Blood and Ashes
The Gryphons have a secret. And someone thinks Ana knows it.
Back in May, things were heating up between healer Ana Miradwen and the King’s Enforcer, Vincent Ondarr. Then Vincent stopped seeing Ana abruptly, only to resurface in July—with a fiancée. Ana’s hurt, but she’s angry too. When Vincent summons her to his office, she plans to tell him off.
But Vincent has a proposition for her, and not one she expects. A half-breed rights group called the Gryphons is fighting for change—but it may be a front for something darker. Vincent needs Ana to join the Gryphons and investigate.
Ana’s happy to help, especially since it means spending time with a couple of gorgeous elf men. Never mind that Vincent thinks they’re smugglers. But when someone tries to kill Ana, she realizes that she’s in way over her head. Only it’s too late to back out.
I wished Ash would stop playing battle songs. The crowd was getting agitated.
I sat up straighter in my chair, trying to keep an eye on everyone. At the first sign of real trouble, I planned to jump up and stand between Ash and any would-be attackers.
Which was absurd, considering I was a half-breed elf healer who didn’t know the first thing about fighting, while Ash was a troll who’d spent a year in jail once for almost killing a human during a brawl. But no one in Carafell harmed healers. And lately it seemed to me that half of Carafell wanted to see Ash dead.
The weather didn’t help. It had been a stifling day, but now, in early evening, the wind was up. I heard a few distant rumbles of thunder. It only added to the restless feeling in the tavern, where some fifty people had jammed into the common room to hear Ash play.
Most of them came for the music. Some were there out of curiosity. And a few just wanted to cause trouble.
I glanced at Ash to see if he’d noticed. He sat by himself on the tiny stage, a ball of magelight hanging above him. The light gleamed on the dark wood of his amon, a traditional troll instrument that looked a bit like a small cello and sounded like a god’s command or a lover’s laugh, depending on how Ash plucked the metal strings.
Ash himself was obviously lost in the music. He’d been playing nearly an hour, and his green skin shone with sweat. We’d walked the six miles to the tavern since we couldn’t find a taxi coach that would take trolls, so his cheap, brown trousers and white shirt were stained with dust and sweat.
I was used to the way Ash looked, but to almost everyone else in the room I supposed seeing a troll up close was a novelty in itself. Trolls were just plain different—and scary. Ash wore his black hair in a thick braid that fell to his waist; he had pointed ears like an elf, but they stuck out like bat wings. And even the soft magelight didn’t hide his claws, his flared jaw that made him look as though he could bite through trees, and a muscular frame even a human male would be proud of. At least no one could see his mouthful of fangs.
I looked around the room again. Every bench seat was filled, mostly with elves and humans, although I did see a few vampires and half-breeds. No trolls, of course. The Bunch of Grapes didn’t serve trolls. Ash was undoubtedly the first to cross its threshold.
Not that that was much of a treat. The ceiling was so low even I had to fight the urge to duck beneath the exposed beams, and right now the room smelled of sweat and spilled beer. The door was propped open to let in a breeze, but even more people had crowded into the back, standing up to see the stage.
It was the standers that worried me, mostly. I’d heard some whispering, but more than that I could just feel that something was wrong. I’d been accompanying Ash to performances now for about six weeks—not a long time, but more than long enough to get a feel for ugly crowds, since about half of his performances ended in trouble.
The landlord caught my eye and pointed at the door. Time to get out. I agreed.
I stood up and edged over to the stage. The galloping notes and triumphant chords, underpinned by the amon’s distinctive drone, were rising to a conclusion at last. I wished I could just listen like everyone else.
The song ended, and while the crowd applauded I reached out and tweaked Ash’s ankle, above the brim of his boot.
He opened his eyes and looked down at me. I raised my eyebrows.
That was all the signal he needed. He stood up and bowed, packed the amon away in its leather case, and jumped down from the stage without a word.
I led the way out, pushing through the crowd toward the door. Most people drew back to keep from touching Ash, although I was glad to hear a few folks compliment him as he passed.
Maybe there wouldn’t be trouble after all. We reached the door without incident, and I took a deep breath of clean, rain-scented wind.
The landlord met us just outside. He was an elf, tall and slender, and I’d flirted with him shamelessly to get Ash the engagement. I thought I’d better keep it up now, even though I just wanted to get home before the storm hit.
“It feels good out here,” I told him, with a smile that gave a different meaning to my words.
He grinned back at me, but he seemed distracted. I heard voices behind him as the crowd started to talk, and the noise got louder and louder. “Nice music,” the landlord said. “Thanks for coming.” He glanced at Ash, who had retreated into the street to wait for me. “I didn’t think he’d be that good.”
He held out Ash’s pay. I took the coins and let him brush my fingers with his more than he needed to. I remembered to simper a little.
Then he was gone and we were free. I hurried over to join Ash. “Let’s get out of here while we can.”
“Not a bad crowd,” Ash said, but he sighed. We fell in step on the hard-packed dirt road. “I don’t know if it was worth it, though. All this walking for a few marks.” He slung the strap of the amon’s case over his shoulder.
“It’s worth it,” I said. “It’s not the money, it’s the exposure. Get people used to seeing trolls, and liking what they see and hear—”
“They don’t like me, Ana,” Ash said. He sounded tired. He’d played an all-night performance the night before, at a troll tavern where I wasn’t welcome, and then he’d spent the day working at his current job, helping build a brick warehouse. And now he had to walk six miles just to get home.
“They do like you, or most of them do,” I said. “They really like your music. It’s just that there’s always one or two bad apples in the bunch.”
Ash put his arm around my waist. We weren’t lovers—he was always reminding me he wasn’t interested in elves—but trolls weren’t shy about touching each other. I’d dropped by Ash’s building site a few days before to tell him about tonight’s performance, and he and one of his workmates had been taking a break in the shade, their arms linked as they talked.
I’d braided my hair, but the ribbon had come untied, and the braid was half-unraveled. A gust of wind lifted the loose strands. My hair was too dark a gold for a pure-blooded elf, but Ash seemed to like it. He was always playing with it.
He said, “I appreciate everything you’re doing for me, Ana. I’m just not sure it’s doing any good.”
Before I could answer, I saw Ash’s ears twitch and heard footsteps behind us.
We both stopped and turned around. Three humans were approaching us from the Bunch of Grapes, one man with a bully’s sneer and two dumb-looking thugs flanking him. Ash sighed again.
I stepped forward between them and Ash. The bully looked me up and down and said, “You look like you could use a real man, sweetheart. Someone who’s not green.” He and his thugs guffawed as though he’d said something funny.
“Go away,” I said. “You’re not impressing me, and we don’t have anything to prove.”
The bully stopped next to me—too close for my comfort. I resisted the urge to take a step back. “I’ve got what it takes to impress you. Come on with me, sweetie. I’ll make it worth your while.”
The two thugs stood on either side of me, hemming me in. I felt a jolt of alarm. We were on the edge of Carafell, and the road here was deserted, overhung with trees and edged with thick bushes. Except for the pub and a few roofs in the distance, we were in the middle of nowhere.
Behind me Ash said softly, “It’s not a good idea to threaten a healer.”
“Who’s threatening?” The bully smirked at me. He put his hand under my chin and tilted my head back. “Elf and human make a good mix. Let’s try it.”
I kicked him between the legs—not as hard as I’d have liked, since my robes hampered my movements. He grunted and let go of me. Before he could retaliate, Ash pushed past me and slammed into the man.
I staggered back to let them fight. Ash had dumped his amon in the road. I picked it up and hugged it.
Ash was bigger than two of the three humans and undoubtedly stronger than any of them, and he had claws and fangs. I knew he could kill all three if he needed to.
But he was careful. He pulled his punches, kept his claws to himself, and didn’t even open his mouth to threaten a bite. It was almost painful to watch, except that few of the humans’ blows landed. Ash knew how to fight.
Then the bully pulled a knife.
The Significant Deaths of Cage and Constance
Cage Reynolds wanted to die.
Having survived two world wars, the death of his is wife, and innumerable suicide attempts, Cage is lonely and depressed. He has a secret, one that defies modern science, and his life is not as it seems. He’s 169 years old, and he cannot die.
On the day that he is pushed in front of a bus by a mysterious man, Cage meets Clementine, a lively young woman who knows more about Cage than she is letting on. She works for Constance Sullivan, a wealthy businesswoman who trades in antiquities. When Cage is lured into Constance’s world, he sees something that even he can hardly believe–something that changes his life forever.
In two days time I will be a hundred and sixty-nine years old, despite my youthful appearance.
Immortality is a weight that becomes heavier as each day passes, and I find myself screaming internally, longing to find my place in this world of mortal people. It’s not that I elude death, in fact quite the opposite: death follows me like a stray dog anxiously hoping for scraps. I am tired and lonely, and I find life in the twenty-first century uninspiring. So much has changed, and yet so much is still the same. I have come full circle, living back in my hometown of Salisbury, where a hundred and thirty-nine years ago I received news that I had just a few weeks to live.
It might be considered ironic that I went on to outlive everyone who drew breath in 1872.
I wake up to the sound of my alarm clock. It is six o’clock, and the sun is shining across my face through the open curtains—I left them open last night to admire the full moon. I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling as the alarm clock continues to ring. It sits on the headboard of my bed, which has shelves built into it, with a few light-reading books and a remote control. I slap the clock with my hand, and it stops ringing.
“Well, Micajah Reynolds, it’s time to rise,” I say to myself, as though the instruction will push me into leaving the warm bed. I decide to ignore my command and stare at the ceiling for a few minutes longer.
I talk to myself quite a lot, which I understand can be considered a sign of madness. If madness was my only flaw, I might actually sleep at night.
I suffer from depression. In fact, I probably always have. I can’t take anti-depressants, because drugs have no effect on my body. I haven’t been intoxicated since 1872. I try to avoid over-analysing my life—I did plenty of that a hundred years ago—and I have created a peaceful routine through which I live each day, one at a time. However, sometimes the depression subdues logic, and I find myself staring at the ceiling trying to talk myself into getting up.
I pull the remote control off the headboard, pressing a button as I swing it over my head and aim it towards an old wooden chest at the foot of my bed. A hi-tech television rises slowly through the lid of the chest, lighting up with footage from a news channel. I quickly mute the sound and roll out of the bed.
Breakfast is one of those routines I created to help fool myself into believing I am normal. I do not need to eat, so I choose food based purely on what tastes nice. Eating is a hobby that serves no purpose other than enjoyment. I am also a big tea drinker. I have a cupboard full of teas from around the world, and I savour every cup.
My kitchen is modern, but with an old-style appearance. The Belfast sink has a waste disposal unit underneath, and the Rayburn oven is computer controlled and also feeds the central heating radiators around the house. The computer-controlled light switches are styled like 1930s switches and can be programmed to switch lights on and off automatically. I have a lot of computer-controlled devices in my house. Perhaps my memories of the nineteenth century allow me the kind of hindsight that modern generations lack when it comes to personal comforts. You don’t know what it’s like to be cold until you have slept in a house with no double-glazing, damp-proofing, or central heating in the middle of winter, with only ordinary blankets to keep you warm.
With such memories clear in my mind, I have perhaps over-compensated with regards to the comfort in my Georgian house. It has under-floor heating throughout the ground floor, especially needed in the kitchen where the ceramic floor tiles always feel cold, climate control throughout the entire house, solar panels, a wind generator, self-cleaning glass in the windows, and computer controlled doors, windows, heating and lighting, etcetera.
The climate control is vital for the safekeeping of my antiquities, which I have collected over the years. Paintings and artwork hang around the house, along with a couple of tapestries, while my really special artefacts are stored in an underground bunker, built under the library. The bunker is bombproof, fireproof, and waterproof and has a sophisticated alarm system that keeps the contents safe. I’d like to think that my home is secure.
Sitting at the kitchen breakfast bar, I needlessly dwell on how mundane my life becomes when I stop actively pursuing excitement. It is at this point I usually head down into the bunker to remind myself of the interesting events that have happened in my life. However, as I sit waiting for the coffee percolator to finish brewing coffee, I become aware of someone in the kitchen with me.
Startled, I jump to my feet and turn to see a man standing nearby, facing the wall. It is as though he is a shop mannequin, except he is almost transparent. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as I experience that feeling of uncertainty and dread that comes with the realisation that someone has broken into my private Fort Knox.
I step slowly towards the man, whose back is facing me, and I can see the tea cabinet on the wall through his body. I don’t believe in ghosts, because I am content with the rational explanations offered by logical thinking intellects. However, I cannot think of a logical reason as to why a semi-transparent man is standing in my kitchen with his back to me.
“Hello?” I say. The man does not reply. I step closer to him and place my hand on his back, only to find that he is not solid. My hand feels cold as it enters his body. I recoil and step back in case he reacts.
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