Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa is hit by two Eater spears. When she recovers consciousness, the Eaters have already sacrificed the Tan-Sorda and left. Kobb finds the return to the stones easier than expected. Haelen suggests routing the fifth flow of power to the circle has tipped the balance.
Anessa eased her head out from under her furs. Either the weather’d turned overnight, or whatever Haelen gave her’d made her feel warm too. Lying in bed sorted neither though. She stretched, wincing as pain poked her wounds. Haelen’s herbs’d definitely worn off.
Moving with greater care than usual, she swung her legs out. Slight twinges, but nothing she couldn’t bear. She tugged her boots on and headed toward the scent of porridge. Haelen sat beside the fire, stirring a pot. A moment later, she noticed Kobb walking from stone to stone, a bowl forgotten in one hand. “Morning.
“Anessa.” Haelen spooned out a large portion as she sat. “How are you feeling?”
“Bit of pain if I stretch too fast.” She inhaled a spoonful of oats. Fancy city food’d been all right, but nothing beat a good porridge. “I’ve been thinking. Kobb and I’ve gone without you, so don’t have to—”
“Leaving me was different; I was healthy. We can wait till you’re better.”
“You’ll be there and back in a day or so. I’m almost mended. I’ll be fine. If you don’t want to leave me that long, I’ll travel with you.”
Haelen looked down into his bowl, then at his tent. “Time going over those notes might save some in the end. Not much point sorting things if I can’t understand them.”
“But we were only just in time for Sallis… and what about your daughter?”
“Ain’t worth risking you.” Porridge spattered Haelen’s front as he threw his spoon into his bowl. “What kind of person would I be if I sacrificed you to get her back?”
“And, I’m not going to be the reason you don’t find her. You let Kobb go when he was injured.”
Haelen shot to his feet, spine rigid. “The Reverend’s a trained warrior. He’d be the first to tell you he’s had his share of time. But you’ve barely lived.”
“Kobb’d tell me?” Anessa stood, ignoring the twinge of pain. “Let’s ask him, then!”
“If I say you’re not ready, he’ll…” Haelen’s shoulders sagged. “If I stop you, you’ll just try to prove things twice as hard next time. Suppose going might teach you to stay clear of danger.”
Anessa gulped the rest of her porridge. Stay clear of danger? Sneaking around was the only thing at least one of the others wasn’t better at. But, going was going…
“Morning.” Kobb raised his free hand as he strode toward the fire. “Haelen said you might need more rest, so I thought I’d check the stones; see if they felt different. Five are as solid and… stone-like as any you’d find.” Kobb shared a glance with Haelen. “Reckon you’re right about the power snapping back.”
“You want that?” Anessa tilted her eyes at the remains of Kobb’s breakfast. “Haelen was saying I’m well enough to travel, so I need to keep my strength up.”
Haelen huffed, but nodded. “But, first sign you’re tired, you’re getting on Falcon.”
The porridge shifted in her gut. She’d just have to make sure she didn’t seem tired, then. Taking Kobb’s outstretched bowl, she hid her discomfort.
To make matters worse, Falcon whickered as she carried her pack over to the stone Kobb’d picked, and tried to nuzzle her hair. She gripped the straps tighter. The beast hadn’t hurt her yet, but those teeth and muscles… after seeing what he’d done to the Eaters, she wasn’t turning her back on him. She set her feet. “Let’s go.”
Darkness swallowed Kobb’s nod.
The ground shattered beneath her and the scent of stale blood flooded her nose. Teeth clamped hard in an effort not to lose her breakfast, she fought to throw off the effect of the journey. Then realised, the shifting and the stench were real. She was ankle deep in pieces of bone, specks of blood and other matter still clinging to them.
She stumbled to firm ground, then glanced about. The pile lay at the bottom of a narrow and rocky valley, a spattering of fragments lodged on one wall suggesting the remains’d tumbled from above. Beyond the lip, pine-clad mountains rose on every side.
“I was going to say it felt easier again.” Kobb drew a shallow breath through his mouth.
Anessa unslung her crossbow and peered along the valley. “Looks like it rises that way. I’ll take a look.” Not waiting for a response, she crept away from the bones. Hopefully, the others’d assume her pace was caution rather than being as fast as she could go without the pain coming back.
Slowing as the floor sloped up, she flicked her gaze in wide arcs, sweeping both lips and the sky. Whatever creature threw those bones down might be able to fly. She crouched lower, not wanting to press herself to a rock wall for fear of picking the wrong one. As the path rose to barely a person’s height from the surroundings, she signalled a halt and slung her crossbow. Both hands free, she clambered up until she could peer over the lip.
Several hundred yards of rough ground, covered with scrub, stretched to the edge of the forest. Not seeing any signs of attack, she turned. And gawped.
Instead of the monsters her mind’d created, a huge wooden palisade filled the centre of a bowl in the mountains. And halfway between it and the valley, a thin, bearded man in dirty robes rolled a handcart toward the point above the bones. They hadn’t landed in some beast’s leavings; they’d landed in a midden. Didn’t mean they were safe though, not until they knew who was inside that fence.
She eased herself down, and waved her hand at the near side. There wasn’t anywhere to hide Falcon. As long as the man didn’t decide to glance along the valley, though, he’d empty his cart and be gone without ever knowing they were there.
The creaking of wheels grew closer, followed by a clunk of a tailboard. She pressed back as the rear end of the cart eased into view, then tilted. Bones cascaded down the valley side. After a moment, the clattering fell silent. But the cart didn’t roll out of sight.
Anessa held her breath as the cart jiggled up and down, tail board flapping. A few fragments of bone tumbled onto the pile. After more shaking, the cart settled. With a muttered curse, the man into view and bent into the cart. Straightening, he hurled an armful of something over the edge. As he turned, his gaze slipped along the valley. Eyes widening, he retreated a step.
Unsure whether he was friend or foe, Anessa didn’t grab for her crossbow. Then the moment passed. Howling about escapees, the man sprinted away, leaving the cart behind.
“Do we…?” Anessa waved an arm the way he’d gone.
“That many bones is odd.” Haelen glanced at the other lip. “I’d suggest finding a place to hide for now. Least until we know more.”
Crossbow at the ready, Anessa took the lead. The scrub wouldn’t cover Falcon, but the ground was rough enough one of the ridges’d conceal them. Knowing it wasn’t her height that was the problem, she still found her shoulders hunching as she sneaked between bushes. The tension left her as they slipped behind a steep rise.
Only to return a breath later, as a loud horn echoed across the bowl.