The Sun Over Breda - By Arturo Perez-Reverte



’Pon my oath, the canals of these Dutch are damp on autumn mornings. Somewhere above the curtain of fog that veiled the dike, a blurred sun shone palely on the silhouettes moving along the road in the direction of the city, now opening its gates for the morning market. That sun was a cold, Calvinist, invisible star unworthy of the name, its dirty gray light falling on oxcarts, countrymen laden with baskets of vegetables, women in white headdresses carrying cheeses and jugs of milk.

I was slowly making my way through the mist with my knapsacks over my shoulder, my teeth clenched to keep them from chattering. I took a quick look at the embankment of the dike where fog blended into the water, and could spy nothing but vague brushstrokes of rushes, grass, and trees. It is true that for a moment I thought I glimpsed a dull reflection of metal, perhaps a morion or cuirass or even naked steel, but it was only for an instant and then the humid breath rising from the canal closed over it again. The girl walking by my side must also have seen it, because she shot me an uneasy glance from beneath the folds of the scarf that covered most of her head and face. She then turned her eyes toward the Dutch sentinels, outfitted with breastplate, helmet, and halberd, whom we could now make out—dark gray upon gray—at the outer gate of the wall, beside the drawbridge.

The city, which, in reality, was nothing more than a large town, was called Oudkerk, and it lay at the confluence of the Ooster canal, the Merck River, and the delta we Spaniards call the Mosa and the Flemish call the Maas. The city’s importance was mostly military, for it controlled access to the canal along which the heretic rebels sent aid to their besieged compatriots in Breda, some three leagues away. The garrison there housed a citizen militia and two regular companies, one of them English. In addition, the fortifications were solid, and the main gate, protected by a bulwark, moat, and drawbridge, was impossible to take by ordinary means. Which was precisely why dawn found me in that place.

I suppose you may have recognized who I am. My name is Íñigo Balboa, and at the time of this tale I was fourteen years old. And may no one take it as presumption when I tell you that he who is skillful with the dagger lives to be a veteran and that I, despite my youth, was a specialist in that art. After dangerous adventures played out in the Madrid of our king, Philip IV, in which I found myself forced to take up pistol and sword, and was once only a step away from the gallows, I had spent the last twelve months with my master, Captain Alatriste, in the Flanders army. This came about when the Tercio Viejo de Cartagena, after traveling by ship to Genoa, had come inland by way of Milan and the so-called Camino Español to join the heart of the war with the rebellious provinces. The era of glorious captains, glorious attacks, and glorious booty was now long past, and the conflict had become a kind of long and tedious chess game in which strongholds were besieged, changed hands, and were besieged again, bravery often counting for less than patience.

It was just such an episode that had brought me there that early morning, walking along in the fog toward the Dutch sentinels at the Oudkerk gate as if it were something I did every day—I and the young girl beside me, whose face was scarcely visible, the two of us surrounded by country folk, geese, oxen, and carts. We walked a little farther, even after one of the peasants, who seemed rather dark-skinned for this landscape and these people, where nearly everyone was blond, with fair skin and light eyes, passed by muttering something under his breath that sounded very much like an Ave Maria. He was hurrying as if he wanted to catch up with a group of four walking a little ahead of us; they, too, unusually thin and dark.

And then, at almost the same time, we all—the four in front of us, the latecomer, the girl in the scarf, and I—came together at the place where the sentinels were posted outside the drawbridge and the gate. One of the guards was a plump, pink-skinned corporal wrapped in a black cape; the other had a