Undone

KAHLAN: [The Spell of Undoing] will undo all the Mord'Sith magic that was ever done to [Dahlia].

When I first saw her, I thought she was no more than one of Richard's typical damsels in distress.

Her first words did nothing to dispel my judgment: "Seeker! Please, you have to help us!"

Us—I looked quickly around for danger, but the young woman's only companion was a small boy, about seven years old, who looked torn between fright and disapproval.

My breath caught, because I recognized that face. The boy had hair so blonde as to be almost white, and eyes a pale green I'd seen plenty of times in a mirror—but his face was an almost exact replica of his father's, down to that contemptuous smirk.

"Sam," I whispered, sure it was he. My son.

He wrinkled his nose. "Do I know you?" he asked.

I was struck dumb, only my training keeping me from revealing my feelings. I shut my eyes and concentrated on everything else—

Richard, comforting the woman—"Of course we'll help. What is it?" At this rate, we would never find the Stone—I knew I shouldn't have said that bit about not stopping to rescue innocent sheep. As though Richard could ever pass up an opportunity to help a poor, defenseless farm animal—

Kahlan, reaching out to my son—"It's all right; we're friends. You're safe now." I wanted to tell her to stop, wanted to pull them apart—my son and Kahlan didn't belong in the same place, in the same part of my life. This was all wrong.

Zedd, concern for me coloring his voice: "Cara?"

At that, my eyes opened. I couldn't avoid this. And yet—I had always denied my hope that Sam, as I named him when I carried him under my heart, had lived. And now he stood before me—unless this was some trick, of the Sisters of the Dark, to distract me from protecting Richard.

"I'm Dahlia, and this is Sam," the damsel in distress was saying. "We need your help."

I blinked—Dahlia was the name of my best friend, once—before I was taken by the Mord'Sith. I used to think about her, in the early days of my training—I thought, if I gave in and died, Mistress Nathair would take my sister instead, and maybe Dahlia too—

Wait—what was Dahlia doing with my son? How could this be happening?

When I looked at her, I saw it was true—there were traces of the girl I remembered. Only traces, though—the lines of her face, an expression maybe. Her hair was long and gorgeously silky, reminding me of Kahlan's; pale eyes, fixed imploringly on Richard's; a good figure, obscured by one of those incurably impractical peasant dresses that Kahlan and my sister Grace, if they had their way, would have me wear; and red, very kissable lips.

I blinked, trying to chase those thoughts out of my head. I've never met a woman yet on this quest who wouldn't pursue Richard with an avidness even Denna would consider shameless; poor man, if he didn't have Kahlan and me to protect him, he'd be married to the first damsel in distress he ever met, and father to a pack of brats by now.

Speaking of which—"What are you doing with my son?" I demanded, snatching Dahlia by the arm. I glared daggers at her, and she glared back—

"What am I doing? What am I doing? How dare you ask me that?" Dahlia yelled. I was surprised—most people are at least a little intimidated by the Mord'Sith. She opened her mouth to scream at me some more, but Richard interrupted:

"You have a son? Why didn't you tell us?"

I didn't look, but I could feel Kahlan's eyes on my back.

"Many Mord'Sith bore children," I defended myself. They didn't have to act like it was such a big deal.

"Not many bore children fathered by Darken Rahl," Dahlia said sharply.

How did she know that? I never told anyone—

"You're not my mother," Sam said then, scowling at me.

My eyes narrowed. I was his mother, whether he liked it or not. "You were taken from me at birth," I informed him coolly. "You were supposed to be trained for the Dragon Corps."

"Well, he wasn't," Dahlia said waspishly. "He would've been—" her hands found Sam's shoulders and squeezed, as if for reassurance; I fought not to snatch her wrists—"well. One of the Mord'Sith took pity on him, and brought him back home to Stowcroft—"

"Stowcroft?" Richard, Kahlan, and Zedd exclaimed at once. Naturally they all remembered our last visit there, when my sister's husband convinced the townspeople to kill me, and Kahlan spared my life. I find it ironic that Travis (Grace's husband) didn't just kill me himself, when he had the chance—how he must regret that now.

"Yes, that's where I live," Dahlia blinked at Richard and Kahlan. "Do you know it?"

"We grew up together—before I was taken," I explained.

"Cara?" Dahlia gasped. She reached for me—I tensed, ready to fight her but worried about hurting Sam—then she hugged me.

When the novelty wore off, it was—not entirely unpleasant.

"Dahlia? Is she really my mother?" Sam demanded, staring at me mistrustfully.

Dahlia sighed, and released me. "Yes," she answered him. "Well, after Miss Cranton—Mistress Nathair—died, the Sisters of the Dark came," she went on, addressing Richard. "They want Sam's blood for some kind of dark ritual. We've been running ever since—they could be right behind us."

At that, Richard, Kahlan, and I all looked instinctively around for the telltale orange robes of Sisters of the Dark, but the forest seemed empty—save for the six of us.

Mistress Nathair—had she saved my son? What did this mean? I never dreamed—Mord'Sith don't do trust, most of the time, anyway. But before I met Richard, I always put my faith in Darken Rahl—he was my Lord, and my everything. Now I wondered whether I had misjudged Mistress Nathair.

"Miss Cranton," said Sam, and then, for the first time, he focused on Kahlan instead of me, Dahlia or Richard. He pointed an accusing finger—"Dahlia, Dahlia, that's the woman who murdered Miss Cranton!"

Kahlan flushed, but I knew she wasn't sorry. Why should she be? She only did her duty.

Sam launched himself at her, his fists swinging—he was only seven, and likely couldn't have hurt her, but I scooped him up into my arms anyway.

"No, put me down!" he screamed, arms and legs hitting me with some force. I ignored him.

"Well," said Zedd, frowning. "What should we do with him? If the Sisters of the Dark tell Rahl who he is, we'll have him on our heels as well."

Richard looked from me, Sam still struggling in my grip, to Dahlia, whose big eyes and trembling lip would've melted a harder heart than Richard's. (Not that it takes much to melt Richard's heart; what with all the rescuing of kittens in trees, he makes protecting him very hard work. It's lucky I enjoy a challenge.)

"We'll have to take them to Dennee," Richard decided. "She'll look after them."

Kahlan's sister was becoming quite the receiver of strays—the woman Lucinda's son, the Listener, and now Dahlia and Sam. I could only hope Sam's resemblance to me would not prejudice Dennee against him.

"Richard, the Stone!" Kahlan protested. "We can't all go."

Sam was struggling less now, but, if he resembled his father at all, that likely only meant he was hatching a scheme for Kahlan's discomfiture; there was no way that she could take him anywhere. And Richard had to find the Stone. I waited for the blow to fall.

"Okay," said Richard. "Zedd, Cara, you take Dahlia and Sam to Dennee; Kahlan and I will keep looking for the Stone of Tears."

"Seeker—" Dahlia started to say, and my heart sank. She was just like all the rest—she didn't believe anyone could protect her from the Sisters of the Dark except Richard.

But then she looked at me, and I saw her reconsider. "Let's go, then," was all she said.

And we went. Richard and Kahlan set off following the compass, and Zedd, Dahlia and I toward Aydindril. Walking, it would take us several days.

When we were sufficiently distant from where we had left Richard and Kahlan (Kahlan would look after Richard, I knew—surely they were a match for anything together), I set Sam down, not relishing the thought of carrying him all the way to Aydindril.

Immediately, he glared at me and hurried to catch up with Dahlia, clinging to her hand. She gave me an apologetic look; all her anger with me seemed to have vanished. If, merely because of a shared childhood, she thought we had a common understanding—

"I'm sorry," Zedd said, falling into step beside me. "This must be hard for you."

"It's nothing," I said, at my coolest. "Mord'Sith don't let emotions rule them."

"He's your son," Zedd pursued. "And I know what it's like to have your child turn to someone else for comfort," he added ruefully.

I assumed he meant Richard's mother, but as she was dead, and he never talked about her, it was hard to imagine why he was bringing her up now.

"I just—" I said, then bit my lip. How could I explain? Should I explain? How could the Wizard possibly understand? "I really believed, when Darken Rahl had Sam taken from me, that he would be raised in the Dragon Corps, and one day he would succeed his father," I whispered, rapidly. "And then when Richard and I were sent to the future—well. Sam did not rule there. There was no word of him—nothing to show he even existed. And I knew he must be dead." I took a shuddering breath. "And now—"

I couldn't go on, and Zedd didn't speak; just gave me one of those sad, knowing looks he usually reserved for Richard and Kahlan, when they were mourning their tragic love, or their dead families, or the fate of all the kittens in the Midlands before Richard was named Seeker.

That night, Dahlia told Sam a nightwisp story. It was one I'd never heard before—all about a brave youth who fought his way to the sleeping princess, through magic brambles and fires and other dangers. I rolled my eyes at the youth's inefficiency, but I don't think Sam saw, thank the Creator.

Anyway, he's a little young to be rescuing sleeping princesses, I think.

I took first watch, and when Sam was asleep and Zedd's snores filled the clearing, Dahlia got up and came to stand beside me.

"I'm sorry I snapped at you before," she said, after a moment.

I turned to stare at her. She seemed perfectly sincere, eyes fixed on mine. But how could she be? As a Mord'Sith, I don't get a lot of apologies. "Why?" I asked.

"I thought you had abandoned Sam," Dahlia explained. "And I just—he's had a hard time."

"I did abandon him," I said. It was true; Dahlia need not know how many sleepless nights I had endured over it. It was my duty; and I could hardly have raised him myself, in a temple, under Lord Rahl's watchful eye; who would I have asked to babysit—Triana? Denna?

"You had no choice," Dahlia said warmly, and I studied her, wondering why she was willing to give me so much benefit of the doubt.

"It was an honor, to be the favorite of Lord Rahl," I said abruptly.

Dahlia reached out and touched my cheek, hesitantly; I almost flinched away, but something in her eyes made me refrain. I couldn't understand why she wasn't more afraid of me.

"I understand," she said. "After you were taken, I thought about you often. And I vowed that when I was grown up, I would stop the Mord'Sith from taking more girls—I would avenge you."

Touched but skeptical, I said practically, "You never would have been able to protect all the girls my Sisters took. You would've done better to have had a normal life, and forgotten about me."

"I tried," Dahlia admitted, "but I couldn't. I teach schoolchildren, you know—or I used to. At first I didn't put it together—you know how all the parents in Stowcroft adored Miss Cranton. But after I started teaching in the same schoolhouse—she never let me teach the younger children. And I remembered how she always used to say you were her best student, and the sweetest child in Creation…and then there was Sam."

We both glanced over to the bedrolls. Asleep, he looked so young. It was hard to believe it had already been seven years. I wanted to go over there and smooth his pale hair from his brow, and pull his blankets more snugly around him so he wouldn't catch a chill, and all the things Kahlan would probably do if she were here.

But he was sleeping; there was no reason to disturb him.

"You should know," Dahlia told me, her voice hard, "that Lord Rahl ordered him to be killed."

My breath caught—this was hardly the first time I'd suspected such a thing, of course, but to have it confirmed hurt. "How—" I asked, then had to take a breath. "How did Sam escape?" I found it impossible that Darken Rahl could have ordered my son's death, and yet here he was, apparently unscathed.

"Miss Cranton—your Mistress Nathair," Dahlia said. "She rescued him—she wrote in her journals that she hoped to use him to challenge Lord Rahl's authority. I suppose she thought their bond of affection would be sufficient to command his loyalty."

"She would've trained him," I stated positively. Mistress Nathair would not rely merely on foolish sentiment—but a Rahl child bound to her, as Denna had tried to bind first Richard and then General Grix in Richard's body—

"Did Sam ever—was he ever hurt?" I asked carefully. "Recently, perhaps—a couple of months ago?"

"Yes, he drowned, but I got to him in time," Dahlia said, surprised. "How did you know?"

So that explained it—when my agiels had gone dead, and I had known Richard's soul was in the Underworld—Kahlan and I had been far too preoccupied with Richard's fate to consider what that really meant: that no other Rahl lived, to inherit the Bond.

I should have known Sam was dead then.

But if it had been only temporary—

"Anyway," Dahlia continued, a little nonplussed, "after Miss Cranton was executed, I found her journals, and I looked after Sam. He was really hurt, I think; she was the closest thing to a mother he's ever really had."

I felt the sting of the reproach, but I knew Dahlia didn't mean to hurt me; she was far more accepting than I deserved.

"You're wrong," I said, hesitantly brushing her arm. "He has you."

Dahlia smiled at me, and it was like the sun peeping out from behind a cloud: light, and unsure, but blinding.

The next morning we had hardly travelled for more than an hour when we were set upon by Sisters of the Dark. At once, Zedd, Dahlia and I formed a protective circle around Sam. My heart was in my throat, because I knew I couldn't expect Dahlia or Sam to have the least idea of how to protect themselves, and the thought of losing what I had only just recovered was unbearable to me.

Normally, I enjoy these fierce battles—there's something thrilling in fighting beside those you know are at least as strong as you. With Richard and Kahlan and Zedd, I can trust they are able to protect themselves, and thus lose myself in the fight a little.

This time, though, my every sense was on alert, as I parried and struck with my agiels. I had just enough of my senses to spare to see that Dahlia, far from being as helpless as I had thought, was brandishing a short dagger, the likes of which Mord'Sith use for cutting meat.

At once, I realized that she must have gotten it from Mistress Nathair's effects—I was impressed by her resourcefulness. Most people wouldn't touch a Mord'Sith's things with a ten foot pole, which was perhaps why no one had disputed Dahlia's claim.

In the ebb and flow of the battle, I was separated from the others, and I fought with reservoirs of strength I didn't know I possessed to win my way to my son's side. A Sister of the Dark loomed above him, her dacra glinting in the sunlight—

I grabbed her by the throat and thrust my agiel against her heart. As she crumpled, I saw that Sam, instead of cowering helplessly, had picked up a rock and stood, terrified but determined, that smirking mouth set.

My heart swelled with pride for his bravery. Someday, he would be a true warrior.

When the Sisters of the Dark were all dead, and Dahlia and I had dragged them into a pile so Zedd could burn their bodies, to guard against them becoming banelings, I strolled over to Sam.

He was staring at his hands. "I was weak," he said, in a small voice.

"I can teach you to fight," I offered. "You need never be at another's mercy again."

He looked up at me and smiled his thanks—I could have said it was my smile, or Darken Rahl's, but the truth was it was Sam's own. It was in that moment that I stopped thinking of Sam as a symbol of my failure, or Darken Rahl's betrayal, or Mistress Nathair's unexpected, double-edged kindness. He was nothing more or less than himself—a person in his own right.

And one I wanted to know. I smiled back.

As we walked on, I told Sam what I knew—the tricks that had saved my life more times than I could count. Zedd and Dahlia were silent, listening, though they pretended not to be. I caught a smile on Zedd's face, and his air of superiority would've annoyed me, if my attention were not focused elsewhere.

Dahlia, though, seemed to be honestly interested in what I had to say; when we stopped for a rest, she demanded I teach her the basics at least. I borrowed her dagger and cut us two long staves to spar with.

Teaching Dahlia was unlike anything I had ever done—it wasn't like sparring with Richard or Kahlan, with whom I frequently practiced. Dahlia was far less experienced than they were, and I held back to avoid hurting her.

When she scored a lucky hit, Sam, watching avidly, gasped and clapped. I lowered my staff. "Good job," I told her.

Dahlia grinned at me. "I'm learning from the best," she said modestly.

Hardly had she finished speaking when banelings surrounded us—I drew my agiels, and, as I fought, I heard the steady thwack of Dahlia's staff against the banelings' dead flesh.

The real shock came when I looked to my other side and saw Sam, having picked up my discarded staff, fighting too. He looked so determined—and he was holding his own at least. I was so proud.

After Zedd burned the banelings' bodies as well, we kept going; Zedd drew Dahlia into talk about her work as a schoolteacher, tactfully leaving me alone with Sam.

"Mother?" he asked, hesitantly, as though he was unused to the word.

"Yes?" I replied calmly. The title made my heart race, for I had never thought to hear it.

"What was my father like?" Sam asked, in a rush. "Why did he leave before I was born? Why didn't you come find me? Why are you friends with the woman who murdered Miss Cranton? Why do the women in orange and the weird sick people keep attacking us? Why is this happening to me?"

"Relax," I ordered, recognizing the panicky note in his voice. "What did Miss Cranton tell you about…about your father and me?"

"Why do you want to know?" Sam demanded stubbornly.

"Miss Cranton taught me—almost everything I know," I said quietly. "I hope you learned from her as well."

"Well, I did," Sam said defiantly. "She told me you were dead, and that my father left us before I was born. Your last wish was that I be named Sam."

"In a way, she was right," I said thoughtfully, my mind on that time. I had never mentioned my hopes that my child would be a boy, and that I had named him Sam, while I was pregnant; but I might easily have done so in the chaos of giving birth, and its immediate aftermath: I was not even allowed to hold Sam in my arms before he was taken from me. As for my death—that did not send me to the Underworld, but I've certainly been there often enough.

I took a breath, and decided to start with the easy stuff. "The women in orange are the Sisters of the Dark; the others are banelings. They're servants of the Keeper, who's trying to destroy all life."

"All life?" Sam asked nervously. "Even birds and pine-trees, and stuff?"

"Yes." I saw he looked scared, and scrambled to elaborate. "But you don't have to worry," I said gruffly. "Richard, Kahlan, Zedd, and I are working to stop Him."

"Can I help?" asked Sam.

I was touched, but I thought it best to quash that ambition—no matter how good with a quarterstaff he was fast becoming, I wouldn't take the risk of Sam getting hurt. "No," I said shortly. Too late, I realized I should have been more tactful. A miniature Kahlan glared disapprovingly at me in my mind's eye.

Sam scowled. "Fine," he said crossly. He sped up, walking in front of me, catching up to Dahlia and Zedd.

I watched Dahlia take Sam's hand. I knew I should feel grateful, that my answers to Sam's questions about his father were postponed for some future date, but I couldn't help a pang of remorse, that Sam was unhappy with me.

Ridiculous—when did my mental state become dependent upon the smiles or frowns of a seven-year-old?

"Welcome, Zedd—and everyone," Dennee said warmly, her smile somehow managing to include Zedd, Dahlia and Sam but exclude me.

I smiled tightly; we'd finally reached Aydindril, but my difficulties were just beginning.

"Hi, I'm Renn," the Listener said brightly, popping up beside Dennee. His eyes were fixed on Sam, and I realized he must be starved for the companionship of his peers.

"Sam," he introduced himself. My son glanced up at Dahlia, for permission; she nodded, and he and Renn disappeared into the warren that is the Confessors' Palace.

Logically, I knew the place was secure; nonetheless, my fingers brushed my agiels, a part of me longing for the simplicity of what my life used to be.

I looked up and caught Dennee giving me a sharp look; prudently, I tucked my hands behind my back.

Over dinner (which was excruciatingly long), Zedd told Dennee all about Dahlia and Sam needing shelter, and asked all about Dennee's progress restoring the rule of law in the war-torn Midlands.

Dennee was scrupulously polite, and I realized she was trying to show me up—the barbarian Mord'Sith. Unhappily for her, I can read and write, I know a little about both history and law, and I can tell a salad fork from a dessert fork. Darken Rahl didn't entertain in a formal style very often, but when he did, the place settings were more than our lives' worth.

At last, it was over, and we could retire to our rooms. I shut the door and leaned against it, alone at last. I had no right to be angry—of course, I knew that. Dennee had spared my life, after I had destroyed hers—I could hardly blame her for a few icy stares.

Still, my fingers curled, pressing hard against the wood of the door. I was wrong to let it get to me. If I felt like a prisoner let out on the promise of good behavior, so be it—that was what I was. I knew Dennee only tolerated me because of Kahlan.

I drew a ragged breath, and then there was a knock on the door.

Startled, I drew back and opened it. Dahlia stood framed in the doorway, her hair gently curling its way down her shoulders, a faint smile on her lips but a worried frown between her brows.

"Can I come in?" she asked, and strode forward without waiting for my permission. I raised my eyebrows, and shut the door, having no desire to see Dennee again tonight.

"I put Sam to bed," Dahlia said, and instantly I was filled with remorse. I hadn't even thought of that. Sam was lucky he hardly knew me: I would be—was!—a terrible mother to him.

"Good, that's good," I said, running a hand through my shorn hair. At first I'd hated what I saw as a mark of my dishonor, but, seeing how good loose hair looked on Kahlan and Dahlia, I was warming to it, despite the inconvenience of constantly having to flip it out of my face…

Dahlia sat on the bed and looked at me seriously, demanding my attention. I forced my muscles to relax, not knowing why I felt so nervous. An attractive woman in my bedchamber…it wasn't like it had never happened before.

"So what was that all about, at dinner?" Dahlia asked. "Dennee really doesn't seem to like you."

"She has her reasons," I said shortly. Dahlia raised her eyebrows. I went on: "If you must know, I killed her."

Dahlia looked skeptical. "She seemed fine," she protested.

"It's a long story," I said, giving in and sitting on the bed beside her. "I led the squad Lord Rahl sent after her and her son; she drowned him rather than let Darken Rahl use him. One of my Sisters, knowing what had happened, brought her spirit back to the Land of the Living so she could have her revenge, and my Sister could keep me from protecting Richard. Kahlan stopped it. She's the only reason Dennee hasn't already Confessed me."

I couldn't bear to see Dahlia's reaction to my story. How could she even begin to understand what I'd done? What a monster I was? By some miracle, my son was returned to me—just knowing he lived gave me more strength even than Richard, Kahlan, and Zedd's faith in me.

But I had murdered Dennee's son. It didn't matter that he was a male Confessor, and I had seen the destruction they could do, in that alternate future; it didn't matter that I had not struck the blow myself. I had done it.

Now that I thought about it, I couldn't understand Dennee's restraint: in her place, I would have dismembered me.

"I'm glad she didn't Confess you," Dahlia said softly, reaching out to gently stroke my back.

"Why are you so kind to me?" I asked, still not looking at her. "I'm the sort of person your parents warned you to stay away from."

"Look at me," Dahlia commanded, gripping my chin and turning my face toward hers. It was at once reminiscent of Darken Rahl's hand on my cheek, and completely different. "You are not a monster, Cara Mason. When we were children, you protected me—you're the reason the Mord'Sith didn't take me. Do you remember that wayward pine? And now you're still so strong, in spite of all you've been through—"

"Exactly," I said harshly, grabbing her shoulders. "I'm strong—that's all I am! I fight, I kill—I don't love."

I had no idea why I was telling her all this. Yet somehow—perhaps because of our shared childhood—I felt connected to her in a way that I didn't to anyone else, not even Richard.

"That's a Keeper-cursed lie," Dahlia said quietly, and the repressed violence in her tone chilled and delighted me. "If you dare tell me you don't love Sam, after I've seen you—I swear to the Creator I will s—"

But she didn't go on; I interrupted her, quite efficiently, with a ruthless kiss. All my doubts seemed to fade away when I felt her response quiver through her—I deepened the kiss, ignoring the soft sting of tears in the back of my throat in the hope they would go away—Dahlia tasted like spun sugar—

When we broke apart for air, I didn't let go of her. Anxiously, I searched her face—was this too much? Normally I would only rely on her physical response, trusting my abilities in that area. But this wasn't some tavern wench—Dahlia was…Dahlia. My…friend? Love? The mother of my son, for all practical purposes?

"Do you…want me to stop?" I asked huskily, forcing myself to ease back a little.

"No," Dahlia said, shock lacing her voice at the mere suggestion. She reached behind my head to pull me closer. "Don't stop…"

I didn't.

The next morning, I woke early, with a strange feeling of wellbeing and…completeness. I don't believe in soulmates, Richard and Kahlan aside, but that was what it was like.

I stretched, got up carefully without waking Dahlia, and got dressed. A ray of sunlight came in through my window and fell across her sleeping form. She was so beautiful, it broke my heart.

She stirred when the sunlight touched her face; I waited, leaning, would-be casually, against the wall.

"Good morning," she smiled; then she saw my leathers, my stance by the door, and frowned. "Where are you going?"

"Zedd and I have to get back to Richard and Kahlan," I explained.

"Or…" Dahlia said, eyelashes fluttering downward. She pointed her toes, and I watched her foot make a graceful arc, sweeping out from underneath the blanket. "You could stay here. With me. And Sam. We could raise him together."

Here they were—all the things we hadn't said last night. I took a breath, not sure how to answer. I loved Sam. And Dahlia—what was between us. I longed to explore it.

But it would be an act of ultimate selfishness to choose a happy life in ignorance, knowing that so doing might well doom the entire world—might mean Sam never got to grow up and finally learn the truth about his father, get himself into trouble rescuing princesses, become a great warrior, fall in love…

Children might or might not be a blessing, but to create them and then fail them was surely damnation. I would never let the Keeper deny my son the chance to live. And love.

"No," I said firmly. "I have to help Richard save the world." It sounded dramatic—I knew it for plain fact. Heroes like Richard come with the Creator's blessing, or should (I must say I didn't think much of Her), and he'll do the actual world saving, I guarantee. But getting him there in one piece is my job.

"Sorry if I distracted you," Dahlia said stiffly, cheeks flushing with a hurt I couldn't entirely chase away.

"Don't be," I told her, grasping her chin and meeting her eyes. I couldn't give her all she wanted, couldn't make promises I might not be able to keep—to die protecting Richard would be an honor. But if the timing were different…

No. Good things never come when you have time to appreciate them. I pushed away my doubts, and tried to convey to Dahlia all I couldn't say—our lips met in a gentle kiss. I playfully nipped her bottom lip before we pulled apart.

She met my eyes, and I wondered what she saw therein. "You give me something to fight for," I told her, softly. It was the best I could do—the most I could give, in that moment.

Dahlia sighed, and nodded. I cherished hopes that she understood me.

Sam did not cry at our departure—not that I expected him to. He had only just met me, really. How could he trust I would ever return? I had done less for him than Mistress Nathair had—a fact that filled me with shame.

Dennee smiled sincerely at me for the first time, glad I was leaving. It must just curdle her blood to know how close Kahlan and I are.

Dahlia pulled Sam up into her arms, and they both watched as Zedd and I left. Neither waved. I made myself limit my looks behind to a reasonable three.

"You'll be back," Zedd observed, once we were out of sight. It wasn't a question.

"How do you know?" I asked petulantly. Too late, I realized I sounded like a spoiled child.

"When you reach my age, my dear, you won't have to ask," Zedd said drily.

There's not much else to tell—Zedd and I ran smack into the very person who had the one thing we needed to contact Richard and Kahlan in the Creator's Valley—a ring, with a duplicate. It sounded complex.

Zedd summoned the Stone through the impassable barrier, Richard and Kahlan were suddenly able to return to us (the Compass worked again). I was surprised they'd actually managed to find the Stone without further detours to help innocent kittens, but refrained from saying as much; there wasn't much time.

We kept going. We were attacked by banelings once we reached the desert, finally closing in on the Pillars of Creation.

I had just killed the last of them when Zedd called, over the rise, "Cara! Where's Cara?"

As I came into sight, he almost seemed to weep with relief.

"It takes more than a few banelings to kill me," I told him acidly. I was touched that he cared, really, but his solicitude, in light of the fact that we had hardly been out of one another's company in the past week (except for when he kindly left me alone with my son and my…whatever Dahlia was to me), seemed a trifle overdone.

Thoughts of Dahlia and Sam—my family?—made my head swim, and I had to remind myself that we had a mission.

Ever since the Creator's Valley, Richard and Kahlan had been making even more googly eyes at one another than usual. If someone didn't stay on task, we would never reach the Pillars of Creation.

And I had two new, excellent reasons to ensure the world saw another summer.