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cast their hand to the fates

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Curiously enough, it was not the weight atop him that woke James up. It was the shroud- well, the sack- rubbing against his face as it was cut open. He’d never been able to tolerate things on his face.

The weight was painful, but, then, everything was painful; moving, breathing, blinking his eyes. He’d heard about the indignities of scurvy all through his career, and it had sounded pretty grim, but the lived experience was worse. As bad as it got, really. He thought he’d died, and, evidently, so had everyone else, if the sack was anything to go by. Somebody climbing about on him was merely an additional layer in the strata of agony.

Light pricked at his closed eyelids. Hands touched him, brisk and inquisitive, about his neck, then skimming down his body and over his hands. Checking for valuables. Good grief. He’d hardly thought he’d be subject to looting- this was the arctic tundra, not the field at Waterloo- but some men were like that anywhere. They brought it with them.

The man frisking him moved downwards, and started tugging on his boots. James cracked his one good eye. Through the haze of pain and overbright light, he could make out a slim shape in a blue coat, a pale face, a shock of ginger hair. Ah, of course. Mister Hickey.

Hickey had removed one of his boots, and moved on to the other. What did he want with them? Given the disparity in their sizes, he could probably curl up in one to sleep. The second boot came free, with a a painful yank on James's leg, and a hurt noise escaped him before he could contain it.

In a flash, Hickey was on him again, investigating. James had closed his eyes the moment the sound was out, and now endeavoured to look as dead as he could. He had seen the flash of metal in his hand, and knew to keep still if he wanted to live. Like any other predator, Hickey followed movement.

It was not an action borne of thought, but of instinct; ugly, low instinct, gutter instinct. The two of them were thus alike, if only thus. James brought up his hand, and twisted the knife from Hickey's grasp. The blue coat, evidently stripped off another, larger, dead man's back, hung open, exposing Hickey's grubby shirt to the world. It was the work of a moment to slip the blade, honed sharp and shining, inside the tent the hanging coat made, and up and in between his ribs, to where a heart should be.

Blood, shockingly hot, pulsed over his hand. Above him, Hickey looked surprised. He coughed, more blood coming to his teeth, and a wet, animal noise came up with it. He clawed at James's hand, trying to get at the hilt of the knife, but a few shreds of skin were nothing to lose now; James was already as good as dead, and therefore untroubled by survival instincts.

Joints screaming, James turned on his side, dislodging the gasping Hickey. As if from very far away, James watched his mouth moving. He was trying to form words, but James didn't care what they were, and doubted very much that anyone else would, either. It felt… fitting, in a cruel way, for a parley-captain like Hickey to die silent.

When it came, death came much faster for Hickey than it had for James, and when it came in was a palpable thing. One moment, he was sharing a shallow grave with the murderous, graverobbing mutineer who'd so thoroughly routed their chances of walking out of this place, and the next he lay beside a slab of cooling meat with a rather silly look on its face.

James had killed before. Always with a gun, or in extremity a sword, each of which offered a certain distance from the men at whom he'd pointed them. Hickey's blood slicked his forearm and stained his shirt, growing sticky in the cool air. It felt very, very different to shooting at someone and watching him fall. More intimate, and more horrible for it.

Above him, he heard boots on shale. Someone swore luridly. James rolled Hickey all the way off of himself, and pushed himself up onto his elbows. "I don't suppose you could help me on with my boots," he said.

"Captain Fitzjames," said Sergeant Tozer. "We thought you dead."

"Funny thing. So did I," said James.

Tozer helped him get his boots on. By wordless, mutual agreement, they did not touch the thing that had been Hickey as the Sergeant got an arm under James's and dragged him out of the trench. It was warmer, standing; whoever had buried him had tucked him thoughtfully between two outcroppings of rock.

"My legs won't hold me back to camp," James admitted to Tozer, who was staring at him, wide-eyed. He probably did not look his best.

"The boys can carry you, sir," said Tozer. "Captain Crozier will want to hear about this."

James, tactfully, did not bring up the mutiny. "Yes, I expect so," he said, and he let Tozer support his weight as they set off to the second, smaller camp.