The Chase


The mutinies of the Army of Flanders spelt military and financial disaster for Spain.

The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road 1567 – 1659

Geoffrey Parker


Nick rode towards the smoke.

And a pillar of smoke shall guide them during the day. The blasphemous thought brought forth wry humor. Not quite 40 years the Spanish have been wandering and warring through the Netherlands, but near enough. Though they are more akin to the plague of locusts than the Chosen People. 

There were peasants working in the fields, but not many. They all knew that the smoke meant Spanish nearby and that those Spanish tercios were well pissed off.

Corpses swinging from gibbets, object lessons to the rest of the mutineers, stood sentry outside the village. Captain Velasco had put down the mutiny with his usual enthusiasm and bloodthirstiness. I hope he hasn’t sent the Irish to the dancing master. Long ride for nothing. Crows rose from the bodies as Nick rode past, then settled back to their meal.

The mutinying soldiers, a company of some units of Irish and some units of Germans from what Nick had heard, hadn’t done too much damage to the village. Only a few of the houses were burnt shells. After all, the soldiers had been planning on making this their refuge until their pay came through. Over the decades that the Spanish had been fighting in the Netherlands, this kind of mutiny wasn’t a rare occurrence. But this time, the patience of Governor General Parma wasn’t so much worn thin as non-existent. He’d ordered no negotiations, no offers to return to service. Instead, the hand was to be one of iron and the chastising rod laid on heavy. And, anyway, there was no money for renegotiated contracts or for paying at least some of the back wages now two years in the owing.

None of the villagers were visible as Nick entered the town. He sensed eyes on him as he rode past shuttered windows but the only figures moving were Spanish soldiers, a mix of pikemen, arquebusiers, and cavalry, lounging around. The mutinying troops were probably being held in some of the barns or animal pens until the lessons had been learned and the chastened soldiers re-entered the service of his most Catholic Majesty, Phillip II of Spain.

The village had grown up along a stream and, sometime in the past, the stream had been dug out for a mill pond. And because of its central location, the mill now served Captain Velasco as a headquarters. In front of the building, Velasco’s men had set up a pair of heavy chairs. The men strapped into the chairs were no longer screaming, their voices garroted down to a desperate whine. Nick walked past the stranglers turning the cords and stopped in front the sentries guarding the mill’s entrance.  

“I need to see Captain Velasco.” Nick’s Spanish was rough but understandable. ”I’ve been sent from Brussels to question some of the mutineers.”

“Wait here.” One of the sentries went into the mill and after a few minutes, came out. “It’ll be a while. Come back later.”

Nick sighed and reached inside his doublet for the document he’d been given in Brussels for just this complication. “You probably can’t read, but I would think that you can recognize this.” He unfolded the document, the paper crackling underneath his gloved fingers. The lump of wax at the bottom of the sheet shone red in the intermittent sunlight streaming through the mill door. “This is the seal of Entretenido cerca la persona Ximenez de la Vera Cruz. And it means that I get to see Captain Velasco right fucking now. Take me to him.”

Both of the sentries glared at Nick but eventually, after a period of closely examining the seal, did as he instructed. They all made their way deeper into the mill. The sacks of grain and flour usually present on the mill floor had already been looted by either the mutineers or the soldiers. The waterwheel made an unceasing rattling and grinding sound from outside the other side of the mill; however, the millstone was not in use and its rasping voice was silent. The dust from decades of work and innumerable bushels of grain was worked into the planks of the floor and flavored the air.

Captain Velasco was seated behind a table, taking a report from one of his lieutenants. He was dressed and armored for the field, wearing a cuirass, helmet set on the table, along with his sword. Soldiers stood at attention along the wall, waiting for orders or messages to be taken to the rest of the troop. The lieutenant saluted and moved away from the captain as Nick and the two sentries came up.

“I thought I had made my orders very clear. I would see this man when all my other business was concluded. Why have my very clear orders been disobeyed?” Nick had become very tired of the same haughty bored tone used by every Spanish hildalgo officer during his years in the Netherlands.

Nick answered before the sentries could give voice. “Captain Velasco, I am Nick Crossby.” Nick made a rough bow. “I am here from Brussels and I was able to impress on your sentries the importance of my mission.”

The Spanish captain stared blankly at the fat man in travel-stained leathers who stood in front of him. His gaze took in the weapons, sword, dagger, pistol, that all showed signs of frequent use.

“You’re not Spanish, are you?”

“I am an English Catholic, Captain, in exile while the heretic queen holds sway in my home. I am now attached to Hugh Owen and do his bidding for my part in the war against the heretic.”

“This Hugh Owen, I am supposed to know his name? And his name is enough to allow you to run roughshod over my men and force your way in to see me?” The Captain’s voice rose a bit. “And is his name strong enough to allow you to leave here with your back unwhipped? You’re an English dog and I do not think that I will allow you to bark any longer.” He gestured to the men crowding in behind Nick. “Take this dog out and lash him until he learns manners.”

Nick unfolded the document that he’d shown the sentries. “You’re right. No reason for you to know the name of Hugh Owen. After all, he’s merely the Governor-General’s chief intelligencer. However, there’s a name and seal attached to this parchment that you might recognize. Entretenido cerca la persona Ximenez de la Vera Cruz.”

Velasco’s eyes widened slightly at the name as Nick laid the document on his desk. He picked it up and looked closely at the seal. “If this is forged, you will be broken on the wheel.”

“I’m not stupid enough to forge the seal and signature of a Staff Officer to the Captain-General. It’s real and it gives me the authority to ask the questions I want.”

Without raising his eyes, Velasco held up his hand to stop the soldiers preparing to seize Nick. “Return to your duties. This … man … and I have business to discuss.”

Disappointed in not being allowed to beat the shit out of Nick, the soldiers turned to leave, muttering amongst themselves. Nick turned to watch them go. “Oy! Next time you fucks think to beat a dog, you best keep in mind that some dogs have teeth.” From up his sleeve, the blade dropped into his palm and then it was quivering in the door frame next to the exiting soldiers. Except for some black looks, the soldiers did nothing in return.

The Captain took no notice. “What are you here to do?”

“I have been sent to talk to some of the mutineers that you have just captured. There was a tercio of Irish in this company. Are they still alive?”

“I believe so. I was instructed to kill the ringleaders but just leave the common fighting men with some lashes and the lesson learned. My lieutenant will take you to them.”

As Nick gathered up his letter of authorization, Velasco looked at him. “Why are these Irish dogs are so important that they should have so many visitors?”

“I’m afraid that I don’t quite catch your meaning there, Captain. Other people have been here to see them?”

Velasco was impatient to be on to other business. “Is that not what I said? Yes, earlier today another man rode up with the same request. His orders came from the court of the Archduchess.”

Fuck me. Did Owen have the right of it? English agents looking to get the Irish to work for them? Annoyed by this latest complication, Nick took his leave of Velasco with the barest minimum of courtesy and made his way back out into the occupied village.

The Irish were part of the troops of  Sir William Stanley, who had betrayed the city of Deventer and brought his troops with him into Spanish service. Crowded into a paddock and watched over by a brace of Spanish soldiers, they hunched together in the grey drizzle.

Nick clambered up onto the first rail of the fence and pitched his voice to carry to all of them. “That right bastard Velasco is all for letting you dance the hempen jig. And maybe it’s me who can convince him to do otherwise.”

A certain amount of disbelieving hilarity from those that understood English. “You’re that good at sucking cock, are you? Nay, nay, a fat ass like that, Velasco is probably hoping to give it a big hard ride.”

“Not too surprising you would think that, seeing how they’ve taken away your sheep and you all are most likely getting lonesome.” Nick caught the gaze of the officer and remembered the name that Hugh Owen had supplied. “Sergeant O’Sullivan, I want a quiet word.” He turned to the guards. “I’m taking him just over there. We’ll be in your sight the entire time. Now don’t give me any shit, because that’s the way it’s going to be. And you know that Captain Velasco has given me permission to do as I wish.”

The diminutive sergeant came over to the gate and the guards, with ill grace and visible anger, let him through. Though small, O’Sullivan was all muscle and the strength of his gaze showed an active intelligence.

Nick led O’Sullivan across the muddy ground, and they fetched up by a dungheap at the corner of the barn.

Nick launched right into his mission. “There’s people in Brussels who are worried that certain people might be enticing you back into English service. They think that since you turned your coat once, you might turn it again.”

“That’s utter bullshit.” O’Sullivan kept his voice level. “I’ll tell you what I told that other man earlier today. We’re all Irish Catholic who well remember what that bitch Elizabeth’s father did to our land and religion. Being led into Spanish service by Sir Stanley at Deventer was the best thing that’s ever happened to us.”

That other man earlier. Who the fuck is he and why is he in my patch? Nick held up a placating hand. “It might not be done how you think. Let me spin you a tale. Man strikes up talking to you in a pub, you get to talking about this or that. He stands up for his round, a nice fella. And, you’re not quite certain how, the talk gets around to how happy you are serving under the Spanish here in the Low Countries.”

“I hope there are going to be sword fights or tits in this story soon enough. I like sword fights and tits in my stories.”

Nick nodded understandingly. He leaned back against the wall of the barn, seemingly addressing his words out to the barnyard. “The tale’s almost done. So he asks you how happy you are and of course you come back with the pay’s shit, on the rare times you do get paid; the food’s hog slop, and the Spanish are insufferable whoresons. No different than any other soldier would say. And this cove allows how that sounds like a proper tale of woe and buys you another round. And then he says to you, sounds like some extra money would make your life sweeter: better food, better class of whores –  and there’s your tits for you, O’Sullivan – a better life all around. And you allow as how that would be God’s honest truth, but that you’d not be interested in doing anything unclean. And he lays some florins on the table and says it’s nothing like that. He’s just looking for what you could tell him about the Spanish.” Nick paused to straighten and stare directly at O’Sullivan. “This tale ring familiar in any way?”

O’Sullivan looked at Nick, his face betraying nothing. “I come from a race and a long line of storytellers, bards, and gleemen. And I have to tell you, you whose name I never got, don’t think I didn’t notice, you are one of the worst storytellers it’s ever been my misfortune to listen to next to a dungheap while my boots come unstitched in the pismire.”

“So the tale brings to mind no memories?”

“None whatsoever. A pity you wasted the long ride from Brussels. Now, can I go back to waiting to be hanged?”

“Sure and away with you. I’ll put in a good word with Velasco and try to keep you from the dancing master.”

Now to find this prick who’s been sticking his nose where it ain’t supposed to be. Nick began to quarter the village, looking for anyone who might be out of place. He wandered past campfires surrounded by huddled soldiers, talking in Spanish and Italian. Several of the villagers’ houses had been pulled down for fuel for these fires, but he spotted no sign of organized official looting, not that a village this small had much in the way of loot. Some of the houses had small gardens, the half grown plants crushed and despoiled by the soldiers moving through the village. He poked around the sutler’s wagon and the other small groups of civilians who followed along behind Velasco’s troop. No sign of anyone out of place.

And then a tall man, weaponed like a bodyguard, came around the corner of a smokehouse and headed towards him. “Mynheer Crossby, my master, Mynheer Broussard would like a word with you, if the moment is convenient.” His accent placed him as coming from around the French border somewhere, maybe Artois.

“Extremely convenient. Lead on, sunshine, lead on.”

Nick followed the man to the edge of the village, where an oak tree spread its limbs over the stream. Broussard was waiting there, under the tree, next to two horses. He was a small man, lace collar falling over a fawn doublet, neat hose, clothes clean under a traveling cloak. Nick felt like a shambling bear next to him and decided to play on the contrast. He walked right up to the man, leaned in close, and jabbed a thick finger in the man’s chest.

“Now let’s you and I talk. And perhaps I can find out why you’re sticking your fucking gob in my business!”

Broussard took no obvious affront at Nick’s provocation. “Please walk with me. And perhaps we can satisfy our mutual curiosity.” He glanced solicitously at Nick. “You can walk and talk at the same time, can you not?”

Nick glowered at Broussard but made no reply. He accompanied the smaller man in the direction of his gesturing hand and soon found himself strolling along the bank of the stream and bending an ear to the conversation. The bodyguard trailed behind, out of earshot.

“You and I work for the same man.”

So, not an agent for the English, rather one working for the Catholics like myself. “Do we?”

“We do.”

“And who might that be?”

A small sigh. “An Englishman trying to be coy. A novel sight, much like a leper trying to dance. Very well. I shall speak slowly and clearly.”

Nick kept everything off his face and merely proceeded alongside Broussard. The smaller man glanced sidelong at Nick, judging his reaction. “I work for Hugh Owen and through him, for the Spanish Crown, as do you. I have been in pursuit of some specific intelligence for some time. And now I am close. I have uncovered two spies working for the English in Antwerp and brought about their capture. And I am close to uncovering the third.”

Shit. Fuck. If he’s talking about who I think he’s talking about…  It was all the years of double dealing and lying and fear that kept Nick’s voice steady. “That is some fine work. Hugh Owen doubtless will be rewarding you greatly for such an accomplishment.”

Broussard nodded at the praise and preened a bit. “However, during my pursuit I met up with some others in our business and was given a packet to be given to Master Owen as soon as I am able. My current mission is in such a state that I cannot deviate and take this packet to Brussels. But you are heading in that direction.” His voice became slightly pained and it warmed Nick inside. “I would take it as a great favor to me if you would take this packet and deliver it into Master Owen’s hands.”

He pulled a packet of papers sealed in oiled leather from a pouch at his waist and held them out to Nick. “And directly to his hands, do you understand? To no one else. I have been told that this contains intelligence straight from Elizabeth’s council. It is vital that you deliver these straight to Master Owen as quickly as you can. That means no stopping at taverns or bawdy houses, do you understand?”

Nick reached out to take the packet. “Oh, I understand full well.”

And all of a sudden, it was clear. The thought rang in his head like a bell. I am done. Finished. Time to go home.

His hand moved past the packet and grasped Broussard’s wrist in a crushing grip. “You cunting shithead.” Broussard was just opening his mouth in outrage and incomprehension when the narrow blade in Nick’s other hand went into his ear. His eyes rolled up, he shat himself, and he dropped as a lump of dead meat at Nick’s feet.

Nick left the blade in Broussard’s head and turned to face the bodyguard. The ox had begun to realize that something was wrong and pulled his sword.

Nick unsheathed his own sword and filled his off hand with another blade. “It doesn’t have to go like this. Your employer is dead, you can just walk away.”

“Not my employer.” The bodyguard bulled forward, sword held for a ripping thrust. Nick stepped inside; his sword deflected the other. But the bodyguard checked Nick with his shoulder and drove him back, towards the canal. Nick staggered, his footing uncertain in the wet long grass along the canal bank.

The bodyguard saw his opportunity and went with a strong side swing, like a housewife beating a blanket, right at Nick’s legs. Nick thrust his sword down, in a strong cross-block, hoping to Hell that his sword wouldn’t just snap in half. The impact rang all up his wrist and arm, but his sword remained intact.

Nick made a quick move and jammed his dagger into the bodyguard’s arm, dragged the bodyguard towards him, yelling. In a spasm of pain, the bodyguard dropped his sword into the grass and mud. Nick let go the dagger, and with a two handed thrust, tore out the man’s throat.

Hands clasped in a vain attempt to stop the bloody flood, the big man stumbled past Nick and fell into the canal. His legs thrashed briefly and then stilled. The water around him slowly turned red.

It was a wet and bloody piece of work, hiding the bodies, and by time Nick had finished, he was blowing like a foundered horse. He had dragged the bodyguard from the canal and into an abandoned fishing hut at the side of the canal. And then he had thrown Broussard’s corpse in there as well. Broussard had a nice purse on him, which raised Nick’s spirits a bit. He wiped himself down with handfuls of grass and then went to find his horse.

Riding back to Brussels, Nick considered the next steps he had to take, Hugh Owen’s possible response, his own response to that.  Things grew dim and uncertain after three moves in his mind. I fucking hate chess, God Damned foppish la-de-da. Some of his old attitude came back, from before the days of double dealing and intelligencing. Wait for the wind, then react. No sense in setting a course without knowing the wind. Wait and react. He let his horse have its head as it picked its way along the muddy rutted road as he stared sightlessly between the horse’s ears and planned.

But like a tongue worrying a loose tooth, he kept coming back to the moment of his betrayal. And as deeply as he searched his mind for some sort of reasoned strategy, some cunning ploy, he kept coming back to a simple truth. I want to go home. Fuck Bob Poley and his threats. Fuck all this double dealing and lies and fear. I’m going home.

As Nick got closer to the city, traffic on the road got thicker. Carts loaded with vegetables and herds going into the city to feed its insatiable maw, merchants and their cargoes, peasants bringing in goods to the markets, soldiers, and messengers all churned the road into a muddy soup and slowed his progress to a slow walk with long periods where he made no progress at all. He pulled himself from his contemplation of the possible courses the future might take and tightened his grip on the horse’s reins.

Brussels was a walled city, as were all cities in the Low Countries. Nick looked at the walls with a critical eye. They were old and not in very good repair. Brussels had been fortunate in its location so far behind the line of battle in the last few decades. It had never suffered siege or sack and had only changed hands through political maneuvering, not the maneuvering of armies. He remembered getting pissed with a bunch of siege engineers up in Breda last month and what they had to say about properly protecting a city from siege cannons. Drawing in spilled beer is never a precise art but what they seemed to be showing was much thicker walls made of dirt, sloping, parts of the wall sticking out for better fields of fire. And then they broke out the brandy and things became increasingly unclear. But what he took away from that boozing session was the clear knowledge that if it ever came to a siege, Brussels was well fucked.

Along this road leading into Brussels, a village had established itself. Farmhouses lined the road with their fields and gardens stretching out behind them. There was even a church.

This section of the moat was dry, had been dry for some time. Along other sections of the moat, the authorities had diverted canals and rivers filled the moat but this section was now just a midden heap for all manner of things. Piles of filth and refuse lay at the bottom of the moat and festered in the sun.

There was a long line of people outside the gate, waiting to get in. As he waited, one man could not ignore the demands of his bowels any longer. He squatted over the edge of the drawbridge and let spill a watery gush of shit. The line moved slowly as the customs officials collected tax from each person, based on what they were bringing into to the city to sell. Nick stood in his stirrups to get a better view over the heads of all those in line. The officials had no extra guards with them and their behaviors were no different than all the other times he’d come through the gates in the past. I’m still in front of the news. I have to maintain that edge if I’m to get back out safely. Satisfied, Nick dropped back into his saddle and put his heels to the horse’s ribs. He wove his way to the head of the line, dodging grumbles and curses from all those waiting to enter the city.

A pikeman of the city militia barred his way. “Get back in the fucking line or show me your pass.”

Nick rummaged in his saddlebag. Leaning stiffly in his saddle, he handed over the same folded piece of parchment that had gained the Spanish captain’s cooperation. “Here it is. And since you probably can’t read, take a long hard look at the seal on the bottom. I’m sure you can recognize that. So, after taking a long hard look at it, why don’t you let me through the fucking gate?”

After taking as long as he could to look the document over, the pikeman handed it back to Nick, spit between the front hooves of his horse, and sullenly waved him on.

Nick kneed his horse through the gatehouse. The noise of the merchants and herdsman arguing with the tax men and the guards made a deafening cacophony in the short tunnel that was the gatehouse. The clatter of the hooves of Nick’s horse was barely audible over the din. At least animals destined for the shambles and slaughterhouses came through a different gate, so the smell wasn’t overpowering.

Well, that’s one foot in the trap. If he’s looking for me, Owen will know that I’m in the city. All the more important that I give him no reason to do so. Head to ‘gritte’s house, foist her off with some excuse, gather all my letters of credit that she holds for me, as well as all my ready coin, and get back out of here as soon as fucking possible.

Just past the gate, the houses still had gardens and fields behind them. Just ahead, at an intersection of streets before the inner walls, a market slowed the traffic. This was the destination of most of those who had been waiting outside the gate. They came in with their goods and either set up a stall or table themselves or sold them direct to those who had already claimed a patch and were extolling the amazing nature of their merchandise at the top of their lungs. Nick threaded his horse through the crowd and went in through a gate in the inner wall.

Here, the houses and shops were closer together and only the finest houses had small gardens behind their walls. Nick passed the tall church of St. Goele on his right.

No more being two faced working for the English while seeming to work for the Spanish here in Flanders. Broussard was close on my trail and he attached no small importance to this packet of papers he gave me. I wonder if what’s in this packet will get that bastard Poley off my back.

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