Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa sneaks close enough to the inhabitants of the ruins to learn they are fighting against Karek. Kobb and Anessa decide to enter openly. But as they approach, crossbowmen emerge and open fire.
Kobb dropped to a crouch, left hand snapping his Courser free. Somehow, all five bolts had—
A sharp yet mouldy smell filled the air around him as a leather-winged form slammed into Anessa. He drew a bead on instinct; the three figures were too muddled to fire without thought, though.
Falcon kicked out. Metal-clad hoof struck mangy fur, breaking the creature’s grip on Anessa. She curled tighter around the girl.
Before Kobb could shoot, the monster shot into the air, wings still folded. Kobb turned in place as the creature dived down at Falcon, a scream piercing the air.
Acting on hope, Kobb unleashed the Courser across its path.
The beast jagged without warning, but purple light brushed its right leg. Wings thrashing, it crashed down behind Falcon.
Bone crunched as the horse kicked backwards. Leather and fur slammed into the ground, then tumbled back down the slope.
Falcon stepped to the side, tossing his mane as the remains of the beast slid past.
Kobb patted his horse on the flank. “Having fun?”
Falcon whickered once, before strolling over to nose at Anessa.
Anessa’s left arm swung out as she rolled hard, her right reaching for her crossbow.
Falcon shook his head and whiffled, before stepping back.
Eyes wide, Anessa eased her hand off her weapon and rose into a crouch. “I thought…”
Kobb glanced behind him, then settled his Courser in place. The creatures’ agility left him conflicted: it made them difficult targets; but, had that one been any slower, he’d have shot the crossbowmen. “Is the girl safe?”
“She still sleeps. Whether that’s good or not…”
Kobb stood, hands drifting near his weapons, as the men approached. They wore the same clothing as the earlier group; however, each bore himself like a soldier. Crossbows angled towards the ground, but loaded and tensioned, they flicked their gaze between Kobb and the skies.
Kobb smiled. “Afternoon.”
The three men in the middle of the line halted outside sword range. The ones at each end swung wide, moving out of Kobb’s peripheral vision. After a longer consideration of both Kobb and Anessa, the oldest man tilted his head at Falcon. “Useful animal. What brings you this way?”
“We were travelling east when we rescued this girl from another of those creatures.” Kobb gestured at the unconscious child. “She needed better healing than we could offer. The beast came from this direction, so it seemed the best way to try.”
The man grunted, then nodded once. A moment later, one of his companions whispered something in his ear. The leader frowned in thought. “We’ll escort you in. Elvar, take the girl. Anything happens, get her inside.”
“I can carry her.” Anessa glared at him.
“Maybe. But that’s how I want it, so that’s how we’ll do it.”
Anessa glared at him again, before moving out of Elvar’s way.
Kobb patted her on the shoulder. “It’s not an insult. If anything, it’s a compliment.”
She peered at him, head tilted.
“Your father’s the right of it,” said the leader. “If you are up to something, we can fill you full of bolts without risking the girl.”
Anessa spun. “You think we’re—”
“Patrol went missing this morning. Then the two of you come strolling over the rise with a warhorse.”
Her shoulders drooped. Before she could speak, Kobb strode towards the line. “Sooner we head in; sooner we set your mind at rest.”
The tension left Kobb’s neck as the men’s focussed back on him. After a breath, the leader nodded and turned.
Draping Falcon’s reins over one wrist, Kobb strolled after the three warriors, ignoring the two who followed. Anessa stomped beside him, body rigid but keeping her feelings to herself.
“Came to the lake to fish, did you?” asked one of the men from behind.
Anessa whirled. “First we’re an invading army; now we’re fishers?”
“Just wondered, seeing how you stink of smoke.”
Kobb stroked Falcon’s flank, placing his hand closer to his Courser at the same time.
“Cold at night ain’t it.” Anessa rolled her eyes. “Anyone with an ounce of sense sleeps close to the fire. Surprised weren’t first thing you thought.”
The leader snorted. “She’s the right of it, Col. We ain’t all half-weasel; normal people feel the chill.”
Now he looked for it, Kobb noted a certain weaseliness in Col’s sharp features.
Hissing through his teeth in a way that—if anything—increased his resemblance to a weasel, Col waved Anessa on with his crossbow. They passed the edge of the rubble in silence.
Elvar leading, they wove through the maze of fallen buildings and blocked streets. Kobb sought to project amiability, while watching for the slightest hint whether the lack of blindfolds was a great sign or a terrible one. He still hadn’t decided by the time the group halted beside an unremarkable—albeit intact—two-storey structure.
“Elvar, take the girl to a healer.” Their guide-captor slung his crossbow. “Anserth will want to see you two straight away. Col, seeing you don’t feel the cold, make sure the horse don’t wander off.”
Kobb winced. “No need. Falcon’ll stay without trouble. Might even get fractious if a stranger tries to hold him.”
“Don’t worry. Col got the cunning as well as the features. He ain’t going to mess with a warhorse.”
Col huffed before slumping on a nearby block.
After draping the end of Falcon’s reins on the windowsill, Kobb strolled into the building. The entire floor was an empty space, a flight of steps visible on the far side in the gloom. “Up?”
The leader shook his head. Striding over to an unremarkable slab, he kicked down on it three times and stepped back. Several breaths later, it rose up on a pair of burly arms, then settled to the side. As the arms withdrew, faint orange light spilled up from the hole, revealing a wooden ladder. Now certain events would end in one of two very different ways, Kobb climbed down into a dim room.
The owner of the arms, body of matching scale, lounged against the wall. A long-shafted hammer rested next to him. Beyond him, a door—the first Kobb had seen since they entered the ruins—stood in a recess, orange light flickering out of a small grill at eye level.
Their guide-captor raised his hand. “Wait here.” Standing so his body blocked their view, he knocked twice and held something up to the grill. The door swung open, then closed behind him.
Anessa shifted from one foot to the other. Several long moments later, she began to whistle. Kobb was on the verge of shushing her when the door opened again and the patrol leader beckoned them in.
The scent of hot dust struck Kobb as he stepped through. Several braziers, giving off a dull orange light but no smoke stood against the walls. In the centre, four leather-clad people bent over a map table; they glanced up, before going back to their silent study.
As the door shut behind them, another opened in the far wall. A woman strode in, encased in dull plate from the neck down. A grey tabard with a black double band around the edge hung to her knees.
One eyebrow quirked in amusement above cold blue eyes, she considered Kobb before pressing her left gauntlet, palm flat, to her throat. “Blessings manifest for you, Militant.”
“And for you.” Kobb frowned. “It has been a long time since any greeted me that way.”
“We’re both far from home, and in strange company.”
“Strange company? Then these troops aren’t auxiliaries?”
The woman smoothed her tabard. “Not entitled to wear this any more. But I feel undressed without it. And it helps if people think I’m just a Legionary. But of course, you’d know about pretending to be less than you are. There’s no juniper within a week’s ride west of here, so how did your companion really end up stinking of it?”