Chapter 1, Part 2

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The rotting stench and the burning smell of sulfur disappeared with the grut. In its place, Mara again could make out the same sweet floral scent that had first moved her to follow the forest path she'd taken. She breathed in the heady perfume, closing her eyes for a moment to delight in its luxurious depth, then entered the hut and closed the door behind herself as well as she could, given its condition. She sought to be cautious against another possible grut attack, or from an assault by a stalker of any other sort. She glanced about, quickly taking in her surrounds.

On the cabin's walls hung shelves upon which sat simple earthenware jugs with faded, pocked exteriors. Likely they were for carrying water in from the river that ran behind the building, its gurgling once again audible. The surface of the simple dirt floor, packed down over many years, was smooth and shiny in spots. Scattered about were piles of dry decomposing leaves, various shredded linens, and a cape of the whitest, softest cashmere—a clear sign of extravagant wealth. Mara assumed the items belonged to the woman she found before her.

Great with child, the woman lay on the floor, a tattered moss green blanket mottled with grime beneath her. Blood spotted her clothing. Of an undetermined age—past the start of her third decade, but clearly not having seen the dawn of the first day marking her fourth—she boasted exquisitely flawless skin. It gave her an almost unearthly quality, though so wan, it nearly matched the white of the cape. Her face showed signs of great strain. Her breathing came short and perspiration stood out on her face and throat.

Fear in her brilliant green eyes, she turned her head to the side, waving her hand weakly, as though resigned to take whatever might come. Then she cast a furtive glance toward the door before settling her gaze back on the Oathtaker, a question in her eyes.

Mara edged closer, bending down, hands forward. "I'm an Oathtaker. I killed the grut, but I see I arrived too late. I'm so dreadfully sorry that they harmed you." She hung her head. "You know, there's nothing I can do now—except perhaps ease your pain and bring some comfort to your last hours. I'm so, so very sorry." She reached down and touched the woman, seeking to console her. "Here, I have some herbs with me and—"

"No," the woman whispered softly.

"No?"

"Not the grut." The woman placed her hand upon her midsection as her body tensed. She was in labor.

Trained to assist with injuries and illnesses, Mara had attended numerous birthings in the past. But what she saw before her now was unlike any birthing room she'd ever seen before. Quickly, she turned businesslike.

"What's your name?" She seemed to know instinctively that the woman needed to rely on another so that she could concentrate her efforts on the birth of her child. Mara's arrival, if it had been any later, would have been to no avail. As it was, she could only hope to save one of them—the woman or her child.

"I am," the woman began. Her voice broke. She gasped as another contraction took hold. When it passed, she continued, "Rowena."

"Good, Rowena. I'm Mara. I can help. Just relax. You're going to be fine. Now, let me take a look here." She removed Rowena's coverings, then touched her tentatively. "Just relax now, you're safe." She examined the woman. "The child is near. I need to go to the river for water, to get some supplies, and—"

"No," Rowena interrupted. "Please, listen . . . carefully." She struggled with each word, each breath.

"I'm listening. Take some steady breaths. That's it. Relax."

"I . . . will not survive this birth."

"Hush! Hush, now. Don't you say such a thing."

"I must tell you . . . Please, listen," the woman sputtered out between chokes and gasps. She grew ever more agitated. Though weak, she grasped Mara's wrist with urgency.

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