It felt like a nightmare: Stumbling through the snow, on feet still wet from the soaking boat. Footprints, marked black in the thin scrim, damning them maybe, by revealing all. Two prints were Brown's. Brown, was stolid, uncomplaining, but shivering now and panting like a dog. Two,were left by Hornblower, though he felt now that he was floating somewhere above his feet, his head dizzily level with the tops of the black wet trees. The last print was Bush's remaining foot. He planted it when he could, taking what weight he could, but mostly it dragged. Blood marked the snow, maybe from Bush, maybe, by now, from any of them.
“All right Brown.” Hornblower said.
“Ahoy the house.” Brown's voice was strong. He stepped forward, into shadow cast by the roof.. Hornblower had a sudden vision of himself and Bush, a teetering tripod, swaying, heads drooping
A rectangle of light came. Too late now to do anything but hope.
Bush felt hands under his aching arms, easing him into a chair. The sound of talk swayed around him. Frog talk. He didn't understand it, but Hornblower did, and that was enough now. He felt the warmth a cup set into his hands, God his hands were stiff. Warm small hands folded over his own, folding them around the cup, helping it to his mouth. Hot broth. Good, and the little hands withdrew, and the shaking came, and the cup knocked his teeth.
“You and your companions are welcome here, Sir.” The old man was saying. The words were in French, of course, and slippery-strange. Horatio squinted. Attend, he must make himself attend He could feel the ice melting off the solid tail of his hair, soaking the back of his shirt. The icy drip against his spine, made him shiver and ache.. His host was asking questions, asking for distances, details. Horatio, struggled to answer. His voice sounded brief and hoarse to him as he spoke. Death, it would seem, was some distance from them.
The old man led them to a room, cheerful with fire, and two warm beds. Horatio saw Bush settled in comfort, then turned to his own rest. How strange the bed seemed, he felt childlike, in the borrowed nightshirt. Bush was already snoring. Hornblower had time for a mazy thought for Brown. But surely he was moored somewhere nearby. The man was nothing if not resourceful “Providence has brought you safe to our door.” The Frenchman had said. That would have to be enough.
Morning light on his lids, and what reef shore was this? His muscles shrieked in pain, as memory trickled back. He had not ached so since he was mastheaded on Justinian. His individual toes hurt. Hornblower bared his clenched his teeth. Such diffuse misery was for boys. Bush slept on, snoring. A man. Inhabiting the honorable province of wounds.
A tap at the door. It opened immediately, silent as if on hinges of wax. A maid, stood framed in the sunlight, a tidy woman, with a kind and weary face. She smiled in Bush's direction. A stranger sleeping is comical, she seemed to say, even in this tilted world. There was something walrus-like about Bush in repose, but Hornblower did not join in her amusement. Sleeping men were no fit subject for mirth.
Swiftly she assembled a tray of food, on the table between the beds. Coffee, sugar, cream, soft sweet round cakes, (crumpets, maybe?) and butter. His mouth ached, he swallowed, drooling. He hauled himself up higher in the bed. It hurt. His head was still swimming with it when the maid departed.
No need to wake Bush, surely. No need to get up himself yet either. He had no idea what time it was. The coffee was bitter and good. He drank slowly, letting the heat burn his lips and gullet all the way down. It was strange and shameful surely, that he could not form a plan. He had no illusions of safety. Death could come, but it had not come yet. The pillows on land were so soft.
Bush could hear someone snoring from far away. Someone hurt and weak, swaddled in hot immobile feathers. Himself. He snorted awake. The pain in his leg---in his stump, face it man --- was companion to an unreachable itching. He remembered now, the fight, the snow, the farmhouse. He cracked open his eyes upon the day. Hornblower was asleep in the bed across from him, slumped against the headboard, mouth open, silently clutching a coffee cup to his chest.
Bush took a piece of the soft tack, sitting with the butter and coffee. He meant to eat it, it smelled good, and would be soft and easy going down. But in the end, he just held it distractedly. His head ached. His eyes prickled. Once, and far away, he had been a sick child. . A cool hand hand had pushed back his hair and called him “William.”
A tap at the door, and he was saved from the shame of weeping. He hauled himself higher in bed. Christ, it hurt. He cursed a little, in a growling voice. It pushed the unseemly sadness down into a locker somewhere he hadn't known he had. It was still there, but he'd gotten it stowed away safe.
“Come in.” Bush growled. That ought to be clear enough even to a Frog. It also woke Hornblower.
Hornblower put the coffee cup down, and looked to the door. It was the old man from last night, their host.
The old man smiled, including Bush in his gaze, as he could not do in his speech. “I hope you have both slept well,” He said. “The wind has increased greatly during the night, and we have had a deep fall of snow. I want to assure you that any trace of your... exertions will have been obscured. And I doubt we shall see more visitors to our door anytime soon.” He nodded, and waited while Hornblower translated. “Your companion, Mr Brown, has also slept well, and had breakfast. Indeed you were lucky to have found this house. Lucky indeed.
Notes:have decided to to change the end, and see how that feels for now. Thanks for patience