THE HEAT hung over the village like a smothering blanket.
Rowen watched his neighbors carry water out of their huts, the image dancing in the heat waves that shimmered off the baked clay. They carried the metal buckets with care to the center of the village, where everyone prepared for the daily gathering, always necessary during a heat spell. The gathering was a time for people to spread out precious goods like water and pit seeds, which would cool down the body and prevent heat death. Everyone shared, carrying the village through the heat that sucked the life out of the area.
Rowen had nothing to share, nothing anyone would accept. He walked to the gathering with a heavy heart, his scalp burning from the sun as though his red hair were aflame.
The others who passed him glared, their eyes full of suspicion. None offered help when he stumbled. His store of food, desiccated insects and a few precious dried lizards that he’d hunted for himself, had grown small, and the water bucket in his home was mostly dry.
He would never steal water, but no one would believe him. Not after what happened. He took his place near the edge of the gathering, closest to the sun that threatened the shade provided by the elder’s enormous hut.
Alain, the village elder, called the meeting to order, his powerful voice carrying over the throng. There were fewer people here today than the day before. A bad sign.
“Report any losses.” Alain’s words were heavy with exhaustion. This heat spell was in its third week, the longest Rowen had ever experienced.
Hands went up, and Rowen looked down at the shady ground. “Tessa.” An eight-year-old girl who had loved to play outside in the rain during winter. “Fredericks.” An older man who dyed fabrics. “Abigail.” The seamstress.
“Emilia,” his neighbor Maria said, and Rowen’s stomach fell. Her infant daughter. Rowen had heard her crying sometimes at night when she was first born.
“This is day twenty-two of the current heat spell, the second of the warm season,” Alain said. His voice carried the heavy tone of ritual. “To honor them, they will be buried on the edge of the village, under the watchful gaze of the Brush Goddess.” Over a dozen small sticks marked graves there now. “We have suffered greatly so far, but—”
“Too much!” a man cried out. Rowen looked up. Timothy, Maria’s husband.
“Something must be done!” Maria shouted, her face pinched and sad.
“There is nothing that can be done.” Comments like these came up every day of every heat spell. Rowen thought of his mother’s stories, of the times when belief in mythical rituals that could bring the storms was rampant. Dances, offerings of food, even offerings of precious water that no one could drink. Rowen swallowed down thick saliva, his mouth dry. The longer the heat spells stretched on, the more desperate people became.
“Erik has measured the temperature currently at 134 degrees, dropping to 100 at night,” Alain continued. “This heat spell is intense, but that should only mean that the storm will come soon.”
“The heat spells are longer and hotter. We should go back to the old ways!” A man on Rowen’s left got to his feet, red-faced in anger. Andrew, the blacksmith, whose shop had stood abandoned for the last three weeks. “This would never have happened when I was a child!”
“There is no point in wasting energy on a ritual that won’t work.” Alain didn’t bother raising his voice. “The best thing to do is to wait and keep calm. Exertion will bring death. Trust in the Goddess of the Brush. Her gifts keep us alive.”
Rowen frowned, his throat tight. That was true, but the pit seeds had destroyed his voice.
“We must do something!” Maria yelled again, louder this time, and people responded, turning to her and some agreeing, whispering under their breath. Rowen’s heart sped up. Whispers spread throughout the villagers, then grew into shouting.
“A dozen dead!”
“This is the longest heat spell ever!”
“Maria’s right. We have to do something!”
“What would you have us do?” Alain said, his voice still calm against the rising flames of anger. “The dances will only cause heat death faster.”
“There is no need for dances.” A man spoke up from the back of the throng, an accent shading his words. Rowen turned to look.
The speaker was a man with pale hair and eyes, a traveler from the north who had settled here only a half year ago. The heat had been unkind to him. His pale skin burned red from the sun all the time. He always told tales of his travels, of lands to the north where hundreds and thousands of people lived in gleaming cities.
“Where I come from, heat spells never last this long.” He spoke slowly, calmly, with a soft commanding voice. Rowen took a step away from the gathering, a strip of sun heating his shoulder.
“How?” Andrew asked, some of his belligerence gone.
The man seemed to choose his words carefully. “Where I live, life and the heat spells are… harsher. Everyone fends for themselves. We are not as quick to share.”
A few people exchanged glances, and the man quickly picked up his tale. “But we have found a way to deal with that. Some people are not worth sharing with, after all, and more is left for others.”
Maria glanced at Rowen. He swallowed, looking away.
“Surely this is not necessary,” Alain spoke up. His voice trembled. “We will begin the dispersal of water and seeds—”
“Where I come from, we give up the people who do not deserve resources,” the man continued, ignoring Alain, and the crowd hung on his words. “Sacrificing them to the Storm Gods brings the storms faster and makes those who survive more comfortable.” He held up his hands, and the crowd followed them as he moved, not quite gesturing. “Surely there are some who don’t share. Or who may not deserve to be shared with. Someone who brings danger, or takes more than they’re worth.” People were nodding, their mouths set in thin lines.
Rowen took a step back. Anthony, an older man with a crippled leg who hadn’t been able to dig wells for years, met his gaze, the other man’s eyes wide. Rowen’s muscles tensed.
Alain spoke up. “The Brush Goddess does not—”
Then someone behind him grabbed Rowen by the arm.
“This one killed his parents by stealing their water!” Andrew yelled. Rowen opened his mouth to deny it, but of course no sound came out. He had never been able to speak, not since it had happened.
“Criminals make perfect sacrifices,” the man said, looking at Rowen but not meeting his eyes. “The Storm Gods are vindictive and respond quickly.”
“He will suffer the way his parents did,” Maria said, and people around her got up, swarming toward him like flies.
Anthony turned his back, hobbling on his crutch back into the shade.
Rowen’s heart thudded, but he didn’t try to fight. There was no point. There were too many, and running during a heat spell would only bring on his death faster.
“Tie him up!”
“This is not the way!” Alain shouted. “There are no Storm Gods!”
“It’s this or death, Elder, isn’t it?” Timothy said. “There’s too little water left. He deserves it anyway, after his parents. Water stealers can’t be trusted. The Brush Goddess cursed him for it.”
Rowen tried to shout, to scream. But his voice didn’t work, hadn’t worked since that day, and no one could hear him. Grabbing hands from people with angry faces stripped his clothes off, binding his ankles with cord and forcing his wrists behind his back. He strained against the ropes, the fibers cutting into his skin, but weeks with little water and food had already taken their toll.
No one used any more force than they had to, but the strong grip on his shoulders, arms, and legs, of everyone in his village arrayed against him, showed Rowen how pointless it was to fight. He could barely even stand, his legs bound together and his hands behind his back.
Andrew stepped up to him, staring into his face with unseeing eyes. Andrew had once given his mother his most beautifully forged metal bucket to store water and had joked with his father about sleeping underground while he dug wells.
Andrew pushed him, and Rowen fell into the dust.
“Leave him in the sun,” the man from the north said. “One less to take your water, and one more death to bring the storms faster.”
Hot tears formed in Rowen’s eyes, but he was too old to let himself cry. He hadn’t wanted their water anyway.
They dragged him into the sun, and the ground underneath him burned. He shut his eyes tightly, and the sun baked him. Nobody stayed, the coolness of their shadows dispersing. They had their dead to bury.
Rowen knew that his own death would come quickly.
The sweating began first, and his head swam in the heat. He didn’t dare open his eyes to see the merciless sun beating down on him. His skin was pale, and if he lasted long enough, he would be covered in blisters. He hoped he passed out before the pain got too bad.
He tried to think of his parents as the sun moved across the sky, focusing on memories rather than the pain of his skin burning, the heavy weight of the heat beating down on him, and his body’s desperate craving for water. He had been close with them, as an only child. His father had introduced him to village girls and had not shown disappointment when Rowen had confessed to feeling nothing for any of them. He had said only to be careful.
He thought of Lucas. Lucas, the blacksmith’s apprentice, a boy his age with blond hair and an eager smile, full lips and bright blue eyes. Rowen had never told him how Lucas had made him feel, quickening his blood and stirring him in his dreams.
Lucas had died in the same heat spell that had killed his parents. Since then Rowen had felt nothing. Too much loss all at once. He groaned on the heated ground, but it was silent, and no one was there to have heard it even if he could make a sound.
He had survived that heat spell. It should have killed him like it killed his parents, but he had lived, eating pit seeds that silenced him forever and leaving him mute to defend himself to the villagers when they claimed he stole his parents’ water. The Brush Goddess had cursed him for no reason. Or maybe there was no Brush Goddess.
A wave of nausea flipped his stomach. Heat sickness was setting in. He rolled over to vomit, nothing coming up but whitish bile. Rolling made him dizzy, and that made the sickness worse.
Soon, nothing came up at all. Heat surged through him, but he could no longer sweat. The ground spun.
This was fitting. He couldn’t survive again. He had struggled to live alone for the past year, a ghost no one wanted in their village.
He opened his eyes and was greeted with darkness.
Night had not come. He rolled, impossibly slow, to look up. The sun had been covered, a thick, dark cloud blanketing the village.
The skin around his mouth burned and flaked as he smiled. He had been sacrificed, and the storm had come.