The real state of affairs in 1629
Don’t worry, this is a fantasy novel and I have no intention of turning it into anything else. However, to make my readers understand the context better, I have decided to supply a little overview of the historical backdrop of the seventeenth century. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was not a nation at all, but an alliance of three hundred Imperial cities, counties and principalities, from giant electorates to tiny territories consisting only of a few farmsteads ruled by Free Imperial Knights of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperor was no autocrat but instead was chosen by seven electors: three clerical and four mundane ones of different confessions. Moreover, the ruling Emperor, the staunch Catholic Ferdinand II, had to cooperate with the Imperial Diet consisting of nobles, clerics and citizens. They also belonged to different religious persuasions, and tension grew.
As a result, some of these coreligionist lords, states and cities formed the ‘Catholic League’ to oppose the Protestant ‘Union’, while others declared themselves independent and neutral. Both the Catholic League and the Protestant Union mustered troops to defend themselves against attacks by their counterparts.
Foreign powers such as the Dutch, the Danes, the Swedes, the English and the French intervened in the conflicts on German soil; feudal rights even gave some of them a say.
What started with the well-known Defenestration of Prague in 1618 and ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 has gone down in history as the Thirty Years’ War. In fact, it was not a long war at all, but a series of related battles with ever-changing allies and enemies.
When the novel starts, the Battle of White Mountain (1620) is already over and the Low Saxon War (1625–1629) is about to end. The Holy Roman Empire was in a state of permanent unrest, triggered by religious disputes and fuelled by the thirst of those already powerful for more power and the belligerence of the mercenary leaders whom the war had already made rich.
To find out more, start reading up on this tumultuous era – and be warned: you will need patience to follow all those tangled conflicts.
Now, however, let me present to you: adventure, intrigues and . . . magic.
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.
John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
Kingdom of England, London, March 1629
‘I am sorry for the hubbub and the dirt. However, if you want comfort, you have to suffer through some discomfort first.’ At the sound of the voice echoing through the high, panelled room, Melchior Pieck turned towards the entrance he had come through half an hour ago. His host had made him wait; punc- tuality was the politeness of kings, not of lords.
‘I did not notice them at all, your Lordship.’ For someone from Hanover, Melchior was not too fluent in English. ‘Your servants know how to find the dust, even in the most remote corners and dispose of it.’
‘Like you do with your prey, right? No matter if it’s human or animal.’ Henry Rich, First Earl of Holland and Duke of Kensington entered the great room.
The various scenes adorning the stucco ceiling clashed with the paintings on the walls, while several oil lamps and candles fought a losing battle against the dark colours; the dying light of the evening falling through the gate-like windows was not enough to illuminate the room.
‘That is the reason why you are here, dear Pieck.’ The long, tailored brocade jacket that fell past his hips and the puffy sleeves and breeches made the slender man look more sturdily built. He had curly hair and wore a stylish moustache and a goatee. ‘Did no one offer you a drink?’
Melchior, who was just past fifty and wore his grey-silver beard and his hair cropped short, bowed slightly, the movement fluid despite his stoutness. ‘I declined, your Lordship. My throat is not used to your kind of fine wine.’ In his deliberately simple wardrobe and worn leather boots, he looked the exact opposite of the Earl.
‘Don’t be too modest. I know that you are a man of wealth and taste. Someone who was one of the favourites of the Count of Mansfeld must have earned a fortune.’ The Earl gestured at the two armchairs next to the crackling fire. ‘Have a seat. I can see that my messenger has brought you here unharmed.’
‘Thank you, your Lordship. A charming lady indeed. The coach was extremely comfortable, too.’ Melchior took a seat and arranged his baldric with its broad sabre. He carried his flintlock pistol in a holster on his chest.
‘You knew the Count?’
‘No. It was enough for me to hear about him and his fights. Excellent mercenary leader. His last battle was for the English Crown near Breda. However, things went downhill for him after Dessau and against Wallenstein.’
‘Appearances were deceitful,’ Melchior replied coolly. He didn’t have to put up with imputations and derogatory remarks. Mentally, he added fifty guilders to his fee. ‘The Count came up with a new plan.’
‘Did he, then? A pity the Ottomans poisoned him, then. Wasn’t he about to travel to Venice with you to raise more money for a fresh army?’
‘I saw no Turks close to him when he dictated his last will to us, coughing up blood and little pieces of his lungs. It was a haemorrhage, your Lordship.’
‘What a pity. Less heroic.’
‘If your Lordship prefers, you may imagine an Ottoman behind it. I for one will stick with the affliction.’ Melchior took in his surroundings. He didn’t like to speak about the past; those memories hurt him as much as the scars on his face and body. He had liked his leader a great deal, and had learned a lot from him. ‘Your Lordship has plans for the Holland House?’ ‘Oh, yes, indeed! That brick building is far too unpretentious for my taste,’ he confessed. ‘The stucco and stone ornaments are not nearly ornate enough for a man of my standing. After my wife inherited the building, I ordered the addition of wings and colonnades at once. Doric columns will also be a good addition.
At the entrance. What do you think, Pieck?’ ‘They will, your Lordship.’
The Earl gestured for the waiting servants to put victuals and various beverages on the table between them, then he dismissed the lot. He was forty, ten years younger than Melchior, and now he smiled deviously. It was time to talk business. ‘Since the Count of Mansfeld’s death three years ago, you’ve made yourself quite a name as—’
‘I prefer the word “trader”,’ Pieck interjected.
‘Well, and I prefer to call a spade a spade.’ The Earl leaned closer to him. ‘Bounty hunter. Mercenary. Spy. Assassin. Schemer.’ He took his goblet of port and slurped noisily. ‘Did I forget anything, my dear Pieck?’
‘The things I offer as a trader are manifold. Would your Lordship like to make use of my talents?’ Melchior grabbed his own wine and drank it at a gulp. ‘Your Lordship was right.’ He put the less intricately adorned cup back down on the serving tray. ‘Your port is not too fine for me.’
‘Touché.’ He laughed softly. ‘A man after my fancy.’ He reached under the table, pulled forth a portfolio and handed it to Pieck. ‘Your mission.’
Full of curiosity, Melchior opened it to find several pencil drawings of a young woman in her mid-twenties, some in profile, some face-on. She had long dark hair, with a midnight-black lock about as wide as a finger that almost absorbed the light; the artist had drawn a white ribbon holding her tresses in place. Her left eyebrow had a striking light streak – a scar, perhaps? In the profile drawing, the lady wore a white hat adorned with a black ribbon and a wide brim tilted up on the right side.
‘Pretty. Her face is a little . . . long,’ Melchior commented. Her features were vaguely familiar, but he could not quite place her. Beneath the drawing was the woman’s personal crest, two crossed, burning torches with a rapier and pistols, and the words Aenlin Salomé Kane.
‘She resembles her father.’ The Earl pointed at the crest. ‘She knows how to fight with a rapier and a main gauche. Additionally, she always carries two hidden stilettoes on her body. Moreover, she is an exceptionally good shot, or so they say.’ ‘Kane?’ Melchior squinted his eyes shut. The name finally enabled him to place the resemblance. He had seen drawings of this face in many a book. ‘Is she . . . is she in fact Solomon Kane’s daughter, your Lordship? The daughter of the Solomon Kane?’ ‘Does that matter, Pieck?’
It does when it comes to my fee, he thought, studying her features. ‘I didn’t know that this legendary man had had children.’
‘Let’s say his mistress Bess waited in vain for him to return, to show him the wonder that he had left her,’ the Earl answered sardonically. ‘After her death, he saw no need to investigate.’ He poured himself some more port. ‘I have heard through the grapevine that young Aenlin can already look back on a remarkable career as a swashbuckler. That is why I mentioned her weapons. Do not let her youth fool you. She is said to use her blades with extreme precision.’
Melchior knew all the stories about Solomon Kane, the Puritan adventurer who had fought evil in Europe and Africa and gone on the wildest of journeys there. Most people considered them little more than fairy tales to scare children, but Melchior had fought on battlefields in devastated regions and forlorn villages and knew what darkness could spawn if unopposed – or if someone summoned it.
‘What would your Lordship like me to do?’
‘You, my dear Pieck, will follow Aenlin Kane to Hamburg and keep her always in sight. Keep her safe. You have to protect her, no matter how you manage to do so, and no matter what it takes – and she cannot learn about you.’ He refilled his goblet.
‘So, your Lordship is her benefactor?’ ‘Up to a certain point, yes.’
‘And which point would that be, your Lordship?’
‘My protection ends as soon as Aenlin Kane leaves the city again.’ He looked pensively at the painting to his right, which showed him on a hunt. ‘Then – well, then you will kill the woman.’
Melchior raised his grizzled brows and also helped himself to some more of the excellent wine. Again he drank it at one gulp. ‘Care to explain?’
‘You will crate up all the belongings Aenlin Kane is carrying with her at the time of her death, and everything that she has acquired in Hamburg, and you will send it to London, to an address that I will give you as soon as we have signed this contract.’
Melchior said slowly, ‘Your Lordship wants something she’s going to pick up in Hamburg, but she will only acquire it if she feels herself unobserved.’
‘Is that reason enough to kill her, your Lordship?’
‘Qualms don’t fit a man like you, Pieck. She will never sur- render the item voluntarily. Moreover, I do not want us to get in trouble because of this. It’s a delicate matter.’
‘Like your Lordship’s affair with the paramour of the Count of Chalais?’ Melchior whispered with an innocent look. ‘I believe he was executed for conspiracy against Richelieu, but the duchess—’
‘—is back in Paris,’ the Earl said gruffly, his face reddening. ‘Her ban has been lifted; the Duchess of Chevreuse has been forgiven.’ He was one of a string of lovers the beautiful French woman had had; as a husband, he had more than one reason for anger when hearing her name.
‘Is your Lordship still on friendly terms with the Duchess?’ Melchior inconspicuously put one hand on the hilt of the dagger resting next to his sabre in the double sheath.
‘That is not important for your mission, Pieck. Do not presume too much.’
‘I am asking this only for business reasons. I do not care for gossip and tittle-tattle. For all I care, your Lordship can have as many liaisons as you can manage.’ Melchior liked the port. ‘Tell me, did Lord Buckingham’s life not end in a truly tragic fashion last summer? Stabbed by his own man!’
‘May his soul rot in Hell! Buckingham cost us more than four thousand good men at La Rochelle. I should have . . .’ He made a fist. ‘Turn over the drawing.’
Melchior grinned. He felt he had paid back the Earl for his earlier taunts. The Crown of England had made too many enemies in its wargames and was now paying the price.
He turned the drawing over. ‘Another woman? Or a disguise?’ She was obviously younger and more delicate of feature; the artist had darkened her complexion with tiny dots and had written ‘brown skin’ next to the drawing. Her eyes were dark, too. Her wardrobe was Oriental, a style that Melchior recognised from the Ottoman women he’d met serving in mercenary armies. She held a carved hiking pole in one hand.
‘A Persian mystic called Tahmina. She has been at Aenlin Kane’s side for a while now. Presumably, Kane saved her life; she has been following her around ever since.’
‘So she is a witch?’
‘Let’s say this child has connections to some exquisite powers that no one wants to investigate any further.’ He pointed to the sealed envelope within the portfolio. ‘That is why you will slip Tahmina this letter discreetly – after Kane’s death.’
‘What shall I do if she claims to be Kane’s heiress?’ ‘Knock her out – but do not kill her, Pieck.’
‘As your Lordship pleases.’ Melchior’s eyes darted back and forth between the two drawings. He didn’t want to fight a witch. She might have cast a protective spell on herself and the murder victim-to-be. This was not looking to be quite so easy a mission after all. ‘An unusual team,’ he commented.
‘Soon, only one horse will remain. See to it.’ He had obviously got over his anger about the defeat at La Rochelle and Lord Buckingham. ‘Do you think that is feasible?’
‘Of course, your Lordship.’ Melchior had already calculated his pay. ‘That will be two hundred guilders per month, or two hundred English thalers, whatever is easier for your Lordship. First month in advance.’
The Earl inhaled slowly and audibly and the carefully trimmed moustache under his nose quivered.
‘These are two missions, your Lordship,’ Melchior explained, ‘and I will be running a significant risk. This mystic can cause mortal peril for me. Moreover, I must turn down other ladies and gentlemen who—’
He raised his hand to cut him short. ‘All right, Pieck. Half of your fee now, the other half later. For my own safety.’
‘Forgive me, your Lordship, but I know that the English Crown has financial problems, thanks to your King’s belliger- ence,’ Melchior insisted. ‘Is it not true that royal demesnes and jewels have been sold and valuable cutlery has been melted down? Also, let us not forget the exaction of forced loans. Did Parliament not grant additional funds?’
‘Consider me impressed. For a German mercenary, you are very well informed.’
‘I keep an eye on my business acquaintances’ solvency. If His Majesty ever considered infringing on his lords’ assets . . .’ ‘Don’t worry. I know that Charles is having initial exploratory talks with the French and the Spaniards to end these expensive wars. I heard that Rubens himself may be travelling to London to negotiate on behalf of Madrid.’
‘Still, Charles remains a king with an iron crown, not a golden one.’ Melchior put the drawing of the two women back into the portfolio. ‘Your Lordship could hire someone cheaper than me . . .’ ‘No, Pieck. You shall get your money.’ Rich took the bell. ‘Sign the contract in the portfolio. The coin will be here soon enough.’ At the back of the portfolio Melchior found two copies of the agreement for a mission to be agreed orally, and entered the fee they had agreed upon into a space left deliberately blank. ‘One more thing,’ the Earl said, as Melchior signed the parchments. ‘If you should not be able to complete your task, if you should warn those women, or if you should fail to send me all that Kane acquires in Hamburg, Pieck, you will not have much longer to live.’
‘Heavens!’ Melchior perused the agreement once more, deliberately exaggerating his study. ‘Where do I find that clause here, your Lordship?’
‘These are the details agreed upon by word of mouth.’ He signed and sealed his copy and handed it to Melchior. ‘Now you know the clauses. If it should take you more than two weeks, let me know. Is that clear, Pieck?’
‘Very clear, your Lordship.’ ‘Do you know Hamburg?’
‘I have been there once or twice. It thinks itself invulnerable; it is full of merchants, diplomats and agents of all nations.’ As Melchior recited his list, he considered whether he should have demanded a higher fee. ‘I will find them quickly, your Lordship and carry out your orders, as we have discussed.’
The Earl scribbled something on a scrap of paper and waved it to dry the ink. As he folded the paper to seal it shut, his servants returned. ‘This is the address to where you will deliver Aenlin Kane’s belongings. Do not open it before her death.’
‘Very well.’ Melchior pocketed the scrap of paper, shoved his own copy of the agreement under his doublet and picked up the heavy sack full of thalers. Under the eyes of the Earl, he opened it and counted. ‘Two hundred.’
‘Do you not trust me?’ the Earl asked dryly.
‘Your Lordship would be surprised how many coins grow legs, even on short distances.’ He looked at the servants standing by the doors, gazing at the ornate linenfold panelling. They looked unfazed. ‘Not this time, though. Your servants are honest.’
‘Well, good hunting then, Pieck. Now be off.’ He didn’t rise, just waved him off. ‘I will see you soon. I hope.’
Melchior got up and bowed. ‘Your Lordship.’
Without another word he went to the door, straightening his baldric and taking his floppy hat with its two kinked grey feathers from a servant. The retainer also handed him his large bag, which bore a lock to protect against unauthorised opening.
Melchior left Holland House, which could have housed dozens of families, without even considering the extensive estates, which were quite big enough for a good day’s hunting.
They made him walk to the gate, where the coach awaited him. Another small insult.
As he had hoped, the woman who had picked him up near the docks was waiting inside. Angelique was almost thirty years old, and he had already noticed the French accessories she wore with her English dress.
‘Good evening. Will you take care for my safety, Milady?’ He put the bag of silver in his satchel.
She inclined her head slightly, her blonde curls moving and bobbing in the light of the small lamp. ‘I will.’ She knocked against the roof of the coach and the one-horse carriage started moving. ‘The Earl wants to make sure that you board the Ivy right away. She leaves London with the flood tide. She will get you to Calais swiftly.’
Melchior was happy to hear that there was nothing to stop him from leaving. ‘My luggage is already on board?’
‘Of course.’ She smiled. ‘You have—’
Melchior drew his hardened dagger from its sheath next to the sabre and drove it into the woman’s chest. On the battlefield, the armour-piercing weapon served as a tool against harnesses and cuirasses; it easily pierced the soft skin and the bones. As the blow found her heart, the woman opened her eyes wide.
‘Cardinal Richelieu sends his regards, Countess Henriette,’ he said. ‘You couldn’t fool me.’
Smoke billowed up from the margins of the wound and her skin burned with a hiss wherever the silver touched it.
The noblewoman wanted to reply, but the pain allowed her only to gasp. The paralysing effect of the Argentum stopped her from using her self-healing powers. Softly snarling, she stared at the handle of the dagger protruding from her chest. Her fingers turned into claws, her fingernails becoming long and sharp.
‘Before visiting Holland House, I took the precaution of familiarising myself with the Earl’s activities – who he hosts and to whom he offers protection,’ Melchior explained, drawing his pistol. ‘You are the Huguenot friend of the pardoned Duchess of Chevreuse – you felt safe in London.’ He leaned into her. ‘It appears the rumours are true, Countess. You are a shifter.’
Henriette growled and tried to bite Melchior with teeth that had become long fangs. ‘You fiend!’ She grabbed the hilt of the dagger impaling her, but she wasn’t strong enough. ‘I have done nothing wrong!’
‘Unlike the Duchess, who has many powerful friends at court, your low title doesn’t save you from Richelieu’s revenge,’ Melchior said. ‘London can thank me later. The fewer beasts like you prowling around, the better.’
‘You will . . .’ Henriette began, but her eyes flared red and half a breath later, the Countess died – and turned back into a normal woman. Nothing was left to hint at what she had truly been in life.
‘Excusez-moi.’ Melchior pulled his dagger from the dead body and wiped it clean on her dress. Then he laid the body on the bench seat in a position that better enabled him to behead her with his sabre, which took him three tries, thanks to the shaking of the coach. ‘A deal is a deal.’
Working swiftly now, he opened his capacious satchel and took out the large glass vessel holding the liquid honey.
He cut off the longest curls, then immersed her head in the honey to preserve it. At Calais, he would hand over the head to a messenger. He’d soon get his reward: Richelieu paid well. The coach rumbled through the deserted area around Holland House while Melchior stripped Henriette of her jewellery. He considered his list of prey: there was Benjamin de Rohan, Duc de Frontenay, and Baron de Soubise, the Huguenots’ military leader, who had fled to London after the fall of La Rochelle, and who was allegedly pondering his return to France.
As far as Melchior knew, de Rohan was also a shifter. It was rumoured the Duc had a pet jaguar from the New World, however, de Rohan and the jaguar had never appeared in public together. Melchior had no doubts that the nobleman was himself the beast.
However, the two hundred thalers in his bag meant the Earl took priority. He could deal with de Rohan after he’d delivered Aenlin Kane’s belongings to London.
As they rolled across a small bridge, Melchior called out,
‘Coachman, stop!’ and produced his primed pistol. ‘Her ladyship feels sick. She would like to vomit.’
As soon the man stopped the coach and peered anxiously over the side to look for his mistress, Melchior fired.
With a bang, the propelling charge ignited. Whitish gun smoke riddled with sparks shot out like angry mist, while the musket ball hit the man right between the eyes, tearing away half of his skull and his hat. He slumped on the box seat, blood trickling down the coachwork.
Quickly, Melchior got out and threw the headless corpse of the Countess into the stream below; it ran into the Thames, and on into the open sea.
To make it look even more like an assault, he hit the coach a few times with his sabre, then slathered the coachman’s rapier with the fellow’s own blood before putting the weapon into his hand. Then he threw one of the Countess’ rings back into the coach to make it look as if the robbers had dropped it; he dropped another one next to the coach. The rest he pocketed. He unhitched the horse and without a backwards look, he rode towards the harbour, pondering what he might expect when he encountered Aenlin Kane and Tahmina: a fighter and a mystic.
It surely would not be as simple a task as killing the Huguenot. The first thing he would do in Hamburg would be to find the executioner or someone who was skilled at the Passau Art to buy a magical writ of protection that would save him from various hardships. Just in case.
The earth, whose custom it is to cover the dead, was there itself covered with them and those variously distinguished: some had their bowels hanging out in most ghastly and pitiful fashion and others had their heads cleft and their brains scattered.
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen,
Simplicius Simplicissimus (1668)
about the Battle of Wittstock on 4 October 1636
Free Imperial city of Hamburg, April 1629
Aenlin stood out amongst the bustle and flurry of the lower harbour – for various reasons.
One was that she was standing still amid all the ado, which was involving a stack of crates holding cannonballs. Another was that she wore bright, expensively tailored clothes, including a light grey, wide-brimmed hat adorned with a black ribbon which partly covered her long dark hair. But mostly she stood out because she was a woman wearing men’s clothing. Moreover, she wore her coat open, letting everyone see the weapons she carried.
She didn’t mind the looks the bustling servants, house cleaners, hucksters, merchants and peasants gave her as she absentmindedly read her father’s letter, which had reached her mother a long, long time ago.
There may come a day when I do not return. When I lose my life fighting evil. Do not grieve me. I have taken care that you will be set up for life, should that happen.
In these hours I write this letter, I have no idea how you have spent those last years, nor you I. You should know, though, that every time my task dragged me away from you, you were always on my mind. Bess, together with my faith, you have given me the strength to oppose the beasts of darkness.
I have been able to gather some artefacts and amass a small fortune, which I hope you will be able to multiply. I bequeath them to thee. As they are of considerable value, I have taken precautions to protect them against unauthor- ised access.
To claim what is yours, and what you deserve, go to Hamburg. Find a man called Jacobus Maus in
Niederhafen, the lower harbour, and show him your signet ring. He owns a rope shop. Maus will tell you how to pro- ceed from there.
Should Jacobus Maus be dead by the time you arrive in Hamburg, he will have taken steps to ensure you have access to your treasure.
I do not want to go into any more details in this letter.
Should somebody read what kind of riches await you, even kings and queens might become jealous.
I am looking forward to seeing you again, be it in this life or in Paradise, where God will reunite us.
May the Righteous bless you. Deeply in love and forever yours,
Aenlin lowered the letter and took a deep breath, watching the constant loading and unloading of the huge ships moored in the harbour. Their masts jutted skywards, punctuated by the reefed sails tied to the halyards. Here and there, sailors were climbing in the shrouds, checking ropes and spars for damage before the ships set sail again.
Aenlin’s thoughts and emotions slowly adjusted to the fact that she was awfully close to her destination: Jacobus Maus’ shop was only a stone’s throw away.
However, she did not want to take this last step alone. She wanted her friend Tahmina by her side. She waited anxiously for her.
The shouting and the clamour, the rattling of the derricks and the runners keeping the machines going, the hoofbeats of the working teams and the grinding of the wheels resounded across the quay and echoed from the counting houses and warehouses. Trade across the Elbe never slept; even the sporadic embargoes and controls by the Danes, the English and the Dutch could not stop the keels.
Every day, ships set sail from Hamburg, several thousand each year, to every nook and cranny of the known world. In times of peace or in times of no matter which war, the city catered to all conflicting parties alike. Hamburg could afford this approach, having declared its own neutrality while at the same time erecting fortifications that stopped everyone from attacking the city.
Aenlin liked the bustle of the harbour; her bright eyes scanned the façades of the brick and half-timbered buildings. She had found the letter folded between the pages of her mother’s Bible. Elisabeth Kane had died in poverty from typhus at the age of forty-five. The fever hit the inhabitants of London, taking turn and turn about with the Black Death.
Other cities suffered from those afflictions, too. On her way to Hamburg, Aenlin had heard about the plague ravaging nearby Altona, and Hamburg itself had had to cope with typhus recently. On one hand, the citizens were happy about its prosperity, even as large parts of the surrounding countryside fell victim to wan- dering armies. On the other hand, they were ranting against the fugitives who took shelter behind their walls thanks to the war and, according to rumour, brought those afflictions with them. Aenlin had been to Hamburg before, but this was the first time she’d seen the massive works completed: the walls, the bastions with the defensive works and the cannon that were able to fire in all directions. No matter how long this war between Catholics and Protestants, nations and interests would rage, this city would survive – unless an affliction or a conflagration should overtake it. Her father’s treasure for her mother was safe here. ‘Hey! Where do you think you’re going with my purse?’ shouted a merchant in expensive clothing He waved his foppish hat at a ragged boy who was running across the quay. The merchant unleashed his grey mastiff and the dog barked darkly.
‘Brutus, attack! Attack! Tear the little thief to pieces!’
Aenlin saw the boy, who was about eleven years old, weave through the obstacles and jump over sacks and crates. He might have lost an adult this way, but the mastiff refused to give up its prey. Whenever it lost sight of the little thief, the animal dropped his nose and followed his scent.
Aenlin’s heart quickened in her chest. Intervening would be tricky, but she could not simply watch this hunt come to a bad end. She picked up an empty sack from the ground and walked towards the boy. Lucifer help me.
‘That’s the spirit! Cut him off, woman,’ the merchant shouted, gleeful with anticipation. ‘But be careful: don’t let Brutus attack you.’
The crowd laughed. Some onlookers showed their sympathy for the child by whistling loudly to distract the dog.
The little thief tried to evade Aenlin, but she had foreseen his route correctly. Just before the mastiff could bite down on the boy’s neck, she tripped him, so he hit the ground at full pelt and went head over heels several times across the cobblestones. Deftly, she threw the open sack over the raging dog’s head and the beast’s aggressive barking stopped at once. Blind and taken off-guard, Brutus crashed into the crates and shook himself with a yowl, trying to shred the coarse fabric with his claws. Aenlin went over to the boy, who was just getting up, and grabbed him by the shoulder. ‘Give me that,’ she demanded and held out her gloved left hand.
‘But it’s my due,’ he protested. ‘It belongs to me and my people.’
The merchant approached. ‘Miserable lugworm!’
A crowd formed around Aenlin and the boy, who kicked at her and at the man in turn, as if he had any chance to escape. ‘You won’t steal from me ever again!’ The merchant told his dog to sit and freed it from the sack. The mastiff sat down next to him with a snarl, closely watching the humans in front of it.
‘Give me back your loot.’
‘You betrayed us, Master Fischer!’ The boy grabbed his waistband. ‘You owe us money – for a month’s work.’
‘Shut your cheeky mouth, you thief,’ the merchant snarled. Undaunted, the boy continued, ‘We loaded the carts and pushed them from the lower harbour up to the weigh station, all March long. You gave us nothing!’
Aenlin admired his courage. Neither the crowd nor the merchant – nor even the giant dog, which was eye to eye with the boy as it sat upright – intimidated him. ‘Is that true, Master Fischer?’ ‘How is this your business?’ The merchant grabbed for the boy, but Aenlin pushed his shoulder and the man’s fingers grasped nothing.
‘Is what the boy says true?’
A soft babble echoed throughout the crowd.
‘Brutus!’ The mastiff rose with a growl as the merchant shouted at Aenlin, ‘Unhand that thief so I can get my money back, you strange, foolish woman. Why are you out in public like this at all, wearing man’s clothes?’
‘What’s the wage he owes you, boy?’ Aenlin looked at him, her manner friendly, yet stern.
‘A ducat. For both of us.’
‘Then take one from the purse and give the rest back.’
‘Are you mad?’ Fischer said, obviously pondering an attack. Meanwhile, the boy took the proper coin from the purse and pocketed it, then handed the purse to Aenlin. His conqueror still did not let go of him.
‘Here. Your purse, Master Fischer.’ Aenlin gave it to the theft victim and the crowd laughed softly. ‘And here is a guilder. From me.’ She took a coin from her coat pocket. ‘Now the world is no longer out of kilter.’
‘Not out of kilter anymore?’ Fischer grabbed the purse and the coin. Both disappeared beneath his cape. ‘My world is out of kilter until this mangy thief has been punished.’ From his belt he pulled a bludgeon that looked worn from frequent use. ‘I’ll smash his hand – that’ll stop him from stealing other people’s belongings.’ He raised his bludgeon. ‘Give me his arm!’
Aenlin let go of the boy, who ran away at once. ‘Brutus, attack!’ Fischer called.
Aenlin stepped onto the dog’s lead as the mastiff tried to dash off and yanked the animal around so it crashed yelping to the ground. She was sorry she had had to hurt the beast. ‘Brutus, stop,’ she ordered.
Now the onlookers laughed.
‘You dare protect a thief?’ Fischer raised his bludgeon against her. ‘I’m going to beat the living daylights out of you, woman. You’ll never forget this beating – you’ll be picking up your teeth from the gutter.’
Aenlin took a deep breath and put her hands on her hips, in the same movement, pushing open her coat to reveal her two flintlock pistols and the rapier. ‘Pay your people so they don’t have to rob you to get their wages.’ She slowly took her foot from the lead. ‘Then you and your Brutus wouldn’t have to get so overexcited running around the docks.’
Fischer scrutinised the intrepid young woman, his wavering gaze giving away his indecision. ‘I will not forget this!’
He turned around and walked through the cordon of onlookers to the stack of crates and the old cog he had loaded. When he whistled loudly, the mastiff slunk off after its angry master.
Aenlin smiled, her gaze following the thief. Hopefully, this would teach him a lesson.
The crowd dispersed; there were ships to load and unload.
The entertaining diversion was over.
Aenlin’s heartbeat slowly returned to normal. She sat down on a crate. A long sip of ale would have been very welcome.
By showing off her impressive collection of weapons, unusual for a woman, she had sought to intimidate her opponent so she would not have to use her arsenal. Of course, she knew how to fight with the rapier. She also was a surprisingly good shot and knew how to use her stilettos – during training sessions.
But she had never used her blades or balls against another human being.
Her mother had set immense value upon her education. Gaining knowledge and skill with weapons had been equally important. Aenlin leaned heavily towards knowledge, but the times favoured those who were proficient with instruments of death.
Moreover, as Solomon Kane’s daughter, a certain reputation preceded her in England – not in Hamburg, though. She was sure that nobody in the Free Imperial city had known her father, and she surely would not go about flaunting her inheritance.
She also kept her beliefs to herself. In a pub in England, Aenlin remembered, she had shared some interesting conversations on religion, Heaven and Earth and demons with a student. Young John Milton he had been deeply impressed by her opinions, but she knew better than to voice them openly, not in these days when Catholics, Protestants, Calvinists, Quakers and other Christian sects were all fighting each other for pre-eminence.
‘There you are!’ Tahmina came running towards her.
People might have mistaken her for some exotic monk from the Caribbean or the East, thanks to her darker skin. The loose garment of midnight blue, cinched by a loose belt around her hips, gave no hint of the shape of her body. In her right hand, she carried a carved walking staff that came up to her chest; it looked quite ordinary, unless examined more closely.
‘Have you been the reason for this uproar?’ Tahmina asked. ‘No – a thief. I might’ve saved his life.’
‘Found a friend doing so?’ Tahmina looked at the merchant standing in front of his old cog, who was gazing angrily at them. The mastiff lying on the ground beside him was watching people at work. ‘Now that was quick. We have only just arrived in Hamburg and already you are making life awkward for your- self. Which means for both of us.’ The Persian was five years younger than Aenlin. A cap hid her long brown hair, but her eyes shone blue like the open sea on a bright, sunny day, even if there was disapproval in them. ‘Did I not say we need to keep a low profile on our little journey?’
Aenlin laughed softly. ‘We both stand out, even in Hamburg, which is crawling with people from other countries.’ She pointed to the quay wall of the lower harbour, where the larger sailing ships were moored. New ones arrived constantly; once winter ended and the ice on the Elbe melted, trade gained momentum. ‘Look: Frenchmen, Englishmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutchmen – even people from the West Indies and Asia. I think all skin colours and languages of the world are gathered here.’ ‘It was your idea to claim your father’s inheritance,’ Tahmina said. ‘And to dress conspicuously.’
‘I thought being armed would discourage villains.’ Aenlin gestured towards the merchant. ‘It worked with him. But you might be right, I should dress more discreetly. A burlap sack would do, yes?’
‘Don’t use your sharp tongue against your servant,’ Tahmina replied. They had agreed that the Persian would pose as Aenlin’s servant, even though that was not the case. Tahmina introducing herself as a mystic would be the straw to break the camel’s back when it came to tolerance, even in neutral Hamburg, where people tended to ignore questions of faith. Witchcraft and sim- ilar arts were no laughing matters anywhere. Brushwood and logs were easy to find and burning witches at the stake promised great entertainment for locals and visitors alike.
Aenlin put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. ‘What have you been up to while I was busy saving a boy from the teeth of the beast?’
‘I found us lodgings. Our luggage is already there.’ Tahmina pointed at the smallest inn: The Thirsty Roper. ‘We can rest our weary heads there once we have found this man. What was he called? Some rodent name. Hamster? Rat?’
‘Maus.’ Aenlin glanced at the shop. ‘Jacobus Maus. That is his store.’
‘You haven’t been in there yet?’
‘I want you by my side when I’m finding out about my inheritance.’
Tahmina batted her eyelashes as she put her left hand to her chest. ‘O my gracious mistress. You are so kindly to let me—’
‘Stop it.’ Aenlin got up, ignoring her rumbling stomach. All day long she had been too excited to eat. ‘All right. Let’s solve this riddle, shall we?’
Together, they approached the rope-trader’s shop, which was wedged between two tall, narrow and well-frequented buildings. The women were surrounded by various languages; people struck deals while walking and judging by the hand gestures, there was a lot of negotiating going on. According to the faces, not all of the negotiations were going well.
Aenlin knew Hamburg was bustling with spies, agents and diplomats and that various of the nations even had embassies here, where it was possible to talk to emissaries of their kings – to get subsidies, to suggest deals, or to discuss other things.
She crossed the threshold with very mixed feelings.
Altona, near the Free Imperial city of Hamburg, April 1629
‘Damn, get me that beer,’ Statius hollered across the tavern. It carried the beautiful name Rogue Wave and stood on the bank of the Elbe, right next to the ferry he and his two companions had used to cross the river. ‘Wifey, how long will we keep on waiting? Don’t you know that it’s dangerous to let warriors suffer want?’
‘Coming up, coming up,’ replied the barmaid, who couldn’t have been much older than fourteen. She poured his drink from a large pitcher into a tankard.
As the other patrons hid behind their own tankards and talked quietly, four card players tried to discard their hands softly, to avoid the attention and displeasure of the mercenaries. ‘What about that food?’ said Statius, whose garb was as colourful as that of the two friends with whom he shared his table. Their beards were meticulously trimmed and the tips of Statius’ moustaches were dashingly waxed horizontal. They wore colourfully striped shirts with puffy sleeves; puffed slashed breeches and large floppy hats with long coloured feathers, proudly advertising the fact that they were not ordinary people. ‘Yes, Mother is at it,’ the girl reassured him, lugging more tankards to the table. ‘There you are.’ She hurried away to avoid being dragged onto one of the men’s laps. ‘I hope you like it,’ she added.
‘I hope so, too. Otherwise, I’ll see how much I like you tonight.’ Statius distributed the mugs. ‘A toast to this life, my friends!’
Jacob, the smallest and skinniest of them, whom the others always called Jäcklein, raised his mug and touched it to Statius’. ‘Yes! May our enemies’ blades always be blunt.’ His blond hair and beard always managed to stick out in all directions, making him look a little scruffy.
Nicolas, the oldest of them, a towering fellow of almost thirty years, looked at the tendrils of smoke drifting lazily out the window from the room’s numerous glowing pipes. He kept an eye on the cart holding their tent, their armour and their pole weapons – and on the horse tethered next to it. He would rather have put the cart and the animal into a livery stable, but when Jacob and Statius had seen the inn, they would not budge. They assumed that no one would dare to touch what was theirs, and anyway, no one wanted to confront Landsknechts, especially not drunk ones.
In the end, Altona was just a pitiful collection of farmsteads, fishermen’s huts and inns, unloved by its thriving sister Hamburg. The Counts of Schauenburg had allowed prosecuted Protestants from the Spanish NetherLands – as well as Mennonites and German and Portuguese Jews – to settle here. After the Danes had conquered Altona, the Imperial troops had ravaged the vil- lage. Then the Black Death had come. Several houses now stood empty; some were still marked as haunted by the plague.
Nicolas had visited other places like this. He grabbed his mug without looking at it. ‘May their blades be blunt,’ he repeated, and emptied it in one gulp. The beer tasted bitter and watered- down, but it quenched his thirst. He turned to his friends again. ‘Can we resume our conversation now?’
‘You can always have a conversation with me,’ Jäcklein said, wiping the foam from his upper lip.
‘Not until I’ve eaten.’ Statius banged his fist on the table rhythmically, making his shoulder-length brown hair bounce, and shouted, ‘Food! Food! Food!’
‘Stop that,’ Nicolas barked at him. ‘The little one is scared to death by you.’
‘Well, then she’ll be more pliable later when I—’ He stopped as he saw his leader’s angry look. ‘All right, all right, I’ll let her be. But I’ll bet you your meal that she’s had more than a dozen cocks inside her.’ He gestured about the taproom. ‘That’s good money for a sweet little thing like her. Who knows how much longer she’ll stay pretty?’
Nicolas didn’t react. Statius was a rough guy, often too loud and too coarse, exactly like the generally accepted Landsknecht cliché. However, he was extremely dependable on the battlefield and that was essential for survival when Nicolas stood in a tercio, fighting for his life. When the cavalry approached, firing into the ranks, when the enemy came marching on, the musket balls flying and the pikes jabbing like oversized thorns, when gun smoke obscured Nicolas’ view – that was when Statius stood by his side. So the mercenary leader tolerated some of the excesses Statius allowed himself off the battlefield.
Jäcklein took another sip and looked at Nicolas. ‘What do you think? Will we be able to enter Hamburg?’
‘Depends on his behaviour.’ Nicolas pointed at Statius. ‘They say the Council doesn’t particularly like errant Landsknechts.’
‘Oh, I can be as godly as a lamb.’
Jäcklein laughed. ‘You’d be the first lamb with claws and fangs.’ ‘Yet still pious.’ Statius got up and threw his tankard behind the counter, where it clattered noisily to the floor. ‘Fill it up, girl, or I’ll fill you up.’
The gamblers pocketed their cards and left the small inn, grumbling, smoking and protesting – quietly.
Nicolas looked out of the window to ensure they were not tampering with the cart. One of them pissed against the wheel, but that, Nicolas didn’t mind. He would have intervened only if the urine had hit their cargo.
‘Are people behaving nicely?’ he heard Jäcklein ask. ‘We should have installed a fougasse outside to protect our stuff. Click, bang – and over.’
‘A mortar would have been pretty extreme.’ Nicolas returned his gaze to the taproom and the much-notched bidenhänder resting against the wall next to him. The huge sword was his. In combat, he wore it on his back while wielding a halberd against cuirassiers and musketeers. Only when the enemy formation was close enough would he break from the tercio to plough through the ranks of pikemen and musketeers with the bidenhänder. The heavy blade cracked wooden poles, bones and skulls alike.
In his head, he relived the cruel memories of their last battle. ‘Brandy, girl,’ he quickly called, knowing he had to fight off those images or he would mope all day. Slowly he took the colourful hat from his ash-blond hair.
Every mercenary dealt with his memories in their own unique way. Jäcklein resorted to jokes and mischief, Statius to obscenity and constant brawls. To Nicolas, intoxication was soothing.
‘Coming right up, sir.’ The serving maid brought the beer, setting it down carefully in front of Jäcklein to avoid getting too close to Statius, then she returned with a tray bearing a bottle and bowls of steaming stew, little more than greasy meat in porridge.
‘Enjoy your meal,’ she said, turning to go.
With a lightning-quick movement, Statius grabbed her left wrist. ‘Tell me, little one, what’s your name? Wouldn’t you like to see the world? I need somebody to stitch me up, cook for me and look after my affairs while we’re on the battlefield.’
‘No, no. I like the world in Altona,’ she stammered. Her gaze implored the other two mercenaries to help her. She had tucked her light brown hair under a greasy kerchief; an old scar marred her cheek. She said nervously, ‘My name is Osanna.’
‘Eat now, Stats,’ Nicolas ordered. ‘We’ll find some willing souls.’
‘A pity, child. I would have liked you all right.’ Statius let her go and started eating. ‘I’ve had worse,’ he mumbled between the bites he wolfed down. This way of eating was a habit acquired in the field: no one could take from you what you already had in your belly.
Jäcklein resumed the conversation. ‘So, we are going to Hamburg? Ask around for the next battle, find a crimper to recruit us? Maybe that cut-throat Joss von Cramm is in town? He always knows who needs capable warriors.’ Unlike Statius, he ate slowly, chewing every mouthful more than twenty times. Food was more filling that way.
Nicolas nodded. ‘Let’s make the moneybags get us up to speed. Those in port will know where our pikes and blades are needed. The Danes can piss off, but the Swedes, they’re trustworthy people. They don’t betray their Protestants and the Union.’ Ladling food into his mouth, he looked around. ‘How about your savings? Does one of you have enough for a musket? A pistol?’
‘I’d be glad if I could afford to have my harness repaired,’ Statius replied, then he belched noisily.
‘A musket would be nice! But not one of those with the dumb fuses. The damned flying sparks keep burning my beard. I heard there’s new ones again. With a matchlock like the wheel lock, just less inconvenient.’ Jäcklein’s face lit up with delight. ‘I’d gladly exchange my pike for one of those.’
‘Who would accept an old piece of iron on a wooden pole for a gun?’ Statius laughed at him. ‘We have it good, don’t we?’ Nicolas heard the message loud and clear: they were all in need of money. His purse held ten lousy ducats, a few hellers and batzes and kreutzers from assorted principalities and states that felt lighter to him than they should have. He had heard that some nobles had ordered their mints to secretly reduce the amount of metal in their coins. Treachery was everywhere. ‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ he said to the others. ‘As soon as we’re in Hamburg, we’ll look for a proper battle. Even in Bohemia, for all I care. I don’t mind walking.’
‘Against the Catholics or against the Protestants?’ Statius threw his wooden spoon at the girl. It clattered against the bar next to her. ‘Hey! Bring that back to me, together with another bowl of stew and some beer.’
Osanna got to work.
‘My steel doesn’t care whom it pierces.’ Jäcklein had not even finished half of his stew. ‘I’d love to fight for Wallenstein. A pity Mansfeld is dead. He was skilled at fighting and trickery. He got a hundred thousand thalers for not joining the battle at the White Mountain! What a fox!’
‘Still, he’s dead,’ Nicolas mused. ‘Wallenstein. Why not? Yes, let’s see if he’s hiring. Otherwise, Tilly. Guard duty would also be a possibility. Or Bohemia. We could also set sail for the South Sea, where other countries fight their battles.’ He scraped up the last of his food while Statius tucked into his second bowlful. ‘Across the sea? No, not for a hundred thousand guilders! A witch told me I would die at sea. No, I’d rather not.’ Jäcklein watched their leader and shook his spoon at him. ‘Tell me, what was that? A while ago?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Actually, Nicolas knew exactly.
‘When we went into battle.’ The small, wiry man scratched a line into the roughly hewn tabletop with the round edge of his spoon. ‘You cut a swathe through the enemy’s entire tercio as if the Devil himself was on your heels.’
‘But you weren’t wounded at all.’ Statius banged his chest. ‘Admit it. You’re carrying a Writ of Protection. I have one, too. Always helpful.’
Nicolas only dimly remembered it. He had been frenzied in the heat of the battle, like one of those berserkers the Romans used to talk about. He had attacked his enemies like a demon unleashed, although he didn’t fully remember any of it. In his head, he relived the cruel memories of their last battle. ‘More brandy, girl,’ he called quickly. He had to fight those images, or he’d be miserable all day.
‘The Reaper himself, Nicolas. I’d never seen you that way before, not in all these years.’ Jäcklein didn’t sound worried. ‘You should ask for a bigger fee for yourself.’
‘For all of us,’ Statius interjected at once. ‘Because, never forget, we follow him.’ His voice turned conspiratorial. ‘Did you ever notice that some of the men we beheaded stank awfully? Like . . . the dead?’
‘They were dead.’ Nicolas remembered this detail vividly. ‘They tore the dead from their graves and imbued them with unholy life,’ Jäcklein confirmed. ‘Upon my soul! This must be the resurrection everyone is talking about. I envisioned it differently. We are not in Paradise, gentlemen!’
The three mercenaries laughed.
‘How does that work?’ Statius pushed back his empty bowl and twirled the tips of his moustache back into shape. ‘How do you resurrect corpses? That can’t be a Christian spell.’
‘I have heard that it’s possible to command victims of the plague if you cut out their tongues.’ Jäcklein shrugged. ‘Or perhaps the men didn’t know that they were dead and just fulfilled their duty.’
‘Plague.’ Nicolas thought of the many marked houses in Altona where the Black Death had wreaked – or was still wreaking – havoc.
‘The villages of the dead,’ said a soft female voice next to them, and the mercenaries turned in astonishment to see Osanna holding a broadsheet. ‘Some people talk about them – places full of malice where darkness and demons reign – and that’s only the beginning.’
Jäcklein looked at the stained piece of paper, which had obviously passed through many hands. ‘Ah. Penned by a priest,’ he said. ‘Who else would write such a thing?’
‘Demons,’ Statius repeated. He shuddered and crossed himself. He could not read the words, but the illustrations made it easy enough to understand what it was about. He looked at Osanna. ‘Villages full of dead people?’
‘Yes, sir. They – the corpses – roam around, some of them attack the living, others sign up for the army, or they say.’
‘For money?’ Jäcklein laughed. ‘Zounds! What do these walking dead eat and drink?’
‘The living. That is their greatest motivation. The freshly fallen belong to them, too.’ Osanna stacked the empty bowls and carried them back to the bar.
‘Someone fart me in the face,’ Statius said after a brief silence. ‘Now the little woman has me scared. God, she is a sly dog!’ He laughed. It sounded loud, but hollow. It didn’t chase away his discomfort.
Nicolas looked at Jäcklein, who looked worried, too.
It was not the first time they had met weirdness on their way through the realms, principalities and cities of the land. Nicolas clearly remembered the crazed itinerant preacher in motley garb who was followed by a flock of children with their skin painted green. He had called out to them that the Dark Lands, where the thralldom of humankind originated, were spreading, where demons, witches, wizards and the beasts of darkness ruled. In the next city they reached, they heard that the madman had been incarcerated for heresy. He had abducted the children.
‘The Dark Lands,’ Nicolas said quietly. The term had stuck in his head.
They had seen demons fighting, spectres on fiery horses or bat-winged creatures that appeared under cover of gun smoke and turmoil. Nicolas, Statius and Jäcklein had spotted the red eyes of a colonel who had bared his fangs before attacking his enemies with a snarl.
‘We urgently need money,’ Nicolas told his friends, ‘for bigger and better weapons.’
‘Yes and for Writs of Protection.’ Again, Statius banged his chest, making the tips of his moustaches quiver. ‘I’ll also buy a painted amulet of St Christopher and of St Jude to wear around my neck.’
‘St Jude?’ Jäcklein laughed. ‘Oh dear – do I have to watch my back in battle from now on, man?’
‘He was an assassin – fought with a sickle. He will protect me just right.’ Statius pointed at the pamphlet about the villages of the dead. ‘I’d better have his name carved into my skin and across my heart, so I won’t lose his succour.’
The door of the Rogue Wave opened and a giant silhouette filled the doorframe, before bowing his head to step inside. Only after the newcomer had crossed the threshold was he able to stand at his full height. He was more than six feet tall.
‘Good day,’ he said in a friendly manner, looking around. He wore a threadbare shepherd’s coat over shirt and trousers, all that protected him from the cold. His shoes were mended and on his back he carried a sack.
All conversations died down as everyone stared at the new guest.
‘Shit me in the boots,’ Statius exclaimed. ‘That guy looks not even fifteen – but he’s as tall and broad as a little giant.’
‘He’s eaten his siblings and then his parents,’ Jäcklein said with conviction, pulling out his pipe. ‘For the first time I see a man who could easily take you on, Nicolas.’
‘And he’s not even a man yet,’ Nicolas pointed out.
‘Ah, you must be the owners of the cart with pikes and the tents.’ With two steps of his long legs, the young man reached the mercenaries’ table. ‘I am Moritz Mühler, from the beautiful city of Bremen. I want to become proficient at warcraft. Will you take me in and teach me? I’ll give you half of my pay for it.’ ‘Heaven must have sent you,’ Statius muttered, staring at him in fascination.
‘Or Hell,’ Jäcklein added as he stuffed some tobacco into his pipe.
Nicolas gestured to the other two men in turn, briefly introducing his friends and himself. ‘How old are you, Moritz Mühler?’
‘Forget the sir,’ he said, keeping his tone friendly. ‘Why would you like to be a Landsknecht?’
‘I want to make money – experience things. Be a war hero.’ The towering lad wore a smile as wide as his prodigious chest. He quickly took off his cap, and black locks tumbled to his shoulders. ‘I couldn’t stand it at home anymore. Too placid for my taste.’
‘Placid!’ Jäcklein blurted. ‘Hell’s bells! He wants to exchange peace for hewing and stabbing.’
Moritz just laughed. It was the friendliest laugh Nicolas had ever heard his life. The boy would soon lose it on the battlefield. It wasn’t yet clear whether he was dim, or just a reckless fellow who didn’t think about death.
‘What have you done before, Moritz Mühler?’
‘I was a logger, but the trees didn’t bother trying to avoid my blows. That’s too boring for me.’
Statius snorted his beer across the table. ‘Holy Moses, we need this fellow! He’ll keep joking even on the most awful of days.’ ‘I wasn’t joking. I was serious.’ Moritz looked imploringly at the men in turn. ‘Take me with you. I want to be a Landsknecht!’ ‘Have you ever fought before?’ Nicolas asked, although he already knew the answer.
‘Only against spruces and firs. A few oaks will probably have been among my victims, too,’ Moritz told him with a grin. ‘Oh, yes, I have! I threw flour bags until no one knew what had hit them.’
‘He’s too good for the carnage.’ Jäcklein raised his pipe and the serving maid brought him a smouldering splint. ‘Stay away from the war. You’re too nice, child. Find yourself another craft, take a pretty wife like this flower of the bar and have some children.’ He lit the tobacco and puffed quickly.
Moritz remained adamant. ‘I still can do that as a Landsk- necht.’
‘Take the bidenhänder, boy.’ Nicolas handed him the heavy blade. ‘Now show us your strength.’
‘Will you take me if I smash through the table?’ The boy’s brown eyes glittered.
‘Agreed,’ Statius said without hesitation. ‘I’ll take him if neither of you want to teach him.’
‘You heard the man. If you manage this blow, you’ll be one of us.’ Nicolas put on his cap. Jäcklein just kept puffing, feeling uncomfortable. To be on the safe side, the three mercenaries took their mugs from the table.
Moritz didn’t even take a big swing, instead wielding the two-handed blade with his right hand as if it were no heavier than a cane.
The sword hit the table, smashing the thick wooden slab in half – but Moritz didn’t stop at that. Cockily, he grabbed one of the halves and held it upright, easily splitting it in half again, this time with his equally powerful left hand.
The three mercenaries had jumped to their feet as the guests of the inn shouted in surprise and excitement. They had never seen anything like this before in Altona.
‘Looks like I’m in,’ Moritz said. He tried to give the biden- händer back to Nicolas.
‘Keep it as a gift,’ the mercenary leader said, and he shook Moritz’s hand. ‘Welcome, Moritz Mühler.’ He winked at the terrified Osanna. ‘I’ll pay for the damage.’
‘By my immortal soul! You can slice up a cuirassier from head to horse! They’ll soon be calling you the man-splitter,’ Jäcklein said. ‘Well, unless a musket ball takes you down first.’ He shook the giant’s hand, and Statius followed suit.
‘That won’t happen,’ Moritz replied offhandedly.
A boy entered the taproom and walked straight over to the conspicuous little group. His shirt and breeches were threadbare and instead of shoes, he wore woven willow twigs on his feet to protect against stones.
‘Here, an invitation,’ he announced. He held out a sealed letter to them.
‘For us?’ Jäcklein looked around. ‘Are you sure, boy?’ ‘How could I mistake your cart and garb?’ the boy replied.
‘Don’t ask,’ Statius hissed. ‘That smells of money. Why should we care if it was originally addressed to another bunch?’
‘Thanks, little one.’ Nicolas took the letter. There were no names; it said only To the Landsknechts in Altona.
He agreed with Statius: they needed money, and they were Landsknechts. In Altona. If any other Landsknechts were around and they were stealing a job from them, well, that was Providence.
‘You owe me a kreutzer,’ the boy stated and sniffled. ‘That’s what I was promised.’
‘Statius, pay him,’ Nicolas ordered. ‘Why me?’
‘Because you’ll soon be getting half of Moritz’s pay – you’ll be the richest of us all.’ He cracked the seal. As he perused the lines, he grinned broadly. ‘This sounds like a fat payday, gentlemen.’
Statius threw the messenger a kreutzer, then lightly clapped him round the back of his head to chase him away.
With a curse, the boy ran out.
‘So who needs our blades? A lovely damsel in distress?’ Jäcklein stood on his tiptoes and glanced at the parchment. Unlike Statius, he could read. ‘Or a king?’
‘Even better. Someone who has lots of coin.’
Nicolas held up the missive so his friends could see the seal that half-covered the signature. ‘The West India Company.’
The Dark Lands by Markus Heitz may be purchased on Amazon here.