Chapter One – The Healer’s Ring Nov 2020
Ana brought two big plates of food from the inn’s kitchen and set them on the table in front of the travelers. When she’d been smaller, it had been hard to carry them without spilling, but she was ten now, and she’d lived at the inn for nearly three years. She’d come there when her grandmother had died, leaving Ana all alone in the world. The old woman had loved her, and the memory was a painful one. But serving food and washing dishes wasn’t too bad.
Ana came back to the table with cups and a pitcher of water, looking at the strangers curiously. There were never many outsiders passing through. Bright Springs was a small village nestled into a little valley. It wasn’t on the way to anywhere, but a few stubborn people lived and farmed there. The springs the village was named for provided enough water for people and livestock, but though the water was clear and clean, there wasn’t enough of it to irrigate the fields. Most seasons the rains were frequent enough to keep the crops growing. When occasional dry spells came, times were hard. Some people left. But the most stubborn of them remained, and the tiny peaceful town survived.
The innkeeper, Fergen, ran a little inn where travelers could find a clean bed and a hot meal. He was kind, and he’d taken Ana in. His wife was dead, and his own children grown and married. Fergen continued to run the inn with the help of the cook, Tari. She was very skilled, and Fergen always tried to keep her happy because her talent brought people to his house that wouldn’t have come otherwise. And Ana helped wait on tables, wash dishes and clean.
When Ana set the cups on the table, the two men were already enjoying Tari’s work. Ana could tell they were both hungry. These two didn’t look like farmers. They were dressed in worn, travel-stained clothes, and they each had a pack. And they were armed; one of them even wore a sword, which was shocking for a tiny farming village. They were definitely not farmers.
One of them looked very young, still a boy, but he had a pleasant, honest face. He smiled at her and she liked him immediately. His blond hair was untrimmed and unruly. He hadn’t shaved for a long time. But wherever they were going, he appeared to be enjoying the journey.
The other man, the one with the sword, was older, and he looked more serious, but he still smiled at her as she poured him a cup of water.
“Thank you,” he said.
She nodded in response but didn’t speak.
“The food is great,” the younger one said swallowing a bite. “Will you give the cook our thanks?”
She nodded again.
“I’m Zarek,” the boy said. He pointed to his friend. “This is Dane. We’ve traveled a long way, but we’re on our way back to Sarine. Will you tell us your name?”
He smiled again, and she liked the way his gray eyes smiled too. She did not like to speak to anyone she didn’t know. She did her work in silence most of the time. But the boy had asked, and he was still looking at her, waiting for a reply.
“Ana,” she said, and hurried back into the kitchen without giving them a chance to ask her anything else. She didn’t go back out until it was time to clear the plates. She went back warily, trying to think of ways to avoid their questions. The older man gave her a coin to pay for their dinner, and she pocketed it and began to gather the plates.
She saw it then.
They were both staring at her hand. Her left hand. She wore a bandage around her third finger, not because of an injury, but to hide the ring. And they were staring right at it. Her stomach tightened. She had to get away from here.
Ana took the dirty dishes and fled, without meeting their eyes. She put the dishes in the washtub, and said to Tari, “I’ll be right back.”
Without waiting for an answer, she ran out the back door and across the open yard to a patch of woods that grew on the hillside. She hurried up the hill until she came to her favorite tree, a huge spreading oak with wide branches. She climbed the tree to her spot and curled up, out of sight between the branches.
This was bad. Grandmother had warned her to keep the ring a secret. No one else in the whole village had jewelry, except Fergen’s wife before she died. She’d had a beautiful broach. Fergen still kept it, and he’d shown it to Ana once. It had been brightly polished, with a sparkling gem in the middle. Ana’s ring sparkled too, when the light fell on the green stone in the center. It was very beautiful. But it was part of her secret, and Grandmother had warned her on her deathbed, never to tell anyone.
Those two men knew something about the secret. They must. Otherwise, why would they have been looking at her hand like that?
Grandmother hadn’t really told her much. She’d said that Ana’s mother had been named Allia. And that Ana had a secret name, her real name, given to her by her mother, and no one was allowed to know it. Cirana. It was a beautiful name. It sounded like it belonged to a fine lady who rode in a carriage or upon a white horse, dressed in silk and velvet, and the ring wouldn’t be noticed among all the other jewels she wore. “A soldier came one night, in the middle of a terrible storm,” her grandmother had said. “He was carrying a baby. You, Ana. He said there was something terrible chasing him. He begged me to take you and run. The ring was already on your finger then. I took you, and we ran.”
“Then you aren’t really my grandmother?” Ana had asked her.
The old woman had smiled faintly. “My dear, I love you with all my heart. Nothing else matters right now. I will always be your grandmother.”
Ana had hugged her and cried. “No, no it doesn’t matter. I love you too. Please don’t leave me.”
“Remember what I said. Don’t tell anyone. Keep yourself safe. I love you, Ana.”
Ana had clung to the dear sweet old woman until she was gone. The villagers had been kind to her, and helped her, and Tari the cook had taken her back to the inn.
Ana still missed her. Especially today. She wanted to ask a hundred questions about the ring and the soldier. Did she know anything else about where Ana had come from? But her grandmother was gone, and Ana was alone, hiding in the branches of an oak tree.
Ana heard them coming, even though they walked softly in the woods. If she hadn’t been listening hard, she might not have noticed. She stayed still, silent. It was too late to run again. From her hiding place, she couldn’t see the two strangers, but they had to know something about her secrets or they wouldn’t have followed her. Her grandmother had warned her never to tell anyone because it was dangerous. If these men already knew, did that mean they were the ones pursuing her?
She curled tightly into a ball, hidden among the tree branches. Their footsteps went all around the tree. She held her breath and remained perfectly silent.
“Look at this,” one of them said. He sounded horrified. She heard quick footsteps as the other man went to him.
It didn’t sound like they meant her. They had found something else. What could it be?
“They’re everywhere,” the other man said, sounding just as upset as his friend. “We have to do something now.”
Ana raised her head and sneaked a look down between the branches. They were kneeling, staring at something on the ground. She hadn’t seen anything when she came. What could they be looking at? They moved slowly examining the ground.
Tracks, she realized.
Maybe it wasn’t these two men who were following her.
“They’re all around here. Several of them. This is where she ran. She must come here often. They know where she is.”
Ana’s stomach clenched, and she felt like she couldn’t breathe.
Something was tracking her. Something that made these two men afraid. They were big, tall men who looked strong and capable and they had big sharp weapons. What could frighten them?
“Ana?” the younger man called up. “Will you come down?”
There was no real point in hiding anymore. She was still frightened of them, but her reason told her they weren’t the source of the danger. She was very perceptive, and she didn’t feel that either of them wished to harm her. Especially not the younger one. He said his name was Zarek. She liked his smile.
She uncurled a little.
“I’m coming up,” Zarek said. He appeared, climbing easily through the branches. She sat up slowly and looked at him. He sat down astride a big limb opposite her.
“You’re afraid,” he observed.
He looked directly into her eyes. “Do you know that something dangerous is searching for you?”
This was part of the secret, and one of the things that Grandmother had warned her never to tell. But she had been given no advice for a time when someone already knew. Zarek’s gray eyes held hers. She nodded again.
“Ana,” he said, “We came to help you. The Emperor of Sarine sent us to find you and to protect you from the danger. It’s our job to help you. We will do everything we can to keep you safe. Do you believe me?”
She could feel that he meant what he said. But sometimes grown-ups lied to children. Zarek still looked like a boy, but maybe he was grown up enough to tell her what he wanted to tell her.
But she wanted so badly to believe him. She could sense that he genuinely did want to help her. And it was lonely having secrets, and knowing that danger was following her. She had no idea where to go or how to escape.
“Will you trust me?” Zarek asked. “I promise I will do everything I can to help.”
She nodded, her decision made. She would trust him.
They got down. Zarek was a good climber. He could have made it much higher in the tree. He was strong and he had a long reach. But he was too old to play in trees. He had seemed grown up and deadly serious when he made his promise.
The other man was kneeling on the ground still reading the tracks. “They’re fresh,” he said. “Probably last night. They’re close, and it’s getting dark. We have to get everyone indoors. Now.”
Zarek looked at Ana. “We have to go back now. Quickly. Will you come?”
It was getting dark fast. Ana had been outside at night frequently, but she’d never felt the tingle along the back of her neck, or the lingering sense of unease that she felt now. She almost had to run to keep up with Zarek’s long stride. The sunset had faded now, and the first stars shone out.
They had just reached the back door of the inn, when they heard a man’s scream from the edge of the woods at the other end of the village.
“Get inside!” Dane ordered. “Bar the door.”
Tari was in the kitchen. She’d obviously heard the scream, and Ana ran to her and they clung to each other. Fergen came bursting into the kitchen from the main room. “What was that?”
“We’re all in danger,” Zarek said. “Stay here. Bar the doors and cover the windows. We’ll do what we can to help.” He ran out the door and disappeared into the darkness.
Fergen shuttered all the windows and barred the front door. Several people came to the back door and Tari let them in and secured the door behind them. It was quiet for a few moments. No one moved or spoke. Ana began to hear sounds outside. Another scream, and what sounded like fighting. The sounds terrified her, and she clung to Tari even more tightly.
A sudden banging on the door made them all jump. From outside, Zarek yelled, “Let us in!”
They opened the door and several people burst into the kitchen. Zarek shut the door quickly behind them. Ana saw his eyes search the room, looking for her. He was checking to make sure she was here and safe. She could sense his relief as he saw her. It made her feel important and that felt good. She’d been alone in the world for a long time.
Zarek went through the whole building, checking all the doors and windows. Where was his friend? The sense of wrongness increased. Ana felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle.
Then she heard voices.
At first they were only whispering with no distinct words. Ana shivered. The voices grew louder. She couldn’t understand what they said, but the sound crept into her mind like a disease, threatening to attack her sanity. She covered her ears with her hands.
Something outside tested the door, and even with her ears covered, Ana could hear it searching the walls, hunting for a way inside. Then a blow came at the door. It held. Something outside shrieked in frustration.
Zarek came back and stood beside Ana. He had his hand on the hilt of his dagger. Other sounds came from outside, terrified voices and running feet. Someone was out there. The voices cried for help, but something outside the door shrieked, this time in triumph. Ana heard the people cry out in terror and then scream.
She could feel it.
She could sense the pain. She felt slashes from razor sharp claws, the agony of torn flesh. She sank to her knees. Zarek bent down beside her and gripped her shoulders. “You know what they feel,” he said.
He knew. How could he know that she could sense when other people were in pain? It had been that way all her life. Only recently had she realized that it was not that way for everyone.
The pain was overwhelming. She clenched her teeth to stop herself from crying out.
Suddenly the pain was gone.
Ana took a deep breath, then another. Slowly she got back to her feet.
More blows came at the door, and more shrieking. The door creaked and groaned. Would it keep them out? They were looking for her. This was the terrible thing that was hunting her. This was what must have been chasing the soldier who gave her to her grandmother. It was Ana’s blood they wanted. She had to do something. She looked up at Zarek. “If I go out there, will they take me and leave everyone else alone?”
“You can’t do it, Ana,” he said firmly. “You can’t let them get the ring. If you do, many more people will die.”
But people were dying right now! It was unbearable. She took a step toward the door.
Zarek held her back.
The attack against the door redoubled. They heard blows from all around the building now. They heard the sounds of breaking wood and shattering glass from the front of the building. Abruptly, the assault on the back door ceased.
Zarek looked down at her. “Now!” he said, “Get ready to run.”
He threw down the bar and burst out the door, drawing his knife. The blade glowed faintly green in the darkness. A tall black shape guarded the door. Zarek attacked it with his knife. It screamed and tried to claw at them, but they dodged the blow and Zarek struck at it, driving his blade into it until it fell and didn’t move.
“Run!” Zarek cried, taking her hand. They ran.
They headed away from the village stumbling over the uneven ground in the faint moonlight. Zarek led them toward the river. Why would he go that way? There was no way down from here. The water flowed through a deep cleft in the land, and the sides were sheer. They were going to be trapped against the cliff edge. The black things were behind them now, following from the village. Ana was already running as fast as she could. It didn’t seem fast enough. Zarek paused, and bent down. “Hold on to my back,” he said. She obeyed, and he began to run again. He was fast, much faster than her.
For a few moments he widened the gap between them and their pursuers. But he was coming to the edge of the canyon. He stopped and looked over the edge, giving Ana a terrifying glimpse into a black chasm with a silver ribbon of a river at the bottom. Zarek turned and followed the cliff edge downstream. The black things short cut across the angle. They were gaining fast. They were going to catch up.
She heard them clearly now. And she couldn’t let go of Zarek to cover her ears. They came closer. Their horrible voices sounded triumphant. They were about to get what they were looking for. Ana looked back. The black claws were near, reaching out for her. Suddenly Zarek put on a last burst of speed and jumped.
Ana screamed. They were falling. The water struck them like a solid wall. That was the last thing she remembered.