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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "The Calm Before" (part 2)

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Nobiles Barbariæ

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Join date : 2011-12-25

PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 14 "The Calm Before" (part 2)

A few miles further down the road Lynam hurried back to them and told them that he suspected an ambush ahead. He had seen furtive movements in the hedges and had glimpsed some horses tethered riderless in a thicket of trees off the road. He recommended they leave the road and cross the low hill to their right, which he was nearly sure would bring them back down to a cattle-track and so to the main Dublin road again. Titus, who had thought such dangers behind them, was deliberating what to do when the need for a decision was taken from him. The ‘ambush’ was advancing in full view up the road towards them. Lynam raised his musket but Titus grasped its muzzle and gently lowered it. There was no doubt the men advancing were armed, but he knew them. Leading the band was the unmistakeably tall and haggard O’Donnell. Behind him marched the most unlikely platoon one might ever see, dressed as they all were in the clothes of common beggars, yet keeping perfect military step. O’Donnell waved and Titus waved back.

“Slippin’ away at the crack o’dawn were ye?” the tall man asked loudly once within earshot. “I like your style, Englishman!” He smiled broadly.
“We reckoned that we might have overstayed our welcome here I fear, Hugh!” Titus answered as loudly.
“So I heard! So I heard!” He faced Sarah and bowed. “At your service ma’am!”

Lynam seemed perplexed, watching the exchange closely and O’Donnell turned to him next. “I commend your eyesight soldier boy. If ye ever want to fight on the right side we could do with more like ye. That’s a handy guard ye have there Titus Perry.”
“As well I know, and trust.” Titus replied. “Though you might think better of concealing your horses and your jitters if you are going to pursue the career of highwaymen!”
O’Donnell laughed. “A sideline only. In any case it is not as highwaymen but as couriers we are employed today.” He produced two letters from his pockets. “Yours, I believe. One from my commander and one from your own. Had ye forgotten?”

Titus had not forgotten the messages for Arran that he had been told he should bring back to Dublin, but had privately decided to ignore the ‘request’ that he carry them. He had no doubt both could be delivered more efficiently by other means and serve just as good a purpose as their authors intended. For the moment however he chose not to banter the point with O’Neill’s tall lieutenant. “In my haste I am afraid I must have. As you can see I had more precious goods to transfer to the city with all due speed.”
O’Donnell looked again at Sarah and smiled. “Indeed I do. And ye were right to get out as fast as ye did. Word has it that a certain flax growing barrister is none too pleased with the local garrison commander in Armagh for acting so quickly on Mr Pringle’s recommendations! The next cage that he prepares for the bird he thought he had snared once might not be so pretty, nor as easy to spring.”

“There were two birds in the cage Hugh.” Titus saw that O’Donnell’s smile evaporated and his features hardened immediately.
“Aye, there were. It seems that Mr Pringle did not agree with our suggestion in that regard. The young squirt has more gumption than we reckoned. But don’t worry. Cathal won’t stand trial in London. I can assure ye of that.”

Titus remembered again what Ormonde had said and O’Donnell’s hard face merely confirmed the old man’s statement. O’Neill would see Holly dead before he would let him jeopardise his interests by confessing to an English court. The tailor’s days were numbered now, if not his hours. He said nothing for the moment however. Sarah might derive some false comfort from O’Donnell’s words and now was not the time to disabuse her of it. He took the letters from O’Donnell and bid him good day, and the Irishman’s retinue stood in single file at the roadside to let the three horses and their riders proceed. When Titus looked back a few seconds later the small band had evaporated into thin air.

“Why was Ormonde abducted by Stanley?” Sarah and Titus were still comparing what they knew and she had at last asked the one question that neither could answer.
“I do not think he knew quite why himself, or so he claimed. It seems that is something that O’Neill might prize from the wretch now that he has him. Until then we can only surmise.”
“What do you surmise?”
“That Stanley wished to exaggerate the strength of Monmouth’s support in Ulster, and paint him a bigger threat than he currently is. Maybe to discredit the man further and ensure a royal retribution when his uncle comes to power. Or maybe to strike a deal with Ormonde regarding an Irish accommodation for the Dutch Prince William. Who knows? He never got to make whatever demands he might have had in mind.”
She furrowed her brow. “I wonder about that.”
“Do you remember what Cathal learnt from the young boy digging the latrine in Tandragee? He said that he had heard two aristocratic voices in heated argument. One accused the other of being ‘finished’ along with their family.”
“You are right. I had forgotten that. It could well have been Stanley and Ormonde.”
“Yet you say that Ormonde claims not to have discussed anything with his abductor?”
“I take your point.”
“So, if we assume that the good Duke is prepared to lie about such a detail, for whatever reason, then we can assume him false in other matters too.”
“It would seem so.” Titus thought he knew where her line of logic was leading but decided not to pre-guess his companion’s mind. She had had almost a fortnight to mull over things and he no longer trusted his own intuition in any case.
“The letter you are carrying from him. Is it sealed?”

Titus withdrew the document from his riding pouch and saw that it had indeed been sealed with Ormonde’s own signet ring and a fair dollop of wax. He showed it to Sarah with a resigned shrug. If its contents were as the old man had stated, an assurance that his son was now free to pursue his policies unhindered by concern for his father, then to arouse Arran’s suspicions by presenting it already opened would not serve their purpose. However, if he had lied then it was important that they knew in what way. But a seal as ornate as Ormonde’s would be impossible to mend once broken, and a man like Arran would spot such a repair in any case, as would anyone used to the receipt of official documents. Besides, in the matter of seals there were often subtle codes by which regular correspondents could further ensure the secrecy of their letters. To tamper with the seal would be folly.
She laughed. “When we get to the next inn I will show you an experiment on the particular properties of sealing wax and parchment that my father taught me. Don’t worry. Lord Arran will be none the wiser!”

He did not doubt her for a moment but felt he should advise her of another threat. “You know, I now think that Arran’s intention was to see his father dead. I believe my commission to find him was a ploy to deliver Flitch an opportunity to dispatch him. Flitch was the man he hired, not me. I was merely a vehicle. I say this only as a warning. Whatever the contents of the letter might be, they are proof that his plan has failed. He may not take too kindly to the messenger who delivers him this news.”
“Has Flitch confirmed this?”
“No, the man was in no fit state of mind to answer reasonable interrogation. But I have read his secret ledgers and they speak plainly enough.”
“And have you an idea why Arran might even have wanted his father dead?”
Titus paused. This indeed was something that he had considered ever since he had read Flitch’s scribbled words and deduced their meaning, but so too had he considered the possibility that they might have meant nothing of the kind at all. “I am sure of nothing. Perhaps I have misinterpreted what I saw - it would not be the first time.”
“But if you didn’t?”
“Then I can only assume that he saw his father’s political role as one that works against his own ambitions.” He could see her sceptical expression and pre-empted her response. “Of course, even if that is the case, then his solution seems excessive.”
“To say the least!”
“Yes. There would have to be more than that to it. But as to what, I cannot even surmise. I dare say even Flitch, were he to be asked the question, could honestly plead ignorance. I doubt if Arran would deem it prudent, or even necessary, to explain his motives to a hired assassin.”
“Men do strange things.”

They had long crossed the county border with Louth, and a hint of salt in the air told them that they were slowly nearing the coast, though the landscape belied that impression. To their left stretched the broad Cooley peninsula and in all other directions lay flat farmland, so that the furthest one could see no matter where one looked was to the thick hedgerow which grew in luxurious abundance around these ancient fields. The sky was laden with dark clouds that threatened rain, and hung so low that they seemed a mere canopy suspended from the taller of those trees which had clawed their way through the dense hedge in times long past and now stood like sentinels on either side of the road. Some were so old that their branches had merged to form a roof over the highway itself for long stretches, and on a dark day such as this the gloom beneath them seemed almost impenetrable at times. The effect was a little claustrophobic, a feeling only exacerbated by the weariness that they were feeling after such a long ride, and it soon became obvious that their horses shared their exhaustion. They asked Lynam if he knew of an inn on the road where they might get a decent meal in some privacy. He informed them of one near Ardee that suited the inland route they had taken and could be reached within the hour without straining their mounts. This they agreed to head for, though it soon became obvious that Lynam’s estimation of the distance had been a little optimistic. Their tired horses just could not oblige the young man’s confidence in their strength. There was nothing for it however but to persevere as best they could and not torment their hungry stomachs with thoughts of the warm meal that lay ahead.

Titus used the time to ask a reticent Sarah about her incarceration, a subject which she had obstinately refused to comment on since yesterday evening. At first she merely indicated with her expression that she still would rather not discuss it, but Titus felt that it was important that she not dwell on its memory, especially if those memories were proving painful. Experience had taught him that burying such memories, however tempting, did nothing but foster their growth and effect. Agonising as it might be to recount them and hopefully lessen their impact on one’s consciousness, the alternative promised only greater agony again. He persisted, as gently as he could, with a mixture of apology, assurance and explanation for his motives in doing so. At last she seemed at least to agree with his rationale and opened up enough to assure him that she herself had been kept in solitude throughout her arrest and had not come to any physical harm in the Armagh Bridewell. She refused to elaborate, but Titus could still draw his own conclusions from her her remark. The Bridewell was a small enough building, and if Holly had been ‘questioned’ there by the authorities, as surely he must have been, then Titus could only imagine what sounds might have carried to Sarah’s cell. The guards had no doubt reckoned that the screams would be torture enough for a young lady’s mind to endure, and would make her all the more amenable to answer questions in due course. And judging by her present demeanour they were right. Sarah had been profoundly disturbed by her experience while incarcerated, that much was obvious. The guards however had overestimated the time they had at their disposal to wait for her tongue to loosen, and so their tactic had been rudely interrupted by Pringle’s unexpected decision to release her long before the time they had allowed for their ‘nut to crack’.

They travelled in silence for a while further, and then, to Titus’ surprise, Sarah broached the subject again. Her voice was low, and she rode as close beside him as she could so that Lynam could not overhear. “I prayed that he would die, Titus. For his own sake. God forgive me, but I prayed for the man’s death.”
“I am sure God not only forgives you, but agrees full well with your motive Sarah.”
She thought for a few moments and then unexpectedly smiled. “He died singing.”
Titus looked at her quizzically but said nothing.
“They tried to shut him up, and in truth it was horrendous to hear it. But between the cries of pain he managed to persevere with his song. I have no doubt that he wished to anger them and thus hasten his own end.”
“And they obliged him.”
“Yes, but not before he’d finished his verse.”
“What was the song?”
Her smile evaporated, but a look of admiration persisted for this man who’d had the strength to face a gruesome death and its agents with a defiant ballad. “It was an old one – I often heard my father sing it when I was younger, especially after Christmas when the cold weather set in and there was nothing but to endure it and wait for the Spring. ‘The Holly’s Long Over’, it’s called.”
Despite himself, Titus could not but laugh out loud, and to his immense relief, so too did Sarah.

The small town of Ardee sat perched on the steep bank of a river that ran in gushing torrents through a narrow channel under its single stone bridge. Near the bridge stood a forge and next to it the inn – a juxtaposition that Titus heartily approved of as he reckoned he had noticed a lameness about Sarah’s steed these last few miles. It would do the horses no harm to be reshod as they rested, and it would do none of them any harm, either human or beast, to get some food into themselves before their next long ride to Balbriggan. Titus was glad when Lynam announced an intention to call on an old friend who lived just outside the town, and to join them again later an hour or so before sundown. It meant that he and Sarah could be alone for several hours, and he still had much to discuss with her in private.

Once seated at a table by the fire, a now more buoyant Sarah requested the letter from Titus’ pouch. She took it and examined the seal closely, then smiled and handed it back slowly, pointing with her finger as she did so to a grey hair protruding slightly from below the seal’s edge. “What the amateurs often miss! Crude, but incredibly effective. Even if you know its purpose there’s not much you can do about it. Move it and you may as well tear the letter open and take the consequences!”
“A security ‘lock’, in every sense!” Titus quipped.
“Very droll,” she sighed. “It means that we were right to be careful. Others use a small feather embedded in the wax, or a faint scratch on its surface to readily indicate if the seal is tampered with.”
“It might only mean that the old man is losing his thatch,” Titus rejoined.

She shot him a frowned look and snatched the letter back. Then she asked for the young boy who tended the tables to fetch them a small kettle and some straw. The boy returned shortly with both and went off again, leaving the items on their table disinterestedly as if this was a request that was made of him every day. From Titus she borrowed a silk handkerchief out of his pouch. He watched, as wordlessly she set about boiling the kettle and then, as it heated, began to examine the straw stalk by stalk until at last with an “Aha!” she settled on one in particular. Carefully, as the kettle began to hiss with steam on its iron, she lifted it to the table, placed the straw into its spout and sealed the join by wrapping the handkerchief around it tightly. The steam from the kettle was thus compressed into a scalding jet through the hollow straw which she proceeded to dexterously insert through a fold into the parchment’s interior. Titus refrained from laughing when to his amazement, she began to whisper under her breath with immense concentration a litany, which, for all the world sounded like “One elephant, two elephants, three elephants …”. When she had reached twenty of the exotic beasts she sharply withdrew the straw, turned the parchment so that the seal faced the rough boards of the table and gently tapped its top surface, holding the document slightly above the tabletop. There was a dull thud, a moment’s silence from Sarah, and then she sat back triumphantly with the letter still in her hand, but the seal lying face down, intact, and with the crucial strand of grey hair still embedded in its base, onto the wooden surface.
Titus mimed an applause. “Impressive!”
“Just physical law. The vapour relaxes the fibres in the paper but is repelled by the wax. If it is timed correctly then the heat from the steam will release the paper from the clutches of the wax before it distorts the seal. See? The hair is still there and still believes it is doing its job!”
“And your father taught you this?”
“Indeed, and how to replace the seal in like manner.”
“Well, let us read it before you demonstrate that particular trick!”
She handed him the parchment and he unfolded it gently. As he began to read it his expression darkened. He looked up to find Sarah examining him quizzically so he started to read it again, this time aloud.

My son Richard,
Some day, sooner than I wish, but nevertheless later than you anticipated, I shall die. All the same, when I do, let not your grief at my passing be stronger than that you must feel now at my survival. As you can see, for the moment I have survived to stumble a little further through life, and for this you should be doubly grateful. For one thing, it allows me the opportunity to forgive you – though I am sure that such a sentiment abhors you more than if I were to condemn you. Yet forgive you I do, and even if this does not merit your gratitude, still my lack of bitterness leaves me disposed to impart some critical advice to you, and unless you are a complete idiot you should be grateful for that at least.
These eyes you would have blinded have yet things to see through to their finality, this mouth you would have silenced has yet things to say to make an old man’s will understood, these hands you would have stilled have yet things to write so that even after his passing, his will be enacted. But I say this not in triumph having thwarted your plan my son. Know you this. I understand what you intended for your old father and more, I understand your reasons. Know you this also, though the words will astonish you in hearing them as much as they did me when I realised their truth. I approve of your reasons, though not, I must add, your methods. And know this. As ever, your judgement reveals the flaw in you of which we have spoken so many times before. You are a Butler, so you have a keen mind and a keener sense of grievance. You know your weaponry, the tools of our trade, almost better than I – weak minds, aspiring minds and dependent minds are yours to mould and use at will. In this respect you are peerless. And I must add that your flaw lies not in your motive, selfish though it be, or your method, which is original, if reprehensible. It lies only in your ability to identify the target. This time your aim has erred in a manner that surpasses even your own worst precedents.
So allow me to correct you one last time. I am aware of your ambitions. You will be surprised no doubt to learn that they are not so different from my own, though we differ superficially in matters of scale and appearance. The hill you clamber up now is but a foothill to the mountain I have climbed all my life. Your brother, Thomas, was equipped by me to scale those heights too but the good lord saw fit to take him from us just as he started his ascent. Alas, Richard, I was remiss in educating you to the task. But now I see that such an education would have been a waste of time on my part and yours. By your deeds have I now seen that you were born equipped, and but for a little better guidance on my part might already have climbed higher than your brother, or I, could ever have dreamed of in our lifetime. I was wrong to have neglected you. I can see that now. So, belatedly, some advice, in truth the only advice left worth giving. You will succeed in your ambitions only if you listen to these words and heed them. I know that such runs against your grain, but in that respect it is time for you to realise what every good carpenter knows. A useful joint and a strong structure is ever constructed thus. Loath though you might be to accept, it was always our cross purposes that served to strengthen your character, define your purpose in life and impel you through your career. Your antipathy towards your father provided you with the spur to succeed that no amount of well intentioned encouragement from me could ever have done. Even as you strove to defy me did you emulate me. Like me, you cannot defy or ignore your birthright. Butler blood flows through our veins and makes us what we are, whatever petty differences we entertain and stylish foibles we use to dress our actions. What a sorry crew indeed we Butlers are.
But we are who we are for a reason, and one that is greater than any motive we might assume for ourselves in each of our individual lives. History placed us and our country at a crossroads many years ago, and here we have stood since then, defending our land and our family against all who strayed along either road. The task has been onerous and constant and has led each generation to mould the next in its image, our own being no exception to this legacy, though you have ever averred that you are your own man and plough your own furrow. In truth, as I said, you are now the embodiment of that legacy, whether you recognise it or not. Indeed, you are as much my creation as your own, as I was created by those who went before me. Without me you would be nothing, and if you do not take this last instruction then, believe me, it is to nothing that you, and the name of Butler, will quickly return. With our passing shall pass our land, our wealth, and in all likelihood our memory also. This I know to be true with all my heart.
But play the game well and such disaster need not occur. You know that my son. You just have not yet figured the nature of the game, and have mistaken a glimpse of its discarded pieces for the players themselves, and thought a shadow of the table was the board itself from which they fell. So here can I set you right, as a father is obliged through duty to do, even to a son who would have expunged him.
Here is the board and here are the pieces arranged thereon. There are three sides to this board and it is the ambition of each to overwhelm and vanquish the other two. One side is owned by the believers in continuity. Their pieces move in straight lines, just as they think in straight lines, and would wish all to move in straight lines like them. They fear only that which deviates, but what they see as continuity is as narrow as your own concept of prosperity, so what they see as deviation is more than the word describes. They will die fighting – such is their manner – but they fight phantoms with as much ardour as they do men, and we both know how easy it is for such spectres to be manufactured when it suits us. Still, they are a force to be reckoned with. What they lack in imagination they make up for with sheer weight of numbers. There you will find those who style themselves royalists but only in that they abhor the absence of the institution, not in that they even understand the policies or character of its monarchy. There you will also find many of the parliamentarians, as they still style themselves, but who define the term only as the antithesis of monarchy. These are the same ones who would once have crowned Cromwell, and never once saw the logical folly of their gesture. For them, power rests with an elite, which is a safe assumption, but they also believe that the same power emanates from that elite, which is no such assumption at all. Their moves are consequently easiest to discern however, as they are dictated by a simple strategy, and are easiest also therefore to counter.
Then there is the side of revolution. The pieces here move in so many directions at once that they appear to be random, but they are still unified in purpose and effect. Their greatest fear is that they are ever losing the argument, which of course they are, and therefore the game, which indeed they must. These pieces can only move when spurred by their opponents. They are defined by the presence of such opponents. When not being attacked, or perceived to be attacked, they are as impotent as the logic which created them. Whether they know it or not therefore they are fatalists, and their cause is as doomed as they suspect. But their impact on the game is not to be underestimated. They are a common foe to all others, and as such will absorb the attention of the other pieces, distract them, hinder them, and ultimately nullify them. In this way might they achieve a victory of sorts, and to such minds a Pyrrhic victory is sufficient. That is why they are dangerous. Here you will find the supporters of the Duke of York, and perhaps even the man himself. Here also sits Monmouth, and the rabble that he attracts to his banner. Here lie together the Presbyterian and the Covenanter, driven to this side by rancour against those who contain their ambitions. Here also will you find the Gael, the Republican, and the disenchanted Old English, and the dogs on the street, and anyone else without either the ability or the wit to properly influence the game.
On the third side are arranged the pieces of the cheating player, the most dangerous of all. These pieces will have no single strategy that one can understand but many tactics, and not all of them readily discernible as the pieces move around the board at will, even leaving it at times to return unexpectedly, and never at a time or place convenient to countering them. These pieces, as you can understand, are our most formidable enemy. Here you will find the patient men, the ones who await the outcome of the other sides’ battles. They are clever. They know the ambitions and methods of the others and feign involvement in, even support for, their opponents’ mobilisations. But their game is a waiting game, and what they are waiting for is the opportunity to alter the definition of power in this kingdom for all time - to dispense with the board in other words, and us along with it. And therein lies their weakness, indeed their only weakness. To oppose not just the whole board but the game itself means to show equal contempt for all its other players, often even for their own supposed allies. Because their stakes are highest they each foresee victory as total, and for them alone. Otherwise it is not worth playing. Despite their prowess at disguise, this is one thing that they cannot disguise, leastways for long, and it is therefore what you must look for and use against them. Ever ready to find enemies, even amongst people of supposedly like mind, they are ever ready therefore to believe you when you portray anyone as such. In this way can they at least be used, if never truly defeated.
But the board is an English board, and the game, as always, is an English game, and will be replaced by another English game even should the patient men win out. So here is what you must do. You must become the invisible player. If you must be seen then it must always be as an ally of he who saw you. When a piece advances, retreat. When a piece retreats, advance. When a piece disappears, occupy the space it has vacated and thus learn its motive. When a piece reappears, ensure that it always therefore must be where you predict. At all times you must stay in the centre of the board and at all times you must look to all three sides at once. When, as is inevitable, the patient men win, you must only then reveal that you have secured that position, so that they must go around you to get past. Then their alliance will be tested and exposed for what it is, and it is then that they will be at their most malleable, vulnerable and amenable. If there is a new game to be devised, then you will be at the heart of its devising. Only in that way can the real prize ever be yours. You know the prize I refer to, though they cannot, as they are equipped only to play an English game. In their haste to secure their own victory, they will not even see you reach and snatch your own – our own. This is the moment that we have waited for through generations. This is why we understand the patient men, for we have been the most patient ones of all. This has been my life’s purpose, and now, whether you are ready to accept it or not, it is yours.
Hasten slowly. The game has still a long way to run, despite what some might think - longer than I have left, even without your efforts. But fear not. I am gone now. I bequeath you my pieces, and my strategy, and my fervent hope that you play wisely and well. You are a Butler in the end of it all and I know therefore you have the appetite for this challenge. You have played as a fool until now, but even that can yet be turned to your advantage.
Remember this when you regard the bearer of this letter, another who you have played for a fool but who as yet can have a role in your success. I send him to you as a reminder of how this game can turn on one faulty judgement, on one rash tactic, on one mistaken goal. In using him as you did, you created a weapon far more powerful than was needed to strike the blow you planned, but one therefore that can yet be used to great effect. Think on this. Use it well and with better aim than heretofore.
I will forward you later the plans for the dispensation of my Irish possessions and responsibilities. I go now to England, to your mother, and to my rest. I will bring John DeLacey with me, his role in supervising your policies has run its course. I trust you have found him useful, though you may not have truly understood how his advice was given you, or from where it originated. It is of no matter now, you have no further need of advice beyond that which I have just relayed, and I have no longer need for spies, only companions to escort me to my maker. God save you, as he saved me from you.
Your father, the old briar with paternal love in his heart for his sharpest thorn.

As Titus lowered the letter to the table his hand shook with rage. The tone and thrust of the words had shocked him enough – a father claiming to understand his son’s intended patricide but prepared to forgive it as being in the pursuit of power, a commendable family trait. But the blatant and barefaced reference to himself as ‘a weapon of the Butlers’ had cut him to the quick. Of course he had long suspected, indeed known, that he had been used as a tool of others. But to read it in Ormonde’s own hand, and to realise that he was still considered thus, made his blood run cold. Sarah could read his thoughts it seemed, and addressed the letter lying on the table rather than look her companion in the eye as she spoke. “There is one phrase there that rang truest of all – a ‘sorry crew’ indeed!” Then she smiled and looked up with sympathy in her eyes.
Titus knew that he should say something to reassure her. He was grateful for her concern and after all, she herself had been used in much worse ways than he. It was almost churlish for him to indulge in what was, in truth, just self pity. But no words came to him. He leaned back, gazing at the rafters above, and sighed.

She left him to his thoughts as she carefully folded the parchment and set about with her improvised scientific equipment, reapplying the wax seal to its original location. Once done, she reached into Titus’ riding pouch and extracted the other letter that they had been given. “At least O’Neill does not seal his sentiments,” she held up the document to show that it was loose. “I’ll read this one, shall I?”
Her question shook Titus out of his dark thoughts. “Umm,” he nodded.
She scanned the words and smiled. “Short and to the point also. There is that too!”
His curiosity had been aroused. “Well?”
“Well it seems there has been a falling out between two of the great men who we saw as such bosom companions not so long ago in an inn not unlike this one.”
“What does it say?” Her circuitous route to its contents was growing irksome, but she was not to be deflected so easily from her method of introducing them.
“And if I am not mistaken, an alliance has been made between two unlikely compatriots, at least in the matter of their assessment of our letter’s recipient.”
“For god’s sake woman!” He smiled, despite his impatience with her style.
She lifted the letter again and impersonated O’Neill’s affected lilt quite uncannily for one who had never met him. “You asked me to speak with Talbot, hear what he has to say, and then make him see reason. I have done so. Talbot says that your mouth and arse have exchanged position, as what emanates from the upper orifice is naught but shit, and you speak now through the lower one. I told him that was not reasonable. Shit has weight and serves a purpose. It must be farts that he is thinking of. Your servant no more, Niall O’Neill.”

Titus’ loud laugh drew looks from some men who sat drinking at the bar. He snatched both of the letters from Sarah and hurriedly returned them to his pouch. O’Neill’s wit may be base, but it was just what Titus had needed to lift his spirits, troubled as they were from a surfeit of duplicity disguised as ‘diplomacy’ in which people were mere tools of the diplomat and ranked as no more or less useful than bald lies, red herrings and false bonhomie. At least, on the basis of his short missal, that was one quality O’Neill could never be accused of, duplicitous though he might be. When he was sure that they were not being overheard he spoke quietly. “And in an open letter too! It seems that the man cares little that we know it either.”
“Or is proud of his jest.”
“I wonder. O’Neill is a subtle man, I would say, when it suits him. He may be negotiating with the Butlers, but he is determined that we are sure not to consider him an ally of theirs too!”
“Is it important to him that we know this? Why?”
“I cannot say.” Titus fell back into reflection for a few moments. “It is time we try to make sense of our role in these affairs.”
“Or what they deem it to be. Remember, you are now a ‘potent weapon’ in the hands of Richard Butler should he choose to deploy you. God knows what I am to him! A bloody cannonball?”
“Whatever, you are valuable to O’Neill. That much we know.”
“To be honest, Titus, I could no longer care less what value these people see in me. I am more concerned now with the value I can place in them.”
Titus saw her face grow grim and realised that she was right. He was making the same mistake as ever. It mattered less how others saw himself and Sarah, and how they both fit into others’ nefarious schemes. It mattered more what they themselves proposed to do. Up to now he had but the vaguest notion. It was high time that oversight be amended. He was about to say as much when Sarah spoke again, and when she did, she obviously chose her words with great precision.
“There are three spheres, or that is how I see it, one within the other. The largest sphere is a world of kings and dukes and their grand designs. To them, Ireland itself is but a tool to be used in pursuit of ambitions abroad. Inside that is a world of lesser lights, ambitious men of money who seek power, and powerful men who seek money. It matters not which way round. They share similar motives to their superiors, but their pursuits are essentially local. Then, at the core, there is the world of they who serve those above them. The businessmen, the soldiers, the informers and such like. Their motives are many, sometimes even driven by an ideal, but essentially they pursue power also, though only the portion of it that they feel is their due for the services they provide. We have cut a swathe through all three and have made a different kind of enemy in each. But we have confused one with the other at critical times. My father did likewise. That is why he is dead I am sure. And that is why we are no nearer finding his killer.”
“In what way did your father confuse his enemies?” Titus could see that this was no ‘spur of the moment’ analysis on Sarah’s part, but one she had long dwelt on. Her mind had not been idle in the Armagh gaol.
“He could not see beyond the issues that concerned him. They were important to him, and by the wrath he engendered in others he thought therefore that the issues as he understood them were important to them too. It never crossed his mind that there were other agenda, other reasons he was enraging people, just as there were reasons beyond his ken as to why he was allowed pursue his work at all. He was playing an important role in others’ schemes but knew it not.”
“Like us.”
“Yes, but we have been granted at least an insight into these spheres. It is time we apply that knowledge to pursuing our own aims. And something tells me that time is limited.”
“I thought we were.”
“And so did my father.” She fell silent for a while. “Look,” she said eventually, placing her elbows on the table and leaning forward, “let us start with what we know to be important, and which others do not know that we know. Can I have my list back?” Titus reached into his pocket and placed Eoin Reilly’s compilation of Dublin landowners and their shady dealings on the table between them. She picked it up and began to scan the long litany of names. “The answer is here. But this is not enough. Any one of these people could have murdered my father if they suspected their dealings were being scrutinised by him. What else do we know?”
“We know that there was a conspiracy of sorts involved. At least some of the Castle guard belonged to it. As did agents of the landowners. Possibly even some professional men who meet under the guise of the Philosophical Society in Dublin.”
She shook her head. “No, we do not know all that. We have only surmised as much. This is where we have been going wrong. Let us adhere to what we know, however irrelevant it might seem.”
“Then we know little.”
“No, you are wrong. It is just that we have not placed the correct value on that which we do. Now, show me Flitch’s ledger.”

When Lynam arrived to inform them that their horses were ready, he found Titus and Sarah in deep and hushed conversation, scraps of paper and scrawled notes littering the table before them, and with two untouched meals pushed to its end, long since gone cold. If the manner in which they hurriedly broke away from each other and collected their papers from the table gave the illusion of two secret lovers discovered in a tryst, then their dark looks and harsh demeanour dispelled it just as quickly. Titus threw a few coppers on the table as he rose, then he and Sarah wordlessly followed the young soldier to where their horses were tethered outside. Whether in deference to the others’ mood, or for his own reasons, Lynam seemed himself as subdued as his companions. Whatever his assignation had been that afternoon he had returned from it in darker humour than when he had set out. After several miles of the Dublin road had been covered without so much as a whisper from their otherwise avuncular young pilot, Sarah had attempted to lift the man’s spirits by mischievously enquiring after Gráinne Quinn, whose family home they were heading for and for whom they knew Lynam had developed an affection. The grunt she had received in reply was sufficient to warn her that the subject, or any other for that matter, was not open for discussion.

And so they rode in silence behind their guide, all three lost in thought, under the gathering gloom of a cloud laden evening sky, which promised a heavy rain to fall that night. An apt accompaniment, Titus reckoned, for the foreboding mood of his own dark thoughts. They were riding into disaster, he knew that now. But this time, at least, they were determined to be prepared. If nothing else, they would make sure that they were not its only victims. By the time the lights of Quinn’s farmhouse could be seen in the distance, and the first large drops of rain began to fall on their shoulders, Titus’ mood had switched to one of grim, if resigned, determination.

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