Sunday, 17 January 2010


"Find her! Find the cursed witch!"

The angry voice of the scarred soldier seems to come from right beside her. The girl presses her small body further into the narrow crawlspace beneath the floor. A sharp rock catches her already tattered dress and she feels the jaws of panic snap at her mind. She has always been afraid of the dark, but she has no choice now. She has to hide.

The soldiers came this morning -- it seemed a lifetime ago that she crossed the virgin snow between the houses to see to the animals. It had seemed like any other day. Still, something was wrong. It had been like an unknown threat gnawing at the back of her consciousness. She had tried to push it away, but in the small of her mind a tiny, urgent voice had kept screaming at her to run. Run, before it was too late. Ignoring it, she had started milking the two cows.

And then it had been too late. She knew it the instant she heard the horses. Too many to be travellers seeking to buy milk or cheese from her father. "Run!" the voice had shouted inside her head. "Run before they see you!"

She had heard his father greet the soldiers. Her father, the infinitely strong man who was never afraid of anything. This time there had been something she had never heard in his voice: fear. That had sparked something new in her. Anger. Anger of the kind that makes the whole world seem small and pitiful. She had understood what her father was afraid of.

He had been afraid of what the soldiers would do to her, his only daughter. Too many stories had made their way across the countryside the last years. Stories of rapine and plunder, of violence and death. The Ironbellies of the Parliamental Army were a law unto their own, some had said. They took what they wanted, and soldiers, she had heard the miller say once when no one thought she was listening, wants nothing more than women and wine.

Her father had waved it off when she had asked him about it. "They're only after the Macharites," he had said. "We're safe here. Most in our village are Presbyterians, my sweet dove." He always called her that.

Outside the barn she had heard a coarse voice ask her father how many people were on the farm. "Only myself and my daughter," her father had answered. The other voice had told him to call for her. Her father had told the soldiers that they were all good people of Reason here, and that they could take what they wanted. He had been pleading. The soldiers had laughed. She never thought laughter could sound so terrifying before. Her anger had grown, bathing her world in a blinding white light. Then the voice had told her father that hindering the will of the Parliament was punishable by death.

The shot had seemed to blank out all other sounds from her world. Without seeing it, she had known her father was dying. She had known that they were mocking the man who, while his life ran red into the fresh snow, begged them to spare his daughter.

When the door to the barn was opened and two of the soldiers had come in, her rage was like a white-hot fire, bathing her vision in sharp, cold light. She saw them laugh and call out to their companions when they laid eyes on her. One of them had made a grotesque face at her, his pale tongue licking the air. She had seen them grab her, as if from outside her body, and drag her out into the snow. The other soldiers had shouted, laughed and made obscene gestures when they saw her. They had groped at her, tearing at her clothes. The soldier who had shot her father, his face disfigured by countless ugly scars, had smiled at her. He had said something to the others that made them roar in laughter.

Then she had seen herself smile. Everything had seemed to slow down, to become clearer in a way. And then she had released all her anger.

It had been like a burst of light that seemed to boil the flesh of the faces and hands of the soldiers closest to her. Their clothes had been shredded, and their breastplates had buckled and cracked. Horses had screamed, throwing their riders, their manes and tails burning. Soldiers farther off, their eyes burst by the light, slipped and fell as they tried to escape.

Then she had fallen to her knees, empty. Her anger spent. The sound had come back into her world. Men and beasts cried in terror and pain, some dying. She had crawled to her father. She had cradled his head in her lap, holding him as his soul left his flesh.

His last words had been, "run, my sweet dove."

As she fled, she had seen the scarred soldier stagger to his feet. He had shouted for someone to kill her, but as she ran across the fields towards the village no shots had been fired. No horses had been spurred in pursuit.

Now she is hiding beneath the floor of an empty house. Its inhabitants has been killed earlier in the day when more soldiers came to find the witch. The little village has been turned on its head. All the women has been gathered on the square in front of the scholae. The men have been been killed or mutilated. The only sounds except the shouting of the soldiers are screams and unanswered cries for mercy.

She is terrified, but deep inside her she feels her anger build again. In the narrow, cold, dark space she starts to smile.

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