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Dread Not the Strength of Goliath

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“Well, I was a mere passenger on the schooner on my way to Gibraltar when this Spanish frigate blocked our path.” Hornblower listened, completely enraptured by the Dreadnought’s account. “We were outmanned and outgunned and should we have run, we certainly would have been outpaced.”

“Did they fire without warning, sir?” Mr. Bowles asked.

“Oh they had the decency to fire a warning shot. The audacity of them. Three supply ships taken by the French in as many weeks and now the Spanish think they can do the same? Well, this was one ship they would never take.” Hornblower smiled.

“So. I assumed command of the schooner, gave the order that we should attempt to rake her. Now of course I knew that our chances were slim but I took comfort from the fact that we were forced to destroy their price. And had I not acted, the schooner and her supplies would at this very moment be in the hands of the Spanish.”

“What of the crew?” Pellew asked quietly, his lips compressed as if in pain. 

“You have a question, Captain?” Foster asked provocatively.

“I was merely wondering how many of the crew did the Spanish take from the sea?”

“I have no idea.” Foster said contemptuously. “At the time, my mind was engaged in more important matters than arithmetic.” Silence reigned around the table, though Hornblower had a smile playing about his lips.

“Am I to assume, Captain Pellew, that you would have surrendered?” It was a brazen thing to say to a fellow Captain; bordering on dishonor.

The men were uncomfortably silent, their knives and forks stilled.

“This is neither the time nor the place, sir, to discuss tactics,” Pellew answered tightly.

“Nonsense! We are all men of the sea, here. You!” Foster placed his hand on Hornblower’s forearm. “How would you have reacted under such circumstances?”

Pellew felt a flush of hot anger rise through him. He should have known better than to match verbal spars with Foster. The man was no different now than when they were mids. His uncanny ability to discern, in the span of an hour, Pellew’s regard for Hornblower - it was unnerving to be reminded of it. To use the young man’s admiration against him made Pellew’s bile rise to his throat. He was master and commander here. Not Foster.

“I think perhaps-” Pellew tried to intervene.

“Come on man,” Foster said patting the midshipman’s hand. “Out with it.”

“Well,” Hornblower cleared his throat, uncomfortable, trying for a diplomatic response. “I am pleased the Spanish have been deprived of our supplies, sir.”

Foster chuckled and saluted the young man with his cup. “Ah! See! Now there is a smart lad.”

Hornblower, sensing he had offended his captain, looked at Pellew, who did not meet his eyes and had a dark look on his brow.

Mr. Bracegirdle shook his head in admonishment, and Hornblower lowered his gaze.

Sir Edward suddenly stood. “I take my leave, sir,” he told Foster. As he quit the room, he heard Foster’s brash and calculating last shot, “I fancy you shall do fine, young man. I fancy you shall!”

*~*~*

At the conclusion of the meal, which continued in awkward halting conversation after Pellew’s departure, Mr. Bracegirdle excused himself to go and look for the captain. He had served with the commander since his midshipman days, some 15 years prior, when they were both still junior officers. Though Edward had never given him any specifics, he knew that Foster’s jealousy of Pellew’s capabilities and swift promotion through the ranks, had landed him on the receiving end of Foster’s subtle but vicious harassment. He rather suspected this was one of the reasons Pellew had taken young Hornblower under his wing. Pellew had seen in the young man’s brief naval experience something of the same torment that had plagued his own. Tonight’s performance, for that was what it was to Foster, was in keeping with his former efforts to discredit his adversary at every turn. Little did Foster understand, thought Bracegirdle with smug satisfaction, that Pellew was much beloved aboard the Indy .

The lieutenant saw his captain standing at the wheelhouse, worrying his hands behind his back. Approaching with uncustomary noise so that Pellew would not be startled, he saluted him. “Sir.”

“Mr. Bracegirdle.”

They stood in silence a while. “He will only be here a few days at most, Edward,” said Bracegirdle in what he hoped was a supportive tone. He saw Pellew’s shoulders stiffen.

“And how much damage can he cause in those few days?” Bracegirdle wasn’t sure if Edward were speaking rhetorically, but he decided to answer anyway.

“Every man jack on this ship is your man, Edward. Your man. Not Foster’s.”

“Not quite every man, I think, Anthony,” responded the captain ruefully.

The lieutenant turned and looked the older man in the eye. “He is young and starstruck. As we all are at that age. But he is loyal to you, and you are the one who holds his respect.”

Pellew looked down as if uncomfortable with the praise. After a moment he returned, “I swore I would never let that man’s tyranny reign over another soul if I could help it.” His voice bit through the wind and his clenched teeth. “I will not rest easy until that man is off my ship. Away from my men. Away from me,” he added quietly.

The deck was quiet. All but the two men on watch were below. Bracegirdle laid his hand on Pellew’s arm. “This is not the Esther, Edward.” The captain met his gaze, startled and resigned. He inhaled and squared his jaw.

“No. It damned well is not.”

*~*~*

The next morning found them with a fair breeze and calm seas. Bracegirdle however, could tell that the captain was troubled despite the weather. His eyes were rimmed in red and his brow was furrowed. He looked as if he’d had a sleepless and troubled night.

As he took stock of his captain, he watched Dreadnought Foster arrive on deck, look around to ascertain the situation, and then determinedly make his way towards Pellew. Moving toward his side, he clapped Pellew on the back as he spoke a hearty good morning, and assumed a position next to him, arms akimbo. Bracegirdle missed neither his commander’s grimace at the physical contact, nor the repositioning of his feet on the wheelhouse to inch himself away from Foster.

“Mr. Bracegirdle!” called out the captain.

“Aye, sir.”

“Take us into Gibraltar, if you please. Let’s make use of this breeze. We do not want to keep Captain Foster delayed longer than necessary.”

“Nonsense, Captain! It will be a pleasure to catch up with you and Mr. Bracegirdle on old times.”

“I regret that I will have to forgo that particular pleasure, Captain Foster. Mr. Eccleston,” he turned to the first lieutenant, “the deck is yours.” Eccleston saluted, and moved to mount the steps to the wheelhouse, as Pellew turned to return to the great cabin.

Foster halted him with a hand under his arm, which was both deceptively aggressive, and intimate. In a low tone he murmured, “Careful now, Edward, or I’ll think you’re running away from me. You used to enjoy our games of cat and mouse on the Esther, from what I can recall.” He flashed a malicious grin at Pellew.

Heart pounding, Pellew could feel his stomach roil, but he’d be damned if he let this poisonous viper see him show anything but cool indifference. “You are quite at your leisure without a ship, Foster. I, however, have no time for games. I leave you to your reverie.” Turning on his heel, he felt Foster’s fingers unclench his bicep as he strode toward his cabin with purposeful steps.

Pellew stood stock still in the cabin once the door closed behind him. His teeth were clenched so tightly that his jaw ached. The noisy exhalations from his nose sounded absurdly loud against the wooden walls. His arm still tingled where Foster’s fingers dug through. Unbidden, images of those fingers on other parts of his body rose before his mind’s eye. One hand at his throat, one hand roaming; hot noxious breath and spittle invading his mouth and nose as that face loomed over him. Unconsciously, Pellew touched the small scar on his chin, diagonal and silvery with age. Cut against the corner of the midshipmen’s mess table one evening when he’d been caught unaware. Pellew’s tongue suddenly unstuck from the roof of his mouth and he gasped aloud for breath that he hadn’t realized he was holding. There was a warm pressure on his shoulder. Startled, he acted on instinct, pulling the dagger out of his belt and whirling around.

“Anthony?” He gaped, confused.

Bracegirdle’s eyes were wide, his lips opened slightly. He took a step back from the knife, his hand leaving Pellew’s shoulder. “I called you three times, but you didn’t respond,” he offered in explanation. He paused for a long moment. “You thought I was Foster.” It was a statement. Not a question.

Pellew took a ragged breath, wiped his sweaty brow, and viciously sheathed his dagger with shaky hands. “I don’t know who the devil I thought you were,” he rasped bitterly.

Bracegirdle moved closer again, now that Pellew appeared himself. “Why don’t you sit, sir.”

“I don’t need to sit,” he spat viciously. “I need a damn drink.” Striding to the wall behind his desk, he pulled a decanter and two glasses out of the niche. His hand shook as he poured two generous measures of the madeira. Bracegirdle remained silent, observing his friend with an increasingly furrowed brow. “I need that bastard off my ship, Anthony.”

“We will be there in a matter of hours.”

“It’s not enough.”

Bracegirdle sighed. “I can’t create the wind.”

Pellew whirled around, his face furious. “You think I complain merely for my own dislike of that detestable Goliath, hm? You know what he is like! What he is capable of! A few hours? My god, man, in a few hours he can have any of the midshipmen he wants!” His voice was shaking with rage and some of the fine madeira spilled over the side of the glass. “He was aboard that schooner for no more than 3 hours before he commandeered her and blew her to smithereens. Less than 3 hours!”

“He wouldn’t dare to try that on your ship--”

“The hell he wouldn’t. And you know it, Anthony.” He paused and took a drink. “But mark my words, if he does...I will shoot him myself.” Gulping down the remaining liquid, he took a deep breath. “I want a Marine at him on all times. He is not to go to the midshipmen’s mess without my knowledge.”

“Aye, sir.”

“And don’t stand there at attention, Anthony. Drink your wine,” commanded Pellew.

“I’m on duty sir, is that an order?”

“No, it damn well is not,” retorted Sir Edward who hadn’t seen Bracegirdle’s teasing smile. “Please,” he added in a tone straining not to be a command, “drink some wine.”  

Bracegirdle regarded his captain for a long moment. It was unnerving to see him so agitated. “Nothing will happen to any man on this ship at the hands of Foster. I promise you that, Edward. He will be off your ship by evening. You can sleep tonight.” Their eyes met and held. Pellew gave an almost imperceptible nod. Bracegirdle rested his hand on Pellew’s shoulder. “He has no hold over you anymore, Edward,” said the lieutenant quietly. “You have risen above him.” He squeezed the older man’s shoulder and left.

Sir Edward let out a shuddering breath, stood straight, and jutted out his chin. “Get a hold of yourself, Pellew” he spoke softly to the empty room. Picking up Bracegirdle’s untouched glass, he downed it in one go. “Four hours.”

Chapter Text

The sunset blazed purple, ochre, and russet against the deepening blue of the Gibraltar sky. Pellew brushed an errant speck of sawdust off the sleeve of his dress uniform. It would be nice to once, just once, land in Gibraltar and simply luxuriate in the pleasures and amenities of a port. Instead, he and Foster had to present themselves at Admiralty House and make their reports. Though being in close proximity to Foster made his stomach clench, Pellew felt a subtle releasing of tension at the thought of depositing the repellant man in Gibraltar and being on his way in the Indy, free from unpleasant thoughts and memories. A knock on his door turned his attention from his uniform. “Come.”

Young Hornblower came in and saluted. “Sir, all preparations are finished for your disembarkment with Captain Foster.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hornblower.” As the midshipman exited the cabin, Pellew gave an inward sigh of relief that Foster would not be able to get his conniving hands on the young man. He had a very promising career ahead, and Pellew knew that that type of promise would make Foster’s fingers itch to claim a piece of it. Making his way above deck, Pellew frowned as he heard the unmistakably admiring tones of Hornblower wishing Foster a successful journey on his new ship. “It has been a true honor to meet you, sir!”

Foster smiled indulgently and smirked at Pellew as Hornblower continued, “I only wish I had the opportunity to serve with you in action, Captain Foster.”

“That will do, Mr. Hornblower,” admonished Pellew in a harder tone than he’d intended. Hornblower looked up, crestfallen.

“These appointments aren’t set in stone, young man,” returned Foster loudly. “If you are unhappy aboard your ship, I need only put in a word, and you can serve with me.”  At Pellew’s thunderous look he added, “I can show you true action, man. Such action as would make your hair curl! It would be a great opportunity for an ambitious man like yourself, Mr. Hornblower.”

Despite his admiration for the Dreadnought, Hornblower felt a flush of discomfort at the comment. Surely Captain Foster had only meant his words in friendly support, but he couldn’t help but notice the pained look on his own captain’s face. Captain Pellew may not have been as brash and daring as Foster, but he was bold, principled, and sincere. He had given him an even chance onboard the Indefatigable, despite his rather dubious reputation from Justinian , and had even defended his life and honor against Simpson. “Thank you, Captain Foster, for such a generous offer.” He saw Pellew looking at him. “But I have no wish to leave the Indy . And,” he added, “it is truly my honor and privilege to serve with Captain Pellew.”

“Well said, Mr Hornblower,” Mr. Eccleston proclaimed with a hearty smile. He respected loyalty above all else.

Hornblower’s eyes met Pellew’s. They regarded each other for a moment, until Hornblower gave an almost imperceptible nod. “We would hate to lose you, Mr. Hornblower,” intoned Pellew quietly. Turning, Foster and he made their way off the ship, his stomach unclenching even further.

 

*~*~*

 

Admiral FitzBarns and Admiral Dunn seemed preoccupied during Pellew’s report. As there was not much of import or excitement to report, Pellew paid it no heed. The sooner he was out of Foster’s proximity, the better. When Pellew concluded, FitzBarns cleared his throat.

“Yes, quite. Thank you, Captain Pellew.” Gesturing to the cushioned chairs he made motions for Foster and Pellew to sit, “Captains, please have a seat.”

“Is there a problem, Fitzie?” Foster pointedly ignored FitzBarns irked expression at the nickname. Trust Foster to know exactly how to alienate allies at every port, thought Pellew.

“As a matter of fact, Captain,” continued Dunn, “ Admiral FitzBarns and I,” he emphasized the Admiral’s title, “have a bit of a quandary for you and Captain Pellew to solve.”

“Sir?” Pellew did not like the way this conversation was leaning.

“The Erebus, ” began FitzBarns.

“My new command,” supplied Foster unnecessarily.

“Your new command, Foster. Is...how shall I put this? In a word, she is missing.”

“Missing?” exclaimed Pellew and Foster together.

“Missing,” confirmed Dunn. “She was last sighted three weeks ago one mile off Cape St. Vincent. We have reason to suspect that the crew may have mutinied. Captain Rivers had reported ongoing instances of insubordination among the junior officers.”

“And this is the crew you were going to give me, Admiral? A pack of scruffy, mutinous dogs?” Foster was fuming.

Are giving you, Captain,” corrected Dunn. “Not were. Your mission is to find that ship, and bring any officer or seaman for court martial to Government House. If they have mutinied, by God they’ll swing for it.”

“Erebus indeed,” mused Pellew quietly.

“What was that, Pellew?” Foster was irritated. FitzBarns and Dunn looked towards Sir Edward.

Foster had always been a poor scholar. “Erebus. The Greek god of chaos and darkness.” Foster scoffed at the comment, but FitzBarns nodded and sighed.

“If I am to bring these seditious curs back to England then I will need a ship.”

“As the Indefatigable is currently in port and outfitted for battle, you and Captain Pellew will take his ship.”

“Sir!” protested both Pellew and Foster at once.

“I understand that it is a bit awkward to have two captains aboard one ship. However, we thought, as you both know each other from the old days, and are of a similar fighting temperament, you would find the arrangement agreeable.”

Agreeable? Pellew felt a fist tightening in his gut. “Admiral FitzBarns, sir, I already have orders to--”

“We are aware, Pellew,” interrupted the older man. “Your orders will be carried out by the Caroline. She is due in tomorrow.”

What could he say? He could not argue outright with his superiors. And what would he say in any case? That he objected to Foster’s behavior and temperament? That had served Foster well in the Service. Brutality always did, reflected Pellew bitterly. He inclined his head, nodding his assent. He did notice, however, that Foster did not look any more pleased about the arrangement, than he did. He was probably hoping for a new ship and carte blanche to deal with the mutiny in his own particular...fashion, thought Sir Edward.

“Now, I know you have only just arrived, gentlemen, and I regret that the crew cannot be granted shore leave, but this is, you understand, a mission of the utmost importance to the King and Royal Navy.” Dunn handed a packet to Edward, “Your orders, Captains.”

Foster and Pellew knew a dismissal when they heard one. Saluting simultaneously, they exited the room. The door had barely shut behind them when Foster asked to see the orders. “This is my command, Pellew.”

“It is both of ours, as you damn well heard, Foster. But it is my ship. I am ranking captain on this mission.”

“Ranking captain, my arse,” retorted Foster rudely. “The Indy is merely the mode of transportation. This is my mission to reclaim my ship. You’ll notice they did not assign you captain of the Erebus . They knew you weren’t man enough for it.”

Pellew ground his back teeth together, seething. “They didn’t give me the Erebus doubtless because I already have my own ship. You have a talent for losing any ship and crew under your command. And what’s more,” his voice rose over Foster’s boiling rage, “Indefatigable is not merely your mode of transportation, she is your only chance of success. And that success depends on my command of her, and her crew. They do not answer to you, Foster. They answer to me. To me. Is that clear?” They had stopped walking, and stood staring each other down.

Foster was silent a moment. Running his fingers over his lips, he leaned in until his mouth was a mere inch from Pellew's. Edward forced himself not to move his head away. He would stand his ground. “And will they still answer to you, Edward, when they know what a coward you really are?” His voice was low. Taunting. “Do you suppose they’ll still follow you, you worthless catamite, if they knew their captain had no real strength? Hm?” Foster’s words struck home, and he knew it. Straightening with a smile, he began to walk away and called over his shoulder, “Meet at 6 bells in the Great Cabin.”

Pellew watched him walk away. His breathing was labored and he had an urgent need to vomit. He was filled with a desperate desire to do something, anything, to keep Foster off his ship. He could not live through this tyranny again. He had barely survived its effects fifteen years ago. He could not do so again. It was not just his own skin he’d have to protect this time, either. Hornblower. Young, ambitious, smart - he’d be one of the first that Foster’s toxic poison would try to infiltrate. And Eccleston. He was always keen for a battle. Would he be swayed by Foster’s brutal and bloodthirsty methods? A moment ago he had been certain of his crew’s loyalty. It was sheer lunacy to be certain, Pellew realized. Foster’s conniving magnetism drew men - good men, honorable men - into his pernicious web. They would trust him with their lives, and he would betray them. The Dreadnought cared only about his own skin and those who could best serve him.

But what were his options? He couldn’t ask for a reassignment. He couldn’t have Foster court-martialed without exposing his own shame. Was this how he would live the rest of his career? His life? In fear of Foster? Constant vigilance for his crew? The sheer unfairness; the cruelty of the situation formed a knot in the back of throat. Suddenly, another thought occurred to him. His father! He had been so proud of Edward when he attained his promotion. “To think,” Samuel Pellew had said, “that the son of a simple Dover packet commander is now going to command a ship of the line.” Oh God, Pellew grimaced, what if his father found out? The old man wouldn’t survive the shame. “Foster,” he ground out. “God damn you,” he choked out in a muffled sob. “God damn you to Hell!”

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

He looked poorly, thought Bracegirdle as he observed his friend and captain. The older man had a thin sheen of perspiration on the center of his forehead, and his skin was the color of souring milk. His eyes darted around the table searching each officer’s face. For what, Bracegirdle did not know. The captain appeared distracted, as if not fully attending to the conversation. Despite that appearance, however, Bracegirdle knew Pellew was focused on each minute detail. He and Foster had argued nearly every point of the plan since the meeting began, which, in actuality, served no purpose since no man aboard the Indy would follow any orders other than Pellew’s. It was as if Edward needed to reassure himself of that fact.

“No, and that is final. We cannot take that route, Foster. That brings us clear within fighting ground of Jemappes,” ground out Pellew.

“Then we take her!” A couple of the officers chuckled at Foster’s brazen audacity.

“Take her? She’s a 74-gun ship of the line! She’s out of our class. We’d be at the bottom of the sea, or taken a prize in an instant,” shouted Pellew.

“Perhaps under your command we’d be taken a prize, Edward, but certainly not under mine,” retorted Foster with maddening calm.

“Yes, well, we know exactly how you have avoided that eventuality in the past.” Bracegirdle supposed Pellew must be referring to that schooner he had destroyed a few nights ago.

“You must make hard choices in command, Edward. If I had to sink that schooner again, I would.” He looked up and let his gaze roam around the faces of the gathered officers. “You may well be satisfied to circumnavigate the globe to avoid any conflict, but I am not. What I did, I did for King and Country. Slingshots and shepherd boys have their place in the Good Book, but here in His Majesty’s Navy, strength is what’s needed to overcome Goliath. You are getting too comfortable aboard the Indy here, my boy, and forget how promotions are won.”

The arrogant disregard of the man knew no bounds. “I am not interested in promotions that come at the reckless cost of men’s lives. They are men, not bilge water that you can tip over the side at your convenience,” Pellew ground out. A drop of his sweat hit the leathery map.

“They knew the risks when they signed on,” returned Foster mildly.

“Those risks also came with the belief that their senior offices and superiors would not directly steer them into harm’s way! Or do you forget your responsibility, sir?”

Bracegirdle gave an inward groan. The last time Bracegirdle had seen Edward so emotionally affected was back aboard the Esther when he had had to command Foster, still a midshipman then, during a raiding party. Pellew was not a man guided by his emotions. One reason he’d enjoyed so much success was due to his calm and collected assessment of facts, and analysis of dangers. He was acting now like a young, untried lieutenant, and not the captain he had become--confident, appraising, and bold. What had happened between them at Admiralty House? When Pellew had left the ship, he had still borne the vestiges of strain, but he was utterly in command of himself. Had Foster dared to try his old tricks on Edward during that short interlude?

“Of all the men in this room, I am not the one forgetting his duty, my boy.”

For the love of heaven, thought Pellew furiously, stop calling me that. He bit back any outward signs of agitation about the epithet.  He would not give Foster the satisfaction of knowing how much that “endearment” rattled him.

“But then, taking the lead,” he gave Pellew a meaningful look, “never was your strong suit, was it?”

Something seemed to physically pass over Pellew at those words, observed Bracegirdle worriedly. His pallor paled further, and his cheeks took on a sickly sheen. Lt. Bracegirdle worried Pellew would he be sick. Foster was a right sodding bastard.  It wasn’t enough for him to openly disrespect Edward in front of his officers; he had to humiliate him as well.

“Captains, if I might interject,” interrupted Bracegirdle forcefully, hoping to give Pellew a moment to compose himself. “If we head west, along the route Captain Pellew has suggested, then we will likely intercept the Julia, who left port with the Erebus and may be able to give us more insight into the crew. After all, Captain Foster,” he looked at the white haired man, “we want you to be as informed about the character of your future crew as possible.”

“I have a mind to hang the lot of them.” Foster was serious. All movement and activity in the room ceased.

“And after you’ve hanged them all from the yardarm, who, pray tell, will sail your ship?” Pellew asked quietly, passing a hand over his brow.

“True,” Foster acknowledged, “But whether I hang them, or they are court martialed, it makes little difference in the end. None of those vile curs can be trusted now.”

“And if they haven’t all mutinied, man? What if you find one loyal man among them? Would you condemn him with the others?” As soon as the words left his mouth, he wished them back. The parallel was too clear (and no wondering that it had been lurking in the back of his mind). Foster would not let that stand.

“Are you suggesting, Captain Pellew, that if I find a Lot amongst the Sodomites, I am to spare him? I am not God, sir, and my mercy does not extend as far as his.”

Eccleston and Bowles stood in stupefied silence, staring at Foster. Bracegirdle suddenly and clearly understood what had transpired between Foster and Pellew all those years ago. Like a well-timed gun exercise, memories of the past along with fragments of comments over the past few days came rushing into his head. Dear God! Edward had suffered through that ? Bracegirdle had always assumed (perhaps willfully) that as mids Edward had been on the wrong side of Foster’s physical bulk and malicious bullying. He never dreamed of something as...deviant as this. He felt sick even thinking of it. Shamefully, he recalled his thoughts a day ago when Pellew frantically insisted that Foster not be allowed near the mids’ mess. He thought his friend had been overreacting, and, even more to his shame, believed Pellew was worried the midshipmen might be swayed by Foster’s charisma. In the midst of profoundly personal agitation and humiliation, his friend had been concerned for the welfare of his crew, and Bracegirdle had not deigned to see the verity of Pellew’s concerns. Hot flashes of shame and misery washed over him, and he balled his fists together at his side.

“Let us give thanks, then, that God has more mercy than you, Foster,” Edward spat. “Gentlemen, we sail west. Mr. Bowles, you may give the bearing to the helm.” There had been much more to discuss, but Edward could not face one more moment in a confined space with Foster. His head and stomach ached fiercely and he was perspiring so heavily, he would need to change his shirt. He did not look up as his men saluted and exited the cabin, not wanting to see their looks of disgust that he was sure would be there.

He heard the door close, and let out an agitated breath, glad to be alone.

Without warning, his head was slammed into the table. A rough hand at the back of his neck held him down while another reached around to the front of his trousers. “Did you think that you could get away with speaking to me with such insolence, my boy?” Foster’s sour breath was hot in Pellew’s ear. Edward’s blood pounded so loudly in his head, he was sure the other man could hear it. This could not be happening. He grabbed for the dagger in his belt and stabbed it into Foster’s offending hand. The man held in a howl of pain, but released his hold on Pellew.

“I am not your boy,” he growled. “Those days have ended.” As Sir Edward turned towards the Dreadnought to strike another blow, he felt his feet kicked out from under him and fell to the floor in a heavy thud, striking his forehead against the oaken table on his descent. He felt Foster’s knees in his back.

“Those days are over,” whispered Foster harshly, his face a hair's breadth from Pellew’s, “when I say so.”  Edward’s head pounded after the blow from the table, and he struggled to get out from under Foster. With all his strength, Edward rammed his head into Foster’s chin. Scrambling to his feet, he groped for his sword. He had almost succeeded in reaching it when he felt Foster grab his belt and slam him into the floor. The fall knocked the air from his lungs. He had never felt more miserable in his life—gasping for breath on the floor, unable to defend himself. The entire assault did not last longer than five minutes, but it seemed as if eight bells had passed by the time Foster rose and buttoned his trousers.

“Just like old times, eh, Edward my boy?” He stepped over the prostrate form on the form, and left the cabin.  Pellew heard him give orders that the captain was not to be disturbed.

How long he lay on the floor, Pellew did not know. But it was not long. He heard men shifting overheard as the watch changed. His breathing still erratic, he pushed himself up. Leaving the ripped clothing on the floor, he padded over to his wash basin and glass, very aware of the pain between his legs. He could see no bruises, but his reflection was shaking violently.  Splashing cool water on his face, he tried to get his breathing under control. His vision blurred, and black, opaque canon shots danced along the periphery of his left eye. Head wound, he thought abstractly. Knowing he could not seek out the doctor, Pellew dragged his aching body to his cot, and managed to climb in moments before unconsciousness overtook him.

Chapter Text

 


 

“I’m sorry, sir, but the Captain is not be disturbed,” Pellew’s steward told Bracegirdle. That was odd, he thought. Pellew rarely gave such an order.

“When did the Captain give that order, Howell?”

“When he left. At 7 bells, sir.”

“When he left?” Something wasn’t right.

“Yes,” returned Howell in a tone that hinted at impatience at Bracegirdle’s slowness. “When the Captain left he gave orders that the Captain was not to be disturbed.”

“Captain Foster gave the order?” Bracegirdle sought to keep his voice even.

“Yes, sir. That’s what I’ve been saying all along, sir.” Bracegirdle held in a rebuke.

“I see. You may go, Howell. I have business with the Captain.”

The steward protested. “Begging your pardon, Lieutenant Bracegirdle, but it’ll be my grog ration for the week if I don’t carry out my orders.”

“I’ll see the Captain knows you carried out your duty.” Howell nodded, appeased.

“Sir,” he saluted and left.

Pellew had not been above deck since the previous evening. The forenoon watch had just struck 3 bells, and Pellew, regular as clockwork, was usually above deck by 6 bells of the morning watch. Bracegirdle put one hand on his sword as he knocked at the door to the Great Cabin, his stomach knotted in tense anticipation. “Come.”

Bracegirdle pushed open the door to find Pellew, pale and sallow in the face, standing with his arm resting against the window. On the table lay three maps, one of which Bracegirdle recognized from the night before, a magnifying glass, and an open book. As the lieutenant approached the captain, he noted the book was in fact the leather-bound Bible that Samuel Pellew had bought his son upon his promotion to lieutenant many years ago.  Though Edward was not what one could call a devout man--life as a naval captain was hardly conducive to that--he did have faith that went beyond hastily murmured prayers on Sundays. Glancing at the heading on the open page, he frowned. The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Before he could ponder the implication of that particular story further, or why Pellew should be reading it, the captain turned toward him.  His waistcoat was unbuttoned, and his cravat askew. A large reddish bruise, slightly purple at the center, obscured his left temple.

“Edward! Are you unwell? You look dreadful. What happened to your head?” The captain moved toward the table on unsteady legs.

“Touch of indigestion,” returned Pellew. “What’s our bearing?”

“Indigestion so severe that it caused a blow to the head?” scoffed Bracegirdle in irritated concern. It wasn’t even a believable fiction.

“Well, erm…” Pellew fiddled with his cravat. “Knocked my head against the damn table in the night.”

He hadn’t asked again about the bearing. That was most unlike Edward. Bracegirdle’s concern began to mount. “That is some knock. Your pupils are round as cannons.” He moved forward to inspect the injury for himself. As he raised his hand to Edward’s brow, however, the captain flinched violently and stepped away, gasping.

“Edward?”

“Damn you, Anthony. You can’t simply sneak up on a body like that. I must get to the quarterdeck.” He was attempting to fasten his waistcoat, but his hands were shaking so violently that they could barely manipulate the brass buttons in the stiff cloth. Bracegirdle was now truly alarmed. He took a tentative step closer, and noted Edward’s unfocused eyes darting around the room.

“Edward, stop. Let me look at your head. What happened? Did you and Foster have it out?” The ship lurched through a swell, and Pellew swayed off balance. Bracegirdle placed his hands on his friend’s arms to steady him, and felt the slight tremble beneath the thick coat. If Pellew and Foster had had a go, thought Bracegirdle, Edward had certainly come off the worse for wear. He looked ghastly close up. And not himself. That had been a serious blow to the head.

“Just a bit unwell, Anthony. Help me get these damned buttons done. I need to be above deck and keep an eye on Foster.”

“You need to be seen by Dr. Low. You aren’t even standing straight.” Pellew shut his eyes at that comment. What had he expected? Of course Anthony would be disgusted by his weakness. He couldn’t maintain his balance on the floor of his own damn cabin, in calm seas. A wave of self-loathing rolled over him, and he felt the bile rise in his throat. He swallowed it back with an effort.

Gritting his teeth, he replied, “I need no doctor. I need to command my ship.” He stepped out of Bracegirdle’s grasp and began savagely attacking the buttons.

“You are in command, sir. There is no doubt of that, but you are not well.” Pellew did not respond, and Bracegirdle noticed a sheen of sweat on his forehead. “Edward, please, don’t play the hero. Be reasonable.”

“Play the hero!” he bellowed, then closed his eyes against the pain the shout had caused. “If I were playing the hero, then that bloody Dreadnought Foster would be in irons. If I were playing the hero he would not be out there, on my ship, corrupting my men, terrorizing my midshipmen, and plotting to execute his own crew without trial. But instead of being out there protecting this ship, I have been foundering in here.” His voice had steadily risen in volume, and he grabbed the back of the chair for support as he spoke. “If I were playing the hero, none of this would have even happened. But I cannot… I am not--” he could speak no more and turned quickly to face the window of the cabin. He would be damned if he let Anthony see the tears rolling down his cheeks. How many times was he going to humiliate himself in front of others?

Bracegirdle opened his mouth in rebuttal, but closed it again, uncertain of the right words in the wake of Pellew’s silent tears. What could be said? Pellew was taking this far too hard. Every man had his limit, and Pellew had been forced beyond his many times in the last few days by Foster, and certainly not out of a misplaced sense of martyrdom. His first priority since the Dreadnought had arrived onboard had been for the welfare of the ship and the crew. He hadn’t been playing the hero at all. Heroes, like Foster fancied himself to be, swooped in for glory and renown. A man of integrity, of morality, of character, like Pellew, stayed the course even when chances for valor had passed. He knew his duty; and he saw it through, whatever the personal cost. Bracegirdle regretted his hasty words, which he had not intended Edward to take in such a fashion.

“I never meant to imply--”

“Enough!” snapped the captain. He had somehow managed to button his waistcoat and don his jacket, and was walking, with a slight but discernible limp to the door. Why was he limping? What the blazes had happened during the night?

“Edward, wait! Why are you limping? Edward! Sir!” called Bracegirdle to his friend’s retreating form. “Hell and damnation!” he muttered to himself.

 

*~*~*

 

“Mr. Eccleston, clap that man in irons,” shouted Captain Foster, as he pointed at Matthews.

“Matthews, Sir?” questioned Mr. Eccleston. “On what charge, Sir?”

Foster whirled around, his face ferocious. “It is not your place to question your Captain, Lieutenant. Pellew might allow for such laxity, but I do not. I said clap him in irons.” Mr. Eccleston looked as though he’d been slapped. True, it was not his place to question the Dreadnought. It was just that, well, Matthews was a model seaman; a man with over twenty years experience. To that point, Matthews himself looked dumbfounded at the order, as did Styles and Finch.

“Belay that order, Mr. Eccleston! Matthews, as you were.” Eccleston turned a relieved look towards Captain Pellew.

Foster looked startled at the sight of his adversary, which gave Pellew a small measure of satisfaction. “I would have expected a brother captain to have the courtesy--the common decency--to respect the orders of a fellow officer on his ship.” 

“We might hold the same rank, Foster,” Pellew deliberately omitted the man’s title, “but aboard this ship, I am the sole arbiter of punishment, not you. I will thank you, sir, to pass along your concerns to Mr. Eccleston or Mr. Bowles. They will bring anything of merit to me.”

“The Admiralty charged you with transporting me to the Erebus; they did not grant you jurisdiction over me,” returned a red-faced Foster.

Pellew could feel his head pounding from the verbal exertion, and the sweat running down his face. He felt himself swaying on his feet. “They did not have to, Captain, as you well know because Indefatigable is my ship. The right of jurisdiction is mine.”

“Not if you’re too ill to make those decisions, my boy.” It was a malicious and crafty ploy, fumed Bracegirdle. Pellew had just braced himself against the quarterdeck railing. Hornblower had swiftly moved to his side and was quietly inquiring whether he needed assistance back to his cabin.

Eccleston looked questioningly at Bracegirdle who had just appeared at his elbow. Was the captain ill? Bracegirdle gave him a hard look. Eccleston returned his attention to the two sparring captains. Foster had some damned cheek, thought Eccleston. First, to order Matthews below (he was certain the man had done nothing), and then to give such impertinent disrespect to Captain Pellew! How could Pellew tolerate it? And publicly, too.

Straightening, Pellew faced Foster, fury practically radiating off him. “I am of sound mind and body, Captain Foster. To suggest otherwise would smack of mutiny.”

There was a deafening silence on deck. The two captains stared each other down. Eccleston suppressed a smirk - feast on that, you Scotch bastard, he thought.

After a long moment, Foster spoke. “I have my own damned mutiny to deal with. I’ve no time for petty insubordinations of common sailors. Run your damn ship as you please, Edward, but don’t blame me when your softness sours them, my boy.”

As he moved to leave the quarterdeck, Pellew called out in a loud and piercing voice, “Captain Foster, sir.” The Dreadnought turned. “I do not know what laxity you allow on your ship," he paused, "but on this ship, you will not address me so informally.” He could see Foster’s eyes narrow, and knew he had scored a blow. This man could expose his shame with a few words, he knew, but he would swim to Hell before he would be shamed by him front of his own crew.

Eccleston did not bother to school his triumphant expression as Foster went below deck.

 

*~*~*

 

“What was all that about, d’ya reckon?” asked Styles quietly when Foster had gone.

“No bloody idea,” returned Matthews puzzled. “But I’d wager them two had it out earlier. Did’ya see the Captain’s face?”

“And he was limping,” added Finch.

“I’d hate to think of that bastard Foster getting the best of him.” Styles shook his head.

“If he did, it’d only be through cheatin’,” responded Matthews.

“How’s that?”

“Just look at the man, Styles! He’s full of piss and vinegar. Dreadnought,” he scoffed, “he’s not got that reputation from being diplomatic, if you know what I mean.”

“You think he did one over on the Captain?” questioned Oldroyd.

“I’ve seen the Captain fight. Fierce, he is, and strong. And lucky as the Devil. If the Dreadnought whipped him in a fight, it’ll be because he’s a backstabbin’ snake. He never got nothing fairly, that man.”

The men were quiet, pondering Matthews’ words.

“Tell you what,” said Styles after a while, “I’d sure as Hell not want to serve under him. No matter the glory.”

“I’m with you there,” agreed Oldroyd.

“Aye,” said Matthews. “You can’t serve under a man you can’t respect.”

Chapter Text

 


 

“Mr. Bracegirdle.”

“Sir.” Bracegirdle approached the quarterdeck. The captain’s eyes, he noticed, were unfocused, and he squinted in the sunlight.

“Anthony, I need to go below,” the words were almost a whisper.

“Of course, sir.” He was relieved.

Pellew’s eyes met his, ashamed. “I am not certain I can negotiate the stairs.”

Bracegirdle responded in quiet sincerity, “I’ll walk directly in front. If you need to lean on me, no one will see.”

“Thank you,” he whispered gratefully. “Mr. Eccleston, the deck is yours.” Turning to his promising new midshipman he indicated for Hornblower to come closer.

“Yes, Captain Pellew?”

In a low voice he advised, “Mr. Hornblower, one of the roles of a commanding officer is to keep watch over one’s men. Sometimes, an officer must be wary of an enemy, sometimes guns, sometimes insubordination - and sometimes he must beware the misguided orders of other officers.” He gave Hornblower a knowing look. “They are your men, Mr. Hornblower. Their lives are in your hands. As is yours in theirs, if you win their loyalty. Never be afraid to oppose unjust claims against them.”

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.” The words were tumbling out in a rush. “I meant to speak up in Matthews’ defense, but I thought there might be a better time to bring it up with Captain Foster, without it being in front of the crew.” He blushed. Why was he making excuses to his captain?

“The time is always right to do what is right, Mr. Hornblower.” It was something his father* had always said, and Pellew had tried to live by it.

“Yes, sir,” Hornblower saluted, his chest swelling in admiration at the simple integrity of such words.

The journey to the Great Cabin seemed eternal to Pellew. His eyesight was blurry, and his head pounded with such stabbing pains that it took effort not to hold his hands to his temples. He felt nauseous from the pain, and could think of little else but lying down. By the time he and Bracegirdle neared his cabin, Pellew was panting and moaning in discomfort. Quickly scanning the narrow passageway, Bracegirdle wrapped an arm under Pellew’s shoulder and propped him against his side. “Almost there,” he reassured him. Pellew leaned against the lieutenant and grunted in reply.

Bracegirdle kicked the door of the cabin closed behind him, and deposited the captain rather heavily into a waiting chair. He was surprised when Edward let out a sob of pain and leaned forward as if to raise himself off the chair. Bracegirdle pushed him back gently, “I need to look at your forehead.”

Shaking his head, Edward pushed against him. “Can’t sit,” he panted.

Truly, captains make the worst patients, thought Bracegirdle.  “It’s only for a moment, Edward, then you can lie down. The light is better here.” He pushed his friend back into the chair.

Pellew grabbed his forearm tightly. “Anthony. I. Cannot. Sit. Please, help me to the bed,” he implored. Bracegirdle’s eye went wide. As he processed his friend’s meaning, Pellew had begun to rise, and together they slowly made their way to the wooden cot, where Pellew eased himself down on his side.

“Let me call Dr. Low.” Pellew shook his head. “You need a doctor. You’re concussed.”

“Basin,” Pellew called out weakly, his face sickly white and yellow. Bracegirdle barely got back to him in time before Pellew vomited over the side of the bed. The liquid was mostly clear, the captain having eaten almost nothing in the last several hours. His skin was ghostly pale and clammy to the touch. Crouching beside him, Bracegirdle placed his cool hands on the older man’s forehead, taking note of how sweaty Pellew’s shirt was. He retched again, bringing up only water and bile. Moaning in pain, he clutched at his stomach in a desperate attempt to keep it settled. Three more times he retched, until there was nothing left for the stomach to expel. His breath was rapid and slightly panicked.

“Just breathe deeply, fully.” Bracegirdle wetted a cloth and gently cleaned the captain’s face, wiping away the sweat and vomit.

“Anthony… door… the crew… Foster.” Pellew was still catching his breath from his bout of sickness.

“Shh. Just rest now. The door is barred, the crew is under Eccleston’s command, and Foster’s not here. Rest easy, Edward. I’ll not leave ‘till your better.”

 

*~*~*

 

The wind had picked up considerably and Soames had just called out ten knots. Mr. Eccleston secured his hat more tightly on his head, a smile on his face. “Ten knots, sir!” he called to Captain Foster as they stood on the quarterdeck.

“Oh, I think we can get the old girl to do a bit more than that! Don’t you agree, Mr. Eccleston? I’ve run the Dreadnought out at fourteen knots!” he boasted in high, good-humor.

Eccleston’s smile faltered. Did Foster want to push the Indy to fourteen knots? She’d rip the top-gallants, assuming that they could even get men to the royal yard in their wind. “Captain Pellew has never pushed her more than eleven, sir.”

Foster chuckled, “That, Mr. Eccleston, is because Captain Pellew is too cautious. Mr. Soames!” he called to the sailing master.

“Aye, sir?”

“Let’s get her to fourteen knots, shall we? Send three men up to let out the main yard.”

Soames hesitated. “In this wind, sir? Three men won’t be able to hold the sail.”

“Nonsense, Mr. Soames! Just because they haven’t done it before doesn’t mean it can’t be done!” Soames looked at Eccleston. “Are you being deliberately insubordinate to your superior officer, sir?” demanded Foster in a low, dangerous tone. “I am commanding officer on this quarterdeck.”

Eccleston gave an almost imperceptible nod to Soames, who touched his hat. “No, sir. Sorry, sir.” He turned and shouted the order. Eccleston pursed his lips. This was folly, he thought. Captain Pellew would not have allowed such recklessness.

“Mr. Bolton,” he said quietly to the officer at his side. “My compliments to Captain Pellew and ask him to attend me on the quarterdeck.”

“Sir,” acknowledged Bolted and hurried away.

The three men sent aloft were struggling in the wind to hold onto the ratlines as they made their ascent to the main yard. Eccleston watched with mounting concern as one man’s foot slipped, and he hung, suspended for a moment, by his powerful arms. He turned to Foster, “Sir, the conditions are not advantageous for such a venture of speed.” He tried to make his plea as diplomatic as possible in hopes of changing Foster’s mind.

“I can see, Mr. Eccleston, that you have been too long with Captain Pellew, and have adopted his unnecessary caution. Surely you would not wish to take away this opportunity from your men to impress you, sir?”

Eccleston bristled. “I do not need to be impressed, sir. I need them fit and able to carry out orders--” he stopped abruptly as the second man, who had reached out to help his shipmate back to the ratline, and was being blown about in the wind like flying jib.

“Men need to be ready to carry out any order, whenever it is given, in whatever conditions they are under,” returned Foster without concern.

“Sir! I must protest!” cried out Eccleston in consternation.

“No, sir, you must not!” Foster turned a furious look on him, and in a single bound was within an inch of his face. “All you must do is obey! I am senior officer on this quarterdeck, and have vastly more experience than do you. Or do you add pride to insubordination?”

What could he do, thought Eccleston? Afterall, Foster was a captain. Where was Pellew? Why was he not here?

“Do I have your obedience, sir?”

Burning in fury and shame, Eccleston intoned a quiet, “Yes, Captain Foster.”

“Now there’s a smart lad,” returned Foster, clapping him on the shoulder. “You there!” he shouted at the struggling seamen. “Stop dawdling and get the hell up that line. We want to harness the wind, not submit to it!”

“Sir.” Eccleston turned to Bolton. His face was grim. “I just spoke with Mr. Bracegirdle. The captain is concussed.”

Before Eccleston could let out a curse, he heard a cry and saw a man plummet from the main topgallant. It was the man who had tried to help his friend back to the line. His body hurtled into the sea as Mr. Soames called out, “Man overboard!”

They all rushed to the side, scanning the water. “Crates and barrels overboard, Mr. Soames,” called Mr. Eccleston.

“Be so good as to not hit me with one when you’re chucking them over, man!” Foster had stripped off his hat, coat, and shoes, and was hurriedly unbuttoning his waistcoat.

“Captain Foster!” protested Hornblower.

“Out of my way,” he growled as he dove into the choppy sea.

“Dear God, help us now,” agonized Eccleston. This would be a fine entry in the log, he reflected bitterly. All hands scrutinized the water for the two men. A cry went up - there they were! Foster pulling a nearly unconscious Hales toward the ship. “Swim toward the line!”

When Foster had a firm grip, the men aboard pulled for all their worth. Hales tumbled, senseless, to the deck and Foster sprang over the side toward him. “Quick,” called Foster to the nearest midshipman he saw. “Turn him on his side.”

As Hornblower did as he was bidden, Foster pushed on Hales’ stomach. Nothing happened. “Come on, man,” Foster shouted at the unconscious seaman. He pushed again. Nothing. “Lay him flat. Lay him flat!” This time, Foster put a knee into the man’s stomach and leaned in with all his weight. “Goddamn you, man. Get that water out of your belly!” he ordered. As if following the order, Hales coughed up a tremendous amount of water, retched, and took a gasping breath. A cheer went up from the crew. Foster smiled and reached a hand for the man. “Good, lad! Someone get this man some rum!”

He stood up and squeezed water out of his shirt. Hornblower, face shining, said, “Captain Foster! That was extraordinary, if I may say so, sir!”

Foster chuckled. “You may, Mr. Hornblower. You may!”

Eccleston, Bolton, and Bowles gazed at each other; silent and grim.

 

*~*~*

 

“My God, Mr. Bowles!” exclaimed Hornblower enthusiastically, “that was impressive! I’d be surprised if Captain Foster weren’t commended by the Admiralty for such a feat. He is a true hero!”

“He usually is when there’s something to be gained by it,” returned Bowles darkly.

“I take it from your tone that you were not impressed by his valor?”

“Valor? When he put the men in danger in the first place? No, Mr. Hornblower, that is not my idea of heroism. That is simply taking responsibility for poor decisions.”

“Really, Mr. Bowles! I’m shocked at you.” Hornblower was astounded.  “I suppose then that you’ve seen greater heroism than that?”

Bowles put down the hat he’d been cleaning and looked straight at the young midshipman. “As it happens, Mr. Hornblower, I have.”

“Come then, man, tell us,” said Hornblower with a touch of youthful impudence.

The lieutenant stared at the midshipman for a moment. “I was a midshipman, like yourself, Mr. Hornblower, and was on shore leave in Plymouth for a few weeks while my ship was resupplying. It was a bitterly cold January day, freezing ice and wind. It soaked through your coat and left you miserably cold for hours. The winds had started to kick up as the Dutton was coming into port. An East Indiaman she was, Mr. Hornblower. Carrying over 400 of our troops and their wives and children. Well, the storm was so ferocious that she ran aground near the port. The wind and waves were so fierce that no boats could get out to them rescue them. All these helpless people about to drown within a half mile of shore. Terrible business, terrible.”

Hornblower was captivated by the narrative, as were the other officers. “I was standing at the harbor, listening to the officers shout and argue and debate about what could be done. It was concluded, eventually, that nothing could be safely done, and even if it could, there was no time. Well, that wasn’t good enough for this one man. He shouted louder than the rest that he was not going to stand by and watch children drown. Time be damned, he said. There was always time to do what was right. So he tethered a line ‘round his stomach, grabbed another, and dove into the water. Mind you, it was January, and the water was nigh on freezing. He swam to the Dutton . Swam, Mr. Hornblower, in the middle of a storm in January! When he got to the ship--the man was an excellent swimmer--he rigged a lifeline. That lifeline saved all but nine people onboard. All but nine! When they finally pulled him from the water, they thought he was like to die from the cold and exhaustion. But by the grace of the Almighty, he didn’t.” Bowles took a sip of his rum. “You see, Mr. Hornblower, heroism is doing the right thing even when the timing or the circumstances or even your life is against it. Doing what is right and not looking for praise or renown -- that is valor. That man risked his life for 400 souls that he did not know. Had he done nothing, Mr. Hornblower, no one would have thought the worst of him for it. But he followed his conscience. That, Mr. Hornblower, is a hero.”

The men were all silent for a few moments absorbing the story. “Who was the man, Mr. Bowles?” asked Hornblower finally.

Mr. Bowles looked him in the eye. “Captain Pellew.”

Hornblower felt a blush of shame rising to his cheeks. The time is always right to do what is right. “I did not know that story, sir. Thank you for telling me.”

“It’s how he got his title,” put in Bolton. “He was made a baronet the next year for valor.”

“We serve under a true hero,” added Mr. Eccleston from the door.

“Men like Foster, Horatio, are ambitious and out for glory. Some of that glory might rub off on you, it’s true, but more than likely, you’ll wind up with muddy boot prints on the backside of your coat after they’ve climbed over you to get their prize.”

“Men like that do not serve the King, or the country, or their men. They serve themselves.” Eccleston looked at Hornblower, “be grateful that you serve a man who knows that his duty is to serve others. A man of quality and integrity.”

After a moment Hornblower spoke. “I am grateful, sir. I am.” At Bowles’ raised eyebrows he added, “I may have forgotten it for a moment, but I am fortunate to have comrades to remind me.” Mr. Bowles nodded, satisfied with the response.

Mr. Bolton raised his mug, “To Captain Pellew - a true hero.”

“Captain Pellew,” intoned the others in unison, clinking their mugs.

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

 

 


 

Captain Pellew woke the following morning to a persistent, but manageable, pounding above his eyes. His mouth had a sour taste—vomit. The room did not have the same unpleasant odor, however. He could feel a breeze which meant the window slats were open. Had he opened them in the night? Cautiously, he opened his eyes, wary of the sunlight that would assault his temples with pain.  He was surprised to find that not only were the curtains drawn, but Anthony was seated beside his cot. He held a book in his hands, though he was gazing at the windows in consternation.

“You’re awake! How do you feel?” Bracegirdle placed his cool hand on Pellew’s brow, noting the slight haze of pain that still clouded the man’s eyes. Pellew touched his head and felt a hard lump over his left eye. “It’s starting to bruise up a bit,” Bracegirdle told him.

“What time is it?” Pellew cleared his throat. “How long have you been here?”

Bracegirdle stood and poured a glass of wine. “Just gone 6 bells of the morning watch.” Pellew inclined his head in thanks as he took the wine, swishing it around his mouth. “I’ve been here with you since we came down from the quarterdeck.”

“Which was…?” Pellew couldn’t remember.

“Yesterday morning.”

Pellew’s head snapped up at that. “I’ve been here a full day? Good God, Anthony. You should have woken me.” He made a move to get up, but winced as he shifted his weight to a seated position.

“It wasn’t a matter of sleeping, Edward. You took a blow to the head. You’ve been ill and in and out of consciousness.” Bracegirdle had not missed the wince. He took a breath--steeling himself.

“Foster?”

“Eccleston is on the quarterdeck.”

Pellew did not look relieved. “That is his post, Anthony. But where is Foster? Who is in command?”

“Mr. Eccleston is in command, sir. Albeit, tenuously, but in command,” he added truthfully.

“Well that is something at least,” murmured Pellew. “Where’s my coat? I want to keep a watch on that bastard. The sooner we find the Erebus the better.” Bracegirdle didn’t move. Pellew looked at him expectantly.

“What happened between you and Foster?”

Pellew looked down at his hands. “Anthony,” he began.

Bracegirdle knew he meant to evade the question. He had expected it. He was prepared. “Did he attack you?” Pellew was quiet. “Like he did on the Esther ?” Pellew dropped his head even farther toward his chest, pursed his lips, and squeezed his lips shut. So that was what happened, thought Bracegirdle. He bent forward and laid his hand on Pellew’s shoulder. “Please, Edward. Tell me.” When Pellew remained silent, Bracegirdle pushed on, taking a more...unpleasant approach. “His assault on you is the reason you are limping; why you cannot sit.” It was not a question. He saw his friend’s cheeks begin to flush. His breaths were coming in shorter gasps. Bracegirdle almost relented at Pellew’s obvious distress, but thought better of it. Keeping all this hushed up from the beginning was the leading cause of distress now. He took a breath, knowing that with a bit more pushing, Edward would break his silence. “He forced himself on you.” Pellew’s breath hitched. “Like he did on the Esther.

“Anthony,” pleaded Pellew in a harsh whisper. He ran a hand over his sweaty face.

“You are not to blame for actions forced upon you, Edward.”

Pellew looked up at that, his eyes glistening and dark, his expression somewhere between misery and loathing. “I do not wish to speak of it.”

“You must,” Bracegirdle pressed.

“Why must I?” raged Pellew. “You already know my shame! You desire me to compound it by discussing the details? Enumerating my humiliations? Parading my cowardice?” His voice was shaking. Feelings of rage, shame, and mortification crashed through his chest like waves on a rock, hard and unrelenting. He had an uncontrollable urge to escape from the confines of this conversation, of his dishonor. Breathing heavily in his distress, he made to rise from his cot only to be halted by the lieutenant. “Mr. Bracegirdle, I order you to stand aside!” The command came out as a breathy cry.

“No, Edward. You must tell me what happened.” Bracegirdle could see Pellew rapidly losing the last vestiges of control over his overwrought emotions. He felt the captain sag a little as the exertion drained him of energy.

“Just leave me be!” Pellew would not meet his gaze as tears coursed down his yellowing bruise.

“I am not leaving until I have the whole story.” Pellew opened his mouth to protest and Bracegirdle interrupted, “I will not be ordered out of your cabin. I am not here as your lieutenant, but as your friend.” The older man sagged further at that remark. “Here, let’s get you down again. Another glass of wine.” He guided Pellew back down on the cot, and fussed with the pillow with all tenderness of a woman. He turned to pour another glass of madeira, giving Pellew a moment to dash away his tears with a fresh washcloth. When Bracegirdle turned back around, the captain was breathing rapidly and working hard to control his weeping. Casting about for something comforting to say, he settled on, “It’s all right. Cry if you like. Better out than in.” That last bit hadn’t really fit the bill, he reflected, but male emotion was always precarious territory. And surprisingly, he reflected further, the weeping did not bother him. After all, he had spent the last eighteen years at sea. He had seen men in all states. They were not made of stone.

After a long while, Pellew said quietly, “Thank you for your care, and friendship, and loyalty, Anthony. I am truly moved by it.” He paused, “I understand, however, if you wish to sever our connection in light of recent events. I will, of course, recommend you to any vessel you wish to serve on.”

To say he was astonished was an understatement. Bracegirdle opened his lips to reply, but could find no words to speak. His mouth moved up and down in silence like a gasping fish on a line. He saw Pellew’s shoulders slump even further at his prolonged silence, and felt his heart clench. “What utter rot,” he managed. “I’ve known you for eighteen years. I am hardly about to cast off the truest friend I have because of circumstances outside his control.”

Edward looked up, eyes raised in tenuous hope. “You do not have to--”

“‘Ut simul stare',” Bracegirdle interrupted. “Remember our pledge aboard the Alarm?” Pellew remembered. They had been in a very tight spot in the Mediterranean, both raw midshipmen, only two years at sea. “I did not make that pledge lightly.”

“Nor I,” replied Pellew sincerely. “But an end in battle is a far cry from dishonorable cowardice.”

“That is so. But you have never been a coward in your life. You are a man proven in battle, steady under fire, honorable in defeat, and fair in your treatment of men.”

“Where does ‘debased catamite’ fall under such lofty virtues?” snarled Pellew furiously and savagely.

The unexpected use of the word caught Bracegirdle off guard, but he recovered quickly. “You are not to blame for Foster’s actions! You were a boy, Edward! Barely seventeen.  And, as I remember it, Foster was a brute of a man who had us all under his thumb. My God, man, he must have been 15 stone to your 12, and yet, you were the only one to face him. David against Goliath.”

“Don’t make me out to be any damned Biblical hero, Anthony,” spat out Pellew, still enraged by his shame.

“I don’t have to, Edward. Your actions speak for themselves. The respect you command from the men that follow you,” he continued, raising his voice above Pellew’s rebuttal, “speaks for itself.”

Edward sighed and rubbed a hand across his red-rimmed eyes. “Maybe so,” he conceded with an effort. “I was at least granted a chance to redeem my honor through the service. Undo some of the… spoiling.” He choked on the word, but continued. “But what of me now? How can I hold my head up amongst men knowing that I allowed it to happen again? How can I keep my crew safe from Foster’s clutches, when I could not even do so myself? How could any of them retain any loyalty for me after such a display of weakness?” He lowered his voice to a harsh whisper, intended, Bracegirdle thought, more for himself than Bracegirdle. “How can I return to my wife’s bed like this? What kind of man am I?” As he whispered these last words, a fresh volley of tears coursed down his face. He did not bother to wipe them away. What did it matter now? His shame was in the open.

“You are the kind of man who jumps into icy water to save men and women that you do not know. You are the kind of man who judges men by what you see, rather than what you hear from others. You are the kind of man who mentors and inspires the officers under him, not bully them. You are the kind of man who stays on the quarterdeck through all the watches until a storm has passed. You are the kind of man who never assigns a job on his ship that you yourself are not willing to undertake.  You are the kind of man whose wife, after years of marriage and six children, still runs to meet you when you pull into port.” He paused and continued gently and quietly, “As ye do unto others, so it is done unto you’.” Pellew closed his eyes and dropped his head at the paraphrase of the familiar passage. “You are a man much respected, admired, and loved. What has happened to you has not lowered you in my estimation, nor in anyone else’s if they knew of it. Rather, it has made you all the more worth admiring and following.”

Pellew was quiet for a while, absorbing Bracegirdle’s words. He wanted to believe them. But how could anyone admire him after what Foster had done?  “What if I don’t have the courage to face him?” He paused again. “What if I fail the men? You likened me to David. Maybe it’s an apt comparison. A boy throwing pebbles at a man of unquantifiable cunning and power and strength, utterly unaware of Goliath’s strength. What a fool.” 

“He was no fool, Edward. David didn’t need to know Goliath’s strength. He knew God’s. He knew God would grant him the strength to win.”

Pellew was quiet for a moment. “I’m not sure the Almighty would bestow that favor on one such as I.”

“He granted you the courage to fight back,” rebutted Bracegirdle. “I saw Foster’s hand. It was bandaged and bleeding.”

Pellew had closed his eyes. He was tiring quickly from the emotional exertion of the conversation. “I fear I will not have the strength to overcome him,” whispered Edward at last.

“Dread not the strength of Goliath, Edward. The strength to fight him is already within you.”

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

 


 

“Captain Pellew, sir! A very good morning to you, sir! Wonderful to have you again on the quarterdeck, sir! It does us all good to see you, sir!” Eccleston grinned widely and gave Pellew a crisp and hearty salute. “I trust you are recovered, sir?”

Pellew gazed at his first lieutenant in amusement, a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “Good morning, Mr. Eccleston. I am mostly back to working order, as you see. But I reckon, if enthusiasm could cure, I’d be fit as a fiddle.”

Eccleston flushed and began to apologize. Pellew waved the half-formed apology away. “What news of the Erebus ?”

“We ran across the Julia yesterday. Captain Randolph had passed Erebus two weeks since and gave us her general bearing.” Eccleston paused. He looked around and lowered his voice. Pellew leaned in closer. “He said the crew had been hard pressed waiting for the supply ship. That ship, of course, was the schooner Foster sunk.” Pellew’s brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed. “The crew did not take the news well.”

“I’ll wager they did not,” muttered Pellew sympathetically. “What else?”

“Well, sir,” Eccleston looked discomforted. “Apparently, Captain Rivers invited Captain Randolph to dine with his officers. The meal was, by Captain Randolph’s account, lavish. Wines, ports, cheeses, candied walnuts, preserves.”

Pellew shook his head, guessing where this was heading. “The damned fool.”

“Randolph counseled him to cut his rations, or at least be seen be taking part in the hardship the crew was facing.  But Rivera told him, ‘a captain’s table must always be above reproach.’ He even offered a large round of Spanish cheese, with his compliments, to Randolph as a parting gift.”

Pellew’s eyes went wide. He could only imagine Randolph’s reaction to such a slight. “Let us hope, Mr. Eccleston, that Captain Rivers reconsidered Randolph’s advice.”

“Indeed, sir,” agreed Eccleston. “Any sensible commander would.” They held each other’s gaze for a moment, knowing that sense was not one of Captain Rivers’ finest qualities. To be seen eating and drinking in excess in front of a starving crew--Pellew clenched his jaw at the thought.

“Damned fool,” he said again. Letting out a frustrated sigh he directed the lieutenant to his cabin. “Let’s take a look at that bearing and see if we can determine the likely destination of our hungry friends.” Eccleston saluted and made his way towards the Great Cabin. “Mr. Bracegirdle, a word if you please.”

Stepping forward, Anthony surveyed his captain. The bruise on his face was a sickly yellow, but would be gone altogether in a few days. His pupils were almost back to typical size, though Anthony noticed him squinting in the sunlight and tilting his hat to shield the brightness. He would be fully recovered by the week’s end, he predicted. Physically, that is. Though Edward had said no more about Foster’s attack, the memories of it lingered in his concussed dreams and his shattered sense of confidence. Bracegirdle had done what he could to assuage his anxiety and convince him of his worth, but little seemed to penetrate. Hoping his friend would find solace in scripture, Bracegirdle had even begun reading aloud from the bible Samuel Pellew had given his son. That is, until Edward asked him to read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Anthony had torn the pages out. They had both been a bit shaken by his action - looking at the other’s dumbfounded expression, not entirely comfortable with the blasphemy. He had not read from the Bible since. Just as well, thought Bracegirdle ruefully. He didn’t want any more black marks on his soul if he was forced to rip out more pages of the Good Book by Edward’s infuriating guilt.

“Eccleston and I are going below to chart Erebus’ potential locations. Find Foster and bring him to the cabin. I want that bastard under my nose where I can watch him. I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him.”

“Aye, sir.” Bracegirdle went off in search of the Dreadnought.

Pellew rubbed the bridge of his nose. It would be the first time he and Foster had been together since the incident. In his cabin, no less. But it could not be helped. He had a duty and he would see it through. Besides, he had been carrying on long enough; worse than a woman, in truth, what with the weeping and shaking. He had been weak in the past, God knew, but he would not be weak again. “Your own strength is already within you,” he whispered to himself. He looked out across his ship, at the men in the topsails, the bosun, the two midshipmen on watch, Kennedy and Hornblower. Good men. And under his protection. He wasn’t sure if what strength he had was equal to the fight, but by God, he would fight all the same.

*~*~*

 

“I tend to think Agadir more likely than Casablanca owing to the shoals.”

“Rivers is a skilled navigator. He might risk it.”

“He might, but his crew may not be in the best condition to work the sails to combat those tradewinds,” mused Pellew. “Anthony? What’s your thought?”

Bracegirdle gazed at the two possible locations of the Erebus on the map. “I would agree with you, sir that Agadir is more easily navigated, but if he is having trouble with the crew, he might seek the authority of the port.”

“Or the bastards are trying to evade any such authority!” Foster’s voice boomed from the doorway.

Pellew looked up and felt his stomach tighten. This meeting would not be like the last, he vowed. He would not make a spectacle of himself in front of his officers and Anthony. “You may well be right, Captain” he acknowledged.

Foster was either appeased by his acquiescence, or he was too fired up about the prospect of action to make any jibes at Pellew. “The first lieutenant on the Erebus is a damn Spaniard. Rojas. Of course, he claims to be loyal to us, but you know these dagos, as yellow as their uniforms. He might even try for Puerto del Rosario.”

“Is he charismatic enough to sway the rest of the crew, sir?” asked Eccleston.

“Charisma? Hah! Show me a dago with charisma and I’ll show you a frog with courage. But your point is well taken.”

“Then we are all agreed that Agadir is the likely hideout?” Pellew looked around the table. All nodded their ascent.

Foster thumped his fist on the table, causing the compass to jump. “We’ll flush the bastards out!” At the noise and the rough motion of Foster’s hands, Pellew felt his own hands begin to tremble. He quickly clasped them behind his back. Get a hold of yourself, Pellew, he thought viciously.

“Lieutenant Eccleston has some information concerning your crew, Captain Foster. Lieutenant?” Pellew nodded at the blond man, who related the intelligence from Captain Randolph of the Julia. By the time he had finished, Foster was chuckling darkly.

“So the treacherous dogs wave their fingers at their betters, do they? Well, I can hardly say I’m surprised." He spoke with a profound tone of insouciance as he crossed the room, deliberately brushing Pellew’s shoulder on his way, and helped himself to a generous measure of Pellew's personal Madeira.

Bracegirdle drew in a breath and shifted his weight to prevent his body’s desire to paste his knuckles into Foster’s head. Of course Foster would have seen such an act from Rivers’ perspective and not from the crew’s. Though Edward had been holding himself together well, despite his trembling hands, which Anthony doubted anyone but himself had noticed, he could tell from his friend's clenched jaw that he was trying to rein in his fury.

“They are hardly waving their fingers, Foster. They are hungry. Men resort to dangerous steps when they are starving.”

“What a lot of histrionic nonsense! Starving? Bah!”

“They were already on their last round of supplies before the supply ship was destroyed,” put in Bracegirdle.

“That was three weeks since, Captain Foster,” added Eccleston.

“So now I suppose because a few men are whinging about hunger, you think I should have let the dagos have our supplies? I’ll remind you that there was no way that pitiful schooner could have outrun that frigate.”

“Yes, but had you tried for a diplomatic solution they may not have been so quick to fire upon our other suppliers,” hissed Pellew.

“Diplomacy!” scoffed Foster, sputtering wine. “Diplomacy is the resource of weak men who lack the will to fight.”

“Diplomacy is sometimes the only weapon that keeps our pitiful heads on our scrawny necks, man!”

“Well I am no diplomat, sir! Besides, those men aboard my ship, they should know by now that serving in His Majesty’s Navy requires sacrifices. A pity that Captain Rivers could not expect them to honor that sacrifice with integrity. What do they do instead? Turn to mutiny and treachery.” He took a large swallow of wine and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"That is pure conjecture, Captain Foster," protested Mr. Eccleston. 

“Leaving aside the issue of captains leading by example in situations requiring sacrifice,” spat Pellew, “no sacrifice would have been necessary had they received their regular allotment of supplies.”

Foster’s eyes blazed. “Then they damn well should have planned for such instances. Men cannot expect to always be in meat.”

“Planned? Planned!" Edward was shouting now. "They were planning! All of us plan, man! What we do not plan for, however, is the reckless bravado of men who choose to serve their own ego rather than their King and comrades through the execution of their duty." 

Foster took two long strides and stood nose to nose with Pellew. Edward could feel the heat from the other man's body against his body. The proximity made his stomach roil and his breath quicken. Bracegirdle instinctively put his hand to his sword. “Are you suggesting, sir, that I am to blame for the Erebus’ misfortunes?” Foster's tone was low and menacing. 

Pellew was shaking. Whether from fury or tension, Bracegirdle did not know. Without flinching at the proximity of his adversary, he stated in a loud ringing tone, “I make no such suggestion.” Foster’s snarl began to fall away. “I state it as undeniable cause and effect.”

Foster was momentarily struck dumb in astonishment. Recovering, he bellowed, “I WILL HAVE SATISFACTION, SIR! I DEMAND REDRESS IN A DUEL AT 6 BELLS!”

The tension was palpable in the silence that followed. Eccleston and Bracegirdle both had their hands on their swords, ready to defend Pellew if Foster lost his head. Pellew was white, his bruise casting a sickening glow to the right side of his face.

“I will not fight you on this ship.”

“Coward! Poltroon! I’ll kill you with my bare hands” Foster was in a paroxysm of rage, hot drops of wine flying out of his mouth. He moved for his dagger, but Eccleston grabbed his arms and held back, as Bracegirdle held his sword at his chest.

“Reach for that dagger again, Captain Foster, and I will run you through,” said the lieutenant.

“I did not say I would not fight,” intoned Pellew quietly, seemingly unperturbed by the drastic turn of events. “Only that I would not fight you on this ship. When we reach the Erebus, and have worked out a satisfactory conclusion to our orders, I will meet you on the shore.”

“I refuse to wait for that. I demand immediate satisfaction!”

“You will wait until our orders are carried out. Our duty ranks higher than our honor, Captain.” The two captains held each other's gaze, neither blinking. With a nod at his lieutenants, Foster was released.

Anthony looked at his friend. Edward was pale and still held himself with care, mindful of his injuries, but he stood erect and dignified. He was neither blinking nor trembling. “Mr. Eccleston, show Captain Foster to his quarter.”

When they had left, Anthony turned to face the windows, mirroring Edward’s stance. “Out with it, Anthony. I can feel your cogs wearing from here.”

Bracegirdle sighed. “You have been opposed to duels for as long as I have known you. You do not allow your men to indulge in them. You even constrained young Hornblower from any further duels, though I dare say he was justified. Killing a man in cold blood to defend your honor has never been your way, Edward.”

Edward sighed, and crossed to the decanter. He poured a healthy measure and took a long sip. He remained quiet so long that Anthony gave up on an answer. “Last summer, I took Susan to see a Shakespeare production in Covent Garden. Have you read A Comedy of Errors, Anthony?”  

“Not since grammar school.”

Edward nodded. “Nor had I." He was silent again for a long while, sipping his wine. At length he spoke, declaiming the metric lines in a low, sonorous tone.    

“They can be meek that have no other cause.

A wretched soul, bruised with adversity

We bid be quiet when we hear it cry,

But were we burdened with like weight of pain,

As much or more we should ourselves complain.”

Anthony was silent a few moments, absorbing the language. “I wish to be meek no longer, Anthony. If I do not face him now, I never will. I cannot endure this purgatory--this fearful existence. ‘They can be meek that have no other cause.’ I have cause. And either I will rise, or I will fall.”

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

 


 

“Did you think you could beat me?” Foster’s voice was taunting, his smile wicked. “From the time we were sixteen, I have beaten you at everything.” He circled Pellew, the sword tip never leaving his neck. “But you weren’t content to simply let your weakness remain a secret between you and me. No, not the great Captain Sir Edward Pellew. You have your honor to defend. Your...manhood.” He lingered on the enunciation of the nasal m consonant, drawing out the implied insult.

Foster turned his head and gazed at the assembled men on the beach. Bracegirdle, Eccleston, Bowles, and Dr. Low. Their faces were drawn, expressions defeated. He raised his voice so it would carry to the captain’s men. “Is this how you imagined it to end, Edward? On your knees with my sword in your throat?” He chuckled grotesquely for a long moment and with unnerving swiftness bent to Edward’s ear and whispered, “though this does seem to be your natural position around me, doesn’t it, my boy?”

Straightening, he moved to the front of Edward’s vision. “Good grief, Edward, you’re not weeping, are you? Carrying on worse than a woman. Perhaps it’s better this way,” he mused. “Your men can see you for what you really are. A man whose perception of himself outstrips the reality. A David without a sling. A weakling. A coward. A catamite.” Both captains heard the intake of breath from the men behind them. “What would your poor father think if he knew the truth?” continued Foster mercilessly.

Edward wept harder, his breath coming out in hiccuping gasps. He was glad his back was to Anthony. Loyal Anthony who had always tried to buoy him along and bolster his spirits. A man who had stood by him, humiliation after humiliation. Edward could not bear to see his friend’s face now.

“Enough of this, Captain,” said a sharp voice, taut with anxiety. “End it.” Eccleston.

“Your friends grow weary watching your humiliation, my boy.” With a quick flick of the blade, Edward heard a quiet thump. He cast his eyes to the left and saw his brown queue, free from his black ribbon, lying in the sand. Returning the blade to his throat, Foster leaned in. Edward hissed in pain as the blade broke the flesh. He felt his head yanked violently back as Foster grabbed the remaining hair from his crown and pulled upward. They were eye to eye. Foster was grinning like a malevolent cat.

With an exaggerated movement, he withdrew his blade. Edward looked at him in dumb confusion, blinking his eyes against his salty tears. Standing tall and upright, Foster addressed all the small contingent of men from the Indy. “This is a time of war, gentlemen. We need all the competent men we have. I make no secret of my disdain for this man, but to kill him would be to the detriment of the Navy’s time and resources. I have therefore decided to be clement.” With sweeping magnanimity he looked down at Edward and proclaimed, “Captain Sir Edward Pellew, I give you your life.” Without further words or actions, he dropped the sword in the sand next to Edward, and strode off down the beach toward the jolly boat.

Edward sank into the sand, shame, guilty, horror and loathing rising up like a hurricane. His tears were coming now in hot torrents down his face and he did not bother to quiet his sobs. He felt warm hand on his shoulder. Turning, he saw the lined face of Anthony. His brow was furrowed as if in pain and he was biting the corner of his lower lip. “Anthony,” Edward began. “I’m sorry. I...I...I didn’t…”

“Edward,” the lieutenant interrupted, “please, don’t.” Edward hung his head, unsure of what he was being rebuked for, but accepting it all the same. “You have to understand, Edward,” he continued in a halting and pained voice, “things can’t continue like this. For the good of the men, they can’t. You understand, don’t you?”

Did Anthony want him to resign his commission? Declare himself unfit for command? Perhaps that would be wise when they reached Portsmouth, but surely not here off the wretched coast of Africa.

“Please understand, I wish this wasn’t how it had to be. I wish Foster had done it. No doubt he thought this was a kindness,” he added to himself. “But it is no kindness to leave you in such humiliation. You would be ridiculed as a fool and a coward.” Edward wildly tried to think of something to say to dispel that, but of course, there was nothing to say. The man was right. “It has been an honor, Edward.”

Bracegirdle pushed the blade into the thin fabric of Edward’s linen shirt straight through to the heart. Edward let out a gasp of shock, pain, and betrayal. He looked up at his friend’s face in disbelief at his treachery only to find him already turning away to join Eccleston, Bowles, and Low as they made their way back to the ship. “Anthony,” he rasped. Barely a whisper. “Wait. T...tell my w...wife… Anthony!” The men did not turn around, and Edward felt his own death swirling over him. He suddenly found himself terrified and began clawing at the sand. He tried to scream, but there was no oxygen left in his lungs.

 

*~*~*

 

“The Kraken, sir.”

“The what, Mr. Hornblower?

Hornblower gritted his teeth. Of all the idiotic things he had reported to his senior officers thus far, this was by far the worst. “The men, sir. They believe that the spawn of the Kraken has attached itself to the rudder, and they will not remove it.”

Bracegirdle looked at him stupidly, as if he’d just reported in Spanish. After a moment he repeated, in a voice of steel, “They won’t remove the squid from the rudder because they believe it is the spawn of the Kraken.”

“That is the case, sir,” replied Hornblower stiffly, feeling his face flush with embarrassment. Bracegirdle’s face was equally red, but from suppressed mirth rather than mortification.

“Weren’t no bloody great squid that I ever seen,” whispered Hunter. “It must be ‘bout the size o’me kid brother.”

Hornblower turned his head to glare at the man. Just at that moment the bell sounded the change of the watch. Bracegirdle heaved an inward sigh. Let Bowles deal with this idiocy. “I suggest, Mr. Hornblower, that you disprove your men’s theory.”

“Disprove, sir?”

Really, the boy could be infuriatingly slow witted sometimes. Leaning in, Bracegirdle lowered his voice. No need to undermine boy’s authority. “Either you make them get it off the damn rudder, or you do so yourself, Horatio. Whichever way you choose, they will see the Kraken did not swallow the ship whole.” Hornblower rather wished it would at the moment. “Mr. Bowles is officer of the watch, report to him with any damage.” Hornblower saluted as Bracegirdle turned to go below deck.

“Oh and Mr. Hornblower,” he called back loudly. “Be sure to beat to quarters when the Kraken appears!” Hornblower’s face went scarlet. Bracegirdle hid a smirk. Ah, midshipmen, they did make life entertaining!

He conferred with Bowles before going below. “Any sightings of the Erebus?”

“No Erebus. Only the Kraken.”

A flash of irritation passed across Bowles’ face. “Another giant squid?”

“‘Fraid so.” Clapping his friend on the shoulder, he wished him a good day and went below.

He was passing the Great Cabin when Howell stopped him. “Beggin’ your pardon, Mr. Bracegirdle. But might you step inside the Cap’ain’s cabin for a moment? Terrible racket he’s making, sir.” Bracegirdle turned his head towards the Great Cabin and heard the shouts that the steward had alluded to.

“Yes, thank you, Howell. I’ll see to it.” Howell touched his forelock and departed.

Once the man had rounded the corner and was out of sight, Bracegirdle opened the door and stepped into Pellew’s cabin. The man had fallen asleep, fully clothed, on top of his cot. He was clearly in the throws of some gripping nightmare that had him gasping and waving his arms about. All this moving about could not be good for his bruised head, thought Bracegirdle. Moving to his friend’s side, he dodged the flailing arms as he gently tried to wake the man. Through the inarticulate sounds, he could make out the words, “Anthony, wait. Tell my wife. Anthony.” Could this poor man not be granted a moment’s peace even in sleep, he thought ruefully?

With a start, Pellew’s eyes flew open. He bolted upright in his cot, nearly colliding with Bracegirdle’s head. Confused, he gazed down at his chest. No wound. He wiped a hand tentatively over his face. No tears. Thank God. At least he was granted the small mercy of divesting all masculinity in the privacy of his dreams and not before Anthony again. Though still breathing erratically, Pellew was beginning to shake off the effects of the dream. “Alright?” The captain started, as if he’d forgotten Bracegirdle was there. Rising, Pellew poured a glass of wine for himself and the lieutenant.

“Bad dreams again?”

Pellew grunted and ran a hand over his clammy brow, gazing out at the vast expanse of water. The gray sky muted the usual sparkle of the bitter sea. It was all one endless palette of gray. White sails crushed beneath the pressing dullness. He had never been a man given to melancholy, but the bleakness of the world outside the porthole seemed to emulate the burgeoning sense of error in his mind. “I think I was wrong to agree to Foster’s duel.” Bracegirdle, at his side, said nothing. “What can be gained by such action? There can be no victor. We will both cause undue harm to those under our command.”

“No victor? You are, by far, the better swordsman, Edward. And the better shot, come to think of it.” Bracegirdle had been on several country holidays with his captain and had seen his athletic and hunting prowess firsthand.

“To what end, Anthony? I cannot slay a man in cold blood.”

“Your conduct in battle would suggest otherwise,” commented Bracegirdle drily.

“That is different. I am required by my duty to King and country to take the lives of the enemy in battle. There is no such provision for my own countryman who goads me with midshipmen antics and rivalry.”

“Antics and rivalry?” repeated Bracegirdle. “The man is a menace to the general welfare of any crew under his command, a foolhardy hothead, and a tyrant!”

“Be that as it may, it is not for me to decide what is to become of him. It is for the Admiralty to decide. You said it yourself, man. I have never condoned duels. How can I stand in front of my men with any pretense of integrity if I go back on my own word?”

Bracegirdle stole a glance at his captain whose bruised face was dotted in a thin sheen of perspiration. “How is your integrity in question when you are fighting a man who has tormented and assaulted you, and I’m sorry to say, probably others, as well?” Pellew closed his eyes and pursed his lips into a thin, white line.

“We have no proof of that,” he said quietly.

“And if we did?” persisted Bracegirdle.

“And if we did,” Pellew replied tiredly, “the circumstances would be different. But they are not.”

“Do you so lightly esteem your own life that you will not fight for it?” Bracegirdle had not intended to be so frank. He saw Pellew shake his head as if shaking away a bee.

“I cannot be both victim and arbiter, Anthony.”

“But Edward, this is your chance!” Bracegirdle’s voice was forceful. “You finally have a chance, with judicial approval, to repay the wrongs done to you!”

“I’ve had my chances!” Pellew’s voice was thick and rough. “I had my chance only a few days ago. And. I. Failed.” He punctuated each word carefully. “I cannot now use my own humiliation as justification for a duel. My conscience forbids it.”

“You do not need to justify anything!” shouted Anthony in vexation. “He challenged you! Honor demanded you accept!”

“Honor! Honor? Honor is the excuse every man gives to justify his behavior when his ego has been bruised by the might of other men,” retorted Pellew with barely controlled ferocity. “Honor does not equate to morality. If I cannot retain my reputation, I will at least retain my judgement of what is right.”

“And what good will that judgement,” Bracegirdle spat the word as if it were poison, “do you when your reputation precludes you from further action in the Service?” He was suddenly furious. Unaccountably so. It was as if the rigging had come loose in his chest and he could no longer hold back his anxious temper. “Do you think for one moment anyone will give a damn about your principles or your judgement once they have labeled you a coward? For that is all a man who backs down from a duel is in the eyes of this world, Edward. A coward.” Bracegirdle turned to his friend whose eyes were locked on the gray mass of swirling sea. “And if this is your absurd sense of right, then you are a fool and a coward.” He slammed his wine glass down so hard on the table that the pewter goblet teetered precariously like a whirling dervish, then fell to the floor in a loud clatter.

*~*~*

He swept out of the cabin in a haze of agitated acrimony. When he arrived in the officer’s mess, he was relieved to find only Bolton there, reading in his hammock. A good fellow to have around when emotions ran high, Bolton provided a comforting presence without the compulsion to discuss matters much. “Foster or Pellew?” he inquired. Bracegirdle remained silent, viciously tearing off his coat and hurling it onto the floor. “Pellew, then,” inferred Bolton and returned to his book.

“Neither,” ground out Bracegirdle bitterly.

“Ah. Put your foot in it, then?”

“Whole bloody leg, more like.”

Bolton was silent. He turned a page.

Bracegirdle groaned and fell into his hammock. He ran a hand through his hair and over his face. His stomach was clenched and his body vaguely tingled from the argument. Edward was going to back down? Dear God, that man's conscience would be his ruination. Leave it to Edward to somehow get it twisted in his mind that accepting a duel with that browbeater Foster was somehow ignoble. Did Edward not see that withdrawing from the duel would not only signal cowardice to the men, but would tidily hand the victory over to Foster? And the Navy's memory for acts of cowardice was long. Conscience, scoffed Bracegirdle. Pellew needed less conscience and more bellicosity. This was all tied up, the lieutenant suspected, with Pellew's sense of shame and guilt over the attack. Bracegirdle had a sinking feeling that whether Edward admitted to it or not, he privately believed he didn't deserve to meet Foster in a duel of honor because his failure to prevent the assault had rendered him dishonorable. It was all utter bollocks, of course, but getting his friend to see that point of view was nigh on impossible. 

Bracegirdle rolled over and shut his eyes tight. Recalling his earlier angry words, he felt a pang of regret. Why had he called Pellew a coward and a fool? The man was trying to stand firm in his damn principles (misguided though they were) and Anthony had lampooned him for it. Edward needed bolstering up, not knocking down. Groaning again, he ground his teeth together in vexation.

Bolton turned another page. “Buck up, Bracegirdle. After all, ‘No human being can tame the tongue.’”

Feeling only more miserable at this, Bracegirdle covered his face with his hands.

 

*~*~*

Chapter Text

 


 

“Sir, two points off the starboard bow.” Hornblower handed the glass to the captain as he pointed the general direction. “One of ours, sir.”

“Undoubtedly. But is it the Erebus ? Could you make out her figurehead, Mr. Hornblower?” Not for the first time did Pellew wish for the excellent eyesight all the young midshipmen seemed to possess.

“Not clearly enough to make a certain judgement, sir.” Pellew grunted, pleased with the scrupulous answer.

“Very good, Mr. Hornblower. Continue to watch for her. When you do make it out, report to me at once.” Hornblower saluted and left the quarterdeck. “Mr. Soames,” Pellew called to the sailing master, “set a course. Southeast by east. Bring us up behind that frigate.”

“Aye, sir. Southeast by east.”

“Mr. Kennedy, tell all the senior officers to meet in my cabin at the next bell.”

Pellew looked around his ship. It seemed an age since they had pulled Foster from the water. Could it only have been four weeks? What a blasted month. As he had lain in his cot the night before, unable to sleep, Pellew had reflected that never before had he been so plagued by such a period of despondency. It had taken its toll, it seemed, on every facet of his being--mind, body, and spirit. His clothes hung loosely from his frame (more from the constant clenching of his stomach than the rationing he had been forced to adopt), and he had a persistent tightness in his chest. In the days after the assault, he believed the symptoms to be related to his convalescence, but as time went on and the wounds healed, he resigned himself to their omnipresence. He had heard men talk of lingering physiological symptoms resulting from the painful reminiscence of battle or the loss of a comrade, but he had never experience it. Pellew had always understood that duty did not come cheap. Men’s lives were often lost in battle or illness or storms. The sea was a cruel mistress and men who would live upon her bitter waters had to make peace with that reality. Sentimental thinking would only hinder the duty he was charged with carrying out. Thus, he had always strived to relegate such feelings to their proper places in his mind and not allow himself to dwell or become distracted by them.

It therefore both bewildered and infuriated him that he had not been able to do that during these past four weeks. No matter how hard he strove to drive the demons back, there they always were; in his waking thoughts, his bodily feelings, and his broken sleep. Worse still, the constant bombardment of anguish left him drained of energy, and with the unsettled feeling that his thinking was not as clear and cogent as it typically was. He felt isolated and cut off from the daily rhythm of living. He found he could not bring himself even to smile at the bawdy jokes of the men, or the antics of the midshipmen, or the good natured banter that he and Anthony usually shared.

And there would now be no more of that, he thought ruefully, recalling the argument of the previous night. It would have been better, Pellew reflected regretfully, if he had never shared the details of Foster’s attack with Anthony. Then they could have continued in friendship. The captain shook his head. No sense wasting time on wishful thinking. He couldn’t change the past. A captain’s lot was a lonely and bitter one, and he had been more fortunate than most to have a close friend to serve with for these many years. As he made his way to his cabin, he resolved to be grateful for those years of friendship, and to accept, without complaint, the solitary existence he now inhabited.

 

*~*~*

 

Foster was the first to arrive. Glad of the opportunity for privacy, Pellew did not wait for the Dreadnought to open his mouth before he spoke. “Foster, you are no happier about our current state of affairs than I. But whatever our personal animosities be, however, we have a job before us. Though it will be uncomfortable, and I admit, downright onerous to work with each other, we must find a way. The interests of our ships will not be served by satisfying our own vengeance first.” Seeing the Scot open his mouth, Pellew continued, “I gave you my pledge that I would meet you in a duel. I hold to that pledge. But let us restore order to Erebus before that takes place. Are we agreed?” He held out his hand.

Foster hesitated a moment, then took the proffered hand. “Agreed. But I tell you, Edward, it will not be to first blood, but to the death. I do not intend to lose.”

There was a knock at the door. “Enter,” called Pellew. The door opened and the senior officers--Eccleston, Bracegirdle, Bolton, and Chadd--filed in, their expressions carefully neutral at the sight of two captains shaking hands.

“Nor do I, Foster. But let us leave that until it is time.” With a mutually penetrating look at each other, their hands fell apart and they each stepped a few paces away.

Christ on a ratline, thought Bracegirdle. He’s done it. He’s actually gone and retracted his pledge. He will be branded a coward for the rest of his life. What a damn fool thing to do, he thought furiously. No one will understand his notions of honor - they won’t even give him the time to explain. He will be hounded out of the Service before the year is through, concluded Bracegirdle morosely.

The lieutenant forced himself to focus on the discussion of tactics at hand. Not more than ten minutes into the meeting, there was another knock at the door. At Foster’s barking command to enter, Hornblower appeared, looking stiff and apprehensive as he usually did around the two captains. “What is it, Mr. Hornblower?” inquired Pellew.

“I can confirm that the ship we sighted is indeed the Erebus, Captain Pellew.” Bobbing his head, he closed the door quietly as he departed.

“Well, I can’t say I’m disappointed, no matter what state we find her in,” declared Foster with zeal.

“Nor I,” Eccleston agreed, though Bracegirdle suspected, for different reasons. The Indy been fraught with tension since Foster had come aboard. It was clear to the crew that something had happened between the two captains. Dark looks had been cast in Foster’s direction, though the Dreadnought appeared to be entirely oblivious to them.  The men of the Indy were not keen on the man who had, in their collective opinion, treated Pellew with an unwarranted contempt that they took as a personal affront to their own honor. Pellew’s glowering demeanor, and severity in his dealings with Foster, so unlike the unruffled attitude they were used to, had likewise not gone unnoticed. Most suspected the Admiralty had given Foster immunity, or else constrained Pellew from dealing with such belligerence. Some though suspected Foster had a hold over Pellew (of what nature, none could say for certain) as Pellew was generally well-liked. Eccleston would be glad to get rid of the odious Dreadnought and his poisonous machinations.

“We shall all get our chance to observe the state she’s in soon enough,” returned Pellew drily. “We should reach her in just under three hours. Mr. Eccleston, at four bells the men will beat to quarters. I want all the guns at the ready. Mr. Chadd, assemble the marines into three parties - one to board and go below to free Captain Rivers if he has been taken prisoner, as Captain Foster believes, one group to remain above deck to keep order, and one to remain aboard the Indefatigable as a defense. Mr. Bracegirdle, you are to go aboard with Captain Foster. Questions?” After a few general rounds of clarification and fine-tuning of approach, the men were dismissed and headed back to their posts.

“Permission to speak with you, sir,” requested Bracegirdle formally, once the men had left. Pellew did not look up from the chart he was studying.

“You have a question about your assignment, Mr. Bracegirdle?”

So it was to be like that, was it? “No, sir. I wish to speak with you about a separate matter.” He took Pellew’s silence for implied consent and forged ahead. “Am I to understand from your handshake with Foster that you have withdrawn from the duel?”

Pellew inhaled sharply.

“I beg you to reconsider, sir. Your reputation will never recover from the blow it will be dealt once word gets out.” He was surprised to find his heart hammering in his chest. Still, Pellew said nothing. “It is not that I wish you to fight, but I…” he trailed off, not knowing how to express his thoughts. Why did Pellew not speak for pity’s sake? “You would certainly win,” the lieutenant began again in a rush.“But even if that were not the case, I would still wish for you to save your good name.”

Without looking up, Pellew answered coldly, “your opinion has been noted.” It was a dismissal. Bracegirdle turned to leave, but paused at the door.

“You are worthy of defending your honor. You are not less honorable because of what Foster has done. If you won’t fight for your own name, think of your fath--”

“You go too far, Mr. Bracegirdle.” Pellew’s voice was hard and biting, like sleet off the bowsprit.

“Edward--”

“You have your orders, Mr. Bracegirdle. You will attend your duty, sir.”

Bracegirdle gave a soft sigh, saluted, and left. How had it come to this? They had seen each other through many a terrible time: reckless officers, fearsome storms, deprivations of food and water, impecunious humiliations, open boats even. Never in all those times, had they not relied on the other. Was this now to be the end of that?

 

*~*~*

 

“Report, Mr. Hornblower.”

“Their gunports are closed, sir. And the men are at their regular stations.”

“Very good, Mr. Hornblower. Keep the men at the gun stations, but do not open the ports.”

“Aye, sir.”

“I don’t see Rivers anywhere on deck,” said Foster with the glass still at his eye.

“Nor I,” replied Pellew ominously. “Waldron, bring us up alongside,” he commanded the bosun. As the men complied with the bosun’s shout and whistle, Pellew conferred with Bracegirdle and Foster. “I don’t like it, Foster. Why wouldn’t Rivers be on the quarterdeck to receive another ship?”

“It’s as I told you, Edward, the man’s been murdered by his own crew.”

“Let us not jump to conclusions,” Pellew said tightly. “But be on your guard all the same.” Though spoken to both men, Pellew looked directly at Bracegirdle. The Dreadnought and Bracegirdle moved forward toward their boarding party. “Anthony,” called out Pellew, in a strangled voice. The younger man turned, surprised. “Keep your pistol handy. Mutineers are unpredictable men.” Bracegirdle patted his pistol and nodded.  

 

*~*~*

 

As soon as they set foot aboard the Erebus , Bracegirdle could sense something was amiss. The air was thick. Tense. Suffused with fear and apprehension. The men on watch showed no sign of cheer as they greeted their fellow Englishmen. The ship itself did not appear to be in any distress. All tackles and rigging were in order. But there was a general atmosphere that permeated the deck. He instinctively felt for his pistol.

A young lieutenant approached them. He was tall and thin, and though not gangly, he had not yet grown into his mature stature. His hair was a burnished brown and wrapped in a black ribbon. He could not have been more than twenty-five years old. “Welcome aboard the Erebus , Captain. Lieutenant. I am Acting-Captain Jasper Wellep.” The young man’s face was tired and pinched, and bore no traces of the usual joviality of youth.

“Just how did you get to be Acting-Captain, eh?” asked Foster. “Where is your true Captain? Where is Rivers?”

“Captain Rivers is dead.” To his credit, Wellep broke the news matter of factly, his voice not betraying the nervousness Bracegirdle knew was lurking beneath the surface.

“When did he died, Lieutenant Wellep?” asked Bracegirdle when it became evident that Foster would not speak.

“Six days ago. On Tuesday, sir.” The three men stood sizing each other up for a long few moments before Wellep invited them to the Great Cabin. “I can give you the full report, Captain…?”

“Foster. Dreadnought Foster. This is Lieutenant Bracegirdle of the Indefatigable .” Bracegirdle suppress an urge to roll his eyes. Of course Foster would introduce himself as Dreadnought, as if he had no proper Christian name. “I am your new commander. You’d best lead the way, Wellep, so I can judge for myself what sorry miscarriage of justice has been done.” Wellep saluted and turned to lead them below. Bracegirdle could practically feel the anxiety radiating off the man.

When he opened the door to the Great Cabin, Bracegirdle’s eyes widened in surprise at the opulent furnishings. A couch and two wingback chairs in damask cloth had been recently reupholstered. A gleaming silver tea service was nestled attractively in the niche, framed by two bronze sconces, each holding taper candles only three quarters burned. The walls held framed daguerreotypes of small children, River’s family, Bracegirdle assumed, and attractive watercolors of the countryside in the summer. Leather bound books lined the bookcases, and several bottles of what looked like burgundy were fixed into place in the wine rack. This was not a man who lived stintingly. What’s more, he realized at the same moment, Wellep was not a man looking to establish his recent ascendency to the captain’s place. There was not one item in the cabin that a man of Wellep’s age and rank could afford, and it therefore stood to reason that Wellep had left the Cabin exactly as Rivers had left it. The young man reached into the drawer and retrieved two black, leatherbound books, one with a tawney leather thong tying it together. These he placed in Foster’s hands.

“The Captain’s personal journal, and the Erebus’s log, sir.” Foster took them without speaking, and ensconcing himself in a wooden chair near the oak desk, gestured for Wellep to begin. The young man took a breath, and started his narrative.

“As you will see in the log, Captain Foster, we had been tight on provisions owning to a considerable loss of our stock during a storm in early March. We had been counting on a rendevouz with the supply ship out of Gibraltar, but that rendevouz never occurred. Captain Rivers ordered rations be cut by half until we could reach a port to resupply. As the days went by, however, the men were becoming harder to control. They began grumbling about the Captain’s unrationed meals, especially after he dined with Captain Randolph and offered him a rather fine, and rather large, wheel of cheese as a gift. Worried for the safety of the Captain’s personal provisions that evening, and wanting to prevent any regrettable action by the men, I ordered two marines posted outside the Great Cabin.” Wellep stood at attention, looking at neither man as he delivered his report. Bracegirdle could see the beads of sweat appear on his temples.

“What I hadn’t counted on,” continued Wellep, “was the marines being the ones to filch the food. But hungry men will do any number of reckless deeds. In any case, the hands had discovered what the marines had done, and attacked them, trying to grab hold of any extra provisions they could. First Lieutenant Rojas and I were alerted to the commotion in the forecastle. Rojas, out of his mind with rage, ordered two of the hands to hold the marines fast while he… well, while he beat them.”

“Where were you while this descent into chaos was going on?” inquired Foster, almost mildly.

Wellep flushed. “I tried to… that is, I tried to pull Rojas off the men, but he… well, he outweighed me by at least four stone, and so…” he trailed off.

“You let the stronger man prevail,” finished Foster reasonably, in the same mild tone. He ran an appraising eye up and down the young man’s body. 

“I… well… I ran to alert Captain Rivers.” He took a deep breath, bracing himself and continued. “The Captain ordered the three men (the two marines and Rojas), tied in the rigging for 72 hours. They were to be given no food or water to atone for behavior unbecoming an officer.”

Bracegirdle, who had not liked what he had heard thus far, was now dreading where this tale was headed. Seventy two hours was excessive. Especially in the heat off the African coast. Edward would never have countenanced such a barbaric punishment.

Determined to offer no comment, Wellep continued. “Rojas and Corporal Baines perished in the heat. Corporal Harris was very near to death when he was cut down at the end of his spell. The men took it hard. Very hard. Though they weren’t overly familiar with the officers, they liked them well enough.” Wellep cleared his throat and doggedly continued. “The next morning on watch, Captain Rivers was patrolling when the...accident occurred.”

“Accident?” prompted Bracegirdle.

“He was struck on the head by a grappling hook that fell from the shrouds. Dr. Heneidy did all he could, but the bleeding was too severe, and Captain Rivers died that evening. As Second Lieutenant, it fell to me to assume command. I have tried to follow Captain Rivers’ orders, though our primary aim has been to get to a port to replenish our supplies.” Squaring his jaw, he looked directly at Captain Foster. “I understand, Captain Foster, that I must face a court martial to explain my actions. I have recorded all the events faithfully in the log, and Third Lieutenant Garitton can attest to my truthfulness.” He sounded calm. But he looked ill. His face was covered in a shiny sheen of sweat, and his skin had taken on a pale and yellowish hue.

Bracegirdle felt his own gut clench as the story unfolded. Even if Wellep had been truthful, he would still need a powerful advocate to save him from the noose. The Admiralty did not treat such an “accident” as that which befell Rivers lightly. Wellep would do well with Pellew as an advocate, but surely not Foster. Why was the man so quiet? He had been breathing out fire and brimstone for the past three and a half weeks, but now that he had his “treacherous dogs” at hand, he was silent. Bracegirdle could make no sense of it. Foster wasn’t, after all, a stupid man. Rash and reckless, but not without intelligence. Perhaps he understood, as did Bracegirdle, that Wellep must be brought before the Admiralty for judgement. Not even the Dreadnought could hope to impose his own justice on a situation that did not occur during his watch.

“A most intriguing account, Mr. Wellep. You will face a court martial, it is true. But under my...influence, you may yet escape the noose. Remain here while I read Rivers’ account. You and I will establish the natural order between us.” He looked at the young officer with a predatory gaze. “Bracegirdle, you may return to your ship. Pellew may expect me at dawn tomorrow morning.”

Bracegirdle had already turned to leave before Foster’s words struck him. Dawn tomorrow morning? Foster would not come aboard the Indy again now that he had his ship, and especially not with it in such a tenuous state. Tomorrow at dawn, then, must only mean that the duel was still on. Idiot, he castigated himself. Whatever he had thought he understood between the two captains earlier had clearly not been correct. Pellew was moving ahead with the duel. Bracegirdle felt his head swim. He had accused his friend (explicitly and implicitly) twice of cowardice - and neither time had it been warranted. What a blithering idiot he was. He made his way hastily up the stairs and across the deck, passing through the baleful expressions of the Erebus men. Lord, he would be glad to leave this wretched ship behind.

 

*~*~*

 

“He says the grappling hook ‘fell’ from the shrouds?” Pellew’s voice held a menacing note of skepticism. “Directly onto Rivers’ head? How convenient for Wellep.”

“I do not think Wellep was involved, sir.”

Pellew looked up. “Indeed? You believe his story then?”

“Oh I believe there is more to it than what he is saying, but I do not believe that he plotted to take the captain’s life, nor conspired to cover it up. His recounting was too…” he paused trying to think of the appropriate word, “honest.”

“Hm.” Pellew intertwined his fingers behind his back and gazed out the window, a favorite position of his for thinking. “It’s a bad business, Bracegirdle. Wellep will not fare well under Foster. If I had jurisdiction…” he let the thought hang. They both knew he did not. “How did he take it?”

“Wellep?”

“No. Foster. How did he receive the news?”

“He was surprisingly calm, sir.”

At that, Pellew turned to face him. It was the first time since their argument that they had looked each other directly in the eye. “Calm? What do you mean?”

“There is no other way to describe it, sir. He asked few questions, and was quite reasonable - almost tolerant - of Wellep’s recounting.” Pellew felt a familiar sense of dread begin to grow in his belly. Foster was up to his old tricks. There was a better chance of Queen Charlotte firing a broadside than there was of Dreadnought Foster reacting with reason and tolerance to a dubious tale of violence and retribution.

“What did he say when you left?”

“Ah...well...he, uh, reminded you that he will meet you at dawn tomorrow. About that, Edward--”

Pellew waved him off, not having time to waste on personal matters. “Never mind that. What did he say to this Lieutenant Wellep?”

Visibly disappointed not to have an opportunity to apologize, Bracegirdle sought to remember Foster’s words. “He called it an ‘intriguing account’ and asked Wellep to remain while he read Captain Rivers’ personal journal.”

“That was all? Nothing else? Think man!” Pellew was agitated.

Bracegirdle closed his eyes in concentration. “He told him, ‘you and I will establish the natural order between us’, I believe. Yes, that’s what he said.”

Without a word, Pellew strode from the cabin at great speed. “Mr. Eccleston, the ship is yours,” he called when he was above deck. “I am going to inspect the Erebus .”

Within minutes he was aboard Foster’s new vessel. Anthony had been right about the atmosphere - it was a ship that fit its name.  He made his way determinedly to the forecastle, praying to God that he was wrong about his premonition. As he passed by the Great Cabin, a sound arrested him.

It was a strangled cry. Forceful movements. The familiar grunting. Pellew tried the door knob. Locked. Without pausing to reconsider, he kicked the door open with one powerful thrust. It nearly tore away from its hinges.

The sight that greeted his eyes filled his chest with a fire he had never known. Lieutenant Wellep was bent over the captain’s desk, head held down by Foster’s arm. The Dreadnought, a malignant smirk on his face, stood upright behind him, trousers at his ankles. In two strides, Pellew was in front of Foster’s astounded face. A second later, Foster was on his back, nose an explosion of blood, with Pellew’s sword at his throat.

“We will not wait ‘till dawn. The duel begins now!”

 

Chapter Text

  


Within the hour, Pellew, Foster, Bracegirdle, and Dr. Low were disembarking from the small open boat onto the pebbly sand of the small island’s coast. Bracegirdle reached into the gun pouch only to find it empty. He looked up sharply. Turning to Dr. Low, he asked, “Where is the brace of pistols? The pouch is empty.” Gentlemen usually dueled with pistols, allowing each man to aim wide. Shots could be fired, honor maintained, and lives preserved.

“We fight with swords,” replied Pellew evenly. Swords? Then that would mean it was to be a duel to the death. Bracegirdle felt his heart start to thump rapidly in his chest.  Pellew divested himself of his coat, and handed a parcel of letters to the lieutenant. “In the event of my demise, see that these reach Government House. The bottom two are for Susan.” He was brisk and business-like; ready for battle. “And this,” he reached into his boot, and pulled out another letter, sealed in red wax, “is for you, Anthony, my dear and loyal friend.”

Anthony took the letters slowly, his throat tightening at the uncommon endearment. Edward was not one given to sentiment. “Edward, I--I misjudged you. I did not believe you would go through with this. The things I said to you…,” he closed his eyes, pained by the memory of his words and thoughts. “I am ashamed. You have never said such things to me, and it was unworthy of me to think so poorly of you. I beg your pardon for--”

“Easy, my dear fellow.” Pellew laid his hand on Anthony’s shoulder. “I have always valued your frank honesty. I count myself truly lucky to have had the privilege of your friendship all these years.” He squeezed his lieutenant's shoulder, and then turned around to follow Dr. Low and Foster.

Bracegirdle sniffed, and blinked his eyes quickly as he watched Pellew head towards the appointed place. “God grant you the strength to overcome him,” he intoned quietly.  

 

*~*~*

 

They had to walk a fair distance inland to find suitable terrain. Foster looked like hell. His nose was a swollen and bloody mess, (Bracegirdle suspected it was broken), and his face thunderous. His breath was coming out in sharp and noisy pants. Pellew, by contrast looked almost regal in his bearing. The bruises Bracegirdle had become accustomed to seeing had faded at last, leaving the unmarked skin almost refulgent in its newness. He radiated purpose and intention. As Bracegirdle looked at his friend, it was hard to believe he was the same man who had wept in pain and mortification just three weeks ago. Anthony had always admired Edward, as did most men who served under him, but there was something about him now--something about seeing an upright man standing up without fear to the tyrant who had brought him low--that made Anthony’s heart swell. David standing against Goliath.

“Captains, I ask you once again - can you not be reconciled?” The rules of honor required Dr. Low to make such a petition, but Bracegirdle detected a ringing tone of earnestness that almost made the question sound like a plea.

“No, Dr. Low,” returned Pellew tightly, never taking his eyes off of Foster. “Reconciliation must now come from the Almighty alone.”

Low looked at the Dreadnought. “Captain Foster?”

“I’d sooner die than reconcile with you, my boy.”

Pellew almost smiled, and gave a derisive snort. “Call me anything you like, Foster. It does not touch me now.”

Dr. Low looked at the two captains. “On my word, captains, you may begin. Whichever of you lives is victor. Ready?”  First Pellew, then Foster, brought their swords to their foreheads in salute. “Begin!”

 

*~*~*

 

Foster growled at Pellew as they both assumed a high guard, and threw an overhand cut. Pellew parried quickly, reflexively. As they circled, parried, and thrust, Pellew could feel an energy building within him. Though it was akin to the battle fever surges he had experienced in his career, it felt different, almost transcendent. There was no fear, no hesitancy, no guilt, and no shame in his movements. Only strength. An incredible wellspring of fire and strength crackling throughout his body. Dodging a crushing downward blow, Pellew threw a crooked cut at Foster’s hand. The Dreadnought stared in shock at his pinkie finger, lying on the ground, while the rest of his hand remained about his sword grip.

“You think you’re...playing the hero...my boy,” panted Foster as his parry was blocked. “Wellep already...learned his lesson. Didn’t even put up a fight…. Recognized the might of a master. Just… like... you did.” Pellew felt his fury rise up like boiling whale oil. By God, he would end this man’s tyranny now and forever.

Foster’s sword sliced into his bicep, and Pellew let out a snarl of anger and pain. His grip on his sword weakened, and he felt his muscles flutter. Pressing his advantage, Foster moved in, blade coming perilously close to Pellew’s neck. “You will die, face in the ground, on your knees with my sword in your back, my boy! A familiar position for you!” Foster was breathing so hard that his broken nose had started to bleed again. “Then it will… be… over.”

“Those days are over when I say they are over” , echoed a voice in Pellew’s head. Foster’s words after his attack in the cabin reverberated in Edward’s brain. Letting out a primal bellow, he covered Foster’s sword hand with his, and squeezed, focused all the pressure onto the bleeding knuckle of the missing pinkie finger. He heard Foster howl in pain, and felt the man’s grip slacken on his sword. Without conscious thought, and with battle-tested muscle-memory, he pushed his sword into Foster’s belly, feeling it perforate the soft skin.

As blood bubbled and seeped out of the Dreadnought’s mouth, Pellew lowered him to his knees. Thrusting his face just centimeters from Foster’s, he hissed in abhorrence, “I say it is over, Foster. Do you hear me? I say. You are not my master.”

Foster’s mouth opened and closed in a grotesque parody of speech. His body shuddered, vibrating the blade, and then stilled. Letting out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, Pellew felt his body tingling. The otherworldly energy and fury of the last several minutes flowing out of him. Looking up to the overcast sky he whispered, “thank you.”

He was startled when Dr. Low came into his field of vision, placing two fingers on Foster’s neck. Pellew had forgotten the doctor and Bracegirdle were there. Rising, Dr. Low brushed off the knees of his trousers. “He’s dead, Captain.”

 

*~*~*

 

The ship was a veritable beehive of activity and gossip after the dueling party’s arrival. It was all Hornblower and Kennedy could do to keep the men from huzzahing at Pellew’s return. “For God’s sake, a man has died!” Eccleston heard one of the midshipmen shout in exasperation, as he and the other senior officers made their way to attend the Captain in the Great Cabin.

Aside from a bandage on his arm, the captain did not look much the worse for wear, thought Eccleston. “Sir, if I may say, it is very good to have you back.”

Pellew nodded at his first lieutenant. “Thank you, Mr. Eccleston. We shall, however, not be seeing much of each other in the next few weeks.” At Eccleston’s blank stare, Pellew turned to his windows and pointed at the Erebus. “I am placing you in command of the Erebus, as Acting-Captain. You’ll take two divisions with you, including marines. I do not want any more bloodshed aboard that ship.” Pellew could see Eccleston trying valiantly to suppress his smile, and the captain chuckled inwardly. It was a fine promotion, and Eccleston would handle it well. “You will take the Erebus directly to Portsmouth and report to Government House with Lieutenant Wellep. I will rendezvous with you there. Wellep is not under arrest at the moment, so utilize him as you see fit, but send him to my cabin before you set sail. I will send you a packet of letters for the Admiralty before this evening. Be sure that Admiral Howe only receives this letter.” He handed him a leather folio. “Give him my compliments and tell him that I will speak in Lieutenant Wellep's defense when I arrive in Portsmouth.”

“Aye, sir. Thank you, Captain Pellew.” He saluted smartly and left with the marine guard, allowing his smile to fully spread across his cheeks once he turned to leave.

“Mr. Chadd.”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Service for the Dead at 8 bells. Make the necessary arrangements, if you please.”

“Service for the Dead,” repeated Chadd with uncertainty, looking at Bracegirdle who simply shrugged. “Aye, sir.” Burial at sea was not an honor accorded men dishonored in duels.

Sensing his lieutenant's confusion, Pellew turned to face him. “We are called to bury the dead, Mr. Chadd. No matter what we thought of Captain Foster in life, he is dead. We will carry out our last duty him, and commit his body to the sea for the last judgement. Do you understand, Acting-First Lieutenant Chadd?”

“Aye, Captain," he responded, perking up considerably at the sound of his promoted title. “Service at 8 bells it is.” He saluted and left to begin preparations.

Edward and Anthony were left alone in the Great Cabin. They were silent for a long moment. “How do you feel?” ventured Anthony at least.

Pellew sighed and gazed at the sparkling sea. “I’m not quite sure, actually. Worried and certain; culpable and assured; regretful and relieved; and so very grateful that this ordeal is over.”

It was a good answer, thought Bracegirdle. His friend would continue to heal, and would recover. He had found his strength. Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew Pellew’s wax-sealed note for him, and held it out for the captain to take. “I’ll return this to you.”

Pellew looked at it, and seemed to decide something. “Keep it. Read it if you like,” he said lightly. Sobering, he continued, “I’ve never had cause to set down my thoughts about the importance of your friendship, Anthony. We never know which day will be our last. Every word in that letter is true, and--though I hope you know how highly I esteem and regard you even if I hadn’t written it--I should like you to have it all the same.”

Anthony’s eyes stung. “I--that is, Edward, I--” Edward cut him off with a clasp on the shoulder.

“I need to speak with Wellep, but I should like it if you would come for dinner tonight. I have a fine bottle of port that might go down nicely at the end of a long day.”

Unable to say more, Bracegirdle simply said, “Yes,” and left the cabin.

 

*~*~*

 

“Come,” called Pellew in answer to the knock. The curly brown head of Lieutenant Wellep appeared at the door.

“You wished to see me, Captain?” Setting down his quill, Pellew stood and ushered in the young man. His face was taut with anxiety and rigid with emotions that Pellew could guess only too well. Pouring him a glass of madeira, Edward inquired whether he had heard the news of Captain Foster. Wellep had. Wellep looked stonily at the undulating sea. Best to be direct, thought Pellew.

“Mr. Wellep. Jasper. I am more sorry than I can say about what happened to you at the hands of Foster.” Wellep did not break his gaze with the sea, but clenched his jaw tighter. “The important point, Jasper, is not to blame yourself. Men like Foster want to bend men--good, honest, successful men--to their will because of their own self-doubt and insecurity.” Pellew saw Wellep’s eyes begin to water. The captain took a breath and plunged ahead. “You are no less of a man because of what happened.” Wellep’s eyes flickered to Pellew’s face. “You are neither responsible for, nor guilty of, actions forced upon you.”

Tears trickled down Wellep’s face, but he did not bother to wipe them away. “I appreciate your compassion, Captain Pellew, but with all due respect, sir, you do not know what you are speaking of.”

“Yes, Mr. Wellep, I do.” Something in his tone caused Wellep to look at him. Pellew sucked in a long breath. “I too have suffered under Foster.” Another breath. Pellew felt his own eyes watering. “And I…” this was more difficult than he’d anticipated. “I was not to...to blame for it,” he finished haltingly. “No more than you, or any others who suffered under him are.”

Wellep was wide-eyed. “But...but how can you believe that?" 

Pellew pursed his lips. "I didn't, at first. A friend helped me to believe otherwise." 

The young man shook his head in disbelief, "You seem so… how have you... gone on living?” he choked out.  

Pellew opened his mouth and let out a sigh. “One painful day at a time, Mr. Wellep. That’s all that any man can do. Fight every day to reclaim what was taken from you.”

Wellep bowed his head, weeping. “I do not think I have the strength to fight.”

Pellew smiled gently. “You do, Mr. Wellep. You do. The strength to fight is already within you.”

 

*~*~*