I weote this a while ago and recently revisited it for a writing workshop I am attending next week.
Cross-legged and straight-backed I bowed my head and gazed at the threadbare rug beneath me. Smoke and the scent of incense whirled inside the faded tent walls making my nose itch.
A disturbance – the tent-flap opened; sun scorched earth and dry grass replaced incense and smoke. I sighed quietly.
A boy, barely nine summers, fell to his knees before me cradling something gently in his hand, eyes downcast awaiting my permission to speak. I knew him. His father had been one of our best, certain to command until those from the east had come with their savage need for control and conquest. This boy’s father had died defending our herds from their avarice, his many wounds showing how fiercely he had fought, the trail behind him showing how many days he had dragged himself towards our camp before death took his soul. For that I would allow the boy to speak.
“Yes my son.”
He held out his cupped hand showing me what he held so carefully.
I shifted position, reaching out to pluck the feather from the small, trembling hand. His prize relinquished, the boy scuttled backwards out of the tent and I was once more alone.
It was not just any feather. This was a primary feather from our clan bird; mottled brown and gold, its paler tip the colour of the sandy shore of the Revered Lake. I puzzled as to where the boy could have found this. We had no sight of our clan spirit guide for many, many moons.
We, the Eagle Clan, had lost our spirit as we had our spirit guide. When those from the east had driven through our land as a plague, thieving and killing our herds and clan alike, our clan bird had been absent. Despite prayers, pleas and fasting he had remained so. Our clan was losing – our men killed or so injured they could not fulfil their place, our women often no longer carried to term. Being harried from place to place, further from our sacred grounds and rich hunting spaces meant privitations for all but it was our future that we lost the most. Babies slipped from their mother’s womb moons before they should. Those that waited for the allotted time were born stick-thin and grew little; their mother’s milk being scant through lack of food.
I was their Chief; for them, in this place, I would make the ultimate sacrifice in hope of appeasing our spirit guide and returning it to us together with prosperity.
But now here was this feather in my calloused hand. Was it a sign? Approval of what I was about to do or to show me I need not pay the blood price; that I should continue on, trusting myself to find the path through these harsh times.
I was still young. I so badly wanted to believe this was a sign that I could live. My wife was barely showing the life growing inside her that we had created. I wanted to be there when our child was born. I wanted to watch and teach and love this continuation of my line. But what is a sacrifice if there is no sacrifice? I had at least been allowed to create this life; my line would carry on now. It would not die with me.
Or would it?
If I did not pay the required price perhaps my child too would die like many of the rest. Perhaps my sacrifice was necessary to allow him (or her, I smiled at the thought of a girl-child sat on my knee and twisting my heart around her finger) to live on, to grow strong, to lead our people to safety and plenty.
My legs protested at the movement as I stood. I brushed the dust from my leggings and straightened my best tunic, a bride-gift from my wife, heavily embroidered and beaded with the colours of our clan guide. I gazed again at the feather, wishing I could have definitive proof that what I was about to do was the correct path to take. I pushed the tent-flap to one side and stepped into the bright sunshine.
The whole clan sat waiting patiently, from the youngest babe suckling at his mother’s flaccid breast to the elder mother leaning on her daughter, my wife. We were so small in numbers now. I knew what to do.
I smiled happily at my beautiful life-mate. Her brown hair shone in the late morning sun, I felt the warmth of her eyes as they met mine, warmer than the hottest flame and just for me. I felt blessed to have been chosen for her and her for me.
As the sun rose to its mid-point I walked through the gathered clan-folk towards the edge of the cliff that marked the end of our known territory. We had been pushed so far from what we knew. I gazed down the red rock face to the trickle of river below. Except that was no trickle, it was a mighty river of white water and fast rapids. That river was our hope and our fear. Hope that we could cross it to the grasslands beyond and flourish in a new territory far from eastern marauders. Fear that the way down would be too much for our people, that many would die either then or in the crossing, that there would not be enough clan left to be a clan, that the Eagle Clan would die on foreign plains without the spirits of our clan guide and ancestors to watch over us.
My right foot was reluctant to step forwards but my will was strong as was my belief that this was right, this would bring our spirit guide back and our clan would continue on growing and living and laughing and working. I stood with my toes on the very edge and closed my eyes in preparation for what I must do. Gripping the feather stem in my fingers I held my arm out over the edge of the precipice. And let go.
The feather circled downwards on the breeze and my soul circled upwards to meet our clan guide.
I opened my eyes and looked downwards, my toes on the edge. The feather was no longer borne by the breeze. It flew straight down and to the left, following the curve of the river. As my eyes followed the feather they noted something missed before; as the river curved it also widened and gentled.
I took a step backwards and turned to my people, our clan guide again hovering above them.
“Prepare. We descend tomorrow. I see a place to cross.”