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In Which There's A Munchkin Called Soren

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     It was the wizard who picked Soren up first. Four years old, he’d been huddling at the edge of the stone room, hiding his eyes while the Sisters of the Dark fought around him. Even after being raised by Mord’Sith, Soren hadn’t liked watching fights.

     He felt strong arms close around his ribs and he yelled and kicked like a mad, wild thing. “Put me down!” he yelled. “Put me down, let me go, you’ll be sorry!”

     Suddenly he was looking into a very long, old, wrinkled face. The man smiled. “Hello.” He sounded genuinely happy, and amused, and Soren was uncertain. Would his enemies have eyes that twinkled so much? Or such long, white hair?

     “Who are you?” he’d asked, putting both hands on the wizard’s shoulders. The wizard settled Soren against his hip. He was bony.

     “I’m Zedd.”

     “Oh.”

     “I’m a friend of your mother’s,” Zedd had said, and that was the first time Soren had heard of his mother. Now, he looks back fondly, but at the time he was just confused.

     “My mother?”

     “Yes,” Zedd said, turning them both, “she’s over there, look.”

     Cara was standing at the entrance to the cave, hands propped on her hips with agiels in both fists. She watched the last Sisters flee, and then turned to Zedd. “That’s the last of them.” Her eyes flicked to the boy in Zedd’s arms, and then away again. “Is he hurt?”

     “I’m not sure,” Zedd said, very seriously. He bent down and set Soren on the floor, crouching in front of him. “Are you hurt, my boy?”

     Soren nodded his head. “Yes.”

     Immediately, Cara was there. He had barely seen her move, but she was kneeling by his side. She didn’t meet his eyes, but she said, “Where are you hurt?”

     Soren lifted up his arm. “Here, on my wrist. They grabbed me really hard by my arms and they pulled me places I didn’t want to go.” He found, to his distress, that he had started crying, big fat tears. It was a delayed response to the fear of the situation, and he sobbed and sobbed and felt his nose get all snotty.

     The second Mord’Sith came running through the cave. She stopped at the entrance, sheathed her agiel, and said, “I chased them back into the forest.” She spat on the floor. “Cowards.”

     Soren said, “Dahlia!” and ran at her, grabbing her around the waist and holding tight while he sobbed and sniffled.

     She didn’t hug him. She took his shoulders and pushed him back and said, “Soren, what have we told you about crying? Does the future Lord Rahl, the ruler of D’Hara, cry like a little boy?”

     Mutely, Soren shook his head, but he couldn’t stop the tears dripping down his cheeks, or the snot running out of his nose. Embarrassed now, he tried to sniff it back, but he couldn’t stop it. It was gross, and everywhere, and Dahlia was looking at him in disgust, and he felt awful inside, which made the crying come harder.

     The blond one was there again. She looked him over with slanted green eyes, pursed her lips, and gripped his arm, raising it to his face. “Stop sniffing. Wipe your nose on your sleeve.”

     Soren stared at her. She was a Mord’Sith, he could tell, but no Mord’Sith had ever told him to wipe his nose on his sleeve. Cara nodded, and he lifted his sleeve and wiped it across his nose. The snot wiped off, and Soren sniffled again and managed to get a proper breath.

     “That’s right,” Cara said. “You breathe. Don’t choke on all the tears, now.”

     Soren shook his head. “I won’t,” he said.

     “Good. Wipe your nose again.”

     He rubbed it over his arm, and then Cara’s hands were on his face, red leather gloves brushing the tears away from his cheeks. She pushed his hair back, too, where it had gotten sticky and sweaty, and she looked into his eyes for the first time. “I’m Cara.”

     The wizard had already said that, when he was shouting at her during the battle. Soren nodded anyway. “I’m Soren,” he said. “Can I have a hug?”

     Cara rocked back on her heels. “No,” she said, frowning.

     From behind them, Zedd said, “Cara,” in the most disapproving voice Soren had heard. He cringed. Cara cringed, too, and looked over her shoulder at the wizard. He raised his eyebrows.

     Cara looked at Soren, and then at the wizard again. “Yes?” she said, as if she were asking the wizard, and when he nodded, Soren put his arms around Cara’s neck.

     Hugging her made him feel better, and he sniffled out his last few tears into the leather at her shoulder.

     “Are you wiping your snot on my leathers?” she asked.

     The question made Soren giggle. “Maybe.”

     “Stop it!”

     He laughed more, and then she stepped back out of his embrace and stood up, watching him with her hands planted on her hips. Dahlia was watching him the same way, and with a little frown over her eyebrows. Soren had liked the hug. He was sorry it had to end.

     “You’re Mord’Sith, aren’t you?” he asked Cara.

     “Yes.”

     “So you serve the Lord Rahl?”

     “Yes.”

     “I command you to give me another hug, then,” Soren said quickly.

     Her lips twitched, and he thought she was going to smile. For a second, he was sure of it, and then the twitch was gone. “You’re not the Lord Rahl.”

     “Yes I am!” Soren exclaimed indignantly. “Dahlia, tell her!”

     “He is the true Lord Rahl,” Dahlia said. She stressed the word true, and Soren wasn’t sure why, except maybe there was some other Lord Rahl out there who was a lie.

     “Richard is the true Lord Rahl,” Cara insisted stubbornly, still with her hands on her hips.

     Soren didn’t know who Richard was, but he did not like him. If Richard hadn’t tricked Cara into thinking he was Lord Rahl, then Soren could have had another hug. This was Richard’s fault.

     “We can talk about all of this later,” Zedd interrupted hastily. “For now, let’s leave here with the boy, and rejoin Richard and Kahlan.”

     Richard again. Soren folded his arms and made his eyebrows come down the way they did when he was angry. He looked at Dahlia like that, and stomped his foot, and said, “Dahlia, I don’t want to see Richard and I command that you don’t take me.”

     Cara rolled her eyes. “You’ve never even met Richard.”

     “He doesn’t want to go,” Dahlia said, “so let’s have no more of this foolishness. Allow me to take the Lord Rahl back to the Mord’Sith temple, where he belongs, and you and the wizard can go back to your little quest.”

     “We’ve already discussed this, Dahlia,” the wizard said in that warning tone. “Soren will not be going back with you.”

     “He can’t go traipsing across half of the Midlands with you.”

     “He’ll go to Dennee in Aydindril,” Zedd said firmly.

     Soren didn’t know who Dennee in Aydindril was, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to go there. He kept his arms folded, but he could tell already that something had changed. Dahlia wasn’t jumping to follow his orders any more, even the ones that she agreed with. The wizard talked to Dahlia and Cara both like they were naughty children, and Cara wouldn’t obey Soren at all. This was something new.

     “Can we just get moving?” Cara was saying now. “We can argue about the boy on the way.”

     After that, they walked for a very long time.

 

     When Soren woke up in the middle of the night, it was with a pressing sense of fear on his chest. He turned his head and let his eyes rove around the campsite. The fire had died down to glowing embers, but Zedd and Cara were still sleeping nearby, and Dahlia was standing up, a shadow in the darkness.

     “Dahlia,” Soren whispered.

     She heard him instantly, and turned from her post, crouching beside him. “Lord Rahl.”

     “I’m frightened.”

     Dahlia blinked. “Why? Not of the dark – we worked on that.”

     They had worked on it together, sitting in a pitch-black room for days and nights that Soren couldn’t count, until he’d said that he was no longer afraid. It hadn’t been precisely true, but it wasn’t the dark that was bothering him tonight. Something else made him scared, and he couldn’t explain why to Dahlia.

     “Will you hold my hand?” he asked instead.

     She kept looking down at him. “I’m on watch.”

     “Can you watch while you hold my hand?”

     For a second, Soren thought she would say no. She hesitated, and then she held out one of her hands and Soren grabbed it quickly and gratefully. Dahlia’s eyes looked over his body and out into the darkness, but she stayed crouched with his hand in hers.

 

     They walked for a very long time. Soren’s legs got sore, and after a while he said, “Dahlia, I command you to carry me.”

     “Please,” Zedd reminded him.

     Soren narrowed his eyes at Zedd. Zedd smiled and nodded. Reluctantly, Soren said, “Please,” and then immediately added, “I don’t know why I have to say that.”

     “Because it’s polite.”

     “Dahlia has to do what I say, don’t you, Dahlia?”

     “I obey the Lord Rahl,” she answered smoothly.

     “She doesn’t have to do anything that she doesn’t want to do, Soren. That’s why you must be polite. Dahlia could choose not to carry you.”    

     Soren shook his head. “No, she couldn’t. Otherwise I could kill her with magic. My father says so.”

     Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cara stiffen. Her face didn’t change, but her arms and legs tensed up, just the slightest bit. Soren thought maybe there was danger, so he walked himself around in a quick circle to check. It was when he was walking backwards that he stumbled and fell, landing on his bottom on the forest floor.

     Dahlia and Cara were both there the second he landed, each with a hand on one of his arms.

     “Are you all right?” Dahlia asked him.

     “I fell,” Soren said, dumbly.

     Cara didn’t meet his eyes, but she used her grip on his arm to pull him to his feet. “Come on,” she said, and turned him with a hand on his shoulders. “Watch where you’re going. Next time you’ll walk into a tree.”

     She was funny, even if she said everything in a very flat voice. Soren giggled, and then he said, “No, I won’t. Dahlia’s going to carry me.”

     Cara and Dahlia looked at one another over Soren’s head, and then Dahlia crouched down so that Soren could put his hands around her neck and his legs around her waist. “We’ve been walking all day,” she said to Cara. “His legs are still growing.”

     “I’m going to be big and strong,” Soren boasted. He could watch Cara now, from Dahlia’s back. He watched her face. He liked the way her short hair moved. “Like my father.”

     Again, she tensed, and then relaxed again just as quickly. There was still no danger, and Soren wondered what it was she was afraid of.

     He remembered what the wizard had said yesterday, in that cave. Mother. The word didn’t sit right in Soren’s mouth. He didn’t have a mother – that was just the way of the world. He had a father, and many, many Mord’Sith guards, but that was all he had.

     There were a lot of questions Soren had about that, but he was too scared and shy of the wizard and Cara to ask them. He wasn’t used to people who didn’t have to obey his orders. If he said the wrong thing, they might go away, and then he’d lose them forever.

     Instead, he said, “Dahlia?”

     “Lord Rahl?”

     “Why did none of the other Mord’Sith come with you?”

     “Cara did,” Dahlia said. “She’s very powerful.”

     “Oh. Was she strong in training?”

     “Yes.”

     “What about Berdine?”

     “She’s waiting for me to bring you home.”

     Soren liked Berdine. Sometimes she made jokes, and then he would laugh and she would watch him laughing. “What about Hally?”

     “She got hurt when the Sisters attacked, Soren, remember?”

     He pulled his eyebrows together. “Did she die?”

     “She’s alive now, which is what matters.”

     Soren thought for a little while. “Dahlia, if I never go home, will I never see them again?”

     Cara’s face got tight where she walked next to him. Soren turned his head and watched her. He rested his head on the back of Dahlia’s shoulder and wound a fist tight into her braid.

     “Don’t pull on it,” Dahlia reminded him.

     “Yes,” Soren said, “I know.” He didn’t let go of her braid. “I love you, Dahlia.”

     “All Mord’Sith love the Lord Rahl,” Dahlia responded.

     Soren was nearly sleeping, but he watched Cara and thought about it and then he asked, “Cara, do you love me?”

     She turned away so that he couldn’t see her face. “Have a nap,” she answered instead. “Then you can walk later.”

     “I don’t need a nap.”

     “Go to sleep,” Cara told him, and she lengthened her stride and drew ahead of Dahlia, until Soren couldn’t see her any more.

 

     Soren opened his eyes when his face bumped on something hard. At first, all he could see was the forest, and then he realised that his head was on the wizard’s bony shoulder. It was getting dark – there were long shadows through the trees.

     “Zedd?” Soren asked, lifting his head.

     “You’re awake, are you?” Zedd checked.

     “Yes.”

     “Good. Just in time to meet your uncle.”

     Uncle. Another new word, and Soren said, “What is uncle?”

     “I am,” someone said. They had laughing in their voice, so Soren turned around and looked at a man with brown hair and brown eyes and a big, long sword. Soren wanted to touch that sword.

     “You’re Uncle?”

     “I’m your uncle,” the man corrected. “My name’s Richard.”

     Richard, Soren thought. He glared as hard as he could, still foggy with sleep, and growled, “I want Cara to hug me again.”

     The man blinked. “Have you asked her?”

     “It’s your fault for being her Lord Rahl. She’s supposed to be my Mord’Sith.”

     Dahlia came and took Soren out of Zedd’s arms; set him on the ground. “Stop it, Soren.”

     “You don’t like Richard either,” he said mutinously, scuffing his feet and folding his arms. He was at the same height as the sword, here. It was shiny. Soren reached out to touch it. “Can I hold your sword?”

     “I don’t think so,” Richard said apologetically. “It’s heavy.”

     Soren scowled again, and considered telling Dahlia to kill Richard and take the sword. He was about to say it, too, when someone else said, “You can hold mine, if you like.”

     It was a woman’s voice, so Soren turned around and saw a woman with lots of very dark hair crouch down in front of him. She had long hair like a Mord’Sith, but it wasn’t braided, and she wore no leathers. “Are you a Mord’Sith?” he asked, just in case.

     “No,” she said, “I’m the Mother Confessor.”

     “What’s that?”

     “Someone who takes care of people.” She held out a dagger. “My name’s Kahlan. Holding a dagger is easier than holding a sword.”

     “I don’t mind things that are tricky,” Soren argued, but he took the dagger.

     “Your arms are still growing,” Kahlan said. It sounded like something Dahlia would say, when she was reminding him not to try things he wasn’t ready for.

     “They are,” Soren said. “But one day I’ll be big and strong enough to have a sword, won’t I?”

     “Yes,” Kahlan said. “Do you think you can walk with us, for a little while?”

     Soren thought about it, and then he nodded and gave her the dagger back. “All right. If you hold my hand.”

     Kahlan smiled, a real proper smile. “I can do that.” She stood up and held out her hand, and Soren took it.

 

     Richard tried to talk to Soren a lot. He asked questions, and he didn’t mind when Soren asked questions back. Soren had a lot of questions, but some of them were still too shy to come out. Instead, he asked about Richard’s sword, and killing things with swords, and riding horses with swords.

     “I don’t do everything with a sword, you know,” Richard said to him.

     “Why not?”

     “Sometimes you have to be gentle.”

     “My father says you always have to be strong,” Soren said. “And the Mord’Sith say you always have to feel pain. I don’t think you can do all three of those things at once.”

     Kahlan’s hand got a bit tight when Soren mentioned his father. He thought that she didn’t like him, maybe. “You can make up your own mind, Soren,” she said to him. “When you’re older.”

     “My father’s dead,” he explained. “You don’t have to be frightened of him.” One of the questions he was too shy for slipped out, suddenly. “Is Cara afraid of my father?”

     “Cara is Mord’Sith,” Dahlia said. “She’s not afraid of anything.”

     “I thought that was maybe why she wouldn’t give me another hug,” Soren confessed.

     “She’s just shy,” Kahlan said quickly, squeezing his hand again. “That’s all.”

     Soren was shy, too. “If we’re both shy, how do I ask her the questions?”

     “What questions?”

     “The questions I’m too shy for?”

     Richard and Kahlan looked at one another like they were thinking of what to say, but Dahlia told him, “You don’t need to ask her any questions. You’re the Lord Rahl, aren’t you?”

     “Yes,” Soren said.

     “Good,” she said, like that settled it.

     Soren didn’t feel settled. He let Kahlan lead him to the place where they would stop, and he watched Richard build up the fire and Dahlia prowl around with one hand on her agiel. Kahlan sat Soren down on a bedroll and told him to put his head on the soft end.

     “Do I have to sleep?” he asked her.

     “Yes, so that you can walk again in the morning.”

     “Are you going to sleep?”

     “In a little while.”

     “Will we eat?”

     “If you fall asleep before Cara and Zedd get back with food, I’ll wake you up,” Kahlan promised. “Try and sleep.”

     Soren tried, but he couldn’t sleep. He lay on his back with his eyes open and Kahlan sat beside him, unlacing her boots and brushing her hair and humming to herself. Soren liked watching her.

     Cara crashed through into the clearing and announced without preamble, “The wizard ate half of our dinner.”

     “Not half, Cara, just – a portion.”

     “A large portion.” She put something down in front of the fire – a bowl. Soren got up to his hands and knees and crawled over to look inside.

     “What is it?”

     “Stew.”

     “Where did you get it?”

     “There was a very accommodating farm nearby,” Zedd said happily, patting his belly. “Would you like to eat first, Soren?”

     “Yes,” Soren said eagerly, and then he looked up at the wizard and added, “please.”

     Dahlia spun around to stare at him. Zedd sat on a log at the edge of the clearing, looking satisfied, and Kahlan passed Soren a bowl. She spooned stew into it and helped him eat, because sometimes holding the spoon got tricky and bits spilled. No one yelled at Soren when that happened, or told him to sit up straight and not slurp, which was nice. Sometimes being the Lord Rahl meant he got into a lot of trouble.

     After eating, Soren was more sleepy. He leant against Kahlan’s side while everyone else ate, and he played with her hair. “Why don’t you braid it?”

     “I like it loose,” Kahlan said. “It’s the way I’ve always had it.”

     “Mord’Sith braid their hair so it doesn’t get in the way while they fight. Do you fight?”

     “Only when I have to.”

     Soren snuggled closer. “Will you sing to me?”

     “If you’re ready to sleep.”

     “Yes.”

     Dahlia was watching them with a frown, which Soren thought was maybe because she didn’t like Kahlan. Or maybe because the Lord Rahl shouldn’t be sung to. “It’s okay, Dahlia, isn’t it?” he checked.

     “Whatever helps you sleep,” she said stiffly.

     “If you could hold my hand?”

     “I’m taking watch,” she said.

     “No,” Cara told her, standing up and stretching her arms over her head, “Richard’s taking watch. You go and – hold the boy’s hand, or whatever it is you do.”

     “I protect him,” Dahlia snapped. “That’s all, Cara.”

     “I didn’t say anything,” Cara said, with her eyes big and her lips smirking.

     Dahlia sat cross-legged beside Soren’s head with her braid over her shoulder. She held out her hand and let him take it, and she stared straight ahead while Kahlan sang to him and stroked his hair.

     Afterwards, when he was nearly asleep, Soren lay on his side with his eyes closed and listened to them all moving around, talking quietly. He liked listening to it. Hearing everyone made him feel safer than sleeping in a dark room on his own. There had always been Mord’Sith outside his door, and Soren had known that, but like this he could hear them. It helped him sleep.

    

     At first, Soren thought he was the only one awake. He rubbed his eyes and crawled out of his bedroll, careful not to disturb Kahlan, who was sleeping beside him. He stood up and checked for Dahlia first. There she was, not far from him. Her eyes were closed but her hair was still braided, which meant that she wasn’t truly relaxed. Richard and the wizard were on the other side of the fire, and Cara –

     She was awake too. Soren could see her watching him, sitting on the log and using a stick to dig in the dirt between her feet.

     Soren walked to sit down beside her. “It’s early.”

     “It is,” Cara nodded. “You can go back to sleep.”

     “I want to sit with you.”

     She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t make him leave, either. Soren propped his chin on his hands. Cara dropped the stick in the dirt and stood up. Soren stood up too.

     “Where are you going?”

     Cara gestured around the clearing. “To make sure nobody’s hiding in the trees.”

     “Me too,” Soren said.

     She didn’t say yes or no, she just started walking. Cara did this a lot, Soren thought. He followed her. They walked through the trees, away from the clearing, and then did a big, wide circle. Soren’s feet crunched the leaves. Cara’s hand hovered over her agiels. She had two – more than any other Mord’Sith Soren had ever seen. He wondered why, but the question was too shy. All of the questions were too shy.

     They got back to where they had started, and sat down together on the log. Soren got up onto his knees, so that he was almost as tall as Cara.

     “You’re missing some of your leather,” he said.

     She turned towards him, lifting her eyebrows. “What?”

     “Here,” Soren said. He pressed his hand onto her chest, flat against her skin. It was warm, and moved when she breathed. Different from leather. “Did you lose it?”

     “No, I took it off.”

     “What for?”

     Cara shook her head from side to side, and Soren watched her hair dance. “I didn’t need it.”

     “Why don’t you have a braid?”

     “Someone else took that off.”

     “They cut it?”

     “Yes.”

     “Why?”

     “To hurt me.”

     “Did it hurt?”

     “No,” Cara said, and then she looked down to where his hand was still on her skin, palm flat and fingers splayed. She took it, gently, lifted it up and away. “Soren-” she started to say, but he couldn’t wait any longer. The shyest question burst out of him.

     “Are you my mother?”

     “Yes.”

     Soren stared at her. Green eyes, and blond hair which was like his. Did she look like him? He couldn’t tell. “Where did you go?”

     “I was fulfilling my duties to the Lord Rahl.”

     “Richard,” Soren scowled.

     “No, Darken Rahl. Your father.”

     “He’s dead. Why didn’t you come to me?”

     “I didn’t know where you were.”

     “Did you want me?”

     She met his eyes, which she didn’t normally do, and then it was as if she couldn’t look away. Soren couldn’t, either. Cara’s eyes got very big, and she twisted her lips like she didn’t know what to say, and then she said, “Yes, Soren.”

     Her face went stiff like she wasn’t sure what to do with it. Soren said, “You can hug me, then,” and she did that stiffly too.

     Soren didn’t mind. He burrowed into her arms and curled up against her chest and thought, mother. It still felt strange in his mind, so he tried it on his lips. “Mother.”

     “Don’t call me that,” she said at once.

     “Why not? You are, aren’t you?”

     “It’s not a good idea for other people to know.”

     “Oh. A secret, you mean?”

     Cara nodded; he could feel her through the hug.

     “Does Kahlan know?” Soren asked.

     “Everyone here knows.”

     “So it’s not a secret here.”

     “I’m not – I’ve never been a mother,” Cara said eventually. “I’m not ready for you to call me that.”

     “Haven’t you always been my mother?”

     “I haven’t been with you before.”

     “That’s okay,” Soren told her brightly, in case she felt upset, “because Dahlia has been with me, and Berdine and Hally and Nyda.”

     “Is that all?” Cara asked.

     “Mostly just them, but other Mord’Sith, sometimes. And my father, sometimes.”

     She pulled back from the hug, but it had been a long hug, so Soren didn’t feel too upset. “Did he ever hurt you?”

     “My father? No.”

     “Did the Mord’Sith ever hurt you?”

     “No,” Soren said. “Why would they?”

     She didn’t answer the question, but she told him, “If anyone ever hurts you, will you come to me?”

     “Yes,” Soren said. “Why?”

     Cara shook her head side to side, so maybe it wasn’t important. Soren might have asked more, but then Kahlan sat up and yawned.

     She saw them sitting together and smiled, big and wide. “Morning, you two.” Her voice was happy, so Soren left Cara and went to her.

     “Cara’s my mother,” he said, because Kahlan already knew the secret.

     “That’s right,” Kahlan agreed.

     Soren felt his mouth smile, a shy smile, like the shy questions that had finally started coming out. “Good,” he said.

 

     They talked a lot about him, sometimes while he was awake and sometimes while he was asleep. Soren walked forever, further than his legs had ever walked before. He got carried by everyone at one time or another. He slept at night, in the day, whenever he could. On the ground, in caves, on the backs of Dahlia, Cara and Kahlan, in the arms of Zedd and Richard.

     Once, in his dreams, Soren saw Berdine at home. She was crying, because she missed him. Soren woke up and found that he was crying too.

     “What’s happened?”

     It was Richard holding him this time. Soren said, “Just a bad dream,” and rolled his head back and forth on Richard’s shoulder.

     “Do you need anything?” Richard asked.

     Soren nodded sadly. “Yes. Dahlia.”

     Richard spun around, looking for Dahlia somewhere behind him. He must have spotted her, because Soren heard him call her over and then he put Soren down on the ground.

     Soren turned around to see Dahlia kneeling behind him, so he threw himself at her, hard. He tried to wrap his arms and legs around her red leather and he felt his shoulder hit her throat. When he looked up at her face, she was breathing unevenly, as if she was choking. Soren had hurt her.

     “I didn’t mean it!” he cried, cowering, prepared for her to scold him and push him away and punish him, maybe. “I’m sorry!” and then he remembered that he was never supposed to be sorry, because the Lord Rahl was always right, so he tried to recover. “I mean, I command you to be not hurt. I mean, are you hurt?”

     Dahlia lifted one gloved hand to massage her throat. She didn’t take her eyes off him. They were blue – not like Kahlan’s, but darker, and more familiar. “Soren,” she said. “I’m not hurt.”

     Chewing on his lip, Soren stepped tentatively back into her embrace. He went slowly, in case she stepped back or pushed him away, but she didn’t move. Soren hugged her tightly, put his face at her neck and smelled her, and clutched her braid at the back. “I miss Berdine,” he whispered.

     “When you go to Aydindril and I return to the temple, I will tell her so,” Dahlia promised. She put her arms around Soren. “Will I carry you, Lord Rahl, or shall you walk?”

     “I’ll walk,” Soren said. “Hold my hand.”

     “If you insist.” They stood up together and Soren took Dahlia’s hand. Carefully, she disentangled him and moved him around so that he was holding her other hand. “This side, Lord Rahl.”

     “Why?”

     “My agiel is on the other side.”

     Soren shrugged, and gripped tighter to her leather fingers.

 

     They were being in disguise. That was what the wizard said. They stopped outside the city, and Richard woke a fire and sat by it, warming his hands. It was cold, and Soren was wearing Richard’s vest, which was too big for him, but cosy.

     Kahlan rummaged in her pack and pulled out a white dress. “I’ll go and change,” she said to Zedd and Richard. “Cara?”

     Cara stood up and dusted her hands off. “I’m ready.”

     Soren stood up, too. “Where are we going?”

     Kahlan laughed at him, but not meanly. “It’s not common for a gentleman to watch ladies changing.”

     “Oh,” Soren said, and then he frowned. “I’ve seen Dahlia naked lots of times.”

     Everyone turned to look at Dahlia. She held her hands up by her shoulders and said, “What? How did you expect us to bathe a little boy? Wearing red leather?”

     “I promise I’ll sit quiet,” Soren swore.

     “I don’t mind, Soren,” Kahlan told him. She held out her hand. “Come on, then.”

     “What’s the disguise?” he chattered, following the women back and into the trees. “Do I get a disguise? Will it be magic? Can I be a bird? Zedd can make me be a bird, can’t he?”

     Cara said, “Your disguise will be as someone who doesn’t talk, and it will be such an enormous change that no one will recognise you ever again.”

     Chastened, Soren went a bit quiet, but he couldn’t help adding, “I’d really love to be a bird.”

     Kahlan swung their joined hands. “What sort of a bird, Soren?”

     “Oh. I hadn’t decided yet.”

     “Think on it, then.”

     They had stopped, so Soren sat on the ground cross-legged and watched Kahlan unlacing her clothes, and Cara undoing the buttons along the side of her ribs. He put his chin in his hands and passed Kahlan’s white dress over when she asked for it. Cara helped her to lace it behind herself, and in the front, too. Then Cara took Kahlan’s old clothes and put them on.

     “You’re not a Mord’Sith anymore,” Soren noted. “Now you look like Kahlan, only shorter, and with the wrong hair.”

     “Astute.”

     “What does astute mean?”

     “That you have a keen eye for observation,” Cara told him. Kahlan laughed when Soren beamed.

     “I’ve decided my bird,” he announced when they walked back to the fire. “A raven.” Then he frowned. “No, wait. A seahawk.”

     Kahlan looked at Cara, who lifted her eyebrows. “What seahawk?”

     “The kind with the blue tails. I watch them out the windows, and they’re the fastest ones ever.” Pleased with himself, Soren nodded. “Yeah.”

     “The Lord Rahl can turn himself into any kind of bird he pleases,” Dahlia said, passing behind him. Her hand was on her agiel.

     Soren turned around. “Where are Cara’s agiels?”

     “In my boots,” Cara said, “so don’t touch. You and me will be going into the town first.”

     “Why?”

     “Because of the disguise. Everyone expects the Seeker to be travelling with a Mother Confessor, a wizard and a Mord’Sith.”

     “But you’re his Mord’Sith.”

     Cara pointed. “No, Dahlia is. Today I’m your mother.”

     Soren stared up at her. “Really?”

     “It’s the disguise.”

     “I can call you Mother?”

     “You can call me Mama,” Cara corrected him, and then, quietly, she added, “That’s what I called my mother.”

     “Who is your mother?”

     “I can tell you that while we walk into the town,” she said. “I had a father, too. They were your grandparents.”

     “Grandparents!” Pleased with himself, Soren beamed at Richard. “Do you have grandparents, Richard? I bet you don’t. I have grandparents!”

     Richard laughed, and Kahlan did too, and they laced their fingers up together, which they were always doing. Soren liked to hold Kahlan’s hand too.

     Cara bent down and put her hands around Soren’s ribs. She lifted him up, and into her arms, and he put his legs around her waist and his hands around her neck to hold in her hair.

     “Mama,” he said.

     She hesitated. “-Yes?”

     “Nothing. Just practicing.”

     Cara’s hand went up to his back, her arm a tight band around him. Her thumb stroked back and forth over his shoulder blade. “Let’s go find a tavern, before you practice so much I’m sick of the sound.”

 

     They walked into the town together, with Cara carrying him. Soren lifted his head from her shoulder and gazed around with wide, wide eyes. He’d never been in a place with so many people before. They ran and pushed and hurried from place to place, shouting and talking and doing things that Soren didn’t see. He curled his fist in Cara’s hair and stared and stared.

     She took him into an inn, with people laughing and eating and drinking.

     The man behind the counter spotted Cara at once, and said, “You’ll be after a bed for the night, I take it?”

     “Yes, please,” Cara said, with her voice softer than Soren had ever heard before. “We’re both tired of travelling.”

     “I won’t charge extra for the lad, then,” the man said. He jerked his chin towards a sign that Soren couldn’t read, and then he bent forwards and smiled. “Hello, lad.”

     Soren felt shy, so he hid his face in Cara’s neck and whispered, “Mama,” against her skin, so soft that no one could hear him. He whispered it all the while Cara and the man were talking, and then she was carrying him up some stairs, and down a corridor, and into a room with a creaky door.

     “This is our room,” she said to Soren.

     “Forever?”

     “No, for a night.” Cara put him down on the bed. “Are you sleepy?”

     Soren bounced a bit, because it was a soft bed. Softer than sleeping on the ground. “No,” he said. “Will we play a game?”

     “I don’t play games,” Cara informed him.

     “Neither do the Mord’Sith,” Soren said, a bit sadly, because he’d been hoping Cara would be different. “Who are we disguised from?”

     “Anyone who might be looking for you, Soren. The Sisters of the Dark again, or Darken Rahl.”

     “My father?”

     “That’s right.”

     “Why would we need to disguise from him?”

     “It’s long and complicated and I don’t have the strength to explain it to you,” Cara stated. “You ask too many questions.”

     “Dahlia says that the Lord Rahl doesn’t need to ask questions,” Soren told her.

     “So why do you keep on asking?”

     “I don’t know. I’m hungry for questions, I guess.”

     That made Cara snort, and then there was a big sound downstairs, of cheering and laughing and yelling. Cara’s lips curved up the tiniest bit.

     “What’s that?” Soren asked her.

     “The Seeker arriving,” she said.

     “Richard the Seeker?” Soren checked.

     “Yes.”

     “Shouldn’t we go down and say hello?”

     “No,” Cara said, “they’ll come up to us.” She went to stand by the door, opening it every now and then to check outside.

     After a time, Cara opened the door wide and Kahlan slipped inside, wearing the white dress. She smiled when she saw Soren sitting on the bed, and touched Cara’s arm.

     “The others are downstairs drinking,” she said, “and sharing those Seeker tales with the patrons.”

     Cara frowned. “I should be with Richard.”

     “Dahlia is sticking by his side,” Kahlan assured her. She squeezed Cara’s arm, and then came to sit next to Soren. “My sister Dennee is on her way, Soren. I spoke to her with a journeybook, and she’s going to be here soon.”

     “I have to go to Aydindril,” Soren said dismally.

     “Yes, but only because we need you to be safe. Dennee will look after you, and she’s bringing a wizard with her – a friend of Zedd’s.”

     “Where will you go?”

     “With Richard,” Cara answered from her position by the door. “To use the Stone of Tears to close the veil.”

     Soren wasn’t sure what that meant, but he wanted to go with them. He tucked his feet up on the bed so that he could wrap his arms around his knees. “I don’t want to go to Aydindril.”

     “It’s not going to be for long,” Kahlan promised. “Dennee loves children.”

     “What about Dahlia?”

     Cara turned around to look at Kahlan. They said something with their eyes, Soren saw, but he didn’t understand the message. “We’ll talk about it in the morning,” Kahlan said at last. “Try and sleep.”

     “No, I’m not sleepy.”

     “You walked by yourself most of the day, Soren, you must be tired.”

     “I’m not tired!” Soren pushed his lips out.

     “What a pout,” Kahlan said to him. “Your face might get stuck like that.”

     “I’ll use magic to fix it,” Soren said, and then, struck by inspiration, “I’ll use magic to make you not send me to Aydindril.”

     “You can’t do that,” Cara scoffed without looking at him.

     Soren scrunched up his face and tried to concentrate. He knew magic, he was sure he did. Real, proper magic. His father had told him stories about it, stories of all the magic that he could do. Soren reached back with his mind and searched for the magic.

     When he opened his eyes, the room looked a little darker. “Did I do it?” he asked hopefully.

     “No,” Cara said, and then, peering out through the door, “Richard’s coming up.”

     “I’ll go with him,” Kahlan decided. She kissed the top of Soren’s head, touched Cara’s shoulder and squeezed out of the door. A moment later, Dahlia squeezed in.

     “I don’t want to go to Aydindril,” Soren said as soon as he saw her. “Take me home, Dahlia, I command it.”

     Dahlia looked at Cara. Cara looked at Soren. Soren rubbed his hands over his face and threw himself backwards on the bed in despair. No one was listening to him anymore. They were just ignoring him, and speaking with silence, and Cara was locking the door with a bolt so high up that Soren would never be able to reach it. Maybe he’d climb out the window.

     On the floor, Dahlia removed her boots and unbuckled the top parts of her leather. Soren moved so that he was lying on his stomach, so he could watch her. She set her agiel on the floor and he stretched a hand out for it.

     “Don’t touch it,” Dahlia warned him, which was what she always said.

     “I want one.”

     “You can’t have one,” she said, and started to undo the buttons along her ribs. “Why aren’t you sleeping?”

     “Because I’m not sleepy,” Soren snapped at once.

     “Probably because you’re still wearing your boots,” Dahlia said. “Cara, take his boots off.”

     “No!” Soren yelled, and he jumped to his feet on the bed, ducking to avoid Cara. She caught him anyway, and tossed him down onto his back. She pinned him there and unlaced his boots, throwing them on the floor alongside Dahlia’s leathers.

     “Just get under the covers,” Dahlia sighed, and she was already halfway under them, with just the leather band around her chest left. Soren reached out to touch one of the buckles. He liked them.

     “Can I do your braid?” he asked, because if Dahlia was taking her leathers off then she would undo her braid too.

     “If you get under the covers and promise to lie down and sleep,” Cara said immediately, before Dahlia could even answer.

     Soren considered saying no, but he liked it when Dahlia let him undo her braid. “All right,” he said. “I promise.” He wriggled beneath the covers, and Dahlia turned her back to him. Soren was careful with her hair, and he didn’t pull or yank or scrape his fingers through the tangles. He did it piece by piece, starting at the bottom, like they’d told him, and when it was all done it was curly.

     “Lie down,” Dahlia said to him.

     Soren lay down. “You, now,” he said, and Dahlia lay beside him. Her hair spilled over the pillows, so Soren reached out and took some of it in his fist. “I like it.”

     “You’re not sleeping,” Cara warned him.

     “I’m trying.”

     Cara sat on the edge of the bed to take off Kahlan’s boots – Soren felt it dip. She took off her clothes, too, and wore the same underneath as Dahlia. Soren still liked the buckles.

     “When I’m bigger, I can have clothes with buckles,” he said to them.

     “You can have a robe befitting the Lord Rahl,” Dahlia told him.

     “I don’t want a robe. They’re sort of like dresses.”

     Cara laughed. Soren stared. He had never heard her laugh before, but it sounded bright and clever, like the hidden smiles that Cara sometimes had. She blew out the lamp, and crawled into the other side of the bed.

     It was dark, but moonlight came in through the window. Soren reached out and touched Cara’s face, trailed his finger over her cheeks.

     “You’re not sleeping,” she said again.

     “I’m nearly there,” Soren told her.

     “Close your eyes,” Cara whispered.

     He really was trying, but the sleep wouldn’t come. Soren forced his eyes into being closed. He rolled over into Dahlia, and put his face in her chest and both hands in her hair. On his back, he felt Cara’s hand. It was warm. Soren felt five fingers pushing in.

     “Mama,” he murmured.

     “Go to sleep, Soren,” she said, and her voice was so soft that he almost couldn’t hear it. “Dream yourself somewhere beautiful.”

     He dreamed himself back in the Mord’Sith temple, with Cara and Kahlan there too. He slept.

 

     The bed was empty when Soren opened his eyes. Cara and Dahlia were by the door, both back in their leathers, and Dahlia’s hair was already braided. Soren wondered if Cara had done it. He wished she’d waited for him to wake up.

     Kahlan was there, too, standing with her hands clasped beside a woman with curly dark hair.

     Soren struggled to sit up and rubbed the sleep from his bleary eyes. “Are you Dennee?”

     She smiled at him. “I am. You’re a sharp one, aren’t you?”

     “Like my parents,” Soren explained. “See my Mama?” He pointed to Cara.

     “The disguise is over, Soren,” she said.

     “My Cara?” Soren tried instead. “And my Dahlia. They don’t want me to go to Aydindril.”

     “I want you to go to Aydindril,” Kahlan said softly, “and so does Cara, Soren. We want you to be safe.”

     Soren looked at Dahlia. “Please?”

     “I want you to be safe, Lord Rahl,” she said tightly.

     “It’s not so bad, Soren,” Dennee told him. “There are two other boys living with me, you know. You’ll like them.”

     “Who?”

     “Renn, and Edrand. I look after them because their parents can’t.”

     “My mother can look after me.”

     “No, I can’t,” Cara objected. “Not until Richard’s quest is finished and the Keeper is defeated. Do you think I can use my agiels to protect the Lord Rahl while I’m carrying you in my arms?”

     “Yes,” Soren said stubbornly. “Or I’ll ask my father to look after me.”

     The room went quiet, which Soren had noticed happened a lot when he mentioned his father. Dahlia crossed to the bed and knelt in front of him.

     “Lord Rahl,” she said, “I will be accompanying you to Aydindril.”

     Suddenly, Soren felt a whole lot better. “Really?”

     “Yes.”

     “All the way there?”

     “Yes, Lord Rahl.”

     Soren blew out a big breath. “Oh. I suppose I can go, if Dahlia’s coming. And it’s only for a short time.”

     “We’ll be there as soon as we can be,” Kahlan told him. “You’ll see us again before you know it.”

     There was a knock on the door, and Kahlan opened it this time. Zedd and Richard came in, both dressed, and Richard had his sword buckled on and ready.

    “Time to say goodbyes,” Zedd murmured. “Dennee, Alferon is waiting for you downstairs.”

     “Already?” Soren exclaimed. “I don’t want to say goodbye!”

     “Quickly, Soren,” Dennee said to him. “We need to leave.”

     Zedd was the first one to hug him. It was one of the fierce, bony hugs that Zedd did, and Soren welcomed it.

     “Goodbye, Zedd,” he said sadly. “Maybe when you come to get me in Aydindril, you can teach me how to use wizard’s fire?”

     “I will certainly consider it,” Zedd agreed gravely, and then he stepped back and let Richard take his place.

     Soren didn’t hug Richard, but he did touch his sword and his shoulder.

     “Be careful,” Richard told him, “and I can’t wait to see you again, Soren.”

     “I don’t really hate you,” Soren said back, “and you can even be the Lord Rahl instead of me, if you like.”

     Richard grinned. “Thanks.” He ruffled Soren’s hair and let Kahlan come to say goodbye.

     Soren started crying when he hugged Kahlan. “Please don’t go?”

     “Oh, Soren,” she said, “I have to go with Richard. I’ll be with you in Aydindril before you can even start missing me, I promise. Mind you do as Dennee says, all right?”

     “I’ll try. I already miss you, Kahlan.”

     She held him even tighter for a moment, and then let him go.

     “Right,” Cara said, briskly, “let’s leave.”

     Soren held out both arms to her, still crying. “Cara, please?”

     She sighed and went to him. “Goodbye. Don’t do anything stupid, and stop trying to tell Dahlia what to do. All right?”

     “A hug?”

     “A quick hug.” It was short and then over.

     Soren couldn’t help it. He let out a little sob, and then he checked, “Are you sure you won’t leave me there forever? What if you forget about me?”

     Cara went on her knees in front of him. “We won’t forget.”

     “I bet you will. You forgot me before.”

     Kahlan turned back to them, and said, “Soren, you see Cara’s chest? Where she has no leather?”

     He nodded. “She lost that part.”

     “Put your ear there; listen. What do you hear?”

     Cara sat still, and Soren put both hands on her shoulders, leaned in and set his ear on her chest. He said, “Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom.”

     “That’s her heart,” Kahlan said. “You know something, Soren?”

     “What?”

     “That’s the first sound you ever heard.”

     “A heart?”

     “Cara’s heart. You heard it from inside her, before anything else. Before you took your first breath, before you could even see, you were hearing her heart.”

     “I heard it?” Soren wondered.

     “You, and no one else,” Kahlan confirmed.

     “Just me,” Soren breathed. “Only for me.” He pulled his head back to look up at Cara. “I was inside you? Here?” His hand went on her leather, under her breasts.

     She took it and moved it lower. “Down here.”

     “How long for?”

     “Nine full moons. You came early. There was a lot of blood.”

     “Did it hurt?”

     “No,” she said. “Before you were born, I could feel you, kicking.” Cara’s eyes were all shiny. “I can never forget you, Soren.”

     “I love you, Cara.”

     She kissed his face. “I know you do. But don’t tell anyone else, all right? They’ll think I’m going soft.”

     Soren giggled, because everyone else was still there. He held on to Cara’s words, just the way he held onto Dennee’s hand when she led him out of the room and they left everyone else behind.