Previously on Seven Stones: The insects leave the possessed workers and commit suicide. Most of the villagers die, and those who don’t are too weak to survive a night without shelter. Kobb manages to transport the survivors to the stone circle. Next morning, Haelen remains to watch over them while Kobb, Anessa, and Falcon travel through the next gate. Anessa is shocked to discover they have arrived near her home village.
Kobb peered at Falcon’s eyes, then ran his hands along Falcon’s body. Falcon whickered amiably. Satisfied the transition hadn’t upset his steed, Kobb considered the forest again.
Rain filtering through trees could be anywhere, but few sights would make Anessa forget her skills enough to stand on the skyline rather than in cover. The slight tremor in her otherwise rigid posture confirmed his fears were true: the stone had brought them to Morth. Keeping quiet had made sense when Haelen found the map. It still did once they knew what it meant: telling her would only have been a distraction from more immediate threats. With five stones unexplored, the chance the next one came here seemed low; so he’d decided to stay silent, just until they’d defeated enough evils that she trusted it could be done, trusted herself.
Anessa stepped down from the ridge. “Are Botherers allowed to lie? Or, supposed to always tell the truth?”
Kobb stared at the rotting leaf mould beneath his boots, glad his hat brim now drooped so low. “Lies hide what is. Deny people the path to see the Blessing. I should’ve…” He forced his gaze up.
Anessa kicked at the ground, hands clasped tight and face noticeably redder than usual even in the murk. “I tried… and then….”
“I understand. I—”
“You don’t have to. All you ever do is save people. I wasn’t thinking. And…” She began to sob.
Kobb stepped closer, trying to remember something from his training that might help.
Anessa lunged forward and grabbed his hands. “Can you forgive me? I didn’t mean to say Botherer. Ain’t right. But it just—” Another sob racked her. “I never asked what the proper name is.”
Lost, he decided on a straight answer. “I follow the Way of Maker Guiding. Doctrinally, I am named Reverend Militant of the Order of the Maker. No one’s used that in longer than I can remember, though, and there isn’t anyone deserves to have to; especially not you. Mostly believers call themselves Guided.” He squeezed her hands. “But saying I’m a Botherer doesn’t… bother me. Haelen does it all the time. There’s nothing to forgive.”
Anessa let go, before scrubbing at her eyes with one hand. “If we tell Dad what we’re doing, he won’t let me help you.”
“He allowed you to go with me last time.”
She swung her arms, not meeting his eyes.
Kobb coughed. Why hadn’t he listened harder to the pastoral lectures? “If you lie to him, won’t that mean you think he shouldn’t let you go?”
“Couldn’t we find the evil and go?”
“You’ve seen what losing a child did to Haelen. Do you want your dad to wonder if he’ll ever see you again? Whatever you tell him, don’t turn down a chance to see him.”
Anessa’s shoulders slumped, but she nodded. “Seeing him would be a Blessing.”
Kobb gathered up Falcon’s reins and headed over the rise.
“Route’s better if we swing south a bit and go in that way,” said Anessa from behind him.
Kobb looked at the tangles of undergrowth to either side, then down the slope. The ground around the east gate seemed a little boggy. Nothing Falcon couldn’t handle, though. Might even be easier than cutting across the between the trees. First impressions could deceive though, and Anessa hadn’t lead him astray yet. Patting Falcon’s nose, he swung left.
A long trudge later, wet, and spattered with leaf mould, they reached the south gate. A different watchman stuck his head out. Kobb braced himself to respond, but the youth just waved an arm at the open gate and withdrew into the hut. As the two of them entered, startled looks flickered between villagers and muttered conversations sprang up.
Anessa tensed. Before she could speak, Kobb rested a hand on her shoulder. “Nothing to heed. By the time we’ve spoken to your dad and cleaned up a bit, they’ll have got over the shock.”
The tension slid from Anessa, before returning threefold as Dereck Aycock swaggered between two buildings. For a moment, Kobb thought they hadn’t been noticed, then Dereck pulled up and gawped at them.
“Well. Look what the Botherer brought back.” Dereck ran his eyes across Anessa, tongue oozing over his lips. “Got bored of your—”
Dereck’s bravado collapsed as a sharp-eyed, wiry woman, greying around the temples, pinched his ear and twisted. “I slapped you the moment you came into the world, Dereck Aycock; don’t you go thinking I won’t do it again till it sticks. No doubt you got somewhere you should be, so best not dawdle, eh?”
“No, Goodie Weaver.” As soon as her grip eased, Dereck scurried away.
“You’d best not dawdle neither, Anessa Tanton.”
Anessa blanched, then set off to her father’s shop at speed.
Deciding not to risk tipping his hat, Kobb followed.
Lambart Tanton looked up when they entered, smile dying half-formed. “My thanks for bringing her safe back, Reverend. You’ll have most of the day left if you start now, so I’ll not keep you.”
“I ain’t staying, Dad.” Anessa held her arms out. “I’m right glad to see you, but once we’re done here, I going with Kobb. There’s things that ain’t right, and he shouldn’t have to fix it all.”
Lambart stepped closer, then drew her into a hug. Anger, joy, and sadness fought across his face. “Not saying he’s not a good man, Nessy. But it’s best to let Botherers alone.”
Anessa broke free of her father. Eyes glistening, she shoved him away. “Ain’t Botherers. It’s Guided. And, if Kobb can’t stay cos o’that, then I can’t neither. Cos I’m one too!”
Kobb eased himself away from them. For a soul to see the path was a Blessing to be celebrated, but to show it now would only fan the flames.
“You always did take after her.” Lambart shook his head and shuffled into the storeroom, leaving Anessa standing red-faced and shaking. A moment later, he returned with a long Hessian bundle. “Planned to give you this next Maker’s Day. Better you have it now. It was your Grandam’s.”
Wide steel quillons caught the lamplight as Anessa lifted the sacking away. “A sword? Grandam owned a sword? But…”
“Those stories she told about dangerous beasts. Not all of ‘em were exaggerations. She said this blade kept her safe. Maybe it’ll do the same, if…” Lambart sagged down onto a pile of sacks.
Anessa dropped the bundle and wrapped herself around her dad. “I never meant it. I thought I’d just be gone a few days. You could come with us. Couldn’t he, Kobb?”
Kobb nodded. He could. He wouldn’t, but he could. “Been a while since I used anything besides a rapier. I think I remember the drills. After we clean up, I’ll—”
The door slammed against the wall behind him as Goodie Weaver ran in. “You best get out of here. Tremaine Aycock’s on his way with his cronies. And I don’t reckon a busted belt’s going to stop him this time.”