“This way takes a few days more, but it also passes through a village.”
Richard was concentrated on etching a map in the loose dirt. The route they chose now could have serious implications for the time it would take to find the Stone of Tears.
“Might I suggest that a brief stay in a place with beds and decent meals,” Zedd eyed Cara conspicuously, “would do us all a great service.”
Cara rolled her eyes.
“You’re thinking with your stomach, Wizard.”
Kahlan was tempted to laugh at the banter between them. It was becoming more and more frequent in the past few weeks. She could hardly remember the last time Zedd had asked for a dagger to keep while he slept.
She could hardly remember the last time that she had similar concerns.
Richard stood, brushing dust off his pant legs.
“Zedd might be right Cara. Spending a night in a village couldn’t hurt. We’ll move at a faster pace if we’re well rested.”
The Mord’Sith met his gaze, a stern expression on her face.
“The problem is that an overnight stay is never just that.” She looked at him accusatorially, “Somehow you always manage to find something else to take up a few days of our time.”
Cara made a broad sweep with her arm as she spoke, as if at any moment a desperate villager would appear and prompt Richard to run off and help them.
“Cara we’ve been through this, the Seeker needs to be there for the people.”
“And who will the Seeker be there for when the Keeper destroys all life?” Lips pursed, she continued, “If pace is your concern, you would have been well suited to listen to me the many times I reminded you of our quest.”
Though it was clear that Cara was fast becoming exasperated, Richard responded with good humor and an amused grin.
When the Mord’Sith had joined their company, Kahlan had difficulty understanding how he had come to trust her - to tease her even - after such a short period of time. Especially after Denna, it was unimaginable that he could allow a Mord’Sith among them, and expect she and Zedd to accept his judgement. Yet they had, and Cara had shown herself to be a powerful ally, who was fiercely loyal to Richard and protective of him and those he cared about.
There were even moments, rare as they were, when it seemed that Cara’s loyalties extended to more than just Richard. These instances made Kahlan trust her, and as time went on she had grown to understand what Richard had seen in Cara long before anyone else.
“Well, what do you think Kahlan?”
Richard turned to look at her, eyes gleaming.
“Maybe you should be the one to settle this for us. After all it seems pretty clear that neither Zedd or Cara are going to change their mind.”
The Mord’Sith and the wizard both shot him a look.
Kahlan smiled at him. However, in truth she would have preferred to let them settle it without her input. Though her role in the Midlands was as a magistrate and mediator, she felt that traveling with the Seeker provided her with a new role, a different role.
“I think Cara’s right. The shorter path is the better choice. We’re getting too close to the solstice to risk spending time in a village.”
Richard looked at her slightly surprised by her choice, but nevertheless acquiesced. Cara, meanwhile, glanced at Kahlan with both an expression of triumph and respect.
“The Mother Confessor has spoken.” Richard voiced dramatically. “Sorry Zedd, looks like another night of spice soup.” He winked fondly at his grandfather.
So, route decided, they set off.
The trail was rocky and uneven, but Cara led their group, maintaining an even pace despite the landscape.
Behind her, Kahlan walked, watching her feet so as not to trip over the many large stones littering the path.
Richard sidled up beside her.
“I was a little surprised you didn’t want to go to the village. I thought you might have liked to spend some time with Midlanders before we cross back into D’Hara.”
Sighing, Kahlan kept her eyes down.
“At times the people of the Midlands are well served by the presence of the Mother Confessor, but now I feel that they are best served by the Seeker defeating the Keeper in the fastest way possible.”
Her words came evenly, like she was explaining things to a child. Sometimes, Kahlan felt like Richard was a child, or childish at least. She loved him, but his view of the world was so trusting and optimistic that there were moments in which she struggled to relate to him.
“Kahlan, I know our quest is important but the summer solstice is months away and we should be reassuring people that we’re doing everything we can for them.”
Frustrated, Kahlan answered.
“We need to be doing everything we can to find the stone. I know there are months until the solstice, but we’ve been following the compass for months with no indication of how far we still need to go.”
“You sound like Cara.”
She looked at him.
“In this respect, Cara is right.”
Richard stopped walking briefly and chuckled as Kahlan continued on.
“I would never have thought you’d say that.”
Jogging up to again stand beside her, he added in a far more serious tone, “Don’t you trust me to do this though?”
This time it was she who stopped walking.
Looking him deeply in the eyes Kahlan rested her hand on his upper arm.
“Richard, there is no one else in the world I would trust more.”
He smiled softly at her, and she continued.
“But going out of our way to stop in a settlement…I don’t think it’s the right choice right now. I trust you, but I need you to trust me too.”
Richard reached up, capturing Kahlan’s hand in his own, running his thumb lightly across her knuckles.
“There’s no one else I trust more.”
His eyes shone with love, and Kahlan was struck with a now familiar comfort.
“We will defeat the Keeper. I know it, but only after that is done will there be adequate time to worry about the people. Not only those in the Midlands but in D’Hara as well. Part of me is almost afraid what it will mean for the world when our quest is over, what it will mean for us-”
“What do you mean for us?”
Kahlan looked back down, letting her hand fall from his.
“Our relationship will change when this is done. I have to return to Aydindril, to Dennee, and D’Hara remains leaderless.”
Richard bent his head trying to make eye contact.
“I’m not taking over D’Hara. The last thing I want to be is Lord Rahl.”
They smiled weakly at one another. Both knew that D’Hara was not a matter that would be easily solved. Years under Darken Rahl’s rule had left the people fearful and distrusting of the government, and since his death disorder and violence continued to threaten any semblance of peace.
She spoke softly, aware that he would not want to hear this, but what she needed to say was something he had to acknowledge.
“It’s just…when the time comes you may find that you have little choice in the matter.”
His eyebrows came together as she spoke, worry creasing wrinkles into his forehead as understanding struck. As averse as he was to it, D’Hara was his responsibility. By blood it was his duty to take the throne. Even if another could be found who was worthy, the people of D’Hara would still be bound to Richard Rahl.
He knew this but denied it, and the more he fought it the more Kahlan become aware of his other shortcomings. Small cracks in their relationship widened making his flaws more evident, and though he did not say so she knew he was seeing hers more plainly as well.
The love they shared was still there and powerful, but they both realized that as time went on it had grown increasingly fragile.
“Just because I’m a Rahl doesn’t mean I’m the only person fit to take the throne.”
But that was almost certainly what it meant, and hearing him refuse reality once again caused her patience to wear a degree too thin.
“And yet it is your blood they will be bound to! I understand that you don’t want to be in this position, but so rarely have we been dealt a hand we’d like to play. Pretending that there’s no problem just makes it more impossible to solve once we are inevitably confronted by it.”
He started to say something, to argue, but she stopped him.
“Maybe there is a solution I’m not seeing, but when you insist on relying solely on blind faith to secure a life where D’Hara doesn’t demand your leadership, I can’t help but feel that you are relying on that same blind faith to secure our future.”
Kahlan softened her tone, realizing that she was perhaps being overly harsh with him.
“I love you, but acting like these issues will resolve themselves is unrealistic. How can we plan our future, if we have different ideas about what it looks like?”
His lips were drawn in a tight line, eyes dark and heavy with feeling. Immediately she was struck with a pang of guilt knowing that she had unloaded her own concerns on him when he already had so much to worry about. But another part of her was glad to have said it, to force him to think about the things that plagued her.
When he didn’t respond she started walking. He remained behind.
She hadn’t meant to hurt him, hadn’t wanted to, but he needed to think, needed to start considering what life might look like when the rift was sealed. She would have to return to Aydindril, and the vacancy left by Darken Rahl was likely one he alone could fill. As a Rahl and the first true Seeker in a thousand years, he was uniquely suited for the role. If he only accepted what some part of him already knew, Kahlan felt sure that he would wear the mantle of his title with grace and compassion. He cared deeply for people, and could inspire hope and improve the lives of those too long subjected to tyranny and violence. Perhaps, his natural gift for leadership in combination with their love could even lead to the first real peace between the Midlands and D’Hara in generations.
But, until he could see that the future he imagined for them was implausible, there would be strain in their relationship. Though, the Stone of Tears was rightfully first in his mind, what came after had its place too.
If having that pointed out to him made Richard angry, then she could not comfort him. She could only give him space to process all that would need to be addressed.
Feeling his eyes on her, Kahlan sped up lest he decide to reopen their discussion.
She fell in beside Cara. They did not speak, each focusing on the path. Kahlan did not feel like talking, and Cara, she was sure, simply preferred the quiet.
Allowing her mind to clear, and fill only with the steady rhythm of even strides and a light breeze, Kahlan let her earlier agitation calm. It was also, she noticed, comfortable to walk with the blonde even in silence.
As the path began to smooth out, she lifted her eyes, for the first time noticing that they were walking through a large field of wildflowers. Speckles of purple, white, and dusty blue stretched out around them, and as the sun lowered in the sky the grass in which the flowers were nestled seemed to glow gold and shimmer with each gentle gust of wind. It was beautiful.
Kahlan looked at Cara to see if she would allow herself to appreciate the pastoral views.
Unsurprisingly, the Mord’Sith’s head was bowed, her brows knitted together in displeasure.
Kahlan nudged her with an elbow.
“Just think, we’d be missing out on this gorgeous scenery if we’d gone through the village.”
Cara merely grunted, and Kahlan almost laughed. Even when things were tense between she and Richard, the other woman’s gruffness never ceased to amuse her.
But then Cara did something Kahlan did not expect. She sniffled.
“Are you ok?”
Keeping her gaze fixed on the path, Cara nodded.
Kahlan tilted her head, noticing that Cara’s voice had been slightly stuffy but she said nothing further.
That is until Cara sniffled again, this time reaching up with a gloved hand to rub just below her nose.
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
Cara looked at her then, annoyance written across her face.
“Yes. I’m fine. Have I given any indication that I am not? Did I lose a limb or perhaps start coughing up blood?”
Cara looked at her aghast.
“I was not.”
Each word had been punctuated with her clearly intensifying anger. Kahlan shook her head, facing downwards to hide the grin teasing at the edges of her mouth.
As they walked she watched from the corner of her eye as Cara sniffled and rubbed her nose, trying in vain to do so discreetly.
Then she did something Kahlan was sure Mord’Sith were not supposed to do. She sneezed.
Unsure if she should express concern or laugh, the Confessor slowed slightly examining the woman beside her.
Cara continued as if nothing had happened.
Hesitating only momentarily before again matching the other woman's pace, Kahlan suddenly found her companion much more interesting than the dusty path or the sprawled and flowered vistas.
Apparently, her interest was thinly veiled.
“Do you need something, Confessor?”
Cara stopped again and turned to look at her, almost glowering.
Kahlan had to suppress a laugh at the contrast between what she had said and the way her voice came out nasally and high pitched.
Glancing behind them, she could see that Richard and Zedd were walking together, still someways off. Likely discussing their earlier disagreement.
Angling back to look at Cara, who now stood with her hands on her hips her nose twitching, Kahlan smiled.
“Do you need a handkerchief?” she teased.
Cara’s look of irritation suddenly shifted to one of angry embarrassment.
She turned, making to speed down the path and leave the Confessor behind, but as she did so she reeled and sneezed again.
This time Kahlan did laugh, at the same time reaching out to rest a hand on Cara’s shoulder.
The Mord’Sith shrugged it off, and stormed away. Kahlan went after her.
“Cara, are you sure you’re ok?”
Without looking back, she replied, “I’m fine. The only thing I could do without is you and your ridicule.”
“What? I’m not making fun of you.”
She was dismayed that this was how the other woman viewed her remark. She had thought they had reached a point where some light teasing was tolerated, and with Richard already upset with her she couldn’t stand Cara being angry as well.
“I’m just surprised. That’s all! I’ve never heard a Mord’Sith sneeze.”
Cara halted so abruptly that Kahlan ran into her, staggering backwards trying to maintain her balance.
“See!” she said “You are mocking me!”
Their eyes locked, and Kahlan touched Cara’s forehead, pleased when the Mord’Sith did not immediately pull away.
“Are you feeling ill? Could that be why you’re sneezing?”
Cara waved her hand away, pointedly looking elsewhere.
“Do your ears not work? I said I’m fine.”
“People who are fine do not sneeze without cause.”
Setting her jaw, the blonde huffed and mumbled something too low for Kahlan to catch.
She leaned in trying to hear.
“The flowers!” Cara said throwing her arms up in a gesture of defeat “They make me sneeze! It hardly demands all the attention you seem set on giving it.”
This gave Kahlan pause. It was completely unexpected. It was something else too. Something about this was…adorable.
Never once had Kahlan considered Cara having such a novel vulnerability. Recognizing it now for what it was, a wide grin graced her features, eyes shinning brightly.
It should have been a moment that served to bring them closer together, but Cara misread her expression. Furious, she turned and stormed off at a pace that the Confessor could not match.
Standing there completely distraught that this was how their encounter had ended, she did not notice Zedd and Richard coming up behind her.
“I hope she doesn’t think we can keep up, I’m an old man and without the promise of a decent meal and warm bed tonight I’m not sure I can get the motivation to move any faster.”
Neither Richard or Kahlan reacted to Zedd’s irritation, each of their minds filled with worries.
They proceeded down the trail in silence until they reached the area that Cara had clearly deemed worthy of being their campsite. To her credit, she had found a small grove of aspen trees just off the main path, offering the only real shelter in the open meadow.
Clearing the camp’s perimeter, they found Cara stacking bunches of sticks and dry leaves. When she saw that they were there, she grabbed her hunting bow and made to leave. As the Mord’Sith set out she called back over her shoulder to let them know that she would return in time for her watch.
Without exchanging any words, Zedd began to work on building a fire while Richard unpacked his axe to add to the small bundles already collected.
Kahlan sat quietly. Again, she could feel Richard’s eyes on her. She knew he wanted to talk, to resolve things, and she knew that if they spoke she would let him placate her. It was not what either of them needed. Postponing the issues facing them would only serve to delay the inevitable and leave them underprepared when it arrived. Besides, she was still distressed that her conversation with Cara had gone so poorly.
For a woman who claimed to have no feelings, moments like these reminded Kahlan that Cara was just as human as she was. The Mord’Sith was prone to embarrassment and awkwardness and perhaps more sensitive to each because of her background.
Kahlan was tempted to go after her and try and repair what ever unintentional damage she had done to their relationship, but she feared that any effort to do so would only worsen things.
Huffing to herself about the lack of options she felt were available to her, she laid out her bedroll and went to sleep, covering her head with her blanket to make it clear that conversation was not welcome.
The fire was low, when Kahlan became aware that Cara was back. She could hear the other woman fidget in discomfort, presumably trying to suppress any sniffling or sneezing.
Rolling onto her back and propping herself up on an elbow, she saw Cara bundled under her blankets like a restless lump rising from the earth. Richard met her eyes across the dim light of the fire, putting a finger to his lips to signal that Cara was awake and would likely be nettled by any noises that dared to disrupt her efforts at sleep.
Kahlan nodded slowly. Laying back down, she could not stop herself from feeling concerned whenever she heard the soft and fitful rustle of blankets coming from nearby.
She woke again in early morning. Richard had apparently taken her watch. She should have guessed that he might have. It was a way he could try and smooth things over with her without needing to talk.
She sighed deeply as her frustration from their argument the day before settled on her more fully.
Glancing around the camp, she saw that Zedd was awake prodding at the fire. She also noticed that Cara was fast asleep. Kahlan felt a wave of relief wash over her, pleased that the other woman had managed to get some rest.
Realizing that she was awake, Zedd smiled at her.
“You needn’t be up for awhile.” He spoke softly so as not to rouse Cara or Richard.
She smiled warmly back at him.
Rising from her bedroll, Kahlan began pulling on her boots.Though a few more minutes of sleep would usually be difficult to turn down, the missed watch had her feeling refreshed. She also wanted to keep some space between herself and Richard for the time being.
“I think I’ll go for a walk.” She stood, smoothing her hands along the leather of her skirts.
“Alone?” He questioned, a bushy eyebrow raising as he did. “You should wake Richard. He’d be happy to go with you.”
His attempt at subtly was irritatingly endearing.
“He took my watch last night. He needs the rest. As does Cara.”
The wizard nodded, recognizing that Kahlan had already made up her mind.
She slung her pack over her shoulder.
“You don’t need to wait for me once they’re awake. I’ll be sure to catch up with you.”
She smiled at him once more to make sure he understood, then walked past the edge of their campsite and into the meadow.
As she walked, she was once again struck by the beauty of the field. In the light of early morning the grass shown dewy and green. The colors of the wildflowers, which had been bright the day before, were even more vibrant now.
Yet, Kahlan was unable to look at them without thinking of Cara. Picking her way through the tall grass, away from the trail, she worried that the blonde’s irritation would only be compounded by exhaustion. She didn’t look forward to trying to keep the peace between a cranky Mord’Sith, an underfed wizard, and a Seeker smothering her with mollifying kindnesses.
Sighing, Kahlan realized that she had walked farther than she’d intended. She was standing at the edge of a small gully. A thin line of water trickled along at its center. It was the dry season, and Kahlan guessed that in early spring there would be a brooke here. She also noticed that the small flecks of color that the wildflowers had added to the larger meadow, had given way to a bunches of deep orange lilies.
She grinned and inhaled. Their fragrance was pleasant but not overpowering.
Suddenly, the Confessor was hit with an almost forgotten memory from her childhood.
Bending over, she began to pick the lilies fullest in bloom. After gathering a bouquet’s worth, she began to head back towards the trail, knowing that enough time had passed that the others would be awake and moving.
As she neared the path, she saw Richard and Zedd walking someways ahead of her. Richard smiled widely at something Zedd had said. She felt a knot of tension release.
She was always glad to see him happy.
Looking beyond them, she strained to see where Cara was, but no…the Mord’Sith was trailing in the back.
Kahlan was surprised. Usually, Cara overcompensated for her fatigue by pushing herself to be faster and fiercer than was called for. To see her willingly walk behind Richard and Zedd was unexpected.
A fleeting thought entered her mind, and Kahlan smiled to herself at the idea that Cara might be waiting for her.
She moved to catch up with the blonde. But before she could fall in beside her, Cara turned, her expression becoming cross when her eyes landed on the flowers.
Kahlan could already see her preparing to speed up and overtake Richard and Zedd, still far ahead of them. In a preemptive move, she reached for the blonde and quickly linked their arms, stopping her from changing pace.
Now side by side, Kahlan grinned at her walking companion who looked less than pleased to be in this situation.
“These are for you.”
Cara shot her an angry look.
Still holding the flowers out, Kahlan bowed her head slightly letting her dark hair fall around her face.
“When I was young, my sister and I had a nursemaid in Aydindril. In the spring months, we would always beg her to play with us in the gardens when all the flowers were coming into full bloom.”
Kahlan could tell Cara was watching her with an air of suspicion.
“We’d go out, and this woman, Therese, she’d sneeze, her eyes would water, and her nose would run, but she’d take us out anyway because Dennee and I were such stubborn children.”
Cara scoffed, as if to say that that hadn’t changed.
“We’d always want to pick flowers to take back up to our rooms, but Therese insisted that we take only lilies, because of all the flowers in the Confessors’ gardens they were the only ones that didn’t make her sneeze.”
She lifted her head to look at Cara and laughed softly. As she did, she pulled them even closer together.
“You know, I can’t eat chestnuts.”
They looked at each other then, Kahlan’s face coloring slightly at how close they were while Cara simply appeared confused by the sudden change in topics.
Taking a deep breath, the Confessor spoke again sure to keep her tone light, wary that this might be the wrong approach.
“I used to love suckling pig. The cooks in Aydindril would stuff them with winterberries and chestnuts and roast them over the kitchen fires. It was my favorite. I’d always ask for it, and then eat until my stomach hurt. When I started getting rashes, my sister used to tease me that the Creator was punishing me for my gluttony.”
Cara made a sound, and Kahlan suddenly pulled them both to a stop in surprise at what she was sure was laughter.
The Mord’Sith was clearly trying to stone her features, but despite her efforts her face was stretched in a wide smile, one the Confessor wasn’t sure she’d ever seen before. Without thinking she pulled the blonde closer and whispered in her ear.
“Not even Richard knows that story. Let’s trade secret for secret.”
She pulled back, not noticing how Cara’s ears had turned bright red.
Smiling she continued, “If you ever think I’m trying to use flowers against you -”
Cara looked at her clearly entertained.
“- then feel free to reveal my problem with chestnuts. I’d even argue that my rash is a worse vulnerability than a few sneezes.”
They stared at each other for a moment, stilled on the meadow’s dusty path.
Finally, Cara reached out and took the bundle of flowers.
“Well Confessor, I’d say those are reasonable terms.”
In that moment Kahlan forgot about her spat with Richard and her anxiety over their future. All she felt was an amused contentment as she and Cara started to walk once more, arm in arm, smelling the lilies.