The long boat moved swiftly and silently, cutting the shimmering cerulean waves, as placid and as smooth as glass. The large, round Caribbean moon sat impassively in the deep velvet of the night sky, watching like a heavy, lazy eye and the small vessel gently bumped against the white sand of the beach and two rough-looking men jumped out, wading through the compliant tide. A man was waiting there for them, nervously shifting from one foot to another as his eyes darted into every inch of darkness, frightened he was being watched. He gave a small start as the sea-hardened men approached, not having heard them land in the secluded cove, and tried to pull himself up to make himself more imposing. He began to tremble, however, when the new arrivals stepped into the moonlight and their faces were revealed. The first's face was a map of scars, an empty eye socket gaping out at the sentry, his sickening grin a mangle of crooked and rotted teeth.
The second was a bit more elegant, or as elegant as pirates come, with his long, matted black hair and beard, golden rings woven into his tangled raven locks and a gold tooth shining out from a menacing smile. He wore a crimson velvet frock coat with braid and decoration long since faded and worn. He spread his arms and gave what passed for a slight bow in introduction while the other hung back; this would be the captain then. Captain Jack Knightly, the infamous "Black" Jack. The sentry swallowed hard, almost cowering as the captain drew near, wringing the missives in his hands between fidgety fingers. "What ho, man," grinned Jack, taking in the militarily presence of his "contact"; the lobster red of his jacket, the short cropped hair that was now the fashion within the ranks of the British army. "Got wot I come fer?"
The sentinel, Lieutenant Harold Rogers, nodded uneasily, too eagerly thrusting the package of documents forwards. Jack took them from him leisurely, carefully searching through the papers as Rogers looked on impatiently, sweating profusely. "They're all there," the lieutenant practically squeaked out. "Do I get my reward now?"
"Aye," Jack smiled viciously, "aye, you get yer reward. Lews!," he called to the second man, beckoning him forth. "Give this kind soul his...reward." Rogers never even saw the knife before the blade, glittering with moonlight, cut his throat open.
Horatio Hornblower shaded his eyes from the strong glare of the tropical sun; its yellow rays blanching everything from the island shore to the placidly roiling sea. He felt a bead of sweat roll down the stiff collar of his prim shirt and woolen jacket. He couldn't decide which was worse as he sought shelter from the burning rays of the sun beneath a tall, gently swaying palm tree: the heat of the West Indies or the numbing sleet of a winter in Portsmouth. He heard the minor commotion at his back as four smartly dressed soldiers were brought aboard.
"Commander Hornblower," a velvety voice said and he turned to meet its owner, a colonel with impeccable bearing, tightly arranged golden curls smoothed into perfect order and the glowing brownish hue of one who had been stationed in this damnable place for some time.
"Colonel Edrington," Horatio let a small smile play across his lips as he addressed the newly arrived man as his lordship's three companions fell into formation behind him. Both men were still adjusting to the other's altered title as the commander saluted his old friend with a firm tug of his hat. "I would have liked for our re-acquaintance to have been made under...better circumstances."
"Indeed," the young Earl gave a short sigh, his dark eyes falling onto the crumpled shape of youthful Lieutenant Rogers, the sun-bleached sand turned darkly burgundy and congealed from the man's spilt blood. He made s small sound of disgust, a slight clicking of his tongue against his teeth, as he said, "Dead men tell no tales. Or so they say. I'm afraid this one had quite a bit to say; we've been watching him for sometime."
"A spy?" Horatio asked, lifting a dusky eyebrow. A spy, fantastic; he'd really landed himself inside the hornets' nest this time. If only the Hotspur had made better time, if only they had caught a wind, they would be halfway across the Atlantic by then. But his luck, or lack thereof, had held and they had been the closest ship when the Colonel's delegation had signaled their distress.
Edrington confirmed Hornblower's suspicions with a curt nod. "We were hoping to smoke him out, catch him at his game; we never suspected this. Our envoy was carrying extremely sensitive documents, they've gone missing..."
"Through no fault of my own," a new voice joined the discussion. A portly man bustled towards them, dabbing his forehead with a dainty white handkerchief. Horatio gave a start; would recognize the little man anywhere, his salted gray curls dampened with sweat, his rotund suited shape: Mr. Tapling. "Mr. Hornblower...Commander, is it now? Good work with that, lad. Now, the documents; I must state irrefutably that they never left my sight. The boy--most unfortunate, that--must have come upon them whilst I slept and still then he must have been very adroit in his attentions to my habits to wrest them from me even in a slumbering state."
"Pirates," the Earl of Edrington said dryly. "A simple French or Spanish emissary would not have been so sloppy as to leave our Mr. Rogers here; they would have either left him in our company to keep us on watch or would have disposed of the body. This...this is far too...unpleasant."
Horatio opened his mouth to speak though, admittedly, his throat had gone arid when a boat carrying Mr. Orrock, a midshipman aboard the Hotspur, took ashore and the bright-faced Irishman came striding towards them purposely, attempting to appear casual though his long, anxious gait gave him away. He saluted uneasily, practically bouncing from foot to foot as he stood before his superiors. "Sir, compliments of Mr. Bush, sir."
"Out with it, Mr. Orrock," said Horatio, a bit more tersely than he'd meant to.
"A ship, sir," Mr. Orrock told him, the words spilling from his lips, "spotted coming in from the west. Mr. Bush requests your presence aboard Hotspur, sir. Immediately," he added, rather hurriedly. "Sir."
"Pirates," Mr. Prowse growled through gritted teeth, turning to see Lieutenant Bush's reaction as the man put a sleek, gleaming spyglass to his eye. In the distance he could see the ship approaching, turning purposely around an island cape, behind which they had emerged moments ago. It was a large vessel, brightly splashed in colors, rich blues and audacious yellows. Rising from the water, which seemed to part not from the impact of the ship but rather in anticipation of it, was an intricately carved figure of a skeleton, its torso's ashen ribcage ascendant from the waves and tapering off to a slim spined neck to a slightly inclined head whose empty eye sockets seemed to be glaring outwards. Its bony arms reached up and out, entwining to form the jutting bow.
"It doesn't look good," Bush agreed grimly, lowering the spyglass. "Prepare the guns; as soon as the captain is aboard..."
"The captain is aboard," Horatio said briskly, rushing to join them with Mr. Orrock and Colonel Edrington neatly on his heels, "and belay that." Bush thought he detected something resembling a smirk pass across his friend and superior's mouth. "Signal them," he ordered and when Mr. Prowse began to object, he offered only the straightforward yet all the more confusing clarification, "The Elizabeth Alleyn, I'm familiar with her. Perhaps fate and fair winds are in our favor after all; her captain may very well be able to assist us." This time, Bush was sure he saw a smile on Horatio's lips.
"But, pirates, sir..." Prowse glowered.
"Privateers, Mr. Prowse," Horatio corrected, "in his Majesty's service. Signal her; I will be in my quarters, alert me when she has responded. Colonel Edrington, if you will accompany me?" The Earl gave an abrupt nod and followed as Commander Hornblower descended the stair to the foredeck and disappeared into his offices.
"Pirates, privateers," grunted Mr. Prowse, "bloody murderers, the lot of them, if you ask me."
"That will be all, Mr. Prowse," Bush shot the man a glare of warning.
"Yes, sir," the man replied tersely, folding his arms behind his back as his mouth became a thin line of disgust. Bush turned away from him, hiding his own doubts and questions concerning Horatio's behavior, and spotted Matthews and Styles leaning curiously against the rail, craning their necks as if eager to get a better view of the incoming craft. They seemed excited more than awestruck or fearful, as he would have expected them to be.
"Can yer see 'er?" he overheard Styles ask.
"It's 'er, a'right," Matthews answered almost triumphantly and Bush couldn't help but feeling as if he'd been left out on the joke.
"It *is* good to see you again, Joseph," Horatio said, settling back into the rather uncomfortable looking chair behind his large oak desk. He gestured towards a small table at the corner of the sparsely decorated room where a decanter and several crystal glasses rested. "Brandy?" he asked; the Earl of Edrington declined with a inclination of his head, taking a seat across from Horatio.
"And I was much glad to discover it was you who came to our aid," sighed Edrington, obviously tired as he removed his hat and wearily rubbed his eyes. "Both the guards I put on Rogers: murdered. Good men. So help me, Horatio, I never thought it would come to this." After a moment, he rose and strode over to the brandy, pouring himself a glass. "This ship of yours, your mysterious allies; I must admit, I am intrigued. I didn't imagine you to be the type to dawdle with pirates and their lot." There was a hint of amusement in his tone, a slight smirk upon his wry face.
Horatio's body stirred at the memory, the blood rushing to his lower abdomen like a river as he remembered his first encounter with The Elizabeth Alleyn. He found his cock hard and restless against the rough material of his linen shirt and woolen breeches, the sensation of it growing and engorging making him bite his lip before he could utter any sound that might give him away. He shifted his legs and covertly gave his rigid organ a harsh stroke through his layers of clothes, concealing a blissful groan. His nipples puckered and chafed, his senses becoming hyper-aware. He focused on Edrington, trying to take his mind off those matters for the time being. "I saved her captain once," Horatio flashed a sheepish yet mischievous grin.
Edrington eyed his friend up and down keenly, perceiving there was much that Horatio was holding back. He was curious to pursue the matter, though Hornblower remained most decidedly tight-lipped when pressed indirectly for details. The captain of The Elizabeth Alleyn had been a close friend of Archie Kennedy's as well, the mention of which made Horatio flush slightly; a very odd reaction considering that mention of the late lieutenant usually made the commander cheerless and introverted. That response was still evident in the young man but as was this strange sense of...what? Could it be arousal?
Horatio debated warning the Earl what was to come, though, in the end, he decided it was easiest to let them all see for themselves. While he enjoyed Edrington's company, he friend's ever increasingly inquiring questioning. He was relieved when Mr. Orrock knocked upon the cabin door and entered, saluting both the men and informing them that The Elizabeth Alleyn had received their signal and had dispatched a long boat that should be reaching The Hotspur at any moment.
The sun hit Horatio's face like a blinding flare, an explosion of heat and light; he was sure he was developing a burn across his cheeks. The men were all standing stiffly at attention, unsure of their visitors about to come aboard but never daring to challenge their captain's judgment. Mr. Tapling was first and foremost at the railing where the pirates would be boarding, convincing all that he had everything under control and to leave everything to him.
Styles and Matthews shared a grin, both offering their sturdy arms over the side and hauling up the first of the two Elizabeth Alleyn crew members: a large, muscled man, bald to the bone on top with tattoos adorning his face and arms in exact and swirling patterns He wore a simple tunic, tied at the waist by a garish sash, thick pants covered in patches and repairs and dirty but reliable boots. He looked around, sussing out the situation with hard, glassy eyes, his bulky arms crossed tightly against his chest. He caught Horatio's eye and the two exchanged a respectful and confident nod. He then turned to the rail and gestured to the long boat's second occupant, a motion of reassurance. He then reached down along with Matthews and Styles to assist in the second's ascent to the deck of The Hotspur.
"Bloody hell!" rang an exclamation as the second, smaller figure appeared over the side. "Sodding frocks!" she said, straightening her long, striped skirt and long, plum-colored frock coat. It was a girl, a woman really, but certainly no lady. Horatio smiled; she was just as beautiful as he remembered, no, more so, with her face having matured into a more feminine version of itself though she was still rather boyish; her slender body still displayed how easily she could be taken for a lad when disguised as one, as she was when they first met. Her brown hair, which now fell loosely and wispily well to her waist, was haloed with sun-bleached flaxen swirls, her hazel eyes, framed with those lush gray lashes, glowed with flecks of brown and gold.
Mr. Tapling look completely and desperately at a loss for words; Horatio almost pitied the man. It was Commander Hornblower who spoke first, putting the ambassador out of his misery. "Captain Troy Alleyn, welcome to The Hotspur." Her eyes flashed towards him and then widened momentarily in surprise. She mouthed his name, her lips quirking upwards at the corners as she regained her composure.
There were murmurs all around as everyone tried to discern exactly whom Horatio had addressed. Finally, Troy stepped forward and gave him something of a theatrical flourish; bloody pirates, always so demmed dramatic. Her eyes searched his uniform for clues as to his rank, her brain turning over with all she knew about naval dressing and position, which was clearly not an exceptional amount. Horatio caught her eye and mouthed the word 'commander' to her; her smile widened. "Commander," she pronounced the title loudly and clearly, "Horatio Hornblower, it is an honor to make your re-acquaintance. You know my first mate, Mr. Welles."
"Indeed," Horatio briskly tipped his hat to the man who stood at least two heads taller than his captain. "It was an extraordinary piece of luck that we should run into you as we could use your help in matters you are more familiar with than we."
Troy wasted no time in cutting to the chase. "Jack Knightly," she spat out contemptuously, "Captain of The Black Jack. We've been following the blackguard for three weeks now."
"Duty?" Lord Edrington asked with a barb barely veiled within his voice. "Or is it for the good of King and Country?"
"None of the above," responded Troy with aplomb and equal condescension. "He happens to have quite the mark upon his head; it's the reward we're after. Gold marks too, the kind of currency that speaks to the locals out here." She grinned, returning her attention to Horatio. "Commander, I am fully at your disposal."