Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb and Anessa find Falcon and their packs. Before they can escape the ruins, Serth and her warriors surround them. Kobb activates the portal back to the stone circle, but is shot with a crossbow and collapses as they reach safety.
Needles of cold sank deeper into Anessa. Yet she remained motionless, desperate not to miss the slight twitch or puff of air that meant Kobb was only hurt. Vision blurring, she allowed herself to blink.
A series of noises came from nearby. Then something tugged at her arm, rolling her onto her back. She tried to resist; her limbs refused to work, though. A blurry shape blocked the stars. Pain exploded across her face.
Haelen crouched over her, right palm raised. “Anessa! Can you hear me?”
“You’re battle fatigued.” Haelen tugged at her shoulders. “Get up.”
“Kobb.” Anessa tried to turn sideways, but Haelen gripped harder.
“You need to rest; and to be somewhere warm.”
Anessa let him ease her to her feet. As soon as her knees held her weight, she shook his hand off. “Can’t. Need to save Kobb.”
Haelen grabbed her jaw and twisted her head to face him. “I understand. But, you’re tired and not thinking straight. That means you’ll make mistakes. And I can’t keep an eye on you and help the Reverend. If you don’t go to bed, I’ll have to put you there.”
Tears leaving icy trails down her face, she stumbled into her tent and fell onto her furs. Tired people did do stupid things. It made sense. Haelen wasn’t lying to her. He’d help Kobb.
Her hours of clambering, running, and tumbling weighted hard enough she barely pulled the furs over before her body refused to move. But her thoughts didn’t join her limbs. After what seemed like days flickering between the same half-formed fears, she realised it was light outside. Each movement sending a new wave of throbbing through her head, she staggered to her feet.
Porridge. Kobb’d need a good breakfast. And—
Air gasped from her mouth as her chest hit the ground. Something tugged at her left foot.
Dampness spread through her singlet. Realising she’d been staring at the rope hooked around her ankle for long enough to melt the snow, she struggled upright and headed for the fire-pit.
A good helping of oats, and some vegetables. She added even more. Kobb needed his strength back; they could get supplies later. Plenty of water, too. Not having to chew’d let him eat faster.
Chunks of carrot and swede bobbed. The cold sank deeper into Anessa as she watched nothing happen. After a while, she leaned closer. Only clumps of ash and soggy fragments of charred wood filled the pit. What embers’d lasted overnight, she’d slopped water over without noticing. Eyelids heavy and limbs numb, she wandered the camp looking for kindling.
“Anessa.” Haelen’s arms wrapped around her. “You’re freezing. What are you doing out of bed? Let’s get you back in the warm.”
“Making Kobb porridge.”
Haelen steered her toward the tents. “It’s a little soon for that. Maybe tomorrow.”
“He isn’t dead. But he needs to sleep. And so do you.” Haelen angled them into the improvised hospital. “But I suppose you won’t stay in bed until you’ve seen for yourself.”
Kobb’s head poked from a thick blanket. A blanket that rose and fell. Stained rags and tools filled a bucket beside him.
She twisted to face Haelen. Bags hung under blood-shot eyes. “I hoped, but…”
“Weren’t easy. And no telling how long he’ll need to sleep. He’s tougher than most, though.”
Despite Haelen’s reassurances and seeing Kobb breathe, Anessa felt a sense of unease. A few moments later, she realised why: it was too quiet in the tent. The villagers lay still and silent, blankets covering them from head-to-toe.
Haelen pulled her back as she stepped closer. “They didn’t survive. Now get yourself to bed, girl.”
Leaving the fire unlit and breakfast unmade felt odd—until she lay down. For a moment, the image of Serth’s mouth starting to smile rose up, then blankness swallowed her.
The tent was dark when she woke. Someone moved nearby. “Haelen?”
“How are you feeling?”
Her head felt clear. Most of her ached, but an old, dull ache. “Better, I think.”
“See.” Haelen sat on the edge of her bed. “Kobb’s still asleep. But the stone’s dark, so whatever you did worked.”
Kobb almost killed. Karak, his wife, his daughter, and who knew how many other people dead. Didn’t feel like victory. And… Serth. Even if Kobb woke up, she didn’t know how to talk him about her. Haelen, though… “Can you like someone and still hurt them?”
Haelen drew back. “What do you mean? What did you see?”
“There was an Inductor. She acted like she liked me. But then she tried to have me locked up.”
“It’s possible to like someone and think something else is more important. Sagas are full of best friends on opposite sides of a war.”
“What about…?” Heat burnt up her face, mercifully hidden by the darkness.
“You don’t mean smiled-a-bit liked do you?” Haelen sucked air through his teeth. “Yes; for something meaningful enough. Inductors are trained to get the task done, whatever it takes. Don’t stop them feeling, though. That’s why those sagas are tragedies; isn’t a way to get it all.”
“Why’d she have to—” Tears boiled up.
“She weren’t the only one felt something, was she? Don’t get to choose who we like. And liking someone as does wrong, don’t make you bad too. Take that Eater. Eaters’ve killed people long as anyone remembers, yet the Reverend wasn’t wrong to help it.”
“You don’t have to tell Kobb do you?”
“Not unless you want. Although, he’s sensible… for a Botherer, so I reckon he’d understand.”
Anessa uncurled. Problem wasn’t Kobb judging her; it was… well… the way Serth made her feel. Talking to Haelen was hard enough.
Haelen’s weight shifted. “Get some sleep. I’ll wake you if anything changes.”
The next three days passed in a haze of inaction. She visited Kobb as often as she could; Haelen drove her out if she stayed too long, though.
She awoke dribbling on the fourth day. The scent of hot oats flooded through the tent flap. Pulling on her jacket, she ran out.
“Not exactly a feast of gratitude,” said Kobb, looking up from the pot, “but porridge is mostly all we have.”
“You’re… Should you be…?”
“Best sleep I’ve had since I started having the dreams. I feel like I could outrun Falcon. Which is just as well; we need to get back to it.”
“No. You need to rest.”
“He’d lose that race.” Haelen paused in the door of the infirmary to stretch. “He’s fit enough to not waste the days away though. Especially if I’m along to keep an eye on him.”
Anessa shrugged and filled a bowl. Seemed too quick—Haelen’d been right about Kobb so far, though. Scooping oaty goodness as fast as she could, she settled on a log. Just to make sure Kobb didn’t rush, she filled a second big bowlful after the first.
Her stomach overruling her virtue and tongue combined, she admitted defeat partway down the third bowl and grabbed her pack.
The trip through? by? stone ended with barely a bump in a forest clearing. Winter sun took the edge from the frosty air. And—despite moving three people and a horse—Kobb stood straight and grinned at her. Haelen’d been—
Haelen stared past them, face pale. She turned to follow his gaze.
Eaters, spears raised and several deep, filled the treeline.