Previously on Seven Stones: Despite the survivors’ best efforts, one of the carnivorous horses enters the compound. Kobb attacks with his Courser and the beast flees. The remaining horses force their way in. Anessa and the others flee to the inner gate. Before they can open it, the inhabitants of the palisade notice their presence.
Anessa peered up. A thin man in velvet robes smiled down at them from the parapet.
“Quite impressive.” Kobb tilted his head. “If you let us in, we could discuss it in comfort.”
“We could. But that spoils my chance to see whether the beasts’ fury returns faster with living prey nearby.”
“Maybe miss a bigger chance if you don’t.” Haelen tugged a crude bone pendant from his tunic.
Plummy Voice leaned forward. “A Skithai fetish? How deliciously intriguing. Were it you alone, I might be tempted. However, I suspect your Botherer friend would not consent to remain there.”
“Botherer?” Kobb tugged his jacket open. “I promise you there’s no pendant round my neck.”
Not religious? How could Kobb break a—? Anessa snapped her jaw shut. He wasn’t lying. Like the way he got the barrier around the Stones down. Unfortunately, this man didn’t seem half-crazy.
“Stealing a Skithai fetish and a Courser? Persons of such ingenuity would make a delightful change from my usual dinner companions.” Plummy Voice pressed a be-ringed hand to his chest. “However, your attempt to free my prisoners raises a somewhat bitter note.”
“Could say the same about your guards trying to kill us in the woods.” Anserth shrugged. “Of course, doesn’t matter who got our relationship off to a bad start. The Botherers are likely to turn up soon anyway.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. They’re not going to get involved in some peasants being kidnapped by bandits, and we’re too far well hidden for one of them to just wander up.”
“Exactly.” Haelen wiggled the pendant. “We didn’t wander. Your ritual’s like a beacon.”
Plummy Voice stared down. “You didn’t come to rescue the prisoners?”
“We followed an immense flow of power.” Kobb tilted his head. “That good enough, or do you want me to promise?”
“Promise?” Plummy Voice’s gawp melted into a high-pitched chuckle. Composing himself, he nodded at Kobb. “Most amusing. I think I shall allow you in after all.” He strolled away.
A moment later, he reappeared. “Although, it would be remiss of me not to enquire whether the girl’s gifted too. Her pallor does somewhat stand out among such hard-bitten warriors and sorcerers.”
Pallor? Anessa struggled to work out what the man was up to. Was it all a game? Offer to let them in, then snatch it back. The others seemed calm, so maybe this was some sort of city thing.
“Like you said, things get tedious without dinner company.” Anserth wrapped an arm around Anessa’s shoulder. “She’s got a hearty appetite.”
Plummy Voice gave another high-pitched chuckle and disappeared. Fragments of voices, too quiet to understand, floated past the gate.
Anessa tugged free of Anserth’s hug. “Why’d you tell him—?”
“Quiet.” Anserth leaned closer. “Sorry. If I told him why you’re with the Reverend, he’d keep a sharp eye on you. If he thinks you’re my friend, might give you a chance to sneak around.”
Anessa nodded automatically. Why’d telling him about her liking food make her seem trustworthy? And why’d Anserth apologised for doing it?
The inner gate creaked open, revealing a long wooden corridor. Several pikemen formed a line across it. Behind them, two scruffy men in smocks stood either side of a giant brass gong. One of the guards threw several sacks onto the ground. “Weapons in there.”
Following the example of the others, Anessa placed her sword and crossbow bolts in a sack, then stepped back. An eating knife’d be fine, wouldn’t it?
After a long moment, the guard gathered the sacks up and retreated behind the line of pikes.
Anserth strolled in, hips rolling. Forcing herself to pay attention to the inhabitants, Anessa followed at her heels. Save for the cages holding horses not people, the space beyond the gate matched the other entrance.
“Do come up.” Plummy Voice called from above.
Staying close to Anserth, purely to maintain the deception, Anessa headed up the stairs. Several tables of varying sizes, loaded with papers and odd objects, dotted the platform at the top. Plummy Voice stood at the far side next to a tray of wine, two pikemen in front of him. As Kobb stepped closer, the guards crossed their pikes.
“My sincere apologies.” Plummy Voice inclined his head, his smile not reaching his eyes. “I trust you, but my men have demanded you prove your friendship.”
Kobb nodded back, equally insincerely. “I understand completely. If you tell us a little about what you’re doing, we could give you some of our insights.”
“My guards are simple men; I fear you would need to provide a more… corporeal token of faith.” Plummy Voice swallowed a sip of wine. “I’m sure the girl wouldn’t mind showing me her appetite.”
Both men snorted. The one on the left added a curled lip.
Haelen lunged forward a step, but halted as a pike swung toward him.
Blood flooded up Anessa’s throat as the pieces slotted together. No way was she going to—
Anserth’s fingers pressed into Anessa’s jaw as she twisted her head. Noses almost touching, the Inductor growled, “Be nice to the man.” Confusingly, she winked as she said it.
Still holding Anessa’s face, Anserth turned back to Plummy Voice. “I trust you, but my companions are simple men. I assume you’ve no objection to having the meal here where we can keep an eye out?”
Hands trembling, Plummy Voice beckoned. “I’d be delighted.”
Anessa stumbled as Anserth shifted her hand to her arm and stepped forward. Was this part of the plan? Why didn’t Kobb or Haelen say something? She glanced sideways. More guards stood behind her companions, weapons ready.
The two men ahead parted, pikes angling toward Kobb and Haelen.
Anessa struggled to break free. Anserth’s grip felt like iron, though. The meaty stench of shit filled her nose. This couldn’t be the plan… they needed to trick him, but they couldn’t expect her to… especially not in front of everyone.
“Very delicious.” Plummy Voice licked his lips. “Is she…?”
“I guarantee you’ll remember this meal for the rest of your life.” Anserth’s free arm flicked out. Something thudded below.
For a moment, Anessa couldn’t work out why the man wasn’t there any more. Then she realised what the thud was, and why someone was screaming.
The air whooshed from her lungs as a blow knocked her to the floor.