Sunlight on a Broken Column
Ansel slid onto a bench and nodded at Jethro. The red-faced cook beamed at him, his expression transforming from dour to cheerful in an instant. He set down a bowl of gruel in front of Ansel. The cheerful demeanor vanished as quickly as it had come when he turned to Ezra, slopping down a bowl in front of the young inquisitor with passive aggressive efficiency. Ezra glared, then turned? his back on Jethro.
“So,” he said to Ansel. “What should we expect at the savage settlement?”
Ansel shrugged, his mouth full.
“Like I said,” he said, “they are just people. Weird, oddly dressed, strange people. Little girl gave me a bun and an old woman yelled at Kjell and poked him in the belly with a stick.”
“An old woman?” said Ezra, sharply. “What did she look like?”
“Why?” said Ansel, around a spoon of gruel. “What does it matter?”
“It might be important!”
“Fine, fine,” said Anselm and to Ezra’s obvious surprise, he grinned. “Reminded me of my nan - if my nan was alive, and liked to run around half dressed wearing feathers and beads in her hair.”
“That doesn’t help me,” Ezra said from between clenched teeth. “Because I don’t know what your nan looked like.”
“Oh,” said Ansel. “Hmm. She passed away long ago. Um, she was tall, with grey hair-”
“The savage woman had grey hair?”
“Yes? Why is it so important? What is eating you, anyway?”
Ezra leaned back against the wall of the mess. He folded his arms over his chest, radiating bad temper.
“No reason,” he said. His gaze shifted to Talcott and Riley who were finishing up their meal at the next table. Feeling the weight of his stare, they swallowed their last spoonfuls and dashed away. Once they were gone, Ezra leaned forward, conspiratorially.
“I saw a savage woman,” he whispered. “A spirit. Before the attack. She warned me. Said bad things were coming. I wondered if it was one of their shamans, trying to scare us. I thought perhaps it was your old woman.”
“I’m sure there are plenty of old women,” said Ansel, “more than two, even.” He scraped his bowl. “But if she warned you maybe she was trying to help? Why do you always assume the worst about people?”
“Because I am not a child. I know how the world works.”
“And you think I don’t?”
The two friends locked eyes over the table. Ezra looked away first, embarrassed.
They finished their food in silence.
The march back to the native settlement filled Ansel with unease. Marlow and Boaz were leading the expedition, another fact that made Ansel’s stomach churn. At least Boaz seemed alert. He had snapped out of whatever daze he had been in, and seemed possessed of manic energy. His previously heavy-lidded eyes flashed blue and he strode backwards and forwards chivvying on the stragglers, enthusing about cavorite and the joys of exploration. His manner was more than a little alarming, but most of the party seemed to clock it up to excitement. Ansel knew him better. His behaviour spoke of violence to come.
Perhaps he should have stayed at the ships, with the skeleton crew. But no, he needed to go. Needed to see what would happen. Ansel glanced at the inquisitors who had insisted on joining the expedition. They were clustered together like a flock of carrion crows, casting dark looks at any who dared to glance their way. Lothor led the way. His eyes shone with fervour and Ansel had to remind himself the man was a scholar, not an avenging knight from folklore.
Ansel looked up towards the great mountain, and the collection of stone and thatch houses that nestled in its embrace. A chill made him shiver, but he shook it off. The order of inquisitors was founded on rationality – science above superstition. He wanted to trust them. He should trust the men who had burned his mother.
The mood amongst the men was foul. Many of them sported injuries from the attack the night before. The trick of placing iron in the doorways seemed to have kept the spirits away in the grey of dawn, although several had emerged from shadowy corners of the hold, and one forgotten doorway in the Storm Lotus. At least no one had died in the morning twilight. A watch had been posted, and this time they had been prepared. If anyone could be prepared for such a thing.
Ezra was walking next to him, which meant the rest of the men were keeping their distance. The young inquisitors’ cheeks were red with sun and exertion and his eyes sombre as he, likewise surveyed the landscape ahead.
“You will see,” he said, quietly.
“The savages,” Ansel said. “They are not warlike.”
“War-like is forgivable,” said Ezra, his mouth a hard line. “We are war-like. But we do not worship demons.”
Ansel opened his mouth to argue, and then shut it. The inquisitors would see for themselves.
They arrived a short while later.
Once more a small crowd of savages assembled to greet them. This time there was less excitement, presumably they were recognised from the day before. There seemed to be some sort of festival in progress. There was dancing and music in the town square, children ran here and there laughing with delicious smells hanging in the air. The little girl who had given Ansel the sweet bun skipped over to him. She stared up at him, and stood, shyly scratching the dirt with one foot.
“Oh hello,” Ansel said with a broad grin. He bent down on one knee so he was at her level, settling his arquebus to one side. It was awkward kneeling with a sword but he was rewarded with a squeal of happiness. “Hello!” he said again.
“Hello!” echoed the little girl, to Ansel’s delight. He looked around for Ezra, wanting to call him over, but his friend was far on the other side of the town square, staring at the dancers. How wonderful if he could teach the savages some Lochlanach.
“Hello!” he said, again. The little girl watched him thoughtfully for a few seconds, then her face split in a grin. She was missing her front teeth.
“Dydh da!” she said.
Ansel repeated the sounds carefully, and was rewarded with a smile like the sun coming up. She dashed away, and for a moment Ansel thought he had scared her, but she arrived back as quickly as she had come towing an even smaller, grubby little boy behind her. He had the same blond mop of curls and dark brown skin that she did.
“Your brother?” he asked. She babbled at him happily. The little boy stared up at Ansel with wide brown eyes and, open mouth. Then he stuffed his thumb in there, sucking vigorously.
“Dydh da!” said Ansel to him. The little boy was so amazed his thumb dropped away. “Ansel,” said Ansel, pointing to himself. “Ansel. My name is Ansel.”
“Ansel!” she piped.
“Yes!” he said, delighted. Then he pointed to the little girl. “What is your name?”
“Ansel!” she cried.
“No, no,” he said, and pointed to himself once again. “Me Ansel. I’m Ansel.” He poked her gently with his index finger. “You...?”
“Is your name Kerra?” he asked with a smile, and the little girl laughed in delight.
“Kerra!” she cried. “Dydh da, Ansel!” She pushed her brother forward. “Clem!” she declared, and made a face, wafting her hand in front of her nose. Ansel laughed, sitting back on his heels. He turned his head, searching for Ezra, for anyone to share in his joy.
“Ezra!” he called, and the young inquisitor loped over, a questioning look on his face.
“They’ve found cavorite,” he said. “The entrance to the mine is just up that gorge. What are you doing?”
“Teaching the children some Lochlanach,” he said. “Ezra? See, they are just normal-”
His words faltered. Ezra was staring across the square at the group of savages in the middle. They were laughing, and dancing, forming some kind of a train, each one holding the one in front, chanting and giggling.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, standing.
“Witchcraft,” said Ezra. His eyes were as hard as agate. A pained expression crossed his face. He unstrapped his arquebus from his back.
“Oh, come on, they are just-”
“You can’t see it,” snapped Ezra, turning to him, eyes blazing. “Just like you can’t see the soul sucking monstrous demon on the ship. The one that follows the witch. Just like you can’t see the spirits floating in the doorways at twilight. Just like you can’t understand anything more complicated than a meat sandwich. Look carefully, Ansel, look with your brain and not your stupid good-natured heart.”
A woman came out of her house and set a pot down on top of an outdoor fire. She snapped her fingers and a flame leapt onto the stone.
“It doesn’t mean they had anything to do with the h-” he said in a panicked voice. But it didn’t matter. All of the inquisitors had seen her. Ezra was not the only one assembling his weapon. Lothor pulled his trigger, putting a bullet through the woman’s breast. She looked up, her eyes wide and startled, her lips gently parted, as if she was about to ask a question. Then she toppled backwards, the pot of hot water spilling, pouring wild flowers all over the ground. She had been making tea.
Next to Ansel, Kerra screamed.
A loud bang echoed from the gorge above. Ansel felt fear grip his heart. Ezra finished setting up his arquebus, balancing the gun on the stand, aiming.
“Ezra!” shouted Ansel. “What - ”
His friend did not reply, a hard expression on his face as he squinted down the shaft, aiming into the crowd. Ansel moved to shove the two children behind him but they were running. Everyone was running. Screams and gunshots tore the air.
Ezra fired and a dancer fell to the ground. His eyes stared up towards them, the look of shock and surprise spreading across his face. Blood pooled from the wound on his forehead and he toppled forward.
Ansel stood in the chaos. He watched people fall, as if time itself slowed down, as if he was watching through water. Children were trampled, swords were drawn and used. It felt like he was an observer in some horrific farce, unable to move, limbs belonging to someone else.
His ears rang, Lothor was shouting something he couldn’t understand, right before he cut down a fleeing woman. The savages were running, shrieking, trying to get away. None of them were fighting back. No, some of them were. But their weapons were pitiful. Pots and pans, here a stick of wood. They were cut down by grim-faced Lochlanach. A teenager pleaded with Boaz before he slit her throat.
“Check the houses!” shouted Marlow.
Ansel moved. He had to move. He rushed forward, elbowing aside some of the men in his haste.
“Let me,” he cried. “I will check these.”
He kicked open the metal door, and strode into the shadowy interior.
The house was plain inside - alien but comfortable. Bright colours the only thing he saw. A half eaten meal on the table. As if he had interrupted a party. Perhaps he had.
A movement caught Ansel’s eye. A family of four huddled on the far side, parents cowering, covering their children’s mouths with their hands. The woman let out a whimper. Ansel raised a finger to his lips, meeting their eyes. “All clear!” he shouted. He backed out of the house, slamming the door behind him and moving on to the next house. This one was empty.
The next too, held corpses, already visited by his countrymen. In the next he found a cowering old man. Ansel pushed him into a chest and covered him with a blanket.
“Quiet!” he whispered urgently. But he knew the old man didn’t understand him. He moved on, as fast as he could, his hands slick with sweat.
“You missed one!” came a shout, and Ansel turned in alarm, a cry on his lips. A pan flashed and there was a muffled scream. Then another. Boaz walked out of the house, his step jaunty. His sword was crimson to the hilt. He turned back and threw a torch onto the thatch. “Burn,” he said. “Burn it all.”
Ansel breathed out, his fists balling. He ran. Another house. Another.
In a small thatch at the side of the square he found Kerra. Sobbing under the table she was clutching the broken body of her baby brother. To her other side was the corpse of a man. It looked like he had been mortally wounded, and crawled in here to die. Her father? Tears pricked at Ansel’s eyelids.
“Hush, hush, little one,” he said, desperately. How could he make it right? He couldn’t. He couldn’t make it right. No one could make this right.
The door banged open and Ansel whirled.
Marlow stood framed in the doorway.
“How are you doing soldier?” he asked. Ansel’s gut twisted.
“Fine,” he said, praying Marlow wouldn’t notice the terrified child hidden so close by. Prayed she didn’t make a noise. “Everything is fine.”
Marlow turned to go, and Ansel breathed out of his nose. At the doorway he turned back, eyes narrowed.
“What are you doing with the demon spawn?” he asked, his voice deadly quiet. “Are you mad?” He moved back into the room, drawing his sword.
“No,” said Ansel.
“No?” Marlow stopped, a look of confusion flashing across his face. Ansel planted himself in front of the table, drawing his own sword.
“No,” he repeated. “Don’t you dare hurt her.”
“Get out of my way,” said Marlow, roughly. “And I’ll have you in the brig for insubordination as soon as we get back to the ship.” He shoved Ansel, but Ansel was stronger, and his blood was up. He pushed Marlow and the captain staggered.Catching himself, his face turned cold. “I’ll string you up like the coward you are-”
Ansel slashed at him with his sword. A warning. He meant it to be a warning. A cut. To stay back, to take him seriously. But rage and fury consumed him.
Strength surged down his arm, power like he had never felt in his life. He swung the blade, putting all his anger, all his frustration into the blow. The sword bit deep. Deeper than Ansel had ever intended.
Marlow’s torso slid in a trail of blood and spilling intestines, eyes glazed with shock. It landed on the floor with a dull, wet thump. His lower half crumpled a moment later, landing with a crunch.
Ansel stared. His hands shook.
Behind him Kerra began to scream.
“No, no, no!” Ansel spun, imploring her to quiet. She scrambled backwards, away from him, away from the red-handed monster, and he didn’t blame her.
He heard footsteps approaching.
His body moved before his brain registered. He grabbed a blanket from the bed and threw it over Kerra as an inquisitor appeared in the doorway. Lothor, with Ezra just behind him. Their gaze went from the two halves of Marlow’s body, to Kerra’s father and brother. The colour drained from Lothor’s face.
“A savage did that?” Lothor asked, his voice shaking and his eyes wide.
Ansel swallowed, the spit sticking in his throat. He tried to speak, but nothing came out. Lothor turned, heading back out to the carnage.
“They truly are demons,” he heard Ezra say. “We won’t be safe until they are all destroyed.”