Manon dashed through the woods, slashing at monsters with her sword. She could see them all around, dragons in the treetops, Englishmen in the undergrowth, ogres behind the trees. None would stand before the trusty blade she had broken off an oak on the way out of the village. The world smelled of autumn – leaf mould, the fresh air after rain, and more smoke than usual.
Bold as any knight she darted between the bushes and ran into a man squatting against a tree. His hose were down round his ankles and his expression on seeing her was a mixture of surprise and pain.
‘You stink!’ Manon said, holding her nose against what he’d been doing.
The man also shouted something, though she couldn’t understand it. The words sounded hard and clumsy, like his tongue was wrapped around itself.
Other men burst from the bushes, huge bows pointed at Manon. She held her sword out in trembling terror, but they laughed and lowered their bows.
One of them crouched in front of her. He wore a leather jack and a chainmail hood drooped around his shoulders. He had a nice smile.
‘That is a fine sword you have, little boy.’ The man spoke slowly, and he had a strange accent, like the tinker who came down from Calais mending pots and selling needles.
‘I’m a girl,’ Manon replied.
‘That’s a fine sword you have, my lady. Are you defending your village?’
‘Could you show us where it is?’
Manon hesitated. Something didn’t seem right. These men weren’t local and there bows were longer than any she’d seen used for hunting. But they wore red crosses stitched to their clothes so they must be godly men, and their smiling leader recognised a good sword.
‘Yes,’ she said firmly.
They tramped through the fields and orchards, following hedgerows between narrow fields full of grain and vegetables. Soon the harvest would be in and they’d all go into town to pay their tithes to the Lord of Agincourt. Papa said she could come with him this year, to see all the people and the castle. She hoped there would be knights.
There was a commotion as they approached the village, the small cluster of windowless, sloping huts that she called home. Everyone must be as excited as her to see these strangers. They all came rushing out, pitchforks and carving knives in their hands as if straight from their work, some barefoot in the mud.
Her father pushed through the crowd, sparks still smouldering on his leather apron, almost kicking a chicken in his hurry to get past. He stopped twenty paces from them and his face made Manon worry that she was in trouble.
‘Please don’t hurt her,’ Papa said.
‘Why would I hurt her?’ the smiling man replied, stroking Manon’s hair. ‘We are all going to be friends.’
Manon would have stopped him stroking her but she was suddenly afraid. Why was Papa talking about her being hurt?
There was a creak. She looked round to see the other men raising their longbows, arrows pointed at the villagers. Even Hob, the one she’d caught by the tree, looked scary as he squirmed in his filthy hose.
‘Bring us your grain and your animals,’ the smiling man said.
‘We have little grain,’ Papa replied, ‘but you can have it.’
‘The animals?’ the man asked. ‘You have pigs and goats.’
‘Odo and Henri took them away,’ Papa said, ‘when we heard that the armies were coming.’
Something cold pressed against Manon’s throat.
‘Where are they?’ The man didn’t sound friendly now.
‘Please no! I swear I don’t know! None of us do.’
‘Where are the animals little girl?’ The man leaned close to her now, the dagger hurting her neck. He stank of sweat and blood and too many cabbages for dinner.
‘I don’t know,’ she whimpered, tears running down her face. This was the most terrible thing since Mama died. Even Papa looked scared.
How could Papa be scared?
The blade pressed harder against her throat. She was suddenly very aware of the mud between her toes, of the woollen tickling of her tunic, of the horrified faces of her neighbours.
‘I can’t,’ Papa repeated, sinking to his knees. ‘Please, me instead. Anything.’
The man yanked Manon’s head to one side.
‘I’m sorry your friend is sick,’ she said, ‘and I know he needs better food, but please don’t hurt me.’
The man shook and she closed her eyes, prayed to God to accept her into his arms.
Then she realised he was laughing. He said something in their ugly words and shoved her away from him, into Papa’s rough embrace.
‘Bring the corn,’ the man said. ‘Try nothing with those knives – we have bows.’
Once the soldiers were gone everyone rushed to the stream, filling buckets and cauldrons to put out the burning buildings. Everyone except Manon.
She stood in front of the bonfire that had been Henri’s house, where the man had ruffled her hair one last time before throwing a torch through the door.
‘Maybe next time you will have a real sword,’ he had said with that wicked grin.
Then he was gone.
Manon held up her sword. Though clearly a stick it still looked reminded her of the ones the men had worn at their belts, with its curving blade and its space for her hand.
She flung it into the flames and went to fetch water.
* * *
This story was originally published in Alt Hist in November last year. Alt Hist is the only magazine I know of that specialises in historical and alternate history fiction, so if you like that sort of thing I recommend checking it out.
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