Beneath the interplay of the big battalions, at least until 1590, smaller parties of troops fought, intrigued, and killed ceaselessly for the control of villages.
The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road
“I once ate a fat man’s stomach.”
Nick glanced over and gave the barge boy the cold eye. “The fuck did you just say?”
It was the second day on the canal. They had tied up at Vilvoorde for the night, negotiated the locks there just after dawn and continued towards Antwerp. The barge master, the crewman, and the boy all kept to themselves and that had suited Nick just fine. The cloak and the brandy staved off the chill, so he slept as much as possible and tried not to poke or pick at the stitches on his belly. The boy had crept close to where Nick was sitting and busied himself with a mess of cordage before essaying that somewhat disturbing conversational gambit.
At Nick’s question, he looked up from his work and stared flat eyed at him. “It was during the siege down at Antwerp a few years back. We was starvin’. There was this fat fuck who wasn’t getting’ no thinner. So he was hoardin’. So me and my mates cracked his house one evenin’ when everyone was at the walls watchin’ the bastard Spanish at their blockade. Our luck was fucked. He’d just finished his meal; not even scraps left. So I says, let’s chase that food down the hole where it’s hidin’. So we hold him down and cut his stomach open. And fuck me, if I wasn’t right. Gobbets of his food, all chewed up, but that didn’t stop us. After all, back when we was all little, didn’t our mams chew up our food all soft so we could swallow it? We ate well that night. Aye, we did. And that was how I once ate a fat man’s stomach.”
“And what lesson am I to take from that tale, boy? That you’re a vicious little rat who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants? Then take that lesson as learned, you little shit.” Nick leaned forward, and fixed the boy with a hard stare. “ And I’ve crushed many a rat under the heel of my boot. So piss on off out of my sight.”
The boy let loose a disconcerting giggle, gathered up the pile of ropes, and headed back to the stern of the ship.
Nick settled himself back into his nest of cordage and looked over the rail at the passing countryside. It showed the effects of the war that had torn at it for decades, ever since the Protestant nobles rose up against the Hapsburg Catholic rulers. Farms gone to weed and ruin, the height of the saplings in the overgrown fields, all gave voice to the length of time since the last plowing. Docks poking into the canal fallen into decay and rot. From the look of some of the abandoned farms, soldiers had gotten enthusiastic with their torches.
The barge was not of great length, but wide, pitched up at both bow and stern. The barge master maneuvered a small jib sail in the bow to catch whatever wind there might be. That kept the barge moving while the crewman used the rudder at the stern to steer the craft. There was a canvas awning set up on the back deck where the crew could take their ease around a brazier anchored in a sandbox. Aside from that small area, the cargo, a profusion of barrels, sacks, stacks of lumber, baskets of charcoal, took up the rest of the deck space.
Van Rupel, the captain, was a dour man, suspicious and grim. He insisted on being called Captain. Nick was in no mind to challenge this king whose realm was circumscribed by the gunwales close at hand. Piet, the crewman, was more open and friendly, with an amazing collection of obscene Pope jokes ready for the telling. Bald and burly, he was careful with his left hand, missing the two smallest fingers on it. But in the years he had spent working barges, he’d managed various tricks and habits to make up for the loss and was able to put in a full day’s work. In Nick’s sight, over the years, men had pulled back bloody hands from both sailing mishaps and weapon edges. Piet had lost his fingers in an affray, not in a quick tightening net. The boy was a quick-moving stick figure in a stained jerkin and hose, calculating eyes peering from behind a fringe of black hair.
There was a good amount of traffic in the canal. As Parma moved his men south into France to aid the Catholic League against the French king, merchants were taking advantage of the lull in the fighting in the Low Countries. Slow moving larger barges made up the majority of the traffic going in both directions, down to Antwerp or up to Brussels. Plodding along the towpath running beside the canal, dray animals, either oxen or horses, pulled the barges that couldn’t work the current on their own. Nick kept a weather eye out but didn’t recognize any of the men on the other barges.
It was dark by the time they reached the locks at Vilvoorde. There was a line of barges waiting their turn. Some had braziers going on their decks, cooking a meal, while others were taking advantage of the vendors offering various kinds of food on the river bank. Van Rupel went ashore and up to the lockmaster’s office to see how long their wait would be.
I guess Magritte and Grotius haven’t sent any of those cargoes north yet. Ah, well, that merely means that there’ll be fewer people in Antwerp who might recognize me.