Horatio stood on the heaving deck, staring through the thick mist at the faint outline of land in the distance. Ireland. From here it looked as mystical and otherworldly as its reputation purported it to be, but what had been taking place on the small green island over the recent past was a harsh reality. The Rebels were losing their fight for independence, really had all but lost it now, with any hopes of help from France completely dashed and the United Irishmen's Leinster leadership arrested in Dublin only yesterday. But there was a strong pocket of holdouts now located here in County Wexford, and the Indefatigable had been sent to assist in the Government's attempt to oust them by distributing guns to the soldiers fighting for the British side. So many dead, so many left without sons, husbands, fathers, lovers. It wounded Horatio's heart, for many reasons. Despite their own feelings on the matter, he could only but consider them all British, and to be forced to aid in the deaths of his own countrymen was hard. Horatio was glad he had been serving elsewhere during most of the trouble.
And of course, there was also the memory of her to torment and haunt him.
Mr. Kennedy's arrival on deck disrupted his thoughts.
"The Captain wants all officers in his quarters immediately, Horatio."
"Thank you, Archie. I'm just coming."
"You know she's most likely dead by now. Or sent away to some maiden auntie for her own protection."
Horatio laughed a little at this. "She would never stand for that. They would have had to bind and gag her and tie her in the back of a cart. More likely she's been arrested again."
"Either way, my friend, nothing to do with you." Horatio could hear the question in his voice.
"Stop worrying about me Archie. I hardly think of her at all."
"There are too many for you to not think about Horatio- I pray that you'll find someone someday who you can think of without pain."
"We're late, Archie."
Captain Pellew was not in a convivial humor when Horatio and Archie entered the room and took their seats.
"I hope our meeting is not interfering with your personal lives, men?" he bellowed.
"No sir, sorry we were delayed sir." Horatio said sheepishly.
"Then if I can have everyone's attention I will get on with it, is that acceptable to you, Lieutenant Hornblower?"
"Fine. I make no secret that this mission is not to my taste. I am in the navy to fight, not to pass out flintlocks to Paddy and Bridget. But those are our orders, and we will follow them to the best of our ability, quickly and efficiently and then get back to fighting the real enemy. I want no moaning, no drinking, and no fraternizing with the locals while we are ashore. Is that perfectly understood? Yes? Good. Now, on to the particulars. We will go ashore here in this Godforsaken place. Mr. Hornblower, you will take a convoy of wagons with the second allotment of arms on to an even more Godforsaken place called…" Pellew here consulted a paper he had lifted from the table, "Enniscorthy. You will distribute the weapons quickly and efficiently and then get back here to the ship as quickly and efficiently as you can possibly manage. Is there anything about these instructions that you do not understand?"
"No sir. I understand."
"Good. I see that your brain is apparently functioning better than your watch today. Just be warned that there are small bands of rebels still about the countryside who would be more than happy to relieve you of your life although they know it would do them no good whatsoever. Be careful, Mr. Hornblower, in other words."
The first shots, coming from the dense brush to the west side of the road, felled two of the men and a horse. The untrained band scattered in confusion as he shouted orders at them to no avail. Hornblowers's own men, Archie and Matthews among them, ducked quickly behind the wagons and began to return fire. They could see a few of the Irish fall, and soon, having used their small store of ammunition, the rebels began to retreat back through the woods. Horatio gave the order to pursue and ran into the trees himself, focusing immediately on one particular running man.
Horatio ran, chasing his fleeing prey, his breath coming in ragged gasps from the effort, and still he could not catch the escaping form. He crashed through a dense thicket, felt the briars scratching his face and hands, and suddenly he had the oddest sensation of- memory. As if he had done this before, heard the same sounds, smelled the green scent of the warm damp brush and felt the sharp sting of the briars on his skin. He shook off the feeling and pulled his pistol from his belt, cocking it, ready to shoot if he could get one good aim. Then he suddenly came bursting into the open and saw his target standing about ten feet in front of him, his own pistol pointed right at Horatio's heart. He pulled himself up short, shocked and still feeling slightly out of himself, and then he noticed the face of his opponent. The rebel's hat had been lost during the chase and now Horatio could see it was not a man, but a woman- flashing blue eyes and a mass of flame red hair- her breast heaving under the man's shirt she was wearing, breathing labored from her own retreat. Recognition dawned on her face, and now it was her turn to feel shock.
"You!" she exclaimed- "Oh all the Saints in Heaven- why does it have to be you?"
"Ciara!" For some reason Horatio was not as shocked himself at this discovery as he felt he should have been. He lowered his pistol, but Ciara kept hers steady, still pointed and cocked.
"Are you really going to shoot me, Ciara?" he asked quietly. After one more moment's hesitation she lowered her gun as well. They stared at one another in silence across the few feet of tall grass, the only sound the bleating of the sheep on the nearby hillside. Horatio took a tentative step toward her, and when she dropped the pistol to the ground he rushed to gather her in his arms. She held him tightly and covered his mouth with her own, kissing him hungrily. Her warm soft lips and her breasts crushed against his chest felt like heaven to him, and he devoured her with all of his senses. When they finally released one another he smoothed back her wild hair, which had come loose from the pins during her mad dash, and stared into her blue eyes.
"I was certain you were dead," he whispered.
"No, I haven't gone to have my chat with Old Nick yet, I suppose he doesn't want me either."
"Ciara, Ciara- why will you not go somewhere you can be safe and protected, why do you have to act so much like…"
"Like what? Say it Horatio- like a man? You sound exactly like the bastards in our own army, I had to dress as a boy even for them. They want me to go and sit in a cave with the rest of the women, knitting bloody blankets and making stew for the brave returning soldiers. The few that will come home from this bloody war. You know I can't do that."
"Yes, I do know. I just don't like it."
"We have to get out of the open, Horatio, one side or the other will come along soon and one of us will be done for. Come with me, quickly."
She led him out of the little glade and back into the forest, continuing in the direction they had been running. They walked quickly and soon they came upon a tiny hut that had been built for the men who worked cutting lumber, deserted now. It was roughly made of logs, and contained nothing but a table and two chairs, the walls lined with hooks for hanging food out of the reach of rats and other woodland creatures. But now the hooks contained only a few sets of clothing, basic working man's clothes and boots.
"You have to get out of that uniform, my people are all over these woods and if they see you they'll kill you in a moment and ask questions after."
"Ciara- if I remove my uniform and go with you, that would be desertion. I can't do that."
"Then take your chances going back through the woods to your friends. Even if you could manage to avoid being killed by the rebels you'd be lost in no time, Horatio. An Irish forest is not the open sea." He only stared at her, his jaw set in his stubborn way.
"Please darlin,'" she pleaded with him, "you saved my life once, let me save yours now. Just put on these clothes until I can get you somewhere you can be safe, back to your people."
"Anyone will know I'm British anyway the moment I speak."
"But there's British and there's British, there's many a lad from England over here who is not involved in the fight. Just pretend to be one of them until I can get you out of here, you foolish creature! Please, Horatio. I'll point my pistol at your head again and make you my prisoner if that's what it takes."
"What about my men back there? What of our orders?"
"You think your presence will be their saving grace? You'll do no one a bit of good buried in a shallow grave in these woods or left as a meal for wild animals. Look around you, Mr. Hornblower, and tell me where your men are now? You may not realize it but I led you a merry chase through those trees, you are well and truly misdirected."
Horatio turned and looked back through the trees and began to remember the twists and turns she had led him through during the pursuit. He knew he should attempt to return to his men, but, swayed partly by the sense in what she said and partly by the desire to remain with her, he gave in and began to undress. She watched him quickly strip off, feeling that slow hot fire in her belly that he had built before, and couldn't stop herself reaching out to touch the soft skin of his back, his ropy muscles just beneath the surface. He turned and looked into her eyes, reached out his own hand to her face and stroked her cheek.
"Why do I burn so for you?" she asked him, or perhaps the question was really meant for herself. "We haven't time for this, we have to get away from here now." She pulled his hand from her face and walked outside. In a few minutes he emerged, dressed in rough clothes and patched boots. She grinned at him.
"You make a fine peasant, Mr. Hornblower. Except for that look of a hero you have in your eyes that wouldn't fool a blind man. God, but you're beautiful."
"So are you, I had almost forgotten how beautiful."
"Even as a boy?" she asked with a smile, gathering up her hair and stuffing it under a hat she hat picked from the wall, along with a heavy jacket that would hide her full breasts. "I know I should cut off this bloody hair, but I can't quite bring myself to do it."
Horatio smiled and pulled her to him, removing the hat she had just gotten settled on her head and kissing her hard. She pried her lips from his after letting herself taste his sweet mouth for a few moments.
"No- damn you Horatio! We have no time, can't I make you understand, we have to get out of these woods before my people find us here…" But he was leading her out of the tiny clearing and back into the trees, unbuttoning her shirt and covering her neck with soft wet kisses until any resistance she had left in her was gone. She helped him remove the clothing he had so recently donned and soon they were naked, holding each other so tightly that they might have been sharing flesh, Horatio covering her white round breasts with kisses and her reaching to grasp him in her hot hand. "Quickly love," she whispered, as he pulled her to the soft carpet of dead leaves and moss beneath them and took her, thrusting hard and fast in his need of her, and she cried out with pleasure at feeling him inside her once again. Their moans and cries of ecstasy sent a flurry of birds screaming into the air and they laughed together at this as Horatio exploded and she clutched him to her tightly with her arms and legs. They kissed lingeringly for a moment or two and then she pushed him away.
"Come on now, you wicked boy, before someone catches us like this."
After less than an hour of walking through the dark forest she led him out into the fields and they walked for another twenty minutes or so before coming upon a small market town, the atmosphere surprisingly calm. The sun was just beginning to set and the streets were busy with people on their way home to their suppers, the day's work finished. There were a dozen or so British soldiers present, milling about and standing around the main street keeping watchful eyes on the local population.
"Right", Ciara whispered to him as they walked, "we'll find a tavern for a bit of food and a bed tonight and in the morning you can hire a horse from a man I know just outside of town, a sympathizer, and safely follow the coast back to Wexford where your ship is anchored. You can tell them you were captured and escaped or some such story. I trust you're not too noble to tell a lie in order to save your skin, Lieutenant Hornblower?"
"I have no money though, how will I hire a horse?"
"Well then I suppose you'll just have to steal one then and hope you don't get caught." Horatio stared at her wide eyed in disbelief. She laughed at him.
"You really are a bit of a goose, aren't you? I have money, you eejit- how did you suppose we were going to pay the Tavern- by performing a song and dance?"
Just then a soldier passing by stopped and turned to scrutinize them, looking suspiciously at Ciara and addressing Horatio- "You there, what's your business? Are you a local?"
"N..nn..no sir. We're only passing through on our way to..to..to" Horatio's mind went completely blank as he struggled to remember the name of any town in the vicinity. "On our way to Enniscorthy."
"Enniscorthy? You'd best stay clear of there, son- there's a good bit of fighting around those parts at the moment, very dangerous."
"Thank you sir, we'll keep that in mind. Thank you very much indeed."
"Are you English, son? Where are you from?"
"Yes sir, I've only come over recently from Kent."
The officer looked at Ciara, who had her head down, hiding her face from view.
"This is my brother, sir, he's a bit simple," Horatio explained.
"Ah. Well, you had better find a place to stay for the night, there's a curfew on after dark." The man moved on, with one backwards glance at the pair.
"Simple?" Ciara giggled. "Thanks very much."
"Well, I was afraid he was going to ask you to remove your hat and then we would have been arrested for certain."
"For sodomy, if nothing else."
Horatio grinned at her as she pulled him on down the street.
They found a cheap Inn and ordered a meal and a room for the night, finding a dark corner table where no one would have a good look at them. Luckily travelers were common here so they didn't occasion much interest anyway, and no one took any notice that the handsome young fella's simple brother wore his hat throughout their supper. Horatio himself drew many stares however, from the tavern girls. When they had finished and were on their way upstairs to the room, a particularly pretty and buxom young lass stopped him and asked directly, "Would you be interested in someone to warm your bed tonight sir?" Horatio began to stammer and glanced at Ciara.
"Oh, don't worry about him," the tavern girl returned, "didn't you say he was a bit soft in his head? He won't know what's goin' on."
"I-I-I have a wife, Miss." Horatio said, almost pleading.
"Sure, and she's not here, is she? Who's to tell her what you do?"
"Thomas-" Ciara interrupted in a mumbling voice, "Didn't the last girl you played with make your cock go all itchy and red?" The girl's eyes grew wide and she looked quickly at Horatio, who shrugged his shoulders in an apologetic way.
"Oh- well, I hope you have a restful night lads, God keep you." And she hurried away. "Dirty little hoor! The cheek of her!" Ciara exclaimed when she was out of earshot. "If I wasn't supposed to be your brother I'd pull her tits off!"
Horatio began to laugh then. "She wouldn't stand a chance against you, simple or not," he said, dragging Ciara up the stairs.
When they had shut the door behind them Ciara immediately took him into her arms and kissed him, he responded with passion.
"One night," she whispered, "I have you for one short night and then I lose you again. I must truly be damned to have to suffer so much pain in this earthly life."
"God, I could never stop thinking of you, Ciara, it was terrible- thinking you were dead."
"I thought you would hate me for using you that way, but Horatio, I didn't want to die. Not like that."
"Shh…I could never hate you, no matter what you did. I wouldn't have let them hang you either, I would have done something." After all the lies she had been told by men in her life, for once she knew this man was telling her the truth. This brave and yet naïve young man would have gone to the gallows himself if he had thought it would save her.
"How can there be anyone like you left in the world?" she asked him. He didn't answer, but kissed her again and began to remove her jacket, whispering softly into her ear, "I love you…"
"God or the Devil take me, but I love you too."
Horatio, having thrown the jacket to the floor, began to slowly unbutton Ciara's waistcoat and then her shirt, adding them to the discarded clothing at their feet. By this time his own jacket had joined hers, and they took it in turn removing each other's clothes until they were both stripped bare and caressing one another hungrily, lips and tongues tasting and exploring in the meantime. He led her toward one of the small beds and pushed her gently down, then he began to kiss her soft white body, every inch of it, starting at her small toes and teasing her with his tongue until she had to bite down on her clenched fist to stifle her cries, lest the guests in the adjoining rooms hear her. He devoured her mouth once again, implanting on his memory the feeling of her warm tongue dancing with his and her soft hands stroking his back, then his hair. She rolled him over and took him into her, unable to wait any longer. They made love, Ciara astride him while he caressed her breasts, still perfect to his eye, and thrust himself into her with abandon, and when he reached his peak Horatio cried out, oblivious to their neighbors. Ciara leaned down to smother his moans with her mouth, and giggled.
"They will all surely think you like abusing little boys, darling. And incestuous in the bargain."
"Better they think that than know the truth. Oh Ciara, every night since you left I've thought of you, wanted you. What spell have you worked on me?"
"The same as you've worked on me, Horatio- I should not be here with you now. If we were discovered like this we would both be arrested, I would hang this time for certain…"
Horatio took her face in his hands and looked into her blue eyes. "Is it worth it then, these few hours of pleasure, for what we've both risked?"
She stared back for a few moments, then said simply- "Yes."
He tangled his hands in her long flaming hair and crushed his lips to hers, already feeling the stirrings of his passion for her again. But he was startled to feel wetness on his cheek, and when he drew back to look at her, he saw the tears spilling from her eyes.
"Oh Horatio, why did you have to come here? Why did we have to meet again- I feel as if I'm defaming my husband's memory by being with you like this. Why do you have to British- and why do I have to love you so?"
He didn't answer, but held her tightly while she sobbed against his chest. After a while she quieted, and he held her while she slept, exhausted from the day's trials.
He felt himself slowly rising from the depths of sleep, pulled from there by some pleasant sensation. When he had come sufficiently to consciousness he could feel a warm hand caressing his chest, his belly, the soft hair above his manhood, which was responding before he was even full awake. His lips sought hers in the dark as she stroked him to his full length, and his hand found her own hot, moist place and brought her to a fevered state of arousal with his touch. Then he pulled her leg over his and guided himself into that lovely wet place. They moved together, slow and warm and sleepy, kissing deeply and making low crooning sounds to each other until they both reached their peak, moans muffled against one another's lips. They remained joined until they slept again, both knowing it was the last time they would be together that way.
When they woke to faint light they rose and began to dress quickly, stealing a few delicious kisses and touches as they went. They needed to be on their way before the town fully arose and the soldiers had a chance for a good look at them.
They slipped out of the Inn unnoticed and walked the half mile or so to a farm nestled at the bottom of a hill, small but tidy and prosperous looking. A man came to the gate to meet them and when he recognized Ciara he smiled and embraced her. She quickly explained their need and a bargain was stuck, Horatio was given directions for where to leave the horse at another farm less than a mile from Wexford, where no questions would be asked. With a quick goodbye to her friend, the two were upon the horse and off in a moment, Ciara behind Horatio, her arms about his waist.
"Horatio love," she said after a few minutes riding, Horatio fighting to keep the beast straight on the road, "you haven't been on a horse much, have you?"
"No, I hate the things," he answered, pulling once more at the reigns.
"Well, there's really no need to pull at the poor creature that way, he'll walk along the road by himself. You're only confusing him doing that." Horatio loosed the reigns, with a sheepish glance back at her, and the relieved horse clomped contentedly along the road.
Ciara tightened her own grip around his waist and lay her cheek against his warming back, breathing in deeply of his heady masculine scent, a mixture of rough wool, sweat, the soft curling hair of his queue which tickled her nose. She had loved her husband John, they had been partners and companions, and she had enjoyed their nights together, but she had never felt for him the raw love and physical need she felt for this beautiful young man. Her feelings for Horatio were almost unbearably painful at times, and since she had left him to rejoin the fight he had never been out of her thoughts for more than a few hours at a time. She thought back to the safe and sheltered life she had led before everything had gone to hell and wondered what she could have done to anger God so that he would punish her this way. To feel such a burning love for someone she couldn't have was worse than death. It truly felt like Hell on Earth.
"Are you well, Ciara?" Horatio asked, breaking into her thoughts. "You're so quiet."
"Yes love, I'm fine. Only sad knowing I'm going to lose you again."
"Every minute without you will be Hell," he said in a quiet voice. She squeezed him tightly, allowing a few tears to come then.
After almost an hour along the road Ciara said, "Stop here love, this is where I must leave you." Horatio reluctantly halted the horse and they dismounted.
"There is a town just up ahead, I know it's crawling with British soldiers and can't risk them seeing me in full daylight."
"Where will you go, Ciara?"
"Back to my people, I know these fields and woods well by now. I now how to hide and people who will help me."
"But the fight is lost, love. It's all but over, there's little or no hope left for the rebellion."
"I know, but what else can I do? What would you do?"
He didn't answer, but took her in his arms and kissed her, deep and lingering, one last time. They held each other for several minutes, reluctant to let go, until she finally pulled away.
"I love you Horatio, you do know that don't you? More than I loved my John, God rest him."
"I love you too, I'll never love anyone else but you."
She smiled at him. "Only someone in love for the very first time would think that. You'll fall in love again, many times over."
He looked unsmiling at her. "Not like this."
"Perhaps that's true after all," she said. Then she turned and walked away, toward a grove of trees to the East. When she was a few feet away she turned around and looked back, Horatio was still watching after her.
"I love you," she said again, then she pulled her pistol from her belt and shot him.
The startled horse bolted and ran down the road, back in the direction of its home. Horatio clutched his arm in shock and stared at her.
"I'm sorry darling, but they never would have believed your story if you had shown up hale and hearty back in Wexford. If you weren't so blinded by your love or lust or whatever it is you would have realized this too. Now you can tell them you were captured and shot while escaping, it's half the truth anyway." She smiled sadly at this. "It's only a flesh wound, it won't bleed much until you can make it into the town and find a doctor to fix it for you."
His face was starting to go white from the pain, and blood was oozing slowly from between his fingers. She quickly pulled off her jacket, removed her waistcoat and walked the few feet back to him, wrapping it around the bleeding wound as a makeshift bandage.
"Press hard on that and it won't bleed so much. And hurry, you're five minutes from a house at the most. They'll take you on into town. But for God's sake don't tell them who you really are, they're all rebels around here- tell them it was robbers that shot you." She kissed him hard once more on the lips.
"I wish it was me who was shot," she told him, "at least the physical pain would distract me from the pain in my heart."
"I love you Ciara- please be careful," Horatio answered, taking the bloody hand from his arm and touching her cheek, leaving a streak of scarlet there on her white skin. And then in a moment she was disappearing through the trees.
As he watched her go Horatio hardly noticed the throbbing in his arm, and it was several minutes before he could force himself to move along the road.
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