Chapter 28, Part 1

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Mara called a meeting so that she could bring everyone up to date. She sent a note via a housemaid to Ezra. Would he be free to join them for the evening? He assured her he would be happy to assist in any way possible. He offered the group a back room, but requested they dine first, as he could not attend until later. Then Mara sent messengers to Leala and Fidel to ask if they would join her. Within the hour, the couriers returned with acceptances from them both.

When the two oldtimers arrived at the inn, Celestine ushered them into the room. Upon meeting Dixon, they offered their sympathies on the loss of Rowena. Mara thanked them for coming. As she did, she couldn't help but notice, out of the corner of her eye, Dixon lost in conversation with, his rapt attention upon, Celestine.

After dinner Mara surveyed the group before her, pleased it had grown. Even so, she had to face reality. Missing only Ted and Faith, everyone who knew of the girls and wanted to assist with keeping them safe, sat before her. Thus, her assistants included Dixon, Basha, and Therese, two 'would be' Oathtakers, one cripple, one lactating woman who was hard to keep adequately fed and who was always slowed by the need to feed the infants, one very old woman, and one very, very old man. They all visited quietly, awaiting Ezra's arrival. Oh yes, and one spy, she added to her count.

A bustle came at the door. Mara, Dixon, and Basha, all jumped up at the same time.

"In there. Get him in there! Stop. Watch out!" Ezra shouted.

Mara reached for Spira. Her eyes darted to Dixon, who held his blade, Verity, and then to Basha who held her blade, Honora. Behind her, her friends pushed their chairs from the table. She surmised that Samuel and Jules prepared to jump into battle.

The innkeeper burst into the room. With Nancy's assistance, he held up a man. Behind him, two of his aids, Arne and Connell, dragged forward another man.

Having sheathed Verity, Dixon jumped toward them.

Nancy and Ezra placed the man they held into a nearby chair. He looked near death. Blood spotted his clothing. When he swayed to the side, nearly falling over, the barmaid aided him.

Ezra turned to Arne and Connell. Tattoos of flames covered the arms of the man they led in. When he tensed and contracted his biceps, the flames appeared to devour his flesh. He opened his dark eyes at half-mast and peeked out over his hooked nose, surveying the room menacingly.

Arne and Connell flanked their prisoner, holding him tightly, though they had bound him earlier with rope. Ezra stood before them, while Dixon remained to one side crouched to strike.

"Who are you?" the innkeeper asked.

The man lifted his chin and raised his brow. His eyes traveled down Ezra, then back up, as though sizing him up for battle. His sneer intensified, then he looked away.

"I asked, 'who are you?'"

The man took a deep breath in, then exhaled slowly as he rolled his eyes.

"He's coming to!" Nancy exclaimed.

Ezra shifted his attention to the man in the other chair. "Dooley!" he cried, placing his hand under the man's chin and lifting his head.

Dooley's eyes opened slowly, then closed again.

"Dooley, can you hear me?"

"He needs rest," Nancy said.

"We'll get him down shortly." The innkeeper turned his attention back to the stranger. "Are you going to speak or do we have to drag it out of you?"

"Where'd he come from?" Dixon asked.

"I stationed Arne and Connell near the city gates. They saw him following Dooley. They caught up with him shortly afterward, but by then he'd done his worst."

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