It had been a good year for Henwyc: the best house in the town to live in, its softest sheets to sleep in, the freedom of the town! He’d enjoyed it too, accepting the freebies and attention as his due reward. But it was all coming to an end. Soon he’d have pay back what he’d received, and more besides. Today was the day the volcano would claim him. It seemed a fair deal: the volcano must be appeased, how else could the town survive on its slopes? There was a fine balance that they had found between reaping the harvest of the mountain’s lower slopes’ rich soil and being obliterated by its eruption. Naturally the solution had been – had always been – human sacrifice. What else had value, what else would be lost when the volcano erupted? Cattle and food, even fine clothes were all replaceable, but a human life was the most treasured and valued thing the town possessed. Its people were its lifeblood, and so were the only suitable thing to pour into the crater at the mountain’s peak.
The townspeople weren’t monsters, they were just practical. An annual human sacrifice, drawn by public lottery from those entering their thirtieth year. Earlier schemes to preserve the town attempted to throw away only those lives that had either been used up, or had yet to truly begin. But the volcano knew, and its threatening rumbles and plumes of smoke had deterred them from these courses. For the sacrifice to be valued, it must be of value. A life that has been lived, benefited the community and had more to give in future. It was perhaps a coincidence that the elders who determined the change in rules were themselves of greater than thirty years of age. The sacrifice had its critics, of course it did, but none could dispute the plain fact that in the twenty-six years since the annual casting of a thirty year-old into the lava, that fiery rock had not flowed down the slopes. Gas and ash, yes, but that had largely been interpreted as the volcano making sure the town remembered their duties. No one expected the volcano to turn nice.
So Henwyc had lived out his last few days, dining well, enjoying his wife and family (who, along with his two children, also received the benefits due a sacrifice), dressing in the finery his status accorded him. When his name had been drawn out in the lottery he had felt frozen, his innards scooped out and flung into the air at learning that he was to be the next sacrifice. They had only just watched Venqui throw herself into the crater a day earlier. The horror and experience were fresh and raw, but so had been the relief that the town would be safe. It had taken some adjusting to, but the good life helped. In a few weeks the fear had faded, replaced with not quite duty but rather with a desire to relish the day, in hopes or pretence that tomorrow would never come. But it had, of course. The last few weeks Henwyc had caught his wife weeping several times, and he could offer little in the way of comfort other than her continued existence. That isn’t really enough to calm a person’s soul, since it’s a bare minimum requirement for experiencing anything else. His children seemed more stoic. They’d leveraged the advantages of this year of favour into the very top of their social order, confident that they’d be able to win any argument with the simple “my father gave his life so you could live.” It was the sort of tactic deployed ruthlessly by all the sacrifices’ families, and was in truth the most annoying part of the sacrifice for many in the town.
The day itself: a warm, bright day. No gathering clouds to hint at Henwyc’s coming doom, just a sunny happiness that all was well in the world, and he would be one of the elements that allowed it to continue. A hearty breakfast with the family. A large glass of beer. It would be the first of many – being brave enough to leap into a volcanic crater is a courage best amplified and secured through alcohol and social pressure. There would be enough of each to ensure Henwyc leaped of his own volition. The day of sacrifice is effectively a party for everyone but the fated individual, even if it is in their honour. Henwyc sat aboard a float in the main parade, extravagantly attired in white and gold, with powerful spirits within arms’ reach. The parade wound its way up the side of the volcano. Plainly this was to be a timely sacrifice, for a light ash dusted the procession and the stench of sulphur was at times overwhelming. Below the crater and the carved path that led to its rim Henwyc debarked from the float and was given a moment to gather his loved ones. While Henwyc had no plans or prospects beyond this point, his wife and children had spent months making their own preparations for their lives to continue: favours, employment, and future re-marriage were all in their imminent future. Yet Henwyc knew none of this. He should have no resentment of a life not lived, no sense that he might be able to turn back and undermine the foundations of the town. Tearful, loved and loving, he turned his back on family and friends and was escorted up the steep steps to the smoky peak.
Henwyc was a little unsteady, but clear-eyed as he gazed out across the reeking summit. His escort had stopped twenty paces back, close enough for encouragement should he need it, but far enough to allow him the dignity of embracing his own sacrifice. Imagine Henwyc’s surprise then, as he balanced on the edge, toes wiggling over the empty space, at hearing a voice. A voice, from below him. He gripped more tightly with his toes, and peered over the edge. He recognised the voice, and the face it belonged to: Venqui. And she was not alone. Clustered on a ledge beside her were three others he recognised from sacrifices over the past ten years. All heroes, all had sustained the town’s precarious position. He was aghast, and remonstrated strongly with them – without their sacrifice everything was in danger. They assured him that was not the case, and that he should jump – carefully – and land on the ledge they stood on, rather than plummet into the fiery death below. After all, the volcano hadn’t erupted, despite their lack of sacrifice, had it? And if their deaths were unnecessary, then surely his was too. But there would be no going back to the town. That life was over. Their logic was unassailable, and really, deep down, Henwyc didn’t want to die, even if that was an option he’d worked out of his mind over the last year.
He took his chance. With a final wave at his escorts, he jumped over the lip of the crater. The ledge was only ten feet below, but narrow, and he barely made it. Had Venqui and the others not grabbed at him, he would have been a sacrifice anyway. He looked over the edge at the roiling mass of molten rock beneath them and shuddered. He had never given any thought to how it might feel being simultaneously boiled and burned alive, choked by fumes. The others ushered him along the ledge to where a tunnel descended, leading out ultimately on the other side of the volcano. From there the failed sacrifices climbed down the rest of the mountain to where a small boat was anchored at the shore beyond. They’d been living in another town across the straits, where sacrifice and the volcano felt like distant things. But they came back every year in hopes of saving a life. They were not always successful.
As they bent their backs to the oars and drew Henwyc away from the life he’d always known and the death that had been assured, there came a mighty crack and boom from the volcano that had almost claimed him. The rumbling grew, chasing waves across the sea, and the first gargantuan plume of smoke and ash spewed from the volcano’s mouth. It had been patient, yet it had been robbed.