Thieves Castle

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Thieves Castle, Chapter II

The ship was squat and shapeless in the fading light, backlit by an unfriendly autumn sun.

“That one.” The man spoke “het schip.” The speaker pointed at the vessel, a stolid, clinker-built trading cog resting quietly at anchor. Built for cargo and to withstand the mercurial Channel wind and waves, the two-masted ship was small, rotund and sat like a stone in the cold and flat waters of Bergen op Zoom.

“She’s flagged Dutch, but English-owned.” His words, which hung in the damp air, were directed at a short, dark-vised man with an angular face and a beard that hung, long, grey and scraggling to a point well down his chest. “Enn Engels schip.” he repeated in poorly accented Dutch to the two uniformed customs men who stood, bored and uninterested. One man scraped mud off of his boot on a convenient edged rock.

The bearded man scowled at the vessel. “This is the fourth vessel you have directed us to, each time claiming it was the one.”

“This is the ship, I am certain of it. I recognize it now. It is the St. Jan Baptista. Look at the figurehead.” The figurehead was a poorly carved representation of a bearded man, staff held across his chest and one hand outthrust.

The grey-bearded man scowled again and gestured at the customs officer. A lengthy tirade ensued. The man who had pointed out the ship slipped past the argument and walked out on the short wooden quay where several boatmen were playing a desultory card game on an empty crate. With a few words and gestures he made his indications known. One of the boatmen climbed to his feet and clambered over to his skiff.

“Here!” the man called to the still arguing Customs men. With an abrupt gesture, the grey bearded man made a slashing motion with his hand and ordered the men into the boat. The customs agents, their irritation plain on their faces clomped out onto the dock and with practiced ease slid into the craft. The bearded man, less experienced with small boats, eased himself carefully into the vessel and the boatman cast-off, rowing them away from the quay with powerful, practiced strokes of the oars.

The grey-bearded man turned his head and regarded the English ship with baleful eyes. “If it is as you stated, the vessel will be impounded until the cargo can be thoroughly searched and inspected. If it is not…” The man let the implicit threat hang in the air.

“She’s the one, Master Story, by God’s truth. Carrying at least a thousand Geneva Bibles, printed in London. Supposed to be carrying just woolcloth and wine, but those bastard heretics can’t be trusted.”

Story grunted and offered a few quick explanatory words in Dutch to the customs men. The taller man, whose lank blonde hair hung long under his flat-brimmed hat snorted, impatient to get out of the damp wind and a find a warm corner in a tavern. The man who had pointed out the St. Jan Baptista gazed out across the dark water. The waters of the estuary were calm and placid, though the tide was nearly high. Beyond the St. Jan Baptista, a score or more of ships were at rest, their bare masts looking like a forest in December, securely anchored in the deeper offshore water, immune to the sandbanks and shoals that the rising tide obscured. Oared boats flitted about like slow-moving water striders plowing across the surface of the water. Several large fluyts[1] loaded with cargo were being carefully warped through the shallows to the canal for unloading at the town Bergen op Zoom itself, its red-tiled roofs bright with the last rays of the setting sun. Bergen op Zoom was a fortified town, secure, snug and stolid behind a natural defense system of marshes and polders backed up with an extensive moat surrounding the town.

“The English would be fools to come here, trying to turn loyalties with their heretical preachings,” Story fumed, “This isn’t Brill. The Spanish and the League now rule the Scheldt.”

“I thought the Spanish had abandoned Zierikzee?” The man rubbed at a thin scar that tapered along his left jawline and hooked up onto the cheek, giving his face a sardonic, almost mocking look.

Story regarded the man with eyes like flint. The recent Spanish mutiny in Zeeland had forced the abandonment of a large portion of the Dutch province, and the Spanish tercios[2] had withdrawn to the region surrounding Antwerp. Two years without pay had finally come to a head. “Temporarily, only temporarily, I assure you. Once coin is paid to the troops, they will resume their occupation of Zierikzee and drive the heretics from Zeeland.”

“By God’s Will, it will happen thus.” The man replied and turned to watch their approach to the St. Jan Baptista. As they drew closer the vessel towered out of the water like a dank layered wall. A line of barnacles and weed hung just above the waterline, a telltale sign that whatever the ship’s cargo, it was not fully loaded at present.

A watchman hailed the approaching boat in Dutch and the bored blonde customs officer bellowed a reply. A rope ladder with thick wooden slates was hooked over the side and dropped down. The oarsman backed water until they were steady beside the ladder. The two Customs officers swung onto the ladder and rapidly climbed to the deck above. Story followed, somewhat slower and the scarred man came last. The oarsman released the ladder and drifted away from the St. Jan Baptista, occasionally sculling the water with the oar to stay close.

Story clambered through the entry port and stood on the deck. The watch officer was already speaking to the shorter Customs officer, gesturing and pointing towards the stern castle. A rotund man, wearing a flat brimmed hat with a small feather emerged from the forward castle.

“I will speak with your captain.” Story’s voice was sharp and cut through the muttered conversation in Dutch. “We will inspect your manifests and ship’s papers. You will open your cargo for examination.”

The heavy-set man in the hat cleared his throat. “Hold there! By God, who are you and by what authority are you ..?”

“In the name of his most Catholic Majesty, Phillip of Spain and Don Juan de Austria, Governor-General of the Low Countries.”

The man paused. “I don’t care if you are the Pope himself, you don’t demand on my ship. I am William Rogeres, Captain and master of this vessel. We’ve all our permissions and writs.”

“You are Dutch flagged, “ noted the scarred man, pointing at the masthead where a white flag crossed with two red laurel branches hung. The Lord of Burgundy’s flag from the House of Hapsburg flew across the seventeen Dutch provinces, with the exception of the rebel-held areas of Zeeland and Holland, who flew the flag of the Prince of Orange. “That mean’s these men,” he pointed at the two Customs officers, “have the authority to inspect or impound this vessel.”

Captain Rogeres face was red. “See here…” he began.

“No. You see.” Story moved forward, his face only inches from the captain’s. “By personal appointment of the Governor-General, I am empowered to strike down heresy and treasonous action in the Lowlands, to seek out and proscribe any and all heretical documents, books or sundry manuscripts that I encounter, in the name of his Holiness the Pope and before the Divine and Worshipful presence of God.” He placed one finger on the man’s chest and jabbed it hard for emphasis. “I. Am. Appointed. The authority whether your ship is permitted to ply these waters rests with me, and with the degree of cooperation that you display.” He turned away from the captain. “These men will inspect your cargo. Should they find a page of a diabolical tome, any heretical nonsense or Lutheran documents…you will burn alongside it.” Story’s face was suffused with satisfaction, his eyes bright.

The captain’s face was a damp sheen of perspiration. “Before God, we are always happy to cooperate with the authorities, but I cannot be responsible for what some Precision[3] sailor might have dragged aboard with him! Our cargo is above reproach, have your men search the holds, speak with my supercargo!” He gestured for the watch officer.

“Dr. Story, perhaps we should inspect the captain’s papers?” The man with the hook scar said.

“When I want your recommendations, I will request them. Your veracity remains unproven, and if it stays that way you will find the stocks at Bergen op Zoom most uncomfortable.” Story’s voice was harsh but the look on his face as the scarred man quailed was one of supreme satisfaction. He turned and issued a slew of directives to the two customs officers. The two men nodded and gestured for the supercargo to take them below to inspect the cargo.

“Now Captain, your papers…and pray my men don’t find anything amiss in your cargo, or you and your vessel will be wintering on the Scheldt, possibly as permanent residents.” The captain, his face pale, nodded a reluctant acquiescence and led Story and the scarred man to the stern castle. A half a dozen seamen watched from the upper castle, perched like a row of starlings along the rail.

Ducking their heads as they entered the stern castle, the scarred man closed the door behind them. The room held a large chart table and a handful of chairs. A tall sideboard stood on one side of the room. The captain gestured at the two men to sit but Story ignored the courtesy, stepping up to unroll one of the charts piled on top of the scarred and worn surface of the table.

“I shall fetch my papers.” The Captain stammered and opened one of the two interior doors on the opposing bulkhead and disappeared within. The thumping clank of a capstan turning made Story turn his head in momentary puzzlement.

“When you find the Bibles, what will happen to the man and the ship?” The scarred man asked, pulling a chair away from the table and turning it so he straddled it, looking at Story with quizzical eyes.

Story gave the man a snort of contempt. “Rather late for Judas to have recriminations. The captain will be held and questioned by the Spanish ecclesiastical authorities. Probably hung, and his ship impounded.”

“A harsh punishment.” The man observed.

“He should burn. All heretics should burn.”

“You’ve seen a man burn?” something in the scarred man’s voice made Story glance up from the chart of the Dutch coast.

“God has blessed me with the opportunity to burn more than a dozen heretics. It is worth observing, the purification of a man’s soul in cleansing flame. It is what awaits all heresy in the bowels of Hell. The sharpness of the sword and other corrections brings forth what gentle remonstrance does not. I had the rare privilege of helping condemn and cleanse Cranmer at Oxford[4]….” He signed. “What joyous day that was.”

“Yes, I suppose burning a man alive would be a feather in your cap.”

“He burned for the greater glory of God and the Church, as all heresy should be punished.” Story gave the seated man a sharp look as the interior door opened. The man that emerged wasn’t the captain. He was wide and round-shouldered, with a broad, fleshy face and barbed eyes. The scarred man felt the deck under his feet give gentle tilt and he smiled.

“Where is the captain?” Story’s said. “These contrivances grow tiresome, before God you will pay dearly…”
“Underway?” the scarred man asked.

“Just warping her out. Can’t set off until the moon is higher, even with the pilot we have.”

Story’s face was suffused with fury. “I gave no permission to sail.” He tore the chart in his hands across. “Where is the captain? You will be gaoled for these actions! Officier! Officier!

Story yanked on the door handle. It was locked. Story froze. The scarred man rapped his knuckles on the table hard to get his attention. The face that turned towards him was white and drawn with anger and fear.

“John Story? Doctor John Story?” Story nodded in reflex response to the question.

“Dr. John Story, in the name of her Majesty, by the Grace of God, Queen of England and Ireland, you are charged with treasonous offence against the Crown.”

“Treason? Who are you to charge me?” Story’s voice rose to a shout. “Who are you to charge me? Servant of that faithless whore of Babylon, a heretical bitch that fornicates with the Devil.” He turned to the heavy door and pulled at the latchbar. It did not budge. “Officier! Officier! Help! Moord!

“Moored?” asked the stocky man. The man’s name was Edward Woodshaw, and he served as Francis Walsingham’s eyes and ears in Antwerp. He watched Story pound on the door with pitiless eyes.

Moord. It means murder.” Christopher Tyburn replied. “I thought your Dutch was better than that.”

Woodshaw laughed. “We move in different circles. Ask me about Antwerp’s financiers, venturers and mercers[5], those I can speak to. Murderers, rogues and cut-throats I leave to you.”

Tyburn gave a humorless smile. Christopher Tyburn was another of Walsingham’s men, a small circle of intelligencers that carried out the Crown’s secret war in defense of the realm. Tyburn had been seconded to Woodshaw due to his familiarity with the region and the Dutch. Four years fighting with Thomas Morgan and Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s expedition to Holland and Flanders had given him an intimate knowledge of the muddy Dutch polders, damp market-towns and the coppery scent of blood that seemed to hang over the ravaged countryside.

Story slumped against the locked door, his hands covering his face. A whispered, despairing prayer in Latin began. Woodshaw and Tyburn exchanged a glance. The prayer finished and Tyburn watched as Story wiped his wet eyes and stood, his face steeled.

“You will release me at once. You have no right under the laws of God or men to hold me. I am a citizen of the Spanish Netherlands and under the righteous protection of the Catholic Church.”

“Right has nothing to do with it.” Tyburn’s voice was flat. “You aren’t here due to your work for the Spanish or for burning Cranmer or any of your other ecclesiastical murders. You are here because seven years ago you conspired with Westmorland and Northumberland in their treachery and rebellion against their sovereign. You helped formant the Northern rebellion[6], encouraged and preached sedition and treason, and actively attempted to promote the overthrow of your rightful sovereign. It’s treason, not heresy you’ll swing for. There’s a subtle distinction.”

“It is not treason to overthrow the Devil’s spawn when it usurps the Church! Who are you to judge me?”

Woodshaw interrupted Story’s tirade. “We aren’t judging you, just delivering you.”

“Minions of a diabolical lord…” Story sneered.

“Irritated and bored minions now.” said Tyburn. He stood and banged twice on the locked door. With a clack, it opened and two sailors entered. Tyburn gestured at Story. “Secure him below. Gag him for now but don’t hurt him.”

Woodshaw reached out and grasped Story’s upper arm. “This way Doctor, your quarters await.” Story pulled back, turning and his left hand shot upwards towards Woodshaw’s face, a faint metallic reflection visible, flickering in the air. Story’s upper arm smacked hard into Tyburn’s hand as the scarred man intervened. He pulled Story’s arm over hard and twisted.

The thin short-bladed knife clattered onto the chart table. Woodshaw was pale as his eyes dropped to the weapon. Story spat at Tyburn. Tyburn bent the man’s arm and levered him away from the table and into the waiting arms of the sailors. They pulled his arms behind him and tied his hands.

“The good news Dr. Story, is that I doubt you’ll burn. God’s judgment on you is superseded by the Crown at the moment. You might hang, but you won’t burn.”

The look of baleful hatred on Story’s face spoke volumes. “You will. You and all of your friends, verily your heretical kingdom itself will burn, with all the flames that perdition can stoke. You will burn in a Godly fire, heretic bastard, your flesh consumed in purifying flame. You will scald…” His voice was a low hiss.

The door closed behind him and Tyburn listened to the muffled litany continue unabated as the men took Story below. Woodshaw shuddered and moved to the sideboard, removing a leather-wrapped bottle and uncorking it. He pulled out two pewter mugs and poured a generous allotment in each.

“Here” he slid a mug over to Tyburn. “Bene bouse[7]. Sauced gin.”

Tyburn drank and grimaced at the harsh taste, not alleviated by the mix of pepper and spice that had been added.

“A good end to a bad one.” Woodshaw said, draining his mug.

“Story thinks he’s on the side of the righteous and the Godly.”

“Well he’s bloody not.” Woodshaw snorted and poured himself another mug. “Bastard man of God just tried to carve up my face… ’You will all burn’. What a load of tripe.”

“How long until the Channel?”

“It’s a bitch, that estuary with its tides. At least two, maybe three days beating down river and we’ll pass Walcheren.”

Tyburn rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “Be at least a day before anyone notices Story and his Custom’s men are missing, probably another day to track them to the Baptista”

Woodshaw snorted. “The Spanish are too busy now to chase after some vagrant English traitor.”

“What do you mean?”

“You hadn’t heard? Word came in a few hours ago. The Spanish tercios rose. They’re plundering Antwerp as we speak.” He gestured. “Now that it’s nightfall, you can probably see the fires from here, it’s only twenty miles.”

“Dear God….”

“I doubt God has much of a hand in this… the Spanish Army of the Netherlands is now looting, fucking and thieving its way through the richest port in Northern Europe. Good luck for us and ours, bad luck for the mercers of Antwerp and their daughters.”

Tyburn thought for a moment. “We’ll be at the front end of a flood of merchant ships and refugees fleeing the port. No one will be looking for Story in the middle of this disaster.”

Woodshaw nodded. “Barring the misfortune of a Spanish patrol, we shouldn’t have any problems. We might actually be able to deliver Walsingham that ‘clean and simple’ result he’s perpetually seeking.”

It was Tyburn’s turn to snort. “I don’t think we’re fated for clean and simple results…” He drained his mug. Despite the harsh peppery flavour, the gin left a warm pleasant burning sensation in Tyburn’s throat. He reached for the bottle and then froze, listening.

“Hear that?” A din of voices arose on the deck, intermixed with shouts in Dutch.

“God’s Bones, what now?” sighed Woodshaw. The two men ducked through the narrow opening and headed for the deck.

The St. Jan Baptista’s main deck was ringed by a small circle of sailors. In the centre of the ring the shorter Dutch Custom’s officer was shrinking back, eyes frantic. The taller officer with the lank blonde hair lay in a crumpled heap by the scuppers, a dark and widening puddle trailing away from his body. In the gathering dusk it had the oily look of black paint, pooling along the gently tilted deck.

“What in the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” Tyburn’s sharp voice rang out across the deck. The Dutch Custom’s officer stared at him in a mixture of hope and trepidation. Tyburn pushed his way through the circle of the Baptista’s sailors and grabbing the man’s arm pulled him away from the crowd, pushing him in the direction of the stern castle. The man’s face was bloody.

“Check him.” Tyburn said, gesturing at the other man slumped on the deck. Woodshaw bent and turned the man. The blonde man’s eyes stared sightlessly at the deepening sky.

“Dead.” Woodshaw’s tone was laconic but Tyburn could hear the undercurrent of anger skating below the surface of the one word reply.

“Dead you say…” Tyburn’s voice was cold. Woodshaw glanced up and felt an atavistic shiver run down his spine. The scarred man turned to face the Baptista crewmen, his movement slow and deliberate.

“Who did it?” Tyburn surveyed the men. His grey eyes had all the emotion of a fleck of ice. The St. Jan Baptista’s crew had been recruited in Brill, a seasoned mixture of Watergauzen[8] and merchant sailors, intermingled with some English deserters and Scottish coastal pirates. They were a mélange of talented and capable seamen and the dregs of a bitter and vicious war, come to roost in the makeshift fleet nominally loyal to the Prince of Orange. Beyond the chink of coin and the desire for drink, there was little uniting them except an abiding hatred of the Spanish.


Godverdomme Engels,… I did it.” The man was shorter than Tyburn, one side of his face mottled with a spray of dark smallpox scars that had left it pitted and crusted like bark. He wore a crumpled short brimmed hat and a typical sailor’s dress of jacket and pantaloons. “He was a verrader bastard that sucked Spanjaard cock.” The man hawked and spat in the direction of the corpse.

Tyburn looked at the man. “You didn’t hear my instructions that none of the Dutch officers were to be harmed?”

The man smirked. “Ja I heard. I shit on you and your instructions, Engelsman.”

Tyburn nodded to himself. He dropped his hand to his belt and, keeping his gaze fixed on the sailor, unbuckled his sword. He rolled up the belt and sword with deft hands and without turning his head spoke to Woodshaw. “Hold this for me.”

Woodshaw took the proffered sword and hissed, “We don’t need more corpses to explain to Walsingham…” Tyburn nodded and stepped forward, his eyes on the Dutchman. The remaining Watergauzen backed away.

The Dutchman, his flat pocked face unmarred by any semblance of an expression, drew a long blade from his belt scabbard. Tyburn ignored the man and instead began to unbutton and strip off his cheap embroidered doublet. He shrugged out of the doublet, folded it with care and handed it to Woodshaw who took it with a bemused expression. Tyburn began to untie his oversleeves and the Dutchman began to stir with impatience.

“Come on you fucking smeerlap, let’s finish this. Bastard Engels…”

Tyburn gave the man a brief glance and then folded the oversleeves and handed them to Woodshaw.

“Done undressing, you cock-sucking shit?” The Dutchman stepped forward, the blade ready but Tyburn raised one hand motioning the man to wait. The Dutchman paused as Tyburn slowly began to stretch out his arms and rotate his shoulders. He raised one arm high and leaned sideways giving a brief grunt as his muscles stretched. He repeated the motion on the opposite side. The Dutchman stared in disbelief.

“By Christ, are you ever going to be ready?” The Dutchman gestured with the knife. “Do you need to take a shit or have dinner before we start as well?” Several of the watching sailors laughed but Tyburn moved into a set of leg stretches, alternately stretching first one leg then the next. The Dutchman turned to his fellows. “This Engelsmann must be stupid or maybe someone sliced off his klootzak. Fuck you Engels, time to…huhrk!”

When the Dutchman turned to speak, Tyburn pivoted and slammed his foot into the man’s groin. As the man doubled over, Tyburn was already moving. One hand caught the wrist holding the knife and twisted it to one side. Tyburn’s right hand hooked over the back of the Dutchman’s head and pulled him forward as the agent’s knee rose to meet him.

Tyburn felt a flaring unholy sense of satisfaction as the man’s jaw slammed into his knee. He felt the bone-jarring impact and heard the crunch of broken bone and popping cartilage. The knife fell to the deck as he pulled the man’s head back and hammered it down into his knee a second time. Keeping his hand buried in the man’s hair, Tyburn stepped backwards dragging the almost insensate crewman with him. Glaring at the remaining crew, who stood in mute collective astonished silence, he raised up the man’s head and then slammed it onto the deck.

Tyburn exhaled with a hissing sound. “Anyone else care to contest my instructions?” He stepped forward and bent to pick up the fallen knife. “Anyone at all?”

The stupefied silence was broken only by the steady cackling laughter from the forecastle. Someone, Tyburn thought, had just collected some coin.

Tyburn heard a faint scraping sound behind him as the Dutchman tried to move away. He turned to the fallen man. Tyburn pulled the man’s right hand out flat on the deck, raised the knife and slammed it through his hand, pinning it to the deck. The man gave a gargled scream and writhed, his free hand trying to pull the knife from the wood.

“The next stuk vuil that crosses us doesn’t live through it. And no one collects their gelt.” At least twenty pairs of eyes refused his gaze. “Now get to bloody work.” Tyburn picked up his doublet and oversleeves from the deck and plucked his scabbarded sword and belt from Woodshaw’s unresisting hands. Behind Woodshaw, the Captain Rogeres stood gaping, open-mouthed. Tyburn pointed at the Dutchman who now sat on the deck, moaning and clutching his hand, his face a mask of blood.

“Secure him below. He’ll be going ashore with our Customs officers. He’ll hang for his crime.” The captain nodded a hasty acquiescence and Tyburn turned away to the rail. The flickering lights of Bergan op Zoom were drifting away as the ship slowly edged out into the main channel. The flat landscape of the Netherlands was already fading into dank obscurity, the grey-black of the land melding into the shimmering ripple of the water as the moon began to rise. Far to the south, a faint red glow reflected off low cloud. Antwerp was burning.

Woodshaw stood beside him at the rail. “Was that strictly necessary?”

Tyburn shrugged. “Rogeres is a thin reed and the Watergauzen play a hard game. They smell weakness and they’re likely to step in for an opportunity. It’s a long way back down the estuary and I didn’t want anyone, especially his friends, getting the idea that they could make more coin off selling us to the Spanish.”

Woodshawe nodded thoughtfully. “Now I know why they sent you with me.” He laughed softly. “Walsingham’s pet wolf, or so I’ve been told.”

Tyburn gave the man a sour look. “I can’t see him too pleased at this turn of events. It was supposed to be uncomplicated. A dead Dutch Custom’s officer didn’t enter into his plans.”

“So no clean and simple results?”

“Not tonight” the scarred man said, watching the darkness gather over the land, “Not tonight.”

[1] Dutch ship, similar to a galleon

[2] Spanish military unit, a company

[3] Puritan

[4] Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Reformation under Henry VIII and Edward VI. Cranmer was condemned and burned as a Protestant heretic at Oxford in 1555 under the reign of Queen Mary.

[5] Fabric & cloth merchants

[6] The Northern Earls Westmorland and Northumberland launched an abortive rebellion in 1569 to depose the Queen and supplant her with Mary of Scotland

[7] Literally “strong or good liquor”

[8] Sea Beggars – the name assumed by the Calvinist opposition to the Spanish rule of the Netherlands. They mostly operated as coastal pirates, raiding the Spanish, until they captured the port of Brill in 1572

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