At night, it was as black as pitch in the basement where the wounded were kept, and the only light came from deep barred shafts that opened to the outside over the sea. The Dons at Rosas took no chances with their prisoners. Not that any of the men here could have tried to escape even if they wanted to. Even at night, when the darkness and the faint starlight set a scene that ought to have been silent, quiet groans broke through the darkness at intervals. Men dying of gangrene, men torn open by splinters, men with smashed limbs who could not sleep for the pain.
Archie and Bush, as officers, warranted the nominal courtesy of a curtained-off corner, but the flimsy draperies, though they gave the two men some semblance of privacy, did nothing to shield them from the sounds and smells of a hundred and twenty or so men all confined underground together in sickness and agony. Not that Bush was in any state to care for that at the moment, and therein lay one of Archie's chief worries. Since the surgery to remove what was left of his shattered foot and lower leg, Bush had been drifting in and out of a fevered stupor, rarely coherent but obviously in agony.
Archie's right arm had been struck by a rebounding musket ball and the large bone broken, which was only just severe enough of an injury to relegate him to the surgeon's supervision. He could walk easily enough with his arm in a sling, and had spent much of the day going to and fro among the wounded men, bringing what encouragement he could.
As though summoned by this thought, Harrison the bosun, who had taken a nasty knock to the head and been unconscious for nearly a day, but was stubbornly on his feet now, put his head 'round the corner of the curtain, knocking on the wall beside it as though this were the captain's cabin on the Sutherland. "What is it, Harrison?" Archie asked, keeping his voice down for fear of disturbing Bush, who seemed almost peaceful for the first time that day.
"It's Simmons, sir," Harrison said, and Archie winced.
Simmons had taken a splinter through the lung in the fighting and everyone had known that he would die sooner or later. He asked anyway. "How bad?"
"He's dying, sir. Wanted somebody as could write to take a letter."
Archie ran his good hand through his too-long hair. "Bloody hell. The surgeon's in bed and his desk is locked." And I can barely write with my left hand.
"He'll last long enough for you to ask, I think, sir. If you wanted to. I don't think he'd know the difference anyhow now."
There was no-one else to help and it went against every instinct of fairness Archie had to deny the poor man his dying wish. He went and hammered on the door, sending up a silent prayer that it would not wake Bush. "Cirujano, por favor! Cirujano!"
There was grumbling from the sentries on the other side, but the doctor must have left orders in case of such a thing happening, because he came in fairly promptly. Archie did his best to explain the need for paper, thanking Heaven (and wasn't that a strange thought) for his hard-earned knowledge of Spanish from El Ferrol. The doctor was a decent sort and, once he understood what was going on, let Archie have paper and a quill and ink, and even a flat board to write on. He could not manage all that one-handed, and so Harrison had to help him as he made his way to Simmons' bedside. The man was fading, that much was obvious, but he recognised Archie. "Lieutenant...Kennedy, sir," he whispered, and tried to lift his hand in a salute.
"No need to stand on ceremony here, Simmons," Archie said, and tried to force a smile.
He took the man's dictation of a letter to his family as best he could with his left hand — Simmons had a wife and three children, but it was a short enough missive for all that — and blew on the ink to dry it. Then he folded the paper, wrote the address, and tucked it carefully into the breast of his jacket. "Sir…" Simmons said again, and turned his head on the pillow.
Archie looked down to ask him what it was, and saw that he was dead. He reached out and closed the man's eyes quietly. Harrison took the quill and ink and board back to the doctor while Archie sat looking grimly at the dead man's face and thinking of nothing. He was disturbed only a minute or so later by the soldiers coming to take the body away, and got to his feet wearily to make his way back to his little corner, feeling every one of his thirty-five years weigh as heavy on him as a decade.
He sat down and put his head in his hand. Out of view of the men now, he need have no scruples about showing his own pain. He laughed a little, wryly, at himself, hearing Horatio in the thought. But then, he had always been the junior officer. Never the captain, who was expected to maintain a sort of Olympian aloofness from the rest of the ship even in the closest and most crowded of quarters. Now he was beginning to understand better why his friend found it so easy to withdraw even from those he loved most dearly. Sometimes those around you needed to draw strength from you, even when you had none to give. Sometimes they needed something more than a man. The trick, he thought, is not accidentally becoming less than a man instead.
Come now, Kennedy, getting maudlin in your old age, he rebuked himself a moment later, and scrubbed a hand over his face. He was in a fair way of growing a beard now that he couldn't shave, and scowled at the idea. Sooner you're asleep the better if this is the mood you're in.
He slid the sling over his head, a maneuver that he had become quite expert at over the past few days, and fumbled, left-handed, with the buttons on his uniform coat. It would have been easier to go without it, or to ask for help, but wearing his uniform was one more piece of the mask of strength he wore in front of the men, and he could see that it encouraged them to see him turned out as neatly as was possible under the circumstances, to have this one piece of their normal life in the midst of pain and strangeness. If he was honest, it comforted him too.
Before he could ease himself down onto the hard cot that he was allotted, a groan from Bush arrested him. He got to his feet again, very carefully now that his arm was moving freely with nothing but the splint, and sat down on the floor by Bush's head. The eyes that met his were bright with fever and full of pain, but for the moment they seemed clear of delirium. Archie silently thanked Heaven for that. "Archie?" Bush — William, Archie could not keep himself to the Navy's stern usage here — asked hoarsely.
"Right here," said Archie, and took his hand. "I'm right here, William."
William squeezed his hand weakly. "All right?" he asked.
"As much as I can be," Archie answered, honestly enough.
"And the captain?" Even through the pain in his face William's worry for Horatio was evident.
"Came in to visit the wounded earlier today, but they'd only give him a few minutes and we really didn't have time to talk. Looks better than I expected, honestly."
This short speech seemed to have exhausted what little strength William had, and he let his head fall back against his pillow, but he did not let go of Archie's hand. "Is there anything I can do?" Archie asked, feeling wholly helpless and hating it.
"Water?" William asked in a voice that was only just above a whisper.
There was a jug on a small table in their corner and a couple of rough pewter cups beside it, another concession to their lofty status. Archie levered himself to his feet and filled one with water, carefully, and carried it back. His right arm was protesting at the motion, but he ignored it; he needed both hands for this. With his left he did his best to help William lift his head from the pillows, and with his right he tried to steady the cup. William tried to lever himself further upright with his arms, but he must have reflexively used his legs to help him and jostled his stump, because he fell back with all his weight on Archie's arm and swore, desperately and filthily, for nearly a minute, hands fisted tightly in the sheet that covered him. "Steady there, steady now," Archie said helplessly, still holding the cup of water in his shaking hand and waiting for the wave of what must be sheer agony to pass.
At last William lay still again, eyes closed and a sheen of sweat covering his face. The moonlight picked out the too-prominent bones of his face and hands and Archie wanted to swear himself. Of all of them, it was supposed to be him and Horatio who were broken like this. Who had nightmares. Who had fits. Who were shot and bullied and struck down and had to put themselves together again. But not William. Even in the aftermath of the Renown, when they had lain in the Kingston infirmary together, Bush had been the stronger of them. It was wrong, completely and utterly wrong, to see him brought low like this. "Archie," he said again, almost even softer than before.
Then he stopped for a long time, and Archie thought he must have slipped into unconsciousness again. Then he continued, just as quietly. "Have you ever...felt that you'd do anything if...if the pain would stop?"
Archie felt as though there was a lump of ice in his chest. "Yes," he said, voice barely louder than William's. "Long ago. In El Ferrol. I tried...I tried to starve. I gave up."
"But you didn't."
Blue eyes stared up at him in mute appeal. Tell me how you kept going, they said. Tell me why you lived.
"No," Archie said, answering the unspoken question. "Horatio came. He pulled me through the worst of it. He...admitted that he needed me to escape. I didn't believe him then. But it gave me a reason to go on one more minute, one more hour, and then one more day."
"One more minute," William said with a breathless chuckle, and shook his head. "One more minute, and one more, and one more...oh God, Archie. I don't think I can."
Archie set down the cup of water that he had been balancing on his knee all this time without thinking about it, and took William's hand in both of his. "We need you, William," he said desperately, and knew in a flash of intuition that this was how Horatio had felt, bending over him so long ago in El Ferrol. This mixture of agony and grief and utter wrongness, because William was supposed to be the strong one, just like he was supposed to be the cheerful, carefree one. "We need you. Horatio needs you, and God help me, so do I. There was…" and he paused. Even now, even in this terrible need, it did not come easily to speak of this. "There was a box in the ground in El Ferrol. They would shut you in it without room to stand up or lie down. I tried to escape five times. They put me in it after the last one. I still don't know how long. I was quite mad by the time they took me out, you see. And...every time I lie down in this damnable basement I see that box, William."
His right hand was hurting from how hard he was gripping William's, but he could see that he had his friend's attention at least. "If you're here by me I know I'm not in Ferrol. Some nights that's been all that kept me here and now. If you...if you go and leave me I don't think I'll survive this, William."
Again he heard Horatio's words in his own voice, but he could not laugh at it this time. "Please, William," he finished, quiet and desperate. "Please."
William nodded, just once, jerkily. Archie reached for the water again. He could not both support William's head and hold the water; in the end William had to manage the cup by himself, for Archie could barely close the fingers of his right hand now. Half the water spilled, but they were both far beyond caring, and Archie let the cup roll away carelessly once it was empty.
Without standing up or letting go of William's hand, Archie twitched the thin straw pallet off of his bedframe so that it would lie on the ground by the stretcher, and lay down on it without bothering to untie his neckcloth. William, in a blessed mercy, seemed to be unconscious again. Archie was worn out in body and mind, and it was not long before he followed his friend.
He was woken far too soon by the tramp of booted feet. The surgeon was shaking his shoulder. "What?" Archie asked, half-asleep and none too pleased at being woken.
"Paris," said the surgeon, and gestured to Bush.
"What the hell?" Archie repeated more emphatically, beginning to come awake.
"Paris," said the surgeon, "lo."
Archie realised that he was clasping William's hand tightly in his and that the surgeon was trying to separate them. "No," he said. "I'm coming."
The man looked at him in incomprehension. Archie cudgelled his exhausted brain for Spanish, and finally snarled, "Yo llego."
The surgeon looked at him and nodded, then said something to the soldiers. One of them dragged Archie roughly to his feet by his good arm. The surgeon seemed to be protesting. At least the soldiers stopped long enough to let him help Archie on with his jacket and the sling. Then two of them picked up William's stretcher, and one took Archie's elbow, and they walked out into the too-bright sunlight.