The rifle feels heavy and unbalanced in her hands. Her knees are shaking, her arms weak as water. Her world has narrowed to a spot fifteen paces ahead. In the barn’s dim light, what looks like a young man lies stretched on the floor, dark hair spread out like a pool of ink. As her heart clangs within her, the figure groans and lifts its head. Dark eyes meet hers, fever-bright. Delicate features in a face pale as snow. A human face, but what rises from its head betrays the disguise. Winter light washes in through the door behind her and catches on onyx-black horns. Beautiful horns, glossy and bright, rising straight from the head and then curving back and slightly outward like the horns of a goat. The horns of a demon. The unmistakable sign of devil-blood.
This is not the first time that Alis has encountered a demon.
She was born in these hills, and every child here grows up among spirits and devilry. Demons sour the ale and spoil the meat, rot grain in the storehouses and blight corn in the fields. When the bread fails to rise, the baker crosses herself and throws salt on the fire to ward off evil. Demons spread fevers, coughs, oozing pustules, death. They hoot from the bodies of owls, and invisibly pinch new-born babes so that the infants scream from midnight onwards and households grow haggard from lack of sleep. Demons torment innocent maidens and youths with terrible dreams, so that young people wake flushed and shamed before dawn, their bodies still tingling from a devil’s sinful caress.
All this Alis knows. But she knows the monster before her in a different way.
It stares straight at her, recognition in its own eyes. Those eyes are pleading, huge and black. It’s as beautiful as she remembers. The shape of a boy in his teens. Thin and dirty and dressed in rags, clearly ill or injured – yet beautiful still. So pale that its skin seems to glow with its own faint light. It has not aged in the intervening years but Alis has, and her mind reels at the gap and collapse of time: she was a child, but now it’s the one who seems so vulnerable and young. Yet in the same instant (such are time’s trickeries, it loops and doubles upon itself) she is again eight years old, terrified and entranced, alone with it on her parents’ farm.
Ahkara. Horned demon. Drinker of milk and blood.
Its head droops back down. It lies still, eyes fixed upon her. Weariness and wariness and desperate hope on its face.
She had not thought of it in years.
Years during which the memory of a moonlit night was buried so deep that her heartbeat neither skipped nor sped at the mention of ahkaran; years during which she milked cows and skimmed cream and walked daily to the springhouse without fear. Years during which she listened to sermons on devilry and sin without guilt.
Only in the first few years, the nightmares. After she had buried deep that night of fire, she would, occasionally, dream of cool moonlight and water. A presence walking with her, its low voice calming her. Softly it spoke a story that melted fear. But even as she dreamed, she could never quite grasp the words.
She would wake, and even that hint of memory would evaporate like dew in the sun.
Now it’s here again, the monster, bursting through the long miles and years that have passed. A veil in her mind is torn and memory sings. Through the shock, she fights to stay on her feet, keep steady. Toward the back of the barn, she hears her cow shuffle and kick at the floor.
Mother! her son had called to her just minutes ago. There’s someone in the barn!
She hadn’t known, when she ran to the springhouse all those years ago. She hadn’t known of how ahkaran come down from the highest peaks of Stone Mountain during times of human suffering, times of famine and war and disease.
They do not cause these disasters, but they ride in such disasters’ wake, feasting upon misery and adding more of their own. They steal milk and cream from dairies and suck milk straight from cows, leaving them forever dry. They draw blood from the ill and injured, hastening death. It’s said that a hungry ahkara may even attack an uninjured human, drinking with hollow fangs the blood of children or women found in the wilderness alone.
Alis hadn’t known any of this. She was young; there are so many different demons in the world, and her parents and elders had not yet told her of this one.
But she’d still been afraid that night. She stood mutely when her mother made her request. Her mother had to ask it again. Be a good girl, Alis, Mother said, an unfamiliar pleading in her voice. Go get us some fresh water.
A low fire on the hearth and lit lamps in the room. Mother looked so pale and exhausted, holding the baby. Sweat dampened her hair into dark streaks across her forehead. Alis’ little brother had been crying and fussing all day, but he was now silent in Mother’s arms, hardly moving. His eyes were open but dull.
Alis was scared to go out into the night alone, to cross that great sweep of darkness by herself to the springhouse. But her family was sick, all of them: a fever raging up and down the valley. The evening’s water had been spilled, and when she’d touched her baby brother earlier it had been like touching a pan from the fire. Alis. The pleading in her mother’s voice scared Alis more than anything yet. Father was lying abed as he’d been for the last three days. Only Alis was well, still steady on her feet.
Moonlight overhead as she ran to the springhouse, to the furthest of the farm’s outlying structures, the little room of stone enclosing the family spring. The sky above was a luminous blue-silver, blotting out the stars. The silhouette of Stone Mountain on her right, a world of shadows at her feet.
It was owl-demons that she feared as she ran. The call of a death-bird or flight of a witch. Bears and wolves and slinking night-cats.
When she reached the springhouse, she found the door open.
She saw moonlight on the figure within. The face of a beautiful youth. Horns like black blades, curving above.
Back then the creature had been older than her, but now it looks so much younger. Not many years past her own son. It’s cold in the barn, so much colder than that spring night long ago. Her fingers are numb. She sees her breath, though not the ahkara’s.
She steadies her rifle.
Wait, it had cried. Don’t run!
That was her mistake: listening. No one had warned her against that.
Desperation in its voice to match her mother’s, to match her own. Please, it said. Wait.
She had. Fear and fascination bound her still.
It stood before the trough of flowing spring water where Alis’ mother kept pails and crocks of milk and cream to cool. It held one of those crocks in its hands.
For my sister, it told her. She’s ill. She needs to eat.
Its voice was a human boy’s. Husky and raw, strained with fear.
She only needs this little bit of cream, the demon pleaded. Don’t tell anyone, not yet. Give us time. I won’t come here again.
Moonlight flashed off its horns and seemed to emanate from within its face. Its eyes held hers. Desperate, yet somehow gentle, too.
It was the gentleness that seduced her.
She was still afraid to walk back to the house alone, and somehow it knew that. It walked with her partway as she carried her pail of water in both hands. It talked softly, soothingly.
Do not listen to demons, the priests and elders of the hills said. On the night of the fire, they warned emphatically, And never ever listen to an ahkara.
Alis hadn’t told. She’d never told.
She’d given her mother the spring water, dipped a cup for her to drink. Mother had thanked her tiredly and kissed her on the head.
Distracted, Mother didn’t notice the missing crock. Then Alis herself took ill; her insides turned hot while her skin pricked with cold. She was put to bed, and she dreamed of cold milk, cold cream, cold butter on her skin. She heard low, worried voices. She understood that her mother had noticed the missing crock after all, and that a cow in the upper valley had gone completely dry.
More cream missing from a neighbour’s springhouse, and a side of meat as well. Cows dry in the morning when they should have been full. Word spread: an ahkara in the valley. Come down from the heights of Stone Mountain to feast on the human suffering below.
And the fever, still sweeping up and down the hills.
No, Alis said when she heard of preparations for the hunt. No one heard. Her hands clutched at the necklace of woven gold-grass which her mother had given her to keep the milk-stealing blood-sucker away.
She was still recovering, still taken by chills, when the hunt returned. Her father held her by the hand as the family walked into town to see the monster burned. Households scattered up and down the hills had come to bear witness. The story had been told and was told again: the demon tracked to a shallow cave, found lying motionless beneath rags and leaves amidst stolen crocks and pails. But it was only playing at death. As the hunters approached, it opened its eyes, it opened its mouth – and brave Ger Woodsburr of the upper valley shot it dead through the chest.
Alis watched the body tossed on the heap of branches. It tumbled like loose sticks, a mess of blood and cloth and long white hair. White horns, gleaming. A female demon, the priest and hunters had reported.
The priest poured the oil and prayed. White hair and cloth caught flame. Alis’ little brother cried in his mother’s arms. Alis hid her face. Her body went cold and hot. It’s the sister, she whispered. But amid the cheers and revelry, no one heard her speak.
She buried it all – the meeting in the springhouse, the night of flames. The sick crackling and the smell of burning meat. The horror and guilt which could never be expressed.
And nothing happened; nothing has happened in the long years since. She let a demon escape, she never told, but she has not been punished for her sin, not yet. There have been deaths in her family: childbirth fever took a cousin, an uncle was killed by a falling tree. But nothing has touched those closest to her. There have been no signs of another ahkara, despite hardship and hunger and war.
Mother! her son had called. His eyes more excited than scared. There’s someone in the barn!
The barn door left carelessly open. Drops of blood in the snow.
No one to take care of it but her.
Alis breathes. She has her rifle. Her husband has shown her the handling of it. Necessary, in this year of absent men. Grown sons and young fathers all conscripted into a meaningless war in the west. She’s brought in the crops alone, slaughtered her pig alone, harvested and smoked and prepared almost all the winter stores alone, with the help of her young children and, every now and then, a kindly neighbour.
She’s alone now. The nearest neighbour a half hour’s walk over the ridge. Her kin in a low valley further still. Her children locked in the house where she’d told them to stay.
The ahkara stares up at her. A demon who looks like a boy, lying seemingly helpless before her. In pain.
Demons often assume a pleasing shape, the priests and elders warn. They sway human hearts through pity. They feign at being hurt and helpless, they take the appearance of children in need. They blind human eyes with false beauty.
One must be strong to survive an encounter. One must trust in truth beyond mortal eyes. A moment of hesitation, and you may feel the hollow fangs at your neck. Your soul will be lost.
The village priest spoke for a long time on the night that the white-haired ahkara burned.
Be on guard, he had said. Protect your soul. Don’t listen to anything a devil says.
She was a child and she hadn’t known anything. She listened. She believed.
My sister is like you, the ahkara had smiled. She also doesn’t like walking in the dark alone.
It kept to the edge of uncleared forest as they walked. The owl-demons were harmless, the horned one insisted.
It told her a little about the world from which it came. The heights of the cold, stony mountain. The purity of the air there. The storms that sometimes forced the ahkaran down so that they had to scrabble for a season in the human world.
We’re not that much different from you, it had said.
The veil on her mind is gone. It’s taken mere seconds for the memories to loosen, to rush through her body. She remembers all.
Her breath clouds the air. She hears the cow kick again at the back of the barn. Her only cow, which she and her children need to survive.
Her children, only steps away, alone in the house.
The ahkara lies before her, its eyes wide and pleading. The gentle-seeming spirit which has haunted her dreams.
She knows what she must do.
The demon sees the decision in her eyes. Its own eyes change. The desperation that drove it here – to seek shelter in a barn in broad daylight, to seek out a human it once knew – this desperation fades. Resignation takes its place, and something else.
Alis doesn’t see the betrayal in its eyes. She doesn’t look. As it attempts to speak, she doesn’t listen. She pulls the trigger as she’s been taught. The shot is deafening, and the recoil numbs her shoulder. The blood that flows is a brilliant red. As red as human blood.
This story originally appeared in Unsung Stories.