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Name: Romany HeartfordGenre: Middle Grade - HistoricalTitle: Devil’s Born Query:
Deformed from birth, he is known as Devil’s born.
England 1562 and the superstitious people of Berwick blame the arrival of the plague on a 12 year old boy. Born with a disfigured face, his presence is considered a curse. Left with no other choice, he runs away to seek a cure, but wherever he goes, the accusations always follow.
In Scotland, he finds an apothecary with a reputation for miracles. Although in return for the promise of a remedy, he is ensnared in a plot against the Queen. If he is to have a chance of the normal life he longs for and of returning home, he must first convince the people of his innocence. Not an easy task, when you’re without friends and chained to a post in the castle dungeon.
As dusk fell on the town of Berwick, Will watched his shadow spread across the path. For the first time, he noticed how it’d grown to near enough the length of his father’s. Pausing, to slide a hand inside his cloak, he raked his fingernails where the sweat had gathered. “Get a move on;” his father jerked his head forward.
Will nodded and they hurried on, passing the closed doors of the feather shop and the fishmonger’s. Round the corner, his stomach rumbled at the sight of a figure in the baker’s window kneading dough.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“I’ve got a wife to nag me, and her mother too.” His father replied, eyeing the crowd up ahead, as it gathered outside the tavern: “I’ll not be pestered by you as well, boy.”
“But can’t we just stop for some food…”
“Enough, I said. Your brother is sick and needs this.” His father’s fingers went to his belt, feeling for the weight of the medicine bottle. “You can eat when we get home.”
Footsteps fell on the cobbles behind them, and to the side, in a stream of people heading for the noise and smoke of the tavern. A few raised their hands in greeting and Will pulled at his cloak, checking the hood still concealed his face.
“Are you coming in for a quick one, John?” A man reached out his hand, skin roughened and red, to clasp his father on the shoulder. And lowering his voice, he said: “You’ve heard about the Queen – I dare say?”
“No, I’ve been at work all day. What are they saying now?”
Will scuffed his foot over the ground; it was all right for his father to stop for a chat but a different matter when he wanted to. And he tried not to listen as his father leant in to have the tittle-tattle poured into his ear. Whatever the Queen was up to, it made no difference to him.
He lifted his head when the pitch of his father’s voice cut through the other noise:
“God’s tooth. We’ll have another Protestant on the throne if she doesn’t get a move on.”
“Come John, let’s have that drink.”
“Oh, I wish that I could,” his father shook his head and Will closed his eyes to stop himself from rolling them. “But Jo’s sick at home.”
“Oh. I thought that that was Jo.” The man turned towards Will, his face growing a shade of red to match his hands, as he tried to peer within the hood. Will’s mouth dried. People always wanted to see and yet they didn’t want to see. “You mean,” the man lowered his voice, “that’s the one they call…”
“Yes, that’s William. Come on now son, your mother will be wondering where we are.”
The man fell back and was watching them still, when Will glanced over his shoulder.
“Father? He’s staring…”
“What Henry? That old gossip! You’ve nothing to fear from him, boy. Just keep your head down and people will take no notice of you.” They threaded through a dark passage into the next street, leaving the sounds of drinking and chin-wagging from the tavern behind. “We’ll be safe in our beds, before we know it.”
It grew hot and sticky under the cloak and Will rolled his shoulders back and forth, trying to relieve the itch. When nothing he did gave any relief and with his father’s gaze set in the distance, he lowered the folds of the hood. His lips parted in a sigh as a trickle of air darted about his face.
Night’s darkness thickened, until even moonlight was shut out in places where the overhanging rooftops of opposite houses touched. The street was empty now of the pedlars and market stalls that lined it during daylight hours. Will’s stomach growled at the thought of his favourite pie stall and of sinking his teeth through a crust of buttered pastry. They paused below the flame of the street-lamp so that his father could light the torch he’d been carrying.
He winced at the clip of his father’s hand against his good ear: “What did you do that for?”
“Get your hood up boy.”
“But it’s got dark and you said…”
“You think because there are people more nosey than they are spiteful - you can start showing yourself off?”
“No,” he swallowed and rubbed where his father had caught his ear. “Sorry.”
“Come on,” his father flicked his hand at the hood. “I never took you for a fool.”
Will dragged the thick wool back over his face, the weight of his heart growing heavier with it.
While rats squealed about their business in the midden-heap nearby, he chewed the inside of his cheek, knowing well why his father wanted him to hide his face. That didn’t stop him from hating the cloak, on a hot day. His hand crept under the hood to touch the web of ulcerated skin that distorted the left side of his face, stretching from his nose all the way to his ear hole. Devil’s born people called him. When the goodwife who birthed him had seen his deformity, she’d offered to drown him, as a favour to his mother.
A hiss of falling liquid accompanied the cry from the window above their heads.
“God’s tooth!” His father said.
Will leapt sideways but the day had slowed his wits and the contents of the chamber pot splattered over the ground, spraying his boots.
“Zounds!” He recoiled at the salty stench of urine.
“Now don’t look like that.” The previous sternness left his father’s face as he tried to suppress a chuckle. “It’s not so bad.”
“It is.” Warmth spread from the leather of his boots, to seep in between his toes. “It’s very bad.”
“It could have been worse.”
“Think about it. There could have been floaters in there as well;” his father smiled. “Besides there’s some that say it’s good luck.”
“People say stupid things.”
Subconsciously, he passed his hand back inside the hood to prod the swelling that marked his face. Rough, red lumps and ridges prickled beneath his fingertips. Other people could worry about who would sit on the throne next or what church to go to on Sundays, while all he thought about was how to be rid of this disfigurement. Sensing his father’s raised eyebrow, he snatched his hand away.
“How can I live a normal life with this thing on my face? People hate me.”
“Self-pity’s never the answer.”
“What is then?”
“God will help you find it one day, son.”
“You think it’s possible…” Will’s throat tightened: “to remove this thing from my face.”
“Who am I to say what’s possible or not? Although Heaven knows we’ve tried…”
Despite having had these conversations before, he couldn’t help but raise his face up, hope swimming through his eyes.
And Will held his breath while his father shuffled his feet: “Look - your Aunt did mention an apothecary in her last letter. She seems to think he can perform miracles but,” he paused: “Now you listen to me boy, don’t get your hopes up.”
The church bell rang in the distance, tolling the hour of nine and his father began to hurry onward:
“Come on.” he said. “It’s late.”
Candle flames guttered over window sills, making dark shapes shift and sway along the path. And Will vowed to himself, his feet squelching in the blackness, that one day soon he would find his aunt’s apothecary, this miracle man, and make his face normal. When just before the turning to their road, his father pulled him to a stop.
His ears strained to catch the clatter of sound building behind them. A steady swell of horses’ hooves and the creak of a wheel.
“Pray to God, boy, that’s not what I think it is…”
Will felt the shudder run through his father’s body while he knelt on the cobbles, to roll the torch beneath his boot and extinguish their light. The beat of his heart pulsed at his throat while the approaching rumble grew to a thunderous pitch.