Chapter 1: The Perils of Boredom

"Mo-other, Michael Confessed a rabbit!" Reganath Rahl called out in the voice of older sisters everywhere.

Michael, a well-favored child of about three years old, scowled, and stuck out his tongue at Reganath.

"Tari, could you go see what Rega is shouting about?" Kahlan, Mother Confessor and Lady Rahl, shooed her second oldest daughter toward the sound of the conflict. She was reclining in a thickly woven hammock, and wasn't certain she would be able to get up without assistance.

She was pregnant again; this would be her tenth child with Richard.

Richard. Kahlan grinned to herself happily. The difficulties of her life as Lady Rahl, the many sacrifices she had made to reach this day—all were worth even a moment of her life with Richard.

Tari pouted, but rose gracefully from her position cross-legged on the ground, and marked her place in her book with a handful of pebbles. Kahlan smiled at her studious daughter, reminded of her own years learning statecraft from her father.

Kahlan shifted, uncomfortable suddenly. It didn't take her long to realize she was hungry. "Before you go, sweetheart, could you tell Berdine I'd like a snack?"

Kahlan felt guilty for being such a drain on the time and energy of those sworn to protect Richard. But she knew, as did they, that Richard would never forgive them if they neglected Kahlan and the baby. And, on her eighth pregnancy (Zeddie and Adie, Marilyn and Erilyn were twins), Kahlan felt deserving of a little pampering.

Besides, watching the children was a full time job, and Kahlan knew the Mord'Sith wanted her in the best condition possible, so they would be at less risk from so many young Confessors. In theory, they were all willing to die to protect Lord Rahl, and therefore to die to protect his recalcitrant children, but that was no reason to take chances.

She watched Tari walk purposefully toward Reganath and Michael, feasting her eyes on each mixture of her own and Richard's features.

Tari wore her dark hair long, and her fingers, always stained with ink, marked the scholar. She was fourteen years old. Reganath, twelve and named for Kahlan's long-deceased mother, had Kahlan's bright green eyes and Richard's fiery spirit. And Michael was as fair as Kahlan's sister Dennee, and as charming.

Kahlan moved carefully to a sitting position, one hand upon her stomach, and squinted at Tari's book. She was studying magic with Zedd, and had already shown a great deal of promise.

Kahlan's happy musings were interrupted by an angry cry from Michael. Tari picked him up and marched back to her mother, Rega following triumphantly.

"Is there a problem?" Kahlan asked calmly.

"Michael Confessed a rabbit," Tari said matter-of-factly.

"She hit me!" Michael cried.

"You deserved it, you little twerp!" Rega said, scowling at her brother. "Mother's told you not to Confess poor defenseless animals," she said sternly, and added, as an afterthought, "or poor defenseless people, either."

With a sigh, Kahlan held out her arms for Michael. It really was a nuisance, the way male Confessors developed their powers almost immediately after their birth, while female Confessors rarely manifested before their early teens. She was more grateful than she could express that she and Richard had had five daughters before their first son, Zeddie, was born. There was nothing like five older sisters to keep even the most ambitious male Confessor in line. And Michael had seven.

"Let's talk, dear one," she told Michael. Something in her tone warned him he was in trouble, and he subsided into a sullen silence. Tari nodded firmly, and sat back down in front of her book.

Rega paced restlessly for a moment, and then said, "Mother, can I go over to the Meifferts'?"

Kahlan nodded. "Of course—but you and Gracie aren't to get too distracted and neglect Cara's boys; I know how you girls get!"

"Yes, Mother!" Rega called, already halfway across the clearing.

Kahlan smiled. The friendship between Rega and Gracie was of long standing; they were the same age, and seemed to get along very well. She only wished Rega got along so well with her own siblings.

Rega was spirited, yes, but also thoughtless. After the boys, and poor Dennee, with the weight of eldest-born and extraordinary beauty on her shoulders, Kahlan worried about Rega the most.

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Gracie Meiffert sat on the porch, swinging her feet and humming softly. Mother was off at some meeting with Lord Rahl, who insisted on being called Uncle Richard whenever the Meiffert children met him, and Father was busy commanding the army against the thieving Southerners, and Gracie was bored.

Her younger brothers, Richard, Tom, and Benjy, after their father, were playing pick-up sticks—Benjy, only three, kept upsetting the pile—and she, as the eldest, could not join in.

Or—she could have, but it would've distracted her, and Mother was adamant on the subject of distractions. If she wanted to guard Lord Rahl and keep the Midlands safe, when she was an adult, she must learn discipline.

If only discipline were more interesting.

Just for variety, Gracie ceased humming, and began to whistle.

Soon, she heard another voice joining with hers. Instantly, she stiffened; Mother would say this could be a threat.

She kept whistling the same tune, not wanting to alert the other voice. And she bent carefully, until she was lying on her stomach, and could more easily peer around the nearby trees.

Gracie saw the small, dark-haired figure of her friend, Reganath, and immediately relaxed.

"Hey, Golden Girl!" Rega called.

"Shadow! Is this a legal visit?" Gracie teased, referring to Rega's parents, and their absolute moral authority. Rega disliked anyone having authority over her, even her parents.

Rega laughed, though, clearly in a good mood. "Absolutely. You know me, Golden Girl: meek as a mouse!"

"Hello, hello, hello!" Tom waved frantically. Rega smiled, and ruffled his hair.

Gracie bounded off the porch and grabbed Rega's arm. "You're It!" she shrieked, and ran.

Rega, laughing, gave chase, her black witch-locks flying out behind her like a banner. Gracie laughed, too, but she was careful not to stray too far from her brothers. She took her responsibilities seriously—more seriously than Rega, at least.

Someday, Gracie was going to be as strong as her mother, and as kind as Lady Rahl, and as intelligent as her father, and as charming as Lord Rahl, and…

Unseen by the running girls, a slight figure darted from the side of the house and into the deeper shadows of the wooden porch. Waiting.

The moment came when Richie made a significant move with a stick, and Gracie, now It, raced after Rega onto the porch.

Quick as thought, the figure rose behind Rega and struck her, with scientifically determined force, on the back of the head. She crumpled, but before Gracie could do more than shriek, she too was knocked out cold.

Nonetheless, the figure cursed that shriek. Dragging both girls by an arm each, the figure raced around the house, away from the boys, who were running after their sister's scream, and threw the unconscious Rega and Gracie into a cart. The horse, swatting flies lazily, stretched its legs into a gallop when the figure dug spurs into its sides, and the cart rattled along behind.

Richie restrained Tom and Benjy, shaking his head. "We have to tell," he said seriously.

"Where Gracie?" Benjy complained.

"C'mon," Richie said shortly, and started walking. "Mother's at the meeting, in the throne room."

"What's she doing there?" Tom asked.

"We won't find out standing here," Richie said grimly, thinking. Now that Gracie was gone, he was the oldest, and so he was responsible. He had never felt so lonely in his life.

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Cara knew instantly something was wrong. She glanced at Richard, torn. This was an important meeting, and, although the Southerners were unlikely to jeopardize all possibility of a treaty, perhaps they wouldn't see Lord Rahl's death as such an obstacle to peace. Perhaps they would attempt assassination, knowing Richard's death would throw the Midlands into chaos.

Cara would never let that happen. She had sworn it.

But those were her sons, Benjy asleep on Richie's shoulder, and Tom gazing around the throne room, curiously.

Cara had been taught never to show a weakness, but—she had a thought to spare for her sisters' carelessness, in allowing anyone, even Cara's beloved sons, to interrupt this meeting, before she touched Richard's shoulder, to let him know, and unobtrusively made her way to the door.

She picked up Tom automatically, to prevent him from further exploration, and raised her eyebrows at Richie—unspoken, the implication was that he had better have a good explanation for this.

Outside, Cara swept the area for Berdine and Alina, before remembering that Berdine was in attendance on Kahlan today, and Alina had gone with Dennee to a nearby village, for a christening. Was no one on guard?

"Well?" she asked.

"They took Gracie!" Richie cried. "And Rega—they took her, and I have no idea where—or what to do—so we came to find you!"

Cara didn't scream. She didn't faint. But she saw red.

Someone had dared to kidnap her daughter—she would kill them, kill them with her bare hands—

"Mother?" Tom asked. "What happened to Gracie and Rega?"

Cara strode back into the throne room, the mention of Rega a reminder that she was not the only person this news affected. Tom was still in her arms, and Richie followed her, preferring the possibility of knowledge to the comparative safety of the outside.

Richard took one look at Cara's face and leapt out of his chair. "I must postpone the rest of this meeting for another time," he said smoothly. "Please accept my most humble apologies."

"This delay does not reflect well upon the people of the Midlands," the leader of the Southerners said solemnly.

Richard bowed, but did not explain. He had a feeling that whatever made Cara look as though the many years he had known her had never happened was not for the ears of any but his most trusted friends.

Richard snapped his fingers, and Rikka and Nyda came forward at once. "Show our guests to their quarters—we will resume our discussions as soon as possible."

"Yes, Lord Rahl," they chorused, and Richard watched them escort the Southern delegation out. Only when he was alone with Cara and her sons did he relax.

"Well?" His voice was sharper than he intended. But Cara had interrupted important peace negotiations—he had specifically told everyone how crucial this was. Cara's own husband, Benjamin, was leading the troops against the Southern armies, who wanted to conquer the Midlands.

They had consented to meet with him, but Richard knew it would take some convincing to make them relinquish their imperialistic plans. They saw him as a mere minor lord, and they considered the people of the Midlands barbaric—even backward.

He had to convince them otherwise—or many more would suffer, starting with Kahlan and the children. He would never let that happen.

"Gracie and Rega have been kidnapped," Cara said coldly—and Richard's heart stopped.

It seemed an eternity before it beat again, and in that time he could feel the old rage swelling in him. He drew the Sword of Truth, and magical fire seemed to burn through the cold metal.

He had only one question. "Where?"