If you were born to this land by a fearful mother, if you came to this land to chase fortune or a lover, if you were smuggled here by faces you cannot remember, you would know just as I do:
There is a devil in the castle that once held a human king, and there are no gods left but him.
My father and my sister and the old woman down the road told me all the things I needed to know. Or, when they could not, I learned from the merchants in the market, the precious few books in the old, old library, and from the sight of him in his carriage, when the street falls quiet.
The rules are these:
- The devil does not want this, but he rules for us, and we are better off with him watching.
- There are many more like him. Killing him won't make a difference, so don't try.
- He could make this world so warm, if we are good, if only we keep our heads down and ours smiles bright and obey.
- He could make this world so cruel, like other devils have done.
There is one last rule that sticks to the back of my throat, inside my eyelids when I try to sleep. The other rules are easy, so long as I repeat them every morning. This one is always the hardest to obey.
The last and most important rule is this:
- Never run, for the devil's legions are everywhere and he will find you.
I find ways to bury the rule into my bones and obey it. All the others do, too. A boy may join the guards, to give his younger sister enough warning if they decide to come for her one day. A mother might promise her daughter to never shout at her again, if only she keeps her mouth shut and doesn't look too longingly at the walls.
I have turned my back on friends because the temptation to tell them everything is too much, and I know all too well that they will throw me to the wolves if it will keep them safe.
Some girls press a blade to their arm, softly, each time they wish of being elsewhere.
It is always girls who dream the most of running, and try our hardest to stay.
We try, we try, we try everything we know and more still after that.
But someday, for each and every one of us, it is no longer enough.
These are the ways we run from the devil.
She is only a child. Her mother works at the devil's house, feeding his horses and cleaning their stalls. Sometimes her mother brings her along, and reminds her not to look when the devil's servants walk by.
She helps her mother brush the horses. They are slender beasts, legs longer than the horses that pull the plows on the farms, manes so soft and light it sometimes seems like they are not there at all.
The devil's horses have coats like satin, hooves so warm they burn your skin if you hold them too tightly.
The horses may come to trust her, if she is gentle with them, and brings them treats from her mother's pantry.
The horses may let her sit on their backs to comb their manes.
A young mare, whose coat is chestnut and whose eyes have stars inside, may follow her when she lead her out the stable door, and let the girl cling to her neck as she runs for the border.
She carries the girl to a land without a devil and she does not have to run after that.
She is a child, too; running is easier when they are young, the stories all say. When you are young, you are smaller, and you fit in places you should not, and the girl's hand is small enough to reach through the bars of the jail cell where her uncle sleeps.
She comes to the jail every day. Her parents have already forgotten her uncle, for he smells of beer and speaks too loudly in the crop fields of gods who the devil says are dead.
There is a creature that looks human at first, guarding her uncle's door, but once the girl looks and sees it has no eyes, she knows it cannot be trusted. She sees the shriveled imp on its head, like a lemur with too-long fingers, and she know she cannot trust that, either.
But she may still smile at it, while it watches.
She may come to the jail one day and find her uncle hanging in his cell. She may fall to the ground and weep outside the bars; her uncle is too far away to reach, even for her small hands.
The ghoul at the door may take pity on the girl, then, because she was kind and she smiled at it once. It may not know why the girl is crying, but it may take her in its arms and ask her how to stop her tears.
The girl will tell it that she is going to die here, if she is made to spend one more day under the lamps.
The ghoul may take the girl in the night and lead her to the border, and the ghouls at the gate there may look away, just this once, as they pass through. Weeks later her parents may follow, or they may not.
If the ghoul has a name, the girl does not know it, and they all look so alike she would not know which one to thank.
A knight in lavender armor may come one day to a young woman's city, walk up to the house of the devil, and challenge him. Or he may walk among her and her people and whisper revolution like a lullaby they have long since forgotten.
He may promise that the gods in other lands have not forgotten them.
He may rally her father and her mother and all her neighbors to march with him to fight the devil.
They will lose.
But the fight may go on for just long enough that she can slip through the city doors and make it to the forest, before the sentries return to their watch with their swords newly bloody.
The devil's eyes will be on his cities and towns, for a while.
Sometimes, in the stories, she is just lucky, when she slips through cornfields at the border and sneaks onto a barge heading north.
The stories say her luck will not last.
The stories say, run.
She is sixteen and hears the whispers in her dreams at night; the voice of a god driven from the land long ago. Their honeyed voice may guide her to craft a holy symbol from bone and lace.
She may pick up her hunting knife and walk from the city in the daylight. The devil's guards will try to stop her.
Her holy symbol glows and her knife glows and she glows, and the guards soon lie broken at her feet.
More may try to stop her at the border. She leaves their bodies on the ground and does not look back even once.
She may find her way north and meet people with holy symbols of their own, and there are no devils anymore.
Her goddess may whisper that she must help the fight.
And she may find that the freedom she was promised is a cage all its own.
She will fight for her goddess.
She is still young and reckless and her goddess may assure that the devil is a weak fool, and her sword is stronger.
She will find, when the fire reaches through her holy armor, that her goddess is a liar.
There is no running after that.
She is twenty and ready to marry a merchant boy whose parents are rich, and he may swear to give her all she wants and more and ferry her beyond the border. He promises the devil will not mind, for his parents are good and loyal citizens, and the two of them agree to meet at midnight on the docks.
Her little brother begs her not to leave him, but her fiance has said he can only take one person with him.
She does not meet him at the docks like they planned.
The next morning, he is dead; the devil names him a traitor.
A week after his parents come to collect his body, a servant from the devil comes to her house and thanks her for helping them subvert a plot against the grand prince of flame, he who is master.
A favor is a favor and the devil pays his debts.
She and her brother are taken past the border in the devil's carriage, given two horses and a sum of money, and a map to a mountain fishing village. A ghoul stays with them, for protection, or so they are told.
She slips a poisoned dagger through the ghoul's back one night and cups her hand over her brother's mouth before he screams, and then she takes his hand and heads for the trees.
In the stories, she is sometimes a ruffian on the coast. She may live less in fear of the devil and more in fear of the drunk men who stagger out of the tavern, or of the food cart that does not show up in time for her to steal her next breakfast.
But the devil is still a fear. Even if he is less than the others.
She and her friends may spend half their days stealing wood and nails and bits of dried meat.
They may build a tiny boat in the shallow cove where the devil's lamps do not glitter.
She may meet a withered old snail-like creature in the tide pools and beg of them to make the waves still enough for her to cross out into the blue.
That creature allows it, when her pleas are sincere enough.
The devil will not follow if she runs across the water.
But a thousand things may find a way to kill her all the same.
She is thirty-five and skilled with a makeup brush and her tongue, and her body is shapely enough to tempt. The town tailor dresses her in opulence to match the devil himself and looks at her with all the pity in the world before she walks to the gates.
She presents herself to him and he finds her appealing, and lets her roam his house and join him in bed. His kisses taste like smoke and his eyes are bright as coals, and red like blood.
She will ask him one night, wine on her lips, if she may see the world beyond the border.
The stories vary. Sometimes he kills her for asking.
Sometimes he throws her back out onto the street and no one in the city looks at her the same way again.
Sometimes, he kisses her back and says yes, if only she promises to return to him.
She promises she will.
Her human lover meets her on the road and kills her escorts, and she never sees the devil again.
The devil will forget her name soon enough. There are many mortals and he can always find another willing body to join him at night.
But sometimes, the devil doesn't forget her. In the night, the devil may weep, for thanks to her he has felt a mortal kiss and heard a mortal promise, and betrayal has never cut so deeply.
He may send his servants to find her.
But she has run and will not return and he will keep weeping long after she are dead.
The stories say, however they choose to go, there is a truth they all soon realize about running from the devil; you can never be sure if you have made it all the way.
The girls in all the stories may have run as far as the world will go, to all its corners and its edges, and all the spaces in between, and no matter how many times times they cover their faces or change their names, there is a chance his spies may have seen them, and his hounds and his soldiers will not be far behind.
The truth of the matter is this:
There are so very many ways to run from the devil. A girl will try them all and may succeed and no one will speak of it, or she may fail and become part of the cautionary tales that mothers tell their babies.
There are a hundred ways of running.
I know there is only one true way of being free.
There is a devil above my city, in a castle that once held a human king. My parents are gone and so are my sisters, and all the family I have left is my daughter. My closest friend is the devil's haberdasher.
I sweep the store and stack boxes and my employer lets my daughter sleep on the fabric scraps, and I keep my head down when the devil's carriage arrives.
I stay, watch, and learn, for the haberdasher is old and knows I am quick with a needle, and he has no one else to take over the store when he dies.
I watch the devil in the mirror.
His eyes smolder like a dying fire and I know he understands sorrow.
I duck away and keep sweeping.
I see the devil in the streets, at the podium to give speeches, and he is magnificent.
When he comes to the haberdashery for a suit of silver and gray, he is sad again, and I remember all the stories I was told:
How my devil lost his favorite horse, to a child whose mother was careless and left the stable door unlatched.
How my devil lost his servants; one to treachery, one to a poisoned knife, and many more to a lavender knight and a holy warrior carved from the body of a reckless teenage girl.
How my devil lost his love to a mortal, when she stole a promise and vanished and did not return to him. He wept for so long that the tears etched scars into his face.
My devil is old, old and tired and sad, and he has lost so much.
There are other devils, and they think he is weak.
I know the castle will not be his for long.
I only see the devil smile when he comes to be fitted for a suit.
Sometimes he stays as I cut and sew and braid tassels to hems and collars, and he bids his guards stand outside and leave him be.
He plays with my daughter, sometimes. My daughter is only a baby girl and she knows little of devils; this one is kind to her and does not match the stories the other children are told.
The devil does not love me, of that I am quite sure; he made that mistake once and he will never make it again.
But he still kisses my hand when he leaves.
The other devils come for him and the castle falls in only a night.
My devil's servants will turn on him, and he will lose them and then his life, and no one will be the wiser, for the devils are quiet and are so very good at pretending. I alone know the difference when no devil comes to the haberdashery again.
I mend clothes for merchants and my son only misses the devil for a little while.
Such is the story that future girls may be told.
A girl may be reminded again and again that there is always a devil in the castle, and those who try to leave will be dead before they can step outside the door.
A girl may be told this; if even the devil cannot escape, how could you?
But there is a chance a girl may be told something else entirely.
There is a chance the story my daughter hears will be different than the ones I heard when I was young.
This would not be likely in the least, for the other devils are stronger by far, but a ghoul my devil once scorned for helping a human child may smuggle him from the castle before the others find him.
My devil's second favorite horse may faithfully carry him to the haberdashery, where my daughter wakes me from sleep.
The devil may ask me softly; is this what it feels like, to be mortal?
I may nod, and his eyes may turn sad again.
I am sure the other devils will find mine soon enough; the city is not so large and there are eyes everywhere.
He and I will not be able to hide for long.
But I have been learning the ways of hiding since I was old enough to see outside the walls.
I tell the devil this, and suddenly, he smiles.
This is the truth about running from devils:
No gods, no lavender knights, no creature in a tide pool and no luck or knife or horse would ever be enough to save me.
There a hundred ways of running, and always a hundred devils to give chase.
But I am the strange twist in the tale. I am the one who finds a devil whose heart is heavy with a broken mortal promise, who has loved and lost and longed as deeply as I have for the world beyond the border.
I whisper in his ear all the stories I was told, of all the ones who ran before I was born.
Soon my devil's eyes are burning bright again.
This is the way I run from the castle that once held a human king:
I go across the river with the sunrise on my neck and my daughter's hand in mine and every one of a hundred stories tucked deep inside my heart, and the devil goes with me.
This story was originally an exercise in 2nd person POV and future tense, which obviously I've tweaked a little bit to publish here. The story itself can be taken as a standalone, but technically it's part of a larger universe of mine, called Bards of Atanah.
As you can tell, there are a lot of demons in the larger story.
Hope you enjoyed it!