Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa and Kobb return the Tan-Sorda to the clearing where they met the shaman. Eaters in grotesque masks emerge from the trees. Anessa tries to explain the deal, but the Eaters attack, hitting her in the shoulder with a spear.
Anessa scrabbled for her crossbow. Her fingers slipped off. Creaking, angular voices shouted nearby. As she reached for the butt again, shadows flickered across her.
Her body curled tight as pain drove through her gut, flaring darker as her knee caught a spear shaft.
Teeth gritted, she wrapped her hands around it. Her little finger brushed binding. The spear wasn’t that deep; her jacket must have slowed it. Sweat trickled down her brow as she tugged.
Black spots blossomed as the point shifted. For a moment, she thought she it’d come out; then her body tilted. Icy needles stabbed the length of her right side, as the spear in her shoulder pressed on the ground.
The chopped up voices and movements around her shattered.
A wooden face gazed down at her from the moon.
The taste of ashes and metal flooded her mouth, as the clouds fell.
Everything seemed cold. Wind thrummed nearby, and the scent of grease and dry leaves tickled her nose. The agony in her gut’d dulled to a throb. She eased her eyes open.
Tanned leather vibrated above her. Ready for the pain to return, Anessa turned her head. Light filtered between laced flaps. She lay on the floor of a small tent. The fleece of some animal covered her, leaving her feet bare.
Inching her fingers across, she felt her torso. Her jacket was gone, and something rough bulged beneath the rip in her singlet. Someone’d carried her from the clearing and bandaged her wounds.
But who? And why? She couldn’t see the rest of her gear. Maybe someone rescued her, but maybe the Eaters’d decided to keep her alive to sacrifice later. She needed to know more.
She lifted her right arm. When the pain didn’t flare, she pushed the fleece down. Brown stains crusted the front of her singlet, framing a large tear. However, whoever tended her’d laced it up. Would someone do that if they were going to kill her?
Beneath the thrum of the tent ropes, she heard the creak of wood. Ears straining, she waited until it came again; she still couldn’t decide whether it was branches or something speaking, though. Either way, it didn’t sound right outside, so she might be able to peek out without being seen.
She twisted her shoulders. The ache in her back tugged at her, but didn’t grow. However, when she tried to roll onto her side, her legs seemed numb.
Her chest tightened as memories of Silas Weaver after he slipped from the roof flooded her mind. Tugging at the fleece until it slid off her, she pressed her chin down. Her trousers looked filthy yet whole, and lacked bulges. She twitched her right toes, then her left. She sagged. That meant she wasn’t… that she was fine.
After a few deep breaths, she bent her left knee. Tingling burnt away the numbness as she scuffed her heels across the ground. This time, her legs turned, but wouldn’t bear enough weight to get up.
She rocked her shoulders, trying to flip herself up, then stopped as the sound of boots approached. Boots was good. Eater’s had been barefoot.
Something blocked the sliver of light between the flaps. A figure stepped in, hunched beneath the low roof. “Anessa?”
“Haelen? What happened? Were you captured? Where’s Kobb?”
Haelen crouched by her side. “I found the Skithai just like we planned and explained the plan. The shaman told his scouts to watch the clearing and led me to this camp. We came as soon as we heard you’d arrived. Another tribe were passing nearby though. The shaman convinced them to stop. I patched you up with what I had, but I’ll be happier once we return to the Stones. I’ll take you to the Reverend. He’ll be glad to know you’re on the mend.”
“I… My legs are wobbly.”
“Probably from the poultices.” He eased an arm under her shoulders. “Might pass once you move around. If it doesn’t, I’ll carry you. Compared to a Legionary in full armour, you’re barely noticeable.”
Anessa set her jaw and concentrated. The sensible thing was to let him carry her. But letting them get ambushed was embarrassing enough without looking like a burden too. She got her legs under her—with a certain amount of Haelen’s help. Left arm wrapped across his back, she staggered out.
As she straightened, she realised the tent stood at the edge of a wide clearing, empty but for two other tents, and Falcon. “Where are they?”
“They left after the Tan-Sorda sacrificed.”
“After… But weren’t they waiting for the full moon?”
“They did. You slept for several days.”
That explained why her legs were numb and why her wounds didn’t hurt so much.
“It’s a good thing in a way. The Reverend was exhausted; if you hadn’t needed to stay here… Skithai gratitude isn’t huge; it ran to some tents and sacks of dry vegetables, though.”
The two of them swayed beside the next tent, Anessa’s legs not firm enough to bear her weight without help. After almost falling, she let Haelen lower her to the ground so he could unlace the flap.
Kobb blinked as they entered, eyes threaded with red. If this was how he looked now, no wonder Haelen’d wanted him to rest.
“How much food did the Eaters leave? Can we wait a few more days?”
Haelen shook his head. “We could, as I said, I’d like to get you to the Stones, though. Even if I didn’t have supplies there, we can’t defend this place if trouble turns up.”
“He’s right.” Kobb patted his pack. “Now the Gathering’s over, there’s no guarantee the Skithai will all leave us alone.”
Anessa wiggled an eyebrow at Haelen as left the tent but he only smiled. She turned to Kobb. “But, aren’t you—?”
“I don’t feel young. I’ll do, though. Haelen’s got me up from worse than this. If he says I’m rested enough to get us there, trust him.”
Kobb’s lack of worry still seemed odd, but he’d know how he felt better than she did. And if he was wrong, they’d sleep as long as needed once they arrived.
Haelen ducked his head in. “I’ve slung our packs on Falcon for now. We’ve enough tents, so no reason to carry the extra burden.”
“Good thought.” Kobb yawned, then arched his back. “Best lie down, Anessa. We’ve each stumbled before.”
She eased herself flat. “Wait! Where’s my—?”
“I returned for it the next morning.” Haelen sat beside her.
The absence of rotting wood flooded her nostrils. Damp grass slammed up into her spine. Granite jutted up around her.
After a moment to be sure her wounds hadn’t reopened, Anessa pushed herself up on her elbows.
Kobb stood facing her, shoulders less square than usual but standing on his own. He stared at the stone beside her for while, then his brows drew down.
Anessa peered at it. “It looks solid. No sparkles.”
“That’s not… The journey felt too easy.”
“Too easy?” Haelen stood. “Maybe you’re getting better?”
Kobb shook his head. “It felt like it wasn’t just me. As if—”
“We’re most of the way done.” Haelen turned and swept his arms around the circle. “The power must have rushed back. Shouldn’t you be telling me it’s a Blessing? That we can end this faster… once Anessa’s recovered.”
Anessa struggled to her feet. Five of the Stones finished—or whatever the right word was. Only two more to finally lock the evil away. And for Haelen, two more until he found where his daughter’d been taken. Hopefully…