Previously on Seven Stones: Plagued by dreams of a looming threat, Reverend Absolution Kobb has travelled to the forests of the far north. While staying overnight in a village inn, two youths attack him in his bed. He drives them off, but is awakened next morning by accusations of assault…
Anessa rested her right hand on the butt of her slung crossbow, and drifted behind the crowd, keeping one eye on Whistler Duffin. Stubby fingers loosely clasped over his filthy apron, the innkeeper seemed have settled in until the entertainment was over.
Tremaine Aycock and his equally creepy son, dragged Kobb out of the inn. The crowd shifted forward slightly. Seeing her chance, Anessa sprinted for the side of the inn. Pressing herself against the rough wood, she tried the kitchen door. As usual, Duffin had been too lazy to set the bolt.
Treating the filthy boards like untested undergrowth she slid across the room and peered into the tap room. Aycock’s ranting echoed through the open door, but there was no one in sight. She crept along the bar to the cash chest. A padlock, spattered with rust and other substances, lay beside it.
She gripped the lid and lifted. It creaked open, releasing a draft of stale air. Freezing in place, she strained her ears. Aycock’s shouting continued without pause.
Crouching lower, she peered into the chest. A bundle of cloth with a sword hilt sticking out one end lay next to handfuls of hunks and the bone chips some villagers used in their place. She raised the edge of the cloth.
The weave felt greasy on her fingers. Kobb’s sword and an object of crystal, sweeping metal, and carved wood, shaped like a crossbow without the arms, lay within. Remembering how nervous the sight of Kobb had made her father, and how he refused to explain, she pulled on her gloves before lifting them out of the chest. Resisting the urge to inspect them, she slid them to the sack of food that she had throw together while her father was opening up.
She paused and then added a few strips to the sack. Duffin might not have been part of the plan, but he had let it happen, so Kobb deserved a refund. Easing the chest closed, she crept out the kitchen door and around the back of the inn.
The smell of rotting straw hit her as she slipped into the stable. An immense black horse, looming over the shattered remains of a trough, stared at her. Studying its shoulders for warning of an attack, she backed out of the stable.
Once outside, she exchanged the sack for her crossbow and headed for the front of the inn.
“This man laid hands on my son,” shouted Aycock. “If it weren’t for Duffin’s forethought, he would have killed us all.”
Anessa dropped to a crouch as Aycock turned back from the crowd. The angle wasn’t right. A few of the east-siders were behind him. She resisted the urge to shoot anyway.
Aycock pointed dramatically at Kobb and strode forward. “I say we hang—”
Anessa caressed the trigger. The bolt skimmed Aycock’s belt before spending itself in the front of Goodie Weaver’s house.
Aycock’s advance stuttered as the impact jolted his hip and his belt gave way.
“Ain’t fair to hang a man without a trial,” said Anessa, cranking her crossbow. “Particularly when he ain’t done nothing wrong, and you ain’t law here.”
Aycock clutched at his breeches. “You could have—”
“My Anessa’s a good shot,” Lambert Tanton called from the middle of the crowd, “but even she can’t hit something that small.”
The older man whirled around as the larger part of the crowd burst out laughing.
Kobb’s saddlebag thumped to the ground. Osraed Corless sidled away, trying to merge into the crowd of east-siders.
“We can’t let violent outsiders take over the village,” said Aycock. The east-siders nodded in support.
“I reckon Reverend Kobb was leaving anyway,” said Lambert. “Ain’t no need to stir things up.”
“Lambert’s right,” shouted Goodie Weaver. “And about leaving things be, too.” She added a gesture to make sure no one missed the joke.
Kobb stepped away from Dereck Aycock, seeming not to notice when Dereck’s grunted in pain. Sweeping his saddlebag up, Kobb strolled towards the inn door.
“Got your stuff,” said Anessa, patting a sack slung over her shoulder. She headed towards the stables. “We should get a move on, before they try something.”
Kobb tilted his head.
She held her breath. Surely he couldn’t turn her down now.
His eyes turned less flinty. “Agreed. Although, Falcon might have his own ideas.”
Finished strapping on the fragile-looking tack, Kobb leapt into the saddle and offered her a hand.
She swallowed hard. The forest was dense in places. It made sense to go on foot. But he wouldn’t let her go with him if he thought she was afraid. Watching the horse for the slightest twitch, she stepped closer and let him swing her up behind him.
The beast’s back rolled underneath her as it stomped out of the stable. She wrapped her arms tighter around Kobb.
Kobb nodded to the dispersing crowd as they jolted to the north gate, apparently unconcerned by the horse’s attempts to throw them.
Glad to replace the air of the village with the scent of trees, she tried to match Kobb’s movements. “So, where are we going?”
“Don’t know, but I will when I get there.” Kobb pulled Falcon to a halt. “There was mention you had my kit.”
Anessa unclasped her fingers from his cloak and half-tumbled to solid ground. She handed the sack up to him. “Dad heard them planning it last night. Didn’t seem right, and I didn’t want you thinking we were all… like that.” And it let him see how useful she could be. “Put the food you wanted in there too.”
The scent of fresh bread and sharp cheese that her dad would probably miss come lunch wafted up as Kobb reached in and settled his weapons in place. “Seems there’s a few strips slipped in here too.”
“Duffin slung your stuff in his chest with the money. Didn’t even lock it. Seemed right to take something for how they treated you.”
“There are Blessings enough we do not need to take from others.” Kobb dismounted and stacked the money on a rock. Pausing for a moment, he removed a strip from the pile and dropped it in a pouch. “That said, an unlocked cash box is not a safe.”
He peered at the shadows clinging to the edges of the path. “I am grateful for the company. But I got the feeling your father didn’t approve of—”
“Since Mum died, he gets a little worried when I’m out, but he don’t really mean it. And might be better to avoid Aycock for a few days anyway.”
“There’s sense in that. If Aycock’s the type to chew over a slight, we’ll head on a ways before I eat. No reason to tire Falcon though.” Taking the reins loosely, he pointed down the track. “Lead on.”
Anessa peered sideways at the horse. It seemed to be ignoring her for the moment. Keeping an ear out for changes in the sounds of small animals, she lead the way along the track.
A few miles later, she pointed out a clearing near the path. A thrush bounced across the leaf mould before flitting into a tree. “Seems a good place to take a break.”
Kobb nodded, and unslung the sack of provisions. Breaking a loaf in half he passed her a piece before doing the same with a lump of cheese.
She propped her crossbow against mossy rock on the far side from the horse and sat down. The damp ground made it hard to tell, but it smelt like the rain would hold off.
She was licking the last crumbs of cheese from her fingers when terrible howls rang out from several directions. The thrush continued its song.
She snatched up her crossbow. “Eaters! But they never come this close to the track.”
Peering around she tried to spot a target, but—although the howls became louder and more frequent—the shadows seemed too still.
And then the rain of spears began.