Rewriting my old fantasy story, Luminous. Please ignore all the older chapters I've posted, as there are new characters and a new plot. Also feel free to tear this apart, I'd appreciate any feedback or suggestions you have!
Edit: This is now chapter one, not a prologue.
Chapter 1 - Cicadas
The night they lost their home had been as ordinary as it could be. There was no warning. No ill omen or sign to prepare them for what would happen.
Ryn’s world ended in a matter of minutes.
Snuffed out like a candle.
The dark shutters of the house had been opened minutes before, flooding both the main room and the sole bedroom with cool night air. Ryn vividly remembered the squirming junebug on the sill of the open bedroom window. The choir of summer cicadas in the woods outside. She remembered the smell of the spices in her mother’s soup… and the sound of the pot bubbling and simmering over the fire in the hearth.
Sometimes she wondered why she had retained her memories of those meaningless details, when everything that had happened afterwards was now a half-remembered nightmare.
Ryn still remembered her voice. Mother had been patient, so soft-spoken.
“Girls, I could use a hand getting dinner ready.”
Kaisa was the first to answer their mother. She immediately jumped down from the big bed where the two of them had been sitting. Remembering to pat the head of her ragged stuffed pony, she gently set it down on a pillow before leaving the room.
Was that enthusiasm? Ryn thought.
She wasn’t sure if she wanted to smile or roll her eyes as she pulled herself to her feet and followed her younger sister. Only Kaisa would be excited to do chores.
The main room, her family’s kitchen, dining room, and sitting room combined, was small and smelled of woodsmoke. Food was stored in two cupboards in the corner and prepared on the polished wood counter than ran over them. The dining table, its dark surface scarred from decades of use, was bare and still damp from a recent washing.
The fireplace was large and filled the room with a pleasant warmth that was complemented by the sunflower Kaisa had picked yesterday, which sat in a clay pitcher on the mantel. The flower was missing half its petals, but Ryn’s sister had brought it home with a look of pride and couldn’t stop staring at it all through breakfast that morning. Mother hadn’t the heart to tell her the thing was ugly, but its lopsided yellow smile was beginning to grow on Ryn.
Their mother glanced up from checking the soup as they entered the room.
“Sweetheart, why don’t you fetch some water? Ryn can help me set the table.”
Their mother wiped her hands on her apron and swept a strand of greying hair from her eyes. As Kaisa skipped down the front steps to the water barrel at the side of the house, swinging a bucket as she went, Ryn grabbed what she needed from one of the cupboards and silently began to lay out the soup spoons.
When she reached the fourth place at the table, she hesitated.
“Ah, don’t worry about that, dear. We only need three sets tonight,” her mother said.
Ryn nodded, hiding her disappointment as she returned the utensils to the cupboard. It didn’t surprise her that they’d only need enough for the three of them, but being reminded of her father’s absence was still upsetting.
She grabbed three clay bowls and laid them out next, thinking about next week’s Harvest Festival to distract from troublesome thoughts and memories… For a while, daydreams of food, music, and games entertained her, until she realized he wouldn’t be home for the festivities.
Ryn scowled, but didn’t ask the question. Why’d he have to go? When will he come home?
She’d asked those questions plenty of times before.
Mother always had the same answer- something trite about honor and patriotism. She’d talk about how Father was fighting to serve the kingdom, to protect their home, which was ironic as Father would likely be fighting his own countrymen. Though they’d be soldiers from other regions of the kingdom and they’d fight under the banner of a different lord, they were still Elyssians.
Ryn hadn’t forgotten how Father wouldn’t meet her eyes when he was forced to line up in the central clearing with the rest of the village’s men, who were all herders or farmers and had never touched a weapon before. She hadn’t forgotten the waver in his voice when he had to explain to his wife and daughters that he was leaving and didn’t know when he’d return.
That day had been over a month ago.
Ryn still grabbed four sets of utensils each night. Someday, she’d become accustomed to leaving the fourth in the darkness of the cupboard… but she didn’t think she’d ever lose her anger at the nameless lords who had conscripted her father.
“What’re you thinking about?”
Kaisa’s voice broke through all of her negative thoughts, bright as sunshine burning away rain clouds. Ryn hadn’t noticed her return.
“You look like you’ve swallowed sour milk.”
Ryn considered snapping at her little sister, but her irritation faded when she noticed Kaisa’s look of genuine concern.
“It’s nothing,” she repeated. She was even able to muster a half-smile, which her sister returned.
Stop being such a worrywart, Ryn. Father will be home before we know it.
“Then let’s eat. I’m starving.”
The two of them sat down at the table and their mother began to ladle a thin vegetable soup into each bowl, along with a chunk of brown bread. Ryn took the seat across from her father’s.
After both of them were served, Mother took her place at the table. Warm firelight illuminated the lines of her face and glinted in her irises, which were black as ink and identical to those of her daughters.
“We thank Auri for this meal,” the three of them said in unison. After a moment of silence, they began to eat.
As she slurped soup, Ryn couldn’t help but stare at the empty chair her father had occupied. Shadows played on its rough surface, and she wondered what the soldiers would be eating that night.
“Ryn, go and shutter the window. It’s starting to get chilly in here,” Mother said.
When she reached the window, she glanced out. The steep dirt path shone as it wound its way up out of view to the rest of the village. The neighbors’ house, directly across from their own, was lit by a single lamp in the bedroom window, and the nearly full moon hung like a lantern over the forests of the Elyssian foothills. Ryn caught the distant sounds of cattle lowing over the whisper of the leaves…
And the stench of something burning.
“What is it, dear?”
Soup spoons rattled as her mother rose from the table and rushed to the window. She gently nudged Ryn to the side and peered out into the night.
Mother flushed as she saw something Ryn couldn’t. Her eyes narrowed, and a frown crept over her face. Ryn strained her neck, struggling to look over her shoulder, but her mother quickly pulled the shutters closed.
“What’s happening, mama?” Kaisa interjected.
“It looks like there’s a fire on Eldyn’s farm,” she said grimly. “Girls, stay inside. Lock the door. I’m going to head up to the village.”
“What’s happening?” Ryn echoed her sister.
Mother finally met her gaze. “I-I’m not sure yet. I’m just going to go check on Eldyn and his family and make sure they’re alright. If it’s only a fire, they’ll need my help putting it out.”
Mother grabbed her shoulders. “Ryn, sweetheart… Just stay put and take care of your little sister. Can you do that for me?”
Ryn nodded, still confused.
“Good. Kaisa, listen to your sister.”
With that, their mother opened the front door. She stood there for a moment, a faint breeze tugging at the edges of her dress and the wisps of dark hair that had pulled free from her braid. She turned and smiled to reassure them, then stepped out into the darkness and pulled the door shut behind her.
Ryn reluctantly locked the door with an ominous click.
“What now?” Kaisa said.
Ryn’s sister was so full of life it became easy to forget how small she was. But even for an eight-year-old, Kaisa was painfully thin, short, and always seemed to be drowning in the coarse fabric of her kirtle. Now, her dark eyes wide and fearful in a rounded child’s face, she looked even smaller.
“I guess we have to wait.”
Not knowing what else to do, Ryn returned to the dining table and pulled out a chair. A few minutes passed. She decided to try to finish her soup, but at that moment, even the thought of eating was nauseating.
Kaisa broke the silence. “Only a fire? What did she mean by only a fire?”
Ryn frowned. Fires were enough reason to worry, but her mother’s reaction to whatever she had seen implied that something more was happening in the village.
“And why’d she tell us to lock the door?” Kaisa persisted.
“I don’t know.”
They fell back into a tense silence.
Ryn tried to maintain a stoic expression, remembering the responsibility her mother had placed on her as the older sister, but couldn’t stop herself from fidgeting. She found herself pulling strands of dark hair from her braid as she did whenever she got nervous. A sense of dread was beginning to creep into her mind, as if something terrible was about to happen... Or already has.
A high-pitched scream split the air.
Kaisa flinched. Ryn froze.
They both turned to the window. It was, of course, closed. Kaisa got up and rushed over to peer between the crack in the shutters.
“What do you see?”
“Not much, but I can hear something.”
Ryn joined her sister and tried to listen to whatever was happening outside.
“It sounds like...”
She pressed her ear to the wood and heard the snorting of horses, coupled with the clinking of metal and shouting. In the distance, glass shattered and a woman began to scream, a sound of pure terror that sent chills down Ryn’s spine.
As they listened, staring at eachother with growing horror, the sound of hooves and boots on the path was joined by a crackling that became a roar, as if someone had lit a bonfire in the clearing outside.
Suddenly, the handle of the front door began to rattle and shake. The men were trying to enter the house.
“Open up!” a rough voice yelled. The speaker pounded on the door with his fist.
Ryn and Kaisa glanced at each other, eyes wide.
“This is your last warning! Open up now!”
Ryn held a finger to her lips and glanced towards the bedroom.
They’d started to move towards the room when something heavy rammed into the front door, splintering the wood and leaving a fist-sized hole.
Ryn grabbed her sister’s hand and they ran to the bedroom, pulling the door shut behind them. Shaking uncontrollably, Ryn quickly grabbed the heavy wooden rocking chair from the corner and they both shoved it up against the door.
It was then that she realized the main room of the house had fallen silent.
“Are they gone?” Kaisa breathed.
Ryn listened for a moment. She heard pieces of the front door crack and hit the floor. Then the sound of a hand scrabbling at the door knob.
She mutely shook her head.
The situation felt unreal, like a dream that would soon be forgotten. It was already slipping away through her fingers. Ryn couldn’t remember why they were huddled in the dim bedroom, why they were so silent or why her heart was pounding. How had they gotten there? Surely this couldn’t be happening to them.
She heard the front door swing open, and heavy boots stepped over the threshold.
Ryn’s blood turned to ice.
“Kaisa, go hide under the bed,” she said. To her surprise, her voice came out calm and steady. It belonged to a stranger, not the terrified ten-year-old that she was.
Kaisa stubbornly shook her head and refused to move. Ryn wanted to argue, but decided it would only waste time.
“Maybe there’s something we can use to fight back?” Kaisa’s voice was very small.
The thought that they’d be able to defend themselves against the intruders was laughable, but Ryn found herself looking anyways.
She scanned the room for a weapon- something heavy, maybe a candlestick. She ran her eyes over the worn blankets of the two cots in the corner and the faded colors of the quilt covering the large straw-stuffed mattress that their parents had shared before Father was drafted. The weathered desk in the corner. The stuffed pony and the two dolls with cornsilk hair and button eyes…
Kaisa had finally looked out the still-open window. The shutters swung back and forth and heat spilled into the room, heavy with the stench of smoke. Her voice was full of pain and tears welled in her eyes. Ryn ran to her and immediately pulled her away, but couldn’t stop herself from seeing what had upset her sister.
The world outside was on fire. The house across from theirs had been engulfed in roaring flames and become a monster, spitting sparks and groaning as it steadily collapsed into a mountain of blackened wood. Embers burned like eyes full of pain and rage, and smoke curled into the air like dragon’s breath.
Tears pricked her eyes, whether from the smoke and heat or something else, she couldn’t tell.
“Ryn! They’re coming!” Kaisa screamed.
Her mind raced for a solution, a way out. They couldn’t leave the room as the road outside wasn’t safe and the intruders were breaking into the main room as she stood there. They’d easily get past the pathetic barricade Ryn and Kaisa had made, and there was nothing they could use to fight back.
“Auri, Auri…” she pleaded under her breath.
There’s no way out of this.
The bedroom door was kicked inward and choice was taken from her. She had to act now or they’d both be caught.
She grabbed her sister’s arm and hauled her up onto the sill and out the open window. In a rush of adrenaline, they went through the opening and fell to the dirt path. Ryn landed on her feet and, her legs wobbling slightly, dragged Kaisa back up.
The soldiers, as they appeared to be, pointed and yelled in harsh tones from the front of the house. A few were mounted, wearing a livery of red and burnt orange, but Ryn didn’t see much more than that.
She headed for the woods at a run, still barefoot and praying the horses wouldn’t be able to follow them into the tightly interwoven trees and undergrowth. Kaisa stayed close behind.
Each moment and detail of the chase that followed blended together, like a dream with no chronology. For a period of time, they huddled in the hollow of a rotting tree trunk, gasping for breath. Whether they were being followed or not, they were soon running again.
They were forced to cross fields with no cover, and more than once found themselves crouching in the tall grasses to hide from passing soldiers. In the distance, mountains of smoke billowed into the air and farmhouses became beacons of ruddy light against the darkness of the sky.
Ryn couldn’t remember if they’d been going for minutes or hours. Either way, they ran until the world was spinning and Ryn’s legs were on fire. She felt like her heart might burst with every intake of breath, but still couldn’t get enough air into her lungs fast enough.
They finally stopped running in a small clearing miles from the village. Both collapsed to the damp earth saturated with petrichor, only now realizing that the sky had started to drizzle sometime after they’d escaped the house. Kaisa’s dark hair was drenched in sweat and her small body looked pale as snow against the dirt, like a wraith from one of Mother’s stories. If not for the rise and fall of her sister’s chest, Ryn might’ve thought she had dropped dead from exhaustion.
They lay there, Ryn slumped against the mossy trunk of an ancient tree and Kaisa spread-eagled in the center of the clearing, until their breathing slowed. By then, the drizzling rain had died down to a light mist that left Ryn shivering.
She wanted to speak, to say anything that might comfort her sister, but couldn’t manage even a word past the lump in her throat. It was impossible to speak, to move, to break that heavy silence.
Surely, surely, if Ryn did not move she would wake... She’d find herself tucked under the quilts of her bed, Mother brushing a strand of hair from her face. She’d hear the gentle whisper, assurances that it had all been a nightmare. If Ryn waited there long enough, the world would right itself and time would move again.
So she lay in silence, growing numb as she listened to the rustling trees.
It was quiet; the cicadas had stopped singing.