Silver in the Ashes: Chapter 21 (draft)

The conversation with Jenny had taken longer than Viola had been budgeting for, and the sun was already almost behind the horizon by the time she finally emerged, blinking, from the warmth and chatter of the Daggers’ main room. She wouldn’t have traded any of the time she’d spent for anything, though – if nothing else, having the space to sit down and get her head in order with someone who understood what was going through her mind better than a non-werewolf ever could had done wonders when it came to calming her racing thoughts and putting some semblance of a plan together.

She still needed to go up to the Hall at some point, she was certain – if nothing else, there’d been a look in Jenny’s eye when she’d talked about the ‘bad magic’ she and Viola had both caught scent of which had implied that it was something which might need a werewolf to properly untangle – but ‘at some point’ didn’t necessarily have to mean today. Mortimer was already heading up there, after all, and if he made the check-in tonight, then they could put a plan together from there.

If he didn’t… well, at that point she’d likely have Amelia all but ordering her to head up there, so the question would be fairly moot.

Though, thinking of Amelia…

She winced, leaning against the wall to take the pressure off her wounded leg for a moment. It still hadn’t healed properly, which meant that she almost certainly should be taking the younger girl’s advice and going to see a surgeon about it – but, then again, that meant having to sit still while someone poked and prodded and asked irritating questions, and she wasn’t entirely sure she wouldn’t end up biting whoever it was just to get them to leave her alone.

And if it’s not an Order surgeon, I need to come up with a damn good reason why I was in a position to get shot in the first place. One which doesn’t include anything which implies that the Luciels’ only daughter spent an evening slumming in one of the most dangerous parts of the city.

The problem with going to a surgeon who was a member of the Order was that they tended to be fairly full up on patients already, given the ongoing war with the Sinnlenst – while most of them would be able to make the time to see her, she’d have to wait in line behind the folks who didn’t have an inherent healing factor and an ability to shrug off all but the most lethal damage.

MacConnell would likely be the best bet, if she did manage to make the time, and he had the distinct advantage of his practice being only a little off the route she’d need to take to get back to the townhouse, meaning that there was an outside chance she’d be able to get in to see him and still be back in time to help Amelia dress for dinner.

He’s going to be sarcastic at me, but I can take that provided he also actually warns me when he’s about to do something that’s going to hurt like an absolute bastard.

And, if I go see him, I avoid ‘melia going to her mother about the whole thing.

It wasn’t that she was worried about what Lady Luciel’s reaction would be  – if anything, Amelia would be likely to get in more trouble than she would over the situation – but if she had to go to a damn surgeon then she’d far rather go on her own than be dragged there by her mistress, however well-meant the action was.

I don’t mind being a servant, but I draw the line at being treated like a child. Or, worse, property.

So, Mac’s it was, then.

She had a decent idea of the best route across the city to his practice from here, even if she’d not had to run that particular trail before, and she was fairly confident that, if she took to the rooftops, she could shave at least a quarter of an hour off the time it’d take to get there.

I could do it a lot faster four-footed, of course, but I’m not losing another set of clothes to that unless I absolutely have to. Especially since the bastard Sinnlenst still have my waistcoat.

Now there was a thought. The route she was planning on taking passed within a couple of streets of the house where the Sinnlenst meeting had taken place, which meant that if she was quick…

On the one hand, it’s foolhardly, reckless, and a bloody good way to get myself shot. Again. On the other, that waistcoat cost a hell of a lot of time and money, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let one of that lot swan around in it.

And, on the third anatomically improbable hand, she was technically supposed to be a Sinnlenst herself at the moment – at least, as far as any of them knew – which meant that technically there might be absolutely nothing stopping her walking up to the front door and just plain asking for her clothes back.

At which point we find out whether Avebury’s still in favour, given he’s the one whose ‘protection’ I’m supposedly under.

The thought left a sour taste in her mouth – she spat into the gutter, trying to ignore the phantom scent of the bastard’s cologne scraping at the back of her throat.

I’m nobody’s fucking pet, least of all his. And if he puts his hands on me again, I’ll…

Smile, and make nice, and play him at his own game, because if he realised that she was actually an Order spy, she’d be dead.

Oh spirits and ancestors, I hate this.

She wasn’t meant to be a damn spy, that was the worst of it. She was perfectly bloody happy being an enforcer and a fighter – simple, clean jobs which didn’t require her to do anything else with the Sinnlenst other than punching them or stabbing them. But no, apparently now she needed to be subtle and quiet and put up with being ‘protected’ by speciesist bastards who she’d very much like to rip into bloody shreds, because said speciesist bastards also happened to be sodding blackmailers.

Right. I’m going to get my damn waistcoat back, even if I have to break into their sodding stronghold to get it. And, if I can pull one over on Avebury in the process, I’ll call it a sodding win for me and the rest of the Order.

And if things turned violent? Well, she was already on the way to see a surgeon, after all.


Meanwhile, back at the Hall, Fest was rapidly discovering that his hatred of Avebury contained new and as-yet unplumbed depths.

It wasn’t that the Sinnlenst was being particularly rude. Quite the opposite, in fact – he was being about as personable as Fest had ever seen him, all smiles and politeness which, for once, didn’t seem to be obviously a way to get a hidden barb in. No, the problem was, if anything, that he was being too godsdamn personable. The Archmage would ask a question, and, before Fest could open his mouth to respond, Avebury would come in with some perfectly-phrased very intelligent-sounding response which entirely took the wind out of his sails. And then he’d follow it up with a question which seemed exactly calculated to make him sound as though he was both hungry for knowledge and also very ahead for his supposed education level, and Verist would smile and answer it, and off the two of them would go again into conversation, leaving Fest very squarely shut out.

It wasn’t intentional on the Archmage’s part, as far as he could tell – the older magician just seemed to enjoy having someone to talk to about the minutae of magic – but Avebury? Oh, he knew exactly what he was doing.

And he’s loving every bloody second of it, if I’m any judge. He gets to make powerful friends and make me look like a fool in front of someone I desperately need to impress – gods, it’s probably like all his Midwinter gifts have come early.

Couple that with the fact that, every time Fest did try to say something, he found himself tripping over his words badly enough that he could barely get a sentence out, and he’d wound up retreating into a somewhat hurt silence, hoping against hope that Verist might actually notice that he wasn’t contributing and shift the topic on to something that he could actually talk about without getting so anxious he ended up stuttering.

Thus far, it didn’t seem to be working.

It’s only the first day. There’ll be plenty more chances to talk to him – and, if I’m lucky, Avebury won’t be able to monopolise his attention for the entire length of the apprenticeship.

Right now, however, he wasn’t feeling particularly lucky at all. He sighed and leant back against the wainscoting, letting the blur of voices wash over him for a moment – it was hardly as though either of them would notice that he wasn’t contributing – as he went through in his head what he needed to do while he was here at the Hall.

Chief amongst his priorities, of course, was the work of the apprenticeship itself. He might not have acquired the position by legitimate means (and that was a whole other problem that he was very carefully not thinking about at the moment), but that didn’t mean that he was about to pass up the opportunity to learn from one of the most accomplished living magicians in Sacaan.

Even if he seems to have forgotten that I exist.

The other major consideration, as far as he saw it, was finding out exactly what it was that Avebury was up to. He had to have some kind of a plan – why get himself apprenticed to the Archmage, if he didn’t? – but at the moment Fest had less than no idea what it was, which was a problem. Especially since, as far as anyone who knew anything about the Sinnlenst was aware, they hated magic – and yet here was Avebury, studying at the university and manipulating the assignments to get himself apprenticed to Verist, and asking the kind of questions which proved that he actually knew what he was talking about when it came to even fairly advanced ritual magic.

He’s definitely got an ulterior motive for being here. And, if I’m clever, I should be more than capable of finding out what it is.

Assuming, of course, that he didn’t manage to get himself permanently killed in the process. His vague memories of what had happened at the meeting were more than enough to prove exactly how ruthless Avebury could be, and he highly doubted that discovering Fest was an Order spy would make the Sinnlenst any more inclined to be merciful, even if he did have to work out the details of his revenge around the fact that the both of them were technically guests in the Archmage’s house.

Unless he’s here to kill the Archmage, of course. That would make things a lot easier for him.

It didn’t make much sense, as plans went: Verist was neutral, everyone knew that, and killing him would be a breach of the unspoken rules which governed the shadow war. But, then again, Avebury had had several members of the Sinnlenst murdered in cold blood for disagreeing with him, so whether he’d even consider those rules worth following was rather more in question than Fest would have liked.

He’s not going to do it. There’s no reason for him to do it.

But then, there also hadn’t been much of a reason for him to kill people at the meeting (or have them killed? Given how patchy Fest’s recollections of that night were, he had to admit he wasn’t exactly clear on the details).


He jumped, pushing away from the wall hard enough that he nearly fell. “Sorry, sir!”

“It’s quite alright,” Verist said, with what seemed like a genuine smile. “It’s been a long day for the both of you, especially with the weather closing in on the drive up. Harry tells me that you had some trouble on the road as well?”

“Nothing that we couldn’t handle,” Avebury began, but Verist held up a hand, stopping him before he could say more.

“I’d like it to hear it from Fest, if you don’t mind.”

What’s he doing? Avebury could tell this story as well as I can – probably better, if I’m honest. Unless… there’s some reason he wants to hear my version of events. “It… wasn’t much in the way of trouble,” he said, carefully. “Just a cart blocking the road.”

“With no horse or carter in sight, or so I’m told.”

“Yes. Um…” This is either going to go very well or horrifically badly. “We found- That is- There was blood. On the snow, near the cart. Enough that we think something probably happened to the people who were with it.”

Verist frowned. “That’s worrying. I’d not realised the bandits were coming down so far out of the mountains this year. That, or the wolves in the forest are getting bolder.”

“Bandits, sir?” Fest asked. Something in the Archmage’s response didn’t feel quite right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He’s supposed to be neutral, isn’t he? There’s no way he should know about the Order being active in the area, if Avebury’s right about that being what happened.

“They prey on travellers in the passes,” Verist explained. “They’re not usually bold enough to venture this near the city, though, especially with the weather likely to trap them down here.”

That makes sense, I suppose. “Has anything changed recently that might have brought them down here?”

“Not that I’m aware, though I don’t know everything that goes on around here. I’ll have Thomas or Cyra ask around in the village the next time one of them ventures out for supplies.”

Something still felt like it didn’t add up, but Fest wasn’t about to push the issue. He needed the older magician on side, after all, especially if he wanted to find out what Avebury was planning. “Do you think they’re likely to attack the Hall?”

“You need have no worries on that front,” the Archmage said, with a smile. “My ancestors built this place to last – and, more, to withstand a full siege should it come to it. If the bandits did choose to attack us, they’d find us a rather tougher nut to crack than most.”

“Fascinating,” Avebury said, with a look that Fest didn’t trust in the least. “If you don’t mind, sir, would you be able to show us over the defences tomorrow? I’d be very interested to see how your ancestors went about making this place quite so much of a fortress.”

“It would be my pleasure,” Verist said, though Fest thought he caught the edge of something which might possibly have been sarcasm in the Archmage’s tone. “For now, though, it occurs to me that I’ve been dragging the two of you all over the house with no sign of that food and drink I promised when you arrived. If you follow me down to the kitchen, I’ll see if I can’t rectify that error.”

There’s definitely something going on here, Fest thought, as he followed the other two down the broad staircase to the ground floor. The problem is, I still have less than no idea how to go about working out what it is.


By the time Mortimer made it back up to the makeshift workroom with his cargo of food and drink, the two unexpected visitors had made themselves thoroughly at home – when he shouldered the door open, he was met both with a blaze of light from the oil sconces and the sudden strong scent of burning herbs.

“Ahoy the mages!” he called, blinking away the spots the brightness had left on his vision. “If you want dinner, you’ll need to clear away enough that I can set this lot down.”

“There’s nothing set up yet,” Archer reassured him, appearing as if by magic at his shoulder and easily taking the weight of the satchel from him. “I’ve been testing a few hypotheses, but nothing which has required a full circle.”

“An’ nothin’ which has fuckin’ worked,” Sabbat interjected, looking up from his seat by the fire. The flames cast strange shadows over his face, making him look almost cadaverous – and then he stood up, and Mortimer realised with a slight shock that it wasn’t the light from the fire at all.


“What?” the assassin growled.

“You look like sodding death.”

For a moment, he thought Sabbat was going to punch him (and, judging by the short hiss of indrawn breath from beside him, he wasn’t the only one to have that impression). Then the assassin gave a short, bitter bark of laughter. “You ain’t wrong.”

“What happened?”

“You recall I said it was a long story?” Archer said, crossing to the centre table and depositing the satchel on it. “Well, that’s very much the crux of it.”

“‘s the fuckin’ artefact,” Sabbat put in. “Best we can tell, ‘s some sort o’ pre-Fall fuckery – an’, more t’the point, it ain’t the only one.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“It’s a healing amulet,” Archer explained. “Or, rather, it’s one half of a healing amulet. Our best guess is that it’s part of a paired item, one half of which was designed to be held by a mage lord, and the other by…”

“Some poor bastard they wanted t’use as a fuckin’ power source,” Sabbat finished.

“As he said. Almost certainly a prisoner or a slave, given the approximate time period and social class we’re talking about – while it’s possible they could have blood-bonded a willing bodyguard, it seems unlikely.”

“And that’s the half you have, I’m guessing.”

“Aye. An’ we’re fairly fuckin’ certain the other half’s active.”

“Which would be a good deal more useful if we knew anything about where it was or who was bonded to it,” Archer put in. He sighed, turning his attention to extricating the victuals and setting them out on the table. “As it is, we’re somewhat sailing blind at this point, which is not a position I particularly enjoy being in.”

“Where did you find it in the first place?” Mortimer asked. “Acknowledging that you’ve probably already thought of this, it seems to me that-” He broke off, a memory suddenly rising unbidden in the back of his mind. “Wait. You took it off Avebury, didn’t you? Back in that fight in the alleyway – the one I pulled Viola and Amelia out of.”

Sabbat nodded. “Bumped him an’ half-inched it out his pocket. Reckoned it’d be worth somethin’.” He coughed, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth and leaving a smear of bright blood on the sleeve of his shirt. “Y’can see how well that fuckin’ went.”

Mortimer winced. “Is there anything I can do?” It was a fairly hopeless question – he wasn’t a surgeon or a medic and, in any case, whatever this was seemed like it went beyond the usual run of mundane medicine – but he’d not have been able to live with himself if he hadn’t at least asked.

“Find a way t’get me untangled from the fuckin’ thing,” Sabbat suggested, with a humourless smile. He dropped back down into the chair, choking back another cough as he did so. “Ain’t much anyone can do else, far as I can tell.”

“That’s fair.” Given what he knew of Archer’s abilities – and the fact that the two of them had almost certainly already consulted with Verist on the subject – anything he could come up with was probably something they’d already tried and discarded. On the other hand, he supposed, it was always possible they’d overlooked something. “I’m assuming you’ve already made a list somewhere of everything you’ve worked out about it. Give me that, and I’ll see if I can’t take a few hours in Father’s library and look out some likely possibilities.”

From the look on Archer’s face, he might as well have said he could solve the damn problem there and then. “I’d- we would be in your debt, truly. Philip made sure we had access to as many as possible of the volumes which he thought might be of use, but certain others couldn’t be removed from the library without arousing suspicion, and we didn’t have enough time to look through every possible shelf. I’ve a list of where we’ve already checked in my memorandum book, alongside the names of the books we already have access to – if you copy that out, you should have more than enough information to get started.”

Ah. “I’m-” Gods, why did this have to come up now? “I can’t.”

“What do you-“

“He’s left-handed,” Sabbat said, with an eyeroll. “Ain’t you?”

“Yes. Or, at least,” he added, because damned if he wasn’t going to face this head-on, “I was left-handed.”

Archer winced, the skin over his cheekbones reddening. “Gods, I’m sorry. I didn’t think. Let me eat something, and then I’ll copy the lists out for you.”

“Thank you.” It hurt like a bastard to admit that he couldn’t do it, but better that than taking an hour to laboriously print something with his off-hand and spending the next day with his fingers cramping too badly to hold a sword. “There’s blood in the brown glass bottle at the bottom of the satchel. Cyra says it’s half fresh, half preserved – she didn’t want it to congeal before you had the chance to drink it.”

“Gods bless her,” the vampire said, with what sounded like heartfelt gratitude. “And yourself, for fetching it.” He pulled the bottle from the bag, uncorked it, and, in one motion, emptied what seemed to be fully half of the contents down his throat.

I’ll never get used to that, Mortimer thought. He’d served alongside enough vampires that he’d learned to keep his reaction fully internal, but there was still something deeply unsettling in seeing someone swallowing down blood as though it was wine – or, in this case, water.

After a moment, Archer took the bottle away from his lips and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, leaving an almost identical smear of blood to the one which was currently drying on Sabbat’s sleeve. “Ah, gods, that’s better. I can feel my mind beginning to work again.” He pulled a memorandum book from his pocket, opening it to a page entirely filled with row upon row of neat copperplate. “Now, about that list.”


So we got ourselves another ally. Ain’t entirely certain that’s a good thing.

Not that he was going to reject the help, mind. They’d come up empty enough on their own, and Mortimer could get around the house a fuck of a lot easier than either of them could.

Problem was, it also meant someone else who knew what was going on.

Three can keep a secret, if two of ’em are dead. Lost track of how many we’ve roped into this one now, and that ain’t making me any happier about our chances of the Sinnlenst not finding out about it.

And if they did find out?

Depends who has the other half of the bastard thing, doesn’t it? If it’s one of them, then…

Then there was fuck-all else he could do about it for the moment, short of taking himself back down to the city and killing whoever it was (and hoping against hope that doing that didn’t just wind up as an elaborate way to commit suicide – which, given the way the boxes seemed to work, it almost certainly would).

No. Stick around here, try and find a way to get that fucking hook out. Can go hunting after that.

Assuming there is an after.

He’d told Archer he’d tell him if it got worse. He’d also been lying through his teeth when he said it.

Ain’t much he can do about it, anyhow. Save irritate the both of us by fretting.

Truth be told, he was worrying about Archer as well. The bastard’d gone and got himself shot in the sixdamn head, for the sake of the Lady, and here he was walking around trying to pretend that nothing was wrong.

I know for a fucking fact that you don’t heal that fast – or, if you do, it’s on account of the fact you’re burning more than you’ve got to spare.

He’d give him more of his blood, if that was what it took – wouldn’t enjoy it, but he’d do it – but for the fact that he was fairly fucking certain that, between the coughing and everything else, he likely didn’t have enough left to spare.

Gods. Feels like the blood sweat you get from strong magic, only… on the inside.

He’d not made that connection before, and he wasn’t entirely sure he liked what it implied – no, fuck that, he knew he didn’t like what that implied. If that was what was happening, then…

Then we need to keep fucking working on this, that’s all. Same as we already did, so nothing’s fucking changed.

Except the fact that internal bleeding was a fuck of a way to go.

Won’t come to that. If we can’t fix it, I’ll take my own way out. Ain’t giving whatever bastard’s got the other side of this the satisfaction.

And Archer’d let him do it, if he’d any sense.

Course, there’s always another way out of this.

He was fairly certain Archer had thought of that long before he had, though. And, if Archer’d thought of it and hadn’t brought it up, then that meant he likely reckoned it wasn’t worth trying.

Besides, already seen what happened to Caine. Rather die than that.

But if there was a chance…

Then it’s the last fucking thing we try before the blade, and maybe not even then. Because if it goes wrong, he’s the one who’s going to have to fucking deal with the aftermath.

He looked across at the vampire, head down and busy working on the copy of the list of books he’d promised to soldier-boy. He already looked better for the drink, even if, to Sabbat’s eyes, he was still paler and more drawn than he should’ve been.

Still got a long way to go before either of those is the best option. And, Lady willing, neither of ’em will be.


[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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