering in the air until Horatio took it, lightly so as not to cause Archie pain.
Archie drew in his breath, then whispered, "It's foolish, but I - wasn't certain you were really there, until just now. I suppose I needed that, if anything. Thank you."
Horatio stared at the injured hand grasped in his and felt tears start in his eyes. Suddenly he was ten years old again, caught in that silence and darkness, with only his father's touch to connect him with the world. Gently he brought Archie's hand back onto the blanket and said, "You will always have it, Archie, no matter what happens. You have my word."
Whether Archie heard him or not, Horatio was not altogether sure; for at that moment the door to Dr. Sebastian's cabin swung fully open, and the doctor and Mr. Fletcher emerged, still talking quietly. From the grim look on Fletcher's face Horatio guessed at what they were discussing: Archie's family and why he would be reluctant to return to that place. The two men approached Archie's hammock and Fletcher asked softly, "Is he awake?"
Horatio nodded. Dr. Sebastian walked to the other side of the hammock, put his hand on Archie's shoulder and said, "Archie, Mr. Fletcher from the Sick and Hurt Board is here. He'd like to speak with you. Is that all right?"
Archie frowned in puzzlement. "Sick and...what does he want?"
"The same thing we all do," Dr. Sebastian said quietly, "He wants you to get well again."
"Oh." Archie said; Horatio thought his voice sounded very small.
"But first," Sebastian said as Horatio stood and Fletcher took his seat, "How are you feeling, Archie? How is the pain?"
Archie appeared to think about this. "Tolerable. I've - gotten used to it, I think. And - and I can think more clearly."
"That's very good," Sebastian said encouragingly, "But I will not allow you to become used to pain. I will return in a moment with some salve and willowbark."
Archie nodded - he knew better than to argue with Dr. Sebastian - and as the doctor turned away Fletcher leaned forward and said, very quietly, "Mr. Kennedy?"
Archie's head turned toward him. "Are you Mr. Fletcher?"
"Yes," Fletcher answered, still in the same quiet tone, "Mr. Kennedy, it's my duty to make certain that if you're too sick to stay on Indefatigable, that you go somewhere where you'll be comfortable and taken care of."
Archie took another shaky breath. "You mean if I'm blind. You might as well say it."
Fletcher traded glances with Horatio; then he continued. "Mr. Kennedy, if you can't serve in the navy anymore, where should I send word so that someone can come and receive you? Who would you like me to notify?"
Archie was quiet for what seemed to Horatio a long time. Then: "I'm sorry. There's no one."
Fletcher glanced at Horatio again, and this time his expression was darker. "Mr. Kennedy, a man by the name of Titus Dunbridge has contacted the board with an offer to take you to your father's estate if you should require it. How would you feel about that?"
At the mention of Titus' name, Horatio saw Archie's hand clutch convulsively at the blanket that was covering him. For a moment he seemed to be struggling to speak; finally he said, "I should - not be - predisposed to it."
"All right," Fletcher said, solidly as if that was the end of it; he looked again at Horatio, this time with a certain caginess in his fair features. "If someone else offered to help you, someone you knew and trusted, would you be predisposed to that?"
Archie was now clearly puzzled. "Who?"
Horatio hesitated, then jumped in with both feet. "Archie - I could write a letter - my father has dealt with those in - in your condition. I'm certain he would give you a place to call home, if you would accept it."
There was a heavy pause, and Archie didn't move. Then he said, in a very soft voice. "Your father? He would take in a blind man?"
"He would take you in. To keep you from spending the rest of your days in idleness and rot, of course he would. He sees you as a son, Archie."
Archie appeared to absorb this news in bewilderment. "Horatio - I never asked - "
"Of course not, nor would I expect you to. But I thought you should know there are those working on your behalf. I will not lose you again."
Horatio was smiling slightly, and Fletcher's smile echoed it. "How would you feel about that, Mr. Kennedy?"
Archie seemed shocked, and for a few moments said nothing. Then he cleared his throat and said, "I would be very deeply honored."
"Then I'll arrange it with the board," Fletcher said firmly, "But you understand, Mr. Kennedy, this is only a precaution. Dr. Sebastian has told me he has every hope that your sight will return before your ship sets sail. In fact," he turned to Horatio as he said this, "If your injuries have healed enough, he told me you might return to your cabin tonight, to sleep in your own cot. What do you think of that?"
Archie smiled a little at this, and Horatio felt a rush of relief that Archie might be able to escape the closeness of the sick berth; it would do him worlds of good. Then Archie said, "Mr. Fletcher?"
Dr. Sebastian was returning with the salve and a steaming cup of willowbark tea as Fletcher said, "Yes?"
"Can you do something for me? If I - if I have to go, there's a young boy named Thomas who wants to make midshipman. If Horatio's father can spare it, could you arrange to send him some of my pension? He needs clothes and - and books -"
Fletcher's eyebrows went up, but he said, "I'm certain I can arrange that, Mr. Kennedy. That's very generous of you."
Archie touched his face with one hand, as if he was afraid of it. "I-I don't want him to see me - like this. But I don't want him to worry. If you could...tell him..."
"Certainly," Fletcher said warmly, "It will be my pleasure."
Archie lay back in the hammock, clearly spent. As Dr. Sebastian sat down in the chair opposite Horatio's Fletcher stood and said, "Mr. Kennedy, thank you for your time. I'll make my report to the board and we'll see about making the necessary arrangements; but in Dr. Sebastian's excellent care I doubt you'll need them."
As he stood to join Fletcher, Horatio saw a faint echo of a smile play on Archie's lips as he said, "Just look after Thomas. Please."
"I will." Fletcher looked at Dr. Sebastian, "I
must get back to shore, but I'll be back tomorrow around noon
to help with Lewis' transfer to shore.
"Very good," the doctor said approvingly, and Fletcher stood to go.
As Dr. Sebastian leaned forward and gently loosened the bandage
around Archie's eyes, Archie said suddenly, "Horatio? Are
you leaving too?"
"I have to, yes," Horatio answered, stepping close to Archie's side.
With shocking swiftness Archie reached up and took Horatio's hand in a strong grip; even though it clearly pained him he would not let go. "Thank you." he whispered.
Horatio blinked in surprise; then he realized that Archie had been looking into an abyss, and without knowing it Horatio had provided him with a means to escape it. Patting Archie's hand reassuringly he said, "Just get better and make it unnecessary, Mr. Kennedy. That's an order."
Archie smiled a little and gradually let go; Dr. Sebastian gave Horatio a grateful smile before turning back to his work, and Horatio knew it was time to leave.
"I don't think I'll ever stop being impressed by that man's work," Fletcher said in admiration as he and Horatio made their way back along the Indy's dark corridors. "I almost hate to remove the men from his care."
"And you don't think you'll have any problems helping Mr. Kennedy make it to my father's?" Horatio asked hopefully.
"Not now that I know it's what he really wants," Fletcher replied with certainty, "Dr. Sebastian told me some of what his childhood was like - he didn't reveal any confidences, but he said he wanted to make certain that I understood what going home would cost him. I was a little nervous about Dunbridge's influence before; now I think if he tried to exert any pressure on me I'd laugh at him."
Horatio could feel himself relaxing in this man's presence; it was clear that Archie had a powerful champion. As they walked up the stairs to the deck he said, "I'll draft the letter tonight and have it sent by courier early tomorrow morning. I'm certain that as soon as father reads it he will send his fastest rider back with a reply. Or...come to think of it, our neighbor, Squire Whitehall, has faster horses. He'll likely borrow one of those."
It was a feeble joke, but Fletcher smiled at it. As they stepped into the afternoon sun that was shining on deck Horatio drank it in, hoping it would drive away the awful sight of his dearest friend blind and in pain two decks below him. It didn't completely of course, but it helped - just as Fletcher was helping, by giving Horatio hope that Archie's pain would be that much less.
Horatio escorted Fletcher to the railing, where he knew his jollyboat would be waiting to take him to shore. Just before they reached it, however, Fletcher turned around and said, "Wait a moment."
Horatio blinked in surprise, then followed Fletcher's gaze and saw Thomas standing some distance from them, by the mainmast. He had been mending some rope there, and looked at Fletcher with the same wary gaze he had worn before - part curiosity, part respect, but mostly fear. Horatio remembered his anxiety of that morning and said, "I'll tell him, you needn't - "
But Fletcher was gone from his side before Horatio could finish the sentence. As Thomas watched, his somber expression coined with frankly curious eyes, Fletcher approached him and knelt down. "Are you Thomas?"
Thomas' eyes flashed to Horatio for a moment, asking, can I trust him? Horatio gave an encouraging nod and Thomas said, "Yes, sir."
"I thought so," Fletcher said with a smile, "I saw a friend of yours today. He wants to make certain that you're taken care of, in fact he asked me to do it. And I take my duties very seriously, just like any good officer, don't you agree?"
"Yes, sir." Thomas said again, his expression still serious.
"Well," Fletcher continued, his eyes locked onto Thomas' like the boy was the only person on the ship, "He wants you to know that he's feeling much better, and he doesn't want you to worry about him. And he doesn't want you to stop studying to be a midshipman, either."
Thomas looked down at the rope in his hands. "Is he going to be blind?"
Fletcher hesitated, but it was only for a moment. "Dr. Sebastian is working very hard to make certain that he isn't. He'll do everything he can."
Horatio saw Thomas frown. "If he is, he'll have to go with Titus Dunbridge. He doesn't want to do that."
"I know," Fletcher replied, "I know, but we found out that Mr. Kennedy wouldn't mind going to visit Mr. Hornblower's father at all, so if he has to leave the ship he'll be going there instead."
Thomas looked at Horatio in surprise.
"And I'm certain that you'll be able to visit him whenever you want," Fletcher continued, and Horatio could see that he was happy to give Thomas good news, "But you'll have to make midshipman first. He made me promise that."
Thomas' big eyes sought Fletcher's and held them, unbelieving that any good fortune could come his way. "But what about Titus Dunbridge?"
Fletcher put on a face of mock surprise. "Do you want to visit him too?"
"No," Thomas said quickly, "He was mean to Mr. Kennedy, when he was my age. I don't want him to ever come back."
"Then he won't," Fletcher said, standing, "And Mr. Kennedy won't have to go with him, I promise. Does that make you feel better, Thomas?"
The boy hesitated, and Horatio could tell that even after six months on the Indy he was still unused to being treated with any consideration. Finally he nodded slowly and said, "Thank you, sir."
"Thank Mr. Hornblower," Fletcher replied, patting the boy's shoulder before stepping away, "It's his generosity, after all. Take care, Thomas, and keep up with your studies, now. When Mr. Kennedy is better you don't want to disappoint him by lagging behind."
Thomas nodded, and as Fletcher swiftly stepped to the railing and began to climb down the ladder to the waiting jollyboat, Horatio glanced back and saw that the boy had set his rope down and pulled his religious medallion out of his pocket. He was looking at it quizzically, the bright metal catching the sun's light as he turned it in his hands, and for a moment Horatio watched him, almost jealous of the child's simple faith; a faith he had never had. But then - but then, why not? Things were going well. Archie's hearing was back, and his sight could very well follow it; but if it did not, Horatio knew there was a place where Archie would be taken care of, and that Thomas would be looked after in the bargain. When Horatio turned back to the water, Fletcher was in the boat and pulling away, and raised one hand in farewell. Horatio waved back, feeling a wave of gratitude towards this gracious and charitable man; with his help, it seemed, the coming dawn might not be so black after all.
And with that, Horatio went belowdecks to write his father a letter, and prepare for Archie's return to their cabin.
The shadows lengthened down the Plymouth streets as Devon Carlyle, esteemed member of the Sick and Hurt Board, shuffled his papers into their respective places and prepared to go home for the day. It had been a long afternoon, and he was looking forward to a few pints of ale down at the corner pub, then home to dinner and a nice soft bed.
"And you used to be such a carouser," he muttered to himself with a slight smile as he shut his office door, "What happened to you?"
The building was emptying out, weary clerks and preoccupied officers slowly filtering out into the amber streets. As Carlyle came down the stairs, however, he did see one person coming in, and when he saw who it was he stopped in his tracks. Titus Dunbridge.
"Ah!" Titus smiled as soon as he looked up and saw Carlyle on the steps. "Just the man I wanted to see. Good evening to you, sir."
"Good evening, my lord," Carlyle replied as he descended the steps. "Is there something you need? I'll be happy to reopen my office - "
"Oh, no need for that," Titus interrupted with a lazy wave of his hand, "In fact, I'm just passing by on my way to Regent's. I simply had a question, and I was wondering if you could assist me."
"Certainly," Carlyle replied solicitously as Titus waved him toward the door, "This isn't about Fletcher, is it? Did he give you any problems?"
"No," Titus answered, "Although I will say I am not used to being treated so - brusquely - "
"That's his manner," Carlyle said hastily, "I can promise you he doesn't speak for the Board."
"I thought not," Titus demurred as they stepped out of the office and into the street, "That is, your Lord Admiral Hood seemed quite happy with my offer to take Mr. Kennedy home. It seems to make sense to everyone but your Mr. Fletcher. I'm certain it will make sense to Mr. Kennedy, when I talk to him."
"Of course; who doesn't want to go home?"
"My point exactly," Titus let his gaze wander up the street, where the chandlers were busy lighting the lamps. "Kennedy *should* want to go home, and I wish to make his sad state as comfortable as possible. His family is mostly out of the house - there's only the Lord and his eldest son still living in the manor. It's a very lonely place and I'm certain they'd appreciate the help..."
Carlyle shook his head. "My apologies, Mr. Dunbridge. You lost me."
"Oh - of course, how foolish of me." Titus reached into his elaborately embroidered waistcoat and pulled out a piece of parchment. "It didn't occur to me until I visited the ship this morning, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made, and I penned this letter to Lord Kennedy this afternoon. This is a copy, of course; the original is on its way to Southampton with the swiftest courier I could find."
Carlyle took the letter and unfolded it. After reading it he asked, "Have you discussed this with Lord Hood?"
"Not yet," Dunbridge sighed, "Only his secretary was available, but he seemed to think for the right amount of money it could be done, and I'm certain Lord Kennedy would be happy to have more hands to work the estate. And this way Mr. Kennedy and his young friend can stay together."
Carlyle frowned and handed the letter back. "Adopting a cabin boy off a ship. I'm not certain there's a precedent for it."
Dunbridge took the letter and shrugged. "Perhaps not, and judging from this morning's meeting I'm not certain his captain will be happy about it either. But men are transferred from ships all the time, and their captains have little say when higher ranks prevail, isn't that so?"
"Yes," Carlyle admitted, "Although honestly I have no idea why his captain would object; most young men would jump at the chance to be raised in luxury. As long as Lord Kennedy agrees to take him in, and Hood signs the discharge papers, I don't think you'll have any trouble. But you don't say what the boy's name is."
"Oh - that's because I'd forgotten it," Dunbridge said irritably, and stuffed the paper back into his pocket without a second glance, "But of course I remembered it after the rider had gone. It's Thomas."
"Are you comfortable, Archie?"
Horatio watched his friend carefully as Archie settled into his own cot in their cabin, and frowned intently. He had spent an hour making certain that everything had been picked up off the floor, that there was nothing Archie could trip over or bang into. Then there was nothing left to do but bring Archie to the cabin, and hope he would be all right.
So far there did not seem to be any problems, except that two days in a sick berth hammock had left Archie stiff and sore. He had allowed Horatio to lead him carefully and slowly down the stairs and through the narrow passageways, and Horatio was glad he could not see the way some of the men stared at Archie's swollen face and his bandaged eyes. And Horatio was glad Archie could not see his face as well, for it was very difficult to stand at Archie's side and slowly lead him down corridors that he had once scrambled through with reckless abandon; and now it was heartrending to see him sitting so gingerly on that cot, his vibrant spirit trapped behind a length of winding cloth and his ebullient manner hushed and subdued. Archie should be sitting relaxed on that cot, reading one of the stack of books he had bought the other day; not groping with searching hands to find the edge, so he would not fall out of it in his blindness. The sight of it tore at Horatio's heart.
But thank God, Archie saw none of this. He only ran his hands along the familiar woodwork and nodded, adding, "At least this place doesn't smell any different."
Horatio smiled, even though he knew Archie couldn't see it. But perhaps, soon... "How are your eyes feeling?"
Archie froze for a moment; then he sighed and leaned his head against the wall, letting his wounded hands fall into his lap. "They hurt, Horatio. It all hurts. I want to see again. I want to be back with the guns, and helping Thomas with his studying. I want to see the sun sparkling off the water in the harbor. I want to see the sails catching the wind."
Horatio paused, searching for words. Finally he placed a comforting hand on Archie's arm and said, "You will, Archie. And until then, I will be there to help you."
Archie did not seem to be listening; he clenched his fists in his lap and took a deep breath. "All my life I've struggled against being an object of pity. Now this happens, and I - I don't even want anyone to look at me. I feel like - like an ogre or some disfigured creature. And if the swelling goes down and I'm still blind I shall be worse than useless." He leaned back against the bulkhead and sighed, his bandaged face slack with resignation. "I'm weary, Horatio, weary in my soul and my body. I don't want to be helpless."
"You're not," Horatio replied, hoping Archie could not sense that he was indeed seen as pitiable by some of the crew, "You're injured, and soon you will be better. Tomorrow night Dr. Sebastian will remove your bandage and you can see for yourself how shamefully you grow a beard."
Archie smiled at that, a little, and reached up to feel his chin. "Well, one cannot trust a blind man to handle a razor." Then he sobered. "Horatio, I didn't know that Titus Dunbridge had approached the admiralty about sending me home."
Horatio hesitated; bad news was not what Archie needed to hear at the moment. But..."He has. But Mr. Fletcher knows it's not what you want, and he has told me himself that your wishes take precedence with him."
"I know. He seems like a good man...but he likely thinks me daft for not wanting to return to a palatial estate to live out the remainder of my days in idleness and luxury."
The tone Archie applied to those words - the faint irony he used to tint them - led Horatio to ask, very quietly, "It was that bad?"
There was a very long pause; Archie's hands unclenched, slowly, and with a fluid movement born of familiarity he reached up into his jacket pocket and took out his St. Adelaide medal, still on its loop of twine. Fingering it he said quietly, "Yes, I don't suppose we've ever really talked about that, have we?"
"We don't have to now, if it pains you," Horatio answered sincerely, "I know you were unhappy, after your mother died. And that there is no love lost between you and your brothers."
The medallion moved, over and over in Archie's fingers as if it was giving him sustenance. "You've spoken of when you lost your mother, Horatio. Of the void it left."
"Yes," Horatio replied, shifting closer to Archie so they could talk quietly.
"For me it was much the same," Archie's voice was merely a whisper, "But it seemed to cut deeper, because I expected that void to be filled. When she was alive I didn't know that everyone in my world was not like her, would not be generous and loving." He paused, and bit his lip. "And when she was gone, for a while, I sat in expectation waiting for the void to be filled and when it wasn't..." He paused again, and shook his head helplessly. "After a while I accepted that emptiness, but some portion of me still needed to have it filled. My brothers laughed and called me weak, and my father wondered why I never fought back when they bullied me. I did, at first, but it hurt; not the blows, but knowing that they knew I was in pain and wouldn't stop. I learned...the pain is less if you don't struggle against it."
Archie's voice was becoming rough and heartbroken, and Horatio could almost see his friend folding into himself. "Archie..."
"And the house," Archie straightened up suddenly, as if thrown back by the sheer force of memory, "It's a large, endless cavern of hollow rooms and stiff, formal furniture. Father had it redone after mother died, called her tastes overdone and sentimental. They - it wasn't the same, Horatio. The shadows seem to draw the spirit right out of you, I was frightened of that house when I was a child. Dark blues and...and gray, a lot of gray. And everything stiff and without sympathy or pity. I looked for a very long time, and found nothing."
Horatio shivered at that picture, the small anxious child wandering now-unfamiliar rooms, looking for a loving presence that was not only gone but forgotten, by everyone but him.
"That is why going home fills me with dread," Archie said softly, grasping the medallion tightly as he spoke, "If I return - I know part of me will start looking again, and I will be met with only cold indifference and the resentful hand. I will die - I will be starved. I know it."
The picture Archie painted was so bleak that Horatio felt the need to stammer, "But...you have been away many years and - Archie, they're your blood. Surely...?"
Archie's lips compressed into a thin line for a moment. Then he said in a strained voice, "Horatio, do you recall when I was taken prisoner?"
"Of course. You were held in France and Spain for three years."
Archie nodded, "They wrote my father. Don Masserado wrote my father himself, several times, the last time after I took ill following my ordeal in the oubliette. I discovered this when he sent a servant to inquire as to my correct address. My father never replied."
Horatio absorbed this in saddened silence. How long would it have taken his own father to respond to such a letter? A day? No, he would be on a boat for Spain, and damn the consequences. But three years, and no word...and still, he knew, Archie waited. In vain.
For a long time Archie said nothing else; he leaned his head against the bulkhead and began turning the medallion over in his hand again. Finally he said in a weary voice, "Now you see why I cannot go back. It would kill me."
Horatio leaned forward and placed a hand on Archie's arm, "I've drafted a letter to my father, and it will go to Lieutenant Fletcher in the morning. Don't think of Kennedy Manor anymore, Archie. Its ghosts are behind you, I swear it."
Archie nodded a little and clutched the medallion tightly in his hand. "I know. Dr. Sebastian has told me the same thing."
Horatio nodded firmly. "And he would be the first to tell you that your fears are at an end - you're getting better, Archie, I can see it. And you've only to wait a little while longer, just until tomorrow night, and then we'll know for certain. But you must believe that no matter what happens, you will never go back to those shadows again."
"No..." Archie smiled a little and turned his head in Horatio's direction. "Just until tomorrow night...it seems like forever, Horatio."
"But it won't be," Horatio said reassuringly, "It will be through before you know it, and Dr. Sebastian and I will both be on hand to welcome you back to the service of Indefatigable. And Thomas too, if you'll allow it. He's been very concerned about you."
Archie seemed to hesitate at this; touching his face uncertainly he said, "I - I'll think about it. But you must promise me, Horatio, that if the worst happens, you'll look after Thomas. You two are very much alike, he may - come to trust you."
"You have my word on that, Mr. Kennedy," Horatio said warmly, "But for the moment think only of a future that sees you back at your guns. The rest of it may never need to happen."
"I hope so," Archie's entire life seemed to be in those words, and he shook his head as if in deep thought. "God, Horatio. I hope so."
Night had fallen, and the stars came out. The busy day on Indefatigable settled into the quiet of the middle watch, when the men slung their hammocks and rested for the work of tomorrow. The night was clear and warm, the still air broken only by the clanging of bells and the sound of the great ships in the harbor riding the rippling tide.
It was a perfect night for contemplation.
Dr. Sebastian stood on the taffrail of Indefatigable, a newly lit cigar in his hand and eyes that tilted heavenward to see the stars that glimmered softly through the spiderweb riggings. He closed his eyes and sighed; he needed this time alone.
There was so much pain, so much he needed to do, so much that could not be done. The men in his care hurt, and the medicines he had seemed so insufficient. Lewis was so distressed that he must leave the navy, the only source of money for his family, and Sebastian could offer him little comfort except to say that he would not die or be badly deformed by his injuries.
And Kennedy...Sebastian set his cigar in his teeth and dipped into his jacket pocket for his rosary. He needed to pray, for all of the men, but for Archie in particular. Lewis had a loving wife and family who would help him; the other men who were to go ashore would be well looked after, but Archie's loss was not merely physical, and if his sight did not come back he would lose more than his livelihood. His soul was on this ship.
Sebastian took the cigar from his mouth and tossed it away, concentrating instead on the glittering beads in his hands. Fingering the jeweled cross that hung on the end of the string he began to recite the Apostle's Creed, as he always had. Then he faltered, and stopped.
Something was wrong.
Sebastian studied the tiny strand of jewels that dangled in his hand and frowned. He was not supposed to be doing this; why, he didn't know, but he was being told not to. He did not question his spiritual instincts; without further hesitation he slipped the rosary back into his pocket, and gazed back up at the stars.
What are you trying to tell me? He asked in his mind as he watched the heavens swirl above him. Lord, I want to talk to you, unburden myself to you. Is it not time yet? Lord, you know what is being faced down here; you know the quiet agony that is dwelling in my sick berth, crouching like a beast I cannot see or tame. You also know the souls that bear it; and the soul I am most concerned about tonight.
He is facing the darkness, Lord, and he fears it. There are shadows there, terrible things that have devoured men with twice his strength, and his armor is so newly made. Help me strengthen it, Lord; help me save him, even if you do not restore his sight. But if the plea of the humblest of your servants finds favor with you, then hear mine tonight and let him see your stars again.
Dr. Sebastian folded his arms and watched the riggings wave to and fro gently in the air above him, making the stars twinkle in and out as they passed before them. Archie has only known the darkness, Lord, but he seeks your protection, he is crying for your aid. Grant him your comfort and peace tonight, and give him the strength to see the stars that shine like beacons of purest radiance through the blackest depths. Cradle in your loving arms, Lord. Amen.
With those thoughts came some measure of peace, and Dr. Sebastian turned his eyes downward as he felt in his pocket for another cigar. The quiet and solitude that surrounded him encouraged his wandering thoughts, and as he pulled another thin cigar out of his pocket he gazed back up at the night sky and murmured, "Wise Nicodemus saw such light as made him know his God by night..."
"Is that a poem?"
Dr. Sebastian blinked, and looked behind him. "Thomas! What are you doing on the deck at this time of night?"
The boy shifted in the shadows, his expression serious as it always was. "You told me to find you if I couldn't sleep."
"Ah," Dr. Sebastian tucked the cigar away and knelt down to Thomas' level, putting a hand on the child's shoulder and studying him closely. "Are you having nightmares?"
Thomas shook his head, and regarded Sebastian with steady eyes. "I saw you had your necklace, and I was going to leave when you put it away. Were you saying a poem?"
"Yes," Sebastian replied quietly, "A poem I learned a long time ago, about the night and how God lives in it."
Thomas tilted his head. "Were you saying it for Mr. Kennedy?"
Sebastian felt an understanding then, and knew somehow that he was doing more good at that moment than if he had merely prayed his rosary. Glancing behind himself he saw a barrel to sit on, and eased himself back to it. "Yes, Thomas, I was thinking about Mr. Kennedy. I was praying for him."
"I've been praying for him too," Thomas replied, looking up at the night sky, "Did God say anything?"
"Not yet," Dr. Sebastian smiled, "But that is what the poem I was reciting is about, how God can speak to us in the nighttime because it is so quiet and far removed from the busyness of the day. So perhaps if we are very still, God will speak to us yet."
"I hope so," Thomas' expression changed to a kind of grimness that on any other child would look almost comic; but Dr. Sebastian had learned to accept it in him as the reflection of a soul that had grown used to suffering. "I've been telling him I don't want Mr. Kennedy to go. And I want him to see again."
Dr. Sebastian put a hand on the boy's shoulder soothingly. "I wish the same thing, Thomas. And Mr. Kennedy asks after you, often."
Thomas absorbed this, then said, "Mr. Fletcher said if he's blind he'll go to Mr. Hornblower's father's house. Is that true?"
Sebastian nodded. "If Mr. Kennedy loses his sight, then he cannot stay here, he could be easily hurt or killed. And he has told Mr. Fletcher that he would like to stay with Dr. Hornblower. But I am praying that it does not come to that."
Thomas brought his hands together, and laced the fingers together loosely. "Titus Dunbridge wants to take him to his home, but Mr. Kennedy doesn't like him, and I don't think he wants to go back to his home, either. He wants to stay here."
"I know," Sebastian sighed, putting his arm around Thomas' shoulder, "And I would like him to stay here, but he will be safer if he is off the Indefatigable, and that is the most important thing."
Thomas nodded, then his small face grimaced in puzzlement. "Did you write that poem you were saying?"
Dr. Sebastian tipped his head back to the stars again and replied, "No, a man named Henry Vaughan did, many years ago. It's rather long, but beautiful. 'There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness; as men here say it is late and dusky, because they see not all clear. O for that Night, where I in Him might live invisible and dim!'" he glanced down at Thomas, who was eying him closely. "What do you think?"
Thomas took a breath and said, "I want God to make Mr. Kennedy see again."
Dr. Sebastian stood slowly, and patted Thomas' head as he rose. "Then let us tell Him so together, and I will watch the darkness with you until you are ready to sleep."
As soon as the first light of dawn touched the cold Plymouth streets, Naph Fletcher was out his front door and on the way to the Sick and Hurt Board's offices. He arranged his documents carefully as he went, but swiftly; there was a lot of work ahead of him, and he knew he had to get started on it right away; and he knew it would take a half hour just to get the office stove warmed up...
He was surprised, then, to find lights burning in the windows as he approached the Sick and Hurt's building, and warmth when he opened the door. A few candles were lit downstairs, but he saw no one on the first floor. "Hello?"
"Oh - Fletcher!" Came a familiar voice from upstairs. "I'm glad you're here."
"Carlyle?" Fletcher said in puzzlement as he made his way up the winding stairs. Sure enough, the door to their office was open and his superior officer was seated at his desk, writing. "My God, what are you doing here so early?"
"I could ask you the same question," Carlyle replied, looking over the spectacles he was wearing. Then he went back to his work.
"Well...I have a lot of work to do," Fletcher said uncertainly, walking past the older man to his desk but keeping his eyes on Carlyle. "I'm transferring the wounded man, midshipman Lewis, from the Indefatigable today, and I have to make certain that the hospital is ready to receive him. What about you?"
"Hm!" Carlyle grunted, not looking up. "You went to the ship yesterday afternoon?"
"File a report?"
"It's right here," Fletcher set the document on his desk.
"And what did you find?"
Fletcher put his hands on his hips and sighed. "Some of the men are recovering satisfactorily, very well in fact. Lewis is coming ashore today, and some of the men have gone back to their duties already."
Carlyle turned in his seat. "What about Kennedy?"
"No change. He's still blind, but he could regain his sight soon. Dr. Sebastian said perhaps tonight."
"Huh. Well, if he doesn't, you'd better get started on the discharge papers so Dunbridge can take him tomorrow. We talked it over at Regent's last night and he's most anxious to get on his way."
Fletcher frowned. "I can't do that."
"What? Why, are you going out of town or something?"
"No - " Fletcher picked up the report and handed it to Carlyle, "That's why it took me so long to write this. I interviewed Kennedy and Dr. Sebastian, and it's my recommendation that Kennedy *not* go with Titus Dunbridge back to his home. I'm firmly convinced it would not be in his best interests."
"What?" Carlyle said, more incredulously this time; he opened up the parchment and read it. "What are you talking about, Fletcher? Dunbridge has Admiral Lord Hood's blessing, and the Kennedys are very wealthy people. What more do you need?"
"Compassion," Fletcher said quickly, "Love. Basic human respect. Apparently these are not found in abundance at the Kennedy household."
There was a few moment's silence as Carlyle read Fletcher's report. Then he snorted and rolled it back up, "Do you honestly think the board is going to care about a discharged man's problems with his family? Send him home and let that be someone else's job, Fletcher. Your duty is to make Hood happy, not play nursemaid."
Setting his jaw, Fletcher strode around the desk and gently took the parchment from Carlyle's hand. "Ensuring that these wounded men are kept safe from harm *is* my duty. I take it more seriously than you do, apparently."
Carlyle stood up, his florid face serious. "Fletcher, be reasonable. Hood's going to read that and laugh in your face. Who's going to take Kennedy in if his family doesn't? No one. And then he'll be rotting in a Naval hospital for the rest of his life. He's barely twenty years old, for heaven's sake!"
Fletcher started at that, started as if he'd been shot; then he regarded Carlyle with icy gray eyes and said quietly, "Yes, he's barely twenty. I would think the tragedy in those words would be more to you than money."
Carlyle paused, then snorted again and turned back to his desk. "Oh, Fletcher, please. It's been decided that Kennedy's going to Kennedy Manor, and if you don't want Hood coming down on all of us you'll make certain everything is ready when Titus comes tomorrow morning." There was a pause as Carlyle looked down at his paperwork; then he exclaimed, "Oh! And I've been working on discharge papers for a cabin boy Lord Kennedy's willing to take on as well, so you'll need to get him ready as well."
Fletcher blinked, his eyes wary. "What cabin boy?"
"Um - his name's Thomas," Carlyle replied, not turning around, "Lord Kennedy has agreed to take him on to assist in caring for Kennedy. Dunbridge thought it would be a civil gesture, and I for one think it's very charitable of both of them."
Fletcher went pale and shook his head. "No. No, I won't do it."
Carlyle straightened up and turned in his chair, his face slack with surprise. "What did you say?"
Fletcher stood slowly, determination in every fiber of his frame. "I can't do it. Thomas wants to be a midshipman, Kennedy was helping him study for it. He wants to stay on the ship."
Carlyle shook his head, "Fletcher, he's ten years old. When he sees the fine horses and gilded coaches he'll change his mind."
"He's seen them," Fletcher pointed out, "And he still wants to stay in the navy. Carlyle, I don't think you know what you're asking; Dr. Sebastian told me about Kennedy's childhood, what his father is like, and that's no life for a child. It's no life for anyone."
Carlyle cocked his head. "What do you mean?"
Fletcher leaned back and pursed his lips. "I'm not at liberty to say; Dr. Sebastian told me in confidence, only enough to make it clear to me that Kennedy's family is unfit to care for him. And I'll be damned if I throw a defenseless child in there as well."
Carlyle stood again, approaching Fletcher's desk with a slow and deliberate stride. "Fletcher, listen to me. I'm not *asking* you to do this, Lord Kennedy and Lord Hood are *telling* you to do this; Dunbridge knows the Kennedys, he can vouch for them. And they're aristocrats! Would you rather have Kennedy living in the gutter?"
Fletcher paused, "There's an alternative. One of Kennedy's shipmates has offered to let his father, Dr. Hornblower, care for Kennedy. A letter's coming this morning, and all we have to do is take care of Kennedy in the hospital until Dr. Hornblower arrives. I'll pay for it myself if that's a problem - "
Carlyle put his hands on his hips, "Problem? Fletcher, this matter has been settled. The board will read your recommendation, but the Indefatigable pulls out in two days and if Kennedy is still blind, he will be on his way to Kennedy manor in Dunbridge's private - free - carriage. And the boy Thomas will be there too. As servants of the King we must mind our place and do as we're ordered. What happens to Kennedy is none of our concern."
Fletcher glared at Carlyle for what seemed an eternity. Then he spoke, each word cutting the air like a knife. "Carlyle, listen to me, please. We have a responsibility to these men, we cannot let them down. Mind our place? Is it our place to stand by and let a wounded man be taken to a place he clearly doesn't want to go? Is it our place to condemn a bright and vulnerable child to a life of drudgery and neglect? Is it our place to be ordered about by some puffed-up popinjay who hasn't the slightest concern or understanding for anything except the latest wig design and how much of his weight he can throw around? It can't be! I can't let it be that way. I'm sorry."
Carlyle's face grew progressively redder as he listened to Fletcher's speech. "Watch yourself, Fletcher. You are damn close to treason, sir."
"Treason? Dammit, Carlyle, this is wrong and you know it. And I will be a traitor to Lord Hood and the whole damn British Navy before I am a traitor to my own conscience!"
Carlyle glared at Fletcher for one furious moment; then he snatched the report from his hand and said, "Get out."
Fletcher took a deep breath, did not move.
"You heard me, Fletcher, you're done with the Indefatigable's case! Go home until you've regained your senses."
Fletcher slowly shook his head. "No, Carlyle, you can't
"I'm your superior officer, dammit! I'll do as I see fit. You've let it happen, let your emotions ruin your judgment - it's happened before, but I let it go. Not this time. For the good of the board go home before you get the lot of us fired!"
Fletcher looked at Carlyle in confusion. "Sir, you know my opinions are my own; but Kennedy's misgivings are true, his words and his manner - you didn't see - "
"And I don't have to see!" Carlyle snapped, "Now get your things and don't move from this room before I call the marine escort."
The confusion turned to white-hot anger. "I won't let you do this, sir. You know I won't simply stand by and allow you to exile two souls into oblivion - "
"I'll do my job!" Carlyle roared back, "You're relieved of your duties, Mr. Fletcher. And if you're caught near the docks even *looking* at the Indefatigable I can't answer for what the marines might do. Remember that." He glanced toward the door. "Ross!"
Fletcher began to tremble. "Sir, please don't do this. Go talk to Kennedy yourself - talk to the doctor, the captain. Don't be so blind!"
Carlyle's eyes snapped up, and he grinned a little. "Interesting choice of words, Fletcher. Get your things."
A red-coated Marine appeared at the door, and Carlyle looked at him with a smug air. "Mr. Ross, kindly see that Mr. Fletcher gets to his home safely. He's relieved of his duties until further notice."
"Yes, sir," the Marine said automatically.
Fletcher glared at him, glared at Carlyle, and very slowly picked his satchel up from his desk. Like a sleepwalker, he strode slowly out the door, past Carlyle, into the hallway beyond. The candles had been snuffed, rendered useless by the coming daylight; but the sun was not altogether up yet, and the corridor was thick with darkness.
Fletcher stopped at the top of the stairs, frozen. For a moment he couldn't see.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" The Marine snapped. Fletcher felt a tap of the man's bayonet.
Fletcher stared down the winding stairs; it was still night, bleak, all-consuming night, but no - no, there had to be something beyond it. There had to be. He simply had to think...
And against every fiber of humanity in his body, Naph Fletcher walked slowly down the stairs.