New Book 2nd Chapter

The Healer’s Ring – Chapter Two Nov 2020

 

Chapter Two

 

Ana

 

 

Ana floated in a peaceful place. It was dark and silent and she was no longer afraid. She didn’t have any thoughts or worries. Only rest. There was nothing here to disturb her, until something struck her hard on the back, interrupting her peace. Another blow followed the first, and she wanted to yell. With the third blow, she felt a little air get into her lungs. She wanted air, needed it. Another blow cleared her lungs further, and she began to cough. She realized she was hanging, very uncomfortably, upside down. She opened her eyes and saw a blur of river and dark rocks. She vomited river water. Someone had been holding her up, and now put her down on the river bank.

Who— What had happened?

She woke up fully. The black things had been chasing them. Her friends and neighbors, dead back at the village. Running in the dark. Zarek had jumped.

It was Zarek she heard speaking to her now, his voice anxious. “Ana! Ana, can you hear me?”

Her throat felt raw, and it was still hard to breathe. She wasn’t sure at all that she could speak. So she nodded her head.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “We have to get out of here. It won’t be long till they find our trail again.”

The black things were still chasing them. They were going to die like the rest of the people at the village.

Zarek helped her sit up. She had another violent fit of coughing, but when it passed, she could breathe more easily. He pulled her to her feet, and she began to walk. Her right leg was very sore, as well as her arm and neck on that side. It hurt to move, but it hurt even if she didn’t. She was soaked to the skin, and already shivering in the chill night air.

For a long time, she stumbled on, not even seeing or noticing where they were, just following the direction that his hand pulled her. Finally, he picked her up and carried her. She faded in and out, not aware of much until she noticed it was getting light. She realized with a rush of embarrassment that he was carrying her like a baby. 

 

Just as the sun rose, Zarek set her down. It was so good just to be still, that she dozed, shivering on the rocks. When she opened her eyes, she saw a fire burning and gratefully huddled close to the warmth. Zarek sat on the other side of the fire. He was bare to the waist and he’d hung his shirt to dry on the bushes. He had a spread a couple of wet blankets and a cloak to dry. He’d taken off his boots and was now hanging his socks. Ana saw that he wore a silver charm on a chain around his neck, but Ana she wasn’t close enough to tell what it was.

Who was he— really? Why did he know so much about her secrets? She’d never seen him before yesterday. Before…

The overwhelming reality of what had happened washed over her. Were they all gone? Her neighbors, her friends, Fergen, who had taken her in, Tari who had helped her whenever she needed something, and slipped her treats when she was baking, the other children she had played with?

She hated to speak to strangers, but after everything that had happened, Zarek wasn’t really a stranger anymore. And she had to know. “Are they all dead?” her voice sounded hoarse and rough.

Zarek looked back at her. Would he try to lie? Sometimes grown-ups didn’t want to tell children everything. He looked upset too. Where was his friend?

“I don’t know,” he said finally. “I wanted to go back and help— I felt like I had to help. People were dying.”

Ana looked into his eyes. She could sense his pain now. He had wanted to help. He wanted to save the people in danger, to protect them. He felt so guilty. Instead of going back to help, he had taken her, and they had run away.

Ana had been forced to trust him. But Zarek’s feelings made her trust him more. He had cared about his friend Dane. And he’d cared about the villagers, strangers to him. But most of all he had wanted her to be safe. And he had saved her life. If he wanted to harm her, he’d had every chance. He could have left her behind and saved himself. But he hadn’t. And she could tell how much pain his choice had caused him, and she wanted to comfort him.

“If you had gone back, you would have died too.” She said the words slowly and clearly. He needed to understand that it wasn’t his fault.

He rubbed his hands over his face, and looked at her. “I know how to fight,” he said. “But I can’t fight them. Not all of them at once. There were too many. I had to leave the other people in order to save you. The Emperor sent me to save you.”

“You wanted to help Dane too.” She knew this was the thing that bothered him most. Dane had been his friend for many years, and his only companion on this journey. He looked up to Dane, and he felt he had betrayed him.

Zarek was crying now. The pain inside him was desperate for an outlet. He put his head down onto his crossed arms, and she could see his shoulders shaking.

“There was nothing else you could do,” Ana said.

“Dane was a good man, and he was my friend, and I left him back there to die!” Zarek exclaimed. “After all he’s done for me. I don’t ever want to be the one who has to decide who lives and who dies!”

Ana thought again of Tari, who had always been so kind to her. Was she even now, lying on the floor, torn to pieces? “I left them too,” Ana said.

“How could we do it?”

“Because— even if we had gone back, we couldn’t have helped them.”

Neither of them spoke for a long time. They sat huddled close to a fire on a stony riverbank.

Finally Ana asked, “What are we going to do?”

She had lost the only home she remembered, and everyone she knew. And the black things were still following them.

Zarek rubbed his face and took a deep breath. “We’re going on. The least we can do is make sure they didn’t die for nothing.” His voice sounded determined now. “If we can get over the border into Sarine before they catch us, we’ll be all right. It’s the only place that’s safe from the demons.

Demons. Was that what the black things were? “Aren’t they still chasing us now?”

Zarek shook his head. “They don’t move in daylight.”

She let out a long breath of relief. If they could get ahead of the demons in the daytime, maybe they wouldn’t catch them at night.

Zarek said, “I know a little about them. I know they’re tracking you, and I know they avoid water. And they’re fast. Deadly. And they never get tired. Ordinary weapons don’t hurt them. I wasn’t sure if even this would.” He patted the hilt of his dagger. “The Emperor gave it to me to protect me. And it worked, last night. We wouldn’t have gotten away without it. This blade was made by a wizard before he died. The Wizard, Zarekathus. He founded the Empire of Sarine. My mother named me after him.”

Ana had never heard of a wizard before. But it made sense that magic was involved. There was nothing natural about any of the things that had happened. She remembered the big black shape that had been guarding the door. Zarek was right. They never would have escaped without the wizard’s knife.

“Here,” he tossed her a shirt which was nearly dry. “Put this on, and hang your clothes to dry. I’ll find us something to eat.” He pulled his shirt over his head, and put on his boots. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

He disappeared into the rocks and brush. Ana felt a surge of fear when he had gone. The high rocky canyon walls loomed above her. She was alone, lost, hungry, wet and cold, and being pursued by a group of deadly hunters who couldn’t be harmed. She was going to die. She took a deep breath and tried to calm her fears.

She looked around. There was nothing threatening her now. When night fell, they would come again, but now, in the meantime, she might as well get warm and dry. She undressed and pulled Zarek’s spare shirt over her head. It came down past her knees, and she had to roll the sleeves a long way to expose her hands. She spread her wet clothes to dry and sat back down by the fire. Her head sank down into her arms. Now that she had nothing to do but wait, her mind went back to everything that had happened.

How had all of this started? She lifted her hand and looked at the ring. The bandage she usually wore to hide it had been lost in the river. The sun was just rising and the bright light penetrated the clear depths of the green stone. What was it? How had she come to have it? Zarek had told her that his knife was made by a wizard. Maybe the ring had been too. People in Bright Springs spoke of magic as if it were far away and long ago. She’d never actually believed that it was real, in spite of the ring which was stuck to her finger like part of her hand. She couldn’t take it off. And it always fit, never too tight, even though she knew she’d grown. The possibility of magic seemed nearer now. She’d seen demons and an enchanted blade that could stop them when nothing else could.

But why were the demons chasing her? Why, out of all the people in the world? She was a small, ordinary person. There was nothing at all remarkable about her except the ring. What could the demons possibly want from her? They had come a long way, and been searching for a long time, both the demons, and Zarek and Dane. She needed to know why.

So, when Zarek came back, she asked him.

“Why do they want me?”

He stared back at her for a moment. Then he sat down by the fire and began to skin the hare he had brought back. “The demons serve the King of Ara.”

She sucked in a quick breath. Nothing she’d ever heard about Ara had been good. The people from her village spoke of the Kingdom of Ara in hushed tones. Rumors claimed that the King of Ara was a sorcerer. When she was little, the older children in the village had loved to frighten her with stories of his dark magic, and the terrible things that happened to his enemies. But as she’d grown older she hadn’t believed them. But there were still stories told by adults. They said the King was expanding his territory quickly. Other lands that bordered Ara were being forced under his rule. Whether he used dark magic or not, everyone was afraid of him.

“They used to tell me stories. Is it true the King of Ara is a sorcerer?”

“I don’t know for sure,” Zarek admitted. “But he must know dark magic or he wouldn’t have demons as his servants. Either way, he’s very dangerous, and he wants to destroy Sarine. He hates Emperor Callonen. They were brothers once, before Ara was a kingdom, and before there were demons. Now they are enemies.”

“Is Emperor Callonen a sorcerer too?” Ana asked.

“No,” Zarek said, “But there is magic in his blood. He inherited it from his father. The Empire of Sarine was founded by the old Emperor, Caldoreth, and his friend Zarekathus. The wizard cast a remarkable spell that created a border around Sarine, invisible to the eye, but powerful. It’s called the Warding. Within the boundary, the Emperor knows everything that everyone does. He can read the hearts and intentions of the people and know if they have done bad things.”

Ana had never heard of anything like that before. It sounded strange, disturbing even. This man knew everything that everyone did? She waited impatiently for Zarek to go on. His hands were quick and skillful as he finished preparing the hare, and put it over the fire to roast.

“I’m not sure why,” he went on, scrubbing his hands at the edge of the river, “but the demons can’t cross the Warding. So if we can get past the border, we’ll be safe.”

“Is it a long way?” Ana asked.

He looked uncomfortable, and rubbed his wet hands against his pants. “It’s still a long way,” he admitted.

“But you know the way?” she asked. For as long as she could remember, she’d lived in that little valley and never worried very much about the rest of the world. Now she had no idea where to go.

“I know the way,” he said firmly.

“You haven’t told me why they’re chasing me,” she reminded him.

“It’s because they want the ring. Somehow, the King of Ara poisoned Emperor Callonen. He’s very sick. But I know he’s still alive because the demons are chasing us. If he dies, they will go to Sarine and destroy it.”

Ana felt her stomach twist. “It would be like— back there? They would break in the doors and windows, and the people would try to fight or run away and it wouldn’t do any good? The demons would kill them.”

“Yes,” Zarek said. “And I can’t let that happen.”

“How could the ring help?”

“You don’t know what it does, do you?”

What it did? She shook her head.

“The ring can heal any injury.”

She stared back at him in shock. “What? How?” Then her eyes widened. “Do you mean that back there, any of our friends that had been hurt, I could have saved their lives?”

He shook his head. “No. The demons would have caught us too. You could only heal one person at a time. It would be several days before you could do it again.”

“How do you know this?”

“When I was a little boy, back in Sarine, there was a young woman who had the ring. Her name was Allia.”

Ana gasped. Zarek knew her mother’s name. For a long moment she was too startled to speak.

“You know that name?”

She nodded. “My grandmother told me it was a secret, that I must never tell anyone that my mother’s name was Allia.”

Zarek nodded.

“But— you know her— where is she?”

Zarek looked sad. “I knew her,” he corrected.

“You mean she’s dead?” Ana asked. For a moment she’d belonged to someone. For a moment she hadn’t been all alone in the world.

“She’s been gone a long time.”

“Will you tell me about her? My grandmother said she named me Cirana. I’ve never told anyone that before. Everyone always just called me Ana. You said you knew her. What was she like? Tell me everything you remember about her,” Ana begged.

“It was a long time ago,” Zarek said, “I was only eight when she left the city, but you do look like her.”

“What was she like? Where did she go?”

“Which question do you want me to answer first?” Zarek asked.

“The first one.”

“The thing I remember most is that she saved my life once. My parents were both so grateful to her, and she was always very kind to me. She was very beautiful, and she had golden hair, lighter than yours. Her eyes were different. I don’t remember exactly, maybe green?”

“Mine are brown,” Ana said, thoughtfully. “Was she short like me too?”

“Not too short,” Zarek said.

“Maybe I’ll grow when I’m older,” Ana said hopefully. She’d always been small for her age.

“Maybe you will. You do look a lot like her,” he said. “There was a man named Harrow, my father’s friend. He had gone to Ara with my father and he made it back to the Warding. He said he had hidden the ring and the child. He must have meant you.”

“So we can ask him about it!”

Zarek shook his head. “The demons had attacked him. Their claws are poisoned. If they cut you… you don’t survive.”

Ana’s stomach sank. “Anyone back in the village— even your friend? But the ring could heal them. Can’t we go back? We could help!”

His voice was heavy with pain. “We can’t go back, Ana. They would catch us. They’re following us. Even if we got away from them, they would follow us back there and even more people would die.” Zarek shook his head. “The demons are a curse!” he exclaimed. “I need to stop them. There must be a way. We can’t just leave them to roam the world killing whoever they choose. Someone has to stop them.”

 

When they’d eaten and gathered their things, they went on. It was slow going through the rough bottom of the canyon. They climbed down through the rocks. Ana felt better after having some food and being able to dry off. The sky was clear and the autumn sun was warm. But Zarek moved quickly, and it was hard to keep up with him. The right side of her body was sore and bruised from their long fall into the river and her throat still felt raw. She wanted nothing more than to crawl into a warm bed and pull the blanket over her head. Somewhere safe were there were no monsters chasing her.

As the day passed, Ana grew so exhausted that it was all a blur. At some point Zarek let them rest again, and she fell asleep in a patch of sunshine. When Zarek woke her, the sun had already gone down behind the canyon walls. They ate fish that he’d cooked over the fire.

“We can’t stay still in the dark,” he said looking uneasily at the fading light. “They know we’re somewhere in this canyon.”

 

They went on in the gathering darkness. Ana clung to his hand, lost without it. She stumbled against stones and branches. The night felt huge and empty around her, and the soft rush of the wind made her stomach clench. Was it the demons she heard? At any moment, she expected them to run at her, snarling, and she and Zarek would die.

They went on and on, and at some point, she was so tired that she didn’t care anymore, and she sat down, slumped against a rock, resigned to her fate. Hours later, she woke up slowly, exhaustion trying to pull her under again. She felt motion, they were still moving.

Gradually she realized that Zarek was carrying her. She was alive. It was morning and the demons hadn’t found them. She was relieved. But then shame washed over her. She had stopped, given up, and he had kept going, he’d kept them both safe, and now he was carrying her again.

He’d helped her last night when she was too tired to go on. Staying with her, even though he knew the demons were following her. He could have left her behind, gone away, and he would have been safe. Instead, he was in great danger, and it was all because of her.

If not for him, she would already have been dead. He had saved her life. He had done everything he could to keep her safe. Why would he be willing to do so much for her? A few days ago he’d been a stranger, but not anymore. Now she felt safe because of him. She trusted him. She’d been alone since her grandmother had died, and she wasn’t used to being so close to anyone.

“Where are we?” she mumbled.

“We’re almost to the bottom of the canyon,” he said, setting her down. They looked ahead. “You can see the lake,” he pointed. The early sun glimmered on the distant water.

 

They rested and scavenged for food during the daylight. All too soon, night was falling again. The moon came up, giving them a little light to travel by, but it was hard to find their way in the dark.

Sometime after midnight, Ana heard something. She gripped Zarek’s hand hard.

“You hear something?” he asked.

“Over there,” she pointed.

“Hurry!”

They went down toward the edge of the water, and waded out into the river, until all that Ana could see was rushing water. Zarek kept a tight grip on her hand. Together, they swam across the deepest section. Ana wouldn’t have made it by herself, but Zarek pulled her toward the other side. His long legs found the bottom before hers, and he pulled her toward the far bank. They clambered up out of the water, soaked and freezing. They huddled down between the rocks, watching.

Barely visible in the dim moonlight, a black shape appeared on the opposite bank.

Ana choked down a scream when she saw it. There was something wrong about its shape, something horrible, and a creeping sense of dread surrounded it. She wanted desperately to run. She clutched Zarek’s arm. “Just stay still,” he murmured in her ear. “It’s on the other side.”

“Won’t it come across?” she protested.

But it didn’t go into the water. It watched them. Another black shape joined it, then another. They spoke to each other in their own language. If Ana listed too close or too long, she was sure their voices would drive her insane. If the demons found a way across, they’d be dead.

Zarek’s hand gripped her shoulder, pulling her back from the edge of panic.

They watch the growing group of enemies across the water. There were at least nine now. Their voices grew louder in excitement. Something was happening. More were coming. Ana could hear them now over the sound of the water. They were on this side of the river.

Zarek jumped to his feet. The demons on the other side reached out for him eagerly. “Into the water!” he yelled. “Hold on to me.”

The cold water came up around them and the current took them. She held onto Zarek. The water grew rougher and swept them against rocks. She tried to look for demons, but all she could do was hold on, and try to keep her head above the water. The dark canyon flashed past on either side.

It was so cold. She shivered. After a long time she didn’t shiver anymore and she felt numb. Everything seemed to be happening a long way away. It got quiet. The sound of the river faded. Everything faded—

 

Someone was shaking her. “Ana! Ana please wake up!”

She couldn’t find the energy to respond. She was trapped in the freezing darkness. But the shaking wouldn’t stop. Why couldn’t he just let her sleep?

“Please wake up.”

It was Zarek.

“Please, Ana?”

With an effort, she opened her eyes and saw stars in a night sky. She was lying on her back, and Zarek was bending over her. “What happened?” She had no idea where they were, or how they’d gotten there.

“It’s cold. The water was too cold. I found a couple of blankets. Take off your wet clothes and wrap up in one. There’s no one else here, I’ll turn my back.” He helped her sit up.

It was difficult to move, to do anything, but she managed to undress and wrap up in the blanket. It was immediately warmer.

They were in a boat, she realized. There was water all around them, starlight reflecting on the calm surface. It was still night. Where were the demons?

“Are we safe?” she asked.

“For now,” he said. “Rest.”

She curled into a ball against a pile of fishing nets, and tried to get warm. Zarek came and wrapped another blanket over her.

“Thank you.”

Through half closed lids, she saw him take off his wet shirt and jacket. He set the tiller and raised a small sail. He was freezing too. She could see him shivering as he worked. When he was done, he came and sat down beside her, pulling some blanket over himself. “These were all I could find,” he apologized. “We can look again when the sun comes up.”

Slowly she began to get a little warmer, and she dozed.

The sun was bright overhead when she woke up again. She had huddled against Zarek in her sleep. He was still asleep beside her. They were warm now, with the bright sun on them. It was good to be warm.

Ana was hungry and thirsty, and cramped. She found her still damp clothes and pulled them on under the blanket. She slid carefully out of the blankets and got up. They were in the middle of a large lake. Vaguely she recalled him telling her that there was a lake at the mouth of the canyon. It was wide enough that she could barely see the shore on either side, and the ends were out of sight. They were aboard a little fishing boat with a single little sail.

She looked around. There wasn’t much. She found a small bucket half full of water, and she drank. There was a wooden box that held a couple of dry biscuits. She was so hungry that she ate one greedily, and picked up the second. But then she looked at Zarek. He must be hungry too. She set the biscuit down. There was nothing else in the boat that might help them except the nets, and a couple of fishing poles with lines and hooks.

She would need something for bait. She looked at the biscuit but it was dry and crumbly. There was no way it would stay on the hook. There were dragonflies soaring above the boat. For a while she watched them. Sometimes they zipped past within reach, but they were fast.

Ana took one of the blankets and held it wide. The next bug that passed, she tried to catch in the blanket. Unsuccessfully.

It took a long while of trying before she finally caught one. With a frayed thread from the blanket she tied it to the hook and cast the line over the side. Back home in Bright Springs, Fergen had taken her fishing with him. She took a deep breath. Hopefully Fergen was still alive, and Tari— Ana tried not to think too much about that night. Not everyone had survived.

She sat in the sunshine for a long time holding the pole. Eventually something tugged at it, but when she pulled the line in, the hook was bare. She caught another dragonfly and tried again. This time something took the bait, and she pulled in a struggling fish. She turned to see Zarek awake.

“You’re amazing!” he exclaimed grinning. She smiled back at him. They had no way to cook their prize, so they ate it raw.

When they were done, Ana rested again. “Where are we going?” she asked sleepily, looking up at the sky.

“There’s a town at the end of the lake by the crossroads. From there, the road leads north toward Sarine. We’ll leave the boat nearby, but we won’t take it to the docks.”

“Because you stole it?” she asked.

He looked guilty. “I had to. You were so cold. You were too cold to hold on any longer. I had to do something.”

They spent the rest of that day and the next night in the boat. They had no more success fishing, and they were hungry, but they savored the chance to rest, especially at night.

“Will they be waiting for us when we land?” Ana asked.

“I hope not,” Zarek said. “This is a big lake. Maybe we lost them. We’ll move quickly when we get there, just in case.”

A little before dawn, they landed. The lights from the town were near and bright. Zarek steered them toward the shore, some distance from the lights. They gathered their things and went toward the town.

“We can buy food here, and then we’ll be on our way,” Zarek said.

Ana’s mouth watered at the idea. Her insides felt hollow. She followed Zarek toward the lights.

 

Ana had never so many buildings in one place before. In spite of the early hour, the streets were already busy. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry. The whole place made Ana want to run away and hide.

“Have— have you been here before?” she asked Zarek.

“A few times,” he said.

He didn’t seem worried at all. Maybe it would be all right. He must know where to go and what to say in all the bustle and confusion. She walked close beside him. He appeared to know exactly where he was going. The city closed in around them, people everywhere. Zarek turned a few corners, and they walked in to a shop. Zarek picked out some biscuits, dried meat and fruit, and a few potatoes, turnips and apples, and a warm cloak that would fit Ana. He paid the shopkeeper a couple of coins and put everything into his pack. They went along the street to an inn.

They went inside and sat down at one of the tables. A waitress came up to them. “What’ll it be?”

“Breakfast,” Zarek said.

“Just the two of you?” She looked around as if expecting them not to be alone.

“Just us,” Zarek said.

“You have money?” she asked.

Zarek looked irritated, but he dug coins out of his pocket and put them down on the table.

“All right, all right—” the waitress wiped her hands on her apron. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“It’s all right,” Zarek said.

“I’ll just get you some breakfast.” She hurried away looking a little uncomfortable.

“Rude,” he muttered. “Just because we look like lost children.” He looked at Ana, and she looked back at him. He grinned. “Maybe we are a little dirty, but she has no idea who we are!” He hushed his voice confidentially. “You are most likely a princess, traveling in disguise.”

“Then you would be a knight in shining armor,” she giggled.

He made a face. “Do you have any idea how much that stuff weighs?”

The waitress was back with bowls of steaming porridge and cream, thick slices of bacon, and loaf of fresh bread. It was all Ana could do not to moan with longing. As soon as the woman was gone, they both began to eat.

It tasted amazing. They’d already come so far, and they’d been so cold and hungry.

“Believe me,” Zarek said with his mouth full. “I’m not disrespecting your fish in any way, but this is so good.”

Ana smiled at him as she chewed.

They ate everything so quickly that the waitress brought them each another bowl, and they finished those too. When they were finally done, they left the money on the table and went out.

“We need to get out of this town,” Zarek said. She followed him as he made his way through the busy streets. They came to the crossroads in the center of town, one road leading off in each direction. Ana had no idea which way to go. Zarek chose the north road. It was thronged with people. Ana stayed close and held his arm so they wouldn’t get separated. Finally the crowds began to thin. The buildings became farther apart until finally there weren’t any more. At the outside edge of town was a small city made up of neat rows of tents. Men were coming and going between then dressed in dark green uniforms. “They come from Kethel,” Zarek said. “They’re gathering here to fight Ara.”

Zarek and Ana kept to the road and continued on their way until they were past the camp.

Three of the green uniformed men stood on the road blocking their path. One of them was a really big man. The others flanked him. Zarek didn’t alter his pace or turn aside. When they didn’t move, Zarek stopped, facing them, Ana at his side. What were they going to do?

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Zarek greeted them, his tone casual.

“Good morning,” the big one said smiling.

“How is the fine nation of Kethel?” Zarek asked.

“War is coming,” the man said grimly. “Ara is massing its army. We need more men to protect our border.”

“Well, I wish you the best with your search,” Zarek said. “If I see anyone who’d like to join you, I’ll send them this way. There’s nothing else I can do for you now.”

“Is that so?” the big man said, looking Zarek up and down.

“My errand is urgent,” Zarek said. “I cannot delay.”

“Urgent, is it?” They snickered, and spread themselves out to block the road.

“What could be so urgent?” the big man asked. “You’d like soldiering, boy. Plenty of food, and the wages are good. Come on— join us.”

“I have other business,” Zarek said with an edge to his tone.

“You’re pretty cocky for a farm boy. Come with us.”

“Get out of my way,” Zarek said.

They laughed, all of them. Ana felt like she couldn’t breathe. They were in big trouble. Zarek took the pack from his back and handed it to Ana.

He turned back to the three men. “I said, get out of my way.”

The leader was still smiling. “With an attitude like that, you could be a captain someday. Come with us boy, we’ll make a soldier out of you.”

“I’m already a soldier,” Zarek said. He darted to one side and gave an expertly delivered kick to the man’s knee. He toppled with a yell.

What happened next was so fast Ana’s eyes could barely follow. The big leader tried to grab Zarek, but he was much too quick. By the time Ana had taken a breath, two men were lying on the ground, and the third was holding his nose which streamed blood. With an enraged roar, he charged at Zarek with his fists flailing. Zarek was ready for him, and in a moment, he was on the ground with his friends.

Zarek turned back to Ana, who was staring at him in shock. He took the pack, and slung it over his shoulder, and offered her his hand. “Come on,” he said. “It’s time to get out of here.” They hurried on as fast as they could until the camp was long out of sight behind them.

“Weren’t you scared?” Ana asked.

“Not for those three.”

“How can you fight so well?”

“Years of training and practice,” he said.

“You must have been doing it since you were a little boy.”

His expression looked far away for a moment, as if a memory had crossed his mind. They walked a long way before he explained. “My father was Talon, Captain of the Guard, the Emperor’s most trusted friend. He tried to help the Emperor when his brother betrayed him, and took Allia to Ara.”

“My mother? What happened?” Ana asked.

“There were demons by then,” Zarek said. “If the Emperor left the Warding, all of Sarine would lose its protection, and the demons would have killed everyone. The Emperor couldn’t leave himself, so he sent Talon and Harrow to Ara to rescue her.”

“You told me Harrow escaped and came back. What happened to the others?”

Zarek shook his head.

“Did the demons get them? Everyone is afraid of Ara now. Those men back there are trying to protect themselves. Even in Bright Springs I had heard stories. People don’t know for sure but they’re still afraid. And they took me away from Ara when I was a baby?”

“Yes.”

“Your father rescued me,” Ana said, turning to look into his eyes. “I wish he were here so I could thank him.”

“I wish he were here too,” Zarek said.

“That was when you started learning to fight, wasn’t it.”

Zarek nodded. “I was very young. Back then I was sure that they hadn’t killed him, that he would escape somehow. I thought I could find him, and rescue him, and I wanted him to be proud of me when I found him.”

Ana put her hand on his arm. “I’m sure he would be.”

Zarek covered her hand with his. “Thanks.”

 

They walked until afternoon. They left the road and found a hidden spot where they ate and rested. At nightfall they went on. They made good time for several days and nights. But the pace was severe, and they had rested very little. Ana was desperate for sleep.

One afternoon they halted for a meal and a brief rest. There was water nearby. Ana could hear it, but couldn’t see it. After they had eaten, Zarek said, “Wait here and rest, but stay alert. Keep watch, and call me if you see anything. I’m going to wash, and get some water. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Ana curled up against the warm side of a rock and waited for him. She didn’t meant to doze off, but she was so exhausted that her eyes closed without her even realizing it. A sound nearby startled her awake. She looked up to see men standing all around her. They didn’t look pleasant, and they were all armed with knives or swords. They were ragged and dirty and she could instantly sense that they didn’t mean well.

“Zarek!” she shouted, pulling one of his knives out of the pack. He was by the river, with the sound of the water loud in his ears. Maybe he wouldn’t hear her.

“I told you she wouldn’t be alone,” one of the men said.

“Quiet!” growled another. The others obeyed him, and she could tell he was the leader.

“Leave me alone!” Her voice sounded much bolder than she felt.

They looked at her and the knife she held and they laughed. “What are you going to do with that?” the leader asked.

They closed in around her, and many hands seized her from all sides. She tried to fight them, and one of them had a cut on his cheek before they took the knife away from her. She struggled, but one of them held her securely. She tried unsuccessfully to kick the man’s shins. When that didn’t work, she bit the hand covering her mouth. The man cried out and released her. She ran, but the others were too fast. Hands seized her in a viselike grip.

The man whose hand she had bitten struck her across the face. “Don’t do that again, girl!” She saw lights flashing in front of her eyes, and for a moment she couldn’t see anything else. When she could see the man again, his hand was raised to hit her a second time, and she shrank away from him. Suddenly he stopped and looked away from her. Some kind of scuffle had broken out among the other men, and three of them were on the ground before she realized that it was Zarek. He was wet, and bare to the waist from his interrupted trip to the river. Ana was sure he could have beaten all of them, except that the leader of the men who held her jerked her head back and put a knife to her throat. She could feel the cold metal of the knife blade against her skin. “Stop or she dies!” the man yelled. Zarek froze. The others disarmed him and tied his hands behind him, and pushed him to the ground.

“That’s better,” the leader said, throwing Ana down and putting his knife away. “Search them.”

They had taken Zarek’s knife. He had nothing else with him but the small silver charm hanging on a chain around his neck. Ana had noticed it before, and now it stood out plainly against his skin. One of the thieves took it off him and handed it to the leader.

“What is this?” The leader examined it closely.

“It’s worthless,” Zarek said. “I bought it from a blind man in the market.”

“Worthless?” the leader grinned. “Then you won’t mind if I take it.” The others handed the leader their pack, and he began to look through it.

While he was occupied with that, Ana crept quietly over to Zarek, and he whispered, “Are you all right?”

She gave a quick nod.

“Good,” he whispered in her ear, “Then get the knife out of my boot.”

Ana knew they must not see her do it. While they were busy with the pack, she slipped the knife from his boot and into his hand.

In the bottom of Zarek’s pack they found a small bag containing a few coins.

“That’s all?” the leader cried, “I couldn’t buy a lame horse with that!”

“We have nothing more to give you,” Zarek said. “Take it and let us go.”

“Let you go?” the thief in charge laughed. “You’ve killed two of my men, and the third won’t be fighting again for a long time. You’re not going anywhere, but if you think hard, and tell me where you left the rest of your money, I might let you live, at least for a while.”

Zarek looked at the setting sun. “You have to let us go,” he said, getting to his feet, “Or none of you will survive the night.”

They laughed again, obviously thinking Zarek was bluffing. Zarek stared back at them without flinching until some of them began to move uneasily. The leader didn’t believe him, and he hit Zarek in the face, knocking him down, and he said, “You’re very entertaining. Maybe we’ll let you go and we’ll keep the girl here until you return with money.” The leader grabbed Ana’s hand and jerked her to her feet. “We would take good care of her while you’re gone.”

Suddenly he released her hand and stared at it. He saw the bandage she wore to hide the ring. He laughed and pulled the bandage off to reveal the ring. “What’s this?” he held her hand up to the rapidly fading daylight. “You were hiding this for a reason. I want a good look at it. Build a fire,” he ordered. The men did as he asked, and in a short while, the fire was burning brightly. Full dark had fallen by then.

 

The robber held Ana’s hand near the flames and looked intently at the ring. The firelight made the stone glitter.

“Now this looks valuable,” he said, eyeing the ring greedily. He tried to pull the ring off her finger. “It’s stuck!” He pulled harder.

“Stop, please!” Ana cried. “It hurts!”

“I’ll get that ring off one way or another!”

“Please, no!” She tried to jerk her hand away from him, but he held it tightly enough to bruise.

The robber tried to pry the ring loose, first with his hands, and then with the point of his knife. Neither had any effect on the ring, but the knife cut into Ana’s finger, and blood ran down her hand.

“Stop, stop!” she sobbed. “It doesn’t come off.”

“Oh, it will,” the leader said.

Abruptly he released his hold on Ana and she dropped to her knees. There on the ground before her, shining in the firelight was Zarek’s charm. The leader must have dropped it when he saw the ring. She snatched it up, and crawled silently over to Zarek.

The men were all looking out into the dark trees. Something was out there. Ana knew what was waiting in the dark. Her heart was pounding so that she was surprised that no one else could hear it in the night which had suddenly gone very quiet.

“Go see what it is,” the leader ordered. Two of his men lit torches, drew their swords and headed out into the dark. It didn’t take long. The quiet was shattered by horrible screams. The camp was thrown into confusion as several dark shapes came down the hill toward them. The thieves fled in all directions.

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