Fermanagh, Ireland, 1593.
The deluge washed every extremity of Hugh’s body while fresh mud camouflaged his legs to the thigh with every step. His resolve deepened as he steadied himself and drove the men forward, dropping to their bellies at the sound of night bird’s cry and sudden movement in the treetops. In the storm, Hugh’s senses were finely tuned.
Flooding rain made the ground, in places, a treacherous bog. It slowed the march around the water’s edge, brought it to a crawl through the forest, and threatened to end the raid of the Keep before it begun.
“The back of the column is yours, John. You attack first, before the top of the rise. Make it fast and silent. They won’t hear you in the rain. As the front come down the hill into the hollow, my men will take the rest,” Hugh ordered John and the men, his face striped with mud and determination.
For ten months, since the fall of the town on a lough that lead directly to the sea in the West, many unsuccessful challenges had been made. Too many men had been lost. His home had become the forest, the islands of the river and the distant hills. His knowledge of the movement of Queen Elizabeth’s guard was now better than that of her own command.
An experience soldier and leader for a such a young man, Hugh, Lord of Fermanagh, leaned in to John, grimacing as he shouted in the rain. “You only have a minute before the torches must come over the ridge directly behind the front of patrol. Any more and the river towers will see the gap, you understand?” he pleaded. John solemnly nodded.
Hugh bowed John’s head to his. “Go now. I will see you for an ale by my hearth when this is done, my friend.”
“There will be many men by your hearth, Hugh. And women, I’ll wage.” John smiled broadly at him.
Torches swayed on each tower, signalling the hour. With military precision the guard changed around the walls and inside the Keep. The forest guards began their march back to grounds and their dry barracks for the night. John and his men lay in wait in their muddy hides.
As the torches of the changing guards glowed eerily through the trees, behind the ridge, Hugh willed the men to bring their courage one more time.
Hugh stood in the dim light of the late afternoon moving, then not moving, in front of the hearth, consciously warming every scar and corner of his body. For a moment he remembered the months of living in the mud of the forest, wading through marshlands, invisible by day and moving by night, no fires, no family, just the loyalty of his battle-weary men as comfort.
He had lived by his wits during long sieges before. This was different. Never had the crown so relentlessly demanded his obedience. Never, had they persuaded a nobleman, who might one day be Lord Tyrone of a neighbouring Ulster county, to lead the Crown’s effort.
As he warmed himself Hugh drank deeply from his ale and remembered, as a young boy, admiring the young man, Thomas (Hugh) O’Neill, when he would visit with his father and family. They celebrated their alliance at every family gathering. O’Neill was loved by all in his gaze, growing stronger and more magnetic every passing year. Women cared too much, men listened too closely, nodding unwittingly at his ideas and ability to capture the moment.
Watching the guards from his chamber at the top of the tower house, he saw no more movement than three fishing boats making their way to the water gate on the north side of the castle. Along the river from the western coast and the sea, fog rolled in across the monk’s island covering the tower making it barely visible in the distance, then rolling over the lake draping like a blanket to the town’s edge. For hundreds of years Hugh’s ancestors had vigilantly watched over these waters protecting Ireland against invasion from the West. The smallest ripple, a warning, kept Fermanagh safe first.
He stretched and threw off his mud splattered waistcoat and sleeves. The tension from his body felt like that of a man much older than his 25 years. He had won a reputation as a formidable young general. He had already seen too many raids, skirmishes and pitched battles but nothing, he thought, had the potential to one day become civil war, like this.
Hugh searched the walls, finding John down in the courtyard speaking to the change of guards.
“John, double the guard. Something moves in this mist, I swear,” he shouted.
Hugh’s eyes softened as he watched Rachel leave the hall, an unfinished meal in her hand, careful to move quietly, closing the door with intention behind her. He stared blankly into the fire, biting gently on his lip, considering the last of his ale. There was word, that night, the Sheriff had gathered more crown troops across the Ulster border. Hugh’s men may have taken back the town, but Sheriff Willis’ guard had not left the county. Now more gathered to join them.
While he sat weighing his advantage, John thundered into the room ominously. “O’Neill is here. Alone. He wishes to speak with you.”
“If O’Neill is here, John, I have no doubt that he wishes to speak with me. Show him in, but first, tell me, how many are his men?” Hugh replied.
“He has six, waiting in the forest by the north tower. No more, yet. He came on one of the fishing boats, by the smell of him.”
O’Neill was no small man and even reeking of fish, stood tall, a strong figure for a man who was no longer young. He watched Hugh as he poured ale by the fire. Hugh smiled as he took the first sip, motioning O’Neill to do the same. “If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t have made it onto the boat and past the guard, would you ?” Hugh smarted gently.
“You have courage, Sir, that is for one who is still second, or is it third, in line for your family’s seat ?” Hugh offered.
Hugh’s gaze held O’Neill, daring his response. “I’ve always wondered why there was such importance placed upon you. You were always in mind, if not in line, is that not right ? How is your cousin, Shane ? And your uncle’s health ?” he added.
Unsettled but not easily put off his course Thomas pitched, “I come for the sake of our country, Hugh.” O’Neill began. “The crown will not tolerate Ulster’s ways anymore, you know that. Elizabeth has watched the Spanish court the Irish. She will not wait until she has them at her door.”
“Did you see Spanish envoys leave my table tonight?” Hugh prodded, amused.
“You continue to refuse the Sherriff. Elizabeth has been patient, Hugh. Ulster must heed her now or she will use all her might. Ireland will not be free of her,” O’Neill paced, dispensing with any formality.
“They have not won Ulster in 400 years, why is 1593 the year ?” said Hugh. “She may have the south when it pleases some to play her game, but she has never had the north. Hugh’s eyes fixed narrowly on O’Neill. “Why now?”
O’Neill knew his time was short, Hugh was a not known to be a patient man, once the fight has begun. He softened his approach and spoke, what Hugh knew was, the truth. “She can smell King Phillip’s foul breath, hot against her cheek. She is afraid. There are those who say they have never seen her so.”
O’Neill watched as Hugh foresaw the day Elizabeth would commit more troops. “Save your people. Leave now before she takes what she thinks is rightfully hers and burns the rest.” O’Neill begged.
Hugh watched across the water from the casement, searching as a storm brewed. “Rights, Thomas? What does Queen Bess know of rights?” He turned, iron blue eyes capturing his opponent, “You, O’Neill, do you remember yours, or have you given those to your Uncle and his heir, or am I mistaken ? Is Fermanagh now part of a more personal plan for you ?”. Hugh’s gaze found its mark.
“John” Hugh bellowed. “Escort him to the gate. We have nothing more to discuss for now.”
By morning Hugh’s men were assembling within the walls of the castle, ready for patrol. O’Neill’s forces watched every movement from a distance.
Hugh, John and three of the best guard had already left the Keep, unnoticed, in the darkness following O’Neill.
Along the ridge of the mountains overlooking the valley and lough below, Hugh and John picked their way to the edge, silent, to watch O’Neill’s guard, camped on the highest flat. In the distance, more troops formed a dark smear on the western rim of the valley. The Sherriff’s guard had grown. Hugh watched from his rocky hide, motionless. He whispered bitterly to John, barely visible in the moonless light, “We cannot take them, John. We must find another way.”
Hugh shifted uneasily churning over his plan while waiting alone in a damp hollow of the forest for John and the guard to return.
Before dawn, Hugh mused, O’Neill would ride to meet the crown troops, and without doubt head to Maguire castle and demand Hugh’s surrender or lay siege once again. Hugh would be outnumbered.
He had rarely faced such defeat. O’Neill must be certain of that fact, Hugh thought. He saw it in his eyes last night before he abruptly dismissed him. But he also saw O’Neill was not completely convinced, even with the Sherriff’s troops and their superior numbers, that Hugh could be defeated in the longer battle that would ensue. As Hugh watched the dark starred sky he recalled that, for a moment last night, Thomas had the look of a man who had faced his mortality before and been reminded again.
The moonless night was bitter with more than just cold, Hugh thought. The storm had passed but the wind had not. The forest was loud with the motion. John appeared suddenly with three of his men. He was carrying a large body over his shoulder, hooded, arms and legs tied. They deposited their quarry carefully in front of Hugh who smiled warmly at them nodding his pleasure before snatching the hood from O’Neill’s head.
“I enjoyed our time so much last night Thomas, I thought we should see each other again,” Hugh said softly, calculating the affect on O’ Neill’s panicked face. There it was again, the look of a man who knew his time was limited.
John held O’Neill up, stood behind him for insurance, his sword pressed hard across his chest.
“I do know why you are so important to your kin Thomas. Did you think I didn’t ? As a child, your father wagered that you would not become the O’Neill, that there were too many in your way. So, he sent you to be educated in the Pale” Hugh stretched after his long wait for his new company. “I hear you were a fine student in your English home and that Elizabeth, herself, kept an eye on your progress. She was very interested. Did they tell you that you wouldn’t be The O’Neill ? Did they say they would make you something more? Did they say they would one day make you The Queen’s O’Neill, with her assurances of a quiet reign – compliments of the crown ?” Hugh said quietly, steadily, quickly.
O’Neill, still gagged, straightened to look Hugh squarely eye to eye.
“Ah, there you are”, Hugh smiled. “What if I said, Thomas, that I plan to make you The O’Neill ? In this plan, we rid you of every mortal obstruction, making you the blameless heir in the tragedy, hero of your people in their time of sorrow ?”
“And when you are The O’Neill, we will make you our leader. A leader for all Ireland.” Thomas softened, confused. “With you and O’Donnell, Thomas, we will gather this country together and send your Queen home. We have evaded her, but together, we can conquer her.”
Hugh stepped closer, pulling himself up into O’Neill’s face. He spoke softly, purposely, to the man he knew would one day mean more to him, “You must nod now, Thomas, and I will return you to your men.” Taking John’s sword from O’Neill’s chest, Hugh plunged it into the ground between them. “Tomorrow, you will give me your answer, when we speak again, in front of our gathered forces, for all to see. I have no will to harm you Thomas, you are my countryman and kin, and one day I will marry your daughter, as our families have for centuries.”
The wind calmed silencing the forest around them before beginning again. In the quiet in between, before John could place the hood back on O’Neill’s head, Hugh spoke softly, “Together they cannot defeat us, Thomas – they know not how.”
Hugh mounted his horse. O’Neill’s troops waited at the tree line, beyond the north field. They were fewer than expected, Hugh surmised. It worried him. Still, they were here and more than he had men to counter.
He’d gambled before. This time, with one word, his home, his people, their way of life – given to him to protect as his family had for centuries, could be lost.
O’Neill rode toward Hugh, two men trailed behind him. His full guard stayed.
As Hugh rode out, John and a guard behind him, he savoured every step. Half way to the exposed ground where words would decide the fate for generations to come, Hugh paused, turned to look back to John, and waved him forward.
“John, ride with me. He has nothing to hide from you,” Hugh laughed suddenly, to John’s surprise. “I suppose not,” said John. “He had his arse in my face and his head in a bag a few hours ago, now look at him. He’s a changed man.” The two sat astride their horses, looking at each other, laughing raucously, until tears rolled down John’s cheeks and he slapped Hugh’s back.
O’Neill came to a halt at a distance and watched with disbelief at the two men laughing.
“They’re laughing” he whispered to himself, shifting uncomfortably in his stirrups. “I doubt I will ever know your mind, Hugh Maguire, and for that, I would be wise to never let you from my sight”.