So Foul and Fair a Day
Title: So Foul and Fair a Day
Characters: Horatio Hornblower, Archie Kennedy
Notes: An unexpected plot bunny inspired by esmerelda_t's Aftermath but taking her Macbeth analogy in a rather different direction.
The gunroom was uncommonly quiet. Cleveland was on watch, Hether sitting at the gunroom table smoking, his long face made longer yet by the shadows from the lamp. Beside him a midshipman sat with pen and ink, gazing up at the deckhead, the paper before him blank. Two of their messmates were crouched over an open sea chest, contents strewn on the deck beside them. Hornblower and Kennedy were sitting in the far corner. Hornblower upright as usual, head leaning back against the bulkhead, running his fingers backwards and forwards across his lower lip. Kennedy was beside him slumped forward elbows resting on his knees, eyes fixed on the deck.
After the chaos of the action against the French frigate and the jubilation at their success, the Indefatigable had settled into a somber calm. The euphoria of battle had worn off, the quarter bills read and the cost counted. They had carried the action with relatively few casualties but few as not none. The cockpit was filled with injured men and the hospital cots had spilled into the tiers. The whole ship stank with the acrid tang of gunpowder, the wet earthy smell of blood and the overpowering astringency of the hot vinegar the galley men had used to sluice the gore from the decks.
At the final muster Horatio had stood on deck with what remained of his division as the quarter-bill was read. They had been fortunate, but his spirits sank with each name called that was met by a shipmate's response "injured, sir", "killed, sir." He had spoken to Archie some hours before but it was still a relief when he heard his voice reply "aye, sir" in reply to "Midshipman Kennedy?" Almost every mess was missing a man that night, thankfully more injured than killed, but the gunroom was no exception. Midshipman Ross had almost lost an arm to a splinter and Midshipmen Marshall had been sewn into his hammock with a stitch through his nose and two cannon-balls at his feet.
Horatio and Archie had both survived relatively unscathed. Archie had been lucky to escape with little more than a long shallow scratch just above his hairline. Horatio had missed the boarding action all together and though uninjured his first experience of battle had left him oddly numb.
Despite the fact that Pellew had drilled his crew mercilessly with general quarters called at any watch, night or day, Horatio was unprepared for the sheer chaotic horror of action. His ears were still ringing from the cannonading but it was the hollow wooden sound of flying splinters that was haunting him now. As was the way of it, English oak had proved more deadly than French iron.
As a doctor's son he had seen more than his fair share of mortality but he was aghast at the carnage of battle and the butchery caused by canon and splinter. Williams had fallen by his gun, right there in front him and when they had hauled him down to the cockpit and Heppelwhite had slit open his trousers the stump of his missing leg had looked like nothing so much as raw meat. Horatio could feel the bile rising even now at the horror of it.
Horatio had slipped away once the quarter-bills had been called and the men accounted for and had retreated to the corner of the gunroom where Archie found him some time later. He smiled when he saw Archie but it was a fleeting thing that did little to relieve his grim demeanor. Archie placed a hand briefly on his shoulder as he sat down beside him. "All right are you Horatio?"
"Yes. Yes, Archie. Thank you."
Horatio sighed and rubbed his hand over his eyes. "I really thought I could do something for him. He was one of my men. Surely it was my duty..."
"Williams? Horatio, you did your duty and from what I've heard you did it admirably. You gave him a chance. There are many who would not have bothered."
"But I could not just leave him to bleed to death there on the deck Archie!"
"No, you couldn't and you didn't, but lesser men might have."
Horatio sighed again and they sat in silence for a time.
"And you? Are you all right Archie? You're cut." Horatio leaned forward and touched Archie's temple, the scratch was still raw and his fingers came away with a fine smear of blood.
"Me? Yes, yes of course Horatio. Although it's strange to think on it..."
"To think on what Archie?"
"I killed a man today. A French man to be sure, but still a man, maybe two, I don't know." Archie wiped at a small bead of blood that was trickling down the side of his face, smearing it across his cheek. "I suppose I should feel proud. It's what we're here for after all isn't it? Honour and glory. Surely it was my duty." He smiled wryly but the smile died in an instant. "There was so much blood..." Archie's voice trailed off and he started picking at his fingernails, he'd been doing it all night. They were still crusted around the edge with dried blood.
"I can't get the damn stuff off." That wry half smile again. "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?"
A muffled sob from one of the midshipmen hunched over the seachest interrupted him.
"I hardly knew him," Horatio said quietly.
"Hmn? Who? Marshall? No, nor I really. Well a little I suppose. He had a sweetheart. In Kent, I think. He used to carry that locket. He was always showing it off, remember?" Archie was still scratching at his fingers. Horatio shook his head. He didn't remember.
"I wonder who'll tell her? He was right beside me you know." Archie paused and Horatio glanced down at him. "I saw him fall but I thought.... It was hard to tell. There was no time to think, damn frog was coming right at me."
Another long silence.
Archie's voice was much lower when he spoke again. "I didn't mean what I said earlier Horatio."
"On deck. Earlier. About you being there. I don't know what I was talking about. I just got carried away." Archie looked up at him for a moment, all trace of his earlier bloodlust and bravado gone, but there was a fierce strange light burning in his eyes. "I'm glad you weren't there." He dropped his eyes to the deck again. His voice was hoarse, barely a whisper. "It could have been you."
Horatio looked down at his friend, and was surprised to see that his hands were shaking. "It could have been you Horatio." The catch in his voice was unmistakable. Horatio leaned forward and placing an arm round his shoulder drew him closer. Normal strictures of propriety were loosed that night in the aftermath of the battle. Absorbed in their own reflections none of the other midshipmen gave them a second glance. "But it wasn't me Archie, and it wasn't you. We're both still here." Archie didn't look up, didn't move, but Horatio could feel him warm and heavy against his side, could feel his breath hitch as he murmured quietly “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”.