Well, then. My father was the other Spanish soldier who returned that night. His name was Lope Balboa; he was from the province of Guipuzcoa, and he, too, was a courageous man. They say that Diego Alatriste and he were very good friends, almost like brothers, and it must be true, because later, on the bulwarks of Julich, where my father was killed by a ball from a harquebuswhich was why Diego Velázquez did not include him in his painting of the Surrender of Breda, as he did his friend and fellow Diego, Alatriste, who is indeed there, behind the horsehe swore that he would look after me when I grew out of childhood. And that is why, when I turned thirteen, my mother supplied me with shirt and breeches, and a rosary and a crust of bread tied up in a kerchief, and sent me to live with the captain, taking advantage of a cousin who was traveling to Madrid. Thus it was that I came to enter the service, at a rank somewhere between servant and page, of my father's friend.
A confidence: I very much doubt whether, had she known him well, the mother who gave me birth would so gaily have sent me to his service. But I suppose that the title of captain, though apocryphal, added sheen to his character. Besides, my poor mother was not well and she had two daughters to feed. By sending me off she had one fewer mouth at table and at the same time was giving me the opportunity to seek my fortune at court. So, without bothering to ask further details, she packed me off with her cousin, together with a long letter written by the priest of our town, in which she reminded Diego Alatriste of his promise and his friendship with my deceased father.
I recall that when I attached myself to the captain, not much time had passed since his return from Flanders, because he carried an ugly wound in his side received at Fleurus, still fresh, and the source of great pain. Newly arrived, timid, and as easily frightened as a mouse, on my pallet at night I would listen to him pace back and forth in his room, unable to sleep. And at times I heard him softly singing little verses, interrupted by stabs of pain: Lope's verses, then a curse or a comment to himself, partly resigned and almost amused. That was typical of the captain: to face each of his ills and misfortunes as if they were a kind of inevitable joke that an old, perverse acquaintance found entertaining to subject him to from time to time. Perhaps that was the origin of his peculiar sense of harsh, unchanging, despairing humor.
That was a long time ago, and I am a bit muddled regarding dates. But the story I am going to tell you must have taken place around sixteen hundred and twenty-something. It is the adventure of masked men and two Englishmen, which caused not a little talk at court, and in which the captain not only came close to losing the patched-up hide he had managed to save in Flanders, and in battling Turkish and Barbary corsairs, but also made himself a pair of enemies who would harass him for the rest of his life. I am referring to the secretary of our lord and king, Luis de Alquézar, and to his sinister Italian assassin, the silent and dangerous swordsman named Gualterio Malatesta, a man so accustomed to killing his victims from behind that when by chance he faced them, he sank into deep depressions, imagining that he was losing his touch. It was also the year in which I fell in love like a bawling calf, then and forever, with Angélica de Alquézar, who was as perverse and wicked as only Evil in the form of a blonde eleven- or twelve-year-old girl can be. But we will tell everything in its time.
From Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Copyright 1996 by Arturo Perez-Reverte. All rights reserved. Excerpt reproduced with the permission of the Putnam Publishing.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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