Chapter 3, Part 3 (End Chapter 3)

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A hot breeze blew steadily. The sun, past its zenith, burned strong. With a long day of traveling already behind them, Mara's back ached from carrying Reigna strapped to her front side, as well as Eden's basket.

She slumped to the ground at the edge of the trail and leaned against a small cottonwood, its leaves shimmering in the faint breeze. She needed to get off her feet, if only for a short time, and to cool down.

Dixon, who'd gone ahead as usual, turned around as he rarely but at least occasionally did. He turned back.

"We'll need more milk for the girls soon. They're going through what we got from Drake and Maggie quickly," she said as he approached.

"Hmmm."

"So we're headed to Polesk, right?" she asked, in an attempt to open a conversation. He'd said next to nothing all day.

"Mmhmmm."

She sighed. His reluctance to speak frustrated her.

"We'll need to make camp soon," he finally offered. "Early tomorrow we'll reach a village where we can get horses and more milk."

"Good. By then, according to your best guess, our window of protection will have nearly expired. Is that right?"

"Mmhmmm."

She shook her head, struggling not to be annoyed.

"I've been thinking about what Drake and Maggie said. I've been on the run and keeping a low profile for some time, but even then I've heard some troubling things."

His speaking surprised her. "Such as?" she asked.

He fumbled through his pack for their foodstuffs. He broke off a piece of bread and ate it. When Mara held her hand open, he tore some off and handed it to her. She was gratified that he looked embarrassed for not having offered on his own. Then he motioned for her to help herself to the rest of the food.

"And?" she urged again.

"I don't know how much you know about—shall we say, politics—in these parts, but for some years Oosa has kept a close eye on the goings on in Chiran. Zarek, the leader there, has made it quite clear that he intends to expand his sphere of influence. He means, some would say, to 'take over the world.'"

"Good work if you can get it, I suppose."

"Hmmm."

No laugh. Has he no sense of humor? Or did he just not find that amusing? "So what do the plans of this—Zarek—have to do with our finding a wet nurse for the girls?" It was frustrating having to drag information from him bit by bit . . . by bit.

He shrugged. "Word is that he's building himself an army in an unconventional manner. He's been supportive . . . No, that's not quite right. He's been instrumental in the cause to 'rid the world' of the Select. Zarek encourages the birth of all Chiranian boys. He gives gold and other favors to the parents of boys. Not so for girls. As a result, there's been mass infanticide of girls born in Chiran."

"I'd actually heard things to that effect, but I found them too awful to believe."

"Let that be a lesson to you," he chided. "Wanting or not wanting something to be so, doesn't make it so, any more than repeating a lie makes it the truth."

"Yes of course, Dixon, I'm well aware of that." Goodness, he's exasperating! "I misspoke." She paused, annoyed. "What I meant to say was that the plan sounds so awful, it's difficult to believe anyone would agree to it."

"Make no mistake. Zarek keeps much truth from the Chiranians. They do as their 'great leader' says for fear of losing their own lives if they don't. He's convinced them that the Select are the scourge of the world, responsible for all their ills. Some say he's added Oathtakers, and even simple believers, to the list of infidels he tells his people he must rid the world of." He scowled.

Mara nibbled at her bread. "So you were saying how this relates to our finding help for the girls."

Just then, as on cue, Reigna fussed. Soon it turned to full out crying. Mara offered her some milk. The infant suckled hungrily, then turned her face away and cried again. After several more efforts to get her to eat, she did, greedily.

Dixon waited for the infant to quiet down, all the while watching the trail ahead.

Farmland surrounded them in sections of green and gold. An occasional lone oak spotted the scenery, stretching its mighty arms toward the sun as though trying to catch it. Along the pathway, intersecting the jumble of fields and outlining the way forward, trees and berry bushes, haystacks and fencing, stood out.

"Go on," Mara urged after quieting the infant.

He drank warm water from his canteen with a grimace. "Zarek encourages the death of infant girls. While most Chiranians buy into his plans, some refuse. I suspect that those who refuse include young women who have daughters, or who fear they will, so they escape Chiran."

"Very brave of them."

"Hmmm." He collected the remaining food, wrapped it back up and placed it in his pack, then stood and paced.

Mara finished with Reigna, then fed Eden. Sounds of the child's suckling carried through the air.

"I'm not quite sure what killing infant girls has to do with raising an army," Mara finally said, breaking the silence.

"Zarek wants a large army—and a hungry one. An army hungry for anything can be troublesome, but one clamoring for the things, including the women that only its leader can provide through successful warfare, can be awesome in its strength. I believe Zarek thinks it will make the men more pliable, that they'll make better warriors." He urged Mara by his actions to prepare to move out.

"So?"

Sighing, he responded. "So I suspect he intends the women of the places he conquers will be 'spoils of war' for his men."

"Uggghhh!"

"Hmmm, right." He took another drink.

"Have you wondered at all if—well, if it's wise to trust the girls to a Chiranian?"

"One who's shown she rejects all Zarek offers? I think so. In the end, I suppose there might be some danger with such a woman, but we'd know by her actions at least, that she seems to be in agreement with our cause."

"Our cause?"

"The cause of life and of freedom of course, which essentially is the cause of Ehyeh, the Good One."

"Maybe you're right." She put Eden into her basket and strapped Reigna back to her front side. "All right then, let's go."

Dixon helped her up, then took her bag and Eden's basket. To her great relief, she now carried only Reigna's extra weight tied to her front side in a makeshift baby-carrier.

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