Meritha did not know how she knew Elan was to be chosen that day. She had always had what the villagers called second sight—in fact, it had been one of the factors in her decision to become a priestess—but as she awoke in the darkness in her small room in the temple before dawn of the summer solstice, certainty lay heavy in her gut. The sacrificial lottery was to be held today, followed by the sacrifice itself, and she knew that Elan, the man she loved, would be chosen. She knew this, and she could not live with the knowledge that she, a priestess of the Lady, dedicated to serving life, must with her own hands send her beloved—or any innocent person—to death in the name of the Goddess she loved.
Since childhood Meritha had loved Elan secretly, quietly, with her whole heart and soul. She knew they were connected at the soul level, even if he did not. It mattered to her not at all that Elan barely knew she existed. She loved him anyway for who he was, a simple good man who had always been kind to her. And even as she was about to give her life for him, she expected nothing more.
As the dim light increased Meritha performed her morning ablutions, donning the simple robe of a priestess. Later on she would wear the sacrificial robe of undyed linen. And after that, she reflected without sadness, she would never need to wear anything again.
Making her way to the priestesses’ chapel, she opened the door and knelt briefly before entering, murmuring a ritual greeting to the Goddess. Then she rose and looked into the room. Varnished wooden benches lined its walls, with an altar in the middle on which lit candles burned in silver candlesticks on either side. The middle of the altar was bare, to symbolize the unknowable nature of the Goddess. Here the priestesses offered their worship morning and evening, and Meritha, who was a trained singer as well as a promising priestess of middle rank, often led them in prayer. For the last time, she thought as she walked into the middle of the empty room and stood at the altar, waiting for her sister priestesses to arrive.
The service passed in her mind like a blur. Fortunately she had many years’ experience in leading the service of the Goddess, so she could lead prayers half-asleep if she must. But this morning all she thought and all she saw seemed raw-edged, as though she were thinking it or seeing it for the first time. And since this would be her last time serving before the altar, she prayed with all her soul.
As Meritha prayed she reflected that she realized, with the certainty that had never yet failed her, that she would not be sleeping in her bed that night or ever again, because by nightfall or the next day’s dawn at the latest she would be dead, her body reduced to ashes, offered reverently in sacrifice to the Goddess in place of Elan, whom she loved and who did not know she loved him. She knew with the same certainty as she knew that the sun rose every morning that Elan would be chosen as the sacrificial offering and that she, Meritha, using the ancient but never invoked Rite of Substitution, would offer herself as the sacrifice in his place. And that he might well never know what she had done for him, or why.
Sentiment had nothing to do with it, nor did heroics. Meritha was a young woman and wanted to live. But she knew that watching Elan suffer in the flames—for the victim was sacrificed by fire, burned alive—would be far more agonizing to her than suffering them herself, and if replacing him as the sacrifice was the only way to avoid the pain she would endure if she must see him burn, so be it.
When the service was over, the priestesses broke their fast with a simple meal. Meritha could hardly eat, but she forced herself to swallow. If she was to save Elan, she must keep up her strength.
The sacrificial lottery was held shortly after dawn. The priestesses gathered on the terrace of the temple, and Meritha looked down at the people gathering below. Some looked up at the priestesses in awe, others in terror. Still others looked up toward them in subdued fury, feeling them responsible for the terrible grief and agony that plagued the village once every forty-nine years.
And Elan and I just happen to be the right age for it, Meritha thought ruefully. Well, in a little while the people will have no reason to doubt our service to them.
The courtyard quieted as the High Priestess Thelis called the crowd to order.
“We are gathered here to perform a difficult and sorrowful duty,” she began. “Today one of our village will be chosen to come before the Goddess in sacrifice. Once every forty-nine years the Goddess exacts this tribute of us that we may live in peace, that our fields may be fertile and our crops abundant. The sacrifice of one for all is part of living in community, and each and every one of us stands ready to make that sacrifice today, if it should be demanded of us.
“I, too, take part in the lottery. My name is written on a shard in the sacred bowl, as is that of every priest and priestess here. We are not exempt, and each one of us is willing to serve the Goddess and our people with her or his own life, if the Goddess should demand it. This bowl was filled last night, before witnesses, who will attest that no name has been withheld and that all has been done fairly.”
Thelis bared her arm, holding her hand high above her head to show that it was empty and that nothing was hidden upon her person. The priestess of the oracles, Laneia, folded the High Priestess’s sleeve and tied it back. Then another priestess tied back both of Laneia’s sleeves, and she reached for the bowl that contained the name of every resident of the village, from the headman and his family to the simplest servant. Bare-armed in public for the first time in her adult life, Laneia knelt before the High Priestess, holding the bowl before her.
“May the Goddess be with us and bless the one she chooses,” the High Priestess intoned. “So may it be,” the villagers answered as the High Priestess placed a wooden stick into the bowl and stirred it seven times as the villagers and priests bowed their heads in prayer.
Buoyed by a strength not entirely her own, the High Priestess laid the stick aside and reached into the bowl. Her fingers closed around a clay shard, and she whispered a prayer as she drew it out. Goddess, she prayed silently, I would rather die myself than send another to the fire. I beseech you, lift your decree, or if you will not, then let me be the chosen one, and then let me be the last to suffer in this way.
Before reading the name aloud, Thelis held the shard up so that all the priests and priestesses might bear witness. Meritha felt the world dip around her as she read the name she had known would be there: Elan, son of Kanno and Helethi.
“Has everyone seen the name?” the High Priestess asked. “Then in the Lady’s name I declare—”
Before the High Priestess could utter another word, Meritha sprang forward and seized the shard from the High Priestess’s grasp, raised it high above her head and hurled it to the floor of the terrace, where it smashed to pieces. The crowd gasped.
The High Priestess turned as white as her robe. “Child,” she whispered in horror, “do you realize what you have just done?”
Meritha did not falter. Kneeling in one swift, graceful movement, she passed her hand over the broken clay pieces, picking up as many of them as she could reach. Then, holding them in her palms, she held them upward in a ritual gesture of offering and then touched them to her forehead and heart as Thelis, realizing what was happening, clutched at Laneia for support.
Meritha spoke, her voice shaking a little at first. “I call all of you to witness, my sister priestesses and my High Priestess, whom I love and revere as the Goddess herself, and all gathered here: I, Meritha, priestess of the Lady, offer myself as the sacrifice, freely and without constraint. Let my own name replace the name that was on this shard that I have broken, and let the one who bears that name live free of the duty of sacrifice. Instead of him let me be purified with the sacred sprinkling, and instead of his head let mine be crowned with the sacrificial garland. In place of his body, let mine be her offering. So I ask, so I make my lawful demand in the sight of the Goddess and in the sight of all gathered here. Be witness that by permission of the Goddess, I take the burden from him who was chosen and name myself the sacrifice.”
The High Priestess Thelis and Laneia, priestess of the oracles, listened in pity and horror as Meritha flawlessly recited the ancient Act of Substitution. This has never been done, the High Priestess thought. And Meritha knows the Act of Substitution perfectly. She must have planned this! But why? Why?
But they could only reply, as the law required: “So may it be. Thou hast made thy petition according to the law, and it is granted. Let the one originally chosen be free of any burden or constraint, and be thou the Goddess’s offering, in her name. In the fire, pray for us.”
But even as the High Priestess and the priestess of the oracles spoke the ritual words of assent, their voices choked and they could barely keep from weeping.
* * * * *
Meritha stood motionless as the sacrificial robe was brought and placed around her shoulders. The villagers below looked up toward the terrace in confusion, realizing that something unusual had taken place. They watched in growing understanding and pity as Meritha was given into the custody of the temple guards, who looked at the young woman with sorrow as they escorted her to the rooms where she would spend the remainder of the day, readying herself for the sacrifice. From this moment she would be under guard, not so much lest she escape, but so that none might trouble her peace against her will.
A temple attendant was placed at Meritha’s disposal to bring her anything she wished for during her last day alive. Meritha’s requests were modest: several books and paper and ink with which to write farewell letters. She also wished to bid farewell to the High Priestess and several sister priestesses who had become her friends.
What would she write to Elan? She prayed that he would never know the truth. And he need never know, for she had never told anyone of her love for him. She would tell the High Priestess only that she wished to die herself rather than put an innocent person to death even at the command of the Goddess, and if the High Priestess suspected that Meritha was not telling the whole truth, it would not matter, since Meritha’s secret would perish with her in the flames.
Better, then, that she write nothing at all to Elan, she realized. And even as she realized that by remaining silent she elevated her deed to an act of the highest good, a supreme sacrifice in which her beneficiary would never know what she had done for him, her heart squeezed in anguish.
She had wanted to tell him, even once, how much she loved him, and now she could not.
* * * * *
A knock at her door startled her out of her reverie. Meritha rose and opened it. Her attendant stood outside and bowed her head respectfully.
“My Lady, the High Priestess Thelis requests an audience.”
Meritha had only a moment to be astonished before the High Priestess herself appeared near the door and spoke. “Do not be surprised, my girl. A victim on the day of sacrifice is second in rank only to the Goddess. So you may not kneel to me.”
“But will you bless me anyway, Holy Mother?” Meritha asked.
“I will, as soon as you let me come in,” Thelis said with a twinkle in her eye.
Meritha quickly drew aside. She did not like her new rank, she decided. But the High Priestess had an even greater surprise for her.
Once the door was closed, Thelis asked her: “You are a virgin, are you not?”
“Yes,” Meritha said simply, ignoring her embarrassment in favor of her habit of complete honesty with the High Priestess. “I am, Holy Mother.”
“And you do not have to call me Holy Mother anymore, child,” Thelis said. “The news I have for you will be quite startling. But first, I wanted to ask: Why, Meritha? Why have you offered yourself in sacrifice?”
Meritha was silent, looking into the eyes of the High Priestess.
“Do you love Elan, child?”
At this simple question, this plain acknowledgement of a fact that Meritha had so long kept hidden, the floodgates of her soul opened. Meritha had loved Elan purely, wholeheartedly, without expectations. Now she was about to give her life for him, and he would never know. Only a short while ago she had resolved to go to her death without telling anyone of her love, but the open face of Thelis before her promised that she could tell her High Priestess the whole truth without risk.
“Yes,” she said. “I have loved him since I was a girl. But he must never know.”
Thelis’s sigh came from the depths of her soul. “Meritha, you are a promising priestess, on the threshold of the highest initiation,” she began.
Meritha blinked. She had not known that the High Priestess thought her ready for the highest level of initiation, and she squelched a momentary regret. The Goddess will see to my initiation, even if it is in another lifetime, she thought, and returned her concentration to Thelis, who continued speaking, seemingly unaware of Meritha’s surprise.
“Until this morning your whole life stretched before you; you could have done anything you wished. In fact, I had considered grooming you to succeed me. And now you have given yourself in sacrifice—why, child? Is it because Elan did not return your love? Or were you so dissatisfied with your life here that you felt you must give it up this way?”
Meritha looked up at Thelis, stricken. “No, Lady, it was not that, I swear it!”
“I am sorry, child,” the High Priestess apologized. “I did not mean it that way. I confess it, Meritha, my girl, I am grieved, for myself and for you. But I admire your courage, and I wish I might have done the same.”
“Why, Lady?” Meritha asked.
“Because I hate the sacrifice,” the High Priestess said with quiet conviction. “I hate the very idea of it, that we, who are supposed to serve and honor life, must kill an innocent human being once every forty-nine years. We live a charmed life, true, with the protection of the Goddess, but I sometimes feel I would rather risk what every other place in the world risks than condemn an innocent person to the fire even once every century. To me it is not worth it, even if I should be the first or the only one to suffer any of what the outside world must suffer—plague, war, famine. It is not worth such a sacrifice. But that is not what I came to tell you.”
Meritha nodded in silent assent, and Thelis went on.
“I asked whether you are a virgin because, since you are, the law makes a special provision for you. You need not be sacrificed tonight. Your sacrifice may be deferred by a day, and you may make the Sacred Marriage this night with the man of your choice, provided that he is single and gives his consent.”
Meritha stared wide-eyed and speechless at the High Priestess for a long moment, saying finally, “Holy Mother, I did not know that.”
“I know you did not, child. You discovered the Rite of Substitution on your own, but the dispensation for virgins is known only to the priestesses of highest rank, and they are sworn never to share this information idly lest they inadvertently encourage some misguided soul to sacrifice himself in exchange for what he thinks will be a night of pleasure that he could not obtain any other way. You may forgo the Sacred Marriage, if you wish, and still defer your sacrifice until dawn tomorrow. So runs the law.
“But Meritha, my beloved child, now that it makes no difference, will you not tell me why you have given yourself to death this way? I swear by my position as High Priestess that I will tell no one. Did you tire of this life? Did we fail you in some way? Was it Elan? Or did you simply wish to avoid the pain of seeing one you loved in the flames?”
Meritha drew a long breath, her desire to keep her love secret warring with her desire to be completely honest with her High Priestess. Finally she spoke.
“Lady, I swear by the garland that will dedicate me to the Goddess, by the flames that will consume my body and by the altar that will receive the ashes of my sacrifice: you did not fail me, nor did the temple. I simply did not wish to participate in the killing of an innocent person—and yes, my lady, since you ask it, I speak it with the truth of one about to die: I love Elan. We have been friends for many years. I know he has not the slightest interest in me as a woman and I accept this. I swear I joined the temple because I love the Lady and wished to serve as a priestess, not to flee the sorrow of unrequited love. But what can I do, Holy Mother? I love Elan, and rather than see him in the flames, I would prefer to endure them myself.”
“There is something else,” Thelis said, “is there not? I sense it.”
“Yes,” Meritha admitted, finally deciding to tell the High Priestess everything, even the deepest truth that she had kept hidden for years. “I feel exactly the same way you do about the sacrifice. I hate it, and as I told you, one of the reasons I offered myself was so that I would not have to offer anyone else. Yet ever since I can remember, I have always wished that I myself might die as a sacrifice to the Goddess. I had no wish to end my own life, but since we all must die one day, I wished to die upon her altar. Even as a little girl I used to imagine myself being led slowly to the sacrificial pyre as the priests and priestesses chanted the hymns. In my reveries I felt myself bound for sacrifice as they prayed, beseeching the Lady to accept my offering. And I used to imagine that as the priests bent to light my pyre, they would murmur prayers as they held back their tears, and that as the sacrificial fire consumed me the Goddess would comfort me until my spirit rose from the flames to her holy place.” And then, her face reddening, Meritha confessed, “And there was pleasure, Holy Mother, great pleasure. In my mind, as the sacrificial flames consumed my body, along with the agony I felt the greatest ecstasy, as if I were lying with a man, or even a god.”
Thelis nodded slowly. “I expected something like this,” she said. “I must speak to Laneia and ask the will of the Goddess. I do not know how, but it seems to me that your sacrifice is according to the Lady’s will, and even so it is special. You were meant to do what you have done, Meritha, my child. I am sure of it.”
“I believe that, my Lady,” Meritha said.
“I will come to you again, by your leave, with the priestess of the oracles,” the High Priestess said. “And if you like, I will send for Elan and ask him to visit you later. Would you like that?”
Meritha considered a moment, then nodded, her former resolutions gone. What did she have to lose? In a little more than a day she would be dead. “Yes, please, Lady,” she said. “I would like that very much.”
* * * * *
Meritha had not been expecting Elan until the evening, so when he arrived only a short while after the High Priestess had left, she was surprised.
He must have just bathed, Meritha thought, able to smell the clean scent of soap even from where she stood. She, too, had come from a bath of purification, and stood facing him in a long, white robe, noting with interest that he, too, appeared to be wearing a new white robe.
“It is good of you to come to see me, Elan,” she said quietly, holding out her hand.
To her astonishment, instead of taking her hand, Elan stepped forward and embraced her, holding her tightly.
Slowly she raised her arms and lightly returned his embrace. Could it be? she wondered in shock. Could it be that he has feelings for me, too? Or is this only pity? She barriered her thoughts, but it was too late.
“Meritha, Meritha ... why?” Elan whispered as he held her. “When you went into the temple I was devastated, but I knew that after your period of training you could marry or even have a lover if you wished. So I was willing to wait—but now you have vowed yourself to the sacrifice and now I must lose you forever. Meritha, my poor girl, I wish the Goddess might strike me with her fires this moment rather than let a hair of your head come to harm!” And, breaking the embrace gently, he lowered his head and wept.
Meritha looked at him, stunned. “Dear Goddess ... you love me?”
“As much as you love the Goddess, Meritha.”
“You never told me,” she said. It was not an accusation, just a simple statement.
“I did not know how, my girl. I am older, and you are so young and beautiful. I never knew how I should speak my love for you, or that I should at all.”
“I loved you all this time,” she said with deliberate honesty, “but I never spoke, thinking that you felt only kindness for me.”
Now it was Elan’s turn to look up in astonishment, the tears on his cheeks. Blindly he reached for her, holding her close, rocking back and forth as he wept in soundless grief. Overcome by his tears and by her own feelings, Meritha wept too, as silently as Elan.
But she recovered herself first. “Elan, it is no use weeping for what might have been,” she said. “It would have been doomed from the start. One of us would have had to die in sacrifice, or—” she laughed ruefully—“we would have spent our time arguing about which of us would die for the other, until the Goddess herself grew tired of hearing us. Done is done. You know I love you dearly, and I know you love me, and that is all I need. I can die at peace.”
“And is there nothing more, Meritha?” Elan asked, low. “I too have studied the laws of sacrifice, and I too have spoken with the High Priestess. If we wish, we may ...” he could not finish the sentence and lowered his gaze in embarrassment.
“The High Priestess explained it to me, Elan, dear Elan,” Meritha said with quiet joy. “I would not have asked it of you. Yet—” Her heart pounded with excitement and joy. Elan loves me after all! Elan wants me! “Let us know each other this once, then, my love. Let us have at least one memory we can cherish before the Goddess claims her debt.”
Yet they stood before each other, still as statues, neither one knowing what to do. After all, Meritha thought ruefully, I am allowed this dispensation because I am a virgin. And Elan, whether he has experience of women or not, will be reluctant to hurt or frighten me. Well, then, I must show him that I am willing. Goddess, she prayed, I am in your hands, here as in the fire in which I shall be sacrificed. Of your mercy, give me courage and show me what to do.
With the deliberate honesty that marked her character, Meritha raised her arms and drew Elan into an embrace unlike any she had ever experienced or invited. She tightened her arms gently but firmly around him as she pressed her body against his, feeling his muscles through the thin robes they both wore.
Elan gasped suddenly and tightened his grip on Meritha for a moment, then relaxed it deliberately and raised his hands to her face. He stroked her forehead and cheeks, her ears and neck, and began softly to kiss her—small kisses, one after another, as he felt her desire grow and her body open to his. Slowly he raised his robe, holding the hem out to her as if it were an offering. She took it and raised it over his head until he stood before her in nothing but his loincloth. Kneeling before him, she embraced him, kissing the cloth above his manhood, feeling his need and her own. We are both second-sighted, she thought incongruously. I can feel his pleasure. Is this a kind of second sight I did not know about?
Reaching up, she reverently undid his loincloth, so that he was naked as she knelt before him, still clothed in her linen robe. His manhood was before her, erect and eager. She raised a tentative hand. “May I ...?”
“Yes,” he said, gasping as she ran her fingers softly along his sacred part. Acting on intuition alone, praying to the Goddess for inspiration, she closed her eyes and began to move the tip of her tongue slowly along the shaft.
His sudden cry of excitement and pleasure frightened her. “My love! Did I hurt you?”
“No,” he gasped. “Please ...”
She moved closer to him, flicking her tongue along the shaft and crown of his sacred part as he gasped and moaned. “Goddess,” he cried as she took him inside her mouth, at the same time running her fingers along the inside of his thighs. His body began to writhe and twist as he cried out in unendurable pleasure, and Meritha thought for a moment that he might well be the offering and she the flame, slowly devouring him as he writhed and shrieked, bound for sacrifice with invisible cords on the altar of her love.
Slowly she rose as he shivered and groaned, reaching for her. Lifting her robe, she held the hem out to him and he took it, slowly, lifting it over her head to expose the splendor of her body beneath. Taking his hand gently, she eased him onto the bed and then followed.
“You are the Goddess to me,” he whispered. “I offer you my body and my soul. Take me, sacrifice me if you will. I am yours.”
Tenderly she eased him onto his back and raised his arms above his head, running her fingers along his shoulders and the insides of his upper arms. Then, lowering her head to his chest, she kissed and licked each nipple as he gasped and his body bucked beneath her. Yes, you are my offering now, the thought came to her as if from far away, with a touch of humor. Be careful what you pray for, for the Goddess may grant it to you.
With her second sight she felt his pleasure, and it ignited her own. She explored his body, feeling his responses and allowing them to heighten her own ecstasy, in turn heightening his. When it seemed he could bear no more she moved a little away, giving him time to breathe a little, then returned to pleasure him. Stroking his legs and feet, she kissed his toes as he cried out with surprise and unaccustomed pleasure.
“Goddess! What are you doing?” But she had already begun her work, taking each toe into her mouth and manipulating it gently with lips and teeth and tongue until Elan’s every breath was an uncontrollable cry of ecstasy. “You are the Goddess! Take me!”
I am indeed the Goddess to him. “You are a most worthy and beautiful sacrifice,” Meritha said softly, feeling the form of the Goddess overshadow her, “and I indeed accept you ... slowly, a little at a time. There is still more that I would do before completing the rite ... ”
Elan shuddered and gasped in anticipation, arching his back as if in offering. In answer, Meritha took his hand and stroked it, bringing it to her mouth. She moved her lips against the palm of his hand as he moaned, and then kissed his fingers, licking and sucking them as she had done to his toes. Elan’s body shuddered and he shrieked as though for mercy, but Meritha only ran her fingertips along his ribs, causing him to gasp audibly, then farther up his body until she reached his ears.
“Goddess, I beg you, I implore you,” Elan sobbed as Meritha stroked his ears, taking each one into her mouth as she had done with his toes and fingers. He is ready, the thought came to Meritha as she gently mounted him, leaning forward and kissing his lips, gently at first, then with more force, listening to his cries, feeling his body tremble beneath hers.
As she kissed Elan, Meritha reached downward toward his manhood. Finding it, she stroked it gently as Elan cried out, his body straining against hers. Breaking the kiss for a moment, she whispered, “Be still a moment more, my love,” and gently guided him into her, gasping in brief pain as the barrier of her maidenhood stretched, then finally tore. Carried almost beyond endurance, his senses flooded with ecstasy, Elan held himself still as Meritha held him in her kiss and in her body, tightening herself rhythmically around him. Finally, unable to remain still any longer he reached upward and seized her, embracing her with all his might, drawing her body down to him as he writhed below her, crying out until his body arched and he screamed, driving himself ever more deeply into her body as his entire being felt the release and for both of them there was nothing but light.
When they came to themselves again, Elan reached for Meritha and held her close. “Forgive me, lady—you came to me a virgin. I should have been the one to pleasure you!”
“The Goddess showed me what to do,” Meritha said simply, “and I had much pleasure. You are very beautiful, Elan.”
“When you—touched me—it felt like you were consecrating me as an offering,” he said. “But not with pain, not with suffering. I longed for the sacrifice even as you performed it. I still do. Your touch is holy,” he said in wonder.
“Yes, it is a sacred act,” she said simply. “As I touched you I felt the Goddess within me, and I felt that I was the priestess offering you and the Goddess receiving the offering at the same time.”
Suddenly Elan clutched her and began to weep. “You are going to be sacrificed,” he said as his tears flooded from his eyes. “You are going to be sacrificed, and I shall never have this with you again!”
“Yes, I am going to be sacrificed,” she said gently. “And I must ask you a favor.”
“Anything,” he said.
“When you leave here, go home and stay there. Send for your friends and ask them to stay with you. Do not come to the temple to see the sacrifice. Please. I couldn’t bear it.”
“I can’t let you die alone!”
“I won’t be alone. My sister priestesses will be with me. The Goddess will be with me, and the memory of what we share now will be with me. But it would hurt you too much, and I couldn’t bear to see your pain. Remember—this is part of my second sight. I can feel your pleasure and I can feel your pain, too.”
“And that’s why you offered yourself as a substitute,” he said, his dark eyes widening with sudden insight. “Isn’t that what happened? You seized the shard from the lottery and dashed it to the floor, then offered yourself as the sacrifice. ... That shard bore my name, did it not?” Meritha, accustomed to honesty, met his eyes and nodded. “You would have felt me burning and you couldn’t bear that, so you decided to go to the fire yourself. But didn’t you realize,” he cried in despair, “that I too am second-sighted, and that I wouldn’t be able to bear even the thought of you dying like that? Goddess help me, if only you had left me to be sacrificed! I would have rejoiced even in the flames, knowing you were safe from harm!”
“There are many kinds of second sight,” Meritha said calmly, fighting her emotions. “I didn’t know you had it or what kind you had, and in any case the decision was mine to make. It was selfish of me, I know, but I simply couldn’t bear ...”
“If that was selfish, then it’s the strangest kind of selfishness I’ve ever seen. ... Meritha, doesn’t it bother you? You’re going to be sacrificed, burned alive, and we will never have this again. ... Oh, Meritha, what are we going to do?”
“Exactly what we just did, I hope,” Meritha said, smiling. “If we are talking of sacrifice—then, Elan, my love, I implore you, as I sacrificed you, now sacrifice me. Here is my body before you. I pray you, offer me in sacrifice as if you were my priest, and accept my sacrifice as if you were my god.”
Fighting back his tears, Elan reached for her, cradling her body in his strong arms.
* * * * *
Elan was gone. Meritha looked out the window, weeping silently. Goddess, I must believe that you are not cruel. That you would demand an innocent human being in sacrifice is difficult enough—but why would you give me an experience that I can never have again?
As though from far away, a faint voice sounded in her spirit: Would you wish never to have had this experience, then?
Oh, no, Meritha thought. Better to have had it even only once. Even when I am dead and gone, my soul will remember. Lady, grant it, I beg you.
Yes, the soft voice of the Goddess said in her mind. Your soul will remember always, as will Elan’s. You are bound to each other, life to life. Trust me.
* * * * *
The High Priestess and the priestess of the oracles came soon after. Meritha opened the door and let them in, then knelt.
“Lady, bless me,” she entreated the High Priestess.
“My girl, you must not kneel,” Thelis said, gently raising her and kissing her brow to soften the rebuke. Then she stood back and surveyed Meritha. “You are truly awakened now,” she said.
“Yes,” Meritha said shyly. “The Goddess has awakened me.”
“Then,” Thelis said, “you should know what Laneia and I have been discussing. You remember that I told you that you are nearly ready for the highest initiation?”
“I remember,” Meritha said. “But is there not a law of the temple that a chosen sacrifice may not drink the cup of initiation?”
“There is a loophole,” Laneia answered. “You were not chosen. You offered yourself. The law does not mention that case.”
Thelis leaned forward. “Meritha, my child, beloved of my soul, would you be willing to take a great risk to end these sacrifices once and for all?”
“I would, Lady,” Meritha said. “I could go to the fire happy if I knew that I would be the last to suffer there.”
“Then here is the risk,” Thelis said, drawing a flask from her robes. Meritha looked at the cup, then at the faces of the two priestesses before her, a question in her eyes.
“It is the cup of initiation,” Laneia explained. “I will drink it with you and we will cross the Goddess’s threshold together, you as candidate, I as witness. If you are accepted as initiate, you will return from your initiatory vision with the unmistakable sign of the Lady’s favor. But if you are not ...”
“Then Laneia will die in the vision and you will return to be sacrificed,” Thelis finished. “As for myself—as a High Priestess who forswore her vows and forced the Goddess’s hand, I will be put to death, but not as an offering. I will be imprisoned until the dark of the moon and then given a choice: flaying or burning. The execution of a forsworn High Priestess may not take place on the hallowed date of a sacrifice.”
Meritha shuddered. “It is too great a responsibility to bear, Lady. Let me die and leave it at that. I cannot be responsible for your death and Laneia’s as well.”
“You will not be responsible for our deaths,” Laneia said. “That will be for the Goddess to choose. The Lady Thelis and I have discussed this, and we are willing to put our lives in her hands in order to save our people from more such deaths. If she agrees, we live; if she does not, we die. You may think we are mad to risk ourselves this way when in any case we will likely not live to see another sacrifice, since they take place only once every forty-nine years. But we are responsible for what happens in our generation, and we cannot allow this to continue if there is anything we can do to end it. You have already offered yourself as a sacrifice of your own free will, and Thelis has said that you share her feelings. You have nothing further to lose. So I ask you, Meritha, priestess of the Goddess and her designated offering: are you willing to drink the cup of initiation under these circumstances?”
Meritha thought for a long moment. “Yes,” she said in a firm voice. “I will drink, and may the Goddess be with us all.”
* * * * *
Meritha awoke on the pallet in her darkened room. The only light came from the candles in their niches, and years of experience told her that dawn was only a short while away. They will be coming for me soon, she thought. And then: I am still here, and I remember no initiatory vision. The Goddess has rejected me. By this time Laneia is dead and the High Priestess imprisoned, awaiting execution at the dark of the moon. She knelt in prayer. Goddess, forgive us. We sought only to save our people. Please spare their lives, have mercy on them, and let my death atone for all. Give Elan strength and console him, and keep him far away from the place of sacrifice. She bowed her head in grief, sobbing. The High Priestess will not even be at my sacrifice. But perhaps it is just as well; it would have grieved her so, and I would have been grieved to see her pain.
Yet to her surprise Thelis and Laneia were among the somber priests and priestesses who came to wash and robe her for sacrifice. She wanted to ask them: How is it that you are here? Did we succeed or fail, then? But she must keep sacred silence. It is no matter. Shortly I will reach the next world, and I will learn everything there. And truly, it did not matter, not now, as long as she saw Laneia and Thelis alive and well.
The two priestesses bathed her in ritual silence, then dried her body and clothed her in the sacrificial robe of undyed linen. A small, rational part of her mind observed: Linen burns easily, unlike wool. This robe will not keep the fire from my flesh for long, so I will burn more quickly. For the last time Meritha knelt before the High Priestess, not as an inferior to a superior, but to ask blessing. The High Priestess, tears in her eyes and her face a mask of sorrow, blessed and raised her, and then embraced her. “The Goddess go with you, daughter of my soul,” she whispered.
The group of priestesses, priests and sacrificial victim made its way to the gate of the Temple, then went out into the chill dawn. Guards were stationed along the road in order to prevent anyone from disturbing the sacrificial procession. Meritha was not bound, according to custom; as one who had offered herself, her word of honor was sufficient and she was not treated as one who might flee. She was flanked by Thelis and Laneia, not by armed guards, as another victim would have been. As Elan would have been. He would have been bound, prodded up the sacrificial mountain. Thank you, Lady, for sparing him this.
Their path led uphill, and Meritha reflected wryly that this must be done in order to make sure that the victim would be out of breath, too weak to resist. But she was in good shape, her body strong, and she walked with firm step up the slope. The sky was lightening, and already she could see the sacrificial pyre, with its stake, awaiting her. She stopped and knelt, praying aloud as custom demanded she do at her first sight of the pyre where she was to be sacrificed.
“Lady, with trembling heart I see the altar of sacrifice before me. I pray you, give me the strength to do your will with joy. Let me be a fit sacrifice to you, and let my death be precious in your sight. In its merit, be gracious to my people.” In her heart she added a special prayer for Elan. Please, Lady, give him comfort. Prosper him and help him to overcome his pain, and let him forgive me in time.
She rose, and the procession walked on until they came to a natural spring. Meritha knelt once more and placed her fingertips in the water, then touched them to her forehead and breast. Then she cupped her hands and drank.
“Lady, I have touched and drunk your gift of water for the last time. I pray you, in the merit of my sacrifice let water always be abundant for my people.”
Now the pyre was before her, the stake at its center rising dark against the pale sky. Meritha knelt before it and touched her head to the bundles of wood.
“Goddess, I submit myself to your decree and offer myself freely for sacrifice,” she prayed. Rising, she turned back to the group that had accompanied her and said, “Please, O my brothers, lead me to the pyre and bind me as an offering to the Lady.”
Two priests, older men with compassionate faces, stepped forward and took Meritha’s hands gently in their own. Slowly they began to lead her forward, towards the sacrificial stake. Meritha did not know them, and she wondered at this since she thought she knew everyone in the temple. To her, they seemed edged with light. It must be that my soul is preparing to leave my body even now, she thought as she walked between them. And if I do not know them—what does it matter? Their own priests know them or they would not be here.
When the two priests would have turned her so that her back was toward the stake in order to bind her, Meritha suddenly knelt, embracing the thick wooden post, for a final prayer. “Goddess, behold! For the last time I kneel before you, before I give my body to be bound. Be witness that with all my heart, in loving submission, I embrace the stake where the fire shall consume me. My Queen, accept me in love, for in love do I offer myself.” Then, rising and turning to the priests, she said, “Here is my body, a sacrifice to the Goddess. Please, O priests, my brothers in her service, bind me as a sacrifice, and bind my body and my limbs firmly that I not struggle and profane the offering.”
The two priests turned their faces aside to hide their tears. One of them bent, picking up a coil of rope. The other slowly approached Meritha and turned her gently, placing her back against the stake and holding her there. As the first priest drew near to bind her, Meritha reached out and seized the coil of rope he held, kissing it reverently. Carefully the priest drew the rope diagonally around her chest, crossed it at her heart and then crossed her wrists in front of her. Binding her wrists together, he looped the rope several times about her waist, binding both her limbs and upper body to the stake.
The second priest now took the rope and wound it about Meritha’s hips and thighs, securing her legs. Then he bound the rope about her knees, crossed it at her calves and lashed her ankles to the stake. When he rose, Meritha could not move her body or her limbs. She stood immobile, bound to the stake atop the sacrificial pyre.
“Thank you, my brothers,” she said.
Thelis and Laneia stepped forward now, flasks of consecrated water and garlands of flowers in their hands. Mounting the pyre, they sprinkled a tiny amount of the water on Meritha’s head, then crowned her with a garland, draping the other garlands around her neck. Finally, Thelis took a length of chain and bound it several times around Meritha’s body, above the rope. “This is the chain of mercy,” she explained. “If the ropes should burn through before the fire has done its work, this chain will hold your body in the flames so that the sacrifice may be completed more quickly.”
Meritha was now bound so tightly to the sacrificial stake that she could move only her head. Looking at her High Priestess, she waited for the beginning of the sacrificial hymns. Three would be sung: one praying that the Goddess accept the sacrifice, one asking the Goddess to have mercy on the people, and one recounting the creation of the world. Meritha wondered why the creation hymn should be sung during a sacrifice, but she resigned herself to dying without knowing the answer. Though it was not the custom for the victim to join in the hymns, it was not forbidden, so Meritha sang with the priests, her voice soaring above theirs, for the last time offering the gift of her song to the Goddess who had given it.
When the hymns were completed, the two priests who had bound her approached her, carrying lighted torches in their hands. Handing the torches to nearby attendants, they knelt.
“We beg your forgiveness for what we are about to do, O our sister,” they said, their voices breaking as they intoned the ritual phrase. “We act not out of our own will, but by the will of the Goddess. Will you forgive us?”
“Fully and freely do I forgive you, O my brothers,” Meritha made the customary reply. “Fear not. Do the will of the Goddess, and pray that she accept my sacrifice!”
Gazing up at Meritha in inexpressible sorrow, the two men took the torches from the attendants and moved to either side of the pyre. As one they lowered their torches to the wood and waited while it ignited. Then, keeping their torches in contact with the pyre, they moved slowly counterclockwise, leaving behind a trail of flame until a bright circle burned below the stake. Tendrils of smoke curled upward as the pyre caught fire, and upon seeing them, Meritha prayed quietly: “Goddess! The pyre is lit; behold the offering bound at its center! Lady, look on us with mercy and accept the sacrifice!”
Slowly the flames took hold of the pyre. The smoke increased, and under her breath Meritha prayed: “Goddess, let the smoke not take away my breath! I beg you, let my body feel the fire of sacrifice, that I not be ashamed when I reach your sacred courts!”
The smoke disappeared, and Meritha wondered at how quickly her prayer had been answered. Looking down, she saw the flames moving toward her feet and began to feel the fire’s warmth.
“Lady, the fire approaches. Give me strength,” she murmured.
A pale tongue of flame licked at the hem of her robe, brightening as it latched onto the fabric. A sudden breeze flattened her burning hem against her ankles. Meritha had never felt, never imagined such pain. “Goddess!” she gasped, her body jerking away in reflex, but held immobile by the binding rope and chain.
Slowly, inexorably, the fire closed about her, beginning to consume her feet and legs. The lower part of her linen robe was aflame, and shrieking in agony and terror, she pressed the back of her head against the stake, raising her eyes to the heavens as if seeking mercy there. But then, mastering herself, she lowered her head to gaze at the watchers below, for she knew that even now there was more she must endure, and for the love of the Goddess and for Elan she would go through it all. In between gasps of pain she called out to the two priests who had bound her and lit the pyre: “O my brothers, I pray you, do not let me burn too quickly! Slow the fire, that my sacrifice may be more acceptable in the eyes of the Lady.”
The two priests were weeping now, shaking their heads. “No, our sister! It is enough. Do not ask this of us!” they begged.
“It is my right,” she insisted. “You must do it—ah, Lady, give me strength!”
Reluctantly the two priests went forward, long metal poles in their hands, and drew away some of the burning wood from around Meritha’s body. Yet she felt no relief; the flames were still about her, but now there was no chance that a sudden wall of fire might encompass her all at once, ending her life quickly. Working diligently, though with sorrow and against their will, the two priests took control of the flames, here drawing them away where they appeared too high, there pressing them against Meritha’s body, drawing piteous shrieks of agony from her even as she encouraged them and prayed, begging the Goddess to look favorably upon her sacrifice.
The flames now reached her thighs. Adding just enough wood to prevent the fire from dying, the priests waited for it to ignite, then moved it with their poles so that the fire barely touched her robe. “Now touch my body with your poles, heated in the fire,” Meritha instructed them, and even as their hearts cried they touched the red-hot ends of their poles to her flesh, causing her body to writhe in its bonds as she gasped and shrieked. In pity they would have stopped, but Meritha, even in her torment, cried out to them: “I bear this pain for her sake, out of devotion. Heat your poles and burn me!” They wept and obeyed, heating the ends of their metal poles in the fire and touching them to her flesh as she screamed, unable to struggle.
As one of the priests raised his pole once more to her breast she cried out to the Goddess for strength, her voice hoarse from her shrieks of agony. “I am thirsty, my brother,” she moaned. “Of your mercy, give me a drink of water.”
Moving the flaming wood aside, the priest stood before the bound and tortured Meritha, holding his flask of water to her lips as she drank. “Blessed be the Goddess for her gift of water,” she murmured as he replaced the wood, his tears falling into the fire.
“Now let the fire strip me,” Meritha said, “that I stand bare of guile before the Lady.” The two priests touched their torches to her linen robe wherever her bonds allowed, burning it away to reveal her naked flesh. Meritha stood exposed, bound and helpless in the flames, and still she prayed: “Goddess, accept my sacrifice! Lady, have mercy on us!”
Slowly the fire reached her abdomen and seized upon her flesh. Now Meritha’s body was fueling the fire, burning of itself rather than being burned, and her every breath was a scream of agony. Yet even in this extremity she called upon the Lady and exhorted her brother priests not to let her burn too quickly.
“It is enough, our sister,” they implored. “You have endured flame and torment. The Goddess surely accepts you! We beg you, let us apply the fire and make a quick end!”
“No,” Meritha gasped brokenly as the flames licked at her breasts. “I would be perfect before her. Immolate me slowly, and may my pain be precious in her sight!”
Yet when the fire reached Meritha’s heart, a strange thing happened. Her screams of pain ceased, and the priests and priestesses thought that surely she must be dying or already dead. Then, suddenly, she cried out: “Goddess! There is no more pain! I feel pleasure, ecstasy!” And thinking that she was dying, she prayed: “Lady, I give my soul into your hands!” Her face shone with divine light and her body relaxed, and the two priests, thinking that Meritha was dying at last, placed the wood nearer to her body and fanned the flames to hasten the end.
Suddenly tongues of silver flame shot out from the pyre to the two priests, catching hold of their robes. With expressions of rapture they knelt, crying out in ecstasy, as the silver fire took hold of them. Slowly they burned at Meritha’s feet, even as she saw what was happening and gasped, “Lady, have mercy! My brothers are innocent, and they have done your will. Let the fire consume only me!”
“Be comforted, my sister! They are not being consumed,” Laneia called to her from below. “It is not a punishment. The Goddess is pleased with them, since they have gone against their own inclination in order to sacrifice you. She has sent them her pure flame of ecstasy, and no harm will befall them. In the meantime, she takes charge of your sacrifice herself. You are accepted, my sister! Your sacrifice has found favor in her eyes!”
The two priests lay moaning in ecstasy on the ground below the pyre, silver flames dancing upon their robes. Meritha stood naked in her bonds, her body exposed to the silver flame of ecstasy. Yet even as her body writhed in pleasure, she raised her eyes to the heavens and gasped: “Goddess, I thank you for the rapture you have sent me. Now I beg you, bring back the fire to consume me. Let me be sacrificed to you utterly, body and spirit! Let no fragment of my being remain unconsumed before you!” Even as she prayed, the silver fire faded and red tongues of flame preyed anew upon her flesh, and once more she shrieked in torment.
At the sound of Meritha’s cries the two priests, released from the rapture of the silver flame, started to their feet and approached the pyre to finish their work, but were held back by a sudden wall of fire. Nevertheless, so great was their ecstasy that they would have cast themselves into it willingly had their fellow priests not seized them and held them back.
Now tongues of fire rose to Meritha’s neck and face, consuming the sacrificial garlands she wore. Writhing in unimaginable pain, she moaned, “Goddess! Goddess!” until she could no longer speak. Her head sank on her chest in the midst of the fire, which roared upward to receive her.
“Our sister Meritha is dead,” the high priestess murmured in sorrow. “Blessed be the Lady, who gives and takes at her will. May she accept the sacrifice of our dearest and best.”
But Meritha, though dying, had not yet perished. With a final effort she raised her head, now on fire, and cried out one final time in a weak but clear voice: “Lady and Queen, behold, my life is poured out before you! Goddess, accept my sacrifice and receive my spirit!”
Roaring flames surrounded the dying woman, hiding her from view. Then all at once, as though touched by the finger of the Goddess herself, the bonds holding her body to the stake dissolved. Meritha’s body fell to the wood amid a shower of sparks, and arrows of flame shot upward toward the heavens. The priests and priestesses wept audibly, and Laneia looked up to the sky as if trying to penetrate its secrets.
“The Goddess accepts the sacrifice,” she said finally. “The Lady has taken Meritha’s soul to the higher worlds.”
Gazing sadly on the pyre where Meritha’s body still burned, the high priestess knelt. “The sacrifice is completed,” she said steadily, her face wet with her tears. “May the Lady be pleased and send us her blessing.”
And may this sacrifice be the last.
* * * * *
Meritha felt the pallet beneath her body and took a sudden breath. The air—why is it cool? she wondered. And why do I not still burn? Is the wood of the pyre not still below me?Am I dead? Ah, no—the Goddess has not accepted me. She has sent me back. I have failed!
Slowly Meritha opened her eyes, bewildered to see the familiar surroundings of her room bathed in the rich light of sunset. When she saw the high priestess and the priestess of the oracles sitting nearby, she turned to them and tried to speak, but her voice failed her.
Gently Laneia raised her head and held a cup of water to her lips. “Drink, Initiate,” she said.
Obediently Meritha drank, then sank back onto her pallet. “Initiate?” she whispered in confusion. “What do you mean? I was sacrificed—I was bound to the stake, I felt the fire consume me. My body fell onto the pyre. I was dying. But now I am alive, and there is no fire—have I not failed? Has the Goddess not rejected me?”
Laneia leaned toward her, smiling. “On the contrary, my sister. You are accepted, both as sacrifice and as initiate. Your initiatory vision took the form of the sacrifice, which you embraced so completely that the Goddess had no choice but to accept you.” The priestess of the oracles smiled and went on. “The high priestess and I were there and saw everything. The Lady sent two of her own priests from the upper worlds to offer the sacrifice, and even they could not withstand the force of your devotion; you saw how they wept, even though it is not the custom. The Lady gave you her sacred flame of ecstasy in order to show that you had gained her favor, and then she sent you back to the land of the living. You return alive, initiate and blessed.”
“But that is not all you have accomplished,” Thelis continued. “By your brave act, the sacrifices are abolished forever. You could have died during your vision, and if that had happened we, too, would have been slain and the sacrifices might have continued for years with no one to stop them. But by your devotion, by your desire to offer yourself to the Goddess entirely, you have brought us salvation. Rejoice, Meritha, initiate and beloved of the Lady.”
Thelis and Laneia rose. “We will return later,” the high priestess said. “For now, you need to sleep. Rest and be happy in the knowledge that you have served your people, and the Goddess, well this day.”
Quietly they left, and Meritha closed her eyes. “Goddess,” she murmured, “I am glad if I have done your will and served you and my people, but my heart still yearns to be sacrificed to you. The sacrifice is abolished, and I rejoice, for I would not see anyone else made a victim—yet if only I might be sacrificed to you when my time comes to die!”
Do not worry, child, came the voice of the Goddess within her. When that time comes, I will receive you as though you had been given in sacrifice at the highest altars of the heavenly temples. And when you arrive here, I myself will officiate at the sacrifice of your spirit, since in the upper worlds those righteous souls that wish it are offered like incense. Thus they pass through the heavenly flame, in ecstasy, to the higher worlds. The two priests of the upper worlds who sacrificed you have been through this flame many times—yet they say your flame was the greater.
Meritha lay still on her pallet, tears of longing leaking from her eyes. “Goddess ...”
I designate you as my own, Meritha, the Lady went on. In the merit of your sacrifice—for I count it as though it had indeed taken place and your ashes were even now gathered upon the pyre—your people will prosper for centuries to come. See, I will give you proof that it is indeed the Goddess speaking to you, and that I mean what I say.
Meritha gasped in wonder as the form of the Goddess appeared before her, a blazing torch in her right hand. In her joy she tried to rise and throw herself at the Lady’s feet, but she could not move.
Clothed in light, the form of the Goddess bent towards her, holding the torch to her body. Meritha gasped in rapture as the silver flame rippled along her skin, the same ecstatic flame she had experienced in her initiatory vision.
Goddess, please take me with you, take me now! Meritha entreated silently, unable to speak.
I cannot, daughter, the Lady said gently. You still have work to do in the world. But you will bear the mark of my favor upon your heart. And lowering the torch with its silver flame to the center of Meritha’s chest, she held it there as the woman writhed, gasping in unendurable ecstasy. I am purifying your spirit for service to me, from lifetime to lifetime, the Lady told her. For it is your life, not your death, that serves me. I love you, Meritha. Always remember that. And remember that Elan loves you, too. I go now to comfort him, for he weeps for you without ceasing, praying that you might be spared and that he might go to the fire in your stead. I will tell him that you are alive and well, but it will be better if he sees you himself. As soon as you have recovered, go to him. The room pulsed with silver light as though it were entirely engulfed in the flame from the Lady’s torch, and then all went dark as the Lady withdrew.
Wonderingly, Meritha touched the skin above her heart, where a silver patch glowed in the shape of the Holy Sign. Then she slept.