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Willebroek, The Spanish Netherlands

17 August 1585

As we walked along the street, we drew closer to the church of Saint Nicholas. Arm in arm we hesitantly approached its solitary bell-tower, which rose above the rest of the village. The scrape of our footsteps ended when we reached the high wooden doors, as Elsien clutched my hand tightly.

‘To think that we were married here over six months ago.’

‘Indeed,’ I replied, for it seemed incredible that the time had passed so quickly. I could well remember the day. I had been as nervous and fidgety then as I was now, a man bracing himself for a fight. The ceremony had been sombre and muted. It had also rained hard throughout, and few villagers had attended a wedding between one of their daughters and a hated Spaniard.

For years, a vicious war had raged in the Netherlands, after Protestant rebels rose up against the reign of King Philip II of Spain, who sent his best troops to crush them. The fighting had ruined the once prosperous Low Countries, as it raged on for nineteen years, with the struggle seeming to have no end in sight. As chaos grew in the provinces, even the Catholic Netherlanders had come to hate the sight of the Spanish soldier.

In the midst of all this strife, our company was sent to the Duchy of Brabant, where we secured some of the villages which lay along the banks of the river Scheldt. It was a vital watercourse running on to Antwerp, which had been Europe’s financial centre before the war. This great city still withstood a fierce siege by Spanish troops which had lasted for over a year, and it was barely ten miles north of Willebroek, where I was barracked.

Despite the unwelcome presence of Spanish soldiers in her village, Elsien had somehow fallen in love with me. Our growing dalliances had been strictly forbidden by her wealthy father Reynier, who was the local miller, yet two months later he had been shocked to discover that she was with child.
‘Penniless bastard,’ he had growled at me, upon learning the news, ‘you’ll rob me of my daughter, but not of her honour!’

Having long been a generous contributor to the local parish, Reynier had been quick to coax the village priest to overlook any lengthy formalities, so that within the week Elsien and I were brought together at Willebroek’s parish church. The old miller had glared at me throughout the rite, with his knotted white brows closely bunched together in outrage. Yet the two younger brothers of my betrothed had grinned openly at our union, as had a few of her other family members. Meanwhile my fearsome army comrades had stood watch at the church door, to ensure that no trouble ensued during the unpopular ceremony.

It had been a pure and sacred chapter during years spent serving Spain in countless horrific war theatres. As Elsien and I stared on at the church door, I found myself smiling at the memory, perhaps the only fond one from my decades in the army. It slowly dawned upon me that I was as happy as I had ever been in Willebroek, despite the day-to-day sufferings inflicted by the war.

‘Your father was so angry with me,’ I said, ‘I think he would have killed me on that day if he could have.’
Elsien cleared her throat awkwardly.

‘I doubt it, Abel. You saved his life remember? Deep down papa loves you, but he hates surprises.’

‘Certainly a few of those,’ I muttered, as I looked down the street towards the houses to our right. ‘To think that I saved his neck on that very corner. Those debtors were giving him a merciless kicking.’

‘And then you appeared out of the night,’ Elsien said with a broad grin, ‘a Spanish God-fearing hero sent to save the day. Papa has recounted it so many times now.’

‘Has he?’ I stuttered, turning red in the face. ‘It was certainly a close thing. Corporal Salva told me not to bother, but I couldn’t bear to see an old man suffer like that. It was below me to stand idly by.’

‘Well it’s just as well you did something,’ she said, grasping my arm tightly against hers and leaning over to plant a soft kiss on my cheek, ‘otherwise we’d never have met.’

‘I wonder how he feels about that now.’

‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, so that I turned towards her as she leant over and clutched at her swollen belly. ‘Oh! Oh!’

‘What is the matter?’ I gasped, fearing that she might already be due. ‘Can you feel it?’ she asked me with a growing smile. ‘Can you?’
Elsien took my wrist and held my hand to her belly. The slightest kick could be felt against my palm, which changed the scowl on my face into a rueful grin. A contented glow grew within me, at the repeated thuds, until I raised my eyes and met my wife’s gaze. In the light of dawn, she was as radiant as she had ever been, with her blue eyes dancing above her high cheekbones, and the single blonde lock falling across her forehead.

‘A strong child,’ I said.

‘A love child,’ she replied, with a mischievous grin.

‘Don’t call it that,’ I frowned, then gave her a kiss on the mouth which was as lengthy as it was heartfelt. When at last I pulled my head back, she uttered the plea which I had dreaded for days.

‘Don’t leave us. Papa is so ill, and the boys both look up to you.’

With a sigh, I curled my arm around her olive-coloured kirtle, holding her tightly against the gunpowder charges which hung from the bandolier on my breast.

My rifle dangled sideways as I held her chin and stared back at her silently. Her mention of her father and brothers left me feeling moved, for in recent months they had become the closest family I had ever had.

‘Do not fret, woman. I’ll not be gone long.’

Her hands formed into fists as she punched me gently on the chest.

‘I hate the thought of you leaving us. Can you not find another to replace you?’

‘You know I would, if only I could. Yet the sergeant has insisted. And your father still owes him protection money.’

‘To hell with your sergeant,’ she snapped, as she pushed me away with a dark scowl, ‘Papa only owes him a month’s pay. Still better than your King, who has not paid a single one of you in two years.’

‘Your King too,’ I cut in sternly, holding her by the shoulders and raising an eyebrow, ‘so have a care how you refer to him. As for Sergeant Ramos, only a fool would not fear him.’

My words were followed by a low peal from Saint Nicholas’ belfry, which left me startled that it was already seven o’clock.

‘’Tis the hour of our gathering,’ I gasped. ‘Quick, begone, for the others will soon be here!’

She stared back at me defiantly, with her lips showing the slightest twitch of unease.

‘I do not fear them,’ she said curtly, with her eyes blazing, ‘and in any event, it is too late.’

‘Certainly your father’s daughter,’ I sighed. My head was by then turned towards the other end of the street, where I could see the first Spaniards making their way towards the church.

They were hardly a sight for sore eyes, for most went unshaven and wore tattered collars. None of them had been paid in years, so that morale was in the gutter.

In the heat of summer many wore loose-fitting shirts, with strips of red cloth tied around their arms or with a saltire sewn on their breasts, to mark them out as Spanish soldiers. Pieces of rusted armour could also be seen, and all were armed to the teeth.

The men resembled a gathering of shabby street cats as they assembled before the church, and I could not help thinking what a blight they were upon the civilised and hard-working villagers of Willebroek. Yet despite their low spirits, the soldiers were each very haughty of bearing, although their sallow complexions betrayed poor nourishment. Two years spent rotting in the village without pay had weighed heavily upon them, and rumours of mutiny had grown by the day. I could only hope that any loot to be had from the impending ambush might help to cool their general resentment.

‘Go,’ I urged my wife, gently pushing her away, ‘this is no place for a woman.’

‘Why if it isn’t the Lynx of Haarlem,’ called a half-crooning voice from across the street.

I cringed at the sound of it, before turning to see my sergeant, Curro Ramos, who walked over towards us wearing his red sash across his breastplate, and bearing a halberd carried by officers of his rank. It was an axe with a long handle and a cruel spike at its end, which I had often seen the sergeant use at close quarters with devastating effect.

‘Would that I were truly as keen of sight as a lynx,’ I replied disconsolately, ‘that I might see a way out of this mess.’

Ramos approached us with our three other comrades, who like him were hated and feared by both Spaniards and Netherlanders. They walked close to each other in the middle of the street, with Ramos flanked to his right by the tall and lanky Corporal Salvador Ortiz. As always, the right side of Salva’s face twitched uncontrollably, because of a thrashing he had received as a boy. His trusted partesana was held out before him, a long staff with a knife-like blade at its end that was only borne by corporals.

To the sergeant’s left was the sinister Gabriel de Andrés, the fastest-thinking swordsman I knew. He was also no mean shot, and I curiously noted the crossbow which hung from his belt, for I had never seen him carry it before. At Gabri’s back, taking long ponderous steps, strode the towering pikeman Tomé de Cristóbal, otherwise known as Cristó. He was a hulking monster as broad as two of his comrades, with huge arms like iron levers. As always, he trod behind his trusted companion Gabri, with his long pike resting upon his broad shoulder.

As my four comrades drew nearer, they stared at us with narrowed eyes, as wicked smiles grew on their weathered faces. At their approach Elsien finally made to leave, squeezing my hand once before the scrape of her soles could be heard upon the ground.

‘Why beste mevrouw,’ called Ramos to her in a voice that was as mocking as it was unnerving, ‘will you not also bid us farewell? We are, after all, your husband’s brothers-in-arms, part of a comradeship sworn to protect one another.’

The glare Elsien returned could not have been more hateful, while the rattle and clank of arms against armour ceased when the foursome stopped a few feet away from us. They left me feeling as if we were being eyed by a pack of wolves, as some of the other Spaniards also thronged around them, amused by the spectacle of my wife trading glares with the notorious sergeant.

‘Farewell, Sergeant Ramos,’ she said in accented Spanish, ‘may you be triumphant in your endeavour. If only to return my husband to me safe and unharmed.’

‘Ah, don’t you worry about our pretty little Abelito,’ exclaimed Ramos as he stepped towards us, pinching my left cheek between two fingers, and shaking my head from side to side, ‘he is a big boy, who can look after himself. He has, after all, survived many worse conflicts.’

So saying, he next fixed his attentions to her, with his voice suddenly harder and dripping with malice.

‘I would worry more about your father’s lot,’ he continued, as I jerked my head away from his hand, ‘for he is more than two months behind in his payments to us, and we have faithfully protected him from his debtors.’

‘Not in the last month,’ I cut in angrily, feeling annoyed by his deviousness.

Ramos’ head slowly turned towards me, as a look of outrage grew on his bearded face.

‘There you go, Abelito, always standing up for the local heretics! Why don’t you ever spare a thought for your own kin?’

‘For the last time,’ I hissed between gritted teeth, ‘they are not heretics. Not all Brabantians are heretics.’

‘Whatever you say!’ he exclaimed, mockingly raising his arms before me. ‘Need you get so agitated when defending people who are but our subjects? And do you not realise that this woman’s father is in our debt? A man who is said to have many stashes of silver hidden across the village?’

‘It is a lie!’ cried Elsien. ‘He has not so much wealth!’

‘Ah, but some of it, to be sure!’ exclaimed Ramos furiously, drawing a knife from his belt, which he pointed towards her. ‘And the sooner he parts with it, the safer your home will be!’

‘Do you threaten us, Sergeant?’ asked Elsien sternly, as she pulled her woollen partlet closely about her and drew away from his blade.

‘Well, that depends,’ replied Ramos, meeting her stare, ‘if you consider a promise to burn your house down to be a threat…then maybe, yes.’

‘That’s enough,’ I said.

‘What’s enough?’ he snapped. ‘Will you just stand there and allow your wife to insult your sergeant? Always so ready to belittle me, Abelito, yet one of these days you might regret it.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked hesitantly, taken aback, and wondering whether he had just threatened me too.

‘We’ll see,’ he said, clearly struggling to not speak his thoughts, ‘we’ll see.’

Meanwhile Elsien’s face had assumed a hue of scarlet, and in her anger, she seemed ignorant of the many other Spanish soldiers who had gathered about us. For a moment I feared that she might insult Ramos before them, when an order was barked from the church door, announcing the presence of Captain Arturo Fernández. The captain was a brave and honourable man who was well liked by the troops. He was also known for his pragmatism and loyalty to the men, which made him the natural leader for our raid.

‘Gather round whoresons, stay your idle chatter. We have a good stretch to cover before midday and must soon begin our march. I see forty volunteers gathered before me, brave souls who will all get rich pickings. But know before we leave that half of everything we take goes to the sergeant-major, who sanctioned this venture at great personal risk.’

‘What personal risk?’ snorted a soldier behind us, scratching at lice behind his ear. ‘What men don’t return shall just be dead-pays, leaving him to pocket their salary.’

‘Whenever that is paid,’ shot back the captain, ‘hence the risk.’

A ripple of laughter ran through the men, as Fernández lived up to his fame for jokes which poked fun at authority. His irreverent humour in the face of our misery was always warmly welcomed, although word of it had probably cost him many promotions. Yet Fernández had always remained close and committed to his men, and he allowed our laughter to subside before resuming his address.

‘Our scouts were despatched at dawn, and we will meet them at the agreed place. No drums, pipes, or banners, for we require stealth. My subalterns will be the sergeants El Perro and Curro Ramos, whose fellowship includes Abelardo de Santiago, the Lynx of Haarlem.’

Fernández paused to seek me out among the small crowd, then nodded once when his eyes fell upon me. It was at the captain’s specific request that Ramos had insisted that I partake of the ambush, since Fernández believed that my inclusion would raise morale.

‘The men we fight are all low-born mercenaries,’ continued Fernández, ‘so none need be spared. They number at least sixty, but we have the element of surprise. Otherwise you know what to do. Now kneel for the blessing.’

He stepped aside, standing along the edge of the doorway as our company’s chaplain appeared alongside him, Bible in hand, to recite a holy missive which we received on bended knee. Few of those present understood Latin, but a defiant clamour rose among us when the final imprecation to the Lord was delivered. As the rumbling subsided, we next proceeded to check our weapons, which were also inspected by the sergeants and the captain.

‘Farewell,’ I whispered, holding Elsien tightly.

She silently returned my embrace, then held her hand to her eyes as she turned away from the mustering. A pang of guilt ran through me as she trudged off, and I felt that I ought to make it up to her somehow. I decided to reveal the secret crib to her, which I had made in recent months while on sentry duty.

‘Ask your brothers to show you what I made,’ I called out to her. ‘For the baby!’

‘What?’ she asked, trying to hear me above the din of barked orders.

‘Marti and Pieter!’ I called back. ‘Ask them to show you what I made for the baby!’

She nodded back at me and waved when Ramos butted me with his shoulder as he hurried past.

‘Fall in line, lovebird,’ he grunted, and I stepped among the dozen men in his charge. Before we knew it, we were marching through the houses, as silently as could be managed to avoid waking villagers and spreading rumour of our advance. A backward glance afforded me a last glimpse of Elsien, whose cheeks glistened in the sunlight as we hurried out of the village.

It was then that I saw the members of her family standing behind her, and my jaw dropped at the realisation that they had gathered to see me off. Elsien’s brothers Maerten and Pieter stood alongside her, watching on in silent farewell with their Aunt Margareta just behind them. A few other cousins and relatives were also among their number, and I felt deeply moved by their appearance, raising my hand to them in a silent goodbye.

‘Very moving,’ sneered Ramos ahead of me, having noticed my gesture in the corner of his eye.

We wrinkled our nostrils at the stench of the open rubbish pits beyond the edge of the village, where we found ourselves striking the open country. Before long we entered the first copse which lay in our path, keeping to a narrow trail between the trees. We travelled light, as we did before every ambush, with our rolled-up blankets bouncing on our shoulders. There were five miles left to cover until the larger forest, which was a short distance for Spanish troops who were used to marching over forty miles in a day.

‘I wish we were headed to bloody Antwerp instead,’ said Cristó, raising the well-worn topic that the men always talked about, ever since we had been barracked in Willebroek. I had known the huge pikeman for years, and still marvelled at his size and height. No one in our company even reached his shoulder.

‘How we ended up posted in Willebroek is beyond me,’ replied Salva, with his eyes widening and his face twisting sideways due to his spasm. ‘Fancy travelling so far from home to be left to rot in a little hole by the river. We’ll never make a bean in that forsaken place.’

Each of my comrades wanted to leave Willebroek and be posted to Antwerp instead, to stand a chance of sacking the city when it finally fell. Word had long circled among our company that we would soon be sent towards the city to swell the ranks of its besiegers. This rumour excited the men, for memories of the infamous ‘Spanish fury’ lingered from nine years earlier, when Antwerp’s first siege had been broken. I had myself partaken of the horror of the three-day sacking which followed, when not a single nail had been left on a wall.

‘Can you imagine the fair daughters to be had,’ said Cristó with an evil grin.

‘Not to mention the fountains of ale,’ added Salva whimsically. ‘It shall be a plunderer’s paradise.’

‘That wretched city will never fall,’ whispered Gabri behind us, with his wide-brimmed hat pulled so low over his eyes that it seemed to have a voice. ‘The heretics will hold out to the last man.’

‘Not that you can blame them,’ I reasoned, then instantly regretted it.

‘There he goes again,’ sneered Ramos, ‘good old Abelito. Always quick to defend our enemies. It’s just as well you’re of use to us in a
fight, or I’d shove that rifle up your backside.’

‘Indeed,’ I replied as calmly as I could manage, knowing it to be the best tone with which to frustrate him, ‘yet after years of fighting, don’t you even ask yourself why we are here?’

‘To root out heresy and rebellion,’ said Salva, assuming a high-born officer’s voice, ‘before they spread to Spain. We bring the Low Countries both lawfulness and salvation.’

Both Cristó and Ramos chuckled openly at the corporal’s affected accent, but I was not impressed.

‘We bring them only ruin and the sword,’ I said, ‘and Spain is far away. We should not even be here.’

‘Then where else would you be?’ asked Ramos, as he cast me a dark look over his shoulder. ‘On a street corner back home, hiring your
blade out for a handful of coppers?’

‘At least you admit that we’re only here for plunder.’

‘Perhaps,’ said the sergeant, after a few moments, ‘which is why I’m grateful to be part of the winning side.’

The smugness of his words annoyed me, although it was true that the soldiers of Spain were feared across Europe and beyond, given that they were always triumphant in battle. All other kingdoms trembled before the stamp of the Spanish tercios’ boots, and not since the legions of Rome had an army inspired so much dread and loathing among its rivals. I therefore chose to let the matter lie, rather than trade any more words of anger with Ramos.

We were also halfway towards the forest, so that I was distracted by the large Empress tree which had appeared on our left. I felt a twinge of longing as we passed its wide trunk, where I had first met secretly with Elsien, whispering sweet nothings in her ear which had in time become deep somethings.

‘Why me?’ I had often asked her as my hand slid behind her waist, while she held me by the shoulder. Elsien would look at me with large, trembling eyes, and her grin filled me with a happiness I had once given up on.

‘So many rich villagers and burghers from afar covet your hand,’ I continued. ‘Why a soldier with no future?’

‘Because I feel safe with you,’ she said, reaching out to stroke my scarred cheek, ‘and you are a good man, although you have forgotten it. And not bad to look at, either.’

Each time her words had left me feeling bewildered and full of disbelief. Almost as if I had stepped into some vision by accident, one which belonged to another. Each time I saw her sharp, handsome features staring back at me expectantly, and each time I buried my face in hers, in case it was truly all a dream from which I might stir.

With a sigh, I realised that I missed those carefree days of first love, when we were merely delighted by each other’s company. Yet the passing of months as a married couple meant that we also had to think of our future, which clearly did not lie with the army or in the war-torn Netherlands.

‘If only I had the means to get us away from here,’ I said to her only the previous week, ‘that we might venture to the New World and
leave this ravaged, weary continent behind.’

‘We have the means,’ she had replied firmly, but would not say another word when I pressed her on it.

‘There is no point speaking of it,’ she told me. ‘For what you do not know can’t hurt you. And besides, we are not going anywhere while father still lives. He will never give up on his home.’

A low cheer from the men returned my thoughts to the march. Two of them gestured across the plain towards the forest which had come into sight. It appeared an endless cluster of trees, which spread so far and wide that it obscured our view of the city of Mechelen. The wood was home to all manner of lawless bandits and wild beasts, and a grim silence fell among us as to a man we each wondered if we would leave it alive.

As we drew nearer to the nameless wood, I realised that I did not, in fact, want to take part in the impending ambush or even the siege of Antwerp. I was sick of years spent fighting Spain’s enemies, and felt reluctant to leave Elsien’s family, who had provided me with both a hearth and a home. They were things I had not known since I was a youth when I had fled my uncle’s protection to enlist with the Spanish army.

‘Slowly,’ growled Ramos as I stepped on a sun-dried branch, causing a cracking sound just as we entered the cover of forest.

A few more disgusted looks were cast at me before we made our way through the trees that became ever more tightly clustered together. The August warmth hindered our progress throughout, for dried twigs and leaves were strewn in our path, yet we had faced similar terrains for years, and learned how to travel over them softly and silently. In each instant, we were aware of the importance of stealth, for the slightest sound might alert hidden pickets or brigands to our whereabouts.

At last, we reached a part of the forest where the ground sank before us towards a gully, which ran as far as the eye could see to both our left and our right. Two men stood before us, with muskets in one hand and their other arms raised in greeting. They were part of a small group of scouts who had been despatched by Fernández the previous day.

‘We can set up camp here,’ called one of them, ‘there is no one around for miles.’

At the captain’s order, we fell out of line and laid our blankets and jackets across the forest floor. Some of us returned to sleep while others spoke in muted voices. With a reluctant sigh, I threw myself to the ground alongside my comrades, while Salva pulled a side of tainted mutton from his pack, which was to be our dinner that evening. As he set about picking the maggots out of it, I realised that we were close enough to Fernández and his subalterns to overhear their talk with our scouts.

‘How far are they?’ asked the captain impatiently.

‘We spotted their pickets over an hour ago. They seem to know their business, yet the militia’s a slovenly bunch and appears to be in no haste.’

‘Humph,’ grunted a sergeant, whose drooping cheeks had earned him the nickname of El Perro, ‘and we are certain that they are heading here?’

‘Our informer is convinced,’ replied the scout nervously, ‘that their direction is the northern provinces, and that De Groote prefers the cover of forest. In any event, we have men at the eastern edge of the wood, who shall notify us when they appear.’

‘And is their booty worth all this hassle?’ snapped Ramos, his voice filled with irritation.

‘We have been assured that it is.’

Fernández proceeded to dismiss his scouts and withdrew with his sergeants deeper into the woods, where they walked about and spoke in hushed tones.

‘Sounds like the usual,’ whispered Salva.

‘It does,’ said Gabri, from beneath his hat, ‘should be a straightforward affair, unless it’s a trap.’

‘Isn’t it always a trap?’ I asked disconsolately.

‘Not always,’ snapped Salva, then glared at me with suspicion as the left side of his face twitched furiously.

A loud snore from Cristó interrupted our talk, so that Gabri booted him awake, for only he would get away with it, given his close bond with the hulking pikeman.

‘Is it time?’ gasped Cristó, his eyes widening as his hands fell to his weapons.

‘Not for a while yet, you big oaf,’ snapped Gabri, ‘now turn on your side and stop snoring!’

The giant pikeman issued a loud grunt before he obliged the musketeer, and I checked my rifle and all my gear a last time before getting some rest myself. It was less than two hours later when one of our scouts could be seen running through the wood, calling out to the prostrate Fernández between ragged pants of breath.

‘Picket sighted, less than an hour away.’

‘Time to rouse the men,’ said the captain, rolling onto his knees and snatching up his rifle. ‘We must take cover.’
Ramos and El Perro quickly followed his lead, running between soldiers and booting them to their feet. Quick plans were next laid between the officers before they scattered around the defile with their men at their heels, hiding behind trees and lying low in the plants among them. Ramos swiftly led his men through the ravine and back up the other side.

‘Draw the crossbow,’ he whispered. ‘We’re to take out their pickets if we think they’ve seen us.’

His orders were quickly followed, with Gabri cranking up the windlass he had brought from the village, while the rest of us loaded our guns. In minutes our weapons were all primed and ready, with Ramos hissing his last orders to us as he pulled out a ramrod from one of his pistols.
‘Now all of you pick a target. And when Abelito here takes out De Groote, we’ll let them have a volley. I’ll take over from there.’

The sergeant’s men were all seasoned veterans, used to taking cover and keeping position. We had partaken of many skirmishes and night raids over the years, and each of us could lie as still as a statue, barely breathing for hours on end.

‘You,’ hissed Ramos, grabbing me by the shoulder and shoving me towards a nearby elm, ‘get up there and do what you do best.’

Within moments I was hauling myself up towards the tree’s highest boughs, which would afford me the best vantage of the ground below. I stopped at the last sturdy branch which offered enough concealment, and which grew a few feet from the top of the tree. I slowly rose to full height upon the bough, finding it strong enough to bear me at a dizzying distance from the ground.

My comrades below me were still working on their concealment. Gabri could be seen pouring some water from his skin onto the ground, then rubbing the damp earth between his hands and spreading it upon his face. Ramos and Salva were nestled deep in a bush, with their backs barely visible to me, with Cristó having vanished beneath the leaves he had pulled onto himself, save for the back of a huge boot which I could make out close to the gully.

I crouched low in the leaves upon spotting two men stealthily making towards our direction, peering about like hawks. Both carried snaplock rifles, and their jerkins of padded leather hung loose around their breasts. They were fair-skinned Netherlanders who walked barefooted through the gully, never making a sound and ready to fly at the first hint of peril.

As the pair of pickets passed along the defile, I slowly exhaled a sigh of relief, when one of them suddenly pointed at the ground, silently beckoning to his fellow who hurried alongside him. A look of alarm was traded as they made to turn back the way they came, when the twang of crossbows was heard. Three bolts were released from different directions, with one picket being struck clean through the throat while the other was hit in both his thigh and stomach.

‘Stop him!’ hissed Ramos as the second picket tried to reach for his rifle, in the hope of firing a warning shot to De Groote’s men. As always Gabri was the first to react, having already sprung from his hiding place with his dagger drawn. Within moments he had kicked the rifle away, then jerked the pickets’ heads back and slit them both from ear to ear.

The dying pair hissed like drowning cats as they were next grabbed by the heel, with Gabri swiftly dragging them behind him before Salva ran over to help him. After the bodies were buried beneath a pile of leaves, my two comrades used dried branches to brush away the pickets’ prints, before scurrying back to their hiding places.

As we walked along the street, we drew closer to the church of Saint Nicholas. Arm in arm we hesitantly approached its solitary bell-tower, which rose above the rest of the village. The scrape of our footsteps ended when we reached the high wooden doors, as Elsien clutched my hand tightly.

‘To think that we were married here over six months ago.’

‘Indeed,’ I replied, for it seemed incredible that the time had passed so quickly. I could well remember the day. I had been as nervous and fidgety then as I was now, a man bracing himself for a fight. The ceremony had been sombre and muted. It had also rained hard throughout, and few villagers had attended a wedding between one of their daughters and a hated Spaniard.

For years, a vicious war had raged in the Netherlands, after Protestant rebels rose up against the reign of King Philip II of Spain, who sent his best troops to crush them. The fighting had ruined the once prosperous Low Countries, as it raged on for nineteen years, with the struggle seeming to have no end in sight. As chaos grew in the provinces, even the Catholic Netherlanders had come to hate the sight of the Spanish soldier.

In the midst of all this strife, our company was sent to the Duchy of Brabant, where we secured some of the villages which lay along the banks of the river Scheldt. It was a vital watercourse running on to Antwerp, which had been Europe’s financial centre before the war. This great city still withstood a fierce siege by Spanish troops which had lasted for over a year, and it was barely ten miles north of Willebroek, where I was barracked.

Despite the unwelcome presence of Spanish soldiers in her village, Elsien had somehow fallen in love with me. Our growing dalliances had been strictly forbidden by her wealthy father Reynier, who was the local miller, yet two months later he had been shocked to discover that she was with child.
‘Penniless bastard,’ he had growled at me, upon learning the news, ‘you’ll rob me of my daughter, but not of her honour!’

Having long been a generous contributor to the local parish, Reynier had been quick to coax the village priest to overlook any lengthy formalities, so that within the week Elsien and I were brought together at Willebroek’s parish church. The old miller had glared at me throughout the rite, with his knotted white brows closely bunched together in outrage. Yet the two younger brothers of my betrothed had grinned openly at our union, as had a few of her other family members. Meanwhile my fearsome army comrades had stood watch at the church door, to ensure that no trouble ensued during the unpopular ceremony.

It had been a pure and sacred chapter during years spent serving Spain in countless horrific war theatres. As Elsien and I stared on at the church door, I found myself smiling at the memory, perhaps the only fond one from my decades in the army. It slowly dawned upon me that I was as happy as I had ever been in Willebroek, despite the day-to-day sufferings inflicted by the war.

‘Your father was so angry with me,’ I said, ‘I think he would have killed me on that day if he could have.’
Elsien cleared her throat awkwardly.

‘I doubt it, Abel. You saved his life remember? Deep down papa loves you, but he hates surprises.’

‘Certainly a few of those,’ I muttered, as I looked down the street towards the houses to our right. ‘To think that I saved his neck on that very corner. Those debtors were giving him a merciless kicking.’

‘And then you appeared out of the night,’ Elsien said with a broad grin, ‘a Spanish God-fearing hero sent to save the day. Papa has recounted it so many times now.’

‘Has he?’ I stuttered, turning red in the face. ‘It was certainly a close thing. Corporal Salva told me not to bother, but I couldn’t bear to see an old man suffer like that. It was below me to stand idly by.’

‘Well it’s just as well you did something,’ she said, grasping my arm tightly against hers and leaning over to plant a soft kiss on my cheek, ‘otherwise we’d never have met.’

‘I wonder how he feels about that now.’

‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, so that I turned towards her as she leant over and clutched at her swollen belly. ‘Oh! Oh!’

‘What is the matter?’ I gasped, fearing that she might already be due. ‘Can you feel it?’ she asked me with a growing smile. ‘Can you?’
Elsien took my wrist and held my hand to her belly. The slightest kick could be felt against my palm, which changed the scowl on my face into a rueful grin. A contented glow grew within me, at the repeated thuds, until I raised my eyes and met my wife’s gaze. In the light of dawn, she was as radiant as she had ever been, with her blue eyes dancing above her high cheekbones, and the single blonde lock falling across her forehead.

‘A strong child,’ I said.

‘A love child,’ she replied, with a mischievous grin.

‘Don’t call it that,’ I frowned, then gave her a kiss on the mouth which was as lengthy as it was heartfelt. When at last I pulled my head back, she uttered the plea which I had dreaded for days.

‘Don’t leave us. Papa is so ill, and the boys both look up to you.’

With a sigh, I curled my arm around her olive-coloured kirtle, holding her tightly against the gunpowder charges which hung from the bandolier on my breast.

My rifle dangled sideways as I held her chin and stared back at her silently. Her mention of her father and brothers left me feeling moved, for in recent months they had become the closest family I had ever had.

‘Do not fret, woman. I’ll not be gone long.’

Her hands formed into fists as she punched me gently on the chest.

‘I hate the thought of you leaving us. Can you not find another to replace you?’

‘You know I would, if only I could. Yet the sergeant has insisted. And your father still owes him protection money.’

‘To hell with your sergeant,’ she snapped, as she pushed me away with a dark scowl, ‘Papa only owes him a month’s pay. Still better than your King, who has not paid a single one of you in two years.’

‘Your King too,’ I cut in sternly, holding her by the shoulders and raising an eyebrow, ‘so have a care how you refer to him. As for Sergeant Ramos, only a fool would not fear him.’

My words were followed by a low peal from Saint Nicholas’ belfry, which left me startled that it was already seven o’clock.

‘’Tis the hour of our gathering,’ I gasped. ‘Quick, begone, for the others will soon be here!’

She stared back at me defiantly, with her lips showing the slightest twitch of unease.

‘I do not fear them,’ she said curtly, with her eyes blazing, ‘and in any event, it is too late.’

‘Certainly your father’s daughter,’ I sighed. My head was by then turned towards the other end of the street, where I could see the first Spaniards making their way towards the church.

They were hardly a sight for sore eyes, for most went unshaven and wore tattered collars. None of them had been paid in years, so that morale was in the gutter.

In the heat of summer many wore loose-fitting shirts, with strips of red cloth tied around their arms or with a saltire sewn on their breasts, to mark them out as Spanish soldiers. Pieces of rusted armour could also be seen, and all were armed to the teeth.

The men resembled a gathering of shabby street cats as they assembled before the church, and I could not help thinking what a blight they were upon the civilised and hard-working villagers of Willebroek. Yet despite their low spirits, the soldiers were each very haughty of bearing, although their sallow complexions betrayed poor nourishment. Two years spent rotting in the village without pay had weighed heavily upon them, and rumours of mutiny had grown by the day. I could only hope that any loot to be had from the impending ambush might help to cool their general resentment.

‘Go,’ I urged my wife, gently pushing her away, ‘this is no place for a woman.’

‘Why if it isn’t the Lynx of Haarlem,’ called a half-crooning voice from across the street.

I cringed at the sound of it, before turning to see my sergeant, Curro Ramos, who walked over towards us wearing his red sash across his breastplate, and bearing a halberd carried by officers of his rank. It was an axe with a long handle and a cruel spike at its end, which I had often seen the sergeant use at close quarters with devastating effect.

‘Would that I were truly as keen of sight as a lynx,’ I replied disconsolately, ‘that I might see a way out of this mess.’

Ramos approached us with our three other comrades, who like him were hated and feared by both Spaniards and Netherlanders. They walked close to each other in the middle of the street, with Ramos flanked to his right by the tall and lanky Corporal Salvador Ortiz. As always, the right side of Salva’s face twitched uncontrollably, because of a thrashing he had received as a boy. His trusted partesana was held out before him, a long staff with a knife-like blade at its end that was only borne by corporals.

To the sergeant’s left was the sinister Gabriel de Andrés, the fastest-thinking swordsman I knew. He was also no mean shot, and I curiously noted the crossbow which hung from his belt, for I had never seen him carry it before. At Gabri’s back, taking long ponderous steps, strode the towering pikeman Tomé de Cristóbal, otherwise known as Cristó. He was a hulking monster as broad as two of his comrades, with huge arms like iron levers. As always, he trod behind his trusted companion Gabri, with his long pike resting upon his broad shoulder.

As my four comrades drew nearer, they stared at us with narrowed eyes, as wicked smiles grew on their weathered faces. At their approach Elsien finally made to leave, squeezing my hand once before the scrape of her soles could be heard upon the ground.

‘Why beste mevrouw,’ called Ramos to her in a voice that was as mocking as it was unnerving, ‘will you not also bid us farewell? We are, after all, your husband’s brothers-in-arms, part of a comradeship sworn to protect one another.’

The glare Elsien returned could not have been more hateful, while the rattle and clank of arms against armour ceased when the foursome stopped a few feet away from us. They left me feeling as if we were being eyed by a pack of wolves, as some of the other Spaniards also thronged around them, amused by the spectacle of my wife trading glares with the notorious sergeant.

‘Farewell, Sergeant Ramos,’ she said in accented Spanish, ‘may you be triumphant in your endeavour. If only to return my husband to me safe and unharmed.’

‘Ah, don’t you worry about our pretty little Abelito,’ exclaimed Ramos as he stepped towards us, pinching my left cheek between two fingers, and shaking my head from side to side, ‘he is a big boy, who can look after himself. He has, after all, survived many worse conflicts.’

So saying, he next fixed his attentions to her, with his voice suddenly harder and dripping with malice.

‘I would worry more about your father’s lot,’ he continued, as I jerked my head away from his hand, ‘for he is more than two months behind in his payments to us, and we have faithfully protected him from his debtors.’

‘Not in the last month,’ I cut in angrily, feeling annoyed by his deviousness.

Ramos’ head slowly turned towards me, as a look of outrage grew on his bearded face.

‘There you go, Abelito, always standing up for the local heretics! Why don’t you ever spare a thought for your own kin?’

‘For the last time,’ I hissed between gritted teeth, ‘they are not heretics. Not all Brabantians are heretics.’

‘Whatever you say!’ he exclaimed, mockingly raising his arms before me. ‘Need you get so agitated when defending people who are but our subjects? And do you not realise that this woman’s father is in our debt? A man who is said to have many stashes of silver hidden across the village?’

‘It is a lie!’ cried Elsien. ‘He has not so much wealth!’

‘Ah, but some of it, to be sure!’ exclaimed Ramos furiously, drawing a knife from his belt, which he pointed towards her. ‘And the sooner he parts with it, the safer your home will be!’

‘Do you threaten us, Sergeant?’ asked Elsien sternly, as she pulled her woollen partlet closely about her and drew away from his blade.

‘Well, that depends,’ replied Ramos, meeting her stare, ‘if you consider a promise to burn your house down to be a threat…then maybe, yes.’

‘That’s enough,’ I said.

‘What’s enough?’ he snapped. ‘Will you just stand there and allow your wife to insult your sergeant? Always so ready to belittle me, Abelito, yet one of these days you might regret it.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked hesitantly, taken aback, and wondering whether he had just threatened me too.

‘We’ll see,’ he said, clearly struggling to not speak his thoughts, ‘we’ll see.’

Meanwhile Elsien’s face had assumed a hue of scarlet, and in her anger, she seemed ignorant of the many other Spanish soldiers who had gathered about us. For a moment I feared that she might insult Ramos before them, when an order was barked from the church door, announcing the presence of Captain Arturo Fernández. The captain was a brave and honourable man who was well liked by the troops. He was also known for his pragmatism and loyalty to the men, which made him the natural leader for our raid.

‘Gather round whoresons, stay your idle chatter. We have a good stretch to cover before midday and must soon begin our march. I see forty volunteers gathered before me, brave souls who will all get rich pickings. But know before we leave that half of everything we take goes to the sergeant-major, who sanctioned this venture at great personal risk.’

‘What personal risk?’ snorted a soldier behind us, scratching at lice behind his ear. ‘What men don’t return shall just be dead-pays, leaving him to pocket their salary.’

‘Whenever that is paid,’ shot back the captain, ‘hence the risk.’

A ripple of laughter ran through the men, as Fernández lived up to his fame for jokes which poked fun at authority. His irreverent humour in the face of our misery was always warmly welcomed, although word of it had probably cost him many promotions. Yet Fernández had always remained close and committed to his men, and he allowed our laughter to subside before resuming his address.

‘Our scouts were despatched at dawn, and we will meet them at the agreed place. No drums, pipes, or banners, for we require stealth. My subalterns will be the sergeants El Perro and Curro Ramos, whose fellowship includes Abelardo de Santiago, the Lynx of Haarlem.’

Fernández paused to seek me out among the small crowd, then nodded once when his eyes fell upon me. It was at the captain’s specific request that Ramos had insisted that I partake of the ambush, since Fernández believed that my inclusion would raise morale.

‘The men we fight are all low-born mercenaries,’ continued Fernández, ‘so none need be spared. They number at least sixty, but we have the element of surprise. Otherwise you know what to do. Now kneel for the blessing.’

He stepped aside, standing along the edge of the doorway as our company’s chaplain appeared alongside him, Bible in hand, to recite a holy missive which we received on bended knee. Few of those present understood Latin, but a defiant clamour rose among us when the final imprecation to the Lord was delivered. As the rumbling subsided, we next proceeded to check our weapons, which were also inspected by the sergeants and the captain.

‘Farewell,’ I whispered, holding Elsien tightly.

She silently returned my embrace, then held her hand to her eyes as she turned away from the mustering. A pang of guilt ran through me as she trudged off, and I felt that I ought to make it up to her somehow. I decided to reveal the secret crib to her, which I had made in recent months while on sentry duty.

‘Ask your brothers to show you what I made,’ I called out to her. ‘For the baby!’

‘What?’ she asked, trying to hear me above the din of barked orders.

‘Marti and Pieter!’ I called back. ‘Ask them to show you what I made for the baby!’

She nodded back at me and waved when Ramos butted me with his shoulder as he hurried past.

‘Fall in line, lovebird,’ he grunted, and I stepped among the dozen men in his charge. Before we knew it, we were marching through the houses, as silently as could be managed to avoid waking villagers and spreading rumour of our advance. A backward glance afforded me a last glimpse of Elsien, whose cheeks glistened in the sunlight as we hurried out of the village.

It was then that I saw the members of her family standing behind her, and my jaw dropped at the realisation that they had gathered to see me off. Elsien’s brothers Maerten and Pieter stood alongside her, watching on in silent farewell with their Aunt Margareta just behind them. A few other cousins and relatives were also among their number, and I felt deeply moved by their appearance, raising my hand to them in a silent goodbye.

‘Very moving,’ sneered Ramos ahead of me, having noticed my gesture in the corner of his eye.

We wrinkled our nostrils at the stench of the open rubbish pits beyond the edge of the village, where we found ourselves striking the open country. Before long we entered the first copse which lay in our path, keeping to a narrow trail between the trees. We travelled light, as we did before every ambush, with our rolled-up blankets bouncing on our shoulders. There were five miles left to cover until the larger forest, which was a short distance for Spanish troops who were used to marching over forty miles in a day.

‘I wish we were headed to bloody Antwerp instead,’ said Cristó, raising the well-worn topic that the men always talked about, ever since we had been barracked in Willebroek. I had known the huge pikeman for years, and still marvelled at his size and height. No one in our company even reached his shoulder.

‘How we ended up posted in Willebroek is beyond me,’ replied Salva, with his eyes widening and his face twisting sideways due to his spasm. ‘Fancy travelling so far from home to be left to rot in a little hole by the river. We’ll never make a bean in that forsaken place.’

Each of my comrades wanted to leave Willebroek and be posted to Antwerp instead, to stand a chance of sacking the city when it finally fell. Word had long circled among our company that we would soon be sent towards the city to swell the ranks of its besiegers. This rumour excited the men, for memories of the infamous ‘Spanish fury’ lingered from nine years earlier, when Antwerp’s first siege had been broken. I had myself partaken of the horror of the three-day sacking which followed, when not a single nail had been left on a wall.

‘Can you imagine the fair daughters to be had,’ said Cristó with an evil grin.

‘Not to mention the fountains of ale,’ added Salva whimsically. ‘It shall be a plunderer’s paradise.’

‘That wretched city will never fall,’ whispered Gabri behind us, with his wide-brimmed hat pulled so low over his eyes that it seemed to have a voice. ‘The heretics will hold out to the last man.’

‘Not that you can blame them,’ I reasoned, then instantly regretted it.

‘There he goes again,’ sneered Ramos, ‘good old Abelito. Always quick to defend our enemies. It’s just as well you’re of use to us in a
fight, or I’d shove that rifle up your backside.’

‘Indeed,’ I replied as calmly as I could manage, knowing it to be the best tone with which to frustrate him, ‘yet after years of fighting, don’t you even ask yourself why we are here?’

‘To root out heresy and rebellion,’ said Salva, assuming a high-born officer’s voice, ‘before they spread to Spain. We bring the Low Countries both lawfulness and salvation.’

Both Cristó and Ramos chuckled openly at the corporal’s affected accent, but I was not impressed.

‘We bring them only ruin and the sword,’ I said, ‘and Spain is far away. We should not even be here.’

‘Then where else would you be?’ asked Ramos, as he cast me a dark look over his shoulder. ‘On a street corner back home, hiring your
blade out for a handful of coppers?’

‘At least you admit that we’re only here for plunder.’

‘Perhaps,’ said the sergeant, after a few moments, ‘which is why I’m grateful to be part of the winning side.’

The smugness of his words annoyed me, although it was true that the soldiers of Spain were feared across Europe and beyond, given that they were always triumphant in battle. All other kingdoms trembled before the stamp of the Spanish tercios’ boots, and not since the legions of Rome had an army inspired so much dread and loathing among its rivals. I therefore chose to let the matter lie, rather than trade any more words of anger with Ramos.

We were also halfway towards the forest, so that I was distracted by the large Empress tree which had appeared on our left. I felt a twinge of longing as we passed its wide trunk, where I had first met secretly with Elsien, whispering sweet nothings in her ear which had in time become deep somethings.

‘Why me?’ I had often asked her as my hand slid behind her waist, while she held me by the shoulder. Elsien would look at me with large, trembling eyes, and her grin filled me with a happiness I had once given up on.

‘So many rich villagers and burghers from afar covet your hand,’ I continued. ‘Why a soldier with no future?’

‘Because I feel safe with you,’ she said, reaching out to stroke my scarred cheek, ‘and you are a good man, although you have forgotten it. And not bad to look at, either.’

Each time her words had left me feeling bewildered and full of disbelief. Almost as if I had stepped into some vision by accident, one which belonged to another. Each time I saw her sharp, handsome features staring back at me expectantly, and each time I buried my face in hers, in case it was truly all a dream from which I might stir.

With a sigh, I realised that I missed those carefree days of first love, when we were merely delighted by each other’s company. Yet the passing of months as a married couple meant that we also had to think of our future, which clearly did not lie with the army or in the war-torn Netherlands.

‘If only I had the means to get us away from here,’ I said to her only the previous week, ‘that we might venture to the New World and
leave this ravaged, weary continent behind.’

‘We have the means,’ she had replied firmly, but would not say another word when I pressed her on it.

‘There is no point speaking of it,’ she told me. ‘For what you do not know can’t hurt you. And besides, we are not going anywhere while father still lives. He will never give up on his home.’

A low cheer from the men returned my thoughts to the march. Two of them gestured across the plain towards the forest which had come into sight. It appeared an endless cluster of trees, which spread so far and wide that it obscured our view of the city of Mechelen. The wood was home to all manner of lawless bandits and wild beasts, and a grim silence fell among us as to a man we each wondered if we would leave it alive.

As we drew nearer to the nameless wood, I realised that I did not, in fact, want to take part in the impending ambush or even the siege of Antwerp. I was sick of years spent fighting Spain’s enemies, and felt reluctant to leave Elsien’s family, who had provided me with both a hearth and a home. They were things I had not known since I was a youth when I had fled my uncle’s protection to enlist with the Spanish army.

‘Slowly,’ growled Ramos as I stepped on a sun-dried branch, causing a cracking sound just as we entered the cover of forest.

A few more disgusted looks were cast at me before we made our way through the trees that became ever more tightly clustered together. The August warmth hindered our progress throughout, for dried twigs and leaves were strewn in our path, yet we had faced similar terrains for years, and learned how to travel over them softly and silently. In each instant, we were aware of the importance of stealth, for the slightest sound might alert hidden pickets or brigands to our whereabouts.

At last, we reached a part of the forest where the ground sank before us towards a gully, which ran as far as the eye could see to both our left and our right. Two men stood before us, with muskets in one hand and their other arms raised in greeting. They were part of a small group of scouts who had been despatched by Fernández the previous day.

‘We can set up camp here,’ called one of them, ‘there is no one around for miles.’

At the captain’s order, we fell out of line and laid our blankets and jackets across the forest floor. Some of us returned to sleep while others spoke in muted voices. With a reluctant sigh, I threw myself to the ground alongside my comrades, while Salva pulled a side of tainted mutton from his pack, which was to be our dinner that evening. As he set about picking the maggots out of it, I realised that we were close enough to Fernández and his subalterns to overhear their talk with our scouts.

‘How far are they?’ asked the captain impatiently.

‘We spotted their pickets over an hour ago. They seem to know their business, yet the militia’s a slovenly bunch and appears to be in no haste.’

‘Humph,’ grunted a sergeant, whose drooping cheeks had earned him the nickname of El Perro, ‘and we are certain that they are heading here?’

‘Our informer is convinced,’ replied the scout nervously, ‘that their direction is the northern provinces, and that De Groote prefers the cover of forest. In any event, we have men at the eastern edge of the wood, who shall notify us when they appear.’

‘And is their booty worth all this hassle?’ snapped Ramos, his voice filled with irritation.

‘We have been assured that it is.’

Fernández proceeded to dismiss his scouts and withdrew with his sergeants deeper into the woods, where they walked about and spoke in hushed tones.

‘Sounds like the usual,’ whispered Salva.

‘It does,’ said Gabri, from beneath his hat, ‘should be a straightforward affair, unless it’s a trap.’

‘Isn’t it always a trap?’ I asked disconsolately.

‘Not always,’ snapped Salva, then glared at me with suspicion as the left side of his face twitched furiously.

A loud snore from Cristó interrupted our talk, so that Gabri booted him awake, for only he would get away with it, given his close bond with the hulking pikeman.

‘Is it time?’ gasped Cristó, his eyes widening as his hands fell to his weapons.

‘Not for a while yet, you big oaf,’ snapped Gabri, ‘now turn on your side and stop snoring!’

The giant pikeman issued a loud grunt before he obliged the musketeer, and I checked my rifle and all my gear a last time before getting some rest myself. It was less than two hours later when one of our scouts could be seen running through the wood, calling out to the prostrate Fernández between ragged pants of breath.

‘Picket sighted, less than an hour away.’

‘Time to rouse the men,’ said the captain, rolling onto his knees and snatching up his rifle. ‘We must take cover.’
Ramos and El Perro quickly followed his lead, running between soldiers and booting them to their feet. Quick plans were next laid between the officers before they scattered around the defile with their men at their heels, hiding behind trees and lying low in the plants among them. Ramos swiftly led his men through the ravine and back up the other side.

‘Draw the crossbow,’ he whispered. ‘We’re to take out their pickets if we think they’ve seen us.’

His orders were quickly followed, with Gabri cranking up the windlass he had brought from the village, while the rest of us loaded our guns. In minutes our weapons were all primed and ready, with Ramos hissing his last orders to us as he pulled out a ramrod from one of his pistols.
‘Now all of you pick a target. And when Abelito here takes out De Groote, we’ll let them have a volley. I’ll take over from there.’

The sergeant’s men were all seasoned veterans, used to taking cover and keeping position. We had partaken of many skirmishes and night raids over the years, and each of us could lie as still as a statue, barely breathing for hours on end.

‘You,’ hissed Ramos, grabbing me by the shoulder and shoving me towards a nearby elm, ‘get up there and do what you do best.’

Within moments I was hauling myself up towards the tree’s highest boughs, which would afford me the best vantage of the ground below. I stopped at the last sturdy branch which offered enough concealment, and which grew a few feet from the top of the tree. I slowly rose to full height upon the bough, finding it strong enough to bear me at a dizzying distance from the ground.

My comrades below me were still working on their concealment. Gabri could be seen pouring some water from his skin onto the ground, then rubbing the damp earth between his hands and spreading it upon his face. Ramos and Salva were nestled deep in a bush, with their backs barely visible to me, with Cristó having vanished beneath the leaves he had pulled onto himself, save for the back of a huge boot which I could make out close to the gully.

I crouched low in the leaves upon spotting two men stealthily making towards our direction, peering about like hawks. Both carried snaplock rifles, and their jerkins of padded leather hung loose around their breasts. They were fair-skinned Netherlanders who walked barefooted through the gully, never making a sound and ready to fly at the first hint of peril.

As the pair of pickets passed along the defile, I slowly exhaled a sigh of relief, when one of them suddenly pointed at the ground, silently beckoning to his fellow who hurried alongside him. A look of alarm was traded as they made to turn back the way they came, when the twang of crossbows was heard. Three bolts were released from different directions, with one picket being struck clean through the throat while the other was hit in both his thigh and stomach.

‘Stop him!’ hissed Ramos as the second picket tried to reach for his rifle, in the hope of firing a warning shot to De Groote’s men. As always Gabri was the first to react, having already sprung from his hiding place with his dagger drawn. Within moments he had kicked the rifle away, then jerked the pickets’ heads back and slit them both from ear to ear.

The dying pair hissed like drowning cats as they were next grabbed by the heel, with Gabri swiftly dragging them behind him before Salva ran over to help him. After the bodies were buried beneath a pile of leaves, my two comrades used dried branches to brush away the pickets’ prints, before scurrying back to their hiding places.

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