Andrew spent six years studying history, and with the advent of Alt Hist he’s finally putting that learning to good use. ‘Long Nights in Languedoc’ was partly inspired by his dissertation on warfare in the era of the Black Prince, a time when chivalry meant telling people you were planning to massacre them. You can read another of Sir Richard and his companions’ adventures, ‘Leprosaria’, in the Roll the Bones anthology, out now from Fight On! Publications. He’s had over thirty short stories published in magazines and websites. Find out more at andrewknighton.wordpress.com.
You can read the first quarter of the story for free below. If you would like to read more please order the second issue of Alt Hist.
Long Nights in Languedoc
by Andrew Knighton
From The Chronicles of Sir Richard de Motley – Parte VII:
In the noble Prince Edward of Woodstock, Sir Richard had finally found a lord worthy of his fealty. And so he followed him on the Great Raid into Languedoc, little realising the horrors hidden within that land …
A screaming Frenchman charged towards Tobias, a falchion scything above his head. Tobias ducked and twisted, losing his footing on the leaf strewn slope. He slid backwards into a tree, bark scraping through the wool of his tunic, and ducked again as the French scout swiped at his neck. The blade thudded into the trunk.
As his opponent tried to free the sword, Tobias kicked him in the crotch. The man grimaced and curled in on himself, allowing Tobias to plunge a knife into his neck, the one clear inch of flesh between the man’s hauberk and his helmet.
By the time Tobias had cleared the blood from his eyes, the Frenchman lay crumpled on the ground, a pale face amidst a crimson pool. Tobias prodded the body with his foot, just to be sure. Content that the man really was dead, he wiped the rest of the gore from his face, staining the other sleeve of his tunic. Then, with some straining and grunting, he pulled the sword from the tree. It was heavier than he was used to, but better than bringing a boot knife to a battle. He briefly contemplated taking the armour too, but decided he was better off being able to dodge and run than stumbling around under the weight of chainmail.
So much for keeping clear of the fight. He shouldn’t have been surprised. The enemy were locals, and they’d be making the most of the land, watching and waiting to turn the English flank. Better to be back with the army than out here on his own.
Tobias made his way down the valley side, walking cautiously in case he ran into another scout. As the trees grew thinner the sounds of battle rose around him, the valley echoing with clashing steel and men’s screams. French and English, the words blurred into an incomprehensible mess, its parts distinguishable only by tone. Anger, pain, command, desperation, they swirled over and around each other like waves breaking upon a beach, ceaseless and unforgiving.
The fighting had moved on since Tobias set off into the woods. The French had given ground, retreating along the line of the road. The English, pressing them the whole way, had left a brutal trail in their wake, the dead and injured of both sides lying scattered in the mud. The river ran red with the carnage.
The army’s followers were already among the bodies, trying to distinguish Prince Edward’s troops from the locals. Even with Frenchmen on both sides, a man’s accent could decide whether he got bandages or a blade.
Tobias peered past them towards the fighting. It was clear now that the enemy had never meant to stop them here. He’d seen enough delaying actions to know the pattern. They’d find, once the fighting was over, that another contingent of frogs had tried to raid the baggage train, or burned the only bridge for forty miles.
Making the most of his valley side vantage, Tobias approached the battle lines. French levees and Welsh longbowmen were exchanging fire along the edge of the tree line, so he took cover in a stand of dense bushes with a view of the melee below.
He could pick out the royal standard on the right flank, near the river. Closer to him, Lord Royce’s war-band were holding the centre, blades flashing as they smashed shields and skulls, their long tabards no longer blue. And here on the left, among the hundred knights contesting the bloodiest part of the field, was his employer.
Sir Richard de Motley stood out like a warhorse among ponies. Six and a half feet tall and built like a bull, he laid into the enemy without care for tactics, discipline or those around him. It was an assault that terrified friends and enemies alike, a laughing storm of destruction.
Tobias pulled a quill from his bag, sharpened the tip, and scrawled a few hasty notes on a scrap of parchment. Who Sir Richard fought alongside, a few metaphors to describe him in action, roughly how many he had slain, doubled for good measure. Most important for the chronicle, who he fought against. They wore deep green tabards, the knights’ edged in silver. At the rear, the rallying point for another round of withdrawal, fluttered the lord’s banner, a silver wolf on a green background.
Tobias scratched his head, trying to remember the heralds’ lists from Aquitaine. He thought this banner was Geoffroi de Luna. De Luna was said not to stray far from home, and if these were his lands then they were further north than expected.
A triumphant cry rose above the rest. Sir Richard had hacked a path through the French lines, forcing those close by to follow or leave him surrounded. They wavered a moment and then surged forward, knights not wanting to be shamed, infantry not wanting to lose their pay-masters.
Their flank crumbling, the French went from slow withdrawal to full retreat, backing up the valley as fast as they could. The sun was setting on a long day’s fight and the English stopped where they were, slumping over their shields or trudging to the river for a long needed drink.
Tobias stoppered his ink pot, rolled away the parchment, and went to join his master.
Weary from the combat, Sir Richard offered humble thanks to God for his deliverance, and set to finding a safe place for his followers to rest …
Sir Richard stood amidst a litter of groaning bodies and severed limbs. The squire Adam, also bloody from the fight, had fetched the knight water and was now cleaning his sword.
Tobias bowed his head. ‘Splendid fight, sir. Today will echo down the ages.’
‘Of course!’ Sir Richard bellowed, fiddling with the buckle of his vambrace. ‘Adam, help me out of this.’
‘I’d advise against, sir,’ Tobias said. ‘We’ll have to move soon to make camp.’
‘What?’ Richard looked around at the gore-strewn ground, the valley sides perfect for ambushers. ‘Oh.’
‘There was a small, clear hilltop a mile back.’ Adam passed Sir Richard the gleaming sword, as the trumpets signalled to move out. ‘If we’re quick we can grab a good spot.’
As pickets scampered off into the woods, the rest of the army got down to setting camp. Tents were raised, horses corralled, fires lit. Within minutes, the hilltop was thick with the smells of an army at rest, a mix of musty canvas, bad cooking and human waste.
Sir Richard had never been a big believer in tents.
‘Adventure has no place for guy-ropes,’ he’d once said.
So Tobias and Adam had to make do with a blanket thrown over a couple of fallen branches. They gathered firewood and stood staring at their little patch. Just looking at it made Tobias feel cold and wet.
‘C’mon,’ Adam said, rubbing his hands together. ‘Let’s go find some fun.’
‘Can’t you get into trouble on your own?’ Tobias asked.
‘Don’t be such a Yorkshireman. C’mon.’
Adam led him through the bustling camp, following his unerring instinct for the seedy side. Around them were the shouts of orders, the pounding of hammers, the scrape of whetstones. Real soldiers never rested, not with the enemy in marching range. They spent their days and nights sharpening weapons and minds, always on edge. Tobias was no soldier, and happy that way.
They paused by a fire of a short, pox-scarred man cooking wild garlic stew. The army was full of such trail cooks, men who’d whip up a mediocre meal from whatever they could find and barter it to other soldiers.
The man didn’t speak much English. Adam haggled with him in signs and stray syllables, getting them two dry scraps of bread heaped with brown slop.
They strolled on through camp, Adam looking for somewhere to sit. Tobias was too hungry for that. He’d not eaten since they marched at dawn, and his belly was gnawing on itself. He tucked straight into the food, scooping handfuls into his mouth, grateful just to have something hot and filling.
‘My God.’ He paused, gravy dribbling down his chin. ‘That’s wonderful.’ He chewed contemplatively. ‘The garlic really sets off the turnips. And there’s something else in between, bringing it together. Thyme maybe?’
He looked back towards the cook, whose fire was now surrounded by weathered old soldiers.
Adam touched a finger to his lip.
‘That’s Cornish Pete. Don’t tell everyone.’
They found space by the fire of a band of Cheshire longbowmen. Tobias lingered over his food while Adam challenged the bowmen to a game of knucklebones. The little white pieces rose and fell through the air as darkness settled in, and by the time they left the fire Adam had a heap of grimy pennies and several demands for a rematch.
As they walked back to their shelter, guided by the sound of Sir Richard’s monstrous snoring, Tobias felt strangely content. He was foot-sore but full, and while he’d never been closer to death than today, his own fast thinking had seen him through. It was a grand night to be alive.
‘Where’d you get those knucklebones?’ he asked, idly curious. ‘They look familiar.’
‘Remember that church we passed on Friday?’ Adam said.
Tobias nodded. Sir Richard always stopped to pray in churches, no matter how small and obscure. ‘Leaking roof. Priest ran off before we arrived. Nice little reliquary with the finger-bones of saint … Oh no. You didn’t.’
‘St Frogs-Legs don’t need them anymore.’ Adam jingled his purse. ‘I do. And besides, he was a French saint. It ain’t really desecration if it’s a French saint.’