If the day had been chill, the night burned the skin like an icy sun. Nearly a hundred men, women, and children sat huddled and shuddering against one another, clutching at the meager warmth the ramshackle wooden structure could give. Outside, an icy wind blew and the last crops crumbled beneath its might.
Hours of silence and half-dead sleep passed as they always did--amid the muffled hopeless sobs and quiet shuffling feet of creatures herded like cattle into a massive and inhuman bunch. Someone coughs loudly in the corner, and a few held their breath in fear of what it might mean, but it was forgotten in a moment. Disease was more a blessing than a curse anymore, and God worked in mysterious ways.
“Seamus.” A woman spoke.
A man nearby twisted slightly in the tiny space offered him. “Sea?”
he answered groggily. An idle hand came up from his side and moved back long unruly strands of soot black hair. “Y’should be sleepin’.”
“Ack…I know,” she muttered in the darkness, not quite an apology. “No sleep tonigh’, cara
. Tomorrow’s our day, n’ this squall…‘tis judgment, it is.”
“Don’ say such things, Anna,” Seamus reprimanded, turning further on his side although he couldn’t see her in this light. “Fixin’ jinxes on us a’fore we even set foot in th‘field. Ya’ve planned it well. We’re all ready. We’ll win--die if we must, but we’ll win.”
Anna was silent. Then: “No’ sure s’worth it. Worth dyin’ t’live. Bloo’y mess…”
“Silly. If ye not fishin’, ye sewin’ your nets.“ He scoffed lightly. “Don’t think so hard. In the morn, we’ll show ‘em what ho and we’ll come back, set ye down, n’ ‘ave a’selves a nice feastie.” Seamus grinned, and some faint glow illuminated it just barely in the blackness. He rolled back onto his side with a tired groan. “Ga t’sleep, deirfiúr
Anna smiled back, just barely, almost believing. “Sea
…nigh’, boyo.” And, slowly, unwillingly, she settled into a dreamless and restless slumber.
The morning came with biting cold, and a fair snow drift blown in on the wind the night before covered the land in a thin white veil. Anna thanked God it wasn’t so deep as to make their plans impossible. They would have to manage and be strong. With any amount of luck on their side, the others would be much worse off.
The preparations had started at first light, only a few hours after Anna had finally slept. Men shuffled to and fro, collecting weapons and powder and meager rations for the little leather pouches they each carried. Many carried their own knives and harvest tools as weapons and saved the muskets for those that feared a blade. Anna carried one of each, a scythe on her back and a gun over one shoulder. They worked in near-silence but for the occasional order from the tense and hard-eyed woman, who was quietly leading out their band into the misty whiteness outside. In a matter of minutes, rows and rows of men and women (even a few children) were lined along their wooden shack of a home. Anna and Seamus stood at the front and looked them over.
A long moment of nothingness passed, reserved for thoughts and second ones. Hesitantly, Anna took Seamus’ hand, and the rows of people took each other’s and bowed their heads. “May the Lord keep us all in ‘is hand ’n’ never close His fist t’tight. May He grant us justice on this day ’n’ keep us safe. May we all follow the path He hath laid before us…’n’ take us openly within should we a’stray from it. In name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.” The word echoed in an ominous toneless baritone as she finished and a shuffle of feet followed it. She watched them all, reading in the familiar faces a fear, in others an anger. “Any that wish t’leave, leave now. We’ve no room for caimiléir
here.” Another awkward shuffle. The people looked between each other, as if to move would be to commit some horrid sin. Finally, two young men, hardly men at all, an older woman, and three children no older than fifteen approached Anna. They said nothing, and only the woman met her eyes as they placed their weapons before her. Anna nodded in understanding. She took in a breath.
“Let’s be goin‘, then.”
“Devin, need powder o’er here!” Anna shouted over the sound of more than a hundred rifles and voices. Her musket was shoved butt first into the snow drift she sat behind. She chanced a quick look over the bank, counting their numbers quickly. Still strong. A shot struck the bank only a foot from where she hid and she promptly sat again. Crouching along the short stone wall, a man carrying two large bags ran to her, a box already in hand. He tossed it to the ground before her and moved on.
Quickly she filled the barrel and popped a ball into it, ramming the rod down with a practiced speed. Propped against the bank, Anna looked for the furthest mark she could hit and fired. She watched only long enough to see the shot strike home into a man’s shoulder and the sudden pain it caused, then she turned and reloaded. With an annoyed ground of her teeth, she realized she was now left with only a few shots more of ammo, and several others had started moving in to strike with knives and pitchforks, evidently with the same problem. Anna swore, firing her last shot.
Dropping the gun, she moved into a crouch, pulling the scythe hanging over her back forward and over her shoulder. To go out into the open would almost surely mean death, and their numbers were at last beginning to dwindle judging by the closeness of their enemies and the desperation in their own actions. Her eyes narrowed with a slow hopelessness, unsure whether to call them back, accept defeat and run. To retreat would halve their already low numbers, make them easy dark targets in a glinting white backdrop. Anna bit her lip, gripping the wooden handle in her fist. No, they would continue. There was no other way. Not now. She watched the hazy sun glint off the rusting blade, tracing her aqua eyes along its deadly curve. She could just barely make out the line of her own smudged face and dirtied crimson hair past the dull gray-brown of the metal.
Placing one numbed hand on the snow bank, she hoisted her thin frame over and landed squarely on the other side. With a resolute growl, she charged the men that now seemed impossibly far away, swerving left and right between low rock walls. She could see the familiar landlords themselves, not far away now, close enough that she would be an easy target if she wasn’t careful. Another low wall lay just ahead, and with a shuddering force Anna hit her back to it, ignoring the smoldering feel of bruises in her flesh. The three men hiding here watched her through bewildered fearful glass orbs, staring in disbelief. A woman had joined them, and by her looks she still had every intention of winning this battle. “Cov’ me,” she panted out. Only one of the men nodded and turned, while the others simply gawked. When she noticed their inaction, she gripped the collar of the nearest, who let out a helpless moan and looked away. “I said, ‘Co’v me,’ boyo, now get t’it.” Hastily and fearfully he complied, squinting nervous sweat from his eyes as he tried to steady the rifle in his quivering hands.
Anna took in another breath, peering quickly over the half-buried wall. They were advancing, and taking prisoners where they could. Soldiers and landlords stepped warily, side by side, some holding pistols that were proving to be frightfully apt against them. Her only chance at a quick kill would be to take down one of the nearby riflemen. She could see only three directly in front of the bank, and to be successful she would have to take out all of them. “Sight the pistols,” she ordered, not looking at her comrades. Then with surprising speed she leapt over and took off into the fray.
Her first target fell easily under the sudden swipe of the freshly sharpened scythe against the flesh of his belly. The dark uniform fell apart under its touch and yielded to the warmth of blood that spilled into the pure snow. Anna left him to fall blankly to his knees and headed for the second target, another soldier. He was already aiming for her when she came upon him, and his hands twitched for a single fatal moment at the woman‘s appearance--a madwoman dressed in tatters, skin hanging from her bony frame, humble farming tool raised like a backwards snake. The blade came down hard into his shoulder and slashed along his chest.
One last rifleman remained, this one a policeman--just uniform, helmet, a badge and a gun. He too was preparing to fire, hastily ramming a rod into the barrel as she charged him. Anna could see it in her mind: she would grab the barrel and pull him forward, thrusting the scythe into his gut point first, killing him instantly. Then she could take the rifle and the last of his ammo and powder and pick off the rest one by one. They could win this yet.
Anna growled and lunged at the man as he began to steady the weapon against his shoulder, taking aim. She reached for the barrel, already poised to pull him to her, her scythe poised to stab.
The next moments passed as if in hours, but Anna knew it must have happened in only a second. Instead of touching the cool wood of the mid barrel, her hand met with the hot metal of it’s front, burning a harsh circle and point in her palm. Their eyes connected in that instant, each both determined and scared to death, and then all she knew was fiery pain. A flare passed by her vision and a sound like horrid thunder in her ears deafened her. She fell, then, heavy and limp and with a surprised keening cry of unbelievable pain. As she looked up through eyes drowning in blood, she found herself looking down the same barrel and could just make out her own flesh still attached to the muzzle. A second later a familiar black-haired man had tackled the policeman to the ground and thrust a long knife into his throat. Vaguely, Anna could make out her name on his lips as he crouched beside her, tears forming in his eyes as he cupped her face and stared in disbelief at her body. Two policemen grasped his shoulders and pulled him away, also staring down at Anna. Seamus… her mind whispered desperately, willing her body to move, willing it to fight, but all she could manage was the clenching of a single fist in the snow before blackness overcame her.
A month later, Anna sat alone in the corner of a tiny handmade shack far in the west countryside. Silence surrounded her but for the gentle wind whining through the staggered trees and broken barley. She held a piece of charcoal in her right hand, scrawling in a slow thin script, as if to hasten would be to break the silence and relative peace. Her face looked thin and pale by the light of the morning sun through the doorway and her normal vibrant green eyes seemed empty and glossy. A broad scar trailed up from her left shoulder to follow the line of her cheek bone and crest at her ear, only half of which remained.
A knock sounded on the thin wood of a wall, and Anna jumped just slightly where she sat, scratching a stray mark of charcoal into the shaved wood she’d been using as parchment. A blonde man with a cap and a dark (but dirty) uniform entered, and she tensed a moment, eying him warily. Then….
“Devin…” she mumbled, and her face lit up with sudden relief and happiness. She went to him, shakily, and threw her arms around his neck.
“Fianna,” Devin answered with a happy chuckle, holding her tightly. “They said ye’d died ou’ here. Said nothin’ lives ‘ere but the roachies.”
“Aye, ‘m still ‘ere,” Anna said. “Barely…only just. But still ‘ere. C’mon, set y’self.”
She pulled a slab of slightly raised and cracking wood from the side and placed it in the middle of the floor as a makeshift table, then, finding a large jug and two whittled cups in the opposite corner, poured them each a small measure of liquor. They toasted and drank it down in one thick gulp.
“Why’ve ye come, Devin? Told ye lot t’stay behind.”
Devin’s smile faded and his gaze turned. Anna knew the look.
“Just come t’ook in. ‘Ow’s yor hand?”
Anna, who had kept her left arm carefully clutched against her chest under a layer of fabric, brought it forward now, lifting the cloth up to her elbow. Two fingers and half the hand itself were missing and had begun to heal into new pink flesh. The third finger was little more than a stub, and the index seemed shorter, missing part of the tip and nail. Scars and craters of pink lumped flesh trailed along her entire arm. Only the thumb seemed almost entirely intact except for a black burn on its pad. Devin’s eyes narrowed in sympathy. “This was God’s blessin’, cara,” Anna assured, hiding it once more. “Lucky n’more of it’s gone. Lucky I didn’ lose me whole arm. Now…stop this. Tell me why ye’ve come.”
Devin cast about for something to look at other than her face, but knew it was useless. He met her eyes and sighed heavily. “It’s Seamus--”
“Well? What ‘ave ye?”
“Today…they strung ‘im up. Him ’n’ the whole lot, altogetha. There was another rally. Tried to hold ‘em, but they insisted. Most o’ ‘em…they didn’ come back.”
Anna stared at him evenly a long moment.
“Out!“ she shouted, lunging over the table to shove him away. “Out me house! Bastard--don’ come back ‘ere. I’ll lay ye flat with iron, ye come back. Out!”
Devin said nothing as he stumbled outside, but paused briefly at the door. Anna slammed a fist into the wall and scowled at him like a raging beast. He took off down the road, casting a single look over his shoulder as he went.
Anna watched him go and slowly slid to her knees in the cold gravel. She trembled there, her head hung low, and a low keening began to sound in her throat. With a sudden and furious anger she leapt up and pounded her fist into the wall, ignoring the flecks of spattered blood that flew from her knuckles. Finally, she stopped, a great sob heaving from her in defeat. Leaning back against the cool hard wood, her face tilted to the pale sun, she wept bitterly and openly, alone but for her thoughts.
And So It Began