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In Which There's A Munchkin Called Soren

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Soren spun his head around when he heard the footsteps. He wasn’t expecting trouble, but he let his hand drop down to the hilt of his sword anyway. The sword was unnessecary – Soren was magically adept, although he liked to pretend not to be. His father had used magic for most things, and Soren had been told to view it with a lot of suspicion.

     Rosina crunched out of the woods and stopped in front of him. She propped a hand on her hip and raised her eyebrows. “Seahawk, what are you doing out here?”

     “Come sit,” Soren invited her. He shifted over and patted the grass beside him.

     Rosina sank down gracefully, folding her legs under her. She pushed the hood back off her face and turned to look at Soren. “Everyone’s gone crazy,” she announced. “They think you’re off to destroy the world.”

     “So you’ve come to fulfil your destiny and stop me?” he joked.

     She nodded. “Something like that. My parents will be mad. They told me to leave you alone.”

     “How’s my mother?” Soren checked.

     “I don’t know. I haven’t seen her in a while. She’s probably proud of you, though, for destroying the world.”

     “Probably,” Soren agreed seriously, but then he couldn’t hold back a laugh. “It’s just these stupid dreams, Rosi. I was hoping I could find someone to help me with them.”

     “They have been bothering you,” she agreed. “Not the usual nightmares, though?”

     “No.” Soren shook his head. It wasn’t uncommon for him to have nightmares about his past, and Rosina knew that. They’d been close since they were small. After Soren was returned to his mother, he’d been sent to stay with Rosina’s aunt Dennee for a few months. He’d already been part of the family when Rosina’s mother convinced everyone to bring Soren with them. Soren’s mother had never been the mothering type, but he didn’t hold that against her. He’d gone to Kahlan for the emotional side of mothering, and Cara for the intellectual. It worked.

     “You’re going to find your father, then?” Rosina checked.

     “Yes,” Soren agreed.

     She leaned forward and blew out a breath, propping her elbows on her knees and staring at the fire. “No wonder they think you’re going to destroy the world.”

     “Rosi!” Soren protested. “It’s not like that.”

     Rosina bumped her shoulder against his. “If you’re sure,” she said. “They’ll all be coming after us by now.”

     “Coming after you, you mean,” he corrected. “I’m an adult. They know I can take care of myself.”

     “You’ve always been able to take care of yourself,” she snapped, “and so have I.”

     “That’s certainly not true,” Soren grinned. “Remember when you got locked in the cellar?”

     She pushed away from him and opened her eyes wide. “Soren Rahl, you locked me in that cellar yourself!”

     “Maybe I did,” he agreed.

     “Maybe?!”

    

     Their parents had been furious, Soren reflected. Everyone had been certain that it was the evidence of his true evil nature emerging. That at ten years old, he was finally too far gone to be saved. Cara had taken him by the arm and offered, quite casually, to kill him. Kahlan had stood behind with her hands clasped in front of her and her Confessor’s face on. Soren had had no idea what she’d been thinking.

     Ironically, it was Richard who’d saved him that time. Up until then, Soren had been very uncertain about Richard. His uncle, in the loosest sense of the word, and the one who had saved the world from Darken Rahl. Saved Cara. Done everything right.

     He’d crouched down and said, “Soren, why did you lock Rosina in the cellar?”

     “She was annoying me,” Soren had said, quite reasonably, he thought. He pulled his arm out of Cara’s grip and said, “You wouldn’t really kill me.”

     “Of course I would,” she snapped.

     “You’re lying, aren’t you?”

     “Do I look like it?”

     No, she didn’t. “How would you kill me?”

     “It depends how much you did to deserve it.”

     “She kept pulling at me,” Soren had finally explained, frowning. He was angry now, with Rosina and with himself. “She kept trying to pull my trousers down, and following me everywhere, and I just really wanted her to stop, so when she went down into the cellar I – I locked the door.”

     “I can take him outside and do it, if you like,” Cara said to Richard.

     Richard rolled his eyes. “Cara, you won’t kill him.” He’d opened the cellar door and Rosina had come out, wailing, and flung herself at her mother. Richard bent down. “Rosina, were you annoying Soren?”

     “Nooo-oooo,” she’d sobbed. “He shut me down there.”

     Richard fixed Soren with a look. A very specific look. Soren sighed, and went down on his knees so that he and the girl were the same height. “Rosina, I’m sorry for shutting you down in the cellar. Do you forgive me?”

     “Nooo-ooo,” she moaned again, and then spun around, still holding onto Kahlan’s skirts, and said, “I hate you and I’m going to confess you.”

     “Rosina!” Kahlan had exclaimed, shocked.

     “Well I want to! Then Soren will have to love me forever.”

     Soren sighed again. “I love you already, Rosi,” he said. He held out his arms. “Kiss?”

     She smiled then, just a little bit, and went into his arms willingly. “Yes,” she agreed, and held up her cheek for him to kiss it. “Do you love me forever?”

     “Of course I do,” he said, rolling his eyes over her head. He didn’t stop hugging her, though.

     “All right, Seahawk,” she said, and giggled. The nickname had been new to her, then. “I forgive you. But I still think Cara should take an agiel to your backside.” That made her giggle more – she’d only recently learned the threat.

     Kahlan had said, “I told you not to tell her about that, Cara.”

     “I didn’t know she’d be so enthusiastic,” Cara protested. “She was supposed to be scared.”

     Soren stood up and turned around to his mother. “Cara, are you still going to kill me?”

     She put one finger to her lips, thinking, and then said, “I suppose not.”

     Everyone waited, but neither mother nor son said any more. Richard finally exploded, “Is that it? Is that all you two say to each other?”

     Soren glanced up into Cara’s eyes – green, like his – and she looked back with a very familiar expression. Soren held back his laughter. “Yes,” he said to Richard. “What do you expect us to say?”

     Richard threw up his hands in disgust. “You’re impossible. You’re both equally impossible and exactly alike.”

 

     “Seahawk,” Rosi said, nudging him again, “you are going to let me come to find your father, aren’t you?”

     “I’m not sure yet,” Soren told her, quite truthfully. “I haven’t decided.”

     “You should. It’s only fair, after all. I’m supposed to be the one to keep you in check.”

     “Richard and Kahlan decided that before you were even born,” Soren pointed out. “How do you know that their child who’s supposed to stop me isn’t Madde? Or Kira?”

     “No!” Rosina exclaimed. “Absolutely not. They’re too young and fussy, and it has nothing to do with them. You’re my responsibility.” She was almost pouting now. “I’m the only one who can stop you destroying the world, Soren. Say it’s true.”

     “Is it?”

     “Yes! Say it. Say that you’d destroy the world in a heartbeat if only Madde or Kira tried to stop you.”

     Soren laughed. “Okay.”

     “Good,” Rosi said, leaning into him again. She waited a moment, and then added, “But you wouldn’t destroy my baby sisters, would you, Seahawk?”

     “Of course not,” he said, like he was supposed to. “Stop being stupid and let’s just go to sleep. I have a long walk tomorrow – so do you, if you’re determined to come with me.”

     Rosina flashed him a quick, sharp-toothed smile. “Of course,” she nodded.

     “So sleep, then.”

    

     Soren remembered all three of them being born – Rosina, Madelia, Kiralee. He’d been five, nine, and eleven, respectively.

     Cara had been the one to take him to see baby Rosina. They’d still been uncertain around each other then. Soren had known Cara for only a few months, and she dressed in red like the Mord’Sith who had raised him, but her hair was short and her mouth twitched sometimes, like there was a smile hiding there.

     “She’s named after me, you know,” Cara told Soren when they stopped outside the bedroom door.

     “Her name is Cara?”

     “No, it’s Rosina, but her second name is Cara.”

     “Why does she have a second name?”

     “In case people confuse her for some other Rosina Amnell, I suppose.”

     “There aren’t any others. She doesn’t need a second name.”

     Cara folded her arms, appraising the small boy. “I would agree, but her second name is after me, so I think it’s a good idea.”

     “Why is it after you?”

     “Probably because I’ve saved Kahlan and Richard both so many times they’ve lost count.”

     “Have you lost count?”

     Cara frowned. “No, of course not. I never lose count of how many times I save people’s lives.”

     A little nervously, then, Soren had asked, “How many times have you saved mine?”

     “Twice,” Cara said immediately.

     “I thought it was only once, when you took me from the Sisters.” Soren folded his arms, just like Cara. “When was the second time?”

     “When I gave you life,” she’d answered, and they’d both stood silently for a moment until the bedroom door swung open and Richard emerged.

     “Come and see her,” he’d whispered.

 

     Rosi had been unimpressed with Madelia. “She doesn’t talk,” she had complained, touching her sister’s hands. “I love her, Mama, but she doesn’t talk.”

     “Not yet,” Kahlan soothed, “but she will.”

     Soren stood a little way back, not wanting to intrude. They still weren’t sure if he was evil – he still wasn’t sure, either. He didn’t want to scare Kahlan.

     She noticed, of course, because she always did. “Come here, little Seahawk.”

     “Yeah,” Rosi chimed in, running to grab Soren’s hands and pull him to the bed. “Come meet my sister.”

     Soren stood stiffly by the side of the bed, and Kahlan smiled at him. She reached up a hand to stroke the side of his face, pulled him down to sit beside her and said, “Do you want to hold her?”

     “Can I?” Soren asked, astonished.

     “Here,” Kahlan said. She leaned over and suddenly she was putting Madde into his arms. “Don’t let her fall.”

     “I won’t,” Soren promised. He bent over the baby, his breath stirring the tiny dark hairs on her head, and watched her open her eyes. They were very dark, not like Rosi’s or Soren’s eyes. He worried about that for a moment, before he looked and saw Kahlan and Cara watching. They both had light eyes, and Soren thought that it didn’t have to be a gift from his father.

     He almost wished he could have dark eyes like Richard, though.

 

     Soren woke first, and was sitting up and reaching to put out the fire when Rosi stirred beside him.

     “You’d better not be sneaking off,” she said sleepily, propping herself up on one elbow to watch him.

     “I’m not,” he said. “I wouldn’t even try it, Rosi. I know you’ve got your eyes on me.”

     “That’s right,” she agreed, lying back down and watching him through half-closed eyes. “The sun isn’t even up yet. Why do we have to leave so early?”

     “They’ll be on our tail. Cara especially.”

     “I don’t know,” Rosina muttered, “I would think Cara had enough sense by now to know that you do whatever you set your mind to. You’re very alike.”

     Soren laughed. “What, and you’re not stubborn, is that it?”

     “I’m not stubborn. I’m determined.” She rolled over onto her front and stretched her arms over her head, then sat up and pushed her hair from her face. “I wish I’d let Aunt Cari teach me how to braid.”

     She was seventeen, and should be able to braid her own hair, but Soren crouched behind her anyway. “Let me,” he said. Rosina’s hair was very dark, wavy and long. She’d never once had it cut, and neither had her sisters. Soren, who had spent his early years in a temple full of Mord’Sith, knew something about long hair. He worked his fingers through it, separated it into three parts and started weaving them together. “Did you bring your weapons?”

     “Of course. You’ve got your sword, too, I see.” Rosi paused, put a hand back to feel the braid forming and then dropped it into her lap. “Neither of us really need them.”

     “I don’t like using magic,” Soren said. “It doesn’t come easy to me, besides.”

     “I don’t mind confessing,” Rosi said, thoughtfully, “but I like knives more.”

     “You’re supposed to be the good-hearted one.” He finished the braid and set it over her shoulder.

     Rosina tipped her head back and laughed at him, her smile bright and wide. “I know! Ironic, isn’t it? You’re far more measured than me, I think, Soren.”

     He stood up and kicked dirt over the fire, then crossed to his bedroll and started packing. Rosi did the same, and they finished at about the same time, rising to their feet and standing there together.

     “Ready?” Soren said after a time.

     “As ready as I’ll ever be, Seahawk.”

     “Come on, then.”

     They both shouldered their packs higher and left the clearing.

 

     Walking with Rosi was easy, and Soren quickly fell into a companionable silence. He had been travelling with her since they were both small, and she was as good in the woods as her father. Still, Soren got into the habit of holding branches back out of her way. He liked seeing the secret smile she gave him, lips pressed together, like she was hiding some sort of a joke that only the two of them could share.

     “You don’t really think I’ll destroy the world, do you?” he asked her eventually.

     “I think you have enough power to do anything, truthfully.”

     “Yes, but I don’t want to destroy the world. Why would I?”

     “Maybe your father’s blood is catching up to you.” She lifted her eyebrows at him.

     “That’s crazy!” Soren protested. “That’s like saying you’re suddenly going to turn into – into –”

     “Into what?” Rosina asked him with sparkling eyes. “A good person?”

     “Shut up.”

     “My parents saved the world several times, you know.”

     “Shut up.”

     “In fact I’m sure everyone strives to be more like them.”

     Rosi was giggling – Soren could hear it in her voice. He flicked the next branch back into her face, and heard a startled gasp, followed by more laughter. Honestly, that was the part of Rosi that most countered Soren. She was always happy. She never got trapped in the dark thoughts the way Soren did. He let himself get caught up in her laughter, smiled, and kept walking.

    

     “What are you planning to do, when you find your father?” Rosina asked.

     “I’m not sure, yet. I’ll ask him about the dreams.”

     “If he sent the dreams, then it could be a trap.”

     “Not if he doesn’t know I’m his son,” Soren suggested. “I could pretend to be someone else, for a little while.”

     “You’ll need a haircut, then,” Rosi said solemnly.

     Self-consciously, Soren lifted his arm up to finger at the ends of his hair, tossing around his shoulders. “Why?”

     “You look like both of them when it’s cut like that. Cara and your father.”

     “I’m blond.”

     “Yes, so you look like Cara. You remember how she used to look with short hair. And Darken Rahl always kept his hair long besides. Better start being careful how you cut it.” Rosi paused, then offered, “I could cut it off for you, if you like.”

     “Only if you cut your hair so that you look less like your mother,” he retorted.

     “People aren’t scared of my mother.”

     “Of course they are! And you, too. At least you didn’t bring some sort of ridiculous Confessor’s dress on this journey.”

     “I could still confess you,” Rosina pointed out.

     “Don’t you think I love you enough already?” Soren joked, but there was a tension underlying his words that he hadn’t meant to be there.

     Rosina laughed, but it died off quickly. “No,” she said, softly. “I’ve told you before, Seahawk, I won’t risk you like that. You can’t know if it’s enough.”

     “I think I love you more than breathing.”

     She smacked the back of his shoulder. “You’re an idiot, and you’re lying.”

     “How do you know I’m lying?”

     Rosi sighed, with a fond exasperation. “Idiot,” she repeated. “It isn’t worth it for a quick lay, Soren. Find another girl. If you’re desperate, we can stop at a town.”

     One of his mother’s lessons rang through Soren’s mind; never look further than the nearest brothel, and he said, “No,” very quickly.

 

     The next time they spoke, it was dark. Soren found thoughts of home creeping into his head unbidden. “Do you miss your parents?” he asked.

     “Yes, a little,” Rosina admitted, “but they’re busy, I hope, and not missing me too much. They’ll have official duties, and my sisters to take care of.”

     “Did you tell Madde and Kiralee that you were going?”

     Rosi grinned. “I told Kira. Madde can’t keep a secret, and she’s nosy, besides.”

     Soren said, “You think Kira can keep a secret? She’s eleven, Rosi.”

     “She’s smart for eleven. Anyway, you can’t expect me to believe that you didn’t tell Edrand.”

     “I didn’t!”

     Rosina narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re not lying?”

     “No, honestly. I’d take an agiel to the eye, Rosi,” Soren said, and grinned at the old family expression. “I did tell Renn, though.”

     “Ha! I knew it. You always tell someone your plans. I’m just annoyed it wasn’t me this time.”

     He shrugged. “I knew I wouldn’t have to tell you. You always come with me.”

     Rosi sidled up next to Soren and slipped her hand into his. “You’re right. I do.”

Chapter Text

     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.

Chapter Text

     Rosi smacked his chest. “I said wake up, idiot. You’re snoring.”

     “Sorry,” Soren mumbled. He rolled further over, and felt Rosi’s shoulder under his head. “Hi.”

     “Get back on your own bedroll.”

     Sleepy and warm, Soren lifted his head to kiss her lips. “You’re my favourite.”

     “Seahawk, it’s the middle of the night. Sleep, would you?”

     “I was asleep.”

     “Good. Try and get back there.”

    

     In the morning they sparred. Soren only used a sword, but Rosi had been taught to dual-wield daggers by both Kahlan and Cara, and she was ferocious with them. She switched after she beat Soren, and used her own sword for their next mock battle.

     “I can’t believe I lived with Mord’Sith and barely picked up half of your skills,” Soren said when it was over, ruefully rubbing his arm. “You fight like a demon.”

     “You know I just like fighting, Soren. Don’t feel bad.” Her sharp-toothed grin was at odds with the kind words. Soren rolled his eyes and knocked the hilt of his sword against her shoulder, gently.

     “I’ve been thinking about the Mord’Sith temple, actually. Planning on going there.”

     “What for? Childhood memories?”

     Soren shrugged. “Something like that. It was the last place I saw my father, after all.”

     Rosi tucked the daggers into her boots, and the sword in its sheath across her back. “You never talk much about him.”

     “Probably because he’s evil, Rosi. Everyone I’ve ever met has told me so.” Soren frowned, and kicked out at the dirt. “You know he’s raped most of the women I love, at one time or another?”

     “Never Kahlan.”

     “He did, once, in a world-that-never-was.”

     “That hardly qualifies.”

     “It does; it shows intent. Cara told me about it,” Soren insisted, “and it makes me feel sick to my stomach when I think about it.”

     “Kahlan doesn’t blame you. Even Cara doesn’t blame you – none of them would ever blame you, Soren.” Rosina’s eyes were soft and sympathetic when she put a hand on his arm.

     “It doesn’t matter. I blame myself.”

     “But we’re still going to try and find Darken Rahl,” Rosi checked. “Are you sure you’re not finding him to kill him?”

     “No, I don’t think so.”

     “Well, I wouldn’t let you anyway.”

     He laughed, “Why not?”

     “I’m supposed to be the good-hearted one, remember?”

     “Even Richard would kill Darken Rahl, if he could find him.”

     Rosi shook her head. “Maybe, maybe not. But you aren’t prophesied to kill him. Besides, you’re supposed to be ascending to Lord Rahl.”

     That was part of Soren’s problem. They’d been talking about his ascension for a long time – since he had come of age, two years ago – and honestly, Soren wasn’t sure that he liked the idea. Recently, the whole process had been advanced. Now Soren’s ascension was talked about in moons, rather than summers away. He wasn’t ready.

    

    

     Renn was ten, which was older than Soren, and Edrand wasn’t yet two, which was much younger. Still, between them both, Soren felt a bit less lonely. There were other children in Aydindril, too, although he never saw them as much. He was kept in the palace a lot, where it was safe. Dahlia, of course, went with him everywhere.

     “I can’t read her mind,” Renn told Soren once, not long after he’d arrived. “It’s nice, not hearing anything.”

     “I wish you could, though,” Soren said. “I want to know what Dahlia is thinking. In case she starts thinking about leaving.”

     She didn’t leave, though. She dogged Soren’s footsteps through the palace and beyond, and at night she stood outside his door with her hands folded over her agiel.

     “When do you sleep?” Renn asked her one day.

     “When I know the Lord Rahl is safe,” she answered. “Are you throwing that knife or not, Renn?”

     Renn liked to train with Dahlia, and so did Soren. Dennee would come down sometimes and watch them, usually with Edrand bouncing on her hip. Several of the beggar children from outside the palace started to watch after a while, too, and then gradually to beg Dahlia to teach them too. Dahlia bore it all with a sternly blank expression.

     “Come in my room,” Soren said to her, when they’d been there nearly one week. “I can’t sleep on my own.”

     She sat guard at the foot of his bed.

     When he was with Renn, Soren tried to be more grown-up. Renn was an interesting friend to have. He always knew exactly the right thing to say, which was funny, but sometimes he knew things Soren didn’t want him to know.

     “Your mother’s a Mord’Sith,” he said, stunned, when he saw the knowledge in Soren’s head.

     Soren grabbed him and put a hand over his mouth. “You mustn’t tell anyone!”

     “Why is it a secret?”

     “To keep us safe,” Soren said. “Me and my Cara both. Please, if they find out they might hurt her!”

     “I won’t tell anyone,” Renn promised. “Does Dahlia know?” She was keeping guard outside the door to the room.

     “Of course,” Soren said. “Dahlia knows everything.”

 

 

     The Mord’Sith temple stood atop a hill, with clear views to all directions and any unwelcome visitors.

     “Are you sure it’s empty?” Rosi asked nervously as they walked up to the front doors.

     “Pretty sure,” Soren said. “I don’t know why there’d be anyone left here. You know the remaining Mord’Sith serve Richard.”

     “Seems weird that there won’t be any left, one day.” Rosi pulled her knee up and flipped a dagger into her hand, just in case.

     “It’s better than training more, isn’t it?”

     “Yes, of course,” she answered absently, freeing her second dagger.

     Soren pushed both front doors open wide and stepped inside. The echoing halls immediately assailed him with memories.

 

     He was three years old, running stark naked down the corridors with Dahlia striding after him. Her braid swished side to side and her hand was hovering over her agiel.

     “It’s time for the Lord Rahl’s bath,” she said, exasperated.

     “No!” Soren screamed. “No bath!”

     Dahlia chased him twice around the room, but Soren was small, quick and slippery. He wriggled out of her grasp and she was afraid to really hurt him. Hally entered the room from a small side passage. She saw what was going on and tried to back out immediately.

     “No, Hally, don’t you dare!” Dahlia called at once. “Get in here and help me catch the Lord Rahl!”

     Somehow, between the two of them, they corralled him and chased him down the halls and into the bathing room, where Nyda was already waiting. She shut the doors behind Soren, who giggled and ran to hide behind a pillar.

     “Lord Rahl!” Dahlia exclaimed. “You need to get in the bath now!”

     “No!” he said. This was the most fun he’d had all day, and he was determined to milk all the attention.

     Berdine was the last one to come into the room. She took in the situation at a glance, and smirked. “How can it possibly take the combined efforts of three Mord’Sith to bathe one little boy?”

     “Keep your mouth shut and help us, Berdine,” Dahlia ordered. Dahlia had always been in charge.

     Berdine looked at Soren, behind the pillar, and then she very deliberately turned her back to him and started taking off her leathers.

     “What are you doing?” Nyda asked her. “We’re trying to catch the Lord Rahl.” She pointed to Soren, as if she thought Berdine somehow hadn’t seen him.

     “Stop it, Berdine,” Dahlia snapped, but Berdine kept on taking everything off.

     Soren watched with interest, as, naked, she walked into the warm water and spread her arms out with a sigh of relaxation.

     “I should wash my hair,” she announced to the room at large. “It’s lovely and warm in here.”

     Soren took a few steps out from behind the pillar, closer to the edge of the pool. “Warm?”

     “Yes, Lord Rahl.” Berdine reached behind her and started to undo her braid.

     “I can help,” Soren said, immediately. He loved to help them – it made him feel special.

     “You’d have to get in the bath with me, then.” Berdine walked across to the side where Soren stood and held up two dripping arms invitingly. “Come on.”

     Soren fell forward into her arms, giggling, and let her pull him into the bath. “Warm,” he said appreciatively.

     Holding him up in the water, Berdine said smugly to the others, “I’m the Lord Rahl’s favourite.”

 

     The halls were echoing, empty now. Soren put a hand on Rosi’s shoulder when she stepped in front of him. “Hey.”

     “What?” she said. “I’m armed, Soren, let me go first.”

     “I’m supposed to be watching out for you.”

     “No way! I watch out,” she protested. “I make sure you don’t go crazy and kill people, and I make sure no people kill you. That’s why I’m here, idiot.”

     “You think they won’t kill me if I bring you back hurt?”

     “My mother would never.”

     “Mine would,” Soren said grimly. “Besides, I know where we’re going and you don’t.”

     That made her fall back a little. Quietly, with knives still clutched in her hands, Rosi asked, “Do you remember much about being here?”

     “A little,” Soren replied truthfully.

     “And?” Rosi asked when nothing else seemed forthcoming. “What was it like?”

     “I don’t know. I felt – safe, mostly.”

     “Dahlia was here,” Rosi checked. She’d only met the woman a handful of times, from what Soren remembered. Dahlia had stayed away from Kahlan and Richard’s children. She’d never been far from Soren, though, even when he couldn’t see her.

     “And the others,” he confirmed. “My father visited only once that I remember. I don’t know if he came when I was younger. He died – briefly – when I was small. After that I was here with the Mord’Sith until the Sisters of the Dark took me and Cara found me.”

     “What was upstairs?” Rosi wanted to know as they began to climb.

     “My room,” Soren laughed. “There were always Mord’Sith standing guard outside it. I was afraid of the dark.”

     “You, Seahawk? Never.”

     “Dahlia worked on it with me.”

     “Is this the first time you’ve been back here? Since-”

     “Yes,” Soren interrupted. “I wanted to go back, at first, but after I got used to Cara and Kahlan – well, they were family too.”

     “And me,” she said quickly. “I’m your favourite.”

     It reminded Soren of Berdine, and he laughed again. “Of course, Rosi. Always you.”

 

 

     “How do we know if Richard defeats the Keeper?” Soren asked, sitting on his bed with his knees tucked to his chest.

     “The world will continue to exist,” Dahlia told him bluntly. “Get under the covers.”

     “Uh, I’m not ready yet. What if they die?”

     “Who?”

     “Kahlan and Cara.” Soren hesitated, and then added, “And Zedd and Richard too, I suppose.”

     “You don’t like Richard.”

     “He’s my uncle, isn’t he? And he likes to hold Kahlan’s hand too. Zedd says he isn’t too bad and to give him a chance.”

     “Do you listen to the wizard?” Dahlia asked.

     “Sometimes.”

     “You’re still saying please.”

     “Am I not supposed to?” Everything in Aydindril confused Soren. The rules changed all the time, and Dahlia told him different things from Dennee. He never knew which one to listen to. Dennee wasn’t so like Kahlan – she looked different and she just was different – but Dahlia was Mord’Sith, and some people had told him Mord’Sith were bad. Soren didn’t believe them. Dahlia and Cara and Berdine could never be bad. Not ever.

     “It’s your choice,” Dahlia told him. “But you don’t have to do things just because that wizard told you to.”

     “What about my mother?”

     “Cara,” she corrected. “What did Cara tell you?”

     “I don’t know. Is she coming back?”

     “Maybe.”

     Soren put his forehead on his knees. “Is my father dead?”

     “Why are you asking so many questions?” Dahlia asked instead.

     “I don’t know.”

     “Lie down.”

     Soren did as he was told, lying flat on his back and wiggling himself down, down, deep under the covers. “Will you stay in here, Dahlia?”

     “Do you want me to?”

     “Yes.”

     “Then I will stay.”

     Soren liked that about Dahlia. She stayed, if he asked her. He’d asked Cara but she wouldn’t stay. She had to go with Richard.

     “How much longer?” he asked Dahlia.

     There’s a tight, patiently controlled sigh out of her nose. “How much longer until what?”

     “Until they win and come back for me?”

     “I don’t know, Lord Rahl.”

     “You’re not supposed to call me that anymore,” he reminded her.

     “You’re still the Lord Rahl, aren’t you?”

     “I suppose. Only Richard is as well. He’s Cara’s. Don’t you want Richard to be yours too?”

     Dahlia sat on the edge of his bed and put her hand on his chest, where he could easily reach it. “You will always be my Lord Rahl.”

     “Not even if my father’s alive?” Soren asked.

     “Close your eyes.”

     “I’m not sleepy. Can’t we talk?”

     “No. You ask too many questions.”

     “Can’t you tell me the answers?”

     “Later,” she said.

     “How much later?”

     Dahlia frowned down at him. “Soren, do you love Cara more than your father?”

     “Oh, yes,” Soren said. “Much more.”

     “What about Kahlan?”

     “Way much more.”

     Dahlia hesitated. “-Richard?”

     Soren wasn’t sure what to say. “Only sort of,” he decided at last. “I don’t remember my father as much. Did he have dark hair?”

     “Yes, but light eyes.”

     “My eyes are from Cara,” Soren said seriously. “I come from Cara.”

     “From your father, too.”

     “But mostly Cara.”

     Dahlia was quiet for a moment or two. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said at last.

     “Tell them what?”

     “That you love Cara more.”

     “Why not?”

     “Just promise me you won’t tell anyone.” Dahlia stared at him until Soren squirmed in the bed, uncomfortable under her gaze. She said, “Lord Rahl.”

     “I promise,” he conceded.

     “Good. Now go to sleep.”

     “But I miss everyone.”

     “Who’s everyone?”

     “Cara and Kahlan and Berdine and Zedd and Richard’s sword.”

     Dahlia rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to talk anymore. Not while you’re supposed to be sleeping.”

     “I hate Aydindril,” Soren announced. “I think I’ll run away.”

 

 

     Rosi bounced on Soren’s old bed, sending a cloud of dust flying up around her. She sneezed and laughed. “I can’t believe you slept here! This bed is massive.”

     “I was a Lord,” Soren pointed out.

     Quietly, Rosina said, “You still are, you know.”

     Soren shook his head. “Not if I don’t want to be. I don’t see why I should take the position, anyway. Everyone loves Richard.”

     “Because Dad’s old and you’re Darken Rahl’s son and we want to show everyone that you’re a kind and benevolent ruler,” Rosi rattled off.

     “I’m going to be a horrible ruler. I can’t think of anything I’d be worse at.”

     “Sparring?”

     “Brat.”

     “Bathing?”

     “I hate you,” Soren sighed. He sat on the bed beside Rosi and put his head in his hands.

     She canted her fingers through his hair. “You don’t hate me. And you’re going to be a great Lord Rahl. You’ve been training forever, right?”

     “It was different, when I was here. I thought – I mean, you’ve seen the Mord’Sith. They had to do whatever I said, even when I was three years old. It’s different now. I know that people think for themselves.”

     Rosina pulled his head into her shoulder, and Soren lifted it up to kiss her. She rolled her eyes but kissed him back, this time. Her lips were as soft as the rest of her, and Soren put a hand on the small of her back, tangled in her hair. He moved forwards so that she had to lie beneath him and he kept kissing her, finding the smooth skin at her collarbone and kissing that, too.

     “Soren,” Rosi said, but he brought his mouth back to hers and cut her off.

     “Just a little more,” he said, sliding his hand up beneath the loose shirt she wore and tightening his fingers on the skin at her waist. “I know when to stop. Come on, Rosi.”

     “I know,” she sighed, and then she reached both hands up to his face and pulled it back down, crashing their lips together again.

     Soren slid the hand on her waist higher, to the warm skin of her back, and pulled her closer to him. Rosi still had her hands on his face, in his hair. Soren pulled back a little so that he could look at her; dark hair and pale skin and pink lips. She had her eyes closed, with lashes fluttering against her cheeks, and she reached up to kiss him again. It was sloppy and badly aimed and she missed his mouth and hit his cheek, giggling.

     “Stubble,” she whispered, opening bright blue eyes.

     “Sorry,” Soren said, just as quietly. He touched her cheek and moved his hand down to her shoulder and around to mess with her hair. Rosi propped herself up on an elbow and kissed his jaw before she found her way back to his lips.

     They kissed for a long time, before Rosina pushed him off and sat up and said, “No more.”

     “You’re right,” Soren said ruefully. His face was flushed and his head felt light, spinning with how much he loved her; wanted her.

     “It’s about time,” someone said, and a Mord’Sith was at the door.

 

     Soren did run away. He had to try more than once before he got it right, though. The first time, he left in the dead of night, when he was sure Dahlia was asleep at the foot of his bed.

     She wasn’t. She rose as soon as Soren did, and said, “Lord Rahl?”

     “Oh,” Soren said, and he got back into bed and pretended to fall asleep again.

     The second time he did better. He left when everyone thought he was with Renn in the stables, slipping out through the door at the side and running alone down the cobbled streets and over the fields.

     After an hour or so of walking alone, Soren was sure that no one would ever find him. He pointed himself towards the setting sun, because that seemed like the right way to walk if he wanted to find everyone.

     After an hour-and-a-half, Soren started to miss Dahlia. He sat down in a bush and cried, before he remembered that if he found Cara, she would bring him back to Dahlia. He got up and kept walking.

     After two hours, Dahlia found Soren. She swung off the horse and caught him up in her arms easily, even though he kicked and yelled.

     “What are you doing?” she asked him. There was a furious edge to her voice that made Soren stop struggling immediately.

     “Sorry,” he said, meekly. “I just don’t want to be in Aydindril anymore, Dahlia.”

     “What do you want?”

     Soren thought about it. “My mother.”

     “I knew she’d turn you soft,” Dahlia snapped. “I just knew it.”

     “Soft?”

     She ignored the question. “Luckily for you, Lord Rahl, Dennee just got a message from Kahlan.”

     Soren makes his eyes big. He twists in Dahlia’s arms to stare at her face. “What happened?”

     “Everyone is fine. The Keeper is defeated.”

     “Hooray!” Soren shouted, throwing his arms up. “So we can go and get them?”

     “They’re coming to Aydindril to get you, foolish Lord Rahl. What do you think they would have done if they’d arrived and found you gone?”

     Soren hadn’t thought that far ahead. “Oh.” Dahlia had never called him foolish before. Soren giggled. “You said; foolish Lord Rahl.”

     “You are foolish.”

     “Don’t you love me, Dahlia?”

     “All Mord’Sith must love the Lord Rahl.”

     “And not call him foolish,” Soren added quickly. “Say it.”

     “-And not call him foolish,” Dahlia repeated. “Will you return to Aydindril with me? Renn is waiting for you.”

     “Can’t we go and catch up with Cara and Kahlan and Zedd? Renn won’t mind. I told him I might not be coming back.”

     Dahlia heaved a very heavy sigh. “I will ask Dennee to write and ask them where they’re coming from. All right? Then we can travel to meet them.”

     “Yes!” Soren shouted. “Good idea, Dahlia.”

     “But we have to return to Aydindril first, so get up on the horse.” She paused. “Lord Rahl.”

     “I’m not very good on horses,” Soren told her, thinking of the journey to Aydindril. He’d hated that journey more than any other in his life, although he wasn’t entirely sure it was because of the horse.

     “I’ll hold you very tight,” Dahlia promised. She set him up on the saddle and swung up behind him, leaning forwards and reaching past Soren to hold the reins. He clung onto her forearms, feeling the leather bend under his fingers.

     Dahlia kicked the horse and it started running back towards Aydindril. Soren looked straight ahead, over its ears, and told himself not to feel sad. Soon he would see his mother. And Richard, which he still wasn’t sure about, but Renn said Richard had saved the world lots of times, now. So that had to be a good thing.

 

 

     Rosina gasped and had a dagger in her hand quicker than Soren could blink. He gripped her wrist, stopping her from throwing, and said, “Rosi, wait.”

     “The last time I saw you in this bed you were arguing with Nyda about having a night-light,” the Mord’Sith said.

     Soren recognised the wavy hair, although it was more grey than it had been. He recognised the light blue eyes, too. “Berdine.”

     She grinned, and that was familiar as well. “Lord Rahl. Are you finished?”

     Soren frowned and looked over to see Rosi straightening her shirt. “Yes, thank you,” he said.

     “Good,” Berdine said. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your girl?”

     “I’m not his girl,” Rosina said, flaring up at once.

     Soren put a hand on her arm. “Rosi-”

     “And I thought you said there’d be no one here,” she accused him. “If you wanted to make out in front of a Mord’Sith you could have just told Dahlia to keep guarding your room back home.”

     Berdine laughed. “I like this one, Lord Rahl.” She addressed Rosi directly. “Who are you?”

     “Rosina Amnell,” said Rosi sulkily. “Who are you?”

     “Rosi, this is Berdine,” Soren explained.

     At the same time, Berdine said, “Amnell? Are you insane, Soren, letting a Confessor that close to you?”

     “Hey!” Rosi protested. “I can control myself, all right?”

     “That didn’t look like either of you were controlled.”

     “Nobody asked you to watch,” Rosi retorted.

     “Berdine-” Soren tried, but he was cut off.

     “Whose temple is this, exactly?” Berdine asked acidly.

     “The Lord Rahl’s temple,” Rosi fired back. “Which is either Soren or my father so you’d better watch out.” She looked at Soren. “Wait, did you say Berdine? Your Berdine, who you were always crying after?”

     “Crying?” Berdine asked.

     “Barely,” Soren muttered.

     “Sweet Lord Rahl,” she teased, and then she stepped forwards with her arms out and Soren found himself jumping up and into her embrace.

     “It’s been a long time,” he murmured. Berdine was small, so much smaller than he remembered. He was taller than her.

     “You were seven,” Berdine reminded him. “And you,” she added, turning on Rosi, “were a squalling infant.”

     “Why did you never come back?”

     “Everyone decided that it might be better for you if Dahlia and the others and I kept our distance. We were worried it was a bad influence on you. Do you remember? You were stubborn.”

     “He’ll always be stubborn,” Rosi said. She stood up and held out her hand for Berdine to shake. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. It is nice to meet you, really. Soren’s talked about you a lot. And don’t worry, I wouldn’t ever confess him. He’s the only one who gets carried away.”

     “That’s not true,” Soren protested. “I always know what I’m doing.”

     Rosi huffed her breath out dramatically. “I keep telling him to spend more time with other women but he always gets bored.”

     “Can I help it if I love you, Rosi?”

     “Yes, you idiot,” she said, smacking his shoulder. “Find some other girl to moon after.”

     Berdine looks from one to the other. “I bet Cara and Richard Rahl have their hands full with you,” she mused. “How long has this been going on?”

     “Since I was about fourteen,” Rosi said.

     Soren gaped. “Rosi! No way! That makes me sound like a dirty old man.”

     “You were only nineteen, Seahawk.”

     “Don’t say that. It sounds wrong and it’s not true, besides.” Soren faced Berdine. “Only a couple of years,” he said.

     “He can’t count properly anyway.”

     “Go away. I want to talk to Berdine. Can’t you patrol or something else useful? What do you think I brought you along for?”

     “To warm your bedroll,” Rosi said smartly, and then skipped out of his reach, laughing, and flipped both daggers up into her hands. “I’ll patrol. Are there any other Mord’Sith here, Berdine?”

     “It should be an empty temple,” Berdine said. “If you do see any, don’t skewer them like you tried to do me, hm?”

     “If you say so.” Rosi’s gone through the door with a wink and a wave to Soren, who is already more embarrassed than he’s been in ages. He wishes Rosi wouldn’t do this to him.

     “You must be of age now, Soren,” Berdine said.

     “Twenty-two,” he admitted.

     “Aren’t you going to become the Lord Rahl soon?”

     “Not if I have any say.”

     She lifted her eyebrows. “Ah. I see. So that’s what this is all about?”

     “What?”

     “Whatever you’re doing here.”

     “Looking for my father,” Soren said.

     “Why would you want to find him?”

     “I have questions.”

     “Can’t you ask Cara?”

     “Not these questions.”

     “I can’t tell you much,” Berdine warned. “I keep well out of Darken Rahl’s way. You know what he did to us.”

     “Yes,” Soren said, with a heavy heart. “I’m sorry, Berdine.”

     “Don’t be – it wasn’t you. But be careful, that’s all I’m saying.” She jerked her chin back towards the door. “Be especially careful with that one. She looks like her mother, but she’s got a sharp tongue. Spent a lot of time with Cara, did she?”

     “Aunt Cari,” Soren admitted.

     “Darken Rahl would love a girl like her. Understand? Keep her close.”

     “I will.”

     “You’ve grown up a lot,” Berdine said. “I think I like the way you’ve turned out. I always told Dahlia you weren’t going to be a typical Rahl.”

     Soren smiled. “I missed you, Berdine.”

     “Of course you did. I’ve always been the Lord Rahl’s favourite.” She sat on the wooden bench at one end of the room and looked at Soren seriously. “All right. Let me tell you what I’ve heard.”

Chapter Text

     Dahlia packed while Soren watched. Her cheeks looked soft in the candlelight, much softer than they did when it was daytime. She looked younger than Dennee, and not as fierce as a Mord’Sith should be. It unnerved Soren a little bit, although he didn’t know how to say it.

     Instead he said, “Dahlia?”

     “Lord Rahl,” she responded smoothly.

     “I love you.”

     “All Mord’Sith love the Lord Rahl.”

     “You love me,” Soren translated. “How long have we been in Aydindril?”

     “Two months.”

     “How long will it take us to catch up with Cara?”

     “Almost one month, if they travel at the same speed we do. We’ll meet in the middle.”

     “Then where will we go?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “Dahlia?”

     “Lord Rahl.”

     “Can I just ask one more question?”

     “You already did,” she said, and snaps the bag shut, rising to her feet. “Are you going to say goodbye to Dennee and the other children?”

     “Of course!”

     “Go and do it now, then. I’ll wait for you in the stables.”

     “Aren’t you saying goodbye, Dahlia?” Soren asked.

     “No need. Go on now.”

     “Promise you’ll wait for me in the stables?” Soren remembered what used to work, and tried it out. “I command you to never leave without me.”

     Dahlia bowed her head to him, cat-shaped blue eyes fixed on his face. “As you wish, Lord Rahl.”

     Soren allowed Dennee to hug him, because he liked hugs and she’d never been mean. He wasn’t sure if Renn liked hugs, seeing as Renn was so much older, but the red-haired boy gave him a quick squeeze around the top of his shoulders.

     “Look after yourself, Soren,” he said. “Look after that Mord’Sith, too. I hope you find your family.”

     “Me too,” Soren said. He waved to Edrand, who had just turned two, and knew how to wave back now. “Goodbye. I’ll see you again, soon.”

     True to her word, Dahlia was waiting in the stables beside a glossy black mare. She was stroking the horse’s cheek and murmuring something, and when Soren came in she almost smiled at him.

     “You’re changing,” Soren observed.

     “So are you,” she replied.

     “Is it because my father is gone? Or is it Richard’s fault?”

     “Maybe it’s just us,” Dahlia said. “Up you get, Lord Rahl.”

     “Dahlia?”

     “Lord Rahl,” she returned quietly, swinging herself up into the saddle behind him.

     “I mustn’t say I love Cara more than my father,” he checked.

     “Not yet.”

     “What about you?”

     “Me?”

     “I love you the most, Dahlia.”

     “As much as Cara and Kahlan?”

     “Uh huh,” Soren said. “Can I say that?”

     “Better keep that secret too, Lord Rahl.”

     “I will. But I do love you, Dahlia.”

     She kicked the horse forward and said softly, “I love my Lord Rahl.”

 

     It wasn’t their horse and they couldn’t take it the whole way. Soren had been warned about this, he remembered, but somehow when they alighted at the village and Dahlia dismounted and lifted him off, his face crumpled. He couldn’t stop the pout, or the frown, or the hot tears which sprung to the corners of his eyes.

     “I don’t want to leave the horse!” he shouted, and stamped. “Dahlia!” She wasn’t paying attention to him, which made it worse. She was handing the horse over to the man and shouldering her pack.

     Without looking at him, Dahlia said, “Hush.”

     “Hush?!” Soren didn’t remember ever being hushed before. Not once, in his whole life. What was wrong with Dahlia?

     “Yes, hush.”

     “I will not hush!” he yelled at the top of his voice. “Stop ignoring me!”

     The man holding the reins gave a chuckle. “Pair of lungs on you, lad.”

     “Don’t you want to know who I am?” Soren asked him.

     “Little blond boy travelling with a Mord’Sith he thinks he can give orders to? I’m not asking questions.”

     “He’s my son,” Dahlia said crisply. “You won’t tell anyone you saw us if you value your life.”

     “Thought you lot couldn’t have children?”

     “Why do you think I’m trying to keep him a secret?”

     “You pull a lot of attention in those leathers.”

     “We’ll be staying off the paths,” Dahlia snapped. “Stop asking questions.” She turned down to look at Soren. “See this? This is your fault. Now he’s picked up your impossibly infuriating question habit.”

     “I want the horse,” Soren said. “I hate walking. I’m tired.”

     Dahlia finished with the horse man. Soren glared as the man took their old horse away. This was all wrong.

     Dahlia bent down and said, “Listen to me. I’m just as tired as you are, understand? I know that you don’t want to walk, but you’re going to have to lift your chin and do as you’re told like a man. Like the Lord Rahl.”

     “I’m not even the Lord Rahl and I’m not a man either!”

     “Pretend, then,” Dahlia snapped.

     “I can’t pretend. My legs are too achey. They hurt, Dahlia,” he whined.

     “You’ll walk and so will I. Stop wasting your energy complaining. Does the Lord Rahl whine and shout and stomp his feet like a toddler?”

     “No,” Soren said sulkily. “I don’t want to be the Lord Rahl. I wish you’d pretend it was Richard instead.”

     “All right!” Dahlia exclaimed, impatiently. “So you don’t want to be Lord Rahl! You know who you are?”

     “Soren.”

     “That’s right. Who is Soren?”

     Soren frowned. “I am.”

     “Soren is the son of Cara Mason, isn’t he?”

     “Yes.”

     “So tell me. Does Cara’s son complain and carry on like this or does he walk bravely through the night?”

     She’d won, and Soren knew it. “I’ll walk,” he said sadly.

     “Good.”

     They began to walk. Soren pushed his fists into his pockets and tucked his chin to his chest. His legs hurt. His head hurt, too. He wished Cara would come here for him. He couldn’t remember so well what she looked like any more. It had been a long time. She probably didn’t remember him. She almost definitely wouldn’t hug him. Especially not if Dahlia told Cara how bad Soren had been.

     He started to say, “Dahlia?”

     She didn’t answer him, but she held out her hand. Dahlia had never done that before, not without Soren telling her to. He grabbed her hand quickly, and she squeezed his tight.

     “You won’t have to walk all night,” she said. “I just want to get us someplace safe.”

     “You protect me,” Soren said. “I know.”

     “What did you want to ask?”

     “Nothing,” Soren lied. “No more questions. I’m just walking.”

     “Excellent. Me too,” Dahlia said.

     Soren smiled, a little bit, even though his legs were still tired. He tried to be excited about finally getting Cara and Kahlan, Richard and Zedd back, but he was nervous now that they were getting close. He’d been away for a long time. He’d grown bigger, he knew, because he measured against Dahlia’s side and his head now stretched above the buckle it had been level with when they reached Aydindril.

 

     He’d fallen asleep, and now he was awake. Soren blinked his eyes and they rubbed against leather. Dahlia was carrying him. How long had he been asleep? He didn’t remember her lifting him. Soren had just been putting one foot in front of the other, watching his feet and telling himself that he was brave. He’d been so tired. And now? He was awake.

     “Dahlia,” he whispered. “Where am I?”

     “Lord Rahl,” she returned. “You’re with me.”

     “Are we never going to stop and sleep?”

     “Not tonight, Lord Rahl,” she said.

     “Why not? Aren’t you tired, Dahlia?”

     “No,” she said proudly, but Soren knew that was a lie. “We need to keep going.”

     “Dahlia?”

     “Nothing is wrong, Soren. Go back to sleep.”

     Something was wrong. Soren could feel it around him, a wrongness to the air. He shivered, even though it wasn’t cold, and Dahlia tightened her arms around him. “I’m scared,” he admitted.

     “No, you aren’t.”

     “But I am,” Soren insisted.

     “I’ll protect you.”

     “Dahlia, something’s happened.”

     Her arms got even tighter, keeping him pressed close to her. “Sleep now, Soren. I won’t let you go.”

     He tried, he really did, but his eyes wouldn’t stay open. Clinging to Dahlia, safe in her grasp, he fell back into the darkness.

 

 

 

     Soren woke with a gasp from the dream. Like the others, it faded fast, but he could still see the shattered ground, the waste of the Midlands, and – always – the bodies of the people he loved. It was not a normal nightmare. The voice had been there all the time, never explaining, just warning. You will do this, Soren Rahl.

     He would never, Soren thought furiously. No matter how many jokes Cara had made with Richard and Kahlan about it. Soren would never.

     It was getting hard to breathe. The dream pressed on his chest and forced it down and he felt sudden hot pain, as if he’d been stabbed. Forcing himself to sit up, Soren panted desperately.

     Rosina rolled over. She was just as awake as Soren was. “You’ve been dreaming for a little while,” she said, quietly. “I couldn’t wake you. Are you – was it the same dream?”

     “Always the same,” Soren whispered. He took a deep, shuddering breath. “Rosi.” Her name came out like a prayer; like a plea.

     “I’m right here,” she answered. “Soren, I’m right here. Come here.”

     They’d let the fire burn low, but in the flickering light Soren could see her up on her knees and reaching out for him. He touched her cheek, her hair, her shoulder. With soft fingers, he traced her eyelids. “Rosi.”

     “I know. I know. It’s all right, Soren.” Her hands came up to frame his face, one on either side, pressing in. “You’re safe. I’m safe. Our families are safe, Soren.”

     He was shaking, Soren realised, violently, like a leaf on the wind. He couldn’t stop himself. There was an overpowering feeling of wrongness in the air – and that dream, lingering. He kept shaking.

     Rosi shuffled closer to him, brushing the hair away from his eyes. “Please, Seahawk, you’re scaring me.”

     He tried to apologise – tried, but couldn’t make the words come. Just her name. “Rosi, Rosi.”

     Their faces were very close now, but it was Rosina who made the first move. She lifted up on her knees and met Soren’s lips with her own. It was soft; gentle. He shook through it.

     Although the kiss did a little to bring Soren back to himself, it wasn’t enough. He scrambled to his feet, needing to get away from Rosina and the light of the fire and the guilt of his dream.

     She came after him. “Soren, wait. Wait!”

     “I have to – I have to go. I don’t want to hurt you.”

     “We both know you can’t.”

     “I could, I could. The magic. I can’t control the magic.” Soren held his hands out in front of him, watching them shake and feeling as if they belonged to somebody else.

     Rosi said, “Seahawk, I love you,” and surged up against him.

     His back hit a tree and Rosi was everywhere, her lips and teeth and tongue against him, her hands in his hair, on his face. For a moment or two Soren was still detached, absent from the world, but then he reached out and took Rosi’s waist in his hands, pulling her in. She fit against him perfectly. Up on her tiptoes to reach his face, she was still holding him and kissing him like nothing else mattered. For a moment, it didn’t.

     Soren was still breathing fast, but the shaking had stopped. He played with the hem of Rosi’s shirt and, understanding, she stepped back and raised her arms so that he could tug it off. When it was gone she came straight back to him, kissing again, more urgently now. Soren’s hand spanned the side of her ribs, feeling the ridge of the leather band she wore around her breasts. It was a habit she’d picked up from the Mord’Sith, when she grew tired of the effort it took to lace a corset every morning.

     Moving together, they pulled Soren’s shirt up, too, and he yanked it over his head. Rosi’s fingers played around his belt, then she flattened her hands to the muscles of his stomach and ran them upwards.

     Her hands stopped moving abruptly, and Soren hissed in pain.

     “Seahawk,” she said. “You’re bleeding.”

     “Where?” Awkwardly, Soren struggled to look down.

     Rosina’s fingers flitted gently around his left pectoral. “Here. Did you hurt yourself?”

     “I don’t remember,” Soren stammered.

     “Was it the dream?”

     “I don’t – maybe.”

     “Are you sure that only your father can help you? The witch woman – Shota – she knows about dreams.”

     “Oh, no,” Soren said, grimacing. “She’s crazy.”

     The heat of the moment had gone, but he ran his hands up and down Rosi’s torso a few times before she stepped back. “Stop enjoying this. I need to find my shirt.”

     “You seemed to be enjoying it.”

     “Well I was, until you started bleeding.”

     “I bleed for love of you,” Soren said mournfully.

     Rosi laughed. “Don’t tease. Your foot is on my shirt. Will you be able to go back to sleep?”

     “Maybe,” Soren said.

     “I’ll lie beside you, then.”

     “Are you sure your motives are pure?” he asked, smiling.

     “No, they’re filthy. Lie down, you awful bleeding boy.”

     “Man.”

     “Man,” Rosi corrected herself. “Lord, I suppose.”

     “You’ll never call me that.”

     “We’ll see,” she said, and chuckled, curling up in his arms beside the fire. Soren held her close, stroking her hair back from her forehead and then away from his own face, when it started to tickle his nose. He closed his eyes and listened to Rosi breathing, safe and warm on his bedroll.

 

 

 

    

     The field was yellow-green and Soren walked across it, holding Dahlia’s hand. His legs were too short to push through the grass the way hers did, but he tried his best. In the distance, he saw four people.

     “Is that them?” he asked Dahlia, and she didn’t answer, but she released his hand.

     Soren ran forwards and he was close enough within moments to recognise them, to know that it was Zedd and Kahlan, Richard and Cara walking towards him. Soren ran faster, the grass slapping against his legs, until he was so close, he was almost there.

     Cara moved suddenly, as though she couldn’t help it, and she jerked forwards and caught Soren up into her arms, holding him tightly, so tightly he almost couldn’t breathe, and he held onto her and said, “Mama.”

     The voices woke Soren up. He hadn’t realised he’d been dreaming, but Cara wasn’t here. Dahlia was, still carrying him. Soren relaxed against her.

     “This is the boy?” a deep voice asked. “He looks different.”

     “He’s grown,” Dahlia answered.

     “No – something else.”

     “Lord Rahl,” Dahlia said, “I have cared for the boy exactly as you ordered.” Her body was tense against Soren, even though her words were calm.

     Lord Rahl? Soren thought. He was the Lord Rahl. Who else was Dahlia talking to?

     “Put him down, then. Let me see.”

     “He’s asleep, Lord Rahl,” Dahlia answered, and Soren felt her hand come up to cradle his face, leather-gloved fingers brushing across his cheek and chin.

     Soren opened his eyes and peeked out between her fingers. There was a man standing there; a man in red robes, with dark hair around his shoulders and very pale eyes. A man with a long nose and a thin mouth that tilted lazily up at one corner.

     The man laughed and it wasn’t a nice sound. Soren shut his eyes again at once, wishing he could go back to his dream, and Cara.

     There was a crunching of leaves and sticks and then Soren felt Dahlia trembling, her arms going even tighter around him. There was a sharp, cracking sound above his head and he fell.

     When he hit the ground Soren woke up properly, opening his eyes and yelling, “Dahlia?”

     She was on the ground beside him, he realised, her hand up at her face. She wouldn’t meet his eyes. After a moment, she took her hand away and Soren saw the red mark, and the bleeding cut at the centre of it. He twisted around to stare at the man.

     Now the man was smiling properly. He knelt. “Soren, my son,” he said. “Do you know who I am?”

     “My father?” Soren checked. “Are you dead?”

     “I can never die,” Darken Rahl told him. He held out a hand to Soren and rings glittered on his fingers. The rings, Soren thought, had cut Dahlia’s face.

     He took Darken Rahl’s hand and stood up. “What are you doing here?” he asked, feeling bold, and angry. Maybe he would kill Darken Rahl with his magic. Maybe he would order Dahlia to do it.

     “I’ve come to take you home,” Darken Rahl said, “where you can continue your training as befits the son of the Lord Rahl.” He turned to Dahlia. “Get up.”

     Dahlia stood. She bowed her head. “I’m sorry, Lord Rahl.”

     “Carry the boy.”

     Dahlia moved towards Soren immediately. The look on her face frightened him. She was blank, like she wasn’t really there at all. He took a few steps backwards.

     “I can walk,” he said quickly.

     Darken Rahl smiled, showing his teeth. “Very well. Walk with him,” he ordered Dahlia, and she did.

     After a little while of walking through the dark, Soren said, “Am I the Lord Rahl, if he’s not dead?”

     He meant his question for Dahlia but she wouldn’t look at him, her eyes fixed straight ahead. She wouldn’t hold his hand, either.

     It was the man who answered instead. “No,” he said. “I am the Lord Rahl. But you are my son, Soren.”

     Soren nearly suggested that Darken Rahl order Cara to hug him, when they found her, but he stopped himself. Something that Dahlia had said was stuck in his mind. “Don’t tell,” she’d said, “that you love Cara more than your father.” And here was the father and maybe he was the one Soren wasn’t supposed to tell, so he didn’t.

     He tried to slip his hand into Dahlia’s and she pulled hers away without looking at him.

 

     They didn’t walk for too many days, which was good, because no one would hold Soren’s hand. When he got tired, Darken Rahl would order Dahlia to carry him, but she never looked at him, or spoke to him. It felt wrong. Soren started to hate being in her silent, cold arms.

     When they slept no one spoke to him, although Dahlia would give him food. She patrolled the camp at night and didn’t look at Soren. She wouldn’t hold his hand. Darken Rahl never lit a fire at night. There was nothing cosy about it. Soren got scared, but no one was there to comfort him.

     Anything Darken Rahl said, Dahlia did. She would say nothing, or she would say, “Yes, Lord Rahl,” and she obeyed him with a single-mindedness that she’d never shown towards Soren. It frightened him. He remembered how he’d tried to tell her what to do, when he’d been younger, and the memory shamed him. She’d just been playing along. This, how she was with Darken Rahl, was different.

     Except one night Darken Rahl said, “Would you like to hold an agiel, Soren?”

     He’d asked to, many times before, but none of the Mord’Sith had ever allowed him to. When he’d travelled with Cara she’d told him to keep away from hers many, many times. It would hurt, she’d said, worse than anything else in the world. She didn’t want him to hurt.

     “No,” Soren said, a little uncertainly.

     Darken Rahl laughed. “Best to start early,” he said, and then he motioned to Dahlia. “Give him your agiel.”

     Dahlia stiffened. She moved towards Soren and dropped her hand to the hilt of the agiel and then she stopped.

     “Go on,” Darken Rahl said, with a sound in his voice like he was laughing.

     Dahlia said, “No, Lord Rahl.”

     Now he really was laughing, and he stood up and pulled a knife from his belt and walked to where Dahlia was standing. “Get on your knees,” he said.

     She did.

     “What are you doing?” Soren asked, frightened suddenly.

     Darken Rahl said nothing. He stood there and smiled a strange smile down at Dahlia and she began to unbuckle the leather around her middle, and the leather around her throat, to pull it off and then the leather underneath until her top half was bare save for the band around her breasts. Darken Rahl crouched down, holding the knife loosely, and then he sliced it across Dahlia’s skin and Soren screamed and turned his face away, covering his eyes with both hands.

     He sobbed into his hands, crying for Dahlia, wanting Cara desperately. And Kahlan, and Zedd, and even Richard, who would surely stop this with his sword.

     After a time, Darken Rahl pulled Soren around to face Dahlia. He yanked Soren’s hands from his eyes and he said, “Watch, Soren.”

     There was blood on Dahlia’s white skin, blood dripping on her arms and from her chest and down her stomach. More blood than Soren had ever seen on a Mord’Sith. Dahlia’s face was stiff and she stared at Darken Rahl and hardly blinked.

     “Would you like to try, Soren?” the man asked, and he put the knife into Soren’s hand.

     Soren said, “No!” in horror, and flung it away.

     Darken Rahl laughed. “Do you love me, son?” he asked.

     “I – yes?”

     “And do you love Dahlia?”

     Soren was silent. Darken Rahl reached over and picked up the knife.

     “I understand,” he said. “She is lovely, isn’t she? So beautiful.” The knife traced across Dahlia’s face; over her cheek and down to her lips, curving around them. Darken Rahl pressed the point into Dahlia’s lower lip and a bead of blood sprang up. He pulled the knife away and leant forwards, using one hand at the back of Dahlia’s head to crush their faces together.

     Soren pulled up tufts of grass from the ground between his feet and tore them apart with his fingers.

     When Darken Rahl stopped, there was blood on his lips, too. “There’s time,” he said, looking at Soren. “Plenty of time for you to learn, my son.” He pointed at Dahlia. “Kiss her. Thank her for being so beautiful, and for bleeding so exquisitely.”

     Trembling, Soren rose up on his knees and put his hands on Dahlia’s bare shoulders. He kissed her cheek. Her skin was soft, and cold.

     “Properly,” Darken Rahl said disapprovingly, so Soren did like he had seen his father do. He pressed his lips against Dahlia’s lips and waited for a moment before he took his head away. His lips were wet. When he licked them, they tasted salty.

 

     Darken Rahl didn’t use a sword. He had magic, but he preferred to rely on Dahlia to take down anyone who came near them. The occasional group of bandits, soldiers loyal to Richard or Sisters of the Dark – Dahlia dealt with them.

     “I’ve missed you,” Darken Rahl said to her after one such attack. “Have you missed me?”

     Dahlia smiled. She said, “I love you, Lord Rahl,” and her voice was a purr. It scared Soren to see the nothingness in her eyes.

     She never took her braid out, not even at night. She kept watch standing, except when Darken Rahl called her over to lie beside him, and then Soren turned his back and closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see what Darken Rahl did with his knife and Dahlia’s agiel.

     They took horses from men that Dahlia killed and rode instead of walking. Soren sat on the smaller horse, with Dahlia behind him. She always had an arm around him, holding him close against her. It didn’t make Soren feel safe. Nothing made him feel safe. He wanted Cara. He wanted her so badly that it hurt, like an ache inside his chest, and at night he would shape her name with his lips too quietly for Darken Rahl to hear and he would wish for her to find him.

     The castle was grey and built high up against a stone cliff.

     “One of my smallest lodgings,” Darken Rahl said, when he saw Soren staring. “And one that remains hidden to my enemies. Many of my Mord’Sith are waiting for us inside.”

     Soren said, “Hally?” and he meant to say Berdine and Raina too, but the look on his father’s face stopped him.

     Darken Rahl asked, “Hally?” and his eyes burnt and Soren turned away so that he wouldn’t have to look.

     “One of the Mord’Sith guarding the temple with me,” Dahlia answered.

     “I see. Soren, look at me.”

     Soren turned to look.

     “You have formed an attachment to this Mord’Sith?” Darken Rahl asked. “This Hally?”

     Soren didn’t know. He couldn’t speak; the words wouldn’t come, and he was so, so frightened. He couldn’t make himself look away from the knife, shiny at Darken Rahl’s belt. He started to shake.

     “He’s cold,” Dahlia said. “I should get him inside.”

     “Your job is to protect him, not to mother him,” Darken Rahl snapped, but they went inside.

     Dahlia took Soren upstairs and there was a bedroom which was all his, and the bed was huge, and the room was dark. When the door closed behind him there was a sound like a bolt sliding home, and then Soren was inside and Dahlia was outside.

     He threw himself at the door, yelling and pulling on the handle. It didn’t open.

Chapter Text

     Rosi shook him awake, and Soren had never been so happy to see her face.

     “Bad dreams?” she asked sympathetically.            

     “Just the usual kind. How are you doing?”

     She shrugged. “I miss my parents, a little. Are you ready to go?”

     Soren scrambled up. “I’ll get my sword.”

     His muscles were stiff when they started walking; stiff and aching. His head hurt, whirling with the remnants of last night’s dream. After a time, when the path widened out a little, Rosi laced her fingers through his. They walked side-by-side, until they crested a hill and came in sight of a village. A port-village, and behind it, the ocean.

     “I don’t have any money,” Rosi observed. “Did you bring any?”

     “A little,” Soren said. “Probably not enough to charter a ship. You could always – you know.”

     “Soren!”

     “I mean, it’s an option.”

     “If we’re desperate,” Rosi said, “and we find a very wealthy criminal. Let’s go see how much a boat costs first, idiot.”

     “Okay.”

     Soren didn’t let go of Rosina’s hand as they started down the hill.

 

 

 

 

     “I want you to see something,” Darken Rahl said as he opened the door to Soren’s room.

     Soren was sitting on the bed, with nothing else to do, but he sprung up and looked past Darken Rahl. His eyes searched for Dahlia.

     She was there, a little behind her Lord Rahl. Two other Mord’Sith were with her, but Soren didn’t recognise them.

     “Where are we going?” he asked.

     “You’ll see.” Darken Rahl smiled, showing all his teeth.

     Soren walked behind his father, with a Mord’Sith to either side and one behind. He glanced sideways up at Dahlia’s face, but she stared straight ahead. She wouldn’t look at him. She never looked at him anymore. She’d barely spoken to Soren since they got to the castle; she’d told him to eat, or to bathe, but only from time to time. She never smiled unless Darken Rahl wanted her to.

     They went up, up, up all the stairs. Soren got dizzy from all of them, and he nearly tripped. The Mord’Sith closest to him grabbed his arm, keeping him from falling.

     “Thank you,” Soren said. He didn’t know her name, and her face was blank, and her eyes were empty.

     Darken Rahl whipped around. “I’ve told you not to use those words. Who taught you to speak like that?”

     Soren said, “I don’t know,” quietly.

     “The wizard,” Dahlia said, and her lip curled. Did she not like Zedd? Soren stared. He hadn’t known Dahlia didn’t like Zedd. Why didn’t she?

     “You don’t need to say thank you, Soren,” Darken Rahl told him. “All Mord’Sith live to serve the Lord Rahl.” He turned to the ones around them. “Don’t you?”

     “We love the Lord Rahl,” the three Mord’Sith chorused, Dahlia a beat ahead of the other two.

     Soren looked down at his feet.

     At the top of the stairs there was a heavy wooden door, and behind it was a room full of chains and blood. Spreadeagled in the centre was a Mord’Sith, shackled to the floor by her wrists and ankles. Her hair was undone and lying on the floor around her head. It was matted with blood. There was blood on her skin, blood pooling beneath her from a dozen wounds, and there was marks of the agiel all over her body. She wore no leather, save for the bands around her breasts and hips.

     There was so much blood on her face that Soren didn’t even recognise her until Darken Rahl said her name.

     “Would you like to help me train Hally?” he said, and there was pride on his tongue.

     Soren choked like water had gone down the wrong way. He coughed, hard. Was that Hally? Under all the blood? She looked at him with dark eyes.

     Darken Rahl had his knife and Soren was jerked into speech. “Don’t hurt her,” he said, begged. “Don’t!”

     “How else is she going to learn?” Rahl asked. He plucked an agiel from one of the Mord’Sith guards, twirled it between his fingers and then plunged it down, pressing the end to Hally’s eye.

     She screamed. Her mouth opened wide, and her body thrashed, and she screamed.

     Soren cried out, turned away and buried his head against Dahlia’s side.

     The agiel clattered against the stone floor and Darken Rahl was beside Soren. “You can’t use Dahlia for comfort,” he said, smoothly.

     Soren wrapped his arms around Dahlia’s waist and pressed his face into her leather-clad stomach and closed his eyes. He wanted to close his ears, too, and block out Darken Rahl’s voice, but that would mean letting go of Dahlia, and he couldn’t do that. He clung on as tightly as he could, even when Darken Rahl wrenched him away, roughly, and shoved him across the room. Soren went sprawling.

     “Show him what happens,” Rahl ordered.

     Dahlia said, “My Lord,” and she pulled her agiel from her side and offered it to Rahl. She unbuckled the leather at her throat and dropped it, and Darken Rahl exposed a space just above her collar bone.

     Soren scrambled to his feet. “No, no! Don’t hurt her again!”

     “This is your doing,” Darken Rahl told him. With his knife he slashed Dahlia’s flesh; she gritted her teeth but didn’t cry out. The agiel hummed, and it sounded like screaming to Soren. He covered his ears and sank to his knees and sobbed as Rahl pressed the agiel into Dahlia’s cut. Her face went rigid and she didn’t breathe; her body trembled and the agiel wailed and then Dahlia collapsed to the floor, her eyes rolling back in her head.

     “I’m sorry!” Soren screamed, “I’m sorry! Don’t hurt them, please!

     Too late, he remembered his father’s lessons about ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

     “Please?” Darken Rahl asked, and he moved away from Dahlia’s prone body and back towards Hally, helpless on the floor.

     Soren couldn’t do anything but watch, and cry, and cry, and cry. He remembered, as if it were a long way away, Cara telling him to wipe his nose on his sleeve, and her hands on his face, pushing his tears away. There was no Cara now, only Darken Rahl saying, “Stop that noise, boy, if you want her to live,” and Hally, writhing and screaming on the floor.

 

     Dahlia came to Soren in his room after it was all over. His eyes burned from the tears that he hadn’t been able to stop.

     She knelt on the floor and said his name. “Soren.”

     It had been a long time since Dahlia had talked to him. Soren looked up at her, and when he found her looking straight back at him, eyes dark blue and almost kind, he burst into renewed sobs and flung himself into her arms.

     Dahlia detached him, but gently. “Soren,” she said, “I want you to remember something. Sit still and listen.”

     “Okay,” he said, wiping his sleeve over the tears and sniffing hard.

     “What he’s doing to you – the way it hurts – there are better ways to hurt.”

     Soren shook his head. “I don’t understand, Dahlia.”

     “Anger,” she said, “and pain. They hurt less than what you’re feeling now.” She touched his chest. “What you feel inside.”

     “Pain hurts,” Soren said.

     “Not as much as this. I know, Soren. You have to be angry if you want to survive your father’s training. You have to learn to hold an agiel.”

 

 

 

 

 

     Rosina put a hand on Soren’s shoulder when he started to get angry with the merchant.

     “Don’t,” she said softly. “He’s not worth it.”

     Her hand was warm. Soren took a step back and sighed. The merchant, confused but terrified, turned and ran.

     “Sorry, Rosi.”

     “You don’t have to apologise. He was being awful. But you were scaring him.”

     “I didn’t mean to.”

     Rosina laughed. “You get this look when you’re angry – your whole face sort of burns with it. I practically expect sparks to come crackling off your hair and smoke to snort out your nostrils.”

     Soren rolled his eyes. “That’s not true.”

     “No, Seahawk, it is. You don’t know how scary you get when you’re angry. It’s your eyes, I think. Plus you get this Cara look and this Rahl look all rolled into one.”

     “I suppose,” Soren said, “that’s why he picked me.”

     It was something he’d been thinking about for a long time. Plenty of Mord’Sith fell pregnant to Darken Rahl. He had let very few of those carry to term; and he had killed all the infants who came before Soren. Male and female alike. He had never wanted there to be a second Rahl. He’d never wanted an heir.

     And then Soren, who was suddenly allowed to live; was taken to a Mord’Sith temple, was raised and protected as though he would become the Lord Rahl. It made no sense to him logically.

     At least, it hadn’t, until Cara had said to him one day, “I was his favourite.”

     They’d been talking about Darken Rahl. About the things he’d done, and the things he’d made the Mord’Sith do. Soren knew instantly that this wasn’t the same way in which Berdine had claimed to be his ‘favourite’ when he was small. Cara meant something else. “You were?” he’d ventured, hesitantly.

     “From when I was a child,” Cara told him. “He watched all of us training as girls. He said I showed promise, and he trained me himself, for a time. When I was older he would handpick me for every mission that he deemed important.”

     “Is that why-” Soren had started, and then stopped, unable to continue.

     Cara had smiled, a flash of teeth. Not a friendly smile. “He liked me. He liked my aggression – my attitude. I guess he thought some of that would get passed on to you.”

     “It did,” Soren had said, quietly.

     “It did,” Cara agreed. “I gave you everything I had.” She had reached a hand up to touch a strand of Soren’s hair, brushing it back from his brow. “You know you’re strong enough to be the Lord Rahl, Soren.”

     He had turned his face away. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

     Now, Rosi said, “Because you’re like both of them. I get it, Soren.” She laughed. “You know, my father told me that was why he was worried, when Cara told them about you. Because the thought of her son, being also Darken Rahl’s son, made him think of someone with enough power and stubbornness to do whatever he wanted.”

     Soren shrugged. “I guess I can do whatever I want.” He looked at Rosi sideways. “Almost.”

     “I’m sorry I ruin all your plans,” she said. “You were never meant to love me.”

     “I was always going to love you,” Soren contradicted.

     “We were supposed to be like siblings,” Rosi laughed. “Do you remember when my mother found out?”

     Soren groaned. He tried not to remember.

 

     Rosi had been two months past her sixteenth birthday, and Soren had been twenty-one. Not so long ago, really. There had been a little before; the occasional lingering hug, or a rapid, nervous press of lips in a dark hallway. Soren had chalked most of it up to Rosi having a crush. She’d liked him since she was young, tried to kiss him often. After she’d been about fourteen, he’d let her do it, on occasion. He hadn’t realised how strong their feelings were.

     They’d been walking back to their rooms after some ceremonial occasion. Rosi was wearing her white Confessor’s dress – Confessors started young, after all, although Madde, at twelve, was not yet granted a white dress of her own.

     Unusually, they had been unguarded. Soren vaguely remembered Rosi suggesting that they give the slip to whatever Mord’Sith or luckless D’Haran soldier happened to be tailing them that night. He remembered agreeing.

     They’d walked together down the hallway and Soren had been watching Rosi in her white dress out of the corner of his eye. He’d first seen her in that dress a year ago, but it was still stunning. She was gorgeous, with the white dress against her pale skin, her hair long and dark and spilling everywhere. Her eyes shone blue.

     Soren’s eyes had dipped down, against his will, to the line of her bodice and the press of her corset against her flesh.

     “You’re staring, Seahawk,” she’d said, amusement plain in her tone.

     Flushing, Soren brought his eyes back up to her face. “I’m sorry.”

     “You always do it, when I wear this dress,” she said.

     “I don’t mean it.”

     They’d stopped walking. Rosi said, “I don’t mind,” and she took a step closer to him.

     “It’s wrong.”

     She shrugged. “Who says?”

     “Everyone,” Soren insisted. “I’m supposed to protect you.” And, he added silently in his mind, I don’t want to be my father; I don’t want to want you like this.

     “You can still protect me,” Rosi said. “We always protect each other.” She moved closer again.

     Soren brought his hands up to frame her shoulders, rubbing them over the white fabric. “Rosi…”

     “Don’t say no,” she whispered. “Not yet.” She rose on her toes, putting her hands against Soren’s chest, and their lips touched.

     It was slow, and Soren ran one hand up over the fabric of Rosi’s dress until he felt her skin. He flattened his palm across the side of her neck, thumb stroking against her collarbone. His other hand dropped down to her waist and he pulled her closer to him.

     Rosina twined both arms around Soren’s neck and opened her mouth against his and suddenly they were so close and it was too much and not enough all at once.

     Her hands slipped under his shirt, fingers playing with the muscles. He jumped when she flicked a nail against his flat stomach, and she laughed.

     “You love me,” she said, leaning up again to kiss Soren’s neck, his jaw, back up to his lips.

     “I love you,” he repeated, half-dazed. Wondered if this was what being confessed felt like. He wrapped both arms around her, pulled her closer and lifted her a little. They kissed again, harder and faster this time, stumbling back until Soren was against a wall.

     And then Cara’s voice said, “See, I told you they’d be down here.”

     Soren dropped Rosi and they stumbled apart. He glanced at her face and winced to see the red of her lips, the flush in her cheeks and the blaze in her eyes. Everything they’d been doing was written over Rosina’s face.

     Kahlan said, “What are you doing?

     “It’s fine,” Rosina said immediately. “It’s under control.” She looked up at Soren sideways. “Isn’t it, Seahawk?”

     “It won’t happen again,” Soren said.

     Rosi glared at him. “It might.”

     Soren looked down the hall at Cara, smirking, and Kahlan, arms folded across her chest. “It won’t,” he assured them.

     “You realise this could kill one of you,” Kahlan snapped. “Or both. Neither one of you can control your power properly.”

     “We’re being careful,” Rosina insisted. She folded her arms and looked exactly like Kahlan in miniature, as she always did when she was angry. The Richard parts of Rosina came out in happier things; her smile, or the sound of her laugh, or the way her eyes crinkled when she was pleased.

     “You can never be too careful,” Kahlan said smoothly. She looked at Cara. “You should be agreeing with me.”

     Cara shrugged. “If they want to do stupid things then let them.” Her slanted eyes roved over Rosina’s dishevelled look and landed on Soren. There was something dark in their depths.

     He held both hands up by his shoulders and stepped even further away from Rosi. “I would never hurt her,” he said. “Never.”

     Rosina turned to stare up at him. “What are you talking about?”

     “This ends now,” Kahlan said. “I forbid it. And your father will, too, once I tell him.”

     Rosi groaned. “Don’t tell him.”

     “Believe me, he’s going to find out.”

     “You’re horrible,” Rosina snapped, and she turned on her heel and marched off down the hallway.

     There was a moment’s pause, and then Kahlan ran after her. “Rosina Amnell!”

     Soren and Cara were left alone.

     “I’m sorry,” he said to her. “I’m sorry.”

     She shook her head. “Don’t be.”

     “I don’t want to be – like him.

     Cara said, “It didn’t look to me like you were hurting her.”

     They stood again in silence. After a time, Soren said, “Will you walk with me?”

     “All right.”

     He was taller than her now, Soren noticed. He didn’t like that. It made him feel uncomfortable; too big, and strong, when he knew Cara would always be stronger than him.

     She didn’t seem to care. She put her hand on Soren’s arm, just above his elbow, and squeezed. “If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “I’m proud of the way you turned out.”

     It did make him feel better. A lot.

Chapter Text

The pain scorched in Soren’s palm, burnt its way up his arm and he released the agiel with a gasp. “I can’t,” he said.

     Dahlia stooped to pick it up from where it rolled on the floor. “You can,” she said. “Try again. Holding an agiel hurts less than being struck by one.”

     Soren thought of his father pressing the agiel into the Mord’Sith. He thought of what would happen to Dahlia if she failed to teach him properly. He folded his fingers around the agiel again.

     It was huge in his little boy hand, but not heavy. It felt like Kahlan’s dagger. He remembered her letting him hold it; remembered her saying it was easier than a sword. This wasn’t easier. This hurt. It hurt him all over, not just his hand, and the ache rattled his teeth and burnt inside his whole body.

     He thought about Cara, holding the two agiels every time she fought. How bravely she would swing them in defence of him. To protect him. Soren was doing this to protect Dahlia. It was the same, which meant he was like Cara. Like Cara, and not like Darken Rahl.

     The agiel clattered from his hand and Soren looked down in surprise. “I didn’t drop it,” he said to Dahlia, and then he looked at his fingers and squinted. “I can’t feel my hand, actually.”

     Dahlia pulled his hand between hers. She wasn’t wearing her gloves, and her bare fingers rubbed the life back into his. “You did well, Soren.”

     “Will he be angry with you?” Soren whispered.

     Dahlia looked away from him. She didn’t talk about Darken Rahl when she was with Soren alone. Instead she said, “Try with your other hand, while this one comes back.”

     Soren bent his knees and sat on the ground. He reached with his clumsy right hand and picked up the agiel. It hummed and sang and hurt him worse than a million needle pinpricks, worse than falling off a horse, worse probably than a slice from a sword, although Soren couldn’t be sure. He tightened his grip around it and filled himself up with the pain and the hatred he felt for Darken Rahl. He let the anger and the agony wash away everything else until it was just him. Just Soren, and if he saw Darken Rahl, he would kill him.

     And then his whole body jerked and spasmed and he fell over, backwards onto the stone floor. It clunked his head and Soren said, “Ouch.”

     Dahlia pulled the agiel from his fingers. “That’s enough for today. You’re still small. Younger than Mord’Sith, when they begin training.”

     “I hurt my head,” Soren said, sadly.

     She checked it, running her fingers over his hair. Soren liked the feeling. “No blood,” Dahlia said. “A little bump, but that will heal.” She pulled her hand back.

     “Check again,” Soren demanded. He wanted her to touch him. No pain, just her hand on his head.

     Dahlia rose from her knees to her feet. “I’m not your nursemaid, Soren.”

     He stared up at her, and felt a quiver begin in his lip. Everything hurt. If he could just have a hug, it would feel better, but no one ever hugged him here. Not once. Not ever.

     “I want,” Soren said carefully, watching Dahlia the whole time, “my mother.” It was something he’d never said before. Not in his whole life. It felt good.

     “You must never say that,” Dahlia said, and then she turned and left, even when Soren called after her. She just left him.

     He wouldn’t say it, Soren thought, if it made her leave. He’d never say it again. Except, a stubborn core flamed up inside of him. Why shouldn’t he say what he wanted? Whatever he wanted? Why should he listen to Dahlia’s rules?

     Aloud to the empty room, he said, “I want my mother!

     It helped.

 

     Soren learnt to keep his face still and silent, no matter what Darken Rahl did. A poker face, Dahlia called it when she showed him. His poker face was good, so good that Darken Rahl never knew what Soren was thinking on the inside.

     He learnt, too, how to keep sharp things in his pockets, and dig them into his skin. Long fingernails, splinters of metal or wood. The pain kept him focused when all he wanted to do was cry and run. Kept him remembering to be angry. Remembering to think of Cara.

     He stole a stick of charred wood from the fire that Darken Rahl used to burn them and Soren wrote her name in his room. Under his bed, where Darken Rahl wouldn’t see, and inside the cupboard, and the drawers. Cara. Cara. Mama. The letters sometimes got mixed up and sometimes went backwards but Soren kept writing them. If he wrote enough, he thought, the Creator might send her back to him.

     Darken Rahl put the agiel in his hand and Soren pressed it to the skin of a girl who was only a few years older than himself. He had to grit his teeth against the pain, but Dahlia was right. It was the inside pain which hurt Soren more. He was doing a bad thing, he knew it, and the inside pain whispered that Cara would never love him after this.

     Soren clutched the agiel tighter and concentrated on the outside pain instead.

    

     The days went all wobbly, because Soren wasn’t always allowed to sleep. Some nights, Dahlia would come to him for the secret lessons. Some nights he would be told to get up and patrol the castle, preparing for an attack. On the worst nights, he would have to go to Darken Rahl’s rooms and watch. He wasn’t allowed to close his eyes, but there was a trick Soren discovered. With his eyes open he could make everything blurry, could picture something else instead, and he wouldn’t have to look.

     He pictured Cara, Richard’s sword, Kahlan in her white dress coming to save him. The pictures filled up his mind and stopped his eyes from seeing so much.

     When Soren could sleep, there was no one to tell him how long it had been. He was never sure if it was the same day or a new day, and he very quickly forgot how many days had passed. Every space in his room filled up with Cara and Mama until there were no more hidden places to write in.

  

     The castle was attacked, just like they’d said it would be. Soren was hustled from his room by Mord’Sith, down the stairs and into a carriage. One of them gave him an agiel. “Protect yourself,” she ordered.

     Soren held it close to him and wondered who was attacking. Would they kill Darken Rahl? If they did, what would happen? He’d thought Darken Rahl was dead before, but that had been wrong.

     Dahlia was the last one up into the carriage and Soren wanted to crawl over to her side but he didn’t dare. He sat still and held the agiel in his lap as the carriage rumbled.

     The horses whinnied in surprise, and then someone was shooting arrows. Soren could hear the whizz-thud of them and, for a second, an old emotion flared in his chest. Something he hadn’t felt for a long time. He liked arrows, liked the sound they made, liked watching Cara shoot them.

     Except then he remembered that these people were shooting at him, and that they were enemies who wanted to kill everyone.

     The carriage came to a halt. Dahlia said, “Stay here, Soren. Do you understand me? Keep away from the windows.”

     He nodded. He stayed. The Mord’Sith all darted out and Soren heard ringing steel, shouting, the buzzing of agiels. He rocked back and forth, clutching the one in his lap, telling himself it would be okay. Concentrate on the pain, Soren. The anger, Soren.

     It was no good. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t want the pain, but he was too frightened to let go of the agiel. If the Mord’Sith came in and found that he wasn’t holding it…

     Maybe, Soren thought, he’d just have a little look. He crawled across the seats, agiel burning in his left fist, and twitched aside one corner of the curtains. Red leather everywhere, fighting soldiers, fighting a man with a big sword and a beard. Fighting a woman in a-

     -white dress.

     Soren gaped. He moved his face closer to the window, almost sticking it outside, and he thought that was Kahlan. That looked like Kahlan, and sword-man could possibly be Richard, which meant Cara. It was hard to be sure, because Soren could hardly remember what they looked like. If he was wrong, they would kill him, or the Mord’Sith would punish him. They’d tell Darken Rahl, which would be worse.

     But Cara.

     Soren bit his lip, worrying it between his teeth, trying to decide what to do. He whispered to himself, “I want my mother,” and it didn’t feel right. He tried again. “I want my mother, I want my mother,” but he’d said the words too many times to comfort himself and they weren’t helping any more. His mother might be right there and Soren was too frightened to leave the carriage and go to her.

     And then he heard shouts from outside, heard someone yell and the horses whinny and the carriage started to move. He saw Kahlan’s head whip around – and, yes, that was Kahlan, Soren knew her and her dark hair and bright eyes – and she started to run after the carriage, but she wasn’t fast enough. It left her behind.

     Too late, Soren thought, and he clutched the agiel tighter so it burnt inside his whole body and he wanted Cara and he tried to picture her but her face wouldn’t come.

     Green eyes and blond hair. She looked like Soren, because Soren was a part of her.

     Something Dahlia had said. “Who is Soren?”

     “I am Soren.”

     “Soren is the son of Cara Mason, isn’t he?”

     Yes, Soren thought. Like Cara. And Cara was never scared of anything and so Soren was never scared either.

     He held the agiel tightly in his left fist, fumbled with the carriage door with his right hand. It swung open and Soren burst through it and fell, rolling and bouncing over and over across the forest floor. He opened his eyes and saw red leather boots, leather gloves reaching down for him, and looked up into the stern face of a Mord’Sith he didn’t know. Her braid swung over her shoulder and Soren grabbed it and yanked, like Dahlia had always told him not to. Her head jerked down and she cried out, mostly with shock.

     It gave Soren enough time to get to his feet and run, just run without stopping or slowing or doing anything else. He felt his heart thumping and thought, Cara, Cara, and his breath rasped in his throat and he almost choked on it, tripped and fell and got up again to run. Only running, there was nothing else, and Soren didn’t know where he was, or where the Mord’Sith were, but he had to run.

     He ran so fast that he crashed headlong into someone who stepped out from behind a tree. Soren fell back, landing on his butt on the ground, and he said, “No, no, no!” and squeezed his eyes tight shut. “I’m not going back!”

     The someone said, “Soren,” in a so-soft voice and he burst into tears.

     “Mama,” he said, through the tears, and he opened his eyes and she was right there, crouching in front of him. Blond hair and green eyes and a face that was so familiar and good that it hurt in Soren’s chest. He lurched for her, remembered in time that she didn’t like hugs, and tried to stop himself. “Sorry,” he said, cringing, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

     Cara’s arms came up and she pulled him in, into her lap, face against her chest. She squeezed him so tight that the air went out of Soren and he put his arms around Cara and held her and cried, and cried, and cried.

     “I’m here,” she said. “Soren, I’m here.”

     “Don’t leave me,” he sobbed. “Don’t you ever leave me.”

     “I won’t. I swear.”

     “Cara, please, please don’t leave me. Cara, please, Cara, Cara.”

     “I love you.”

     Soren felt her words the same way he felt her hug. Warm and wrapped around him, keeping him safe. “Mama,” he said.

     “I will never leave you.”

     They sat like that for a long, long time.

 

     It was Kahlan who came running up, panting, saying, “Cara, we’ve been looking everywhere – oh! You found him!”

     “He found me,” Cara said, softly. Her fingers pushed Soren’s hair back from his forehead; she’d taken off her gloves to hold him.

     Kahlan said, “Soren, are you all right?”

     Soren shook his head. “No,” he said, muffled against Cara. “I’m very scared. I’m sorry, Cara. I tried to be brave just like you.”

     “You don’t have to be brave,” Cara told him. “I’m going to protect you.”

     “But I’m not the Lord Rahl,” he whispered.

     “I don’t care,” Cara said. “You’re mine, understand? My son. I’m supposed to keep you safe.”

     “We have to go,” Kahlan said. She moved, rustling the leaves, and then a sharp intake of breath. “Cara – the agiel…”

     “It doesn’t matter,” Cara said quickly, her voice low. “It’s nothing.”

     But Soren remembered, suddenly, felt the numbness in his fingers where he still held the agiel, pressing it against Cara’s back. He cried out and tried to scramble back, to get away from her, but her arms went tight like steel bands. She held him close.

     “Let me go,” Soren cried, writhing, “let me go! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s all my fault! He hurt them, he hurt them, and now I’ve hurt you.”

     “It doesn’t hurt me, Soren.”

     “It does,” Soren wailed. “I didn’t mean it, I didn’t want to hurt you! I don’t want to hurt anyone, Cara, I don’t.”

     “I believe you,” she said. “I didn’t want to, either.” She pushed Soren back, but only a little bit. Only enough for them to be looking at each other, eyes meeting. “Can you let it go?”

     “My fingers can’t,” Soren sobbed. “They’re stuck, they can’t open.”

     “It’s all right, Soren. Just relax.” Cara pulled his arms in close to her, held the other end of his agiel. Soren heard the whine and saw the red pain spread across Cara’s hand, and she didn’t even flinch. She loosened his fingers, slowly, carefully, one at a time.

     His hand came away with a jerk and Cara dropped the agiel to the ground.

     “I’m sorry!”

     “It’s all right,” Cara whispered, and she unfurled Soren’s fingers and kissed the inside of his palm, red and blistered and covered in angry welts. “I’ve got you now, Soren. I’m never letting you go again.”

     To prove it, she stood up with Soren in her arms. He wrapped around her and clung on and she held him so tightly.

     “This way,” Kahlan said.

     They walked.

 

     Soren hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but when he opened his eyes they were somewhere different. Still walking, and he was still in Cara’s arms. He could feel it was her, even without seeing her face. She was breathing, up and down, and Soren’s cheek was against the bare part of her skin above her leather.

     There were quiet voices, which were maybe what had woken him.

     “Let me take him, Cara,” a man said. That was Richard.

     A small movement above Soren’s head; Cara’s arms squeezed tighter around him. “No,” she said, very low.

     “It’s been hours,” Kahlan said. “You must be exhausted.”

     “I’m not letting him go.”

     “Cara-”

     “If I’d just stayed with him in the first place,” Cara said, “none of this would have happened. Look at him now. Look at what Darken Rahl did to him. He’s broken. He’s damaged.”

     “So were you,” Kahlan said quietly.

     “It’s not the same,” Cara argued. “I wasn’t a boy. I wasn’t Rahl’s son. I wasn’t a magic-user.”

     “He’s your son more than anyone’s,” Richard said. “And as for being a boy and a magic-user – I happen to be both.”

     “You were raised by people who loved you.”

     “Soren will be, too,” Kahlan said.

     “He hasn’t been, so far.” Cara lifts Soren higher into her arms. “I should have stayed with him.”

     For a little while they walked and it was quiet. Soren wondered if he would fall asleep again. He thought about it, but then his eyes popped open and he felt awake. He looked at the green forest and it was pretty. He wanted to walk in it. And he didn’t want Cara to be tired.

     Soren wriggled and popped his head up. “Cara.”

     “You’re awake,” she noted.

     “Uh huh. Where are we?”

     “On our way home.”

     “Home where?”

     “To Aydindril,” Kahlan said gently, and she came over to walk beside Cara. “How are you feeling, Soren?”

     “I’m all right.” He wriggled again. “I want to walk.”

     Cara lowered him, gently. She put her hand out for him to hold without even being asked.

     “You’ve grown,” Richard called over. “You’re almost as tall as Cara, I see.”

     Soren beamed, puffing out his chest. “I’m growing big and strong.” He looked around, found a question on his lips. “Where is Zedd?”

     “He’s gone on ahead of us,” Kahlan said. “He’s finding us somewhere safe to sleep tonight.”

     Soren held tighter to Cara’s fingers. The leather of her gloves was cool against his skin. He didn’t want to sleep. Not in the dark, not all alone. He looked down at his feet, in their shabby boots, crunching across the leaves. The sun was already setting, and there was a red glow in the sky.

     “Are you hungry?” Richard asked.

     “No.”

     Cara frowned down at him. “You must be hungry. You haven’t eaten all day.”

     “I’m not.” Soren looked up at her, but only for a second. Her face was fierce and he stared back down at his boots. He wasn’t the Lord Rahl, and he’d done bad things, and Cara couldn’t love him.

     He tried to pull his fingers out of her hand, but she went tight, like a vice, and she wouldn’t let him go.

     “Why don’t you and Richard hunt, Cara?” Kahlan suggested. “I can stay with Soren.”

     “No.” Cara’s voice was very harsh. She was angry with him, Soren knew it. He squirmed his fingers again, but they were stuck tight.

     “We’ll be fine together.”

     “I said no.”

     “There’ll be food waiting for us,” Richard said. “We can wait until we reach somewhere safe. Better for us all to stay together.”

     Soren kept his gaze on his feet and concentrated on his legs moving forward, one step at a time. His hand throbbed where the agiel had burnt him yesterday. Was it yesterday? Or maybe only this morning. It seemed like a long time ago. He curled his fingers into his palm until the nails bit into the skin and the pain flared up. It was good pain. Clean pain. Soren walked and felt the pain until all the thoughts went right out of his head and it was just him. Just Soren.

 

  

 

     Rosi had one foot up on the rail of the boat when Soren put his hand out to stop her.

     “What?” she asked, glaring at him. Blue eyes and sharp teeth and that power lurking under the surface.

     “You shouldn’t come with me.”

     “Are you being stupid on purpose? What do you think I’m doing here?”

     “I’m serious, Rosina.”

     “You never call me Rosina.

     “I don’t want you to come with me.”

     “What, you’re planning to sail yourself across the ocean to find Darken Rahl? Confront him all alone?”

     “It’s a sea, not an ocean. Much smaller.”

     Rosi made a furious sound in the back of her throat. “I don’t want a cursed geography lesson, Soren. I’m coming with you!”

     “You’re not.” He’d got his hand against her shoulder now. She pushed forward, and he pushed back. It was always like this with them. Shoving at boundaries, refusing to respect personal space, breaking down walls. Soren had never been closer to anyone else.

     He did love her enough to withstand confession. Truly. Even if she wouldn’t believe it.

     Rosi shook her head. “I won’t let you go by yourself.”

     “Step back.”

     “Soren!”

     “Your parents will be here soon,” he said. “They’ll come and take you home. I’ll find Darken Rahl myself. I’ll make him stop this.”

     “He could kill you.”

     “He wouldn’t,” Soren said. “He’s never wanted me dead.” He pushed a little harder, felt Rosi struggle to keep her footing against his hand.

     “Stop it!”

     “I’ll come home soon, Rosi. When he’s dead, I’ll be fixed. Then we won’t have anything to worry about.”

     “You can’t just kill him and hope all your problems go away!”

     She was wrong. That was exactly what Soren planned to do. The nightmares, the lashing out, the loss of control - it all came from Darken Rahl. Every time he used his power without meaning too, or woke up bleeding from a dream… that was his father’s spirit in him. And the other dreams, the worse dreams. Dreams where he hurt them; Rosi, her sisters, Kahlan and Cara - everyone he loved. And he enjoyed it.

     That came from Darken Rahl. Like a direct conduit, a line running father-to-son, bits of Darken Rahl flowing into Soren and corrupting him. All he had to do was cut the connection.

     He put a little magic behind his shove, not enough to hurt her, just enough to get her to back down. Soren stretched forwards, magic and muscle both.

     Rosina stepped off the boat.

     “I’ll see you soon,” he said.

     “Soren!”

     He didn’t look at her as he cast off. “I love you.” He knew how to sail, could use ropes and magic in equal measure to get the sail to come taut and the wind to billow into the sheets.

     “Soren!”

     It didn’t matter how far away the boat drifted from the docks. Soren could still hear her. He kept his head facing resolutely west, eyes fixed on the red glare of the sun, and refused to turn back.