The Smoke Thieves – Sally Green

“EVERYTHING READY?” “No. This is a figment of your imagination, and I’ve been sitting on my arse all day eating honey.” Tash was adjusting the rope so its knotted end was a hand’s breadth above the bottom of the pit. “A bit lower,” Gravell said. “I’m not blind!” “You need to check it.” Tash turned on Gravell. “I know what I need to do!” Gravell always got serious and pernickety at this stage, and it only now occurred to Tash that it was because he was scared. Tash was scared too, but it didn’t help to think that Gravell wasn’t far off shitting in his pants as well. “Not nervous, are you?” she asked. Gravell muttered, “Why should I be nervous? You’re the one it’ll catch first. By the time it’s done with you I’ll be long gone.” It was true, of course. Tash was the bait. She lured the demon into the trap and Gravell finished it off. Tash was thirteen and had been demon bait since Gravell bought her from her family four years ago.

He’d turned up one sunny day, the hugest, hairiest man she’d ever seen, saying he’d heard that they had a girl who was a fast runner, and told her he’d give her five kopeks if she could run to the trees before the harpoon he threw hit the ground. Tash thought it must be a trick—no one would pay just to see her run, and five kopeks was a huge sum—but she did it anyway, mostly to show off that she could. She wasn’t sure what she’d do with the money—she’d never had more than a kopek before, and she’d have to hide it before her brothers took it off her. But she needn’t have worried; she left with Gravell that afternoon. Gravell gave her father ten kroners for her, he told her later. “A bit pricey,” he teased. No wonder her father had been smiling when she’d left. Gravell was her family now, which was to Tash’s mind a lot better than the previous one. Gravell didn’t beat her, she was rarely hungry, and while she was sometimes cold, that was the nature of the work. And from the first day with Gravell she had been given boots.

Yes, compared to her previous life, this one with Gravell was one of luxury and plenty. The money from selling demon smoke was good, although demons were rare and dangerous. The whole process of killing demons and selling smoke was illegal, but the sheriff’s men didn’t bother them if they were discreet. Gravell and Tash usually managed to catch four or five demons a season, and the money lasted the year; when they were in towns they stayed at inns, slept in beds, had baths, and, best of all, Tash had boots. Two pairs now! Tash loved her boots. Her ordinary everyday boots were of thick leather with sturdy soles. Those were good for walking and hiking, and didn’t rub or pinch. She had no blisters, and the smell from them she considered to be a good smell, more leathery than the stale sweat that Gravell’s boots oozed. Tash’s second pair, the pair she was wearing now, she’d got when they were in Dornan a few months earlier. These were her running boots, and they fit perfectly.

They had sharp metal spikes in the soles so she could grip hard and set off fast. Gravell had come up with the design, and he’d even paid for them— two kroners, which was a lot for boots. As she put them on the first time, he’d said, “Look after them and they’ll look after you.” Tash did look after them, and she definitely, absolutely refused to be ungrateful, but what she wanted, what she coveted more than anything in the world, were the ankle boots she’d thought Gravell was going to give her when he told her he was treating her to something special. She’d seen the ankle boots in the window of the cobbler’s shop in Dornan and mentioned them a few times to Gravell. They were the most beautiful, delicate pale gray boots of suede, so soft and fine that they looked to be made from rabbit’s ears. When Gravell showed her the spiked boots and told her how he’d come up with the idea for them, she made a good job, she thought, of looking delighted. Tash told herself not to be disappointed. It would all work out. The spiked boots would help in this hunt, and with the money from the demon kill she’d be able to buy the gray suede boots herself.

And soon they’d have their first demon. Gravell had found this demon’s lair after only a week. He’d dug the pit, though these days Tash set up and checked the escape mechanism and, in fact, wouldn’t let Gravell near it. Gravell had taught Tash to be careful, to double-check everything. She went through a test run now, walking back from the pit a hundred paces, then jogging through the trees, picking up speed where there was little snow on the ground, and into the small clearing where the snow was deeper but where she’d trampled it down to compress it so that it had hardened to a crisp, going at full speed now, pumping her legs, leaning forward, her spikes giving her grip but not holding her back, and then she was leaping over the edge of the pit, hitting the icy floor with a crunch, absorbing the drop with her knees but immediately getting up and running to the end and . waiting. Waiting. That was the hardest part. That was the real shit-in-your-pants time, when your mind was screaming at you to grab the rope but you couldn’t because you had to wait for the demon to come down, and only when he was on the way down, just as he touched the bottom of the pit and screamed and screeched and slid toward you, could you grab the rope and release the pulley mechanism. Tash pulled on the rope, bearing down on it with all her weight, her right foot resting on the lowest, thickest knot.

The wooden release gave and Tash flew upward, as natural and lazy as a yawn, so balanced that her fingers were barely touching the rope, and at the apex of her flight she stopped, hanging in the air, totally free; then she let go of the rope, leaned forward, and reached for the fir tree, arms out to hug the branches. She held herself there before casually sliding down. A pinecone scratched her face, and she landed almost knee-deep in the pile of snow she’d banked there. Tash walked back to reset the trap. Soil and footprints surrounded the pit; she’d have to clean the base of her boots to make sure they didn’t get clogged with dirt. “You’re bleeding.” Tash felt her cheek and looked at the blood on her fingertips. Demons got more excited when they smelled blood. She licked her fingers and said, “Let’s get on with it.” She grabbed the ropes and set the pulley back into place, satisfied that she’d done everything properly.

The pulley was working smoothly. It was a good pit. Gravell had dug it over three days, making it long, thin, and deep, and last night he and Tash had poured water down the steep sides until there was two hands’ depth in the bottom, which had frozen nicely to a hard, smooth ice. It was still possible to climb out of the pit—demons were good at climbing—and Gravell had over the years tried different ways to get the walls covered with ice too, but it had never been that successful. So they would do what Gravell had always done and paint the pit walls with a mix of animal’s blood and guts. It smelled strong and disgusting and was enough to distract and confuse the demon, giving Gravell time to throw his harpoons. Gravell had five long harpoons, though it usually only took three to finish the demon off. They were specially made, each with a metal tip and teeth so they couldn’t be pulled out. The demon would scream and screech. The noise was horrible, and Tash always had to remind herself that the demon would gladly do worse to her if he—it—caught her.

Tash looked up; the sun was still high in the sky. The demon hunt happened at the end of the day. She could feel her stomach begin to tighten with nerves. She just wanted to get on with it. Gravell still had to coat the walls of the pit, then take cover in the nearby bushes and wait. Only when he saw the demon leap into the pit would he move forward, harpoons in hand. Timing was everything and they had it down to an art now, but it was Tash who risked her life, Tash who attracted the demon, Tash who had to know when to start running to draw the demon after her, Tash who had to outrun the demon, jump into the pit, and, at the last possible moment, grab the rope and be hoisted out. True, the demon could avoid the pit and attack Gravell. This had happened only once in their four years of demon hunting together. Tash wasn’t sure what had happened that day, and Gravell didn’t talk about it.

She’d leaped into the pit and waited, but the demon hadn’t followed her in. She’d heard Gravell shout; there was a high-pitched demon screech, and then silence. She hadn’t known what to do. If the demon was dead, why wasn’t Gravell shouting for her to come out? Did the screech mean the demon was wounded? Or was it the screech it made as it attacked and killed Gravell? Was the demon silent now because it was feasting on Gravell’s body? Should she run while the demon was drinking Gravell’s blood? She’d waited and looked up at the sky above the pit walls and realized she wanted a piss. She’d wanted to cry too. She’d waited, holding on to the rope, but she was too terrified to move. Finally she’d heard something, a shuffling in the snow, and Gravell shouted down: “Are you going to come out of there this year?” And Tash had tried to release the pulley, but her hand was so cold and so shaky it took a while and Gravell was swearing at her by then. When she got out she was surprised to see that Gravell wasn’t wounded at all. He’d laughed when she’d said, “You’re not dead.” He went quiet and then said, “Fucking demons.

” “Why didn’t it come into the pit?” “I don’t know. Maybe it saw me. Smelled me. Sensed something . whatever it is they do.” The demon was lying fifty paces from the pit with just one harpoon in its body. Had Gravell run or had the demon run? She had asked and all Gravell had said was, “We were both fucking running.” The other harpoons were speared into the ground at different points around them, as if Gravell had thrown them and missed. Gravell shook his head, saying, “Like trying to harpoon an angry wasp.” The demon wasn’t much bigger than Tash.

It was very thin, all sinew and skin, no fat at all; it reminded Tash of her older brother. Its skin was more purple than the usual reds and burned oranges, the sunset colors of the bigger demons. Within a day the body would rot and melt away, the smell strong and earthy for that time, and then it would be gone, not even leaving a stain on the ground. There was no blood; demons didn’t have blood. “Did you get the smoke?” Tash had asked. “No. I was a bit busy.” The smoke came out of the demon after it died. Tash wondered what Gravell had been busy doing, but she knew that he’d come close to death and saw that his hands were still trembling. She imagined that he must have killed the demon and tried to hold the bottle to catch the smoke, but his hands had been shaking too much.

“Was it beautiful?” “Very. Purple. Some red and a bit of orange to start, but then all purple right through to the end.” “Purple!” Tash wished she’d seen it. They had nothing to show for all their work— weeks of tracking, and then the days of digging and preparation. Nothing to show except their lives and stories of the beauty of the demon smoke. “Tell me more about the smoke, Gravell,” Tash had said. And Gravell told her how it had seeped out of the demon’s mouth—after the demon had stopped screeching. “Not much smoke this time,” Gravell added. “Small demon.

Young, maybe.” Tash had nodded. They’d lit a fire to get warm, and in the morning they’d watched the demon’s body shrink and disappear, and then they had set off to find another. Today’s demon was the first of the season. They didn’t hunt in winter, as it was too harsh, the snow too deep and the cold bitter. They’d come up to the Northern Plateau as soon as the deep snows began to melt, though this year spring had arrived but then winter returned for a few weeks and so there was still deep snow in the shade and in hollows. Gravell had found the demon’s lair and worked out the best place for the pit. Now Gravell lowered the pot of blood and guts into the pit and climbed down the ladder to paint the walls. Tash didn’t have to do this; Gravell had never asked her to—it was his job and he took pride in it. He wasn’t going to mess up weeks of work by failing to do this last task properly.

Tash sat on her pack and waited. She wrapped a fur round herself and stared at the distant trees and tried not to think any more about demons and the pit, so she thought of afterward. They’d go to Dornan and sell the demon smoke there. Trade in smoke was illegal—anything to do with demons was illegal, even setting foot on demon territory was illegal—but that didn’t mean there weren’t a few people like her and Gravell who hunted them, and it certainly didn’t stop people wanting to buy the demon smoke. And once she had her share of the money she could buy her boots. Dornan was a week’s walk away, but the journey was easy and they’d enjoy warmth, rest, and good food before returning to the plateau. Tash asked Gravell once why he didn’t collect more smoke and kill more demons, adding, “Southgate said Banyon and Yoden catch twice what we do each year.” But Gravell replied, “Demons is evil but so is greed. We’ve got enough.” And life was pretty good, as long as Tash kept running fast.

Eventually Gravell climbed back out of the pit, pulled the ladder up, and put everything out of sight. Tash moved her pack to the trees. With that done, there was nothing left to prepare. Gravell circled the pit a final time, muttering to himself, “Yep. Yep. Yep.” He came over to Tash and said, “Right then.” “Right then.” “Don’t fuck up, missy.” “Don’t you neither.

” They knocked right fists together. The words and fist bump were a ritual they had for good luck, though Tash didn’t really believe in luck and was fairly sure Gravell didn’t either, but she wasn’t going to go through a demon hunt without all possible assistance on her side. The sun was lower in the sky and soon would be below the level of the trees, the time when it was best to lure the demon out. Tash jogged north, through thin woodland, to the clearing that she and Gravell had found ten days earlier. Well, Gravell had found it. That was his real skill. Digging pits and lining them with guts anyone could do, his knack for killing demons with harpoons was due to his size and strength, but what made Gravell very special was his patience, his instinctive ability to find the places demons lived. Demons liked shallow hollows on flat ground, not too close to trees, where mist collected. They liked the cold. They liked snow.

They didn’t like people. Tash used to ask Gravell all about demons, but now she probably knew as much as anyone could about something from a different place. And what a place it was. Not of this earth, she thought, or perhaps too much of this earth, of an ancient earth. Tash had seen into it, the demon land: that was what she had to do. To lure the demon out she had to venture in, where she was not allowed, where humans didn’t go. And the demons would kill her for daring to see their world, a world that was bruised and brooding. Not so much dark as a different type of light; the light was red and the shadows redder. There were no trees or plants, just red rock. The air was warmer, thicker, and then there were the sounds.

Tash waited until the sun was halfway below the hill, the sky red and orange only in that small section. Mist was collecting in the gentle hollows. It was forming in her demon’s hollow too. This hollow was slightly deeper than the other dips and undulations around it, but unlike the rest this had no snow in it, and at this time of evening the mist could be seen to have a tinge of red, which perhaps could be due to the sunset, but Tash knew otherwise. Tash approached slowly and silently and knelt at the rim of the hollow. She reached back to clean the spikes on her boots with her fingers, pulling off a few small clumps of earth. She put her hands on the ground and spread her fingers, feeling the earth, which was not warm but was not frozen solid either—this was the edge of demon territory. She dug in her toes and took a breath as if she was about to submerge, which in a way she was. Tash lowered her head, and with eyes open she pushed her head forward, her chest brushing the ground, as if she was nosing under a curtain into the hollow: into the demon’s world. Sometimes it took two or three attempts, but today she was in first time.

The demon land fell away before her, the hollow descending sharply to a tunnel, but that wasn’t the only thing that was different from the human world. Here, in the demon world, colors, sounds, and temperatures were altered, as if she was looking through a colored glass into an oven. Describing the colors was hard, but describing the sounds was impossible. Tash looked across the red hollow to the opening of the tunnel, and there at the lowest point was something purple. A leg? Then she made sense of it and saw that he—it—was sprawled on its stomach, one leg sticking out. Tash worked out its torso, an arm, and its head. Human-shaped but not human. Skin smooth and finely muscled, purple and red and streaks of orange, narrow and long. It looked young. Like a gangly teenager.

Its stomach was moving slowly with each of its breaths. It was sleeping. Tash had been holding her own breath all this time, and now she let out what air she had. Sometimes that’s all she needed to do; just her breath, her smell, would get the demon’s attention. This demon didn’t move. Tash took a breath in, the air hot and dry in her mouth. She shouted her shout: “I’m here, demon! I can see you!” But her voice did not sound the same here. Here, words were not words but a clanging of cymbals and gongs. The demon’s head lifted and slowly turned to face Tash. One leg moved, bending at the knee, the foot rising in the air, totally relaxed despite the intrusion.

The demon’s eyes were purple. It stared at Tash and then blinked. Its leg was still in the air and was totally still. Then it threw its head back, lowered its leg, opened its mouth, and stretched its neck to howl. A clanging noise hit Tash’s ears as the demon sprang up and forward, purple mouth open, but already Tash was springing up too, pushing her spikes hard into the ground and twisting round in the air in a leap that took her out of the demon world and back onto the lip of the hollow, back into the human world. And then she was running.


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