Ana loved the oak tree. She’d climbed it so many times that the bark on the limbs had been worn smooth by finding the same hand holds over and over again. The late afternoon sun filtered down through the leaves and made a pattern of light and shade on her skin as she sat in the wide fork between the branches, completely out of sight from the ground. It was her secret place. Bits and pieces of the houses and the fields where farmers brought in their harvest could be seen beyond the edge of the woods.
After living in the noise and hurry of the inn, she enjoyed the quiet of the woods. Nothing could be heard except the murmur of leaves in the breeze. Ana wanted to stay until the sun set, but Fergen would expect her back soon to help with the dinner rush. It had been the same every night for the three years she’d lived there. Fergen was a kind man, his own family grown, and he had taken her in, a child alone in the world after her grandmother died.
Distinctive in the stillness, Ana heard footsteps beneath the tree. Was it one of the boys from the village? She peeked down through the branches. Two strangers stood below her. She knew everyone in Bright Springs, and she’d never seen these men before. Silently she watched them. They wore packs on their backs like they were traveling. The one with dark hair was kneeling on the ground, looking at something. The other had light hair that hung in unruly waves. “Are you sure?”
The kneeling man looked up from the ground. His mouth, behind a short dark beard frowned, and his brows were pulled together in worry. “The tracks are clear. They’re here.” He stood, and Ana’s eyes widened as she stared at the long blade at his side. No one in Bright Springs wore a sword. She’d never even seen a weapon that big before.
“When?” The man with the light hair rubbed the back of his neck.
“They look fresh. I’d say, last night.”
“It’s this town, then. It has to be. If they were here last night, they’ll be here as soon as it gets dark. We have to search for the girl before they do.” He turned and took a step away.
The dark haired man shook his head. “Not the town. Here. The tracks are everywhere around this tree.” He pointed to several places surrounding the oak. He paused looking down toward the inn. That was the way Ana had come. He bent down, looking closely at the ground. “These tracks don’t match the others. Someone walked here.”
Ana watched him closely. He was looking at her tracks along the path she’d taken from the inn up in to the woods. No one had ever bothered to follow her before. She wasn’t important enough to follow, unless it had something to do with her secret. Ana wore a ring on her finger. On her deathbed, grandmother had warned Ana never to tell anyone about it. Ana had always worn a little strip of cloth tied around her finger like a bandage to hide the ring so no one could see it. It was a daily reminder of the secret, but she hadn’t thought much about grandmother’s warning of danger until now.
The men followed her tracks a little way down the hill. Ana breathed a sigh of relief as they went away, until they turned and came back to the base of her oak. “See the tracks there. Small feet. They come right to the tree.”
Ana pressed herself against the bark, out of sight, pulling her arms and legs close. They were following her. One of them was climbing now, and she heard the sound of boots against the bark, the soft sound of his breath expelled as he pulled himself up. He appeared between the branches and they stared at each other. He looked younger up close, and his expression looked agreeable. There was nowhere to go in the tree. Anyway, he was a fast climber, and she wouldn’t be able to get away.
“Please, don’t be afraid,” he said. His voice sounded kind. “We’re trying to find someone because she’s in danger and needs help.”
Ana stared back at him. Could he know about the secret? Grandmother had been very clear that she should never tell anyone because it would be dangerous. Something terrible had been following Ana years ago when she was a baby. Could it be the same thing that had left tracks all around her tree?
“Do you have a ring? Silver, set with a green stone?”
How did he know? Ana clutched her hand tighter to her chest. How could he possibly know about it?
“I can’t tell you anything,” she whispered.
“I know it’s a secret. But if you have the ring, you’re in danger.” He looked at her with serious gray eyes. “My name is Zarek. That’s Dane down there, and we came to help. I promise we would never hurt you. There are dangerous things in this world, and I’ve sworn on my life that when I find the girl with the ring, I will protect her and take her to safety. Do you believe me when I tell you we came to help?”
She looked into his eyes, reaching out with the extra perception she always felt when she was near someone. Ana could always sense the feelings of anyone near her. That was how she’d known that Fergen would take care of her when Grandmother died. She’d known he would help. She could feel that Zarek would help now.
“I believe you,” she said.
His eyebrows raised in surprise. “It’s true then? You trust me because you keep the ring, and you can tell what I feel?”
She nodded. She had begun to trust him already, and she could sense now that he was afraid too, maybe of whatever had left its mark around the tree. “What made those tracks?”
He looked back at her as if he didn’t know what to say. He cleared his throat. “They’re demons.”
Ana drew in a sharp breath, and pulled her arms and legs tightly together. The big boys used to tell stories about demons just to frighten her. Now it wasn’t just a story. The demons would kill her. She was small and had no way to run fast enough or far enough to escape them. Tears welled in her eyes and she blinked them back. She didn’t want Zarek to see her cry.
“I wouldn’t have said that,” Zarek apologized, “But there’s no way to hide it now. They’re coming soon. We have to go!”
He was right. His words startled her into motion, and she started climbing down.
“Hurry,” Dane said from the ground. “It will be dark soon. We have to get everyone indoors. The whole town is in danger.”
“We have to tell Fergen.” Ana pointed down the hill toward the inn.
“Is that where you live?” Dane asked.
Dane looked at Zarek. “The demons will probably go there. But the rest of the people should barricade themselves in their houses. I’ll meet you there. Get her inside. Tell them to bar the doors.”
Ana led Zarek to the back door, and into the kitchen. “Tari, where’s Fergen?” she asked the gray haired cook.
“What’s going on? Who is that?” Tari eyed Zarek in confusion.
Fergen appeared in the kitchen door, his eyes tightening in suspicion as he looked at Zarek. “Who are you, and what do you want with Ana?”
“It’s all right,” Ana explained. “He’s a friend.”
Fergen folded his arms across his chest, waiting for Zarek to answer.
“My name is Zarek. I serve the Emperor of Sarine. I came to warn you that the inn is going to be attacked.”
The blood drained from Fergen’s face, and he took a step backward. “By who? When?”
“Demons, creatures of dark magic,” Zarek said. “My friend has gone to warn the others. They’ll be here soon. We need to bar the doors and windows. Get everyone out of here. Tell them to stay indoors, hidden. Go now!”
Fergen ran back to the common room, and the people scattered at his warning.
Ana helped them pull the heavy shutters closed, and Fergen dropped the latches into place. They barred the door.
“They’re coming here. You should go too,” Zarek said, putting his hand on Fergen’s shoulder.
Fergen looked down at Ana. “What about Ana? If she’s not safe here—”
Zarek met Ana’s eyes quickly, and then looked back at the innkeeper. “They’re following her.”
Ana’s stomach clenched.
Fergen stood beside her, and put his arm around her shoulders. “If she’s in danger, I’m not leaving her.”
Ana put her arms around his waist. He always treated her with kindness, even though she was only an orphan.
“There’s no way you can fight them,” Zarek said. “They’ll kill you if you stay. Take the cook and run. Get somewhere else secure. Find a place to hide!”
Fergen didn’t want to go. But Ana couldn’t let him get hurt because of her. She looked up at him. “You took care of me,” she said. “Please don’t let them kill you.”
He pulled her close for a moment, and then released her, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He took Tari by the arm, and they disappeared into the gathering darkness.
Ana helped Zarek check the doors and windows again. Zarek pushed chairs and tables against the front door.
Outside, night quickly covered the village. Dane came running up to the kitchen entrance. “I told them to get indoors and stay there,” he said, breathing hard. “They didn’t all listen.” As if to punctuate his words, a scream rang out from somewhere in the darkness. Dane slammed the door, and slid the heavy bar across it.
Ana stood beside Zarek and held onto his hand. Fergen was gone. There was no one left except Zarek, and he was afraid too. He was big and strong and he was still afraid. His hand gripped hers.
Something outside clawed at the door. It scratched at the walls, hunting for a way inside. A blow struck the door. It held. From the other side of the door came a shriek of frustration. Ana cringed away from the sound.
Zarek gripped the hilt of his dagger and took a deep breath.
Dane drew his sword and stood, tense and ready, the weapon his hand, watching the door.
From out in the dark, they heard terrified voices and running feet. Someone was out there. Ana put her hands over her ears, wishing she couldn’t hear what was happening. They were calling for help and she couldn’t do anything. How many were there? She heard a man scream first, then a woman. She dropped her hand from her ear, and clutched Zarek’s hand like a lifeline. The people outside were near, just on the other side of the wall, close enough that she could sense their pain. She breathed rapidly from shock and panic. Zarek bent down beside her and gripped her shoulders.
Outside it grew silent. Whoever it was, their pain had passed now. Ana took a deep breath, then another. The quiet didn’t last. More blows came at the door, and more shrieking. The door creaked and groaned and shook on its hinges. Would it keep them out? Would the thing outside find more of her friends and neighbors and kill them? Would it find Fergen and Tari?
She couldn’t stand that. “They’re looking for me! If I go out there, will they take me and leave everyone else alone?”
“You can’t do that, Ana,” Zarek said firmly. “You can’t let them get the ring. If you do, many more people will die.”
“But people are dying now!” She took a step toward the door.
Zarek held her back.
The attack against the door redoubled. Ana heard blows from all around the building now. From the front of the inn, they heard the sounds of breaking wood and shattering glass. Abruptly, the assault on the back door ceased.
Zarek looked down at her. The muscles of his jaw clenched. “Get ready to run.”
“They’re breaking in.” Dane’s voice sounded hard as he looked at Zarek. “You’re faster than I am. Take her and go. I’ll hold them off and then follow you.”
Ana’s breath came fast and shallow, and her heart was pounding in her throat. Zarek drew his dagger.
“Zarek,” Dane ordered, standing in the kitchen doorway, his blade in his hand. “Go. Now.” Several black shapes burst through the front door, shrieking. Dane held his sword ready. Zarek pulled Ana through the back door. She screamed as a tall black shape towered above them, blocking their path. The blade of Zarek’s dagger glowed faintly green in the darkness. He attacked the black thing. It screeched and tried to claw at them, but they dodged the blow and Zarek struck at it, driving his blade into it until it fell, unmoving.
“Run!” Zarek ordered, pulling Ana with him.
They dashed away from the village, following the edge of the stream, stumbling over the uneven ground in the moonlight. Ana ran as fast as she could, but it didn’t feel fast enough. They needed more speed. Zarek picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder and sprinted.
For a moment the night was quiet, and the only thing Ana could hear was Zarek’s breathing, and the sound of his feet pounding against the ground. She saw Dane behind them, running hard. Behind him, black shapes were following. But Zarek was going the wrong way.
“Don’t go—” she gasped jostled by each stride. “There’s— cliff—”
For a few moments Zarek widened the gap between them and their pursuers. But their escape would soon be cut off. The small stream beside the town drained into a larger river that had carved a deep cleft in the land, and Zarek was coming to the brink of the cliff. He stopped and looked over the edge. Ana caught a glimpse of a black chasm with a silver ribbon of water at the bottom. Dane caught up with them. “That way!” He pointed along the edge of the canyon.
They followed the cliff downstream. The black things cut across the distance, heading straight for them, and they were gaining fast. They couldn’t outrun them.
Ana could hear the demons clearly now, and their horrible voices sounded triumphant. They were about to get what they were looking for. Ana whimpered in terror. Her eyes locked onto the demons behind them. Their black claws were reaching out for her and she didn’t realize what Zarek was going to do until she felt the lurch as he jumped. Ana screamed as they fell.