Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb and the others disguise themselves as a prisoner convoy. They gain admittance to the palisade and find cages of prisoners. However, the gatekeeper realises something is wrong. Anserth kills him before he can raise the alarm, and sends some of her troops to lead the civilians to safety. A child’s scream alerts the rest of the compound. Instead of sending riders to recapture the escapees, the occupants of the palisade release a herd of giant horses.
Kobb raised his heels, then let them drop. Even galloping, he wouldn’t reach the prisoners before the horses did. Anyway, Elvar’s shouted commands had already steered most of the prisoners out from the path of the stampede, and the rest sprinted toward safety. He’d do more good at the front entrance so the occupants couldn’t use the distraction to sally out.
But, as he wheeled, the herd split in two, each half charging toward a group of fleeing civilians.
Elvar stood at bay. Snatching a long knife from his under his disguise, he jumped to the side as the first horse reached him, then leapt for its back. His blade arced down with his full weight behind it.
An instant before Elvar’s knife met flesh, the horse twisted its head to face backward. The rain hid the detail, but not Elvar’s scream as his body spun away, arm missing. A scream that cut off as another of the beasts snatched him from the air.
Snapping his Courser up, Kobb bathed a horse in silent fire.
The beast lurched, limbs losing their fluid grace. Then recovered. Panic and agony mixed with the mud as its herd-mates hit the prisoners in a wave of hooves and teeth.
Memories of the slaughter at Raveth rose up. Tears mingling with the rain, he unleashed a second bolt and then a third.
Finally—maw still snapping toward the escapees—the monster collapsed.
Kobb shifted his aim and felled another of the monsters. Ice clamped his chest as he released his sixth shot in as many breaths.
He forced down a wet cough and raised his Courser again. Before he could fire, the thunk of crossbows sounded behind him. He let his weapon drop and swung Falcon round. Killing just two beasts had left its mark. He’d lose consciousness before he felled enough to give the prisoners even the slimmest chance of survival. Whereas, his Courser might be the difference between Anserth holding and being driven from the compound.
The inner gate stood open a few feet, one of Anserth’s companions sprawled next to the wedged spar that prevented it swinging further. His sacrifice had stopped the enemy cavalry, but – with Anessa the only one able to respond to the four archers on the parapet above – the remainder of Anserth’s unit had been driven into cover.
As Kobb reined in, guards stepped through the gap on foot, more on their heels. The taste of iron filling his mouth, he blasted two archers from the parapet before they’d realised he was there.
The archer next to them spun away, Anessa’s bolt in his throat.
His companion ducked down.
Each breath scouring his chest anew, Kobb stiffened his spine and kept his Courser raised. With luck, the foul weather would conceal the fact he lacked the strength for another shot.
Freed of the risk of bolts, Anserth’s unit charged forward.
With armour, longswords, and weight of numbers, the guards grinned and advanced.
Only to stutter as Anserth’s knives flew into the throats of the lead pair.
Shoulder rolling, she slammed the left guard to the floor, her hand snatching his sword from his slackened grip. Feet crossing, she lunged to the right.
Caught by surprise, another defender fell. The remainder reeled back a step as Anserth’s companions took advantage of the break.
Recovering, the defenders firmed their line, their longer reach holding Anserth’s men at bay. Steel rang on steel as each side sought an advantage.
Twice the defenders almost pushed forward far enough to allow more of their fellows to join them, and twice they were driven back.
The stalemate stretched, but experience began to tell. The defenders were better than bandits and thugs. But Anserth’s unit had trained until they were parts of a whole, each as comfortable deflecting blows aimed at their fellows as themselves. Unable to predict when an attacker would lunge with no thought of their own defence, the guards lost rhythm, then fell.
Pressing hard, Anserth’s unit cut the remnants down, before shouldering the gate closed.
Anserth wiped a dark stain from her face with one sleeve. “They’ll not risk that again, Reverend.”
“They might not have to. The horses aren’t sacrifices. They’re the reason for all this.”
“How bad…?” Anserth glanced toward the gate. “Did Elvar…?”
Kobb realised the screams had stopped. He shook his head, unable to keep his shoulders from sagging.
Haelen rushed to steady him. “How did horses do that?”
“They’re not…” Kobb swallowed. “I used enough power to slay three men just to cause a serious injury. They might look like horses, but they’re something unnatural now. Something dark.”
“Then how do we stop them?” Haelen glanced for the open gate. “If a Courser can’t do it easily, what chance have the rest of us?”
Anserth shrugged. “We break, burn, or kill whatever made them. If that doesn’t work, it might still give us a better idea.”
“But how do we find it? Or get to it if we could?” Anessa flicked her gaze between the closed gate and the parapet. “Rest of ’em’ll be waiting.”
“We don’t have to capture the entire fort. We go straight to the source.”
“But…” Anessa frowned.
Kobb chuckled coldly. “The creatures were released from another gate. The way those riders acted at the thought of meeting one, that’ll open straight on the place the beasts are kept. If we go now, we might make it while the beasts are still distracted.”