Prologue- Faith and Justice
The small, square courtyard of the church was completely and utterly silent. On the one side, four nooses hung in the gallows, with four people hung in the nooses; a woman and her children. Opposite, ten men in red lined the walls, nine clad in ornate capes. Between the gallows and soldiers, a hundred or peasants stood in a cramped, sweaty mass of flesh, those who had nothing better to do than watch their neighbours be killed.
Karlson knew the prisoners shouldn’t die, but it wasn’t his place to say so. Standing in the crimson armour of the Archangel Guard, the ten swords sworn to protecting the leader of the faith, he glanced side to side, searching the faces of his fellow guards, desperately seeking for some sign that they too harboured doubts. His search proved fruitless. All nine were solid as stone, impassive faces carved into an expression of nonchalance. How could they be so calm in the face of blatant murder?
The only comforting thought was that the suffering of the family would be short. Once put to the noose, it was said amongst the faith that within seconds the spirit departed the body, to be with Kel.
‘Murderer! You bloody murderer,’ one of the crowd screamed at him. ‘Murdering dog!’ The words should not have hurt him, coming as they did from a peasant in a fit of anger. In truth, they didn’t hurt, not really, as after twenty years in the Crusaders, the Church’s military, he’d grown used to the hate of the smallfolk. What hurt was the fact he agreed with him. Even as he was shouting the abuse, a pair of lesser guards dragged him off. To defy a Crusader was to defy the Church and the Church did not tolerate defiance.
Today was the day he would at last be enrolled into the Archangel’s personal guard, The Crimson Cloaks. Having been born a bastard to a mercenary, it was unheard of for someone to rise the ranks so far. But having served for twenty one years since he joined the Brigade, the junior leagues of the Cusaders, he had experience and proof of his valour and loyalty.
All too quickly, the bell in the tower above the gathering began to toll. Three rings, then the square fell deadly silent. He hardly dared to breathe, lest all their eyes be turned to him, despite the fact that they would all be watching in a moment anyway. From the doorway into the small church of the district, the priest emerged, swathed in fancy silk robes with a chain around his thick neck, a cold, hard, golden proof of his piety. Watching him waddle over, the soon to be executioner had to fight to suppress a laugh, a bizarre notion to have before executing criminals, if they could be called that. The man was enormously fat. Weighing at least half that of a small cow, he’d worked up a sweat merely climbing the steps to the judge’s altar. With a cough, he began to speak, stirring an anxious feeling in his stomach and sending one of the people in the gallows into a fit of tears.
‘My people,’ he boomed, ‘before you stand four traitors. Traitors, I say! Traitors to your city, your country… traitors to your very lord.’ Karlson had seen this farce many times before, but taking part in it made the whole thing seem much more terrifying. Not that he’d admit it, of course. ‘They have committed the most evil of crimes. Perpetrated the very worst of sins! Yes, these… these peasants have been found to be atheist.’ With that, angry mutterings arose within the crowd, like a pack of rabid dogs fighting over pray. They didn’t care a bit for whether the poor prisoners were religious or not; they’d come for death and they wanted to see it. ‘Now, the punishment for this,’ he continued, ‘is hanging. So, my people, to destroy this infection of lies, we must sterilise the wound. You’ll get your reward for being loyal. Today, you shall see these scum die!’
A cheer went up from the mass that had gathered, praising the lord and declaring their love and faith to the priest. Despite the clamour, for every man who celebrated, many still looked on with anger burning in their eyes. The great city of Summerhold had only been taken by the Church a few months before. To its people, the Faith was a foreign force in a city of realists and traders. To them, he was the enemy. An angry feeling rose his chest, but he had to fight it. The fear was obvious in the face of the poor woman on the platform, but the tears had stopped. She had none left. Instead of the crowd, he turned his attention to the nooses. On the left were the woman and her eldest sun, defiantly staring at him. On the right the two younger ones, a boy and girl of no more than ten. The injustice of it clawed at his throat, ripped open his heart. And still he stared back, back at the people he must kill for the simple crime of not believing.
A hush had fallen over the people once more, as the priest held up a fat little hand. ‘Now, for the deed. To end the lives of these sinners, I call upon thee of The Faith, Karlson Accrington, soon to be of the Crimson Cloaks, newest of the Archangel’s guard. I beseech you to prove your faith and put an end to this display.’ The bile rising in his throat, he put one foot forward and strode out amongst the crowd. Out amongst the dogs, the parasitic, sycophantic dogs, hot at the heels of their new masters. A voice in the back of his whispered that he was the same, a voice that often spoke up at unfortunate times. Fortunately, he was well practised in ignoring it. Almost in a dream, he ascended the podium and stood in the place of honour, ready to prove himself to his masters. Something about the whole business left a foul taste in his mouth, but he considered it rather too late to back down now.
‘When you’re ready, my child.’
He counted from three. He just had to pull the switch and it would all be over. The traitors would die and he’d be made a full member of the guard. One movement and he’d have honour and glory beyond imagination for the rest of his days. He reached two, his gut cramping horribly. Faith and justice they called it. But if the murder of these humans was right, why did it feel so wrong? How could killing children please any God? One came at last, leaving him to get the whole thing over with. At the last moment, he realised he should probably say something. ‘I’m…’ he fished for the words, suddenly at a loss for what to say. ‘I’m a-‘
‘Bastard,’ the woman screamed at him, ‘you utter bastard!’
‘Stop,’ the priest shouted, smirking slightly, ‘don’t let them drop yet. It seems our friend has something to say. More than you, at least, heh.’
Karlson stopped. He didn’t need to be told twice not to kill them. But he could only imagine the fate they’d have in store now. He’d come to know the priest well over the past weeks and he was a petty, cruel man. He surely had some plan waiting to unfold. Still, if it meant he didn’t have to do the deed now, he was thankful. What worse could the fat little man do? The four of them were going to die anyway, what more could he do?
‘Karlson,’ the priest began, with an evil twist of his mouth in the mockery of a smile, a blood curdling sneer directed at him of all people. ‘This woman appears to disagree with us. Don’t kill her just yet.’
‘Yes, my father,’ he replied, a feeling of apprehension building deep down. The woman had started sobbing again, this time with misplaced relief. Karlson felt sorry for her and the false hope she carried. There would be no kindness for her at the hands of the benevolent father.
‘Kill her children first.’