This story happened so many years ago that much of it is forgotten or misremembered. The truth covered with dust. And like most storytellers, I only wipe off the shiny parts. The parts that sparkle, hoping that time and sympathy will urge the reader to ignore the rest. Some storytellers aim to tell the truth, but I have never been an honest man.
To begin with, I was a servant. A good one, if you’ll believe me. It was my job to manage the lands of my master, and they prospered under my watch. I was firm with the hands, fair to the tenants, and kind to the livestock. When you have status, you need not be cruel. But my error was to be too kind to a young lass. I gave her my heart, which would have been an honest mistake, save for that she was wed to another. I knew the man. Angry, hard-drinking, and easy to betray. But I wanted to save the lass. Fool that I was, I thought she needed saving. She told me as much, and I believed her.
What I didn’t know at the time was that my dear love was a witch. Not in the sense that she was too strong of will and bright of mind for a man not to fear, though that she was. No, my love had made a pact with the devil himself. By loving her, I had signed my name to hers, as surely as if I had pricked a finger for the contract itself.
My tale truly began when Lucy, as I’ll call her to protect the guilty, came crying to me on a warm spring morn. Her husband lies dead, she said. Killed by her own hand, or at least the pan she held in it. He was angry and struck her hard. She feared for her life, and it was all so fast. So she came to me. I was the only man she could trust.
How could I possibly resist? The woman I love finally free of one contract, eager to seek my protection. I took her into my arms and agreed to go with her to some distant land. To stay would be her death, and I had coin enough for many miles. We would find some new place, and with her as my wife, I would surely find work. I had the skill of several trades, and our needs would be few. At noon we began our journey to the high country.
By nightfall, I learned of my mistake. We found a dry clearing near the road, and Lucy agreed to build a fire while I looked for a rabbit or other small meat that would add to our supper. When I returned, Lucy stood naked by a blazing fire. She was a beauty in the light, of that, I cannot lie. My thoughts wandered away from food until I noticed a second figure. He squatted close to the blaze, his clothes dark. He spoke the moment I saw him.
“Greetings, William,” he said. “So nice to meet you again.”
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” I said.
“Oh, our paths have crossed many times over the years.” he smiled. “You never were much of a pious man.” In my heart, I knew it to be true. I was never cruel, but as I said at the beginning, I am not an honest man. I should have been a better man.
“I had hoped…” I paused. What had I hoped? To be better? Not to be caught? In truth, I simply hoped for salvation. Hoped for God’s mercy.
“Come now, William, salvation was never likely for a soul such as yours.”
“But, all things are possible,” I said.
“Ah, man’s folly,” he replied. “Such power to undo all good things. No, William, you have long stood at my window. Lucy just showed you my door.”
“Then, are you my master?” I asked.
“Perhaps someday,” he replied. “but for now, I am simply a friend.”
“Then what shall I call you, friend?”
“You may call me Nick. Come to the fire.”
For a moment, I thought he intended to engulf me in flames, but instead, he offered me a bowl filled with venison stew. Its rich aroma made me ravenous, and I devoured it. When I had finished, he handed me another. Finally sated, I sat on a log near the fire. Nick smiled broadly.
“Lucy, be a dear and fetch the bottle.” He motioned with a flicker of his fingers. The gestured had an odd grace to it, like that of a storyteller. “You see, William, there’s a man that needs killing.” My blood went cold, and at that moment, I truly feared for my soul.
“Seems Lucy would be more fitted for such a job,” I said and regretted the words as I uttered them. Nick made another smile.
“How easily you betray her!” he said, joy in his voice. “No, the man in question must be killed by your hand. Even Lucy wouldn’t kill her own blood.”
“Kill an innocent man, and be damned for it?”
“Innocent, no,” Nick said. “But you will be damned. That is your will, not mine.”
“Do I have a choice?” I asked.
“There’s always a choice,” Nick said. “But so often, many choices lead to the same road. It is not the road one travels, but how one walks it.”
Lucy returned with two glasses, handing one to me and the other to Nick. He raised his glass, smiled. I waited for him to say more, but he remained silent. I sniffed the glass. A glorious scent filled me.
I was never an honest man. I told myself I hadn’t agreed to any contract. But, devil take me, I drank. When I finished, the man was gone. Only Lucy stood before me. The fire raged, and her skin reflected it so strongly it almost glowed.
The sight of Lucy quenched my fear, if not my desire, and the devil’s deal faded from my mind. I was clever, I told myself, and she was worth it. But I would soon come to know that only one of those was true.