Zedd helped Cara to sit up, guiding her gently until her back was pressed solidly against the trunk of a tree. Cara was breathing hard, her face pale and dotted with sweat. It made Kahlan anxious. Besides being conscious and no longer bleeding, she looked just as poorly as she had lying on the ground.
Zedd crouched next to her again and probed her shoulder with careful fingers.
“Is there any pain?”
Cara, eyes closed, shook her head slowly.
Zedd moved a hand to Cara’s armpit and slowly lifted her arm straight out to the side.
“Rotate your hand, please.”
Cara did so and Zedd removed his supporting hand, watching her arm intently for any sign of weakness or shaking.
“Can you lift it over your head?”
Dutifully, Cara lifted her hand straight into the air, her elbow locked.
“Good.” Zedd wiped a few stray leaves from his knees and stood. “Luckily for you, I’m just as good at repairing muscles and nerves as I remember.”
Cara exhaled heavily. “Thank you, Zedd.”
Zedd reached down and ruffled her hair affectionately. “Don’t mention it.”
“That was the last time, I promise.” She opened her eyes. “The other Sisters. The ones Nicci brought. They’re around here somewhere.”
“We’ll take care of it,” Richard reassured her. “Zedd and I will go see if they’re close. Kahlan? Do you mind staying with Cara just in case?”
“Of course,” Kahlan said quietly.
“What if you go North and they come from the South? What then?” Cara said with unconvincing bravado.
“Well,” Richard slid his thumbs along his belt. “Where did you leave the horses?”
Cara scowled. “North.”
“Then that’s where we’ll go. We won’t go far. Shouting distance.”
Kahlan waited until she was sure Richard and Zedd were out of ear shot before speaking. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
Cara rolled her shoulder, carefully avoiding eye contact. “I’m pretty pleased with it as well.”
“When I saw that branch go through your shoulder—“
Cara’s head jerked up. “You saw that?”
“I was standing right there—“
“And you didn’t do anything?!?”
“I couldn’t!” Kahlan protested. “I couldn’t get through!”
Cara's forehead furrowed. “What are you talking about?”
Kahlan stared at her, confused. “You saw us.” She pointed at the rock face that was the barrier’s worldly camouflage. “You saw us come through. Didn't you?”
It was Cara’s turn to look confused. “That wasn’t Zedd?”
“That was the Eternals.”
Cara closed her eyes and dropped her head against the tree. She sighed. “I don’t think I want to know.”
“Probably not,” Kahlan admitted. Part of her was relieved. If Cara didn’t want to know, she didn’t have to explain how she’d burst into the temple, frantic, calling for Richard. She wouldn’t have to explain Asa trying to shush her, or the tight feeling in her temples, the shortness of breath, the impending feeling of Confession even though she hadn’t called the magic forth. The Con Dar, creeping through her body, narrowing her vision…
Kahlan mentally shook herself. She’d held it back. That was the important thing.
She swept her dress to the side and sat next to Cara.
“Sitting is not good for being on guard,” Cara said, but she did not shift away from Kahlan despite the fact that their shoulders were solidly touching.
“So we’ll be caught by surprise. It’ll even the odds.”
Cara hummed in agreement. They fell into a comfortable silence, and Kahlan realized just how much she’d missed having Cara nearby for the past few days. She couldn’t explain it. Time alone with Richard had felt odd. Lonely. Sitting quietly with Cara felt natural. Kahlan saw the difference. Even acknowledged it to herself—the difference, not the meaning behind the feeling. That she wasn’t completely sure of. Certainly not sure enough to say it out loud.
She dropped her head onto Cara’s shoulder, and Cara let her. “I missed you.”
Cara was quiet, but where she would normally have scoffed at Kahlan’s confession, Kahlan considered it a small victory that she said nothing at all.
“Richard has the Stone,” Kahlan continued. “It took him a whole day to convince these people to give it to him.” That wasn't exactly true, but Cara didn't need to know the particulars. The Eternals hadn't handed the Stone over until she'd barged into the temple on the verge of confessing them all. That had gotten them moving--anything to get Kahlan out of their valley before she combusted. She laughed hollowly, thinking back to her frustration at Asa’s inability to understand their urgency and how simple the ultimate solution had been. “The whole time I kept thinking, ‘Just let Cara convince them’, and then I’d remember that you weren’t there.”
“Finally. Somebody appreciates what I bring to the group.”
Kahlan smiled to herself. Cara’s hand was bare, resting on the grass between them. Absently, before she quite realized what she was doing, Kahlan reached out one finger and traced the back of Cara’s hand from her wrist to the edge of her knuckles. She repeated the gesture twice more before she stilled, suddenly realizing how intimate the unconscious contact was. Cara was motionless, her head still dropped back against the tree. Her hand moved—to pull away, Kahlan thought, her stomach sinking, and then she felt Cara’s wrist turning, offering her palm—
A branch snapped. There was a rustle of leaves and Kahlan shot to her feet, daggers unsheathed. Next to her, Cara laboriously rolled into a crouched position.
“It’s us!” Richard called. He emerged, shoving aside the thick branches of a berry bush. He was leading Nicci’s horse by the reins. A moment later, Zedd followed, leading the horse that Cara had ridden.
“These guys were tied up,” Richard said. He patted the horse’s neck. “From the looks of the tracks back there, I’d say the Sisters took off.” He shrugged. “Maybe they saw us take Nicci out.”
Cara stood slowly. “I think a mutiny is more likely.” She gestured towards Nicci’s body. “If they were still loyal, they would have asked for her body.”
Richard nodded. “True. Still, we got two free horses out of the whole thing.” He and Zedd looped the reins over a low hanging branch. “Zedd and I are going to take care of Nicci’s body. Kahlan, will you get our packs and put some of the heavier stuff in the saddlebags?”
Kahlan moved away, and Cara stood awkwardly alone without direction. She knew what Richard was doing, just as certainly as she knew that she would be one of the first to ride the horses. He was making sure she was okay, that she saved her strength, that she didn’t push herself. Which was ridiculous. Besides being a little shaky and slow, Cara was fine. She knew it was due to the blood loss. She’d been stabbed before, and now that the hole was closed, it was simply a matter of time until she felt completely normal. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t be helpful now.
Zedd and Richard were crouched over Nicci’s body, carefully looking for any spells or talismans that would blow up in their faces once they lit a fire. Cara gingerly made her way towards the horses. She could go through the saddlebags while Kahlan sorted through the packs. Nicci had packed food, which they would certainly keep, but Cara had noticed several books and pieces of jewelry that they could probably do without.
She stroked the velvety nose of her horse and he tossed his head with what she chose to believe was familiar affection. He should appreciate the fact that she hadn't burdened him with ridiculous, unnecessary weight. Where Nicci’s saddlebags were bursting at the seams, her own were barely used. There was half a load of bread, some dried fruit, and the clothes Kahlan had picked out for her what felt like an eternity ago. Her bedroll was tied to the back of the horse’s saddle. She slipped between the horses, trailing a hand across each of their shoulders as she did so. Their ears flicked towards her as she began unbuckling Nicci’s saddle bag, then Nicci’s body lit with a muted fwoosh and their attention was diverted forward again by the fire.
There were two leather bound books crammed in the top of Nicci's saddlebag. Cara pulled them out and dropped them on the ground, followed by a gold necklace and a pair of black leather riding gloves. And really, did one woman really need three different pairs of identical red robes? Cara dragged them out one after another like a magician producing handkerchiefs, disgusted at the total waste of valuable space. Something heavy was caught in the folds, and it thumped to the ground at her feet with a metallic clink. She glanced down. Apparently Nicci needed a new circlet for her veil to go with her fresh robes.
Cara kicked the circlet away with the toe of her boot.
It fell open and remained upright, pinned in a sort of ‘m’ shape by a hinge.
She felt her chest constrict. She dropped the robes and seized the thin metal band. It was smooth in her hands, the inside transcribed with delicate ruins she didn’t know how to read but nonetheless recognized.
Nicci had a Rada’Han.
Of course she did. It made perfect sense. Cara almost laughed at the stupid simplicity of it. Here she was, telling herself that if they ever made it to another town she’d spend her day scouring every nook and cranny, every merchant’s wares for the magic suppressing collar, only to have one practically fall into her lap.
She stared at the necklace, scarcely believing her good luck. Her chest felt tight with rising exhilaration. She could only imagine the look on Kahlan’s face when she showed her—
“What’d you find?”
Just as quickly as it had come on, Cara’s excitement vanished. She turned slowly to face Richard. He was smiling at her, his face open and honest with boyish curiosity.
In the split second before she opened her mouth, several responses flew through Cara’s mind. She could try for ‘nothing’. She could lie and try to hide the Rada’Han. The desperate, frantic urge to keep it from Richard was all-consuming, and she didn’t need to self-examine too closely to understand why. She wanted to use it. She’d gotten caught up in Kahlan’s fantasy to suppress her powers—so much so that she’d not truly thought about what finding the Rada’Han would mean. If she could not be confessed, then neither could Richard. All of her weak reasons as to why it should be her and not Richard that took the risk were no longer relevant. He and Kahlan could be together. No more excuses, no more danger. In the blink of an eye, she’d become redundant. And why should she feel disappointed? She’d known all along that eventually it would come to this. Richard was always going to win over her. The disappointment made no sense. Nor did the desire to hide the Rada’Han. The urge to unsettle the future Richard and Kahlan would no doubt pursue was so sudden and so persistent that it frightened Cara into forcing herself to hold her hand out and let Richard see for himself.
He frowned, his eyes shifting over the thin piece of metal she offered him, then his eyes widened.
“Is that…?” he breathed. He reached out quickly and took the collar from her hands. He closed it; it locked with a quiet click, a perfect circle.
“A Rada’Han. Cara…” Richard lifted his gaze slowly. His eyes were light with excitement. Cara ignored the sick feeling in her stomach. “You found a Rada’Han!” Richard exclaimed.
Faster than she could react, Richard wrapped her in a tight embrace. She could feel him trembling with barely controlled glee, then he stepped back, his eyes back on the fine circle of silver, staring at it as if it were the most precious thing in the world. He ran a hand through his hair. “Thank you,” he said emphatically.
Cara shrugged, as if he had nothing to thank her for. Richard caught her by the arm.
“No, really. Thank you.” He shook his head. “I never thought…”
She did not want to know what he thought. She wanted to not be here. She wanted Rada’Hans to never even have been invented.
“It’s fine, Richard.”
He squeezed her forearm, and then he turned, a broad smile splitting his face.
Kahlan turned at the sound of her name. She spotted Richard and Cara, and she smiled. Richard looked overjoyed. Cara looked…odd. Like she was about to be sick. She stood, the smile fading from her face, and made her way towards them. Cara probably shouldn’t be standing, but she was stubborn and Kahlan had let her get her way. She shouldn’t have; she should have insisted Cara take it easy—
Richard practically leapt out from between the horses and lifted her off of her feet, pressing a hard, passionate kiss to her lips that took her completely by surprise.
“Richard!” she gasped, “What in the world—“
“I have a Rada’Han,” he announced breathlessly. He lifted his right hand. The fine metal hung loosely from his wrist.
Kahlan felt her stomach drop. “Is that really—“
Richard’s mouth was back on hers. Kahlan forced back her shock and returned the kiss. “How?” she demanded once they’d broken apart.
“Cara found it,” Richard explained, turning and gracing her with a broad, grateful smile. Cara met his gaze evenly, thought Kahlan could practically see the waves of tension radiating off of her. Her green eyes flicked to Kahlan’s momentarily—a split second of barely controlled frustration—before she looked away and refused to look at Kahlan again.
Richard’s arm was around her waist, his fingers stroking her side excitedly. “A Rada’Han, Kahlan,” he breathed reverently, like the word held everything they’d ever hoped for. He bent and kissed her neck and Cara turned her head.
Look at me, Kahlan willed her desperately. Just look at me…I didn’t ask for this, this isn’t what I meant—
“I’ll tell Zedd you two will be sharing a room tonight if we find an inn,” Cara said calmly. She turned her back to them and walked away.
Richard laughed nervously as he gently turned Kahlan to face him. His brown eyes were bright with joy, and she hoped to the Creator that her face wasn’t showing any of the desperate indecision she was feeling.
“Can you believe it?” Richard asked, his voice pitched low. Kahlan did not trust herself to speak. She shook her head.
Richard touched his thumb to her jaw. “I never thought…” He shook his head, a bemused smile crossing his face.
“Neither did I,” Kahlan replied honestly. And it was true. She loved Richard, but talking about marriage and having a family…that was just talk. It was safe, because past experience had told her it was never going to happen. And now it was, and she felt…indifferent. No, worse than indifferent. She felt slightly repulsed. But wasn’t this what she wanted? Wasn’t this what she was supposed to have?
Richard kissed her again, and Kahlan squeezed her eyes shut, searching for that old spark in the pit of her stomach. She could do this. She could find that part of her again. She could force the passion and desire Richard had once ignited in her back to the forefront.
She could forget the flat, abandoned look on Cara’s face when she’d turned her back.