The revelation had shaken him and he sat on the settee with the photo album resting across his knees, but Ash wasn’t seeing the photo anymore. The touch of Kate’s hand brought him back to the present.
“How did you know him?” she asked.
The look of anguish that crossed his face scared her. His fingers trembled where they rested on the edges of the album and he swallowed hard before he could answer her.
“Your last life…the one before this.”
He ran a hand through his short blonde hair and took a deep breath.
“It was the start of the Great War.” He gave a short, bitter laugh and shook his head. “There was nothing great about it, let’s face it. Four years with the whole world trying to blow itself to pieces. You’d been reborn, in Belgium, of all places. I couldn’t understand why at the time, but now, seeing this, maybe it makes more sense, somehow.”
He trailed off, losing himself in whatever thought was tugging at his brain. Kate brought him back.
“Can you tell me about it?”
He saw no reason why not.
“The war was none of my business, we don’t get caught up in issues like that as a rule, but on Sunday, August twenty third, nineteen fourteen I had no choice. It had become my habit that whenever you were born I would find you, stay close, but not interfere in your life until it was necessary. That morning I was on my way to church in the village of Nimy when the first shots of the war were fired. Several villagers were killed, some were taken prisoner. My first thought was to get to Obourg, the village where you lived and get you out of it, but I had seen the German troops moving along the canal and not all of them were human.
The British were spread out too thinly and their position was vulnerable. They were going to have enough trouble dealing with a mortal enemy without a supernatural one too.”
He paused, swallowing again. His eyes were haunted by the memories of the massacre that was to follow. She took his hand and squeezed it.
“It’s all right, you don’t have to do this. I’ll get the diary and read it instead.”
“Makes no difference, I’ll still see it as you read and I want to tell you.”
“OK, but shouldn’t I learn about my lives in the order they happened?” she queried.
He considered for a moment. Would it really make any difference? It was doubtful and there was something about this that seemed important. He knew there was no such thing as coincidence. He had found the photograph of Kate’s great grandfather for a reason. He wasn’t sure how or why, but there was something strange at work here and he needed to figure out what. The best way to do that was to tell her the whole story.
Kate listened as Ash told her about Mons.
“I was too arrogant to see what a huge mistake I was making. Righteous indignation made me blind to the bigger picture. If I’d stopped to think it might have gone differently. I mean, why would Lucifer bother to send demons to fight in the war? There was already enough evil in the thing without his interference. But I didn’t think, and I sent out a call to all the angels spread around the earth. Not the guardian angels who have little or no say in anything other than the life of the person they are guarding, but the Watchers. The angels who, like me, inhabit semi-physical bodies and walk the earth. And they came. First, my closest friend, then the others followed. One thousand angels! An army for God on earth; an army for good.
The British fearing defeat were despondent, but then the rain stopped, the sun broke the clouds. It was like an omen, and we charged, chasing them down on horseback, killing the demons, avoiding the humans among them. Both sides saw us. The British fought with renewed hope, the Germans, confused, retreated for a time.
In the midst of battle I found a young private laying charges at one of the bridges that crossed the canal. He was pinned down by heavy sniper fire and I dragged him up onto my horse and galloped him back to the relative safety of his unit. He barely had time to nod his thanks before I was off again.
Once Lucifer’s henchman were routed, my brothers left the field as quickly as they’d come. I was left to watch the retreat. I hadn’t seen the Oberst, or German Commander, a man named Amsel, until then, but as soon as I did I recognised his soul. He laughed as he saw the realisation of what I’d done dawn on me, then he marched his troops to Obourg. Lucifer had had nothing to do with any of it, the demons hadn’t been there to fight the British, they’d been there to draw me out and I’d fallen for it. I’d practically led him to your door.”
Ash rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. His shoulders slumped with the weight of regret, the burden he carried for all the times she had died through his mistakes. She wanted to hold him, comfort him, tell him everything would be OK, but how, when she still had no idea what she had to do?
He pulled himself together and carried on.
“I should have gone alone, but my brother came with me. Our only hope was to use his troops against him, scare and confuse the German soldiers and rescue you in the midst of the panic and chaos. When we reached Obourg he had rounded up the villagers in the church…”
He stopped, took a breath and closed his eyes. When he tried to go on he couldn’t find the words. He got up, brought her the journal and handed it to her.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. You’ll have to read the rest,” he said.
He went out into the garden through the French Doors. They closed behind him without a touch, a clear sign he didn’t want her to follow him. Kate dreaded what was to come, knowing it couldn’t be good if it upset him so much. When she found the entry for August 23rd 1914 she skimmed over the parts he’d already told her and began where he’d left off.
August 23rd 1914
Veronique lives in the village of Obourg with her parents. She is six years old. My actions have betrayed us both and it is only a matter of time before he finds her. When he reaches her village he orders the soldiers to go from house to house, rounding up the villagers and herding them into the church. As they cower together he spies Veronique and pulls her from the arms of her parents. Even his own troops think he has gone mad as he questions this frightened little girl about the whereabouts of an angel. She is too young to understand and begins to cry, holding out her hands towards her family. Her father steps forward and is shot in front of her.
My anger is so great that the doors are ripped from their hinges and my brother and I enter the church, our wings extended. The villagers and soldiers are terror stricken, some fall to their knees in prayer, others cling to one another in fear and awe. The Colonel smiles, he thinks he has what he wants in double measure.
We cannot kill the soldiers, but we can use our auras to send confusing thoughts and images to their minds.
“Grab her and run,” my brother calls to me.
I do as he says and make a swift exit. All around there is screaming and chaos. The soldiers clutch at their heads, their leader screams at them to stop us. The villagers see their chance to escape and fight back and as I flee with Veronique in my arms, several shots are fired. The bullets cannot harm me and I do not stop.
By the time their Colonel emerges from the church to issue orders for them to follow us, we have gone. My brother’s skills at confusion leave them so disoriented they no longer know who they are.
Later, he finds me, sitting at the side of the dirt road with Veronique in my arms. Though I could not suffer an injury that would not heal again in moments, it is not so for poor Veronique.
“I’m so sorry, Ashrafel.” he says, standing over us, stroking her wheat coloured hair. “At least it was quick and you stopped him from doing far worse to her.”
Together, we bury her at the roadside. With every spade full of dirt I become more and more angry.
“Don’t even think about it, little brother. You’re treading on very dangerous ground there”.
“This is my fault. Maybe I deserve to go to Hell”
“OK I’ll give you that this all started because you made a mistake, but since when did falling in love with someone mean you deserve eternal damnation?”
“I won’t kill him, but he should pay for this, for her. She was only a child. If I hadn’t persuaded you all to fight on that battlefield he wouldn’t have known I was here. Maybe she’d have had the chance to grow up before having to deal with all this. I do nothing but make mistakes and she pays for it every time.”
“And you didn’t know he was here either. You did the right thing out there. The fight was unfair and the British would’ve been decimated by demons if you hadn’t.”
“Right now that doesn’t make me feel any better, but driving him insane might.”
I throw down my spade, turn my back on my brother and leave him there, walking back in the direction of the village. When I get there I am met with carnage. He has slaughtered the entire population, their bodies lie where they fell. In the inn he has set up his quarters for the night. No one sees me as I enter and climb the stairs to his room.
He is standing at the window, his back to me, but turns when he hears the creak of the door. Anger, hatred, contempt flash from his eyes until he sees the very same emotions mirrored in mine. For one satisfying moment I see fear there too, but he composes himself. He knows I will not kill him. The voice of my brother invades my thoughts, reminding me that this man is no more responsible for his actions whilst under the spell of the book and dagger than he was as Thomas Whittle. For a second I falter, but I see the uniform he wears and I know he is responsible for many other atrocities, committed even before the knife came into his possession.
He opens his mouth to speak, but I do not want to hear him. Standing face to face with him I place my hands on either side of his head. He fights, scratching at my hands with desperate fingers, but I am too strong for him and the images I force into his mind make him scream in terror.
I hold nothing back, every man, woman and child he has killed through this war and then back through time. Catherine, the women he hung as the Witch finder and on. Mary, the serving girl he drowned, Therese, pushed from a window and Evelyn, especially Evelyn, the sister he drove to suicide. Finally there is only Veronique.
With the memories of his past lives fighting for space in his mind, the pain must be immense. He clutches at his head, writhing on the floor in agony. All of the pain, the violence, drives him mad. He claws at the edge of his desk, trying to rise from the floor. Screaming, he grabs at my legs, begging me to take it back, but I shake my head and turn from him, walking away. He crawls on hands and knees towards me, but I close and lock the door behind me. I have left the building and reached the end of the street when I hear the shot through his open window.
I cannot feel remorse for what I have done, but I know there will be a price for it. Today I have committed more sin than in all the 400 years before it.
As I take the long slow walk to Paris I cross paths with a small squadron of British soldiers and recognise the man I saved during the battle. I ask his name. I don’t know why but it seems important. Perhaps it’s because I need something good to remember of this day. I am aware of enemy troops approaching and tell the company they should leave the road. I show them a path through the woods, it is not on any of their maps, but they trust me and follow it to safety. I save Arthur Parkes for the second time this day. It is a small act of good amongst the evil I have wrought.
* * *
The entry finished there and Kate let the tears fall as she put the journal aside. The proud face of her great grandfather gazed up at her from the photo album. His stories of The Angel of Mons had filtered down through the family. His parents, wife and his own children, Kate’s grandparents, had never truly believed the tales, putting them down to the stress of the long marches in wet, filthy conditions and the constant lack of food he’d had to endure, but now Kate knew he’d been telling the truth.
She crossed the pale blue carpet to the French Doors. Ash walked round the garden kicking at the snow. He sensed her watching and looked up, waiting for the hatred he felt he deserved to hit him, but all that reached him was compassion. He reeled as relief flooded through him and almost sat down in the snow, amazed at Kate’s capacity for love and forgiveness. There was a click as the door unlocked and she opened it to the chill of dusk.
“If you hadn’t saved him I would never have been born,” she said, crossing the white expanse in her slippers.
He strolled towards her, coming to a standstill beneath the ornamental cherry tree in the centre of the garden, his head cocked on one side as he considered what she said. His eyes were still sad, but a faint half smile turned up one corner of his mouth. Then he turned his back to her, put his hand against the trunk of the tree and bowed his head.
She watched him, curious as to what he was doing and wondering if she should go to him. When she felt something brush against her cheek she looked up, expecting to see a sky full of snow, but instead she saw petals. The cherry tree was in full blossom and its delicate, pink petals fell like snowflakes all around her. She laughed, holding out her hands, palms upward to catch them. From the open door she heard strains of music. It was the song again.
“I had no idea how important saving Arthur Parke’s life would be,” he said, turning towards her.
He took her hand and put an arm around her waist.
“I expected damnation but instead my punishment was to wait almost a hundred years before I could see you again. I think it was worth the wait.”
And he began to dance with her, singing the words of the song as they swayed together, his head resting against hers. She’d never felt so happy and content and could have happily stayed there forever, in spite of the fact that her feet were soaking wet and freezing cold. Then before the song came to an end, he stopped singing.
“Kate, whose family tree are you working on?”