(Broken Instrument) CHAPTER 3: NICK: A GUTTING MAN

Map Of Brussels
Map Of Brussels

On the whole, the States-General met every three years, mainly to discuss tax demands and there might be several meetings before the necessary unanimity was achieved. In the course of the haggling and debate a certain degree of unity and cooperation grew up among the delegates from the main provinces who habitually attended…

The Dutch Revolt

Geoffrey Parker


“Hoy, Nicholas! Where are you off to on this fine day?”

Fuck. Nick wearily closed his eyes.  I have even less time than I thought. He pasted a faint smile on his face and turned to face his questioner.

It was Braathuis and Edgewine, two of them that were always hanging around Owen looking to cadge coin or some small deed to raise them in his favor. Nick had always thought of them as the fleas that infest a particularly fast and dangerous hunting dog. Edgewine was dressed in his usual failed attempt to look better than he was; stained doublet and sagging hose and a codpiece that owed more to padding and Edgewine’s dreams than reality. Braathuis had found a large Italian hat somewhere; it sat on his head like some particularly despondent and diseased mushroom. The two of them stood in the doorway of the stable where Nick had just returned the nag.  

Nick hitched his sword belt more comfortably under his belly. “Just returned this very day from a mission for Master Owen. I thought I’d avail myself of an ale at The Duchess, wash this dreadful taste of dust and horse out of my mouth before reporting to our mutual employer.” He hawked and spat.

Edgewine, all conviviality and good humor, drew close. “That sounds like a capital idea. Might we join you and toast your successful return?”

Braathuis also pulled in close and managed to plant one large booted foot in the middle of a pile of horse shit. “Aye, you have the right of it, Edgewine. You can tell by that shit eating grin of his that he’s returned well accomplished. You were sent south, were you not, to pass messages to some noble of the Catholic League?”

Nick raised one hand to forestall any other clumsy attempts at intelligencing and turned to the stable owner. “Thank you for the horse. It served me well.” He handed the man a few groschen. “This is the remainder of what I owe you.”

The man squinted at the coins in his dirty palm, prodded them with a calloused finger, thought a bit, then nodded. “Aye. Right enough. And you brought the beast back in good condition. Thank you for your custom, mynheer.”

“Well, that’s done!” Nick picked up his saddlebags and moved out through the doorway and into the street. “Let’s go, you two, grab a quick pint.”

“You are the most excellent of men! Why, I was remarking the same to Hugh Owen this very morning, wasn’t I, Braathuis?

The large Brabanter was behind Nick and Edgewine. “Indeed you did, and Hugh was much in agreement with you.”

It could be worse, I could have been caught by someone skilled at the game, not these two lackwits. The course is set, let’s see if I founder.

It was a grey Flanders day. Low clouds made everything wet and damp. The three of them proceeded down the street in the direction of the Duchess. They stepped aside and doffed their hats as a member of the States General went past, all rich velvets and surrounded by clerks, secretaries, and bodyguards. Governor-General Parma had returned to Brussels after the defeat of his forces at Ivry down in France on the side of the Catholic League. As a consequence, the mood of the city was tense as people scrambled to find out which way the wind was blowing. Would there be more taxes to pay for more troops?  Is the price of grain rising or falling? Is the Spanish escudo falling in value against the Dutch florin?

And so, a meeting of the Estates General was convened and all the representatives from the loyal provinces were in town. This made the crowds thicker than usual. As the capital of the Spanish Netherlands, Brussels ebbed and flowed with the press of government business. If you wished to transact commerce, you went to Bruges, Ghent, or Antwerp; for matters of government or law, you came to Brussels. As a result, Nick felt that Brussels lacked a certain vitality, even on its best days.

A religious procession went past. Monks chanted and reliquaries were displayed to beg God to not look away from His most loyal servant, the Governor-General. Incense and droned Latin clotted the air. Even with his years in the Netherlands, Nick was struck by the alien sight and sound of the Old Religion; not having seen any such thing in his years in England. Elizabeth had been queen all his life; Catholics worshipped very quietly or not at all.

A group of swaggering bravos from one of the militia guilds, the Grote Kruisbooggilde from the crossbows they were carrying, shoved their way through the crowd.

“Damn my eyes, is it time for the ommegang already?”

“Nearly, the festival’s next month. They’re off to practice for the shooting competition. They go to the fields outside the walls and shoot up targets and then come back and brag to the whores.”

“Fuck, look at those capering apes. Carrying on like they’re going to defeat the heretics all by themselves. With crossbows. Who the fuck uses crossbows anymore?”

Nick and Edgewine kept up a stream of talk as they went along, touching on the latest rumors and news: religious war in France between Guise and Navarre, the fall of Breda, where this season’s campaigning would take place, whether the whores in Amsterdam or Utrecht were the best at sucking prick.

“You said you wanted to slake your thirst at The Duchess, did you not, Nicholas? Why, this alleyway will shorten our travels by quite a bit and get us away from this infernal crush of bodies.”

Nick compared Edgewine’s words to the map of Brussels he kept in his mind, acquired by years of shadowy service for Hugh Owen, and knew that Edgewine was so full of shit he should reek like a midden.

“S’truth? I had no idea. Lead on, Edgewine, lead on.”

“Oh, here’s a tasty bit of news.” Edgewine’s voice was a touch too excited. Its falseness scratched at his ear with warnings that he’d learned not to ignore.

Here it comes.

Stepping around a pile of dog shit overlooked by the tanners’ apprentices, Edgewine was careful not to look at Nick. “It seems that the English whore queen has lost her spymaster. The Puritan Walsingham has been gathered to the Devil’s bosom for his infernal reward.” He suddenly spun and glared at Nick. Braathuis’ sword rasped free behind him. “So who’ll pay your wages now, you heretic spy?” Steel glinted in his fist.

Cloak on left arm. Nick horse-kicked, spurs forcing Braathuis back. Got space to draw his own sword and drove at Braathuis.

Boxed. A very bad place to be. Rain barrel off to the side. Maybe. Braathuis first.

Nick pulled up and threw his back against the alley wall by the barrel. Edgewine and Braathuis moved in, crowding each other. Braathuis essayed a thrust over the top of the barrel. Nick parried down, driving Braathuis’s sword into the barrel. In the time provided by Braathuis the Shit-Wit trying to free his sword, Nick lunged at Edgewine. Squeaking in fear, he tried to fend off Nick with his dagger, wildly thrusting it in the air between them. Nick heard the barrel splinter behind him.

Ending this now!

He fouled Edgewine’s dagger with his cloak. Drove his sword into the squeaker’s thigh. Moaning and gasping like an ass-fucked cabin boy, Edgewine collapsed into the shit and mire.

“That’s done for you.”

“You fucking heretic!”


Nick spun. That great stinking blade coming right at him. A twisted downward parry. The shock of his sword breaking four inches above the hilt. The cold burn as the sword sliced into his fat belly. Expecting Nick to fall, Braathuis pulled his sword back to finish him off.

“Nay, boy, not so easy to kill a gutting man!” Nick bulled forward and head butted Braathuis to the ground. Knelt on his chest and shoved his broken blade into Braathuis’ face until the screaming stopped.

Nick grunted to his feet and stumped towards Edgewine. “And now, you. How much did that dribble dick Papist Owen tell you?”

Squealing thinly, both hands clamped around his wounded leg, Edgewine looked up from the alleyway. Tried to push himself backwards through the muck, away from Nick. A futile effort.

Dripping blood that was both his and Braathuis’ Nick reached him in a few steps. Kicked him in the wound and then in the balls. Hunkered down to one side, avoiding the spew Edgewine coughed up.

“No time for Topcliffe artistry, so I’m just going to cut on you until you tell me. Then you can voyage on those juicy tits of the Virgin Mary all peaceful.”

“I don’t know anything!”

Nick sheared off one of his fingers.

“Who told Owen I was intelligencing for the Moor?”

“Don’t know!”

“Tell me and I cut your throat quick and the pain stops. The longer you fuck me around, the longer the pain lasts.”

“Don’t know!” Edgewine drew trembling breaths, tears streaming down pasty cheeks. “Wait, wait, wait! Owen, he called me and Braathuis in, told us that you were a spy, promised to reward us if we did you.”

“Was there anyone in the room with him?”

“Helmsley! Dick Helmsley, that high born English that’s Owen’s right hand. He’s the one that told us to look for you at the stables as you were expected back. He did most of the talking, Owen was mainly looking at a letter as Helmsley addressed us.”

“Owen wouldn’t tell you any more than was needful, I warrant. Well, Edgewine, you’re a treacherous back-stabbing little shit and I’m glad it’s me that gets to kill you.”  Nick thrust the stub of his sword into Edgewine’s chest. He died with barely a whimper. From Edgewine’s cloak, Nick tore a length that wasn’t too smeared with blood and filth, pressed it to his wound.

Fuck, I hurt. Have to get to ‘gritte and out of the city. Brussels is nothing but a killing floor for me now.

How he made it across Brussels, Nick never knew. His left boot filling with blood, his sight going grey around the edges, he banged on the back gate of the Cornieliuszoon residence. Eventually, each rapid breath caused pain to stab from his wound, eventually the gate was opened a crack. The familiar face of Matthias, the stable boy, gaped at him.

“Myhneer Crossby! You’re all bloody!”

Nick was so far gone, he barely recognized the name by which all had known him these past years. “Aye, boy, I’m all bloody. Go fetch your mistress.” Nick stumbled past him and leaned against the inner wall. “Go now! But be quiet-like. No shouting. Just bring her.”

The boy moved off quickly and Nick just leaned there, trying not to pass out.

Fuck, what a shambles this is. Walsingham dead? Can’t go back to my lodgings. Owen will have men watching them, likewise the gates. Glad I kept my bolt hole money and letters of credit here with ‘gritte. Who the fuck gave me over to Owen? He’s a dead man walking, whoever he is. He checked the packet from Broussard, made sure it was still safe. Maybe some answers in this. And that rancid cove Poley has answers, always does, even if he doesn’t like giving them up. So it’s to London, then, and Poley. And get quit of this service, go back to honest smuggling. Have to stop bleeding first. Light headed chuckles shook his frame. Damn, that hurts! Where’s ‘gritte? That slack wit Matthias probably stopped in the stable to fuck a dog. Damn me, that’s a lot of blood. I’ll get passage across to England in Antwerp. I pray to God Great-Thirst is still running cargoes.

“By the Virgin, Nick! You’re a shambles!”

Nick looked bleary-eyed up at Margritte. Why am I sitting down? “Why it’s an angel of mercy, sent from the Lord, to minister to the unworthy.”

“So being gutted makes you an even bigger fool, Nick Crossby. I’ll keep that in mind.” She turned to Matthias and her gardener. “Quickly. Go fetch planks and bear Myhneer Crossby into the back room. Go!”

“Nonsense! I can walk. No need to carry me.” Nick struggled to his feet and promptly fainted.

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