The small thatched cottage showed signs of wear. It leaned slightly to one side as though it had grown weary of holding its own weight and rested on one hip. Planters at its windows sported scented violas, while a large flowerpot at the steps provided an assortment of herbs at the ready for kitchen use. The citrusy scent of lemon thyme, the clean smell of lavender, the earthy scent of oregano, the freshness of mint, and the piney aroma of rosemary, filled the air.
Upon the cleanly swept porch sat a full rain bucket near the front door. A dipper hung over its side.
Dixon approached, but didn’t knock. “Drake!” he called out over the infants’ cries. “It’s your old friend, Dixon. Dixon Townsend. Are you in?”
Mara started. “Dixon Townsend!” she whispered. “Townsend? Like of the Brecken Townsends?”
He shrugged off the query. “Drake!”
She remembered hearing stories about the Townsends at her local hood. There was something about their having served as Oathtakers to some of the more famous Select in years past, and of their having assisted with Oosa’s governing Council. Was there some kind of scandal, too? Yes, there was something, but just what, she couldn’t recall.
The door cracked open. The light of an interior lamp made a silhouette of Drake’s frame. His wild gray hair stood up as though it had somewhere it would rather be going. His ears, somewhat pointed, made him appear almost elfish. When he turned, the light caught his face. Time had begun to tell its story there. It was the tale of a man who loved to laugh.
“Dixon, old friend! May the Good One bless and keep you. What brings you out on a night like this?”
“Oh, just helping a friend to make her way back home. We ran into a bit of trouble and I’m afraid we’re in need of a hand. We hoped you’d be willing to sell us some milk for her girls here, and perhaps allow us to rest in your barn for the night.”
“Sell! Barn!” The old man shook his head. “Don’t be ridiculous, Dixon. Come in. Come in!” he urged. “Maggie,” he called out in a voice bigger than he, “we’ve company!”
Making her way into the kitchen in response to Drake’s call came the shortest full-grown woman Mara had ever seen. She’s almost as round as she is tall!
Maggie’s bright blue eyes sparkled as she greeted Dixon with a full embrace. “How very good to see you. It’s been too long.” Quickly, she drew for her visitors, sturdy ladderback chairs with braided rag cushions. Mara found the woman, like her husband, instantly likable.
“Oh my,” Maggie cried when Mara unwrapped the girls. “What beautiful children! Why, Dixon, what a surprise! We had no id—”
“No, no, Maggie!” he interrupted, shaking his head emphatically.
Is he blushing? For the first time, Mara saw him smile. She was startled at how handsome he was. He’d only had scowls for her. Realizing her mouth hung open in astonishment, she quickly closed it when he turned her way.
“This is Mara, a . . . friend of mine.”
“Mara Richmond,” she said by way of completing the introduction.
“I’m helping her get back home. It’s a long story. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be bored with the details,” Dixon said, waving his hand. “In any case, her girls are very hungry—as you can hear.”
Maggie gazed at Mara. “Milk hasn’t come in yet, huh hon’?”
The Oathtaker’s mouth dropped open. Now am I blushing?
“Well never you mind,” the old woman said, wagging her head, her gray hair bouncing. “Sometimes it takes a day or two. When my oldest was born, why I thought it would never come and worried myself near to sick. Then wouldn’t you know, when it finally did, I had enough to feed my poor neighbor’s twins when she took ill and dried up.” She laughed at her own story. “I have some nice fresh goat milk right here. It’s still good and warm.”
Mara asked how she could assist, but Maggie assured her she had all well in hand. She made a bottle out of a clean spongy cloth and an old, small blue glass bottle. Together, they fed the infants. The girls suckled greedily.
With the twins fed, Maggie served her visitors warm bread just from the oven, fresh goat cheese, thin slices of ham, and apple pie. While they ate, she fussed over the twins. So round and soft, the girls nuzzled close to her and soon fell asleep. She offered to set up a cradle.
“Please, don’t go to any trouble,” Mara protested.
“No trouble! It’s my pleasure. You just sit there and rest. I’ll have things ready for the little dears in no time.” Maggie handed the girls off.
Dixon held Eden. He snuggled her closely and firmly, while he and Drake enjoyed their ales. “Mara is fearful. She thinks she may need a wet nurse. I guess her sister had the same problem.”
Now, I know I’m blushing!
Drake turned her way, frowning in his sympathy for her imagined plight.
“So I was wondering if you knew where we might go for such help.”
“A wet nurse, huh?”
Her blush grew, its heat intensified. She wasn’t accustomed to being the center of such personal discussions. She glanced Dixon’s way and found him smirking mischievously, apparently enjoying his playacting at her expense.
“Well, there’s the mission home the Oathtakers at Polesk set up. I understand they’ve taken in a number of refugees.”
“Refugees!” Mara exclaimed.
“From Chiran, yes.” Drake pulled a pipe and tobacco from his front frayed pocket. With a gesture, he inquired whether she minded. She did not. Turning to Dixon, he offered the pouch. Dixon refused with a shake of his head.
“Why are there refugees from Chiran here in Oosa?” Mara asked.
Maggie made her way back into the kitchen. She sat down with a sigh. “We don’t know the full story, but we’ve heard rumor. For some reason, young women are leaving Chiran for Oosa. They claim they’re in danger there. So the hood in Polesk takes them in and allows them to stay there until they can make it on their own. We take contributions at our local sanctuary to help with the expenses.”
“From what we’ve gathered,” Drake added, “the women often arrive pregnant or with newborns.”
“That’s odd,” Dixon said.
“That’s what we thought,” Maggie agreed, “but we know one of the members of that hood. Ted . . . Ted . . . What’s his name Drake? You know, we met him once here in the village?”
“Not Ted Baker,” Dixon said. “Really? Why, he and I go way back. He worked with my father. He is a very special man.” He patted his knee. “I didn’t know he’d settled in Polesk.”
“I believe his family originally came from there,” Maggie said.
“You’ve spoken to this—Ted Baker?” Mara asked.
“Yes,” Drake responded, exhaling pipe smoke.
“What did he say?”
“Not much. He’s still sorting out the fact from the fiction. But in any case, Polesk sounds like the place for you.”
For the first time in hours, Mara relaxed. She motioned for Dixon to hand Eden to her, then closed her eyes, cuddling the infants. She listened as the others talked, their voices soft and low, about the hood in Polesk, as well as of more mundane matters. When their voices grew quieter, she opened her eyes and looked at the girls. As they gazed back, she hummed softly. To her surprise, words to an old lullaby she thought she’d long since forgotten, tripped from her lips:
Hush, hush, close your eyes;
Feel the slowly passing time.
Hush, hush, from above,
Come dreams of peace, dreams of love.
She stopped short. The room was silent. Drake sat, his head on the table, his eyes closed, his breathing steady, as a faint snore escaped Maggie’s lips. Turning Dixon’s way, Mara caught a look of surprise in his eyes before they slowly closed.
As the infants too, fell asleep, Mara wondered if being an Oathtaker, if having accepted a charge, had been right for her. Could she do this? Her oath meant, at least for now, that she’d given up the pleasures of a family of her own.
Yes, it was right! Don’t go back there. Don’t remember. Besides, it’s too late to turn back now. She warred with herself about whether or not to go down memory lane, in the end deciding she’d best not. It would do little to serve her now. Even so, she couldn’t help wishing that she could stay put in this simple farmhouse with these good people. She smiled weakly and then, she was out.
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