Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb suggests the creatures leave the lake for some reason beyond hunting. Three creatures return, one carrying a young girl. Kobb hits it with his Courser. The other two fly too fast to hit. The child is alive, but her leg is shattered. Anessa bandages it as best as she can. Anessa discovers ruins beyond a rise, and signs they are occupied. After the previous attack, neither Anessa nor Kobb want to approach without knowing who’s there.
Bitterness slid up Anessa’s throat from vomiting earlier. She forced herself not to swallow. If Kobb thought she was nervy, he wouldn’t let her go on her own. “Better to try while it’s cloudy. Less risk of metal catching the sun.”
“Those beasts move too fast to shoot. If they come back, we’ve a better chance together.”
“Like you said, they’ve ignored us before. Didn’t fight even when we did. The two of us can maybe sneak closer. Falcon can’t, though.” She pushed away a spike of guilt. “If those creatures do attack, least I’ve got a chance. Without either of us, he’d be unprotected.”
Kobb frowned for a moment, then sighed. “You’re not trained to fight a group. And, whoever’s in the ruins knows something about hiding too.” He glanced at the young girl. “The alternative’s worse though. Don’t try to be heroic. First sign they’re on to you, head back here.”
“Don’t worry. Probably want a fight less than they do.” Anessa unslung her pack and readied her crossbow. After a last nod to Kobb, she crept up the rise.
The cloaked figure remained in the same place, and now she knew what to look for, she thought she spotted two more. None of them moved when she slid over the crest, but she still tensed as she rose to a crouch and sneaked forward. When the shouts and rain of bolts didn’t come, she increased her pace to a jog.
The scent of smoke grew stronger. She still couldn’t see the plume. Something about the smell niggled at her, though. Hoping it’d come to her, she slipped closer. At least the smell gave her a place to aim for.
As she crept past the first pile of rubble, the stiffness in her shoulders eased. She slipped into a puddle of shadow and listened. Breezes brushed through the gaps; the ruins were otherwise quiet, though. Which suggested a group of people close by; if it was only one occupant, there’d be some small-animal noises.
A tall pile of stone blocked the street best leading towards the scent. The next seemed clear, though. She drifted around a corner, then moved to a low wall. As she crept past it, a boot scuffed nearby. Lowering herself back behind the wall, she peered out, her head almost at ground level.
A man in a battered yet clean leather jerkin stepped into view. Anessa wasn’t an expert but the sword at his hip looked similarly functional. After pausing for a moment to shift a sack from one shoulder to the other, he walked between the remains of two buildings.
Anessa rose and followed. Neither running nor creeping, he continued in a straight line. Wishing he moved more slowly so she didn’t have to rush, she slipped from doorway to shadow. A few paces further on, he turned down a street to the right.
She reached the corner in time to see him enter an intact building that stood slightly apart from the others. Several other buildings nearby looked whole. Definitely the area you might put your camp in.
After waiting a moment in case he came straight out again, she crept along the street. Burnt juniper surged stronger as she approached. The doorway loomed too dark to see more than a foot. Whereas she’d be obvious as she stepped through. She slipped down the side, seeking a different way in.
Two windows opened in the wall. But, due to either accident or intent, rubble blocked both of them. The door at the back was, if anything, more firmly packed. Ears straining for the sound of boots, she moved on. Fallen stone sealed the windows on the next side too; unlike the other sides, though, a creeper, thick with age, stretched the height of the wall. After giving it a tug, she slung her crossbow and climbed up. Head tilted flat against her shoulder, she raised her head enough to see over the lip.
Dirty but unbroken flags covered the roof. Apart from an old nest in the far corner, it was empty. She slipped over the edge, then waited. The smell of juniper remained strong, yet she couldn’t see even a trickle of smoke. And all the marks in the dirt looked like rain spatter rather than human feet. How’d they hide smoke holes this well without coming onto the roof? The fire must be in a different building.
Unless she missed something. If the smoke was thin enough, she might not notice it against the cloudy sky. She turned, peering at the rooftops before rising to her feet. The change in angle didn’t reveal any smoke. However, she did spot a figure slip away below.
She dropped to a crouch. It looked like the man with the sack, now tucked empty through his belt. He moved differently, though. Previously, he’d walked down the middle of the street, boot heels tapping on stones, as if doing a boring yet safe task. This time, he’d stayed against the buildings, weight sliding between feet to test the ground ahead. And he’d headed away from the direction he came.
It was the same man though; and, if he’d been setting a trap, he’d have sprung it while she circled the building. So, it’d be safe enough to climb down and check inside.
Concern still niggling at her, she retraced her path round three sides of the building. Still no one attacked. Pausing for a moment next to the doorway, she strained her ears. When only the subtle crack of burning wood sounded, she raised her crossbow and stepped past the jamb in a single motion.
Back pressed against the wall, she waited.
A faint flicker washed the shadows further in, coming from rubble in the centre. A pile of wood rested next to the rubble; otherwise, the room was empty.
Anessa crept forwards and crouched down. The scent of burning juniper, now almost overpowering, boiled out of a crude arch in the back of the pile. Within, a slab had been removed and a small fire lit in a hole scraped into the floor. A hidden fire pit. Grandam mentioned building a fire that didn’t give off smoke or light so pursuers couldn’t find you in the forest. Anessa’d thought it just a tale; this wasn’t though.
Why’d someone put so much effort into making one in an empty building? The smell made it obvious there was a fire. It didn’t make sense. Everyone even half-competent at hunting knew the smell of burning juniper carried for—
The smell. With no smoke or light to see, people’d know there was a fire, yet not where. They’d have to search for it. If Anessa hadn’t seen the man with his sack of wood, she’d have had to check all the intact buildings.
Which meant whoever was here wanted anyone looking for them to come here.