There are rumors that there are wolves in the woods outside of town, that they lurk between the trees and watch with their golden eyes as the surrounding households go about their daily lives. There isn’t a town center yet, per se, but the well that rests in the front of the chapel serves well enough as a gathering space. You hear that another one of Goodman Marshall’s lambs have been slaughtered in the night by the beasts, and you shudder at the thought of such a tiny, innocent thing between the jaws of something so brutal. As you pull more water from the well, you hear that the lamb was Goodwife Marshall’s favorite and that she wept when she found it in the morning.
You suppose that news of the wolf problem will be taken to the monthly meeting, but that is still several days away and the problem is likely to persist far beyond then. As terrifying as they are, the wolves are still God’s creatures and they are hungry. Unlike mankind, with the ability to reason between good and evil, right and wrong, you know that the wolves will take what is easy. Humans, part of you always whispers, often take the easy way too. But that is an uncharitable thought and you are always quick to banish it from your mind.
Your father did not take the easy way, after all; he crossed the ocean as a young man to forge a new life for himself. The passage was hard. So was starting in a brand new world with nothing to his name and half of a decade promised away. You, on the other hand, were born in this land, under the cathedral-like trees that stretch upwards towards God Himself. Your mother was a good woman, while she was around and until she was called home when your youngest sibling was born, and from her you learned to love the world as you should.
No, you know that you live a good life; you are able to live as well as you can and you very rarely go to bed hungry and while the daily work is hard, it is fulfilling. You have a certain skill when it comes to weaving and more often than not, when you send fabric with your father to market, he almost always comes home with more coin in his pocket than you expect and a fresh apple for you.
But like the wolves lurking at the edge of the forest, you know that there are troubles hovering at the very edges of your life. With the way the rains come in it is predicted that the winter will be hard, and you are not nearly as good at preserving the fruits and vegetables that come from your garden as your mother was. The early apricots you tested your preservation skills on have gone sour; the only things that will deign to eat them are the two sows Master Williams keeps, and even they sniff around them long enough that your feelings are hurt.
The chapel is only a decade or two old—it was the very first building erected when the spot was settled—but it feels to you that trouble flares up even there. The floorboards should be solid, the joists strong and stable. Still, though, the wood groans and creaks when everyone is assembled each Sunday as if it all might just fall apart. The pastor warns about unseen dangers and how the devil walks lightly during his sermon as you sit on the hard pews and your legs slowly go numb. He continues to speak about bad luck while your mind wanders, eyes drawn out towards the forest through the tiny windows at the back of the church.
You spot the first sign of danger when you are hunting for fiddleheads in the forest to supplement the evening’s dinner. You push aside some of the foliage and that is when you spy the pawprint, almost as large as the span of your hand—far larger than you ever thought a wolf’s paw would be, large enough to make you freeze where you are and listen to the birdsong around you. They’re silent hunters, you know, and there’s little you would be able to do if one was hunting you. There’s enough of the curling green vegetables in your apron, you decide. Your baby brother doesn’t like them anyway, and trying to get him to eat solid foods he doesn’t like is a fool’s errand. And while the sun is high in the sky for the moment, you know that you have wandered far into the forest and it will start to set eventually.
It isn’t retreat, you tell yourself. It’s practicality.
You move so quickly you almost step right on the little cat in your path, sending it hissing towards the tree it scrambles to climb. Your eyes soften when you notice the cat’s swollen stomach and how she struggles to get too far off the ground, and you reach out for her. The cat’s fur is rough and dull in some places, nothing like the pampered housecats you’ve spied from windows on the rare occasions your father has taken you into town. It’s been living in the forest, clearly, scrounging for whatever it can get.
“Here, kitty,” you whisper as you crouch down and hold out your hands. In the apron pocket not holding the fiddleheads you have the remnant of your lunch, some salted pork that made you pant for water when you ate too much. Surely, just a little bit wouldn’t hurt the cat. Besides, with the way it eyes up the morsel, you know that she has to be hungry.
“That’s it,” you say soothingly as it crawls towards you, belly low to the ground as she crawls towards you. Her big green eyes flick between your face and the piece of pork you hold out, weighing the chances that you’ll yank it back at the last moment.
You don’t. But when the cat gets close enough to take the food, you reach out and bundle it into your thick apron, shielding your delicate skin from her claws.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” you tell the angry cat. “I’m going to take you home and you can live with me and feast on mice. How does that sound?”But the cat hisses and spits all the way home, and you know that you will have more than a few rips to darn tonight by the fire. You hum a psalm to yourself as you make your way back, cradling the cat in your arms. By the time you get to the thinning treeline she’s calmed down and has accepted her fate.
“You have found a new friend, I see,” someone says to your side, and you almost drop the cat and all of the fiddleheads you’ve gathered in surprise. You whirl to face the voice and are met with what you think, for the briefest of moments, must be an angel.
The man is not from your tiny town. You know this because you know everybody there on sight, but even if you didn’t he looks far too foreign. Nobody around you would wear such verdant greens or such fine fabric. Perish the thought of ever donning anything with such fine, even stitching or the beautiful embroidery at the lapels of his coat. No, what you and yours are allowed to wear are the somber colors that signify your sober faith. Lace and fine needlework give rise to vanity, and vanity is a sure way to attract the devil.
“I want to give her a home,” you say, your voice little more than a squeak. You know that you should not be speaking to strange men and that you should especially not be speaking to strange men while unaccompanied in the forest. Being alone in the forest with the wolves is no place for the poor little cat, and the man seems to share your views because he smiles.
It’s absolutely not fair that he’s so beautiful, you think before you remember that you should not be ogling the strange man lurking in the shadows of the trees.
“An admirable effort,” the man says as he walks closer. “But what if she does not wish to be housed?”
You open your mouth and then close it again; you haven’t gotten that far in your plan, and you find that you have no answer for him.
“I can still try,” you protest. “And if she runs away after she has her litter, then she runs away. I cannot control the Lord’s creatures.” The man’s face wrinkles for a brief moment, so quickly that you’re not sure you even actually saw his sour face. But he’s back to his pristine guise before you can even register the change. He nods.
“Well then,” the man sounds almost jovial as he watches the wriggling lump in your apron. “I am quite good with animals. What do you say you let me tell her you will be a good mistress so she doesn’t claw your pretty little hands to ribbons? This favor I will give to you for free.”
That would… be really nice, actually, you think. You wouldn’t have to worry about the cat stealing your brother’s breath or causing too much havoc if she were more tame. As an answer you nod to him and carefully unwrap the tiny beast, revealing her once again to the dappled light of the forest. He reaches out as the cat watches him warily, and is rewarded for his patient movements when the little cat lets him touch her head. Immediately, all of the tension in her body disappears and you have to hold her like a ragdoll and she devolves into purrs so loud that you almost mistake it for approaching thunder.
This, more than his fine appearance, is what makes you think that the man might just actually be an angel in disguise. What else could so effortlessly charm a mortal creature? He’s already well on his way to charming you, despite the fact that you know better.
“This favor is free,” he tells you, and you look up to him. Perhaps, you realize too late, you should have asked if he expected anything in return for his help. Most men—most humans, actually—expect to receive something in return. Even if it’s something simple; the pastor, for example, expects you to attend his services if you want to reach salvation. But this man said his favor was free, that he expects nothing at all. Maybe he truly is an angel, cloaked in mortal skin.
“Thank you,” you say demurely, crading the cat to you while still being careful of her gravid stomach. “I will be on my way.”
You don’t know what else to say or even if there is anything else that needs to be said. The man inclines his head at you, but you find that you can’t quite make yourself leave. Not just yet.
“Are you staying in the area?” It would do well to be polite, you reason. “May I have your name? Perhaps I can speak to one of the Goodwives and they might be able to find you accommodations.” He smiles at you warmly but does not move closer or even look in the direction of the homesteads not too far away. The insidious idea that his smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes bubbles up in your mind before you push it away. He is kind, you tell yourself. And the shadows cast over his face obscure the finer points of his emotions.
“Is it wise to wish to associate with strange men?” He asks, teasing, and you almost point out that if he were to tell you his name then he wouldn’t be a stranger. He speaks before you can. “I do not need any accommodations, but I thank you for your hospitality. As for a name… Perhaps it is best that you call me Traveler, and nothing more.”
You nod, appropriately chastened. An angel’s name is a precious thing, not handed out to just anybody. And who are you? A simple human, a young woman whose mind sometimes wanders during church services. He is being nice, then, gentle in his refusal even though you do not deserve to know him so well. You’re sure of it. And if he’s an angel, then he already knows your name; there’s no need to insult his intelligence by reminding him.
“As you wish, Traveler,” you say, dipping into as neat a curtsy as you can with the cat and fiddleheads in your arms. He bids you a good evening, and that is it. You return home with the cat, which your father grudgingly accepts, and you wait for time to pass.
The kittens are the most precious things you have ever seen in your entire life; the fact that they rank even over your infant brother has mostly to do with the fact that they do not scream in the middle of the night. Even if the kittens do, you are not their primary caregiver. The cat has settled into your house well, often warming her tail in front of the fire. Your father watches and crosses himself whenever he sees the cat’s back to the flames.
His growing resentment towards the cat and her kittens leaves you baffled; they are harmless, and you have noticed a significant decrease in rodent damage since the cat moved in. She stays far away from your father as if sensing his ire, and more than once you wonder if perhaps she actually can intuit human emotions so easily. After all, she was touched by an angel. Wasn’t she?
When the cat hisses at your father in anger and claws at him when he reaches for her, it only makes you wonder. Animals, you have always been taught, are free of sin, are the innocent creatures on earth. Would it not follow, then, that they can sense sin where it exists? You know that you should not be having these thoughts, that the only one able to truly interpret the Lord’s word is the religious authority of the area, but…
You do wonder.
The thoughts keep you up at night sometimes, driving you to distraction during the daytime. Your daily chores suffer for your confusion, which only serves to fuel your father’s anger further. Sometimes you wish you never brought the cat home or met the strange man in the woods, but you have.
One evening he watches you set aside some of your dinner and present it to the cat, a frown deep on his face. Cicadas sing in the distance, signaling that summer is in full swing. The heat of it saps your energy and quickens your anger; you find yourself having to hold your tongue when you catch your father’s disapproving stares.
“You shouldn’t pamper that cat,” your father growls, sitting his utensils down on the table hard enough to make your flinch. “If she wants to eat, she will work for it herself.”
You don’t point out that the cat does hunt, that you are just ensuring that her kittens grow up big and strong. It should go without saying, you reason. Cats keep both mice and spirits away, if they are fond enough of the humans they live with.
“You should turn your mind from childish things,” your father continues, and this makes you look up at him. His lectures have grown more and more frequent, and you try to remind yourself that he is stressed. That the summer has been hard and your garden is not flourishing as it often does, and the threat of the wolves is still present. The men have gone hunting for them to no avail, and that has eaten up a lot of his time. Be charitable, you remind yourself.
But the thick brown bottle clutched in his hands makes you as nervous as it always does.You hate it when he drinks; it’s a rare enough occasion but is always memorable, and tonight is shaping up to be another memorable night.
“You should be married,” he says, shocking you into staring at him. You don’t have a reply because he’s never said anything like this before, never mentioned anything about wanting you to leave your home. “You should have been married years ago. Perhaps then you would not worry about childish things.”
He thinks that if you had a household of your own that you would not have brought in the cat? It’s ridiculous; you already run the household as it is. The fact that you are not married does not mean that your work is decreased.
“If I were to leave, father, then who would care for the baby?” It’s a reasonable argument, you think. He loves his children, you know, but he does not have the patience to care for them the way a mother or an aunt would. Or a sister. But your father only snorts, evidently not seeing the problem.
“Nobody wants to marry a man with such an old daughter,” he tells you, and your heart clenches in your chest. “Every woman wants to be first in her own home. Why would a bride want to contend with a daughter?" Meaning that you, because you are his daughter and because you are of a certain age, are impeding any plans he might have of remarrying. The meaning is loud enough that it echoes around in your head and you go still and silent.
“I see,” you say even though you wish you didn’t see at all. It hurts, to know that he wishes you would be out of your house and away from your family. The cat in front of the fireplace catches your eye and you frown as you look at her, frown as you reach out for her. Your father stands suddenly then, unsteady on his feet from the drink in his stomach as he grabs a burlap sack. It held grains, once, and you like to keep the bags around because they are useful when you go to market.
“Father, no,” you plead, not liking the manic gleam to his eyes. Hands out, you try to stop him as he roars towards the cat and her bundle of little kittens; the cat yowls as he grabs her by the loose fur at the base of her neck and shoves her into the rough bag. When your hands land on his arm he shoves you back hard enough that you hit the table with a cry.
“You don’t tell me what to do in my own house,” your father snarls, his breath smelling rotted-sweet from the alcohol. He’s been drunk before, but nothing like this, and the pain in your heart outweighs the pain in your hip from the fall. “This damn cat,” he shakes the bag, “has brought nothing but trouble since it arrived.”
You have no idea what he’s talking about, cannot see the bad luck he’s so convinced of, just as you have no idea where this malice might have sprung from. It’s sudden, overwhelming, almost as if something else has taken control of him. You cry as the kittens are added to the bag and pick yourself up off of the floor to follow him outside of your home.
The tears streaming down your face fall harder when you see the path he is taking.
“Father, please,” you call after him, not loud enough to draw the attention of your neighbors. With the natural light of the sun slipping below the horizon—the trees of the forest have already swallowed it whole—most of them will be abed soon. He ignores you as you trail behind him, trying to tug on his arm. The bag writhes in his fist as the cats inside try unsuccessfully to claw their way to freedom.
No matter how hard you try to free them, to stop your father’s relentless march towards the river, you can do nothing to stop what is unfolding in front of you.
“Please, father, please. Let me find homes for them. Somewhere else—but not this!” Your begging does not turn his heart. “I will focus on my chores—I will find a suitor to marry, so please—!”
But he only wades into the river as he ties the sack shut; you follow after him hoping that it is a cruel joke, the cruelest possible joke, and that he will release the animals back to you at the last moment. To teach you a lesson.
A sob tears from your lips as he winds his arm back and throws the bag as far as he can into the water. He watches, his expression unchanging as he holds you by the back of your gown even as you struggle to be released. Perhaps, you think desperately, they might still be saved if only you can make it in time. The bag has caught on a downed tree and you watch it bob in the water as you feel bile rise in your throat.
You’re far enough away from other humans that your sobbing will not disturb them, not that you can find it within yourself to care too much about how well they’re sleeping at the moment. Stoic, your father watches until the bag stops wriggling and, satisfied that his work is completed, he lets go of your clothes.
The river water is cold against your chest as you fall to your knees, eyes still trained on the bag. Sloshing, wet noises tell you that your father is already walking back, and as soon as you know he is gone you struggle out towards the bag. The flowing river almost upsets you and by the time you make it to the other side of the bank, you’re soaked through. Summer’s warmth keeps you from shaking too badly; no, that is the horror racing through you that makes your fingers tremble as you untie the knot.
The cats tumble out and they don’t move and you can’t look at them, can’t bear to gaze upon their tiny, lifeless paws so you scream instead. And scream and scream and scream until you think you might tear your throat.
Childish things, your father called them, but at least they weren’t monstrous, brutish things, an affront to all that is good and holy and well in the world. You cry so hard that you don’t notice the footsteps approaching you from the forest, don’t notice that the Traveler is standing right beside you until you feel his gloved hand on your head.
“Who did this,” he says, and his voice is low and tight enough to tell you that he is angry, that he is furious and that his rage matches your own. You just handle it differently.
“Father,” you find yourself whispering, unable to lie to the angel in your presence. More tears slip down your face and the man looks between you and the cats and then off into the distance, towards your home. The light of the moon casts his face in monochrome; the only thing that stands out are his gleaming green eyes. You’ve never seen eyes as green as his before, except maybe on the cat at your feet.
“It seems, then, that you have a problem.” And before you can stop to think about anything at all, you agree wholeheartedly.
“I do, I do.” The man smiles down at you but it is not a happy smile. The corners of his mouth are as sharp at the sickles used at harvest.
“Lead me to your house, Maiden, and we shall see if we can solve this problem.”
You’re not sure how you cross the river so quickly, but soon enough you’re passing in front of the chapel, marching towards your home. The fire is still going inside; you can see its golden-orange light flickering through a window. Breathing becomes difficult as your hand resets on the door, pausing before you open it. Is it a good idea to let this man into your home? Father is angry, furious enough to kill the innocent kittens, and bringing home a strange man in the middle of the night will only make him angrier, make him ask questions you don’t really have an answer to.
But your mind feels muddled, buzzing like an angry beehive as the Traveler draws nearer, close enough that you can feel his breath on the back of your neck. Where is your bonnet? It must have fallen off in the river, you think distantly.
“Are you not going to invite me in, little Maiden?” He asks, sending a shudder racing down your spine. “Let me in and we can strike a deal. I will solve your problem.”
His words sound irresistibly good even though they send a curling trail of fear through your stomach. You can’t figure out why you’d have such a reaction; after all, he’s been so kind, he seems so reasonable…
“Come in,” you say as you open the door, letting the light from the hearth spill out for a moment. He follows you in, ever the gentleman, as you step into your own house and tuck yourself into the corner. Gentleman he may be, but your clothing is soaked and not appropriate, and you would prefer not to brush up against him needlessly.
Your father looks up and his eyes go wide and then narrow as he sees who you are accompanied by, and you know, you know that this is not about to go well for you. Although you know your father loves you, he is strict. And you have been disobeying him far too often lately; this will be the final horn blast that brings down the walls of Jericho. But the Traveler is too quick by far to see what your father’s reaction might be; he strides forward and seems to you to almost drag the shadows behind him.
Before you can even blink the man grabs the front of your father’s shirt, dragging him close.
“Wait—” you say, panicked, as you dart forwards towards your father and the stranger you’ve let into your home. Traveler looks up at you and his eyes are green fire, spitting sparks in your direction and you stop. You’re not sure if you stopped because you wanted to or because you had to.
“Your eye,” you hear the man snarl into your father’s ear, “for those now sightless.” And you watch in wide-eyed horror as the man reaches out towards your father’s face, his fingers pausing for a moment as they brush against the hard ridge the eye socket creates. Then he surges forward and you hear a sickening pop as the Traveler’s fingers dig deep behind the eyeball and pushes it out of its home. Your father screams. Your vision blurs at the edges.
“Please,” your voice is ragged and you want this to end, you want to go back to those quiet, confused moments before you invited the man inside. This is not what you wanted. Traveler doesn’t even turn to look at you, his entire being is focused on the bloody mess of your father and the way he screams.
“Your lungs, for those who can no longer breathe.” It should be impossible for a man to reach right into someone’s chest and pull out a piece of them, but that is what the Traveler does. The lung is bigger than you thought, like a fleshy, pink bag, torn in places where it scraped against his shattered ribs. Your father can no longer scream and all you can do is make a low moaning noise, fear sealing your lips together.
“Your heart, for those who no longer beat.” You don’t have to look to know that the Traveler’s next target is your father’s heart, that he plucks it as easily from his chest as you might a strawberry from the plant. Blood pours out of the open cavity of your father’s chest, making the fire hiss as some of it lands in the flames. The smell of burning blood invades your senses and your vision swims. But you cannot pass out, do not want to pass out—not when the Traveler still looms large over your father and it was you that brought him here.
He’s not an angel, you realize as your vision tunnels and goes dark at the edges. The Traveler isn’t an angel at all.
You want for it to be a dream. If you thought prayer was safe while in the company of the Traveler, you would pray for the evening’s activities to have been a dream. He reclines against a wide tree, some of the impossibly old growth that tells you that you are deep, deep in the forest. The knowledge that nobody would hear you scream is unpleasant. But he has not moved to harm you yet, has even performed a strange, sideways kindness in removing you from your house and washing all of the blood from himself.
Small mercies—the smallest of them, actually—but you are grateful for them all the same.
“We had a deal,” is the first thing he says to you once he notices you’ve woken. And you feel sick because yes, yes you do have a deal; you agreed to let him solve what he called your problem without getting specifics and your father paid the price. Now, you must pay up, make goon on your end of the bargain.
He looks at you with hunger in his eyes and you feel light, almost like you might just float up and away from your body. You’ve heard… stories about women who fell on hard times and had to resort to certain immoral things. Fallen women, you’ve heard them called. Jezebels. You never thought you’d be one of them, but between the fear the Traveler inspires in you and the hungry way his eyes rove your body you can feel your stomach clench, deep down. It’s an odd feeling and you lie to yourself that you don’t understand it.
Your gown and the shawl wrapped around your shoulders both feel far too thin, and they’re still soaked with river water. You finger the button at your throat, the one that would lead to the others and so much more besides.
If you have to become a fallen woman, then so be it; call it punishment for what you allowed into your house or a temporary madness, whatever you need it to be.
“You… Solved the problem,” you say, your voice still rough from tears and the screams you held back. The Traveler’s face brightens at your words, clearly pleased at the implication that you agree with him and his methods.
“Indeed,” he agrees with a single nod of his head. You crawl closer to him and the heat that he puts off; the sudden change makes you shudder but you move forward anyway. He watches with curious interest as you raise your hand. At first you mean to touch him, to see if you can really go through with what is on your mind. The sooner you get this over with—the thing you cannot bring yourself to verbalize but are sure he wants—the sooner you can go back to… No, not back to your home. You’re not sure where you will go, only that the sooner he is away from you the sooner you can get there.
But your raised hand reminds you of how your father struck you that evening, of how his brooding anger grew and grew over the weeks. Of how he killed the cats and how you saw in his eyes that one day he might very well have done the same to you. Your eyes harden into a steely gaze. You slip your first button open, and then the second. And then the third.
The Traveler says nothing, only watches you work until the top of your chest is free. You move to your stockings instead, ruined as they are from chasing your father to the river and back; they peel from your legs easily and you toss them to the side, feeling freer for their loss. Your gown falls away easily when you shrug out of it, leaving you in your petticoat and underthings.
“Well?” You raise an eyebrow at him, not sure what to make of the way he’s stiffened in front of you. Instinct should take over any moment now, you know; your married friend told you so, that once you were married you would know exactly what to do when it comes to acts performed between a husband and wife. But this man is not your husband. You’re not even sure he’s human.
Traveler mimics your movements and removes his outer clothes, leaving him in his breeches. You fight the girlish urge to look away from the planes of his chest; he’s pale, like he’s never had to work the fields before. Perhaps he hasn’t. When you look at his hands you see that they are soft and manicured, free of the dirt that seems permanently etched on Master Williams’s. Your mouth goes dry and you’re not sure, exactly, how to proceed.
Until he reaches out and pulls at the string of your stay, allowing you to slouch the slightest bit as it loosens around your chest. Heat invades your cheeks as you scramble out of your petticoat—the summer heat means that you’ve taken to only wearing one—and you realize that this is the most bare you've ever been in front of anyone. Ever.
“Who are you?” You croak, trying to ignore the way the silvery moonlight plays with the shadows from the foliage to give him the illusion of two horns on his head. Or the way his eyes are somehow greener still, almost cutting through the dark of the night. “I am still learning,” he says in a way that strikes you as unbearably odd. “I will always be learning. But I have learned so much from my brothers, done so many things according to their whims… This is one of the first things I have done because I desired it.” He reaches out for you and for the first time, you are aware that his nails are dark and long, almost clawlike as they drag against your cheek. They don’t hurt, but they could if he so chose it.
You lean into his touch until his face is next to yours and you breathe him in, wondering why he smells like cinders and ash. He pulls you closer until you’re almost in his lap, and you hope that the moonlight disguises just now deeply your face has to be flushed. At your pulse points you can feel your blood roaring.
He kisses you deep and slow like he’s testing something out, and you feel for the first time the flicker of something warm unfurl deep within you. The tiniest of moans escapes you from where your moths are joined, and that is all it takes for him to guide you to the forest floor. He’s tossed your stay to the side and you’re able to breathe unrestricted. It quickly becomes useful as he hikes your shift up to your hips and you’re bare to him, the moon, and the silent trees. He reaches down and strokes you and you gasp and squirm because you have never been touched there; you didn’t know it would jolt through you like lightning striking, and you didn’t know you could feel so incredibly damp between your legs. You hope that it’s normal and not something embarrassing, not a sign that you are sinning so plainly under God’s eye. The letters your friend sent you, the ones you hid under your pillows to read when you were sure you were alone—they didn’t say anything about it.
He brings your mind forcefully back to himself when he slides a finger in, and then another and separates them like he’s trying to tear you apart. You hiss at the new sensation and then feel your muscles sag when he pulls his fingers out. He holds them up to the moonlight and you see that some thick, viscous substance is strung between them. Embarrassed, you look away, anywhere but the hand he’s holding up.
And your gaze falls down to his lap, where you see that he’s stroking himself. That part of a man has, until this very moment, been a mystery to you and you find yourself staring in rapt attention. It’s red—should it be so red and angry-looking between his fingers? Another little wanton moan escapes you as you watch him work himself over from between your legs. His attention is drawn back to you immediately, almost as if he’s forgotten your presence entirely in that moment.
The Traveler releases himself and leans over you, supporting himself with one arm until your faces are only a handbreadth apart.
“I would know your name,” you say beneath him as he’s poised to take your maidenhead. It’s a struggle to keep your voice from trembling, but you do not know if the tremble comes from fear or anticipation. “Your real name.”
“Satan,” he says easily.
And then he pushes inside.
You scream loud enough that the nighttime insects fall silent for what feel like years as he sinks further and further into you. Whether it’s because of the revelation of his name or the sting that brings tears to your eyes, you have no idea. He doesn’t pause to give you time to adjust or breathe or say a silent prayer. The sensations of him moving above you and being filled are so new and strange that you feel yourself unwinding quickly, panting into his ear as your back arches to press your chest against his. He grunts at the way you clench him but doesn’t stop his movements, only picking up his pace in a way that sends one of the tears that’s collected in your eyes sliding down towards your temple.
The insects have started up again, crying out their nighttime song to anyone who will listen.
You feel yourself spiraling upwards again until he locks eyes with you and clenches his teeth. The strangest sensation of warmth flooding your insides makes you shudder and bite back a groan, which finally escapes you as he slips himself from you.
And then you realize what happened, your eyes wide. You know enough to be aware that what he just did could absolutely ruin you, but he doesn’t seem to care all that much as he leans back to stare down at you. Cold dread fills you as you sift through what your future could possibly hold, what horrors might await you. Not only had you lain with a stranger, but that stranger was a devil. And he spilled himself inside of you. Your thoughts wander to the whispers of witches in the bigger towns, and how they might help you with any little… problem. In for a penny, in for a pound, you think with grim determination.
“I removed your father from your home,” he tells you as if that had been foremost on your mind, as if that was your biggest worry at the moment. You shift and wince at the soreness between your legs.
“Are we even?”
He looks at you as if he has no idea what you’re speaking about, and you clench your jaw. You gesture towards yourself and then at him, still free in the moonlight.
“For the… Favor. Are we even?”
He cocks his head to the side and considers you as you yank your shift back down towards your knees. It shouldn’t matter to you—your virtue is spent anyway—but it does.
“That was not what I had in mind for an exchange. If you recall, I did not request it of you, either.”
Your mouth goes dry at his words as you bring yourself up to your knees, wrapping your arms around your shoulders. It isn’t the cold of the air that bothers you, it’s the coldness in his eyes. He reaches over towards his discarded clothing and pulls a slim volume from the fabric, fanning it open to show you a creamy, empty page.
“What do you want?” You ask, voice trembling as you look between him and the blank book.
“That, I do not yet know,” he tells you as if it’s a joke. “But if you sign this for me, be mine, then when I decide what I desire I will let you know.”
It isn’t a fair trade at all, but you should have known, should have expected that he would not be fair. Too late, you remember one of your pastor’s sermons, the one that said that the devil was once an angel, too. That the devil would be beautiful and have smooth words and tricks hidden under his tongue.
Satan hands you a tiny blade, and you know he means for you to sign in blood.
You know that your options are limited. That if you refuse he might just crack your chest open like he did your father’s, and then where would your baby sibling be? It’s with that in mind that you reach out for the tiny silver blade and prick your finger deep enough that a swell of blood rises up.
You mark your name as well as you can against the rough pages of the book, leaving a bloody fingerprint at the end of it. For some reason, you expect your blood to taste of ashes when you draw your finger into your mouth. Instead, it tastes of iron as it always does.
“Until then,” the man says as he stands fluidly. You stare down at the place he’d been sitting, and he dresses himself in silence as you slump in the foliage. Perhaps souls can’t be felt by mortal beings, you muse. Perhaps you’ll never feel the transfer of it, because you’re certain that’s what you’ve just sold away to the Traveler.
He leaves you behind without another word, without a backwards glance. Your mind turns to the forest and the wolves around you, the same way it did that Sunday in the spring. Travel to the nearest city can be arranged. You know where your father keeps—kept—the household money.
But what to do with your father? The man—the demon, you remind yourself as your legs tremble—did you the courtesy of dragging him out of your house. But you cannot drag him any further yourself, cannot bear to look at or lay a hand upon the meat of the man who raised you. So how to explain the death, so brutal and violent and utterly needless to your neighbors? You look up to the moon and place trembling fingers over your lips.
In the morning, you will tell them it was a wolf.