A carriage raced down the humpbacked bridge over the Singel canal, across the quay, and then it turned sharply toward him. Abraham hopped out of the way, but not fast enough. The corner of the wooden cab smashed into his shoulder, sending him sprawling across the quay, where feet skittered away to make room. The paving stones hit his mouth like a hammer.
He lay, facedown in the mud, and tasted his blood. Around him, voices cooed and clucked, but no one stopped to help. He fought back tears, then pushed his aching young body up to a seated position. He probed his tongue against the bloody mess inside his cheek.
He had lost no teeth, it seemed, but that was a small mercy. Mud clung to his face and clothes, and now he would look like a vagrant when he met with “Johann.” Abraham had arrived in Amsterdam two days ago, after escaping from Haarlem buried in the back of a farmer’s wagon and on the condition that he meet with this recruiter. And now he was late, according to the church bells. The small advance, just a few stuivers, the Haarlem man had given him was already gone, claimed by the hag who ran the boardinghouse. Tomorrow night Abraham would be sleeping in the alley, unless Johann could help him.
He stood and tried to wipe the cold mud from his tunic, while avoiding eye contact with any of the people walking busily around him. Knots of people flowed past, more than even the prosperous Haarlem could gather in the main square. A woman with a fur-trimmed black bodice and starched white collar stepped around him, followed by a serving woman in a coarse brown linen skirt. Alongside one of the tall brick buildings with the fashionable tapered frontage pointing toward the sky, a boy Abraham’s age juggled four cloth balls and a potato between fingers pink with cold. An old man with a knit cap and a heap of patchwork tunics layered over his shivering hands wobbled by on a stick. He handed Abraham a rag.
‘Pennings, pennings,’ he whispered, his voice hoarse.
Abraham had already run the rag down his face, and he hurried to give it back.
‘I’m sorry, old man. I’ve got nothing.’
Abraham rushed to walk away, though a throbbing in his left hip put a hitch in his step. His heart pinched. If he were injured, or broken, Johann might not sign him as a soldier. And then he’d be begging himself.
No, he’d accept anything by that fate. Ten years ago, his parents had fled Haarlem because their bankruptcy soiled every social connection they had, and now Abraham followed in their footsteps. Except he fled his home because he had been—almost—caught stealing.
It had been wrong of him to try to steal from the silversmith, and foolish to think the man wouldn’t recognize him. No matter. Here he would make amends. He wouldn’t become his cursed, heartless parents.
He found the inn, judging by the painting of a green hare outside, and inside he was the only man in the common room. He shifted his weight back and forth on his cold feet, and hoped the mud was hard to see on the brown of his outermost tunic. Perhaps Johann had already left. The inn had clean-swept floors and a few windows in the front that looked out over the canal, and was tidier than any tavern he had been to yet in this city. Abraham hesitated, conscious of his filth, and then asked the tavern keeper if anyone had earlier been waiting. The man shook his head. After a moment, Abraham sat at a table. He waited, and then, with his stomach gaping with hunger, ordered some bread and cheese. He didn’t have a single coin.
A tall man with a reddened complexion and a short, blond beard entered the main room. He walked up to Abraham’s table.
‘You’re Abraham?’ he asked.
‘That’s right.’ Abraham placed his hands in his lap, and his palms left a hint of anxious moisture on the wooden table. ‘You’re Johann?’
The other man didn’t answer, but he didn’t disagree either. He pulled up a high-backed chair, and the serving woman took his order. He had a slight accent, German possibly.
‘Let’s keep this brief,’ Johann said. He nodded his thanks when his tankard of beer arrived. “We need men. The pay’s good, conditions are good. I can’t say much now about location, but you know where the war is.”
Abraham nodded, though in truth he had only a vague idea of where the fighting was taking place. Somewhere south, or perhaps west, of here. He was seventeen, and he’d had little schooling. But he didn’t care.
‘I’m fine with all that. I want to fight and earn … my place at home again,’ he said, and then flushed at the intensity of his confession. He hoped Johann wouldn’t ask him to stand up, or worse, run. He’d certainly have a limp. ‘Is there some sort of equipment I get?’
Something like a smile swam over Johann’s face, and Abraham noticed a light scar running down the man’s left cheek, hidden under his faint beard. Abraham tore off a chunk of bread and stuffed it into his mouth.
‘You’ll sort out the equipment when you join your unit. Our responsibility is to get you there. I’ve got a few boys headed to the fight, leaving tomorrow. You ready to join them?’
‘No doubts here.’ Abraham swallowed a large mouthful of beer.
‘Just give us a signature.’ He pulled out a parcel and extracted a sheet of paper covered in writing. Abraham frowned, slowly picking his way through the first few sentences, before he gave up and signed. It was idiotic, but he didn’t care. He needed a way out. Besides, in addition to clearing his name, he’d be contributing to Holland’s freedom, fighting to keep the Spanish King and his allies away from the United Provinces. That would be worth telling his family back in Haarlem—if he ever saw them again.
As Abraham had hoped, Johann settled the bill with the tavern keeper. Abraham’s belly was full, but when Johann glanced away, he stuffed the rest of the cheese under his tunic. There was no sense in throwing it out.
‘Be at the southern gate just after sunrise tomorrow,’ Johann said. ‘Sober, if you care about your comfort.’
Abraham suppressed a bitter smile. He had no coins for drinking. ‘And who do I look for?’
‘Myself. You’d better be there, or I’ll find you and make sure you pay up at that inn you’re sleeping at. The lady keeps a close watch on her bills, and I’ll take care of it if you’re with us. But it’s on you if you’re not. To be paid in blood, if I know Margrieth.’
‘I’ll be there.’ Abraham glanced down at his waist, wondering how much the lump of cheese would protrude when he stood, and when he looked up, Johann was walking out the tavern’s door.
Abraham followed quickly, just in case the innkeeper decided to try to charge him for the warmth of the fireplace or his time under the dry roof. His hip hurt as he walked. Outside, a grey rain fell, and Abraham pulled his floppy-brimmed hat down over his forehead and yanked his collar up. No fine lace for him. But he’d settle for anything warm and dry, and to hell with fancy.
A boy carrying four bundled packages ran into him, cursed, and scurried along, head bowed under the rain. Abraham could follow him, see what else there was to do in this city beyond affix his signature to documents he couldn’t understand. Instead, he stepped to the side, under the dry protection of an eave, and watched. He blinked back tears. What a fool he was.
‘Pennings, a penning,’ a hoarse voice mumbled next to him. Abraham looked over to see the same old beggar from earlier. A wooden knife hung from the man’s loose belt.
‘Sorry old man,’ Abraham said, and turned back toward the crowd. The man fell silent, but didn’t move away, though Abraham wished he would. Abraham was a soldier now; he should keep honourable company. He should have asked Johann what weapon he would be using. Just how would he have to kill another man? Children splashed and laughed, while a woman in a clean white cap frowned at the water sneaking down the back of her neck.
‘It is like no other,’ the man next to him said. Abraham started and turned to look at him. The man’s brown hands trembled as he rubbed his shoulders for warmth.
The man gave him a half smile. ‘The city, boy. This city.’
Abraham nodded, not willing to reveal his ignorance of Amsterdam.
‘I love it still, you know. These streets, these tall houses. See those cranes there?’ He pointed across the canal, above the roofline. ‘Building new houses. When I was strong, I could do that work. I built some of these houses.’
‘Then why doesn’t your Guild care for you now?’ Abraham looked away as soon as the question came out. He hadn’t meant to be rude.
‘Ah, boy. They’ve forgotten me. It’s been too long. No one knows anyone here, not anymore. Sometimes that’s good—’ He smiled and cupped his hand under his hanging pocket, which gave the tinkle of a few coins. ‘When there’s no shame to be had in asking the new masters for a penning. And no one to blame me for what I’ve become. Sometimes there’s pain … But I love it here.’
He straightened his tunics, tightened his grip over the cane, and took a shuffling step out from under the eave. The rain, Abraham realized, had lessened.
‘Wait,’ he said. He pulled the cheese from inside his tunic. “Here.”
The man pressed his lips together, looked at Abraham, and then took the cheese.
‘Just half,’ he said, broke it, and handed a piece back. ‘My thanks.’
Before the rain could resume, Abraham loped on his aching hip back to the boarding house, where fleas hopped from the rag over his pallet, and a leak in the roof dripped water down the nearest wall. He kicked the straw bundle that passed for a bed and cursed his parents’ names. If they hadn’t left him poor, maybe he would have turned out better. He kicked it again, ignoring the pain in his hip and the skittering laugh of another boarder behind him, and sat down. Abraham spent the rest of the night eating the cheese, bit by bit, and waiting for dawn. His last night without a weapon in his hands.
Abraham woke in the dark, not realizing he had slept. He made his way outside the quiet city before dawn, and nine other men waited at the gate, marked out by their shabby clothing and downcast eyes. He hugged his arms against himself and tried to ignore the growing sound of his pulse in his ears. His hip didn’t hurt anymore, at least there was that to be grateful for. Young bodies healed quickly. Two of the men traded bawdy jokes and laughed loudly in the tender morning, but the rest of them scuffed their boots against the ground and waited. Johann arrived wearing a large floppy-brimmed hat and ticked their names off a list.
‘Pieter van Sloot? No Pieter? Damn the son of a whore.’ He made a note on his list and handed it to a filthy boy, who ran off. ‘The rest of you, climb up.’ He pointed at a large wagon hitched to two morose horses, which he had driven up from somewhere inside the waking city.
‘An open wagon?’ Abraham said.
‘Oh, you’ve got standards, do you? In that case, I’ll have my money back, if you please, and you can hire a private stagecoach for yourself.’
‘No, it’s not that, just … it’s nothing.’
Johann nodded. Abraham watched the other men climb into the wagon, some with the limber ease of farm boys, others with clumsy effort.
Finally, Abraham was the last one standing in the mud.
‘Go on,’ Johann said, and waved his arm. He was already looking toward the driver.
Abraham walked over to Johann, who blinked and raised an eyebrow when he saw the boy approach.
‘I’m not going to go,’ Abraham said. ‘But I want to pay back what I owe you.’
‘Christ’s blood,’ Johann swore. He took his hat off and ran his fingers along the lining before putting it back on his head. Then he looked at the ground, turned away from Abraham, and swung back toward him with his right fist.
The punch smashed Abraham in the left temple, and he stumbled and fell.
‘I’m still not going,’ he managed to say.
Johann muttered something inaudible, then yelled out for the driver to carry on. As the wagon started rolling, he kicked Abraham in the ribs.
‘I—’ Abraham tried to say.
‘You son of a whore,’ Johann said. ‘Make me look weak in front of the other men. Couldn’t you just not show up so I could send someone to cut your ear off, like the other bastards?’
Abraham rolled onto one hip and clutched his pulsing rib.
‘Please don’t cut my ear off. I want to pay the money back.’
‘That right? You got a handful of guilders in your pocket? I didn’t think so, you filthy louse. Get up.’
Abraham stood, and Johann examined him. Then he grabbed Abraham’s shoulder, pulled him low, and kneed him in the gut.
‘No one’s ever shown up and asked to back out,’ he said as Abraham coughed. A pair of peasant women walked past them, clucking in amusement while they held their produce baskets tightly.
‘Let me make it up,’ Abraham said, forcing the words out. It had been years since he’d had a beating like this, not since he snuck away from lessons to run around with Bartol and the other boys.
Johann clenched his jaw. ‘Follow me. Don’t talk to me while I’m walking, I need to think.’
They walked back through the tall stone gate and into the city. The cobblestone streets were filling with workmen hauling carts of bricks and bakers piling fresh loaves into their open display windows. Abraham’s stomach rumbled.
‘You’ll work?’ Johann stopped and grabbed Abraham’s shoulder.
‘Absolutely. I can’t read much, but I can run and lift and sweep—’
‘You’re a fool, boy.’
Abraham shrugged. ‘But you won’t cut my ear off.’
Johann spat at the cobblestones and then turned and walked away. He turned, raised an eyebrow, and gestured for Abraham to follow. AQ