Cara remembers smirking at the pinched sight of the Seeker's face, her tongue playing on the sharp points of her teeth as she sneered into the Wizard's spell.
Then-pain. Like the agiel her Lord Rahl had crafted just for her, the greatest honour of her existence, amplified by a hundred thousand, spreading in a web that ridges at her ribs and spreads over her body, sinking through her skin to center thick and angry in her heart. She thinks she is screaming, she must be, this surpasses the sweet spot Mord-Sith aim for, the rush of pain that is so intense it punches the lungs flat breathless.
She sees Richard start forward, stopped by the Wizard's hand on his chest. Kahlan has a hand pressed to her mouth, her eyes wide and wet. Cara thinks, for a split second, that the horrified concern on Kahlan's face is genuine, a Confessor touched by the pain of a Mord-Sith.
"It's okay," she gasps, agony so bright she cannot hear the sound of her own voice, the words ripped out of her against conscious thought. "Don't be upset." She falls into darkness, and the last thing she sees against her closed eyelids is, ridiculously, the time Zedd carved a wintermelon into chunks at the campfire, the bitterflesh on her tongue, offering a slice to Richard and Kahlan on the flat of her knife.
When she wakes she feels dazed, dizzy. Her eyes are gritty, and it takes a full, stomach rolling minute to focus her gaze. A blurry shape sharpens every so slowly-Kahlan Amnell, dripping water from a cloth into Cara's mouth. For two long treacherous seconds, Cara savors the cool drops on her tongue, the gentle way Kahlan's fingers are cradling her jaw. In the third second, violent, virulent hatred courses through her and she jerks out of the Mother Confessor's grip, her pulse pounding. She spits at Kahlan's feet and snarls, promising silently that she will have Dahlia punish her tonight for her brief weakness.
Kahlan sighs, stepping back, and drops the wet rag over Cara's face with a plop. "It didn't work, Zedd." When Cara tosses her head and sends the cloth flopping to the ground, she sees Zedd stagger, Richard helping lower him to the ground. Kahlan steps closer, alarmed. "Zedd?"
"Oh it worked," Zedd muttered. "And I was an old fool for even daring to use that spell. I can't even begin to tell you how glad I am to see you all here. Even in Cara's current state."
"What happened?" Richard asks, offering Zedd a waterskin. "You...flickered, and the spell appeared on Cara, but the fire went out and when she woke…" he gestures at Cara, slumped against a tree, hands bound. She glares at all three of them.
"I visited what could have been," Zedd says solemnly, "a world where Cara Mason stayed in Stowecroft and never became a Sister of the Agiel." He looks at Cara, and catches her eye, softer than he's ever looked at her before. "You had children. A son, and a daughter. Samuel, I think the boy's name was."
Samuel was Cara's father's name, Samuel Zemedial Mason. Cara rips her gaze away and yanks at the ropes around her wrists until they ache and throb. "I'd rather die a hundred deaths as a Mord-Sith than suffer one painless sleep, old and toothless in a straw bed."
Richard gets that look he gets when he sees orphaned children and desperate animals snarling in traps. "Oh Cara."
"Don't Oh Cara me," Cara snaps suddenly. Her words come out so fast her tongue is practically tripping over them. "What are you even doing? I'm clearly compromised. How you haven't put a knife through my heart is an oversight so staggering it is shocking even for you, Seeker, rescuer of the meek and impoverished, Savior of all pathetic lifeforms on this accursed-" She bites down on her tongue so hard blood coats her teeth, and sways, the world tilting. "Wha-" she shakes her head, sharp. "Hail Darken Rahl," she says, half slurred, and when Kahlan steps forward she spits blood at her feet.
"The spell is weakening," Richard says, "that was Cara talking, the real Cara."
"Before I cast the spell to return here, Kahlan confessed Dahlia to make her resurrect Cara with the breath of life-"
"What?" Kahlan asks, and then, "oh, right. Another world."
Zedd continues, squinting as he remembers. "I cast the spell just as Dahlia fell under confession, and she was able to tell me truths from this world, the real world. Cara was put under a powerful magic using a specially crafted agiel, imbued with all the rage and pain of the souls she's ever tortured."
"That would be a powerful magic," Cara drawls.
"It's a focus," Kahlan says, ignoring Cara completely. "If we can destroy it-"
In one hard movement Cara dislocates her left thumb, slips her hands free of the rope-Richard only ever ties that one knot, idiot-and launches herself at the Mother Confessor. They land hard, Cara's knees pinning Kahlan's elbows to the ground, Kahlan flat on her back. Cara drags her fingers up Kahlan's calf until she feels the hilt of the dagger in her boot. Richard is too far to stop her, and smiles as she presses the tip of the blade to Kahlan's chest, both hands on the hilt.
"Your Lord Rahl commands you to stop!" Richard thunders, and every muscle in Cara's arm locks, just long enough for Richard to close the distance between them and slap his blade across her face, the edge opening a shallow wound along her cheek. The blow knocks her back, and she flings her hair out of her face with a defiant toss of her head, feeling the blood flow across her face.
"She hesitated," Richard says, satisfied. "You know who you are Cara, are you really going to let Rahl take that from you? Twice?"
"No one takes anything from me," Cara snarls. "I am the only one who takes."
"So take," Zedd says, and when she turns to look at him he's offering the black agiel to her on his palm. "Be your own person, Cara Mason of Stowecroft. Make your own choices."
Kahlan stands shoulder to shoulder with Richard. "If Darken Rahl is truly your Lord, your devotion should withstand the breaking of one little agiel."
Cara stands, lurching. Her back is spasming with stiffness; her right eye is blinded with swelling. Her spine is ramrod straight. "I'll bathe my wounds in your lifeblood," she promises, and lets her senses creep out, feeling gently for the buzz of Mord-Sith magic in the agiel. She brings the rod down on her knee and breaks it apart at the hilt, snapping the magic like a taut thread with a pulse of pure will.
Something twinges in her mind, and she jerks once, twice, three times, each more violent than the last. The spot just above her hip burns suddenly, right where Rahl pressed the agiel to her skin and broke her. Sudden realization brings her to one knee. "My Lord Rahl," she says, head bowed low. "Forgive me."
"Cara," Richard says, bewildered, "what-you're glowing."
Cara looks down, and sees the black and orange web glow through her leather. "It hurts," she says, confused, and ever so annoyingly, passes out again.
Cara wakes in a real bed, linen, her face smushed sideways into a pillow of duck feathers wrapped in soft furs. "What?" she mumbles, and the creak of her leathers when she tries to sit up is reassuring. Less so is the way she immediately lists back onto the mattress, pain spiking up her torso.
Four hands catch her and ease her back. "Hello," Richard says. He brushes a piece of her hair off her forehead and, embarrassingly, Cara leans into the touch. Every bit of her body aches like the kiss of an agiel.
"Drink," Kahlan says, "Zedd is fetching food."
Cara crushes the waterskin to her lips, drinking greedily. Her fingers clench against Kahlan's. "What happened to me?"
"You did it," Richard says, proud. "You broke the spell."
Cara stares at him, blank. "We didn't want to undress you while you were… asleep," Kahlan continues after a moment. "We're at a roadside inn for the night. Zedd will heal you in the morning before we leave. He explained what happened."
"What spell," Cara snaps, pushing Kahlan's hands away. "what are you fools going on about? The last thing I remember we were traveling with Dahlia..." she trails off, frowning.
"Rahl cast a spell on you," Richard says, "to make you serve him again." Cara feels herself go cold. She presses a hand to her lower belly. When she was pregnant she remembers being touch-starved, her sisters combing their fingers through her hair, Dahlia's chapped lips on the hollow of her throat.
Zedd bursts in, smelling faintly of garlic, balancing four bowls on one arm. There's parsley in his hair. "She may not remember!" he proclaims. Cara rolls her eyes at him. When Richard goes to help Zedd untangle himself from their dinner, Kahlan leans close.
"He tortured you with a magical agiel," she says quietly, "you broke it and the spell died."
Cara does not look at Kahlan. "Dahlia?"
"Dead," Kahlan says. Cara smoothes her hair back, trying to tame the tangles with stiff gloved fingers. "The boy child?" Kahlan hesitates, long. She reaches out to touch Cara's shoulder, comforting. Cara recoils before her hand can make contact. "Just as well," she says to the wall, "Darken's line should end with him."
Cara dreams of boy with her own smile, and hair more like Richard's than Darken's. He sits atop a pony in a gold trimmed saddle, and when he smiles it's with a child's sweet edge of innocence. His laugh sounds like silver bells, and he calls her mama when she holds him close.
In the morning she eats cold cheese and big chunks of bread, twice what she would normally eat, and still feels a gnawing hunger in her gut. She offers Kahlan half an orange as they secure their packs and feels satisfied when Kahlan accepts the fruit.
"Zedd should heal you before we leave," Kahlan says, pulling the sections apart. Cara scowls, good mood evaporated.
"Mord-Sith do not require wizard healing," she says scornfully. "And so I do not require Zedd's assistance."
"You don't have access to a Temple's healing baths anymore," Kahlan admonishes. She smiles a little, friendly teasing. Her fingers slip in the juices of the fruit she's eating. "And we need you fighting fit after all."
No one wants you here, Cara Mason. No one wants you
"Cara?" Kahlan has paused, three steps ahead of where Cara has stopped in her tracks. "Are you alright?"
Cara shoulders past her and secures her pack. "I am fine. If you insist upon the wizard you can help me with my leather. It will go faster with your aid."
Kahlan's fingers are light on the laces to her leather, and after a few early fumbles it would be easy for Cara to close her eyes and imagine Dahlia behind her, waiting for everyone to leave so they can take the braids out, smell the battlefield ash in each others' hair. Cara keeps her eyes wide open and carefully thinks of nothing. Kahlan peels the leather down to her waist, baring her torso, and wraps a length of linen around her breasts.
"Mord-Sith care nothing for chastity," Cara says, dismissive.
"Wizards do," Kahlan says, smiling, and Cara feels her face soften, not a smile but not a cold mask of indifference either. She rearranges herself back into a scowl, but Kahlan is not looking at her face. "Cara," she murmurs, "oh Cara."
Don't Oh Cara me
Cara is blue and yellow across her hips, purple and green laid in stripes up her ribs. She supposes they only healed her face before sending her off to betray Richard. "It is beautiful, is it not?"
Kahlan's lips thin and she turns her back to Cara, shoulders tight. "It is not. Zedd! Cara's ready for you."
They reach the fork in the main road and Cara turns left. "Cara?" Richard calls after her, questioning.
"We have no idea where to go," Cara says, impatient in her surety. "and I know just where to find out where Rahl has taken the Stone of Tears."
Cara looks at the mounded hill of dirt, incredulous. "You stopped to bury her?"
"It was the work of a second," Zedd says, and waves a hand. With the motion moves the dirt, and Cara is looking at the grave of Dahlia Brentan, the miller's daughter. Richard and Kahlan move forward, reaching into the earth to pull her out. "It is a simple magic," Zedd murmurs low, just for Cara, "for someone who mattered to you as she did."
"You should have burned her," Cara says, cold.
Richard grunts with effort. "The Mord-Sith are no friends of the Keeper, not anymore." He and Kahlan are gentle when they lower Dahlia to the ground, which Cara finds to be foolish. It's not as if they'll bruise her.
Cara kneels and can't help brushing the dirt from around Dahlia's unseeing eyes. She meets Kahlan's eyes and hates her for the sympathy in them. "This has never been done before," Cara says. "The Confessed are left for the birds."
"We are always the first in line for the impossible," Richard says, and draws his sword. Cara leans over, very close, her chin brushing Dahlia's nose. Dahlia smells like death, and dirt, and sweat. Cara breaths out once, very gently, and watches the wisp of her magic curl through the slack parting of Dahlia's lips.
"My track record is very good," Cara says, and doesn't draw back, her eyes locked on Dahlia's eyes. She is so close she can see the fine blue lines in Dahlia's skin flush with blood, her skin losing its pallor. And she can especially see the clouds in Dahlia's eyes clear, recognition in pale blue irises until the pupil grows to swallow her eyes black.
"Command me, Mistress," Dahlia says, her devoted gaze falling right past Cara to Kahlan. Cara watches her eyes fade back to blue and refuses to imagine that Dahlia had choked on saying her name, just before her soul remembered it was Confessed.
Kahlan exhales, and her hand falls on Cara's shoulder, comforting. Cara shrugs it off, sharp, and stands. "Tell us everything you know of Darken Rahl's plans," Kahlan orders.
"Nothing, Mistress, I swear it." Regret colors every syllable. "My part was Cara, only Cara."
Cara's fists clench. She touches her one remaining agiel, needing the grounding pain. "She knows nothing. It was my mistake to come."
Five minutes later and Dahlia is still begging for forgiveness, Richard has run out of questions, and Cara has begun to grind her back molars. "She should be dead by now," Zedd says, frowning.
"Then let me help her along," Cara growls, and draws her agiel. Even Kahlan looks like she might agree.
"I have an idea," Zedd declares.
Cara looks at the white chalk diagram, doubtful. "Because this went so well the last time you cast it."
"With casting comes understanding," Zedd huffs, hunched over where he's adding a flower along this line here, a strange glowing liquid there. "As this will be my third time, I should have mastery."
"Should have?" Richard asks.
"What exactly are we accomplishing here?" Kahlan asks, taking her place at one of the points of the diagram.
"We're grounding the spell," Zedd says, finishing whatever he's doing and standing at the front of the chalk drawing. "Take your places."
Cara steps to the x he drawn in the dirt for her stand on. "And what are we contributing?"
"Your memory, your understanding of this world. And by participating you will keep all your memories. Undoing Dahlia should erase her ever being a Mord-Sith, which means she never gets to Cara, and the stone should appear in Richard's pocket." Zedd raises his hands.
"Will it move us?" Cara asks abruptly. "To… wherever they got the stone from?"
"No," Zedd says briskly, "the world wants to be righted, and I think things will balance themselves nice and quick as they can. We will likely be here, without Dahlia, and in possession of the stone." He raises his arms again, and the lines in his face get sharper as he draws up his power.
"But we weren't all together when they got the stone," Cara says. Zedd drops his arms and openly glares at her. "what if we're all here, Dahlia's gone, and the stone is nowhere?"
"Then at least we know where it is and Darken Rahl doesn't have it," Zedd snaps. "do you have anything else to add?"
"I suppose not," Cara says with a sniff.
Zed raises his arms and stops halfway up. "We will have two sets of memories, however, and we will need to rest afterwards."
"Wait," Richard says, "what-"
Cara wakes with pine needles jabbing her nose. She groans, once, and sits up. Kahlan offers her a waterskin. "You've been out the longest."
It's dark, and Cara shivers, a sudden chill. She hears flint striking stone, and looks up to see Richard blow soft on the start of a decent fire. "The stone?" she rasps, and Kahlan smiles.
"Safe with Richard."
"Gone," Kahlan says, gentle. "Zedd says this reality will be like she never was taken by the Mord-Sith."
Cara searches her memories, and finds small ones, faded: Dahlia's hand tight in hers in the cold dark cell, pressing a soft kiss on the top of Dahlia's spine as she unlaces her leather. Larger and clearer are: being alone with the rats, wrapping cracked ribs with one hand in a room shared with no one.
"It worked," she says, and stands to stretch. Kahlan hovers, obviously close to her.
"Cara," Kahlan starts, and Cara steps away from her quickly to shut down the conversation before it can begin.
"You should rest," she says. "I'm going hunting."
Kahlan raises her eyebrows. "The moon is high."
Cara turns on her heel and walks out of their small camp, ignoring Richard and Zedd entirely. "I like a challenge," she tosses over her shoulder, and snatches up the bow where it's lying against Richard's pack. She feels like killing something.
"Hurry up Cara," Kahlan says, impatient. "We are but the day's ride away." She gathers her hair in wet handfulls and finger combs it into loose curls, wringing it damp on the banks of the lake.
Cara lets the last of her underclothing fall to the ground and hesitates, ankle deep into the hot water. "Then perhaps we should press on. I can wait one night for a bath."
Kahlan laughs, adjusting the laces of her dress. "Cara, are you seriously going to pass on the hot spring of Lessuk? I'll keep watch, now hurry along."
Cara takes a deep breath and dives shallowly into the water, letting it swallow her under. Immediately, she feels phantom hands on her sides, dragging on her hips. prove your devotion to me Darken whispers in her ear, and she remembers what his lips felt like on her neck. She panics, thrashing, and vomits as soon as she's back on the banks, heart pounding. Cool hands gather her hair away from her face.
"Cara," Kahlan murmurs, soothing.
"I seem to have swallowed some of the water," Cara says. Her voice trembles, and she forces it to even out. "The salt has made me ill."
Kahlan lets the silence drag out to underscore her incredulity. "As you say, Cara."
Cara pushes Kahlan away and reaches for her clothes. "And I do. And as I also said, I can wait for a bath."
They ride, in victory, to Aydindril. After the annoyance of stopping at every town, Kahlan holding court, speakingly comfortingly to widows and orphans, Richard mending fences, killing small annoying vermin, accepting the toasts in his honor, Cara is glad to see the gates of Aydindril, something she never thought she would ever experience.
She's tired of taking a shovel to the old fields just outside every village and spending hours digging a hole, deep but not wide. Zedd burning the bodies with wizard fire, making a little cyclone with the twist of two fingers. Cara waits for the ashes of the dead and former banelings settle into the hole, and fills it up again. Zedd goes to the nightly feast, and Cara patrols. She walks the perimeters of the villages, and down to the local source of water to wash, shivering in the cold waters of a shallow river or a smallish lake-once, annoyingly, a well with a squeaky pulley system-and lying naked on the soft grass to let her hair dry in a wild tangle around her face.
Three hours to the gates finds Cara refilling the water skins at a stream, naked to rinse the last memory of hot water off her skin. When she looks up, Kahlan is standing on the muddy bank. "Tell me something, Cara."
Cara puts a little swing in her hips, swaggering up the faint slope to Kahlan, the mud thick and soft under her bare feet, between her toes. "You have but to ask, Mother Confessor."
"When we reach the keep, will you eat with us then?" She offers Cara a thick knit cloth, big enough to wrap around her body. Cara accepts, and drags the rough scratch of it across her face and body, shaking out her hair.
"Will the people wait for me with lit torches and farm tools?"
Kahlan picks up Cara's leather and smoothes it, waiting patiently for Cara to finish drying. "Times have been hard. There may not be feathers to spare."
Cara starts to dress. "So just the tar to worry about."
Kahlan presses against Cara's shoulder, turning her, and Cara allows herself to be led. "You've been pulling away," she says thickly, around the gloves she's holding between her teeth. With her freed hands she takes up the laces, her fingertips brushing against Cara's spine.
Cara lets the silence settle before breaking it. "Tighter. Loose will blister the skin."
Kahlan obliges. "We are here for you. The fact that you don't want to believe we love you doesn't make it less true."
The moon slides in low, dim beams through the trees and reflects off the water. Cara can hear crickets, and night birds, and the wind through the leaves. It feels like a dream she and Kahlan are sharing, and it lets her guard down enough that she lets the words slip from her lips in short bursts. "Dahlia and I were trained together. Sometimes they do that. With strong candidates. It builds-sisterhood. Helps with the first breaking."
Kahlan pauses on the last lace, the back of Cara's neck. "How many times are they broken?"
Cara reaches up and knocks Kahlan's hands aside to finish the last knot herself. "We are broken three times." Kahlan's hands settle over hers, warm and dry. Cara can feel the calluses on Kahlan's fingers, where she grips her daggers. It dissipates the ghost of the way Dahlia tasted, and some of the tension bleeds from her posture.
"We won, Cara," Kahlan says, "it's time for us to find something good. Our happiness. To build the rest of our lives."
Cara considers this idea. "I could train the Keep Guard," she says thoughtfully. "the last time I fought through a Confessor stronghold it was like a hot knife through butter."
She also killed Kahlan's sister with her bare hands, and in some courts would be held responsible for the death of her nephew. Kahlan's lips thin.
"She's not dead anymore," Cara offers. Kahlan picks up the muddy towel and throws it at her.
"There," Kahlan says, and Cara squints across the field to the Keep walls.
"I don't remember the purple mist being here," Richard says from where he's seated behind Kahlan on the big grey gelding Kahlan's been calling Jeof. Cara commends him on coming out of the love-funk he's been in since he woke up from the dead. She'd half expected him to steer Jeof straight into the purple fog covering the ground from the break of the forest to the gate, while sniffing Kahlan's hair and daydreaming names for their future children.
"Powerful magic," Cara says quickly, and smirks when Zedd tosses her a sideways look, irritated. The last day has been pleasant, with fat slow rabbits just off trail and the happiness dripping off Kahlan and Richard, Zedd making shadow puppets by the fire, roaring high and bright because no one is hunting them. She remembers Kahlan's fingers on hers, the water drying on her legs, and feels centered, playful. She lets her own mount, a pretty strawberry roan mare she's refused to name, dance under her, sideways prancing.
"Defensive spellwork," Zedd says.
Kahlan frowns. "They must have barricaded themselves in against the Banelings. But I've never seen anything like this before."
"I'll go," Cara says, feeling an itch in her heels. The mare snickers under her, tossing her mane. Cara feels satisfied-the mount is a good match for her, and she wants to let them both run loose. "I'll go through the magic and let them know to gather the rose petals for your arrival."
Richard kisses Kahlan's temple. "We're almost there," Kahlan murmurs.
Richard smiles. "You're in a good mood," he says to Cara, and she shrugs.
"Would you prefer white or red?" she asks, letting the smile bloom across her face. "For the rose petals?" Kahlan grins at both of them.
"I'm partial to pink," Zedd says dryly, and gestures for her to get moving.
Cara touches her heels to the mare's flanks and they take off like a shot, hooves thundering. Cara drops the reins and twists her fingers in her silky mane, rising up with the strength of her legs and thighs. The wind slaps her in the face with cold, her hair stinging her face, and she presses her cheek to the mare's neck. The fog swallows them immediately, with a rush of silence, and the horse snorts white plumes of steam. Cara squints, letting the gallop ride for only three more beats of her heart before pulling up to a trot.
After a moment she can just make out the gate, and she steers them in. When they stop in front of the gate she pats the mare on the neck. "Good horse." Now she's still she can feel the pulse of the magic around her, rippling as it rolls off her like water off a duck. It feels a little like Confessor magic, incredibly pure love that seems like it would embrace everyone on the planet except a Mord-Sith. It prickles at her, hovers just outside of where she pushes it, resentful of her immunity, and she shoves at it harder just to be contrary. She lays a hand flat on the gate to feel for anymore spellwork, and it swings open at her touch.
An armed contingent of guards waits over the threshold, a blue line painted on the ground where the purple mist stops abruptly. Cara unfurls the little cloth Kahlan had given her, the symbol of Aydindril stitched on a pure white background. "The Seeker, the First Wizard, and the Mother Confessor ask for welcome."
A man in a full military uniform with ribbons on his chest steps forward. "General Trikos. What brings a Mord-Sith to our door?"
Cara looks down at him. "Are you deaf?"
Trikos draws his sword. "No Mord-Sith could ever speak for the Mother Confessor."
"Deaf and an idiot," Cara snarls. She dismounts and curls one hand over her single agiel, wishing there'd been another way to break the spell, one that didn't half-cripple her in a fight. "maybe I'll kill you all and let the Mother Confessor walk on a path of your entrails instead of flowers."
"I'd really rather you didn't," says a new voice, and Cara half turns to see a familiar face coming closer.
"Denee," she greets. "Kahlan and Richard wait."
Denee inclines her head. "Disperse the ward," she orders, "the Keeper is defeated. Banelings walk this earth no longer."
Cara is bored. Kahlan and Richard hardly move from their rooms, except to take long romantic walks in the gardens and wave at the people on the balconies. Zedd is buried in the libraries, and Cara is bored. Denee and her have a silently agreed upon policy of leaving any room the other enters, and that idiot Captain she meant upon her arrival is too easy. One toothy smirk and a glance of her in red leather touching an agiel is enough to make him turn ten shades of purple, his knuckles completely white.
"I'm bored," she says, after picking the lock on Kahlan and Richard's inner suite and barging in, just after the break of dawn.
"Cara," Richard yelps, flailing amongst the blankets. Kahlan sits up, bleary eyed, in a breezy shift.
"What's wrong," she asks, sleep slow but still sharper than Richard, who's still fumbling to stand, wrapping a sheet around his waist.
Cara huffs. She's tired of repeating herself. "I'm. Bored."
"Security," Richard says stupidly.
"You said you wanted to take up the Keep's Guard," Kahlan expands smoothly.
"The General hates me," Cara sulks. "And you won't let me kill him."
"You'll figure something out," Richard says, fully awake and joining the conversation. "Now if you could…" He gives Kahlan soft, loving eyes, and she returns them, her hand reaching out to pull him back to bed.
"You're disgusting," Cara says, and slams the door behind her.
Cara scouts the guards-in-training. Ever so slowly people have been returning to their shops, the bakeries, the butchers, the farms, and the training yards are full of sons trying to escape the family business. Cara thinks they'd be more deadly wielding a pitchfork than the stubby practice swords. At least they'd hold a pitchfork like a tool instead of a venomous snake.
"They're hopeless," a little voice says at her elbow, and she sees a grubby face, ripped dress. "I bet I could do better."
Cara looks the girl up and down. "Unlikely."
"My name is Luce," the girl continues, dogged, and Cara can hear her bare feet scuffing in the dirt as she follows Cara along the fence towards the Captain.
"I don't care," Cara says, quickly locating Trikos in the crowd and starting towards him.
"I been watchin' you," the girl says, "people are sayin' you're gonna start a proper guard force."
"General," Cara says shortly, slowing to a stop. Trikos glares back at her.
"I need-" Cara does a second of quick math, "-ten of your best. For the Keep Guard."
Trikos turns in dismissal. "Out of the question."
Cara takes two steps forward and puts her hand on his shoulder-
"Cara," Kahlan says. She sounds disappointed. Cara lifts the flank of meat wrapped in thin paper off her swollen eye.
"He started it," she mutters. Luce hops around them waving tiny fists.
"You smashed him," she crows, and starts to re-enact the fight with a cut of cured beef hanging from a hook on the ceiling.
"Who's this?" Kahlan asks, her anger softening as she looks at the child.
"A nuisance," Cara growls, and kicks half-heartedly at the girl. She hops out of the way of Cara's foot, grinning. Kahlan's face reverts back to deeply disapproving.
"I'm Luce," she chirps. She freezes under Kahlan's full attention, and tries to curtsy. It's even worse than Cara's, and a smile tugs at Kahlan's lips.
"So you are," she agrees. "Well Luce, can I entrust you with escorting The Captain of the Keep's Guard to her personal chambers?"
Luce's spine snaps straight. She salutes formally. "Aye, Mother Confessor."
"No," Cara says.
Kahlan glares. "You punched the General of Richard's Army, Cara. Richard's and mine. Benjamin is loyal, and an exceptional commander."
"Benjamin," Cara says, utterly loathing.
Kahlan looks upset, and suddenly tired. "Cara, can't you just try, just a little? We won. It's time to stop fighting and build something new."
Cara clenches her fingers, her gloves creaking. "Why would I ever want to stop fighting?"
"Don't you want to be happy?"
"I am happy when I'm fighting."
Kahlan presses her fingers to her forehead. "Luce, will you take my headache up for a nap?"
"I do not require a child's protection," Cara snaps. "If you truly wanted me to happy you never would have let the wizard spell me."
Kahlan is stricken. "Cara, you don't mean that."
Cara tastes adrenaline, the thrill before a killing blow. "I was never happier than when I served Darken Rahl," she spits, and storms out.
Cara opens the door in the morning and finds the girl asleep against her door. A passing servant throws her a dirty look. Cara nudges the girl with the toe of her boot. "Go away," she snaps.
Luce yawns. "What are we doing today?"
Cara steps over her head and continues down the hall. "We do nothing." She can hear Luce's heavy steps behind her, shuffling with sleep. She takes an abrupt turn down a narrow corridor and enjoys Luce's yelp as she knocks against the stone doorway. She opens Richard's and Kahlan's door without knocking.
Richard looks at her over his morning correspondence. "Cara. I'm leaving tomorrow for two weeks. I'll have a Journey Book, of course. Keep the place running, won't you?"
"Permission to kill the child-shadow," Cara says.
Richard takes a large bite of fruit pastry. "Denied," he says, mouth full. Cara growls. Richard offers her a slice of thick cut bacon.
"Thanks," Luce chirps, and stuffs the entire offering into her mouth.
Cara slams the door on them both.
"Sometimes I think I should Confess everyone and be done with it," Kahlan says, and knocks back another mouthful of wine.
Cara squints at her, suspicious. "Have you been split in two again?"
Kahlan gets that look on her face, the oh Cara twice over. "I'm trying to vent to a friend, Cara."
"Oh," Cara says. She stands from where she'd been lying across Kahlan's bed, and sets her own cup of wine aside. "I'll get the Journey Book."
Kahlan makes an impatient noise. "I'm not talking about Richard, Cara."
Cara nods understandingly. "I think Zedd is in his rooms." She takes a step towards the door.
"Cara," Kahlan practically shouts, and Cara smirks. Kahlan rolls her eyes. "Stop teasing."
Cara stretches, arching her back and clenching her toes, and lets herself relax back onto the bedspread, stretched out. The mattress dips as Kahlan joins her, and they stare at the ceiling together. "I feel useless," Cara informs the top right post of Kahlan's bed. "I don't think I'm cut for castle life."
Cara can't see Kahlan, but she can feel the incredulous look. "You led a charge against an uprising village last week."
Cara sighs heavily. "Religious fanatics with pointy sticks. They hardly gave me a fight."
Kahlan laughs, and Cara turns to look at her. "I'm sorry," Kahlan giggles, "I know you're feeling-bored. But Cara, you use sticks that aren't even pointy."
Cara allows her smile. "Well mine are better," she says, and Kahlan yawns. "You're tired. I should go."
"Mm," Kahlan murmurs, and Cara watches her eyes flutter, closed and open again as she clings to awareness. "You don't have to. I know you have nightmares."
Cara glares. "I do not."
Kahlan moves so their shoulders touch. "Fine. Don't have your nightmares right here, then." She closes her eyes deliberately and feigns sleep for two minutes before her breathing evens naturally.
Cara turns back to look at the ceiling. "Alright," she whispers to nobody, and listens to Kahlan sleep.
Cara dreams of the healing pools, Dahlia's hands easing her down from the ceiling and carrying her to the water, stinging on her cuts and bruises. Dahlia washes the sweat out of her hair and licks the bloody shell of her ear. leave your bones on the alabaster stones she hums as they slip underwater, the favored lullaby of their village. She kisses Cara, her eyes closed against the water, and the bubbles from their exhales stream from her lips.
Cara wakes crying, deep shuddering sobs that rip from her chest and make her head pound and her nose run. She feels at once sweaty and too cold, and the scar above her hip pulses with searing pain.
A soft cloth runs over her face, damp but not dripping. Kahlan shushes her, gentle, and smoothes the hair away from her forehead. Cara's breathing increases, harsh quick pants. "Why," she gasps out, lungs burning, "why-"
"I don't know," Kahlan murmurs, "sometimes things just happen that way."
Cara turns her head away to muffle her cries into the mattress. "I don't, I can't-"
"Sshh," Kahlan says, and overlays her temple on Cara's. Her breath comes soft over Cara's cheek. "all things pass, Cara. Even this."
"It never happened," Cara says, fighting to find her control. "it-we never happened. She never existed. Not the way I knew her."
"No," Kahlan says, "but that doesn't mean what you feel isn't important. She was real to you."
Cara feels herself stop, finally stop.
"Ugh," Kahlan groans in the morning, "why did you let me drink so much?" Cara drops the breakfast tray on the mattress beside Kahlan's head.
"Confessors," she says, and finds the venom dripping from her words is far more playful than sincere, "can't hold their drink." She opens the door, intending to find Kahlan's morning papers, and Luce falls onto her feet. "I hate you," she says.
"Good morning," Luce chirps. She brandishes a short sword and nearly hamstrings Cara's left leg. "Look what I found!"
Cara snatches it from her. "Come with me."
"I don't think I can move," Luce says, lying flat on her back in the training yard. "Everything hurts."
"As it should," Cara says, satisfied, "you have performed adequately."
Luce beams at her, perfectly trusting, and Cara shifts on her feet, uncomfortable. "Go to wash," she orders, and Luce scampers off.
"She looks up to you," Kahlan says from where she's leaning on a fencepost. "and she's young."
"What's your point?" Cara puts away the training dummy and throws a few handfuls of fresh straw over the dirt. "Shouldn't you be in a meeting?"
"Sssh," Kahlan says, "I'm in hiding. And the point is, would it kill you to throw some praise the child's way?"
"I was not praised," Cara points out, crossing to leans up next to Kahlan, their shoulders bumping. "Dinner?"
"Yes," Kahlan agrees, and they begin to walk up towards the kitchens. "but Cara, do you want her to be trained the way you were?"
Now that Cara fully understands everything that happened to make her who she is and was, she remembers things she didn't before. The way the minute shakes of her father's head were probably denials, his strangled cries denials. She thinks maybe every inhale, every sob, was a manifestation of his love for her, and the last thing he ever saw was her pressing an agiel to his veins.
"Cara?" Kahlan asks, and Cara sits up abruptly. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing," Cara says, an automatic denial that she immediately realizes is exactly the wrong response to put Kahlan off.
"Cara," Kahlan drawls, and embarrassingly, Cara hides her hands behind her, like Luce might. "Luce is looking for you."
Cara frowns. "She says she knows some other girls. Older. Trikos-" and she can't hide the derision infused in every sound of his name, "-won't let them join the proper army."
"Ah," Kahlan says, "and you form a Keep's Guard after all."
Cara snorts. "It will takes an eternity to shape them up well enough." She pauses, considering. "they will still be a step up from his men."
Kahlan rolls her eyes. "Now show me what you're hiding."
Hesitatingly, Cara shows her. "The agiel is useless when not paired. I was thinking of using these." She has two faintly curved blades, each weighing roughly the same as one agiel, slightly longer than she's used to. "The shape will take some getting used to, and-" she shows Cara the third weapon, a short sword made of blue metal. "Luce shows more talent for sword-and-shield."
Kahlan says nothing, and Cara flushes. "It is too much," she mutters, and starts to shove all three items back under the bed.
"No," Kahlan says sharply, "no Cara." She kneels next to Cara beside the bed and feels under the wooden from for the a length of linen tied in twine, shaped around an agiel. She carries it to a bookstand and sets it on the highest shelf. She smiles, slightly teary, and Cara looks at a point over her shoulder. "It is just enough," Kahlan says, and links their arms as they leave, "as it should be."
Cara dreams of a child. She has Kahlan's dark curls and Richard's smile, and Luce helps her on and off a pony while Zedd palms him sugar cubes and apple slices. She reaches her arms out to Cara to lift her from the saddle and lays her head on the leather of Cara's shoulder.
"Cara," Luce says insistently, and Cara swims her way awake. "It's today. All the girls are waiting!"
"Go away," Cara growls, and Luce laughs, rolling off. Cara hears the door shut behind her, and the yells as she exuberantly greets the staff on her way to the stables. When she steps out of her room Kahlan is sitting at her breakfast table.
"Richard is on his way," she reminds, and Cara rolls her eyes.
"Try to contain yourself in front of the children," she says, snatching the tea from Kahlan's hand and chugging it. "You and Richard can make it to your bedchambers if you just try."
Kahlan is far too happy at the prospect of seeing Richard again to be truly irritated with her. "Your girls await you."
Cara frowns at her. "The Keep Guard awaits us."
Kahlan looks at her. "No red leather?"
Cara looks down at herself. She's wearing light armor, plates stitched into strong fabric and sturdy boots, bracers on her arms and thick gloves. It's all etched with blue and white, the Amnell crest. The palms of her gloves bear an intricate knotted symbol, drawn up by an artist girl in the new Guard to represent Cara Mason. "No," she says finally. "Just this."
"Just you," Kahlan says, and when she smiles Cara smiles back.
"It's good to see you," Richard says, sliding off his horse. In two lines around him, the women of the Keep Guard attempt some sort of salute with their swords. Richard's lips twitch. Cara mentally assigns them three hours of swing-sword practice.
"My Lord," she says, with an edge of mocking. Richard grins at her, and pulls Kahlan closer.
"It's good to be home," he says, and offers her his hand.
Cara looks around, knowing the name of every person her eyes fall upon. Later she will eat dinner with Kahlan and Richard and Zedd, before riding a patrol with Luce around the walls. She has a standing sparring date with Trikos just before the last church bell, and she likes to check on the new recruit quarters before she trips over Luce on her way to bed. She takes Richard's hand and pulls him into a loose embrace. Kahlan leans against her back.
"So it is," she agrees.