I was nine years old when I sold my soul. Or, rather, when I sold myself. Sir Marcus is always reminding me that we do not own souls, we are souls. We own possessions, we own ideals, and thoughts, we own our bodies, but one cannot own the thing one uses to be oneself, if only because so much of it isn’t under one’s control.

I know if I owned myself I’d change a few things.

It should’ve happened on a dark and stormy night, or in some noble’s opulent manor. Instead it happened at my little house, just outside of Jacksberg, with my mother working in town, and my father cooking lunch. My little brother, Gerald, he was playing out back. I remember hearing him yelling out while it happened, having fun pretending to be a knight.

The door opened, and I thought an angel had stepped in at first. She was dressed strangely, in grey with thin black stripes that went up and down, and she had a wooden board with her, with papers on it. She wrote something while my father and I stared at her, then looked up with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.

“I’ve come to collect,” she said, simply.

“I need more time,” my father begged. Begged, his voice shaking like I’d only heard once before, when I’d nearly drowned playing in the river. “My daughter isn’t even a woman yet. Mirishka -”

“Was some part of your contract unclear, Alexander?” the angel – Mirishka – interrupted; there was pity in her voice. “You knew this was coming. You were encouraged to have no loose ends. I have checked in with you at every appointed time. Your choices are not my concern. It is time.”

“Daddy?” I asked, confused, scared.

“Daddy…Daddy has to go,” my father said, swallowing hard. He went to step forward, but I ran in front of him and faced the angel, my arms spread to hold him back.

“Take me instead,” I demanded. “Mom and Gerald need him. Take me.”

“Katie -”

“Silence, Alexander,” the angel snapped; I heard my father’s words end in a shocked, muffled gasp of outrage. “Do you have any idea what it is you’re saying, girl? Your father bargained his soul away.”

“I’m not using mine for anything,” I insisted. “Take me instead.”

“You would be my property, girl. You would do my bidding, and serve my will, even if it killed you – and beyond, for that matter.”

“Take. Me. Instead,” I demanded, trying, and failing, to keep the hot tears out of my eyes.

“Sit, Alexander. I need to draw up the contract, and I want you to explain it to her so that she knows what she is agreeing to.”

“I refuse to permit it,” my father said angrily.

“Your opinion in this matter ceased being of worth fifteen years ago,” the angel answered coolly. “Now sit.”

Selling my soul took longer than buying or selling a horse. I’m glad of that. Lends it some dignity. Still, before the sun had set, I was the property of Mirishka the Fallen, Department of Mortal Relations.

A slave to Hell.

*    *    *    *

I was thirteen when I killed my first man.

I had expected to be dragged, preferably screaming, to Hell. Instead, Mirishka had brought be to a fortress to be trained by the Black Thorn Knights. “She is mine,” the erinyes had told Sir Marcus. “Teach her well.” So I wasn’t shuffled in with the cadets; Sir Marcus, the commander of the fortress and chief instructor of the recruits, made me his personal squire.

I was taught how to make, maintain, and use a variety of arms and armor, educated in tactics and faith, bidden to read books of demons and devils and angels so that I would know who my allies and enemies were, and taught more things than I can consciously list besides. Did you know there’s a fork just for scratching your ass at fine tables? Marcus was tough, but fair. He did not favor beatings as a form of punishment, though at times I might have preferred them; if you want a preview of hell, try standing with your arms outstretched while you hold your boots.

For the first few years, I did not leave the fortress and its environs. This was probably for the best; the placement of Castle Scale was chosen to help secure a land that was still, in many ways, lawless and deadly. Wandering about would have gotten me killed, especially before my training taught me the difference between valor and idiocy, and about patience in seeking one’s revenge; it’s hard to savor one’s vengeance if one does not live long enough to see the ruin of those who wronged you.

There had been a rivalry. His name was Brandon, and he hated me almost as fiercely as I hated him. He was jealous, grasping, and despised my position as Sir Marcus’s student. I had tried to befriend him, a mistake I did not make a second time. Nothing lethal between the two of us, though our matches with each other in the sparring yard got us praise for our fury. Sir Trista (female Black Thorns are also ‘Sir’ unless they hold a greater title, a tradition set in ancient times) encouraged it between us, to keep us sharp, which is why she suggested Brandon as the second squire to accompany Sir Marcus on a routine mission to collect tribute from the villages that sheltered in the shadow of Castle Scale.

We did not call them taxes, because they were not. Taxation would imply some manner of long-term, legitimate rule, and the stretch of the Jags – mountains that sprawled the map like raised veins – that we operated in and out of was too lawless for that yet. So the villages paid us tribute to aid in their protection, and in exchange we protected them, and made ourselves available to them. Black Thorn engineers redesigned their walls; Black Thorn guards watched their farms. Sometimes, when they asked, Black Thorn knights settled matters of justice, and if we were harsh, so be it – we were fair. So Sir Marcus, Sir Rachael, Brandon, and myself rode to collect our tribute and keep our efforts funded just a little while longer.

The first night, Brandon slipped a snake into my bedroll. I laced his canteens with habanero juice in retaliation. Sir Rachael did believe in beatings, and Brandon was given them generously for holding us up with his frequent stops to relieve himself.

Maybe if I hadn’t rubbed it in, things could have turned out better. But watching him suffer was satisfying, and I grinned at him every chance I got and chided him for his weakness. It had been a long time coming.

The first village – Cliffside, its name was Cliffside – was uneventful, but pleasant. The people were glad to see us; men and women asked after Sirs Marcus and Rachael by name, and children wanted to try on my armor, hold my war axe. I laughed and told them I couldn’t let them, that I was on duty, but perhaps if I came to visit later. They smiled and laughed, and the time we passed there was pleasant enough. Brandon did not try anything in the inn room we shared for the night, perhaps exhausted from his day.

The next village – Miner’s Green – was less welcoming. Rough men and women, miners and those who served, married, or commanded them, watched us with unfriendly eyes. Still, the town council offered its tribute and its gratitude, and the commander of its militia – an elf, a rarity – took the knights aside to offer them a report on strange dealings near the town.

“Enjoy yourselves,” Sir Marcus commanded us, before tossing Brandon and I a small sack of coins to split. “Report to the inn at sunset.”

Freedom. I hardly remembered what it was like to be free for a day, and it gave me a giddy feeling in my breast. Brandon and I parted ways immediately, taking our share of the coins. I was famished, and purchased a pasty from a food vendor with a kind smile and a small bone dangling from her ear. It was hotter than I expected, but satisfying.

“Miss? Miss, are you one of those Black Thorns?” a boy my own age asked; he had a missing tooth, and a wide smile, and I grinned because he seemed so eager.

“A squire, yeah,” I answered, offering out my pasty in case he wanted a bite. He shook his head.

“Me an’ my friends always wanted to meet ya. Captain Jacobson says you help keep us safe. What’s it like? Can you tell us?”

“I have to keep some stuff secret,” I admitted, regretfully. “…But I could tell you the rest. What’s your name?”

“James,” he said brightly, offering his hand for me to shake.

“Katie,” I replied, shaking his hand warmly. “Let’s go.”

We sat with James’ friends on a low hill just outside the village, and I answered their questions – what was the training like? Harsh, but rewarding. Did I like it? I wasn’t sure, but I liked knowing I was improving. What was the food like? The beds? Do Black Thorns farm, or just garden? Did they really make women turn into men to join?

I laughed so hard at that last one that I popped my jaw and had to take a break before I could answer.

Eventually, James asked to see my axe, and I offered it carefully to him, which didn’t stop him from testing the edge with his thumb and slicing it open. He pulled his hand back with a hiss of pain, and I took the axe back before gently taking his wrist to look at the wound, which is where it all went wrong.

“Get away from my son, witch!” came the bellowed cry. I looked just in time to see a man who looked remarkably like James charging up the hill, a pickaxe raised high above his head.

Behind him, grinning like a fiend, was Brandon.

On instinct I grabbed my axe and rolled away, down the grassy hill. The pickaxe swished over my head, whistling with its speed. I sprung to my feet and raised my axe into a desperate parry, crying out as the force of the man’s second swing jolted my arms and drove me back.

“You and your infernalists can’t have him!” the man snarled, rage in his eyes, spit at the corners of his mouth.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” I pleaded, giving ground to avoid the third blow.

“I told you she was recruiting,” Brandon crowed. “She even made the blood sacrifice!”

“I wasn’t -” James began.

Silence!” the man roared. I barely dodged, stepping towards and past him with a swing of my axe. I thought I was striking with the hammer side.

I wasn’t.

The jolt of the axe’s head into soft flesh, stopped by the man’s ribs, had a wet, crisp sound to it. I heard the air leave his lungs, saw the look of shock on his face. Distantly, James was shouting something. ‘Dad’, I think it was. Just screaming it, at the top of his lungs. The man staggered back, one step, two, and sat heavily with his life’s blood gushing into the grass.

Sir Marcus later told me that I was screaming. ‘I didn’t mean to,’ I was saying, over and over again. Staring as James’s father died in front of me.

Brandon tried to run, but he wasn’t expecting Sir Rachael, who caught him by the back of the neck and threw him to the dirt. I stared, numbly, still screaming, while Sir Marcus manacled my wrists, and the town militia gathered up the axe and the body.

Magic would later determine that Brandon set up the attack. He was hung by the neck until dead, and his possessions auctioned off to pay wergild to the man’s family.

I never spoke to James again.

*    *    *    *

I was sixteen when I became a Knight, handing my rose and oath to Mirishka.

“You can still go back,” the erinyes told me. “Your brother is older. Your mother knows of your father’s bargain. There is no need for you to take his place.”

“I gave my word,” I told her. “…And we do needful work. Work I can be proud of doing.”

“Your teacher says you have not become cruel. You intrigue me, Katherine.” Mirishka gave me a gift that day, an axe of adamantine, its head inlaid with runes of lawful power, and told me its name was Servitude. “Go south,” the devil told me. “Find the servants of Set in the high desert and offer your services. I will contact you again.”

“Yes, mistress,” I agreed, my head bowed. Strong fingers took my chin and tilted my head up, and I saw her smiling coyly at me.

“There is a price, on your soul,” Mirishka told me. “Would you buy it from me?”

“Yes,” I answered, without hesitation. “…But I think I would still serve the Black Thorns. There are others, who buy souls to give back to their owners…”

Mirishka laughed, and ruffled my hair. “I was right about you. You are more worthwhile than your father. Go south, my faithful servant, and go with my blessing.”

What else was there to do? I went south.

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