THE NATURE OF DEMONS



THE NATURE OF DEMONS, by J. Kathleen Cheney:

The town elders left the corpse untouched for us to view, now more than a day dead.  That the demon had fled the town already, I didn’t doubt.  Even so, the elders refused to enter that small house on the edge of the woods, retreating with murmurs of damnation.

Once inside, I clapped my hands against my wool-clad arms, trying to keep the stinging cold at bay.  The hovel’s fire had long ago burned out, and winter’s chill seeped within its walls.  The cold grew worse every day.  I felt it sorely; past fifty, I was no longer a young man.

“Smells like sheep,” my companion, Menhas, said.  His shirt’s fringes swayed as he strode around the tiny main room of the house, a form clad head to toe in buff leathers.  Even the makeshift mantle he wore belted over his trews was the color of straw, as if no other hue would cling to him.

“They raise sheep here, Menhas,” I reminded him.  His people herded cows and horses, I knew.

“Don’t like sheep,” the man mumbled.  He sniffed at the air, like a dog trying to pick up a scent.

I had tried dogs already.  I’d brought a pair of hounds from the king’s hunting pack out to the mountains to pursue the demon, but they proved useless.  Every time they found the scent, they lost it just as quickly.  A waste of my time.

The tribesman surveyed the icy room a moment longer before climbing the narrow ladder to the loft.  I followed, knowing what we would find there.  I witnessed the like often enough those days.  I had no heart to view it again, but knew I must.

A straw-filled mattress took up most of the floor in that shallow recess under the thatch.  A young woman lay among the tumbled quilts.  Her wheaten hair streamed across the pillow, unbound for a lover’s touch.  Her eyes were closed, but they were likely blue or gray.  Her skin, winter fair, displayed no injury when the tribesman drew away the quilts.  A greenish pallor discolored her skin, but not a single blemish or bruise remained to show how the girl had died.

Menhas pitched the quilts against the far wall.  “He didn’t hurt her,” he observed in his deep voice.  “Mercifully.”

“He doesn’t kill them with his hands,” I said.  “Demons have other ways.”

The tribesman snorted.  “You think him a demon?”

A more educated man would have recognized the signs, I thought.  Only a week before, the king had forced Menhas’ company on me, naming him a shaman among his tribe — a storyteller and healer.  As such, I expected him to have at least a passing familiarity with the hundred forms of demons.  “Do your people not have stories of these creatures?”

“No tales of demons,” he said.  “Your people call anything odd a demon.  Tell me, do these demons of yours kill, Doctor Antris?”

“Usually, no,” I admitted.  “In most cases, they deceive the woman, get her with child and then flee, leaving her to raise the child alone.”

Menhas laughed then, a cold sound.  “And no human man could be responsible for that?”

“There are documented cases,” I explained, not for the first time.  His people have never kept written records, relying on their shamans to pass down the fragmented bits of truth as best they could.  They didn’t even have a written language, these nomadic cousins of ours, and so suffered from all manner of ignorance.  “We have records going back more than a hundred years, Menhas.  People who actually saw one of the demons in another man’s guise . . . a man known to be dead.”

“Convenient,” he said in a skeptical tone.

I did my best to ignore his mockery.  He hadn’t read those accounts himself, and never would.  He lacked my unhappy familiarity with demons.  “Do not ridicule these poor women,” I snapped with more heat than I meant to show.

Menhas merely raised an eyebrow at me, a scornful expression on his unshaven face.  Then he turned and scented the air again.  “He was here,” Menhas said, “and he did lie with her.”

I retrieved one of the quilts from the pile and covered the girl’s nakedness.  “Not to get her with child, though,” I said.  “He took her life instead.”

The tribesman sat back on his haunches.  His blond hair fell in untidy braids nearly to his waist.  It brushed the ground next to his crouching form when he leaned forward.  It was, strangely, almost the same color as mine, although mine showed the seasoning of age.  “How . . . and why?” he asked himself.

While the man ruminated, I checked the girl’s body for signs of poisoning, certain I would find none.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t risk that someone might try to hide a murder in the shadow of the demon that hunted our womenfolk.  The girl’s mouth showed no trace of vomitus, nor any evidence of burning as it might with a poison taken in food or drink.  Her hands were not torn, bearing witness that she didn’t struggle with her killer. The mottled discoloration of her back confirmed for me the elder’s estimate of how long she’d lain abandoned here — at least a day.

I had examined a few of the earlier bodies at length to discern the cause of their deaths, even to the point of opening their skulls before their burials.  Some might call me a monster for performing those gruesome investigations, but so great was my determination to catch the killer-demon that I would not allow such opportunities for deeper understanding to pass me by.

“There is blood in their brains,” I told Menhas then, uncertain whether he comprehended the significance of my words.  “Where it should not be, I mean.  The demon causes the . . . rivers of blood in their brain to overflow.  I believe that this flooding kills his unfortunate victims.”

“Ah, he keeps them excited until their brains burst.”  Menhas grasped the dead girl’s chin, turning her face toward him.  I felt an instinctive urge to protect her from his touch but didn’t interfere.  “He is addicted to it,” he said, “like a man who craves wine and cannot live without it.  He cannot stop himself.  He eats their passion and needs more and more.”

I wondered from what source he drew such reasoning.

He sighed and drew away, flicking back his long braids.  “She must have been lonely.”

The implied accusation of wantonness on the part of this helpless girl offended me.  “Her husband has been dead only a month,” I snapped.

“Did no one else say they saw him?” he asked.

“No.  The demon must have appeared to her here in their home, or even in their bed.  Perhaps she thought it a dream of her husband returned to her.”

He scowled, sniffing at the air again.

I would never confide to this man what first prompted me to study this particular horror, but I recalled my innocent daughter’s face.  My poor Sarelle, so like her mother in her fragile beauty.

Our stories warned of the demons’ abilities to creep into a woman’s mind and steal her memories.  Thereby they recreated the form and the voice of a loved one so well that the victim never perceived any difference.

Even so, I refused to believe my daughter’s claims when she came to me — already months gone with child.  Instead, fearing the censure of others, I sent Sarelle to live with her grandmother up in the mountains until the child should be born.  Both she and the babe died the following spring when fever swept through the town.  Had I been there, I might have saved her.  Had she not been there, she would have been safe.

I never forgave myself for sending Sarelle away, for not believing that a demon seduced her in a dream.  On my daughter’s grave I promised I would never take a woman’s words lightly again.

* * *

They buried the girl that afternoon in the grave next to her husband’s, one dug on the same day.  It was often done so in the mountains, digging spare graves before the frost made the ground too hard to break.  In the absence of a priest, the ragged townsfolk sang a memorial, their untrained voices earnest and poignant.  I, as the king’s representative, rendered a eulogy for the girl, piecing together what good I’d been told of her.

The townsfolk watched Menhas closely, frightened of a foreigner in their midst.  Over our meal, I explained his presence with me to the town elders.  The king believed the tribesman might know more of hunting demons than I, I told them, despite my years of study.  I chose not to question my liege’s wisdom before the elders.

I spoke that day with as many of the townsfolk as I could, gathering information.  No other widows lived near the town, they said, at least not comely ones of the sort this demon hunted.  Menhas merely strode around, sniffing things.  After a time, he squatted down and dozed there, resting on his heels.

“He is moving west,” Menhas told me that evening while I walked to one of the elders’ homes for the meal.  “I will be back in the morning.”

Menhas always left me at nightfall to sleep out in the woods, claiming a distaste for walls.  Not sharing that view, I bid him good night.

* * *

The next morning took us north to the village of Dorvalley.  That marked the fortieth settlement I had visited in similar circumstances.  My treks in the king’s name seemed endless.  I questioned the town elders and moved on, for we found no sign there of my demon.

Travel between the small towns of the Galas mountains ceased in the dead of winter.  Wherever we fetched up then, we would be forced to remain until spring.  I prayed we would find my demon before that time.  I would rather spend the winter days at the court than in Menhas’ company.

As we continued along the road, Menhas frowned down as if the graveled pathway didn’t meet his standards.  “We should be going west.”

“I have been tracking this demon for nearly a year,” I reminded him.  “His path lies to the north.”

“He won’t go up into the mountains,” Menhas insisted.  “Too cold.  He’ll head for the lowlands.”

I never learned how he divined that, but our inquiries to the north indeed proved fruitless.  I felt ashamed when I learned of a new death in the south.  Had I listened to Menhas, we might have saved that girl.  Instead, I’d allowed the tribesman’s lack of education blind me to his experience as a tracker.  A demon is more of an animal than a man.

I gave in then to Menhas’ urging and we traveled to the town where the most recent death occurred.  The girl there already lay in the earth, her frozen grave covered with stones, so I couldn’t examine the body.  I recorded her name and age, more evidence to report to the king.

Menhas declared that we should move on to the west and south.  The villagers told me of a settlement called Sen’s Rest in that direction.  Feeling guilty over the girl’s death, I agreed, never questioning the source of Menhas’ knowledge.

* * *

     Sen’s Rest lay in a narrow valley, protected from the worst of the cold.  The town held a merry festival in spring, I knew, but in winter it was a bleak place, the thatched roofs of the huts rimmed with ice.  Snow settled against the plastered sides of the homes, driven by the westerly wind, but the smoke drifting up from the many hearths gave me hope of a warm meal and rest for my aching feet.

I stepped out of the trees onto the muddy pathway leading to the largest of the houses, only to have Menhas stop me.

“He is here,” my companion said.

I recall asking how he knew, but I do not believe Menhas ever answered me.  I expect he scented the creature.  He wrapped a large hand around my arm and drew me back toward the trees.

“He must not know we are here.  He will flee otherwise.”

“We must warn the town elders,” I protested.

Menhas dragged me along the pathway until I could no longer see the town.  “No.  For all you know he is one of them now.”

“The demon would not take the form of an elder.”

“Because his wife is older?”  Menhas asked.  “He needs the strength of emotion a lover feels.  Or do your people believe that ends after the flower of youth fades?”

I flushed.  “We do not speak of such things.  It is improper.”

He snorted and squatted down at the edge of the woods.  I almost did not catch his next words.  “Fear does almost as well, though.”

I didn’t know from whence he drew that conclusion, but I decided it must have been Bremagni folktales.

It defied what I knew of this sort of demon.  I had studied them long, trying to understand what manner of creature had so deceived my daughter, ultimately causing her death.  And while that particular demon was years gone, I still believed my soul would be eased if I succeeded in capturing this one.

Menhas crouched there among the trees for what seemed like hours, watching the townsfolk come and go.  His mantle, more of an oversized blanket than a real garment, made him almost invisible among the winter-dried ferns and brush at the base of the trees.  He sniffed the icy air.

“What do you smell?”  I asked after a time.

“Smells like sheep,” he answered.  “But he is here, and they don’t know that, Doctor.”

And unfortunately, my relentless pursuit of the demon had made him reckless.

* * *

The townsfolk gathered that night at the town hall and, observing them, I realized that the solstice had crept up on us — the celebration to welcome the new year.  Menhas and I watched them filing into the thatched-roof building:  men, families, women and children, the joy of the season showing in their shared laughter and general cheer.  The men wore their finest shirts and mantles, and the women, woolen dresses dyed in the blues favored in that county.

Menhas insisted we wait, even though I knew the creature must be trapped inside that hall among the others.

“Why not go in there now?”  I asked.

“How did he get away from you before?”  Menhas asked in a dry voice.

I’d almost caught the demon in the spring.  I found him in the village of Everet, high up in the mountains south of the capital.  There the demon took the guise of a farmer lost in the winter with his herds.  I heard the story of his miraculous return and knew at once it was not the farmer who’d returned to his wife, but a creature wanting to kill her.

I confronted him there only to have him smile at me . . . and disappear.  He simply vanished into the air.

There were witnesses that day.  Two of those villagers could even write.  They put down accounts for me in their own hands to present to the king.  I had proof then that he was a demon.  No man could do such a thing.

“He simply vanished,” I admitted to Menhas.

“And he will do the same now,” he said.  “We must learn who he is first.”

“How do you mean?”

“He has taken someone’s place.  No one in that hall cries out in fear at the arrival of a dead man, do they?”

I shook my head.  “Then what do we do?”

“We search the houses, and then the woods.”

Against my better judgment, I followed Menhas while he crept from house to house, peering into people’s chests and cupboards and under their beds.  “What are we searching for?”  I asked him.

“Dead body,” was all he said in reply.

One of the several houses that lay out from the village revealed exactly that.  A gray-haired man sat tied to a chair in the back room, and his state shocked me.  Tracks of blood traversed his arms, legs and chest, narrow and painful cuts.  His bladder had spilled, the reek of blood overlaid with the sharp tang of urine.  The straw on the floor showed dark stains.  The demon had tortured him.

Menhas’ face looked grim, as if he’d hoped not to find this atrocity.

“Why would he do this?”  I asked.  “Why?”

“He’s afraid,” Menhas said, “running now.”

“But this is not what this type of demon does.”

“You say these demons of yours never kill their prey, so this cannot be a demon, can it?”  Menhas asked.

I had questioned why a demon would alter its customary behavior from getting a woman with child to killing her.  Given their innate perfidy, though, that progression was not difficult for me to accept.  Nevertheless, of the hundred types of demons, none were known to behave in this way, torturing a man to death.  Demons preferred subtlety, deceit, and seduction over outright injury.

“What did this then?” I asked.

“A child,” he said, “one who has lost his way.”

His answer meant nothing to me.  “He is not a man.  He cannot be.”

“No, he is not,” Menhas agreed gravely.  “But there are more things in this world than your people dream, Doctor, creatures beyond your written stories and forms.”

I stared at him, surprised by his almost-regretful tone, as if he found my people savage, rather than the other way about. I wondered if his people might know more than mine, and if so, what Menhas must see in this tableau that I did not.  I opened my mouth to ask his opinion, but hesitated.

He turned and his pale eyes met mine, hard and cold.  “He is dangerous to you now, Doctor.  He knows you hunt him.  I should go on alone.”

That drove any thought of collaboration from my mind.  I had no intention of letting this tribesman catch this creature and take all the credit for it.  I refused to give up my quest, not until I presented the demon’s corpse to my liege.  “The king only granted you permission to walk on our soil while in my company,” I reminded him.

Menhas gave me a disdainful look that froze the marrow in my bones.  “How do you plan to catch him, then?”

“I will lay hands on him and name him a demon,” I told him, surprised again at his unfamiliarity with the ways of exposing such creatures.  “He will lose all his power then.”

The tribesman crossed his arms over his chest and said, “Hmmph.  We can try it your way, but it won’t work.”

I was taken aback when he gave in; he must have recognized my greater learning in this arena.  Menhas agreed to go to the town hall with me and seek him out–now that we knew what face the demon wore.  I led the way, no more slinking around in the snow.

We entered the hall, an ancient structure of dry-stone walls packed with earth.  Smoke clouded the upper half of the room, overwhelming the insufficient chimney.  The thatched roof was dark with soot.

The townspeople gaped at us, frightened by Menhas’ wild appearance.  Most had never seen a Bremagni tribesman before.  They would only have heard stories of their savagery.  Several near the heavy door drew away from him.

Their feast was well underway, people gathered around small tables or in groups on blankets on the packed-earth floor.  Some stood when we entered, while others watched us without rising.  I addressed the townsfolk then, explaining my commission from the king.  And as I spoke, I caught the demon’s eye.

He wore the face of the dead man.  Why, I could not fathom, for such an unprepossessing visage would surely not attract a woman.  His short grizzled hair stuck out in all directions and his belly fell over his belt in a way that suggested gluttony.  His red nose hinted at a fondness for drink.  He sat among a group of elderly men, returning my gaze and pretending unconcern save what the others demonstrated: disbelief at my claims, and perhaps irritation at my interruption of their celebration.

I pointed at him.  “I accuse you, demon, of murder.  Of rape and of torture.”

He rose as if to address me, a quizzical expression on his stolen face . . . and disappeared.

Cries broke out from the townsfolk when they realized they had been deceived.  I glanced about, searching for Menhas, and spotted him heading toward the door.  I attempted to pursue him but one of the town’s elders grabbed my arm and demanded an explanation.

After I escaped the man, I rushed out into the cold.  Menhas stood in the town’s square next to the well, squinting at the night sky.  I followed his gaze, wishing for the eyes I’d had in my youth.

Near the hall’s chimney, a figure crouched in the darkness, illuminated by only a small lamp.  A chill ran through me that had nothing to do with the night air.  I could barely make out its features, but my demon still wore the guise of the old man.  It glared at me where I stood next to Menhas’ larger form.

“Demon,” I cried, “come down from there.”

Fire blossomed then as the creature smashed the lamp into the thatch.  Menhas cursed and yelled something in his own tongue at the demon, but it disappeared again.

Realizing that I’d lost the fiend, I rushed into the hall to warn the townsfolk.  The thatch of the hall’s roof smoldered above, smoke seeping through the dense wheat-grass to join the smoke below.  Panicking, people began to scream and push their way to the doors, carrying me along with them.  Near eighty townsfolk had crammed themselves into that ancient structure.  Only after I stumbled outside into the clear air did I learn that three didn’t make it out, two small children and an aged woman.  In their haste to escape, the others trampled them.

I found Menhas perched on the edge of the well, drawing up the bucket by its rope.  He pointed, and I saw that the fire burning in the thatch — slowly but persistently — had leapt to the house next to the hall.

Menhas drew water up countless times as the townsfolk struggled to put out those flames.  Despite my ring bearing the king’s seal, they refused to host us that night, blaming us for their misfortune.

“Your plan didn’t work,” Menhas said as we made our freezing camp outside the village early in the morning hours.  “Now we try mine.”

I had to concede that he’d been right, and so I agreed.

* * *

“Why would the demon torture?”  I asked Menhas in the morning while I shook out my blankets and rolled them up.  “Before he has always seduced.”

“Such creatures,” Menhas said, “share the emotions of others, the passions.  Mostly harmless they are, but rarely one will take too much . . . and then will never be satisfied again.”

He balked at calling the one we hunted a demon, but I did not.  “But if the demon enjoys passion,” I asked, “why would it kill those women?  Logically, he would keep them alive so that he needn’t move on.”  In our stories, sometimes a demon would stay around for months before being driven away.  Some stories even mentioned demons that left more than one child behind.  But these new killings were occurring after shorter and shorter intervals.  Now only a few days passed between deaths.

“They prefer passion,” Menhas said, sounding tired, “but pain will serve if necessary.  Now that he has a belly full of pain and terror, the boy will be even more fearful and rash.”

The boy?  “What this demon has done is not a child’s work.”

“He is being chased.  He is afraid and has lost all control,” Menhas snapped.  “I don’t believe it was ever his intention to kill, not until now.  What he did in that hut tonight, though — that wasn’t an accident.”  Menhas shook his shaggy head, his expression one of unutterable weariness.  “We cannot save him.”

I did not understand what he meant, for no demon can ever be saved.  I pondered that as we took the path westward.

* * *

Disheartened by the setback in Sen’s Rest, I followed Menhas’ lead.  I watched him closely, convinced that he knew aught of my demon that he’d not told me.  He clearly wished to be rid of me, but I would not be shaken.  He hardly ever spoke to me after that morning.

His face grew bleaker daily.  He would sniff the wind and crouch in the breeze with his eyes closed, presumably hunting the demon’s scent.  He led me finally to a small village farther down in the lowlands.  I believe the name of it was Kinderes, but it has changed since then.  As before, we camped in the snowy woods on the edge of the valley in which the village lay.

Menhas brought down a rabbit, for which I was grateful.  Our rations were low.  He skinned the rabbit with a large bronze knife and then cooked it over the fire.

“Why did you come here to our mountains to hunt this demon?”  I asked him as I tore off a bit of the meat.

“I heard of it,” he said with a shrug.  “It’s my duty to stop these deaths, Doctor Antris.”

“As a shaman?”  I had no grasp of a shaman’s duties — if they could be called such — beyond healing or religious functions for their tribes.

“No.”  He turned away from me, our conversation clearly at an end, so I ate in silence, biding my time.

After eating he settled at the edge of the trees where he could see the village in the distance.  From his satchel, Menhas took out a section of leather and two glass lenses, which I realized with some surprise made up into a spyglass.  He crouched in the snow and watched the village until the setting of the sun.

“He’s here,” Menhas said.

“Where?”

“In the village.”  He pointed out a small herd of bleating goats, penned next to one of the houses.  The animals milled about, making a muddy mess of themselves.

“In that house?”

He shrugged.  “Somewhere nearby.  The goats know it.”

I’d heard before that those creatures could smell demons, but to rely on such animals seemed primitive.  “What do we do?”

Menhas gave me an appraising look.  “Can you climb thatch?” he asked.  “Quietly?”

I hadn’t attempted such a thing in a long time, but if it meant catching my demon, I would do anything.  Menhas ferreted several leather bags out of his satchel, and one larger bag.  He emptied the smaller ones of their various oddities: a handful of smooth stones, several types of herbs, dried and fresh — I recognized betony and comfrey, among others — two barred feathers from a gyrfalcon, and a lock of dark hair.  Those he rolled up into a spare piece of leather and placed them back in his satchel, save the lock of hair.  That he slid into his shirt, kissing it first.  I wondered where he might have come across a dark-haired woman, because his people were as fair in coloring as ours.

He measured out a fine powder from the large bag, dividing it between the other bags.

“What is that?”  I asked, fingering a pinch of the powder.

“Do not sniff.”  Menhas supplied a name I’d never heard before, possibly a colloquial name for an herb I knew by a more scientific one.  “It will make them sleep,” he said.  “Ready to climb?”

He selected several houses, all near the penned goats.  The beasts sounded increasingly perturbed by our approach.  I pointed that out to Menhas, but he just grunted at me.  With his help, I clambered onto the first of the thatched roofs, carefully crawling upward on the slippery grass.  As he instructed, I poured the powder down the smoking chimney and then slowly eased my way down again, coughing to clear my throat.

I looked for him at the edge of the roof, fearing myself betrayed somehow.  For minutes, I perched there, debating what to do.  Then I saw him atop a house on the opposite end of the village, only a moon-lit silhouette against the darkness.  I silently dropped to the ground, grateful that I was a fit man despite my years.

I watched Menhas crawl from rooftop to rooftop, amazed by his agility since he appeared heavier than I, and not much younger.  Determined not to fall behind, I located a rain barrel and climbed onto the next roof, pouring a bag of dust down that chimney.  When I finally reached the safety of the ground again, Menhas told me he had taken care of the others.

Fortunately, the village slept soundly.  The fuming powder made it a deeper and heavier sleep yet.

“So what do you suggest next?”

“We bring all the men together,” he answered.  “Whichever wakes first is your killer.  The smoke does not affect his kind so strongly.”

“And what, then?”  After all, the demon simply disappeared when confronted before.

“I will do what I have to.”

Menhas forced the door on their town’s tiny hall.  He lit several lamps, the oil burning feebly in the cold.  The flickering light sent the shadows dancing about the room.

His scheme meant going into the dark, sleeping households.  At his suggestion, I tied a dampened handkerchief over my mouth to keep from breathing the fumes.  In each house, we brought out the men; the women we didn’t touch.  In all, we gathered a dozen men and laid them out on the earthen floor of the hall.

All looked younger than fifty to me, but none under fifteen.  They were the men of fighting age, I realized, captured there in a drugged slumber.  Menhas went to each one, sniffing at their clothes, or in the case of one young man, the woolen blankets I’d wrapped around his naked body.

It was that young man, with his curling blond hair and pleasant features, who interested Menhas most.  “You took him from a woman?” he asked.

I blushed to recall the scene, for the smoke roiling through the household must have put him to sleep in the midst of his husbandly duties.  I told Menhas so and he nodded, his expression grimmer than it had been while facing the fires in the previous town.

From under his coat, Menhas drew out his bronze knife.  He flipped back the blanket covering the young man’s leg and, before I could guess his intention, drove the knife deep into the boy’s thigh.  The boy only moaned, a merciful side effect of the drug, I believed.

Menhas settled next to the young man’s prone body and waited.  I stared at the boy’s leg where blood seeped slowly around the embedded blade and asked, “Are you certain he is my demon?”

“Almost.  If I were certain, Doctor, I would have killed him already.  I do not want him to suffer, but I must be sure before I execute a man.”

“Why the knife, then?”

“Because he cannot move himself away from it.  He cannot . . . disappear now.”

“Because it’s bronze?”  I asked incredulously, amused by his tribal beliefs.

Menhas scowled at me.  “Because it’s in the middle of his leg, Doctor, and I’m holding on to it.”

I didn’t see how that would make any difference to a demon.  I’d once read that demons disliked iron, but never bronze.  I believed Menhas mistaken in his reasoning.

We sat for some time, waiting for the sleepers to awaken, I wondering how we would explain their midnight migration to them.

As I paced the length of the room, the boy began to moan, and then to thrash, although all the others slept on.  Menhas leaned over the boy’s chest, holding him down with the weight of his body.  Blood flowed freely now around the knife, soaking the drab woolen blankets.

The boy’s eyes opened suddenly, terror in them.

My chest tightened in sympathy, a feeling I quickly quelled.  I leaned over them with a lamp, but the boy’s wide eyes remained fixed on Menhas.

The tribesman, for his part, returned the gaze.  His free hand touched the boy’s cheek and his eyes fluttered closed, almost as if he dreamed.  Tears leaked from the corners of the boy’s pale eyes, glittering in the lamplight.

Drawing back, Menhas grimly withdrew the knife from the boy’s leg, and shoved a finger into the wound.  That earned a scream from his victim.  Menhas held up the blade, letting the boy see it.  “I have no choice, son,” he said.  “Do you understand?  You have left me no choice.”

The boy’s eyes pleaded with him, but he made no sound.  I thought to interfere then, for we had no proof to show that this boy was my demon save Menhas’ claim, and he was not a doctor.  He had no right to serve as executioner here.  I reached out to grasp his shoulder, but I moved too late.

“I’m sorry, son,” Menhas said and plunged the knife into the boy’s heart.

I was so shocked that I dropped the lamp I held.  It broke, splattering my trousers with hot oil.  I stamped out the nascent flames before they could spread and set this hall alight.  Menhas didn’t rise to help me.

He cradled the demon’s body in his arms, tears running down his pale face, glistening tracks visible in the darkened room.

I stood back, surprised by his emotion.  And as I watched, the boy’s form blurred and shifted.

I saw in truth the face of a demon.

He wore the semblance of a young man still, but quite different from the one I’d carried into this hall, now black-haired with a strong, handsome features and a well-made form.  His eyes remained open, darkening as though the shadows came to fill them, taking on a brilliant green hue I’d never seen before, or since.

Menhas continued to hold the boy’s body in his arms, apparently unsurprised by the change.  He brushed back the young man’s newly dark hair with tender fingers.  “Your mother will never forgive me,” he said softly, “but you left me no choice.”

I stepped back, staggered by those words.  “You know the demon?”

“Not a demon,” Menhas insisted.  “Different from you, Doctor, but not a demon.”

“He must be.  No man would do the things he has done.  No man could.”

“You call him a demon because of the ill he has done?  Has no human man ever done such deeds?”  Menhas shook his head tiredly.  “I’ve seen what’s in his mind.  The first death was an accident, but after that . . . after that he could not stop.  He knew I couldn’t allow it to go on.  He knew I would come for him.”  He paused and ran his fingers across the young man’s wide brow.  “The boy he replaced tonight lies out in the snow.  He only struck him over the head, hasty because he was full of stolen fear.  You might still save that man, Doctor Antris.  Search about fifty steps out past the goats in the woods.”

My mind whirled at his words.  “You must help me find him,” I cried.

Menhas came to his feet, lifting the demon’s body as though it weighed nothing at all.  “I’m done here,” he said in a weary voice.  “I will take him home.  Your demons will trouble you no more, Doctor.”

Home?  “But I must take the body to the king.”

“No,” Menhas said, denying my claim.  “I promised his mother I would bring him back home.”

I stared at him, and to my terror, his appearance changed just as the demon’s had.  Gone were the ragged fringes of a Bremagni tribesman, the long pale braided hair and the tanned leathers.  Instead, he wore dark woolen trews and a loose white tunic, half-laced at the neck.  His feet were bare.

The creature before me seemed almost as young as the boy whose body he held in his arms.  But his eyes . . . his eyes were old.

Trembling, I realized that I had traveled all the way from the king’s manor with evil, unaware of my danger.  “Demon,” I spat out, yanking my cutting knife from its sheath at my waist.  It was little protection.

He gazed at me, his expression just as sardonic as the Menhas’ I’d begun to think I knew.  The many flickering lamps sent shadows dancing like flames, licking around him.  “I am no more a demon than you are, Doctor.”

Then he was gone.

I stood there some time, the shock too great for me to shake.  Finally, recalled to the present, I struggled out into the piled snow and uncovered the village boy exactly where Menhas described.

* * *

     I had found my demon, but returned to the king’s manor with no more than a far-fetched story and a bronze knife, my only trophy after so many months of hunting.  In moments of reflection, I sometimes see that boy’s face again.  A child, Menhas had called my demon, A child who has lost his way.  I’d believed him a demon for the evil he did.  At the end though, he hadn’t seemed a creature of evil.  He only seemed afraid.

I’d hoped his death would ease my lingering regrets over my daughter’s untimely end, but it didn’t.  Over the years I have seen terrible things, almost all of them wrought by the hands of men.  I regret much in my long life, things done and said — evils I have committed, even unknowing.  And I cannot help but wonder if there are those who consider me a demon too.
______________________________________________________________

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, “The Golden City” will come out from Penguin, November 5, 2013.

Her website can be found at www.jkathleencheney.com

 


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