Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa still feels her injuries, but convinces the others she is well enough to continue. The sixth Stone disgorges into a spoil heap, riddled with fresh bones. As Anessa leads the way out, a robed man approaches from a nearby palisade, wheeling another cart of waste. Despite their attempts to hide, he spots the group and flees. Anessa finds a rise large enough to conceal Falcon. Before they can settle in, horns sound.
Anessa eased her head over the top of the ridge, teeth gritted against the twinge in her shoulder. The breeze nipped at her face as she looked across the bowl. Moments later, a gate swung open and five riders emerged from the palisade at a walk, sun glinting on their spears and helmets. Four of them carried a large sack, while the fifth held a brass shield. She ran her eyes over the ground to either side of the ridge, before turning to the others. “Five riders. Moving slowly, so don’t think anyone saw us come here.”
“They will if they keep coming this way, though.” Kobb glanced up the next rise. “Can we make it to the tree line?”
“Not on foot. Riding, yes—not without being seen, though.”
“What about sneaking off before they arrive?”
Anessa frowned. Falcon’d be noticed as soon as he moved out. And her injuries’d limit how easily she could hide. “The scrub’ll cover someone from a distance, so might be able to get away if we leave Falcon. But they’ll likely spot at least one of us if they ride close, so it’d only work if they turn the other way first.”
“I didn’t mean all of us.” Kobb gripped Falcon’s stirrup. “You two sneak away while I keep watch. Once they get close or turn toward you, I ride hard for the trees. They’ll chase me, which’ll give you time to slip off. That man didn’t stop to do a count, so best case, they don’t realise there’s anyone else out here.”
Haelen grabbed Kobb’s elbow. “And if they do know, they’ll see the ruse and split up. If we stick together, we’ve a better chance if they do find us.
Anessa turned back. The riders’d spread to a loose line, centred on the valley. The wide sweeps of their heads gave lie to their relaxed pace. “Running might be tricky. Looks like they’re checking the valley first. No telling which way they’ll go—or even if they’ll stick together—till they’re almost on top of us.”
“Can you see any livery?” Kobb pitched his voice low enough, Anessa had difficulty making it out over the rising wind. “Anything to say who they are? Whether we’re safe to hail them?”
She peered hard. “Plain leather, battered metal. Can’t see flags or badges. Spears. Swords. Carrying grimy sacks. Nothing looks— Wait, they’re splitting up.”
The rider with the shield remained near the abandoned cart, while half of the others cantered along the lip of the valley in each direction, then reined in. Unslinging their sacks, they tipped lumps of meat onto the ground then returned. Whiffs of copper tainted the breeze. Something about the scene seemed wrong, but Anessa couldn’t work out what.
A dull clanging filled the air as their leader began to beat his spear against his shield. The other four pulled brassy bundles from saddlebags and shook them out. After a moment, Anessa realised they were large metal nets. The riders swept their gazes back and forth, clearly expecting something to appear.
She turned and described everything to the others. “That man thought we were escapees. Maybe metal nets’d stop someone cutting free. But why are they waiting? And why the piles of meat?”
Kobb frowned, then looked at Haelen. Haelen shrugged.
The riders’ reasons seemed destined to remain a mystery. After beating his shield for a while longer with no sign of whatever he sought, the leader called out, the words stolen by the wind. They turned as a group and galloped back to the palisade.
Once the gate’d closed, Anessa slipped down to the others. “Reckon we make for the forest, fast as we can.”
“Raw meat makes me think of dangerous beasts.” Haelen glanced around. “We know the power summons things, or changes them. If that’s what they’re hunting, won’t we risk walking straight into it?”
“Sacks of meat means likely something big. Means it’s better in the open. So, we’re safer between trees.”
“She’s right.” Kobb patted Falcon’s nose. “Falcon’s faster if there’s space, but a person on foot turns quicker and fits through narrower spaces. And, if we do run into trouble, the forest might conceal the flare of my Courser. Best get moving in case they send another patrol out.”
Anessa crept up the next rise and glanced back to make sure no one was in sight, before studying the ground ahead. There wasn’t enough scrub to hide Falcon all the way, but the sun was low enough the forest was in shadow. Hand shaking, she pressed her fingers to the pendant around her neck. Moving slowly, they mightn’t stand out from the palisade anyway.
Shoulders aching from the extended crouch, Anessa reached the tree line, the others a few yards behind. The wind blew in the wrong direction to judge sound; nothing moved in the shadows, though, so there probably wasn’t a beast lurking just beyond. So, first step was getting somewhere out of sight of patrols. Bracing her crossbow to her shoulder, she picked out a route Falcon could take and slipped forward.
Despite Kobb’s comment about Falcon not being good in forests, the horse made little noise moving through the undergrowth. Which brought an equal mix of relief Falcon wasn’t giving them away and fear he’d as sneak up on her. She pushed the thought down, and looked for a possible clearing to stop in. But before she found one, the shadows thinned ahead. Signalling a pause, she crept on alone.
A rutted track cut across their path, the left angled toward the palisade. And from the right, on the edge of her hearing, horses clumped. She eased forward and peered through a bush.
Ten yards away, a fallen tree blocked the track. The end looked hacked rather than snapped.
Beyond it, a line of riders and people on foot approached. The riders wore the same plain armour as the ones from the palisade. Peering through the gloom she realised, the walkers were chained together. The palisade was keeping people captive then.
The lead rider raised a hand and rode forward alone. His shoulders stiffened as his gaze fell on the stump.
Before he could react, he collapsed sideways, a bolt jutting from his neck.
A panicked shout cut off as more bolts slammed into the other riders, leaving just one upright.
The surviving rider dived from his horse, only to be cut down as an armoured figure stepped out of the forest. Anessa rocked back at the sight of the attacker’s jagged maw.
A breath later, she realised the bestial face was an ornate helmet, the gloom adding to the effect. A moment longer revealed something familiar about the way the warrior moved, and the tattered grey tabard they wore. It looked like—
“Rest that crossbow down slow, then slide the sword out.”
Anessa turned. Elvar, clothes battered but stance firm, crouched several yards back with a readied crossbow; far enough back she couldn’t knock it aside, yet close enough he’d an easy shot.
She moved her right hand away from the trigger and placed her crossbow on the ground. Anserth hadn’t died in the ruins.