Previously on Seven Stones: Despite Anessa’s misgivings, Kobb agrees a temporary alliance with Inductor Anserth. Haelen reveals the inhabitants of the palisade are probably using the prisoners for meat rather than work.
Kobb gazed down at Anessa. They’d faced so much he sometimes forgot how inexperienced she was. All his life had been spent looking into the darkness. And Haelen had no doubt seen his share of atrocities on the battlefield. But Anessa…? A season ago, her biggest fear had been being banned from hunting. He should send her home, before he got her killed.
She wouldn’t leave even if he tried, though. She’d maybe head off until she was out of sight, then sneak after him. This must be why Reverend Gannon had seemed to both keep him close and push him away. At least Anessa could go home if the horror became too much; everyone who wielded power died on the edge of nightmare, the only choice they had was which way to face.
And they lived near enough to the darkness that it spilled onto others. “Bringing a few prisoners at a time over great distances isn’t efficient. Likely they’re using them to feed something dark.”
“They don’t just kidnap people.” Anserth frowned. “They gather horses, too. That’d be more meat.”
Haelen sighed. “The Reverend’s right. Those guards told you they captured people and horses. If this were about meat, they’d be taking livestock too. That and… like the Reverend said, we tracked an evil here.”
“Don’t matter.” Anessa wiped the worst of the vomit off her lips. “We stop whatever it is.”
Anserth nodded. “She’s right. Cannibals or sorcerers, they need to die.”
“Makes a difference to how we do it though,” Kobb replied. “We rush in without knowing a key fact, it gets messy fast.”
The inductor quirked an eyebrow. “Can’t spend the time to scout properly.”
“I can sneak in and out.” Anessa staggered to her feet. “Caught me off guard’s all. I’ll be fine. This weather’ll make it easier.”
Anserth reached for her, then let her hand fall. “I don’t doubt that. But ritual slaughter… that’s different to a couple of archaeologists. And, I meant we have an opportunity if we go now. The rain makes it harder for them to see clearly. They’re expecting a convoy; let’s give them one.”
“You rescued those people; now you want to hand them over?” Anessa glared at her. “What—”
“No. I leave most of my people here to get the citizens to safety and back us up if needed. The rest hide short arms and pretend to be prisoners. The Reverend dresses like he’s in charge.” Anserth held her hands out. “Put me at the head of the coffle. Anything goes wrong, I’ll be the one it hits.”
Kobb poked at his hat brim. “If all else fails, I’ll get a new hat. A crossbow’s hard to hide; so Anessa pretends to be a guard.”
“Makes— Wait… The guards ride. I’ve never…”
“I’ll ride one of the guard’s horses, and you sit on Falcon. We’ll be at a walking pace and he’ll follow me well enough, so you’ll not need to do anything.”
Anessa stared at her boots for a moment. Then nodded, jaw set.
“Put me with the prisoners,” Haelen said. “If we do get away with it, there’s likely people in there who need a healer. And if we don’t, we’ll need our best fighters ready, rather than struggling to pull a knife free.”
“Anserth should be the other guard.” Anessa glanced sideways at the inductor. “If we want the best fighters.”
Anserth lowered her hands. “You can always tie me up after everything’s over.”
Kobb frowned. Inductors were trained to manipulate, but he couldn’t see the advantage in reminding Anessa it might only be a temporary alliance. “We’d best get ready.”
Outfitted in borrowed clothes, and in some cases clutching the ends of chains together, they rode out. Kobb hunched over his new mount. The thin brim of the pot helm kept off more rain than the remnants of his usual hat; however, the drumming of water on metal was almost worse than a wet neck.
Twitching the reins, he passed close to the pile of meat. He’d need to stop to be sure, but a glance suggested it hadn’t been touched. Which, hopefully, meant whatever ate it wasn’t roaming free.
Incessant drumming aside, the rest of the approach went without issue. He tilted his helm further forward as he reined in; concealment beat a wet neck. “Hallo the camp!”
A hooded head rose above the parapet. “Hallo the convoy. What’s the word of the day?”
Pass phrase. Why hadn’t Anserth asked— A man with a bolt in him only has a few answers in him, and she wanted the critical ones. Another bluff then. “Rain’s got into everything. Password’s mush by now.” Kobb stared over his shoulder for a moment before looking up. “Just get the gates open. If one of those things is out, I’m not standing around.”
“Don’t piss your britches, old man. If it comes, you only have to outrun the captives.” With a chortle, the guard disappeared. Moments later, the gate swung open.
Kobb walked his horse forward. Rough wooden cages stood either side of an expanse of churned mud, thin figures peering out of each. And beyond the cages, another palisade loomed. As the last of the fake prisoners stepped through the gate, the guard swung it shut again. “There you go. Safe as a noble’s— Wait. How did you know about the experiments?”
Before Kobb could think of a reply, the guard’s head tumbled free.
Wiping her blade, Anserth cantered forward. “We’ll not pull the same trick twice. Elvar, take Keln and Vors, and get these citizens back to the camp. The rest of you, weapons out.”
Elvar bent over the fallen guard. Pulling a bundle of keys off the body, he jogged to the cages.
Dismounting, Kobb peered around. “Don’t see horses. And there isn’t much space between the cages.”
“So, they take them further in.” Anessa scuttled closer.
“That’s odd though. You don’t lead horses further than you need. If they’re sacrifices, why keep the horses separate; and if their not, why not keep them near the outside where the grass is? Might be another entrance, but those guards rode out of this one. A problem for after we’ve got past the next palisade, though.”
Anessa stared at the palisade. “I might get over without being seen; couple more of us maybe. Then open it from the other side.”
“Stands a better chance than hacking it apart.” Anserth approached, holding Falcon and her mount. “If we wait till Elvar’s done, we don’t risk the civilians taking wounds.”
And didn’t risk them getting in the way if it came to a fight. Kobb nodded.
Blank-eyed figures milled around, as Elvar eased the gate open. A few ragged figures staggered toward freedom. Then the trickle became a flow. Legs cramped from lack of use stumbled, and a young girl fell.
A man scooped her up. For a moment, all seemed well. Then the shock of the fall caught up with her and she screamed.
Anserth’s followers struggled to keep order, but the flow became a rush. Pounding feet and gasping breaths drowned out the hiss of the rain. Kobb snatched his Courser free as a hooded head figure peered over the inner parapet.
For a breath, silence and light swallowed the disorder. The guard collapsed from view.
The last of the escapees cleared the gate as a horn cleft the air.
“The gate’s a bottleneck.” Kobb leapt for Falcon. “We stop the first riders there, the rest lose the charge. Anessa, eyes on the parapet.”
Gaze shifting between the gates and the palisade, they waited.
Shouting and running feet sounded within; but the gates didn’t open and the parapet remained bare. Kobb grinned, each moment of tension another moment for people to move out of reach.
Howling shattered the air on his left, undercut by the thunder of hooves. They did have a second entrance. Wheeling Falcon, Kobb cantered to the open gate.
Halfway to the forest, figures scattered, all sense of order gone. But instead of the cavalry he expected, a mass of riderless horses boiled in pursuit. Horses that devoured the rough ground as if it were a smooth lawn, and made Falcon seem wizened.