Dawn came far earlier than it did for those down below. The bright, cold rays hit the upper edge of the valley, making the bare rock glow as if on fire. The sheep began to get restless. Aerin woke up.
It was bitterly cold in her small valley on top of the world. Even an hour later, when the sun reached the grass on the valley floor, she walked around in her huge, wooly cloak that made her look twice as big as she really was. The sun rose, pale and watery in the thin air, and shone its cold rays on her little world.
It was just her, in that tiny valley on the summit of Mt. Odinokii—her and her flock of Ambrulo sheep. Everything about the valley was special. There was a special reservoir cut below the valley because rain almost never fell that high up and every drop that did was precious. The grass was special since normal grass would not grow in such cold and thin air. The sheep were bred specially for high altitudes and it was said that it was the thin air that made their hearts delicious beyond imagining.
Aerin herself was special. She had been chosen and had trained for five years until she was an expert on everything concerning the Ambrulo sheep: breeding, diet, surgery, infant delivery, psychology. She stood alone in expertise concerning the Ambrulo.
She led the sheep out of their pen and into the long fenced-in lane towards the water trough. As they walked, the sheep pushed against levers that drove the pump that brought the water up from the reservoir below. Aerin walked next to them, calling them by name and inspecting them. Once they had all drank and started grazing, she went over to the pulley and looked down.
The pulley was her only contact with the world. There were actually two pulley and two platforms: when one went up, the other went down, a thousand feet or more to the first staging platform. Beyond that, there were more ropes and pulleys and then a narrow, treacherous road that wound for miles down the side of the mountain until it reached habitable regions.
Every two weeks, she sent a sheep down and in exchange, received its weight in food—her only food for the next two weeks. The sheep was then brought down the mountain and two hundred miles to the palace, in full haste and with a full security detail. There, its heart was prepared by the one chef in the kingdom who was qualified, and then eaten by the king and his nobles.
Aerin went to the grazing flock and walked through them, burying her hands in their thick coats as she passed. “Nivis, perhaps? No, let him grow a little more. Jasquet, maybe? No, let her stay with her lamb a little longer. Peros? Okay, let it be Peros.” She guided the chosen sheep out of the flock and towards a scale where she weighed it.
A flash of a red flag far below told her that they were ready. She guided Peros onto the platform, then closed the gate. A lever pulled, the anchor released and the platform swung free. She began adding small weights to the platform, until a moment later, sheep and platform began to descend.
Aerin stood looking out over the world, waiting. The darkest of blue skies above her reached out in all directions until it reached the curving horizon far away. Below, the land spread out like a mosaic of greens, browns and blues, except where huge white masses of clouds obscured her view.
Many minutes passed before the ascending platform arrived, filled with food and the next shipment’s weight requirement. Long before, there had been notes for her from family and friends and the workers on the lower stages. No more, though. She unloaded her food in silence and carried it into her cave.
She lay on top of the observation tower, her high platform built in the very center of the valley. The sun had passed its zenith and was slowing dipping towards the western curve of the Earth. Aerin lay looking up into the featureless dark blue and this was how the high-air sprites found her, as they always did.
“Aerin, Aerin, come play with us. Come fly with us.” Every time, like a greeting.
“I have no wings, my friends.”
“Neither do we,” they laughed. “Wings would do no good up here. Come, though, and be like us.”
“But who would take care of the sheep?”
“What care do they need? There is nothing to harm them here.”
“Who will give them water?”
“Let them figure out how to walk through the fenced lane by themselves. If they are too stupid, then maybe they do not deserve to live.”
“Who will send them down every two weeks to the king?”
“The king? He will not starve without an Ambrulo heart to eat every two weeks. Do not worry about him.” There were many sprites around her now, laughing, playing, beckoning her towards them. “Come, come be one of one, Aerin the Lonesome, Aerin the Solitary, Aerin, Queen of the Upper Airs.” They laughed, but they were not mocking.
“And how would I become like you?” she asked, although she knew what they would say.
“Leave your confines. Jump from the edge of the mountain. Fly up among us and soar through the atmosphere, higher and higher. Too timid, too shy, too tied to the cruel, hard earth.”
“I am not like you,” she said, as she had said many times before. “The Earth has a pull on me which I cannot escape, even if I tried.”
The sun had reached the borderland of the western horizon. Already, at the base of the mountain, it was full night. Aerin got up and herded the sheep into the cave, shutting the heavy doors against the freezing darkness that encroached on them.
She went to stand at the western edge of the valley and watched the sun descend to meet the Earth in a rack of fiery clouds. As she looked down on the world, alone, her heart ached with a pain that had nothing to do with the cold or thin air. The sun went down and black, icy night covered everything.
The sprites were playing and shouting in the air far above here, dancing among the cascade of glittering stars that pierced the blackness. The ache in her heart eased as she watched them and she smiled as she pulled her hood up around her head.
Life is still beautiful, she thought.