Storybook | Game

A Devil's Bargain

"Grandpa this is heavy." The boy struggled under the weight of the bag he carried. He was twelve, nearly a man by the standards of the People. His grandfather grunted, and kept climbing the wooden stairs. The boy scowled at the old man's back. Eighty, his mother said. His grandfather made himself sound ancient, in reality no-one knew for sure how old he was. But he'd shouldered the huge hide bag he carried like it was a school satchel and now plodded up to the roof door with no sign of any real effort.

Their apartment block was the highest around, and outside on the roof the boy could see the sky above them uninterrupted by buildings. In the distance there were skyscrapers but they were office blocks and this was nearly midnight. Maybe a security guard would see. Maybe one lone security guard would be conscientious enough to leave his station and his coffee pot and climb the twenty or so floors to be able to look out and see one crazy old man and his grandson doing -

"Running Elk, here" His grandfather had put down his bag and was holding out his hand for his. "Richie," said the boy, "Grandpa my name is Richie. I can't go to school as Running Elk." Grandpa grunted. "Then when you are in your white man school you can be that name," he said, "out here you can be yours. Now, you complain it is heavy, are you going to hold it all night?" Richie set the bag down near his grandfather. "What we doing out here anyway?" He said, "you know it's a school night, if mom knew you had me on the roof near midnight..."

Grandpa was building a fire in a brazier. In the dim light of stars and the street lights below Richie could see inside his bag. "Grandpa," he said, slightly queasily, "is that a buffalo head? Aren't they protected?" Grandpa laughed "If they were then that one is owed an apology. They were protected from the white man. When we had them they covered the Earth, roamed free and wild. A hundred years of white man....." Grandpa shrugged and Richie felt torn. Most of his school friends were "white man" and they seemed all right. And they had dads who hadn't run off on their mom and them when they were babies. If anything it was the "red man" Richie wasn't too impressed by and he was going to be one. He felt the old confusion and a little bit of tired creep over him. Actually make that a lot of tired; damn it was late, what was the crazy old coot doing bringing him up here this late? He had English first thing tomorrow morning and Mr Simons was sure to pick on him and if he was tired....

Grandpa was lighting a fire. Oh great, thought Richie, and now we're going to get arrested by the Fire Department. Can the Fire Department arrest people? That'd be cool. Maybe he could be a Fire Department Enforcer with, like, hoses instead of guns. Grandpa was coming over. "Running Elk," he said "wake up and listen to me. It is more important than anything else in your life ever before or after that you listen to me." Richie almost laughed it all sounded so serious, but Grandpa's eyes weren't laughing. "Ok," he said, nervously. Grandpa had drawn a circle around him with coloured sand. He handed him a necklace of bones and rocks and bits of feather. "Put that on," he said, "careful, it is very old. Nearly as old as me." At that Grandpa tried to crack a smile and for the first time Richie felt fear. Grandpa's eyes were afraid. This was Grandpa. He feared nothing. But tonight he did. Richie felt something change inside him and knew it had changed forever. He placed the necklace around his neck with care.

"Stay in the circle," Grandpa was saying, "whatever you see, whatever you hear, do not leave the circle. For anything, for any reason. Do you promise? Do you promise on your life and the life of your sister and the life of your mother?" Richie nodded dumbly. "I promise," he said, " I promise on my life and the life of mom and the life of Britney." Grandpa winced but said nothing. Instead he carefully closed the circle of sand, lit a bunch of herbs on the fire and dabbed the smoke over and around Richie, who coughed heartily. "Grandpa that stuff stinks," he said. Grandpa merely nodded. Then went to his bag and pulled out a robe, buffalo hide, decorated with bones and feathers. Then a mace, a club, carved to look like a skull and decorated like the robe. And then the buffalo head. Richie watched his grandfather dress. Something ancient stirred inside him and for a moment he wasn't on a tenement block watching a crazy old man, for a moment he was deep in the wild forest surrounded by his fellow warriors, but he had pride of place, and he could feel curious eyes upon him as the old man prepared to walk the Spirit Path, for he, Running Elk, was of the blood of the Spirit Walkers, and one day, long after Grandfather had taken his final walk, the warriors would gather here to watch him. "That's a stoopid hat," said Richie, in a strange defiance, as Grandpa pulled the buffalo head onto his own. Grandpa smiled at him, this time warm, and Richie felt comforted. Then Grandpa picked up his sacred club and started to dance.

Richie had never known the People, never visited them. The reservation was days' drive away, and by herself with two young kids mom wasn't interested. She wasn't much interested in People stuff anyways, especially after dad ran off, so he shouldn't have known the song Grandpa was singing. But it was awfully familiar. Grandpa danced about the sacred fire, singing, and Richie felt the night change. The darkness crept over them, shutting out the stars, the faint noise of the street died away, and despite the heat of the night a chill wind blew from the north that made him wish he'd brought a blanket.

Grandpa stopped dancing. In the absence of his singing Richie grew aware of the deathly, deadening silence. Grandpa was looking at something, something just out of Richie's view. He turned to see a man, standing on the wall at the edge of the building. He was one skinny guy, deathly pale, had to be white man to be as pale as that, and dressed all in black. He looked at Grandpa and Grandpa looked at him for what seemed an age. "Nah heq he te ma wet te hep kte" Said the man. "Wet wah mek te ite alat ha huk te tep" said Grandpa. Richie did not speak work one of People, and right now he wasn't sorry. The man and Grandpa spoke, Richie listened and it dawned on him that they were arguing. They were negotiating. Grandpa and this weird white guy were haggling. But for what?

The man jumped down from the wall, lightly, too lightly, and walked to Grandpa's dancing circle. Grandpa seemed relaxed but ready, and Richie noted that that club might be ceremonial but that head was solid stone and pretty big and if you hit someone hard enough with it... and Grandpa was a strong man. The stranger walked to the fire and spoke softly. Grandpa nodded then held his hand out above the fire and the stranger took it. The stranger gasped, his eyes snapped open. He seemed convulsed with something, twisted by something. Grandpa stood steady as a rock.

The stranger let go of Grandpa's hand and shuddered. Then laughed. It wasn't a pretty laugh. Guy was thin and really creepy. Richie hunkered back out of view, careful of his promise, careful not to break the circle. The stranger turned and looked straight at him. "Hello Richie." He said. Richie stared in terror, Grandpa moved in between them, blocking the man's view of his grandson and spoke politely but firmly. The stranger bowed then ran to the edge of the building and jumped over. "Well that was a waste of time," said Richie's sensible voice, "that is twelve stories straight down, dude is going to be jell-o." But another voice said otherwise, that Richie and the stranger would meet again. Richie found himself really wishing he could believe his sensible voice.

Ritchie sat watching his Grandpa close the circle, then suddenly Grandpa was lifting him with his strong hands. He must have fallen asleep, the fire was out, the stars were back in the sky. Damn, had he dreamed that? "Grandpa," he said, sleepily, "what was that?"

Grandpa scowled. "Bad things." He said. "Bad things are coming, bad things are here. But they will not harm you. Even when I am somewhere else they will not harm you or Dancing Wat-" he smiled. "Britney." Richie stretched sleepily. "Why," he said, "what did you give them?" Grandpa lifted the boy onto one shoulder and the bags onto another. "Something they wanted." He said quietly. Richie threw an arm around his grandfather's shoulder. "Grandpa," he said, "can you teach me some of that stuff?" Grandpa laughed. "Even the stuff with the stoopid hat?" He said. Richie grinned, "even the stuff with the stoopid hat." He said.

Grandpa nodded. "Perhaps I can, little Running Elk, perhaps I can. Let's get indoors now. Storm coming."

Storybook | Game