Episode 1 – All was lost
As Rena marched through the forest, lifting the hem of her beige dress with one hand, an old basket in the other, she thought about how calm the woods were in comparison to her home. Sure, the leaves rustled and there was always a bird crying out somewhere above her, but a busy market space would be more peaceful than her home when everyone was back from school. She absolutely adored every single one of her siblings, she just adored them a little more when they were asleep. She was the oldest of six so naturally she was expected to look after them when her parents were working, which she didn’t mind, honestly. But she also didn’t mind using herb collecting as an excuse to get away from the chaos.
A chilly breeze flowed through her long, brown hair, her fringe braided back so it wouldn’t constantly fall into her face. With a light stride she floated over the forest floor, avoiding the young seedlings and shallow puddles that had formed the night before. She slowly hummed an old lullaby her grandmother had taught her, an almost melancholic song. The few sun-rays that passed through the treetops lodged themselves in her brown eyes, illuminating her youthful face with anticipation of warmer days.
Her parents weren’t exactly happy that she was wandering through the woods on her own, especially not if she went to the cliffs facing the ocean on the other side of the forest, but they were too busy with the flour mill at the moment to gather the herbs themselves, and her mother had stupidly advertised that the bakery would have rosemary bread next week without checking if they actually had any left at home. And so Rena had had the perfect excuse to get a break from the village. She didn’t even really understand why her parents were so bothered by her wandering through the woods. She was sixteen now and she had practically spent all of her life in and around this forest.
Her legs were slowly starting to ache, and her basket was filled to the brim, so Rena decided to head back home. The shortest way to the village would lead her on an untrodden path through the forest, and she thought that her dress and shoes were ruined enough already, so she took the long way around which would lead her to one of the two only roads that lead to her village. Her hopes of saving her clothes were squashed however when she noticed that the ground on the path had been stirred up into mud by what looked like an entire battalion of horses. She cursed whatever king or lord or margrave had decided to march their army through dirt roads which mostly only lead from one tiny village to the next. Didn’t they already pave all of the roads in the north? Couldn’t they just use those? Who were they going to fight down here anyway? Their neighbour was the ocean, they surely weren’t here to fight the fish? Although, they might as well, then the village could have a big feast for once. She chuckled to herself, thinking about, how even in such a situation, there was no way that anyone from nobility would share their spoils of war with some fisher or farmer from the southern region. Maybe they could all sneak up behind the soldiers and just steal the fish while they were still busy fighting the ocean.
It began with the smell. She frowned down at the ground, her smile falling from her lips, her nose picking up something that hadn’t been there a second ago. She looked up and sniffed the air. She couldn’t place the smell but as she got closer to her village it grew stronger. Her frown deepened as she realised that she was smelling fire. Not a cozy, wooden fire that fills your heart with warm feelings of home. It was a vile, biting smell that brought horrible news with it. It smelled of burned wood, scorched dirt, hot metal, and behind it all was a smell that Rena’s mind didn’t dare place. Something that made her stomach tighten and turn. It smelled like scorched hair, melted fat and boiling blood. The smell tore its way to her nose and clutched itself to her lungs so that it would never leave her mind again. It made her look around in panic, asking herself what could possibly emit such a horrible smell.
Next came the light. With every step she made, the horizon grew brighter. The trees were lit up by a pulsing orange light, it’s heart blazing up into a engulfing white that seemed to suck any last hope out of Rena’s heart. She squinted at what she previously had thought to be the setting sun but the light moved too much, casting shadows on the trees that made it look like they were swaying in the wind. She knew what was at the end of this road, at the end where the light was coming from. Her mouth dropped open and she regretted it right away as the smell crept its way up her tongue and she could feel the bile rise up her throat. She wanted to stop moving but her legs didn’t let her, as if someone else was controlling them.
Last came the sound. The sound of cracking wood, falling roofs, searing haystacks and popping bones. But in some ways, it was very silent. She could only hear the fire, as if it was the only thing that existed in that moment. No wind, no birds, no mice had dared come near this forsaken place. Maybe they were right. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to continue on this path. If she could only get a hold of her body again, she could have turned around and run, just run until her feet didn’t support her any more.
The heat finally reached her when she came up on the last bend before her village. From this far away from the fire, it felt like the warm embrace of a campfire on an autumn evening. A speck of dust landed on her nose and she looked up and realised that it was ashes falling down from the sky. Her mind tried to come up with explanations. Maybe it was just someone’s field or barn or caravan that was burning. Maybe an unfortunate cow got stuck in the fire and that’s why the smell of burning fat and hair was fighting it’s way down to her lungs. Maybe everyone was so concentrated on putting out the fire and that’s why she couldn’t hear anyone shout or scream or cry.
Her feet finally stopped, the last few trees blocking her view of the village. Every tree was backlit by orange light, their crowns looking like the beginning of autumn. Tears rolled down her cheeks, a trail of cold on her burning skin. She couldn’t blink anymore, her eyes staring at the outlines of the trees in front of her, prickling and burning, ashes landing on her eyelashes. She tried to swallow but her throat was dry. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, fat and swollen. The fingers of her right hand slowly uncurled, releasing the handle of her basket. It fell to the ground with a wet thud, the herbs and mushrooms spilling out onto the mud. Her palms were sweaty and although everything else on her felt scorching hot, her fingers felt ice cold.
She took in a long, raspy breath, cocked her chin up, and pressed on, her left hand holding her dress so tightly that her fingers were going numb. Her feet were taking her faster and faster, evolving into a trot until she ran towards the fire. The end of the road came into view and with it the inferno where her village should have been. She came to a halt a few meters before the entrance to the village, her legs weak, her knees buckling under her. She fell to the ground, her hands and knees hitting the mud hard. She didn’t mind the dirt getting on her clothes any more, she was shutting out the heat that was scorching off her eyebrows and she completely forgot about the smell that was tugging on every fibre of her being. She barely even noticed the sting on her skin as her leaf-shaped pendant which used to belong to her grandmother burned its shape onto her. She looked up, taking quick, shallow breaths, her eyes wide, set on the remains of the first house beyond the path, the one which belonged to her father’s friend Jesper. Only two thick, vertical beams remained, black and grey when they should have been brown wood, specks of orange dancing around on them. Her eyes trailed past the ruin to the church that had also been their schoolhouse, the tower still engulfed in bright flames, ashes flying up from its fire.
Her whole existence was in that village, her whole existence was that village. And now it was standing in front of her, brighter than the sun could have ever been, and there was nothing she could do about it.