The ragged little army supporting Mara and the twins had been on the road for weeks. The intensity of the summer heat had passed and cool autumn days had descended. Leaves covering the ground snapped and crackled beneath the horses' steps. Soon fall would give way to winter.
Mara wearied of riding. With an outstretched arm, she signaled a halt. At that same moment, Samuel, riding forward, looked back. She waved at him to draw near.
"Are we lost?" Adele asked.
Mara laughed. "Lost? Goodness, no! We're too far away from home to be lost."
Laughter rippled through the air.
"What do you mean?"
"We have no idea where we are, and little idea of where we're going, so how could we be lost?" Mara chuckled, then looked the group over.
"What's on your mind?" Dixon asked her.
She patted Cheryl's neck. "I've been thinking," she paused, "and I'm not sure you're going to like what I've come up with. I mean, I know we've discussed this and have been planning to travel straight around the city to Lucy's, but . . ."
She dismounted, then stretched and bent, trying to loosen up. Her friends all waited for her, having become familiar with her way of pausing before sharing her thoughts.
"I think that going to Lucy's directly might be a mistake," she finally said.
"Why is that?" Basha asked.
"There's just so much we don't know. I think we need to find some resources. I know you've advised against it, but I would very much like to visit the library at sanctuary in the City of Light."
"Perhaps you can take a trip there by magic," Nina suggested.
"I've tried . . . unsuccessfully. I get the feeling I'm not to visit the city without the twins. What's more, they're coming up on their forty-ninth day. They could be—they should be—dedicated at sanctuary. And for now, the one in the City of Light is the nearest."
"Mara, you know that could be dangerous," Dixon said.
"Perhaps. But might it not be more dangerous to pass by when what we need most is information?"
He nodded. "Still, maybe the idea of traveling en masse to the city isn't . . . wise. We don't want to attract undue attention."
"Yes, I thought about that."
"You've a proposal then?"
"Just this: I think we should divide into two groups. We could meet in the city, even stay at the same place, but if we travel in fewer numbers we would attract less attention."
"What is it you expect to find there?"
She hesitated. "I can't say. I just know that some of the uneasiness I'm feeling is about passing by without stopping." She looked around. "Therese, you know what I'm talking about. I can tell. I see it in your eyes."
The woman nodded. "I'm not fond of the city. There are too many people there. Too many who might know Dixon—or me, for that matter. I've traveled in and out of it regularly in the past years, but I always kept a low profile. Still, I've felt much as you do. These questions about Lilith concern me. And I'm feeling more anxious about the crown, the sword, and the scepter, by the day."
"Oh?" This was news. Mara hadn't given any thought to them.
"The last I knew, the three items were in three different places. The crown is supposed to be in the city. I think we should confirm that it's safe. I'd hate to see Lilith get her hands on it. What's more, it's been weeks since we've heard any real news. Lilith isn't about to give up looking for the girls. Maybe the city holds some clues."
Mara turned to Dixon. "Do you know if the crown is still in the city?"
He shrugged and cocked his brow. "So far as I know."
"What about the scepter and the sword?"
"The scepter, unfortunately, is at the palace."
Mara grimaced. "And the sword?"
"Why did Rowena keep them separate?" Basha asked.
"The three items contain powerful magic and are intended for the leader of the Select," Dixon said. "Rowena knew she was in grave danger and feared someone might get them from her. So she had them split up. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think Mara might be onto something. I can't imagine what would happen if Lilith got her hands on the items. Mind you, I'm not overly concerned, but it would be good to confirm that the crown is still where Rowena left it."
Mara remounted. "Here's my proposal. The city is already in view. I say Dixon, Nina, Adele, the girls and I, will set out first. The rest of you could follow a short distance behind. We would meet up later. Any idea where we might stay when we arrive?" she asked, directing her question to Dixon.
"I've an old friend, Ezra. He owns a place he calls—don't laugh—The Clandest Inn."
Notwithstanding his caution, laughter rippled through the group.
"The Clandest Inn? Sounds rather shady. Who is this friend and can he be trusted?" Basha asked.
"Infallibly. Oh, he looks rough enough, but that's mostly a disguise." Dixon grinned. "He's one of us. He treated Rowena like his own sister. He's a former Oathtaker. Now he runs the inn, but makes his living on information. He has an entire network of spies. Most of them are in the city, but Ezra also stations spies throughout Oosa. He buys and trades information. When I need to know something, he's always my first stop."
"And he wouldn't sell or trade information about us?" Mara asked.
"Not a chance."
"You said he was a former Oathtaker," Basha said. "What's the story there?"
"You'd never guess."
"Assassin?" Nina asked.
"No," Dixon grinned, "his charge died of pure, old fashioned, old age."
"Why, that's the first encouraging news I've heard in some time!" Therese jested.
"Very well then," Mara said, "are we all in accord?"
Her friends signified their agreement.
"Can we make it to the inn before nightfall? If not, we could camp the night and go in the morning."
Dixon looked into the distance. "We should be able to make it before dusk. We've traveled quite slowly today, so it shouldn't be necessary to stop again until this evening, and really, it's not far from here."
Once he informed the others how to find The Clandest Inn, Mara and Dixon set out. Along the way, they discussed what information they might find at sanctuary.
***Thank you for taking time with Oathtaker. I sincerely appreciate your votes and welcome your comments.***
Oathtaker is an award-winner in the 2014 Readers' Favorite International Book Award contest. A completed work, it is currently available in print form at CreateSpace at createspace.com/4767727, in print and for your Kindle on Amazon (see the link) and from Barnes and Noble for your Nook.
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An Oath Sworn. A Struggle Engaged. A Sacrifice Required. When Mara, a trained Oathtaker, is drawn by the scent of the Select to battle underworld beasts summoned by powers of evil to destroy the guardians of life, she swears a life oath for the prot...