Kahlan Amnell-Rahl lifted her gaze from the important documents and forms that had held her attention for the better part of two hours. Whatever the interruption was it was a welcome one.
"Enter." The door opened slowly and a genuine smile dominated her features. "Berdine. Please, come in. Have a seat."
The vertically challenged bookworm moved inside and closed the heavy doors behind her. "Mother Confessor. I do not mean to disturb you but there is a sizable group of haggard refugees entering through the southern gate."
She sat forward, back going ramrod straight.
"Refugees? From where?"
Who would attack her people in this time of peace?
"They bear no banners."
Kahlan's brows furrowed as she braced herself against the ancient desk, standing and looking as regal as ever. She brushed her fingertips against the smooth, polished wood, tracing meaningless patters into it. Her gut instinct was to have them escorted to rooms within the Confessor's Palace, they were her people - whoever they were. "How many are there?"
Berdine moved closer, perching herself on the arm of a chair, her face a mask of calm. "Approximately one-hundred and sixty, nearly seventy percent of them are injured."
"Have their leader escorted to the Council Chambers, tell them I will be there momentarily. The rest are to be tended to by all available physicians. See to it that they are given proper accommodations. I want to know who attacked them."
Berdine bowed her head in acceptance, "I will see to it personally, Mother Confessor."
Kahlan's lips twitched in amusement, after all these years and Berdine still refused to call her Kahlan. "I told you to call me Kahlan, Berdine."
The Mord'Sith fidgeted and offered a small smile before shaking her head, "only when it is not an official matter of state. This is an official matter of state. I will see you in the Council Chambers." Kahlan sighed and watched the woman leave, grabbing her daggers out of habit and placing them in the sheaths of her boots.
Dark haired, freckle covered children.
Kahlan frowned as she took her seat, looking to the blood spattered adolescents. They could not have been more fifteen years of age. Her Mord'Sith were nowhere to be seen, most likely attending to the other refugees and helping to get them properly situated.
Commander Reis leaned over to address Kahlan in a whisper, wishing to fill her in on what information he could but she waved him off. "What are your names?"
The boy cleared his throat, stepping forward without hesitation, hazy green eyes lifting to meet her blue ones. "I am Sam, Mother Confessor. This is my sister, Sonia. The Mord'Sith that greeted us said you wished to speak to our village leader, but he is dead. We led our people here upon the request of our mother, Captain of the Red Guard and so our people wished for us to speak for them."
She was puzzled, in all of her time she had never heard of a Red Guard.
"Very well, what is the name of your village and who is it that attacked you?"
Her curiosity was sparked - these two children looked so gut-wrenchingly familiar and yet she could not place it. They were well dressed for villagers, the girl was in a simple dress of a light blue and the boy was in black leather with the occasional bit of red mixed in.
"Blackwood, a ten days ride from here. The folk from within the wood attacked with the aid of black magic and dark creatures. We do not know what they are called."
"That is quite the journey." It was difficult to draw her eyes from the two, they were fair skinned with similar bone structure. "I am sure you are tired, I will have Commander Reis escort you to your rooms, we will speak more on this attack in the morning."
The both bowed respectfully and moved to follow the young Commander when two crimson weapons caught her attention on the boy's right leg.
"Stop." Her voice had taken an edge sharper than her own dagger blades. "Where did you get those?"
The boy turned towards her, glancing down at his leg before lifting his gaze to meet Kahlan's. His own eyes hardened and the Council Chambers lowered in temperature - Commander Reis placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. "My mother gave them to me before we fled Blackwood, I am quite sure you remember them."
Kahlan moved swiftly towards them, eyes swirling with power - rage building.
"You are both hers."
Sam moved to stand in front of his sister, guarding her, "yes."
Her heart leapt into her throat upon the confirmation, blood pounding in her ears. The dark-haired girl moved forward swiftly, sliding in between Kahlan and her brother. "Mother Confessor, if I may, might we continue this conversation in the morning when emotions are not running so unchecked?"
Kahlan nodded her head, acquiescing to the young woman's request; her mouth ran dry as soon as she saw the look in the girl's emerald eyes.
Guilt settled in deep as the two followed Commander Reis.
Someone had lied when she banished Cara from Aydindril all those years ago; her Mord'Sith had been carrying her children.
"Garen? What is it? You're shaking." Kahlan moved towards the paling Mord'Sith, reaching forward to touch the woman's upper arm. She gently guided her usually reserved friend into her private quarters, frowning with worry. "What's wrong?"
The Mord'Sith was near tears.
"She's... here. Dahlia. She's here. With the injured, I saw her being carried in."
Kahlan's stomach twisted violently and she lifted her hand, brushing her knuckles lightly against the freckled cheek of the Mord'Sith. "Would you like me to go with you?"
"Mother Confessor, they refused to be escorted to private chambers." She scanned the feasting hall that had become a pseudo-medical station and refugee rest area. "I am attempting to convince them to accept rooms."
Kahlan placed her hand gently on the stressed Mord'Sith, offering her an encouraging smile. "It's okay, Berdine. Now if you'll excuse me I need to give Garen a shoulder to lean on."
She left the bookworm understandably confused, moving slowly through the refugees and offering the occasional kind word of comfort whenever she was stopped. By the time she reached Garen the brunette was kneeling next to a cot, tending to the woman there. It took a few moments to recognize Dahlia with the claw marks marring her body and the lack of leathers.
Garen brushed a bloodied rag against the wounds carefully, trying not to irritate them further. "She's feverish." Her friend's voice was thick with emotion as she tried to hold back her tears.
Kahlan knelt quickly next to her friend, taking up a wet rag from the water basin.
"The physician hasn't seen to her yet? Why?" She made to summon one, stopped by Garen's hand on her shoulder.
"He has, her wounds are merely superficial. Traveling such a distance without proper medical assistance gave her a small infection." Kahlan relaxed at Garen's reassurances and helped her clean the blood away from the woman's normally pale skin.
A light tap on her shoulder brought Kahlan from her current musings on the stark contrast of red on pale skin. She let the strip of cloth drop into the bin and nodded her head to Garen, standing slowly. The freezing, vice grip on her wrist pulled her to an abrupt stop.
"Dahlia!" Garen breathed, moving forward in a rush to cup the woman's face she had longed to touch for so long.
Her hold on Kahlan's wrist was bruising, but the intensity in Dahlia's gaze kept her from prying at the grip. "You have to keep the children safe."
Garen's face fell noticeably at Dahlia's words and Kahlan nodded her head, hair falling over her shoulders. "Of course, I'll see to it that your children are-"
"No. Your children."
Tears fell slowly and without break as Kahlan rested her head against the cool stone ledge of the window sill. She was curled up next to the glass, watching day slowly give way to night.
Fifteen years she had been without her mate.
Fifteen years since she had banished Cara from Aydindril...
"The penalty for adultery in the Midlands is a minimum fifty lashes and the stripping of current social standing. Lord Rahl has suggested the addition of banishment as well as a seal on your ability to reverse magic and administer the Breath of Life for the disgrace you have brought upon both of our lands." Her voice was as cold as steel on a winter's day.
"Kahlan, I would never dishonor you. Especially not in this way." She watched as two Mord'Sith kept Cara on her knees with their hands on her shoulders.
His voice was harsh; harsher than she had ever heard before. "Silence. The Mother Confessor is speaking. Do not bring further dishonor upon yourself. Not that you can with two bastard children in your womb, probably by some lowborn tavern scum."
It took everything she had to lock her emotions on the matter into a box; Cara had betrayed her. She could not show leniency.
Kahlan stood, her face a mask of stone.
"It is my duty as the Mother Confessor to administer justice. I must uphold the laws of my lands, even if the perpetrator happens to be my mate. You will be sentenced to eighty lashes in the public forum, you will be stripped of all titles and status. Prior to your whipping you will be sealed of all abilities that come with being a Mord'Sith."
Cara bowed her head, the tips of the blonde hair she kept trimmed to her mid-back almost touched the floor. Kahlan's mask fractured, she had never experienced a time when Cara refused to look someone in the eye.
Nor had she ever heard the woman she once loved speak with such a brokenly defeated voice. "I will not object to your sentencing, Mothe-."
"- r Confessor."
She jumped and pulled her gaze from the window, limbs flailing slightly as she tried to get away from whoever it was that touched her.
"Mother Confessor! Calm yourself."
Kahlan let out a sigh of relief when she registered that it was merely Berdine, "what is it?"
The tiny Mord'Sith brought her hand up and brushed lightly at the tears running down Kahlan's cheeks, "I came to check on you. You didn't answer... and... why are you crying?"
Her shoulders gave a violent lurch as she began sobbing, throwing her arms around the unsuspecting woman. "They're mine. Sam and Sonia are mine. I abandoned Cara when she needed me most."
Strong arms wrapped around her, protecting her from the evils of the world.
They were in shock.
She could see it on their faces as they looked to each other for confirmation.
Sam took a step forward, showing no hesitation in addressing her. "Mother Confessor, we would both like to return to Blackwood with you and your legion. If you plan to enter the wood you will need us to guide you. I was to become a member of the Red Guard this year and my sister knows the wood better than our own mother."
Kahlan smiled, she had been hoping they would wish to come; she wanted a chance to get to know her children. "I would be honored if you would both travel with us."
"I want you to stay here, I want someone I can trust to keep the nobles in line. Someone who won't be swayed or intimidated by their influence." In truth she knew Garen would be hesitant to journey with them, especially when Dahlia was in Aydindril again.
Garen lifted her gaze from the woman on her bed, trying to form a proper sentence. Kahlan allowed her hand to brush against Garen's shoulder, "just say thank you, Garen. I will not part you from her."
The hint of a smile graced Garen's lips, "thank you."
Kahlan nodded and turned her head to get a better look at Dahlia. She looked better now, her wounds were cleaned and bandaged; far more comfortable as well, resting in Garen's private chambers. "Take care of her and don't let her go this time."
Garen brushed her fingers slowly over Dahlia's arm, carefully avoiding the healing bruises. "She's never leaving my sight again." Garen stood slowly, turning to address Kahlan eye-to-eye. "She was coherent for a while and told me some of the things that happened in that village."
Kahlan nodded, "tell me everything."
She needed a subject to get her children to open up to her, so far she had been unsuccessful. All the subjects Kahlan tried were either stonewalled or answered concisely. The two teenagers were sharing a horse, locked in a heated, whispered conversation.
Kahlan took a breath and a chance, "tell me about the Red Guard?"
They quieted for a while before Sonia turned her head to address Kahlan, "the Red Guard are the protectors of Blackwood. They keep those tainted by the darkness at bay. Our mother joined the Guard fifteen years ago when the village was attacked. They have the skill to take down opponents from within."
Kahlan nodded quietly and lowered her head, that was all she would get from them. The twins returned to their whispered conversation.
Kahlan looked up and smiled softly when she saw Sonia standing in the opening of her tent; she had protested when Commander Reis insisted upon tents, Kahlan rather missed being out in the open and sleeping under the stars.
"Mother Confessor, may I speak with you in private?"
"Of course, and you don't have to call me Mother Confessor."
"I would rather I did."
Her stomach twisted and she offered a broken smile at her daughter's words, "of course." Sonia moved forward slowly and closed the flap of the tent, biting her bottom lip nervously. "Sit, please. What is it you wanted to talk about?"
Sonia took a seat hesitantly on the only other available place to rest - Kahlan's cot. She smoothed the palms of her hand nervously against her thighs, working away the wrinkles out of habit. "My mother said you have gone into the Con'Dar before, that you are one of the few Confessors who have and survived."
Kahlan's brows furrowed, trying to figure out just where this was going, "yes. I have a number of times in the past to protect Richard and C-" she cast her eyes to the side and cleared her throat, "my... to protect my loved ones." Her voice broke once more, "why is it you ask?"
The conversation was far more strained than she had hoped for but far less than she expected.
"I..." Sonia took a breath and stood, shaking her head rapidly, "I should not have come. I must return to my tent before my brother wakes and worries. He hates it when I wander off alone."
Kahlan stood swiftly, reaching out to grab Sonia's wrist gently - stopping her with a soft sigh. "No, talk to me. Please. I wish to get to know you better, both of you and that isn't going to happen if we keep running away from each other. I can answer any of the questions you have about being a Confessor, about your power."
The teenager's cheeks flushed and her eyes watered, "I cannot. I am sorry to have bothered you with such a trivial matter."
"Spirits, you are as infuriating as your mother when it comes to discussing matters on your mind."
Sonia cracked a grin, stopping her attempts to free herself from Kahlan's grasp. "It's funny. My mother says I grow more and more like you every day."
Kahlan brushed her thumb lightly over her daughter's wrist and gave a small chuckle, "well if she says it then it must be true."
Not as awkward as the silences preceding.
She was making progress.
They both sat on the cot and Kahlan watched as Sonia pulled her legs up, wrapping her arms tightly around them. Kahlan took a chance and moved closer, wrapping an arm gently around the young woman's waist. "Please, what is it that prompted you to ask about the Con'Dar?"
Tears threatened to fall once more from the green orbs, "I went into it when my betrothed died attempting to protect me from the creatures that came from the wood."
Kahlan cooed softly and wrapped both of her arms tightly around the girl.
The third night after a hard days ride found a large group of people surrounding one of the many fires. Kahlan Amnell smiled fully as she brushed her fingers through her daughter's hair, massaging her scalp lightly. Sam sat across the fire, staring defiantly at the Mother Confessor.
Sonia leaned over and rested her head on Kahlan's thigh, grinning at Berdine's jest about the lack of skill when it came to Mord'Sith and cooking. "Richard and Zedd did ban Cara from cooking when we were hunting for the Stone of Tears."
A snort drew her attention across the fire once more.
Sam was trying to maintain a mask of seriousness.
"Our mother attempted to bake something sweet for our Aunt on her birthday a few years ago. It... still resides by the fence line, untouched and unaffected by the weather or animals." Kahlan chuckled and looked down, grazing her fingertips across the young Confessor's cheek.
Sam shifted uncomfortably between Berdine and Commander Reis, clearing his throat. "Our mother uses it for target practice regularly."
Kahlan's heart leapt into her throat and she leaned down, pressing her lips to the top of her daughter's head in thanks.
It was a quaint village, surrounded by trees of ancient, blackened oak; Kahlan straightened some on her horse and scanned the wooden buildings.
Or at least what had been wooden buildings with a horrendous odor becoming slowly more and more putrid.
Kahlan's heart stopped as they neared the center of the small village.
Bodies rammed on pikes.
"No..." Sonia was off of her horse and sprinting forward as soon as her feet touched the ground. "Lucius!"
Kahlan didn't know who was off of their horse faster - Sam or herself. "Sonia, don't!"
The two caught up to her as she landed on her knees in front of a pike where a redheaded boy was impaled, ritualistic cuts covering his body. Kahlan immediately wrapped her arms around the young Confessor, moving her arm to shield Sonia from the sight.
"Get them down. They need to be burned." Kahlan closed her eyes at Berdine's words and smiled against Sonia's hair when Sam wrapped his arms around both of them.
"None of the Red Guard are among the dead."
His whisper gave her hope.
Kahlan's eyes widened as two blood-soaked wolves rushed from the wood, soldiers drew their weapons and her two Mord'Sith drew their Agiels - preparing to protect her.
"You... these are yours?"
The smaller of the two dogs tackled Sam into the ground and he laughed, wrapping his arms around the beast as they wrestled. Sonia crouched down and scratched behind the other's ears, beaming down at it. "Yeah... they're ours. We had them stay behind with our mom..."
Cara tried to smile as she brushed her lips lightly against Sam's forehead and planted a kiss on the top of Sonia's head. "Get them all safely to Aydindril, alright? Take care of each other."
"Don't worry." Sam breathed, wrapping his arms tightly around his his mother, "just... be alive when we come back."
The former Mord'Sith nodded her head and brought her hands up to cup the faces of both of her children. "I don't die easily," she turned to look her daughter in the eye, "I need you to stay strong. Do you understand? I know it hurts that Lucius is dead, but it's something you need to do."
The green-eyed Confessor nodded tearfully, swaying slightly, "I... will mom, I promise."
She pulled them both to her, not wanting to let either of her children go - no matter how much she needed to do so.
"Make sure your Aunt gets medical attention when you get to Aydindril. Her wounds won't kill her... keep them wrapped up during the journey so they don't get infected." Her voice broke as tears threatened to fall, "I love you both."
Sam pulled away first, straightening as he cleared his throat, blinking away his own tears. "We need to go."
Cara nodded, helping her son to get her emotionally and physically exhausted daughter onto the horse they would share. She grabbed his shoulder before he made to get on behind his sister. "Here... take these." Cara unbuckled what was required to remove her Agiel holster.
"Mother... I..." Cara shook her head and Sam closed his eyes in quiet acceptance, strapping the holster in place. He made a motion to grab them, making sure they were in a comfortable place to draw in battle. "I'll give them back to you when we return." The boy-turned-man glanced down at the two wolves wagging their tails, "keep her safe you two."
Cara's voice cracked when she spoke.
Cara took a deep breath, watching as her son mounted the horse behind his sister and the exodus began. She pulled her hood up and turned with the rest of the guard, moving as one towards the ancient, blackened wood.
For the first time in many years she said a silent prayer to the Creator to protect her family.
An arrow soared passed where the young brunette's head had been seconds ago, striking the humanoid down. "Behind you!"
She didn't have time as pain erupted in her thigh.
Cara lowered her eyes to stare at the blade sticking out of her leg, blood dripping from the edge. A hand clamped down on the back of her neck and for a few glorious moments she was weightless.
Before slamming headfirst into a tree.
Her ears rang and she embraced blissful unconsciousness.
Her skin burned.
"She's still feverish and the wound is infected."
"They already took the men, we're next."
Everyone around her was petrified; Cara forced her eyes to open, relying on every ounce of her training not to throw up what little there was in her stomach. The horrid scent of death didn't help but she managed to master the urge. "Where are we?"
"Oh spirits. Cara." She knew that voice - Haley, one of the younger warriors in the Red Guard. "Thank the Creator you're awake. We were all... well mostly all of us were captured. We're in one of their camps. They've been taking the men daily and all we hear are their screams. They took Sean last night, he was the last."
Cara nodded with a grimace, "help me sit up."
It took her a few minutes but with help she was resting against her companion, breath coming heavy. "You said every night. How many of us were captured?"
"Twelve in all, the other nine are dead. Seven men..."
"A week? I've been unconscious for a week?"
Case shook her head from across the wooden cell, "you were in and out."
"What are we going to do?"
Cara closed her eyes and shook her head, "I don't know..."
They had been moved to separate holding cages, the small contraptions didn't even give them enough room to move. Cara gripped the bars tightly, idly wishing she had her uniform on - anything was better than sitting naked in an animal cage in the middle of a forest.
Weapons would be nice too.
If only, if only.
Cara shook her head.
It was no use wishing for things that would never happen; it was all useless - like wishing Kahlan had never abandoned her.
She was barely conscious, the pain was slowly consumed her body - Cara had to give them credit, it was definitely an inspired killing. The tonic that had been forced down her throat for the last week and a half was apparently some type of blood thinner.
It was the only reason she would be bleeding so heavily from such shallow cuts.
The words were demonic.
She could almost taste the malevolence in their words.
Pain shot through her - stronger than any Agiel that had ever touched her skin.
The people around her were savages with painted bodies and obsidian eyes; her stomach churned when she realized a number of them were wearing the skins of her fellow Guard. Not even Darken Rahl had been that sadistic, but it did explain why the men had been screaming before.
The chanting started again.
Louder this time.
Her ears pounded with the magic pulsating around her.
Her bones ached painfully as she pulled at her restraints, the wood of the altar digging into her back, breaking more skin.
They moved far more slowly than Kahlan would have preferred but it was necessary as to not distract attention to the party. Sam walked next to her with his mother's Agiels drawn, scanning the forest as they moved; the domesticated wolf trotted along his master's side, tail wagging with excitement. She regretted not being able to have Sonia with them but the young woman had decided to take it upon herself and give the bodies a proper burial.
Kahlan made sure to assigned Berdine, Raina and a small contingent of soldiers to remain with her daughter for protection and help.
Her ears twitched when she caught a hint of chanting and she knew Sam heard it as well when he straightened - listening.
"Ahead." Sam breathed, speeding his pace up a little, gloved hands tightening on his weapons.
The scent of death and decay grew far more potent the closer they got to the chanting.
As soon as they reached the clearing she froze, however, barely managing to utter an order for her soldiers to retreat. In the back of her mind she knew Sam was backing away, he had seen his sister go into the Con'Dar - Sonia told her this much.
A primal roar ripped from Kahlan the instant she laid eyes on Cara's naked body strapped down to a blackened altar. Uncontrolled rage surged through her body - back arching, teeth bared.
They would all pay for this atrocity and she would be their executioner.
The Mother Confessor unleashed the full force of her wrath for the attack on her Mord'Sith.
Tears slid slowly down her cheeks as she cradled Cara in her arms, "Cara..."
The blonde remained unresponsive and Kahlan brushed her trembling fingers slowly against a pale cheek, staring in morbid fascination as blood coated her fingertips. Her bare body was covered in shallow cuts, forming intricate designs for some ritual and the wounds still oozed with blood.
"Cara, please... open your eyes."
It was a plea, one she did not deserve to have answered.
Kahlan tightened her hold on the smaller woman, lowering her head to rest it against Cara's; her body was still weak from entering the Con'Dar but it did not matter.
Cara was dying in her arms and would never know how much she regretted her past actions.
She inhaled slowly and choked on a sob, through all of the blood, grime and sweat Cara's scent was still there. Kahlan closed her eyes and moved her hand to Cara's hip, stroking the bloodied skin there in as soothing as a motion as she could. "Please... Creator just wake up. I love you so much and I've only just found you again. I know I don't deserve it... but... I need you to wake up. You are the only light I have left in my life Cara. I never should have believed Richard, I knew you would never betray me." Kahlan's heart ached, a choked sob escaping her once more. "Instead I betrayed you in the worst of ways. I abandoned you and our children all because of my own fears." She let out a hoarse laugh and trailed her fingers up slowly, stroking Cara's side, "what kind of Mother Confessor am I? I couldn't tell that Richard was lying... I couldn't tell that you weren't..."
Kahlan trembled and rocked her former lover slowly, curling over Cara's body - protecting her from any source of danger that might hope to attack them unawares.
"I don't know. I think it's a good thing you can't read Mord'Sith." She jumped and pulled back slightly, looking down at Cara with a slackened jaw. "I'm dreaming again, aren't I?"
Her tears only came faster as Cara opened her eyes tiredly, green eyes dulled from pain and a lack of energy.
"I... I'm not... I'm real. I'm here."
"You always say that in my dreams." Her breathing was labored and Kahlan could hear the liquid in her lungs.
Kahlan leaned down and brushed her lips against Cara's, letting her eyes flutter shut for a few moments before pulling back and kissing Cara's forehead. "Do I do that in your dreams?"
Cara turned her head and pressed her nose into Kahlan's throat, her breathing coming out far more slower. "No."
She squeezed Cara as tight as she dared, trembling again with the knowledge that she would inevitably lose the woman in her arms. "Sonia is beautiful... Sam is incredibly smart... they're both so much like you."
The Mord'Sith let out a soft laugh, grimacing against Kahlan's shoulder when she did so. "I don't know, Sonia really likes talking about her feelings. It must be a Confessor thing."
They were both silent for a while with Kahlan holding Cara to her, refusing to let go of the dying woman. "Kahlan...?"
Neither of them spoke above a whisper.
"I never stopped loving you... and I never hated you for banishing me."
"I never stopped loving you either... my heart always belonged to you..." Kahlan breathed, turning her head to press her lips firmly against the top of Cara's head.
She could feel a small smile against her neck.
Kahlan's body shook with her sobs when she felt Cara's breathing halt.