Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa’s father, Lambart, starts packing up his shop as if he’s submitting to Tremaine’s demands. Anessa and Kobb pretend to leave Morth, then sneak back to investigate. However, before they find anything definite they are captured by the east-siders.
Anessa gritted her teeth as Heb Beeks yanked her arm up her back. The east-siders might have got lucky, but she was determined not to give them the satisfaction of seeing her react. The downside of her plan was not talking to Kobb either. Behind her, breath exploded from someone’s body. She twisted her head round, grin forming. Only to slump at the sight of Kobb, arms bound behind his back, folded over Dereck’s fist.
Dereck worked his fingers for a moment, face creased up. “Bring them.”
Another jag of pain ran across Anessa’s shoulder as Heb lifted her arm again. Stumbling ahead of him on tiptoes, she headed for Tremaine’s house. Dereck slouched next to her, close enough his breath stroked her face each time he leered at her. She should find the Blessing in this. Inside would be drier and warmer than the street and they wanted to go there anyway. Discovering and appreciating turned out to be different though.
Dereck threw open the front door and strode in. Anessa couldn’t do anything to stop herself following, but did choose not to wipe her feet.
“Guests, Dereck?” Tremaine stood at the top of the stairs, one arm resting on the bannister. “How pleasant. Do come in Mr Kobb. I’d offer you a warm drink; you need to be getting on though.”
“I’m sure we can spare the time,” said Kobb, voice strained yet level. “Maybe you could give us a tour of your home? I hear it has a few intriguing features.”
“Didn’t know you liked carpentry, Mr Kobb.” Tremaine strolled down the stairs. “The day is getting on though. You both should see my father’s house before you depart.”
Dereck wrapped an arm around Anessa’s waist. “I’ve got her. You grab the Botherer, Heb.”
“No, Dereck.” Tremaine moved closer. “I need you to check Tanton’s packing.”
Dereck stepped back, fingers oozing down before sliding free. Holding hard to her plan of not giving people satisfaction, Anessa stayed still.
“Don’t fear you’ll miss all the little things only an Aycock knows. I’ll take you myself.” Tremaine rested a hand on her elbow. Despite Kobb’s insight that Tremaine was the corrupt one, part of her felt glad it was him, not Dereck.
Anessa shivered as they left. She’d been inside long enough to start warming up, but not long enough to dry out, so the rain picked up where it stopped. Each step renewed the smell of soggy muck; at least she’d trodden that over Tremaine’s floor. Although, he was an east-sider, so he probably didn’t care about filth.
Unable to wipe her eyes, the journey melted into murk. She waited for Kobb to make his move, but—if he did try to signal—the torrent washed it away; and all too soon they reached Wilber’s house.
When she blinked straight at it, nothing differed from the houses to either side. But as she ran her gaze across the walls, tatters of gloom seemed to creep in at the edges. Despite the lack of mould, it brought Alcston to mind.
Tremaine swung the door open with is free hand. Grinning, he swept his arm out in mockery of a polite invitation. Before Anessa could decide whether to resist or not, he yanked her over the threshold.
The stench of hot fat bubbled up as she staggered in. Light flickered ahead, but not enough to make anything out. Another tug sent her stumbling to her left. Something struck her shoulder, sending her sprawling on her face.
As she rolled onto her back, a dark shape hit the floor next to her.
“My apologies for the lack of beds,” said Tremaine. “But, then you’ll be sacrificed at midnight, so you won’t miss them.”
Sacrificed? Anessa glared into the murk. Tremaine was just visible in the doorway. “You can’t. People won’t let you kill—”
“The two of you left this morning. If anyone give it a thought, they’ll think you got lost in the forest. Reminds them what happens if you listen to outsiders.” The door closed on his chuckle.
“Kobb? What now? We have to do something.”
“We consider what we’ve learnt. Seems certain the statue’s here and the source of the evil with it. Midnight’s not for a while, so—” Kobb fell silent as a plank creaked nearby. The door eased open and a dark figure slipped through.
“Should’ve gone when you had the chance,” said Dereck.
“Go kiss a wolf,” screamed Anessa.
Dereck raised his hands. “Ain’t no way to talk to a childhood friend. Ain’t too late to fix things neither.”
“Friend? You ain’t never been a friend. People’ll hug horse dung ‘fore they spend time with you.”
“You don’t mean that. It’s the Botherer, messed with your head.” Dereck kicked Kobb in the ankle. “Promise you’ll tell everyone the sick things he made you do, and I’ll convince Dad to let you stay in Morth.”
“Sick things? Kobb ain’t the one wants to sacrifice us. It’s you east-siders who are sick!”
“You’re lying. My Dad ain’t sick. He’s protecting us from all that evil outsiders bring. Might be a bit rough, but that’s the only way to keep us pure!” Swinging his boot at Kobb again and missing, Dereck stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
Kobb made a light tutting sound. “Might be worth you playing along when he comes back. Least on of us would be free. He’d let you go if you asked, Father’s permission or not.”
“I’m not leaving you.” Anessa paused. “What do you mean, Dereck’d let me go?”
“Not saying he wouldn’t come sniffing after you.” Kobb chuckled. “What it is to be young. He likes you.”
“He don’t! He hates me. Those things he called me. And staring at me sideways, like I got something dirty stuck on me. He tried to throw me in the slurry pit when I were six.”
“That clinches it. Bet he put bugs in your hair too. It’s not dirt he’s peering at.”
Heat rushed up her neck. She was suddenly glad of the murk. “But…”
“Feeling something and knowing the right thing to do are different things. Bullying might be the only way he knows to make anyone notice him. Gossiping about your young suitor isn’t getting us free though. If I roll over, can you reach the knot?”
Young suitor? Kobb acted like it wasn’t creepy. He thought it was funny. Dereck had punched Kobb in the stomach, so why’d Kobb—? To distract her from the danger, keep her spirits up. Even now, he thought of others. She twisted onto her side and fumbled behind her.
She could feel the knot, but the rain had swelled the cord. Her fingers ached by the time she gave up. Without seeing it, she had no hope. But maybe they didn’t need to undo it. The entire house smelt uncared-for. There might be something to cut their bonds on: a nail or the edge of a broken plank.
She explained her idea. Bracing each other, the two of them wriggled around until they sat against the wall. Sliding her back up, she stood then stepped sideways and sank down to a crouch while Kobb did the same in the opposite direction. The combination of repetition and darkness stole her sense of movement, making the change in texture a surprise.
For a moment, her spirits lifted. But there wasn’t a handle on this side. Two shuffles later, she discovered the hinges were too flat to catch the cord, let alone break it.
As she turned the second corner, a door closed nearby, followed by a creak in the corridor. Kobb’s shuffling stopped. Forcing down her disgust, she tried to think of something pleasant to say to Dereck.
The door swung open and a dark figure entered.
“Suppose you always did your share.” Anessa curved the corners of her mouth up in case he could see.
“How kind of you,” said Tremaine. “I’m early. But I thought you’d want time to look at the knives and the altar. Really understand what’s going to happen.” Two bulky shadows stepped through the door behind him.