By midday, determined they could make it down to the flats before nightfall if they made no more stops, they ate dried meat and cheese while moving on.
Following a pathway bordered with wild thyme that led down the mountainside, they came to a stretch wide enough to ride side-by-side.
Mara pulled up near to Dixon and rode silently for a time. Then, “I’m sorry,” she suddenly said.
He slowed his mount. “What for this time?”
“For taking you from your friends . . . your family.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
She hesitated. He seemed sincere. “Well, thank you for helping me. I don’t know if I’ve thanked you.”
“You have. Look, the trail narrows there. See?” he pointed. “I’ll ride forward. Try to leave a little distance before you come. I don’t want to risk one of the horses spooking the other.”
As he rode ahead, his mount acted up. It stomped and resisted his directions. He patted the equine’s neck to quiet it, then turned back to wave Mara forward.
At just that moment, a mountain lion dropped from a tree about midway between the two Oathtakers. It screeched.
Dixon shouted for Mara, even as he reached for his bow and nudged his horse back, all while nocking an arrow.
Time seemed to slow as events unfolded.
The animal’s front and back legs sprawled outward as it flew through the air. Once again, its screech was deafening.
He took his shot. “Mara!” he cried again when he missed. He reached for another arrow. Before he could nock it and take aim, another scream sounded out.
In the next instant, the cat’s body twisted. Then it fell to the ground with a resounding thud.
Frenzied, Dixon turned his horse back.
Mara held her bow, her mouth open wide in surprise.
“You got it!” he exclaimed. “Thank the Good One. I couldn’t get a good shot!”
Trembling, she dropped her bow and looked up at him. “It must have followed us from the camp, waiting for the right moment—”
“I think so,” he interrupted.
“But— But how—” She brought her shaking hands up and stared at them.
“How what?” He clutched her elbow.
“How did I do that?” Her eyes met his. “I didn’t even know I knew how to shoot. And look.” She pointed at the dead cat on the ground. “My first arrow landed right between its eyes, and my second, to its heart.”
“You’re a sure shot all right.”
Her eyes narrowed. “But how can that be?” Suddenly, she grabbed her head with her hands. “Ahhhhh!” she cried. “Ahhhhh!”
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“My head! Ohhh! Ahhhh . . . my head!” She started slipping from her saddle.
He dismounted in a flash, then reached for her. “Here, I— We don’t want you falling.”
She dropped into his waiting arms.
He carried her to a grassy knoll tucked under the hanging fronds of a great weeping willow, its wispy foliage yellowing in the late summer.
She screamed in pain.
As he crouched down, she went still in his arms.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish