The pine forests smelt like home, and freedom.
She’d ditched her clothes in an Order bolt-hole outside the gate – there were enough werewolves in the ranks of the Order that a set of spare gear showing up there wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary, and the fact that she’d stashed it neatly away in one of the specific places set aside for that would go a long way towards reassuring Amelia that she hadn’t been abducted or murdered – and the wind felt good as it streaked past her ears and ruffled the fur along her back.
She was made for this, after all. All werewolves were, when you got right down to it – there were advantages to walking two-legged and having opposable thumbs, and nobody’d deny that fact, but there was nothing that beat the sheer joy and exaltation of running through a moonlit night with the wind in your fur and the snow under your paws and the pine branches latticing the sky above you.
And I’m faster than that bastard’ll ever be like this. Not to mention the fact that he’s a Turned – they can’t even do that halfway-shift the vampires can, which means he’s limited to two legs. And in this snow, that’s going to slow him down even more than normal.
She could smell the storm now, the air tight and fizzing with ozone. If she’d been two-legged, she’d have been looking for shelter – even werewolves avoided being caught on the mountain in twolegs form in this kind of weather if they could – but with four paws under her and a thick coat of fur to shield her from the worst of the wind and snow, she was more than happy to press on into the teeth of whatever awaited her further up the mountainside.
You never know – maybe enough’ll go right when I get up there that I can spend an hour or two hunting on the other side of this.
She’d been meaning to head out hunting in the forest with Seb some time this winter anyhow, but the general whirl of high society balls and parties hadn’t let up enough for her to take the time away from chaperoning Amelia, or for Seb to be able to step back from his duties as butler for the family for a couple days.
He really needs to tell them to hire someone else to share the workload, but he’s too damn stubborn to admit that it might be too much for him to manage by himself.
The thing was, the Luciels would almost certainly agree to hiring extra hands if he brought the question to them – but then he’d have to train up the new servants, and by definition they’d not know the house and the family as well as he did, and…
And by the time we get to that bit of the argument he’s already decided that it’s too much work and effort and that he can handle everything by himself and it’s not worth bothering anyone else about.
She loved her twin dearly, but sometimes he frustrated her more than she could put into words.
Let’s be honest, though, I haven’t exactly been helping these last few weeks, have I?
And that way lay chewing your tail over things you couldn’t fix, and a spiral of thoughts which’d do less than nothing to help her get to the Hall faster.
I’ll give over more of my hours to helping him out when we get back home, how’s that? After all, I suspect Amelia’s going to want me to stay close for the foreseeable, and she’s likely going to be more of a target going forward thanks to that stupid plan of hers.
Which is why I’m halfway up the mountain and not, you know, back in the city sodding protecting her.
But if she’d not decided to head up to the Hall then Mortimer and the others wouldn’t know Caine was on his way, and if they didn’t know Caine was on his way, then they’d not know to be on the lookout for him, and if they didn’t know to be on the lookout for him, then the odds of something going horrifically wrong would be pretty solidly through the sodding roof.
She’ll understand. And besides, Seb’s as good a bodyguard as I am. Better, sometimes – he’s less likely to get his hackles up over minor things, which means he’s got more of a nose for the real dangers.
Speaking of a nose for danger…
She lowered her head, sniffing at the base of the nearest tree. The new-fallen snow had muffled most of the scents that she’d otherwise be able to pick up sharp and clear, but there was something under the loam and pine and icewater that sent a shock of cold through the pit of her stomach.
Blood. And familiar blood, at that.
It was older, at least – not properly old, but a day or two past – which meant that whatever had happened, she wasn’t about to walk into the middle of it. And there was something else, further away from the tree…
More blood. And that spirits-damned box again.
What happened here?
If Sabbat and Archer hadn’t made it up to the Hall – if they’d been ambushed and cut down here – then things had already escalated well beyond her ability to fix. But, if that was the case, the very least she could do was make sure that Mortimer and Fest knew what was going on.
Right before I go find whoever was responsible and rip their fucking throats out.
It wasn’t a particularly nuanced plan. But, then again, it didn’t need to be.
Calm. There’s nothing to say that they’re dead, just that they were both bleeding. And if they bled out here then that scent’d be a hell of a lot stronger.
She huffed a breath out through her nose, clearing her sinuses in an effort to get a better sense of exactly what the interlocking notes of the scents were telling her.
So… Archer’s blood. Older, mixed with – ugh, spirits forfend, that’s brains – and hot metal. A fair amount, but not enough of it that he’d have bled out. Not to mention the fact that he’s a vampire, so that’s not automatically a problem.
Sabbat’s blood. Less of it, and there’s that silver and dark water smell under it all. And sweat – fear sweat, from both of them, but exertion as well.
The sweat’s… hard to tell, but could be fresher than the blood. That says whatever happened, they were up and around after it.
A quick track around the clearing found her several possible trails, one much more recent than the others, but all of them faded and muffled by the snow and the incoming storm. The recent one overlaid an older track, and she followed it deeper in under the trees, her mind racing as she tried to put together a picture of what had happened here.
Blood again. Strangers’, this time. And more of it.
She lowered her head further, burrowing her snout deep into the new-fallen snow, and took a long sniff at the frozen ground beneath.
Someone died here. Not someone I know.
Further on again, the trail led her back to the road she’d crossed when she’d first head up into the forest. The mud under the snow was trampled and rutted here, enough that anyone coming two-legged would be forced to scramble over the frozen peaks and valleys, but she crossed it easily enough on four paws, bounding from furrow to furrow with light-footed ease.
More blood. More death. And… a horse?
There was a dark shape hulking in the trees to one side of the road – too big to be Caine, too regularly shaped to be anything natural, and all but crying out for an incautious investigator to stick her nose in where it likely wasn’t wanted.
If that’s not a trap, I’ll be very bloody surprised. But if it is a trap, I’m not leaving it here for some poor unconnected sod to stumble across on their way up the road in the morning.
Besides, if it was a trap, it’d almost certainly not been designed with werewolves in mind.
A couple more leaps across the treacherous snow landed her a few feet away from the strange shape, close enough to get a better idea of what it was she was looking at. It seemed to be a cart, though the horse which’d been pulling it, the people who’d been travelling with it, and whatever cargo it’d been carrying were all long gone, save for a crumpled and bloodstained canvas trailing down over one of the wheels.
It’d also equally clearly been moved from the middle of the road to where it was now, recently enough that the gouges carved through the snow by the wheels had yet to be fully covered again by new snowfall.
Curiouser and curiouser. So whoever moved this did it after whatever happened with Archer and Sabbat. Except…
Except that she could smell their scents here as well, and more recent than the blood.
Follow the freshest trail. If there’s any way we can find out what’s going on here, it’ll be at the end of that.
She should have been leaving well enough alone and making her way up to the Hall – Caine might be slower than she was, but he’d still catch her if she wasted enough time on the road – but she’d got her teeth into a mystery now, and she wasn’t about to leave it half-solved.
Especially not when the lives of people I actually give a damn about might be resting on this.
Of course, if she didn’t pick up the pace, she’d wind up putting other people she cared about in danger. But then again, if she didn’t follow up on this-
Enough! If they left the road, and they left the road recently, find the damn trail and follow it. Worst case, you find their corpses. Best case, they headed back up to the Hall anyway, and you might be able to find some kind of back entrance that cuts off the half of the run we’ve still got to do.
Easy to think, harder to actually do – even with a roadway as little used as this one, the confusion of scents of horses and reindeer and foot travellers was enough to give her a headache at the best of times, and right now, with Caine all but breathing down her neck and multiple strands of worry braiding themselves into a rope around her throat, she’d likely have had better luck spinning around in a circle with her eyes shut and trusting the ancestors to shout at her when she was facing the right way.
Though, speaking of…
Ancestors, if you’re listening, I’d appreciate a push in the right direction. We can skip the bit where I’m a reckless cub who ran off without a proper plan in her head and is likely going to get her damn fool self killed and end her line in the progress, unless you really think it’s necessary, but if you can see your way to showing me the right direction, I promise I’ll come leave something properly good for you at the spirit house next time I’m back up with the rest of the clan.
She’d be bringing offerings anyhow, of course – city-born or no, she wasn’t so rude and uncultured that she’d forgotten how to be a proper werewolf, no matter what some of her steppe-born cousins might think – but if the stories she’d been brought up on had taught her anything, it was that the ancestors appreciated being properly thanked if you’d had occasion to call on their help.
For a moment there was silence, save for the wind blowing through the tops of the pine trees and the clattering murmur of a stream a little way off in the distance. Then, right above her head and so loud it made her jump a good six inches into the air, there came the unmistakeable cry of a screech owl.
As she looked up, the bird launched itself from the branch and, ghostlike in the night air, began to fly north, further up the mountain.
Well if that’s not a bloody sign I don’t know what is.
With a brief prayer of thanks, and a mental note that she was definitely going to have to remember to find something very good for those offerings she’d promised, she followed her silent guide deeper into the forest.
“I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t think that there’s anything else I can do here,” Mortimer finished, rubbing the back of his neck self-consciously. He couldn’t help feeling that he’d failed in some way, though his father had already assured him several times that he’d done exactly what he’d been meant to be doing – to whit, followed Avebury and then reported back on what it was that he’d been up to.
The problem was, he wasn’t actually sure that the Sinnlenst had been up to anything. Or, more specifically and a damn sight more worryingly, he was pretty damn certain the bastard was up to something, but he still had absolutely no idea what. And, short of finding a way to hide himself in Avebury’s room, there didn’t seem to be any obvious options when it came to getting any more information on that particular topic.
“You’ve already done more than enough,” Verist said, as he’d done the last three times Mortimer had apologised. He smiled, taking off his glasses and polishing them on his shirt-sleeve, and pushed the tray of drinks across the table so it sat squarely between the two of them. “We know that he is ill – that, or he’s an incredibly talented actor – and we know that he wasn’t sneaking off to the workrooms or the library. Or, gods forbid, trying to break into the collection. That’s enough to allow me to rest easy tonight, and it should be enough for you for now.”
“Harry, rest. You’ve been running around trying to be all things to all people since some ridiculous hour this morning, and you’re likely going to have to do more of that tomorrow. For now, get yourself a drink and a candle and go to bed.“
“It’s early still,” Mortimer protested, gesturing somewhat futilely towards the shuttered windows. “And besides, I need to check on the horses. I don’t trust Avebury to have stabled them properly, and-“
“Thomas went out to check on them earlier, Harry. They’re fine.”
“That’s not the point! I need to-” do something that makes me feel like I’ve not wasted the last however long since I arrived here.
“I understand,” said Verist, quietly. He put his glasses back on and looked at Mortimer seriously over the top of them. “Promise me that you will sleep tonight, though.”
“I promise. Though you’re one to talk, unless you’ve changed your habits completely while I’ve been away.”
“A fair point. I was planning on getting a relatively early night tonight, however.”
“Because of your other house-guests?”
Verist frowned. “Not so loud, if you don’t mind. I know both of my young apprentices are supposedly safely stowed away in their respective rooms, but the possibility of one or the other of them engaging in a little recreational espionage can’t be discounted.”
Mortimer sighed but did as he was told, lowering his voice and leaning in closer. “As I was saying, if this is to do with your other house-guests…”
“It is,” Verist confirmed. “I don’t know how much they’ve told you about the artefact they’re trying to deal with, but I’ll admit that the current situation goes beyond even my knowledge, and the added time limit-“
“You’re aware that the artefact in question is linked to Archer’s… friend, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” He’d managed to pick up that much at least, even if he still wasn’t entirely clear on the specifics of how that link was functioning (other than the fact that it was almost certainly some kind of variation on a blood-bonded curse).
“Based on my observations, that link is not stable. Or, at least, not intended to be stable long-term. It’s killing him, and fast.”
Mortimer winced. Gods. I thought it might be that bad, but… “How long?”
“I’d estimate a week, if we don’t manage to find some way to slow or stop it. Possibly less, depending on the actions of whoever’s linked to the other part of the exchange.”
“Have you told him?”
Verist shook his head. “It’s still only an estimate, and I’m not about to cause either of them any more distress until I’ve confirmed my working. Besides, they’re both more than capable research magicians in their own rights.”
“So you think they’ll work it out without your help?” The idea grated at him, but he had to admit that he could see his father’s logic – though, if he was honest, he suspected that Verist’s unwillingness to hurt one of his oldest friends (and an ex-lover, to boot) was playing no small part in the equation. “Gods, da. If they’ve only got a week to sort this out, that’s cutting it bloody fine.”
“I know. And if Will – or Sabbat, for that matter, though I get the impression he doesn’t yet trust me overmuch – doesn’t tell me tomorrow that they’ve come to that conclusion on their own, then I’ll… Then that conversation will happen.”
And if you don’t tell them, I will, Mortimer added, silently. He could respect his father’s choice to keep the information to himself until he’d make certain that he wasn’t about to make things worse unnecessarily, but that didn’t mean that he was going to stay silent if it came down to it. I owe Sabbat too much for that, given he and Viola pretty much saved my life back there. Not to mention the fact that, if I’m right about Archer, the consequences of not telling him are likely going to be a hell of a lot worse, especially when he finds out we knew and didn’t say a damn thing.
“You needn’t look at me like that,” Verist said, after a while. He sighed, taking off his spectacles and running his hands over his face, as though he was washing away something. “I’m well aware that I’m stalling. But if someone had told me that your mother-” He stopped, shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. You get some rest. We’ll talk in the morning.” He pushed his chair back and stood, picking up one of the smaller glasses from the tray. “Good night, Harry.”
“Good night, da,” Mortimer replied, as calmly as he could under the circumstances.
He waited until his father’s uneven footsteps had faded into the general background noise of the house before allowing himself to swear.
“Fucking hellfire. A week!”
He wasn’t an idiot – he’d seen how bad Sabbat looked, and he’d studied enough about pre-Fall artefacts to know that they could kill (though, thankfully, finds with that level of power were vanishingly rare) – but gods above, that was barely any time at all. Especially if neither of them knew they were working under a deadline (in more ways than one, and gods but he wished he’d not thought about it in those terms now).
“Right. See to the horses now – I know Thomas’ already been out, but I could do with a walk to clear my head anyhow – and deal with the rest of all this in the morning.”
And stop talking to myself when I know I’m not alone in the damn house. Far too easy for a certain Sinnlenst bastard to overhear things he shouldn’t, if I’m not careful with that.
The owl seemed to be determined to get her lost. Or, at the very least, lead her away from where she was fairly certain she should have been going.
But then again, who made the decision to follow random wildlife in the first place? Oh wait, that’d be me.
She had a fairly good sense of direction – not that surprising, most werewolves did – and, by her reckoning, anyone who was aiming to head to the Hall should’ve been going northwest, heading for the fork in the road and the tunnel through the ridge that provided a natural fortification around the old house. But the owl was heading true north, straight up the side of the mountain, over broken ground tangled with treeroots and the jagged remnants of old rockslides.
It’s always possible that it’s not a messenger. Plenty of owls in the forest, after all – who’s to say that it wasn’t just a coincidence this one showed up when I asked for help?
In which case she was wasting even more time and the possibility of Caine catching up with her was becoming more and more likely by the second. But if it was a message from the ancestors, then ignoring it would be-
Wait. There – that’s a scent I know.
The owl had perched on the high branches of a nearby tree, apparently perfectly happy to stay there until she’d located the source of the thin braided cord of scent that’d hooked her hindbrain.
Which is as good an argument as any for the ancestors being the ones guiding it, I suppose.
Following her nose took her to the edge of a ravine, half-hidden in the gloom under the trees. The new fall hadn’t managed to make its way through the branches yet, and the older snow here smelt of blood and corpses, all undercut with silver and dark water.
What were the two of you up to out here?
She risked a look over the edge. There was a tangle of limbs and clothing at the bottom of the drop, too far away for her to make out any details – if she was twolegged and careful, she might be able to get down there and check, though she’d be making the scramble down the cliffside in naught but her skin.
Then again, I’ve done worse climbs clothesless. And if it’d be hard for me, it’d be worse for him.
Admittedly, every time anyone’d seen Caine other than at the meeting, he’d been running the rooftops. But rooftops weren’t cliffs, and the forest wasn’t the city, and if she was going to keep questioning herself she might as well turn around, head straight back up the road and have done with the whole investigation.
It’d probably be the sensible way to handle this. But then again, maybe sensible’s not what’s needed right now.
She closed her eyes, feeling the shifting of bone and muscle under her skin as her body changed. Twolegged, her senses were dulled – still better than a human’s, but compared to the clarity of the world in wolfshape, it was like having her whole body wrapped in cotton wool.
This way I’m a lot less likely to break a leg trying to get down to the bottom, though.
The rocks were more slippery than she’d been expecting without the tufts of fur between her toes to give her extra grip, but the added bonus of having hands to grip onto the roots and outcroppings more than made up for that and she managed to get most of the way down without much in the way of incident, save for a nasty moment when she misjudged the strength of one of the roots poking out of the broken edge of the cliff.
Around six feet from the bottom, however, her foot slipped on a ledge and she fell sideways, all of her weight suddenly swinging around the fulcrum of her right shoulder – there was a spark of pain up her arm and down her spine as something tore and she let go of the outcropping she’d been clinging to, falling backwards with a yelp of alarm.
The world spun sickeningly around her for a moment, before she landed on something cold and yielding that slipped and shifted under her weight, the spillover momentum from the fall sending her rolling over and over down the slope until she finally came to a halt face-down in the snow.
…So much for getting down easily, she thought, muzzily, poking the inside of her mouth with her tongue in an effort to find out if she’d shaken loose any teeth. Everything seemed to be still in the right place, but the taste of blood at the back of her throat and the pain spreading across her face suggested that she’d very likely knocked her still-healing nose badly enough to upset the break again.
Damn it. That’s going to make following trails a whole lot harder.
She pushed herself up onto her hands and knees, wincing as her shoulder protested, and looked around the bottom of the ravine. There were more than a few skeletons down here, deer and small animals which’d either been chased off the cliff or found themselves trapped down here with no way out, but there were also several distinctly fresher – and more twolegs-shaped – corpses, piled in a tangle of limbs and coats which looked unsettling like the few glimpses she’d caught of whatever it was she’d fallen onto.
None of them looked like Sabbat or Archer, thank all the ancestors – wrong skin colours, and none of them were the right shape – and they didn’t match anyone she recognised from Order meetings. They did look familiar, though.
Now where have I seen you before, I wonder.
Another wince, more scrambling, and she was up and twolegged and walking over to the bodies, kicking away the folds of fabric to expose the face of the nearest corpse. And, suddenly, she knew what’d been nagging at the back of her brain – and, importantly, where she’d seen the dead woman before.
At the Sinnlenst meeting. She’s one of Avebury’s mob.
Well, this just got interesting.
The other two corpses, now she was looking more closely at them, were also Sinnlenst – she’d not seen either of them at the meeting, but they were enforcers of long enough service that she’d run into them a time or two before. If they were working with Avebury’s gang, then that meant that he had tendrils going deeper into the established Sinnlenst than they knew, which was useful information that she had absolutely no way of disseminating back to the right people right now.
So Sabbat and Archer had a run-in with some Sinnlenst, did they? Well, that’d explain the blood, I suppose.
She looked up, just as the white shape of the owl swooped down from the top of the cliff, its cry echoing from the rocky walls.
“Was this what you wanted to show me?”
No answer – not that she’d expected one, of course. The owl landed on a tree branch some twelve feet or so in front of her and stared at her with its round eyes, as though sizing her up.
“I’m not a meal, if that’s what you’re wondering. I can probably find you a rabbit or something if you stick around and wait for me to get back up that cliff.”
If it’d understood her, it gave no sign – just sat there and stared, with its eyes as round and glowing as twin moons.
“What do you want? A pile of dead Sinnlenst is useful, yes, but it’s not going to get me up to the Hall fast enough to-” She broke off, her voice drying in her throat as her tongue tasted an all-too-familiar scent on the freezing wind.
He can’t be here. He can’t be. I didn’t take that bloody long, and he’s not that bloody fast, and why’d he even come up this way anyhow unless he went looking for the other Sinnlenst and-
She dropped to her knees, her back arching as the bone and muscle of her body twisted and warped, reshaping itself almost-instinctively into a form a good deal more suited to fighting or running than her clumsy-in-comparison twolegged shape. She’d not meant to trigger the shift, but between being caught out here on two legs or four, her hindbrain already knew which was the choice which’d let her survive the next few minutes.
Mother Moon, watch over me. Mother Moon, protect me. Mother Moon, if you’ve ever loved me, if I’ve ever been a dutiful daughter, keep him off my back at least until I’ve got my paws under me.
The shift felt agonisingly slow, time stretching out around her until it seemed as though she was counting a hundred between each heartbeat, until it seemed an impossibility that he wouldn’t catch her while she was still halfway morphed and halfway vulnerable. But eventually, after what felt like a lifetime, she was on four paws (well, three, since her right foreleg wasn’t bearing weight properly right now, but three was workable, she’d managed three before) and running, heading along the floor of the ravine with a speed born of desperation and bone-deep terror.
She didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t even know if there was anywhere to go – the ravine might end in a sheer rock wall, or a drop larger than anything she could survive, or any number of possible hazards waiting to maim or kill her. But she ran all the same, head down and panting, trying desperately to outpace that horrifying scent that still chased her through the freezing air.
And, ahead of her, the white shape of the owl floated deeper and deeper into the darkness.
[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]
[Author’s note: this is raw NaNo content, so I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2022 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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