Richard woke suddenly; something had just nipped at his rear. His eyes flew open even as his hand shot behind him to slap away whatever was biting him.
Kahlan's face filled his view, eyes shining in delight.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," she grinned.
Richard found that there was no insect to be found, only Kahlan's delicate fingers – fingers that could apparently grip rather tightly when she wanted.
"Wah?" Richard said, which was the best statement he could manage at that moment.
They were lying on a blanket under a rough shelter – four posts with another blanket tied to them really – and the warm breeze licked at his hair.
The party, Richard remembered. He and his companions had saved a village from some bandits, and then there'd been a party. The partygoers had pretty much slept where they'd first sat down.
"What time is it?" Richard asked. "Did I sleep late?"
"Hours." Kahlan rolled away from him and lay on her back, her hair spread out in a wave behind her head. "I've been waiting for you to wake up."
"Yeah…sorry." Richard pulled himself upright, and stifled a yawn. Kahlan then reached over and grabbed at him, pulling him close and pressing her lips to his. For a stunned moment he let her kiss him, enjoyed the moment, then he struggled, pushing her away.
"Kahlan, what's wrong with you?"
Kahlan pouted. She sat back on her heels, winding one long tress around her finger. "Don't you want to play? I want to play." She giggled and let go of her hair. She put her hands to her corset and began unlacing it.
Richard scrambled to his feet. "Zedd!" he yelled. Enchantment, had to be an enchantment. Or a dream – no, his left buttock told him, still smarting from the pinch, not a dream.
"He won't come," Kahlan said. "He's more hung-over than you."
"I am not hung-over," Richard protested. He reached for the Sword of Truth and buckled its scabbard around his waist, feeling better for having the weapon at his side even if he didn't intend using it.
He glanced around. There were a few people still sleeping, but most seemed to have gone back to their daily lives. One man walked past with a goat being led on a rope.
"Zedd?" Richard called again, heading towards the furthest shelter away.
"I thought we were going to play?" Kahlan whined, trying to follow, but tripping over one of the poles.
"Later," Richard said, more to keep her quiet than anything. Since she didn't seem to have hurt herself, he continued onwards.
If he thought Kahlan was acting bizarre, he was in for a shock.
Sitting with her back to one of the poles at the corner of this tent was Cara. She was clothed only in her underwear – white undershirt that showed all of her cleavage, and black shorts that hid very little of her shapely legs. She was hugging her knees, and shivering, and as Richard approached she looked up, face tear-stained.
"Cara?" Richard knelt alongside her. "Cara, what happened?"
"I'm cold," she said. "I'm so cold."
Kahlan had caught up with him and Richard glared at her. "Find a blanket," he said.
Kahlan rolled her eyes, but went off on her errand.
"Cara, are you all right?"
She shook her head and began sobbing again. "I'm cold," she said again. "And tired. And I didn't know where you were."
Richard put a comforting hand on her shoulder. Her skin was chilly to the touch.
"I'm here," he said softly. Enchantment. Wonderful. "Cara, where are your clothes?"
Cara shrugged and dissolved into incoherent sobs. Kahlan returned with a blanket and Richard draped it over Cara's shoulders. She was pliant in his grasp as he wound it around her, forcing the edges into her hands to hold it tight against her.
"Why did you take your clothes off?" he wondered aloud.
"I was hot," she wailed. "And now I'm cold."
"I know. I know." Richard stood and pushed one hand through his hair. This was not good. Now he noticed his grandfather, asleep at the back of the tent.
"Zedd!" Richard went over and knelt at his side. "Zedd, something's wrong with Kahlan and Cara."
The wizard moaned and forced his eyes open. "Richard?" he asked weakly. His eyes were dull, with deep shadows beneath them.
"No, no, no," Richard said – not in denial of his identity, but in desperation at the situation. "You can't be sick. Not now."
"Just give me a moment," Zedd told him and promptly drifted back into unconsciousness.
"Agh!" Richard tugged at his hair. Okay, there had to be a logical explanation. Enchantment was still looking pretty good right now, but without Zedd's magic or Cara's agiel, how could he break the spell?
Kahlan, arms crossed, took a drunken sidestep, caught her balance, and glowered at the ground for daring to move. Then she nodded towards Zedd.
"I suppose you want another blanket."
"Yes," Richard said, worry making his tone sharper than it should have been. "Yes, I do."
Kahlan flounced off, white dress bouncing around her hips. Richard sighed with relief that one problem was temporarily away from his immediate vicinity and went back to Cara.
"Cara, what happened last night?"
"I don't know." She sniffed unbecomingly. "You were there. Why don't you know?"
Richard pinched the bridge of his nose and thought back. He hadn't seen anything suspicious. They'd all eaten and drunk the same things as the rest of the villagers.
No, wait, he remembered. Not exactly the same. One of the young women had brought them a flagon of wine as the festivities had begun. She'd poured cups for Kahlan, Zedd, Cara, and Richard – but then Richard had gestured so enthusiastically as he made a toast that his wine went flying over his shoulder.
"Something in the wine, maybe?" he wondered.
Kahlan returned, with a motherly woman in tow. Richard racked his brain and dredged her name from his muddied memories.
"Alyson?" he asked.
Alyson nodded, wringing her hands. "The Mother Confessor said there are some clothes missing?" she asked worriedly. "We rarely have thefts from inside the village – and you took care of the only thieves to bother us in almost two years."
"I'm not sure they're missing," Richard told the woman. "They might just be misplaced." For all he knew, Cara had taken them off and gone bathing in the nearby river to cool down.
"We'll look for them," Alyson told him, clearly embarrassed that her village should be the scene of any crime against the Seeker or any of his companions.
"We may have a bigger problem than that," Richard said. "Zedd is sick, and I think whatever has affected him has affected the Mother Confessor and my companion Cara, too."
Alyson's hand went to her mouth. "Oh my."
"There was a young woman gave us all a drink at the beginning of the feast," Richard said. "Tall, brown hair, had a necklace of pink stones."
Alyson nodded. "Erra," she said, then, in shocked tones, "You surely can't think she had anything to do with this?"
"I need to talk to her," Richard said, evading the question. "In the meantime, I would consider it a favour if you would help look for Cara's clothes, and perhaps have someone keep an eye on Zedd?"
Alyson promised she would arrange for all of these things, and pointed out the blacksmith's hut on the other side of the village. Erra's father was the smith, and when she wasn't serving at the local tavern (which was rather a grand name for a hut that had a few extra chairs and more ale than most huts) she was there, drawing water or grooming the horses that came to be shoed.
Richard set off to talk to Erra. Kahlan began following him, slipping her arm around his and giggling.
"Come on, Richard, five minutes in the woods. No-one will miss us."
How much temptation could any man resist? Richard sighed and shook his head.
"You're not yourself," he said.
"All the better," Kahlan said. "Maybe without my magic I won't confess you."
Somehow, even in what seemed to be an intoxicated state, Kahlan had put her finger on something Richard hadn't considered. Maybe it wasn't that his companions had been targeted because of their connection to him; maybe it was more to do with their magical abilities.
He wanted so much for Kahlan to be right, but he couldn't take the risk – nor would he betray her trust by taking advantage of her while she was not in her right mind.
"You mean you can't confess anyone?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I don't think so…I could try," she added helpfully. "Look, that man, there –"
Richard tugged her pointing finger down. "No. That won't be necessary. Look, you're the Mother Confessor. Try and act like it. "
"Spoilsport," Kahlan said sulkily.
"You'll thank me later."
They reached the smith's hut. The smell of charcoal and heated metal was thick in the air.
"Hello?" Richard called. "Erra?"
The girl came out to see them, rubbing her hands on a stained apron. "Yes?"
"Last night you gave us some wine," Richard said. "Is there anything you want to tell me about that?" he put his hand on the hilt of the sword, reminding her of the fact that he was the Seeker and not to be trifled with.
"Like what?" Erra said.
"Oh, let me try and confess her," Kahlan said and advanced on the woman before Richard pulled her back.
Erra had taken a step away, not unreasonably under the circumstances, and fear showed in her eyes.
"My Lord, I don't understand. Did you not enjoy the wine?"
"I didn't," Richard said. "If you recall, I spilt mine. You poured me a cup from a fresh flagon. But my friends drank and it and now they're all…unwell."
"I'm fine," Kahlan said defensively. "I'd be better if the sky stopped spinning around when I look at it, but other than that, I'm fine."
Erra opened and closed her mouth a few times. "I don't know what to say."
"I do." The blacksmith joined his daughter, a hammer in one hand. Richard really hoped he wasn't going to have to fight the man. Tall and muscular as he was, this man towered over him, almost as tall as Zedd, but about twice as wide. "I'm Ronn, sir, the blacksmith and Erra's father."
"I'm not trying to assign blame," Richard said carefully, wondering what Kahlan might do if a fight did start – though people didn't usually address you as 'sir' before they tried to punch you. "I just need to know how to fix this."
The man nodded. "You can blame my daughter some, for not washing out the flagons better," he said. "Those flagons have been used over and over – and not just for wine, I expect. The local wise-woman makes up potions in them when she has need to. She was here last week, making up a brew that helps get rid evil influences."
"Evil like magic?" Richard asked.
Ronn shrugged. "I daresay that since there's some evil magic in the world, that that's likely. Trouble with a potion is it makes no distinction between good and bad magic, anymore than a sheep dip judges the character of the ticks it kills."
Erra hung her head in shame. "Oh, please forgive me. I didn't think why the wise-woman asked if anyone needing the potion had any magic in them, and I truly did think I washed the flagons properly. I'm very sorry," she said.
"It's okay," Richard said. It wasn't, but at least no-one had deliberately poisoned his friends, which was a start. Nor was it enchantment; quite the opposite. Magic was unpredictable enough; who knew what a potion designed to destroy magical ailments had done to a wizard, a Confessor, and a Mord'Sith.
Erra looked up, horror on her face. "Oh, and I wasn't supposed to let the potion mix with wine. It makes it stronger."
"There has to be an antidote?" Richard suggested. Or maybe it would just wear off. That would be nice.
"Sheep's sorrel," Erra said promptly and her father nodded in agreement. "The wise-woman told us if ever someone took too much of the potion, a brew of sheep's sorrel would fix them right up."
Richard nodded and smiled, as he said, hoping against hope, "And sheep's sorrel is plentiful here, yes?" At home it grew near any body of water.
"Oh, yes," Erra said, happy to help. She pointed behind Richard to the dark and menacing looking mountains in the distance. "It grows all along the ridges of the peaks."
Richard's smile became fixed. "Of course it does," he said.
"I'll come with you," Kahlan said as they walked away and Ronn went back to his forge.
"No. I need you to stay and take care of Zedd," Richard told her.
"Why can't Cara stay?" Kahlan tripped again, clutching at Richard's arm to stay upright. "She's not going anywhere, certainly not half-naked like that."
Why not? Because you didn't leave Mord'sith to look after vulnerable people? Because Cara wasn't in any state to take care of herself?
"You can lend her some of your clothes," Richard said distractedly, eliciting a shriek from Kahlan. He was wondering where Cara's agiel had got to – presumably it was wherever her clothes were. Best case, all the items were by a bush, abandoned by Cara when the potion made her hot and confused enough to undress in public like that. Worst case, someone was even now passing themselves off as a Mord'Sith – though they'd have problems wielding the agiel which was the only blessing.
"I don't have loads of clothes you know," Kahlan was ranting. "I'm not Princess Violet of Tammarang! I can't just give my clothes to Cara!"
Richard tuned her out, trying to focus on his task. Mountain climbing was not what he'd had in mind for today.
When he got back to Zedd's tent, Alyson came to meet him. He explained what he'd learned and Alyson nodded fervently.
"Bring a bunch back and I'll brew it up," she promised. "Quick as you can, though, dear." She looked behind her, to where Zedd was sleeping. "I'm doing my best, but he's running a fever now."
"I'll be as quick as I can," Richard said. Eager to help, Alyson described the plant and told him the quickest way up the mountain.
"I've got some of the girls looking for the lady's clothes," Alyson added. "And I offered to have one of my daughters lend her some, but she won't have them."
Richard thanked her and stopped briefly to talk to Cara once more.
"Why won't you wear any other clothes?" he asked gently.
"I want mine back," she said pitifully.
"We'll find them," he promised. "I just need to go and get this plant, all right?"
Cara nodded mournfully. "Shall I come with you?"
"You're not dressed for it," he pointed out. "I won't be long."
Kahlan pouted. "I'm coming, though."
"No," he said over his shoulder. "The way you keep tripping over, you'll fall into a ravine. Stay here. That's an order."
Kahlan folded her arms again. "That's just mean," she yelled, stumbling again, and glaring at Cara in case she thought to make any comment on this momentary lapse in the Confessor's balance.
Kahlan was not happy. She had been having a very nice time at the party; she'd danced with a very nice man, and there'd been food, and wine. Then she'd gone to sleep and woken up feeling giddy – both in the sense that the ground wouldn’t stay where it was supposed to, and in the sense of joyful abandon.
What she wanted was Richard. Wanted to tear his clothes off, wanted to rub her fingers on his skin, wanted to entangle her fingers in his hair. She wanted to kiss him, to taste him, to feel his stubble on her cheek. She wanted him to fondle her breasts and lay her on the ground and make sweet love to her.
Unfortunately she wasn't by Richard – though she was near Cara, and for some reason Cara was crying. Kahlan knew that this was A Very Bad Thing, though she couldn't articulate why. So she'd tried to ignore Cara. Perhaps the wizard could help; that was what parents were for, wasn't it, dealing with crying children? And Zedd was Richard's grandfather, so he was surely qualified to make Cara stop crying.
This wasn't going to happen either. He said he was sick, which Kahlan suspected meant hung-over. She'd told him to make Cara stop crying and he'd told her to go and find Richard.
So she had – only tripping over twice – except he was asleep. He was on his side, face pillowed on one hand. So she'd straddled the sleeping form, nudging one knee almost into his groin, and leant over, touching the tip of her tongue to the end of his nose.
"Grr-off," Richard had mumbled. Ah, well. If pleasure wouldn't wake him…
The pinch to his lovely behind had woken him well enough, and Kahlan was sure that now they could have sex. At this point, Cara and Zedd's predicaments had quite left her head.
She'd never realised how exasperating Richard was. Blah-blah, duty. Blah-blah, what's wrong here? Blah-blah, fetch more blankets. The only good thing to do with a blanket, Kahlan thought, was to put it on the floor so knees and elbows didn't get scraped on the dirt.
Now he'd gone off - typical man - on some quest, insisting he didn't need any help.
Alyson was minding Zedd, Kahlan reasoned, so she might as well be useful elsewhere. That would show Richard! And Cara could come with, if she didn't mind keeping the blanket around her. At least she'd stopped crying for the time being.
"Cara," Kahlan said, using her best Mother Confessor tone, "we're going to go and find your clothes."
The girls despatched by Alyson to find the missing leather costume had gone about their search in a careful, diligent fashion. Kahlan simply rounded on anyone in the vicinity and threatened to confess them if they didn't tell them where the clothes were.
"I had nothing to do with it," one young man told her. "But, er, Mylo might know."
"Mylo who and why and where?" Kahlan demanded. She took a step sideways, but Cara was pressed close to her, and so the Confessor was able to keep not only her balance but her dignity intact.
"Mylo. He lives over there. He likes to have stuff…weird stuff," the man rambled.
"Hmph," Kahlan said. "We need to talk to Mylo."
She fully intended to go and have sharp words with this "Mylo", but when a wave of dizziness swept over her, she pointed a shaking finger at the man she was interrogating. "Bring Mylo to my tent."
"Yes, Mother Confessor." The man ran, not needing to be told twice. Kahlan reached out and grabbed at Cara's arm.
"We need to go back to the tent," she said. "Lead the way."
Cara, miserable in her blanket, nodded and turned until she was facing in the right direction. Kahlan let go her death grip on Cara and slipped her arm around the Mord'Sith instead. It was mostly to make sure she didn't fall over, but Cara, grateful for the warmth, nestled in close. Kahlan tightened her fingers briefly on the woman's other arm in a gesture of comfort.
As they made their way slowly over the grass, weaving about in their drugged states, Kahlan was vaguely aware that this was not normal behaviour. She shouldn't be holding Cara like this.
Cara tipped her head for a moment, her head touching Kahlan's.
"It's all right," Kahlan said, with bravado she didn't actually feel. "Richard will be back soon."
Richard, halfway up the slope that led to the area where sheep's sorrel grew, paused to catch his breath. It had been a steeper climb than he'd expected, and recent rains had loosened rocks on the trail, making it dangerous. Sweat was trickling down his back, and there were grazes on both his hands.
Taking one more deep lungful of mountain air, he forced himself onwards.
Mylo was brought before Kahlan by the villager she'd entrusted with the task, and a man she'd never seen before. Released from their grasp, Mylo fell to his knees, hands clasped.
"Mother Confessor," he cried.
Kahlan was sitting cross-legged on the floor, trying to ignore the world's spinning. Cara had curled up near Zedd, her legs tucked up so that she was almost in the foetal position.
"Mylo, tell me the truth. Did you take Cara's clothes?" Kahlan intoned with as much gravitas as she could manage.
He nodded miserably.
"People collect certain items," Mylo explained. "Swords from great battles, or jewels that have belonged to royalty. Items that belong to the Mord'Sith are very desirable since they are usually only obtainable by being a Mord'Sith oneself."
"And what do they do with these items?" Kahlan asked.
"Look at them, mostly," Mylo said, puzzled. Then his face brightened as he found more information to impart. "But not the clothes. I have a buyer over the mountains who's been wanting Mord'Sith clothes for ages. For his wife to wear."
Seeing her confused expression, he said, "To, um, pretend"
Kahlan's eyes widened. "Oh." Then she frowned. "What about me?"
"You, Mother Confessor?" Mylo gestured, hands spread wide. "I took nothing of yours."
"Why not?" Kahlan glared at him. "Am I not even rarer than a Mord'Sith?"
"Oh yes, yes," Mylo assured her. "People would pay a lot for so much as a lock of your hair."
Kahlan's eyes lit up and she fingered a strand of her hair. "Really?"
Sweaty, tired, bruised, and scratched, Richard staggered back into the village, a bunch of sheep's sorrel clutched triumphantly in one fist.
When he approached the tent, Kahlan wandered over, her progress hampered by her tendency to zig-zag about. She was now in her underclothes too, black leggings and corset, having discarded her outer layers.
"Kahlan, why aren't you dressed?" Richard asked.
"No-one else is," Kahlan muttered. "Oh, you brought me flowers. How sweet." She reached for them but Richard moved them out of her grasp.
"Alyson," he yelled.
Kahlan pressed herself against him and licked at his cheek. "I missed you," she said. Then, before Richard could protest, she drew back, suddenly pale. "Just a minute," she said, turned and vomited.
"Oh, that's not good," Richard said. Alyson came hurrying over and took the plants from him.
"I'll brew these. Won't be long," she said.
Kahlan turned back to Richard. "Where'd my flowers go?" she asked.
Instead of an answer, he held out his arms and when she stumbled towards him, held her tightly against him. "It's okay," he said softly. "It's okay now." He kissed her hair and rubbed at her back as she shivered in the early evening air.
Zedd's eyes flew open. "Clara!"
Cara, sitting nearby, leant over. "Your mind is still addled. I am Cara."
He shook his head. "No, I was having this wonderful dream. I was back in the Midlands with Clara."
"A woman?" Cara asked, surprised.
Cara had no comment on that and sat back on her heels instead.
"I see you have your clothes back," Zedd said, then glanced at his bare shoulders.
"Yours will be dry soon," Cara assured him. "Alyson took them to wash after you vomited on them."
"Ah. Yes," Zedd said, remembering. "That was embarrassing."
Cara shrugged. The wizard had no idea what embarrassing was. That's she'd wept so openly, wandered around barely dressed…she touched her agiel, feeling comforted by its touch. Mylo had rolled it into a box to avoid touching the stolen item; when he'd returned her clothes, she'd taken pleasure in making him hold the weapon in his bare hands for a moment in punishment for his crime.
"Your timing was useful," Cara offered. "It distracted Kahlan from cutting off her hair."
"Her hair? Whatever for?"
Cara thought about this a moment, trying to decide how best to describe the notion of a drunken Kahlan trying to sell her hair in order to outdo the market value of collectable Mord'Sith regalia.
"For souvenirs," she said.
Richard had been bathing in the river for a good half an hour, enjoying the soothing waters on his muscles and the cleansing of his minor injuries. He swam to the other side of the river and then floated on his back, drifting for a while.
Startled, he disappeared under the water, came back up spluttering.
"Sorry." Kahlan, fully dressed, smiled.
"You're feeling better," Richard noted.
"Yes. Cara and Zedd were still sleeping when I left them, but Alyson said they'll be fine." Kahlan looked at the ground, embarrassed. "Richard, I'm so sorry."
With strong, swift strokes he reached the bank and climbed out. Water pooled around his feet.
"It wasn't your fault. You were drugged."
Kahlan shrugged. "Even so. Some of the things I did…and said…"
"You still managed to get Cara's clothes back," Richard pointed out. "And even have the thief clean them first."
Kahlan looked at him in horror. "Cara was crying," she said in hushed tones. "And I did nothing to comfort her! And then later, I had to hold onto her just to stay upright and she was glad of the physical contact…Richard, she'll be so humiliated."
Richard thought about this a moment. "Maybe we just don't mention it. Pretend it never happened."
"But it did."
He sighed. "We'll get through this, like we do everything."
And, damp as he was, Kahlan hugged him briefly, her fingers warm against his cold, wet skin.
"Were you really going to cut your hair off?" Richard asked and she pushed him away with a look of mock-anger.
Richard didn't need to tell them; everyone had already decided to drink only from their own waterskins before they slept that night.
Zedd was still sleeping in the corner, though now fully clothed. Cara was sat near the front of the tent, wanting to keep watch. Richard snuggled up close behind Kahlan.
Suddenly, Kahlan gave a shriek. Cara was there, agiel in hand; Zedd mumbled a curse and had one hand raised ready to cast a spell.
"It's okay," Richard said. "Sorry. False alarm."
As his companions settled back down, Cara flashing him a look of mild annoyance, Richard gave a soft laugh.
"What was that for?" Kahlan demanded in a harsh whisper.
"Just getting you back," Richard said. "You pinched me hard you know."
"I did not."
"I think I'm bruised," Richard went on.
"I said I was sorry," Kahlan said.
He smiled and closed his eyes. It been a very long day, but it was finally over. He put one hand out and this time just laid it gently on Kahlan's hip. Soothed by this, they both slept.