DISCLAIMER: This story is just for fun and I made no money writing it. I don't own the show, the books, or the characters. They're the property of ABC Studios, Disney, Terry Goodkind, and others whose names escape me. They're all just kind enough to let me play in their sandbox.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is fairly dark, at least for me, with major Cara- and Kahlan-whumping. But after I saw the promo for "Eternity," the idea wouldn't leave me alone. I'd written a few pages and had the overall plot set before I saw that episode. The only thing I added afterwards was Dahlia. Didn't plan to, but the muse insisted, so…. I also changed the time line, though it's not explicitly mentioned; instead of less than a fortnight to get the Stone of Tears to the Pillars of Creation, I'm making it more like six weeks. What else? I know only the canon of the show, not the books, so the various Mord'Sith mentioned exist solely in my head. I've been working on this story so intensely that I no longer have any feel for whether it works, or doesn't work, or is even remotely believable; feel free to share your opinion. Anyhow, hope you enjoy. If enjoy is the right word…
WARNING: Ages 18+ for violence, temporary character death, and torture (mostly off-screen and not terribly graphic, but still); also, there's a potentially disturbing interaction between C/K
SPOILERS: Season two, an AU of "Eternity" (and, by default, also an AU of "Unbroken"); specific spoilers for "Broken," "Desecration," "Walter," "Extinction," and "Eternity"
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

That Which Does Not Die
By ocean gazer


"We should stop and rest."

Cara's tone was neutral, even, and Kahlan was grateful for it. She knew her injured ankle was slowing them down, as they made their way from the birthing ground of the Night Wisps back to Richard and Zedd, and she'd fully expected some sort of sarcastic remark to that effect. But the Mord'Sith had been strangely quiet all day, her manner softer than normal when she did speak.

Kahlan offered a simple "thanks" before limping over to a large rock with a semi-flat top, and sinking down onto it gratefully. Her ankle was throbbing, and though the walking stick Cara had found for her helped immensely, it couldn't offset the effect of overuse. Still, there was no choice. They had to get back to their companions; their quest was entering a crucial and even more dangerous stage. While the men could take care of themselves just as well as she and Cara could, she knew she would feel better when the four of them were together again.

"If you'd like, I could rewrap the bandage on your ankle, make it tighter again for more support."

She smiled up at Cara, touched by the offer. It was clear that seeing the Night Wisp babies, being entrusted with that important duty, had had a profound effect on the other woman. Kahlan knew better than to think that the Mord'Sith would start quoting poetry and picking flowers; she'd be surprised if this gentle mood lasted until they reached their travel companions. But she felt honored to be allowed to see it and would nurture it as long as it lasted.

"I would like that. Thank you, Cara."

Working carefully, she managed to get her boot off, though not without a hiss of pain. It surprised her when Cara knelt in front of her and gently settled her bared foot against her thighs, unwrapping the loosened bandage. A scowl appeared on the blonde's face and when Kahlan looked down, she understood why. Her ankle was more swollen than it had been before, the skin odd shades of green and purple. She couldn't help but whistle in astonishment at such spectacular bruising.

Cara held up a hand and Kahlan frowned, wondering if perhaps the whistle had hurt her ears. But then she saw the way the Mord'Sith glanced around the woods, face deadly serious and hands dropping down towards her agiels. She followed suit, pulling her daggers free, eyes darting around. There was nothing but silence, and she swallowed hard, knowing that if there was no threat, then she'd hear the squawking and chirping of birds.

She moved her bare foot slowly out of Cara's lap and the woman sprang smoothly to her feet. Kahlan stood as well, adrenaline chasing away the ache in her ankle. She still saw nothing out of the ordinary, heard nothing out of the ordinary. Just as she was about to whisper to Cara, to ask what she saw or sensed, red-clad bodies suddenly emerged from the bushes nearby.

Mord'Sith. Twelve of them.

That was all she had time to register before the enemy swarmed them. Cara moved away from her, drawing some of the fighters with her and giving Kahlan space to maneuver. She heard the scream of agiels leaving holsters and her daggers glinted in the sunlight as she blocked blows and thrust towards any vulnerable spot she could find, ducking and weaving, spinning on her good leg.

One of her daggers found purchase, slicing through thick leather and stabbing into a stomach, the body collapsing forward and nearly knocking her from her feet. An agiel impacted with her arm and she hissed, pulling her blade free from the dying Mord'Sith and spinning around to block the source of pain. Another agiel hit the back of her knee, even as she drew blood with her other dagger, and she stumbled forward. There were too many of them and Kahlan spared a glance at Cara; two Mord'Sith were on the ground, unmoving, beside the blonde, and she was fighting off three others.

Kahlan struck again, her blade slashing across a throat, just over the leather neck guard. Even as the mortally wounded woman fell, the Confessor was turning, ready to find her next target. Before she could strike, two agiels hit her at once, one against the back of her thigh, one against her stomach. She crashed to her knees, unable to stop a cry of pain from escaping, and felt someone grab her arms roughly, pulling them behind her. Struggling, she called out for Cara, but her friend was still fighting two Mord'Sith and couldn't break free. She went rigid with pain when an agiel pressed hard against her temple. Several agonizing moments later, she passed out.

When Kahlan came to and her brain started working again, she realized her wrists were bound behind her. Not only that, her own dagger was being held against her throat. Even more disturbing, there was a metal band around her neck, just under where the dagger rested, and as she reached for her Confessor's power, she felt it only distantly. She was locked into a Rada'Han. She heard a snarl in front of her and saw Cara standing there, facing off against two Mord'Sith, murder gleaming in green eyes, agiels at the ready.

"Let her go."

She heard a derisive laugh from the Mord'Sith behind her, the one menacing her with the dagger. "Or you'll do what, exactly? If you come any closer, I'll slit her throat."

She saw Cara twist her lips then, into a scornful smile. "Sari, do you think me a fool? If her life didn't matter, then you'd have killed her already. You're bluffing."

The dagger pressed harder into her throat as her head was forced back. Kahlan tried not to breathe, but felt her skin part under the sharp blade, felt the warmth of her own blood trickling down her neck, under the metal collar. Sari laughed behind her and the sound was chilling. "Her life matters only if it leads to your capture. You're the one Lord Rahl wants. If we can take you without killing her, then we're to do so and bring both of you to him. But if you continue to resist, we have license to do whatever we wish with the Mother Confessor."

Kahlan could practically see the fight drain out of Cara then, and could almost see the thoughts racing through the blonde's head. She wanted to yell, to tell her friend to run, to escape. She even opened her mouth to do so, but a hard dig of the dagger made her close it again.

Instead, she fixed her eyes on Cara's, hoping her plea would be understood. When she saw the decisive shake of the woman's head, the defeated slump of narrow shoulders, she knew the message had gotten across but was being ignored. When Cara placed her agiels back in their holsters and sank to the ground on her knees, hands on her head in surrender, Kahlan felt tears come to her eyes.

No. Not like this. Not because of her.

The dagger fell away from her throat and the woman holding her released her into someone else's grasp. Kahlan struggled to get free, even knowing it was futile, and was pushed down to her knees for her troubles, hands curving roughly to her shoulders to hold her in place. Four Mord'Sith walked over to Cara, two of them taking up positions behind her. Their leader, Sari, stepped forward and backhanded the kneeling blonde, whose head whipped to the side with the force of the blow.

"You've grown soft, Sister." Even from several feet away, Kahlan could clearly hear the contempt in Sari's tone. "You once were the shining example of what it was to be Mord'Sith. Now, look at you. You've surrendered instead of fighting to the death. You seem to have adopted the ridiculous moral codes of the Seeker and his merry band of do-gooders – the codes that keep him weak and ineffective."

Kahlan watched as Cara spit out a mouthful of blood before bringing her eyes up to meet Sari's. The blonde's voice was challenging. "Between the two of us, we defeated seven out of twelve Mord'Sith. And that's with the Mother Confessor being injured before the fight even began. If that's being weak and ineffective, then I'm content to be considered so."

Kahlan winced when Cara suffered another vicious backhand in response and had to spit out another mouthful of blood. But when sea green eyes came up and met hers, she couldn't help but smile at the dignity and certainty reflected in them. And she was gratified when she saw a quirk of full lips, the closest thing to an answering smile she'd get under such circumstances. Especially since she knew full well that her friend frequently considered them to be… well, perhaps not weak, but certainly ineffective in their approach to their quest.

Sari was pacing in short, quick steps, and even without being able to read Mord'Sith, Kahlan could tell that this was not at all how she'd expected this encounter to go. As if coming to some conclusion, the leader stopped pacing and gave a series of short, curt commands to the women standing behind Cara. Within moments, the blonde's wrists were bound in the same manner as Kahlan's. Sari came to stand behind Cara and kicked her flat into the dirt, putting a booted foot in the middle of her back.

Instinctively, Kahlan protested, and then was knocked flat herself. She spat out dust and turned her head to the side, watching as the Mord'Sith began to give the breath of life to their fallen Sisters. She supposed she should have expected that, but it still jarred her, especially since it increased the odds against them. She heard sounds of a struggle and rolled slightly to see that Cara had pushed up against Sari's boot, knocking the Mord'Sith leader off-balance.

A part of her wanted to cheer for her friend, for her continued resistance. But she heard a snarled "Oh Cara, you'll regret that" and then Kahlan saw a boot aimed for her face and her world went black.

Kahlan woke with a jolt. Literally; her shoulder and the back of her head slammed into something hard and she couldn't quite hold back a groan. Opening her eyes, she blinked hard in the darkness, trying to figure out where she was and what had happened.

"It's about time you woke up."

Recognizing Cara's voice, even though she still couldn't see anything, she relaxed slightly, taking comfort in the fact that she wasn't alone. The memories came back to her in a flood and she flexed her hands experimentally, disappointed, but not surprised, to find that her wrists were still bound. Wiggling her toes, she realized both of her boots were now missing, not just the one she'd left behind in the woods where they were captured. Likewise, her second dagger was also missing, not that she'd expected them to leave her armed. Another jolt lifted her body off the hard surface and then slammed her back down. Lovely; they were in some kind of wagon and the person steering it wasn't bothering to avoid the ruts in the road.

"I wanted to find a cushion so your head wouldn't hit the floor. But I couldn't do anything with my hands tied."

Kahlan heard the faint notes of frustration and apology in the rough voice and fought her automatic instinct to offer reassurance. Not because she blamed the other woman in any way, but because she knew how Cara felt about platitudes. Instead, she rolled and wriggled, weathering another hard jolt, until she was lying on her side, right beside her friend, and could settle her head against a muscled thigh. It wasn't the ideal angle for her neck, but it was far more comfortable than her previous position.

When her companion said nothing in response to the contact, not even sighing in resignation, she smiled softly into the dark, glad that she'd guessed correctly what Cara had wanted to do for her.

"So what happened after I was knocked out?"

Cara snorted. "Nothing you can't guess. Lord Rahl wants me back in his service instead of in Richard's. I don't know what he has in mind for you, but Sari took great pleasure in telling me that I'm to be re-broken."

Though the last words were spoken without inflection, Kahlan was horrified to hear them. She managed to roll mostly on to her back, hampered by her bound wrists, and stare up at Cara. The blonde was looking straight ahead, face impassive, and the sight broke her heart. She knew what breaking meant and was still sickened that her friend had gone through the process in the first place, let alone having to go through it again.

As if sensing her scrutiny, Cara looked down and shook her head decisively. "Don't. To be Mord'Sith is to know pain. It won't be anything I haven't endured before."

Kahlan's whisper sounded loud in the confines of the wagon. "I can't help it if I never want you to know that kind of pain again. And especially not because of…" Her voice trailed off as she remembered the moment when Cara had surrendered, why she'd surrendered.

She was taken aback at the gleam of anger in green eyes, not sure where it was directed. "I promised Richard I would protect you as I would protect him. I will do everything in my power to keep you safe. You don't deserve to be harmed because my former Sisters and Lord Rahl have a grudge against me."

Kahlan swallowed hard, wishing her hands were free so she could offer some kind of comforting touch. Instead, she tried to keep her voice steady as she said, "You are not to blame for this. Not in any way."

Still watching Cara closely, she didn't miss the pointed look the blonde directed at her. "No more than you are."

A shaky chuckle made its way from Kahlan's throat. As usual, the Mord'Sith was right. They were both blaming themselves for this situation, when in truth, the blame lay with Darken Rahl and those who held them captive. Not that knowing that would do anything to stop their self-recriminations; in that way, she and Cara had grown to be very much alike.

She heard a faint, answering chuckle from her friend, but it was brief and the look in green eyes grew deadly serious. "Kahlan, you need to be prepared to escape without me if you have the chance. I'll fight them with everything that I have, but…"

Whatever else she planned to say was lost as the wagon came to an abrupt stop and the door to their prison flew open. In the scant seconds before Rahl's Mord'Sith grabbed her ankles to pull her from the enclosed space, Kahlan nodded at Cara and whispered, "I know."

She couldn't say more than that before she was yanked through the door to land in a heap on the ground. Two Mord'Sith flanked her and hauled her to her feet and her ankle cried out at the sudden pressure, though she managed not to give voice to her pain. As she was escorted away from the wagon, she heard a thud behind her and knew it was Cara hitting the ground.

She limped heavily between her captors, who had firm grips on each of her arms, as they led her to a large, stone building standing alone in a small clearing. It looked more like a fortress than anything, except for the distinct lack of sentries and obvious protections. And indeed, once they were through the door and walking down narrow hallways, the impression of a fortress was only reinforced. Kahlan made mental notes of their path as best she could, but the hallways were a confusing maze of dead ends and closed doors. Definitely the kind of building that was easier to defend than to invade. Light spilled in through tiny windows set high in the walls and covered by iron bars.

The next thing she knew, she was being half-dragged down a narrow flight of stairs, unable to keep her feet, her injured ankle slamming hard against the stone. She gritted her teeth and tried to relax into her captors' grasp. They didn't slow once they reached the bottom and she went limp, forcing them to drag her behind. She twisted her head to see Cara barely keeping her feet as she was practically shoved down the staircase. And then, she had no time to spare on her friend as she was dragged into a large, open room and thrown down on her knees, hard hands clamping on her shoulders. Within moments, Cara was forced down beside her.

Kahlan's breath caught in her throat as she realized two things. The first was that they were in a training room; chains and restraints hung from the ceiling and were inset in the walls. The second was that Darken Rahl stood in the center of the room, arms crossed over his chest, a smug smile on his face.

"Ah, how nice. Our guests have finally arrived." He uncrossed his arms and walked over to them and unceremoniously backhanded Cara across the face.

Kahlan narrowed her eyes and then felt his hand hard against her chin, forcing her head up towards him. She glared at him as he laughed at her. "It's lovely to see you again, Mother Confessor. Once I'm finished putting Cara back in her place, I look forward to teaching you yours."

Even knowing it wouldn't help the situation in the slightest, she couldn't keep herself from saying, "One way or another, Rahl, you'll pay for whatever you do to us, just as you'll pay for everything else you've done in your life."

She didn't know what reaction she expected to her words, but the flare of anger in his eyes caught her off-guard. As threats went, it was admittedly hollow, so she wasn't sure why it would strike a nerve. And his shoving her away with enough force to send her flying several feet to land in a painful sprawl was also unexpected. Cara had turned her head to track her progress and she could see the other woman was as confused as she was. But there was no time to puzzle it out before Rahl's suave mask was back in place, his words smooth as melted butter.

"Cara, you'll stay here with your dear Sisters. They're quite looking forward to retraining you. As for you, Mother Confessor, you'll enjoy the hospitality of one of our cells until I have need of you." His smile was as cold as his eyes as he motioned to the same Mord'Sith who'd dragged her down here. "Take her to the cell that was prepared for her and follow the instructions I gave you."

Kahlan was pulled to her feet by her hair, before her captors gripped her arms again. She had time for one last look at Cara, seeing the steely determination in green eyes, and then she was marched through the dungeon to her cell – rough-hewn stone walls, a tiny window set a good ten feet above her head, and thick iron bars.

As they shoved her inside, she realized she could still faintly hear the drone of Darken Rahl's voice and horror filled her as the implications of that hit her hard. By the smirks on the faces of the Mord'Sith, they were hoping for that reaction. She schooled her face to impassivity, falling back on her training, and saw a slight nod, almost of respect, from one of the women. The door to the cell clanged shut behind her and was secured with two heavy padlocks.

"Come close to the bars and turn around if you want to have your hands untied."

She did as directed, trying not to feel too defeated by their foresight. She'd planned to strike out at them in an escape attempt the moment her hands were free. She braced herself for a knife to cut through the thick rope, but instead she felt fingers grab hold of the Rada'Han and pull her back against the bars – hard. She gasped, struggling to breathe, wondering why they'd bothered to lock her up if they planned to strangle her. But after a moment, while she stood immobilized by lack of air, she felt the kiss of a knife blade, not cutting through rope, but rather cutting through her clothing, nicking her skin in spots. She couldn't even fight against it, for fear of cutting off her air entirely, and felt shame bubble up through her as first her travel dress and then her corset were pulled off by rough hands reaching through the bars, yanking the clothing out of the cell to leave her naked and unable to cover herself.

Then the knife came back to her wrists and she felt blood well up as it sliced carelessly through her bonds. Once she was free, the grip on the Rada'Han was released and she slumped over, gasping for breath. She heard mocking laughter behind her and saw a ball of white fabric tossed to the ground beside her.

"This is what the Lord Rahl wishes you to wear." A hard shove through the bars accompanied the words, and Kahlan fell to the floor, still trying to catch her breath. She curled in on herself, lying on her side, trying to hide her nudity as much as possible. But the Mord'Sith were already walking away from the cell, heading back to the training room where Cara was being held.

She fought back tears at the mere thought of her friend in their hands. She lay still for a long moment, catching her breath, one hand rubbing gently at her bruised throat. Then, she uncurled herself and reached for the ball of fabric. It was a simple white shift of thin material and a pair of white undergarments. She swallowed her distaste at the idea of being so exposed, mustering herself enough to offer a quick thanks to the Spirits that she was allowed anything at all to maintain her modesty.

Pulling the clothing on, relieved that the shift was long enough to cover her thighs, she crawled over to one of the cell walls. When she'd found a mostly smooth spot, she sat with her back against the wall, knees drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs, chin resting on her knees. While she knew at some point she'd need to explore the cell in depth, looking for any possible ways to escape, she was too tired to do it right then. Her head throbbed furiously from the previous lack of air and she knew she needed to rest for a bit and gather her strength. She wouldn't be any good to Cara if she was too weak to take whatever opportunity she was given.

Unable to do anything else at the moment, she drew into herself, whispering the same phrase over and over as if the sheer force of her will could make it true.

"Stay strong, Cara; you're not alone."

Cara panted for breath. She hung limply from her chained wrists, her feet dangling several inches above the floor. Her sweat- and blood-matted hair fell over her face and she didn't think there was a single inch of her body that was not bruised or burned or scraped or otherwise injured. Pain smoldered along all her nerve endings, throbbed in time with the beat of her heart.

She had no idea how long she'd been here; though there was a window above to show the passage of night and day, she'd been unconscious too often to mark time reliably. A week, at least, two weeks, maybe; it felt like a lifetime. Every thought was punctuated with pain; she dimly recalled another life, her life outside the Mord'Sith, but the memories cracked and splintered under the all-encompassing ache in her body, in her bones.

This was her life, the life of a Mord'Sith – the pain of breaking, the pain of training, the pain of serving Lord Rahl. This was familiar, tangible. It was real in a way her life with Richard had not been – some mystic quest across mysterious lands to find some magical thing.

She sucked in air quickly as a lump rose in her throat. No. That was real too. She was no longer simply Mord'Sith; she'd grown to be more than that. At least she thought she had. It was so hard to remember.

The color blue swam in her mind for a moment, making her frown in concentration. Why blue? It was the color of a cloudless sky in mid-summer, but there was something more than that. Blue was tiny lights fluttering around her… blue was eyes filled with care and compassion…

The snap of a whip broke through the fog in her head, giving her the barest warning before agony exploded in a line across her back. Her body jerked in its bonds, waking pain that had slept while she was unmoving. Another snap and another line of fire across already broken skin had her writhing, but unable to escape.

Strong. She had to stay strong. Kahlan needed her. But Kahlan wasn't here with her. Was she? She remembered hearing the Confessor's voice; at least she thought she did, yelling as if from a distance, telling her to hang on. But Lord Rahl mocked her about being left behind, about the quest going on without her, about her life not mattering to anyone.

Maybe she'd just dreamed that Kahlan was here. It was so hard to remember. She cried out softly as another stroke sliced her flesh open, and she closed her eyes, trying to think through the pain. Maybe she was alone here. She hoped she was alone here. The thought of Lord Rahl getting his hands on the Mother Confessor made her ill.

Why couldn't she remember?

Before she could answer that question, another stroke landed and sent her spiraling into unconsciousness.

Kahlan spun and turned, striking out with her hand, stopping just short of the iron bars of her cell. Not breaking stride, she pivoted on one foot and kicked out with the other. The movements were still clumsier than she would have liked, but at least her ankle could once again bear her weight without difficulty. She ran through several more exercises, breathing hard, before walking back to her usual corner of the cell and sinking down to sit with her back against the wall.

She looked at a patch of dirt to her right, re-counting the scratch marks she'd made there. Fifteen marks, one for each day she'd been in this cell. Fifteen days that Cara had been in the clutches of the Mord'Sith.

She closed her eyes and shuddered at the thought. Day after day and night after night, she'd faintly heard the shriek of agiels, the thud of blows landing, the snap of a whip, the occasional cry of pain. In the beginning of this nightmare, she'd stood near the bars and yelled encouragement to her friend. Twice, a group of Mord'Sith had stormed her cell, knocking her unconscious. The third time, Darken Rahl himself had appeared and told her that for every word she uttered, Cara would have to endure that much more punishment. Kahlan knew he was deadly serious and though the mere idea of silence pained her, she would not be the cause of any more suffering.

She felt rage flare to life inside her at the memory of him mocking her. If not for her magic being suppressed by the Rada'Han, she had no doubt the Con'Dar would have already overtaken her, making her a force of nature to strike down those who'd hurt Cara.

Fisting her hands, she focused her mind, forcing the rage back down. With no enemy to fight, nothing to do but wait, anger would only burn through her and deplete her already waning strength. She'd spent several days trying to climb up to the window or find a weak point in the wall, and had finally realized she was wasting her energy. She had to stay alert, be prepared to make the most of any chance she was given. She'd either get Cara free, or she'd get herself free and bring help. So far, she hadn't been released from the cell. But she knew that at some point, for some reason, she'd be brought to face Rahl.

She drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs, hearing the faint sounds coming from the training room that signaled a new round of torture had begun. She didn't know how long she'd been sitting there when she heard Cara scream for the very first time. The sound echoed in the air and chilled her to the bone. Kahlan brought her hands up to cover her ears, but it didn't help as the haunting screams continued.

Her arms once again hugged her legs as she curled up in as tight a ball as she could in a sitting position and rocked herself back and forth as she began to cry.

Cara couldn't draw in enough breath to scream any more, even if her raw throat would have allowed it. She felt the burn of an agiel but couldn't resist it, couldn't move away from it, couldn't do anything but hang in her bonds and whimper. Her whole world was pain, never-ending pain.

And she knew she lacked the strength to fight it any longer. Even for the strongest Mord'Sith, there was only so much abuse the human body could withstand. She'd finally reached that point; she'd reached the limits of her endurance.

Her tongue felt huge and swollen as she tried to lick her dry lips. It didn't help; they cracked and bled as she formed words. "Please, Mistress. No more."

A breath tickled her ear as she heard a laugh coming from just behind her. For a long moment, she couldn't remember if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Then her Mistress stepped in front of her, using long fingers to coax Cara's head up. "Who are you?"

Cara stared into brown eyes that were merciless and cold, blinking hard against a sudden wave of confusion. She had a mystifying memory of blue – dancing blue lights, tender blue eyes. But there was no blue here – no light, no tenderness, no hope – and she tucked those things into the small corner of her mind that wasn't consumed with pain. All she could do was hold them safely like a secret and trust that if they were important, she'd remember them again someday.

She closed off that part of her mind and gave herself entirely to the brown eyes and the red leather and the white-hot pain. Her words broke like dry twigs from her tongue. "I am a servant to Master Rahl and I am yours, Mistress Sari."

"And what is your purpose?"

She swallowed hard, knowing she'd been resisting these words, knowing they were her only reality now. "To obey the will of Master Rahl and do as you command me."

The fingers under her chin pulled away and she whimpered once again as her head dropped back down, jarring her strained neck muscles and making the cuts on her face throb. Over the rapid beating of her heart, she heard the hard-soled Mord'Sith boots thud against the stone floor as her Mistress circled her, like she was prey. She was prey.

The voice of her Mistress was soft, but cruel. "You are mine, Cara. I will kill you, send you to an agonizing death. And then, I will bring you back and you will belong to me."

The words pounded in Cara's head. Of course; she was Mord'Sith. She served Master Rahl and she served the Sister who had broken her. Barely able to catch her breath because of her cracked ribs, her response was little more than a whisper. "I am yours, Mistress. My life belongs to you."

Without warning, she felt an agiel press into her chest, burning into her heart, and she convulsed in agony. And then, mercifully, the pain became distant as her hold on life slipped away.

Cara sighed as she slipped fully into the warm water of the communal bath. Her Mistress had been generous indeed to allow her such a luxury. Of course, there were practical reasons for it as well; the water cleansed her lingering wounds to help them heal more quickly, so that her service to Lord Rahl would not be hindered by her weakness.

Still, given her betrayal of her Sisters by following the Seeker, she did not deserve such consideration.

Something about the thought troubled her and she shoved it away quickly. Scrubbing the sponge roughly over her skin, heedless of the spots that still bore abrasions, she scoffed at herself. She was Mord'Sith; hers was not to ponder or question, simply to follow and obey. She was the tool of Lord Rahl, her life was to serve with her Sisters and protect him at all costs. There was nothing else.

She washed off the last bits of sweat and blood from her earlier sparring session with her Sisters, where she'd worked hard to get herself back to peak condition after her lengthy re-breaking session. The Breath of Life had healed all of her more serious wounds and restored much of her energy, but it couldn't repair every bit of the damage. Nor should it. Wounds were the price a Mord'Sith paid for weakness, for failure.

At the same time, a Mord'Sith couldn't perform her normal duties when she was too badly injured, as Cara had been. So, following the orders of her Mistress, she'd spent the past eight days sleeping as much as her restless nature would allow, so her body could heal. She'd also done simple exercises to regain strength and muscle tone, and performed various tasks as commanded by her Mistress and Lord Rahl. Today was the first day she'd been allowed to pick up her weapons and put on her Mord'Sith leathers and join in the usual fighting practice.

Despite the way the exertion had strained her muscles and reopened scabs that hadn't completely healed, it had felt good to move freely, to once again practice the art of combat. Feeling the familiar bite of the agiels in her hands, feeling the pleasure of striking a blow that rang true – she'd felt purpose for the first time since…

Her brow furrowed in confusion. No, she knew this, knew what the answer had to be; it was since she'd been cast out by her Sisters.

Hearing the soft splash beside her, she managed not to jump when she felt a touch against her back. Without turning, she recognized the size and strength of the hand, the familiarity of the caress against her skin. "Dahlia," she breathed.

"Sari sent me to help you finish bathing before the evening meal."

Cara smiled at that. She and Dahlia had known each other since they were girls, since before they were chosen to become Mord'Sith. Of all her Sisters, Dahlia was the one she'd been closest to, the one she'd lain with by choice, not just out of duty or from the need to show dominance. She'd always been fond of her, had even felt genuine affection for her; well, as much affection as a Mord'Sith could actually have for another. But now, despite her being back among her Sisters, there was too big a chasm for them to cross; there was no way for the two of them to go back to being what they once were. Why she was so certain of that, she didn't know.

The brunette's free hand came around to grab the sponge, and Cara handed it to her, forcing her muscles to relax as Dahlia began to wash her back. The scrubbing was vigorous, bordering on violent, but though it made her bruises ache, she didn't so much as flinch in complaint. She'd expected nothing less than such treatment.

Dahlia's display of dominance aside, this was what Sisters often did for one another, helped each other to bathe and to dress, to emphasize their bonds of service to each other and to their Lord Rahl. It surprised her that her Mistress would allow her to receive such help, as she was now the weakest among them, the one who had to prove herself worthy. Still, it was not her place to question her Mistress.

When strong hands tugged insistently at her, she let them guide her and turned towards Dahlia, keeping her head ducked down and not making eye contact, to show her submission, her obedience. The sponge rubbed roughly over skin she'd already cleaned herself, but she stood still and allowed it, knowing it was what was expected of her. When at last the other woman set the sponge aside, Cara stood still, waiting.

She felt fingers under her chin, coaxing her head up. Following the implicit command, she looked into rich brown eyes that reflected concern. And she blinked hard against a wave of disorientation. The color was wrong; such kindness didn't come in that shade. But she didn't know why that would be so, or who other than Dahlia would have any reason to care about her – and it scared her. She shook her head sharply, dismissing the feeling as a side effect of her body being weaker than it should be.

Dahlia's lips pressed against hers, softly, and she returned the kiss. It was friendly, not passionate, born more of their history than anything else, and for some reason, that felt right to Cara.

When they pulled apart, moments later, she smiled at the brunette, happy to see an answering smile on her face. Dahlia spoke first, "I've missed you, Sister. It's nice to have you back here, with us, where you belong."

The last words made Cara feel disoriented all over again, and once again she shook her head to drive the sensation away. To cover her confusion, she spoke roughly, "It's good to see you again too. But we should get out before the meal is served. I have no wish to anger my Mistress."

She saw a quirk of an eyebrow and an understanding nod. She knew she wasn't the only one who'd suffered the effects of Sari's temper before. Climbing out of the pool, Cara deftly ran a towel over Dahlia's body to dry her, allowing herself to be toweled dry in return. Then, she helped the brunette to dress in the fresh leathers a maidservant had dropped off. Though Cara had learned to get in and out of her clothing without help, it really was easier with a Sister to do the laces, and once she'd helped Dahlia with hers, she allowed the favor to be returned. It felt good to be in the familiar Mord'Sith outfit, and a clean set of leathers at that. She felt stronger, somehow, more like herself.

She let Dahlia lead the way out of the bathing chamber and down the hallway to the dining room, as she trailed behind, head bowed. Cara wasn't yet allowed to walk through the fortress without an escort. She understood the reasons, of course, since she had yet to prove herself worthy to her Master. But it still troubled her and she didn't know why. Setting her shoulders resolutely, she focused her attention on the path in front of her.

One foot in front of the other, submit to her Mistress, obey Lord Rahl's orders, follow her Sisters without question. That was what her life was now. Anything else was irrelevant.

Kahlan growled as she slammed her elbow into one Mord'Sith's throat, dropping the woman, before whirling around to punch the second one in the stomach, following that with a chop to the back of the neck. She didn't waste any time waiting to make sure they were unconscious, just closed the cell door behind her and took off at a dead run. Relying on her memory of being dragged to the dungeon weeks before, she hit the hallway just outside the training room. She heard outraged voices coming from inside as she ran past, but spared them no attention. With any luck, she had enough of a head start to evade capture. If she could get out of the building, she could hide in the woods, and then she'd be in a position to find help or to come back and get Cara out herself.

With no luck, well, she was in no worse position than before.

Rounding a corner to get to the staircase, she collided with a fist and went flying backwards. She struggled to her feet, wiping blood from her mouth, only to be kicked from behind and sent sprawling forward, landing on her hands and knees hard enough to scrape the skin. Before she could get up again, she felt someone grab the Rada'Han and pull her backwards, dragging her. Choking, her hands flew up to the metal collar, fingers working themselves under the band to give her a precious bit of space to draw breath.

Within moments, she was thrown down at the feet of Darken Rahl, lying on her back, gasping for air and staring up at his smirking face. When she could breathe normally again, she glanced around the room, looking for Cara. The two Mord'Sith sent to bring her from her cell had taken great delight in telling her how their dear Sister was once again a loyal servant to Lord Rahl.

She didn't doubt that her friend had finally succumbed to the torture. She just didn't believe that Cara had changed completely from the woman she'd grown into since Kahlan first met her.

In the corner of the room, she saw a familiar blonde head and felt a surge of relief, despite the scabbed-over cuts and yellowing bruises visible on Cara's face. At least her friend was alive and in one piece and no longer being tortured. Kahlan noticed that the woman was looking in her general direction, but not really at her, and wondered if it meant anything or if she'd been ordered not to make eye contact. And she didn't really have time to puzzle it out before she was pulled to her feet by none other than Sari.

Rahl took a step towards her, closing the space between them, and his breath on her cheek made her skin crawl. "Well, well. The Mother Confessor still thinks she can escape me."

She turned her head, heedless of the grip Sari had on the Rada'Han, and met his eyes unflinchingly, challengingly. Not that she expected it to have any impact on him; she just refused to let him think she was scared of him. Even though she was.

His eyes narrowed and his tone was cold. "I wish I had time to have you trained and made into my personal slave. Sadly, your pet Mord'Sith took longer to be re-broken than I'd expected and I've got some pressing business with the Seeker." She didn't rise to the bait, her face set in its best impassive Confessor's mask. His voice hardened. "Still, I've got a handful of hours to spare. And I'm so going to enjoy watching you suffer before I have you killed."

Within moments, she was surrounded by Mord'Sith. Her hands were bound behind her with rope and the rope was then tied tightly to a ring in the wall. She was standing and still had some range of motion, but not a lot, and she had a nasty feeling it wasn't going to do her much good. Her blood chilled as she heard Rahl's voice from off to the side. "Cara, you are permitted to raise your eyes. You will watch this. And when Sari is finished, you'll have the chance to prove yourself worthy to serve me, worthy of once again being Mord'Sith."

The implication in his last words horrified Kahlan, and she forced her mind away from it, to focus on what he'd said first. It definitely answered her earlier question about her friend's lack of focus. Still, somehow that made it almost worse when she glanced over to find green eyes locked on her intently, though with a complete lack of emotion. She met Cara's eyes, willing her to remember their friendship, trying to open her heart and let the blonde see how much she cared about her – anything to help bring the other woman back to herself.

For a long moment, nothing else existed except the gaze she held like a lifeline, and she thought she saw a hint of confusion and then awareness shine through in Cara's expression.

Either Rahl had seen something as well, or he was simply smart enough to take no chances. "Hana, Dori, Reileen – it's possible our dear Cara still has some misplaced loyalties to the Mother Confessor. Ensure that she watches and that she makes no move to interfere."

Fear gripped Kahlan's heart as three Mord'Sith closed in on Cara – one locking an arm around her neck to hold her head in place, the other two sliding her agiels out of their holsters and placing them out of reach, then standing next to her with their own agiels at the ready. Moments ago, Kahlan had hoped that the other woman's memories had broken through; now, she prayed that they hadn't. She wouldn't wish this on anyone – to see a friend suffering and be helpless to prevent it.

Watching Cara closely, she saw the exact moment green eyes went completely blank once again, the blonde standing unmoving and expressionless in the grip of her fellow Mord'Sith. Seconds later, the burn of an agiel against Kahlan's stomach pulled her focus back to Sari, who stood in front of her with a cruel, anticipatory smile.

Kahlan collapsed to her knees with a ragged scream, her shoulders wrenching and her wrists rubbing painfully against the rope from the sudden downward pull. She tensed for another blow from the agiel, for it to sear into her flesh, but nothing happened. Panting hard from the pain that radiated throughout her entire body after hours of torment, she looked through the curtain of hair that had fallen in front of her face to see Sari's boots moving backwards, stepping away from her. She heard voices, but couldn't make out the words through her own harsh breathing.

A new pair of boots entered her line of vision and she managed to bring her head up, flipping her hair back out of her face to see what was happening. A surge of dread filled her as she saw Cara standing in front of her, agiels in hand. The blonde was just staring at her, a look Kahlan couldn't decipher in green eyes. It wasn't the blankness of before, nor was it the confusion, nor was it any hint of awareness. If there was a word for the expression, she didn't know it.

She heard the impatience in Rahl's voice as he said, "Cara, you have your orders."

Still, the blonde just stood and stared at her for a long moment and Kahlan decided she had nothing to lose. She needed to speak her truth, to make sure her friend heard it. Her voice was shakier than she would have liked from screaming, but she put all the love and compassion she had into the words. "Cara, whatever happens, I forgive you. And nothing will ever change the fact that I care about you."

Time seemed to stand still for an eternity and she didn't dare breathe as she fixed her eyes on Cara's, seeing a sudden swirl of emotion in them. And then, time once again flowed like normal and she got a reaction to her words, though not the one she'd hoped for. An agiel slammed into her cheek and her head whipped to the side with the force of the blow, only to be whipped back to the other side as the blonde's second agiel hit her.

From the amused sound of Rahl's voice, she wasn't the only one who hadn't expected that. "That was very impressive. But Cara, as much as I enjoy watching you work, your orders were to kill the Mother Confessor."

Her blood ran cold and she managed to turn her head and face Cara again, watching the other woman warily. The blonde's face was once again completely impassive, her voice dispassionate. "Of course, my Lord; I was merely warming up to the task. I also wanted to remind the Mother Confessor that whatever misguided notions she might have from our travels together, Mord'Sith are her enemy."

Staring up at her friend, slightly confused by her choice of words, Kahlan saw that unnamable emotion spark briefly in green eyes before it was snuffed out and Cara turned to look at Rahl. "I would ask a favor, my Lord. I'd like to use the Mother Confessor's own daggers against her. It will make for a far more humiliating and painful death."

Kahlan turned her head towards Darken Rahl, wincing at the pain the motion caused, and saw the broad smile that broke out on his face at the suggestion. "Oh Cara, I have missed you. Even as soft as you've gotten, you still have that lovely ruthless streak."

He turned and walked over to a table in the corner of the room, and her heart sank when he turned around with her daggers in his hand, coming over to give them to Cara before heading back to his previous spot. She watched as the blonde re-holstered her agiels, and then tested the weight of the daggers, spinning them in her hands and turning them this way and that.

Swallowing hard as Cara stepped closer, Kahlan forced herself to meet the woman's eyes, refusing to give in to her fear, to give Rahl the satisfaction of it. She knew he was having Cara do this for two reasons – one, to ensure she was truly re-broken, and two, to add to the pain of her death by making it at the hand of her friend.

The edge of a dagger came under her chin, forcing her head up at a painful angle. Cara's voice was hard as steel. "Do you remember what you asked of me when we were in the tomb? What you wanted me to do?" Her breath catching in her throat, unable to form words, not at all certain what the real question was, Kahlan gave a brief nod, heedless of the blade against her skin.

"Well, I'm not going to do it this time, either."

Almost before she had time to process the words, the dagger under her chin fell away while the other slashed down behind her back, slicing through the rope. The blade nicked her skin and the rope was still twined around her wrists, but her hands were separated, no longer bound to each other, and free from the ring. Kahlan brought her arms around to her front, adrenaline coursing through her and chasing away the pain from her beating. Cara pressed the daggers into her hands, before pulling her to her feet and then turning with her agiels at the ready.

And then, everything turned to the familiar dance of combat, as she and Cara faced the Mord'Sith coming at them. There was no time for anything except weave, duck, block, slash, spin, strike. She let her pent-up anger from weeks of captivity come to the surface, rage fueling her movements, giving her strength. The pain from the agiels striking her as the battle continued barely even registered. She and Cara moved almost as one, once again in synch from the months spent together fighting side by side.

Before long, several Mord'Sith lay on the ground around them, though whether dead or merely unconscious, Kahlan didn't know. Nor did she have time to care, because several more were edging closer, waiting for an opening to strike. Beyond the wave of red-clad bodies, she caught sight of Darken Rahl, making his way to the door. The thought that he might escape after all he'd put Cara through made her blood boil. Taking quick aim through the narrow space between the rushing Mord'Sith, she threw one of her daggers, striking him in the back of the thigh, sending him crashing to the floor with a cry of pain.

The Mord'Sith briefly stopped their advance when he fell, then four of them rushed over to help him, while the remaining five rushed toward her and Cara. Mindful that she was at a disadvantage with only one dagger, Kahlan edged closer to her friend, who acknowledged her with a quick nod, and then the fight was on again in earnest. Before she quite knew what had happened, there was only one Mord'Sith left standing, the others all down and unmoving.

She looked at Cara, who was holding one of her agiels towards the other woman, but not moving to strike. A quick glance at the doorway showed that Rahl was no longer in the room, nor were the Mord'Sith who'd rushed to his side.

Kahlan quickly schooled her anger at the knowledge that he'd gotten away, and turned back to Cara and the other woman. Her friend's voice was rough. "Don't make me kill you, Dahlia. I'm leaving with the Mother Confessor; don't try to stop me."

She watched shock race across the brunette Mord'Sith's face, followed by sorrow. "Cara, you know Lord Rahl will order the Sisters to kill you on sight if you leave."

Cara's head shake was decisive. "That doesn't matter. My place is with the Seeker. He is the Lord Rahl I choose to serve."

Kahlan watched intently and saw Dahlia hold up her hands in surrender. "I don't want to hurt you, Cara. You are my oldest friend. Please stay safe." There was a long pause then, before the woman continued stubbornly, "But I can't just…"

Cara's voice was softer than she would have expected. "I know. Take care of yourself, Dahlia." Then the blonde struck with her agiel, catching Dahlia on the side of the head, and the Mord'Sith instantly crumpled to the ground. Kahlan gaped in shock for a moment before understanding dawned; of course it had to appear that she was defeated in battle just like her Sisters, otherwise, she'd be thrown out as a traitor, just as Cara had been.

Turning to fully face her friend, she caught Cara's assessing, and worried, gaze sliding over her. Kahlan shook her head. She was aware of just how much everything was starting to hurt, but there was no time to think of it, not yet. "I'll be fine. Let's just get out of here."

Cara pursed her lips, but Kahlan was glad she didn't argue. Instead, the blonde just caught her arm and led her out of the room, pausing in the doorway to pick up the dagger which had struck Rahl and been cast aside. They moved cautiously through the fortress, in case of guards, but met no one in any of the hallways or corridors. Several minutes later, they were in the stables, and Kahlan sighed in relief to see several horses still in the stalls.

She took a step forward, but wavered on her feet, stopped from falling only by Cara's grip on her arm. She started to shake it off and insist that she was fine, but she didn't have a chance before the blonde took the daggers from her trembling hands and pressed her to sit on a bale of hay, with firm instructions to stay put. Kahlan wanted to help, but her limbs wouldn't obey her commands, the adrenaline that had kept her going fading quickly now that the immediate threat was gone. And with the way her head was beginning to throb, in a way that surpassed all her other aches and pains, she suspected she'd gotten a mild concussion at some point.

As Cara walked off towards the horses, Kahlan could only sit and watch. The blonde opened the stalls of all but two of the animals, leading the rest to the stable doors and releasing them to run into the woods beyond. Then, she saddled the two that remained, took saddlebags from a cupboard and strapped them to the horses. Saddlebags?

She didn't realize she'd asked the question aloud until Cara returned to her side, handing her a pair of breeches, saying, "Mord'Sith always have supplies packed so they're ready to ride out for their Lord at a moment's notice." Kahlan nodded at the explanation, then winced as her head threatened to explode, and she didn't miss the worry in green eyes. "Can you ride?"

She started to say yes, then swallowed her pride and admitted, "I'm not sure. I think so."

Ashamed of her own weakness, she was somewhat surprised when Cara's reaction was simply to take her hand and squeeze it quickly, before she moved back to the horses, checking the cinches. Kahlan managed to slide off the hay bale and stand, though she leaned heavily against it as she struggled to get first one leg, then the other, into the pair of breeches. Despite the situation, she felt a little better for once again being fully clothed, rather than just in the thin shift. Well, mostly clothed; her feet were still bare, but that couldn't be helped.

Moments later, Cara was back at her side, her arm strong around Kahlan's back, helping her walk over to the horses. The blonde's voice was soft. "I wish I could give you time to rest, but one of the Mord'Sith could wake at any moment and start reviving the others. We've got to get out of here – and quickly. Let me help you up. I'll take the lead once we're outside; your horse is good-tempered and will follow mine."

She murmured her thanks, then bit her lip with the flare of pain that came as she got one foot into the stirrup and Cara practically shoved her into the saddle. She grabbed the pommel as tightly as she could, to keep her balance until she could get her leg over the horse's back and into the other stirrup. Gripping the reins, she felt a little shaky, but not like she was in danger of falling off. The blonde swung herself fluidly up on to her horse and then they were heading out the stable door. As soon as they were clear of the building and on level ground, Cara sent the horses into a gallop, clearly intent on getting a head start on any pursuit.

Kahlan held the reins loosely, trusting her horse to follow the other one. The fast pace had her head pounding again and it was all she could do to hold on to the saddle pommel and keep herself upright. Fear flooded her, gave her strength to keep going. She'd already failed Cara, more than once; she had no intention of doing so again. Grimly, she concentrated on her task, and sent up a quick prayer to the Spirits to keep them safe.

Cara sighed in relief as she stepped into the chilly water of the stream. Leafy branch in hand, she wiped away the last of the horses' tracks and her footprints from the soft earth, before casting the branch into the stream, to float away on the mild current. She doubted the erased tracks would fool a woodsman like Richard, but she was certain any pursuing Mord'Sith would not find their trail. Especially since they'd be on foot, which would give the trail time to grow cold. The Sisters would see their tracks merge on to the heavily traveled lane she'd found earlier, and assume they'd taken that to the nearest town. It was, after all, the logical path to take.

Still, despite knowing it was unlikely they'd be followed, she planned to walk the horses down the middle of the stream as far as she could before stepping back onto dry ground. The more she could do to confuse their trail, the safer she'd feel when they finally stopped for the night. And it was clear that they'd have to stop. Much as she wanted to ride until the horses could go no farther, both to put distance between themselves and the fortress and to get to a place where they might hear news of Richard and Zedd, she knew it wasn't possible. Kahlan was in no condition to travel that hard.

The thought pulled her attention back to her companion. She splashed her way through the water to where she'd left the horses standing in the stream. The brunette was still upright in the saddle, but barely, gripping the pommel with both hands, knuckles white from strain. Without her usual leathers, bruised, bloody, and barefoot, the Rada'Han still locked around her neck, Kahlan looked very young and very frail all of a sudden, and Cara felt her heart clench because of what she'd done, how she'd failed.

Resolutely, she shoved the recrimination aside. She'd deal with it later. Now, she had a duty to perform, to get the Confessor to a safe place.

She spoke quietly, alerting the other woman to her presence. "I think it would be a good idea for me to ride with you for a while."

A brief nod was the only answer she got, not that she'd really expected more. She fumbled into one of the side pockets of a saddlebag, finding a lead rope and attaching her horse to Kahlan's. Then, she swung herself up behind the brunette, sitting just behind the saddle. She found herself grateful, then, for her training; Mord'Sith didn't travel by horse very often, but they all learned how to ride. And, more importantly for her purposes, they all learned to ride double and to control the horse as the back rider, so that they could transport someone safely, if that was required, in the aftermath of a battle. She would have ridden double with Kahlan from the beginning, if not for the need to run the horses hard and fast in their escape. She hadn't wanted to risk injuring the animal, or worse, having one of them thrown.

One arm snaked around Kahlan's waist, holding her securely, though she could see the way the Confessor continued to grip the pommel tightly, as if still afraid of falling. The gesture made Cara's heart clench again, the need to do something for the other woman overwhelming her.

She grabbed the reins in her free hand, then transferred them to her other hand. She bent her wrist slightly, angling it away from the brunette's stomach so she could keep her grip on the reins, but so her arm could still hold Kahlan close. Her free hand lightly stroked the back of the Confessor's hands, trying to ease their strained grip on the saddle.

Her voice was as soothing as she could make it. "Just lean back against me and try to relax. We can let the horses walk now and I can keep you in the saddle. It'll be ok, Kahlan."

She felt the momentary tension in the brunette's muscles, and wondered at it, wondered if it was because of her. Before she could worry over it too much, Kahlan's body sank back against hers, her head coming to rest awkwardly on Cara's shoulder. The woman's hands relaxed under her touch, one turning to clasp her hand briefly, fingers caressing slightly, before she moved them both down to rest against her thighs. The Confessor's voice sounded shaky. "I'm sorry, Cara."

Cara frowned, confused by the brief sentence, having no idea why Kahlan should be sorry, only to be soothed, just a little, by her next soft words. "Thank you." It didn't ease her confusion at all, but at least she was no longer worried about making things harder for the Confessor by being so close.

She kept one arm around Kahlan and tightened her embrace, as her free hand moved to the back of the saddle, fingers sliding between Kahlan's back and the cantle, so she could hold on to it and steady herself. She very carefully stretched her legs forward, to keep them from hitting the horse's flanks, and gave him the command to walk, glad that he was an obedient creature and wouldn't require any coaxing.

As they moved forward in silence, her mind started to wander, going through the events of the day, of the past weeks, images flashing by so quickly that they blended together into a disorienting fog of not-quite-memory. And feelings rushed along with the images, overlapping and contradicting each other until she could find no clarity, no certainty, no purpose, leaving her anxious and dizzy.

She bit her lip until she tasted blood, the pain focusing her. Deliberately, she shoved the mess of images and feelings aside and concentrated on the very immediate. Hold Kahlan close and get her to safety. If she didn't manage that, then nothing else mattered.

Kahlan leaned forward and gripped her dagger tightly when she heard rustling in the bushes. Seeing a familiar blonde head emerge from the thick leaves, she relaxed, leaning back against the large rock behind her, letting her hand and dagger fall back into her lap.

She watched as Cara untangled herself from a few stray branches before walking over to the fire with a brace of rabbits in hand. Kahlan's stomach rumbled at the sight of them. She'd had little food while imprisoned and none of it meat. She was thankful that Cara had thought to skin the rabbits before bringing them back to camp; while she wasn't normally squeamish about such things, at the moment, the mere idea of seeing blood made her feel queasy.

Averting her eyes while the blonde positioned the rabbits over the flames to roast, she instead focused on the pile of firewood. Her memories of them stopping here were a bit blurred, but she remembered Cara getting her settled on a blanket in her current spot before heading off to gather wood. Then she'd started a fire to keep Kahlan warm and had gone off to hunt before the daylight faded completely.

They were chores the other woman had done countless times in the past months, but Kahlan found herself getting choked up at the thought anyhow. It was the first time she remembered someone fussing over her like this; not through anxious words and fluttering hands, but through simple, ordinary actions.

A shadow fell over her and she looked up in surprise to see Cara squatting in front of her, looking at her with concern – and something else she couldn't quite name. It wasn't just her lingering headache that made her unable to decipher the emotion. She wanted to ask about it, to do something to offer comfort and support, but she didn't know what to say or do; and she lacked the strength to pursue it just then, even had she known. The shadow of their time in the training room hung heavy over all of her thoughts. Not because of what had happened to her, not because of anything Cara had done, but because of what she feared the ordeal had cost her friend.

She felt a gentle touch on her arm and broke out of her reverie. Cara's voice was equally gentle, almost as if she was afraid Kahlan was on the verge of breaking. "Let me help you get washed up. The lake water is chilly, but at least you'll… be clean. I found a cotton tunic in one of the saddlebags which should fit you. And there are salves and bandages as well."

The idea of cold water against her injured skin didn't sound appealing at all, except she knew she would feel much better if she could at least wash away the blood and grime. And she took a moment to be thankful Cara was the one here with her; she felt safe with the other woman. And she felt much less exposed with her right now than she'd have felt with either Richard or Zedd.

The thought made her wonder, not for the first time, whether their travel companions were alright. She didn't realize she'd uttered the words out loud until she heard Cara clear her throat. "I'm sure they're fine. If Lor… Rahl had killed or injured them, he would have tried to use it against us when we were prisoners."

There was a flash in green eyes then, of sadness – no, of doubt. Kahlan reached out, covered Cara's hand with her own where it rested against her arm, her fingers moving gently. She wanted to say something, but didn't know what, exactly, had struck a nerve. Not feeling wholly herself, she didn't trust her normal skills at reading the subtle clues in her friend's demeanor. Still, when she saw Cara's expression soften, felt gloved fingers lightly squeeze her arm, a little of her worry abated and she felt a bit less helpless. At least she could do something, even if it wasn't enough.

Abruptly, Cara stood and then bent to help her up. She felt unsteady on her feet and was grateful for the supportive arm around her back. At least they didn't have far to walk; they were camped on a tiny peninsula, surrounded by a lake on three sides and with a thick grove of trees and bushes on the fourth. When they got to the shore, Cara quickly slipped out of her Mord'Sith leather, undoing the complicated laces with practiced ease. Kahlan gasped, horrified, as she got a good look at the old bruises and new scars covering the blonde's body. Her heart broke at the thought of what her friend had endured.

She felt tears well up and couldn't stop them from falling. She was blinded by them for a moment and felt faintly calloused finger tips brush lightly against her bruised cheeks, wiping the tears away. She reached up, capturing the hands, pulling them down and twining the strong fingers with her own. "Oh, Cara," she breathed, still crying, unable to stop. "I'm so sorry."

The answering voice was gruff, though Cara made no move to untwine their fingers. "There's no reason for you to be sorry. You did nothing to me."

Kahlan shook her head, unable to accept the absolution. "You were captured because of me. Because they threatened my life. If not for me…" She broke off then, unable to speak through the lump in her throat.

Cara's fingers did untwine from hers then, but only because they came up to cup her face gently. She couldn't see the woman's face clearly through her tears, but she could read sympathy there, hear it in her friend's voice. "I would have been captured no matter what. There were too many of them, and they were determined to bring me to Rahl, regardless of the cost. It made sense for me to surrender, to ensure we both stayed alive, in the hope that we could somehow escape. Which we did."

"Only because of you." More tears came to Kahlan's eyes, her weaknesses taunting her. "I couldn't escape my cell, and when I did get free, I couldn't get away. You're the one who got us out of there. I failed you…" She hiccupped, her breath hitching. "I should have done more, fought harder, found a way to help you or support you."

She was sobbing by then, scarcely able to breathe through the weight of her fear, her failures. As if from a distance, she heard Cara's voice, but couldn't understand the words, couldn't hear them through the wave of sorrow crashing through her.

And then, she felt the press of soft lips against her own, light as a summer breeze, stilling her for a moment, calming the panic within her.


She could hear so many shades of meaning in that single word, before she once again felt lips softly caress hers. The contact soothed her more than she ever could have expected and she felt her tears begin to slow as Cara kissed her tenderly. She realized she'd been scared that her friend was angry with her, maybe even resented her. But the touch calmed those fears, because she knew that with Cara, freely chosen actions always spoke more truthfully than words. She relaxed into the kiss, deeply reassured by the tangible show of affection.

With a final gentle press of lips, she felt Cara pull back, though her hands still cupped Kahlan's face. The blonde's words were soft, but serious. "You did everything that you could, everything that was within your power to do. You can't expect more from yourself than that. And you never gave up on me, even knowing I'd been re-broken…"

There was a long pause then, and Cara's next words were a bare whisper, but full of emotion. "You helped me more than you know. You didn't fail me. Don't ever think that."

Kahlan felt fresh tears spring up at the words, but managed to contain them, aware of her friend's discomfort with her feelings and with these kinds of conversations. She took a deep breath and drew strength from Cara's presence, from her strength. There was an awkward silence for a moment and she looked deeply into the green eyes that were locked on hers, a wordless bond of understanding transmitted in the shared gaze.

Then, abruptly, Cara's hands dropped away from her face, reaching for the hem of her tattered shift. It took a moment for Kahlan to switch mental tracks, but then she remembered that they were going to bathe, and she allowed her friend to undress her. The clothes were dropped on a towel that Cara had obviously set near the shore sometime earlier, and a bar of soap and a cloth were picked up.

Shivering slightly in the cooler air of evening, Kahlan let Cara take her arm and guide her into the water. It wasn't initially as cold as she'd feared, but by the time she was thigh-deep in the lake, she felt chilled to the bone. The blonde stopped then, as if aware that she couldn't handle going any deeper, and turned to face her. Kahlan stood still, willing herself to relax as Cara dipped the cloth into the water and began to wash her, hands moving very slowly and very gently. Under normal circumstances, she would have insisted on doing most of it herself, even as shaky as she was. But the pain from her various injuries had flared fully to life again – no longer just the dull, though persistent, ache she'd felt for the past hour or so – and it was taking all of her concentration to keep from whimpering. Despite that, she was grateful to have the dirt and dried blood washed away.

Cara led her back to shore and gently dried her with the towel. She stood, shivering slightly, and watched as the blonde quickly dried herself off, then stepped into her Mord'Sith leathers, though she didn't put on the full outfit; the neck guard and gloves were both left off. Then Cara stooped down to grab Kahlan's clothes in one arm, using the other arm to guide her back to the campsite and stand her on the blanket next to the rock she'd been sitting against earlier. Kahlan was slightly confused about why her friend hadn't helped her dress. But then she saw a saddlebag sitting near the fire, and remembered something about salves and bandages.

As if prompted by the thought, the blonde reached into the saddlebag and pulled out various jars. Grabbing up two of them, she brought them over to Kahlan, saying, "One is to coat burns and abrasions, to keep them from festering; the other is to ease the ache left by bruises."

Kahlan winced as Cara began gently applying one of the salves to her stomach. To distract herself, she said, "I didn't realize you knew so much about healing potions. I didn't think the Mord'Sith used such things."

Cara laughed mirthlessly, not pausing in her ministrations. "They aren't for us. They're for Lord Rahl and his important generals, in case any of them are injured in a battle and there's no healer close at hand. While Lord Rahl is a powerful wizard, he sees no value in wasting his magic or expending his power to heal someone." There was a slight pause then. "Mord'Sith are not allowed to use such medicines for themselves."

Just when Kahlan thought her opinion of Darken Rahl couldn't get any lower, it did. Anger flared at the abrupt reminder of how callously he treated his Mord'Sith, how expendable their health and their lives were to him. She wasn't aware of saying anything aloud, but she must have because Cara actually stopped what she was doing, her hand stilling against Kahlan's stomach.

The Mord'Sith's words were quiet. "Relax, Kahlan. If we meet up with him again, I'll remind you of this and fuel your anger. But for the moment, there's no purpose to it."

And of course Cara was right. Kahlan took a deep breath, forcing herself to relax and let her friend tend to her. She felt strange – in control in some ways, out of control in others. And without thinking about the wisdom of it, she confessed, "I don't feel like myself right now. I feel like something's not quite right."

"Is it the Rada'Han, the fact that you can't use your Confessor's power?" She shook her head in response, but Cara wasn't looking at her, and she didn't have time to answer before the blonde continued, anger threading through her words. "I'm sorry you were ever collared in the first place, and that I couldn't get to Rahl to take the key from him. I… if I could remove it…"

Kahlan reached out at that, her hand catching Cara's arm, fingers caressing. "I know. It's not your fault. When we find Zedd and Richard, Zedd can use magic to either break the Rada'Han or create a key for it or otherwise remove it."

She paused then, gathering her thoughts, dropping her hand away as Cara moved slightly to focus on the wounds along her side. Slowly she said, "It does feel strange having my power suppressed, but I've had time to get used to that. It's something different. It's… I'm used to always being in control, but emotions keep bubbling up when I least expect them. It… it scares me."

Cara's hands continued to move softly over her skin, but the blonde's voice was hard with certainty. "It happens to most who suffer such treatment. Being held against your will, not getting enough rest, not having enough food, enduring mental and physical pain – all these things break down your self-control."

Her friend paused there, but in a moment of empathy, Kahlan could hear what went unsaid – I know, because this is how Mord'Sith are created.

After a long moment, Cara continued, her tone allowing no room for argument. "The loss of control is temporary. With rest and food and freedom, you'll be back to yourself in a handful of days. If Richard were around to bet with, I might even place money on how quickly it will happen."

Kahlan laughed out loud at that and glanced over to see a mischievous grin on Cara's face. Growing serious again, she said, "It helps a lot to hear that, to know it's something to be expected. I want you to know… I'm truly grateful you're here with me. It makes this all easier to bear, somehow. And thank you for taking care of me; I'm just sorry I've been more of a burden than a help."

Her gaze still on Cara, Kahlan saw the sudden flush of color on her cheeks and the quick flash of pleasure in her eyes. But the blonde's voice stayed steady, her words simple. "I'm glad. And you don't need to thank me; you aren't a burden."

Kahlan smiled, gratified that she'd gotten that much of a response, knowing her friend's lack of patience for such touchy-feely subjects. She fell silent then, putting her hand out on the large rock beside her to balance herself, closing her eyes and just soaking up the sensation of her hurts being soothed.

When she felt the brush of cotton against her skin, she opened her eyes again, seeing the tunic in Cara's hand. She managed to hold her arms out in front of her, but couldn't do much more than that because of her stiff shoulder muscles. She allowed her friend to slide the tunic up her arms and pull it over her head, then help her step into clean undergarments and the breeches she'd worn earlier. The soft fabric felt better than she'd expected against her washed and treated body. Once dressed, she lowered herself to sit on the blanket, her back leaning against the rock.

Cara knelt beside her and reached for her hand. Kahlan gave it to her and then looked down, watching as the long sleeve of the tunic was rolled up, revealing a ring of raw and swollen skin around her wrist. Despite the blonde's feather-light touch with the salve, she hissed at the contact. Seeing how Cara flinched at the sound, she bit her lip to control herself, not wanting to make this any harder for her friend than it already was. Once the wound was well-coated, a soft bandage was wrapped around her wrist, covering the damaged skin, before the process was repeated on her other abused wrist.

And then, as she watched, Cara dipped her fingers back into one of the jars and brought them to Kahlan's face, treating the cuts and bruises there. Her friend's hand trembled as it traveled across her cheek, and she saw fierce sorrow smolder in green eyes. It took her aback and though she knew there was something important there, she couldn't puzzle out what it was. Instead, she said quietly, "You have a healer's touch."

Cara paused at that, her head dipping down for a moment, and Kahlan worried that she'd said the wrong thing. But when the other woman finally looked back up, her expression was calm and composed, and her fingers once again moved lightly across Kahlan's skin, no longer trembling. Reassured, she closed her eyes as she leaned back and let her friend care for her.

It wasn't long before the touch trailed off and she opened her eyes again, watching as Cara headed back towards the fire, to check on the roasting rabbits. Kahlan let her gaze drift around their campsite. The horses were tethered at the edge where woods met shore, allowing them to graze and drink as desired. Other than the slight gap in the tree line where the horses stood, the bushes and trees almost formed a wall; even straining her eyes, she couldn't see through the foliage, as thick as it was. The sight relaxed her, knowing that no one could get through that tangle without them hearing the noise. And if a would-be intruder tried to come around where the gap was, the horses would alert them to the presence.

Looking out over the huge lake, its shores so distant that she could barely make them out, water glimmering in the moonlight, she smiled faintly. Cara had clearly chosen the site for its strategic advantages, but she appreciated the scenery. The beauty of the place, and the peace of it, was like a balm to her soul, after weeks trapped behind harsh stone, hearing the sounds of violence.

She was drawn out of her musings when she felt Cara sit down next to her, pressing a bowl into her hand. Looking down, she saw that that the meat had been cut into bite-sized pieces, and she smiled at the thoughtfulness. They ate in silence, both looking out over the lake. Kahlan didn't eat a lot, but it was more than she'd had in days, and she felt better for having food in her belly. And she knew that what she couldn't eat, Cara would. Her friend was thinner than she'd been at the start of this ordeal, and needed to build up her strength.

Kahlan shifted her gaze back to the flames, blinking sleepily, only partially aware of Cara moving around the campsite, cleaning out the bowls, adding wood to the fire, doing whatever other tasks remained. The salves had eased the worst of her pain and her strained muscles slowly began to loosen, making her drowsy.

Cara appeared at her side then, a blanket in hand, saying, "You should get some sleep. Would you like me to help you move closer to the fire?"

She shook her head briefly, the kindness behind the question abruptly causing her to feel like her control was slipping again. Not daring to look up at her friend, afraid the tears lurking behind her eyes would come to the surface, she simply sat in silence for a moment, not knowing what to say. Cara's next question was to the point. "What would you like?"

A dozen thoughts raced through her mind then, mostly wishful thinking about things that had happened and couldn't be changed – like how she'd like it if they hadn't been captured at all. Before she could think better of it, she blurted out, "I'd like you to sit with me, at least until I fall asleep. I'd… feel better knowing you're here next to me… that this is real."

She held her breath, half-wishing she could call the words back. Normally, even without a firm grip on her self-control, she'd never have asked for such a thing, knowing her friend's limits when it came to displays of affection. But there'd been a different mood between them since they'd come to this place, a tenderness that hadn't been there before. And she wanted to trust that, somehow, even if Cara didn't want to stay beside her, it would be okay that she'd asked.

When she heard a soft sigh, one not born of frustration or resignation, she found she could breathe again. Cara knelt down beside her, then gently commanded, "Scoot forward."

She moved carefully, mindful of her injuries, and felt Cara slip in to sit behind her, the woman's legs sliding around her hips, bracketing her. As the blonde fidgeted, Kahlan leaned forward slightly, giving her room to get settled and to find a good angle for her back against the smooth rock. When she felt a slight tug on her shoulder, she leaned back against Cara's body, shifting slightly until she was comfortable.

Laying her head on her friend's shoulder, Kahlan hugged herself slightly, her hands coming to rest lightly across her stomach. She smiled when Cara's arms circled her, embracing her, hands settling on top of hers and stroking gently. "Thank you," she said simply, knowing the words were inadequate to describe how grateful she was for the comforting touch, but too exhausted to try and say any more.

She closed her eyes, already feeling sleep creep over her, and allowed herself to fully relax for the first time in weeks, knowing Cara was safe, knowing she was safe in Cara's arms.

Cara leaned back against the rock, sitting next to Kahlan, staring at the campfire. They'd eaten their evening meal; she'd filled the waterskins; there was plenty of wood for the fire; she'd re-salved and re-bandaged the Confessor's wrists. There were no other duties that required her attention, nothing to keep her hands busy, her mind occupied.

It had been a quiet two days, with Kahlan sleeping most of the time, waking every several hours to eat a bit of food and drink a bit of water before dozing off again. From long experience dealing with prisoners, she'd expected that reaction and had stayed near their camp as much as she could, in order to keep an eye on the other woman and ensure her rest was undisturbed. She'd left only when needing to hunt or collect wood or gather berries. The Confessor had finally woken for good just two hours before their last meal and they'd spoken little in that time – Kahlan had still been groggy and Cara had been full of uncertainty, unsure of what she should or could say.

She sighed softly and felt a hand come to rest on her arm. For a moment, she struggled with the instinct to squirm away from the touch, feeling unworthy of such concern. But she allowed the hand to stay, still staring straight ahead at the fire. She attempted an air of nonchalance, selfishly hoping that Kahlan was still sleepy and not completely herself and would not notice anything out of the ordinary.

"Please talk to me, Cara."

Clearly, luck was no longer with her. She swallowed hard, and then turned her head, intending to offer a smile and assure the other woman that she was fine. But she felt her heart stop beating for a moment as she met Kahlan's eyes – Kahlan's very blue eyes, full of compassion and concern.

It was exactly the same intense gaze that she'd seared into a safe place in her mind when she'd succumbed to the breaking. It was the same gaze that had broken through to start reminding her who she'd grown into – that she was no longer simply Mord'Sith.

Her head was spinning and her breath was coming quickly and she had to turn her head away. She felt as if she was on the verge of breaking in a wholly different way and it terrified her. She'd been taught well to always hide her weaknesses, to never let her guard down with anyone. She'd come close to it with the Confessor before and always managed to hold herself back, to take refuge in her usual sarcasm. But her defenses were worn down from the lengthy torture she'd endured, from the horror of watching Kahlan beaten, even from the hours spent caring for the injured woman.

If she looked at Kahlan now, she would lose her hard-won control; she would expose herself.

A gentle hand landed on her face and coaxed her head back around and she was lost again in blue eyes.

She felt tears well up, an unfamiliar and unwelcome sensation. She fisted her hands, trying to delay the inevitable. Kahlan's voice was almost unbearably tender. "I'm your friend, Cara. I'm worried about you. I just want to help… if I can."

Friend. The word opened a floodgate inside her, releasing fragments of thoughts she'd locked safely away during her torture. She remembered now that she'd said that word to the Mother Confessor in the tomb; she remembered the Night Wisp and the beautiful blue lights that were her young, and the wish that Kahlan could have seen them too; she remembered that Kahlan was the one person in the world who truly understood her, the one person she could truly trust, even with her vulnerability.

A few tears spilled down her face and she closed her eyes, reveling in the feel of the gentle hand still cupping her cheek. She could barely hear her own whisper. "I failed you. I failed to protect you when we were captured. Then I failed to protect you from Mis… Sari. I'm… it's… a Mord'Sith who fails in her duty is worthy only of scorn, of punishment."

Fingers stroked her cheek lightly and Kahlan's murmured "Oh, Cara" held no disdain, instead was full of nothing but compassion.

She released a breath she hadn't known she was holding and felt another tear slip past her closed eyelids. Words tumbled roughly over her tongue, the admission she could no longer hold in, even if the Confessor's compassion turned to hatred. "I wasn't entirely myself when Sari started… hurting you. But when you started… screaming… it broke through, reminding me of the way you sounded in the Con'Dar, reminding me that you'd spared my life even knowing what I'd done to your sister. It was at that point that things once again became clear."

She paused and swallowed hard, then heard Kahlan clear her throat as if preparing to say something. Cara rushed to finish her confession, needing to get the words out before they were tainted by her friend's sympathy. "But I'd already started remembering who I was before that point, remembering my life outside the Mord'Sith, my time with you and Richard and Zedd. I should have broken free from my Sisters then and there; I should have stopped her from hurting you. It's my fault that you had to suffer like that."

She took a deep breath, but could barely get the last words out, her voice as tight as a bowstring on the verge of snapping. "And I should never have struck you when you were like that – when you were tied up and defenseless."

Tears flowed freely down her cheeks then and she no longer cared. Crying could not shame her any more than what she'd just said. Waiting for a rebuke, a slap, something, she froze when she felt her friend shift positions, pulling her into a hug. Kahlan's hands were warm against her back, and the woman's breath ruffled the hair near her ear. Certain she didn't deserve such solace, she was limp in the Confessor's hold for several long moments.

Then, wanting the touch more than she ever could have imagined, she slowly brought her hands up to Kahlan's back, returning the hug. She knew Kahlan had been comforted by her displays of affection in the aftermath of their escape, the affection she'd offered as an apology for her failings. Cara just hadn't considered that maybe she also needed that same kind of comfort – that maybe even a Mord'Sith deserved the sense of absolution that could be found in such an embrace. She buried her head against her friend's shoulder, her tears hot against her closed eyelids.

Kahlan's voice was very, very gentle, as though speaking to a small child or a spooked horse. "You didn't fail me. Never think that you did. If you had tried to break free and attack Sari, as you think you should have, you'd have been killed on the spot. You were unarmed and there were three Mord'Sith keeping a very close eye on you. And then I would have been alone and completely at their mercy."

There was a long pause then, and despite her errant tears, Cara was able to turn the words over in her head, to see the truth of them. Kahlan spoke slowly, as if wanting to emphasize the point. "You did the only thing that made sense – to wait until you had the right opportunity. To wait until Rahl ordered you to prove your worth as a Mord'Sith by killing me; to wait until you were once again free and had your weapons in hand."

The words made logical sense to Cara, and indeed reflected what had been racing through her mind at the time. But there was more than that troubling her. Her voice was muffled against the other woman's shirt, but still loud enough to carry. "But I hurt you, Kahlan. Some of the bruises you bear are because I struck you."

When she heard a chuckle in response to her words, she lifted her head in surprise. Pulling slightly back from her friend in order to look at her, Cara wondered if the strain of the ordeal had finally driven the Confessor mad. But there was no insanity in blue eyes, just amusement, as Kahlan said dryly, "It's not the first time you've hit me and it may not be the last."

Cara gaped at her. She did remember the tomb and the fight they'd had. And she couldn't deny that it was entirely possible that they would come to blows again in the future as a way to settle – or try to settle – a disagreement. But the two situations were entirely dissimilar and she couldn't seem to find the humor in this one.

She saw understanding dawn on Kahlan's face and heard the patience in her voice when she asked simply, "So why, exactly, did you strike me?"

Caught off-guard by the blunt question, Cara stared blankly. Why had she done that? She played the scene over in her mind. She'd been ordered to kill the Mother Confessor. She'd stood there, pretending to study her, trying to appear as if she was a cat toying with a mouse. Instead, she'd been thinking furiously about how to get the ropes off the woman's wrists before her Sisters could strike her down. And then Kahlan had said…

Cara spoke slowly, shocked by the suddenness with which the truth hit her. "I was afraid Rahl would be suspicious if I showed no reaction to what you'd said, when you told me that you forgave me and cared about me. One of the things he… used against me was the idea that my life didn't matter to any of you, that none of you cared about me. If I hadn't responded the way I did, he might have thought you'd gotten through to me and had Sari take over again."

"And then I would have been dead."

There was no rancor in Kahlan's voice as she made that statement, and Cara nodded, agreeing, "Yes, you would have been."

There was silence for a moment, before Kahlan spoke again. "I'm sorry that Darken Rahl told you your life didn't matter to us. I hope you know that isn't true. I know I can speak for Richard and for Zedd in saying that we're glad to have you with us." Cara raised an eyebrow and heard a faint trace of amusement in the brunette's voice. "And not just because you're efficient and strong. It's also because of your stubbornness, your wit, your honesty – because you're you."

When Kahlan pulled her closer again, into another hug, she let her head drop back down to the woman's shoulder, finding refuge there. She felt overwhelmed – first, to realize that there was no hint of rejection despite what had happened at the fortress, and second, to realize that her friend was, well, still her friend. She'd known that Richard and the others accepted her, even when she mocked it as mere tolerance. But she hadn't heard one of them state, quite so baldly, the reasons why she was valued, and it meant more to her than she would have thought possible.

Kahlan's next words were quiet, thoughtful. "Even though I thought you had come back to yourself, I wasn't entirely sure because I couldn't read your expressions. But I want you to know that I meant what I said, that I forgave you for whatever happened. I would have forgiven you even if you'd still been under Rahl's influence and had ended up killing me. You'd been tortured, broken. How could I hold anything against you when you didn't have the choice to act freely?"

Cara began to cry again, harder this time, because she was amazed by the understanding in her friend's voice. It wasn't the first time she'd seen Kahlan demonstrate such depth of compassion. But even when the Confessor had spared her life before, the feeling hadn't been like this; she'd felt the rage that still simmered under the surface, that tempered the kindness.

A kiss was pressed to her temple and she heard Kahlan whisper, "And I meant it when I said I cared about you. I love you, Cara; you're one of the only true friends I've ever had. And nothing, in this world or the next, will change that, will change how important you are to me."

Once again, she lifted her head from her friend's shoulder in surprise, but this time was lost in glistening blue eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but words refused to come. And then Kahlan stroked her cheek gently, and leaned in to kiss her, just as Cara had done two days before.

The press of lips was soft and tender, warm and sweet. It soothed the last, lingering doubts Cara had had about her worth in the Mother Confessor's eyes, and healed a place inside her she hadn't even known was broken. She returned the kiss gently, her hand sliding up to caress the back of Kahlan's neck, the gesture a pledge that she was bound to her friend in a way that went past simply protecting her as she'd promised.

And when their lips pulled apart, Cara whispered words she hadn't uttered to another human being since she was a child. "I love you too."

She leaned forward slightly, resting her forehead against Kahlan's, her arms still circling the woman's body, with one hand at the back of her neck. One of Kahlan's hands remained against her cheek; the other was pressed against her back. For several minutes, they held each other close, their breath mingling in the small space between them.

But after a while, Cara yawned, breaking the intimacy of the moment. She felt that perhaps she should apologize, but Kahlan said tactfully, "I can only imagine how exhausted you are after having to take care of me the past few days. And these kinds of conversations about feelings, while wonderful, can be very tiring."

Cara chuckled at that, pulling back slightly from the embrace, enough that she could see a twinkle in blue eyes. Then Kahlan grew serious and said, "Why don't you get some sleep? I'll stay awake for a while and keep an eye on the fire."

She nodded, suddenly aware of just how tired she was, and felt the woman's hands drop away from her body, sensed the tensing of muscles as Kahlan prepared to move. She was certain her friend was doing this solely for her benefit, to give her space, understanding how hard these things were for her. And she appreciated the thoughtfulness. But that wasn't what Cara wanted, or needed, at that moment.

The truths she'd seen, the pain she'd endured, the fears she'd nursed were like whirlwinds in her mind – even though they'd started to dissipate, she needed something to keep her grounded so she didn't blow away with the strength of them. Speaking quickly, her words fumbling, she said, "Please… if you don't mind… would you stay here with me? I… it would… help me sleep tonight."

Kahlan's movements stilled and Cara was warmed by her smile. "Of course."

Not exactly sure what she was looking for, Cara opted to lie down and curl up on her side, facing the fire. And then she felt Kahlan lie down behind her, moving close and molding their bodies together. The warmth against her back was comforting, as was the feel of her friend's head tucked against her shoulder. An arm draped over her waist, leaving Kahlan's hand resting against her stomach, and somehow the simple touch made her feel safe.

She watched the fire for a while, despite her exhaustion, allowing herself to revel in the warmth of being held, the rare comfort of knowing someone was watching over her and her alone. Nothing would change the words they'd spoken tonight or make them any less important, but the lives they lived on their quest were hard, not allowing for this kind of indulgence.

So she enjoyed the moment and the affection for what it was, and only slowly let her eyes drift closed, grateful for the chance to fall asleep feeling sheltered and loved.

Cara helped Kahlan up into her saddle, once they'd made it through the cover of trees to a faint path winding through the countryside. While her friend was clearly feeling much better after a few days of rest, some of the lingering injuries continued to cause her pain. Still, they'd agreed last night that it was time to be on their way. They needed to find a town. At the very least, they needed more supplies, not to mention some boots for the still-barefoot Confessor. And with any luck, they'd find a shop keeper or a traveler who had news of their companions – where they were or what had happened to them in the time they'd been apart.

Swinging herself up into her own saddle, she smiled at Kahlan and asked, "Do you think Richard and Zedd have been too busy saving baby kittens and damsels in distress to actually find the Stone of Tears?"

Blue eyes sparkled mischievously in the sunlight. "Do I even need to answer that?"

Cara simply laughed in response and spurred her horse forward, secure in the knowledge that Kahlan was right behind her.

The End

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