Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa defeats the Korha and rescues Kobb. Meanwhile, back in Alcston, Haelen discovers one of the villagers might have been researching the same threat that drew Kobb north. Replacing supplies and equipment lost in the swamp with what they can salvage from the village, they prepare to continue north.
Kobb folded the map and slipped it into his coat. Hopefully, Anessa wouldn’t ask to see it. Haelen hadn’t said anything—to him it probably didn’t mean anything—but Anessa would notice immediately that Morth, her home, was one of the sites marked on the map.
Of course—unless he broke the code—he couldn’t be certain the map led to the source of his nightmares. But, it would be an unlikely coincidence; and, even if it were, with the site of a Korha infestation marked, the other locations would probably be tainted with something equally unblessed.
Strolling over to Falcon, he formed a stirrup of his hands. “Mount up, Haelen. I’ll walk a while to get the humours flowing.”
Haelen shook his head. “Anessa killed a Korha. She deserves the rest more than I do.”
“I can walk. I should…” Anessa shuffled in place. “…work these boots in.”
Kobb straightened and pointed at Haelen’s crutch. “She might need rest, but you need to be off that ankle. What would you say to a patient who tried to walk if they didn’t have to?”
“I’d tell them how lucky they were to have me as their healer.” Haelen moved over to Kobb. “I suppose I do need to be able to keep up with two such mighty heroes, though.”
“We’ll get started then,” said Kobb, helping Haelen to mount. “We’ll look to stop early so we can clean the muck off properly.”
Motioning Anessa to lead, he glanced back at the swamp before striding out of Alcston.
The trees closed in on the path. With the rain holding off, they seemed to loom less; but the smell of rot still filled Kobb’s nostrils, and he was sure not all of it came from the filth spotting his clothes. Even with the renewed energy from uninterrupted sleep, he felt as if something were pressing down on him and he was glad when Anessa identified a clearing near running water to camp in.
Haelen swung himself down from Falcon, his wince only visible because Kobb was looking for it. Reaching into his pouch, Haelen held out a bottle towards Kobb. “Anessa needs sleep. And shaking your head at me won’t change that, young lady. I don’t need my ankle to watch. I’ll wake the Reverend later. But first thing’s to fix a blanket across these trees.”
Kobb took the potion absent-mindedly. “A blanket? If there’s a storm the rain will gust round it.”
“Anessa’ll need privacy to—”
“You didn’t stick up a blanket while we were heading to Alcston,” said Anessa. “And I ain’t bothered.”
Haelen’s eyes went wide. “It was just the two of us.”
It was strange the way losing a child took a person. If Kobb asked Haelen, he would deny he thought of Anessa as anything other than a travelling companion, but Kobb reckoned his emotions were a whole other matter. “If one of us is staying up, we’re not short of blankets. Don’t know about being polite, but it would keep Falcon out of the soap.”
Anessa pulled out a blanket and jogged over to the trees. “We should get on then. Won’t take all of us to tie up a blanket.”
Kobb unslung his saddlebag from Falcon and started brushing the horse’s coat. Once he was content not a fleck of mud remained, he sought out clean clothes for himself. Looking from the stains on his current shirt to the tatters where the sleeve used to be on his spare, he reminded himself that having most of a clean shirt was a blessing.
He strolled over to Haelen, being very careful to match the healer’s lack of interest in the splashing and off-tune singing coming from behind them. “So, how fast will the potion work?”
“It’s gentler than the venom and you’ll wake normally, but I’d not take it until you’re ready to sleep.”
The splashing stopped, and Anessa strolled across the clearing clutching a pile of wet clothes. “I’ll get these hung out, then it’s my turn to cook.”
Deciding the morale boost from a fire would outweigh the risk, Kobb headed behind the blanket without commenting.
Later, curled next to Falcon with a belly full of porridge, he decided he had made the right choice. The smell of rot had faded and the tension in his muscles eased away. His eyes slipped closed.
Kobb sat up. He felt awake but relaxed, and moon had passed the midpoint. The potion had worked.
Haelen nodded at him from the far side of the fire and waved a handful of papers. “Thought I might use the time.”
“You can read that stuff?” Kobb strolled over and crouched beside him.
“I picked up some things since I left the Legions.” Haelen’s shoulders stiffened. “When my Katrina disappeared, only clue they found was a stone with symbols on. Same thing as these. It took me a while, but I managed to pick up enough of it to work out the path lead north. Most of this is about the Korha, though. I need to find—”
Kobb rested a hand on Haelen’s shoulder. “Maybe it’ll make more sense after some sleep.”
After a moment, Haelen slumped. “You’re right. I can’t tell ink from stains anymore.”
Apart from Haelen’s snoring, the rest of the night passed peacefully, as did the next three. And the days between. The scent of decay still undercut the air, but birds flitted in the trees and the weather held.
Anessa and Haelen began to unfold, breaths slightly deeper, motions more fluid, and voices more robust. But Kobb only thought more and more on what might drive the Eaters from where they lived but ignore humans travelling towards it. Could slaying the Korha have really echoed back to the source, driving the dangers before it?
The fourth morning brought Kobb a bitter release to the tension. Studying the sky as dawn broke, he watched the contrast between tree and sky flowing around the edges of the clearing; but not reaching the north. Coincidence or not, their destination was cloaked in the storm clouds he had expected to face on the journey.
“Cold breakfast, then?” said Haelen breaking Kobb’s reverie. “Were the dry days the blessing, or is it that we have breakfast?”
“A fine theological question.” Kobb headed for Falcon. “Best pack now rather than later.”
As they continued north, the clouds sapped the sun, reducing the forest back to a mass of half-seen limbs. But the storm didn’t break.
Feeling both nauseated and very awake, Kobb stumbled to a halt.
“Something wrong?” Haelen, still not happy at to be the one who rode, made to dismount.
“I’m—” Kobb caught a flash of light from the corner of his eye, but when he turned it was gone. “I’m not feeling—”
The sky exploded with light.
Kobb shook his head. Haelen was staring at him, concern on his face. Behind him, the sky remained the same leaden tone it had been for the entire morning. “Sorry, the lightning…”
“Lightning?” said Anessa. “What lightning?”