[This vignette takes place during "Duchess and the Devil" as Horatio has just been released from the oubliette.]


"Oh, dear."

It was all Horatio could say at the moment. A quite ineffectual "Oh, dear" and an equally ineffectual laugh as he crumpled to the floor, Archie's arms breaking his collapse. Good for Archie. Horatio would have had to utter something much more frightful if not for Kennedy's quick action. A morsel of humor seemed to be the best garnish to place on this sorry yet, he supposed, happy moment. A little humor to best reveal Horatio's utter stupefaction at his circumstances. A little humor to best conceal his utter disgust at his lack of control. But he was alive and free, for now.

And Hunter, at least he thought it was Hunter, was also alive after all, crouched clumsily at his side. Horatio grunted as his companions shifted to support his weight, keeping it from the hard flagstones. Ah, yes, Hunter's leg is better, he thought. I can feel it sticking into my ribs.

His own legs, so long curved under him, would do nothing more now than curve again and stay that way. He was dismayed but not surprised. He was suddenly and terribly exhausted, yet, still fearful to relinquish all control.

"Oh, dear." It was out of him before he could stop it.

Because there was, there was a pressure on his chest.

He moaned quietly, pawing feebly at the unseen weight. His humor left him as quickly as it had come. Suddenly he was back in the oubliette. Humor had been a weapon there, for a time. He'd grinned at his captors, sneered at the piercing sun and then laughed at the pouring rain. What else to do? It was not, he had discovered thankfully, in his nature any longer to surrender to despair as he once might have. But then the rats came to sit on his shoulder one night, the next morning on his chest as the rain sluiced through the stone box, the next night tucked against his hip. Rats on him. Rats around him. Rats at Styles' face. Rats at the rice. His heart pounded, dangerously.

"No!" His hand slapped at nothing, to his slitted, light-dazzled eyes a pathetic white blur slicing the gray in front of him.

"Horatio, Horatio, quiet, shush." It was Archie's voice, familiar, gentle, concerned. Not a rodent squealing or the harsh, spittle-laden words from the Spanish guards raining down upon him. It was Archie's voice and Archie's hand that held Horatio's arm across his chest, not the wet, scrambling weight of the only living beings he'd felt in the last fortnight. He relaxed back against his friend, shutting his eyes. The soft surface beneath his head moved. Hands hooked beneath his arms.

"Come on, Horatio. Let's get you up to the bed. Help me, Hunter. Grab his legs there, man."

"Aye, aye, Mr. Kennedy. He's a right sorry sight, he is, sir."

"And whose fault is that, Mr. Hunter," snapped Archie, but not too harshly. For he knew how right sorry Hunter was as well. So sorry the wretched man's tears had been of such volume they'd thinned the burgoo Archie had had to force him to eat. "Keep up your strength. He'll need you," was the best argument Archie could give Hunter, even as he knew the strength was leaching from the man held captive just outside their window. That Archie'd had no one to stay strong for him during his months in hell had slowed his own recovery immeasurably. Until Horatio, like some kind of terrible, sea-spawned phoenix, and his crew had landed here.

"Okay then, up now and over you go," he said, shaking off memory as he and Hunter shifted Horatio up, over and down onto the hard cot.

"Hunter, hand me my blanket."

"Yes, sir." Hunter stared for a moment at the form on the cot and then turned to snatch the threadbare blanket from his own bunk, leaving Kennedy's behind on the top.

"Here," he said brusquely.

"Thank you, Hunter."

Archie shook the blanket, pinwheels of dust catching in the sunlight, and spread it over the long figure lying still, arms and legs straight. Sitting on the edge of the cot, Archie leaned forward and tucked the edge blanket around Horatio's body and up under his chin. Hunter leaned quietly against the bunks on the other side of the tiny room, hands crossed in front of him, eyes intent on the two men.

"There, now that's better, isn't it?" Archie asked. "Horatio?"

Was that his name? Was someone speaking? Horatio opened his eyes slightly. His eyes were still so crusted over, so painfully sensitive to the light. It was really no use at all. Not that he cared at the moment to see anything. It was enough to feel something beneath his back, to have his legs stretched out in front of him, long and straight. He was certain he could hear the blood rushing back to his head, spreading throughout his body in great, relieved pools like the unbroken surface of a sunrise sea. For fourteen days and nights his life fluids had been trapped, landlocked in the lower part of his body, causing his legs to swell, his head to swim.

"Horatio?" Archie whispered, more urgently.

"Uhmm." Horatio's response was no more than a buzz to Archie's equally indistinguishable question. That was it, he thought rather stupidly, two bees buzzing to each other across a garden bush. An English garden on a warm late afternoon, him stretched beneath that bush, watching, listening, alert but content. Not a rat in sight.

He laughed. And the sun set on that garden which Horatio had guarded for so long, and he slipped into sleep.

"Sir? What was that about, sir?" Hunter asked.

"Damned if I know and damned we are if we try to reason it out," Archie said, shaking his head in disbelief. Who else but Horatio to laugh at a time like this.

He reached forward to push the grain sack that was a pillow a little better under Horatio's head, studying his friend's face more closely and seeing the dirt and the grime, the strain. Even a few rats' leavings tangled in Horatio's hair.

"Hunter," he snapped in disgust, "hand me that basin. Whatever water's in there will have to do for now. But get something that's drinkable from the guards. He'll need it when he wakes up. If they give you any trouble about it not being ration time, well, I'm certain you'll think of something."

"Aye, aye, sir." Hunter carefully lifted the basin from the bench and a piece of trouser leg too tattered for the wearing any longer, and placed them at Kennedy's feet. Then it was just the few short steps to the thick cell door to wield what little Spanish he knew to yield a ration of water

"Beggin' your pardon, sir?" Archie looked up as Styles, Matthews and Oldroyd appeared at the window, all three squinting through the bars, trying in spite of the brilliance outside to make out shapes in the dim room. Archie could see their faces just fine: Matthews', concerned, worried. Styles', still smoldering in anger. Oldroyd's, fearful and hoping.

"Mr. Kennedy, how is he, sir?" asked Matthews.

"He's alive, men. He's exhausted, thin and," Archie looked over his shoulder, "asleep now and for a great while I suppose. But he is alive."

"Thank God for that, sir," said Matthews. "Here, we been savin' this. For when he come out."

Two pairs of crusty hands appeared between the bars, placing an onion, three slabs of hard bread and two brown bananas on the stone ledge.

"We reckon he'll be right hungry, and need to build his strength back up, for when we can get out of here," Oldroyd said.

"I'm sure we'll make good use of them. Thank you, men. We'll do what we can to get Mr. Hornblower back on his feet soon."

"That's all right then, sir," Matthews said. "You tell him, for us, sir, when he wakes up, that we're all behind him. And that we're ready to do whatever he's got planned as soon as he's feelin' up to it." Matthews shot a meaningful glance toward Oldroyd, who had the good sense to look down. Oldroyd was hoping Hornblower's release would bring him a release of his own from the constant chiding of his crewmates for taking Hunter's side. They had proven to be just as formidable as judge and jury as they were seamen.

The men went back to their barracks and Archie went back to his task, gently sponging the dust and grime from Horatio's face, humming a tune he remembered Miss Cobham singing as she sat at his own sickbed not long ago.

To Horatio, the night, while night, was still much brighter than what he'd endured in the oubliette. Someone had washed the dirt from his eyes and face, for as he turned his head carefully, he could clearly see the bars of moonlight on the cell floor, and there too a basin with a cloth glowing white.

He could make out, Hunter, he believed, asleep in the bunk across from him. The bunk over Hunter was empty. Sweeping his eyes toward the door, he discerned a dark shape leaning against the bed near his feet. Its weight pushed the edge of the thin mattress up into a small roll Horatio could feel against his hip and leg. It was Archie, asleep, the moonlight sparking off his blond hair. Sitting watch, I suppose that would be called, Horatio thought, not unkindly. Well, there was no doubt he much preferred his friend's weight leaning against his side rather than that of a rat's. Yes, he thought, all in all, a much improved situation.

Secure in the knowledge that he was, for now, safe, Horatio stretched his legs, pulled the blanket back up to his chin and sighed - a small breath of contentment - hard-won and hard-felt. The morning would come soon enough. Then it would be time to think, plan, gain back his strength and his wits. But that was tomorrow.

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