After some minutes the group arrived at a large oak beam house in the midst of town. The dwelling was worn, but sturdy. The walkway leading to the front door was void of all vegetation but for a few scraggly weeds that had found purchase along the edges of the house. Clothing hung on lines running from the side of the building to poles in the yard where a handful of children played. Chickens rambled aimlessly, pecking at the grain and gravel on the ground near an outbuilding behind the house.
Francis stepped inside. An array of sandals on the floor and shawls hanging from pegs, greeted him. Two young women sat before him, one discreetly nursing an infant, a lightweight blanket draped over her shoulder.
A large tabby watched the party as it entered. It flicked the end of its tail. Mara stroked the feline behind its ears. It lifted its head, pushing back toward her as though to ask for more, then purred raucously.
"Hey!" shouted Francis. "Hey, Ma?"
A woman stepped into view. Her wavy graying hair was in a bit of a fuss. Her eyes, the color of a mid-summer sky, lit up. Her smile warmed her face, softening her otherwise sharp features. She grabbed a cloth from the waist of her white apron, which sported clear signs that dinner was in process. Flour dusted its surface along with various smudges and stains. Wiping her hands and walking with a slight limp, she made her way to his side.
"Francis! Wherever have you been?" She placed her arm around him and nudged him. "Shame on you for staying away so long."
"Ah, Ma, stop. You saw me just last week." He ruffled her hair just as he'd earlier done to Patrick's. "I suppose, next thing, you'll accuse me of keeping you from your grandson."
"Oh, have no fear. Nothing can keep me from my boy. Isn't that right, Patrick?" She squatted down beside the child and embraced him. She flicked and fluffed at his hair.
Mara grinned at the family resemblances in both looks and mannerisms.
As though noticing for the first time that Francis and Patrick were not alone, the woman stood again and looked at her guests. Seeing the infant in Mara's arms and hearing it whimpering, she reached out. "May I?"
Mara handed over the fussing child. "Plenty to go around you might say," she said as she reached inside the basket that Dixon held to uncover the as yet silent Eden.
"Goodness!" The woman turned her attention to the babe in her arms. "My, my, what a beauty. Who have we here?"
"This is my mother, Faith," Francis said, then completed the introductions.
"Mara's sister died bearing that little beauty you're holding and her sister."
As though on cue, Reigna cried loudly. Seconds later, Eden fidgeted, displaying signs of distress as well.
"They wondered if we might know of someone willing to accompany them back to Mara's home and . . . Well, they're looking for someone for the long term, a wet nurse for the twins."
"What? Have the little ones no names?" Faith asked.
"That's Reigna you're holding, and this is Eden," Mara said. "Do you think you could help us?"
Faith and Francis glanced at one another. He raised his brow in question.
"By golly, I think you're right," she said as though she'd read his mind. She looked back to her visitors. "A young woman came to us just a couple days ago. She escaped Chiran, bearing her child on the way. Unfortunately, her daughter did not make it. Of course, Nina is devastated."
Francis patted his mother's shoulder. "I mentioned her to them."
Just then, a slight young woman in a light blue cotton dress and wearing tattered sandals, walked into the room. Her skin was as bronze, her hair so black and shiny that it had an almost purple cast. It lay long and straight down her back. Her eyes, dark as night, were red and puffy from crying.
Faith waved the newcomer forward. "Come, Nina. Come here, child. I'd like you to meet some new friends of ours." She introduced her visitors.
Nina nodded with each introduction, but the sight of the twins distracted her. The longing and suffering in her eyes was palpable.
Faith cocked her head and raised her brow, gazing at Mara. She was leaving it to her visitors to speak to the young woman.
Mara reached her hands out. Palms up, her eyes meeting Nina's, she invited the young woman to place her hands there. Understanding the invitation, Nina did. She looked down, back up at Mara briefly, then down again.
"Nina, we've come for help. Francis and Faith, may Ehyeh bless them, suggested that you may be the answer to our prayer. You see the girls here? This is Reigna." Mara stroked the infant's cheek. "And this," she continued, gesturing toward the basket, "is Eden. The girls' mother died a couple days ago. I need a nurse for them. That is, I need someone who can help me to mother them. You know, to nurse them when they're hungry, to comfort them when they're sad, to . . . Well, I'm sure you understand. In any case, I was wondering, would you be willing?"
The young woman burst into tears. She clasped Mara's hands tightly, then showered them with kisses. "Oh, you answer my prayers," she said between her kissing and crying. "Two babies. Two! Oh, which first?"
She released Mara and reached for Reigna. Faith placed the swaddled, fussing infant into her arms. Nina then took up Eden's basket.
Spotting a chair that caught her fancy, she went to it, then sat down. She took a lightweight blanket from the back of the chair, placed it over her shoulder, and commenced nursing Reigna. In that moment, her entire persona changed. Like the tabby sitting next to the front door that had purred at Mara's touch, her eyes closed as she rocked, humming ever so lightly, the faintest of smiles upon her face.
***Thank you for taking time with Oathtaker. I sincerely appreciate your votes and welcome your comments.***
Oathtaker is an award-winner in the 2014 Readers' Favorite International Book Award contest. A completed work, it is currently available in print form at CreateSpace at createspace.com/4767727, in print and for your Kindle on Amazon (see the link) and from Barnes and Noble for your Nook.
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An Oath Sworn. A Struggle Engaged. A Sacrifice Required. When Mara, a trained Oathtaker, is drawn by the scent of the Select to battle underworld beasts summoned by powers of evil to destroy the guardians of life, she swears a life oath for the prot...