Piggy – A Historical Flash Fiction

Annette’s stomach ached. It felt as though it had always ached, though she knew that wasn’t true, just as she knew that the town hadn’t always been under siege. There had been a time before there were Englishmen outside the walls, and her parents insisted that such a time would come again. But they didn’t look Annette in the eye when they said that, just like they didn’t look her in the eye when they said there would be food soon.

Picture of a pig

When Annette brought them the pig, they would look her in the eye and smile again.

No-one else knew about the pig because no-one else went into the ruined houses on the west side of town, shattered by English trebuchet stones in the first days of the siege. Annette had gone there, curious to see why the others wouldn’t, and hadn’t found the wrecked homes as disturbing as the adults did. That was why she had been the one to see the pig, skinny as it was, hiding amid the broken timbers and fallen stones. That was why she was going back now.

Clutching her mother’s knife, Annette crept back into the ruins. She had never killed anything, hadn’t even learned to butcher the family’s meat yet, but the hunger was eating at her as surely as the misery on the faces she saw around town. She wasn’t a knight who could save them all, but if she was smart and fast then maybe she could fill her family’s bellies.

Lithe as a snake, Annette slid between broken wall timbers. The pig was peering into a broken chimney breast, its back to her. She crept toward it, knife raised.

A stone rolled beneath Annette’s foot. She stumbled. The pig turned.

Annette raised the knife, but found herself frozen as she looked into the creature’s eyes.

The pig squealed and ran.

Annette darted after it. If it got into the street then other people would see it, people as desperate as her but with the strength of adults. She would lose her chance to feed her parents.

Annette abandoned the knife and dived onto the pig, wrapping both arms around it. The pig squirmed and kicked. The two of them went rolling through the dirt. Splintered wood stabbed at Annette’s back as she held on tight and let the pig roll her round.

She couldn’t hold on forever. Clinging tightly with one arm, she reached out with the other, seeking a weapon to fight the pig. A stick, a stone, her knife if she could grab it. Anything would do.

The pig squirmed free and dashed across the room. It got to the gap in the ruined wall where a door had once stood, then hesitated, looking back past Annette to the fireplace.

She grabbed a rock and stalked towards the pig. She didn’t understand why it wasn’t running, but she didn’t care. Dreams of pork stew and smiling faces made her smile in anticipation.

There was a squeal behind her, higher pitched than the pig. A pair of piglets poked their heads out of the fireplace. Their eyes were wide, their ears too big for their heads, their mouths open as they stared at her.

The mother pig looked at Annette and its ears flopped. With heavy steps, it returned to the fireplace and stood between its children and the hungry human.

Annette looked at them. All three animals were so skinny that their bones showed, just like hers did. There was barely a strip of meat on them, but any meat was better than none.

She picked up the knife and approached. The mother pig stood steady in front of her young. The piglets looked out past her at Annette, as Annette had looked out past her mother’s skirts to see the approaching army.

She shuffled her feet and gazed down at the knife. She didn’t feel so hungry anymore.

With a sigh, she hid the knife away in her sleeve.

“They say the siege will be over soon,” she whispered. “But if not, I’m coming back for you.”

She crept out of the ruins, watching carefully to be sure she wasn’t observed. As she walked home, she thought about the cute little piglets, with their shiny eyes and their big ears, and their mother looking after them. That thought made her smile. The hunger didn’t hurt as much and the dread of her parents’ grim expressions faded. The might not look her in the eye when they talked of the siege, but no matter what happened, they would always be there.

***

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***

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.

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.

The Church Builder’s Hands – a flash historical story

The hammer fell from John’s hand and clattered on the floor. Around him, the tapping of chisels stopped as the younger masons turned to see what had happened. The flash of his angry gaze was enough to send them all back to their work. Nobody wanted to risk the wrath of the master.

John stepped away from the half-carved gargoyle and walked out from under the awning, rubbing at his hand as he went. Father Cuthbert, whose church this would be, stood outside watching him.

“Master mason, how goes the work?” Cuthbert asked.

“Fine, fine.” John tried to ignore the pain in his fingers, but it grew harder with each passing month.

“I hear that you’re having a little trouble with the carving.”

John scowled. Who had told the meddling priest?

“No problem,” he said. “Just need to rest a minute.”

“I hear you rest a lot recently.”

“Need a new hammer. Better grip.”

“Hm.” Cuthbert gestured towards the half-built church. The labourers had stripped off their tunics and were working bare-chested in the summer sunshine. “It’s a fine thing that you’re part of here.”

“It is indeed.” John smiled. “This is the twelfth church I’ve been part of. Every year of my adult life, dedicated to the glory of God.”

“And what will you do when you can’t carve any more?”

John clenched his fist, bringing back the pain. Without a tool between them, there was no hiding that his fingers wouldn’t close as they should.

“There is no life for me without carving.”

“That is a shame. I had hoped that God might still have use for you, but God demands our best, and, well…”

Cuthbert looked pointedly at John’s hand.

John swallowed, fighting back a growing dread. He had been a mason since Master Thomas first took him in. All he had ever known was carving.

Well, that and overseeing the others.

A bright thought burst through the clouds in his mind, like the sun shining down on the church.

“I know how the parts fit together,” he said. “Perhaps I could supervise construction. Just while I rest my hand.”

Cuthbert’s mouth rose in a lopsided smile.

“That is a fine idea,” he said. “Just while you rest your hand. Perhaps you could start by finding someone to finish that gargoyle?”

“Of course, Father Cuthbert.”

John walked back under the awning and looked around. A journeyman carver caught his eye.

“You, come over here. There’s work to be finished.”

As the tapping of chisels resumed, John stepped back outside into the sunshine. He unclenched his hand and let the pain fade away.

* * *

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Painting Doom – a flash fantasy story

Thomas drew his brush across the wall, leaving a curve of thick red paint. He filled out the space beneath the curve, then added the white points of teeth and the black barbs of a pitchfork. Another demon emerged on the wall, ushering the pale images of sinners into the flames.

Thomas shook his head. Doomsday paintings were so much of his work. Every noble wanted one in their house. But just painting them filled him with dread, driven by the certainty that he would be judged and found wanting.

He mixed more paint on his palette and turned back to the wall. The paint had clearly run, as the new demon’s fork was pointing at a different sinner, and another of the beasts had approached the flames on pigment wings.

Disconcerted, Thomas took a step back. The composition would still work if he added another demon between these two. He brought his reddened brush to the wall.

The demon with the pitchfork tipped its head back.

Thomas screamed and dropped the palette. Precious paint-spattered the flagstones.

The demon grinned. Its companion flexed its wings and started pulling away from the wall, struggling against a sticky mass of paint.

“It’s a dream,” Thomas exclaimed.

He raised a trembling hand and slapped himself across the face. He did it again, but still, reality didn’t return.

“No dream,” the demons hissed as one. “You have given us life.”

“Then I can take it away!”

Thomas grabbed another brush and smeared streaks of white across both fiends, slapping it on over and over. At last, he stood, panting and staring at a pale blank space.

“Not so easy,” the demon voices croaked.

Red hands appeared, then heads, then torsos. The demons emerged like swimmers from a lake.

“We are still here, whatever you paint over us,” they said. “You made us real.”

Thomas gaped in horror. How had he done this?

It didn’t matter. What mattered was that he could do it. He picked up the black brush and painted a cage over the demons. Bars, floor, roof, hinged and locked door. Red wings batted against the sides in frustration.

“Ha! Thomas said. “Got you.”

“Perhaps,” the wingless demon said, grinning. “Or perhaps…”

It thrust its pitchfork between the floor and bottom of the door. There was a grinding noise as the prongs slid through the slim space. Then it flexed its muscles and heaved. Levered by the pitchfork, the door lifted off its hinges and fell to the floor.

The demons stepped out.

“It’s not fair,” Thomas wailed. “Why couldn’t this have happened when I was painting a landscape or a tavern sign?”

“Where is the power in those things?” the demons said. “Only we would do.”

“What do you want from me?”

The demons grinned.

“Just keep painting,” they said. “Let the fires roar and our kindred emerge to judge the world.”

Thomas trembled in terror. But then he realised, he didn’t have to face them. He turned to run.

With a wet flapping sound, the winged beast burst off the wall, swept around, and hovered in front of him, teeth bared, claws gleaming.

“Really?” it said, cackling. “You think you can flee us?”

“No,” Thomas whispered.

Brush in hand, he turned back to the wall. At least while he did as they asked, they would not drag him down to Hell. And he could paint demons for a very long time.

* * *

 

People in Medieval England were very aware that, according to their Christian faith, they would soon face Doomsday. When fear of Hell is a big part of your moral motivation, life can get pretty terrifying. Especially given the tendency of clergy and nobles to commission paintings of that coming day.

Thanks to Laura for sending me the postcard that inspired this story. If you enjoyed it, then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get a flash story to your inbox every Friday, as well as news about my book and comic releases.

Riding to Glory – a flash historical story

Sir William stood in the middle of the tent while his squire Oliver buckled on his armour. As each piece closed around him, he felt a little more secure, a little more at home in himself. He had worn the armour so often over the years, it was like a part of him now. His life at court was comfortable, jousting for the king far safer and more rewarding than fighting on the borders. But donning his metal shell reminded him of the rough camaraderie of the marching camp.

Last night had been a fine night. He had been toasted by the King, shared whispered words with the lady Rosamund, been honoured to converse on the nature of war with Archbishop Francis. It left him in a fine mood, ready to take on all challengers in the tilting yard.

The steward John appeared in the entrance to the tent.

“You, boy,” he said, pointing at Oliver. “Get out.”

Oliver glanced briefly at his master, but they both knew that he would have to obey the King’s steward. William gave him the nod and out he scurried.

“How can I help you, master John?” William asked, flexing his arm to test the positioning of the plates.

“You ride against Burgundy’s champion in the first bout,” John said, striding back and forth across the width of the tent. “The King seeks an alliance with that lord. It would be best if the Burgundians were to feel good today.”

“We all want to feel good,” William said, smiling.

“Have you taken too many knocks to the head?” John glared at him. “Must I explain the situation to you?”

William sagged as the implication caught up with him.

“The King orders me to lose?” he asked.

“The King would never order such a thing. Let us just say that your loss would be most convenient, for you as well as His Majesty.”

The steward strode out, leaving William alone. He sat with his back against the tent’s central pole, feeling deflated. All the cheering and the toasts last night had come because he was a winner. Was he about to lose all that?

But he had a duty to the King, and the King rewarded those who served him well. William pulled himself back to his feet. There was pride to be taken in doing his duty, just as much as in winning.

Lady Rosamund’s maid Isabelle appeared in the doorway. She held out a silk scarf, and when William took it the air was filled with Rosamund’s scent. His heart beat faster.

“My lady asks that you wear her favour when you ride today,” Isabelle said, eyes demurely lowered. “Win in her name and all that your heart desires can be yours.”

She bobbed a curtsy and backed out.

William lifted the silk to his face and took another deep breath. All that his heart desired, and all he had to do was win. A thrill of anticipation ran through him at the thought of Rosamund’s smile, of her voice, of her golden curls cascading down her shoulders.

Except that he had to lose. The King had not ordered it, so technically William would not be disobeying him if he won. But duty was important, however it was phrased.

He sank back to the ground with a groan, clutching the silk and struggling with the choice that faced him.

A third figure appeared in the doorway. William was surprised to see Archbishop Francis smiling down at him.

“Your grace!” William leapt to his feet, a loose vambrace clanging against his arm. “Thank goodness you are here. I need spiritual guidance.”

“Is it about the joust?” the Archbishop asked.

“Yes!” William exclaimed. “Please, let’s talk.”

He pulled a pair of stools from the back of the tent.

“I am glad to see that my words sank in,” the Archbishop said, accepting a seat. “The violence of this spectacle needs to be curbed. Good Christians should not be spilling each other’s blood for entertainment.”

“I…” William frowned. This sounded familiar. Had the Archbishop said something like it last night, when William was over-excited and full of wine?

“All that the church asks is for a few good knights to ride out into the lists and then refuse to fight.” The Archbishop leaned forward eagerly. “I assure you, God will approve of your abstinence from the struggle. Your renunciation of this so-called sport will be heard all the way to the gates of Heaven.”

He laid a hand on William’s shoulder.

“God bless you, my son,” he said. “You do his work. Now I must go convince the others.”

He rose and walked out.

William sat, head in his gauntleted hands, staring at the floor. His armour felt like a great weight dragging him into the dirt.

Oliver reappeared in the entrance to the tent.

“Should I finish buckling you up, master?” he asked.

A deep sigh escaped Sir William. His King wanted him to lose. His love wanted him to win. His God wanted him to protest. What had happened to the simple joy of jousting?

“Pack our bags,” he said. “I’m going back to war.”

* * *

 

Living in Leeds, I can regularly visit the Royal Armouries Museum, one of the coolest places a military history fan could possibly find. They have regular reenactment events to entertain and inform visitors, and I recently got to see jousters practising for an international tournament. It was amazing to see the thundering reality of men and women in full plate armour galloping at each other on horseback, lances shattering at the impact. And of course, that’s what inspired this story.

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Lincoln Fields – a flash historical story

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

William Marshal galloped through the streets of Lincoln, a royal army at his back. The first of the enemy he reached was not a rebel but a French knight. His lance shattered against the man’s shield, knocking him to the ground. William bellowed an exhilarated war cry even as his ageing joints screamed at the impact. Then his sword was out and he was into the the thick of the fighting, just as he always had been.

*

“My lord Marshal, we need to decide what to do with the prisoners.”

William looked up from the steps of the church, the first place he had found to rest his weary bones. He recognised the face of the young nobleman in armour and a blue tabard, but couldn’t remember the name. Was he a Neville? One of those half-wild warriors from the Welsh Marches, maybe?

“How many prisoners?” he asked.

“Forty-six men of courtly rank,” the youngster replied. “Over three hundred knights.”

“And the infantry?” William forced himself to his feet. He should not have ached so much after such a short, bloodless battle, but here he was. And what was this blasted tickling in his throat?

“The infantry fled,” came the reply. “Rumour is the peasants have been killing them on the road.”

William nodded. He didn’t like to see more blood spilt than was needed. It went against honour, and dead men were less useful than living ones. But the position of their new king was vulnerable. Allow resistance to take hold against a child like Henry III and soon the country would descend into chaos.

As if they had not had enough of that under John.

“We may have to kill some,” he said.

By the look on his face, this young Neville – or was he an Arcourt? – was far less reluctant about executions.

They strode towards the centre of town, chainmail clinking as they went. A strange quiet had descended over Lincoln, no-one but the weary combatants in the streets.

A body lay in the centre of the square. Blood had stained the man’s white tabard until it was all one with the red chevrons of the Count of Perche.

“God protect us.” William looked down at the restful face of Thomas, Count of Perche. Too restful for a man cut down after barely twenty years. William remembered meeting him a few times, the young French noble looking at the old English knight with open admiration. Now here he was.

“This bloodshed needs to end,” William said, stifling a cough.

“I agree,” the Neville replied, apparently unmoved by the death of a man as young as himself. “I’ll call for the soldiers to assemble a gallows, make a clear warning out of-”

“No,” William replied. “Such violence will breed more of the same. We must do better to break the cycle.”

“My lord Marshal.” The Neville bowed his head. “I have nothing but respect for you as a knight and as our regent. Your reputation for honour is the greatest in Europe. You are an example to us all. But sometimes we must be more pragmatic. A lesson must be taught.”

Looking again at the body, William thought of all the young men who would die if this futile war continued. Was he being blinded to their fate by this one corpse? Was his fading mind finding ways to excuse more violence, to keep him on a path that both thrilled and appalled him?

“You are right,” he said, finally realising what he must do. Blood cried out for blood, as it always had. Treachery could not stand. “Begin work on-”

The tickling in his throat became too intense to resist. A fit of coughing buckled him over. He grasped at his chest with one hand while the other went to his mouth. The Neville and another soldier rushed to hold him up but he waved them away.

At last, the coughing subsided and he straightened. Taking his hand from his mouth, he saw blood speckling his fingers.

So that was how it would be. Death was coming, not at sword point, but through the creeping decay of the coming months.
It had been a good seventy years. What more could a man ask for?

He looked again at the pale young face of Thomas, Count of Perche.

A man could ask to leave life, not just death, in his wake.

“You’re right,” he said, turning with a steely gaze to the young Neville. No, not Neville, Braose. He remembered now, a sharp clarity grabbing him. “We must be pragmatic. That may not be the same as honourable, but neither does it equal vindictiveness. Keep the prisoners secure and we will use them to buy peace.”

“But my lord-”

“Enough,” William snapped. “Fetch ropes and guards. Find out which local castles have secure dungeons. We have a war to win, and there is more to that than killing.”

* * *

 

William Marshal was a real nobleman, and one of the few people to come out of King John’s reign looking good. In his seventies when John died and he became regent, Marshal ended a messy civil war through a combination of military prowess, political negotiation, and a willingness to let go of the bitterness of the previous two decades. By the standards of feudal overlords and professional killers, he was a genuinely good dude.

If you enjoyed this then you can get more like it by signing up to my mailing list for a free e-book and stories every Friday. And for another take on a real medieval figure, check out my short story “Honour Among Thieves”, free as a Kindle e-book via and Amazon and in epub format from Smashwords.

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?’

‘Yes.’

‘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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Sailing Season – a historical flash story

Kogge_stralsundI hated every year my father made me accompany our stock from the Bordeaux vineyards to the London markets. But 1321, when we sailed late and so missed the protection of the wine fleet, that was the worst.

My stomach lurched and I prayed to all the saints for salvation as I watched the land passing far to starboard. Even sailors do not like to lose sight of land, for to do so makes navigation near impossible. To me it was even more precious – a reminder that this sickness would end. And so, as I heaved my guts over the side and watched the distant cliffs with a fond eye, I was the last to see the menace bearing down on us.

“Master Robert,” Captain William said. “There is a problem.”

I had made this voyage with him ten times and never heard him so tense. Following the line of his pointing finger, I saw a ship ahead of us, a red flag flying from its mast.

“Tis John Crabb,” the captain said. “The Flemish pirate. If he catches us…”

He shuddered and made the sign of the cross.

“Then turn.” I wiped the bile from my chin, even as fear threatened to unleash a new load. “In God’s name, turn and flee for safe harbour.”

“I hoped you’d say that, Master Robert.” The captain waved, his men hauled on a dozen mysterious ropes, and we came about.

The wind was against us now, but against the pirates too. We slowed, yet for some time I thought we were gaining distance on them.

I was wrong. Soon that dread flag above the dark sail grew twice as large to stern. To port, cliffs and rocky coastline continued to menace us, with no sign of a friendly harbour in which we might hide.

“Must we head out to sea?” I asked.

The captain nodded grimly.

I could hear men praying as the rudder turned, the whole ship creaked and the land disappeared behind us. Others sharpened their weapons, and I joined them, grinding a whetstone along my sword, knowing that against Crabb and his men my small skill would buy me mere minutes more life.

Captain William sat down beside me.

“They still gain on us,” he said.

The men around us stiffened and stared past the aft castle with eyes full of dread.

“Then sail towards them,” I said.

The men looked at me with shock, William among them. But I had no other plan, and nor did they. Sometimes a season comes when only one kind of grape survives the harvest. Then we gamble all on the wine it makes, for what other choice is there?

“The wind will be with us and we will gain speed,” I said. “I understand that much about sailing. If we can pass them while they are still heading this way then we will be the faster vessel. Perhaps that will give us time to reach a port to the north.”

I considered saying something heroic, holding up my blade and declaring that if all else failed at least we would die well. But that thought was no comfort to me, and I doubted it meant much to these sailors either.

After a moment’s consideration, the captain nodded to his men. Reluctantly they went to the ropes while he handled the rudder. Our little round ship turned once more, and her sails filled. Foam broke against the bow as we hurtled ever faster towards our doom.

Soon Crabb’s ship was less than half a mile away, then only a few hundred yards. Arrows clattered on our deck and thudded into the sides. I ducked for safety while our brave captain stood upright at the rudder, keeping us on course.

As we drew level I could see the leering faces of the pirate crew. Perhaps it was just my fear-infused mind, but I swear they had the teeth and horns of devils and cried out with the voices of the damned. If these were Flemings, I thought, then the Low Countries must be a terrible place.

They hurled ropes, metal hooks catching in our gunwale. I raced over, sword in hand, other men beside me, and our attackers raised their arms to fight. But instead of standing ready to receive borders we hacked desperately at the ropes. Arrows rained down around us and splinters flew from misplaced blows, until the tattered cords gave way with a series of sharp snaps.

It was only then, as the pirate ship turned sluggishly behind us and we raced away on a following wind, that I noticed the pain in my thigh. I looked down to see an arrow protruding there, and blood seeping through the hem of my tunic.

Pain overwhelmed me and I blacked out. When I awoke I was lying on a pile of blankets, my bare leg wrapped in bandages. Captain William was looking down at me.

“Did we get away?” I croaked.

“Aye,” he said. “That we did.”

I smiled with relief. But I was waking up, and now I noticed the uncertainty in his expression.

“What is it?”

“There’s another ship ahead,” he replied. “Can’t tell yet if it’s friend or foe.”

Wincing, I eased myself upright and looked around for my sword.

Did I not tell you that was the worst year?

* * *

 

As part of writing ‘Honour Among Thieves‘, I read The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. It’s a well-written guide to everyday life in 14th century England, which I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in that period. This story was inspired by the chapter on travelling, which described just how terrifying a sea voyage was for many people, as well as mentioning real life pirate John Crabb. I like to think that our protagonist raised a cup of wine in celebration when Crabb was finally captured in 1332.

If you’d like to receive more stories like this direct to your inbox every Friday, along with a free copy of one of my books, then please sign up for my mailing list – I promise a journey to other worlds that’s mostly safe from pirates.

Out Now – Honour Among Thieves

Honour Among Thieves - smaller

Hob was a simple peasant farmer until idealism turned him into a rebel. Now he’s an outlaw living in Sherwood Forest, seeking justice at the end of an arrow.

Under the leadership of Robert Deyville, Hob enjoys the outlaw life, feasting beneath the stars and robbing the supporters of a corrupt regime. But as he grows closer to his companions, the darkness of their life starts to show. With not just friendship but his life at risk, Hob struggles to separate right from wrong. Can he do what is right and survive to see the results? Is there such a thing as honour among thieves?

‘Honour Among Thieves’ is out now as a Kindle e-book via and Amazon and in epub format from Smashwords. It’s free in both formats, so there’s nothing to lose by giving it a try – go grab your copy now.

Burning Lies – a historical flash story

Detail from A Bishop Saint and St. Lawrence (1404-1407) by Starnina, photo by Karen via Flickr Creative Commons
Detail from A Bishop Saint and St. Lawrence (1404-1407) by Starnina, photo by Karen via Flickr Creative Commons

The monastic robes weren’t mine any more than the book they concealed. Their owner had set them aside while he hoed the monastery’s garden in the summer heat, and it was from there that I had borrowed them.

That’s right, borrowed. I never intended to keep the robes – why would I?

Of course, I never intended to keep the book either, but that was still a theft. It was beautifully bound and illuminated, and I knew men who would pay well for it.

As I left the walled grounds, hood pulled up to hide my face, I grinned at my good fortune. Above, crows circled and cawed.

A mile down the road I stopped at a stream, the perfect spot to disrobe and cool off. I took a long drink, then sat with my feet in the water, washing away the dust and aches.

I had been apprenticed to a lawyer for several years before the incident with his daughter, and so I knew my letters. I opened up the book, leafed through to see the beautiful illuminations, and then turned to the inscription in the front. I laughed to find the usual sort of curse, written to deter thieves:

“May he who steals this book be haunted by the birds of the air, trampled by the beasts of the earth, and burnt in the flames of his own sin.”

I slammed the book shut and wrapped it up in the robes. The curse was nothing I hadn’t seen before, but with crows circling overhead, the first line made me uncomfortable.

A waggon rumbled down the road towards me. Not wanting to be seen with my spoils in hand, I set off across the fields, straight toward Leicester.

As I rounded a copse of trees, a bull raised its head. It was a vast brute with a face like a gargoyle. Snorting, it pawed the ground.

“I’ll be going.” I gestured back the way I had come, just in case the dumb animal could understand me. Better to take an unlikely chance than no chance at all.

The bull lowered its head and charged.

To my credit, I neither screamed nor dropped the book. Instead, I dashed toward the trees, hoping to find shelter. Just before I reached them the bull hit me, knocking me flying. It trampled on my hand, bones snapping agonisingly beneath its weight, and raced on after some other target.I waited on the sun-hardened ground until I was sure the bull was gone, then forced myself to my feet. Picking up the book with my good hand, I could not help but think of the curse. First haunted by birds, now trampled by a beast. Surely I wasn’t really cursed?

I waited on the sun-hardened ground until I was sure the bull was gone, then forced myself to my feet. Picking up the book with my good hand, I could not help but think of the curse. First haunted by birds, now trampled by a beast. Surely I wasn’t really cursed?

I weighed the value of the book against the risk of further mishaps. I was already in pain and it would cost me to have my hand set. But the price of the book would keep me comfortable for a month…

Sighing, I put the book down and struggled back into the robes. Better not to take an unlikely chance when it was a chance of being burned by my own lies.

I had told a lot of lies.

The journey back to the monastery was uneventful, and I tried to enjoy the sunshine despite my suffering. I was through the gates, across the grounds and into a corridor leading to the library before a voice halted me.

“Can I help you, brother?”

I turned to see an elderly man with thin white hair and an armful of parchments. He squinted at me in the lamp light coming from an alcove by my elbow.

“I don’t know you,” he said. “Are you a visitor?”

“Absolutely.” I smiled reassuringly. “I am Brother Harold, come from Salisbury to-”

I sniffed the air. Something was burning, but I couldn’t let that distract me.

“To visit your library,” I continued. “You see-”

This time I did scream, as I saw fire envelope my arm. The sleeve of the robe had somehow knocked the lamp, soaked up oil and burst into flames.

The flames of my lies!

Fire seared my flesh as I dropped the book and tore off the robe, flinging it down on the cold stone floor. In the flickering light, the old monk peered at what I had dropped. I snatched up the book and thrust it onto his heap of parchments.

“I’m so sorry,” I whimpered. “I sinned against your holy house, but I will repent.”

With my skin red raw and my hand broken, I truly meant it. But I could hardly wait around to face earthly justice as well as the divine. I turned and ran away from him, through a door and into a small chapel.

The altar caught my eye, with the figure of Jesus above it, ready to forgive my sins.

A pair of fine golden candlesticks sat beneath the cross. They could keep me in comfort for more than a month.

* * *

 

Book theft was a real issue in the Middle Ages, when books were rare and each one valuable. Many had curses inscribed in the front to deter theft, and to punish it if the curse worked. I leave it to you to imagine how effective they were.

If you enjoyed this story you might also like my collection of short historical stories, From a Foreign Shore, available now on Amazon Kindle.