Previously on Seven Stones: Haelen speaks to the Skithai in their own language, convincing them not to attack. When the Shaman reveals the Skithai are hunting a group of men who stole a holy beast, Anessa offers to help. The shaman agrees, but only gives Kobb and the others a few days to succeed, after which hundreds of Skithai will besiege the nearby human town.
Kobb ran his gaze across the plain again. He was no expert on sieges; however, the wide swathes of farmland suggested they didn’t keep sufficient supplies within the walls to withstand a long siege—at least not without sacrificing a substantial number of inhabitants. And worse, the clear space stretched further than effective crossbow range, allowing attackers to camp around the town with little risk
Whereas—if a staff was as powerful as a Courser—each shaman could send blasts at anyone who sallied forth or even showed themselves above the parapet. Nine together might have enough power to breach a wall.
The only area defensible against those odds was inside massive inner wall that loomed over the far side of the town. But even that would fall to starvation if a relief force didn’t arrive within a few weeks.
“We need to fetch help,” said Anessa.
Kobb swept his arm around the forest. “These trees grow across the land. Without knowing where we are, we don’t know where the nearest garrison is. And, if we did chance on it, two days isn’t long enough to muster sufficient forces to overcome so many tribes.”
“Then we have to warn them.” Anessa strode closer to the cliff and looked from side-to-side. “We can get down over there.”
Haelen met Kobb’s eyes, brow creased. “It might be better if we don’t warn anyone. Even if we convince them of the threat, we’ll spend all our time being questioned again about what we saw, what was said, how far we travelled. Whereas, if no one knows we’re more than travellers, we find the beast, kill it, then return to the circle.”
“Kill it?” Anessa spun to face them. “Once we have it, we stop the Eaters coming.”
Kobb stepped forward and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Haelen means the Tan-Sorda could well be what’s holding the power here. Killing it before the Skithai recapture it might be our only chance.”
“We can’t just let the Eaters kill them!” Anessa twisted away.
“I don’t want to do it either,” Haelen said. “But unless we realign the stones, we put more than one town at risk.”
“The creature might not be the problem.” Kobb focused on hiding how unlikely he though that was. “We only kill it as a last resort. And if we do, we try to sneak the body out; trick the Skithai into thinking the townspeople weren’t involved.” Which, given how angry the Skithai would be, probably wouldn’t make a difference.
“Right. Best find the creature quick then.” Anessa straightened her shoulders. “The town going to have a problem with Kobb?”
Kobb pressed his fingers to his pendant. “We’re sometimes unpopular. The way Morth reacted was unusual, though; it’s better to take the risk than force you two to sneak the beast out so I can check it.”
Haelen turned to study the town. “The Reverend is the only one of us who can use power. Anessa’s right about people not being comfortable with Botherers, though. Might be best to hide the Courser and your symbol.”
A tendril of unease slid through Kobb’s stomach at the thought of hiding his pendant. The faith wasn’t the form, but it felt wrong to conceal it. They were right about the search being easier if he seemed like an ordinary traveller though. After tucking his pendant inside his shirt, he unstrapped his holster from his baldric and placed his Courser in the bottom of his saddlebag. “Anyone needs spiritual assistance, I’ll have to act. But I won’t volunteer anything.”
Gathering up Falcon’s reins, Kobb lead the way down the narrow path. The air still had the chill of winter, but the sun bouncing back off the rock made it almost warm. A warmth that fled again once they moved away from the shelter of the cliff across the plain.
Four guards, three with tabards matching the red-and-gold flag above the gate and one in pale blue, strode forward as Kobb approached. All four had a hand rested on their sword. “Hold. What business brings you to Sallis?”
“We’re from the north.” Kobb let Falcon’s reins hang. “Looking for short work to replenish our purses.”
The guards kept hands on hilts, but relaxed. “You’ll find nothing till the festival’s over.”
Festival? None of the Holy Days fell at this time. Had he lost track of the days somehow in the trips through the Stones? Even if he had, only the most devout would celebrate more than Maker’s Day; and that with prayer rather than festivity. “How long does the festival last? We have coin for a while.”
The lead guard nodded at the mention of money. “Duke Torvan weds at the end of the week. The city holds a great hunt to celebrate his betrothed’s arrival.”
“Four days.” Kobb swept his arms wide to keep the guard’s attention, in case Anessa failed to hide her reaction. “Our purses will stand that. And they’ll no doubt be plenty looking for willing hands once the celebration’s over.”
The guard snorted, then swung his free arm to point at the open gate. “Who could keep such a joyful man from a wedding celebration?”
As soon as the three of them were past the guards, Anessa leaned in close. “What’s a great hunt?”
“The Duke and his retainers ride out each morning to hunt a more dangerous beast than the day before. Started as a way of showing a suitor had the strength to defend the new household against threats, but they’re a ritual these days; caged animals released into an enclosure.”
“You think that’s why those men stole the creature?”
Haelen moved closer. “Makes sense. Something no one’s hunted before would make good bragging.”
“So, we explain the danger.” Anessa’s voice was low, but her eyes sparkled. “No one’d risk trapping their love in a war.”
“Doubt he loves her.” Haelen shrugged. “Might not have met her before the festival started. Political marriage is about power and glory. And, even if the Duke believes the Skithai are a threat, knowing the Tan-Sorda is important enough to declare war over will just make hunting it more glorious.”
“Street’s not the best place for this discussion.” Kobb pointed at a huge tankard wrapped in ribbons hanging above a door. “We find a room first, then work out what to do.”
With hiring suspended, most of the patrons were local; however, enough of the wealthy of nearby duchies had travelled in the hope of being taken for wedding guests that the only hostel with free stable space and a private chamber was in a murky backstreet. After carrying what little was available to eat up to their room, Kobb and Haelen reiterated the difference between ordinary and noble marriages to Anessa.
But before they could overcome her incredulity, the hostler banged on the door. “Forgot to change the beds. Come to the tap-room; I’ll pour an ale for you each… on the house, while the boy makes it up.”
Kobb ran his gaze across the greyish blankets. They didn’t look as if they’d been changed in months. “A moment.” He glanced at Anessa’s sword, before loosening his own in its sheath. Hand hanging near the hilt, he opened the door with the other.
The owner, yellow teeth exposed in a stiff grin, backed away toward the stairs. There was no sign of a boy or fresh bedding.
Kobb tilted his head. The only noise was from the street outside. He glanced along the corridor. He could swear he’d heard someone walking that way shortly before the knock, but the door to the other room was half-open. When he looked back, the hostler had ducked out of sight. Unsheathing his rapier, Kobb stepped out and faced along the corridor. “Best come out. I know you’re there.”
A bulky man, hooded cloak concealing his clothes and face but not the shape of the sword at his hip, emerged. Two masked figures followed him, each with a raised crossbow. “Suspect you’ve noted the quiet below, too. And what it means.”
Kobb nodded once.
“Then you’ll know you can’t fight your way out. Three of you come along peaceably, no one gets hurt.”