Previously on Seven Stones: Believing the man she pulled out of the lake was Karek, Anessa tells the warriors that she has a message from him. They immediately attack. Kobb and Anessa defeat them, but the last warrior accuses her of sorcery with his dying breath.
Anessa searched her pack for a clean rag. Her fallen opponents no doubt had kerchiefs, or—failing that—singlets. It weren’t right to riffle through their clothes, though—least not without knowing which side they were on. Using her spare shirt felt just as wrong though. Distracted, she didn’t notice Falcon’s approach until he pressed his nose against the back of her neck.
Arms tangled in her possessions, she tumbled forward. “Kobb! What about his bridle? How do we clean the lake water off that?”
“Not worth the time to try.” Kobb strolled over and patted Falcon on the flank. “I can steer him with my knees. Reins are good to hold onto if he’s galloping; I can do without until we find fresh tack, though.”
Anessa struggled to her feet “Suppose you won’t be riding anyway. Whatever those creatures are, they’re taking people to the island. So stands to sense the evil’s there.” She peered around the lake. No sign of a boat, but the matted reeds might hide anything. The only way to tell was walking the shore.
“Might not be that easy. If the beasts were hunting, they’d have tried to grab us. But they didn’t; ignored the man, too. That suggests there’s something important over there.”
“Won’t killing them solve it?”
Kobb’s gaze flicked to the dead men lying nearby. “We don’t know who Karek is; either way, there’s at least two sides to this. Easy enough to think the creatures are the problem because they grabbed a man. Common knowledge says Skithai are utterly evil, though.”
Could the monsters be fighting the evil? They looked terrifying, but they hadn’t attacked her or Kobb. Going to the island and killing the beasts’d be easy. Much easier than heading the way the men had come, and having to face their friends and families. But following the easy path rather than making sure was what lead to their attackers being dead.
Anessa squared her shoulders. “You’re right. And whoever he was, that man asked us to tell his family.”
Kobb’s gaze hardened as he raised his Courser to point over her shoulder.
Anessa spun on her heel. Three bat-winged shapes rushed towards the lake, the one on the left carrying a writhing child. Purple light flared as she dived for her fallen crossbow.
From the corner of her eye, she saw something hit the ground. Shadows flickered across her. By the time she’d rolled over the beasts had disappeared.
Slotting a bolt into place, she looked back and forth. A furry mass sprawled several yards north.
Kobb lowered his Courser. “They move faster than even the Skithai did. Once I hit the first one, the others raced away.”
“You saved the child, though?” She jogged towards it, crossbow raised. “Best check they’re well. And make sure beast’s dead.”
Kobb advanced a few yards to her left, weapons raised.
The monster lay face down, a leathery wing almost covering the body of a young girl. Neither reacted as Anessa approached. Crossbow ready, she stepped closer.
A scent between mould and the sky after lightning wafted up as she crouched next to the wing. Black fur matted the top edge, thickening as it approached the beast’s torso. Barely visible under the wing, the child’s chest rose and fell.
One eye on the creature, Anessa placed her crossbow down and lifted the wing. The girl remained limp, but still breathed. However, her legs lay beneath the beast’s body. “We’ll need to lift it to get her out.”
Kobb moved around and sheathed his weapons. After crouching, he frowned for a moment. “Not sure one of us could to hold it up alone. Easier if we shove it onto its back. Lift when I say.”
The wing kept flopping over her, but Anessa got her hands under the beast’s shoulder. As soon as Kobb called, she straightened. For a moment, the creature seemed to cling to the ground; then, all at once, it shifted.
Anessa leapt backwards. A jagged beak, the colour of red iron or ancient bronze, gaped from the front of a long head. Above it, four pits oozed a dark fluid across the fur. After a breath, she realised the sense of motion was the body settling. “What… what is it?”
“Don’t know. But if it’s stealing children, it’s more likely than not a threat.”
She’d been right. If they’d followed her idea of looking for a boat though, Kobb wouldn’t have seen the monster in time to save the girl. Was that one of the Blessings she needed to find? Time enough to think later. Anessa dropped to her knees beside the child.
Removing the weight of the beast hadn’t woken her up. After a moment, Anessa realised why: a spur of bone jutted from her left shin, rivulets of blood turning the ground beneath to muck.
Cloth tore behind her. When she spun, she saw Kobb hacking the nearest man’s clothes into strips.
“We can’t do anything for her here. If we stop the bleeding, we might be able to get her to wherever the men came from.”
Anessa grabbed the strip out of his hand and started wrapping. As she finished, Kobb passed her another.
Blood blossomed across each turn, but less each time. After the fifth strip, the bandages were no longer sodden before she wrapped the next turn. “It’ll have to do.”
As Anessa lent away, Kobb swept the girl up in his arms and laid her across Falcon’s saddle. “Might do her more good to carry her in my arms. This way we’ve both got a hand free to fight if we get ambushed, though.”
Anessa jogged to her sword. Striding back, she wiped the blade clean on the creature’s fur and sheathed it. Picking up her crossbow, she took the lead. There was only ragged turf between here and the ridge the men had approached over. No reason not to scout properly, though.
The grass continued, thicker but no taller, past the crest to another rise. Nothing stood out, but a shift in the breeze brought the scent of wood smoke. Something was burning beyond the far ridge; and the lack of a plume suggested it someone didn’t want to give their location away.
After telling Kobb, she headed forward again, keeping about twenty yards ahead of Kobb and Falcon. The scent of burning wood increased as she crawled up to the crest.
Ruins of pale stone, like the ones they’d rescued Haelen from but covering a larger area, filled the valley beyond. They seemed abandoned. Her gut didn’t agree, though. She inched forward and waited, letting her gaze flow over the ruins.
Long, slow breaths later, her patience was rewarded. A shadow on a roof shifted, for an instant moving like cloth. She eased back down the slope to join Kobb. “There’s ruins ahead. At least one person watching from a roof. Feels like more. Still can’t see the fire, so they’re careful.”
Kobb’s shoulders slumped. “I hoped they’d just be camped. But that sounds as if they fortified. And no way to know who they are till after we announce ourselves.”
“Don’t reckon the fire’s right at the edge. Wait for dark; we can sneak close enough to listen in.”
Kobb glanced at the sky. “It’s not even midday. Someone’s going to miss those men, and there’s nowhere to hide. Even if another group doesn’t come, the girl won’t last the day without more than we can offer.”
The hidden figure was too deep in the ruins to see the outskirts; potentially, even faced the other way. There was a chance the guards all watched the skies or something further in; that no one paid attention to the slope down. “People are easier to sneak up on than deer. If I went on my own…”