The town (Vlissingen or Flushing) was overcrowded and insanitary, the local hostile. The traffic of war passed through, incessantly, chaotically – soldiers on their way to the front, the cashiered and wounded on the way back home, and the usual wartime flotsam of profiteers, adventurers and spies, travelling in both directions and in neither.
He knew before he even opened his eyes that he was ashore. But not too far from the ocean, he could smell it, hear the gulls. It had stormed recently, he could smell that also. Ashore. But where? And when? How long have I been unconscious? By the feeling in his flesh, he knew that he had been asleep for sometime. But, drawing in a breath, he felt no pain in his lungs from the ague and the pain of his stomach wound was much lessened. Christ, that long?
Nick opened his eyes. He was in a room in an inn; he recognized the type easily enough, small but not filthy. Light came in through the oiled paper in the one window, judging by its strength, sometime in the afternoon of a sunny day.
The room also contained a man standing by the door. An average looking man, not too tall, not too short, not too handsome, not too ugly. Black hair under a cap, dressed in a travel stained doublet, jerkin, hose. A pleasant smile on his face. No reason for it, but Nick felt a sense of unease.
The man spoke first. “It’s good to see you awake, Nick. I imagine that you are filled with questions. Well, plain put, here’s what I know. A storm blew up and Great-Thirst had to put in at Vlissengen. You had taken a turn for the worse and he was afraid that you wouldn’t live out the voyage. He snuck you in here and had an herbwife he knew care for you. Unfortunately he had to leave before you were well enough to travel. Now, you must have questions.” The man stood there attentive and pleasant.
For a moment Nick had no questions, so full was his mind with turmoil and outrage. Fuck! Vlissengen! Fuck! Great-Thirst gone! Fuck!Then he unclenched his jaw, breathed out, and gathered his wits. “And you are?” He kept his tone level and polite. No reason to reveal anything until the situation was made plain.
“My name is Stephen Gardener.” He took off his hat and made a little bow. “I believe we have a mutual friend in Bob Poley.”
With that name, everything was cast into a different light and an icicle ran down Nick’s spine. He kept is voice flat and distracted. “Bob Poley? I know no one by that name.” He made to get out of bed and realized that he was naked. “Where are my clothes?”
“You don’t know Bob Poley? That is most strange, for he seems to know you quite well and seeks you most urgently. But no matter. If you say that you do not know him, then I believe you.” Gardener waved away the matter. “Your outer clothes – and weapons, my but you go out into the world well armed, do you not – are there in the corner. I’m afraid that your shift and nether stocks were past saving, what with the blood and pus from your wound.”
Nick craned his neck and indeed saw a pile of his clothes in the corner, his various blades laid on top. Sitting up, he pulled the threadbare blanket around him and discovered that, while he might be healed and well, he was still weak. His head swam a bit. “Since I have no knowledge of this Poley person that you speak of, you must have me mistaken for someone else. I apologize for any trouble that you’ve gone to on my behalf but I think you should now be on your way.”
Gardener gave another dismissive wave of his hand. “Oh, it’s been no trouble at all. Please do not concern yourself.” He walked over to the window and peered through a small slit that had been cut in the oiled paper. He smiled to himself at what he saw. “I shall be on my way, but I am sure that we shall see each other anon.” He turned to the door. “Please do not disturb yourself. I shall see myself out. I’ll let them know downstairs that you’re awake and that they should send up some food.” With that, Gardener opened the door and exited.
Nick let out the breath he had been holding. If I never see you again, cully, it’ll be too soon. Nick gathered his strength and rose from the bed, letting the blanket drop. Heedless of his nakedness, he went over to his clothes. He bent down and pawed through the pile until he found his cloak. He ran his fingers along the seams until they felt the slight give of the tightly rolled papers. He closed his eyes in relief and muttered a prayer of thanks to an absent God.
He scooped up the clothes and weapons in his arms and lurched back to the bed. He threw them down on top of the bed and sat down beside them, to get his breath back before attempting to dress himself. He lightly poked at the healing scar on the swell of his stomach. It was healing well, a straight pink line neatly stitched through the hair that furred his body. The herbwife knew her business, right enough, very little pain, and neither pus nor blood. But he was still weak. As Nick took stock of his body with one part of his attention, the greater part of his mind was set on the problem of getting out of Vlissengen.
He had several very good reasons to have specified to Great-Thirst to avoid this town. The port on the Zeeland island at the mouth of the Scheldt was ruled by the English. The town had been given to them by the Dutch in return for the military help that had resulted in Leicester’s campaigns in Flanders several years past. It was English law that ruled here and there were several warrants out on Nick. He was wanted back from when he was a smuggler working for himself and he was wanted from a more recent affair when he was working as a spy. His face was known and in a town this small, it was only a matter of time until he was recognized.
And what about money? He’d spent the last of his coin on Great-Thirst. Maybe he could work his passage across the Channel.
Nothing was going be resolved just sitting here in his skin. He began to paw through his clothes, setting his weapons aside, laying out the garments in preparation for donning them. His eye was caught by an unfamiliar pouch. He weighed it in his hand and it felt like money. What the hell? He spilled it out onto the bed and among the coins was a scrap of parchment. Unfolding the scrap and reading it, his surprise was complete. Great-Thirst can write? warred with Great-Thirst is just giving me money?
The note read: Nick. I know that you didn’t desire to be here. But it looked like you were dying. Had to leave. Entrusted some coin with your friend. Hope you get it. Still owe you. Always pay my debts.
Nick puzzled over it for a few minutes. Friend must be that Gardener. If things were different, I’d get to the bottom of his scheme. He knows more than he should. But no matter now. This is enough coin to get me a working passage across the Channel.
Heartened by the unfamiliar experience of good fortune, Nick hurriedly dressed. But he continued to misjudge his health. As he sat down to pull on his boots, his shoulders sagged in exhaustion. Just lie down for a minute. And his eyelids were dragged down by the weight of his weariness.
Knocking at the room’s door roused him. Opening his eyes, the quality of the light told him that it was coming on evening. The knocking continued. “Hold off! I’m coming!” He clambered to his feet and filled his fist with a blade. Standing to one side of the door, he held himself in readiness. “Who’s there?”
“Open the door, Nick. I bring some good news.”
What the fuck is Gardener doing back here? Not hiding the blade, Nick opened the door and motioned Gardener inside. “I thought I said that you should be on your way. Why are you dogging my steps?”
The black haired man glanced at the weapon in Nick’s hand and raised his eyebrows in brief amusement. “You look to be someone in a bit of difficulty. I am merely offering a helping hand. Our mutual smuggling friend mentioned that you were some hurry to get to England. There is space on a boat leaving soon, if you would care to accept my help.”
Nick briefly weighed his choices and found them scant. “I accept your help and thank you for helping me.” He laid a friendly hand on Gardener’s shoulder. “It is too rare a thing for someone that I know not to help me.” He tightened his grip. “And know this. Betray me, you die first.”