It's difficult now, being first lieutenant, in a way it wasn't before, in a way it hasn't been for a long, long time.
It's not that he doesn't like Henry or Jopson, but within a day his entire world's system has fallen to pieces. It had worked out, between them on Terror: John would calm George down, and George would cheer Edward up, and Edward would bring John out of his shell. Of course it hasn't always gone so well; the opposite could often be true - George would annoy John to distraction, and John would bore Edward within an inch of his life, and Edward had once depressed George to actual tears; the knowledge of the poisoned food at least sheds a little light on that one.
The problem is that Henry and Jopson are simply not John and George, and he doesn't know how to work with them as well as he had those two. In his most unkind moments, he resents poor Jopson his role; putting aside the very honorary-ness of it, beyond the attack on Terror Camp he hasn't really pulled his figurative weight, though has gained a manner of self-importance when asked his opinion on matters.
Perhaps Edward's imagining things. They all imagine things these days, and he knows he feels - not quite an anger, but the terrible thought that, indirectly, Jopson's promotion is to blame. It was all seniority; it ought to have been John and Edward going south, without Cornelius Hickey. The men going east with Henry and George would have returned, tired of their banter but not distressed, and John and Edward together would have come upon the Inuit family, befriended them, and brought them back to the camp.
But, he supposes, the Captains could not have known that when they'd promoted Jopson, could never have known that, and none of it is Jopson's fault, but it nags at him. He's just about got the measure of Henry over the years, but Jopson's almost entirely new, now.
Something that Edward never expected was to laugh so much. The miles are gruelling, and the cold is biting, and his bag stinks, his eyes ache when he turns them skyward - but he laughs. Tom Blanky has taken to renaming the tinned foods - if he gets away with something dreadful he only ups the ante; so tins that started as veal cutlets become 'Brown Slop with Grey', and venison soup is 'Grey Slurry with Brown', which becomes -
'"Chunks That Make You Shit Yourself"! My favourite!' Blanky hollers, and the men well enough to listen laugh aloud. They're playing to the crowd, but it's a welcome distraction, and Fitzjames slings the tin onto the ground as he selects another.
'"Brain with Asparagus"?'
'"Jacko's Brother", God rest 'im,' says Blanky, to more laughter -
'"Pork and Currants"?'
'I think that's Henry's fuckin' toes -' there'll be another hunting party tomorrow, though Edward suspects any wildlife that might ever have existed would have been driven off by the raucous laughter rolling off of the camp.
'God, my toes?' says Henry, catching the tin as it's thrown to him, 'I've been looking months for those -'
'That's enough!' Crozier barks - that rubs too close to the unspoken, last resort, and Captain Crozier will not let even a joke slide. Henry puts the tin down sheepishly.
'Francis,' says Blanky, 'you can share my can of Chunks, don't you worry -'
'Thomas,' says Crozier, warningly, and they let the matter drop. The men are - not entirely sure of Captain Crozier, not in the same way the officers are. Edward wonders if they are sure of him, but they are sure of Commander Fitzjames, who has been Captain for most of them either from the six months since the lashing on Terror, if not the start of the expedition. When Captain Crozier quietly rounds up command and slinks off to the larger tent, Fitzjames calls farewell to the men lavishly,
'Don't finish all the Chunks before I return!'
They all laugh - Fitzjames is good at that, though Henry rolls his eyes behind his back as they file into the tent. The meeting is only cursory, who hauls, who watches, who has a gun. When Fitzjames volunteers to haul on the largest boat for the fifth time in as many days, Edward posits a low -
'Will you be up to it?'
'I'm quite sure I will, Lieutenant Little!' says Fitzjames, vaguely affronted, and the already-low temperature seems to drop another degree. God, how Edward wishes for John to be here, to push on with his own matter regardless, or for George to make a poorly-timed quip to break the odd tension. Captain Crozier clears his throat, and all matters are settled.
It's a week later, on one of the rare occasions that their turns as guard alongside the caravan coincide that Henry asks - 'What are you and James at odds about?'.
'Nothing,' says Edward, much too quickly, and Henry bumps his shoulder and smiles -
'Don't fuck with me,' he says, 'I know you too well - and I know James better. You've both offended one another.'
'Nothing... pressing,' says Edward, 'nothing we can change -'
'My grandparents used to speak Jèrriais,' says Henry, apropos of nothing. Edward frowns at him.
'Do you know Jèrriais?' Henry asks, 'It's what they speak in Jersey - sounds like a Frenchman having a stroke. All of the sounds are right, but none of the words make sense. I learned French at school, and I was always so confused -'
'If I have to hear you and James speaking Jèrriais at each other again I will personally -'
'You're saying things to one another that don't mean anything to me - he'll take watch, and you'll say "Are you sure, Sir?" as if it means something, as if -'
'We disagreed on the watch schedules, is all.'
'When?' says Henry, 'You've not had a moment to yourselves in weeks -'
'Weeks ago, then.'
Henry rolls his eyes. 'God knows I've gotten short with both of you lately, but I'm of a mind to slam your skulls together - were you not both my immediate superiors -'
'Give off, Henry,' Edward says, and smiles to show there's no bite to it, 'you know my parents moved to Jersey -'
Henry laughs aloud, 'That's no excuse!' but quickly sobers.
'You would tell me, wouldn't you? If you were... more unwell than you let on?'
'Of course!' Edward says, though he's not sure that he would and, more to the point, he isn't . Henry visibly relaxes - Edward can hardly believe he hasn't touched on Fitzjames' illness, but perhaps it's still as invisible to Henry as it had been to Edward before he'd seen the gaping wound himself. Perhaps Henry cannot even fathom the possibility that James Fitzjames would not trust him with a piece of information.
'Would you?' asks Edward after a beat, and Henry nods, with an odd twist to his mouth.
'Yes,' he says, then sighs, 'though I worry my foot might be on the turn -'
God, what a repulsive way to put it, as though it were a piece of old meat hanging in the butcher's window. Edward's disgust must show on his face, because Henry apologises, and they fall back into step.
'It's fine,' he says, 'I think it is; I'm just... if it gets worse, it'll be a hell of a job for Bridgens.'
'He's doing very well,' Edward says, and Bridgens has indeed seemed to be doing well.
'Full of knowledge, he is - I figure that's why Hoar joined the mutiny, you know. Jealous little bird.'
They both laugh, though now Edward is watching Henry's feet, how he steps onto the heel of his left but the whole of his right. Knowing how the six-years-healed gunshot wounds on Fitzjames' arm, ribs and back look, he doesn't like to imagine six months - barely-healed in the first place and poisoned the whole time.
The men cluster around the small fire, and Fitzjames says, 'We ought to share stories.'
'Don't you dare,' says Captain Crozier, and Fitzjames laughs with the rest of the men.
'I didn't mean me ,' he says, 'Lieutenant Little has a tale of pirates, as I understand it.'
'Every man in the Navy has a tale of pirates,' says Henry, but Fitzjames shakes his head -
'No, no, Edward has promised me the story of how he broke his arm in '36.'
Edward knows he oughtn't correct it, but it nags at him - 'Thirty-five,' he says, and watches a deep shame wash over Fitzjames' features, so he ploughs on - 'would that Lieutenant Hodgson were here, he has a rather gripping tale off of Borneo; Mister Peglar, you were there -'
'Not in the fighting, sir - would that Mister Gibson were here; he had quite a droll version.'
Jopson's stiffened at Edward's side at the mention of Gibson; Edward's not sure if they were friends, but something about that betrayal has hit Jopson as hard as it's hit Edward himself.
'Well,' says Edward, awkwardly, 'I don't think my tale is droll. Or gripping. I expect you'll be bored stiff.'
'Get on with it!' Blanky heckles, and Edward shakes his shoulders loose.
'Well,' he says again, 'well. This was in ‘thirty-five. I was -' he pauses, and finds he can't recall how old he was in ‘thirty-five.
'- I was a mate,' he stumbles, 'and we were... heading away from the Carribean, when we saw a ship. Uh, they weren't flying a flag, and neither were we. I think the Captain signalled them, and we were just passing, when I noticed, uh, they had a carronade levelled at us. Just the one, it looked like, but a second gun port was open, and it looked like people were moving around in there. I started climbing, got my glass out, and grapeshot shredded the rigging above me. Probably, I don't know, half a foot from the top of my head. So I fell down, with the ropes, and hit my arm.'
He looks up, and sees near a hundred eyes staring back at him, 'Well, it was broken, and I was smuggled below decks, but the Captain did capture that ship.'
The stares remain, 'The end, I suppose.'
He slaps his palms against his thighs, and leaves it there. After what seems a very long moment, Blanky scoffs loudly.
'Not droll is right,' he says, 'try again.'
'Eighteen thirty-five,' says Blanky, 'our stalwart Lieutenant a mere boy of four and twenty -'
Fitzjames picks up the thread with a smile, 'The warm seas of the Carribean sparkling -'
'- A tall ship approaches, jolly roger flying -'
'Don't be silly,' says Edward, but he laughs -
'First Mate Little catches a glimpse of a carronade -'
'Four carronades!' says Henry -
'Just on the top deck!'
'The entire gundeck open, forty six-pounders -'
He doesn't interrupt again, but lets Blanky and the sparse remnants of command dictate a new legend for him. He had been twenty-four in 'thirty-five.
Each day the number of men popping into the hastily-erected medical tent increases, though none of command can show that kind of weakness. In the few minutes of Arctic night, while on watch, he creeps into the tent and finds Commander Fitzjames there, rifling through the remains of the medicine chest that Hickey's band hadn't looted.
'Good Christ!' he says when he notices Edward behind him, 'Don't sneak up on a man like that!'
'Found what you're looking for, sir?'
'Yes, thank you,' says Fitzjames, holding aloft a little brown glass bottle, and touching it to his lips for a tiny sip.
'You'd best mark down that you've taken a dose, or you'll confuse Mister Bridgens.'
'I'll tell him later - you know Dundy's been worried about you, what are you here for?'
Edward pulls back his lip to reveal where the top left molar that's been bothering him for a month has finally dropped out, still bleeding sluggishly - Fitzjames passes him a wad of gauze, then tugs back his own lip. He's missing the same tooth, but the hole is older, and he's missing its neighbour too.
'We're twins!' he says, in an oddly elated whisper, and it's that bizarre outburst that finally makes Edward snap -
'I don't understand what you want from me!'
'This!' says Edward, 'All of this! The deception - it's completely -'
'It's not deception -'
'- I have lied to Captain Crozier, I have lied to Lieutenant Le Vesconte, I have lied to Mister Bridgens -'
'No-one is lying,' says Commander Fitzjames, 'keep your bloody voice down.'
'What would you call it?' Edward says, and the low volume he's forced to keep makes him hiss -
'I am trying to avoid loss of morale! You know when Nelson fell he covered his face with a handkerchief -'
Edward scoffs, cruelly, 'Are you Nelson, then? "I still have my legs" -'
'And why shouldn't I be? I do still have my legs!'
'You are being deliberately -'
'We've spoken about this!' says Commander Fitzjames, 'Do you have a new point to make? Or do you just want to drag other men into this particular suffering?'
Edward's struck dumb, 'I don't know,' he says.
'You are unerringly honest,' says Fitzjames, 'I understand the misery of it, of course I do.' he sighs.
'We oughtn't fight,' says Edward, and he puts what feels like a very conspicuous hand onto Fitzjames' right elbow - neither his heart nor his passion is in the motion, and he's sure Fitzjames can tell. It feels like an age since he put a hand on an arm in earnest. Fitzjames gives him a gore-streaked smile -
'Are you well, Edward? Besides the -' he inclines his head to the patch of bloodied gauze in Edward's hand; Edward nods. He's doing noticeably better than most of the men, for reasons he can't quite understand. He's always had a strong constitution, though.
'Good,' says Fitzjames, 'that's good. Are any of -'
The tent flap parts loudly, and - 'Oh, pardon me, sir - Lieutenant -'
'Mister Bridgens!' says Fitzjames, putting the little bottle he's been rolling about his hand back into the medicine chest -
'Am I interrupting, sir?'
'Oh no!' says Fitzjames, 'Lieutenant Little and I were just here licking our wounds in private: You know how it is to be a proud man, John.'
'I know that you are,' says Bridgens, kindly, and they both watch the Commander charge out of the tent as though on springs -
'Good night, gentlemen!'
'Do you need anything, sir?'
Edward stares at the gauze in his hand - there was something he'd meant to tell Bridgens, but it's gone now.
Henry is breathing very heavily at Edward's side. He's started leaning into harness at an almost stupid angle, but Edward's not sure it's giving him any more purchase. They move less and less each day.
'Did I ever tell you about the first time James and I met?' Henry pants, 'Not the very first, but when he became Commander of the Clio.'
'You have not,' says Edward.
'Ah!' says Henry, and adjusts his goggles, ' We'd only met in passing before then, and - our purser had a sense of humour.'
Edward's gotten so used to every conversation pausing for breath that it takes a moment for him to realise that this pause is Henry looking for prompt - 'And then?'
'Told him I was a Frenchman.'
Edward snorts -
'James came to me - showing off - perfect French, I must have looked completely baffled. Couldn't remember a word from school, must have made a - complete prat of myself.'
'You're not telling that old chestnut again are you?' says Fitzjames, who's come up beside Henry, 'I'll spell you a while - how's your foot?'
'Flat,' says Henry, which must be a very old joke, as they both laugh among themselves while they swap the harness, and Edward watches Fitzjames' face fall in nauseated agony the second Henry's back is turned on them.
'My French isn't that good,' he says, 'and Henry's isn't that bad. But he's always been fond of the tales where we come out looking different shades of idiotic.'
'Hm,' says Edward, and tries to summon... something; the quiet dignity of his father, the steely, pent-up misery he'd caught rolling off of John like fog for almost all of '47, the detached cheer Jopson had managed to project while the Captain suffered so terribly that winter - he can't. He never can.
It's a few days later that Fitzjames falls, a horrible motion that seems to go on for hours, how Edward has always imagined a carriage accident, or a child getting his hand caught in a loom; one moment he's vertical, shambling, and then he goes down and down, like it's a thousand feet from the top of his head to the ground though he knows it's only six, like his whole body will shatter on impact like a wineglass - it doesn't, of course it doesn't, and Edward can hardly remember how a wineglass shatters. Fitzjames falls and Captain Crozier runs for him and despite every other man with a hand upon him, Fitzjames only has eyes for the Captain.
Of course he does. Edward can hardly remember how a punch delivered between them sounds. Can't remember who punched who. When they set up camp Edward is the first to charge into Fitzjames' tent.
'Morale' he says, 'Mister Bridgens is out there weeping, so I think you've truly done the men a great kindness. Watching their commander fall onto his face has really brightened the mood out there -'
'You hush,' Fitzjames croaks, 'I love Bridgens dearly, but he's an odd fellow - ah -'
'Stop fidgeting,' says Edward, 'you're -'
'You must tell Francis to move on,' says Fitzjames tiredly -
'Oh, shut up!' Edward snaps -
'Just float the idea.'
'Float it yourself!'
'I don't - you know what he'll say.'
'I know what he'll say to me -'
'As he'll say to me.'
'No! Edward. You can give a measured reasoning. No man here wants to sit and get weak while I stumble to my inevitable grave.'
'Captain Crozier does,' says Edward, 'I can tell you that.'
'Convince him,' says Fitzjames, 'push at him for once -'
'You are First Lieutenant!'
Edward scoffs - 'First Lieutenant? You know my last post?' Fitzjames is slower to reply than he would have been a year ago, but he does, at least, answer.
' Albion, and - before that, Victory. A prestigious posting.'
'Prestigious,' says Edward, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice, 'to sail where Hardy kissed him -' Fitzjames barks an unkind laugh, '- I spent two months ferrying civilians to see the Port Admiral.'
'As I say, prestigious -'
'HMS Victory is a museum piece. I was more a tour guide than a lieutenant, everything leaked - a prestigious posting, but not a meaningful one. A month loading Albion - I'd not been on the water at all for fifteen months - not been at sea for almost two years, barely been a lieutenant at all.'
'You've done astoundingly well,' says the Commander, frowning, 'and that's not "considering", that's in general - I don't think a single man could have done better in your position.'
'Lot of good it's done me,' says Edward, 'lot of good it's done the rest of these men -'
'If you think we'd have gotten even half this far without you -'
'I don't want to hear it!' says Edward, because he doesn't -
'Talk to him, Edward. He'll see the urgency of it, and - get Henry here, will you? I owe him an apology.'
'You do,' says Edward, and collects him before shutting himself into their shared tent to brood. Henry and Fitzjames argue as though there are walls around them for a little while, until one of them notices, and their voices go low and hard to hear.
Edward stumbles into Henry as he leaves to find the Captain; he's squatted onto his haunches between the rows of tents, hiding from the rest of the men.
'I hate this,' says Henry, swiping at his eyes, 'he hates this. It's humiliating for him. God - how many times did I hear that fucking sniper story?'
'Did he tell you -'
'- "Tell Francis to move on",' Henry mocks, the sniveling tone interrupted with a real sob, 'did you know about this, Edward?'
'I -' Another lie would taste of bile; he's glad that Henry immediately interrupts -
'You did! Son of a bitch, Edward!'
'He made me promise -'
'And you are a man of your word,' Henry spits, as though that's an insult, 'will you, then? Bring it up with the Captain?'
'I - it doesn't have to be unreasonable. Commander Fitzjames thinks he's being very noble -'
Henry scoffs, 'Which is precisely the problem.'
'The sick may have more time if they don't have to move. We'd come back, or send a rescue party we meet -'
'Wishful thinking,' says Henry, and unbends, straightening to his formidable full height and testing the tenderness of his foot against the rock.
Edward nods at it - 'Are you well?'
'Weller than most, I'd wager.'
'That doesn't mean much, does it.'
some inspired by seeing this THIS, giving Little three months of slightly odd employment - Victory, when it was basically used as a shuttle, and Albion, before it set sail. I wonder what he was up to....
please leave a comment if you got this far, and thanks <3
For my bingo square 'Edward Little'!!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Just as Edward suspected, the Captain does not take kindly to the suggestion, and Jopson takes even less kindly - furiously, actually. It had not seemed as heartless as the two of them believe it to be, but maybe Henry and Edward have gone about this wrong; whichever, it is not their way. Does Captain Crozier not share a sack? He leaves, and the three lieutenants sit in sizzling silence.
'I expected better of you,' says Jopson, his accent thick with loathing, 'than to let men die alone because they slow you down?'
'That's not what it meant!' Edward says, and Henry puts a hand on his shoulder -
'That's what it would entail,' Jopson insists, his pale eyes ghostly in the near-constant summer sun, 'given time. Perhaps not now, perhaps not this time, but when everyone left behind dies, the last man dies alone.'
'I -' says Edward, and Henry shakes his head. It's better not to argue.
'Sorry,' he says, eventually, 'for disappointing you.'
'Hm,' says Jopson, not caring, and storms out.
'Uppity shit,' Henry mutters under his breath -
'He'd let either of us die alone -'
'Don't, Henry! Stop it!'
'None of us are Philosophers, none of this is - is cerebral, Edward, this is live men or dead men, as our Captain once so eloquently put it -'
'Nothing we can do will save James now, and if it were me -' he chokes on a sob, and Edward hadn't realised he was even in tears '- I'd rather die alone than resented as a... ball-and-chain of a man.'
'It's out of our hands now,' says Edward, gently, though he doesn't look up from his own battered boots, his gloved hands, imagining the weight of that option lifted from them, leaving red dents in his palms.
They make another two miles before Fitzjames is in such agony that the party can no longer move an inch, but it's Bridgens who forces them all to stop in the end. Edward's glad for it, not to hear the terrible cries of another man's pain caused by his own hauling.
They know it's over when Bridgens leaves the tent, sits down on the shale and weeps; it's finished when Captain Crozier does the same.
The service is short, if one can call it that, and Edward stands with the others and watches Hartnell stitch Fitzjames' blanket closed like he were just another man, and not one who'd been so much for so many; not one who'd amazed and frustrated Edward so often, both in turn and in tandem.
'Cover him,' says Captain Crozier, voice cracked and rougher than he's ever heard it, 'hide him in the landscape, Edward. I don't want him found or... pawed.'
'Aye, sir,' says Edward - he's no eye for art, for the natural forms of these ancient rocks, the undulations of the windblown gravel; it's not like building a cairn, or a tomb, or it shouldn't be - any hint of that purposefulness would give him away. Henry's sat down beside the grave now, brushing little pebbles around the end of the blanket where the head - Fitzjames' head lies in eternal repose, a grey rock halo. Fitting.
Six miles, and Mr Peglar is the next to go. They should have noticed: keeping a look for men going faint had been Mr Blanky's job along the convoy for so long that they've forgotten to appoint his successor, and poor Peglar dies as Jopson sees that bird overhead. An omen? Edward's never been superstitious, but he still hopes that Peglar got to see it as he died - or would that be worse? He couldn't say which he'd prefer; to die when hope has been lost or just rekindled.
Seeing the bird unhinges them; three more men faint, one of them dead, and Jopson bends double and vomits after staring at the sky too long. Captain Crozier orders a full camp set up, and with Henry and Edward he puts the sick to bed. Mr Bridgens takes the two bodies to another tent, and must be preparing them for burial, because he's there an awful long time.
It's Bobby Golding, Terror's last Boy, who alerts them -
'Open water, sir!'
There is not open water, but there are men - three of them - a gun on each, already loaded and aimed, and Edward and the Captain, Mister Best and Mister Hartnell are not ready for them.
'Bobby!' says Hartnell; Edward can barely imagine his pain until he spies a tow-head cresting the ridge - George, looking for all the world like an enormous urchin, and he does just as Hartnell did -
'Edward!' says George - his voice is filled with something close to joy, and Edward can hardly believe -
'Hodgson!' Des Voeux snaps, taking his sights off of the Captain, 'What part of "Stay by the sledge" don't you understand?'
'Sorry!' says George, 'Sorry!' he sounds like an entirely different person, and puts his hands up.
'Lower your weapons.' says Captain Crozier, in a voice that should brook no argument -
'Come with us, Mister Crozier,' says Des Voeux, 'and the rest of you can go -'
'Lower. Your. Weapons.' says Captain Crozier again.
Hartnell adjusts the rifle in his hands, looking pleadingly at his old friends up on the shale bank, 'Magnus,' he says, 'Bobby, this isn't -'
- and he's silenced by the terrible rapport of Des Voeux's gun, sprawling backward, and as the Captain hollers oaths at them Edward's vision narrows onto their three armed enemies, and doesn't know who to aim for. Poor Hartnell sobs and wheezes in his last moments, and when the Captain stands he's full of determination. Des Voeux almost looks afraid.
'I'll come with you,' he says, 'and you'll let these men go.'
'We'll take your arms, too,' says Des Voeux, still gesturing with the hot barrels of his rifle; Edward whips his aim from Manson toward him before the Captain stands in its path and puts his hand to the cool metal.
Edward's gaze shifts; from him to Des Voeux to Manson to Golding to George, still surrendering uselessly, and realises, maybe for the first time, that he is scared; that they're all scared - the Captain curls his hand around the barrel of Edward's gun, and slings it to Des Voeux.
'Go on, Edward,' he says, 'I'll follow if I can - get Henry, come back for Hartnell... and Live.'
'Sir -' says Edward, and it feels like a goodbye.
'You and the other men will Live,' says Captain Crozier, 'let me hear you say it.'
'We will live,' Edward recites, and the Captain, with one final firm nod, starts climbing up the shallow bank to the rest of the mutiny party. Des Voeux fumbles with the pistol, and George slinks back into the landscape, and Edward walks away from them.
'Oh Christ,' says Best, as they walk what feels like the world's longest mile back to where the men have camped out, 'what are we going to tell Lieutenant Le Vesconte, or Lieutenant Jopson?'
'Don't,' says Edward, and Best doesn't - the hard wind around them whistles like the pipes of hell. He'd forgotten the hope they'd left behind until Henry runs up to meet them before stopping short at the number -
'The creature -' he starts, and Edward shakes his head.
'Hickey's group. Mister Des Voeux - Golding led us into a trap.'
'Dead?' Henry asks, keeping his voice low -
'Hartnell. They've got the Captain -'
'No -' Henry breathes -
'I'm sorry -'
'No,' says Henry again, 'God, Christ - I don't blame you, Edward, Mister Best -'
'Henry,' says Edward, feeling the despair rise up from his chest -
'Get some sleep, Edward, I'll man the camp tonight. We'll discuss it in the morning.'
The threat of a morning discussion weighs heavy as Edward pulls himself to bed; if he can call it bed, but he must have been exhausted, because he sleeps long and very hard, wakes up disoriented and alone in the tent. It must be halfway through the morning already; the men outside potter about, though seem to slink away when he looks at them. He catches a glimpse of a tattered red coat returning from beyond the perimeter -
'You've been keeping an eye on Hickey's group?'
'Yessir. They've not moved. I've spotted a dozen or so different fellers, by my reckoning.'
'Is there anything we could use to ambush them?'
Hammond thinks this over, 'Not especially, sir, but there are more of us. If we can get a weapon to the Captain, or Lieutenant Hodgson too, they'd be completely overwhelmed.'
'Hm,' says Edward, and then, 'and... Hartnell?'
'His body. Have... have we buried him?'
Hammond looks miserable, 'I - he wasn't there, sir.'
'Ah,' says Edward. 'was it.. an animal?'
'I don't think so, sir.'
Edward breathes out hard through his nose, and nods Private Hammond away - he needs to plan an attack, though he can't find enough of the men to call to arms, and his throat is too sore to holler.
How many men are weapons trained? How many men do they have total, now? How much powder can we spare - for a moment he allows himself the fantasy of talking it over with his officers - his real officers, John and George, who would suggest something sedate or brazen respectively. He rubs his eyes, and mouths the words to himself, a one-man roleplay -
'A half-dozen guns on their side...'
'A dozen of us,' George would say, and John would say -
'A score, to be safe.'
George would roll his eyes and remind them that he had the most land combat experience, - he always said 'most', even though they all knew it meant 'only' - and John would puff up, flustered - 'I just think we ought to overwhelm them with numbers.'
'More men,' says George, 'more likelihood of injury, more noise - we should take in as swiftly as possible, with mixed weapons, our best marksmen and our strongest otherwise, and surprise them with two parties of six.'
'We should send a couple of our Marines to scout them out.'
'Marvellous idea, Johnny!'
'The sooner the better?' Edward says -
'Oh, certainly. They think we're on the back foot -'
'Quite right,' says Edward, decided, then -
'And - George?'
'Yes, sir?' says Georgie Chambers, and Edward curses himself: the odd, occasional slackness of his mind -
'George,' says Edward again, as though he had meant to address Chambers, rather than a phantom friend, 'I need you to collect the men. All of the Marines, Lieutenant Le Vesconte, Mister Jopson if he's well enough -'
'Yessir! says Georgie, as brightly as he can. Poor Chambers, the only boy left - though, he'd been the only boy on Erebus for a longer time, so perhaps he doesn't feel it as keenly. Edward stands alone and tries not to look at John and George out of the corner of his eye, shimmering like the mirages they are.
'The men you asked for are assembled, sir!' says Chambers, running over with his cap in his hands, 'Everyone - almost everyone -'
'Lead the way,' says Edward, and he regrets it.
'I can't believe you,' Edward hisses, outside of the tent, 'our Captain is out there, with those - those -'
Henry's sympathetic face goes suddenly hard - 'I admire Captain Crozier a great deal, but he is not my Captain.'
'My Captain is sown into a blanket, under shale ten miles back. That is where my loyalty lies, Edward, not with the Expedition, not with Sir John, not even with Captain Crozier, but in a shallow grave on King William. I gave up a posting on the Mediterranian for James Fitzjames, and I should like to see her again.'
'Oh God,' says Edward, and Henry gives him an agreeing nod.
'I am sorry,' he says, 'but you understand me, yes? We agreed not three days ago -'
'I know,' says Edward, 'I know - but Captain Crozier said -'
'Men will die attacking Hickey's camp - our sick may die even as we argue where they should do it.'
'I know!' says Edward, desperately, the tears that have been prickling at his eyes all day stinging - 'I don't know what - what's right -'
'That's why I organised that vote -'
'Vote, did Jopson vote?'
Henry looks down.
'He didn't. He's - he's nearly gone. It's unfair to drag a man along -'
'The Captain - the Captains promoted him for a reason.'
'In April - it was a different world, Edward. If Jopson is not dead this time tomorrow I'll buy you all the tea in China. Some friend you'd be, to tell him so.'
Edward scratches his beard. When he does speak, his mouth is so dry that all that comes out is a hoarse whisper -
'When do you plan on leaving?' No man looks at his watch any longer. Edward's shadow is maybe half a foot long.
'Noon,' says Henry.
They move quickly without the dying men, covering the same amount of ground that would have taken four days with them, and they only stop when Edward finally gives the order he'd been expecting Henry to make. The camaraderie of the earlier camps has long gone, and when Edward cracks open a tin of ox-tail soup he can no longer recall Mister Blanky's funny name for it.
'George was there,' says Edward, 'when we lost the Captain.'
'Huh,' says Henry, 'is he... is he alright?'
'He - his hair looks a complete state.'
'Same as ever, then?' says Henry, and when Edward looks up at him he's almost sparkling with mirth.
'Shhh -' says Edward, struggling to keep his own laughter smothered, '- the men are -'
Henry snorts, and then Edward can't help himself, and they're both laughing so hard Edward thinks he might die, and before he realises what's happened he's crying.
'God,' he says, miserably, 'I could have wept with joy when I saw that he was scared - what is wrong with me?'
'Probably nothing,' says Henry, 'he's their prisoner, or something close to it, but a prisoner can be freed - while a turncoat...'
'For a while,' says Edward, 'I forgot that was even a possibility. God.'
He hangs his head.
'The Captain -'
'Don't start on that again.'
'He... maybe he'll catch up to us. He said he would.'
'Do you suppose Hickey let him live?'
'Hickey's obsessed with him. So long as Hickey's alive, the Captain will be alive too.'
'Cold comfort that is,' says Henry, but he doesn't deny him; he must believe it too.
A command tent is far too big for two, so it is jettisoned - as are crates full of crockery, stacks of bibles and novels. Edward weighs a wineglass in his hand for the first time in months, and lets it drop to the ground.
'Why do we have these?'
Henry shrugs, and lifts another glass from the straw. 'Morale?' he says.
'I am sick and tired of Morale,' says Edward, digging through the crate to find a beautiful blue-and-white plate.
'Ironic,' says Henry.
Edward says nothing, lets his fingers trace the painted gabled rooftops and still waters, the little birds in the tree.
'Awful,' he says, then spins the plate out like the discus competition at school, watches it fly and land and burst, and when it's done so they both laugh with a kind of cathartis.
'Watch this,' says Henry, shot-putting a cut glass out into the void, which Edward follows with a cricket bowl that almost pulls his arm from its socket - plates and glasses follow suit until there's just an empty crate, some straw, and the two of them, laughing breathlessly.
Henry says, 'We have thirty-four cans left.'
'Thirty-four,' Edward repeats, turning the stem of the last wineglass in his hand.
'Yes,' says Henry, redundantly.
'Do we have boots?'
'A few pairs,' says Henry, 'and we still have these books -'
'Books!? Good Christ, Henry -'
'Shall we continue to dance around it?' asks Henry, 'We are in command. You are in command. Our men starve and -'
Edward breathes so deeply his coat seams creak - 'Wh - I don't know where to start - we can't...'
'Ask me honestly,' says Henry, 'and I will answer you as honestly as I can.'
Edward looks at his hands.
'We left Sinclair a mile back.'
'Yes,' says Henry.
'Should we... it seems...'
'We make a decision, here and now. Do we wait for all of our food to run out, so that we can watch one another like vultures, and pounce upon a dead man before he's cold -'
'Or eat Sinclair with tea? Perhaps spread him on a biscuit like pemmican?'
'Those are our options,' says Henry, and for a moment his toughened facade cracks, his chin wobbles - 'I didn't take my exam for this, Edward. Neither of us did.'
Edward nods, 'We'll go back together, then.'
A wineglass shatters on the rock.
Henry has near-enough crawled the last mile - when they stop for the evening, he's not even able to get his boot off of his left foot.
'Would you?' he asks, the two of them alone in the tent as the twilight hits - 'like Hardy did?'
Edward clasps his hand around Henry's - Henry's return grip hasn't any strength, so Edward doubles, then triples his until he can't tell.
'We'll feel a right pair when morning comes,' he says, 'you wouldn't -'
'If I'm alive come morning I doubt I'd even remember to feel a fool. You must remember not to take my left - it's rotten to the knee -'
'We laughed at gunnery school about him, about Hardy - but I understand it now, I do. A little comfort... to know you're loved -'
'Edward,' Henry says, and gives what might be a wheezing breath or a rush of a laugh, 'don't make me do the line.'
'Give me the line.'
'Kiss me, Little,' says Henry, and Edward does - a chaste kiss to Henry's chapped, frozen temple, and another to his scabbed cheekbone, and Henry gives the smallest sigh, leans back, and closes his eyes. His breathing is shallow and quiet, but rhythmic enough to lull Edward to sleep. When he awakes, Henry is stone cold. Private Hammond is in the tent flap, framed in light.
'Is he -'
'Yes,' says Edward -
Hammond makes an awkward motion - he has his arm hidden behind his back, and Edward knows he has a carpenter's saw in hand.
'- Not the left.'
Think I can safely put this series to bed now! Written more for this than I have in years... 25k of men crying in the Arctic, you're welcome and I hope you liked it, or, okay... it's not LIKEABLE content, but I hope you got something out of it.
please leave a comment if you got this far, they mean the world to me <3