Dixon strode back toward where Sherman and Cheryl grazed.
Mara could think of nothing to say. He’d done the right thing, she knew. She felt both cheated of the opportunity to execute the righteous judgment Heri had so deserved, and grateful Dixon had spared her that act. She followed him.
After some time, he slowed.
A grove of trees surrounded them. A creek ran nearby. It was a good place to set up camp and to get some much-needed rest.
“Thank you, Dixon. I hadn’t heard him coming.”
“You did the right thing.”
“I know.” He turned and walked away.
She dropped the subject.
While she unpacked their foodstuffs, he set a snare, tended their horses, and then gathered up fallen branches. When he’d accumulated a sizable pile, he reached out, and with a flick of his fingers, started their campfire. Once again his magic caught Mara off guard, just as when he’d lit the wayfarers’ hut on fire.
Dixon headed to the creek where he took a quick dunk to wash away the dirt and sweat of the day. Afterward he checked his snare. He’d made a catch. Quietly he skinned and gutted the hare, then skewered it on a small green branch from a nearby fruit tree. He set it over the shimmering center coals of the fire.
Meanwhile, Mara took the twins to the creek. With rags from her pack, she wiped them clean. Then after laying them down on the edge of the bank, she slipped off her dress and dipped in the pool. The water invigorated her. When refreshed and dressed again, she returned to the campsite.
The air was heavy, both with the Oathtakers’ silence, and with the aroma of roasting meat.
Dixon pulled the sizzling hare from the edge of the coals. He dropped the hot dinner into a bowl and tore the meat apart, blowing on his fingers to cool them from time to time.
Mara sat nearby on a blanket. The girls slept soundly at her side.
With the sun now down, only the fire lit their camp.
From the edge of the pond came the mesmerizing sounds of frogs and crickets. An occasional lightfly flitted by, its iridescent wings twinkling in the firelight.
“Are we making good time do you think?” she asked, finally breaking the silence.
She shrugged and set her lips tightly. He annoyed her. They’d traveled for days and he’d said next to nothing to her. His manner was entirely different with the townspeople when they’d purchased their horses and other supplies. Chatting it up with the local innkeeper, Dixon had made fast friends, and even got a particularly good deal on their mounts. But while personable, even friendly, with others, with her he was continually brusque, habitually curt.
“Fairly good, considering how often we need to stop,” he finally deigned to respond. “We certainly can’t afford to stay here long.” He sat down, then handed her a portion of the roast hare.
The smell made Mara’s stomach growl. She ate quickly, finishing up as Reigna awakened.
“Funny baby,” she cooed. “It seems you know just when it’s time to eat, huh?” She kissed her forehead. “Such a funny baby. Such a squishy forehead,” she whispered and laughed.
“What did you say?” Dixon asked, scowling.
She looked at him, still smiling. “Have you ever noticed that a baby’s softest part is its forehead? I feel my lips could sink right in.” She took a couple of the infant’s fingers into her mouth and sucked on them gently. She’d fallen completely under the girls’ spell.
His brow furrowed. He shook his head as though attempting to rid himself of a nuisance. He stirred the fire, then added some larger branches to it. The waltzing flames reflected in his eyes. “Glad you can take this all so seriously,” he murmured.
Mara laid Reigna down. “You know,” she said, “I have had about enough. You are so rude. Frankly, your derision is more than I can bear. Come morning, why don’t you just make your own way? I appreciate your help with that Heri character and all, but from here on, I’d prefer to go it alone. The girls and I’ll make it to Polesk just fine on our own. I don’t want you around anymore.”
She stood, threw her dinner scraps into the fire, and then walked away.
He jumped to his feet. “What? What? I don’t understand! What’s your problem?”
“My problem? What’s my problem?” She turned back to face him. “I’ve no problem, Dixon, you do.” She pointed at him. “You’re surly and belligerent at every turn. It’s not my fault you weren’t where you needed to be when you needed to be there to protect the love of your life.” She turned away. “So . . . go. And take your blame with you!”
Tears burned her eyes, but she wasn’t about to let him see her weakness. She didn’t want him to think she was frightened to go on without him, or was concerned about how she’d protect the girls. She was just angry. She didn’t need him.
She returned to the infants to change Reigna’s wet things. Fearing her anger would make her touch too firm, she took in a couple deep breaths to calm down before continuing.
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