Free Story from Alt Hist Issue 8 – A Sword by Andrew Knighton

The second story from Alt Hist Issue 8, is a short but powerful one by Andrew Knighton, set in the Middle Ages. Enjoy!

A Sword

by Andrew Knighton

 

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 around 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 weapons.

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 recognized 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 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.

To read more from Alt Hist Issue 8 why not order a copy?

About the Author

Andrew Knighton is a freelance writer based in Yorkshire, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. When not writing he battles the slugs threatening to overrun his garden and the monsters lurking in the woods. His collection of historical and alternate history stories, From a Foreign Shore, is available as an e-book from Amazon and Smashwords. You can find out more about his writing at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.

Interview with Andrew Knighton, author of ‘Long Nights in Languedoc’

Andrew Knighton is making writing stories for Alt Hist a bit of a habit! With a piece of medieval historical fiction in both issue 1 and issue 2, I’m hoping that we’ll be seeing much more of his work in the future. Find out a bit more about him in our interview.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in Norwich, and following a couple of detours now live in Stockport, part of the growing sprawl that is Greater Manchester. I spend most of my time doing the sorts of things people do to avoid reality – playing games, writing fiction, and working in an office.

How did you get the idea for ‘Long Nights in Languedoc’?

The two I’ve had in Alt Hist came from different places mentally. ‘Holy Water’ came from reading about local Cheshire myths, and then cramming together the ones that seemed to have a thematic connection. The story that a lord had a statue executed particularly appealed to me because it showed an idea taken to its logical yet absurd conclusion.

‘Long Nights in Languedoc’ was inspired by my undergraduate dissertation from over a decade ago, which was about the role of chivalry during the Hundred Years War. I love the idea of chivalry, and again it’s the absurdities and contradictions that appeal to me. No-one really lived by its rules, so I wanted to explore the behaviour of someone who tried. The monsters became a vehicle for that – an impossible challenge for an impossible person.

Both your stories for Alt Hist have been set in the Middle Ages. What’s the appeal of this period in history for you?

It’s in my upbringing. My parents used to take me to castles during my summer holidays, and my dad read me Ivanhoe and Lord of the Rings at a susceptible age. I loved the glamour and excitement that is the fantasy of the middle ages, an age of heroism completely different from our own. As I grew older and more jaded I became fascinated by the reality of that period, the inequalities and stupidities that made the Middle Ages so much like the modern world. But it’s mostly still a love of castles.

Who are your favourite authors/books and why?

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, because of its wonderful depiction of a person as a product of their setting, and never gets bogged down in its prose. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller – a story that’s funny, sad and insightful, full of great characters and with a smart, playful structure. Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles – an epic story with an unusual setting and some fascinating, deeply damaged characters.

Now that I look at those choices together, it seems that I like contradictory characters facing impossible situations and defying the accepted order. And I don’t like straightforward happy endings. There needs to be some bite.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been playing with ideas about smugglers. There’s a period sometimes referred to as the scientific age of smuggling, when people along England’s south coast went to ingenious ends to turn a tax-free profit. Fake hulls, hidden chambers, secret coves, chases across sea and shore. But just as fascinating is the context, the way that a certain type of crime became acceptable to whole communities, and a way for them to retain some independence from oppressive power structures. It’s not just a struggle for rum, it’s a struggle for
identity and for control. But turning that into a successful story is proving tricky.

Andrew has a website at https://andrewknighton.wordpress.com.

His stories for Alt Hist are:

‘Long Nights in Languedoc’ from Issue 2

‘Holy Water’ from Issue 1

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