He didn’t take his eyes from his former charge. He dropped to his knees at her side. Taking her hand into his own, he lifted it to his cheek and closed his eyes. His breathing slowed. His jaw set. Mara sensed he fought back tears. Slowly, he leaned forward to stroke the woman’s cheek, then her hair. Finally, he bowed his head and audibly exhaled.
Mara watched his easy touch, saw his shoulders sag, and his eyes pressed closed. She knew that look.
“You loved her.” She hadn’t intended to speak the words out loud, but there they were—hanging in the air.
“Well,” he said, clearing his throat, obviously restraining himself, “of course I cared deeply for her. She was my charge. She’s been my charge . . . for some time now. I’ve forgotten what life is without her.”
“No, that’s not all. You . . . loved her. I can see it in your eyes, in your touch, in—”
“She was my charge!” He held Mara’s gaze, as though daring her to challenge him further.
She said nothing. Perhaps he was trying to convince himself, but she wondered.
“You do understand the significance of the oath you just swore?” he asked, scornfully.
Of course she did. An Oathtaker’s vow came with commitments. Mara hadn’t given it much thought earlier, but when she swore her oath, she had sealed the deal. Her word bound her to the twins for so long as they lived. She could no longer follow another path. In the moment she took her vow, Ehyeh bestowed gifts upon her, attendant magic and continued youth. She would not physically age until the death of her charge. Only then could she begin her life anew, follow other dreams. The same had been true for Dixon while his charge lived. But what did his denial mean? What was he trying to imply? That because he’d sworn to accept Rowena as his charge, he’d not still been vulnerable to his own feelings, longings, desires? Had he been one who’d fallen into the state of pain that came with loving someone while subject to his oath?
“Of course I do,” she confirmed.
He folded Rowena’s arms across her breast, then brought the coverings up to her shoulders, as though to keep her from getting chilled. His trembling hands stopped every few moments to stroke her hair. Mara could see he warred with himself—wondering whether to keep his former charge in sight, or to cover her, or to look away so that he could deny to himself the reality of her death.
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