A Sword – a historical flash story

Picture by Francois Schnell via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Francois Schnell via Flickr Creative Commons

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?

‘Tell me.’

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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By Starvation or by the Sword – a flash historical story

WallsDesperate hunger filled Marcel’s belly. It gnawed at the corners of his mind, dragging his attention away from the scribing tasks his master had given him. Being able to read, write and understand five languages, these were useful skills for a peacetime merchant’s apprentice. They were near useless in a town under siege, with no trade to be had and no food left to buy.

He set aside his quill. Master Pierre had fallen asleep again. The time had come to leave his work and go in search of food.

It was a quick walk from the marketplace to the walls. The streets were quiet, people staying indoors during the English bombardment. Most of the stones hit the town walls, but some fell inside, and flying splinters of broken building could be as deadly as a direct hit.

Reaching the walls, Marcel glanced up. His brother Jean was on guard, almost looking like a soldier in his chainmail. Marcel whistled and Jean winked down at him.

He slid into the narrow gap between a stinking tannery and the walls. There, hidden inside a heap of old masonry, was a narrow tunnel. The end outside town lay concealed behind a stand of blackberry bushes, known only to the two brothers.

Fast as an eel, Marcel slid through the gap and emerged into the bramble patch. The berries hadn’t ripened yet, and he would need to go further abroad to find food.

Keeping a wary eye on the distant English camp, Marcel scrambled low across a muddy field, scurried along behind a hedge, and emerged into a wood half a mile outside of town. Apples hung from the higher branches of the trees, untouched by the besiegers.

Marcel would go a long way for an apple. Without pause, he clambered up the nearest tree.

From among those high branches, he heard a voice below.

“Get down here, you little bastard.” The man spoke French, but with an ugly English accent. He had a bow pointed at Marcel, an arrow drawn on the taught string.

Trembling with fear, Marcel descended. His mind was full of the terrible things he had heard about the English. The towns they had burned, the people they had killed, the fact that they had tails hidden under their tunics like demons in disguise.

There were a dozen men in the woods, all armoured and armed with swords and bows. The leader grabbed Marcel by the throat and shoved him against a tree, bark clawing at his back.

“I saw you scurrying from beneath the walls.” He drew a knife and held it beneath Marcel’s nose. “You’ve got some secret way into town, don’t you?”

Marcel shook his head.

The soldier pressed the dagger against his cheek, drawing blood. “Tell me, you French prick, or I’ll have your eyes out.”

Marcel swallowed. He had no desire to betray the town, but what could he do? At least this way the siege would soon be over, and they could eat again.

“This way,” he whispered.

The soldier kept a hand on Marcel’s shoulder and a knife at his back as they crept across the fields toward the tangled bramble patch. The soldiers whispered to each other on the way. They had changed to English, but Marcel understood the language all too well.

“Hal, get back to camp,” the leader hissed. “Once we’re inside we’ll storm the gate and get it open. I want the rest of the boys there before these frog wankers have a chance to fight back.”

“And then?” one of the men asked excitedly.

“Then take what we want and burn the place to the ground.” The leader shoved Marcel forward. “These people said no to King Harry. Lessons have to be learnt.”

Marcel’s stomach lurched. He wasn’t going to survive this, and neither was anyone else he knew. It crossed his mind to throw himself back onto the blade, guarding the tunnel’s secret with his death. But he hadn’t the courage for that.

Instead, as they crept closer to the walls, he began to cough loudly.

“Shut up.” The soldier hit him across the back of the head. As he fell in the mud, Marcel looked up and caught a glimpse of Jean’s face. For a moment his brother was there between the battlements, then he was gone.

Faking a limp, Marcel rose and walked as slowly as he dared toward the walls. Fear still shook him, but there was pride too. The defenders would have time before these men got through the hole. Maybe long enough to kill them as they emerged, one by one, from the tunnel. Surely long enough to stop them storming the gate.

As he pulled back the bushes and led them into the darkness beyond, the unexpected thrill of adventure ran through Marcel.

But his belly still rumbled.


* * *

If you liked this story then you might enjoy my collection of historical and alternate history stories, From a Foreign Shore, only 99c on Amazon Kindle.

Out Now – A Sword in Alt Hist 8

Alt-Hist-Issue-8-eBookCover-200x300A young peasant girl dreams of fighting fantastic beasts with her trusty sword. But with the Hundred Years War in full and brutal swing, violence is far from glamorous, and ordinary people live in fear for their lives. What will she do when real enemies appear?

Find out in ‘A Sword’, my new story available in issue 8 of Alt Hist, the magazine of historical fiction and alternate history.

I’m always proud to have a story in Alt Hist. As someone who loves both real history and fantastical fiction, it fills a niche that’s close to my heart. It’s also clearly a labour of love for the editor, Mark Lord, and one I’m pleased to feature in. This issue is available now via Amazon and Smashwords.

Unto the Breach – a #FlashFriday story

Picture by Ed Alkema via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Ed Alkema via Flickr creative commons

The ditch below the town walls was a dense stew of mud and blood. The remains of the fallen protruded from the filthy mass of wet straw which bridged the gap – pale fingers outstretched as if digging their way out of Hell. Sir Richard de Motley couldn’t remember the name of the town – something unpronounceably French – but he was determined that those men’s sacrifice should not be in vain.

“Onward!” He charged gloriously toward the wall, shield in one hand, one end of a ladder in the other. Arrows whistled down around him and the small band of brave men who had chosen, despite the caution of their commanders, to follow him in his assault.

“Bad idea.” Adam, Sir Richard’s squire, helped him raise his ladder, one end sinking into the mud, the other resting against the battlements above their heads. “This is all a terrible idea.”

As more ladders were raised, the first of the men fell, skewered by arrows or struck down by rocks. Sir Richard raised his shield to protect his head and began climbing as fast as any man could while wearing chainmail.

Amid the screams and thuds of falling bodies, Sir Richard heard a clang and a curse as a crossbow bolt skimmed Adam’s pot helmet.

“Can’t we come up with something smarter?” the squire pleaded. “I know you like charging in, but-“

Sir Richard ignored him and leapt over the battlements, knocking a Frenchman from the wall as he landed. He drew his sword and parried a blow, then began to advance along the wall, cutting down his enemies while more followers reached the battlements behind him.

Now that he was up here he could see defenders in the streets below, hurrying toward them from the fighting on the far side of town. Soon his band would be completely outnumbered – a perfect opportunity for great deeds of heroism.

“To the citadel!” he exclaimed, pointing toward the fortress at the heart of town.

Two English soldiers fell from the walls as arrows rained down. The men were not following him toward the enemy with the eagerness he had expected. What was the matter with them?

“Perhaps the gatehouse?” Adam pointed toward a pair of towers two hundred yards along the wall. “We could let the rest of the army in.”

“And give them all the glory?” Sir Richard scoffed.

“And ensure that they owe you every one of their victories.” Adam was glancing around anxiously, fingers white around his halberd.

Sir Richard thought of the whole army cheering his name.

“To the gatehouse!” He turned and charged back along the wall.

With enthusiastic cries the men followed him, archers pausing to provide cover as they left behind mass of enemies now ascending the walls.

The door to the gatehouse was solid and bolted from within. It held firm as Sir Richard slammed his shoulder against it. Rocks again fell upon him and his men – less men than he remembered – and the floor was slick with blood. Boiling oil hit the man beside him, who stumbled screaming and fell from the battlements.

“This is…” Sir Richard didn’t have a word for what he was feeling. It was cold and heavy in his stomach, and drained away the thoughts of glory that had spurred him on.

“Terrifying?” Adam’s halberd was covered in blood, as was his face. It was impossible to tell how much was his.

But fear was not for Sir Richard. Of that much he was sure, no matter what this feeling was.

With a great cry, the enemy soldiers charged toward them along the wall, and Sir Richard felt his spirits rise again. A blocked door was a hindrance, but war, war was glorious.

“Huzzah!” He rushed past his men and met the enemy head on. He hacked one man’s head from his body, knocked another off the wall with his shield, ran the third one through. Faced with his sudden, furious onslaught, and with no way around him, the enemy hesitated.

Sir Richard grinned, passed his shield to Adam and grabbed a two-handed mallet dropped by one of the enemy. As both sides stood uncertain, he raced back along the wall, swinging the mallet with all his might.

The gatehouse door gave way beneath the blow, flying back with an almighty crash. The two men inside took one look at the furiously grinning and blood-soaked Sir Richard. Then they ran, leaving the windlass that operated the gates unattended.

“Adam!” Sir Richard bellowed, turning to rejoin the fighting on the walls. “Open the gates.”

“Yes, Sir Richard!” Emerging from the melee with unseemly haste, Adam set to the mechanism.

Shield and sword once again filling his hands with their familiar shape, Sir Richard marched out onto the balcony, through pools of blood and across scattered bodies.

Just as he’d expected – a glorious day.

* * *

If you enjoyed this, you can read more of the adventures of Sir Richard de Motley in my collection of short stories, By Sword, Stave or Stylus, in which the bold knight faces a strange cult, a flock of sheep, monsters lurking in the French forest, and the disdain of many smarter men. And if you enjoy any of these Friday flash stories, do please share them with your friends.

Wind, war and a monkey – my recent reading

Sometimes a book can be worth your time but not blow you away. I’ve read a few books like that recently, ones that I enjoyed enough to recommend but that didn’t inspire me to write entire blog posts. These are all worth your time, even if I’m not running round evangelising about them.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

There’s been a lot of fuss about The Name of the Wind in recent years, so I finally gave it a go. It’s a wizard coming of age story, the most notable predecessors for which are Harry Potter and Earthsea. This is definitely much more Earthsea in tone and content – a secondary world fantasy full of darkness and trouble. But it’s more late J K Rowling than Ursula Le Guin in length, clocking in at about 660 pages.

It has a slow start, odd pacing and an ending that provides no closure, which after that many pages is frustrating. On the other hand it’s very well written, the central character is engaging and his struggles with economic hardship add an unexpected and interesting element to a classic style of story. Once I got past the first fifty pages I really enjoyed it, and I want to know what happens next, but damn those first fifty pages tried my patience.

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell

I’ve been meaning to read Ack-Ack Macaque since Joshua Stanton reviewed it. It’s an adventure story about a cigar-smoking monkey fighter ace. Even without its airships and alternate history elements I’d have been in.

This isn’t the story I expected, less madly anarchic and more science fiction than I thought from the concept. It’s still fun, action packed and scattered with interesting ideas, like bullets sprayed by an onrushing Spitfire.

But the question of whether to read this book comes down to one thing – does a talking, smoking, gun-toting monkey appeal to you? If yes then you’re going to want to read it. If not then you aren’t, and shame on you, because surely everyone loves monkeys.

The Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward

I only re-read Seward’s The Hundred Years War for a piece of freelance work, but I’m glad that I did. It’s a fascinating and highly readable chronological history of the long war fought between England and France from 1337 to 1453. You get a feel for the characters of the period, fascinating figures such as Bertrand du Guesclin and the Black Prince who you might otherwise hear nothing about. And while it occasionally turns into a string of back-and-forth battles and pillaged villages, that’s a sadly accurate reflection of the whole bloody mess.

If you’re interested in picking up some political and military history and you don’t want to get bogged down in turgid academic writing then this is worth a read.

What else?

What are the rest of you reading? What would you recommend that you’ve stumbled across of late? Please feel free to share some recommendations below.