Barthamud, the Wise, adjusted his sackcloth robes for the umpteenth time that day as he watched the temple obelisk stab the setting sun. His pits, chest, arms, and legs still burned where the flint knife had scraped all the hair from his body in preparation for the annual sacrifice. Yet, it was the scratchy cloth that made his junk itch.
Elizathra, the Generous, approached with perfect gravitas and poise. He could balance the 13 Tomes of Sacred Malfeasance on his head without ruining his even stride.
“Greetings, worthy pilgrim,” Elizathra began. “May your days be blessed by Hedgethorn, the Resplendent Terror of the Seven Kingdoms, Scourge of the Unworthy, Unknowable, All Knowing Smirk of Death...”
And so forth. 101 names later, their meeting commenced.
“Should be a dandy sacrifice this year,” Elizathra said cheerily.
Barthamud grunted vaguely. The last thing he wanted to do was discuss the sacrifice. Elizathra always managed to ruin it for everyone else. The Seven Kingdoms spent months planning the sacrifices down to the last detail, to make sure everyone gave equally. After all, one did not want to piss off Hedgethorn by giving a lesser sacrifice before the harvest. Yet, somehow, Elizathra always managed to give more than the rest.
The previous year, the kingdoms had agreed to 26 heads of cattle pulling 13 new wagons overflowing with 13 bushels of wheat, 13 gallons of olive oil, 13 pounds of silver, 13 pounds of gold, and so forth. On the day of the sacrifice, every other elder showed up with the exact same gifts. It was Elizathra who had topped off his heap of riches with the still-warm heart of a baby goat.
In the months since that sacrifice, Barthamud’s people complained that their crops lacked the luster of their nearest neighbor. Well, that wasn’t going to happen again this year.
“Shall we proceed?” Elizathra asked.
Without waiting for an answer, the younger man knelt on the splintered stone. Barthamud ignored the twinge in his lower back and the blisters on his creaking knees, as he assumed the same position. With arms lifted to the sky, middle fingers extended, the two men offered their customary curses.
Hedgethorn wasn’t a big fan of the sun, which is why he lived underground. At least that’s what the prophets had said in the fifth tome. Barthamud had often wondered how they had known such things, but he wasn’t one to buck 47 centuries of tradition.
“I couldn’t help but notice your sacrifice,” Elizathra said casually.
Barthamud bit his bottom lip. It was impossible for anyone to spot that nubile virgins had hand fed his cattle the best grass in the land. Innocent children had pressed his olives into oil. His burlap sacks of grain had been soaked in the sweat of fervent worshipers. There was no way Elizathra was going to top him this year.
“The spokes of your wagons aren’t made of gold,” Elizathra said.
Barthamud gestured more vigorously at the sky, even though the bleeding sun had already collapsed to the horizon.
“Our spokes are just temporary,” he said quickly. “Tomorrow, before the sacrifice, we’re going to replace them with the bones of the unfaithful. You know how these things work. Carving and polishing bones takes time. Plus, we had the damnedest time finding enough heretics in our kingdom.”
Great. Now he had to send off a last-minute missive, demanding alterations.
Elizathra stood up and offered Barthamud a hand, which he waved off. The older man’s knees popped and cracked as he stood up. He discreetly ran his fingers across his crotch to pacify the itch that had settled there.
“Bones? Hmm. That’s . . .”
“Nothing.” Elizathra waved a hand dismissively. “I’m sure it will be lovely. It’s just a little pedestrian. I mean, we too, have bone spokes for the wheels—we also fertilize our land with the blood of heretics—but Hedgethorn has bones aplenty in his subterranean realm.”
Barthamud’s left eye twitched. He limped toward the temple with purpose.
“I suppose you watered the crops with the tears of the unfaithful.”
“Of course!” the younger man heartily agreed. “Those tears are more precious than rain.”
Barthamud approached the altar, carefully executing the 73 sacred movements. Halfway through this exercise, he paused to catch his breath. Once he was finished, he grabbed a crescent-shaped sickle from the altar’s pitted, stone surface. He sharpened the blade along the altar’s edges, each pass eliciting a long schwipp,
Elizathra continued listing his kingdom’s superior acts of adoration: “. . . our corn was shucked by blind worshippers who had plucked out their own eyes because they could not bear to look at something so holy. . .”
Barthamud cracked his knuckles and pressed his left hand flat against the cold stone. He lifted the blade with his right hand, ready to strike.
“What are you doing?” The fear in Elizathra’s voice was most satisfying.
“I’m surrendering my left hand to Hedgethorn. No one in the history of the Seven Kingdoms has ever given such a worthy sacrifice.”
Elizathra stroked a hairless chin as he considered this. Before Barthamud could sever his limb, Elizathra lay his hand on the older man’s shoulder and gently lowered his arm.
“This will not do,” Elizathra said, eyes full of concern. “Your hand is withered and spotted with age. Surely, Hedgethorn deserves a hand in its prime. Give me the sickle.”
Barthamud dropped his shoulders and hung his head in shame, counting slowly to 11, hoping to strike the right tone of humility and surrender. After wiping a nonexistent tear from his eye in exaggerated fashion, he handed over the sickle.
“You are wise beyond your years, Elizathra.”
As the younger man placed his own hand on the altar and took careful aim, Barthamud discreetly slipped his left hand under his robes and scratched his crotch.
So what if the crops lacked a little luster for another year?
About the Author
Jeff is an assistant professor of English at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. When he isn’t writing or teaching, he enjoys board games, disc golf, binge-worthy television shows, music, and procrastination (see above). Most of his story ideas come from daily conversations or random thoughts that strike in the middle of the night when he should be asleep.