Previously on Seven Stones: When the latest gate opens near Anessa’s home village, she agrees to face her dad. After failing to convince her to stay, he gives her her grandmother’s sword. But before Anessa can inspect it, Goodie Weaver rushes in to warn them armed east-siders are approaching the shop.
Kobb stepped into the doorway. The gossiping groups had gone, those villagers who were visible hugging the buildings. But a growing murmur still undercut the hiss of the rain. “Best belt your sword on, Anessa. Keep it sheathed, though. No cause to escalate this.”
“You don’t have to face them at all.” Lambart tugged on Anessa’s arm. “Go out the back door. Leave the village. Goodie’ll bring your horse to you by the north gate.”
Kobb turned to Lambart. If it did become bloody, it would be better if Anessa weren’t there. But, even if she agreed to leave, she’d sneak back the first chance she got unless he went with her; and he couldn’t creep away. “They don’t see us, they’ll tear the shop apart anyway; maybe use the same excuse to ransack other people’s homes. Meet them in the street, we keep innocents out of this. Might even make them think twice.”
“You can’t drag my Anessa into—”
Anessa pulled free. “It’s time someone stood up to the east-siders. Aycock and the others’ve been treating people like muck for too long.”
Kobb returned to the doorway as the murmuring broke into separate voices. “Don’t intend to make a fight of it. We’ll leave the village if we need to. But it’s too late to sneak out anyway.”
“Tanton!” Tremaine Aycock stopped in the middle of the street, right hand resting on the pommel of the sword on his belt. Dereck, Osraed, and five other villagers clustered behind him. Each carried an axe or other tool, rusty yet still dangerous. “Surrender the criminals and we’ll go easy on you.”
Lambart moved next to Kobb and picked up the door bar. His face indicated determination; however, the tremble in his arms suggested determination wouldn’t be enough.
Kobb cursed silently. The east-siders hated him. But they didn’t know what he was. Draw the Courser and drop Tremaine. Shoot the girl with the mattock before he hit the ground. The man with the turf hook next. Three dead and the group split before they knew what happened. Without a leader, they’d break. But that ease was the problem: they wouldn’t fear him until after, three souls too late. He stepped into the street. “It’s me you’ve issue with. I’ll give myself up if you promise to leave the Tantons alone.”
“No.” Anessa rushed out the door. “You ain’t done anything wrong.”
The corners of Tremaine’s mouth rose, but his eyes remained hard. “It’s too late for that anyway. Lambart shows he ain’t tainted, maybe we say he was just confused. But you’ve been with this man. He’s put his corruption in you.”
Kobb spoke before Anessa could react. “Seems we’ve an impasse then.”
Pushing to the front, Dereck pointed his axe at Kobb. “Even if Tanton don’t give up the whore, there’s more than enough of us to end you here.”
“Still can’t count.” Anessa’s eyes were blazing, but she hadn’t—Kobb was glad to see—touched her sword. “Everyone knows east-siders ain’t worth half a real person. So, it’s you don’t have enough.”
Lambart lowered the door bar to the ground as Goodie moved up beside him. After straightening, he swept his right arm around the street. “Whatever happens today, we’ve got to work together tomorrow. So let’s talk it through, eh?”
“I’m a reasonable man.” Tremaine’s grin still didn’t reach his eyes. “The Botherer gives himself up, I’ll give you till dawn to pack up your shop and take her somewhere she don’t offend decent people.”
“Reasonable?” Anessa’s hand dropped to her sword hilt. “I’ve met Eaters more reasonable than you. Better looking too.”
“You’ll soon learn your place once your boyfriends dead.” Dereck lunged forward, axe raised.
Kobb shifted his weight. His left hand grabbed the descending weapon and yanked. His right smashed into Dereck’s face. Axe and Aycock tumbled in opposite directions, landing with a splut.
Dereck pushed up on his elbows before collapsing back in the mud. Several of the east-siders sidled backwards, improvised weapons drooping.
Tremaine muttered something brittle and angular. For a moment, his eyes seemed to gleam despite the murky light. The east-siders squared their shoulders and gripped the tools tighter. After hanging his turf hook on his belt, Osraed helped Dereck up.
Tremaine hawked a ball of filth at Anessa’s feet. “Lambart’s right. No cause to go killing each other. If all three of you leave by sundown and don’t come back, we won’t chase you. You don’t, we do this the hard way.” Radiating false reasonableness, he turned on his heel and led his followers away.
Kobb’s shoulders slumped. “Lambart. Best if you packed what you can. If I can’t sort this by dark, you’ll need to leave.”
“Leave?” Anessa gazed at him wide-eyed. “We beat ’em twice. If anything, they’re the ones need to leave.”
“Most of them are cowards. But Tremaine’s different. Those words he said that stiffened the others up. Don’t know enough to understand them, but I’ve heard that sort of thing before. Something dark’s touched him. He knows he can’t scare us and can’t win fair, so now he’ll win any way he can.”
“He’s right, Anessa.” Goodie rubbed Anessa’s back. “Tremaine Aycock don’t lose. Only reason he lives that side of Morth is cos he chose to. Don’t know about dark things, but there’ve always been rumours about the Aycocks.”
“Well, Kobb’s wrong on one thing,” said Anessa. “He ain’t going to sort this by dusk. We are.”
Goodie grabbed Anessa’s chin and stared into her eyes. “Don’t be an idiot, girl. Help your father. Leave it to the Reverend to do—”
“I know what needs doing.” Anessa’s shoulders shook but her voice was steady. “It’s like when Roblin’s herd got the frothing sickness.”
Lambart gasped. “Anessa. You can’t—”
She ignored him “That weren’t over till we found the Corpse Breath growing in Back Pond. Driving the Aycock’s out’d feel good. But we need to find out what the darkness is.”
Kobb forced himself to smile. Dealing with the hidden source would stop the corruption. But once they went onto the east-siders’ territory, Aycock wouldn’t have to worry about hiding his power; and fighting people you’d known your whole life was very different from facing monsters. Known all your life… “The east-siders have been like that for years? It isn’t recent?”
Anessa’s eyes widened.