1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 29

Chapter 16

Just outside San José de Oruña, Trinidad

So far, everything had gone as the three of them had planned. Which many men might have found reassuring, but over the course of his life, Hugh O’Donnell had been orphaned, adopted, knighted, and decreed a traitor and at each step, fate had not merely taken a hand, but had turned his world upside down. Demonstrating that, just when you think events are unfolding according to plan, you may rest assured that you’ll be proven wrong in a trice.

It also meant there was no use worrying over it, because fate was as capricious as it was contrary, so it would not obey any human expectation or anticipation, whether malign or benign. So Hugh, glad to be back in the saddle for the first time in months, enjoyed the surety and strength of the gelding he’d taken from the small officer’s paddock at Port-of-Spain and spurred it as they approached an incline.

The horse trotted up and over the crest of a slight ridge. The ground leveled off, revealing small farms marking a winding path toward a town in the distance: San José de Oruña. The Nepoia scouts ahead of him maintained their jog, waving curious warriors of their tribe back from the narrow cart-track. A few of the houses up ahead were marked by faint strings of dirty smoke that rose almost straight up until they reached the level of the hills sheltering the valley and there leaned over westward, following the breeze. The only thing missing was —

“Aodh O’Rourke? Tell me now; are you riding or napping back there?”

Behind, Hugh heard a muffled curse. O’Rourke, sitting an old nag that moved as gracelessly as he rode, was attempting to catch up to him and not succeeding. Hugh smiled, put faint backward pressure on his reins. As his forward progress slowed, he realized that this would be first time in almost a day that he and O’Rourke would be beyond the earshot of anyone who spoke English or Gaelic or better-than-rudimentary Spanish.

Once alongside Hugh, O’Rourke started with a comment that picked up eerily on his commander’s own train of thought. “I wonder what they’re waiting for,” he said, drawing abreast of Hugh. “Seems like the Nepoia have the situation here in hand already.”

“Seems so,” Hugh nodded. “But it’s interesting that none of the warriors we’ve seen so far are armed with trade muskets.”

O’Rourke huffed. “Probably better to use ’em as clubs. It was mostly old Spanish matchlocks and arquebuses that we gave ’em.”

“Yes, but according to Michael, there were some current weapons as well. But whatever pieces they’ve been furnished with, the Nepoia are clearly masters of this ground. Enough so that they haven’t even bothered to sack or encircle Port-of-Spain.”

“Sacking a village is hardly a ‘bother,’ Hugh. I’d have expected it to be the first thing they’d do, given the chance.”

Hugh nodded. “But they haven’t. I supposes we’ll find out why when we reach Hyarima.”

O’Rourke looked about. The inscrutable, silent Nepoia hemmed them in all around. “I’ll be happy enough when we’ve finished that task, my earl.”

Hugh was surprised by O’Rourke’s wariness and suddenly serious and formal form of address. “‘My earl?'”

O’Rourke looked over at Hugh. “Yes, ‘my earl.’ And I’m a fool for agreeing to this meeting without a guard detachment.”

Hugh looked over his shoulder. “We seem very well guarded, O’Rourke.”

“With respect, we are very well ‘escorted.’ Not the same thing. If it was our own men, then you’d be under guard. As you always should be, now.”

Hugh nodded, understanding. “It’s the news we got about O’Neill. But that was months ago. What’s put you on edge, now? This nonsense about me being the last earl of Ireland, last heir to –“

O’Rourke’s voice was sharp. “My earl, at the risk of offending, I must assert that it is not nonsense. And you seem to think too much of yourself, in it.”

Hugh almost stopped the gelding in his surprise. “I beg your pardon?”

“My earl, I apologize, but we have always had frank speech between us, and I’d have just a bit more now. You may think that the greatest import in the news of John O’Neill’s death is how it affects you, as the last earl of Ireland. But if you think that, you are wrong: dead wrong. The fate most changed by the death of the Earl of Tyrone is that of the Irish people — your people, my earl.”

“O’Rourke, what’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing that shouldn’t have been in me all along. And I’ve been wrong not to see it, wrong ever since I failed to set aside our familiarity when you came of age. I own it was natural enough to let those brotherly ways continue, being as how I was the first one to teach you how to hold a sword and watch your own back. But when you received a command of your own so young, and we rolled right along as we’d always been, I didn’t stop to think how things should change, mostly because we worked so well together, and so easily.

“And that camaraderie made the lads in the tercio feel like they were being welcomed straight into a ready family, like they were safe in a little bit of Eirean, and the unit was truly their home. And that’s an important thing for exiled cultchies who’re taking coin to serve a foreign banner in a foreign land.”

Hugh stared at O’Rourke — garulous, flippant, fiercely loyal O’Rourke — wondering at the seriousness of his tone, his face. “Aodh O’Rourke, why worry about this? Have things really changed so much because there’s one less landless, impoverished Irish earl in this world?”

“With respect, things have changed, but only because last fall’s news that John O’Neill was killed in Rome has been slowly awakening me, has shown me what I’ve been slumbering through: that you are a prince and must be treated as one.”

Hugh laughed. “Treated as a prince?”

But Aodh O’Rourke was deadly serious. “Aye, as a prince. And because you didn’t put on airs about your title like John O’Neill — God rest his quarrelsome soul — it was easy enough to put aside. Your men love you because — just like the better, older kings of Ireland — you do not separate yourself from them behind the high walls of titles and curtsies, insisting on bent knees and lowered heads. And because that brought such loyalty, such dedication, on battlefields, I never stopped to think: ‘and is this powerful familiarity any wiser than John O’Neill’s mighty arrogance?'”

Hugh shook his head. “I’ll tell you why you didn’t think that: because there was no reason to, O’Rourke. Our tercio has –“

“No, m’Lord: there is reason to think it. And to think it through carefully. Which is what I’ve been doing, these months. It’s a fine thing that you are not a prideful man, Hugh O’Donnell. That bodes well for all that might come. But you must think on this: your pride is not just your own. It never was, wholly, but now it is not so at all.”

“O’Rourke, stop talking in riddles. For once, it is I that cannot understand you.”

O’Rourke did not take the dangled bait of a friendly gibe. “You cannot understand me because I am speaking a language you’ve long refrained from speaking, m’Lord: the language of courts and thrones and kings. A sovereign’s pride is not simply his own, Lord O’Donnell. And you know that right enough. An insult to a crown is not just an insult to the man who wears it, but to the kingdom which it represents.”

“I wear no crown, old friend.”

O’Rourke fixed him with a peculiarly intense gaze. “Not yet, m’Lord. But I’ve been considering how last fall, we didn’t just hear the news of O’Neill’s death. We were also notified that, thanks to Don Michael’s sly provisos regarding oil taken from this place, the last surviving earl will now have access to independent sources of income that will make for — forgive me — a princely sum, indeed. And we learned that King Fernando’s war against the Dutch could not continue without both sides committing mutual financial suicide. And we learned that Don Michael McCarthy’s actions are not simply a matter of his individual interest in Eirean’s fate, but were planned and blessed by some of the highest powers in the United States of Europe.

“My lord, in the space of that one day, we went from being penniless, desperate, ill-fed exiles, to a moneyed group of armed expatriates with powerful allies. And in that same day, Ireland’s future went from a dismal certainty of endless servitude and oppression to a glimmer of hope for new and better possibilities. And those hopes center on you, m’Lord, which is why we should not be ambling through the weeds without our own bodyguard, at least twenty strong. And we shall never do so again.”

Hugh was silent for several seconds. He prided himself on having a relatively good measure of all the men around him, but he hadn’t seen the faintest hint of this change growing in O’Rourke. “Even if everything you say were true — which I contest — I could still not do as you suggest. We have much work to do, and I cannot do my part in it from behind a phalanx of guards.”

O’Rourke nodded grimly. “A truth that will no doubt rob me of much sleep in the months to come. Would that we had one of the other colonels here — Preston, or Owen Roe O’Neill, even — to assume the risks of –“

“Aodh O’Rourke, I’ll not be hiding behind the swords of brave men in order to play at statecraft. You might recall that the greatest kings of Ireland were also fighting kings, kings who led from the front, not the rear, of their hosts. And they did not stand on ceremony or titles.”