Silver in the Ashes: Chapter 35 (draft)

Could always be that Avebury’d nicked off with Fest’s journal. Wouldn’t match with his usual methods, as far as Sabbat was aware, but didn’t mean it wasn’t a possibility. Hells, could even be that the red-eye brat had dropped it here after doing some snooping of his own – wouldn’t be the stupidest thing Sabbat’d seen a would-be spy do, and the kid was definitely scatter-brained enough to have managed that kind of fuck-up.

But, looking around at the rest of the gear strewn across the floor, the piles of penny-dreadfuls, and the cut of the clothes in a heap in the corner, there was only one explanation which seemed in any way fucking plausible.

Wrong room.

Wrong pissing bastarding cunting room. He’d spent gods-knew how long on that fucking lock, and what did he have to fucking show for it but time wasted that he couldn’t afford to fucking waste, and-


Louder than he’d meant to be – loud enough that if anyone was out in the corridor he’d almost certainly given away his position – but it was that or punch the wall, and putting a dent in the plaster’d be harder to cover up even if he didn’t end up breaking his knuckles in the process.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!”

Stupid. Too much noise, drawing too much attention, might as well stand up and announce yourself as a fucking thief. But it worked enough to clear his head, drive back the red, let him actually think for long enough to put together a new plan.

So this wasn’t Avebury’s room. Fine. He knew the two apprentices had rooms next to each other, which meant the unlocked door had to be the one he was after (and that said something in and of itself, if the bastard was confident enough not to lock up before he headed out. That or he’d booby-trapped the place to the hells and back).

Easy enough, then. Just do exactly the same sweep he’d done in this room in the other, and pray to the Lady that nobody came by until he’d finished.

And if they do?

Then he’d fucking think of something. He’d been a thief since he was five years old, hadn’t he? More than enough practice to know what to do if it came to it, even if half his head seemed to be full of fucking treacle and the floor kept shifting under his feet.

Get in, do the job, get out. It’s that fucking simple.

And if he was really fucking lucky, he might actually find something useful.


Even with everything else chewing at his hindbrain, Archer had to admit that Viola’s suggestion of a hunt – especially in wolf-form – had been a stroke of genius. Yes, there was a Turned in the woods. Yes, there was a Sinnlenst at the Hall. And yes, Sabbat was dying, and the only plan he had to stop that was a half a breath away from heresy. But right now, right here, with the wind in his fur and the snow under his paws, and the scent of the prey a bright line of shimmering colour weaving through a backdrop of pine and ice and storm-heavy air, he could almost forget all of that in the sheer primal joy of the chase.

He’d not been able to outpace her – he’d never thought he would, given the differences between their respective four-footed forms – but he’d managed to make a decent showing all the same, giving her enough competition that, by the time they’d skidded to a halt in the shadow of an overhanging rockface, she’d actually owned herself at least a little impressed.

Though how much of that was an attempt to distract me by flattering my ego and how much was the unvarnished truth I don’t know. Doesn’t much matter either way, to be honest, since she if she was lying, she’d be unlikely to admit as much, and I don’t speak wolf well enough to read her properly.

Ahead of him on the trail, he saw Viola pause briefly and look back, every line of her body radiating impatient hunger. <<Come on! It’s getting away!>>

That, on the other hand, needs no translation.

He lunged forward, paws digging into the fresh snow as he bent his mind and body to the pursuit of their quarry. His wolf form might be lacking in raw power compared to Viola’s – unsurprising, considering that it was more a magical disguise than an actual transformation – but he could still keep pace well enough that, by the time they’d run their prey to ground in a sheltered clearing with no possible avenues of escape, it didn’t take long for the two of them to dispatch the hapless buck and leave it pouring steaming red lifeblood in an ever-growing puddle on the frozen ground.

Drinking wasn’t viable in this form – not without getting your other face completely coated in gore, at any rate – and the lure of the deer’s blood was almost too strong to resist. But if he did change shape for that, he could hardly ask her to leave while he slaked his thirst. And if she saw him kneeling by the corpse, with its blood dripping from his mouth, then…

Then she’ll see you as what she already knows you are. As much a predator as she is. Or had you forgotten that she’s almost certainly eaten from kills two-legged before as well?

He tried to avoid drinking directly from animals when he was in the city – humans found it distressing, and distressed humans were dangerous, even centuries after the last real war between the species. But they weren’t in the city any more, and Viola wasn’t a human. And if she had a problem with him drinking from a deer, then-

Then she’s likely going to have even more of a problem with what I might have to do if all of this doesn’t go to plan.

Not that she wasn’t going to have a fairly bloody significant problem with it already. There wasn’t anything to say that it’d work, for a start, and a hundred corpses littered throughout recent history to say that all it’d do would kill him and Sabbat both. But if it was the only way to save him, then he’d be damned if he’d not at least sodding try.


He blinked, looking up from the spreading pool of gore to find himself staring directly at a suddenly two-legged (and very naked) Viola. When did she- I didn’t even hear her shift!

“Drink,” she said again, nodding towards the blood. “It’s not getting any fresher, and, by the sound of it, you could do with the strength.” She crouched down in the snow, hand going automatically to the space at her waist where her belt-knife would normally sit, paused for a moment, and then sighed. “Damn. Can’t gralloch it with my teeth – not neatly, anyhow – and I’m not about to drag it back with all the guts still in.” She scowled. “Hate to ask, but can I borrow yours?”

If it was an attempt to get him to change back, it was an almost insultingly blatant one. But, then again, she’d already shed her own fourlegged form, and she had a damn sight more reason to keep to hers than he did when it came to comfort.

And, if nothing else, she’s not wrong about how quickly that blood’s likely to congeal.

He shook himself, the fur and fangs of his borrowed shape flickering back into non-existence as the wolf-form dissipated, and dropped down into a crouch that mirrored Viola’s own, his knees and back protesting slightly at the motion.

That’ll teach me to fall asleep sitting on the floor, I suppose.

“Here.” He unsheathed his belt-knife, flipping it around in his hand to pass it to her hilt-first, and resisting the brief but deep-seated urge to snatch it back as soon as she took hold of it. She’d more than earned the right to borrow it, after all, even before she’d promised to do her best to save Sabbat’s life, and, if things went as badly as he was dreading they might, he was going to have to ask her to do a good deal more to honour that promise than she might have bargained for. “Careful with it.”

“Worried I might cut myself?”

“Worried you might break it. It’s not easy to get that kind of inlay repaired north of Masik-Tal.”

“You fret too much.” But she shifted her grip all the same, tucking the spine of the hilt more securely into her palm. “Family heirloom?”

“You could say that.” He’d buried his first belt-knife alongside Elisabeth, by a rocky outcrop near their home, and worn an empty sheath for a year afterward until Ira, frustrated by how long he was taking to pull himself out of the mire of grief and regret, had made a present of one of hers to him with the order that he wasn’t to stop wearing it until he had a damn good reason. “My father’s side.”

“Hm. Explains the pattern-work.”

“You’re familiar with it?”

“Hard not to be.” She grinned, obviously amused by his reaction. “Lady’s maid to a noble, remember? ‘melia and I spent enough time being tutored in the various subtleties of court intrigue that I can spot the symbols favoured by most of the major bloodlines fairly easily. Even bastard branches.” And, before he could work out whether to be offended or not by the remark, she added, “Look, I’ll turn my back if it’ll make it easier for you to drink. Rather not be trying to gut the thing while you’re still feeding.”



“The word you’re looking for is ‘drinking’. ‘Feeding’ makes it sound as though we’re animals.” And, with what’s been happening in the city, that distinction is a good deal more important than it might otherwise be right now.

She looked as though she wanted to say something at that, but apparently thought better of it before whatever it was made it past her teeth. Instead, she turned away from him, focusing her attention pointedly on the knife in her hands.

It’s not getting any fresher. And better this than Sabbat’s blood again, when he has little enough to spare as it is.

The deer’s blood was still warm, wet and sticky against his hands as he knelt by the raw red ruin Viola’s jaws had made of the animal’s throat, and he had to fight back a sudden overwhelming memory of the feel of Sabbat’s palm against his own, slick with the blood of the Sinnlenst he’d halfway torn apart in vengeance for Archer’s death.

How much of that was the influence of the box, I wonder?

More than he’ll let on. And it’s only going to get worse.

And, as he bent his head to drink from the kill, I need to find a way to fix this.


Compared to the red-eye brat’s room, the unlocked one looked a fuck of a lot closer to what Sabbat’d expected from Avebury – not tidy enough to be suspicious, not enough mess to raise eyebrows, and anything that might be incriminating hidden well out of sight.

If there’s anything to be found. What’re the odds he’s got whatever it is on him, if he’s not bothered to lock the door?

On the other hand, what choice did they have? And, worst case scenario, he could always half-inch something valuable-looking and see if there was any money to be made fencing it back in the city.

And how fucking well did that work out for you last time?

The inlay of the box twisted against his chest, almost as though it’d heard his thoughts, and he pressed a hand to it, the wood almost blood-warm through the fabric of his shirt and waistcoat.

Need to fix this.

Tossing the room would’ve been an option, if he’d not cared about Avebury knowing someone’d been through his possessions – hard to hide something well enough that that technique wouldn’t turn it up, and the destruction’d make it a fuck of a lot more difficult for the Sinnlenst to work out what’d been taken. But given how isolated the Hall was, and the fact that there’d obviously been no visitors in the past couple of days, all that turning Avebury’s room over was going to do was send the bastard on a hunt through the house for whoever’d done it.

That or he’ll take it out on the servants, or Archer’s friend, and then Archer’ll be even more fucking furious than he’s already going to be when he finds out.

So, ripping the place apart was out. Fine. Wasn’t as though he couldn’t be subtle when he needed to. Just meant taking more time.

Start with the books. Obvious place to look.

At first glance, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of suspect literature – a couple of book of magical theory which were more advanced than most first-years’d be capable of (if Archer’s descriptions and the few lectures he’d lurked at the back at were any indication), but that was hardly evidence of anything other than someone trying to pretend to be smarter than he was. More books on history than he’d expected, including a fair few on the Fall – might be related to whatever Avebury was up to, might just be he had an interest – and a couple of volumes on the Revolution with a trend towards the Usurper’s side of the fight (again, not evidence of much other than the fact that the bastard was a Sinnlenst, which he’d hardly been fucking hiding).

Next to one of the stacks of books on the desk, though, was something that caught Sabbat’s attention. Not because it looked fenceable – too fucking obviously unique for that, even without a closer look – but because he was fairly bloody certain he’d seen it before.

Looks like he’s in the middle of something. Didn’t figure him for a woodworker, though.

The disc of polished hardwood in the middle of the desk said otherwise, though, as did the handful of tools lined up on a cloth to one side.

The fuck’s he making? Some kind of shrunk-down ritual circle?

It didn’t look like any ritual circle Sabbat’d ever seen, though. Too many cross-lines for that, and a fuck of a lot fewer sigils than any halfway sensible magician’d built into something that obviously experimental. And the lines seemed to be moving as he looked at them, shifting around each other as though they were living things rather than crudely-carved channels in an inanimate lump of wood.

Archer’d know what to do with this. Could probably get it back into the room before the Sinnlenst brat even notices it’s gone, if we’re quick about it.

Wouldn’t even need him to get started on the research, assuming the books he’s pulled from Verist’s library are halfway decent. Ain’t as though he’s the only fucking scholar around here.

The disc wasn’t large – around the size of a dinner plate – which meant half-inching it’d be child’s play, even as off his game as he was right now. Risky gamble, since Avebury’d definitely spot something was missing if he came back up to the room before supper, but Archer’d been fairly certain the two apprentices were going to be down in the cellars for the majority of the day (assuming Verist could be trusted on that, but what other choice did they have?)

Grab it and go. Sooner we get it out of here, sooner we can get it back.

And the sooner he could work out what about it was making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.


I’m sure he must have something he’s supposed to be doing other than bothering me, Fest thought, sourly.

He’d been hoping that taking a break from the lab work would have given Avebury a chance to get engrossed enough in his own preparations that he’d leave off trying to pick holes in Fest’s, but apparently that hope had been entirely unfounded – the Sinnlenst had taken the time to focus on his own work, but only for long enough to get to a point where he was so comfortably ahead that he could justify leaning over Fest’s shoulder to offer unasked-for ‘advice’ (which mostly boiled down to ‘well, obviously you’re doing it wrong’, only phrased in such a way that, if he was called on it, he’d be able to claim that Fest was taking offence where none had been intended).

“You’re going to need to redo that, if you’re not careful. You’re a couple of degrees out on that cross-line on the sketch and, if you translate that over to the actual working, your geometries are going to be all wrong.”

“Thank you for the correction. I’ll keep that in mind.” Sod off and die in a ditch.

“You’re welcome. I do enjoy helping less able students.”

“Of course.” In a ditch, on fire.

“Honestly, though, I’m surprised that you’d make that kind of mistake. Your geometry sketches are usually relatively decent.” He paused, took a breath and, just as Fest was about to relax, added, “It almost makes up for how backward you are in almost every other class.”

“Right. That sodding does it-” Fest began, turning to face Avebury full-on, but the rest of whatever he’d been about to say died in his throat as he caught sight of the other apprentice’s face. The Sinnlenst’s lips were drawn tight in a grimace of pain, sweat beading on his forehead, and he looked for all the world as though he was about to keel over – or, at the very least, throw up.

…Just like what happened at dinner the other night, only worse. What’s wrong with him?

Theoretically, anything being wrong with Avebury was something to be celebrated – not least because it meant he’d get off Fest’s back – but there was a world of difference between theory and practice.

He looks awful.

“Are you alright?” he asked, before he could stop himself.

“Fine,” the other apprentice growled, through clenched teeth. He put his hand to his chest, took a deep breath, and turned towards the Archmage. “Sir, may I be excused? I need to step out for some air.”

“Granted,” Verist said, not looking up from his notes. He waved a hand distractedly in Avebury’s direction, adding, after a moment, “Be quick about it, mind. I’ll want to look over your work when you get back.”

“Of course, sir.”

Thank you! Fest cheered, silently, as the Sinnlenst stalked out of the room at a speed which was just shy of a run. Having to present his workings to the Archmage would almost certainly distract Avebury long enough for Fest to get more work done on his own preparations – and, more than that, if he was very lucky, Verist might actually find some error in Avebury’s work to correct him over, which might take the wind out of his sails a bit.

Though that still doesn’t solve the mystery of what’s wrong with him.

And, hot on the heels of that thought, another one, sharper and brighter-edged and setting his heart racing just a little faster under his breastbone.

I could always try and find out.

It was objectively a terrible idea. He wasn’t a spy – hadn’t his experience at the Sinnlenst meeting made that abundantly clear? – and, for all he was technically a member of the Order, he wasn’t supposed to be here as anything other than a normal apprentice. Gods, he wasn’t even supposed to be here at all.

But, aside from possibly Mortimer (since he still wasn’t entirely sure what the older boy had meant about being as much of a Sinnlenst as Fest was), he was the only member of the Order who was here. And, if whatever Avebury was up to – or whatever was up with him – was something which was a threat to the Order or the city, then he had a duty to work out what it was and, if possible, how to stop it.

Didn’t he?


Shouldn’t have touched it. Shouldn’t have fucking touched it.

The box hadn’t liked it. Course it fucking hadn’t – half a second after his gloved fingers had made contact with the surface of the disc, he’d suddenly remembered exactly where he’d seen that same odd pattern of shifting lines before.

The metal inlay twisted against his chest again, an agitated echo of the way it’d writhed when it made contact with Verist’s wards for the first time, and a lance of red-hot agony shot through his ribs, sending him crashing to his knees with a barely-swallowed-back hiss of pain.


Could always try grabbing the thing and running. Might still make it out of the door.

Might kill himself trying.

Least we know the brat’s mixed up in this of his own volition. Means we’re not looking for some other bastards who palmed the box off on him.

Wonder what’d happen if I gutted him.

Nothing good, even laying aside the fact it’d fuck over Cervanso and Fest. Box’d probably object even more than it already was – and, given he could barely get a full breath in at the moment, if that happened he might need Cervanso to take her knife to his throat after all.

Saw the books. Saw the carvings. Can at least tell Archer that much.

Need to get out of here.

He scrambled to his feet, pressing the box hard against his chest in a half-conscious effort to stave off the pain, and stumbled towards the door, which seemed suddenly an impossibly long distance away across an expanse of floor that rolled and pitched like the deck of a ship in a storm.

Get out. Get back to Archer. Tell him-


End of the corridor, headed this way. Moving fast.


No chance of making it out of the door before whoever it was – and he had a fairly bloody good idea – got there. Which meant finding somewhere to hide.

Be easier if this fucking thing wasn’t trying to strangle me.

And it’d be fucking easier if he wasn’t fucking dying, but there was fuck-all he could do about that, was there?

Under the bed was out – too many boots and boxes in the way to get in there cleanly, and hard to get out fast if he needed to, now he was grown (and fuck, when’d he stopped being a skinny kid with too many scars and too much of a mouth on him? Couldn’t have been that long ago, could it?). Curtains weren’t long enough to hide behind properly, and he’d have to stay still and standing – not likely, not with how much pain he was currently in. Had to be somewhere else, somewhere the bastard wouldn’t think to look.

Problem was, wasn’t much of anything in the room that he’d not already discounted. Desk, bed, chair, trunk – might be workable, but if the lock wasn’t pickable from the inside he’d be trading one set of problems for another – wardrobe, nightstand, chair again…



Assuming it ain’t fucking locked.

Wouldn’t have the time to mill it, if that was the case, and then he’d be face to face with a Sinnlenst with no reason to hold back and every excuse to drag him in front of the Archmage as a thief and housebreaker – or, equally likely, just have Caine kill him then and there and have done with it.

But what other choice did he have?

With a silent prayer to the Lady, he grabbed hold of the metal handle on the nearest of the wardrobe’s double doors and twisted it upwards, waiting for the resistance that’d tell him that his plan had failed at the first hurdle.

It didn’t come.

The door swung open, almost silently, and he hurled himself inside and pulled it to just as the footsteps in the corridor came to a sudden halt outside the room.

Stay still. Stay quiet. Didn’t fuck with anything enough that he’d be able to tell someone’s been in here. Just wait for him to get whatever it is he came for and go.

Easier said than done with his heart hammering against his ribs and his chest burning with every fucking breath. Through the thudding in his ears, he heard the creak of the floorboards as Avebury – and it had to be him, who else’d be coming in here in such a fucking hurry? – crossed the room, heading for the desk and the disc of hardwood that Sabbat’d tried and failed to steal.

Just lucky I didn’t manage to get more’n a finger on it before the fucking box objected. Shouldn’t be enough of a change that he’ll notice anything amiss.

Then again, how much’d he be willing to bet on that?

“Now what could you possibly have wanted in here?”

Sabbat froze, willing his breath slower even as his guts twisted in sudden panic. The Sinnlenst couldn’t possibly know he was there – he was off his fucking game, yes, but not by that much – which meant the worst thing he could do was give the bastard any evidence that he wasn’t just talking to himself.

Stay still. Stay quiet. Grit your teeth, breathe through the fucking pain, and wait.

“Were you after the letter, perhaps? Honestly, do you think I’m stupid enough to leave that somewhere you could find it?”

Fuck. Going to-

He slammed a hand over his mouth as the tide of vomit and bile rose up in the back of his throat and, with an effort of will that made his ears ring and his vision swim briefly black-and-grey, managed to swallow it back. Wouldn’t last, he knew that much from bitter experience, but if he could just keep it down until Avebury’d fucked off back to whatever it was he was supposed to be doing, then there was still a chance that he’d get out of this alive.

“I suppose it’s only good luck that you don’t know what you were meddling with,” the Sinnlenst went on, the floor creaking again under his boots as he crossed back towards the door. “Though I feel that an object lesson might perhaps be in order.” And, in an undertone that was still more than audible, “And if you’re not the one who’s playing games with the talisman, then I have some questions for our master.”

‘Our master’? Take that at face value, means he thinks Fest’s the one who broke into his room. Could use that.

Should tell Archer about it first.

His guts twisted again, cramping badly enough that he almost doubled over, and he swallowed hard, bile burning his nose and throat. He was almost bloody certain he’d heard the door close behind Avebury, but if the Sinnlenst was smart enough to try and trick him out of hiding, then-

Stay quiet. Stay safe.

Fuck. Felt like every bad day he’d had as a kid, back when he wasn’t big enough to make a dent in half the folks who’d want to do him harm. Back when he’d first run away, when it felt like half the fucking world was out to get him, when he’d barely a couple of knives and no kills to his name, crouching in the darkness with his mouth tasting of blood and vomit and his heart rattling in his chest and every fucking fibre of his being screaming to get up, get out, and fucking fight.

Supposed to be fucking different now, ain’t it?

But he couldn’t kill Avebury –  not right now, not knowing everything that’d bring down on Cervanso and the rest of them. And if he couldn’t kill him, then getting into a scrap with him was going to do nothing except make everything fucking worse, since knocking people on the head or choking them out didn’t conveniently erase their memories of what they’d been doing before you knocked ’em unconscious.

Which meant he could either sit and wait until he was fucking certain that the Sinnlenst’d left (and choke on his own vomit, if he didn’t wind up throwing up on the floor of the wardrobe first), or open the door now and trust to the Lady that he wasn’t about to make a bad situation even fucking worse.

Worst case I end up dead, and that’s already halfway to true anyhow. Might as well go out fighting.

Beats dying in a fucking cupboard, anyhow.


[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]

[Author’s note: this is discovery draft content, so I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]

Copyright © 2023 by Finn McLellan.  All rights reserved.

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