The Devil You Know

“Home from the wars, are you?” The housewife looked Kit up and down, taking in his ragged coat, his rough knapsack, the gnarled stick he leaned upon when his leg ached badly. She took in the mud on his elbows, his uncombed hair, and his hollow eyes.

Kit bowed his head and shuffled his feet and tried to look young and harmless. “I seek only a dry roof to keep off the rain for a few hours, and perhaps a few bites to ease my hunger, good mistress,” he said humbly.

“Bah.” She spat in the dust at his feet. “We’ve no food here for murderers who serve a wicked king. What cause had ye to go to war, and forcing us to pay for it?”

“Mistress–” He flinched as the door slammed shut in his face.

Pulling his coat closer around him, he stepped back out into the freezing rain. He walked down the road to the next cottage and raised his hand to knock.

“What do you want?”

The face behind this door was twisted with years of snarling at apprentices and cheating customers. His nose was hooked, and his spectacles twisted and bent.

“What do you want?” he again asked sharply.

“Please,” Kit said, bowing his head. “I seek only a dry roof to keep off the rain for a few hours, and perhaps a few bites to ease my hunger.”

The master’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Are you a soldier?” he demanded.

Kit opened his mouth, then changed his mind and merely nodded.

“And you ask to sleep under an honest man’s roof? I’ve heard enough about the likes of you. Rob me blind as like as not and make off before morning with my plate and silver and daughter too, that’s if you don’t slit my throat in my sleep! Robbers and murders is all ye are—I heard the stories of what went on in that thrice-damned war. And ye want a roof over your head? Try the black tower and see if the devils will let you in!”

The door slammed, shutting out the warm glow of the light within. Kit turned back into the rain and trudged on down the road.

The houses were closer together now, mixed in with village shops. Windows glowed with welcoming light. A raucous laugh escaped from the inn and tickled his ears. Kit knew there was no place for him there, but he was cold, and when he pushed the door, it opened.

They didn’t notice him at first. He sidled up to the fire, rain dripping off his ragged coat and torn boots, and listened to the laughter die as silence rippled out from him. Glares were turned in his direction as they recognized his rigid stance, his uniform trousers—the belt that only soldiers wore.

It was no use telling them that he hadn’t wanted to go; that he’d had no choice. He raised his head and looked their hatred in the eye and didn’t wait for them to curse him to hell. He volunteered.

“I heard you have a demon problem.”

Some muttering; some shuffled feet.

“Perhaps,” Kit said, “someone could direct me to the black tower.”

“Don’t go up there, lad,” said the ancient woman behind the bar. “Leastaways, don’t go at night.”

Kit turned to her, trying not to let the desperate hope shine in his eyes too much. But a barrel of a man sitting at her long table snorted into his tankard of ale. “Would serve him right if the devils took him.”

“An’ you should watch your tongue, Harvey, unless you want the same for yourself.”

“I never did anything like what I hear tell was done in those wars,” Harvey grunted. “Men like him—they should be locked up, not left to roam the streets and harass innocent folks.”

The innkeeper hesitated.

“I’m afraid he’s right, lad,” she said at last. “You have to go.”

Kit bowed his head and clasped his hands and said: “As it seems I am to sleep with devils tonight, would you show me the kindness of saying where they might be?”

“I’ll tell you.” It was another man who answered, his voice as rough as his coal-blackened hands. “Take the road that runs towards the hills and when it begins to climb, you’ll see a stone path leading off the left. That will take you to the tower.”

“Thank you,” Kit said.

“You’d best be getting along then,” said the innkeeper.

Kit went.

He first noticed the tower as a looming darkness more solid than the surrounding night. Lightning flashed suddenly, illuminating crumbling parapets and ancient windows, leaving him with no doubt that it truly was haunted.

The oaken doors were blackened and rotting. The great iron handles were rusted into place—the lion-heads barely recognizable. Kit raised his hand and knocked. The sound echoed hollowly against the stone and space inside. Then it died away, leaving broken silence in its wake.

Kit took a breath.

Another noise began, a grinding and creaking as old gears turned rusty chains and raised disused levers to draw back ancient hinges. Slowly, the doors opened.

Most people would have hesitated when faced with the utter blackness within. Many would have turned and run away back to warmth and civilization. But Kit was a soldier, and death was an old, if unloved, friend.

He went in.

Faster than it had opened the door slammed shut. The darkness was so thorough, it felt like a tomb. The air smelled cold and dank, like forgetfulness and rot. Although he no longer stood in the rain, the wind still blew through his thin clothes, and he shivered.

There were voices on the wind, and suddenly there was light. Torches flickered on the walls, and candlesticks on a long, dusty table. Kit blinked, and looked around the tower. Once it had been fine, certainly, but those years were so long ago that the old stones could no longer remember them. Now the tapestries were reduced to filthy shreds, the furniture broken and overturned, and everything covered in a thick layer of dust.

There were bones in the fireplace.

“Welcome! Dear friend, welcome. It has been so long since we have had company—we are not properly prepared for you!”

As the voice spoke, the wind rustled around the room stirring up the dust and debris into a whirlwind and then suddenly darted off, leaving behind a tall, lanky figure in a ragged green coat. There was lace at his wrists and neck, a top hat in one hand; a cane in the other. These he flourished and, as he did, he bowed.

The bones in the fireplace were gone.

“Well then,” said the ghost, “what can we do for you tonight?”

Kit bowed his head and repeated the mantra he’d used at so many doors in so many villages on so many hopeless nights like this one. “I seek only a dry roof to keep off the rain for a few hours, and perhaps a few bites to ease my hunger, good sir.”

And the ghost answered as so many landowners and innkeepers and farmers had answered– “Ah, that I cannot.”

Kit’s heart sank, but the ghost continued.

“For the roof, you see, has been leaking these past two centuries. And we have not eaten in so long, that there is no proper food to serve to a living soul any longer.”

“I can hardly begrudge you that which you do not have,” Kit acknowledged. “But allow me to spend the night here, good sir, and I promise you shall not lack for entertainment.”

The ghost considered. “It has been a long time since we have had good company,” he said. “I accept! You are most welcome.”

He picked up a broken chair and dusted it off with his pocket handkerchief before offering it to the soldier. They sat at the heavy and ancient table, and Kit pulled out a pack of cards from his pockets.

The ghost reached into his own pockets and brought out handfuls of shining gold.

Kit threw back his head and laughed. “Do you take me for a noble, good sir? I have no such wealth to match yours.”

“Then you will have to wager something else,” the ghost said, his eyes gleaming. “Surely you have something of value. Something…immortal.”

“If I am to wager my immortal soul, then you must offer me something more valuable than such paltry trinkets as you have there,” Kit said disdainfully.

It was the devil’s turn to be taken aback. “And what do I have that can possibly compare to the value of your soul?”

“Nothing,” Kit said, dealing the cards. “But if dawn comes, and I am winning, then you will leave this tower forever, and go back to hell where you belong.”

The ghost considered this. He nibbled at his fingernails and scratched at the table and finally said: “very well.”

They played.

They played all night while the storm buffeted the tower and finally wore itself out. They played while thick thunderclouds scudded across the sky, finally letting the stars peek through. They played, and while the ghost cheated, Kit did not, and still the chips piled up in front of him, until, as the first rays of light peeked in through the window, it became clear that he would win no matter what the ghost could do.

The ghost exhaled, a sound like wind among dry leaves. “Those cards,” he said. “They never lose for you, do they.”

“No,” Kit agreed. “I won them in another tower, like this one, playing another devil, like you.”

“Why?” the ghost demanded. “Why do you risk so much in exchange for so little? These people—they will not thank you. They will drive you out of the village if they find you here in the morning. Have pity on me, soldier. Let me stay, and I will make you the most wealthy man that ever lived.”

“You’re not the devil,” Kit said simply.

The ghost faltered. “What?”

“You asked why. That’s why. You’re not the devil. You pretend you are, and the people take comfort in knowing that you’re locked up in abandoned towers and ancient keeps, and turn a blind eye to the truth. But I met the devil. He wore the face of my commanding officer when he ordered us to burn down a village full of mothers and cripples and orphans. He wore the face of the Chancellor when he smiled and welcomed us home. He said we had freed a nation from tyranny and oppression, and that the world would welcome us as heroes. The devil wears many faces, good sir, but yours is not one of them.”

The ghost stood and looked down at the soldier. “One day you will lose,” he said. “Magic cards or not, you will lose, and some demon will carry you off to hell. Have you thought of that?”

Kit shrugged and gathered up the cards, putting them away in his pocket. “I’ll see you there soon enough,” he said. “It makes no difference to me how I arrive.”

He stood and regarded the ghost, and his gaze was as cold as winter and as ruthless as the wind as he said: “go to hell.”

A wind gathered in the tower, rushing so hard that the stones shook to their very foundation. The roar of it was deafening, the air suffocating. The dust and debris obscured the ghost, and then it went rushing upward, out through the broken roof and away into the lightening sky.

The tower was quiet. Sunlight fell in golden beams through the holes in the roof and floors above. The rays touched on broken furniture and ancient tapestries, and dust motes danced in the light. For the first time in two centuries it was peaceful and still.

The soldier picked up his rucksack, tightened his belt, and went out into the morning.

Presented at the 2018 Sigma Tau Delta International English Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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