Previously on Seven Stones: Haelen suggests the Eaters will remain close enough to watch the stones. After finding a line of dead Eaters near the edge of the forest, Anessa loses the survivors’ trail. Taking the only route not too snarled for Falcon to pass, they are ambushed.
Anessa spun around. Haelen lay on the ground, a spear quivering in the trunk behind him. Feeling felt a burst of relief, she whirled back to face the direction of the attack.
Kobb had run further down the track. Why would he—? Flanking! The first spear might be a distraction. She tried to cover both sides at once with her crossbow.
Silence slammed down and a purple light made the shadows harden. Instinctively, she glanced ahead. The undergrowth beyond Kobb had withered and fallen and several bodies lay among the dead brambles.
She turned, and tumbled backwards as a spear passed in front of her eyes.
A bitter dusty smell cut the scent of rotting leaves. Three small figures burst from the murk to her left. They moved like Eaters, but something seemed different about them.
Rolling to her feet, she loosed a bolt at the nearest, catching it between the eyes and sending it to the ground.
Angry at getting distracted, she drew her turf hook and charged to meet them. Swinging the weapon two-handed, she cleaved through a club and into the side of its owner’s head. Blade firmly lodged, she felt herself jerked forwards as the Eater fell.
Pain flooded her right side. The other Eater lashed out again at her hip.
Leg half-folding beneath her, she wrenched her turf hook free and flailed sideways.
Instead of leaping back as she expected, the Eater lunged forwards, smashing its club into her right elbow.
Her right hand juddered from the hilt, but her hook continued round, smashing deep into the Eater’s head.
Her opponent fell to the ground, taking the turf hook with it.
Heat flooded up Anessa’s neck. She’d let her weapon get trapped twice in a row. Kobb wouldn’t— There hadn’t been a second burst of light. Working her elbow, she looked over.
Hunched by coughing, Kobb fended off four Eaters with his rapier. His Courser hung loosely at his side.
She planted her foot on the face of the Eater at her feet and yanked at her turf hook. Acid flooded her mouth as it tore free. Trying not to think about the sound, she sprinted towards Kobb.
One of the Eaters spun to meet her, waving its club frantically.
The remaining three shifted around Kobb. Before they could press the attack, his rapier flicked up, taking the middle of the three in the throat.
Anessa tightened her grip enough to turn her knuckles white and jabbed at the oncoming Eater. A shock ran up both her arms as the blade glanced off the wildly swinging club. She stumbled sideways.
Gritting her teeth against the renewed complaint from her right elbow, she slashed left.
But, afraid of getting her weapon caught again, she unconsciously pulled the blow. The Eater, carried forward by its charge, passed her by before the blow landed.
Spinning to follow, she saw the Eater slammed sideways as Falcon kicked out. Fluids arcing from its pulped head, its body crashed into a bush before sliding to the ground.
Anessa turned quickly in a circle. Haelen crouched, eating knife clutched in his hand, against a tree. Kobb stood over a pile of bodies, one fist pressed to his mouth.
She turned again, peering into each shadow. All the stories talked of Eaters as ravening beasts; wouldn’t they attack with everything they had rather than holding back? But, travelling with Kobb had revealed there was a lot she was wrong about: both about Eaters and about fighting. Best to be certain.
After a third circle, she straightened. “Think that’s it.”
Kobb hawked loudly, before staggering over to lean against Falcon’s flank.
“You’re hurt.” Haelen strode over to Kobb.
Kobb sheathed his weapons. “Just tired. Trying to push through must have taken more effort than I thought.”
“Did anyone see antlers? Did we…?” Anessa realised why the attack had seemed odd. None of the bodies bore masks. The bitter smell of dust grew stronger as she bent over the nearest one.
Without the crude mask, the Eater’s head looked narrow and angular. Pure black eyes, nearly twice the size of a person’s, sat either side of a flat nose. Between the half-open lips she saw teeth like a pike. “Why don’t they have masks?”
“Didn’t holler and howl like before either,” said Kobb.
“They’ve got something smeared on their faces,” said Haelen. “Maybe, we—”
“Best move on.” Kobb took up Falcon’s reins. “Won’t learn much in this gloom. This isn’t a good camp anyway.”
Haelen sighed and nodded. “Give me the reins. You two need to be ready if they attack again.”
Anessa reloaded her crossbow and led the way further into the forest. Ears aching from the lack of noise, she forced her shoulders down and tried to stop hunching against the attack that never came.
A sudden flash of Mum, face damp, telling her to be a good girl distracted her from her obsessive scanning of the shadows. She paused. Why was she remembering Grandam’s funeral?
She’d wanted to put the Winter Bettanie she’d picked in the grave, but it weren’t proper. Mustn’t disturb a death poesy. She sniffed.
She could smell a death poesy ahead. The gloom was less, too. She crept forward. The scent of herbs grew stronger.
The trees thinned, leaving a small clearing. Five pale shapes lay within, radiating out from the centre.
She scanned the undergrowth, but couldn’t see any sign of an ambush. Not that that proved anything. Signalling the others to move up, she crept into the clearing.
Each of the dead Eaters had been laid, feet out, with their hands crossed over their chests. Like the others, they wore no masks. A dark paste was smeared across their faces, smelling of dust and age. Scorched at one end, a bundle of herbs lay in the space between their heads.
Keeping her crossbow ready, Anessa moved to the edge of the clearing and circled.
“End of the bundle’s still warm,” said Kobb. “We’re barely missed them.”
“So,” said Haelen, “choice is camp here and give them a lead or go racing off at night?”
“Ain’t happy sleeping around Eaters,” muttered Anessa. “Definitely ain’t happy sleeping with dead ones.”
Haelen chuckled. “Number of times they attacked us, they can’t expect manners. Easy enough to sling them—”
Kobb knocked him flat as something, flickers of light trailing it, burst from a thicket and sped past Anessa into the distance.