This might be the shortest original story I've ever written.
I could be pretentious about it, and say it's a song about earth and fire and water and wind, and say it's about the kind of love that hurts.
But I always thought that kind of talk was ridiculous.
The spell that held me was made of blood and clay and salt, and there was no fighting the words once they were lost on the wind. They swirled, broke apart, and disappeared like waves, and just as quickly.
Instead, I settled into a madman's sleep, the kind that burned with pictures that made me ache and cling to the few dreams that made it through the darkness. The feel of the waves, sea stars caught in the tide, the cliff with the lighthouse where I'd asked Carina to marry me. Where she had said yes. Those dreams reminded me who I was, where I'd come from.
I think the others, those long rows of shadows that stretched past me on both sides, forgot.
We never heard the call that roused us. I'm sure it was a dramatic affair, all wiggling fingers and deep voices, but all I knew was one moment I dreamed of Carina in my arms, and the next I opened my sand-gritted eyes and the world spread beneath me in splashes of red and silver rock that glinted in the sunset. My hands clenched and unclenched, rough skin grinding against itself and sending tiny dust devils swirling into the wind.
Then I heard the priestess's voice in my head, just like all the others did. It whispered, so soft it was almost lost in the sound of the sand at our feet.
“They are coming. Protect us.”
The others shook themselves awake like birds rustling their feathers. Their smooth sandstone bodies, pittied from years of wind and sun and rain, rustled as they shambled, one by one, down the plateau that had been our holding pen. I watched them file past and peered at their identical, expressionless faces. I knew I was supposed to join them, march past the rocks and on to the valley and lay waste to whatever stood before me.
But the heart they had stuffed inside my sandstone chest said no. I waited for last one to pass. Took one long, last look at the plume of dust, parting like a wave, that followed them as they went.
Then I turned around and walked the other way.
When the priestess first took me, she threw a sack over my head and kept me tied, face up, in the back of a wooden wagon that bumped and jostled and wore my skin raw. I lost track of the days, measured only by the amount of the light agains the burlap. When the wagon stopped and they hauled me to my feet, all I knew was I was far, too far, from the lighthouse and Carina and the world I'd known.
There were at least a hundred of us. I never knew how they rounded the others up, if they volunteered or, like me, were press-ganged and toted lifetimes away from the people they loved. No one talked much – instead, we sat in groups of twos and threes, backs against the bars of the cage they'd thrown us in, craving company and terrified of each other at the same time.
At dawn, the priestess returned, her face as lined as the dry riverbeds that snaked around us. Her dress hung in multi-colored tatters, threaded with beeds and bits of glass and sparkling rocks.
“You will be sentinels,” she said, her voice rattling like dead leaves. “You will protect us, when they come.”
Heavy iron collars were snapped around our necks, then, and we were led to the plateau that would become our resting place. I caught one glimpse of the sandstone men, standing in rows of five, before our handlers turned us toward the sunrise.
And the priestess cut out our hearts, said the words that bound us to our sandstone tombs, and watched as her army took shape.
I kept to the shadows, always aware of the tugging, nagging feeling in the back of my mind that called me back to the sand and the sun and the wind. Days passed, then weeks, and slowly the landscape shifted into the low trees and long grass and dark-bellied clouds I knew so well. My shuddering steps quickened, and my heart pounded in my sandstone chest.
The lighthouse waited for me, and I drew to it like a moth to a flame. My jointless legs and heavy feet made climbing the cliff almost impossible, but I pulled myself along, leaving yellow-tan scrapes along the rocks. Below me, the sea spit froth, churning and dark and endless.
She waited there for me, just like I knew she would. Her red hair swirled around her like phoenix fire, and her dress hung stiff with salt.
Sand filled my mouth. I spread my arms, tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come.
She heard me anyway. Turned. Widened her eyes.
I let her run past me, hair streaming behind her like a song, with the waves below keeping I didn't follow. I didn't try to stop her.
Instead, I kept walking, until I stood at the edge of the cliff. The lighthouse towered behind me, a beacon that spun my shadow like the hand of a sundial.. I looked down, into the churning water, and was glad for the waves, because they meant I couldn't see my own reflection.
She'd said yes here, however long ago.
A few grains of sand crept down my cheeks.
I took another step.