Promised, a short story

Originally published 2005, copyright Jolene Dawe

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Photo by ankiyay from Pexels

Marianna first noticed him following her three weeks before her twenty-first birthday. He showed up as she left work that evening and walked a couple of yards behind her all the way to her car. When she arrived at the apartment she shared with two roommates he was there, discreetly hidden behind the dumpster banks. Marianna saw him, but she gave no outward sign of it. What good would that do? Who could she tell?

She saw him every day after that. When she walked to her car, he followed. When she left work, he was there. When she ran errands she would see him ducking behind one corner or another, always making an attempt to stay out of sight.

Maybe it was the two-foot horns on his head that gave him away.

Then again, it could have been the perfectly black skin.

It could have been the red eyes that lacked pupils.

It occurred to her that she was likely going crazy. After two weeks, she was completely on the edge. She had half a mind to march up to her stalker and demand an explanation.

Of course, that would have been suicide.

So when, less than a week before her birthday, her parents arrived with surprise tickets for the whole family for a trip to some remote region in northern Canada, Marianna was more than ready to go. Sure, it was out of character for her lovely but predictable parents to do anything quite that impulsive, but Marianna wasn’t about to question it, if it got her away from her stalker. Faced with such impulsiveness, there was no way he could follow them.

Her only concern was work. “Let me handle it,” her father said, and frazzled, Marianna let him.

Her parents further surprised her by leading her and her younger brother to a fully-furnished cabin, nestled on a small island created by the river splitting around a three-acre piece of land.

“How did you find this place?” David wanted to know.

“Years of searching,” was all their mother told them.

The first day there they had a cook-out, just the four of them. Her mother made her favorite potato salad. Her father grilled all of her favorite meats. For dessert, David made his famous strawberry pie. They played games and told each other stories, reminiscing about days gone by. By the time Marianna turned in for the night, she felt calmer than she had in a month.

Still, it was hard for her to close her bedroom door and face the night. She fought with her fears for a while before she worked up the nerve to turn out the light. She stood at the side of the window that looked out across the backyard, scanning the dark for any sign of her stalker. Hours later, convinced he wasn’t there, she retreated to her bed.

The second day at the cabin started out as nice as the previous day had been. Marianna’s mother woke her up before dawn so that the two of them could have some tea and watch the sunrise, an old tradition dating back to before David had been born. They listened to the birds waking up in the woods across the water and watched as the colors in the sky grew light. Breakfast was made by the time they ventured back inside, plates heaping with all of Marianna’s favorite breakfast foods. After breakfast was done she and David spent the rest of the morning out back, dangling their feet in the small stream that cut across, chatting about their lives. He spoke to her of college, of finals, and of all the girls he wanted to ask out but never dared. She told him about work, about the last string of disastrous dates, about the kittens her roommates had adopted. She didn’t tell him about her stalker.

It wasn’t until dinner was laid out on the table that Marianna began to suspect that something was amiss with her family. Once again, the dishes were all of her favorites. The tablecloth was embroidered with irises, Marianna’s favorite flower. The drinks ranged from a pitcher of cola mixed with orange soda to a bottle of her favorite wine. Though the discussion remained relaxed, now that she was suspicious Marianna noted that most of it was aimed at her–questions about her life, her interests, or anecdotes about her childhood. She ate her food, drank her wine, held up her end of the conversation, and when it was over, excused herself and fled to her room. She closed the door, braced herself against it, and slid to the floor. Her heart pounded within her chest. Her breath was impossible to catch. Marianna pressed her eyes closed and willed herself to calm down.

She waited until her stomach stopped churning and then opened her eyes. There, outside her window, across the water, he stood watching her. Red eyes seemed to glow, despite the lightness of the day. The horns that should not be, that could not be, were rising proudly from his brow. He watched, a hulking, imposing figure, from the very edge of the furthest shore, and Marianna imagined that she could see worry in those glowing eyes.

She was crazy, that much she already knew. She could see him, after all. But she might be drunk, as well, to be seeing emotion in such inhuman eyes.

Marianna rose to her feet, inhaled a few deep breaths, and left her room. She walked down the hall without speaking to her parents. She walked past the living room without greeting her brother. She opened the door and stepped outside. With determined strides she walked down the steps that led from the porch and across the front yard. She was nearly to the water’s edge when her family came chasing after her.

“Where are you going?” David asked as her father said, “You can’t go out alone–this isn’t the city, this isn’t a town!” as her mother exclaimed, “It’s not safe in the woods at night!”

Marianna swallowed repeatedly, willing her stomach to relax. “I was just going to explore a bit,” she said. “I wasn’t going to go far. It’s not like I can even cross the river without a boat.”

She saw as logic and reason reasserted themselves over her family. Of course she couldn’t cross the river without a boat, and she wasn’t anywhere near their boat.

“It’s just that it’s not safe out at night, even here,” David said. “Not alone. We’ll go exploring tomorrow, if you’d like.”

Marianna looked toward the setting sun but said nothing.

“Really. Come back inside, Mari. Please?”

David’s voice cracked, as though he was fighting back tears. That, more than anything else, stoked the worry into full-fledged panic within her heart. That, more than anything else, made her give in to her family and follow them back inside. Maybe this was something else entirely, maybe it had nothing at all to do with her stalker.

They played Scrabble and then Charades, and then, shortly after midnight, Marianna excused herself and went to bed.

It was easier, the second night, closing the door and facing the window. She wore the laughter of the games with her family in her heart, and she knew what she would see when she turned out the light and faced the darkness.

He was watching her, half-crouched behind a tree. Marianna stared at him from her place next to her window and knew that he could see her as clearly as she could see him. Her conviction that her family’s weird behavior had nothing to do with her stalker fell away. During the small hours of the night, less than twenty hours from her twenty-first birthday, Marianna knew it had everything in the world to do with him.

It was two in the morning before she was convinced her family was settled for the night. It was nearing three before she worked up the nerve to step away from the window’s edge, placing herself in full sight of the not-man, and tried to open the window.

Impossible for her to see so clearly at the distance, but she swore his eyes grew rounder for a second, as though he was shocked at her action.

The window didn’t budge. Frustrated, Marianna threw her weight into it, and shoved until her back ached and her wrists warned her off. Cursing under her breath, she felt along the window frames and found the nails that held her imprisoned. Marianna looked back at her stalker. He was no longer half-hidden in the trees but was standing at the water’s edge once more. Marianna swallowed a cry and took a step back.

Across the water, her horned stalker raised a hand, as if to stop her. She flinched but stayed where she was. He lifted the second hand. The window rattled in its casing. Marianna watched as the nails freed themselves of the wood, popping out and rolling to the floor. Marianna bent to place them on the nightstand and then returned to the window. It lifted noiselessly. Marianna lifted the screen up as well and then climbed through. As soon as her feet touched the grass and her body was free of the window, it closed behind her.

She jumped and some of her determination left her. She looked from the window to the figure across the water, and cursed herself out. Had he looked worried, earlier? Now there was just that unholy visage of his, and something much like triumph in those eyes. Marianna shuddered and thought about banging on the door until her parents heard her.

But they had been treating her so strangely, and while she wondered, during the day, if something weren’t terribly wrong with one of them–hence the family retreat–she knew, really knew, that this was about her and the figure across the water.

She would get to the bottom of this.

She walked across the backyard with steady strides. Her hands clenched into fists at her sides, and her heart was pounding in her mouth. She stepped across the small stream she and David had dangled their feet in earlier that day and crossed the distance to the river’s edge.

He stood where he was, where he had been, watching her approach. As she reached the water’s edge he waggled his fingers at the water. Large rocks rose to the surface, offering her a way across the water. Her knees shook at the sight. Magic. It was magic, it had to be magic. He had manipulated earth by his will, right in front of her.

What did she think he had done to the nails in the window?

Marianna touched the closest rock with her foot, testing to see if it would sink under her weight. When it didn’t, when it remained as steady and solid as one would expect any rock to feel, she stepped fully onto the rock. Slowly, she crossed the river. Her nerve held out until she was two rocks away from him. Up close, she could see the lines in his black skin, the leathery wrinkles that shone as red as eyes. Up close, she could see the spirals in his horns, and the wicked edge to them. Up close, she could see that his feet were cloven, and that his teeth were all razor sharp. The sight of him, the wrongness of him, standing just out of reach, caused Marianna’s brain to throw up all sorts of denials. The onslaught of them stole her balance and caused her to stagger. Marianna teetered on the rock for an agonizingly long moment, and then splashed into the water. It was cold, colder than she expected it to be, and its icy feel stole her breath.

This close to the bank, Marianna reached out, trying to sink her hands into turf, into a branch, into grass, into anything as the current tried to pull her away. Her knees banged against the rocky bank wall, and she lodged her feet against something solid. Just as she began to slip again, a hand closed over her arm and hauled her out of the water. Gasping, sputtering, Marianna was deposited onto the ground and a hand slammed into her back, helping to drive the water from her lungs.

She remained on the ground, gasping for air, long after the last of the water had been expelled. She knew who her rescuer was. She knew who knelt at her side. She was no longer sure what those teeth were going to do to her. Had they been meaning to tear into her flesh, they would have had the chance while she was choking on river water.

“Breathe easy.” His voice was deeper and smoother than she thought it would be. She imagined rocks rumbling on rocks, but this was different. This was a voice from the deepest parts of the earth.

She shuddered and refused to think about what that might mean.

“There is time yet for talking. Are you hurt?”

Marianna shook her head, still not trusting her voice.

“I did not mean to be rough with you,” he said. “I hope I did not hurt you.”

Marianna squeezed her eyes shut and dug her fingers into the mud, willing the sobs back into her gut. It would not do to lose it all now. It would not do at all.

He shifted so that he was in her sight. Hoofed feet attached to furry legs that gave way to a smooth, bald torso. A smooth, bald, muscular torso, muted black etched in red. Marianna dropped her eyes back to the ground but sat up on her own before he had a chance to make her.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” she said, and she hated the sound of tears in her voice. “I don’t know why we’re here and why they’re acting the way they are. Every day it’s all about my favorite foods and my favorite activities. This morning Mom and I had tea. Tea while we watched the sun rise and I can’t remember the last time we did that. They all chased after me when I came to the river earlier. This whole trip was a surprise, and it’s so unlike them that I wondered if anyone was sick or dying. But it’s not about them, it’s not about any of them, is it? It’s about me. It’s about me, and it’s about you, and I don’t understand anything that’s happening.”

Next to her, the horned non-man exhaled and folded his legs so that he was sitting beside her. Impossible that such a sigh should sound so sad and defeated, but then, it was a night for the impossible.

“They haven’t explained anything to you yet?”

Even though she knew, in her soul, in her heart, that he was a part of what was going on with her family, hearing the question, hearing him admit it, surprised her. Her mind raced with a thousand different scenarios, all placing him as the villain. He was blackmailing them, somehow, threatening them somehow. He was going to torture them, going to enslave them, going to kill them, going to do a hundred different things to them before he finally turned on her.

One horrible sob escaped her as her inner eye tormented her with one horrible vision after another before his hand closed around her arm and squeezed. He didn’t squeeze hard, just enough to get her attention back to the present. Marianna blinked rapidly and stared at the black fingers that curled around her white skin. She wore a perpetual tan, thanks to her Italian heritage, but against him her skin looked like fine porcelain.

“You know the story of your brother’s battle for life, when you were but a toddler yourself?”

Marianna frowned, confused. Of course she did. “He was almost three months early,” she told him. “We were on vacation, in Italy, visiting family. Mom and Dad wanted to go hiking and reconnect with the countryside of their people. I was with them, but so was Dad’s brother and I stayed behind with him while Mom and Dad went off.” Marianna knew the story by rote more than she actually remembered it. Her parents walked off on their own and were gone for hours. When they returned, just before sunset, her mother had been deathly pale and in shock. Her father had come back holding a baby, wrapped in his shirt. She had fallen, and gone into labor. It was so fast, and David was born premature. He shouldn’t have lived, but he survived until they got him into the city, and then it was a matter of keeping him warm, fed, and healthy while his body finished developing. Her mother had stayed in Italy while her father returned with Marianna to the States and to his job, to prepare for their homecoming. David was released after a month and had grown into a robust baby.

“No,” he said. He sighed again, and this time it was not sadness but frustration. Marianna thought she could hear a storm in his exhalation, and she flinched. The hand on her arm didn’t let go, but neither did it tighten. It remained a constant, heavy weight that rooted her in the present. “You were there, Marianna. You saw what happened. Remember.”

Something pressed down on her head then, for an instant, and Marianna felt rather than heard a pop within her mind. She whimpered and grabbed his hand as memories shifted around and shook themselves off. A day of playing with her cousins vanished into a nightmarish day spent with her parents. They had been walking, the three of them, and her father would sometimes carry her on his back, and sometimes in his arms, and sometimes she would be swinging between the two of them. They topped a hill and decided to rest a bit. Marianna crawled around, exploring this rock and that tree and this small structure. Her mother had come to find her after a while and tripped just as she reached her, pitching down a small hill. It was rocky. It was hard. When her mother landed, there was water and blood. So much blood.

Her father brushed past her, down the hill to her mother, rolling her onto her back. Marianna remembered watching, scared and alone from her perch at the top of the hill, sitting on old, worn stones, while her father tore away her mother’s skirt and spread her legs. She remembered her mother crying, her father trying to soothe her. Too much blood.

She had been crying herself, knowing things were terribly wrong. It got worse. Her mother screamed, briefly, and then her father was moving away, holding something in his arms. He removed his shirt and wrapped the something in his shirt. He stood, stock-still, staring at the bundle in his arms. Only four years old, Marianna had known instinctually that something was worse than wrong.

Her mother started screaming again, reaching for her father, reaching for the bundle. Her father moved away, staggering up the hill. He was blind to Marianna, blind to the rocks he stumbled over, blind to the piece of stone that drove him to his knees. He clutched the bundle to him and stared at it. Blood from his wife, blood from his shirt, blood from the cut on his knees, dripped to the stone floor that was half-buried by ground.

“Please,” he whispered to no one in particular. “Please.”

In the nightmare, shadows gathered in defiance to the brilliant sunlight.

Crying out, Marianna pulled her hand free as she pulled away from the memory. She surged to her feet and stumbled away from him, putting distance between them. Bile rose in her throat. “No,” she said.

“Yes.” He remained where he sat, gazing up at her. “You were young. Very young, but you remember.”

“No,” she swore, but she did remember.

Shadows gathered, impossibly, where there was nothing to cast shadows, and the air had shimmered. When the shimmering subsided, he was standing before her father, tall, demonic, and powerful. His horns gleamed in the daylight. His skin glistened. He was a nightmare that should not have seen the light of day, and there he stood, full of magic, offering hope to a heart-broken, desperate man.

“Please,” her father said, still blind to the world around him.

The demon knelt before her father and placed a hand on the bundle. “I can make it live,” he said. “But there is always a price.”

Her father’s eyes flickered almost imperceptibly towards her in that instant. In that instant, the demon said, “Accepted.” and the scream of a newborn baby split the day.

“No!” her father said, but it was too late.

“When she is grown, I will come,” the demon said, and the air shimmered again, and he was gone.

Marianna shook her head, denying the memory, denying the exchange. No words came to her mouth.

Slowly, as if not wanting to spook her, he unfolded from the ground. Standing in front of her he seemed much taller than she, much taller than he actually was. It was the power he held, the magic he commanded, that created the illusion of extra height. That and the fact that he shouldn’t exist.

“You were on the ruins of a temple that had once been mine. A modest temple, but nonetheless, mine. Your blood called to me. Your desperation opened the way for me. It had been countless ages since I had been called upon.”

“But it wasn’t his fault,” she argued. “He didn’t know. We didn’t know. It can’t count.”

Red eyes with the faintest hint of a pupil leveled at her, and she knew her argument didn’t matter. “He knew,” he said, “when he asked for help, that it would cost him.”

“He can’t have meant to offer me. He wouldn’t have. He wouldn’t have.” A second sob escaped her. “That’s what this has all been about, hasn’t it? They’ve been trying to keep me away from you. They knew about you.” That information caught up with her brain slowly. “They knew about you. They knew I wasn’t going crazy. This was all to keep you from me, to keep me safe.”

“They intended to keep you at the cabin for the rest of your life,” he told her.

“But I–they weren’t ever going to tell me about this.” She looked at him, seeking his denial, seeking more of an explanation.

He only looked back, offering nothing more.

Marianna crossed her arms in front of her chest and clenched her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering. She took a step toward the river.

Faster than humanly possible he was standing between her and the river. “I can’t let you go back,” he said.

“You can’t stop me,” she said.

“Can’t I?”

But when she stepped around him he didn’t move to touch her.

The rocks he had raised were gone. Marianna lowered herself into the river and started to swim across. The current slowed unnaturally, keeping her safe, keeping her steady. Her skin prickled as his magic reached out to protect her. She crawled onto the opposite bank. She crossed the backyard without looking back, climbed into her bedroom window, which opened as she approached it. She closed the curtains on her window, removed her wet clothes, changed into a dry nightgown, and crawled into bed.

When dawn came, she was up and in the kitchen, brewing tea. Her mother was the first one up. She took one look at Marianna, and the smile fell from her face. “You’ve seen him,” she said.

Marianna’s hands didn’t shake as she poured the tea. “Every day for the last month,” she agreed. “I thought I was going crazy, Mom. Why didn’t anyone tell me I wasn’t going crazy?”

“So it is real.”

Marianna blinked. “Why would you drag me all this way to keep me from him if you didn’t believe he was real?”

“I never saw him, Marianna. Not once. After I gave birth to your brother, I was . . . not right. What can you expect from me? I had fallen, hit my head, and induced premature labor. I wasn’t exactly with it. But your father believed. Your fathered believed so strongly, I was afraid to disagree with him when he decided to have this place built for you.”

“You didn’t believe him, and you were willing to go along with this crazy scheme to keep me imprisoned here?” Marianna’s fear and denial began to feel the beginnings of anger.

“Birthday girl!” David bounced into the kitchen and swept her up into a whirling embrace.

“Not yet,” she reminded him when he set her down. She caught her father’s eye as he came into the room. “Not for another six hours, technically. What happens then, Dad?”

He refused to meet her eyes. “You’ve met him.”

“He told me what happened,” she said. “He’s told me more than you have. What happens in six hours, Dad?”

“Nothing. You stay here, and nothing happens. This layout isn’t an accident, Marianna. He can’t cross the water without an invitation.”

“What, now he’s a vampire?”

“He’s a demon,” her father said.

“What?!” David backed away from their father.

“A demon,” Marianna repeated. Saying it out loud, even after last night, sounded beyond crazy.

Her father seemed to shrink before her very eyes. He looked haunted and scared, more like a child than she had ever seen him. Carefully avoiding her gaze, he continued, “A demon. I’m not sure how much you remember from that day, but he told me that I had summoned him.”

Blood and death and pain, Marianna thought.

“I hadn’t meant to. I hadn’t meant to do anything. I was . . . lost in grief. Surely you understand that.” He dared, then, to look at her. Marianna nodded once. Of course she understood that–she remembered that.

“But then he was there and I knew what he offered, what he could do. Grief and shock cut through all the bullshit of reality in my mind. Here we were, in the old country, with who only knew what roaming around the hills and mountains. Old gods were worshipped there, ages ago, and other things besides. I knew he couldn’t have been there, that he couldn’t be real, and I knew he was offering me, offering us, something that couldn’t be real. You know. You were there. You remember, somehow. I never meant to do it. I didn’t do that. He decided on his own that he would have you.”

“In six hours,” Marianna said. “When I’m grown.”

Her father nodded.

“What are you talking about?” David had moved away from the three of them, his brown eyes wide and wild. “Do you know what you all sound like?”

“You died, David,” Marianna said. “When you were born, you died. He saved you, brought you back to life. In exchange for me. In six hours, when I’m grown. What happens to me then?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. I bought this land, between the rivers. He can’t cross the river without being invited, can’t set foot on this land without being invited. It’s been warded by over a dozen witches and blessed by four different priests. I’ve done everything I can to make this place safe for you.”

“Forever. You mean for me to stay here. You mean for me to never leave here.”

She wanted him to deny it, wanted him to say he would never expect her to live out her life in this small cabin, cut off from the world. It was absurd. It was beyond absurd.

“We thought to buy us some time,” her mother said. “We thought we could get you to stay here while we figured out how to release his hold on you. The truth is, we don’t know what’s going to happen, Marianna. He never explained to your father, and I–well, it doesn’t matter. Your father–we wanted to be with you, when the debt became due. We intend to stay with you.”

“Were you ever planning on telling me any of this?” Marianna asked.

Her father shook his head.

Marianna was out of questions. She was out of words. She was out of tolerance for her father. She picked up her tea mug and left the kitchen.

“Where are you going?” her father asked.

“Nowhere,” she said. “There’s nowhere I can go, is there?”

They left her alone for the rest of the morning. She sat in her bed, drank her tea, and tried to still her mind. Part of her was screaming for her to wake up from this nightmare, to deny the insanity that had descended upon them all, to shake herself off and embrace reality and logic. The rest of her was numb, betrayed on all sides, and bereft of all hope. She still didn’t know what, exactly, he wanted of her, but there were only a few reasons she could think of that a demon would be interested in a human woman, and she didn’t like any of them. She didn’t want to stay on this small piece of land for the rest of her life–she could barely conceive of it–but she didn’t enjoy any of the alternatives, either.

It was her mother’s scream that brought Marianna running from her bedroom. She found her mother in the living room, alone and screaming.

“They’re gone! GONE! They were right here! Marianna!”

“I’m here!” Marianna grabbed her mother’s arms. “Who’s gone? What happened?”

“They were just sitting here, talking, and now they’re gone. Both of them.” It was too much for her mother. She crumpled out of Marianna’s arms and onto the floor.

Marianna left her. She ran out of the house and across the yard.

He was waiting for her where he had been the night before. The lack of surprise on his face infuriated her.

“Give them back!” she demanded.

“I can’t,” he said.

“You can!”

The water in the river rippled violently. Waves surged up, threatening to top the banks. “A debt is a debt. It must be paid. Your father refused to pay the agreed payment, so the arrangement is forfeit.”

Forfeit? Arrangement? Marianna gasped as the implications hit her. David! “He didn’t know! It’s not fair! Damn it, I am not payment! I’m not his to barter away like property, and he never did in the first place. You tricked him!”

Red eyes flickered away for just an instant, as though he flinched.

Marianna seized onto that motion, incised now. “You did trick him!” She stepped forward, propelled by her rage. Solid ground met her feet as she crossed the water to jab the demon with a finger. “You totally tricked him. He never agreed to give me to you, you just decided he did.”

“It was my right to name my price,” he said.

She wanted him to fight with her, she wanted him to deny her accusations. As he stood, agreeing with her, the fight left her, leaving her with a gnawing pain in her chest. “Why me?” she whispered.

“Because you saw me,” he said. His voice was soft, heart-breaking. “When you found the ruins of the temple, you saw me. I don’t know how, or why, but you saw me. That’s why your mother came up looking for you after a while. You were too quiet, too still, and she was worried about you. But you saw me, and you reached out to me when you saw me. Before your mother fell. Before your father begged for help. It wasn’t his fear and need that called to me–it was you.”

Marianna frowned, trying to remember. Before the fall she had been playing with some stones, piling one on top of the other. Her parents had been out of sight but within earshot, and she had seen . . . she had seen . . .

A snake. Small and black with red markings, slithering up to her and curling around her arm. It had lifted its head to eye level with her, and flicked its tongue out to smell her. For the briefest moment it became something bigger than a snake, something more human and still not, and she had laughed with delight.

“I remember,” she breathed. “You looked different.”

“We’re shape changers,” he explained.

She looked at his horns and his fangs and his cloven feet. “Is this how you really look?”

“Am I really a demon, you mean? It’s a Greek word, your word for demon. Daemon. It used to apply to those who were good as well as evil. It had a broader sense, then, than it does now. Yes, I am really a demon, and yes, this is my natural form in this world, more or less.”

He reached for her hand. She didn’t stop him as he lifted her hand to touch his horns. She didn’t flinch as he traced her fingers over the length of them and then down his face to touch the glowing red wrinkles etched in his face. “I’m ancient,” he told her, “and you were the first human to see me in ages. I didn’t frighten you. You laughed with me. I wanted to see you again. I want you to see me again.”

Marianna withdrew her hand. “Couldn’t you have just called me?”

He quirked a smile. “I couldn’t trust that you would still see me. Parents teach their children to close their eyes. I needed a claim on you, so I made one. I can’t say I wouldn’t have helped your father anyway, but I can’t say that I would even have heard him if I hadn’t seen you, if you hadn’t seen me. You pulled me there, Marianna.”

“I see you,” she said. “I’ve seen you all month. Why did you take them now?” Tears broke her voice. He moved to comfort her, but she stepped away.

Claws unsheathed on his fingers as his hands curled into fists. “A bargain was made that day, no matter the trickery involved, and your father has sought to leave the bargain unpaid. Yes, he was tricked, but he also agreed, and all of your modern sensibilities aside, the bargain was struck with you as payment. Bargains between our kind go back millennia, Marianna. The power is binding. A debt must be paid.”

“I’m not his to give any more,” she said.

“No,” he agreed.

“What is it you want?”

“You,” he said.

“For what?”

“To have. To know. To see. I know the fears in your head, Marianna. I know the stories they tell of demons these days. It is not my intention to hurt you. It has never been my intention to hurt you. I simply want you to be mine.”

“Your what?” Marianna finally met his eyes. Something was happening here, something important. She unfolded her arms from her body, leaving her body open. She let go of her anger and her fear, leaving her heart open.

“Just . . . mine. Just mine.” Red eyes blazed furiously, desperately. He, too, left his body open. “Just mine.”

“I don’t want to belong to anyone,” she said. “I want to belong to myself.”

“I know,” he said.

“I want my family back.”

“I know.”

“Are you going to kill me?”

“Never,” he said.

“Are you going to take me away from here?”

“I’m not interested in enslaving you,” he said.

“I don’t understand any of this.”

“It’s been a very long time since anything like this has been done,” he said.

“How do we do it?”

For a long while he didn’t say anything. Marianna wondered if he was even breathing. “You will agree to give yourself to me? You will agree to honor the bargain your father and I struck seventeen years ago?”

Marianna had to lock her knees to remain upright as he crossed the distance to her. She was less afraid of him than she was afraid of what was going to happen when he touched her arms with his hands. The claws had been retracted. She kept her eyes on his collar bone. “What do you want from me?” The words were so quiet she wondered if he heard them.

“To share your life,” he said. “Do you agree to this?”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know anymore,” he said simply. “Whatever we decide it will mean.”

We, he had said. Not I, but we. We will decide. Marianna drew strength from that.

“Will it hurt?”

His shoulders shook as if he was holding in laughter. “No,” he said. Gently. So gently. “You only say yes, and it is done.”

“I’m not going to be a slave?”

“Never. I’m not that kind of demon, Marianna.”

“Then, yes. Yes, please. I want them back.”

“It is done.”

She glanced up him, and then around them. She expected … something to be different. They were still in the same woods, by the same rivers, with the same cabin in the distance.

“I haven’t been lying to you,” he said. “Go, see for yourself. I’ll be here when you get back.”

Something about the way he spoke made her hesitate. She stepped away from him, but hooked her hand in the crock of his elbow. “Come with me,” she suggested.

“I can’t cross the river,” he said.

“Unless you are invited,” she said. She inhaled, willing her courage to remain strong. He no longer seemed as threatening as he once did. “I’m inviting you. Come with me.”

His hand found hers and he squeezed it, as if taking comfort from her touch. Then, one foot after the other, he followed her to the river’s edge. He stepped on his stone-bridge just behind her own steps. He let her lead him across the yard and up the porch steps and into the house. He remained behind her as she led him into the living room where her family was.

And they were there, all three of them. They looked up at Marianna and the demon as they entered the room. “Mom, Dad, David. There’s someone I’d like you to meet . . .”


Hours later, after the cake had been devoured and the presents had been unwrapped and her parents and brother had gone to bed, Marianna sat outside with the demon. Damon, he had introduced himself to her family. Not the most original name for a demon, but, he explained, it had been so long since he had had a name in any human tongue, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to be called. For now, Damon would suffice.

“What happens now?” she asked him.

He sat next to her on the top step, his shoulder brushing against her own.

“You could stay here,” he suggested. “For the rest of the summer, at least. After that . . . it’s up to you.”

Up to me, she thought. He’d let me go anywhere. “After that it’s up to us,” she argued.

He looked at her, and she could see a thousand emotions warring within those beautiful red eyes. Had they once frightened her? Had they once seemed alien and void of all emotion? How could that be, with all the hope and joy she saw within them now.

Marianna threaded her fingers through his own, tracing the place where his claws lay hidden under his flesh. She leaned her head against his shoulder and settled more heavily against him, allowing his weight to support her. Any human would have read more into her body language, but she knew he saw the openness, the offering of friendship, the trust. The faith.

“After that, it’s up to us,” he agreed.