Actions

Work Header

Dead Reckoning

Chapter Text

October 15, 1810
HMS Sutherland

Dear Madam:

First of all, I do not write with evil news. All is well on the Sutherland, as I hope it is with you also. Besides that, I am not at all sure how to begin this letter, but I told your husband that if he did not go to sleep soon I would write you, and William agrees with me that if I do not carry through on my threats the captain will not listen to me in future.

Perhaps I should explain first. We are hunting four French ships of the line which recently slipped past the blockade as I write. The captain believes that we are hot on their heels and may engage them at any moment. I have no doubt that he is correct, but he has not slept in two days and the third is beginning as I speak. I do not expect that this letter will arrive until after the crisis has ended of course, but I have decided to write this anyway, in hope that your influence will perhaps reduce the chances of this problem recurring.

Your humble servant,
Archie Kennedy
Second Lieutenant, HMS Sutherland

Barbara put down this extraordinary missive and looked out over the grounds of Smallbridge in a mixture of bafflement and amusement. Her voyage on HMS Lydia had been full of surprises, from the mercurial brilliance of the ship's captain to the peculiar relationship he seemed to maintain with his two most senior lieutenants, who had once invited her to dinner in the wardroom in order, as she later discovered, to determine her intentions towards their captain. Having ascertained those, they had then had the respectful audacity to give her warnings of the kind usually reserved for older brothers upon the marriage of their younger siblings. After she had taken said warnings with the grace of a lady (though not entirely without cavil) and received their approval, she had realised that she and the captain had very often been watched, and that they now were not. It was evident that the captain himself had not noticed either his lieutenants' presence or their current absence, and she found herself admiring how skilfully the two men could handle him, crude as that phrase sounded.

Smiling, she put pen to paper.

November 30, 1810
Smallbridge House

Dear Sir,

The opening of your letter was a relief to me, I do confess, as it is not often that my husband's officers write to me. Therefore, I appreciate the consideration which led you to begin thus and allay my fears. I am in the best of health, as I hope you are still when my letter reaches you.

I can appreciate the delicacy of the situation with my husband, who tends not to take kindly to suggestions as to his personal life. No doubt you can also, and so I trust that you will not misuse the permission I give you to use, should the emergency reoccur, a reminder of the incident in the stables at Smallbridge to convince him that I have in fact written you. As the memory of that incident is a tender one, however, I suggest that you use it only in serious cases, and that you do so combined with an emphasis on your and my personal concern for his wellbeing.

I must say that this correspondence is not entirely what I would have expected to find in married life, but I am grateful to have found that there are those at sea who care for my husband's welfare as earnestly as I do upon land. I wish you well. Please convey my greetings also to Lieutenant Bush.

Yours sincerely,
Lady Barbara Hornblower

 

The next month there was no letter, though that was not terribly unusual, for dispatch vessels were hard to come by and the mail service in the fleet was irregular at best. But then, in February, the Naval Gazette reprinted an article from the Moniteur. For some minutes Barbara got no further than the first heading above it. Killed in the line of duty, it read, January 1811, Captain Horatio Hornblower, Lieutenants William Bush and Archibald Kennedy, HMS Sutherland.

I wonder if he ever got my letter, she could not help but wonder as she stared fixedly at the page, the news still beating at the doors of her mind for admittance and finding none. Dead, all three of them.

Memories forced themselves to the surface of her mind, and would not be denied.

Horatio, or Captain Hornblower as he had still been to her then, standing on the battered and bloody quarterdeck, pale and tense and exhausted, refusing to go belowdecks until the Natividad was sunk, while Bush and Kennedy and Polwheal the steward stood in the companionway, holding respectively the captain's cloak, a hammock chair, and a tray of biscuits, whispering together about which of them should go on deck first.

Bush and Kennedy standing shoulder to shoulder in the wardroom, facing her the way they might have faced a broadside, uncertain of their standing with so great a lady, but determined to protect their captain from any pain she might wittingly or unwittingly inflict, regardless of the cost to themselves and their careers.

Horatio when the Lydia went to sea again after her careening, grinning like a schoolboy at his beaming lieutenants, and then turning that same smile to her — a very rare smile, but one that had taught her just how handsome his face could be when he forgot to scowl. Horatio remembering his mislaid scowl shortly afterwards. Bush and Kennedy exchanging amused and affectionate glances with her as he strode off in a huff, and her own sudden and grateful realisation that she had been, after a fashion, adopted into the tight-knit little family of the Lydia.

Horatio in his own cabin that he had given up for her, kneeling at her feet with adoration in his brown eyes, holding her hand like it was the most precious thing in the world, his impassive facade (for that was what it was, she knew now) forgotten and his whole face alight with love and awe and a touch of disbelief at finding his love requited.

It did not seem possible that three such vital men should have met their end so ignominiously — the Moniteur claimed that they had been drowned in an attempt to escape their trial for piracy, and she rose to her feet in wrath. Piracy? They were no pirates. I can think of no three more honourable men.

The British newspapers believed that the three had been murdered in secret, but that was only a little easier to believe. She could hardly imagine that Horatio, with his own quick mind that could turn impossible odds to an advantage, and besides that Kennedy's unfailing humourous insight and Bush's immense strength ready to be called upon in his need, could have perished at the hands of a Bonapartist agent, in some hidden cell in France. But so, it seemed, they had.

A maid came to the door, and Barbara realised that she had spoken at least some of her thoughts aloud. She dismissed the maid and gave orders that she not be disturbed, then turned miserably away from the door and buried her face in her hands. Lady Barbara Hornblower, neé Wellesley, had no choice and no wish but to face the death of her husband with dignity, and when she emerged from her room she would do so. But for a moment, with her privacy ensured, she could be only Barbara, and a woman, and she could weep for three lives that had grown dearer to her than she would ever have guessed, one of them above all.

Chapter Text

As Hornblower was led into the courtyard, he heard the sounds of shouting. "Damn your eyes, you fool, what do you mean this carriage is for us? Bush is not to be moved! Any surgeon worth his salt could tell you that! Ask this one! I don't know who you think your orders are from or what he wants with us but he can damn well wait for it!"

"Archie!" Horatio exclaimed, formalities of rank forgotten in his haste to forestall what sounded like a disaster in the making. He hurried into the sunlight to see his second lieutenant, right arm still in a cast and sling, livid with rage, facing down two armed French guardsmen over Bush's stretcher.

"Horatio, what the hell is going on here?" Archie snapped furiously. "There's got to be some mistake. These bloody French idiots say we're going to go to Paris whether I ask them in English or Spanish, but there's got to be a mix-up. They'd never move William, not now."

"There's not a mix-up," Horatio said unhappily, resisting the temptation to run a hand over his face wearily. "We're going to Paris all right, all three of us. No help for it."

Archie opened his mouth to protest further but Horatio put a hand on his shoulder, forestalling him, and shook his head slightly. "Not here," he mouthed, glancing briefly at Bush on his stretcher, and then at Colonel Caillard, who had mounted his horse and was scowling impatiently at the three Englishmen.

Mercifully, Archie seemed to understand that there was more going on than immediately appeared, though his face remained thunderous. The part of Hornblower's mind that always laughed in a crisis informed him that for a man of middling height with blond hair and blue eyes, Archie could look remarkably like a thundercloud looming on the horizon. He angrily told that part of his mind to be quiet, as this was no time to be whimsical, and forced himself to look around and make sure that there was no more immediate trouble brewing. The French guardsmen were slowly relaxing, apparently reassured that the furious Englishman would not be causing any more trouble now, and so Hornblower could attend to the chief cause of his and Archie's worry. He knelt beside Bush, who was trying feebly to shield his pale face from the sun and blinking in confusion. "What's going on, sir?" Bush asked as soon as he could see Hornblower's face.

"They're taking us to Paris, Bush," Hornblower said, wondering how much to tell his lieutenants of Colonel Caillard's ominous words, and when to tell it.

"What, you and me, sir?"

"You and me and Mr. Kennedy," Hornblower answered, restraining himself for the moment to the barest facts of the situation.

Fortunately Bush asked no further questions, but said only, "It's a place I've often wished to see," with an ironic twist of his mouth.

Or perhaps it was a grimace of pain, Hornblower thought, his fury at Caillard rising again like a tide, and beating furiously at the dam of his restraint. For a mad moment he wanted to shout at the Frenchmen like Archie had done, wanted to fling himself at the guards in desperation and rage and let them shoot him down fighting rather than tamely let them lead him to the firing squad, but he informed himself that he might perhaps be so cavalier with his own life in good conscience, but it would be the lowest form of hypocrisy to throw away his lieutenants' lives by such an action -- it would make him no better than Caillard, who would throw away a man's life to gratify his own whims in serving his emperor. There might be a chance to escape along the road, and it would be stupid to throw it away for a whim of heroic resistance. As his anger ebbed, he saw that Bush was looking at him curiously, and realised that his face must have revealed something of the play of his emotions. He cleared his throat awkwardly. He could not explain to Bush why he was angry, not without giving away the purpose of their journey, and that he would not do.

Brown's arrival with the baggage served both to break the tense contest of stares that had been taking place between Archie and the nearest guardsman and to relieve Hornblower of the dilemma of what to say next. After the baggage was stowed, there was the business of getting Bush and his stretcher into the carriage. All this almost served to distract Hornblower from the fact that they were setting out on a journey to a rigged trial and a firing squad. He entered the carriage with only a little hesitation. Then he and Kennedy and Brown had to arrange themselves. The carriage would ordinarily have held four men quite comfortably, but the stretcher took nearly a third of the space, and Brown looked horribly awkward at the idea of sitting directly next to one of his officers. In the end, in deference both to Brown's comfort and the unusual breadth of his shoulders, Hornblower and Kennedy sat together by Bush's head and Brown took the seat by his feet, and the carriage rattled off.

The road was abominable, probably, the same irrelevant part of Hornblower's mind as before informed him, because the French had not the time or men to repair it, or perhaps because of the Spanish bandits that haunted the countryside. There was no reason to snarl at his own irrelevance now, as there was no crisis to deal with, but Hornblower did so nonetheless, out of habit. The carriage jolted again and he looked down at Bush in time to see, or to think that he saw, a brief grimace of pain cross his wasted face. "How is it going, Bush?" he asked, leaning over him.

"Very well, thank you, sir," Bush said.

They went over another jolt, and this time Hornblower was sure that what he saw was a wince. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked, trying hard to keep the helplessness out of his voice.

"No, sir," Bush whispered.

"Try and rest," Hornblower said.

Bush's hand that lay outside the blankets stirred and moved towards him. Hornblower took it, and felt a gentle pressure. For a few moments Bush's hand stroked his, feebly, caressing it as though it were a woman's. There was the glimmer of a smile on Bush's drawn face with its closed eyes. His head turned on the pillow and he lay quite still, while beside him Hornblower sat, not daring to move for fear of disturbing him.

Horatio did not realise how very still he had been holding himself, or how worried his face must have been, until Archie's good hand landed reassuringly on his shoulder and squeezed. He leaned into the touch ever so slightly before he realised what he was doing; a captain could not take obvious comfort from his lieutenants and so he had, of necessity, held himself somewhat aloof from Bush and even from Archie lately. But now he found that he had missed that closeness and equality that they had known in Portsmouth together as lieutenants. His mind flew back to the first time the three of them had sat so close together, the night when Bush had taken lodgings with him and Archie, and Mrs. Mason refused to bring up an extra bed for him.

"Hornblower, your damnably sharp elbow is in my ribs."

"Bush," Hornblower retorted sleepily, "my elbow is minding its own business and I can hardly help that you're in the way. Archie, for heaven's sake roll the other way; you don't need all the blankets."

Archie answered with a loud and probably false snore, and rolled over still further, taking all the rest of Hornblower's share of the blankets, and a fair amount of Bush's. Bush seized the tail of the blanket before it vanished, and yanked, with the result that the blanket cocoon unrolled, Archie rolled into Bush, and Bush fell into Hornblower, who immediately seized upon the blanket and clung like a limpet. Whether awake or asleep, Archie eventually gave up on his attempt to roll himself up in all the blankets, but took revenge by sprawling with an arm over Bush. Horatio, refusing to release his death grip on said blankets, had eventually been pulled in just as close. By morning Archie had all the blankets anyway and Hornblower had a knee in Bush's kidney, but they were close enough together that they were warm anyway, and none of them had minded much.

In the present again, Hornblower felt Bush's grip on his hand tighten as they jounced over a particularly rough patch of road. He pressed the hand in return, as the only comfort he could offer, and inwardly cursed Spanish roads, French inefficiency, and last and most comprehensively, Colonel Caillard. Archie remained a reassuring presence at his back, and that was something, and Brown was studiously looking out the window, courteously ignoring his officers entirely and probably thoroughly uncomfortable at being in a coach with them in the first place, and that was something else, and Hornblower had a full purse in his pocket, given him by the Governor, and that was a very material something that might aid them in escaping.

But for now there was nothing to be done except wait, with Bush's hand in his and Archie's on his shoulder, and think of Paris and the firing squad. He did not want to die and leave Barbara behind; Barbara with whom he had (much to his own surprise) hoped to have children, Barbara who could alone of all the women he had met endure a battle at sea and the horrors of the surgeon's cockpit, Barbara who inexplicably and wonderfully had fallen in love with him and agreed to marry him despite his flaws and his obscure background and his shockingly rude treatment of her when she had first come aboard.

Neither did he did want to have led his friends to their deaths. Archie had cheated death twice already, and something ancient and superstitious in Horatio's mind whispered with the voice of the foremost jacks that there could and would be no third time. Bush had unflinchingly taken the worst of Horatio's temper with patient endurance, until Archie had risked his career and his own friendship with Horatio to take him to task for it, had lost his leg following Horatio's own orders and might yet lose his life to gangrene -- but he deserved the chance to fight that fight to the end, not to have it ended for him by a rigged French trial. Unconsciously he tightened his grip on Bush's hand again, becoming aware of his action only as the pressure was returned. They were relying on him, both of them. No, all three of them: Brown was there too. He must be ready and waiting for even the smallest opportunity for escape: he felt sure that there would be no more than one.

Chapter Text

Hornblower scowled at the French sergeant who was looking at him dispassionately. "I cannot help it that the innkeeper was not told to prepare for three gentlemen and a servant," the man said slowly, probably, Hornblower thought, to make up for this Englishman's poor command of French, "nor can the innkeeper."

"Well what was he told to prepare for?" he asked impatiently.

"Two men, one on a stretcher, and perhaps a servant."

"Your orders were incorrect then. Tell the innkeeper to bring up two more mattresses, confound it!"

The man began to turn away. "I will report your insolence and lack of cooperation to Colonel Caillard tomorrow," Hornblower said, desperate, but forcing his tone to a quarterdeck rasp and drawing himself up to his full height as though he were still upon the Sutherland's deck and the sergeant a recalcitrant crewman whom Hornblower was well within his abilities to have flogged.

It was, in the end, not the threat that carried the day, but the manner in which it was made. Sergeants, even, Hornblower thought, French sergeants of gendarmerie, are accustomed to taking orders from men with gold lace and epaulettes on their jackets and an authoritative manner, and the fact that the uniform in this case was of a foreign cut did not seem to matter. He turned away and gave orders in rapid French to the sentries. The innkeeper brought up a pair of straw pallets a few minutes later. Archie sat down on the one nearer the bed with a sigh of relief, and the sight of him recalled something the sergeant had said to Horatio's mind. "Archie...do you have any idea what the sergeant meant that Caillard didn't give orders about three gentlemen and a servant?"

"Oh." Archie ran his good hand wearily over his face. He had not been able to shave properly since the battle, with one arm mostly useless, but the stubble on his jaw still seemed to surprise him when he touched it. "I rather hoped you weren't going to notice that."

"Archie!" Horatio knelt on the floor in front of his friend, forcing him to meet his eyes, and being uncomfortably reminded of the Renown and the last time Archie had tried to hide something from him.

Archie made a concerted effort to avoid meeting his eyes, but eventually gave up on it and said, "I wasn't ordered to come."

"What?"

"Caillard's orders applied to you and William. Not me. I could have stayed behind in that damned prison and watched him drag my two best friends in the world off to Paris and the f…"

"Archie!" Horatio hissed.

Archie cut himself off just in time to avoid saying "firing squad" and clenched his shaking hand into a fist. "I wasn't going to do it, Horatio. I was not going to let the two of you go off alone and stay behind myself. I had quite enough of prison in El Ferrol."

He met Horatio's eyes with a valiant attempt at a smile. "I couldn't do it."

It was Horatio's turn to find the floor fascinating. Here he was, bringing his men -- his friends -- into danger of their lives again, even when it was unnecessary. Archie would die at Vincennes, in a ditch with him and Bush, tied to a wooden post, because he had followed Hornblower when he had no need to. For the second time that night Horatio saw in his mind's eye the Renown and Archie's white shirt stained bright red with blood, and his active imagination conjured up a picture of himself to match. Would he be in his shirt when he died or would they leave him his uniform jacket? He thought of Bush, slumped against a wooden post, lashed upright because even a firing squad would rebel at shooting an invalid lying on a stretcher; of his own body, eyes open, fixed and glassy as he had seen so many others…

A hand landed on his shoulder and he looked up. Archie was giving him a shaky, but genuine (this time) smile. "I'd have run mad sooner or later in that horrid casement, Horatio. You, of all people, know that I would. I'd rather be with you and sane, whatever happens."

Horatio grasped his wrist in return, and swallowed hard. "I would rather neither you or Bush were here. If there are any charges to be laid they should be laid to my account, not yours. You and William were following my orders, damn it! You cannot be held accountable for that. If Boney and his damnable newspapers did not want…"

He trailed off again, remembering that, for Bush's sake, they were keeping up the facade of this journey ending in an interrogation, not an execution. Archie gripped his shoulder tightly but said nothing. There was nothing to say and they both knew it. Finally Horatio let go of his friend's arm and got to his feet. "We'd better get to sleep," he said wryly. "We'll have a long day tomorrow, if I'm any judge of Caillard."

Archie tiredly damned Caillard and Horatio snorted. "William," Archie continued, "we'd better move you into the bed. You've been on that stretcher day and night for two weeks and that's quite enough."

"Nonsense," Bush said, with as much of his old firmness in his voice as he could manage. "I've gotten used to it now. I'll be quite well where I am."

Horatio suspected that at least part of Bush's reticence stemmed from a firm determination that his captain should have the bed, and decided to take that concern out of the equation. "Well," he said firmly, and then paused. He could not tell Bush the real reason for what he was doing. The cold draught on the floor gave him an idea. "It's quite cold in here with the fire out, and I was going to share the bed with Archie anyway. There's no reason to waste a perfectly good mattress."

"I'm quite comfortable on the floor," Archie said, catching on. "I've got a cloak and a blanket."

"You can have this cloak back, sir," said Brown, to whom Hornblower had lent his cloak, from his mattress.

"Nonsense," Horatio said. "You keep the cloak. Mr. Bush and I can share blankets and we'll be quite warm."

Presented with a fait accompli, informed that this was for his captain's sake, and exhausted to boot, Bush made no further protest as Brown and Hornblower together lifted him out of the stretcher and, with his help, got him into the bed. It was, in fact, slightly narrow for two, but Hornblower was a slight man, and it really was cold enough that he was grateful for the warmth provided by close proximity to another body. Careful not to jostle Bush's leg, he wriggled himself under the covers until he was not in immediate danger of falling off the edge of the bed should he turn over in the night. Bush, who had lain quite still until now, turned his head so that he was half leaning on Hornblower's shoulder and closed his eyes again. Horatio put an arm around his shoulders and lay back on the pillows. He had expected a sleepless night after the day's worries and exertions, but there must have been something soothing in the proximity of his two friends, and he woke in the morning, quite surprised, to find that the sun was streaming through the window.

Chapter Text

When Hornblower woke the next morning, with the sun beginning to shine brightly through the window, he was a little confused by his seeming inability to move. Blinking himself more fully awake, he realised that he was pinned down: Bush had thrown an arm over his chest in the night, and was lying, still asleep, with his head pillowed on Hornblower's shoulder. Hornblower found himself unaccountably pleased by the sight. Looking around the room, careful not to disturb the softly snoring Bush, he saw that neither Archie nor Brown had woken. The long journey of the previous day, coming upon the heels of a near-sleepless night, had left them all weary.

He had no doubt that one of Caillard's lackeys would be coming in soon to wake them; the man seemed to believe that the best way to show his service to his Emperor was to run the post-horses into the ground and allow as little time as possible for food and sleep, all to bring them to Paris an hour earlier. He closed his eyes again and settled down comfortably, deciding that he might as well enjoy this moment's peace while he could.

His peace was not in fact shattered by loud banging on the door, but by Bush, who moaned and shifted restlessly on the bed, though he did not wake. Hornblower set a hand on his forehead and felt its feverish heat, and at once all his worries, for his lieutenants, for the future, for their journey, but most especially for Bush and his wound, came rushing back in. He upbraided himself sharply for being so thoughtless as to enjoy his peaceful wakefulness while Bush was still lying there feverish and in pain.

This unpleasant train of thought drove out of him all the desire to wait until he should be called before pretending to wake. As gently as possible he slipped out from under Bush's arm, and padded across the room to wake the others. Better that they meet the French dressed and ready than that they be caught half-asleep. "Archie," he hissed softly. "It's dawn."

Archie mumbled something incomprehensible and turned over. Horatio thought of shaking him awake, and then felt rather remorseful for the thought and turned to the washbasin instead. Only one of them could wash at a time. He would leave the others to sleep for the moment.

The clatter of spurred and booted feet in the hall was what woke Archie and Bush and Brown in the end. Horatio was nearly dressed by that time and yielded the basin to Archie as the sergeant from yesterday came in. The surgeon came in after him, and tutted worriedly when he saw Bush, whose fever was obvious despite his stout assertions that he was not at all ill.

The first ligature, the doctor found, was free, but when he tugged on the second Bush gave a cry of pain that seemed to go clean through Hornblower's heart. He explained that it would probably be a matter only of hours before the second ligature was free also, and that if at all possible Bush should travel no further today until that crisis was past: that it would be both painful and dangerous to him should he be forced to. Hornblower and Archie looked grimly at each other. Their interactions with Caillard the day before did not give them any great hope that he would delay their journey for the sake of a wounded Englishman. Nevertheless, Hornblower, now fully uniformed, strode out into the courtyard where the coach was waiting for them, where he by chance found Caillard. "Sir," said Hornblower, as respectfully as he could make himself speak.

"What is it now?" Caillard demanded.

"Lieutenant Bush is very badly wounded and a crisis is approaching. The doctor says that he must not be moved today."

"I can do nothing in contravention of my orders," Caillard said coldly, with a harsh set to his mouth.

"You were not ordered to kill him," Horatio protested.

"I was ordered to bring you and him to Paris with the utmost dispatch. And since your second lieutenant is so loyal a pirate, he shall come also."

"But, sir," Horatio said, swallowing his fury at hearing Archie called a pirate, "cannot you wait even today?"

"As a captain of men, even if they are pirates, you must be aware of the necessity of obeying orders," Caillard said, laying special emphasis on the word "pirates".

"I protest against those orders in the name of humanity," Hornblower said furiously.

This was a melodramatic speech, but it was a melodramatic moment, and Hornblower did not know enough French to pick and choose his words. There was a sympathetic murmur from some of the staff of the inn, who stood near, but they were as helpless to intervene as was Hornblower when Caillard said abruptly, "Sergeant, put the prisoners into the coach."

The gendarmes carried Bush out on his stretcher, accompanied by Archie, who was expostulating angrily with them, mixing English and broken Spanish with his few words of French in his agitation. But in the end all he and Horatio could do, as the doctor scribbled notes for the doctor who should treat Bush at the next stop, was to run round the stretcher and try to spare its occupant any unnecessary jars.

When they were all inside the coach at last, a maid from the inn brought them a tray of breakfast, with coffee (or what passed for coffee in long-blockaded France) and bread. Hornblower thanked her, and then the coach drove off at a word from Caillard and the last sight he had of her face was the look of consternation on it as she realised that the tray was gone for good. At least, Hornblower thought with a grim sort of whimsicality, Caillard is indiscriminate in his unkindness. Though it is we who suffer most by it.

He and Archie and Brown ate breakfast, such as it was, with an appetite. Bush would only drink a little coffee before he turned his head away, and Hornblower heard him take a sharp breath as the coach jolted onto the road. The Spanish bandits could not be blamed for the poor state of the roads now; Hornblower supposed that Bonaparte had little time to be concerned with such mundane and internal matters of his kingdom as that, while he was bent on conquering Europe. He was already sitting by the head of the stretcher, and now he reached out and caught Bush's hand. "Don't you worry yourself, sir," Bush said, "I'm all right."

Even as he spoke Horatio felt him grip tighter as another jolt caught him unexpectedly. "I'm sorry, Bush," he said miserably, taken back in thought once again to their days in Portsmouth, where he and Archie had rallied round Bush during his seven months of no pay, insisting on helping wherever they could. There was no such help to be offered now; the only thing to be done was to endure, but Hornblower felt as though he ought to say something more. "You wouldn't be here if it weren't for me, Bush. If I hadn't been so bound and determined to take on four ships without waiting for the admiral…"

"Nonsense, sir," Bush said, distracted from his pain by the thought of Hornblower blaming himself for it. "You were only doing your duty. This can't be helped." He smiled at Horatio as best he could, and Horatio felt the guilt twist in his chest that Bush should consider it necessary to put on a brave face for him.

"I always do my duty," he said wearily, "and someone always suffers for it. First Archie and now you." Even Barbara, he added to himself. I widowed her the day I married her.

Archie sighed beside him, and shifted so that his shoulder was pressed up against Horatio's. "That's none of your doing, Horatio," he said gently but firmly.

"Oh, I suppose someone else struck you over the head with the tiller then and let Simpson cast off that boat with you in it!" Ordinarily Horatio would never have spoken so openly of the ordeals that Archie had gone through on the Justinian and at El Ferrol, but now that he had begun to speak it seemed as though a dam had been opened, and he could not close it again.

"No," Archie said, more softly, and Horatio cursed himself.

He was a fool for bringing up that time, for reminding Archie of the worst year of his life (to date; this one bade fair to be worse), and of Simpson, and of… "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry."

Bush tightened his grip on Horatio's hand, not, this time, because of the roughness of the road. "You're missing what would have happened if you hadn't done that," Archie said, with a paper-thin veneer of cheerfulness in his voice that made Horatio wince. "I'd have given away the location of the boat and the whole mission would have failed if you hadn't knocked me out. I don't blame you for what happened, Horatio," he continued earnestly. "Not for any of it. You've never shirked the consequences of your own actions. You'll even take blame for things you didn't do. While we're on the subject of Ferrol, why don't you think about what you did there, taking the blame for Hunter's tomfool plan so that he and the others would live?"

Bush was watching them curiously, an intent look on his drawn features. Horatio and Archie had told him about their time as midshipmen together on the Indefatigable, but there were many things before and after that time that they both preferred to forget, and so he knew only the barest outlines of their time in El Ferrol and how they had come to be there. Horatio stared at the floor of the coach, and suddenly the memory of the little box in the ground came vividly into his mind and the coach was too small. He held himself rigidly still all the same; Bush was still holding his hand, gripping tighter at intervals as the jolts caught him. But he must have felt or seen something that communicated his captain's mood to him, for he withdrew his hand gently and turned away, leaving Hornblower free to move about the coach, for what that was worth. Horatio rose to his feet and put his head out the window. At least he could stand here, and watch freedom go by outside; he could smell the fresh air and feel the breeze and remind himself that, whatever horrors they might be bound for, at least El Ferrol and Don Massaredo were far away.

He pulled his head back into the coach to avoid the grasping branches of a tree, and saw that Archie had taken his place by Bush's head, and was holding his hand now and bending over him to talk. But the leathery atmosphere of the coach was stifling, and though a part of him wished to sit down beside them again and join in the conversation, the memory of the little cell was still with him, and he went back to the window, to stay there until it had faded.

 

When they halted next, it was only to change horses. Someone brought them a tray of bread and meat and cheese and a bottle of wine. Archie called after him to ask for water, which was brought as well, and Horatio was silently grateful to him, for Bush would still take no food, and it was better that he have water than wine while his fever was still running. The moment after a mug of water had been handed in, the postillion cracked his whip over the new horses, and they were off again.

Shortly afterwards it started raining, and in the end Hornblower decided that the inside of the carriage, stuffy and leather-smelling as it was, was preferable to the outside and being drenched. He wedged himself between Archie, who was still holding Bush's hand, and the wall of the coach, wrung the water out of his hair, and waited.

 

It was dark outside by the time the coach pulled into the courtyard of an inn to stop for the night, but not so dark that Hornblower could not read the milestone which told him they were 805 miles from Paris. Bush woke from the sleep, or faint, into which he had fallen earlier, when the gendarmes got to work taking his stretcher out of the coach. Hornblower, upon seeing the inn, wished he had been unconscious a little longer, for the staircase to the upper rooms was too narrow for the stretcher to be carried up it, and even when it was agreed that they should have the salon instead, the stretcher jarred against the doorframe as the gendarmes brought it in.

Bush's fever might not have grown worse, but it certainly had not grown better, and Horatio took the sergeant aside before he left to ask for a surgeon. Archie and Brown, practical souls that they were, soon had the miserly fire in the grate built up into something that actually gave off warmth (much to the innkeeper's disapproval as he walked to and fro clearing out the regular furniture from the sitting room and bringing up beds for his unwelcome guests), but Hornblower was too worried to avail himself of it, even knowing that he had done all he could for the moment. The slightest vibration of the floor seemed to cause Bush pain, and so he could not even pace to relieve his anxiety. He stood still like a statue, or a man in the stocks, and watched the door anxiously for the surgeon's arrival.

Some minutes later the sergeant entered again, bringing a maid with supper, but no surgeon. Hornblower asked sharply why he had not come. The gendarme's reply was short and to the point, and perhaps a little regretful: "There is no surgeon in this village."

Of all the possibilities for the future, most of them unpleasant, which had been inhabiting Hornblower's mind over the course of the past week or so, this had not been one of them. "No surgeon?" he repeated stupidly. "But the lieutenant is badly wounded. Is there no - no apothecary?"

He had to fall back on the English word for apothecary, but the sergeant seemed to understand anyway and shook his head. "The cow-doctor has gone over the hills and will not be back tonight. There is no one to be found."

"Horatio, what's he saying?" Archie asked, leaving the merrily burning fire to hover by Horatio's shoulder.

"There's no surgeon coming."

"What? What are these Frogs playing at?"

"I don't think they're playing at anything, Archie. This is a small town. They don't have a surgeon. They don't even have their own veterinarian."

Archie's face told Horatio what he thought of French villages that had no surgeons. Horatio ran his hands over his face and forced himself to think about the immediate problem. "It's dangerous to leave a ligature in a wound once it's ready to come out," he said eventually, in a soft voice. "We'll have to look after Bush ourselves. I don't know what another day's travel would do to him, and anyway we don't know that there will be a surgeon at the next town either."

His mind made up, Hornblower pealed vigorously at the bell, and in the interval while they were waiting for the innkeeper to appear, explained the situation to Bush, who accepted it with quiet resignation. The innkeeper, despite his surliness, was timely in his appearance, and brought vinegar when Hornblower asked for it - his knowledge of matters medical was limited to the treatments used in the Service, of which vinegar was one of the more common.

In the end, the business of removing the remaining ligature caused Hornblower a good deal more discomfort than it did his lieutenant, for now that the thread was free it caused Bush no pain to disturb it. Hornblower despised himself for his squeamishness, but at least he was master enough of himself to hold his hands steady as he bandaged up the stump. Bush avowed that the cold vinegar helped, and that he felt better already. Archie was a steady presence at Horatio's side as he washed his hands and tried not to let his own disturbance of mind show, and then insisted that he should eat something before retiring for the evening. There were beds enough for all of them this time, and Hornblower found himself, to his surprise, grateful to the sergeant of the gendarmes for his seeming consideration as he rolled himself up in his blankets. He woke at intervals that night to listen to the peaceful breathing of the other occupants of the room, but never for long, and in the end he dropped off in earnest.

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

For the rest of the journey, Hornblower marked time not by days but by the progress of Bush's convalescence, which commenced with the removal of the final ligature and continued steadily onwards, at a speed that would have surprised anyone who was not familiar with the hardships of the Royal Navy and the hardiness they begot in its men. It was hardly a week between the time when his head had to be supported for him to drink and the time when he could sit up by his own strength.

All the other details of that time were enveloped in a sort of fog for Hornblower. He remembered the harsh letters on the milestones that periodically loomed up out of the rain or fog or darkness, informing the occupants of the carriage that they were so much closer to Paris and death, and he remembered hours spent looking out of the carriage window, with the rain trickling down the back of his neck. He remembered, too, Archie pulling him back inside several times after he had gotten quite soaked through, insisting on wringing his jacket out until it was mostly dry, and then determinedly engaging him in conversation, but he could not say with certainty how often this had happened or what they had talked about. Even the inns where they stopped and the doctors who attended to Bush became all muddled together in his mind, the details slipping away from his memory as his mind worried at the inevitable end of their journey like a dog with a bone, the unending spiral of thought fed by the constant reminders of their position afforded by the milestones. As the days went on, melancholy permeated the coach, and Archie's attempts at conversation petered out; even the most cheerful of men find it difficult to continue to produce both sides of a conversation while riding towards a firing squad through a mostly rain-shrouded countryside.

It is to to Hornblower's credit that when he noticed this, he set himself gamely and solemnly to discuss the weather with his lieutenants, even doing his best to draw Brown into the conversation, which attempt continued for nearly five minutes, until suddenly Archie burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, and Bush and Hornblower followed him. After that the subject of wind and carriages and whether their rate of progress would be improved by tacking kept them amused for quite some time, until there was a sudden halt, and the travellers came by degrees to realise that one of the horses had thrown a shoe. Caillard, scowling blackly, sent two of his gendarmes to lead the animal down a side-track towards the nearest forge, and they continued at a reduced rate with the three remaining horses.

At the same time, the weather, which had been dreary and damp to an unusual degree all afternoon, took a positively foul turn. The sky went black, and instead of rain blowing in through the open window, sleet clicked against the floorboards, and shortly after that it turned to snow, and they closed the window. When Hornblower opened it briefly to put his head out he saw that the gendarmes who rode about them were liberally dusted with snow, and the ground was in a fair way to be covered. Shortly afterwards, their progress slowed still further, as the road began to be piled with snow, and the horses reluctantly struggled through it in the teeth of a bitter wind.

"A close-reefed topsail breeze, I should think by the sound of it," Bush said cheerfully from where he was sitting, propped up on his stretcher and wrapped up tightly in all his blankets, "and we're beating straight into it. Perhaps Caillard really should try tacking instead."

Horatio found himself laughing again. "God help sailors on a night like this," he said wryly. "For once I shan't complain at being inside the coach."

"It is a relief to me to know that even your desire to freeze your nose off has limits," Archie said playfully.

Horatio gave a longsuffering sigh, which turned into a shiver halfway through. He had not noticed before how cold it really was, even with the windows closed. "I think it might freeze off whether I want it to or not," he said, looking at the windows and seeing that they were opaque with snow. "And it'll be colder still before the night is out, or I'm no judge of storms."

"It's cold enough already," said Bush, drawing his blankets closer about him.

Unlike the others he was not in his woolen uniform, but in a flannel nightshirt, and though his recovery had been a remarkably speedy one so far, he had not yet regained his former iron indifference to the weather. Horatio shifted a few inches to the side so that his shoulder was pressed against Bush's, and his friend leaned gratefully against him. Archie moved closer against Horatio's other side, and warmth soaked into him.

The coach had to halt several times so that the balls of ice which had lodged in the horses' hooves could be removed, and each time the gendarmes grew more irritated. Something of the agitation of the air seemed to be communicating itself to the occupants of the carriage as well. Hornblower caught the idea of escape floating tantalizingly through his brain more than once, as it had not done since he had learned the thoroughness of the precautions with which they were surrounded. He dismissed it each time, for they could not possibly bring Bush with them, even with three men to carry the stretcher, and to leave him behind was unthinkable, but each time it returned. On such a night as this an able-bodied man only had to wait until the gendarmes were occupied with the horses to slip out of the door of the carriage and into the storm. The snow muffled sound and blinded sight; once he was some way away from the carriage, discovery would be the least of the escaped prisoner's concerns.

If there only were some sort of transport we could use, Hornblower thought fruitlessly. He considered trying to take over the carriage, but dismissed that idea at once: the horses were exhausted, and there would be no way to replace them in a strange countryside. Besides that, they were over a week's journey from the coast, and had no landmark to guide them save the road, which was watched. In short, he concluded, without a miracle, there could be no escape. In fact, there might be no travel at all without a miracle soon: they were halting more and more often, and going more and more slowly in the intervals. "If we're more than two miles from the next posthouse," he said aloud, "we won't reach it before next week!"

Just then they must have topped a small rise, for the horses were moving quicker again, almost trotting, and the coach was gathering speed. Then there was an explosion of yells from outside and the coach swung round suddenly, lurching perilously, and then came to a halt leaning to one side at a rather dangerous angle. Hornblower was curious enough to leave the warmth of his friends and open the window, and what he saw under his nose brought all his thoughts of escape rushing back into his mind at once. They were on the bank of a river, nearly in the water, and not twenty feet away a rowboat was swinging to and fro, moored to a post. Not only was it transport that would not tire, it presented him with the only possible solution to the problem of getting lost in the snowstorm. One could lose a road in a carriage, as the coachman had just demonstrated, but one could not lose a river in a rowboat; one only had to keep shoving off to follow the path. And more than that, a river might lead to the sea, and the sea was England's. Half-finished plans chased each others through his mind, and he found that his face had settled into a look of fierce resolution.

Looking at Bush and Archie, he saw that something of his change of mood had transmitted itself to them. Suppressed excitement danced in Archie's eyes, and Bush looked warily hopeful. Hornblower laid a finger to his lips, smiling grimly. The gendarmes were too close to the coach to risk conversation for the moment.

Meanwhile Caillard was blaring furious sarcasms at the coachman and gendarmes and urging them to free the carriage from the snowbank into which it had stuck. "A fine coachman you are! Why didn't you drive straight into the river and save me the trouble of reporting you?"

Then he began to bark orders at his men. The panicking horses were gradually brought under control, but even with a man at each of their heads and the remaining men pushing at the wheels, the coach refused to budge.

"If the gentlemen in the coach would descend and help," one of the gendarmes said, "it would be better."

"They can, unless they would rather spend the night in the snow," Caillard said, not deigning to address Hornblower directly.

Hornblower considered saying that he would see him damned first. It would, he thought, be thoroughly satisfying. But he remembered Bush shivering and leaning against his shoulder in the coach, and he also remembered the little rowboat and its heady promises of freedom, and so he climbed out, followed by Archie and Brown.

Even with the coach thus lightened and six men pushing, they managed perhaps a yard before it lurched to a halt again, sticking in the snowbank as firmly as ever, and it would not move again for all Caillard's curses. "How far is it to Nevers?" he asked the coachman furiously.

"Six kilometres," the coachman answered.

"You mean you think it's six kilometres. Ten minutes ago you thought you were on the high road and you were not."

Hornblower stifled his laughter at this; it would not do to draw attention to himself now, not when circumstances seemed to be conspiring in his favour so thoroughly. When Caillard began to give his orders and began by sending away two more men, he nearly jumped up and down in glee. Then, remembering that everyone was jumping and swinging their arms to keep warm anyway, he did jump up and down. Out of the tail of his eye he saw Archie grinning, and with a quick jerk of his head which anyone else would have thought but a part of his efforts to remain warm, he beckoned his second lieutenant over. "We are going to escape in that rowboat," he said, in a soft but matter-of-fact voice. "The gendarmes won't even notice, I daresay, but Caillard will need to be silenced."

Archie's grin widened. "Leave that to me and Brown," he said.

"Very well."

"Now?"

"Yes."

Archie strode over to Caillard. "Here," he hissed venomously, "Frog. Yes, you."

Caillard turned and met Brown's massive fist. He fell like a stricken tree, and Archie was on him in an instant. "Tie him up," Hornblower whispered, coming up behind them. "Better use his cloak."

"I have a better use for that," Archie retorted, stripping Caillard's thick wool cloak off, and halting his dazed attempts at resistance with a well-aimed blow to the jaw. "He's got that sash and a sword-belt. We can use the horses' harness if we must."

They gagged Caillard with Hornblower's handkerchief and tied him hand and foot with his own sword-belt, and bundled him into the coach. Bush watched the proceedings with keen interest. "Mr. Bush," Horatio said, the formality of the quarterdeck returning to him now that action was imminent, "we are going to escape in the boat."

"Good luck, sir."

Archie spluttered his indignation in the background. "You're coming too," Horatio said a little sharply. "I'm rather offended, Mr. Bush, that you think we would leave you behind. Brown, take that end of the stretcher. Lift. Starboard a bit. Steady."

And with that Bush, stretcher and all, was out of the carriage. Hornblower and Brown carried him down to the rowboat while Archie, not needing to be told the next step of the plan, cut the moorings and pulled the bows of the boat up on shore. Bush was bundled in first, and Archie, with a smirk, tucked Caillard's cloak round him over the blankets. Then the rest of them scrambled in, and Hornblower gave the word to shove off, and the current had them.

Briefly, Hornblower wondered if the gagged and cloakless Caillard would freeze or suffocate before help reached him, and found himself entirely indifferent in the matter. Bonaparte's personal lackeys, especially if they were also colonels of gendarmerie, must expect to run some risks while doing their dirty work. Hornblower had better things to think of now. He could not even see the water from his seat in the stern, it was so pitch dark: only the dim glimmer of snow made the riverbank faintly visible, and looking down he saw that it had coated the thwarts as well.

"Turn her head to the wind, Brown," he said, "and pull slowly into it."

That would, ideally, neutralise the wind's effect on them and let the current have its way. He had just determined that Bush was comfortable, or as comfortable as it was possible for a wounded man to be in a storm at night, when his ears caught the sound of rushing water. Then the rapids had them. Horatio and Archie took a scull each to fend off while Brown bailed, but they were soon soaked through despite his best efforts, for the rapids, in the winter floods, were wild and violent.

In the intervals of fending off and bailing, Hornblower speculated on which river they might be on, and concluded in the end that it was most likely the Loire, which would, in four hundred miles or so, fall into the Bay of Biscay. He laughed a little to himself at the idea of traversing a river of four hundred miles in a little row-boat in winter, which was apparently what he had set himself to do.

"Light on the starboard bow, sir!" Bush called.

They were not in a rapid at the moment, so Hornblower risked a glance over his shoulder and saw that Bush was not mistaken. "That must be Nevers," he said. "Six kilometres to Nevers, the coachman thought. We've come four miles already."

Brown raised a cheer, and Hornblower hushed him at once. "Someone might hear," he said warningly. "We can't risk it."

Silence reigned in the boat after that. For all that freedom was wet and cold and uncomfortable, none of them, not even Bush, would have traded their places in the little rowboat for the dubious comfort of the coach. A change in the sound of the roaring river alerted them to the town's bridge just in time, and they shot it neatly, though Hornblower's head brushed the crown of the arch, so high had the floodwaters risen. From the bows came a ghostly chuckle. "God help sailors," Brown said, "on a night like this!"

Hornblower was about to answer him sharply, but was forestalled by Archie's laugh, which rang out softly through the darkness, and then he found that he was giggling himself, as he often did in a crisis. Then there was a crunch of gravel under the keel, and the boat ground along for perhaps a few yards before it stuck fast. The sculls were of no avail, and Hornblower and Brown resigned themselves in the end to climbing out to refloat it. It was only a moment's work, with the boat so lightened, but a few seconds later the boat was aground again.

That was the beginning of a time like something from a nightmare. Hornblower lost count of how many times they had to climb out when the rowboat had run aground and haul it back to the deeper channel, as they slipped and fell and bruised themselves on the rocks in the darkness, and got wet through when they blundered into unseen waist-deep pools in a sort of mad game of blind-man's-buff with the treacherous river. And just when they began to dry out there would be another rapid, and another shallow, and they would have to do the whole thing over again. Sometimes, as though just to add insult to injury, the boat went aground at an odd angle and pitched all its occupants onto their noses.

If they had thought themselves cold in the coach, they had been wrong, Hornblower grimly reflected; that had not been cold. The sides of the boat were glazed with ice now, and Brown never had time to do more than just get the bottom dry before they came to the next rapid. In the midst of his struggles with the boat, however, he was consumed with worry for Bush, who sat patiently in the stern, bundled in cloaks and blankets.

"William, how is it with you?" he asked.

"Well enough, sir," Bush answered.

"Warm enough?"

"As much as I can be. I've only one foot to get wet now, you know."

William was probably being deceptively cheerful, Horatio thought, standing in ankle-deep water, hauling the boat through what seemed to be endless shallows. Blankets and cloak or no, he must have been horribly cold and probably wet as well, and he was a convalescent who ought to have been kept in bed. He might well die out here this very night. The boat came free with a run, and Horatio stumbled back waist-deep into the chill water. He swung himself in over the swaying gunwale of the boat while Brown, who apparently had been completely submerged, came spluttering in over the other side, and on they went again, until the wind and current should drive them into the shore again. There was nothing to be done for Bush, nothing to be done for any of them, but to go on.

Finally they came to a long clear stretch. At the rate they were moving, they would probably go a mile in ten minutes. They must certainly be far ahead of any pursuit, even assuming that someone had found Caillard by now and somehow guessed at their manner of escape. "Rapids ahead, sir," Bush called, and Hornblower groaned, hearing the noise of rushing water floating upriver towards them.

"Might have known this was too good to last," he said wearily. "Stand by to fend off port side, Archie."

The noise grew louder and louder and yet there were no rocks, and then a sudden impulse of alarm made Hornblower stand to peer ahead. "By God!" he cried. "That's not a rapid!"

The boat leaped forward, and Hornblower wondered whether the dam over which they were now hurtling like a bullet was man-made or of natural origin. It did not much matter, was his last thought as the boat crashed into the standing wave at its foot. The wave was as unyielding as a brick wall, and all four men were hurled into the water.

 

Archie knew enough about waterfalls to know that he had no wish to be under one. He had just enough presence of mind to swim forward against the current that was dragging at his feet. The shock of the cold water had driven the breath out of his lungs, but he dared not stop even to take a breath until he was well away from the fall. He fetched up hard against the shore and, ignoring his chattering teeth, looked around at once for the others. Brown was climbing out of the water barely a yard away. Looking at the water, he saw something shrouded in blankets floating towards the shore, and plunged in waist-deep to seize Bush's hand and haul him onto the bank. "The Captain," Bush said as soon as he was free of the blankets. "Where's Horatio?"

"No sign of him, sirs!" said Brown, who had been peering at the foot of the fall.

"No, no, no, no!" Archie found himself saying, splashing to and fro in the shallows as though Horatio might be just underwater there. "Damn it, Horatio! Where are you?"

There was a sound in the midst of the roar of the falls like a man gasping for breath. Archie never knew afterwards by what trick of the air it had been brought to him in the middle of all that commotion, but he was endlessly grateful for it. He plunged into the water recklessly, heedless of the fact that he was swimming towards the waterfall now, and felt around for the source of the sound. He swam a little too close, and the current hauled him under.

And squarely into another body. He flailed, felt his fingers close on a boot, and shoved off of the bottom as best he could in the direction he thought was towards the shore. He got a breath of air, and by the sound of it so did Horatio, and then they were under again, and he shoved off again with all his strength, and then a meaty hand closed on his shoulder and Brown was hauling him ashore. Archie found that he was coughing and shivering, but he still had his desperate grip on Horatio's boot and that was what mattered.

"Mr. Kennedy!" said William's voice in his ear. "What the devil did you think you were doing?"

"I-I s-should very m-much like to k-know t-that myself!" Horatio got out around his chattering teeth as Archie tried to persuade his frozen fingers to let go of his best friend's boot.

Archie did his best to call up his usual nonchalant manner. "Looking for you, of course, Captain Hornblower sir," he said.

Horatio gave him a scowl which was spoiled both by the dazed look he still wore and by the fact that he was soaked and shivering. Brown broke the silence. "There's a light up there, sirs," he said. "I'd have gone to it if I hadn't found Mr. Kennedy and you."

"A light?" Horatio said, and Archie could practically see his exhausted mind turning over the possibilities.

A light meant Frenchmen, but it also might mean warmth and food, and without those they would all be dead soon. William the soonest; all of them had lost their cloaks in the fall and now he had only his nightshirt. Horatio must have come to the same conclusion, for he said, "We'll carry Mr. Bush up. Come on."

"Aye aye, sir," Brown said, and the two of them got on either side of Bush, linked their arms behind his back as he put his round their necks, and lifted.

Archie stepped around to support Horatio, for Brown seemed to be mostly untroubled by their jaunt into the freezing water, but Horatio looked ready to drop, and Archie knew from long experience that sheer willpower was the only thing keeping him on his feet. It was a measure of how exhausted Horatio was that he did not protest when Archie put an arm around his waist.

The snow was knee-deep, and hid many obstructions and uneven places. They slipped and stumbled towards the house, and then they slid down a bank and fell altogether, and Bush gave a cry of pain. Horatio was looking around him like a man in a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. "William, are you hurt?" Archie asked.

"Only jarred my stump. Look here, Archie, Horatio -- sir -- you'd better leave me here and send down help from the house."

Archie watched as Horatio plastered a surprisingly good imitation of a cheerful expression on his face, and said firmly, "No. It's only a little way. Come on, Brown, Archie. Lift together now."

They staggered on. Even stalwart Brown was reeling a little, and Archie felt as though he were moving with great blocks tied to his limbs, and his arm was aching where it had been broken. Horatio was leaning on him, too, looking utterly exhausted. Bush was not a light man even after his long fever, and Archie wondered again at Horatio's ability to drive himself far beyond what should have been his physical limits in the pursuit of his goals. "How did you...get out of the river?" Horatio panted as they paused a moment for breath.

"Current took me to the bank at once," Bush said. "Kennedy and Brown too I think. I was just kicking my blankets off when they got hold of me and hauled me onto the bank."

"Oh," said Horatio, sounding as though that were the most astonishing thing in the world.

"And for all that he'll kill me from thundering apoplexy one day, it's a good thing Mr. Kennedy did go in after you," Bush added.

"Shouldn't have," Horatio panted, but before Archie could reply, there was a faint, inquiring bark from a dog in the distance. "Give them a hail, Brown," he added.

"House ahoy!" Brown's voice boomed out through the night and Archie wondered how the man still had enough breath to shout like that. "Ahoy!" he shouted again, and the dog burst into clamorous barking. "House ahoy!" rang out one more time, and then there was an answer.

"Who is there?" it asked in French.

Those words at least Archie could understand, and Horatio's stumbling answer of "Four men. Wounded," was even clearer, for in his exhaustion his French was not much better than Archie's.

"Come nearer," said the voice, and they slipped and staggered into a square of light from one of the lower windows, which showed them for a thoroughly miserable and bedraggled group, even leaving aside Bush in his nightshirt, resting in the arms of the others.

"Who are you?" the voice asked.

"Prisoners of war," Horatio replied.

The next thing the voice said was not so clear, but it was polite, at least, and contained the words "If you please."

After an uneasy moment, wherein Archie meditated on how cold he truly was, a rectangle of light appeared in the wall before them, and the voice invited them in.

They stumbled forward into a stone-flagged hall, and stood there, dripping water onto the floor and looking with all the surprise they could muster at the people who had received them. There were a man and woman, the woman much younger than the man, dressed with the elegantly restrained expense of the wealthy, and three servants: two maids and a butler. They must have been no less astonished at their strange guests than the guests were at them, but they made no sign of it. Their host took command of the situation at once, ushering them into the kitchen, where a roaring fire was burning, and if Archie had not been supporting Horatio, he thought he might have stopped and sunk to the floor there and then to lie in the delicious warmth forever.

Between the three of them they got Bush into a chair. It was like handling a dead weight, and Archie reflected that if their long journey in the cold, culminating in that nice little shower-bath, had exhausted him and Horatio, who were healthy and whole, then Bush must be utterly spent.

The fire was burning higher now, and Archie remembered the woman building it up, and was grateful to her, but the three of them were still shivering, and the wine that the butler brought did little to disperse the cold that had settled into Archie's bones. Horatio was standing with a hand on William's shoulder, whether to support himself or to offer comfort was anyone's guess, and Archie could see that his hands were shaking like leaves. The butler, whom Archie had already put down as being the shockingly efficient sort of man that most families would kill to employ, appeared at that moment, the woman behind him, both of them with arms full of clothes and blankets.

With his usual savage self-neglect, but also with a laudable concern for his friend, Horatio insisted on seeing Bush warm and in dry clothes before so much as removing his own wet coat. Archie would have insisted that he stay behind and get into dry clothes himself while he and Brown carried Bush to a bed, but knew that was futile, so he settled for once again lending his friend an arm. The woman directed them to a bed, already made up and equipped with hot-water bottles, on the ground floor, and they lowered Bush into it. "God, that's good," he said. "Thank you."

And with that his eyes were closed, and Archie guessed that he was asleep already. But he and Horatio, much as they might wish for it did not have that luxury, not yet: it remained to see what manner of man their host was, and what he meant to do with them.

Chapter Text

Archie did not have the French to follow Horatio's conversation with the man and woman whom the butler introduced as the Comte de Graçay and his daughter-in-law. His anxieties were somewhat relieved when the Comte invited him and Horatio to take chairs, and the conversation seemed to chiefly dwell on the unpronunceability of English names, but they woke to life again after the Comte disappeared briefly, to return with a copy of the Moniteur, which he handed to Horatio. As Horatio's face drew into a black scowl and his hands worked, Archie braced himself, though he did not know for the life of him what he and Horatio, cold and exhausted and with Bush to look after, could do if their hosts proved hostile. Horatio looked up and spat, still in French which Archie could only understand because Horatio was so angry he was forced to choose his words carefully, "He is a liar! He dishonours me - he dishonours my friends!"

"He dishonours everyone," the Comte said with grim resignation, and Archie relaxed into his chair again; if their host would speak so of Bonaparte's reports then they were most likely safe.

The conversation grew softer and more rapid again, and Archie, in his relief and weariness, could not muster the will to concentrate on it. Soon Horatio rose to his feet, and the upshot of whatever he said then was that they were first, if Archie understood correctly, offered a brace of pistols (which Horatio refused), and second, shown to guest rooms which the efficient butler must have been preparing while they talked. They looked briefly in on Bush before turning in for the night, and saw that he was asleep and snoring peacefully, which took away the last of Archie's misgivings about the bona fides of their hosts. Before they parted to go to their respective rooms, however, he put his hand on Horatio's arm to halt him for a moment. It was better to be sure. Horatio forestalled his question, saying only, "We are safe."

"For the night?"

"If I understood rightly, for as long as we remain here. Our host will say nothing of our presence and has the means to conceal us until we are ready to travel."

"Thank God," was all Archie could say to that.

 

Bush was not, in fact, quite asleep yet when Hornblower and Archie left. Warmth and exhaustion and the unspeakable comfort of a real bed after so many days in the stretcher were drawing him steadily under, but he was still awake enough to find further comfort in the memory of Hornblower's insistence on seeing him looked after before doing anything else. Worry for the future might have occurred to him after that thought had he been any more awake, but he was not. At the moment he could think of no reason to resist the inevitable pull of sleep, and he yielded to it contentedly. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" had always been his philosophy, if he could be said to have one. Tomorrow would look after itself. He was half-roused by the door creaking, and woke just enough to see Hornblower and Kennedy's faces looking in, but he slipped under again soon afterwards, and did not wake until the morning.

 

When he did wake and Brown came in to open the curtains, it was already quite late in the morning, and the sun shone brightly through his window, revealing a world of black and white. Snow lay thickly on the ground, very pretty to look at now that they weren't trying to walk through it. It roused memories of the rare snowy winters he had known as a boy, which were pleasant, and of the previous night, which were less pleasant. A few hundred yards off he could see the black and flooded river that had nearly killed them all. The roar of the fall could be heard faintly in the distance, and he could not help wondering how Hornblower and Archie were faring. With that thought, the rest of the problems that his half-sleeping mind had fended off until the morning reappeared and demanded reckoning.

They were in a French house. Caillard and his company would not have arrived at their expected post-house this morning; it was quite possible that they had already been found, or even that they had taken the horses and ridden on to raise the alarm. If Hornblower and his men were not hunted now, they would be soon. Whatever ruse the captain had pulled to get them shelter here, the shorter their stay the better. "Brown," he said, doing his best to sit up and finding it harder than he expected, "where's the captain and Mr. Kennedy?"

"Still asleep, sir," Brown said.

Bush had not expected that. He had thought that the ever-active Hornblower, finding himself in hostile territory, would be awake before anyone else. Regardless, their position demanded action. "Better wake them, then," he said.

"Aye aye, sir," said Brown, but put down a tray on Bush's lap before knuckling his forehead and disappearing.

The tray held coffee and bread, and Bush realised that he was very hungry. He ate with appetite while he waited for his captain and second lieutenant to make their appearance.

It was not long before they did. Both of them were wearing clothes that must have been borrowed from their hosts, and to Bush's eyes it was very strange to see them out of their uniforms, though he was more concerned at the way that the clothes hung loose from his captain's shoulders. Kennedy looked as well as could be expected, though there were signs of strain in his face, but Hornblower's face was pale and there were shadows under his eyes, and Bush felt a pang of remorse for having sent Brown to wake him, though he still felt that it had been necessary. "Good morning, William," Archie said cheerfully. "What's so urgent that you sent Brown to roust us out of bed at two bells in the forenoon watch?"

That answered the question of how late it really was. "I...where are we?" he finally asked, when Hornblower did not step in to explain things.

"Oh," said Hornblower, in the tone that meant, "Oh, I'm a fool". "This is the chateau of the Comte de Graçay on the banks of the Loire River. He's hiding us from the French authorities, as far as I know, indefinitely, though I hope that we can be on our way again in a week or two, three or four at the most."

This was unexpected information. "Hiding us, sir? Do you mean you told them the truth about us?"

"I do," Hornblower said with a hint of a wry smile. "I don't think I had the wits to do anything else, and anyway I daresay they would have found out the lie soon enough if I had tried. But it's turned out for the best somehow."

"Hear, hear," said Kennedy.

"Oughtn't we to try to get out of here anyway before our hosts change their minds?"

"I trust the Comte," Hornblower replied. "And there's not much we can do anyway, not until you're well. Once you're back on your feet we'll think about continuing our escape."

"Really, sir, even if this Comte is friendly, what happens when that Caillard sends out search parties?"

"The Comte assures me that he can deal with them. He is, in name at least, the mayor of the town."

Bush looked his skepticism and Hornblower sighed. "I know that isn't the best of answers, William, but he seems a truthful man. Besides, why bother with all this if he is lying? He could have had the gendarmes down on us hours ago if he had wanted to, instead of going to the trouble of sending us all breakfast in bed. And anyway, we don't have a choice in the matter. We have to trust him until we can move again."

"Nonsense, sir," Bush said stoutly. "You and Mr. Kennedy and Brown could be out this window in two shakes, pick up another boat, and be away down this Loire in a day or less."

Archie scowled and Hornblower looked unhappy. "William," he said anxiously, "you must get it our of your head that we could leave without you. We are not going to do it. The Comte is an honourable man and he will do well by his guests; I truly believe that we have nothing to fear from him. If it comes to the worst and he betrays us, we will take you with us when we do escape, and you are not to be a damned fool about it. And that's an order, too. The Sutherland may be sunk," and here a cloud of almost physical pain crossed his face, "but until we reach England you are still my first lieutenant, Mr. Kennedy is still my second lieutenant, and Brown is still my coxswain. We wouldn't leave a man behind on the sea and we won't on the land. Understood, Mr. Bush?"

"Aye aye, sir," said Bush, for that was the only possible answer.

"And what then?" Archie asked. "When William is well enough to travel, what do we do?"

"I think Mr...William has hit on it," Hornblower said. "The river is a sure way to the sea, and I suspect that it will also carry us past towns without having to answer any troublesome questions. But any certain plans will have to wait until we know more about our circumstances."

The conversation was interrupted then by a servant whom Hornblower called Felix coming in with a faintly anxious look on his face. The upshot of their conversation, which happened entirely in French to Bush's mild irritation, was that Brown appeared suddenly and joined them in Bush's little room, and then the door was locked and Hornblower gestured for silence.

Then there was the tramp of booted feet in the hall, and more words in French which Hornblower and Archie seemed to follow but Bush could not. Then there was the sound of a door closing, and silence. Though the danger seemed to have passed, still they made no sound as seconds stretched into minutes, and minutes into what felt like hours. There was another burst of sound from the hall, and then another silence. Then there came a soft rapping at the door, and a tall, thin, well-dressed man came in. Hornblower had to translate his polite introduction of himself as the Comte de Graçay, and his subsequent inquiries after Bush's health, which Bush found a little embarrassing as he had never before met the man that he could remember.

Finally they came to the explanations of what had happened. The Comte informed them that they were presumed dead and that the gendarmes were looking more for bodies than for any sign of their escape, which made Bush smile. His smile grew wider when he heard that they had assumed the boat to have been wrecked in the first rapid above Nantes. The French had not, it seemed, learnt anything from the drubbing Hornblower had given them over the course of the Sutherland's last voyage, and still underestimated him.

But then the course of the conversation changed, and Hornblower's face fell ever so slightly. A man who was not familiar with his moods would probably not have noticed, but Bush had long experience interpreting Hornblower's minute changes of expression and knew it for what it was: an indicator of trouble on the horizon, for himself or for their goals. "What does he say, sir?" Bush asked.

Hornblower roused himself partially from the brown study into which he seemed to have fallen. "He says that we cannot leave until spring," he said, sounding both startled and abstracted. "He thinks that then we could build a boat and take it clear down the Loire and into the Bay of Biscay. But the river is too hostile in winter, it seems. It freezes, then it floods, and we got a taste of its floods last night. The Comte says that it should be navigable in April."

"April…" Kennedy repeated. "Well. We'll have plenty of time to build a boat then, and see that it's properly seaworthy. If it's to take us out of the Bay of Biscay and into the Channel it will have to be, or we'll never stay afloat long enough to find the fleet."

That brought Hornblower back to them, though the distant look did not wholly leave his eyes and Bush exchanged a worried look with Archie. "Right then. Oh…"

He had remembered the presence of the Comte, who was watching them anxiously, and made haste to explain himself (or that was what Bush assumed he was doing) in French. The Comte bowed to them and left, after some more pleasantries in French, and Hornblower resumed his stare out the window. Until April...Bush had a sudden, unexpected and rather unwelcome instant of foresight, and thought of all those empty, shore-bound days stretching out with nothing to do in them but lie in bed and be useless until someone should come along to help him up. He would rig himself a jury leg soon if he had to do it from the bed, he decided. It was bad enough to be left ashore; he had endured that before, and with this same company, he thought wryly, and that had been bearable. But to be left ashore helpless and unable so much as to lend a shoulder to the work that was going on, that would be misery.

To Bush's great surprise, Hornblower's voice broke in on his unwonted reverie. "Come on, Archie," he was saying. "Let's take a look at the woodpile and see what we might be able to use for that jury leg William was talking about. William, you'll have to tell us how we ought to make it, I'm afraid. I'm not much of a carpenter."

Gratitude swallowed up Bush's unhappiness. Hornblower had his own worries, more than enough of them, anyone could see that, but here he was laying them aside to help his crippled lieutenant. For a moment he could not make himself speak to reply. "Thank'ee, sir," he finally managed. "The sooner I'm out of this bed the happier I'll be."

"Well, that we can manage now," Archie said. "Brown, help me get Mr. Bush to the armchair. We'll be back before you know it, William."

 

Settled in the armchair, with a roaring fire and a warm dressing-gown, looking out over the snow-covered ground, Bush reflected that perhaps Hornblower and Kennedy would manage to make this stint aground as bearable as they had the months in Portsmouth, so very long ago it seemed, when they were lieutenants together and the world thought itself at peace.

Chapter Text

Life at the Chateau de Graçay took on a strange kind of normalcy in the ensuing weeks, in large part because the Comte and Marie both insisted on treating them like guests rather than escaped prisoners of war. It was kind of them, and Hornblower was grateful, but it also lent a strange sense of unreality to the time that they spent there. It was like something in a dream that they should have appeared out of the chaos and ancient night of the world into a household so ordered, so friendly, and so ready to provide them with all that they needed.

Then there was the additional unreality of speaking French in friendly company, and of seeing Bush and Archie dressed like gentlemen of leisure (and French gentlemen of leisure at that) and Brown like their servant. It was as though they had stepped back half a century into a world at peace, before the madness of the Revolution had robbed France of her nobility and sent them fleeing, scattered, to England's safety.

Last and most infuriating, there was the inactivity enforced upon them by the presence of the outer world, which was still at war. Bush's injury would have confined him to his room in any case, and Horatio and Archie would never have been content to leave him for long, so they would have in practice been kept to the immediate grounds of the chateau, but as it was they dared not even show themselves at the front of the house lest some observant gendarme be walking by and notice them.

Then, too, there was the forced close company of the Comte and Marie. The Comte, Hornblower noticed, shared a curious faculty of intuition with him, and their minds would often spring to the same conclusion at the same instant, but it was monotonous, in the end, to be in the presence of such a man, and Hornblower's fancy drew strange parallels between this phenomenon and the same one which had happened at times between him and the mad El Supremo in the Pacific. It was foolish to think of the Comte being at all like El Supremo; a man less mad and egomaniac could hardly be imagined, but Hornblower was foolish at such times.

It was then, more often than not, that Archie would step in to join their conversation, or to practice his halting but ever-more-fluent French, or to summon him to consult on the design of the boat, or simply to inform him that he and Brown were going outside to work on the boat and would be leaving Bush alone. Hornblower, his perception keyed to a fever pitch by the idleness of his mind, saw that he did this on purpose, and did not know whether to be grateful or annoyed with him. But it was true, at least, that this insistence on drawing Horatio into what would, on board ship, have been the life of the wardroom, and outside the captain's purview, kept him occupied in mind in a way that he would not otherwise have been.

When Bush began to learn to walk again, his boredom almost vanished, for then there was always work to be done, either in helping Bush as much as he would allow, or in refitting the wooden leg, for each day's exercise exposed new flaws in it, which Hornblower was often the one to conceive of a remedy for, sometimes one which demanded that it be remade entirely. Hornblower could still find time to fret over their confinement in the evenings, and for the first time in his life he began to understand Bush's aversion to whist, but there was consolation in the fact that as time went on he found himself more and more comfortable in the society of his lieutenants. The lines between captain and officers grew blurred once more, as they had been in Portsmouth so long ago, and Hornblower no longer scrupled to seek out the company of his friends when his old demons of melancholy were on him after a long day staring out over the countryside through the Comte's telescope, gazing on the freedom that was denied him, especially after Archie followed him clear up to the tower one afternoon and informed him that he was behaving like an ill-tempered cat and ought to come downstairs before his eye grew to the telescope.

 

It was on one such afternoon that Hornblower wandered, as was his custom, to Bush's room to hear what oaths he had applied to the latest version of the wooden leg and see what changes needed to be made. He...did not hover, but waited just beyond arm's reach of Bush as his lieutenant stubbornly set off towards the armchair once more, supporting himself with one hand on the wall, wooden leg thumping solidly into the floor with each hesitant step. He had fallen twice now, but frustration seemed to have taken the place of the despondency and fear he had shown previously, and each failure made him that much more determined to cross the room successfully before he stopped for the day and relinquished his wooden leg to Brown and Hornblower again.

Halfway to the chair, Bush set the wooden leg down at the wrong angle and began to slip. Hornblower had had enough of watching him fall and then swear furiously as the barely-healed stump of his leg jolted when he struck the ground. He stepped forward hurriedly and caught Bush by the shoulders. He was half-expecting to be sworn at for stepping in, for Bush was insistent at the moment that he learn to walk with as little help as possible, but Bush, his anger seemingly exhausted, put his own hands on Hornblower's shoulders and leaned against him, head bowed, the very picture of dejection.

Perhaps it was the simple misery in his friend's face, or perhaps Hornblower himself was seeking comfort, or perhaps he simply wanted to feel as though he was doing something, but Horatio found himself putting his arms around Bush and taking more of his weight. Bush, for a moment, did nothing, probably, Horatio thought, shocked that this was happening at all. Then, tentatively, he brought his own arms up around Hornblower's shoulders. A moment later he was holding on like a drowning man clinging to a lifeline, leaning heavily on his slighter friend.

They stayed like that for a little, Bush using Hornblower as a prop, and Hornblower finding himself oddly unembarrassed by his overt emotional display -- in fact, finding himself rather comforted by it. He was no doctor; he could do nothing to speed his friend's physical healing, but he could give comfort, and for the moment that was enough.

In the end Bush stepped back, though not so far that he could not keep leaning on his captain's shoulders, and set his jaw stubbornly. Hornblower, guessing what Bush was about to say before he said it, stepped to his side to better serve as a prop, and they set off across the floor together. Bush sank gratefully into the armchair when they reached it, but held on to Hornblower's hand when the latter would have turned away, and said, "Thank you, sir," with such deep and earnest gratitude in his open blue eyes that Hornblower had to look away.

"You're welcome, Bush," he said quietly, and Bush let go his hand.

This was just as well, for all Hornblower's native reserve came rushing back to him at once and he found himself staring fixedly at the corner in mortification. But against the mortification something in his mind set Bush's gratitude and the fact that, for all that he had revealed himself to be a man after all, and a sentimental one at that, he did not seem to have fallen in his friend's esteem.

Mercifully Archie came in at that moment and relieved Horatio of the necessity of saying anything before the silence became awkward. He and Hornblower had agreed to read one book in French each week of their stay, alternating which of them chose it, in order to improve their command of the language, and it was his turn to choose. He had discovered a volume of poetry by a man named Cheniér, and guessed, correctly, that Bush would have finished his practice at walking for the day. Ordinarily Horatio would by now have begun to chafe again at his forced inactivity, but today that was not the case; a curious contentment was on him despite his embarrassment. Nevertheless, owing to the above embarrassment, he was grateful to Archie for providing a very well timed distraction.

Horatio cast a glance at Bush, and saw that he seemed to be asleep, or possibly feigning sleep to avoid any further attempts at French lessons. He and Archie had made their best efforts to include Bush in their study, but his first lieutenant, though unmatched in seamanship, was no more a linguist than he was a mathematician, and besides that he had his leg to occupy his thoughts, which it did quite to the exclusion of French irregular verbs. In the end they had given up on trying to teach him, and it must be said that this agreement was a relief to all concerned.

 

Then one morning Hornblower woke to hear rain falling outside his window, and looked out over a snowless landscape, and then preparations for their journey began in earnest. The boat wanted only a handful of finishing touches to be ready, and Brown soon reported that, when filled with water, she did not leak so much as a drop. Recalling their previous trip down the Loire, Hornblower was grateful for this indeed. Now their time was all spent in provisioning her and planning with the Comte for how they could safely pass the mouth of the river out into the bay. The end of that matter was that the four of them were all fitted out both with peasants' clothes, for sailing downriver and looking like fishermen, and with Dutch uniforms to get them past the French officers at the Bay of Biscay. Hornblower nearly laughed aloud when, as they tried on the latter, he caught himself thinking that all was very nearly right with the world again. Even if the uniform was one of a strange country, it was far more natural to see Bush and Archie in uniform than out of it. If the satisfaction on Bush's face and the laughter on Archie's were any indication, they felt much the same, though Brown seemed to feel himself somewhat out of place, being accustomed to the less stringent rules of dress in the fo'c'sle.

At last, one morning in April in the dark, the boat was taken out of the barn and down to the river on rollers, and Brown and Archie and Horatio packed in the last of the supplies. Then it was time to say farewell to the Comte and Marie, who had both come down despite the earliness of the morning to say their goodbyes. Hornblower's French was much improved over the past months, and so he was able to make them a pretty fair speech of thanks, which the Comte answered graciously before shaking hands with each of them. Then Marie stepped up, her face very pale in the early dawn glow. She gave her hand to Bush and Archie in turn, and each of them bowed over it, and Archie thanked her quietly for her kindness. Then she came to Horatio, who put out his hand to take hers, and so was not at all prepared for her to put one hand to his face and kiss him quite squarely on the lips.

Hornblower froze in place. Marie had always seemed friendly to all of them, speaking most to Horatio (he thought) because his French was the best. He had had no inkling that she might be fond of him in other ways. Then he heard Archie start in on a peal of laughter behind him, and the sound restored the power of motion to him again. He straightened to his full height and took a step back, gently freeing himself from her hand, and stammered out a halting apology in French as Archie transmuted his laughter into a fit of coughing and Bush obligingly pounded him on the back.

 

Horatio turned back to face his lieutenants, and Archie could see even in the dim pre-dawn light that his face was flaming and his ears were pink. "You have an admirer, Captain Hornblower," he whispered as they helped Bush into the boat and prepared to shove off from the bank.

Horatio gave him a black look but said nothing, probably torn between his dignity as a captain and his desire to remind Archie of Maria Mason. Archie grinned to himself. This trip down the Loire would be deeply entertaining.

Chapter Text

Still laughing inwardly at Horatio's discomfiture, Archie breathed a sigh of relief as the current of the Loire took them. Pleasant as Graçay had been, it had been a cage, and ever since Ferrol Archie had not liked cages, gilded or no. The three of them were believed to be dead, and had been for some months (Archie still remembered the oddly detached and contemplative voice in which Horatio had told him that he had just had the "dubious pleasure of reading my own obituary" after the Comte showed him that issue of the Moniteur); the search for them, never keenly carried on in the first place in the wet and cold and misery of the blizzard into which they had escaped, must have lapsed entirely. They were as safe as they could be in the circumstances, and they were free again. The horizon would not be the same every morning as when they went to sleep the day before, and he would not look out at it through bars, either of iron or of gold.

He knew that Horatio had felt the same about their interminable stay in the Chateau, if not worse. More than once, watching Horatio speaking to the Comte or to Marie, he had caught the wild, desperate gleam in his friend's eyes that had heralded his desperate challenge to Jack Simpson, so long ago on the Justinian. It had been a balm to his own unhappiness to know himself able to draw Horatio out of his whirling thoughts and into the simple business of the day, and to watch the strain fade from his face as he worked at smoothing planks for the boat, or reshaping Bush's wooden leg yet again.

Once, in El Ferrol, Archie had believed, despairing, that the great Horatio Hornblower, brilliant and confident in his own powers, would never be imprisoned and in need of aid from his shipmates. Many times over the course of this strange, unreal winter, he had laughed a little at his old foolishness. Horatio's iron facade had fooled him then, as it had fooled so many others, though even then he had been one of the few allowed to see the man beneath. But Horatio was as human as any man, with his weaknesses and his fears, and as his friend Archie had long since made it his occupation to know those weaknesses and to give the aid that Horatio would never ask.

Bush was not a man who was meant to be caged any more than Archie and Horatio were, but neither did he have a mind that would tear itself to pieces for want of activity, or the oppressive memory of a months-long imprisonment in Spain to gnaw at him. Ordinarily he would have been the most comfortable of the three of them, or at least the best at resigning himself to the temporary discomfort of their stay. In Bush's stern philosophy, mankind, at least naval mankind, was born to sorrow and difficulty and danger, and though any respites from this state were to be enjoyed, it was possible that the universe might choose to exact its reckoning for those moments of happiness at any time. Bush faced battle with a ferocity that Archie had never seen matched, and endured those dangers that he could not change with a set jaw and a wry smile.

That had remained true at Graçay in large part, but here Bush had been faced with a new enemy: his own weakness. It had frightened him, Archie knew, to find his body failing him where it never had before; to have to learn to walk again, leaning on Horatio's shoulder; to realise that even after he had healed, he might well be a liability in their efforts to escape. Bush had always been able to rely upon his own strength in even the fiercest of storms or battles, and had always known to the hour how far he could drive himself. Now he had to relearn his own limits, and accept that they were not what they had been, and the process had sometimes left him very much downcast.

Fortunately for Archie, if he could hint to Horatio that Bush was feeling rather down, or the other way 'round, either of them would at once be all solicitude for the other's needs. It was rather entertaining to watch, actually, in addition to making his self-imposed mission of keeping Horatio sane much easier. But now Horatio was looking out over the misty river with evident relief and satisfaction, and Bush, as comfortable on his jury-rigged leg as he could possibly be, was inspecting their boat with pleasure, and a good number of the unpleasant memories that Archie had been holding at bay for the past three months decided to come crashing down on him all at once. To his detached annoyance, he saw that his hands were shaking. He leaned his head on his hands and focussed on his breathing. The last thing he needed was to panic now, of all times, when everything was going perfectly.

Horatio's hand landed on his shoulder, awkwardly but firmly, and to his great surprise he heard his friend say, "What, no teasing about Marie?"

Archie laughed shakily, the spell beginning to lift. "Oh, I thought I would let you stew over it for a while. Maria Mason would be envious to no end."

"Maria and Marie," Horatio laughed. "You and I, Archie, should always be wary of women with names beginning in M. Or perhaps William should. It's his turn after all."

"My turn for what?" William asked, looking back at them from the bows.

"To have a woman named Marie or Maria throw herself at your feet in adoration, of course," Archie said. "Horatio and I have each had it happen at least once and now it's your turn."

"Not much chance of that now, I should think," Bush said wryly, with a quick glance at his wooden leg.

"Nonsense," Archie retorted. "Women swooned at Lord Nelson's feet in droves and I've never heard that the missing arm caused him any trouble. If anything, they'll be begging for tales of your heroism."

Horatio stifled a laugh hastily. "Perhaps, Mr. Kennedy," he said, "we should defer the topic of marriage until we have returned safely to England."

Bush looked relieved.

"We may defer the topic of marriage, Captain Hornblower," Archie said magnanimously, "but I fear that the topic of Marie is a topic of France. Mr. Bush, I do not think that I have ever seen the captain's ears so red in all his life."

"I would not venture to speculate on that matter, Mr. Kennedy," Bush said reprovingly, but there was a merry light in his blue eyes again and Archie grinned conspiratorially at him, feeling the last of the old panic drain out of him again.

Some officers the three of us make, he thought wryly. A captain who can't stop thinking until he drives himself mad, a lieutenant who panics at nothing, and the one sane man is short a leg. But between the three of us we make up a decent enough man, as long as we can lean on each other. Literally or otherwise.

"Mr. Kennedy," Horatio said, breaking in on his silence and handing him a fishing rod, "I will trouble you to make an appearance of fishing. You too, Mr. Bush. Brown, keep us to the middle of the river if you please. I shall take the tiller."

 

The Loire was a much friendlier river in the springtime, they found. In fact it was actually beautiful, and the shallows and rocks that had made rapids in the winter were now no more than inconveniences, which at the worst meant getting out of the boat to drag it for a little way through water that was now quite warm and clear. Once or twice, though, Bush had to get out too, and limp along the sand until they reached a point where they could all climb in again, and once his wooden leg sank so far into the sand that they had to unstrap him from it, help him into the boat, and then drag the leg out of the sand before they could get underway again. Archie had not known whether to laugh or grieve at that, so he had said nothing.

They saw the one dam long before they came to it, and though carrying the boat after a winter of idleness was hard work, Archie's arm was long since healed and between the three of them it was manageable. Bush could only just manage to cross the uneven ground without help, and so the three of them were obliged to carry the supplies down as well, but the only person who minded that in the least was Bush himself, and when he began to apologise for not being more use, Horatio glowered horribly at him and he shut his mouth with a snap.

Archie was amused to see Horatio, though thoroughly winded by helping to carry the boat, insist on taking the sculls himself instead of sending Brown back to them, but a busy Horatio was, generally speaking, a happy one, and so he said nothing, though he and Bush exchanged smiles over their fishing rods.

 

The weeks they spent travelling down the Loire were some of the most peaceful times that any of them had known for years. There were plenty of minor problems to keep them all busy, but nothing serious enough to warrant worrying. The worst that could happen was that they needed to drag the boat for a few yards through the shallows, or that perhaps they landed on an island where nettles were more common than grass (which happened more than once, to Horatio's mild discomfiture). Between Archie's restored cheerfulness and the accompanying teasing, and the softening influence that their winter in close company had already had on him, Horatio gave up entirely on his stern captain's demeanour, and joined in with the others on even the most menial of tasks. Archie had laughed aloud at Bush's spluttering when Horatio insisted on helping him to peel potatoes on the first night that they camped out on an island, but after that it was generally accepted that for now at least there was no point in the officers keeping themselves aloof from the single seaman. Brown remained deferential to them, but all of them shared in the work, turn and turn about, as they were able.

In addition to the camaraderie that was swiftly growing up between them, the weather and the river were simply glorious. The sun was bright but not too hot, and the ever-varying scenery in its many shades of green never ceased to delight the eye. Even Bush, who, Archie suspected, was probably the least susceptible of the three of them to such influences, could be caught gazing about happily from time to time as his fishing rod trailed in the water. The food was better than what they had known in most of their time in the service, there was an abundance of clean water for bathing and drinking, and they soon found out that their disguise as a fishing boat was sufficient to divert any suspicions from them. They still preferred, when possible, to pass by towns in the dark, but it was more from a habit of abundant caution than from any real fear.

All in all, Archie put it down as one of the happiest times in his life so far. Even when it rained their spirits remained undampened, and plenty of merry jests had gone back and forth between the three officers, and occasionally Brown, as they huddled together under an improvised tent to escape the damp. It was quite pleasant, too, to wake up in the mornings and find that Bush had put an arm over him in his sleep, or that Horatio had rolled in close, seeking warmth, and was curled up against his back.

 

Bush might have had difficulty in admitting to it, but he, too, was happier than he had been in a long time. Though the thought and feel of his missing leg were never far from his mind, in their small boat the leg was hardly a disadvantage, and much of the work that had to be done wanted only two strong hands. Horatio's insistence on joining in with the rest of them in that work put him a little out of countenance at first, but slowly he grew accustomed to it, for Bush, though not perhaps the most imaginative of men, was nothing if not adaptable, and he had spent much of his life dealing with Hornblower's queer moods in one way or another. It was ridiculously pleasant, he found, to sit companionably with Horatio and Archie in the stern of the boat, dangling an ornamental fishing rod over the side when he was not taking his turn with the tiller, sometimes speaking and sometimes silent, but always comfortable.

Such an occupation was suited to introspection, however, and once or twice over the course of their voyage Horatio allowed himself to mention, obliquely, his worries for the court-martial that awaited him owing to the loss of the Sutherland. It brought back uncomfortable memories of Kingston, but all the same Bush could not help saying, "Nonsense, Horatio, any court-martial would be able to see that you did the best you could, and better than anyone else could have done."

"I hope so."

"I shouldn't be surprised if the outcome were a new command for you," Bush continued sturdily. "And I wish you and Archie joy of it."

"Me and Horatio? Whatever are you on about now, William?"

Bush shrugged. "I won't be going to sea again with the Navy, not with this," he said, and indicated the wooden leg wryly. "There's little place for a one-legged lieutenant on a ship of the line."

"Now who's talking stuff and nonsense?" Archie asked. "Lord Nelson did it, and he wasn't the only one either."

"Bush," Horatio said, turning to him with an uncharacteristically open and earnest expression on his face, setting a hand on his shoulder, "I shall see you posted as captain if it's my last act on this earth, do you hear? And you're to look after Archie if...if I'm not there, or I can't -- take him as lieutenant if you can. I know of one or two men who would rate Brown as midshipman if I asked them -- you've more than earned that, Brown, God knows. If nothing else Barbara won't abandon me, and she'll see that you're all taken care of if the worst comes to the worst."

Bush found himself left quite speechless. Archie came to his rescue. "Horatio, you're leaving out something rather important there. Barbara won't abandon you. You're in the Wellesley family by marriage now. Do you really think that she'd leave you to a court martial any more than us?"

"Ha-hm. I suppose not. But should it come…"

"Hang the worst, Horatio. We've faced it before and we'll face it again. Aye, and we've mutinied before. If they condemn you we'll have you out of the brig and off to America like you did with Doughty, and you can bet half the men in the fleet will help us too. William and I won't abandon you any more than you and I would abandon him."

"Or we you," Bush put in, and Archie smiled at him.

"Of course not," he said. "You didn't leave me to the gallows, and we came through that all right in the end. If that couldn't stop us, what could?"

"Perhaps it's better not to tempt fate by asking that, Archie," Horatio said reprovingly, but Bush could see that the tense lines in his face had relaxed again.

Then the boat ran aground and Horatio swore volubly at his distraction, and fondly at his friends for distracting him, as they all scrambled out to set it afloat again.

 

The holiday mood lasted until one day, moored by a little island below the confluence of the Loire and the Maine, Brown mentioned that he smelled salt, and Horatio noticed that the river's level rose and fell very subtly over the hours, without there having been any rain nearby at all. They were in tidal waters again, and a lifetime's habits of naval discipline began to return to them. But one thing did not change -- the intimacy of their friendship was not lessened by this transition. If anything the shared excitement drew them closer together. That night Hornblower -- so near to action, it did not come easily to Bush to call him by his Christian name -- called a council of war, and they spent some time thinking on how best to enter Nantes. In the end it was concluded that they should appear in uniform: four civilians in a fishing boat might be questioned, but a Dutch colonel of douaniers would not be, and even if he were then a haughty attitude might carry him through.

The next morning they changed into their uniforms, their last gift from the women of the Comte's household. There was a curious ceremony in it, though these were not the British uniforms to which they were accustomed. The rather rakish kepis caused them some trouble, and in the end Kennedy had to help Hornblower, and Hornblower Bush, before the odd headgear would sit properly. Then all that was left was the star of the Legion of Honour, and for all that it was a French order, the ribbon and star were near enough to looking like the Order of the Bath that there was a certain reverence in the way that Kennedy arranged the ribbon and pinned on the accompanying star to Hornblower's coat.

Then all was in readiness. Brown took the sculls, and Hornblower the tiller, and Bush and Kennedy flanked him in the stern. Bush could see the white tension of Hornblower's knuckles on the tiller, and looking past him saw that Archie's face was set and grim in a way that it rarely was. He knew that he himself was braced as though for the impact of a shot to their tiny boat, and forced his face to remain blank. The cannonball that had taken his foot had not taught him to fear battle, but this sitting and waiting under what felt like thousands of French eyes was something quite different.

They remained unchallenged, however, as they rowed in a leisurely fashion down to the river-mouth in the evening sun, and shot the bridges one after another. At last they came out to the bay itself. There were fishing-boats moored all about them, and Hornblower was eyeing them with evident intent, for their plan at the moment was to steal one of these in which to make the trip into the Channel proper, when Bush saw something that temporarily took his mind off of fishing-boats entirely and put a decidedly impossible idea into it. "Witch of Endor, ten-gun cutter," he said hoarsely, indicating the little vessel with a jerk of his head. "A French frigate caught her on a lee shore off Noirmoutier last year. By God, isn't it what you'd expect of the French? It's eleven months ago and they're still wearing French colours over British."

Bush was generally thought, by himself as well as others, to be a man of little imagination, but it seemed to him that the lovely little ship, her deck in heartbreaking disorder, masts nodding slightly as the seas rolled her back and forth almost imperceptibly, looked like a bound prisoner asking them for aid. Hornblower must have felt the same, for he put the helm hard over and ordered Brown to lay them alongside the quay. The impossible idea came back into his head as he scrambled awkwardly out of the boat, helped by Hornblower. Could they take her? On the face of it the idea was absurd; four men, even had all of them been whole in body, could never sail a large cutter all the way out of the bay through unknown waters. The Witch had rated a crew of sixty, and laying aside gun crews that meant that she could not be comfortably sailed by less than fifteen men. But he was stumping along the quay by Hornblower's side, and Hornblower was a man with a way of making the impossible into the merely difficult. "Anchor watch," he muttered to his captain. "Two hands and a master's mate."

It would be possible to overcome the anchor watch, certainly. That would be easy. They would probably not even raise the alarm. But what then? Where were they to find a crew? "Everyone else on shore, the lubbers," he went on, suppressing his wrath that the Witch should be so close within their grasp and yet so far out of reach.

Hornblower nodded slightly, and Bush followed his gaze to the chained gangs of prisoners, unloading wheat from two American ships only a little way away. A third ship was coming in, flying American colours too, and Bush spared a thought from his preoccupation with the Witch of Endor to curse the damn fool Yankees for making the whole blockade a mockery. For a country that claimed to fight against tyranny, Bush thought it very odd that the Americans should trade so happily with Bonaparte. But the chain gangs were being urged closer to unload this newest arrival, and the pilot was coming ashore, and Hornblower was striding forward with an air of haughty unconcern which Bush envied. There was a conversation in French, then, of which Bush understood more than he expected: Hornblower was bluffing the pilot into following him, and uncontrollable excitement took hold of Bush, which was all that made it possible for him to keep pace with Hornblower's quick, excited strides as they made their way towards the Witch.

In less than five minutes the pilot, the master's mate, and the two crewmen were tied up tightly and gagged in the tiny closet that passed for a cabin. Bush and Brown waited impatiently with their prisoners as Hornblower and Kennedy went back on deck and returned followed by a sergeant, who soon joined his compatriots bound and gagged under the table, and, as they found out when they followed Hornblower back on deck, two chained groups of slaves. Hornblower unlocked their chains, promising them freedom if they kept quiet, and then turned to Brown and asked, to Bush's confusion, for his clothes out of their little boat.

Hornblower met Kennedy's questioning eyes and explained, in a low voice, "If I am wearing my uniform I cannot be accused of spying. And if we steal this cutter then too many people will notice for us to be murdered in secret."

The possibility of recapture had been a very distant concern to them all on the journey down the Loire, but Bush had not ever thought that secret murder might be the result of it if things did come to that, and shook his head in admiration for Hornblower's ability to think of twenty things at once and do it well.

In the time it took for Brown to return with the clothes and Hornblower to change into his crumpled uniform coat, the tide had reached the flood, and darkness had fallen. At Hornblower's directions, Kennedy and Brown put the ropes into the hands of their crew of freed slaves, and cast off the cutter's moorings, first the stern and then the bow. Bush took up his place by the tiller in answer to a brief gesture, and so was privy to the spectacle of Hornblower threatening the pilot into submission.

Bush was, for the first time in his life, pleased to have been the recipient of French lessons, for he could understand a fair amount of what the pilot said without translation, though some of the quicker and more desperate sentences eluded him. The man was terrified out of his wits, as anyone might have been -- Hornblower in the moonlight, wearing his battered uniform, moving with a dangerous grace that came to him only in moments where he utterly forgot to be conscious of his own limbs, was a tall and menacing figure, and his features were taut with excitement that anyone who knew him less well might easily have mistaken for ferocity.

The pilot was saying something about leads, and Bush thought that it might be wise, but also that they had no men to spare for it who knew their business. Hornblower laughed aloud, his face a mask of savage determination, and repeated his threats to the pilot. Bush wondered how seriously he meant them. Quite possibly Hornblower himself did not know what he would do if it became necessary. The important part, however, was that the pilot believed him to be in earnest, and he clearly did.

Then they had to cross over the bay, and Bush forgot all about nervous French pilots in the sheer joy of feeling the Witch of Endor answer sweetly to her tiller and glide along through the channel, of the clean smell of the sea and the cool breeze at his back, of the feel of a deck under his feet...his foot, but even that thought could not dampen his spirits now. He was at sea again, and free. The French might still catch them, but the Witch had guns. They would be able to put up a fight, and it would be a damn good one with Hornblower and Kennedy beside him. He grinned widely, and the pilot quivered in terror, for the smile had coincided with a meaning word from Hornblower and he was quite convinced that these two Englishmen were all but ghouls in human form.

By dawn, they were off Noirmoutier, and the wind was dying. The freed slaves had gone to sleep once they were no longer needed to man the sails, huddled together on the foredeck for warmth, and Brown was sitting beside them with his chin in his hands. Archie had gone below to see that the prisoners did not suffocate, though they could not and would not be released until the Witch had reached the Channel Fleet. He had returned, unexpectedly and most delightfully, with coffee and biscuit, which he insisted on handing out to all three of the others, and a blunderbuss, which he handed to Bush, who had the best shot at the deck and the hatchway should the crew cause trouble or the prisoners escape.

The fugitives had eaten and drunk nothing since noon of the preceding day, and Bush found that he was both hungry and thirsty. He ate and drank by the taffrail, his wooden leg wedged securely against a ring-bolt to keep him from losing his balance, but before he had finished his breakfast, Kennedy, who had relieved him at the tiller to allow him to eat more conveniently, could no longer hold their present course.

They were not quite within range of the battery at Noirmoutier, but they were close enough in that the tide might drift them in range if the wind did not rise, and it showed no signs of doing so at present. Bush took back the tiller again, and Brown and Kennedy set to work rousing the slaves and setting them to work on the oars. Even as they did so the semaphores on the coast sprang into motion, and the upshot of that was that the battery began to fire on them. They were comfortably out of range, but of course gunboats would be sent out after them as soon as the battery's commander realised this, which would not take long. Hornblower had evidently anticipated this, as, with Kennedy's help, he was already beginning to train one of the six-pounders round as far as it would go, ready to fire on the gunboats as soon as they were in range.

Kennedy disappeared belowdecks and reappeared with an armful of cartridges. Two men were the smallest possible crew for a six-pounder, but the pilot took very little convincing to make himself the third -- a single savage scowl from Hornblower did the trick. They ran the gun out in leisurely fashion, and Bush waited the order to yaw in order to give them a clear shot at the gunboats which had just appeared.

It did not come. They waited in silence as the gunboats drew slowly closer and the exhausted men at the oars pulled on under Brown's supervision. They changed the men at the oars, and Brown brought up the prisoners from the cabin, their feet bound, to join in with the others. Still the slow, slow chase went on, and still there was no wind, but Bush felt none of the apprehension that might have been expected from a man so near to battle and death or recapture. He was on the deck of a ship once more, waiting for Hornblower's orders with Kennedy at his side. There was nothing more that he wanted in all the world.

At Hornblower's order, he changed course so that the gun could be trained on the boats that followed them, and watched the shooting eagerly. They were at so long a range that a hit would be sheer chance, but if anyone could pull off such a shot, it would be Horatio.

As the boats came closer, Hornblower's shooting came nearer and nearer to the mark. "Beautiful, sir!" Bush could not help exclaiming, as one shot nearly smashed the oars of the nearest boat.

Hornblower paused to remove his coat -- the sun was up, and crewing a gun was warm work -- and offered his pistols to Bush, but Bush shook his head with a grin and jerked his head towards the blunderbuss Archie had found, which lay on the deck by his feet. Better that Hornblower keep his pistols to hand in case he should need a weapon himself.

Hornblower turned his attention back to the gun again. Shot after shot was fired without scoring a hit, though the nearest boat's crew must have been well soaked with the spray thrown up around them. The aim was clearly correct, but no gun was accurate to more than fifty yards at this range, and chance was, for once, not with Hornblower.

Then Bush saw one of the boats waver, and half her oars stop moving. "You've hit her, sir!" he called out jubilantly.

There was a doubtful moment when it looked as though the boat might keep going regardless, but soon she swung about, the officer in her stern waving frantically to the other two boats, and it became clear that she was taking on water rapidly. Bush restrained a cheer. One boat down already, and the range closing with every minute -- it would be a wonder if either of the two remaining boats managed to come near enough to board them, though his present mood he would not have feared to take on all the hundred and fifty men in one of those boats single-handedly.

"Port a point!" Hornblower called, and resumed his bombardment almost before Bush could obey him.

One of the boat's guns was firing now, but the boats only carried little three-pounders and at this range Bush could hardly have cared less for those. Hornblower and Kennedy, with the pilot's reluctant help, had fallen into a rapid rhythm of firing, sponging out, reloading, and running out their little gun, and Bush watched them in admiration as they flung their weight onto the gun tackles in perfect synchronisation again and again, as fast as any crew in the Navy could have done it. A shot skidded over the deck of the Witch and scared the oarsmen, but Brown had them back at it again in an instant, and there were no casualties. Then he saw the boat which had fired on them pause in her way, and then resume with much greater speed. Her commander must have double-banked the oars in hope of closing the last distance with a rush.

Kennedy and Hornblower hurled themselves onto the gun's tackles like madmen. Their first shot ricocheted off the water right before the boat's bows and flew right over her. Bush braced himself and checked that the blunderbuss was still in easy reach. He was gladder than ever that he had not taken Hornblower's pistols. The captain might need them soon.

Before they could have seen what had become of their shot, Hornblower and Kennedy had the gun run out again, and fired. Then they turned to reload even as Bush saw the bow of the boat open up like a fan. Brown paused in his tireless pacing beside the oarsmen to raise a hearty cheer. Bush found that he was cheering too, and leaping up and down in his exultation, though he was careful not to let go of the tiller.

The third boat was turning back to the aid of its companions now. They had done it. Horatio and Archie were grinning and shaking hands, soaked in sweat and dizzy with relief, and Archie was laughing. Bush was reminded of nothing so much as the long afternoons of gun practice in the Carribean, when they had all been lieutenants together on the Renown.

Kennedy made the gun secure again and Hornblower walked astern to join Bush at the taffrail. "Damn fine shooting, sir," Bush said, knowing that he was still grinning like a fool.

"Thank you, Mr. Bush," Hornblower said equably, leaning back on the taffrail and shutting his eyes for a moment.

Bush was tempted to suggest that he go below for an hour or so to rest, but knew that Hornblower would never hear of it until they were safely away from the French coast, and probably not even then.

There were no further attacks from the coast that day, and the afternoon went on peacefully, with the clear sky and the deep blue sea and the golden sun looking down on them as they inched slowly further away from Noirmoutier under the sweeps. As the sun began to go down Kennedy disappeared belowdecks again and returned with wine and water and biscuit for supper, which they ate on deck, as Brown changed out the men at the sweeps and gave them their rations in turn.

At midnight, the breeze came up again, and the exhausted prisoners and oarsmen could finally rest. The wind was so faint that the cutter moved forward with hardly a sound, but her graceful sails were full, and Bush could feel in the tiller's resistance that they were underway. He had not slept for over twenty-four hours now, but he hardly noticed it. Whenever he might have had leisure to think about his fatigue, his mind was instead absorbed by the thousand little smells and sounds and sensations of standing on a ship's deck at sea again, and if he should tire of that there was England to think of: England, and promotion, and prize money, for his captain and his second lieutenant and himself.

Hornblower wandered back to the taffrail again, looking lost and strained, and Bush remembered that losing sleep for two nights running would always take a toll on his captain. "Tired, William?" Horatio asked, with an appeal for something -- Bush was not quite sure what -- in his brown eyes.

"No, sir, of course not. But how is it with you?"

Horatio sighed and ran a hand over his face. "This all feels...like a dream, I suppose. Like I'm still in that damn tower at Graçay, and I've fallen asleep with the Comte's spyglass to my eye and dreamed of an escape, and I'll wake up there again in the morning and this will all be to do over again."

Bush took one hand off the tiller to set it firmly on his captain's shoulder. "You can rule that out, sir," he said. "Archie and I would never leave you to sleep the night up in that tower with a spyglass in your eye."

Horatio chuckled wearily. "No, I suppose you would not, at that, William," he said, briefly grasping Bush's hand with his own before letting it fall. "But if this is all real, and I do know that it is, then we'll be in England soon, and then there's the court-martial, and…"

"They'll acquit you, sir. Horatio," Bush said. "You know they will."

"But if they don't?" Horatio said, turning to Bush, the light of the binnacle lamp only just illuminating his wide, haunted brown eyes. He looked very young, Bush thought, and felt a sudden swell of affection for his captain. It was easy to forget that Hornblower was younger than he was, sometimes. Kennedy looked and acted his age, if not younger, but Horatio often affected the manners of an admiral several times his age, and even Bush could not always easily see past the mask. "They shot Byng for not doing his utmost in the presence of the enemy," Horatio went on, sounding at once detached and horrified. "Or it could be a lesser charge. An error in judgement, say. Dismissal from the Service. Or just a broken career. What would Barbara think?"

Bush tightened his grip on Horatio's shoulder, and felt him lean into the steadying touch. "They won't, Horatio. Nobody could doubt that you did your utmost. Any other captain would have surrendered far sooner than you did. I'll speak for you at the court martial, and so will Archie. And," he added with a wry smile, "if worst comes to worst we'll do what Archie said on the Loire and sneak you off to America like Doughty. And Lady Barbara knows you. She'd never believe you didn't do your duty as you saw it. She'd follow you back to America if that was what it took, and so would Archie and me. We won't leave you alone, sir, any more than you'd leave us alone."

Horatio gave him a wan smile. "I know. If I can trust no-one else in the world I can at least trust the three of you. And the three-fold cord is not easily broken. Thank you, William."

Bush let his hand fall and turned back to the business of steering, but Horatio stayed beside him, leaning against the taffrail, until the very beginnings of dawn began to soften the eastern horizon, and Brown came aft to report that he saw something through the mist. They had no spyglass, and Hornblower peered keenly into the darkness as Bush braced his leg against the ring-bolt and waited for orders. "It's a ship all right, Bush," Horatio said in the end. "Put the cutter before the wind and run down to her, but be ready to go about if I give the order -- there's the tiniest chance she might be French. Jibsheet, Brown."

For a few minutes there was a tense silence. Then a clear voice rang out through the dark and the mist, scarcely distorted by the speaking-trumpet: "Cutter ahoy! What cutter's that?"

Horatio flashed a conspiratorial and relieved grin at Bush before answering, "His Britannic Majesty's armed cutter Witch of Endor, Captain Horatio Hornblower. What ship's that?"

"Triumph, Captain Sir Thomas Hardy," the voice said in return, then, "What did you say that cutter was?"

Bush threw back his head and laughed, and heard Brown and Kennedy doing the same from further for'ard. The officer of the watch on board the Triumph had made his reply by habit before it had occurred to him that the Witch of Endor had been a prize of war for nearly a year and Captain Horatio Hornblower had been dead six months.

"Armed cutter Witch of Endor, Captain Horatio Hornblower," Horatio repeated, still grinning.

"With the Flying Dutchman, Captain Simon St. Peter, not far behind," Bush said cheerfully, though not so loud that the Triumph's officer of the watch should hear him, and was rewarded with a snort from Horatio.

"Come under my lee, and no tricks, or I'll sink you," said the voice, and Bush hurried to obey.

They were back with the Channel Fleet again, after six months. They were home.

Chapter Text

June 2, 1811
HMS Triumph

My darling —

For once, I do not know what to say to you. How should a man who has been dead for six months announce his return to the world of the living? But I am indeed alive — I have been for six months a fugitive in France, hidden by an unexpected aid, and William and Archie are both with me. I have thought of you often with hope and with grief — hope of returning to you in the event of a successful escape, grief that the news of my death might have caused you pain.

But the little vessel which is to depart with our letters is already alongside the Triumph and I must make this brief. William and Archie and I sheltered at a place of safety through the winter, as they recovered from their wounds, for William lost his foot in the action in which the Sutherland was sunk, and this spring we made our way down the Loire by boat to the Bay of Biscay, where we found the captured cutter Witch of Endor and made our escape with her, after which we rejoined the Channel Fleet. I must stand court martial for the loss of the Sutherland and so I shall be held on the Triumph until the present admiral hauls down his flag and she returns to England. Archie is staying with me.

William is to be promoted into the Witch of Endor as commander and sent back to England with despatches, which both delights and worries me, for I can think of no man more deserving, but it was he who suffered the most over our winter in France. May I be so bold as to entrust him to your care when he reaches England, if he does not arrive before this letter? I fear that he suffers from some uncertainties over his future. Should the outcome of the court martial be in my favor, please let William know that my fate is his if he should desire it. That I shall not sail with another first officer as long as I live. Unless he is promoted to his own ship, and then of course, I shall be delighted.

Your ever loving,
Horatio

Barbara had been obliged to sit down when Hebe delivered to her a letter addressed in her husband's handwriting. It was not uncommon for letters sent at sea to spend months in transit, or to be mislaid upon their way and recovered years later if at all. She had expected it to be dated before his capture and execution, or perhaps, if she was fortunate, to be a last letter from the prison in which he had been held, a final privilege granted to a condemned man by a merciful commander.

It had not been, and she still could not quite believe her eyes. She reread the fantastic missive which she held. How should a man who has been dead for six months announce his return...I am indeed alive. She laughed a little at the wry tone of those words, which above all else removed her doubts that this was really a letter from Horatio.

A fugitive in France, hidden by an unexpected aid. She wondered what he meant by that, but supposed he had his reasons for avoiding the details.

Their wounds...William lost his foot in the action in which the Sutherland was sunk. She hoped fervently that Horatio's exception of himself from the number of wounded meant that he was really unhurt, not merely that he wished to spare her worry, even as she grieved at the thought of their dearest friend dealing with so terrible an injury.

...this spring we made our way down the Loire by boat to the Bay of Biscay, where we found the captured cutter Witch of Endor and made our escape with her, after which we rejoined the Channel Fleet. Horatio had compressed six months' adventures into a bare three lines, but she could not help but wonder what hair's-breadth escapes, what feats of fantastical daring, what depths of despair he must have skimmed over in composing that single sentence. She would probably have to wait for Archie Kennedy's arrival to hear the whole tale properly told, for Bush was a man of few words when it came to any exploits but his captain's, and Horatio would "ha-hmm" his way through the tale and leave out half of the most interesting parts because he deemed them unimportant.

...both delights and worries me...suffered the most over our winter in France...entrust him to your care..if he does not arrive before this letter? Even in the time she had known him, Horatio had come leagues in his understanding of friendship and kindness, but he was still not the most perceptive of men, and if he was worried for his first lieutenant things were probably serious. The Witch of Endor would almost certainly be sailing into Portsmouth, and if Horatio was right (and on matters of sailing he was rarely wrong), she had very little time to get there. She looked the letter over one more time, and, giving herself a moment of sentiment, pressed the signature to her lips softly. He lives. My husband lives.

Then she folded the letter carefully and put it into her pocket. She was keenly aware that when her husband was at sea, she could do nothing to check him in his unhappy moods, or to help him through his black depressions, and that she had come to rely on his two lieutenants to do so when she could not, as they relied upon her when Horatio was on land. Now it seemed that one of them needed her aid in turn. She could still do nothing for Horatio, yet, but she could do this thing that he had asked of her. "Hebe," she said, rising to her feet, "Call my coach. We are going to Portsmouth as soon as my things are packed."