Previously on Seven Stones: The giant horses turn out to be carnivores. Kobb tries to protect the prisoners. However, the effort needed to kill even one horse leaves him weak. Knowing he’ll pass out before he makes a real difference, he reluctantly abandons the escapees. His return to the palisade gives Anserth the edge she needs to foil the inhabitants attack on the outer yard. Anserth proposes heading outside the fence to wherever the horses came from in the hope of finding a way to destroy the beasts.
Anessa peered through the murk at Kobb. While the creatures were distracted? Why’d they be—? Acid stung her throat as she realised what he meant. If Kobb couldn’t kill them, then it’d be suicide for anyone else to try; not trying—taking advantage even—felt wrong, though. She spun as someone touched her elbow.
“Didn’t mean to startle you.” Haelen lowered his hand. “I’d feel safer if you’d stay with me. Let one of the Inductor’s lot scout, this time?”
Anessa almost said yes, then swallowed it at the last moment. The rain’d only hide so much. Going while the creatures weren’t nearby wouldn’t help if the guards were on their heels. “Someone with more than a sword needs to keep an eye on the parapet. Make sure if guard see us leave message don’t spread too quick. And Kobb’s got the best chance to sort this out, so I’ll go last.”
“She’s right.” Anserth grinned. “Again.”
Haelen twitched one eyebrow oddly. “I can—”
“Don’t worry.” Anserth wrapped an arm around his shoulder. “I’ll keep you safe for her. Best we get the healer to the other end as fast as possible anyway. Ready, Reverend?”
Kobb swung into Falcon’s saddle and nodded.
Crossbow braced, Anessa stood beside the open gate, eyes on the inner parapet. As the last of Anserth’s companions jogged past, he tapped her on the back. Waiting a breath, she stepped past the gatepost. The air thinned, refusing to fill her chest.
Flanks glistened, and hooves scuffed. The horses hadn’t noticed her yet, but the herd milled close to the palisade. If one of them—
One of the beasts tossed a body up, throat swelling as it swallowed its victim to the waist. The sound of rain faded. The monsters were halfway across the plain. They only looked nearby because they stood as tall as trees.
Devouring half a man at a gulp. Pounding hooves.
Something tugged at her.
A gaping maw. Shattering bone. No escape. Red mud.
Iron wrapped across her. She flailed at it, bouncing off. She was doomed. The monsters had her.
The world shifted as they dragged her off.
Figures ran before her, unable to save her from the frothing beast.
She tried to scream for help. Something covered her mouth, though.
Helpless, she slid past the palisade as the monster raced back to its lair.
Rain cascaded onto her face.
The monster’d thrown her to the ground.
Her companions clustered above her.
She tried to get them to run, to leave her, but the words wouldn’t come out.
Her gaze flicked randomly. Where’d the horse gone? Why hadn’t it finished her?
Haelen shouted about ague. Didn’t make sense. They’d be dead before the wet mattered.
She flailed up onto her elbows. What was the beast waiting for?
A shape loomed across her view.
Before she could scrabble back, it yanked her close. The scent of sweat and rust wrapped about her. Something soft pressed over her mouth.
Warmth spread across her in tatters and jags. Air, touched with hints of barley and beets, twisted through every breath. A second tang of rotting meat undercut it.
Her body curled as tingling heat burnt away the fear.
Anessa’s head tilted forward as Anserth pulled back. “What—?”
“Anessa?” The Inductor peered into her eyes, the rain stealing her expression. “Are you…?”
Questions tangled behind her lips, Anessa blurted out the first thing that came to her. “You kissed me.”
“You were taken by a battle ague. Isn’t time for you to sleep it off. So we needed a strong emotion to shake you up.”
The fragments of memory shifted in Anessa’s head. Serin Roblin pale and shaking in a tree. Like he had the ague. But he didn’t; he was just mortal terrified of heights. There’d never been a horse. She’d seen them, that was all. She’d got the shakes, like Serin did. Instead of helping, she’d slowed everyone down. She turned away, unable to face the shame.
“Being kissed by someone you hate seemed the easiest way to do it.” Anserth rose to her feet and stalked away.
Someone she hated? Confusion roiled up through the guilt. Did she hate Anserth? She should. Anserth’d hurt Kobb, tried to have people killed. But the kiss felt right. Like everything else didn’t matter any more. Could you want to be with someone and hate them at the same time? Didn’t seem possible. So had the ague messed her feelings, or…?
Either way, Anserth’d helped her. She should go after her, say thanks.
But if Anserth’d gone, whose arms supported her?
Haelen smiled as she wriggled round. “Feel able to stand?”
Why was he being so pleasant? “I got scared. I could’ve got people killed. You’re lucky I weren’t the one protecting you.”
“Everyone feels fear, Anessa. Never trust someone who claims they don’t. And no one knows how it’ll hit till it happens. What matters is whether you try to follow the right path. Up you come.”
Anessa struggled to her feet, letting him do most of the work. Even knowing the beasts weren’t near, she felt the fear writhing up. “Thank you. I need to speak to Anserth… about… things.”
“Later.” Haelen patted her shoulder. “She’s keeping an eye on the horses, so…”
Anessa nodded ruefully. So, there was every chance she’d get the shakes again if she sought Anserth out. Straightening her shoulders, she eased out of Haelen’s arms and looked around. They were within another palisade. However, rather than simple stakes, this one’d been reinforced with thick bands of dark metal. A wide gate gaped, part of the forest visible beyond.
Piles of horse shit spattered the ground. But unlike the musty tang of Falcon’s muck, these stank of rot and blood. She swallowed back more bile. They’d found the pen. Hoping to distract herself before the terror grabbed her again, she studied the rest of the enclosure.
Kobb approached through the murk, the fence behind him seeming different. One hand raised, he jogged over. “Either of you good with locks? There’s another gate. It’s likely what we want’s on the other side. They’ve sealed it up tight, though.”
“I can climb it.” Anessa started back the way Kobb’d come. Even if Haelen didn’t blame her, she needed to prove to the others that she wasn’t dead weight.
Kobb placed a hand on her shoulder, stopping her. “Lock’s built into the iron. Without the—”
Hooves hammered closer.
Boots squelched and skidded as Anserth’s companions shoved at the gate. It barely seemed to move.