Previously on Seven Stones: A group of east-siders, lead by Tremaine Aycock, threaten Kobb and Anessa. After Kobb knocks Dereck to the ground, they retreat. But not before delivering an ultimatum: Kobb and the Tantons leave the village today or else. Anessa wants to ignore them, but Kobb reveals Tremaine is tainted by dark power. As they plan their response, Kobb realises the east-siders have been corrupt for much longer than he has been plagued by nightmares.
Kobb let his gaze drift around the street as he waved the others into the store. “Tell me more about the east-siders.”
“Soil on the east edge of the village ain’t good for growing. The folks live over that side… well, some wonder why you’d choose to.” Goodie pursed her lips. “There’s four families: Aycocks, Corlesses, Beekses, and Whellers. Sort of keep to themselves. But there’s plenty of kin by marriage both ways so ain’t exactly separate. Credit where it’s due, they work hard, maybe harder than others would; and they’re always the first to volunteer if there’s rumours of bandits or a wild beast lurking about. Trouble is Aycock knows it.”
“Plenty of people are hard workers,” said Anessa. “Don’t mean they go round telling others what to do.”
Lambart wrapped an arm around his daughter. “We ain’t saying they’re right. It ain’t that simple, though. Maybe the village’d get by without the lumber, and others could do more shifts on the gates; not having to’s easier, though. Maybe folks don’t agree with everything Tremaine wants, but reckon it don’t affect them much.”
“Didn’t hear you offering to stand watch instead of go into the forest every day.”
“Hunting’s working. And I’m better than any east-sider at tracking beasts.”
Lambart shared a glance with Goodie. “I ain’t saying weren’t worthwhile, but you had the time cos east-siders did more than their share of other things.”
“Same as everywhere,” Kobb said. “Most people will let the Legion protect them, yet don’t want their children joining up. Right or wrong, it means most of the villagers won’t actively help them but we can’t expect support unless we find something definite. So, we need a plan.”
“Can’t you…” Anessa glanced at his Courser and back up. “…feel it out?”
“Given time. But I don’t think Aycock’ll let me wander around the village with my eyes closed.”
Lambart frowned. “What is it you’re looking for?”
“Can’t say for certain. Some sort of focus for the darkness.”
“Well, they all heed Aycock, and he’s not one to share,” Lambart said. “So, likely it’s safe in his house.”
Goodie shook her head. “Been a while since I goodwifed Dereck, but don’t recall anything odd about the place. Wouldn’t evil have stood out, Reverend?”
“Powerful enough to make that many obey? Usually.” Kobb sighed. “But if east-siders’ve been here for years, I fear this is more subtle. We’ll have to search. At least the ground’s boggy, so we needn’t worry about cellars and tunnels.”
“If they want us to leave, why don’t we?” Before Kobb could question Anessa’s sudden reverse, she winked. “Least far enough they can’t see us. Then we sneak in the side they ain’t expecting.”
Between all the ties of marriage and the us-against-outsiders mentality of villages, knocking in doors wouldn’t work for long anyway; and pretending to leave might make the east-siders drop their guard. “Agreed. It’ll take time though, so best hope we’re right about Tremaine wanting to keep it close.”
“Wait.” Goodie grabbed Kobb’s elbow. “Tremaine moved after Wilber, that’s his dad’s accident. Built a new house when the old man passed on.”
“And that was when the east-siders drew in?”
“No. They were always odd. Wilber falling in the ravine just changed which of ’em does the ruling. Although, Wilber’s death were the start of them not calling on me to lay out the dead.”
Simple murder or the shift into something else? “Anything unusual about the place he fell?”
“Ain’t ever been.” Anessa blinked. “Nothing worth hunting around there.”
“Could be a reason for that.” Kobb picked up his saddlebags. “Lambart packs while the two of us head out the gate, swing into the forest to this ravine, then sneak back in if we don’t find the source.”
Lambart grabbed his daughter’s shoulders and pulled her close. “You be safe, now, Nessy. First sign of—”
Anessa broke free. “Don’t get weepy. I’ll see you soon as we’ve sorted this.”
“It’s… since your mother… You keep her safe, Reverend. Promise me that.”
Before Kobb could respond, Goodie poked Lambart in the arm. “Don’t you go asking Reverend for promises. You want her safe, give those east-siders something to keep their beady eyes busy.” She turned to Kobb and nodded once.
Kobb inclined his head to her before striding out and settling his saddlebags onto Falcon. Without a brim to repel it, the rain had already annexed his neck. Pretending to pay no mind to the nearby villagers, he called back into the shop. “We’ll head on and set camp. Only bring what you can carry.”
Face a mixture of fear and determination, Lambart leaned out the doorway. “I’ll borrow Harlan’s hand cart. It’s you should be getting on. Get my daughter out of here.”
Kobb forced himself not to smile. Lambart pitched his voice loud enough to cross the street. He might not be a mighty hero, but he could sell a story.
Grabbing up Falcon’s reins, Kobb headed for the south gate. Anessa stomped at his side, shoulders up and jaw set. With luck, people would take it for anger at having to leave.
Fortunately, the rain worsened as they left the village behind. Sneaking through the forest was unpleasant, but the closing gloom helped hide them and reduce the chance anyone else was out. Soaked and tired from struggling through mud and undergrowth, they reached the ravine without incident.
After resting Falcon’s reins over a nearby branch, Kobb gestured for Anessa to lead the way. The gloom of the day drew in as they crept between the mossy rock walls, giving everything a leaden cast.
“Dead end. He must have landed back aways.” Anessa turned the way they came. “We missed it in the rain.”
“Dad said he got to close to the edge and slipped. Hillside crumbles in places. ’Nother good reason not to go in this bit of the forest.”
Kobb peered up. “A reason not to—? That makes sense. Someone falls, you don’t stay away from where they landed; you stay away from where they fell. We need to be up there.”
Anessa studied the ravine walls for a moment. “We go round. Uses up time, but less likely to fall.”
Clambering up what Anessa declared a safe slope was enough to leave him gasping on a good day; after a morning of forcing his way through the sodden undergrowth, Kobb’s lungs plain refused to keep time. Black spots fighting the weather for which could obscure his vision the most, he half-collapsed on the false crest.
Anessa crouched next to him. “Something’s off. No sign of felling.”
“If it’s… not safe…”
“Aycock must have been up here for a reason. And not just him. Over there.”
Spasms passing, Kobb eased himself up. Trees. Undergrowth. “I don’t—”
“Someone’s trimmed those trees.”
Now he knew what to look for, he saw it. The overlapping tangle of branches started at six feet up. He’d thought that was how these trees grew, but there were small stumps on the trunks; too many to have broken off naturally. The undergrowth filled it now; someone kept a path clear at some point, though. “Good eyes. If anyone’s there, they’d have heard me climbing, so let’s not waste time.”
Courser and rapier in hands, Kobb staggered along the remains of the track. A few yards further on, the going improved as the brambles thinned, replaced with flaccid bracken. Soon after, they emerged into an overhung clearing. In the centre, a stump jutted through the gloom.
“Cut wood?” Anessa’s brow furrowed. “How’d you even get the trunk out?”
Kobb looked around. The lower limbs weren’t cut away on the other trees, so this must be where the path ended. The overhanging branches and close sides suggested a rude temple. Yet, no foul miasmas mixed with the stench of rotten bracken and the darkness was only that of dense woodland in bad weather. If the source of the evil was here, it rested.
“This stump’s thinner than the others.” Anessa gestured at the massive trunks looming around them. “There still ain’t space for a tree though. They must’ve cut it down before this all grew. But that’d be…”
Kobb joined her in the centre. “How long have Korha been only myths? How old is the stone circle? Seems Wilber Aycock kept this place open, doesn’t mean he made it.” He studied the stump. The top was almost flat; but sloped on the edges, and the wood changed colour. “You know enough about felling to say what did that?”
Anessa crouched down. “Top looks fresher, and… don’t reckon this were done with an axe.”
Kobb huffed in resignation. The tree had been carved into an icon or statue but someone had cut it away. “Axe’d be fastest. Only reason you wouldn’t, is to avoid damaging it. Tremaine wanted to keep it close badly enough he sawed it free.”
“Least we know we’re looking for a wooden thing.” Anessa rose to her feet. “I’ve been think though. Wilber’s house is still there, empty. What if Tremaine built a new one so he could use his dad’s for whatever he’s up to?”
Kobb grimaced. Hiding a temple by building a house around it made sense, but so did using an empty property. If the old one was abandoned, it would be easier to search without interruption. But, even if the weather kept all the east-siders inside so the two of them didn’t have to sneak, there wasn’t time to be wrong.