Chapter 1: Sentimentality
Cara sat in the window seat of the council chamber, gazing out over the palace grounds. She had finally gotten so large with child that she could no longer wear her leathers. Instead, she wore a simple dress of severe cut in the colors of the House of Rahl. The fabric was very fine, even opulent.
It made Cara feel ever so slightly ridiculous, as if she were once more impersonating royalty.
At least she had convinced the palace tailor to keep the gowns as simple as possible. He had seemed loathe to disobey a pregnant Mord'Sith.
Jennsen hadn't helped. She kept giggling.
Footsteps sounded on the carpet that covered the flagstones. Cara recognized the weight and rhythm as belonging to her husband.
Darken Rahl knelt, placing his hands possessively on Cara's protruding belly.
"You're up early," he murmured.
"Your son woke me," Cara replied, placing her hands over Darken's. She leaned forward, her long blond hair tickling his hands.
"I'll send my sister to help you bind your hair," he said as he lightly traced patterns on her stomach with a finger.
"I really don't need a lady in waiting," Cara pouted.
"Never the less, Queen Cara, you have one," Darken replied, looking up to meet her eyes. He smiled a small, genuine smile, and continued, "You have made me happier than I ever thought it was possible for me to be."
Cara felt tears well in her eyes. She blushed, looking out the window once more as she cursed her uncontrollable sentimentality.
Darken's grin got a little wider. He pretended not to notice her tears.
"Come love, I'll escort you down to breakfast."
Cara shook her head, "I would rather eat here where it's quiet."
Darken stood, inclining his head to her as he turned to leave, "Of course. I'll have a tray sent to you."
He pressed a kiss to her hairline and then was gone.
Jennsen arrived with a tray not long after.
"You're going to get Haden in trouble if you keep giving her the slip like that," Jennsen rebuked. "How is she supposed to guard us if she never knows where you are?"
"I never needed a guard before. I was a guard before," Cara growled.
"Well, before you weren't Queen Cara, and you weren't so close to dropping the heir of D'Hara that everyone panics every time you so much as sneeze!" Jennsen reminded her, not in the least intimidated.
More seriously, she continued, "And we hadn't come so close to losing you and my nephew." Jennsen started to reach for Cara's stomach, and then stopped herself, knowing that Cara disliked for anyone but Darken to touch her in such a way.
Cara huffed, but stopped complaining.
"Do you want me to fix your hair?" Jennsen asked as she set a place for the two of them to eat at one of the large tables in the room.
Sullenly, Cara asked, "Would it matter if I said 'no'?"
"Of course it would," Jennsen chirped. "But you know you'll feel better if I get it off of your neck," Jennsen said reasonably. She realized how frustrated Cara had become with needing help to do things and having others insist on performing the simplest of tasks for her.
Cara sighed again.
Darken strode down the hall, sword at his waist. He was to meet Richard on the training grounds to inspect the troops and discuss plans for encouraging former members of the resistance to join the army.
He was brought up short when Kahlan stepped into the hall coming in the opposite direction.
"Mother Confessor," Darken greeted her.
Her face went tight, but she inclined her head. "Lord Rahl," she said stiffly.
There was a tense silence, both unsure how to relate to the other.
"How long before you return to Aydindril?" Darken asked.
"I had considered staying here for a time… if I would be welcome," Kahlan answered guardedly.
Kahlan nodded to him, then began walking once more.
"Kahlan," Darken's voice stopped her. "I never truly expressed my gratitude."
Once more he was in that forest, waiting for Cara to turn from him forever. Once more his heart pounded with despair as the Mother Confessor looked into his eyes.
Once more her voice rang out, saving Darken from his own past deeds.
A second chance.
Kahlan turned to look at him, her face more open than it had ever been in his presence.
"If you had betrayed me… it is not to be contemplated," Darken said tightly, a muscle in his jaw standing out against his skin. "Name your reward."
A look of shock passed over Kahlan's features before settling into melancholy. She clasped her hands, unconsciously flexing her fingers as she studied her broken nails.
"Come Kahlan, surely there is something you want more than any other."
There was dirt under one of her nails. A black crescent.
"What I want most is not something you can give," she replied quietly.
"Then surely something –" Darken pressed. Kahlan interrupted.
"Just… be good to Cara. Make her happy."
Eyes that could read the soul of a man stared into his heart.
"Be the man that Richard thinks you are."
With that, they went their separate ways.
Chapter 2: Rada Han
Darken was distracted for the entirety of Richard's briefing on the state of their armies. His conversation with Kahlan kept churning around and round in his mind.
He would not feel easy until she had been rewarded properly.
The look on her face as she had stared at her own hands with something approaching revulsion… her love for Richard.
The thing I want most is not something you can give.
Richard clapped his shoulder, "Have you been listening?"
"Just considering a matter of state," Darken answered, brought out of his musings.
"Thinking of your wife?" Richard asked playfully, and not a little wistfully.
Suddenly, Darken knew the solution to his problem.
"Do me the favor of accompanying me to my suite," he said, changing direction abruptly.
Startled, Richard signaled one of his lieutenants to continue drilling the men, and then ran to catch up.
Richard waited in Darken's sitting room, idly perusing the paintings of their ancestors that adorned the walls. They were all rather ugly.
"They were the ones the looters disdained to steal," Darken said as he emerged from the bedroom.
He held a Rada Han.
"What are you doing with that?" Richard asked, immediately concerned that his brother had someone lost control of his han once more.
"Giving it to you… and Kahlan. So you can be together, get married as you have always wanted," Darken said, a light dancing in his eye.
Kahlan would be so grateful. Darken would no longer be in her debt.
The scales would be balanced between them.
"I can't ask her to wear this!" Richard exploded. "It's a collar, it's like asking her to be less than she is."
Irritated, Darken waved a hand over the metal, changing it so that it resembled a fine silver choker set with a red stone.
"That doesn't help," Richard scrubbed at his face, feeling tortured.
"Honestly brother, is asking her to wear this so much worse than the ridiculous agony you both put yourselves through? Just take it."
The altered Rada Han was thrust into Richard's hands. He had to either grab it, or let it fall. He caught it, stared at it with all the anguish of a man dying of thirst who knew the water before him was poisoned.
"You need not use it today, or tomorrow, but it is yours to use as you will," Darken snapped, irritated with how Richard always managed to complicate things.
As he swept from the room, Richard called after him, "Why are you doing this?"
"Because you're my little brother," was the only answer he got.
Richard stared at the enchanted ring of metal in his hands.
Darken found Jennsen, Kahlan, and his Cara in the council chamber. Haden guarded the door.
"Ladies," he bowed. "I have come to see if the queen would care for a walk in the garden with me, and also to inform Kahlan that my brother has a gift for her."
"A gift?" Kahlan asked.
"Yes. He's looking for you."
As soon as Kahlan was out of earshot, Cara asked, "What are you doing?"
"I'm sure I have no idea what you mean," Darken answered as he offered her his hand. He helped her up, brow wrinkling at the discomfort it was obvious she felt. He would call for one of the Mord'Sith skilled in the art of massage to attend to her later.
Cara rolled her eyes.
They both glared.
It did nothing to deter the redhead.
"Truth, Darken. What are you doing?"
"Saving them from themselves."
Jennsen continued to giggle and smile at the two of them like a fool.
As Cara was escorted from the room on the arm of her lord husband, it occurred to her that she might not be as intimidating as she used to be.
No. That thought was absurd.
Jennsen was simply a bit mad.
There was one in every family.
Kahlan found Richard wandering the corridors in the general direction of the stables.
"Your brother said you were looking for me."
She had yet to get used to calling him Darken. It just felt odd, like it didn't belong in her mouth, rolling off her tongue.
"Kahlan," Richard said, quickly hiding something behind his back, his tone falsely bright.
He would get Darken for this later.
Kahlan knew Richard too well to be fooled.
"What's behind your back?" she asked.
He didn't answer. Kahlan sighed. Ever since she had regained her sense of self, her will, she had been haunted by a terrible chill, as if she would never be warm or fully alive again.
What the unicorn had done to Kahlan was monstrous, unforgivable, a crime of the greatest magnitude.
And as a Confessor, she had done the same to hundreds.
More than ever, her power was a burden. One she no longer wished to shoulder.
She was no longer so certain that Darken Rahl had been wrong in trying to wipe out the Confessors.
Every single action, every single breath since she had fully recovered from Sepina's possession, was precious. Hers.
And she hated herself for having the chance that so many she had confessed would never have.
She stared at Richard.
He gave in, bringing his hands forward to show her a beautiful silver choker with a ruby set in the center.
"Jewelry?" she breathed.
"No!" Richard jerked his hand back to keep her from touching it, overcome by an unnamed fear.
Kahlan jumped, startled.
"Sorry… it's not jewelry." Richard sighed, scrubbing at his face with his free hand. "It's Darken's Rada Han. He changed it for you. For us."
Kahlan reached for the magical metal that represented the thing she wanted most.
"How did he know?" she sighed, too low for Richard to hear.
"I don't want you to feel like you have to change for me," Richard said, eyes downcast. "I love you Kahlan, everything about you. Asking you to wear this... it feels wrong."
"Richard," Kahlan reached out to cover his hands with hers, their skin warming the metal of the Rada Han. "I trust you. I want this. To know your touch, at last. And to know that I can't hurt you..." She stopped, voice breaking.
To no longer be a Confessor. To no longer hear Brother Jarl's voice hissing soul stealer and wonder if he was right.
Richard wiped her tears away, and together, they placed the Rada Han around her neck, the sound of the lock clicking into place a tiny ping of freedom.
"I'll have to thank Darken," Kahlan whispered.
"Let's not talk about my brother," was Richard's reply.
Chapter 3: Between
Cara sat at her desk in the queen's chambers, unable to sleep. She was plagued by a restless energy that drove her to work long into the night. At the same time, her mind seemed clouded, her usual sharp intellect muffled by a layer of fleece.
She placed a hand on her enormous belly, mind drifting to her son, as it often did. She would be allowed to keep him this time. To hold him, to rock him, to watch as he grew into the next Lord Rahl.
The thought was joyous, even as it filled her with dread. She did not think she would be a good mother.
Most likely her son would prefer Jennsen, his aunt.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the soft sound of the door that connected her suite to Darken's opening and closing.
"I awoke to find you gone," came his soft voice, sending a little chill down her spine.
Cara looked over her shoulder, "I couldn't sleep. I decided to go over these reports."
Warm hands massaged her shoulders, and she closed her eyes, groaning as Darken worked muscles she hadn't even known were tense. He moved her hair out of the way, then pressed a kiss to the side of her neck, his breath tickling her ear.
"You could have had Haden attend to this. Come back to bed."
Cara tensed once more. "I have to work Darken."
She wouldn't be his doll, his pretty queen kept on a shelf.
He raised both eyebrows, shocked at the sudden anger in her voice. Instead of answering her with words, he simply continued to massage her shoulders.
He found that when she made comments like that, in that tone, there was nothing he could say that wouldn't result in more anger. Silence was best. No doubt later she would complain to Kahlan or Jennsen about him, but then she would forget her irritation.
It made him supremely grateful to have the two women staying at the palace.
"Kahlan and Richard have not been seen since I gave them the Rada Han," he said a bit smugly, changing the subject.
Cara made a noncommittal sound, still angry and trying to concentrate on the papers before her.
Trying another tact, Darken read over her shoulder, saying, "What is so pressing that it keeps you away from our bed?"
"The Mord'Sith we lost in the clash with the Brotherhood. If our order is not to be decimated, we must have new recruits."
Darken nodded, understanding her concern. The Mord'Sith temples were the lynch pin in D'Hara's defenses. With too few warriors, they would be easily overrun.
"Then I will send orders for new girls to be chosen."
Cara stiffened, a hand on her belly, "No."
Darken paused, once more unsure of himself. It was a quality he had always enjoyed about Cara, that she challenged him, kept him on his toes.
But it had been happening far too often as of late.
"No?" he queried, soft seduction in his voice. "Then what do you propose?"
Knowing he wished her to return to bed, and unable to put the complicated feelings she was experiencing into words, Cara pushed herself back from the desk, letting the matter lie for another night.
Ensconced in his bed in the People's Palace, Zedd dreamed. It was not a dream of his own making, and not quite a message from the Creator.
It was something in between.
When he woke, he could not remember what had happened, just the lingering feeling of peace and a brush of ghostly lips on his cheek.
Placing a hand there now, he felt a spot of warmth. Real or imagined, he didn't care.
Chapter 4: Passion
Sun streamed in through the windows, dancing across Kahlan's skin. Richard watched her sleep, marveling.
She was so beautiful. And he loved her.
His eyes fell to the Rada Han that adorned her throat.
He loved her. But not enough.
Shifting to prop himself up on his side, he bent to press his face to Kahlan's breast, to listen to her heartbeat, breathe her in.
"Good morning," she murmured, sliding her fingers into his hair.
"Did I wake you?" he said into her skin, ending the question with a feathery kiss.
She laughed, a breathy, airy sound, then cupped his cheeks, turning his face upward for a kiss. "I don't mind."
Richard smiled. He had been dreaming of this, of waking up with Kahlan in his arms, of seeing the sun on her bare skin.
The only thing that marred his happiness was the Rada Han, however ornamental Darken had made it. He reached for the key that sat on the bedside table.
Kahlan's hand covered his.
"But," he turned concerned eyes on her, "you don't have to wear it all the time."
She squeezed his hand, guiding it to lie over her heart. "Yes, Richard, I do."
"Richard, don't," she said again, this time a sharper edge to her voice, her good mood evaporated to leave behind a strained woman with eyes full of sorrow.
Kissing her gently, brushing a strand of her long dark hair behind one of her ears, Richard said softly, voice barely audible, "If this is about the unicorn – "
"…Sepina," Richard amended. "You're safe now. The oath to the House of Rahl protects you."
She clung to him, pressing skin to skin. It was a gift she gave to him, this vulnerability. So many saw only the Mother Confessor. He got to see the woman beneath the mantle of duty, the woman who doubted, who loved.
"Kahlan, do you remember what you told me at the Pillars of Creation after I – after I did what I did," he grimaced, guilt still dwelling in the bottom of his heart. "What Sepina made you do – it wasn't you."
Only he could know how much and how little the words meant.
"You don't understand, Richard," she answered him quietly. "It's not what Sepina made me do." She turned cold, sad eyes on him, "It's what I've done my entire life, before Sepina. What I would have continued to do if she had never…"
A tear rolled down her cheek.
"The Creator didn't make Confessors, Richard. Wizards did. We were never meant to exist. There's a reason for that," she said with choked conviction.
Before he could speak, Kahlan continued, speaking quickly as if she had to say it all at once or else never say it at all, "At first I was just confused, but after a while, when her hold was strong enough, she didn't bother to influence me anymore. She just controlled me. I could see what was happening, but I couldn't move. I could feel what she was doing, but I couldn't stop her. I was there, screaming in the back of my mind," she squeezed her eyes shut. "Less than a ghost."
Richard pulled her against his naked chest, not knowing what to say, only wanting to offer comfort, somehow make it better.
"You never talked about it before," he said. "I thought you couldn't remember."
"I couldn't talk about it before."
They sat in silence, curled together against the pillows.
After some time had passed Kahlan spoke again, voice thick with unshed tears, "It was bad enough to be there in the back of my own mind, unable to stop anything around me. No free will. But... how much worse would it have been to love my enslaver? To think of only pleasing her?"
"You aren't like that, Kahlan!" Richard sat up, looking earnestly into her eyes.
She shook her head, face crumpling, "I am."
Richard pulled her into a desperate kiss, their high emotions turning swiftly to passion as he pulled at the blanket so there would be nothing between them.
A knock came at the door.
Kahlan gave a watery chuckle.
"Zedd," Richard growled, wrapping a blanket around his waist before padding barefoot across the flagstones to answer the door.
Jennsen stood there.
"Sorry for interrupting," she smiled knowingly, almost lasciviously.
Richard thought spending so much time with Haden had corrupted her. She made him blush.
"Jennsen, what is it?" he prodded.
"You're late for a meeting with our brother, and Cara is asking for Kahlan."
Richard looked over his shoulder to see Kahlan nod. "We're on our way."
With one more knowing look, Jennsen hugged him and departed.
When Lord Rahl the Younger and the Mother Confessor emerged from Lord Rahl's chambers, gold could be seen changing hands among the palace staff and guards. There had been quite a few wagers placed on how long they could remain ensconced therein before duty or hunger drove them out.
One young groom by the name of Adam did particularly well. Having been one of the few that could approach the unicorn, he had spent a lot of time near the Mother Confessor.
He had an active imagination. It was fortunate for him that the unicorn had objected to the unclean body, not the unclean mind.
With his purse bursting with his winnings, Adam hurried to finish his tasks, then headed into the palace village, eager to spend his coin.
Chapter 5: Ask
"You wanted to see me?"
Cara looked up from the parchment in front of her to see Kahlan standing framed in the doorway, smiling.
There was tension around her eyes and a Rada Han at her throat.
Cara narrowed her eyes, but did not comment on it.
"I wanted your opinion on a matter of state," she replied, pinching the bridge of her nose. The midwife had said these headaches were normal, though Cara did not remember having them when she was carrying Nicholas…
Frowning to herself, Cara realized that she didn't remember much about carrying Nicholas at all. It was all a blur of hazy memory. She was startled when Kahlan's shadow fell across the parchment on the table.
She had been doing this more and more often of late, drifting off into her own mind.
It was extremely irritating.
"Cara?" Kahlan asked, a note of concern in her voice. She pulled out a chair on the other side of the council table, sitting to see what it was Cara was doing.
Clearing her throat, Cara explained, "The number of Mord'Sith on active duty is at an all time low." Her eyes slid up from the parchment to watch Kahlan's face, "We need new recruits."
Kahlan froze, a muscle in her neck standing out as she clenched her teeth together.
It was Cara who said, "The people will revolt."
A long silence.
"What do you want from me?" Kahlan said at last, after quietly perusing the maps and accounts that lay on the table.
With a heavy sigh, her hands resting on her stomach, Cara said, "Advice."
Adam walked through the market square, careful to keep one hand on his full purse. He didn't want to risk losing his winnings to pickpockets, not when he finally had enough money to afford something more than the boiled sweets sold at street corners.
The market was in full swing. He passed fruit stalls, a pie maker, but they weren't what he was after.
No, he was headed to the Eagle Feather Armory, the best armory in all of D'Hara. Adam wanted to be more than a simple groom. One day, he would be in the Dragon Corps, a decorated soldier.
He just needed his own weapon to be allowed to join the ranks of the trainees. A dagger from the Eagle Feather Armory would get him in, and then he could finally do more than muck out stalls and tack out battle stallions for others.
Soon, he would have one of his own.
He entered the shop, admiring the glass windows, the sign emblazoned with the Rahl crest and a blacksmith's hammer. The shop was warm, heated by the blacksmithy that was connected to it. The men inside gave him strange looks, some frowning, others smiling at him. They thought he didn't have the money to buy anything.
Adam walked to the counter, plunking his purse down on the wood. "I want the best dagger I can get with this."
He didn't realize he should have asked for prices before showing the shopkeeper how much gold he had.
He left the shop with a dagger much better than any he had ever owned, but worth much less than he had paid for it. He had only two copper coins left.
Spotting a flower seller, he thought he would buy a few from her. He could give them to one of the ladies that came in the stables. It never hurt to cozy up to the nobles, the head groomsman was always telling them.
"How much for the roses?" he asked.
The flower girl looked back at him with dark, doe brown eyes. For a moment, he almost thought he could see his reflection in them.
"How much do you have?" She smiled, tilting her head oddly to the side, her voice an empty melody.
Wordlessly, Adam held out his remaining coins. She was so beautiful.
"Please… what's your name?" he asked her, admiring her snowy skin, her dark hair.
"Ivy," she answered, taking his money and handing him two white roses.
He immediately handed them back to her, face lit in a foolish grin, "These are for you."
Chapter 6: Discordance
"You aren't just worried about revolt," Kahlan said shrewdly, watching the protective way Cara cradled her unborn child.
It was their second meeting over the fate of the Mord'Sith. The first had ended in silence, as Cara sought the solution to her problem, justification for her weakness, her reluctance to continue the old ways.
Kahlan found that she didn't know what to say. Didn't know who was talking when she spoke.
How much of her personality, how many of her opinions were shaped by being a Confessor?
How much was shaped by Sepina.
"It's alright to fear for your child, Cara," Kahlan said kindly, idly rubbing the ruby at the front of her Rada Han with the edge of one finger. Softer, she continued, "It's alright to want to spare others the pain of a child's loss."
Cara began to roll up the maps, her movements sharp, forceful. More forceful than necessary.
Her eyes were suspiciously bright.
Kahlan pretended not to notice.
"That is your advice, then?" Cara said once the table was clear. "To allow the Mord'Sith to be wiped from the world, just like the – "
"Like the Confessors," Kahlan finished, voice strained.
Jennsen bounced into the room, humming to herself as she set out the things for Cara's afternoon tea, oblivious to the tension that hung in the air.
Cara swallowed, her lips twitching as she met Kahlan's eyes. Jennsen's humming providing an incongruous backdrop, a discordant note in a crescendo of silence.
"I won't let them fade," Cara said quietly, with conviction, lost in a life unlived. The brittle bones and dusty leather of the last of the Mord'Sith swam before her eyes, clouding her vision with the bleak future that never was… but could be again.
Far away, and yet right at Cara's side, Kahlan hooked two fingers around her Rada Han, gripping it tightly. "Some things are meant to fade."
"No," Cara interrupted immediately, thumping her fist onto the table.
Jennsen stopped humming, shocked at the noise.
"What's going on?" she asked, carrying a tray over to serve them tea.
Kahlan looked away.
Tersely, Cara answered, "I will not let the Mord'Sith end with Darken's reign."
"Then send them to steal more girls to train," Kahlan answered harshly, though her voice was barely above a whisper.
Cara pressed her lips together in a thin white line.
Jennsen looked between them, eyes wide. "What do my brothers think?" she ventured, worried at how the stress would affect Cara so late in her pregnancy.
She knew better than to voice that concern aloud.
"Lord Rahl has entrusted the matter to me," Cara braced her hands on the table, face red with a mixture of embarrassment and the effort it took her to heave herself out of her chair.
Jennsen knew better than to help her.
Once the red train of Cara's gown had faded from sight, Jennsen sighed and plopped herself down in Cara's vacated seat, looking at Kahlan.
"Can you tell me what that was about? From the beginning?"
Startled by the sudden shift in demeanor, Kahlan looked at her sharply, brows arched.
Sometimes she wondered how any of her companions had managed to get this far. They were all powerful, magical, special in some way.
But they didn't have the sense the Creator gave a goat.
Chapter 7: Desperation
Zedd stood in the mage's work room, tinkering with the collars that Jennsen had pulled from the Fenrisulfr at the Battle of Falketurn Tower. It was the same room he had trained Darken in. The walls were already scorched, the stone of the floor already cracked.
More magic gone awry could hardly do more damage, so it was perfect.
With that thought in mind, Zedd took a deep breath, centering himself, and then moved his fingers in a complicated motion over the cruel chains spread on his battered oak table. The Spell of Knowing had to be performed under a moonless sky, in the moment of in between when night began to turn once more to day.
Watching the window, Zedd timed it perfectly as the first pale shades of twilight began to color the horizon.
He didn't even have time to curse before his eyes flew open and he was thrown into a wall.
Darken sat bolt upright, sweat gleaming on his skin.
He had been dreaming.
He could remember only a flash of green and then the glare of enormous red eyes.
Turning, he saw that Cara was once more missing from their bed. He was unhappy to find it so. He was not willing to admit that he feared she regretted her life with him.
He wouldn't allow her to leave.
Throwing the covers back, Darken groped for his plush velvet dressing gown, shrugging it on and loosely tying the belt before going in search of his queen.
He found her sitting in the window seat in her sitting room, a forlorn expression on her features as she gazed at the rising sun.
"Cara?" he called gently.
She started. As her pregnancy progressed she seemed to grow less aware of her surroundings. He never would have been able to sneak up on her even a few months before.
It worried him.
Her melancholy, her preoccupation… He had stayed away when she carried their first son. He didn't know how much of this was normal.
How much of it was caused by Cara's unhappiness.
Darken moved closer, sitting next to her in the window seat. "You weren't in bed."
"I couldn't get comfortable," she answered softly, her voice thick.
Was it thick with sleep… or sorrow?
"Something troubles you," he replied with a conviction he did not feel. More and more, he felt Cara slipping away from him.
It was unacceptable.
She lifted her face, and he could see that her eyes were red, and ringed with dark circles. Darken found he was compelled to move closer, to take her hand. There was a bubbling desperation he hated welling in the bottom of his heart.
"I'm just tired," she assured him, in an uncharacteristically tender moment shifting to lean against him.
He threaded one hand through her long unbound hair, admiring the color. The other hand he placed lightly on Cara's distended belly. It gave him pleasure to think of his son, to feel him move within her.
Her stomach rippled beneath her nightgown, and Darken felt his lips twitch up into an involuntary smile.
"He's going to be strong," he said with pride, imagining all the things he would teach the boy, the kingdom they would re-conquer and rule together.
A son that would love him.
"He's going to be the death of me," Cara groaned, arching her back, digging her knuckles into a particularly sore place near her spine. Face reddening, she placed a hand against the window to heave herself up.
Darken rose and helped her without comment, knowing how frustrated and weak she felt.
He had felt the same not so long ago, when his han was out of control and burning him alive from the inside out.
"Cara?" he said once she was on her feet.
He kissed her.
Chapter 8: Foolish
Jennsen sat in the council chamber, scribbling on a bit of parchment. There was ink on her cheek, but the dark smudges under her eyes had more to do with the fact that the sun was rising and Jennsen had yet to seek her bed. Since hearing of the dilemma that plagued Cara, she had been struck with an idea. A wild idea.
She was not sure if it was good, or if anyone would listen to her, but it was better than anything she had overheard Kahlan or Cara say.
"Sparrow," a perturbed voice sounded from the door.
Jennsen jumped, "Haden!" She blinked, then scrubbed at her face, smearing the ink on her cheek, suddenly registering the light pouring through the window. "It's morning."
"Yes," Jennsen's Mord'Sith lover purred, stalking to the table where Jennsen worked. Haden was fiercely beautiful with golden brown skin and her long black hair worn in the braid of all Mord'Sith. Jennsen thought she was like an arrow in flight.
"You left me to sleep alone," Haden said bluntly.
"I'm sorry, Haden, I…" Jennsen trailed off, her train of thought fizzling as Haden ran a gloved hand over her cheek to wipe away the ink. "I wanted to talk to Cara about this," she gestured at the papers scattered across the desk. "But I'm not sure if she'll listen to me."
Haden leaned, her leather covered bosom brushing Jennsen's arm as she examined the papers. The slight upturning of her lips revealed that she knew precisely what she was doing. "It is a… decent proposition," she said at length.
"You think so?" Jennsen smiled eagerly, standing to wrap her arms around Haden's waist.
"Yes," Haden simply replied, pressing her lips to Jennsen's forehead. After a long moment of holding the smaller woman to her chest, of discreetly burying her nose in that soft red hair, Haden cleared her throat. "I have been sent to fetch you. The wizard has not emerged from his work room, and the wards are repelling all who try to enter."
Aghast, Jennsen pulled herself from Haden's arms, dashing for the door. "Why didn't you tell me sooner!" she called over her shoulder as she turned into the hallway.
Face blank, Haden followed after her at a more sedate pace.
Zedd walked in a garden filled with light. It was familiar, and yet foreign, a strange feeling of both known and unknown.
When he looked down at his own hands, they were unwrinkled, and shone with the han that flowed through his veins.
"Hali?" he turned, and there she was, perfect, pristine.
Breath catching in his lungs, Zedd knelt, his eyes streaming.
Her hands were warm on his face, and made his heart beat an odd tattoo.
Rise, Zeddicus. It is not for you to kneel to me.
"Hali," he said again as he rose, just to hear her name, to feel it on his lips. "The last time we spoke like this, I was dead."
She smiled her crooked smile, and Zedd took a moment to wonder at how a god could have a crooked smile. It seemed so human.
Something Hali assuredly was not.
No, Zeddicus. That is merely the last time you remember us speaking. In truth, we speak often of things to come.
"Things to…" Zedd gasped. "The Spell of Knowing? What – "
I have protected you from the worst of the backlash. You were fortunate it was the hour of twilight when the veil is thin. I was able to reach you.
An irritated huff blew back Zedd's hair, trickled over his skin, though Hali's lips did not move.
"Thank you," he said, mind racing.
It is just as well that I am fond of you, my champion. Do not be so foolish again.
With a wry smile, Zedd clasped her hands, bringing them up to his lips to kiss. "I'm afraid promising you such a thing would make a liar of me."
"Zedd!" Richard called, shaking the old man who lay sprawled on the floor of the magical work room. Jennsen knelt at his other side, glaring at Richard for his rough handling of their grandfather.
"Haden," Jennsen said, an urgent note in her voice as she beckoned her lover forward to perform the breath of life.
"That won't be necessary," Zedd croaked, bringing a long fingered hand to his head.
"Zedd," Richard smiled, helping him to sit up. "What happened?"
The wizard blinked confusedly for a few moments, felt the warmth of a ghostly hand on his cheek. He could not remember his dreams. He performed the spell, then –
"The collars of the Fenrisulfr?" he asked, glancing about the room.
"They are here, wizard," Haden assured him, nudging one of the rune stamped pieces of metal with the toe of her boot.
"No one touch them," Zedd ordered, albeit feebly. "There's something about them. Something…"
"What is it, Grandfather? What about them?"
Looking into Jennsen's blue eyes, Zedd sighed. "I am not sure yet. But I will find out."
His stomach audibly grumbled. "Perhaps," he amended, "I shall have breakfast first."
Chapter 9: Power
Darken stood looking into the eyes of his battle mount, Skull, wolf of the Fenrisulfr. The great beast lowered his shaggy head, pressing his muzzle into Darken's chest. "If only you could speak," he mused as he placed a hand on Skull's head. "It would be of great use to know what the chains that bound you are meant for. Why they defy Zeddicus' attempts to understand them."
A stable hand came through the partition that separated Skull and Helhati from the horses, to keep the latter from spooking. He struggled under the weight of a bundle of leather and metal in his arms. With a gesture, Darken called upon his han, raising the heavy load into the air with magic.
"Lord Rahl," the stable hand bowed, his hair flopping across his forehead.
"Is this the saddle I ordered made for Skull?" Another gesture and the bundle unfolded itself, taking on an unmistakable shape and purpose.
"It is, my lord!" The stable hand bowed again, "The leather workers have been working around the clock, and the Eagle Feather Armory forged the metal pieces specially."
Darken nodded, moving two fingers in a slow arc toward himself. The floating saddle moved with his gesture, coming to hover over Skull's broad back. "Up, Skull," Darken said softly.
As the great fenris wolf complied and Darken continued to murmur to him quietly of magic and armies, Adam, the stable hand, backed away.
He had a sudden urge to see Ivy, his lady love.
"Cara, you're working too hard," Kahlan said, brow furrowed in concern. "We've met every day to discuss this, but we aren't any closer to a solution."
"It is important to the security of D'Hara," Cara countered, shifting in her chair to find a more comfortable position. "Zedd was attacked by magic within the palace itself only last night. We must replenish the ranks of Mord'Sith to secure the empire."
Kahlan pressed her lips into a thin white line, to hold back all the things she dared not say. Finally she answered, "It was an accident, what happened to Zedd. You know that, Cara."
It was a weak argument, but it was all she had. The dark circles under Cara's eyes worried her. Kahlan toyed at the red stone at the center of her Rada Han, and Cara unconsciously mimicked the gesture, though it was an amulet of bones at her throat.
The tense silence was broken by the council chamber door opening, and Jennsen coming through with a tray. Cara's usual tea things were laid out, a soothing blend plus ladyfingers and apple slices. Of late, they had been her food of choice.
But Jennsen set more than a tray on the table. Next to it she placed a sheaf of papers covered in a slightly wobbly hand, as if the writer was not well practiced.
The door closed, and Jennsen looked up to see Haden. She had chosen to guard from the inside, so that she could see Jennsen present her proposal to Queen Cara. The Mord'Sith nodded to her, and Jennsen felt a little more confident.
"I think I know a way to recruit more Mord'Sith," Jennsen began as she poured tea for Cara and Kahlan. She didn't meet their eyes. She was afraid of what she would see there.
After all, she was only Jennsen, the lady in waiting, good with hair, and tea, and forgotten when anything truly important needed doing.
"How?" Cara's voice dragged Jennsen from her self-recriminations, startling her into looking up.
There was no mockery in Cara's face.
Jennsen pushed the proposal she had spent all night writing toward Cara, saying as she did so, "Volunteers."
Kahlan snorted in surprise, "Volunteers? Who would volunteer to be tortured into – "
"Into what?" Cara cut her off, voice sharp.
Haden placed her hand on her Agiel.
"Mord'Sith," Kahlan finished, quietly. It was a hard thing to realize her thoughts were still influenced by years of hating Mord'Sith, and D'Hara, and everything it stood for. She who was supposed to be the just, the fair, the objective law of the land.
Another mark against Confessors.
She touched her Rada Han.
"It isn't as ridiculous as it sounds," Jennsen began softly, but her voice grew along with her confidence as she continued. "You, all of you," she swept her hand, indicating Kahlan, Cara, and Haden. "You're powerful, strong. You can defend yourselves, you can take what you need to survive, if you have to. I – a lot of women would volunteer, if it meant food and shelter and work that didn't involve lying on their back."
Kahlan started to interrupt, but Jennsen spoke over her, face turning red with passion, "You don't know what it's like, being a normal woman, but how could you? How could any of you know what it is to be useless, worthless as anything but a maid and a brood mare?"
Cara's lips twitched.
"The war has left many women widowed. And it's left others damaged, raped or disfigured so that no decent man will deign to take them," Jennsen's lips twisted into a grimace. "And with no skill, no recourse but to sell themselves to one of the houses of ill repute along the Soldier's Way. These women, women like me… They would volunteer. To become powerful, to be more than what the world has tried to make of them, they would volunteer. If I weren't pristinely ungifted, so would I," Jennsen finished, out of breath, the red of her face deepening with a blush.
There was a heavy silence.
"Haden," Cara called, her eyes never leaving Jennsen's face. "Go fetch Lord Rahl, and bring an advisor's ring from the treasury. Jennsen shall be joining their ranks."
With a small, razor smile, Haden bowed, fist over her heart, and then went to do her queen's bidding.
Chapter 10: Worthy
"You aren't worthless," Haden said, startling Jennsen.
She was watching the sunset from the window of their bedchamber after an entire day spent going over and over her plans to recruit volunteers for the Mord'Sith. Cara had been impressed. Her eldest brother had looked at Jennsen with new eyes, and reclined his head respectfully. Richard had seemed upset, but Jennsen had left before he could talk to her.
She didn't answer Haden, looking down to twist her new advisor's ring around her finger. It was perhaps a little too large to be considered feminine, gold and stamped with the crest of D'Hara.
Haden's footsteps were quick and her arms strong as she wrapped them around her little Lady Rahl, resting her chin on top of Jennsen's head.
Jennsen held up her hand, looking at the ring in the dying light of the sun. "It looks silly on my hand, doesn't it?"
"No," was all Haden said, gently turning Jennsen in her arms so she could bend to kiss her.
Jennsen returned the kiss, but her melancholy was plain.
"You are the first woman to sit on the council of D'Hara in many years," Haden reminded her Sparrow, removing one glove to thread her fingers into Jennsen's hair.
Jennsen sighed, leaning into the touch. In the light of the sunset Haden's golden brown skin appeared bronzed, the sun's rays casting red highlights on her deep black hair. "You're beautiful," Jennsen said, sliding her hands up Haden's leather armor to embrace her, placing her cheek against Haden's chest, just over her heart. She closed her eyes to listen to it beat.
"We cannot all be warriors," Haden said after a long quiet moment, with her uncanny knack for knowing what Jennsen was thinking. "I cannot sew, nor cook, nor heal."
Without opening her eyes, Jennsen answered, "Sewing and cooking did me no good when I was taken by the Brotherhood of the Gods."
"They are gone now. They will not hurt you again."
Jennsen thought she should have been afraid of the rage in Haden's voice, but the only feeling it brought her was comfort.
Adam found his beautiful Ivy in the market, selling flowers. It was nearing dark, and he hoped that she would allow him to escort her home, or perhaps to an eating house. He had his dagger from the Eagle Feather Armory, and would soon join the Dragon Corps. He could protect her.
Ivy smiled at Adam, and he could see himself reflected in her chocolate brown eyes. "Why don't we take a walk in the meadow beyond the city gates?" she suggested. "I want to show you something."
Adam found himself nodding, thinking that he was lucky and she was beautiful and things were progressing faster than he could have hoped. He offered Ivy his arm as he had seen the nobles do with their ladies, and spoke to Ivy of things he had overheard in the stables, hoping to impress her with his knowledge of the kingdom.
She smiled and laughed as they made their way through the city gates, Ivy charming the guards into opening them again, though they had already been closed for the night. "I want you to meet a dear friend of mine," Ivy whispered once the grass grew tall and swayed around their feet. "If you are worthy, perhaps he will be your friend too."
There was a sudden thundering of hooves, and Adam's jaw dropped.
"Tell him what you have told me," Ivy placed a reassuring hand on Adam's shoulder, her face stretched in a vacant smile.
Chapter 11: Lightning
"Then we are agreed," Darken stood in the council chamber at the stand that held his journey book, a pen dripping blood poised over a blank page.
Cara nodded, "Jennsen was very detailed in her proposal. Only minor changes were needed to make it a feasible alternative."
Darken began to write out his orders, alerting all Mord'Sith temples and D'Haran outposts that they were to hang notices in all the villages – the Mord'Sith were now taking volunteers, women of twenty-four summers or less. Darken feared that Mord'Sith that were trained too old would not be sufficiently loyal to the empire – would not bend so easily to the will of Lord Rahl. Being without Mord'Sith was dangerous.
Being betrayed by them was more so.
"And if no one volunteers?" Kahlan asked, trailing a nail over her Rada Han.
Darken met Cara's eyes, "We will discuss that when and if it comes to pass."
They were interrupted by Zeddicus bursting through the door. His hair was a rat's nest, his robes wrinkled, and one long sleeve stained with what appeared to be some sort of soup. "Darken, my boy," he greeted, a certain madness in his eye that meant he had been working at some magical problem without pausing to sleep.
"Zeddicus," Darken returned, lip twitching at the familiarity with which the wizard treated him. He would never get used to it.
"If you can spare a moment, I believe I am close to the secret of the Fenrisulfr's chains. I need your help, you see – "
Darken held up his hand, two fingers and thumb extended, forestalling Zeddicus before he could launch into one of his obscure spiels on ancient magical principles.
"Very well," he said shortly, striding to the table where Cara and Kahlan sat. He paused to lay his hand over Cara's as he set the journey book before her. She smirked up at him, a carnal look he had not seen in far too long. "I leave the rest to you, my queen."
Cara's smirk faded. "Yes, Lord Rahl."
Puzzled, Darken frowned, but then silently turned on his heel to follow Zeddicus.
Cara sighed as he disappeared through the door, then ignored Kahlan's questioning look as she bent to the work of governing an empire.
Zeddicus laid out the cruel collars that Jennsen had pulled from the necks of Fenrisulfr during the Battle of Falketurn in the center of the cracked floor of his magical workroom, quickly and efficiently drawing runes of chalk and salt around them.
"I will use an incantation to hold a shield around the collars, to avoid the sort of backlash that knocked me off my feet the last time," he smiled self-deprecatingly, putting a hand to his lower back as he straightened. "On my mark, I would like for you to cast a spell on the collars."
"What spell?" Darken asked as he surveyed Zedd's handiwork. He recognized only some of the runes the wizard had drawn. Darken was a powerful wizard, thanks to Hali's gift at the Pillars of Creation, but he did not have the training of one. He could understand only parts of the magical drawing covering the floor.
"Any spell will do," Zedd answered, stepping back to stand against the wall, and directing Darken to do the same. He did not say as much to Darken, but it was a precaution should the experiment go awry. One can't fly into a wall if they are already standing against it.
"On my signal," Zedd raised his hands, long fingers spread wide as he exhaled to center himself.
He nodded, and Darken gestured, blue lightning arcing from his fingertips to strike the sinisterly designed lengths of metal within the circle of runes. In the same moment, Zedd intoned an ancient word of power, the room echoing with his wizard's voice, deep with magic.
The lightning should have decimated the collars. At the very least, it should have scorched them. But it did not. They absorbed it, pulled it into themselves, gorged on it, fed on it, and would have kept sucking, feeding on Darken's han if Zedd had not cut the connection between Darken and the collars with his shield spell. The spell lasted only a moment before it too was sucked away into the collars, but it was long enough. More experienced than Darken, Zedd kept the leeching magic of the collars from latching onto his han.
They stood, both sweating, staring at the cold, lifeless metal in the center of the room.
"I have just had an ominous realization," Zedd said after a pause in which neither of them blinked.
Freya Kate stopped, standing dead still in the hallway. Pressing herself to the wall, she mumbled, whispered to herself.
"Freya Kate!" Gudrun called out to her in concern. Gently, he turned her face up so he could look into her eyes.
They crackled with lightning.
Chapter 12: Chosen
Mistress Aliandra stood looking out the tower window of the remote outpost where she had been stationed, journey book in hand. Her white hair shown in the candlelight, pinkish red eyes making her seem a demon. Aliandra had been chosen for the Sisterhood precisely because of her striking looks – the red eyes and pigment bleached skin that characterized albinos.
She was proud to have been chosen, proud to be Mord'Sith, proud to be special.
And now, because of the new orders from the capital, Mord'Sith were never to be chosen again. They were to wait for volunteers.
Aliandra's lip curled.
The most enraging thing was that the new scheme was proposed by the perpetrator of Aliandra's exile.
"I will not allow our traditions to be discarded so easily," she said to the empty air.
Darken dreamt of the flames of the underworld – a vision that had not haunted him since the veil was sealed at the Pillars of Creation. All around him, people writhed, the Keeper's creatures skittering in the darkness.
Burning red eyes.
Do you hear the whispers?
He turned, searching for the sound of the voice, his robes leaving a line in the sand.
Can you see them, in the dark?
A flash of green, a great, sundering tear, and then he was shrouded in darkness, unable to breathe, smothering, suffocating, pressed in on all sides. He jerked, fought, opening his mouth to scream only to have it filled with ash.
His hand burst into open air, and he gave a great heave, pulling himself from a mound of earth.
Can you feel the dragon fire that consumes your heart?
Darken's chest burned, and he clutched at it, his eyes glowing green with the fire of the underworld. It split his head, choked him, scorched the back of his teeth.
He realized he had clawed his way out of a grave.
With every beat, I am closer. Can you feel my teeth?
Darken cried out, muscles spasming as pain rent his very being, tore at his han like a vulture pulling meat from bones.
Dragon eyes, and dragon fire, calling in your sleep.
Darken sat up with a strangled yell, chest heaving.
He was in his bed. Not the underworld.
Not a fresh grave.
"Darken?" Cara touched his chest, concern written in the furrowing of her brow.
"Merely a dream," he reassured her, placing a hand over hers.
He wasn't sure which of them he was trying to convince.
Chapter 13: Twisted
Dennee looked up from the book she was poring over with Renn, giving him his lesson for the day. "What is it?"
Renn's face went vacant for a moment, and then he said, "There is a crowd in the audience hall. They're frightened. Angry. They want you to do something."
Dennee placed her hand on Renn's head, thanking him silently for the information, and then proceeded to the audience chamber to see the people.
They all began talking at once as soon as she came into sight, louder and louder until she had to call for silence.
A burly man stepped forward, thrusting a rolled sheet of parchment at her. Her guards put their hands to their swords, but she shook her head at them, sensing no danger from the man.
She unrolled the parchment to find that it was a royal decree from D'Hara, that the Mord'Sith were taking volunteers for training.
Dennee could feel the beginnings of a headache starting to form between her eyes. Such a decree seemed a step in the right direction, if it were true.
Surely no woman would volunteer, and then the Sisterhood of pain and torture could be allowed to fade away.
But Dennee had not the authority to take an official stance on political relations, as any decision made about this decree would be.
Aydindril needed the Mother Confessor.
Adam woke to find himself bound. His mouth was dry. His head buzzed. He tried to speak, and found he was gagged.
A unicorn stood before him, beautiful, ethereal.
He screamed through his gag, doing his utmost not to panic, not to weep. He wanted to join the Dragon Corp. Soldiers didn't weep.
Ivy, his beautiful Ivy, stepped into sight, her face vacant. He had always thought she was a dreamer. But now he knew. She was like the Mother Confessor.
A slave to a unicorn.
A bald man in priest's robes stepped up next to Ivy, peering at Adam.
"The Rahl devotional oath shields his mind from the power of Tyrn's children. The Witch King taints his soul," Brother Hudrun said, gripping Adam's chin in strong fingers. "We shall have to keep him here some days, prevent him from invoking the oath to let its power fade, so that we may save him."
Adam struggled, but the only thing he achieved was to roll onto his belly, grinding his face into the dirt.
Then Brother Hudrun touched him on the temple, and all he knew was darkness.
Jennsen sat astride Helhati, the great she-wolf of the Fenrisulfr. They rode through the exercise yard, Jennsen talking quietly to the wolf of human things, the life Helhati had once lived.
Through some twist of the magic used to create the beings enslaved by the Brotherhood of the Gods, the pristinely ungifted could see the person that once was. Whenever Jennsen gazed upon one of the Fenrisulfr long enough, she could see them as they had been before reshaped by the Brotherhood. Helhati had once been a Mord'Sith.
And so Jennsen spoke to her as she would a person, not knowing how much Helhati understood, but knowing that she understood more than a normal beast would. It was quiet, relaxing. Jennsen felt a special connection with the Fenrisulfr, and they seemed to return the feeling. She was the only one who could see the humans within.
It was the one thing she could do, that no others could.
"I suppose we should get back, Hel," Jennsen sighed. "Otherwise Haden will come after us."
When they returned to the stables, Haden was idly practicing her archery and the head groom was yelling at the stable boys, trying to bully one into attending the Fenrisulfr. Their usual groom was missing, it seemed.
"He's probably sick, or with a girl," Jennsen said as she dismounted, tilting her head toward the irate head groomsman.
Haden said nothing, but Jennsen could tell from the set of her shoulders that she was listening.
With a muted thwang, Haden released her bowstring and an arrow seemed to sprout from the post she was using as a target.
Jennsen wistfully watched, admiring the curves and flowing motion of Haden's body as she let another arrow fly.
"I wish I could do that."
Haden stared at Jennsen for a long time.
"Would you like to learn?"
Chapter 14: Mistress
"My lord," a stable boy stopped Darken on his way to exercise Skull. Dressed in his riding tunic and breeches, Darken turned, raising a brow in inquiry.
The boy bowed. "My lord, a message came by journey book. Mord'Sith led by a mistress with red eyes have marched on a village and taken their girls. To be trained, my lord. The village representative appeals to you for help."
Cara and Jennsen would be displeased, Darken mused as he frowned. He himself was displeased, simply because he had decreed no more girls were to be taken.
And been disobeyed.
"Prepare Skull for battle, groomsman…?"
"Adam, my lord."
"Adam. Send a message to my council chamber when he is ready."
Darken left in a hurry, the heels of his riding boots sounding against the stable floor like a drum of war.
He was gone so quickly, he did not hear the way Adam greeted the great Fenrisulfr.
Or the way Skull growled.
"I will be prepared to depart within the hour," Cara said, using the arms of her chair to push herself upright, then placing a hand on her swollen stomach as her child turned within her.
"No – " Darken began at the same time Jennsen hesitantly said, "Cara – "
They both fell silent. Cara acted as if she did not hear them, crossing the room towards the door.
"Cara," Darken said in a warning tone that even she knew to heed. "Leave us," he commanded the others. One by one Richard, Zedd, Haden, Jennsen, and Kahlan filed out, Jennsen's eyes filled with worry and Kahlan's with sympathy.
"Darken," she said once the doors to the council chamber were closed, "you cannot go alone."
"And I won't," he reassured her, staring at her with the look of a man trying to solve a mystery. "I will have my brother and a company of guards with me."
"It is I who should be at your side," she said quietly, meeting his Rahl blue eyes.
She wondered if the son she carried would have eyes so blue.
"You are too close to your time," Darken moved forward, placing his hand firmly upon her stomach. "Your place is here in the palace, Queen Cara."
"I am more than a queen!" Cara snapped. Her cheeks flushed red, her eyes sparking with fury as she continued, "I am not just your wife. I am not a brood mare! I am Mistress Cara!"
Within her their son kicked violently, making her stomach ripple beneath Darken's hand.
Tears in her eyes, and hating it, Cara continued, quieter, calmer, "I am Mord'Sith."
Darken kissed her.
She slapped him.
Laughing, raising a hand to his cheek, Darken kissed her again. "I have missed you, my Cara."
She knew exactly what he meant. One did not have to be absent in body to be far away.
"And you're right," he said against her lips. "You are Mord'Sith, and as a Mord'Sith I command you to stay."
Cara clenched her jaw. "Yes, Lord Rahl."
Watching him head for the door, the cut of his riding tunic emphasizing the width of his shoulders and the strength of his arms, Cara said, "One day, Darken, I am going to stab you in the back out of sheer frustration."
He smirked, a small upward twitch of the lips, and opened the door. "When that day comes, Mistress Cara, I shall consider it a victory."
Cara felt completely herself for the first time in many months.
Thank you for the continued reviews! I read each and every one! Also, thank you to my writing buddy, meridian_rose, who has been helping motivate me to keep writing this story when the world and my muse seems against me.
Chapter 15: Pinned
“Mother Confessor,” a voice called from the hall, followed by a knock upon the door of the suite Kahlan shared with Richard.
“You may enter,” Kahlan responded, looking up from a sheaf of papers she had agreed to review for Cara.
She had never thought to see herself helping to govern D’Hara. At the very best, she had thought to visit as a foreign dignitary, forging peace for the Midlands. At the worst, she had thought to be a conqueror, setting foot in the capital only to burn it down.
A maid entered, a sweet girl by the name of Alice. Even with the Rada Han she wore around her throat, when Kahlan looked in Alice’s eyes she could see the goodness of her heart shining from them.
“A letter for you, Mother Confessor,” Alice said, smiling shyly. “All the way from Aydindril.”
Kahlan took the folded sheet of parchment, noting it was sealed with wax and stamped with the sigil of Aydindril. It was from Dennee.
Why had she not simply used a journey book?
“You may go, Alice.”
Kahlan broke the wax seal and began reading . With every slash of ink on the page, Kahlan’s chest got tighter.
Until she couldn’t breathe.
“My brothers have been gone longer than they thought they would be,” Jennsen said as she brushed Cara’s hair in the privacy of the queen’s sitting room, pinning it into a severe upswept style. In the absence of both the Lords Rahl, Queen Cara sat on the tall stone throne of D’Hara and listened to the grievances of the people – and the squabbling of the council, as Cara put it. Jennsen stood at her side as a representative of the Rahl bloodline and trusted council member.
It was a role Jennsen felt she was pretending to. Any moment, someone would realize that she was not what she was made out to be, and she would be tossed out of the audience hall on her ear.
When she had confided this fear to Haden, her Mord’Sith lover had merely smirked in an altogether bloodthirsty way. Sometimes Jennsen wondered at herself, that she was comforted by Haden’s talent for violence.
But then she remembered Brother Jarl’s face.
“I should be with Darken and Richard,” Cara’s voice pulled Jennsen from her thoughts.
“The midwife says your time will come within the next two moons,” Jennsen clucked her tongue. “Where would you be if your birth waters broke on the battlefield?”
“Giving birth on a battlefield, I should imagine,” Cara replied dryly, making Jennsen huff. “And what an excellent start it would be for my son. The Rahl born in battle. I can hear the ballads now…”
Jennsen laughed, inspecting Cara’s hair for out of place strands. “Are you worried my brother will not return in time for the birth?”
Cara shook her head. “I do not need him to attend the birth. It is only that this is the first time Lord Rahl has gone into battle without me by his side since we joined forces at Hali’s cabin all those months ago.”
“I never knew Hali,” Jennsen said quietly, cautiously. She had heard the name in passing, heard the tale of the quest for the Stone of Tears and the battle at the Pillars of Creation, but all who had traveled with the blind healer grew silent when she was mentioned.
“No one really knew Hali,” Cara replied from far away, lost in memory. “Except maybe Zedd. I think he knew all along.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Jennsen ventured, “Some people think she was the Creator, in mortal form.”
Cara was quiet for a long time. Then she snorted and said only, “She was certainly bossy enough.”
And Jennsen knew that they would speak no more of Hali.
Chapter 16: Suspect
Aydindril needs the Mother Confessor.
Kahlan sat staring at the words, reading them over and over again. Dennee wanted her to return, to take up the mantle.
To be the Mother Confessor.
Kahlan’s stomach churned.
She had felt cold, when she was enslaved to Sepina. Like warmth could not reach her.
She had never done anything to the unicorn, save be on the wrong side.
Kahlan wondered how many soldiers she had confessed for the same reason. She was ashamed that she couldn’t remember. Regretted not knowing their names.
Regretted so much more.
A knock came at the door, making her jump. Hurriedly, she put Dennee’s letter away. “Enter,” she called.
It was Alice. “My lady, Queen Cara requests you attend her in the throne room.”
Kahlan stood, straightening her white dress with shaking fingers, “Thank you, Alice. I’m on my way.”
“I’m here, Grandfather,” Jennsen said as she entered the enclosure where Helhati and Skull stayed. Zedd, her grandfather, was there looking worn. There was a pile of cruel metal at his feet. Metal Jennsen recognized.
“Why have you brought the collars out here?” she asked, spinning her counselor’s ring around her thumb. She moved to stroke the fur ruff of Helhati’s neck, feeling protective of the enormous wolves.
“I have spent many hours studying the magic of these chains, dear one,” Zedd said. “And now I must see if I’m right.”
Coming close, he cupped Jennsen’s cheeks in his long fingered hands , “I must put the collars back on the Fenrisulfr.”
“No!” Jennsen pulled away from him, turning to wrap her arms around Helhati’s neck. Skull nuzzled her shoulder. “The collars control them, and hurt them if they don’t do what the Brotherhood wants.”
“I think they do more than that,” Grandfather muttered darkly.
Once, Jennsen would have argued further. But as she looked up, her mouth open for another protest, she caught the look in Zedd’s eyes. The lines of his face, the way the corners of his mouth turned down.
When first they met, Jennsen had thought her grandfather a monster that cared for no one, a fiend willing to sacrifice anything for his war. But now, Jennsen Rahl saw only a man who had made many hard choices, and was now making another.
“Must I be here?” she asked, still nestled between the two giant wolves.
“Yes,” Grandfather answered. “If what I suspect is true, you will have to save me… and them. You are the only one who can remove the collars.”
Jennsen took a deep breath.
Adam stood in the shadows, eyes closed, listening to the whispers. They were all connected, made whole through the blessings of Tyrn. The brother of Adam’s soul whispered to him, called to him, told him what it was Tyrn wished.
Adam had returned to the palace, returned to his duties as a groom. And now he watched, perched in the hayloft of the stable, as the red haired Rahl and the wizard talked among the Fenrisulfr, the two Children of Tyrn that the Witch King had corrupted.
But then the Witch King’s sister placed something – chains, perhaps? – around the necks of the wolves. Adam held his breath, a rush of excitement that was not his own making him lean forward, straining to see.
The chains vanished from Adam’s sight as soon as the pristinely ungifted one let go of them.
There was a moment of absolute stillness, and then the Fenrisulfr howled, writhing and growling. Their howls were cut off, choked by magic, foam frothing around their teeth. It was as if some unseen hand squeezed their throats, pressing them into the dirt.
It was Skull who stopped fighting first. He got to his feet, panting, his red tongue lolling from his mouth. Launching himself at the wizard, he closed his jaws on the old man’s arm. The wizard screamed, and the Rahl girl pulled at Skull’s ears. Helhati joined the fray, bowling the wizard over, her lips peeling back from her teeth in a snarl.
Jennsen climbed onto Skull’s back, pulling at the chains around the wolf’s neck. Adam knew they were there, though he could not see them. Skull let the wizard go, and the Rahl girl tumbled from his back, a chain collar appearing in her hands. The great wolf then turned on Helhati, knocking her to the ground, keeping her away from the wizard as Jennsen made her way over and pulled another chain from the she-wolf’s neck.
“Grandfather!” Adam could hear her call as she knelt by the wizard.
Sitting back, he waited. Must be careful, whispered the voices. They mustn’t know yet, Adam nodded in agreement. When darkness fell, he would go, and he would tell, and be told.
It was what the voices wanted.
That night, while the rest of the palace slept, Adam crept into the royal wood. There, the brother of his soul waited. Beautiful, pure white with the tail of a lion, liquid black eyes, and a horn spiraling to a vicious point, the unicorn Adam knew as Hrimfaxi stepped into the moonlight.
Adam told him all he had seen, all he had heard, all that he knew of the Witch King’s court.
And Hrimfaxi spoke back in words without sound.
“Yes,” Adam whispered, his eyes hollow. “I understand. It will be done, in the name of Tyrn.”
Chapter 17: Command
Can you hear the whispers?
Darken stalked through the Underworld.
Can you see them, in the dark? Can you feel the dragon fire that burns your heart?
Darken ran, his heart thundering in his chest.
Darken fell, down, down, down, down into darkness. He couldn’t breathe. He was suffocating. He had to get out. Frantically he thrashed, tearing his nails from his fingers, coughing as he inhaled and choked on soil. Then air! His arms broke through into emptiness, a breeze cool on his skin. Muscles straining, tendons standing out, he worked his way free, bursting from the ground to take a deep, gasping breath.
From the ground.
With every beat, I am closer.
He’d dug his way from a grave. Like a baneling.
The terror he’d felt when trapped in the ground was nothing compared to the horror that made his skin crawl. It couldn’t be. He was no longer for the Keeper.
There was a pool of water. Darken could see it glistening in the strange grey light of false dawn. He went to it. The water would soothe his throat, would wash away the dirt that streaked his skin.
When he knelt to drink, he caught sight of his reflection.
His eyes were filled with green fire, his pupil an elongated slit, like the eye of a cat. Hand darting out like a striking snake, Darken viciously struck the water’s surface, shattering the reflection, teeth bared in disgust.
Can you feel my teeth?
The water sparkled, filled with flecks of golden light.
Dragon eyes and dragon fire, calling in your sleep.
“Darken, wake up!”
Darken bolted upright, drawing the dagger he kept beneath his pillow and leveling it at his attacker’s jugular before he became fully aware of his surroundings.
Richard knelt next to him, hands raised in a gesture of peace. A bead of blood ran down his throat, drawn by the point of Darken’s wickedly curved blade. “Bad dreams?” he asked.
Darken didn’t answer, simply withdrawing his knife and rolling from the furs he had been sleeping upon. Richard flushed ever so slightly, keeping his eyes firmly above Darken’s waist. It amused Darken, how easily flustered his brother became by Darken’s penchant for sleeping in the nude.
They were in his red command tent, camped with several quads of the Dragon Corps. “Why are you here, brother?”
Richard would not have disturbed Darken’s increasingly fitful sleep unless he had something to report.
“The scouts are back. They’ve found the rogue Mord’Sith, and the girls they took. “
Darken splashed water on his face, standing bent over the washbasin made for the purpose. He so detested being unable to bathe properly, though his command tent was a great step up from the rough travel of the months before he had reclaimed his throne. Still, he missed his bath house.
And the woman who often joined him for those baths.
“There is something else, Richard. I know you too well by now. What is it?”
Richard frowned and fidgeted with the gold trim at the bottom of his red leather breastplate, emblazoned with the symbol of their House. “There have been sightings.”
“Sightings?” Darken dried his faced on a cloth, then moved to the chair his tunic and breeches were draped over, getting dressed.
“Sightings of unicorns and wolves.”
Feeling as if he had been struck by one of his own lightning bolts, Darken whirled on Richard, crossing the distance between them in an instant. Gripping Richard’s forearms, he uttered one word, a wealth of violence and vengeance compressed into the single syllable, “Where?”
Gooseflesh breaking out over his skin, Richard answered, “To the east. The Mord’Sith are to the west.”
“Then we will turn our forces,” Darken let Richard go, spinning on his heels and striding to the table where they had spread out a map of the surrounding territory. Darken studied the map now, stroking his bottom lip with two fingers.
“We haven’t seen or heard from the Brotherhood of the Gods since the Battle of Falketurn. Why now?” Richard protested. “This could be a trap. We need to go after the girls at full strength.”
“We need,” Darken shouted, then lowered his voice, continuing in a more modulated tone, “to deal with the greatest threat to the kingdom. The girls – ”
“Are important,” Richard interrupted. “Cara wanted them protected. You agreed.”
Darken felt a smile pull at the corners of his mouth. Richard had been paying more attention to the tricks of ruling than Darken had given him credit for. “Very good, brother. Mention my wife, try to use her to sway me. A good effort, but ultimately unfruitful.”
Thinking of Cara only ignited Darken’s blood, reminded him of how she had looked broken and limp in his arms. The thought of Brother Jarl and the spell that had nearly killed Cara and Darken’s heir set his teeth on edge.
The Brotherhood of the Gods had to be wiped from the earth, completely and utterly. Only then would the grievous wrong visited upon the House of Rahl be repaid.
Darken would watch them burn.
“Do you think I want them any less?” Richard exploded, his hand going to the hilt of the Sword of Truth. “After what they did to Kahlan. What they did to our sister.” Richard drew his sword.
It glowed orange with the righteous fury of the Seeker.
He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, “But there is time to pursue the Brotherhood. The girls the rogue Mord’Sith took are running out of time. We have to go after them first.”
Richard opened his eyes, and Darken met them.
The air was thick with things unsaid, with the ties that bound them. They were brothers, Rahls, warriors, each in love with a strong woman who waited for their return.
“We will do both,” Darken ordered at last. Though he spoke quietly, his voice was filled with thunder. “Send a message by journey book. Call the Third Battalion from the palace. Once they have arrived, we will split our forces.”
Richard placed his fist over his heart, and Darken returned the gesture.
Chapter 18: Tremble
The Third Battalion prepared to march, to join the Lords Rahl on the field of battle. Haden didn’t like it. It left too few to guard the palace, thinning the ranks of soldiers that protected the queen and the unborn prince.
Haden thought it was probably Lord Rahl the Younger’s idea.
Certainly it seemed reasonable enough. Lord Rahl’s spies reported no direct threats near the palace. It was best to use the hardiest of the D’Haran army where they would be the most useful.
But Haden had a strange feeling, deep in her gut.
She visited the wizard in his rooms, where he was convalescing after getting himself mauled by the Fenrisulfr. He claimed it was part of an important magical experiment. Haden teased him that he was starting to like the feeling of jaws tearing open his skin.
With the wizard, you never knew.
When she left, she doubled the guard outside his door, and put a Mord’Sith on duty at the juncture of the hall. That taken care of, she turned her attention to Jennsen.
Unable to convince her lover to stay locked in their quarters, Haden assigned two of her most trusted subordinates to guard the redhead at all times. She gave them strict orders to never leave her alone, no matter what the Lady Rahl commanded.
“If something happens to her, I will kill you,” Haden promised them, hand on her bow. “In inches. One arrow at a time.”
Jennsen laughed and called her silly, but Haden could see the way her shoulders loosened in relief. It pleased her that she made Jennsen feel safe.
That her lady feared others, but not Haden.
The queen ordered that she was to be left alone, said she was tired of soldiers underfoot. Haden quietly defied those orders, following Queen Cara everywhere herself. When the queen raged, she hid, but did not leave.
Mistress Cara was intimidating even with her belly swollen with child, but her wrath was nothing compared to Darken Rahl’s. Jennsen Rahl’s lover or not, if Haden allowed harm to come to Cara or the unborn prince, Lord Rahl would strike her down.
Haden respected him for it.
She added only one guard to those assigned to the Mother Confessor. She was not of the Rahl family, and could take care of herself.
And Haden did not like her.
“Kate,” Gudrun said softly, not wanting to disturb the woman who knelt before the altar of Tyrn, her lips moving silently.
“Do you hear the whispers?” she murmured, raising the hairs on the back of Gudrun’s neck. He often thought the burdens their god placed upon her were too heavy for one small woman. But he loved her, and so perhaps was not the most objective.
He could not help loving her.
“Freya Kate?” Gudrun placed his hand on her shoulder. She did not notice.
“Can you see them, in the dark? Can you feel the dragon fire that burns your heart?”
Gudrun watched her, his lips in a thin white line. Tyrn was giving her a vision, he was certain now. To further try to disrupt it would be blasphemous.
And may harm Kate.
“With every beat, I am closer. Can you feel my teeth?” Kate opened her eyes wide, looking up at Gudrun.
They were red.
“Dragon eyes and dragon fire, calling in your sleep.”
Darken Rahl woke with a start.
Chapter 19: Vision
“The Third Battalion is gone, Mother,” Adam said, staring into the waters of a slow moving stream in the royal forest, his hand upon Hrimfaxi’s neck.
It was not he who directed his voice.
The stable boy who had once been called Adam thought no longer, loved no longer, existed no longer.
All that remained was Hrimfaxi.
“Now is the time,” Mother’s voice came from the water, caressing Hrimfaxi’s ears. “While their guard is down, you must strike at the Witch King. Keep the babe that would inherit his wickedness from leaving its mother’s womb alive.”
“But surely the killing of a child is not Tyrn’s will,” a male voice interrupted, causing Hrimfaxi to snort and stamp in agitation.
Mother looked to the left, to someone beyond the edge of the spell’s focus that Hrimfaxi could not see.
“I have told you, Brother Gudrun. Tyrn sent me a vision. The child must die. And he must be killed with this.”
Mother thrust her hand into the water, and it emerged on Hrimfaxi’s side. A blade made with a unicorn’s horn, the hilt etched with runes was clutched in her white fingers. Under Hrimfaxi’s direction, Adam took the blade.
Zedd turned, finding himself in a now familiar clearing. “Hali. Or is it Creator? We must stop meeting this way.”
He smiled, glad to be in her presence despite his words.
It will be like this only a short while longer, my champion.
Zedd frowned. “What do you mean?”
She sighed, and Zedd felt the sweet warmth of her breath glide across his face, though they stood across the clearing from one another.
You have discovered the secret of the collars. I knew you would.
Irritated by her evasion of his question, though he should be used to it by now, Zedd nodded, his golden hair falling against his face. As always when he dreamt of Hali of late, he appeared with his youth intact.
“They are not merely meant to control the beasts. They compel them to seek out beings of magic, that is true. But they also absorb the han of any creature the Fenrisulfr kill. Absorb the magical force of any spell.” Zedd folded his arms, beginning to pace back and forth across the grass. “Someone is gathering power. But who? Why?”
Zedd looked up sharply at that. “You know. But… you will not tell me.”
I know, but I cannot tell you. There are rules, Zeddicus.
“Bags to your rules!” he cried, face reddening. “Don’t you know what’s at stake?!”
He was pushed down by an immense invisible force. He fell to his knees, gasping for air as the Creator thundered, There is always a higher power!
Her words echoed through his mind, rattled his teeth, made blood come from his nose.
When he could breathe again, she smiled at him with that crooked smile, and she was his Hali once more. The woman he loved with all his mortal heart.
“No human mage could hold that much power and live. Not even I. Not even Darken,” he said, wiping his bloodied nose on his sleeve.
Hali touched him, taking the pain away with the Healing Hands.
His heart thumped twice.
No human mage. In that, you are correct.
Zedd looked down into her brown eyes. “Can you say no more?”
She cupped his cheeks, sending a bittersweet jolt of warmth to his chest.
I may only ask that you continue to guide the son of my blood, in the hope that he will fulfill his destiny. And…
She paused, a look of contemplation making her look more human than she had since she walked among mortals.
“And?” Zedd asked, his eyes upon her lips.
There is more at stake than you know. Old wrongs may be righted. Old wounds healed. Even gods make mistakes.
“You’ve told me that before,” Zedd said. Hali placed a finger over his lips.
And now, my champion, you must wake.
And then she kissed him.
Chapter 20: Battlefield
Zedd awoke with dried blood on his upper lip, proof that his visit from Hali was not any ordinary dream. Looking to the window, he saw that it was still dark, the moon hanging full in an inky black sky.
Why then, had Hali told him to wake?
When he tried to stand, he found he was stronger than he had been in days. His brush with Skull and Helhati while they were under the influence of the collars had left him with a wounded arm and nearly useless leg.
Yet now he stood. His limbs were still unsteady, but they no longer pained him. More of Hali’s doing, he was sure.
He went to his door, tapping the shoulder of one of the many guards that had been placed there.
“Fetch Mistress Haden. Something is afoot.”
Adam waited in the shadows outside the royal suite. He wore the uniform of a lowly ranked member of the Dragon Corp. Once, he would have burned with pride to be so clad.
His unicorn horn dagger sat in the sheath that had once held his blade from the Eagle Feather Armory.
How ridiculous it was that he had once valued that hunk of metal.
Now, he cared only for Mother and Hrimfaxi, when he was present enough to care for anything at all. Often his thoughts were nothing but Hrimfaxi’s whispers.
He would not let the unicorn down.
Sooner than Adam expected, a guard came rushing up the hall, calling for Mistress Haden. But he was not warning her of the fire Adam had set in the stables, the fire that should be discovered soon as horses screamed and flames licked along the trail of lamp oil he had left to the soldier’s barracks.
Instead, the man told the Mord’Sith that the wizard called for her. She nodded, following the soldier down the hall at a brisk pace, leaving the royal suite guarded only by two young pages, pulled into service in the absence of the Third Battalion and thinning of the Mord’Sith’s ranks.
Hrimfaxi whispered it was a blessing from Tyrn.
Face blank and eyes black, Adam approached the door.
He stabbed one page in the neck before the lad had time to squeak. As his blood sprayed the hall, the second boy opened his mouth to raise the alarm.
Adam buried his unicorn horn in the roof of the boy’s mouth.
Then he opened the door, moving toward Queen Cara’s rooms. It would be easy. Queen Cara would be abed, and slow because of the demon spawn in her belly. He would kill the bitch that carried the Witch King’s whelp, and then Hrimfaxi would take him to see Mother.
She would be so happy.
At last, Adam reached the door of the queen’s bedchamber. It took him a moment to work the latch. His hands were sticky with the blood of the page boys.
He pushed the door open with a soft creak, treading lightly across the stone flagons that made up the floor. Queen Cara was there, in the bed, her long blond hair strewn across the pillows. Lord Rahl’s dressing gown laid upon the pillow beside her as if he had just left it there. The queen slept with her hand resting upon it.
Adam raised his dagger high, a dark red drop of blood dripping from the tip of the unicorn horn to splatter across Queen Cara’s cheek.
Her eyes snapped open, and Adam expected her to scream. But she didn’t. Before he had time to react, she rolled away from him across the bed, pulling a dagger from amongst the pillows. Once she was free of the sheet Adam could see that she was naked, her breasts and belly hanging full with the effects of her pregnancy, angry red lines marking the places her skin had stretched.
She didn’t speak, just watched him with eyes like one of the Fenrisulfr, her breath coming in short little pants. The skin of her abdomen rippled, revealing the demon child turning within her.
Queen Cara danced away, inelegant but effective. She kicked a chair into his path, sending it skidding across the floor to strike him in the shins. He went down hard, his legs tangled with the splintered wood. When he pulled himself back up, left leg bleeding from an embedded splinter, the queen was no longer in the room. He turned to catch up with her, expecting her to make for the hall and the guards that should be there.
As he reached for the door, something hard struck him in the back. He went down on his knees, mouth open in a guttural wail as pain rippled down his spine, tearing every nerve apart in a fiery explosion. There was a whining in his ears, a humming drone that made the agony all the worse as his teeth rattled.
And suddenly, he was himself again. The shroud over his mind could not stand in the face of an Agiel’s torture magic.
“My lady,” he cried, his voice a cracking squeak. “The unicorns. The unicorns!”
He was granted a moment’s reprieve, and flopped onto his back like a puppet with its strings cut. Looking up, he could see Queen Cara standing over him, an Agiel in her hand. She must have anticipated him following her to the door, and laid in wait for him.
He had only a second to feel relieved before his mind began to cloud once more.
Cara drove her Agiel into the inside of his elbow, her knuckles white on the weapon. She knew what was happening. She had seen it before.
Adam screamed and wept, his mouth stretched wide. Convulsing, he gasped out, “Hidden unicorns! Gathering magic for the Mother! For the eclipse!”
Frustrated, Cara bared her teeth. “The Rahl Oath! Say it.”
She pulled her Agiel back, lest she kill the boy.
The instant it was no longer touching his skin, his eyes rolled black – as black as the eyes of the unicorn that controlled his mind. He slashed with his knife, releasing a spray of blood before Cara could stop him.
But it was not her he aimed for.
He cut his own throat down to the bone, doing far more damage than the Breath of Life could repair. He smiled as he died, blood turning his teeth red, and then black. A final mockery from the unicorn, for with the boy dead, Cara would not be able to question him about the few things he had managed to reveal.
Her stomach rippled, a cramping pain bad enough to make her clench her teeth roiling through her lower belly. Very deliberately, she released her Agiel, letting it clatter to the floor. There was a reason she had not held it in recent months.
Walking half bent, she took the few steps necessary to reach the side table in the entry way, hanging onto it as the pain subsided.
A warm gush of fluid ran down her legs, joining the pooling blood on the floor.
It seemed her son would be born on a battlefield after all.
Chapter 21: Life
Cara pulled Adam’s blade from his throat when the next birthing pain subsided. It would not do to be unarmed, but she feared the effect holding her Agiel might have on her son. Once she was certain that the pain had passed for the moment, she pushed herself to her feet, making her way back to the bedchamber she habitually shared with Darken. She’d just settled herself onto her back when she heard running footsteps echoing on stone.
She adjusted her grip on the hilt of the knife in her hand, noticing that it was not an ordinary blade, but a wickedly spiraled unicorn horn.
“Mistress!” Haden cried, appearing in the doorway with an Agiel in each hand – her own, and the one Cara had discarded in the outer chamber.
The drying blood slashed across the queen’s belly and face made Haden pale considerably as she imagined the punishment she would face from Lord Rahl.
And the disappointment in Jennsen’s eyes.
“It’s not mine,” Cara said, stiffly indicating the blood and leaning back on the pillows. She closed her eyes, tension filling her face for several long moments. “The midwife,” she said through clenched teeth. “And Jennsen.”
“My lady is locked in her room. There is a fire,” Haden replied. “I cannot leave you without guards.”
Cara gestured Haden closer, and Haden obeyed, approaching the bedside. Surprisingly quick, the queen grasped the end of Haden’s long brown braid and yanked, pulling the younger Mord’Sith down. Haden saw spots as her forehead collided with the hard oak bedside table.
“Kahlan will guard us!” Cara snarled, at her most vicious. “The midwife, and Jennsen. Now!”
She was too proud to ask for Darken to be called.
Haden placed Cara’s Agiel within her reach, and then went to do as she was bid.
“Where’s my grandfather?” Jennsen asked as she followed Haden down the hall, occasionally banging into the other woman’s back when she stopped to listen or check corners or whatever it was that guards did.
“There is a fire,” Haden answered, starting forward once more. “He goes to put it out with magic, and heal those that have been burned.”
“The midwife?” Jennsen asked as Haden rapped on Kahlan’s door.
Haden shrugged, then repeated, “There is a fire.”
Kahlan opened the door in her night dress, a dagger in each hand. Her Rada Han gleamed at her throat.
“Cara’s time has come,” was all the explanation they gave before Kahlan joined them in the hall.
Jennsen was horrified when they arrived at the door to the rooms her brother and Cara shared. Two pages, barely more than boys, lay in black pools of blood. Haden stepped over them, paying them no mind. Stiffening her spine, Jennsen tried to follow her example.
There was another dead man in the entry way. Jennsen recognized him from the stables. It was Adam, the boy who looked after the Fenrisulfr, his face frozen in a macabre smile.
“I think I might be sick,” she heard herself say.
“Mistress Cara is in the bedchamber,” Haden gently gripped Jennsen’s shoulders, guiding her to a chair.
Kahlan went into the bedchamber.
“Go to my grandfather,” Jennsen looked up at Haden, focusing on her eyes. It made it easier to forget the face of the boy she’d known. Easier to forget that he lay dead only a few feet away. “Tell him we need my brother. Then find the midwife.”
Haden kissed her, the Mord’Sith’s lips soft, in stark contrast to everything else about her. Jennsen drew strength from the press of their lips, reaching up to cradle Haden’s face.
“It will be done, my lady,” Haden whispered against Jennsen’s skin, proud that her lover had grown into command so well.
Then she was gone, long brown braid swinging around her thighs.
“Jennsen,” Kahlan stood in the doorway leading to the bedchamber, a slightly panicked look on her face. “I need some help. Have you done this before?”
“Lots of times,” Jennsen reassured her, silently adding With goats and sheep.
She carefully did not look at Adam’s body. Did not think upon the death surrounding them.
Today was a day for life.
Thank you to everyone who has stuck with me and kept reading. I know I'm taking an abnormally long time for me for various reasons I'll not get into.
I'd like to say thank you to those of you who have nominated this and some of my other fics in the 2012 LotSeekerFic Awards. Dragon Blood is up for Best AU, Best Action/Adventure, Best Cara, Best Darken, and Best Original Character for both Adam (a real surprise there!) and Haden. You can go vote in the awards HERE.
Chapter 22: Flames
Darken stood in his command tent, studying his maps, searching for a way to trap those he pursued.
The wolves and unicorns of the Brotherhood of the Gods darted forward and back, always heading to the east and retreating in the face of true battle, leading Darken and the men of Third Battalion further and further away from the People’s Palace.
He was beginning to feel that he was being taunted, as children taunt a cat with a bit of string, dangling it just out of reach.
He did not like the feeling.
For the past two evenings, the skin on the back of his neck had constantly crawled, the downy hairs standing on end. He found himself looking over his shoulder, certain someone was watching him.
It was the same feeling he had gotten when Jennsen stole into his palace in the night more than two years ago now, and made off with the Boxes of Orden.
If they could not drive their enemies into some kind of trap – a box canyon, or a gorge perhaps, he thought, studying the maps anew – he would turn the battalion back towards the People’s Palace. Something was amiss.
“My lord!” a soldier burst into his tent, hastily slapping his fist to his chest in salute. “The First Wizard appeared in the middle of the camp in a haze of smoke. He – ”
Darken did not wait to hear the rest. He simply strode past the soldier, his hair and robes blowing back in the wind as he left his tent. Lightning gathered at his fingertips, in preparation of this being some kind of trick of the Brotherhood’s.
The wizard stood in the center of camp, calling out Darken’s name in his gruff voice – then he doubled over and coughed.
Opening his senses, guiding his magic with a delicate touch like pouring water carefully from one dish to another, Darken examined Zedd’s han.
And recognized it.
It really was Zeddicus, and he had expended a great deal of han to travel to Darken’s encampment upon the wind. His clothes smelled of smoke.
“Behind you,” he said, surprising Zedd into whirling to face him. “What is the meaning of this, wizard?” he asked tightly, the temper he strove daily to keep in check making him grit his teeth.
Few things would send the wizard haring after him in this manner – it was dangerous to use so much han on one spell. Dangerous to leave the capital without a mage to guard it.
Dangerous to leave Cara, when she was so close to child bed.
“Speak!” Darken commanded, his fingers twitching toward his dagger – a lingering habit from days gone by.
“There was a fire in the barracks. And an attack on the royal wing,” Zedd choked, his lungs scorched. “I’ve put out the blaze. All is well!” he hastened to add, seeing the look on Darken’s face. “But Cara has been taken by labor pains. I was sent to fetch you.”
And now Zedd smiled, remembering the birth of his own daughter, and that of his grandson. Neither was under ideal circumstances, but the beginning of a life was still a wonder.
He’d seen Darken’s birth as well. His smile grew. Fate was a funny thing.
He felt the brush of phantom lips against his cheek, a familiar braying laugh in his ear.
“Come my boy,” he said, only now realizing that he’d interrupted Darken. Darken looked at him incredulously, and Zedd slung an arm around his shoulders. “I will show you how to walk on the wind, and you’ll be holding your son by morning!”
Every so often, Darken was certain that Zeddicus had gone quite mad, and he was the only one who noticed.
“I don’t have time to learn a new spell,” he snapped, pushing Zedd back. With one smooth motion he drew his sword, running the edge of the blade across his hand and then driving the point into the ground, etching a crude five pointed star that matched the one painted on the floor in a room of the People’s Palace. His blood dripped sluggishly down the blade, trickling along the design in spots.
Like calls to like. It is a magical law.
Darken sheathed his sword and held up his hands, carefully arranged palms up with the first two fingers of each hand extended. One long ago learned incantation later, and he went from standing in the center of a glyph drawn with the blood of a Rahl in the middle of a forest to standing in the center of a glyph drawn with the blood of a Rahl in the People’s Palace in a roar of flames.
Oddly, where they had always been blue when he cast this spell in the past, this time the flames were green.
But he spared it only a moment’s thought before striding down the hall, ignoring those who hastened to bow when they saw him. His wife – his queen – his Cara was giving birth to his son.
And this time, he would do everything right.
A rare smile stretching his lips, he gave thanks to the Creator.
His heart thumped twice.
Chapter 23: Prophet
Thank you to everyone who voted for this fic and my other ones in the 2012 LotSeekerFic Awards. Dragon Blood tied for 1st in Best Portrayal of Darken Rahl, as well as placing in several other categories. For all my wins, see my LJ sidebar. Also thank you to those who continue to review. It helps me know there is still interest in the story, and I appreciate it.
And finally, a big thank you to dorothydeath, who made art of pregnant Cara and Darken HERE.
Darken had just enough time to take in Cara’s face, tight with strain, tendons standing out in her neck as her skin flushed red with the pain of bringing their son into the world before he found himself unceremoniously ejected from the room by his sister.
Fiercer than he thought her capable of, Jennsen scolded him first for leaving Cara to go chasing after rogue Mord’Sith, then for getting in the way and making the midwife nervous, and then dragged him from the room by his arm, leaving him little choice but to follow or strike her for her audacity.
He found himself reluctant to hurt her, though she made him grit his teeth in outrage, the memory of her throwing herself upon the back of a wolf to save him dancing across his eyes.
“And get someone to clean that up!” Jennsen finished, pointing at the corpses lying in the royal sitting room.
In his haste to get to Cara, Darken had barely noticed the mangled bodies of the two squires and the lad Darken recognized as his stable boy, Adam.
Not waiting for a reply, Jennsen turned on her heel, darting back into the bedroom to attend to Cara. Haden smirked from her position guarding the door, apparently amused.
Darken glared and she stopped smiling.
Time passed strangely while Darken waited. He was certain hours had passed, only to realize it was minutes. Then he would sit, rubbing at his lip with two fingers, only to look up when the sun changed position, casting a shadow on his face through the window.
Darken summoned a servant and watched as blood was scrubbed away from the floor, the bodies carried away. He paced, thunder rumbling in the distance, punctuated by the occasional strangled groan of pain from the bedroom, and the voices of the women.
Zedd arrived several hours after Darken, looking like a wine skin that had been drained, his han dangerously low. He swayed as he stood, inquiring whether the ‘blessed event’ as he called it had taken place yet.
Darken assured him that it hadn’t and then sent him away before he had to be carried away. He was not certain whether he feared the wizard would faint, or that he would knock him unconscious to put a stop to his inane chatter.
The waiting was driving him to distraction. He could be a patient man, when it suited him. He was used to biding his time, waiting for the opportune moment to implement some strategy or another.
But now, with Cara just one room away working to birth his heir, he could not think. Could not rest. Could do nothing but alternate pacing with throwing himself violently upon the furniture. His fingers twitched. He considered going to the dungeon to put his agitation to good use in interrogation, but he had never attended a birth before. He didn’t know how long it would take.
He wanted to be there to hear his son’s first cries, for reasons he did not examine too closely.
At last, the sound he was waiting for came. It was louder than he thought it would be, high and piercing. A baby’s first wail.
He rushed to the door, and this time Jennsen did not try to shoo him away. She smiled at him, her blue eyes shining, and then waved him toward the bed before pulling Kahlan and the midwife toward the sitting room, leaving Darken alone with Cara.
And the bundle in her arms.
He went to her, sitting on the side of the bed, resting his hand upon her leg as he peered at the face of his son. He felt as if he prepared for war, the familiar rush of battle lust making his hands tremble with barely contained energy.
Cara shifted so that Darken could see his son’s face. The babe was red and pinched, with wispy white hairs covering his head, and very small. Darken hadn’t realized the boy would be so small.
“Cara,” he breathed, a wealth of unspoken feeling present in the way he said her name.
“My lord,” Cara replied, just as she had the last time she presented him with a son. Her voice was hoarse, her eyes dull with exhaustion. But there was pride in the curve of her lips, the arch of her brow, the way she jutted her chin forward in triumph.
Darken thought she was beautiful.
“My love,” he kissed her, the words feeling odd on his lips because they were true, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up.
It seemed as if his entire life, birth and rebirth, had led to this moment, this woman and the boy in her arms. A son he would love. A son he would cherish. A second chance personified. This moment was precious. His son was precious.
And both of them touched by destiny.
Cara leaned into the kiss, her lips clinging to his. Darken felt wetness on his face, but when they pulled apart he thought he had imagined it. As regally as a woman born to royalty, Cara held out the baby, and Darken took him, a small stab of nervousness pinching at his heart. He balanced the child awkwardly, amazed that he could hold him with one arm.
Darken stroked the boys small cheek with one finger, bursting into a bright laugh when his son grasped the finger in a tiny fist. For one small moment, everything was perfect.
Then the boy started to cry, and Darken hastily passed him back to Cara, murmuring, “I’ve never held a baby before.”
“I’ve only held one other,” Cara replied as she jostled the boy, trying to make him stop crying. Cara could withstand pain untold, had given birth without screaming once, without weeping, had killed the man who stole into her room to assassinate her as she slept without batting an eye.
But this, her son’s wails, distressed her as nothing else. Frantically she searched her memory for things she’d seen Richard and Kahlan do with the various children they’d come in contact with through their travels.
The newborn prince howled louder, as demanding as any Rahl.
Darken expected to be annoyed at the noise, but found he was proud that his son was already strong willed.
On and on, their son screamed, to the frustration of the king and queen who knew nothing about children. Finally a knock came at the door, and then Zedd stuck his head into the room, his grey hair mussed about his face. “I thought I heard a baby crying!”
He sounded absolutely delighted by the noise, damn him.
“May I?” he asked, fully entering the room. He was wearing a long grey nightshirt that exposed his skinny legs and made Darken snort.
Taking the babe from Cara’s arms, the wizard rocked and cooed at him, making absurd faces. The boy went quiet as if by magic.
If it was a spell, Darken would have to have Zeddicus teach it to him, or else appoint the wizard as the boy’s nanny.
“There, there, little – What have you named him?” Zedd asked, looking up with a smile.
Cara met Darken’s eyes.
“He is your heir. The right is yours,” Cara said after a long moment.
The room was silent, Darken’s heart giving a strange lurch. It was his right, of course. He was Lord Rahl. He had planned for months to simply choose a name from generations of Rahls past. Perhaps Alric, the first of their line. Perhaps Fafnir, who rode upon dragons.
He had never named their first son. Not until Richard asked for a name and Darken had said the first that came to his lips.
Cara watched him, waiting. His eyes tracing over the lines of her face, Darken was struck with a sudden inspiration. Heart filled with what he had finally admitted was love, Darken named his son.
“Mason. He shall be Mason Rahl.”
A shocked smile spread Cara’s lips wide, and in that moment Darken wanted her more than he ever had before. She clasped his hand, her knuckles white as she squeezed it.
Darken squeezed back.
“Oh!” Zedd said in surprise, interrupting the quiet moment.
“What is it, wizard?” Cara demanded, her brow wrinkling in concern, craning her neck to see if anything was wrong with Mason.
“This child bears the gift of prophecy.”
A sense of presence pressed down on them, making the air in the room heavy as their ears were filled with a familiar braying laugh.
Chapter 24: Howl
Freya Kate screamed. She howled. She shrieked with rage, her voice curdling the blood of all who heard. Across the land, throughout the three territories, wolves took up her cry, until the air vibrated with the force of her fury. Unicorns kicked and screeched with their Mother, a horrible equine sound that few ever heard.
Hrimfaxi had failed. Adam had failed - failed to take the magic of the Rahl babe. The Fenrisulfr had failed to keep the Rahl lord away from his land, failed to keep the armies divided, distracted.
They had all failed her.
And she was running out of time.
“Kate,” Brother Gudrun rushed into the room, summoned by her cries. “Kate, what is it?”
He looked at her with kind eyes filled with love, and Kate felt her human heart quiver in response.
She hated her humanity. The closer the day came, the closer she came to her true goal, the more she hated this soft body with its soft feelings and softer flesh.
“The Rahl babe lives! The Witch King holds him as we speak!” she snapped at Gudrun, slapping away the hands he laid upon her cheeks. He loved her, and her mortal heart returned his affection, no matter how she tried to deny it.
“Kate,” Gudrun whispered, his face going pale.
“What is it?”
He stared, his lips pressed into a thin white line. Impatient, Kate went to the mirror hanging upon the wall and looked into it.
Her eyes burned a deep red.
She closed them, taking a deep breath, trying to calm herself. “Do you hear the whispers?” she murmured to herself, reliving her escape, her rebirth, her hunt for Shadow Water. Little by little, she bound her spirit to this body. Little by little, Kate became more than human. Superior.
But she could not take her rightful place until she reclaimed what was lost. And for that she needed power. If she couldn’t get it from the Rahl child, she would have to seek it elsewhere.
Gudrun placed his hand upon her shoulder.
“There is some good news,” he said carefully, frightened by the change Tyrn was working in his beloved. His Priestess of the Gods. “The place you have been searching for – the place you see in your visions, the place where the heathen god touched the earth… we’ve found it.”
A surge of triumph licking along Kate’s spine, she smiled and imagined her teeth were sharper and more numerous. “Start digging.”
Under no illusion as to who truly ruled the Brotherhood now that Jarl was gone, Gudrun bowed his head. “As you wish.”
Kahlan stood on the curtain wall of the People’s Palace, looking out over the village that had grown up around the capital but not really seeing it. Her thoughts turned round and round the tale of Adam the stable boy – enslaved by unicorns.
After the traditional week of festivities in honor of the new prince, and after bells had rung throughout D’Hara on Mason’s Naming Day, Cara finally related the attack that led to her labor to the rest of them. Zedd studied the unicorn horn dagger, noting that it was covered by the same symbols as the collars of the Fenrisulfr.
Darken Rahl renewed his declaration of vengeance on the Brotherhood, swore on the blood of his ancestors that he would not rest until they had all been wiped from the earth. He stormed and thundered about the palace, his face so dark that servants feared to go near him.
It harked back to another campaign he had waged not so very long ago.
Against the Confessors.
Kahlan could no longer blame him.
Dennee wanted her to return to Aydindril. To take her place as Mother Confessor. But Kahlan couldn’t. She knew, the moment she saw that murdered boy, the moment she realized he had been enslaved as she had been, enslaved as she had enslaved so many herself, that she would never remove her Rada Han.
Adam had been made to cut his own throat, his body, his thoughts no longer his own.
Kahlan would not be like the monsters who had done that to him. The monster her power made of her.
Confessors were not beings of the Creator’s making. The first Confessors were twisted, shaped with the power of the Shakai’ah. Just as the creatures of the Brotherhood of the Gods had been.
Kahlan had seen it in Sepina’s mind – an image of the woman they called Mother, the Shakai’ah in her hands. Each unicorn, each of the Fenrisulfr was forced into their new form with those dragon bone needles stuck into their flesh, forged from the poor souls who found themselves taken by the Brotherhood.
And Kahlan was just as unnatural as they were.
“My brother writes that he has retrieved the village girls and even now returns to the palace,” Darken Rahl’s voice disturbed Kahlan’s thoughts, making her jerk.
The wind blew her hair in her face.
“If his absence is why you are out here sulking, you may put your mind at ease.”
“I am not sulking!” Kahlan snapped, her hackles raised. She would never be completely comfortable in Darken’s presence, nor she suspected, would he be in hers.
Perhaps they were too alike.
Darken came to stand beside her, joining her in gazing over the wall, his bearing like a one of the regal wizards from the old tales: the wind blowing his hair and robes back, his blue eyes alive with magic. “Cara says you are to remain here indefinitely, as her lady in waiting. That you will not be returning to Aydindril.”
“Do you object?” Kahlan asked once she had found her voice.
Darken elegantly lifted one shoulder in a lazy shrug. “Mistress Cara chooses whom she pleases.”
Kahlan smiled a small smile, “A wise answer.”
Silence fell between them. Kahlan waited, knowing there had to be more. They were long past the days of Darken doing things simply to make her uncomfortable, or so she thought.
“Shouldn’t you be with your son?” she broke the uneasy silence at last, finding in this at least, Darken was more patient than she.
“He’s sleeping,” was the tranquil reply.
Kahlan grit her teeth in frustration. “You didn’t come out here simply to tell me of Richard’s return. What is it you want?”
“I thought you’d never ask, Kahlan,” Darken said with a smile.
Kahlan hated the way he said her name with such familiarity. But it was an old, tired hate, a lingering shadow of venom that was no longer lethal.
“I want you to question everyone in the palace. Discover if any more creatures of the Brotherhood have gained root among us.”
Kahlan shook her head. “No.”
“No?!” Darken Rahl spat, a spark of his old temper making him ugly as thunder rumbled in the distance. He was not used to being defied – especially not in this, a simple request to see to the safety of himself and those few he cared about.
“No,” Kahlan answered firmly, calm in the face of his wrath. “I will never take the Rada Han off again. Not for this. Not for anything. If I make one exception, it will be too easy to make one the next time, and the next. No. I won’t take it off. Not for ill, not for the greater good.”
The wind howled in a sudden gust, mingling their dark hair together. Quietly, Kahlan finished, “Especially not for the greater good.”
How many men had she taken with her power, all in the name of righteousness?
“Then how are we to know – ” Darken began, then bit back his words, slapping his hand against the stone parapet of the curtain wall, closing his eyes and exhaling through his nose in an effort to regain control of his temper.
“Send for Renn. The Listener,” Kahlan returned with sudden insight. Renn would be able to tell them if anyone in the palace was under the control of the unicorns without harming them.
Darken’s eyes widened, then narrowed, his temper cooling. “You will write to Dennee and ask for him.”
“I will write to Dennee, and ask for him,” Kahlan agreed.
Trailing the nail of one finger over his lips, Darken nodded to her, and then turned to go.
“Darken,” she called to him, not knowing why she stopped him until several seconds after she said his name, a thought crystallizing.
He turned back, one brow raised.
Kahlan pulled at the chain she wore around her neck, next to her Rada Han, revealing the key to the collar that suppressed her powers. Removing it, she held it out to the man she had once sought to destroy, and later protected from his own folly.
Purposefully brushing Kahlan’s fingers with his own, Darken took the key. “To protect you from temptation?” He pitched his voice low, putting a wealth of innuendo in the rumbling tone.
Kahlan was as white as her dress. Darken wondered if this was the last time he would see her dressed so, if she was giving up her birthright.
“Why me?” he asked, suspicion working its way through his veins. “Why not Richard, or Zeddicus?”
“Because you’re the only one who won’t give it back.” Kahlan’s voice was so low Darken had to lean forward to hear her.
Darken tilted his head, the edges of the key biting into his palm when he closed his fist. “You know, Kahlan, I think we understand each other very well. Better than you would like to admit.”
Kahlan’s arms broke out in goose flesh.
She told herself it was the wind.
Chapter 25: Nudge
Thank you to everyone who is still reading, despite my slow update speed! Updates will be scarce, if any happen at all in the next few weeks as I have end of year law school exams. However, after that, my goal is to completely finish the story by the end of May. And we're at the halfway point, huzzah!
Richard opened his eyes to find himself a forest clearing surrounding a familiar cottage.
“Hali?” he called.
You prayed to me before you slept. Is it so surprising that I am answering?
Richard whirled, his hand going to the Sword of Truth instinctively. Hali stood behind him, looking as Richard remembered her, and yet completely different. She was totally without flaw – the hair he recalled as being matted hung in a silky curtain, her skin was without blemish, and the blind eyes he had been so used to seeing were a clear honey-toned brown. Then she laughed her braying laugh, and Richard straightened out of his fighting stance, feeling sheepish. The laugh, at least, was exactly the same. “I’m dreaming.”
She tilted her head, her brown eyes piercing through him. In a way. You are angry with me, she continued without giving him a chance to say more.
“What? No, I –”
You are angry about my prophecies. You blame me for what they say. You are angry that you were the Keeper’s Chosen, and your brother was mine. You are angry you killed me. And you are angry that Darken Rahl is the Son of Blood.
“Do you know how many have died because of what’s written in the Halls of Prophecy?” Richard burst, surprised by the rage, by the words that bubbled past his lips.
Hali shook her head, smiling her crooked smile. I do not make destiny, Richard Rahl. I merely see the possibilities, and occasionally give things, she touched one finger to Richard’s chest, over his heart, making him gasp, tears streaming down his face, a little nudge.
Richard fell to his knees, every nerve ending on fire, his heart thumping so hard he felt as if at any moment it would come gushing from his mouth in a great gout of blood.
Destiny is shaped by the choices of mortals, Hali said calmly, as if Richard wasn’t writhing in pain at her feet. Each one you make is a thread in the tapestry of fate. You chose to give up the han you were born with, and in that moment you chose not to be the Son of Blood. The placing of a single stone can alter a path forever.
She knelt and kissed Richard’s forehead, and he screamed, a white-hot pain lancing through his skull. But you chose also to love your brother, and so you have helped the Son of Blood come to be. For without love, all Darken’s power, all the bloodshed will come to nothing. You have always understood that more than most, Richard.
A cool sensation like water running over his skin flowed through Richard, soothing all his anguish away, making him feel safe, and cherished.
And you are still the Seeker of Truth. You still have a part to play. She touched his head. I have given you something. You will see what it is when you return to the People’s Palace. Even now, my Champion speaks with the Son of my Blood, telling him of the plans of a misguided child of mine.
Richard blinked, his lips slightly parted as he tried to fathom what the goddess was talking about. The Son of Blood was Darken, he knew that, but who was the Champion? And a misguided child?
“What?” he started, only to have Hali shush him. She didn’t move, yet he heard the sound all the same. It flowed around him, carried on the breeze. “Do you mean the Brotherhood of the Gods? Tyrn?” Richard asked, undeterred.
Tyrn is not a god! Hali thundered, making Richard glad he was already on his knees, as the full force of her godhood pressed him into the dirt. But her anger passed quickly, replaced with a regret that Richard could feel down to the marrow of his bones.
Tyrn is not a god, she said again. Tyrn and all his brothers and sisters are one of my mistakes.
“Why can’t you just tell me?” Richard spoke gently, like he would to a startled animal. He felt somehow that if he disturbed the fragile aura surrounding Hali she would fade away.
There are rules, she answered, sounding frustrated. Even for one such as I.
Richard woke with a start. This time he was surrounded in red – the walls of his command tent. If he pushed the men hard, they could be back at the People’s Palace in a fortnight.
There he would finally discover what Hali – what the Creator – had meant by everything she said.
Chapter 26: Help
Renn sat amongst the dusty shelves of the library of Aydindril, hiding from his tutor. The library was one of the few places he could go anymore where his mind wouldn’t be flooded with loud, angry thoughts.
He didn’t mention the trouble he was having with his gift to anyone. He didn’t want them to put a Rada Han on him again. It wasn’t his fault so many people were mad about the Mord’Sith and D’Hara, and other confusing things that he couldn’t quite grasp. Angry thoughts were impossible to ignore. They seemed to echo, and snarl, get tangled with one another until they were just a great big ball of red and black sound giving Renn a headache.
So Renn stayed away from people, in the back of the library, where no one but wizards and mice ever went. If he was far enough away, he didn’t have to listen to why everyone thought some people should die and others should live, why some were better than others.
Why Richard was a bad man now.
Bored, Renn started drawing a picture in the thick dust that coated the edge of the shelf in front of him, and then sneezed. When he wiped his nose on his sleeve, he left a grey streak of grime on his cheek.
And now Dennee was mad at Kahlan. She tried not to think it when Renn was near her, but he knew. Kahlan didn’t want to be a Confessor anymore. She told Dennee to be Mother Confessor. Dennee was mad. Dennee felt betrayed. Dennee thought maybe Darken Rahl had done something to Richard and Kahlan, to make them serve him.
Renn didn’t know if that was right or not. He’d heard Darken Rahl’s thoughts before. They were many and confusing. Listening to Darken Rahl had been almost as bad as all the angry people. His thoughts were just as tangled, and just as loud, undercut by whispers Renn couldn’t quite make out.
But he did know one thing. Kahlan had asked Dennee to send Renn to the People’s Palace to help find the people who wanted to hurt his friends. Renn knew how to do that. He was good at it. He’d done it a lot of times in other countries, for different rulers. But this was the first time he wanted to go. The first time he wanted to help.
If Dennee wouldn’t send him, Renn would go to D’Hara by himself. It could be fun, like an adventure, like when he got to travel with Richard and Kahlan. And he’d get to see Jennsen again.
He wondered if Haden had ever admitted Jennsen made her think of birdsong.
Aliandra swatted at the vines that dared to block her path, looking like a woman possessed with her pale skin and red eyes. Her white hair shown in the light that filtered through the trees. Behind her walked what remained of the Mord’Sith who followed her, after Richard Rahl had hunted them and taken the girls they chose to train.
Aliandra and the women following her would be the last true Mord’Sith, if Jennsen Rahl and Queen Cara had anything to say about it.
Finally she lost her temper, tearing the vines from her path and flinging them to the forest floor. Angrily, she stomped between two trees, not bothering to be quiet. She was Mord’Sith – chosen, deadly, and proud. She did not bother to hide her presence in the woods because she had nothing to fear.
Until she rounded a bend, to meet a pack of enormous wolves.
She had her Agiel out in an instant, her companions following suit. Fenrisulfr. That was what these beasts were called. They were supposed to be dead.
The largest, standing slightly in front of the others bared its teeth and growled.
Aliandra mimicked the action, refusing to submit, to back down. If she was to be one of the last true Mord’Sith, then she would die honorably in battle as a Mord’Sith should, without flinching. Without compromise.
“You can’t hope to best them, albino. My children were made to devour the likes of you.”
Jerking in surprise, Aliandra whipped her head in the direction the voice had come from, looking for the speaker. A woman with long dark hair, dressed in the blue robes of a priestess emerged from amongst the wolves, as if by magic.
Her eyes were as red as Aliandra’s own.
“Who are you?”
“I am the one they call Mother,” the woman answered, coming to rest her hand against the muzzle of one of the enormous wolves. “But you will call me Freya Kate.”
“What do you want?” Aliandra demanded, signaling her Mord’Sith to fan out, to put them in the best possible position to survive the fight she was certain was imminent.
Aliandra didn’t have to ask what kind of ‘help’ the woman had in mind. “What do we get in return?”
The wolf woman smiled, then laughed, a cunning, reptilian intelligence oozing from her in waves. “Your lives.”
Aliandra thought for a long moment, and then she sheathed her Agiel.
Chapter 27: Old
Annalina Alduran, Prelate of the Sisters of the Light, rose in the night, an unsettled feeling she could not place working through her old bones.
Her hair hung down her back, a uniform pale grey against the white of her plain night shift. Even the magic of the Palace of the Prophets could not stave off age forever. Not bothering with her dressing gown, she proceeded to the temple where she and her Sisters prayed to the Creator. The moon shone down from the glass skylight crafted by wizards, making the marble stones that formed the room glow with a soft, silver light. It was eerie, unearthly, raising the hairs on the back of her neck. In the day the temple was golden, bronzed, a beacon of truth and light.
But at night… at night, in the moonlight, it was a wholly different place, though just as holy.
Making her way to the altar, Annalina knelt, pressing her lips to the cold stone as she opened her mind to the words of the Creator.
“Something comes,” she murmured to herself, the wrinkles around her mouth deepening as she frowned. “But what?”
From the night arose a sound, at first a low moan, and then louder, piercing. Haunting.
The howl of a wolf.
One voice sang a song to the moon, joined by another, and then yet another, until the temple halls resonated with the unnerving music of a pack in full cry.
It was easier to sneak out of Aydindril than Renn thought it would be. By now, everyone was so used to him hiding in the library, that he was already outside the village gates before anyone thought to miss him.
He had a pack with all the food he could take from the kitchens, arranged with the heaviest stuff on the bottom just like Richard and Kahlan had shown him. Before he left the village, he found Sam, a boy he played with sometimes, and traded clothes with him. Sam got a soft silky tunic and leather breeches, given to Renn by Dennee. Renn put on Sam’s torn shirt and linen pants, and then rubbed dirt on his face. He knew how to get by without being noticed, and he knew that he needed to look poor. Bandits on the road, or even helpful people would pay more attention to a well-dressed boy who might have wealthy parents.
But everyone ignores a street urchin.
Sam thought he had pulled one over on Renn, getting his nice clothes. Renn could hear him think it. He just smiled. Sam would be warmer tonight, sleeping in a tunic with fewer holes. Renn would be cold, but he had been cold before. He’d be alright.
He’s like a little old man in a child’s body. That was something Dennee thought around him a lot. Renn didn’t always understand everything he heard people think, especially older people, but he thought maybe he understood that now.
As he headed out into the countryside, hidden in the back of a turnip cart that was going in the general direction of D’Hara, Renn felt like an old man.
Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, he wondered why people, even friends, even sisters, had to fight each other so hard, when they all sounded the same inside Renn’s head.
Chapter 28: Crossroads
When Richard arrived at the People’s Palace, he dashed first to the quarters he had begun sharing with Kahlan after Darken’s gift of the Rada Han. It had been too long since he saw her, too long since he held her in his arms.
He was disappointed not to find her there.
“She is in Prince Mason’s nursery, my lord,” Alice, Kahlan’s servant, told him. He turned to go, still finding it odd to be called ‘lord’, when he felt a gentle hand upon his arm. “Begging my lord’s pardon, but Queen Cara doesn’t let anyone near the prince without properly washing first.”
Richard looked down at his mud spattered boots, his dusty clothes, and the dirt encrusted under his nails. With a sheepish sigh, admitted to himself that sparing time to take a bath wouldn’t kill him.
As soon as Richard entered the nursery, Haden and a Mord’Sith he didn’t recognize crossed their Agiels in front of him, barring his path.
“You go no further without reciting the devotional,” Haden informed him tonelessly.
Puzzled, Richard looked past the Mord’Sith to see Kahlan smiling at him. She nodded, telling him that it was all right, he should do as they asked.
So Richard knelt, and pledged himself to the Master Rahl.
When Haden and the other Mord’Sith stepped back to their places guarding the door, Richard could see that Darken was sitting in a kingly chair by the fireplace, Cara in a slightly less ornate seat by his side. She wore her white leathers once more, though they were unfastened down the front to expose her breast as she nursed a child in her arms.
Zedd, Kahlan, and Jennsen rounded out the familial scene, seated in a half circle around the new parents. Kahlan had scrolls and quill in her lap, Jennsen appeared to be sewing something, and Zedd held a book. It was clear that they weren’t here simply to visit the child, but had begun carrying out their usual duties in the sanctuary of this room.
“Forgive the formality, brother,” Darken’s voice roused Richard from his musings. “You are likely protected from the hypnotic power of the unicorns by virtue of the Rahl bloodline, but I will take no chances with the safety of my heir.”
Richard barely heard him, for Kahlan was in his arms and her lips were against his.
But then he pulled back. “The unicorns?”
“Many things have happened while you were away,” Kahlan told him softly.
Richard was allowed to hold his nephew while the Mord’Sith whose name he didn’t know was sent to fetch a chair for him. Unfortunately, having just been fed, Mason spat regurgitated milk all over Richard’s fresh tunic.
While Richard didn’t truly mind, as Mason was a baby and couldn’t help it, it was a little irksome how pleased, amused, and proud Darken seemed to be at his son’s aim.
Zedd leaned over and charmed Richard’s tunic clean once more, and then Richard settled into the chair that was brought for him, eager to be informed of everything that had transpired in the People’s Palace while he was away, and why his family had sequestered themselves in Mason’s nursery.
Renn sat in the dark back corner of a tavern called The Red Hen, his eyes locked on the kitchen door. He’d run out of food a few days ago, and he was afraid to draw attention to himself by cheating at cards to get money to buy more. Stealing a little from the kitchens would be better, because a lot of people steal. Stealing wouldn’t mark him out as a Listener.
And he’d remember the name of the tavern, and when he got to D’Hara he would tell Richard, and Richard would send them money because if Richard was a Lord Rahl now he must have money he wouldn’t mind giving to the tavern, right?
Seeing his chance, Renn crept toward the kitchen, falling in line with the dirty children who worked scrubbing pots and turning spits. He moved fast, stuffing a few rolls and some raw carrots into is bag, thinking he had gone unseen until a hard little hand pulled him into the shadows of a pantry.
“Yer gonna get us bof caught, ya idiot,” a boy a little shorter than him hissed.
“No one saw,” Renn whispered back, jerking his arm away. The thoughts of those around them buzzed lowly through his head, no one voice standing out more than the rest unless Renn concentrated. If anyone had seen him steal, he’d know. Their thoughts would turn red and snarly.
“Not yet they ain’t, but they woulda if ya’da kept on,” the boy retorted.
Renn could hear rustling, and the creak of wood. He turned to see the boy silhouetted by moonlight, standing on an overturned crate to work at the small window high in the back of the pantry’s wall, used to let light in during the day. As Renn watched, the boy forced the window open, then pulled himself up and through. Seconds later brown eyes were peering at him through the opening. “Ya comin’, or ain’t ya?”
Knowing from his thoughts that the boy didn’t mean to run away, Renn handed his pack up first, and then pushed himself through the window. He almost didn’t fit – he had to wriggle his shoulders while the boy pulled his arms.
“S’why nobody thinks ta check that winder,” the boy confided. “Almost nobody kin fit ‘cept me.”
His bag was passed back to him, and Renn opened it, removing a roll and two of the carrots and holding them out to his new friend before the boy could ask for his fair share, seeing as he showed Renn the way out.
The boy grabbed the food, wolfing the roll down as Renn watched. Looking into his thoughts, Renn saw that his companion was an orphan, homeless. A street rat, some would say. And something else…
“You’re a girl!” Renn exclaimed, looking her up and down. She was a bit shorter than him, with short brown hair, or short for a girl anyway, and wearing a worn tunic and torn linen pants. She didn’t have any shoes.
“Course I’ma girl,” she answered as if he were stupid to think otherwise. “Name’s Lexi.”
“If you’re a girl, why’s your hair so short?” Renn demanded, annoyed at her tone.
“Sister of tha Light cut it. Said I had lice,” Lexi shrugged.
Renn opened his mouth to speak, then closed it, a feeling coming over him like cold bath water being dumped over his head. He turned to face the road. Someone, something was coming that didn’t feel right. The thoughts were slimy, oily, hard to grasp. They made him feel like he might be sick.
“We have to hide,” he told Lexi, grabbing her by the back of the shirt and dragging her behind a clump of bushes, out of sight of passersby.
For a long time, nothing happened.
But then came the sound of hooves on the road.
Clop clop. Clop clop.
Renn felt his heart beating faster, his breath catching. From the sheer wrongness of the thoughts of the thing approaching, he imagined all sorts of horrors. Maybe it was a six legged horse that breathed fire. Maybe it was an undead rider come back to life to drag people down to the underworld.
At last, the source of Renn’s fear came into sight.
It was a beautiful woman in a blue dress, riding on the back of a unicorn.
“Oh,” Lexi gasped, moving as if to get up, to approach the creature.
“No,” Renn grasped her arm so hard his knuckles turned white.
It seemed as if the woman on the unicorn would never move on. Twice, Renn felt sure they knew he was there, their thoughts oozing through his mind and leaving a trail of poisonous slime behind. The sound of the hooves stopped, and he knew this was the end, any moment he would feel the spiral of a unicorn’s horn through his heart.
Clop clop. Clop clop.
When the woman was gone, Renn slumped onto his back, staring up at the stars.
“I’ve got to get to D’Hara.”
“Why wouldn’t ya let me, idiot boy,” Lexi demanded, kicking dirt on him in her irritation.
“My name is Renn and I’m on an important mission for Lady Kahlan!” He sat up, his face red, his heart still pounding from fear.
“An’ I’m tha Mother Confessor.” Lexi stuck her tongue out at him, going into the road to see if she could see the woman with the unicorn.
“Fine, don’t believe me.”
Renn got up, slung his pack across his back, and went to read the signpost at the crossroad.
“What ya doin’?” Lexi demanded, loudly crunching one of the carrots he had given her.
“I told you. I have to go to D’Hara. I’m on a mission for Lady Kahlan.”
Taking the left fork, he started off, hoping he’d be able to find a wagon to sneak onto as the new day dawned. He hadn’t gone very far when he heard the slap-slapping sounds of Lexi’s bare feet on the road, running to catch up with him. “I’m comin’ too!”
Renn didn’t say anything. He just waited for her to catch her breath. Looking into her eyes, he could see she was telling herself that if he really was on a mission, there might be food or a reward in it for her if she helped him. But beneath that thought, there was another.
He was the first person to say more than Get out of the way, urchin to her since the Sister of the Light she’d talked about moved on to a different village.
Chapter 29: Bond
Aliandra waited in the trees surrounding the grounds upon which the Palace of the Prophets stood. She had never before been in the old world.
She didn’t like it.
The portal, the magical barrier or whatever it was the ancient wizards had done to separate the old world and the new interfered with the Rahl bond. Aliandra could feel the pull of it, urging her back toward D’Hara and the Lords Rahl. It was wound tight as a harp string, like it might snap any moment under the strain of the distance.
When she drew her Agiel, it seemed the magic that fueled it was weakened. No doubt because she was so far from anyone bearing the blood of the Rahl line.
She dismissed it. She was Mord’Sith, and used to the piercing kiss of the red leather rod in her hand. The Sisters of the Light within the palace before her would fall to their knees screaming all the same.
Aliandra shifted, cutting her red eyes to the places along the line of trees where she knew her Sisters to be hidden, along with the enormous Fenrisulfr. A fragile ghost of a smile, pale as her skin, graced her lips as she gave the signal to begin their assault.
All around her, wolves began to howl, chilling the blood, though Aliandra was expecting it.
I need a source of power. I need you to capture the Prelate. Who better for such a task than the Mord’Sith?
That was what the woman who called herself Freya Kate had said. The price of the lives of the Mord’Sith, she had said, was the old sorceress.
A rather good bargain, considering the alternative, Aliandra thought as she left her hiding place, boldly walking up to the front gates of the palace. A dacra flew at her from the wall.
Aliandra deflected it with a lazy flip of her wrist.
Darken sat bolt upright in his chair by the fireplace in Mason’s nursery, taken with a sudden foreboding. There was an uneasiness, a sickening thrum along his senses as if someone had struck a discordant note among the lines of power that tied him to his subjects. Zedd looked at him, brows raised in question, but Darken disdained to explain as he rose from his seat.
Exhaling, he turned his gaze inward. He sat like a great spider at the center of a bloody web. Lines of deep red flowed outward from him, each of them representing his tie to one of those who recited the devotional every morning. Some lines were thick, taut, pulsing with a loyally beating heart. Those lines Darken could trace back to their originator, running along the thread with the nimble feet of his spirit self, finding those the most closely bound to him.
He could feel Cara, a few doors down the hall of the royal wing. There was a shiver along the tie that bound him to her, and he knew she felt him there, teasing along the bond.
Richard’s line was next, made stronger because it flowed both ways – Richard’s bond to him and his bond to Richard irrevocably twisted together. Having not yet explained the sensation of the Rahl bond to Richard, Darken knew his brother would be scratching at the back of his neck and looking over his shoulder, thinking someone watched him.
Darken turned his mind from the close bonds, instead focusing on those that were long and slack, some of them coiling in loops. But it was a futile endeavor. While he at times was given forewarning of something amiss with his subjects through their connection to him, the only time he could truly know which subject and where was when one of the more powerful bonds snapped, either through death or defection.
Having spent most of his life being the Master Rahl, Darken was able to examine the bond in only a few seconds. Realizing the futility of his efforts after a cursory inspection, he opened his eyes, still plagued by a feeling that something was not right.
Immediately he went to Mason’s bassinet, where the prince slumbered, securely tucked into a blanket of crushed red velvet, embroidered with the Rahl crest. His golden hair made a halo around his head. Darken was glad of that, that his son looked like a proper Rahl.
It had always bothered him, as a child, being dark haired like his mother.
“Darken, what is it?” Cara asked as she entered the room. It was her turn to stay with their son, while he slept.
Until the Listener arrived, until Darken could be sure that there were no more traitors lurking within his palace, he would not leave Mason alone. There were always Mord’Sith present in the nursery, for they could not be entranced by the unicorns by virtue of the power of their Agiels. But that was not enough. Denna, and even Cara had proven to Darken in the past that the Mord’Sith could betray him.
And so either himself or Cara, and often both of them, stayed in the nursery as well.
He wouldn’t let another son die.
It wouldn’t be his actions that led to another son’s death.
“Nothing,” he answered Cara, looking up at her and then staring back down at Mason intensely.
“Jennsen is going to scold you if you pinch him again,” she observed dryly, going to take her own seat by the fire.
“It is difficult to know if he is breathing at times,” Darken protested, putting a stinging bite in his voice to avoid looking sheepish.
Cara waved her hand at him and rolled her eyes. She wasn’t impressed.
Darken’s lips twitched. “Becoming queen has made you insolent.”
“Or perhaps taking a queen has made you more foolish,” she returned, insolently.
“I could have you whipped for that.”
“Do try. Please.”
Zedd looked up from the book he was reading in the corner to inform them he was still in the room.
Chapter 30: Thief
Dennee paced, both her face and her sleeves creased with worry as she wrung the fabric between her hands, a frown turning her lips down.
Renn was gone.
Her poor boy.
She should have known this would happen. She should have anticipated he would find out that Kahlan had sent for him. She should have realized that once he knew about the message, Renn would set off on his own, trying to be a hero.
Renn practically worshipped Richard. He would never pass up a chance to help the Seeker or Kahlan, especially if it meant he could have an adventure in the process.
If something happened to him –
She wouldn’t let herself finish that thought.
She’d already sent men to look for Renn, but now she went and sat at the massive desk used by many Mother Confessors past.
She had to write to Kahlan. She had to trust that though her sister had lost her way and renounced their order, she still had a good heart.
Dennee had to trust Kahlan would help her boy.
Renn sat in a little copse of trees, his eyes squeezed shut, Listening for all he was worth.
He hadn’t seen any more unicorns since the lady on the road, but he felt them everywhere, their thoughts crawling over him and leaving him covered in a stench he couldn’t get rid of no matter how many rivers he swam through.
It was hard to understand what they were really thinking, with the way their thoughts echoed and intertwined with one another, a seething mass of tangled smoky grey, like the smoke before a forest fire.
But Renn knew they were heading toward the old world. Over and over he heard it. They were heading toward the old world, to the place where the one they thought of as The Betrayer had touched the earth.
Now, more than ever, he had to get to Richard and Kahlan. He needed to tell them about the unicorns that weren’t really unicorns.
A satchel landed at his feet, seemingly from nowhere, and Renn jumped, looking up to see Lexi. Opening the satchel, he found bread and a wedge of cheese, along with a cold chunk of roasted ham. He quickly set about dividing up the food, and then fell on his portion, his hunger making it taste better than any meal he’d ever eaten in the court of a king. Better even than pheasants with blackberry sauce.
“I didn’t hear you come back,” he told Lexi between mouthfuls. “You’re so quiet.”
“Thiefs gotter be quiet, dun they?” she replied, chewing with her mouth open. “Elsewise they git caught.”
Renn paused. “You stole this food?”
Lexi frowned at him. “Didn’t hear ya complainin’ when you was still ‘ongry.”
Renn sighed, but began eating again. She was right. He was famished. And if he starved to death, he wouldn’t be able to warn Richard and Kahlan.
Or see Jennsen again.
“Do you remember the name of the inn in the village?” he asked when he was done.
Lexi gave him a powerfully sour look and then sniffed, telling him off for trying to be such a ‘goody noble boy.’ Renn barely heard what she said, for he was looking into her eyes, seeing the thoughts written there.
She didn’t know the name of the inn where she had stolen the food, because she couldn’t read the sign above the door. She could spell out her name, no more.
“We’ll cross the border into D’Hara tomorrow,” he said to change the subject. “Then it’s just a couple of wagon rides to the People’s Palace. Richard and Kahlan will give us all the food we can eat, and Jennsen will dress us in nice clothes and she’ll fix your hair, and Haden will stare at us, but she’s nice really, you don’t have to be afraid of her. She might carve us some toys. She likes to carve things. And Zedd will tell us stories about when Richard was a kid like us.”
Of Darken Rahl and his queen, Renn said nothing.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Lexi mumbled.
There may not be any updates for a few days, as I'm about to go out of town.
Chapter 31: Keeper
“Jennsen,” Richard called, breaking into a light jog to catch up to her.
“Brother,” Jennsen returned with a smile, pausing to wait. She held a tray in her hands, set out with a covered plate and a pitcher of chilled persimmon cordial.
“We have servants for that now, you know,” Richard indicated the tray, then took it from Jennsen. She shouldn’t have to carry something that heavy while he was walking with her.
“I know, but…”
Richard nodded his understanding. They had both grown up doing things for themselves. Being Lord Rahl the Younger and Princess Rahl now was… hard to get used to.
“I’m taking a meal to Grandfather. He’s shut himself up in the magic workroom again, and put a spell on the door to keep people out.”
Richard smiled. “But he can’t keep you out.”
Thrusting her nose haughtily into the air and crossing her arms, Jennsen agreed, “No, he can’t.”
They laughed at her mockery of offended nobility, and then they were at the workroom door.
The entryway blazed with green light.
Acting as if she couldn’t see it at all – with a start, Richard realized that perhaps she couldn’t – Jennsen reached through the light to push the door open, and then took Zedd’s meal tray from Richard and waltzed into the room.
Several moments later, the green light in the doorway faded, and Richard could see Zedd sitting at his battered work table with the tray of food in front of him, Jennsen busy shaking her finger and scolding him.
Richard met Zedd’s eyes, and both their lips twitched into a smile.
It was nice, having a family. Richard found he even enjoyed the parts like this as Jennsen rounded on him and gave him an ear full for ‘encouraging Grandfather.’
“Yes, yes, dear one, I’m sorry. Look, I’m eating now,” Zedd placated Jennsen, uncovering the plate on his tray to reveal a serving of his favorite beef stew.
“What are you working on, Zedd?” Richard asked as he went to join the old wizard at the table. Jennsen started fluttering around the room, tidying up.
Zedd wouldn’t let any maids in the workroom, for fear they’d disrupt his experiments and come to harm. But Jennsen was impervious to magic, and not likely to be stopped, so he said nothing.
“These blasted collars, and that knife used in the assassination attempt on Cara,” Zedd growled between mouthfuls. “I know they absorb the power of magical beings killed by the bearers, but I can’t determine where the power is being sent. Or why. Though I fear it is to fuel a great spell – and nothing good ever comes of magic that powerful. It’s too big to be controlled.”
The unicorn horn knife was on the table, where Zedd had set it when Jennsen made him stop for a meal. Richard picked it up, turning it over and over in his hands. He’d seen the writing before, on the collars Jennsen had pulled from the Fenrisulfr.
The characters seemed to swim before his eyes, rearranging themselves until Richard could read them as easily as…
The Book of Counted Shadows.
“To take the power from the blood, and return it to the rightful master,” he read out, spinning the blade in his hands as his eyes followed the path of the writing.
Zedd froze, a bite of stew halfway to his mouth. “You can read the markings?”
The air was filled with a quiet, braying laugh. Richard remembered his visit from Hali.
“I think this is what she gave me, when she touched my head,” he said, after relaying the encounter to Zedd. He gripped the knife so hard, his knuckles turned white. “She said I’m the Seeker, and I still have a part to play. She gave me the ability to read this writing. It must be important!”
Zedd grew quiet, his spoonful of stew seemingly forgotten, as he continued to simply hold it in the air. “‘…and return it to the rightful master.’ Who does that remind you of?”
In a gesture he wasn’t fully conscious of making, Richard slapped his free hand to his chest, where fiery fingers had once burned into his flesh, a shiver of revulsion going down his spine. “The Keeper.”
There was a moment of strained silence, then Jennsen announced, “I’ll go tell our brother.”
Richard jerked at the sound of her voice. He’d forgotten she was there.
Chapter 32: Lineage
Special thanks to madmguillotine for making me think about the Valley of Perdition.
Broken and bloody, the Prelate stumbled, roughly pulled along by the chains that bound her hands. There was no Rada Han at her throat. It wasn’t necessary. Her captors were Mord’Sith. There was no point in her trying to use magic, even if she had any strength left.
“Where are you taking me?” she demanded, voice hoarse. The albino Mord’Sith – Mistress Aliandra, she had ordered Annalina to call her – was leading her further into the desert.
Her question was answered by a blow that knocked her off her feet. A warm gush of blood ran down her face, over her lips, to stain her already tattered robes. It was her nose. Something didn’t feel right.
Annalina pushed herself to her knees, her joints aching in protest, and then raised a sand-sticky hand to her face, only to wince and lower it. Her nose was painfully tender to the touch. So painful that she didn’t even wipe away the grit sticking to the blood on her face.
She concentrated instead on getting to her feet, keeping herself moving. If the Mord’Sith would strike her for a question, she didn’t want to contemplate what would happen if she was unable to keep up.
She was focusing so hard on her feet, on putting one in front of the other, that she didn’t realize they were approaching anyone until she heard the click of teeth and looked up to find herself surrounded by massive wolves and – were those unicorns?
There were so many beasts, all interspersed with men clad in robes Annalina didn’t recognize as belonging to any order she was familiar with. They formed a teeming mass, a seething horde all boiling around one central point.
At the center of the unnatural army stood a woman in blue. With her pale skin and dark hair, she was beautiful save for one thing.
Her eyes were as red as those of the albino Mord’Sith.
“Hello, Annalina,” the woman said in a voice that sent chills down the Prelate’s spine.
“Freya Kate,” a man with blank eyes interrupted, his hand laid on the back of the unicorn standing at his side. “We have found it. Hrimfaxi can feel it.” He pointed. “It’s just there.”
Annalina found it odd that the man did not turn to look in the direction he was indicating, though the unicorn at his side did.
“Good,” the woman called Freya Kate purred, a feral edge to her voice. “Start digging.”
Annalina subtly turned her head, hoping to see whatever it was they were talking about.
A surge of triumph filled her when she saw exactly what it was the unicorn man had pointed to. But the triumph was short lived. As if she could read minds, Freya Kate caught Annalina’s eye and laughed.
“You think I would succumb to my own curse?”
“No one is impervious to the Valley of Perdition,” Annalina snapped, an unexplained panic making her old heart pound.
“Is that what they’re calling it now?” Freya Kate spat, a dark aura seeming to swirl around her as her face twisted in rage. “How pretentious! Call it what it is.”
“What is it?” the words passed Annalina’s lips before she was conscious of making the decision to speak.
Freya Kate hissed like a serpent, and then bared her teeth and answered. “It is the place of The Great Betrayal.”
Darken jerked, startled out of a waking dream. Immediately he looked down to the child he held in his arms, hoping he had not woken the boy.
Mason slept on, making a soft snorting sound every so often, his mouth hanging open. A wet patch on his chest let Darken know his son had been drooling on him.
He was quite certain that Mason inherited the predilection from Cara’s lineage. Rahls did not drool.
“Brother, are you alright?” Jennsen asked softly.
They were in Mason’s nursery, Darken in his chair by the fire, Jennsen sitting across from him in her customary seat. There was a bit of sewing in her lap. Even as she spoke, her small white hands delicately worked at the needle, making some frippery for Mason no doubt.
She reminded Darken of his mother.
“I’m perfectly fine, sister,” was all he said, not wanting to admit that he had either been taken by a daydream to the point of forgetting his surroundings, or otherwise fallen asleep.
Sand and bones. That was what he remembered. Sand and bones, and the sound of blood rushing through his head.
Jennsen nodded, giving him one of her understanding looks that implied she had gotten much more out of the exchange than Darken had intended. He could never quite decide if he enjoyed her powers of perception, or if they made her dangerous. But then she was a Rahl, and his sister. She was supposed to be confusing and complicated.
Amused, Darken’s lips twitched up into a smile. “You wear your advisor’s ring well.”
Startled, Jennsen gave him a curious look, her brows raised, but her cheeks flushed pink with pleasure.
Once again showing how well she could read him, she didn’t question his words, or engage in any more talk. She simply returned to her sewing. But Darken could see, when he glanced at her a few moments later, that she was smiling happily to herself, and twirling her advisor’s ring around her finger.
Chapter 33: Gods
Kate stood illuminated beneath the pale moon, wondering if The Betrayer – wondering if her mother – watched.
Her children, her wolves, her precious horned sons and daughters, all worked amongst the humans, digging in the sand, hauling away the earth that hid what she had lost so, so long ago.
She would have it back, and more. She would have everything that was promised her. Everything she deserved.
She would have her place in the stars.
“Kate.” Brother Gudrun’s voice both set her teeth on edge and her heart aflutter. It was this frail human body, with its weak emotions and soft flesh. Not her spirit. Not her.
She did not love him. She would not love again. Love was for the weaker creatures of this world.
“What is it, Gudrun?” she asked, turning her red eyes on him. The closer she got to her goal, the closer they got to the day when night would fall at noon, and it would be possible to perform the ritual, the more difficult it had become disguise her true self.
She no longer tried.
“I fear for you. Tyrn moves through you, but his masculine power is – ”
“Be quiet, you imbecile!” she hissed at him. It was more than irritating, it was infuriating how easily this man, how all the men and woman who had flocked to her banner had swallowed the stories she told them of Tyrn and his Brotherhood of Gods.
Jarl had been the worst. He’d believed so completely that he forgot who it was who had whispered the stories in his ear, and sent him dreams.
Gudrun was not to be deterred. “Please, Kate. I love you. I know the will of the gods is important, but not at the expense of your life.” He grabbed at her hands, raising them to his lips to kiss. “It is blasphemous of me, but I would have us fail before seeing my precious Kate destroyed by the power of the god moving through her.”
For a moment, she wavered. For a moment, she was simply Kate. Not Freya Kate, High Priestess of the Brotherhood of the Gods.
For a moment, she was purely human.
Standing on her tiptoes, she met Gudrun’s lips in a sweet kiss that ripped through her, bringing tears to her red eyes.
Then a cry went up amongst her followers, the Fenrisulfr taking up a triumphant howl. Pulling back from Gudrun as if stung, Kate turned to see a massive, blackened bone protruding from the sand.
Her triumph was nigh.
Closing her eyes, she whispered to herself, reciting the mantra that had helped her retain her identity even as she had hijacked this body, and spun lie upon lie to bring events to this point.
Do you hear the whispers?
Can you see them, in the dark?
Up, up, through the rift, escaping her father’s realm for the world of the living.
Can you feel the dragon fire that consumes your heart?
Taking this body, ejecting the spirit of the woman, the real Kate, who had taken the deal offered by Darken Rahl, their father’s favored son.
With every beat, I am closer. Can you feel my teeth?
Finding the Shadow Water, releasing herself from Father’s grasp.
Dragon eyes, and dragon fire, calling in your sleep.
Red eyes snapped open. She focused on the task before her once more.
“Kate? What is it?”
“Don’t call me Kate.” She looked down at the bones protruding from the sand. “It’s not my name.”
Darken awoke from a vision of himself with red eyes to find Cara and Zeddicus staring at him with concern. They were in Mason’s nursery, a fire crackling in the grate lending the room a sense of peace and comfort. Darken had an ache in his neck, no doubt caused by sleeping in his tall, throne-like chair.
Taking a deep breath, Darken blinked and then lazily waved his hand to indicate he was fine.
Cara shifted in her seat so that one of her white boots rested against one of his black ones.
He didn’t pull away.
“Sorry if I disturbed you, my boy. I’m just reading a story to the little one,” the old wizard said, then began making ridiculous faces and noises at Mason.
Cara rolled her eyes.
Once he had finished making a fool of himself, Zeddicus adjusted Mason in the crook of his arm, and then began reading once more from the colorful book of children’s fables he had propped open against the arm of his chair.
The Children of the Gods
Once, long ago, the Keeper and the Creator lived together in the heavens. It was a time of peace and harmony. It was a time of laughter and light.
It was a time of dragons.
They were the children of the gods – some the daughters of the Creator, others the sons of the Keeper.
The Creator showered them with her light, giving them magic and the power to fly. The Keeper gifted them with the fire that burned inside him, giving them strength and passion.
One day, the Creator saw that their children were lonely, and created other life to keep them company. But she did so without help from the Keeper. The Keeper grew jealous and gave the dragons greed and wrath, so they would destroy the other life. His interference made his children’s spirits unbalanced. The darkness inside them became stronger than the light.
Discovering the Keeper’s rage, the Creator used all her strength to fling him into the underworld, where her children would be safe from him, sealing the veil with the blood she shed in her struggle with the Keeper, and the tears she wept to be parted from him.
She did not realize that it was too late – her children, the dragons, had already been poisoned by the Keeper’s avarice. Their greed could never be satiated. They were voids of darkness that called to be filled.
Seeing that the dragons were still lonely, and yet destroyed all the companions she made for them, the Creator descended to the world of the living to be with her children.
The dragons felt the full force of the Creator’s power, and grew jealous of her light, as the Keeper had. They sought to eat her, to absorb her godliness and ascend to the heavens. Outraged, the Creator fled the world, leaving the dragons in darkness forever. Never again would they feel her light upon their faces. Never again would she answer their prayers.
They were shunned.
Left in darkness, the dragons killed and consumed one another. Always, they wanted more power. Always, they wanted revenge on the Creator, for leaving them in darkness. Finally, only two dragons remained. Jormungund and Hrensaga, the last of the first children of the gods.
Hrensaga loved Jormungund with all the faint glimmerings of light left in her spirit, and so she did not seek to take his power. But Jormungund was consumed by greed. He was the greatest of the dragons, the strongest. He was long and serpentine, and so mighty he could crush the world in his coils. He would have the power he needed to rend the veil separating all the planes of existence, and then he would ascend to the heavens to eat the Creator and take her place.
He attacked Hrensaga, wrapping her round with his great coils, seeking to crush her as he had crushed so many others. Forced to fight for her life, Hrensaga opened her jaws wide, and tore open Jormungund’s soft underbelly. Black sand poured out, and red blood, his death throes reshaping the world.
Moved by his plight, and the tears Hrensaga wept from her red dragon eyes, the Creator used Jormungund’s body to form the lands of the world. His spine became the mountains, his breath the wind, and his teeth the Pillars of Creation.
And so Jormungund got his wish. He was a creator, a god to everything that lived upon him.
But Hrensaga would not be placated. She blamed the Creator for the end of the dragons. She blamed the Creator for the death of Jormungund.
Hrensaga flew ten days and ten nights, until she found the land formed from Jormungund’s heart. There she collapsed to the ground, and trumpeted her final curse. She wished darkness on all who wandered there. She wished her pain upon all the things that walked, crawled, and flew. She wished to see the world consumed in the green fire of the underworld, the fire of the Keeper, the fire of dragons. She swore vengeance on the Creator.
And then Hrensaga, the last of the dragons, died of heartbreak and the lush forest of Jormungund’s heart became a barren desert to swallow up her blackened bones.
That day the Creator spun the rules that govern all divine beings. No god may walk in the world of the living, unless they take on mortal flesh. Mortals must be allowed to shape their own destinies. Even a god may not part the veils of life and death.
No god may interfere.
The mistakes of the past must not be repeated.
It shall be so until the day the Creator finds a new consort, and the heavens are ruled by two again, as they were always meant to be.
Chapter 34: Fragile
“Come on, Lexi! You can see the palace rising above the trees! Look!”
Renn pointed, craning his head back to look over the treeline of the forest. There, in the distance, the capitol of D’Hara could be made out, the People’s Palace standing over the surrounding city like a sentinel.
“I’ma comin’, stop yer yellin’,” Lexi grumbled, dragging her feet to kick up the dust of the road as she caught up with Renn. She was opening her mouth to say more – that the palace wasn’t that impressive, and she bet the one at Aydindril was prettier, but then there was a sound like a thunderclap and she was thrown off her feet, blown back into the trees.
Renn extricated himself from the bush he’d been flung into, off balance and confused. It had all happened so fast. One moment he was standing, talking to Lexi, and the next he had a face full of blackberry thorns.
He put his hand to his cheek. It came away red.
But before he could complain, he saw the source of the force that knocked them both flat. A woman in the robes of a Sister of the Light had appeared in the middle of the road, lying on her stomach, her arms outstretched toward the palace. Cautiously, Renn approached her.
When she didn’t immediately attack, or even move very much, he grew bolder and knelt at her side, turning her over to lie on her back. Her veil fell off, revealing wavy hair a shade of red slightly darker than Renn’s own. Freckles dotted her nose, making her look younger than she was. Her eyes snapped open, and Renn could see that they were hazel-green, and bloodshot.
She gasped, and Renn took her hand, making a quiet shushing noise. “It’s ok. I won’t hurt you. What’s your name?”
“Sister Priscilla,” she said faintly, turning her head to the side. She began to weep when she saw she was in a forest. Renn felt something warm and sticky on his hand, and realized that the woman was bleeding heavily through her robes from a wound in her side.
She had been mauled by some kind of enormous animal.
“The Seeker,” she exclaimed, her voice loud and guttural. She squeezed Renn’s hand so hard it hurt. He returned his gaze to her face. “You must tell the Seeker. Only he can… only he…” Her eyes fell shut.
Renn shook her. “What do I have to tell the Seeker?!”
She jerked. “They have the Prelate. The eclipse. The Seeker must save her before the eclipse. Or else…else...”
Renn heard the final sentence in her thoughts.
The Seeker must save the Prelate before the eclipse, or else the world will end in fire.
Renn looked into Sister Priscilla’s eyes and saw only horror in her mind. Then there was just darkness as she lost consciousness.
He realized he was shaking.
“Weird fings is always happenin’ ta ya, ain’t they?” Lexi’s voice startled him.
There was dirt on her face where the magic of the Sister’s arrival had knocked her to the ground.
“She was trying to get to the People’s Palace, to tell Richard. We have to tell him for her now.”
Lexi nodded. Then she went to the edge of the road and dug around in the undergrowth for several long moments. When she returned, she held a large rock with two hands. Renn didn’t understand what it was for until she approached Sister Priscilla and raised the rock up with both arms, preparing to bring it down on the Sister’s head.
“What are you doing!?” Renn protested, throwing himself over the woman.
She was precious to him, suddenly. Her life his to protect.
Lexi sighed, then pointed with one of her dirty feet. “Look at them holes in her side. Use yer head, stupid boy. Ain’t no healer kin fix a bellycut like that, ‘n we sure can’t carry her to tha palace. S’better thisaway. If we do fer her now, if sommat comes along ‘n starts eatin’ her, she won’t feel it none.”
Renn was beyond horrified. He couldn’t move. He thought he might be sick.
In the end, Lexi put her rock down and pulled Renn off of Sister Priscilla, making him go sit against a tree.
His clothes were covered in the Sister’s blood.
“Dun look if it’s gonner bother ya,” Lexi said gruffly. She went and picked up her rock again.
Renn closed his eyes, and heard a sickening thump.
Cara had just finished feeding Mason when a servant appeared at the door to summon Lord Rahl and his queen to the main courtyard. The Listener had arrived.
Darken and Cara shared a look. They never left Mason alone. Never. Not when they couldn’t be certain who to trust.
“You go,” Darken said after a long moment. He cradled Mason protectively against his chest, stroking the baby’s back.
It pained Cara to admit that Darken was a more nurturing parent than she. He was gentle, with a surprising knack for holding and soothing the boy. He regarded everything Mason did with delight, wonder, and pride. Where Cara sometimes chafed at needing to spend so much time in the nursery, Darken seemed to revel in it.
Not that she was disinterested in her son. But she thought herself a poor mother. Though she would never admit it to anyone, living or dead, she was continually nervous around her boy and would continue to be so until he had grown less… fragile.
She touched the amulet of bones at her throat.
“I’ll bring the Listener to you once Richard and Kahlan have finished fussing over him.”
“Thank you, Cara,” Darken said, his blue eyes seeming to glow.
Cara felt herself soften at the look. “Always, my lord.”
Chapter 35: Audience
Renn had never been so happy and so sad at the same time. Richard and Kahlan were in the courtyard, and they were hugging him, and then Jennsen was there, and she ruffled his hair, and Haden was staring at everyone, and then he was introducing them all to Lexi. It felt like home.
If only it weren’t for the dark undercurrent of thoughts swirling around and through them all, and the sound of Lexi smashing open Sister Priscilla’s skull.
Lexi acted like she didn’t care, but she heard it in her head, over and over, and that meant Renn heard it too.
“I have so much to tell all of you,” he found himself saying as the queen arrived and he and Lexi were bustled off to be fed and washed up before being conveyed into the presence of Lord Rahl.
Renn tried not to act like he was nervous. He didn’t want Lexi to think he was a coward.
Queen Cara at least wasn’t as… she wasn’t what Renn had expected her to be. She liked Richard and Kahlan a lot. She respected them. She wanted to protect them. She wanted to protect everyone.
That was good enough for Renn.
Darken sat in his ornate chair in Mason’s nursery, Cara in her seat beside him. Richard stood to his left. Jennsen completed the royal audience at Cara’s right, Mason in her arms.
Renn the Listener stood before them, freshly bathed and clothed. He fidgeted ever so slightly with the edge of his tunic, refusing to look Darken in the eyes.
“And the Sister gave you no more information?” Darken asked. “Only that the Prelate must be saved before the eclipse?”
The Listener shook his head. “She didn’t say anything else. But I know something else. When we were traveling here, I heard a lot of the unicorn riders. They were all going to the old world. The place of Great Betrayal, wherever that is.”
“Many spells may only be performed when the stars are in the proper alignment,” Zeddicus interrupted. He stood against one of the walls of the crowded nursery. “This is almost certainly what they have been gathering power for.”
“And the Prelate has great han,” Darken mused. “If she is killed with one of the weapons you have been studying…”
He didn’t need to say more. Zeddicus simply nodded, his lips set in a grim line.
Darken took a deep breath, letting the fear and rage this news inspired wash through him as Zeddicus had taught him, lest he inadvertently summon a thunderstorm.
When he looked at the Listener again, Renn’s eyes were no longer downcast. He met Darken’s gaze without flinching. Darken raised a brow in question, but in that moment he was distracted by movement near the door. Cutting his eyes to the motion, he saw that the little orphan girl traveling with the Listener was edging closer to the Mord’Sith, a curious look in her eye.
Darken turned his attention back to the Listener.
“You know why I have called you here?”
Renn nodded, then spoke up when Darken let the silence stretch on. “You want me to find out if anyone in the palace is an enemy. To make sure everyone is safe.”
“And you’ll do it?” the blue eyed king asked the boy.
“I’ll do it.”
Darken sat back in his chair with a wry twist to his lips. “Good. You will start at once.”
Renn bowed, and then stood to go.
“One moment, Listener. Tell me – do my thoughts still confuse you?”
Darken didn’t understand why he asked the question, or why the answer was so important to him.
The red haired boy smiled cheekily. “Why, my lord? Do they still confuse you?”
Chapter 36: Champion
Zedd sat up with a start. Scrolls, books, and astronomy charts were piled around him, covering the surface of the heavy oak table. He was in the palace library.
Or was he?
He looked down at his ink smudged fingers and saw they were unwrinkled.
You fell asleep, Champion.
“Hali.” He turned in his seat to find her standing there, in the center of the white marble floor, light shining down on her from the intricate stained glass windows in the domed ceiling of the library.
She seemed brighter, her presence heavier than ever before. Her beauty brought tears to his eyes.
He went to her and raised her hand to his lips for a heart stopping kiss.
What are you searching for, Zeddicus?
“The place of the Great Betrayal. The place we must find to have any chance of stopping the Brotherhood. The eclipse occurs in a fortnight. We have that long to prepare, but there will be nothing to prepare for, if I can’t find the thrice damned spot. I know I’ve read about it somewhere. If I could just remember where –”
Hali placed her hands on his cheeks. Be still. You have everything you need.
Zedd was so still he could have been carved from marble.
A braying laughed filled the air, echoing and overlapping though Hali’s lips didn’t move.
Zedd’s lips stretched into a smile, letting out his own throaty guffaw. It was difficult to be grim in Hali’s presence. She made the bloody reality of the world seem far away, out of focus.
You have everything you need, Hali repeated, her brown eyes serious once more.
Daring to thread his hand into her hair and choosing to blame the indiscretion on his youthful form, Zedd replied, “Not everything.”
Standing on her tiptoes, Hali pressed her lips to his.
It was both painful and beautiful, as if being struck by lightning. Her power electrified him down to his very bones. In the same moment, her love and light lifted him up, made his heart swell.
She pressed her Healing Hands to his chest as she pulled away. His heart beat twice.
This is the last time you will see me until everything is finished.
“Why?” he protested, still reeling from her kiss.
She looked up at him, and in that moment she was human again – crooked smile, tangled hair, a woman with a bad temper and soft brown eyes. Because there are rules, Zeddicus. I can’t interfere. I may only give my chosen the things they need to succeed.
“But after the eclipse, I will see you again.”
If everything goes as I hope, you will see me again. Old wrongs will be righted, and we will begin anew.
Zedd’s mouth went dry. He reached for her, pulling her into his arms, his heart thumping wildly. “And if things don’t go as you hope?”
For a long time, there was only silence. Then Hali pulled away.
I have done all I can. The rest is up to my children.
Zedd awoke with a crick in his neck and a pain in his back, slumped over a table in the library. His veins surged with more power than he had held since he was in his prime. His chest felt oddly warm.
When he opened his robes and looked, he found there was a mark seared into his skin, just over his heart. Just as his grandson had once been marked by the Keeper, Zedd was marked by the Creator.
He bore the imprint of the Healing Hands.
Chapter 37: War
Somehow, Haden had found herself charged with looking after the Listener and his companion. Guarding the young prince’s nursery had been one thing – it was an honor to be so trusted, and it allowed her to be close to Jennsen. But this…
She was beginning to feel like a nursemaid.
All around them, preparations were being made for war. The Lords Rahl sat in council with the queen and the Confessor, deciding when and where to send troops. The wizard pored over books, searching for references to the place they were to find and the magical ritual they were to stop.
And every morning, she and Jennsen woke the children, made them bathe and dress, saw to their breakfast, and then escorted them through their tasks for the day.
It was a wise precaution, Haden knew. Lord Rahl feared that when word spread through the palace that the Listener was being introduced to everyone to determine whether they were loyal, attempts might be made on the boy’s life. Being entrusted with his care, along with Jennsen, by the ruling Rahl himself was just as noteworthy as guarding the prince – perhaps more so, given the subtle acknowledgement of her relationship with Jennsen, and yet…
Haden would prefer a task she could shoot at.
Bracing herself, she entered the nursery wing. The Listener and Lexi the Orphan were being treated as if they too were royal children. They had a playroom, a study, and a bedroom each, just down the hall from the prince.
Jennsen was already sitting in the study with Renn, quietly going through a list of the residents of the palace with him, deciding who he would see that day. The boy’s hair was still damp from washing, his pink cheeks bulging as he politely munched on an apple fritter from the tray Jennsen had brought for breakfast.
“Where is the girl?” Haden asked, though she already had an idea.
Jennsen gave her an exasperated look. “I’ve told her that she has to stay in her room until she’s prepared to mind her manners and do as she’s told. You know she only listens to you.”
Haden sighed, then put her hand on her Agiel and strode to the door leading to Lexi’s room, opening it to find the girl sitting on the bed in her nightgown.
“Get yourself up and ready. Now!”
“I dun wan’ ta wear tha dress. I want leathers.”
“No. Only Mord’Sith may wear leathers.”
“I wan’ ta be a Mord’Sith.”
“You’re too young to volunteer.”
Haden grabbed Lexi by one of her thin arms and dragged her none too gently to the washbasin in the corner of the room.
“Am not! Agh! Tha water’s cold.”
“It would be warm if you had washed when you were supposed to.”
“I don’t like warshin’ all tha time. ‘Fore I came here, I only warshed every couple o’ weeks.”
“That was before you came to the People’s Palace. Here you will wash every day.” Haden poured water over the girl’s head, uncaring that she soaked her nightdress, then thrust a dry cloth into Lexi’s little hands. “You are not disciplined enough to be Mord’Sith. Mord’Sith obey orders.” Slyly, she added, “Mord’Sith wash every day.”
Once Lexi was dry, Haden dragged her back over to the bed, picked up the dress the girl had thrown to the floor, and shoved it at her. “Put on your dress.”
Haden didn’t notice the way Lexi tried to imitate her tone and inflection, or that the child was mimicking her stance almost exactly.
Her patience now at an end, Haden grit her teeth, a muscle in her jaw flexing. “Do you know how easily I could kill you and dispose of the body? Or better yet,” she ran her fingers down her sheathed Agiel, “force you to obey with this?”
The girl child laughed at her. She was clearly insane.
“Ya won’t do nothin’ ta me. If any of yehs kill me, Renn won’t help no more. He promised. And sides that, if ya did anythin’ ta me, Renn would know what ya done, and he’d tell tha princess, and she won’t let ya tickle her velvet no more.”
Quick as a snake, Haden gripped Lexi’s shoulders in both hands. Her voice was deadly serious when she said, “You will mind your tongue when you speak about Lady Jennsen.”
White as a sheet, despite her bold talk, Lexi nodded.
Haden stepped back. “Put on your dress.”
Almost meekly, Lexi picked it up, but didn’t put it on. “Hate pink,” she mumbled.
Haden’s lips twitched. “If you wear the dress today, tomorrow I will get you breeches and a tunic like the Listener’s.”
Emboldened again, Lexi looked up. “I want lea-”
“Only Mord’Sith wear leathers.”
Lexi thought a moment. “I’ll wear tha dress taday if I kin have breeches from now on, ‘n ya let me hold yer hawky bird while Renn is doin’ his borin’ Listener spells.”
“Done.” Haden smiled one of her rare smiles.
“Do I hafta wear tha hair ribbin?” Lexi asked as Haden bent to lace up the back of the girl’s dress.
Haden looked at the offending hair piece, held pinched between Lexi’s fingers. “No. But don’t tell-”
“Dun tell tha princess.”
With that, the pair of them left Lexi’s room to find Jennsen and Renn waiting for them in the study.
“Good, you’re ready.” Jennsen stood as they approached. “Renn has been working very hard. We’ve only the kitchen staff left to interview in the palace, then we can move on to the citizens of the city.”
They had started with the military, the resident nobles, and any servants likely to come into contact with Prince Mason. So far, they had found only small wrongdoers – maids who stole cutlery, guards who cheated at cards, those sorts of things. As it became clear that there were no more spies of the Brotherhood within the palace, Lord Rahl gradually relaxed the security measures around the prince.
It was a relief to all of them to no longer be so confined to the nursery.
While Haden and Jennsen spoke, Renn got up and held his handkerchief out to Lexi. He’d saved her one of the apple fritters, even though Jennsen said it was the girl’s own fault she missed breakfast. “You look pretty,” he whispered, smiling at her.
She punched him in the shoulder, but took the apple fritter.
“Then we are in agreement. We will send the First Battalion to the old world. Even if they had a specific destination, they wouldn’t reach it before the eclipse. Not even marching double time the entire journey. But if they begin travel now, they may be able to join us after we engage the Brotherhood. It could mean the difference between victory and defeat.”
“You’re sure you can’t transport them with magic like you’re going to do with us, brother?”
It was Zedd who answered, “Even with Darken and I working together, to try to take more than eight or so such a long distance without an anchoring gate spell is asking for disaster. It’s not just a matter of power – power we have. But even we are limited by the laws that govern the world.”
“Suffice it to say, brother,” Darken cut Zedd off before he could begin one of his long winded magical lectures. “Someone would die in the attempt.”
Richard nodded, scrubbing a hand over his face and then back through his hair. It was getting longer. Soon he’d need to cut it or tie it back to keep it out of his eyes.
It made him look a lot like his brother.
He stood. “I’ll go talk to the men. Tell them the plan.”
Darken nodded to him and rose to his feet, a silent acknowledgment that the meeting was adjourned.
Chapter 38: Family
“How is our son?” Cara asked as Darken entered the room. She was lounging on the massive bed where generations of Lord Rahls had slept…among other things.
“He sleeps now,” Darken answered, his eyes raking along the lines of Cara’s body. It had been a very long time since they had had any opportunity to be alone together.
Cara caught his admiring look and smirked, rising languidly to her feet. She circled him once with a feline grace, her hips swaying with every step she took. Her hair, once more worn in a Mord’Sith braid, also swayed, bringing to mind the tail of a great cat as it toyed with its prey.
Darken loved it when Cara hunted him.
Hairs prickled on the back of his neck as she stopped behind him. He refused to turn.
Her white gloved hands on his shoulders sent a rush of fire down his spine.
“My lord,” she purred into his ear, reminding him of times past. “You’re so tense.”
Joining in her game, Darken filled his voice with dark promise, and growled, “What do you propose to do about it, Mistress Cara?”
“Whatever my lord wishes,” was the promise whispered against his skin. Her hands were already sliding inside his robes to stroke his chest, and he raised his to unbind her hair. Cara undid the clasp holding Darken’s robes closed with a practiced flick of her fingers, and then bent to run her tongue and teeth along his collarbone, making him shiver.
Then the door was flung open.
Zeddicus stood there, his nose buried in a book in his hands. He was in a frenzy. “I’ve found it! I knew I read it somewhere, but I just didn’t think to check a book of children’s stories. But it was something Hali said – she appeared to me, and I think she was trying to lead me to – ”
At that moment Zedd looked up.
Cara was glaring, and Darken was ignoring him, determinedly working at the buckles on Cara’s leathers as if Zedd wasn’t there at all.
Zedd snickered. “I’ll tell you at the council meeting later.”
The young ones deserved a bit of happiness within this cyclone of war. Zedd turned to leave.
“Wizard,” Cara called, a mischievous tone in her voice. “Go tell Richard.”
Zedd left the room and went a few doors down to the suite Richard had been given in the royal wing.
Darken and Cara were quite amused to hear Richard’s voice a few moments later.
“Zedd! Get out of here! Kahlan, wait – ”
“The excavation is almost complete, my Freya,” Gudrun bowed, his heart breaking. He knew the work they did was important. They were going to bring Tyrn back to earth. Restore his godly influence on the world. Get rid of the vile magic that plagued the land.
Gudrun had seen what magic could do. What mages could do. It was unnatural for any mortal to have the much power. Dangerous.
He still heard his mother scream as Agiels were pressed to her skin. Heard his sister cry as she was pulled away from them, to be changed into one of those monsters, the Mord’Sith that took her.
He still missed his father. The Mord’Sith had returned and taken him the next day. Gudrun knew he had to be dead.
This was why he joined the Brotherhood. This was why he fought. For his family. For his father. For his mother.
For his sister, Haden.
But it broke his heart to see what their work was doing to the woman he loved. Kate was no longer herself. She wouldn’t even respond to her name anymore. Only her title – Freya.
Tyrn moved through her.
He sighed, raking his fingers through his dark brown hair, a shade or two darker than his skin.
The Mord’Sith that Kate had threatened into helping them circled the massive pit they had spent days digging in the sand, approaching him. Gudrun frowned.
Seeing her made him think of his sister. He both yearned for her, and dreaded seeing her again.
His only hope was that they could be together, their familial bond restored once she had been cleansed in the light of Tyrn.
Chapter 39: Transformation
“We are going now. We have fulfilled our part of the bargain.”
Aliandra stood at the edge of the pit dug in the center of the Valley of Perdition. The sorceress, Kate, was shielding them all from the valley’s curse somehow, but Aliandra could still feel the darkness of it crawling over the back of her neck. It screamed against her Mord’Sith senses - too powerful for even one of the Sisterhood to overcome.
And yet this Freya Kate protected their entire camp quite easily.
“You are going nowhere,” Freya Kate hissed as she turned to face Aliandra, meeting the Mord’Sith’s red eyes with her own scarlet orbs.
Aliandra put her hand on her Agiel, every muscle tensing as she prepared for a fight. “We captured the Prelate for you. Now we demand what you promised us: our freedom.”
Kate smiled, an expression like a knife wound stretched across her face. And then she laughed, and it sounded inhuman, making Aliandra tense her jaw.
“Think back, Mord’Sith,” the sorceress said, her teeth seeming unnaturally white in the moonlight. “You bargained for your lives, not your freedom. And your lives you will have. But no more than that.”
Aliandra drew her Agiel.
Quick as a flash, Freya Kate raised her right arm, a flick of her wrist sending something flying toward the Mord’Sith. Aliandra raised her own hand in return, palm facing out, expecting it to be a spell of some kind – some magic that she could turn back on her attacker.
She was struck in the chest.
Shocked, Aliandra looked down to find a thin spine of bone protruding from her breast, just over her heart. Blood seeped around it, barely noticeable against the color of her leathers. She tried to pull the needle out, and found she could not.
How sharp it must be, to slice through her armor like butter, and lodge in her flesh.
“It is the Shakai’ah,” Kate whispered, suddenly so close that Aliandra could feel the woman’s breath against her face.
Another needle of bone slammed into Aliandra’s shoulder, this time driven there by Kate’s lily white hand, the woman’s delicate fingers wrapped around the shaft.
Gripped by a magic that she had never before encountered, Aliandra found she could no longer move her body. She could only watch as four more of the rune engraved spines were shoved into her skin, as casually as a Mord’Sith training a new slave. The pain was so unbearable, it was only the force of the magic keeping her muscles rigid that held her upright.
She dropped her Agiel.
It hit the sand with a dull thud, and lay there, so close and yet so impossible to reach that it may as well be a star in the heavens. Blood dripped from Aliandra’s slack fingers, hitting her weapon with little splatting sounds.
“Do you know the stories of the dragons?” Freya Kate asked in her serpent voice.
She twisted one of the Shakai’ah. Aliandra refused to cry out. “There was Hrensaga the Red, the Dragon of Fire.” She twisted another of the needles, eliciting a grunt from the albino Mord’Sith. “Jormungund the World Snake, the Bringer of Storms. His scales were blue, and his eyes filled with lightning.”
Freya Kate pushed the instrument buried in Aliandra’s chest deeper, and then turned it. Aliandra saw red, then white, and then regained control of her muscles only long enough to scream the scream of the desperate. “And there was Tyrn the Black. His scales were the color of smoke after a forest fire, and his was the power of transformation.”
Kate leaned forward, her lips against Aliandra’s ear. “Tyrn wasn’t a god. He was a dragon. Hrensaga’s little brother. She ate him, and spit out his bones, taking his power for her own.”
Aliandra could no longer comprehend. She registered that the woman was speaking, but the words were just noise, her world edged in black and white.
“Long after the end of the age of dragons, a wizard found Tyrn’s bones, and created these tools of transmogrification. It seems a little of Tyrn’s magic lingers.” Freya Kate gave a wrench, pulling the dragon bone needle out of Aliandra’s chest, and then driving it through her throat.
Aliandra’s scream became the howl of a wolf.
“I know where the Brotherhood will perform their ritual. The great spell they have been gathering power for. It was right in front of me, in this child’s book of fables.” Zedd sat in his customary position at the council table, a grim look upon his face. Scrolls and books were piled around him, every scrap of information he could find about the upcoming eclipse contained within their pages.
“Get to the point, wizard. The eclipse is only three days away.” Cara crossed her arms, leaning forward in her chair at the head of the table to see Zedd around his mountains of books.
She was eager to have this business done with, and even more eager to fight at Darken’s side once more. It had been too long since she put her skills to good use. She was Queen Cara, mother of Prince Mason, lover of Lord Rahl. But she was also First Mistress, the wielder of two Agiels, warrior and protector.
It was time everyone remembered.
Zedd smiled at her, adopting a patient air. Cara rolled her eyes.
“The eclipse marks a time when the veils between worlds are thin. I believe that the Brotherhood is going to attempt to tear the veil to allow their god into this world. And – ”
“And if they succeed, the Keeper will burst forth, the living will be consumed by the underworld, and the world will end in fire. Yes, yes, Zeddicus. We already know,” Darken interrupted from his seat in the window of the council chamber. He turned from the view of the courtyard below to take in the faces of his companions, before his eyes settled on the wizard. “Where will this ritual occur?”
Zedd muttered something to himself about the impatience of youth, and Darken’s lips twitched up at the corners. Looking at Cara, he found her wearing an identical smirk.
“I believe the ritual will be held in the Valley of Perdition, in the old world. The place where the last of the dragons died,” Zedd revealed at last, setting a book down on the council table. It was the book of myths and fables from the nursery. Zedd opened it, thumbing past The First Night Wisp, To Slay a Shadrin, and other such tales until the book was opened to The Children of the Gods.
“The Creator used the body of a dragon to shape the land, and forge the Pillars of Creation. The veil is strongest there.” Zedd went to one of the many maps that hung in the room, this one of the old world, gesturing to a place not far from the Palace of the Prophets. “And according to the legend, the valley is cursed by the last dragon. Such old magic is powerful indeed. The veil will be weak here. If there was any place it would be possible to complete the ritual, it would be here. It is,” he added darkly, “where I would perform it, were I going to try.”
There was a moment when they all tried to speak at once. Cara had to stand and plant her fists on the table to return order.
“We will leave at first light,” Darken said at last, rising to inspect the map. “I can transport us to the entrance to the old world, with Zeddicus’ help. But not directly to the valley itself. The spells protecting the Palace of the Prophets would make such an undertaking too dangerous. No, once we are in the old world, I will change us all into hawks. We will reach the valley,” he traced two fingers over the map, “in a day and a half, as the bird flies.”
They would be cutting things perilously close.
Still, Cara smiled. Travels with the Brothers Rahl simply weren’t complete without some sort of armageddon to stop in a ridiculously short time frame. She had every confidence they would succeed.
“I’m going,” she declared. Then, more quietly, just to Darken, she added, “I belong at your side.”
I belong in battle, she said silently, only to herself.
Richard and Jennsen began to protest, but Darken raised two fingers, forestalling their outcry about Mason needing his mother.
If she weren’t so focused on her husband, it would amuse Cara that even Richard automatically responded to Darken’s familiar gesture of command now.
“And if we both perish?” was all Darken asked, his blue gaze burning into hers.
It was all he needed to ask. More passed between them in that moment than could ever be expressed aloud.
Cara ran her white gloved finger over the amulet of bones at her throat. The bones of their first son.
“Declare Jennsen regent. She and Haden will stay here and guard our son should we not return. And when he comes of age, he will rule.”
There was a muffled thump and a squeak. Cara turned to see Jennsen had gone pale, and was gripping the edge of the table so hard it was a wonder the wood didn’t splinter.
Darken dragged the edge of his thumbnail over his lips, a little habit that Cara knew meant he was deep in thought. Several moments passed before his eyes refocused, signaling he’d come to a decision. He approached her. He cupped her cheek.
She leaned, ever so slightly, into the touch.
“It will be as you have said, Mistress Cara.” He turned to Jennsen. “From the moment I leave these halls in the morning until the moment I return, or my heir is of age, you are Princess Regent of D’Hara. And you,” he continued, looking at Haden, “will assume the duties of First Mistress until Cara returns to relieve you of them.”
Jennsen looked horrified. She sputtered in protest.
Haden smiled, pride in herself and her lady shining from her face.
Chapter 40: Gateway
Ivy couldn’t risk getting close to the palace now that the Listener was working for the Witch King. But that didn’t stop her from spying for Mother.
Mother needed to know the First Battalion was marching to the old world. Ivy had watched them leave the gates of the city. All it took was batting her eyes at the right officer, and asking where such a big, strong man was going in order to protect their beloved country, and she knew their destination.
Armed with this intelligence, she went to the woods, to the little stream where she always reported to Mother, and waited.
It was not long before she heard hooves on the underbrush. Her unicorn companion, Kvasira, appeared, Ivy’s face reflected in the creature’s liquid black eyes.
They spoke silently, a stream of thought flowing between them.
Then Kvasira put her horn to the surface of the water in the stream, and Ivy knelt to report to Mother.
Darken and his companions appeared at the entrance to the old world inside a circle of green flames. Zeddicus staggered. Darken locked his knees to keep himself from swaying, refusing to let on how draining such a gateway spell really was.
Richard was giving him an odd look. Darken raised his brows as Kahlan and Cara went to help the wizard.
Richard shrugged. “The last time I saw you do something like that, the flames were blue.”
Darken had no explanation to give, so he simply ignored his brother.
“Zedd needs to rest before we go on,” Kahlan said, helping Zedd sit down before he fell down.
Darken nodded, then carefully lowered himself to the ground as well. He thought he’d managed to disguise the way his limbs trembled, but he caught Cara looking at him, a spark of concern in her eyes.
She knew him so well.
He inclined his head ever so slightly, to let her know he would recover in a moment. She wasn’t to draw attention to his temporary weakness.
“I will transform us into birds once Zeddicus is prepared to fly,” Darken announced when he was certain his exhaustion would not show in his voice.
Richard and Kahlan set to work gathering kindling. Cara dug into their packs of supplies, pulling out a water skin which she brought first to Darken, and then to Zedd. Darken set their campfire ablaze with a spark of magic, then grit his teeth as his head pounded.
To the uninitiated, gateway spells seemed no more difficult than the other miracles mages could perform. But in fact, they were the most dangerous. And for a group transport like the one he and Zeddicus had just worked together to perform, the risk increased exponentially with the amount of people and the distance traveled. To traverse the distance between the People’s Palace and the old world would have been impossible for either of them alone. It would have been impossible for anyone with lesser han.
Spells drain the life force when a mage exceeds the strength of their han. If they were anyone but Darken Rahl and Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander, one of them would have surely died, their life given to fuel the spell, or been horribly disfigured as they were reconstituted on the other side of the gateway.
But they were Darken Rahl and Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander.
So they began the morning in D’Hara, and ended it on the other side of the world.
Chapter 41: Price
“So he is coming for me,” Freya Kate mused aloud, her gaze fixed on a scrying dish of water before her. Gudrun had seen her use it to communicate with the creatures she had created with the Gift of the Gods many times.
But this was the first time he had found it disturbing.
Her voice was a low hiss. Gudrun couldn’t remember what shade of blue her eyes used to be. It seemed important somehow. It felt like a betrayal – not being able to recall anything but the deep blood red her irises had become.
Kate was a sacrifice on the altar of Tyrn. The realization hit him all at once.
His love had not been stabbed and left to bleed her life away upon a stone plinth, and yet she was a sacrifice to the gods all the same. He’d witnessed it. As surely as though she were dying a mortal death, every moment a little more of her humanity was leeched away by the forces that moved through her.
Gudrun was beginning to wonder if their cause was worth the cost.
As if she could sense his thoughts, Kate turned her red eyes upon him, beckoning him closer with one of her lily white hands.
“He cannot be allowed to interfere. Not again. Not until I am ready. Not until I am myself again.”
“Who, my Freya?” Gudrun asked, looking over her shoulder to peer into the scrying dish. The Sister he recognized as Ivy and her unicorn companion stared back.
“Darken Rahl,” she spat the name like a curse, and then laughed an incredulous laugh, repeating the name softly to herself as if it were some particularly funny joke.
“He is in the People’s Palace, my Freya.” Gudrun watched Kate with concern, speaking to her softly. The power of the gods had yet to shatter her mind, but he feared such an event was perilously close.
Kate abruptly stopped laughing. “Yes. Yes, he is.”
Then she turned to him, and suddenly she was in his arms, and she was simply Kate again. She looked up at him pleadingly. “Gudrun, do you love me?”
“Yes!” he pledged, holding her close. He could feel his heart pound. His throat constricted. Warmth spread through him in his relief, in his joy, that his Kate was still present despite the divine powers sharing her frame.
She stood on tiptoe, and whispered in his ear.
“Then you will lead an attack on the People’s Palace. My enemies must be kept at bay until I am ready to end this.”
“But D’Hara is leagues away. We’ll never get there in time,” he murmured against her neck, breathing in the scent of her skin.
She smelled of the sun and the sand, and of something vaguely metallic. Something he could not name.
It reminded him of fire.
Kate cupped his cheeks, chasing all other thoughts from Gudrun’s mind. “All things in this world are possible. You must only be willing to pay the price.”
And with that, Kate turned to their encampment. She said nothing, and yet somehow all those who were psychically linked to a unicorn emerged from their tents and bedrolls, climbed out of the pit of excavated bones, leaving their four-footed companions behind to gather in a circle around Kate and Gudrun. The unicorn riders stared, their strangely reflective eyes like gems in the darkness.
Gudrun felt the hairs on his arms stand on end.
And then, before he could do anything to stop it, before he could utter a sound, all of the riders slit their own throats, as if commanded by one consciousness.
They died quickly, and as silently as they had gathered.
Mouth agape in horror, Gudrun shied away from the every growing pool of blood that crept toward his feet. He reached for Kate, seeking to shield her from the sight.
But she was smiling from ear to ear, her red eyes lit by some inner fire.
“The price is paid.” She made some complicated gesture with her hands, and the blood seeping into the sand began to swirl, etching itself into a circle of barbarically jagged runes. “A gate is opening.”
Still, Gudrun backed away.
“Go now!” Kate shouted, a roaring fire of command in her voice. “Before the magic of their blood sacrifice is spent!”
Gudrun clutched at his head. This couldn’t be happening. Sometimes sacrifice was required to serve the gods, but this? This was magic every bit as dark as the magery he had joined the Brotherhood to fight.
“Gudrun? Do you love me?”
Gudrun remembered his little sister, reaching up to him. Gudrun, hold me?
He steeled himself, casting aside his doubts.
It was too late for doubts.
He stepped into the circle of bloody runes.
A pack of Fenrisulfr, led by an albino she-wolf, followed.
Jennsen sat uncomfortably in the high-backed marble throne usually occupied by her brother. She wore a gown of deep lavender brocade, the Rahl crest sewn into her bodice with pearls. Darken had had the dress and many like it made for her when she became Cara’s lady in waiting.
It still felt odd to wear the extravagant clothing. It was odder still now that she was oh so very aware that every eye in the audience chamber rested upon her. She started to twirl her advisor’s ring around her finger, realized what she was doing, and stopped, stealing a glance at Haden.
Jennsen’s Mord’Sith lover stood to her right, looking more regal and imposing than Jennsen would ever be able to manage.
Haden frowned, her eyes on the entryway. Jennsen turned to see the cause.
A man in the uniform of the Third Battalion approached quickly, bypassing the line of petitioners who came to ask the throne for aid or to pass judgment. He was allowed onto the throne dais after a whispered exchange with the Mord’Sith who guarded the steps, and then he was kneeling before Jennsen, his right fist over his heart. “My lady.”
“Please rise,” Jennsen bid him quickly, doing her best to sound properly royal. The soldier did so and then looked at her expectantly.
Jennsen turned to Haden for help.
“Report,” Haden said simply, as if there was no question she would be obeyed.
“First Mistress,” the man saluted again. “There are strange reports coming from the city. One of the rivers runs red, as if there has been a slaughter.”
Jennsen had a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. The skin on the back of her neck crawled with warning.
She wondered if this was the sixth sense her eldest brother was famed for. Perhaps it came not from his magic, but from time spent sitting on the throne of D’Hara.
“Mistress Haden,” Jennsen said coolly, knowing everyone expected her to tell them what to do. She scrambled for a way to ask Haden for advice that wouldn’t make her look like a fool before the entire court. “What… what are your recommendations?”
Haden saluted. “Scouts should be sent to discover the cause, with a quad of soldiers and Mord’Sith following at a distance to lend them aid should they encounter trouble.”
Jennsen nodded. “Good. Do that, please.”
Haden smirked. “Yes, Lady Rahl.”
Chapter 42: Breathless
“My lady,” Haden’s voice stirred Jennsen from her bed. She sat up, red hair tumbling around her shoulders.
Haden was dressed, the long dark hair Jennsen took joy in brushing for her lover every night already in its customary severe braid.
“Haden? You don’t have to call me lady…” She blinked, trying to think through the fog of sleep still wrapped around her mind.
Haden was already moving to Jennsen’s clothes chest, pulling out frilly underthings and one of Jennsen’s more practical lavender gowns. “The scouts never returned, Sparrow. And the city is under attack.”
“Attack?” That news roused Jennsen as if a bucket of icy water had been dumped over her head. She scrambled out of bed, shedding her nightgown and reaching for her corset and petticoats. Haden helped her with her laces, for once not sparing the time to tease Jennsen with “slips” of the fingers. The dress went on next. Jennsen was happy to see Haden had chosen one without the elaborate sleeves her brother was so fond of. She wanted her hands free.
“The prince, Renn, and Lexi have already been taken to the temple of the Mord’Sith on palace grounds. They will be protected there. There is a hidden room, and I have set my most trusted subordinates and a quad of the Third Battalion to guard them.”
Jennsen nodded her understanding, relieved to know that the children were safe.
Haden took her hand. “Come. I will take you to join them.”
Jennsen didn’t move. “What? Haden, no. I’m not hiding.”
Haden frowned. “But Jennsen – ”
“But nothing! My brothers wouldn’t hide, and neither will I.”
“My lady – ”
“I am not weak! Or worthless,” Jennsen snapped, her blue eyes shining with determination. She softened. “You taught me that.”
They stared at each other in silence, gazes locked, for several long moments.
“You are a Rahl,” Haden said at last, with a sigh that said Rahls were impossible.
Jennsen smiled, “Yes. I’m a Rahl.”
Haden went to the rack on the far side of the room where she kept various weapons. She took down her longbow and her crossbow. The former she kept for herself, and the latter she held out to Jennsen, stock first. “You’ve been practicing. Promise me you will shoot to kill, should anything get close enough to menace you.”
Jennsen took the crossbow, but didn’t promise.
“We have to protect our people. Send soldiers to the city to bring as many as possible inside the palace gates. They should be safe here.”
Haden saluted. “As the regent commands.”
Darken flew in hawk shape, Cara at his side. The others ranged back behind them, not as experienced in flight.
Cara banked her wings, sending herself down at a steep angle, and then skillfully regaining altitude, circling Darken in a loop. He could almost hear her breathless laughter in his head. Even as they approached the grim reality of battle and death, Cara rejoiced in flight. She always had.
Darken admired her aerial acrobatics, admitting to himself that he never felt as free as he did in the air. There was something about having wings that made all things seem possible.
And more than that, some part of him felt at home in the sky, as if he was always meant to live there.
They landed as the sun was setting. They needed the rest, and the desert nights were cold.
One more short flight would bring them to the Valley of Perdition. One more short flight, and they would end the Brotherhood once and for all.
One more short flight and they would meet their fates.
Darken couldn’t shake the feeling that all of this was set in motion eons ago. That they were bringing a long waged war to a final end.
He trusted the feeling. His sixth sense had always served him well.
He held Cara close that night, gently stroking her hair as she ran her fingers over his chest. Neither of them spoke, but both knew they were each memorizing the other, holding this moment frozen in time.
They were saying goodbye, should the worst happen.
When the sun crested the horizon, they both rose as if the night of tenderness had never occurred.
“The legends say the Valley of Perdition is cursed,” Zedd reminded them as they prepared for travel. “I can’t be certain how true the tales are. The curse is supposed to force you to endure a heartbreak as hellish as the one that befell the dragon, Hrensaga. But if the Brotherhood is there, perhaps the curse is a myth. That, or they have a way of shielding themselves from it.”
“We will deal with the curse if we must, Zeddicus,” Darken said with a confidence he didn’t entirely feel. “With your experience and my power…”
He let the sentence hang.
They stood in a row so that Darken could transform them with greater ease, Richard and Kahlan irritating Darken with their lengthy pre-battle protestations of love. Finally he simply turned them into birds mid-sentence.
Richard squawked at Darken in his raptor voice. “Apologies, brother,” Darken said insincerely. “But the eclipse is this afternoon.”
After a few more arcane gestures, they took to the sky.
The Valley of Perdition awaited them.
Chapter 43: Legacy
Warning: Things get very violent from this point forward.
The wrong chapter was initially posted here. Sorry! It's fixed now. The story should make more sense.
The Valley of Perdition was swarming with unicorns. Of wolves and men, there was nary a sign. But that was not what Darken noticed first.
No, what captured his attention the moment the valley came into view was the massive skeleton laid bare, bones black against the golden white of the sand around them. It was enormous, a behemoth of a creature. Wicked claws and bony frills, a jaw filled with teeth longer than his arm, a spine that extended into a tail capped with cruel spikes. It was difficult to accept it as the remains of a real creature. It was godlike.
It was a dragon.
The source of the fabled curse on the valley.
It was only after Darken had finished marveling that he realized the Brotherhood was there. Unicorns moved around the bones, dawdled along the edges of the pit where they lay. The Brotherhood must have been digging for some time, to unearth the skeleton.
But where were the wolves? Where were the men?
Darken folded his wings, going into a steep dive. The ground rushed up, hot desert air blowing through his feathers. Cara gave a falcon cry and Darken knew she was right behind him.
He flared his wings at the last possible moment, transforming back into a man just as his feet touched the earth, shrouded in a cloud of black vapor. Cara made a similar entrance, the others landing behind her with far less finesse.
For a moment, all was still. The unicorns turned as one to stare at them with their eerie blank eyes, and Darken thought that this battle they had been preparing for would be nothing more than a slaughter. Without the Fenrisulfr and the men of the Brotherhood, the horned equines could do little to stop him from striking them all down with a few bursts of lightning.
Then he saw the woman standing within the dragon skeleton’s open maw.
It was easy to overlook her at first. The jaw of the colossal beast formed a shadowy cave, the entrance obscured by stalactites of teeth. Her presence surprised Darken. In his past encounters with the Brotherhood, he’d come to know they placed little value on women.
She was naked, no doubt for the ritual, some kind of design painted over her skin. Her long black hair was unbound, cascading down her back. She held a unicorn horn dagger in her hands, much like the one the Brotherhood had used in their attempt to assassinate Cara.
Darken’s blood boiled at the sight of her.
There was a muffled grunt, and his eyes were drawn to another woman, the one they had come to save. He had never met the Prelate, but she could be no one else. She glowed with han to his mage’s eyes.
She was bound and gagged, chained to an altar in the dragon’s mouth.
All of this, he took in within the first few moments. He was about to signal their attack when the woman standing over the altar looked up, and he could see her blood red eyes.
“You!” she hissed, more loathing and bitterness than Darken had ever encountered pressed into that one syllable.
She stood motionless, and yet suddenly Darken’s companions collapsed to the ground one by one. There was a flash of white light as Zeddicus tried to resist whatever it was that held him, but eventually he, too, succumbed.
Darken forced the sight of Cara slumping bonelessly onto the sand from his mind, gathering his magic to fight off the invisible force, or else return to hawk shape to make a strategic retreat – but it was too late.
The ground began to thrum. Softly at first, and then louder, and louder still, until his entire body vibrated with it. It was a giant heartbeat, an impossible pulse that held him fast, reverberating through his blood, his bones, his very being. It would shake him apart from the inside out. It was too great for him to withstand for long.
It will free me.
He wasn’t sure where that thought had come from.
The woman approached him, a curious look on her face. As she drew closer, Darken could see that the designs on her skin were of dragon scales. They started on her face, then flowed down over her neck and breasts, to fan into horribly beautiful patterns along her thighs and calves.
They were painted with blood.
It lent the effect of making her seem as if she were truly a reptilian creature – bloody and raw after shedding its skin.
“You aren’t affected by my curse,” she mused, standing before him. “But then, you wouldn’t be, would you? Of course you wouldn’t be.”
She bared her teeth and Darken half expected her to hiss.
“Cara,” he grunted, his throat flexing with the effort of speaking past the pulsing, thrumming that held him fast, made every muscle stiffen and twitch. His heart pounded like a war drum, aching in his chest.
He felt as if it would explode at any moment.
“Don’t worry about your little human whore,” the woman spat. She slapped him, leaving three bloody gouges in his cheek.
Darken struggled to move his head, to turn to face his attacker once more.
“She’s not dead,” the woman continued lowly. Darken had difficulty hearing over the roar of blood in his ears. “Perdition has her. Perdition has them all. What was done to me will be done to her. Again. And again. And again, until she pleads for death, until she wishes for it. Until she takes her own life. That is my legacy. That is your legacy.”
Darken managed to twist his fingers, calling fire, the simplest of spells, the first most mages learned.
The woman simply raised the unicorn horn dagger she held, laughing as it absorbed the flames, then kept sucking, drawing on Darken’s han.
“Who?!” he growled out, falling to his knees. His hands touched the sand and suddenly the intensity of the throbbing doubled, tripled. His whole body shook with each pulse, as if he himself were the heart of the land he stood upon.
“You begin to understand,” the woman said softly, gently stroking the back of his neck. “I wanted to distract you. To keep you away, back at your palace, so I wouldn’t have to face you until everything was done. But now… Now I think this is better.”
She wound her fingers through his hair, wrenching his head back to force him to look up at her.
His lightning blue eyes fixed on hers, red as flames.
“I will tell you everything. It’s hard to remember in these bodies too small to hold all of what we once were, but I’ll help you. I want you to know,” she snarled. “I want to see the light die in your eyes as you realize who I am and know that this is my vengeance. That this, all of this, is because of you and our mother. Because of your betrayal.”
She let him fall back into the sand then stepped out of his sightline. He tried to move, to get back on his feet, but even his teeth rattled with the throbbing pull of the land.
Was he the only one who could feel it?
There was the distinct sound of a bone cracking. “I want you to watch as I tear the flesh from your wife’s body, and pick my teeth with her bones.”
Darken realized he was terrified.
It gave him the strength to push himself to his hands and knees. To turn to see Cara with her arm bent at an odd angle.
“Stop,” he commanded, his voice hoarse and weak even to his own ears.
She turned to him, a cruel smirk upon her lips. “Men are so ready to believe in false gods, if it will give them justification for their hatred. All mortals do is hate. Men hate women, women hate men. The D’Harans hate the Midlanders. The Midlanders hate D’Harans. Noise, noise, noise, hate, hate, hate! It makes them weak. It makes them prey.”
She stalked over to him, running the edge of her dagger over his chest, just above his heart. She tore his tunic, but did not pierce his flesh.
“It makes them just like you,” she whispered in his ear with an unmistakable sorrow, her words underscored by the rhythmic pounding of his blood, of the land beneath them. “This world was created in your image. Now you will remember, just in time to watch me snuff it out.”
She placed one hand over his heart, and the heartbeat tearing through him began to sound like a name. Again and again, it echoed through his skull.
Jormungund. Jormungund. Jormungund.
“Do you hear the whispers?” Hrensaga asked him, her voice taking on a melodic quality as she began the familiar chant he’d been hearing in his dreams. “Can you see them, in the dark? Can you feel the dragon fire that consumes your heart?”
Jormungund Jormungund Jormungund.
“With every beat, I am closer. Can you feel my teeth?”
“Dragon eyes, and dragon fire, calling in your sleep.”
Abruptly, the beating, pulsing that was shaking Darken apart ceased.
And he remembered.
He remembered everything.
Chapter 44: Jormungund
Darken Rahl remembered.
He remembered the feeling of cool ocean air filling his wings, and the scent of the sea in his nostrils. He remembered the crackle of lightning splitting the heavens wide. He remembered the power, the assurance that none were stronger than he. He was the greatest. The most loved.
He was Jormungund, the World Snake, Bringer of Storms, Master of Waves.
Long and coiled, covered in scales like sapphires with eyes as bright as the lightning he commanded, he was the Keeper’s favored son. He was more like his father than all the rest of his dragon siblings, fueled by the green fire at the heart of every dragon. When their mother turned her light from them, when she betrayed them and cast their father into the underworld, leaving the dragons in darkness, it was he, Jormungund, who first began the quest to gather power, to sunder the veil, to bring their mother to justice in his jaws.
The Keeper had showered him with many dark gifts, and that darkness grew and grew, so that Jormungund was driven to devour more and more – more blood, more death, more power, his brethren’s bones crunching between his teeth – in his compulsion to fill the void within. He was prideful, wrathful, a being made of power and greed. None could challenge him and live.
And then came Hrensaga, red as rubies, with her warmth and her fire and her love for him. How weak he had thought her. How she had disgusted him.
Love. It was why she had won. He knew that now. A touch of their mother’s purity still remained within her spirit, and darkness cannot help but retreat before light.
He remembered the pain, the tearing of his flesh as he was undone. He remembered lunging at the Creator, though he was only a spirit, when she dared to approach him, to offer to make him immortal, useful, the clay from which the lands of the world were molded, a home for her new children, puling pestilence that they were.
He remembered the stretching, burning feeling of the Creator pushing and pulling his body, reshaping him. His spine became the mountains. His teeth were the Pillars of Creation.
His heart formed the land where his mortal body – where Darken Rahl – now stood.
He remembered the feeling of his spirit slipping away. Too dark to ascend to the Halls of Eternal Peace, he slid down, down, down, into the realm of his father.
To the underworld.
He remembered his feeling of triumph when Hrensaga perished, still keening her love for him, his pleasure as he reveled in her sorrow.
How deliciously pathetic, to die of heartbreak.
He remembered being imprisoned in the underworld alongside his sister, for even the Keeper had come to fear the greed of the last of the dragons. The spirits of their siblings were gone, vanished into the ether as they had consumed one another, extinguished from existence.
There was only Jormungund and Hrensaga, locked together for all eternity in a prison of the same green flames that burned in their breasts.
And then came the day that their father called them to his side. A mortal, acting in pride and arrogance, had used his power to grant life where none had been before. A life, a spirit, untouched by the Creator’s light.
They waited, and watched.
Their mother sent her prophecies of warning, as she always did when events were not unfolding to her liking.
The infant Darken Rahl was born under a red star, with a destiny of wicked deeds hanging over his head.
And he was killed in his crib, only to be revived by his father’s Mord’Sith.
But when the infant prince of D’Hara drew his next breath, life returning to make his cheeks rosy, it was not the boy’s spirit housed in that tiny body.
It was Jormungund.
The infant died, and the boy’s spirit, dark as it was, descended down, down, to the realm of the Keeper, where he held it, and coddled it, and kept it there, making it a part of himself. And when the breath of life called for the spirit back, it was Jormungund the Keeper sent – wrapped round with a spell of binding, a geas to suppress his memory, so the Creator would not know the Bringer of Storms walked the earth again until it was far too late.
What better servant could there be, than the Keeper’s cherished son? What better tool of the Keeper’s vengeance than the dragon who had almost ended the world once before?
His human body had little power, and yet he learned to use what he had and how to gain more. He did not understand his dreams of the Keeper, of the underworld. He was tortured by the life he no longer remembered, but still he served his father, though he knew not to what end.
Jormungund vanished into Darken Rahl, the Creator none the wiser.
And that was the flaw in the Keeper’s plan. Darken could see it as centuries of memories flowed through his mind, his perception somewhere outside reality.
Would the Creator have tried to save him, have let him be her savior, if she had known he was the World Snake?
Would Hali have been willing to give him the Stone of Tears at the Pillars of Creation?
Would she have forgiven him?
He was Jormungund the dragon no longer. What remained was Darken Rahl, the man.
And he had been redeemed.
The Son of Blood will rise with the howling of wolves and the flight of birds,
Doomed love will give him birth, sacrifice his cradle,
Loved and hated in equal measure, the world rests in his hands.
The words bubbled up from his consciousness, washing over him with a sense of destiny. They rang truer than ever before.
In an instant, with the return of his ancient memories, he understood. He knew what Hrensaga aimed to do.
She had escaped their father’s prison, he knew not when or how, and formed the Brotherhood of the Gods, using them to gain the han she needed.
And then, today, during the eclipse, when the veil was thin, she would reclaim her dragon body and all the power inherent in those bones.
And the world built upon his spine, the world the Creator made, the people Darken had come to love as much as Hrensaga had loved him the day Jormungund strangled her in his coils – Cara, Mason, his sister, his land…
They would all end in fire.
This was the moment. This was the time. This was the crux of events that had begun when the world was new.
This was the day of prophecy.
Darken Rahl opened his eyes and called lightning from the sky.
Chapter 45: Perdition
Richard stood in a wasteland.
It was the People’s Palace, but the palace as he had only seen it once before - in the future that never was, in the land ruled by the Master Nicholas.
Bones littered the hallways. The once white marble of the throne room was twisted and black.
He looked down to find his hands were wrinkled. He wore robes like Zedd’s, but in shades of red and gold.
He was an old man.
It didn’t take him long to find his brother’s tomb. It was in the same place it had been… before.
Cara was buried at Darken’s right, Jennsen at his left. Of Haden there was no sign.
Richard stayed but a moment before leaving in search of someone who could tell him what was going on. The last thing he remembered was landing in the Valley of Perdition.
Was the curse real? Was he trapped in its spell even now?
He went to the royal wing, to the rooms that had been his for the better part of a year. Everything felt real enough. The dust on the furniture stuck in his nose, making him sneeze. The stone floor was cold to the touch. The bed post where he had stubbed his toes so many times was as solid as ever.
And yet there was a drabness to it, a grey around the edges that Richard had a hard time reconciling with the world he was trying to save.
“What do you want, Master Rahl?”
Richard jumped, spinning to see, “Kahlan?”
The woman in red standing before him gave him an odd look. “Yes?”
The ruby at the center of the Rada Han around her throat was such a deep hue that it seemed almost black. It matched her dress perfectly.
Her face was lined, her hair streaked with grey, but it was undoubtedly Kahlan.
Richard was shocked at her appearance, but nevertheless went forward to hug her to his chest.
She slapped him.
He put his hand to his cheek and realized he was bearded, and his face, too, was wrinkled.
“Kahlan,” he gasped out her name, his voice sounding old and tired, like the groan of a tree.
There were tears in her eyes. “Why are you in my rooms, Richard?” she asked after a strained silence.
“Kahlan, I don’t understand. What’s happened?”
She looked at him as if he were mad. “What’s happened? What’s happened? What’s happened is you’ve broken your promise to me. You said you would never inflict your presence on me again.”
She turned her back to him. Richard could see by the way the fabric of her dress subtly quivered that she was shaking.
“…You don’t want to see me?”
“Of course I don’t!” she snapped. “How could I, after everything you’ve done?”
Richard frowned, his hand going to the hilt of the Sword of Truth. “This isn’t real.”
It wasn’t. It was some trick of the Valley of Perdition.
Kahlan rounded on him, her hands fisted in the fabric of her elaborate sleeves, crushing the delicate embroidery. “It is very real, Master Rahl. Is that what you tell yourself at night? That this has all been some nightmare? That everything you’ve chosen to be – that our son – ”
She broke down, unable to continue, choked by sobs.
Richard recoiled. A son?
A Confessor son.
He tightened his grip on his sword.
“Kahlan,” he said lowly, intensely. “I love you.”
She looked up at him, her eyes bloodshot, her face streaked with tears, and lifted a hand to grip the Rada Han at her throat. She didn’t need to say anything. Richard understood.
He loved her, but not enough.
“Leave me in peace, Master Rahl,” she said, all of the fight leaving her form like water trickling from a leaky wineskin.
“I’m still the Seeker,” he told her for reasons he didn’t understand.
She didn’t reply.
He was still the Seeker.
The words Hali had spoken to him in his dreams so many nights ago came back to him.
You are still the Seeker of Truth. You still have a part to play.
Trusting in himself, in the instincts that had guided his path ever since he accepted the name of Seeker, Richard drew the Sword of Truth.
And plunged it through the false Kahlan’s breast.
He awoke with a mouth full of sand, the hilt of the Sword of Truth still gripped tightly in his hand. He coughed and spit, scrambling to his feet, looking around wildly.
Kahlan, Cara, and Zedd lay sprawled on the sand around him, their eyes fluttering with the nightmares of Perdition. Darken was single handedly fighting a horde of unicorns in an attempt to reach the skull of the enormous dragon skeleton, demonstrating a mastery of his powers that Richard had never before witnessed.
But still, he needed help.
Richard stood, sword in hand, and then realized that the blade was glowing white hot – a blue edged brand.
Obeying a compulsion that seemed to come from the sword itself, he went to Zedd and pressed the tip of the blade to his grandfather’s chest, right above his heart.
The wizard’s eyes snapped open, the spell of Perdition broken.
Zedd was on his feet in a flash, power crackling around him. “Get the others,” was all he said before he literally flew into the fray.
Richard spun on his heels, going over to kneel at Kahlan’s side. Again, he followed the call of the sword. It seemed that it was wielding him more than he was wielding it, the wisdom – the magic – of all the Seekers past guiding his hand.
He touched the blade to the clasp of Kahlan’s Rada Han, and it fell away, the lock disintegrated into dust.
Then he pressed the tip of the blade to her chest.
She sat up so fast that their heads cracked together. Richard started to say her name, but then her eyes flooded black and red with the power of the Con Dar. She grasped his throat, choking him.
Richard closed his eyes, accepting what was to come as a wave of warmth rippled through his body.
He had never felt more loved.
“Richard! No!” Kahlan cried when she realized what she had done, drawing the attention of the unicorns that guarded the dragon’s skull.
Richard opened his eyes. He didn’t feel any different.
He saw it the instant Kahlan realized he wasn’t confessed, and everything it meant for them, her lips parting to form a perfect little ‘O’.
But there was no time. Their enemies were upon them, he had to wake Cara from the nightmare of Perdition.
And then they had to save the world.
Chapter 46: Sacrifice
“Out of the way, boy!” Zedd roared, his eyes blazing with white light.
Darken made way, filled with an increasing respect for the power Zeddicus wielded. On and on the old wizard came, cutting a swathe through the murderous unicorns as if they were mere toys in his path, revealing the true strength of his magic as he slapped his hands together with a sound like thunder, and then dragged them apart slowly, muttering an incantation beneath his breath.
The earth rumbled and shook, a trench opening beneath the hooves of the unicorns barring the path to Hrensaga, sending the four-legged beasts plummeting to their doom. Another sweeping gesture and an arcane word so potent that it made Darken’s ears ring, and the trench closed again, sealing the beasts inside, with only a slight dip in the sand to mark that it had ever been there at all.
For the first time, Darken realized how disciplined Zeddicus was in the use of his powers. With his knowledge and han, he could remake the world if he was willing to discard the consequences.
It was awe inspiring.
Darken moved to protect Zedd’s rear as they rushed up the now clear ground before them.
He didn’t ask how his companions had woken. He didn’t ask about Cara’s broken arm. There wasn’t time.
There would be time enough later. He would make sure of it.
“She’s put a shield around the dragon’s mouth,” Darken called, casually burning a unicorn trying to flank them with Wizard’s Fire. “I can’t get through it!”
“I can,” was Zedd’s only reply, his voice deeper than Darken had ever heard it before.
Zedd approached the barrier protecting Hrensaga, studying it for several long moments that seemed to last an eternity. Darken had no patience for this, not with the rush of battle pounding in his ears. Instead, he turned his energies toward holding the remaining unicorns back, hopefully giving Zedd time to break Hrensaga’s spell.
“Ah. That is where she’s getting all this power,” Zedd muttered. “Blood sacrifice.”
Darken was familiar with the practice.
He kept silent. That was another life.
Several other lives, in fact.
“We are running short of time,” he growled through gritted teeth, sending a lightning bolt streaking from two fingers.
Zedd didn’t answer. Instead he held his hand out, calling Darken’s dagger from his belt. It flew from the scabbard to Zedd’s outstretched fingers with a muffled slap.
Before Darken could protest the loss of his blade, the wizard slit his own palm, using his blood to draw a rune upon the effervescent curtain of red magic that separated them from the altar where Hrensaga hurriedly prepared her ritual.
There was a scream as she killed the Prelate.
Darken performed the trick of the mind that allowed mages to see the magical forces around them. The barrier blazed in his sight, nearly blinding him. But when his eyes adjusted, and he could look beyond it, he could see the Prelate’s han flowing into a unicorn horn dagger, and then into Hrensaga, swarming through her veins.
Zeddicus pressed his hand against the bloody rune he had inscribed on the barrier, and the shield evaporated, filling the air with a sound like a thousand bells.
Darken registered that Kahlan, Cara, and Richard had joined the battle now, Kahlan’s eyes black with the power of the Blood Rage and Cara fighting one handed, and then he turned to dash into the dragon’s jaws, trusting his companions to keep the unicorns busy for a time.
Hrensaga and Zeddicus were already enjoined, competing blasts of fire arching from their hands to meet in a flume that stole the moisture from the air and made the dragon skull above them begin to fracture with the heat.
Sweat-soaked from both the flame and the exertion of battle, Darken exhaled to center himself, and then added his lightning to the fray, sending a bolt arching for Hrensaga’s heart.
She vanished in a cloud of smoke, Darken’s lightning scorching the wall of dragon bone behind her.
Darken had only a moment to try to track her before he heard her softly say, “Behind you.”
He whirled just in time to see her wrench Zedd around to face her, and then watched as she stabbed the old wizard in the heart.
The cry was wrung from Darken’s lips before he fully registered what he was seeing. It came up from his toes, made him hoarse. It was a child’s vehement wail. A wordless denial.
A boy’s cry for his father.
The wizard staggered back. One step. Two. Then he sunk to the ground, blood staining the front of his robes.
Darken rushed forward, his hair frizzing with the lightning that sizzled over his skin. A shadow went over the sun, and for a moment, all present thought that the eclipse was beginning.
But then there was a thunderclap, and rain pelted down from the heavens, a torrential downpour that turned the bloody sand to a pinkish brown mush as the Bringer of Storms roared out his rage.
Darken knelt by Zedd’s body, and Hrensaga looked on, content for the moment to watch Darken’s pain – Jormungund’s pain – and revel in it, flush with the deliciously bright power the unicorn horn dagger was even now siphoning from the dying wizard’s form.
So blind was Darken with sorrow, so blind was Hrensaga in her victory, that neither of them noticed the mark of the Creator burned into Zedd’s chest.
Or the fact that the dagger neatly divided it.
There was a small, sharp sound, like wood snapping, and then the unicorn horn dagger ruptured down the middle, blown apart with a percussive force that knocked both Darken and Hrensaga clear, a pulsing wave of invisible magic radiating outward from Zedd’s body to encompass the entire valley.
When Darken came to, his vision was blurry and he couldn’t hear. He thought perhaps he’d been struck in the head.
But his han, his magic felt stronger than ever, rejuvenated somehow, though he’d done more and greater spells in the past few hours than he had ever before performed.
He blinked, pushing himself up onto his elbows, unsure if he’d been unconscious for minutes or hours. He was pressed to the back wall of the dragon’s skull. Across from him, already on her feet, though she leaned on one of the dragon’s gargantuan lower incisors, was Hrensaga.
“Can you feel it?” she asked him, swaying as she moved back toward her altar. “The wizard’s power. More than yours. More than mine.”
Darken put his back to the wall of bone behind him, bracing himself against it as he rose to his feet. The gouges in his cheek burned from the sand trapped in the wounds.
Hrensaga held out her hand to him. “With his power, we could both return to our true bodies.”
Dried blood in the pattern of dragon scales crusted over the back of her hand.
Darken’s hands were just as unclean. He was every bit as much a dragon as the woman standing before him.
“I’ve hated you for so long, but I’m willing to put that aside for the power we could have together. Remember, my brother? Do you remember what it felt like to be greater than all creatures? To rule the skies with fire and the seas with waves?”
Darken remembered. Oh, how he remembered. With Hrensaga staring him in the face, her red eyes pleading, he could even taste the sweet blood of their conquests on his tongue, feel the snap of his tail and the rustle of his wings.
“Come with me,” she raised her other hand to join the first, insistently reaching for him, the spark of love that remained in her heart pushing her onward. “Please, Jormungund. We’re fated to do this together. We belong together.”
The eclipse was beginning. Darken didn’t need to see the sky to know. He could feel the pull of it, calling to his spirit. The magic sang a siren song, luring him with the promise of freedom, and might, and things he couldn’t fully comprehend while still trapped in the body of a mortal man.
He opened his mouth to say yes, he wanted to be whole again. He wanted to reclaim the things he remembered, the rush of the air and the sweet call of the sea, the feel of his coils wrapped around the world.
The emptiness. The darkness.
The void it was impossible to fill.
He said nothing.
Jormungund had never been truly whole, truly happy. He was a living appetite who knew only destruction. He was a manifestation of the Keeper’s malice.
Just as Darken had been as a man.
Until Cara. Until Mason. Until Zeddicus. Until Richard, and Jennsen, and Haden.
Until the Creator.
Until he was reborn in blood.
“No,” Darken said.
No. I will not be Jormungund.
“Why?!” Hrensaga spat, marching to the stone plinth of the altar and roughly pushing the Prelate’s corpse free. “For love?” she laughed wildly. “For your little human woman and the whelp she bore you? You’ve been human too long, brother. How you would despise yourself, as you once despised me. You forget yourself. You forget our great destiny!”
Darken pushed himself forward, growing more confident when he found he was no longer dizzy. “Cara and I are not fated,” he said to distract Hrensaga as he neared the altar. “She is not my soul mate. I chose her. I still choose her. I choose to be Darken Rahl. I am Darken Rahl,” he finished with certain sense of wonder.
I am Darken Rahl.
“Then you will die like Darken Rahl!” Hrensaga snarled, lifting a thin needle-like instrument from the stone altar. Darken recognized it as one of the Shakai’ah. He had thought the magical tools lost when Giller was killed.
“The eclipse is upon us! From dragon bone were the Shakai’ah made, and to dragon bone will they return me!”
Then, before Darken could stop her, Hrensaga thrust the Shakai’ah through her throat.
The dragon skeleton shifted in the sand.
Chapter 47: Carnage
This chapter was initially posted as Chapter 43 by mistake. It seems I misnumbered the chapter files when I transferred them from my desktop to my laptop. I'm very sorry for the confusion.
The real 43 has been uploaded. Please go back and read it, as it is very important to the story and will make things make a lot more sense. And now I hope you enjoy this chapter again, in its proper place! >_>
Jennsen was mounted atop Skull’s back, her fingers wrapped tightly around the leather straps of the battle saddle her brother had ordered made for the giant wolf. They were in the courtyard just behind the palace gates.
Haden was next to her, mounted on Helhati, a quiver of arrows on her back and her longbow in hand. “You should remain in the palace.”
Jennsen shook her head. “We’ve been through this, Haden. The Fenrisulfr were people once and they don’t have a choice but to obey the Brotherhood. I’m the only one who can see their collars. I’m the only one who can free them.”
Haden grit her teeth, her heart beating an unsteady tattoo at the thought of her Sparrow in battle. “You are Lady Rahl, your place –”
“And I was a prisoner of the Brotherhood once, too,” Jennsen interrupted before Haden could argue further.
Her Mord’Sith lover fell silent, but the creases around her eyes said she was less than happy about it.
Jennsen would make it up to her. When everything was done. When there no more battles to fight, no more enemies to kill, and no more friends to mourn.
Such a day would come. She had to believe that.
“My lady!” an archer called from the curtain wall. “The enemy force approaches!”
Jennsen took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds, feeling that she was pretending to be something she was not. The fearless Lady Rahl, riding a wolf into battle to pull the chains from enslaved beasts.
She hummed a stanza of The Red Wolf of Rahl to give herself courage, and then commanded, “Open the gate.”
Brother Gudrun rode upon the back of the albino wolf that had once been the Mord’Sith Aliandra.
Her name was Frekki now.
The People’s Palace loomed over them, sprawling over the land like some great spider squatting in a web.
He could not help but feel like a fly.
The other Fenrisulfr and remaining members of the Brotherhood ranged around him, some mounted, some not. Even after all this time, some of the Brothers still feared the wolves that served them.
When the gate opened and two of the Witch King’s subjects emerged, also on the backs of giants wolves, Gudrun began to understand why.
Frekki snarled, her red eyes rolling and foam forming at the corners of her mouth, and then Gudrun almost flew off her back as she surged forward, tearing into the men that defended the palace like a dog killing rats. She darted left and right, blood turning her white fur as red as her eyes, uncaring if she jostled Gudrun, or sent him flying to be trampled underfoot.
Soon Gudrun was reduced to crouching as low over her back as he could manage, gripping fistfuls of fur so hard his knuckles turned yellow-white. The battle raged around them, beyond his leadership, out of his control.
But what did he know of battle? He was a priest. A Brother in service to a god.
A brother who wanted to save his sister.
A man in love with a woman he could never have.
He finally saw that now, as he was faced with the reality of battle. In the chaos around him people were screaming, dying. A soldier staggered by, his guts hanging from his belly. The poor man tried to stuff them back in, but then a wolf knocked him to the ground, burying its muzzle in the man’s back.
Gudrun pressed his face to Frekki’s fur, not wanting to look. Not wanting to see the carnage.
He didn’t know how long he clung there, on Frekki’s back, living in a world of darkness and violent motion. He kept his eyes tightly shut, his jaw flexed against the bile in his throat. It could have been minutes. It could have been days. It could have been years.
Perhaps he’d always been here, trapped inside this hell.
He didn’t open his eyes again until Frekki slid to a sudden halt. It took him a few seconds to register the lack of movement, but when he did, he cautiously sat up, peering out at the world around him.
Was it over? Had they had won?
It was the exact opposite.
A small woman rode on the back of a large grey wolf. Gudrun recognized the beast as Skull, the traitorous child of Tyrn.
As Gudrun watched, Skull bore down on a smaller wolf carrying a Brother on its back. The woman leaned over Skull’s side, clinging to a riding strap for balance. She looked like a legend, with her red hair streaming behind her. A myth come to life.
She did something, Gudrun knew not what, and then a length of chain appeared in her hand as if from thin air.
The little wolf carrying the Brother stopped and bucked him off, and then turned on the fallen rider, ripping the man limb from limb.
This was clearly not the first Fenrisulfr the red haired woman had worked her influence on. A pack ran at her back, taking Skull as their leader. She was slowly turning the Brotherhood’s own force against them.
Gudrun knew something had to be done if they were to prevail. If they were to prove dangerous enough to draw out the Witch King.
In a hoarse whisper, he begged Frekki to be still. Then he reached for the hunting bow he had brought with him. Gudrun was not a fighter, but he could shoot a bow. His father had taught him, before the Mord’Sith dragged the man away.
Though it made him ill to do it, he put an arrow to his bowstring and sighted on the red haired woman.
He couldn’t bring himself to shoot until he imagined she was a deer. A doe that had ventured into a place she should not be.
He loosed, watching his arrow’s flight. The world slowed down around him as the shaft struck the woman in the shoulder, knocking her back in the saddle with the force of the shot.
But it wasn’t enough. She grimaced in pain, and then sat forward on Skull’s back again, her hand around the shaft of his arrow, but otherwise as determined as ever.
Gudrun sighted again, this time aiming for her heart.
Before he could shoot he was knocked from Frekki’s back, two hard boots driven into his spine. Gudrun rolled in the dust of the battleground, his bow snapping. When he looked up, a Mord’Sith with skin the same dark caramel as his was standing over him, and one of the rogue Fenrisulfr was engaging Frekki in battle.
The Mord’Sith drew her Agiel. Gudrun scrambled back.
“You will not have me, Mord’Sith! You had my father, and my sister, but you will not have me!”
The Mord’Sith grabbed him by the throat, squeezing his wind pipe. She lowered her lips to his ear before saying, “You shot my lady. For that, not only will I have you, I will send you to the underworld with my name written on your heart in pain.”
Gudrun subtly grasped the splintered end of his broken bow. He wouldn’t survive this encounter. He knew that. But at the very least, he could take this Mord’Sith to the grave with him.
He owed his sister that much. He owed his love, his Kate, that much.
The Mord’Sith raised her Agiel. Gudrun recognized the high, whining sound. He’d heard it so often, in his dreams.
He flexed his hand around the broken bow, preparing to strike.
“Haden!” the red haired woman cried. “Look out!”
“No,” he whispered, eyes widening in horror.
Gudrun hesitated, and in that moment Haden brought her Agiel down on his chest.
She’s beautiful, he thought as black lines of torture magic crawled up his neck.
He kept his eyes on her face as his heart exploded.
Chapter 48: Dragon
Darken Rahl found himself standing inside the mouth of a dragon.
Hrensaga’s human form collapsed, the Shakai’ah through her throat, and then her flesh melted away like candlewax, sinking into the sand. Darken had seen many terrible things – had done many terrible things – but this raised his gorge, making him gag.
Then the dragon bones around him rumbled, sand shifting and sliding as the skeleton rearticulated itself, flesh and skin and scales growing over the bones one layer at a time with a rain of blood and other noxious fluid
Realizing what was happening, Darken raced toward the opening of the dragon’s jaw, but too late – Hrensaga’s tongue grew back, a long black organ drenched in poisonous slime, and slammed him to the roof of her mouth. His arm scraped along one of her teeth, tearing open his flesh.
He heard her laugh, felt it vibrate through his bones, as she tasted his blood. As Zedd’s lifeless body slid down her gullet.
She parted her great lips, and Darken heard the sound of rushing air as she prepared to flame.
As she prepared to roast him alive.
Acting quickly, without thought, he made a wild gesture with his hands, and then pushed himself forward with a powerful kick of his legs, turning himself in to a sea hawk just as green flames seared up Hrensaga’s throat.
He banked left as soon as he cleared her teeth, seeing himself reflected in one of her red eyes as he flew past, his tail feathers singed. He had a few moments respite in which he strained to gain some altitude, and then there was a great rustle as the red dragon below him opened her own leathery wings wide and took to the air, snapping her jaws at him and flaming again.
Up, up he flew, leading her away from the valley floor. Away from Cara, and his brother, and even Kahlan.
She was faster than he, needing only a few beats of her enormous wings to match the altitude he had to fight for, but he was more agile. He darted around her head, trying to stay close enough to her eyes that she wouldn’t be able to reach him with teeth, flame, or her wickedly barbed tail. She roared at him in frustration, and it sounded like fire and death. Her dragon voice sounded in his mind, Stay still, so I can crush you.
He replied with a falcon’s scream.
Still higher he led her, until the air grew thin and cold. His muscles shuddered as he employed every trick he knew to gain speed.
Hrensaga had made a mistake, returning his knowledge of his past life to him. Darken Rahl had spent time in the air, but Jormungund…
Jormungund was king of the sky.
Trusting in himself, in his memory of being a sapphire blue dragon that commanded lightning, Darken closed his hawk eyes and dove.
And then he spiraled back up, turning sharply as he felt the heat of another stream of Hrensaga’s fire. He could see himself in his mind’s eye – he could see Jormungund weaving through the air, his massive coils forming the runes of the spells he used to control the waves.
Loop to the right, and then dodge Hrensaga’s tail, use speed to stream up again, flared wings burning in protest. Down once more, air rushing by so fast that it whistles, that it shrieks through his feathers. The magic is building now. There’s an electric charge in the air, gathering around him. It gets harder to fly as the wind picks up. Hrensaga spins in a circle, spiraling out of control as a cyclone forms under one of her wings.
Darken opened his eyes to look at her, to take in her scales as hard and bright as rubies, her equally red eyes, larger than he was.
She was right in what she said before. This day was fated. They were always meant to do this, to have this final showdown – he, the favored son of the Keeper, and she, the unloved, forsaken by both their godly parents.
The irony was not lost on him.
She did not realize it, but they were one and the same.
It was why he felt sorrow, even as he finished his spell and brought all his power to bear on his serpentine sister.
He dove at her face, lightning forming around him, and buried his claws in the ridge above her right eye.
From the ground, Cara looked up to see two dragons in the sky. One a beast of flesh and fire, red as blood.
And the other a creature of black storm clouds, outlined by lightning as blue and bright as the sea.
The storm dragon wound itself around the red one, encasing her in spectral coils.
Jennsen dug her heels into Skull’s sides, pulling on one of his harness straps to let him know she wanted to move toward Haden. The arrow in her shoulder sent a jolt of pain through her body with every move the wolf made, but she stubbornly kept her hand pressed to the wound, fingers around the shaft, and rode on.
She’d come too far to keel over and die now.
Haden was standing over a body in the orange and brown robes of the Brotherhood. Helhati fought another she-wolf, still under the Brotherhood’s control, just behind the Mord’Sith.
Haden looked up, and then she was lifting Jennsen out of her saddle and inspecting the arrow wound before Jennsen could catch her breath.
“Ow! Don’t touch it!” she protested when Haden probed the bloody mess of flesh and cloth around the arrowhead protruding from her back.
Haden ignored her, calmly continuing her work. “We have them on the run. You have converted most of the wolves to our cause, and the men are no warriors. A few stragglers broke for the woods. I will send a party after them. Bite down on this,” she instructed, handing Jennsen one of her gloves.
Knowing full well what had to be done with an arrow wound, Jennsen shook her head. “Not yet. Let me free her,” she gestured to the albino wolf, now held down by Skull and Helhati.
Haden knew better than to argue. She stepped out of Jennsen’s way, but stayed close to her Sparrow, putting an arrow to her bowstring.
Jennsen looked into the white wolf’s red eyes, and saw there the shadow of the woman the creature once was. A startled gasp tore its way from her lips, her heart sinking.
This was all her fault.
She recognized the Mord’Sith in the wolf. Red eyes and white hair, an old friend of Haden’s. In her jealousy, Jennsen had had Cara send this woman away.
And Aliandra had paid for it with her humanity.
“Aliandra,” she croaked, throat suddenly dry. “Haden, it’s Aliandra.”
No emotion showed on Haden’s face, and that, more than anything, told Jennsen how upset her lover was. Haden did not don her Mord’Sith mask unless she had something to hide beneath it.
I’m so sorry, Jennsen thought to the woman in the wolf, and then reached forward with her good arm to gently pull the magical collar that bound Aliandra to the Brotherhood over the Fenrisulfr’s head.
Helhati and Skull let Frekki up.
For a moment, all was still.
And then the albino wolf that had once been bright, clever Aliandra lunged for Jennsen’s throat.
Jennsen screamed as teeth sunk into her face, hot blood splattering her skin. She fell back, screaming again when the arrow in her shoulder was twisted under the wolf’s weight. Her own blood was salty in her mouth.
Jennsen didn’t understand why Aliandra – Frekki, now – attacked, when she had been freed from the collar that bound her.
Her emotions small and far away, pushed down to be dealt with later, she raised her bow and shot Aliandra through one of those familiar reddish-pink eyes.
Darken clung to Hrensaga’s scales as she rolled through the sky, trying to shake him lose. He tightened his storm coils around her, digging his falcon claws deeper into her flesh and pressing his feathered body as close to her lizard hide as he could, muscles straining against the wind that buffeted them. Hrensaga dove, bobbing and weaving, beginning a spell of her own as Darken’s lightning burned her.
An inferno of green dragon fire bloomed around them, a deadly flower in the sky, adding its heat to their aerial dance of death.
Darken panted, and Hrensaga did too, both pushed to the brink and unwilling to quit, to yield.
They were too evenly matched. One could never claim victory over the other. Darken could see it now – they would be locked in an eternal battle, the world reduced to ash by their struggles as surely as any wanton destruction wrought by Hrensaga, should she triumph.
Perhaps if he had given up his human life and reclaimed his dragon body…
But he hadn’t, and in that moment of selfishness, of wanting to keep the life, the love, the chance that Hrensaga had deserved more than him, he had doomed them all.
Zeddicus would be disappointed in him.
He’d looked so shocked, when the dagger parted his flesh. The white light of power that Darken had always associated with healing and the Creator had flashed once, and then faded from the wizard’s eyes, his han siphoned away to fill Hrensaga up.
Darken was struck with a mad idea.
Performing the trick of the mind that allowed mages to see the magic around them, Darken maneuvered his head around to stare into Hrensaga’s colossal eye.
There it was. The white light of Zedd’s han, burning in the center of Hrensaga’s body like a lantern in the dark. A beacon of purity amidst the swirling darkness of blood magic and rage, and the green fire that shrouded Hrensaga’s heart.
Darken let his spell go. The dragon form made up of storms and lightning dissipated, causing Hrensaga to lurch through the air at the sudden lack of resistance. She roared, thinking her triumph was nigh. The inferno around them blazed hotter, but Darken made no attempt to protect himself. He was gathering his remaining han for one final spell.
His feathers started to smolder. The air was too hot to breathe.
How many times had he been told that true power lies in healing?
Darken put every drop of his magic into sending white, healing light through his dragon sister. Losing control of his bird shape, he became a man again, his legs dangling down by Hrensaga’s teeth for a perilous moment before he pulled himself up to cling to the spiny frill at the back of her skull. Even as he scrambled, his hands still glowed, white light streaming from his fingertips to vanish into the dragon’s hide.
The red of her scales reminded him of Jennsen’s hair.
Perhaps he’d always known, somewhere inside, that he was the dragon Jormungund. Perhaps one sister reminded him of the other.
His white light flickered and wavered as his han sputtered, guttering like a candle in the breeze. Darken put his own life force into the spell to make it strong again. If he kept it up too long he would die, his life force drained away.
And yet, if he didn’t do it, he would die anyway.
Forgive me, he willed Hrensaga, knowing that she couldn’t hear him.
That was when he felt it.
The white light inside Hrensaga, the orb of purity that was Zedd’s han, joined with Darken’s, forging a connection between them.
His heart pounding in his chest, thumping twice against his ribs, Darken recognized the touch of the Healing Hands, and didn’t understand.
But it didn’t matter, because at that moment Hrensaga gave a confused wail, and plummeted from the air.
Her flesh was already rotting away from her bones when she hit the ground.
Chapter 49: Blood
Darken awoke in a bed of lush green moss.
He must not have survived the fall. Were he still among the living he should be covered in blood and sand, the unforgiving desert sun sucking the moisture from his skin.
He groaned, rolling onto his side.
“Darken!” someone shrieked, sending a stabbing pain through his head.
Sorcerer’s sickness. He remembered Zeddicus telling him about it. The result of expending too much han too quickly.
Darken buried his face in his bed of moss, telling himself it was because the light hurt his eyes.
But he was not to have that respite. Insistent hands pulled at him, turned him over, forced him to sit up. Richard dumped a waterskin over Darken’s head, cleaning away the ash of battle, and wetting Darken’s cracked lips.
Darken opened his eyes to find Cara kneeling at his side. There was a gash scoring a line across her forehead, blood stained her white leathers, and her broken arm hung useless and limp.
Darken kissed her, knowing it caused both of them pain, but not caring, for pain meant they were still alive.
Then Richard clapped him on the back, and Cara smiled the smile that made her entire face seem brighter, and even Kahlan came forward to clasp his forearm, an open look of approval on her face he had never seen there before.
Richard craned his neck, scanning the clearing where they sat, just beyond the line of trees. “Where’s Zedd?”
Darken looked away.
“No. Oh, no. Richard,” Kahlan said after the silence had stretched on long enough for everyone to understand.
Face red with grief, Richard turned on his heel and stomped into the woods that had seemingly sprung up around them.
“Let him have a moment,” Darken commanded when it looked as if Kahlan would go after his brother.
She nodded, tears streaming quietly down her cheeks.
Zeddicus had been more than an old wizard. In one way or another, he was father to them all.
Even Cara was bright eyed. She hid her emotions well, but Darken knew her face like it was his own.
“How did we come to be in a forest?” he asked her softly, both to distract her, and because he wanted to know.
“It’s like what happened at the Pillars of Creation,” Cara answered as she helped him to his feet, and then found a sturdy branch for him to use as a walking stick. “The dragon fell out of the sky, and then everything changed. The desert turned into… this,” she gestured with her good arm, indicating the lush greenery around them.
“Hm,” Darken muttered noncommittally, leaning on his walking stick. It was just as well. With the way his han was depleted, he wouldn’t be strong enough to transform them into birds any time soon. It would be a shame to defeat an ancient evil only to die of thirst because they were stuck in a desert.
They set out after Richard when Cara reminded them that there could still be unicorns lurking in the forest. Darken led the way, using the Rahl bond as his guide.
They found Richard in a clearing at the center of the forest, where grew a tree larger than any of them had ever seen. Up and up, it stretched, its trunk as wide as one of the towers of the People’s Palace, its canopy of branches spreading over the clearing, keeping it cool and shaded. The air smelled of earth and spring, the promise of things to come.
Richard stood at the base of the tree, staring up at it. When they grew closer, Darken saw why.
On the trunk, so perfect it could have been etched there, and yet clearly a part of the natural growth pattern of the bark, was an image of a dragon in flight.
“She killed Zedd.” Richard’s voice sounded loud in the stillness of the clearing.
“Yes,” Darken said, his usual smooth tones rough. Discordant.
Richard drew the Sword of Truth.
Then he launched it at the tree with a primal outcry, lodging it in the depicted dragon’s belly.
Kahlan went to him, putting her arms around him, holding his face to her neck as they wept together for the wizard’s loss.
Darken ignored the lump in his throat and paid them no mind, focused instead on the quivering blade of the sword. Something was happening.
Was the tree bleeding?
“Get back!” Cara called to Kahlan and Richard. She had noticed it too.
Slowly, the base of the trunk opened with the groaning of wood and slosh of blood. Wary, Darken tried to call up his han, but found he had nothing left to give.
An arm emerged from the trunk, dripping an inky red-black, followed by another, and then shoulders, head, chest.
A man pulled himself from the tree trunk, covered in blood, the Sword of Truth clutched in his hands.
The air grew heavy, filled with a sense of presence. Richard and Kahlan were forced to their knees, followed by Cara a second later. Only Darken remained upright, for though he was weak, his body battered, he was still possessed of the spirit of a dragon, and dragons bowed to no one.
Not even gods.
The man looked down at himself, and then waved his hand. There was a searing burst of light that left Darken with spots before his vision.
When he could see again, the man was free of the muck that marked his advent. More than that, he glowed. He was tall and lean and golden, robed in silver and white. His face was youthful and unlined, and yet he exuded a sense of time, of experience that belied his appearance.
He went to Richard and presented him with the sword.
I believe this is yours, my boy.
They all heard the words, though the man’s lips remained still.
Richard looked up, his voice several octaves higher than normal as he gasped out, “Zedd?”
Zeddicus, another godly voice sounded in the clearing.
Darken whirled to see Hali standing behind him, as perfect as she was in his dreams.
And present, solid, real, on their plane of existence in all her godhood.
She strode past them all as if they weren’t there, heading directly for Zedd. The grass grew greener where she stepped.
My love, Zedd greeted her. How are you here? There are rules. I understand now.
Silly man, she returned, her braying laugh echoing around them, as if it came from the forest itself. You have been reborn in blood. My equal. My partner. Today is a holy day. Many wrongs have been righted, dragons flew the sky again, and gods now walk the earth, if only until the sun sets.
Zedd raised his hands to cup Hali’s cheeks, and then they kissed, and it was so sweet that none of the mortals present could stop the tears that leaked from their eyes or the pounding of their hearts.
Darken felt his knees go weak, even his dragon spirit tested by the presence of not one, but two gods.
Hali turned to Richard.
Seeker, she said, laying her hand upon his head. I told you that you had a part to play.
She smiled, and somewhere in the forest, birds burst into song.
Kahlan, Zedd stroked her hair, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Your power is what you make of it. Remember that. He leaned forward, And know that you will have many beautiful children.
Zeddicus! Hali snapped.
Zedd’s laugh washed over them like a breeze.
Then the gods left Richard and Kahlan, turning their attention to Cara and Darken. They went first to Cara, Zedd laying his hands upon her arm, healing the break. Hali tended to the gash on Cara’s forehead. They said nothing out loud, but it was clear they spoke, for Cara nodded and looked from one of them to the next, then promised, “I will.”
What they said to her, Darken would never know.
Then they were standing before him, bright and beautiful, and terrible too, the force of their presence making it difficult for him to breathe.
You have done well. Hali laid her hand on Darken’s shoulder. My son.
My son. Zeddicus echoed her words, laying his hand on Darken’s other shoulder.
Darken sputtered, gasping for air, trying to force back the tears summoned by their touch.
By their words.
By the knowledge that they knew who he was – all of who he was.
The gouges in his face closed themselves, his various cuts, scrapes, and bruises vanishing as his flesh knit back together. He could feel his strength returning, like the coming of the tide, his sorcerer’s sickness fading away, cleansed by the Healing Hands.
“Yes,” he whispered in response to their declarations.
It was all that needed to be said.
They pulled away. Darken watched as they walked, arm in arm, to the edge of the clearing.
“Wait!” he called, finding his voice long enough to ask about Hrensaga.
Eerily, Hali and Zedd turned as one to look at the great tree. When she slew Zeddicus and took the power I gave him for her own, she took into herself some of my light, and so opened herself to choice.
All darkness must retreat in the face of light, no matter how small, Zedd added with the air of imparting one of his lessons on magic.
She was given the same chance you were, Hali continued. And she chose wisely. She chose to end her curse. She chose forgiveness. The Valley of Perdition is no more. The Forest of Redemption stands in its place. And at its center is Hrensaga, the Heart Tree, mother to a god.
Reverently, Zedd finished, All things in this world are possible, if only you’re willing to pay the price.
All is mended, Hali reassured her companion, standing on tiptoe to press a kiss to his cheek.
They vanished as suddenly as Hali had arrived. There was no flash, no bang. The Creator and the Champion were there one moment, and simply gone the next.
It took them six days of easy traveling to reach the edge of the forest. By some unspoken agreement, they did not speak of the battle, or the scene in the clearing. Darken and Cara simply forged ahead, discussing flight and battle tactics and their preferred weight for a throwing dagger, and when it would be appropriate to start Mason’s weapons training.
Richard and Kahlan dawdled behind, holding hands and making wedding plans.
The events of the past few days seemed more impossible with each passing second, until they were all almost convinced it had been a dream.
When they left the treeline, the skin on the back of Darken’s neck crawled. “Someone’s watching us,” he warned the others quietly.
“Darken,” Richard hissed.
Peering at them from between the trees was over a dozen unicorns.
Richard reached for his sword, Kahlan her daggers, and Cara her Agiel. Darken summoned his han, but made no move to attack.
There was something different about the beasts.
It took Darken several long, tense moments to realize that the unicorns no longer had dark, reflective eyes. Each of them regarded him with silvery white irises, the color of stars.
Darken signaled his companions to stand down.
Soft and indistinct, so much so that they would later ask each other to be sure they had all really heard it and it wasn’t some trick of the wind, the unicorns spoke to them in a voice without sound.
Then they slipped back into the trees as silently as they had emerged.
Chapter 50: Epilogue
Six Years Later
Darken was overseeing Mason’s afternoon lesson when Jennsen entered his study, her adopted son, Renn, right behind her.
Darken rose to greet his sister, placing a kiss on her hand and then looking up into her one remaining eye.
Truthfully, Darken was so used to the sight of Jennsen’s eye patches that he hardly noticed them anymore. When it had become apparent that her pristinely ungifted nature repelled all magical attempts to help, and common healing could not restore the eye she had lost in the Fenrisulfr attack, Darken had had many different eye patches made for her in the same fabric as her dresses. Today she wore one of lavender, the crest of their house sewn over the center of the patch in darker purple thread that matched the embroidery on her sleeves.
“Kahlan is having the baby as we speak,” Jennsen informed him. “She will arrive any moment now. I was sent to fetch you, so that you can witness the naming.”
Darken nodded, the corners of his lips turning up in a tiny smile. “And you, nephew?” Darken asked Renn, one brow raised.
“I, ah, didn’t feel I had any business being there at that precise moment,” the young man said, tapping his temple with one finger to indicate that he didn’t want to overhear Kahlan’s thoughts during the miracle of childbirth.
Darken couldn’t blame him.
“Come, Mason,” Darken told his little heir. “We go to meet your new cousin.”
“Can I bring Odie?” the boy wanted to know, going to the basket where his Fenrisulfr puppy chewed on a scrap of fabric.
“Very well,” Darken answered when presented with his son’s hopeful face. “But he must wait in the hall.”
It was a short walk to the birthing chamber guarded by Lexi and Haden.
Lexi wore the brown leathers of a Mord’Sith trainee, though she had not yet earned her braid or Agiel. Renn smiled at the young Mord’Sith as they walked by, a lovesick expression that made Darken’s lips twitch with amusement.
His jovial mood died as soon as he entered the birthing chamber.
Kahlan cradled a babe in her arms, but her face was twisted with anguish, tears in her eyes. Richard looked haunted, his skin ashen. He muttered something. Darken caught only one word.
Cara looked on, her gaze flicking between Richard and Kahlan, and then back again, a line of tension creasing her forehead.
“What’s happened? Is the baby stillborn?” Jennsen asked with earnest bluntness.
Richard put his arm around Kahlan’s shoulders, perching on the edge of the bed and pressing kisses to her hair as she began to weep harder.
“No,” Cara answered for the new parents. “He’s alive.”
“He?” Darken echoed.
A male Confessor.
Darken closed his eyes, letting that knowledge and everything it meant sink in.
A heavy silence fell over the room, no one willing to say what had to be said.
Mason, forgotten in the tension of the moment, crept closer to the bed to peer at his cousin’s face. Reaching out, he pulled at the blanket swaddling the little boy, stroking the baby’s cheek with gentle fingers.
Darken bit his tongue to keep himself from ordering Mason away from the little Confessor.
Mason looked up, his Rahl blue eyes flashing with magic. “He will be blind.”
He spoke in the unnaturally deep voice that meant his gift of prophecy was at work.
The baby wriggled in Kahlan’s arms, tiny fingers splayed against her breast as he tried to nurse. His hands sparked with white light.
The color returned to Kahlan’s cheeks as the rigors of labor were wiped from her body.
Her heart thumped twice.
A sense of presence filled the room, weighing down on them, a braying laugh accompanied by a familiar masculine guffaw floating through the air.
Richard looked down at his son, his look of anguish of the moment before transformed into wonder.
They named the boy Zeddicus.
There comes a time when you think everything is finished.
That is the beginning.
To my readers:
I just want to take a moment to say thank you to all of my readers, both old and new, but especially my betas and those readers who've been with me since Hali first found Darken Rahl stumbling around the woods. I never thought when I wrote those first scenes that I would be embarking on a journey into this world that would last more than two years. As I penned this chapter, to me it felt like not just the ending of Darken's story, but the ending of a chapter in my own life. This story - The Blood Trilogy - has meant a great deal to me over the years. I hope it has meant something to you too. And I hope this final ending was worth the wait.
As always, this story draws heavily from Norse Mythology. Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss any of the references in detail. See the endnotes of Blood from a Stone and Son of Blood for references I have previously covered.
Jormungund is a reference to the Midgard Serpent of Norse Mythology, said to have a part in the end of the world.
Hrensaga is a reference to Hrensuge, a dragon of myth that could only be defeated by the interference of a god.
The Heart Tree is a reference to Yggdrasil, the Tree of Good and Evil in Norse Mythology.
Zedd’s rebirth from the tree is a reference to Odin.
Jennsen’s affinity for the wolves and the loss of her eye is a reference to Odin.
Tyrn is a reference to the god Tyr of Greek Mythology.
Frekki is a reference to the Frekki of Greek Mythology, one of the children of Fenrir.