Jeff has never felt so exhilarated in his life. He can feel his pulse throbbing in his wrists, his neck, in his groin, at his ankles. He flexes his fingers, feeling the power that rests there, ready to be deployed.
His shoulders are powerful and wide, different from how they usually feel. His cloak is magnificent, made of a mat of woven feathers that falls almost to the ground. He wears a circlet with a single, rough jewel at his forehead.
The young man before him is also naked, with ropes binding his neck, waist and arms, and ankles to the strong, tall stone post.
Around them is a circle of the tribe, the People, as they call themselves. They are the first and the oldest, for certain, but in the back of his mind, he knows that they will be forgotten by the years, that they are not as permanent as they assume themselves to be, as they pretend to be, as they claim they will be. There will be no kingdom of a thousand years, or even a hundred from this day, but today's ceremony will insure that what time they have will be prosperous.
His apprentice, boy learning the trades of prophecy, soothsaying, and medicine, approaches. The boy bears a simple wooden bowl that he holds forth, bending his head in respect.
Jeff dips his finger in it, taking a small pleasure in the texture of the mixture that is made from ash, ground bone, and fish oil. It smells richly of the herbs that have been sprinkled in it, each one significant, signifying a wish, a dream, or a curse. Jeff gently rubs it between his fingers and thumb to make sure it is properly made. It is his apprentice's first true test. He touches his index finger to his mouth and rolls the taste, rich and repellent, over his tongue. The boy has done well. He grunts in satisfaction and takes the bowl. The boy takes a step back, watching.
He begins to paint the post with the ash, filling in the markings that are appropriate for today's ceremony. He indicates life, health, and fortune. He touches the markers for earth, food, and crops, leaving a black fingerprint.
Then he turns his attention to the young man tied to the post. His eyes are open, staring, entranced, far gone on the fermented berries he was fed earlier. He will go compliantly, gently, Jeff is certain. He paints his forehead and chest with the ash, duplicating the stained runes on the post.
He hands the bowl back to the boy and keeps his hand there, expectantly. The boy hands him the knife.
It is old, as old as the People themselves, and it is said that it was one of the first gifts from the gods, along with speech and fire. It is formed the jawbone of a deer, one end worn smooth and dark from being handled by many hands over thousands of years. The other end is a narrow blade, sharpened on both sides, with a point as sharp as a shark's tooth. Never once has this blade been chipped or broken. Never once has this blade failed. Jeff himself has used it more times than he can count and it is flawlessly reliable.
He holds the knife aloft in both hands, feeling the weight of the feather cloak shift on his shoulders. The people around him, the People, cry out at the sight of the blade.
Lightning flashes overhead, but there is no accompanying roll of thunder. He begins his incantations, the boy repeating them quietly, memorizing them for the time when he will lead the ceremony. The words are as old as the knife, also handed down from on high, the words that will continue the cycle of survival in a cold, hard world, overseen by cruel, unseen gods.
Jeff nods at the boy, who slips something into his mouth and screams, a high-pitched yelp that pierces the ears. Soon he is mentally beyond the clearing, his mind elevated and the words he chants are in another language, the words of the gods.
Jeff approaches the young man at the post again, holding out his empty left hand. The eyes do not blink or shift as Jeff caresses his cheek, continuing to talk, to soothe, to deliver the benediction for this hero, this victim.
The boy is almost running in a circle around them now, panting, screaming, howling. The others in the circle begin to take up his cries, pleading to the gods, each in their own way, to bless the coming days.
Swiftly, so swiftly that it is almost invisible to the People in the circle, Jeff drives the knife forward, confidently, never removing his eyes from those of the young man. The eyes do not move as the knife slides between two ribs, piercing the heart. The man sighs and sags against his bonds.
A lesser shaman breaks the circle, picks up the bowl where the boy discarded it, and brings it forward, holding it beneath where the knife still penetrates the young man's body, and Jeff feels the last, weakening pulses through the handle. He draws the blade out.
The blade sticks, catches on a rib, and there is a hesitation where there has never, never, been one before.
With a wrench the blade breaks free of the flesh and the blood gouts forth into the bowl, overflowing, covering the shaman's hands.
Jeff tucks the knife, bloody and warm, into a secret fold in his cloak. He will deal with it later.
The ceremony is finished with him painting the blood on the sacrifice, and the post, and then a mark for the body of ever member of the tribe, in the location that they desire, where it will help them the most.
Then there is feasting, dancing, singing, and stories on the beach, and the posts are decorated with garlands of flowers in gratitude. Later, it begins to rain and the People return to their shelters, exhausted from their day.
It is not until later, in the light of a small brazier in his hut, that Jeff removes the knife from his cloak and examines it. In the orange firelight he can see, even through the dried blood and gore on the blade of the knife, that there is a chip in the point, where it appears to have struck a rib when he pulled it out. Perhaps the rib had a flaw that dragged against the blade.. The notch is not large, but on a knife that has not needed to be sharpened in the history of its existence, it does not bode well.
The boy comes into the tent without announcing himself, wet from rinsing himself in the ocean. His eyes gleam in the firelight as they see the blade of the knife. His vision leaps to Jeff's face and Jeff nods, slowly.
Tomorrow they will sharpen the blade, reshape it so that it appears as if it has never been damaged. They will do this for the sanctity of the People. They will do this because the gods must be obeyed and because without tradition, without ceremony, the People have very little else.
But they both know that this means something more. It means an ending. An ending of a way of life, of a perfection that was unbroken. It means that the boy's reign as Great Shaman may be the last. Or the boy he trains up may be the last. But the end is drawing near.
The blade is notched. The sacrifice was not deemed worthy by the gods. The coming year will be hard. The years after, perhaps harder still.
This dream Jeff will remember when he wakes. And when he looks in the mirror in the morning, he will decide not to shave, because when he looks at his reflection, he does not see his own face, but rather he sees the high, dark cheekbones of the Great Shaman, still speckled with blood from when Jeff had sacrificed another human life.