Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa is taken to Saevisa Anserth, the Inductor who tried to trick her into killing an archaeologist and his family. Anserth is convinced Anessa is part of whatever is going on in the valley beyond, but before she can question Anessa further Kobb and Haelen are brought in. Kobb suggests they share a goal. Anserth is sceptical.
Anessa stiffened. Kobb wasn’t the one who’d lied to everyone. What right did she have to doubt him? Kobb’d sort it though; put Anserth in her place.
Inclining his head, Kobb pressed his fingers to his throat. “I promise I’m telling you the truth.”
“You promise?” Anserth tapped her chin.
Anessa glanced back and forth. What was Kobb doing? Why didn’t he explain about the Stones, or at least something?
“Elvar. Return their weapons.”
It took Anessa a moment to make sense of Anserth’s words. Elvar seemed equally puzzled. After frowning at the Inductor, he threw Anessa’s kit on the floor and stomped out.
Anessa crouched. One eye on Anserth, she picked up her belt. When an attack didn’t come, she buckled it around her waist. Crossbow rested across her knees, she ran her fingers over the mechanism. Everything felt true.
Everything on the crossbow anyway. She straightened and glared at Anserth. “Don’t know what you’re up to this time. Don’t you think this’ll make me trust you.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to. I… My apologies for the insult to your honour, Worthy Tanton.” Anserth bowed sharply from the waist. “If you will excuse me, I should attend to the people we rescued.” After nodding toward Kobb and Haelen, she strode out of the tent, shoulders rigid.
Anessa waited a moment, then moved closer until her head was close to Kobb’s. “Reckon we make a break for it. Don’t know why she gave us the weapons back. Ain’t worth losing our chance, though.”
“We need to stay. Find out what she knows.” Kobb tugged his hat off. “Might be pleasant to dry out too.”
“Stay!” Anessa looked to Haelen for support. “You can’t mean to trust her. Not after last time. And just giving us the weapons for no reason… She’s up to something.”
Kobb rested a hand on her shoulder. “She returned them because she stopped seeing us as an enemy. The oath that lets me draw power for my Courser… there are consequences. I can’t make a false promise. The Inductor knows that; as soon as I promised you were innocent, she believed us.”
“Well, that just means she don’t think we’re involved in whatever’s here. Don’t see why we trust her after what she’s done.”
“I’m not suggesting we trust her. But we’ll have an easier time if we aren’t dodging her and whoever’s in the palisade.”
Anessa still struggled to voice her confusion when Elvar marched in. Not acknowledging their presence, he dropped an armful of Kobb and Haelen’s possessions on the floor and stomped out.
The churning in Anessa’s mind grew. Knowing they weren’t involved and knowing they wouldn’t interfere weren’t the same thing. Anserth hadn’t had to give the weapons back. And she’d seemed shocked when Anessa accused her of pretending to be her friend. Offering to protect her was a good way to get her to talk if she’d been involved; but what if it weren’t making a deal? What if Anserth really didn’t want her in trouble? Haelen’d said the sagas were full of… friends ending up on opposite sides.
Anessa sighed. This wasn’t a saga.
“She didn’t tell us to stay here.” Haelen tilted his head toward the flap. “If you’re not certain, see what she’s doing.”
For a moment, Anessa wondered how he’d known her thoughts. Then she realised he meant, uncertain whether it was a ploy. If Anserth didn’t trust them, she’d stop Anessa poking about. Slinging her crossbow, she walked out into the rain.
The line of prisoners was gone. Bundled shapes moved in the gloom; none had Anserth’s stride, though. Cold seeping down her neck, Anessa turned on the spot. Something else was missing: other tents. Even head-to-foot, the soldiers she’d seen wouldn’t all fit in one tent.
No longer fixated on having been captured, she took a better look around. Some of the shadows in the undergrowth weren’t the right shape. They’d built rough blinds. Probably those smokeless fires too. She crouched, then straightened and strode toward the nearest. Weren’t a proper test if people couldn’t see her to stop her.
To make sure she was spotted, she leaned right through the narrow doorway. A woman in thick leathers glanced up, nodded, and returned to darning a sock.
Anessa drew back and headed for another shelter. And another. No one raised an eyebrow, let alone an alarm. Either she was free to wander or she hadn’t come close to the secrets yet. Torn between searching harder and returning to the dry, she realised talking came from the next blind. The rain drowned the words, but the voice was Anserth’s. Now she’d find the truth of it.
Creeping closer, Anessa strained to hear. Something about riding to the rescue? And an odd slurping noise. She peered around the edge of the doorway.
Anserth sat on a log. But instead of the soldiers Anessa expected to be with her, the only other occupant was a child of six or so seated on Anserth’s lap. Holding a spoonful of stew to the child’s mouth, Anserth described someone called Sire Florian leaping onto a drawbridge as it closed. This wasn’t a plot; it was a story.
Anessa withdrew, more confused than ever. Returning their weapons might be a trick so they trusted her; Anserth couldn’t have known Anessa’d find her, though. Didn’t make sense trying to fool the child into liking her either. The only thing that was certain was crouching in the rain wouldn’t do anything but make her wetter.
She crept to the tent and told the others what she’d seen.
Kobb turned his hat in his hands before placing it on the floor. “So? Prepared to stay for the moment?”
“Rescuing children ain’t evil. Suppose….” She sat on a large chest, trying to make the image of Anserth caring for a child fit beside the one of her pointing weapons at them in the ruins. Several circular arguments with herself later, she was no closer to an answer.
And her discomfort increased when Anserth returned, a pot of stew and three spoons in her hands. “Apologies for the wait. And for the rain getting into the stew. Thought you’d prefer not to eat with my men.”
“Doubt they’d choose to eat with us, either.” Kobb lifted the meal from Anserth’s grip. “After this many years, doubt swallowing a little more weather will hurt me.”
Anserth paused. “Didn’t just want to avoid dredging up past problems. I’d hoped one of the people we’d rescued would know why they were captured. Or the guard who survived. But, all I got is the soldiers take prisoners and horses to the palisade.”
“Possibly a discussion for after we’ve eaten” Haelen took a spoonful of stew.
Anessa grabbed a spoon from Anserth’s hand then stepped back. “If we’re going to stay, no more secrets. No more lying about what we’re really doing. Anserth tells us why she’s here and we do the same.”
Kobb and Anserth shared a glance, then the Inductor crouched. “We came across a village, mostly gutted. The tracks led in this direction. We spotted the palisade and withdrew to assess. Before we could scout it properly, we discovered the column of prisoners. Seemed a way to gain information and stop their forces growing, so we set the ambush.”
“You found a village and headed off, just like that?” Anessa frowned.
“And you wouldn’t? Unless ordered to perform a specific task, I have a wide remit.”
“Of course I’d do something, but…”
“But you’re not a heartless hag.” Anserth raised a hand before Anessa could speak. “I don’t hope for forgiveness, Anessa. I… Once we’ve dealt with this issue, we need never meet again. To speed that day, perhaps one of you might share what you know.”
“They’re not taking slaves.” Haelen dropped his spoon back into the pot. “I didn’t want to discuss it over food; I don’t want risk seeming like we’re hiding something, though. There’s a bone pile near the palisade. Fresh human bones. I think they—”
The image of the riders emptying meat onto the floor rose up in Anessa’s mind, followed by a surge of bile. Guts twisting, she curled into a ball.