Eithne still giggled, but the hand that stroked Sweetdew seemed to be shaking.

Eithne still giggled, but the hand that stroked Sweetdew seemed to be shaking, and her heart was beginning to thud. Something had changed in the last minutes.

She had put on her best dress, unbraided and brushed her hair and braided it again, cleaned her teeth and fingernails, swept the floor, lit the candles… and now she could think of nothing more to do. Then it had been later. Now it was now.

'That will do, Mistress Sweetdew.'

“That will do, Mistress Sweetdew,” she scolded. She had already been cuddling Sweetdew for so long that the cat’s rough tongue had licked the back of her earlobe almost raw. “You’ve been stalling long enough!”

Sweetdew interrupted her purring and her earlobe-​​licking to meow.

“I know it, but sometimes we must be doing things we don’t like, and the sooner started the sooner done. And if you are good and brave, afterwards I shall give you a nice piece of cheese.”

'If you are good and brave I shall give you a nice piece of cheese.'

Sweetdew stopped licking and mewed again. Her breath was warm and whiskery in Eithne’s ear, and Eithne nearly cried from love and loneliness.

“You understand cheese, you naughty cat,” she scolded, saving herself from tears with a shaky laugh. “Never be fearing, Sweetdew. I won’t let him hurt you.”

Eithne did not know how much of her speech the cat understood beyond the word “cheese.” Perhaps everything. Now that she had said “him” she could no longer delay.

She could no longer delay.

She sat the cat gently on her paws again and stroked both her hands over Sweetdew’s bulging belly. From the side Sweetdew looked as small as she ever had, but from above she appeared nearly as wide as she was long.

“No one will be hurting you or your kittens,” she promised.

'No one will be hurting you or your kittens.'

Sweetdew meowed.

Eithne still remembered the name of the demon, but she remembered also that she had not pronounced it to Cian’s satisfaction. She did not know how a demon would like hearing his name poorly spoken, so she thought it safer to begin with some sort of nonsense and work her way up to it.

'Pardon me...'

“Pardon me…” she said softly.

Sweetdew settled her haunches upon the hem of Eithne’s gown and stared quizzically up at her.

Eithne coughed politely into her hand and said, “Pardon me!”

She hesitated, trying to calculate just how long her wood could be made to last, just how long her water – and then she remembered her food. She might bundle herself up in blankets and forego washing her face, but she could not ration her food. Perhaps even such tiny babies as hers could feel hunger, and they were not able to cry.

“Pardon me, Sir Demon – ”

'Pardon me, Sir Demon--'

Eithne bit down on her lip to stop a squeal of fright. She had been looking higher – had prepared herself for the monster. But the demon had come as a fawn.

How she and Connie had squealed and cooed over little creatures just like this one! It had the very same dark, shining eyes, the same tiny muzzle, the same white-​​dappled red hide, the same knobby-​​kneed legs that could be folded into such a neat bundle that the girls had longed to pack the babies up and bring them home to love…

Eithne's every motherly instinct flared up at the sight of it.

Eithne’s every motherly instinct flared up at the sight of it, in spite of her fear. One hand ventured out timidly, to touch its head perhaps, or be licked by its long, pink tongue.

But Sweetdew laid back her ears and hissed and spat. Sweetdew’s instincts had not been fooled.

But Sweetdew laid back her ears and hissed and spat.

Eithne yanked back her hand. “It’s – it’s not a real fawn, darling,” she explained shakily. “But never be fearing – I won’t let him hurt you.”

The fawn slowly lifted its head and looked into her eyes. Eithne was petrified, as fawns ordinarily were before affectionate young girls.

The fawn slowly lifted its head and looked into her eyes.

“I’m very sorry to disturb you, sir,” she squeaked, “but I’m needing some wood and water brought, and my husband said I must be asking you.”

The fawn bowed its head and said, “Understood,” but its voice was the booming voice of the monster.

Sweetdew yowled, and Eithne’s body quivered with horror at the incongruity.

Eithne's body quivered with horror at the incongruity.

“M-​​m-​​must you speak in your own voice?” she whimpered.

“Does it displease you?” the little animal lisped with the voice of a tiny girl of four or five. “Do you like this better?”

Eithne clamped her lips together and moaned.

“What about this one?” the creature asked in Eithne’s own voice.

'What about this one?'

“No!” she cried. “Stop!”

The fawn bowed its little head.

“Wood and water!” she gasped.

Then she realized she had not even mentioned the most important thing – food.

“Can’t you simply look like – your own self?” she pleaded.

Instantly the tiny animal exploded into a massive beast many times its size.

This time Eithne could not stop her scream.

This time Eithne could not stop her scream. The demon appeared with his hands on the floor, as the fawn had stood a moment before, and as he rose Eithne was certain he was about to spring at her, slam her against the wall, slice her open, mangle her, mutilate her–

But he only settled his weight over his hooves and bowed his horned head. “This lowly worm is yours to command,” he said wearily, as if repeating a lesson. She heard the hiss of a sigh behind the mask.

Eithne bit her lips together and breathed through her nose, trying to slow her breath before she panted herself into unconsciousness.

“Wood and water, my lady said?” the demon grumbled. “But if you wish me to instead disembowel myself here before you, I will be honored to obey your command.”

'I will be honored to obey your command.'

“No no no!” Eithne cried.

“Then I am honored to not disembowel myself here before you, my lady,” he said with a mocking bow, “as you command.”

Sweetdew trotted warily around the monster’s feet, hissing and growling under her breath. Eithne watched her with a rising panic. One kick from one of those broad hooves…

“I command you not to harm my cat!” she blurted.

The demon lifted its head sharply, but then it sighed and said, “I am honored to obey.”

“And… I also need food,” she said, finding some slight courage in speaking to him as she spoke to servants. “I shall need… cold meat or fowl, enough for two weeks. And – a pigeon pie,” she blurted.

'And--a pigeon pie.'

Eithne stopped and blushed at her foolishness. Her mouth had been watering for pigeon pie for days, and the idea that she might be craving odd dishes like her flamboyantly pregnant sister had filled her with a secret delight. Now, somehow, she felt greedy and ashamed.

“And a big cabbage,” she said hurriedly, thinking to erase her pretension with the foods she liked least. “And a small sack of turnips and one of onions. And a few handfuls of dried peas.”

'And a few handfuls of dried peas.'

The demon sighed shrilly behind his mask.

Eithne could not resist adding, “And cheese and apples.” When the demon did not react, she smiled timidly and whispered, “For my snack.”

“It will be an honor to provide my lady with her snack,” the demon grumbled.

“And – do you have coin enough?” she asked meekly.

'And--do you have coin enough?'

He snorted. “Coin? Were you thinking I would be going to market?”

Eithne laughed feebly at the thought of this hairy demon strolling past the stands at Nothelm market and haggling with the toothless cheese woman.

“No, good sir, but you cannot be stealing the things. Cian left a coin or two for what we took.”

“Then I’ll get some coin,” he muttered and turned his masked face aside as if he could not bear another minute of her.

“Wait! You’re not thinking to steal the coin to pay for the food, are you?” she asked suspiciously.

'You're not thinking to steal the coin to pay for the food, are you?'

“What else do you suggest?” he growled.

“Well…” she whimpered. “Couldn’t you at least be stealing it from a bad man?”

“That will be easy enough to find,” he grumbled. “Is that – ” He took a steamy breath and began again. “Is there any other way in which this lowly worm can serve you?”

“No…” she murmured. “Wait! There is.”

The demon took a deep breath – and took it and took it, until his massive chest seemed to have grown impossibly immense. He even seemed to give off a greater heat, and she could almost taste the goaty reek of his fur upon her tongue.

He even seemed to give off a greater heat.

Nevertheless, there was one command of Cian’s she herself dared not disobey.

“I’m needing some eggs, too, good sir,” Eithne peeped. “For my babies.”

The demon let his breath out in a blast. “You have babies here?” he asked warily, peering around the room through the slits in his mask.

Eithne felt a sick feeling in her stomach, just above where her babies were safely nestled. She had so enjoyed talking about her babies with Araphel – for it had made them seem so much more real to her – that she had tripped into speaking of them before this still more unlikely, unpredictable being.

Cautiously she clasped her hands before her, subtly hiding her belly behind her thin arms.

'Not here.'

“Not here,” she said softly. “I mean… inside of me,” she whispered.

The demon’s head whipped around suddenly enough that his coarse ropes of hair flew out in a fringe around his masked face and lashed his bare chest as they fell.

“I need to eat an egg in the morning and an egg at supper,” she explained. “One for each of them,” she murmured, as Cian had so often said to her as he peeled one egg or the other. At the thought of Cian her mouth began to tremble and her eyes seemed likely to cry.

“Does he know?” the demon asked in a voice that rumbled like the lowing of an angry ox.

'Does he know?'

“He had better,” she said, trying to make her weak smile seem wicked. “It’s his own self was putting them into me. And it’s he was telling me they were twins.”

The demon only stared at her, or seemed to stare from behind his horrible mask.

“The only thing we’re not knowing is whether they’re wee boys or wee girlies or one of each,” she tittered.

She could not guess what the demon was thinking. Its mask was frozen in a nightmarish, ravening snarl, as though he hated her and every thing she said – hated pigeon pies and cheese – even hated her precious babies.

“Must you wear this mask?” she quavered.

'Must you wear this mask?'

He snorted in a gust, and his hand went up almost as far as the mask before dropping suddenly back to his side.

“Are you very ugly underneath, sir?” she ventured.

A grim, metallic laugh rang out from behind the mask. “You would say so, woman. But that is not why.”


The mask was iron-​​still, but the body beneath it was alive, and the muscles rippled menacingly from arm to chest to opposite arm as the demon flexed its fingers.

'To him, there is only one Qatal, forever.'

At last even the body went still. “It is the mask of Qatal,” he intoned. “I am the thirty-​​eighth to wear it. Our lord does not wish to learn the faces of our generations. To him, there is only one Qatal, forever.”

At last Eithne dared look long upon the mask. It was only a sheet of iron after all. Iron could be hammered into any shape.

It was only a sheet of iron after all.

“Is Ka – Katal not your true name, then, sir?” she asked timidly.

“It is now.”

“What does it mean?” she asked, thinking to be polite.

“Beheader,” he replied coldly.


“Ahh…” she squeaked.

“But I will only behead those I am commanded to behead,” he said with an insolent bow.

“I command you to behead nobody.”

He bowed his head.

The seconds passed, and she tried to guess whether he was staring at her or only staring off at the wall in impatience to be away. He might have looked her over lewdly or hungrily from head to toe, and if the firelight did not enter his mask just so, she would never know.

She tried to guess whether he was staring at her.

“Are you allowed to be taking if off?” she asked.

He snorted and shook his mane as though he had indeed been lost in thought.

“The mask, sir? Or – I won’t turn to stone, will I?” she giggled nervously.

He stared at her a few seconds longer, and then he laid his broad palm over the mask and lifted it free with a faint clanking of iron against horns. With a very human gesture, he hastily wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his arm. Then he let his arm fall, and Eithne saw just how inhuman he was.

Eithne saw just how inhuman he was.

His jaws were square and broad as a bull’s, and his eyes were likewise large and wide-​​set, but his nose and mouth were bulging perversions, as if a man’s face had grown halfway out to an ox’s. He did not seem to have a chin at all except for the tuft of grizzled hair beneath his thick lips, and a drooping mustache hung far down on either side.

Eithne tugged nervously on her own bottom lip with her teeth, and wondered whether it were more polite to stare or to look away.

After a moment he decided for her by snorting and turning away to the fire. “Do you see, woman?” he growled. “Very ugly underneath. I told you so.”

'Very ugly underneath.'

Without the mask his voice only sounded very deep, as a man’s might sound if a man could be so large, and intimately near.

“Well, sir,” Eithne quavered, “I’m certain you’re very handsome for a demon.”

He snorted.

“After all, it doesn’t matter what I think, does it?” she tittered. “It only matters what the lady demons think.”

“There are no lady demons,” he muttered.

“There – there aren’t?” she gasped.

He turned his profile to her and asked, “Do you have any other commands for this lowly worm, my lady? Unless you command me to stay here and chat with you?”

Eithne flushed in humiliation. Perhaps it was wrong to speak with demons – perhaps even demons, like the lowliest servants, did not expect it.

Eithne flushed in humiliation.

“No, sir. Only bring my wood and water and food, please. And…”

She glanced down at Sweetdew, and she knew at once she could not bear the coming day if she spent it dreading the return of the demon – “nice piece of cheese” or no.

“And leave it outside in the entry, please.”

The demon laid his hands on his thighs and bowed stiffly.

“And, I meant my command,” she said firmly. “You shall not behead anyone while you are out.”

'You shall not behead anyone while you are out.'

The demon began to shake and rumble strangely, and Eithne backed cautiously away – until she realized he was laughing softly to himself.

“I mean it!” she cried. “And you shall do no evil so long as you are my servant.”

He lowered his head and looked up at her from beneath his frizzled hair. “I am a demon, lady,” he grumbled. “What would you have me do with my time? Save kittens from peril?”

He chuckled softly at his joke for a moment, and then his ugly mouth fell open in dismay.

“I think that’s a fine idea,” Eithne said. “If you have some free time, I command you to save any kittens in distress that you find.”

'If you have some time free, I command you to save any kittens in distress that you find.'

“No, lady,” the demon groaned. “No kittens! No more cats! Let me disembowel myself instead!”


“I shall do it outside!”


His living face was very ugly, and his big eyes were hidden behind his matted hair – and nevertheless Eithne thought she detected a sense of humor in the beast. His mouth was too hideous for her to be certain, but she thought he was trying to hide a smile.

Eithne thought she detected a sense of humor in the beast.

“I think Cian was right about you,” she said slyly. “You’re too clever for your own good.”

The demon snorted and clapped the mask back over his face with a clank of horn against iron.

'And you, lady, are not clever enough for yours.'

“And you, lady, are not clever enough for yours,” he said stiffly. “But it is my honor to serve you. Is there more?”

Eithne whispered, “No…”

“Peace be upon you,” he said, and an instant later he had vanished, and the echoes of his mask with him.

An instant later he had vanished.