When Kate came down to the kitchen the following morning, Ash wasn’t there. She checked every room, then did a circuit of the garden, still in her nightdress and dressing gown, ignoring the cold and calling his name. Panic was rising; she’d known him less than a handful of days, but it felt like he’d been with her forever. What was she thinking, he had been with her forever, well, five hundred years at least. Now he had gone and she felt empty, alone. The way she’d felt before she’d met him.
“What’s wrong?” he said from behind her.
She jumped and spun to face him.
“Oh, thank God. You scared the crap out of me. Where were you?”
He held up a bottle of milk and a new box of cereal.
“But I didn’t think you ate anything.”
“I don’t, they’re for you.”
“Well, you could have left a note.”
She pulled her dressing gown tighter and folded her arms.
“I did. On the cupboard door, one of those bright pink, so easy to miss Post-its.”
Kate felt foolish.
“Isn’t sarcasm a sin?” she said, brushing past him on her way back to the house.
“Possibly, but it’s not deadly,” he said, grinning at her back and following her inside.
She ignored the pink square of paper, walking straight past it as though it wasn’t there and went to the door of the living room. Ash hung back and waited. Kate came running back, eyes sparkling with wonder, a huge smile spread across her face.
“How did you do that? That wasn’t there when I got up.”
“I know. It must be magic,” he said, laughing at her childlike reaction to his transformation of the living room.
While Kate had been out in the garden he had installed a huge, living Christmas Tree in one corner of the room, decorated it in her favourite colour, with cherry red baubles, gold tinsel and multi-coloured fairy lights and hung paper chains and swags of holly and ivy across the ceiling.
“It felt like something was missing,” he said, joining her in the centre of the room and admiring his own handiwork.
“Thank you,” she said, rewarding him with a quick hug. “I love it, it’s beautiful.”
She pushed her face into the tree branches and drew the fresh pine scent into her nostrils. He wanted to tell her she was beautiful, but didn’t.
“So,” he said, instead. “Any more nightmares?”
“No, as a matter of fact that was the best night’s sleep I’ve had all week.”
That was good. If she couldn’t remember last night it meant she was adjusting to the memories even better than he’d hoped. She danced around the room, reaching up to touch each of the decorations.
“And what do you have planned today?”
He could have watched her all day, marvelling at the tiny, exquisite, frosted snowflakes that hung above her head and wished he hadn’t said anything to break the spell when she stopped and became serious.
“I have to work today, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to take you into the office with me, especially since Brian will be there. So I’m going to collect my work and carry on from home.”
She gave him another hug and went to get showered and dressed.
“Probably just as well,” he said to himself as she left the room.
* * *
The sky threatened snow again as they walked along the cobbles of Stonegate. Kate, wrapped up in so many layers she resembled the puffed up pigeon that had roosted in the church and Ash, oblivious to the cold, wearing his usual sombre outfit, were still some distance from the office when Kate spotted Nathan and James standing on the pavement by the little black door. She stopped in her tracks.
“Wait here,” she instructed and continued on her own.
“What are you doing out here?” Kate asked as she reached the two men
“The door’s locked.” James replied.
“Well, where’s Brian? He should have been here half an hour ago.”
“You’re telling me, but he wasn’t and he’s not answering his phone.”
Kate fumbled through her bag for her mobile. The two men shuffled from foot to foot while she confirmed what they’d already told her. Brian was not answering his calls.
“You might as well go home then. I’m only collecting some papers.”
Her two colleagues couldn’t have been happier.
“Nice one, Kate. See you later,”
They loped away, patting each other on the back.
“If you hear from Brian let me know!” she called after them.
She waited until they were a good distance away then beckoned Ash to join her.
“I’m worried,” she said, unlocking the door. “It’s not like Brian not to show.”
“You think this is because of me?” Ash said.
“No. But something isn’t right”
Ash insisted she wait at the top of the stairs while he checked out the office. He walked slowly around each desk and when he was positive he sensed nothing, he beckoned her in. Everything looked as it did when she’d left on Friday. Nothing out of place, nothing missing, except Brian. It was odd that he wasn’t here when he was always so reliable. She gathered up the papers she wanted from her desk and stuffed them into her bag.
“OK, we can go.”
She locked both doors again and they walked back down the street. As they passed the Stonegate Devil she shivered.
“It gives me the creeps,” she said, nodding at it.
“It’s only a wooden carving.”
“I know, but I don’t like the way it grins at you as you walk past it.”
“Lucifer doesn’t look like that you know. He doesn’t have horns and a forked tail.”
“Lucifer’s real?” she said, in a voice so loud that the people on the other side of the street stopped to stare.
Ash waited until they had gone back to their own conversation, then nodded.
“What does he look like then?”
“Like me. Human, to all intents and purposes. He could be walking round town right now and no one would be any the wiser.”
Kate stopped short, peering more closely at the faces of the people around them.
“They’re just people,” he said. “I’d sense it if a demon was close by.”
The memory of him snapping a man’s neck down a dark alley got Kate moving again.
“Let’s go home,” she said and quickened her pace.
* * *
She rang the office, then Brian’s home number and cell again. Still no answer. She couldn’t remember Brian ever having a day off sick in the year she had known him. He’d never even had a cold. What worried her most was the way he’d ridden off at speed the day before. What if he’d had an accident on the motorbike on those twisty country lanes? He could be the one lying in a ditch, now.
Ash sensed her agitation and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t worry about Brian. He can look after himself,” he said. “He probably just needs a bit of time on his own and is doing exactly the same as you and working from home.”
She knew he was right and pulled the sheaf of papers from her bag. She spread the family tree and her notes on the mahogany table in the dining room she used as a study and set up her laptop in the centre.
At a loose end, Ash pulled a book from the shelves on the opposite side of the room and disappeared into the living room to read. He could still see Kate from his position on the settee, but at least she wouldn’t feel as though he was watching her.
Kate remained hunched over her papers for over an hour then dropped her pencil on the table and stretched her arms up above her head, yawning.
“Need a break?” Ash said.
He jumped up and went to make lunch.
“I could get used to this,” Kate called after him. She got up and wandered into the living room, looking all about her at the beautiful decorations. She dropped into a chair. Something dug into her leg and when she felt down the side of the chair she found the journal. It must have slipped off the arm where Ash had left it the day before. She opened it and began leafing through the pages absent-mindedly.
“What are you doing?”
Ash stood over her: she hadn’t heard him come in.
“I thought I could read the next entry.” she said, smiling up at him.
“No, you can’t do that,” he said, stepping forwards and reaching for the book.
She pulled it close to her chest.
“You don’t need to.”
“Oh come on,” Kate teased. “I know it’s your diary, but what are you afraid of?”
He scowled and shook his head, at a loss for words.
“Wasn’t reliving Catherine’s death enough? Don’t you understand that allowing more memories to surface could be bad for you?”
“If I’m going to figure out a way to send you home, shouldn’t I know everything?”
“What, you want to see how badly I screwed up? You want to know what a lousy guardian I am? You want to see every mistake I made that cost you your life, time and time again?”
His voice rose higher with each question and his eyes had become smoky with barely concealed anger. Kate shrank into the chair.
He snatched the book from her hands and turned his back to her. He stood for a moment, his eyes closed. How could he tell her his worst fear.
“What I’m afraid of,” he said, through clenched teeth, “is that you’ll hate me.”
He marched from the room, leaving Kate stiff with shock.
He tossed the book on the kitchen table and leant over it, eyes screwed shut, breathing hard and shaking.
Damn it! he thought, hitting the table with his fist.
He hadn’t meant to scare her. He was only angry at himself. He sighed and picked up the journal. Whatever she thought of him, she had a right to know.
His voice was softer when he returned, but still hard-edged and she shrank from him. He hated himself for the fear he saw in her eyes.
“You’re right, you should know everything I’ve done.”
He laid the book on the chair arm and vanished into thin air, leaving the paper chains swinging overhead.
* * *
Kate was on the verge of tears. His reaction had scared her so much she didn’t want to read the book anymore. She avoided touching it and stood up to pace the room. Every time she started to forget what he was he did something that brought it sharply back into focus. He could do wonderful things, like put up Christmas decorations in a matter of seconds, make the crowds part like the Red Sea so she didn’t feel claustrophobic and make her feel incredibly happy with nothing but a smile, but he could disappear at will and killed demons without a second thought. You should know everything I’ve done, he’d said. What had he done that would make her hate him?
On every turn her eyes were drawn to the journal. She picked it up, put it down, paced again, turned, stopped and bit her nails. Finally, she snatched it up, dropped into the chair and turned to the next entry.
August 9th 1546
At last, she is here, but no matter how strong the pull to be with her is, I must wait. She is a tiny, helpless newborn and I will not risk drawing unwanted attention to her so early in her life. It is enough for me to know she has returned.
Kate did a quick calculation, he had waited sixty seven years for Catherine to be reborn. What he had done in the meantime, he had not made a record of. She glanced at the next date, 1566. That was another twenty years before he’d gone to her. It must have been torture staying away for so long. How long had he waited for her to be born? she wondered.
May 18th 1566
I have been with Isabel for five days now, watching her, longing to speak to her, not daring to give myself away. She is twenty years of age, a beautiful woman with hair that catches fire in the sunlight and emerald eyes that make my own seem dull. She lives in a tiny cottage with Agnes, the woman who took her in as a baby when her mother died in childbirth. At 78, Agnes relies on Isabel for almost everything.
Agnes has been the midwife and wise woman to the town of Chelmsford for most of her life, following her mother, her grandmother before her and so on. Without a daughter of her own, Agnes has passed on her knowledge to Isabel.
She is singing to herself as she stirs the pot over the fire. The door is open and a warm Spring breeze blows the scent of lavender, planted by the door, through the kitchen. She stops and raises her head as if listening.
“I know you’re there,” she says. “So you may as well show yourself.”
I look around, but there is no one else. She cannot possibly know I am there, yet somehow she does.
“Yes you,” she confirms it. “Come forward spirit, I will not harm you.”
I hesitate, but in the end I cannot deny her and allow her to see me truly. She looks me over, top to toe and nods as if in approval.
“Now, hand me that pot. You may as well make yourself useful.”
I do as she asks in stunned silence and she strains the liquid from the cauldron into the earthenware pot, covering the top with a piece of new linen and tying it tightly with a jute string. When she has finished, she tells me to sit and questions me until she is satisfied I am no imp or demon. By the end of it we are firm friends and I have slipped back into her life as though I never left. I can see Catherine in her, but she is no girl, she is a confident, self assured woman.
Each day, Isabel makes up the salves and remedies that Agnes sells to the villagers who come to her with their ailments. I help her, fetching the things she needs, water from the well, a cutting of herbs from the garden. Today it is willow bark and I have gathered a large bushel of it from the trees along the lane leading to the cottage.
She takes the pile from my arms, her fingers brushing mine, and then she looks at me with those languid eyes.
“Thank you for this,” she says, laying the willow bark aside. She leans toward me until our lips meet.
I know what is in her mind, but I dare not give in to temptation, no matter how much I want to.
* * *
Kate’s eyebrows raised. Was this one of the reasons he didn’t want her to see it? Was he embarrassed? Did he feel like this about her too? When he’d bent his head so close to hers, had he wanted to kiss her as much as she’d wanted him to?
July 15th 1566
A commotion in the village draws a crowd of onlookers, Isabel included. A man stands on a cart, about to address the people, and as he raises his head I see dark eyes beneath the wide brim of his hat. I recognise him immediately. He bears a different face in this lifetime and knows nothing of who he was, but within him is the reincarnated soul of Thomas Whittle. It is no coincidence that he is here. The influence of the book and dagger have led him to this place and his soul cries out to be reunited with those he has known before. He spies Isabel in the crowd and though he hides it well, the slight widening of his eyes tells me he feels the connection. I am hidden from plain sight, but he recognises that here he will find what he has been searching for.
He lifts the flap of the leather satchel hanging from his shoulder and takes from it a well worn copy of The Malleus Maleficarum. He waves it high above his head, making sure all have seen it well. This book, The Hammer of the Witches, has caused the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocents across many countries. Within the bag I glimpse another book. The book that once belonged to Thomas Whittle and drove him to kill his own daughter. I would bet my soul that the dagger is in that bag too.
His words chill me. The new law, passed by Elizabeth in 1562, means that even wise women and those with a knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs can now be charged with sorcery, enchantment and witchcraft. I know exactly what this self-proclaimed Witch Finder plans to do to Isabel.
“There is a great evil spreading throughout this town. I have heard of terrible ailments befalling people, their animals fall sick for no reason, their children die in mysterious circumstances. But fear not, for The Lord has called me into his service. With the aid of this book and the approval of our Queen, I shall rid your town of the abomination of witchcraft!”
The people become uneasy at this, and murmurs travel through the crowd. They know nothing of the things of which he speaks. They need no Witch Finder in Chelmsford.
“The Lord has shown me the names of the witches in your midst. They will be brought to justice, tried and when found guilty, executed!”
There are gasps from the congregation, one or two dare to shout denials of his claims. I notice he says when, not if, they are found guilty. I try to persuade Isabel to leave, but she stands firm, waiting for him to reveal the names, knowing in her heart what is to come. One by one they are called and men move through the assembly, pulling out those accused and dragging them away. Among the names is one Agnes Parry, Isabel’s stepmother. She drops the flowers I have picked for her and runs for home.
When they come for her, there is nothing that either I or Isabel can do. She is made to watch as Agnes is carried from the house. When Isabel tries to follow, the Witch Finder steps in front of her and blocks her exit. He turns, trapping her against the door, his hands wandering over her young body. She struggles and I clench my fists to keep my anger in check or I will drag him from her. She manages to slip free, but he catches hold of her wrist and spins her to face him.
“Do those pain you?” she asks.
He looks down at his burn scarred hands.
“Agnes could have made a salve for you that would ease the aches.”
“I got them from a witch. She tried to escape from the flames. I couldn’t allow that,” he said. “I pushed her back in and held her there until God took her.”
Isabel sneers. The Witch Finder leans forwards and whispers in her ear.
“You can save her, you know. All you have to do is hand it over to me. If you do not, you will be accused also.”
When he has gone I appear beside her.
“What did he mean, I can save her?”
She paces the floor in the kitchen where she kissed me.
“What do I have that he wants?”
I answer with one word.
And she looks at me in horror.
“What? No one knows about you. Why would he want you?”
“He has a book. A spell book. In it is a ritual that will grant him immortality, but to succeed he must kill an angel.”
I watch her eyes as she thinks about this. I cannot interfere with her free will. If she chooses to sacrifice me to save the woman who has been the only mother she has ever known, I must let her. I pray she can think of another way to save us all.
“That’s evil,” she whispers.
“So Agnes is lost?”
“Never! I could never do that to you.”
She runs into my arms and I hold her, kissing the top of her head. I had never really doubted her and I remember that Catherine’s fate was sealed with the same word.
July 20th 1566
For five days the women and men imprisoned in Chelmsford gaol have been subjected to questioning, sleep deprivation, starvation and worse. The Queen’s attorney has finally arrived and he has been presented with the confessions of all involved. Isabel has been denied access to Agnes, the only way she can see her is by going to the courthouse where they are to be put on trial.
She is disappointed. Agnes is not among the first brought out and the trials go on for hours. At the end of the day Isabel is glad Agnes isn’t there as four out of five are hanged. I try to stop her from attending the following day, but she insists on going. Afterwards, she is angrier than I have ever seen her. She begins brewing a potion and stirs it so furiously it spills onto her hand and scalds her. I take her hand in mine and heal the welt, taking away the pain.
“What are you trying to do?” I ask.
“I’m making a poison. I’m going to pretend I agree to his demands and then I’m going to put this in his drink.”
“Isabel, don’t do this,” I plead. “For your soul’s sake.”
“I have to. Someone has to do something. If not, he will kill Agnes and maybe even you too. I won’t allow that.”
There is no thought for her own safety, only for those she loves.
I pull her into my arms then and kiss her, something we’ve both wanted for a long time. Catherine’s kisses were nothing like this. She was an innocent child, Isabel is a woman. A heat spreads through me and I am acutely aware of the shape of Isabel’s body as she presses against me, her arms around my neck.
* * *
Kate’s jaw dropped as she read the last passage. Had he given in to temptation with her then? There was only one way to find out. A stab of jealousy made her pause. She wasn’t sure she wanted to read further, but she pushed the thought aside. She had been Isabel after all.
As we kiss she backs against the table, pulling me along with her. She hitches up her skirts and pulls me between her legs, wrapping them around me. I am all but lost when she breaks off the kiss and pushes me away.
“What if there’s another way?” she says, a glimmer of mischief in her eyes. “You say he has a book of sorcery. What if he’s also accused of witchcraft? If the book is revealed at the assizes he would not be able to deny it now would he?”
Breathless with anticipation, I am caught off guard by her change of direction until her words sink in and fear settles in the pit of my stomach. I am afraid that her idea will somehow backfire, but she is as stubborn as she is selfless and resolves to carry out her plan at the next assize court.
July 29th 1566
Isabel goes to the prison in the hopes of seeing Agnes and is once again refused entrance. The day’s trials are about to begin and The Witch Finder takes his place on the dais with Master Gerard, the Queen’s attorney. Isabel sits to one side of the court, a shawl pulled around her face to disguise her, and waits. When Agnes, beaten and incoherent from days without sleep, is dragged before the court to confess her crimes publicly, Isabel, distraught and angry, pushes her way to the front.
“Stop this!” she calls to the magistrate. “You must stop this!”
She is ignored as Agnes’ confession is read out and she is dragged to the dock.
Isabel is screaming now. Hands grab her shoulders and drag her backwards. These are people she knows, people who have been helped by Agnes. She kicks out at them, breaks free from their grip, turns on them.
“What is wrong with you? Have you no shame? All of you here have come to Agnes for help. Sarah, when you were in your birth pains, who was it delivered your baby safely into the world? William, who was it set your broken arm so the bones knit good as before? Who is it who eases your aches and pains through the Winter months, brings down the fevers of your children and eases the passing of your old folk? It is Agnes. Yet here you stand, condemning her as a witch. Will none of you speak out for her?”
There is silence. No one will look at her, no one comes forward. They are afraid that if they speak out against the Witch Finder, they will be next. Isabel turns once more to the platform on which Master Gerard and the Witch Finder sit. It is the Witch Finder who leans down to offer her his hand. He whispers to her as he does so.
“Do you wish to save her?”
“Yes I do,” she says, fire flashing in her green eyes. “But not the way you hope for.”
She pulls free of him and throws herself at the attorney’s feet.
“I have evidence to give.”
“You are too late, the prisoner has already confessed to the charges against her.”
“Not for Agnes, though it will prove her innocence also. Against him!”
She points her finger at the Witch Finder and gets to her feet.
“I accuse this man of witchcraft!”
Master Gerard laughs, and so do the onlookers. But he does not.
“You don’t believe me?!” she cries. “But I can prove it and if I do, will you let Agnes and the others go?”
The attorney laughs no longer. He is looking into Isabel’s eyes. I may never know what he sees there, but he nods in agreement to her demand.
“Show me this proof and I will let the old woman live,” he says.
It is part of my punishment, to watch the events that my arrogance and pride has brought to pass. I am responsible for the scenes which will play out through all the lifetimes of these two souls, no matter who or what they may become. I cannot interfere and must stand by and watch now, as Isabel instructs the gaolers to search the Witch Finder’s belongings.
The men are uneasy now. They have noticed that the Witch Finder lets no one else touch them, but the judge insists. The Witch Finder protests, he attempts to reach his belongings before them, but two men from the crowd, husbands of some of the women who have been condemned, take hold of him and restrain him. He is now at the mercy of the court.
It takes but a moment to confirm what Isabel has told them. The only one to hang this day is the Witch Finder. His eyes never leave Isabel’s until the final breath leaves his body. It is a strange justice for Catherine, and the hatred these two souls have for each other strikes sparks between them. I fear it will be many lifetimes before it burns itself out.
The prisoners are acquitted and released. It is a bitter sweet victory for Isabel. The stress has been too much to bear for Agnes and she dies soon after her release. Isabel is the one to whom the townsfolk turn for healing now. The black book and dagger have gone again and I am hopeful that Isabel can live out this lifetime without fear now. A whole life we can share together.
* * *
That should have been where the story ended, a happy ever after, albeit a temporary one, but there was one more entry at the bottom of the page.
September 1st 1566
I should have known there would be a price to pay. Isabel is gone and I am alone once more. Within weeks of the Witch Finder’s death a sickness spreads through the town. Isabel cares for the afflicted as best she can, but after treating a sick child, she contracts the disease herself. It is not in my power to heal this, though I stay by her side, easing her suffering until my beloved Isabel is taken from me. I have to wonder if there was something I could have done to stop her. Did I encourage her in any way? If I hadn’t been so besotted with her, could I have persuaded her differently? If not for me, would she have done the same thing? I waited sixty seven years for her to be reborn, how long must I wait until she returns again?
* * *
Split apart by a cruel turn of events when they could have been happy together, for a short while at least. It was so unfair. Kate brushed a tear from her cheek and looked round the room. She missed Ash’s presence. In the kitchen, the coffee he had made her still stood by the kettle where he had left it. It was stone cold.
There was no reason for him to be so angry, nothing he did with Isabel made me hate him, she thought, as she emptied the pot into the sink.
Something stirred the air.
“There’s worse to come,” Ash said.
She was relieved to hear his voice. He was leaning against the wall behind her.
“Ashrafel, you scared me.”
He liked the way she said his name. The corner of his mouth twitched, but it never made it to a smile. He hung his head, ashamed of the way he’d behaved and so afraid of what she was going to say he couldn’t bring himself to look at her.
He shouldn’t have said those things to her, she had every right to be angry at him, to tell him to stay away from her, that she never wanted to see him again, but instead she placed a gentle hand on his arm and reached up on tip toe to kiss his cheek. He could feel her warm breath against his skin, his eyes closed and a small sigh escaped his lips. At the last moment, he pulled away.
“Don’t,” he said, his voice low and husky.
She blinked and came back to herself. What on earth was she doing? There was an odd prickling sensation all over her skin and the room was spinning. Her hand searched for something to lean on and found the back of a chair. She didn’t remember crossing the room let alone reaching up to kiss him. Colour flushed her cheeks and made her hot.
She grabbed her keys, ran down the hallway and out of the house. She didn’t know where she was going and she didn’t care. Ash followed her to the door. He made no move to stop her, merely watched as she backed out of the driveway and sped away.