Ana was falling. The cold air rushed by her, and the black rock of the canyon flashed past. They struck the water, and from that height, it felt like a solid wall. Her face and arms exploded with pain. Their momentum sent them deep under the surface. The impact tore her away from Zarek, and knocked the breath from her lungs. She flailed, frantically trying to find her way back to the surface of the dark water. There was nothing to hold onto and the current tossed her in all directions. Something seized her leg, pulling her. Confused and disoriented, she felt like she was being dragged deeper into the water.
The hand kept pulling on her leg until she felt them break the surface, and she realized it was Zarek. He towed her toward the bank and hauled her out of the water. He turned her over his knee and struck her back. A little water ran from her mouth. More blows brought up more water, and she coughed violently. She managed to get some air into her lungs. She felt the stones of the bank beneath her as she lay there, coughing and gasping.
Dane slogged through the shallow water toward them. “Is she hurt?” He knelt down beside them.
“We hit hard. She has water in her lungs.” Zarek ran his hand through his hair. “I didn’t mean to hurt her. I wouldn’t have jumped— I didn’t know what else to do!”
“You did what you had to do,” Dane said. “Carry her, and watch her. We’ll check her again when it gets light. Come on, we need to get out of here.”
Ana’s skin stung, her lungs burned, and she still wasn’t sure which way was up. She felt Zarek pick her up. She saw canyon walls towering above them, and the moonlight gleamed on the smooth rock as they went on.
Ana hid her face in the front of Zarek’s shirt so he wouldn’t see her crying. Her skin burned and stung, and her head was spinning. And she was soaked to the skin in the chill night air. She tried to hold back the tears that leaked from the corners of her eyes. Now she was crying like a baby, and being carried like one. How embarrassing.
They kept going. Ana had several more bouts of violent coughing, but when they passed, she could breathe more easily. Zarek set her down, and she walked for a while, but exhaustion slowed her steps. They took turns carrying her until, eventually, the rose pink of dawn lit the east.
Zarek set her in a sheltered place beside some rocks. He took off his pack, and sat down beside her. It felt good to be still, and she rested her again against the stone.
“How badly are you hurt?” he asked. Putting one finger under her chin, he gently turned her face to the morning light to examine where she’d struck the water.
He looked sad, and he felt bad that she’d been hurt. She could feel it.
“I’m sorry.” He released her chin and shook his head.
But he’d done the best he could. “I…” she swallowed, and tried again. “You didn’t let them catch us.” She spoke with difficulty, and her throat felt raw from coughing up river water.
Zarek stared back at her, his eye widening in surprise at her answer.
“Where are we?” She looked around. This was already further from home than she’d ever been before.
“We’re at the bottom of the canyon below the village. This river flows down into Lake Bethor.”
The only home she remembered, and everyone she had known had been left behind last night. “How many people are dead, back there?” She put her arm through Zarek’s and looked up at him.
His mouth pulled down into a frown, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know. Most of them are safe.”
“What if those things killed all of them?”
“They didn’t,” Dane said firmly. “The demons followed us. Maybe a few people died, but the rest should be safe now that we’re gone.”
Ana felt a twist of fear in her belly, and she shivered. The demons were following them now. She saw Zarek’s jaw tighten. He didn’t like that idea any more than she did. He took a deep breath as if he would shake off the worry, and grabbed his sodden pack. From inside, he retrieved his flint and started gathering sticks. Ana got up. Her muscles were stiff and sore from their fall, but she helped him gather wood. Dane helped too, and in a little while they had a good fire and she huddled close to it.
They spread their wet clothes and blankets to dry on the bushes. Zarek peeled off his wet jacket and shirt and hung them up. He lay back on the sandy riverbank with his eyes closed.
Ana asked, “What’s going to happen to us?” She looked from Zarek to Dane.
Dane rubbed his face and took a deep breath. “We’re going on. We have to get over the border into Sarine before they catch us. It’s the only place that’s safe from the demons, the only place that’s safe for you. ”
Ana’s eyes darted around, looking for any sign of danger. “Are they still chasing us now?”
Dane shook his head. “They don’t move in daylight.”
She let out a long breath of relief. “But they’re going to keep following me, aren’t they?” Quivers of fear were still twisting her insides.
Dane rubbed the short beard on his chin, and nodded reluctantly.
What could she do? “I don’t know how to fight,” she said, looking at Dane’s sword. “But you’re both big and strong. Can’t you fight them?”
Dane sighed. “I wish I could. Ordinary weapons don’t hurt them. The only thing I know of that can is that dagger.” He pointed to Zarek’s weapon.
Zarek patted the hilt. “I didn’t know for sure until last night, but I think I killed one of them.”
“That’s more than anyone has been able to do before,” Dane said. “The blade was made by the wizard Zarekathus before he died. He founded the Empire of Sarine.”
“Zare—kath- us?” Ana stumbled over the name.
“Just remember, Zarek-athus,” Dane said grinning. He nodded at Zarek. “His mother named him after the wizard. I think she expected him to grow up to be a brilliant scholar.”
Zarek smacked his friend.
Dane only laughed. “Too bad she’s disappointed! You’re better with a blade than a pen and ink.”
“I didn’t actually think magic was real,” Ana said. “Until last night.”
“Here,” Dane tossed her a damp shirt. “Put this on, and hang your clothes up. I’ll stay with you, and Zarek can find us something to eat.”
Ana took the shirt and went behind the rocks to change. Dane’s spare shirt came almost down to her knees, and she had to roll the sleeves up a long way before she exposed her hands. But it felt much better than her wet clothes. She hung up her tunic, pants and jacket and huddled close to the fire.
It didn’t take Zarek very long to come back with a rabbit. He sat down by the fire and began to skin it. His hands moved skillfully.
“Why are the demons looking for me?” she asked him.
“They serve the King of Ara,” Zarek said.
Ana gasped. “The other children from the village said the King of Ara is a wizard. Is he like Zarek- athus?” No one said good things about Ara. The older children used to tell her stories about it to frighten her.
“I don’t know for sure,” Zarek admitted. “But he must know some dark magic or he wouldn’t have demons as his servants. He wants to destroy Sarine, and he hates Emperor Callonen. They were brothers once, before there were demons. Now they are deadly enemies.”
Ana had never heard of brothers who were enemies. In her experience, some people fought with their families, but they usually got over it later. What must have happened to those two brothers?
“Is Emperor Callonen a wizard too?” Ana asked.
“Maybe… in his own way,” Zarek said, “There is magic in his blood. His power creates a barrier called the Warding around the land of Sarine. 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. This man knew everything that everyone did?
Zarek finished skinning the rabbit, placed it on a spit over the fire to roast, and went to scrub his hands at the edge of the river. “The demons can’t cross it. So if we can just get past the border, we’ll be safe.”
“How far is it?” Ana asked, looking up at him hopefully.
He rubbed his wet hands against his pants. “It will take several weeks to get there,” he admitted.
“We’ll make it. We’ll get there,” Dane promised.
“You haven’t told me why they’re chasing me,” she reminded him.
“They want the ring,” Dane said. “Emperor Callonen is very sick. But we know he’s still alive because the demons are chasing us. If he dies, they won’t bother with us. They will simply go to Sarine and destroy it.”
Ana felt her stomach twist. “And it would be like— back there? The demons would kill them?”
“Yes,” Dane said. “And we can’t let that happen.”
“How could a ring help?” That part still didn’t make sense to her.
“You don’t know what it does?” Zarek asked.
She shook her head. It was a ring. Was it supposed to… do something?
“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?”
“When I was little, back in Sarine, a young woman named Allia had the ring.”
Ana gasped again, the blood draining from her face. Grandmother had told her Allia was her mother’s name.”
“You know her name?”
She nodded. “She was my mother. But grandmother told me never to tell, that if people knew, it would be dangerous. I guess she was right.”
“But Allia— you know her— where is she?”
“I knew her,” he corrected quickly. “I’m very sorry, but she’s been gone for many years.”
Ana’s momentary hope crumbled. All her life she’d wondered about her mother. Had Allia loved her? Why hadn’t they stayed together? Now Zarek said she was dead. If Allia had been alive, and had loved her, she wouldn’t have left Ana alone. Ana nodded sadly. “I understand. But 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 did she look like? Tell me everything you remember about her.”
“I remember her.” Dane shook his head regretfully. “It was the first year I joined the Emperor’s Guard. Half the soldiers in the palace were secretly in love with her. She had the most beautiful smile, and she was always kind to everyone.”
“It was eleven years ago,” Zarek said, “I was only eight when she left the city. She saved my life. My parents were so grateful to her. I remember she had long golden hair, lighter than yours. Her eyes were different. I don’t remember exactly, maybe green?”
“Mine are brown,” Ana said, tapping her fingertips against her chin as she thought about it.
“My father took his friend Harrow and they went to Ara. Harrow was badly hurt, but he made it back to the Warding and said he’d hidden the ring and the child. He must have meant you,” Zarek said.
“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.”
“Your father and his friend…rescued me.” Ana looked at Zarek. Her mind tried to avoid the terrible truth. “But your father… He came back didn’t he?”
Zarek stared back at her. Finally he shook his head.
The truth settled over Ana. It was her fault. Why hadn’t Zarek told her this sooner? He had lost his father. Tears overflowed from her eyes. “You must hate me,” she sobbed. “I’m the reason he’s dead. You loved your father, and he’s dead because of me.”
Zarek took her hand. “That’s not true, Ana. Stop, and take a breath. You have the ring, and you can tell what I’m feeling. You know I don’t feel that way. You know I don’t hate you,” Zarek said. “My father thought that protecting you and your mother was worth risking his life for. I will do the same. I promise I won’t let anything hurt you.”
For six nights they had followed the canyon downward. Zarek lifted Ana down off a large boulder. The white river water roared beside her, reminding her not to slip. The cliffs on either side of the river had gradually lowered, but they had spent the last six nights climbing through the rocks. Dane led them, looking for the easiest route, Ana followed him, and Zarek brought up the rear. Ana had quick hands and feet, and she knew how to climb. Zarek had only helped her through the places with larger drop-offs, or when she’d gotten too tired to walk anymore.
The stars turned slowly in the clear sky above them.
Ana turned to look at Zarek, and she saw him staring behind them. Was something behind them? He looked at as if he were listening.
“Dane! Demons!” Zarek yelled above the sound of the water.
Dane looked back. “Are they behind us?”
Zarek pointed back the way they had come.
They moved as quickly as they could. The river grew calmer and slower as they descended. Soon Ana could hear the demons too.
“Hurry,” Dane yelled. “Get across the river.”
They waded out into the icy water. The demons were close now. Ana couldn’t take her eyes off them. They looked darker than the night surrounding them. The first of them had reached the edge of the river. The cold water reached her waist. Zarek paused beside her and stared back at them in disbelief. They refused to enter the water. They wouldn’t even put their feet in it. Why didn’t they walk into the water?
Ana stood between Zarek and Dane. They had their weapons out, and they stood ready, waiting for an attack. They stared at the demons, and the demons watched them but they never entered the water. It felt like a year had passed, and Ana’s feet were numb with cold. Nothing changed. Ana heard more demons coming. They were on both sides of the river now.
“Hold on to me,” Zarek ordered Ana. He bent down and she wrapped her arms around his neck, and they plunged into the icy water. The current took them. Ana couldn’t see the demons any more. But they wouldn’t give up so easily. Maybe Zarek and Dane could get a little ahead of them this way. Zarek pushed off the rocks with his boots, and swam in the deeper places. The water was icy.
Ana clung to him, shivering violently. The night was so long. All she wanted to do was sleep. The sound of the water faded and it didn’t seem so cold. But everything was dark, and her eyelids were so heavy.
Urgent voices interrupted her rest. “Ana! Ana please wake up.” Someone was shaking her, and rubbing her numb arms and legs. It did not feel good.
“Stop,” she protested.
She recognized Dane’s voice. “Wake up, little one.”
“Too tired…” she mumbled.
That was Zarek. He was worried. They were both worried. What was wrong with sleeping? She dragged her eyelids open and saw them both bending over her with the starry sky behind them. Her body was wracked with shivering.
“You have to take off your wet clothes and wrap up in this.” Dane held out a blanket. “There’s no one else here. We’ll turn our backs.”
Zarek helped her sit up. She gazed with longing at the dry blanket. They turned around as she undressed and wrapped herself up in it. “Are we safe?” she asked, her voice still shaken by her shivering. They were in a boat. How had they gotten here from the river?
“We’re safe for now,” Dane said. “Rest.”
Ana curled into a ball, and pulled the blanket tight around herself. Dane tossed the other blanket over her. “Thank you,” she murmured. “Please don’t make me jump in the river again?”
“Not tonight,” Dane promised.
Ana woke to the delicious feeling of warm sunlight on her face. She lay curled into a ball still wrapped tightly in the blanket and huddled against Zarek’s back. Dane stood nearby, tying off a rope attached to the sail. It felt so good to finally be warm. Zarek slept, his only motion the steady rhythm of his breathing. He shifted in his sleep, rolling onto his back.
He had a silver charm on a chain around his neck. It stood out against his bare skin. She’d never seen anything like it. The intricate little charm had been formed into the shape of a leaf with the tiny replica of a sword and hammer crossed over it.
The sun was high before Ana had any interest in getting up. Zarek woke up and turned to look at her. “Feeling better?”
She nodded. “You?”
“Better,” he said.
“What is that?” she pointed to the charm.
He smiled. “It belonged to my mother. My father had one just like it.”
She smiled back at him. It felt good to feel safe for a moment, and to be warm. But Zarek was hungry, and Ana could sense it. And at the reminder, her own empty stomach complained. Her clothes were nearly dry, and beneath the blanket she pulled them on. Dane had found some rods and lines and he sat at the back of the boat watching a line trailing into the water.
“Do you like fishing?” he asked her.
Ana sat beside him in the sunshine and threw another line into the lake. They’d been fishing for hours when Ana squeaked and began to pull in her line. She pulled a struggling silver fish into the boat.
Dane laughed. “You’re amazing,” he exclaimed.
She smiled at him, and looked at the fish. “I don’t like to clean them,” she said. “It makes my hands smell like fish.”
“Don’t worry!” Dane said. “Zarek loves to clean fish.”
“So does Dane,” Zarek protested. But he didn’t complain much. He cleaned the fish, and used his knife to cut long filets off the bones. “Can we build a fire?” Zarek looked around the little boat.
Dane did the same. “Not unless you want to burn a hole in this boat.”
Ana’s stomach growled. She watched as Zarek put a piece of the cold fish in his mouth and chewed. She’d never eaten fish without cooking it before. But they were all hungry, and they followed his lead.
“Where are we going?” Ana asked when she woke up in the morning and looked over the side of the boat.
“There’s a town called Bethor Crossing at the end of the lake,” Dane said. “From there, the road leads north toward Sarine. We’ll leave the boat outside town and we won’t take it to the docks.”
“Because you stole it?”
“Borrowed,” Zarek corrected, with a grin. “Borrowed without permission. The man should thank us. If we hadn’t thrown him in the lake, the demons would have got him. We saved his life.”
“Will he be able to find his boat?”
“I hope so.”
“Will the demons be waiting for us when we land?” Ana felt a twinge of worry.
“No,” Dane told her. “It’s a big lake. I think we lost them for now. But we’ll move quickly when we get there, just in case.”
Another night passed on the dark water, and it had been eight days since the demons attacked Bright Springs. Just before dawn, they landed in a quiet place a little distance from the docks. The lights from the town were near and bright. They gathered their belongings and went toward the town. “We can buy supplies here, and get something to eat, and then we’ll be on our way,” Dane said.
“Good idea,” Zarek agreed.
Ana looked greedily at the gardens behind the houses as they passed. Some of them even had chickens…
The town of Bethor Crossing had grown up around the meeting of the roads. One road ran east toward the kingdom of Kethel, and one west toward the land of Paraman. The north road led to Sarine…and Ara. In spite of the early hour, the streets were busy with people were coming and going, merchants setting out their wares, and everyone seemed to be in a hurry. Riding horses, carts and wagons filled the roads. Many of the buildings were taller, rising two and three stories, and a maze of streets wound between them. Ana looked around at everything with wide eyes. Bright Springs would fit into one tiny corner of this town. She walked close by them, and held onto Dane.
They went along the street to an inn with a sign advertising hot meals.
They went inside and sat down at one of the tables. A waitress came up to them. “What’ll it be?”
“Breakfast,” Zarek said.
“You have money?” she asked, eyeing their well-worn clothes.
“Of course we do,” Zarek said, irritated. 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…”
“It’s all right,” Zarek said.
“I’ll just get you some breakfast.” She hurried away looking a little uncomfortable.
“Rude,” Zarek complained. “Just because we look like homeless wanderers.” He looked at Ana, and she looked back at him uncertainly. “Maybe we are a little dirty, but she has no idea who we are!” He smiled and hushed his voice confidentially. “You are most likely a princess, traveling in disguise.”
“Then you could both be knights in shining armor.” She smiled at the idea.
Zarek made a face. “Do you have any idea how much that stuff weighs?” He looked at Dane.
Dane grinned. “We could be knights for you, Princess.”
The waitress returned 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 turned away, she stuck a hot crispy piece of bacon into her mouth, entranced by the rich savory taste. They’d already come so far, and they’d been so cold and hungry. “Your fish was great, but this is so good,” Zarek said with his mouth full. Dane nodded and kept chewing. Ana smiled.
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 moving,” Dane said as they made their way through the busy streets. “There’s a man with a farm just outside town on the North Road. He’ll sell me a couple of horses. Buy supplies and meet me there.”
Zarek nodded, and Dane disappeared into the crowd. Ana held Zarek’s hand as they turned a few corners and walked into a shop. The place appeared to have everything, stacked on shelves reaching to the ceiling, and overflowing with tall piles of goods. They picked out dried meat, fruit, and nuts, and dry biscuits that would stay good forever. Zarek chose a warm cloak that would fit Ana. He paid the shopkeeper some coins and put everything into his pack, and they went back out into the street.
A few minutes of walking brought them to the crossroads in the center of town, one road leading off in each direction. Zarek led then along 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 lay 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.” They 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. These men looked like they didn’t want to let them pass. Ana’s middle tightened in fear. What did they want? 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, his expression relaxed. He didn’t look afraid at all.
“Good morning,” the big one said grinning. That smile made Ana feel smaller.
“How is the fine nation of Kethel?” Zarek asked.
“War is coming,” the man said, no longer smiling. “Ara’s army is coming. 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’s so urgent?” the big man asked. “You’d like soldiering, boy. Plenty of food, and the wages are fair. Come on— join us.”
“I have other business.” Zarek met the man’s eyes steadily, and he squared his shoulders.
“You’re pretty cocky for a farm boy. Come with us.”
“Get out of my way,” Zarek ordered.
All three of them laughed. Ana’s chest constricted. They were in trouble. Zarek took the pack from his back and handed it to Ana, and gave her a quick confident nod, as if he wanted to assure her that everything was going to be fine.
He turned back to face 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 expertly kicked the man’s knee. He toppled with a yell.
What happened next was so fast Ana’s eyes could barely follow. The big man tried to grab Zarek, but he moved much too quickly. By the time Ana had taken a breath, two men lay on the ground, and the leader held his nose which streamed blood. With an enraged roar, he charged at Zarek with his fists flailing. Zarek sidestepped his attack, and drove his fist into the man’s side as he passed. A few more blows sent him to the ground with his friends.
Zarek turned back to Ana, who stared at him in shock. He took the pack, slung it over his shoulder, and offered her his hand. “Come on,” he said. They hurried away.
A little further along the road they saw Dane, coming back to meet them, mounted on a sturdy gray horse, and leading a brown one. He held his arm out to Ana. “Come on, Princess, you can ride with me for a while.” He pulled her up behind him. “What took you so long?” he asked Zarek.
“We stopped to chat with the soldiers.” Zarek swung into the saddle.
“The man I bought the horses from said they’re signing on any man between fifteen and sixty. They’re getting really worried about Ara.”
They rode away.
“Did they try to stop Zarek?” Dane asked Ana over his shoulder.
“There were three of them! I was so scared. But he beat all of them. How can he fight so well?”
“He’s had years of training and practice.”
“But he must have been doing since he was a little boy?”
Dane sighed. “He has. He’s my friend, and I wish he could have been a child a little longer. His father was Talon, the Captain of the Emperor’s guard, the Emperor’s most trusted friend. When Zarek got the news that Talon wasn’t coming back, he started training. I’ve never seen anyone work so hard at it.”
For a few days, they continued to see green uniformed soldiers. Dane shook his head. “If Kethel has its army out here, the Arans do too. We need to be careful.” They stayed under the cover of woods as often as possible, and took turns keeping watch as they rested.
On horseback they made good time for several days and nights of travel. It had been two weeks since they left Bethor Crossing. They still followed the course of the North Road toward Sarine, even though they didn’t ride on the road itself. They rode through woods and fields which kept their progress slower, but Dane thought it was better to stay out of sight.
One afternoon they halted in a small group of trees for a meal and to rest the horses. They could hear the sounds of water running nearby. After they ate, Zarek said, “I’m going to wash, and get some water. I’ll be back in a moment.” Dane nodded, leaning back against a tree trunk. Ana curled up to rest.
When Zarek started back toward the others, he froze halfway up the riverbank. Movement caught his eye, and his stomach dropped. It wasn’t Ana and Dane. He saw armed men, several of them, in the black uniforms of Ara’s army. They had taken the horses, and a few of them were already far away with them. Others surrounded the place where Zarek had left his friends. How had he not seen them sooner? Zarek sprinted toward them. The sun flashed off the polished metal of weapons and he could hear the ringing as the blades met. Dane fought for his life in the middle of them. Zarek gasped for breath. He had to go faster. Dane fell to the ground, and the soldiers disappeared into the trees.
Zarek dropped to the ground beside his friend. “Dane!” He pressed his hands to the worst of the wounds trying to slow the bleeding.
“They saw the ring. They took Ana!” Dane gasped.
“Just hold on! She can use the ring on you!” Zarek put Dane’s hand over the wound. “Keep your hand here. I’ll get her back!”
Dane nodded without speaking.
Zarek wiped his bloody hands on his pants, picked up Dane’s sword, and ran after them. The soldiers were moving quickly, but Zarek was fast. They were keeping out of sight under the cover of the little groups of trees. That was good. If they’d been out in the open they would have seen him coming.
They couldn’t take Ana.
The two men who made up their rearguard barely had time to reach for their weapons as Zarek struck them down. When he crashed into the larger group of them, they all stopped and turned on him. Zarek moved faster than anyone else. That’s what Dane always said. Zarek needed it now. Three of the Arans were on the ground quickly, and the other four turned to face him. One of them gripped Ana, and the other three turned on Zarek, their swords ready.
They came at him from both sides. As he blocked a thrust coming from the left, one of the others snagged Zarek’s side with the point of his blade. He gritted his teeth against the pain, but he wasn’t going to give up so easily. They cut through his guard twice more. But the cuts weren’t deep, and he kept fighting.
He took down the three men and turned to find the last with his knife against Ana’s throat. “Stay where you are,” he demanded. “Drop your weapon.”
What choice did Zarek have but to obey? He dropped the sword.
“Give her to me and I’ll let you live,” Zarek said, staring into the man’s eyes. “If you hurt her, I will kill you.”
“You plan to kill me either way,” the man protested, beads of sweat standing out on his forehead.
“No. Put your knife down and you can walk away.”
“You think I would trust you after this?” He glanced toward his fallen companions.
“Your king wants her alive,” Zarek pointed out, edging slowly closer.
“A reward is no good if I’m dead!”
“The king will find out you killed her. No one wants that.”
“We’ll all be dead together!”
The Aran’s blade bit into Ana’s neck, and she screamed. Zarek dove toward the man, seizing his wrist in both hands. The girl rolled away from them as they grappled on the ground, fighting for control of the knife.
Zarek thought he had the man, until suddenly he rolled them both over and pinned Zarek. The knife was gripped in his hand, and Zarek still held his wrist, straining to hold the blade back as the man pushed it toward his chest.
The man lurched awkwardly forward, and Zarek used his momentum to roll them both. He drove the knife into the man’s body, and the man grunted in pain and went limp. Ana stood behind him with a heavy tree branch. She stared in shock at the dying man. Blood flowing from the cut on her neck stood out sharply against her pale skin.
Zarek tore a piece of fabric from the dead man’s tunic and held it against Ana’s cut. He could feel her shaking with shock. “You’re all right,” he said firmly. “It’s going to be all right now.”
She threw her arms around him, sobbing. “Where’s Dane? You said the ring could heal him? I saw them hurt him. He tried to keep them from taking me. We ran, but they followed. He fought all of them, but there were too many.”
They ran back the way they had come.
Dane lay where Zarek had left him. His hand no longer covered the wound. It had fallen to one side. A small trail of blood ran from Dane’s mouth.
Ana knelt beside him and put her hand on his forehead. “Heal him!” she cried. “I don’t know how to make it work! Tell me how to make it work!”
Dane’s eyes looked up at nothing. He lay utterly still. Zarek looked at the wound. Dane’s heart no longer pumped blood from the cut.
“You said I could heal him!” Ana yelled. “Why isn’t it working? Why?”
“He’s dead, Ana! It’s too late. Too late…” He dropped to the ground crying and holding onto his friend.
“He can’t be dead. You said the ring could heal any injury! We have to help him!” She shook Zarek’s arm.
He threw off her hands. “There’s no way to help him now!”
Zarek touched his friend’s face, and closed his empty eyes. The weight of it settled on him. Dane was dead. Zarek was the last one left to complete their quest. The fate of his nation rested on him now. All those people. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. What was he going to do?
Ana bent over Dane, sobbing. “He tried to save me. It’s my fault they killed him!”
Dane had been his friend for many years, and his only companion since they left Sarine nearly a year ago. He was the one who had guided them, and led them. How could Zarek do this alone? The grief stabbed at him as painfully as the sword blades had. His mind was exploding. How could he go on without Dane? These soldiers weren’t alone. Zarek had hoped to continue as they had been going, cross the bridge and follow the road into Sarine. If an army of Aran troops was between them and the bridge they didn’t have a chance that way.
“What do I do, Dane?” He realized he’d said the words out loud. Dane couldn’t answer him. And Zarek couldn’t talk like that in front of the girl. She looked to him to protect her.
He had to keep going.
As if waking up, he looked around and saw the sun lowering into the west. They needed to move. More soldiers could arrive at any time. He took a deep breath, and wiped his eyes.
He picked up Dane’s pack. There was something about looking at the pack, at Dane’s meager belongings that he’d carried so far. Zarek felt tears on his face as he transferred the food into his own pack, as well as Dane’s cloak and blanket.
Zarek looked around in the gathering darkness. The horses were gone, and the way north was blocked by the Aran army. He couldn’t go east toward Ara, and he couldn’t go back. To the west rose the mountains, the high peaks already capped with snow. Sarine and the safety of the Warding lay on the other side, if only they could reach them. They had to go through the mountains. And if Zarek was wrong, they would die. He wished Dane were coming with them. He always knew what to do.
Zarek looked down toward the road. As the evening darkened he could see watch fires that could only belong to the Aran army. Some of the small points of light were moving. Torches.
They were coming this way. It made sense that they would be coming, looking for their friends. Zarek gripped his fallen friend’s shoulder. “You were the best friend I ever had. Goodbye, Dane.”
“We have to go, Ana” he said. “They’re coming.”
She clung to Dane. “We can’t just leave him!”
“We have to.” He pulled her away. She struggled at first, but she knew what they had to do.