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Birds of a Feather

Charles E. Gannon

Owen Roe O’Neill started at the burst of gunfire, not because—as a veteran of the Lowlands Campaigns—he was unaccustomed to the sounds of combat, but because such sounds were now out of place near Brussels in 1635. Old habit had him reaching toward his saber, but the pickets at the gate leading into the combined field camps of the tercios Tyrconnell and Preston seemed utterly unconcerned by the reports. As O’Neill let his hand slip away from the hilt, his executive officer, Felix O’Brian, jutted a chin forward: never at ease atop a horse, O’Brian didn’t dare take either of his hands from the reins to point. “So what would all that be, then?”

Ahead and to the right, a score of the men of tercio Tyrconnell were skulking about in the trenchworks surrounding the commander’s blockhouse. So far as Owen could make out, they seemed to be engaged in some perverse, savage game of hide-and-seek with an almost equal number of troopers from tercio Preston. As he approached, the soldiers of the Tyrconnell regiment repeatedly bobbed and weaved around a sequence of corners, usually in pairs. One stayed low, training a handgun or musketoon on the next bend in the trenchworks while the other dodged forward. If one of Preston’s men popped his head around that far corner, the man with the gun fired, immediately reaching back for another weapon. If the approach was unopposed, the advancing trooper finished his short charge by sliding up to the corner and—without even checking first—lobbing a grenade around it.

Of course, these “dummy” grenades simply made a kind of ragged belching sound as they emitted puffs of thin grey smoke: rather anticlimactic. But the training and the tactics were startlingly new. And quite insane.

“This is what comes of O’Donnell’s visit to the up-timers,” Owen grumbled to O’Brian. “Thank God he’s given over his command.”

“It’s only rumored that he’s resigned his command,” amended O’Brian carefully.

“Well, yes,” Owen consented. “Too much to hope for until we see the truth of it, eh?” But as soon as he’d uttered the saucy gibe, Owen regretted it: Hugh O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, was hardly a poor commander. Quite the contrary. And humble enough, for all his many admitted talents. Maybe that’s what made him so damned annoying—

“Seems we’ve picked up an escort,” observed O’Brian, glancing behind.

Sure enough, close to a dozen monks—Franciscans, judging from the hooded brown habits—had swung in behind their guards, who remained tightly clustered around the tercio banners of Tyrone and O’Neill. One of the monks was pushing a handcart through the May mud, prompting Owen to wonder: had someone died en camp? Or maybe the brown robes had come to seek used clothes for the poor? If the latter, then the monks were in for a rude surprise: the Irish tercios were no longer a good source of that kind of easy charity. They were in dire want of it themselves, these days.

As he approached the tercios’ staff tents, Owen noticed that, in addition to the pennants of the staff officers, a small banner of the earl of Tyrconnell’s own colors were flying. As he gave the day’s camp countersign to the interior perimeter guards, he pondered the fluttering outline of the O’Donnell coat of arms. Strange: did this mean that Hugh was actually here—?

A lean fellow, saber at his side, came bolting down the horse-track from the much larger commander’s tent, perched atop a small rise. The approaching trooper was an ensign: probably Nugent, O’Neill conjectured, or maybe the younger of the Plunkett brothers. No matter, though: they were all cut from the same cloth and class. New families, all half-Sassenach; all lip-service Catholics. Some allies, those.

But Nugent or Plunkett or whoever it was had stopped, staring at the banners carried by O’Neill’s oncoming entourage. Then he turned about and sprinted back up toward the commander’s tent without even making a sign of greeting.

“Seems we’ve got their attention,” muttered O’Neill through a controlled smile.

“See what you’ve done now?” O’Brian’s voice was tinged with careful remonstrance. “They seen the earl of Tyrone’s colors. They’ll think John is wid’ us! They’ll think—”

“Let ’em think. They do so much of it as it is, a little more can’t hurt. Aye, and let ’em worry a bit, too.”


“But nothing. Here’s the Great Man himself.”

Thomas Preston had emerged from the commander’s tent. He was an older man, one of the oldest of the Irish Wild Geese that had flocked to Flanders after the disaster at Kinsale, thirty-four years before. And Irish soldiery been flying to Flanders ever since: leaving behind increasing oppression and poverty, they had swelled the ranks of their four tercios now in the Lowlands. Mustering at slightly more than twelve thousand men, many of the newer recruits had been born here, grown here, learned the trade of the soldier here. And all knew that the recent consolidation of the Netherlands, and the consequent divisiveness amongst their Hapsburg employers, made their own future the most uncertain of all.

Preston did not look approving—or happy. After a few sharp phrases, he sent the runner back down the hill; he waited, arms akimbo, a dark scowl following the young ensign’s return to O’Neill’s honor-guard.

“Colonel O’Neill,” the ensign panted before he’d come to a full stop, “Colonel Preston would have the commander’s password from you.”

O’Neill looked over the thin fellow’s head—he was not much more than a gossoon, really—and stared at Preston. “Oh, he would, would he?”

“Yes, sir.” A second group of pickets had come to flank the youngster. “Apologies, but Colonel Preston is most insistent. New security protocols, sir.”

“Is that right? And those are his fine ideas, are they?”

“No, sir; they are Hugh O’Donn—I mean, the earl of Tyrconnell’s, sir.”

Ah, but of course. The ever-innovative earl of Tyrconnell’s legacy lived on in the camp he had abandoned almost a month ago, in the first week of April. O’Neill’s gaze flicked briefly to the small O’Donnell coat of arms fluttering just behind him. Or, maybe he had not abandoned it, after all...

O’Neill urged his mount forward. “The commander’s day-sign is ‘Boru.’ ”

“Very good, sir, you may—”

But Owen Roe O’Neill had already passed, his entourage—including two officers from John O’Neill’s Tyrone tercio—following closely behind. The monks, however, were detained by the guards at the staff tents.

O’Neill said nothing, gave no sign of recognition as he approached the commander’s tent, with Preston’s pennant snapping fitfully before it. Preston was equally undemonstrative. O’Neill stayed atop his mount, looked down at the older man and thought, Sassenach bastard, but said, with a shallow nod “Colonel.”

Preston was not even that gracious. “Where is the earl of Tyrone?”

“I expect he’s enjoying a nap about now.”

Preston’s mustache seemed to prickle like a live creature. “Yet you fly his colors.”

“I received your instructions to come without the earl. I have done so. But he is symbolically here with us in spirit—very insulted spirit—Colonel Preston.”

“Damn it, O’Neill: the whole point of excluding him was so that you wouldn’t be carrying his colors.”

Owen, bristling reflexively at the profanity, found his anger suddenly defused by puzzlement: “You were worried about his—his colors?”

“Yes, blast it. And why did you bring those bloody Franciscans with you?”

O’Neill looked back down the low rise: most of the monks had moved past the first checkpoint, were drawing close to the second, where the commander’s day-sign was to be given. Two lagged behind with the handcart, near the staff tents. “I assure you,” muttered O’Neill,” they’re not my Franciscans. I’d not bring—”

The flap of Preston’s tent ripped open. O’Neill gaped: Hugh Albert O’Donnell, in cuirass, was staring up at him, blue eyes bright and angry. “The Franciscans who came in with you—do you know them? Personally?”

“No, but—”

Hugh wasn’t looking at him anymore. His strong neck corded as he shouted: “First platoon, down the hill! Guards: take hold of those monks. Immediately!”

Owen Roe O’Neill was, by all accounts and opinions—including his own—excellent at adapting to rapid changes on the battlefield. But this was not a battlefield, or rather, had not been one but a slim second ago. And that change—from common space to combat space—was not one he easily processed.

Stunned, he saw the nearest monks pull wheel locks from beneath their robes and discharge them into the second set of pickets at murderously close range. Further down the slope, one monk pushed the handcart into Tyrconnell’s staff tent while his partner drew a pistol on the guards there.

In the same moment, the grimy soldiers who had been skulking to and fro in the trenches came boiling out, not bothering to dress ranks. But stranger still, they seemed in perfectly good order, operating not as a mass, but in groups of about five men each. This chaotic swarm of small, coherent teams streamed downhill, several tossing aside practice guns and pulling real ones, others drawing sabers and short swords. O’Neill’s own guards retracted, clustered tight around him, weapons drawn, as the leading infiltrators drew grenades and shortswords from beneath their robes and closed in—

Just as the first teams from the trenches caught the assassins in the flank with a ragged chorus of pistol fire. Snaphaunces and wheel locks barked while a strange, thick revolver—a “pepperbox?”—cracked steadily, firing five times. When the fusillade was over, only one of the monks was still on his feet; a few on the ground moved feebly. A second wave of soldiers—sword-armed—closed the last few yards and finished the bloody execution. An alert trooper kicked the one lit grenade down the slope and away from the cart-track, where it detonated harmlessly.

Down at the staff tents, the monk who had drawn a pistol had evidently not done so any faster than one of the guards. The two weapons discharged simultaneously and the two men went down—just as the monk who’d trundled the hand cart into the staff tent came sprinting back out. The other guard who’d been slower on the draw went racing after him—and went airborne as the tent exploded in a deafening ball of flame.

By the time O’Neill had his horse back under control, the whole exchange was over. Almost twenty bodies lay scattered along the cart track, small fires guttered where the staff tents had been, and men of the Preston tercio were carrying two of their own wounded off to where the Tyrconnell regiment’s young surgeon could tend to them. With his ears still ringing from the explosions, and his veins still humming with the sudden rush of the humor the up-timers called “adrenaline,” Owen could only feel one thing: that he was glad to be alive.

Then he turned and saw Hugh O’Donnell’s eyes—and wondered if his sense of relief was, perhaps, premature.

* * *

“Why did you bring John O’Neill’s colors, Owen?” O’Donnell’s voice and eyes were calm now. But most of the others in the commander’s tent—those belonging to the staff officers who would have been blown to bits if they hadn’t already been summoned here—remained far more agitated.

Owen relied on the tactic that had always served him well: when your adversary has you on the run, that’s when you turn and hit back—hard. “Maybe you should be asking yourself that question, Hugh O’Donnell. A Sassenach”—he glared at Preston, who glared right back—“tells the earl of Tyrone not to come to a council of the colonels? Well, let me tell you, even if John O’Neill is not ‘permitted’ to sit and talk with the regal likes of Preston—or you—I will come bearing his standard, and with it, the reminder of his authority—and that of his clan.”

O’Donnell looked away, closed his eyes. “Owen, it wasn’t Preston who excluded John. It was me. And I did it to protect him.”

“Protect John? From what?”

O’Donnell cocked his head in the direction of the killing ground that led down to the gate. “From that...or worse. It was folly for us to have too many tempting targets in one place.”

O’Neill paused. Then, voice level: “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if John had come, the last two royal heirs of Ireland would have been in the same place, at the same time. And with politics in the Lowland being what they are, signaling such a gathering was tantamount to inviting an attack. As we just saw.”

O’Neill frowned. “But we’ve got peace—for now—so who’d want the two of you dead? And how would they—whoever they are—even know you’re in the Lowlands at all, Hugh? The last any of us heard, you were off in Grantville.”

O’Donnell nodded. “Reasonable questions, Owen. Will you listen to the answers, before you tell me how wrong I am?”

Owen nodded. “Of course; that I can do.” And he grinned. O’Donnell returned the smile—and there were audible sighs of relief in the tent as the tension ebbed. “So let’s have it, Hugh: who is trying to kill you and John? The English? Again?”

O’Donnell leaned back, hands folded firmly on the field table before him. “It could be them. But you also have your pick of new possible culprits. Local Catholics who feel Fernando has been too lenient with the Calvinists. Ministers in Madrid who want to topple Fernando as King in the Netherlands. Maybe Philip himself. In short, anyone who wants to give the Spanish crown a reasonable pretext for ‘restoring order’ in the Netherlands.”

Owen shook his head. “I’m lost. How does attacking us achieve that?”

“We’re a wild card, Owen—all of us Wild Geese. Four tercios, almost all full strength at three thousand men each. What happens to the Lowlands if we disband—or rebel?”

“Chaos. Prince Frederick might try to take charge, but he hasn’t the troops. The locals will try to oust the Spanish. Fernando, a Hapsburg of Spain, and his wife, a Hapsburg of Austria, will soon be surrounded and in peril for their lives.”

“And what happens? Who comes in, if we disband or just stay in barracks?”

“France might try to take advantage. Or maybe the Swede.”

“Exactly—and would Philip want either?”

“Christ, no!” And then Owen saw it. “So, with us no longer ready to be an independent spine for Fernando’s army, the local Spanish tercios call for help, and Philip has no choice but to intervene. Decisively.”

O’Donnell nodded. “There are many possible variations on the theme, but that’s the basic dirge. Half the court in Madrid is already calling for a ‘stern approach’ to Fernando’s recent actions: after all, he did take the title ‘King in the Netherlands’ without Philip’s permission. And since then, Philip has let his brother fend for himself...and we’ve all felt the results of that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what has happened to your salaries over the last few months?”

Grumbles arose from every quarter of the tent.

O’Donnell spoke over them. “That’s not Fernando’s doing: he’s not the one holding the purse strings. That would be Olivares, either working independently, or at Philip’s behest. The Lowlands have long been a drain on the Spanish; over time, they’ve invested far more in this patch of ground than they’ve ever earned back. So, while Philip may not yet consider his brother a traitor, why should he pay for his tercios? Particularly those which aren’t Spanish?”

“So we Irish are like a redheaded stepchild between spatting parents.”

“Something very like it, yes.” Hugh looked around the tent. “Which means that, any day now, your allegiances may be questioned. And whatever you might answer, you can be sure of this: one or another of your employers will be very unhappy with your answer.”

“You mean, as unhappy as they were when you turned in your commission and titles?”

O’Donnell’s voice was quiet. “You’ve heard then?”

O’Neill shook his head. “Not officially, no: your officers have been keeping it quiet. But when your tercios came over here into bivouac with Preston’s, talk started—particularly when your men started getting orders from the Sassena—from Colonel Preston. And there were some as claimed that before you left, you’d folded up your tabard and sash of the Order of Alcantara and sent them back to Madrid.”

“That I did.”

Owen kept his voice carefully neutral: “So are you wanting us to follow your example?”

O’Donnell waved a negating hand. “I’d ask no man to follow my path. And there’s no need for you to declare your allegiance until you’re asked.”

“Then why didn’t you wait to do so, yourself?”

“Owen, when I was made a Knight-Captain of the Order of Alcantara, a Gentleman of His Majesty’s Chamber, and a member of his Council of War, I took my oaths before, and to, the king himself. In his very person, in Spain. I had my benefits and titles directly from his hand, and was, at his personal instruction, naturalized as a Spanish citizen. Honor demands, then, that if I know in my heart I can no longer be Philip’s loyal servant, I must relinquish all those privileges and garnishments at once. I can’t bide my time, waiting to be cornered into admitting that my allegiances have changed—even as I continue to enjoy the king’s coin and favor. Given the state of affairs here, honor may be all I have left—so it was both right and prudent that I keep it untarnished.”

“Fairly spoken,” Preston said. Owen found himself nodding; the earl of Tyrone’s officers were doing the same.

The flap of the tent came back. The young surgeon of the Tyrconnell regiment—blood still on his hands, some on his face—crossed the open center of the council ring and sat down next to O’Donnell. He said nothing, stared hard at nothing.

O’Donnell leaned toward him. “You’ve word on our worst wounded, Dr. Connal?”

“I do. Russell and Fitzgerald will live, but Nugent—” The young man dropped his head; O’Neill couldn’t tell if it was out of anger or grief. Perhaps both.

“Easy, Shane, easy,” soothed O’Donnell. “Have we lost him?”

“Not yet,” the younger man snapped through gritted teeth. “But we will, and there’s damn-all I can do to stop it. A gut wound”—he looked up, eyes narrow—“a small gut-wound. And I still can’t save him. If I were an up-time doctor—even one of their nurses—then, yes, maybe so. Probably. But me? I’m just—just a damned butcher, I am.” His head dropped again, neck rigid.

“It’s not a bit of your fault, lad,” put in O’Neill, seeking a moment in which simple kindness might also achieve some additional interclan mending. “And let’s not hear any more o’ this tearing yourself down because you’re not up-time-trained. I’m sure those fancy Grantville doctors are not half as good as everyone says they ar—” And he stopped, transfixed by a baleful glare from Hugh’s senior sergeant and old companion, O’Rourke—until a sudden, stinging chill of realization coursed through him. O’Donnell’s young wife of barely a year had died in childbirth only six months ago—and it was universally held that her death could have been prevented by an up-time doctor or nurse. O’Donnell might have had access to one of them through his godmother, the Infanta Isabella, but he had known that Philip IV would have been sorely displeased. And so, Hugh had refrained. And so, his wife, and only child, had both died. Criticizing up-time medicine was, Owen concluded, probably the stupidest thing he could have done at such a moment. He surveyed the faces in the tent to see just how much damage he had done.

Almost no face was turned towards him: they were toward O’Donnell, who sat very still, eyes lowered. He spoke to the doctor without looking up. “Owen Roe is right, Shane, when he says there’s no fault of yours in this. There are some things you can’t fix.” He looked up at the surgeon and smiled. “Not yet, that is.”

Connal nodded—and O’Neill swallowed hard: looking at O’Donnell’s smile, he could see—could almost feel—how much that had cost the earl of Tyrconnell. But Hugh kept that expression in place for a long moment, only allowing it to dim when he asked, “Dr. Connal, can you shed any light on our Franciscan visitors? Were they here to save our souls by hastening us to our reward?”

A few snickers underscored the surgeon’s answer. “Not unless the Franciscans are sending disguised mercenaries to carry out their holy work, m’lord. And desperate ones, too, to take such a job as this. Judging from the grooming and the gear under the habits, I’d say most of them were part-Spanish mercenaries—mixed-bloods, born in the Lowlands—and the rest Germans or Walloons. Some may have been simple cutthroats: no military gear on those—and not even a hint of third-rate camp hygiene. Dirty as pigs and twice the stink.”

Owen nodded and looked at O’Donnell. “So who do you think sent them?”

“I don’t know—and right now, there aren’t enough hours or facts to puzzle it out.” He stood. “I’ve stayed too long. But before I go, I feel I must tell you all this: the tercios are dead.”

Owen recoiled as if struck—in fact, felt as if he had been. “What fine, parting words of encouragement for all the men, Sir O’Donnell. I’m not sure the earl of Tyrone will agree to disband his tercios on your say-so, though.”

“Owen, I’m not talking about the existence our regiments. I’m saying that the concept of the tercios—of that kind of warfare—is dying on its feet. The first victories of the USE are just initial freshets of proof: soon, it will be an inarguable flood. The new muskets—and now, Turenne’s breechloaders—are changing the battlefield. And those who do not learn to change with it will be the first to die upon it.”

“So this is the reason for all the hide-and-seek I saw when I came in?”

“The up-timer manuals call it ‘close quarters combat.’ Or, ‘CQC.’ ”

“And the USE forces train to use these tactics?”

“No, their equipment isn’t right for it, yet—and there aren’t enough up-timers who can teach them, either. But some special units—like Harry Lefferts and his group—use a simplified version. Granted, it seems their ‘CQC’ is based more on ‘movies’ than training manuals. But we can choose to do it right. We’ve got the discipline—and now the manuals—to genuinely learn these tactics, and then use them once we get our hands on enough revolvers and double-barreled weapons.” O’Donnell paused, looked around the ring of faces focused on him. “And if we want to be the victors instead of the vanquished, we must start learning these tactics now—before they are used upon us.”

O’Neill made as sour a face as he could. “They look more like tomfoolery than ‘tactics.’ ”

“And so they might, but this is just one of the ways in which war is changing—and each change will spawn more. New weapons, new training, new skills, new organization: before long, we’ll be revising everything we learned as our stock-in-trade. But we have to do it, even if it goes against our grain.”

“Heh. It doesn’t seem to go against your grain, Hugh.”

O’Donnell nodded somberly. “I suppose it doesn’t—not any longer. I’ve read their unit histories and accounts; I’ve seen up-timer military ‘documentaries’ that show how they—and before long, we—will wage war. Trust me, whether or not we’re comfortable with it, our tactical doctrines must change.” He looked around the tent. “And change is never easy. Never. Particularly not when one has to make many changes, and all at once.

“And that is what is sure to happen here in the Lowlands. Soon, you will all have a choice to make. And it can’t be long in coming, because Fernando is running out of money with which to pay you. So, before that day comes, I counsel you: think upon your oaths, and listen to your hearts. Task them to answer this one, simple question: where is your loyalty? To Philip and Olivares or to Isabella and Fernando? To a distant king’s coin, or to each other? For rest assured, that choice is coming—for each and every one of you.”

O’Donnell stepped from behind the table, crouched down as if he were going to scratch a battle plan on the ground—but what it did was put him at eye-level with even the lowliest man in the room. “Always remember this, lads. We Wild Geese—we’re all birds of a feather. We’ve been harrowed, but never broken—because we’ve always stuck together.”

O’Neill wanted to sneer, but he couldn’t—partly because O’Donnell hadn’t parsed the old saw as doggerel, so it hadn’t sounded trite. But mostly because he could see—could feel—all the men around him respond to the elemental honesty that shone out of Hugh’s eyes. O’Neill wished he could look away, could be somewhere else—anything, just so he wouldn’t have to see the indictment of his own clan laid out so plainly before him. The O’Donnell’s were leaders, always had been. They could touch hearts at a gesture, bond men to them with a whisper. Obversely, every O’Neill of note had made his name as a fighter, an intriguer, often a shrewd manipulator who might even conspire with an enemy, if it served his ultimate goals. They were renowned, feared, even respected—but never admired or loved. And that, Owen admitted, was probably the real reason behind the prickly hauteur of the Tyrones: a jealous envy after the natural nobility that they lacked.

Owen cleared his throat. “You’ve given us much to think about, Lord Tyrconnell. I wish you safe travels—and Godspeed. And now, I should be going.”

O’Donnell straightened up. “And I’ve stayed longer than is safe. Until we meet again, Owen.”

Who nodded, wanted to say—something—but could not decide what it should be. So he simply added a second nod and let a potentially bonding moment slip by.

Just as he had all his life.

* * *

O’Rourke made sure that Preston’s tent was empty except for two orderlies, who stayed busy—and distant—moving gear to the newly completed blockhouse. When O’Rourke indicated that the young soldiers were out of earshot, O’Donnell muttered, “There’s one person in particular who’ll now be watching all of what you do here. Very closely.”


“Isabella—my aunt.” The earl paused, looked down. “Returning the honors I had from Philip was a shame, but leaving her service—that was a hard, hard step to take.”

O’Rourke poured a small mug of half-beer for himself. “Huh. Now that’s something I never did understand, m’lord.”


“Why you always doted on the Infanta, and she on you.”

“Well, she’s my godmother—and has looked out for me since I was a babe.”

“Mebbe. But she also derailed the Killybegs invasion in 1627, and when at first she couldn’t scuttle it herself, she insisted that it be led by John O’Neill—with you to be left behind in the Lowlands. Just the opposite of what Philip had called for.”

“Oh, that. You misunderstand. She didn’t pass me over.”

“No? What would you call it, then?”

“She was protecting me. I was twenty-two, green as could be, and yes, Philip was going to put me over John—who’d no doubt have found some excuse to put me in my grave once we were in Ireland. Besides, she wanted me where she thought I’d do the most good.”

“You’d do the most good here? Was she mad?”

O’Rourke looked away from the gaze Hugh fixed on him. “No, she was not mad. She remains amongst the most astute political minds of this era. She knew that if Philip did send us to invade Ireland, we would be underfunded and undersupplied. As it was, the closest we came to readiness—eleven boats waiting for a few thousand of us—would still have been suicide.”

“Not if you and John O’Neill had gone together. The prat may be insufferable, but he’s a competent captain and a bear in a fight. Together, the earls of Tyrconnell and Tyrone would have been invincible.”

“Gaelic bluster, O’Rourke. Don’t start believing the tales we tell to keep our spirits up during these long years of exile and waiting. Yes, I wanted to go. Yes, I wanted to lead. Yes, I agreed to Owen’s and Father Conry’s plan to create Ireland as a republic and to renounce any claim to preeminence. But unless wild luck had smiled on that project—instead of the death’s head which has loomed over all our others—the only result of an invasion led by both O’Neill and O’Donnell would have been the loss of the last two royal Irish heirs that the English are really worried about.”

“So your godmother was willing to let O’Neill to take the lead, and get himself strung up...”

“ the unlikely event the invasion occurred at all; yes.”

“And you she saved out of love.”

“That—and practicality.”

“What practicality was that?”

“O’Rourke, how much trouble has our regiment had living side by side with the Walloons, even the Dutch?”

“Other than the occasional argument over the price of provisioning, none.”

“And O’Neill and his regiment?”

O’Rourke nodded; he saw Isabella’s logic now. “One incident after another. He’s been hard- and high-handed from the start, right down to this very day.”

Hugh nodded back. “Precisely. So if Isabella had to depend on mercenaries—and in particular, us Wild Geese—to protect her realm, she needed at least one loyal leader that enjoyed the trust of the locals and was not wholly subject to the manipulations of Madrid, nor the intrigues of her sworn enemies.”

“In other words, she needed you. And us. Well, now I understand the past a little better, but I’m still in the dark regarding the present.” O’Rourke lifted his mug. “So tell me, why skulk back into camp? And why not one word of what you’re planning next? What’s afoot?”

Hugh leaned forward. “For the nonce, O’Rourke, this is just between us.”

“As always.”

“Then here it is. I’ve hired on with the French. With Turenne. To work with an up-timer. To go to the New World. To take Trinidad from the Spanish crown. To sell it to the French. Because they want the oil.”

O’Rourke put down his mug, which had been suspended midair during Hugh’s brief, bulleted explanation. “You’re serious.”

Hugh nodded.

“And what do you get out of it?”

We—all of us—get money, maybe enough to keep our men and their families in food long enough to find a more permanent billet.”

“You mean the French would pay for our costs up here? They’d send ecus over the border to Isabella?”

“To Fernando,” Hugh corrected. “And yes, that’s the general idea. Subsistence costs only, of course. And some of the men—a few hundred maybe—would have to come down to France. Doing farm work for a few months, to help pay their keep. And then to travel—to serve—with me.”

O’Rourke’s response was a long, astonished whistle—which he abruptly ended when he noticed the puzzled stares of the orderlies, who then became conspicuously refocused upon their work.

O’Donnell was smiling. “You’ve a great future as a confidential agent, O’Rourke. A veritable master of undercover work.”

“Funny you should mention undercover work, m’lord. Years ago, when I was courting Maureen Hennessy on the sly—”

“Spare me the tawdry details, reprobate. Now, about getting a few companies of the regiment over to France: here’s the hitch—”

“There’s just one?”

“Very well: here’s the first hitch in that project: the companies joining me in Amiens must transfer over the border in one group.”

“But the archduchess is seeing to that, no?”

“She’s seeing to each unit’s release from service, yes. Moving ourselves and our gear: that has to be up to us. And we have to make the transfer without any Spanish-owned equippage.”

“Well, that will make the regiment look like the beggar’s army on parade, but I can put a good face on it. We’ve enough of our own equipment that if we spread it out one weapon per man, there’d only be a few empty hands. And we’ll keep those few in the middle of the formations. Also, we can march the swords and pieces separately to make it all look intentional—if absurd.”

“Good. Then there’s the approach to the border.”

“The French know we’re coming, right?”

“Yes, but the lads need to understand their weapons will have to go into French hands during the march to Amiens. And they won’t like it.”

“They don’t have to,” grumbled O’Rourke.

“That’s the tick, O’Rourke: I’m sure there’ll be no problems with you in charge of—”

But O’Rourke leaned far back. “In charge? Me? Not by Christ Almighty’s toenails, m’lord.”

“Who better to be in charge?”

“Someone who’ll be with the regiment, sir.”

“And so you shall be.”

“With respect, I shan’t. I’ll be with you.”

“With me? Now see here, O’Rourke—”

“ ‘O’Rourke’ me no ‘O’Rourkes,’ Hugh O’Donnell. You’ll not be leaving me in France to tend a bunch of turnip-pullers while you sail into high seas and perdition.”

“Sergeant O’Rourke, you are a man I can trust and a man who enjoys the respect of the entire regiment. You will see our men safely over the border, and then through their stay in France.”

“With respect, sir, I will not. There’s many as can baby-sit them better than I. Shane Connal is the one you’ve been grooming for this kind of work. Most of the men will hear and heed his voice almost as if it were your own. And m’lord, if fair speech is required in dealing with our French hosts, then let’s speak plain and admit I’m not the man for that. But Shane’s got your way with words and manners—and he’ll oversee a just and proper succession of your title here, should something ill befall us out there.”

Hugh considered the arguments. “You rehearsed that speech earlier, didn’t you, O’Rourke?”

“I thought I might have occasion for words such as those, m’lord. I figured a man of genius like yourself often lacks a bit in the common sense department; he might leave his right hand at home if the right hand wasn’t determined to stay attached all by itself.”

Hugh smiled. “You’re a pain in my neck, O’Rourke.”

“And other parts of the body as well, I’d wager.”

“Another bet you’d win. Now, for our trip to the New World, we’ll need about a half of a company for the landing and defense—as well as repelling pirates, if we’re unlucky. Recommendations?”

“I’ve been thinking about just that, m’lord, and the men that seem best suited to those purposes—”

O’Donnell clapped a hand on his shoulder. “I trust you, O’Rourke—in all things. Go get your list—and while you’re at it, fetch Shane Connal from the blockhouse, as well. Let’s not keep him in the dark on this any longer.”

O’Rourke rose quickly. “In a trice, m’lord.” And he was out the tent flap in a rush.

He had gone half the way to the blockhouse when a suspicion began to churn in his gut. Bt the time he had turned and sprinted back up the low rise to the commander’s tent, his misgiving had become a certainty. Pulling the flap aside, he burst into the dim interior.

One orderly looked up from his tasks, startled.

He was the only person in the tent. Of course.

O’Rourke smiled and shook his head; it was sad to think that after all these years, he was still so easily conned. He should have seen it coming: O’Donnell would want to slip out of the camp as stealthily as he had come in. And he’d have—rightly—known that O’Rourke would have had none of that: two guards, at least, to escort one of the last two princes of Ireland. But O’Donnell had given him the slip.


O’Rourke went over to stand by the table they’d shared but two minutes earlier. He rested his hand on the back of his earl’s chair. And smiled:

See you in Amiens, old friend.

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