Cara wakes once, and fleetingly, hours later.
Eyes slowly flutter open to an unfamiliar scene. Light floods in, and then comes the strong scent of turmeric and clove. A heavy sensation in her body renders her disgustingly disoriented for a longer moment than she could ever accept. Everything jolts. Everything hurts. Stark unfamiliarity and confusion make a violent impact. Her first (though sluggish) half-lucid thought is capture, and her first reaction is defense; she reaches for an Agiel and prepares to leap to her feet despite the weightiness she's now detecting her limbs.
But her body disobeys. The hasty attempt at motion and the spike in her heartbeat bring nothing but a fierce, nauseating headrush, and then Cara remembers.
She fights back against it, all silence and staggering willpower, as the searing gash and aching bruise near her temple scream of metal smashing into bone. The Sword of Truth, and behind it the Lord Rahl's eyes, both glowing with a white-hot sort of rage, a ferocious frenzy. Richard's teeth bared against her outstretched hand, a struggling press forward against her concentrated resistance and rippling tendons. She had complete control of the sword, control of him, control of his single-minded fury.
Until she didn't.
He was too strong; she was not strong enough.
She can almost feel the weapon's hilt bashing into her skull and it's too much. Her eyes are trying to claw their way out of her head. Her vision lurches and swims, sickening, as her body protests consciousness. Cara goes under again.
In the instant before she does, she catches a glimpse of the Mother Confessor's blurry face floating just above hers, gentle and earnest concern etched onto all of its features.
When she feels her mind cross with the rest of her again, she remembers to wait before opening her eyes.
Three deep and deliberate breaths, in through her nose and out through her mouth, to test the waters. Still that heady odor scent every time she inhales. It makes her stomach ache like it's full of rocks and her fourth breath shakes around the wobbling feeling. She's dizzy without any sight, so she still keeps her eyes sealed tightly shut.
"I think she's coming around again." It's Kahlan's voice, but it sounds far away, bloated, distended.
"Good," another voice replies - the Minder woman, Roga. Cara draws on the name sluggishly. She feels a touch on her forehead, something being lifted off of it, a strip of fabric bandage. It sticks at the spot where she felt the worst of the throbbing, and Cara realizes it's half-clotted blood bonding it to her skin. "She's still bleeding and she needs to be conscious and held down for the sutures. She took quite a blow, and I don't want her jerking awake when I start working with the needle."
And now Cara needs to open her eyes. She musters her strength and forces them to do so, forces past her body's attempt to protect her from the serrated pain in her skull. She is stronger than the pain, too disciplined to let it control her. Clenching her jaw as her eyes adjust to vision brings about a new surge of it, one that throttles her skin with sudden heat. She harnesses it, sits with it, and remains still.
Kahlan's face, wide-eyed and tense, reappears over her from her left side, where she kneels by Cara's supine body. "Cara, can you hear me?" Cara blinks and shifts her gaze to the periphery, looking without turning her head. "Are you in pain?"
She swallows nothing - her mouth is so dry. The words she gathers make it out of her mouth, but her tongue feels like a wooden block as it forms them. "I've had worse."
And that much is true. She has had worse, cumulatively, over her many proud years as a Mord-Sith.
But as the aching brims over again, from behind her eyes and down to her stomach and then to her limbs, she finds that it's more than she's felt all at once in a long while. With the pain comes a flash of twisted pride - this is a strong Lord Rahl she serves.
Kahlan seems satisfied by the answer. She smiles softly, but it doesn't reach the blue of her eyes, and Cara knows that she's uneasy. She's obviously avoiding being near Richard, keeping herself and her heart away from his new callous gaze. Why else would she be sitting here, in some other woman's home, keeping watch over Cara's unconscious body? It's not like she has a reason to be invested in her outcome.
And Cara has to check herself to make sure she hadn't just spoken out loud, because Kahlan speaks again. "He didn't mean it, Cara." Her voice is somber, quiet, vaguely fretful. "He's not himself. He's contending with something dark. He would never hurt you, or me." She's touching her shoulder and Cara wants her to stop, but can only make a weak try at shrugging away.
Because Cara isn't offended by his actions. She does not deserve to feel offended. Harm only came to her through her own fault.
"I should have been faster," she breathes over the ringing in her ears, "should have been stronger." She fights to keep her eyes open. Somehow this room is too bright. She's nauseous.
Kahlan shakes her head slowly, but says nothing, just drums her fingers on the leather at Cara's shoulder. Cara winces at the touch and her upper lip curls. She wants it gone. She doesn't need pity, she doesn't need to be stroked like a whimpering dog. Contempt and the pain turn her guts as she reaches for her hip, in slow-motion, limbs feeling so much heavier than hours ago.
"My Agiels," she growls, almost shouts, and the dazed sound of her own voice is too loud for her head. They're not holstered at her hip; her belt is gone. A crashing wave of alarmed anger. Kahlan presses her down through the thrash, keeping her from sitting up. Cara curses, a hiss through clamped teeth, willing away the gnawing. She needs their biting touch, a distraction, something to draw her attention away from this reeling awfulness towards a pain more familiar. "Where are they?"
Roga leans over her with a damp cloth and an unreadable expression, dabbing at the laceration, earning a thick snarl for her troubles. "Weapons are verboten under my roof. Especially ones as wanton as those," she says pointedly and plainly, almost haughtily, turning away to return the now-bloodsoaked rag to its washbowl. And Cara wants to fling herself at this infernally dense old woman who had the audacity and gall to disarm her, but Kahlan's palm is firm against her collarbone and she can't muster the strength to ward it off.
"Calm down before you do more damage," Kahlan whispers, halfway-understanding, mouth close to Cara's left ear. "Your Agiels are just outside, safe."
Cara groans a feeble protest because just outside isn't here in her hand, anchoring her through this. Roga is approaching again with a needle and catgut thread in hand. At the Mord-Sith temples, a wound like this would be cauterized with an Agiel and allowed to scar. She has plenty of these across her body, hard-earned and blood-won in fierce battle.
But that isn't an option, here, in this place with these people. Not with Roga. Not with Kahlan. Everything is delicacy and it boils her.
"Hold her down," Roga directs Kahlan, preparing the suture with practiced fingers. "This is going to be delicate work. He struck her near a vessel."
Cara wants to scoff, because she doesn't need to be held down. She can control herself, even though her head is still pounding along with every beat of her heart. But she'll ask just one more time, appeal to the Mother Confessor's infuriating softheartedness to get what she wants.
"Kahlan, I just need an Agiel," she murmurs, cracked, gruff, from a parched throat. "To grip. While she's stitching me."
Kahlan considers her, sympathy pooling in those kind eyes, which is not what Cara asked for. She sighs and glances at Roga, who gives her a hard stare in return. An unspoken no. These are her rules, her morality, her code. Cara looks at Kahlan and knows she won't overstep.
"I can't give you an Agiel," Kahlan says, voice like silk despite the unfavorable news. "But I can offer you my hand."
She proves it by carefully lifting Cara's wrist and cupping her leather-gloved hand with her own.
This time, Cara does scoff, though the quick breath gives rise to a crack of headpain. This is ridiculous, now. She is no child - even though Kahlan's hand is soft and warm, unlike the other sensations whipping through her.
"Thanks very much, but I'll suffer instead," she jeers, showing teeth to the Mother Confessor with a groggily derisive smile. She slips her hand away. Kahlan was apparently expecting the reaction because she just toys with her dark hair and shrugs.
"Suit yourself. I'll leave it there just in case. I'm stronger than I look, it can handle a mighty squeeze."
Cara doesn't have to reply because Roga is kneeling at her head now, needle hovering. "Be still," she warns. "This will hurt." She feels Kahlan's one forearm snake across the top of her sternum, a precaution. Her other hand remains close to Cara's. Cara's determined to need neither.
Roga slides the needle into her skin. Cara breathes, even, calculated, into the sensation. This is nothing. It pierces through from underneath the other side of the angry split in her forehead - the catgut pulls through behind it. She hones in on the dragging, the scraping. More of this and then it will be over. She is more powerful than the pain. She is Mord-Sith.
Two more loops and Roga clicks her tongue, commenting that the gash is jagged. Cara wants to snap and tell her not to worry about making it pretty, but the healer woman dislikes her enough already and is technically doing her a kindness (for which she didn't technically ask). She holds her tongue.
Now, Roga's fingers settle onto Cara's forehead, manipulating the skin into a flush line for the next stitch.
Every single one of Cara's nerves shrieks.
She accidentally grasps Kahlan's hand, and then lets go as quickly as she gripped on.
It's not the flesh, it's the bone. Roga's touch is nimble but the pressure is still too much for the bruised inflammation around it. The needle pokes again. More thumbing. Cara sucks her teeth and sees stars. She hopes her face is like steel.
Another stitch, and Cara feels it beginning to build. The contusion, the dizziness, the touching, it angers her stomach. There's white around the edges of her vision. She's breathing faster, harder, despite her work to govern it. Her heartbeat joins along with it, conspiring against her.
Roga's fingers send daggers through her eyes, through her skull. Her mouth is suddenly not so dry. She finds herself needing to swallow multiple times to clear it of saliva.
She knows that this is a body's way of reacting to a blow to the head, to the pain that manifests from it. But she's above her body's reaction. She will push it back, she will swallow it down, she-
She's going to be sick.
"Kahlan," she croaks urgently, going wide-eyed, tugging at Kahlan's hand before having to compulsively swallow again. And somehow Kahlan comprehends, snatching a basin from an arm's length away and holding it at the ready.
Cara turns her head (the ache in her neck), heaves into it twice, coughs and spits once. No other sound. The pressure of the action makes her head feel near to bursting. It tastes like winterberries and tastes like caustic weakness. Kahlan's hand is in Cara's hair, holding it back from her face, sympathetically tucking it behind her ear, and Cara hates this feeling and hates her hand there and suddenly wants to lean into it, never wants her kindly touch to be withdrawn, all at once.
After a moment of steadying herself, she spits one more time and then carefully nods the fact that she's through, aware of the fact that her skin is still connected to Roga's hand by the catgut. She's sweating now, on top of it all. Kahlan sets the bucket aside.
"I'll admit, I'm impressed," she comments, smiling enigmatically, reaching for a new cloth, cool and wet, to blot the unmarred side of Cara's clammy forehead, "that Mord-Sith manage to maintain their silent dignity even while vomiting."
Cara has no response beyond a weak sneer.
Roga picks up her work. Cara takes another deep breath and closes her eyes. Kahlan takes her hand this time, not bothering to acquire an invitation.
Cara does not withdraw.
When Roga is finished, she takes her leave, having other worries to attend to.
"You don't have to sit with me like a childminder," Cara says, pushing the willow back Roga gave her for the pain to one side of her mouth. It's admittedly helping. "Go to Richard, if you wish."
"He's with Zedd, trying to learn what's happening to him, to these people. I don't need to be there." Kahlan, still kneeling beside her, glances up from the poultice she's mixing with a mortar and pestle. Turmeric and clove, the scent that assaulted Cara upon waking, wafts from it. With her empty stomach, it's not as difficult to handle. "Besides, you're the one in need of a hand right now."
A flash of anger, of disgust. Cara sighs.
"I can handle myself just fine from here."
Kahlan, for her part, completely ignores the measured outburst. "Roga did fine work. This will heal with barely a scar." She dips her fingertips into the finished poultice and spreads it over Cara's stitches in thin layers. Cara can't help but notice that her handling is less abrasive than even the healer's.
"My mother made this poultice for every injury when we were younger," she recollects absentmindedly as she coats the sutured gash, seeming to speak more to the hut than to Cara. "The smell of it always reminds me of her."
Cara is silent. Maybe her mother did too, a lifetime ago. She can't remember.
Kahlan stands and gathers the cloth Roga left behind for Cara's wound dressing. She urges Cara to sit up with a crook of her finger, which Cara does, slowly.
"I know you don't want to hear this, but I'm going to say it regardless." Kahlan's looking straight at her as she weaves the soft fabric around Cara's head, covering and protecting the injury. "You're not among your sisters anymore. While you can use your Agiels for comfort all you want, you should be aware that you have other options now." She raises her eyebrows, gravely serious, and Cara is stricken by how entrancing she suddenly looks. "We're here now. You're allowed to reach out, you're allowed to be hurt, to let pain show. You don't have to hide it - it's not weakness. It's what we owe each other. It's how we grow to trust each other."
Cara breaks her gaze, looks everywhere but at Kahlan. This isn't what she feels like contending with at this very moment. It's raw and new and cleaving her nerves. It's something altogether more staggering than the hilt of the Sword of Truth ramming into her forehead.
"You all barely know me," she manages. It's true. They don't know her. Who she is, what she's done, what she plans to do. They don't know.
Does she want them to?
"That will come along the way," Kahlan says in a soft rebuttal. "But, what I know for now is that this headband suits you. Much better than the first bandage. This one makes you look hardened, fierce."
Cara smirks, then, that ever-present sardonic expression. "Please, Confessor. I already was."
Kahlan rolls her eyes, but smiles all the same.
"Can you stand yet?" she asks.
Cara braces herself and shows that she can.
Caldor's men march across the valley towards them.
The Minders surround Richard, Zedd, Kahlan, and Cara, holding weapons they will hopefully not brandish. This will be the final stand.
Cara's head still hurts but it's dull, now. She touches her Agiels, just a quick bursting grab. The pain doesn't stagger her. The headband is tight on her forehead. It's almost comforting.
Through the stiff and silent tension, she senses Kahlan's eyes on her. She returns the glance just in time. Kahlan inclines her chin, a subtle nod, an encouraging glance, maybe something else Cara can't decipher.
It's a fluttering moment of something intangible passing between them. Cara doesn't completely understand what it is, but Kahlan seems satisfied by it.
And that's enough.