Silver in the Ashes: Chapter 27 (draft)

The stable was warm, and dark, and blessedly free of any other people, which made it just about perfect as far as Mortimer was concerned. 

It was also very full – not as full as it’d been on the few times they’d had full hunts out here, of course, when all the stable blocks on the estate had been in use and the whole house’d been full of guests and servants – but full enough that doing the rounds and making sure that all the horses were fed and watered took him a fair bit longer than he’d been intending. 

He didn’t mind, though. He liked the stables, and reassuring himself that even Avebury’s horses had been well taken care of (though that’d likely be Thomas’ work rather than anything the Sinnlenst’d bothered to do) meant that he could at least say that he’d managed to do something of use with the day. 

“That’s not entirely fair, mind. Managed to move that damn cart, didn’t I? And get all the way up here in time to tell da what was going on – though most of that was you, wasn’t it?”

His mare bumped her nose inquisitively against his waistcoat, and he laughed and patted her, moving her head gently away. 

“I don’t have any treats for you, daft lass. And besides, if I gave you something, everyone else’d want some as well.”

He stroked his fingers down her nose, focusing on the warmth and texture of her hide under his gloved hand, and tried desperately to stop his brain turning over and over the events of the past twelve hours. He’d not done badly, all things considered, but the illogical part of his mind still couldn’t let go of the fact that he could have done more. 

Could’ve dealt with Foreval, for a start. Would’ve been the work of a few seconds to put my sword through her heart, and that’d be the end of one of the most dangerous thorns in the Order’s side. 

Except that she hadn’t been there to hurt him, and he’d be damned if he turned into the kind of person who could kill that easily, even if he was a soldier. Especially since he was a bloody soldier, in fact. 

Could’ve dealt with Avebury on the road up. Or at least managed to get that poor kid away from him. 

Except that killing Avebury would’ve caused more problems than it solved, and Fest’d explicitly said he wanted to stay, and breaking the lad’s cover would’ve been a very good way to completely destroy his chances with the Order. 

Could’ve managed to work out what Avebury was after. 

Except that there was no way he could’ve got any more information than he’d managed to squeeze out of the bastard already, short of several options which would’ve completely shattered his own cover, and he still had no proof that Avebury had been up to anything suspicious at all. 


“Could’ve stopped bloody well rehashing the entire day and gone to bed.” 

If any of the horses or the barn cats had anything to say about that particular suggestion, they were keeping it to themselves. Smart, honestly. 

He sat down on the floor, with his back against the door of his mare’s stall, and sighed. “You know, I really was hoping that things would be just a little sodding easier once I’d got here. Not sure why I was hoping that, given we knew exactly what I’d be walking into, but I was still bloody hoping it all the same. Shows how much I know, I suppose.”

There was a ‘mrrp?’ of inquiry from somewhere near his knee – he looked down, and was unsurprised to see Patches winding herself happily around his leg. 

“You’re right, of course. No way for me to have known exactly how bad it was until I got here, and even then there’s more going on than I’d have had any way of knowing about when I set off.” He reached down, scratching her behind the ears, and sighed. “This was a lot easier when all I had to worry about was whether the Adakari were going to take the opportunity to try and catch us unawares when we were camping, you know. I’m a hell of a lot better as a field officer than a godsdamn spy.”

Unfortunately, a spy was what he was going to have to be – at least, for the foreseeable. 

At least Amelia’s safe back in the city. Now I just need everything to hold together for long enough that I can get to the damn circle for ten o’clock, and I can tell her what’s happening here. 

And then, perhaps, he’d finally get some damn sleep. 


Sleep, meanwhile, was pretty much the furthest thing from Fest’s mind. 

He’d tried to get some rest, he really had. He’d hardly got much in the way of sleep the night before, after all, given the break-in, and the stress of the journey plus the poppy-milk he’d taken for his hand should by all rights have meant his eyes should’ve slammed shut the moment his head hit the pillow. 

And yet. 

I don’t know what’s wrong, is the problem. Or rather, I do, but there’s nothing I can do about it. 

He sighed, rolling over and grabbing for the bottle of blood from the nightstand. It wasn’t good blood – it’d been cut with too much alcohol for that, and it’d clearly been stored for far too long – but Verist and Mortimer had gone out of their way to find it for him, and he hadn’t been about to turn down the offer. 

I can always ask if they’ve got anything fresher tomorrow. Assuming I can find a way to phrase it which doesn’t come out sounding like I want to drink from them. 

He should’ve thought to bring his own supplies, of course, but it was the first time he’d been out of the city since he’d arrived from home, and back home, there’d always been fresh blood when he needed it. 

I suppose that’s why there’re so few of us in the city to begin with. Yellow-eyes can get by on slaughterhouse blood and rats, if they have to – if we can’t find a willing donor, there’s only really a couple of ways we can go. 

And Avebury knows that, of course. 

He sat up, uncorking the bottle and taking as small a sip as he could manage. The alcohol burned his throat on the way down, but the warmth spreading from his stomach as the blood hit it more than made up for that fact. 

If I’m careful, I can probably make this stretch for a couple of days if I have to. It’s not going to be pleasant, but then, nothing about this trip has been so far, so that’s kind of expected. 

That wasn’t entirely true – he’d actually had a relatively good conversation with Verist after the other two had left the dining room, and the drive up to the Hall would’ve been actually fairly nice if it hadn’t been for the company – but he wasn’t feeling particularly inclined to be logical at that precise moment. 

And lying – alright, sitting – in bed moping isn’t going to do a damn thing to help me get to sleep, is it? 

The weather outside was definitely getting worse – he could hear the wind whistling and howling around the chimneys and rattling the shutters – and he had a very sudden impulse to stick his head out of the window and see what was going on.

Maybe it’ll do something to blow the cobwebs away. And even if it doesn’t, it’s better than lying here trying and failing to drop off, isn’t it? 

He scrambled out of bed, briefly thankful for the thick woollen rug protecting his bare feet from the cold, and, wrapping his blanket around him, padded over to the window seat.  Whoever had made the room up for him before he arrived had provided more than enough extra cushions and blankets for a perfect reading nest, and he burrowed into them with a sigh of relief – even his brief journey across the room had been enough to bring home exactly how bitterly cold this night was going to be. 

The catch for the window had been oiled recently, and slid free easily enough, but the shutters took more work – and, when he eventually managed to force them open against the wind, they slammed back against the wall with a finality that suggested that he’d almost certainly not be able to close them again until the storm had passed. 

Good thing the window looks like it’s been repaired recently, then. It’s still going to be draughty as all hell, but at least I’ll have something between me and the cold. 

Outside, the moonlight was almost entirely obscured by a thick blanket of cloud, leaving only a ghostly half-light to illuminate the swirling maelstrom of dancing white flakes that seemed to swallow fully half the world. Dimly, through the snowstorm, he could make out the outlines of the stable blocks and the bathhouse, but everything beyond that point was lost in a blur of snow and wind. Everything, except-

Wait. That’s- 

What is that?

It’d been a momentary glimpse – a shadow, slipping between the trees at the outside edge of what he could make out – but he was certain that he’d seen something. Or, more specifically, someone

He leaned further out of the window, blinking hard against the driving snow, and fixed his eyes on the point just beyond the bathhouse where the tall pines of the forest came the closest to the buildings of the Hall. At first, it seemed as though he must have been imagining things – but, as he watched, something twolegged and tall moved in the shadows of the trees, heading slowly but surely towards the stables. 

There shouldn’t be anyone out there. At least, I’m pretty sure there shouldn’t. 

What do I do?

If he were the kind of person who wound up being the hero in one of his penny dreadfuls, he’d already have made a daring leap out of the window by now (probably by way of fashioning some kind of improvised rope out of the bedsheets) and be well on his way to dealing with whatever villain was lurking in the darkness and saving his friends from some kind of grisly death. But it was a very long drop, and the sheets probably wouldn’t support his weight and, even if they would, they weren’t his sheets, and, knowing his luck, even if he did manage to get down to the ground without breaking his neck, whoever it was out in the trees would turn out to be someone who was actually supposed to be there, and then he’d get in trouble all over again, and-

Breathe. In and out, count ten between each one. Think about this. 

Yes, it was entirely possible that whoever was out there was meant to be out there and yes, if that was the case, going out and confronting them was likely a terrible plan. But he was a guest in someone else’s house, which meant that technically this was someone else’s problem, and the someone else in question would definitely know whether mysterious people lurking on the edge of his property was something he should be concerned about. 

And if whoever it is isn’t meant to be there, then I’m doing the right thing by telling the Archmage rather than trying to deal with the situation by myself. 


His indoor boots were by the bed – he pulled them on, slinging a dressing gown over his pyjamas and belting his sword and knife on over the top of it. It wasn’t the most comfortable of getups, and he was well aware he probably looked ridiculous, but if things were about to get dangerous, he’d feel a lot happier with both his blades to hand. 

Alright. Anything else I’m missing?

Oh wait. Candle. 

He didn’t need one to light his way – vampires had excellent night vision, after all – but several months of living in halls had taught him that humans tended to be more comfortable with you wandering around at night if you were carrying one, presumably because it stopped them feeling as though you were creeping up on them. 

Thankfully, the same person who’d provided the blankets and pillows for the window seat had also left him a small collection of new candles and a box of matches in the nightstand, as well as a candle-holder, and he’d had enough practice in the last few weeks that he only managed to get his fingers slightly covered in wax in the process. 

There. Now… where is the Archmage? 

Only one way to find out, he supposed. 

Candle in hand, sword on hip, and heart thudding just a little faster than comfortable in his chest, he made his way out into the corridor, heading down towards the dining room and the last place he’d seen Verist and Mortimer. 

I should be able to find one of them, at least. They’ll know what to do. Or, at least, I really hope they will. 


The first indication that Mortimer had that something was wrong was when the mare in the stall closest to the door – Pepper, one of his father’s older horses, and usually a steady and unperturbable presence in the stable – threw her head back and snorted, her ears swivelling and her hooves pawing anxiously at the ground. Within a moment or two, whatever unease had spooked her was spreading amongst the other horses, and he found himself on his feet and trying very hard to think calming thoughts in the direction of a whole stable full of anxious mounts, some of whom seemed only a few moments away from full-blown panic. 

“Gentle, gentle. It’s just a storm, alright? You’ve weathered worse than this before, I know you have. I don’t know what’s got into the lot of you, but I promise you, it’s alright. Gently now, that’s my good girls. There’s nothing out there you need to be afraid of.”

He moved between the stalls, keeping up a low murmur of reassurance as he went, making sure that each and every one of the horses knew that there was nothing to be worrying about (and, at the back of his mind, trying to sort through the possibilities and work out exactly how much of a problem the fact that he’d left his rifle back at the house was going to be). 

“Gently, Pepper. What’s got into you all of a sudden, huh? You’re a smart girl, you know there’s nothing to be scared of in a little wind and snow.”

Pepper snorted again, but, after a brief moment, lowered her head enough to allow him to stroke his fingers carefully along the white blaze of her forehead.  

“There, see? Nothing to be scared of. Nothing you need to be worrying about. That’s my good girl. That’s my very good girl. Now I’m going to go outside and see what’s got the lot of you worked up, alright? I’ll be back in a moment, and there’s nothing you need to be worrying about while I’m gone. See? All calm, all friendly, nothing you need to panic about.”

He got the distinct impression she didn’t entirely believe him but, after a few moments more of stroking and gentle reassurance, she seemed willing enough to let him step away from her. 

“Good girl. Now you look after the others while I’m outside, alright? Make sure they don’t cause any trouble.”

That at least was something she understood – or, at least, something she was good at doing. Provided she stayed relatively calm, the other horses in the stable were likely to follow her lead, which meant he could take the time to step outside and work out what it was that’d got her so spooked in the first place. 

Gods, I hope it’s not a bear. 

They didn’t usually get bears at this time of year – any bear with sense would’ve settled into hibernation by now – but ‘didn’t usually’ didn’t mean ‘never’, and a bear which was still active at midwinter was a bear which was likely hungry or sick enough to try its luck far closer to settlements than normal. 

If it’s a bear, I definitely need my damn rifle. Fire a couple of warning shots above its head, hope that scares it off until morning. 

A bear wandering this close to the Hall would likely mean a hunt, since it’d in all probability be too habituated to people for the safety of the local villages. Which’d mean more people up at the Hall, which was the last thing any of them needed. 

Better hope it’s not a damn bear, then. 

He pushed open the door, wincing as the cold wind bit into the exposed skin of his face. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness and, when they did, he found himself looking out onto an expanse of driven snow that seemed completely devoid of life. If there was a bear or any other kind of predator out there, it was doing a damn good job of keeping itself hidden, though the swirling mass of snowflakes blowing across the yard did mean that he was having to squint to see more than a few yards ahead. 

Could be hiding round the back, I suppose, though I’d think the horses would be more panicked if it was that close. 

Keeping his hand on his sword, he headed carefully around the side of the building, watching for any unusual shapes or unexpected movement in his peripheral vision. Nothing seemed inclined to jump out at him, which was good, and he managed to make a full circuit of the stable block without encountering any looming menaces or unexpected wildlife. Which should have been reassuring, and yet…

There’s definitely something out there. I don’t know what and I don’t know where, but something spooked Pepper, and I’m pretty damn certain it wasn’t just the wind. 

Whatever it was, however, it seemed to be keeping its distance for now. He ducked back into the stable, pausing to bend down and run his hand briefly along the long curved ridge of Patches’ spine as she wound herself around his boots, and took a deep breath of the warm, horse-scented air. 

“I’m going back to the house,” he said, out loud, for the benefit of any of the horses who might’ve been hiding a secret ability to understand Sacaask. “I’m going to find da, and I’m going to tell him what’s just happened. Might be I need to come sleep out here for the night, if he thinks it’s horse thieves or something else clever enough to unlock the door, but if I don’t come back, you stay calm and safe until the morning, right?”

No answer, not that he’d been expecting one. He took the heavy key from the hook by the door and hung it on his belt, making sure that the leather thonging it was attached to was tied securely enough that he’d not drop it in the snow on the way across the yard, before stepping back outside and pulling the door firmly to behind him. They didn’t usually lock the stables up fully – they were remote enough out here not to need to worry overmuch about thieves and if, gods forbid, there was a fire and they needed to get the horses out, it’d add precious seconds that they couldn’t afford to waste – but with something or someone unknown creeping about in the darkness, any extra security was likely a bloody good idea. 

Now just to hope that da’s not actually gone to bed yet. I’ll wake him up if I need to, but this is going to be a lot faster if he’s still up and alert. 


The dining room was empty, which wasn’t entirely a surprise – if the Hall operated in any way like his own family’s home, the room probably saw limited use outside of dinner and the occasional business meeting – but the murmur of voices from down the corridor told Fest that he was at the very least on the right floor. 

He followed the sound past what felt like an innumerable sequence of dark wood-panelled doors, all firmly shut, until he came at last to one which stood ajar, warm golden light spilling out into the passageway. There were clearly several people inside, and he could hear two voices raised in what sounded like a well-worn and almost comfortable argument, while a third interjected every now and again in an amused baritone. 

“-honestly, do you remember to eat half the days? No. So I don’t see why you should be worrying so much about him.”

“I ate dinner this evening, Cyra.”

“Only because you had guests. If you were on your own, I’d have had to bring you something in the study and practically stand over you until you ate it.”

“Then for the next few weeks you can rest assured I will eat, if only to set a good example.”

“I suppose it’ll have to do.”

Cyra and the Archmage, which means the third voice has to be Thomas. 

He’d been hoping to find Verist on his own – ‘I think I saw something outside, what should I do about it?’ wasn’t the kind of question that sounded any less childish when you had an audience – but interrupting what was clearly a fairly casual conversation was probably going to be easier than trying to get the Archmage’s attention when he was deep in spellwork would have been. Probably. 

“Er… excuse me?”

The voices inside the room quieted for a second, before he heard Verist say “Come in.”

He did as he was told, pushing open the door and stepping through into what seemed to be a private sitting room or study of sorts. The furniture in here was shabbier than the pieces he’d seen elsewhere in the house, clearly chosen more for comfort than anything else, and there was a general air of hominess which seemed to suggest that, when the Archmage wasn’t busy entertaining guests or dealing with apprentices, he likely spent a lot of his time in here. 

He’d been right about the other two people in the room as well – Cyra and Thomas, both looking significantly more at ease than he felt, and balancing steaming glasses of tea on their laps as they eyed him with what seemed like a mixture of curiosity and concern. 

“Mr Fest,” Verist said, putting his own glass of tea to one side and rising to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane as he did so. “What can I do for you?”

“Um. That is to say, I-” He swallowed hard, staring down at his boots to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes, and tried to marshal his thoughts. Come on. There was a reason I came down here, and a good one too. This is important, damn it. “I think- I think I saw someone outside by the bathhouse and I’m pretty sure there’s not supposed to be anyone out there and I didn’t want to just go out and confront them in case they were meant to be there so I came down to tell you that they were there and-“

“Breathe, breathe!” Verist said, with a laugh. He limped across to Fest, putting a companionable hand on his shoulder. “You did the right thing, and I’m very glad of it.”

“I did?”

“Yes. There shouldn’t be anyone outside the house at this time of night – with the exception of my son, who’s supposed to be looking in on the stables – so if you’re right about what you saw, then we potentially have a fairly significant problem on our hands.” He turned to Thomas and Cyra, who were watching the conversation with unabashed interest. “I want the both of you to stay inside unless I tell you otherwise, please. No sense in anyone getting picked off if we can avoid it.”

“With respect-,” Thomas began, but Verist shook his head, cutting him off mid-sentence. 

“I know you’re both decent fighters, but right now the best thing you can be doing is checking the defences, not rushing out after an enemy who may or may not exist. Young Fest and I will go and find Harry, and we’ll investigate further if we think it’s safe – you stay here and keep an eye on our other guests.”

Thomas nodded, though he didn’t look overly happy about the situation. “Understood. If it is something to be worried about, though, you’ll want us along with you.”

“That I will. But for now, let’s work under the assumption that we’re dealing with a spy or two, not a full-blown invasion.” He turned back to Fest, smiling in a way that didn’t quite manage to mask the worried lines of his forehead. “Now then, Mr Fest, lead on – outdoor boots and coats, and then we’ll see what we can make of your exceptional eyesight in this weather.”


Locking up the stables had taken longer than he’d expected – it turned out that the combination of freezing wind, gloved fingers, and only having one hand made for a damn sight more fumbles than he’d have liked before he managed to get the bloody key properly in place – and the creeping feeling of being watched had only grown as he wrestled with the door. He still couldn’t see anything out there, mind, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something – or someone – lurking in the darkness, just waiting for a chance to strike. 

All the more reason to take the time to lock up properly, I suppose. Course, all of that’s moot if whoever it is shoots me in the back on my way across the yard. 

The skin between his shoulderblades prickled at the thought, and he turned fast, pressing himself into the shadow of the overhanging roof, his eyes scanning the treeline for the telltale glint of moonlight on metal. 

Nothing. Not surprising, really – not much in the way of Adakari scouting parties round here. 

Didn’t have to be an Adakari sniper, though. Bandits and Sinnlenst were just as capable of using firearms as Adakari soldiers, and infinitely more likely to be found skulking in the woods above the city. 

Though if one of them fancies taking a potshot at the Archmage, they’re either daft or ridiculously confident that they’ll be able to weather the fallout. 

He turned back towards the Hall in time to see the back door open, spilling a flood of orange-yellow light onto the snow. Two figures stood silhouetted in the doorway for a moment – then, before he could open his mouth to yell at them to stop being such bloody obvious targets, they stepped out and off to one side, lost amid the swirling snow. 

No shots. 

No movement. 

Nothing but the thud of his heart in his ears and the rush of blood pounding across his cheekbones. 

Gods above, what’s wrong with me? This isn’t a damn battlefield. 

Except that for half a second it very much had been. 

That was da. I recognise his walk, and I recognise that cane. The one next to him… either Fest or Avebury, and I sincerely doubt it’s the latter. And, hot on the heels of that thought: What’s the kid doing out here anyhow? Wasn’t he supposed to be safely tucked away in his room, where he’d not be able to get himself into any more trouble?

Whatever it was Fest was up to, he was apparently going to find out sooner rather than later. As he watched, the two figures – who couldn’t be anyone other than Fest and Verist, now they were close enough for him to see them properly – emerged from the shadows beside the door and headed out across the yard, aiming straight for the stable blocks. 

Every instinct in his body screamed for him to tell them to get down, that they were making too much of a target of themselves, that any bloody Adakari sniper worth their salt could’ve shot the both of them multiple times by now, but he bit his lip and clenched his fist, forcing the words back down into his throat. This wasn’t a battlefield, and there likely wasn’t an Adakari soldier for miles, let alone one who’d be inclined to shoot at random law-abiding Sacaask citizens. 

Whatever or whoever’s out there, they’re not shooting anyone. And yelling’s not going to do a damn thing except scare the kid and make da worry that I’ve gone even more battle-shocked than he already thinks I am. 

So I’m going to stand here and wait and not say a damn thing until they tell me what’s going on. 

And, if he was very lucky, by that point his heartrate would have come back down to something resembling a sensible level. 


What did he mean by ‘guests’? Fest thought, as he followed the Archmage across the freezing yard. It seemed like an utterly inconsequential thing to focus on, especially with the apparently very real likelihood that someone was spying on the Hall, but he couldn’t make his brain let go of the contradiction. There’s only me and Avebury here, as far as people who’re not family go, so why use the plural? Unless he’s forgetting things or muddling us up with another group of apprentices. 

It was a possibility, he supposed, but it didn’t feel right – the Archmage might be elderly for a human, but he didn’t strike Fest as someone who was at the stage where they’d forget how many people were supposed to be in their house. No. That and the way he was asking about our journey up here – something’s definitely going on. 

The problem was he had less than no idea what. 

I could just ask him, I suppose. He said it in front of me, so he might have meant for me to hear, which means I’d not get in trouble just for asking. And if he didn’t mean for me to hear it, then maybe if I ask about it he’ll have no choice but to tell me what’s happening. 

It wasn’t exactly the most logical of plans, but then again, it hadn’t been the most logical of days. 

Right. I’ll ask him when we get back inside, assuming that we don’t find out that there’s something horrifying hiding in the woods.

The only thing that he could see hiding at the moment was Mortimer, who seemed to be pressed up against the side of the stable block as though he was trying to avoid being spotted by someone. 

Ah. Either something very strange is going on, or there is someone out there. 

“Harry?” Verist shouted over the wind, as soon as they were close enough. 

Mortimer looked up, his eyes wide and haunted for a moment before he seemed to focus in on the two of them. “What- Yes. What’s wrong, da?”

“Judging by your expression, I think you already know. Young Fest here said he saw someone lurking at the edge of the forest, out by the bathhouse.”

Mortimer nodded, as though confirming something. “Yes. That’d make sense.”

“Did you see them?”

“No. But the horses startled – including Pepper, and she’s not one to be frightened by a little wind and thunder.”

“Then I think we’d best get inside. You locked up?”

“I did.”

“Good boy. Back in the house with you then – and you too, Fest.”

Fest wanted to protest – he’d barely been outside for five minutes and, now he knew that he’d done the right thing in drawing the Archmage’s attention to whatever it was he’d seen, he rather wanted a closer look at the area where he’d seen it – but there was something in Verist’s tone which told him that right now, arguing the point was a very bad idea. Instead, he nodded obediently and fell in behind the other two as they made their way back across the yard and into the welcoming warmth of the back kitchen.


[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.

One thought on “Silver in the Ashes: Chapter 27 (draft)

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