The Devil's Gift

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I 1315 A.D.

‘Thank you, Father,’ said an elderly villager as she walked past. ‘That was a wonderful service.’

‘Thank you.’ I replied gratefully.

One by one, everyone filed out. A piercing silence pressed upon the church, broken only by my loud, echoing footsteps as I slowly marched up the aisle. I, Roconn Romano, headed towards an intricately carved stone font, which was full of holy water. I stood over the bowl and watched the water ripple, taking a moment to thank the Lord. I then took a minute to gaze around the church with its high arched ceiling and rows of benches. The flaming torches blazed through the night in their rusting metal sconces that were fixed every few feet along the stone walls. The fire created long shadows on the floor that danced around the church in the breeze; the large, wooden door had been left open at the other end of the building.

I made my way towards a statue of Jesus which had been nailed to a large cross. Moonlight shone through the windows, casting beautiful shadows across the stone floor, there was something different about the way the shadows danced, almost mesmerising. As though an entire crowd of dancers were entertaining me as if I were the audience to their show. I lifted a thick overcoat from a peg, which hung behind the cross, and draped it over my shoulders. I turned on the spot and wandered towards the open door, extinguishing the torches as I went. The room grew steadily darker behind me. One last glance back as I stood in the church doorway ensured everything was taken care of for the night. I took a deep breath and strode out into the cold, closing the door quietly behind me. Bowing my head, so as to stop the breeze from biting at my face, I slowly crossed the neatly cut lawn that encircled the old church. At the end of the garden there was a small, black, metal gate. I grasped it firmly, feeling my fingers instantly begin to freeze. The gate creaked loudly on its hinges as it was opened, and I strode out of the churchyard.

The moon shone dully, snow clouds obscuring the majority of it. The ground was pitted and uneven and small shadows had formed in the many large potholes that were scattered along the path. I didn’t live far from the church: in a small house on the outskirt of the village called Greyton. The house sat in an enclosed garden, close the border of a giant forest that encircled the village. I lived happily with my wonderful wife and two well-behaved children. I walked a brisk pace, not wanting to linger in the cold. The ground began to crunch under my feet as I trudged passed a cluster of thick bushes that were displaying a number of frozen flowers that ought to have been pink, but the weather had rendered them free of its vibrant colour. In front of me, just off the path was a small house, dusted with snow that was falling lightly from the starless sky above. I caught a quick glimpse of my own reflection in the window. Edging closer, I scrutinized my aged face. It was tired and lined. A pair of dull blue eyes glared back at me as my greying hair spun and danced in the wind.

I was lost in thought. It seemed like only yesterday I was standing by the side of my own father becoming a priest as my forefathers had done. After fifteen years of loyal servitude to the Lord Almighty, I had heard many say I looked just like my father, and was pleased to hear some of my father’s traits had been passed down. I ran a hand through my greying hair, it was thinning. I furrowed my brow as I tried to think back and remember where the years had gone. White flakes started to fall even thicker from the sky and settle on the ground. I looked up and watched the snowflakes float towards me. Though my eyesight wasn’t perfect, I could just about make out the moon that had now drifted behind large clouds that were drawing in.

After a few minutes the ground was covered in a thick layer of snow and I began to pick up the pace and rush home. My aching joints groaned in protest, running was not something I was used to, and at forty-nine years of age, it was not something I was willing to let my body become used to. Houses on all sides were smothered in white as Greyton became the target of what seemed to be a growing snow storm. I raised my head slightly, through the thick snow, I could just make out the edge of the forest. Though the wind was loud in my ears, I heard something, the sound of an owl maybe, hooting in the distance, presumably hunting for prey that would undoubtedly be buried underground. Somewhere through the dense branches, a strangled cry erupted from the forest, causing a large number of bats to take flight from the shelter and head off in every direction. I stopped just before I reached the garden outside my house; it looked unfamiliar but pretty in the snow. I squinted as I attempted to see through the snow but it was no use, I could barely see my nose let alone anything further than that. I replayed the sound of the cry in my head, it was as though something or someone had just been violently tortured. I gave a silent prayer as the temperature dropped further, sending a shiver down my spine.

I jogged the last few steps toward the front door, grabbed the freezing metal handle that threatened not to let go of my skin, opened it, and crossed the threshold and into the warmth.

‘S..s..Sorry I took so long getting home, it s..s..Started to snow and held m..m..me up,’ I stuttered through numb lips as I walked in, stomping snow from my shoes.

‘Oh you look freezing! Come over here and warm yourself by the fire dear.’ said Maria. Her voice was soft and caring.

I had been happily married to Maria for a good number of years, though the exact amount of time seemed to allude me. Maria came shuffling over and pulled me towards a fire, which was set in a stone mantelpiece, and removed my overcoat. She hung it up on a peg that was embedded into the wall near the fire to dry out. It didn’t take long for the heat to penetrate my icy skin and I quickly started to feel better as the warmth began to thaw my frozen muscles. A metal tripod was placed above the fire and a pan of hot water was simmering merrily on the top.

Though the house was simple and nothing extravagant, to me, it was home.

‘Here you are, dear, this will warm you up a bit.’ Maria smiled, handing me a small dish of vegetable soup infused with herbs.

‘That’s wonderful, thank you.’ I replied gratefully, I was incredibly hungry and was eager to get something down my throat.

Maria was a short, plump woman with brown, shoulder-length hair. It was held back in a pony-tail by a piece of string, which had been tied into a0 bow. Her eyes were that of a deep green that always seemed to flutter my heart. She had a small, round nose and a thin mouth. Her face, like mine, was lined and tired, too. Maria wore a simple, white, cloth dress, a thick shawl and sandals that were now looking frayed and old.

Whilst I ate, Maria moved around the room, sweeping the floor with an old brush, her shadow flickering on the walls in the firelight.

‘How’ve the kids been today?’ I asked, referring to the children who were, at present, asleep in the upstairs room.

‘Oh, they’ve been fine. Charlotte helped me with the clothes; goodness knows I’m getting too old to be running back and forth to the well. She’s a wonderful girl; I’m so proud of her. Benjamin helped me collect and chop more firewood. What would I do without them?’ She placed a hand affectionately on her chest. I smiled, that was my boy, always willing to lend a hand to those who needed it. He’d been growing up so fast it seemed like he aged twice as quick as everyone else. I was proud, especially knowing that one day, should he so choose, he would take over the church as Greyton’s priest.

‘I think it would be good for Benjamin to see how a christening works, it’s his first one he’s attended, he said he liked the idea of becoming a priest, I don’t want to push him into it, of course, it’s his choice, but at least it will give him a bit more of an idea as to how things work in the church.’ I said, following my train of thought. A young couple, Allesandra and Niccolo Rosso are to have their baby, Caterina, christened. I put my empty dish in a bowl of hot water.

‘I couldn’t agree more, I think he’s quite nervous, I’m not sure if that’s definitely the route he wants to take; he seemed rather interested in Ludovico’s carpentry workshop.’ She replied. I nodded as Maria took a seat at the table too, placing down her own bowl of soup.

‘You know, I’ve been thinking about Charlotte, she’s very good at painting, do you think she’d be interested in learning more? Well, as you know, I’ve got that friend that lives over the other side of the village, Carlo, he’s a painter himself and I hear he’s looking for an apprentice.’ I said to Maria as she finished a spoonful of dinner.

‘That’s a good idea, I’ll tell you what, after church tomorrow, I’ll go round there with her and speak to him, I hear he’s got some work that needs doing anyway. It would be a good idea for her future.’ Maria replied with interest. Her voice seemed to crack every now and then as she spoke. I looked past her shoulder, at the window. Outside, the snow was still falling thickly and it was impossible to see through it. For the next half an hour, the conversation was focused on Charlotte’s painting skills. Maria finished her dinner and placed her bowl, too, in the hot water.

I stood up, groaning as my joints protested, and made my way to the living room, Maria joining me. We both took a seat on a wooden bench.

‘I still can’t believe that Caterina is three months old already. Time is passing so fast.’ Maria said as we gazed into the fire across the room. The logs popped and crackled, the flames dancing in the fireplace. If you looked hard, you could make out shapes. I began to become enthralled by the hypnotic flames that were intent on sending me to sleep. I saw shapes moving, there were horses rearing, or maybe they were goats, either way, the horns on the animal looked intimidating. The shapes kept shifting, I could never concentrate on one for too long before it changed again. My eyes began to droop as my eyelids became heavier, I raised my eyebrows in an attempt to force them open but it was no use. I shook my head.

‘Well, I don’t think I can stay up much longer. I’ve been so busy today and it’s really taken its toll, I’m going to bed.’ I yawned, shuddering as I finished.

‘Ok then, my love, you go on up, I’ll be up in a moment.’ She said.

I kissed Maria on the cheek and slowly made my way to the stairs. I trudged up them with much more effort than it should have taken. In my sleep deprived state, I was surprised to see that I found myself facing a door. I instinctively turned the handle and strode over to my bed where I almost collapsed into it. The bed seemed to embrace me and after a few minutes, my breathing became heavy and slow as I drifted into a deep sleep.

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