Previously on Seven Stones: More of the flying creatures leave the island, but ignore Kobb and Anessa. After several failed attempts, Anessa manages to rescue the man from the lake. However, he dies before revealing what the monsters are, or what they want, his last words “Tell family. Karek…” As Kobb and Anessa check themselves for any splashes of the poisonous water, a group of armed men approach.
Anessa unslung her crossbow. Now the men were closer, she realised some were her age. Seven armed people posed a real threat, though, whatever their ages. Each held a sword, which suggested they weren’t possessed villagers; but none wore a uniform, so they might be brigands. And having the crossbow to hand’d make all the difference if the creatures returned anyway.
Weapons part way between carried and brandished, the new arrivals spread out into a row.
“Fair day.” Kobb called out, keeping his Courser lowered but not holstering it.
The line drew to a halt several yards away. After considering them both for a moment, the man in the centre rested his blade over one shoulder. “Foul place for travellers. Where are you headed? And what business have you?”
Anessa stepped forward, crossbow lowered. Given how most of Morth had reacted to Kobb, it didn’t seem sensible to share the whole story straight away. She pointed past them. “We’re headed that way with a message from Karek.”
“Karek, eh?” The leader swept his arm down. “For Anserth!”
The men charged, the same cry on their lips.
Anessa swallowed hard. Hesitation had cost too much in Morth. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Purple-lit silence silenced the shouts as Kobb shot two down.
She fired from the hip. Her bolt caught another attacker in the throat, laying him flat.
Two of the remaining four, both youths, ran toward her, weapons raised. She dropped her crossbow and drew her sword.
Her attackers split, one sprinting in from each side.
Stepping right, she swung at the closest target.
But he twisted at the waist, letting her blade sweep past. His companion lunged at the same time.
Anessa bent her right leg and threw her weight forwards, dropping below the thrust, then rising up into a crouch.
The two assailants closed before she regained her feet.
With their swords sweeping in from both sides, she rolled the only way she could: backwards. The blades whistled past without finding her, but the shore was nothing like the barn at home, and she was no longer a girl of six. Her blade somehow caught her left ankle, throwing her off balance and leaving her sprawled on the shore.
Grinning, the two men raised their weapons.
Blade swinging right, Anessa hurled a fistful of mud and grass at the man on her left.
Instinct turned his swing to a dodge. Pain juddered down her arm as her sword blocked the other attack.
Clutching his shoulder, her right-hand attacker reeled.
For a moment, neither of them swung at her. She tucked her legs and rolled.
The left-hand youth stabbed down a breath too late.
Anessa’s leg snapped straight.
Already bent, her attacker folded completely as her boot struck him in the groin.
With his collapsing body blocking his companion’s advance, Anessa managed to clamber to her feet before the next attack.
Metal rang harshly as the two of them exchanged flailing blows.
Moment by moment, the aches in her arm and shoulder increased and her speed decreased. But her opponent’s swings were even slower and wider. After swaying away from another sweep, she stepped forward before the youth recovered.
Only to feel something hit her ankle.
Her other opponent, face pale, had uncurled enough to act. At full extension and still half-mazed with pain, his blow lacked force. But it did distract her.
Given a moment to recover, the standing youth lunged.
She twisted, his blade passing her. But he continued forward, chest smashing into her right side.
Off balance, she tumbled over. A jolt ran through her as she hit the ground, bouncing her weapon out of her hand.
Sword gripped in both hands, her assailant braced himself over her.
His heaving breaths fell silent as purple light wrapped around him.
More out of instinct than thought, Anessa angled her arms up, shoving her dead opponent away. Rising, she snatched up the nearest weapon and flicked her gaze back and forth.
Kobb, dark spittle trailing from his lips, sagged over bodies of his opponents.
Anessa’s remaining attacker rose to his feet, breathing ragged but sword rigid before him. She gritted her teeth. No hesitation. She raised her blade and advanced. “Drop it.”
Wordless cry on his lips, the youth lifted his weapon above his head and ran at her.
Without thinking, she lunged. His blade tumbled away as hers sank into his gut.
He fell forward, tearing the weapon out of Anessa’s hand—but not before his weight drove it deeper.
The blade in his stomach propping him up, he slumped on his side. Sweat congealed across his brow as his fingers flapped against the hilt. He drew a gurgling breath. “You’ll never… win, sorcerer bitch. We’ll…”
Anessa fell to her knees beside him. “Sorcerer? We’re not sorcerers.”
But he was beyond hearing.
Had she made a horrible mistake? But the men attacked. What if… But… Even if he was an enemy, she couldn’t leave the sword in his gut. She eased him onto his back and grabbed the hilt. For a moment, the blade seemed part of him, then it slide free with a sucking sound.
Hot bile and half-digested oats flooded her mouth as she collapsed to her knees again.
“Anessa.” Kobb’s arm wrapped around her. His other hand held out a crumpled kerchief.
“I stabbed him. He were only young, and I killed him.”
Kobb eased her to her feet. After dabbing vomit from her face, he fixed his gaze on hers. “This won’t remove the pain. But they attacked us. And he could have put his blade up, offered surrender. But he didn’t. If you’d turned your back, he’d have gone for you.”
A cold void swallowing the mere emptiness of her stomach, she forced herself to stay upright. “How do you keep going?”
“Each morning, you remind yourself that this is why you try everything else first. And each evening, you remind yourself it means you still know right and wrong.”
Anessa rested her fingers on his pendant. “Doesn’t the Maker…?”
“There are answers in the Book of Blessings. But now is not the time for them.”
She frowned. What kind of priest was he? Wasn’t he supposed to tell what the book told her to do? What use was he if it didn’t give the—
“Feeling angry, yet?” said Kobb.
“Angry! Of course I’m—”
“Pain’s gone then?”
Her response caught in her throat. Shoulders rounding, she looked at the dead boy at her feet.
“Problem’s not getting rid of the pain. Problem’s how easy it is.” He drew her close. “Sorry for doing it. But it’s a lesson you have to feel.”
She forced down a sob. “Still my fault they attacked. Thought they were Karek’s friends. Thought it’d win ’em over.”
“And it could have. Hating sorcerers doesn’t mean they’re not bad. Maybe there’s more than two sides to this problem. Or maybe Karek wasn’t his name and he tried to say ‘Karek killed me’. The answers are the way they came. But first, you need to clean your weapons.”