Cara ran at full-tilt, sprinting around the gar as it rolled its short, muscled neck and lunged for her again. She sprang over its tail as the appendage cut through the air at her shins, diving over its path and rolling away as soon as she hit the ground. The crowd all around her was cheering, stamping their feet, howling for her blood, the gar's blood, some kind of gore.
Cara took a few steps back from the gar, never taking her eyes off it, every muscle in her body tense. It was somewhat intelligent - that much was obvious. It moved to its left as she moved to hers, circling, staying directly in front of her. Its small black eyes flitted from the guards behind its grate, watching, to Cara. Cara suspected the creature was not treated well. Not many attack animals were.
She didn't have many advantages. Size and strength were obviously a no-go. The gar had a longer reach, and its claws looked reasonably sharp. Cara had no weapons. Her agility was the only thing she had going for her at this point, and even that was depleted by lack of proper food and sleep. It seemed the Margrave had thought of everything in order to arrange Cara's untimely demise.
Her eyes searched its scaly, hard body for weaknesses. Its back was well protected, as was its skull. Breaking the neck or bashing the head in would be foolish. She had heard somewhere that a gar's windpipe was larger than that of any other creature, and therefore it could be crushed easily. But how was she supposed to do that? Cara clenched her gloved hands in the packed dirt at her feet. The sun beat down into the open-topped arena, searing and sticky. Cara came to a standstill, testing, examining.
As she had expected, the gar launched forward, striking hard at the very spot she had just been. She moved out of the way just in time - but in her momentary closeness with the gar, she realized her salvation. She cursed herself for her stupidity.
While being undoubtedly excellent predators, in the wild gar relied almost completely on their blood flies to find and track prey. They had a keen sense of smell, but dim eyesight and dull hearing. If she was going to beat this creature, she would have to make its senses lie to it.
And just like that, the idea occurred to her. It wasn't going to be fun. She found herself thinking that the Mother Confessor would heartily disapprove. But she also found herself hoping to live long enough to see that disapproving look.
She ran again at full tilt, swinging in a wide circle, keeping far out of its way. It whirled, swinging its head, roaring with frustration when she wasn't there. She was already behind it again, centrifugal force carrying her in a tighter coil. It was confused, turning in a circle, trying to keep her in its sights without leaving any vulnerabilities open. If this was going to work, she had to time it just right.
When the strike came, it came coupled with irritation. Teeth flashed in the sun, sharp like razors. Cara forced herself to remain still, muscles clenched. She angled her body sharply and sprang, at just the right second. Pain, like a hot and sticky flash of lightning, tore up her calf, but plunged no deeper than the initial flesh. The crowd roared in triumph, feet pounding, cheering the beast. The Margrave raised his hands in exultation, as if the victory were his. Cara's lips curled in a smile. Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Ignoring the pain, she copied her previous maneuver, darting around the creature, allowing her own momentum to take some of the weight off her leg. Blood dribbled onto the ground after her. The creature was incensed and on the hunt, lurching again to where he smelled the pungent scent of blood as it dribbled down her leg and onto the dirt.
It was confused. She could tell. Wheeling around as though crazed, surrounded by her scent, it threw back its head and roared in consternation, narrowing its overly-strained and poorly-exercised eyes to see her. She felt a twinge of sorrow. The thing was basically blind. But this was an opportunity she couldn't waste.
She sprinted forward, sharp pains racketing up her leg and into her hip. She concentrated her weight on the other foot as she sprang up, latching with all her strength onto the creature's neck. She clenched her lower abdomen as hard as she could, sending her legs swinging up around the beast's scaly back. She clutched on as the crowd gasped and bellowed, tightening her arms around the animal's airway, stopping its breathing. It wheezed, and after a few minutes of thrashing, sank to its knees.
Cara found herself looking into its eye as it grew dimmer and dimmer. There were scars all around the socket, marring the smooth green scales. A memory came roaring to the surface of her mind like a tidal wave.
"Get up, Cara."
The voice was as cold as ice, and it meant death to young Cara's ears. She whimpered. "Mistress, I-"
"Did I tell you to speak?!" Nathair snarled, snatching Cara up by her hair. Cara tensed and cowered. Nathair pulled her toward the door, still by her hair. "Stop that. Come on."
"Mistress, where are we going?" Cara said, her tiny voice sounding terrified even to her own ears.
"Stop asking questions!" Nathair barked. Cara was confused. Nathair usually liked talking to her, even when she was hurting her. She always encouraged Cara to be vocal, in fact, and to question what was happening.
Cara found out exactly why her mistress was so tense when Nathair flung her into the small room with the window up at the top. The terrifying room that reeked of blood and fear, where the walls pulsated inward and cold leached in from the outside to caress the wounds of its captors. There was a woman on the other side, a skinny woman with scraggly hair. She was shaking and Cara could smell her all the way from across the room. She thought that she must be a prisoner. Cara and the other girls got baths sometimes and didn't smell quite so bad, Cara more so than others. Nathair liked for her to look nice.
"Last one standing gets to eat tonight!" Nathair called out as she closed the heavy iron door behind her. Cara hold the bolt slide home as she turned to look at the prisoner lady with the wild eyes.
All she remembered that night was how much she had missed having warm bread.
As the roars of the crowd brought her plunging back to consciousness, Cara found her body acting of its own accord. Or, perhaps her subconscious knew her a little better than her conscious did. But either way, she was surprised to see her arms loosen around the creature's neck, and to hear it take a deep breath, and feel its struggles to get away from her strengthen again. She swung off of it before it could stand. She would not kill this animal. She knew what it was like to be the showman's executioner.
The Margrave stood too, his face flushed. "What the devil are you doing?! Finish it!" he bellowed, the chords of his neck standing out against his flesh. His eyes gleamed with rage.
The crowd was going absolutely insane, the stands quivering with their stomping feet. Litter and obscenities rained down upon the arena, bounding off the walls and ground with their momentum as the gar wheezed and edged away from Cara as best it could. It was half unconscious and the scales around its neck were broken and ragged. Only then did Cara notice the jagged scars on the inside of her arm, exposed under cleanly sliced leather. Hm. Curious. This pain was dull, surreal. Cara usually felt pain much more clearly than this. Was there something wrong with her?
"I'm not going to kill this wretched thing for your amusement. If you'd like me to gut something, come down yourself. At least that would be something worth doing." she called up to the Margrave, crossing her arms and tapping her foot.
"Seize her!" the Margrave howled, pointing a shaking finger at her. "Kill her! Bring her head to me!"
Guards vaulted over the divide between stands and arena while others poured from the grilles behind which the gar had been kept. Cara's head snapped from side to side as they closed in, fists clenched. There was nowhere to run and too many to fight without her Agiels, especially wounded as she was. It seemed she would never experience the Mother Confessor's disapproval. What a shame.
The voice, like a choir in the contours of a deep canyon, echoed in waves over the arena. All the men froze as they were, eyes wide with shock and surprise at their own paralysis. The crowd fell silent.
The Margrave sank to his chair, looking at something Cara couldn't see. But she knew that look. It was a look she had seen many times, a look she had sometimes inspired. It was the look of a man who has just been caught doing something he knows he should not do, by someone he is genuinely and absolutely terrified of.
As the source of this terror wove through the throng of frozen guards, Cara understood.
Nicci. Nicci in her new body with its flowing golden hair, sharp nose, and blue eyes the consistency of icy razors. And her magic. She obviously had something that allowed her to use it within the city walls. Cara thought to herself that she would've rather taken the free-for-all with the guards.
"My my, Margrave, you seem to be in a bit of a hurry to dispose of my payment." she said, her voice almost devoid of emotion, but somehow all the more scary for it. "Have your men take her back to her cage and you and I will have a discussion."
The Margrave gestured as his men fell to their knees or awkwardly onto the ground, released from their spell. Two of them recovered more quickly than the others and each grabbed one of Cara's arms. She yanked the un-injured one free and tried to lurch to Nicci. "What do you want with me?" she screamed into the silence, a cornered animal at her most dangerous. "If you've got something to say, say it to me!"
Nicci only laughed as several other guards regained control of their limbs and raced to help their companions secure Cara and drag her back to her cell, kicking and screaming the whole way.
Kahlan had never been more worried in her entire life. Her hands were red and almost raw, she had wrung them together so constantly. A thin spot was wearing in her already-worn riding dress from where she had toyed with it. She gnashed her teeth, mussed her own hair, paced like a restless lioness - all in the name of this frustrated anxiety. It was a gnawing, aching feeling that she was quite unfamiliar with. Not exactly worry, really. And she didn't like it. There was too much energy, too much movement. Her heart raced as fast as her thoughts; she couldn't think for its pounding.
What if they killed Cara? What would the Seeker do without his Mord-Sith?
What would she do without the woman herself?
Now where did that come from? Kahlan wondered. Her mind was a babbling brook, light and airy, clear, but shallow, passing through deep pools of shadow, easily read and understood. Thick undergrowth clouded her thoughts, obscuring her judgment. The cell was a collage of fleeting darkness, inky portals shifting about in her peripheral vision. Her eyelids were so heavy. Sleep had been hard the night before, even with Cara there, steadfast as a stone column beside her.
Kahlan sunk down onto the dirty floor, not even bothering to gather up her skirts. Was she going mad? That's what it felt like. What was this strange, lost feeling, this black death eating away at her heart?
She wished Richard were here. He understood matters of the heart with such perfect and striking clarity. Murky waters that stranded and isolated most people were as clear as a forest pool to him. He could tell her what she was feeling, she felt sure of it. He was the Seeker of Truth, after all.
Truth. The word that defined her existence. It nagged her, agitating the growing puddle of whatever it was in her chest.
"Let go of me, you pig, go find yourself a whore for that if any of them will have you-"
And just like that, it all melted away, pushed out by a warm blossom of relief. As she stood, a little unsteady, two guards yanked open the door and pushed Cara in. A small part of Kahlan's mind registered the fact that Cara was limping, sweating, and that her leather was matted with blood in several places, but she didn't care. She flung herself onto the Mord-Sith with a force she wouldn't have thought she had this far into her captivity. They stumbled, Cara leaning awkwardly back on her good leg to keep them from falling.
"You'd think I'd taken a stroll into the Abyss." Kahlan heard her mutter sardonically.
"For all I knew, you could have!" Kahlan exclaimed, breathless. "Where did they take you- and what the hell happened to your arm - and your leg! That's it, I'm not letting you out of my sight again, you just can't seem to manage-"
"Alright, alright!" Cara said, holding up her hands in surrender. She had never heard the Mother Confessor babble like this. She rocked back onto the ground, stretching her wounded leg out in front of her. "Hold, hold. They took me to the arena for a little R&R with a very handsome long-tailed gar. We got on sportingly."
"A gar? A gar did this to you?" Kahlan was horrified. She had heard stories of arena-fights like that before, but she had never known any civilized nation to practice them. She examined the gash in Cara's leg. It was deep, and the Mord-Sith had lost a fair amount of blood, but it didn't seem to have pierced anything vital. Kahlan pressed it with a piece of cloth she soaked in the lukewarm water she had been too excited to drink in Cara's absence.
"How- how'd you get out?" From what she had read, any humans thrown into battle almost never made it out. But she should know better than to bet against Cara. This proved it once and for all.
"It was easy." Cara said, a little strain in her voice as she shifted. "I just thought of how angry you would be if I got myself killed."
Kahlan looked up from her task into the Mord-Sith's sweat-and-dust-streaked face. She had never noticed her eyes before. They were blue, standing out in an almost subdued way against her smooth skin and fair hair. Almost like an... like an angel. Cara had never had a problem with eye contact. Kahlan felt her heart catch in her chest. There was something soft about the way Cara was looking at her, tracing her, memorizing her. Or that's what it felt like. Kahlan had never felt so... studied.
Cara, for her part, was blown away by something unidentified and wild and unexpected, like a wave crashing down onto a sandy beach with all the force of a thousand raging stallions. For a moment, Cara found her lungs incapable of function.
The spell was broken as the cell door clanged open, and a guard entered, flanked by a companion. He set down a tray consisting of two meagerly stuffed meat pies. Both guards were snickering. "Here's ya lunch, dearie," one of them said. "Maybe ya can use it to pay for a better whore." both men burst into laughter at their own wit.
Rage, hot and dry, erupted into Cara's chest. She launched to her feet with an unintelligible cry, lashing out as both guards paled and slammed the cell door, stumbling back.
"Bloody mad, e'n't she." one of them said in an attempt to regain some of his dignity. With a glare, they took off.
"That's what I thought." Cara growled. Spirits, but her leg was throbbing. She hobbled back to her previous seat.
Kahlan was silent for a moment. "Some of the guards ran up, right before you came down. There was a commotion. What's going on?"
Cara remembered, suddenly, what had seemed so important on her walk down. "Nicci." she spat. "Nicci is here."
Kahlan was silent, cleaning Cara's leg now with another strip of cloth torn from her dress. "Well," she finally said. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
"This is it."
Richard peered at the seemingly seamless stone wall. "How do you know?"
Jebediah scowled. "Its here. Trust me."
The plan was quite simple, really. There was a marketplace in the atrium of the castle, which Richard would enter, disguised as effectively as possible without magic. Jebediah had provided Zedd with the details of the dungeon security, which he had become quite familiar with in the plans to free his mother. From that, Zedd had created a lock pick he claimed would work. Richard hoped he was right.
"Look here, my boy, it will still be a tight operation. This thing isn't going to work like the real key; it will take some finagling." the old man said sternly, pressing something wrapped in cloth into Richard's hands. Richard smiled reassuringly. When Kahlan and Cara's escape incited the riot he knew it would, he would kill the Margrave. That, he was ready for.
Zedd removed a tincture from under his robes. "An old remedy my mother used for adding a little gold to her tresses." he said when Richard looked hesitant. "For your disguise."
Richard nodded, and a few minutes later, he was no longer the Seeker, but a poor traveler with a messy blond topknot, a battered cloak, and a scar across his clean-shaven cheek disfiguring most of his features. Richard rubbed his jaw irritably. "It'll take me months to grow that back." he grumbled.
Zedd chuckled. "You looked like a tree with half its leaves blown off anyway, my boy. Best stick to shaving until you can grow a proper beard."
Richard scowled with his eyes, but the effect was marred by his smile. "Whatever you say, old man." he said. He fidgeted. His bulky cloak was stifling.
"You must remember-" Jebediah began, raising a pompous finger.
"To open the left gate. I remember." Richard said evenly. "You do your part, and I'll do mine."
Jebediah huffed, but said nothing else.
Zedd watched with a blank expression as Jebediah pushed a certain spot on the wall, opening a small space in the wall. "Ingenious." Zedd murmured.
With one last smile over his shoulder, Richard melted like a shadow into the crowds, glancing around him like a common tourist as the stone closed silently behind him.
It was done. There was no going back.
Sorry for the wait, everyone who's still reading this. I tried to make it pretty good to compensate. Reviews and feedback are always welcome. Also, in case you didn't see, anyone who spotted the Dexter reference in the last chapter gets mad respect points. Ciao :)