Chapter 1, Part 3 (End Chapter 1)

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Mara watched his easy touch, saw his shoulders sag, and his eyes pressed closed. She knew that look.

"You loved her." She hadn't intended to speak the words out loud, but there they were—hanging in the air.

"Well," he said, clearing his throat, obviously restraining himself, "of course I cared deeply for her. She was my charge. She's been my charge . . . for some time now. I've forgotten what life is without her."

"No, that's not all. You . . . loved her. I can see it in your eyes, in your touch, in—"

"She was my charge!" He held Mara's gaze, as though daring her to challenge him further.

She said nothing. Perhaps he was trying to convince himself, but she wondered.

"You do understand the significance of the oath you just swore?" he asked, scornfully.

Of course she did. An Oathtaker's vow came with commitments. Mara hadn't given it much thought earlier, but when she swore her oath, she had sealed the deal. Her word bound her to the twins for so long as they lived. She could no longer follow another path.

In the moment she took her vow, Ehyeh bestowed gifts upon her, attendant magic and continued youth. She would not physically age until the death of her charge. Only then could she begin her life anew, follow other dreams. The same had been true for Dixon while his charge had lived. But what did his denial mean? What was he trying to imply? That because he'd sworn to accept Rowena as his charge, he'd not still been vulnerable to his own feelings, longings, desires? Had he been one who'd fallen into the state of pain that came with loving someone while subject to his oath?

"Of course I do," she confirmed.

He folded Rowena's arms across her breast, then brought the coverings up to her shoulders, as though to keep her from getting chilled. His trembling hands stopped every few moments to stroke her hair. Mara could see he warred with himself—wondering whether to keep his former charge in sight, or to cover her, or look away so he could deny to himself the reality of her death.

Not wanting to further interrupt him in his grief, Mara stepped out of the hut with the infants. She found a private space behind some shrubbery where she quickly changed out of her now bloodied Oathtaker's garb.

On the ground nearby, she found a basket. She picked it up and examined it. Although worn, it was sturdy. She placed Eden inside, then removed the last of her blankets from her bag. She wrapped Reigna up to her front side, and then grasped the basket's handle, leaving one hand free.

Stepping back inside the hut, she picked up Rowena's things scattered about. She examined each item briefly: a beautiful silver compact, a hair pin studded with small crystals in various colors, and the shawl. She placed them in her bag.

"I have to go. Rowena thought her children would be in great danger and I suspect she was right. I don't believe there's been a seventh seventh for . . . What? A couple hundred years or more? Reigna is likely the child we've all been waiting for. And that says nothing for Eden. Twins . . . It's never been heard of—a Select bearing twins," she whispered. "In any case, I promised I'd take the girls to safety at once."

"Reigna? Her name is Reigna?" Dixon raised grief-stricken eyes. "And Eden?"

Suddenly Mara felt deeply sorry for her fellow Oathtaker, and badly for having lashed out earlier. She looked away. His pain was too real. It made her feel as though she eavesdropped.

"Yes," she finally said, "the eldest is Reigna, the youngest Eden. Rowena named them herself. I took my oath while she still lived, and I intend to abide by it. So, I have to go. These babies will wake soon, and they'll wake hungry. My first order of business is to find milk for them—perhaps a wet nurse." She made her way to the door.

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