When I found her, she was lying still as a corpse, on the shore beside the river. I don’t know how far the current had taken her—bedraggled and soaked, unconscious and with an arrow’s broken point lodged between her ribs, it was a wonder she still lived.
And it was a dilemma.
I had never killed anyone in my life—until the day the world turned upside down and I met my brothers, I never dreamed anyone (anyone real, anyone I knew) would ever do so.
And yet—I had been forced to fight the banelings overrunning the countryside for months now. And it never seemed to be enough. Even when we fought them out of one village, burned them—there were always more.
And was the woman in front of me any different than they were?
In my dreams, I still heard my mother’s screams. Before me, helpless as any child I would have snatched from under a baneling’s knife, lay her murderer.
If I left her there, she would die.
She deserved death.
But I couldn’t do it.
Her very helplessness disarmed me. With a tiny sigh for my weakness—the same weakness she would doubtless have despised—I set to work on removing the arrow point and stopping the bleeding.
She woke when I twisted the arrow out of the wound, in one sharp move instead of a thousand tiny ones—I had learned something from her, if only what would hurt most.
(It wasn’t that I sought to spare her pain—that was ridiculous. I just…it was more efficient.)
“Jennsen?” she asked, frowning up at me. Then she turned on her side and coughed her lungs free of water—and blood.
I waited patiently.
“H-have you come to gloat?” she asked hoarsely.
“No-o…” I said uncertainly.
She laughed, and then coughed again, and I could almost hear her ribs cracking with the effort. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” she said. “I know the way to Hell—I’ll walk my own self there. And wake with Lord Rahl breathing down my neck, like as not,” she added softly.
I lifted my chin. “You won’t—not if I can heal you.”
“Do you mean to drag me to the Mother Confessor?” she asked, her breath still labored but her thoughts clearly sharp. “It would be a more excruciating, though doubtless less undignified, death,” she said thoughtfully. “Where am I, by the way?”
She didn’t sound like she was dying to me. “Not far from the ruins of Deerfork,” I said, shrugging. “Now let me see your wound.”
She lay back on the ground again, strength exhausted. But when I sought to find a proper bandage for the blood slowly seeping onto her dress (and wasn’t that odd, to find her attired like a countrywoman, instead of the Mord’Sith we both knew her to be…), she gripped my wrist, her fingers surprisingly strong for someone in her condition.
“Wait,” she said. “If you’re going to kill me, just do it. And if you’re not, you’ll need to burn the wound closed, or it’ll get infected.”
I didn’t have anything to strike a fire with, much less the time to let it grow hot.
Then she guided my fingers to her other hand, which I saw was clenched so tightly around one of those weapons—agiel, that was it—that her knuckles had turned white.
I pried it out of her grip and pressed it to her wound, before we both realized that I, the Pristinely Ungifted One, could no more use the thing than I could see the green rifts to the Underworld everywhere appearing.
Banelings might still kill me, yet no Breath of Life would call my soul back. It was…unfair, and unsettling, the way magic was such an integral part of a world I belonged to, yet had never known existed.
Not until she came.
I guided her hand, watching her face twist into a grimace as she burned the wound closed. Yet for me, the agiel (a weapon, yet also used for healing—would I never understand the Mord’Sith?) was still just a dull, awkward thing, sparking no response from my unGifted blood. It was strange—something that could stop hearts or cauterize wounds. To me it was nothing more than a tool, and a near-useless one at that.
She fainted again then, and I half-dragged, half-carried her away from the river, to the tiny cottage I’d found some weeks previously.
The former occupants were dead, and I had given them a decent funeral pyre. One couldn’t be too careful, in these troublesome times.
But, now that Deerfork was so deserted even the banelings hardly ever came, it was a good place for me. Out of the way, and away from all my friends who had perished fighting that evil with me.
I still didn’t know why I survived—though I suspected my brother, Darken Rahl, might have warned the banelings away from me. Generous, I suppose—why he should care for a mousy sister he could no longer bend to his will was a mystery to me, at the same time that I wondered how anyone could accuse him of being unfeeling or even evil.
Despite knowing, down to the marrow of my bones, that he was the reason—the real reason—that my mother was dead, that he would have killed Richard without a second thought (or me, perhaps even more readily), if it suited his purpose, that he had been responsible for more deaths than I could fathom—still, I missed him.
Doubly foolish, since I didn’t even know if a single word he’d told me had been the truth.
But at least he had not made me the one false promise that hurt more than all the others—Richard had sworn he would come back for me, that he had to go and fight injustice, but I should stay with Sean and be safe—
Safe? Ha. No place is safe from banelings.
And I am not completely useless—how did Richard know I wouldn’t be able to help him on his quest? I knew he loved Kahlan more than life itself, yet he permitted her to remain by his side.
(The more fool he; I don’t know why, but I’ve never trusted that woman.)
So, in my little cottage away from anywhere, I nursed Denna back to health. It took some time, of course, particularly when she would insist that Mord’Sith were invincible, that what didn’t kill them outright was nothing more than a minor inconvenience, and that therefore she was perfectly recovered and might easily collect firewood, etcetera…
Finally, I asked her about Richard, guessing that she had seen him more recently than I had. Everyone seemed to see Richard more often than I did.
“He’s well,” she evaded. “He seeks the Stone of Tears, to repair the Tear in the Veil to the Underworld. He will succeed, of course.” She spoke without rancor, and I guessed she had finally accepted Richard’s truly amazing talent for winning.
It made me proud, and sad, all at once.
“And does he still travel with Kahlan and my Grandfather?” I asked.
Denna’s lip curled. “Of course,” she said. “And with Cara—traitorous harlot that she is, to ally herself with the Seeker. She’s gone soft.”
But she put a hand to her chest, just below her heart where the arrow had struck, and her expression was pained.
We talked often, of things we’d seen or guessed about the Keeper and His army of banelings, of Richard, of Darken, of our childhoods…or of Denna’s childhood, anyway. I learned she’d had a sister, also taken by the Mord’Sith, who had died during training.
That was when I so far forgot myself, and our careful balance of allies and enemies, as to put a sympathetic hand on her knee.
She glared at me. “I don’t want your pity, Jennsen,” she said, eyes flashing fire. “It was a long time ago.”
But that was the moment, more than any other, that I realized her suffering. She had lost so much, over and over—as a child, and later when she couldn’t regain my brother’s favor and ran, only to run afoul of Richard again later. I began to really understand her.
And that was the worst part—what she had done to me and to Richard I could never forgive…yet the more I knew of her, the more I saw why she had done what she had.
At last, the Sisters of the Dark came. That’s what they called themselves, anyway. They surrounded the house, and dragged me and Denna outside. She was fighting desperately, of course, but there were too many, and besides, she was still weak from the injury that had nearly cost her life.
“Is this Darken Rahl’s doing?” Denna screamed at them, a strange wind whipping away her words.
“Do not speak his name,” one of the Sisters said scornfully. “He has betrayed the Keeper, and now walks again among the living.”
My heart leapt, even as I saw Denna shiver.
“No,” the Sister went on. “Our Master decrees that we take the blood of the Pristinely UnGifted One, so that the Mother Confessor will be powerless against us when we go to kill her.”
I stood still, horror filling me—every instinct told me to run, but I couldn’t move.
I was never trained as a warrior, or even a courtier. I had no experience of violence, save what I had learned from Denna—
And I couldn’t even wield a sword, even assuming I had one.
I screamed, knowing it was useless, as the Sisters of the Dark seized me roughly, and pushed up my sleeve, the one who spoke to us with her knife outstretched over my wrist.
“JENNSEN!” Denna yelled, her voice still hoarse and rasping from the damage her body had taken.
After that, everything was a blur—Denna, suddenly in impossibly swift motion, her agiel scattering the Sisters of the Dark everywhere as they tried to keep us apart—
Suddenly, one of them screamed to the sky, “Aid us, Keeper! Let not the Pristinely UnGifted One live to aid your enemies!”
There was more wind, and the air had a different quality to it.
The Sisters of the Dark pushed me away from Denna, toward an open patch of dead grass—I tripped, fell headlong—
Behind me, two of the Sisters overbalanced, and fell down into thin air.
I stared, openmouthed.
Meanwhile, Denna was inspired, her fury knowing no bounds—as she killed the last Sister of the Dark, I thought, there was a woman who would be alive today if I had not dragged Denna from the banks of the river—and yet, I wasn’t at all sorry.
I grinned at her, and she grinned back, the thrill of battle making her seem more alive than anyone I’d ever seen—
Then she frowned, and yelled, as though there were some great, impassable distance between us—“JENNSEN, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?”
“Yes,” I said, puzzled. “I think so. Why are you shouting?”
She stared at me. “YOU’RE STANDING ON THE OTHER SIDE OF A RIFT,” she called.
Oh—the Sisters falling through nothing but air, the strange wind—now that she mentioned it, there was a faint green cast to the air—and I started to laugh.
When, still laughing, I approached her, stopping right in the middle of the Rift, if I could read her horrified expression right, she said fiercely, “Jennsen, if you don’t come back right this instant, I swear to the Creator, I will kill you.”
I stepped forward, right into her personal space—there was no room, the Rift was surely still right behind me—
She pulled me to her, tumbling us into the grass beside the bodies, her mouth plundering mine—
It was amazing, like nothing I’d experienced before—I knew we were both high on the adrenaline, on the fact of our survival—she tasted like sunlight and spring pollen and blood—
Suddenly, I remembered who this was. Denna—not just the Denna I had saved from a watery grave, but the Denna who had tortured my mother and laughed at my tears, sent me on an impossible mission knowing she had lied to me and my mother was already dead past revival—the Denna I’d seen Kahlan beat to within an inch of her life, the Denna who had told me of the first day she’d been taken by the Mord’Sith, of listening to her own baby sister die in the Drowning Caves—
I pushed her away, scrambling to my feet and not caring that my dress was covered in grass and bloodstains, that my face was flushed and my skin felt too warm and tight for my body—I was breathing hard, staring at her.
She got to her feet too, slowly, gracefully—like the predator she was.
“How—how can I let you touch me when you killed my mother?” I asked, amazed at how even my voice was.
She didn’t answer. Just stood there, her agiel clenched in her fist and her hair matted with sweat and blood, hanging down her back. Her eyes cloudy with pain, her feet bare on the wet grass.
She was beautiful.
“I think you should go,” I said, not sure how I was getting the words out. This had gone far enough—and did I really think, just because I saved her life, we had some kind of bond now?
She still didn’t speak, just nodded, and walked away.
Leaving me standing among the ruins—of what, I wasn’t sure.
I thought about her all night, all the next day…telling myself I’d done everything I could. I healed her, and I set her free. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do with wounded animals?
It was easier to think of Denna as some hitherto unknown species of wolf, or perhaps tiger—a fierce predator that knew no moral considerations, had no friends—and didn’t need them.
I was one of the few people who knew how vulnerable she was on the inside—just for that, I wondered that she hadn’t killed me.
What could she possibly see in a little mouse like me?
She was strong—would always be strong. Just as I would always be weak. Always the victim, a tool in the hands of Richard’s enemies—for hadn’t the Sisters of the Dark only wanted my blood so that they might murder Kahlan?
What place had I in a world where murder was commonplace, where war was the only profession prized by those that counted—?
I longed for peace.
For four sleepless nights, I thought of Denna. I asked myself how I could feel the way I felt about her—in the end, I decided that she was a storm, and I was its center. I could be calm and peaceful, while she raged about me, laying siege to cities, but keeping me safe.
On the fifth day after I’d sent her away, I left the cottage.
I carried provisions, as much as I could gather. I carried a dagger, one I’d taken from Darken’s study when he wasn’t looking. At the time, I had only wanted a memento of him, something to remind me of our time together, and how, no matter what happened, I had a brother who loved me.
Since, I had found it invaluable in my defense.
Yet I met no one—everywhere seemed deserted. People were no doubt busy burning funeral pyres for their loved ones, the lost souls that my brothers in their combined incompetence had let be enslaved by the Keeper.
I passed through a peaceful valley, where the people, all clad decoratively but impractically, stared at me in stunned silence.
I paid them little attention.
At last, I found my way to a D’Haran Mord’Sith temple.
“Who are you?” the Mord’Sith on duty asked, none too civilly.
I drew myself up to my full, if unimpressive, height and said, “I am the Lady Jennsen Rahl, and I desire speech with Mistress Denna.”
She looked doubtful. “I’ll see,” she said, and vanished.
When she returned, she led me to a private room, with enough windows to let the sunlight in. Denna was standing with her back to the wall, her face impassive.
We both waited until we were alone; then she gestured to the dagger thrust through my makeshift belt. “If you’ve come to kill me for what I did to you,” she said. “You’ll want to aim just a little higher than my old wound.”
I stared at her. She was fully dressed in the leathers of the Mord’Sith again, hair neatly braided, and perhaps that made it harder for me to say what I’d come to say.
Instead, I asked, “Would you really let me?”
She raised her eyebrows. “It is your right,” she said coolly. “You gave me back my life—it’s only fitting that you should be the one to take it away.”
For an impossibly long moment, neither of us moved.
Then I let out my breath. “That’s not why I came.”
“Oh?” she asked politely, sinking gracefully down into an armchair and gesturing me to sit as well. “Then was there something else you wanted—Lady Jennsen Rahl?”
“Yes,” I said, stepping closer. “You.”
Incredulous eyes met mine—in one swift lunge, Denna had me in her arms, pulling me toward her and onto her desk, my pack falling to the ground, unlamented…she was like fire, burning through my veins, and if I weren’t immune to magic, I would have sworn she had bespelled me.
Much later, when the two of us were curled in her chair, a blanket shared between us, I played with a strand of her golden hair, feeling safe at last.
“How did you find me?” she asked lazily.
“I knew you had faith that Richard would seal the Rift,” I shrugged. “So it only made sense that you would use the chaos of the Keeper’s war against the Living to regain your lost power. I expected you to be ruling from the People’s Palace by now.”
Denna laughed, and hugged me closer. “I love the way you think,” she purred. But she sighed. “I couldn’t take the throne—not while Darken Rahl lives. I know that it is Richard’s blood that fuels the Bond, not his—but he will always be Lord Rahl to me.”
“I hope he’s properly grateful,” I said wryly. “Maybe you and I can join forces with him and rule the lands properly, without all this needless war. Richard will never willingly take the throne, you know. He still thinks it’s beneath him, somehow.”
“He’ll learn his mistake,” Denna sighed, frowning. “Even the Mother Confessor cannot forever keep him from his destiny.”
We were silent for awhile, weaving plans and dreams, knowing—as I instinctively knew—that the Tear in the Veil had been repaired. The world was safe again—or as safe as it ever was.
“Denna?” I asked. “Why do you…why do you like me?”
“Well,” she said, pretending to think hard. “You did save my life. And then too, you should have seen yourself, standing over that Rift like it was nothing, green sparks in your red hair…it was amazing. And your scream—you have a cute scream. And—“
She turned in the soft chair, nuzzling her head against my neck, her lips tracing marks of love and possession over my skin…
And I was happy—because I was in my beloved’s arms, and all was well.
In my nightmares, my mother still stared at me, betrayal in her eyes…but I was a woman grown, not a child anymore.
And I could not forget the woman who’d stolen my heart.
“I love you, Denna,” I whispered. I forgive you.