Title: Destiny Does Not Send Us Heralds
Pairing: Cara Mason/Kahlan Amnell
Summary: In an adventure gone awry, Cara and Kahlan are forced to examine their lives and priorities more closely.
Disclaimer: This piece of fan fiction was created for entertainment not monetary purposes. Previously unrecognized characters and places, and this story, are copyrighted to the author. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead is coincidental and not intended by the author.
A/N: This is unbeta'ed. Any and all inconsistencies are mine and feel free to point them out. I have never seen the TV show and I've read the books ages ago (I can barely remember the story). Regardless, I decided to have some fun with two of my favorite characters from the show. I hope you enjoy reading this as I'm having a ball of a time writing it.
They had all settled into benches by the camp fire, the night deeper than it had been.
While dinner was prepared, the Lord of D'Hara disappeared into the long, heaving shadows of the Grove, drawing hexes to protect the camp in timid flashes of light. When she returned, there was no fuss when she whipped out her eating implements from a weathered pack nearby or made a move to eat from the communal cooking pot.
Noticing that Kahlan was curious, Cara Rahl let her examine her wooden bowl in the firelight. The careful etchings of a Galean deer hunt ran in and out of the scraggly rim where the bark had been retained. An intricate throng of dogs, horses and women in riding dresses galloped to the bottom. Turning the bowl over, she discovered the deer of the hunt hurtling into a carved symbol which told Kahlan everything she needed to know.
She handed it back, hiding the tremor in her hands. It was a sculpture inasmuch as a gift. The vessel was hewed from a species of black walnut tree grown only in the royal orchards of Galea.
The Lord said simply, "She had it carved before Amihan's birth. A gift to a D'Haran huntsman."
"Those are from the orchards of my mother," Kahlan said quietly. "I would never, never in a thousand years have allowed a single one to be cut."
Cara Rahl's calloused fingers traced the design as though pursuing the chisel of the sculptor. "She also vowed that she would never marry a D'Haran pig." The Lord lowered her head, her tone swollen with memories. "I understood. The tyrant Darken Rahl was a bastard, enough for anyone on the other side of the border to hate the entire state for centuries." Her blue eyes glowed with the cinders of a deep and gnawing sorrow, smoldering with the fires the tyrant had lit. "He killed everyone, from the innocents at Nicobarese to the border towns."
She gave Kahlan a cursory smile and undertook the transformation most leaders like Kahlan performed when they sat on their throne. Like anyone schooled in intrigue and politics, Cara Rahl shoved her emotions in a box and set it aside. Her mood lightened as quickly as it had fallen.
She stood, caressing the bowl with her thumb as she partook of the stew.
Joking casually –and successfully –with anybody who doused their bread into the pot, Cara Rahl made everyone forget that this woman in scout's clothing was one of the most powerful wizards of their time.
It was confusing to see a Rahl, even if that Rahl was Cara, so versed in the activities of a soldier and so in tune with men who usually came from the peasantry. Again, Kahlan wondered at the differences between this Cara and the other, and then belatedly, at her own interest.
Watching her laugh without reservation, her face marred by a scar that only lent to her charm, Kahlan almost forgot the subject of the Galean bowl or the near-constant hum of Rahl's magic pushing incessantly against everything it touched.
From the discussion between her and Berdine, Kahlan gathered that the Lord had been traveling alone on the Alkarian paths, facilitated by complex spells that allowed her to bend the physical world and jump from one point to another without losing time. She could use the same methods to help a small group of six or seven travel to the People's Palace in less than a week but it drained her reserves.
The next half-hour was spent deliberating on how to tackle magical vulnerabilities on their journey. Impatiently, Cara the Mord'Sith interrupted the Lord while she was about to speak and pointed out that they had two additional people who were magically inclined.
Cara Rahl considered her twin, their eyes level as they both beheld the Bond which tied them. They each had an expression of hard insolence; Cara's hands were ghosting over her Agiels, ready to draw them when provoked. Rahl had a strangle-hold on her spoon.
Berdine flinched at the noiseless exchange, covering her mouth to hide her dread while Kahlan had to blink at what her eyes insisted was double vision.
The silence steeped until Amihan yawned loudly from Cara Rahl's lap.
Quietly, without removing her eyes from the ill-mannered doppelganger before her, the Lord asked, "Did they take good care of you, Amihan?"
She made it clear that her daughter's answer would decide the fate of that group.
"Of course!" the six-year-old exclaimed. "They're my inya too."
"Are they, now?"
Amihan's cheeks were pink from the cold and her eyes, inherited from both her mothers, were shining with calm certainty. The Lord nodded as though she understood, chuckling.
The earlier episode with the Mord'Sith forgotten and more certain now of her company, the Lord addressed Cara and Kahlan, "We'll leave you both to decide on whether you would like to accompany us. Zedd can probably help more than I." She gestured for Berdine to check on the watch and then wiped the grubby sides of Amihan's lips with her thumb. "This little one needs to sleep."
Without warning, Amihan untangled her fingers from her mother's just as she was about to stand, sliding off her lap while rushing forward until she collided with Kahlan's thigh. The Mother Confessor lowered her head.
The child gave Kahlan a sloppy peck on the cheek which Kahlan smiled against, the frigid night suddenly forgotten as she was ensconced in the small yet focused warmth of Amihan's embrace. As the girl withdrew, Kahlan fought broad and confusing feelings of regret.
"Thank you." Amihan's breath was warm against her ear, a tableau of summer, laughter and clear skies.
Then, she watched as Amihan approached Cara. The child waited patiently for the Mord'Sith to level with her.
Rolling her eyes, Cara grudgingly allowed herself to be dragged down into a greedy, delighted squeeze. The moment Amihan's arms found purchase around Cara's shoulders; Kahlan saw her friend thaw from the inside out.
It was a sight that Kahlan was not likely to forget.
Cara's shoulders slackened as her harder edges dulled, her body language awkward as it conformed to the perplexing motions of affection. Amihan Amnell-Rahl bestowed a kiss on her forehead, a simple farewell. At once, Cara's composure wilted into one of almost naked vulnerability. She removed her gloves, rubbed her hands together for warmth and gently cradled Amihan's cheeks.
Wearing a grief-stricken smile, she studied the child like one would a map when lost, as though trying to impress all of Amihan's traits into the hostile topography of her mind.
Cara seemed surprised when the girl spoke into her ear. Amihan held her closely for several seconds as minutely, Cara's throat bobbed. The Mord'Sith nodded as though mandated by a general.
Amihan pulled away. A radiant smile for Cara, and the girl darted back into the Lord's embrace, this time hiding under her inya's cloak.
Cara Rahl put a protective hand around the restless bundle.
"You'll see her again in the morning." The Lord Rahl turned to leave then said in a gentler voice, "I promise."
Cara was in the process of loosening the ties of her leathers when the intruder whipped past the tent flaps and entered without permission. If not for the familiar sound of her boots and the way she noisily dropped her pack on the ground, Cara would have unsheathed her Agiels and gored the Mother Confessor.
Instead, Cara the Mord'Sith remained crouched over her things with a strained expression, the ties of her form-fitting leather almost undone. To anyone entering, it would have offered an unobstructed view of her bosom.
"If you want to talk about what just happened tonight, I'm all out of words," Kahlan said, averting her gaze.
Kahlan unpacked her bedroll and placed it beside Cara's with finality. "And if you should ask what I'm doing here, all I can say is I think we should stick together."
At Cara's knowing smile, Kahlan promptly collapsed into her bedroll and spun so that her back was to Cara.
Cara continued to undress, observing the Mother Confessor as she folded her arms across her chest and took in deep, agitated breaths. It was their first night without Amihan between them and even to her the arrangement seemed strange. After putting aside her leathers and donning a shirt, Cara took her place at her bedroll, pulling a blanket over herself.
Cara smirked. "The Lord Rahl's quite the character, isn't she."
Kahlan turned to face her.
A hand's breadth apart, Cara raised a brow and allowed Kahlan's scrutiny. Those penetrating blue eyes roved shamelessly over Cara's exposed neck and chin, stopping momentarily at her lips then up until she met Cara's gaze.
The Mord'Sith was smug in the face of such blatant enquiry. She had been in closer proximity to women before but not quite in this context. The Mother Confessor was not to be toyed with and Cara felt her skin prickle with apprehension. Her whining gut chastised her for her earlier gibe and warned that a discussion about feelings was imminent.
"Who was that?" Kahlan began, indicating Cara's peculiar twin.
Cara shrugged, shying bodily away from the conversation as she directed her attention to the tent canvass above them. She made a show of looking for answers there.
"Somebody who wasn't kidnapped at a young age and forced to kill her father."
"Fair enough." She felt Kahlan shift uncomfortably beside her. "I'm sorry if this comes out like a pun, but you haven't been yourself."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Cara ground out, closing her eyes in frustration.
All she needed was reprieve from this world where the usual points of reference were non-existent. She was spinning out of control, grasping at unfamiliar way signs. What used to be Mord'Sith temples in her world were untouched Groves more beautiful under moonlight. What used to be her dogged allegiance to anyone who held the Bond was now a genuine, inquisitive regard.
She had a difficult time reconciling her former reality with the facts of this world: that it was possible to have a well-adjusted daughter a few tents away. That she was tied to that child and to a version of herself that she could not even pretend to despise. That beside her was a woman who could potentially bring all her unstrung pieces together.
All these thoughts were dangerous. She would have done anything to return to her old life. Her former responsibilities had been easier, simpler: protecting Richard and following him on his quest to save the world. Extending her protection to the woman he loved and the wizard who was his grandfather because it was her duty to please the Lord Rahl. Tolerating them all because otherwise, she would have returned to a life of pitiful regret and perpetual warmongering.
She also did not realize up until now that in this world those motives were shaky at best.
To worsen things, there was an inquisitive Mother Confessor who simply could not come to terms with this world either.
She answered Cara's question in a rush. "I've known you to be a bit more in control, I suppose? Snarky? Sarcastic? With something to say at every turn besides, 'I'll break your leg if you speak to the Mother Confessor that way'?"
"This is why I hate children."
Kahlan was well past reactions of shock at such statements. She remained silent, expecting more.
Cara acquiesced coldly. "Amihan's different, of course." Turning back to face Kahlan, she skirted Kahlan's inquiry and retorted, "Why are you pinning this on me? And why now?"
The confidence Cara knew so well, the one that Kahlan ceaselessly drew strength from and which Cara sometimes gleefully tested, began to crack. It was an occurrence so new and so unexpected that Cara was almost tempted to revoke her questions.
Kahlan broke eye contact, biting her lip. Cara would have found the act intriguing at any other time if she was not off-kilter herself.
"Because…" Kahlan breathed in deeply, looking like she was summing up all her courage for her next words.
Cara endeavored to remain still amidst the squall, schooling her face into one of wary interest.
Kahlan breathed out. "Because I'm confused. Because you're the only connection I have left to the world we came from. Because here, I am faced with everything I thought was impossible. I have a child, a family, and a lover who seems to have surmounted my dilemma of intimacy. And there's a possibility that I'll never be able to get back."
"'Dilemma of intimacy?'" Cara intoned, valiantly fighting to hide her amusement.
Even as they were the only women in the Seeker's company, this was a conversation they had only in passing. She vaguely knew that the reason Richard and Kahlan did not consummate their love was due to a Confessor's inability to control her powers in the throes of passion.
The concept was foreign to Cara, who pretty much released rage and dissoluteness in the broad strokes of her day. She possessed a healthy appetite for the flesh and took whomever she pleased, wherever and whenever she pleased. She did not quail at the idea of having her way with young, impressionable men or women, or of leaving them in their beds before dawn, never to be seen again. Armed with this surety, she did not concern herself with anybody else's sexual travails, much less the Mother Confessor's, unless it affected her directly.
Cara was too intrigued not to continue. "And you know this how?"
"The way she looks at me! Me!" A vehement finger beat at an area on Kahlan's chest. "Like I'm the mother of her child! Like we've lived together for years as wife and wife!"
Quickly, Cara understood. If she at all thought that Kahlan had been in possession of herself all this time, she was hugely mistaken. It was evident that Kahlan had come out of this unfocused, just as she had. Being the ruler of the Midlands only lent her the skill to pretend otherwise. She had fooled everyone but herself.
Even then, Cara could not help but tease. "Well of course I surmised that her blunt casualness with you was a result of sharing a bed with her. In one form or another."
The double entendre was not lost on either of them.
Kahlan looked like she did not know if she should laugh or cry. With an exasperated sigh, she settled for punching Cara playfully on the shoulder, her fist softening into a warm palm against the cloth of Cara's arm. The seriousness of the conversation dissipated, almost.
The Mord'Sith was not finished.
"But she isn't confessed."
It was a challenge of sorts, a quiet defiance. In answer, Kahlan's fingers tightened around Cara's arm. Before Cara could complain at the contact, she reclaimed her hand, her features suddenly pained.
Kahlan had never said her name in quite that way, ever.
It had the soft pitch of what-ifs, of the future which broadened endlessly, terrifyingly into a horizon. It carried with it the wordless, aching refrain of yearning and hope, much like the siren's song as it beckoned you to the rocks. Once heard, it could not be shorn from memory and Cara had to follow it into a roiling, fathomless sea.
Kahlan could not have expressed the torturous shattering of all that she knew any more clearly.
"I know," Cara croaked, "how you feel. Precisely." The blanket rustled as Cara slowly turned away to blow out the lamp. "Good night, Kahlan."
Kahlan's reply was subdued. "Good night, Cara."
With the darkness fell the silence like a thick, viscous fog.
It stretched across an hour and then two. Before long, it had stretched out into the timeless plains of sleep.
They lay with their backs to each other. Their breathing evened out, and their eyes grew heavy. Wearily, they descended into the world of dreams where desires and wants drifted unchecked along the edges.
To Cara, the implications of the evening lodged themselves deeper into the caves of her subconscious, turning everything in its path molten and formless.
Kahlan woke up from a gentle nudge and found her companion already ambling about the tent. Cara was dressed from head to foot in her leathers, the Mord'Sith uniform a metaphorical barrier. Her hair cascaded over her face as she bent over to gather her bedroll, still wet from a morning swim and haphazardly dried as evidenced by droplets interwoven into her hair like jewels. Though her stance was tense, her face revealed nothing.
Kahlan had never agonized so consciously about anyone's emotions before. Her role as Mother Confessor gave her power over the masks people wore but with Cara, she sometimes ran into a blank wall.
Richard was easier to read. Everything about Richard was easier than Cara Mason.
With Richard, mornings were greeted with a smile, with a verdict that all would be well as he hefted his Sword of Truth and prepared everyone's breakfast. He was unambiguously warmhearted and it was easy to believe that the simple woods man from Westland could overcome the dark. In their quest, Richard Cypher had spiritedly chased away her own demons and she became conscious of a world that she thought she had missed when she was a child.
He was the Seeker, with the disposition and passion for it. For a long time she had stayed in the comfort of that glow. She had walked so ably and so confidently by his side. Without his presence now, her thoughts were hanging on a dangerous precipice.
Last night was one instance. It had made her painfully aware of how things had changed between Cara and her, between her former understanding of who Cara was and the Cara she beheld now. It also made her aware that the world could not be halved into light and dark, good and bad. Somehow, Cara fell in the spaces between.
Her confusion had been compounded by last night, when Cara wore that blasted white shirt. The light from the lamp had lent it and its owner a warm, ethereal glow. Cara's cheeks were pink, her hair flaxen like the color of Galean wheat under a setting sun. Cara's proximity was charged with something she could not name.
Much to Kahlan's chagrin, Cara's lips had looked like the proverbial red fruit, luscious, dangerous and ripe for the picking; Kahlan had a hard time imagining they were anything else. When she had looked up to meet Cara's gaze, those penetrating, ice-blue eyes softened into a color that she wished she could comprehend so that she could somehow commit it to memory. Thinking back, Kahlan should have faced her demons on her own and slept in her own tent.
She would have sighed if Cara had not broken her reverie.
She felt her cheeks grow warm, as her eyesight focused and found the Mord'Sith giving her an odd, very curious look.
"Were you staring at me all this time?"
"Of course not."
Cara raised her brow as though she doubted her statement. "It's an hour before dawn. We have to get going."
Setting aside her thoughts for later, Kahlan stood up and joined in the preparation.
Cara gave no indication that last night had been an anomaly in their friendship. She went through the usual, precise motions of saddling the horses. She held the remains of dinner in one hand, taking measured bites of the stew wrapped in hard bread.
Kahlan had fond memories of Cara's approximations of breakfast, usually something she had burned to a crisp the night before.
As she gathered her packs, Kahlan noticed Cara Rahl standing beneath the eaves of a small maple tree a few feet away, perhaps scrutinizing the Mord'Sith's technique. Amihan was sitting at her feet, playing with the wooden troops Berdine had graciously lent her.
Seeing Kahlan approach, Cara Rahl gave her a smile, which overshadowed even the scar cleaving her face. It was without its fetters, something she saw in her own Cara so rarely but which seemed so commonplace for Cara Rahl. Laugh lines and the quirk of her lips, her bright eyes and slightly redder cheeks made small, meaningful articulations of mirth or receptiveness.
The Lord bent down to inform Amihan of their visitor.
Immediately, Amihan forgot the army she was commanding, the wooden squad forgotten across the Grove floor as she got to her feet and ran to Kahlan with the exuberance of a summer parade. Kahlan anticipated the running jump and caught the little girl, pulling Amihan to her like a woman drowning.
"Hey," Kahlan whispered, pressing her nose to Amihan's hair.
The scents were familiar, from a world that seemed far, far away. Her fingers threading into Amihan's cloak, Kahlan's eyes widened slightly as she studied the textures more fully in her hand. She dared a glimpse at Cara Rahl's direction. The Lord was trying to hide her smile by preparing her own horse and inspecting the saddle.
It was obvious that Amihan Amnell-Rahl had been bathed with soap imported by brave merchants from the Midlands' north. It owned a clean, subtly lavender smell with distinct traces of rare oils from Nicobarese. She wore a deep green vest, the silver inlays interleaving across her chest. The wool beneath had been woven from the vertical looms of Kelton, dyed with shellfish from their lakes. Her cloak was thick, lined with sable fur only the nobles of Galea wore. It was a texture Kahlan associated with the deep, Aydindril winters, with the warmth that was so rare during those times. Amihan's cloak was fastened by a silver broach and on that broach was the symbol Kahlan had found at the bottom of Cara Rahl's bowl.
There was no doubt as to whom Amihan's other mother was, or which nations she ruled. The child was clothed in her love.
"Inya, good morning!" Amihan kissed her, gave her a quick squeeze and then proceeded to reach into her pockets. She retrieved hard bread and cheese wrapped in cloth, the crumbs tumbling down Kahlan's front. "I saved it for you and," she glanced furtively at the Mord'Sith, "my other inya. But she's having stew from last night."
"You never find it strange that you have so many inya's present, do you?" Kahlan mused.
"If she could have six of us, she would," Cara Rahl said good-naturedly. "I wouldn't mind, either."
As though to make her point, the Lord's eyes coasted over Kahlan from head to a foot, a gentle yet intense scrutiny akin to a caress. Her enigmatic smile told of numberless memories that concerned them both, intimate and mundane. It dared her to ask questions, to doubt.
Immediately, Kahlan dropped her gaze.
From Cara the Mord'Sith's look, it seemed that she did mind if there were more copies of them and she crossly handed Kahlan the reins.
"The faster we get to the People's Palace, the faster we can return to our world."
Seven was the number the Lord Rahl chose for her party. At Amihan's insistence, Kahlan rode with the little girl in the center of a protective group composed of Berdine, two capable Alkarian soldiers, Cara and the Lord Rahl.
Taking the rear guard, Cara seemed more standoffish than ever, her eyes roaming the surrounding knolls and inspecting the shadows behind towering rocks or trees. She was perpetually observant, her hands ghosting over her weapons, her creaking leathers a stark reminder of just how dangerous she was despite her relaxed air.
Cara Rahl was just as vigilant, her power pounding against Kahlan's magical walls like an insistent drum at the eve of a siege. The power which was so obvious to the magically gifted and her rending scar were direct contrasts to her seemingly more quiet nature. Just like Cara the Mord'Sith, the quality was feline, a tiger lounging in the shade with an eye on her prey.
The Lord directed all of them wordlessly in a secret, universal language that had been notched into all her movements. It was expressive in an authoritative way, a learned skill composed of the crisp and concise movements of a general. Cara the Mord'Sith had them too but her hold of it was cruder, a more primal dialect that forced one to heel or to acquiesce
Berdine had a healthy respect for her Lord's more subtle commands, suddenly urging them to stop as the Lord Rahl rode forward and began to fashion several spells in gestures and muttered verses.
Kahlan knew at once that the powers the Lord Rahl was using could indemnify energy spent building cities. She could feel the invisible cords holding the world around her tighten and lurch as reality literally bent to Cara Rahl's will. In her mind's eye, the Rahl was the puppeteer, skillfully interleaving power on power to produce the effect she wanted.
This was going to take more than a few minutes.
Berdine had already dismounted, prompting all but the Lord Rahl to do so. The captain seemed appreciative that the Lord had chosen an elevated path instead of a place that would have been more easily ambush. She ordered the Alkarian soldiers to remain on their horses to scout the vicinity.
She eventually arrived at Kahlan's side, smiling as she gave Amihan another small wooden soldier, this one looking suspiciously like her. Despite their almost violent meeting, Amihan had warmed to Berdine, perhaps picking up on Cara's trust and the decorated mutual past her mother had with Berdine.
The little girl thanked her promptly, frowning as she studied the woodwork and then compared its image to the captain before her. She did not think much of it for long, sitting on a rock nearby and reaching into her pouch for the wooden warrior's other companions.
Turning to Kahlan, Berdine asked, "You wanted to ask me something?"
Once again, Kahlan emerged flummoxed at Berdine's sharpness. "How did you? I mean, I didn't..."
Berdine simply waited.
Kahlan became quiet, her gaze drawn to the woman weaving the gateway as she treated the world like her loom. Then her eyes fell on Cara the Mord'Sith, who stalked the same world with as much unmitigated grace but with seemingly less authority. During their quest, Cara's decisions with regards to her Lord were almost always impetuous and final. Lately, for someone who rarely hesitated even in the act of killing, Cara seemed...indecisive of whoever held the other end of her Bond. And this time, it was by no fault of Kahlan's or the Seeker's.
It was a peculiar change, one that Kahlan was willing to investigate.
"Tell me how Cara became the Lord Rahl."
"That's more than I expected," Berdine said sincerely, laughing. "I doubt the story would fit in the time given to us right now."
"Give me an idea. Please."
"You ought to ask her yourself. It's not my story to tell." Berdine's gaze turned to the ground, as though the courage to explain could be found there. She seemed to instantly regret having started the conversation. "We had our share of tragedies during Darken's time. Cara was braver than most, than all of us."
"Do you?" Cara Rahl asked, appearing suddenly beside them.
Cara Rahl had dismounted, slightly out of breath. Her features seemed drawn, her aura mute. The creation of the gateway had drained her.
She raised a questioning brow in Berdine's direction. The captain cleared her throat and looked away. Kahlan herself tried not to look apologetic, setting her attention to the gateway itself.
The magical door, if one could call it that, was a roiling mass of blues and greens, in a shape concurrent to that of a breaking ocean wave when looked at sideways. It fit one person abreast his or her horse, and like a thing alive, seemed to swallow and regurgitate the scenery surrounding it. Behind chaotic, marbled colors, one could make out a small clearing with trees hiding a majestic view of a river.
Kahlan pursed her lips derisively. She had stepped through many gates in her life. Another one could not possibly hurt.
As though forgetting that she had been the topic of the conversation, Cara Rahl opened her arms grandly, though weakly. "Well, if you could all step through the gate one-by-one and I'll close it behind us as we go. Quickly, now."
Berdine and her two soldiers went first, followed by Cara. With Amihan in Kahlan's arms, she stepped towards the gate, the magical artifact oscillating as it accepted her form. She felt Amihan's arms tighten around her as they both felt a rush of jarring frigidity similar to what one would feel jumping into a mountain lake. It was numbing and after a while, almost tranquil as light all but took her entire field of vision. It did not last for long.
There was absolute chaos at the other side.
Berdine was screaming, her sword ringing against a flurry of other weapons. She was already on her horse, slashing at masked men below her and allowing the animal to crush anyone in the way.
The crunch of bones, a few tortured wails, then, "Protect the Lord Rahl! Protect the heir!"
Still slightly shivering and almost certainly half-blind from the effects of the gateway, Cara did not have to be told twice. Her Agiels squealed from their holsters, their familiar heft lending all that she needed for her blood to start boiling in the pleasant temperatures of wrath.
She stepped forward blindly, her stance low as she stabbed the first villain in the gut, the burning pain of the Agiel doubling him over. Arcing into another offensive blow, she hit the next one in the head, splitting his lip open. Already, the air was beginning to smell like blood.
Cara grinned. This was something she never ceased to enjoy. This was a welcome reprieve from everything.
She stole a glance of the gateway just as Kahlan and Amihan stepped through.
Cara shouted, "Kahlan! The girl!" To Berdine and the two soldiers, she snapped, "Rally to the gateway!"
She proceeded to cut a circle around the magical artifact, her Agiels singing as Berdine and the two soldiers followed her lead in forming a defensive perimeter. Nearing Kahlan, who was still holding her head as she tried to orient herself, Cara kicked an oncoming assailant, sending the poor man flailing backwards into another charging group. The delay she created allowed her to scoop Amihan from Kahlan's arms and launch the girl onto the bay horse.
Amihan grabbed the saddle, her face and knuckles ashen as bit back her fear. The child watched Kahlan take her place behind Amihan shortly afterward, looking for all the world like this was all normal. Cara admired the quality and knew that it must have been partly hers. Emotions in the midst of battle was something not many could tether, much less a child.
In a few seconds, the Mother Confessor's sword was drawn, a more appropriate weapon on horseback than her knives. She held Amihan in place with one hand as she urged the nervous animal into the middle of the protective semi-circle Berdine and Cara had contrived.
The moment Cara Rahl stepped through the gateway; Cara knew that something was going to go terribly wrong.
It was a band of thirty against seven. One of Berdine's experienced veterans –the first one through the gateway –was fighting just as vigorously as the rest despite several bleeding cuts, covering an area that otherwise would have been relegated to two men. To everyone's surprise, she was immediately dispatched in a spray of blood by a strange-looking melee weapon. In the ensuing chaos Cara watched as a flash of blonde breached the defensive line.
Cara recognized her and the star-like weapon she wielded immediately.
Nicci. A Dacra.
And something else. A seamless, metal circlet.
The gateway winked out of existence as Cara Rahl leaned helplessly against her horse, the dust beneath her feet stirring from the sudden absence of magic. Her face was in a grimace as she tried to move forward or grasp a spell from whatever remained of her reserves. Lightning sparked between her fingertips, the air rattled, and the hairs on Cara's back began to stand on end. Anyone else in Cara Rahl's domain would have given her berth.
It was too late when she recognized Nicci, her eyes widening as the sorceress approached her and snapped the Rada'Han around her neck.
Cara felt the Bond waver, the immediate fear which channeled through and heard Kahlan cry out as Cara Rahl fell to the ground, unconscious or dead.
Cara dispatched her opponents, leaving a heap of groaning, masked men in her wake.
"Berdine, cover me!"
Immediately, the captain stepped into place as Cara ran towards the motionless figure of Cara Rahl.
The sight of the woman in her merchant's cloak made Cara want to retch. The Lord of D'Hara was similar to her in almost every way except for that unexplained scar which slit her face in a manner that charmed everyone. But once Cara got past the flesh and bone, they were achingly different. Here was a version of her without her Sister's influence, the welts from Agiels, the death of her father at her hands, or her childhood, which she spent in rat-infested dungeons.
It was unthinkable. It was terrifying.
Cara the Mord'Sith was not one for regret –she had been expunged of remorse or guilt in her training –but there was no avoiding the what-could-have-been's, not when it looked at her, listened to her, or even talked to her. She could not turn a blind eye to the sheer contentment on Cara Rahl's face when she glanced at her daughter or –and this thought had occurred with less fear and more wonderment on her part –at Kahlan.
So here she was, running in a half-panic, already feeling the long, cold tendrils of fear crawl up her spine as she saw no sign of life from a body similar to hers.
If Cara could just…save a small part of herself.
"Inya! Inya!" Amihan cried. She was straining against Kahlan's arm, her face etched with grief, fear and all those nameless emotions a mother would never want to see from her child. "Inya!"
Cara never feared death; in fact, she welcomed it. But the sorrow on Amihan's face, the innumerable questions on Kahlan's… Certainly, Cara's demise could have been acceptable in the world she left behind but not here where she –Cara Rahl in particular –had so much to lose.
Cara could see Nicci's frown as the sorceress stood with her Dacra at the ready. She stared down at the Lord Rahl, baffled and hesitant as she confronted the mystery of why the Lord Rahl had collapsed when she had fastened the Rada'Han.
It was a few moments' distraction which Cara seized to her advantage.
She shifted her body weight as she moved, mustering strength from the ground and her legs. Then she lunged forward and ran into the sorceress. She slammed one Agiel between her ribs, the other Agiel hitting Nicci's thigh. In one, smooth movement she swung the woman to the ground, using her Agiels as anchoring points.
Nicci screamed as she fell and carelessly countered with her Dacra. Cara was milliseconds faster and sent the ancient, star-like weapon flying into a nearby tree. She fluidly wrestled Nicci from behind, initiating a stranglehold around her neck with one arm while the other held an Agiel to her spine.
"You!" Cara growled into Nicci's ear. She pressed the Agiel further into Nicci's gut and could not help her smile when the sorceress grunted. "Give me the key, you insolent b…"
"The key?" Nicci rasped.
"Are you daft?" Cara roared. "To the Rada'Han of course!"
Nicci's eyes flickered to her men as one by one, they fell under Berdine and Kahlan's swords. In the short seconds it took Cara to position Nicci in such a way that the woman could not move without considerable pain, Berdine was already unmasking a few of the dead, muttering under her breath as she tallied their numbers and tried to put names to their faces. The remaining Alkarian soldier, Kina, was busy prodding the rest of the bodies for someone unfortunate enough to be unconscious. Her fallen companion, the veteran Arrin who was first through the gateway, had been laid out separate from the carnage, her eyes vacant as they stared at the listless sky, her soul surrendered to forces of the underworld.
The Mother Confessor dismounted and with one arm, she set Amihan on her feet. She watched as the girl dashed to her mother's side, kneeling as Amihan fought to keep from crying.
Kahlan cleaned her bloodied sword with a cloth, sheathing and setting it aside as she bent over to study Cara Rahl. Her fingers delicately explored the metal collar around the Lord's neck and then caressed Amihan's head as the girl lay across her mother in an encompassing embrace. Hesitantly, as though afraid, Kahlan brought her hands to a pulse point just under Cara Rahl's jaw and for a few moments, Kahlan stared transfixed.
Turning to Nicci, Kahlan demanded, "What did you do to her?"
Nicci gazed disparagingly at the Lord.
"You thought you could control her with it," Kahlan said matter-of-factly, her voice colder than a wind-swept winter. "I'm also surprised you can't. There's something very different about how the Rahls use their power in this world. You must have thought she was a normal wizard. I thought she was too, until you collared her."
Kahlan had once been a captive of a Rada'Han. It had stripped her into a form of nakedness, amputated her into an agonizing normalcy that she had never hoped to experience in the presence of her enemies. To be cut off from one's magic was an unforgivable experience.
An old wrath crawled from the edges of Kahlan's eyes, oily and dark in its power. The air was suddenly harder to breathe as though the world around them had been compressed into a tiny space containing their little scene of violence.
Nicci fought to swallow, to breathe as Cara's hold constricted with each movement.
Kahlan's outstretched hand stopped a few inches from Nicci's neck and Nicci was straining as far away from it as Cara's grip would let her.
At Kahlan's signal and against Cara's better judgment, Cara loosened her arms.
Immediately, Nicci's hand shot to her other wrist, revealing a seemingly normal-looking wristband Cara had not noticed before. Before any of them could react, Nicci recited a spell.
The trinket glowed and Cara immediately recognized it for what it was. A power sink that apparently had not been drained of all of its contents.
"Kahlan, watch out!"
With Nicci too close and too quick for her to counter with a barrier of her own, Cara felt a short, powerful burst of force like a fist of solid concrete hitting her abdomen. It knocked the air from her, shocked her system into letting Nicci go and sent her reeling backwards, then it wrapped itself tightly around her legs. Kahlan had also been affected, flying into a tree with a grunt. Berdine and Kina had been pushed a few meters off, groaning as they tried and failed to get to their feet.
In another burst, Nicci had retrieved the Dacra and approached the Lord Rahl with a satisfied grin.
Amihan covered her mother's body with her small arms and scowled at the advancing sorceress.
Something in the girl's expression must have given Nicci pause because Cara saw that predatory smile wither as she swallowed a lump of hesitance and strangely enough, fear. Nicci cautiously knelt before the Lord's body, keeping eye contact with Amihan as though her life depended on it. In calculated and obvious movements, she reached out and unfastened the Rada'Han, slowly slipping the collar and her Dacra back into her robes as though she had planned on doing something else but now, could not.
It reminded Cara of someone avoiding quick and threatening gestures in the presence of a beast.
Cara strained to hear Nicci's words.
"I regret that I can't take you with me or kill your mother as I should have done when you were…weaker," Nicci said, studying the girl carefully as one would a poisonous snake, or an angry boar, or a nest of bees. "This thing," she regarded the trinket with contempt, "is of limited use and it's becoming apparent that I'm no match for you now. So, consider my sparing you a gift, young one, and remember me when you win the war."
She touched the unadorned bangle once more and the power within lent her enough to escape.
As soon as Nicci had gone, Cara and Kahlan were released from the spell of binding and they hurried to Amihan's side.
Cara Rahl's chest –which gave no discernable movements before –expanded greedily. She sucked in several portions of air as though she had been holding her breath and for a few, terrifying seconds, she shivered violently, choked and murmured several words that made no sense. The words subsided into a few broken phrases before a healthy, pinkish hue returned to her lips and cheeks. Sweat broke across her brow and her hands remained balled into fists. She seemed troubled, her face in a grimace, as she struggled with something unseen.
Kahlan put a hand on the Lord's forehead. "A fever. We need to get her to the nearest city." Under her breath she spat out, "What did Nicci do to her?"
"I don't think she even knew herself," Cara said. "Nicci was just as confused as we were."
Kahlan put an arm around Amihan, who relaxed against her embrace and looked relieved that Nicci had gone.
"She also seemed scared of something," Cara peered curiously at Amihan, "or someone." At that, Amihan hid from their gazes by burying deeper into Kahlan's cloak. "She could have killed Amihan or her mother if she wanted to."
"I won't let her!" Amihan cried, repeating the words into Kahlan's side as she hugged the Mother Confessor even tighter.
"Hm," Cara said, unconvinced.
Kahlan shot Cara a look and rubbed the girl's arms reassuringly. "I'm sure you won't, little one."
"Mother Confessor?" Berdine said, apologetic at having interrupted the exchange. "The Cabrallian garrison is half a day's ride away. We can take the Lord Rahl there and arrange for an envoy."
"Good. How much further to the People's Palace?"
"Two days at most. The Lord Rahl wanted to get there through two gateways and expended as much magic as she could, constructing the first." Berdine smiled at them wanly. From the way she stood, the day's events had worn her out. " I found this," she produced a quaint piece of jewelry similar to the one Nicci wore, "on Arrin. It's some sort of anchor point. Kina tells me that it was a gift from one of Arrin's admirers."
Kahlan said, "I'm sorry she died."
"She died a hero's death, in service to D'Hara and defending our Lord. A soldier of the Alkarian regiment could not ask for anything more." Berdine gave the piece to Kahlan. It was a simple, silver band with an emerald inlay. It was elegant, forged from an earlier age when wizards had the skills and the need to create such things, and yet it had almost been their demise. "Anyway, this anchor tethered to the gateway as it was woven and activated some other artifact remotely..."
"Likely that power sink Nicci had on," Cara supplied.
"Yes. Well, I suspect this sink reproduced the spell and the destination for Nicci at a more powerful rate. She sent thirty men through that second gateway. Thus the attack on the other side." Berdine rubbed her face in frustration. "Spirits. The Senate won't be too pleased to find out that the Lord Rahl is ill."
"Well I'm sure they'll be happier to have her ill than dead," Cara said.
Berdine shook her head. "You have a sordid sense of humor, Cara."
"So I'm told."
"If you told that to the Lady, you'd be skinned alive, you know."
Cara smiled grimly, knowing also that another obstacle was at hand: namely the Mother Confessor of this world, and how they would answer to her when they brought her wife and her daughter to the People's Palace.
Cara acknowledged the Mother Confessor as she joined her at the walls of the garrison. They were alone, with only the sharp calls of mountain birds for companions.
The Cabrallian garrison was a veritable fort carved from the cliff it nestled on, built centuries ago to safeguard a pass leading to the Azrith Plains. It overlooked the small, self-sufficient city of Cabrallia, which took advantage of cold, soothing breezes from the Boundary and an ancient yet advanced irrigation system that brought spring water from deep within the rock into their gardens.
The city was a series of carved niches on the bedrock, windows and doors painted in bright, celebratory colors, while individual designs marked one house from the next. As the sun fell, light from their windows spilled forth like globes amidst the rock.
The town itself thrived on frequent visits from rich vacationers who sought respite in its deep springs, hidden waterfalls and well-appointed taverns. Several of the houses belonged to the D'Haran affluent, which boasted large porticoes and terraces for their children and their guests. Large vines and hanging plants gave an impression of lushness. From one level to another, the flora hung like a green cascade with blooming flowers for boats.
It gave Cabrallia an undeniable mystique.
Beyond the city was the vast quilt-like stretch of flatland leading to the People's Palace, turning several shades of orange as the sun began its slow procession to dusk.
Cara risked a glance at the woman who was trying to strike a conversation with her.
"That was," Kahlan breathed out shakily, meeting Cara's gaze, "scary."
Cara shrugged. "She'll be alright when we get her to the People's Palace. Zedd can give us answers."
"You weren't bothered at all? Seeing yourself lying like that?" Kahlan waited for an answer, was not given one and said in afterthought, "Oh, wait. You aren't one to admit." Kahlan steepled her fingers together in a gesture of nervousness. Or maybe she was cold. "I'm actually glad that you can revive anyone if it came to that."
"To an extent."
"Well yeah, to an extent." Kahlan faced her, boring a hole into Cara as she studied her. "I was scared, Cara. For you."
Cara stiffened. This was it. Feelings, yet again.
"I can't imagine why." Cara's wry delivery did nothing to keep Kahlan from stepping closer until they stood shoulder to shoulder.
Cara watched with disapproval. The Mother Confessor was shivering and had gravitated to the nearest source of heat.
Cara said, "You should get back inside. It's getting cold."
"When were you ever concerned about my freezing over?" Kahlan asked her playfully.
Cara's silence was enough of an answer. Without fear or reproach, Kahlan twined her arms around Cara's and placed her head on the Mord'Sith's shoulder.
Cara shifted as though to pull away but something about how Kahlan held her –a firmness and a familiarity –quieted her protest. Cara had always considered touching to be a prelude to either torture or sex and never judged it to be a sufficient form of comfort. Apparently, to Kahlan it was so Cara stood still and allowed it.
"This is nice," Kahlan whispered, mostly to herself.
Cara grunted a reluctant 'yes' to humor her.
"Thank you." Kahlan lifted her head from Cara's shoulder.
Cara turned to look at her, mostly because the Confessor's presence was unnerving and she usually faced her fear head on.
Briefly, they shared the same breath, the sun carving delicate shadows on Kahlan's face. Cara frowned, trying to make sense of the situation, of the varying shades of sentiment which passed like an artist's hesitant daub across Kahlan's face. Then, before she could curse or avoid the situation entirely, Cara floundered like a fish out of water as her brain lost all coherent thought. Kahlan suddenly leaned forward and planted a quick kiss –chaste and heart-felt –on Cara's cheek.
A steady, newfangled warmth bloomed on that patch of skin and spread across her face even as Kahlan's lips were replaced by cold air. It latched onto her chest and stayed there, a dense yet comfortable weight that Cara had never felt before much less carried.
The kisses Cara gave and had been given were fleeting, vicious approximations of lust, of power. This was…different.
"For what?" Cara said in a choked whisper.
Normally, she would have the good sense to say something witty, or invite the woman for a drink, or let her intentions be known less subtly.
Provided, of course, she knew what her own intentions were. Which she did not, because this was Kahlan. The Mother Confessor of the Midlands. The woman who almost confessed her. And Richard's…Richard's what?
Cara mentally kicked herself. There would be no intentions besides friendship, camaraderie, and the usual talk of feelings by the fire.
Kahlan continued, "Thanks for everything. I don't know where I'd be if I had done this alone."
"I highly doubt that, Kahlan. You're stronger than most. And anyway, when all this is over, you'll always have Richard." That sounded more like an epithet than a truth. Cara winced as Kahlan broke her gaze.
Sadness. Confusion. Regret. The remaining sunlight revealed each hue to Cara clearly.
Cara stumbled right into the hole she dug for herself, "I apologize. I didn't mean to bring Richard into…"
"He's the idea that never really goes away," Kahlan said thoughtfully, this time facing the magnificent view and imbibing a lungful of fresh, mountain air. "I wonder how he is. How they both are. Zedd and he must be worried sick."
"I should imagine, now that their only decent cook stepped through the Gate."
They both smiled, appreciating the ebbing tension.
"Look," Cara began, licking her lips. She was anxious to get out of the cold, to be surrounded by the hubbub of people rather than this unsettling quiet. "I hear there's a decent pub down at the city. They have a tasty Cabrallian brew on tap. Maybe you'd like to," she coughed, uncertain of her words, "have a drink."
Cara tried to smirk, hiding her distress at having invited Kahlan in the first place. "I promise you'll do all the talking."
Kahlan considered her doubtfully and deadpanned, "You're asking me to go drink with you? You, the great Cara Mason, who can out-drink an entire tavern of lushes if she wished?" Kahlan's lips quirked upwards. "Spirits, the last time Richard even tried, he was face-down on the tavern floor half an hour into your 'drinking contest'."
"Well, now that you've put it that way…yes." Cara pushed against the wall and started for the nearest stairway down to the courtyard. She called out with laughter in her voice, an occurrence so rare that it gave Kahlan a start, "Come on. If this world is as good as ours, their Cabrallian brew is still the best there is."
Kina set the lamp she was carrying on the table, the device throwing yellow light at shadows that had begun their small procession towards Berdine's hunched figure.
"They've gone out. Drinking."
Berdine lifted her head from her paperwork to look Kina in the eye. "You have got to be kidding me."
"I kid you not," Kina said, unable to hide her grin. "You should have seen this coming. I mean, Cabrallian brew. No one I know has ever refused a draught."
Everything about Kina's tone told Berdine all she had to know about what Cabrallian cave-vaults really produced.
Imbibing D'Haran 'old brew' was a centuries-long tradition. The oldest, most delectable techniques originated from Cabrallian breweries. The recipes were, in Berdine's mind, unsurpassed and many aficionados not only spent their days vacationing in their rest houses but spent those days guzzling casks of the stuff.
"Same old Cara, eh?" Kina added.
"Terrifyingly so. Have someone stationed by the door of that inn and make sure they have enough horses. If I know Cara, she'll have Kahlan drunk in an hour and you'll both have to carry the Mother Confessor up the hill this garrison is on." Berdine bent to write, dipping her quill in the inkwell. "Spirits. Those two never change. And here I thought they didn't even like each other."
Kina guffawed. "What?"
"I know. I think it's an elaborate hoax they're playing on us." Berdine smiled indulgently at her officer. "Make sure Arrin is alright. That thing Cara did to her, the Breath of Life was it? I can tell Arrin isn't quite herself yet." Berdine sighed and rubbed her temple, filling in a few more lines of official document with an ink-stained hand. "I guess meeting the Keeper has that effect."
"I can't say I'm not grateful, Captain." Kina was pensive. "Arrin's been a remarkable sister-in-arms. She still is."
"Yes, well, I'm sure the Lord Rahl will have another shiny medal for Arrin's 'devotees' to admire. And maybe this time a homestead in a town full of beauties." They grinned at each other, knowing the other woman's history and then, more grimly, of the deadly gift one of her lovers had given her.
"Now, if you will," Berdine pointed more urgently to the door, "Take good care of the Mother Confessor and the vice which calls herself Cara."
"Of course Captain."
A Cabrallian tavern was different from the usual roadside inn. For one, despite its rowdy occupants and the token bard, the city guard kept a sentry at the door. A roving patrol picked out trouble before it could holler a challenge at the nearest noble, or soldier, or merchant. The city's mayor had received enough complaints over the centuries from persons of merit –people who were either mauled by a drunk or had gotten themselves into trouble due to a lack of deterrents –to allow such overt policing.
Cabrallia was one place the aristocracy could drink the old brew in a tavern, while listening to a not-so-talented bard warbling about a hero of powerful D'Hara. For them it was a novelty. The sheer number of weapons surrounding a tavern made the entire ritual of drinking and debauchery a rather civilized affair.
In a boisterous way.
Kahlan was surprised nobody recognized her and took comfort in the fact. Cara, on the other hand, drew so much attention that they were seated nearest to the tap and given a wide berth while voices droned 'my Lord' in varying pitches. Kahlan could see that it amused and disgusted Cara to no end.
Kahlan watched Cara down her third tankard while taking a modest sip from hers.
The old brew. Powerful stuff. And really quite delicious. She needed to be careful with it.
Cara gestured at Kahlan's drink. "You don't like it?"
"No, it's not that." Kahlan smiled weakly.
Mord'Siths and Confessors did not normally coexist as well as they both did. In fact, a Mord'Sith and a Confessor sharing a drink like old friends was a badly constructed oxymoron or a terribly bad joke. In terms of magic and ideology, they were complete opposites: the Agiel and the rituals surrounding it were buried in primal warrens of hate while Confessors and their touch had their origins in love. Stripped of traditions, dress and machinations, at the very root of it, they were both harbingers of death and surrender in one form or another. But unlike Cara's Mord'Sith abilities, Kahlan's Confessor powers never really allowed her to 'let go' without serious consequences to those she loved and who loved her.
Cara and drink was a dangerous combination because so much about just the Cara part compelled Kahlan to succumb to her rage, to everything that seemed irrepressible and untamed. The evidence had been clear when Kahlan almost confessed her over her sister's death. Add D'Haran old brew to that…well.
The Mord'Sith read her misgivings like a book.
"Ah." Cara returned her smile. "You're safe here." She eyed the door and Kahlan followed her gaze. A familiar face peeked inside and hurriedly backed out. "Berdine sent a contingent. That was Kina."
Kahlan laughed, taking another sip. "Well I suppose we're in good hands."
"So you are," Cara said, her words more meaningful than Kahlan could give her credit for.
Kahlan had found herself searching Cara's gaze more and more often now. Looking for answers, perhaps? Certainly, she had discovered more questions as something about Cara opened somewhat. It had allowed Kahlan to grasp at small articulations of affection: of how Cara would prepare her horse at first light and allow her precious minutes of sleep, or how she offered Kahlan drink before she even knew she was parched.
Instead of the usual hardwood door locked from hinge to arch, Cara's emotions were slightly ajar. They spilled in trickles now, as Cara took another drink and smiled crookedly at her. The openness in her expression –exacerbated by her fourth tankard of strong, D'Haran brew –was odd without the scar.
"Kahlan," Cara began. Despite the drink, she seemed hesitant. When she did speak, it was very deliberate, enunciating syllables with honesty that heaved against a nature once burdened with treachery, murder, hate.
"I'm quite glad that it was you I went through the Gate with. So…" She paused as though digging into some hinter part of herself with difficulty. She chuckled derisively at her own reservation, braving the torrent by meeting Kahlan's gaze and forcing the words out like heavy rocks. "Thank you. I wouldn't have had it any other way."
Despite herself, Kahlan was beginning to learn that the Mord'Sith in Cara was not all that she was.
"You had to get tipsy to say that?" Kahlan asked, incredulous.
"Yeah, well." Shrugging, Cara said, "Richard's lucky to have you. Spirits, Cara Rahl is lucky to have you. I probably am, too."
There was a long silence as they each stared into their tankards and avoided each other's gaze.
"If it's any consolation, Richard's never actually had had me. And neither have you."
Slightly appalled, Cara's eyes narrowed. To Cara's credit, the ensuing grin was awash with humor. "By the Creator, that was very random, Kahlan Amnell."
Kahlan stared up at the ceiling, her cheeks red. "I know right? Let's just finish this round and go before both of us get so drunk we start being grateful –or ungrateful –for all sorts of other things."
"Ha. We wouldn't want that."
And they clinked mugs.
They found that Amihan had already settled in, barred from sleeping beside Cara Rahl who was watched by a local wizard of the Third Order. The little girl slept facing the fire, her face illumined by the light as it revealed outlines of Cara and Kahlan's younger selves.
This was not their daughter. Not really. But here they were at the foyer of a room, unable to refrain from watching a little girl in slumber before retiring to their own beds.
"I've always known I'd have to bear a few children, if only to keep the line of Confessors intact." Kahlan turned to Cara, who leaned against the doorway with her usual aplomb. Her icy glare was mute, haunted. "Did you ever think you'd settle down, have children?"
"Never," Cara replied.
"Never? Not once?"
"I had a son. He died. As a Mord'Sith, I knew it was inevitable that our children would be fed to a fate just as terrible as ours."
It was an echo of the outcome of a Confessor birth, where children were submitted to training in order to control their power. More imperceptible forms of cruelty had their locus in Kahlan's world because they were necessary, it was for the good.
Kahlan breathed deeply before focusing her attention on Amihan once more. Cara Rahl treated the child with a nurturance that was firm yet utterly tender. Kahlan suspected the Mother Confessor of this world did, too. The hand with which they dealt with her was also keenly aware of Amihan's innocence and of the coming storm which came with being the heir to two nations. It was a balancing act that Kahlan admired for its deeply sown love and its pragmatic grasp of the circumstances.
It was never more evident than with the child. Amihan was unblinking in the face of novelty, strong even in the midst of her mother's illness and equally fierce when faced with an adversary. These implications made Kahlan anxious of her own future, of the cycles, traditions and fates that could be broken and of better ones that could be created.
Hers, and yet not. The connection had been strong enough for her to step into the unknown and for Cara to follow her.
She studied the other woman more carefully, noticing the softened edges to Cara's jaw and then, again, her lips. What was it about Kahlan's wandering gaze these past few days?
The Seeker awaited her on the other side of the Gate, someone who knew the language of love and kindness like he had been born to it. Cara had been compelled into that shell for the benefit of those around her.
By the Creator, she loved Richard but she was thinking of him less and less while the realities of this world occupied her more and more.
Cara looked at her enquiringly with none of her usual arrogance.
"Are you alright?" was her question, unhinging Kahlan's thoughts.
"I'm just thinking of what all this," Kahlan gestured widely, "means."
Cara nodded, as though she understood.
Kahlan prodded, "Any ideas?"
The woman frowned, looked down as she scuffed her boot on the stone floor. Then in a brooding voice, she murmured, "I've read that there is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that."
Smiling sadly, Cara moved towards the bed. The color of honey coruscated as her hair fell over her face and she leaned forward to drop an affectionate kiss on Amihan's forehead. She sat by the girl's bedside, touching her hair and watching as the daughter that was hers, and yet not, smiled sweetly in her sleep and whispered, "Inya."
The sun prickled her neck, wriggled its way into the spaces of her traveling dress. She rubbed her shoulder as though to chase the hot, tingling fingers of exasperation. Sweat had also begun its ruinous path down her forehead, her temples, pooling at dark places beneath her clothing. It caused such stickiness and discomfort that she blew a frustrated breath out.
Cara thrust a jug full of refreshing spring water in her direction.
For Kahlan, the drink was a minute respite but she had come to realize that Cara's gestures, however careless or uncertain, were grand. Kahlan smiled gratefully, pouring some of the water over her head to cool herself off. Rivulets spilled across her chest and she was suddenly impelled to watch Cara from the corner of her eye. The Mord'Sith, her eyes bluer and clearer than the sky, studied the scene deliberately before her gaze turned inward, then dark.
Something had been bothering the Mord'Sith of late. It had nothing to do with the twin who seemed fully ensnared by a deep and magical sleep.
As though on cue, Cara complained, "This charade is getting old."
"You can't blame Berdine. You're a very convincing red herring." Kahlan would have smirked if not for Cara's rising indignation.
Kahlan turned to Berdine who rode beside them, escorting the carriage with Amihan and her mother inside. It was an odd contraption, shaped more like a beetle's carapace than a wagon and enchanted in such a way that its occupants experienced mild weather even in such tortuous heat. Pulled by two handsome horses from Cabrallia's stables, it chittered as it swayed back and forth.
The child had been asleep inside for most of the journey, avoiding the heat. The Lord Rahl, guarded by one of Cabrallia's wizard and several spells, slumbered fitfully.
Their party was kept small with Arrin and Kina covering their flanks. Berdine had recruited another Alkarian soldier along the way, a burly man named Agit who lived in the outskirts of Cabrallia and whose business was to know the comings and goings of nobles and spies in the city. He was rightly deferential to Kahlan and Cara –a trait prevalent among those from Berdine's regiment –and immediately the grey-haired man was entrusted with the odd details of their quest.
The man had ridden a few kilometers ahead in order to scout, reporting back every two hours or so about any anomalies, passing tradesmen or rare canopies that heralded a statesmen traveling to and from their provinces.
Kahlan took another drink from the jug. "We can all use some shade."
"I can use a change of clothes," Cara muttered.
Berdine said, "Not until we reach the People's Palace, Cara. It's enough that Cabrallia's commander knows about the Lord Rahl's illness. I won't allow anyone to believe that D'Hara is leaderless, at least in part, especially not when we're so near to the capital."
Berdine looked to the heavens. "If any of her old enemies found out…" Kahlan saw the mental shudder as the Alkarian captain closed her eyes, "it can shake the viper's nest."
Cara frowned in response. She was bare-armed, shrugging inside her vest as though seeking respite from the burden of playing this new-fangled role. Involuntarily, her hands wrenched feebly and often against the collar.
Cara's Mord'Sith leather which usually covered her from head to foot had been stuffed into a bag. In their world, it had been a figurative suit of armor which hampered scathing emotions and unwanted attention. It was a symbol of prowess, power and fear. Here, it meant nothing.
The Rahl vest and scout's trousers painted a different picture. The deep green and silver piping contrasted pleasantly against Cara's bronzed skin. The vest was not as form-fitting but it exposed more of Cara's features: hardened, lean arms that Kahlan never had the opportunity to study unless they bathed together; a lack of severity which her Mord'Sith leathers usually foiled.
The clothing forced a rare clarity from Cara's eyes, emphasized the obstinate sureness from her jaw, and imposed a posture that was not entirely hers but which she wrestled to possess regardless. Though her hair was shorter than her double, everyone who did not keep Berdine's counsel positively bowed and tripped over themselves paying obeisance.
Thinking back, Kahlan concluded that leaving Cabrallia had been the awkward affair they had all expected it to be. Cara rode through the streets in Rahl's regalia while holding a cheerful Amihan who waved and smiled at the populace. The people gathered at the doorsteps of their homes while others went up to greet her. Jubilation accompanied their party to the gates with cheers of, "Hail the Red Lion! Hail the Lord Rahl!"
One could tell that Cara would have given up anything to be anywhere else and clutched Amihan like a talisman.
Kahlan certainly remembered the tantrum which followed.
As soon as they were out of sight of the Cabrallian patrols, Cara had jumped off her horse, her boots disturbing the earth as dust wafted upwards from her rancor. She walked haphazardly away from them, pushing at the cloak from Nicobarese as though struggling against a beast. She made several attempts to unclasp it, succeeding with a howl as she nearly threw the garment to the ground.
Kahlan had followed, putting a commanding hand on her arm, preventing her from flinging the cape outwards. They both fell to their knees as Kahlan cut Cara's momentum while the Mord'Sith tried to stem the impulse to fight the woman beside her.
Their foreheads together, Kahlan murmured, "Cara, stop."
"No! I am not Cara Rahl! I refuse to be!"
Kahlan had touched her face then, cradling her jaw so that Cara may meet her eyes. "I know you aren't. This will only be for a few days. Berdine's explained this to us. It is as much for Amihan's sake as for the Lord's," Kahlan's voice softened ever further, "for us and our safety. D'Hara has been unstable for so many years. It cannot afford an ailing Rahl, especially when that Rahl is Cara."
Kahlan saw her companion swallow, a trail of sweat on her forehead, her eyes tempestuous –sure indications of the effort she had taken to carry the Lord's burden even for just a while.
Kahlan's thumb caressed Cara's cheek and having realized the tenderness of the gesture, she almost stopped. Cara simply took the hand as though to draw strength from her and without thought, brought it to her lips while saying, "Very well. For our safety. For Amihan."
With Cara's lips still warm against Kahlan's skin and the remembrance of it unforgivably stark against the featureless wastelands, they both stood and approached Berdine who had patiently waited for the scene to end.
The ride across the Azrith Plains had been a silent one and after the last garrison town, Cara had quelled most of her grievances.
When she wasn't busy trying to pull it off her person, the livery allowed Cara to step into a role that she played almost seamlessly: a strong D'Haran leader, a steadfast defender of what she held dear. That this should delight Kahlan was lost to the Mother Confessor and she tried not to dwell on its implications.
Kahlan, for the most part, controlled the urge to ride closer to Cara, to lend reassurance because the last thing the Mord'Sith needed was any insinuation that this act was something she could not uphold on her own.
As the hours plodded on, the unexpected lilt of Arrin's voice floated through their small party.
Arrin had been grateful for her second life and seemed more mellow, less likely to pick out six or seven lovers in one town and more likely to dine with friends. She had taken to the lyre and their company had discovered her to be a nuanced singer. Her voice had the subdued yet resonant quality of a storyteller whose tales were painted with the meaningful gradations of many years in battle and travel and recently, from a chilling encounter with death.
Like a whisper, her song thrummed against the hot, afternoon air while the troubled inflections of a dirge heaved heavily through her notes.
Ay, ay! By the eaves of Halin!
The Red Lion rose from the ruin
As oft she had heard them crying
Through the spring like a haunted croon.
Ah, ah! The spilled blood at Halin!
We all bade her to journey north.
'fore the Gate she stood abiding
By the ire she had driven forth!
Ay, ay! For the fate of Halin!
She battled as she heard our calls;
Was our voice as she went hunting
For the Beast of the sacred halls.
Ah, ah! Now avenged was Halin!
When the High Seat became her throne.
Though grieved she went on ruling
'til the hosts of the Midlands groaned.
Cara, her discomfort forgotten, stared unsteadily ahead as Kahlan watched several emotions pass through the other woman's face like terrified passengers of an ailing boat.
"By the spirits, sing something happier," Berdine scolded.
Arrin turned to her captain in surprise. "My apologies, Captain. It seemed…appropriate."
Berdine stole a glance at Cara's direction, took in the woman's troubled expression and ordered Arrin to sing Maidens of the Sea.
Through the dulcet tones of waves against rock and wind through the glens of the Bay of Mannon, the song soothed them very little as finally and imposingly, the tall structures and impermeable walls of the People's Palace rose over the horizon like a dark, rock-hewn sun.
Theirs was a path driven into the bed rock centuries earlier, unlit and overrun by weeds. The trail had been violently carved into the Palace walls, barely discernable but for the way gnarled, oversized bushes bent over it like a cave of brambles. It repulsed with its ageless, dark mouth and exhaled a cold, dismal wind that smelled of dank stone and of places that had never seen the light.
Cara felt the large bundle she had been cradling on her saddle shiver and shy away.
Berdine bent over to whisper to the child, "None can hurt you here, my Lady, without risking a painful and instant death."
If Berdine's words were meant to comfort the daughter of the Lord Rahl, it had the opposite effect. Amihan clung to Cara even tighter and murmured her discomfort.
"It'll be alright, young one," Cara reassured, wishing suddenly for her Agiels which had been stored in her saddlebags.
She knew this path. None but the Mord'Sith and the Lord Rahl himself used it in times of dire need or when utmost secrecy was required. It was a short trip, usually fraught with mortal danger for anyone who was unfamiliar with the traps set or the deadly sentries that guarded it.
Cara felt Kahlan move closer.
"What is this?" Kahlan asked.
"It's been known by many names. The Hall of Thorns. The Bloody Strait. It's always been associated with death for any and all of Rahl's enemies. It's the infamous back door that nobody speaks of and only a Rahl can use."
Cara smiled wickedly. "Yes it is."
The wizard exited the carapace-like vehicle in which Cara Rahl lay slumbering. Torches were lit and the wizard summoned light from his staff, lifting it as a nauseating, white glow spilled forth and revealed unsteady, gravelly ground beneath.
The light wavered when the wizard stepped forward, the man straining against the forces of the Palace before finally stepping under the eaves of the cave. He bent over with an exertive huff, glancing at Berdine in apology. As he stepped forward, his legs trudged as though they were heavier and moving against mud.
The Palace's field of magical jurisdiction assaulted any power it considered foreign and alien.
To Cara the sensation was different, a warm embrace as though stepping from a snow-tortured mountain and into a cottage with a lively hearth. She took a lungful of stale air and welcomed it heartily.
Though Berdine may have felt the effects, her features were more strained, worried perhaps of the consequences of bringing an unconscious Lord Rahl home. Cara did not envy her the position or the imminent backlash from this elusive Senate that would never have been tolerated by the Rahls Cara had known.
Darken Rahl did not share power and neither did the Rahls before him.
"She's going to kill me," Berdine muttered under her breath as she rode past Cara's horse. "Oh Spirits, let the Senate hang me but I'll not last a minute in a room with her…"
Berdine no doubt spoke of the Lady Rahl, Cara thought, noticing her world's Kahlan as she cleared her throat and shifted uncomfortably on her saddle. Just as it did for the wizard, the Palace was slowly limiting Kahlan's magic.
"I will never get used to this," Kahlan confided, hands chafing against her arms in a flicking motion as though warding away insects crawling against her skin.
Cara released a chuckle. "To me it feels exactly like home."
"But this isn't usually the path inya takes," Amihan whispered.
"We don't want to arouse suspicion," Cara explained. "And we want your mother to find out first. No one else. She'll be at the other end waiting for us. Kina will make sure of that."
"I miss my mama."
"I should think you do. It's been quite a while."
The moment they slipped past the traps, the vile enchantments and other unspeakable things from which the cave derived its name, Cara's senses were all on edge. She had unwittingly unsheathed one of her Agiels from her saddlebag and had a protective arm around Amihan.
Warily, she sighted the landing. The tall figures of Berdine's regiment guarded the elevated alcove, some of them moving to meet the horse-drawn carriage which had conveyed their Lord.
Others held several lamps which were jarring in their brilliance. Cara lifted a hand to shade her eyes but a looming shadow did the favor for her as it strode ahead of the soldiers and became haloed by the lamplight. Berdine, recognizing the white dress, was reduced to a nervous, blubbering wreck.
The captain's inelegant dismount would have amounted to a fall if she had not deftly negotiated her boot getting caught in the stirrup. Even then, she fell promptly and gracelessly on her knees with a loud, "My Lady!" a sound more like glass shattering than a respectful greeting.
Arrin and Agit had followed suit as promptly as their armor would allow.
Kahlan and Cara carefully dismounted, Amihan between them as this figure came even closer to greet or castigate them.
For all the torchlight's harshness, it fell softly and deftly on the woman's hair, which fluttered like a dark, subdued dervish –unbound by a braid –against the small breezes wafting from the cave. Her clothing, a dress carefully cut for elegance and –Cara noted –battle, served to deepen the color of her hair and to emphasize the porcelain quality of her skin.
The light revealed her eyes, which lanced through Cara with the clarity and intensity of a hot summer day.
Many would have considered that glance benevolent. Cara had known peasants to splutter the truth because of it and for lords to trip all over themselves to appease it. Kings and queens were indebted to it. The Seeker himself had been captive of it.
But so unlike the blue-eyed gaze of her Kahlan, the efficacy of Kahlan Amnell-Rahl's glare came from a distinct artifice.
Underneath the smiling diplomacy was the mantle of cruelty and decisiveness often worn by a leader who declared war and did not delegate the task lightly to her generals. Instead, she carried out the sentence of death herself. Cara had experienced that mantle as one of Darken Rahl's lackeys and understood that it made its owner unhesitant and relentless in her pursuits.
For the Lady Rahl, the quality was a pitiless foundation that buttressed a beautiful, kind face. A face which had been hers by birth-right and which now served the purpose of keeping everyone unarmed for and unaware of her arsenal.
It fooled everyone but Cara.
The old songs had been right. D'Hara would have trembled before this Mother Confessor.
The grim chariots of war rode on her shoulders and she carried them not like one would a burden but like a squall that could be unleashed when the situation called for it. There was wrath there like that which fueled a Con Dar but it was not short-lived as a Con Dar would be. Rather, her fury was an undercurrent that had been meticulously tamed over the years.
It was the staple of a tyrant, Cara thought unkindly. But unlike a tyrant, Kahlan Amnell-Rahl owned a rare restraint. She knew her own strengths and understood the destruction they could yield. There would be no igniting them even when riled. It was evidence of a righteous pragmatism that may have been hers long before she declared war on D'Hara.
These informed the careful weight of her steps, the small, controlled articulations of her eyes, and the almost-sneer that was as delightful as it was deadly.
It was an unsettling difference from the Kahlan Cara knew. The Mother Confessor from her world shifted behind her as though communicating her own doubt about this twin.
Cara was inclined to give the Lady Rahl a small bow and a curt, "Mother Confessor."
The Lady Rahl's eyes narrowed slightly, taking in Cara's manner of dress, the shorter hair, the lack of a visible scar. "You brought my daughter home." Her attention flickered to Berdine whose gaze stayed affixed to the floor. "Something that the Lord Rahl's most trusted commander could barely accomplish on her own."
Cara saw Berdine visibly swallow as the silence stretched into a terrible, unknown verdict for the captain and her Alkarian regiment.
To Berdine's good luck, the tension dissipated when Amihan fled into her mother's arms. All facades melted as the Lady Rahl lifted the girl and embraced her fiercely. Her entire body arched around Amihan as though reunited with a part of her that had been missing, or that she thought had been lost forever.
Her expression softened to the bare bones of relief and delight. In the few seconds a genuine smile swooped generously across her lips, Kahlan Amnell-Rahl seemed younger, the ire gone.
"My little girl, my love," she said as she bestowed several kisses on her daughter's cheeks. "You're safe now."
"I always have been," Amihan replied, giggling.
"My inya have kept me safe."
At once, there was a contemplative look on the Lady Rahl's face. "I can't say that they've done the same for your mother."
Amihan replied in stride, "But they have, inya. They did all they could, just as you would."
The Lady Rahl chose silence as she considered the two doppelgangers. In a manner reminiscent of a hawk, Cara could tell that the Lady Rahl was examining them as one would its prey. Should she cut them down outright or toy with them 'til exhaustion became their death?
The Mord'Sith wondered idly if her last deed in this world would be an attempt to escape confession by the Lady Rahl's hand or an appointment at the gallows. Both would be extremely unpleasant, less favorable than death on the battlefield.
"Please don't hurt them," Amihan requested belatedly.
"We shall see." There was a harshness to the Lady Rahl that the child maneuvered skillfully. Amihan uttered a few hushed words that floated brightly into the Lady's ears, colorful phrases only a child could churn about a certain Cara Mason and Kahlan Amnell, who had braved their world and had flown like eager warriors to this one. Before long, the Lady had sighed, bestowing Amihan with a fond kiss on the forehead. "We shall see," the Lady said in a softer tone.
Her gaze lingered on Cara the Mord'Sith, still dangerously hooded and ambiguous. "Berdine, make sure our…guests are comfortable. They are not allowed to roam the Palace or to speak to anyone."
"Yes, my Lady."
"I trust you won't botch your task this time."
Berdine's voice faltered. "O-of course not, my Lady."
"Good. Send for the Wizard Zedd as well."
Putting Amihan down, she brought the brunt of her attention on Cara who frowned as the Lady Rahl stepped forward and caressed the piping on Cara's vest. Without warning, Kahlan Amnell-Rahl clutched the vest as a hawk would with its talons and pulled Cara violently to her. Cara lifted the Agiel to ward her off and instead, found herself abreast her own weapon, the Agiel wedged between her and the Mother Confessor.
The Lady Rahl's gaze flashed briefly to the artifact between them, feeling without indicating the pain which surely whipped through her as the Agiel's magic flared through both their chests.
She whispered forcefully into Cara's ear, slightly out of breath. Cara, for her part, tried not to look as disconcerted as she felt.
"You will take this finery off, impostor. My wife paid dearly for the High Seat. I won't have that memory marred by some…look-alike." She spat the word like a curse.
Her smile was disturbingly empty as she pulled slightly away to study Cara's face from an uncomfortable lack of distance. Cara could feel her breath –as well as that dangerous wrath which had been the Mother Confessor's most compelling introduction –as she spoke, "You won't need it here. The Senate will recognize you easily as a dupe." Her other hand went up to touch Cara's right cheek, the skin at the back of it soft even as the muscles beneath were strained with barely controlled gall. "Needless to say you don't have the mark from Halin."
The Lady Rahl released her hold and pushed away as though disgusted. "See to it, Cara Mason, or Berdine will."
Cara did not answer, staring with as blank an expression as she could until the Lady Rahl was out of earshot. It was a shocking reintroduction to another version of Kahlan she never thought to meet again.
The Kahlan from her world was immediately beside her to steady her with a hand.
"I think you've met your match," she teased.
"Hardly," Cara replied. "I've met someone like her once before, when Fyren terrorized Aydindril and you had been split in two."
"I remember that story. Richard and Zedd had such an animated telling of it." Kahlan sobered, rubbing Cara's arm to soothe her.
Cara started at the sensation, confused enough to contemplate ignoring Kahlan completely. Something stopped her.
Ever since Cabrallia and the revelations which came with assuming Cara Rahl's role, their companionship had changed its tone from wariness to a kind of fatigued surrender.
As a Mord'Sith who had commanded Darken Rahl's hosts, she knew when to withdraw and when to force the siege. A small part of her still fought the realities of this world; ceaselessly, she swam against the tide in the hopes that clinging to what she knew would serve her well when the Gates of Meleth brought them back home.
And yet, as she found Kahlan's gaze, she recognized that now was a time of parley, of a clear-mindedness that she had once instinctively yearned for but was nevertheless afraid of.
It was a clear defiance to everything she knew but she put a hand over Kahlan's in gestures that were fast becoming common in their friendship. From the tiny yet doting smile she received, Cara supposed that certain types of surrender, of knowledge, yielded more rewards than others.
Cara endeavored never to regret this peace, for all its rarity and deliberate thought.
Mustering their strength, everyone remained to witness Arrin and Agit unload the Lord Rahl's cot. The tension was so palpable that Cara suspected one could have cut it with a knife. All eyes were on the Lady Rahl.
Cara Rahl was slowly exposed to the lamplight. The scar that cleaved her face seemed like an afterthought as instead, a frown marred her face as evidence of unseen nightmares haunted her sleep and sweat trickled past her brow.
The Lady Rahl's severity wavered as she reached for the Lord's forehead, brushing a strand of hair that clung vapidly to her temple. She studied her wife's profile with the diligence of someone who knew every dip and crease, who had memorized them in the privacy of quiet, unguarded moments. She leaned forward to kiss Cara Rahl on the lips, a gesture potently tender and tentative, even as her next words were covered with poison.
"She has a fever."
"Yes, my lady," the wizard supplied. "She has been like this the past few days."
Kahlan Amnell-Rahl's expression hardened into stone.
"I want an explanation for this," the Lady said. "Or I shall obtain it through whatever means necessary, be it by one's severed head or another."
The Mother Confessor sat by their window with an unusual stillness, rubbing her arms as the Palace drained her of her magic. Darkness had settled and the view was specked with tongues of fire, lamplight that revealed the furnished interiors of D'Haran homes. Further off, the countryside basked in the glow of a half-moon.
With her long fingers running through her hair, Kahlan welcomed the parched wind that fell like dumb heralds through their room.
Cara proceeded to check the doors once more, her muscles straining. They were still locked.
After thoroughly inspecting their quarters –the brick hearth, the wooden panels gleaming in the firelight, walls painted with scenes of the D'Haran hunt and an adjacent room with no windows that harbored a pool of steaming, warm water for bathing –Cara unclasped her traveling cloak, draping it over a nearby chair.
Peering down at her finery, she began to shed Cara Rahl's vest, wresting it from her torso like a snake that had tightened its hold. Once it was off, she threw it at the bed and glared at it like a thing alive.
Cara muttered with derision, "Infamous D'Haran hospitality."
She sat at the low bench near the foot of the bed and pulled the boots from her feet. Her exposed shoulders were strained under the firelight, muscles and scars aggravated by her motions.
Kahlan watched her from the corner of her eye before sighing. Perhaps an audience with the Rahls could wait until tomorrow. She rose from her perch and sat perpendicular to the Mord'Sith as she began to unlace her own traveling clothes.
Kahlan said, "It's been quite a journey, south to north of D'Hara."
"One that I hope will end very soon."
The both stopped from their ministrations as Cara said over her shoulder in a quiet voice, "Is of no concern to us anymore. She's safe here, with her parents."
"I don't know what I'd do, knowing that if I stepped through the Gate I'll probably never see her again."
"You will have children, Kahlan," Cara said carelessly, unaware that the words brought about a pang that Kahlan could not explain.
"You know that's not what I meant," she whispered, barely audible, as she stared at her hands. "She'll be lost to us."
"At this point I'm inclined to believe that anything is possible."
Cara's voice was strange, possessed with a calm that buffeted Kahlan's doubt.
She stood, fully naked, unashamed and cocksure even in her own skin. She was an exceptional specimen, honed by whips, the Agiel and discipline. As Cara sauntered to the next room, Kahlan admired the distinct cut of muscles undulating beneath her shoulder blades; scars delineated a path that dipped to two symmetrical dimples on her lower back and down to the curved weight of her ass.
Turning to her, Cara gave her a lascivious, playful smirk as she leaned against the doorway which led to the bath, presenting Kahlan with her gloriously naked front – her breasts round and full despite her apparent fitness, her stomach flat and firm, framed with sleek lines that had been chiseled there by constant training and which led to the enigma of her sex.
She continued, "Amihan shouldn't even exist. There is a wizard's hand in it for the Lady Rahl to have conceived at all."
The Mord'Sith had managed to phrase all her words with a svelte vulgarity that chafed against Kahlan's Confessor sensibilities.
The ground beneath their friendship shifted.
Kahlan felt her neck and face warm up for reasons that were, well, right in front of her.
"I've made you uncomfortable." Cara smiled as though amused.
"No doubt," Kahlan admonished, "You Mord'Sith. Honestly, you have no shame."
"What?" Cara laughed as she disappeared into the next room. "I'm entitled to have my fun. We've just rescued the heir to the throne!" Then, in a more boisterous tone, "And mind you, in this world, I'm married to the Mother Confessor and she's had my child."
"You do realize how inappropriate your jokes are." Kahlan stared at the only bed in the room. Berdine, you insolent clown.
"Not that that's bothered you before. There's no meaning in it now, other than what you give it!"
Kahlan could imagine Cara's smug expression and chuckled derisively, "Well said."
There were many ways for their friendship to swirl into something uncontrollable, volatile. Kahlan knew, because lately they had confided more closely and had merged so much of their personal space that it was seamless in battle, almost unified in matters of opinion. Any attempt to survive in this world required this closeness. To be able to read the other's thoughts, to glean her strategies when all it took to survive was a split-second decision and near-perfect synergy in the battlefield. They only had each other after all.
There was also the difficulty with the Lord and Lady, a marriage pushed blatantly into their attention and solidified into their psyche by Amihan. The mere idea of Cara as her wife wreaked havoc on Kahlan's imaginings and made her mindful of every reaction, every thought.
It did not help that in moments when they were truly alone together, Cara's nature came into stark relief: her bold advances to everything, her casualness, her airy, mischievous sensuality emboldened by the darkness of her traditions.
She sparred words with her, pelted on Kahlan's reserve with witticism and normal, Mord'Sith seduction.
Richard had never been so bold as to thrust himself into her affections, much less her private thoughts, while Cara mindlessly delighted in the task.
Frankly, it was wearing down on Kahlan's defenses.
After a quick bath that was spent controlling her responses to Cara's provocations she calmly stepped out of the water as Cara tracked her movements with an appreciative gaze.
Cara took a long languorous soak, toweling herself dry as she dressed and joined her at the sizeable bed.
Kahlan lay awake and unable to speak a word.
Cara's breathing was deep, a susurration both comforting and strange. Beneath the blankets, her warmth radiated into the pores of Kahlan's skin, a hearth that intensified as more minutes passed.
Cara's tone was unapologetic. "Still uncomfortable?"
"This world confuses me," Kahlan told her, choosing honesty over retreat. "I'm completely unhinged. The truth as I know it is meaningless here and I've had to deal with different facts, new paradigms. It's difficult. It's terrifying."
Cara sighed, moving towards her as she propped her head on her elbow and studied her with twinkling, blue eyes.
"It confuses me as well." Cara's voice was uncharacteristically soft with introspection. "Things may be different, irreversible even, but we have spent far too many nights side by side, far too many days in mortal danger together, to be afraid now."
"Cara, that's not..."
The Mord'Sith put a gentle finger on her lips, her hand decadently warm. Kahlan was forced to swallow her protest. Very few could silence the Mother Confessor as the Mord'Sith did now.
"We'll be facing tribulations far worse. Save your strength, Kahlan. Don't worry about us or what this all means just yet." Cara's hand withdrew.
Kahlan felt a twinge of regret but found strength in the way Cara scooted closer and relaxed into the sheets beside her with complete, unthinking trust.
It was in a few minutes, basked in a deep, unremitting exhaustion, that they finally fell asleep.
Cara woke to the sound of feet pattering loudly behind the oak doors.
It was deep in the night, hours before sunrise. She had inadvertently slept a few inches from Kahlan, sharing a part of her pillow. She peered across to her companion, wondering about the dreams that were worrying the Mother Confessor's brow and then belatedly, of how ripe for the picking her lips were, how very much like porcelain her skin was.
Catching herself, Cara shook the thought and sleep from her eyes. She noted the glowing hearth which was nearly extinguished.
Standing, she fed more wood into the tiny flames, poking them and arranging the logs until they burned enthusiastically. Sounds once more emanated from behind the oak doors, this time fierce whispering and the sudden clink of armor as soldiers were mobilized into the lower levels.
This may have been another world, yes, but she was familiar with the sounds of the People's Palace. As Darken's general, Cara always knew if something was amiss.
On stealthy feet, Cara dressed quickly and holstered her Agiels. With a backward glance towards Kahlan on the bed, she lunged out the window and began a harrowing climb along the outer walls of the Palace, where uneven footholds would give her access to a room that she had visited many times before.
Pausing by the room's window sill, Cara crouched low as she spied a figure in the shadows surrounding the large bed. Half of her white-ensconced body was bathed in firelight from the wide hearth. She was seated in vigil beside the Lord Rahl's sleeping figure, staring gravely at the drawn features of her wife.
Cara felt something in her snap slowly, inevitably as she watched Kahlan Rahl pour tenderness into the way she touched the Lord's brow, whispered reassurances into the Lord's ear, the softest and gentlest of which was, "my love," as though the contents of both their lives had been tamped into those few words.
Cara's fingers clenched painfully against the stone upon which she had perched.
She felt more than just an intruder. Tonight, she had chanced blindly, recklessly upon fate.
Years of D'Haran and Midlands history had painted this portrait for her.
There were countless, nameless instances shared in joy or sorrow, hope or despair that trailed soulful colors across Kahlan Rahl's expression. Her hands were worn, scarred heavily as though a great battle had been fought and she had been in the thick of it.
Cara Rahl, under a fur blanket while her shoulders remained bare, wore deeper scars than Cara the Mord'Sith did. They ran the expanse of her arms and over her neck where they coalesced into a single jagged line that cut the infamous route through her face.
The peace had exacted a jarring price.
From Kahlan's calm mien of acceptance and subtle longing, the truth about the fleeting quality of things hung unspoken in the air: that it was inevitable that the Lord Rahl should die –perhaps not today but certainly in the future –and that once her body had been carried by foot soldiers to the tomb of kings, the path laden with white petals flung by the hands of her people, her Lady would roam the lands alone and drowned in sorrow.
The ache was unbearable.
Cara would have no more of it. She noiselessly negotiated the window and stepped into the room.
What happened next was completely unexpected.
Light flashed from the Lord's bedside table, from a ball no bigger than her palm. Kahlan Rahl was instantly on her feet, two knives at the ready.
Recognizing the intruder, her face collapsed into worry as she held up a hand and gave a cry.
"Don't step any closer!"
It was, of course, too late.
A jolt of pure energy emblazoned the whole room as the magical field emanating from the artifact by the Lord's bed came in contact with Cara's skin.
Cara felt her entire being burn as a white, hot mess filled her vision. As soon as her knees hit the floor, she felt her consciousness being wrenched violently from her and a sharp pain lancing through her chest.
The artifact gave a hiss as it threw Cara through the cracks between wakefulness and sleep, life and death.
Lunging forward, Kahlan Rahl cursed as Cara the Mord'Sith fell lifeless on the floor of her chambers.
She wakes up to the prickly heat of a noonday sun as she sits in repose beside a window. The cool breeze on her long, blonde tresses reminds her that it is near the end of spring.
She must have napped her way through the morning, she thinks as she moves forward to get up from the chair she has been slumbering on. A sharp pain shoots from rib, to shoulder and down to the tip of her fingers and she pushes back into the seat, breathing deeply.
Looking down, she is slightly bewildered at the tight clasp of bandages around her left arm and her torso, hidden by a crisp uniform that is blood red and crowded with insignias. She looks around the room, light and airy as fresh bouquets stand on every corner and newly turned, white sheets drape over an ornate bed before an empty hearth.
This room leads into another, where there is a chatter of voices, one of them young and silvery as the child plays a boisterous game of Dragons and Knights. Nearly as high as her waist, he skips into the room with a wooden sword, a flurry of trousers and makeshift cape as he engulfs her knees in a hug.
She grunts in pain.
"Gotcha!" he cries.
"You have me," she tells him, unable to control a deluge of tenderness as she studies his blue eyes, his cherub face, the hair that she is certain comes from her.
He looks intently up at her, then frowns and steps away, suddenly mindful of his embrace. "I'm sorry mama. I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Oh, you did no such thing," she reassures him. "Come, why don't you help me up?"
He happily obliges, leaning on his sword as she in turn, leans as little as she can on him. She gets to her feet, mussing his hair in appreciation.
A thunderous voice interrupts, "Leib!"
The boy runs up to a grown man slightly taller than she as he approaches. His wide smile hides beneath a beard and his eyes are more than familiar. He heaves Leib over his head and then clutches him against his waist as the boy struggles and squeals with delight.
"Honestly, Cara, this little man knows no fear!"
"Well, he is my son," she reminds him smugly.
"Ah, but you forget. He's mine too." With Leib tucked safely against his hip he leans forward and bestows a kiss on her lips. She goads him with a flick of her tongue and he smiles against her mouth. "Mmm, not now."
"After the ceremony. And after you heal." He kisses her again, this time a little more fiercely. "Spirits, woman! Have the Southern campaigns slaked your thirst for thrills and violence? They should assign you to a desk."
She smiles mischievously at him. "One can hope."
She brings her good arm up to his face, caressing the scraggly edges of his jaw. He emanates an old, tired acceptance. It was doubtful that the Empire's foremost general would be excused from the field to tend to her husband and children.
Sighing, he puts Leib down, unties the blanket that Leib has used as a cape and straightens the boy's clothes. Then he pointedly instructs him to set aside the wooden sword. Leib skips cheerfully away.
He turns to her. "I have to fetch Aginor from the sitter. He drooled his way through breakfast and the shirt you've brought him is ruined."
Cara raises a brow. "He's inherited your finer sensibilities."
"Ha, ha," the man deadpanned.
As he leaves, she thinks to call after him and comes up with a name that rolls easily, fondly from her lips.
He quips playfully, "I am the man behind the great general's success, what can I say. They should be giving me a medal."
Cara smiles. "Indeed."
The moment the herald makes the announcement, the throng of thousands rises in a deafening roar, an undulating wave of festive colors.
Panis Rahl, decked in the red of his House raises an arm to calm them. The ceremonies are taking place in the same sprawling portico where Rahls receive their devotions. It is festooned with the banners of Cara's regiments. Aside from the throne and the ornate chair she sits in, Cara spies six of her lieutenants in full armor on either side of the entryway, their breastplates and greaves shining in the sun. Despite the heat, they wear long, luxurious capes with her colors, the blood red of the Alkarian Division
The crowd folds into a tense silence.
"D'Harans! Countrymen!" His proclamations boom throughout the city while his voice is carried by magic. "We are here today to honor our nation's most faithful servant." He gestures grandly to the woman seated behind him, nodding his acknowledgment. The crowd offers applause and then titters to a hush as he once again faces them gravely. "For services rendered against the Southern rebellion, for decisive, historic victories at the battlefields of Messa and Gradin and for bringing peace to our great nation, D'Hara bestows the Lion-heart upon its esteemed general, Cara Mason."
Cara takes her cue from the Lord Rahl and stands gingerly while the populace pours their adulation by throwing white, hirion petals and tumultuous shouting. Her smile is wry when Panis Rahl presents her with the medallion, careful to avoid her injuries as he hangs it over her head. It is the size of Cara's palm, set in solid gold and shaped in the head of a roaring lion.
She swallows. It is the highest honor D'Hara can give.
She nods her appreciation, raising a hand to acknowledge her people while managing a stiff, awkward smile.
But her Lord isn't quite finished. He eyes her ominously before continuing, "With the powers bestowed upon me by the people, I hereby grant General Cara Mason with the constituency of Halin, its vineyards and towns."
She stiffens and her own, panicked thoughts drown out the approval of her people. A little more softly, the Lord Rahl tells her, "Would you like to say anything?"
"No, not really except, 'no thank you'?"
Panis Rahl tuts. "Halin is a land known for its wine. You should be grateful, General."
"If I wanted wine, I could very well enter the Palace's cellars and grab whatever bottle I wished, without punishment."
"Cara," he tells her pointedly. "You have two children, aged one and five. Your husband was a constant fixture in the Palace, awaiting word. I think that after all you've done and facing imminent death several times, you'd like to spend some time with them and live your days in relative peace. Peace, may I remind you, that you helped fight for. You deserve to at least experience it."
He gives her a look that prevents her protest. Staying a few moments to wave to the crowd appreciatively, he finally leads her into the Palace and away from their eyes. Dignitaries have begun their customary assemblage before their Lord, waiting to shake Cara's hand and offer her their congratulations. She nearly flinches at the melody flowing from a nearby lyre, the voice which accompanies it singing a refrain composed solely to tout her exploits.
Panis Rahl remains clutching her arm, skillfully thwarting any attention as he waits for her answer.
She is forced to realize the veracity of his words under his inquiry. How many of Leib's years has she missed? How many more of his and Aginor's is she willing to forego? And her husband? How many more nights of ceaseless worrying was she willing to afford him? Leo had practically raised their children on his own.
It is peace-time. A general of her stature becomes a symbol, her skills in warfare wasted on the bureaucracy and her time revolving around a desk. She will not be summoned to the field to command half a million D'Haran soldiers against their enemies, provided they even had any more. Nor would she command them against a rebellion when the last one had been decisively crushed at the steps of Sassen's towers, its leaders' heads mounted on spikes outside the city.
Any incursions by adjoining nations are discouraged by the Boundaries and D'Hara's well-equipped garrisons.
Seeing that Cara is morosely silent, Panis Rahl ventures, "I can assure you that the people will vote you into the Senate if that interests you more."
Cara makes a sound of disgust. "I'll grow wine and herd sheep before I stick my hand in your nest of vipers. I'd rather die breaking my neck by falling from a horse than by a knife through my back."
"And you'll age before your time if you don't simply take the estate."
"Why are you so keen on ridding of me? I'm supposed to retire to Halin? How far south is that?"
Panis sighs. "I'm not trying to get rid of you, Cara. And it isn't quite retiring."
He quickly steers her into a study and closes the doors behind him, instructing his steward to keep the guests entertained.
Assured that they will not be disturbed, he reaches into a bookcase, removes the stopper from a bottle of old D'Haran whiskey and pours her a glass. Leaning against his wooden desk, he pushes the drink towards her, a swill that smelled of Cabrallia's cellars. "Far from it. I'll have you know that the Alkarian Division is to report to you, that the fortresses from the Kern River to Sassen and Acrimar are yours to command."
Cara takes a careful sip, hiding her scorn behind the glass. "So now I'm a babysitter. For the South."
"Well, it's a tremendous task. I'd hardly call it babysitting. But you're the one I trust the most to keep the peace. You fought for it, you'd keep it." He raises his glass in her honor, drinking and squinting as liquid fire burns his throat.
Cara laughs but there is no mirth in her eyes. "That's rich. Berdine will be pleased."
"Hardly," Panis Rahl concedes. "The countryside doesn't seem to appeal to Alkarian soldiers like yourself."
"My Lord, I just don't see the point."
"I need you there, General. From where you decide to command our army, that doesn't entirely matter, does it? You can do the job just as well in Halin as you can here but I think your presence in the South would at least deter more violence, yes? They're afraid of you, Cara."
Cara studies her Lord, the long, elderly lines which belie his years, the worries that clench around his forehead.
Her eyes roll up to the ceiling. She knows that it will be months, even years, before she returns to the People's Palace. By then, Panis Rahl would have died, replaced by someone chosen by the Senatee; one that she may not be as willing to serve but whom she will be forced to nonetheless.
"My place is beside you, my Lord."
"Even that sounds like a weak excuse to my ears." He pats her shoulder as he gets up to go. "You're needed in Halin. Think of it as a very long vacation."
Cara tries very hard not to groan.
Cara the Mord'Sith watched as the scene shifted from the grand halls of the People's Palace to the winding roads leading to the South. From the arid plains of the Azrith, to the flower-laden paths of fertile land which indicated the Kern River.
All her senses were open. She watched, heard and felt Leib as he was taught to ride a horse and wield his wooden sword under her tutelage. She felt the overflow of pride as Aginor took his first steps. She was subject to the deluge of emotions one would feel as she lay with the man she loved. She savored the fine fare offered to her by affluent families who were grateful for the end of the rebellion that had so efficiently choked their business. She tasted fruit and other offerings that peasants from just about every town within the caravan's vicinity fetched her, meat that she hunted herself. She endured the songs they sang of her exploits, rolled her eyes through enactments. She felt a deep and heretofore unknown peace in the faith of her people, their gratitude and loyalty.
It was very much unlike anything a Mord'Sith had experienced. Constant tensions among anger, pain and fear drove the Mord'Sith persona and controlled the D'Haran populace in her world.
Inhabiting this body was a sensation she grew more and more uncomfortable with. As though her limbs were indeed hers but they were moving under the thrust of uncontrollable memories and emotions too many and too overwhelming to figure out. There was also forgetting, as though her mind was falling through a narrow sieve. She was slowly emptied, while this frighteningly different life roared continuously over her senses.
She tried to remember her ways. She always did. A Mord'Sith compartmentalized; feelings were tagged and labeled into boxes where they could be beckoned at will for moments when they were most appropriate, most useful. A Mord'Sith thrived on a rigid sense of self and duty.
She tried to fill her awareness with the fact.
The unum would not let her.
Kahlan woke up to the sound of shouting, then the heavy, repetitive bang against their bedroom door. She frowned at the empty space beside her, the absence of Cara's Agiels and the late hour. Panic rose unbidden from the pit of her stomach.
Her twin chose that moment to barge in, her eyes coldly blue and her dress pristinely white. Berdine trailed behind her in full armor, her face etched with worry.
Suddenly realizing the correlation between their presence and Cara's pressing absence, Kahlan's eyes widened and the question flew unabated through her lips.
"Where is she?" she demanded, jumping from the bed to stand before her twin. Her state of undress and the supreme confidence that was the Confessor's trademark made Berdine flinch.
The Lady Rahl stood unruffled by Kahlan's discourtesy. "She sneaked into our chambers and was caught by the unum's web."
Kahlan Rahl's eyes shifted with uncertainty. "It's an artifact of Zedd's making. It was to keep Cara safe from everyone but herself and her family. It didn't kill your Cara as I expected it would; in fact it allowed her inside."
"But?" Kahlan's voice went up a notch as she drew herself to her full height.
Kahlan Rahl seemed to unstiffen in a way so subtle that only someone who knew her could discern the untangling of age-old tensions on her brow. "She's unconscious. I'm not as versed in magic as the wizards are but I can tell you that the unum is using her to heal the Lord Rahl. It seeks to make its holder whole. We don't know when she will wake."
Kahlan's hitched with sudden fear. "At what price?"
"I…" Kahlan Rahl studied her and in a rare show of frailty, sighed. "I don't know."
"I want to see her."
They patiently waited for her to get dressed, Berdine handing her a hooded cape that she donned hesitantly. With Kahlan Rahl in the lead, she was allowed through halls Kahlan had at first been forbidden to roam.
They were climbing a staircase when the Lady Rahl's words, verging on insulting, floated to Kahlan's ears.
"I would have had you and your Cara killed if the unum didn't prove me wrong. If I wasn't so sure you were spies."
"Spies?" Kahlan replied through clenched teeth. "We brought your daughter home."
"For that I am grateful. But you may have also brought war to our doorstep."
Kahlan stepped in Lady Rahl's way with consternation on her features. It felt strange to see this hard, almost expressionless version of herself look back at her with features she only saw in a mirror. She wondered at the heart break and toil that had been etched deeply into her eyes, sentiments so carefully hidden that only Kahlan could see; of things that could not be undone but that a Confessor had to live with.
As though knowing Kahlan's thoughts, the Lady Rahl broke her gaze and gestured to the mustering happening around them. The numerous fires burning outside the windows, sudden shouts in the night, the shuffling of boots, the loud clatter of armor, spears and swords as soldiers moved through the Palace's many levels.
Kahlan began to realize that it was the sudden commotion, which Cara would have discerned as unusual for the Palace that must have spurred the Mord'Sith to seek answers.
"A messenger came from the South with news from one of our garrisons. Apparently there is a bigger plot than the one we suspect had been crafted at Sassen and Acrimar." Kahlan's twin studied her, as though measuring her response. "The Boundary was compromised and the Old World encroached on our borders. The wizard Nicci," Kahlan could hear the Lady's voice audibly sharpen like a thorned wall to keep her wrath at bay, "the one who nearly killed my wife and kidnapped my child, was a spy for an enemy that calls itself the Imperial Order."
The Lady became suddenly and completely unreadable. Darkness swam at the edges of her eyes, an old power ripping free of its reigns as it lurched forward to take control of any who stood in its path.
As with any Confessor who knew the consequences of releasing her power, she stayed it, stepping closer until their faces were inches apart and barely touching.
Her threat, threaded into the words that fell from her mouth, barely stayed hidden under a sudden desire to hope. "Can I trust you, Kahlan Amnell? Especially if what Zedd has said is true? That you are not some plot to overthrow the Lord or the Mother Confessor. That you have simply lost your way."
Kahlan studied her twin, the severe lines of her face, the blue eyes which spoke of putting a price, a weight on things that should have been invaluable, un-weighable. Its motions were older in their years and achingly tiring to look at. Her appearance was also still beautiful, still painfully young, for all the travails Kahlan Rahl must have seen.
Kahlan gathered her resolve.
Kahlan stared at her friend then wondered silently at the many nuances the word 'friend' had taken since they stepped through the Gate of Meleth.
Their lives had been in danger many times before. Mostly, she had feared for Richard. The life of the Seeker was fraught with peril and not a few months before, he had occupied her thoughts, filled her dreams and shaped her decisions.
Today the fear was different. She feared that before she could recognize or name what it was between Cara and herself –besides the obvious admiration and deep respect they had for each other –that Cara would disappear or –the Creator forbid –die.
Her thoughts became a dull ache. Looking across to her twin, she felt the rare and often derided sting of jealousy.
There was something very sure about Kahlan Amnell-Rahl. For her, reality was held together by a few simple truths: Cara Rahl, Amihan and duty. She wore more outward expressions of affection for the Lord: a light, tentative kiss on the lips, as though the woman could fade away at any moment; the tight, almost desperate hold she had on the Lord Rahl's arm, a gesture which took its significance from years of companionship.
Kahlan's eyes fell in embarrassment and she settled for putting a hand on Cara's –her Cara's –forehead.
It was cool to the touch. The only sign that anything odd had happened was the constant flow of emotion that eroded the stoicism on Cara's face, the small phrases that gushed from her lips and the fact that nobody could wake her.
"Leo…" Cara muttered suddenly with a wistful smile. The name echoed briefly on Cara Rahl's lips.
Kahlan felt her chest tighten. Leo?
There was a flurry of names repeated in varying degrees of delight, reprimand, love.
When Kahlan turned to her twin, she found the Lady hunched over her Lord, her eyes searching and desperate. "Spirits. No, not again. No, no, no," she repeated. She bent forward to whisper into her wife's ear, "My love, don't fret. All will be well. Weather this through. You'll be awake soon enough."
There was a light knock on the wooden doors before the tall, weathered form of Zeddicus Z'ul Zorander stepped through. He moved purposefully but slowly like a hulking tree with wizened, white hair for leaves and a wizard's staff for branches. He stood staring at them with grey, worldly eyes before he pulled back his hood and sat on a bench at the foot of both beds.
His presence was quiet and his voice, comfortingly deep.
"My ladies," he began, leaning forward with his hands clasped over his knees. "Have any of you had any sleep?"
Lady Rahl quietly ignored his question but Kahlan replied, "No, Zedd."
"So we've met?"
Kahlan indulged him with a tired smile. "Many times."
"That's a comfort."
The Lady Rahl's plea was softly spoken. It brought with it a hint of brokenness spilling from the edges of her tightly knit control.
"Get her out of it, Zedd. Get them both out of it."
Zedd spread his arms palms up in a gesture of helplessness. "The unum is attempting to repair what the Rada'Han tried to break, or in this case, destroy. For those who are gifted from birth like you or me, the Rada'Han simply cuts us off from our Han. For someone who imbibed the Bond and thus, Rahl's magic, there is nothing for a Rada'Han to cut off. It will simply try to split the Rahl in half."
Kahlan interrupted, her tone rising. "What do you mean 'imbibed'?"
Zedd's bushy eyebrow rose as though this was known to all. "I mean imbibed. The Bond is given to the person chosen by the Senate and is held by her until her death whether she wishes to or not."
"Do you mean there is no bloodline?"
"A Rahl does not become a Rahl by blood. He or she is chosen by the people. That choice –or vote as we call it –is facilitated by a People's Council and then ultimately, by the Senate of the High House."
Zedd must have judged rightly that this was outside of Kahlan's experience as he studied the woman's face. The wizard continued with a heaving sigh, "But that doesn't matter right now." He cleared his throat, addressing the Lady Rahl, "Nobody knows of Cara's plight just yet. I've taken the liberty of assembling the Alkarians in secret."
The Lady Rahl turned to him sharply. "What?"
"We trust them more than the Senate, don't we?"
"Infinitely more." Regardless, the Lady frowned in contemplation. "Let Berdine oversee the preparations for defense."
Zedd chuckled softly. "Denna wouldn't…"
"They will not bicker! Not now when everything is at stake. Again!" The command was thunderous and Zedd simply squinted in the face of the Lady's anger.
"Of course, Mother Confessor. I'll make sure of it myself." He stood, adjusting the sword on his hip. He paused by the door, indicating the two unconscious women on the beds with a wave of his staff. "There's nothing either of you can do at this point except wait. The unum will do its job regardless of anyone's wants."
The city of Acrimar lies in the cradle of Gradin, a valley covered with lush undergrowth and trees that are overburdened with fruit. The Kern River slithers from the south and through the city like a glittering, blue snake. From the city-island, it branches north, bringing with it barges that indicate commerce to and from the capital.
On foot, merchants and lords, soldiers and farmers ply their way to Acrimar through two bridges, one leading east and the other west.
Cara enters through the Eastern Gate, greeted by the vigilant glares of Cypher's men who are not intimidated by her small contingent of Alkarian soldiers. She notes that their defiance is a Southern habit, the product of independence caused from being so far from the center of things.
When she stands in the House of Cypher, she is greeted not by the slimy fiend that Berdine calls The Snake but rather, the brother who is Michael's complete opposite.
She grunts when Richard Cypher engulfs her in a bear hug, his thick cape flung aside. It is a gesture full of old laughter and recent tears.
"My good friend," he greets.
"What brings you here?" His eyes twinkle, trying to see beneath the mask Cara wears.
"Besides making sure that your brother keeps the peace?"
Richard registers surprise. To hide it, he turns from her and leads her to a private hall which opens to a sprawling view of his city. Pouring wine that is native to these parts, he offers her a glass. "We haven't had a chance to talk since…" He tips his head to her and leaves the statement hanging for they both know what he refers to.
"Your brother has a way of inciting things without being too obvious about it, wouldn't you agree?"
He does not reply, peering at her over his glass. She knows that Richard Cypher will not speak ill of his brother or tarnish the honor of his House. She also knows that this young Senator, ever loyal to whoever sits at the High Seat, knew nothing of the rebel plot. Of all the messages she intercepted from the enemy, they always spoke of Richard, the Truth Seeker, as an obstacle.
She quits tormenting him and sets aside her glass. "You know why I'm here. Do you have any news from the Lord Rahl?"
"Of course. He sent you this." He hands her a sealed envelope. "He didn't think it would be safe with just any messenger. It's partly why I've returned home."
She tears it open and reads its contents.
"He says that he fears his time is come. He requests that I disband the Alkarian Division into regiments and march them off to different cities, as far away from each other as possible." She frowns. "He believes that Darken will have the Senate's vote."
"Yes. Mind you, the Beast won't just take the High Seat." He looks at her pointedly, his gaze pregnant with meaning, with words that at any other time or place would have been dangerous to utter.
"Then I must go to Panis."
He stops her train of thought by raising a hand. "No, Cara. In this, I am a man alone. The older Houses populate most of the Senate. I'm but a lowly Cypher caught in the crossfire. Who shall pay me any attention? I'll be your eyes and ears.
"D'Hara's long-standing aristocracy would take any opportunity to wrest power from the people especially if the man in the helm is as influential and widely," he spits the word, "beloved as Darken. It only helps their agenda that he hails from a House more ancient than anybody else's." He gestures with an open palm to her, enjoining her to voice her opinion. "You've met him. His populist persona isn't as delightful as the one he puts on behind closed doors."
"So you thought it was time for a vacation."
Richard returns a half-hearted smile before telling her gravely, "No. My purpose isn't so simple or so fortunate."
He stands and clears his throat, moving to the open balcony where he leans against the railing and speaks in an uneasy whisper. "The Lord asks that you retire. He fears great and terrible things will come when Darken takes the Seat."
"I've been tasked with the stability of the South. I can't simply…"
Richard interrupts, "I assure you that the South will be the least of your worries. I'll be sure to keep my brother on a leash. And that's as close to an admission of Michael's sins as you'll get."
Cara studies Richard; his features are open and young like a boy's. "There's more isn't there? Tell me."
"It's been what, five years since you left the Palace? Many things have happened since the Lord's health began to decline. You can only imagine the constant scheming that happens in the High House. What was once the pathetic voice of a minority has enraptured the hearts of the many." Richard licks his lips to ease the poison off his words. "Darken possesses a dangerous rhetoric, what with his expansionist ideas of a greater D'Haran Empire and 'reclaiming what is rightfully hers'." His low laugh is hollow with dread. "You may have a penchant for war, Cara, but the wholesale killing of innocents will not suit you."
Cara straightens. "So is this what I think it means?"
Richard dislodges a scab of paint from the railing and flicks it indignantly into the wind. "The Midlanders have been sending envoys to Darken's House for months now. I fear that even if the Mother Confessor sues for peace, it will not be enough. No mistake, the Lord Panis Rahl will die within the week and the Midlands, as well as our peasantry, shall suffer for it."
Kahlan woke to a familiar smell, a spice soup she once savored during cold mornings in her mother's palace. The memories it invoked warmed her, herbs she picked from the Galean gardens strewn into the soup, her mother's delicate wrist as she dipped the ladle into the simmering pot. So many things were wrenched from a Confessor child, memories of childhood most of all. There were so few she could remember with genuine happiness.
She followed the deft movements of Kahlan Amnell-Rahl as she poured her a bowl from a large tureen. She sat up to receive the food gratefully, aware that her last meal had been hours ago.
"With the way you've stayed by her side and held her," the Lady began and not unkindly, "I'd say that she meant more to you than a simple traveling companion."
Kahlan looked up at her twin then at Cara. "She does. She's saved my life countless times. I wouldn't want to lose her."
"Both our worlds have that in common." The Lady took a seat beside her, her own bowl in hand. She sipped her broth carefully before musing, "You must have so many questions."
Kahlan offered a sardonic smile. "Oh, you have no idea."
"I think I do. I can only imagine your confusion, thrust into this world with your very own Cara Mason. I certainly remember mine with all the hate one can possibly harbor for one person."
Kahlan swallowed. The situation was an echo of hers: her absolute rage over her sister's death by Cara's hand, the eventual reckoning while Cara's neck bobbed against her grip, staring at her with Mord'Sith defiance and surprisingly, utter remorse.
Unthinkingly, Kahlan croaked, "What changed?"
"I think you know." There was sadness in the Lady's expression. "I have Confessed men and women from all walks of life. I Confessed some of D'Hara's mightiest leaders. When it was time to judge Cara Rahl, my sole obstacle to absolute victory..." The Lady swallowed with difficulty, giving her a perfunctory smile. "Did you know she knelt before me, this Lion-heart? The Red Lion of Halin. I could have taken the Empire if I wished. Instead, I signed a treaty and hated her for years. But now?" She pursed her lips, her gaze caressing Cara Rahl's face with a keen and overwhelming nostalgia.
Blinking the memories from her eyes, Kahlan Rahl turned to her twin. "For you, Kahlan of my blood, for you I hope that you give your heart a voice before fate or happenstance decides that the sacrifices Cara's made for you will finally include her life."
It was then that Kahlan felt the sting of imminent tears and a realization exploding through the tensions in her chest. "Spirits. I fear they already have. That it's already too late."
A/N: Once again, thank you for your patience and I hope this chapter does not disappoint (or bore you since it and the ones after it will be a bit of a history lesson). Also, I need to rant on how difficult it is to use pronouns to describe four women in the same room. LOL
Feedback is...GOLD! I would love some! Aside from inspiring me, feedback also lets me know if people are still interested. How many of you are still reading this? =P
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