“Would you like to dance?”
Peter could hardly believe he was saying those words to the attractive woman sitting at the low, round wooden table, her nearly-full drink in her hand, her reddish-gold hair catching the light from the candles that lit the pub.
She smiled up at him. “I’ll try anything once,” she said, putting down her glass and rising. Peter could not conceal his appreciation as he looked at her body. She wore a red t-shirt that clung in all right places, and jeans that showed her shape to its best advantage. He knew that she was looking him over as well, and hoped that she appreciated all his efforts to keep fit.
They held each other lightly on the dance floor, and it seemed to Peter that they were touching each other with their minds as well as with cautious, respectful hands. As they turned together, swaying to the music, he caught an indefinable fragrance from her hair. It was like nothing that he had ever smelled before.
“What’s your name?” he asked in her ear.
“Shanna. What’s yours?”
“Want to go outside, Peter? I need some air,” she said.
“No problem, Shanna,” he said.
Stopping only to pick up her drink and her purse, Shanna led Peter outside to the terrace. They sat down at one of the tables overlooking the river. Shanna opened her purse, took out a small metal box and opened it. It contained a small cloth bag, tied with a drawstring, that contained some sort of crushed herb. Beside it were cigarette papers. As Peter watched, she began to roll a cigarette.
“Hey, isn’t that illegal?” he asked her with a grin.
“Oh, this isn’t marijuana,” Shanna said. “It’s not tobacco, either. I never touch either of them.”
“What is it?” he asked her.
“It’s an herb that comes from where my family’s originally from, a tiny village on the other side of the world. We haven’t lost all our old ways, though we’ve been living in England for generations.” Shanna gave a low chuckle.
“What’s the herb called?”
“I guess that the nearest translation for it in English would be ‘clear mind.’ We take it to clear our heads, and also for the scent. I think it’s related to lemon balm, but I’m not sure. Want to smell it?”
Shanna took a pinch between her fingers and held it out. Peter leaned in and took a breath, just brushing Shanna’s fingers with the end of his nose. It was sweet with a faint earthy tang. She smiled.
“Mmmm. Nice,” he said. “But I think I like your fingers better — if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Shanna rewarded his daring with a grin. “Not at all,”she said. “You’re honest. I like people who are honest.” Leaning toward the candle at the center of the table, Shanna lit the herbal cigarette and drew in a long breath. “I’d offer you some, but it’s an acquired taste,” she said. “You have to start with a little at a time, or your brain could become so clear that you might not be able to bear it.”
Indeed, as Peter smelled the smoke coming from her cigarette, he noticed that his mind was clearing somewhat. Already he was feeling less tired. A waitress came over to their table, and he ordered a beer.
“I used to smoke,” he said after the waitress left, “but I stopped a few years ago.”
“Congratulations,” Shanna said, smiling at him. “I’ve never smoked tobacco, but I hear that it’s really hard to quit. It must have taken a lot of effort.” Reaching out with her right hand, she picked up the candle in its red glass and held it in her palm for a moment, gazing at the flame.
“My grandmother used to tell stories of people from our family who could tell the future by looking at a candle flame,” she said. “I never learned how to do it, though. I just like to watch the fire dancing on the wick. Isn’t it fascinating?”
Peter caught his breath, hoping that Shanna wouldn’t notice. He had been fascinated by fire all his life. Could Shanna be a kindred spirit?
The waitress arrived with his beer, and he sidestepped the issue for the moment, taking a sip. “So you’re descended from a long line of seers?” he said with only the barest hint of a smile.
“So I’m told,” she said, “but I never studied divination. Though I think I would have enjoyed attending Hogwarts.” She grinned.
“Oh, do you like Harry Potter, then?” he asked.
“Yes,” Shanna said. “I think it’s amazing! And I love how J.K. Rowling pulled herself up out of poverty like that. From welfare to a multimillionaire author, and all on the strength of her mind and imagination — good for her!”
“Tell me more about your family and your country,” he said.
Shanna chuckled again. “Peter, I’m about the sixth generation of my family to be born here,” she said. “I’m from here, just like you, for five or six generations at least... even if my family do keep a bit to the old ways sometimes.”
“Of course,” Peter said quickly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean —”
“Oh, please don’t worry about it,” she said. “I do have a bizarre claim to fame, though. Generations ago, back in the old country on the other side of the world, my family were priests.”
“Priests?” Peter asked, confused. “What kind? You don’t mean missionaries, do you?”
“Oh, no!” Shanna smiled. “The missionaries never found us where we lived. My ancestors were proud mountain people, harsh rural life, inaccessible village, fierce fighters, and all that. My grandparents used to tell us my great-grandfather’s stories about our ancestors. They weren’t priests like the ones we have today. They went all the way.”
“I don’t understand,” Peter said.
“I mean they performed human sacrifices,” Shanna said.
Peter squirmed a bit in his chair. “Human sacrifices? Really?”
“Oh, yes. They used to do it at their festivals, or if the village was in particularly big trouble — famine, drought, enemy troops at the gates, that sort of thing. It’s even said that members of my family offered themselves as victims when things got really bad. They weren’t exempt just because they were priests. If things got particularly rough, they ended up on the altar, too.”
“That must have been difficult. I’m sorry to hear it,” Peter said.
“Ah, well, it was a long time ago. But I’ve often wondered how it felt.”
“To be sacrificed?”
“Oh, yes. I think it’s fascinating. Imagine — believing so strongly in one’s gods, and then being given up to them.”
“Well, I’d imagine that they didn’t feel much,” Peter said. “I mean, I don’t know how it was done in your village, but most of the sacrifices I’ve heard of were done with the stroke of a knife. I guess it would have been pretty quick.”
“Oh, we didn’t use a knife, Peter,” Shanna said. “In our village, sacrificial victims were offered much the way it was done, say, in civilized, educated England, for example, or almost anywhere else in Europe.”
“Five hundred years ago? You mean the Reformation, right? Not the Druids?”
“Exactly. Stakes, not wicker cages.”
He stared. “You mean that your ancestors burned people alive? At the stake?”
“Yes. Yours might have done so, too, Peter, if they were there at the time.”
“But during the Reformation — those burnings weren’t sacrifices. They were executions.”
“It was all done on religious grounds, Peter. Do you think there was such a big difference, when it comes down to it? Even the condemned referred to themselves as sacrifices to God, and believed that their souls would be rewarded in Heaven for their martyrdom on earth.”
He thought for a moment, then nodded. “You have a point, Shanna,” he said. “And you do know your history.”
Peter took another slow sip of his drink. His mind was whirling. He wished that Shanna would light another one of her cigarettes so that he could smell the herbal smoke and clear his head. But she didn’t seem to smoke much, or drink much, for that matter. She was still nursing what appeared to be her first drink of the evening.
He could hardly keep from staring at her. Here she was — a woman whose ancestors had burned people at the stake as sacrifices, and who wasn’t embarrassed to talk about it. But then, he thought, she was right. If either one of them had been descended from a person who had lived in Europe five hundred years ago — or even in parts of the United States — they still might have had ancestors who had done the same thing.
In any case, here was a woman with whom he could share his fantasies. Maybe, just maybe, he might get to know her better, and convince her to go to the stake for him, just a fantasy, a simulation, nothing real, just to imagine how it might have felt....
“Were they willing?” he asked her.
“Who? My ancestors? They were brought up to it and didn’t know anything else. They thought it was their duty to perform the sacrifices for the good of the people.”
“Yes... but I meant the people who were burned. How were they chosen? Were they willing?”
“Oh, yes. My great-grandfather said that people were given the opportunity to decline if they wished. There was a saying in the village: the gods want only the willing. And he said that indeed, many people were willing. When there was to be a sacrifice, many people came forward to offer themselves, and most of them were turned away. A sacrifice involved only one person at a time, two at the most.”
“Maybe some of them wanted to show that they were brave and selfless,” he said. “Maybe they knew that would most likely be turned away, so they tried to make themselves look good by volunteering.”
Shanna smiled. “I asked my grandfather the same thing. He told me that his father said that it wasn’t so. For some reason, many people in that time and place found the idea of burning to be very attractive.” Peter swallowed hard.
“Do you find the idea attractive?” Shanna asked him then.
Peter looked into her eyes for a long moment. “Yes,” he finally said. “I do.”
She smiled. “My, you’re brave! Then I’ll confess, too, Peter. So do I.”
She took a long sip of her drink, tipping it back and finishing it. “So... how long have you wanted to burn?”
“Since I was a kid,” Peter said, relieved to have it out in the open at last. “You?”
“Ever since I can remember. In fact, when I was little, I used to tell my grandfather I was sorry that we weren’t still living in the old village, because if we were, I would have offered myself as a sacrifice.”
“What did he say to that?”
“He would take me on his knee and hug me, and say that it would have made him sad to see his prettiest granddaughter tied up to a great big stake and set on fire. But even as he said that, a thrill would go through me. It was what I wanted more than anything else.”
They sat in silence for a while, gazing at each other and at the candle flame.
From inside the pub, they could hear the television. It was usually turned to a sports channel, but now there seemed to be a breaking news item. The chatter in the pub had gone quiet. Peter and Shanna turned to watch.
“It is believed that terrorists were behind the explosion,” the announcer was saying. “Police and military officials are investigating. The number of casualties is as yet unknown. The State Department has sent condolences and offered assistance....”
The television showed ambulances, police cars, buildings on fire and covered bodies at the scene of the attack. The signs on the buildings were in a foreign language that neither of them could read.
“How awful,” Peter said. “Did you catch what happened?”
“An explosion in Indonesia, I think,” Shanna said. “Terrorists.”
“The world is crazy,” Peter said, shaking his head.
“So have you ever done it?” he asked her after several moments. “I mean, have you ever been tied to a stake and had a fire lit near you?”
“Oh, no,” Shanna said. “That would be a little too close to home for someone of my background, I think.”
“Would you like to?” he asked her. “If you knew it was safe and that you weren’t going to die, would you want to?”
“I’ll try anything once,” she said, her eyebrows lifting. “What about you?”
“I would enjoy it very much,” he said, “and I would particularly enjoy it if a lovely lady like yourself were to light the fire.”
Shanna looked at him for a long moment. Finally, she spoke. “Peter, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“What is it?” he asked her.
“My family... well, we’re still priests. And priestesses.” She held him with her gaze. “I’m a priestess, too — initiated when I came of age at twenty-one.”
“And that means...?
“Remember I told you that we still cling to the old ways in some things?”
Peter’s mouth opened. “You mean... you’ve seen...?”
“Yes, Peter, I have.”
“No, not here. Overseas, in my village and the ones around it. We still go back and forth fairly often.”
“But has it ever been done here?”
“Oh, yes,” Shanna said.
“When?” Peter asked.
“Several times throughout history. The last one took place over seventy years ago, long before I was born.”
“Before the war,” Peter said.
“Oh, yes, just on the eve of it. There were two sacrifices, a man and a woman, offered three months apart, as is the custom. They were both volunteers, of course. The burnings took place on a remote estate not far from here. No one but people from our faith saw or heard.”
“Well, I don’t know how much good it did,” Peter observed. “After all, there was still a world war. Millions of people died.”
“But the world was not destroyed, Peter,” Shanna pointed out. “According to our belief, it easily could have been, and we believe that the willingness of those two people to go to the fire was what stopped that destruction from happening. Their names are venerated among us to this day, and every year we perform special memorial rites for them. I guess you could call them our version of saints.”
Peter sat back in his chair, staring. “But you said... you’ve seen....”
“Yes. In our village, or in the surrounding villages, we still make offerings at the seasonal rites, once every seven years. Each region has its own seven-year cycle, so there can be more than one sacrifice in our country over a seven-year period. So yes, I have seen quite a few.”
“But that’s worse than superstition!” Peter exclaimed. “Burning people alive to stop war or plague or whatever is bad enough. But doing it just because it’s the right time of year — that’s barbaric!”
Shanna leaned forward. “It’s true that the seasonal sacrifices are to appease our gods, Peter. One person, or two people, may go to the fire to save millions of others. It sounds awful, yes — but is it more barbaric than sending thousands of young people off to war to die?”
Peter looked down at the candle flame for a moment, unable to answer. “When was the last one in your village, Shanna?” he asked.
“Seven years ago.”
“So that means....”
“Yes, Peter. We’re due for one now.”
Peter looked long and hard at the woman across the table from him. Shanna, a modern woman who spoke English with no accent at all, whose family had been living in the country for generations — she was a priestess of an ancient, barbaric religion that sacrificed people by burning them at the stake! And she had witnessed it!
“Shanna, what’s it like?”
“Peter, I’m not allowed to tell you that. In fact, I’ve probably told you too much already. If you want to know what it’s like, you’ll have to see it for yourself.”
“I can’t do that, Shanna. To fly halfway across the world... who has that kind of money these days? And what would I tell the people at customs? That I’m traveling abroad in order to watch a sacrificial victim be burned alive?”
“We have ways of getting around that, Peter, as I’m sure you can imagine,” Shanna said. “But as it happens, because of the current state of the world, for the first time in decades the next sacrifices are due to be held here, in this country, at the same estate where the couple was sacrificed before the last war.”
“Has anyone volunteered?” he asked.
“Yes. One. A woman.”
“But not a man.”
“No, not yet. But we’re sure that someone will come forward soon.”
Peter shivered. As he watched Shanna flicking the tip of her index finger over the candle flame, he realized that here, at last, was the fulfillment of his lifelong dream. He took a quick breath and spoke before he could change his mind. “Shanna....”
“Shanna, I’ve wanted to burn all my life. Maybe....” He couldn’t go on, but Shanna picked up his thought as easily as if he had spoken.
“Think very well before you offer yourself, Peter,” Shanna told him. “The gods only want the willing, it’s true, but a great deal is riding on this. I don’t have to tell you what the situation throughout the world is, or what’s going on right here in our own country. We are talking about your death here, Peter, and a very painful death at that. In order for your sacrifice to have the proper effect, you must be completely willing. Ask yourself, Peter: are you truly willing to give your life, even for the sake of the world? Are you truly willing to submit to the agony of the fire?”
Peter closed his eyes and thought for a long moment. It seemed that all his dreams, all his life, now led up to this moment and what he was about to say.
“Yes, Shanna. I’m willing.”
“Then we had better go now, Peter,” Shanna said. “If you are serious about your offer, then the sacrifice must be offered tonight.”
“I’m serious, Shanna,” he said.
They paid their bill and left.
* * *
They talked as Shanna drove on roads that led them farther and farther into the countryside. “Where are we going?” Peter asked her.
“We’re going to the place of sacrifice,” she said. “The remote estate that I told you about.”
“The one where the couple was burned alive, three months apart, seventy years ago?”
“Seventy-one, actually — and yes. You will be burned on the exact spot where they were. It’s a sacred place.”
“Will we have to build the pyre?”
“Oh, no,” Shanna said. “It’s already built. Everything is ready, Peter.”
They turned onto a dirt road. Now the only light came from the full moon above and the headlights of Shanna’s car. “Just a little farther now,” Shanna said.
Peter sat still, breathing slowly to calm his excitement. “And then you’re going to burn me alive.”
“Not right away, Peter — but yes, I’m going to burn you alive.”
“So you’ll be the one to light the fire?”
“Yes. I’m also going to tend it and make sure that you burn slowly. Does that please you?”
Peter leaned back, closed his eyes and smiled. “Yes, Shanna. Oh, yes, it pleases me indeed.”
* * *
After another fifteen minutes or so of driving on the winding rural roads, Shanna stopped the car, turned off the engine, and turned to Peter. “We’ve arrived,” she said. Her voice had an odd ring to it, as though she were reciting her part of a ritual. “Peter, I must ask you here, on the threshold of sacrifice: are you still willing to burn?”
“Yes,” he answered. “I’m still willing to burn.”
“Then, Peter, come with me.”
The land lay bright under the full moon. Shanna led Peter down a path that curved through an orchard. They passed several small buildings, and in the distance Peter could see the main building of the estate. No lights shone in the windows.
“Are we alone here?” he asked her, his soft voice seeming loud in the stillness.
“Yes, for now we are,” she answered.
“No one knows about this place?”
“Oh, people know about it, but this place is so out of the way that no one is close enough to hear or see anything out of the ordinary,” she said.
They walked in silence for several minutes. Peter reached out for Shanna’s hand, and she held it. After a time they came to a small hut. Shanna opened the door and went inside, signaling Peter to follow. Thick candles stood in brass holders on stone shelves that had been inserted into the walls. Shanna lit them. The candlelight revealed a room with a large bathtub on one side and a plain wooden bench with hooks over it on the other. Several plain, white cotton robes hung from the hooks.
“Here you will bathe,” Shanna said. “Wash and cleanse yourself thoroughly from head to toe. When you’re finished, leave your clothing and put on one of the robes. Then come back out. I’ll be in the hut across the way — I must bathe as well.”
After the door closed behind Shanna, Peter began to ready himself for the bath. He undressed slowly, handling his clothing for the last time. His mind went back to the day he had bought the shirt, the trousers, the shoes he had enjoyed so much. Now he was about to die and would no longer be needing them. He would not even be dressed in them after his death, since there would be no body to bury. He wondered what would be done with his clothing and shoes after he was gone.
Yet as he sank slowly into the warm bath, his momentary sadness disappeared and his excitement returned. Burned at the stake, burned alive, his mind said over and over. His heart beat faster. Finally, I am going to be burned alive.
His bath completed, Peter left the hut, wearing the long white robe that he had been given. He was barefoot. He had left his clothing folded neatly on the bench and his shoes underneath it, a symbolic farewell to his past life.
The door to the hut across the way opened, and Shanna stepped out. Her damp hair was tied back with a white ribbon, and she, too, was barefoot and wearing a long white robe. “Look how alike we’re dressed,” Peter said. “From the clothing alone, it would be hard to tell who’s going to be burned and who’s going to light the fire.”
“Many times, there is not much difference,” Shanna told him, “particularly in my family. It has often happened that those who served as priests in one sacrifice served as victims in a later one. But now, Peter, come with me.”
Shanna held out her hand and Peter took it. They walked together, and the path was smooth under their feet.
After some minutes, they came to a large open area paved with flat, rectangular stones, surrounded by a thick growth of rowan and ash trees. At the center of the clearing, well away from the trees at its perimeter, was a wooden platform about six feet long and six feet wide. Three wooden stairs led up to it. Thick logs and bundles of kindling were piled beneath it and around it, and looming above it, driven deep into the ground, was a stout wooden stake about six and a half feet high. A length of chain was coiled at its foot. Several yards away stood a brazier and a wooden table that was empty except for a small cloth bag and a box of matches.
Shanna took Peter’s hand and led him to the platform. “Come, walk around the pyre with me,” she said. “Look at it, Peter. Touch the wood that will fuel the flames that will send you to the gods. Here....” and she bent to pick up a stick of kindling. “Smell,” she said, holding it out to him.
Peter took the stick in his hand, held it to his face and inhaled deeply. “How does it feel to hold part of the fuel that is going to burn you alive?” Shanna asked him.
Peter smiled, feeling his heart pound in his chest. “Exciting,” he said. “Exciting, and a little scary.”
Shanna took the wood from him and replaced it on the pyre. Then she took his hand again. “Come with me, Peter,” she said, turning toward the stairs of the platform. “The first flames must reach your body by midnight. It’s almost time.”
“Wait,” Peter said. “Please. One more moment... just let me look at the stake for one more moment.” He stood still for a few breaths, looking up at the platform and the stake. “I’m really going to be burned at the stake,” he breathed. “I’m really going to be burned alive.”
“Yes,” Shanna said softly. “You are.”
“What will happen to me afterward — after I die?” he asked.
“Well, since you are to be burned in a slow fire, by the time you go to the gods, your body will still be mostly whole,” Shanna told him. “At that point, the fire will be built up and made very hot, to burn your body to ashes. Then, when your pyre cools, we will gather up the ashes, place them into a clay urn that has been hand-made by a priestess, and bring them with honor to the temple in our village the next time we go there.”
“And you’ll keep the stake around for the next victim?” Peter asked.
“Oh, no!” Shanna said, looking a little scandalized. “In my country, only criminals — murderers and such — are burned at stakes that have been used before. In fact, it’s always a bit of a joke when a new stake is installed at the execution grounds and used for the first time. The executioner puts on a few of the priestly vestments — the priests don’t mind — and pretends to lead the condemned to sacrifice, addressing him as ‘Sacred Offering’ and crowning him with a garland and such. Even the condemned, if he is particularly brave, jokes about the great honor being done him. Everybody gets a good laugh out of it, at least until the fire is lit. But it is clear that his burning is no sacrifice. No sacred herbs are thrown on the fire, and the priests pray with him but do not ask the gods to accept him. He is simply bound to the stake and burned alive.
“But a sacrificial victim, particularly one who has offered himself, is always given the greatest respect possible, and that includes being burned at a new stake. It also honors the gods — it’s a way of showing them that the one being offered to them is a good and honorable man, not a criminal. Do you know,” she said, “that in some towns in my country, they actually sacrifice condemned criminals? But we would never do such a thing. This stake has never been used before, Peter, and once it has served its purpose, it will never be used again.”
Shanna’s face and voice were utterly in earnest. It was clear that she was eager to reassure Peter that he would be burned with all honor. Peter smiled at her and said, “It’s all right, Shanna. I have no doubt about your intentions. I was just curious.”
“Can I ask you another question?” Peter asked.
“What will you do with the stake afterward, if it’s not to be used again?”
“Once your body has been burned to ash, it will be taken up, cut into pieces and burned to ash as well,” she said. “Most of its ashes will be buried in the forest near here, but a small part of them will be placed with your ashes in their urn.”
“Why is that?” Peter asked.
Shanna told him, “We believe that when the spirit of a sacrificial victim enters the halls of the gods, he carries part of the ashes of his stake with him to show the gods how he died and win glory in the next world. It’s said that sometimes, if the gods are particularly impressed with a soul, they will order it burned as a sacrifice in the heavenly temples as they look on. It’s considered to be the highest honor for a sacrificed soul, and it is said to be extremely pleasurable, a reward for the victim’s agony during his earthly immolation.”
Peter considered that. “I wouldn’t mind being burned again in the next world, I think,” he said. “But what about you? What will you do once I have been sacrificed and burned to ashes?”
Shanna smiled. “I will prepare for my own sacrifice,” she said.
Peter started back, his eyes wide.
“Didn’t you know, Peter?” Shanna asked. “Both a man and a woman are called for in this rite, to burn alive three months apart. I shall be the woman who is sacrificed. I offered myself as soon as I was permitted.”
Peter’s eyes widened. “You, Shanna? Why?”
“I’ve felt called to sacrifice ever since I was a child,” she answered. “When I was little, I spent hours praying to the gods, asking them to choose me as their offering. As a priestess, I have witnessed many sacrifices, and even after having seen what it looks like to be burned alive, I still want to offer myself.”
“But aren’t you afraid of the fire?” Peter asked.
“Of course. Aren’t you?” Shanna asked, smiling.
“Yes,” Peter said.
“But you offered yourself, and I don’t see you trying to escape,” said Shanna. “You could, you know, and so could I. The gods want only the willing.”
“I am willing,” Peter said. “But tell me, Shanna. You know what called me — I’ve been fascinated by fire since I was a kid, and I’ve wanted to burn. What called you?”
She answered, “Peter, as you know, I have watched quite a few burnings in my country, both sacrifices and executions. I wasn’t surprised that the criminals who had been sentenced to the stake died in agony, or even that most of the sacrificial victims died that way as well. I confess that it scares me — while I do want to be sacrificed, I’d prefer not to die in that kind of pain. But I saw that some of the ones who offered themselves to the fire burned with joy even though they were given to the fire slowly. When they died, I could see the ecstasy on their faces. A few of them called out to us, even as we could see the flames on their bodies, that they were no longer in any pain and that the gods were with them, comforting them as they burned. That’s the way I want my sacrifice to be, Peter. I want to know what those people knew, and feel what they felt. I want to burn with that kind of joy.”
“I hope it will be that way for you, Shanna. I wish I could see it,” Peter said softly.
“I wish you could, too, Peter,” she said, taking his hand once more and squeezing it gently. “I hope it will be that way for you, too. Now, come with me. It is time.”
Together they climbed the steps to the platform where the stake waited. Shanna guided Peter forward, and when he stood before the stake, she deliberately stepped back, not touching him. She spoke, and again her voice had the ring of ritual.
“Peter Edwards, you see before you the stake at which you are to burn. Once you are bound to it, there is no turning back. The gods want only the willing. Consider well your fate, consult your heart and mind, and say now whether you still wish to be burned alive as a sacrifice to the gods. If you do not, you may descend from the altar with no shame or dishonor upon you. Speak, Peter Edwards! The choice is before you. What is your will? Will you burn, or not?”
Peter reached forward and put his hands upon the stake. He closed his eyes and took a long breath. Then he opened his eyes and turned to Shanna. “I have made my choice, Shanna. I will burn,” he said.
“Be thou blessed,” Shanna said softly. “May the gods be with you in the fire and welcome you to their halls with all honor. Now turn, Peter Edwards, so that you may be bound to the stake.”
Slowly, Peter turned. Shanna picked up the coil of chain at his feet and began to wind it around his body. She moved slowly and deliberately, with practiced motions. First she crossed the chain over his chest several times in each direction, binding his upper body securely to the stake. Then she wound it around his waist and legs, taking care to bind each ankle to the stake separately, so that he stood with his feet apart. “The fire must reach every part of you,” she told him softly. Swallowing, he nodded.
“May I ask just one question, Shanna?” Peter asked her.
“As many as you like,” she said.
“What would have happened tonight if I had said no?”
“Then I would have gone to the fire, and my people would have had three more months to find a willing man,” she said.
“Shanna, you’re so beautiful. Forgive me, please — but it hurts me to think of such beauty being given to the fire.” Peter stopped, unable to say more.
“I’m willing, Peter,” Shanna said, “and there’s nothing to forgive. It will also be hard for me to see you burn, for the same reason.” She reached for his hand and squeezed it gently. “It’s time,” she said softly. “Are you ready?”
Peter’s heart began to pound so loudly that he thought it would drown out his voice.
“Yes,” he said.
Shanna now turned to face him. Once again, her voice had the ring of ritual.
“Peter Edwards, you have offered yourself as a sacrifice. The time for your sacrifice has come. Have you anything to say before I light the fire?”
“Stay with me, Shanna,” Peter said. “Stay close to me when the fire comes, and let me see you as I burn.”
“I will, Peter,” she said.
She lit the coals in the brazier. Then, going to Peter on the platform, she cut a tiny lock of his hair and placed it upon the coals as they began to burn. Lifting a torch from a hook at the side of the brazier, she held it over the coals until it ignited. As the flames danced upon it, she moved to stand before Peter’s platform and held it high.
Peter squirmed in his bonds, and a tiny moan escaped him.
“Gods! Accept this sacrifice!” Shanna called out.
Then she bent and touched the torch to the wood piled beyond the platform’s edge. Leaving it on top of the wood at the edge of the pyre, she opened the small cloth bag that lay on the table nearby and took out a handful of crushed herbs. She chanted in a language that Peter had never heard before, though he recognized his name, which Shanna mentioned several times, in the middle of it. He supposed it must be a formal prayer to the gods to accept his sacrifice. At the end of the chant, she scattered the herbs onto the places where the pyre had ignited. Suddenly the air was filled with the herbal fragrance that Peter had smelled earlier, and both of them could hear the hissing and crackling of the wood as the fire began to take hold.
“You may speak, Peter,” Shanna told him. “You do not have to be silent. You may speak, you may pray — whatever you wish.”
“Stay with me, Shanna,” he said, a note of pleading creeping into his voice.
“I will, Peter,” she said. “I promise.”
The flames spread slowly as Peter watched, unable to take his eyes from them. Shanna went to the cloth bag once more and took an herbal cigarette that was already prepared. Putting it in her mouth, she picked up a burning stick from the pyre and lit it. Peter watched from the stake, able to smell the exotic herb as she exhaled. Shanna replaced the burning stick upon the pyre and then straightened and stood before him, looking into his eyes and inhaling once more. The tip of her herbal cigarette glowed.
Peter gasped and shivered. The approaching fire and the sight of Shanna smoking — even in ritual, even a cigarette filled with some strange herb that had nothing to do with tobacco — affected him as he had expected, though he had not imagined that the feeling would be this strong. After all, he reasoned, he was about to die. But beneath his white sacrificial robe, his body asserted its bond to life, even for the last time, in a way that neither he nor Shanna could mistake. He was surprised to find that he was not embarrassed. Shanna looked at him with compassion and understanding — and, he could see, with feelings that began to respond to his own. He moaned again, closing his eyes for a moment. The flames grew slowly around the platform, casting their glow upon him.
“Oh, Peter,” Shanna breathed, then inhaled once more, blowing the smoke over the pyre. “You are beautiful, Peter. Burn now. Burn in the sight of the gods.” Taking a final pull on the herbal cigarette, she bent and placed what remained of it in the fire.
Suddenly, Peter yelped. Looking down, he saw a wisp of flame at the little toe of his right foot. He could hear the hissing of the tiny flame as it grew and his own pain grew more intense. He tried to jerk his foot away, but the chains held it firmly in the path of the approaching fire. He gasped, then cried out again.
“Shanna! Shanna, I’m burning!”
Shanna looked at him, her eyes wide and shining, as if she saw nothing else on earth. “Yes, Peter, you are burning,” she said. “Look at me, Peter. I’m here with you.”
“You won’t leave me, will you, Shanna?” Peter gasped over the pain.
“I won’t leave you, Peter, I promise. I’ll stay with you until it’s over.”
The flames at Peter’s feet grew brighter, hiding them from view. He screamed and thrashed in his bonds as he felt them catch fire and begin to burn. “Shanna, I’m on fire! Help me!”
“Look at me, Peter,” Shanna called to him above the crackling and hissing of the flames. “Look into my eyes! I’m here with you, Peter. I’m here.”
Peter fixed his eyes on Shanna and screamed. The fire climbed slowly, licking at his ankles as he tried vainly to twist away. He gasped and shrieked as the hem of his robe caught fire and the cloth began to burn slowly from his body.
“Shanna!” he sobbed. “Shanna, I’m burning — stay with me — don’t leave me —” and again he screamed, the pitch of his voice rising as the fire, with no further obstacle between itself and his body, found the flesh of his calves and shins and began its work.
“Peter, you are beautiful,” Shanna called out to him then. He groaned, trying to master himself, and more cries broke from him as he struggled. He could feel — and Shanna could see — that the fire had not diminished his arousal. If anything, it was stronger than before.
“Peter, look at me,” Shanna called over the crackling of the fire. “If only I could show you how beautiful you are! See, Peter, see — I am here, I am with you, there is nothing in the world for me now but you —” and she held out her arms to him over the edge of the pyre, which was now completely ablaze with low, bright flames.
“Peter, I too am going to burn — if only the gods would let me burn together with you! Peter, you are the most beautiful man I have ever seen!”
Sobbing and panting with the pain, Peter managed to meet her eyes for a moment. “I’ll bet — you say that — to all the sacrifices,” he managed to gasp out before the fire flared at his knees and he screamed again.
“Shanna — Shanna — it hurts and I’m afraid — but I’m still willing — let me burn!” he cried. He was struggling, thrashing from side to side in his chains, but there was no escape from the ring of fire that was slowly rising around him. His feet were completely on fire now, and only the chains held his body upright. Tips of flame climbed slowly above his knees, and as a loud pop sounded from the fuel below, a bright tongue of flame soared past his thighs and toward his midsection, lightly stroking his robe over the most sensitive parts of his body. He jumped in his bonds and shrieked.
“Shanna! Help me!”
“Peter!” she called out to him. “Peter!”
Now the flames rose upward to his thighs. His robe slowly vanished in the brightness of the flame, and smoldering bits of cloth, together with charred ash, began to rise and swirl above the pyre. But before Peter had the time or concentration to be embarrassed about his nakedness, one bright, waving wisp began to lick between his legs, searing the very flesh that it covered. Gasping in fresh agony, Peter tried to protect himself with his unbound hands, but the fire singed his fingers. With a cry, he pulled his hands back. His shrieks grew louder and his struggles became more desperate as the tendrils of flame continued to lick at his inner thighs and what lay between them.
Shanna, her heart wrung with compassion, called his name and held her arms out to him. “Gods, have mercy on him,” she murmured softly under the crackling and roaring of the fire. “He comes to you through the fire of his own free will. Please give him your favor, and accept him with love.”
Suddenly Peter’s struggles stilled for a moment. His eyes were wide, as if he were gazing on a great light. “Shanna — Shanna — am I still burning? It doesn’t hurt so much anymore — oh, Shanna —“ and suddenly he closed his eyes and moaned in unmistakable pleasure, thrusting his body forward, toward the very fire that had made him shriek with pain only moments before.
Now Shanna could see flames approaching him from behind the stake. As the fire burned brightly in front of him, the new flames rose up from behind, surrounding the lower part of the stake and licking at his hips and buttocks. As Peter gasped and twisted in the chains that bound him, tongues of flame curved around the stake from behind, joining the small flame that licked at his body from the front. Peter’s body jerked and shuddered and he gasped, “Shanna, please — it’s too much — I can’t bear it —“
“Peter!” Shanna cried, trying to move closer to him, but stopped by the terrible heat at the edge of the pyre. It seemed to her that threads of light wove themselves between her body and that of the bound and burning man. As the fire now blazed steadily behind him, curving around his hips, Peter tried to thrust his body forward, only to encounter the fire that burned directly in front of him, licking at the stake between his legs. Again and again he screamed, and again and again Shanna answered his cries as her own body felt the echo of his pleasure and his need.
Peter now wore the fire like a bright, shifting garment upon his loins. As Shanna watched, fascinated and aroused, it grew steadily brighter as it fed upon his flesh. As he gasped and writhed, sobbed and shrieked in mingled pain and pleasure, she found that she could feel some part of what he was feeling: the intense, relentless heat, the fire slowly licking the very center of his body with hot, bright tongues, his mixture of agony and exquisite rapture, and her own growing need. His cries seemed to vibrate in her own throat, and it seemed to her that their bodies touched even as she reflected that this was physically impossible: Peter was bound to a stake at the center of a burning pyre, being slowly consumed alive, while she remained free, outside the flames. Still, it seemed to her that she could feel herself embrace and hold him, comforting him, caressing his burning member and inviting it to find relief inside her own body — and that Peter could feel all this as well. Even as she was aware of these thoughts, Peter thrust his body forward, gasping. “Shanna — please —”
The last distance between them dissolved then, even as they stood apart. In their minds and spirits, as the fire flared between them, each felt the embrace of the other. Inside their linked minds — or was it perhaps in another realm that touched theirs for a moment? — Shanna reached for the bound and burning man and felt her hands make contact with his shoulders. He moaned as he felt her hands on his body, caressing him even as the fire continued to burn him, then crying out as she touched him at his center and guided him home. He even laughed softly as she gasped, feeling the heat of his flesh inside her own body.
Merged now in the realm of mind and spirit, Peter and Shanna moved and cried out together in the most ancient dance of all. Finally, as the fire rose fully toward Peter’s most sensitive parts and began to burn them in earnest, Shanna screamed, feeling the heat upon her own body. “Peter! Gods —” she gasped as she leaned forward, balancing dangerously over the edge of the burning pyre. “Oh, gods —”
A flash of liquid heat along every nerve, an explosion of light inside his mind that seemed brighter than the fire that raged and crackled around him, a long, loud, shuddering cry — and Peter, his body lit by the flames that were consuming him, sagged, spent and panting, against the chain that bound him. Shanna moaned and sank to her knees. For one bemused, bewildered moment, she wondered whether the laws of the temple would consider a priestess who had had this experience, but who had not yet been with a man, still a virgin.
She opened her eyes and slowly rose. Peter’s hips and lower torso were now entirely ablaze, and fingers of flame traced jagged patterns upon what remained of his robe, over his shoulders, and down his outstretched arms. His body shuddered and he screamed. Then, as he looked at her, he seemed to become calm for a moment and gasped out, “Shanna — you are so beautiful — thank you, Shanna — ”
He shrieked again as his fingers caught fire and began to burn. Sweat and tears poured down his face. As he gasped for breath, Shanna looked within herself for the link between them that she had felt. It was still there. As she gently probed further, she could feel the heat overpowering Peter, could feel his flesh burning, but knew that thanks to what had just happened between them, his pain was less than it had been, less than it might be. The gods had indeed been merciful.
As if Peter were aware of her presence in his mind, he focused his eyes upon her, his face now lit by the fire. His expression was intense, full of concentration, but it was no longer the face of a man in torment. As she watched, his expression deepened into wonder and he stretched his burning arms toward her. “Shanna — Shanna — it’s just like you said — it was wonderful — and I can bear it now. The pain isn’t so bad anymore — not after — thank you....” He gasped and closed his eyes for a moment. “Shanna, I wish I could hold you — please — give me more fire — finish burning me and let me watch... please....”
“I wish I could hold you, too, Peter, in the fire or out,” Shanna said. “I’ll do as you ask. I’ll give you more fire.”
It was not customary to add more fuel during a sacrificial burning. The victim must burn slowly in order to feel himself being given to the gods. Additional fuel was added only after the victim had surrendered his spirit, in order to burn his body to ash. But Shanna looked within herself and knew what she must do.
Bending, she picked up as much kindling as her arms could hold and added it, a little at a time, to Peter’s pyre as he looked on, moaning feebly. His back and shoulders were now on fire, and it seemed to her that she could feel the flames seeking his very heart. The new fuel ignited and burned brightly in front of Peter’s body, adding more heat and flame to the fire that was devouring him. His voice shook as he gasped out, “Shanna — thank you — fire from your hand — so beautiful — stay with me, Shanna, please —”
“I am here, Peter, here with you,” Shanna called to him, her whole soul in her eyes. “Look at me, Peter. The gods are pleased. You shall go to their halls with all honor. Look at me, Peter, I am here.”
Peter was now almost entirely on fire, his body now burning of itself rather than being burned by the flames that were nourished by the fuel. He gasped in the terrible, overpowering heat, struggling to keep his head up. He fastened his eyes upon Shanna, wanting to see her until the moment of his death. Yet even as he trembled with the effort, an unearthly light, brighter even than the light from the fire, washed over his face. Over the crackle of the fire, he whispered, “Shanna, do you see them? They’re full of light! The pyre is ready — the fire is lit — they’re calling me — oh, it’s so beautiful — come with me, Shanna —”
“Peter!” Shanna cried, tears streaming down her face. “I’ll be there, I promise! Wait for me —”
“A golden stake — silver chains — the fire like light from a ruby — hold me, Shanna — oh, yes —”
“Peter, I’ll hold you, I swear it —”
Peter gazed at her, his face wreathed in flame, his eyes full of light and wonder. “Shanna! Shanna, I’m burning —”
All at once, his hair ignited. He gasped and gave a weak, shuddering cry, and Shanna watched, transfixed, as his body, almost completely on fire by now, arched backward toward the stake. Then his head, enveloped in flames, fell forward, meeting the fire that licked upward from his chest. He did not speak again.
“Peter, go in peace! Be thou blessed,” Shanna called to him, hoping that he could still hear her.
In that moment, time seemed to run together for Shanna. All at once, and yet separately, she saw Peter being welcomed in the celestial temple of the gods and led smiling to the altar, then standing amid the rising fire, crying out in ecstasy as his spirit burned. She saw herself, three months from that day, being led to the pyre and bound to the stake on the very spot where Peter now burned, praying to the gods and calling his name again and again as the flames rose around her.
“Shanna, don’t be afraid of the fire. There is nothing to fear —” Peter’s voice said in her mind, as clearly and strongly as if he had been standing there beside her, alive and well.
Startled, Shanna looked up, but no one stood there. She looked toward the pyre where Peter’s body, limp against the chains, was entirely ablaze. Now the priests, who had stayed in the darkened main building during Peter’s sacrifice, came out to finish the rite. After waiting several minutes more to be certain that the victim showed no further sign of life, they threw large bundles of straw and kindling on the fire, completely concealing Peter’s body behind a wall of roaring flames that towered to the sky and gave off a shower of sparks.
A tall, elderly man, whose regal bearing still showed some traces of his former strength, came to stand at Shanna’s side. After a few moments, he took Shanna by the arm and gently led her backward. “Come inside, Shanna,” he said in their language, his voice trembling slightly with age. “Soon it will be too hot to stand here. Come inside and eat and sleep. You have done your part, and done it well.”
Shanna smiled up at him, then knelt and kissed his hand as custom demanded. “Thank you, Grandfather, my lord and high priest,” she said.
He acknowledged the gesture with a slow nod, almost a bow, then gestured her to rise with a shaking hand and drew her into an embrace. “Granddaughter, are you sure that you will not reconsider your decision?” he asked her softly as they moved toward the house, where lights now shone in the windows. “You are a gifted sacrificial priestess. I am sure that your victim was received so well by the gods thanks to your compassion and insight.” His eyes twinkled. “Surely the celestial fires, and your young man in the next world, can wait a while longer. Must you burn so soon?”
“I must, Grandfather,” Shanna said. “I have sworn.”
“If you have sworn, then you must — but oh, Shanna, must it be so soon? I would be so sad to see my prettiest granddaughter tied up to a great big stake and set on fire. And I had hoped that you would be high priestess after I was gone.”
Once more Shanna knelt before him and kissed his hand. Then she rose and hugged him. “Grandfather, I know the law,” she said softly. “If I were high priestess, I would still have to mount the pyre at the end of my life, as you have chosen to do. I will burn a little sooner, that is all.”
The old priest bent and kissed Shanna on the forehead. “Shanna, you know the decision that I made nearly a year ago when this illness came upon me. A high priest or priestess must leave this earth upon the pyre, but he may choose his time. And so, rather than watch my strength continue to ebb, in six weeks’ time I shall offer myself as a votive sacrifice and join your grandmother in the next world.” He paused, then drew a labored breath. “I would burn in your place if only the gods permitted it, granddaughter.”
“I know, Grandfather. And I would enter the fire this very moment if it would restore you to health.” She flicked a glance backward at the pyre on which Peter’s body was burning. “But a woman must be sacrificed in three months’ time, and I have sworn.”
Once more, the old man hugged her, then gently lifted her chin. “By the laws of our people, I cannot ask you to lead me to the pyre, Shanna. I cannot ask you to perform my sacrifice. But will you stand witness? Will you take my last blessing at the foot of my pyre?”
“Yes, Grandfather,” she said, looking up at him with love and compassion. “I will witness your sacrifice. I will take your last blessing at your pyre. And then, with your blessing, I will mount my own.”