Previously on Seven Stones: The Duke and Eminent Valk leave the service part way through. Kobb and Anessa reach the rear gate of the chapter house without attracting unwanted attention. However, two soldiers block their escape.
Anessa’s shoulders slumped as the Duke’s guards stepped into view. How’d the guards known Kobb would head here?
“Is there some problem?” Kobb jutted his chin at the one who held a sword on him.
“Duke’s orders, Reverend.” The guard lowered his blade, but didn’t sheathe it “No one’s to use this entrance.”
Anessa frowned as Kobb stepped forward. Didn’t that make him easier to attack?
“An entire congregation left through the front doors bare moments ago. Clearly, the Duke meant stop people using this gate to enter the temple.” The guards moved apart as Kobb tapped the hilt of his sword. “Eminent Valk wants the wall secure. Would you like to tell him that my acolyte and I were detained from our duties?”
“We should check.”
Kobb spread his hands. “We’re all honest workers here, not barrack lawyers. You could send for your superior, or make me go back through the temple to the main doors then come along the wall on the outside. Or you could save me the walk, and I’ll mention I found this gate well-secured.”
“He’s a Militant.” The other one raised his palms. “My uncle was at Raveth. Don’t reckon we’d stop him anyway.”
The first guard swallowed and stepped aside. “Pleasant night, Reverend. How goes the watch?”
“The perimeter seems as sound as I might wish.” Kobb swept through the gateway.
Book of Blessings clutched to her chest, Anessa followed him along the wall until they were out of sight. “That scared them. What happened at Raveth?”
“Dissenters overthrew the Governor and declared independence. Some had made foul pacts.” Kobb slowed to a halt. “The Legion besieged Raveth, but a cultist managed to summon an abomination. Half the Legion died before Militants attached to the Legion force cast it down.”
Anessa moved closer. The insects, the Korha, those flying creatures’d all been terrifying enough. A creature that killed half an army… No wonder the guards were scared of people who could defeat it.
“We should focus on the current threat, not the past.” Drawing himself up to his full height, Kobb strode down a side street.
The sound of singing and shouting grew louder but no less muddled as they moved further from the temple. Small clumps of people drifted in the opposite direction, many holding each other upright. The scents of spices and vomit boiled up as they reached a main thoroughfare.
As she scuttled after Kobb, Anessa felt her robe catch on something.
“Evening, pretty.” A young man wrapped in a velvet cloak and stale alcohol tugged again. Two others clad in different colours but sharing his demeanour leered at her. “How about you put that book down. I’ve got something better to wrap your lips round.”
Anessa twisted. His grip was solid for a person drunk enough to be talking over her shoulder, though. Shifting the Book to her left arm, she snapped the heel of her right hand into his chin.
The drunkard folded backwards, eyes blank before he hit the ground.
“Blessed are those who find rest amongst the tumult.” Kobb stepped in front of the man’s companions, left boot landing on the drunkard’s outstretched palm.
The two youths backed away.
“Faith and a strong arm? A lesser person might think himself replaced.” Kobb strode through the crowd as if there were no doubt a gap would open.
Anessa stayed close, and clutched the Book closer. That thing about finding rest sounded like it was from the Book. Kobb was a Reverend, but it didn’t seem right using holy words as a joke. He must be joking about her taking over too; not that it wasn’t nice to image for a moment he thought she could.
The streets became less crowded and better smelling—though no less filled with singing—as they approached the Duke’s residence. Somehow keeping his sense of direction in the muddle, Kobb lead them without pause to the edge of the enclosure she’d seen from the forest. After a moment’s thought, Kobb followed the wall to the right.
Even this far from the hostelries and pedlars the streets weren’t empty, so Anessa was almost at the narrow wooden door before she noticed it. She arranged the Book of Blessings in what she hoped was a more devout position as Kobb hammered on the centre.
After a moment, a small panel thunked back revealing a pinched face. “Who goes?”
“Reverend Absolution is like the Silence of the Waterfall Kobb. I am here to bless the Duke’s prize.”
Two beady eyes peered up and down Kobb’s vestments before sparing a glance for Anessa. “Botherers at the gates. Don’t that just make the late watch better? No offence intended.”
The hatch slammed shut. After a couple of clunks, the door swung open. A wizened woman in crumpled red leaned around the edge. “Come in then. Can’t let you wander unescorted. Greff’ll lead you.”
A spindly boy, guard’s tunic sitting lop-sided, unfolded and shuffled away.
Head bowed and shoulders thrust back, Anessa tried to match Kobb’s smooth glide. As occasional torches replaced the sparse lanterns and the smell of dung grew, she gave up and walked normally—as normally as she could with a robe tangling her legs.
Two turns later, the corridor ended in two iron gates, one several yards after the other. Greff unlocked the first, then waited while they squeezed past. Once they’d both sidled in, he closed the gate behind them and shuffled along to open the second. Anessa saw how it might stop animals escaping, but why’d they make it so narrow?
“Is’m left. On the end.” Unexpectedly, Greff’s voice was a melodious baritone. “We kept um away so didn’t fright the other beasts.”
Kobb inclined his head. “Your service is welcome. Acolyte, provide Greff a ritual of Blessing before we continue. The one you offered that young man earlier would be most suitable.”
Offer a ritual? She hadn’t— Angling the Book of Blessings on her left arm as if about to open it, Anessa punched Greff hard between the eyes.
Kobb grabbed the youth’s shoulders as he collapsed backwards like a stunned sheep and lowered him to the filthy straw. “They’ll realise we’re involved anyway. But this way he won’t get blamed.”
Turning along the stalls to the left, Anessa remained silent. In her experience, getting beat down never saved anyone a talking-to if someone was looking to blame.
A vague hint of hot metal cut the stink of old straw. Something creaked ahead, and a golden antler poked into the walkway.
Anessa stumbled to a halt. Antlers jutted. Breath steamed. She clutched the Book closer. Bark-like flanks loomed, twice the height of Falcon. When the shaman said it could stand on two legs, she’d imagined rearing up—not striding easily, double-jointed forelimbs reaching out with stubby hands.
“Not sure how close we need to be for this to work.” Kobb frowned. “You open the gate and follow as soon as I step in.”
In the stall…? Anessa lifted her fingers to the pendant. Kobb trusted her. She could do it. But why did the creature have to look like a more evil horse? Squeezing the Book to her chest, she slid the bolt, then pressed close to Kobb.
The scent of hot metal blossomed and everything lurched up. Legs feeling the wrong length, she staggered into Kobb.
“Sacrifices betrayed.” A voice like an Eater—yet not—creaked nearby. “Walking far to not move. Mask rots below the surface. So far from home, little Tanton. And no way back.”