Reap the Harvest
The drumbeat was agonizingly slow. Inside the Sanctum, the women filed down the large center aisle. They advanced slowly, measuring their pace carefully and occasionally dropping out of rhythm due to their intoxication on the Kallum, The Wine of the Virgins. Althea’s glass just before they began their procession was at least her 8th today, if you counted all the cups during the night while they fasted. The other handmaidens had likely had more.
A great congregation of peasants stood in the back, those who were lucky enough to be allowed in. They had scraped and saved for a year to afford the worship taxes for this special day. They parted for the line of young women in white. The cloud of working class gave way to a river of mild elites, fanning and fawning over themselves and their dress. They pet each other with words and bejeweled hands in a display more suited to an evening at the royal court banquet, instead of a serious religious matter. Finally, the thrones were past. The chairs that used to be occupied with the royal family, the true gilt aristocracy of this city had been empty a long time. The queen that was Althea’s mother was long gone, another and another taking her place until soon her father the king was gone, too.
She only had a single brother and her maternal uncle left. Her brother was being held in the dungeons to keep his interference with this sacrament minimal. Her uncle was the one pulling the strings.
As they reached the dais the handmaidens parted, allowing Althea to stand alone in front. A young priest came in front of her leading an even younger bull calf. Kammia stood to her side as the other members of her retinue took a leg of the calf to hold it in place. The drumbeats stopped. With a swirl of extravagant robes and a sound of horns behind him, the High Priest descended to the level of the congregation. Leaving the dais, he reached his arms wide.
“My people, I gather us here in auspicious times. It has been 7 years since we last had a good harvest. The plants whither and die, and our women do not bear fruit. We have given our very children to the whims of the gods, and they do not head us.” He turned his head towards Althea, his only niece. “But today, we celebrate. We have been given an offering that is sure to please Galeed. He requires sacrifice, and he will have it.” He reached out his hand and gestured to Kaamia. She set her jaw, thrusting the scythe into his hands. Tears rolled down her face, but she did not interfere.
Althea knew the ceremony. They had been practicing it since she offered herself as tribute. High Priest Dashkal pretended to offer her the blade. She stoically averted her eyes, one hand on her heart and one outstretched in protest as though the honor was too great.
He mock offered it to the priests on the dais who gestured to the ceiling. They had decorated the center of the dome with a gorgeously intricate mural that depicted their Ox Horned God. The gesture seemed to say that their allegiance to God was their duty, and not the blade. He circled her, mock offering the knife to the other virgins, as they stoically averted their eyes to their sacrificial animal, indicating that this was their task.
A final offer to Althea, before the Priest offered it to the crowd of people in the back of the room, behind the thrones. The High Priest hand’s shook imperceptibly, no one but Althea would have noticed the response to not having his drink in hours. As no one took the blade, the High Priest offered it to anyone, the window, the ceiling, the air. Following the offering to the air, she was to retrieve the dagger and sacrifice the calf, representing that she took the blade when no one else would. She knew the ceremony.
The High Priest’s eyes slit as his lip curled into a wicked smile, hidden in space of a second, a lecherous leer toward the Priestess. Tension flooded the room as she still did not move, the drums increasing. Another sideways glance, and under the sound of the beat the High Priest stamped his foot. Without thought, Althea moved her own foot forward. Numbly, she came forward and placed her hand on the arm of the High Priest. Feeling the center of attention and yet unreadable under the mask, she revolted at the touch. She slid her hand up as far as it would go, his height preventing her from retrieving the weapon being offered. She fell to her knees as per the script, graceful under the heavy horns atop her head and offered her hands to the Priest.
He slowly lowered the blade to her hands, slicing quickly across both palms before putting the handle in her grip. She shook. The weapon was in her hands, and a fleeting thought of using the scythe to rip into the stomach of the Priest was small comfort to the pain blossoming in her hands. She could never do that to family, no matter how vile. It was difficult to hold the blade wet with her blood, blessed as the priests would call it. The blood of a virgin, it was their cure for everything.
She approached the calf, leaving the fantasy of familial carnage behind as she straightened her shoulders to perform her duty. She used her own blood to mark the calf, a palm to the forehead, silently blessing it for the crowd and asking its forgiveness for herself. Small and pure white, it was the best of its family born this last spring. It was chosen early, fed the best and given much freedom over the summer as it grew stronger. Did it know they destined it to be a sacrifice? She thought it must not know it was to be given to the gods or it would be fighting. If it knew, wouldn’t it run?
Then she realized, she was a sacrifice and she wasn’t running either.
As she pulled back, in one swift move, the sharp blade found its mark across the throat of the animal. The blade was so sharp and her cut so deep its suffering was not long. As the blood poured, the Priest approached and filled the cup with the flowing river. The young girls holding the legs were soon kneeling in blood, supporting the young beast as best they could until the life was gone. They let it slump to the ground as she let the scythe drop to the floor.
“High Priestess,” his voice boomed “blessed are thee among women. Only through you can we know God. Only through you can we understand God. Only through you can we Be God.” Two guards arrested her arms in their huge draping sleeves, and drug her to the middle of the dais where a large stone table stood. She made no sound, to speak in the presence of the Priests in the Sanctum was an offense to their God. In the presence of the Priests it was forbidden, but to speak in the presence of god himself... it was downright sacrilege.
“High Priestess, blessed are thee among our kind, for only you shall be one with God.” the High Priest intoned as he blessed her by pouring the fresh blood on the forehead of the mask she wore. Althea almost retched as the blood covered her nose, sliding in her mouth so she couldn’t breathe. While they incapacitated her, before she could breach the thought to fight the old priests had pushed her backwards and had her hands tied with long white cords to the stone dais.
“We Plough the Fields, We Reap the Spring.” The words began softly, spoken by no one but the priests and then, slowly, everyone. Althea closed her eyes, tightly as she felt the first hand on her ankle. It slid high above the hem of her skirt and brought the leg to the corner of the dais, binding it. She fought automatically to keep her her free leg tightly pressed to the other, but a force she refused to confront with her eyes separated the knees and bound the other. She strained and finally the tears began to slide, the hands of the priests holding her limbs down, cloying incense burning all around her. Hands grabbed at her skirt and she could not stop them. These holy hands were choosing their way blinded to all but tradition, and as the Priest’s chanting reached a frenzy, they were brought to pause by a single scream. The High Priestess Althea was silent, the room watching her defilement was silent.
The scream came from outside.