DISCLAIMER: ABC, Disney, Terry Goodkind, Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, et al own this reality and these characters. I wrote this for my own entertainment and made no money from it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: When I scribbled down the first line, I was planning to write a lighthearted adventure fic. Apparently that wasn't the story that wanted to be told. Instead of fighting against the flashes of backstory that kept popping into my head, I listened to them. For better or worse, this is the result. Not beta read, so all mistakes are my own. Feedback welcomed and adored, but never required.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
WARNING: References to rape and torture, violence.
FEEDBACK: To cheerfuloceangazer[at]gmail.com

Life Interrupted
By ocean gazer


"I never knew there were so many shades of green in the world."

Cara's tone is amazed, not sarcastic, and it makes Kahlan smile in spite of her dark mood. She says lightly, "That's the upside of so much rain. The scenery is breathtaking."

A noncommittal grunt is Cara's only response, but Kahlan can read the nuances behind it.

The countryside they're in—rolling hills, thick with grass and dotted with stands of trees—has a far different climate than they're used to. Traveling in the wet weather has been a strain, despite the isolated beauty of the landscape. Being constantly chilly and damp makes Kahlan's bones ache and she knows Cara feels the same, though the former Mord'Sith would never admit to as much. They have oiled leather cloaks that keep the worst of the rain from soaking through, but it's still not enough to keep their breeches and shirts dry.

Kahlan slides off her horse, biting back a groan as stiff muscles protest. They've been riding hard for three weeks now, heading north and west, putting distance between themselves and Aydindril as quickly as they can, and she's not as young as she used to be. She's just grateful that the horses they stole are specially bred for speed and endurance; she'd never have dared to keep up such a relentless pace otherwise.

She turns as Cara slips off her own mount, and sees the way the blonde's mouth tightens in a grimace when her feet hit the ground. Kahlan winces sympathetically—no doubt her friend's leg is bothering her again.

But there's nothing to be done for it. Not yet. The sun is low in the sky, its last rays shining faintly over the hills to the west, and she knows they need to make camp—or at least a fire—before they lose the light completely.

Long practice leaves them working quickly and quietly, each with her set tasks, not needing to clarify who will do what. It's not like the old days when the two of them, along with Richard and Zedd, were wandering all over Creation in their haphazard quest for the Stone of Tears.

The memory brings a familiar pang, which Kahlan squelches ruthlessly. She can't dwell on that. Not now.

It isn't long before a fire is crackling merrily away, a brace of rabbits roasting over it. The horses have been groomed, watered, and fed. Their bedroll is set up; their waterskins are full.

Sitting on the ground, legs stretched out in front of her, Kahlan leans back against the trunk of the tree behind her, surveying their campsite. They're sheltered beneath a clump of old-growth evergreens. The lowest branches are more than high enough for them to stand under, and the dense canopy above keeps the ground mostly dry. Little sunlight filters through the thick tangle of branches, so the area is mostly clear of undergrowth.

Kahlan looks to the right, where Cara sits beside her. The blonde is leaning forward slightly, shaking her hair out of its ponytail, brush in hand to comb out the snarls.

She wonders—not for the first time since their reunion—how her friend remains so untouched by the passage of time. Cara looks only slightly older than when they first met, while Kahlan has abundant wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, and her hair is heavily streaked with grey.

Reflexively, Kahlan runs her hand through her shaggy hair, combing it with her fingers. Her fingertips brush against cool metal and she freezes, her heart suddenly beating too fast. It's not the Rada'Han itself that causes her reaction; she's worn the collar for more than twenty years and barely even notices it anymore. But it's only been six months since her hair—the symbol of her status as Mother Confessor—was hacked off. She hasn't yet adapted to her neck being exposed, to that stark reminder of her humiliation.

Fingers gently close around her wrist, pulling her hand away from her neck and back down to her lap. Cara's thumb strokes her palm reassuringly and the blonde's voice is soft. "It doesn't change who you are, cariad. But your hair will grow back. Just give it time."

Kahlan still has no idea where her friend got that term of endearment, but as always, it soothes her in a way that nothing else can. She nods mutely, musters up a tight smile.

She sees sympathy on Cara's face, but isn't surprised when her friend doesn't say anything else, simply strokes her palm once more before letting go of her hand. She watches for a moment as the blonde picks up the discarded brush and turns back to combing out tangled hair. Then Kahlan takes a steadying breath and settles back against the tree, closing her eyes. She focuses on the rhythm of her breathing, trying to clear her mind and relax always-tense muscles.

By the time she opens her eyes again, Cara is staring pensively at the fire, hair neatly plaited. Kahlan studies the other woman closely, sees her tight lips, the faint furrows in her forehead. She reaches out, lightly touches her friend's left thigh. "I know you're in pain," she says without preamble. "Let me help."

The blonde says nothing, but doesn't pull away, so Kahlan carefully draws the woman's leg into her lap and starts kneading the tight, rigid muscles. Her strokes are gentle at first, then slowly grow firmer as the knots loosen in Cara's mangled flesh.

Not that she can see the scars through her friend's breeches, but she was there when the wounds were inflicted—punishment for Cara's second escape attempt. She knows exactly how much damage the hot irons did. She was the one who nursed the blonde back to life and health afterwards. Even two decades later, Kahlan still has sharp memories of that horrible time.

She shivers slightly, both from the nip in the evening air and the disturbing images in her head. Cara pulls away from her and she looks up to see a frown on her friend's face. Moments later, the blonde abruptly pushes to her feet and stalks towards the fire.

Kahlan raises an eyebrow at the sudden movement, but it doesn't surprise her. After all, she's not the only one plagued by demons from the past.

Expecting her friend to leave their camp for a bit, needing some time to gather herself, Kahlan's caught completely off-guard when Cara instead heads over to their packs on the other side of the fire. The blonde fishes out a blanket and comes back to drape it across her shoulders.

Touched by the thoughtful gesture, Kahlan murmurs a quiet, "Thank you." Her friend moves away again, this time going to the fire to check on their dinner. She watches as Cara plucks the roasting stick out from the braces holding it up over the flames, and with a practiced move, slips the rabbits off the makeshift spit and onto a plate before breaking the stick in two and adding the pieces to the dwindling fire. The blonde returns, handing her the plate, then sits beside her. Staring at the flickering flames, they eat in silence.

By the time the food is gone, the fire has died down to a bed of glowing embers. Cara rises once more without a word and sets to work banking the coals for the morning. Kahlan clambers stiffly to her feet and heads over to the bedroll, exhaustion from another long day of travel setting in.

She pulls the blanket off her shoulders, spreading it over the top of the bedroll for more warmth, then slips inside the soft cocoon, squirming slightly to find a comfortable position on her side. Scant seconds later, Cara slides in behind her, spooning up against her back, draping an arm securely around her waist. Kahlan sighs softly and relaxes into the protective embrace.

In the old days, they'd have set a watch. Even with just the two of them, they'd have taken turns guarding each other. But not now. They both need whatever scraps of sleep they can get, and the chances are slim that Nicholas sent squads this way to look for them. Kahlan's certain he does have at least a few troops out hunting for them, but they took a lot of care to disguise their tracks initially, and they aren't going in any of the directions he might expect.

Besides which, if he has guessed where they are, where they're headed, and does have a squad after them, they're doomed anyhow—regardless of how watchful they are. Two against ten would have been manageable odds when they were in their prime as seasoned fighters. Now—with only one well-used hunting knife between them as a weapon—it would most likely be suicide.

But she doubts he's putting a lot of time or effort into finding them. He probably thinks they're just running for their lives. He definitely doesn't consider them a real threat. Kahlan knows he despises her—thinks she's helpless, powerless, worthless. She's seen it in his eyes, despite the suave mask he's perfected over the years to keep his true thoughts and feelings hidden.

Even with her Confessor's power suppressed, she's always been able to read her son.

Tension runs through her and she takes a deep breath, then another, forcing her thoughts away from that dark path. Cara's arm tightens around her, pulling her closer, and she snuggles against her friend, taking comfort in her steadfast presence. Closing her eyes, Kahlan suddenly feels her fatigue catch up with her, and she slips into an uneasy sleep.

Two weeks later, Kahlan finds herself missing the green and the wet. They've reached the first foothills of the Great Northern Barrier—a towering wall of impenetrable mountains stretching as far along the horizon as the eye can see. They're still traveling in grasslands with ample stands of trees, but the air is dry, the vegetation less luxuriant, and the wind biting, carrying the scent of snow though autumn has barely begun.

While the green lands they've left behind are—nominally, at least—part of the Midlands despite their isolation and sparse population, the area they're in now is claimed by no ruler or country. Its few inhabitants cluster in their hidden forest enclaves or lead nomadic lives, moving with the turn of the seasons.

Kahlan huddles under a blanket in front of the roaring fire, grateful that Cara managed to build a wind break out of branch and rock. She's equally thankful that in their pell-mell flight out of Aydindril, they managed to find enough cast-off servant's clothing that they can keep adding layers as the weather grows colder. None of it is designed for outdoor wear, of course, but it's far better than the rags she wore as a prisoner. And since Cara discarded her Mord'Sith leathers in disgust the minute her disguise to get into the palace was no longer needed, she knows the blonde is just glad to have something practical to wear.

Cara sinks to the ground beside her with a hiss, rubbing her hands together. Kahlan scoots closer, lifts one edge of the blanket and wraps it around her friend's back so they can both share in its warmth. They sit in silence for a while, listening to the crackle of the fire, watching the stars begin to emerge on the canvas of the night sky.

"I miss Richard and Zedd," Cara says abruptly into the dark.

The blonde isn't usually prone to sentimentality, but Kahlan understands what prompted it. The four of them, despite their bickering, made a good team. There was a sense of comfort and security in the bond they'd formed. Even after all this time, she finds it jarring to travel like this and not have the other two along for the ride—Zedd always looking for his next good meal, Richard always stopping to rescue every stray kitten in Creation.

Melancholy strikes as Kahlan's last memories of them swim to the surface.

Zedd's eyes alight with triumph after successfully teleporting Sister Verna and the triplets to safety in the Old World. His happiness turning to horror as enemy troops storm the Great Hall and Nicci's dacra finds a home in his stomach. A mass of Mord'Sith swarming Kahlan, fending off her daggers and beating her with their agiels until she collapses to the floor next to him. Blood pooling around him when the sorceress pulls her dacra free. Watching helpless, Nicci's boot grinding into the back of her neck to hold her down, as he bleeds to death in front of her, the light in his eyes growing dim, then fading out entirely.

Richard standing on a hastily erected wooden dais in front of the Confessor's Palace, struggling with the guards holding him. His eyes full of fire as Nicci drags Kahlan forward in her shackles and snaps the Rada'Han around her neck in front of the stunned crowd. Waving his bound hands in the air as he faces Darken Rahl, trying to convince his brother that there's a better way than this, that he is better than this. The conviction in his eyes turning to horrified disbelief in the seconds before Darken Rahl pulls back his sword to behead him, not able to comprehend—even at the very end—that his brother would ever actually hurt him.

She feels the burn of tears in her eyes as she whispers, "I miss them too."

Cara's arm slides around the small of her back, pulling her close. She lets herself fall into the embrace, leaning heavily on her friend, wondering if there will ever be a day when she's not haunted by ghosts.

Weeks stretch into months as they travel.

They've climbed over the third set of foothills and are now making their way westward through a narrow mountain canyon, following the winding path of the river that runs through it. Their pace slows more and more as the terrain grows rougher and autumn turns to winter. The ground along the riverbank is rocky and ragged. Jumbled rows of trees sprawl along the base of the canyon walls, their undergrowth so choked with brush and bramble as to be nearly inaccessible. Only a slender strip of clumped grass separates the stony riverbank from the treeline. The air is cold and crisp, the sunlight thin. Sleet falls more often than snow.

No people live here. Even animals are sparse. Cara's skilled enough as a hunter to keep them fed, but they've both lost weight they didn't have to spare in the first place. There's still enough forage for the horses, but even they are starting to look a little worse for wear.

They're well off any map Kahlan has ever seen.

She hopes the prophecy is right. She hopes they see some sign of their destination soon. She hopes she finds what she's hoping to find.

It's a lot of weight to place on nothing more than hope. But with everything she's lost over the years, it's almost all she has left.

They're picking their way down a steep rocky slope—on foot, leading the horses behind them—when the sky abruptly grows dark, heavy grey clouds rolling in and blotting out the sun. The wind begins to blow and fat snowflakes start to fall. Kahlan exchanges a worried glance with Cara. They're out in the open on the hillside, still a considerable distance from the small cluster of trees that marks the edge of the dell below.

Vulnerable. Exposed.

With nowhere else to go, they keep inching their way down the slope, the rocks growing slick under their feet. When the snow turns thick and heavy and the wind picks up speed, howling fiercely around them, Kahlan's heart sinks. What she'd hoped was just a passing storm has turned into a raging blizzard.

Half-blinded by the stinging snow and sleet, Kahlan struggles forward against the relentless wind, holding tight to her horse's reins. She follows Cara, one slow step at a time, trusting her friend's sense of direction to guide them through the whiteout conditions where nothing beyond their little circle is visible. She slips and falls more than once during the treacherous journey, and even the surefooted blonde takes a hard tumble before they reach the relative safety of the trees.

Just inside the scrap of shelter, Kahlan drops her horse's reins, absently noting that Cara has done the same with her mount. She stumbles over to a sturdy tree and braces her hand against the trunk, holding herself up, her breath coming in hard little pants. Seconds later, her friend joins her, slumping over, back against the tree trunk, gasping for breath.

After a minute, maybe two, Kahlan straightens and squares her shoulders. She holds herself up against the tree as she grimly takes stock of the situation. Her ankle is badly sprained, at least, and barely bears her weight. Pain throbs through her foot and leg with every beat of her heart. She studies her friend and fear knifes through her when she sees that Cara's eyes are bloodshot and watery, the lids and skin around them painfully red and cracked from wind and cold. The blonde's gaze is blank and unfocused, her face twisted in agony.

Kahlan knows they were lucky to get off the slope at all, but that victory cost them dearly. Though they've come this far, she's acutely aware that they can go no farther. Not in this state.

She wants to weep at that realization.

Then she sees Cara start to collapse and reaches out quickly, grabbing hold of the other woman in an effort to cushion her fall. They sink to the ground together in tangle of limbs. Pushing herself into a sitting position, Kahlan pulls her friend upright and into an embrace, holding on to her for dear life. It doesn't escape her notice that the blonde leans heavily against her, listless and quiet in her arms.

The blizzard howls overhead, showing no sign of stopping. Despite the shelter provided by the trees, they're still buffeted by strong winds and lashed by blowing snow. It isn't long before Kahlan realizes that Cara is shivering violently in her arms, and that her own hands and feet are numb with cold. The horses stand just on the other side of the tree, and she hears them wickering uneasily, apparently sensing that the situation is dire.

She blinks hard against a blast of snow, looks down to see that Cara's eyes are closed, her face slack. Kahlan has to fight to keep her own eyes open. Her energy is draining away quickly, like water through a cracked pot.

It galls her to have come so far, only to fail.

She tightens her grip on her friend, hugging her closer. The blonde is barely conscious, her breaths coming more and more slowly. Kahlan knows she's not far behind. In these conditions, it's a death sentence. She's sure Cara knows it as well as she does.

At least it will be painless.

She lowers her head, murmurs into Cara's ear. "I love you, dearheart."

She hears her friend's faint "Love you, too, cariad."

Summoning the last of her strength, Kahlan lifts her head, casting her prayer into the wild wind. "Creator, please watch over my people since there's nothing more I can do for them. And please keep Rikki, Kyla, and Jayden safe until they have the help and the strength to pick up this battle."

Energy spent, she slumps forward against Cara's limp body. She thinks she hears a musical lilt echoing in her ear, momentarily drowning out the roar of the storm. "All will be well, my brave one."

Though she knows it can only be her imagination, the words comfort her anyhow. She's done everything she can for her people—even living in the hopes of finding a way to help them when it would have been easier to die. But it's out of her hands now. Holding tight to that thought, she closes her eyes and gives in to the inevitable.

There are voices in the air around Kahlan. Women's voices. Soft. Reverent. Too distant, too quiet for her to make out any words.

She feels as though she's floating on a fluffy cloud. Soft and warm and comfortable. She doesn't feel connected to her body—her hurts are but a distant memory—and she's tired, so very tired.

So she just floats, safe and secure, content for the moment to drift.

When Kahlan finally wakes, she's surprised to find herself in a room with stone walls. She's lying on a stone bed, which is thickly padded with layers of soft wool, covered by a heavy woolen blanket.

She's equally surprised to find Cara sitting in a stone chair next to the bed, watching her.

She studies her friend carefully for a moment. Cara's hands and cheeks are chapped and ruddy from windburn, and her face is lined with fatigue. But green eyes are clear and alert, the alarming redness around them faded to pink. The blonde's shirt and breeches are clean, with neat patches showing they've been newly mended.

Kahlan takes stock of herself, realizing just how much she hurts. The bumps and bruises from her numerous falls ache, all her muscles are either stiff or sore, and her ankle throbs relentlessly though it's wrapped in a tight bandage. She feels like she's been tied behind her horse and dragged face-down across a rocky field. Twice.

She licks dry lips, tries to figure out where to start. "I guess we're not dead," she finally manages.

Cara's answering laugh is gruff and startled. "We'd hurt less if we were."

Kahlan chuckles, then braces her hands on the bed and slowly levers herself into a sitting position. "So what happened? Where are we?"

The blonde doesn't immediately answer, instead rising from the chair and settling pillows behind Kahlan, helping her scoot back to lean comfortably against them. That done, Cara sits again and just stares at her for a long moment—expression unreadable.

Just when Kahlan's patience is wearing thin, Cara speaks slowly. "I don't know what happened. But somehow, I think we've been taken to the place we were seeking."

Kahlan feels her heart beat faster at the words. Despite the prophecy, despite the ancient tales, she hadn't been entirely certain it actually existed. The hidden glen. The land of the wild magic. A sanctuary blessed by the Creator and concealed from the rest of the world. A land that guards some of the deepest, darkest secrets and tools of the old magic, lest they once again fall into the wrong hands and wreak havoc on the world.

"Your heart-sister speaks truth."

The voice is soft and musical. Kahlan starts in surprise, turns her head to find a trio of women standing just inside the doorway of the room. She'd neither seen nor heard any sign of their presence. Judging by Cara's wide eyes, neither had her friend.

The women all have close-cropped hair and are dressed simply, in grey breeches and tunics. They are unadorned, save for a clear crystal pendant each one wears around her neck. One woman is silver-haired and rosy-cheeked, her face lined with wrinkles. One is dark-haired with black skin, her eyes warm and her smile like sunshine after rain. One is fair-haired and pale, her features soft but her eyes stern.

The eldest speaks again in her melodious voice. "We had thought to let you rest and recover before hearing your petition, but the wind sends stirrings of haste. What brings you to this secret place, Kahlan Amnell and Cara Mason?"

Kahlan shares a startled glance with Cara before shifting her attention back to the silver-haired woman. "You know who we are?" When the woman nods, she continues, "But you don't know why we're here?"

The elder smiles serenely. "The truths we see may not be the truths you know. Your story is your own to tell."

There was a time when Kahlan would have readily understood that cryptic answer. That time is not now. She's been too tired and worried for too long to waste energy trying to parse out shades of meaning.

She exchanges another glance with Cara, sees her friend's almost imperceptible shrug. Taking a steadying breath, Kahlan turns back to the trio and says slowly, "We're here because of the prophecy." She pauses for a moment, searching her memory, then quotes, "When red and white fall in the lost, wild land, they shall find the calm in the storm. When red and white mix in the cradle of stone, the silver tears shall rise that can shatter the heart of darkness."

As always, she finds herself wondering why the prophecies pertaining to her so often seem to involve a stone and tears. But before she can get too lost in that irrelevant thought, Cara—ever practical—adds, "We're here because we need your help to defeat the evil that has overtaken our lands."

There is silence for a few minutes, and Kahlan struggles not to squirm under the weight of the women's scrutiny as they look back and forth between her and Cara.

At long last, the silver-haired one focuses her attention on Kahlan. "But the threat to your lands is not new," the elder says, her tone firm but not unkind. "It's been nearly half your lifetime since Darken Rahl and the sorceress Nicci brought their veiled army to Aydindril and seized control of the Midlands and D'Hara. Nearly half a lifetime since your toddler daughters were sent into hiding, your husband killed, you and your heart-sister taken prisoner. Nearly half a lifetime since you bore Darken Rahl a son—the Confessor son on whom his dreams of empire rested."

A violent shudder works its way down Kahlan's spine as the woman's bland words dredge up memories of those interminable months of rape and abuse at Rahl's hands. It took well over a year for her to conceive—her body having been damaged by the difficult birth of the triplets—and as Rahl's impatience grew, so did his delight in making her suffer. Even after all this time, the sense memory of his brutal touch makes her skin crawl.

Before she can get too lost in the painful past, she feels Cara's hand come to rest atop hers, caressing gently, soothing her. She draws a deep breath, steadying herself, and shifts her hand under her friend's so that she can twine their fingers together as they face the trio.

Kahlan nervously licks dry lips, then says softly, "No, the threat to our people and our lands is not entirely new. But Nicholas Rahl's grasp on the reins of power is. His capacity for evil and brutality is far greater than anything Darken Rahl or Nicci ever imagined."

The fair-haired one speaks, her voice hard. "Be that as it may, the time to act is long past. Why not kill the child at birth, knowing what male Confessors are? Why not strike him down when his sadistic tendencies first emerged? Why wait until after he killed his father and the sorceress on the day he turned eighteen? Why wait until after he cut off your hair in front of the gathered crowd, stripping you of your title? Why seek help now, when the damage is already done?"

The accusing words hang heavy in the air and Kahlan flinches at the weight of them. Before she can figure out where to start, Cara answers. The blonde's voice is husky with remembered pain, but her words are certain. "If you can see that much, then you already know that we had no chance to act. My attempts at escape led to injuries so severe that I couldn't get out of bed for half a year. When Nicholas was a babe in arms, we were kept in shackles, with Mord'Sith guards hovering over us every moment to keep us from doing him any harm. And once he was weaned, he was taken away into Nicci's care and tutelage."

There's no mistaking the hard edge to Cara's voice as the blonde states flatly, "There was nothing we could do back then."

Kahlan looks up when the dark-haired one clears her throat. The depth of compassion in the warm brown eyes catches her completely off-guard. The woman smiles at Cara and says gently, "No, there wasn't. Soon after that, you were taken back to D'Hara and re-broken to Darken Rahl's service. And you"—her hand gestures towards Kahlan—"were kept a prisoner, seeing your son but rarely and only when you were chained and in no position to hurt him."

Despite the dark-haired woman's sympathy, a bitter laugh chokes Kahlan's throat at the polite phrasing. The first time she saw her son after his weaning was the day he turned thirteen. It wasn't a social call. Nicci demonstrated various torture techniques. Nicholas observed them. She was the victim. Several months later, they came again and the pattern repeated. And again several months after that.

The next time they came to visit her, it was Nicci who observed.

She isn't aware that she's trembling until she hears Cara's whisper. "It's okay, cariad. It's in the past. It can't hurt you anymore."

Kahlan closes her eyes for a moment, then opens them again and takes a deep breath. Marshaling the self-control she learned under her father's heavy hand, the discipline that's allowed her to survive the nightmare she's lived, she schools her reactions.

Sitting up straighter against the pillows, Kahlan resolutely pushes the terrible memories away, though she still holds on to Cara's hand for dear life. Her voice is steady as she addresses the questions the fair-haired woman posed earlier, as she reiterates the answer her friend has already given. "While there's no undoing the damage that's already been done, it's never too late to take a stand against evil. We had no chance to take action before. But we have the chance now."

The fair-haired one looks at Cara. Her expression is harsh, belying her delicate features, and her tone is acidic. "And can you, Mord'Sith, act against your Lord Rahl?"

Kahlan feels Cara's sudden tension at the question, hears the tightly controlled anger in her friend's raised voice. "Nicholas Rahl is no lord of mine, and I am Mord'Sith no longer. I am free to act as I choose. And I choose to stand for our people—the people of D'Hara and the Midlands—to rid the lands of the tyrant who rules them."

Cara stops there, squeezes Kahlan's hand as if to calm herself, then continues quietly, "The bond that links Mord'Sith to their Lord Rahl normally transfers when one Rahl dies and another takes his place. But that didn't happen to me when Darken Rahl died. Instead, the tie was completely severed and I was released from my servitude. Though Nicholas is of the Rahl bloodline, he is also of the Amnell bloodline. I was already bound to someone of that lineage, and the existing attachment was too strong to break."

Though her friend's words are formal, as though she's reciting a long-learned lesson, Kahlan hears the raw emotion behind them. Even when Richard was alive, Cara's connection to her had almost been stronger than the blonde's tie to the Seeker—the man she'd chosen to serve. The three of them had always sensed it, though none of them had known how to explain it.

She still doesn't know how to explain it, come to think of it.

But the fair-haired one merely nods, as though it all makes perfect sense, then shifts her focus to Kahlan, her tone unyielding. "And you, Confessor? Can you take a stand against your son? Can you raise a hand against your own flesh and blood?"

Tears well up in Kahlan's eyes, but she answers readily. "I will always love the child who called me Mama and snuggled to sleep at my breast. But that child died years ago and I will not hesitate to strike down the monster who wears his face. Nicholas Rahl is evil and must be destroyed. Mother Confessor or not, my duty to my people comes first, as always, no matter what it costs me."

Silence falls once more. She holds tightly to Cara's hand as they sit still as statues, waiting. The trio of women exchange glances, holding a silent conversation, one that Kahlan can't even begin to understand.

The dark-haired one gives them a kind smile; the fair-haired one remains inscrutable. The silver-haired one simply nods at them, saying, "Thank you for speaking your truth. Rest now. We have much to think on."

And with those words, the women disappear through the doorway as quickly and quietly as they came. Kahlan stares open-mouthed at the empty space left behind in their wake. She isn't exactly sure what she expected to happen, but she knows that wasn't it.

She's not given long to dwell on it. Moments later, two more grey-clad women appear, carrying a small stone table which they set down next to Cara's chair. Three more women trail into the room behind them—one with a pitcher of water, one with a cup in each hand, one with a platter of fruit, bread, and cheese. The items are arranged neatly on the table and the newcomers leave without a word.

She glances at Cara, who offers a philosophic shrug, picks up an apple with her free hand, and starts eating. Untangling her hand from her friend's, Kahlan leans forward, reaching for a piece of bread and a slice of cheese, suddenly aware of just how hungry she is.

They've pleaded their case. Now all they can do is wait.

In the end, much to Kahlan's surprise, it doesn't take long for the women to make their decision. They return almost before she and Cara are finished eating.

Kahlan sits up straighter against her nest of pillows, steeling herself for whatever they might say. She notes that Cara has straightened in her chair—the blonde's face is impassive, but her jaw is set in a tense line.

This time, the fair-haired one is the first to speak. "We take our duty as guardians very seriously, and we each play a distinct role in eliciting and gauging the reactions of anyone who comes seeking the ancient magics. It is imperative that no one with ill intent be allowed access to the powerful spells and artifacts hidden here."

Kahlan nods in understanding. After all, her kind were created in large part as weapons. While time and the changing world have altered that role, she knows all too well how much destruction the powers of Confession can cause. She's painfully aware that she's left shattered lives in her wake. Ever since she was old enough to truly understand the responsibility that comes with great power, she's never taken it lightly.

For the first time, the fair-haired woman's stern expression softens into a smile. "You didn't speak of vengeance or revenge for the wrongs done to you. You didn't seek help for your own sake, but for the sake of your people. And you did so because even with your doubts about the prophecy"—her smile turns wry as she glances at Cara—"you see no other way this evil can be overcome. We read this truth clearly in your hearts."

Hope begins to blossom in Kahlan's chest and she feels like she can breathe again. The dark-haired woman speaks, her eyes flashing with fire. "With the Creator's blessing, we will give you the tool that can fulfill the prophecy. While we may not interfere with the path of your journey, you will have what small bit of aid we are allowed to give along the way."

"Thank you," Kahlan says into the sudden silence, hears Cara murmur the same thing. It's not nearly enough to express the depth of her feelings, but it's all she can think to say.

The silver-haired one holds up her hand to silence them. "Even with the tool and our help, do not think that this will be easy. As you know very well, magic always commands a price. There will be pain and suffering and loss. You may not survive."

She feels Cara's hand slip into hers, lets her friend speak for both of them. "We are no strangers to suffering. Whatever the price, we'll pay it—even death—if it means that Nicholas will be stopped."

The elder nods as though she'd expected as much, then reaches into a leather pouch slung over her shoulder. Kahlan watches curiously as the woman pulls out a grey stone bowl and short dagger, then walks over to the bed, the dark-haired woman close behind.

The silver-haired one sets the bowl down on the bed next to their joined hands, then holds the dagger out to Cara. The blonde lets go of her hand, and Kahlan observes silently as her friend takes the blade and turns it over thoughtfully in her hands. She sees the elder move slightly away from the bedside while the dark-haired woman comes to stand in between the two of them.

The older woman's voice is commanding. "Slice open your heart-sister's hand and let the blood flow free into the bowl."

Cara's questioning eyes search her face and Kahlan gives a firm nod, holding out her left hand, positioning it over the bowl. The blade is sharp, the cut is deep, and her palm is throbbing by the time the dark-haired woman pulls her hand away and wraps a bandage around it with tender, expert fingers.

The silver-haired woman moves forward again and hands Kahlan the dagger, giving her the same instructions. She grasps the handle firmly, her blood still wet on the blade, and cuts into Cara's outstretched palm with no hesitation. She watches in mute fascination as her friend's blood drips into the bowl, mixing with hers.

Nothing happens.

It's not until the elder is once again in possession of the dagger and Cara's hand is securely bandaged that Kahlan can feel the magic moving around them. It's strong enough that even the Rada'Han can't dull her senses to its presence. The dark liquid in the bowl shimmers, like the morning sun glistening on the surface of a lake.

There's a sudden dazzling light, so bright that she has to close her eyes. When she opens them and can finally see again, there's no trace of blood left in the bowl. Instead, two thick silver rings lie in the bottom of it, each tapering to a point at one end to resemble a teardrop. When the elder picks them up, Kahlan realizes that they're connected, molded together on their rounded sides as though they've been forged in a fire.

The silver-haired one slips the rings onto the middle and ring fingers of Kahlan's injured left hand. They fit perfectly—as though made specifically for her—and they hold her two fingers closely together, as though they were but one digit.

She looks down at her hand in awed disbelief for a moment, then stares open-mouthed at the silver-haired woman, who smiles wryly. The elder says, "Harmless as it looks, it is a powerful tool. It will tell you when the time is right to use it. When the metal burns hot against your skin, place your hand against the evil one's heart."

When the woman says nothing further, Kahlan trades an incredulous glance with Cara. "That's it?"

The elder smiles wryly again. "That's it. The simplicity is part of why it's so dangerous." Then the woman grows sober, and warns, "But remember—the effect will be fast, forceful, and furious."

Kahlan's mind churns with questions, not the least of which is how in the world she's supposed to get close enough to Nicholas to touch him. She sees her own questions and doubts mirrored in Cara's eyes. But then she thinks about the improbability of Cara being able to get back to Aydindril and free her, about the odd coincidences that allowed them to escape undetected before the city gates were closed, about the unlikelihood of them finding this secret place at all.

Who is she to doubt these mystical women, when they've given her exactly what she came seeking?

She sees Cara's barely perceptible shrug, and finds it oddly reassuring. Her friend is far more pragmatic than she, and is no doubt not counting on the ancient magic alone to do the trick. The blonde likely has already formed one contingency plan and is busy working on another.

Kahlan turns her attention back to the trio and says simply, "May it be as it should."

The words are from an old Midlands ritual, used more symbolically than literally these days, but she sees the satisfied nod the fair-haired woman gives and the approving look in the eyes of the silver-haired woman.

The dark-haired one smiles in response as she places one hand on Cara's shoulder, one hand on Kahlan's. "I'm going with you," the woman says, "so that if you do not succeed in your task, I can retrieve the silver tears and keep them safe. That is the only way in which I will interfere once you've started on your path—other than that, you will be completely on your own."

The words calm the last of Kahlan's immediate worries and she murmurs her sincere thanks. While failing to stop Nicholas would be bad, allowing such a dangerous tool to fall into his hands would be unbearable. It's a relief to know that at least she doesn't have to fear that outcome. It's cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless.

Kahlan looks over to find that Cara is nodding. Her friend's tone is perfectly even. "You've done your part with the help you've given us. Now it's time for us to do ours."

The dark-haired woman lifts her hands from their shoulders, then holds them out, gesturing for both of them to rise. "Then come. The danger grows stronger and time grows short."

Kahlan's ankle protests as she pushes off the bed and slowly gets to her feet, but she ignores it. In the grand scheme of things, it's a minor pain, and the bandage offers enough support that she can walk, albeit with a limp. She trails behind the dark-haired woman and Cara as they make their way out of the room.

She says a little prayer to the Creator that one way or another, this will all be over soon.

After the months it took to travel to the wild land, Kahlan finds herself completely disoriented when their return to the Midlands happens in the blink of an eye. One moment, she and the others are standing in a stone building in the remote northwest, staring into a mirror. The next, they're standing in the middle of the forest that lies just to the south of Aydindril.

The dark-haired woman hands Kahlan a sturdy wooden staff in a scabbard, then hands Cara twin sheathed daggers. "Our gift to you. Strength and courage, my dears." The woman smiles, then disappears into thin air as though she'd never been there.

Kahlan stares questioningly down at the staff in her hands. On the one hand, the gift is simply practical. She hasn't had access to a weapon since being imprisoned, and Cara abandoned her agiels at the same time she shed her Mord'Sith leathers for good. On the other hand, she wonders what the women have seen that makes them think that weapons will be needed.

After a moment, she shakes her head and resolutely resolves not to worry about it. She's come this far on blind faith. So far it's served her well.

She glances over at Cara, who is nonchalantly strapping the daggers to her thighs, seemingly unbothered by either their abrupt arrival here or the unexpected gift. Instead, green eyes are alert and wary, studying the surrounding area intently for any signs of danger. After a few minutes, Kahlan sees the subtle relaxing of the tension in her friend's shoulders. Clearly, there's no immediate threat. When the blonde turns to look at her, she pulls the strap of the scabbard over her head and adjusts it so the staff is resting comfortably across her back.

Without a word, Cara sets off, blazing a trail deeper into the woods. Kahlan follows closely, trusting her friend to know where they're going and lead the way.

Three days of cautious travel through the forest has brought them to the edge of it. They're standing behind a clump of shrubs, surveying the landscape beyond. There's a broad, wide meadow stretching out past the line of trees. Beyond that, in the distance, Kahlan sees the walls of Aydindril, the dark blots of buildings looming behind the walls, and the shadowy shapes of the northern mountains beyond.

It looks pretty as a painting. Peaceful. Quiet.

But as Kahlan knows well, appearances can be deceiving.

She whispers to Cara, "What now?"

Her friend's forehead is furrowed, mouth twisted in a frown. Kahlan understands the reaction. Trying to cross the open field is tantamount to suicide. But there has to be a way for them to get in to the city unnoticed.

Cara opens her mouth, presumably to offer a suggestion, then hisses in sudden alarm, hands reaching for her daggers. Kahlan doesn't waste time asking questions. Instead, she pulls the staff free from the scabbard, reassured by the heavy weight of it. It doesn't look like much, but she knows that in the right hands, it can take out a knee or knock a person senseless.

She looks up in time to see a troop of soldiers drop out of the trees above, landing just a few feet away. Without prompting, she moves closer to Cara, so that they're standing back to back. And then, they wait, watching warily as the ten men circle them. Part of Kahlan wants to rush them, wants to go on the offensive and vent some of her long-simmering anger. She holds her ground. The odds are already against them, and giving in to anger will simply ensure that they lose.

The men study them in turn and for a full minute, nothing happens. Then the squad leader gives a curt command. The men move in, swords drawn, and the battle is on in earnest.

Though it's been years since Kahlan last fought anyone, her body remembers what to do and though her reflexes are slower, she still lands blows and blocks attacks. Behind her, Cara moves with deadly precision. The world narrows to thrust, duck, hit, parry.

It's not long before Kahlan's arms are lined with gashes from blows she couldn't fend off, and a quick glance tells her that Cara is favoring one leg. But four men lie on the ground, not moving, and another two—though still upright—are clearly hurting.

Still, it's not enough to turn the long odds to their favor. While one man keeps Kahlan busy, another strikes out with his leg, connecting with her midsection and sending her sprawling backwards to the ground. The wind is knocked out of her and she lies motionless on her back, staring up at the figures moving around her, struggling to draw breath.

She sees her friend turn in alarm with a frightened gasp, then watches helplessly as one of the men moves in to take advantage of the distraction and clubs Cara in the back of the head with the hilt of his sword. The blonde's face goes instantly slack and white as she collapses in a heap on the ground next to Kahlan.

Kahlan wants to scream or sob in frustration. But it's still a struggle to breathe. She can't move, can't speak, can't do anything except lie there—defenseless. A face looms over her, filling her field of vision. She can tell from the insignia on his shoulder patch that it's the squad leader. He smirks down at her. "Well, well, well. Look who we have here. My Lord is going to be very, very happy to see you."

Her heart sinks as he lifts his foot. Her last thought before his boot impacts her jaw is fierce regret that she's once again failed.

Kahlan lies in an awkward sprawl on the floor of the throne room, unable to move. Pain sings along every nerve ending. She's suffered torture at Nicholas' hands before, but this time was the worst.

This time, it was personal.

She's just glad that his anger is focused on her, not on Cara. Not that her friend is in good shape—she's slumped against the wall in her chains, barely conscious. But at least the blonde has only suffered beatings at the hands of the guards. Bad, but not as bad as it could be.

Kahlan hates seeing Cara suffer because of her.

Footsteps echo on the floor and boots enter her field of vision. Nicholas squats down in front of her, flanked by two of his elite guards.

"You shouldn't have come back, Mother." He practically spits the last word. "Especially since I now have the key to your collar. First, I'm going to take the Han of your precious Mord'Sith—her immunity to magic. Then I'm going to take your Han, the power that made you such a powerful Confessor. And then I will truly be unstoppable."

Her blood runs cold at his words and she whimpers, not from pain, but from the agony of knowing just how thoroughly she's lost this battle. The only consolation she can find is that since Nicholas will be stealing their Han, not actually using his Confessor's power, his touch won't kill Cara. Though perhaps death would be a mercy compared to whatever else he has planned for them.

He rises and snaps his fingers, and this time her whimpers are from pain as his two guards roughly lift her. She wants to fight them, but has no strength. She can't even get her feet under her properly. She can only hang limply between the two men, her head held up by one's cruel grip in her hair, and watch in horror as Nicholas crosses over to Cara.

She sees him grab the blonde by the throat, forcing her head up, his fingers squeezing hard, digging into pale skin. Cara goes rigid in his grip, face twisted in agony, hands fisted so tightly around her chains that her knuckles turn white. When Nicholas finally releases her, a few seemingly endless minutes later, Kahlan sees the tears brimming in green eyes, sees that the blonde looks confused and bereft.

Her heart breaks at the sight.

Nicholas snaps his fingers again and the guards drag her over to him, standing her sideways in front of Cara. Looking up at her son, Kahlan sees the sadistic delight in his eyes. He rattles off orders that she can't hear over the sudden loud rush of blood in her ears. One guard props her up while the other circles behind her, one of his arms wrapping securely around her torso, his free hand twisting in her short hair. The first guard lets go and moves away to stand behind his Lord, and she feels the press of the body behind her as the second guard holds her in place, using his tight grip on her hair to force her head back, baring her throat.

She feels Nicholas' fingers tracing the outline of the Rada'Han around her neck, then hears a soft click and gasps in shock as the metal band abruptly falls away. Her throat feels oddly exposed after so many years in the collar, and she feels power stirring in her, power that's been suppressed so long she barely remembers how to use it. She hears Cara's labored breathing beside her and anger suddenly bursts forth—anger at her friend's mistreatment, anger for her friend's suffering. She sees red, has a vague memory of feeling this way before, when she went into the Con'Dar.

But before the magic can explode forth from her, her son's hand closes around her throat and she hears him laugh. "Your magic can't affect me," he says smugly. "I'm as immune to it as my father was. But I will take this power for my own."

His fingers tighten with bruising pressure and she feels a distinct magical tug. Her neck tingles, her throat convulses, and she feels her Han being pulled out of her, bit by agonizing bit. The red leaves her vision as the power of the Con'Dar is stolen from her.

The pain is excruciating and she can only dangle there in the grip of the guard, lost in the overwhelming sensation.

Then she feels the burning.

It takes a moment for her fogged brain to comprehend this new source of pain. Finally she realizes that two fingers on her left hand feel as though they're on fire.

The rings. The silver tears. The ancient magic.

It all comes back to her in a flood of awareness. The knowledge that she still has another chance to act gives her a sudden burst of strength. She jerks in her captor's arms as though she's convulsing in pain, and when he reflexively loosens his grip on her hair, she falls forward limply, raising her left hand and bracing it against Nicholas' chest as though she's struggling to remain upright.

It's not entirely an act.

The guard readjusts his grip on her hair and yanks her head back again, but makes no move to pull her away from his Lord. For his part, Nicholas simply smirks at her struggles, his sole focus on the hand around her throat and the power he's draining from her. As the last of her magic flows into him, she feels her energy fade with it and nearly collapses where she stands. The only thing that keeps her on her feet is the hand tangled in her hair, the fingers around her neck, and the arm around her waist. That, and the force of her will.

She feels the weight of defeat settling heavily on her shoulders. She closes her eyes against the bitter tears that threaten.

Nicholas laughs triumphantly, but the sound ceases as abruptly as it began. Just as abruptly, Kahlan feels biting cold underneath her fingers where they're resting against her son's chest. Her eyes fly open in shock and a strangled gasp escapes her bruised throat. The man in front of her is turning to ice, inch by inch, his face set in a mask of horror. His chest is freezing beneath her hand and the fingers around her throat burn with fierce cold.

In less than two minutes, Nicholas Rahl, self-proclaimed Supreme Ruler and Confessor of the World, is a living statue.

She hears the panicked breaths of the guard holding her, sees the other guard frozen in shock where he stands behind his Lord. Then she hears a tremendous crack, feels movement under her hand where her son's heart should be, hears more cracking. The sound is almost deafening.

Then there's an explosion.

Kahlan is thrown through the air, head over heels, the world around her a confusion of silver light and whipping wind and sharp, lacerating shards of ice. A wall rushes to meet her and the world, mercifully, goes black.

Darkness. Pain. There is nothing but darkness and pain. They consume all of Kahlan's fledgling awareness.

She doesn't know if she's alive. She doesn't know if she's dead. She seems to be in a void of nothingness. Nothingness except for the pain.

Clinging to that thin sliver of consciousness, she opens her eyes. At least she thinks she does. All she finds is darkness. Is she blind? Or is there simply no light?

Panic begins to set in. She'd expected an afterlife of some kind, knowing what she knows of the Keeper and the Creator, not this void.

And then a sound emerges from the echoing silence. A soft sigh, followed by slow, steady inhales and exhales.

The breathing is very quiet, but Kahlan knows that sound like she knows the sound of her own name. It's Cara's sigh. Cara's breaths.

She can still see only darkness and she can't seem to move anything but her left hand. Pain explodes as she flexes her fingers, fierce enough to make her gasp, but she doesn't stop. A fraction of an inch at a time, she moves her hand, her fingers stretching out, feeling for anything at all...

Her pinky touches something. Warm. Pliable. Knobby.

Fighting the pain, she probes further, her fingers exploring by touch.

A hand. Cara's hand. She recognizes the misshapen joint of a finger from when her friend broke it.

She settles her hand on top of Cara's, exhausted from just that small expense of energy. She closes her eyes and gives in to the darkness again, reassured that wherever she is, at least her friend is with her.

When Kahlan wakes again, there is still pain, but this time, there is light in the darkness. She blinks hard against the light, dim though it is, trying to orient herself. Her vision is fuzzy and she can't see anything more than vague outlines and muted colors.

Cara's hand is still under hers, warm and soft and solid. It anchors her.

A new image drifts into her field of vision—blurry and round and black as midnight. After a moment, her eyes focus enough to recognize that it's a face. The dark-haired woman from the hidden glen. The one who brought her and Cara to the Midlands, who stood guardian over the magical artifact.

The memory stirs something in her. She struggles to form words, her lips moving soundlessly for a moment. Finally, her dry throat and mouth cooperate and she manages to rasp, "Is Nicholas dead?"

White teeth flash in a smile. "He is. His body was destroyed, his soul banished. Nothing salvageable remains."

Kahlan struggles again, manages to lift her hand off of Cara's and hold it up towards the dark-haired woman looming over her. "Here," she croaks feebly.

She's grateful the woman seems to understand what she doesn't have the strength to say. She feels a gentle hand slipping the teardrop rings off her fingers as the guardian once again takes custody of the powerful tool.

Relieved of that burden, reassured by the promise that her son is gone, his brief but brutal reign ended, Kahlan closes her eyes once more. She settles her hand over Cara's again, and slips back into the comforting darkness.

Kahlan comes back to herself in pieces. First, she's aware of pain—the dull, constant ache that's been her companion for...days?...weeks? It's familiar enough that after a moment she's able to tune it out. Next, she's aware of Cara's hand under hers, turned now so that their palms are pressed together, their fingers twined. The warmth of the skin against hers is soothing, giving her the strength to keep taking stock of things.

Next, she becomes aware of softness beneath her and a warm weight on top of her. Frowning slightly as her brain struggles to make sense of things, she finally identifies them as a mattress and blanket.

Proud of that accomplishment, she next focuses on her ears, listening. Soft sounds of breathing. A low murmur of voices—two, no, three—people. Two of the voices sound achingly familiar, though she can't place them. The third she knows instantly, without question. Cara.

She concentrates, separating out the sounds, trying to make sense of them. She hears, "Where are we? What happened? Why hasn't she woken up too?"

Cara's voice is frantic and brings Kahlan fully back to herself. She opens her eyes quickly, then moans at the blinding glare of light. She blinks hard against the brightness, willing her eyes to adjust.


It's the simplest of sentences, but the love and relief in Cara's voice is unmistakable. She feels a firm squeeze against her fingers and though it hurts, she squeezes back.

The dark-haired guardian appears above her and she feels a hand under the back of her neck, lifting her head. Pain flares at the movement, but she ignores it, and feels something hard pressed against her split lip. A cup. She takes a sip. The cool water soothes her dry mouth and throat, and she sighs gratefully. She takes another sip, and then the cup is moved away, her head gently resettled against the pillow.

She wants to sit up, to figure out where they are, to take stock of how her friend is doing. But she's too fatigued to try moving that much. Instead, she slowly turns her head, stiff and sore muscles protesting, to look at Cara, and finds the blonde head turned towards her, green eyes studying her face anxiously.

Her friend looks terrible. Cara's face is covered in bruises, burns, cuts. One eye is blackened. There are faint rust-colored streaks in her hair—remnants of dried blood.

She's a sight for sore eyes.

Kahlan's sure she looks equally bad, but she sees the same sort of relief and happiness on Cara's face that she's feeling. Against all odds, they're both alive.

She manages to smile at her friend, then turns her head again so that she's looking up. She finds her voice, though it's rough from disuse, and echoes Cara's questions. "What happened? Where are we?"

A new face enters her field of vision. It's awfully familiar, but it takes a minute for Kahlan to put the pieces together. "Sister Verna," she breathes in wonder.

The woman in question clears her throat. "It's good to see you both again, though I wish it were under better circumstances. We're in the servants' wing of the Confessor's Palace. It suffered the least damage, and most of the servants have remained loyal to you despite the years of Rahl's rule. They've been eager to help take care of you both."

One of the things that kept Kahlan going during her years of captivity was the awareness that many people of the Midlands did not blindly accept Rahl's rule. They went along with it in order to keep themselves off the chopping block, but their loyalties remained to the old ways. She'd had enough veiled conversations with servants throughout the years to know that such quiet rebellion was alive and well.

The woman from the hidden glen speaks quietly. "When the magical tool destroyed Nicholas Rahl, it caused a massive explosion. Most of his ardent followers—guards and Mord'Sith—were in nearby chambers when it happened and were killed instantly. Many more were wounded. It was utter chaos."

It's not hard for Kahlan to imagine the scene. All the top leaders dead, no one sure who was in charge or what should happen next. In a government run by a dictator, it was a recipe for anarchy.

The dark-haired woman continues, "And then, into the midst of the confusion, a delegation magically appeared from the Old World. Some focused their skills on treating the wounded and repairing damage, others focused on rounding up Nicholas' remaining loyalists and taking charge of things."

"My daughters," Kahlan whispers.

It's a statement, not a question, but Sister Verna answers anyhow. "Yes, they're here. Along with several Sisters of the Light, a handful of warriors, and a young but talented wizard. Our eldest prophet had a vision, assembled our group, and told us the time had come and we were urgently needed. Then he teleported us to Aydindril."

It's a lot to take in all at once and Kahlan's head is spinning. She hears Cara croak, "How long?"

The dark-haired guardian answers, "It's been eight days. Long enough that we were starting to worry." The woman pauses there, then continues gently, "Between the trauma of losing your Han and being caught in the middle of the explosion, we weren't sure you'd ever fully wake."

It was a trauma; that much Kahlan recalls clearly. Most of her memories are still—thankfully—blurry, but she sharply remembers the terrible look on Cara's face as Nicholas stole her power from her, as well as her own agonizing sense of loss.

Still, it's not the first trauma either of them has suffered. They're nothing if not survivors.

She hears Cara's soft snort, isn't surprised when her friend's words echo her thoughts. "My Han was a power I used as needed, but it didn't define me. And Kahlan has learned to live without her magic since she was locked in the Rada'Han. We'll adapt to what is. We always have."

Kahlan sees depths of understanding in the dark-haired one's warm gaze, but before the woman can say anything, Sister Verna breaks in. "Good. Because the world needs you. We need you."

The weight of duty settles around Kahlan's shoulders and she suddenly wants to cry. She's hurt, exhausted, and overwhelmed, and wants nothing more right now than time to rest and try to recover from the toll her ordeal at Nicholas' hands has taken. But other people's needs have always taken precedence over her own, and saving her daughters all those years ago will have been for nothing if she can't help them now...


The dark-haired woman's voice is quiet, but as forceful as any yell. The guardian's hand rests lightly on Kahlan's shoulder, but her voice is hard as she addresses Sister Verna.

"You have a devoted populace, grateful for its freedom from the rule of the Rahls. You have a group of seasoned guards and Mord'Sith who despised Nicholas and have sworn their loyalty to the Confessors. Your own wizard verified their oaths under truth spell. You and your Sisters have spent years teaching these young women about who they are and what they can do. If they are unable to take on this task now, when the circumstances are entirely in their favor and with you and your Sisters right there to guide them, then they'll never be able to do it."

Kahlan is surprised by the gentle woman's harsh words, but is even more surprised by Sister Verna's reaction. The older woman shakes her head, a rueful expression on her face. "You're right, of course."

The guardian's tone softens. "You'll have their help when it's truly needed, I promise. But that time is not now. Kahlan and Cara deserve peace and quiet to heal, and I intend to make certain they have it."

Sister Verna nods and says softly, "As you wish," then turns and leaves without another word.

When she's gone, Kahlan feels tears well up. She doesn't know if they're tears of relief because of the guardian's protectiveness or tears of frustration because of the burden of Sister Verna's expectations. She feels Cara's fingers tighten against hers, looks over to see worry written across the blonde's face. More than anything, she wants to reassure her friend, but has no idea what to say, isn't even sure she can get words out past the lump in her throat.

The dark-haired woman trails her fingers lightly down Kahlan's cheek, wiping away some of the tears, and the gesture soothes her, calms her. The guardian's voice is gentle. "You've more than done your duty to your people. Things are stable right now as people celebrate their newfound freedom. Rest without worry. All will be well."

Something in the words makes Kahlan realize just how tired she is. And she sees Cara blinking owlishly, clearly fighting her own fatigue.

Overwhelmed by everything, she feels the sudden need to be close to her friend. Forcing nearly useless muscles to cooperate, she tries to scoot closer to Cara, a fraction of an inch at a time. Pain flares through her abused body and she bites her lip in an effort to keep from crying out. Suddenly, she feels strong hands sliding underneath her back and knees, and surprise stills her movements.

Before she has time to process what's happening, the dark-haired woman lifts her gently, almost effortlessly, and sets her down right next to Cara, close enough that they're touching from shoulders to calves, their still-joined hands wedged snugly in between their hips.

The solid warmth of her friend's body is lulling. Reassured by Cara's tangible presence and the guardian's compassion, Kahlan closes her eyes and lets sleep take her.

Eight days slide into eight weeks as Kahlan and Cara heal.

Bruises fade from purple to brown to yellow. Broken bones slowly knit together. Burned skin goes from angry red to muted pink.

The minor cuts and scrapes they sustained are gone by the time they're able to spend more of their days awake than asleep. It isn't long before Cara is able to get up and move around under her own steam. But Kahlan has deeper wounds, a legacy of Nicholas' torture, and while the wounds are healing, scars forming over the damaged skin, she remains confined to bed.

Cara rarely leaves her side, watchful and attentive. Kahlan is deeply touched by the gesture, knowing her friend's restless nature.

The dark-haired guardian, whose name they finally learn is Radhala, is a constant presence, tending to them alongside the servants. Sister Verna visits frequently, one or more of the triplets always with her.

The first time her daughters come to see her, Kahlan is warmed by the realization that though she hasn't laid eyes on them since they were toddlers, she knows them immediately.

Rikki, brown-haired and brown-eyed with a generous smile. Chatty, curious, cheerful.

Raven-haired, green-eyed Kyla with her observant gaze. Watchful, wary, wry.

Sober Jayden with her blonde hair and blue eyes. Serious, smart, shy.

Their first meeting is awkward, marked by the paradox of being both family and strangers. They speak in formalities, talk of things on the surface, learning to read what lies beneath. The second visit is different. It feels to Kahlan like they've all come home.

As she gets to know her daughters again, piece by piece, she finds herself full of pride. Though she had little hand in raising them, her blood flows through their veins, and they've become the women she'd always dreamed they'd be. She sees the same pride in Cara's eyes, knows her friend feels the same way. When the triplets were born, the blonde was like a second mother to them, caring for them as though they were her own. Richard used to joke that with three babies, they needed three parents, and Cara spent as many nights sleeping in their quarters as she did in her own.

Kahlan hopes that wherever Richard is in the afterlife, he's aware of his children and is equally proud.

A year to the day after the death of Nicholas, Kahlan and Cara, along with Sister Verna and the triplets, appear in front of a huge crowd, standing on the stone dais Darken Rahl had built in front of the Palace for the purpose of addressing the people. Unlike the days of Rahl, the crowd is here by choice, not out of obligation, and the mood is light.

Though Darken Rahl took Kahlan's title of ruler away long ago, though Nicholas stripped her of her status as Mother Confessor, the majority of the people here still remember who and what she was. She knows they still respect her authority and her right to reclaim her role as ruler of the Midlands and D'Hara—the two lands united when she and Richard married.

Speaking to the gathered crowd, she does reclaim her title and her position. But just as quickly, she announces that she's transferring those powers to her daughters, that they will be the ones governing the lands. The people have already watched the triplets dispensing justice under her careful guidance. They've already seen the young women outside the palace walls, turning their hands to the tasks best suited for them—Rikki helping with harvest, Kyla training horses, Jayden working with the scribes to help copy ancient scrolls before they fall to ruin.

There's no mistaking the ripple of excitement that runs through the crowd at her announcement, or the joy that follows when she says that Rikki and her betrothed, the wizard Trevon, will travel throughout the land to help bring news and settle village disputes, as the Confessors used to do.

She's momentarily taken aback by the crowd's enthusiasm, remembering a time when her arrival in a town was greeted with suspicion and fear. Then again, after the unforgiving reign of the Rahls, it makes sense that her people are nostalgic for the days when the Confessors were out among the common folk, for the days when justice was administered personally and tempered with mercy.

By the time she names Jayden as the new Mother Confessor, the crowd is cheering, its mood festive.

When the ceremony is over, they make their way through the long line of people wanting to offer congratulations, the guards and the Mord'Sith unobtrusively off to the sides, watching for any hint of trouble. As they near the palace doors under a sunset sky, Kahlan looks around, sees the yellow glint of bonfires being lit throughout the wide streets of the city. She glances at Cara, sees her friend's knowing smirk.

After years of repression and uncertainty, tonight the people are going to celebrate. Kahlan won't be surprised if the entire city joins the party. The last time she saw such a sight was when she, Cara, Richard, and Zedd finally returned to Aydindril after the defeat of the Keeper.

Usually that memory brings on a surge of melancholy. This time, however, it makes her smile. Though those halcyon days are gone forever, she and Cara have survived, her land has been freed, her people have not been broken, and tomorrow is the beginning of a new day.

The next morning, after Rikki, Trevon, and their coterie of guards leave the palace, Kahlan goes in search of Kyla. The city is quiet, the revelers sleeping off their hangovers. She finds her daughter in the stables, grooming her horse.

Kahlan takes a steadying breath as she stares at Kyla's back. "I wanted to make sure you're okay with what happened yesterday."

Before she can say more, the young woman turns to face her, brush in hand, eyebrow raised, her impertinent expression so like Cara's that it takes Kahlan's breath away for a moment. "You mean with not being named as either an ambassador or as the Mother Confessor. With not being publicly named to a specific role."

Kahlan nods. She'd discussed the situation with her daughters a few weeks before—laying out the choices she'd made and her reasons for them. The triplets had all seemed comfortable with her decision, if a little nervous about assuming their new responsibilities, so she hadn't thought twice about it. But now she's doubting herself, knowing how easily miscommunication can lead to hurt feelings.

Kyla's mouth twists in a wry smile. "While Rikki got to help pick the role she wanted, it's definitely not a life that would have suited me. She's the one who loves meeting new people, who enjoys tramping around in the woods, and who sees the world as one big, happy playground."

Sudden laughter shakes Kahlan at Kyla's droll assessment. Gender aside, Rikki is—essentially—identical to Richard. Outgoing, adventurous, and endlessly optimistic.

Her daughter chuckles along with her, then puts down the grooming brush, growing suddenly serious. Kyla says earnestly, "Though she doubts her own wisdom and skill, Jayden is the right choice to be Mother Confessor. She has the intelligence and the temperament for the role. You know that as well as I do."

Kahlan nods again, acknowledging the truth of Kyla's words. Of the three, Jayden is the most dutiful, the one most inclined to follow rules and regulations. But Jayden is also the most thoughtful—able to view a situation from multiple perspectives—and the most compassionate. She has no doubt that the young woman will exemplify what it means to be just but merciful.

Shifting her focus back to Kyla, she asks quietly, "And you?"

It's purposely an open-ended question. She watches her daughter carefully, but Kyla merely shrugs. "Unlike my sisters, my Confessor's power is weak. But I'll still fulfill my responsibility and take a mate for the purpose of bearing a child to continue our line. Lily and I have talked about it, and she—more than anyone—understands that sometimes duty requires you to do things you don't necessarily want to do."

She doesn't miss the way her daughter's eyes light up when she says Lily's name. Kahlan smiles. The push-me-pull-you romance that's developed between Kyla and the young Mord'Sith is a source of great amusement to everyone in the palace.

Kyla returns the smile, but quickly sobers again and gets back to the topic at hand. "My skills are not really those of a Confessor," the young woman says without any hint of bitterness. "I can best serve our people by staying here as personal bodyguard to the Mother Confessor, and by giving Jayden a listening ear when the burden and loneliness of that duty grow heavy. My role is no less important or honorable simply because it's in the background and lacks a fancy title."

Kahlan feels a sudden swell of pride in her daughter. Kyla's public persona fluctuates between impassive observer and sardonic commentator. It can be easy to forget that underneath, she's the most practical of the triplets, as well as far and away the kindest.

Kyla studies her for a long moment, then picks up the brush again and turns back to grooming her horse. The young woman speaks quietly over her shoulder. "Jayden told me she thinks you're planning to leave Aydindril and find a new place to call home."

Kahlan's eyes widen in surprise. She's been contemplating it since the day Radhala left to return to the hidden glen, but hasn't voiced the thought to anyone else—not even Cara. Kyla doesn't wait for her to confirm or deny, instead continues, "We both understand why you would, with the constant reminders of Darken Rahl and Nicci...of Nicholas..."

She nods as Kyla trails off there, even though her daughter's back is turned and the gesture goes unseen. While Kahlan carries many good memories of Aydindril, they're far outnumbered by the bad ones. The city still feels more like a prison to her than a home, though she's free of her cell, her shackles, and the Rada'Han.

Kyla turns towards her again, once more setting down the grooming brush, and green eyes are suspiciously glossy. "As proud as you are of the women we've become, we're equally proud of who you and Cara are. You endured things that would have destroyed most people, and yet still were willing to risk everything in order to protect your people. Jayden and I will miss you when you go, but we will never forget the sacrifices you made for us. We'll always keep you close in our hearts."

Tears spring to Kahlan's eyes. Overcome with emotion, she can't find words to respond. Instead, she steps forward, pulls Kyla close, and hugs her tight.

In that moment, she knows with certainty that every sacrifice she made was worth it.

It's with some surprise that Kahlan finds herself back in the green lands. The oh-so-wet green lands that she never, in a million years, would have expected Cara to pick as the place she wanted to live. Though the winter has turned the rain to snow and the green is buried under a layer of white, she still remembers them well.

The blonde merely shrugs in answer to her unspoken question. "The rain isn't bothersome when you have a warm, dry place to live. And I find the green refreshing."

It's peaceful here. Quiet. Those were Kahlan's only requirements for their new home. Their closest neighbors—an extended family of farmers—are an hour's ride away in good weather. It takes a full day to get to the nearest village. The sense of space is freeing.

Their sturdy wooden cabin sits at the edge of a meadow. There's evergreen forest behind them, rolling hills in front of them, and mountains looming in the distance. It's beautiful.

Kahlan misses her daughters, but the ache isn't as sharp as she'd feared it would be. For one, they all have journey books and are using them to stay in touch. For another, the separation is familiar, one she had years to get used to when the girls were hidden away in the Old World. Now, at least, she has a relationship with them, knows for a fact that they're all alive and well and thriving.

And she knows for a fact that her land, her people, are once again in good hands.

She casts a practiced glance up at the sky, tracking the storm they've seen rolling in over the tops of the mountains. The mid-afternoon sun is fast disappearing behind a field of flat grey-white clouds and the air is growing crisper by the minute. She hears the dull thud of the ax as Cara chops rounds of firewood into quarters for stacking and burning.

Kahlan pushes her musings about both past and future aside, turning her attention back to the present, to the immediate task of gathering as much kindling as she can before the snow begins again.

A full cycle of seasons comes and goes, bringing them back to the cusp where winter begins to melt into spring.

Kahlan turns away from the wood stove when she hears the back door slam shut. She wipes her hands on a towel, then tosses it onto the counter top and makes her way into the enclosed porch behind the kitchen, where Cara is kicking the door frame with the side of her foot, knocking snow off her boot.

She crosses the room, leans over to greet the blonde with a kiss, helps her slip off her heavy cloak. While Cara heads over to the bench along one wall and sits, bending over to unlace her boots, Kahlan shakes snow off the woman's cloak and hangs it on the hook near the door.

Turning, she watches as Cara pulls off her boots and sets them under the bench. "How are they?" Kahlan asks.

Cara looks up, a crooked grin lighting her face. "Great. The lambs are finally nursing properly."

Kahlan sighs in relief. A few nights ago, when their three ewes all went into labor at the same time, things hadn't looked quite so good. The births themselves had gone smoothly, but none of the lambs had figured out how to nurse. They'd had to bottle feed the babies—Kahlan holding them as still as she could while Cara forced the bottle into their mouths—a process that left them both sweating and swearing under their breath. A process they'd had to repeat again a few hours later. And again a few hours after that.

Smiling at the news, Kahlan walks back across the room, heading towards the door leading to the kitchen. She hears Cara clear her throat and turns around to see the blonde frowning at her. "You're limping again."

Kahlan hadn't noticed it before Cara called it to her attention, but as she takes a few experimental steps, she registers the familiar slight dragging of her right leg. She shrugs. "I must have gotten bruised when we were feeding the lambs."

Cara's up and at her side quickly. The blonde's hands tug at the waistband of her breeches, slip them down over her hips until her thighs are bared. Kahlan hisses as long fingers lightly brush her flesh, looks down to see a mottled band of purple across her upper thigh, near her groin. The collection of long, crisscrossed scars there, normally ash-white, are all angry red, and as Cara lightly probes one, Kahlan can feel the heat radiating.

"Stay here," the blonde says, then disappears into the cabin.

Kahlan raises an eyebrow at the unnecessary command. Where, exactly, is she going to go with her breeches tangled around her knees?

Cara's back mere moments later, a jar of ointment in hand. As the blonde kneels beside her and expert fingers gently begin massaging the salve into damaged flesh, Kahlan sighs in relief. Pain has been so much a part of her life that she doesn't reliably register it anymore. Even the limp, which only occurs these days when she's overtired or has strained her damaged muscles, is so familiar as to be unnoticeable.

She's lucky she's able to walk normally at all, given the fascination Nicholas had with knives.

The salve cools her bruised, scarred skin and she feels knots she didn't know were there starting to loosen. After a few moments, Kahlan gently moves the blonde's hand away, and while Cara pushes herself up off the floor, she bends over to grab hold of her breeches and pull them back up into place.

When Kahlan straightens again, she leans over and captures Cara's lips in a kiss, her hand coming up to cup the other woman's cheek, her thumb caressing gently. The blonde's hand finds the back of her neck, holding her close.

"Thank you," she breathes when they pull apart. Cara doesn't reply in words, merely smiles.

Kahlan shivers. The porch is chilly and standing around half-dressed didn't help matters. Moments later, she sees Cara shiver as well, presumably still cold after spending a few hours working outdoors. She grabs hold of the blonde's hand, leads her through the door into the cabin.

While Cara heads off to their bedroom to put away the jar of ointment, Kahlan goes back over to the wood stove to check on the stew simmering there. She stirs the hearty mixture, then lifts the wooden spoon to taste it. Moving to the counter, she grabs her basket of herbs and glances across the room, noting that the blonde is now standing in front of the fireplace, hands extended to warm them at the flame, humming a little tune under her breath.

She smiles at the familiar sight, then turns back to her work.

Adding a few pinches of herbs, Kahlan stirs the stew a few more times, then ladles out two heaping bowlfuls and carries them to the rough-hewn table. Cara moves away from the fire and takes a seat while she heads back to the stove, pours two mugs of hot tea, and brings them to the table, before sliding into her own chair.

While they usually chat over their evening meal, tonight they eat and drink without talking. It's not too surprising to Kahlan. They're both exhausted from all the extra work they've had with the sheep over the past few days. And it's not like they're strangers to quiet. Cara's always been taciturn, and Kahlan grew accustomed to solitude during her long years of captivity.

The silence between them is comfortable, natural, and she finds it a relief that they often don't need words.

After they eat, Kahlan gathers the dishes to wash them, warming her hands in the soapy dishwater. Cara drags her chair over to the fireplace, then brings over the basket full of walnuts they gathered, hulled, and dried in the autumn. The blonde settles into the chair and sets to work cracking the walnuts—empty shells going into a pail, nutmeats going into a bowl.

When Kahlan finishes drying the dishes and putting them back in the cupboard, she picks up her sewing basket and pulls her own chair close to the fire. Grabbing a pair of Cara's breeches from the pile of mending, she sets to work patching the hole in one of the knees.

The fire crackles merrily on the hearth, interrupted only by the steady cracking noise of walnuts being shelled.

Had someone told Kahlan even a year ago that this is what her life would look like now, she'd have laughed. She'd known in the abstract that living such a secluded life would involve a lot of hard work, but she hadn't thought too much about any of the details. Cara had wanted to be here, and she'd gone along with it willingly, since her only focus at that time had been on her need for peace and quiet.

Cara tends to their horses, the sheep they have for milk, and the chickens they have for eggs. The blonde hunts and cuts firewood. Kahlan tends their garden, gathers nuts and berries, fetches water, does the bulk of the cooking and all of the mending. They work together on most other chores and tasks. Their leisure time in the evenings involves new hobbies like knitting and wood carving, as well as old favorites like reading.

It's a quiet, simple life—and an often difficult one.

It's been a revelation to her that she loves it as much as she does.

With her hands always busy and her days full of work, she's found a type of contentment she's never had before. She's still not sure if it's because for the first time, her life and her choices are completely her own, or if it's because she's sharing this life and this space with Cara.

Maybe it's a bit of both.

She and Cara have loved each other for years, their friendship enduring through every trial and tribulation. But that love has grown, changed. The blonde is still her best friend, but now she's her lover and her partner as well. It's similar to what Kahlan and Richard shared, only her bond with Cara is deeper and stronger because of everything they've been through together over the years.

It's a gift Kahlan never thought she'd have again. She doesn't take a moment of it for granted.

Cara yawns, pulling Kahlan out of her thoughts and back to the present. Her own eyes feel droopy, though it isn't particularly late. The blonde stands, pail of empty walnut shells in hand, and tosses the debris into the dwindling fire. The flames flare up for a moment, burning the oily shells, then die back down.

Kahlan folds the patched breeches neatly and sets them on top of the to-be-mended pile in the basket sitting on the floor. She gets to her feet, but groans softly as her bruised leg—stiff and sore once more—protests. Cara is at her side in seconds, slipping an arm around her waist, and she willingly leans against her. She lets the blonde lead her into the bedroom and over to their bed.

"Let me put more ointment on," Cara says.

Kahlan doesn't answer in words, simply slips off her breeches and sits on the edge of the bed while the blonde turns to get the jar. Once again, Cara kneels beside her, massaging damaged skin with tender, expert hands.

After a bit, Cara pushes to her feet and heads across the room to put the jar away on a shelf, then comes back with Kahlan's sleep clothes. She smiles as the blonde hands her the soft shift and pants.

Cara smiles back. "I'll just be a minute. Need to get everything put away for the night."

As the blonde heads back into the main room, Kahlan stands and slips off her shirt, changing into her night clothes. The bedroom is chilly, since it lacks its own fireplace, and she quickly climbs into bed and burrows under the covers. She hears faint noises as Cara moves around their living space, knows from experience that the other woman is moving the chairs back to their places at the table, putting the sewing basket away, setting the pail of walnuts on the counter, making sure the doors are latched, banking the fire, and blowing out the lanterns.

By the time Cara returns to their room and slides into bed behind her, Kahlan is lying on her side, half-asleep. She feels a warm weight against her back as her lover cuddles up close, arms wrapping tightly around her. She wakes up enough to roll her top shoulder backwards and turn her head in invitation.

She feels the mattress move as the blonde shifts position, rising up over her on one elbow and then lowering her head to press their lips together. Cara's free hand slips beneath her shift, comes up to caress her breast. The kiss is tender and sleepy, the fingers stroking her bare skin are lazy, undemanding.

Though Kahlan's nipple pebbles under the attention, she makes no move to arch up into Cara's hand or to deepen the kiss. For one, she's too tired to take things any further tonight. For another, she can tell it's not sex that her lover is seeking.

It's intimacy. Connection. Closeness. An affirmation of the depth of their bond.

Cara has always spoken through actions rather than words. Kahlan is well-versed at reading the shades of meaning in her partner's touch.

And indeed, when the kiss finally breaks, Cara lifts her head and pulls slightly away, staring down at her, green eyes soft with love and affection. "Sleep well," her lover whispers, leaning down again and pressing a gentle kiss to her forehead.

Kahlan murmurs, "You too. G'night, dearheart. I love you."

She turns her head back to rest against the pillow and rolls fully back on to her side. She feels Cara move with her, spooning her, hand still warm against her bare breast. She feels a kiss pressed to the back of her neck as her lover snuggles up close.

"Love you too, cariad."

Safe, secure, and snug, Kahlan starts to drift back to sleep. Her last conscious thought is awed gratitude that she survived long enough to finally have her happy ending.

The End

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