The Art of the Pollaxe – a flash historical story

Armour plates clanked as Harry strode into the training yard and faced his opponent. His father had paid good gold for this man to come from Burgundy, allegedly for Harry’s training. But as far as Harry could see, it was one more way of holding him back.

“Defeat Sir Jean with the pollaxe just once,” his father had said, “and then you can go to the French tournaments.”

What Harry heard was “You’ll never be good enough.”

He would show them. He’d out-fought every other young noble in the north of England. He could beat some upstart foreigner.

“Ready?” Sir Jean called out.

“Ready,” Harry replied.

He snapped his visor down and raised his pollaxe, base forward, so that the pointed steel queue faced Sir Jean. The Burgundian did the same and they advanced towards each other.

Harry brought the pollaxe around and there was a crack as the weapons met. He followed that first feint with another, lower, then pivoted the weapon around for a swift, hard swing at Jean’s head.

Sir Jean stepped nimbly aside, brought his pollaxe around, and knocked Harry into the oak rail at the side of the yard. The force of the blow shook him and he had to pause to steady himself.

“One to me,” Sir Jean said brightly.

Harry clenched his teeth and attacked again. He knocked Sir Jean’s pollaxe aside, feinted left and right, then stabbed at his face.

Again a miss as Sir Jean darted clear in his light German armour.

With a growl, Harry swung his pollaxe around, aiming to stagger his opponent through brute force. But Jean deflected the blow and hooked Harry’s ankle with the head of his weapon. Harry crashed to the ground and the wind was knocked out of him.

“Two to me,” Sir Jean said.

Cursing under his breath, Harry pushed himself upright. He needed this win. He wouldn’t be dictated to by his father, left to rot around the castle.

He almost gave in to instinct and flung himself straight at Sir Jean, but years of practice had taught him better. Instead, he feinted low, as if intending to imitate the knight’s last move, jabbed left, then swung the head of the weapon hard at Jean’s shoulder.

In a flash, Jean hooked the head of his pollaxe behind Harry’s and tugged. Harry lost his grip, stumbled, and found the queue of Jean’s weapon pressing against his throat.

“Three to me.”

Jean stepped back and raised his visor. He was barely even sweating.

“You want to win too much,” he said.

“Of course I want to win! That’s the whole point.”

“But to try to win now, you keep doing the same thing. Feint, feint, attack. Feint, feint, attack.”

“Different attacks.”

“Same pattern.”

“Not this time.”

Harry charged, pollaxe raised. Jab, swing, jab, swing, swing, feint, hook at Sir Jean’s weapon, except the weapon wasn’t there. Something slammed into Harry’s leg and he fell to the ground, his shin throbbing.

“I give in,” Harry said, flopping in the dirt. “You’re better than me. I’m not getting to France.”

“Stop trying so hard to win,” Sir Jean said, reaching out a hand. “Pay attention to how you lose.”

“That’s stupid.”

“How else will you learn to win like me, if not by seeing how I beat you? You want to win when you get to France, no?”

Harry imagined himself in a sunbaked tilting yard, crowds of nobles watching as he knocked out some foreign titan, women gazing at him with wide eyes. They all cheered his name.

He grabbed Sir Jean’s hand and hauled himself to his feet. Armour clanked as he backed away, raised his weapon, and took a fighting stance.

“Come on, then,” he said, grinning. “Teach me how to lose.”


As I’ve mentioned before, one of the great things about living in Leeds is going to the Royal Armouries to watch the reenactors. A display of pollaxe fighting became the inspiration behind this little story.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.


From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

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.