It’s been a few days since Richard, Kahlan, Zedd and Cara received the bad news. The group, while on their way to Aydindril, were intercepted by a rider desperately seeking the Mother Confessor. Denee Amnell, Kahlan’s sister, he said, had been killed by Darken Rahl with the help of a powerful sorceress at his side, leaving people of Aydindril in a state of chaos and fear. Even though Darken Rahl and this witch, who the group assumed to be no other than Nicci, have since left Aydindril, the rider said that they have been sighted in other places, leaving a trail of death and destruction behind them. In their wake, fear and unrest had begun spreading throughout the lands once again. The rider explained that he was one of Denee’s most trusted servants and that she would have wanted him to warn Kahlan, her sister, and now the last living Confessor, to be careful and wary of this evil that has returned to the Midlands and no doubt wants her dead too. With his message successfully delivered, the rider wasted no time in parting from the four people so that he could return to his family in Aydindril and take them away to a safer place.
Kahlan was utterly devastated at learning of her sister’s death. She cried bitterly in Richard’s arms, cursing herself for letting Denee down again. In her grief, she vowed to keep her resolve and return to her post at the Confessors’ Palace in Aydindril, which Denee had temporarily filled during Kahlan’s absence. Darken Rahl and Nicci won’t frighten her from her duties as Mother Confessor, and she would give it her all to help restore peace and order in Aydindril and the rest of the Midlands. Hearing his beloved speak so vehemently, Richard promised Kahlan that this time, along with Zedd and Cara’s help, he will find and defeat both Rahl and Nicci for good. The promise gave Kahlan little comfort while she acutely felt the loss of her beloved sister. However, as always, Kahlan put her personal feelings aside, gathered all of her courage, and along with the rest of the group, slowly resumed the journey towards Aydindril.
Later on that day, the four were fortunate enough to come by a town, where a wealthy man recognised Richard. As a fervent supporter of the Seeker and his cause, he offered him and his companions shelter for one night. The next morning, he provided them with provisions to last a week and generously gave them four of his horses, to help them travel faster. If it weren’t for the man and his generosity, it would have taken Richard and his crew a month to reach Aydindril. However, on horseback, if they hurried, they could be there in a little over a week.
A few days after departing from the town on horseback, slowly approaching the heart of the Midlands, the group rode over vast fields in silence. Kahlan still grieved over her sister but the closer they got to Aydindril, the more her thoughts turned towards all the practicalities of what must be done in order to repair the damage caused by the Keeper, and now, by Darken Rhal and Nicci. The people of the Midlands were in desperate need of peace and healing, and she would do her best to aid in bringing both.
But there was something else, something which she dreaded to think about but knew that with Denee’s death had grown exponentially in both importance and urgency: The succession, or possible demise, of the future line of Confessors. She was the very last Confessor, in all of the known lands, she knew that, and it made her feel deeply uneasy, as though she were holding her breath with each step that brought her closer to Aydindril. Continuing the line of Confessors, ensuring the possibility of their existence in the future fell on her shoulders now, and entirely depended on what she chose to do from here. It was solely her task to bear children, she thought, healthy daughters, and teach them everything she knew. In time, the girls would have to have daughters of their own and pass down their own knowledge. And so, all of the future Confessors will be her descendants, her daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters. It was a strange kind of honour as much as a heavy burden to carry, especially when she didn’t know what exactly to expect to find upon her arrival to Aydindril. She wondered whether her companions were aware of the delicate balance in which the existence of future Confessors now lay, and that the task of furthering that line was now hers alone to take care of.
While riding next to Richard, Kahlan glanced at him. Every time she looked at him, her heart swelled with love and sadness. What she wouldn’t give to be able to bear his children, to have them grow next to the both of them. What remarkable people, remarkable Confessors such women would become, having been raised, loved and guided by the Mother Confessor and the Seeker. But she questioned whether it was truly safe to be his wife, despite what had happened that fateful day at the Pillars, when their love had overridden the power of confession and had instead created a new Stone of Tears. Right before they had defeated the Keeper with the new Stone of Tears, Kahlan had tried to confess Richard while being in the state of Con Dar. It was a miracle that the confession failed. At the time, she, herself was confessed by Nicci, who had previously stolen a portion of her han and used it against her. And considering all of these factors, Kahlan wasn’t entirely convinced that Richard could never become confessed to her, should she lose control in a moment of intimacy if she were to be his life companion. All it would take would be one time, one moment, one slip up, and Richard would become a slave for as long as she lived. The risk of this troubled her deeply, despite the miracle they had experienced that day at the Pillars. She considered the possibility of choosing another man to be her lover after all… But quickly dismissed the idea since the thought of it felt very wrong to her.
Richard caught her looking at him and returned her gaze with a reassuring smile. Kahlan smiled back and looked to the path ahead, her smile fading as quickly as unease reestablished inside her heart. Their daughters would have Zedd as their grandfather, she thought while looking at the old man, who hunched a little over his horse while riding ahead of her. In all of the known lands, there was no wiser teacher she could think of than the wizard, and she was so lucky as to be able to call him her friend.
And finally, riding alongside Zedd ahead of Kahlan, was Cara, sitting upright, steadily looking ahead, focussed on their destination. Even now, after all that has happened, Cara still chose to wear her Mord’Sith suit, feeling more comfortable in the familiar leather than in anything else. Or maybe she wore it because she felt better, safer, evoking that certain fear, if not respect, out of people, once they’d identify who and what she was based on her outfit, therefore keeping them at a safe distance from herself. If they could only know how good she was deep down, Kahlan thought, how many times she had risked her life to save Kahlan’s, to save Richard, Zedd, to save the world… Never before meeting Cara did Kahlan think that one day she would be fighting side by side with a Mord’Sith, let alone grow to care for one. And after everything that they have been through together, Kahlan was very grateful to have Cara there, by their side.
In that moment, it was as if Cara could feel someone watching her from behind. She turned her head and looked back towards Kahlan. Kahlan smiled at her but Cara only blinked in response before turning to re-fix her gaze on the path ahead.
The group had been travelling through a forest when the cool atmosphere of twilight descended around them. They decided to break for the day at a small clearing, surrounded by heavy tree-trunks and thick low branches, perfect for providing shelter. Richard and Cara walked about, gathering wood for the fire. Kahlan helped them arrange the wood in a pile, while Zedd set it alight with wizard’s fire. Everyone sat as close as they dared to the fire for warmth, sharing some of the food they had in their bags. Nobody had much to say - everyone was silently thinking the same thing: Once Kahlan is safely escorted to Aydindril to reestablish her position as the Mother Confessor, she would have to stay there, as the people were no doubt in desperate need of a Confessor to alleviate all the damage that’s occurred in her absence. That meant that Richard, Zedd and Cara would have to go on with the search for Darken Rahl and Nicci without her, at least for a little while.
Richard felt apprehensive about leaving Kahlan behind, especially with Darken Rahl and Nicci freely roaming the Midlands but he knew that the people in Aydindril and nearby areas needed her more. He hoped that finding and defeating Rahl and Nicci wouldn’t take so long this time and that he would get to be reunited with Kahlan in a not too distant future… But how often do these missions work out in a straight line, he wondered with a heavy heart.
Zedd’s mind, on the other hand, was already turned towards strategies on how to overcome the two threats. He imagined that Nicci would have absorbed Denee’s han, just like how she had done with Kahlan’s before the Pillars, if not even more so, since Denee is now dead, making Nicci more dangerous than ever. There was much on Zedd’s mind regarding how to tackle such a force of a sorceress, he didn’t have the time to think about the impending separation from Kahlan.
The only one who found herself completely perplexed was Cara. She was the only one who could not make sense of her thoughts and emotions that day, or in the past few days, and weeks really, ever since that day at the Pillars, when they had sealed the rift to the Underworld and defeated the Keeper. It was Kahlan and Richard’s love for one another that had created the new Stone of Tears, which had saved the world from destruction. Seeing the two lovers standing in each other’s embrace at the Pillars’ altar that day, seeing them so happy, so in love, touched something inside of Cara and had left her feeling unsettled and confused ever since. Fighting side by side with Richard, no matter what the battle, is a great honour and privilege, she thought. There was no shred of doubt that she would continue to carry out her sworn task of protecting him and serving him for the rest of her life. However… There was something else now, something that she had not expected:
The thought of soon having to part with Kahlan made her feel much more disturbed than she would have ever anticipated. Not only did she find herself feeling sad, profoundly so, it was as though everything else had become devoid of meaning. Even the thought of doing what she does best - exercising her skills in battle while fighting for Richard, going on his missions, didn’t excite her as it usually did. None of it seemed to matter as much to her anymore… And she could not understand why she felt this way.
When the last of the twilight light had faded and the night had descended throughout the forest, the main light illuminating the camp was the fire at its center, surrounded by three sleeping figures. Cara was the only one awake, at first standing a little way off from the camp, another shadow among the trees, looking out for traces of danger lurking in the bush, but when she felt herself falter under the fatigue all the more emphasised by the chill in the night air, she joined the others and sat down by the fire, staring at its flames. For the past few nights, she had always been the one volunteering to keep watch at night, unable to fall asleep, despite the weariness she felt.
The moon was high in the sky, its light mingling with that of the camp fire below, when Kahlan awoke to find the girl still wide awake.
"Hey," Kahlan greeted her, "How are you holding up? Want me to take over the watch so you can get some sleep?"
"No," Cara replied, barely glancing at Kahlan before returning to aimlessly stare into the fire again. "I'm fine. Go back to sleep."
But Kahlan was unconvinced.
"Cara, I'm worried about you," she finally admitted. "You've barely slept these past few days. Won't you please let me or Richard keep watch instead so that you can get some rest? Aydindril is still more than half a week's ride away."
Cara shook her head, dismissing the idea.
"Cara," Kahlan spoke more gently. "Are you sure you're alright?"
"I am," Cara replied dryly. She didn't look away from the fire.
"Then why does it feel like something is wrong?"
Cara only blinked at the comment. Flickering orange hues of the flames reflected in her wide-open eyes.
"If something is bothering you, you know you can talk to me about it," Kahlan added just as gently.
Cara looked at her.
"Can you tell what I am thinking?" she finally said, struggle evident in her voice. "What I… feel?"
"Usually I am able to read people's emotions," Kahlan replied. "But as you know, with the Mord'Sith… With you... It's unclear."
Cara turned her head and stared at the fire again, silent.
"Cara, is something bothering you?" Kahlan asked in a more serious tone, growing genuinely concerned for the girl. "You know I'm always here for you."
Cara closed her eyes. Not for much longer, she thought without saying it out loud. She hated that the thought of leaving Kahlan in Aydindril, of parting ways with her, was affecting her like this. She couldn't understand why it did and she wondered what was happening to her. The only thing she did know was that underneath all of this she felt a new kind apprehension that gave her no peace and was probably affecting her senses as a warrior without her realising it. She hated it.
For a time, Kahlan waited for an answer but when she realised that Cara wasn't going to disclose anything, she exhaled her expectations.
"I won't press you about it," she said against the sounds of fire crackling, "But if you need a friend to talk to, all you have to do is say."
A friend, Cara thought and felt a sting in the depths of her stomach.
"Good night, Cara," Kahlan said and readjusted herself into a horizontal position.
"Good night," Cara replied, without looking away from the flames.
Another hour passed like this and finally, fatigue overwhelmed her. Unable to trust herself to stay sharp, Cara was forced to wake up Richard so that he could take over the watch, which he gladly did, grateful for the full-night's sleep he'd been having over the past few nights thanks to her. She laid down, as close to the fire as she dared and made herself as comfortable as she could on the ground. She looked over to her side, at Kahlan, sleeping soundly on her side too, looking peaceful and as beautiful as ever. Zedd lay on her other side. The old man's loud snores disrupted the peaceful nighttime atmosphere. If Darken Rahl or Nicci or some other maggot happened to be passing through the forest within a five mile radius of their camp, Cara thought irritably, they will be led straight here thanks to the old man's ringing snores.
She tried to settle herself. She looked at Kahlan again. Apart from the soft rising and sinking of her chest, under the moonlight the Confessor looked like a perfect statue coined out of moonlight itself. Cara found herself spellbound by a feeling of longing, of wanting to be close to the beauty she saw in front of her, to lie next to her, to feel her warmth. But as soon as she became aware of this feeling, she reproached herself for being so week and thinking such thoughts. She forced herself to turn around in the spot, to deliberately face away from Kahlan. She shut her eyes tightly, with a frown on her face, and once again, was unable to fall asleep.
It was a little time before dawn, when the fire had just about died out, that a violent flame erupted in its place, for no apparent reason and from no apparent source, as if brought on by magic. The three resting people sat up at once, instinctively backing away from the fire, violently snatched out of their dreams, with fear erupting in their bellies just as quickly as the emergence of these strange flames. Bewildered, with a hand raised to shield their eyes from the overpowering heat, they looked at the roaring fire and at each other. They had to shift away further in order to avoid getting burnt. Richard, who had been sitting against a tree nearby, keeping an eye out for any unexpected visitors, jumped to his feet at the sound of the unnatural roaring and the horses' sudden frightened cries, and rushed towards the camp to see what had happened. Unfortunately, he wasn't fast enough for the horses, who fought to break free from their bonds and ran off into the forest, terrified.
"What is happening?" Kahlan called out, her eyes wild with panic.
"I smell magic," Zedd replied.
And sure enough, among the tall flames appeared an ethereal body of a woman, whose face, though looking older and much more worn out, they recognised instantly.
"Shota," Zedd's voice was filled with scorn. "I should have known this is your doing. What do you want?"
"I have come with a message for the Mother Confessor, and a message for you all," her voice boomed and echoed as if coming from a great distance, fuelled by the same magic that fuelled the unnatural fire. "I have been given a vision," she said, "A vision granted to me in my own blood, for which I have sacrificed a portion of my everlasting youth, so that I may live, so that you may live, so that all may live, if you heed my warning."
"What are you talking about, Shota?" Zedd demanded angrily.
"The ultimate prophecy has been revealed to me," Shota continued. "The Mother Confessor will conceive a child, one single child in all of her life, who will shape the fate of all Confessors to come, all Seekers to come, and all of the world."
Kahlan and Richard exchanged alarmed looks.
"I've had enough of your prophecies and tricks," Zedd called out angrily at the woman in the flames.
"It is no trick, Zeddicus. If you could but see me now, you would see that I have paid a dear price for this vision, so that we all may survive what is to come. I would not squander my youth and beauty over anything less. Heed my words and live. Ignore me, and we all die," she added darkly. "The child of which I speak will be touched by the four forces and will be the master of all four. HE will be Seeker, Confessor, Wizard and Lord, and he will usher in a time of peace and prosperity across many lands."
"Zedd," Kahlan said with great fear in her eyes. "She is speaking about a boy… A male Confessor…"
"But only IF he remains with and is raised by the woman he is born to," Shota continued, her voice coming at them in waves, along with the heat of the fire. "For only SHE will be able to understand his darkness, and through it, reach his light. Only she will be able to save him, to teach him of love, if she, herself becomes open to love. Anything less than this, and he will sway towards the dark to obliterate the world!"
"It's too great a risk!" Kahlan protested. "If what you are saying is true and I give birth to a son… We cannot let him live! Throughout history, male Confessors have brought only destruction and death."
"Don't worry Kahlan," Richard said confidently. "You know I don't believe in prophecies. The fate of the world will be what we and the people make it."
"This is beyond you, Seeker," Shota reproached him before turning to Kahlan again. "And it is beyond you, Mother Confessor. It is beyond any of you. But I have come to tell you that SHE", Shota's pointed index finger menacingly drew attention towards Kahlan, "MUST conceive the child between the two blood moons. If she were to fail, no child will be born to her in her life and the line of Confessors will die with her and will die with her soon. No future Seeker will have a Confessor by his side and lacking this, each one will be doomed to a quick demise, bringing the world to its knees, sending it into peril, ushering in a new era of darkness ruled by a new evil that rises and grows stronger as we speak! This child is our only hope."
"How do we know that what you are saying is true and that this isn't some trick to sidetrack us?" Cara demanded, eyeing the apparition suspiciously.
"There will be three great signs that will precede the child's conception. The first will be a man who appears as a beast. The second will be the Confessor's loss of touch. The third, the Seeker will DIE. When these things happen you will know that I am telling the truth and that the fate of the world lies in your hands, along with all of our lives. The Mother Confessor MUST conceive the child before the second blood moon ascends or she dooms us all to death!"
With these ominous words, Shota disappeared and the fire expired just as suddenly as it appeared, leaving only dying embers behind. The four people stared at the empty space where the fire had seared in front of them only a moment ago, stunned.
Moments passed in silence.
Zedd was the first to speak. "As per usual, Shota is full of prophecies and visions," he said angrily. "Just because she says something will happen doesn't mean that it will or that it will be exactly as she makes it out to be. There are many twists and turns in the fate of the world and none are as given as she makes them sound."
"I agree with Zedd," Richard said. "We should decide for ourselves what route to take when the time comes. We have to trust in our own judgement more than in any prophecy."
But Kahlan remained silent. The witch has been known to be right at times too. What if this was one of those times? The risks were far too great, however, if she really were to give birth to a son. No male Confessor had ever lived to become anything but pure evil. Would she dare to let him live?
"The witch mentioned three signs," Cara interrupted Kahlan's train of thought. "Let's see whether they happen."
"Yes, let's do that…" Kahlan spoke lowly. "But if the first sign manifests, the beast-man or whatever, and if the second sign were to happen too, where I lose my touch…" she helplessly looked at her own hands, "We have to be prepared to do everything in our power to protect Richard. Maybe, if we can prevent at least one of the signs, the final one, the most important one, maybe we can alter the course of the prophecy too."
"From what I know of signs," Zedd added thoughtfully, "Trouble comes in threes. If the first two occur, the third one will likely too. But even so - you must not allow yourselves to despair. Despite what Shota says, the fate of the world is never set in stone."
"What about at the Palace of the Prophets, where they use stone to write the fate of the world?" Cara quizzed the wizard suspiciously.
"When it comes to actually writing down the fate of the world, my dear Cara," he replied, "The stone might as well be made of water - the words have been known to change. Just as people's actions mould their own future, the Seeker's actions can shape the world. And your part in this is just as important. The point is, Richard is right: When the time comes, and you are at a crossroads, have faith in your own judgement. It has not failed you yet."
"Mostly..." Cara pitched in with a raised eyebrow.
But Zedd's reassurance failed to make Kahlan feel much better.
"Zedd," she said quietly, "When is the first blood moon?"
Zedd inhaled then exhaled deeply.
"From my own judgement, looking at the moon at present, the first blood moon is due tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?!" Kahlan stared at him wide-eyed. "So soon! And the second? Shota said I would have to conceive between the two blood moons."
"The second," Zedd continued in just as low a voice, "Will be in twenty-eight days from tomorrow".
Kahlan stared at him in horror. Panic and fear gripped her from within and she found she could barely breathe.
That morning, the party of four gathered their belongings and set off on foot, once again, wearily so due to broken sleep and Shota's troubling message that they've been left with. Instead of continuing their journey towards Aydindril, they were now forced to look for their runaway horses, arguing that it is better to spend an extra couple of hours locating the animals than an extra couple of weeks walking to their destination.
For hours they followed the hoof-tracks marked in the soft soil but whenever they thought that they were close, that they might finally reach the horses, the animals would elude them and run off deeper into the forest.
The sun rose in the sky and began its heavy descent, and still, the horses were not to be recaptured. What's more, the group were slowly being led further and further off route to Aydindril. By the time twilight had set in, their agitation was at its peak. They walked through the forest with a sense of urgency, trying to make the most of what was left of daylight. Kahlan, especially, felt uneasy, not looking forward to the nighttime and what it would mark.
And sure enough, not long after the final glow of twilight had faded, the moon began its ascent, becoming brighter and more visible between forest-tree branches as it glided upwards in the sky. Even before it reached its peak, it was obvious that a reddish hue covered its full face, radiating beyond its surface, surrounding it like a faded, bloody halo.
"Zedd... Zedd, look..."
Eyes fixed on the sight in the sky, Kahlan tugged at the wizard's sleeve, her pale face tinted pink under the moon's far-casting light.
"The blood moon..." Zedd confirmed in a low voice, staring in the same direction as Kahlan.
Richard and Cara came closer to better see what Kahlan and Zedd were seeing. No, there was no disputing the sight of the fiery moon. They each looked at Kahlan, who stared back at each of them with fear in her eyes.
"Don't worry, Kahlan," Richard worked to hide the edge in his voice. "It's just the moon, it doesn't have to mean anything."
Kahlan wanted to believe him but was far from convinced.
In that moment, from a deeper part of the forest, the group heard faint but chilling sounds of animals, horses, in distress.
"It's them!" Richard cried.
Sword of Truth ready in hand, without a second thought he rushed in the direction of the screams, sensing that someone or something was out there with the horses.
"Richard, wait!" Kahlan pleaded as she ran behind him. "Remember the three signs! You have to be especially careful tonight!"
"If Richard does die," Cara called out while running alongside Zedd and Kahlan in the same direction, "It may not be final. I might be able to give him the Breath of Life."
Kahlan said nothing in response but felt a little better with this reassurance.
The four people proceeded swiftly through the forest, towards the horses, eyes sharp, weapons ready in hand. The closer they got to the animals, the louder and more horrifying their neighing cries became. Finally, in the distance among the trees, Richard spotted them where one of the horses kicked up on its hind legs, trying to fight off something... Something that held a long shiny blade reflecting the red of the moon. As he got closer though, approaching more cautiously now, he was horrified to see that there was more than one blade, more than one sword, wielded by what appeared to be soldiers, and that the red staining their swords wasn't moonlight, but the horses' blood.
Too late and too far to prevent it, Richard watched in horror as the last-standing beast fell to the ground. A group of armed men emerged from behind it, viciously plunging their blades into the animal, hacking its flesh, even after it was dead. Based on their armour, Richard saw that the men resembled D'Haran soldiers, though their leather and chain-mail appeared redder, as if entirely painted in blood. And something about their mannerisms was off... The way they hacked into the horses' bodies seemed ferociously brutal, as if they themselves were animals. Richard couldn't recall ever before having witnessed D'Haran soldiers slaughter horses so savagely for no apparent reason. No, these soldiers were unfamiliar to him, though there was no time to figure out who they were.
As though picking up on his thoughts, the group of men suddenly looked up from the horses' carcasses, spotting Richard and his companions. As if on cue, the squad charged forward with unprecedented speed. The four stood their ground and braced themselves.
When crossing arms with the soldiers, Richard, Kahlan and even Cara were surprised to find them harder to beat than any D'Harans they had encountered before. The soldiers' skills, agility and speed pushed the four to their limits and were already leaving bloody marks on each one. They also proved to be smarter than their predecessors in mostly managing to evade Zedd's repelling-spell blasts and wizard's fire, bouncing off the trees with every chance they got, slowly encircling the wizard, getting closer and closer to him. No, this was a brand new enemy, the four realised quickly. And worst of all, despite their small victories against the soldiers, their numbers only kept growing! Heavily armoured men trickled out of the darkness within the forest like blood seeping out of an open wound. The Seeker and his party had become vastly outnumbered.
Already worn out, Kahlan knew that they would not be able to fight them off for much longer. They will need all the help they can get, if she could only get close enough to a couple of soldiers to confess them... But just as she was about to wrap her fingers about a neck, a frightening roar reverberated from the depths of the forest.
Seeker and soldier alike, the cry caused everyone to falter momentarily, their attention suddenly pointed in the same direction.
Some couple of hundred feet from where they fought, as the head of a small army of yet more soldiers advancing towards them, marched the monstrous shape of an unnaturally large man, a heavy helmet spiked with bull's horns on his head, a massive black bow in his hands. He readied the bow, aimed, and shot an arrow straight at Kahlan, an arrow so large and fast, it pierced through the air faster than what the Confessor could have anticipated. It would have been the end of the Confessors' linage right there and then had not an ever-watchful Cara managed to throw herself at Kahlan, pushing her out of harm's way but taking the arrow into the chest herself.
"Cara!" Kahlan cried out.
Unfortunately, she did not have a chance to tend to the girl, with the soldiers constantly swiping at her with their swords.
Richard managed to dodge his way towards Kahlan in order to cover her and make it possible for her to try to confess one of the soldiers. However, as Kahlan finally managed to grab one by the neck, she found that the man did not succumb to her confession but instead, nearly severed her arm off. She also noticed that his eyes were strangely bloodshot, unlike anything that she had seen before.
"Richard, I can't confess him!" she shouted, fighting the man back with her daggers. "I think he has already been confessed, somehow... Or maybe it's some kind of dark spell! And Cara's been struck by an arrow! We have to help her!"
But before Richard had a chance to reply, a desperate cry erupted from a little distance away.
It was Zedd. He was on his knees, with soldiers swarming over him from every side. They had locked a Rada'han around his neck and were now pinning him down as easily as if he were an ordinary old man.
"Zedd, no!" Richard screamed.
Skilfully dodging his attackers, Richard rushed towards the wizard, to his aid. Alas, it turned out that this was the very moment the leader of the impending army, the man with the bull's helmet, had been waiting for. He waited, his bow ready in hand.
Kahlan saw what was about to happen. In a moment that seemed to bend the rules of time, she screamed for Richard to look out but even as she cried out, an arrow zoomed past her, fiercely slicing through the air, faster than her warning could reach the Seeker. Right before her very eyes, it pierced Richard through the back, straight through his heart. And in the next moment, he dropped, lifeless, to the ground.
Shock and disbelief flooded Kahlan's senses as she stared, frozen in utter horror. If the soldiers had not eased off with their attack the moment Richard was struck by the arrow, they could have easily killed her in the spot, so stunned was she by the sight of her love, her Seeker, being fatally struck down. But they did not and instead, the soldiers lowered their weapons, entirely missing this chance at immediate victory.
Oblivious to what was happening around her, oblivious to everything other than Richard's lifeless body on the ground, Kahlan stood and stared, rage building inside of her, rising, boiling, overwhelming her, until it felt like she might implode. Her eyes flooded with filters of blood-red and ink-black as her body shook violently under the menacing grip of Con Dar.
Finally, she let out a frightening scream.
With extreme speed, she ripped through an entire group of her enemies, mercilessly slaughtering them all with her daggers. They began to pull back but still she ran after them, killing each one as she could, making her way towards the main target she had on her mind - the one who had killed Richard and Cara. The bull-man faced her square on, standing in the same spot in the distance, anticipating whatever she was bringing his way. She ran at him, daggers ready, but as she came close, he and his backing army of soldiers suddenly turned and ran, scattering and disappearing into the forest. In the end, he proved to be too fast for Kahlan, even while she was in Con Dar, threatening to outrun her. However, she didn't wait to catch up to him. Instead, she hurled her daggers from the distance, piercing through the air with the two sharp points of her blades, piercing her target in the back twice. The man let out a wild scream, like a true beast might, but despite a momentarily falter, managed to disappear into the night after all.
"Kahlan!" Zedd called out before the woman ran too far and was unreachable.
His feet and hands bound, Zedd was kneeling on the ground, the Rada'han firmly locked around his neck. With Richard and Cara both struck down, and his own abilities impaired, Kahlan was their only hope. He called for her again.
In the distance, the sound of the familiar voice caused Kahlan to waver in her single-minded state of rage. Recognising the voice as that of a friend, the Con Dar lifted and released her. Exhausted in every way, Kahlan collapsed.
Zedd looked about himself, glancing over a dozen or so dead soldiers scattered about on the forest floor. Another dozen was killed by Kahlan alone, their bodies left like a trail pointing to her whereabouts. All of the surviving soldiers appeared to have gone back to where they came from, which Zedd found a little strange, considering that they could have easily had absolute victory. However, more urgent matters demanded his attention at present - he was the only one from his party that was left alive and conscious.
He looked around for an abandoned sword to cut the rope on his wrists and ankles but was surprised to find that amidst all of the soldiers' dead bodies, not a single sword was left behind. Foul play was at hand here, he concluded. Luckily, Richard's own sword, the Sword of Truth, lay on the ground by the Seeker's side, bloodstained and gleaming like a blade of ruby under the red moon. With effort, Zedd shuffled along the ground towards it. Using his feet to steady the sword upright, facing a sharp edge, he pushed and rubbed the rope on his wrists against it, eventually breaking through the bonds, freeing his hands entirely. Cutting through the rope on his ankles was fairly easy after that.
As soon as he had freed himself, Zedd turned to Richard, who lay face down in the dirt, the tail of a large black arrow sticking out of his back. He turned him to the side, examining his body, feeling for a pulse, but the Seeker appeared to be perfectly lifeless. Blood trickled from the spot where the arrow pierced his chest.
Zedd rushed towards Cara. The woman had a pulse but wasn't conscious. She seemed to be loosing a lot of blood too, though after examining her wound, Zedd concluded that the arrow had just missed her heart and that she had a fair chance of surviving if he could treat her damaged lung quickly. For this, he needed Kahlan's help.
For the moment, Zedd abandoned the two bodies and rushed through the forest, following the trail of dead soldiers. He found the Mother Confessor lying on the ground with blood splattered over her hands and white dress. He tapped lightly on her cheek to wake her.
It took a few moments for Kahlan to rouse from the unconscious state. With Zedd's help, she stood up. She looked about herself in horror, unable to recall how she had ended up on the ground but eerily aware that she had something to do with all of the dead bodies lying around.
Richard... she remembered.
At once, Kahlan scrambled through the forest towards him.
Even from a distance she could tell that his condition didn't seem promising. She ran to him, dropped down next to his lifeless body. Grabbing him by the shoulders, she shook him, grabbed his face, tearfully called his name, desperate to feel his pulse, horrified to the point of numbness by the unresponsive bloodied sight of the man she loved...
But there was no doubt about it: Richard was dead.
Suddenly, a faint groan called her and Zedd's attention elsewhere.
It was Cara.
The wizard and the Confessor rushed to the Mord'Sith's side. Kahlan knelt by the girl, feeling for a pulse, examining the arrow buried deep under her left shoulder.
"Her lung has been punctured," Zedd furrowed his brow. "But she is very lucky - the arrow had just missed her heart."
"She saved my life..." Kahlan said, watching the girl's face twist under groans of pain, reaching for her hand.
"But she is still alive," Zedd said firmly. "If I didn't have this thing around my neck, I could heal her immediately! Alas, there's not much I can do in this moment. Still, if we can get her to a lucid enough state, she might be able to give Richard the Breath of Life before he turns cold and it's too late."
"Cara..." she gently called out.
As carefully as she could, Kahlan took ahold of the girl's head with both hands, searching her features for signs of response.
"Cara, can you hear me?"
The girl moaned in pain but appeared to have recognised Kahlan's voice. Her eyes opened a little. Kahlan sighed a brief prayer of gratitude.
"Cara, you're hurt," Kahlan spoke gently again, while cradling the blonde's head in her hands. "You've been struck by an arrow... While saving my life!"
Despite barely being able to stay awake, seeing the Confessor's lovely face through foggy vision, feeling the touch of her gentle hands on her own face, for a moment Cara wondered if she might be dead already and had, by some divine mistake, transcended to an elevated plane, with this unearthly creature whispering to her. Unfortunately, the pain from the sharp object buried in her chest stung Cara back to reality. Wincing in pain, she involuntarily closed her eyes again.
"Wizard," her voice was coarse under a mouthful of blood, "What are you waiting for? Heal me."
"I would have already if I could!" Zedd's voice was a mixture of fury and disdain at his own helplessness. "But they got me under a Rada'Han and now I am as useless as a leg on a duck's egg!"
Cara turned her head away, ready to accept her fate.
"Then let me die in peace," she said.
"From one tiny scrape to the shoulder?" Zedd retorted with an indignant expression on his face. "Is that all it takes to defeat the mighty Mord'Sith?"
"Cara, Richard has been struck as well," Kahlan's voice was shaky, disturbed. "He is... He's dead. The third sign of Shota's prophecy has manifested."
Cara forced herself to open her eyes.
"Do you think you can give him the Breath of Life?" Kahlan asked, barely able to contain her tears.
The emotional turbulence, the desperation she sensed from Kahlan, as well as the thought of Richard's death being final at the hands of whatever undeserving low-life had shot him, gave Cara the burst of adrenaline she needed.
"I don't know..." she answered. "But I can certainly try!"
Groaning with pain, she forced herself to sit upright. With Kahlan and Zedd supporting her on either side, she managed to stand on her feet. Arrow still in chest, ignoring the paralysing pain she felt all down one side of her body, Cara stumbled towards Richard. Kneeling down next to him, she examined the arrow pierced clean through his heart. His lungs should be intact, she concluded, which was what mattered.
"It should work," she said. "But first we have to extract the arrow."
Cara sat back and watched as Kahlan promptly got to work, grabbing a hold of and snapping off the long part of the arrow that stuck out of Richard's back. Then, with Zedd's help, she rolled Richard onto his back and pulled out the remainder of the arrow by its point from his chest. Blood ran free as if from a stream.
Supporting herself with one arm, Cara crawled over towards Richard. Straining, her arm shaking, she lowered her face directly above his so that their lips almost touched. More than once she swallowed against the blood that had accumulated in her throat before she could be sure that her breath would come out clean. And then, through what appeared to be an effortless act on her part, though it was anything but, Cara unleashed her greatest gift, allowing it to float from her lips down to Richard's.
The sacred gesture depleted her of the little energy she had left and she dropped to the side, her head caught just in time by Kahlan's hands, preventing her from hitting the ground too harshly. The Mother Confessor helped lay her down gently, examining the Mord'Sith to see whether she was still breathing. Both she and Zedd were relieved to find that this was the case, though Cara seemed very weak.
Glancing from one unconscious body to the other, Kahlan apprehensively waited for signs of life on either one. But while Cara's body grew weaker, Richard's began to heal before her eyes! In a moment, the wound on his chest healed up entirely and he opened his eyes. He sat up.
"Richard!" the woman exclaimed and flung her arms about his neck, kneeling next to him. Tears rolled down her cheeks as they held each other in a close embrace.
"What happened?" Richard looked about himself bewildered. "Did we beat them all?"
"I am glad to see you alive and kicking again, Seeker," Zedd smiled, his relief obvious. "For a moment I wondered whether we might have lost you for good!"
"Zedd what happened here?" Richard asked again. "All I remember is seeing a group of soldiers attacking you..."
"You were struck by an arrow, Richard," Kahlan whispered, almost too afraid to give voice to the frightening reality, which had just transpired. "You were dead. Cara brought you back with the Breath of Life."
"Speaking of," Zedd interjected, "Cara isn't out of the woods yet. We need to help her and we need to do it quick. Since I am not of much use with the Rada'Han on, I will have to rely on you two to help gather all of the herbs and ingredients I need to heal her the old-fashioned way."
"Richard, without her, you would be gone for good," Kahlan's eyes were full of despair. "And she risked her life, nearly sacrificed it, to save mine. We can't let her die, not like this. I don't think I could forgive myself. We have to save her."
"Of course. Don't worry, Kahlan," Richard reassured her, "Zedd knows how to help her. What do you need us to do, Zedd?"
"First we need to pull out this arrow," the wizard replied.
Kahlan wasted no time. In a moment, she did exactly as she had done with Richard's arrow: Snapped the tail-end that stuck out of Cara's chest, as close to the skin as possible, and pulled out the rest of it by the arrowhead from her back. Cara groaned as her blood spilled into Kahlan's hands. The Confessor tore two long strips of white fabric from her dress and pressed them over each side of Cara's wound, supporting her as the girl lay sideways on the cold ground.
Zedd named the herbs that they needed to find in order to stop the bleeding and prevent infection. He added that it was very fortunate that they happen to be in the part of the forest that should have all of the necessary plants in abundance. He suggested for Kahlan to remain behind and stay with Cara after all, since she was already applying pressure to the wound, while he and Richard look for the herbs.
Kahlan and Richard nodded.
Once the men had wandered off into the forest, Kahlan shuffled even closer to Cara, carefully lifting and placing the blonde's head over her lap. She was careful to position the open puncture point on Cara's back over a thick wad of cloth in order to slow down the bleeding, then promptly reapplied pressure with one hand over the wound on Cara's chest.
"How are you feeling?" Kahlan asked, her eyes full of care and concern as she looked down at the barely conscious girl.
"Wonderful," Cara replied in-between groans. "I haven't felt this good since that time in the tomb when I received a beating from you."
"Cara, thank you for what you did," she said, her voice full of tenderness and gratitude, matching the gaze she directed at the blood-smeared face on her lap. "Once again, I owe you my life. Once again we owe you Richard's life!"
Even though her own eyes were barely open, Cara found it unnerving to look at Kahlan's.
"Well," she spoke lowly and evenly, looking away. "Don't make me regret it."
Kahlan smiled. With her free hand, she tidied the blond hair spread over her lap. Despite having only moonlight as their source of light, Kahlan clearly saw dark blood stains dripping off pale hair. However, it was the stain growing over the white fold of her dress on her lap, underneath Cara, that worried her. Cara was bleeding right through the cloth despite the pressure Kahlan was applying to the wound. She silently prayed that Zedd and Richard would return soon with everything they needed to stop the bleeding. She worried about what might happen if they didn't... Cara had already lost so much blood.
Cara looked up and read the concern on Kahlan's face.
"Don't worry," she croaked under a weak, pale smile that was checkered with her own blood. "You can't get rid of me that easy."
Kahlan smiled broadly at the girl's quip, the joke a welcome interruption to her heavy-hearted fears after such a harrowing night. A pair of unintended tears escaped from Kahlan's eyes and landed on Cara's face below. Even while in obvious pain, Cara's face managed to twist into a scowl.
"Oh... Sorry about that. Here, let me..." with her bare hand, Kahlan wiped her tears from the girl's face, thinking that this was the reason Cara was annoyed, before wiping at her own eyes, as subtly as she could, feeling somewhat abashed.
"There's no reason for you to cry," Cara said in a detached manner, while indirectly observing Kahlan. "A Mord'Sith's death belongs on the battlefield."
"Don't talk like that... You are not going to die, especially not because of me. I won't let it happen, Cara."
Another tear escaped and landed on Cara's face. Kahlan wiped it away just as before.
Cara was silent for a moment.
"I've never had somebody cry over me before," she said, looking aimlessly into the dark of the forest. "Not since becoming Mord'Sith, at least."
Staring off into the distance, Cara waited, expecting to hear some cheesy response from the Confessor. However, no reply came. Puzzled, Cara turned her head back to see whatever reaction Kahlan might be having at such an unexpected mushy comment but was surprised that when instead of a reply, Kahlan, with tears still gleaming in her eyes, smiled softly and leaned down to place a gentle kiss on her forehead.
Though it was a light kiss, the kind that Cara imagined Kahlan to have shared innumerable times with her sister Denee, the tenderness of it left its mark on her. This brief moment of affection had contained more care, more genuine love than Cara could recall ever experiencing after becoming a Mord'Sith. An ache stirred inside of her, inside of her heart, an ache that had been bothering her long before she was struck by the arrow.
Kahlan noticed a change on Cara's face and grew concerned.
"Cara, what's the matter? Are you alright?"
Cara appeared breathless:
"What are the chances... That the arrow... Was poisoned?"
Kahlan reached for the broken arrow on the ground and sniffed the arrowhead.
"No, I don't think it was," she said. "I think you'd probably be in a much worse state by now if it had been poisoned."
Cara closed her eyes and struggled to contain her breaths, her chest painfully rising and sinking to an uneven rhythm. She tasted blood on her tongue again.
"Cara, are you alright?" Kahlan urged again.
This settled it then, Cara thought. She must have... feelings... for Kahlan.
"Are you alright? What's going on?" Kahlan demanded, panicked, afraid that the girl was beginning to fade when she didn't reply. "Cara? Cara?! Stay with me!"
"I wish..." Cara wheezed through clenched teeth, her eyes shutting out reality, "That I would just die already."
"Don't say that!" Kahlan pleaded while frantically applying greater pressure over Cara's wound. "How can you say that? I'm not going to let you die. I won't let anything happen to you!"
The desperation in Kahlan's voice moved Cara deeply. She couldn't recall anyone making such a fuss over her. She looked up at the woman and again found so much genuine care in her eyes, in her presence, in the way she had stroked her blood-stained hair, in the diligence with which she had been keeping her hand over Cara's wound, over her heart...
The Mord'Sith couldn't bear it any longer. Tears stung her eyes and spilled on either side of her face, on Kahlan's lap, the weakness of which shocked and scared Cara more than anything. Her body was damaged and now it seems that her mind was too.
"Oh, Cara," Kahlan pleaded with love and concern in her voice, "Don't cry too... I won't let anything happen to you, I promise."
But Kahlan's words only made Cara cry harder. She shook her head and looked away, feeling embarrassed.
"Don't look at me," she said, angry at herself.
In that moment, Zedd and Richard appeared from the forest carrying handfuls of plants.
Zedd rushed towards Cara to examine her wound. Heeding Kahlan's warning that Cara had lost a lot of blood, he got to work immediately, chewing and crushing plants to place over puncture points on Cara's chest and back. Kahlan helped peel off the bloody wads of cloth from both wounds. She flinched as Cara gritted her teeth in pain while Zedd placed his remedy over the same spots. She re-bandaged the girl with a fresh strip of cloth, which Richard had offered from his own backpack, wrapping it tightly around her shoulder. Then she helped Richard build a small fire so that Zedd could turn the remainder of the plants into tea for Cara to drink in hopes of minimising the risk of infection and providing some relief for the pain.
"I had a look at where we last saw the horses," Richard spoke apprehensively while helping pile twigs and sticks in place. "They've been slaughtered, all of them. It looks like we'll definitely be traveling on foot from now on."
"It's a little strange," Zedd said thoughtfully, "That such vicious, skilled soldiers retreated in the end like they did and simply left us alone. Stranger still is the fact that those who survived seem to have gone through great lengths of making sure that no abandoned sword was left behind... Now, why would they do that when they could have had us? You saw it for yourselves - there was a small army of them! In fact, they did have us! I was tied up, Richard and Cara both shot down... The only one who was still on her feet and fighting was Kahlan."
"Maybe when they saw me in Con Dar..." Kahlan interjected.
"Yes," Richard added. "Maybe they realised that they were no match for the power of the Con Dar, even if Kahlan wasn't able to confess them."
"Maybe..." Zedd replied thoughtfully, "But even that doesn't quite make sense... It is more likely that they were called off. But why? And why did they go through such trouble of making sure that no weapon was left behind?"
The trio fell silent as Zedd's words stirred alarm in their bellies.
"Kahlan," he continued, "How deeply did you wound their leader, the one with the bull-horn helmet?"
"I wish I knew..." Kahlan answered earnestly. "I can't really recall much of what happened after I saw Richard get struck by the arrow. It's all a blur."
"After you entered Con Dar," Zedd explained, "You caused a lot of damage to the enemy. Strangely though, by then they didn't seem to put up much of a fight anyway... And then suddenly, all at the same time, the soldiers scattered back into the forest. The only one who didn't try to flee immediately was the 'bull-man'. I couldn't see him very clearly but I did see that he stood rooted to the spot while you charged towards him. It's like he was waiting for you, like he wanted you to throw your only weapons at him."
"That is odd... And I don't think I killed him," Kahlan said, disappointed at herself.
"No, I don't think so either," Zedd replied glumly. "I heard his scream when your daggers pierced into him. While we were looking for the plants, Richard and I walked that way, in the direction in which he had run off, and we saw traces of blood. I think you've wounded him greatly but I don't think he will die. The question is, however, if he could outrun you and if he was planning to, why did he let you get close enough to him to wound him?"
"You think he let me do it?" Kahlan was startled by Zedd's suspicion.
"I am not sure..." Zedd frowned.
"Were you able to find my daggers?" Kahlan asked.
"No," Zedd replied. "We didn't have the time to look for them properly since we had to get the herbs for Cara."
"But we'll look for them in the morning," Richard reassured her.
"Zedd," Kahlan asked with new fear in her eyes, "Do you think they will come back? I think it's clear that we can't beat them... Not with their numbers, not with Cara wounded, and your magic abilities impaired..."
"I don't know, dear girl," Zedd spoke honestly. "But I have a feeling that our enemy, whoever it is in this instance, must have other plans for us. Else, we'd be dead already. Either way, with Cara in this state, we don't have much choice but to stay put at least until the morning."
Zedd's answer wasn't very reassuring for anyone. He stirred the plants and boiling water in the pot over the fire, then poured the liquid into another container for Cara to drink. Kahlan helped Cara sit upright a little, supporting her back, while Zedd held the container to her lips for her to drink. After a single sip, Cara nearly choked and spat out the drink.
"Well, what did you expect?" Zedd snapped. "Blackberry juice?"
The woman drank the rest of the foul drink without complaint, although by the look on her face it was evident that the drink gave her more grief than the wound did. Kahlan and Richard helped move her closer to the fire, laying her down to rest properly.
"I think I should sleep next to her tonight to make sure she is warm enough," Kahlan said aloud to everyone. "Nights have been pretty cold lately."
Richard and Zedd had no objection to this suggestion. Cara, on the other hand, glared at Kahlan from beneath half-open eyelids.
"Is that really necessary?" she muttered under her breath.
"Yes," Kahlan replied matter-of-factly. "I did promise that I wouldn't let anything happen to you and you did say that I wouldn't be able to get rid of you that easily."
While Richard offered to keep watch and Zedd positioned himself on the opposite side of the fire for some shuteye, Kahlan readied her backpack as a pillow and her cloak as cover. She laid down behind Cara and positioned herself close against her, the way she used to do with Denee when they were little girls, when icy air crept into their room during winter nights. She was, however, very careful not to press or touch Cara's left shoulder, ironically not wanting to cause the girl any more pain or discomfort than what she was already enduring.
Cara, meanwhile, stared at the flames of the small fire, unsure of how to behave in such close proximity to the Confessor. Though both women were fully clothed, Cara could feel Kahlan's warmth radiating from behind her, aware of the little movements of the woman's body against her own under the cloak, and her breath on her own neck whenever Kahlan exhaled, restless. If it weren't for the excruciating pain of where the arrow had pierced through her flesh, Cara might have pulled the other woman closer to her, on top of her, or underneath her, stripped off her Confessor's dress, ripped off the laces of her corset and whatever else she wore underneath, and taken her right there and then, rolling over the fire, in front of Zedd and Richard. So in a way, she was grateful for the acute pain of her wound that prevented her from acting out on such a rash impulse, though she also knew that she never would act out on it regardless. Not with Kahlan, nor could she ever do something like that to Richard. What's more, she imagined that the Confessor would probably kill her if she so much as tried to pull off her dress... But worse still, by far worst of all, was that even if Kahlan didn't kill her in an instant in a situation like that, by deliberate confession or a dagger to the chest, Cara did not wish to simply bed Kahlan, the way she had many others in the past. What she wanted was... This. This closeness that they shared in this moment, although for a different reason. She wanted Kahlan to want it too. She wanted the light in the Confessor's eyes to shower her always like they did when she had lain bleeding on her lap only moments before... The way they always did Richard. She wanted Kahlan to love her like she loved Richard. And this longing was by far the most disturbing thing that could ever happen to her, Cara concluded.
And as the two women laid next to each other, Cara wished she were in the worst pits of the Underworld over being there, feeling the bliss, which she knew wasn't really hers and which she could never really own. She felt sick to her stomach at her whimpering desire for the Confessor's love, although the sickening feeling might have also been caused by Zedd's putrid tea.
In any case, there was nothing to be done. She would simply get on with life, just as before, and ignore these... feelings... as much as possible. She would bear her suffering in silence, exactly as Mord'Sith are trained to do. And who knows, maybe with some luck, Zedd's herbal remedies will turn out to be a fluke and she will be dead by the morning.
It was well past dawn when Kahlan woke up. The fire had died out and the forest looked very different in daylight to what Kahlan remembered it from the night before. She looked over at Cara lying next to her, sound asleep, almost entirely motionless.
The Confessor propped herself up on an elbow and gazed at the perfectly still face of the Mord'Sith. Cara looked so peaceful and innocent asleep, almost fragile compared to the usually staunch girl, armed to the teeth with that confident swagger and glare in her eyes that snapped at anyone who spoke too long about anything other than their mission. A strange fascination tempted Kahlan to remain exactly as she was, to keep marvelling at the serenity of this usually fierce creature.
Cara's chest rose and fell slowly and evenly. A good sign - she was healing. A wisp of blond hair stained with dry blood fell across her cheek. As gently as she could, Kahlan reached to remove it, careful not to wake the sleeping girl, but just as she extended her arm, an unexpected hand intercepted her move, seizing her wrist mid-air, startling her. Cara opened her eyes, wide awake. For a moment, she stared at the woman that leaned above her, with her face so close to her own, her eyes pointed at the other's, before relinquishing her firm grip of the woman's arm and breaking the spell.
Kahlan smiled to herself at the foolishness of her intention. What was she thinking trying to do something like that to an ever-ready, ever-watchful Mord'Sith like Cara? Of course she had anticipated her move... She should've guessed that Cara would be already awake!
"With reflexes like that," she smiled, "I would say you're feeling better!"
But Cara made no reply. Silently, eyes blinking as if trying to see through most, Cara observed Kahlan, staring at her unnervingly long, which was odd, even for her.
Kahlan's smile faded when her quip failed to draw a response.
"You are feeling better, aren't you?"
Once again, Cara said nothing.
It seemed to her, in her wonder-struck eyes, that the glowing light of the morning was ten times more potent than the pale light of the moon, so overwhelmed was she by the beauty of the face that appeared to float above her. It could have been only a trick of light or it could have been that damned herbal tea that Zedd had made her drink the night before, but the longer Cara looked at Kahlan's face, the more it seemed to her that there was a radiant aura about it, a glowing, otherworldly quality that only Kahlan Amnell, the Mother Confessor, could possess. Cara felt an impulse to reach up and touch the smooth cheek of this magnificent creature, caress those awaiting lips, feel them under her fingertips... But she would not.
She forced her eyes shut.
"Cara, are you alright? Why aren't you saying anything?" Kahlan questioned, her apprehensions from the night before creeping back into her mind and gut.
"I'm fine," Cara replied abruptly and forced herself to sit up.
Avoiding Kahlan's puzzled gaze, ignoring the hand offered in support as she struggled to stand up, Cara secured the agiels and buckles on her suit as if ready for battle.
"You should be careful," Kahlan said, eyeing Cara warily. "Your wound is still fresh. You wouldn't want it to rupture..."
"Thank you, Mother Confessor, for all of your help," Cara said tersely. "But I will be fine. I can take care of myself."
Kahlan nodded despite the feeling of her heart sinking at the sharpness of Cara's tone. She found herself wondering what might she have said or done to have offended the girl.
"Where is Richard?" Cara looked about the camp, eyes narrowed in suspicion. "And Zedd?"
Those were very good questions, which Kahlan had not realised needed answering until Cara brought them up. She looked around. There was no trace of either Richard or the wizard, though their belongings were left exactly as they were the night before.
The women exchanged perturbed looks. It isn't like either Richard or Zedd to simply disappear like that, without a word of warning. Something must have happened.
"Richard?!" Kahlan called out aimlessly into the forest. "Zedd?"
"Be quiet," Cara snapped. "If they are in trouble we don't want to be drawing attention to ourselves."
Kahlan stared at her with knitted brows, fear growing inside of her belly. Instinctively, the women were ready to expect the worst... Until suddenly, a faint but familiar voice sounded from a deeper part of the forest.
It was Zedd.
The women rushed in his direction, shortly coming face to face with the wizard. The old man gasped for breath as he struggled to explain what had happened, appearing to have been running back towards their camp for some time.
"Richard... He saw him... The bull-man... It was still dark... But he ran... He ran after him!"
The women stared at him, wide-eyed.
"I tried to stop him..." he continued, struggling for air, "Or at least to catch up to him... So that he wouldn't... He wouldn't face him alone... But he ran ahead of me... The foolish boy ran ahead of me! And then I lost him! Bags!"
"Richard is out there alone with the bull-man?!" Kahlan demanded, panic gripping her hard.
"I was sure you'd hear me!" Zedd tried to steady his breath. "I called for you... But you must have been deeply asleep..."
"Oh no..." Kahlan clutched at her stomach in fear, "How could I have slept through this?! And now, he is out there all alone with that... That beast! And I failed to protect him!"
"Kahlan," Zedd steadied himself by holding onto her shoulder, "It isn't your fault. For running off like that, all by himself, Richard is one foolhardy boy!"
"Oh Zedd, relax!" an unexpected voice interrupted from an unexpected direction.
All at once the trio turned towards it and were shocked to see Richard - a bloodied Sword of Truth in one hand, while in the other, the bull-man's helmet, offhandedly held by a horn. It was dripping with blood.
"I saw him lurking behind trees before dawn," he said, a smirk on his lips, "And I thought to myself, 'I can't let him escape again. He needs to pay for what he did.' So I ran after him and delivered what he had coming."
He flung the helmet at the wide-eyed, concerned trio. It dropped at their feet with a thud.
Kahlan rushed towards the Seeker and threw both arms about his neck.
"Thank the Spirits you are alright," she whispered into his ear, a heavy cloud lifting off her heart. He hugged her back.
Cara averted her eyes from the affectionate couple and surveyed the exciting exterior of the surrounding trees and bush.
But Zedd wasn't pleased.
"That was a very senseless move, running off like that by yourself, Seeker," he said sharply. "You saw it for yourself last night that these are not your ordinary D'Haran soldiers. You could have been killed! Again! And this time, Cara would not be by your side to bring you back."
But Richard's smugness was not easily affected.
"You are right, Zedd," he replied lightly. "I can see now that it was a foolish thing to do. I guess it's the Seeker's instinct - I simply couldn't let him get away again. But all is well now, he is dead. I've killed him. And look! I even found the key to the Rada'Han! It was hooked to the beast's belt."
He tossed the key at the wizard, who caught it with both hands. Zedd examined the silver item, surprised that retrieving it had turned out to be so easy and yet, could not help but feel hopeful that this was indeed the key to his freedom. He fiddled with the key, trying to fit it inside the lock of the metal collar on his neck, and once successful, fiddled to turned it one way, then the other until it clicked. Finally, the collar loosened, came undone, then fell off of his neck altogether. Zedd rubbed at the smarting flesh on his collarbone, pleasantly surprised, though not quite as relieved as his companions.
Richard approached him, retrieving the Rada'Han and its key out of his hands.
"This," he said, "Could be useful."
Wasting no time, Zedd moved towards Cara. He placed his hands on either side of the girl's bandaged wound and spoke words for a healing spell. To Cara's surprise, barely a moment passed before she experienced profound difference. She lifted her left arm, moved it about in wide circular motion but felt no hint of pain or discomfort. Her movements were only restricted by the bloodied dressing that was wrapped tightly about her shoulder and chest. Cara pulled at the cloth, unwrapping it until it fell off completely, whereby upon examining the flesh under her left shoulder where she was used to feeling sharp pain, she found nothing. Her flesh had healed entirely, mended perfectly. If it were not for dried-up blood stains smeared around the immaculate spot, there would have been no trace of anything at all having punctured or even scratched her skin.
Unable to convey her gratitude in its entirety, Cara simply said, "Thank you," to Zedd.
"No need to thank me, Cara," Zedd replied. "It is we who should be thanking you, after all. You saved both Richard and Kahlan's lives last night. Without you, they would be gone for good and I'd be rotting in some D'Haran dungeon by now, if I was lucky! At present, however, we'd better gather our belongings and get going. Without horses, we have a very lengthy journey ahead of us..."
The old man furrowed his brow and turned to shuffle towards their camp.
Following suit, the wizard's companions marched behind him - Richard first, then Kahlan and Cara. As they walked, Kahlan turned towards the other girl and smiled broadly at her. It was her way of reaffirming what Zedd had just said about her, that she, too, felt indebted to Cara, and that she was glad to see her finally healed and well again. Cara, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to avoid the Confessor, deliberately trying to walk out of step with her. At seeing that Kahlan was intentionally seeking her out, grinning so unabashedly at her as if they were the closest of chummy friends, she rolled her eyes and hurried ahead. Kahlan's smile faded instantly. It wasn't that she wasn't used to a certain degree of coldness from Cara but something felt different. It was as if there was a new edge to Cara's disdainful attitude that felt too much like actual aversion or even scorn... It also felt as though it was directed specifically at Kahlan, only at Kahlan, which, after what they had just been through together, and after all that they've been through together in the past, hurt Kahlan more than she dared to admit.
Led by Richard, who claimed to know a shortcut to Aydindril, the four spent all day walking. They'd had no luck in recovering Kahlan's daggers after all, despite retracing the bull-man's footsteps in the morning. And by twilight, without the aid of horses on their journey, they found themselves still very much deep within the forest.
After Cara's rebuff that morning, Kahlan decided to keep her distance from the girl. She didn't particularly want to do this but, after noticing Cara conspicuously avoiding her, she conceded that it was probably a good idea. Ignoring the temptation of wanting to question the Mord'Sith about her sudden change of behaviour, Kahlan decided to leave her alone altogether for the time being. She hoped that in time, Cara's grudge, whatever it was, would ease and that they would return to their usual civil sort of friendship, if you could call it that.
Cara, on the other hand, felt all the worse for deliberately being gruff towards Kahlan, especially when the Confessor had been nothing but sickeningly kind towards her. She hated herself for being the cause of the hurt evident in Kahlan's eyes, but she knew that there can be no other way in a situation like this. She would have to keep Kahlan at a distance as much as possible until these pestering feelings ceased... If they ever did.
That day, right before nightfall, the group decided to make camp at the edge of a spacious clearing in the forest, starting up a small fire, settling down around it, unpacking the contents of their backpacks as necessary. Using a rationed portion of their provisions, Richard made soup over the fire, sharing the task of tending to the pot with Cara and Kahlan, while Zedd made himself leisurely comfortable sitting on the ground nearby, waiting for dinner. Some time after daylight had faded altogether, and a freshly waning moon had illuminated the clearing, the Seeker offered to take the first watch. Barely satisfied after consuming their humble meal, Zedd, and even Cara, feeling weary, voiced no objection. Not long after, the two felt compelled to make themselves comfortable on the ground, as comfortable as can be, at just the right distance from the fire, and easily fell asleep.
While Richard stood at a small distance from the camp, hiding among the trees, Kahlan sat by the fire. She glanced over the two sleeping figures, her gaze naturally gravitating towards the illusion of shadows dancing with the light that played over them both, as the fire cast its flickering hues, looking remarkably vivid to Kahlan. Her eyes lingered over Cara, though the blonde had positioned herself away from her, no doubt, deliberately.
What is going through that strange head of hers? Kahlan wondered. What kind of dreams does a Mord'Sith have?
Lost in a trail of thought that played out before her eyes a little too vividly, Kahlan barely noticed that she, too had started to doze off. She was just about to lie down when Richard appeared by her side and sat down next to her, extending his hands towards the fire to warm up. The sight of her beloved vigorously rubbing his palms together, blowing warm breaths over them, caused Kahlan to grin, almost giggle. Richard smiled in reply and made an even bigger show of his movements, amusing her further.
"You know what would be nice?" he whispered into her ear, after making sure that the others were past overhearing.
"What?" Kahlan gazed at him with sleepy eyes and a big smile.
It's nice spending time alone with him, she thought, while the sound of Zedd's snores echoed in the otherwise peaceful nighttime atmosphere.
Well... Almost alone.
"If we could take a walk together, under the moonlight," Richard stared intently into her half-open eyes. "Just you and me... Maybe even holding hands."
"Holding hands?" Kahlan giggled again. "But Richard, that's so romantic!"
"Shh! That's the idea," Richard smiled at her, using all the power of his charm.
Kahlan's face turned serious for a moment.
"But what about Zedd and Cara?" she asked.
"What about them? Or shall we ask them to come along for a romantic walk under the moonlight too?" he teased.
Kahlan stared at him, puzzled.
Suddenly, realising that he was only joking, she burst into a loud giggle, one that interrupted Zedd's snores for a beat and carried on for longer than was typical for Kahlan. Richard tried to quiet her down but when she did not, he placed his hand over her mouth and lifted a finger to his own lips, to indicate silence. Kahlan giggled at this gesture too, though somewhat less conspicuously with Richard's hand over her mouth, while Zedd snored and snored. Cara never stirred.
When Kahlan finally ceased the uncharacteristic giggling, Richard took her by the hand and helped her stand up. She felt woozy and a bit wobbly on her feet but he helped steady her. He grabbed his backpack, checked that the Sword of Truth was safe in its scabbard on his belt, and as quietly as he could, led Kahlan by the hand away from their camp, over the clearing and into the opposite side of the forest. The entire time they walked through the woods, Kahlan burst into random uncontrollable bouts of tittering, made all the worse by the urgent pull of Richard's hand. It wasn't until they reached another, smaller clearing that they stopped. Richard dropped his backpack and sat down on the grass. Kahlan followed suit, sitting close to him. Above them, the sky was wide open, with hundreds of stars flickering against the dark background.
"Now what?" Kahlan smiled broadly in Richard's face, her eyes barely open.
"Kahlan," Richard turned to face her completely, taking her hand into his. "I think you know that we should be together, that it's our destiny."
Kahlan nodded with a wobbly head and a wobbly smile.
"So why should we wait," he continued, "When you know that I love you and I've wanted you for a very long time?"
Kahlan only giggled in response.
"Don't you want to be with me too?" Richard asked, as though offended by her lack of reply.
"I do!" Kahlan giggled again.
"So what's stopping us? Look at the beautiful stars above," he said and Kahlan tilted her head upwards, mouth wide open in wonder. "Feel the softness of the grass below us," he continued, and she listened, brushing open palms over the feathery ground around her.
"The night is perfect and we are finally alone..." he said looking deeply into her eyes.
Kahlan was spellbound.
He leaned in towards her, aiming for her lips with his own.
"Wait..." she said, raising a wonky hand before his lips, causing him to kiss her palm instead of her face. "We can't!"
"Something feels... Strange. In here," she said and pressed her fingers against her temples, scrunching up her nose at the throbbing sensation. "And because... I'm afraid, Richard. What about confession...? Wouldn't be nice for you."
"That's true. That's a good point," Richard replied, his brow furrowed. "You could accidentally confess me if we were to be together, couldn't you?"
Kahlan nodded, appearing sad, before bursting into another giggle.
"If only there was a way for us to be together without the risk of you confessing me..." he mumbled under his breath, appearing thoughtful.
Kahlan sighed, resigned.
"Wait. I have an idea," he exclaimed with a brilliant twinkle in his eye. "What about the Rada'Han that Zedd had on him before? That could work, couldn't it? If you wore it, then you wouldn't be able to accidentally confess me while we are together."
"Yes!" Kahlan slurred enthusiastically, thrilled by this ingenious idea. "But... Zedd's Rada'Han is far away, sleeping..." she added, her eyes barely open. "Sleep is important..."
"I know," Richard replied, "But look, it just so happens that Zedd had left the Rada'Han in my backpack!"
"Ahh!" Kahlan gasped with dopey delight at seeing the metal collar produced from Richard's backpack as if appearing out of thin air.
"Shall we put it on you?" Richard asked.
But Kahlan was suddenly hesitant.
"Oh come on, Kahlan," he coaxed with a charming smile, perspiration threatening to break over his brow. "Tonight is the perfect night. How often do we get a chance to be all alone? Isn't this what you want, too?"
He reached up and lovingly caressed her cheek. Kahlan leaned into his hand, half affectionately, half ready to fall asleep. When he withdrew his hand, she looked into his eyes and tried hard to focus, to think, but Richard's eyes swirled in her mind along with the myriad of twinkling stars above them until she felt lost in the whirlpool.
She closed her eyes, and nodded.
He opened the collar and wrapped it around her neck. Hastily pushing the key in the keyhole, twisting it with impatient fingers, he fastened the lock. At long last, the Mother Confessor was subdued by the Rada'Han. And once it was done, once he withdrew the key and knew that she could not harm him anymore, he sat back, staring at the collar on her neck, staring at the key in his hand, in disbelief that it had all turned out to be so easy. Just as suddenly and hastily, remembering himself, he hid the key inside an inner pocket of his vest, and once again turned his attention to the barely awake woman.
"There," he said smugly. "Now we can do whatever we like."
With his index finger, he playfully tapped the tip of her nose.
She giggled at the gesture.
He shifted closer to her.
"And I," he continued, "Have been waiting, a very, very long time for this." With both hands he brushed away strands of stray hair off her face.
Leaning into her, Richard kissed her on the lips. Kahlan meekly reciprocated.
He shuffled closer to her, sitting so that their bodies touched. He kissed her more deeply then proceeded to kiss along her neck.
"That tickles..." Kahlan faintly giggled.
But Richard grabbed her face with both hands, looked her squarely in the eyes and firmly said, "No more giggling, Kahlan."
The edge in his voice caused her to sink into silence, feeling too groggy to respond either way.
Again, he kissed her on the lips, then down her neck, working to slide off the shoulders of her dress, to reveal bare skin of her arms and cleavage. The intensity of his mouth pressing against the flesh of her neck, moving lower, caused her to throw her head back. She shut her eyes against an upside-down world that spun worse than ever before, barely aware that she was slowly being pushed backwards, that a masculine hand moved along her thigh, until she finally lay on her back in the grass, eyelids barely flickering open, quickly slipping out of consciousness.
It was barely dawn when Kahlan roused from sleep, feeling cold, head foggy and heavy. Turning to her side, through blurry vision she scanned for the familiar sight of the fire at the center of their camp but could not see it. She rolled to her other side, expecting to see Richard, Cara or Zedd sleeping on the ground nearby but there was no one. She lifted her head, looked for something of familiarity in her surroundings but saw nothing, nothing at all amidst elongated tree-shadows that crept along the ground of the small clearing and raced against the first hints of sunrise. Kahlan had no recollection of arriving to this part of the forest. And she had no memory of how it came to be that she is all alone.
Panic gripped her.
Where am I?
She sat upright.
She looked about herself frantically, trying desperately to recall how it is that she got there. It was then, as she turned her head to her left, then to her right, that she became aware of the metal collar around her neck.
Hesitantly, she felt with her fingertips along the icy edge of the steel necklace. The realisation of what it was chilled her to the bone.
What's happened to me? Why am I wearing a Rada'Han? Where are the others? Have they been harmed?!
Thoughts rushed through her groggy head as she tried to think back, to remember, desperate to find something, anything of familiarity to hold on to, while the effort amplified her pounding, crippling headache. Wherever she turned, everything looked surreal and doubled up. She tried to stand but quickly realised that her balance was off too... And that her dress was oddly disheveled.
Something was very wrong here, Kahlan realised.
And then... She became aware of another discomfort, sharp pain... Between her legs.
She reached down with a hand and winced in discomfort. When she examined her hand, she saw dark stains smeared on her fingertips.
The panic inside her belly turned to utter dread. Her heart pounded as if about to burst from her chest.
What has happened to me...?! What is going on?!
The acuteness of her distress brought on snippets of strange, abstract memories, which painfully slashed through her head as if attempting to break down a wall that was forcefully erected inside her mind, a wall that was meant to stay up. She struggled to remember but no clear memory resurfaced.
In that moment, from behind the trees beyond the clearing, Kahlan heard a twig break and the sound of footsteps approaching. Her gaze naturally shot in the same direction. She waited, apprehensive, unblinking, shallow breaths building, afraid of what monster might come to light from the woods.
But it was Richard that emerged from behind the trees. As stunned to see her as she was to see him, he walked towards her.
Relief flooded Kahlan's senses. She rushed towards him with faltering steps and grabbed him by the shoulders, half out of urgency, half needing to steady herself.
"Kahlan, you're awake," he said, attempting to shrug off his surprise. "It's too early. Why don't you go back to sleep?"
"Richard, something is wrong," she blurted out as quickly as her heart raced. "I'm wearing a Rada'Han and I can't remember why! Last night... How did we get here? My head feels so strange!"
"Don't you remember, my love?" Richard appeared almost hurt by her questions.
"No," she replied, looking obviously distressed, "I...I can't remember anything! What are we doing here? Where are Zedd and Cara?"
"Kahlan... It was your idea," Richard stated plainly.
"What was my idea?" she frowned.
"To take a little walk, just you and me... Remember? Not that I am complaining," he added with a smirk.
But something about the glint in his smile, the ostentatious twinkle in his eye, jolted Kahlan more sharply than the pain between her legs. Just as staggeringly, a jagged memory stung her:
Stars... Stars twinkling in the sky, all around and beyond... Beyond Richard's face, hovering... Above her.
The relief she felt at seeing a familiar face, the face of her beloved, faded all at once, to be replaced with sharp suspicion.
"Richard, why am I wearing a Rada'Han?" she asked wearily and took a step backwards.
She felt unsteady on her feet when she let go of his shoulders but her instincts urged her to hide this weakness. Richard would have never, never taken advantage of her, she knew that.
"So that you wouldn't accidentally confess me, of course," Richard replied innocently.
And now she noticed - something in his voice was different. Kahlan tried hard to focus her vision enough to be able to read his expression.
"But... What about the Pillars?" Kahlan asked, colour draining from her face, as the horrifying realisation began to hit her.
"Oh, yes... The Pillars," Richard feigned recalling. "What about them, my love?"
He smiled as sweetly as he could, trying to put on his charm, just as he had the night before.
This man was not Richard, Kahlan now knew for certain.
"And why would I accidentally confess you?" her voice was hard, tinged with loathing and anger that fed on fear. "Something like that could happen only if we were to—"
"Come, my love," he interrupted with a whimsical tone that almost mocked her. "You're hurting me with these questions!"
"You... You are not Richard, are you?" Kahlan's eyes burned with fury she could no longer conceal. Whoever this man standing before her was, he had taken from her.
"Richard would have never taken advantage of me," she cried. "Not ever. He could never... AHH!"
The pain in her head had become unbearable. She clutched at it with both hands, struggling to remain on her feet.
"I told you it's too early to be awake," the man said with a mocking disdain on his face. "And to answer your other question: I am, in fact, Richard, and he is, in fact, me."
He snickered in a low tone, the sound of which sent chilling shivers down Kahlan's spine.
"Rahl," her voice was no more than an astonished whisper, taking another step backwards.
"What did you do to me, you monster?" she demanded, still grappling with her head. "What did you do with Richard?"
"Why, nothing, my love!" he said, feigning concern, coming closer towards her. "Won't you let me kiss it better... Like you did last night?"
"Stay back!" Kahlan warned menacingly, instinctively stretching out her hand as though about to grab him by the neck.
"Or what?" he mocked with a wicked smile. "Will you confess me?"
Kahlan backed away, hit with the horrifying realisation that with the Rada'Han on and her daggers missing, not to mention while feeling so unsteady on her feet, she was dangerously vulnerable.
The man marched towards her, a foul smile on his face, and only then did Kahlan notice his hand behind his back, concealing rope.
She turned and ran for the trees. Unfortunately, her disorientated state allowed her only a few steps before he tackled her to the ground. She struggled while fighting to get him off her but it was as if her limbs did not respond to her will as they should. It did not take him long to overpower her, and pin her on her back. Forcing her hands against one another, he wrung her wrists tightly with the rope, scraping delicate skin. When it was done, he picked her up by the shoulders and forced her to stand. Fortunately, in the split second of that moment, Kahlan saw her chance: With all of the force she could muster, she lunged her knee hard into the man's groin, causing him to double over and clutch at the area, before dropping down to his knees. In that moment she turned and scrambled away from him, as quickly as she could, into the forest, in the opposite direction from which he had emerged, instinctively making her way back towards the camp. With wrists tightly bound she had no way of steadying herself, tripping on roots with every other step, barely managing to avoid running into tree trunks and branches. She barely knew which way to turn in the dimly lit woods, made all the more difficult by her blurry vision. But there was not a moment to spare. She ran and ran as if her life depended on it.
Only once she dared to turn around to look behind herself, to see whether she was being followed and was horrified to catch a glimpse of a man's figure, a hauntingly familiar figure, with a vile aura about it, flitting in the distance among the trees, running towards her.
She ran all the harder, faster.
At last, she reached the edge of a large clearing and was overcome by a feeling of familiarity. On the opposite side of the field, drawn in by a speck of light from the dying embers of the camp fire that in Kahlan's vision looked like a single firefly, twice, she spotted two large human-like lumps lying nearby, apparently sleeping. The hope and desperation she felt at seeing her companions at last urged her with an additional rush of energy, and she ran at them, over the sleeping field, with everything she had in her, almost crash-landing on top of Zedd once she had reached the camp.
The old man woke with a start.
"Zedd... He's after me!" Kahlan cried breathlessly. "It's Richard but it's not Richard, I think it's Rahl! He—he put the Rada'Han on me... And my head feels so strange... I think he put something in the soup last night... Look! He tied me up and tried to capture me!"
She shoved her bound hands under Zedd's nose and watched his eyes flicker from the rope on her wrists to the Rada'Han on her neck, his expression equally shifting from confusion to a look of alarm. He stood up at once, ready to deal with whatever was headed their way but quickly found that he, himself wasn't as steady on his feet as he should be. His own head felt very strange also.
"You are right," he said, rubbing at his temples. "He must have put something in the soup last night. You should wake Cara while I deal with Rahl."
While Zedd surveyed the landscape in the direction from which Kahlan had emerged, Kahlan crouched by the sleeping girl and shook her by the shoulders. The woods appeared peaceful enough, until suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Zedd saw a shadow move behind a bush, hiding to the side of the field. Wasting no moment and taking no risks, Zedd unleashed a powerful repelling spell in the same direction. A profoundly familiar figure of a man flew backwards through the air and crashed against a wide tree trunk, before landing face-down on the ground with a thud. Zedd ominously marched towards his target, while the man scrambled to his feet and ran in the direction from which he had come. Zedd rushed after him, determined to reach him for a second serving while Rahl was still alone and vulnerable. He blasted bolts of wizard's fire out of his hands as he ran, trying to bring down trees to block Rahl's way and prevent him from getting too far but the younger man still managed to evade him. Zedd ran faster after him, running through the maize of the forest as fast as his aged legs permitted, and it wasn't until he spotted three figures in the distance ahead, approaching, running towards him and Rahl, that he faltered. Moments later, his suspicions proved true. Squinting to see better, slowing down, the wizard saw that despite being broken by heavy tree branches, moonlight streamed down through thick tree-tops to illuminated in snippets maroon leather and long braided hair of the fast approaching danger.
Zedd stopped in his tracks, fear frozen on his face.
He turned in the spot and ran back towards Kahlan and Cara.
"Kahlan," he screamed, "RUN!"
The Confessor, while still desperately trying to wake an unresponsive Cara, was gripped by renewed fear at the sight of the panicked wizard rushing back towards them. For a moment, she froze.
"Run, Kahlan!" Zedd repeated, his weathered feet threatening to give out under pressure. "There are Mord'Sith coming! I'll take care of Cara. Run!"
Unarmed, restricted by the Rada'Han and the rope on her wrists, not to mention a foggy, throbbing head, Kahlan was all too aware that she had no real way of defending herself against the impending danger. Still, it did not feel right leaving her friends behind. She shook the blonde even harder, to no avail.
Of all times for Cara to be so deathly asleep... What did Rahl put in that soup?!
"Kahlan, you must go ahead," Zedd urged her, out of breath, once he had reached the Confessor kneeling by the sleeping blonde. "Cara and I will be alright... But you I cannot protect with magic while you have the Rada'Han on... You will need to save yourself. Head south... Until you reach the bear rock at the river... You will recognise it by its shape... We will find you there later. Now, RUN!"
The fear in Zedd's eyes, the sight of the Mord'Sith approaching, agiels ready, running towards them at full speed, tempted Kahlan to abandon her friends for the first time in her life. Still, she hesitated.
"There is nothing you can do to help right now, dear one," Zedd reassured her, reading the torment on her face. "You must save yourself."
Despite herself, the Mother Confessor stood up. With one final, reluctant look at Zedd and Cara, she turned, and ran off into the forest, bound south, just as Zedd had instructed her to do. And the moment that she did, before she became obstructed by the trees in his sight, Zedd slammed his palm against the spot on the ground from which Kahlan had sprung, conjuring up a spell where ten more Kahlans appeared in the same place and one by one, scattered into the forest in various directions. In reality, the spell was no more than a temporary trick of light that would evaporate in just a few minutes, but Zedd hoped that with some luck, it would be enough to confuse the Mord'Sith and give Kahlan a head start.
Seeing what was happening, and being very well aware of the purpose of such a spell, the Mord'Sith ignored the running Confessors, and instead, zeroed in on the wizard and their sleeping traitor sister. Agiel ready to strike at the old man, the leader of the three women threw herself at her target with full force but was surprised to find that instead of crashing against the wizard, instead of feeling the power of her agiel slamming against his head, both she and her weapon cut through empty air and landed on deserted ground. Looking about herself, the woman realised that both the wizard and Cara had vanished into thin air.
Exchanging glances with each other, the Mord'Sith wordlessly conceded that they had lost them. For as long as their targets remained invisible they would have no way of getting to them, therefore, there was no point in lingering there. The women turned around and in unison rushed off in the same direction from which they had come.
While invisible to the physical world, Zedd watched the trio disappear into the thickness of the forest shrouded by unrealised daylight. When he was sure that he and Cara were safe, Zedd placed his hand on the sleeping blonde's shoulder, just as he had done before the first strike of the agiel threatened to knock him out of this world, and brought them both back to the physical world. The shock of re-materialisation rattled Cara enough to finally wake.
"What happened?" she asked, instantly aware that something was not right.
She sat up and looked about herself disorientated. She shook her head, hoping to get rid of double vision and dizziness, but the motion caused her head to ache all the more acutely.
"We've been attacked," Zedd replied solemnly, "By Mord'Sith, doing Rahl's bidding, no doubt."
"Where is Kahlan?" Cara glanced over the clearing while struggling to her feet, feeling nauseous.
"She... Has gone south," the wizard replied in a grim tone. "We are to follow after her and find her by the bear rock at the river."
"Why did she go by herself?" Cara asked, alarm growing in the pit of her stomach the more Zedd tried to explain.
"Because Rahl had managed to put a Rada'Han on her and I couldn't use magic to protect her against the Mord'Sith."
"Rahl put a Rada'Han on Kahlan?!" Cara demanded, horrified. "How could that happen?! Where is Richard?!"
"That... Is hard to say," Zedd replied with a tense groan. "I suspect Richard has been captured by Rahl, most likely with Nicci's help, when he so foolishly ran off after the bull-man yesterday. I imagine he is being kept somewhere, while Rahl parades around looking like the Seeker. I suspect Nicci used magic to either glamour Rahl's appearance, or... Worse. To swap their bodies."
"Why would Rahl want to be in Richard's body?" Cara was perplexed.
"Because the body he came to occupy after he was brought back from the underworld was not his own but that of his lookalike, a regular man with no Han in his bloodline. I suspect he wanted Richard's body for the power it can contain."
"But Richard has no Han left... He gave it all away to—" Cara froze in the spot. The realisation winded her like a blow.
"Exactly," Zedd replied with a hard look on his face. "And I suspect, Nicci won't be keeping the Han all to herself for too much longer."
By the time Zedd and Cara reached the river and found the rock formation that resembled a giant bear, Kahlan had been anxiously waiting for some time. She had managed to free her hands by herself, by grinding the rope against a sharp rock that stuck out from the stone formation. However, even after her companions had arrived, though she felt very relieved to see them, she was still deeply distraught by all that had happened that morning.
Despite suspecting what the answer was going to be, the first thing she said to Cara and Zedd was:
"You didn't find the real Richard, did you?"
"No," Zedd shook his head solemnly.
Cara avoided looking her in the eyes.
The entire time she and Zedd had walked towards the river, Cara had silently reproached herself for being so blind to the enemy in their midst. Rahl was right under her nose and she had failed to pick up on the signs. And Richard, the real Richard, she had allowed him to be captured. If her judgement hadn't become so clouded by her emotions, she might have been able to prevent this from happening.
"We suspect that Rahl and Nicci have captured Richard," Zedd explained to Kahlan, "And had swapped his body with Rahl's."
"But how can that be?" the distress in Kahlan's voice was obvious. "Wouldn't it take a great deal of very powerful magic to be able to do something like that?"
"It would indeed," Zedd replied. "With Nicci at Rahl's side, the same Nicci that had absorbed all of Richard's Han and taken most of yours too, as well as many others', I imagine this would have been a fairly straight forward task for her to do. However, when I ran after Rahl in the forest, before the Mord'Sith appeared, it didn't seem to me that he had acquired any of her Han just yet, otherwise I don't think he would have fled me as he did, he would have retaliated with magic. Let's hope that this factor remains the same, it might give us a small advantage, if we come face to face with him again. But the question is, why would Rahl choose to get so close to us before taking any of Nicci's Han, if they had already captured the Seeker?"
Kahlan swallowed against a hard lump in her throat.
"I think I know..." she said.
Zedd and Cara stared at her.
"I think... I think he wanted me, the last Confessor," she said, tears brimming in her eyes. "Last night, he put something in the soup to make sure that you two would be asleep... And that my own senses and strength would be impaired. He led me away from the camp... And... And even though I have no clear memory of what exactly happened after that... I have good reason to believe... That while I was unconscious... He took advantage of me."
The woman burst into tears and buried her face in her hands.
The revelation utterly shocked and rattled both Zedd and Cara, who stood entirely still, startled, with no words to convey their dismay or outrage at what had been done to the Mother Confessor, the last living Confessor, and their own dear friend.
Zedd came close to the girl and placed his arms gently about her shoulders as she wept. His heart broke in two for her.
Blast them! Blast them both! he silently cursed Rahl and Nicci.
Cara, meanwhile, entirely unprepared for such a revelation, nor the onslaught of emotion that it triggered within her, stood frozen in the spot, with the look of astonishment fixed on her face. On the outside it appeared as though she simply stood there, passively surprised, silently observing a friend, a comrade, suffering before her eyes, while in truth, in that moment, as she watched the person she cared about the most in the world, whether she would admit it to herself or not, Cara endured feeling the most helpless she had ever felt in her life. Memories sharp as knives fleeted across her mind of the earliest days of her Mord'Sith training, right after she was so traumatically taken from her family and the only life she had known until then. Not since then had she experienced such debilitating feelings, which now choked her, paralysed her in the most frightening sort of way. And yet, she wished all of this on herself, and all of Kahlan's anguish, so that the Confessor could be spared. But no amount of wishing could make the reality any different, Cara knew. The fact was, Rahl had hurt her... He had hurt Kahlan, and Cara had slept right through it! And for as long as she lived, she would never forgive herself for this, Cara thought scathingly, deeply ashamed and enraged at herself for failing so miserably to protect Kahlan. The only thing she could do now, the only thing she could ever do, she conceded bitterly, was to seek vengeance.
The thought of vengeance quickly replaced Cara's feelings of helplessness with anger, the burning kind of anger that was nothing short of silent rage, and in a way was a comfort to the Mord'Sith. She vowed to herself in that moment that she would find Rahl, that she would find this man that roamed the lands freely in Richard's own body, and that he will receive the full force of her wrath for what he had done to the Mother Confessor. She wished for nothing more than to jam both of her agiels down his throat and split him open.
Though such brutal thoughts made Cara feel a little better, the sight of Kahlan still standing in front of her, with her face buried in her hands, and the sound of her soft weeping, jolted Cara back to the present moment. She realised that she could seek vengeance for all of the days of her life, and yet, with Kahlan suffering now, needing help and comfort now, Cara had no idea of how to help her. And just as suddenly, all of Cara's vehemently-construed resolve for revenge come undone, and once again, she felt no bigger than that same child that was forcefully snatched away from her family.
She shut her eyes, feeling Kahlan's pain.
When Kahlan felt a little easier, after having stopped crying and after Zedd had released her from his grandfatherly hug, Cara took an uncertain step towards her, then another. With features now softened by genuine sorrow, she placed her hand gently on the Mother Confessor's shoulder.
Kahlan briefly glanced at Cara, forcing on a small smile of acceptance of the girl's sympathetic gesture, but was still too overcome by her own heartache to properly pay attention to her. Still, the very next moment, Kahlan wiped off all traces of tears on her face, and with resolve, turned to face the road ahead.
"The Seeker," she said with the single-minded determination of a true Confessor. "We have to find and free Richard."
Zedd nodded solemnly, his brow furrowed under heavy thoughts.
But Cara said nothing. Had Kahlan looked a moment longer at her, had she really looked at her at all, she would have seen that the girl was on the verge of shaking: shaking from inner-turbulence that she was not accustomed to feeling.
Empathy. Helplessness. Fear. Love...
It took every ounce of Cara's strength to withdraw her hand from Kahlan's shoulder, to retain an outwardly composed posture and commence with their new mission - saving the Seeker - the way Kahlan and Zedd did ahead of her.
The plan was to follow Rahl and the Mord'Sith while their tracks were still fresh, in hopes of uncovering their hideout and therefore, with some luck, locating the real Richard. Best case scenario: They would successfully track down Rahl and his followers, identify Richard among them, assuming that he had been transferred to Rahl's body, and while remaining concealed, send the wizard to use whatever magic was necessary to free him. And in case of the worst case scenario... Well. They would simply deal with any complications as they came up.
The trio rushed back through the forest towards the field where they had encountered Rahl and the Mord'Sith. Cara easily recognised boot tracks left in the mud by the Mord'Sith, and led Zedd and Kahlan in the same direction. Soon after, she identified another set of shoe-prints, which she assumed to be Richard's, or rather, Rahl's. After an hour or so of tracking, the trio saw the footprints abruptly shift into a dozen hoofmarks, which, based on the groves left in the earth, suggested that Rahl and the Mord'Sith had galloped away at full speed.
Somewhat disheartened, Cara, Zedd and Kahlan proceeded to follow after the tracks. They were well aware that they were now at a heavy disadvantage against their enemy... But Richard had been captured, he needed their help, and that was that.
A whole day was spent trailing and a whole night. Fearing that bad weather might wash away all hope of finding Richard in time, the trio persisted, despite exhaustion and lingering side-effects of the potion that Rahl had mixed into their soup the night before. Unfortunately, towards the end of the second day of tracking, there came a point where the tracks abruptly disappeared altogether. Suspecting that magic was used to conceal the tracks, Zedd used a tracing spell to uncover them, however, his spell was repelled, which only reaffirmed his fear: Rahl had reunited with Nicci.
The bleak look on the wizard's face fuelled Kahlan and Cara's own unease. At his announcement that at this stage there was not much to be done, other than wonder aimlessly in hopes of eventually chancing upon the tracks again, the women exchanged looks of dismay. Still, giving up was not an option and the trio took the only option they had. They persisted in the direction in which they suspected Rahl would have kept going, but kept a vigilant eye out for every movement, every sway of a branch, every sound in the forest, keenly aware that dark magic had many faces.
At the end of the second day of tracking, however, after barely having eaten anything or a moment to rest, exhaustion finally kicked in. Aware that their senses had lost sharpness, they did not trust themselves to remain as alert as they knew they needed to be in a situation like this. And the longer they walked aimlessly, the more disheartened they became, though nobody dared to admit it out loud.
Kahlan also began to falter more than the others, feeling weaker than what was usual, beginning to look a little unwell too, which she justified as a consequence of lack of sleep and persistent side-effects of Rahl's soup-potion from a couple of nights before. She hadn't been feeling quite like her usual self since that night, which, considering all that had happened, was understandable enough. However, deep down, another fear rose inside of Kahlan, a disturbing suspicion that the cause of her unusual feebleness could be much more sinister than what she dared to admit to herself. She kept that suspicion, as well as her faintness, to herself though and pushed through it as best as she could, not wanting to hinder their rescue mission any more than it already was.
A little past sundown, the trio conceded that they might as well break for the night. They were going nowhere with the search and they desperately needed rest.
After consuming what little provisions they had left, Cara volunteered to keep the first watch. There was no fire that night - they did not want to draw any unwanted attention with Rahl and Nicci roaming about. Zedd fell asleep quickly enough anyway, his snores, as always, powerfully unleashed to the rhythm of his rising chest. Kahlan made herself as comfortable as she could on the ground at the base of a great oak tree, not too far from Zedd, and tried hard to fall asleep, knowing that she would feel the better for it in the morning. Unfortunately, the food they had consumed that night did not seem to agree with her stomach, and despite the profound fatigue, she felt too unsettled to rest properly. She lay on the ground, cradling her knees, uncomfortable.
Listening to the Confessor toss and turn for a time, Cara approached the camp while keeping a watchful eye out on the dark surroundings of the woods. Only the most prominent elements of the forest, the most exposed to the waning moonlight, glowed in a soft silvery tone and offered little light to go by. The rest of the forest remained shrouded by the night.
"You can't sleep?" she said in a low voice so that Zedd wouldn't wake.
"No," Kahlan gave up trying to fall asleep altogether and sat up, resting against the oak's wide trunk. "I think the leftovers have already gone bad. We'll have to make a stop at some point soon to hunt for coneys," she added, clutching at her stomach.
Cara made no reply.
Slowly, without taking her eyes off the surrounding trees and shrub, the Mord'Sith made her way towards the oak tree and sat down next to Kahlan. The gesture surprised the Confessor as she had become so used to Cara going to great lengths to avoid her. She kept her surprise to herself, however, and the two women sat next to each other in silence, for a time, shoulders not quite touching, until Cara worked up the courage to speak.
"Kahlan..." her voice was a little more than a hesitant whisper. "I wanted to say... That I am sorry for what Rahl did to you."
"I know," Kahlan was resigned, wistful. She let her gaze drop to the ground in front of her.
"I also wanted to say," the Mord'Sith added in a colder tone, "That I will make him pay for it."
"Thank you, Cara," Kahlan replied simply.
Cara appreciated that Kahlan did not object to her way of helping. Her demeanour relaxed a little, now that she has said what she had been wanting to say to Kahlan. And once again, the women sat at the base of the great tree in silence. The only sounds to be heard were those of Zedd's snores, a mild rustle of leaves in the breeze and night crickets.
But seeing that Cara was once again speaking to her, Kahlan worked up her own courage to ask Cara something too, something that had played on her mind from time to time over the course of the past two days.
"Cara, may I ask you something?" Kahlan's mellow whisper of a voice sounded not as an interruption to the tranquil atmosphere but rather as an extension of it.
Cara tilted her head towards the woman, eyebrows lightly raised.
"When the Mord'Sith took you," Kahlan continued uncertainly, "And trained you in the arts of pain and pleasure, how did they go about... The second part?"
Cara struggled to maintain an even face. She did not particularly want to discuss her training in pain, and especially not her training in pleasure, with Kahlan.
"The way they did with most things," she responded uniformly. "With force... And then... With the reward of pleasure."
"But the first time you had to... bed... someone?" Kahlan continued, not looking at Cara but ahead of herself, eyes wandering aimlessly.
"What about it?" Cara's voice was detached.
"What was that like? Was it... Painful?"
"A little, I suppose..." Cara replied indifferently. "But that kind of pain paled in comparison to the pain caused by the agiels."
"Was it someone you cared about?" Kahlan persisted, turning to face Cara this time, searching the girl's features for hints of an honest answer.
But Cara turned away. It was hard for her to look at Kahlan's earnest face when she asked questions like these. Too quickly could the Confessor cause her heart to beat fast, causing Cara to doubt her ability to maintain an even composure in front of her.
"Does it matter?" a twitch of the lip betrayed her as she answered. She hoped that Kahlan didn't notice.
"I'm only wondering," Kahlan's voice was sad again as she looked away. "I know that Confessors usually have to take a stranger as their mate. It's practically unheard of for a Confessor to experience true love. I am wondering whether it's the same for Mord'Sith..."
When Cara gave no reply, Kahlan turned to face her again.
"Was it someone you knew at least?"
"—Yes," Cara replied curtly, the hard tone of her voice a warning against further questioning.
"Oh. I'm glad about that."
Rahl. It was Rahl, Cara's eyes closed involuntarily as the thought crossed her mind, uninvited. She would rather die than speak it out loud though, knowing that it would probably make Kahlan only more upset.
Once again, the women sat in silence.
A short time later, as if suddenly remembering something, Kahlan turned and intently looked at Cara. She waited, as though carefully examining the Mord'Sith, as though scrutinising her for information she could not quite obtain by looking at her, despite all of her 'reading' abilities as a Confessor.
Too aware of the Mother Confessor's eyes on her, Cara began to feel very unsettled. She grew more and more agitated, until finally, she snapped.
"What?! Why are you staring at me?"
"Have you... Ever been in love?" Kahlan asked earnestly, her eyes fixed on Cara's.
Cara froze. Her heart just about combusted in her chest.
"That's none of your business," she replied in a low tone.
"I-I'm sorry," Kahlan's voice was gentle. "I-I was only wondering. I've realised that there's a lot about you that I still don't know... Even after all this time we've spent living and fighting side-by-side... And me owing you my life. In that tomb, you said that you thought of me as your friend and I guess I thought friends tell each other things like that."
Cara made no reply.
"But I hope you know that you really can tell me anything, Cara," Kahlan continued just as gently, encouragingly. "I know it's not always easy for you to talk about what you might be feeling, but regardless, even when it comes to topics like love, I hope you know that I am here for you, that that's what friends are f—"
"—Yes, I know, Kahlan!" Cara interrupted her. "That's what friends are for. That's what friends do - they sit around and talk about their feelings, and braid each other's hair!"
Cara jumped to her feet, ready to walk off. Kahlan stood up too.
"I'm sorry, Cara... I-I didn't mean to upset you... I only—"
"—Why can't you just leave-me-alone?!" Cara hissed, staring Kahlan down with such burning emotion in her eyes, leaving the Confessor momentarily taken aback. Wide-eyed, speechless, Kahlan stared back as the blonde walked away from her altogether.
Taking a moment to recover from the blow, Kahlan followed after her.
"Now wait there!" she demanded, once they were out of Zedd's hearing reach. "Cara, wait!"
She grabbed and pulled the blonde by the shoulder, forcing her to turn around to face her.
"Cara, have I done something to offend you? Until very recently, you've gone out of your way to avoid me and you've been pretty harsh towards me in general, even for you! What have I done to make you resent me like this?!"
Kahlan's voice shifted from pleading to demanding. The look on her face was an equal mixture of desperation and boldness.
Cara could barely stand to look at her. She looked everywhere else about them except at Kahlan. A lump in her throat cut her off, her heart raced, while Kahlan remained firm in her resolve to uncover the answer. When Cara finally dared to meet the Confessor's gaze, she saw unwavering determination in the piercing blue eyes, which she recalled having witnessed in the past whenever the usually calm Confessor had been pushed too far. Kahlan was expecting an honest answer and she would not back down until she got it.
Hesitantly, Cara opened her mouth as if to speak but only hot breath passed between her lips, leaving a smokey white trail in the cold air.
"You haven't done anything, Kahlan," she said eventually, her voice full of remorse.
"Then why are you being like this towards me?" Kahlan demanded again, with the same look of fierceness about her. "I demand that you speak honestly, Cara."
Cara closed her eyes.
She tried to think of a way out, for some believable excuse that would put an end to Kahlan's questioning, but nothing came to mind. Despite all of the torture she had endured in her lifetime, save for the moment when the Mord'Sith forced her to kill her father, Cara had never feel so torn, so divided within herself, preferring the agony of her insides actually being torn apart by a screaming agiel.
"Kahlan... I can't," she said firmly, with one last attempt to fight off the temptation of admitting the truth behind her behaviour.
But Kahlan would not back down.
"Because..." Cara became exasperated. "I don't—I can't... Betray Richard."
Kahlan's eyes shot wide open.
"Betray Richard...? What do you mean? How would you betray him?"
Eyes almost pleading with desperation, Cara looked at the woman standing in front of her. Even now, she felt herself falter before the Mother Confessor's beauty. It hurt her to look at Kahlan Amnell.
Her eyes started to sting. She rubbed the leather of her gloved hand harshly into them and turned away.
"I think you'd better leave me alone now, Kahlan," she fought herself in order to say this, a hard hand pressed into her eyes. "I think you should go away and... Try to get some sleep. It'll be another long day tomorrow."
But Kahlan, never having seen Cara this distraught before, was puzzled all the more.
Something must be deeply troubling her, she thought with a sympathetic ache in her heart. Kahlan wanted to understand... And she wanted to help.
"Cara, what's wrong?" the Confessor spoke gently now, approaching the blonde from behind. "Whatever it is, you can tell me..."
She placed both hands on Cara's shoulders, forcing the girl to turn around and stand squarely in front of her. She searched to meet Cara's gaze with her own, and when their eyes finally met, locked together, she repeated, "Whatever it is, it's only me... And you can tell me anything. You might even feel better afterwards."
Tears glimmered in Cara's eyes. Her lip quivered despite herself. She hated that she felt so weak in front of Kahlan but there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from the Confessor's overwhelming beauty, from her steady, gentle presence or that open, earnest face that disarmed her every time she looked at it. And now, the woman waited for her to voice her truth.
But what could Cara say to Kahlan, when even she, herself, did not fully understand what was happening to her...?
No, there was nothing to say.
Cara took a step towards Kahlan. She brought her face close to the Confessor's, close enough to share a breath. And then, she touched Kahlan's lips with her own.
Kahlan froze in the spot.
Cara took another step towards her, bringing their bodies closer, almost touching. She pressed her lips fully and perfectly against Kahlan's.
It was a soft kiss she left on Kahlan's lips, a giving sort of kiss, the kind that expected nothing in return and in knowing that its entire existence would vanish in one brief moment, could not help itself but hold on for a moment longer.
Kahlan did not return the gesture but neither did she step away from Cara. She stood rooted to the spot, while the surprise of Cara's soft lips left their dewy mark on her own. And when Cara finally stepped back, Kahlan's lips were left parted, raw, and her features frozen in astonishment. Then again, Cara had expected nothing less.
The Mord'Sith waited, staring off to the side at the ground.
Silence overburdened the atmosphere.
"But..." Kahlan eventually spoke, her voice slicing through the quiet like a blade, "You know that I love Richard..."
"I know," Cara said evenly, in a manner that was more like her usual detached self. "We are going to find him and bring him back. And I will kill Rahl for what he did to you."
But Kahlan could not bring herself to say anything more. Her astonishment undiminished, she continued to stare at Cara blankly.
"Don't worry," Cara added in a quiet tone, "This won't happen again."
She turned in the spot and walked away.
A little way off, Cara found a log of a fallen tree and sat down, elbows resting on knees, face sullen. Some moments later, Kahlan joined her. They sat next to each other in silence, staring into the forest entirely dark except for random patches of tree and shrub that were touched by the moon's silvery light.
"I'm glad I know," Kahlan spoke in a voice that was barely more than a whisper now. "I can only imagine how much you must have struggled keeping it all to yourself."
Cara said nothing. She swallowed against the sore lump in her throat.
"But, Cara... You know... You know that this: You and... And me - It can never be."
As the words were uttered, the blonde's look fell. It wasn't that she had hoped for a future with Kahlan — she already knew that this was impossible — but the fact that Kahlan had thought it necessary to state the fact out loud to her, as though Cara didn't know any better, was what had wounded her more. Still, the smallest of hopes fluttering inside of her heart dashed with this painful reminder from Kahlan, and to Cara, felt as though all of her heart had left her.
"But don't worry, you are not alone, Cara," Kahlan reassured her. "I will help you through this as best as I can and we will overcome it, side by side, just as always, just as with everything else. I really meant it when I said I think of you as a friend, you know... It's not something I would say lightly."
Kahlan playfully nudged Cara's shoulder with her own.
"I know," Cara replied with her usual smirk, masking the heartache she felt. "Friend."
The two women looked at each other and each forced a cheerless smile.
But suddenly, the nausea that had been bothering Kahlan until then seized her with a grip much more intense than ever before, and without warning, she doubled over and violently vomited on Cara's lap.
Neither Kahlan nor Cara was able to get much sleep that night, despite taking turns to alleviate the exhaustion each one felt. Each woman had her own battles to wage inside her mind, trying to keep afloat the whirlpool of thoughts and emotions haunting her, preventing the relief of a solid peaceful sleep. Zedd, on the other hand, woke up at dawn with fresh eyes and renewed energy, and was surprised when neither the Mother Confessor nor the Mord'Sith shared his enthusiasm for the new day, instead appearing almost worse for wear. Nonetheless, before the sun had fully emerged, the trio collected their belongings and resumed with their rescue mission, as pessimistic as it was, keeping an eye out for even the smallest of signs of other travellers having passed through such remote corners of the woods. So when, shortly that morning, they did come across some promising horse-tracks, (Perhaps a small party of people travelling on horseback?) they were equally as shocked as they were overjoyed by their improbable find.
Based on how deep the hoof-marks furrowed in the moist soil, the trio unanimously agreed that the horses had raced through the forest carrying two people each. However, the tracks also appeared to be at least a day old and there was no guarantee that these were the same horses that had rushed off with Darken Rahl and the Mord'Sith on their backs. Still, for the first time since Rahl's tracks had vanished the day before, leaving Kahlan, Cara and Zedd privately despondent, hope had collectively retaken root, propelling each one forward in the search, adding fresh swiftness to their step and renewed tenacity in their mind. The trio proceeded in the direction of the tracks with a restored sense of purpose and urgency - they will find their Seeker.
Alas, the tracks went on and on, and the trio spent yet another day walking, during which time neither Cara nor Kahlan spoke much, to each other or in general. Zedd found this a little strange, sensing unusual tension between the two women. He did not try to question it, however, not out loud at least, putting it down to, most likely, apprehension of their so-far futile search. Deep down though, he was becoming increasingly aware of another shadow growing to hound them all, one that made its presence known every time he looked at Kahlan, one that he would rather not put a name to, not just yet anyway. They had more urgent matters to attend to. And once they recovered Richard, everything else will be easier, Zedd reassured himself.
Cara, on the other hand, did her best to maintain an even composure and distance from Kahlan once again, trying hard to direct all of her energy and focus on the task at hand, as though nothing at all had happened the night before. This was the only way she could withstand being in close vicinity to the Confessor. Unfortunately, she found that her gaze naturally gravitated towards the woman and she hated such moments, where for an accidental second that lasted too long, their eyes locked together, sending thrilling, almost electric, though cold, shivers down her spine, before she'd reclaim enough strength to abruptly look away and carry on, appearing indifferent on the surface.
Kahlan, meanwhile, was under a similar resolve of not wanting to make it harder for Cara by keeping any closer to the girl than she had to. At the same time though, she was painfully aware of the rift such behaviour was beginning to create in their already-strained friendship. She did not want to lose Cara... But she did not want her to suffer either.
The discord of these two factors left its effect on the Confessor, where even the simplest or accidental interaction with the Mord'Sith was beginning to lack in ease, becoming forced, strained, leaving Kahlan all the more frustrated.
And then there were the moments when the memory of the kiss crept up on her unexpectedly and shocked her anew, as if it were happening all over again.
She kissed me...
While Kahlan had made up her mind and was prepared to do whatever it took to spare her friend from false hope, she was entirely unprepared for these moments, haunted by the ghost of Cara's kiss. Even as she rushed through the forest alongside her two companions, anxiously following the horse-tracks, desperate to find Richard to the point of nausea, the realisation that last night's revelation had taken place at all, that Cara had kissed her, burned through her mind like a comet, shocking her each time, causing her pale cheeks to burn as if on fire, leaving her utterly bewildered and unsettled.
Cara... Cara kissed me!
From experience, Kahlan knew that it was a rare thing seeing Cara any kind of sentimental, let alone like this, let alone towards her. She thought back on the time when they were trapped in the tomb together... The look in Cara's eyes, when she had admitted to the fact that she considers Kahlan to be her friend, was left imprinted on the Confessor. Those words had meant so much to her, despite Cara's attempt at retracting them later on. But even before Cara had said anything that day in the tomb, Kahlan had become aware of how drastically her own feelings towards the Mord'Sith had changed over the months they'd spent working and living side-by-side, of how much she had grown to care for the girl. This, however, Kahlan knew was different. This was not something she had ever expected. Although, if she thought about it carefully, she wasn't actually sure of the nature of Cara's feelings for her. With all of the other, more urgent, things they had going on at the moment though, Kahlan decided to leave the topic alone for the time being, even though she couldn't help but wonder whether the girl's feelings were the true, deep kind, or only a raw kind of attraction, not unlike that which the Mord'Sith were known to appease whenever there was a chance. Something told her, however, that in this case it was more than that. The tenderness, the desperation of the kiss... She could not shake it from her mind. And even now, as she followed behind the wizard and the kiss's culprit through the forest, looking up from the horse-shoe dents in the damp soil, the only hope she had of seeing her beloved Richard again, to the blond hair that decidedly marched ahead of her, the memory of it managed to come through once again, shocking her once again, where the sensation of her lips parting under the pressure of Cara's, at first coaxed, then left damp and cold, and stunned, when Cara had stepped away, felt a little too real, a little too charged. And once again, Kahlan's cheeks burned with the memory, and the woman herself driven to jilting hyper-awareness of her own lips, wanting to shy away from them as the dim forest's cold air left its own icy kiss on her. Unsettled, she hoped that her companions would not turn back to look at her while she trailed behind them, convinced that her thoughts were plastered across her face, available for everyone to read. But there was no time to think about what all of this meant, to consider the implications of why this kiss had made her feel so unsettled. Too many other, suffocating shadows enveloped her with every step she took in that wretched, endless forest. Shota's prophecy loomed in the back of her mind, frightening and now further fuelled by the persistent nausea that plagued her with no rest, while the sharpest, most urgent pain of all was her beloved Seeker, missing.
Is he still alive? Could he be... Dead? No... No. That can't be. I'm sure Rahl needs him alive, otherwise we would have found him by now. Or Rahl would have found us!
Such thoughts were sobering enough, grounding her into the harsh present moment of their search, which was uncertain at best. And so, Kahlan pushed herself on, through the forest, doing her best to leave behind all of her physical and emotional struggles, to march on towards Richard, desperate to get him back, desperate to have the Rada'Han removed from her neck, so that they could return to their more ordinary days, when things were at least somewhat simpler. Deep down though, she feared that some things will be forever changed.
It was while following an uphill route, after they had finally emerged from the forest and reached a lush, hilly area, that the tracks disappeared once again and that Kahlan's strength began to decline noticeably, despite all of her efforts. At first, she only lagged behind as she made her way up the hill, while Zedd and Cara had already reached the top and debated the possibilities behind the vanishing horse-tracks. But when Cara glanced back to check on the Confessor, she saw that Kahlan was ghostly pale and that by the manner of her walking, she was about to collapse at any moment. Abruptly darting from the spot, Cara rushed towards the woman and managed to catch her just in time, preventing the Confessor from dropping to the ground with all of her bodyweight. With Zedd's help, Cara settled her on the ground, cradling Kahlan's upper body in her arms, tapping on her face to help rouse her back to consciousness. When Kahlan finally opened her eyes, seeing Cara's familiar face tower above her, she gave the conspicuous smile of welcome recognition. Cara frowned, not knowing how else to respond.
With help from her companions, the Confessor sat upright. Assuring them that she was fine, that the fatigue was already passing her, she protested Zedd and Cara's insistence to remain seated on the ground. But the very next moment, their concerns proved to be within reason: despite her reassuring words, Kahlan doubled over and retched on the ground in front of her, this time only just missing Cara's leather.
Cara and Zedd averted their eyes at the sight of the Confessor's regurgitated meal. Cara stood up and gave the wizard a concerned, almost angered look, one that suggested that this was not the first time this had happened. Zedd took a moment to allow the implications of this to sink in, before crouching down next to Kahlan to make sure she was alright. Frowning with concern, he placed a hand on her belly, and for a moment remained perfectly still, expectant, as if waiting for a sign that only he would be able to observe. Kahlan also turned quiet and still under his hand, forced at last to consciously acknowledge the possibility of what the nausea could really mean. Fear spread within her belly where the wizard's hand rested, while he deliberated inwardly, his eyes closed.
When he next stood up, the grave look on his face confirmed what had been on everyone's minds but what nobody had dared to say out loud:
Kahlan was with child.
And what's worse, this meant that Shota's prophecy was coming true to some degree or another.
Cara retrieved her leather water-bag. Removing the lid first, she offered the water-bag to Kahlan. Distraught, Kahlan reluctantly accepted it, but after drinking some and realising that the water wouldn't stay down, quickly handed the water-bag back to Cara. The blonde commented that Kahlan had barely eaten anything in the past couple of days and offered to go hunting. They had just about finished their provisions anyway, she said, and she had spotted a few coneys at the foot of the hill. Zedd agreed, offering to stay on the hill-top with Kahlan to keep an eye on her, while Kahlan felt too weak and overwhelmed to protest.
Cara grabbed her bow and arrows, and swiftly backtracked downhill. She looked for the spot where she had seen the coneys but was surprised to find the patch of grass now entirely deserted. She walked farther, taking stealthy steps along the edge of the forest, eyes surveying for any hint of movement, an arrow drawn in the bow, ready to fly. But to her surprise once again, she saw nothing. Puzzled by this unexpected shift in a place that should be budding with wild-life, Cara stood perfectly still for a time, as if listening for something. The entire area was eerily quiet, she realised, as if all of the wild creatures had anticipated a hunter and so, ran for cover.
Strange, Cara thought, assuming an en-garde stance as urged by her instincts.
Suddenly, a sound of muffled cries resounded from the forest. As if on cue, Cara's eyes shot in the same direction. Among the trees in the distance she saw movement of what appeared to be a person, struggling. She crept up closer, staying low, hidden from sight, while trying to take a closer look, her arrow semi-drawn, ready enough. The farther she advanced, the more obvious the sounds of struggle became. Finally, though he was half-hidden by shrubbery, Cara saw a man's torso. His back was turned towards her and she couldn't quite see what was what but one thing was clear: He wasn't alone - he was wrestling with somebody. And when he had finally turned around, instant recognition chilled her to the bone. It was Richard. Or rather, it was Rahl. And the person he was wrestling with... It was a woman.
Cara craftily moved forward while remaining concealed by wide tree trunks. Only when she had crept up close enough to see beyond what the bush had obstructed, could she clearly see that, as the pair twisted and turned, it was the woman who struggled to break free from his grasp. With his one hand, he covered her mouth, stifling her cries of protest, while with the other, he pressed a peculiar-looking dagger, a dagger with a red hilt, against her throat. But the most unnerving thing by far, which Cara saw more and more clearly as she moved even closer, was the woman's familiarity, the familiarity of her dress, which was long, white, its hem stained with mud, entwining around their feet as the man forced the blood-red dagger against her throat and dragged her backwards, deeper into the woods...
A Confessor... Cara frowned, narrowing her eyes, trying to see better. How is this possible, she wondered, when the last living Confessor is...
At once, Cara darted from her hiding place and charged towards the pair. While struggling under Rahl's dagger, the Confessor spotted the woman running in the distance among the trees. Fighting Rahl all the harder, at long last she managed to peel off Rahl's hand from her mouth just long enough to cry out Cara's name in terror.
Chapter 10: Part 10.
"Where have you been?!" Zedd demanded. "We were so worried that something happened to you, that Darken Rahl and Nicci might have captured you or even killed you!"
"They almost did!" Cara protested, out of breath. As if chased by beasts from the boundary, she had ran from the forest, up the hill to the spot where she had left Zedd and Kahlan.
"They tried to trick me by disguising themselves as Richard and Kahlan. I shot arrows at them, I was able to get Rahl in the leg. But they had a horse and were able to escape before I got to them."
"Which way did they go?!" Kahlan demanded, struggling to her feet, her face just as ghostly pale as when she had vomited earlier.
"West, through the forest," Cara replied, leaning against her knees with her hands, trying to steady her breath. "I think if we hurry after them, we won't lose them this time."
Zedd nodded and the trio wasted no time in running down the hill, back into the forest. Cara showed them to the spot where she saw the false Richard and Kahlan wrestling. Zedd examined the ground and saw traces of blood, which he assumed to be Rahl's since Cara had wounded him with an arrow. Following the shoe-prints, he pinpointed to the place where the pair would have mounted their horse and the direction in which they would have ridden off. Instantly, the trio rushed in the same direction, along the horse-shoe trail, bound west, heading deeper into the forest. It took every bit of strength they had left but knowing that they had such a close brush with Rahl, that they could be close to Richard, they acted on pure adrenaline. Even Kahlan managed to keep up, more or less, while periodically wiping away sparkling beads of perspiration from her face.
For two hours they rushed through the forest, following the deep groves left in the earth by the galloping horse, until suddenly, before them, seemingly out of nowhere, materialised the base of a steep, bare mountain. The way the hoof-marks appeared to have been abruptly cut off by the mountain's rocky base suggested that the horse and its riders would have gone straight through the stone, inside the mountain. And yet, as Zedd felt the stone with his hands, it felt solid and cold, impenetrable, as any rock would.
"It's Nicci's magic," he concluded, assuming a more guarded stance. "However, something tells me this is no ordinary mountain either. We must be close to Rahl's base... I can feel it in my bones. I will cast a spell to see whether I can uncover the mountain's entrance, if there is one."
Taking a couple of steps backwards, the wizard waved his hands at the rocky formation, speaking words that neither Kahlan nor Cara understood. True enough, in the next moment, the rock dissolved before their very eyes, and in the place where the mountain's solid base had touched the ground, a broad cave opened up, illuminated from inside out with strange glowing lights. The hoof-marks also reemerged, trailing off deep into the cave as the horse would have sped towards the heart of the mountain.
For a moment, Zedd, Kahlan and Cara stood rooted to the spot, mouths agape, mesmerised by what they saw unveiled before them. It certainly was no ordinary cave to behold... From the very edge of its entrance, multitudes of patterns, jagged and spiraling, covered the entirety of the cave's dome-like walls, which stretched deep within the mountain. Hues of deep blue and green shone through the ridges of the markings, and gave the feeling of formless spirits dwelling in the light, glowing, almost pulsating, as though the mountain was alive and bleeding in sea-like hues from its very stone. Needless to say, the trio did not expect such a breathtaking sight to be waiting beyond the exterior of the mountain's plain rock.
"I don't believe it..." Zedd's voice was no more than a whisper of astonishment.
Slowly, he stepped inside the cave, eyes fixed on the glowing patterns above him, surrounding him, mouth open in awe. Kahlan and Cara tentatively followed, equally spellbound.
"Zedd," Kahlan whispered. "What is this place?"
"Upon my word," the wizard was distracted, his eyes full of the surrounding quivering lights. "It's the Shrine of the Zoria."
"The Shrine of what?" Cara asked, her eyes equally as fixed on the imprinted walls.
"The Shrine of the Zoria," Zedd repeated simply before recovering from the surprise enough to explain properly. "The Shrine of the Zoria is said to be a place of great power that has not been seen by anyone in hundreds of years. It had all but faded into myth! My word... I never thought that I would see the day..."
"What's a Zoria?" Cara asked again. "And what's so special about its shrine to have so much power?"
"It is said that the Shrine of the Zoria was created at the dawn of magic. The Zoria were eternal spirits, entirely formless, who roamed the land in the earliest of days, when humans took their very first steps on solid ground. At that time, the Zoria lived hidden from mortals, revelling in each other's virtue, knowledge and love. It is said that they were so omnipotent, they were the embodiment of magic itself. But when humans began to wield magic deliberately, when warped magic began to replace the pure kind and began to spread over the lands, and was then used for obtaining power over others, the Zoria began to diminish and leave this plane. The Shrine was the ultimate place where the last of these spirits gathered, imprinting some of their sacred knowledge into the walls of the cave. These markings, this is their language. Even after all this time, their Han is still so potent here."
"And you are sure it's not simply some kind of glowing-insect breeding ground?" Cara interjected.
But it was Kahlan who answered:
"No, I can feel it too..."
Cara saw the Confessor stare at the back of her own hands, mesmerised by the way ocean-like light tinted and danced over her pale skin. But it was more than that for Kahlan. After barely having stepped inside the cave, she was surprised to find herself feeling noticeably better, stronger, more clear-headed and focused - more like her old self.
"Zedd," she continued, "Can the power of the Shrine override the power of the Rada'Han?"
"Alas, it cannot, " Zedd shook his head. "But it is said that in this being the last dwelling place of the Zoria, some of them had poured their very life-essence alongside their wisdom into the stone. What you are feeling is more than magic - it is the last remaining trace of the Zorian life-force boosting your own life-force. But the Shrine itself contains great magical powers too, and enhances any magic that enters it. All that you are becomes more inside the Shrine."
"Does that mean that your magic is more powerful here?" Kahlan asked.
"Yes, it is more potent here. As is Cara's and as yours would be too if it were not for the Rada'Han," Zedd replied, before his voice turned dark, "But unfortunately, this means that so is Nicci's... And so is the Seeker's, which, in this case, means Rahl's."
The mention of Rahl's name interrupted the trance that had captivated the trio. They followed the passage of the cave with more urgency now, resisting the urge to stare at the beauty of the patterned walls, focused on the task ahead, mentally preparing themselves for whatever impending danger waited for them, no doubt, at the end of the passage.
The extended cave led them straight into the heart of the mountain, an exponentially large hollow space, brightly illuminated not by markings of green and blue but bright white light, causing Zedd, Kahlan and Cara to feel as though they had fallen into the brightest of night skies, surrounded by millions of stars. They could see each other almost as clearly as if they stood in broad daylight.
"Kahlan! Zedd!" A familiar voice called out. "Watch out! It's a trap!"
But it wasn't Richard's voice that called to them. It was the voice of Darken Rahl.
In the centre of the Shrine, an elevated landing served as its altar, and in the altar's centre stood a tall, slim, stone pillar with a pyramid-like pointed peak. To its base, Darken Rahl stood tightly bound by his ankles, neck and wrists, drawn behind his back by red rope soaked with magic. He looked entirely helpless, like an offering about to be sacrificed. To his one side stood Kahlan and to his other, Richard, with five Mord'Sith guarding him closely. The false Kahlan waved her hand at the bound Darken Rahl, and in an instant his mouth shut tightly, sewn through by her magic, preventing him from further communication. His cries of outrage became no louder than muffled mumbles.
"Nicci," Zedd spat, narrowing his eyes at the sorceress wearing the Mother Confessor's visage.
The woman waved her hand once over her own face, and her true form came to light. As expected by the trio, it was no other than Nicci, a silent, mocking smile her response to the wizard.
"Hello again Zeddicus, hello Kahlan," the false Richard spoke leisurely. "You are right on time."
"Rahl..." Kahlan's look darkened at the sight of the man who kidnapped Richard, and harmed her and her sister as he did. "You will answer for what you did."
"And how do you intend on accomplishing that?" he mocked. "By staring at me to death? You see, what you behold before you is no mere trick of disguise like what Nicci had just demonstrated. Borrowing some power from the Shrine, we were able to swap my body with Richard's. And now, his body, or should I say my body, has reclaimed the Han he had so conveniently denounced at the Palace of the Prophets. And I actually get to wield all of the Han that should have been mine, that was mine, while my dear brother gets to spend the remainder of his very numbered days inside my lookalike's worn out, useless sack of bones."
"I wouldn't get too comfortable, Rahl," Zedd warned.
"You will be a useless sack of bones yet!" Kahlan hissed angrily.
"Why, my dearest Zeddicus, my dearest Kahlan, you wound me!" Rahl mocked. "Surely you wouldn't hurt me while I am in your beloved Richard's body..."
"I wouldn't count on that," Kahlan replied sharply.
"No, I didn't think you would," he replied, a strange kind of excitement flickering across his features. "But I, on the other hand, can count on you to give me exactly what I need..."
For an instant, his words puzzled Kahlan and Zedd, but to their great surprise and chagrin, it was Cara who clarified it for them the very next moment. Before Kahlan or Zedd could fully realise what was happening, the blade of a peculiar-looking dagger - a dagger with a red hilt - flashed in Cara's hand, bright beneath the Shrine's multitude of sparkling lights, landing closely against Kahlan's throat, while the Mord'Sith grabbed and twisted the unassuming woman's right arm behind her back.
"Cara..." Kahlan was bewildered. "What are you doing?"
"What my master instructed me to," Cara replied, pressing the dagger harder against the woman's delicate flesh.
Kahlan felt the sharpness of the girl's breath on the back of her neck. It sent chills down her spine even more so than the dagger's sharp blade. This was definitely not the Cara she knew.
"Be careful, Kahlan," Zedd warned, "Her eyes are blood-shot. I think she's under a spell."
"Zedd, I think it's more than that..." Kahlan was still against the cold of the blade on her skin, her breaths shallow. "I think she's been confessed, like those soldiers that attacked us during the first Blood Moon!"
Zedd looked at Cara, who stared back at him with all of the intensity of death itself.
"But how...? You are Mord'Sith... You should be dead..." the words fell out of his mouth as the old man started incredulously, blinded by disbelief.
Cara cocked her head and narrowed her stone-cold eyes at her friend. In the red of her gaze, a wicked glint flickered at him. Zedd straightened his posture and pressed his lips into a downward arch. With the number of his enemies rising, and no friends able to help him at the moment, the wizard reminded himself to focus, and keep his wits sharp about him.
"Yes, well, it's funny what this place can do, what it can return, if it is rightfully yours," Rahl gloated from the altar, pleased at seeing his long-awaited plan unfolding.
"The power of confession is not and never should have been yours," Kahlan spoke distastefully.
Cara twisted the woman's arm with more force, causing her to wince in pain.
"If the power you possess now were truly yours, Rahl," Zedd added, "You wouldn't have needed to take over Richard's body and you would not require the power of the Shrine in order to utilise it."
"My own body possessed more than enough Han, Zeddicus," Rahl spoke bitterly, "Power that was my birthright and which I had more than earned during the course of my lifetime, before it was taken from me. Unfortunately, my lookalike's blood carried none. And as for the rest... Here in the Shrine of the Zoria, creating a spell, a variation of the Confessor's power of confession, was so simple, it was practically a gift! The unique influence of the Shrine infused the spell with power and life-enhancing elements, if you will, thus negating the ultimate harm I knew it would have caused our Cara otherwise, while making her stronger, faster and deadlier than ever. And I created it," he added angrily, "So that I can restore what was so unfairly stripped away from me, alongside my own body!"
"This is NOT what the power of the Zoria was intended for, Rahl!" Zedd boomed from across the dome-like cave. "This is exactly why the Zoria had left in the first place - to prevent power-hungry people like you from abusing it!"
"Funny you should say that, Zeddicus," Rahl spoke tentatively now, while leisurely strolling along the altar. "You see, I don't agree. I think that the Zoria had left exactly for the reason of people like me one day utilising their power to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Why else would they leave so much of it behind, so much of it imprinted in the walls of a cave, if they did not intend for it to be used for a great cause? And to think, all I needed... And you will love this part, Kahlan," he smiled to himself, while his enemies glared at him from beneath the altar, "Were a few strands of hair... From a natural-born Confessor."
From a pocket, he produced a closed fist that tightly grasped something and extended it away from himself as if about to reveal what it was.
"Denee..." Kahlan whispered, heart pounding with foreboding.
"Your sister was very obliging indeed, Kahlan," Rahl continued, "After some convincing, that is..."
Kahlan's eyes filled with burning, bitter tears.
"You will pay for what you did to her!" she raged under the Rada'Han and Cara's dagger, forcing the blonde to exert all of her strength to keep her in place. "You will pay for what you did to Denee!"
"Such ferocious temper," Rahl mocked, while secretly harbouring a fascination for the Confessor. "Alas, you can imagine that even with one Confessor's head full of hair, you would need every single strand, with none to spare, if you planned on raising an army to conquer the Midlands, like I did. And yes, in that way, Denee proved to be very obliging indeed. However, you, my dear Kahlan, proved to be even more obliging, in my most desperate of hours..."
At last, he opened his fist to reveal a coiled up tress of dark hair.
Kahlan stared at it in horror.
He had stolen and used her own hair to confess Cara.
Her gaze shifted from the lock of hair on Rahl's palm to the wicked smile on his face.
Rahl had tricked, kidnapped and rendered Richard powerless; he head killed and probably tortured Denee, her sister... And he had taken advantage of her, exploiting her in more than one way... Using her to now turn her faithful friend, a woman who had kissed her only the night before, into an enemy to hold a blade to her throat. Kahlan stared at the man who had caused her and so many others so much pain and suffering, and was filled to the brim with fierce hate.
Aware that the Confessor's pulse was quickening, Cara attempted to tighten her grip on the woman's arm but it was too late. With one sharp movement, Kahlan slipped her arm free from Cara's grasp, and in the same instant, elbowed the blonde in the stomach, causing her to double over. And just as suddenly, before she'd had a moment to recoup, Cara found herself being grabbed by the shoulders, flipped in the air over Kahlan herself, and painfully landing on her back on the Shrine's hard stone ground, winded breathless.
Seeing his chance while Rahl and his accomplices were distracted by the commotion, Zedd decided to take maters into his own hands. Careful to avoid Richard tied to the pillar, he expelled a bolt of fire at the altar, in Rahl's direction. However, the ball of flames came out much larger than Zedd had intended it, much more potent, enhanced by the power of the Shrine, and would have destroyed the entire altar, he quickly realised, had not one of the Mord'Sith jumped in front of her master and reflected it back at the wizard, at an unprecedented speed. Zedd had only just enough time to fling himself away from the spot where he stood before the ball of fire exploded against the stone floor, causing the Shrine to reverberate all around, but ultimately dissipating into a shower of harmless light, while the Shrine remained as pristine and untouched as if nothing at all had happened.
Unfortunately, the explosion threw Kahlan off guard, and with one swoop move, Cara struck at her legs with her foot, causing the Confessor to lose her own footing and land on her back. And before she'd had a chance to react, Cara had already jumped on top of her, straddling her with all of her body weight, pinning Kahlan down firmly on her back, the red dagger pressed against her throat once again.
From beneath Cara, feeling her breath on her own face, seeing her so ferocious, determined, so viciously focused on her, Kahlan looked up, into the girl's eyes. She saw the Mord'Sith's gaze hard and unflinching. Her eyes, tinged with the colour of blood, just like the D'Haran soldiers that had attacked and nearly killed all of them during that fateful night of the first Blood Moon. Kahlan searched for a hint of the person she knew, a trace of her friend, of the girl who had kissed her so tenderly only the night before, but found nothing. Cara had, quite simply, become her master's hunting dog and Kahlan, the prey.
"Don't think for a moment that you will get away with this, Rahl!" Zedd warned as he climbed back to his feet.
"Cara," Rahl ignored him, "Bring the Mother Confessor to me. Nicci, ladies, take care of the wizard."
"With pleasure," Nicci said, while the five Mord'Sith made their way down the opposite side of the altar, towards the wizard.
Zedd stared in alarm as Nicci spilled a sizzling river of fire from her hands in his direction, and once again only just managed to jump out of harm's way, letting the fire shatter against the bright walls of the Shrine, just as before, as mere water against rock, while the impact of it shook the foundation of the mountain. But seeing that the Mord'Sith advanced towards him from the other side of the Shrine, Zedd knew that he was running out of options fast. There was little he could do against the Mord'Sith since they could easily turn his magic against him. He had no choice but to try to hide. Therefore, the wizard uttered arcane words, waved his hands in the air and disappeared into thin air before the pain of the agiels could reach him. Alas, from the altar, Nicci conjured a counter-spell to unveil the wizard's whereabouts within the Shrine and the very next moment, the old man found himself visible in full view, hunted by the Mord'Sith once again. Enraged by the sorceress' move, before the women could reach him, Zedd evoked wizard's fire yet again and directed it at Nicci. But this too manifested in a much more potent way than he had expected, and the flames that raced forth from his hands towards Nicci emerged like molten lava, bright yellow from intensity, nearly burning his own fingers. Nicci, however, managed to dodge the attack just in time, falling off to the side in order to avoid the fire that threatened to consume her, while moments before the leather-clad women reached Zedd, their thick braids whipping through the air behind them, he transformed himself into a moth, and fled them once again, flickering his silver wings high into the dome-like ceiling of the Shrine. But Nicci quickly regained her footing, regathered her strength, and with a foul look on her face, narrowed her gaze at the flutter of tiny moth-wings that the wizard had become, barely visible in such a vast place, even more bent on destroying him.
While the two waged their fiery battle, and the other Mord'Sith waited underneath Zedd-moth for their chance to swipe at him, Cara grabbed Kahlan by the hair and pulled her upright.
"Cara, please... Don't do this..." Kahlan pleaded, attempting to appeal to the person buried beneath Rahl's confession spell, despite knowing how futile such attempts were. And as expected, aside from a mocking half-smile, with an edge as icy and deadly as her dagger, the Mord'Sith ignored her. Yanking Kahlan all the harder by the hair, pressing the blade all the closer against the pulsating artery in her neck, Cara pushed the Mother Confessor towards the altar, towards Richard, and the person who stood in Richard's body, with an ominous, excited glint in his eyes.
Once she stood before Rahl at the altar, Cara forced the other woman to her knees, while maintaining the threat of the red dagger. But the Mother Confessor ignored the pain where her knees harshly scraped on the stone-hard ground and where her companion's hand savagely clutched at her hair, and instead glanced to her side, at the pillar, where Richard stood bound. Though his features were that of Darken Rahl, she instantly recognised that ever-familiar good-natured look in his eyes. For the first time in days, Kahlan was sure that she was looking at the Seeker, the true Seeker, despite wearing the face of their enemy.
"Richard..." her features softened and her eyes filled with tears as she met the wistful gaze of her beloved.
He stared back at her with all of the love and sorrow in the world. Neither could stand seeing the other in such a state. Tears slid down Kahlan's face as her look fell away from him. But Cara grabbed her harder by the hair and forced her to look up at the face of the man who insulted everything she loved with his mere presence.
"Aww..." Rahl traced the salty trail on Kahlan's face with a fingertip. "Someone once told me that a Mother Confessor's tears are the most precious thing in the world..."
"What do you want with me, Rahl?" Kahlan's voice was full of bitterness.
"Only what is mine," he replied, kneeling down to be at the same level as her, looking her squarely in the eyes. He placed a hand on her stomach. "My son."
"I will kill myself before I give birth to a child fathered by you!" Kahlan hissed angrily.
"I do not doubt that," he said without flinching.
Kahlan stared at him, straight in the eyes, and wished that looks could burn - he would turn to dust from hers. But the next moment, Rahl stood up and waved his hand dismissively.
"I do not doubt for a second that you wouldn't end your life, Mother Confessor," he added casually, turning away from her, stepping away from her, while her bitter gaze burned holes into his back, "Wiping clean the entire existence of all future Confessors... And all to rob me of the joy of being father to my precious son. I'd expect nothing less from you, Kahlan Amnell."
He turned to face her again, the same strange glint playing in his eyes, as if withholding knowledge, dangerous knowledge that is to reshape the course of the future. But before he could say anything more, a faint voice croaked unexpectedly above them.
They looked up.
It was Nicci.
Evoking all the power and magic that he possessed, Zedd had rematerialised himself in his true form, now levitating far above the ground opposite the altar, above the Mord'Sith, who could not reach him, though they tried (by flinging their agiels at him, hoping that the momentary shocks of pain would throw him off enough to lose his focus and cause him to falter, and hopefully fall down). All the more amplified by the Shrine's own magic, Zedd had manifested enormous hands made entirely of white smoke, controlling them as if they were extensions of his own hands. With this he had seized Nicci in a tight grip, where she could barely breathe, let alone speak or move. The sorceress was rendered entirely powerless and stiff as a board, forced to float parallel to the ground, above the altar, directly above the pillar and Richard who stood tied to its base. And before Rahl could do anything to intervene, Zedd dropped her directly over the sharp peak of the pillar, piercing her spine right through to her abdomen. Blood splattered and oozed down the sides of the pillar towards Richard who stood helplessly underneath, mute, his mouth sewn shut by magic.
Stripped of the luxury of a final breath, Nicci was dead. However, instead of the one final exhalation, light began to leave her, light that contained all of the Han that she had absorbed throughout her life, including all of Richard's Han, which now made its way to its most viable host, its original host - Richard's body.
Euphoric waves rippled within his entire being as Rahl welcomed the additional power with open arms and a broad, elated smile on his face.
When Zedd's hands of white smoke rushed towards him, Rahl stopped them in their tracks and caused them to evaporate into thin air with one effortless gesture of his fingers. A single twitch in his lip betrayed the mirth he tried to contain at what had just occurred, and all that was about to happen.
"I guess Nicci underestimated you, wizard," he said, a little impressed by the floating figure of a skinny old man in the opposite corner of the Shrine. "A shame, though not all that surprising. And perhaps, it was better for her to expire as she did, at your hands, than wait for what I had planned for her. Poor Nicci, she couldn't have known that her demise would have been waiting for her all the same... For what I still have in mind, I would have needed ALL of her Han, not only a portion, which she had so generously, if not foolishly, shared with me."
"Rahl!" Zedd's furious voice echoed from above throughout the temple. "This is the END!"
Eyes narrowed at his target, with one stroke of his hand, Zedd wiped away the blood-trail streaked from the corner of his mouth. Nicci had proven to be harder to overcome than he had anticipated. Eyes firmly fixed on Rahl, Zedd glided through the air towards the altar, while the group of Mord'Sith followed underneath him in vain. Between his palms, the wizard began amassing an enormous ball of bright yellow fire interwoven with bolts of purple thunder. The moment he reached close enough to the altar to have a clear shot of Rahl, Zedd surged the flaming, thundering sphere, large enough to swallow a grown person, directly at him. But Rahl stood unflinching. He stood as if he had been waiting for a moment just like this one, expecting it, hoping for it, welcoming it, unafraid. Instead of fleeing from the impending ball of flames and thunder, or hindering it with his own magic, Rahl stood his ground and instead used his Han to freeze Zedd in the spot where he levitated, choking him as he floated mid-air, much as the wizard had done with the sorceress. At the same time, as though reading her master's thoughts, before the dagger in her hand could even make the clattering sound against the stone-paved ground after she dropped it, Cara had already sprung protectively in front of Rahl, and with an outstretched palm, boldly faced the impending fireball. With all of the power she possessed, quadruply magnified by the power of the Shrine, Cara managed to stop the flaming ball of thunder in the nick of time, before it was to consume her and everything else in its path. It floated suspended, so close to her, she could feel powerful heat emanating from it, turning her leather almost unbearably hot while stinging her face and singeing stray strands of her hair. Forced to use both hands now, Cara struggled to maintain control over the threatening mass but after a few moments' effort, the ball of fire flew through the air once again, back towards the wizard, who, in being frozen under Rahl's spell, was swallowed by the flames the very next moment, turning entirely ablaze and in an instant was consumed to his very bones.
"Zedd, NO!" Kahlan cried out.
Wide-eyed, she stared.
Horrified beyond anything, she stared.
But not a moment later, there was nothing to stare at.
The fire had disappeared into the ethers and had taken Zedd with it. Ash snowed down at the pile of Mord'Sith who had dropped to the ground in order to avoid getting singed by the fire, turning their maroon leather and their blond, brown and black braids, grey.
Kahlan's chest heaved as she tried to comprehend what had just happened.
"Cara..." she stared at the blond woman, "What have you done?!"
But there was no remorse on the Mord'Sith's face. Rahl, himself, stood tall and proud. Kahlan felt sick.
She looked over at Richard, with his lips blurred together. She saw his features frozen, turned red, turned purple. She saw him shaking from shock, from rage as he helplessly watched those closest to him suffer at the hands of his vile half-brother. She saw tears of pain and fury shiver in his eyes, as he stared in disbelief at the spot in the air where his beloved Zedd had perished, while he did nothing.
"Finally," Rahl said and turned to face Kahlan once again. "The wizard has been a thorn in my sight for far too long. And now, we may proceed with the main event."
With a confident smile, he took a step towards the Confessor. He failed to notice that despite all of her shock, Kahlan was biding her time. He almost didn't see it when she jumped to her feet, so fast, and plunged at him with the red dagger in her hand. Only just did he manage to block her move and prevent her from burying the dagger into his chest, straight into his heart, grabbing a hold of her wrists, wrestling against her.
But once again, his faithful Cara was there to act.
"Drop the dagger or Richard dies," she warned.
With one hand, she clutched at Richard's head by a handful of hair, while with the other she held an agiel dangerously close to his chest, threatening to press it against his heart - an imminent death.
Once again, she looked at the man tied to the pillar, at all the shock and rage emanating from his mournful eyes. She felt it all too. He shook his head, despite Cara's grip and threat of death, trying to convey to Kahlan to do it, to risk it, to forget about him if need be, that it's worth it, if it meant that she could put a stop to Rahl.
But she couldn't do it.
The Mother Confessor lowered her hand and dropped the dagger. The weapon bounced off the stone floor with an echoing clatter, landing between herself and Rahl. Rahl was pleased. Kahlan was disgusted at his smugness. She maintained a defiant posture despite a wounded look lurking in her eyes, betraying her.
Cara lowered her agiel and stepped away from Richard. Taking her time, she walked towards Kahlan, eyeing her like a hawk would scrutinise its prey. But Kahlan ignored her. She stared at Rahl only. It was he who did all of this, who was responsible for all that had happened. Cara was just an unfortunate pawn in his despicable game. So Kahlan didn't turn to look at her as the blonde approached her from behind.
By the time Cara had swung her agiel to deliver a powerful blow to the Confessor's head, causing her to drop to the ground unconscious, Kahlan was already too numb to feel anything.
Cold… So cold…
Limp on the floor, forearms and cheek pressed against the Shrine's icy stone ground, a chilling shiver rushed down the Mother Confessor's body. It penetrated her consciousness sharply before she was fully awake. When at last she peeked open her eyes, she mournfully remembered where she was. Memories, sharp as knives, slashed through her head, and with a heavy heart she recalled all that had transpired. Inhaling dust from the cold stone ground, she wanted to close her eyes again and sink into nothingness from which she had emerged, forfeiting this bleak reality she had returned to, forfeiting everything she knew, willing to forfeit life itself. Alas, she found that she could not. The moment she closed her eyes, trying to withdraw into herself, a pain came alive, a throbbing pain, in the back of her head.
Cara... It must have been her... No one else can deliver a blow like that, the thought painfully surfaced in her mind.
Desperate to reach up and rub at her temples, Kahlan realised that her wrists were bound together with rope. So were her feet.
With effort, she raised her head a little and looked around herself. Her vision was blurry and her head ached all the more as she searched for the pillar... Until, she saw him.
Richard... Thank the Spirits, he is alive!
Still in Darken Rahl's body, still unable to speak, Richard remained firmly tied to the pillar at the centre of the altar. Nicci's corpse still hung, bleeding, above him, streaking him with tears of blood. He looked at his beloved and acknowledged her seeing him. If he had still had a mouth, he would have smiled to reassured her.
Kahlan lifted her head a little more to see beyond the pillar. On its other side, stood Cara, as though waiting for something. And then Rahl, himself, advanced, positioning himself directly in front of the pillar, in front of Richard, facing the three of them. The five Mord'Sith stood further away in the Shrine, beyond the altar, waiting expectantly.
With effort, Kahlan forced herself upright. The best she could do was to sit up in a kneeling position.
"Ah," Rahl said, "Mother Confessor. It is good of you to wish to participate awake... This time."
"I will not participate in anything you are doing, Rahl," Kahlan spoke lowly, against the throbbing pain in her head. She thought she tasted blood on her tongue. "I will die before I help you."
"You've said that before, and as I've said: I do not doubt that for a moment, Kahlan Amnell," Rahl acknowledged matter-of-factly. "Which is why I have envisioned a plan where your active participation is not necessary, merely your presence."
"My Lord," Cara interjected, "Why not simply confess the Mother Confessor?"
"In order for the confession spell to work, my dear Cara," Rahl replied, "We must first remove the Rada'Han from the Mother Confessor's beautiful neck. However, removing the Rada'Han from the Mother Confessor is not something I would do in a hurry in this place. We have seen what kind of potency the Shrine can inject into anyone carrying even a drop of magic - who knows what power it would unleash within her, hmm? Besides, wouldn't you agree that you would do a much more satisfactory job of giving birth to and ensuring the survival of my son?"
Cara raised an eyebrow and affirmed with a wicked, slanted smile.
"In any case, once the transference is complete," he continued, "We will not have any more need of the Confessor."
"What do you mean 'transference'?" Kahlan demanded, alarmed. "What are you planing to do?"
Rahl ignored her questions.
"And now, without any further interruption, let us begin!"
Kahlan watched in alarm as Rahl closed his eyes and raised both hands. He began chanting in a language she did not understand.
"Richard..." Kahlan whispered, turning to look at him, fear painted over her face. He was afraid too, she could see it in his eyes, though she could also tell that he was trying to remain strong, that he wanted to reassure her that everything was going to be alright, somehow.
The longer Rahl chanted, the louder his voice became. He lifted his arms higher towards the pillar, towards Richard, his entranced voice booming all around them.
Quite unexpectedly, out of nowhere, a white light started to glow and spread within the stone pillar, behind the man that stood tied to it. Its intensity grew quickly, growing brighter, stronger, until it permeated from every inch of the pillar with almost unbearable intensity. So bright it became that Kahlan could not stand to look at it anymore. Despite being afraid of what it was doing to Richard, she was forced to avert her gaze from him. She did so with a torn heart - the muffled cries called to her, pleading, underlying Rahl's powerful chant and the echoing voice that paraded as Richard's own. She called out to her beloved and struggled to her feet, finding it difficult to maintain balance with her ankles bound so tightly. Still, she could not suppress the overwhelming urge to do something, to try, as futile as it was, to help Richard somehow, despite barely being able to look at him beyond the stark light that emanated from his direction and sharply stung her eyes.
"Richard, I'm here! Richard!" her voice was no more than that of a fearful child in contrast to Rahl's powerful resounding tones and the inescapable humming that grew louder within the Shrine as the light begun spreading beyond the pillar.
But suddenly, there was no sound from Richard anymore. When Kahlan momentarily obliterated her vision by forcing herself to look at the pillar for a split second, she was horrified to see that the light had merged with Richard, that he had become an extension of the stone pillar itself, as if he were made of stone too, and had become a vessel for this light. It shone fiercely, coursing powerfully through him: Through his eyes, his face, all throughout his body, setting his skin on black fire. And then, even as Kahlan was forced to look away, she saw that there was nothing but the all-encompassing brilliance of the white light surrounding her, now illuminating the Shrine in its entirety, filling it completely, while its mighty hum reverberated throughout the entire mountain, causing the ground and the walls of the cave to shake, causing dust to fall from the star-lit ceiling, while Rahl strained to maintain control of his voice and avoid becoming overpowered by the light himself. And just as unexpectedly, Kahlan realised that she was paralysed, that an invisible force had seized her body, constricting her almost to the point of breathlessness. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the pillar, along with Nicci's body and Richard, dissolving into the light, feeding it like a crucial spark igniting a mighty fire. She saw it evaporate and burst into ash at the same time... And Richard, along with it, disappearing into nothing. All that stood after that was what was on its other side: Cara - who, just like Kahlan, was as frozen as a statue, while Rahl chanted and chanted.
In a moment, Kahlan felt herself being lifted off the ground, being suspended in the air in front of her mortal enemy, on his command. But she could feel something else as well: Life, strong and spirited, awakening inside of her stomach, restless, tugging and kicking inside of her. The higher she floated above the ground, the more restless the force within her belly became, until all she felt was violent heaving, as if her stomach was being ripped to shreds from within. She needed to cry out in agony but could not open her mouth or use her voice. She had no choice but to withstand the pain in silence and hope that she is able to survive it.
And then, all at once, the pain ceased. Kahlan felt empty, still, and before her, floating mid-air just like her, was a tiny spark of life, no bigger than a single apple seed, enchanted and glowing in golden light. She watched it float, drift away from her to her right, towards Cara, who floated also, waiting, paralysed. The spark of life entered Cara's stomach as if her clothing and flesh were liquid, malleable. There, it nested inside her womb.
Rahl's task was complete.
The bright white light withdrew from the far corners of the Shrine, returning into its centre where the pillar rematerialised erect, while at the same time, Kahlan and Cara were laid down gently on the ground.
It took the women a few moments to adjust their blinded eyes, while Rahl waited patiently. The five Mord'Sith remained in the background, awaiting instruction from their master.
Once she had regained control of her body, her hands and feet still bound, Kahlan struggled to her knees once again. She looked to her side and saw that Cara was struggling to stand up too: One hand on the ground to support her, the other, clutching tightly at her stomach, as though she were in pain. And then she saw... The pillar. It had rematerialised entirely bare as if never having been touched by a human at all.
"Where's Richard?" Kahlan demanded from Rahl. "What have you done with him?!"
"You can hardly expect magic of this magnitude to come without a price," Rahl replied.
"What do you mean?" Kahlan demanded again. "Where is he?"
"Oh, Richard is dead," his voice was entirely unmoved, as though he were explaining something painfully obvious.
"No... No, that can't be," Kahlan shook her head. "You are trying to trick me... Where is he?!"
"Why would I be trying to trick you, Kahlan, now that I have what I've come for?" Rahl replied. "If he isn't dead then where is he? Zedd was obliterated by his own fire... And Richard... He was obliterated by his own light."
"No... That can't be... That can't be!" Kahlan cried out with all of the pain of her heart being torn out of her chest.
She bowed her head and cried bitterly, while Rahl flinched at the sound of her shrill voice.
"Richard, no... No, you can't be gone... I am sorry... I am so sorry... I have failed you..."
Rahl rolled his eyes.
"Cara," he called casually.
The Mord'Sith warily looked up at him. Still clutching at her stomach, she looked a bit rattled by what had just happened to her.
"I don't expect that the Mother Confessor will get over the death of her beloved any time soon," he spoke in a tone that conveyed boredom, "And I am already getting tired of the sounds of her... Wailing."
"What would you like me to do, my Lord?" Cara struggled to stand up, her hand pressing at her stomach and the new life it contained, still unsettled.
Pointing the hilt at Cara, he offered her the red dagger, which Kahlan had tried to attack him with earlier. Tentatively, Cara took it.
The five Mord'Sith gathered closer around the altar, carefully watching their chosen sister, silently but eagerly anticipating what was about to happen.
Cara looked at Kahlan.
Slowly, she advanced towards her.
The Confessor had remained kneeling, doubled over. Her long dark hair hid her pale face as she sobbed inconsolably. At hearing what her fate was to be, she had barely flinched.
Cara stood before her.
She grabbed Kahlan by the shoulders and forced her to stand. Kahlan wobbled on her tightly bound feet, immobilised by grief and resignation. She didn't try to resist or defend herself in any way, and simply wept heavy tears that left her face streaked in shiny rows. Cara steadied her and pointed the dagger against the flesh of her chest, aiming at the woman's heart. Half-heartedly, Kahlan looked her in the eyes and passively awaited her fate. Two heavy tears rolled down her cheeks, their way pre-paved by the tears that had gone before, sliding down to the peak of her chin before merging into one large droplet, and finally, falling off. But as the single large sphere of a teardrop fell, it crash-landed against the sharp edge of the dagger's metal, and burst into various directions, splattering over Cara's gloved hand.
Cara blinked at it. She looked at it and blinked at it as if she had never before seen a teardrop.
From her hand, she looked up... And, looked deep.
In Kahlan's resigned, barely-open eyes, she saw a well of heartache. With her sister and Zedd dead, and now Richard gone too, she didn't care if she lived or died. But there was something else in there too, in those sky-blue eyes... Something that puzzled Cara.
She blinked again, dagger steadfast in hand.
"Cara, what are you waiting for?" Rahl's voice came from behind her, jolting her from her momentary trance. "Kill her now."
The blonde shifted on her feet and turned the dagger in her hand, pushing its point deeper into the Confessor's breast, threatening to pierce the skin. But then... She halted.
Cara wanted to carry out her master's order, wanted to execute the plan and the woman that stood before her, waiting for death's release... But as she pointed the dagger over Kahlan's heart, she found that ultimately, this was as far as she could go. The dagger would not go any further to harm the Mother Confessor, and Cara, frozen, as she stared into Kahlan's mournful face.
At seeing the girl hesitate, Kahlan ceased crying. Deliberately now, she looked into Cara's eyes and saw a hint, a flicker of doubt, of panic, confusion and sorrow... And of concern. Her eyes were full of concern for her.
Holding her gaze, as if by magic, Kahlan felt her own self come back to life, felt a glimmer of hope again where, till then, all hope had died out.
"Cara! I said, end her now!" Rahl demanded again, furious at this pointless delay. He stood on the other side of the altar, facing the two women. The five Mord'Sith shifted uncomfortably in the spot, scrutinising Cara carefully... But Cara didn't move an inch.
Rahl marched towards her, deeply angered by such insolence. He meant to find out what exactly had caused this delay, to strike the girl for disobeying his order, and ultimately, grab the dagger from Cara and finish the Confessor himself. But just as he reached Cara from behind, the Mord'Sith turned, and with one swift movement, buried the dagger deep into Rahl's own heart.
His eyes turned large.
Before the other Mord'Sith realised what had happened and could reach her quickly enough to strike her down with their agiels, Cara twisted the dagger a little and watched as Rahl's mouth opened, his lip quivered, as if to speak. One hand firm on the dagger's hilt, she caught and supported her master with the other, when he threatened to drop to the floor with all of his bodyweight.
"That was for Richard, and Zedd..." she whispered in his ear, as she held him in an almost intimate embrace. "And this... This is for what you did to Kahlan."
She twisted the hilt once, sharply, utilising all of her arm's strength.
Rahl's mouth popped wide open now, gasping in shock. His body tightened, muscles contracting, as he struggled for one final breath. A look of bewilderment locked on his face at this act of ultimate betrayal that should not have been possible... Before Cara let him drop.
Even before Rahl had sprawled out on the floor at her feet, the five women had raced towards the centre of the altar and flung themselves at Cara. Their agiels viciously swiped through the air, ready to strike the very life out of her, but Cara was ready. An agiel in each hand, she blocked their moves and delivered blows where she could, drawing blood, invoking pain, being a far superior fighter compared to any of her sisters. Alas, five against one, the odds were not in her favour, and despite all of her abilities, despite all of her fire and determination, Cara could not prevent the agiels that came from behind, stabbing into her back, straight into her spine, paralysing her for moments at a time, exposing weakness. Before long, Cara became entirely disarmed, her agiels struck out of her hands, confiscated by her enemies. All she could do was retreat far enough away from Rahl's dead body, leading her sisters, her enemies away from Kahlan.
Surrounding their traitor sister, the Mord'Sith delivered blow after blow to the blonde, until finally, she fell to her knees, blood dripping out of her mouth. Captured and held down by the arms, a Mord'Sith on each side of her, Cara watched as the other three surveyed her closely, and the leader of the five approached her face-on, armed with her own agiels. The woman held up one of them before Cara's face as a threat to what she planned to do to punish her act of treason but was dismayed to see Cara flash a defiant, checkered smile in response, licking the blood on her lips as if it were honey, flicking her tongue provocatively at the woman. Angered, the Mord'Sith swung the agiel and struck Cara across the cheek, summoning an angry welt. Stepping back to see the effects of her punishment on her hostage, she loathed to find that Cara had only expected as much, her attitude unchanged. Angered further, the woman lowered the agiel to the level of Cara's heart, threatening to send her straight to the Underworld to meet their Lord whom she had just murdered, but found that this too did nothing to break Cara's spirit. Furious, the woman was about to lunge at her hostage... When suddenly, she dropped the agiels to the floor. She straightened up and turned her back at Cara. And just as suddenly, in likewise manner, all other agiels were dropped to the floor too, and all five Mord'Sith stood entirely unarmed. The two women that held Cara by the arms, abruptly released her. Without warning or reason, the five women extended upwards, as if pulled by their crowns towards the ceiling, balancing on their tiptoes until they were lifted off the ground altogether, levitating, floating in the air above Cara. In unison they turned to face the pillar... And the Mother Confessor that stood by it.
Kahlan's arm outstretched towards them, her fingers pointed at each of the women, controlling them with ease. Her blue eyes had turned into the blackest of nights, while the Rada'Han, unlocked by its key, lay discarded at her feet, just like Rahl. The women's eyes mirrored her own where they too filled with the colour of a moon-less night, ready to obey whatever whim was to be uttered by the Mother Confessor's lips. When she was satisfied that she had unreserved control over the Mord'Sith, Kahlan gently laid the five back on the ground, at which point, they dropped to their knees, heads bowed, voicing in unison: Command us, Mistress.
But Kahlan said nothing.
Eyes pitch-black, ready to obliterate, she looked beyond them, at Cara, who stared back at her incredulously, if not a little fearfully. The blonde struggled to her feet and wiped the blood off her lips, staining the back of her maroon glove red.
"Cara," the Mother Confessor spoke in a deep, unnatural voice... Before her own tone returned, along with the blue of her eyes.
"Are you alright?"
The blonde emerged from behind the five kneeling figures. She walked towards Kahlan and stopped before her, apprehension playing in her gaze.
"I'm fine," she answered. "You?"
Kahlan shrugged. How to answer such a question after everything that had just happened?
"Cara," she whispered uncertainly, "What happened here...? You were confessed..."
"I was," the woman answered simply.
For a moment, she thought about what to say, where to begin. When she began explaining, she spoke slowly, carefully:
"Back at the hill, when you were feeling unwell, when I went to hunt for conies... I saw Richard in the forest, who I guessed was Rahl. The woman he was fighting with, it looked like he was trying to harm her, to take her away. She... Looked like you. And even though it didn't feel right and I should have known that it was Nicci, that it couldn't have been you, the thought of him harming you again... I couldn't risk it. I ran towards him and fought him... But Nicci must have knocked me out because suddenly, everything turned dark. And when I opened my eyes again, my hands and feet were tied and Rahl was forcing some liquid down my throat. I could feel the power of the spell taking its hold of me... I tried to fight it," she added in a low voice, looking away, as though ashamed, "But I failed. After that, I only cared about pleasing Rahl in any way I could. He gave me the red dagger and told to me that I needed to trick you and Zedd, and get you to follow his trail to lead you here, to the Shrine. He said that by using the Shrine's power... And... Richard's life-force as a sacrifice..." Cara swallowed with difficulty against the lump in her throat, "He would be able to transfer the baby from you... To me. He wanted the baby for himself, to give it all the wizard's knowledge he possessed, and have me give him Mord'Sith's training and discipline, so that one day, as a male Confessor on top of everything else, he would help Rahl extend and secure his rule over the world."
Kahlan listened with tears in her eyes.
"But such a child would grow up to become a monster even worse that Rahl," she said, shaking her head in horror. "Can you imagine? I'm afraid to think that he managed to get so close!"
Cara looked to the ground, self-reproach obvious on her face.
"But Cara," Kahlan took a small step towards the girl, "I meant, what happened to you here, now? I mean, I remember those confessed soldiers we fought. They were so vicious and so bent on drawing blood unlike anything I'd seen before! And you... Moments ago... You looked like one of them," she swallowed hard. "What happened? Rahl commanded you to kill me. I... I should be dead, Cara..."
Cara's eyes fell. Her mouth opened as if to speak but only breath passed between her lips. When she next looked up at Kahlan, looking her in the eyes with that sideways glance of hers, it was that look that declared the truth of her feelings. And though she said nothing, the memories of the night before came flooding back for the both of them, although, after everything that had happened that day, the event of the kiss seemed like an entire lifetime ago. Still, by that one look from Cara, Kahlan understood that it was the girl's love for her that had broken the confession spell.
Kahlan's features softened. Cara abruptly looked away.
Not wanting to make things any more difficult for either of them at an already difficult time, she silently turned to leave. But before any more distance could be placed between them, Kahlan grabbed the woman by the wrist, pulled her backwards and placed both arms tightly about her neck.
"Thank you... Thank you," she whispered, squeezing Cara all the tighter to emphasise her gratitude. "You have saved my life once again... But more importantly, you have saved all of Confessor-kind."
At first, Cara was unsure of how to respond, but before she could make up her mind towards any deliberate action, her arms had wrapped tightly about Kahlan as well.
And so, the two women stood like this, perfectly still, silent, as they embraced, regarded by the kneeling Mord'Sith, surrounded by sparkling, shimmering walls of the Shrine, as if thousands of bright eyes watched them in awe, revelling in the fact that there was hope, and love, still left in the world... That is, until Cara felt a sudden surge of nausea grip her from within, and before she was able to completely break free from the Confessor's tight embrace, she violently threw up down the front of Kahlan's white dress.
"Where are the horses?" Kahlan asked the five women who followed her around the Shrine like puppies.
"Lord R— I mean, Rahl, had us leave them in the second passage that leads out of the Shrine to the other side of the mountain, Mistress," replied the woman Kahlan assumed was the Mord'Sith's leader.
"What about the army he raised with the confession spell?" Cara asked.
"The army should be waiting on the other side of the mountain," the same woman replied.
"What did he intend to do with the army?" Cara asked again.
"He planned to conquer the Midlands village by village, town by town. After that, he wanted to re-take D'Hara and eventually, Westland too."
"I shudder to think he got as close as he did..." Kahlan whispered, perturbed. She turned to look at Cara, apprehension in her eyes. "If the confession spell is anything like confession from a true-born Confessor, then Rahl's death should have released all the soldiers from the spell."
Cara turned towards the Mord'Sith once again.
"See whether the army is still out there," she ordered.
"I take orders only from the Mother Confessor," the woman replied curtly.
"You will take orders from Cara too, from now on," Kahlan replied.
Cara raised a smug eyebrow at the woman, who now bowed her head before her.
"Yes, Mistress," she replied, humbled.
"See whether Rahl's army is still there and also, try to find the horses," Kahlan added.
"Yes, Mistress," the woman obediently replied but did not move from the spot. "However... I believe that I should inform you... Once we leave the Shrine, there will be no way back for us inside the mountain. The entrance is shrouded by magic we do not have the power to undo. And also... Once we step outside of the mountain... Its life-enhancing properties will no longer protect us against confession..."
Kahlan and Cara exchanged glances.
"You will... Die of confession, as Mord'Sith usually do..." Kahlan realised. "The Shrine's powers will no longer be able to counteract the effects of true confession..."
"Yes, Mistress," the woman replied uniformly. "I will now fulfill your order," she added and turned to leave.
"Wait!" Kahlan stopped her with a hand to the shoulder.
The woman turned and looked at her mistress with adoration in her eyes.
"Go as far as the edge of the cave," Kahlan ordered again, "But go no further. See what you can spot beyond the mountain, whether the army is still out there, and bring the horses here if they are still inside the passage. Then return to report back to me. Take the others with you."
"Yes, Mistress," the woman bowed her head. The remaining four Mord'Sith followed suit. Turning on their heels, they walked towards the passage that lay in the opposite direction to the trail that had led Zedd, Kahlan and Cara to the centre of the Shrine.
"If I am not mistaken," Kahlan said in a low voice, once the Mord'Sith had walked off the altar, "Zedd's brother, Thaddicus, lives only a few days' journey from here. I think we owe it to Zedd to return his ashes to his family."
Cara looked at Kahlan with a somber look on her face. It will not be the first time she will have to face someone whose family member she has killed. She nodded in agreement.
"I will gather what I can of his ashes," she replied.
Cara turned and walked away from Kahlan, who remained at the altar with Rahl's, or rather Richard's, body at her feet. She walked to the spot where Zedd's ashes spread thinly over the Shrine's stone ground. Realising that she had no easy task ahead of her, Cara considered how to best go about collecting and preserving the greyish powder. The undertaking seemed a little pointless, considering that it was unlikely she would be able to collect much of the ash, but it was the least she could do, she concluded, feeling profound remorse knowing that it was ultimately she who had brought about Zedd's death.
In a backpack, which she had found discarded not too far from where Zedd had perished, all charred from the battle, Cara discovered a tattered shirt. Kneeling down, the stone floor hard on her knees, Cara removed the leather gloves from her hands and began the tedious task of gathering the ash, by swiping at it with bare fingers, onto the fabric of the shirt. So consumed by this task was she, with her back turned towards the altar, she did not see Kahlan kneel down by the body of her beloved, and cry. Only when an overwhelmed sob escaped from the woman did Cara turn to see the Confessor bending over the body, caressing the dead man's face, kissing him on the lips.
For a moment, Cara froze, then quickly turned away, not feeling right about intruding on such a private moment. Though her own grief at the loss of a friend and comrad hit her hard, hardly being able to believe that Richard was truly gone, her heart broke over Kahlan's anguish more than anything else. However, such an explicit reminder of what real love was, and what it meant to lose it, came as a painful reminder to Cara that Kahlan will never love her the way she loves Richard. Cara's heart sank all over again, though she would never admit it to herself, and she let her grief and ever-growing guilt mask it.
Kahlan, meanwhile, oblivious to Cara's awareness, kissed her love's still lips and spoke tenderly through heavy tears:
"Seeker... Richard... I have failed you... I have failed you... I am so sorry... I am so very sorry... Please forgive me... I love you. I will always love you. Forever..."
Leaning down, she kissed him again, while tears dripped from her eyes and landed on the dead man's face. When she next looked up, Cara was standing at the altar, right in front of her.
Kahlan stood up and hastily wiped the tears off her face. She tried to compose herself for Cara's sake.
Cara's gaze softened as she came closer to the Confessor.
"You don't need to hide your love for Richard or pretend otherwise in front of me, Kahlan," she said. "Especially not because of me. I know how much you love him."
The last thing she wanted was to make things even harder for the woman.
"I should go see what's taking the Mord'Sith so long," Kahlan tried to excuse herself. But as she turned to walk away, Cara grabbed her by the wrist.
She stared intently at the girl's sullen face.
Kahlan avoided her look.
"I can try to bring him back, if you want me to..." the blonde's voice was low, gentle. "I can't guarantee that it will work but I can try."
"It may not be Richard who comes back," Kahlan replied in the same instant, as though she had already thought of this possibility. "This was Richard's body but it was Rahl who died inside of it."
Though her words appeared doubtful, guarded, Cara sensed hope within the Confessor. Regardless of her own feelings, she knew that she would never allow them be the reason to deny Kahlan or Richard this chance.
She let go of Kahlan's wrist and knelt down beside Richard's body.
"What are you doing?" Kahlan's heart quickened.
Cara gave no reply. By her glance, it was obvious that she only waited for the word from Kahlan before commencing with the sacred exchange.
Kahlan apprehensively stared at her, speechless.
But at the long last, she nodded.
Wasting not a moment longer, Cara took ahold of the red dagger and pulled it out from Richard's heart. She handed the dagger to Kahlan, who took it and positioned herself in such a way so that she would be ready to strike in case the person who comes back to life turns out not to be Richard. Then, Cara leaned over the man's torso, positioned her lips directly above his, and once again, unleashed the sacred breath from the depths of her being and let it pass from her mouth into his.
She sat back and waited. Both women waited, unblinking, staring at the lifeless body, holding their breath.
Seconds that felt like lifetimes passed, holding them both in suspense as if nothing else mattered or existed.
But ultimately, nothing happened.
The gaping wound in Richard's chest continued to trickle blood.
Cara closed her eyes as her own heart bled in defeat.
I have failed him.
I have utterly failed him in every way... Forgive me, Richard.
She looked towards Kahlan.
"We waited too long," she said, buckling under overwhelming guilt. "I am sorry..."
But the look of utter devastation she saw on the girl's face broke Cara worse than anything... And it was all her fault! If only she hadn't let her feelings cloud her judgement back in the forest...
Kahlan let the dagger slip out of her hands. It clattered against the stone ground, landing next to the corpse. She covered her face with both hands.
Cara closed her eyes and clenched her fists. Her eyes began to sting.
But suddenly, a voice, a voice so faint that Cara thought she had imagined hearing it, croaked next to her.
Cara didn't look up.
"Cara... What happened...?" the voice spoke again.
Cara opened her eyes. She saw Richard blinking back at her.
"You brought me back... I can't thank you enough."
"Richard...?" Kahlan exclaimed, blinking through tears, astonished, hesitant. "You're alive! Is it really you?!"
The Confessor dropped to her knees by the reclined man. With her and Cara's help he sat up.
"Yes, it's me... It is me!" he replied, equally as astonished.
Flinging her arms about his neck, Kahlan wept tears of joy. He hugged her back and buried his face into her hair. Cara sat back and watched as the two lovebirds embraced in front of her, a bittersweet tear sparkling in the corner of her eye.
"My dearest, dearest Kahlan..." Richard whispered as he hugged the Mother Confessor. "I can't believe I get to see you again."
Kahlan stopped crying and wiped her eyes. She sat back on her heels and stared at the miraculous sight before her.
"Cara..." Richard turned towards the other woman, "I knew you would—"
A sudden thud and sharp pain caused him to look down.
"—Bring me back..."
The dagger pierced straight through his heart once again. But the firm grip on its hilt, this time, belonged to Kahlan. He looked incredulously from her hand, to her face. Kahlan twisted the dagger once, sharply, and watched as the man's eyes turned large, his features shaking under the shock of what was happening once again. Finally, releasing his ultimate breath, she watched him slink backwards as his spirit sank back into the abyss from which it had emerged.
Cara stared at Kahlan incredulously, mouth open in shock.
Forcefully, Kahlan yanked the dagger from the dead man's heart, causing a new torrent of blood to trickle, adding to the previous puddle. Not a single tear nor a hint of remorse affected the stone-cold look on the Mother Confessor's face as she unbuckled the Sword of Truth from the man's waist, stood up and turned to walk away from the gory scene concluded by her.
"It wasn't Richard," she said without looking at Cara as if voicing an afterthought. "Richard would never try to possess me. He knew I loved him but I was never 'his'."
She flung the red dagger across the altar. Droplets of blood splattered on the smooth stone ground as the weapon bounced off it.
"I appreciate you trying to bring him back, though."
With these words, Kahlan walked away from the altar altogether without looking back. Cara stared in shock as the Mother Confessor's figure disappeared down the passage, the Sword of Truth in hand.
On Kahlan's orders, the five Mord'Sith carried Richard's body down the exiting passage, while she and Cara, already on the other side of the mountain, assembled a pyre to burn the body. It took them a good portion of the day to gather enough wood for the task. The Mord'Sith waited on the precipice of the cave, maintaining the link between their Mistress and the Shrine, while their sister walked through the forest alongside Kahlan, carrying a pile of dry wood or dragging back large fallen branches. The two women barely looked at each other as they went about the task, each one entirely engrossed in what she was doing, moving on autopilot, too numb from grief for anything else. As they walked to and from the forest, the women came across multitudes of discarded swords and blood-red armour, which they concluded to have belonged to Rahl's army of confessed soldiers. The army could have consisted entirely out of simple farmers for all they knew - the spell would have turned a blood-thirsty soldier out of anyone! Kahlan shuddered at the sight, chilled to the bone by the thought of all the blood-shed that would have occurred across the lands had Cara not broken the spell and killed Rahl. This was the only thing that comforted her in her grief, the fact that they were able to put a stop to Rahl once and for all, that people of the Midlands and beyond were finally safe, from him and Nicci at the very least. In a strange way, Kahlan could picture Richard now... Consoling her, telling her that it was okay, that it was worth it in the end, that he didn't mind dying if the part he played in all of this ultimately led to Rahl's demise and left the world in a better, safer place. Tears flowed freely from her eyes as she held onto the minute comfort of such a consolation, regardless of the fact that it existed only in her imagination. In her heart she knew that Richard would not have shied away from the ultimate sacrifice if it meant fulfilling his duty as Seeker. People were finally safe from the tyrant, the lands were at peace once again, or would be soon, and she knew that this was enough to put Richard at peace too. The thought of this kept her going as she walked back from the forest towards the mountain, carrying a pile of sticks in her arms, preparing to burn his body.
Cara, meanwhile, took a hit to the gut each time she saw Kahlan in tears. She could not shake the feeling that ultimately, this was all her fault, that she had failed the Confessor, that she failed the Seeker and the wizard, that she had let down her friends, her family. If only she had been stronger than she was, if only she could have broken the spell sooner than she did, or worse still, if she had not allowed her judgement to become so clouded by her feelings for Kahlan, Richard might still be alive. For as long as she lived, Cara would never forgive herself for this. And now, the punishment of witnessing the consequences of her ineptitude, of her weakness, by seeing the person she cared about so utterly heartbroken, was the least of what she deserved, she reprimanded herself. She offered to Kahlan to complete the task of assembling the pyre by herself - it didn't seem right that Kahlan should be gathering wood for Richard's body - but Kahlan dismissed the offer instantly. And so, the two of them carried on, side by side, until the pile of assembled wood grew and at last was as large as a flat tent, while the Mord'Sith waited within the cave with Richard's body turning colder by the minute.
When it was time, Kahlan approached the five women. She gave them a choice - to remain at the Shrine for as long as they wished and wait for death to find them in its natural time or to step outside the mountain and face death immediately. Without hesitation, the women chose instant death, explaining that a brief extension to their lives, if it were to be without the presence of their Mistress, would serve no purpose. Unsurprised by this unanimous response, Kahlan accepted their decision. She was, however, a little taken aback when they asked, humbly and sheepishly, for a final embrace from their beloved Mistress, as a parting gesture. But ultimately, she agreed.
Cara watched from outside of the cave as the Confessor gently hugged each woman in a gesture of farewell, holding each one in her arms for a time as if she were her sister or her child, while one by one the Mord'Sith clung to her as if for dear life, savouring the brief moment of being embraced by the one they so blindly adored. When their farewells had concluded, the women stepped into position, next to Richard's body. They lifted him, parallel to the ground, supporting him on their shoulders, and ceremoniously walked out of the cave, towards the pyre. The instant they stepped outside of the mountain, the cave's entrance sealed up, and the Shrine of the Zoria became forever refused to the Mord'Sith and Confessor alike, turning back into impenetrable stone. And bare moments after that, before the Mord'Sith were able to deliver Richard's body to the pyre, almost all at the same time the women began buckling under the deathly curse of their confession. Blood trickled out of nostrils, out of eyes, as the five desperately fought to fulfill the task of laying the Seeker's body over the assembled pile of wood as ordered by their Mistress. Ultimately, they succeeded, and had just enough life left to lay themselves alongside the Seeker on either side, on top of each other, holding hands, so that their own bodies could be turned to ash too.
When the deed was done and the only two breathing bodies left were Kahlan's and Cara's, the blonde bent down to the ground and struck flint against flint, igniting electric sparks that lit up a handful of straw tied to a bunch of dried up twigs, the combination of which acted as a temporary torch, which she then passed to Kahlan. The Confessor took it and solemnly gazed at the pile of dead bodies. She was stoic as she stood at the foot of the Seeker's body, the Sword of Truth fastened at her waist, eyes fixed on her beloved's colourless face, acutely aware that this was the last time she would ever get to look upon it for as long as she lived. She lingered in this motionless position, oblivious to the small torch threatening to burn out in her hand. When Cara stepped in to intervene, Kahlan remembered herself and quickly dropped the burning twigs at the foot of the pyre. She stood back as the flames slowly took hold, then spread faster and grew tall, quickly becoming overwhelming and mighty enough to turn six bodies into little more than ash.
With the horses missing, Kahlan and Cara were forced to walk to Thaddicus's house. The trip would have taken them four days on foot but with all that had happened, they were set up at a disadvantage, with many delays occurring. Whether it was Kahlan succumbing to overwhelming moments of grief, seeking solitude away from the Mord'Sith to unleash a river of tears in private, or Cara, suffering through uncontrollable moments of nausea and subsequently looking for an actual river to clean herself up, by the afternoon of the fifth day, the women were still some way away from their destination. And the entire time they walked, side by side, as they had done innumerable times in the past, it was now Kahlan that could barely manage to say a word. Though she'd put on a brave face whenever Cara was there, the Mord'Sith saw right through it, not blind to Kahlan's sudden, though unintentional, preference for solitude, a chance to express her suppressed tears, whereas before she had always actively sought her company. Unsure of how best to help Kahlan, whether to leave her be or try something that did not come naturally to her - talking - Cara could not help but feel pangs of helplessness and guilt. So when, on the sixth day, feeling starved and utterly exhausted in every way, the women finally spotted Thaddicus's cottage in the distance, both were relieved that this part of their journey had at last come to an end.
Needless to say, once they had reached their destination and had handed Thaddicus the small bundle of his brother's ashes, the old man stared at it in disbelief before buckling under his own grief.
That same day, the three people gathered at dusk on top of a nearby hill overlooking a beautiful view of farms and fields below, and released the wizard's ashes to the wind. They watched as the breeze playfully twirled the dust and carried it into the golden horizon.
Thaddicus, grateful to the women for having come all the way to inform him of his brother's passing as well as to share this special final moment of farewell with him, was only too obliging in offering them his hospitality for as long as they needed in order to recover from their ordeal and grief. When he asked where they were headed to next, after their stay with him, Kahlan was the one to respond.
"Aydindril," she stated matter-of-factly. "I've heard harrowing tales of what Rahl had done to various towns and villages in the Midlands and what the Sisters of the Dark and the Mord'Sith still continue to do. I must return and try to help the people restore some order and justice."
"But even on horseback, Aydindril is weeks away from here..." Thaddicus replied. "In which case, I insist that you take my horse. It's the least I can do to help since you've gone out of your way to return my brother's ashes home."
"Thank you, Thaddicus," Kahlan replied gratefully. "That would be very helpful."
"I would give you two horses, if I had them," the old man added. "Alas, I've only got the one..."
"No, that wouldn't be necessary in any case," Kahlan replied. "We are very grateful for the one. Cara and I don't mind sharing."
Though Cara said nothing to object Kahlan's plan, she did not actively participate in the conversation either. She stood a little way off from Kahlan and the old man, observing the two. It struck her then how pale and worn out Kahlan had become, looking like a ghost of her former self. Sad and disheartened by this, blaming herself, she looked off to the side, lost in her own thoughts, contemplating... other... possibilities. People of Aydindril and the rest of the Midlands needed Kahlan, they needed the Mother Confessor's undivided attention... While she, with her current situation, which was only going to get worse, would not only be less able to help, but would probably only hold Kahlan back and become a burden... Not to mention be a constant reminder of what had happened at the Shrine. Richard, Kahlan's one true love, was gone, while the person that was supposed to protect him with her life, assisted in his murder and still lived. Her presence alone must be like salt to Kahlan's wound, Cara thought to herself bitterly.
Still, when the Confessor and the old man looked to Cara at the end of their conversation, the woman nodded and said nothing.
That evening, after Thaddicus had excused himself and retreated to his own room, Cara sat on an armchair close to the fireplace, alone in the living room, unable to sleep from nausea. Never in her life did she think that one day she would have to seriously consider something like motherhood and all of its glorious, nauseating side effects. It's true that she had given birth once before, and was already familiar with certain aspects of pregnancy but back then she knew that she would never be allowed to keep the baby. The pregnancy and the baby's subsequent death could be no more than just another test of endurance for the Mord'Sith. So this was different. Not only was the nausea much, much worse than what she had experienced the first time, this was Kahlan and Richard's baby. This was Kahlan and Darken Rahl's baby too. This was a descendent of a great wizard, a wizard of the First Order, and the offspring of the Seeker... Not to mention a child of the last Confessor to walk the earth. The future of all Confessors to come rested on her shoulders now. Or rather, within her belly.
Frowning, Cara tentatively placed a hand on her stomach as though too aware that she was crossing an invisible line of something entirely foreign to her. She waited, as if trying to hear something, as if trying to feel something, feeling awkward and uncomfortable at the sentimentality of her own behaviour... But there was nothing. Nothing other than the same devilish nausea that plagued her since the Shrine! It would have been so much better if she had just died at the Shrine, if she were killed alongside Richard, she thought to herself irritably. Or better yet, she should have been left to die at the battlefield, as is befitting a Mord'Sith, back when they were first attacked during the first Blood Moon and she was struck by the arrow. The thought triggered another memory though, of her, lying in a pool of blood, and Kahlan's beautiful face hovering above her, speaking to her gently, shedding tears over her, wrecked with apprehension while working hard to keep her alive.
If only she did not have these cursed feelings for the Confessor, Cara thought while staring at the dancing flames in the livingroom's fireplace, none of this would have happened. Alas...
The Mother Confessor will conceive a child, the memory of Shota's voice crackled in Cara's mind, triggered by the dancing flames, one single child in all of her life, who will shape the fate of all Confessors to come, all Seekers to come, and all of the world. But only IF he remains with and is raised by the woman he is born to…
It is entirely pointless thinking about what might have been, if things had been different. The fact now was, the crucial task of giving birth to and raising the new Richard Cypher, or the next Darken Rahl, had fallen on her. Cara had no problem training a person to the point of combat excellence, breaking them until they were good enough to be Mord'Sith or a soldier... She could raise an army if necessary! But raising a child...?! This was an entirely different thing. How on earth is she going to manage nurturing a child into being a fair and just ruler, a peace-bringer, and not a cruel tyrant like the man that had put him in her belly?! For the first time in her life, Cara doubted herself. Things would have been much simpler if she had remained on Rahl's side, instead of joining the Seeker, she smirked to herself. And what's to say it's not already too late? By the way the boy has been causing her to lose most of her meals, he was certainly headed towards tyranny...
"What's making you smile?" Kahlan appeared, forcing on a small smile herself. She pulled the second armchair a little more towards the fireplace, towards Cara, and sat down.
"Nothing," Cara replied, her smile abruptly gone, replaced by an awkward frown at being caught off guard.
She is never caught off guard! What was happening to her?! This pregnancy is making her too soft, she concluded.
"Cara, I know that Shota said that the baby has to be raised by the woman who gives birth to him... Though I guess none of us could have predicted that there would be such a twisted loophole in the prophecy and that... That the woman who conceives him will not be the one that's going to give birth to him..." Kahlan spoke with mixed emotions flitting across her features, while her hand unwittingly rested on her own stomach. "But please know, I will be there to help you every step of the way. Especially if it really does turn out to be a boy... Extra precautions will have to be put in place in case of a male Confessor. We cannot afford to let him out of our sight for a moment. We will have to keep him very close and watch him at all times, you do understand that?"
"Yes," Cara replied with a tone that was a discouragement to Kahlan for further conversation.
The women sat in silence and stared away from each other, at the fire.
"Kahlan," Cara eventually spoke. "Are you sure that raising him at Aydindril is the best idea?"
"What do you mean?" Kahlan frowned.
"I could go away... Have the baby somewhere else... Raise him there. Let you return to Aydindril undeterred, unrestricted," the blonde spoke in a low but confident tone, as though this conversation was had many times before. "You will have your hands full with all of your duties. The people need their Mother Confessor, and I know that me and the baby will distract you from this. Besides, the prophecy is clear - he is my responsibility now."
Though more than anything, I can see that you would rather be alone, she wanted to add but didn't.
"Cara..." Kahlan was shocked. "You can't be serious!" she exclaimed. "Do you have ANY idea of how dangerous a male Confessor can be? Even as a child... Even as a toddler!"
Cara made no reply.
"Cara, do you have any idea of how dangerous he can be... Even for you?"
Cara said nothing. She stared at the fire.
"No," Kahlan continued. "You have to come with me to Aydindril and have the baby there."
"Is that the only reason you want me to come with you?" Cara asked without looking at the woman. "Because you're worried about the baby?"
"Cara, I am concerned about everyone else!" Kahlan replied, then swallowed against a hard lump in her throat. "I mean... No, that's not the only reason. With the Sisters of the Dark and the Mord'Sith still out there, with the lands still unsettled, I need every good fighter by my side. And I'm sure that once the baby is born and... And has grown a little, you'll want to get back to doing what you do best."
Cara smirked. She nodded, but said nothing.
"So... When do you want to leave?" Kahlan continued.
"Whenever you're ready to go," Cara replied simply, resigned to the future.
"No, Cara," Kahlan said gently. "I think maybe you should take some time to rest here... The road to Aydindril is long and you will need all of your strength for the months to come. We will go whenever you are ready."
Though touched by the Confessor's concern for her, where that familiar ache in her heart stirred, Cara realised that this only proved her own fears right.
"Then we leave tomorrow at first light," Cara stated in a cold voice and clenched her fists.
Struggling to fall asleep, Cara turned and turned on the cold, hard ground, trying to make herself comfortable. It had been two days since she'd slept in a bed, if you could call the mattress at Thaddicus' house that... And according to her estimations, they were another four weeks journey away from Aydindril. With some luck, they might pass through a few villages on their way, although the fastest way would be to cut straight through the forests once again. The thought of this made her even more uncomfortable in her current position.
Since when am I unable to fall asleep on the ground?! Damned be all the prophecies and pregnancies and power-hungry Rahls when this is what a Mord'Sith gets reduced to!
Finally, she gave up trying to fall asleep and sat up. She turned to face the small flames of the campfire Kahlan had built. Kahlan, herself, was already heavily asleep, positioned on the other side of the fire, her back turned towards it, towards Cara. The blonde had grown accustomed to this sight of the Confessor's back turned at her. She had trouble remembering a time when Kahlan hadn't been so withdrawn, when her eyes were not haunted and her lips so deathly pale. She resented herself for not being the company Kahlan needed.
A flash of light flitted across Cara's mind. It was the memory of Kahlan's smile the morning after Cara had been struck by the arrow, and Kahlan had spent hours nursing her wound. Cara recalled that the Confessor had insisted on sleeping next to her that night, to make sure she was warm enough while her wound was still critical. And the following morning, Cara had awoken to the sight of Kahlan's beautiful face, all aglow in the morning light, looking down at her, smiling, and her eyes, so bright. It was the most glorious sight Cara had ever seen and most likely would ever see, she thought to herself despondently while staring at Kahlan's sleeping figure and the minute light that were the fire's flames in the midst of a pitch black forest. What a far cry their reality had turned out to be compared to that moment of pure magic, she thought, head bowed. It might as well have been a dream, so distant and far-removed it appeared to Cara at present, as if it had happened years ago and not only a month prior. What she wouldn't give to see Kahlan happy again, to see her smile, to hear her laugh, or withstand those tormenting instances when the Confessor had tried to befriend her, acting all chummy, much to Cara's chagrin. Cara now missed such moments with all of her aching heart, not for the sake of her feelings for Kahlan, but because of the sad tale that had turned out to be the Mother Confessor's life, when she deserved so infinitely better. It was unbearable seeing Kahlan shrink into a shadow of her former self, and Cara wished that it was she, herself that had died at the Shrine of the Zoria instead of Richard. She only hoped that some of Kahlan's old spirit might recover once they return to Aydindril and she is, once again, among her own people, where she belongs.
Cara shut her eyes.
When she opened her eyes next, she saw that the fire had died out. Only the glow of embers survived in the dark of the night. She was about to move forward, to reach with her hand and drop a handful of twigs over the dying embers when a violent flame erupted from the spot, causing her to flinch back, then scramble backwards further as the flames leapt larger than life so close in front of her. Amidst the flames, Shota's features appeared. Cara stared as the witch stared directly back at her. Kahlan didn't stir.
"Cara..." the witch's voice called out to her in a drawn out, unnatural tone.
"What do you want?" Cara replied, shielding her face from the fire's overpowering heat.
"To remind you..." the woman's voice echoed, while her mouth never opened. "You have forgotten the prophecy, and now curse us all to death..."
"What do you mean?" Cara frowned. "I remember the prophecy."
"No... You have forgotten it..." the woman's voice whispered from the depths of the fire, her eyes fixed on the blonde.
"I don't understand... I know the prophecy. I remember it!"
"You do not, Cara," the witch replied. "We will all die..."
"That doesn't make sense..." Cara protested. "What do you mean? What do you want from me?!"
"Cara... Cara..." the woman repeated over and over, less and less audibly.
"What is going on? What more can I do?!"
"Cara... Cara!" Kahlan's voice startled her. "Cara, it's okay... I think you were having a nightmare."
Bewildered, Cara sat up. She looked about herself. Kahlan knelt by her right side, gripping her by the shoulder. A cosy fire crackled to her other side. A little way away, the horse gently neighed, its reins tied securely to a low branch of a tree.
It took her a moment to come to her senses.
"Here, have some tea," Kahlan said and nudged the other's shoulder with an old wooden cup. "Zedd taught me this recipe. It's from dandelion root and peppermint. It purifies the kidneys, and soothes the stomach, which... I think will be good for you."
"I am fine, Kahlan," Cara meekly protested, tentatively accepting the cup into a gloved hand. "I don't need you to coddle me."
"I'm just trying to make sure—"
“‘—That the baby is alright,'" Cara interrupted, peering into the shiny dark liquid. "I know."
“—That you won't throw up on me again," Kahlan corrected, a small smile passing over her features. "The last time it took me forever to clean my dress. At this rate, it'll be months before we reach Aydindril."
"Sorry," Cara replied, her tone hard.
"Cara, I was just kidding — I don't care about that," Kahlan turned serious when she saw the girl didn't share her amusement. "But yes, I am making you drink the tea because I am worried about both you and the baby. You've barely had anything to eat... And the little that you have-"
"You should get some sleep, Kahlan," Cara interrupted again. "I'll keep watch for once."
"No," Kahlan stated firmly. "You need all the rest you can get. We still have a very long journey ahead of us."
As she spoke, Cara saw that something about her seemed a little odd. She looked at Kahlan more closely and realised that the woman's skin, her hands, her neck and even her face, had a strange colour about them, as though they were covered in rose-tinted paint.
Noticing Cara's abrupt confusion, Kahlan looked down at her own hands.
"It's the second Blood Moon," she said lowly, her look suddenly fallen. "It's been twenty-eight days."
Alarmed, Cara's eyes shot up. Peaking above the treetops, directly above them, the red moon ominously glared as though aware of the emblem it had become. Cara's heart shot off, expecting calamity to befall them at any moment... But the forest remained calm, sleeping. No sign of impending danger appeared.
Apprehensively, Cara looked to Kahlan, trying to read her expression, while the Confessor's demeanour shifted entirely. It seemed that the little spirit she had recovered had suddenly abandoned her altogether at this painful reminder that loomed overhead. She briefly met Cara's gaze, her eyes mournful, more openly so than what had become her constricted usual. She sat down beside the Mord'Sith, facing the fire, and hugged her knees as though she were all alone in the world.
"There is nothing that the second moon could bring that the first hadn't already," she whispered.
Her breath left a misty trail in the cold air like the stain that marked her heart. And there it was, all of the anguish that Kahlan had tried so meticulously to hide in front of Cara, spilling out when her guard came down.
Cara's look crumbled. Her heart ached.
"I am so sorry... Kahlan," she whispered, looking away, just about choking on the words.
Kahlan nodded and briskly wiped a tear from the side of her cheek. She stared into the fire.
Out of the corner of her eye, Cara regarded her. There was so much more she felt beyond the sorrow and the guilt, which she would never dare to put into words again. What she didn't count on however, was that the sight of Kahlan, so sad and so close to her, would have such a disarming effect on her, that it would override even the most hardset of resolves to keep her distance, and that, without even thinking about it, or permitting it, her hand would move from the cup she held over her lap to gently land on Kahlan's shoulder. And that by the time she'd realise what she had done, it would be too late to undo it. The only thing she could do now is will this into being a gesture of a friend, and no more. Besides, Kahlan didn't seem to care, she told herself. There were other, more important things on her mind. Cara had felt her stiffen a little at her touch, and assumed this to be out of awkwardness in knowing Cara's feelings for her. And, well... Since she did kiss her that one time. What she failed to notice, however, what she couldn't have known, was how Kahlan's pulse quickened, how her breath turned flighty, suspended almost altogether by Cara's simple gesture, and all of her fortitude, crumbling to ruin. So when in a moment Kahlan gave in and leaned to her side, resting her head on Cara's shoulder, to gain some emotional respite, to exhale and catch her breath, to grant freedom to the tears that had been pressing on her just beyond the surface, Cara's eyes turned wide from surprise and she froze in the spot.
Is this what... friends... do? This must be what friends do... Or Kahlan wouldn't do it, she thought to herself, shifting her eyes from side to side, and not a muscle more.
But when tear after tear spilled out of Kahlan's eyes and she silently erased each one just as she did the previous, Cara's apprehensions, including all thoughts of Shota and the dream, became replaced by the overwhelming urge to be there for Kahlan, to make this easier on her somehow, as a friend or whatever else in the world she needed.
Once again, her arm moved, wrapping more securely around the other's shoulder, bringing her in closer, needing to make her feel safer. They sat like this in silence, so close side by side, by the fire, while night crickets called to each other and the wind gently swayed branches and rustled through leaves illuminated in pink light.
There was nothing to be said, nothing to be done after all that had happened to the both of them, when all they had left in the world was the person sitting next to them and from here on in, the entire world, to be saved or doomed to what would come in the future.
"Don't forget to finish your tea," Kahlan reminded, arching her eyebrows.
She pointed the wooden cup at the glaring Mord'Sith, who tentatively walked over to her then snatched the cup into her own hands. Cara chugged back the tea and half hated that it did actually make her feel better. Her mind was calmer and her stomach less disturbed whenever she drank the concoction, though she would never admit it out loud. She refused to give the Confessor the satisfaction, lest she used this as ammunition to force other things down her throat. Although... By the way Kahlan appeared to be stifling a smile this morning, she probably already knew as much.
A strange feeling stirred inside Cara's stomach, one that was nauseating in a different kind of way to the actual nausea that had been bugging her. And she realised, it's because of Kahlan. Kahlan had almost smiled. The sun was shining softly in the woods and Kahlan had almost smiled... At her. And this sickening feeling must be what happiness feels like, Cara thought, dismayed.
"What is it?" Kahlan asked, her expression serious now. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Nothing," Cara shook her head and looked away.
Get it together, Cara!
"I know of a little village East-North from here," Kahlan continued, packing their belongings into her backpack. "If we hurry a little, I think we can get there by nightfall."
Cara nodded, finished off the tea, then copied Kahlan, packing away the cup among other things. But once they had strapped all of their belongings to the horse and were about to saddle him, the sun's light broke free entirely from behind a cloud, radiating through the branches more strongly, reminding Cara of last night's moon, and the dream she'd had before Kahlan woke her up.
You have forgotten the prophecy, and now curse us all to death.
Cara faltered, all colour draining from her face.
"What is it?" Kahlan asked, puzzled when Cara did not make a move to climb on the horse but stood rooted to the spot for no apparent reason.
For a moment, the blonde deliberated whether to mention the dream to Kahlan at all. If anything, last night proved that such reminders are still too much, too soon for the Confessor. Cara did not want to make it any harder for her than it already was. Especially since Kahlan seemed to be in a lighter mood this morning, which certainly was a first since the Shrine.
On the other hand... It couldn't have been a coincidence that she would dream of the witch on the night of the second Blood Moon. Maybe it wasn't a dream at all. And maybe she really had neglected a part of the prophecy, as the witch suggested.
"What do you remember of the prophecy?" she asked, annoyed for having no choice but to go down this route for the sake of greater good.
"What do you mean?" Kahlan blinked at her, holding onto the horses' reins, trying to steady him.
"Do you remember the exact words Shota used when she told us about it?"
"I think so..." the woman replied. "I've repeated them in my head often enough," she smirked then spoke automatically, as though not herself, "'The Mother Confessor will conceive a child, one single child in all of her life, who will shape the fate of all Confessors to come, all Seekers to come, and all of the world. The child will be touched by the four forces and will be the master of all four. He will be Seeker, Confessor, Wizard and Lord, and will usher in a time of peace across the lands.'"
Cara stared at her as she spoke, an unsettling feeling troubling her.
"'But only if he is raised by the woman he is born to, for only SHE will be able to understand his darkness, and through it, reach his light.'"
Kahlan stared back at Cara now, her mouth slightly open, as if there was more to say.
Because only she will be able to save him, to teach him of love, if she, herself becomes open to... Love.
The words echoed in Kahlan's mind but she found herself unable to say them out loud. Something prevented her from uttering them in front of Cara, something that had been squeezing, choking at her throat, at her heart, for a while, without her knowing. And suddenly, in a single moment of clarity for which she was utterly unprepared, everything came full circle in her mind, like pieces of a puzzle falling into place. Kahlan understood, and was left speechless... And yet, she could barely reconcile herself with it. Everything was spinning around her. Her heart raced.
She stared at Cara and Cara stared back.
"What is it?" the Mord'Sith grew concerned.
"It's just... It-it makes so much sense now," she whispered.
"That it was you, this whole time..." her voice quivered.
Cara stared at her wide-eyed. Something in Kahlan's eyes, in Kahlan's voice spoke of more than just what was in her words. It held Cara spell-bound.
Kahlan gulped. Her eyes fluttered.
"That Shota was talking about you," she corrected herself, breaking the spell. "You know what it's like to come to the edge of darkness, then turn back and use your power and your strength for good. You've done it yourself... And you will teach him the same, one day."
Cara looked away.
"Yes, I've kind of gathered that much," she grumbled and turned to climb on the horse, dismissing the lingering effect the dream had had on her.
Maybe something has happened to her… She said she was only going to get water, I don’t understand what could be taking her so long.
Hand on the Sword of Truth at her waist, Kahlan paced up and down in the forest, wrecking herself with worry. She wiped perspiration from her forehead and was forced to squint from overbearing heat of the day. In the morning, she awoke with one thing on her mind and at night, when she wasn’t keeping watch, fell asleep with the one thing on her mind:
She must not fail this time. She will protect her charge, and the future of all confessors along with Cara, with her life if need be. She will not fail this time.
Maybe I should see what’s taking her so long, even if she does get annoyed at me for checking on her.
After another moment’s deliberation, Kahlan picked up the horse’s reins and lead the animal through the trees, over a meadow and down towards the riverbank. She was about to walk around the hedgerow that separated the riverbank from the meadow when she noticed a remarkably familiar-looking pile of clothing on the gravel ahead… All of it leather, all of it maroon. Kahlan faltered, perplexed, feeling on edge, ready to charge through the bush that concealed her from sight from the river and bust whoever had done this to Cara, when suddenly, movement in the water caught her eye. Peering over the hedge, Kahlan squinted to see better and was shocked when a slender golden arm, entirely bare, leisurely stretched upwards in the air before gently dipping beneath the water surface, while a soaked blond head softly bobbed up and down, as though floating, facing away from her.
Is that… Is that... Cara?!
Kahlan narrowed her eyes, trying to make out what, or rather, who, it was she was seeing, when suddenly the figure stood up in semi-shallow depths of the river, revealing an entirely bare back, with droplets of water trailing down, glistening between the golden sun and the golden skin, melting like pure honey. The figure turned towards her and Kahlan’s eyes turned large when she saw… She saw… Cara’s eyes pointed straight at her.
The Confessor ducked behind the bush and clutched at her heart. She held her breath and hoped that Cara had not seen her. Alas, the horse had no such concerns. It picked at the leaves of the nearest tree, causing its branches to sway, to practically wave at Cara, until Kahlan pulled at his reins. The animal neighed at being denied his snack so abruptly before Kahlan shushed him, not wanting to draw any more attention to herself. But once she had recovered from the shock enough to look again, uncertainly peering above the hedge, Cara was nowhere to be seen. Unnerved, the Confessor scanned up and down along the riverbank as far as she could see but saw no glimpse of the blonde, even though her clothing had remained discarded in a pile on the sand. Unsettled, Kahlan abandoned her search and slunk down on the grass, resigning herself to waiting it out until Cara finished her leisurely bathing session.
“Is there something I can do for you, Kahlan?” an irked voice demanded from above, eclipsing the sun.
Kahlan flinched and clutched at her heart again. Looking up, she saw a stark naked figure, hands on hips in a defensive stance, entirely soaked and dripping with water, facing her square-on, glaring down at her. Or… That is what Kahlan imagined the figure’s features to look like… The tone of the voice suggested as much when she couldn’t quite make out the face, obscured by the light as it was. The sun was high in the sky, streaming down directly from behind Cara, setting her skin on golden fire, illuminating her entirely as if she had descended down to Earth directly from it, while her face remained shrouded by shadow. Kahlan put her hand up to shield her eyes and see more clearly… Then abruptly put her hand down and looked away, lips pressed into a flat line, cheeks turning pink, when she did see everything more clearly.
“Sorry Cara… I… I… You-you were taking a while… You said you were only going to get water from the river… I had to make sure you were alright.”
“Kahlan, it’s been ten minutes,” the Mord'Sith continued in the same aggravated tone. “Were you this irritatingly overbearing with the Seeker when you guarded him?!”
Kahlan’s gaze shot up, eyebrows raised, mouth open. She didn’t know what to say to that. Her look fell.
Realising what she had said, and how she had said it, Cara closed her eyes and reproached herself inwardly.
“I’m sorry, Kahlan. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I’ll let you get dressed,” Kahlan said quietly, avoiding to look at Cara. She stood up. “We should get going. The town of Ashford is only a couple of hours away.”
Silently cursing at herself, Cara turned and walked towards the river to retrieve her suit and agiels. Kahlan waited by the horse, looking rather forlorn, lost in her own thoughts.
I… Will not fail this time, she tried to reassure herself.
"What's wrong?!" Kahlan rushed around the hedgerow to the riverbank, clutching at the sword’s hilt, ready to obliterate anything and anyone.
"Nothing," Cara raised her eyebrows at the other's unnecessary reaction. "There's a rip in my glove."
"Oh," Kahlan replied, embarrassed that she had overreacted once again.
Cara regarded her suspiciously. She proceeded to peel the ripped glove from her hand then worked on the buckles at her waist, all the while keeping a weary eye on the Confessor.
Kahlan self-consciously regarded Cara’s fully clad figure, seeing it almost as if for the first time, now that she knew what was underneath the leather. Her cheeks started to burn again. She looked away.
“H-how are you feeling?"
"You really need to stop asking me that, Kahlan,” Cara replied calmly, a little too calmly, while setting her agiels in place. "I feel the same as I did this morning, the same as I did yesterday, and the day before that and the day before that."
"Okay..." Kahlan smirked nervously. “I’ve left you my portion of the bread… And umm… Ham and cheese. Oh, and some more of that tea.”
“Thanks,” Cara replied curtly and walked towards the horse, past the Confessor, virtually ignoring her.
“You really should eat it though,” Kahlan added when this all-too-familiar response from Cara meant that she likely wouldn’t touch the food. “I know you don’t feel like it right now but you really need to—“
“—What I need is not to be coddled like this," Cara snapped. "I may be pregnant but that doesn't mean I can't take care of myself."
"Cara, I know that..." Kahlan's eyes fluttered. "But it's not just about you... I—“
The Mord'Sith shot her the fiercest, most resentful look that made Kahlan stop in her tracks.
The baby. It’s always about this baby. Am I just a breeding sow to her now?!
Cara grabbed her backpack that hung from the saddle and tersely re-strapped it onto the horse, causing the animal to flinch, almost jump, at the harshness of her movements.
These days, their interaction seemed to have become reduced to Kahlan painstakingly trying to make sure that Cara wasn't feeling too sick, that Cara’d had enough to eat, that she wasn't too cold, that she had slept enough, all for the baby's sake. Cara understood that in essence this was Kahlan’s baby more than hers, but she could tolerate such overbearing behaviour only for so long. She had tried very hard to remain calm, to tell herself that anything that distracted Kahlan from the pain of her grief was a good thing but she wasn’t sure that she had the stamina for this after all — her Mord’Sith training had taught her only so much! However, there was more… There was something else almost, something strange, even for Kahlan, especially for Kahlan, that Cara had noticed. There was an unnatural unease, a nervousness, which Cara had not encountered in Kahlan before, which she couldn't understand and which in turn made her feel tense too.
"I'm sorry, Cara," Kahlan said, almost exasperated. "I-I didn't mean it like that... It's just that…" She trailed off, looking away. “I don’t even know anymore.”
Apprehensively, she bit her lip.
Suddenly, Kahlan looked genuinely troubled, almost to the point of tears.
Seeing Kahlan look so sad, so upset, Cara’s demeanour softened. There was one thing she could not stand more than anything else and that was the sight of Kahlan sad. She especially hated being the cause of it.
For the moment, she abandoned the idea of mounting the horse and turned to face the Confessor instead.
“Kahlan," she said while eyeing the woman half compassionately, half suspiciously, "I don't usually care to ask anyone this, but… Is everything okay? You've been acting strangely ever since the bl—that village we passed through almost a week ago.”
“You mean, ever since the second Blood Moon?” Kahlan replied softly, acknowledging the fact that Cara deliberately tried to spare her the painful reminder.
“Yes,” Cara conceded.
She’s grieving, she reminded herself. She is still grieving and you always have to remember why.
Kahlan looked at Cara wide-eyed and for a moment was struck speechless. All she could focus on was the green in the Mord'Sith's eyes, which despite all of her heartache, she could not help but find strikingly beautiful.
How could I have failed to notice this for so long? All this time…
Kahlan’s heart fluttered in her chest as Cara held her gaze and tried to figure out what was the matter with her. Quicker now, her chest began to rise and fall. Everything felt more acute now that she truly had become aware, that she had allowed her feelings to come to surface at last, to pierce through the thinly-disguised veil of friendship that she had clung on to in order to spare Richard, Cara and herself pain. A part of her wanted to march forward, to cover this short distance between her and the woman that stood in front of her, to place her arms about her, to draw her in and finally return that kiss, that damned kiss that had burned itself in her mind like a comet... And yet, she could not. Because the other part of her was still at the Shrine, still waiting for Richard to come back. And this would not be fair to Cara.
Feeling as if she had been torn in half, divided between the past and the future, Kahlan felt utterly overwhelmed.
Her look fell once again. She closed her eyes, then broke down in tears.
Half concerned, half alarmed, Cara hesitantly approached her with panic splattered across her face.
What do I do?! What did I do?!
She moved to place a comforting hand on the Confessor’s shoulder but just as she did, Kahlan flung her arms about her and buried her face in Cara’s shoulder. Surprised, Cara froze at first, still unaccustomed to such emotional outbursts, before instinct kicked in and she wrapped comforting arms about the crying woman.
For a time Kahlan held onto her, crying a torrent of tears, while Cara held her back, supporting her, steadfast, if not a little confused. When Kahlan finally pulled away and wiped her eyes dry, she avoided looking Cara in the eyes again, reluctant to be faced with that heartbreaking green again.
“I’m sorry, I…”
“It’s fine, Kahlan,” Cara reassured her with a calm voice. “I think this is what grieving is like. For regular people.”
Kahlan smirked but looked as though she would start to cry again.
“It’s not just that though…” she whispered.
"I... I guess… I guess I am afraid of what we will find in Aydindril. You heard what the people from that village said about what Rahl, Nicci and the Mord'Sith had done up north…”
"Whatever it is, we will deal with it," Cara replied, somewhat relieved that Kahlan was finally admitting to what's really been bothering her. "I am sure that the people will rally behind the Mother Confessor once they see her."
Kahlan nodded uncertainly.
“I hope so,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Cara smirked, “I have a way of making sure that they do.”
She whipped out one of her agiels and shook it at Kahlan, hinting.
Kahlan smiled despite herself.
Satisfied that Kahlan was all better now, Cara turned to climb on the horse.
“I think though…” Kahlan suddenly started again, and Cara abandoned the idea of mounting the animal once again. She turned to look at Kahlan.
“I think I am afraid…” Kahlan continued uncertainly, almost painfully, “I am afraid that something might happen… Might happen to you…”
Cara stared at her.
“That something will happen… That I will lose you and-and it will be my fault again… That I will fail to protect the one I am supposed to, again.”
Anew, her voice turned tearful.
“I could not live with myself, if that were to happen…” she whispered. “Not after how I have failed Richard.”
Cara swallowed against a heavy lump in her throat. Her gaze was hard, unflinching, though her chest heaved with suppressed emotion.
“Kahlan,” she said firmly. “You DID NOT fail Richard.”
There was a pause in the air, a pause and a lingering question.
“I did…” the Mord'Sith added in a whisper where her voice almost broke.
“Cara, how can you say that?” Kahlan protested, flabbergasted at the declaration. “You were under Rahl’s spell… Everything that you did or didn’t do was all him! It’s thanks to you that I am still alive. Richard’s death was Rahl’s fault.”
“Can you say the same thing to yourself?” Cara asked. “Do you believe the same for yourself when you feel that you have failed the Seeker?”
Kahlan stared at her wide-eyed. She blinked.
“No…” she shook her head and looked away.
“The only thing we can do now is honour the Seeker’s memory by continuing his legacy,” the Mord’Sith stated. “We have to move forward... Or his death would have been for nothing.”
Kahlan was silent for a moment while deliberating inwardly.
At last, Kahlan met her gaze. With new resolve in her eyes, she nodded.
"You are right. Richard would not want us to look back. He would want us to keep going. After all... There is much to be done."
Cara recognised the boldness in her comrade's eyes and was pleased. The Mother Confessor was finally making her comeback.
Lips twisting into a small smile, the Mord'Sith climbed on the horse.
“I didn’t think I would ever say this but for a moment, I almost preferred it more when you pestered me with your tea,” she mumbled and offered the Confessor her hand.
Kahlan smiled at the girl's quip, but when she saw that Cara had extended a hand to her, for a moment she stared at the flesh of the ungloved palm as if seeing it for the first time. She held her breath. Making up her mind, she firmly placed her hand in Cara’s but was at once struck by the warmth that emanated from it, unprepared for the raspy callouses, and soft skin, within the firm grip that pulled her upwards, dragging her and supporting her at the same time. Despite all of her reclaimed strength and resolve, Kahlan could feel her cheeks flush pink, which made sitting so close behind Cara even more unnerving. She shuffled backwards to give them some space.
"I swear to the Spirits, Kahlan," Cara shook her head incredulously, "If you're too scared to hold onto me because you're afraid of hurting the baby, I will take you to Aydindril, leave you there and return to Stowecroft to have the baby there. He will grow up to become the world’s greatest farmer.”
“That’s not funny,” Kahlan retorted.
Cara whipped her head around, appearing all indignant.
“What are you trying to say about farmers?!”
Kahlan smiled despite herself.
Cheeks turning even more on fire, she shuffled a little forward in the saddle and slowly wrapped her arms around Cara's waist.
The flesh on Cara's stomach burned under Kahlan's touch. Her breath quickened.
Nudging the horse into its sides with her boots, the animal kick-started with a jump and lunged forward, forcing Kahlan to grab onto the blonde even tighter, pressing herself right against her back, while Cara's lips spread into a slanted smile.
Ashford. Even from the distance of the hills, the women could see the outline of the town, promising a proper meal and accommodation, which they were both rather looking forward to.
With the heel of her boots, Cara nudged the horse in the sides, propelling him into a gentle gallop. They reached the town within the hour. However, the welcome they received from the locals upon their arrival was not the kind they were hoping for. One look at the pair on the horse, and one by one, the passers-by just about tripped up on themselves from shock at who it was that had just passed through the gates, entering their town. Kahlan and Cara stared in confusion as a multitude of eyes stared back at them with suspicion and mistrust, some of which glared in no less than pure contempt, before ultimately backing away in fear. Women clutched their children’s hands and ushered them indoors as quickly as they could, bolting the door shut, while the men, those who were brave enough to remain on the streets, spat at the ground, and assumed a defiant stance as the horse bearing the two women slowly passed by. Kahlan was shocked to see one man, a farmer, carrying a pitchfork, upon seeing the Mother Confessor and the Mord'Sith, clutch tighter at the would-be weapon as though in warning.
"Is it just me or are the people of this town especially excited to see us?" Cara growled, tilting her head to the side so that only Kahlan could hear her.
Her eyes were fixed on the man with the pitchfork who glared back at her with an equally hard stare.
“Something’s not right,” Kahlan replied. She requested that they make a stop.
After dismounting the horse, she approached the man, trying to maintain a friendly disposition.
“Good day to you, sir,” she said. “I am the Mother Confessor, Kahlan Amnell. This is Cara Mason, my guard. We are on our way to Aydindril. Would you be so kind as to point us in the direction of a lodge? We need a place to stay the night.”
The man narrowed his eyes at Kahlan but said nothing in reply.
Confused, Kahlan looked from him back at Cara, who remained seated on the horse, eyeing her surroundings carefully, mentally and physically preparing herself for anything. Clearly, something was greatly amiss here and she was not willing to take any chances. Her hand tightened around the handle of an agiel at her belt.
“Will you not answer the Mother Confessor?” Kahlan asked incredulously when the farmer’s attitude did not soften, a precarious edge playing in her voice. “Sir, we’ve come looking only for a room and a meal. We are but mere travellers passing through your town…”
The man pointed his gaze from Kahlan to Cara, then back to Kahlan again.
“That the Seeker’s sword?” he asked, glancing at the Sword of Truth hanging at Kahlan’s waist.
“Yes…” Kahlan replied.
Allowing the implication of this to sink in, that the Seeker was no more as the rumours had it, the farmer’s expression contorted into deeper disdain. Looking at the Mother Confessor defiantly, he spat at her feet.
Disgusted by the gesture, Kahlan took a step backwards. Clenching her jaw, her posture stiffened and a hard look set over her features.
“I am Kahlan Amnell, the Mother Confessor. Your Mother Confessor. And you WILL answer me when I speak to you.”
“You said as much the last time you came here with your Mord’Sith scum,” the man growled. “Except this time, I will rather meet the Keeper than show respect to a treacherous tramp like you.”
In a flash, Cara darted from the horse and implanted herself between Kahlan and the farmer. Agiels out and ready, she pointing them at the man in warning.
“Speak to the Mother Confessor like that one more time and you will meet the Keeper,” she murmured in a voice of razor-sharp silk.
The farmer took a faltering step backwards but glared down in contempt at the weapons pointed at him, working hard to conceal his fear. Kahlan interfered by stepping in between the pair. She lowered Cara’s arms down to her sides, trying to calm her, needing to defuse the situation. She did not want this to escalate any more than it already had.
“This is not necessary,” she said to the man, though her voice was indignant. “We did not come here to incite anything. We don’t mean you or anyone else any harm, sir.”
The man scoffed.
“Yes. An armed Mord’Sith is an invitation to a picnic!” he spat.
“Cara is my personal guard, accompanying me on our journey to Aydindril.”
“And since when do Confessors cavort with Mord’Sith?” he seethed. “Should’ve seen you for what you really are the moment you turned up here with the likes of one of them.”
Cara’s grip on the agiels tightened.
“That is not for you to question,” she hissed back.
“What is the problem here exactly?” Kahlan narrowed her eyes at the man, while holding Cara back. “The people here have been acting very strange since our arrival, when, as I said, we are simply passing through your town.”
The man said nothing.
“I have come to Ashford before, it’s true… But never with Cara,” she added, her confusion showing. “And I was certainly never treated by the people here like this. Sir, we are truly only looking for a mattress to sleep on and a hot meal to purchase. We’re not looking to start any sort of trouble. If anything, I thought the people of Ashford would be glad to have a Confessor visiting...”
“If you really are only passing through and not looking to cause any more grief and trouble,” the man hissed, sticking his face into Kahlan’s, “Then turn back the way you came from and leave Ashford for good.”
Having said as much, before either Kahlan or Cara could question him further, the farmer abruptly walked away and in a hurry disappeared around the corner of a nearby building.
When the women looked about themselves, they realised that the streets of the town, which were full of life only moments ago, had become utterly deserted during their conversation with the farmer.
“I don’t understand…” Kahlan said bewildered. “The people of Midland towns and villages have always gratefully received any Confessor… Not to mention the Mother Confessor.”
“I get the feeling that they are not used to seeing a Confessor allied with a Mord’Sith,” Cara suggested.
“Even so, this kind of aversion at our arrival is not warranted,” Kahlan said, her gaze appearing distant. “Something must have happened in Ashford since my last visit to this region.”
“I can think of one or two things that could have happened…” Cara raised an eyebrow. “One or two things or… One or two people.”
Kahlan’s eyes turned large.
The utterance of their names left a ghostly trace in the silence of the deserted town. Even before Cara alluded to them, their shadow played in the back of the Confessor’s mind.
"What do you think they would have done?"
Horrorstricken, she stared at Cara.
"Let your imagination run wild, Confessor," she replied.
“Do you think they came here under the guise of me and Richard?” Kahlan asked, a heavy knot growing in the pit of her belly. “And did something… To the people, pretending to be us?”
“Knowing the fallen ‘Lord’ Rahl as well as I do, I would count on it,” the Mord'Sith replied, before her tone turned bitter. “Besides, we’ve experienced this particular side of Nicci’s magic for ourselves.”
The memory of the event in the forest, of the sorceress tricking her into believing that she was Kahlan in trouble, came to her like a needle prodding into a wound.
“What should we do then? If they hate us like they seem to, we are no match for an entire town… Not until we straighten this out, at least.”
“I hate to agree, and concede to a such a plebeian mass,” Cara replied in a cold voice, “But I think you are right. We’ve managed to go on without a bed and a meal for so long, we can keep going until the next town. And hopefully those people will not be as imbecilic in being unable to tell the difference between the real Mother Confessor and a fraud...”
Then in a lower tone, added, “…And maybe I can learn from them.”
The woman marched back to their horse. She grabbed a hold of the saddle to mount the animal, when suddenly, her legs gave way and she almost collapsed. If she had not already been holding onto the saddle, she would have dropped clean to the ground, but as it was, she only wobbled on her feet for a moment.
Kahlan rushed to her side.
“What happened? Are you alright?!”
“Yes… I’m fine,” the Mord’Sith muttered.
She pressed a hand over her forehead, trying to process the strange sensation that suddenly settled over her. With the other, she steadied herself against the horse, feeling shaken.
“What happened? It looked like you were about to faint…”
“I’m fine,” Cara snapped dismissively, forcing herself to stand tall. “It’s nothing. Let’s get going.”
But as Cara grabbed onto the saddle one more time, attempting to lift her foot to the stirrup, and though Kahlan was next to her, keeping a suspicious, watchful eye, Cara’s strength suddenly left her altogether and she slid down to the ground, sprawling out entirely over the paved cobble-stone. Fortunately, her fall was softened by Kahlan’s quick hands and no major damage occurred.
“Cara! Cara!” Kahlan cried, kneeling down next to the blonde.
Holding her face, tapping on it lightly, Kahlan was desperate to see the girl rouse back to consciousness. However, the woman only groaned as her eyes rolled back into her head, their whiteness frightening Kahlan even more. She panicked. She rushed to the backpacks strapped behind the saddle to retrieve the water bag. She splashed water over Cara’s face, then lifted her head onto her lap, and poured what little water was left between her lips. She held her breath when at first, nothing happened… Until a couple of moments later, the Mord’Sith opened her eyes and, choking on the sip of water, gasped for breath.
Thank the Spirits… Kahlan exhaled.
“Cara… Cara, are you alright?” she said, peering down at the blonde’s face.
“What… Happened?” Cara mumbled and tried to stand up, while Kahlan assisted her.
Face contorted into a scowl, she reached for her temples, trying to steady the dizziness.
“Take it easy,” Kahlan supported her upright, holding the blonde’s arm over her own shoulders. “You fainted. Do you need more water?”
Cara rubbed at her head.
“No, I’m fine.”
“I don’t think you are fine…” Kahlan interjected, maintaining her supportive grip as the woman struggled on her feet. “Tell me what hurts? How do you feel?”
“I feel wonderful, Kahlan, as always,” the blonde muttered.
Breaking away from the other woman, she vomited on the ground.
Kahlan closed her eyes.
“I think we have to stay here for the night,” she said with a deep sigh.
“No, I’m fine. I’ll be fine,” the Mord’Sith protested while wiping her mouth on her sleeve.
“You are not fine, Cara,” Kahlan’s voice was firm. “You cannot go on like this — you’ve barely had anything to eat the whole week! You will make yourself really sick if you don’t get some proper food and rest.”
Then in a lower tone added, “It's really important for the baby too…”
Cara said nothing.
“We have to stay here…” the Confessor insisted again. “At least for the night.”
“Fine…” Cara grumbled while taking wobbly steps towards the horse. “Do you want to build the fire or should I?”
“I am serious, Cara,” Kahlan said sternly, trying to assist the unsteady woman. “We have to find a place to stay the night.”
“Be my guest,” the blonde retorted, brushing the woman’s hands away. “But if anyone behaves like that farmer did, you can’t stop me from puking on them.”
Once again, Cara doubled over, this time, next to the horse. The animal flinched and became unsettled at the sight and smell of stomach acid.
“Fine with me,” Kahlan replied and gathered back fistfuls of blond hair while the woman vomited.
When she was finally done, Cara straightened up and wiped her mouth on her sleeve once again.
“Mmm, delicious,” she growled.
Kahlan shook her head in disdain.
Cara turned to climb on the horse, only to be stopped by Kahlan.
“Maybe we should both walk?” she ordered more than suggested. “We don’t want you falling off the hight of a horse.”
Cara shot her a resentful look but did not protest.
One unsteady foot in front of the other, she begun the walk down the lane, while Kahlan picked up the horse’s reins and slowly led the animal to maintain Cara’s pace. The horse walked on the Confessor’s one side, while Cara walked on the other, a few deliberate steps away from the woman, like a wild, albeit a little disheveled, beast in her own right. She concentrated hard on maintaining an even balance while walking, hiding her perturbation at the worst lightheadedness and weakness of her legs she had ever experienced, reinforcing her composure through a stiffened posture and deliberate, though drunken, steps to hide how foolish and unsteady she felt. She avoided looking at Kahlan at all costs, pursing her lips irritably instead, resentful of the fact that the Confessor needed to keep an eye on her more than on the road ahead.
They walked in silence.
Turning a corner onto the main street, Kahlan spotted a sign by a door advertising an inn. She directed her two animals towards it, and when finally arriving at the inn’s door, knocked on it. A plump, middle-aged woman opened the door with a smile on her face. At seeing who it was that had turned up at her door-step, however, she became just about paralysed with fear.
“Good evening,” Kahlan said in a friendly voice, putting on a smile in hopes of making the woman feel more at ease. “We are looking for a room for the night. Are there any vacancies at your inn?”
“N-n-no v-vacancies,” the woman stammered, her eyes nervously flitting from the Confessor to the Mord’Sith behind her.
“We’re happy to pay, of course,” Kahlan offered in the same gentle tone. “For a meal too. My friend here is not feeling very well at the moment—“
“—You don’t have to expose my weakness to the enemy, Confessor…” Cara growled through her teeth.
Kahlan’s smile faltered and her face turned pink in front of the inn-keeper.
“—And we are looking for a place to have a little rest,” she cleared her throat, reinstating her smile.
“I’m-I’m s-s-sorry, n-no vacancies,” the woman replied, looking even more frightened than the moment before.
Sensing that the woman was lying but aware that it was not out of malice, Kahlan added in a gentle voice, as earnestly as she could,
“I promise you… We mean no trouble at all. We are merely passing through…”
For a moment, it looked as though the temptation to believe the beautiful, sincere face that pleaded at her doorstep had done its trick on the inn-keeper. The fear on the woman’s face cracked a little and turned more into doubt.
Alas, Cara’s own frustration got the better of her.
“It’s obvious that not all rooms are lit in your fully-occupied inn,” she said. “If you are lying—“
Kahlan shot the Mord’Sith a sharp, reproacful look over the shoulder, desperate to shut her up. Unfortunately, as she turned back to face the inn-keeper, the woman was already in the process of slamming the door in her face.
“Great…” Kahlan sighed.
“She was lying,” Cara said. “I know you know she was lying.”
“Yes, Cara, I could tell as much! But it was obvious that our mere presence was upsetting her, I didn’t want to make it worse. I think next time, you should just let me do the talking.”
“Fine,” Cara pursed her lips. “But just so that you know, maybe it wasn’t all my fault. Maybe you are losing your touch, Confessor.”
Kahlan scoffed and stared at Cara incredulously. The woman held her gaze defiantly, while slightly swaying on her feet.
Let it be… Kahlan told herself, half offended, half amused. Just let it be. There is no point in arguing with her when clearly it’s the pregnancy affecting her.
Pulling at the reins, she led the horse around Cara and proceeded to walk aimlessly down the street, looking for other accommodation. Cara followed after her, lips still pursed, swagger still off-beat.
Coming up to another town-house with a similar board hanging next to its door over the sidewalk, with ‘Marcus’ Marvellous Inn’ written over it, Kahlan walked up the two steps preceding the door and knocked. She briefly peered over her shoulder at Cara, half in warning, to make sure that there will be no interference this time. By the way the Mord'Sith stood off to the side with an annoyed look on her face, arms folded, the Mother Confessor was satisfied that her message was understood clearly enough.
Kahlan turned back to the door and knocked again, even more readily prepared to greet whoever opened it with the sweetest smile she could muster. However, the door remained shut. Losing confidence, Kahlan knocked on the door once again, more forcefully, more urgently this time, then stepped back and waited, her smile failing. When nothing happened, she turned back to look at Cara, who stood as before, arms crossed, unimpressed. At seeing the door unopened, though, and the Confessor looking at her with doubt in her eyes, she arched an amused eyebrow and pursed her lips in a blatantly mocking manner.
Desperate, Kahlan knocked on the door one final time but when nothing happened even now, she gave up and turned to leave. Just as she did, however, the door of the inn cracked open a little, barely enough for the whisper of a man’s voice to be heard by those outside.
Surprised, the women turned towards the voice in unison. Kahlan rushed up the two steps, right up to the door, and said,
“Psst!” the voice repeated in the hushed tone. “Madam Maryanne’s.”
“I-I don’t understand,” Kahlan replied in a whisper to match. “We are looking for a room for the night…”
“Go to ‘Madam Maryanne’s’,” the voice elaborated in a drawn out way so that Kahlan could understand more clearly. “She makes no distinction between friend or foe if the customer is paying. Four corners over from here… That way.”
A hairy, muscly hand appeared from behind the door, briefly pointing in a direction before withdrawing from sight.
Kahlan looked in the same direction and whispered,
“Long live Lord Rahl!” the voice replied, and before Kahlan could react, the door quietly clicked shut in her face.
Thrown back by what she thought she just heard, Kahlan’s face contorted into a look of disgust. She walked back towards Cara.
“He said we should go to ‘Madam Maryanne’s’, which is four corners from here,” she said. “But… I don’t trust this person. ‘Madam Maryanne’s’ sounds like a… You don’t think it’s a… a…”
“A brothel?” Cara interjected casually. “No. It sounds like the name of royal stables to me…”
“I liked you better when you didn’t have a sense of humour,” Kahlan gulped.
“Well, what can I say,” Cara smirked. “I guess I learned from the best.”
While Cara walked in the direction in which the hand had pointed them in, Kahlan led the horse by the reins. As before, she kept an eye on the Mord’Sith, knowing full well how much the woman hated it. As they walked and examined the deserted streets, they noticed that four corners over, they had entered a run-down part of the town. Here, the streets were not entirely deserted — a drunk lay here and there passed-out on the sidewalk or sat propped up against a wall, snoring bubbles at the mouth.
It was when they came across a house, a large, rather fancy-looking mansion, that stuck out among the rubble like a gaudy flower in a desert, that the women knew they had reached their destination. Lively music and shouting could be heard through the walls even from the street. Kahlan slowed her step.
“Still want to do all the talking?” Cara mocked, tilting her head to one side.
But Kahlan would not allow herself to be intimidated by a pregnant, moody Mord’Sith. With a defiant look, she handed Cara the horse’s reins, then marched up the handful of stairs that led to the mansion's wide-set mahogany doors, while the blonde trailed behind her. With so much noise going on inside the mansion however, Kahlan wondered whether her knocks would be heard at all.
Bracing herself with a deep breath, she lifted the door knocker and slammed it against its metal base three times. A few moments later, one of the doors swung open and a fairly pretty, middle-aged woman, with a big hair-do and bulging cleavage embellishing an already-embellished purple gown, appeared, smiling into the twilight. Seeing that it was two women standing at her doorstep, for a moment she raised her eyebrows in surprise and smiled more broadly. Alas, at realising which two women they were, her smile faltered and her demeanour stiffened.
Kahlan’s own smile turned a little doubtful.
“Good evening,” she said. “We are travellers passing through your town. We are seeking a meal and a room. Err… T-two rooms.”
“My dear, this is not an inn,” the woman replied in an indignant manner, concealing her fear. “We rent our rooms along with our entertainment only. Shall you ladies be needing some company tonight perhaps?”
“Of course,” Cara replied before Kahlan had a chance to answer.
Kahlan shot her a piercing look over the shoulder.
“And how shall you be paying for it?” the woman asked dubiously.
“Upfront,” the blonde replied in the same instant, showing off a handful of dulled metal coins.
Kahlan’s eyes turned large when she realised that Cara was offering all of their funds. Turning to face the Madam, however, the Confessor masked her conflict with an uneasy smile.
“Well then,” the hostess replied, the big smile returning to her face, feeling more at ease.
“Peter,” she clapped her hands, alerting someone who appeared to be standing on the other side of the door inside the mansion. “Take the ladies’ animal round the back, will you?”
Kahlan half expected this to be a call for Cara to be put away.
What is she thinking spending all of our money like this?!
Alas, when a tall, skinny young man emerged from the mansion, nodding his cap first at Kahlan, then at Cara, it was the horse he came for after all. Taking the reins from Cara, he guided the animal away from the women, turning a corner round the building, towards the stables.
“Please, come inside,” the hostess said, her smile beaming in its full megawatt capacity as she elaborately gestured towards the interior of the establishment waiting beyond the door. “Make yourselves at home… But not too at home, because, after all, you are at Madam Maryanne’s.”
Kahlan shot Cara an unimpressed, and rather peeved, look over the shoulder once again, then begrudgingly followed inside after the hostess. Cara trailed closely behind, eyes alert, even before crossing the threshold of the entrance.
Once inside, Kahlan, too, carefully scrutinised the interior of the mansion’s ground floor, which was vast and arranged like an opulent version of a tavern. She glanced over the male customers and female entertainers, all who had suddenly turned to look at Cara and her, appearing to recognise her, suddenly not knowing how to feel or behave. The small band that played in the corner of the floor ceased their music, equally as stunned by who it was that had just entered the establishment. And suddenly, silence descended over the previously lively atmosphere like a cloud of strained uncertainty. Luckily, the Madam was there to seize control and defuse the situation.
“Come ladies, have a seat at the bar. Have a drink,” she said in an exaggerated jovial spirit, ushering the women deeper into the mansion towards a pair of empty stools at the bar.
“Terry! What is your band doing?” she called out at the dumbstruck musicians. “Why have you stopped playing?! I’m not paying you to stand around doing nothing! Music, chop-chop!”
Then, while passing by a couple of men who were seated at a shared table,
“John, has your ale grown warm in your hand? I will still charge you for a new one — so you’d better drink it!”
“Dan, you are staring at my new guests as though you’ve never seen a pair of ladies before in your life, when a perfectly gorgeous lady waits right next to you, and for whom, might I remind you, you still owe me…”
Then turning to Cara and Kahlan, she whispered in confidence, “Even after begging for a discount…”
Shaking her head, the woman threw her hands in the air and pointed a knowing look at the women as though Kahlan and Cara would know all about such travesties.
But by the time they were seated at the bar, the previous rowdy atmosphere had more or less returned to the establishment, where the music resumed and the chattering picked up, although not everyone felt quite as at ease as before, with these particular newcomers around.
“Chance, see to it that the ladies get what they need, while I pop away for a moment,” the madam called out to the moustached man standing behind the bar.
She smiled at her new customers, then cascaded through the hall and disappeared up a set of stairs.
“What can I get you ladies to drink?” the bartender asked.
“Just some water, please,” Kahlan replied. “And whatever meal of the day you have available.”
She glanced over at Cara. The woman didn’t protest, which was her way of admitting that she was hungry too, trying to conceal her hand clutching at her stomach in discomfort.
“Fish soup coming right up,” the man said and slid two glasses of water over the bench towards his customers.
After he had disappeared to speak to the cook beyond a pair of swinging doors, Kahlan turned to Cara.
“I can’t believe you gave all of our money away!” she chastised, hissing through her teeth.
“I didn’t,” Cara replied in a low, calm voice, not wanting to draw any more attention to them. “I still have it.”
Despite her extreme lightheadedness, the Mord'Sith knew to keep her wits sharp about her. Looking about at their surroundings, she carefully scrutinised the faces of the clientele and workers for any questionable behaviour, alluding to possible trouble.
“Well, you’d better not spend it all on ‘entertainment’,” Kahlan seethed with an indignant expression on her face. “We still have more than two weeks to go until we reach Aydindril.”
“Why?” Cara remarked casually, turning her full attention to the Confessor now after making sure they were safe in their environment. “Are you jealous?”
For a moment, Kahlan was left obviously startled.
“Wha— No!” she dismissed the idea, though her cheeks flushed pink. “That’s not—That’s not what I meant…”
“And here is the fish soup, ladies,” the bartender returned with two large bowls, which he placed in front of his customers.
But Cara did not take her eyes off Kahlan. She observed the Confessor closely, while the other shifted in her seat uncomfortably, trying hard to appear too focussed on the bowl of soup in front of her to notice the other staring at her. And it was this uncharacteristic awkwardness, this failed attempt at appearing as casual as possible in excessively avoiding to look at the blonde next to her that reignited a genuine spark of wonder in Cara. Was there really a chance that Kahlan could be jealous, she wondered. But suddenly, like the piercing blow of a dagger, Richard’s image appeared before her eyes, with his own fierce, kind eyes that looked benevolently on her and spared her life when others wanted her dead. Cara’s ears filled with the sound of his screams as he was consumed by the Shrine’s light, while she stood by his side at the altar unable to do anything to prevent it.
The uninvited memory rattled her. She shook her head to clear the thoughts away. Even now… Richard… Richard was never too far from her mind, and no doubt Kahlan’s too, she reminded herself.
She stuffed a spoonful of fish-chunks in her mouth and endured its sour taste. She gulped it down anyway in hopes of numbing the discomfort she felt in her belly. Then she saw another pair of eyes… blue eyes… peeking at her sideways, before abruptly looking away when Cara looked up. Kahlan had noticed that Cara had become agitated and, as always, could not help herself but be concerned.
Maybe… Maybe there is something there after all, the butterflies in Cara’s stomach spoke to her, while she wished she could grab her agiels and knock the life out of them once and for all. Or maybe she is finally getting sick of having to watch over me in this embarrassing, impaired state, she tried to reason with herself. What am I saying?! The woman thrives on driving me mad with her obnoxious nurturing streak!
“Here,” Kahlan said and pushed her own bowl towards Cara.
A portion of the soup and fish-chunks were left uneaten.
“No, thanks. I have my own,” Cara replied.
She had barely gotten started on her own soup.
“It isn’t for you,” Kahlan replied curtly, still unnerved by Cara’s previous comment.
Cara shot her a begrudging look.
Of course… The baby. Of course it’s for the baby. I should have known. That's why she can't stop staring at me and that's why she does anything she does when she is worried about me.
Unnerved, Cara stuffed another spoonful into her mouth. Not only did it taste sour, it eerily tasted of resentment too, if resentment had a flavour.
Well, since the Confessor refused to ease off with her overbearing protectiveness, treating her like she was no more than her and Richard’s surrogate, there is no reason why she couldn’t retaliate in her own style, the Mord'Sith bitterly smirked to herself.
Though the soup proved to be far from a satisfying meal, she emptied both bowls quickly enough. She was surprised to find her lightheadedness clear up almost immediately and much of her strength return.
“And how was your meal?” the Madam reappeared from upstairs.
She was closely followed by a handful of dolled up women and a pair of rugged-looking but well-groomed men.
“Fine, thank you,” Kahlan replied, stiffening her back at the giddy group that eyed her and Cara as though they were candy to be sucked on.
“Wonderful. In that case, you are more than welcome to remain down here, for general entertainment and socialising,” the hostess said, waving her hand over the room, “Or you may proceed to your respective chambers for a little more private… Diversion. However… I will need that upfront payment we discussed earlier.”
At this point, Cara stood up and whispered something into the Madam’s ear. The woman appeared not quite as pleased as before.
“Suit yourself,” she replied simply and hastily took most of the coins from Cara’s hand.
Alarmed at this brief but seemingly final exchange, wondering whether Cara truly had given up all the money they had left, Kahlan stared from the Madam to the Mord’Sith, trying hard to think of a valid excuse to protest and reverse the transaction.
Seeing the Confessor so agitated, however, Cara was quick to ‘ease’ Kahlan’s mind.
“Relax,” she said, turning her back at the giggling group of escorts for the moment, raising an amused eyebrow at the woman. “Since you didn’t want me to spend all of our money, I said that we won’t be needing two rooms, after all. You don’t mind sharing, do you, Kahlan?”
Kahlan felt blood rush to her face. She tried hard to keep her expression as unaffected as possible.
“Why would I mind?” she replied in a cool tone. “It’s not like I’ve never seen you sleep before, Cara.”
“Oh, I’m not tired, Kahlan,” the Mord’Sith’s voice spilled like honey. “Since the ‘entertainment’ is obligatory, one of us might as well make the most of it and enjoy it.”
Kahlan’s face drained of colour at the remark, though she gave it her best attempt to produce an impassive smile.
“You’d be welcome to join us… If you like,” the blonde added in a smooth as silk whisper, while leaning overtly close to Kahlan, staring her pointedly in the eyes.
Stifling her own smile, she couldn’t help but feel some pleasure at succeeding in making the Confessor so obviously uncomfortable, causing her face that had turned unnaturally pale a moment ago to suddenly flush in tones of bright pink.
“Thank you, but… I will wait right here,” the Confessor replied, clearing her throat, looking everywhere else except at the dangerously close Mord’Sith, forced to use every ounce of restraint she had to not let her true feelings show.
Appearing unconcerned, Cara simply shrugged in response and turned her attention towards the hostess and the rest of their company. One by one, she looked over the men and women, while Kahlan sat there and watched with all but suspended breath. In the end, Cara chose one very handsome man, with dusty-coloured hair and a shirt open down to his extremely toned abdomen, alongside a raven-haired beauty, with a piercing blue-eyed gaze.
“Are you sure you will not be joining them…?” the Madam turned to Kahlan with a hushed voice.
Obviously uneasy, despite her best efforts, Kahlan barely managed to stammer out,
“N-no. Thank you.”
“Suit yourself, dear,” the woman shrugged her shoulders. “But do let me know if you change your mind. Won’t cost you much more for your share of the fun,” she winked.
Kahlan gulped, forcing on a disintegrating smile, and watched Cara being ushered alongside her selected companions up the stairs to the second level of the mansion.
The Mother Confessor was left alone at the bar.
Disgruntled, she asked the bartender for a glass of milk. Afraid to incite her wrath, the bartender obliged. He rushed to the kitchen and begged for milk at once.
I should’ve told them that she is pregnant… I bet that would’ve made things really interesting upstairs, Kahlan scoffed, miserably clutching at her freshly poured glass of milk. Although… In a place like this, something like that really may make things interesting… she realised, dismayed.
A woman approached her from behind, trailing light fingertips over Kahlan’s tense shoulders, trying her luck for the night, before Kahlan politely, though awkwardly, rebuffed her.
I can’t believe she spent almost all of our money so irresponsibly… So selfishly… How are we going to survive the next two weeks?! I don’t mind sleeping on the ground in the forest but what if she gets sick again and needs a proper bed?! Although, obviously, a ‘proper’ bed means something entirely different to a Mord’Sith.
The milk tasted sour. It must have gone off, she realised, staring into her blank cup, swivelling the white substance around.
She sipped it anyway.
And why would she need two companions? Isn’t one enough?! Are all Mord’Sith so… GREEDY?!
Kahlan looked at the bartender who had been sneaking glances at the obviously ill-humoured Confessor, wondering if he should be concerned about his own safety at all. When he saw her see him looking, he abruptly looked away, feigning ignorance, engrossed in polishing a glass.
I wonder what the Mord’Sith would have taught her during her training to make her want that many companions to satisfy her needs…? Though somehow… Somehow I get the feeling that this is some kind of a twisted ploy to get back at me… To get back at me for worrying over her and taking care of her, since CLEARLY, she isn’t capable. Pfft! So ungrateful… And selfish! Although… Maybe I have gone a little overboard with it… I mean, I know I’ve been a little on edge lately, ever since… Well… Since the Shrine. I can imagine that to a Mord’Sith, let alone a Mord’Sith like Cara, someone genuinely caring for them, and the well-being of their baby… Our baby… Would feel overwhelming. On the other hand… Maybe she really is trying to tempt me… To see whether I might give in to her advances.
Spirits, Kahlan closed her eyes, If she only knew that she doesn't need to try that hard… But, oh Richard… Richard…
The Confessor became overwhelmed by guilt and sorrow.
I am so sorry, my love… I haven’t forgotten you, I promise!
She bowed her head, breathing heavily and clutched at her glass, threatening to spill it.
I can’t do this… It isn’t fair. Not to Richard… And not to Cara.
Sighing deeply, taking a few moments to clear her head, Kahlan looked about herself at all other people in the hall. It was obvious that the most common type of client this place attracted were older rich men. Young pretty things threw themselves at them, while the fat-faced men drank, gambled, jested and grabbed at their body parts. A few of them looked Kahlan’s way. It made her feel unsettled. Not having Cara there to keep an eye on made her feel even more unsettled.
If any trouble breaks out, we are twice as vulnerable being apart, she realised.
And how would she know if something were to happen to Cara? Not that Cara couldn't handle herself, but a niggling feeling, the same one that blamed her for letting Richard, the Seeker, down, would not let her rest. More than once, she caught a suspicious pair of eyes subtly looking her way, and secretive whispers being exchanged. By this point, Kahlan felt more than restless. She had to deliberately keep herself calm, to appear unfazed. By then, the bad feeling that had been building up inside of her was unmissable. She was beginning to think that remaining in Ashford for the night was a bad idea… And coming to stay at the brothel was a big mistake.
Leaving her milk unfinished, Kahlan darted from the wooden stool and marched in the direction of the stairs.
Cara will just have to understand. It isn’t safe here. We should leave immediately…
“Oh, you have changed your mind, I see!” the Madam nearly tripped up on Kahlan on her way downstairs.
“Where is she?” Kahlan demanded.
“Your friend? Just behind that door, there,” the woman replied, pointing.
Kahlan rushed in the same direction, ready to tear down the door. However, hand on the door-handle, she faltered.
What if… What if they are all naked in there? What if Cara is doing… something…
However, the urge that brought her there in the first place pressed her harder where she dismissed such possibilities as unimportant. Bracing herself, she pressed on the door-handle and forced open the door. And as she did, she saw… The young dark-haired girl in the nude, wrapped in a bed sheet. At first, she sat on the edge of the large bed in the centre of the room, then, at seeing the door open, rushed past Kahlan into the hallway, leaving her clothes behind, while the man, shirtless, sat on the opposite side of the bed, fighting a fierce battle with his gagging reflex. In another moment, he too flew out of the room, flinging the door shut behind himself. It was only then that Kahlan noticed the source of the commotion:
Cara, in the corner of the room, kneeling down on the ground, retching violently into a bucket.
Kahlan rushed to the girl and kneeled beside her, letting her know that she was there. With one hand, she reached for blond tresses to keep them out of the way, while with the other she rubbed at the sick girl’s back, trying to comfort her. Alas, Cara’s uncontrollable heaving carried on for some time longer.
When it finally seemed to ease up, the girl sat back on the floor, exhausted, leaning against the side of the bed, bucket between her legs in case she needed it again.
Looking at the messy face with strands of hair stuck across it, Kahlan noticed how red from effort Cara’s eyes had become, while her usually plump pink lips had turned paler than she had ever seen them. Seeing the usually robust, proud Mord’Sith reduced to such a sloppy, feeble sight, Kahlan’s heart filled with great sympathy and concern for the girl, overriding all other fears and bothers that had been bugging her. Pulling a bed-sheet off the bed, using it as a cloth, in one sweeping movement she wiped clean one side of Cara’s face, then the other, as though the woman were a child.
“Why are you here?” the blonde croaked in a hoarse voice, royally pissed off that her awful dinner was endured for nothing, that her night of enjoyment was completely ruined, and that not only did Kahlan get to see all that but was, once again, needed to look after her.
“I thought you said you wanted me to join in all the fun,” Kahlan deadpanned, then smiled softly.
Cara smirked, despite herself. The longer she looked at Kahlan, the more her expression eased into a one-sided smile, and the more her irritation lifted. And suddenly, with all that the women had experienced together, with all that they had endured side-by-side over the past year together, despite the awful smell of half digested fish-chunks nearby, they were both glad that Kahlan was there after all.
Kahlan discarded the soiled bed-sheet to the side and reached to hold Cara’s face with her bare hands, feeling the slightly sticky but smooth skin beneath her fingers. She saw beyond the mess, beyond the standoffish demeanour, into the heart of things, into the green of Cara’s eyes, where, as she was beginning to realise, she will be caught forever. She moved the thumb of one hand against the girl’s cheekbone, then the entire hand, gently stroking the cheek, pushing strands of blond hair behind an ear, and watched as the woman’s eyes cleared, equally caught within her own, her entire presence shifting disarmed into that of an innocent child, of an uncertain youth, whose heart beat fast at what should have been an insurmountable touch of the one they love and wanted more than anything, loving them back. Kahlan’s own heart picked up pace and her fingers began to tremble, preluding to the state of her lips. She was not quite certain of what she was doing, not quite sure that this was the right thing to do at all, but she felt it… And now she couldn’t stop.
But before they could move any closer towards one another, before their hearts’ desire could be fulfilled, the door of the room burst wide open and into the room entered six large men, armed to the teeth. They preceded a young woman, dressed in a heavy black velvet gown fit for a royal court, with bearing to match it.
Kahlan jumped to her feet and helped the struggling Mord’Sith stand up.
“So, it’s true. The Mother Confessor dares to show her face in Ashford,” the woman said, repulsed at the sight of the woman in white standing before her. “Not a wise move, Kahlan Amnell. Not a wise move at all.”
Cara moved her hands over her agiels, preparing herself for whatever was to come. The woman’s vigilant gaze switched from Kahlan to Cara, when suddenly, her features froze in astonishment at the realisation of who it was she was looking at.
“You…” she whispered, “I know you…”
Cara stared back, trying hard to conceal how unsteady on her feet she felt.
“I saw you… I know what you did…”
The Mord'Sith cocked her head and narrowed her eyes at the woman.
“You killed him…” the woman’s astonished breaths filled her words, as though recalling a distant memory or some kind of dream. “It was you I saw… I saw your face, I watched you kill him! You killed the Seeker! You killed Richard Cypher!”
Kahlan and Cara exchanged alarmed looks. They stared at the woman horrorstricken, virtually mute from shock.
How could she possibly know about what happened at the Shrine?
But there was no time to answer that question. There was no time to think.
“Guards!” the young woman commanded in an enraged voice, her eyes fixed on the duo. “Arrest them both and throw them in the dungeon!”
"Stop right there!" the Mother Confessor held up her hand in warning.
The guards halted.
Cara drew her agiels and assumed an en-guard stance. The ferocious look in her eyes masked her frail condition.
"What is the meaning of this?" Madam Maryanne appeared at the door, scowling at the woman dressed in black. "These women are my customers! How do you expect me to run a business with you bursting in like this, scaring them away? Your father might have been the Mayor of Ashford but that does not make you one yet, Amaya!"
"It is 'Mayor Lavin' to you,” the young woman's voice was hard while her sight never wavered from her two targets, “Since I AM the Mayor of Ashford until a new one is officially elected. You should be grateful I am not here to arrest you too for harbouring criminals. My father had overlooked your treasonous ways for far too long… But make no mistake — I am not him."
The hostess gulped and shrunk back.
"I am the Mother Confessor!" Kahlan cried out. "The town of Ashford falls under Aydindril's dominion. You don't have the authority to arrest me!"
"After what you've done, the council of Ashford and its people no longer recognise your authority, Kahlan Amnell," the woman replied with practiced command. "Not as the Mother Confessor, and not as a Confessor at all."
"On what premise?" Kahlan demanded.
"On the premise of the despicable crimes you've committed against the people of Ashford,” the woman replied. “You abused your power of confession in the most disgusting, self-serving way against an entire town, sacrificing lives, tearing entire families apart. And for that,” her voice turned low, “You will be held entirely accountable.”
Kahlan was astonished.
"I have done no such thing!" she protested, taking a defensive step forward. "I haven't been here in over two years, how could I have possibly done anything to the people here?!”
"Oh, please," Amaya scoffed in disgust. "Are you really going to stoop so low? Do you really think that you'll be able to prove your innocence by feigning ignorance?!"
"I AM innocent," Kahlan stood her ground, enraged. “If you would just let me explain for a moment, you would see—"
"Save it for the trial," the Mayor waved her hand dismissively. "Not that a trial is really necessary since we have hundreds of witnesses against you..."
"Hundreds...?" Kahlan whispered in a state of utter bewilderment.
"But since we do things right in Ashford," Amaya added, "I will, of course, honour my father's memory by sticking to the protocol. You will receive a fair trial, even though you may not deserve one. But know this, Kahlan Amnell: One way or another, you will answer for your despicable treachery. And if found guilty — which you will be — you will pay with your life."
The woman shifted her razor-sharp gaze to her.
"Don't even get me started with you," she snapped. "If there is any justice in the world, you will both burn at the pyre by the week's end, alive!”
"That sounds cozy…” Cara retorted. "So much so that you might even like to join us. Of course, you will have to catch us first."
"Guards!" the Mayor called out, enraged. "Seize them! One way or another, I want them compliant!"
Swords drawn, the guards filled the room with their large frames as they advanced towards Kahlan and Cara. The women stood cornered, restricted by the large bed that took up much of the room. Kahlan unsheathed the Sword of Truth from its scabbard at her waist, handling it with both hands, while Cara relied on her extended agiels for balance, trying hard to compensate for the dizziness and weakness in her limbs that threatened to make her easy game.
When the first pair of guards moved in on them, swiping with their swords, threatening to disarm, wound or even kill them, the women retaliated in their own right. Dodging the sword aimed at her, with a single touch of her agiels Cara paralysed the force of a man whose objective was to cut her down enough to obey, throwing him into a fit of agony. At the same time, Kahlan evaded the other guard's attack with swift moves, skilfully blocking his sword with the Seeker's, in the next moment cutting into his shoulder enough to make him drop his weapon and back off. And before another guard had had a chance to step in and assume the wounded man's place, the Confessor had already armed herself with a second sword.
It was fortunate for the pair that the room was not very big and that the guards were equally as restricted, forced to take turns in fighting them. Thus, one by one, despite the men's power, skill and sheer size, each one being almost twice the size of Kahlan or Cara, against all odds the Mother Confessor and the Mord'Sith were able to hold their ground. Moreover, aware of Cara's vulnerable state, Kahlan took a protective step forward, and withstood the bulk of the battle, drawing attention to herself on purpose, giving the Mord'Sith a chance to better protect herself and the baby.
The Mayor watched in dismay as the raven-haired woman in a floating white dress suddenly turned into a two-sworded fury unlike anything she had ever seen. This tornado of hair, cloth and blade, was able to disarm, one by one, the advancing guards that proved to be utterly unprepared for her calibre of skill and experience in battle, without seriously wounding any one of them, until there were only two left standing.
"Shameful! Utterly shameful!" the Mayor condemned her troop, infuriated by their losses against Kahlan. "The six of you... Against two women! And you are utterly failing... Seize them at once or consider yourselves as good as banned from service! Dead or alive, I want them both disarmed!"
Embarrassed by the Mayor's reproach, the two remaining guards took this as permission to play dirtier than their predecessors. So when one of them attempted his sword against the woman in white but missed, having the weapon beaten out of his hand and instead received the points of two swords directed at his neck, he decided to take his chances in attempting a different approach altogether. It was obvious to him and everyone else in the room that she could have easily killed him by now, or any one of his comrades for that matter, but chose not to. He understood that for some reason or another, the woman had deliberately avoided mortally wounding them… And in this he spotted a weakness.
Ignoring the two swords drawn at him in warning, the man took a leap of faith and flung himself full-weight at Kahlan, aiming to knock her off balance. Having no real choice but to lower her weapons or kill him on the spot and risk being accused of his murder on top of everything else she was already accused of, Kahlan was forced into a corner of the room while he wrestled her, grabbing fistfuls of her hair. Fortunately, Kahlan was not so easily affected. She may have spared his life from the fate of her swords but this did not mean that she had entirely forfeited the right to defend herself.
Abandoning the Sword of Truth to the ground, freeing her right hand, Kahlan wrapped her fingers around the man's neck. Glaring down into a sudden abyss of fear within his brown eyes, on the very verge of turning him into her slave for as long as she lived, she held back by a single thread of doubt, wondering whether this too could be used against her, further fuelling the Mayor's accusations and ultimately, jeopardising her chances of proving her innocence. A part of her was tempted to go ahead and take whatever repercussions followed, alas... With Cara being accused too, all while pregnant and in such a fragile state... Kahlan simply could not bring herself to take this chance. Unfortunately, before she could fully realise her decision, the choice was taken away from her altogether.
While Kahlan fought her side of the battle, Cara struggled more and more to maintain hers. The final free-standing guard had realised that it was her the Mother Confessor was trying to protect, and that the Mord'Sith was not as composed as she had tried to make herself out to be.
The guard shifted his attention entirely on Cara.
He lunged at her with all of the strength and skill he had in him, and over and over forced Cara to dodge the slicing of his sword a little too closely, a little too narrowly, for her liking. Breaking out into uncharacteristic perspiration, her vision turned foggy while she struggled to keep her reflexes sharp. The agiels themselves seemed to have grown heavier than what she had remembered them to be, and the pain of holding them in her hands, more alike the fresh pain from the early days of her training, distracting her, interfering. But worst of all, by far worst of all, her focus wavered heavily... Because all she could think was:
Is this harming the baby?!
As much as Cara loathed it when Kahlan reminded her of the fact that she is pregnant, now that the child could be in danger, a gear within her shifted, where suddenly, she saw everything in a different light. Her own safety, in battle or otherwise, was of far lesser consequence than before, of no importance at all, had the child's life not directly depended on her own. It was then that she realised the importance of his life, this unborn life that in the grander scheme of things mattered more than hers, although to her, never more than Kahlan's. After all, all that Kahlan held dear, all of her hope, now rested in Cara's belly. It was a spark of Kahlan herself, as well as the final spark of the Seeker that she was protecting. But more than anything, Cara knew that Kahlan herself would be no more if the child were to die. There could be no Mother Confessor should the line of all Confessors come to an end. Kahlan Amnell’s spirit would break and ultimately perish under this grief. Therefore, if protecting the child was this crucial to Kahlan's existence, it was of utmost importance to Cara too. What this meant now, however, was that Cara suddenly found herself much less prone to making risky moves, being especially protective of her stomach, feeling much more restricted, more impaired than ever... Feeling, for the first time since becoming a Mord’Sith, afraid. And whether it was this fear that crippled her, or whether it really was the physical weakness catching up to a body turned feeble from exhaustion and lack of proper nourishment, in one moment while defending herself against the frenzied armed man, Cara faltered... She faltered as she swung the stinging agiel at the guard… And she missed.
Seeing his one chance where the Mord'Sith had left a vulnerable spot open, the man was filled with a renewed surge of energy. He swung his sword hard, partially striking Cara's forearm, slicing into it, drawing blood, and caused her to drop the burning agiel and recoil. A dull blow to her other arm, and she dropped her second weapon too. A vicious backhanded blow across the face, and the woman fell back, seeing stars, even before having been struck. It all happened so fast, in no more than the same instant when Kahlan had managed to wrap her hand around her own attacker’s neck, that by the time the Confessor was about to pull her bluff and threaten the Mayor out loud that she would confess the guard, she found the young woman in black threatening her instead.
"Release my guard, or your Mord'Sith gets it."
Horrorstricken, Kahlan looked behind her to see Cara on her knees, disarmed, bleeding at the mouth, clutching at her wounded arm, with a sword pointed at her neck. She appeared to be holding onto consciousness by a thread.
Demobilised by fear, Kahlan immediately released the guard, holding out her hands on either side of her body, defenceless. The guard who feared her only a moment ago, grappled with his badly bruised ego and backhanded her across the face, provoking an angry welt across her cheekbone. Kahlan withstood it without flinching.
"Please," she turned to the Mayor, her voice close to crumbling, "Don't hurt her. She’s—“
But something intuitive called Kahlan’s attention away. She looked back at Cara.
The blonde looked up at her with swimmy eyes. She meekly shook her head.
“…She’s unwell," was all that Kahlan said.
She bowed her head.
"I will do whatever you want."
She didn't bother trying to conceal her apprehension. She was too aware that she had already given herself away.
"So... You surrender?" Amaya asked, taking an encouraged step towards her.
Taking a deep breath in, Kahlan closed her eyes.
"I do," she conceded. "Just... Don't hurt her."
With a half-hearted attempt at appearing inconspicuous, aware that she had already miserably failed at it, she peered over at Cara, desperate to make sure that she and the baby were alright.
Amaya looked from Confessor to Mord'Sith, from Mord'Sith to Confessor. She narrowed her eyes.
"How can I be sure that you will not try to kill or confess any of my men?" she asked suspiciously.
"You have my word," Kahlan replied, straightening her back.
"Your word is not worth much these days," Amaya scoffed. “No. We'll have to do this the safe way. Place your hands behind your back."
A little reluctantly, Kahlan complied.
Turning to the guards, the Mayor ordered,
"Tie her up."
A guard produced rope from a pouch at his belt and passed it to the one who had hit Kahlan across the face. The man roughly seized Kahlan's wrists and twisted the rope tightly about them, grating at her flesh, while she stood perfectly still, barely affected by the pain of it, so paralysed was she by the sight of Cara kneeling on the ground, threatened with the point of a sword.
The Mayor walked up to her. Intrusively, she stuck her face in Kahlan's, the tone of her voice a warning in itself.
"Resist even a little, pull any tricks or harm any of my men one more time, and I will personally see to it that your Mord'Sith never stands on her feet again."
Though Kahlan looked the woman defiantly in the eyes, her heart shrank at the threat. For a moment that seemed to last far longer than it actually did, Kahlan withstood the Mayor's gaze of contempt. Only when the woman eventually backed away from her did Kahlan shift her gaze towards the blonde on the ground once again, her brow knotted in concern.
A memory flashed in her mind, a gut-wrenching reminder, of Richard, helplessly tied up at the Shrine's pillar, moments before he was sacrificed. Seeing Cara now in a similar position disturbed Kahlan more than she would or could ever admit. It took a great deal of resolve on her part to keep herself from showing the effects of this, of enduring the agonising sight of what used to be vibrant green eyes, now meekly gazing back at her, filled with sorrow of their own, barely able to keep from closing, triggering her to the darkest corners of her mind.
Kahlan bowed her head. Her heart beat so fast, it threatened to shatter into pieces.
I failed him... I failed him and now, I have failed her too...
"What should we do with their weapons, Mayor Lavin?" a guard asked.
"Bring the sword to me," Amaya replied. "Dispose of the agiels."
The guards forced Cara to stand up while Kahlan looked on helplessly. The Mord'Sith wobbled on her feet when forced to turn around to have her wrists bound.
A guard attempted to pick up an agiel only to have it burn his hand and leave him momentarily crippled with agony. Recoiling, grabbing at his wrist in distress, the guard spat at Cara's feet. Cursing, he kicked both agiels under the bed, then bit his lip from the pain induced on his foot.
Amaya rolled her eyes. She waited while another guard delivered the Sword of Truth to her.
Examining the sword from hilt to point, the woman released a gasp of astonishment. She had recognised the sword, Kahlan realised. With the best impassive expression she could muster under the conditions, she regarded the Mayor carefully. But seeing the Sword of Truth in a stranger's hands, a stranger who wished to harm her and the only person she had left in the world, a new kind of strength awoke in Kahlan. She could not, would not, allow Cara to share Richard’s fate. No matter what it took, be it her own life, she would find a way to save Cara and the baby.
"This... This is the Seeker's sword..." Mayor Lavin said, pointing a scornful, accusatory stare at Kahlan. "You took it for yourself... After you had your Mord'Sith murder him!”
"I've done no such thing," Kahlan replied calmly.
"Are you really as disgusting as this that you would betray, then murder the Seeker, our fighter for freedom, our one true hero, for your own corrupt purposes?!" the woman hissed, rage burning in her eyes. "You will pay for every single thing you've done and every single life you've damaged!"
Kahlan said nothing. She held her head high. She knew there was no point in saying anything to a person that was not prepared to listen. At this stage, as long as Cara and the baby were alright, she could handle anything that was thrown at her. She would save her energy for the real battle - the trial.
"I will have you thrown in the dungeon!" Amaya's voice bellowed with scorn when she failed to incite a response from the Confessor.
When Kahlan still said nothing, the woman turned on her heels, and left the room with the Sword of Truth in her hands. The gloating guards shoved and pushed Kahlan and Cara in the same direction, down the stairs of the brothel, forcing them to follow after her, onto the street.
Walking through the streets towards the town palace, Kahlan deliberately walked behind Cara, wanting to keep an eye on her and make sure that the woman did not faint. Whereas the streets were deserted only hours ago, they were now filled with people, even though it must have been close to midnight. People of various ranks and ages, and even children, wanted to see this treacherous Mother Confessor and her Mord'Sith being forced to face justice. While before they'd fearfully shrink away at the sight of the pair, running from the streets, bolting their doors shut, pulling the blinds over their windows, seeing the two women disarmed and so harmless now, even the most cowardly of residents turned more courageous, shouting foul words, sneering at the women whose hands were bound. Cara was too limp to care either way. She barely had enough energy to keep walking and keep herself from dropping to the ground, while Kahlan was kept too distracted by the blonde's faltering steps to look anywhere else.
At the entrance to the palace, the Mayor was greeted by officials who stepped aside, allowing her, the guards and their prisoners to pass through the gates. Among them stood a hooded figure, its face obscured, looking less formal than the others based on the appearance of its mantle, and yet, in a way, appearing more familiar with the Mayor, with whom it seemed to exchange a longer look. The figure peered at Kahlan and Cara curiously as the two were ushered through the entrance, while they remained ignorant of the pair of grey eyes that carefully watched them.
Once inside the palace, Amaya waved her hand dismissively at the guards, signalling that their captives should be taken straight to the dungeon, while she and the officials proceeded into the main hall. Shoving the Mother Confessor and the Mord'Sith in an unexpected direction, the guards steered them down a long and narrow passage that seemed to be taking them beneath the modest palace, turning dimmer and darker with each step. But as they walked, a shadow followed after them, its steps silent, its countenance unknown. A niggling feeling sprung in the back of Kahlan's mind, though the woman was too preoccupied to notice it right away. It wasn't until Cara, herself, noticed it as well, despite her impaired state of being. She turned to look over her shoulder and made it known to the Confessor that she, too, should look behind. And once she did, Kahlan saw it: the same hooded figure, its face concealed, trailing some way behind them, silent to all but those who knew to listen to more than sound.
A curious but uneasy knot tightened within Kahlan's belly. She turned on her guard even more than before.
Once they arrived to the dungeon, a guard unlocked a heavy door made entirely of crossed iron bars. Another guard pushed Cara then Kahlan into the cell and locked the door shut behind them. Kahlan noticed that their cell, like the rest of the cells in the prison-like area, was separated from the others by the same type of iron bars and that the entire area looked not too much different to stables, with straw scattered over icy-cold stone ground between puddles of leaked water and waste. The area was dim except for the light of a few torches that hung on the wall opposite of the cells, securely out of the prisoners' reach. There must've been another prison beyond the dungeon, Kahlan concluded, since no other prisoners appeared to be contained in this one.
When the guards finally left, jesting and slapping each other on the shoulder for a job well done against a Confessor and a Mord'Sith, Kahlan turned to Cara.
"Cara, are you alright?" she said breathlessly, at last letting her guard down and her true emotions show. "How badly are you hurt?"
"I'm fine," Cara mumbled.
"Your arm... You're bleeding," Kahlan frowned.
"It's just a scratch," Cara feebly protested, turning away.
By the way she staggered about the cell, it was obvious that she desperately needed to sit down.
"Here, sit here on the hay," Kahlan suggested.
Dragging with her foot, she amassed a larger pile of straw. Cara complied out of necessity.
"You'll have to help me untie my hands before I can do anything else to help you," Kahlan said.
Kahlan sat down directly behind the Mord’Sith, positioning her back closely against the other's so that the blonde could work at the rope on her wrists.
After some effort and frustration at her own weakness, perspiration breaking over her brow as she struggled with her fingers, Cara was at last able to manipulate the tight knots into loosening and Kahlan's hands came free. On the spot, the Confessor turned to the rope on Cara's wrists, and in a few moments, the Mord'Sith's hands were freed too.
While Cara rubbed at her own wrists, Kahlan turned to examine her, wanting to make sure she wasn't hurt too badly. The shimmery spot of blood where the guard had delivered a blow to Cara's face, bruising it, splitting her lip, was the first place to draw Kahlan's attention. Lightly handling Cara’s chin, she turned the Mord'Sith's face one way then the other, flinching at the closer inspection of it.
"We need to get some water to clean the cut," she said, more bothered by the injury than Cara herself.
While the woman kneeled in front of her, fussing over her, Cara stared ahead with empty eyes, her expression, an impassive, spiritless mask.
"You were right," she said suddenly, her voice low, meek.
"About what?" Kahlan mumbled, too focused at the small slit of blood to pay proper attention.
"I should have eaten the food you'd save for me…” she admitted through a slow exhalation. “And I should've drunk the tea.”
The words contained a tinge of sadness, rare in expression by the Mord'Sith.
Kahlan's eyes shifted from the wound on Cara's lip to her eyes.
"I am sorry," the blonde added briefly, before looking away, concealing the depth of her own self-loathing.
"Oh..." Kahlan's eyelids fluttered. “Cara…”
The woman's uncharacteristic melancholy had struck Kahlan all at once. Her heart ached at seeing the Mord'Sith in such a state. She sought to meet Cara’s gaze, to comfort her, to reassure her somehow, but the blonde would not reciprocate. With the threat of tears at her doorstep, Cara knew that one pitiful look from Kahlan could tip her over the edge, and she would rather die than allow that. But Kahlan, sensing a great disturbance in her companion, seeing her so sad, so unusually beaten down, gently reached out with both hands and placed a reassuring grip over Cara’s shoulders.
“It’s alright…” she whispered, breath escaping through parted lips.
But Cara tilted her head so that tresses of filthy blond hair concealed most of her face and turned further away.
Under any other circumstances Kahlan might have said 'I told you so', perhaps a little too happily at the chance of putting the stubborn Mord’Sith in her place, but now... seeing Cara so wistful, hurting, Kahlan's heart just about broke in two. She couldn't bring herself to do anything but tug at the woman’s shoulders and draw her into her embrace.
"I was so worried that they would really hurt you..." she whispered next to the other’s ear before her voice buckled.
At first, Cara limply withstood the embrace, but after a few moments, she lifted her bleeding arm and wrapped it about the Confessor's back.
Kahlan pressed her cheek into blond hair. She closed her eyes… and inhaled.
The surge of emotion that overcame her now that Cara was finally safe in her arms was not something the Mother Confessor was prepared for. Tears stung her own eyes. She held onto Cara, tight, her breath full of the scent that hid deep within the blond tresses, beneath the soot and specks of blood.
"Don't worry," the Mord'Sith replied in a low, resigned voice, oblivious. "The baby is safe. That is the most important thing.”
It was in that moment that Kahlan realised just how clueless the Mord'Sith was about her feelings for her. Not that she could be entirely blamed for it though… Since Kahlan had rebuffed her after that kiss. But perhaps... Perhaps it was time to tell her the truth. It might be a little too soon still but they had no one else in the world apart from each other… And after all they had been through together, Kahlan was finally clear on the fact that Cara meant everything to her.
Letting go of the woman, Kahlan sat back on her heels in the straw and looked down at her lap. She allowed her hands to fall free and rest over her knees, palms-up, empty.
She withdrew into herself for a moment and thought deeply.
When she next looked up, her cheeks were a little flushed and her lips reddened, fuller. She had been biting at them.
Cara regarded her briefly then moved on to gazing at the flickering torch on the far wall.
Kahlan's eyes hovered over Cara's features uncertainly, while she mustered up her courage for what she needed to do. Her gaze flickered from the pale bloodied lips, pressed into a tense line with a spot of red in the corner, to the sad green eyes that stared off to the side, away from her.
No, she doesn't know… She couldn’t know…
A little hesitantly, a little shyly, hot blood rushing to her head as she dared to do so, Kahlan reached for Cara's face with both hands, turning it towards her, forcing her to look at her. Inches away from each other, Cara meekly shifted her eyes to the blue ones that appeared very dark in the dimness of the cell. Unfortunately, in this situation she was too weak to feel anything other than her own physical discomfort and her own inner-turmoil, both of which she had been trying hard to contain. And as the faintest of groans escaped her while Kahlan cradled her face, and she very slightly shifted in the spot from discomfort of her stinging wounds, Kahlan suddenly realised that the Mord'Sith was not as well as she had pretended to be.
In the same instant she let go of the girl’s face, recoiling in shame at the single-mindedness of her own feelings while Cara was clearly in no state for anything other than enduring the pain she was so clearly in.
"I'm sorry... I..." Kahlan mumbled, dismissing herself.
Feeling embarrassed, she looked about herself awkwardly, before shifting gears.
"Here, let me take a look at this."
She reached for the hand that Cara had attempted to keep behind her back. Despite mild resistance from the blonde, she managed to force it out into the dim light of the torch-light long enough to see that the cut on her arm was no mere cut, but an open gash that dribbled blood. However, as she held onto Cara’s hand, Kahlan also noticed that it trembled, noticeably so, not quite like anything she had seen on the Mord’Sith before. She turned the hand face-up and was horrified to see that Cara’s entire palm was streaked with dark vein-like marks. She reached for her other hand and saw the same thing. Cara’s body was changing and the agiels were already having their effect on her.
"You didn't say you were hurt this badly..." Kahlan frowned at her.
Cara made no reply. She looked away.
"Cara, I swear to the Spirits, you will be the death of me! You need to learn to speak up when you are hurt and need help!"
Cara closed her eyes. She took a deep breath in, then exhaled. Even though she was sitting down, the sensation of lightheadedness pulled at her and the world began to spin around her. She had to fight in order to keep herself seated upright.
Kahlan noticed this and remembered the extent of the girl's struggles. Her demeanour softened.
"Hey..." she called out gently and placed a tender hand on the girl's cheek.
Cara opened her eyes and looked at her as though from a great distance.
"There is no shame in asking for help when you need it," Kahlan said, her voice full of compassion. "I know the Mord'Sith taught you differently, but I am your family now, and... You are mine. There is nothing that you couldn't ask from me."
Cara looked at Kahlan in silence. The longer she looked the more her eyes turned damp.
"Here..." Kahlan sat back in the hay once again and tore a couple of strips of cloth from her dress's long sleeves. "We need to stop the bleeding."
Pressing a thick wad of fabric over the gash on Cara's forearm, gently but firmly she wrapped the second strip around it, over and over.
"It seems that this is nothing new for you and me..." she said smiling, and looked up sideways into Cara's eyes.
Cara remembered the time when Kahlan had taken care of her when she was hit by the arrow and had come close to bleeding out. An image of Kahlan's radiating face from the following morning crossed her mind.
For a moment, Kahlan thought she saw a small smile pass over Cara's lips… But she didn’t hold her breath. She was just glad that Cara was hopefully beginning to see that they truly are a team… And that as such, they needed to take care of each other.
When she had finished wrapping the bandages, Kahlan shifted her attention to Cara’s blackened palms. She wondered about the best way to help soothe them.
"Can you feel this?" she asked.
With light fingertips, she traced over the inside of her hands.
The scowl on the woman's face was indication enough that her palms felt raw. Kahlan flinched in sympathy. She tore two more strips from her sleeves and carefully, and so very gently, wrapped them about the Mord'Sith's hands.
"There," the Mother Confessor said softly. "You are all done now."
"Thank you... Kahlan," Cara replied.
Kahlan nodded. Her eyes lingered over the other's features as though remembering a dream. Alas, as Cara's stomach made a loud rumbling noise, and she involuntarily clutched at it in discomfort, Kahlan was once again snatched from her reverie, forced to focus on the harsh circumstances of their reality.
"We need to get you something to eat," she said with a sudden urgency.
"I'll be fi—" Cara tried to protest.
"—Don't you dare say that! Haven't you learned anything?! You need to eat. You need to take care of yourself, Cara."
Cara bowed her head in disgruntled concession.
Kahlan looked about the dungeon trying to see whether she could spot anything or anyone that could be of any use to them. But there was nothing. There was no one. She stood up from their resting spot and walked over to the gate. Wrapping her hands around the icy iron bars, she tried to peer beyond the corner of the entrance, trying to see whether there were any guards nearby with whom she could negotiate. Alas, if there were any, she could not see them. For a moment, she considered calling out, to see whether anyone might hear her and answer, so that she could ask for some food and water for her friend, but in the end decided against it. She didn't trust those guards... And she didn't want to draw unwanted attention to them while Cara was still so weak. Instead, she returned to the spot next to the blonde and sat down. Someone will have to come for them sooner or later. She will try her luck then.
"The guards are never there when you need them," Cara smirked.
Kahlan made no reply. She looked troubled.
"If we could get one of them in here alone," Cara continued, "At least close enough for you to reach him, you could confess him and order him to free us but to never reveal it to anyone. That way nobody will ever know that you confessed him."
"Somehow I don't think that will help our greater cause," Kahlan shook her head. "Unless we plan on being fugitives for the rest of our lives. The Mayor will easily track us down in Aydindril and demand justice for whatever Nicci did disguised as me."
"What do you suggest we should do then?" Cara raised a sceptical eyebrow.
"I don't think we have much choice but to see this through to the end. I think we have to play it by the Mayor's rules," Kahlan replied. She aimlessly stared at the dungeon’s stone walls and all the iron bars that separated them from it. "I think if we appeal to her reason at the trial, and explain everything, surely—"
"—Somehow I don't think this Mayor is in the right frame of mind to be reasoned with," Cara interrupted. "I don't think 'appealing to her reason' will work favourably for us, if we want to make it out of here alive. I still think our best chance is for you to confess a guard and get him to help us escape to Aydindril. Once we are there, it will be easier to stand our ground against this Aniyah Larin, Lapin... Leprechaun..."
"Lavin," Kahlan corrected.
"Whatever," Cara growled.
"I can't do that, Cara," Kahlan shook her head once more. "I can't use confession for personal gain. That's exactly what Rahl and Nicci would have done. If I do it too, I'm no better than them. Besides, if the Mayor follows us to Aydindril and accuses me of confessing a guard in order to escape the trial at Ashford, I will be forced to answer to the Confessors' council in Aydindril too. And then the council will force me to stand trial in Ashford as well, until my innocence is proven. A Confessor's actions has great implications..."
She bowed her head.
"Our gift” she added wistfully, "Comes with great responsibility".
"Can't use the power of confession to help yourself... Can't take a lover you actually like... Sounds like your kind really got the stiff end of the deal."
Cara pointed a sideways glance at Kahlan.
Kahlan looked at her, then smiled to herself. She blushed a little.
"Well..." she said, locking eyes with Cara’s. "You were right about one thing..."
Cara's gaze drifted from Kahlan's eyes, to her parted lips.
Kahlan held her breath and a beat passed...
Cara raised her eyebrows, expectant.
"...Madam Maryanne's really is the royal stables," Kahlan said and waved her hand over their straw-filled surroundings.
She cleared her throat.
For a moment Cara stared at Kahlan with a blank look on her face... Before her face began to shift into a strangest, almost contorted expression Kahlan had ever seen, one that at the very end settled into something she had witnessed on the Mord'Sith only once before:
A genuine smile. Followed by a giggle.
Astonished, Kahlan stared at the phenomenon wide-eyed, before cracking into a smile herself, hardly able to believe that she was able to entice this response from the Mord'Sith.
Cara noticed the Confessor's amazement and abruptly looked away, feeling self-conscious. But it was too late. Kahlan would get to keep and treasure this memory forever.
Alas, their minute moment of happiness was exactly that, because in the next moment, a sound of footsteps approaching invaded their bubble and put them both on alert. With a feeling of foreboding, their eyes turned to the same direction from which they had entered the dungeon. They listened apprehensively as the heavy footsteps grew louder and harsher, moments before a shadow emerged from the arched passage, and grew longer and more opaque.
The women simultaneously stood up, Cara struggling.
Passing through the arched entrance of the dungeon, a guard appeared. The women recognised him as the same guard that had needlessly struck Kahlan across the face after she had surrendered. He came by the gate of their cell and turned towards them.
"As ordered by Mayor Lavin," he stated in a loud, authoritative voice, "You are, hereby, officially being notified of the commencement of your trial, which will be at noon tomorrow."
Kahlan rushed towards the gate of their cell.
"Received and accepted,” she said. “You can tell the Mayor that we accept the terms of the trial.”
But as the guard nodded and turned to leave, Kahlan clutched at the iron bars and pleaded in earnest.
"Only please… My friend, she is hurt... We need some clean bandages, some water... And-and food..."
Cara rolled her eyes.
"I was not sent here to be your servant, Confessor," the man brushed her off and turned to leave once again.
“Please!" Kahlan insisted, trying to appeal to his humanity, while Cara eyed him suspiciously from greater depths of the cell. "I would not ask if it wasn’t urgent."
The man stopped and turned to look Kahlan up and down.
“How urgent?” he asked. The corner of his lip gave an excited dip. "If it’s as urgent as I think you mean, I am sure we can work something out..."
Disgusted, Kahlan let go of the bars and backed away. Cara came forward instead.
"And what did you have in mind?" she said in a silky smooth voice.
"What are you doing?" Kahlan stared at her.
"Kahlan, if you are not interested in this striking, superior, masterly man of service," she replied, her eyes fixed on the guard while leisurely advancing towards him, "It doesn't mean that I have to pass on him too."
The guard stared at her with his jaw dropped open. He couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.
Kahlan's eyes flitted from Cara to him, and back to Cara. Apprehension grew in her belly.
"After all," Cara said, wrapping her bandaged, sore hands around the iron bars, bringing her face close, "A woman can get very lonely, and so easily bored, without the company of a man..."
The Mord'Sith pressed her leather-clad frame against the iron bars, as though seeking to melt into them, making her suit creak from tension. Mere steps away from her, the man watched mesmerised as Cara licked her lips and all but invited him closer with her tongue. He was about to move forward towards her, so eager to fulfill his blind lust, when suddenly, Kahlan's voice echoed throughout the dungeon:
“Cara, that’s enough!"
The warning had shot off and ricocheted like a bullet within the space enclosed by iron and stone. It was enough to jolt the guard into remembering himself and reassess what he was doing. He clenched his jaw shut, straightened his back and changed his demeanour towards Cara. His gaze clouded with scorn.
"I know what you plan to do, you filthy harlot," he growled lowly. "You think you can tempt me like this and that I will fall for it? That you can blind me with your provocation and have the Confessor turn me so that I will open the gate for you and let you escape?! Well, guess again, Mord'Sith scum…”
He advanced closer towards her, staring her down with burning anger.
"I don't even have the key... So the joke's on you."
Cara smiled and shook her head solemnly.
"You are wrong… Just wrong about everything..." she said in the same seductive voice.
“The Confessors are used to using people to their advantage, it’s true,” she purred - Kahlan raised her eyebrow, “But I am no Confessor.”
The guard made no reply.
“I can tell that you have heard of the vast spectrum of the Mord’Sith’s talents…” she continued. “So why don’t you let me show you, that you are—“
“Do you really think I am that stupid?!” the guard shouted with a disgruntled look on his face and took another step forward.
“That I would fall for your trickery?! That I would—“
In his outburst of anger, the man had approached Cara close enough for her to reach him through the gap in the bars. In a flash, she grabbed him by the collar of his armour and sharply drew him towards herself. His forehead smashed against the iron bars and he dropped to the ground unconscious.
Kahlan slammed her palm against her forehead.
"Great..." she muttered.
Cara turned towards her.
"Confess him," she demanded. "If you order him to never tell anyone and that after he frees us he lives the rest of his life as though he was never confessed, then nobody will know. Instead, he can say that I had seduced him into setting us free and that way, no one in Aydindril will hold you responsible."
Kahlan stared at Cara with her mouth open in astonishment. All she could do was shake her head at the Mord'Sith's audacity and absurdity.
"You have no choice now, Kahlan," Cara stated matter-of-factly. “I will take the blame. No one will question the guilt of a Mord-Sith for something like this.”
But when Kahlan only stood there, still speechless, Cara placed a hand on her hip and added, “Well, you better hurry… Or he will wake up!”
While Kahlan deliberated what to do next, an unexpected shuffle in the shadows beyond the dungeon's entrance called their attention away. Both women’s eyes shot in the same direction.
"Cara..." Kahlan held her breath.
The shadows shifted again. Cara narrowed her eyes.
They were not alone after all.
“I think someone is out there…" Kahlan's voice was filled with panic. "Someone saw you do this..."
Deathly-still silence descended all around them. There was not a sound to be heard for the next few moments.
"Who's out there?" Kahlan’s voice pierced through the void.
But no reply came.
"If someone is out there, I demand that you show yourself!" she called out again.
Once again, only silence remained. The shadows beyond the corner of the entrance had returned to perfect stillness.
"Only cowards hide in the shadows..." Cara said offhandedly, though loud enough for whoever was lurking round the corner to hear.
A moment later, the shuffling sounded once again, followed by the distinct sound of footsteps. Kahlan and Cara held their breaths. A moment after that, the culprit stepped into the light to reveal himself.
A figure... A cloaked figure, the same one that had been trailing them since their arrival at the palace, walked into the dungeon.
Kahlan and Cara stared, speechless.
Face entirely obscured by the low-set hood, the figure moved towards the guard that lay motionless on the stone ground.
"Who are you?" Kahlan demanded with less certainty than before.
The figure said nothing. It leaned down towards the unconscious guard and listened for signs of breathing.
"You've been following us since we've arrived here..." Kahlan spoke again. "Why?"
But the figure ignored her. A gloved hand produced a little vial from an inner pocket and from it, poured some kind of liquid into the guard's drooling mouth. It then turned to face the two women.
"When he wakes up and accuses you of what you've done, I will claim that I saw him drink himself into a stupor on the way to the dungeon,” a husky, low voice, said leisurely.
The women perked up at the unexpected sound of this feminine, and yet in some ways far from feminine, voice.
"His breath will prove as much."
The sharp smell of alcohol reached Cara's nostrils shortly before it reached Kahlan's. Whatever was in that vial was strong.
“And why would you do something like that?" Kahlan demanded. "Why would you protect us when you don't even know us and place all the blame on him if he doesn't deserve it?"
"Who said he doesn't?" the figure articulated slowly. "And who said I don't?"
A strange beat played in the raspy voice. Kahlan got the feeling that this mysterious person toyed with her. The Mother Confessor walked up to Cara, who stood as still as though paralysed, and glared back at the figure through the iron bars.
"Who are you?" she repeated.
The figure said nothing. It faced off Kahlan squarely, its face perfectly hidden.
Upon closer examination, Kahlan thought she saw a curly lock of chestnut brown hair peeking beneath the cloak’s hem. She narrowed her eyes.
"Show yourself," she demanded again.
A pair of leather-gloved hands emerged from within the cloak. Slowly, they moved up towards the hood and rested on its hem, as though debating whether to indulge this demand.
But as the women stared, in one sweeping movement, the hood was suddenly drawn back.
Grey eyes, perceptive, if not a little cautious and reserved, grey eyes, embellished with long, curled eyelashes, scrutinised first Kahlan, then turned towards Cara. A twitch in the corner of wine-coloured lips betrayed something the newcomer had at first attempted to hold back. The twitch then spread into a slanted smile, which bled over rosy cheeks and up to the grey eyes again, beholding a familiar gaze directed pointedly at the Mord'Sith.
Cara stared and wordlessly drank in the sight before her as though recalling something important from an old dream. Her eyes fluttered over the contrast of the woman's features... The sharpness of her full, darkened lips against the vagueness of her colourless eyes; the freshness of her rosy cheeks against the heaviness of her drab attire; the crisp shine of her long brown curls, fallen on one side of her neck, against flawless porcelain skin... And the utter surprise of her existence against a strange ineffable feeling of familiarity.
A cold sweat washed over her as old, banished memories began to surface. She narrowed her eyes and slowly moved forward, closer to the iron bars that stood erected between her and this stranger. As though adjusting her eyes to see through mist, she blinked again and again. She frowned. Her mouth opened as if to speak... And yet, she said nothing.
The woman's lips had settled into a small smile. By her gaze she seemed strangely glad... And yet, in a way, suspicious, not quite trusting, despite her bold declaration that she would lie for them.
Kahlan watched this silent exchange with a looming unease in her gut. Something felt peculiarly off.
“What's your name?" Cara asked, eerily calm, secretly afraid to know the answer.
The grey eyes had locked with hers as though they were the only souls left on earth.
The stranger opened her mouth as if to speak, and at long last uttered:
“Cara… Do you know her?” Kahlan said as she took a step towards the Mord’Sith.
To say that she was surprised at the mutual familiarity between Cara and this… person would be an understatement.
Dahlia - the woman had replied when Cara had asked for her name. The Mord’Sith had not uttered a word since. But this peculiar silence had gone on for long enough, Kahlan decided. She deserved to know what was going on, even if Cara didn’t seem to share her thoughts, even if she appeared to be lost in a world entirely different — one she seemed to share only with this... Dahlia.
“I do,” she said eventually, a moment before Kahlan was about to question her again. “We were friends when we were children.”
Kahlan looked from Cara to the other woman. Her sight kept tripping up over the woman's wine-coloured lips. She was beautiful, that much could not be denied.
“Best friends, if I remember correctly,” Dahlia interjected. “Closer than even sisters. We went to school together, always played together, shared all of our secrets and couldn’t bear to be parted… Right up until they... took you away.”
“You are from Stowecroft too?” Kahlan asked.
“Yes…” the husky voice confirmed.
“Then what are you doing all the way here, in Ashford?” the Confessor pressed.
“Cara wasn’t the only girl that was taken from our village by the Mord’Sith,” Dahlia replied, her locked eye-contact with Cara finally breaking as she succumbed to the pain of her memories. “Some time before they took her, one of my cousins was taken. My parents wanted us to leave Stowecroft immediately after it had happened but I… I remember I cried... I cried a lot. I refused to go and begged them to stay, which in the end they agreed, and we did stay… For a time.”
“Why did you do that?” Kahlan frowned.
While Kahlan scrutinised Dahlia from afar, trying to gage her character and intentions, Cara never once took her eyes off the woman on the other side of the bars. She couldn’t believe that this was really happening… That Dahlia was really there, materialised in the flesh. She questioned whether she might be dreaming or hallucinating it all… And yet, the girl… The girl she recalled from her long-suppressed past, the girl with the grey eyes and perfect lips, which she suddenly recalled in her mind smiling at her with a childish, toothless grin, seemed too real, too much like the memory she had secretly carried buried deep inside of her heart, and too true to be only a dream.
“I couldn’t bear to be parted from my best friend,” Dahlia admitted evenly.
She blinked first at Kahlan, then back at Cara. Her expression was nothing less than incredulous as her eyes soaked in every detail of the strong, beautiful woman her childhood friend had grown up to be, just as she had prayed and hoped… Just as she had imagined her to be.
Kahlan took one look at Cara and realised that in that moment, she might as well have been invisible to the Mord’Sith. A pang in her belly stirred. It left her feeling unsettled.
“When they took you away,” Dahlia took a step towards the iron bars, closer towards Cara, her voice turning heavy, “I… I wished I could disappear. But the very next day, my parents took me far away from our village, brought me here, out of fear that I would get taken by the Mord’Sith also. And I let them because I thought I would never… Never get to see you again—”
The husky voice broke. Dahlia bowed her head. When she next dared to look up at Cara, the Mord’Sith saw a sparkling tear trailing down pale and rosy cheeks.
“But now… You are here!” her face had twisted into an astonished smile, and a tear escaped from her other eye. “I can barely believe it! It feels like a miracle!”
Instinctively, she took another step forward towards Cara, wanting to be closer to her, needing to assure herself of the blonde’s realness somehow. She wrapped her gloved hands around the iron bars. If she had but reached between them with her hand, she would have been able to reach Cara and touch her. But instead, she stood still, waiting on the outside of the cell, and watched with utter amazement, while small gasps of relief mixed with disbelief repeatedly escaped between her lips.
The Mord’Sith choked back a rather heavy lump in her throat at the sight of the woman tearing up in front of her, because of her. She stood perfectly still, motionless. If it were not for her unwavering gaze and her chest rising and falling as deeply as it was, on the surface it might have appeared that Cara was not very affected. But Kahlan knew better. She sensed a great pull between the pair, which left her feeling increasingly alarmed. Never before had she felt like an outsider where her mere presence invaded a moment she could not quite understand.
“When Amaya described to me the prophetic dream she had had…” Dahlia continued, “When she described the blond Mord’Sith she saw plunge a dagger into the Seeker’s heart, killing him, with the Mother Confessor at her side, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it could've been you. I mean, it seemed unlikely that it was… And I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to recognise you if I ever saw you again, despite what my heart told me. I told myself that it was probably another... another M-Mord'Sith to have done it... that you wouldn’t be capable of doing something like that after all, even if they would've taught you how. That the sweet, considerate, loving girl that used to hold my hand whenever I cried after scraping a knee… The girl I loved so dearly… Could not have killed the Seeker.”
Her grip on the bars turned tighter.
Cara’s eyes filled with tears as a long-lost feeling of home, and the little girl she used to be, the girl whose life was so filled with love, came rushing back at her.
“But after having seen what my own cousin had turned into,” Dahlia’s voice darkened, “All the horrible things she had done, and everything she suddenly seemed capable of, I wondered, and dreaded, what might have been done to you by the Mord’Sith… What you might have become. And whether you could have killed the Seeker after all, like Amaya’s dream prophesied.”
“Cara did not kill the Seeker,” Kahlan interjected. “The person Amaya saw Cara kill in her dream wasn’t the Seeker at all. Darken Rahl had taken over Richard’s body, fooling many people in the process, including me…”
The painful memory of what Rahl had done to her under Richard’ guise quietly rattled Kahlan. She forced herself to persevere in telling the tale.
“It was he, Darken Rahl, who sacrificing the real Richard, our Seeker of Truth, at the altar of the Shrine of the Zoria.”
“The Zoria…” Dahlia frowned. “I thought they were just a myth.”
“Most people do,” Kahlan replied. “But they were real. And their Shrine endures. It is still out there somewhere, inside an ordinary-looking mountain, shrouded by magic. Rahl was, unfortunately, able to pierce through that magic with the aid of Nicci, a powerful sorceress that had stolen Richard’s Han as well as many others’, including my own. She acted on Rahl’s command, all the while appearing as me. Together they had done considerable damage in many places, not only in Ashford, while pretending to be Richard and myself. They went even to Aydindril, killing many people, including my sister… My sister whose h-hair—“
Kahlan’s voice buckled. She needed a moment to breathe.
Cara turned towards her at last. Her eyes were full of sorrow.
“…Whose hair,” the Mother Confessor continued in a pain-wrecked whisper, “They used to create a confession spell and turn an entire army of people, villagers and town-folk, into blood-thirsty savages. With this army he was going to conquer all of the Midlands and beyond. He was going to enslave every man, woman and child. He was going to warp the line of all future Confessors to his own purpose. And Cara was the one that put a stop to it all when she killed him. She was under his confession spell herself… But somehow, somehow… A miracle occurred a-and she found a way to break it. It was Cara that saved us all.”
Kahlan shifted her glance from Dahlia to Cara.
The Mord’Sith’s eyes sparkled. They filled with images of the history she had shared with Kahlan. Kahlan noticed this and pressed her lips into a small, reassuring smile.
“I knew it,” Dahlia said vehemently. “I knew you woudn’t be capable of doing anything even remotely harsh like my cousin did!”
A scoff escaped Kahlan, unintended. She pressed her lips tighter, obscuring them with a hand, in order to contain herself.
The other two women shot her looks - Dahlia: a brief puzzled one, Cara: a peeved, reproachful one.
“There is nothing that I wouldn’t have given to see you once again,” Dahlia continued, her voice soft, almost adoring, as she touched the iron bars with the length of her body. “For years I prayed and prayed to the Spirits that I would get to hold your hand one more time…”
Cara looked from the girl, from her pleading, loving, familiar, and yet foreign eyes, down at her own hands wrapped in bandages made from Kahlan’s dress. There was no doubt that seeing Dahlia brought a rush of emotions back for her, emotions she had long buried and considered herself incapable of feeling again, but it also felt different now. She was different. A whole lifetime of being Mord’Sith stood between her and her childhood friend, her childhood sweetheart, Cara realised. And the girl that Dahlia still held onto died the day she was forced by the Mord’Sith to kill her own father.
“I have done despicable things throughout my life, Dahlia,” she said and looked away, a little sad, though mostly resigned now. “Many despicable things. Probably worse than your cousin. And I am Mord’Sith even now, even if my allegiance is no longer with Darken Rahl or my sisters.”
“But you fight for the Seeker now, don’t you?” Dahlia was hopeful. “You are on the side of the people and free folk?”
Cara looked up at her. There certainly was an element of mystery and mastery of the senses about the woman… And yet, Cara could see plain as daylight that the girl had not seen the things she had seen; she had not experienced things in her life that she had experienced. Which, when compared to Cara’s track record, made Dahlia as innocent and naive as a child.
For a split second Cara wondered what things might have looked like if Dahlia and her family had stayed a day longer in Stowecroft. She wondered whether Dahlia would have been taken by the Mord’Sith also, and if so, whether they would have remained close, if not closer, as sisters. A picture of a wine-lipped woman dressed in a maroon leather suit, with chestnut hair twisted into a long thick braid, conjured up in Cara’s mind eerily easily. In fact, it took effort to shake it from her mind once she did see it. It brought her to the conclusion that Dahlia would likely have made a ruthless, and of course, a stunningly beautiful, Mord’Sith. But she was not. She was spared this fate… And for that, in her heart of hearts, Cara felt glad.
“I am,” she replied eventually. “I have pledged myself to serve the one true successor to the Rahl throne - Richard Rahl, the Seeker of Truth. And even after his death, no matter how much time passes, I will remain loyal to his cause.”
“And we would really appreciate it,” Kahlan added, “If we could be given a chance to explain all this to the Mayor too. It wasn’t me who came here and confessed all those people. It was Nicci pretending to be me.”
“In a strange way, I believe you…” Dahlia said, looking from Kahlan to Cara and back to Kahlan again. “I can feel in my heart that you are telling the truth, even if I have no real proof of it. But Amaya… I mean, Mayor Lavin, will be harder to convince than I am. She carries a lot on her shoulders at the moment. She has ever since her father was murdered by y— by this… Nicci… I mean, it’s not easy having to be responsible for an entire town of people that crumbled after such a catastrophic tragedy. It had affected all of us. There are many people, men, far less deserving than Amaya, who want nothing more than to challenge her for the title of Mayor in Ashford and take advantage of the people’s emotional trauma. In a very short amount of time, she was forced to become very tough in order to stand her ground and defend her title as Mayor. But she wasn’t always like that… I mean, she isn’t really like that. She has a good, considerate heart beneath the hard exterior. But unfortunately, she has to remain this way if she wants to remain the Mayor of Ashford and protect our people. Especially when it comes to public affairs, which is what your trial is expected to be. To convince her, and appease all the others that question her leadership, we will need hard evidence to present at the trial.”
“You talk about the Mayor as if you know her well…” Kahlan said and cocked an eyebrow.
“I do…” she said. She let go of the iron bars she had held only a mere step away from Cara. “I know her… intimately… well.”
Silence descended in the dungeon for a moment as the implications of this dawned on both the Confessor and the Mord’Sith.
“But unfortunately, this fact is to neither one of ours’ advantage,” Dahlia admitted, sadness palpable in her voice.
“Then…” Kahlan said, “We will have to think of a way to prove the truth.”
“Were there any witnesses,” Dahlia asked, “Other than you two, that were present at the Shrine of the Zoria and could vouch for you and everything that happened?”
“Nobody survived,” Kahlan replied, her voice low, “Except for us. Not even Zed, a great wizard of the First Order.”
She looked away. Cara’s look fell in a likewise manner.
“What about at Aydindril?” Dahlia continued. “You said your sister was killed by Rahl. Surely someone would have seen what had happened there?”
“Yes… There was at least one witness in Aydindril,” Kahlan replied, thoughtful. “A rider found us almost two months ago and told us what really happened there, that my sister was murdered. I don’t know who else in Aydindril knows this truth except for him - I’ve been trying to get there ever since I found out what happened to Denee - but yes, there is at least one person out there who knows that there was a false Mother Confessor committing crime in my name.”
“Then we need to find this person,” Dahlia said.
“But how can we do that?” Kahlan was incredulous. “The trial is at noon tomorrow, which is twelve hours away! While Aydrindril is two-weeks ride away.”
“Leave that to me,” Dahlia replied. “Tomorrow at noon, be present at the trial. And be ready for Amaya to be hard on you. She needs to be, unfortunately… There are many who challenge her leadership, for the mere fact that she is a woman, and she needs to show them that she is as strong and clever as any man, if not even more so. But once you get past that, you will find that she is fair. And loyal. She only wants to see justice be carried out for her people. And since she doesn't know the truth yet, she believes she is dealing with the real culprits of the crimes committed against the people of Ashford. It's nothing personal against you.”
“Are you sure about that?” Cara cocked an eyebrow. “That fiery stake she promised me sounded pretty… intimate.”
Kahlan and Dahlia flinched at the sharpness of Cara’s razor-sharp tongue.
Is she… Jealous?! Kahlan wondered. She shifted in the spot and looked about herself somewhat disgruntled.
“I have to go now,” Dahlia said. “I will send someone to bring you some food and drink.”
“Thank you,” Kahlan replied gratefully if not a little curtly.
The woman nodded and turned to leave.
“Dahlia,” Cara called out suddenly.
Dahlia paused. She turned to face the Mord’Sith. Cara stepped up to the edge of the cell and just as Dahlia had done only moments ago, wrapped her sore fingers around the iron bars.
“Thank you,” she said, in a manner that sounded not only deeply grateful but a little in awe too.
Her eyes glistened with emotion that was not often seen there.
But to Kahlan this did not seem like typical Cara behaviour.
Dahlia might be saving our lives but I’ve already thanked her… she thought more annoyed than she would dare to admit to herself, as well as additionally annoyed at recognising how absolutely ridiculous and unlike herself she sounded.
“Of course,” the husky voice replied.
The woman paused for a moment longer with stars shining in her eyes at the Mord’Sith. But as she at last turned to leave, the guard at her feet started to stir. A moan escaped from his lips as he started to wake up. Dahlia took one look at him, then kicked him in the face. The guard was knocked unconscious once again.
“That’ll teach him to treat women like dirt,” she muttered and hurried out of the dungeon, her long chestnut hair cascading behind her.
Yes… She definitely would have made a great Mord’Sith, Cara concluded.
“I don’t recall you ever mentioning her,” Kahlan said once they were alone in the dungeon, not counting the unconscious guard that lay sprawled out on the ground.
The tone of her voice was casual enough but her arms were crossed.
“I had no reason to,” Cara replied quietly.
The Mord’Sith walked back to the bundle of hay and sat down, elbows propped up on knees. She stared aimlessly before herself, lost in thought.
“I guess I just find it a little strange,” Kahlan continued in the same cold manner, “That if someone meant that much to you growing up that you’d never once bring them up in conversation.”
Cara looked at her.
“When have you ever heard me bring up people that have ever meant something to me?”
She stared at Kahlan from beneath her eyebrows. Kahlan raised hers as if trying to think back to an instance that would prove Cara wrong but could not.
They observed each other in silence.
“I only meant that,” Kahlan eventually conceded, looking away, “Based on what she said, it sounds like she was… Special to you.”
“How does that make any difference to our situation at present?” Cara tilted her head. “We’re still stuck in a dungeon, Kahlan.”
Kahlan said nothing.
“And why would you care anyway?” Cara narrowed her eyes.
“I don’t,” Kahlan snapped. “And… You’re right. It doesn’t make any difference to our situation.”
She held Cara’s gaze defiantly.
For a moment, the Mord’Sith wondered whether they were talking about the same thing. She tried to look deeper inside the Confessor’s eyes, trying to understand the meaning behind her words, but alas… Not only was that difficult in the poorly lit dungeon, Kahlan, for some reason or other, turned away from her.
Unfortunately, Cara would not get a chance to question her about it. A loud groan interrupted the silence in the dungeon, breaking the spell of the tension between the two women, seizing their attention. Turning in unison in the direction of the groan, they saw that it was the guard. He was waking up.
“Act natural,” Kahlan hissed at Cara under the breath.
“What?!” Cara scowled.
“What… What did…" The guard mumbled, clutching at his head in confusion. "What happened?”
With difficulty he propped himself up on one elbow. Puzzled, blurry-eyed he looked about the dungeon trying to figure out what had happened. He shook his head, hoping to rid himself of the dizziness, but the discomfort of it made him groan even harder.
“What happened to me?” he said. When he noticed the two women looking at him from within the cell, he was on the verge of anger. “What did you do to me?!”
“Nothing!” Kahlan snapped back at him.
“How did I… Why am I on the floor?” he demanded while attempting to sit upright.
“Well!” Kahlan scoffed. “Isn’t that the question! I… Could ask you the same thing!”
Her answer confused him. He frowned and narrowed his eyes, looking to his left and right, trying to think back to what had transpired in the dungeon. Alas, his mind continued to draw blanks. The only thing he could remember was being ordered by the Mayor to bring a message to the prisoners about the trial tomorrow. The rest of it was… Missing.
He scrambled upright. He supported himself against the bars of the cell while his feet regained some balance. He wiped the drool off his chin… And sniffed his hand. The smell on it was strong, like alcohol, and yet stronger, reminding eerily of Ceilingrow, a concoction made from an opium extract. It was known for its ability to erase one’s immediate memory and relax the muscles, making any person that consumed it deathly asleep, and very compliant in general. It wasn’t the first time he had come in contact with it but it certainly was the first time he had experienced it firsthand.
“What did you do to me?!” he growled at the two women locked behind the iron bars.
He spat on the ground in their direction… And thought he tasted blood in his mouth.
“Us?” Kahlan protested. “We are locked inside a cell… What could we have possibly done to you? If I were you, I’d be more concerned about the Mayor finding out you've been sleeping on the job!”
The guard narrowed his eyes at her. He knew something was amiss here but since he couldn’t remember anything prior to his order from the Mayor, he thought he’d better return to his post until he could make sense of it all.
With a final look of contempt at the prisoners, he turned and staggered his way through the arched passage that led out of the dungeon. When he was gone and no sound of his rough footsteps could be heard anymore, Kahlan’s demeanour relaxed a little and she exhaled a small sigh of relief, despite knowing that their troubles were far from over.
“Well done,” Cara said, appearing impressed.
“For what?” Kahlan frowned.
“Only a true Confessor is capable of concealing the truth so skilfully,” Cara’s lips stretched into a slanted smile that mocked, “Without ever letting a lie taint her lips.”
She gloated at Kahlan with the dirtiest look the Confessor had ever seen and shook her head in almost-awe.
Kahlan scoffed irritably. If she wasn’t so annoyed with Cara at present, such a look from her might have set her heart a-flutter! (It did so anyway though she refused to acknowledge it under the circumstances.)
“And if only you’d listened to me in the first place,” she responded angrily, “I wouldn’t have had to do it in the first place! Do you realise what kind of danger you put us in?! What if it had turned out to be someone else eavesdropping instead of that miraculous apparition of your long-lost childhood closer-than-sisters best friend who is willing to lie for you and say that the guard had been drinking on the job instead of the truth that you had knocked him out?!”
“You mean like… That lady over there?” Cara said, pointing with her eyes at someone behind Kahlan.
Kahlan turned around. A sharp stab of fear slashed through her belly at the sight of the person that stood there, beyond the bars of their cell.
“I-I was told to bring food and water,” the small voice of a child-sized old woman, toothless and hunched over, said, quivering.
With shaky hands she laid down the tray of food and flask of water on the floor, on the outside of the cell, close enough for the prisoners to reach it. Then she turned around, and before she could hear anything else that she shouldn’t be hearing, shuffled out of the dungeon at a hurried pace of a snail.
Kahlan pressed her hand over her eyes. She sighed in exasperation. The situation clearly could not get any worse.
Cara regarded her from the spot where she sat on the hay. If she were not so amused by Kahlan’s blunder in her frustration, she would have felt sorry for her considering the amount of pressure Kahlan would've felt in their grave situation. A part of her urged her to stand up, walk up to her companion and place her arms around her… But she had learned a long time ago how to kill such urges in their tracks, even though this training had softened as of late for various reasons. Either way, Kahlan certainly did not expect any such thing from Cara.
Frustrated with herself, she walked over to and examined their delivery. Singlehandedly, she reached through the narrow space between the iron bars, grabbed the large plate of ham, cheese and berry-like vegetables and fruit, and tipped out its contents onto the tray in order to withdraw the plate to her side of the cell. She was forced to gather the food back on the plate by hand, piece by piece, leaving her hand sticky. She sucked at her fingers, entirely oblivious that Cara secretly gawked at this from the depths of the cell. Once she had picked up the flask too, she carried it and the plate of food back to Cara. She sat down next to the Mord’Sith and nudged the plate of food into the girl’s arm, forcing it onto her more than offering it, considering all their past squabbles over Cara not eating enough. Cara reluctantly accepted the offer.
Small piece by small piece, Cara placed food chunks into her mouth. At first, eating felt forced — her stomach was beyond hunger and all she felt in her abdomen was discomfort and pain. But once she got going and her appetite warmed up, Cara realised just how starved she was. She shovelled the food more greedily into her mouth, swallowing most of it before chewing through it properly, while Kahlan watched, relieved to see the woman eating at last. She sipped on the water from the flask while the other ate.
When Cara eventually felt satisfied, she passed the plate back to Kahlan. There was a good amount of food left over and Kahlan picked at some of the fruit. Unlike Cara, the dinner she had consumed at Madam Maryanne’s before they got arrested still kept her going, and she wasn’t feeling very hungry. Cara, in the meanwhile, got to draining a good portion of the water from the flask. Once she was done, she wiped her lips against the leather of her sleeves and put the lid back on the flask.
“Feeling better?” Kahlan asked.
“Good, I’m glad,” the Confessor replied.
But no moment later than she had said this than Cara suddenly doubled over and vomited the ham and the cheese and the tomatoes and the cherries onto the ground, right between her knees.
Kahlan closed her eyes. She was becoming increasingly concerned about Cara’s wellbeing. At this rate, the Mord’Sith may not even survive the pregnancy, she thought.
Cara held onto her belly and gasped for air as she threw up her meal in intervals. Kahlan put away the plate with the remainder of food as far away from them as possible and placed a comforting hand, first on Cara’s back, then as the girl bent forward further, gathered her blond tresses and held them away from her face.
“Kahlan… Kahlan…” the voice called to her. “Help me… Please help me…”
Kahlan helplessly watched as the light surrounding her grew in intensity and turned Richard’s pleas into agony-fuelled screams. It obliterated her vision as it grew, forcing her to look away, in a moment that felt as though her heart was being torn out of her chest. She knew full well that every time she had closed her eyes in this nightmare that haunted her, that every time she was forced to look away, Richard himself was being wiped away… From life, from existence, and from her. And it was her fault.
“No!!” she cried. “No… Richard—”
She woke up.
Puzzled, deeply rattled, Kahlan sat up and looked about herself. She let out a sigh of relief at the realisation of it only being a nightmare and yet, the realisation felt more like anguish than an unburdening.
Richard was gone… He was really gone. This was the new reality. And no matter how it had happened, or how she or Cara had tried to justify it since, deep down she knew she would never be able to forgive herself for it.
She covered her face with her hands. She felt numb. There was no sound to be heard in the dungeon other than what Cara made while sleeping next to her on the straw, experiencing a nightmare of her own apparently. This distracted her enough to feel compelled to looked down to her side at the girl. She saw Cara's face twist as though she were experiencing pain. Perspiration sparkled over the tanned forehead where specks of hay, dirt and blond tresses stuck over it. Kahlan gazed down at her for a while, eyes still, feeling lost between the past and the future. Then, slowly and ever so gently, she reached down and brushed over the girl’s face with her bare hand, wiping away the hair and the loose particles of dirt, revealing sun-kissed skin in need of washing from soot stains but otherwise flawless. She watched as her touch seemed to soothe the Mord’Sith, relieving the tension in her face a little… But Cara did not wake.
Unease grew in Kahlan’s belly… This was not like the tough, ever-ready Mord’Sith she had grown to know well and love. Usually by now, Cara would be awake, even before Kahlan, or at the very least, intercept her move, always one step ahead and ready. But the Cara that lay next to her now was different, vulnerable, and Kahlan was acutely aware of it, feeling more protective of her than she had even of Richard. She noticed that even Cara's hair appeared to have grown a little longer, curved a bit more compared to before. Pregnancy was a strange thing, Kahlan concluded. She utterly failed to consider that this was only a part of it.
Putting her agitation aside, Kahlan looked softly and fondly at Cara, taking in the details of her features. Even in a grim situation such as the one they had found themselves in at present, haunted by the losses of their past, future uncertain at best, Kahlan realised she could find all the grounding and reassurance she needed. Everything she had left that mattered to her was right next to her. The hope for the line of Confessor-kind to continue, lived on. And… Cara was there, right there, with her. They were side by side, even if not together, even if miles apart in some ways, but…
How can someone be this beautiful…? she wondered, suddenly almost wincing in pain at Cara’s close proximity to her.
She wanted to reach down, and caress the golden cheek, not for the sake of clearing away the debris and perspiration… But for a more selfish reason, to feel its smoothness beneath her fingertips… To feel Cara, herself.
Alas, as if hearing Kahlan’s thoughts, the Mord’Sith at last awoke with a start. At once she sat up and looked about herself, disoriented.
“It’s alright. You were having a nightmare,” Kahlan reassured her gently.
The familiarity of Kahlan’s voice came like a soothing balm to the Mord’Sith. She calmed almost right away.
“What did you dream about?” Kahlan asked.
“I dreamed… About Rahl,” the Mord'Sith lied. “He… Was controlling me, like he did with the confession spell.”
She closed her eyes and tried to forget the image of Shota scorched in her mind, repeatedly warning her that she had forgotten the prophecy and now doomed the entire world to death.
“I can understand that,” Kahlan replied quietly, her eyes fallen. “I dreamed of Richard.”
Cara looked up at her.
The light in the Mother Confessor’s eyes had turned dim like it used to in the days immediately following Richard’s death. Grief and guilt were taking root once again, she could tell… And Kahlan was on a slippery slope to a place much darker and grimmer than the dungeon in which they had found themselves.
Despite the feebleness she felt at present, Cara remained sitting upright. She placed a firm hand on Kahlan’s shoulder to draw her back to reality. Surprised, Kahlan fluttered with her eyelids at the gesture. She looked at Cara and felt an overwhelming, deep pull towards her. She looked at her, deeply, longingly, vaguely sharing her breath, inhaling it through parted lips, while Cara gazed back, gently, sleepily… Too tired not to. They barely heard when the resounding stomps of heavy footsteps entered the dungeon, and almost didn’t turn to look when the guards, armoured to the teeth, appeared at their doorstep, ready to take them away.
The crowd gathered in the Town Square was immense. Virtually every citizen had turned up to witness the trial and potential lynching of the treacherous Mother Confessor and her Mord’Sith. Amaya sat on a throne-like landing in the centre of the square, advisors and officials sitting on either side of her, while before them, stood the accused, their hands bound. Despite the jeering and the verbal abuse hurled at them by the surrounding crowd, Kahlan and Cara stood their ground, defiant and dignified.
Amaya stood up, the crowd turned silent.
“Kahlan Amnell,” she declared, her voice carrying over the masses, “You are hereby standing trial for your acts of transgression against the people of Ashford. You are accused of using your power of confession to wrongfully bend seven hundred and sixty four people to your will for selfish, despicable motives, initiating forced physical conflict, which has since resulted in much bloodshed and death, if not outright murder. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty,” Kahlan stated calmly.
The crowd broke into a mass murmur, outraged.
“Cara Mason,” the Mayor continued, “You are hereby accused and standing trial for your involvement with the former Mother Confessor’s misdeeds. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty,” Cara replied, glaring at the surrounding crowd beneath her eyebrows like a wild animal on defence.
The crowd glowered in return.
“Very well,” Amaya said and moved forth from her position.
She approached the Mord’Sith, circling her on the town square like a hunter would its pray.
“I would like you to know,” she said in a quiet, eerily calm voice that only the three of them could hear, “I had a dream about what you’ve done to Richard Cypher, The Seeker of Truth, our fighter for freedom and nemesis to the tyrant Darken Rahl. I saw you plunge a dagger into his heart, I saw your features clear as day when you murdered him.”
Cara listened but said nothing.
“But…” Amaya continued, “Since it was only a dream and since dreams, unfortunately, cannot be proven to be true or not, not to mention that you will, no doubt, deny this accusation, even though my dreams have proven time and time again to be accurate, I cannot see you punished for this. However, I can make sure that the stake on which you will scorch once you are convicted of everything else, is nice and slow-burning.”
The Mayor and the Mord’Sith glowered at each other, the friction of their gaze palpable enough to set any stake ablaze.
Having said what she had to say, Amaya turned away from the accused. She was about to make her way to her seat to resume the trial when Kahlan suddenly spoke.
“You are not wrong.”
The words stopped Amaya in her tracks. She turned to face Kahlan.
“What did you say?”
“Mayor Lavin, Cara did plunge a dagger into Richard’s heart,” the Mother Confessor said simply. “And you would have done the same if you had known that it was Darken Rahl himself that had taken over the Seeker’s body and committed all the crimes you accuse Cara and myself of.”
Amaya listened and scrutinised Kahlan’s face carefully, fury bubbling beneath the calm demeanour, trying to catch a hint of deceit on the woman’s face. But she saw none. Only sorrow in blue eyes.
A little disconcerted but saying nothing in return, Amaya returned to the Mayor’s chair and sat down.
“We will begin,” she said aloud so that her voice carried over once again, “By hearing out the witnesses who have seen Kahlan Amnell, whom we had trusted to serve justice and honour, abuse her title of Mother Confessor by confessing and turning their family members, loved ones, friends and neighbours into soldiers without conscience, into her slaves, doing her despicable bidding from that moment on. May the first witness of the three hundred and twenty six willing please step forward.”
A woman stepped onto the town square. Her modest attire suggested that she was a farmer. She struggled to withhold anger and hide her fear as she faced the two women, who, with hands bound, unarmed, listened patiently, sorrowfully, to all the pain-wrenching things she had to say. However, while the woman spoke, Cara took the chance to skim over the crowd, looking out for a glimpse of the grey-cloaked figure that had re-emerged into her life so unexpectedly the night before… But could not find her.
When the woman finished her testimony, pointing her finger at Kahlan and Cara when asked to identify the accused in question, another woman assumed her place, speaking briefly but accounting a similar story. After her, another one came forth, followed by another, and yet another. One by one, the townspeople stepped forward and told their tale of horror as they watched the Mother Confessor turn their loved-ones or even them, themselves into blood-thirsty fighters who no longer recognised anyone or anything they knew.
Minutes trickled into hours and the light of day came close to fading by the time each of the willing witnesses was given their chance to present their case and accuse the Mother Confessor for crimes she did not commit. Weary from standing and listening to tale after sorrowful tale, Cara anxiously skimmed through the crowd, looking for the one person who could save them from this torture… But still, there was no trace of Dahlia. She exchanged glances with Kahlan who, in having listened to all the despicable crimes Nicci had committed in her name, wearing her own features, was becoming rather worn down herself, emotionally as well as physically.
Once all the witnesses had spoken, having been given precedence over the accused, Amaya finally permitted Kahlan and Cara the chance to say whatever they needed to in their own defence. Kahlan began by questioning those who claimed that she had confessed them about their recollection of any events after the confession had taken place. It turned out that not one of them was able to remember anything. She questioned them further, pressing deeper with the question, until the witnesses that were standing on the town square conceded that they had no recollection of anything at all after they were confessed until the very moment when they suddenly seemed to wake up from the trance of the confession and find themselves in the middle of a forest, at the base of a steep mountain. Kahlan explained that this was because it was not her that had confessed them, that this was no true confession done by a Confessor anyway, reminding them that if it was, and that if it was committed by her, not only would they have their memories intact but that they would still be under confession at present because she was still very much alive. She went on to say that Darken Rahl had concocted a powerful spell infused with the power of confession, for which he had sacrificed her own sister Denee, and that he and the sorceress Nicci had glamoured their features into that of her and Cara, or her and Richard in some instances, though perhaps not at Ashford, using Nicci’s magic, before they kidnapped Richard and permanently swapped his body with Rahl’s. With deep sorrow in her aching heart, she explained that the Seeker perished at the Shrine of the Zoria before Zedd killed Nicci and Cara ultimately killed Rahl, at which point everyone that had been under the confession spell would have been released.
Kahlan’s testimony caused some confusion and doubt within the crowd, who murmured amongst themselves questioning the plausibility of Kahlan’s explanation. Her words had provoked doubt even in Amaya herself though the Mayor refused to let it show. On the surface she remained unmoved, very much unconvinced, even if deep down she was not impervious to the effects of the truth. She thought for a moment then gestured with her hand to silence the muttering crowd.
“You raise some valid questions, Kahlan Amnell,” she said. “It is rather unusual that the confession was broken ahead of the Confessor’s own death.”
“It is not unusual,” Kahlan insisted. “It is impossible.”
“However, this explanation,” the Mayor continued undeterred, “Merely changes the way your crime was committed - it does not absolve you of it. After all, who’s to say that you did not simply create this ‘confession spell’ yourself, lifting it when it pleased you, after you got whatever it is you wanted?”
“Are you claiming that I am a sorceress?” Kahlan demanded, indignant.
“What I am claiming is that your claim is not enough, Kahlan Amnell,” Amaya retaliated. “You need evidence and proof, or at least witnesses that can validate that what you are saying is true. Do you have either?”
“There would have been at least one witness of my sister’s murder,” Kahlan stated. “The one who notified me and my companions of what had happened to her.”
“Very well,” Amaya said. “What is his name and where can we find him?”
“I… I do not know,” Kahlan conceded, provoking the crowd to burst into whispers once again. “This was more than two months ago… And after he found us and told us about Denee, we never saw him again… He-he would have gone into hiding most likely.”
“So, we are to believe that there is a person out there,” Amaya interjected, “Whose name you do not know and who cannot be found when needed. Doesn’t that seem a little too convenient?”
Kahlan looked from the Mayor to Cara. It was clear that doubt plagued the Mord’Sith also. Cara was beginning to lose hope that Dahlia would ever show her face again.
“I am sorry, Kahlan Amnell, but the odds are not in your favour,” Amaya added in a cool tone, turning her nose at the Mother Confessor.
“You cannot convict someone if you cannot prove that they are guilty without a shadow of a doubt,” Kahlan declared, pointing an accusatory gaze at the Mayor.
“Oh, but I can,” the woman retaliated, refusing to buckle under the doubt Kahlan’s words had instilled in her. “Your word alone is not enough to disprove the first-hand experience of over three hundred witnesses, who are convinced without a shadow of a doubt that it was you.”
“But you know that what I am saying makes sense,” Kahlan insisted, taking a desperate step forward. “You know that what I am saying is the truth. I know you do, I can see it in your eyes. I am not claiming that what these people have said isn’t true. Nor am I claiming that they don’t deserve justice for what was done to them. What I am claiming is that neither I nor Cara are the culprits of these crimes. I am offering you the truth of the truth, and you have to know the full extent of the damage Rahl had inflicted. On all of us!”
Amaya’s eyelids involuntarily flickered in doubt as she considered the implications of Kahlan’s statement.
“Then tell me this,” she said. “How is it that neither you, the Mother Confessor, nor Cara, a Mord’Sith, were able to realise that Darken Rahl had kidnapped the real Richard Cypher sooner? How was he able to trick you into following him into the Shrine of the Zoria in the first place?”
“I have already told you. Rahl had used the confession spell on Cara who led me and Zedd into the mountain under his order.”
“But you also said that it was Cara who killed him in the end,” Amaya narrowed her eyes.
The councilmen that sat to her sides did the same, scrutinising Kahlan and Cara carefully.
“How was she able to do that if she was under the confession spell?”
“I… I don’t know…” Kahlan admitted. “She simply… did.”
“You can vouch for this, Mord’Sith?” Amaya asked.
“Yes,” Cara replied.
“And can you tell us what was going through your mind as this was occurring?” the Mayor pressed.
Cara looked to Kahlan. The unsettled look on the Confessor’s face did little to reassure her.
“Rahl ordered me to kill the Mother Confessor with his dagger…” Cara said, taking a deep breath in. “On the surface of my thoughts… This was all I wanted to do, wanting to please my master. However… Beyond this…” she frowned while trying to recall, “I knew this was wrong and… I looked at her and… and…”
Cara looked at Kahlan, who had turned to look at her. Blue eyes full of apprehension, it was the sight of them that powerfully invoked Cara’s memory of the exact moment she had broken Rahl’s spell. It was Kahlan’s intense blue eyes that had penetrated her consciousness that day, rousing all the love she felt for her, shattering the bonds of Rahl’s spell just as Kahlan’s tear shattered on the blade of the dagger, hitting her with full force.
Cara closed her eyes. She felt faint. She almost swayed on her feet from sheer exhaustion, the memory of it all draining her of her resolve and whatever strength she had left.
The Mayor leaned closer in her chair. The councilmen likewise gawked forward. Kahlan held her breath as she observed the Mord’Sith falter. Her heart beat fast. The entire Town Square was deathly silent, while all eyes were on Cara.
Finally, Cara remembered herself and thought of the way she should answer the question.
“I overpowered my thoughts until they were cleared of the desire to please Rahl and I knew what needed to be done, to uphold the cause of Richard Rahl, the Seeker of Truth.”
“Is that all?” an older man, who sat on Amaya’s right, objected, scowling at her. "The way you explain it you make it sound easy. Was it easy, Mord’Sith?”
“It was anything but easy,” Cara growled, indignant.
“But you seem to remember it clearly?” another man, who sat on Amaya’s left, added.
“I do,” Cara said.
“And you clearly recall everything that happened after Rahl used the confession spell on you?” Amaya questioned, equally suspicious as the rest of her council.
Cara took another deep breath in.
“I do,” she said.
The crowd broke into a mutter.
“You are not making any sense…” Amaya said lowly, shaking her head at the pair of women in front of her, appearing more disappointed than angry. “How is it that you can remember all that happened after you were put under the spell but the people of our town do not?”
Kahlan was perplexed. She shot a confounded look at Cara. They had utterly failed to consider the implications of this.
“I… I do not know…” Kahlan admitted, fear rising in her belly. “Maybe… Maybe it’s because Rahl used my own hair to confess Cara with, instead of my sister’s… Maybe that made a difference.”
“So… You are saying that Cara is confessed to you?” the man on the right pressed with a threatening edge in his voice.
“No!” Kahlan protested. “No, that is not what I am saying!”
Spirits, what if she is? she secretly doubted.
“For all we know, your Mord’Sith could be confessed to you even now, lying in order to protect her mistress,” the man to Amaya’s left added in a likewise manner.
“No! No, she is not!” Kahlan cried out.
Maybe she is! the thought haunted her. Maybe it was my hair… Maybe it wasn’t her love that broke the spell at all!
The crowd muttered louder.
“Kahlan Amnell,” Amaya shook her head again - she had almost believed her, “Your story sounds like a fluke at best. You are not making any sense.”
“Mayor Lavin,” Kahlan said, exasperated, looking the woman directly in the eyes, “Believe what you will about Cara’s confession but what is most important is that she and I did not use the confession spell on the people of Ashford.”
“Mayor, it is rather late in the day,” the man to Amaya’s right said loudly enough for most to hear, “And it is clear that the accused have no witnesses to back any of their ridiculous claims. Perhaps it is time to settle the sentence? I think we all know what the punishment should be in an abominable case such as this…”
The look in his eyes turned dark as he eyed Kahlan and Cara.
“You cannot sentence and punish someone,” Kahlan protested angrily, “Especially not with death, without being absolutely certain of their guilt! And I can see it in your eyes that you are not, Amaya.”
This questioning directed specifically at the Mayor caused her advisors, or rather, rivals, to direct their own gaze at the young woman that sat between them and scrutinise her carefully. This, in turn, made Amaya’s cheeks burn with shame and anger, knowing full well that her adequacy to be mayor was never far from their mind considering her age and gender.
“I remember your father, the former Mayor of Ashford, Amaya,” Kahlan called out, while the crowd turned aghast that the wicked Mother Confessor dared to address their mayor by her first name. “He was a just and fair man. We both know that he would not have proceeded with the trial like this.”
“You mean my father whom you murdered when he tried to stand up to you for what you were doing to our people?!” Amaya glared, digging her nails into the wooden armrest of her chair.
The two men who sat to her either side leaned in towards her as if to share in a private conversation.
“Perhaps it is important to make an example of treacherous Confessors, Mayor,” one of them said, though more to the other man than to Amaya herself. “A crime this big against our town cannot be left unpunished.”
The second man nodded.
“It is clear that this woman’s claims are utterly unsubstantiated…” he agreed. “The people obviously thirst for punishment to be delivered after such a great loss.”
“I do not think our people will have peace,” the first concluded, “Until this is settled and the culprits are dealt with thoroughly.”
The second man nodded again and only then the two of them looked to Amaya, waiting for her to agree with them.
Amaya looked from the men at her sides to the women in front of her. It was clear that she was plagued by doubt either way though she tried hard to conceal it.
“But if we think about it, some of what she has said makes sense…” she attempted to reason with them. “Even the nature of this so-called ‘confession’ that was carried out doesn’t quite make sense… When have we ever seen a Confessor confess someone by forcing them to drink something instead of a hand to the throat and direct eye contact? No, it isn’t right. Something is amiss here and we need to get to the bottom of it.”
“It is not our duty to deal with the matters of Confessors and the nature of their powers,” the first man protested. “All we have to do is deal with the crimes done against the people of our town.”
“There must not be space for doubt to enter the Mayor’s perception on these matters,” the second man frowned at Amaya. “Doubt can sway even the strongest of minds and make even the strongest of leaders weak.”
Amaya listened and felt her heart tighten into a fist.
“Your father would have sentenced them without so much as a moment of hesitation,” the first spoke once again, directing a suspicious look full of disdain at the woman, waiting for her to fall in line.
Amaya knew that what he said was not true but she also knew that they had called her leadership into question far too many times over instances far more trivial than this, and that now, they tested her more than ever. If she did not do as they instructed, they would find a way to strip her off her title and subsequently corrupt the entire town while trying to underhand each other for the title of mayor.
Amaya closed her eyes and tried to clear her thoughts. After a few moments, she stood up.
“After careful deliberation,” she declared while the crowd turned deathly silent, and Kahlan and Cara held their breaths, “The council has found Kahlan Amnell and Cara Mason, guilty of treason against the people of Ashcroft.”
Kahlan’s eyes turned large.
The statement caused the crowd to break into a loud rumble. The men that sat at Amaya’s sides looked on in approval. Cara desperately searched the crowd for any signs of Dahlia.
“However,” Amaya lifted her hand that provoked both silence in the town square and a suspicious glare from her council, “I, Amaya Lavin, the Mayor of Ashford and servant of justice, cannot agree or adhere to this. I am declaring the trial postponed until a fortnight from now, to give the accused a fair chance to seek out this witness they claim to have for their case. This is my final word with which I bring today’s trial to its conclusion.”
The crowd burst into a furore.
“It is not within your jurisdiction to override the council!” the man to Amaya’s left jumped to his feet screeching into her ear.
“I think you will find that it is,” Amaya retaliated, refusing to be intimidated by a man who was more than half her age. “It is perfectly within reason for the Mayor to call for a vote of no confidence in the decision of the council if she feels justice is being compromised. In any case, I am merely postponing the trial, giving the accused a fair chance to defend themselves.”
“This is an abomination!” the man to Amaya’s right joined in, outraged. “The council has clearly spoken and you are out of line!”
“I will not go against my conscience,” Amaya responded. “And as your Mayor, you must accept my word as final.”
The two men exchanged looks and nodded.
“Then we are calling for a vote of no confidence in your leadership, Amaya Lavin,” the first man barked.
The crowd stilled to silence in shock.
“On what premise?” Amaya frowned. “For postponing a trial?!”
“On the accounts of bribery accepted by you,” the first man stated loudly so that everyone at the Town Square could hear him, “From the accused.”
Amaya’s eyes shot wide open. Horror-stricken, she stared at Kahlan and Cara, who stood opposite her on the square, staring back at her equally as shocked.
“Bribery?!” she demanded. “There was no bribery! Nor would there ever be any such thing under my leadership!”
The two men exchanged looks and nodded once again. They called forward a witness, who turned out to be none other than the guard that had visited Kahlan and Cara in the dungeon the night before. The two women recognised him at once.
Standing in the middle of the town square in front of the entire town, the guard feigned modesty.
“Speak truly now,” a councilman said to him. “Did you or did you not assist in an exchange of bribery between the former Mother Confessor and Amaya Lavin, Mayor of Ashford?”
“I-I did,” the guard spoke, pretending to be sorry for having to admit to such a wrongdoing. “I saw it for myself as they counted twenty gold pieces that were meant for Mayor Lavin, who was meant to go easy on them in the trail.”
“This isn’t true!” Amaya cried out, outraged. “This is a lie!”
“I told you you should’ve confessed him,” Cara whispered to Kahlan, quietly enraged that she couldn’t have done it herself.
Kahlan looked from Cara to the Mayor, who stood in the middle of the town square, surrounded by her corrupt council, withstanding lies being told about her. The Mayor looked at Kahlan, and in the moment when their eyes locked, she understood that, whether she liked it or not, they were in this together. She should’ve known that the council would play dirty, however, it was too late now - there was not much she could do about it.
“Thank you, Jared,” one of the council-heads said. “We appreciate you coming forward to bring this to the light. We understand it would have been a difficult thing to do. In light of this knowledge of Mayor Lavin’s underhanded conduct and abuse of her power, with the power invested in the council of the town of Ashford, we demand immediate arrest of Amaya Lavin.”
Two guards jumped up and seized Amaya by either arm, while she struggled to shake them off. The entire crowd surrounding the town square broke out into an fierce uproar.
“This is a lie,” Amaya cried out, “This is all a lie! It is a set up! Can’t you see?! The council is corrupt and I have been set up!”
Alas, her pleas did not help. Her voice was barely heard in the noise the crowd was making. The guards held her in place and placed shackles over her wrists, in the same way as she had ordered them to do to the Mother Confessor and the Mord'Sith only the day before.
Kahlan and Cara looked in horror at the chaos that was brewing around them, uncertain of what to do.
“Any signs of your friend?” Kahlan’s voice was harsh as she kept a sharp eye on the commotion.
“No,” Cara admitted, abandoning her last hope to see Dahlia.
“Then we are on our own,” Kahlan said, mentally preparing herself for battle if need be.
“Guards,” the council-man called out. “Seize the accused and get them back into the dungeon! Tomorrow they face execution!”
“What should we do, Mother Confessor?” Cara asked Kahlan, her eyes fixed on the advancing guards.
“I think your idea of escaping to Aydindril sounds good right about now,” Kahlan replied, steeling herself for the fight that was about to ensue.
Wielding swords in warning, the guards aimed to lead the pair in the direction of the Palace. However, as they attempted to put their hands on the women’s shoulders, both women whipped around in the spot, instinctively mirroring each other, each delivering a powerful kick that set their assailants back significantly. Alas, as the two guards crashed backwards, falling on their backs, eight more stepped up, surrounding the duo, soon to be joined by more. Kahlan and Cara stood their ground for a time, resisting all attack on them, delivering kicks and blows where they could, however, with their hands bound, and no weapon to assist them, they soon began to falter under the pressure. Cara in particular found it difficult to defend herself, her strength considerably affected by the lack of proper nourishment and rest. Eventually, she buckled under the blows delivered to her lower back and found herself on the knees.
“CARA!!!” Kahlan cried out.
She attempted to move towards the blonde to defend her but as she did, a guard drew his sword to Cara’s throat, threatening her with imminent death.
Kahlan stopped dead in her tracks. She looked Cara in the eyes. Cara looked away. She would have preferred it to be dead than be a liability like this. She hated being the Mother Confessor’s Achilles heel… And now the guards have uncovered it. The battle was over.
A guard kicked Kahlan in the knees, causing her to buckle and fall to the ground. Cara flinched while Kahlan looked on defiantly. She refused to appear defeated though the odds were not in their favour. However, the guards loved nothing more than a spirit unbroken, and her defiant attitude appeared as no more than a challenge to them. One in particular seemed to take an interest in the Mother Confessor, one who approached from behind, stood squarely between her and Cara.
It was the guard, Jared.
“You thought you could get away with what you did, you filthy scum?” he growled as he looked from one woman to the other, not knowing which one to get to first. “I’ll show you—” he raised his hand, about to deliver a powerful blow to Kahlan’s face…
“STOP!” a voice suddenly echoed out over the entire town square, interrupting the guard and the entire furore of the crowd.
“People of Ashford, stop this and listen: I HAVE what you want.”
Dahlia… Cara’s heart skipped a beat. She could hardly believe her eyes — she had just about given up on the thought that Dahlia would show her face again.
“Not this bitch again…” Jared muttered under his breath.
He reluctantly lowered his hand, Kahlan’s face spared for the time being.
“The Mother Confessor and Cara Mason are innocent of the crimes you accuse them of!” Dahlia’s voice resounded above the commotion of the crowd, prompting all eyes to turn to her. “But I have the real person who has committed crimes against our town.”
The crowd fell into silence as she marched over the town square. The guards and councilmen gawked at her in confusion, unable to make sense of what this new apparition was all about, while Dahlia walked on before them, ignoring them all, ignoring even Amaya.
The Mayor blinked at the unexpected sight of someone so close to her walk by without a single glance of acknowledgement. Till then Amaya had desperately tried to shake off the guards that held her in place by the arms, however, seeing Dahlia appear out of the blue, pass by her so indifferently, and make her way to the Mord’Sith on the other side of the square, she ceased resisting and gave in, too rattled, too bewildered by all that was going on.
Dahlia, meanwhile, entirely oblivious of the Mayor’s plight, marched head on, looked directly and only at Cara, shutting everyone else out, knowing exactly what she needed to do. The confused guards warily stepped aside, reluctantly gave way as she moved among them… But suddenly, it was no longer her the guards and the gathered people stared at. Nor the man who followed behind her, a man whose face no one in Ashford recognised, but another figure still, a figure shrouded by a red cloak so completely, face concealed, whose hands were shackled, bound by blackened chains, urged ahead by the other man, who faithfully followed Dahlia’s lead through the crowd. It was a puzzling picture to say the least, and the crowd, along with all of the officials, as well as Kahlan and Cara, stared in astonishment, bewildered. As Dahlia moved forward, the man followed behind her, tightening the lead of the chains whenever they slacked to the ground from their own weight, pulling his prisoner on, like he would a dog, keeping him in order, forcing him into obedience.
They made their way over the cobblestone, until Dahlia halted before the Mord’Sith and the Mother Confessor, at which point her two followers paused also. Cara and Kahlan looked up at her from their kneeling positions. Jared, the guard, stared in dismay also, however he was a fair bit more suspicious of the woman than everyone else was in that moment. An uneasy feeling stirred in the pit of his gut, for he had crossed paths with Dahlia before, whether he explicitly remembered it or not.
“What do you want?” he growled, the ineffable agitation converting into anger.
Dahlia ignored him.
Kahlan’s eyes flitted from Dahlia to Cara, back to Dahlia again, as she perceived the intensity of their interlocked gazes. Who knew that a mere country-girl could hold so much sway over Cara Mason, the ferocious Mord’Sith, she thought, puzzled, curious, her heart aching, throbbing fast. She attempted to stand up but a pair of guards pressed down on her shoulders, forced her to remain in place. Irritably she shook them off but remained on her knees.
Cara, meanwhile, saw none other than Dahlia before her. She saw her pale eyes, her dark lips… A strange sense of déjà-vu haunted her, as though she could just about see the woman, not dressed in her regular clothes, not in her dark green tattered cloak as she was, but clad in maroon leather, her dark hair braided, like a whip of foreboding, an agiel in a gloved hand… Though her lips, her lips were the same, always the same, stained the colour of dark wine, smirking, concealing something, triumphant, mocking, knowing.
“Release them at once and I will deliver who our people really want,” Dahlia said loudly.
Her gaze lingered within Cara’s for a moment longer, before she turned to face the councilmen, making it known that it was them she was speaking to. Cara snapped out of her reverie that felt all too vivid, brought back to the real world… And yet, something… Something felt different than it did only moments ago.
The old men standing at the square’s throne exchanged glances, confounded. Amaya swallowed against a heavy lump in her throat, breath all but suspended, wondering what on earth was the only person she ever somewhat trusted up to. It was not like Dahlia to keep secrets from her.
A councilman cleared his throat and said:
“I believe you are too late, Miss…uh…”
“Dahlia,” she answered.
“…Dahlia. The trial has already been concluded,” he said. “And all those found guilty are to be punished accordingly.”
“Does that mean that you will be punished?” she tilted her head.
“I beg your pardon?” the man frowned.
“Does that mean that you,” Dahlia annunciated the words carefully, “Will be punished also for all the underhanded things you have done?"
The man stiffened, his look turned dark.
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about,” he retaliated, unnerved. “And who on earth do you think you are, waltzing in like this, interrupting a formal event, accusing the council who has sworn only to serve and protect the people of our town?”
“I already told you,” she shrugged simply, “I’m Dahlia.”
Of all times to get mouthy… she thought.
She bowed her head in dismay, afraid of what might happen next.
“It appears that you are here to do no more than distract from a direct order being carried out,” the councilman replied impatiently. “In which case I have no choice but to order your arrest for the obstruction of justice.”
He raised his hand, about to snap his fingers and give the guards a signal to seize her, when Dahlia replied,
“Ah. But aren’t you in the least bit curious about who it is I have brought you? I promise you, you will not be disappointed.”
Jared clenched his jaw, irked by this woman who spoke her mind so freely right under his nose. He narrowed his eyes and tightened his fists, ready to tackle her down at the first word from the councilmen.
“Go ahead,” Dahlia nodded at the man who had followed her to the square, holding the chains of their captive.
The man cleared his throat and began.
“My name is Jacob,” he said in a voice that was loud enough for most people to hear.
The crowd curiously shifted their gaze to him.
“I am a humble servant from Aydindril…”
At hearing mention of her home, Kahlan sat upright.
“I was there the day Denee Amnell was murdered by Darken Rahl and Nicci, a Sister of the Dark.”
At this point, the silence in the square turned deafening.
The councilmen exchanged troubled, impatient glances. They were eager to move on, anxious to have the Mayor and the two accused women put away for good so that they could get on with their own plans for the town. Alas, with so many people there, with so many eyes on them, they knew they could not get away with simply dismissing this… newcomer. They had to at least hear out his testimony.
“What did you say your name was?” one of them said.
“Jacob,” the man replied.
“And you served in Aydindril?”
“I did,” he said. “I saw it with my own two eyes as Nicci glamoured her appearance into that of the Mother Confessor, and Darken Rahl’s into Richard Cypher, the Seeker. I believe it was them, disguised in the same way, who deceived you into believing that it was indeed Kahlan Amnell and Cara Mason, her Mord’Sith, who committed the crimes against the people of your town.”
“And where were you when you saw them perform this ‘glamouring’?” a councilman asked, sceptical.
“I was on the outskirts of Aydindril, walking through the woods, on my way to visit my mother who lives nearby. At one point I heard voices, hushed voices in the shadows of the forest, and… Something about the way they spoke seemed strange… It invoked a bad feeling in me and I felt drawn to observe them for a while. I hid so that they wouldn’t see me but… You cannot imagine my horror when I realised that it was Darken Rahl himself I was looking at. I could not hear everything that he and the Sorceress said but that which I could hear, I understood that they planned to infiltrate Aydindril by pretending to be the Mother Confessor and the Seeker, to capture Denee, use her for the purpose of raising an army through dark magic, so that they could eventually murder the real Seeker and conquer our lands, all of the Midlands and beyond.”
The crowd began to murmur amongst themselves. Dahlia observed them from beneath her lashes.
“I saw it when they used magic to glamour their appearance,” Jacob continued, his voice rising with fervor. “This is how they were able to get inside the Confessors’ Palace unchallenged and get an audience with Denee at all.”
“If this is true, then where were you when they killed the Confessor?” the second councilman barked. “Why did you do nothing to stop them?”
“I tried,” Jacob retaliated. “I ran as fast as I could, I ran to the Confessors’ Palace but somehow they managed to get there ahead of me…”
“‘Somehow’?” the councilman repeated dubiously.
“When I tried to explain to the Confessors’ council what I had seen in the woods, they did not believe me,” he continued. “By the time we looked for Denee, it was already too late… We found her mutilated, her headless body on the floor in her chamber…”
Aware of the horror painted by his words, Jacob shifted on his feet and stole a glance at Kahlan. The people noticed him do so and followed suit, finding the accused Confessor glare at her own witness with dry eyes. By nature, most of the people gathered at the square that day were inclined to pity her for the horrible fate befallen her only sister, if only she was not the horrific monster that had ravaged through their town, killing many other people’s sisters, and brothers, husbands and sons, as they were lead to believe. They grappled with their conflicted emotions, caught somewhere between innate compassion and anger, though at seeing her stare straight ahead, appearing emotionless, almost frighteningly so, they were more inclined to believe that she really was a monster, their anger justified.
Cara looked at Kahlan too, her eyes full of sorrow. She knew the truth, above everyone else, and felt pangs of pain and regret for all that she, herself had done to Denee long ago. She so wished she could take it back… Go back in time and alter the many terrible deeds she had committed in her lifetime. But as it was, that was impossible, and she would have to endure the pain of her guilt for the rest of her life. The least she could do now was take care of Kahlan as much as she could.
It cannot be easy for her to listen to this, she thought. She shouldn’t have to listen to this all over again.
And yet, when Cara looked at the woman, the Mother Confessor was perfectly still, kneeling, though her breast rose and sank deeply as she listened. Her eyes were pointed straight ahead, like that of a hawk’s, directly at the man as he described the way in which her sister perished.
Cara knew by now that when the Mother Confessor was this calm, it was not a good thing.
“It was then that I mounted a horse, left Aydindril and sought the Mother Confessor to tell her of the tragedy and danger of Darken Rahl,” Jacob continued, “Exactly as I imagine she would have already told you.”
Cara blinked. She refocused her eyes on Jacob. For a single brief moment she questioned whether her cognition was failing her as a result of her current state… Before reprimanding herself for such doubt.
This was not the same rider that had come looking for them those months ago to deliver the terrible news of Denee's fate. This man was lying.
She looked back to Kahlan again. She understood now why the Mother Confessor was so tense, so calm. She perceived now how her acute gaze followed Jacob, sized up every move of his muscles, growing more intense with every deceiving word that left his lips.
Cara clenched her jaw. She turned to Dahlia, and scrutinised her more carefully.
What are you playing at?
A troubling feeling stirred in her belly.
However… As much as Cara hated to admit this to herself, the unease was as much from fear that Dahlia could get caught in the crossfire as it was from the possibility of being double-crossed by the woman she barely knew after all. With her own less-than-ideal state at present, and Kahlan as good as captured also, things appeared calm on the surface for the moment, but really, she sensed that everything was hanging on the edge of a knife… A knife that Dahlia, herself seemed to be wilding for the time being. But how long can she keep up the pretences and keep everyone fooled, Cara wondered… If things were to get out of control once again, she feared she would not be able to protect her.
“That is all very well, Mr Jacob,” the councilman shrugged off his explanation, unconvinced. “But how are we to truly believe you? After all, all you have brought us is your word. How are we to know that you are telling the truth and are not some imposter, paid off by the Mayor and the accused to back their story exactly as they are known to have done with each other already?”
“You don’t have to believe us, Mr Councilman,” Dahlia replied instead, her voice velvety. “In fact, you don’t have to believe anything we say. All that matters is that you, the townsfolk of Ashford,” she waved her hand over the crowd, “Know the truth. And if you won’t believe what you hear from a witness, perhaps you’ll believe what you see with your own eyes.”
With these words, Dahlia crossed the small distance to the prisoner who stood waiting patiently at the other end of the chain, and drew back his hood to reveal his face.
At first, his head remained bowed, but as he tentatively looked up, the crowd broke into a unanimous gasp of bewilderment.
It was Richard. Richard Cypher, Richard Rahl, the Seeker of Truth, in the flesh.
Cara’s eyes widened at the sight of her master and friend.
“It isn’t possible…” she said. “Kahlan… It isn’t possible. He died.”
Kahlan stared at Richard, mouth open in utter astonishment, barely registering what Cara was saying. She shook her head in disbelief.
“It can’t be…” she whispered. “I saw you… I saw you disperse into the light…”
“Kahlan…” Cara called to her.
Kahlan did not turn.
“Kahlan!” the Mord’Sith called louder, the effort of which took greater strength from her than what she had to give.
The Mother Confessor automatically turned to face her, shock apparent on her face.
“I know,” she whispered, her voice full of suppressed emotion, full of suppressed hope, “It could be Rahl…”
“The Seeker lives!” a woman in the crowd suddenly exclaimed.
“The Seeker is alive and well!” another one chimed in. “Long live the Seeker of Truth!”
Very quickly, the crowd broke into an excited rumble, the kind that could very easily get out of control, the councilmen realised, dismayed.
“SILENCE!” one of the two shouted, though to little avail.
The unexpected appearance by the Seeker of Truth himself certainly did not bide well for them. But they were not ready to concede just yet.
Slowly, and vigilantly, a councilman approached Richard, while the other remained by the throne where Amaya was held captive by the guards. When he reached Richard, he circled about him, looked him up and down carefully, sizing him up. Richard endured his gaze as well as every other keen one that was upon him, patiently and in silence. The only gaze that truly called to him was that of the Mother Confessor, though for other reasons altogether, and he was unprepared for her presence.
“You will state your name,” the councilman said.
Richard looked from the old man to Dahlia’s pretty face and quizzical eyes, which scrutinised him and kept him in place as much as the chains did.
“R-Richard Cypher,” his voice was low, barely audible.
“Speak up!” the councilman said.
“Richard Cypher,” he replied louder.
“Where were you born?” the councilman continued, circling him still.
At this, Richard said nothing. He looked to Dahlia for reassurance and got an encouraging, albeit wicked, slanted smile in return.
“Speak!” the councilman grew impatient.
But still, Richard said nothing.
He looked over the crowd, who stared back at him apprehensive, confused, the ache of all of their prior betrayal and grief still too hot in their hearts. His overly passive nature was unlike what they remembered of the Seeker. Their excitement started to waver as they waited for him to speak, to speak the truth and quench all of their fears at long last.
Most of all, however, his gaze kept going back and lingered over Kahlan’s… It was her eyes that haunted him the most. He watched as her hope transformed into a broken one, a betrayed one.
“Speak now or be labeled a fraud,” the councilman spat at him, too tired to continue playing games now that he was so close to victory.
Richard looked from the old man’s reddened, impatient face, to Dahlia’s reserved one, and again, to Kahlan’s. It was her look, suddenly full of suppressed rage that got to him, and at last, caused him to break down.
He did not like breaking hearts and killing hope.
He bowed his head and buried his face in his hands.
The crowd started to murmur, perplexed.
What is happening? Is he an imposter? whispers rippled among them.
“I was born,” he said, his voice suddenly turning soft, feminine, full of soul, “In Aydindril.”
He ran his shackled hands over his face, over his forehead and through his hair, which, as if by magic, sprang to life, and before everyone’s eyes, grew dark, luscious and long… And when he next looked up, the crowd saw that his face had transformed into that of Kahlan Amnell, herself.
The people of Ashford shrank back, aghast.
“Or maybe some place else,” he said in the Mother Confessor’s own voice. “I don’t really know.”
“’Tis a sorcerer…” a woman whispered.
“‘Tis dark magic, this is…” another replied.
“Could the Mother Confessor have been telling the truth? Or could they have conspired together?”
"Who knows, but we should get the children away from here… Sorcerers are unpredictable, it may not be safe to linger.”
Slowly, a portion of the gathered crowd began to retreat, out of fear of unpredictable retaliation.
The councilman himself became disconcerted for a moment, unprepared to see magic at such close proximity. However, it was not long before he realised his chance, saw that this was exactly the opportunity he needed. He braced himself mentally for taking this imposter down, and fast.
“You don’t know where the Mother Confessor was born,” he narrowed his eyes. “And you are clearly not confident in speaking as the Seeker, which must mean you are neither. Let me guess. Your little performance here is to demonstrate that people can alter their appearance with just a little bit of magic, and that Kahlan Amnell and the Mord’Sith here cannot really be held accountable for what happened here in Ashford; that it could have been anyone committing crimes in their name…”
“More or less…” the sorcerer conceded in an even voice, eager for this entire event to be over.
“Well, isn’t that noble of you…” the councilman spoke nonchalantly, feigning leisure by casually holding his hands behind his back. “Or rather, it would have been noble of you, if you were not in chains and, from what I gather, forced to perform this silly little act by Miss Dahlia here, hmm?”
The sorcerer said nothing in reply. Dahlia was undeterred.
Kahlan and Cara watched carefully — one silently outraged, the other, uneasy.
“Regardless, and unfortunately for you,” the councilman’s voice raised so that everyone could hear him now, “We cannot have a rogue sorcerer running around our lands unchecked, especially not if it is on behalf of someone seeking to disrupt the procession of the law, carelessly accusing the council of corruption no less,” he pointed his eyes at Dahlia. “We must have you thoroughly examined and regulated… And until then, we must have you detained.”
With his hand behind his back, the councilman gestured at the guards, who marched up to the sorcerer and Jacob, placed a heavy hand on each one’s shoulder, ready to lead them away. Jared seized his chance to exact his revenge on Dahlia too — he approached her from behind and roughly grabbed her by the shoulder — a foreshadowing of what was to come for her. And yet, the woman remained steadfast, unshrinking. She ignored the guard and looked the sorcerer in the eyes, his panic and resentment not lost on her, while she remained calm.
“That sounds like a promise indeed, Mr Councilman,” she said while coolly enduring Jared’s hand on her shoulder. “However, I did tell the people of Ashford that I have brought them the true culprit of crimes committed against them… And I fully intend on delivering on that promise.”
Remove the chains… the sorcerer mouthed to Dahlia.
She ignored him.
“Then by all means…” the councilman replied impatiently, “Conjure him up and let us throw him in the dungeons too!”
“Dahlia…” the sorcerer said in the Mother Confessor’s hard voice. “Remove the chains… You promised.”
The edge in the sorcerer's voice invoked a troubling feeling in the councilman’s belly. He flinched but tried not to let it show.
“Don’t worry,” she said to him, “One way or another, I always keep my promises.”
In the next moment, Dahlia turned, withdrew a dagger from within her cloak and rammed it into Jared’s money-sack, which hung at his belt. With one swift movement she tore the sack open and onto the cobblestone spilled large golden coins, the sum of which was a rarity for the local townspeople to see. They stared, surprised.
“People of Ashford, it was not our Mayor who conspired with the Mother Confessor and Cara Mason,” her voice rang out so that everyone could hear her clearly, “But the councilmen who set them all up, by bribing everyone who could be bought!”
The councilman’s eyes turned large.
“Th-that is a lie!” he stammered, caught by surprise.
“There were no witnesses to collusion between our Mayor and the innocent women who are accused,” she continued in the same streak, “Because there was none! The only deceit and underhanded behaviour was conducted by the corrupt men of the council, who clearly wish to seize the power from our faithful Mayor for their own gain, and the guards who are no better!”
“Shut up!” the old man screeched.
Jared took this as invitation enough. He swung his hand and backhanded Dahlia across the face to shut her up. She fell to her knees from the sheer force of the blow.
Cara attempted to get on her feet but was held back by the guards.
“Remove the chains!” the sorcerer cried to Dahlia.
“Not until you keep your own word!” Dahlia retorted.
Jacob stared from Dahlia, who sat on the cobblestone nursing a bruised cheek, to the sorcerer who appeared as the Mother Confessor, confused as to what to do.
“Guards, arrest them all and throw them in the dungeon!” the two main councilmen screamed.
As the guards bolted over the town square, the crowd burst into a furore that threatened to run everyone over. Half the people were shouting in the councilmen’s defence, the other half in Amaya’s.
The sorcerer, agitated, summarised his situation promptly. More and more guards assembled around them. He looked Dahlia in the eyes for a split second before Jared grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her to her feet. She attempted to push him away, alas, she lacked the strength to fight him off. Cara watched in horror as the man viciously struck her across the face once again, with far more deliberate force this time… And again. Jacob attempted to rush to her aid but was promptly overpowered by guards. Dahlia held on for dear life as each of Jared’s blows ripped over her cheek anew, over and over again, the coarseness of his rough glove tearing her delicate skin, causing her to bleed, bringing her that much closer to unconsciousness.
Cara raged under the pressure indicted by the guards that surrounded her. She fought and resisted with everything she had in her, despite her feebleness, desperate to rush to Dahlia’s aid, until at last, she managed to muster up enough strength and gather enough leeway to headbutt a guard in the face, then kick another in the groin, thus freeing herself for a moment. Alas, as she attempted to get to Kahlan, aware that they’d be more effective together, another guard intercepted her and delivered a powerful blow right into her stomach.
“CARA!” Kahlan screamed.
Cara fell backwards, winded, dizzy.
Kahlan… The baby… she thought, but could not speak it out loud.
“Cara!!!” Kahlan screamed again.
She fought with all of her strength against the guards that were on her.
But at the very last, it was the Sorcerer who could take it no longer.
“I cannot do what you are asking me to do with these chains on!” he shouted to Dahlia. “Magic of that magnitude requires me to be free!”
But Dahlia was too far gone to respond.
The sorcerer looked to Jacob with desperate, pleading eyes.
“I am useless to you both like this…” he said. “We will all end up in the dungeon.”
Jacob looked from the sorcerer, to Dahlia… It was clear to him that she was no longer in a condition to make any judgements needed in this situation. It had to be him.
He dared to risk kicking a guard in the gut, elbowing another. He managed to free himself and evade them just long enough to get to Dahlia, to retrieve the black key he knew she was keeping in a pouch at her waist. Once he had found it, he had just enough time to turn around and throw the key in the air, in the sorcerer’s direction, before Jared turned his attention from Dahlia to him, punching him right in the face, knocking him out.
Fortunately, the sorcerer managed to catch the key just in time, and in one swoop, placed and turned it in the lock of the shackles upon his wrists. As if by magic, the shackles along with the chains evaporated into thin air.
Guards attempted to kick him, to make him buckle to the ground, but he was faster. Hands outstretched to the sky, he invoked protection from a shield impervious to any and all outside forces. The guards could no longer reach him. He began chanting, chanting in a voice that shifted from Kahlan’s into a harder, masculine one. His appearance began to shift as well, into someone who better matched his voice. He was a young man, of about twenty years old. However, as he continued to chant, his voice shifted again, became deeper and deeper, and his hair ashen until it became grey, and suddenly, an appearance covered his own, so that it looked as though he were two people, a young wizard utilising the power of an old one, a barely visible one, channelling him, channeling his han. He chanted and chanted and the world began to slowly shift.
Cara meanwhile, hunched over, crutching at her belly in pain, feared that the baby inside was gravely hurt. Kahlan called out to her, she called and called while she fought the guards to break free, but Cara could barely hear her. All she could focus on, all she could think about was the baby and the fact that her thoughtlessness, her selfish actions could have harmed it.
She attempted to stand up.
A guard approached her from behind and delivered a blow to her head. Cara fell backwards, unconscious.
“CARA!” Kahlan screamed. “CARA!!!”
But it was too late.
CARA she screamed, and her voice seemed to grow distant in her own ears. The guards watched in horror as suddenly the Mother Confessor’s blue eyes filled with the night, and her body trembled with fury ready to unleash. In a moment more, she lost all control. But whether it was Kahlan’s ConDar that took over, or the sorcerer’s powerful magic having its effect, the sky above Ashford’s town square blackened and the earth beneath it shook. People screamed and began to disperse en masse. Utter chaos befell the centre of the town. Even the councilmen and the guards looked about themselves in fear, unsure of what to do. And when it was done, when ground steadied once again and the sorcerer at last completed his spell of reverse-undoing, thereby promptly vanishing into thin air, his promise fulfilled, and when Kahlan’s own blackened eyes focused clearly on her surroundings, full of fury, full of power, ready to rip through her surroundings, they were not the only ones.
You have forgotten the prophecy, and now curse us all to death… The ever-familiar voice said.
Cara sat upright.
The pain in her belly was gone, the heaviness from her entire body lifted. Cara was feeling much lighter than only moments ago… which, as she observed, was rather strange.
You should have listened… the voice spoke again.
“I don’t understand”, Cara replied.
She turned about herself, confused.
In the midst of the chaos that surrounded her, in the midst of its extraordinary stillness, Cara sought the source of the voice. In the stillness of the chaos that surrounded her she could not find it, but she perceived terror on frozen faces, terror and bewilderment, laced with anger, fuelled by greed, masking, ultimately, fear…
The state she was in, it felt unreal, and yet, she was overcome with a strange sensation of clarity that felt too real, maybe even hyper-real, causing the memory of the waking world to appear as no more than a vague dream.
“What is happening?” she uttered, perplexed by this very strange picture she found herself in.
The people that surrounded her, these people… The peasants, farmers, townsfolk and guards alike, who stood on this stage made of stone, where it felt as though she had been waiting forever, she knew who they were, looking at them now, she recognised their essence. They were not strangers about to lynch her, like she had thought of them only moments ago — she recalled that this was just a part they chose to play, just as she had chosen to be a Mord’Sith — but rather, her own brethren. She saw their light on the inside, and perceived how their fears had concealed it… And now, as she sought the source of the voice that spoke to her, she saw that they were reduced to no more than human bodies frozen mid-battle, or mid-flight, as though seized, captured, in a living, breathing painting. And she, the only awoken one, was the only one aware.
“Where are you?”
I am here, the voice replied.
Cara turned, and turned again. Somewhere above the crowd of people fleeing for their lives, somewhere around the midpoint between Kahlan and Dahlia, she saw, at last, a vague figure enveloped in emanating pink light. She could not quite distinguish its face, but it appeared old, wrinkled, weathered, feminine… And, unexpectedly benevolent. It was by the familiar voice, and the ever-haunting presence that Cara recognised Shota, though the witch’s beauty and youth were long gone, while her true form came to light.
“What are we doing here?” Cara asked. “Am I dead?”
No… Shota replied. No, you are not.
Unlike the night when Shota had erupted from the camp fire in the forest, her voice roaring like giant flames to reveal the prophecy that would alter Cara and Kahlan’s lives forever, while ending others’, the witch’s voice sounded infinitely more ethereal and gentle now. It was this more than anything else that surprised Cara.
But the baby… The baby will be, she added.
Cara froze. She remembered suddenly everything that had transpired only moments ago… The fight with the guards, seeing Dahlia be beaten, seeing Kahlan captured, restrained, and she, running, heedlessly running, headfirst, into a fist that came out of nowhere and set her back, winded her, and ravaged her stomach with unbearable pain. Cara remembered it all as if recalling events from a different lifetime.
She placed her hands on her belly, her heart full of sorrow.
“I chose wrong,” she said, her voice heavy. “Didn’t I?”
That is yet to be seen, Shota replied. I can see now that even as I have lived the many lives within this one of a witch, I have not all the answers. However, your actions, Cara Mason, have caused at least one casualty today upon our world, and if you do not wake soon, there will be many, MANY more.
“What must I do?” Cara replied, concerned, earnest.
You already posses the knowledge, even if you seem to have forgotten the prophecy, the witch replied.
“But I remember it…” Cara protested. “I always have! ‘The Mother Confessor will conceive a child, one single child in all of her life, who will shape the fate of all Confessors to come, all Seekers to come, and all of the world. The child will be touched by the four forces and will be the master of all four. He will be Seeker, Confessor, Wizard and Lord, and will usher in a time of peace across the lands. But only IF he is raised by the woman he is born to, for only SHE will be able to understand his darkness, and through it, reach his light.'"
…Because only she, Shota continued as though speaking from the same breath, Will be able to save him, to teach him of love, if she, herself becomes open to love.
Cara stared at the apparition, wide-eyed, horror-stricken.
“How could I have forgotten that part…?” she wondered at herself, incredulous. “In my heart, I’ve always known it… But in my mind, my mind… It was muddy, it-it was missing.”
Without your love, Cara, Shota’s voice, though wistful, was without a hint of reprimand for the Mord’Sith, This child will grow up to be a monster the world has never seen, and should never see. A greater mercy is to leave the world of man to commence its slow decline into ruin now, than to allow this child to grow without love to ground it. Better the fall of mankind than the irreparable tearing, the barren destruction that would otherwise be the death of the world itself.
“But how can that be?!” Cara cried, her voice falling soft like feathers. “Why would the world of mankind fall into such decay? How can one soul cause it to be so?”
As she stood before Shota’s ghost, Cara was no longer the Mord’Sith killer shaped by years of hard training, pain and discipline, but the raw spirit of the young girl who cared about the world, who cared about its creatures, big and small, before she was stolen from her family, and her compassion, murdered.
Good warped into evil is the worst kind to exist… That is the outcome of this powerful child raised without love, while without him, there is but one Confessor to still walk the earth, Cara Mason, but ONE Confessor… And her heart is devoted to you. It is out of her love for you, her fear of losing you, that she will unleash horror, slavery and death upon this group of people gathered here today, whether they may deserve it or not.
“And is it this that will cause a war to throw the world of mankind into slow ruin?” Cara asked innocently.
No… It is the Mother Confessor’s downfall that ultimately will, Shota replied, her voice suddenly ice-cold. Mankind is not strong enough to exist without Confessors.
Yes. For in her blind rage, born out of her love for you, fuelled by her fear of losing you, Kahlan Amnell will come against another, one other whom she had already killed once before… One whom you loved in another life, a parallel one, one that was erased from you.
Cara stared at the apparition, while the entire story of the erased memories vividly unfolded before her eyes, as though a live movie played.
It is the collision of this parallel love that will be the undoing of the Confessor, for it is then that the pendulum of time will swing the other way, that the tide will shift, that the day will turn into night, and that the debt will be repaid.
“The debt…” Cara said, awed by the secret, sacred knowledge that suddenly flooded her senses. “Yes, I remember now. The necessary debt… The burden and curse of Confessor-kind, the mercy upon the world. I remember. Kahlan… In another life, she kills Dahlia… And my heart does not recover.”
My good old Zeddicus thought he could make it better the only way he knew how, Shota continued. He used magic to reverse life as you knew it, and alter Dahlia’s existence. He spared her the path of the Mord’Sith, though it was not his to do so… But in doing so, she was also taken from you. The rift was not healed… It was made worse.
Cara stared into the radiating pink light, a tear rolling down her cheek.
And now… Now she comes back with a silent vengeance of her own, a vengeance she does not know she possesses. And you… You must wake now, Cara, and prevent this from happening. You must wake and prevent Kahlan from committing the atrocities she is about to commit, that will ultimately claim her life by Dahlia's hand. It is the only way to save her, and the only way to save the world.
“Yes,” Cara replied, her voice urgent, “I must… I will not fail this time, I will save her.”
Stop her rage — save the Last Confessor.
“I will…” Cara cried. “I will! Help me wake up! I must wake up now!”
You already are… Shota replied. But also know this: you must follow your heart, for you will not remember any of this, anything of what we spoke…
As the words were spoken and heard, they already began to leave Cara’s mind.
“I won’t remember…” Cara said, “But I will know…”
Suddenly she grew very puzzled, then stupefied. The blank trail in her mind grew too great, too disconcerting. As the knowledge left her, it left a chill in her heart also.
“Wait…” she panicked. “And the baby? Is he not gone already? Is saving Kahlan not futile already?!”
One life was already claimed today, Cara Mason. You must now follow your heart to save the world, for there will be nothing else to guide you, Shota replied as the pink light that engulfed her began to fade.
“Wait, what?! You expect me to know what I am supposed to do,” Cara cried again, her voice regaining its usual Mord’Sith edge, “When I won’t even be able to remember that I am supposed to do something?!”
Follow your heart… The voice was faint now, reaching her as though from a great distance.
A moment later, Shota, along with all traces of the pink light, vanished into thin air.
“Fuck,” Cara said, and opened her eyes.
A wolf locked inside a pen of lambs, a wolf on the verge of frenzy at the slaughter it was about to commit, eyes blood-shot, black as the night, a macabre smile drawn, was the Mother Confessor, the last Confessor, standing there, at the heart of Ashford’s town square. People ran in every which way they could, they grabbed their children and ran, but some were unlucky enough to be caught in her crossfire, for no guard, no matter how armed, could get to Kahlan now without evading her invisible clutches, which were stronger and extended farther than ever before. Arms outstretched, fingers twisted into claws that choked an invisible neck, Kahlan tilted her head, narrowed the midnight that were her eyes, calculating with the sliver of reason she had left at which moment to annihilate their freedom. More than two dozen people stood before her, most of them soldiers, staring at her, paralysed, choked by her from a distance, praying to the Spirits she would not strip them of their freewill, praying she would not turn them into her slaves for life, while the Confessor, the Mother of All Confessors to come, stood in the epicentre of the chaos, radiating out her power full-force, like a black star clad in a white dress, about to explode, holding back by a thread.
Cara, rousing from her strange unconscious slumber, in a bit of time came to her senses, though oblivious to what was happening around her. Shadows danced through her eyelids, shadows she could not face just yet. Her first instinct was to feel for the baby, afraid for his life. Even before opening her eyes, she placed her hands on her belly.
No pain… There was no pain at all, she realised. But the baby… He was still there. He was not gone from her. He lived.
Overwhelmed by relief, Cara sighed a prayer of gratitude. To whom, she did not know. Spirits were not exactly her thing… But she was grateful, so very deeply grateful that the baby’s life was spared, grateful enough that she would utter such a prayer, especially when recalling, by the blow she had endured, that he should be gone.
She rested her head back on the cobblestone and watched as shadows danced through her eyelids, sharper and sharper in her vision. The atmosphere descended around her and it was only then, when distracted by the rush of feet fleeing nearby, that she opened her eyes, looked up and saw, not Kahlan, befallen prisoner to the power of her own ConDar, but another figure, another just as familiar one, the one that had been dancing through her closed eyes this whole time, the one with chestnut hair, and wine-coloured lips stained by blood, who out of nowhere was wielding a pair of agiels like a true Mord’Sith. No longer a victim to the corrupt guard who had beat her bloody, Dahlia had quite suddenly, and violently, dispensed her own justice and revenge against Jared, leaving him in a heap on the ground, his body wrenched in agiel-induced agony, while she rushed to be by Cara’s side. Cara adjusted her eyes at this figure that stood her ground, towering above her, defending her against any man who attempted to get near her regardless of the councilmen’s orders. Though she wore no leather suit, though her dress and cloak were the same, simple, that of a common town-girl, though no Mord’Sith braid lashed behind her with every dodge of a sword, Cara saw that Dahlia’s delicate curls held their own and turned wild with every sharp movement of the woman’s body that came to her as smoothly and naturally as breathing.
After she had fought off the last of their attackers, in a brief moment of respite, forehead speckled with perspiration, Dahlia brushed her hair off with the back of her hand. With the same stroke, she smeared blood that had trickled from a gash at her eyebrow. She looked down to check on the Mord’Sith and seeing her awake at last, her eyes locked with Cara’s. The blonde stared back at her in awe but not so very surprised. After all, she felt it in her heart - Dahlia, wielding power - this was her destiny.
Dahlia offered her a hand; Cara took ahold of her forearm and drew herself up into standing.
They came face to face, close.
“Are you alright?” Dahlia whispered, apprehension evident on the softness of her breath.
“I am…” Cara replied.
She frowned in a manner that suggested there was more to her answer than she could offer in that moment.
They looked at each other, arms linked, as if they had stood like this a hundred times before… A hundred times, in a different lifetime.
A woman ran past them, screaming as she fled.
Cara looked about her and at last spotted Kahlan looking utterly frightening, as though possessed, holding hostage an entire group of people, about to commit irreversible damage, about to enslave them all to her will — a mistake she knew the ever-just Confessor would never forgive herself for, for as long as she lived.
Cara’s face drained of colour.
She dropped Dahlia’s hand, wanting to run, before a hand grabbed her by the shoulder.
“Don’t do it, Cara,” Dahlia said, “She’s too dangerous!”
“I have to, Dahlia,” Cara replied.
A flood of emotion overwhelmed her the more she remembered Kahlan… Her Kahlan.
“Please… I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you again…” Dahlia pleaded.
Yes, Dahlia truly was from another lifetime, Cara realised. And there was no time for that now.
“You must do nothing,” she replied, looking her pointedly in the eyes. She wasn’t sure why she said this exactly, she couldn't quite recall where this deep rooted-drive and knowing came from, but she knew she had to say it. Her voice was assured, even hard, as she spoke. “Promise me, you will DO NOTHING.”
Dahlia stared at her, taken aback.
Without waiting for an answer, Cara turned again and ran, ran in Kahlan’s direction, while Dahlia stood in the spot and looked on helplessly, agiels lowered to her sides.
The closer Cara got to Kahlan, the more clearly she heard the councilmen shout from the other side of the town square.
“Get her! Take her down NOW!”
At their command, another dozen soldiers reluctantly rushed in Kahlan’s direction. Fortunately, Cara got to her before them. She stood directly in front of her, deliberately blocking her view of the people she held suspended with the ConDar.
“Kahlan…” she said, her voice urgent. “It’s me. I’m fine, the baby is fine… You don’t need to do this.”
She searched the black eyes that looked straight through her, not really seeing her, for hints of recognition, however she saw nothing but a singleminded purpose bent on punishing anyone and everyone that happened to be nearby.
“Kahlan!” she called loudly this time, hoping to get through to her. “You have to stop this, now!”
Cara perceived Kahlan refocus her eyes and look at her more closely, scrutinising her features. For a moment it appeared as though she had recognised her.
“It’s me… Cara!” she repeated. She cupped Kahlan’s face with both hands. “You don’t need to do this anymore, I’m fine! You have to let these people go! You must not confess them!”
Forced to look Cara straight in the eyes, Kahlan withdrew one of her hands that controlled an entire group of people from a distance. For a moment it appeared as though she would abandon her crusade, that she really had recognised Cara, her companion, comrade and friend, but this was not so. With the same hand she rebuffed Cara off herself, out of the way, then returned to controlling the crowd that surrounded her. And when the guards reached her, they fell to her invisible clutches just as everyone else, as did a few people more, children too, who did not manage to get far enough away in that moment.
Horrified, Cara knew she needed to try again. She grabbed Kahlan by the shoulders, shook her hard, desperate to snap her out of her madness, but to no avail. Kahlan pushed her out of the way once again, only this time, she did it with more force.
From afar, Dahlia perceived what was happening. Lips pressed into a thin line, she gripped Cara’s agiels tighter, the pain of which jolted her with enough adrenaline to be ready for anything. Still, the words Cara had left her with made her hesitate… Cara must have had good reason to say something like that… And so, she decided to give her one more chance to get through to the Mother Confessor.
“Call for reinforcements!” a councilman shouted to the guards, while trying to flee the square. “And make sure Amaya is taken to the dungeons!”
Suddenly, Kahlan turned her gaze in their direction. She shifted her arms directly in front of her, towards the councilmen. In a single moment, she had them seized by the power of the ConDar, the two councilmen, the entire council-board, the guards who stood by them… As well as Amaya.
“No…” Dahlia whispered, fear leaping in her belly.
Frozen like everyone around her, Amaya glared at Kahlan, unable to look away, gasping for air. With every person Kahlan seized under her control, her powers seemed to grow. Suddenly, wind picked up, dark clouds began to gather at an unprecedented speed, obscuring the sun, until the town of Ashford was covered by darkness.
“Kahlan, stop, now!” Cara stood before her once again, unwilling to give up. “Find the strength to stop… This is not the way! This isn’t you!”
But it wasn’t Cara that had captured Kahlan’s attention… It was Dahlia.
Agiels swinging, the woman threw herself at Kahlan with all of her might. And if it were not for Cara pushing Dahlia out of the way in the nick of time, it would have been her gasping for air a moment later, it would have been her the Mother Confessor choked, while her heart unleashed the full power of the ConDar, the first to be confessed that day.
But it was not her, it was Cara in her place.
From the ground where she had fallen, Dahlia stared in disbelief as Kahlan confessed the Mord'Sith… And even more so when she realised it wasn’t working.
“Kah—lan…” Cara struggled, her face turning red from lack of oxygen.
She clutched Kahlan’s wrist with both hands as the Confessor singlehandedly choked her with strength she did not usually posses.
“K-Kahlan…” Cara gasped for breath in-between words. “I-I am already bound to you… I drank your p-power through the confession spell… And I broke it… R-remember the Shrine of t-the Zoria… You can’t confess me a-again…”
Perplexed by her words and the realisation that she couldn’t, in fact, confess Cara, Kahlan, in her enraged state, blinked, and for a moment grew doubtful. Dismayed, she cast Cara violently aside, troubled by her words, called forward by her words, remembering… remembering something.
Alas, she was not quite on time… For in trying to shake off this vague haunting feeling, a feeling and a memory of a love she could not quite place, the Mother Confessor’s judgement became clouded, her focus wavered and she failed to notice a girl, a simple girl dressed in the plainest town clothes, not a Mord’Sith, though she wielded agiels like one, draw an agiel back and plunge it directly into the back of her white dress, directly into the back of Kahlan’s heart. However, as Dahlia made this contact that was meant to end the Mother Confessor for good, she realised that Cara had sought to prevent her, and that it was into Cara’s own heart she had buried her agiel.
Tears fell down on her. Tears fell as if from an open sky. They fell and washed over her face, watering it as if it was a beloved garden, someone’s beloved rose, leaving clear trails river-long over her soot-stained face.
Eyes closed, Cara felt tear droplets land on her face and call her back to the waking world.
Even in an unconscious state, Cara could tell that they were Kahlan’s tears. No other tears in the world carried such weight to them, no other tears in the world had the power to revive her from a state of almost-death… or, as was the case in the Shrine of the Zoria once upon a time, help her emerge from slavery of Rahl’s confession spell. Kahlan’s tears were the triggering point of the love the two women shared, declared or not, piercing through the veil of magic, bringing them back to one another. And now, in a matter of life and death, they worked their own magic in just the same way. Tears washed over Cara’s face as Kahlan cradled her head in her lap and called to her… Called to her, as she lay limp and lifeless, believed by everyone around her to be dead… And revived her… Revived her subtly but revived her. Revived and tickled her.
Cara made a face… And groaned.
“Spirits… Did you hear that?!” a vague voice pierced through Cara’s deafened ears. “Tell me you heard that too!”
Cara felt her head being moved, being handled by someone’s hands.
“Cara?! Cara… Oh Spirits, please let her live…”
As gentle as it was, it sent pain shooting through her entire body. Cara groaned again, kept her eyes closed.
“You heard that, right?!” the same voice spoke again. “She is... she is alive! Please, please come back, Cara… Oh Spirits, please bring her back!"
Cara groaned again, deliberately this time. All she knew in that moment was that she did not want this person to worry, that she needed to let them know that she was still living… But she was not yet at a place where she could speak. But it was enough.
Kahlan wept tears of joy now. Cara was alive. It was all that mattered. It was a miracle.
"You are my miracle..." she whispered through sobs of relief.
“Be careful with her head,” Cara heard another familiar voice say.
“I can’t believe this…” Kahlan wept openly, paying hardly any attention to her surroundings. “You’re—you’re actually alive…! I thought I had lost you forever, Cara… I thought I had failed you…”
The voice wept and wept, while kisses descended over Cara’s forehead. Kisses, tender and desperate… And a hug that threatened to choke her much as the ConDar nearly did only a brief time ago.
“I don't think she can breathe easily like that,” the second woman voiced her concern.
Cara felt the hug ease up.
“I can’t believe this… Alive! You really are full of wonder, Cara Mason,” Kahlan whispered through her tears, smile beaming. “You have the strongest heart of anyone I have ever met. It is no accident you were the one chosen for the prophecy…”
“What prophecy?” a third female voice inquired.
“Oh… It's... It's nothing,” Kahlan replied.
Cara peeped open one eye.
The glare of the setting sun came too harsh and hurt her sight, she closed her eyelid again. But what she saw… What she saw for that brief second was exactly the sight she had seen once before, a sight she had so longed to see again, from that one time when she was wounded and Kahlan had stayed by her side all night and all of the next morning, looking after her. The image of Kahlan, illuminated by the morning light had never left Cara’s mind… It had become her safe place, her happiness, and at last it had rematerialised once again, now as the sun set over Ashford, and set the world on fire with its golden glow, illuminating Kahlan's face as though she were otherworldly.
“Kahlan... I want to stay here…” Cara mumbled, mouth dry, consciousness drifting in-between worlds, not wanting the moment to ever end. “I want to stay here forever…”
“H-here?” Kahlan sniffled. “In Ashford…?”
“I want to stay here…” Cara mumbled, barely coherent, clinging on to Kahlan’s image lit radiant by the sun. “I am home…”
Shell-shocked, Kahlan sat back on her heels. She looked from the blond head on her lap, up at Dahlia’s somber, concerned face.
The girl eyed the Confessor warily. It was only moments ago, after all, that the Mother Confessor had unleashed holy terror upon their town and attempted to confess not only her but dozens of other people too. It was not so easy to dismiss all of that and see her as a reasonable, stable woman once again. And yet, at Cara’s words, Dahlia’s heart skipped a beat, and she took a hopeful step forward towards the Mother Confessor cradling her childhood friend.
Not wanting to upset someone who had escaped death by a sheer miracle, however, Kahlan thought carefully about what to say next.
“I… I… Let’s just get you to recover... We can talk about this later.”
“Perhaps it is not my place to interfere,” Dahlia said, “But perhaps Cara’s wishes should be honoured.”
Both Kahlan and Amaya, who stood next to Dahlia, shot her a look of surprise.
“After all,” she continued, too hopeful to be hampered by her fear of the Mother Confessor, “It is in moments like these… When the spirit is exposed raw and vulnerable that it spills its innermost truths.”
Kahlan was silent. Her brow furrowed. Her look, full of remorse and heartache, fell. Dahlia’s words cut her deep. She knew it in her heart of hearts that what she said was the truth. And yet… Considering a life without Cara by her side… After all that she had lost, that they both have lost, after all that they’d been through together… Would such a life be worth living at all?
The answer to this question was irrelevant, Kahlan knew. She closed her eyes, and wept for a different reason now. Her life was never meant to be an ordinary one, a self-seeking one. A Confessor lived for but one purpose — to be of service to the people of the Midlands. But there was no reason Cara would have to remain bound by this too.
Dahlia and Amaya regarded Kahlan carefully, somewhat perplexed, a little uncomfortable, not knowing what to do about the weeping Confessor. They silently wondered how could such a powerful force of a woman suddenly transform into such a soft, sensitive creature?
Amaya, especially, wondered about a few different things. Though she was out of the loop on everything inexplicable that had occurred that day, the day of the trial that led to the betrayal and mutiny of her own council, she had a suspicious feeling that there was a greater link between Dahlia and this barely conscious Mord’Sith that lay on the ground. And yet, she had sensed a connection between the Mother Confessor and the Mord’Sith the moment she had laid eyes on them. Amaya rubbed at her sore wrists, which till moments ago were tethered, while her mind flitted from one thought to another. She wondered how on earth did Dahlia manage to get a hold of the Mord’Sith’s agiels… Last she remembered she had ordered her useless guards to dispose of them when she had Kahlan and Cara arrested at Madam Maryanne’s. They must have done a piss poor job of it, she realised, irked though unsurprised that it was so. But what troubled her more was the fact that Dahlia was able to actually wield the agiels… She did so with such ease and precision. They were in a pouch at her waist even now! Did they not hurt her? She knew that a single touch of the Mord’Sith’s weapon could paralyse a grown man… How is it that Dahlia was immune to them. Why had she never spoken of this before? But more than anything else, Amaya wondered how, and when, did Dahlia learn to fight as she did?! Her mind swam with questions that left her feeling deeply unsettled, and somewhat mistrustful of her own lover, however, there were other, more urgent matters currently at hand. The entire town was in a state of panic and fear as a result of what Kahlan did. Or rather, almost did. Fortunately, and rather miraculously, there were no confession casualties in the end. As far as she could tell, no one was actually confessed… If anything, it was Dahlia who did more physical damage to the guards than Kahlan did. As for mental and emotional damage, that was a different story. It was extremely unlikely that the people would be able to forget and recover from the trauma of this day any time soon. The Mother Confessor’s deeds will certainly bear their own consequence and will require their own retribution.
“You can discuss these matters later,” Amaya said to Kahlan. “Right now I need you to help me set some matters right, Kahlan Amnell, if you care to repair some of the damage you’ve administered here today.”
Torn in half by the relief and gratitude she felt at Cara’s revival to life, and the heartbreaking possibility of soon parting ways with her, Kahlan could not peel her gaze from the blond head she cradled in her lap. Wiping dirt off Cara’s sooty cheeks, gazing at her perfect eyebrows, her closed eyelids, which shifted a little as her eyes moved left and right in her semi-conscious state, her plump lips, pale, not pink like how they used to be, Kahlan considered Amaya’s words. She decided that as long as her companion was alive and well, even if soon they really were to part ways, this was all that truely mattered to Kahlan. They would find a way to ensure that the baby would have the best upbringing possible, even though the possibility of leaving Cara with a male-child Confessor left her feeling all sorts of apprehensive. Still, in the end, she knew that it was not her decision to make... And this was not exactly the first time Cara had mentioned raising the boy elsewhere instead of at Aydindril.
“Help me get her to a bed,” she replied, gazing at no-one but Cara. “Help me put her somewhere safe to rest, fetch her some water and food, and… And I will do whatever you need me to do.”
“Very well,” Amaya nodded.
Jacob, the man who had followed Dahlia to the town square, the only man and only other person to remain on the town square after Kahlan broke out of ConDar and released everyone to run in every which way, stepped up and lifted Cara into his arms. According to Dahlia’s directions, he carried her to her home, which was a modest townhouse not very far from the town square. The women followed closely behind, while Kahlan fussed around Cara, apprehensive still that at any moment the blonde might slip into the unconscious and easily be lost forever. The group entered through the living area of Dahlia’s home and made their way up the stairs to the bedroom, where Cara was gently laid on the bed. Kahlan requested water for her, which Dahlia brought immediately and watched as the Mother Confessor sat next to Cara on her own bed, and assisted the limp body into sitting semi-upright while holding the jug of water to her lips. Amaya watched Dahlia as Dahlia watched Cara drink the water. Cara, meanwhile, drank some, barely aware of what was happening, then slunk back into slumber. She was breathing steadily though, Kahlan assured herself over and over, bending over near her face to listen to her breaths, while firmly holding her hand, reassured by her pulse.
“I do not mean to presume to know the justice of Confessors,” Amaya said eventually, eager to get the necessary tasks underway, “But I believe… Mother Confessor… You would have seen the extent of the corruption within my council.”
Hearing Amaya refer to her by her formal title, Kahlan looked up from Cara at the Mayor. She perceived fury underlying the woman’s look of determination… But no deceit in her intentions from what her senses told her.
“You want to know whether what they’ve done warrants me to confess them,” Kahlan replied.
She had been called to justice in similar ways many times over her lifetime. A Confessor’s job is never over.
Amaya shifted in the spot, aware that she was being a little presumptuous, but the answer that came from her was a resounding ‘Yes’.
Kahlan had seen enough of Ashford's council-board to not need any more time to consider this. She nodded as her gaze locked with Amaya's. She could smell a rotten spirit from miles away. And those councilmen had no business being in service, or as they saw it - being in charge of - an entire town of people who trusted them. It was time she stepped up to her role and dispensed justice and compensation for the damage done. She and the Mayor were going to clean this town free of vermin... and by the look in her eyes, Amaya was pleased.
“The only problem is,” Jacob pitched in, “You will need to find a way to get to them… Which, considering that neither you, Mayor Lavin, nor you, Mother Confessor, are in the people’s good graces at the moment might make it a little hard.”
“This is true,” Amaya replied, looking from Jacob, who she did not know who he was exactly, to Kahlan, searching her brain for a quick solution.
“I know of a way in,” Dahlia suddenly said. “I’m very skilled at making my way through the palace unnoticed. However, in this case… I think disguising yourselves would be your best bet.”
Amaya glowered at her, perplexed. Dressing up was certainly not her forte.
Ignoring her look of alarm altogether, Dahlia stepped up to an old looking chest at the base of her bedroom wall and from it withdrew some rather shabby-looking items of clothing.
“Nobody would ever guess that the Mother Confessor would turn up at the Palace dressed as a stableboy—” she said, smugly dangling out a pair of tattered pants, a loose shirt and a straw hat.
Kahlan released an astonished chuckle, mouth open in amusement, while Amaya’s face reddened at the recognition of the costume.
“—Or that Mayor Lavin would ever show her face dressed as a dairy maid,” Dahlia added, smirking.
In her other hand she held out a blue frilly dress with a white apron.
Amaya blushed hard and grew visibly embarrassed. She should have known that Dahlia would sooner or later find a way to get what she wanted — and what she had wanted, at least once upon a time, was to see Amaya dressed up as a dairy maid, during their most intimate of moments. Flustered, especially for her, Amaya grabbed the dress out of Dahlia’s hand before anybody could think to ask any questions and abruptly made her way out of the room. Nobody could question her determination to see justice carried out, she knew that, even if this meant dressing up as a milkmaid. She only lamented that nobody outside of this room knew the extent of her dedication, regardless of the price, especially when her dignity was in question.
She and Kahlan took turns changing their clothes, which Dahlia finished off by donating them a pair of cloaks.
“I am confident that you will have no trouble getting inside while concealed like this,” she said, her wine-coloured lips slanted in a wicked smile.
Even though she had been extremely helpful and had even risked her life trying to protect her and Cara, Kahlan had trouble feeling at ease around the girl. Something about her made her feel quite unsettled, even though she could not quite place this feeling or justify it entirely. Of course, there was the fact that during the trial, both she and this Jacob had used a wizard for his magic, and had lied, lied about being witness to Denee’s murder, even if this was all for absolving her and Cara of crimes they had nothing to do with… But in her heart, Kahlan could not help but wonder, was Dahlia so eager to protect their innocence because she truly wanted to uphold truth and justice… Or was it because of Cara? Either way, she could not say she trusted the woman entirely, and as a Confessor through to her bone, this bothered Kahlan greatly.
When it was time for her and Amaya to leave the house, Kahlan’s heart tightened into a fist… She was reluctant to leave Cara behind with Dahlia. And yet, she had no real choice.
Once Amaya stepped out of the house, blue milkmaid dress concealed by a heavy cloak, Kahlan hurried after her, eager to have this necessary assignment over and done with as quickly as possible.
It did not take much for the milkmaid to gain admittance into a councilman’s bedroom. It was even easier for her 'brother', the stable boy, to join them soon after. This particular councilman was known for paying many young girls, and occasionally boys, for a night in his bedroom. And, after such a tumultuous day, a pair of sweet faces, begging to be undressed out of their low-life clothing, seemed like exactly the right sort of distraction the man needed. Except that this time, he did not fall to his knees out of ecstasy brought on by pleasure at having two pairs of hands on him but rather because the stable boy seemed to have a grip on him that grabbed his neck alike nothing he had ever encountered before. And to his utter surprise, he found himself staring into the exact same pair of pitch black eyes that he had encountered but managed to evade earlier that day at the town square, speaking the words, as if on command,
“Command me, Confessor…”
Once under Kahlan’s control, it was easy to direct the councilman to spill the entire truth of the corruption underlying the council of Ashford, to admit to his and others' wrongdoing, and to then call into his chamber the others responsible for or having had any part in any of it. And with this, one by one, the entire council-board fell to their knees, confessed by none other than the woman they had attempted to have wrongfully punished for the own gain.
Hours passed after Kahlan and Amaya had entered the Palace disguised, and though they emerged in the same stealthy manner, they both had a much clearer, sturdier plan in mind of what they must do next and a sense of accomplishment in having purged the entire council-board of corruption. By the time they had left the palace and rushed over the town-square, making their way back to Dahlia’s house, the moon was already high in the sky.
Though much was resolved by their brave act that night, much still weighed on Amaya’s mind, especially in terms of how she would be able to absolve Kahlan of what she was guilt of in the eyes of the townsfolk.
“It will take a lot for the people to forgive what happened here today, Kahlan,” she spoke candidly. “It will take even longer for them to forget, if they ever do… Especially since they still think that it was you who confessed and murdered so many of our people already. I doubt that Dahlia’s wizard would have had much impact convincing them that Rahl and Nicci could have used dark magic to do it.”
“I know…” Kahlan said, sorrow evident in her voice. “ConDar is still not something that I can control, even though I really did try… And I think, after all that had happened at the Shrine of the Zoria, my ConDar has become so much intense and... and powerful than I ever could have imagined! I have virtually no recollection of what I did... But the one thing I do remember, is that there many, many eyes staring back at me, pleading and terrified that I would confess them."
She shuddered at the memory and pulled the cloak closer about her neck, deeply exhausted.
“Well, you should give yourself some credit because you did not confess anyone…” Amaya reassured her, her demeanour transformed into a more friendly one after all that they had been through together that day. “Other than those pigs in the Palace just now, that is… So you might posses more control than you think you do.”
“Thank you, Amaya,” the stable boy replied earnestly to the milkmaid.
It meant a lot to have been able to gain a friend and ally through all of what they’d been through. She looked sideways at Amaya and smiled.
Amaya wanted to smile back but her face reddened instead. She found it rather unnerving seeing Kahlan dressed in an outfit she had seen her lover previously wear during their intimate moments. It also did not help that the Mother Confessor was rather very beautiful… Even if, in her eyes, she was not as beautiful as Dahlia.
She cleared her throat and hardened her voice.
“So, you are ready for what needs to happen tomorrow?” she asked. “You are really ready to face a whole new trial?”
“I am,” Kahlan replied. “If it means being one day closer to going home…”
…If there is such a place still, she thought, dejected.
“And Cara?” Amaya’s voice turned quizzical.
“What about her?”
“What if she truly wants to stay here?”
The Mayor was aware she was prodding a raw spot, one that paralleled her own where Dahlia was concerned, but it seemed to her that it was good for the both of them to consider such possibilities.
Kahlan took a deep breath as apprehension and heartache filled her from inside out. Suddenly, she felt so much more tired than she had even moments ago. This entire day felt like it had lasted an entire lifetime. She ached for respite and her safe place… Which was by Cara’s side.
“Then…” she said after a long moment, “I will honour her wishes. I will let her be.”
Finally having arrived back to the house, Kahlan and Amaya found Jacob sitting downstairs in Dahlia’s livingroom. From this, they both understood that Dahlia was alone in the bedroom with Cara. Feeling as unsettled and apprehensive as before leaving the house, Kahlan rushed up the stairs, and opened the door of the bedroom. However once the door opened, what she saw was something she never in a million years thought she would see. Cara and Dahlia, on the bed… kissing. Or rather, Dahlia leaning over Cara, kissing her, although at this point it was hard to tell whether Cara was awake or not.
Shell-shocked, Kahlan’s heart sank and her belly turned on fire. She could not look away even though this was all she wanted to do.
It took Dahlia only a moment to realise that they were not alone, before she interrupted the kiss and turned to look in Kahlan’s direction, wide-eyed. Unfortunately, it was too late. The damage was already done. Because not a moment later, the Mother Confessor was already at her throat, pressing her hard against the wall, ready to obliterate her.