Everything was ready for the ritual. I'd been as meticulous in my preparations as I always was. The chalice that would receive the blood had been cleansed with boiling water. The herb infusion that would take away her pain was ready. I'd made it particularly strong this time. Hopefully she would pass out before I even put the knife to her neck. She would feel nothing. The bed of soft grasses and sweet-smelling flowers was ready for her death. I'd been particularly careful this time to make it as grand as possible. This year's child was really special.
We had to to do this very year. Otherwise the gods wouldn't look favourably on us. Maybe there would be a drought. Or the crops would fail. A plague might visit us. But if we continued with the ritual there would be abundance, our women would be fertile and we would all prosper.
If only poor Angelika hadn't died. She would be the one we'd have been sacrificing. Angelika had been take from us by a fever and that left Gracie as the youngest virgin over twelve years of age on midsummer's eve. Such a shame. Gracie was so special to me. I'd been teaching her all about how the herbs work and she'd already even learnt some of the incantations. She was a good student and she would have made a fine wise woman.
The villagers began to arrive. They were dressed in their finest clothes. The women wore garlands of flowers and the men had on finely woven cotton scarves. This was always an important day for the village and everyone liked to look their best. The children skipped and ran about chasing each other. It was a holiday; it was a high day. The sun was shining too, and it was warm but not too hot. A perfect day if only I didn't have to perform this bitter task.
"You have everything ready?" asked Elder Jansen. "You will be able to send the child to the gods without her suffering?"
I nodded. "Indeed, sir. All is well."
"Good. Good. And you have checked that she is a virgin?"
I nodded again. Of course I'd checked. Not that I'd needed to. She was so pure, this child. In body and in spirit. The gods would be glad to have her. "Her hymen is intact and her body will delight the gods."
Elder Jansen smiled. "I have every faith that you will play your part well in this, as you usually do."
Someone touched my shoulder. I turned to find Brother Tompkins looking at me.
"I know today will be hard," he said. "I know how much she means to you. But we know you are doing the right thing."
I nodded and swallowed. I knew I had to stay strong. For her sake as well as my own.
Then she arrived. She was of course barefoot. She had on the full white robe that the women had first woven and then sewn. Her long blond hair glistened in the sun. They had chosen yellow and purple petals for her headband. She could have so easily been a bride for a fine young man. It was a scandal that she was to be a sacrifice to the gods.
The other young girls, also dressed in white, accompanied her. Their dresses of course weren't so finely woven as hers.
Oh, they giggled and chattered. It was all a game for them and it was so exciting. It wasn't so for me anymore. I had been doing this now for over twenty years. It always seemed to work. We were still going strong in the village. But why did our gods have to be so cruel? Why did they expect this?
She ran up to me. "Will I do, Agatha?" she asked. "Will the gods like me?"
I managed to smile. "They will adore you," I said. How could they not?
She smiled and ran back to the other girls.
This was so wrong. But I must do it anyway.
It was time. I must start the first part of the ritual. I took up my pipe and started to play the opening bars of the song to the gods. The drummer started his mournful beat and she started to march forward followed closely by her entourage. Now she looked more serious. Perhaps she realised that her life was about to end and this weighed more heavily than any thought about the privilege of sacrificing herself for the village.
Oh why did I have to do this? To this child in particular.
At that moment I saw the stranger arrive. He rode a fine white horse. It wasn't unusual for strangers to visit on the day of the sacrifice. We always checked up on one another, to make sure that everything was done properly.
But there was something a little different about him, I thought, though I couldn't say what exactly. I certainly didn't recognise him.
There was no time to dwell on this. I offered her the infusion. I must have made it quite strong. Within seconds of drinking it she was unconscious. Now I must do it.
I made a show of sharpening the blade. I probably took too long. I was trying to give her more time though I knew there was no way out of this. I must do this thing or the gods would be angry. Then just as I was about to pull the knife across her throat, he galloped forward and jumped from his horse.
He grabbed my hand. "Stop," he said. "This isn't necessary." He took the knife away. "There are no gods. There is only the one true god and he requires no sacrifices. He looks after his children in any case."
"What are you saying?" said Elder Jansen. "This sounds like sacrilege."
"If we don't make the sacrifice, disaster will fall upon us," said Brother Tompkins.
"It won't," said the stranger.
He bent down and touched Gracie's cheek. "You shall not die," he whispered. Then he stood up again and faced us. "Let me take her away. I'll return her in exactly twelve months. I will guarantee that your village prospers." He took a large money pouch from his belt. He showed us the contents. "See, I am rich." He offered Elder Jansen several coins. "There will be more of that if you need it. I shall watch over you as will the one true god."
It was all so crazy. Yet there was something about the man that made us believe him. Was it his soft, reassuring voice? Those sincere dark eyes? Or that way he touched Gracie so gently? Whatever it was it worked. We believed him despite ourselves.
We had a good year. The crops grew well. Thirteen babies were born before the next Midsummer Day. Everyone stayed healthy. No plagues visited us.
We held our breath during the days leading up to midsummer. We'd promised there would be no more sacrifices and he'd promised that we'd prosper and that he'd return with Gracie in exactly one year.
My belly jumped and somersaulted and I could hardly stop trembling when the day came.
But he kept his promise and at noon the two of them rode in on his white mare. Our Gracie was no longer a girl. She was a young woman now. It was clear he'd taught her a lot about the way this true god operated.
"You can carry on with the herbal remedies," she said. "They're part of the true god's way. But the incantations are pointless. You can ask the true god to bless your medicines though. And to bless the harvest and the families."
I wondered what else he'd taught her. Well it was obvious that she should now know the way of the world. Why else would a mature man have taken a pretty young girl away like that? But there was no sign of any baby on the way or of any unmentionable disease.
He visited every year and in the seventh year he asked Elder Jansen if he might marry her. By now he had the respect of the whole village. He stayed for several hours each midsummer's day and told us stories about the true god and his followers.
It was agreed. Gracie blushed when Elder Jansen told her.
He returned in the eighth year to claim his bride.
"I am still a virgin," she said as I helped her to get ready for her wedding. She took my hand and guided it into the space between her legs. Indeed, her hymen was still unbroken.
The wedding was glorious and Andreas - we learnt his name for the first time as they made their vows - stayed on at the village. He became very popular amongst the men. He and Gracie now have three fine boys and there is another babe on the way.
Of course, there have been no more sacrifices. We believe in the one true god now. It is so wonderful, too, that he saved our Gracie.