It's what they've known their entire lives.
When a village falls to pieces, how will they face God's wrath?
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It was unusually quiet on the old dirt road, even for a brisk morning like today. The occasional swinging palm tree and softly blowing reed was the only movement I could see streaking off on the long path before me — that, the slowly bobbing head of my young mare beneath me, and the churning ocean in the corner of my left eye. It was probably another sacrifice drawing the crowds away from the roads, that or farmer Lezron’s sheep had got out again, and he’d got half the village rounding them up. Although with his new wall, I suspected the sheep probably weren’t roaming the northern hillside. I shivered, and it wasn’t the breeze sweeping in over the towering coastal cliffs that caught me.
I rode slowly, in no hurry to see the ready-to-light pyre, nor hear the echoing screams of another poor soul dragged out onto the shimmering sands of low tide. So far out did they take their prize, that the sacrifice took place halfway to the horizon. Still, it didn’t stop the screams reaching my ears, carried by that usually so welcome sea air. Sometimes I wished they did it closer to the land. At least then it would be hidden below the cliffs, and wouldn’t have to see it, although I dreaded to think what smell would waft over those plunging ridges. But my anxiousness was for nought. I came across the rise that separated my view from the sprawling beach beyond, to see no crowd, nor a human chained helplessly to a pyre. I did see a pyre though, freshly built and towering in the distance. But it stood bare, with no chanting crowd gathered around it. The tide had even started to come in, I must have left late, and its wooden base was becoming ever more consumed by the sea. The waters were quickly advancing on it, stroking its edges and reaching deep into its heart, slipping through every crack and crevice between the planks of wood and pieces of unwanted furniture that made up its ominous form.
This was an unusual sight. A freshly made pyre going unused. What was going on? With a kick of my shin, I veered off the beaten track and skimmed my way across the grasslands, heading away from the coast with increasing speed. My curious mind was drawn towards the temple, the only place I could think the villagers would have gone. It was too early for so many to have beaten me into town, and with no sign of anyone on the roads, the stables packed and the village deserted, they could be nowhere else.
The quickly drying grasslands, beaten down by the summer heat, barrelled on and on over to the horizon. Foreign folk would be forgiven for thinking this place was nothing but barren fields stretching on until it reached the lusher lands many miles away, but they would have been wrong. These flatlands held a secret.
Not long after I left the path, I came to it. Sprawling before me was a deep pit, the size of a small lake. Its edges were dipped below the tall grasses, hiding it from view until you came close to its precarious ridge. A carefully dug pathway, wide as two men, spiralled like the pattern of a snail’s shell, curving around the edge of the giant oval, steeping gently downwards until it reached the floor deep below. The old Fire Stone quarry had been harvested many centuries ago for its sacred gems; gems consumed by the magic wielders of the eastern capitals in their bizarre rituals. Now it was a sight of worship, a sacred hollow. On the quarry floor lay a temple, built from the black stone that lined the walls of the pit.
The temple, circular in shape with a large domed roof and four pointed pillars dotted around its edge — equidistant from each other — had its doors slung open. Inside I could see shadows moving, but heard only muffled voices — the pit was too deep, and the temple too far away, to make out words. I flung myself from my horse and wandered over to the edge of the pit. Walking the spiralling route could take an eternity, so I opted for a quicker path. I scrabbled down the rock face to the first tier of the pathway beneath me. Gripping bits of protruding rock and shimmying my way down the sheer edges, I carefully dropped lower and lower, quickly drawing upon the temple. My hands were blackened, my tatty tanned linen clothes stained too, although it was hard to know where the old stains ended and the new ones began. Some of the drops could be near five metres to the next layer of path below, but this wasn’t my first visit to the temple, and certainly not the first time I’d opted against the slower option. As I drew closer, I could hear the voices more clearly.
Angry voices. Many angry voices.
Hitting the dusty quarry floor hard, letting myself drop the last metre or so in my hurry to find out what was happening, I quickly snuck up to the temple’s encircling staircase, through the doors and in behind the crowd.
Wooden pews curved around the room, the rows centred around an altar that lay at the very heart of the temple. Light poured in through huge shimmering stained glass windows that lined the base of the massive overarching dome. The building was far too big for the needs of the locals, but you didn’t slack on God’s work.
Around eighty villagers stood spread out in the aisles closest to the door, all wearing grim or angry expressions, their attention drawn towards the Father who stood on the raised altar. Robed in dark red garments lined with black embroidery, hooded and adorned with crimson markings on his face, the Father was quite an intimidating sight. He was not, however, an intimidating man.
He was pleading with the grumbling crowd “Please, there is nothing to be done”.
As I took up my place within the agitated mob, a hand caught my own and spun me around.
“What you doing here, girl?” My neighbour, wrinkled old Marken, glared up at me over his crooked nose. Clawing back his long thin, scraggly grey hair, he revealed narrow, disapproving eyes. “This isn’t your place to be.”
“What’s going on?” I ignored his callous tone and sneering expression.
“And you would care, because?” He hissed. I was trying to listen to the words of the Father but Marken’s heavy breathing wiggled its way deep into my ears.
“Just because I don’t have the stomach for your bloodsport, Gremlin, doesn’t mean I don’t care about what happens in my village”.
Marken snarled and shuffled away without another word. As he left, I caught the words of the Father. I couldn’t have missed them this time.
“It is final!” He bellowed, clearly fed up with the crowd. “You have no say. Ignore the decree and you’ll be hung for heresy”.
“It’s a bloody outrage!” called one of the villagers.
“This is the rule of law.” The Father said in authoritative voice before turning in a sweeping motion of his long robe, streaking through the crowd and out the doors of the temple. Tearing after him, I caught the Father as he rounded towards the back of the temple; he walked with such pace I knew he was hoping to escape before anyone did exactly what I did, and chased after him.
“I seek the Goddesses’ blessing!” I called after him. He became rooted to the spot, sighed a heavy sigh and spun around.
His face was dull, tone irritable. “The Goddess blesses you, may yo-” He paused when he finally took the time to actually see who he was speaking to.
“What are you doing here?”
“What is going on?” I approached him as he sat on the steps of the temple and
beckoned for me to join him. As I shuffled to sit beside him, the murmuring crowd could be heard, out of sight, leaving.
“Hawk from the capital this morning.” The Father handed me a small rolled up note clutched in his hand.
“Henceforth, from this day until the death of Our Lady, none shall be sacrificed in the name of Azra, nor shall fire be used as a tool of death.” I read aloud.
“So, no more pyres?”
“It would seem.” The Father said, grimly. Ahead of us, we could see the first of the villagers drudging their way up the path, still clearly squabbling and venting. “Our Lady seems to have taken to the teachings of the older scriptures and elected to eliminate some of the outlying communities more ‘barbarous’ activities.”
“Are you unhappy about this?” I asked, perplexed. There was only one other person in the village who disliked the sacrifices, and it was the man sat beside me; even if he did light the pyre.
“It kept the people united. It was their one act of servitude and it’s been part of the practice here since our ancestors laid down their homes. It will do our people no good. They have little more than tradition.”
“It will do the people they burned some good.” I retorted in an argumentative tone.
The Father shrugged. “True. The town’s jailer won’t be too happy, though. Plenty of coin he’ll be losing”
“Has to actually watch the prisoners instead of burning them.” I laughed.
“I’ve tried to argue that the people could use their money to buy livestock instead, but they’re adamant that the inscriptions depict people, and so nothing less will do.” The Father groaned and rubbed his face with his hands. The crimson markings smeared and came away on this palms. I grinned as he cursed loudly.
“I worry how it will affect them. How they’ll handle it. The word of Our Lady is valuable to them, but the word of God is more so. You’ll have to be my eyes in the village, watch for any strange activity. Not that they’ll do anything with you around.”
“I’ll ask mother to be my eyes for your eyes.”
“Did you not see your mother in the crowd? She was as angry as any of them. Don’t you tell her I’ve got you spying or she’ll be down here to put me on the pyre.” The Father smirked.
“She’d be hung for heresy!” I said, mockingly.
“If I know your mother, she’d still do it.”
The ramifications of the capital’s decision were immediately felt. When dawn broke over the village the following morning, I threw open the shutters of my attic-bound bedroom to oversee numerous glum and lost souls, wandering about seemingly without direction. I found the whole situation ridiculous in all honesty, sacrifices were held but once every few months, they weren’t a daily occurrence, why should it affect our day-to-day lives? As I tiptoed along the beams that crisscrossed the ceiling on which my makeshift, wall-less, bedroom sat, and swung myself down the ladder to the floor below, I noticed even my mother was still troubled by the events of the day before as well. She sat at the table of our shabby, yet cosy little abode — a small, one-story timber house with little in the way of furniture, save a few cheap wooden chairs, a table, two cabinets and a bed in the corner.
“You okay, mother?” I asked, perching myself on a chair across from her.
She held a vacant stare, looking off into nothingness. A chunk of bread lay in a wooden bowl before her, drowning in a pale yellow broth and surrounded by floating vegetables; a spoon was dipped into the liquid. It seemed untouched.
She pushed the bowl towards me.
She looked at me with a glare. I could feel her disdain. Mother didn’t usually mind my ways of the unholy, as she would often call them. Just a youngster questioning her surroundings, but I could tell she wasn’t in the mood for my contrarian viewpoints today.
“It’ll be okay,” I said earnestly, reaching my hand out towards her. She took it lightly, her gruff expression softening. My mother had a harsh face — pointed and narrow, with hair scraped back in a tight bun, but her eyes were kind when she wanted them to be.
“I know you didn’t agree with them. But our Goddess demanded it of us. Now we face her justice. Her terrible wrath”. My mother’s voice was wrapped with worry, it was almost shaking.
“But Our Lady is the one who decreed it. The voice of Goddess Azra herself. Surely you can trust her to keep us safe?”
“Rulers can make mistakes, dear child.” Mother replied with a grimace.
By the time the week was out, the village was a very different place. People were on edge, living in constant fear. If something went wrong, a sheep died suddenly, a leak appeared in somebody’s roof, it was an omen; a sign that God was angry, and she wanted what she was due. Prayer wasn’t once a week now, it was every morning and every night. The Father was awash with visitors to his temple. I would catch him, exhausted outside. Sleep wasn’t easy when there was a constant banging at your front door. He was close to cursing the decision, we both were. As much as we hated the barbaric, ritualistic burnings, our friends and loved ones seemed lost without them. The rug had been pulled from beneath them and they were still stumbling about, trying to find their feet. There were anger, tears and sheer bewilderment. The aged in particular were at sea. They’d known this way their whole life, and many now feared for their place in the afterlife. Two weeks on from the change, with the cloud of an imposing God’s wrath still very much floating over the village, the Father called a special sermon.
He spoke from scrolls he’d dug out of his library, hoping their words would bring comfort in these confused times. The Father now spent his days trying to soothe and console people, and his nights searching for answers.
“Your servitude is not born of simple ideal. It is born of true belief, that only you can decide how best to show your faith.’ He said regaling the crowd, a tatty piece of parchment spread aloft before him. He would constantly spin around, talking to all those that surrounded his circular altar. The temple was packed out, as it always was these days.
“Divinity has no right answer, nor wrong answer. Divinity is within your heart. A cruel and twisted heart can still follow the teachings of God.” He continued. “But that heart shall face the holy judgement.”
The Father rolled up the parchment and looked around at the herd of wide-eyed followers. “You hear that? From the world of ancients, a scroll of God’s will. A sacrifice is not what she needs. She needs a pure heart. She needs you to follow your own path to her.”
The crowds began to look around to each other, uncertain of what they were being told. There seemed to be a sort of acceptance, nods of agreements, although the looks of worry were no less obvious. The mood was sombre, for all except two. In one of the back rows, two men were arguing in hushed tones. Inaudible, but clearly heated. They were hunched over, ducked behind the pew in front of them. A loud cough from the Father caught their attention. One of them was the grizzled old Marken.
“Out, both of you.” The Father barked. He’s seemed to have found his voice in this time of crisis. I was impressed.
The two men carried on squabbling as they left the temple, letting the heavy doors swing closed behind them with a crack. The Father carried on trying to abate the crowd’s concerns, yet by the time everyone was leaving, there was no mistaking the unease in the air. Words of comfort might take the edge off, but they were still, in their eyes, angering a being of almighty power. After a long trudge out of the temple at my mother’s side, far ahead of the group behind us — after all the commotion, I was careful to keep my distance — we came across one of the men that had been arguing. He was sat on the dirt-encrusted knoll overlooking the path, waiting for his wife.
“What was that all then?” My mother asked sharply.
“Marken wasn’t taking to kindly to the idea of the Father. I was telling him we have to give him a chance.” the man said, testily. “The bastard wouldn’t shut his mouth all the way up here. Said he was having none of this nonsense. Said he’s going to find his son out eastward. He’s abandoned us. I’m sorry to say gal…” He turned to me “But he took your horse.”
I was so preoccupied with the story that I hadn’t noticed my mare was no longer tied to the post I’d dug into the earth. I’d ridden her down here so I could head to town, and the market, after the sermon. I looked to the floor, saddened. My mother slung her arm around me.
“The old fool will die on the road” my mother replied coldly, “and good riddance.”
She lead me away, back towards the village. My heart was heavy. I rather liked my horse. I’d had her three years. Mother always said don’t get attached. That she was worth money and we had little, but I wasn’t good at listening to my mother on the best of days. Upset, I went to bed early, not getting up even for the heavy knocks at the door or to question my mother when she returned home later than usual. It was unlike her, but the whole community was acting differently at the moment, and I was starting to become disinterested in the whole thing. Now somebody had stolen the only thing I could talk to, and have listen to me without being judged or mocked, save the Father, and I wasn’t in the mood to humour their little tantrum anymore.
But I didn’t have to. The morning brought with it new life to the people. Sleep and the sermon seemed to have helped reinvigorate their spirits. There was certainly still an unease about the air. People were smiling and friendly, as they had been before the decree had reached us, just a bit more timid; a bit more awkward than usual; but a knock like the one they received would do that. I had hope. Hope for a world without sacrifices where our village could live in peace with itself. I took my mother’s horse to town that morning, stopping off at the temple to encourage the Father to keep looking for similar scrolls, that the people were improving. His elation was hide to mask. The effects had been so sudden, so severe, we both worried for the sanity and safety of the villagers, but now, things seemed to be looking up. Even without my own horse, I quite enjoyed the ride to town. It was quiet outside the village, but I knew now it wasn’t because somewhere on the beach below, watching as somebody was being dragged to a gruesome death. People were simply too busy putting their lives back in order after the turmoil of the past few weeks to worry about trade or visits to town.
Town, otherwise known as Clockworth Harbour, was a bustling trading port set in the shadow of some overhanging chalk cliffs. It was the meeting point for many smaller villages spread across the coast, and both the hub of trade coming from the islands beyond the horizon, and also the cities further inland. Clockworth was by far the largest settlement I’d ever visited. A mix of many wooden houses, warehouses, taverns and huts, all connected through muddy streets and encircled by spiked timber fencing, it was not my favourite place to be. It was rough and dirty. If it weren’t so dank I’d have probably moved here years ago. I enjoyed the liveliness, the shouting merchants, crowds of people and worldly curiosities lining the market stalls spread across the entire town, but it lacked the colour I’d grown accustomed too. And the people could be quite… unsavoury. Everything was either brown or grey in this town. Even the sky overhead seem drearier.
I made my way through the crowds, the hoofs of my mother’s large steed sloshing through the mud, heading towards the docklands. Despite their detestment of my heathenistic ways, the village was a bright and kind community when it wanted to be, and they had all banded together to buy me a new horse. A satchel of coins was tied to my waist, and I sought out a trader of mares. I wanted something a bit lighter and gentler than the giant upon which I rode. I found him, by the water’s edge, horses to his left, drinking from the shallows or wading in through the water, and bales of hay to his right. He paid no attention to me as I drew closer, instead focusing on a carving he carefully scored with a threatening looking blade.
Dismounting, I rounded on the horses for sale. One, in particular, had caught my eye. The moment it saw me, it wandered over, caught a few feet away by the rope attached to its front leg. This was my horse, my mare. Gently stroking her, I shot a glare over at the trader.
“Where did you find this horse?”
“Wandering the fields south of the town border.” He replied in a dry tone, his gaze remaining fixed on his carving. “50 coin, 55 with a saddle.”
“This is my horse,” I said forcefully, untying the rope bound tightly to her leg.
This got the trader’s attention. He rose quickly, leaving the carving but keeping his knuckles firmly gripped around the handle of his blade. He approached me, brandishing the knife. His face was splattered with dirt, as were his ragged old clothes. His bent nose, cold stare and crooked lip didn’t inspire much warmth. He stood over me, outmatching my stature by two foot or more.
“This is my horse,” I repeated strongly, looking up at him, although my nerve was starting to break.
The trader leaned in, his dark and beady eyes locked with my ever more timid stare. “50 coin, 55 with a saddle.” He repeated, harshly. Pausing, he looked me up and down. “How old are you?”
“Fourteen” I replied proudly, still holding my tone.
The trader grinned a half-toothless grin. “Maybe we can work out some other way for you to pay for my horse.”
He stroked the side of my neck, before moving his hand lower, trying to drag the corner of my top off my shoulder. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, I shuddered as he moved his hand down my arm. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
I rode mother’s steed back to the village, my mare trotting happily alongside us, kept close by a length rope tied loosely around her neck. I wasn’t going to pay five coin for a saddle, even if my own horse did cost me 50. On the road home I came across the man who had argued with Marken shortly before the old bastard had stolen my horse. He seemed aghast at the sight of me.
“I thought we sent you to buy a new horse!” He boomed, laughing, as I sidled up beside him.
“The trader found her near the water by Clockworth. Refused to hear that she was mine, had to buy my own horse!” I spoke with annoyance in my voice, but in truth, I was just happy to have her back, and happier I’d been able to pay for her with coin.
“Least she’s home now, ay?” He replied with a smile.
Continuing on to the village, I was glad he’d taken the news so well. I was worried that the villagers would be angry to hear their coin was spent on a horse that already belonged to me, especially since we weren’t exactly the wealthiest of folk. I was tempted by another mare, simply to avoid such problems, but I couldn’t be without her, not when I knew she was mine to be had. Surprisingly, the mood amongst all those I came across was decidedly similar. They were all very much surprised to see me back with the very mare I’d been robbed of, but seemed pleased all the same. I was almost taken aback by the niceties, surely somebody was bothered by the whole affair? I suppose the Father’s words of twisted hearts must have been ringing in their ears. If they couldn’t appease God through sacrifice, they were determined to do it through kindness. Not that I was complaining. People were being far friendlier towards me than they ever were before. I was even starting to feel a bit less like the black sheep by the time I reached home, after stopping for the twelfth time to explain my story to bewildered passersby. Maybe they thought, now the killing had stopped, they could bring me back towards the righteous path. I was tempted, I had to be honest. I never considered myself a non-believer, but their practices went beyond the bounds of my disposition; and my stomach.
Dinner with my mother wasn’t our usual muted affair. I felt like talking, so much running through my mind.
“But why wouldn’t he sell her? I mused as I chewed through a lean leg of lamb. Meat was not something we enjoyed often in the village, but the spirits of the farmers had been so uplifted by the Father’s discovery that they’d given everyone a piece of their recent slaughters. The generosity of the people seemed to be overflowing since yesterday’s sermon.
“He was an idiot.” my mother replied curtly. “Don’t dwell on it my girl, just be thankful you got her back”.
“Yes but…” I continued. “To find her out on the road like that. It meant he rode her to Clockworth, I assume to catch a ride to the islands, and just left her. Surely he wasn’t that daft? He rode off with nothing but the clothes on his back, he’d have needed money.”
“It appears he was that daft” Mother retorted, leaning over the table to ladle some more broth. “Enough of this chatter, I detest talking about that creature.”
“The village seems very happy,” I remarked, changing the subject — still eager to talk. “The Father really woke everyone to the idea of a more merciful God, didn’t he?”
“She is as she says she is. We follow her guidance and hers alone” Mother replied, almost chanting. “Her word is law.”
I should have figured it out then, but I didn’t.
Like a half-wit, I carried on believing all was well. I went to sermons frequently, got involved in the community more and became a part of our thriving little village. Everyone seemed happy; everything seemed like it was right. It was three months on when things started to take a turn. People were becoming distant again; agitated. There seemed to be a cloud hanging over us once more. Nobody said it, nobody bored the crowds with their fears of impending judgement and wrath, but it sure felt the same as before. Everyone started to behave weirdly. My mother would pace around the house. Not in the house. Outside the house. Late into the night, wandering in circles. I’d wake in the morning to find her asleep on a stack of hay leaning up against the wall. When I asked her what was going on, she evaded, mumbled and trailed off. I pressed her, tried to call her out on her obvious avoidance tactics, but she was a stubborn little barb, my mother, push too far and she’d sting you hard. After about a week, I woke to find her asleep in her bed. Nestled up, all cosy in the corner of our single, open room. Wrapped in a blanket, she looked quite content. That morning the village was back to its chirpy self. The clouds of unease faded, and people got on with their lives like they had before. It was as if nothing had ever bothered them at all. I was well and truly puzzled, for all of three days. Then it hit me; pretty damn hard.
Swinging the door open at the crack of dawn, on my way down to the coast to hunt for crab meat and search for herbs from the cliff walls, for which my mother, the local chemist, would use to make sleeping drafts and drinks to soothe pain, I was knocked aside by one of the villagers as he walked past carrying a crudely constructed wooden coffin. I hit the wall of my house with a thud, much to the surprise of my assailant, who peered over the box supported on his shoulder.
“Sorry, my dear girl!” The coffin bearer cried, carefully laying the clearly empty item beside him before rushing over to help me up.
“It’s alright,” I said, brushing myself off whilst eying up the coffin. “Who died?”
“Poor old Widow Millio.” The man replied, solemnly. “She’d been sick for some time now, but gave the last of her strength last night.”
“That is a shame” I replied softly. The widow had a bright heart. She’d never been a fan of my heretic ways, but recently we’d grown closer, now I had joined the true path, as she called it. Yet, it was odd. I had seen the woman not five days prior and she was in perfect health. A sudden turn was not unheard of for her age, but surprised me all the same. As myself and the coffin bearer wandered off in different directions, I was caught by a sudden thought.
“How did you get that made so quickly? The markets won’t be open yet.”
“Oh, we put it together this morning.” The man seemed startled by my question. He turned sharply, nearly dropping the coffin. “They want a burial as soon as possible.”
“I didn’t think we had a carpenter in the village?” I pressed, puzzled.
“No.” The man responded awkwardly, pausing for a moment. “We… we just had a go ourselves, me and a few of the farmer’s lads.”
“Oh.” It seemed a strange thing to do, but it wasn’t exactly the sharpest or finest of coffins. “Well, good job not waking me! I’d have thought those hammer blows would have carried over the entire village.”
The man gave a stunted laugh before turning on his heels and walking in the opposite direction. But where he moved away, I stayed rooted to the spot. Working over what had just happened in my mind.
The next thing I knew, I was hammering on the door of the temple. Locked this early in the morning, I was met by a sour-faced Father, who edged the door open a hair to peer out and see who it was. Noticing it was me, he let it swing open and, with a yawn, perched on one of the wooden pews. He was draped in his usual robes, but not yet managed to put on the full makeup. He looked bleary-eyed and impatient. He gestured for me to get on with it.
“They’re sacrificing each other.” I blurted out, unable to put the words in a better order in my mind.
“What?” The Father asked with a raised eyebrow, seemingly amused.
“Widow Millio, she’s dead.”
“They told me she was sick. I was due to see her this morning. Very unwelcome news, but I think you’re stretching.”
“The day after Marken disappeared, everyone was happy again.”
“I gave them a reason to be,” retorted the Father, resentment in his voice.
“They found my horse running in the wilds. Why wouldn’t he sell it?
“He wasn’t the smartest of people, Myah.”
“Listen to me. Marken disappears, the village is happy. Three months later, around the time of sacrifice, everyone gets edgy. Then, everyone is happy again. Then, suddenly, Widow Millo is dead of sickness. The farmers apparently built a coffin this morning, without the knowledge or tools. Without waking the entire village hammering nails into solid wood.”
“Coffins aren’t exactly the toughest thing to build, and they probably just made it slowly. Marken’s leaving was a pure coincidence. The village was edgy because it was the usual time of sacrifice, but nothing bad happened, again, and they realised it was going to be okay, again” The Father was clearly not interested in what I was saying, rubbing his tired eyes and speaking dully.
“You’re a fool,” I shouted, marching away and slamming the door behind me. Quickly I peered back around it for one final remark. “Who do you think’s next, ay? How about the heretic girl, or the Father who opposed their values of worship?”
Angrily I marched up the curving quarry path, but by the top, the anger had abated, and I was just scared. I was alone in my thoughts. The Father would be the only one who would ever believe me. Without him, I was truly without a chance of stopping whatever the villagers were doing. I needed his help, but what could I do? Surely I would be a target. Maybe not the next victim, but if they did this every few months, eventually it would be between me and somebody else, and I would lose. The Father was in danger, too. As much as he participated in the sacrifices, he constantly voiced his concerns about them and his desire to have them ended. He was also a man of faith and wouldn’t question the orders of those who claimed to be the voice of God. I could see them thinking us both a threat. But which was more?
Time passed as it did before. A period of happiness and contentment, but I was wary this time. The smiles, the generosity, were they just luring me in for an easy kill? Again, as expected, as we drew ever closer to the usual time of sacrifice, the mood darkened, although not quite as bad as before. I was nervous, a sense of foreboding hung above my bed every evening, as my mother trotted around the house into the dead of night. Seemingly waiting for something. This time though, I was awake with her. I watched her, through the cracks in the wooden-panelled walls, as she’d circled the house. Then, without warning, she was gone; failing to make her usual pass by my room. I quickly scrambled out of bed, slid out the door and was away into the night.
Catching sight of her wandering off through the village, arms crossed, elbows-dug into her sides anxiously, I followed. I had to be careful of my footsteps on the dirt, stone and twig encrusted path below, she wouldn’t be happy if she caught me. She was heading for a flickering light atop of a gentle hill in the distance; where farmer Lezron kept his sheep. The outline of the dark horizon was just visible in the moonlight. My mother wasn’t the only one moving towards the hill. As a door in front of me creaked open, I quickly leapt behind a market cart sat chained to the house. With more footsteps behind me, I crept around the gap between the wall and its wooden frame, peering out into the night, hidden from view. Dozens of villagers were heading up towards the flickering light, knocking quietly on doors and whispering to others.
“It’s time.” I heard one say.
As the village masses congregated on the hillside, I managed to slip in behind the last of the crowd and follow them up the pathway, through the lines of houses of our unassuming little village, towards the top of the hill. Between the village and the open pasture of the hillside was a low-lying and jagged stone wall. After watching the last of the villagers hop their way over a particularly low section of it, I edged my way over and crouched in its shadow.
There they all were, nearly every member of the village, save the youngest children. They gathered around a lone tree bathed in the light of two flaming torches hanging from its branches. They encircled the tree, kneeling before it. Once the final person took their place, neck bent low before the tree, low-mumbling broke out — soft chanting. Suddenly, a hand caught my shoulder. I leapt up with a jolt, heart pounding, to find myself beneath the towering and daunting figure of the last person I wanted to see.
“You followed me,” my mother grumbled.
“You wouldn’t tell me what you were doing” I barked back, still trying to catch the breath she’d just torn from my lungs.
“Because you wouldn’t understand.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, unable to hide my suspicion, the pitch of my voice rising.
“We’re praying to God. Asking for forgiveness for our crimes. Asking for forgiveness for abandoning her teachings and following a false idol. The Father told us to make our path so we are, we denounce the Voice of God and send her our own.”
“You’re killing people, again?”
“No. The Father won’t allow it.”
“So why didn’t you tell me what you were doing?”
“Because the people still don’t trust you, Myah. They’re taking you in, but they need time before they can believe you care for them like they care for you. And if you were to tell others of our denouncement of God’s Voice, we’d all be hung same as for sacrificing.” My mother’s gaze was fierce, her voice stern.
“Now back to bed before anyone sees you and panics.”
Without a word I turned tail and walked away. I didn’t want to people to be fearful, not now they’d found a way of coping. Who cares if they denounced some supposed prophet in a palace miles from here? As long as they stopped killing people, I was happy. No more screams, no more subtle scents of burning flesh gently wafting over the clifftops. But then something caught my eye. In the light of stars, down an alleyway peeling off to my right, I caught sight of what looked to be four men, walking through the darkness, each holding a corner of some sort of box. It was the length of the man and perhaps as deep as a small child. They were heading in the opposite direction to me, up towards the hilltop and the crowd. I spun around and headed back for the flickering light, peeking out from the corner of a house to watch them. As they reached the wall they clambered over it carefully. The front two men went first, taking the weight of the box, before the two behind swung their legs over to join them. The box bumped against the stone wall as they went, and, as it did so, let out a metallic rattle.
The still-kneeling crowd shuffled apart as the troupe reached them, making a narrow path between which the men could walk through. Reaching the base of the tree, they carefully placed the box upright, so it stood just taller than they were. From the crowd, a man stood, while those carrying the box took up their place kneeling beside their kin — all except one, who remained rooted beside the tree. This man was cloaked in a long robe. I couldn’t see his face but I knew who it was. So taken by the events, or perhaps muddled by the darkness, I hadn’t noticed the Father helping to carry the box up the hill. The one who had risen seemed to lean over a woman at the front of the crowd. Stopping, I think he kissed her on the forehead. He then approached one of the flaming torches and unhooked it from the branch, before slowly taking up a place before the box. In the light of the flames, I could see that it was open and hollow, filled with hay, grass, sticks and other bits of wood. On either side of the interior, there appeared to be a chain about waist height, with some sort of metal band attached to the end of it. The man stood motionless for a moment, I could see his shoulders moving with heavy breath. Eventually, he turned to face the crowd, handing the torch to The Father beside him.
“In the light of Azra, I give myself to her and the flame. I give myself so my wife may eat, so my children may grow old.” His voice was harsh but quaking. I could hear the fear in it. It carried its way down the hill to me in the breeze, clear as anything. The Father handed him a vial of liquid, which he gulped down quickly, before taking out what seemed to be a long cloth that had been buried in his legwear. Slowly, he wrapped it around his face, covering his mouth. It then dawned on me what the wrap was for - so the sleeping me wouldn’t hear the screams. He stepped inside the box and shuffled around to face the crowd, bits of hay and grass falling onto the ground in front of him as he moved. He placed his hands in the bands locked to chains either side of him, rattling the links as he did so. The Father, one hand still gripping the torch, snapped a clasp shut on both of them, sealing him in place. Slowly, the Father moved behind the box and lowered it, gently, until it lay on the ground; the man no longer visible. He held the flickering fire overhead, then dropped it in.
I stifled a gasp as I watch the flames immediately flick up into the air. Flecks of fire-encrusted wood spitting up from the already roaring blaze. The fire went up fast, it was likely the box had doused in some kind of hard-liquor from town. The man inside was clearly writhing in pain, the box shook from side-to-side violently. Then, as the fire started to consume the surrounding wood, it fell still. I watched on, in horror, as the fire softly crackled, flames licking up into the air in a gentle breeze. The people of the village simply knelt as one of their own burned before their eyes; watching as smouldering ash drifted away into the night.
I lay in bed, eyes wide, as my mother crept in and swiftly fell asleep, her low-rumbling snores making me ever more angry with each peaceful inhale. This was the third time they’d taken one of their own. Tomorrow, they would all be happy again. Beaming sweetly, offering me bread and asking about my afternoon. The thought of facing them disgusted me. That man was so afraid. Yet, then another thought swam into my head: he was also so willing. He gave himself without hesitation. He gave himself because these people cannot stop.
In the morning, I found myself yet again at the doors of the temple. I’d rushed passed all those gleaming faces; faces I’m sure turned sour the moment I passed. Wondering if my cold shoulder and pace to get out of the village meant their secret had been discovered. The Father opened unbarred the door to my scowl, and immediately knew what I was there for.
“How long have you known?” I demanded, forcing my way past him.
“I didn’t know about Marken.”
“Yes,” He nodded, shamefully.
“But if you burned her, why the coffin?” It seemed an odd question, out of the many in my head, but it shone brighter than the rest.
“Cover our tracks. From you, from any passersby or whispers”.
“I thought you wanted an end to the sacrifices?”
“Oh, I did. I do. To throw the fire on Dullan like that, to watch his eyes scream out pain
that no sound could ever convey, is something I will take with me until I die.” The Father breathed out heavily. “But the people will not stop, Myah. This is their way of life, it always has been, and it always will be. They will die for it. You saw that last night, and you will see it if we’re ever discovered. But they are prepared to hang, rather than risk God’s wrath. God’s wrath is eternal, and when eternity is on the line, nothing more is to be considered.”
I crouched down, my head full of thought. I felt like the screaming that should have come from that burning box was now coming from my own mind. I didn’t know what to do.
“Why don’t they just keep buying more from the jailor, then?
“Too risky. The jailor is a man after coin, he’d sell us out… Are you going to keep the secret?” The Father’s voice was a welcome break from my own tortured head, but it was not much easier to hear. I didn’t know, I didn’t want to answer. How could I stand by, knowing the villagers were burning each other? But if I ratted them out, they’d all be killed. My mother too. My mind then fell onto my mother. What if she were to be chosen, or offered herself, as a sacrifice? Next time, the time after that, or five years from now? There were only so many people in the village. Only a finite pool from which to pluck the next to serve God. Silently, I rose and left. The Father watched after me silently at the door, as I slowly made my way up the path. I had to make a choice. I had to act. But what that act was exactly still eluded me. I had time to think though, time to ponder. Three months, in fact.
“Do not tell them I know,” I called back, just as the Father was shutting the door. He gave a firm, silent nod.
I wasn’t back in that temple for quite some time. Not, in fact, until the next period of sacrifice. Again, I knocked on the door early in the morning, before most were awake, but what greeted the Father was far from the ordinary. I stood before him, the reigns of my horse in hand, a man slung over the saddle above me. The horse trader, the man who had tried to take my body as payment for my beloved mare, lay in a crumpled heaped, tied to the horse he had robbed me of. Taking out a knife, I cut the rope and let him slide onto the floor beside the stone steps. The Father simply watched on, utterly bewildered.
“This man is deserving of your fire,” I said coldly, as the trader groaned in a deep stupor, eyes still very much closed. “I gave him some of mother’s sleeping draft. A lot, actually, while I rode him out of town and into the plains, where it was quiet and nobody…” I shuddered again, the very thought leaving me with an overwhelming urge to exhale in revolution “Would hear me…”
“Myah?” The Father was lost for words, not sure what to make of the child offering up a man for death before his eyes.
“The people of this town are good people. They don’t deserve to die. This man is not a good person. He does deserve to die.” I looked at the creature curled up on the floor, my lip curling at the very sight of him. “Set him ablaze, or let him go and kill somebody else. It’s up to you.”
I took a flask from satchel hooked onto my mare’s saddled and handed it to the Father. It was full of a clear liquid.
“That’ll be enough to keep him out until tonight,” I said, as I mounted up. “I’ll see if I can find more like him for your fires. I’ll talk to mother, she’s spent plenty of time in that town, I’m sure she’ll have a thought or two.”
“If we just take people, they’ll notice eventually.”
“It’s a rough town, a busy town. People go missing all the time… ” I shrugged, pulling my horse away and heading off and out of the quarry. “At least, that’s what we’ll tell people.“
As I rode away, the Father caught me by the leg. “You don’t have to do this, Myah.”
“We make our own path, right?” I said, kicking out and forcing his hand off my leg. I didn’t look back, I just carried on riding.