The time has come to announce the very first winner of the Shell Case Shorts writing competition. There were 10 entries in total which isn’t a bad start to what will be a regular feature on The Shell Case.
Although the entries were of a very high standard, for me, there was one story that stuck with me even after I read it and that was The Bone Carver by Patrick Burdine, aka @somnicidal.
His Warhmmer 40,000 story wasn’t your typical slaughter-fest but it was well written, well paced and compelling from start to finish, so I’m pleased to say that he will be receiving a signed copy of The Gildar Rift by the lovely Sarah Cawkwell. And a massive thank you to her for agreeing to provide the prize.
Special commendations must go to James Wilson (@JamesMEWilson) for his Dystopian Wars story Traitor, and Michael Barnes (@elblondino) for his Warhammer 40,000 story Escape From Madness. Their stories will be included in the Shell Case Shorts anthology released the beginning of next year.
The next competition will open on February 1st so keep your eyes peeled. But for now, please enjoy the winning entry…
The Bone Carver by Patrick Burdine
A gust of wind shoved the old man like a belligerent drunk. He staggered back and slipped to his knees in the deep crust of snow. Rime caked his beard, the frost turning his graying red hair even lighter. Clusters of hair had frozen together like dreadlocks on both his head and beard. One of his eyes was covered with an old leather patch. His bushy eyebrows had none of the gray strands which wove through his beard and hair and glowed like embers though one was half hidden under the patch. Leaning his weight onto his walking staff he rose and looked up at his destination.
The cave stood out against the white crested mountain like a black lightning strike frozen in time. An avalanche had revealed the cave just a week ago as the old man had predicted. His Vision was almost always true. It was close now. Less than a mile. He turned and looked back down at the village which had been his home for these last months. The wind spun the spiraling black smoke of the cooking fires like a dancer led by a furious partner. He knew that soon the smoke would vanish and snow would bury the entire village as surely as any grave digger.
In his mind’s eye he pictured the village as he had left it. The bodies lay where they had fallen though he had visited every single one of them taking the talismans which filled the wolf-bladder sack hanging from his belt. The blood from the bodies of the villagers had begun crystallizing even before he left. When the weather began to turn and the ice thawed run-off from the Spring break up would sweep away the structures. To anyone who noticed, Fireholme was just another casualty of the Fenrisian winter. This brought to mind a Fenrisian proverb. “An oath written in snow will melt in the Spring.” His own oath didn’t last even that long.
A fierce howl brought him from his reverie. The wolf was tall, even by Fenrisian standards though it was painfully thin. The bones of its ribs stood out like icicles hanging from a bony spine. Like the old man, one of the sockets which should have contained an eye was as black and hollow as the cave behind it. Its fur was matted and there were long jags of scar where the fur refused to grow. It howled again and this time the man heard the discordant notes of fear and desperation. And under it all, hunger.
The smell of the meat in the sack at his belt had summoned the wolf. Or perhaps it had stumbled upon the cave and intended it to be a tomb where it could lay down and die and it resented this intruder. In any case, its hackles were up and its teeth bared. Despite the threat, or perhaps because of it, the old man felt an immediate kinship with the wolf.
He kept his eye on the wolf but slid his pack off of one of his shoulders. He felt through his pack and pulled out a slab of smoked meat, gifted by Vala Vendotter just last night at his Moving On celebration.
He threw the food on the ground as far from himself as he could. The wolf crept toward the meat and though its tail was low its predatory eyes never left the old man. The wolf gulped the smoked meat down in two quick bites.
The wolf growled at the old man. It seemed to be weighing its hunger for fresher meat against the smell of power surrounding the old man. The old man raised his staff over his head and threw back his head with a howling cry. He pointed back down at the village with his staff and the wolf set off down the hill at a lope. The beast couldn’t understand how it knew, but its mouth began to water and the prospect of the meat that the stranger’s howl had promised. It would gorge and then, perhaps, pay the old man a visit in the night when the man-things were most vulnerable.
The man watched the wolf as it slipped and tumbled in the snow and then righted itself and kept running. He smiled, imagining that the wolf had looked just the same when it was playing as a pup and then turned back toward the cave. The wolf might be back and it might not. One might be able to touch the mind of a beast, but one could never understand it
The old man stopped at the entrance to the cave. He took a deep breath and tasted sulphur on the air. This, then, must be a vent for one of the many volcanoes nestled within the mountain ranges of Fenris. Wind had piled snow up into the cave for several feet but the old man walked into the darkness until he felt solid stone under his feet. He stomped his feet and shook his head and snow fell down like dandruff.
He took the pack off his back and pulled out the two fire logs he had brought with him from the village. He set them at his feet and unwrapped the emberstone from the oiled kraken skin that kept its heat contained. It glowed warm in his palm and would soon be hot enough to sear him. He used the feeble light it gave off to build a small fire pit from the rocks strewn about on the floor. He added two small rows of stones and laid the fire logs on top of them. He stuffed some kindling into the gap under the logs and slid in the emberstone. It began to glow more brightly as it activated and the cave walls flickered as shadows sought what shelter they could from the hungry light.
The old man took off his heavy traveling cloak and laid it on the ground near the fire. Hopefully it would dry be the time he needed to use it as a makeshift bed. He found a largish stone and moved it in front of the fire to use as a seat and found another that he set up as a work area. Satisfied with his arrangements he unstrapped the large pot that he had bound with sinew to the outside of his pack. He took the pot to the front of the cave and scooped it full of snow. He packed it down with his fist and added more on top, which he packed down again. He spared a quick glance for the lone wolf but even its paw prints had been swallowed by the storm.
He returned to the fire and set the pot on one of the rocks of the flame pit and the snow quickly began to return to water. He removed an iron knife from his belt and set it on the makeshift table and sat down. He took the sack off of his belt and squeezed it gently. The trophies inside had frozen together on the walk, sealed, no doubt, by icy chains of blood, and felt like a massive lumpy ball. He hit the bag firmly on the ground and he could tell by how it flattened out that many of the chains had been shattered. The warmth near the fire would thaw the rest.
He reached into the sack and pulled out a handful of fingers like a fisherman reaching into a pail of worms. He set them on the rock table and picked one up to inspect. He felt the calluses and though rigor mortis had tried to make it curl, the arthritis swelling the knuckles had stymied that motion in death as surely as it had in life. The finger likely belonged to one of the three elders of the village and that was certainly a good sign. He pulled out two more fingers. It was best to do three at a time. The second one was also callused though he could still feel the greasy sheen of seal fat. The woman had tried to keep her hands supple despite the hard labor of her life. He reached in to complete the first and most important trinity of grisly offerings.
The final one belonged to a child. The fates were indeed pleased. The seasons of life were each represented.
He took up the knife and began sawing through the joints and separating the knuckles one by one and then tossing them in the pot to boil off the flesh. He continued in clusters of threes sometimes seeing some mark which identified the owner – here was Ulf Seawarder, his third finger halved by a predator fish tangled in his net – here was Girda Vulfwife, flesh scarred by a fire that had claimed her husband. The pot was soon full and his sack empty. He watched the roiling water and as the flesh and fat peeled off the bone and several times the old man carried the pot out of the front of the cave. He sloshed off the floating meat and much of the water and then repacked the pot with snow.
He did this for several hours before the bones were clean. He was exhausted but knew that he couldn’t sleep before he was finished. His time on this world was almost over and he had much work to do. He drained the water from the pot and set it to cool and took out the knuckles. He picked a suitable one and began to use his knife to carve in runes in ancient Fenrisian. Each bone got a single rune. The knife would occasionally slip, drawing blood from the old man and ruining the rune, but that was why he had collected all of the fingers, not just enough for the hundred or so knuckles he needed.
He worked through the night and as the fire began to burn low he noticed that there was enough light coming in from the mouth of the cave to see. He decided to take a quick break and pulled a salted strip of fish from his pack and walked to the entrance of the cave. The snow had stopped falling sometime during the night.
He was surprised to see the one-eyed wolf curled up in front of the cave. The wolf had obviously eaten the snow where the old man had been dumping the refuse from the pot. It raised its head to look at him and then smiled as wolves do, its long pink tongue lolling wildly. The old man took a final bite of the fish and tossed the little bit that was left to the wolf who snatched it out of the air and then laid his head back down.
The old man returned to the charcoal that remained of his fire pit. It was still giving off a bit of warmth as the man completed his work. He inspected each of the runes looking for the tiniest of flaws but was unable to find even one. He filled the sack with the runed knuckle bones and tied it off with the same sinew with which had bound the pot to his pack. He found a crevice big enough for a single person to shelter in within the cave and tucked the runes in the far corner.
He then wrestled one of the stones from the fire pit over into the crevice and used it to shelter the runes. He knew it would be a very long time before the runes were destined to be discovered by an aspirant to the Space Wolves but he didn’t want a curious animal to thwart his hard work and planning.
Finally the old man laid down his staff and the rest of his belongings near the fire pit. Clad in a simple woolen shift he walked out of the cave for a final time. The wolf raised its head questioningly as the old man walked over to it. It raised its lip in a snarl but didn’t growl. The old man placed his hand on the wolf’s head – he felt it only proper to reward its loyalty. He spoke a word of power and the wolf stiffened as eldritch forces flowed through it. “Guard this place. Wait for him to come. No new scars will mar you, though the elder ones will mark you.”
A new light glowed in the wolf’s eye as its sentience shifted and something ancient took hold.
His work done, his vision made manifest and a trap set, Magnus the Red spoke a final word of power to shed the form he had assumed and return to his home in the Warp.