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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Sunday, October 25, 2020 09:39 EDT



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.”



    Again, O’Rourke nodded. “Aye, you’ve the right of all that.” His voice became dark and regretful. “But those past days of Ireland are not these days. And kings now must tread a different, more careful, path. In those elder days, to lead and to govern was much the same thing. Those ancient kings knew almost every chieftain and person of note in their realm. But now” — the gruff Irishman shrugged — “a king cannot know but a handful of the most powerful persons in his kingdom. And if he falls on a battlefield, chaos follows. So if he is to govern long and well and consistently, he must not risk himself by leading on a battlefield. And that means he lives — unavoidably — at greater remove from the people of his land.”

    “Yes, his ‘subjects’,” O’Donnell almost spat. “What a hateful word. To be ‘subject’ to another person is too close to being their ‘thrall,’ if you ask me. And as for a modern king governing from a palace but not leading on a battlefield — well, it seems that Gustav of Sweden’s successes in both domains give the lie to that theory.”

    “Do they?” O’Rourke shook his head. “How many times have his larks, leading charges and gallivanting about in disguise, almost killed him? Mark my word, his fine personal courage will be his undoing. But it will be the countries of which he is the sovereign that will pay the price in confusion and contention among a sudden spate of successors. No, Lord O’Donnell, in this age, kings should not die quickly on the battlefield, but slowly, in their own beds, with their chosen successor close at hand. They owe their nations no less.”

     Hugh shrugged. “I’ll not say your words are unwise, O’Rourke, but I’m also not sure the wisdom they hold is the only kind that matters. Perhaps a measure of both, as in so many things, is the best approach. But I’ll not suffer to be held at remove from my men.”

    “No one’s asking you to, though the Lord above knows well how much I’d like to. But He’s fond of his mysterious ways, he is. Even when it comes to dealings with our newest friends.”

    “The up-timers?”

    “Aye, and the Dutch. They’re cagey and thick as thieves, if you’ve not been paying adequate attention, m’Lord. As clear as avarice gleams in a tinker’s eye, it’s been plain from the moment our paths crossed and aligned with Tromp and Cantrell that we’re not to be confidantes in all their plans.”

    “You mean the scuttlebutt that one of the up-timer’s ships went its own way just before the flotilla arrived in the Caribbees?”

    “That’s the one. And still no word of it, you’ll note. Neither of its whereabouts or its business.”

    Hugh smiled. “Any guesses, O’Rourke?”

    “Not a one, except that it’s something that neither the up-timers nor the Dutch want us to know about.”

    Hugh glanced up at the green slopes rising steeply to their left: the foothills of the mountains that marked the northern extents of Trinidad. “I’m not sure that they don’t want us to know about it. It may be that they don’t want anyone else to know about it.”

    “And that’s supposed to make us feel better, that we can’t be trusted to keep a secret?”

    “I don’t think we should feel one way or the other about it, myself. If they want to make sure the Spanish don’t hear about it, the best way is to let as few people know as possible, whoever those people might happen to be.”

    “Aye, there’s sense enough in that. But what would be so secret that it shouldn’t be shared? Maybe the up-timers know where the fountain of youth — or El Dorado — really is?”

    Hugh grinned at the waggish speculation. “I’m thinking the matter may be a bit more earthy than those fantasies. Indeed, it may be about something in the earth, itself.”

    “As usual, m’Lord, you’ve lost me. Nice to see we’re back to the regular state of affairs between us, with you confusing me and not t’ other way ’round.”

    “And with you being perpetually insolent. At any rate, while I was in Grantville, I had the opportunity to read fairly widely. And when I didn’t have my nose in their damned small-typeset books, much of our talk concerned the up-time world and their New World homeland, America. Seems that country had a great deal of oil in it.”

    O’Rourke glanced sideways at Hugh. “Did it, now?”

    “Oh, yes. And most of these immense deposits are located near the Gulf of Mexico. Which was the general direction in which it was said the other steamship, the Courser, was heading.”

    O’Rourke nodded thoughtfully. “Fair enough. But if that’s what the up-timers are playing at, why keep it a secret from us?”

    “As I said, they may simply be worried about someone telling the Spanish, which would be particularly ticklish, since their silver fleet sails past the Gulf coast on its way to Havana and then on to Seville.”

    O’Rourke’s nod was vigorous this time. “So if the Spanish were to find out, it would be two stallions in one paddock. But if they can be kept in the dark, then the up-timers can go after the oil there without having to worry about any unwelcome visitors.”

    “And to make their presence in the paddock known at a time and place of their own choosing. Of course, the up-timers would have to confide in the Dutch, with whom they seem to be coordinating almost all their naval movements. If I was Admiral Tromp and learned that there’s another one of those steamships somewhere about, I know I’d insist on knowing why it wasn’t available to help the larger, allied fleet.”

    As they neared the top of yet another gentle slope, the senior of their Nepoia guides/protectors held up one long-fingered hand and ventured over the crest.

    “Smell that?” O’Rourke asked, leaning toward Hugh.

    O’Donnell nodded. “Not a cooking fire.” Burning houses always sent up a mix of odors, many unctuous, that were heavier than the scents produced by wood alone.

    The Nepoia leader reappeared at the top of the slope and nodded. The scouts behind them flared out to either side, crouching a little as they walked.

    “I’m thinking –” O’Rourke started.

    “– that it is time to dismount,” Hugh finished for him. They did so and led their horses over the lip of the rise before them.

    About four hundred yards ahead, a low, sprawling town emerged from the flatland at the bottom of a lopsided valley. A sparsely wooded southern ridge rose slowly to the right. Thickly forested mountain sides soared on the left. Several houses close to the town were throwing up fresh smoke plumes, flickers at their base indicating that the structures were not yet fully gutted. Perhaps midway to the town, Hugh could make out a rough ring of natives, many of whom were carrying firearms. However, there was no sound of gunfire, and no sign of bodies.

    It appeared that the Nepoia had decided to exert their own force against the Spanish colony on the same day their friends’ ships did the same from the sea.

    Following the leader of the escort, Hugh and O’Rourke led their mounts away from the cart track and closer to the northern slopes, keeping buildings between themselves and the town as much as possible. Just because there was no shooting going on presently, and the range was very long, there was also no reason to tempt fate.

    Within a minute, they were approaching what first struck Hugh as a shabby, open-air pavilion, but then he recognized it — by sight and smell both — for what it was: a sorting and pre-drying shed for tobacco. Seated in the shade of the spatulate leaves which were its roof, and surrounded by a group of younger, musket-armed warriors, was a well-muscled, squarish man of medium height and youthful middle age. The leader of the escort went ahead and spoke to him, nodding respect when he started his report.

    The older man returned the nod gravely, and although he did not move his head, Hugh saw that his eyes shifted to O’Rourke and himself. After a moment’s consideration, he signed assent, and gestured for them to approach. Then he rose to his feet.

    This simple act clearly caught his warriors off-guard. They scrambled to follow their leader’s example, exchanging surprised looks. Hugh nodded his thanks to the leader of his escort, who returned that gesture deeply before taking his leave. Well, if this isn’t Hyarima, he’s doing a most convincing job of acting the part.

    When Hugh approached to within ten feet, the older native stepped forward briskly and proffered his right hand. It was an awkward, slightly stiff gesture, but unmistakable. Hugh shook the wide brown hand. It was calloused and very hard. He inclined his head slightly in respect, was gratified to see the nod returned. Just as Hugh wondered whether to start introducing himself in Dutch or Spanish, and unsure of the fellow’s facility in either, the choice became moot.

    “I am Hyarima, cacique of the Nepoia,” the older native said in almost completely unaccented Spanish. “If you are O’Donnell, cacique of your people, I have been told you speak Spanish. That is good, for our speaking must be quick. If my warriors do not attack soon, we will not have killed all the Spanish by night-fall.”

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