Chapter 9, Part 1

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Lilith rode at Dixon's side. Her presence unnerved him. She'd always been insincere, but now he knew that she was also a traitor to her own kind. He pondered why she'd do such a thing.

He knew the leader of the first family, upon reaching her full power, needed to solidify her standing with her siblings if things were to run smoothly. Unfortunately, once Rowena had accomplished that—or at least thought she had—she'd largely ignored the others. She'd been so involved with her plan for her daughters that she left the affairs of her larger family unattended. But when a leader did not function successfully as the head of the family, the other members could get out of line. Apparently Lilith had done just that.

Dixon was surprised that he and Rowena had missed the signs, but then she never wanted to think badly of anyone. Still, Lilith was a typical sixth. Bent on having her way, she was driven by things of the flesh. She took the idea of freedom to its ultimate. To her, true freedom meant the liberty to do as she pleased. She epitomized selfishness. If one were to speak to her about the needs of others, her response would not be: "What others?" Rather, it would be: "There are others?" To Lilith, the only thing of importance—was Lilith.

She rambled on about something. Dixon, lost in thought, didn't want to listen to her, but neither could he be rude. He needed to get along with her for the time being, though he really wanted to squeeze the life out of the woman. The only good thing for now was the only thing that mattered: Mara had escaped.

"I'm sorry, what did you say? I can't seem to concentrate with this ridiculous band you put on me." He held his arm up, showing the bracelet of magic she'd placed there—a bracelet that could only be removed by Lilith herself, since she'd placed it there, or by her Oathtaker, or by an Oathtaker who ranked higher than Dixon—which left only Mara since her charge included a seventh seventh, or by the Council if its members unanimously agreed to its removal.

He fussed with the band, but of course, it was as one with his skin. A stranger would take it for a permanent body painting. "You know this is not necessary."

"Dixon, you really need to pay better attention," she pouted. "I said Pompom is going to have puppies! Won't that be so much fun? Can't you just see all the little Pompoms running and playing?" She tittered and giggled.

She looked ridiculous behaving as she did. He recognized it as her way of keeping people off balance. She might be despicable, but Ehyeh knew she was no fool.

He'd have to be careful with her. But how long did she intend for him to stay at Shimeron? How long would she keep him banded? He wanted to get back to Mara and the twins as quickly as possible, but in the meantime, he'd glean what information he could from the palace staff. Blast! How could Rowena and I have missed this?

" . . . and so I told her that— Dixon. Dixon! Are you listening to me?"

"I'm sorry, I seem to be lost in thought today."

"Well I must say, you generally pay better attention to me. Something on your mind?"

"This band, for one."

"Oh, never mind. It's nothing." She waved her hand in dismissal.

"It is not nothing, Lilith. It means you don't trust me. How could you do this?"

"You know you must answer to the Council. I'm just making sure I can deliver you to them, as is necessary. When you're cleared of any wrongdoing, the band will come off, of course."

"I've done nothing wrong."

She looked at him, still sulking. "Nothing wrong! But you're not even paying attention to me!"

He sighed. He couldn't stand this for long. "Just missing Rowena, I suppose."

"Terribly sad, yes." Lilith didn't sound in the least like someone who'd suffered a loss. Portraying grief went beyond her acting skills.

"Really, it's not important that I go to Shimeron. I want to see my family. I haven't been home for a long time. I could check in with the Council on my way."

"I insist you accompany me. I want to be there when the Council meets to hear the whole story, and to congratulate you when they find you without fault. Besides, I want you to help to keep me safe now that you don't have to watch out for Rowena."

"That's not my job. Marshall is your Oathtaker. He takes good care of you. What's more, as you well know, I can't use any of my attendant magic so long as I'm banded."

"Well Marshall is just . . . boring, that's what! He's not at all like you. I want you to be my Oathtaker, Dixon."

"I can't, Lilith. You know that."

"Well that's what I want."

He turned to face her. He took hold of her reins and brought her mount to a halt.

"That is horrible of you to say. Marshall puts his life on the line for you every day, and you don't make things easy for him. He answered the Good One's call and accepted you as his charge. You should have more respect for him."

Dropping her reins with a flick of his wrist, he urged Sherman forward. He might have to accompany her until he could get the accursed band off, but he didn't have to be near her or to listen to her every word.

She rode back up to his side. "Of course you're right, Dixon. It's just that," she fluttered her eyelashes, "I so enjoy your company. I—"

"Stop it." He set his jaw tight. Refusing to listen to any more, he rode ahead to accompany the most forward members of her escort.

Fields of long grasses spread out as far as the eye could see. A hawk flew overhead, its wings caught in a warm air current. Meadowlarks sang from unseen perches, accelerating their melodies, dropping into jumbling whistles, then moving back again into new songs. A marsh to the side of the roadway boasted cattails reaching up, their seeds just beginning to break free, looking as though they were begging for someone to pet them.

"Hello, I'm Dixon," he said to the head guard as he reached the man's side.

"Dixon," the man repeated with a nod, "Miles." He was dressed, as were all of the members of the palace guard, in dark gray pants and jacket, with black polished boots.

"I don't remember meeting you at the palace before."

"No. Just moved up in rank recently."

"How long have you been on the road, Miles?"

"We left long before dawn."

"What prompted the trip?"

"A rider arrived at the palace in the wee hours, demanding to see Lilith. He carried a message for her eyes only. She was awakened and met with him. Minutes later, she ordered us to get her things ready to leave immediately."

Dixon mulled this over. Likely, the men at sanctuary were the same ones who'd questioned Drake and Maggie. Had those men sent word ahead? Had his old friends told them about Polesk? If so, he couldn't fault them. He just felt terrible for having put them in danger in the first place. So, what might they have found out? If they were decent trackers, or depending upon what Drake and Maggie had told them, Lilith might know, or might soon discover, that he'd not been traveling alone.

"And you rode straight to Polesk?"

"That's right. Lilith insisted we move quickly. We didn't stop at all on the way."

The horses' gait kept a steady rhythm. Their earthy, sweaty smell filled the air. Ears alert, tails swishing, they raised dust that now covered the entire retinue.

Dixon rode side by side with Miles in silence, pondering what Lilith might be planning. He might not be safe with her. Then again, if she thought he had any information, she wouldn't want him harmed. Still, he'd best be on guard. The woman wasn't to be trusted.

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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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