Previously on Seven Stones: Kobb comes up with a plan to wedge enough wreckage around the possessed boar to hold it in place. But as Haelen trepans it, it manages to gore him. After killing the strange insect, Kobb and Anessa release the animal. Despite his injury, Haelen demands they head north immediately.
Kobb closed the straps on his pack. “Best plan is travel parallel to the broken trees. Not guaranteed, but possessed creatures wouldn’t use a harder route without reason, so less chance of trouble. If we don’t find their lair by early afternoon, we stop until morning.”
Haelen sat up, weight resting on his left arm. “No need to—”
“Nothing to do with your injury, Haelen. Biggest weapon we’ve got is the sun. Don’t want to stumble on them as we lose the light.” Although, giving him more time to rest was an added Blessing.
Anessa dropped the scoured pot into her pack. “Problem is, once we’re in the trees, we can’t dodge so well, so if we do meet anything… I say we go slower to so we’re quiet. Best not talk unless we need to, neither.”
Kobb and Haelen nodded, probably for the same two reasons.
Tense against the expected threat, Kobb oscillated between pulling his hat down hard and letting the chill bite at his ears. But midday passed with nothing other than shattered pines to indicate they weren’t travelling into untouched lands.
Although the bloodstain on Haelen’s tunic formed a constant reminder of the risk, he kept pace without complaint. A worryingly short distance later, Anessa signalled a possible campsite under a tree. Bowed beneath the weight of snow, its branches touched the ground. And inside, the litter remained dry, close-packed needles holding back the snow.
Sheltered from the wind, they were spared the worst of the cold. Unwilling to risk the light of a fire, they still passed the night huddled together.
Next morning, after forcing down a paste of snow and oats, they headed on. The exposed areas of Haelen’s face looked as pale as the drifts. But an argument about him turning back risked making things worse—whether or not Kobb won.
Soon, a second stretch of tangled and shattered branches emerged from the gloom on the other side of their path. If the boar runs converged, they must be close. Anessa slowed further, clearly having the same thought.
Short of midday, the ground sloped up. After creeping to the top of the rise, Anessa held up her hand and slipped back. Gesturing for them to hold their heads together, she leaned in so close Kobb felt her lips brush his ear. “Something tall through the trees.”
Kobb pointed around the group, then held his hand at waist level. Moving it slowly up and out he flattened it as it reached shoulder height. The others nodded and followed him to the base of the slope.
Moving from a crouch to a crawl as he approached the crest, Kobb slid forward until he peered between two trees. The forest thinned ahead, opening out into another clearing a few hundred metres on. Beyond the tree line, something tall and conical glinted in the sun.
As they sneaked closer, the air carried the scents of wood smoke and hot metal. Regular whooshes coincided with brief bursts of dull orange light. Standing out against the smoothness of the cone, a crude scaffold ran up one side to a circular opening.
Closer still, Kobb realised people staggered around the clearing, pushing small carts. A few wore leathers, but most only tattered rags. From their relative speeds, the workers took the contents to what he assumed was a smelter, then returned north to gather another load.
After watching until one of the people completed a full circuit, he signalled a retreat. Once they were crouched behind a massive trunk, Kobb leaned in. “Looks like the creatures attacked the village to get workers. The reason for the work’s in that tower. So, that’s where we need to go.”
“We have to rescue the villagers, too,” Anessa breathed.
“And we will,” said Kobb. “After we work out what’s going on.”
Haelen frowned. “Stopping the insect’s plan’s more important. But, don’t reckon we can sneak through all those people. Looked like weren’t that many pushing carts. If we snatch them from the clearing one at a time, trepanning wouldn’t need long.”
Kobb brushed his pendant. If the cone was full of insects, they couldn’t risk being noticed. Which made leaving all the villagers as much of a risk as being seen rescuing them. “I’ll try capturing one. If I can do it without getting caught, we’ll decide whether to rescue more or sneak past.”
Anessa pointed at her chest and shrugged.
Kobb shook his head. “No question, you’re quietest. But grabbing someone silently takes practice.”
After a moment, Anessa nodded.
Stopping to reassess the cover each time, Kobb scuttled between trees until he reached the edge of the clearing. Moments later, a young woman shuffled past toward the smelter. Kobb rose up behind her. Slapping his left hand over her mouth, he wrapped his right arm around her waist and yanked backwards.
Arms flailing, his prisoner staggered with him towards the tree line.
Kobb shifted his grip. Her feet scuffed as he dragged her into the pines, but only slowed his progress. As Kobb inched away from the clearing, a man shuffled around the cone. Even if Kobb stayed motionless, his wriggling burden would stand out.
Hoping the bone weakness was confined to their heads, Kobb hurled them to the ground then rolled until he was on top. The woman bucked beneath him. Bearing down with all four limbs and his head, he held her deep enough into the snowy carpet of needles to muffle her struggles.
The man tilted his head. Shuffle turning to a swaying walk, he approached the woman’s abandoned cart.