A rare breeze caught the hanging cloths as they dangled from wooden poles of a makeshift tent. Tied together and knotted to the warn branches, they provided a thin shield from the sun. While heated rays burned the earth, and through the cloth with precision, it created beauty in its assault. Colors rained through the clothe’s silk thread, casting shadows of yellow, red and green inside the tent. Groaning, she sprawled on the thin blanket between her and the sand. Eyelids fluttering, the light sound of rustling fabric could be mistaken as waves brushing against a sandy shore. It was an ocean dreamed of by desperate searchers lost in the hot sun. She was dreaming of home. Of an ocean that flooded into her subconscious, waking her into a moment of confusion.
There was no water here.
The sun had never been told of mercy.
The sun’s proudest desert.
Blinking against the beams of colors collecting on her face, she rose. For three days this tent was all she knew, and the few supplies granted were far beyond depleted. Earlier in the morning she had cast the worn, leather pouch from her tent as the last drop of liquid bit her dry tongue. Now, the building hunger and thirst had pushed her to surrender. Glancing out between the fluttering clothe, her eyes ran over the horizon. Soon, the sky would turn red.
To the royal darkness of a dessert night.
Holding her weight up with one hand, she twisted a small ring around her finger. Its pale, blue stone was jolting with occasional light and depth as the sun found its surface. As she pulled her lip between her teeth she turned the ring for a fifth time. Lost in admiring the gentle reliefs in the silver band, and the eight pointed star that held the stone. There was nothing more enchanting then its glimmer and shine. She twisted it again, hiding the stone under her finger and wrapping in her palm. Without thinking, her thumb stoked the ring.
Three days had passed since she had been left in this tent.
Three days since her family expressed their pride and grief.
Three days since he had touched her hand.
Three days of solitude.
But it was not the three days and the distance they put between her and these thought, it was the comfort they had provided between her and this night. They were a small pillow between the first night of awareness and the last night of involuntary acceptance. There was nothing left, not even an hour of that pillow which had postponed her more eloquent thoughts. Swallowing, she stood and stepped into the sun. Even without a glance, she knew how the ring would appear and she held it to the sky. The horizon became red as the sun gave a passing nod. It was falling closer and closer to the sand.
Any moment now.
Her thoughts were now pushing for a moment of attention. The look on her grandfather’s face when the twelfth year had come and his only granddaughter alone stood ready for the sacrifice. He had held a few strands of her red hair, the only one with such locks in the village. It was right, there was only ever one. Her father’s explanation left a burning in her heart.
“You are chosen to save us all.”
He had said.
“The honor is great.”
He had insisted.
And yet, her grandfather stared at her with wetness building around his eyes. He did not speak, only stroked her hair, braiding it into knots with silence. They all knew what it meant, the sacrifice. Every twelve years the one with the red hair would be cast into the desert alone. As she walked into the desert with the ornamental blue stone, she knew one would be born soon with hair like her own. She knew she would never meet the child, but that in twelve years that child would face the same unknown fate. Well, unknown until the third night after coming upon the colorful tent between the dunes.
Now she stood.
Arms stretched out to the sky, she watched as the horizon changed again. The sun slipped below sight. A chill broke down her spine, but she did not waver. The world was blue, navy and grey. The moon was sparkling against the sand, casting a pearl light into her face. But as the sand sparkled, it shifted and rose. Great beasts formed from the crystal slivers of the landscape. They groaned, pushing against the earth to stand. Their eyes matched the stone of her ring, glinting red as they bent to see the red-haired child in front of them. Snorting, sand dusted the night, and she fell to her knees. “The honor is great,” she repeated, as they stepped forward shaking the ground. “The honor is great,” she bowed her head and they bowed their heads.
“The honor is great.”
He had insisted.