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Ann's published book
Read a chapter from the author's upcoming book: Ring Keeper
Ana loved the oak tree. 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. It 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.
After living in the noise and rush of the inn, she enjoyed the quiet of the woods. Now, she heard nothing but the murmur of leaves in the breeze. Ana wanted to stay until the sun set, but Fergen expected her back soon to help with the dinner rush. It had been the same every night for the seven years she’d lived at the inn. 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 peeked down through the branches.
Two strangers stood below her. Ana 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 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. Everyone in this place is in danger. If they were here last night, they’ll be here as soon as it gets dark. 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 wore a ring on her finger. On her deathbed, Grandmother had warned Ana never to tell anyone about it. The ring was like a part of her hand, and it wouldn’t come off no matter what she did, so Ana had always worn a little strip of cloth tied around her finger like a bandage to hide it. It was a daily reminder of the secret, but she’d given little thought to Grandmother’s warning 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. They come right to the tree.”
Ana pressed herself against the bark, out of sight, pulling her arms and legs close. These men were following her. Her stomach tightened. One of them was climbing now, and she heard his boots against the bark and the soft sound of his breath expelling as he pulled himself up. He had followed her into the tree and now he was going to find her. He soon appeared between the branches, and they stared at each other. Up close, he looked little older than the village boys who worked in the fields. His expression seemed friendly. And there was nowhere to go in the tree. He climbed fast, and she wouldn’t be able to get past him.
“I’m sorry I followed you. Please, don’t be afraid,” he said. His voice sounded kind. “We’re trying to find someone because she’s in danger and needs our help.”
Ana stared back at him. Could he know about the secret? Grandmother had been very clear that Ana should tell no one because it was 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 know about it?
“No. This village is poor. No one has jewelry.” She looked into his eye as she spoke the lie.
He returned her gaze. “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. What’s your name?”
“I promise we would never hurt you, Ana. 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 when I tell you we came to help?”
She looked into his eyes, reaching out with the extra sense she always felt when she was near someone. Ana could perceive the feelings of anyone close to 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. Without that perception, she would never have trusted this stranger, no matter what he knew about her secret.
She stared at him for a long moment. “I believe you,” she said.
His eyebrows raised in surprise. “Then it’s true? You have no reason to believe me, unless you trust me because you have the ring and you can tell what I feel.”
She nodded, able to sense that he was afraid, too, maybe of whatever had left its mark around the tree. Ana nodded toward the ground. “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, her eyes wide, and pulled her arms and legs tightly together. The village boys used to tell stories about demons just to frighten her. Everyone knew they would rip you apart. Now, it wasn’t just a story. The demons 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. She was fourteen years old. Too old to be crying like a baby. She didn’t want Zarek to notice.
“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 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 demons 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 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 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 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 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, 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 him. 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 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 did so much for me. You always 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. 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.
Ana stood beside Zarek. Fergen was gone. She had no one left except Zarek, and he was afraid too. He was tall and strong, and he was still afraid.
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 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 watching the door, tense and ready, the weapon in his hand.
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 called for help and she couldn’t do anything. How many were there? She heard a man scream first, then a woman.
Zarek drew his dagger and held it ready, his eyes on the door.
The people outside were near, just on the other side of the wall, close enough she could sense their pain. She collapsed to her knees, gasping for breath in shock and panic. Zarek turned from the door and knelt beside her, putting his hand on her shoulder.
Outside, it grew silent. Whoever had been out there, their pain had passed. Ana took a deep breath, then another. Zarek stood up and helped her back to her feet. Her knees felt wobbly, but she stood.
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 was the thing outside about to 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 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, 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 black things 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. Ana stopped on the brink of the cliff, frozen. Zarek drew his knife and placed himself between Ana and the demons. But there were too many enemies to fight, and they were running at them, their 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.
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