Study Guide

Midwinterblood Sacrifice

By Marcus Sedgwick

Sacrifice

"We will do everything as we always do."

That's Tor. The man he thinks is Henrik speaks next.

"But will it do any good? We have tried for so long!"

"We will do everything as we always do," Tor repeats. He sounds angry. "We will do as our ancestors did."

There is a confusion of voices then, everyone talking at once.

Then Merle says, "I agree with Henrik. We ought to try something different." (1.9.23-28)

Not everyone is sold on the whole human sacrifice thing. Does this mean that Eric isn't the first person they've killed in the attempt to make the island fertile again? Will the sacrifice only work if it's offered freely like it was when King Eirikr did it?

It is a stone table.

Now he begins to struggle, quietly at first, then desperately.

Sheer fear surges from his stomach, into his mouth, making him want to be sick. He fights harder, but the more he struggles, the tighter the silent hands hold him.

He is steps from the stone table, and there is Tor at his side, as he is pulled backward toward it, kicking and now screaming, screaming.

They rip his shirt from his back, cast him onto the table, still pinning him fiercely. The stone rips into his skin, the sun almost blinds him, but his wide terror-staring eyes have time to see Tor draw a massive curved knife from somewhere. (1.13.50-54)

Okay, things are not looking good for Eric Seven. He's quickly put two and two together, and gets that he's about to become a sacrifice. They're going to kill him in some bizarre cultic ritual. Yikes.

In the pure bright moonlight, he half sees Erik, a shadow moving along the coast. The soldiers are after him, running.

Torchlight sweeps the dark, and finds Erik.

There is a short sudden clatter of machine gun fire.

It stops.

David knows that Erik will not be cutting the wheat tomorrow. (3.11.51-55)

Erik runs away from David to lure the enemy soldiers away from him, and David gets to make a clean getaway, but Erik is gunned down. The farmer gives up his own life to save the soldier. Just a few days ago, he didn't even like David. Why do you think Erik is willing to make this sacrifice for a stranger?

"It is a scene from legend, from the sagas. It depicts the sacrifice of King Eirikr, on this very island here, to appease the gods, and to appease the people, after his crops failed for the third year in a row.

"It is a blood sacrifice, because after two lesser sacrifices, after the previous famines, the high priest has declared that nothing else will suffice. To appease the gods, you see."

The man from the museum inclined his head. "Sacrifice. That's a somewhat … outdated … notion, isn't it? In this modern world?"

"Outdated?" echoed Eric. Suddenly, he felt very old. He felt that he didn't understand.

"The theme is old, but not outdated," he explained, feeling bewildered. "And it refers to the island, this island, whose very name is written in blood!"

"Really?" said one of the men.

"Indeed. People think the name of this island means 'blessed,' and so it does, but 'blessed' does not mean what people think it does. In the old tongue it was bletsian and before that blotsian, and before that, just blod. It means sacrifice.

Sacrifice.

"To bless means to sacrifice, and in blood." (4.11.6-15)

Museum big wigs just don't understand. These guys aren't impressed with the idea that modern folks sacrifice things. Maybe we don't engage in ritual slaughter, but people sacrifice things every day—their time, their freedom, their possessions, their lives—all to make someone else's life a little bit better.

Eric sat in the darkening room staring up at his masterpiece.

Sacrifice, he thought. Outdated?

Young upstarts from the city. Just because we have entered the modern world, have we done with suffering? Have we done with love, and loss? Have we done with wars? Then, there will be sacrifice! And when a parent works themselves to death to feed their child? Sacrifice?

And when a mother dies in childbirth?

Sacrifice. (4.11.20-24)

Nicely put, sir. When people are through with suffering, then people will be through with sacrificing. And that will be, oh, about never o'clock.

The twins stared at each other and at Laura.

"Do you mean, Erik drowned himself?"

Laura nodded, slowly, and the twins' eyes widened.

Erik knew their love could never be, and more than that, Merle's father had threatened to put Erik's whole family out of business. He was so powerful, he could have done it, just like that. (5.6.1-4)

Yet another one of Erik(a)'s sacrifices. This time she drowns herself so that her lover and her family won't be ruined; now she's no longer a temptation. Of course, this doesn't sit too well with Merle.

When I woke in the morning, and found that his hand was not in mine, I knew at once what he'd done.

I could see him waiting till even Father had gone to sleep, and I could see him getting up from our bed of furs and hay, and standing.

I think he probably didn't say anything before he went. His way was to do, not to speak. But I think he probably paused to look down at me, one finger twined around my hare necklace, and then he stole out of the house, into the dark. He left me, alone.

He would have walked just for a little while, and then, finding Tor in the lanes, would have held his hand, turned, and set off, back toward the mound in the long
meadow.

It might not have worked.

Tor might not have been satisfied, but it seemed that Eirik was right. Tor was content, in the end, to settle for just one of us, one of the children who might be his nephew, or might be his son. (6.11.18-23)

Young Eirik is no different than his future selves. He sees that his Uncle Tor will stop at nothing until he gets his hands on one or both of the twins, and he hopes that by offering himself to Tor, no one else will have to suffer. Luckily, he's right.

For three years the crops had failed.

For three years there had been hunger, and famine, and disease.

They had killed many beasts, and two men had been blessed on the stone table, too, their blood going after the way of the foals and bulls before them.

It had made no difference.

Still, nothing would grow, nothing but the flower, and there were many who would not touch it, no matter what magic it was reputed to have. So the people had starved, and become weak, and, having become weak, the warriors had fared ill at sea, and had returned not only empty-handed, but short a ship, each time.

So many men lost, so many women left without husbands, so many children dying from the pestilence that creeps into the houses of men when times are hard.

A foal, a man?

A king?

What difference does it make, wondered Eirikr, and yet he knew the laws, for he himself had helped shape them in his long time as king. (7.2.4-12)

King Eirikr isn't really thrilled about dying, but he knows what he has to do. They've tried other plans and things haven't worked; nothing can bring fertility back to the land. They're down to their very last option. And King Eirikr is willing to be their sacrifice.

He lifts his head to the moon, the blood moon, and he prays that his death will rescue his people. He is no longer certain that it will, not after the other blessings, whose skulls now hang in the evergreen, but he has said this to no one, for he knows that his people have nothing else now, and that it is only a small shred of belief.

Without it, he knows they will be dead before the next full moon. (7.3.13-14)

This is sort of a crazy way to die. King Eirikr thinks that allowing his people to cut his throat might help, but he's not totally sure; his death isn't a surefire cure for their problems. He's making this sacrifice to give them hope, to show them that the king is there for them in their troubles. Fingers crossed, man.

A blood sacrifice.

A blessing, so that his blood might bring children back to the island.

Tor nods, and Henrik's hand rises.

Then.

"Wait," says Merle, quietly.

Henrik hesitates, and Tor turns to Merle. "What is it, child?"

Merle turns slowly to Tor, smiling. "Let me do it. I am the child of the island. Let me bring the children back."

Tor smiles, and nods.

"Yes. Yes, that is the right thing," he says. (7.5.9-17)

The sacrifice in 2073 is playing the same kind of role that the one back in the beginning of time does: Both deaths are supposed to bring fertility back to the island by spilling human blood. Merle cleverly plays on the symbolism of the moment to make their momentary escape, too.

They fight, wordlessly, but it is hopeless. Grimly and silently, they are dragged back to the table, where Henrik stands, clutching his face.

Tor lies on the hot summer earth, bleeding into it.

More hands push them roughly to the table.

"No!" screams Merle now, as she sees Henrik lift the knife from the ground, and approach them, but Eric calls to her, "Merle! Merle!"

She turns, looking into his eyes.

"Merle. My spirit is crying for leaving."

She shakes her head, tears flowing freely. (7.5.37-43)

Total bummer. These two are not willing sacrifices, but they realize in the end that there's nothing more they can do. There's no fighting it—this is their fate, and they will be sacrificed. Now if they can just spin it into something lovely, that would be very nice.

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