Zedd had spent a good couple of hours walking after leaving the temple and still he had yet to find anything worth eating. Things were getting desperate. Soon he would have to resort to lifting up a rock and nibbling on the bugs under it. Fortunately the sight of some light up ahead in the now near-dark saved him from that gastronomic fate worse than death. It was a village and given the flickering lights someone was still up. Zedd quickened his pace. He would have run but his robes made it difficult and wizards of the First Order didn’t run; it was undignified. That didn’t stop him hurrying as fast as he could in a quick waddling walk.
As he got close it was like all his prayers were answered. Not only was there life, but there was a tavern and a lively one too if the raucous sounds coming from it were anything to go by. Zedd pushed open the door and had to practically fight his way to the bar through the throng most of whom seemed somewhat inebriated.
“I don’t suppose you have any food for a weary traveller?” asked Zedd, having to shout to be heard.
The barman gave him a broad smile. “Of course!”
The answer surprised Zedd. He’d been ready with his best sob story of many days without food on an epic journey, but it seemed the tavern keeper was in a good mood. Zedd was almost disappointed.
“Why don’t you sit down,” suggested the barman, “and I’ll get the barmaid to bring you something.”
Zedd battled his way back to the nearest free table and plonked himself down. It was a good job the tavern was so noisy else he was sure the rumbles from his stomach would have echoed round the room. While waiting he wondered how the others were doing; if they’d had more success tracking down Cara than he had. He only hoped that when, and he had to believe it would be when, they caught up with her he would be able to undo Rahl’s powerful magic. It would be dangerous but what other option did they have?
His inner deliberations were broken by the arrival of his food, delivered by a charming young barmaid. She smiled at Zedd as she put down the plate, though he only just about registered that fact given that his eyes were magnetically drawn to the ample cleavage on view as she bent over. He managed to drag his eyes up to smile back at her.
“Thank you, my dear.”
Barely waiting for her to turn away he dived into the food, ripping it apart with his fingers and stuffing it down. He didn’t care what it was - it was hot and it was food. Possibly it was chicken. Serve the buggers right, he thought, recalling the temple earlier. As he was chewing one particularly large mouthful he sensed he was being watched. The crowd in the inn parted enough for him to lock eyes with a woman. She was a few years older than the barmaid, but shared a similar taste in revealing dresses. She held his gaze far longer than was appropriate, eventually offering a sly wink before she coyly turned away. Zedd grinned to himself. Obviously some women appreciated a man of experienced years.
Still nothing was going to come between him and his dinner, not even a pretty face and an ample bosom. Ignoring his admirer for now Zedd quickly polished off the contents of his plate. He would have picked it up and licked it clean, but was reminded of dignity and being a Wizard of the First Order again. Once he’d finished he noticed the woman was glancing his way once more. She made a slight nod of her head towards the back of the inn.
What harm would it do? It wasn’t as if he was going to make any further progress catching up with the others that night. After a few more unsubtle glances and nods of the head, the woman disappeared out a door to the side of the bar. Playing it cool, Zedd counted to ten and then nonchalantly rose and made his way across the room after her.
Once out the back he couldn’t see the woman. There was a staircase leading upstairs, though. Zedd smiled to himself again. It had been too long. With a skip in his step he ascended the stairs and snuck into the room at the top. As he quietly closed the door behind him he had to peer into the darkness of the room trying to locate his intended companion for the night. Obviously she was shier than her flirtatious behaviour in the bar indicated and wished to do it in the dark. That was fine by Zedd, even he was willing to admit his body was hardly the most attractive thing to look at. Back in the day he’d been quite the catch, these days he’d be lucky to catch a cold. With his eyes adjusting to the gloom a little he could make out the large bed and a telltale lump in it.
Sneaking over he quietly slipped off his robes and slid under the covers. He wasted little time in snuggling up against the warm body already there. She was still clothed, but Zedd didn’t let that deter him. She was obviously waiting for him to make the moves. He made to kiss the woman. Just as his lips met hers he realised something was terribly, terribly wrong. The woman had stubble. Zedd flew upright in the bed and shot off a blast of wizard’s fire to ignite the lamp next to the bed. In the flickering light the shocked face of Richard was revealed.
Before either of them could speak the door to the room opened. Both men’s heads swivelled to see the young barmaid coming in. She’d made it a couple of steps inside when she came to a halt, frozen with her mouth open in surprise.
“Oh, I didn’t realise,” she stammered as she took in the sight of the two men in bed together, one of whom was naked. “You should have said,” she noted to Richard, “we could have arranged a slightly different prize.”
“What? No, wait, this isn’t what it looks like …” Richard attempted.
Already the barmaid was backing up, though. “Really, it’s not a problem; we get all tastes in here.”
With that she made her hurried exit complete, closing the door after herself. Zedd slowly turned his head back to Richard whose eyes met his. They stared at each other for a moment before both blurting out in unison.
“We won’t mention this again!”
The morning sun poked through the clouds as Kahlan wearily trudged along the track. Once she’d finally made it out of the Gar infested woods the night before she’d decided to make camp, knowing even she needed to rest. However, once more sleep was elusive. Lying on her own in the silence, all she could think about was Cara. Kahlan told herself it was merely concern for a friend that led to the other woman pre-occupying her thoughts. It would be the same if it was Richard or Zedd who was in danger and that they were pursuing. If she repeated the reasoning to herself enough times, she could almost believe it.
The fact she even considered Cara as a friend had been quite a development over the past few months. Ever since that moment of clarity in Stowcroft they’d grown closer and closer until being locked in a tomb together had drawn a confession out of Cara that Kahlan had never imagined she would hear. Cara had later tried to pass it off as a delirious moment due to lack of air, but the look on her face hand been genuine as she had uttered the words “I think of you as a friend“. Just for a moment when their eyes had met Kahlan had thought Cara was going to say something else other than “friend”. Had she wanted Cara to say something else? She told herself such thoughts were ridiculous, but a little nagging demon at the back of her mind suggested that was exactly what she had been hoping for.
Caught up in those slightly disturbing thoughts she almost didn’t register the sound of the breaking twig behind her. She ducked at the last second, narrowly avoiding the swinging agiel. Straightening back up and whirling round, she saw Cara standing before her with both agiels up in an aggressive stance. The effect was unnerving because outwardly she didn’t look any different to before. She still had the same intense battle-ready stare on her face that Kahlan had witnessed many times just before they fought off the latest D’Haran or Baneling or Gar attack together, side by side. Kahlan didn’t know what she had been expecting - a wild, crazy and unrecognisable woman? That would certainly have made it easier.
Cara spoke to shatter any last illusion that things were the same. “Well, well, well, the Mother Confessor, all on her own. It must be my lucky day.”
From the sarcastic tone Kahlan could sense reasoning would be pointless, but she had to try anyway. “Cara, please, you don’t have to do this, we can help you.”
Cara continued to circle her like a predator “And did it occur to you that I don’t need any help?”
“No,” replied Kahlan. “Rahl did this to you, but it can be undone, Zedd thinks…”
An incredulous laugh from Cara cut her off. “Wait, don’t tell me - Zedd has some powerful magic that will make me ‘better’.”
Even to Kahlan’s ears it sounded stupid, but she persisted. If nothing else at least they were talking and Cara hadn’t come at her with her agiels – yet. “If magic did this to you, then maybe magic can undo it.”
“Magic can’t solve everything,” stated Cara. “And even if it could, how exactly were you going to get me to the wizard? Ask me to come along nicely?”
Kahlan hadn’t really thought that far ahead, so consumed had she been with just finding Cara. The other woman was shaking her head at her lack of answer, Kahlan noting how her blond hair brushed her cheeks as she did. She looked so normal, Kahlan just couldn’t reconcile the fact that this wasn’t her Cara
With no response forthcoming, Cara’s stance stiffened in readiness once more. “Let me answer for you – if you want me to come with you, you’re going to have to drag my lifeless body back to Zedd.”
She grinned in the way she did when she knew a fight was imminent and leapt at Kahlan. The first agiel came swinging in at Kahlan who managed to bat away Cara’s arm. However, the second agiel quickly followed up and Kahlan didn’t have time to judge her parry. Rather than catching Cara on the arm her hand jarred into the agiel itself. The pain was intense and instantaneous, shooting up the whole of Kahlan’s arm. She staggered back clutching her still tingling hand.
“Come on, surely you can do better than that?” said Cara, the malevolent grin still in evidence “Not afraid of hurting me are you?”
Cara made a couple more swings that Kahlan only just managed to avoid. Again one of the agiels caught Kahlan a glancing blow, this time on her shoulder. Kahlan winced, but didn’t cry out. Dodging out of reach for a moment, she realised she was never going to be able to fend off the agiels with just her hands. Reluctantly Kahlan reached down and drew the daggers from her boots. A fresh smile curved Cara’s lips at the sight. Kahlan would have expected nothing less.
With renewed determination Cara came at her. The other woman wasn’t holding back and it was all Kahlan could do to meet her attacks and deflect them. Unfortunately for Kahlan she was holding back. She didn’t want to actually catch Cara with one of her daggers. Concentrating on that and the fight at the same time put her at a distinct disadvantage and she knew she needed to find a way to incapacitate Cara quickly else she was going to lose.
As Cara made another stab at her, Kahlan managed to parry the blow and twist in one movement to allow her to ram the butt of her dagger into the side of Cara’s head. Cara stumbled, but didn’t fall. Just go down, Kahlan begged to herself. Contravening her wishes, Cara swung back round.
“Nice shot, but you’re going to have to do better than that.”
That’s what Kahlan was afraid of. She didn’t think she could bring herself to deal a truly damaging blow. The only other option was talking, but that had failed abysmally so far. She gave it another go.
“This isn’t you, you’re stronger than this,” she tried in an appeal to Cara’s pride.
Cara laughed, but it was a hollow sound. “You’d like to believe that wouldn’t you? Would it make you feel better that way? Make you feel a bit less like I betrayed you all?”
If anything Kahlan’s words only seemed to have enraged Cara further. She flew at Kahlan once more in a wild and frenzied attack. As Kahlan continued to beat away the swinging agiels with her daggers it occurred to her that maybe her words were having some effect. At least anger was an emotion of some kind and Cara was obviously angry at something. Unfortunately it appeared to be Kahlan. The weight and intensity of the blows coming in at her eventually told, with Kahlan finally unable to parry one of them. Cara’s agiel caught her squarely in the stomach. The other woman rammed home her advantage with the agiel, pressing forwards until Kahlan cried out and fell to the ground.
Cara stood triumphantly over her. “Unfortunately for you, this is who I am - Mord’Sith!”
“No, that’s who you were, but we can help you.” Kahlan could tell she wasn’t getting through to the other woman. She had to find a way through. “I can help you,” she added. She met Cara’s cold gaze as she emphasised the words. There wasn’t a flicker of emotion across the other woman’s face save perhaps disdain.
“Don’t pretend like you care,” said Cara. “The only reason you came after me is to get the stone for your precious quest.”
“Really? And tell me why did you come after me, Mother Confessor?”
Cara’s voice was taunting, but there was also something else underlying it. Hope? Fear? Somewhere deep inside Kahlan knew the answer to the question, knew exactly why she had followed Cara when all seemed lost. Yet she couldn’t admit it to herself let alone this perverted version of Cara. With her silence Cara answered for her.
“As I thought, there is no other reason. You’re too late, anyway, I’ve hidden The Stone. You’ll never find it without me. Not that you’ll be finding anything in a moment.”
The agiel was aimed at her heart this time. Kahlan rolled out of the way at the last second and the leather encased weapon struck the dirt rather than her chest. She sprung to her feet just in time as another attack came in. They danced across the ground in a whirl of flashing agiels and daggers, neither able to gain an advantage. Kahlan knew there was only one way this war of attrition was going to end.
Changing tack, Cara swung a foot at Kahlan. The surprise attack caught her out, with Cara’s boot catching her hand and sending one of her daggers flying off into the grass. Cara gave a satisfied smirk. Seizing her own opportunity to strike, Kahlan launched herself bodily at the other woman. Her elbow rammed into Cara’s stomach and as the other woman doubled over Kahlan used her remaining dagger to spin Cara’s hand round and flick the agiel from it. Now they just had one weapon each. They faced each other like a pair of duellists, sizing each other up for a moment.
“Nice move, Confessor,” said Cara with heavy mocking emphasis on the name, “but one agiel is more than enough for the likes of you.”
She swung that agiel at Kahlan. It was a telegraphed attack, easy for Kahlan to parry. It was also a diversion. As Kahlan met the agiel, Cara’s foot swept round and took Kahlan’s legs from under her. She landed heavily on her back and Cara wasted no time following up. She stamped down hard on Kahlan’s wrist. Her fingers automatically loosened their grip on her dagger in response. It was enough for Cara to kick the weapon away.
Kahlan flung herself upwards, her momentum carrying her into Cara. She used the close quarters to get a hold of Cara’s arm and wrench it until the agiel fell from her fingers. Cara managed to shove Kahlan away before spinning to face her once more. She was breathing heavily, her chest heaving up and down under her leathers with each gasping breath. Kahlan took a moment to gulp in some much needed air too. Even though they were both without weapons that didn’t mean the fight was over. Both would keep going until the fell down, that was just who they were.
Cara attempted a punch which Kahlan dodged. Her own fist whacked across Cara’s jaw, snapping the other woman’s head to the side. Cara quickly flicked her eyes back to Kahlan, a look of perverse enjoyment on her face. A recollection of another fist fight in an airless tomb flashed across Kahlan’s mind. Kahlan had lost that time. She couldn’t lose again. Not if she wanted to save Cara.
Thoughts of losing didn’t appear to be foremost in Cara’s thoughts either. She charged at Kahlan with her shoulder dipped. It slammed right into Kahlan’s midriff. The impetus of the attack carried them both down onto the ground. They rolled over and over across the grass with each trying to get the upper hand. Kahlan was fighting purely on instinct now and as one of the rolls brought her back on top it was only natural to dart out her right hand and wrap her fingers round Cara’s neck. She could feel her power bubbling up, just itching to be released. It took all her willpower to hold it back.
Cara just sneered up at her. “What’s the matter, Confessor? Feelings getting in the way?” Her tone got more insistent, challenging. “Go on, do it! It’s the only way I’ll tell you where The Stone is.”
Kahlan’s eyes moved from Cara’s face to where her fingers coiled round the other woman’s neck. She knew Cara was right. If they wanted The Stone, if they were to save the whole world from being overtaken by the Keeper then they needed Cara to tell them where The Stone was. Even knowing all that Kahlan couldn’t bring herself to do it. All her life she had done her duty, done the responsible and right thing. This time she couldn’t. Her hand dropped listlessly away from Cara’s neck. Kahlan heard Cara laughing nastily. Then she felt intense pain shooting across her back. She cried out, just having time to turn and see Dahlia’s gloating face behind her before she crashed to the ground and passed out.
Richard stirred into consciousness, his first sensation being the warm body next to him. Kahlan. He snuggled closer and reached out to run his fingers over her soft skin. Her soft, Richard let his hand roam, wrinkly skin. He jolted into fully awake in an instant and shot up in bed. Next to him Zedd stirred and rolled over. Richard was still frantically rubbing his hand on the blanket to try and clean it when Zedd’s bleary eyes opened.
That was a subjective assessment considered Richard. Waking up next to a naked old man wasn’t exactly high on his rankings of what would be classified as good, especially not when the old man in question was his grandfather. As Zedd hauled himself up into sitting Richard averted his eyes. He really didn’t need to see that first thing in the morning.
“Why didn’t you at least put some clothes on to sleep?” he asked.
Zedd shrugged. “It was hot.”
Any objection to that reasoning was forestalled as Richard noticed a faint white glow emanating from the corner of the room. It built slowly in size until a dramatic flash blinded him for a moment. After blinking a few times a female form came into focus.
“Shota!” cried Zedd in the tone he always seemed to when they encountered the witch-woman. It was a mixture of shocked, horrified and maybe just a little bit excited.
Shota looked over the scene in the bed before her. “I can leave you boys to it, if you like,” she said sarcastically, “if it weren’t for the fact that the whole of the Midlands are in danger while you two are busy getting cosy with one another!”
Richard quickly slid out of bed. “What is it? What’s happened? Is it Kahlan?”
An intense stare from Shota answered him. “Yes, and if you don’t hurry up the Mother Confessor’s heart won’t be pure or beating!”
Cara gingerly felt her jaw, a couple of clicks issuing from her bones as she did. The Mother Confessor certainly knew how to deliver a punch, Cara had to give her that. Unfortunately the Confessor also let her emotions cloud her judgement which was why she was currently tied to a tree at the mercy of two Mord’Sith. Cara dispassionately studied the woman before her. Kahlan was still unconscious, her head lolling forward at an unnatural angle as her body was held upright by the ropes bound tightly round her. Cara felt a brush against her arm. Dahlia trailed her fingers seductively across the leather.
“So what shall we do with her?” Dahlia asked, practically licking her lips in anticipation.
Normally Cara would be full of suggestions for varying forms of pain and torture but for some reason looking at the helpless Mother Confessor none of them were forthcoming. Thinking nothing of her silence, Dahlia moved closer to the drooping brunette head. She drew back her arm and dealt a swift back-handed slap to Kahlan’s cheek. Cara flinched. Luckily Dahlia was too intent on her target to notice.
“Come on, wake up!”
She drew her agiel and shoved it into Kahlan’s side. The confessor’s body jerked subconsciously. Again Cara felt an odd discomfort, a gnawing pain deep inside her stomach. Without thinking Cara found herself moving forwards and catching Dahlia’s hand to stay it. “You’re not going to wake her that way,” she reasoned.
Dahlia glared at her, not appreciating being disturbed from the infliction of pain. Cara met her gaze, holding it to assert her dominance. Eventually she felt the tension in Dahlia’s arm ease and she released it. Dahlia sheathed her agiel and let a smile ease across her face instead.
“I suppose I can be patient. There are other ways to amuse ourselves while we wait.”
To demonstrate exactly what she meant, she reached up to slide her fingers into Cara’s hair. With aching slowness she eased forwards, her leathers creaking as they rubbed up against Cara’s. Cara felt the familiar surge of desire as Dahlia’s lips hovered teasingly before hers. Cara also felt something unfamiliar, an odd sensation that this was wrong. When Dahlia finally closed the gap and pressed her lips to hers that feeling only intensified. Cara found herself breaking the contact, not quite sure why.
Dahlia’s eyes were studying her face. “What’s wrong?”
Cara couldn’t meet her gaze. Instead her eyes subconsciously drifted to the woman tied to the tree. A pair of blue eyes met hers. Kahlan was awake. Suddenly Cara felt guilty, like a naughty schoolgirl caught in the act. She stiffened. Why am I thinking such things? I have nothing to be guilty about; I am Mord’Sith!
Meanwhile, Dahlia had followed her gaze, also seeing that Kahlan was conscious. Dahlia’s eyes flicked between Kahlan and Cara a couple of times as the other two women continued to stare silently at one another.
“We should kill her,” Dahlia suddenly said to break the spell.
“What?” Cara exclaimed, surprised by the degree of fear in her own voice. She realised Dahlia had sensed it too from the way she was staring curiously back at Cara. She tempered her voice. “Are you sure this is what Lord Rahl wants?” she said by means of justification.
“Yes,” replied Dahlia. Her leather clad fingers trailed seductively down Cara’s arm. “It’s also what I want.” Her other hand reached up to caress Cara’s cheek and turn her face towards her. “You’d do it for me wouldn’t you?”
An impassive mask remained fixed on Cara’s face. Inside she was anything but impassive. All sorts of strange, alien feelings were stirring. Cara forced them down. She had a job to do, a duty to fulfil.
Dahlia’s mouth was by her ear now, whispering into it. “Kill her for me.”
Cara’s hand gripped one of her agiels. The pain was reassuring, reminding her of who she was. Slowly she drew it, concentrating all the time on that feeling. Dahlia stepped aside to allow Cara to approach Kahlan. The Mother Confessor’s eyes followed her the whole way, but she didn’t say anything, didn’t beg for her life even when Cara was standing right before her. Cara had to admire her fortitude if nothing else. Cara raised the agiel. One swift blow to the heart and it would all be over. Still Kahlan’s eyes were on her with resolute determination. Cara couldn’t help but meet them.
“Go on, do it,” came Dahlia’s voice, soft, encouraging.
Still Cara couldn’t drag her eyes away from the deep blue ones. A single tear slipped out over Kahlan’s cheek. Something stirred within Cara - a memory of another time and place. Feelings stirred too - feelings of remorse, feelings of regret, but also feelings of hope. Her hand shook as it gripped the red leather of the agiel, refusing to move any further forwards. She shouldn’t be having these feelings.
Dahlia’s voice was harsh now, commanding. “What are you waiting for? Kill her!”
What am I waiting for? Cara had done this countless times before, the faces of those who had fallen to her agiel an indistinct homogenous mass. Why was it any different this time? Another memory drifted to the fore of her mind - sitting in a hot, stuffy tomb and uttering the word “friend” when it seemed so inadequate a way to express her feelings.
Dahlia said something else, urging her on, but the other woman’s voice barely registered in Cara’s mind. She was lost under the spell of Kahlan’s gaze. The memories were coming thick and fast now, assaulting Cara’s senses. She closed her eyes and let them in. She remembered it all, every little touch, every shared glance, every kind word. There were the same ones she had clung onto through the pain, her safe haven to ward off the demons. It was everything Rahl had tried to steal from her with his magic. Yet even he could never overcome the greatest magic of all, one that you didn’t need a wizard for.
“Oh, for Rahl’s sake!”
So lost to her thoughts was she, that it took a moment for Cara to react as Dahlia snatched the agiel from her hand. That was one moment too long. In that instant Dahlia had taken the agiel and rammed it into Kahlan’s chest. The confessor screamed. There was another scream too, jolting Cara to her senses when she realised it was she herself crying out. She leapt at Dahlia who was still gleefully applying the agiel to Kahlan’s torso. The sudden attack caught Dahlia completely off-guard and she staggered and fell to the ground as Cara cannoned into her. Cara glanced to Kahlan. Her body hung limply against the ropes, but Cara had no time to check on her as Dahlia had recovered and was coming at her with the agiel.
Cara managed to catch her hand and the agiel jammed up between them as Dahlia stared balefully at her.
“You would choose her over me?”
“Yes,” stated Cara with absolute certainty.
Dahlia face contorted in anger. “What can she give you that I can’t?”
The answer to that was far more complicated than Cara wished to consider right now. “Kindness, compassion and genuine, unconditional friendship,” she said instead.
Dahlia laughed. “Friendship?” Her eyes scanned Cara’s face as they still struggled over the agiel. “You can’t lie to me, Cara. I know you, you want more than that.”
She could have denied it, but what would be the point. Her feelings were obviously written all over her face as Dahlia continued to laugh.
“You know that will never happen don’t you? She’s madly in love with the Seeker.”
“I know.” Cara didn’t say anything else. What else was there to say? That was how things were in this universe and if all she could be was a friend to both Kahlan and Richard then she’d take that over not knowing them at all.
The resignation in her voice only seemed to stoke Dahlia’s anger further. She wrenched her hand free and cracked the agiel across Cara’s temple in a fierce blow. Cara staggered and fell at the other woman’s feet.
“Can’t you see how they’ve made you weak?” yelled Dahlia.
Cara dabbed at her forehead, noting the different shade of crimson on her fingers as she drew them back. She clambered to her feet since Dahlia was keeping her distance after delivering her initial blow.
“Feelings don’t make you weak,” she stated.
Dahlia gave a scoffing laugh. “Listen to yourself! You sound like one of them, like her!” Dahlia jabbed the agiel in Kahlan direction. “You’ve spent too much time with them - they’ve poisoned your mind. So much so that not even Lord Rahl’s dark magic could break their hold over you.”
“Hardly weak then, wouldn’t you say?” said Cara. “And even if it does make me weak in your eyes, I’d rather have these feelings than not have them at all.”
A furious howl came from Dahlia as she swung the agiel at Cara again. Cara was ready this time with her hand already on her other agiel. She quickly drew it and parried Dahlia’s blow. They exchanged swishes and blows a few more times, but neither could get the upper hand. They had sparred together so many times; their movements were as natural to one another as their own. Eventually Dahlia drew back a couple of paces.
“Come back with me,” she begged. “Come back to Lord Rahl. He’ll find a way to fix this.”
Cara could detect the hint of desperation in Dahlia’s voice, sensing the real cause of it. “You will always be part of my life, Dahlia, nothing can change that.” Dahlia flushed slightly, indicating Cara had assumed correctly. “But I’m a different person now. I’m not that scared little girl in a dungeon, needing someone to hold onto, someone to remind them they’re alive. Now I know I’m alive, because I can feel it. I can feel everything.”
Dahlia scowled. “Then feel this!”
The agiel hit Cara hard. The pain was all encompassing, ripping at every sinew of her body. Even though she was used to it, knew how to block it out, it still had the power to incapacitate her by the sheer physical effect on her muscles. Cara fell to her knees as Dahlia pushed forwards, the end of her agiel still pressed firmly to Cara’s breastbone. Spasms rocked Cara’s body as Dahlia remorselessly jammed the agiel into her. It was all she could do to keep her head up. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Kahlan still tied to the tree. She hadn’t moved. Cara’s mind rallied. Kahlan needed her.
With her last reserves of energy she gripped her own agiel and forced her arm up. As soon as the agiel impacted Dahlia’s stomach the other woman’s eyes widened in a mixture of shock and pain. Her agiel fell away from Cara’s body and Cara rose up off the ground as she pushed home her advantage. Now it was Dahlia’s turn to collapse to her knees. She stared beseechingly up at Cara, looking like she couldn’t quite comprehend what was happening. Part of Cara wanted to keep applying the agiel, repay Dahlia for all she and Rahl had done to her. Not to mention what Dahlia had tried to do to Kahlan. That thought seemed to shake her out of murderous thoughts. Kahlan. Cara pulled back her arm and Dahlia collapsed in an unconscious heap.
Not giving her another thought, Cara dashed over to where Kahlan still hung against the restraining ropes. Cara quickly snatched up one of Kahlan’s discarded daggers and cut the bonds. She had to react quickly to catch the other woman’s body as she sagged forwards. Cara lowered her gently to the ground, her heart beating erratically in her chest as she saw the deathly pallor of Kahlan’s skin. Cara removed one of her gloves and reached to feel for a pulse. Even before her fingers pushed to the other woman’s neck she knew with a terrifying dread what she would find. The lack of movement only confirmed her worst fears.
“No.” Her voice was barely above a whisper, the single word carrying a world of hurt and pain.
In that instant she wished she had killed Dahlia. That wouldn’t help now, though, not when there was still a chance. The Breath of Life. She could do it; she could summon it. Cara tried to clear her mind and draw forth the magic but she kept finding herself staring at Kahlan’s lifeless face and her focus was lost. With each passing second her anxiety just grew, making it all the harder. She was running out of time; she had to do it now. Closing her eyes she attempted to find an inner point of calm to ward off the demons.
Her mind alighted back in that torch-lit tomb once more when Kahlan had shocked her with a hug. For just a moment Cara had stiffened, not used to such shows of tenderness. Then she had allowed herself to relax, closing her eyes to fall into the embrace. She let her mind drift now until she could feel Kahlan’s warm body pressed up against her, smell the scent of her hair, feel that one moment of peace and perfection. Taking one last deep breath she leant forwards.
From deep inside she felt the power coming, bubbling up until the faint ethereal wisps of The Breath of Life drifted from her lips. She opened her eyes again as the breath whispered out, snaking between Kahlan’s slightly parted lips. Cara was so close she could see the faint blush of moisture from Kahlan’s last breath. At that point Cara’s body took over. Normally her mind would have stopped her with thoughts of fears, propriety and a hundred other reasons why it was a bad idea. Yet in that instant she was just acting on instinct. She leant that bit closer until her lips met Kahlan’s.
Cara’s eyes slid shut as she felt the surprising warmth in those lips. They were soft, yielding, just as she had imagined in her dreams. Cara held the kiss as long as she dared, knowing she would most likely never get the chance again. She had to commit this moment to memory in enough vivid detail to last her a lifetime. Finally and with great reluctance she drew back into a kneeling position by Kahlan’s side. It was just in time. Kahlan’s eyes fluttered open, confusion in their blue depths for a moment until she saw the other woman hovering above her.
Cara managed a smile, though inside her emotions were whirling. On the one hand there was a sense of relief mixed with elation and joy that it had worked, that Kahlan was back with her. At the same time her heart was breaking just that little bit at what she had experienced, but could never have again. “Yes, it’s me.” She answered, feeling that needed clarification. “The real me.”
Kahlan simply smiled back, though Cara felt something brushing her hand where it rested on the ground. It was the one she had taken the glove from earlier meaning the normal barrier of leather was gone. Instead she felt the soft skin of Kahlan’s hand intertwining with her own. She looked down at their joined hands, her skin alive and tingling at the touch. Kahlan squeezed slightly. A gesture of gratitude? Solidarity? Cara felt the catch in her throat, having to swallow down hard before her eyes met Kahlan’s again.
“Step away from her, Cara!”
The voice shattered the moment spectacularly. Cara’s eyes shot up to see Richard and Zedd stepping towards them. Richard had the Sword of Truth drawn. Kahlan sat up, a barrier between them.
“It’s all right,” Kahlan said quickly, “She’s no longer under Rahl’s thrall.”
Richard looked unconvinced and kept his sword raised. “Are you sure? How do you know she’s not fooling you like she did Zedd before?”
Kahlan’s eyes slid to Cara who realised they were still holding hands on the opposite side of Kahlan’s body from where Richard stood. Cara felt like the intense blue eyes could see right into her soul yet she didn’t look away. The two men might as well have not been there so oblivious was she to anything else. In fact the whole of the Midlands could have fallen into the Keeper’s Underworld at that moment and Cara wouldn’t have noticed. Cara was acutely aware of the woman before her - the way the slight breeze picked at the ends of her brunette hair, the way her lips were parted slightly as each breath passed them, the way heat seemed to be radiating between them.
Eventually Kahlan gave her hand one last squeeze and let go. Her eyes lingered that bit longer, though, still holding Cara’s gaze when she spoke, addressing Richard. “Trust me, I know.” She gave Cara one last smile before she clambered to her feet.
As soon as Kahlan was up Richard closed the distance to them and hugged her. As usual Cara felt the unwelcome pang of jealousy. When Richard then proceeded to kiss Kahlan, Cara averted her eyes, searching out her missing glove on the floor. By the time she had found it, pulled it on and risen to her feet the show was mercifully over.
“Thank the spirits you’re all right!” Richard said to Kahlan. “Shota came to us and told us you were in trouble.”
“I was for a while,” Kahlan answered, “but luckily Cara eventually saw the light.”
Richard looked curiously to Cara. “You managed to break the training?”
There was a slight accusation in the tone that bemused Cara until it dawned on her the Mord’Sith had tried to train him once. He had resisted using the power of his love for Kahlan. As he continued to stare at her she could only imagine what conclusions he was leaping to. Of course they were correct. “I guess Rahl’s spell didn’t work as he had hoped,” Cara said dismissively.
Richard’s eyes narrowed slightly; he wasn’t convinced. Cara needed to move the conversation onto a different subject. “Anyway, I think you’ll be needing this.” She dug into her leathers and drew out The Stone of Tears.
Kahlan gaped at her. “You had it all along!”
Cara tilted her head to the side. “You didn’t expect a Mord’Sith to tell you the truth did you?”
Kahlan gave a small half-smile as she shook her head in disbelief. It was the look she often gave when one of Cara’s deadpan remarks amused her. Cara allowed herself a furtive smile too, half hidden behind her hair. Everything was back as it should be; or at least nearly everything. She realised that Dahlia was gone, no longer lying where Cara had downed her. Kahlan appeared to have noticed as much too.
“Where’s Dahlia?” she asked as she surveyed their surroundings.
“I guess she made a break for it while I was…” Out of the corner of her eye Cara saw Richard listening intently. “…while I was otherwise occupied.”
Cara stared off into the trees where she imagined Dahlia had made good her escape. Where would she go? Would she go back to Lord Rahl despite her failure? Cara supposed she had nowhere else to go. Despite everything that thought caused a faint tinge of regret in Cara. She consoled herself with the fact that she had been saved from that life, maybe one day Dahlia could be too. Dahlia probably wouldn’t admit it at this point in time, but she obviously had feelings too. Maybe one day they would be her salvation as they had been for Cara. Until that day she could only hope.
After a bit more fussing by both Zedd and Richard over Kahlan’s welfare they finally set off on the trail to the Pillars of Creation in order to deliver the Stone and finally seal the rift to the underworld. For a while Richard and Kahlan walked up front, leaving Zedd to converse with Cara. He looked slightly uncomfortable at the prospect and she supposed she was in the unusual position of having to start the conversation with the normally garrulous wizard.
“That whole agieling you to get The Stone thing…” she began before just about managing to drag the rest of the words out, “… I’m sorry.”
“So I don’t need to start sleeping with a dagger under my pillow again then?”
Cara pouted at the obvious teasing and decided to get in some of her own. “I didn’t say that,” she replied with a mischievous grin.
Leaving Zedd to stew on her words she lengthened her stride. It wasn’t long before the wizard did likewise, passing Cara to draw level with and then match the pace of the couple ahead. As the two men spoke, Kahlan dropped back to walk with Cara. They fell into a natural rhythm, just content to walk side by side. Eventually Kahlan broke the companionable silence.
“I didn’t get the chance to say earlier, but thank you for bringing me back.”
Cara gave a dismissive shrug as she kept her eyes on the path ahead. “Richard would never have forgiven me if I’d let his favourite Confessor die.”
No retort was forthcoming and when Cara glanced to Kahlan she could see the other woman was favouring her with a doubtful look, her eyebrows raised expectantly and waiting for more. Cara was unable to resist; she was finding it harder and harder to do so. Protecting her heart was going to take some work.
“And I would never have forgiven myself either,” she added in a quiet voice.
Kahlan smiled in a satisfied way. It was the smile that was reserved for whenever Kahlan had drawn some sort of admission of feelings out of Cara. Cara considered that maybe she ought to start confessing such things more often. In that spirit she continued on.
“Thank you too for coming after me. I’m sorry for taking The Stone in the first place.”
An arm darted out to stop Cara in her tracks. Kahlan let it rest on Cara’s arm. Cara could feel the warmth of the fingers through her leather. Yes, protecting her heart was going to take a lot of work. Quite possibly it was a losing battle, but for once one she would be happy to lose. She turned her eyes to Kahlan.
“I don’t know what you remember about earlier when you …” Kahlan trailed off.
“When I was trying to kill you?”
Kahlan looked uncomfortable at Cara’s bluntness. “Yes, then. I meant what I said about you being wrong. The Stone wasn’t the only reason I came after you.”
Cara felt the heat rising in her, hope stirring. Even if she’d wanted to, Cara couldn’t interrupt; she didn’t think any words would be forthcoming from her suddenly dry mouth. Kahlan seemed to be tongue-tied too. The silence stretched on. Cara imagined she could hear the thump of her own heart. Eventually Kahlan found her voice.
“You’re my friend; I would never abandon you.”
Cara let out a slow breath, allowing the mixture of fear and anticipation to dissipate with it. All that remained was a faint disappointment which she tried to tell herself was ridiculous. What had she really been expecting Kahlan to say?
Her piece said, the other woman gave Cara’s arm one last reassuring stroke before she started walking again. She’d gotten a few steps ahead of the still static Cara when she swung round.
“By the way, you have very soft lips.”
Kahlan offered a final flashing smile before turning back to catch up to Zedd and Richard. Cara stood rooted to the spot for a moment, only able to stare disbelievingly after her. Eventually she dipped her head and allowed herself a smile before following on.