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Second Saturday Stories presents Gifted Chapter 1: The Bone Crib

I tell you even now the sweat that drenches me has little to do with the fire and more to do with the memory of that shaman’s hut. It walked like a man, but to this day I'm not convinced with certainty what that being was.
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A fire blazes. Set deep in the massive hearth it spits showers of sparks as tall, strong flames lick out from maple logs. The room is as black as the coals the logs rest on save for the dancing orange light that flickers across wainscotting and wallpaper. Two wing back chairs sit close enough to the fireplace so one of the occupants can lean comfortably and jab at the mass with a wrought iron poker. He does so now and a log splits in half with a loud pop, sending more orange sparks dancing up the chimney.

Despite the heat the man across from him wears a knit afghan across his lap. He is elderly, those prone to unkindness would call him enfeebled. His jaw works as if he perpetually chews cud. His thin lips constantly moisten themselves with a smack. His companion cannot see the yellow jaundice of his eyes, but he knows it's there, languishing just below the fire’s orange glow.

The old man has been silent for a half hour. He eyes the crackling flames with a practiced weariness before taking a swallow of brandy. Finally, sighing resigned, he verbalizes what the younger man already knows. 

"I am dying, Lucian."

Despite the admission of the obvious, the bearded man nods imperceptibly, his Adams Apple works briefly. A quick bob up and down before resting peacefully. Across from Lucian, the old man's gaze moves to a wolf's head mounted on the wall. The white fur a slash of brilliance in the dark. Its lips are curled in a snarl. The aura of feral malice accomplished beautiful by the taxidermist’s skilled hand.

The old man sneers, Exhaling incredulously. It’s an expression Lucian has been subject to since childhood; yet the more his siblings dwindled the less it stung. He is almost impervious to it now. Almost. He still feels a nausea inducing urge to impress the old man, to have his father’s approval, if only for a second.

"Nothing to say? Perhaps it’s a secret not so closely kept as I’d hoped.” The old man’s features soften as he regards the fire once more. When he speaks again the edge has left his voice. “Christmas Eve always seems to drag on, and never so much than for those who must stay awake to endure it." He swirls the small glass in his hand, his other hand absently massaging his thigh before he lets it drop to his side.

The fire fills the silence of the room and thickens as Lucian coughs into his fist, his own brandy glass empty beside his chair leg reflecting the dancing flames. Across from him his father hasn't taken his eyes from the wolf's.

"I am sorry to hear that Pappa. Truly." It's all Lucian can think to say. As always Harmon Bradley remains a fixed statue unreadable to his youngest son and caretaker. He breaks the silence with yet another admission.

"I've never told you the story of the wolf." his words were adrift in darkness and heavy with memory, they'd taken on the sluggish quality of one reliving a dream. His father had always kept his wits, even as the family fell apart around him. Lucian remembered.

The wolf. How his brothers would taunt him that the eyes would follow him. How if he misbehaved the wolf was watching. One night Brock had slipped it into his room in the dead of night, standing over his bed menacing him with it when he awoke. As he grew Lucian saw it for what it was, yet another trophy his father collected and forgot just as quickly. But still he eyed the predator with ancient mammalian fear of his body destroyed in the primal gnashing of teeth and snapping of claws. Survival of the fittest. He

shivers and hefts another hunk of maple into the maw of the fire pit. He stands, embraced by the warmth of his already consumed brandy, his tongue loosened by its auburn seduction, he makes his way to a cedar hope chest and pulls yet another blanket from the depths inhaling the intoxicating aroma that instantly recalls his mother’s dark features. Hard eyes set above a soft smile as she set to work crocheting the blanket he now draped over his father's lap.

"Refresh your drink?" he asked whisking the glass away before Harmon could answer.

"No need to bother Garmin." Harmon answered. "A dram will do."

When Lucian returned to the sitting room the darkness descended on him like a plague. Outside the world held its breath. The rolling fields covered in snow that twinkled under the full moon's light. The servant cottages blazed with red and green Christmas lights that were identical to the ones draped among the manor's chalet roofs. Lucian delivered the glass, amber liquid kissing the lip of it as it sloshed in transition. He stirred the fire once more before settling with his own glass topped off.

"Alright Pappa. Your Wolf."

Harmon eyed it again, wincing against the burn of the liquor. He let out a single dry chuckle. "My wolf. hah. It was hers from the moment we landed." Lucian leans forward at the mention of another woman. Infidelity might mean a competing heir, and he could not have that. Lucian wondered if this was to be some sort of death's bed type of confession from his father.  Harmon simply turned towards the fire and began his tale.

It was 1947. Europe was still fragile from the Second Great War. Nations held their breath convinced it couldn't be over. I thought I was old then, though I was not halfway through my fortieth year. I was naive. I've had plenty of time to reflect. Two years prior to to my expedition I'd heard rumour of warring factions in the Eastern front turning their weapons on a pack of wolves that ravaged both sides. At the time I shook it off as war fuelled mania, a trumped-up story exaggerated by the number of ears that heard it and the number of mouths that spread it. It was my third hunt. By then I'd secured a Kar98k and a Bristol 171 from a British arms dealer. The helicopter was drafty. I remember huddling against the chill in my wools while Garmin's grandfather navigated through the snow choked Ore mountains.

The village was miniscule. no cartographer had bothered placing it on the map, but the arms dealer, Henderson his name was, assured me it was there. Sure enough once the snow broke momentarily it sat like a cyst on a grey and white rat. It was a place forsaken by God and embraced by the devil, though I was too fool hardy to know fear. I had the arrogance of youth. Lucian, I tell you this with the voice of experience that if I could reverse one act in my entire life it would be stepping off that helicopter when it touched down.

The village was tiny, a glint on the pristine surface of shimmering snow. Crystals of snow whirred around the copter as I slid the door open giving the whole thing an angelic feel. That feeling soured when I saw the residents of the place. Sallow faced and emaciated they clamoured around me moaning like ghouls. It wasn’t until Henderson shot his pistol in the air that they scattered. They retreated for homes that were no more than hovels cobbled together from seized and rusted war machines. Panzer plating and Luftwaffe wings made up the walls and roofs. Stone was roughed out where the metal ended in most of the buildings. Others were nothing more than woven animal skin teepees encircled around a well troggen fire pit. I quickly discerned a hierarchy. The old and enfeebled were offered the structures of metal and stone, whereas the young resided in the animal skin teepees. I didn’t understand it then. It

has taken decades for realization to dawn, but much like any revelation it comes too late. I should have listened to the voice of experience when it was whispering in my ear. But I was young Lucian, not much older than you are now, and I was a fool. Garmin’s grandfather spoke the native tongue, a slanted and halting spout of guttural syllables that he grunted from his chest. He spoke to a group of youth circled around some unidentifiable animal one of them was rotasting over the weak fire. From where I stood I could tell the young man Garmin spoke to was playing coy. A lot of shoulder shrugs and skyward glances, wearing that mischievous grin that says he knows more than he’s letting on. I was surprised to see Garmin offer a gold piece to the boy, playing his game of extortion. I was even more surprised when the boy shook his head, greasy black hair slapping against the shoulders of his pilfered army jacket. With a sigh Garmin unhitched the knife from, his belt and handed it to the boy. This elicited a shrill whooping from the group as they fell over each other trying to claim the bribe. The black-haired boy said something over his shoulder, gesturing vaguely to the east before retreating to his teepee.

Garmin motioned me over. Henderson eyed the mass stonily, convinced he was untouchable with his pistol rounds and metal bird. After seeing how the gun fire made them scatter I chambered a round in the rifle, confidently sliding the Mauser bolt into place before slinging it over my shoulder.

The village had the feeling of death hanging quietly over it, from the forgotten war totems or near cannibalism I don’t know. The youth indicated a mountain path that edged along the side of a deep gray cliff walls. I hazarded a look over the edge as we crossed. The village was about halfway entrenched in the mountainside. Above our heads the mountain itself an immovable mass of looming doom pressing into our fingertips, working its way into our boots, and cutting through the woolen socks to the flesh of our feet.

When we’d traversed the path, we were boxed in. ahead of us firelight danced behind hide skins and machine metal. Clearly this was a structure of high regard based on the solitude and the quality of hides that it’s make up was. I tell you even now the sweat that drenches me has little to do with the fire and more to do with the memory of that shaman’s hut. It walked like a man, but to this day I'm not convinced with certainty what that being was.

The middle of the tent cascaded from the centre point of a great King Tiger barrel. The air stunk of grease and smoke. Closest to the fire a white cage glittered with reflected flame light. It was only when we approached that I saw it was a crib made from polished bone. Ahead a figure hunched over the fire motionless, staring into it as if the flames themselves held dominion over it. I could just make out a mass lumped in the crib. If not for the occasional movement I would say the baby stillborn, but it moved wordlessly, unnervingly. My skin crawled. I felt a patch of blood stick my heel to my sock, though I felt no pain. Garmin began speaking and the being turned to regard us. It wore the skull of a stag with the pelt trailing down it's back. The exposed jaw at first masculine, angular and strong. Then suddenly the firelight shifted, and it became softened and feminine. The fire danced this trick a few moments more until the features blurred into something I’d never seen before. Bravado held me in place, whatever this village was it was not going to deter me. Our intelligence was sound. I also reasoned a village that bent on hunting would display the pelt of such a kill proudly. My thirst for the prestige and power that would be afforded to me, not to mention the wealth I could send back home, kept me rooted to the spot when common sense would dictate flight as the only sensible reaction to what I was seeing.

As Garmin spoke the being stilled. Draped in furs and wool the glassy eyes danced with humour deep within the skull. When it spoke the voice was melodic, almost lulling, the teeth, though straight, appeared jammed in the mouth as if fighting for space. Garmin finished his exchange and The Thing fuelled the fire with old wood and a handful of something from a silk bag at its feet. The flames grew and sluiced from green and blue fore settling on a blinding white. I began to sweat. In English I called for

Garmin to hurry, that we’d both freeze if we stayed in that stench and heat before moving back to the elements. Garmin spoke, his speech rapid and halting, his hands erect in a halting motion before he crossed his body with his arms. The being narrowed its eyes, a cougar caged. An argument ensued. The mass in the bone crib writhed but remained wordless. The thing pointed to me, then to the sky, then made a shooing motion at Garmin. Garmin made a few more attempts but the being continued this borderline hostility.

Finally, exasperated myself, I called to Garmin asking what the problem was. Garmin told me the thing knew where the wolf was last seen, but it wasn’t giving up the info. Garmin had used his only bargaining chip on the youth, it seemed.

“Well, what’s the bloody hold up?” I asked.

Rather than give an answer right away Garmin closed the gap between us, his voice a hushed whisper as if we were conspirators rather than puppets of fate.

“It wants you to take the child.” He muttered.

A pistol blast erupted from the path we came down followed by two more in succession. The wind carried Henderson’s shouts on it. I shook my head vehemently in the firelight, but Garmin’s eyes were cold as the grave.