The Grand Tour
"One travels the world over in search of what one needs and returns home to find it."
Kahlan sat up in bed and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, anticipating another dull day full of holding court, hearing petitioners, and working on the new, revised Code of Aydindril. The old one was hopelessly outdated.
Beside her, Cara stirred. Kahlan smiled, and dropped a gentle kiss on the Mord'Sith's bare shoulder. On her other side there was only an empty space—Richard was already up. It really was lucky that the Mother Confessor's bed was so big; there was room for all three of them.
"Good morning," Kahlan said brightly, as Cara sat up.
"What are you so happy about?" Cara muttered. She was so cranky in the mornings.
Kahlan crawled over Richard's side of the bed and stood, walking over to the window and pulling back the curtains. "It's a beautiful day," she said. "Birds chirping, sun shining…"
"People in the streets looking up and getting a glimpse of a naked Mother Confessor," Cara teased, pushing her tangled hair out of her eyes and reaching for her leathers.
Kahlan flushed, and picked up her shift from its heap on the floor. Seeing it there reminded her of how Richard had practically torn it off her last night, and she blushed even more.
"Wait," Cara said suddenly. She had already buckled herself into her leathers, save for her gloves and boots (Kahlan had a smile for the incongruous vulnerability of Cara's bare feet), and now she paused with one hand inches from the bedside table. "Where're my—"
Kahlan raised her eyebrows, but before she could speak, the door opened to reveal Richard, looking wild around the eyes.
"The Sword of Truth!" he exclaimed. "It's gone!"
"So are my agiels," Cara said grimly. "Someone is going to pay for this."
Kahlan picked up her white Confessor gown, absently smoothing its creases, and then ran her hand across the mantel. Nothing. Her daggers were gone, too. But there was something—
"A note," Kahlan said, unfolding it. "'Since your return to Aydindril,'" she read aloud, "'you have become lazy and your skills have begun to suffer.'"
"How dare—" Cara began furiously, but Richard held up a hand for silence.
"Let Kahlan finish."
"'If you want your weapons back, you'll have to use your brains, work together and travel the Midlands. From here, your first location can be found in this first clue: In a place that never stays the same, I hide in a garden surrounded by stone.' A place that never stays the same…" Kahlan mused, frowning. "Where could that be?"
"You can't mean you plan to accede to these arbitrary instructions," Cara protested. "We don't have time for this—the Mother Confessor, at least, has a country to run."
Richard frowned. "Cara, we've talked about this. I am not going to take the throne of D'Hara unless I have to. If I stay out of their way, maybe the D'Harans can elect a Council, like we had in Westland."
Cara rolled her eyes, and Kahlan sighed. They'd had this quarrel so many times.
"D'Hara isn't going anywhere," Kahlan said firmly. "But it looks like we are. My daggers and the sapphire necklace my father returned to me are the only things I have left of my mother. And the Seeker needs the Sword of Truth."
"And what would we do without my agiels?" Cara murmured, smirking at Kahlan.
Kahlan blushed again.
Richard, meanwhile, had taken the note and was scrutinizing it closely, as though the clue were hidden behind the words—maybe some sort of code? If anyone could decipher it, it would be the Seeker of Truth.
"Of course!" he said at length. Kahlan looked up from lacing the bodice of her Confessor gown inquiringly.
"Cara, it looks like you were right," Richard said. "The garden of life—that's in the People's Palace. And that's where we're going."
It was strange, sleeping outdoors again—Kahlan missed her bed, with Richard and Cara on either side of her, keeping her warm and safe.
At least she had left Aydindril in Dennee's capable hands, with Zedd to advise her. The people had protested the Mother Confessor's departure, not understanding why it was necessary—not that Kahlan understood, herself. Taking their weapons and leaving them riddles hardly seemed the action of an enemy—anyone who got close enough to steal Kahlan's daggers could have killed her easily. Why send the three of them off on a silly side-quest?
Unless someone wanted them out of Aydindril—was Rahl attacking at last?
Cara sighed, and pushed herself onto her elbow. Richard was keeping watch a few steps away, while Kahlan and Cara cuddled under a blanket. Richard had been quite stern about how much they needed sleep, but Kahlan knew that, like her, he wanted nothing more than to forget this quest and find an inn and…
Now that they knew love protected one's soul from Confession, Kahlan was finally free to be with those she loved in the most intimate of ways. She had been afraid of Confessing Cara at first—it was Richard who had explained, quite simply, that Cara obviously loved Kahlan just as much as he did, for all she tried to hide it.
Whereupon Cara had punched him, and before Kahlan knew it they were rolling around on the ground, Cara fighting for her dignity, and Richard for the truth.
The kiss had seemed inevitable—Cara was on top, glaring fiercely, and Richard was just looking at her, in that way he had where it seemed he could read your soul…and then Kahlan had said in her best Mother Confessor tone, her hands on her hips, "Starting without me?" and Cara pulled her down beside Richard and showed her just how much she loved them both.
Kahlan smiled at the memory, and resolutely closed her eyes.
"You," Cara muttered, for Kahlan's ears alone, "are a cruel Mistress."
But Kahlan refused to back down. Richard was right, and she was starting to be afraid that their unknown thief was right, too. She was too distracted—and if someone could walk into her bedroom and steal her daggers without so much as disturbing her rest, how was she going to protect the baby?
Kahlan had never been happier, the day she realized she carried Richard's child. Her pregnancy was still too early to show, but she hoarded the knowledge like a Creatormas bauble, source of their secret joy.
Kahlan wasn't smiling by the time they finally got to the People's Palace. "I think I must be out of shape," she said, getting her breathing back under control with an effort. "Maybe our thief was right."
"You're with child," Cara excused.
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Richard said, at precisely the same moment.
The two of them looked over at one another and laughed, but Kahlan frowned up at the People's Palace. This place was evil; she could feel it. (Worse, it was grander than the Confessors' Palace in Aydindril—it had an actual moat.)
Soldiers surrounded them—Kahlan reached for her daggers, before remembering she was without them, but the soldiers didn't seem to be attacking; instead, they saluted Richard, hands over their hearts, and their leader stepped forward.
"Lady Rahl has ordered that Lord Richard Rahl and his companions be treated with every courtesy," he said. "Please, follow me."
Richard, Kahlan and Cara exchanged bewildered looks. Lady Rahl?
They followed the soldier, who introduced himself as Lieutenant Meiffert, to the throne room, Kahlan growing more apprehensive with every step. She had known, of course, that Richard's plan of D'Hara electing a Council like they had in Westland was a fantasy, but had vaguely assumed Richard would take the throne when he was ready. The Mother Confessor would be pleased to add D'Hara to her unofficial empire, after all. The child she carried would one day unite all three territories, Kahlan hoped.
But first, they would have to deal with this usurper.
"Why don't I just go to the Garden of Life and find the next 'clue'?" Cara whispered to Richard.
But before Richard could answer, Lieutenant Meiffert threw open the doors and announced, "Lord Richard Rahl, the Seeker of Truth; Kahlan Amnell, the Mother Confessor; Mistress Cara of the Mord'Sith."
Curled together on the throne of D'Hara were two women, one a petite redhead in a blood red gown that clashed horribly with her hair, the other a blonde dressed in full Mord'Sith leathers. They were kissing.
Kahlan's breath caught in shocked recognition—
"Jennsen?" Richard asked in disbelief.
Jennsen pulled away from the Mord'Sith—Denna, of course, Kahlan thought in bemusement, it would have to be Denna—and smiled at Richard, hopping off the throne and coming toward them with her hands outstretched in welcome.
"I've been waiting for you," Jennsen said. "I presume you're here to make a formal alliance between the Midlands and D'Hara—oh, you remember Denna, of course; she's my most loyal support. And she's reformed now." Jennsen pulled Denna's arm through hers; Denna smirked at Richard.
"How? What? How?" Richard asked, still horrified.
"But you're Pristinely Ungifted," Cara protested reasonably. "You can't rule D'Hara without the Bond."
"Is that really the issue?" Richard muttered savagely.
"Unless that was more of Darken Rahl's propaganda," Kahlan mused. The whole situation had a certain humorous element, though she quite understood why Richard didn't see it that way.
Reflexively, Kahlan's hand spread over her still flat stomach, as though to protect the child growing within her from Denna. She wouldn't put it past the Mord'Sith to kidnap the child, in the hopes of using her Rahl blood to legitimize Denna's rule, as she had tried to do with Richard.
Kahlan did not believe for a moment that it was Denna who was subordinate to Jennsen here. (She dismissed 'reformed' without even considering it.) How could it be? Richard's sister was so utterly helpless.
"I manage," Jennsen said sunnily.
Richard was looking murderous, and Kahlan knew that, had he still had the Sword of Truth, he would already have struck at Denna.
She placed a gentle hand on his arm. "We only came because we are on a…quest, that requires we go to the Garden of Life," Kahlan said calmly. "Then we'll be on our way."
"It would be a pity if the Seeker were kept from his quest," Denna agreed smoothly.
Cara glared suspiciously at her.
Jennsen clasped Richard's hands in her own. "Do come back for a proper visit soon," she begged. "We'd be delighted—wouldn't we, Denna?"
Denna inclined her head graciously, and Kahlan stared in bewilderment at Jennsen; surely she hadn't always had that nearly forceful tone?
Richard walked stiffly to the door, and somehow the three of them made it to the Garden of Life.
With a sigh, Kahlan sank down on a stone bench, unconsciously responding to the beauty of the garden—it was nice to be in the shade, and the roses were truly lovely…
"Another clue," Richard said, still scowling. "Something about friends and enemies…"
"This is ridiculous," Cara grumbled, but went to help Richard solve the riddle.
Kahlan didn't look up until they told her their next destination—Tamarang.
She didn't know where her energy was going—she never used to have so much trouble with a simple trek through, as Cara put it, half the Midlands. All those months of questing, following the compass with Richard and Cara and Zedd…a custom more observed in the breach, of course, given Richard's propensity for helping every chance met stranger.
This time, thank the Creator, fewer people seemed to need their help. Kahlan began cautiously to hope that peace, even an unorthodox one in which Jennsen called herself Lady Rahl, was at last going to be granted to the war-torn territories.
Then they were attacked, just outside the gates of Tamarang.
Kahlan had never mourned the loss of her daggers more.
"I can't believe," Cara said, as she methodically beat several attackers into unconsciousness, "that I didn't insist we take some sort of weapons with us on this absurd journey. You two have made me soft."
Richard, however, had by this time uprooted a small tree with his bare hands, and was now using it as a quarterstaff. Kahlan thrilled at this show of strength, even as she fought to get a hand around the throat of one of her opponents.
"Command me, Confessor," he said, when she had a grip on him at last.
Kahlan darted a quick glance around, but Richard and Cara were each surrounded by small heaps of bodies, and Cara was going through their weapons, choosing the best.
"Who are you, and why did you attack us?" Kahlan asked, grimly ignoring a wave of dizziness and nausea. Her power didn't usually take her this way.
"We are many," the man said. "We are legion. We have been sent to eradicate all magic from the world, because the gods demand it. We are the Blood of the Fold."
Kahlan frowned. "The Blood of the Fold?"
"What god would demand the death of magic?" Cara asked contemptuously. "Might find a dearth of worshippers before too long."
"On the contrary," drawled Darken Rahl, stepping out of the gates. He was trailed by several Mord'Sith, who glared disapprovingly at Cara. Instantly, he dominated the scene.
Kahlan sank to her knees, hating the thought that this might be perceived as deference, but her body giving her no choice. She really wasn't feeling well.
"How many people can say they have suffered because of magic? How many have you Confessed?" he asked Kahlan. She mustered enough energy to glare at him.
"What are you doing here, Rahl?" Richard demanded, one hand going to where the Sword of Truth would have been, had it not been stolen.
"I might ask you the same question," he replied easily. "But there may not be much time—I recommend we continue this…edifying discussion in the Palace."
Kahlan caught the scent of blood on the air, and could hold back no longer. She staggered to her feet, with the vague idea of being sick all over Rahl's shoes, but he forestalled her, stepping behind her and pulling back her hair just in time.
"Kahlan!" Richard exclaimed. "Get your hands off her!" he demanded.
Kahlan heard Rahl say sardonically, "that would be impractical," and tried not to listen.
She stood, still shaky, and leaned on Cara's hastily proffered arm.
"Is the Mother Confessor ill?" Rahl inquired solicitously.
"Not ill; it's only that the sight of you makes me sick," Kahlan returned.
But when Rahl handed her a handkerchief, she dabbed delicately at her mouth, hating to be so beholden to him.
"Morning sickness," Richard explained curtly.
Rahl's eyes dropped to Kahlan's stomach. "Ah, congratulations," he said.
Kahlan watched him, remembering how he'd held her hair, remembering that he was Richard's brother, and hating that she couldn't entirely hate him anymore.
"Let's just get this over with," Cara said, and the four of them walked slowly up to the Palace, still trailed by more silent Mord'Sith.
"Whatever happened to Princess Violet, anyway?" Richard asked, that night at dinner. Rahl had asked them to stay, claiming he had important matters to discuss with the Seeker; they had retrieved the next clue, and Kahlan and Cara were puzzling over it together.
"I sent her to the Mines of Molgoth," Rahl replied. "I assume she's still there, but I really couldn't say. Speaking of disappearing people, you haven't come across a certain sorceress, have you…?"
"No, but listen: did you know that Jennsen and Denna…"
"What is that supposed to be?" Cara whispered.
"A harp," Kahlan decided, after some thought.
"Not singing," Cara begged, rolling her eyes at the very thought. "This isn't a joke, you know."
"No," Kahlan agreed. "It really isn't."
Their thief might have neglected to kill them, but it was obvious that could easily turn out to be unnecessary; who knew how many of these clues there were? And into what dangers they might next be forced to walk?
But they were on the road again the next morning, Kahlan covertly relieved Rahl had permitted them to leave. Not that she wouldn't have fought for their freedom with her last breath, but she had more important things to do than battle Rahl, again.
Starting with recovering her daggers, the Sword of Truth, and Cara's agiels. And then they were going back to Aydindril and finding the thief; Kahlan was coming around to Cara's view about punishment, too.
The Blood of the Fold could have killed them, after all.
"How are we going to get past the Boundary?" Richard worried, but when they arrived at the magical barrier between the Midlands and Richard's home of Hartland, Kahlan was surprised to find that there was an arched pathway.
"Did Rahl do this?" she asked uncertainly.
"I suppose we'd better find out," Richard said, leading the way through the passage.
The nebulous green mass surrounded them on all sides, and Kahlan, despite having made this trip several times, linked her arm through Cara's and pulled the other woman close.
"Does Rahl really want an alliance?" she asked, to distract herself from the eerie atmosphere. She felt as though the Keeper were pressing close, all around them, His malevolence making her shiver.
"Who knows?" Cara shrugged. "He must be itching to get the Bond back—I was more than half expecting he'd try to steal Richard's body, but it looks like he's going for the subtle approach."
Kahlan frowned in agreement. If only Rahl were their greatest problem.
"Chase!" Richard exclaimed happily, when they finally made it through the Boundary and ran into Richard's old friend almost immediately. "You made it home—how are Emma and the kids?"
"All well, thank the Spirits," Chase smiled. "And what of you—last I heard you'd killed Darken Rahl, but you never came back to Hartland. Where have you been?"
Richard shrugged. "It's a long story—the world was nearly destroyed and everything," he said, a little awkwardly.
"Emma would be furious with me if I didn't bring you home to dinner," Chase said heartily. "You, and Kahlan, and…?"
"Oh, this is Cara," Richard introduced, pulling the Mord'Sith forward. Kahlan hung back, unsure of herself. She remembered how little cause Richard's friends had had to love her—although she welcomed the chance to see Emma again.
"Cara, this is Chase Brandstone, an old friend. Taught me everything I know about tracking," Richard said.
Cara nodded warily in acknowledgement, and Chase, after an unsettled glance at her leathers, resumed reminiscing with Richard, all the way back to his house.
"Oh, honey, you look exhausted," Emma said as soon as she saw Kahlan. "Let's get you inside, you can have a lie-down before dinner…"
Kahlan acquiesced gratefully, repulsing a vague offer to accompany her from Cara, and as soon as they were out of the others' hearing, Emma asked, "How far along are you, sweeting?"
"A few weeks," Kahlan replied, concealing her surprise. But then, Emma and Chase had many children, all as kind and good as their parents. Emma must have plenty of experience.
"I'm so glad you and Richard found a way to be together," Emma said, as she sat Kahlan down on the bed. "The both of you have been in my prayers."
"Thank you, that's very kind."
"Who's your friend? The blonde. She looks a lot like those nasty Mord'Sith," Emma probed gently.
"She is, but she's not like them," Kahlan explained as best she could. "Cara is…my dearest friend. She saved our lives, over and over…" her eyes drifted closed, and she curled up on the bed. "We owe her everything."
Kahlan woke, reasonably refreshed from her nap, in time for dinner. She had been looking forward to it, but Chase had invited Anna, Richard's first love. Instantly, Kahlan's spine stiffened.
She knew Richard loved her, knew that Anna meant little to him now, save as a link to his past, but she was on her guard anyway. When last she'd seen the woman, Kahlan had thought her and Richard's love impossible. Now, it was a different story, and she would meet any attack on her happiness without mercy.
"So," Chase asked, after a slightly uneasy silence during which Kahlan and Anna glared covertly at one another, and Cara watched in unreadable silence, "tell us how you finally defeated that monster Darken Rahl, Richard."
Richard looked uncomfortable. "I didn't, not exactly," he muttered. "What happened was, Rahl was trying to get the Boxes of Orden, but I got them first and Kahlan and I had this whole plan where she would Confess me while I put them together, and the two sets of powerful magic would sort of cancel one another out, but then Rahl found us, and there was this big magical explosion, and Cara and I were thrown fifty-eight years into the future….we got back, though, and then Rahl sort of fell on the Boxes with my Sword, which destroyed them and tore a rift in the Veil to the Underworld, and Kahlan and Cara and Zedd and I had to find the Stone of Tears in order to repair it…anyway, all fixed now. No more banelings, no more apocalypse, everything's fine."
There was a moment of stunned silence, as Anna, Chase and Emma, and their children tried to assimilate this.
Kahlan glanced from Richard's flushed face to Cara, whose eyes were dancing with laughter.
It did sound a little ridiculous, Kahlan was forced to admit…mostly, she was just glad Richard had skated over the bit where she'd married Rahl in that one alternate reality. Some things were too disturbing to contemplate.
"So…you didn't kill Darken Rahl? He's still out there?" one of the daughters—Linda, Kahlan thought—asked fearfully.
Richard looked even more uncomfortable. "Well, yes. But he's reformed now! Sort of."
"I hear you and Kahlan found a way around your…problem," Anna said brightly, after another awkward pause. "Congratulations—I'm sure the wedding was lovely."
It had been, Kahlan thought, if a little rushed. But then, neither she nor Richard had wanted to wait. She was still trying to talk Cara into some sort of similar ceremony—she regretted that they hadn't invited the Mord'Sith to join in their vows at the time, but was forced to admit Zedd had a point when he said the people of the Midlands might have a few more objections to the Mother Confessor marrying a Mord'Sith than they had to her marriage to the Seeker of Truth.
"Thank you," Richard seized on this topic. "Kahlan's home is just beautiful—you have to come visit. Aydindril is a lot like Ygritte's Hill, really, very historical and fascinating—"
Under cover of Richard's babbling, Cara put her hand on Kahlan's knee and whispered, "How much do you wish we'd found an inn right now?"
"Be fair," Kahlan whispered back. "This is Richard's home—these are his people, closer than you and I can ever be. He grew up with them."
"Including the brunette? That dress is cut even lower than yours," Cara mused.
Kahlan was filled with new terror—"You don't think she's prettier than me—" Did she have to guard Cara against Anna, too?
"Impossible," Cara said flatly. "You are without equal."
Kahlan glowed, because Cara never spoke idle praise.
She finally felt comfortable enough to refer to the real purpose of their visit. "Where do you think the thief hid the next clue? It seems too much to expect that our weapons will actually be here."
Cara frowned thoughtfully, but before she could speak, Linda (Lydia? Liana?) asked, "Richard, if you and Kahlan are married, why is she holding hands with that creepy woman in leather?"
Richard broke off mid-sentence, finding Kahlan's eyes and looking apologetic.
She raised her eyebrows in question. Richard had nothing to apologize for—why was he on edge?
"Actually, Cara's a very…close friend to us both," Richard explained.
"What, you mean like maid-of-honor stuff—oh," said Anna, on a note of comprehension.
Cara was leaning back in her chair now, looking coolly sardonic. Her whole bearing was predatory, meltingly sensual. Kahlan recognized Cara's second favorite defense mechanism—her first was hitting things—and sighed.
There was nothing wrong with their relationship. Why were these people so…narrow-minded? She refused to be ashamed of the love she, Richard and Cara shared. After all they had been through, this should not even register as more than a minor annoyance.
And yet…these people were Richard's friends. Creator knew he had precious little left of his life before the quest. His family were all dead, and there was nothing Kahlan could do to make that better.
Chase and Emma were looking politely horrified, and Kahlan hoped she and Richard hadn't just alienated them, souring their friendship.
"As lovely as it has been to meet you all," Cara broke the silence, her voice too sweet, "our time is limited. We only came to retrieve several items of grave, nearly prophetic importance. The Seeker's work is never done."
Kahlan saw Richard give Cara a grateful look. "I don't suppose any of you have heard anything about a message for us?"
Anna and the Brandstones all shook their heads.
"Thanks anyway," Richard said, and the party came to an early end.
That night, Kahlan and Richard lay cuddled together in a Brandstone child's tiny bedroom (the former occupant was sleeping on the floor of a sibling's room), not sleeping, but not speaking either.
"I just," Richard said at last. "Hartland is supposed to be the one place where I'm safe, where none of this stuff—not my quests, not the Blood of the Fold, not even my Rahl blood—can touch me. This was my home—so why don't I feel like I belong?"
Kahlan stroked his cheek. She could barely see his warm brown eyes in the darkness. "I don't know," she said helplessly. "I'm sorry, Richard—I'm the one who took you away from all this. If it weren't for me, you'd be living a happy, peaceful life, never having heard of Darken Rahl, or prophecy."
"I wouldn't trade what I have with you, and with Cara, for anything," Richard said.
Kahlan cuddled closer, resting her head against his shoulder, but then he scooted out of bed and she heard him walking to the door. "What is it?" she asked.
"I'm not leaving Cara on the sofa like some charity case," Richard said firmly. "She belongs with us."
Kahlan smiled. "She does," she agreed softly, but Richard was already out of the room.
The bed was too small for three people—truth be told, it was too small for one—but they made due, all squished together in a heap. It was the only way Kahlan felt comfortable sleeping, now.
Reluctantly, though, she vetoed the suggestion that they do more than sleep—as relaxing as that might be, this wasn't their bed. Chase and Emma were having enough trouble adjusting as it was.
The next day, Kahlan and Cara accompanied Richard to the graveyard where his parents and brother were buried. It was a peaceful place, all warm sunlight and green grass, but Kahlan felt that the air was heavy with sorrow.
Richard stood before his brother Michael's grave the longest. The piece of parchment was affixed with sticky sap to the stone, just below the name.
"F-N-T-S-E-C-O-O-R-T," Cara read. "What the Underworld—?"
"This was conceived of by a twisted mind," Kahlan said, with feeling. His brother's grave—someone had known very well where Richard would go. But how cruel, to leave him a riddle here—
Richard sank down his knees, staring at Michael's gravestone.
Cara thrust the parchment at Kahlan, and put a supportive hand on Richard's shoulder. Kahlan was surprised—and then shocked at herself, for being surprised. She knew how important Richard was to Cara; it had made her jealous, before she knew of Cara's feelings for her.
Kahlan sank to her knees too, heedless of her gown—it was lucky she still had the leather dress Cara had given her for Creatormas, it was hell getting grass stains out of Confessor's whites—and put her arms around Richard.
Richard didn't move or speak for what seemed hours. Kahlan's legs were cramping by the time he said at last, "Stonecroft. Where's Stonecroft?"
It took Kahlan a moment to realize he'd solved the riddle.
"No," Cara disagreed, eyes on the middle distance. "Not Stonecroft. Stowecroft."
Kahlan suppressed a thrill of horror. Of all the past, real or part of an alternate reality, what had happened in Stowecroft was what she most wanted to forget.
And yet, it was there she had read remorse in Cara's eyes. How could she not treasure that memory?
Stowecroft, to the casual eye, appeared not to have changed at all. Still a tiny village, complete with the miniature Hall of Judgment in which Richard and Kahlan had put Cara on trial, the scaffold where Kahlan had Confessed Cara's teacher mistress, the comfortable house of Cara's sister…
"Let's just find the clue and get out of here," Cara begged, before they were seen.
Kahlan knew it was the storm of emotions that worried Cara, not the danger, surely real, that the townspeople posed; they had fought their way ought of Stowecroft last time.
Kahlan considered coming back to Stowecroft with a proper escort of the Aydindril Home Guard, and making quite clear that they were answerable to the Mother Confessor in more than name only.
"At this rate," Richard said grimly, "the clue will probably be nailed to your sister's door."
Cara shrugged uneasy agreement.
"Cara! What are you doing here—I mean, thank the Creator you're all right! We've been hearing some tall tales," Cara's sister, Grace, exclaimed when she opened the door. The clue had not been attached to it in any way, more was the pity.
"You," Grace's husband, whose name was…Sirian, Kahlan recalled, acknowledged Cara grimly.
"You would think he might've become a baneling and turned to dust," Cara mourned, sotto voce.
"Be good," Kahlan whispered back.
Cara rolled her eyes.
Cara had a niece and a nephew, neither of whom could have been older than seven. Kahlan watched them in concealed fascination, thinking that soon she would have a child…would her daughter have Richard's eyes? Hopefully she wouldn't shrink away from Cara, the way the little boy was doing.
The girl watched Cara in fear and fascination, finally daring to ask, "Where's your weird red poky things?"
"That," Cara replied grimly, "is what I'm trying to find out."
"When you get them back, would you show me how they work?" the little girl asked hesitantly.
Cara's face grew deliberately impassive, a mask, Kahlan knew, for deep and likely unpleasant inner meditation. Grace shared Kahlan's horror, reprimanding her daughter with a harsh, "Ella!" that had the little girl subsiding into sullen silence.
Richard was looking grim too, now, and Kahlan saw he was watching Sirian, one of those who had most wanted Kahlan to execute Cara. The memory made Kahlan cringe—why was being back here so hard?
"Grace, you haven't seen Tommy, have you? Oh, I didn't realize you had company." The woman who came to the door was slight, giving the impression that she was even shorter than Cara, and slim, with long nondescript-colored hair hanging down her back.
Kahlan felt Cara start slightly at the sight of her, and exchanged a questioning look with Richard. Was this another old friend or relative? Kahlan found herself increasingly grateful this new quest had yet to force her to look up her father, even if Nicci's spell had begun some sort of healing between them.
"No, I'm afraid we haven't seen him," Grace replied. "Cara, Dahlia took over the school after the Mother Confessor k—your last visit." Kahlan winced, remembering Cara's teacher mistress. So this was her replacement. "Dahlia, this is my sister, Cara, and her friends the Seeker of Truth and the Mother Confessor."
"Cara?" the woman—Dahlia—gasped.
But before Cara, now stiff and uncommunicative, could reply, the door burst open again, and several armed men poured into the main room, seizing Dahlia's arms.
"What—?" gasped Grace, and Richard drew the sword they'd stolen from their previous attackers.
"This woman is a witch!" one of the men cried. "She must be destroyed! For the Blood of the Fold!"
As Kahlan drew the rusty, inferior daggers that were all she had at the moment, she reflected dryly that she was going to get very tired of that particular battle cry before very long.
When the flurry of battle was over, and Kahlan returned from being sick again—clearly, pregnancy was not all joy—she found Grace and her children still huddled in a corner, looking frightened. All except Cara's niece Ella, anyway, who looked curious.
Sirian was nursing an ugly cut on his brow, but he was grinning at Cara—apparently, the shared joy of violence had reconciled him to her existence.
Richard had his arm around Cara, and was examining the sword in his other hand with almost comical dismay. It was covered in blood.
Kahlan leaned against the door and asked, as calmly as she could, "What are we waiting for?"
Beside her, Dahlia was white as a sheet.
"Normally the blood just—" Richard waved the sword vaguely (Sirian ducked), and frowned.
Kahlan thought she understood. She caught Cara's eye. "Powerful magic," they intoned together.
Richard laughed self-deprecatingly. "I guess it was kind of silly to think swords just clean themselves," he agreed.
Kahlan's smile broadened. It was one of the things she loved most about Richard, that he was able to laugh at himself. Before she met him, she'd taken life so seriously that she'd forgotten how to live it. But Richard could always make her smile.
"Why me?" Dahlia asked, disrupting the moment. "I'm no witch—what do these people want from me?"
"The Blood of the Fold is not precisely known for its competence," Cara commented, a little scathingly. "But you are not safe here."
Dahlia put a hand to her forehead, clearly feeling overwhelmed, and Grace asked plaintively, "Why is this happening? I thought this sort of thing would stop, now that the D'Harans have stopped invading and people stay buried…"
"If it's not one thing…" Richard said ruefully. "But Cara's right; anyone the Blood of the Fold thinks is a witch isn't safe. We're going to have to deal with all of them eventually, but for now I think you'd better come with us."
"I can't just—" Dahlia protested, as Kahlan frowned in disapproving editorial.
Richard and Cara were right, of course, the woman wasn't safe—but surely she wouldn't be any safer following the three of them around. Why, the Blood of the Fold would be after them most of all, if precedent had a say in all this.
And even had it not been for the fact that experience suggested if anyone were going to be attacked by a group of crazed vigilantes, it would be Richard, Kahlan and Cara, the Blood of the Fold's first priority must be the death of the Mother Confessor. Her rule was the only thing keeping the Midlands from falling into chaos.
On a more personal note, Kahlan didn't like the way Cara and Dahlia were looking at one another.
"Did you…was she someone you used to know?" Kahlan asked later, when the three of them had left Dahlia to pack and set off to search for the next clue. She had linked Cara's arm firmly through hers, and, unusually for them, Richard was on Cara's other side, effectively bracketing her.
"A friend," Cara replied shortly. "Of my childhood. Before I was taken."
"That's great!" Richard said. Kahlan could feel his sincerity from here. "You must have so much to talk about! There's nothing like someone you've known from childhood, after all. She probably knows you better than we do."
"I haven't seen her in years," Cara replied dryly. "She doesn't know me at all." But her reproof was mild, and Kahlan could tell she was looking forward to renewing her acquaintance with Dahlia.
Kahlan tried to feel supportive.
The clue, naturally, lay artistically on the very spot where Kahlan had almost Confessed Cara, about a year ago. Cara picked it up, and Richard and Kahlan peered over her shoulder.
"A maze," Cara said drily. "How…appropriate."
Cara fished a quill and a tiny, sharpened table knife from her pack, and sat down right there to trace a route through the maze in her own blood.
Richard and Kahlan, excluded firmly from this tedious endeavor, waited a few steps away, Kahlan with her eyes fixed longingly on that elegant profile, Cara's red leathers a charming contrast to that golden skin…
"You're jealous," Richard observed.
"Am not," Kahlan denied instinctively, turning to meet her husband's challenging gaze. "It's just…what do we really know about this Dahlia, anyway? She could be a spy—she could be a witch, like those Blood of the Fold people said…Blood of the Fold, what an odd name…"
"As these are the same people who keep trying to kill us, I'm inclined to take their accusations with some doubt," Richard said mildly, putting his arms around Kahlan. "Even if Dahlia is a witch, she deserves our help. And do you really have so little faith in Cara?"
"Of course I—we just found her," Kahlan protested. "I can't—" she made a pleading gesture for understanding, and Richard caught her fingers and kissed them.
Kahlan laughed, swallowing against unaccountable tears, and asked brightly, "Do you remember when things used to be nice and simple?"
Richard thought for a moment. "No," he said, with finality.
"Brennidon," Cara announced. "Someone has a strange fascination with home towns."
Richard scowled. "How much more of this do you think there's likely to be? I want to get back to Aydindril and start planning for whatever major attack the Blood of the Fold decides to launch."
"Not to mention my big bed," Kahlan murmured slyly.
Cara smirked at her. "Back on the quest, back to that irritating chastity habit of yours," she sighed. "We've got to break you both of such…excessive caution." Her voice had dropped seductively low, and now she was right in Kahlan's personal space.
Kahlan buried her free hand in Cara's hair, pulling her closer, her fingers still laced with Richard's. And then Kahlan kissed Cara, letting her jealousy drain away in the reality of this moment with her Mord'Sith.
"Let's finish this as quickly as possible," Richard suggested, grinning.
"Mmm," Cara agreed, licking her lips.
It wasn't as simple as that, of course—the addition of Dahlia to the group lent even more constraint than Zedd would have, seeing as how she was an almost complete stranger. Furthermore, she was unused to travel, making Kahlan no longer the slowest in the party.
Her pregnancy tired her, and she still occasionally had to stop and be ill in the bushes—she found herself wishing Zedd were with them, so he could brew her an anti-nausea potion. Or would the side-effects prove even more difficult and unpredictable than the morning sickness?
They passed the graveyard, with all its tiny occupants, on their way into Brennidon. Kahlan read the survivor's guilt in Richard's face, and discovered she hadn't quite stopped hating Rahl after all.
Their first stop, naturally, was the home of Richard's not-mother, the woman who had risked everything for him the first time they had been here.
"Mark," Richard said warmly, when his not-brother opened the door. Kahlan saw Richard would have embraced the boy, but something in Mark's expression forestalled him.
"Who is it, dear?" called Brigid, Richard's not-mother, and reluctantly Mark let the four of them into the house.
The first thing Kahlan noticed was the woman sitting in a chair by the fire, blonde hair in a loose coil down her back, skin reddened and bruised, metal collar around her neck, and one hand holding a wet cloth to the side of her face—
"You!" Kahlan exclaimed, and advanced purposefully, one hand held out—this time was going to be different. She would never let herself be at this sorceress's mercy again—
Richard grabbed Kahlan from behind in what was almost a hug, effectively preventing her charge, and asked, "Nicci! What are you doing here?"
Nicci put down the cloth, but before she could speak, Brigid was at her side, looking defensive. "She's lucky to be alive," Richard's not-mother said gravely. "Those soldiers—not D'Harans, this is something else—they beat her until she fell off a cliff, not far from here. They would have killed her."
Mark was also ranged on Nicci's other side, now; Kahlan had lost her moment to attack. She sighed, and leaned back against Richard's chest. Could she even explain to these people what folly it was for them to have rescued Nicci?
"Blood of the Fold, I assume?" Cara asked, from behind Richard. Dahlia was remaining wisely in the background.
"Yes," Nicci agreed. "They ambushed Darken Rahl and his Mord'Sith, but they seemed particularly interested in killing me. We were separated before I could beg or steal the key to my Rada'Han from that overconfident megalomaniac, and I only escaped thanks to Brigid and Mark, here."
"And for which of your many crimes," Kahlan asked sharply, "do you suppose the Blood of the Fold were trying to execute you?"
Nicci looked at her with the cool, impassive stare of a cat—or a Mord'Sith. "I didn't ask."
"Come, that's the one thing we do know," Cara pointed out. "They hate magic."
"Hate, or fear…?" murmured Dahlia.
Richard, apparently satisfied that Kahlan wasn't going to Confess Nicci right this second—she had abandoned her first impulse, not without an inward pang—let her go, and stepped forward to speak directly to Nicci. "So, Nicci," he said easily, "it looks like we've got a common enemy. Tell you what: I'll get the key to your Rada'Han back from my brother, if you promise to help us stop the Blood of the Fold's witch hunt."
Nicci tilted her head to one side. The bruise on her cheek looked nasty. "All right, Seeker," she said. "It's a deal."
"I don't suppose anyone knows anything about a riddle left for us?" Cara asked, already sounding resigned to another search.
But, Kahlan reflected, if their thief had been consistent, the note ought to have been in the graveyard with all of Richard's agemates. She sighed, wondering how much more of this there was going to be.
"Oh, yes," said Brigid, reaching into a pocket and pulling out a piece of parchment. "Someone told me to give you this."
She held it out to Richard, who took it, Kahlan and Cara peering over his shoulder. "'Let's start at the very beginning,'" Richard read. "'A very good place to start…'"
Kahlan took a breath, not sure whether to laugh or cry. "Home," she said. "We're going home."
The return trip to Aydindril seemed to drag on interminably, even though Cara managed to find them some horses and they didn't stop, except for two more skirmishes with members of the Blood of the Fold. No inns, and no innocent strangers in need of the Seeker's help. Not this time.
Kahlan let the guards throw open the doors to the Hall of Judgment—her Hall of Judgment—and marched forward to the center of the room, hair flying behind her like a banner. She had her hand around Zedd's throat before the startled Wizard could move.
"Kahlan," he protested. "What's going—?"
"Where," she demanded, "are my daggers?"
Zedd blinked innocently. "Well, now, I thought you might ask that," he said. "Dennee?"
Kahlan's sister had already stepped down from the Mother Confessor's chair, and now pulled a cloth off a side table, to reveal Kahlan's daggers, Cara's agiels, and Richard's Sword.
Kahlan released Zedd, temporarily, to retrieve her weapons, replacing the inferior ones Cara had appropriated for her. She felt fully herself again for the first time in weeks.
"Was it really so bad?" Zedd asked, watching as Richard, Kahlan and Cara were reunited with their weapons. "You needed some stirring up, I've seen you—grow too complacent, and where will we be next crisis?"
"You may find that out sooner than you think, Wizard," Nicci commented. She and Dahlia waited, both looking as calm as possible in the face of the splendor of the Confessor's Palace.
"What?" Zedd asked, bemusement breaking through his smugness at having fooled them. "Didn't you have a good trip?"
"Sure," Kahlan said sardonically. "Unless you count Richard bringing back half the countryside, the three of us nearly being murdered about a dozen times over, Chase and Emma being all disapproving, Jennsen usurping Richard's throne—and I still have Rahl's handkerchief!" she finished, on a note of barely suppressed hysteria.
Cara was by her side at once, feeling her forehead as if for fever, one arm going around her waist. "Why don't I take you upstairs," she suggested softly. "Have a bit of a lie-down?"
"The Mother Confessor needs a potion for healing and dreamless sleep," Nicci announced. "Probably something for nausea, too."
There was only professional interest in her tone, yet it set Kahlan's back up anyway. She frowned, leaning more heavily against Cara.
Richard kissed Kahlan's cheek, exchanged a nod with Cara, and turned back to Zedd, saying, "I think our first step should be to invite Rahl and Jennsen—and Denna, I suppose—over for dinner, so we can talk. The Blood of the Fold wants the death of all magic; this could be a great time to hammer out a proper alliance. We need to know more about these magic-hating vigilantes, where they come from, who their leader is…" as he talked, he motioned Nicci and Dennee to follow him and Zedd into an antechamber for a conference.
Kahlan was pleased to see Zedd looking almost totally bewildered. Served him right, for the impromptu quest he'd put them through.
Dahlia was on Cara's other side, now, saying diffidently, "I do have some slight knowledge of healing spells—if I can help…"
Kahlan scowled, but suffered herself to be led upstairs. She certainly could use a nap—it seemed their troubles were far from over. She could only pray for the safety of all those she loved, Richard, Cara, and the baby she carried most of all.
And yet, she mused once she was finally safe back in bed, it was surely a mark of just how much things had changed that dinner with Jennsen, Denna, and Rahl was likely to be easier than that memorable, awkward night with Chase, Emma, and Anna.
Travel certainly was instructive. Maybe, Kahlan thought sleepily, she could forgive Zedd his overenthusiastic meddling after all.
At last, they were home.