Prompts: For a challenge, theme "courage"& 100 tales prompt #31 "helpless"
Summary: Cara is left fearful and unable to even defend herself when she's poisoned by a magical vine. While Zedd and Richard argue over what to do with a Mord'Sith who can't even touch her own agiel, Kahlan tries to support Cara.
Cara approached the pond, inexplicably drawn to it. It was a still, slightly murky body of water, useless to fill her water flask from, yet she couldn't help but walk towards it. She tipped her head, looking at her reflection. Just below the surface there were the stems and leaves of some aquatic plant that she didn't know the name of.
As she watched, tiny bubbles rose to the surface. Fascinated, Cara tugged off one of her gloves and put it down. She crept closer to the water and reached out. She wanted to feel the tickle of the bubbles against her bare skin.
The water was cold, much colder than she'd expected. Cara tried to draw back but she was stuck, trapped fast. One of the stems of the plant had wrapped itself around her wrist. Panic flooded her awareness. Dark visions – the Underworld, her dead father, the Midlands a barren wasteland – filled her mind. For the first time she could remember, Cara was truly afraid.
She was being held, she realised, clutched tightly in a female embrace. Kahlan's arms were wrapped around her, and her head was pillowed against the mother confessor's breasts. The white silk dress was cool and soothing against Cara's face.
Richard was stroking her hair, crouched alongside them, saying her name over and over. Zedd was holding one of her hands – the hand that had been trapped by the plant. He was chanting words that were meaningless to her.
"I'm all right," Cara said, even though she wasn't sure that she was. Richard smiled, but his eyes still showed his concern. Zedd finished the incantation and sat back on his heels, studying her intently.
"What happened?" Kahlan asked.
Cara tried to remember. "There was a pond. I wanted to…I had to look at the pond."
Zedd make a snorting noise. "Serpent-bind . Deadly relative of the snake-vine. Lives only in the water. I thought it was extinct."
"Not extinct enough," Richard said.
"Hmm," his grandfather said. "It uses a magical signal, somewhat like the scents that attract animals when they want to mate. Except what the serpent-bind attracts is prey."
Cara stared at her wrist. There was faint red mark left from the attack but nothing more.
"I'd have thought a Mord'Sith would have been immune to the magical lure of the creature," Zedd went on. "You're lucky we found you in time."
"What would have happened if we hadn't?" Kahlan asked and Cara was glad someone had even if she herself feared the answer.
Zedd hesitated. "The serpent-bind attracts by deception but then it attacks and the allure it held is broken; at this point, however, it poisons its prey, and drives it mad. The prey is paralyzed with fear and remains motionless in the water where it is slowly consumed over several days – even weeks."
Kahlan paled at the thought and squeezed Cara tighter. "But you cured her?" she said, in the tone of voice that suggested this had better be the case.
"I did what I could," Zedd said stiffly. "Cara is in no physical danger." Richard glared in the direction of the pond.
"It's all right," he told Cara. "I cut the vine away so we could pull you free and then Zedd burnt it. The pond and the creature; they're both gone."
"Thank you." Cara blinked away tears.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Kahlan asked.
Cara twisted so she could look into Kahlan's face. "Yes. Of course." Kahlan glanced to her companions and then back to Cara.
"What's wrong?" Cara asked.
"Nothing." Kahlan released Cara and helped her sit up. "Everything's okay."
"I'm wet," Cara complained. One sleeve, almost to her elbow, was still damp from her encounter with the pond-creature.
Richard ferreted in his pack and found her a blanket. Tenderly he wrapped it around her arm and rubbed at the leather until it was almost dry.
"Are you sure it's gone? That creature?" Cara asked.
"I promise," Richard said, his brown eyes meeting her gaze.
"I want to see."
Richard led the way back to the site of the attack. The pond was now merely a depression in the earth, the scorched earth dry and cracked. A few ashes marked the remains of the creature. Some of the nearby grasses had also been burnt in Zedd's enthusiasm for eradicating the danger.
Cara clutched at Richard's sleeve. He said nothing, simply let her lead him towards the destruction at her own pace. She only released him when she bent down and made to touch the ashes. She drew back as if bitten and stood, backing away so quickly she banged into Richard. He steadied her.
"Where's my glove?" she asked suddenly.
They hunted around for it; it was Kahlan who found it, safely tucked under a fern a little way from the pond. She smiled and handed it to Cara.
"Thank you," Cara said shortly. It took her two attempts to put the glove back on because her hands were shaking.
Richard led them back to the clearing where she'd come to her senses.
"Let's make camp," he said and despite the fact it was only early afternoon, no-one objected.
Cara picked up another branch, decided that it would be suitable for firewood, and added it to the others she was grasping. A crow called, a harsh guttural sound. Startled, Cara dropped the firewood and reached instinctively for her agiel.
It took her a moment to realise she was screaming. Somehow she was on her knees and Kahlan came running, looking for an enemy though there was none.
"Cara? Cara, what happened?" Kahlan knelt beside her.
Richard arrived, sword in hand, ready to fight. Zedd was just behind him.
"My agiel." Cara gasped, taking deep, shuddering breaths. She pointed to the offending item, flung away from her in panic. "It hurts."
"Of course it hurts," Richard said, retrieving the agiel. He held it out to her. "But we can handle the pain." He sounded uncertain, concern in his eyes.
Cara shied away and Richard looked to Zedd for help. The wizard shook his head; no answers, at least yet.
Kahlan slipped the white dress over her head – she'd only been wearing it to carry out Mother Confessor duties at the last village they'd passed – and Richard laid the agiel in it. He pointed to Cara's hip.
"Would you like me to have that one too?"
She nodded miserably and Richard drew the agiel from its holster and lay it alongside the other. He wrapped them both securely in the dress and carried them back to camp, tucking them away by a tree trunk where no-one would accidentally touch them.
Kahlan slipped on her leather dress over her black vest and pants, and then brushed her hair. Cara watched; she knew that Kahlan liked to think while she was brushing her hair. So she said nothing, just watched as Kahlan tugged at the knots in her long dark tresses.
"I'm sure it won't last," Richard said at last. "The effects of the plant will wear off and she'll be able to hold her agiels again."
Kahlan shot him a look, glanced at Cara. Richard nodded and corrected himself. "Hold your agiels again." He looked to Zedd once more, hoping for support.
Zedd poked at the fire, which was woefully short on wood since Kahlan and Cara had brought none back with them. A few stray embers flew into the air.
"I don't know enough about this strange creature to be certain," he admitted, shaggy eyebrows drawn close together in displeasure at this lack of knowledge. "I had hoped a Mord'Sith, by their nature of being immune to magic, would have suffered no ill effects." He glanced back at Cara. "Tell me how you feel, Cara."
She let her gaze fall under his intense scrutiny and hated herself for this weakness.
"I'm afraid," she whispered. "I am so afraid."
"Of what?" he pushed.
"Everything." Cara looked up and pointed randomly. "The noises. The shadows. There could be more dangerous creatures out there, or D'Haran guards. I'm afraid to hold my agiels because they hurt. I'm afraid of being attacked, of being injured. It's as if –"
She fell silent. Kahlan put one hand on one of Cara's leather-clad knees. Richard made to speak but Zedd motioned with one finger and he closed his mouth again.
"As if what?" Zedd's tone was gentler now.
"As if I'm a child again. Before the Mord'Sith made me strong."
"Before they broke you," Richard put in angrily.
"They made me strong," Cara retorted. "And now that's gone. And I…" She stopped, suddenly gasping for breath.
"Cara!" Richard stepped forward in panic.
"Leave her," Zedd ordered. "Let her get her breath."
Kahlan squeezed Cara's knee and whispered soothing statements. Cara finally drew a long, ragged breath.
"I can no longer serve you," Cara said, voice choked with emotion. This realisation was so terrible it had temporarily taken her voice, her breath. Serving Lord Rahl had been her only purpose since becoming a Mord'Sith. What was she without that?
"No. You'll be all right. We'll fix this." Richard turned to his grandfather. "You must be able to do something else."
Zedd held out his hands in placation. "There may be something I can try. But I'll need some ingredients that we won't find out here in the woods. The next village on our path might have some of what I'm looking for. Berries are a speciality crop in this area and if we're lucky, they're growing the kind we need."
"See? It'll be okay." Kahlan held out her hairbrush. "Would you like to brush your hair? You've got, um, some leaves."
Cara leapt to her feet, bent over and pawed frantically at her hair. She shook her head fiercely and then flicked her hair back into place. At her companion's stares, she felt blood rise in her cheeks – a Mord'Sith never blushed, dammit – and explained, feeling very small, "There could have been spiders."
There was no point on Cara taking a watch, Zedd declared. She'd jump at every shadow and no-one else would sleep. It might not have been kindly put but it was true, Cara knew. She couldn't sleep, though, for her mind was racing, afraid of the dreams that might take advantage of her weakened state and torture her.
"She's so strong," she heard Richard say, clearly believing she was asleep. "I hate seeing her like this."
"Hmm." Zedd's noncommittal reply angered Richard.
"What? You think she's better off like this? Quite literally afraid of her own shadow?" Richard demanded.
"Think for a moment. The Mord'Sith tortured every ounce of compassion and empathy and fear from her. We need fear. It warns us of consequences. Right now Cara is afraid but she will learn to mange that fear in time. And in doing so, perhaps regain the rest of her humanity. She could live a normal life. What would you give for that chance?"
There was silence for a while. The fire crackled as a branch broke under the heat. The wind rustled some leaves. Normal sounds, Cara had to tell herself. Nothing to fear.
"I need her, Zedd."
Cara felt Richard's eyes on her. She closed her eyes lest he catch her eavesdropping.
"No. She's a burden now. We can't protect both her and ourselves."
Richard didn't like that at all. "I won't have you call her a burden!"
"But," Zedd began, too loudly for this time of night, when Kahlan was slumbering peacefully. He bit off his retort and then started again, more quietly and calmly. "I don't like any more than you do, Richard. But we have to think beyond what we want."
"I do that all the time," Richard said; Cara could hear in his voice how his teeth must be clenched. "Every damn day. I'm going to get more firewood." He stomped away into the woods.
"Youngsters," Zedd muttered.
Burden. Cara was useful, valuable, brave, no longer. She was a joke, she was helpless, a burden. It hurt almost as much as the touch of the agiel.
Breakfast was a subdued affair. Usually Richard and Kahlan were making love-struck faces at each other over their porridge, or talking animatedly about inanities. Today Richard sat glowering at Zedd, who was doing his best to ignore Richard by eating even more copiously than ever.
Kahlan hadn't asked what was wrong, but Cara could feel the tension in the camp, so it must have been pressing on the Mother Confessor's nerves like thunderclouds just before a storm.
"It's not far to the next village," Kahlan said brightly.
"Hmm." Zedd poked the spoon into the cooking pot but there was no porridge left.
Richard got to his feet, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve. "I'm going to scout ahead, make sure the path is clear," he said and strode out towards the road.
Cara hadn't spoken a word, which wasn't that unusual. Still, Kahlan kept smiling encouragingly at her, which would normally have driven Cara to roll her eyes in mock anger. Today it just seemed to rub salt in her wounds. She didn't deserve this sympathy. She was weak and pathetic. And weak girls didn't survive to become Mord'Sith.
"Cara, you've barely eaten," Kahlan said.
"Not hungry." Cara put the bowl on the ground.
Zedd stood. "All right. Let's try something. Come here."
Cara approached him cautiously. He took two steps backwards and extended his arm.
"You haven't lost your Mord'Sith abilities," Zedd said. "You've just forgotten how to use them. So, make yourself ready. Repel my magic."
Kahlan jumped to her feet. "Not wizard's fire!"
Zedd gave a hurt look. "Of course not! Just a little bit of a breeze."
Cara held out one gloved hand, palm facing the wizard. Her heart was pounding against her ribcage and she felt sick – she was glad she hadn't eaten any breakfast.
Zedd let loose his magic – and Cara ducked. The energy went flying past her, ruffling her hair as it did so, and hit a tree. A large branch was dislodged by this blow and it fell crashing to the floor just as Richard returned.
"What are you doing?" he yelled.
Cara didn't follow the rest of the argument between the two men. She was aware they were yelling for some time, with Kahlan shouting over them at certain points. She sat on the damp grass and drew up her knees, wrapping her arms around her legs and laying her head down so she didn't have to watch.
She wasn't sure how long she sat there, but finally Kahlan touched her shoulder gently.
"We need to get moving," Kahlan said.
Grateful that Kahlan hadn't drawn any further attention to her emotional state, Cara got to her feet. It was a long journey to the next village, one that took place in near silence the entire way and this, too, was her fault.
Over-Ryton was a small village surrounded, as Zedd had told them, by berry farms. They reached it by late afternoon and Richard busied himself helping with a roof repair. Kahlan was called to intervene in a dispute. She shook Cara's agiels out of their wrapping and into her backpack so she could retrieve the white dress of the Mother Confessor and went to see that justice was done.
Cara sat on the ground, watching a small group of children flying a crude kite. Zedd crouched down next to her.
"I've spoken with the farmers," he said. "It's been a poor harvest this year. They don't have the ingredients I was hoping for."
Cara said nothing. She refused to look at him, just stared at the kite.
"This is a nice village," Zedd said hesitantly. "It would be a safe place for you to stay."
Cara's head whipped round at that, tear-rimmed eyes fixing on the wizard. "You're going to leave me here?" she asked incredulously.
Zedd lowered his gaze. "Only for a while. Until there's a suitable escort that can take you to your sister. I'm sure she'd be glad to take you in."
Cara shook her head. "You want me to go back to the villagers who tried to have me executed?"
"I'm sorry, Cara," Zedd said and he reached out, put one hand on her shoulder. "I don't know what else to do."
Cara shrugged his hand from her shoulder and got to her feet. She walked off blindly, vision clouded by tears and grief.
"Where are you going?" Zedd called plaintively.
"To find a new dress," Cara shrieked. "I don't deserve to wear this leather!"
She headed into a patch of woodland, not stopping until she tripped on a tree root. She sat down, her back to the tree trunk and wished that Richard had let her die in the pond. What use was she now? So terrified she couldn't even do the honourable thing a Mord'Sith unable to function anymore should - either die in battle or take her own life.
There were screams and Cara realised that they weren't playful squeals from the children. They were screams of terror. There was also the scent of smoke.
Heart pounding, Cara crept back towards the village. Six Sisters of the Dark were attacking the village. Richard was fighting two of them even as he tried to protect a young family who cowered behind him. A hay barn was on fire. Kahlan had her daggers in her hands, sweeping low to avoid a blow from one of the Sisters.
Zedd had killed one of the Sisters; her charred corpse lay nearby. But even as Cara watched, one of the other women threw her dacra and it sank deep into his shoulder.
"Lord Rahl," Cara whispered. Richard was in trouble – and Kahlan, and Zedd. She reached for her agiels instinctively only to find they weren't there.
She couldn't let Richard be hurt by her inaction. Summoning what little bravery she could muster, Cara stayed in the tree line and moved around until she was in line with their luggage. When she was sure no-one would see, she darted out and tipped Kahlan's backpack upside down. The agiels fell out onto the floor.
Cara reached out a trembling hand. She was shaking and cold sweat gathered in her armpits and her cleavage while heat flushed her face and nausea assaulted her.
She bit her lip and looked around. Richard had killed the two women he had been fighting with and was heading towards her. Kahlan too was on the move, having dispatched three of the Sisters. The last was backing up and pointed to Zedd, who was kneeling on the grass and clutching his wounded arm.
"Stop! Or he dies!"
Kahlan and Richard stopped in their tracks. The woman took another step towards Zedd. Her back was to Cara. Cara saw the distress on Kahlan's face and the rage on Richard's and suddenly she was angry at this woman. This woman had hurt Zedd and upset Kahlan and Richard, and that was not acceptable.
And then another Sister came from only the Creator knew where, dacra raised, intending to throw it at Richard.
"Richard! Behind you!" Cara yelled and reached for one of her agiels. It hurt, flooding her every sense with pain, but she refused to let it go. Time was meaningless, her vision swam, but she would not release the weapon. She lurched about as she tried to walk towards the fight.
Richard spun, ducked to avoid the dacra. It flew harmlessly past him. He ran to intercept the woman and Kahlan turned back to deal with the other Sister who was threatening Zedd. The Sister was flexing her hand, about to release the magic of the dacra when Cara shoved the agiel into her back. The two women went down on their knees simultaneously. The agiel shrieked in delight at the agony it was inflicting and its high-pitched whine was another pain that assaulted Cara.
"Cara! Cara, stop!"
Richard sounded far away but then there was a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"Cara, she's dead. Stop."
At Kahlan's voice, Cara dropped the agiel and let herself fall to the ground. It was cool and soothing to lie on the grass. She'd done what she'd set out to do, at least. Richard, Zedd, and Kahlan were safe.
"Oh, Cara." Zedd crouched down by her. With the Sisters dead, he'd been able to remove the dacra. "My dear child. I am so sorry I thought to leave you behind."
She closed her eyes. He was being so kind and practically even admitting he was wrong; maybe she was dying, that would explain it.
Richard clutched at one of her hands and Kahlan bent over and kissed her forehead. Dying wasn't so bad, Cara thought, surrounded by those she loved.
After a few minutes the novelty wore off. If she was dying it was taking far too long. She opened her eyes and saw Kahlan smile with joy.
Something was different; she felt an inner calmness, a cool stillness that sat on her like a silk sheet on a warm evening. Cara focussed, using her highly trained senses to scan for danger; she found none.
Experimentally she pulled her hand from Richard's and let Kahlan help her sit up. Then she reached for her agiel and grasped it firmly. The humming it made was a familiar and welcome sound and its caress thrummed through her like static electricity, energising and awakening her senses. It was like the warmth that spread through her body after taking a cold bath, somehow invigorating and yet comforting at the same time.
"You can hold it," Richard said in hushed tones.
"I am a Mord'Sith," she said severely. "Of course I can hold it."
That night, Richard offered to stand guard. Cara protested but eventually realised that this was his way of dealing with his feelings about what had happened. If he could do this for her, it would ease his mind.
So Cara lay next to the fire, enjoying the heat of the flames near her face. Zedd snored contentedly on the other side of the fire; he'd assuaged his guilt by insisting Cara have the leftovers of the stew they'd had for supper. Kahlan and Richard had stared at him in amazement but Cara had accepted, not bothering to protest the offer of extra food.
Now it was Kahlan's turn to smooth over the events of the past two days. She snuggled up close behind Cara, almost, but not quite, touching her.
"I'm glad you're feeling better," Kahlan said softly.
"Are you?" Cara said, also keeping her voice low. This was a private conversation.
"Yes! Of course."
"I thought you might prefer me to be less," and Cara sought the right word, "less Mord'Sith."
Kahlan did touch her then, one hand on Cara's shoulder. Cara didn't pull away.
"I would never want you fearful and helpless," Kahlan said urgently. "I only want for you to be happy."
Cara watched the flickering of the fire for a while. "I am content," she said at last, and Kahlan squeezed her shoulder.
Cara slept peacefully that night, no longer living in terror, and knowing she was safe – and she was loved.