The Northern Fire


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"I find that I sent wolves not shepherds to govern Ireland, for they have left me nothing but ashes and carcasses to reign over!" Elizabeth I

Ireland in the 16th century is a land divided. It's a struggle between old and new, Gael and Saxon, chieftain and crown. It's the twilight of the Gaelic lords as their power comes under threat and they're given a simple choice. To kneel and submit to the crown or be destroyed.

The power of the Desmonds has already been broken but across Ireland, the seeds of rebellion are being sown and all eyes are on Ulster, that last bastion of hope. Never before conquered and the most alien of all the four provinces, its fate is to be changed forever in the war to come.

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“What ish my nation?”- Captain Macmorris, Henry V


The Irish Sea, 1592.

The wind howled, shrieking like some demented banshee. It was a fell breeze from the north, harsh and pitiless. Waves ran with it, white caps on their crest. They buffeted the vessel beating its way towards the shore. Its sails were close hauled, beating to windward as its master strove to make as direct an approach as possible. 

A figure huddled in the prow. Standing near one of the stays, he was half hunched over in an effort to conserve heat. His cloak was pulled tightly about him and despite the layers of clothing he was swathed in, he still shivered. The constant driving rain had him sodden, the moisture leeching away warmth as the damp seeped into his very bones. Yet still he stood his lonely vigil.

The sailors treated him just as another obstacle to work around. They still had a task to hand as the ship luffed up a little, making the final beat in. The entire ship jarred, the timbers creaking as it hit another large wave. The man turned as someone tugged at his arm. He turned to face another stooped figure and angled his head to listen. “Captain’s compliments sir and to go to the quarterdeck!” the sailor yelled, his listener nodding in acknowledgment. He began a staggered walk aft while the sailor, his message done, went back to work.

The ship was tilted leeward from the force of the wind. A full rigged pinnance, she was a solid two-master, the sails reefed now to cope with the strength of the breeze. She carried a full armament of a dozen cannon but their gunports were shut and the weapons tightly secured for the storm.

He felt every wave through his legs. The deck was wet and slick but lines had been rigged fore and aft so a man could cling onto something for support. His foot slipped as he mounted the stern ladder to the quarterdeck but a quick-witted sailor caught him. He was hefted up by the arm, the sailor just inclining his head at his thanks.

The captain was on the wheel. He stood with his legs braced, back straight, unflinching while he weathered the elements. O’Conor seemed to relish the weather, he turned to the newcomer with bared teeth. It was the sort of smile a wolf might wear before advancing on its prey. “A fine day Mr Trevelyan! A fine bloody day!” he yelled over the cry of the wind. Edward Trevelyan just nodded, his shoulders hunched against the biting cold.

“I wanted you to see this!” O’Conor went on, one hand leaving the wheel to point forward. He said something else but the wind snatched it away. Edward leaned closer, with a frown, “What?!” “Ireland!” came the shout. O’Conor was gesturing and Edward squinted. Sure enough, on the horizon, a darker smudge of grey was materialising between where the sky and sea met. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?!” the captain grinned, he was delighted. His smile lessened and he jerked his head at the deck. “Best get below, no need for cargo to be in the way” he shrugged but the grin came back “No offense meant of course sir”.

The ship jerked as it hit a particularly large wave and Edward grabbed onto the gunwale, steadying himself before attempting the ladder. He looked back at O’Conor. “Trust me Mr Trevelyan, before long you’ll miss this” he said cryptically. “Best get below now”.

Edward’s legs shook as he took the gangplank down to the dock. The rain had slackened off to a constant drizzle but the wind was unrelenting. He held tight onto his hat, bent near double to make any headway. His other hand gripped the guard rope to ensure he didn’t take a tumble.

Nowhere looked welcoming in the rain. Dublin was no exception. The buildings were damp, some thatched, some tiled. The streets had become morasses of mud which the inhabitants treaded through with the air of men en route to their hanging. 

Captain O’Conor was there ahead of him, arguing with representatives from the harbour master. His hand rested on his rapier while the other gestured wildly. Edward could only catch snatches of the discussion over the wind. Words such as “Damn your eyes”, “Harbour fees”, and “Bastards!” featured quite prominently. 

“Welcome to Dublin” the captain said sarcastically. His hand indicated the officials he’d been arguing with. “As a passenger you are a lucky man to not have to deal with these creatures”. His fingers drumming on the rapier hilt gave a good idea as to what he’d like to do with them. The other men were garbed in drab clothes, sheltered under heavy coats. The taller of the two spoke up, “Youse captains know the rules O’Conor. Youse come in here acting all cobby. We’ve been mullacking the whole day and we’re possing now. So we’re in no mood to deal with your rámeis”. O’Conor’s answering smile was just as humourless. “And as I said, I’m carrying military cargo. Take it up the Council. You’ll be getting whack from me lads!”. They bent to haggling, leaving Edward mystified as he struggled to keep up with them.

The two harbour officials had odd accents, twisting the vowels, though he got the gist. O’Conor seemed to have little issue, conversing in his own brutal manner. Further speculation was halted by the advance of another official, his hand up and his voice loud. “Mr Trevelyan I presume?” he asked imperiously, his accent educated. Beneath his coat there were the traces of ceremonial dress, the hem spattered with mud. He had a book under his arm and he squinted to make out the name of the ship. “You’re a day late” he observed.

“Take it up with the storm” O’Conor cut in, “Manannan has been riding the storm these past days. More than one sailor has gone to his grave”. His head dropped and he made the sign of the cross. Edward looked back out past the harbour. Even within its shelter there were white topped waves and the spray was lifted high enough to beat against those homes on the waterfront. He felt a lot more confident now he was on dry land.

The official made a dismissive motion with his hand. “James Cooper” he said by way of introduction. “I’m assigned to be your guide to orientate you to Dublin. I have the honour to be an official of the Castle” “The Castle?”. O’Conor broke in again, his grin a bit more honest this time. “There’s only one castle worth talking about in this part of the island lad, well the Pale at least. Fortress, armoury, prison, and counting house is Dublin Castle”. 

“Quite so” Cooper said, not minding the interruption, “And as an official of the Castle, I shall inform you Captain that harbour fees are the responsibility of a vessel’s master. You may present the receipt to the Castle for reimbursement, providing of course that your cargo is intact and unspoilt.”

“You expect barrels of black powder to be dry and ready to prime in all this?!” the seaman demanded. “I expect you to do your duty as a servant of the Crown Captain” Cooper said primly, “Now Mr Trevelyan, if you would. I am sure you have little desire to catch your death in this frontier weather”. His own manner suggested a man eager to be back in under a roof. The harbour officials had wide smiles while Captain O’Conor swore under his breath and rummaged through his coinpurse. He’d be drying powder for the next month.

“Not at all Mr Cooper” Edward responded. He turned to offer his hand to the captain, “I’m much obliged sir for your hospitality and assistance on the voyage” and he meant every word. O’Conor managed the ghost of a smile as he shock. “Not a bother lad, dhera we might see you again. Just be careful and watch your back. These Dubliners would knife their own mother for a penny”.

They took their leave. Cooper walked with little care for the muck, Edward trying to copy him, his boots splashing in the mud. His travel chest he carried balanced on his shoulder, while his other hand clutched his sword and scabbard to his chest. Odd how the sea almost seemed preferable to this now. He’d been soaked there. Now he was soaked and dirty. 

On the surface, Dublin seemed little different from other provincial cities, the alien aspect like one a Home Counties man might find in Wales, Cornwall, or the Border Country. Many of the citizens wouldn’t have looked out of place in London, Nottingham, or half a dozen towns. Despite the storm, life continued as normal. He hoped that wasn’t a sign that this weather was standard. How was a man expected to live in this, let alone fight? 

It was no Venice, Algiers, or Crete but there were still sights to be seen. “What in God’s name are they?” he asked Cooper, his head jerking as a column of warriors went by. Some of the fashions in Dublin were old-fashioned but that was to be expected this far from London. These warriors wouldn’t have looked out of place at Hastings or Stamford Bridge. 

“Gallowglasses” the official set with a dark expression on his face. He had halted to let them go by, others had done the same. No one seemed to wish to obstruct the gallowglasses. “Gall óglaigh is what the Irish say. Mercenaries might be a better word. You better get used to them, they are a fact of life on this island. Many are Irish, more are Scots. They’re drawn to battle like moths to flame” his tone showed how little he approved of them. They were barbaric looking. Tall, strong men, they carried massive two-handed swords and axes. Heavy chainmail coats were worn over saffron tunics with an eclectic mixture of helmets, the choice down to the wearer. They walked with an easy, swaggering confidence as if they owned the city. Townsfolk stared after them long after their column had rounded the corner.

“The garrison keeps an eye on them but half of them might be the garrison. One month they’re ours, the next they’re fighting for whatever chieftain raids the Pale” Cooper said with a sorry shake of his head. “I never thought I’d see such a thing in an English city” Edward admitted, he’d found his grip tightening on his sword and only now did he loosen it.

“It’s not English yet”was the grim answer, “It mightn’t be Irish either but don’t forget that you’re on the frontier now. You won’t find anywhere as dangerous in Wales or Scotland to match here. The Queen’s writ runs here, but beyond those walls, you’re on your own. Personally I wouldn’t trust an Irishman before they were hung”. 

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