Viola didn’t know where she was.
Or, more accurately, she knew exactly where she was. She just didn’t know where that was in relation to anything else.
The bottom of the ravine had been surprisingly easy to navigate, even in full panicked flight, and she’d managed to make it fairly far along before her brain had caught up with her body and suggested, surprisingly calmly, that running headlong into who-knows-what might not be the only possible avenue of escape – and, furthermore, that if Caine was anything like the other Turned she’d heard stories about then running away in pretty much as straight a line as possible was probably the worst option when it came to trying to get away from him.
Which, in turn, had slowed her down enough that she’d been able to notice the crack in the rocks some twenty feet ahead of her, just wide and tall enough to allow a werewolf in fourlegged form to squeeze her way through, and quite definitely not big enough to allow anything the size and shape of Caine to follow.
And, when she’d squeezed through the crack and found herself on the other side in what seemed to be a surprisingly passable tunnel (and, notably, one which was wide enough for her to turn around in), it’d only seemed sensible to keep following it deeper into the mountain. After all, if Caine couldn’t get in, and she couldn’t get out until he’d left, it was that or hunker down just inside the entrance and hope against hope that he didn’t decide to wait her out.
Which meant that now she was a fair way down a tunnel she’d not known existed before about five minutes ago, with no idea of where it led and no clue whether, if she turned around and headed back towards the exit, she’d find a Turned lying in wait for her.
Ancestors, if you’re listening, now would be a very good time for another sign. Show me I’m on the right trail, at least.
Nothing, which was probably fair – she’d been asking them for a lot recently, and they were well within their rights to point out that she should be figuring these things out on her own.
Alright then. Stop and think.
She sniffed the air, sifting through the layers of scent for anything which might help her work out a little more about her current predicament.
Water and damp rocks. Soil. Pine trees. Snow.
She closed her eyes and sniffed again, focusing in on the incongruous note in the symphony of woodland smells. It was definitely venison – she could practically taste it – and it seemed to be coming from somewhere up ahead, far enough to be faint but near enough to be present.
Which means cooking. Which means people. Which means this tunnel opens out somewhere.
It wasn’t much of a lead to go on – and, given the Sinnlenst presence on the mountain, there was nothing to say that she wasn’t about to walk into some kind of obvious trap – but it was better than hiding in a cave and hoping. And, importantly, it meant that there was the possibility of food.
So what if I have to kill a pack of Sinnlenst to get to it? After the day I’ve had, that might be a welcome bit of stress relief.
Of course Fest had been the one to see something. Stood to reason, given he had the sharpest eyes of anyone on the estate (save perhaps Archer, who was both down an eye and also likely all too distracted to spend time looking out of the windows at the moment).
The question was, what’d he seen?
Not much, it turned out. As best as Mortimer had been able to make out from the younger man’s somewhat confused explanation, he’d seen something near the bathhouse that he was fairly certain was shaped like a person, but hadn’t managed to get much in the way of details beyond ‘upright, standing on two legs, moving as though it didn’t want to be seen’.
That, in and of itself, was useful information – while the description could technically still refer to a bear, it’d be a bloody strange one – but it didn’t do much more to explain who this probable-person might be or what in the name of all the gods they were doing skulking around the back of the Hall in midwinter.
As far as his da was concerned, that was a question better answered in daylight. He’d allowed the two of them to trade suggestions and plans for how to deal with a potential bandit attack for a while – likely because he was too distracted dealing with the samovar in the kitchen, which was temperamental at the best of times – but, after a few minutes of discussion, he’d put his foot down and declared that neither of them were to set foot outside the house again until the morning, and that after checking in with him.
Fest had seemed reassured enough by that to head back to bed again – or, at least, if he wasn’t reassured, he was doing a very good impression of it – which meant that Mortimer and his da now had the kitchen to themselves, along with the remains of the tea and some slightly stale lemon cakes Verist had managed to find tucked away in one of the cupboards. It was almost nostalgic, in an odd way – sitting up late, talking about nothing and everything while the snow swirled outside the windows and the fire roared in the hearth – and he found himself relaxing back into the chair as he sipped slowly at the remnants of his second glass.
If I’d not enlisted, would this be how things were all the time?
It was a possibility. But, then again, who was to say that he wouldn’t have fallen out with his father over something different? Or that he’d have stayed at the Hall? And, if he had stayed, how would he have met Amelia? What was to say that she wouldn’t have found some other boy – or girl, or neither – to walk out with?
No. Better to enjoy the present than dwell on the might-have-beens. Especially when I’m already feeling on-edge.
“I’ve a task for you,” Verist said, suddenly, breaking the companionable silence which had grown between them in the last few minutes. “If you’re feeling up to it, that is.”
“What do you need, da?”
“Nothing particularly strenuous.” He leant back in his chair, taking a sip of tea and looking at Mortimer over the top of his spectacles. “You have a meeting with someone at ten, don’t you?”
“I do.” He’d told him as much when they’d been talking before Avebury and Fest had arrived – better to have it out in the open than have to go behind his own father’s back to use the circle and risk any number of misunderstandings. “But I’m not sure what that’s got to do with anything.”
“I want you to check over the cellars for me. I’ve got Thomas and Cyra watching over the above-ground entrances to the house, and they’re doing a damn fine job of that, but you and I both know that’s not the only way someone could make their way past our defences.”
“The passage in the wine cellar.”
“Correct. It’s not been used for centuries, and it’s certainly not marked on any maps that the general populace has access to, but if our enemies have somehow managed to get their hands on one of the old family maps or journals-“
“Then they could make their way in right under our feet,” Mortimer finished, with mounting horror. “Da, why didn’t you have the damn thing closed off?”
“Because in the unlikely event of this place ever coming under full siege, I’d rather have a way out than not.”
Can’t fault that logic, I suppose. “Please tell me it’s still locked up, at least.”
“I’ll go and check, then. But I still don’t see what this has to do with my meeting.”
Verist smiled. “Given that I’m assuming you’d rather avoid either of our young friends knowing exactly what it is that you’re up to, this gives you a perfectly plausible cover for what you’re doing down there.”
It made a certain amount of sense. Checking the cellars for intruders was a reasonable idea, even without the possibility of someone having infiltrated via the passage, and nobody would question his presence near the workroom if he was clearly on that kind of business. Though…
“You do realise this isn’t going to hold up if one of them walks in on me while I’m in the middle of the ritual.”
“I do. But it’s the best I can do – and, if I have to, I’m more than willing to tell either of them that they’re not allowed down in the cellars until you’ve finished checking it over, for their own safety.”
“That’d work, I suppose.” He got to his feet, putting his glass down carefully on the table as he did so. “Do you want me to take my rifle?”
“At that close quarters? No. If you’ve got a pistol with you-“
“I don’t. Rifle, sword, and knife.”
“Then take your knife. You should be able to make short work of anyone coming up if they’re not prepared for you, and I trust you to shout for help if you need it.”
“I will. Though, Earth Brother willing, that shouldn’t be necessary.” And if it is, then we have significantly bigger problems.
Someone else is handling it. It’s not my responsibility.
The problem was, he couldn’t quite make himself believe that.
The way the Archmage looked – he’s been expecting something like this, even if he won’t tell me why or who he suspects is behind it. And he talked about more guests – and I still don’t have an answer for that – and he seemed to know more about what happened on the road than he was letting on, and I’m pretty sure he suspects Avebury of doing something, even if he doesn’t know that he’s a Sinnlenst.
So why won’t anyone tell me what’s actually going on?
There was a very simple answer to that: as far as they were concerned, he was probably in on it.
After all, I turned up with Avebury. And if he does know that Avebury’s Sinnlenst, then he probably suspects I am…. except that Mortimer knows I’m not, and he must have told his father, which means that the Archmage has to know that I’m not here to cause problems for him. And he seems to like me – or, at least, not dislike me – and he definitely thinks that Avebury’s dodgy, so he can’t think we’re working for the same people, and-
And none of this is going to do a damn thing to help me get to sleep, is it?
He rolled over, tugging the blankets tighter around himself, and pulled the cheap paperback he’d been reading earlier in the evening out from under his pillow. The garish yellow cover proclaimed it to be an ‘Adventure Of Horror Based On A Chilling True Tale’, with multiple exclamation marks, but the creature slavering over a helpless youth in the illustration above the text looked like nothing so much as a fever dream someone had come up with after eating too much squid for supper.
Now, where was I? I think Valentin had just killed six of the villain’s minions with their smuggled dinner knife, but I can’t remember if that was before or after the bit about the evil lair in the underwater cave and the captive merpeople…
The wind rattled the panes and howled around the chimney, and the thunder rolled overhead as though it was fixing to tear down the very stones of the house. But, safe in his cocoon of blankets and now fully engrossed in the ever-more-unlikely adventures of Valentin the semi-heroic highwayman and their stalwart band of companions, for the first time in what felt like a month Fest finally found himself approaching something that almost counted as relaxed.
Staying up reading penny dreadfuls was going to do less than nothing to help in the long run, of course. But right now, he’d take every bloody comfort he could get.
This was made by someone, Viola thought, as she padded quietly along the floor of the ever-widening tunnel.
She’d not been sure, at first – for all she could smell cooking, there was nothing to say that the cave she’d crawled into wasn’t just a natural fissure someone had set up camp on the other side of – but the further she headed in, the more signs she saw of deliberate additions and modifications to the existing tunnel through the rock.
Mostly looks as though they were trying to make sure it was safe to travel through rather than comfortable – means this is necessity rather than convenience.
She’d guessed as much already, if she was honest – the crack she’d crawled through didn’t seem like anyone’s idea of a pleasant way to get around – but it was good to have it confirmed.
So someone’s using this as a bolthole, then. Or an escape route.
Whoever it was, by the smell of it they’d not been by any time recently.
Good. Means I’m less likely to run into anyone who’d rather shoot first and ask questions later.
Up ahead of her, the tunnel seemed to end abruptly in a stone wall, with some kind of metal bracketing running down the middle of it. She padded closer, trying to swallow down the sudden fear that she’d managed to walk straight into a dead end, and breathed a sigh of relief as the metal resolved itself into the shape of an ancient but surprisingly sturdy-looking ladder bolted onto the stonework, its top disappearing into the darkness above her.
Definitely someone’s escape route, then. Could wish they’d remembered werewolves existed when they were making it, though.
Ladders and paws didn’t mix, which meant that she’d have to go twolegged for the next bit. Which meant she’d not be able to smell trouble coming – or, at least, she’d have a significantly harder time doing so. But if it was that or waiting at the bottom of the ladder until she was sure Caine had moved on, whenever that was going to be…
Even if I’m on two legs rather than four, I’m still a match for most anyone else I could run into out here. And, worst case scenario, I can always shove them out of the way and keep running.
She didn’t want to shift back. Shifting back meant being vulnerable – easier to hurt, easier to grab, easier to chase down. But since when had what she wanted meant a damn thing when it came to dealing with Caine and his cronies?
Mother Moon, please let this be the last shift I have to make tonight. Or, if it’s not, make the next few less bloody pressured than the last?
She closed her eyes, slowing her breathing and deliberately focusing on letting the shift happen as naturally as possible. It’d take longer this way – it always did, when you weren’t pushing it – but she was starting to hit the limit on what her body would allow her to do without taking the time to eat and heal up, and the last thing she needed was to shift fast, stand up, and then immediately black out because her brain didn’t have enough blood flowing to it to keep her upright.
There’s nobody here. There’s nothing that can get at me. I can take my bloody time.
The muscle and bone around her right shoulder twisted around itself and she hissed out a breath, dropping to her side on the cold wet stones of the floor and curling up around herself in a futile effort to drive back the pain. The skin across her nose and cheeks stung as though she’d caught a sunburn, and the dull ache throbbing up her leg was a stark reminder that she still hadn’t found the time to get that particular injury seen to, and that it likely wasn’t going to get any better until she did.
Spirits and ancestors! If you wanted to make a point that I’ve not been taking care of myself, there are better ways to go about doing it!
But, if she was honest with herself, she knew full well this wasn’t any spiritual or mystical intervention. This was just her body calling in all the debt she’d accrued since… honestly, since the night of the Sinnlenst meeting, and everything leading up to that.
I could just… go to sleep here. Curl up on the floor and sleep. Wouldn’t even be that much of an issue, given how unlikely it is anyone’s going to come along and wake me up.
Except that she’d be sleeping furless, which was a terrible idea in conditions like these, and that there was no guarantee she’d wake up in time if someone did decide to use the passageway and, more importantly than either of those two, she was supposed to be getting up to the Hall to warn Mortimer and the others about Caine, and there was no way that falling asleep in a secret tunnel was going to get her any closer to that goal, no matter how appealing the idea might be.
Stand up. Come on. You can do it.
She wasn’t entirely sure why she’d started giving herself encouragement in the second person, but it seemed to be vaguely working – as the last of the fur faded back and her claws withdrew into merely sharper nails, she managed to push herself back onto her knees and one hand, and from there up to standing, wobbling a little, with her bare feet flat on the freezing stone.
Now up the ladder. Going to be tricky with one hand, but not impossible.
Tricky was an understatement – she almost fell several times and, by the time she’d reached the top, she’d developed a deep and abiding empathy for Mortimer and his battles with the ladders in the university library. But she made it – and, when she hauled herself over the top of the ladder and collapsed in a pile of exhaustion and aching limbs on the only marginally less freezing stone flags which made up the floor of the new section, she was rewarded with the knowledge that she’d climbed into what looked like nothing so much as the wine cellars under the Luciel townhouse.
True, the design of the tunnel around her was a lot older than the townhouse’s interior, and the townhouse was a lot less full of cobwebs than this place seemed to be, but the fact remained that she’d somehow wandered into what, unless she was completely and utterly mistaken, was the undercroft of some sort of manor house.
And, if I’m right about where I am, there’s only one place that could logically be.
That didn’t mean she could drop her guard just yet, of course. Even if this was the Hall, there was nothing to say that she’d not run into Avebury down here – or that Caine hadn’t somehow got the drop on her and managed to get in round the front. No, better to keep quiet and cautious for now, until she was certain that she knew where she was and who she was about to walk into.
There was another ladder up ahead of her, this one leading up to a trapdoor set into the vaulted roof of the cellar.
So much for being able to go back to four paws.
Then again, if she was going to run into Mortimer or one of the others, they’d likely recognise her a lot faster if she was on two legs. And right now, when she was already almost certainly on the edge of too late to tell them something they really bloody needed to know, that trumped the fact that she’d be more comfortable on four.
Just need to make myself get up off the damn floor again. Come on. It’s not that bloody hard.
Thankfully, neither of the apprentices seemed to have taken the opportunity to sneak down out into the cellars while everyone else was distracted – or, if they had, they were doing a bloody good job of hiding.
Not as good a job as I used to do, though.
The cellars had been his playground, once upon a time, and he still knew pretty much every inch of them off by heart, even if some of the barrels and boxes had been moved around over the intervening years. The pile of old canvases on top of a battered sea-chest he’d always thought must have belonged to some secret pirate ancestor were still there, after all, as was the huge tub which had once been used to wash laundry when the Hall had been a good deal more inhabited, and which had stood in for everything from a bandit castle to a pre-Fall flying machine in his solitary games.
And, off to the back, hidden behind a pile of crates which were a good deal lighter and easier to move than they looked, the door to the back wine cellar and the secret passageway leading out of the Hall’s grounds.
It creaked open when he pushed it with his shoulder (so much for keeping it locked, huh, da), revealing a small chamber packed floor to ceiling with empty wine racks – the legacy of some ancestor or other who’d had more of a taste for the stuff than anyone who’d come after them – and with a pile of discarded timber and odds and ends of building supplies wedged in one corner. The trapdoor was exactly as he remembered it, set squarely in the middle of the room and locked with a pair of heavy iron bolts, simple enough to deal with from this side and almost impossible to undo from the other.
And yet, as he watched, he saw the trapdoor shift slightly, as though someone was pushing at it from underneath.
For a moment, he froze, unsure of what to do next. By rights he should be running back to tell his father – that was what he’d agreed to, after all, and he had no idea who or what might be on the other side of that door. But there was something in the movement that made him hesitate – whoever it was, they were moving methodically rather than with the brute force and power he’d associate with Caine or some of the Sinnlenst’s heavier hitters.
And besides, he’d had just about enough of holding back.
Alright. You want to play? We can play.
Moving quietly, he crouched and set the lantern he was carrying down in the corner by the door, where it illuminated enough of the room that he could see what he was doing, but where it also wouldn’t be knocked over easily if it came to a full-blown fight. Then, carefully, keeping his eye on the trapdoor as he went, he crossed to the back of the chamber and picked up a stick which’d clearly been discarded as part of some building operation or other – about four foot long, heavy, but not too much so to swing one-handed, and perfectly balanced for clocking someone (say, an unsuspecting Sinnlenst) around the back of the head.
Right. Now all I need to do is bait you out.
The bolts were oiled, at least, he could see that much from here. And, when he slid the toe of his boot under one of them, it flipped up and slid back with gratifying ease and silence.
Come on then. Let’s see what you are.
Balancing on a ladder was hard enough with one arm that didn’t want to work properly and a leg which was starting to make it clear that it was going to want in on the sick leave in the next few minutes if she didn’t hurry up. Balancing on a ladder while trying to work out how to unbolt a trapdoor from the wrong side was starting to verge on the impossible.
At least the bloody shutters were relatively easy once I’d got my eye in. This? How’s anyone supposed to deal with this?
Admittedly, it probably wasn’t intended to be opened from this side, but there had to be some way of getting through the damn thing.
I’ve not come this far to be defeated by a glorified plank of wood!
She gritted her teeth and, with a yell of mingled exertion and pain, threw as much of her bodyweight as she could upward against the trapdoor – which flew open.
She’d calibrated the blow assuming that she’d be meeting heavy resistance, and she was only just able to redirect the momentum into a leap which propelled her off the ladder and up into what was clearly a storage room of some kind – though she didn’t get much of a change to look at it before something hard and heavy collided with the back of her head and sent her sprawling across the floor, her ears ringing and her vision sparking grey and white around the edges.
Get up! Get up and fight!
She rolled over, fighting the wave of nausea which threatened to overwhelm her for a second, and staggered to her feet, hands already up to defend herself. Her assailant seemed to be at something of a loss – maybe they’d not expected her to recover so fast – so she took advantage of that fact, diving forward in a tackle which took them in the midsection and drove them to the floor.
“Who are you? Where am I?” And, as her eyes fell on the improvised weapon she’d just knocked from its wielder’s hand: “Did you just hit me with a sodding plank?”
The person underneath her groaned, which was understandable, and then said ‘oh gods dammit’, which… was slightly less so, especially because she was pretty sodding certain she recognised the voice.
“Mortimer? What in the name of-“
“You’re one to bloody talk!” the soldier grumbled, his voice somewhat muffled by the fact that she was lying on top of him. “What in the hells are you doing in my cellar?”
“Hiding from Caine.” She shifted away, rolling off him and landing on the floor with a thud and a hiss as her leg protested the movement. “Why did you hit me with a plank?”
“Because I thought you were a bloody Sinnlenst!” He pushed himself up into a sitting position, keeping his eyes very firmly shut. “Why’re you naked?”
“Werewolf, remember? And I had to bloody run through half the damn forest, and that sodding tunnel, and the bloody ravine, and I spent half of that worried sick that Sabbat and Archer had got themselves killed, and bastarding Caine somehow managed to get ahead of me, and-” She paused for breath, suddenly realising that she’d raised her voice enough in the course of the preceding sentence that he’d actually shuffled back away from her. “Sorry. It’s been a long day.”
“It sounds it,” Mortimer said, after a moment. “Also back up a moment. Did you say Caine?”
Thank you, ancestors. If he was asking that question, it meant that Caine hadn’t already got to the Hall, which meant that she was technically still in time. “He’s on his way up here. Foreval sent him.”
Mortimer sighed. “Of course she bloody did. After she’d gone and told me to keep an eye on Avebury as well.”
“She what?” Viola said, before she could stop herself. If Foreval had gone to talk to Mortimer, then… “What in the name of all my ancestors did she mean by that?”
“Apparently, she’s worried about what he might be up to. Specifically regarding Fest.”
Well that’s bloody interesting. If Foreval was concerned by what Avebury might be up to, then that implied that the two of them weren’t working together – or, at least, that Avebury had a second plan going on behind the scenes that Foreval was only partially aware of. “How did she find you?”
“The same way Avebury did that night when he decided to come and bother me about taking some artefact or other off his hands, I assume. The Sinnlenst have spies enough that they can fairly trivially find out where their members live.”
“She came to your rooms? And what do you mean Avebury asked you to look after an artefact?” There were a deal too many things happening in this conversation, and she was a deal too probably-concussed to keep up with most of them. “You never said anything about that before.”
“To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten about it. It was the same night you got shot, and Amelia and I had to carry you back to mine – I had a whole lot more to worry about than Adam bloody Avebury and whatever ridiculous powerplay he was trying to rope me into this time.” He paused, frowning. “Also I think we’re from the point. You said Foreval told Caine to come up here, aye?”
“And Caine was chasing you.”
“Yes. I mean…” I caught his scent and panicked and ran, but it shakes out to pretty much the same thing. “He’s out on the mountain,” she said, out loud, and hoped that he couldn’t hear the waver in her voice.
“He’s a damn sight closer than that,” Mortimer said. He opened his eyes, studiously avoiding looking in her direction, and scrambled to his feet. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“To see my father.” He paused, winced, and then added, somewhat pointedly, “And to get you some clothes.”
[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 © 2023 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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