Chapter 1, Part 3 (End Chapter 1)

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Just over six foot tall, he stood lean, but strong. A man in his prime, he'd taken on all of the bulk and muscle of a life of discipline. Bent forward in a fighting stance, his feet slightly apart, his breathing came rapid and deep, like that of a bull whose space had been invaded. In a single glance his piercing blue eyes inventoried all of the details of the cabin's interior. Glaring, they flickered past Mara, rested on Rowena's face for the briefest moment, then turned back to the Oathtaker. He reached up and back.

His eyes held a look of murderous intent. Fearing she and the babies were in danger, Mara reached for Spira, her only remaining weapon. Even had it not been so, it would have been her weapon of choice, as an Oathtaker's blade never misses its mark. Grasping it firmly, she slipped Spira from its sheath and let it fly. The weapon sped through the air straight toward the heart of the threatening intruder.

As she released Spira, the man loosed a nearly identical blade. In that moment, they both knew that the other was an Oathtaker.

The blades stopped and hovered in mid-air, each just inches from its intended target, for while an Oathtaker's blade will never miss its mark, it will never harm an Oathtaker—with one exception: were an Oathtaker's blade to be used against its owner, his death would be instant.

Mara and the stranger looked at one another's blades and then, simultaneously, they glanced up. Their eyes met.

The newcomer spoke first. "An Oathtaker?"

"Yes, as I see, are you. I'm Mara. Mara Richmond."

"Hmmm," was his curt reply. Then he said simply, "Dixon." He grasped Spira as Mara clasped his blade. Each offered the weapon of the other to its owner and then both returned them to their sheaths.

Dixon moved forward. "Rowena. Rowena, I'm here." Gently, he shook her.

Mara watched, her eyes riveted, expectant.

Upon touching the woman, Dixon's eyes turned quickly from the soft glance he'd given her, to a kind of madness. He jumped up and glared. "What have you done?" he hissed.

"What have I done?" Mara crouched down, pulled away the blanket that covered Rowena, then carefully took into her arms first Reigna, then Eden. She stood back up, holding herself as tall as she could. She glared. "What have I done? Oh, nothing! Oh, well that is, except—ahhh . . . well . . . let me think here . . ."

She hesitated, playacting. "Oh, yes, I remember now. I took down a full pack of grut, helped Rowena birth these beautiful children, accepted them as my charge, saw to it that she released her power with her dying breath, comforted her in her last moments . . . Shall I go on?" She took a deep breath. "What have I done? Who are you to accuse me of anything? I have done my duty!"

"I am her Oathtaker. That's who I am!"

"Were," Mara snapped. "You were her Oathtaker. She's dead. Or did I forget to mention that? So I might ask—what have you done? Where were you when she so clearly needed you? The truth is, if I hadn't arrived when I did, I expect we would have lost them all!" Her eyes remained fixed on him.

After some seconds, he looked away. "Dead," he whispered.

She couldn't tell if he was stating the fact, or asking if it was true. Considering the shock he must be feeling, she decided that arguing with him would not be in anyone's best interests. She recalled that above all, she must get the girls to safety quickly.

"I'm sorry, I did all I could. Rowena had lost too much blood before I arrived. She was a fighter, I know."

He didn't take his eyes from his former charge. He dropped to his knees at her side. Taking her hand into his own, he lifted it to his cheek and closed his eyes. His breathing slowed. His jaw set. Mara sensed he fought back tears. Slowly, he leaned forward to stroke the woman's cheek, then her hair. Finally, he bowed his head and audibly exhaled.

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