The heat hung over the village like a smothering blanket.
Rowen watched his neighbors carry buckets of water out of their hut, the image dancing in the heat waves that wavered off of the baked clay. The entire village was preparing 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.
In normal times, goods were traded as per their worth. During a heat spell, however, nothing could match the worth of a simple bucket of water or a single pit seed. As a result, all shared, carrying the village through the spells that sucked the life out of the area.
Rowen had nothing to share. He only benefited, and he knew others resented him for it. 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 in the heat. His store of food, the food he 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.
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.” This was how the meetings always began. Heat spells killed the young and the old first, and in the first week of this one there had been dozens of deaths. 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. “Talia.” An eight year old girl who had loved to play outside in the rain during winter. “Edericks.” An older man who dyed fabrics. “Abigail.” The seamstress.
Had they died during a normal time, they would be cremated. Fires were too dangerous during a heat spell, so they would be buried on the edge of town instead.
“This is day 22 of the current heat spell, the second of the warm season.” Alain intoned. “We have suffered greatly so far.”
“Too much!” A man cried out. Rowen looked up. He had lost his infant daughter in the first few days.
“Something must be done!” A woman cried.
“There is nothing that can be done.” Questions like these always arose. People yearned for the old times, when belief in mythical rituals that could bring the breaking storms was rampant. The old beliefs had fallen out of favor, people realizing that the advent of the storms was unpredictable, but 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 is unusual, but it 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 stood up, redfaced in anger. Andrew, the blacksmith, who's shop had lain 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.”
“We must do something!” The same woman who had been ignored before yelled again, louder this time, and people responded, turning to her and some agreeing, whispering under their breath.
Rowen's heart picked up speed. The mood of the crowd was turning, from a tired group of people willing to help each other to get through hard times to something else. Something dangerous.
“What would you have us do? The dances will only cause heat death faster.” Alain was trying to quell the crowd.
“There is no need for dances.” A man spoke up from the back of the throng, an accent shading his words. Rowen didn't recognize him until he turned to look.
The speaker was a man with pale hair and eyes, a traveler who had settled here from the north only a year ago. The heat had been unkind to him, his skin burned red from the sun. He always told tales of his travels, and people naturally paid close attention to him when he spoke.
“Where I come from, heat spells never last this long.” He spoke slowly, calmly, with a soft commanding voice that bade you listen. Rowen immediately didn't trust him.
“How?” Andrew asked, some of his belligerence gone.
The man chose his words carefully. “Where I live, heat spells are...harsher. Everyone fends for themselves. We are not as quick to share.”
A few people seemed concerned, 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.”
Someone glanced at Rowen. He swallowed, looking away.
“Surely this is not necessary.” Alain spoke up. He too sounded nervous. “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.”
Rowen took a step back. People were nodding, smiling. 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.”