Chapter 1: 58 Months Later
58 months later
“Spring was in the air the day Mistress Cara of the Mord’Sith swaggered into court dragging the Seeker, chained and bruised and limping. (The Seeker, not Mistress Cara.) The sound of chirping birds was loud in the silence, coming through the upper arrow slits uncovered by stained glass. Several court-people had handkerchiefs pressed to their noses, on account of all the pollen.
Ahem. As Mistress Cara and her captive approached the thrones, the gorgeous and perspicacious and well-read—and humble—Mistress Garen remarked to the Mord’Sith beside her, “Better late than never,” in a hushed voice that did honor to Mistress Cara’s magnificent and impossible return—after five years!—from the grave, or at any rate the exploded bits of magic gone wrong. Not that there were any bits. Which, when you think about it—“
“And then what happened?”
“You fainted, of course. Hilarious. Just plunk-crack! The crack was your head hitting the foot of the queen’s throne.”
“Well, she fainted too. Queen Kahlan, I mean. Sort of. Lord Rahl did something to her. She jumped out of her throne—and you know how she just sort of waddles now, no sudden movements since she’s pregnant again—and Lord Rahl grabbed her face, both hands, and hissed something. A spell, I guess. Then she fainted, but not really, more of a slump into his arms, and he got Captain Meiffert to come and carry her to her rooms.”
Kahlan lay unseeing on the bed. Her maid, Alice, fussed over her, an endless torrent of words that met and broke upon the walls of Kahlan’s composure. Years of training had left their mark: Kahlan’s thoughts screamed pain Pain PAIN, but not even a wince contorted her Confessor face.
The only sound she heard was the click of the lock outside her door, and even it seemed unimportant compared to her own name, echoing in her ears in time to the pulses of agony spiking into her skull. Her name—in Richard’s voice.
“Lord Rahl took the Sword of Truth down from the wall behind his throne. I caught a lungful of dust—I don’t think any of the servants have dared clean that sword since Lord Rahl defeated the Seeker at West Granthia and brought it back. Well, he stalked down the steps to circle the Seeker. He stopped facing him and lifted the sword and set it against the Seeker’s neck. I saw a bead of blood drip onto the Seeker’s collar chain.
‘Richard. I should kill you,’ said Lord Rahl. ‘But I want you to see how little the Midlands need you now. How little she needs you.’
Dramatic, right? I could feel my pulse beating against my neckguard, and the entire court was silent—except the Seeker. He just kept moaning, ‘Kahlan, Kahlan, Kahlan,’ over and over. Do you think Mistress Cara hit him too hard in the head or something?”
“You aren’t supposed to be here, Seeker,” said Shota. She sat cross-legged on the floor in the cell across from Richard’s. There were circles under her eyes, and her hair was bedraggled and greying. She looked older—a lot older—which Richard found almost more disturbing than the sense-memory of Rahl nearly cutting his throat with his own Sword.
Shota kept herself young with magic. She looked older because there was a Rada’Han around her neck, so she couldn’t use her spells. But also, she looked older because time had passed. Maybe lots of time.
“Shota. What happened? Where’s Zedd?” Richard demanded.
“The First Wizard…the great Zeddicus—is dead,” Shota said baldly. Her voice was steady, but her eyes looked wet, reflecting the meager torchlight. “After you disappeared, Rahl's Mord'Sith captured me. Kahlan believed you in the Underworld until I showed her otherwise. But you…you were lost to time. You should not have returned for—“ She paused, pulled out a handful of carved bone dice from a pocket of her worn gown, and tossed them in front of her. Then she peered nearsightedly at them, and cursed. “Spirits take it! Six fingers of the moon, seven sisters passing through the house of the lamb, and five hundred and twelve revolutions!”
“What does that mean?” Richard asked.
“What it means, Seeker,” Shota said slowly, her every word carefully and painfully enunciated, “is that you and that Mord'Sith were not sent fifty-eight years into the future. You were sent fifty-eight months.”
“After Lord Rahl sent the Seeker to the dungeons, he dismissed all the court-people. Probably so they wouldn’t see him ‘welcoming home Mistress Cara,’ if you know what I—“
“How did she…seem? Did she…?”
“Check on you? No, I did. Saw you were still breathing, gave her the high sign. Lord Rahl wanted her report. Turns out she doesn’t remember anything past jabbing the Seeker with her agiel that night in West Granthia. Until they just—zip!—popped back into existence. She said she could only find two of the Boxes of Orden, though. Can you believe it, after all those fruitless missions looking for the damn things?
So she did what anyone would do: lugged the Seeker’s unconscious body to the nearest village, got a set of chains and a couple of horses from the blacksmith, and rode for the Palace. Apparently the blacksmith’s daughter gave her some lemonade, which she seemed incredibly surprised by.”
“Perhaps it was a Resistance village, five years ago.”
“The Queen’s Orphans and the Places of Healing aren’t doing the dread dignity of the Mord’Sith any favors, that’s true enough.”
“Lord Rahl didn’t order her back to find the third Box, did he? Or…why isn’t she here, in the temple?”
“Oh, he took her somewhere. Probably somewhere with a bed, if you know what I—“
“Yes, thank you, I got it.”
The room reminded Cara of Lord Rahl’s bedchamber, only miniaturized. The bed was normal-sized, but still much smaller than Darken’s, a five hundred-year-old heirloom that could fit twelve people, if they were willing to snuggle.
A child sat at a low table, in a chair perfectly sized for him, drawing on a huge sheaf of parchment with a stick of charcoal. For one wild moment, Cara’s heart leapt into her throat.
Then the child turned, abandoning his art and tripping over his chair in his haste to reach Darken, and Cara saw that he was too young, too soft, too…freckled, to be hers. Toddler-light hair already going murky at the roots framed a baby’s face, nose small and indeterminate, cheeks round and freckled, eyes deep Rahl blue.
Darken swept the boy into his arms, but set him down again almost at once, and ordered, “Make your bow to Mistress Cara, Nicholas. Cara, this is my son.”
Nicholas did bow, an elegant courtesy that seemed surreal to Cara. Standing, he was barely at the level of her knees. He gazed up at her seriously.
“Mistress,” he asked, “do you kill monsters?”
“Nicholas,” Darken interrupted. His voice was harsh in the odd silence between Cara and the diminutive prince. “I have something to show you.” And then, to Cara’s shock, he pulled out the two Boxes of Orden she’d wrested from the Seeker and set them on the floor in front of the boy.
“What are these?” Nicholas asked, touching one. Cara saw him rub charcoal on the priceless magical artifact, and breathed deeply to rein in her rising blood pressure.
“They are the Boxes of Orden,” Darken explained. “They fit together, see? And when General Egremont brings me the third, all will be well. Perhaps you’ll even get to meet your uncle.”
“That’s a really easy jigsaw puzzle,” Nicholas said of the two Boxes, aligned expectantly on the carpet, waiting for their third.
Cara actually had to bite back a giggle at this. First hope, then rage, now hysteria—what was wrong with her?
“I didn’t know I had an uncle,” Nicholas added. “Do I have an aunt, too?”
In fact, at that very moment, Nicholas’s aunt was picking something up off the ground. It sparkled, but not any more in Jennsen’s hands than out of them. A simple jeweled oblong, the thing didn’t feel special. But Jennsen recognized it. From another life.
She tucked it under her arm to take back to her Mistress.
It was very late when Cara took the familiar steps down to the temple. The jelgeth solution used to wash away the bloodstains had etched itself into the stone, wearing the steps gradually to form little indented pools in the stone. Cara stepped in or over them as she had always done.
Her feet took her to the room she remembered, but she paused when she saw a bar of light under the door. This would be easier in darkness, she thought. Secret, as they had always been.
Still, Cara was brave, and she knew it, which left her without options. She opened the door.
A total stranger rose from her elbows on the bed, clad in a diaphanous shift but with her black braid still in place. “Mistress?” she asked.
“Where…” Cara said huskily, then cleared her throat. “Where is Dahlia?”
“Upstairs, second door on the left,” the unknown Mord’Sith said. She watched curiously as Cara backed out of the room.
Cara climbed the stairs again to the upper floor. Here were the rooms for high-ranking Mistresses, often those merely visiting the Palace before returning to the far-flung temples they commanded. There was little difference, except in size. And prestige—Cara told herself she was proud of how high Dahlia had risen. But there was the same despised uncertainty sapping at her muscles as when she had stared into Nicholas Rahl’s small face. What place had she here, now?
“Cara,” someone breathed, soft and pleased. The second door on the left was open. Dahlia stood in the threshold.
At least this felt the same. Cara stepped forward into her Dahlia’s arms.
Later, when the moonlight fell on a child’s scribble pinned to the wall of Dahlia’s room, Cara turned her face into the pillow and breathed the pointless tears away.
Elsewhere, a young thief slipped into the tent where another pair of women slept. A gleam briefly caught his eye, but it was only moonlight on white leather. He crept closer to the women. As expected, their real valuables lay between them, half-shielded by their hair. A coin purse, an ornate dagger with a flowery emblem on its hilt, and a box covered in pry-off-able, saleable jewels.
The thief took it all. His green eyes gleamed like a cat’s in the darkness.
“Where is it?” Denna hissed. The dawn light was not kind to her—Jennsen could see the fine wrinkles at her eyes and marring her lips. Unbrushed, her hair was like a pale briar patch. She turned aside their bedding, unearthing a tube of lip cream but little else.
“Maybe—“ Jennsen suggested. That was as far as she got before Denna whirled on her.
“No,” said her Mistress, grabbing Jennsen’s chin. Her nails dug into Jennsen’s cheeks and scraped at her neck. “No maybes. All three Boxes of Orden disappeared with the Seeker. We found one; that means he has the others. Find Richard, and bring me the Boxes. I’ll chase down our midnight…guest.” She sneered. “Fool, to steal from a Mord’Sith. I shall enjoy teaching him better.”
“You don't think that Darken Rahl—“ Jennsen began, words garbled around Denna’s clawlike fingernails.
“What, would he take my coin purse and leave me breathing?” Denna jeered. “I think not.” She released her grip, turning to don her leathers. “Now go!”
General Egremont surveyed the field of daffodils where, five years ago, the Seeker and Mistress Cara had vanished in an explosion of magic. The flowers had already grown over the blast radius. Nothing remained to show the momentous events that had occurred here, except a few crushed blooms where Egremont deduced Mistress Cara and the Seeker had grappled. Fabled prowess or not, the Seeker had been weaponless, and Mistress Cara’s victory swift. There were faint signs of where she’d dragged his insensate body from the flower patch of combat.
But nothing else, Egremont was sure of that. His men had searched stem by stem. No third Box of Orden lay hidden here.
“Lord Rahl,” Egremont sighed, eyeing the daffodil-ed expanse of defeat, “will not be pleased.”
And in the shade of a giant elm tree, the green-eyed thief examined his spoils. The dagger attracted him: the markings on it were the same as decorated the one he carried, his only prized personal possession. It was left over from his earliest childhood before he ran away. The woman who had looked after him then, Nana Nathair, had told him it had belonged to his father.
The thief slid the second dagger from its sheath. A bit of parchment fell out as he did, and he picked it up, smoothed it across his knee, and read,
To my beloved sister.
May this weapon be as true to you as you are to me.
Chapter 2: Rescuers
Flung forward in time (but not as far forward as Shota initially predicted) Richard must find a way to save Kahlan from Darken Rahl.
Richard stared at the wall of the dungeon. After a time, his eyes grew blurry, as he slipped into a semi-conscious state. The wall wavered before his gaze. And it became something else.
A hazy image, a trick of the light, Richard thought. A man—no, a boy—on horseback, galloping across first a field, then through a track in a forest, and then along a road. Blond hair streaked out behind the boy, like his own personal banner. He was no one Richard recognized.
Blinking dispersed the image. Richard assumed it had been a mere helpless delusion on his part—the dream of escape.
The third Box of Orden is nowhere within West Granthia, my lord. My men have searched every blade of grass and every house in the village.
As the words appeared in the journeybook, Darken Rahl cursed aloud. “Keeper’s heart! I need that Box!” If the General couldn’t find it—
Darken hurled the journeybook at the wall of his study. It struck with a satisfying thunk, falling open to the same page where the General’s words glistened. More appeared, and Darken strode over to the book. He kicked at his robes, frustrated as always by the need to pick up after himself. But no servant could be trusted in his private study, home as it was to many evil and ancient magics. Not to mention his diary.
However, it seems two strange women recently stopped in the village, later the same day that Mistress Cara purchased chains to restrain the Seeker. One of them may have taken the Box. I believe we can follow their trail.
Darken shut the journeybook, pleased. General Egremont needed no corroborating order; it might take time, but he would find the third Box.
And then—at last, Darken would have everything he’d ever wanted.
“You must eat, my queen,” urged Alice, Kahlan’s mouse of a maid. Captain Meiffert had opened the door this morning to hand her a tray from the kitchens, which now sat forlornly on the queen’s dressing table. It was nearly summer, so the hot things had gone lukewarm and so had the cold things. The stew had congealed on its top layer.
Kahlan picked up a spoonful, and tilted the utensil until the stew plopped into the bowl again.
“Richard came back,” she said, mostly to herself. “He came back, and I’m trapped in my rooms, and maybe if I wasn’t with child again Darken would throw me in the dungeon too, since he must realize now that I lied to him, except that Richard might as well have been dead to me when he wasn’t coming back for fifty-eight years, but it’s only been four years, ten months, and three days, and he must think that I—that I betrayed him in the worst way p-possible, and I did!” Kahlan ended on a sob, not even asking herself which ‘him’ she meant, because she’d had a hard few days, not to mention the past four years and ten months, Keeper take it.
“I’m sure the Seeker understands, and he’ll forgive you, because you have true love,” said Alice eagerly.
“Have you ever been in love?” Kahlan asked.
“No, my lady, but—“
“He cares nothing for me,” Kahlan interrupted. She twisted her wedding ring around and around on her finger. “I thought he would kill me after Nicholas was born, but…”
“No, my lady. I told you. D-Darken Rahl will never let you go,” said Alice. “But the Seeker will rescue you. Now you must eat. Please? For the baby’s sake at least?”
Kahlan sighed and picked up the spoon again.
The sun had long since set when footsteps sounded in the corridor outside Richard’s cell. Faint moonlight fell in bars across the floor, and the wall opposite held a torch, just beyond Shota’s cell, but there wasn’t enough illumination for Richard to get a good glimpse even of the new person’s shadow. He hoped it was a guard bringing dinner; not only was he hungry, but that’d be the best chance of escape, grabbing a guard and hoping he could get hold of his cell key.
He stood up, eager for the chance to do something at last. Every second he spent down here Kahlan remained in Darken Rahl’s wicked clutches. Who knew what that monster was doing to her.
“Richard?” A woman appeared in front of the cell door. She had red hair, but it still took Richard several stunned minutes to recognize her. She wore a maid’s dress and apron, fiery hair in a long braid drawn over one shoulder, but the biggest change was her face. She looked gaunt almost, thin and sharp-boned and damaged—no longer the happy, innocent girl Richard remembered.
“Jennsen?” he said in disbelief.
“Thank the Creator,” Jennsen said, hurrying to unlock the door of the cell. “I need your help, Richard. I can’t find the Boxes of Orden anywhere. I mean, he still has that stupid pedestal, but it’s empty.”
“How did you get here? Where have you been?” asked Richard.
“I walked,” said Jennsen shortly. She pulled the cell door wide.
Richard embraced her, scared by how thin she was under his hands. Could this really be his little sister?
“You walked. Through the magical wards,” said Shota skeptically. She had her arms folded through the bars of her cell, her eyebrows raised almost to her greying hairline.
Jennsen turned, still in Richard’s grip, and said, “Yes.”
Richard fished the keys out of Jennsen’s fist and went to free Shota. “I’ll help you find the Boxes, Jennsen, but first we have to rescue Kahlan,” he said over his shoulder.
“That faithless whore?” Jennsen hissed. Her body recoiled like a snake about to strike. “My Mistress told me if she hadn’t wed Darken Rahl the Resistance could still have won!”
“Your Mistress?” asked Shota coolly, but Richard was in no mood for untangling more puzzles.
“How dare you?” he yelled. “Kahlan is the Mother Confessor. She would never betray the Resistance! Or marry Rahl! Of her own free will,” he added, voice falling. “She loves me.”
“What do you mean, your Mistress?” Shota asked again.
“At first we were going to kill Darken Rahl and the traitor Confessor,” said Jennsen. “Then my Mistress would’ve ‘saved’ the prince, and been Regent. But now she wants the Boxes instead. It’s too bad: I know I could find Rahl. The security here is a joke.”
Richard swung Shota’s cell door open. He glared through the bars at Jennsen as the witchwoman stepped out. How could she? How could anyone even think about harming Kahlan? Besides Darken Rahl, obviously. But Jennsen was Richard’s sister.
“I’m going to rescue Kahlan,” he said abruptly. “Are you going to help me or not?”
“Of course she does not mean to aid you, Seeker,” Shota put in. “She is but a slave to her Mistress’s whims.”
“New plan,” Jennsen said, hands on her hips. Richard couldn’t blame her for taking offense, even though he was still furious with her for what she’d said about Kahlan. “We split up.” And Jennsen turned and marched down the dungeon corridor.
Actually, of course, Richard and Shota followed her at least as far as the top of the stairs to the main floor. After that they tried a different direction, though. The first guard they ran into got a face-full of cell keys, a kick in the shins, and an elbow to the back of the neck. Richard didn’t need the Sword of Truth to fight ordinary enemies. He wished for it anyway.
“Wait,” Shota whispered, halting them in an upper corridor. At first Richard couldn’t see anyone, but then a small figure walked into the halo of torchlight a few steps away. It was a boy, clutching a stuffed dragon in one hand and a blanket around his neck in the other. The blanket dragged on the ground, like an especially long cape.
Richard knelt on one knee to bring his eye level down and asked, “What are you doing awake, little fellow?”
“I can’t sleep,” said the boy. “I want my Mama.”
“Maybe we can find her,” said Richard. “What’s her name?”
“Queen Kahlan Rahl,” said the boy.
A sudden wave of hatred tightened Richard’s throat. He couldn’t have said a word if his life depended on it, and he actually swayed in his precarious crouch, hot and dizzy as blood pounded in his head.
“How about you take us to her, young prince,” said Shota, sounding cool and serene as ever. “We want to find her, too.”
The thief had no name. At least, none he could remember. Nana Nathair had always called him ‘Master’ when they were alone, and ‘boy’ when they were not. He thought she’d known where he came from, but she’d never told him anything. No one had.
He’d fallen in with plenty of different people, over the years. Some of them looked at his face and screamed, but he’d never gotten them to tell him why. He wasn’t horrifically scarred or anything, even if his nose was a little big. He didn’t see what they had to scream about.
But he’d become a thief, and he’d been good at it. And he’d gotten better. So good in fact, that he’d just stolen from a Mord’Sith. And she—or her lover—had possessed a dagger that was the mate of his, the one Nana Nathair had said belonged to his father, and there’d been a letter, and the letter had been signed with a name.
The thief crept up on the far side of the soldiers’ camp from the sentry, snuck toward the horse lines, untied one of the horses, led it away from its companions slowly and silently with one hand over the horse’s mouth, and kept walking until he was out of earshot of the camp. Then he leapt into the saddle and urged the horse into a canter.
All the time, he was thinking about that name.
Kahlan yelped as she struggled to free herself from the bedclothes. “What in the Creator’s name—?” she murmured, setting her bare feet to the stone floor at last. Her summer nightgown, a cloud of thin red silk, billowed about her ankles.
This time Kahlan saw her door bend inward. She put a hand to her mouth.
The third blow was more of a crack, as the hinges gave way. The door swung open, its lock apparently intact and acting as an alternate hinge, and Richard, Nicholas, and Shota burst in.
“Kahlan!” Richard yelled, kicking an ornate stool out of his way in his urgency to reach her.
But still, Nicholas got there first. “Mama!” he gasped, holding up his arms so Kahlan would pick him up. “Mama, the bad man killed Captain Meiffert!”
Indeed, Kahlan thought she could see a slumped shape beyond her door. She hugged Nicholas closer, and frowned past his shaggy hair at Richard.
But then Richard looked at her, and Kahlan remembered all their almosts, their talks, the quest, Kieran’s tomb, the snakevine, his bright eyes and brighter smile. The years rolled back, and she couldn’t imagine being angry with Richard, couldn’t believe she’d lived so long in a world gone cold and colorless without his love.
“My lady, are you all right?” Alice appeared from the adjoining room where she slept, fussing.
Kahlan handed Nicholas to Alice just in time. Richard caught her around the waist and twirled her half in a circle—Kahlan shrieked girlishly—before setting her down and pulling her to him in a kiss that felt like the answering of all her prayers.
“How—“ Kahlan gasped, breaking for air. “How did you escape? Captain Meiffert said you were in the dungeon—I was so worried—!”
“Jennsen,” grinned Richard. “She got through Rahl’s magical defenses just like last time, she’s fetching the Boxes of Orden, she said she was supposed to kill you and Rahl—“
“—So that her Mistress might rule as Regent,” Shota finished. “A Mord’Sith, one assumes.”
“Denna,” Kahlan agreed, “it must be. But—oh! Oh, how tragic.” Kahlan let out a wicked laugh, almost a cackle. What a plot! Denna could seize both power and revenge, rising to the top over the bodies of D’Hara’s rulers. None could stop her, either, not if she gained Nicholas’s trust. And Mord’Sith were so paradoxically popular with children…
“A Mord'Sith to rule as regent for a male Confessor?" drawled Shota. "Shall it be a race between them then, to see who slays whom first?”
Kahlan frowned, recalled from her appreciation for Denna’s scheme and afraid for the first time. She dropped a quick, reassuring kiss on Nicholas’s forehead, noting as she did that he perched unmoving in Alice’s arms, wide-eyed and drinking in all that was said.
“Alice,” she murmured, “could you—?” But as she spoke, Kahlan’s gaze crossed Richard’s. They still stood very close, but he was no longer touching her. And he looked horrified.
Was it the cackling? Kahlan felt herself go cold, skin prickling in shame. Her years as Darken’s queen had changed her—or had she always been impure? Wicked, awful to laugh at Denna’s plan to orphan Kahlan’s own son…except that was the old plan, apparently.
Yet Orden faded from Kahlan’s mind before she could even think its name, because she saw Richard’s eyes fall to the slight swell of her abdomen, and widen in mingled shock and disgust.
Tears of hurt stung Kahlan’s cheeks as they fell. But pride straightened her spine. This was not what she’d meant by impure. How dare he? He wasn’t even here—
“My lady?” asked Alice.
“Kahlan,” ordered Shota, talking over the maid, “you don’t need that monster anymore. You must kill it.”
“No!” Kahlan’s denial was hot and immediate. “Nicholas is an innocent!”
“Mama?” Nicholas sounded scared. Even as young as he was, it wasn’t the first time he’d been called monster. “Mama, don’t leave me! Don’t let her get me!”
“I won’t, sweetheart, I promise.”
“You fool!” Shota burst out.
Kahlan pushed past Richard and grabbed Shota by the throat. Her power hummed helplessly behind the barrier of her Rada’Han. “You lied to me!” she accused.
“No, Confessor,” the witchwoman whispered, oddly calm under the circumstances. “You can still make all this disappear, never to have been. Find the key to your Rada’Han, have the Seeker’s sister bring him the Boxes of Orden, and put the world back the way it was.”
“What?” Richard demanded. Kahlan had almost forgotten him. “What does she mean, Kahlan?”
“She’ll send you back in time,” said Alice, whom Kahlan had totally forgotten, “so you can kill Darken Rahl.”
“I’ll kill him in whatever time,” Richard vowed.
“No!” Nicholas shrieked. Kahlan let go of Shota and spun around in time to see Alice shushing him, pressing his face into his blankie to muffle his cries while he flailed and kicked at her.
Even as a jolt of anger tightened Kahlan’s chest on her son’s behalf, part of her breathed in relief that Nicholas was kicking Alice instead of Confessing her. He did listen, he could be taught—she could take him and Richard and they could run—make a new life somehow, the three of them and the baby—they didn’t have to change time to be together.
Kahlan had never been able to regret Nicholas as she should. And now she didn’t have to. Richard would grow to love him. He must.
“Kahlan,” Richard said earnestly. All the horror and shock was gone. He was her sweet Richard again. “I know how horrible this must have been for you. But I’m here now. Your nightmare is over.”
Kahlan walked back into his arms and thunked her forehead against his shoulder. Tears clouded her eyes and clogged her throat, but she managed to whisper, “Oh, Richard. You don’t know what a nightmare it’s been without you.”
Then came the clack-clack of boot heels outside her door, and then another sound, that froze Kahlan’s blood—
“My queen,” said Darken Rahl, “I trust I don’t intrude?”
Chapter 3: the prodigal son returns
Reeling from the emotional fallout of Richard and Cara's unexpectedly early return, the denizens of the People's Palace are about to find out that it's not only Seekers who don't stay where you put them.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
the prodigal son returns
It did Dahlia no good to ‘guard’ the corridors outside Lord Rahl’s rooms when she knew Cara was in there. With Lord Rahl. She knew it did her no good, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself.
So, propped against the wall in a window alcove examining the hair at the bottom of her braid for split ends, Dahlia was excellently placed to hear the strange noises coming from the next corridor to the east.
First several thumps, and what might have been a yelp. Then three hollow booming sounds, like someone knocking with a battering ram. And then a scream.
Dahlia pushed off from the wall and headed north along the corridor. Up ahead was an east-and-west going hall that would let her zigzag into the neighboring north-south corridor, the one where the queen’s rooms were. Traditionally D’Haran aristocrats slept separately, because of the fear of assassination.
As she neared Lord Rahl’s door, it opened, and he and Cara emerged from it, both somewhat in dishabille. Cara’s hair was loose, in golden waves down her back, and she was fastening her belt as she walked. Lord Rahl was barefoot, wearing only one of his floor-length skirted vests.
Cara walked just behind Lord Rahl on his right. Dahlia lengthened her stride until she’d caught up, and fell into step opposite Cara on Lord Rahl’s left. Immediately their boot heels clicked in unison. Lord Rahl never glanced around, and Dahlia didn’t check to see if Cara was watching her. She didn’t need to.
When they neared Lady Rahl’s rooms and saw the door open and the slumped shape that was probably the corpse of Captain Meiffert, Dahlia winced internally. Garen had liked the captain. She was going to be whinier than usual when she found out.
Cara had quickened her steps, so as to precede Lord Rahl into a potentially dangerous situation. Without her conscious volition, Dahlia’s pace had also increased, so she got almost the first view of what awaited them.
Lady Rahl had her back to the door; she stood in the embrace of the Seeker, who glared over her head at Cara and Dahlia and reached across his body for a sword hilt that was, of course, missing. The toddler prince struggled in some servant girl’s inexpert grip, rather too near the coming action for Dahlia’s taste. The tone of his cries suggested that he was working himself into a tantrum, which meant distraction and aching eardrums for them all. And, half behind the open door, stood the witchwoman, eyes glittering strangely.
Once Dahlia, Cara, and Lord Rahl entered the room there wouldn’t be much space left for them all to stand, Dahlia calculated. She and Cara had better make their attack swiftly.
“My queen,” sneered Lord Rahl over Dahlia’s shoulder, “I trust I don’t…intrude?”
The Seeker lunged past Queen Kahlan, who turned around more slowly. Cara surged forward to meet his attack, the high whine of her drawn agiel momentarily drowning young Master Nicholas’s cries. Dahlia kicked the witchwoman’s knee as she went past. She stayed low and got behind the Seeker, awaiting the chance Cara would make for her.
The door creaked as Lord Rahl pushed it to. Then it creaked open again. Dahlia saw Lord Rahl frown, and then lean against it, propping his shoulders the way she had done while waiting on him.
In these cramped quarters the Seeker’s longer reach and greater mass ought to have swung the battle his way, but he seemed foolishly preoccupied with keeping himself between Queen Kahlan and Lord Rahl, and, of course, he was used to fighting with a sword and had apparently failed to take Captain Meiffert’s. Cara took a blow to her stomach, but batted the Seeker’s other fist away with her agiel hard enough that Dahlia heard his wrist crack.
Dahlia took her chance and sprang. She brought one knee up between the Seeker’s legs, raked her nails across his scalp as he wobbled, and grabbed his ear and tugged. She forced the Seeker to a kneeling pose, shifted her grip back to his hair and yanked his neck back, and drove her agiel point first for his chest, halting the motion at the last instant.
She blew wisps of escaped hair off her forehead and looked to Lord Rahl.
She didn’t get much of a cue from her master—who merely ceased propping the broken door in place with his shoulder blades and strolled to his wife, hands going possessively to her hips, cruel smirk hiding who knew what deeper emotions—but that was all right, because then Dahlia could check on Cara. At first Dahlia couldn’t see past the curtain of Cara’s golden mane, but then Cara straightened from her fighting crouch, tossed her head, and widened her eyes at Dahlia. That, plus the little half-smile playing at Cara’s lips, told Dahlia she was okay. Better; she’d enjoyed the fight.
“You may have won today, Darken Rahl,” said the witchwoman, in a loud voice nonetheless wracked with pain—Dahlia’s kick must’ve done more damage than she’d realized. She watched the witchwoman struggle to rise, and knew that without magic she’d be crippled for life.
Lord Rahl looked around from his whispered conversation with Queen Kahlan. Between them, Master Nicholas was at last quiescent in the maid’s arms; Lord Rahl must’ve calmed his hysterics, thank the spirits.
“You may have power now,” the witchwoman rasped, “but as long as that monster lives, your doom is sealed!” And she pointed at Master Nicholas. “Fool—release the Mother Confessor, and let her do what must be done, or your child will destroy you. And after you, everything that lives.”
“You go too fast for me,” said Lord Rahl, falsely polite, “was it not you who prophesied that I would meet my death at the hands of the Seeker?” with a casual wave at Dahlia’s captive.
“You will, you monster, you—“ The Seeker fell silent when Dahlia dug her hip into his spine.
“Kahlan,” the witchwoman ordered, “kill him. Kill him before it’s too la—!”
Lord Rahl slit her throat.
It was so fast—the dagger appearing as if by magic from his sleeve—that the arc of blood had splattered Dahlia’s leathers before she knew the witchwoman was dead. The Seeker, lower down, had fared worse; Dahlia knew how awful was a spray of hot blood in your face. Still, she hoped he had seen Queen Kahlan’s hand fly up to cover Master Nicholas’s eyes. The gesture was too smooth and too quick to be anything but reflex. Dahlia thought it showed greater intimacy than their hushed words or Lord Rahl’s obvious show of possession, when he had gone to Queen Kahlan and smoothed her nightgown taut across her stomach, so it would be obvious she carried their second child.
“I’ll kill you,” the Seeker vowed from the floor. “I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll go back in time and kill you before you can get anywhere near Kahlan, you—you black-hearted fiend!”
“Richard, no!” the queen protested. “I—“ Whatever else she had to say dissolved into sobs. Even her tears fell elegantly, unable to mar her cold Confessor beauty.
Meanwhile Cara was rolling her eyes, probably at the phrase, ‘black-hearted fiend,’ and Lord Rahl was stalking toward the Seeker with his dagger clutched in his fist, still dripping blood. A thrill of fear zipped pleasurably through Dahlia.
Everyone had forgotten Master Nicholas.
“You’re a bad man!” the little boy shouted. “You killed Captain Meiffert! And you made my Mama cry!” With that, he launched himself from the maid’s too-slack hold, sailing through the air as though released from a slingshot, both small hands outstretched, clawlike, toward his prey.
Fair enough, thought Dahlia, cheerful in spite of her terror. I’ve seen Lord Rahl kill for less. And she let go of the Seeker’s hair, so she was no longer actually touching him. Then she pulled back her agiel and pressed herself flat against the wall, just to be safe.
Nicholas would’ve landed on the Seeker’s head, Dahlia judged, except that Lord Rahl reached out and snatched him from the air. Power poured from that small body. Dahlia felt the wave of certain death pass—harmlessly?—through her to crash against the walls. (She quickly stepped forward and grabbed the Seeker again.) The room actually shook.
Over the squirming Nicholas, Lord Rahl and Queen Kahlan’s eyes met. Some invisible current seemed to pass between them.
Then Lord Rahl hefted Nicholas to his shoulder, and said to the prince, “You’re too young for revenge.” His gaze gathered Cara. “Take the…would-be hero,” he sneered, a jerk of his head indicating the Seeker, “down to the temple. Amuse yourselves.”
“Yes, my lord,” said Cara.
“Darken, please—!” cried the queen.
“And send someone to repair my wife’s door,” added Lord Rahl. He stepped over the bodies of the witchwoman and Captain Meiffert without appearing to notice them, still carrying Nicholas. The queen ran after him, reaching for his arm, digging her fingers into his thick biceps.
“You can’t keep me locked away forever,” she pleaded. With her hair sleep-mussed, her nightgown billowing and blood-spattered, she looked like a pretty madwoman. Just the sort of person who would be locked away forever in a sensible world, Dahlia thought.
Still, she said nothing. Instead, she struck the Seeker’s forehead with her agiel, thinking it would be easier to transport him if he were unconscious. Cara helped her drag him past the corpses blocking the broken door. The maid, left alone in the queen’s ravaged bedchamber, whimpered.
The thief reached the People’s Palace at dawn. He rode a horse he’d stolen from a camp of soldiers, and fortuitously, its saddlebags had contained someone’s spare uniform, including helmet. So attired, his too-long blond hair hidden, the thief looked like any young officer. The guards at the drawbridge waved him across without even hailing him.
It ought to have been more difficult to gain access to the throne room—where the thief might expect to find Darken Rahl, ruler of D’Hara, conqueror of the Midlands, and possibly his father—but it wasn’t. So early, only servants were awake, and they avoided the thief’s helmeted gaze. The doors to the throne room itself lit with strange orange light when the thief touched them. At first he feared some dangerous magic.
But then the doors swung open, even though the thief hadn’t turned the knobs. He went in.
The throne room was deserted. What, was everyone but the servants asleep? Did anyone even sweep in here? The thief glanced disparagingly at the dusty floor, all the time tracking mud across it as he headed for the thrones themselves.
One was bigger, more ornate. Hanging overtop it was a sword, point down, its sheath dusty but its hilt gleaming, embossed with the word, ‘Truth.’
The thief climbed up the steps and onto the throne, reaching in fascination for the sword.
“What are you doing? That’s my father’s.”
The thief twisted around, staring. He’d been so sure he was alone. It wasn’t often that his instincts failed him.
A child had appeared—seemingly from nowhere—on the second, duller throne. At first the thief thought it was a little girl, but on closer scrutiny he saw he’d been wrong. The boy’s unusually full lips—rather like his own, really—had misled him.
“I’m Nicholas Rahl,” the boy informed him. “Who are you?”
“I…don’t know,” admitted the thief. “I’m looking for Darken Rahl, but…that’s a really amazing sword.”
“It’s not yours,” Nicholas said.
“I’ll trade you,” the thief offered, after a moment. He unslung his pack from his shoulders and opened it, revealing the treasures he hadn’t sold yet. One was the dagger he’d taken from the Mord’Sith, the one with the note from Darken Rahl to his sister—the one that might’ve been a duplicate of the dagger Nana Nathair had always told the thief belonged to his father.
He hadn’t meant to include it. So, naturally, Nicholas’s little fist closed on it immediately.
“Okay,” the boy said, “but just to borrow. You can’t keep the sword or Father will be angry. You wouldn’t like that,” he added, in cheerful warning.
The thief shrugged, accepting the bargain. He really wanted a look at that sword. He lifted it from the wall, and the moment he touched it, he felt that it had always been meant to be his. He felt strong, for the first time ever. He felt like a Rahl.
Or, how he imagined it would feel to be a Rahl. Taking Nicholas as an example, friendly yet threatening seemed a fair bet.
“What’s this?” asked Nicholas, picking up the jeweled box the thief had also taken from the Mord’Sith and her companion. “It looks just like the ones Father gave me to keep safe.”
“I don’t know,” said the thief. “But let’s find out what’s in it.” And he set the tip of the Sword of Truth to the side of the box and began to pry it open.
“YOU IDIOT,” said the Keeper.
Darken couldn’t see Him, but he never dreamed about anyone else. Of course, usually the Keeper chased him to exhaustion, or set him on fire, or had his dream self ripped apart by screelings. In this dream, he simply stood on a daffodil-covered hilltop that seemed vaguely familiar.
Darken looked around for the Keeper, wondering if he was supposed to run. But the god’s voice had sounded almost amused, despite the insult. Darken waited.
“THIS REALITY BEGINS TO PLEASE ME,” the Keeper announced, still a bodiless voice. “TANGLES IN TIME SHOULD NOT BE PERMITTED TO PERSIST. BUT THIS…”
“What—What do you mean?” Darken demanded. He turned and turned, but all he saw were daffodils. They waved innocently in the breeze.
“YOU DON’T KNOW. WELL, THEN, DARKEN RAHL…BEHOLD WHAT YOU HAVE WROUGHT.”
The field vanished. Darken was left standing in grey mist. He couldn’t see anything through it, no matter how he squinted—only more swirling, indeterminate clouds, as if he stood at the beginning of Creation and the gods hadn’t decided what they wanted to make yet.
Richard appeared. He was clothed in red, and at first Darken thought he wore Rahl robes. But as Richard walked toward him, Darken saw that the red was blood—wet and dripping, it pooled at Richard’s feet and trailed behind him in the mists, yet there always seemed to be more, as if Richard stood under a waterfall of the stuff that moved with him. He carried the Sword of Truth, drawn and held aloft.
Darken recoiled, reaching for his daggers—yes, this was a dream, but as long as his spirit was here, he saw no reason he couldn’t have his weapons.
But Richard ignored Darken. He stopped walking a stride or so away, and brought the naked blade of the Sword of Truth closer to his face. The sword, turning, caught the light (what light?) and Darken saw Richard’s reflection in it. The reflection was also bloody, but unlike the dream Richard, it smiled.
The smile was pure Panis Rahl.
“THE SON OF BRENNIDON…” the Keeper gloated. “YOUR BROTHER.”
Transfixed with horror, Darken could only stare as the dream Richard and his reflection faded into the mists.
Something pushed at Darken’s feet. He stepped back hurriedly as a green shoot burst upward. It grew to the height of his shoulder in a few seconds. Then a bud appeared. It opened to reveal a white rose. Below the flower, there were thorns, but when Darken touched one, it didn’t scratch him. As the rose began to bloom, vines appeared. They clung to the rose’s stem, reaching quickly for the flower. Another tiny rosebud blinked into existence and was instantly covered over by the vines, which began to pull the topping rose downward.
“HER FAVORITE,” the Keeper said, in tones of disgust.
Darken tilted his head, not understanding, and then he saw the rose and vines from a new angle, and realized it was Kahlan. The petals became her Confessor’s dress, which she hadn’t worn since she’d traveled with the Seeker, but she was the wife he had now and not the enemy he’d had then. Darken recognized the changes—the stress lines at her eyes, the curve of her belly where their second child grew; the conflicted expression in her face. Nicholas’s birth had softened her.
But relief faded when Darken saw the vines had not vanished. They still coiled around Kahlan, twisting the strong line of her back, pulling her down into the mists. She struggled, but her nails were blunted, like the rose’s thorns, and she could make no headway against the vines. As Darken watched helplessly, the mists pulled Kahlan away; she shrank with distance until she was a rose again, and then she was gone.
Darken followed in the direction Kahlan had vanished, walking blindly through the mists. She needed help, she needed—her freedom? Darken cut off the thought almost before he finished it.
Suddenly he tripped over something. He managed to keep his balance, but only by hopping several steps forward and landing with knees bent. He turned to see what had fouled his footing.
It was Nicholas’s toy chest, now the hiding place of two Boxes of Orden. Or was it?
Darken blinked. The toy-chest changed, becoming a coffin. A child-sized coffin, lying seemingly abandoned in a puddle of water. Cracks formed in the coffin’s sides. Light—blinding in the greyness—shone through them. The coffin began to shake, as if something (or someone) was trying to get out.
“Nicholas,” Darken whispered, knowing his son was in there.
“THE SACRIFICE,” agreed the Keeper. “ALL CREATURES ARE BORN TO DIE,” He added, sounding very happy about it. “BUT THIS ONE WAS BORN THAT HE MIGHT NOT LIVE.”
“No—“ Darken said, not understanding, not liking it, and suspecting he’d like it even less if he did understand. He lunged for the coffin, intending to break it open, but before he could the cracks in the wood widened and the coffin exploded in white light.
Blinded by the blast, Darken found he could see something. A shadowy form, huge and greenish black—what might have been a man. Or a god.
Darken blinked. The grey mists reappeared, rather to his relief.
In the distance was what looked like the mouth of a cave. Darken walked toward it.
As he neared, he saw it was a cave, or maybe a dungeon. An oblong of darkness, in which huddled two small figures. One had honey-colored hair and impossibly red lips, the other had hair the color of gold and eyes like green fire. They sat with their chins on their drawn-up knees, their toes poking out, each with one arm across her shins and the other—they were holding hands.
“Cara,” Darken said. Little girl Cara, a person he’d assumed she’d long ago left behind. And another little girl…Why would the Keeper show him this?
“THE TWO WHO ARE ONE,” the Keeper announced.
Then the other girl must be Dahlia, of course. But again—“Why?” Darken asked, turning his back on the cave. The mists swirled in response to his rising anger.
As he spun he caught another image, this one there and then gone again in a moment: Denna, her face rotting, a worm crawling out of her eye, her lips half torn off, but grinning. “THE TRAITOR,” from the Keeper, a weary gloss.
And then Darken was back in the daffodil field, only this time not alone. A horseman galloped straight toward him, dressed as one of his own soldiers. Barely more than a boy, Darken saw: blond hair blown heedlessly back by the wind, eyes like the fires of the Underworld, youthful slimness through the shoulders—and a sharp blade of a nose just like the one Darken saw in the mirror.
“You!” he gasped.
“THE PRODIGAL SON,” the Keeper agreed gleefully.
And the boy rode General Egremont’s majestic roan horse straight through Darken, as if he and not the son he’d thought lost were the illusion.
Darken lunged out of bed, scarcely aware of the transition from horizontal to vertical. Disoriented from the dream, at first he wasn’t sure the loud noise he’d heard had been real.
“What the spirits—?” asked Kahlan hoarsely, sitting up. She pushed her hair out of her face, baring the Rada’Han she wore to Darken’s gaze. “What now?”
The palace shook. Darken remembered putting Nicholas to bed, and taking Kahlan back to his own rooms because her door was broken, he wasn’t going to lock his own wife in the dungeons (again) and otherwise she’d go cause Cara trouble.
Cara! She’d be in the temple torturing Richard. Was this an earthquake? The temple was half-underground, if the palace fell she’d be buried—he’d just got her back, Keeper take it—
The palace shook again. This time, a crack opened in the floor. Darken scrambled away from it, but not before he saw a few billows of green flame belch up from the gap. And he smelled the smoke and ash—this fire was no illusion.
“Go!” he shouted, grabbing Kahlan’s arm. “Run!”
But even as Kahlan obeyed and they fled for the alternate route out of Darken’s chambers and down to ground level, Darken feared it might already be too late. The Keeper had shone him his son riding toward him…
“But you’re already here, aren’t you?” he said aloud.
“Who?” Kahlan panted.
Above them, the ceiling groaned ominously.
Darken shrugged. “Death, “ he said, dodging the first of the falling ceiling beams. “It’s too bad: I was going to name him—“
Author’s Note: Yes, I'm ending it there. What happens next? Maybe everyone dies, the Keeper wins, etc. Or maybe just Rahl Jr. dies and becomes a baneling and Cara, Dahlia, and an unwilling Richard have to rescue him from the dark bargain he's made with the Keeper, while Darken and Kahlan meet up with Egremont and begin their search for the Stone of Tears and Nicholas escapes the collapsing People's Palace only to fall into the clutches of Jennsen and Denna, his would-be Regent.
I had this idea a long time ago. It means a lot to me. But writing in the LotS fandom again feels like swallowing my own tail: so many people have moved on, and I think maybe I have too.