Chapter 63 – Dawn of Hope

Kahlan held Daphne to her breast, softly stroking the downy hair along her tiny head. The little blue eyes looked up at her, and she smiled back, gently running her fingers along the infant's chubby little cheek. Daphne cooed softly, nuzzling into her mother's touch. Seeing her baby in her arms made Kahlan's heart warm, but still… the guilt ran deep. She had no idea what had happened to her other baby… he son. She was afraid what Richard would say once he returned.

Because he was going to return. He had too!

Sighing, Kahlan adjusted her hold on Daphne, freeing one of her arms, so she could reach up and brush some of her long hair back from her face. They were still in the Garden of Life. After feeding Daphne, Kahlan had taken the little girl for a little walk around the lush indoor garden. After the chaos of the afternoon, it had gotten oddly quiet in the evening, which Kahlan found slightly unnerving. She tried not thinking about what might be happening to her twin sister, but it was difficult.

Since their similar appearance, the confessor knew that Cynthia would most likely be mistaken for her, and no doubt be punished and abused with that in mind. Kahlan shuddered, trying to block out the images of what sort of abuse was being forced upon her sister.

She'd spent most of the night with her newborn daughter, tending to her needs or just watching her sleep. Daphne looked so serene and beautiful when at rest. All this chaos going on around them, and this little creature was blissfully unaware… content and happy, nestled in her mother's embrace.

This is how it was supposed to be, Kahlan thought, somewhat bitterly. If the fates had only been kinder, then maybe she would not be alone in such trying times. She desperately wanted Richard by her side. She ached for him. Her heart felt empty with him gone, and she longed to just feel his arms wrapped around her once again. His love gave her strength, empowered her in a way that nothing ever had.

Daphne made a soft gurgle in her sleep, and Kahlan sighed, looking down at the sleeping babe, rocking her arms gently to settle her.

Night had turned to dawn, finding them alone in a corner of the garden, undisturbed. Kahlan had wandered off, after she assured Zedd she would remain within the garden. She just wanted to be alone with her daughter… and her thoughts. But now that the sun was cresting, Kahlan knew it was time to seek out the others and do her duty. She was the Mother Confessor and wife of the Lord Rahl. With Richard away, she was the de facto leader of the D'Haran Empire they were building—an alliance between two old enemies, brought together by the love shared between a Seeker and his Confessor, bounded by marriage and fidelity.

Ducking her head, Kahlan stepped lightly around the trees and brush, letting her eyes meander over the wildflowers and ferns. This place really was lovely. She wished she'd been aware of it sooner. A sad smile formed on her face as she thought about all the private moments she could have shared with Richard if she'd known about the Garden of Life. But it was all just wistful thinking. What was past was past. It could not be changed. She needed to concentrate on the present, and the current events happening around her.

Making another turn around a patch of high ferns, Kahlan came to the spot where the others were gathered. Zedd and Nathan were in a heated argument, the latter stifling what he was about to say when his eyes glimpsed her approach. Zedd scoffed, agitated, about to make a further retort, when he realized his opponent's gaze. Looking over his shoulder, his long wavy grey hair bouncing with the movement, the First Wizard's eyes caught hers.

"Kahlan, my dear, you're awake," he stated the obvious. Everyone else seemed to be holding his or her tongues.

Unsure what the row had been about, Kahlan inclined her head, adjusting Daphne in her arms. She looked around at the others, trying to gauge their mood. "What's going on?"

Zedd pursed his lips, clearly not wanting to say anything. Nathan opened his mouth to speak, but the wizard cut him off with a glare. Kahlan bit her lower lip and watched them, waiting. The two old men weren't going to tell her anything. So, she turned to the others.

"Verna?"

The Sister of the Light let out a heavy sigh and nodded. She snatched a piece of paper out of Lieutenant Ryger's hand. "In the early morning, this was shot into the city from the enemy camp below," Verna explained, holding up the paper. Kahlan squinted, spotting the hole from where the paper had been punctured by an arrow.

Warren placed a hand on Verna's shoulder as the sorceress collected herself for what she was about to say.

"What is it?" Kahlan asked, shifting her gaze from Verna to Zedd and Nathan. Jennsen was pale and was slightly trembling. Rikka and the Mord'Sith were as stone-faced as ever. Lieutenant Ryger was striving to hide a troubling frown, but was failing.

"The Order is asking for an unconditional surrender," Verna asserted, her face pinching up in an attempt to control her emotions.

Kahlan set her jaw. "Well… that is out the question," she nearly snapped, her face growing hot with indignation.

"There is more," Verna interjected.

"More?"

Verna licked her lips nervously and flirted her eyes over to Zedd for support. The wizard took the cue, and steepled his hands in front of his face, his eyes closed as he breathed in deeply, preparing himself. "Kahlan… they claim that we have no reason left to stand against them," the old wizard informed her. "They say that if we do not surrender now, they will kill the Mother Confessor."

"They'll do that no matter what we do," Kahlan asserted. "Hasn't that been one of their goals all along?"

"No, Kahlan, you don't understand," Zedd sighed, exasperated.

"Then what?" Kahlan demanded, clutching Daphne closer to her. "What is it? Tell me."

"They claim they've captured you," Nathan blurted out, shooting a glance at Zedd. "No one here seems to have the guts to tell you the truth."

"Cynthia," she gasped, remembering. "They have Cynthia."

Zedd inclined his had, his expression grim. "Yes, dear one. They have Cynthia."

"And they think she is you," Nathan added, earning a head slap from Verna.

Scowling in annoyance with the prophet, the sorceress turned back to Kahlan, her eyes softening. "They won't kill her," she assured.

"I know," Kahlan replied, staggering back, already knowing the answer. This was all just confirmation of her earlier thoughts. "They've had other plans for me… plans that they are now using Cynthia for."

She closed her eyes against the horror penetrating her mind. Her breath felt shallow and she struggled to fill her lungs. "Oh, Cynthia," she wept, unable to keep it out. Tears prickled at her vision, and she swayed. Jennsen was at her sighed immediately, wrapping her arms around her to help keep her standing. Kahlan accepted the comfort, and leaned into her sister-in-law.

Daphne squirmed and mewled softly. Kahlan sucked in a deep breath, her chest heaving, as she shifted her hold on the baby. She wiped at her eyes with her free hand, and blinked until her vision was less blurry. "We will not surrender," she proclaimed, straightening her posture as she faced the others. "Richard would not want us to surrender. He'd want us to fight. And that is what we'll do!"

XXX

The light that filtered through the canvas was warm and brighter than it should be for the darkness that had been witnessed inside the tent, but nonetheless, it still lit the dim room.

The first thing she registered when she woke up was the pain. The excruciating pain ran throughout her entire body, but mainly located in her lower body, around her hips and pelvis… centered between her legs. Hot tears immediately rolled out of her eyes, falling down her pale skin and onto the uncomfortable pillow under her head.

It hurt to move, but Cynthia forced her neck to bend, needing to see what had been done to her. Her legs were caked in dried blood… her blood. Right… she remembered what happened, what he did to her. It was more violent and brutal than she had expected. When she'd witnessed the Emperor taking Sister Bree, he had never been that vicious. She supposed it was like that because in some twisted way he believed he loved the Sister of the Dark.

Besides her neck, Cynthia couldn't move a muscle. Her legs were stiff and achy. All she could do was tremble. It felt like she had been ripped apart, like she'd been impaled on a spike and hung up for the crows to eat. Fresh tears streamed down her face as she remembered that the very same thing happening to her beloved Jared. What would he think of her now? Spoiled and ruined. She cried hard and long, not knowing the duration. Not caring.

"Kahlan…," the voice was soft, a whisper in the dim tent.

Cynthia gasped and sniffled, trying to contain her emotions. She was ashamed at how much she'd screamed last night, but she couldn't help it. It was just so awful.

"I'm so sorry, Kahlan," the voice came again. "I… I wanted to stop him. I wish I could have taken your place… take your suffering away."

"No," she managed to croak out. "It… it is better this way."

"What? Kahlan, no… don't say that," the voice said. "You don't deserve any of this."

"I know," Cynthia closed her eyes and breathed through her nose, trying to ignore the pain all over her body. It rippled like waves, ebbing and flowing, her veins on fire. There was a sharp pull on her chest, and she vaguely remembered him biting her left breast, drawing blood with his teeth. "But it is still better this way. Better me, than her."

Someone moved, and the bed dipped slightly. Cynthia could hear the rattle of chains. Turning her head, she saw Nicci. Her mind warped off as she remembered the sorceress there last night, during the terrible nightmare, trying with all her might to comfort her while the Emperor did his worse, defiling her like she'd never been defiled before.

"Nicci?" she questioned, her brow knitting together in confusion. It hurt to do so, but she ignored it.

"Yes, Kahlan, it is me," Nicci asserted, inching closer. There was obviously enough slack from the chains to allow her to crawl over to her. The sorceress tentatively reached up and brushed some of the matted hair from Cynthia's face. "You're okay now, Kahlan. He's gone. I'm here. I'm not leaving you." Nicci continued to caress her face with her hand, and Cynthia closed her eyes, taking the comfort.

After an interval, which gave her time to build up her strength, so she could fight back the agonizing pain throughout her entire body, Cynthia opened her eyes and sought out Nicci's, needing her to know the truth.

"I… I'm not Kahlan," Cynthia stammered out, meeting the sorceress's gaze. Her chest fluttered with each breath, and she closed her eyes as tears threatened.

"What?" Nicci startled, her eyes flicking over her face.

"It's me, Cynthia," she wheezed out, stifling the pain, trying not to think of it.

"Cynthia!" Nicci gasped, surprised. "Oh… Cynthia."

The sorceress's eyes soften as she turned back to her, running her hand gently down the side of her face, still comforting her. Cynthia let out a sigh of relief at finally admitting the truth. The pain asserted itself, and she wallowed in it for a moment, taking what little comfort she could from Nicci's caresses.

Opening her eyes, Cynthia heaved in a lungful of air. It was agony to do so, but she needed the oxygen. "Kill me," she whispered, pleadingly.

"What?"

"Please, oh spirits…," tears were welling up as she trembled. "Kill me."

"I… I can't," Nicci shook her head, her eyes growing watery. Her face was a mixture of horror and sorrow, confusing working its way in.

"Please," Cynthia choked out. "I… I don't want to go through that again."

"Spirits, I know, Cynthia," Nicci sobbed. "I know. It was awful."

"If… if you kill me… then… then maybe he'll think she's dead, and she'll be safe."

Nicci stared at her, baffled as to her meaning. But then it struck her and the sorceress shook her head. "No… no, no," she replied.

"Please, you must… if not for me, then for Kahlan," Cynthia was not above begging. She was naked, covered in her own blood and other bodily fluids. Her body felt like it had been torn apart. She couldn't move, and each breath she could manage was combined with a wave of pure agony. She had no dignity left except for how she would meet her end. "I… I'm begging you. For the love of the Creator, kill me."

"Oh, Cynthia…," Nicci sighed, lowering her head to hers, foreheads resting together. Their tears mixed as they both continue to cry. "I'm sorry, Cynthia. I'm so sorry, but I can't… not even for that. Even if I want to. I'm sorry… I'm so sorry."

Cynthia sniffled and managed to give a slight nod of acknowledgement. "Then I will suffer through what the bastard wants," she proclaimed, determined. "For Kahlan."

XXX

Zedd stepped out into the hallway, scrubbing his hands over his weathered face as he recalled the utter desolation on the Mother Confessor's face. With everything she'd been through, Kahlan hardly deserved the life that the fates had forced on her. His heart ached for the young woman, the love of his grandson's life. Not only had Richard's memories been stolen from him just after the two were finally able to marry and love one another, Kahlan now found herself in a situation where her long lost twin sister was being made to suffer in her stead. No one deserved the kind of anguished the spirits had placed on her.

"Zedd, hold up," it was Nathan jogging after him, his azure eyes keen and scheming.

He groaned. "Not now, Nathan," he grumbled, picking up his pace. Zedd loathed having yet another argument with the man. Nathan may be a prophet, but that did not give him the right to assert more influence than he already had. And just because he was a Rahl, as well, did not mean he could boss everyone else around.

"Oh, grow up, Zedd!" Nathan harrumphed, giving him a roll of his eyes. "We both know that something has to be done."

Zedd nodded begrudgingly in agreement. Yes. Something needed to be done. But not right now. "Give Kahlan some time to absorb the information," he said.

"Look, I know you don't want to think about it, but the Mother Confessor is not in a position to be making sound decisions right now," the prophet asserted as he came up alongside the wizard.

"Hence why I said to give her some time," Zedd waved his hands in irritation. "Even if this isn't the best time for her, she is still the Mother Confessor and wife of the Lord Rahl."

"We don't even know if Richard is alive," Nathan blurted out.

Zedd stopped, his shoulders tensing. He rounded on Nathan, using his full height to his advantage as he squared the prophet with a seething glare. "Don't you dare speak like that," Zedd growled.

"Look, Zedd, I understand," Nathan tried to placate him, raising his hands in submission. "He's your grandson… but you can't let sentiment infringe on your judgment at this juncture. The world is at a crossroads, and we need to act… now."

"Richard is far more than just my grandson," Zedd affirmed. "He is the Seeker of Truth… the one true Seeker."

"The first in a thousand years, yes, I know," Nathan inclined his head, letting out a deep sigh. "But that still does not preclude the fact that he may have died in his quest to rid us of the Chimes."

"I know, damn it! Don't you think I know that?" Zedd shouted, huffing and puffing in anger. "Richard is risking everything for the slimmest of chances that something can be done to stop them. He fully understands that we have no hope of defeating the Order without the aid of magic."

"Free will can only hold off destiny for so long," Nathan replied cryptically, looking off into space. "This was a battle started long ago, by wiser men, and even they could not see a better end."

"They were blinded by their own righteous beliefs," Zedd snapped back. "No one is to blame besides the guilty."

Nathan let out a long sigh. "True," he conceded. "We can do little but stand aside and let fate take its course, whatever that may be."

"What will be, will be," Zedd confirmed with a nod. "But if there is one thing Richard has taught me, it is not to lose hope." He placed his hand on Nathan's shoulder. "And have faith. Mine is in Richard and his abilities. I will not doubt him or his determination to see this to the end. Kahlan doesn't. And Neither should you."

There was a long pause as Nathan considered Zedd's words. Eventually, the prophet inclined his head. "I suppose your right," he said at length. "All we can do is hope that the pebble in the pond can make enough ripples in the water to shift the course of the future in our favor."

XXX

The sun was on the rise, sending rays of light and warmth down on the world below. He raised his hand above his face to shield his hands as he looked out at the ravine below. The wind was howling and whipping around him, his cloak flapping like a banner on high. The sun's rays warmed him against the chill of the high altitude. However, it mattered little. Soon they would be climbing down the slopes of the mountains, the spine of the Midlands, and down into the valley below.

"I always like watching the sunrise," he was startled out of his reverie by the sound of the voice behind him. It was Cara. Her eyes were fixated on the rising sun. "Benjamin would wake me before dawn and take me up to the highest ramparts of the Wizard's Keep. I'd grumble and curse, promise to do him bodily harm, but he'd still take me, grinning with that smirk of his."

Cara smiled softly at the memory. "We'd stand there, so close to each other, and watch as the sun rose above the distant hills. It was beautiful, the hues and colors. I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life."

The Mord'Sith shifted, looking down, after shyly. "I became quite fond of sunrises. It soothed me, reminded me that there was still beautiful things even when the world seemed to be falling in to darkness, that there was still light. It was then, on one of those morning, that Benjamin held me close and told me he loved me."

Cara sniffled and tugged the cloaks tighter around her shivering frame. "No one has ever told me that before, at least not in the way Benjamin did, and meant it… really meant it with all his heart and soul," she admitted softly, almost timid and shy. Richard's heart ached for her lonely life. He was beyond pleased that she had found Benjamin Meiffert. She deserved to have happiness after all the suffering she'd been through. "I… I think I found that even more beautiful than the sunrise."

Reaching up with a gloved hand, she wiped a stray tear away. "Don't you dare tell him I told you that," she gave him a little glare.

Richard chuckled softly, looking over his shoulder at his friend as he smiled warmly at her, giving a soft nod that her secret was safe with him. Cara was still bundled up tightly in blankets and fur cloaks. Last night had been exceedingly chilly and all three of them had been force to cuddle up for warmth—Cara in the middle, much to her chagrin. He laughed softly as he remembered the scene from the previous night.

Cadelf just finished poking the fire embers to a nice burn and was snuggling in alongside the Mord'Sith, scooting closer to her body for more warmth. There was a half-second of silence, before Cara let out a shrill yelp.

"Hey, old man, no funny business!" she snapped at the monk, whose arms had suddenly snaked around her middle.

"It's just for warmth, Madam Mord'Sith," Cadelf calmly replied, a grin on his weathered face. "Believe me, I take no pleasure from being this close to you."

"What's that supposed to mean!?" Cara questioned, sounding affronted.

"I meant no offense, Madam," Brother Cadelf chuckled, finding the whole situation highly amusing. "You're quite the specimen of womanhood, you know."

"Oh… Thanks, I guess. Then… I… wait a second!" Cara tilted her head. "Just a friendly reminder, Monk, I know seven different ways of making you writhe in agony with just my pinkie finger."

"No need for threats, Madam," Cadelf replied cheerfully.

"And stop calling me 'madam'," the Mord'Sith huffed before turning her head away from the monk and snuggling further into the blankets surrounding them. "And you… don't say a thing!" she added before Richard could say anything, his eyes gleaming with amusement.

"What are you smiling at?" Cara asked, noticing his bemused expression and pursed lips.

"Nothing," Richard replied, smirking at her, his eyes twinkling. "Just thinking."

"Well stop it, it's annoying me," came Cara's retort, but it lack any bite to it.

He gave her a wiry grin, but inclined his head. Cadelf came up behind them, huffing and puffing, using a thick branch for assistance. The mountain hiking had started to affect him more than he was letting on. His ice-blue eyes scan the vista beyond the cliff edge.

"We're almost there," he asserted, confident and sure.

"You think?" Cara questioned, uncertain, leaning slightly to the side, as if trying to avoid any contact with the monk.

"Positive," Cadelf jut out his jaw and stared down at the valley.

Richard shifted his feet and tugged his cloak tighter around his frame. The sword at his hip was cool and solid. Ever since they made their way past Agaden Reach, there was a troubling feeling in the pit of his stomach. It wasn't from something he ate, as far as he knew. It was more of an ominous feeling that something was wrong, that something bad was going to happen.

Cadelf snorted, calling Richard back to the present. He glanced over to see Cara shaking her head, a wisp of a smirk on her pouty red lips. They must have been playfully bickering while he'd been lost in thought. Richard pushed the cloak away from his side, and adjusted his hand to rest it on the hilt of the Sword of Truth.

"Let's break camp and get a move on," he told them. "I want to get this over with as soon as possible."

He turned his gaze back to the valley below. The trees were tall and old. But there, in the distance, was a large rock face sticking up out of the pines and firs. The stone was the blackest black he'd ever seen, almost obsidian, but lacking that sheen and shine. It stood there, foreboding and menacing. And he knew it. Knew that that was where they must go—the corporeal home of the Chimes of Death.

Otherwise known as… the Ovens.