From atop his horse, Tasfin looked back. The Englishman had fallen in the sand once again.
The golden grains glistened in pale man’s disheveled hair; his clothes were tattered and brown with sweat. His wrists bore red welts from the ropes that bound him. The long rope that trailed from Tasfin’s horse to the man’s wrists would not have chaffed so badly if the man had only walked faster. As the man struggled to stand, Tasfin tugged the rope forward. He had hoped to spur the man on, but instead his prisoner tumbled in the sand once again. Tasfin shook his head in disappointment.
The pale man was slow, but Tasfin was not in a hurry. They still had time.
Two men on camels chuckled from atop a nearby dune as they passed. “Your livestock looks sickly, Tasfin!” one laughed. “How will you ever sell it on the market?”
Such a man would have fetched a large price, an engineer. His cousin had told him the jihadis sold a similar British man back to the company with the seashell on their cars for one million dollars! Tasfin had searched long and hard for a phone, but he had no number, and the ignorant Westerners did not speak his language. No, this was the best course.
The passing men knew very well Tasfin did not march to the market. He wore the blood-red turban.
His prisoner cried out again in his language, quaking and crying. Tasfin wondered if he would need to dismount and stuff a rag in the man’s mouth once again.
“Alsahabar!!!” What was he saying? “Ala!! Ala!!!”
“Al– Allahu akbar–” the man sputtered, his voice shaking as much as his hands. “Allahu akbar!” he whispered through tears. Tasfin scoffed. The pale man had somehow learned the words, but how could “God is great” have meaning to a godless heathen? Even if the words weren’t hollow, where they were going, God would be nowhere to be found.
Tasfin remembered the day the Imam had forbidden feeding the creature. It was blasphemy to appease a devil. Tasfin had been but a child. And now, thirty years later, the grazing routes his people had traveled for centuries were gone. The desert had grown hungry. It ate their grass. It turned their livestock– and their children– to bones.
His wives had disagreed, but Tasfin had watched the last of his children die this year. His daughter’s hair had turned a burnt and brittle orange, her voice cracking in a dry rasp as she tried and failed to cry. Her desiccated husk now littered the desert with that of so many other children.
The old ways were the only way to survive.
In the old days, it was his father who donned the blood-turban and fed the dragon every year. They fed it killers, thieves, adulterers. This Englishman’s crimes made the others pale in comparison.
The Englishman and his shiny car with the seashell painted on it had come to work on the oil wells, steel spires that pulled the black liquid from deep in the ground. His cousin said it was this oil that had made the sun hotter, made desert grow, that was killing their people. The English were powerful, but Tasfin didn’t know for sure if even they could control the weather. He did know one thing, however; those wells were poison.
Less than a year after the drilling began, the waterwells ran black–the water tasted harsh, metallic. They dug a new well, the depth of 20 men, but the water there was even worse. The first to die was his brother’s daughter, vomiting blood. He had never before seen cancer in his life, but the chief’s sixteen year old daughter now had it. In the years since the water ran black, his sister birthed only stillborns. Six.
This Englishman had brought death to his village. Now he would bring life.
In the dead of night, Tasfin had said the ancient words and let the man’s blood drip in the sacred place where the sands stood still. A promise to feed the dragon.
Azi-Dahaka would take his terrible price, and in exchange he would bring them rain.
“Name!” the prisoner’s voice was raspy, his lips cracked. He pointed at himself, gesturing in frantic spasms. “Name! Brian!”
The man scrambled up to the side of Tasfin’s horse. He pulled a photograph from inside his shirt, offering it with trembling hands.
Tasfin took the photograph, a serene image of the pale man locked in a loving embrace with his family. The pale man’s homeland was lush and green. Nothing like this dead place. Tasfin had been one of the few left with the strength to deliver the Englishman. His two wives were so weak they could barely stand. Without water, how many more daughters would die? Tasfin squinted at the photograph. The pale man’s daughter fat and full of life. Tasfin’s lips trembled. This man had everything, and still he had come here to take the last bit of life from a starving people in the desert. The photograph slipped between Tasfin’s fingers, whipped away by the unforgiving winds.
Gold bled to red; the sparkling sands of the desert gleamed a deep orange as the sun lowered in the sky. A dry ocean with patient waves that moved in months, not seconds. The men on the camels were long gone. They wouldn’t have come this way. No one came to this part of the desert.
A dune loomed before the pair, atop it an enormous post shot high into the sky. White and tapered at the top, gently curved and smooth as bone, it’s base was deep beneath the sands. The post had always been there and always would be, tall and impervious to harsh winds of time. Some said it was the rib of a long-dead monster.
Tasfin dismounted and dragged his prisoner up the sandy crest.
The Englishman’s skin had blistered in the sun, and his eyes were red, perhaps from the dryness of the desert, perhaps from tears. Tasifn pressed the man against the ivory post wrapping the long rope around the Englishman’s chest and waist, binding him to the stake.
“No–” the man wailed. His struggles, like his cries, were weak. His eyes betrayed desperation, but his body could no longer fight, worn to the brink by thirst and exhaustion.
A thunderclap echoed behind them. A chill wind brushed across Tasfin’s face. In the west, the sun had begun to set. In the east, an unnatural darkness spread across the sky. It was coming.
Tasfin studied his prisoner. His body sagged. Had he passed out? Tasfin touched the man’s chest. It wasn’t moving.
Tasfin looked to the east in terror. His turban whipped in the rising winds. Dark clouds billowed on the horizon, flashes of lighting weaving in and out.
His eyes wandered back to the man, held limply by the rope. Zephyrs of sand whipped around them, and the wind howled.
“Wake up!” Tasfin slapped the man’s face in desperation, but he did not move. He untied the rope and the Englishman fell lifelessly to the ground. The pale man was dead.
In the sky above, the billowing darkness advanced. Silver scales slid in and out of the soupy clouds, black talons long and wicked tore at the air. Tasfin had performed the rites, and the Great Serpent had come.
Tasfin’s heart sunk. If the dragon found no offering at the stake, what would happen?
Desert winds hissed their wicked warning. Air buffeted his robes, tore his turban from his head. The red turban, the promise of rain to his people, spun away, a red snake dancing in the wind. Darkness closed around them. He heard his horse shrieking in terror. Lightning forked in tightening circles, an anaconda circling its prey.
Even as the wind deafened his ears, he heard the beating of powerful wings. Above, silver scales reflected each flash. One of Azi-Dahaka’s heads slid out of the black clouds, it’s cavernous maw great and terrible. What monstrous thing had he called to this place?
Rain, and the lives it would save, demanded a trade. Tasfin wrapped the rope around his own waist, lashing himself to the stake.
“Allahu akbar,” he whispered, and wondered if God would forgive him.