The Loud Lights
by J.J. Richardson
They awoke me, claps like distant thunder from beyond the hills south of Kernhearth. I lay remembering oft-spoken tales of loss and suffering from crushed rebellions. When will we be attacked, and who shall tell our story?
My sleep deserted me as men’s voices and the clamor of horses, metal, and leather carried through the window of Grandfather’s cottage.
Mother came in from her room and sat beside my sister and me on our bed. She caressed my hair and cheeks as if I were to be married in the morning. I might have been by then if Ranulf had not died from the fever.
Mother’s face looked like it did when Lecia was sick last spring. “Do not be concerned, my Alina,” Mother said. “The riders shall only go to look.” Mother held my hand, and then after a kiss on my cheek, she returned to her room.
Nothing lay to the south of our village but hills, forest, and the sea. I censured my mind for upsetting me, and after a time I again found sleep.
Dawn did not stop the loud claps. Theobald from down the lane told me the men did not return. Two days followed with mercenaries coming from the north armed with bows and brass-sheathed daggers. Sergeants and mutators wielded axes and swords. The villagers asked the soldiers if they had come to hold back the Normans. The soldiers told us to mind our own business. We fed them, and they went their way southward.
They, too, did not return from the sounds.
On the third night, a light pierced the sky above us as if lightning had been stretched across the air above us and then snapped. It brought a terrifying thunderclap. Two more came across the lane, like swift arrows that pulled the light. My younger sister Lecia awoke, murmuring. Mother came and huddled with us.
A knock came from the front door. It was too late at night for a proper visit. Nicholas and Hubert from the blacksmith’s shop told us to gather food and to leave north for Anwyndshire. Then they left for the next cottage as quickly as they appeared.
Whilst we gathered our bread, dried meat, and fruit, I stole into Mother’s room and obtained from the bottom drawer of her dresser Grandfather’s dagger. Ranulf had made its leather sheath and belt for me. Mother forbade me to handle it, but nevertheless I often used it to play pringhold with the boys. They were rough at times, but only on the occasions when, to their embarrassment, I was victorious.
I hid Grandfather’s dagger under my tunic as Mother came into her room. “Wear your lace-up boots and winter cloaks,” Mother commanded.
“Where are we going?” Lecia said.
“You shall finally see Anwyndshire,” Mother said.
With waving hands, I directed Lecia to our chest of clothes. “You hurry.”
Mother shouldered a pouch of food and I one of water. We fled north in darkness, jostled among our villagers, even as the number of lights around us increased. It was not the kind of attack I had heard in stories. I had never seen the strong men in our village so afraid.
“I don’t like it out here,” Lecia said.
“We will return soon,” I said.
The loud lights fell without direction or purpose. They sparked fires and left deep burns on anything they touched. Our people’s cries of pain and fear clawed at my bosom.
We saw across the way a lamb stricken with a terrible burn. Lecia’s eyes would not turn from it, notwithstanding Mother pulling her along. The animal began to bleat and thrash about until, to our astonishment, it was not there. We noticed that whatever had been burned, whether shrubbery, wooden parts of buildings, or even our villagers, was soon lost.
Then it happened. Mother held her arm and cried out. I saw the black burn. We dropped our pouches and ran with her full breath until Mother fell to the ground. By the time I turned to give her aid, she was gone. Lecia and I fled beyond the crest of Edgar’s Hill where we hid underneath thickets. Lecia cried, despite my command to keep quiet.
“We must find Mother,” Lecia said.
“We will when the lights go away,” I said.
We had become lost from the other villagers and from Mother. We had never been in the forest by ourselves. It was not proper for young women to leave their village.
“We shall return for her,” I said. “If we cannot find her, we will lead ourselves to Anwyndshire.”
Lecia’s face scowled back at me. “Are they witches?”
“No, Lecia. There are no such things. They are stories of amusement for children.”
“Is what is happening to us for amusement?” Lecia asked.
I hoped Mother had found safety. The lights were now north of us. We waited until we dared return to where we had lost mother. We found at that place only our pouches of food and water.
Lecia looked around us and said, “What happened to the trees?”
The lights had taken much of the shrubbery and the lower branches.
We searched for Mother until dawn, fearing continually the return of the loud lights. We hid with our supplies in another thicket.
Lecia started to cry.
When Mother was young, the Normans sent spies into our lands. The thieves rarely spoke because their speech revealed them. Stories told that those who heard their talk were killed. For years thereafter, the townsfolk refused strangers, keeping to themselves only.
I was two years old when William the Conqueror took England and made himself King. His archers and soldiers killed Grandfather in battle. Those who spoke ill of the King were taken away. One of those souls was Father. Keep to yourself, Mother would tell me, and none will molest you.
We heard approaching footsteps, which gave my soul great relief, yet between the brambles of the thicket, we saw only forest. The footsteps slowed and quieted, as when a hunter approached his prey.
“Who is it?” Lecia whispered.
I shook my head at her and held a finger to my mouth. Then I beheld footprints in front of us that were not ours but were from someone wearing boots with strange, shaped souls.
A loud light came from just in front of us, its terrible sound making Lecia scream. The brush over us caught fire. The branches parted as if someone were standing right in front of me. I withdrew my grandfather’s dagger and thrust it with all my might up into the air ahead of me. The blade struck something soft, and I heard a faint cry. I thrust the dagger again into something I could not see until it fell, heavy and soft, upon my head and shoulders. That was when I screamed and pushed it away until I heard it fall upon the ground before us.
The fire above us died away. I held my chest, breathing quickly until I could calm myself. Lecia pressed herself against me as I reached forward and felt what I could not see.
“What is it?” Lecia asked.
With the dagger in my outstretched hand, I leaned forward and felt a tunic, smooth and soft. To the right, I felt clothed legs and stiff boots. The shape of its souls matched the footprints. “I think it is a man,” I tell Lecia. “But I do not see him.”
“No one is there!” she cried.
I found his chest again and his clothed arms. His wrists were bare, and they were cold. His fingers were too long, and there were only three of them.
“He is cold,” I said, holding Lecia next to me with one arm. “Like he has been dead a long time.”
His neck was long and smooth. His eyes were small. He had no hair or ears. But his teeth—
His teeth were sharp.
I looked back at Lecia. “I think I killed him.”
Lecia smiled broadly as if she thought I had won an entire battle on my own. She crawled forward and felt the man.
“Why can we not see him?” she said.
I slipped my hand under his tunic to find what he might be carrying and withdrew my hand suddenly.
“What?” she asked.
I thrust in my hand again, which became unseen under his clothing.
Lecia grabbed my wrist, pulling it away from him. She held my fingers tightly.
“We must go,” I said.
“What if there are others?” Lecia said. “You have only grandfather’s dagger.”
We gathered our things and made our journey north until midday when we found soft grass and sat against a white-barked tree. It seemed nowhere was safe for us, not after meeting the unseen man. We could still hear the claps far north of us.
Lecia woke me and pointed to a small leather pouch on the ground in front of us. I gripped the hilt of my grandfather’s dagger under my tunic.
“That was not before us when we arrived,” Lecia said. “Why did the witches not take us?”
“There are no witches.”
Lecia stared at it. “Why did they not send the lights?”
I had often grown annoyed with my sister through my years, having to watch over her. But out in the forest, she understood things well enough.
“We should take it,” I said. This made Lecia smile.
Lecia seized the bag, and we ran northward toward Anwyndshire until our breath could bear flight no more, where we rested in a crevice between two boulders. In the pouch, we found two curious objects and a small parchment. On the parchment was drawn an image of a man standing between two trees. He wore one of the objects on his face. The objects in the pouch were hard and smooth. Each had two clear stones in a frame with hinged pieces on each side. Lecia held one up to her eyes and looked at me through it. She dropped it to the ground and covered her face with her hands.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I took her hands from her face.
“It made you go away.”
I put it over my eyes as Lecia had done. I could not see Lecia or her clothing, the thicket, the grasses, or the trees. Everything was gone except for rocks and bare ground. I had never imagined such a way of seeing. The object fit on my nose and ears. Lecia put on the other.
“Everything living is unseen,” Lecia said.
Wearing the object, I saw something in the air across a clearing. I clutched my tunic. Lecia looked in the same direction.
We removed the objects from our faces. I pointed to a group of trees. “See those scorched trees?”
“With the objects, the trees vanish, but not their burns.”
She looked through hers and nodded. “These show us bad things,” she said.
I returned the objects and the parchment to the pouch and put it with our food.
We continued north, hoping to find our villagers. The forest felt strange, with much of its shrubbery and many of its lower branches removed.
“Look!” I said. “Up ahead, it is Theobald.”
He sat against a scorched tree. We ran to him until we discovered the burns on his other side. Lecia turned away. I moaned and fell to my knees. He was dead. “What terrible armies would do this?”
Lecia sat hunched over, her hands pressed against the sides of her head. I imagined Mother facing the same fate. I should have stayed closer to her.
We heard footsteps behind us but saw no one. The brush moved ahead of us. Lecia started to murmur. We moved to the side under the remaining bushes. Theobald’s body began to move. Then he disappeared. Surely, there were no such things as witches. I reached into the pouch and placed one of the objects on my face. Lecia put on the other.
There were five of them. Their clothing, boots, skin, and even their weapons were all the same shade of red. Not the shiny red of an apple, but a blurry, rippling, uncertain red as if we were looking through murky water. They moved slowly as if they were tired. Through the objects, they stood out against the bare earth and rocks. Their eyes were small, and they had no hair. Their fingers were too long. The red men did not wear objects on their faces.
“I do not think they are men,” I said.
A great, blurry red bag filled with something lay where Theobald had been. His body must have been in it. I slid the object down from my eyes briefly and saw only the forest.
With the object, I saw a giant cart with pillowy wheels, red and unclear, roll beside the bag. The Red Beings lifted the bag and tossed it into their cart. The cart carried many filled red bags.
I examined the parchment, this time wearing one of the objects, which my sister named Seers. Red Beings appeared on the parchment where the trees had been. I slid the Seer down from my eyes, and the drawing appeared as it did earlier. Lecia did the same. Her expression did not change. I wondered how this could be.
“They took Mother,” she whispered.
“Do not think about her.”
“I cannot stop.”
One of the Red Beings walked past us, not two steps away. It stopped and turned its head left and right. It held a blurry, straight stick in its arms, which pointed to an area some distance away. A loud light came from it with a piercing clap. Lecia let out a squeak. I held her still and scowled at her.
We saw new fresh burns on the unseen trees through the objects. The Red Being stared with its stern face directly at us. But to our surprise, it turned and left us and rejoined the others. We waited as the Red Beings lumbered with their cart to the newly scorched trees.
Lecia whispered, “Why did it not hurt us?”
“Maybe we are too small,” I said.
“It should have seen us.”
As hateful as the Red Beings were, their aim was poor, as if they knew not where to aim their weapons. I wanted to kill them with our grandfather’s dagger, but there were too many.
Before I could stop her, Lecia crawled from under the bush and stood in view of the Red Beings.
“Lecia, no!” I whispered.
She stepped several paces closer to them, taking care not to make a sound. The Beings paid her no attention. I feared losing the last of my precious family. My younger sister raised a hand to wave to them.
I reached out and pulled her down by her hips. “They will do to us what they did to Mother,” I whispered.
Lecia’s exuberant expression faded. “Why do they ignore us?”
“Maybe we are too small,” I said. “We must go.”
We crept in the opposite direction and headed toward Anwyndshire. We used our Seers often enough to avoid any Red Beings we came across.
Anwyndshire was as empty as our spirits. No one came to greet us. We sat on a rock next to a cottage whose front door was left open. We were no longer ourselves but were abandoned dolls fading under the drying sun, never to be held again.
“Where are our lords and masters?” I said. “Where are the knights and sheriffs?”
We looked with our Seers through wooden walls. A deep, rolling noise arose from the south that rumbled the ground and shivered the remaining leaves.
We entered an inn and removed our Seers. In the kitchen were loaves of bread, dried meat, fish, and barrels of wine and cider.
“We are uninvited here,” Lecia said.
We drank our fill of sweet cider and ate meat and fennel soup. We even treated ourselves to strawberry pudding. The smells brought us home again. In a room at the back of the inn was a bed and we sank into its comfort. The room was larger and prettier than ours back in Kernhearth.
Lecia and I never had many things. Mother earned little at the cloth merchant shop. Now we possessed nothing but three days’ food. Our thoughts brought us only suffering.
“Did they die?” Lecia asked, staring up at the ceiling.
“They fled north ahead of the lights.”
I closed my eyes. I hoped Mother was with them. She would be worried terribly for us. If we became careless, the Red Beings would take us. I arose and drew water from a stone wall and we washed. The inn’s soap smelled nicer than ours.
“The Red Beings will find us,” I said. “We must leave.”
“To where?” Lecia cried. “We have gone far enough.” She followed me into the kitchen, and we sat on a bench at a long wooden table. “There is no one left for us to find,” Lecia said. She touched the smooth wood with her hand. “We will be lost and shall die of hunger.”
I refilled our pouches with food and water.
“Who will care for us?” Lecia said.
“Mother’s friends will, or those who worked in the leather shop with Father. We will make ourselves a blessing to them.” I showed Lecia my tunic. “I helped Mother make this. I shall become a seamstress.”
“I do not want to leave here,” Lecia said, her cheek against the wood.
“The demons will find us if we tarry. They will kill us in our sleep. The forest is large enough to hide two little girls.”
Lecia scowled. “I am not little.”
We stepped out with our pouches into the lane and took one last look at the stables and shops with our own eyes. Lecia’s lips curled downward. We put on our Seers and turned to the north.
Our hearts stopped. Two Beings carrying loud light sticks nearly walked into us. We jumped out of their way. To our astonishment, the Beings and their clothing were not red. They were green, with the same blurry, watery appearance as that of the other Beings.
They shouldered packs. Walking beside them was a black, blurry animal that was rather like a pig, except for its head, which resembled that of a horse but with an even longer snout. The creature panted uncomfortably as it walked, its immense nostrils flaring with each step.
The black creature grunted and stiffened. It arched its back in a strange curve, sniffing the air deeply. Seeing their creature’s behavior, the Green Beings reached into their tunics and withdrew Seers! They looked around themselves until they saw us.
Lecia and I gasped and ran from them. One of them called out to us with the high, whiny voice of an old man.
Expecting the clap of a loud light, we rounded the corner of a dairy shop to face two more Green Beings, which were already wearing Seers. I fell to the ground believing we would die that instant.
Lecia huddled beside me, patting my arm until I looked up. The beings were standing around us and had laid their weapons on the ground. One of the beings removed from its pack a small pouch and tossed it on the ground before us. The pouch was like the one we found that morning.
“We gave you the visors you are wearing,” the Green Being said. “We are here for the Scendians.”
Its accent was strange and troubled. The one speaking bent down close to me. Its dark eyes, frightening but questioning, were clear and undistorted, perhaps because we were both wearing Seers.
“Who are Scendians?” I said.
“We are Thensk. We have given visors to many of your people.”
“Our people?” My heart swelled with hope. “Where are your lands?”
The lead Thensk pointed upward. “The lights in the night sky at night are suns like your own during the day but are much farther away. Our world, with the Thensk and the Scendians, is near one of those suns.”
“But they are only lights,” I said.
Another rumbling came from the south.
“How can we not see each other?” I asked.
“The Thensk and the Scendians cannot see the part of the light that reflects from anything living or has lived, from your world. You cannot see the part of the light that reflects from anything living or has lived, in our world. Without visors, we cannot see each other. Your world is a dangerous place for us. The Scendians came to gather what has lived to process it into clothing, dyes, and weapons, to make their warriors unseen to us.”
My vision began to blur, but I would not wipe my eyes.
“The Scendians have come to your world previously to collect your living things,” the Thensk said. “They have ruled the Thensk for a long time with their ability to be unseen.”
“We regret that we were unable to fashion these visors until after the Scendians already left our world for yours. They do not yet possess visors. We came to stop them from taking your living and to give you the ability to see them.”
I started to cry. Surely, Mother and many of our friends were dead. I was not accustomed to confronting adults. It was not appropriate for children to question.
I withdrew my grandfather’s dagger and held it up.
The Thensk surrounding us backed away. Fear filled their strange, distorted faces.
“Put that away,” the lead Thensk said. “It is made of steel. The Scendians will see it.”
“You are afraid,” I said, refusing for a time to sheath the knife.
“You will find your people northward,” the Thensk said. “The Thensk have driven most of the Scendians south of here. Do not approach any Scendians that you may find.”
The Thensk were treating us as adults. I put the dagger back into my tunic. I did not know what else to say. Maybe adults do not always know what to say.
“We hope you win,” Lecia said.
The lead Thensk picked up the pouch it had just tossed. The other Thensk picked up their weapons and backed away from us, and then walked southward.
We journeyed north without hearing any more loud lights. By the next dawn, we came upon the town of Bention. Some of our villagers were there. Stories from the south made them afraid and cautious to receive us.
Bention was a quiet village with little laughter. No one had seen Mother. An older woman named Joan cared for us. We did her chores and ran her errands. In return, she taught us how to read and write. She had many old, strange writings and stories, some of them about unseen beings that came to take what they willed. I yearned to be back in Kernhearth.
After living with Joan for three years, we returned with our surviving villagers to Kernhearth. We were surprised to find that most of our cottage had remained. But our mother was gone. Joan had let us take some of her stories, which we will always keep close.
Aunt Camilla and Uncle Stephen came to live with us. Camilla let us move Mother’s dresser into our room. I became an apprentice at the cloth merchant’s house.
We never again awakened to the terrible claps of the loud lights. They are rarely spoken of anymore. I stare up at the night sky and wonder if the Scendians or the Thensk will return, and if by then we will be better prepared.
Lecia and I never told anyone about our visors. We keep them hidden with our grandfather’s dagger in the bottom drawer of Mother's dresser.