But the city was strongly garrisoned with crack Castilian troops and Protestants who refused to reconvert to Catholicism were ordered to sell their homes and immovable possessions and depart. Around half of Antwerp’s population, some 38,000 people emigrated to the north over the next four years (1585-89).
The Dutch Republic
The next day, the sun was going down as they approached Antwerp, floating down the Scheldt. The canal had exited into the river a few hours earlier and their pace had picked up in the faster running river. The city’s glory days were long past. For as long as Nick had been in the Netherlands, Antwerp had been a shadow of its former self, when it had been the busiest port in Northern Europe. Now, after two sacks by the Spanish, the Dutch closing the mouth of the Scheldt, and the Protestants all fleeing north, there were rotting wharves, decaying cranes, empty houses, few signs of people living outside the walls.
Fuck. Gets me every time. The ‘dam and Emden might be getting all the ships these days but I remember when Antwerp was the center of the fucking world. When I first came here, sailing for John Crookback, ships were so crowded along the wharves and quays that it looked like you could walk all the way across the Scheldt going from deck to deck.
The Inquisition will fuck up your business faster than getting drippy dick from a wharf-side whore. First they kicked out the Jews and now they’ve done the same to Protestants. And they all went north to Amsterdam, taking their money and business and brains with them.
Captain van Rupel broke in on Nick’s thoughts. “Journey’s end, Mynheer. We’re going to put in at Hoch Quay and offload in the morning. Care to join us and raise one in thanks at the Yellow Dog?”
The lamps and torches on the dock gleamed yellow and flickering through the fog rising off the river. The sun was not even a hint on the western horizon. It was turning into a cold and dank evening. Nick tried to shake off a presentiment of gloom that the weather laid on his shoulders.
Time enough for some food and drink before I go to sniffing a way ‘cross the Channel. I’ll also need to check my trail, and hope that ‘gritte has kept them off my scent.
“Aye, and thanks to you, Captain. A capital idea.”
The barge’s lines were deftly caught and made fast by Piet and a dock worker. The barge came in against the hempen bollards on the wharf with barely a judder.
“Nice and smooth.” Nick’s admiration wasn’t feigned. These barges could be real pigs to maneuver and more than once he’d been witness to crashing impacts due to a moment’s lack of attention.
“Aye. Do this enough times, and by God, you best get it right.” Van Rupel shifted his attention. “Piet, stay on board and keep an eye out. Boy, you’re with me.”
The fog smelled of tar and garbage, fish and wet stone, smoke and dung. A form loomed out of the miasma, resolved into a guard with half-pike and lantern.
“All crews stay on their boats ‘til the dockmaster checks your cargo.” He wiped his nose with the back of one hand and raised his lantern so the light washed over the three of them.
Van Rupel’s voice was wheedling and obsequious. “Is that really necessary, Mynheer? It’s been long dry days down from Brussels and we’re just looking to hoist a few.”
Oh, well done, you stupid fuck. Why not just post a placard announcing where we’re coming from? Nick felt nothing more than a weary distaste at the job he now must do.
“Them’s city orders. Not getting flogged just so you can go get pissed. Back to your boat.” He gestured with his half-pike. “Off with you.”
Van Rupel stepped forward to beg his case but Nick put a hand on his shoulder. And then realized several things. Van Rupel was breathing too fast, too tense for encountering a dock side watchman with his hand out for a bribe. And the guard. His boots were wrong. And his weapons were too used.
Nick dropped his hand from van Rupel’s shoulder and stepped back a step, set his back to river. He scratched the back of his neck and wrapped his arms around himself as if for warmth. Buoyed by the knowledge that his main blades were easy at hand, he stood easy and waited for what was coming next.
Nick saw the knowledge of what was about to happen creep across van Rupel’s face, like an eroding dyke. He looked frantically back and forth between Nick and the guard, lips twisting as he tried to find words.
The scraping sound of boots heralded more forms coming out of the fog. The guard grinned nastily, revealing a gap toothed maw. Four bravos came into view, one by one. Swords, daggers, what looked like a half pike, fuck, one of them even carried a pistol. They were all well tooled up. Nick recognized the one in the lead.
“Fuck me, Breda Piet. I thought you were up with Martin Schenck.”
The men spread out. Piet took a relaxed stance, hand resting easily on his sword hilt. “You’re not usually so late with the news, Nick. Martin’s been worm food for two months. Died trying to take Dordecht.”
The boy sniggered behind him, audible over van Rupel’s panicked breathing.
“So now you take Hugh Owen’s coin?” Nick kept his body as relaxed as Piet’s, waiting for his chance.
“It’s good coin, Nick, better than most, in fact. Best paymaster I’ve had in ten years, so he is.” Piet’s voice got more intent. His men started to move forward. “And it seems he’d like to have a word or two with you. You going to come easy?”
It was the boy who gave him his chance. He danced around in front of Nick and poked him in his belly. “You’re fucked, fat man, yes, you are, a fucked fat man.”
Nick dropped a blade from his sleeve into his hand and flung it into the throat of the mercenary farthest from him. With his other hand, he grabbed the boy by the hair and lifted him up in front of him.
The pistol discharged. Nick felt the bullet slam into the boy’s body. He stopped struggling, instantly dead. Nick, stomach stitches tearing, flung the body into the false dock guard with his half-pike.
Piet, almost bored by the carnage, drew his sword. “I bet Dieter that it’d go this way. And now you went and killed him before I could collect.”
Half-pike got rid of the boy’s corpse and came in jabbing. Nick got in close, knocked the weapon aside with a forearm, elbowed him in the face several times, dropped him with a boot to the knee.
Nick pulled his long blade from behind his back and filled his left hand with a dagger, and waited for Piet to come to him. He was cautious, feeling Nick out with jabs and flicks, keeping him from crowding in close. In the corner of his mind, Nick kept aware of the pistoleer over by a stack of barrels, fumbling through the reloading steps. Nick had two blades to Piet’s one but couldn’t get close enough to take advantage. Nick decided to gamble on something he’d picked up from a German fencing master.
Have to end this fast. I’m too fucking battered and he’s too fucking good.
Longer blade out in front. Smaller one back and a little low to draw Piet in. Boots sliding on slimed cobbles as he readied his stance. Cold sick excitement in his belly drowned out the pain of his wound.
Piet came forward, leading with his sword. Jab, jab, jab. Testing, seeing how Nick reacted. Nick lightly flicked away the jabs. Kept his left side slow and clumsy.
Watched. Waited. Saw the contempt flash in Piet’s eyes. Met Piet’s attack. Moved in fast. Inside Piet’s guard. Dropped the small blade. Grabbed Piet’s sword wrist. Pull, twist, thumbnail digging in. Hammered his other elbow into Piet’s face. One. Two. Three. Followed Piet down as he went back onto quay.
Stomach wound burning like fury, blood trickling down his leg into his boot, Nick leaned into Piet, angling his long blade up close under his throat. “I’ve got you, whoreson. Which way is this going to go?”
Piet’s eyes flicked left then right. Nick put a little more pressure on his blade to forestall any hope or stupid ideas. “You’ll be done like a hog for the slaughter if he comes any closer. Don’t be a shit for brains, Piet. There’s no need for this to turn into any more of a shambles.”
Underneath Nick’s forearm, Piet relaxed. “Jacob, stay back. This fight’s over.”
“Thank fuck for that.” Heart hammering, breath rasping, clambered to his feet. Stepping over pools of blood to collect his blades, he kept a weather eye on Piet and Jacob. “I hope that dogfucker Owen doesn’t put your nuts in a vise for this, Piet.”
Piet looked up from checking one of the bodies. “No worries. He’ll blame me for not bringing you in, I’ll blame him for not telling me what a dangerous shit heap you are. We’ll bargain over a new price and he’ll set me on you once again. He may be a sheep fucking intelligencer from a God forsaken corner of England, but this is the Low Countries. Business is business.” Piet stood up and bushed himself off, straightened his clothes. After blowing bloody snot from his nostrils, he spoke without looking at Nick. “Now get the fuck out of here.”
Nick got the fuck out of there. He spared a glance to the bargemaster, van Rupel, who stared back at him in mute entreaty. Nick just shrugged, too tired, too pained to care about the bastard’s betrayal.
Moving down the street, leaving the carnage behind him, hearing distant splashes as Piet got rid of the bodies, Nick drew deep breaths of the chill air and considered his next move.
Find a place to sleep. Then get the fuck out of Antwerp tomorrow. Get aboard a smuggler running across the Channel. Great-Thirst? For now, place to sleep.
Goasl fixed in his mind, Nick made his way through the dark back streets of Antwerp. Drying sweat chilled his skin. Hunger gripped his belly. His wound burned. And he ached everywhere else. He let none of these things weigh him down.