Blackfeather Chapter 19

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?”

 

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Blackfeather Chapter 18

The alarm clock sounded, this time with the classical music she was accustomed to. When she joined Ash in the kitchen, half asleep and still in her pyjamas, he was leaning over the morning’s paper, spread on the table in front of him.

“Did you effectively knock me out last night or did I dream that?”

“Maybe,” he said, without looking up.

“Well which one is it?”

“Which one do you prefer?”

She put her hands on her hips and huffed, but he ignored her. OK, so he wasn’t going to tell her why. With a slice of buttered toast in one hand she stood over him, peering at the articles over his shoulder, curious to see what he was so preoccupied with. It was mostly local news, a Scout group in Copmanthorpe was fundraising for a new minibus, a letter posted in the second World War had finally reached its destination, nothing sensational, but a small side column caught her eye.

 

Cat Napper Stalks York Streets

Several residents of Acomb have formed a Neighbourhood Watch group after a spate of cat-nappings. Five felines mysteriously disappeared from the area in the space of one night. The owners say that none of their pets have ever gone missing before and have asked for help from the police to catch what they believe is a gang of youths, who may be taking the animals in order to torture them. The police have said they are unable to act without proof of any wrongdoing and urge the owners to report anyone they see acting in a suspicious manner. They are hopeful the pets will return on their own in the next few days.

 

“What’s this?” she said, then catching his mischievous smirk added. “Don’t be flippant. I know it’s a newspaper. What are you looking for?”

“Anything out of the ordinary.”

“And cats fit that criteria?”

“If it was one cat, no, but five in one night? Even the newspaper thinks it’s unusual enough to report it.”

“OK, why cats?”

“Ugh, You don’t want to know,” he said, then changed the subject.

“You had a phone call, about ten minutes ago. I let the machine pick it up.”

She was grateful for that. Her mother sometimes rang at odd times of the day and she had no desire to explain why a young man was answering the phone so early in the morning. She pressed the button and listened to the message. It was Nathan.

“Hey, Kate. There’s still no sign of Brian. Hope you’ve heard from him cos I’m starting to worry now. Should we come into work or not?”

She did a quick calculation, trying to figure out what day it was. They were all starting to blur together.

Tuesday, 11th.

His ability to read her mind came in useful sometimes then. She glanced down the hall to where she could see him sitting at the table and he flashed her a grin. She picked up the phone and pressed redial.

“Nathan, it’s Kate. I haven’t heard from Brian either.”

“Well, I drove past his place last night and the Compass wasn’t there.”

“He’s not on the motorbike then?”

“Shouldn’t think so.”

That put her mind to rest about him lying in a ditch at least.

“OK”, she said. “It’s only a few days until we close up for the Christmas Holidays, so you and James needn’t bother coming in until the New Year.”

She heard Nathan whoop on the other end.

“You don’t say anything to Peter about this, right?”

“Sure,” he said. “Merry Christmas, Kate.”

The line went dead.

 

Ash had listened to both sides of the conversation. That Brian was still missing bothered him. In most of the lives she’d had, Thomas had reincarnated as someone close to her, someone she’d known well, a father, a brother, a husband even. He could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he’d been a stranger, coming into her life after the dagger had taken him under its spell. The Witch Finder had been one, another was a man she’d robbed whilst masquerading as a highwayman, one had called himself a doctor and the other was a German Officer. Brian was her friend and workmate, he fitted the profile to a T – jealous, obsessive, dabbler in the occult. And the question remained – where was Brian now?

In the early hours of the morning he had been hit by a sudden, sharp pain that had doubled him up. It was sensing the presence of something seeking them out that had caused him to put Kate to sleep. That, coupled with this morning’s newspaper article, confirmed his worst fears. Only the knife could have that effect on him. His brother had been right, the other angels had done their best, but in the end it was inevitable they’d be found and time was already running out for them.

 

Kate put down the receiver and walked slowly back to the kitchen table. When Ash looked up at her he could see she had already made the connection too.

“Does Brian have the dagger?”

There was no use pretending it wasn’t a possibility.

“I’ve been thinking about that. When I saw him in the club I ought to have recognised him, but I didn’t.”

“So it’s not him?”

Kate’s eyes were desperate with hope.

“I don’t know. Even if he didn’t have the dagger then, I would have recognised the soul inside, but he was drunk, very drunk. It’s not a pleasant experience looking into the souls of drunken people. It’s something I try to avoid, but he was with you and I should have tried.”

He rubbed his face with both hands, angry at himself again. He’d been so overwhelmed by how beautiful she looked in the club that night that he’d failed to perform a simple task. How was he supposed to protect her when he kept letting his feelings get in the way? He was absolutely no use to her whatsoever!

*  *  *

Kate had taken the news with quiet resignation. She had spent the morning doing her best to concentrate on work and put the nagging thought that Brian was the one hunting them down out of her mind, but it wasn’t working. She put her hands to her face, rubbing her temples with her fingertips, trying to ease the tension in her head. She pushed back her chair.

“This is a waste of time. I feel like we’re just waiting for something to happen.”

Ash took a peek over her shoulder, curious at the work she was doing.

“Can I help with anything?”

“No, I can’t concentrate with you doing that.”

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled and stepped away.

She immediately felt guilty.

“I didn’t mean to snap,” she said. “But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

“If it’s meant to be, it will all fall into place,” Ash said.

Kate wished she had his faith, but he was depending on her and she wasn’t sure that this was going to work out any better than any of her previous lives.

He decided to stay out of her way and turned to the shelves of books that filled one wall of Kate’s study. Tucked in at the end of one row was a set of family photo albums. He looked back at Kate; she had switched on the laptop and had her back to him. He wouldn’t disturb her by asking if he could take a look, surely she wouldn’t mind anyway. He pulled out the first one and began to leaf through it. Instead of photos he found a series of genealogical records for Kate’s ancestors. Birth, marriage and death certificates and census forms going back to the early 1800s. He returned it and slid the next one out. The records continued, but in the mid nineteenth century they were accompanied by photographs of the people they were connected with.

The poses were formal, taken by professional photographers and showing scenes dressed to look as though the subject was sitting in his own front room.  In one, a young woman and her daughter sat together on a swing all wrapped around with roses. In another, a small boy in a sailor suit sat with his parents, mother seated and father standing tall and proud behind. All of them fully documented with names and dates in Kate’s hand-writing.

A little further into the album he came across a photo of a First World War soldier and froze.

“Who’s this?” he said.

“What? Who’s who?”

Kate was too engrossed in her work to look up and only half listening.

“The man in this photo, who is he? Kate, it’s important.”

He had crossed the room and was standing by her side now, thrusting the album under her nose.

“That’s my great grandfather, Arthur Parkes, at the end of World War One.”

She put down her pencil. There was something about the way he looked at her, as though he was seeing her for the very first time, that piqued her curiosity. He had her full attention now.

“Why?”

“I knew him. I spoke to him, Kate. I saved his life.”

 

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Blackfeather Chapter 17

When the dagger took him over, he was completely lost. It filled him with one thought and one alone. He rushed to the book and tore through the pages, stopping only when he found the one he wanted. There it was, the knife he held in his hand, drawn in intricate detail in fine pen and ink, Malakh Rozeach – The Angel Killer.

Here was the ritual, the binding spell and the words of summoning for the most fearsome demon of them all – Helel Ben Shakar, the book called him – Son of the Dawn. Lucifer himself!

And then it all started to come back to him. His present life was obliterated by the past and he completely forgot who he was. A cry escaped his lips, pain shot through his head and he clutched at his skull, dropping the knife to the wooden floor with a clatter. Images filled his mind. None of them made sense at first, then he recognised them as the lives he’d lived before. Everything he knew was overwritten like a computer file until there was nothing left. He saw himself as he had been in many lifetimes before. In each one the dagger and the book had always found their way into his possession. He had come so close on so many occasions to getting what he wanted and had been thwarted each and every time by the sainted bastard he pursued. The angel and the woman he guarded through time. Her stubborn refusal to comply with his demands had frustrated him at every turn. She had killed herself, or even killed him, rather than consenting to the murder of her beloved angel. Their forbidden love had doomed them all to repeat this travesty over and over again.

The memories swelled and shifted at the forefront of his mind. He had to be careful, take it slow, he had once learned to his cost that even the remembering could kill him. He focussed, turned his mind this way and that until the combined chatter separated into individual voices and a name echoed around his head.

“Ash.”

She had called him that more than once.

“Where is Ash?” he mocked.

The name was useless to him though, it wasn’t his complete angelic title. That, he had kept guarded because if he had known his proper name he would have been able to summon him, without all the trouble he was going to have to go through.

“Well, I will find you!” he roared. “And this time I WILL get my way.”

There was only one thing to do now. Find the angel and his human lover.

He waited until nightfall before going out, dressed in warm, dark clothing, with a woollen hat pulled low over his eyes, and drove to a suburb of town away from his home. He saw it as a lucky omen when the black cat crossed his path. It stopped in mid-run to watch him warily from a distance and trotted towards him when he crouched down, fingers extended to offer a mock treat. His quiet cha-cha, cha-cha almost hypnotised the cat to within grabbing distance. It’s cold, wet nose sniffed his fingertips, the whiskers twitching, and at the last minute, as it was about to turn away disappointed, he lunged, grabbing the startled animal by the scruff of its neck. He pulled it close to his body, tucking the writhing, spitting creature under his arm, then throwing it into the box he’d placed in the back of the Jeep. He made sure he hadn’t been observed, then went in search of the next one. After the fifth he felt satisfied he’d have enough, climbed into the car and drove back the way he’d come.

Back in the safety of the darkened house, he pulled off the hat and threw it aside. He picked out a cat and held it at arm’s length, with its back legs tucked up beneath it, tail twitching, angry growls issuing from its throat. He swapped it from one hand to the other as he shed his coat then carried the animal to the kitchen. He had no choice but to hold the cat tightly as he retrieved a bowl, one handed, from the cupboard and took it to his study where the book still lay open and the dagger lay discarded on the floor where it had fallen from his hands.

He kneeled, placing the bowl in front of him and groped for the knife, then unsure how to proceed, manhandled the cat into a position against his chest. The terrified feline scrabbled for purchase, digging its claws into his forearm and he let out a cry of pain and anger. It was the last act the cat had a chance to perform. The dagger sliced across its throat and blood spurted out in a wide arc. He aimed the fountain of hot liquid at the bowl without spilling a drop and watched as it began to fill. As the cat weakened, the blood pulsed slower and slower until it reached a trickle and its killer dropped its limp body to the floor. The bowl was almost full with the thick, sticky, jam-like liquid. He sat cross legged, leaning over it, and whispered a chant called up from a distant memory across the surface. Staring at the viscous substance, he waited. In his imagination the circle of the bowl expanded and crimson filled his vision; it seemed to fill the whole room, forming a screen on which shadows were projected. He concentrated, the image wobbled and shifted into something he recognised. Buildings, streets, a city.

It was York.

So he was here already. Somewhere in the city, with her no doubt, which meant she lived here too. Like once, long ago, so far away it was difficult to remember.

But where? Where were they?

“Show me!” he screamed, but the image was already fading and try as he might, he couldn’t hold it.

It had been a long time since he’d done this. Almost a century by his reckoning and he was out of practice and weak. He lashed out, hitting the bowl and sloshing the blood over the floor.

“Damn you, you bastard. I know you’re in this city and if I have to knock on every door in this town I will find her. I find her, I find you.”

He levered himself up from the floor, slipping in the blood pooling around his feet. His head ached and he squeezed his face between his hands, knowing there was nothing more he could do now, it was almost dawn. He needed rest, but tomorrow… Tomorrow, he had another trick up his sleeve. There was more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak.

*  *  *

The remaining animals had been left in the cold garage for the day. The box stank of stale urine and excrement. He lifted one out, stroking it, calming it with gentle words. Its fur was wet and matted where it had lain in its own filth in the cramped confines of the box.

It was no use scrying with blood again, this needed a more specialised approach. He needed to see, and what better way to see in the dark than with cat’s eyes.

The animal was wrapped in a thick towel to prevent further injury from needle sharp claws and he trapped it between his upper arm and his body, the dagger poised in his right hand. The cat had to be alive for this. It wasn’t going to like it. As soon as the point touched the cat’s eye it began to wriggle and writhe, desperate to escape, but he held tight, ignoring its terrified whines. The point of the blade slipped in beneath the eyeball, prizing it free of the skull, like jimmying a diamond from a rock. It hung loose from the cat’s head and he severed it with a swift flick of the blade, dropping the cat which wriggled out of the swaddling and ran, bumping into chair legs in its haste to get away.

On the table he already had the needle threaded with a gold cord and passed it through the centre of the cat’s eye as if he was preparing for a game of conkers, then he took it to the map spread out on his desk and dangled the eye above it, swinging it back and forth.

Under his breath he whispered the words of the scrying spell, concentrating on finding the angel. There should have been one light, pinpointing his and his ward’s location and there it was, tiny at first, then growing to the size of a pea. It hovered over the map of York and its outlying villages. He leaned closer, trying to make out the words of the streets in the dim light.

Another pinprick of light appeared, inches from the first, then another and another.

“No, No, NO!” he yelled.

How many angels could there be in this city? It wasn’t possible. Unless they were shielding him.

“All right, if that’s how you want to play it.”

He grabbed the map and marched into the garage, the tiny angel lights trailing behind, like fireflies. There was an old roll of duct tape on a shelf, which he now used to fix the map to one wall. The lights bobbed and swirled in the air then reassembled themselves in their original positions. With an angry growl he thrust his hand into the box and pulled out another cat, cutting off its head before it had time to protest, then he walked a path around the inside of the garage, letting the dripping blood mark out a large circle on the concrete floor.

He dipped his index finger into the gaping neck hole, painted a geometric symbol in the centre of the circle then sat cross legged on top of it. With the cat now discarded, he began to chant and drew the dagger across his forearm, turned it and repeated the action with the clean edge of the blade. He sucked in his breath as it started to sting.

The dagger was linked to all three souls, it was part of the curse that bound them together. He had died by it, so had she and once, he had even tortured the angel with it. The blade had been soaked in their blood, over and over. It would recognise them.

Standing the Angel Killer on its point, he held the hilt between his palms and spun it like a penny. It gathered momentum and where a penny would have fallen to one side or the other, the knife carried on spinning, faster and faster until it was just a blur. Then it rose, hovered in the air for a second and whistled through the air, burying itself in the map in front of him, slicing through one of the bobbing lights.

When he checked the location he raised an eyebrow at his own stupidity. It was obvious really, if he’d stopped to think about it. Where else in this city was she going to be?

 

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Blackfeather Chapter 16

Ash vanished at 8pm. It took him exactly twenty seven minutes to return, and the whole time he was gone, Kate sat on the edge of her seat, her arms wrapped round herself, jumping at every imagined sound her mind conjured up. When he returned, with a brown paper take-away bag, he had to apologise for making her jump. He hadn’t brought any old take-away either, the bag was printed with an Italian flag and the name of one of the best restaurants in York.

“Fellini’s don’t do take-away,” Kate said, helping him plate up her meal.

“They do for me.”

She was impressed – was there anything he couldn’t do? Could he bring her the moon on a silver tray?

If you asked.

Kate’s smile wavered. She still hadn’t got used to how easily he could read her thoughts. He sighed. He had to stop doing that.

 

They sat at the kitchen table while Kate had dinner and the conversation inevitably turned to Isabel and the Witch Finder.

“Does it always work out like that?” she asked between mouthfuls of delicious Maiale Rollatini.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Catherine was accused of witchcraft and died, then Isabel accused the Witch Finder and he died. Is there always that kind of tit for tat connection?”

Ash studied her for a moment; the frown was back. It was as though he was watching the neurons inside her brain fire.

“Not quite so directly,” he eventually replied. “But your father’s soul-purpose is always the same.”

“And that is?”

“To achieve immortality.”

“And he does this with the book and dagger that Catherine’s father had, right?”

Ash nodded. This was where she found out how much danger she was in.

“And how does that work exactly? How does it make him immortal?”

“The dagger is the only weapon in existence that can kill an angel. It belonged to Lucifer and was thought lost, but he somehow found it again and corrupted it. His hatred towards God, towards Michael for defeating him, towards all angels, I suppose, made him turn it into a weapon with one single purpose. In Hebrew it became known as Malakh Rozeach – Angel Killer. Anyone can use it for that purpose, but the ritual for immortality binds the angel’s soul to the dagger which can then be sold to Lucifer in exchange for eternal life.”

Strictly speaking, he shouldn’t be telling her any of this, but since angel history didn’t have an effect on her lives, he wasn’t breaking the rules.

“And what does Lucifer get out of it, other than your soul?”

“The satisfaction that he’s diminished Heaven by one more angel, I suppose.”

He missed out the part about him being able to torture him for all eternity, she didn’t need to know that. In fact, she was taking all this remarkably well so far, he thought.

“I think I need another drink,” she said.

Or maybe she wasn’t.

“I’m assuming this would apply to any angel?”

He nodded.

“So why doesn’t he try to capture another one?”

“Firstly, he’d have to find one and that’s not easy. Most people aren’t aware of their guardian angels, let alone best friends with them and when I messed up, the book and dagger became inextricably bound up with you and your father. No one knows what happens to it between lifetimes, we only know that when you are re-born it shows up, finds your father, wherever his soul may be, and we start all over again.”

There was a pause, then…

“So I’m going to die,” she said.

“Not necessarily,” Ash said, but he had hesitated and Kate’s lip trembled as she looked away, tears welling up again.

She took a moment to get her emotions under control and changed the subject, pushing the remains of dinner away from her, her appetite gone.

“So what happened to the man who gave my – Catherine’s father, the book and dagger?”

“I don’t know who he was, one of Lucifer’s soldiers, I guess.”

“Like the one you killed?”

“Possibly, or a human who’d sold his soul to Lucifer in exchange for something. Either way I’m guessing he’s long gone by now.”

Kate sipped her drink. Ash took her plate away, scraped the food into the bin and began washing up. When he placed the plate on the draining board, she joined him with a tea towel in her hand and wiped it dry, putting it away in the cupboard above the worktop. He could see her turning the conversation over in her head and waited for her next question.

“So, somewhere out there, is a man with this book and dagger, who wants to kill you so he can become immortal?”

“That about covers it, yeah.”

“And to stop him I have to kill him, which solves nothing, or find a way to send you back to Heaven or…”

“Or what?” he said.

“I don’t know,” she sighed. The answer was too elusive. “Seems like there ought to be a third option to me.”

“Yeah?” was all he said, but his hands were shaking and his heart quickened pace. For the first time in five hundred years, he dared to hope.

*  *  *

 

He stationed himself outside her door as she readied for bed and when he was sure she was asleep, he set up a chair in the open doorway and settled himself to watch over her.

As she began to dream about Isabel he closed his eyes, watching the images in Kate’s head as if on a cinema screen. He hoped that once she’d absorbed Isabel’s life into her subconscious, the jealousy she felt would subside. It was hard for Kate to get her head around being someone else, but she had to know it was her he loved. The soul at the core of her being was constant. He had always loved her, even if he couldn’t show her in the way she wanted.

As Isabel’s life came to an end, Kate stirred from sleep. Isabel’s passing had been one of the few natural deaths in all of Kate’s previous lives. It should have been one of the easiest for her to assimilate, but it had also been one of the saddest because it had cut short a lifetime they could have spent together.

“I didn’t want to leave you,” she sniffed.

Kate wasn’t aware of him sitting in her doorway, but Isabel was not at all surprised to find him there.

“I know.”

He crossed the room towards her and touched his fingertips to her forehead.

“Sleep,” he said.

In an instant Kate’s head fell back into the pillow and she was unconscious.

 

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Blackfeather Chapter 15

He found her sitting on the bench by the green where Catherine had been burned, shivering, a screwed up piece of tissue in her hand. He draped the coat he’d brought for her round her shoulders and sat down next to her.

“It wasn’t you, it was Isabel,” he said.

Kate knew he was right, but some part of her had wanted to kiss him too and he would know that. She had bolted because he had rejected her, not Isabel.

“I won’t read anymore if you don’t want me to,” she said, keeping her eyes on the church across from them.

“You can read it. You found the book for a reason and you were right, you do need to know. All I ask is that you pace yourself and let me watch over you while the memories emerge.”

She was still too hurt to answer him. He wished he could tell her how he truly felt, but he daren’t. Instead they sat in silence watching the drizzle of rain, a fine mist that coated their hair and stuck to Kate’s eyelashes in little spheres of moisture. She didn’t seem ready to leave yet. That was fine, he would wait as long as it took. He longed to put his arm around her, but he resisted, content with the contact their bodies shared as they sat side by side.

A couple of cars drove past, the occupants turning to stare at them. He supposed they would look a little strange, sitting in the rain on a bitter cold day, but they weren’t the only ones out in it.

A man walked down the road towards them, his German Shepherd straining at the leash. When it saw Ash it pulled towards him, barking and dragging its owner closer.  Then it sat down and held out its paw. Ash shook it in the same way he would a man’s hand.

“Pleased to meet you, Samson,” he said.

Kate and the dog’s owner looked at him as if he’d gone crazy.

“How did you know his name?” asked the man, puffing and panting.

“He told me.”

The man pulled the dog away with an effort of will and crossed to the opposite side of the road. He looked back over his shoulder several times before disappearing from view round the back of the church. Ash put his hand over his head and felt the air behind him.

“What are you doing?” Kate asked.

“From the way that guy kept looking at me and the expression on your face I thought I’d better check I wasn’t sitting here with my wings on show.”

Kate burst out laughing.

“You told him his dog told you his name.”

“Hey, I told you, I can’t lie.”

They both laughed and Kate linked her arm through his, laying her head on his shoulder. Ash smiled at the gesture of forgiveness and leaned back on the bench.

“What made you come here?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I felt – drawn.”

It was the only word that seemed appropriate. She pushed her arms into the sleeves of the coat and buttoned it up.

“Me too. Whenever I lose you I come back here.”

And then the thought occurred to him that if they were drawn here, then so could be whoever had the dagger. He would have more reason than anyone to come here. He suddenly realised how vulnerable they were. He tensed, more alert to their surroundings and Kate, sensing the change in him, raised her head.

“What is it?” she said.

“Nothing, let’s get back to the car.”

He couldn’t sense any immediate danger, but he didn’t want to take any chances. He needed to get Kate home, get her out of the open where anyone could be a threat. It had been a mistake to let her out of the house. What on earth had he been thinking? Why did he always make these stupid mistakes?

He put his hand on the small of Kate’s back and steered her back to the car. They walked past a middle aged couple and he searched their faces for any sign of a soul he knew.

“What’s wrong?” she asked again.

“Get in the car,” he ordered.

Kate frowned at him. Had he flipped again? Then realisation dawned on her. Her body went rigid, unable to obey him, and she was rooted to the spot.

“It’s here, isn’t it? The dagger and the man that wants to kill you?”

Ash nodded. Kate’s head swivelled from side to side, her eyes raking the surroundings, expecting to see some horrific monster coming for them. She searched the shadows of the yew tree especially. Someone grabbed her by the arms and spun her around. It was Ash.

“He’s here in York and he knows we are too, that’s all I know. Now get in the car.”

He opened the door and waited for her to get in.

“But I’m not ready. I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

“You’ll be fine,” he said, trying his best to smile.

“But I thought we’d have more time,” she said as he shut the car door.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“Time is the one thing we never have enough of.”

Kate was too stunned to speak on the journey home and Ash concentrated hard on trying not to break the speed limit. She stumbled into the house in a daze and dropped onto a chair at the kitchen table. Her mind was whirling; no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t think of anything that she could do that would end the curse and send Ash home. If neither her death nor the death of the man who threatened them was the answer then what was?

 

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Blackfeather Chapter 14

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.”

He laughed.

“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.

“Why not?”

He frowned.

“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.

“Me.”

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.

“Yes.”

“So Agnes is lost?”

“Unless you…”

“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.

 

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Blackfeather Chapter 13

There were two items he did not remember buying, hidden beneath his other purchases from the boot sale. If he had left them in the box and returned them straight away things might have been different. But his curiosity got the better of him and he lifted out first the book and checked the spine and cover for title or author. There were neither. It was plain, worn and even cracked in places. He opened it at a random page and marvelled at the hand written text, in faded brown ink.

From the style of the letters it looked old. Very old. The pages were stiff and had a stretched, almost translucent quality. On closer inspection it looked like skin. From what kind of animal he had no idea.

These things are more often than not made of goat skin, aren’t they? he thought.

It felt far too fine and smooth for that and the fineness of the hairs were more like the ones on the back of his own hand.

He turned the foxed and mildewed pages one at a time, then held the book up to the light and peered closer at the dark brown spatter covering one entire page.

Is that blood?

If he’d shut the book at that moment, he might have been able to resist, but the book was already speaking to him.

This is old, rare and valuable. It won’t hurt to look, then I’ll drive back and return it.

Page upon page was filled with arcane words and occult symbols, the sort of stuff a Medieval alchemist would have been proud of and he found himself wondering if it was possible to try a few of the simpler spells.

In thrall to the book he had completely forgotten about the second item and it lay, silently waiting, at the bottom of the cardboard box.

Hours passed. With every turn of a page he had fallen deeper under the book’s spell and it continued to whisper to him.

Can I really bend someone to my will? Call up spirits to do my bidding? Bring someone back from the dead?

It looked like a prop from a Shakespearean play. But it couldn’t hurt to try, could it?

Dawn light filtered into the room as he finished the last page and closed the book.

I need sleep, he thought and staggered to his bedroom collapsing across the bed and into immediate oblivion.

When he woke, drenched in sweat and screaming, the day had gone. He sat up, on the edge of the bed, head in hands, the awful images of his nightmares still scratching at the inside of his eyelids. He had dreamed he was not one, but dozens of people, changing from one to the other at various stages of their lives. In each one he carried out acts of violence and debauchery so vile he shied away from the memory. He had tortured, raped and murdered his way through the night, with no feeling of remorse or pity for any of his numerous victims, until waking brought him back to himself. He felt sick. His empty stomach told him he needed to eat, but the thought of food, after the things he had seen, made him retch.

He lurched towards the bathroom, catching sight of his reflection in the mirror.

God, I look rough. I look ill.

He splashed cold water on his face and tried to shave, but his hands shook so much that he gave up for fear of slitting his own throat. After making himself a strong pot of coffee he approached his study.

The black book perched on the edge of the table, an innocuous item amongst the other, everyday objects that ornamented the room. He leaned against the door frame and regarded it from a distance, sipped his coffee and told himself he must take it back. Resolute, he downed the dregs from his mug and approached it. It was in his hands and poised over the edge of the packing crate when he noticed the box.

He laid the book to one side while he investigated the other item. He reached for it, caressing the smooth, plain wood. It was oak, judging by the rich honey colour. At first glance it looked like an artist’s paint box, but lifting the hinged lid dispelled that notion immediately.

The box was lined with blue velvet and shaped specially to hold its contents – a razor sharp, pointed silver dagger with an ebony handle.

He whistled at its lethal beauty, captivated by the symbols engraved on the blade and did what anyone would have done. He took it out of the box and touched the point to his finger. A bead of bright, red blood ran down the length of the metal and it was too late to save himself. He never even noticed the change as the dagger took him over.

 

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