Chapter 32, Part 1-2

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The men had dealt with similar circumstances before. Each time they eventually overcame the Oathtaker, but never without some cost to their ranks. If Mahlon didn't cease in his endeavors, he would go down. Depending upon the woman's skills, others might join him.

Mahlon stood on the balls of his feet, ready to spring forward at the slightest opportunity. In his indecision, and at least partial intoxication, he rocked unsteadily, then glanced at the surrounding gang. With words and hip thrusting gestures, they urged him on.

Lilith sighed and stepped forward. She should let them take what they had coming, but it wasn't worth losing more of the soldiers over such foolishness. Before she made her way to the front, Mahlon rushed the woman.

In a flash, she let loose her blade. It landed with a thud in his chest. He stopped in his tracks, then staggered back. He made to advance again, but before he could take another step, started falling.

The Oathtaker rushed forward, grasped her blade, yanked it out, then pushed his body away. The thud, as it hit, shook the ground. Blood splattered and within moments, started to pool around the dead man's body.

In little more than a heartbeat, the Oathtaker had armed herself once more. She hunched into a battle position. Her eyes darted around at her captors. Her head snapped from side to side. "Who's next?"

Lilith watched the men. One stepped forward, hesitated, then returned to his former position. With Mahlon's fall, the woman had checked their bravado, but oafs that they were, more would surely fall as they continued in their efforts to subdue their quarry. One more, two more, three more of them might die, but in the end, they would disarm the woman.

Lilith stepped out from the midst of the crowd, then turned and scowled at the men. They all stepped back upon recognizing her, shuffling their feet. She turned to the Oathtaker. "That will be quite enough."

The young woman looked intensely at the newcomer. She started to bring her weapon down, then jumped back into a fighting crouch when one of the thugs took another step toward her.

"I said, that will be quite enough," Lilith repeated, her voice raised.

The soldiers all looked downward as though suddenly enamored with whatever was at their feet.

"Be off with you."

They moved away, quiet at first, but their mumblings, oaths and curses rose in volume as their distance increased.

"And who might you be?"

The Oathtaker lowered her blade. "I was about to ask you the same thing." She pulled her dark auburn hair back.

Lilith crossed her arms, set her lips, and glared.

The Oathtaker's eyes narrowed. "Lilith? Are you Lilith?"

"Who else would I be?"

"But—but—"

"But what?"

"It's just that I'm . . . I didn't . . . That is—"

"You didn't expect me here?"

"Exactly! And with these—these—"

"Cretins?" Lilith completed the woman's sentence, distain in her voice.

"Well, yes. That is—"

"They're here at my bidding. Have you a problem with that?"

"Oh, no!" The woman smiled, exposing a single small dimple on one side of her mouth. "I was just surprised, that's all."

"Well now that you know in whose presence you stand, perhaps you could fill me in on who you are and what you're doing here."

The young woman bowed. "Excuse me, Lilith, ma'am. I am Velia. Velia Bettina."

Lilith looked hard at the Oathtaker whose clear brown eyes flitted about, constantly surveying her surroundings. "Where's your charge, Velia?"

"Oh, I've no charge."

"No?"

"No, my charge is . . . deceased. I've not been called to serve again."

"Pray tell, Velia, what brings you here?"

The Oathtaker sheathed her blade. "I was taken prisoner."

Lilith smirked. "Prisoner. Surely you don't expect me to believe that. I've seen you in action."

"Nevertheless, it's true."

Lilith admired the young woman's gumption in the face of her superiors. "How could you be taken prisoner with an Oathtaker's blade at the ready?"

Velia grinned, once again flashing her dimple. "Well, like I said, it's true I was taken prisoner. It's just not . . . Well, it's not the whole truth."

Lilith waited. When the young woman said no more, she resumed her questioning. "And the rest of the truth would be?"

"Those men, those . . . thugs, entered our village. They took some of the women captive. I could have protected myself, but thought I'd go along to find out what they were doing. So I allowed them to take me with the others." As Velia spoke, the sound of a woman's scream pierced the air. She winced. "What's going on?"

"These men are here at my bidding, as I said."

"But what in the name of Ehyeh could you want with such—barbarians?"

"Not that it's any business of yours, Velia, but they're here to protect me."

"But what of your Oathtaker?"

"Again, that is none of your concern, but I've released him."

"Oh, gracious Ehyeh! Your Oathtaker failed in his duty? Has not another been called to your service?"

Lilith sighed. The young woman certainly was persistent. She considered what to do with her, then smiled weakly.

"I'm sorry, Lilith. I mean no disrespect."

"I wonder, Velia, if you could assist me."

The Oathtaker bowed. "Most certainly. I am at your service."

"Very well then." Lilith turned to Freeman. "See her to the wagon next to my own. Do not let any of the others near her—on pain of death." She turned back to the young woman. "Will those arrangements be satisfactory?"

Another scream carried through the night air.

"Certainly, Lilith, but—"

"But?"

"But what of the others? What of the women those thugs took captive?"

"What of them?"

The Oathtaker's mouth dropped open. She took a deep breath. Could she do this? Could she remain in this place that reeked of evil? Could she stand by while Lilith allowed the most criminal of acts to go on?

She squared her shoulders. "I understand, Lilith. I'm sure you have many things to consider in your position. Please, forgive me for questioning you."

"Oh, Velia, of course, there's nothing to forgive, I'm sure."


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