(Author's Notes – Brokenspar lives! Well, I've been busy lately and I'm very, very sorry I haven't updated sooner. This was another sticky chapter to write – tell me if the gore level is a bit excessive, or not enough; whether character interaction is believable or not, etc. I'm not afraid of criticism so long as it's constructive!
This chapter's sort of long …
As always, thank you, thank you, thank you to my lovely reviewers!
Oh, just so we're clear – Ezra Harding is really a woman, Bea Blackthorne. Just didn't want anyone to think the end is slashy, especially if they didn't read the third chapter.)
"Sir," bellowed a voice I thought I knew – could it have been Hartt, the gun-captain? – "The 'ere's Mr. Harding!"
I felt the weight on my legs and midsection lifted, but was still too weak to bring myself to open my eyes. And now that the circulation was returning to the bottom half of my body, my left ankle and shin were splintering with pain.
Someone's boots strode over. An officer.
"It's no use, Hartt. He's dead."
It was White, it had to be. I would have recognized his tenor anywhere, even when it was clipped with pain. He went on, in even more strained tones, "By the looks of the bloody mess on his face, shot through the head. Painless, at least. Bring him back to the Arethusa for burial."
And White hurried away, probably to oversee the removal of the wounded and the dead.
With him gone, Hartt picked me up easily and slung me over his shoulder. With the pain return and the impact, I whimpered (yes, whimpered) unintentionally and, unsurprisingly, Hartt dropped me in shock.
I fell like a sack of potatoes, and clattered to the deck. Needless to say, my reader, that hurt. I managed to open my eyes a sliver, and did not like what I saw. The splinter wound in my right arm was now more like a dozen or so small barbs in my upper arm all oozing blood; a hand to my head came away covered in red; my left boot was torn with all the splinters driven home in that area; the foot of the same leg was twisted at an odd angle. And I was pretty much soaked through with blood, some of it my own, but most of it from the disemboweled officer.
How did all this happen? The last thing I could remember was the ball ricocheting off the cannon … oh! The shot must have splintered the carriage and knocked the thing over on my legs!
"I'm not dead, Hartt," I mumbled, in enough pain to contemplate wanting to be.
I tried to get to my feet, but my ankle gave way in a crack that Hartt winced at. Needless to say, I fell to the deck and cursed.
Hartt hardly batted an eye as he lifted me to my feet, acting as a human crutch as I dragged by bad ankle behind me, looking like the dead returned.
"Hartt! Stop helping with the wounded and pick up the – Harding!"
White had not seen who Hartt was helping, and I could forgive him for his irritation. I made an ironic salute, feeling the barbs grind in further to my right arm as I used it. He smiled briefly, assured of my bodily safety, and carried on with the grave work of supervising the dead.
The Arethusa had dragged herself back to her feat in the aftermath of the battle. As the wounded picked themselves up, the living lifted the dead and fixed the useless – bloodied sailors coiled rope, swept splinters and debris into heaps, plugged holes and bound the cannons back. I looked around, wondering who was dead and who was not, hoping that those I had come to know had survived. I did not see anyone, and my heart sank, though I tried to reason that there were many other places a body could be presently.
Like the sickbay.
An odd homecoming the ordinary midshipman found when returning to his haunts in the aftermath of the battle. The cockpit, his normal lair, had since been converted into an airless, claustrophobic, blood-soaked surgery, and his chest has been turned to the doctor's table. The wounded moan, sigh, and scream; the place rings round with pain, suffering and death. At first it overpowers you, for you cannot comprehend or even begin to take in the humanity of the situation. And then you must leave – or you will sink below it, become a part of it, part of the pile of moaning bodies still oozing blood as their hearts work to drive their life from them, or the numbed, cynical surgeon, warmed only by the heat of crimson and colored by everyone's blood but his own.
Hartt propped my sorrowfully against the side, gave me an encouraging look, and left, having his grisly work. For my part I waited until my turn should come, staring intently at the deck and trying to ignore the noise, accidentally blocking out the faint call of "Harding." I did not hear the call for the longest time, but another soul tapped my shoulder and pointed to a swinging hammock. Fearful, I approached, noting the pallor of the limbs hung from it. As I came near, I realized who it was.
Ankle screaming, I bit my tongue and limped over, disgusted by the slither of my damaged boot over the deck.
"Harding," he smiled faintly, "Well, you are a sight for sore eyes!"
I looked him over, torso wrapped around in a swath of blood soaked bandages, skin glimmering with sweat in the faint light. He was very pale.
"What did they do to you?"
My concern bought me a small laugh and a bloodless cough.
"The French, or Nettleton?"
I shot him a look.
"Since you ask, I ended up on the wrong end of the sword. Quite a bit, really, as you can probably tell from all the blood. I think I can safely promise you, however, that barring an infection, I shall be safely returned to duty as soon as the wounds heal enough to not stain my uniform. And you, Harding, you're no prize right now."
"Chiefly, my ankle is broken. Gun fell on it; snapped when I tried to stand up. Other than that, my best pair of sea boots in ruined because of all the splinters, and there seems to be a large line on the side of my face."
"That's going to damage your chances of a girl, Harding – that's going to scar over and you'll be hideous."
"If I live that long. And I think that a woman ought to find a man with scars more attractive, don't you think? Proves something."
I wasn't really sure, at this point, if that was Bea or Ezra talking, but it was ironically meant all the same, and Cross got a laugh out of it.
"Poor, idealistic Harding. You have no idea about women, do you? You're only fourteen."
Of course not. No idea about women, indeed.
I blanched as I heard Doctor Nettleton bellow my name from barely ten feet away, hoping he wouldn't …
"You don't think he's going to have to …?"
"No," Cross replied, "Have no fear of the knife."
A loblolly boy came up and dragged me along to the grisly table for inspection.
"Take this," Nettleton ordered as he handed me a bottle with a milky white substance I could not focus on but for the bloody fingerprints, "Laudanum. It will help with the pain."
"I can't take the laudanum."
"I don't react well."
"Well, you'll damn near react worse when you have that ankle reset without the pain being dulled. Take it."
That was the end of the argument as Nettleton saw it, and, despite my aversions, he was right. I pulled the stopper from the bottle and took a modest swig, watching the world begin to spin even as the liquid began to trickle down my throat. Nettleton roughly pushed me down and lifted my legs onto the table.
"This may hurt a bit, Mr. Harding," Nettleton warned.
In an excruciatingly slow manner, he tugged the boot off my broken ankle, with it quite frequently getting caught on the various splinters stuck in my skin. I bit my lip and willed myself not to cry out in light of those far more qualified to do so that I. After all, wasn't it just a broken ankle?
During the final tug, I brought my fists to my face and pressed, nails digging into my palms.
"Easy, Ezra. Easy," whispered Cross, who had walked up behind me and pressed a hand into my shoulder.
With the boot off, Nettleton, let the ankle be and began prodding my shin, sending new waves of pain to my fortunately muddled brain. A burning agony tore through my nerves as he pulled a splinter from my flesh, and a very black profanity escaped my lips. The procedure was repeated; the strength and force of the curse varying on the size of the splinter pulled. I lost count after fifteen or so, realizing that my palms were actually bleeding a bit. Distracted by that, I actually managed to keep my mind off the pain until a long silence led me to look and behold Nettleton confronting my ankle. I did not have enough time to lay back down and prepare before my lower leg exploded in the severest torture I had ever felt. I cried out, willing my eyes not to moisten as bones ground against each other, being meticulously positioned again. Flickers of black edged at my vision, and I could feel my head spin and muscles slacken, praying all the while for it to stop, which it did not, even when Nettleton braced it with a stiff, heavy splint.
I'm not proud of this, but as soon as the man started pulling the splinters out of my arm, I passed out cold.
I found myself next swinging in the same hammock Cross had recently vacated, mind jagged and unfocused – both from my injuries and the laudanum. It was terribly hot, and I still felt bloody and sticky. I brought my hand to my face, feeling the line of stitches that had been sewn in my unconsciousness. Cross might have been wrong about women appreciating scars in men, but men never appreciated such a scar in a woman. Would this scar keep me at sea forever? I almost wanted to ask Cross whether he thought a physically scarred woman was attractive – this was a delirious resolve, however, and was not remembered the next moment, when he himself cam forward from the heated shadows with a pitcher of water and another vial of laudanum. Cross hardly looked better than he had before, but looked decidedly comic in a grisly way, being fully dressed from the waist down and wearing nothing but a bandage on his torso.
And at that moment I resolved never to take the laudanum again, because, for the first time in almost five years at sea, I was finding one of my shipmates attractive. Pain be damned, there was no way.
"I'm not supposed to be out of a hammock, but the loblolly boys have their hands full with the wounded. Nettleton said when you woke to give you this. Drink it, please. You have no idea how terrible you look."
"I'm not taking the laudanum."
"Ezra, you're an idiot. You were in too much pain before – you passed out, for Chrissakes! I don't want to see you in that much pain."
"It alters my judgment."
"That's the point!"
"Cross, don't make me take it!"
"Dammit, you don't know what's good for you, Harding!"
"And you do?"
"I think I'm a bit more qualified than you, yes!"
"God, Cross, if you knew how much the laudanum - "
"Harding, you prat, I've been at sea longer than you. I know what the laudanum does to your mind, from personal experience. Do you think I got this without some relief?"
Cross took the opportunity to exhibit a web of scarring that engulfed his right shoulder and most of his upper arm.
"You think you've been in pain. I was right next to a cannon when it overheated and exploded. I was lucky enough not to be blown from one world to the next, but not nearly lucky enough to escape the skin down to my muscle being burned off. So take the laudanum, please."
Why did he make the remark about scars? Well, better drug myself into oblivion than to risk a slip that could end me hanged or expelled.
"Give me the goddamn bottle, then," I grumbled, not looking at him, "And give White my regards, will you? If he comes while I'm … asleep."
I might have fallen asleep quickly after drinking the potion, but not quickly enough to notice the worry in Cross's eyes. He really was handsome …
The glass I downed was almost three parts laudanum to one water, so I didn't wonder when I didn't wake up for a while.