…When a person dies, his family takes his body and brings it outside the city or village, and lays it down on the burial ground, a narrow piece of a flat earth in fields. And at night, the flock of Herons will come, making the earth vibrate; and it will erupt, and the birds will fly out and plunge in over and over, forming a spiral around the body; and it shall detach from the ground it lies on, and the birds will bring it underground. And the Herons will take the body for nourishing the earth that mortals live on, and they will take the soul and it will give birth to another Heron, for Herons have no souls of their own but the souls of dead people brought back to life.
And if the birds did not take the body, then there's no soul in it, there's no purpose and no need for them to take it, and it will rot, contaminate and poison the surroundings, bringing trouble. That's why, my daughter, you must never give your soul out to anyone. The scariest death is the death brought by the Sandman, for they take souls and feed on them. Near the city of Aidellouan in the arbour, there's Dancer in the Vines, and she takes souls. A wife, killing an unfaithful husband takes his soul and the husband, murdering an unfaithful wife, takes her soul. My daughter, do not waste your soul, do not spend it. Die not like Andeam the Great and his men and thousands of other people murdered by Sandmen. Live. And die in peace…
I've seen the Elder of this village. He barely can move, they say he's over a hundred years old. I talked to him about Sandmen and the war. Ronna, he told me that Sandmen cannot be murdered, for they are not alive. They can be extinguished, but not by force, for they haven't been made by force. He said… he said that one has to sacrifice his own soul for saving others, and then the Sandman will cease to exist, for he cannot withstand it. Ronna, if ever we will all die and Sandmen will come to our town… never do that. Never, do you understand? Promise me. Promise. Your soul is precious…
The days are hard. It is very cold in here, my daughter, and food is scarce. I think I am the only woman for leagues and leagues. Men are tired and they don't want to fight. Many wish they were made of steel, and the murmurs travel like fire in the forest that Herons do not exist anymore; because war fields are full of rotting bodies and it is terrifying. No living soul must see that, least of all children that go there to find the corpses of their fathers. I do not know how many tears I've cried over the men whom I had known and whose bodies I had to see. I feel like I'm dying from the inside, Ronna, and I do not know how much more I can cope. But I cannot leave, and I want you to understand that. I cannot leave, for I must protect you and our land. You have no father and I have no husband anymore; that's why I have become a man of our family. Please believe in me, because others don't. They think I'm insane and they blame me for something that I have never done. Just because I'm a woman… I don't know why some who have fought in the same army along with me hate me. It is draining, my daughter, and I wish it will end.
It is almost five. I hear the horn, that means we have been attacked. I will give this letter to the messenger and he will give it to you. I must go. Remember… Here he is. Best wishes and I love you, Ronna!
The yellow paper has somehow slipped out of Ronna's hands and, choking in her tears, she bent to pick it up. The messenger was sitting on the bed, grimly watching her. His eyes were weary and emotionless – too many leagues crossed, too many letters to bring. He has seen so much death, so much sorrow and suffering that he perceived it as normal; as other people look at the rain, or the wind, or something that they live with every day. He did not feel anything anymore and his eyes were dark holes of tiredness. His gaze swept over Ronna, and she looked back.
"May I… ask you a question?" Ronna asked.
"Did anyone… did anyone mistreat my mother in any way, at all?"
Silence. Man lifted his gaze at her again; at this time she could see slight confusion, as if he did not know what to answer her.
"I… no." he said, at last. "Not that I know of."
They both knew he was lying. The hardships of a single woman in an army of men could only be imagined. Ronna was not going to do that right then.
"How did she die?"
"In a battle. When I came in to take the letter from her, the horn sounded – Sandmen attacked. I could not depart until the battle was over… She died like a… soldier that she was." His tone from dull suddenly became meaningful, as if he really thought what he was saying, and for a moment she thought that she had caught a glimpse of something that seemed like respect, or admiration in his eyes.
Awkward silence shrouded the room again, and cutting it with the knife of determination, she said "You may go."
The man got up, as if invisible springs lifted him.
"Don't blame me. I'm just a messenger of death" he said ruefully, opening the door. Giving her his last look, he was gone.
Ronna collapsed on the bed, drowning in her emotions. Tears of rage, of bitterness flowed from her eyes, as she hit the rags that served as a pillow once, twice, many more times with her fists, not knowing, not understanding why. Why had that happened? Her mother was a hero; she was in the same army as all those men, yet she was somehow considered a criminal, a fugitive from her responsibilities – to stay at home. As if the responsibilities she had taken were not larger. Why were people so rigid, so senseless, so dull? Finally sitting up on her bed she took the letter to reread it again, and now she stopped at some sentences, whispering them under her breath, wondering what the dead woman meant. Rest. Die in peace… - what was that? The paper did not have a title, nothing that would resemble a normal letter. It started with seemingly idle explications of the theme of death, told Ronna about the things she knew before – that Sandmen take people's souls, for example. It was written by a hasty hand, handwriting jumping up and down, as if the woman had been nervous. Ronna could imagine her mother; long weary face, skinny hands writing rapidly, and her heart beating as she hears the horn sing the cry of war… The tears came up to young woman's face once again, but she angrily suppressed them. The time for whimpering has ended, and now she will be strong. If her mother was clearly in a disturbed state before her death, Ronna promised herself she will be calm and her mind will be clear. She had to think.
The night coldly stepped over the town, making windows alight and few streetlamps glittering above people's heads that still walked up and down the streets – to neignbour's house and back, to share the sorrow or the happiness. Messengers went to bed in the huts of the families that had provided shelter for them – tomorrow they had to ride to Aidellouan, two and a half days without any rest. Midan was a small town on the border of the West; it was honorifically called the Beginning of the West. From that point on all people spoke Western language, and the King of Aidellouan ruled.
Arius timidly appeared on the east of the night sky, trying to appeal with it cold dull light. Ronna could not sleep. She was standing outside, watching the windows lose the life of light in them, and at the insects crowding around the streetlamp. She started walking. She walked and walked, trying to decide what to do next. She could not stay in this town, she needed to act. She needed to prove to people that her mother was not an outcast, not a freak, that she, Ronna, can and will be the same and even better. Women do not have to stay at home and cook. Women will fight.
Returning to her hut, Ronna layed again and tried to sleep. But sleep did not come. She turned over and over and over and the air above her was aquiver of her thoughts that she radiated like sun radiates light. Thin numerous strands of it floated away out the window, supported by the wind, carried away. At last, she stood up. Arius was long gone, and Morius was declining, willing to give way to the sun that was close. Ronna's feet were carrying her outside the city walls, as she was lost in her fantasies – becoming the female Andeam the Great… there, in her imagination, crowds sang "Ronna the Great! Ronna the Great!" and rose petals descended from the sky…
The blast of air slapped her across the face, and she realized that she was not in the town anymore. Looking behind her, she saw the walls the color of ochre. In front of her was nothing, a large field clear of anything that might conceal the presence of enemy.She blinked, then blinked again. She realized that she did not want to go back to the sleepless realm of her hut, and decided to take a walk around the whole city walls. She stepped, and with every step she could see more and more of the horizon behind the walls. She saw the sky turning pink, lighted up from behind with the rays of early sun
"Where does the sun go when it's not shining on earth?" Ronna thought, "Someone said it descends into the large ocean that the earth is floating in. It washes itself, so that it can be clean and shiny next morning." She smiled. The thought of the sun washing itself in the water brought tender emotions to her heart. The thing so naïve and so simple had driven off her heavy spirits, and she felt peaceful, like one who after a long complications has finally found his way. She breathed in and closed her eyes for a bit, to enjoy the moment of serenity and silence…
When she opened them, she saw a shadow on the horizon.
The distance was great, yet the shadow was very distinct against the rising sun. The distance allowed Ronna to estimate the size of the creature, and she understood that it was much larger than a human being.
Fear stung her heart severely, and her breath became ragged. Bringing her sweaty palm to her eyes to shield them from bright sunlight and to see better, she narrowed her eyes, and gazed. The distance between the creature and the city decreased rapidly. She was not mistaken in her biggest fear. It was the Sandman.
Her heart pounded, her breath became ragged. She looked and looked and looked until her fear drained her, and she just sat down. She sat down on the ground. Everything was lost. She will die, and the people in the town will die. And the people in other town, and the town after that town, and soon all people on earth will die
The figure came closer and closer. It was right before her, and the distance decreased. Concealing the pain, Ronna sat and looked at it, and the silent tears of despair flowed down from her eyes. The Sandman was closer, every gigantic step bringing it nearer. Ronna lost all her feelings; she cared no more. There was just the emptiness inside, dull slow emptiness that did not allow her to move. Her face was petrified, with the mask of sadness on it.
Behind the Sandman others appeared. The beasts never walked alone, but with the army. And the darkness descended on Ronna, and the sun was covered by the bodies of the beasts and nothing else was there, but darkness.
Open your eyes.
Ronna opened her eyes. Something made her do it, something inside of her. She saw the grotesque figure of the Sandman so close, it made her start and get up. Her grey dress was flapping in the wind, and her hair got in the way of her eyes, pushed by the wild wind. -If you let the Sandmen take your soul, you will save others. I will. I will. Give my soul. -Never do it daughter. Never. Die. Rest in peace. Die. Die.
Sandman came up to Ronna. He towered over her, for he was a giant, like all of them; five times more than a height of a human. He was composed of sand. Sand formed his body, constantly, shifting, moving, never stopping, which made the creature look bodiless, the spirit with no physical appearance, but the sand shifting. Yet they were strong. The sand always won, for it could penetrate any wall, any door, any gate, with urge to murder, to kill, to eat. Sandman did not have a face. Sands shifted where it should have been, creating something that resembled a nose and a couple of dents that could have been eyes, nothing else. He stood right in front of Ronna. She closed her eyes again.
Give my soul… give my soul… take my soul… Take it, take it!
Sandman inclined the part of his body that most resembled a head. He lifted his hand, covered Ronna with it, and lifted it again. Ronna was no longer there. She was consumed by the Sandman; through his hand the sands had taken her. A moment after, the beast opened it's mouth: a gigantic hole in the middle of its face, and the body that it produced, fell on the ground.
This was the end of Ronna Daisan.
The Sandman staggered. It tried to regain its posture, but it could not. It fell over, and his body slowly started to melt. The sands shifted rapidly, going down, and soon there was no Sandman anymore. There was merely a pile of sand on the ground. The soul of the prey had killed the predator.
Others stood silently. Then, as if hearing the command no one else could hear, they went around, and further. Gliding softly, the sands of their bodies penetrated the wall and entered the sleeping town.
They murdered all the people. Screams and groans accompanied them as they took the bodies, sucked their souls out and threw them away. When they were done, nothing remained, but the piles of corpses in empty houses. The Sandmen stood at the doorway to the east, and the woman with the little child stood before them; the only that was left alive.
The sacrificed soul of one had saved two from eternal death. Sandmen suddenly shifted; and going around the terrified woman and her baby they went further West, not stopping, not sleeping, not tiring. Wanting.
The woman stayed in the city for the night. Her shock was not gone even next morning, when she made her legs walk southeast, where the city of Car Mareo lay.
"We will get there, Nomanda," the woman whispered, talking more to herself than to her daughter. "I don't know how we stayed alive, but we will make it."