Desperate 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.
* * *
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