Editing is my favorite. Well maybe not. The Ring Keeper has been my biggest, most complex project so far. And this project has taken a long time! I have made some major changes, and I’d love your opinion. After much deliberation I changed the age of my main character from 10 to 14. I fought this change for years, but once I made it, I think it was the right thing to do. I also added some new information to the very beginning. So, If you’d like to take a peek…
Sarine Calendar, Year of Warding 15 Empire of Sarine
Rays of afternoon sun shone through the workshop’s windows onto his bench, the light illuminating the silver. It had taken years for Zarekathus to create the enchantments built into the ring. Now, with two taps of his hammer, he completed the final symbol engraved inside the band. The ring was beautiful as well as powerful. Setting it carefully in a small wooden box, he closed the lid. He had finally succeeded in creating a defense against the Shekkar and their deadly poison. After all these years, there would be a cure. Once they’d had a chance to test its function, Zarekathus could duplicate the ring. He would present it to Emperor Caldoreth and give him the task of finding a suitable person to wear it. It would have to be someone with great strength so the ring didn’t drain too much energy from them, but also someone who possessed great caring, because their determination to help others would cause the ring to work.
Zarekathus still held the box containing the enchanted ring as the door crashed open. He turned to see a tall man in a long dark cloak with a hood shadowing his features. Zarekathus didn’t need to see his face to recognize his old enemy. The air sizzled and crackled with power.
The man in the cloak didn’t speak as he strode into the room. He offered no warning before his attack. A surge of power charged at Zarekathus, smashing against his hastily conjured shield. Attacking and defending, he fought for his life.
One of the sudden attacks drove through his defenses, and Zarekathus felt the power drive into his body like a blade. Blood soaked his shirt. He heard a ringing in his ears and his vision was blurry. Desperately, he gathered his own attack, and when he heard his enemy grunt in pain, he knew he’d succeeded. He sent another attack after the first, this time driving the other wizard to his knees.
But the cost had been high. His assault had allowed his enemy’s power to strike him again, and he felt burning pain in his chest. Zarekathus couldn’t stay upright, and found himself on the floor as the dark wizard got back to his feet.
No. He couldn’t leave his enemy to go on with his work of conquest and destruction. He must be stopped. Zarekathus gathered the remains of his power, and sent a final attack. When it found its mark, the tall man in the cloak collapsed lifeless to the floor, blood pouring from a rent in his side.
Zarekathus heard footsteps and his granddaughter ran through the door, her eyes wide with horror at the destruction that once been his workshop. Her eyes landed on him.
He tried to speak. He didn’t want her to see this. But Zarekathus couldn’t get the words out.
Allia ran to him. “Grandfather! No! What did he do to you?” She gathered her apron into a ball and pressed it against the wound. Tears streaked her face.
Zarekathus could no longer see his fallen enemy. All he could see was Allia as she bent over him crying. “Allia,” he tried to tell her. The ring can heal. The ring… He held out his hand with the box still in it.
He blinked at her, and she was calling him, but her voice came from a long way away.
Sarine Calendar, Year of Warding Thirty-three, Bright Springs
Travelers rarely used the rutted dirt track running past the only inn in Bright Springs. But all morning, carts and wagons rolled along. Ana could see them through the windows as she cleaned the tables and swept the floors. The harvest was just beginning. It was too soon for anyone to be taking their crops to market, and it didn’t make sense for so many to be traveling.
By midday, the inn was packed. No one wanted a room for the night, but they all wanted a meal, and in the kitchen, Tari was preparing food as fast as she could. Ana ran back and forth with orders, coins and heavy trays laden with food. Fergen would be pleased. This might be the most profitable day he’d ever had.
Fergen entered the common room, leading another group to the last empty table. Ana hurried over to take their order. “I’m not staying in Gildan,” a big bearded man in the worn clothes of a farmer was telling Fergen. “Harvest or no harvest. My grandfather lived in the old kingdom more than sixty years ago. He was there when the kingdom fell. If the same thing is happening here, we want no part of it.”
“The same thing?” Fergen asked. “What are you talking about?”
“The village of Gildan was attacked,” the man growled. “And the day after, anyone who had gotten even a scratch was burning with fever. They were poisoned. I’m not the only one who remembers what happened in the dark times. It was the Shekkar.”
The room froze. Someone dropped a mug and it broke on the floor. A terrified silence replaced the voices.
“Are you telling me the Shekkar attacked Gildan?” Fergen finally asked into the ringing silence.
“They came in the middle of the night, and we didn’t see them, but I know it was them!” the man jumped back to his feet, facing Fergen.
“How? The Shekkar haven’t been seen for forty years. Not since Caldoreth destroyed them with his enchanted sword. Who could have brought them back?”
The bearded man shook his head. “Someone did. In the north, there have been rumors of them for years now, but they’ve never come anywhere near here. They attacked Gildan, and I’m not waiting around here for them to come after my family.” He waved a big hand at his wife and children, clustered around the table. He nodded toward the road, where wagons were still rolling along. “I’m not the only one who thinks so. We’ve worked all year for this harvest, and it makes me sick to leave before we can bring in it. But I’d rather be gone than dead.”
His words echoed around the room. The unnatural stillness dissipated slowly as the crowd resumed eating and talking. Their voices were hushed now. Ana gathered the broken pieces of the mug into her apron, collected a few coins, and left the farmer and his family with a pitcher and mugs while she went to the kitchen for their food.
Hours had passed before Ana and Fergen finished serving the midday meal. The inn’s kitchen was empty of food save for a few scraps, and an enormous stack of dirty dishes. Ana looked at Tari, her kind face dismayed at the pile. “What a day,” the cook exclaimed. “We’d better clean these quick. There will be more customers here tonight. Can you work on them while I start some meat roasting?”
Ana tied back her hair and was busy at the washtub when Fergen came in, running a hand through his gray hair. “Did you ever see such a crowd?”
“Not in Bright Springs,” Tari answered. “Did you find out where they’re going?”
Fergen glanced at Ana and gave the cook a warning look.
Ana pulled her arms from the dishwater to face him. “You don’t have to hide anything. I heard that man.” She was fourteen, not a small child who would wail and cry in fright. “What are the Shekkar?”
At the word, Tari dropped her platter onto the floor.
Fergen took a deep breath, his lips tight, and his face unsmiling. “They’re demons.”
When the dishes were finally finished and Fergen gave her permission to take a break, Ana left the kitchen and walked up the hill into the woods. It was quiet here. She craved the silence of the trees after the noise and hurry of the inn.
A little way up the hill, she came to her favorite oak tree. Over the years, she’d climbed it so many times that she had worn the bark on its limbs smooth from finding the same handholds 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, hidden from sight. This was her secret place. Beyond the edge of the woods, she could see houses and bits and pieces of the fields where farmers brought in their harvest. Nothing could be heard but the peaceful murmur of oak leaves in the breeze.
Ana wanted to stay until the sun set, but Fergen expected her back in time to help with the dinner rush. It had been the same every night for the seven years she’d lived at the inn, though today had been far busier than usual. Fergen, the kind old innkeeper, 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 looked down through the branches.
Two strangers stood below her. Ana knew everyone in Bright Springs, and she’d never seen these men before. Were they part of the crowd of travelers today? If that was true, what were they doing in the woods? Silently, she watched them. They wore packs on their backs, confirming her guess that they were traveling. The one with dark hair knelt 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. He frowned behind a short dark beard, 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 seen a weapon that big before.
“When?” The man with 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. They passed through Gildan on their way here. Everyone in this place is in danger. If they were here last night, they’ll be back as soon as it gets dark. She must be here, and we have to find 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, examining the ground. “These tracks don’t match the others. Someone walked here.”
Peering down between the branches, Ana watched him. He examined her tracks along the path she’d taken from the inn into the woods. No one had ever bothered to follow her before. She wasn’t important enough, unless it had something to do with her secret.
Ana possessed a strange ring. It was silver, set with a sparkling green gem. On her deathbed, her grandmother had warned Ana never to tell anyone about it. All these years, she’d worn the ring on a leather cord around her neck, hidden beneath her clothes. It was a constant reminder of the secret, but until now, she hadn’t given much thought to her grandmother’s warning. Sometimes she pressed her hand against the stone. It felt strange, like the ring had a life of its own.
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. They come right to the tree.”
Ana pressed herself against the bark, out of sight. These men were following her. Her stomach tightened. One of them had followed her into the tree. He was climbing now, and Ana heard his boots against the bark and the soft sound of his breath expelling as he pulled himself up. Soon, he appeared between the branches, and they stared at each other. Up close, he looked barely older than the village boys who worked in the fields. His expression seemed friendly. He had a straight nose and a strong jaw covered by a short beard.
“Who are you? And why are you following me?” she demanded. She didn’t know these men. Maybe they were dangerous.
The young man raised his empty hands palm out in a non-threatening gesture. “I’m sorry I followed you. Please, don’t be afraid,” he said. His voice sounded kind. “I’m trying to find someone. She’s in danger and we came to help.”
Ana stared back at him. That wasn’t what she’d been expecting him to say. What was he talking about? It almost sounded as if he knew about the secret. Grandmother had been very clear that Ana should tell no one because it was dangerous. Something terrible had been pursuing Ana years ago when she was a baby. Could it be the same thing that had left tracks all around her tree?
“Do you wear a ring? Silver, set with a green stone?”
Ana’s eyes widened. How could he know about it? Was he a friend, or an enemy pursuing her?
She stared back into his eyes, and held up her hands. “No. This village is too poor for anyone to wear jewelry.”
He returned her gaze. “I know it’s a secret. But if you have the ring, you’re in great danger.” He looked at her with serious gray eyes. “My name is Zarek. That’s Dane down there, and we came to help. May I ask your name?”
There was no way she would tell him her real name. “Ana.”
Zarek met her eyes. His expression was earnest. “I promise we would never hurt you, Ana. Whether you have the ring or not, we came to help. There are dangerous things in this world, and I’ve sworn an oath that when I find the girl with the ring, I will protect her and take her to safety. Do you believe me? There’s nothing we want from you. We only want to help.”
She looked into his eyes, and nodded toward the ground. “Tell me what made those tracks.”
He looked back at her as if he didn’t know what to say. He cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck. “Shekkar. Demons.”
Ana drew in a sharp breath, her eyes wide. The village boys used to tell stories about Shekkar just to frighten her. Everyone knew demons would rip you apart if they caught you. They had destroyed an entire kingdom, and their poison had killed thousands. Now, it wasn’t just an old story.
“And you think they’re following me?”
He stared at her for a moment before he nodded.
If the Shekkar were hunting her, they would kill her. She had no way to run fast enough or far enough to escape them. Tears welled in her eyes, and she blinked them back. Ana was too old to be crying like a baby. She didn’t want Zarek to notice.
“There’s no way to hide it now. They’re coming soon. We need to go!”
He was right. His words startled her into motion, and she began 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 Shekkar will follow her trail there. But the rest of the people should barricade themselves in their houses. I’ll meet you at the inn. Get her inside. Tell them to bar the doors.”
Ana led Zarek to the back door and she ran 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. “Hurry Ana, almost every table is already full.” His eyes tightened in suspicion as he looked at Zarek. “Who are you?”
“He says that we’re in danger and he came to help,” Ana explained.
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. “When? Who? Not the—”
“Shekkar. Demons of dark magic,” Zarek said. “My friend has gone to warn the rest of the village. The demons will be here soon. We need to bar the doors and windows. Get everyone out of here. Tell them to stay hidden indoors. Go now!”
Fergen ran back to the common room, and he only had to utter one strangled word, “Shekkar.” His customers scattered at his warning.
Ana helped Fergen pull the heavy shutters closed, and he dropped the latches into place. They barred the door.
“The demons are coming. 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, then looked back at the innkeeper. “They’re following her.”
Ana’s stomach clenched.
Fergen stood beside her and put his arm protectively around her shoulders. “If she’s in danger, I’m not leaving her.”
Ana turned to hug him tight. He had always treated her with kindness, even though she was only an orphan.
“There’s no way you can fight them,” Zarek said. “They’ll only kill you if you stay. Take the cook and run. Get somewhere 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’ve done so much for me. You always took care of me. 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. Then he pushed chairs and tables against the front door.
Outside, night 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.
Fergen was gone. No one was left except the two strangers. Zarek stood beside Ana.
Something outside clawed at the door, and Ana’s stomach clenched. It scratched at the walls, hunting for a way inside. A blow struck the door. It held. From the other side came a shriek of frustration. Ana cringed away from the sound.
Zarek gripped the hilt of his dagger and took a deep breath. His jaw clenched. Dane drew his sword and stood watching the door, tense and ready, the weapon in his hand.
From outside in the dark, they heard terrified voices and running feet. Someone was outside. They called out and Ana wanted to help them. How many were there? A man screamed first, then a woman.
Zarek drew his dagger and held it ready, his eyes on the door.
Outside, it grew silent. Whoever had been out there, they made no other sound. 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? Or 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 the others alone?”
“You can’t do that, Ana,” Zarek said firmly. “They can’t get the ring. If they 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 pounded in her throat. Zarek raised 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 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 home until it fell, unmoving.
“Run!” Zarek ordered, gripping her hand and 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. Zarek pulled her along, urging her to greater speed.
The night was quiet around them except for their rapid breathing and the sound of their feet pounding against the ground. Ana looked back over her shoulder and saw Dane behind them, running hard. Beyond him, black shapes followed. But Zarek was heading the wrong way.
“Don’t go—” she gasped, pointing ahead of them. “There’s—cliff—”
Zarek didn’t listen. For a few moments, they widened the gap between them and their pursuers. But the demons would soon cut off their escape. 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 glimpsed 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 Shekkar cut across the distance, heading straight for them, and they were gaining fast. Their quarry couldn’t outrun them.
Ana could hear the demons clearly now, and their horrible voices sounded triumphant. They were about to claim their prize. She stopped on the brink of the cliff, frozen. Zarek drew his knife and placed himself between Ana and the Shekkar. But there were too many enemies to fight, and they were running at them, black claws outstretched.
Zarek sheathed his knife and darted straight toward Ana. His shoulder slammed into her, his arm seized her waist, and his momentum propelled them out into the black abyss. Ana screamed as they fell.