“So. Viola Cervanso, eh?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Viola said, keeping her eyes resolutely fixed on Jenny’s face. The terror of the Sacaask slums might look like nothing so much as an grey-haired werewolf matriarch with a couple of missing teeth and a mess of old scars on her arms, much like any other clan elder back home, but there was a sheer power rolling off her which made Viola very aware of the fact that she was a) a long way out of her home territory and b) completely and utterly alone. “I was told you wanted to speak to anyone who came asking after Archer.”
“I do. You’re the lass who my Radish has been running messages for, ain’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. The situation’s changed since she brought me Archer’s note, and I was hoping I could find her and ask if she knew where it was he and Sabbat were going, since he didn’t make it explicit in the letter.”
“And what makes you think she’d know a thing like that, girl?”
“I… She’s obviously trustworthy, or he wouldn’t have entrusted even a coded letter to her. I was hoping that, even if he’d not told her outright, she might have overheard something.”
“So you’re accusing her of listening at keyholes, are you?”
Careful. What would one of the clan elders expect from a question like that? “No, ma’am. I’m saying she’s smart enough to keep her ears open and her mouth shut, especially when it comes to business that might go sour.”
Jenny stared at her for a long minute. Then she threw back her head and laughed, long and loud, her gold fang glittering in the snow-light streaming through the window. “Good lass! You’re not far from the mark, though she’s a few more years yet before she can do that without getting herself distracted by every passing butterfly.”
Thank the ancestors for that. Apparently grandmothers are the same the world over – or, at least, werewolf matriarchs are. “Is she here, then?”
“Aye, she is. But she’s not who you need to be talking to if you’re asking after where those two boys have taken themselves off to.” She settled back in her chair, taking another long swig from her tankard, and looked Viola up and down, her gaze seeming to take in everything from her messy braid to the mud caked between her toes. “I’m taking it you know the both of them well enough to know what it is they’re up to.”
“Honestly, ma’am, all I know is what Archer told me in the letter – that they were leaving town urgently, and that he’d send the location on when he could. I’m not going to make any assumptions about what’s happened, but I haven’t had anything from him about where they’re staying, and if it’s where I think it is then there’s something they need to know pretty sodding urgently.”
“And that’d be?”
How much can I tell her? How much should I tell her? Jenny wasn’t in the Order – at least, as far as Viola knew – but she was apparently close enough to Archer and Sabbat that they’d trusted her with at least some of the information Viola was after. And that’s something to tease out when I’ve got more time and fewer catastrophes to worry about. “There’s someone headed up that way who likely means the both of them harm. I don’t think he knows they’re going to be there, but if he finds out, it’s not going to go well.”
“And what’re you planning on doing, if I tell you where they are? Running on up to tell ’em yourself?”
That’s not such a bad idea. I know I said I wouldn’t, but the Hall’s not that far off when you’re running fourlegged, and if I can get there fast enough to overtake the bastard… She shook her head, dismissing the possibility. The two apprentices were well away by this point, and Mortimer was already on his way up – if he didn’t manage to overtake them, she’d have no chance. Maybe I’m just chafing at the idea that I should be stuck in the city when the real fight’s happening out there.
“Ha! Caught you there, didn’t I, girl? You’re after racing in to save the day, ain’t you?”
“Yes you are, and don’t tell me otherwise. I’ve enough cubs of my own to know that look on your face. And I’m not saying I disagree with you – the two of ’em might well have stirred up more trouble than they can put down, and an extra pair of hands’d be a welcome addition.”
“What do you mean, ma’am?”
“Let me answer your question with a question. When was the last time you saw either of those boys in person?”
The night of the Sinnlenst meeting. Feels like half a world away now. “A couple of days ago.”
“They both look alright to you? Healthy, happy, not stinking of blood and bad magic?”
“I don’t know what you-” Wait. Back in that alleyway, after we’d got out of the Sinnlenst meeting. I asked Sabbat about that strange scent on him and- “Oh Ancestors fucking forfend, I’m an idiot!”
Jenny chuckled. “No, you’re just young. Young and a bit too inclined to run headfirst into things without thinking your options through, hm?”
She wasn’t wrong. “Dammit. I know where they are, Sabbat as good as told me!”
“Did he now? And where would that be?”
“When I asked him about that scent – he said they were going to see V-“
“-to see Verist about whatever it is that boy’s managed to get himself blood-bonded to?” Jenny finished, with a grin. “Aye, he told me as much. And I don’t mind confirming it to you, no matter what he’d have to say on the matter.” She leaned forward, her expression suddenly serious. “Those two are like to need all the help they can get, even without whoever it is you’re worrying about coming up behind ’em. And I reckon you know as well as I do why that’d be.”
Cold blood and living metal and dark water. “Whatever that thing is he’s picked up – the talisman – it’s… not good.”
“Smart lass. Now I trust Verist to be able to tease out what it is and how to fix it on an academic level – the lad’s good for that, even if he’s less than useful when it comes to the finer points of subterfuge. What I don’t trust him to be able to do is deal with anything else that might come of the whole mess.”
“And you think I can?”
“I think you’d be better placed to help than he will. Especially because those two boys aren’t likely to be rational when it comes to anything to do with each other.”
What does she… oh. That. “I don’t-“
“You can see it as well as I can, girl. About the only people who can’t are the two of them, and they’re going to get their fool selves killed because of it if they’re not careful.” She paused, took another drink. “And here you come, bright-eyed and bold as brass, all ready to tear off up the mountain and pull them out of trouble – well, I’d be a fool not to give you what you need to help ’em out now, wouldn’t I?”
Spirits dammit, I want to go and help, but I promised Amelia I’d stay. And if Mortimer’s headed out that way anyhow then I’m just going to get in the way, and-
“Chewing your own tail ain’t going to get anything done ‘cept blunt your teeth and give you bruises. I’ve an interest in making sure those two come back down alive, so I’ll tell you what I know. And when I’ve told you, you take it away and do what you will.”
So it’s still up to me. Well, the least I can do is hear her out.
And if something in Jenny’s story meant that she had to head up to the Hall?
We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Whenever that is.
By the time Mortimer reined his horse to a stop in the stable yard the weather was beginning to close in, the clouds rolling down to swallow the peaks of the mountains and skim the very tops of the trees. They’d be lower than that before the storm broke, of course – for now, he had time enough to see to his mount and get his gear in order.
And try to work out exactly how I’m supposed to put everything that’s happened in the last few years into words, I suppose.
He’d run through the conversation half a hundred times in the privacy of his own head on the road up, but now that he was likely only a few moments away from the real thing, all his practice seemed as much use as stabbing at straw targets.
Gods, I’m shaking like a raw recruit. The last thing I need is to go to pieces before I can even get a word out.
He sighed and rested his head against the mare’s side, stroking her neck absently. “Sorry. I’m no use to you when I’m like this, am I?”
And now I’m talking to my horse. Well, it’s a step up from talking to myself, I suppose. Or sideways, depending on how you look at it.
“Let me have a moment and I’ll get you clear of your tack and properly rubbed down. Might take me longer with the one arm, but that’s no excuse for leaving you without proper attention when you’ve worked so damn hard to get me up here.”
Something bumped against his boot – not hard, but insistently, as though whatever it was was firmly of the opinion that he should be paying a good deal more attention to it than he currently was.
“And hello to you too, puss. Don’t worry, I’ve not been so long away from home that I’ve forgotten my manners.”
The barn cat, a sleek tortoiseshell with a notch taken out of one of her ears, wound herself around his legs, purring loud enough for an animal three times her size. He crouched down and ran his hand over her warm fur, swallowing hard around the sudden lump in his throat.
“It’s good to see you too, Patches. Did you miss me, or are you just hoping that I’ve brought you something to eat?”
Patches had been a skinny kitten the last time he’d seen her – all big eyes and fluffed-up fur and a tail sticking straight up behind her like a tiny flag. Now she was as big and sleek as any of the other barn cats and, apparently, quite as adept at recognising who was likely to be a soft touch when it came to being fussed and made much of – as he ran his hand along the soft curves of her ear, she bumped her forehead against his leg again with a chirruping meow, before jumping up onto his shoulders and draping herself around his neck like a particularly warm and deafening scarf.
“I’ll take that as a yes to both, then,” Mortimer said, once he was certain that she’d got herself settled. “Now if you stay put while I see to our friend here’s tack, I’ll see if I can’t find you something in the saddlebags. No promises, though – I didn’t have enough time when I was packing to set something aside specifically for you.” He stood up, reached for the mare’s bridle – and then froze in place as the gentle litany of sounds from the stable was broken by a very familiar voice.
“You needn’t have set off in quite such a hurry. Though I won’t say that I’m not happy that you did.”
The sound of Patches’ purring must have masked the other man’s footsteps. That, or he was tired enough that he wasn’t paying proper attention.
Neither of which are good enough excuses for not keeping an eye on the door. If that’s the calibre of situational awareness I’m capable of at the moment, the Order would have every right to send me packing.
“Father,” he said, without turning around, and allowed himself a moment of brief pride for how little his voice shook. “I didn’t think you’d come to meet me out here.”
“I-” His father sighed, a bone-deep, weary sound. “I didn’t want our reunion to be in that damn front hall. Not after the last time we spoke.”
“You mean when you threw me out?” It came out harsher than he’d intended, the words ripped raw from somewhere deep inside him, but he couldn’t find it in himself to call it back or make excuses for his outburst. He’d not intended this to be an argument – hadn’t his father written that damn apology, after all? – but now it came to it, there was a certain vicious pleasure in giving voice to even a sliver of the rage and resentment and grief he’d held caged under his ribs since the last time the two of them had exchanged words. “Or are you still going to tell me that it was my own choice – that you gave me every opportunity to stay a part of this family, and that I threw it back in your face?”
“You still remember that?” Verist asked, quietly. Then, before Mortimer could reply: “No, of course you do. I’m sorry. I said… too many things I regret, that day.”
I know. I remember every single word. Hard not to, when they’d seared themselves into his memory. But the sheer weight of sorrow and weariness in his father’s voice seemed to fall on the fire of his anger like a heavy snow, damping it down to a smouldering ember in his chest.
Fight back, damn you! Shout! Tell me I’m a young fool, that I don’t know what I’m doing! Tell me I’m headstrong and arrogant and stupid! Tell me you’re ashamed to call me a son of yours! Tell me-
“Turn around. Please. I can’t talk to your back.”
It was the ‘please’ that broke him. A direct order he could have refused – the more so because it would imply that his father was treating him like a soldier under his command – but the fact that he’d said ‘please’, and that he’d said it in a tone that suggested he didn’t expect the request to be granted…
Gods. What am I supposed to do now? How do I-
Let’s get this over with, I suppose.
He took a deep breath, steadying himself, and turned around, closing his eyes at the last minute so he wouldn’t have to see the look in his father’s eyes.
I know, I’m a coward. But for him to pity me for this… no. No, I’d rather cowardice than face that.
“You look well,” Verist said, after a moment. He didn’t sound as though he was lying – if anything, he sounded a little surprised, as though he’d come down the morning after one of the nights the two of them had sat up drinking together and found Mortimer already at the breakfast table. “You’ve been remembering to eat properly, then?”
“Da!” And all of a sudden he was eight again, whining his embarrassment as his father checked him over anxiously after his first hunting trip. “Of course I have!”
Verist laughed. “And who was it who once spent three days forgetting meals because he was trying to adapt an alarm spell for tracking deer?”
It’s hardly as though you’ve not done similar! Mortimer retorted, silently, but the memory came back sharp and clear, bringing with it a wave of sudden bittersweet nostalgia. “You remember that?”
“Of course I do. Not least because I was the one on the receiving end of the tongue-lashing from Cyra when she discovered her cooking had been going to waste.”
He remembered that, too, mostly because it was one of the first times he’d seen his father completely at a loss for words. She was right to be annoyed, though. She was a good cook, and the least I could have done was actually turn up and appreciate the effort she put in. “Didn’t she threaten to hit you with a ladle?”
“She did. I think she’d have done it, too, if I hadn’t promised to keep a better eye on you from then on.” He paused, then went on, more deliberately cheerily: “At least she’s unlikely to have many complaints about how you’ve been keeping since she last saw you.”
“She’s still here?”
“She is. I think she’s worried I’ll starve to death if she’s not here to keep an eye on me.”
“That sounds like her,” Mortimer agreed, feeling the corners of his mouth twitch upward. Gods, but I’ve missed this. I’ve missed you, da.
He’d lived at the Hall for several years after his mother had died, muddling along in companionable silence with a father who seemed to view him as equal parts apprentice and fellow-magician. It’d been an unconventional upbringing by most peoples’ standards, certainly – eating dinner on the floor of the study amidst piles of texts, spending days out in the wilderness working on deciphering old game-calling chants and teasing out the core of old magic at the heart of them, night-time trips to the roof to study the movement of the stars through Mother Moon’s firmament – but it’d been a good one, and he’d always felt as though his father and Cyra were doing the best they could for him.
And then he’d decided he wanted to join up.
He’d known his father wasn’t going to approve – Verist hadn’t been subtle when it came to his feelings about the war – but he’d been certain that he’d be able to convince him that things were different now. Yes, people still died, of course they did, but the medical advances of the last few years had all but put paid to the slow deaths by dysentery and wound-fever that had taken so many of Verist’s friends. And the Adakari were starting to flag, sick of losing good soldiers to the front on the Efirasi border while also trying to put down rebellions in the outlying regions of their empire – it was a different war now, with different tactics, and Sacaan needed new blood at the front lines.
None of his arguments had worked. And, when he’d finally stood up and said that he didn’t need his father’s permission anyway, that he was an adult now and could make his own damn choices, he’d all but heard the first grinding creaks of the ice cracking under his boots.
There’d been no going back after that. Only harsh words, and a headlong ride down to the city, his chest burning and his heartbeat thudding in his ears. He’d barely taken the time to stable his horse and clean off the worst of the road-dust before signing on with the first company that’d take him – and, only then, when the ink was dry, realising that he’d joined up with the very same company his father had served with.
At the time, he’d thought it a fitting revenge. Looking back, it’d been the last pebble which broke the ice sheet. He’d ridden back to the Hall the next day, his new sword banging at his hip, the starched collar of his uniform jacket digging into his jaw, and a fire burning in his chest which had swallowed every last vestige of caution, every whispered thought telling him that there might be a way to do this which wouldn’t shatter everything.
And his father had met him at the door. Ushered him inside. Looked him up and down, with something behind his eyes that could have been anger and could have been fear, and could have been a mixture of them both.
He didn’t need to remember what had happened next – every word of it had been etched onto the glass of his memory clear enough that time had done little to dull the edges. And, when he’d mounted his horse and spurred it back down the narrow passageway out onto the main road, he’d done so with his father’s voice still ringing in his ears and the pain of his banishment burning like a brand across his shoulders.
The pain had eased with time, fading from fresh wound to aching scar, and he’d almost begun to believe that he’d pushed away that part of his past entirely, forged himself a new life out of the shattered remnants of the old. And it had worked, for a time.
But then the letter had shown up, bringing the apology he’d hardly dared to hope for, and suddenly all his carefully-constructed plans had fallen apart in the face of a reality which seemed like nothing so much as a strange and unlooked-for waking dream. And now he was here, back at the Hall, with Patches draped across his shoulders and – he opened his eyes, blinking back tears as he did so – his father standing facing him, leaning on his cane and smiling – smiling – almost as though the last few years had never happened.
He looks… old. And tired, too. I know Cyra’s doing her best to make sure he remembers to eat, but is she reminding him he needs to sleep as well? And that he’s not young enough to go heading out into the snow in his shirtsleeves any more?
“You needn’t look at me like that,” Verist said, with a wry smile, almost as though he’d been reading Mortimer’s thoughts. “I might be greyer than I was when you last saw me, but I’m still well clear of the pyre.” He nodded towards Mortimer’s left shoulder. “And still in possession of all my limbs, which is more than can be said for you.”
“I was wondering when you’d notice.” And I’ll take a joke over pity or ‘I told you so’ any day of the damn week.
“Does it hurt still?”
“A little.” Truth be told, the ache wasn’t so much in his shoulder as in the missing arm itself, a cramping, burning feeling running through from his elbow to the tips of his fingers. “They call it phantom pain, I think, though there’s nothing bloody phantom about it.”
Verist nodded. “I knew a few friends back in my time at the front who said similar. It went away in time for some of them – for the others, treating it the same way you’d treat pain in any other limb seemed to work, at least in the short term.” He stepped forward, leaning heavily on his cane, and held out his other hand. “I know I’ve not been the father I should have been, and I’m sorry for that. But if you’re here, then…”
Mortimer moved without thinking, pulling his father into a tight hug and pressing his face against the older man’s shoulder. Verist’s bones felt sharp against his skin, but the arm which wrapped around him and hugged him tight still felt as strong and reassuring as it had when he’d been a small child clinging to his da’s waist.
“Easy there,” Verist murmured, reaching up to place his hand gently against the back of Mortimer’s head. “Easy.”
He could feel the tears starting again, but this time he let them come, resting his head on his father’s shoulder as a wave of bone-deep weariness swept over him. There were so many things he still needed to do, so many conversations which still needed to happen, but for the moment all he wanted was to stay here and let the rest of the world go hang. There’d be time enough to deal with what was coming.
[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]
[Author’s note: this is first/discovery draft content – I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2022 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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