Friday, August 10, 2012

Sacrifice by Gayle McCain

It Begins in a Circle

Feet aching with cold, Amber waited outside the circle of Standing Stones for the ceremony to begin.  The pain in her toes a welcome distraction from the fear of what was to come. Her disappointment over broken dreams brought tears to her eyes once again. She had wrestled for some time with the turn her life had taken before she finally sought counsel. Called simply “The Merlin,” he was the person that everyone went to for healing, assistance, and wisdom.  Reluctant to add to his burdens, Amber had waited a long time before talking to her elderly friend.

The Merlin had watched Amber grow up, had even come to think of her as his granddaughter. He had spent many hours with the girl and her grandmother. Yaya, whose name was also Amber, had come to live with her daughter and granddaughter when her beloved husband had died. The elder Amber had found life with her son-in-law difficult, and had begun spending more and more time away from the cottage taking the little girl to the Forest. The Merlin had met them on one of their first journeys into the wood and the elders had developed a strong friendship.

The girl had not minded the deep conversations between the two as she entertained herself playing with his dog, chasing butterflies and picking flowers, occasionally stopping to help as the old ones gathered food for their tables. The Merlin’s wife was an indifferent cook and had relinquished that chore to him. For many years, he had wandered the Forest gathering the ingredients for their next meal. This allowed him the solitude that his place as the village shaman required. But by the time he had met the elder Amber Yaya he had recognized that the solitude was not as necessary as it had been in his youth, and was able to enjoy company.

He had discovered that as he talked with both Ambers, he was more awake, more able to see that he was no different from them, not separate. There were times when he felt as though he were looking out their eyes at an old man sitting on a log. Whenever it occurred it was disorienting but eventually he had grown used to it. Unable to explain the sensation of being in two places at once without sounding crazy he had remained silent, though he often caught the knowing look his old friend gave him as he explored it.

Yaya Amber had a way of being in the world that allowed her to slip through life, connected to everything but rarely caught up in its drama. The Merlin had watched as she did her best to teach the young girl how to use that connectedness to be part of the village without getting dragged down by disappointment and pain. But Yaya and The Merlin had to contend with the influence of the other people in the girl’s life. People, whose belief that life was hard and required sacrifices, were unable to experience the sweetness of any of it as they scrambled to survive. An old man, he had spent many years believing in the need for sacrifice and scarcity. He wondered if perhaps the lessons that the elder Amber gave her granddaughter were often for his benefit. She taught him to be softer, and when he focused on being connected he was able to see out of the eyes of others.

When his old friend had died, he missed her terribly, for they had spoken as equals and no one else in the village did so, even his wife. The young girl’s father disapproved of things he could not understand and had prevented the girl from spending time with the old man. The effect of the loss of contact prevented him from continuing the girl’s education and over time she forgot much of what her grandmother had taught. Even though he had seen the changes, he had not been able to stop them. So he had watched her from a distance as she grew to womanhood, offering what guidance and friendship she would accept.

When the young woman had finally come to him to talk about her future, he realized that he did not know what to say. Trying to remind her of her grandmother’s wisdom had brought her only pain, and he had fallen back to discussing practical options. His suggestions were met with resistance, for many of them were aimed at helping to remind her of what she had learned at her Yaya’s knee.

When Amber offered to participate in the midsummer’s eve ceremony, he had resisted. As she persisted, he reluctantly acquiesced, praying for an alternative.  This was how he found himself staring out into the dark with his assistant, Hawood, pounding out the ceremonial call.

Called by the drums, one by one the villagers joined the circle outside the stones.  Shuffling back and forth in the unseasonably cold night they waited for the ceremony which would mark the beginning of a summer that held little promise.

The booming of Hawood’s beat poured over Amber and dragged her attention back to the ceremony in progress.  Deep in pitch, it sent a heartbeat rolling across the land, her own heart matching the pounding as it thrummed against her body. It was the beginning of summer and yet the cold of the dewy grass made her bare feet ache. Her throat tightened against the fear of her part in the upcoming ceremony. She waited quietly, appearing to be just one more villager standing outside the ring of stones, except for her bare feet. Wearing only her best robe, and the triskell that had been her grandmother’s, and her grandmother’s before her.  A draft wafted up her back, chilling her even further. She wrapped the fabric around her long legs in a vain attempt to keep warm. Amber blinked the tears back trying to keep from crying outright, her body pounding with the drum and aching from the cold. She wanted an end to the pain, no longer sure whether it was the pain in her feet or her heart, she just wanted it over.

Abruptly Amber felt a warm hand on her shoulder.   Glancing up, she saw that it belonged to the man she yearned for.  Byron smiled, teeth white in the darkness. Handing her the rope that held a late spring lamb he squeezed her shoulder and moved away, leaving behind a warm spot and his scent. Heart racing, she followed his progress with her eyes noting that, though he went to stand in the circle of villagers, his betrothed did not join him. One of the customs that the stranger had tried to change, Shara believed that the nighttime ceremony was blasphemy, with or without the sacrifice. The outsider had watched Byron join the circle and then returned to the warmth of her bed. She would be up soon enough.

With drums pounding, Amber took a deep breath trying to calm her fears.  Fears that she thought she had put to rest when she’d made her offer.  Fears that she had discussed with The Merlin.

Young and Foolish
 It had been a year of deprivation for the village of Stone Circle, indeed for the entire land. The rains had not come, only cold and fog, but never carrying enough moisture to allow the plants to flourish. The village council had been meeting regularly, hoping to come up with something that would ease their desperate straits.

Finally, someone had idly suggested that they follow ancient traditions and perform a sacrifice.  The council had agreed because no one had a better idea.  They all wanted to do something, even if there was only a sliver of hope. Which was why Byron had brought a lamb to the midsummer’s eve ceremony. He doubted that this ritual slaughter would be enough to change the drought, but he hoped it would give a favorable start for his upcoming marriage.

At dawn Byron would marry Shara, just hours after the sacrificial ceremony. Tall, strong, and handsome, with a charming twinkle in his eye, he had been leading hunting and trading parties for more than a handful of years.  His bride, tall and thin with waist-length blond hair, had seen him on one of the trading missions and pursued him relentlessly. He had allowed her pursuit, for Shara was a beautiful woman who flattered him.

One of the village’s best hunters, the young man was well respected for his leadership skills.   Always sharing his quarry with the less fortunate, he had become particularly popular with those who looked to him for support.  After the village chieftain had been slashed by a wild boar, Byron had assumed much of the work of running the village.

Though they had known that Byron looked outside of the village for a bride to stabilize tribal loyalties, no one in the village had understood his choice. Nor could they understand why a simple treaty was not enough to continue peacefully trading with the northern villages. Byron had refused to explain his choice of mates. By all appearances, he had acquiesced to the northern woman’s advances with little regard for how she would get along with the residents of Stone Circle. Byron had yet to see the effect of Shara’s arrogance and disrespect.

Amber, being young, had been able to convince herself that he would change his mind. She believed he would eventually see how much she could help him and would choose her instead. Even though they thought her odd, she was far more respected than the sharp-tongued older woman from the north. But plans for the wedding ceremony had proceeded without delay.  Finally, Amber had resigned herself to the idea that she would never be with the man she had dreamed of for all those years. She knew that watching him build his life with this stranger would be simply too much to bear, and thus she had finally made her offer to The Merlin.

Holding the rope in her hand, her mind went over her reasons once again.  Even knowing that what she was about to do was for the good of the village she was afraid. She had felt disconnected from the community since her Yaya had died, finally coming to believe that she had few hopes for a better connection. And with Byron marrying the blond stranger she had no hopes for the future. Depressed and lonely she had spent hours with The Merlin discussing her options privately, not liking any of the alternatives that he suggested. Finally, for the good of the village she knew what she had to do and made her offer.

It wasn’t that Amber was unsuitable for marriage. Hawood had made her an offer of marriage. He had always been fond of the young woman and was willing to take her as his wife. Amber had turned him down because while she enjoyed his company, she thought of him as a brother, and could not think of him as a lover. She believed herself to be a passionate person, and his peacefulness didn’t fit well with that. She didn’t think that he would be a true match for her, because he lacked strength and vigor and she had always held back to keep from overwhelming him.  She wisely knew that she would be too much for the quiet man. He needed a peaceful wife, one who would be satisfied with his gentle ways.

For months Hawood had been sitting with the rest of the villagers listening as they discussed options to ensure the survival of the village. A bright young man, his rare but thoughtful comments did give them alternatives. When he idly reminded them that in the ancient stories sacrifice had been an accepted practice it had sparked a heated debate. Perhaps Hawood had said it casually but The Merlin had already spent many a sleepless night pondering that very question.  After nearly half a year watching his people suffer the shaman had come to the distasteful conclusion that perhaps Hawood was right.  Perhaps a blood sacrifice was called for.  He had discussed this with the village council which was how Byron came to offer the lamb as a sacrifice.

Amber had her own reasons for her part of this ceremony and knew the village’s reasons as well. She even believed they were doing the right thing, but that didn’t relieve her rising tension. What if it didn’t work? What if it did? Would she be glad that she had become involved in it? Would she even care? Would anyone even notice her part in it all? Questions skittered through her mind as she held the rope of the innocent lamb in the darkness. As midnight approached, Hawood’s drumbeat rolled out into the dark, while The Merlin called the magic.

Hawood had watched while the shaman prepared for the ceremony. At The Merlin’s nod, the quiet man had begun pounding the drum, slowly, steadily, a heartbeat rolling out across the chilled land. His friend was going to walk the lamb to the center of the Stone Circle, holding it tightly so that its innocent blood could be spilled. A sacrifice that would release the energy needed to change the weather and bring rain. The quiet man was certain the legends were correct, that some sort of sacrifice was needed. Perhaps they only needed to release the idea that suffering was the way of life. The young man wisely knew that sometimes change is easier to accomplish when accompanied by some action, which is why he suggested the sacrifice in the first place. Involve the body and the mind and the result is a change.

He personally preferred the idea of giving up a prized possession, his favorite cup for example.  But he believed that most of the villagers were too selfish to be willing to do that. And he knew that because this was an issue for the entire community if even one person wasn’t emotionally moved in some fashion, the sacrifice could be in vain. He hoped the spilling of the innocent lamb’s blood would so shock the villagers that they would release their belief that this was an acceptable way to live. He also prayed that Amber would see him for who he was and let go of her reluctance to marry him.  The young man loved her dearly, and wanted only to make her happy.

It was a small village and they had known each other since Amber had learned to walk. Several years older, Hawood had found the young girl fascinating. Lighthearted as a butterfly, she had picked wildflowers and berries, always willing to share with her friend. He had watched shyly as she sat with her grandmother and The Merlin, and had wished that he could join them. Though he didn’t really like Amber’s brother, he made friends with him as a way of getting close to her, thinking that she would be impressed. She hadn’t been. More than once he had distracted her brother while she slipped away, mistakenly thinking that the two boys were best friends.

He had taken more than one beating from the girl’s brother for interrupting as he picked on his little sister. But Hawood had done it anyway. And he learned to fight, protecting her as necessary, though he had always been a gentle soul. He had been the only one who knew that Amber was learning skills normally reserved for the boys. She had been terribly embarrassed the one time she knew he had seen her, which is why he had remained silent the next time.

When her grandmother died, Hawood had been there to offer friendship and what comfort his shyness would allow. He had listened to the girl sobbing for hours. He had seen her withdraw from everything and everyone, including him. He had been appalled at the way she cringed whenever she heard her father’s voice. She had been so caught up in the drama at home that she had no room for anyone in her life and had withdrawn further and further into the silence of the Forest.

As Hawood came to manhood, he decided that she was someone who he wanted to be able to spend more time with and had sought her out. But her withdrawal had continued, and she simply did not have the desire to come out of her self-imposed silence. Unsure what to do about her distance, Hawood had finally gone to The Merlin.

What had begun as a request for advice turned into many long discussions with the elder, and had eventually led to his position as The Merlin’s assistant. Though he would have liked to be trained as a shaman, he did not believe he had the spark that would make it possible. Enjoying The Merlin’s company, he had decided that even if he could only be hands and helper to the old man it was worth the effort.  And that was how he came to be in the Stone Circle.

As the drum pounded, the villagers gathered.  Taking a deep breath, Amber knew her part would come soon enough. Her aching feet would be warm again, the ache in her heart eased or if they weren’t at least she wouldn’t care. She hoped.  Abruptly, the pounding of the drum was silenced.

The Owl
 The Merlin called into the stillness, a single note held until he could hold it no longer. Amber moved forward, dropping the rope holding the lamb as she stepped into the Stone Circle. Walking to the altar, she bowed toward the shaman, honoring his wisdom, honoring his magic, hoping that her sacrifice would accomplish what all the wishing in the world hadn’t -- bring rain.

“What are you doing?” Hawood hissed, surprised. “Go get the lamb. What do you think you are you doing?” The words hung in the air, waiting for an answer. An answer that Amber didn’t think she could give her childhood friend.

“Silence, Hawood,” the shaman ordered. “Do not interfere.” Amber could tell that her friend did not understand why she had come into the circle alone. As it dawned on him what was happening, Hawood looked at her with anguish. The Merlin gestured her toward the tallest stone from which hung a leather strap. She stood in the moonlight, dew dampened robes wrapping around ankles and feet numb with the cold. The last bit of warmth left her body as she leaned against the tall standing stone. Reaching up, she slipped one hand after another through the loops tied on the end of the binding. “She has consented.  Her reasons are her own.”

Hawood said in anguish “no no no no no.” Although he had brought the idea to The Merlin’s attention he had merely been repeating an ancient story. He had never wanted a blood sacrifice in the first place, believing that even the life of a lamb was too much life to give up.  It had never occurred to him that this woman would agree to this. The villagers began murmuring restlessly as it dawned on them what was about to happen.

“No!  No, you can’t. Why, Amber? No.  Why?”  Hawood cried, fire lighting his eyes. “Why are you doing this thing?” he asked, stepping between her and the shaman. He had known that she felt unloved and lonely, but he hadn’t known that her grief would cause her to go to this extreme. Looking straight into her eyes he said, “Why? You are better than this. You will find what you seek if you can just wait. Do not do this.”

“Hawood,” she began softly. “We have all prayed for an end to the drought.  We have all hoped that something would change, that some sacrifice would be great enough to change the earth and sky and allow rain to fall again. In the ancient stories, it was told that the drawing of blood altered the very air the ancients breathed. I have tried to accept the changes that will come to our village in the morning, and I find that I cannot. So I must go. My blood will give our people the chance that they need. Please try to understand.”

“She has consented, placed her hands in the binding by her own choice. Do not interfere again,” the shaman spoke harshly to his assistant, voice rough with emotion. “No one is forcing her. This is her choice. Now go.  Stand out of the way,” he said pointing to the far side of the Stone Circle.

Walking to the altar, the shaman picked up the wand that this ceremony called for. Covered with arcane symbols, the ash wand had been passed down for many generations. Bound in leather, the handle had a combination of horsehair and barn owl feathers hanging from it. The wood itself brought knowledge of lost wisdom and ancient tradition, helping to focus and use the power of the earth.  The horse hair symbolizing freedom, movement and travel, sometimes both birth and death. The owl feathers brought mystery and more than a touch of prophecy. These elements gathered power, and focused it through the ash wand.

Holding this powerful wand high above his head,  The Merlin prayed for something to stop the sacrifice. Knowing that he must continue until the magic spoke to him; he turned away from the woman to take his ceremonial knife from the altar, and heard a flapping sound behind him. Whirling quickly he saw a barn owl land upon the woman’s suspended hands. The bird peered down at his living perch and then paused to stare at the shaman in the flickering firelight.  The night fliers were said to be wise beyond expectation and The Merlin was a believer. Turning its attention to his perch, the predator bit cleanly through the leather strap binding the woman’s wrists.   Launching itself into the air, its claw tore open her hand. The bird swooped over the altar, circled the Standing Stones once, and flew off toward the east.

The turn of events brought eeriness to the entire proceedings. Lowering her arms Amber looked at her hand as though it belonged to someone else. While not a pumping wound, the gash left by the owl’s abrupt departure was deep and her blood was flowing freely. She stood dumbly staring at the red liquid that had run clear to her elbow by the time she lowered them.

The Merlin crossed the circle to grip Amber’s wound, blood dripping between his fingers.. Small sparks flew into the air as each drop met with the earth, made visible by the darkness.  Amber’s eyes rose to stare at the shaman, uncertain.

Relieved that he had received the omen that he needed to change the course of the ceremony, he had only to understand and interpret. She was to give her blood only, not her life.  And whatever else was needed would be made clear.

In the distance he heard the owl hoot three times as the growing breeze caused the fire to flare.  Smile growing, he dragged her to the flickering fire.

“Blood for the Fire,” The Merlin said, dipping his wand into the crimson liquid running down Amber’s arm. Flicking drops of red from the feathers and horse hair of his wand, the fire flared.  Flames dancing with the sacrifice.  Images moving, swirling, exploding into the darkness. Images of Forest, a great expanse of water, and more Forest swarmed up through the flames as if one were traveling over vast distances. The journey stopped as a man came into view. Surprise showed on the gaunt, brooding features.  Blue eyes peered out of the flames, surrounded by dark hair and beard beginning to grey..  He leaned forward out of the fire toward  the two of them. The stranger’s mouth forming words, but no sound was heard. The man, the woman, and the shaman looked at each other for a brief moment. Eyes meeting, power calling. Then the wind shifted and he disappeared in the suddenly swirling flames.

“Blood for Water,” the shaman spoke grimly as he again wiped Amber’s arm with his wand, dropping her life’s blood into the bowl on the altar. Light swirled within its watery depths, sending out swirling, glowing steam. Visions swam in the mist. Again an image the gaunt stranger swam into view, this time seen from the back, as he stared into the fire beyond him. Surrounded by a Forest reaching toward the sky, he pulled his sword and whirled around; searching for the wraith he had seen in the flames. Again, the wind swirled, blowing the vision away. The villagers could be heard shifting in their circle outside the Standing Stones. Curious to see more of the vision, they were annoyed that the stones blocked so much of their view.

“Blood for the Earth,” Merlin used a rigidly controlled voice, full of power and potency; he shook drops of crimson from the wand onto the dirt at the foot of the Standing Stone. Sparks rose into the air, twirling and twisting, shimmering with power. The glittering flashes encircled the Standing Stone from which the leather still hung, burning it to cinders, and then streaked off toward the east. He could hear the villagers murmur in surprise.

“Blood for the Air,” was the last offering. Dipping his wand into her open wound one last time, he swung the wand toward the sky flinging crimson drops everywhere. The droplets did not land but went streaking towards the rapidly gathering clouds, glowing like fireflies. As they embedded themselves in the dark surface of the clouds, lightning flashed from west to east. For as long as it takes to breathe ten times, the lightning flashed. Over and over. Always the same direction, west to east. When the sky finally stopped flashing, the circle was shrouded in darkness once again, lit only by the flickering bonfire. The wind picked up, and as the first of the cold raindrops struck the villagers, the lightning flashed one last time, from west to east.

Fire hissing in the falling rain, the shaman faced Amber, still gripping her wrist, blood dripping between them. Using the wooden end of his wand for the first time, he traced the wound, watching as it stopped bleeding and began to mend itself.

The villagers scurried toward their homes, grateful for the rain, but thoroughly chilled.

The Stranger

The dark-haired stranger moved quietly through the Forest, brooding. He had been searching for The Betrayer for a handful of seasons. The trail, hot to cold and back again. His quest had taken him from one coast to the other, from far north to the southern coastline, and still he could not find Her. In truth the distance did not matter, for his home was where he spread his Blood Blanket. He was a warrior from a clan of warriors and was used to traveling. But his quest and the reason for it had made him old before his time. Eyes that in his youth had sparkled with laughter and truth of purpose were dull and lifeless. The brilliant blue had faded to the dull color of the sea during a storm, although when he was full of menacing emotions they darkened to the point of seeming black.

His unsettled spirit had seen too many of his brothers die and had been unable to find peace because of it. He would only be free to grieve fully and pursue a life once again when he found and stopped Her from any further destruction, and thus he had willingly sacrificed the company of others lest they distract him from his quest. His self-imposed exile meant that while he might defend a village, he could not enjoy the peace that he brought with his skills with a blade. Senses sharpened by a lifetime of battles and enemy raids were now used to hunt for a single human predator.

As he traveled, Ian had exchanged his services for the supplies that he needed, or whatever payment was offered, but only if the service allowed him to continue to search essentially unhindered. He only entered villages to obtain information and things that he could not gain from the land, bypassing those without markets, for he found that his brooding presence disrupted the community. He had avoided this particular village because of the ceremony for midsummer’s eve, and a stranger in their midst would cause talk. In his travels he had witnessed many ceremonies for the passing of each season, and if the villagers decided that some innocent animal should be sacrificed the drums had pounded out a funeral cadence. He had never understood why they used the same cadence for sacrifice and funeral. It was as if by pounding out the funeral cadence all would know of grief that had struck. And he had seen enough of that to last ten lifetimes. So, when he heard the drumbeat, he had known that some sort of sacrifice was planned, and he disliked those rituals most of all.

Ian’s quest would only be delayed by visiting this community. He knew that this was a place where a leader was chosen for skills at trading, not in understanding the kind of men that prey on others. They thought that hunting skills were warriors’ skills, and while the coordination of multiple hunters required leadership skills, there were differences. Apparently they thought that a sacrifice of some sort would appease the gods and life would be simple and prosperous once again. He shook his head in disgust at their ignorance.

As he stirred his fire, in it he saw a slip of a girl step forward into a circle of Standing Stones. The vision, when added to the pounding in the distance, caused dread to rise in his throat. Something far more than the ordinary lamb was about to be sacrificed, whether through ignorance or evil, and that was wrong. It was simply not to be allowed. The warrior checked his weapons and ran toward the ritual heartbeat that was booming across the land.

He slipped silently through the dark arriving at the circle just as the owl had landed on the resigned girl’s bound hands, had watched the bird free her and fly off. Curiosity kept him rooted at the edge of the firelight as the shaman grabbed her wrist and dipped his wand into the blood running down her arm. He was as astonished as the rest of the watchers as he saw sparks fly into the air where her blood had fallen on the ground. But when the shaman flicked some of her blood into the fire, he saw himself in the flames. Ian stepped forward trying to see what was happening.

Some faint disturbance behind him caused his instincts to take over and he drew his sword as he spun around. He knew that there was a reason for his unease, but he couldn’t tell what it was. He heard the villagers murmuring near him. He turned around to face the fire and the ceremony still underway, sword drawn, and saw himself in the vision rising from the bowl of water. He had not realized how gaunt he had become in the last year or how grizzled. He had not yet passed into his third decade, but he looked much older. Starvation and worry did that to a man.

As the wind blew away the sword-drawn image, the shaman had looked up from the bowl and locked eyes with the flesh and blood warrior. The old man had seen that the younger man’s eyes were nearly black, a color long associated with pain and the spilling of blood. The warrior withdrew before his instinct to fight when blood was spilled took control of him and he did something that he might regret later. He gathered his things, smothering his fire and slipping into the darkness away from the Stone Circle, only dimly aware of his direction.

As the warrior moved silently through the falling rain when most others would stumble and fall in the darkness. He smiled, knowing that this skill had served him well over the years. He had been the one sent into the darkness to discover the enemy’s weaknesses. He had a way of knowing who was awake, where traps had been laid, and how to move through a Forest without disturbing the undergrowth. Usually Ian dispatched the enemy sentinels without a sound, thus ensuring the surprise of the attack of his warrior band. When he became leader of his band, he had rigorously trained his group in silent moving. Teaching the special way of listening to the tiny sounds that told him someone was near. It had become an honor to be chosen to be one of his men for they were the best.

They had been known as hard warriors, ignoring discomforts and pain that stopped lesser men in their tracks. They trained over the roughest of ground, and became accustomed to traveling long distances on little sleep and meager food. Ian allowed his thoughts to wander to the women who were drawn to his discipline and warrior’s body. He had enjoyed their company but avoided seeking a mate, for he had known that warriors’ women were often alone far more than they wanted to be. Plus there was something about the life that made it difficult to be tender with a woman, and so most of the rest of his band had made similar choices. Perhaps it was not the life, but the type of man who was drawn to the life. They tended to be harder than most of their fellow villagers, even as children. Certainly those warriors chosen to be members of his band had been. They were the best.

He corrected himself. They had been the best. That is until they were slaughtered in the dark, a little more than a handful of seasons before. Ian’s eyes went black as he remembered the night of The Betrayer, and he began to run through the night, no longer concerned about silence. 

I hope you have enjoyed this taste of Sacrifice... to find out whether Amber runs again watch for it's release on iTunes as an Audio Book and on Amazon and Lulu as an eBook.

Gayle McCain