Previously on Seven Stones: Haelen not only saves Kobb’s life, but also gets him back up on his feet within days. Despite Anessa’s misgivings, they travel through the next stone. However, before they get their bearings, a large group of Eaters emerge with spears readied.
Kobb’s weapons flowed into his hands without effort. The bandage tugged at his chest as he adopted a defensive stance. Apart from that, he felt great; in fact, he felt like a young man again. However—even if it weren’t an illusion caused by the first proper sleep in months—it wouldn’t be enough to overcome so many people.
The lines of spear-waving figures opened to reveal a hunched figure with two sets of complex golden antlers jutting from its mask and a long staff. If horns meant shaman, then this was a powerful or respected one.
Feet weaving in a pattern that moved as far to the sides as it did forward, the shaman advanced. An atonal chant counterpointed the slap of feet on ground.
Kobb flicked his gaze along the treeline and considered his options. If he used his Courser now, the shaman might not be able to dodge. However, he’d only get one attempt, and the remaining Skithai would overwhelm them even without the shaman’s help. So, he needed the Skithai to not be enemies. He let his weapons hang lose. “All certitude is like the mist at dawn…”
The shaman spun its staff counter-clockwise above its head. The chant changed to a single phrase. “Anh-Tanak Rosh Skithai!”
The other Skithai began shouting and stamping.
Kobb scanned the treeline for the first sign of attack. Was this a greeting, or hadn’t the shaman understood? He drove the point of his rapier into the ground and held out his pendant. Maybe it’d recognise the symbol.
Light glinted from the crystals embedded in the shaman’s staff as it spun faster.
“Anh-Skithai!” Haelen stepped forward and pressed the fingers of his left hand to his chest. “Volg Tomor’ek. Volg Rosh’ek. Skithai Volg Anh-Sorda.” Each time he said Volg he tapped his right fist against his left hand.
The Skithai fell silent. A loud thud filled the silence as the end of the shaman’s staff hit the ground. Head tilted, the shaman peered at Haelen.
“Volg Rosh Haelen.” Haelen tapped with his right fist again. “Skithai Volg Anh-Sorda.”
The shaman held its empty hand out, palm down, then lowered it. Almost as one, the Skithai slung their spears. Twisting its staff hard, the shaman stuck it in the ground and then took two steps toward Haelen.
“What did you say, Haelen?” Kobb continued to scan the line of Skithai. “How did you…?”
“The previous occupant of the stones dealt with Skithai. Realised while you were in Morth that meant he learnt enough their language to not be killed on sight. Didn’t seem as important as investigating the circle, but I wasn’t getting anything new from the other notes so I learnt a bit of the language. Glad I did now.”
Kobb agreed. A thought struck him as he sheathed his Courser: each time they used the stones they appeared somewhere significant, so arriving next to a large group of Skithai might be more than bad fortune. “Can you ask the Skithai what brings them here? And if they’ve seen anything odd nearby?”
“Men take Tan-Sorda.” The shaman’s voice sounded like the crack of branches. “Skithai hunt men. Kill men. Return Tan-Sorda to holy place.”
“Tan-Sorda?” Haelen frowned. “God-Beast? An icon?”
“Not statue. Tan-Sorda. Dung of Tan-Sorda bring life. When Tan-Sorda return to holy place, carry voices of Skithai with it.”
Kobb wrapped his fingers around the blade of his rapier. Careful to keep the tip pointed away from the Skithai, he tugged it out of the ground and wiped the dirt off, before sheathing it. “Men stole a creature sacred to you?”
The shaman snorted. “Cannot steal what cannot be owned.”
“We can help,” said Anessa. “They’d attack you on sight, but they’ll talk to us. No need to kill anyone.”
Kobb smiled at her optimism. She was right the four of them could get close without less chance of being attacked; even if they convinced the thieves to return this creature, though, he suspected the Skithai wanted the men dead. “You’ll do better with our help.”
An odd creaking noise filled the air, and the shaman began to shake. After a moment, Kobb realised it was laughing. Slapping its hands together, it straightened. “Kill you now. You kill some Skithai. Still not have Tan-Sorda. Not kill you. Maybe have Tan-Sorda and no Skithai die. Maybe kill you tomorrow anyway.”
“We’ll get the Tan-Sorda for you,” said Haelen, “but you’ll have to describe it, and we’ll need more than a day.”
“Tan-Sorda is tall as travelling-meat.” The shaman pointed at Falcon. “But wider. Wide horns on brow, like shining tree. Sometimes stands on two legs. Scouts say men fifty spear throws that way. Give you until Anh-Volg-T’ek, then Skithai come. Kill all men.”
The shaman turned on its heel and strode back into the trees, yanking the staff out of the ground as it passed. Without a sound, the other Skithai slipped from sight.
Kobb picked up Falcon’s reins. “We’d best get started then. Don’t suppose those notes say how long a spear-throw is?”
“No. Legion release at sixty yards, though. So say fifty throws is close on two miles.”
Anessa leading, they set out in the direction the shaman had pointed. The ground rose, becoming rockier. Slightly past mid-morning, the trees started to thin. Anessa stopped at the crest of the rise and beckoned the others forward.
Ahead the forest ended at a cliff. Beyond it, a plain stretched out to a walled town. Anessa frowned. “That must be where they went. But it’s vast. How will we find them?”
Kobb studied the town. To someone used to cities, it was tiny. She was right about it taking time to search, though. “How long is it till Anh-Volg-T’ek, Haelen?”
“It’s not a when, it’s a what. It means something like council of the warriors.”
“So, we have until they talk themselves into a frenzy. A couple of days at best.”
“But, won’t they all die?” Anessa pointed at the walls. “The fence around Morth kept the Eaters out, and it only took a few people to drive them off with crossbows.”
Haelen’s shoulders sagged. “I don’t think it will just be the Skithai we saw. I might not be translating it right, but I think a council needs at least nine shaman.”
Kobb did a quick count in his head. “And how many shaman in a tribe?”
“The notes talked about needing to gain the trust of the shaman. There might be more than one, but…”
“…but there might be nine tribes united, or more. Hundreds of warriors. Enough for a siege.”