The Stake

Part 1

Joseph was a wanderer, a wild-eyed man who sought to traverse the world, every continent and country in its span. It was a very odd world, he had learned from his travels, but it excited him. There were exotic plants and strange animals, a richness of different cultures, languages, and religions, fascinating men and beautiful women--all these things were interspersed among the many regions of the land. Only a few common threads ran through all these different areas, and one he definitely noticed was that all were roughly even in technological and theological advancement.

Except this place. Night was falling on this autumn day, and Joseph was in need of a resting point. He had already seen much of the world on his horse-drawn carriage, but, naturally, both he and the horses required food, drink, and sleep to continue on. Coming along the single pathway through the dense forests surrounding it, he had arrived at this town unexpectedly in the mid-afternoon as he passed the large gates lying a ways outside of the town itself. Soon he saw the apparently civilized town, moderate in size, and ever since then he had been walking and riding through it leisurely.

Mingling about for some hours, he had noticed several strange things about this secluded forest haven, including the crude architecture and stern closed-mindedness and unfriendliness of townspeople to him--because he was a stranger, he supposed--and the general feeling of tension in the air.

However, despite all these oddities, the most pervading peculiarity of the place was the smell. It was a smoky smell of charred meat and dried blood, such as one might have found in a butchery near his home. It was terrible. The smell, coupled with the perpetual silence, gave the entire place a spiritually eerie aura that imprinted itself upon his gut. He wasn't sure what it was, but he dared not guess.

"Keeper," Joseph addressed the man attending the entrance to a building labeled 'inn' in a language somewhat resembling that of a neighboring area he had passed. Throughout his travels, of course, Joseph had picked up on some key words and phrases, and even sometimes become proficient, in multiple languages. He made hand gestures to aid him as he spoke what he knew of the language written on the sign. "Keeper, may I take a room? What is your price?" Knowing that he would never be able to understand the innkeeper's response to the latter question, Joseph reached into his sack and offered up three small solid gold coins of his native country's currency, putting them gently on the table before him. The innkeeper nodded and beckoned Joseph to follow.

First he was taken outside to the stables, where his two horses and his carriage were to stay for the night. For some reason Joseph could not identify, the horses were upset and began fussing about and making noise. "Easy now," he said, startled by their uncharacteristic disobedience. He gently stroked their long faces a few times to reassure them, and the innkeeper then led him inside, around to the back of the building. The room he was led into was a simple one--carpeted with hay and with cloth bedding for two that seemed comfortable enough; more so than the cold earth, he decided. He thanked the innkeeper to the best of his ability, and as the hunched old man left, stripped off his more uncomfortable clothes and settled down upon the bed the sleep.

It was late in the night. There was only one small window on the far wall, so the moon could not tell Joseph exactly how late it was, but he knew it was not yet morning. He was awakened by a shrill cry from a source not so far away. Concerned without being terribly worried, Joseph donned his shirt, belt, and shoes once again and quickly walked to the front of the building where he had first met the innkeeper. There the man stood, before a pretty girl of Joseph's same youth and vibrance, who could only have been perhaps five years his junior. She was crying hysterically and, presently as Joseph entered, clutched the hooded old innkeeper in her arms. The innkeeper returned her embrace for a moment, then (apparently not noticing that Joseph had come) sternly faced her and muttered some words he could not make out.

"Father, Father!" he heard the girl cry in her native tongue. Then incoherent words, ad "no!" The innkeeper looked helpless as she dropped to her knees, sobbing and holding her head in her hands.

"Hurry," said the innkeeper then, "they will catch you." What? thought Joseph. The innkeeper, apparently the girl's father, looked around with a panicked expression, and his wandering eye found Joseph. Enlightenment came over his face; then, he lifted the girl to her feet and pointed at Joseph. "That man," he said. Then some sentences he understood none of, and finally "go with him."

Joseph looked questioningly upon the two. "What?" he tried to ask. But to no avail; the innkeeper's daughter saw Joseph and ran up to him, her modest brown peasant's dress tattered and flapping just slightly along with her long auburn hair, also tattered. She took his hand with both of hers and hunched humbly over it, pleading with him.

"I must leave," she said, "please take me also." She tried to explain to him why she needed to go, but he could not understand.

"Take her out," said her father. The words, to Joseph's untrained ear, seemed harsh--as though he wanted to be rid of her--but his expression said otherwise. Out of town, he must've meant. Sensing the young woman's dire need of help, Joseph nodded and decided to take her, whatever the reason.

Joseph and his new woman companion rushed to the stables to release the horses and quickly reattach them to the carriage. All the while Joseph wondered who, or what, she was running from that could make her so incredibly fearful. Regardless, he resolved to continue, and ask questions later. Joseph climbed into the modest carriage, and seated the girl beside him. The innkeeper rushed back inside, giving his daughter one last glance.

"My name," said she as Joseph set the horses into motion toward the town's exit, "is Kadera." She spoke clearly and steadily, in a rhythmic and almost melodic fashion that Joseph had no trouble understanding. She consciously tried to keep herself from descending into frantic tones--she was smart enough to see that he was a foreigner who could not deciper her language very efficiently.

"My name is Joseph," he replied to the best of his ability. "Why are we here?" He hoped she understood what he meant, his limited vocabulary hindering him. She did; she took on another distressed look. She pointed out toward the side of the carriage, showing him a large structure that shone brightly in the distance and emitted a column of black smoke.

He stared in wonder and amazement, but also in apprehension and fear. He noticed that the smell that seemed everpresent in this community was stronger now than it had been all day. And for the first time since he had arrived noises could be heard--loud, high-pitched noises that came from the direction of the smoke cloud. Were they burning animals alive? It was a terrible thought.

"Women," said Kadera, her voice quickening. Some indeterminable words, then, "at the stake." Joseph fell into a rather feigned puzzlement. He knew what that must have meant; but at the same time, he felt, it couldn't have meant that. The town was indeed on the spooky side, but human sacrifice? He asked for clarification, and, much to his disgust and bewilderment, was met with only a hard stare. It was true, then.

"Only tasokanna," she said. He did not know the meaning of the unfamiliar word. "Only peasant tasokanna go to the stake." She spoke something of an angry god and a place of worship, and Joseph knew she talked of the huge, foreboding structure on the far side of town. Joseph had always thought of human sacrifice as ancient history--many cultures had ritually done it hundreds of years ago, but no modern society he had encountered on his many travels had ever practiced that abhorrent form of worship--until now.

"What is tasokanna?" asked Joseph. Kadera tried to explain. She used many words, trying to incorporate as many as possible, searching for one he knew; but he knew none of them. She made gestures, moving her hand up and down her sleek body in a provocative fashion that gave Joseph a chill. Then she shook her head. He was still confused. Kadera was flustered.

"Cannot tell," she said, discouraged. She must have meant that she didn't know how to explain it, he thought. "I need--" She stopped abruptly. "The only way--the only way, I cannot ask you."

"Tell me," Joseph said gently. He pulled the carriage off to the side of the slightly beaten road and stopped it. "I will try." She stood up.

"The only way--I need--tasoka." The foreign word exasperated Joseph, sounding much like the one she had used before. He shifted his eyes and bit his lip, tacitly asking for another explanation. She looked desperate. She dropped back down to the seat, "I need--" and suddenly grabbed him between his legs. Before he could even react, she swiftly pulled her hand back, and her cheeks blushed with embarrassment. "Tasoka," she repeated, as though wrapping up a definition. Joseph was startled, his face also red, but he understood now. Only virgins were sacrificed to the town's angry god. If she were to live, then she needed--

"Kadera," Joseph struggled, trailing off helplessly.

"I can't ask of you," she said again. "Please take me far." It was the only other option, after all. Joseph nodded and, with an embarrassed flush on his own face, started back up the road toward the outlying gate that lay about a mile outside the actual entrance to the town, the only outlet to the single road that stretched through the impenetrable forest. Kadera was restless, and tears still flowed out from her eyes, although she made no sound. To comfort her, Joseph smiled at her and squeezed her shoulder just slightly, trying to reassure.

Yells could be heard from behind them now. Joseph guessed that the soldiers--or whoever was in charge of that sort of thing--had been alerted, and they were now coming to retrieve their lost offering. "Why do they need you?" asked Joseph. It didn't make any sense to him that they wouldn't simply look for another virgin woman to sacrifice.

"They believe . . . fate," she said. That was as much as he understood, anyway. It meant that they believed it was fate who chose the victim. It meant that they felt she was the only one; they would not stop until they had lost her or else got her back. He took in a deep breath and, knowing he hadn't the words to express it, gestured for her to hold on. Her small, delicate hands reached over and gripped the horses' reins, and Joseph had them speed up, rushing their ascent to the gate.

And at last they reached it. Joseph's and Kadera's eyes widened; Kadera screamed. The gates were closed. The great iron bars were sealed together for the night--they had not yet been opened. It had been so long since he had been to a walled or gated city that he had forgotten the usually ceremonial--not religious--practice of locking up each night until dawn.

Joseph jumped out of the carriage and sprinted for the towering gate. He fumbled with what he thought to be the lock, but it was too strong for him, and he could not force it open, nor could he find a way to bypass it. The sounds of men hollering was slightly louder than before, and Kadera hopped out of the carriage to try and help Joseph with the gate. Knowing they could not open it, Joseph took her hand and ran for the bushes and trees so thickly lining the sides of the path, pushing their way through the prickly brambles until he found them the clearest spot they could hope to find, free from thorns and branches. Kadera cried softly; they would never escape now.

Joseph's conscience writhed inside him. What should I do? he asked himself. I know it's the law and religion of the town, but I can't just let them take her to die. She's a sweet, smart girl, and look at her cry. She doesn't feel bound by this religion or this law. But there's nowhere to run any more. The only other thing that can save her is--

He tried to not to face that truth. But it may be the only way. He gulped and tried to retain his composure. Certainly, she was lush and beautiful, but never would he jump to that seemingly inevitable conclusion without first trying everything else--no, he couldn't do that. "Kadera," he said softly to the crying girl as the sounds of men shouting still approached. "What do you want to do?"

I don't know," she tried to say, her voice distorted by choked tears. She put her arms around his neck. "Thank you . . . help me," she said brokenly. "You did well."

"Kadera, there is one thing--" He made himself stop. She looked up into his eyes.

"I know," she said. "It is the only thing. But can't ask you. Not right."

"I know it isn't," Joseph told her. "But I will for you. That is what you need?" He tried to ask if she was sure, but he didn't know how. She hesitated and recoiled from her hold on him. But then she nodded.

"Yes, I believe, I will," she replied, trying to convey with just a few mutually known phrases that she was sure. She winced at her own words, unbelieving that she had said them. "Then we must hurry," she said through gritted teeth. "They come." That was all Joseph could understand. He took in a deep breath, trying to convince himself that this was not for him but for her own sake, and, for the second time that night, unfastened his belt. All the while he kissed her--not for affection and not for romance, but to keep his eyes closed as he committed what he could not determine to be either his sin or her saving grace. He did not allow her to sob, nor to scream, and she did not try to--Kadera's tears were silent as she gave away the purity that made her prey to her own patron god.