Authors: Terry Goodkind
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
“As I see it, the details of who used to be on his team don’t matter all that much. We’ve each lost a game. That makes us even. That’s all that really matters. We come into this contest on equal footing. They’re no better than us.”
The commander arched an eyebrow. “You think you are their equal?”
Richard didn’t shrink away from the man’s glare. “I am going to win us the chance to play the emperor’s team, Commander, and then we will see what happens.”
A sly smile curved into the scales. “Hoping for your choice of a woman, Ruben?”
Richard nodded without returning the smile. “As a matter of fact I am.”
Commander Karg had no idea that Richard already knew the woman he wanted. He wanted Kahlan. He wanted her more than life itself. He intended to do what ever was necessary to get his wife away from the nightmare of captivity by Jagang and his Sisters of the Dark.
Staring down at Richard, Commander Karg finally conceded with a sigh. “I’ll tell the guards that their lives depend on no one getting at my team while they sleep.”
After the commander had vanished into the night, Richard lay back, at last letting his aching muscles relax. He watched
guards in the distance rushing to set up a tight perimeter around the captive members of the team. The realization of what could be lost to nothing more than a conniving camp follower had spurred Commander Karg to action. At least the attack had served the purpose of making it possible for Richard to get the rest he needed. It wasn’t easy sleeping when anyone who wanted to could sneak up and cut your throat.
Now, at least, he was temporarily safe, even if it had been necessary to surrender the knife. He still had the other one, though, the one he’d taken from the first woman. It was tucked away in his boot.
Richard curled into a ball on the bare ground in an effort to stay warm as he tried to go to sleep. The ground had long ago lost any heat from the previous day. Without a bedroll or blanket, he was forced to bunch up the slack in the chain to make a pillow of sorts. The next sunrise was not far off. Out on the Azrith Plain it wasn’t going to be getting warmer any time soon.
Dawn would bring the first day of winter.
The noise of the camp droned on. He was so tired. Thinking about Kahlan, about the first time he’d met her, about how it had lifted his heart to at last see her alive again, about how happy it made him to look into her beautiful green eyes, finally allowed sleep to gently quiet his mind and take him.
It was a soft, otherworldly sound, like a doorway into the world of the dead opening, that woke Richard from a deep sleep.
He looked up and saw a figure in a hooded cloak looming over him. Something about its bearing, its very presence, made the hair on the backs of his arms stand on end.
This was no timid, frail woman. Something in the demeanor told him that this was not even a knife-wielding attacker.
This was something far worse.
Richard knew without doubt that this was the third child of trouble and it had just found him.
He sat up and scooted back a little, gaining some precious distance. Somehow, Commander Karg’s guards had failed to stop the intruder. He glanced their way and saw them casually walking their patrol. As closely spaced as they were, Richard didn’t see how anyone could have gotten through their perimeter, yet this latest visitor had managed it.
The hooded figure glided closer.
The cleansing has begun.
Startled, Richard blinked. The eerie voice echoed in his
mind, but he wasn’t at all sure that he had actually heard it. The words just seemed to be there, in his head.
He carefully slipped two fingers down into his boot, groping for the wooden handle of the knife. When he found it, he started drawing it out.
The cleansing has begun,
the figure said again.
It wasn’t like a real voice. It was neither male nor female. The words didn’t seem to have been spoken aloud, as by a voice, but rather sounded like a thousand whispers joined together. The words seemed like they had come from another world. Richard couldn’t imagine how anything dead could speak, but the words didn’t sound at all as if they had come from anything living.
He feared to imagine just what it was that stood before him.
“Who are you?” he asked, stalling for time while he appraised the situation.
A quick glance to each side revealed no one else in plain sight; as far as he could tell the visitor had come alone. The guards were facing the other way. They were watching for anyone who might try to get at the sleeping captives; they weren’t looking inside the circle of wagons for trouble.
The figure seemed suddenly to be closer yet, within a mere arm’s length. Richard didn’t know how it had gotten that close to him. He hadn’t seen it move. He wouldn’t have allowed it to get that close if he had seen it moving toward him. And yet, it had.
Having a chain attached to his collar didn’t leave him much freedom to maneuver if he had to fight. With his fingers he carefully collected links of chain into his free hand. If he had to fight, he would loop the chain and use it as a noose. With his other hand he was still surreptitiously fishing out the knife.
Your time starts this day, Richard Rahl.
Richard’s fingers on the knife paused. It had spoken his
real name. No one in the camp knew his real name. Richard’s heart hammered against his chest.
With as dark as it was, and the hood, the face inside was hidden from view. Richard could see only blackness, like death itself, staring out at him.
It crossed his mind that that just might be exactly what it was.
He reminded himself not to let his imagination get carried away. He summoned his courage.
“What did you say?”
An arm beneath the dark cloak rose toward him. He couldn’t see the hand, just the drape of the cloth over it.
Your time starts this day, Richard Rahl, the first day of winter. You have one year to complete the cleansing.
An unsettling image of something all too familiar came to mind: the boxes of Orden.
As if reading his mind, a thousand whispers of the dead spoke.
You are a new player, Richard Rahl. Because of that, the time of the play is now reset. It starts anew from this day, the first day of winter.
Until a little more than three years before, Richard had been living a peaceful life in Westland. The entire chain of events had started when his real father, Darken Rahl, had finally gotten his hands on the boxes of Orden and first put them in play. That had been on the first day of winter four years ago.
The key to telling the three boxes of Orden apart and knowing the correct box to open was
The Book of Counted Shadows.
Richard had memorized that book as a young man. Because he had lost his link to his gift he could no longer remember the words of the book; to be able to read or remember books of magic required magic. But while he didn’t recall the words, he did know from remembering his own actions some of the basic principles laid out in the book.
One of the most important elements of using
The Book of Counted Shadows
was verifying if the words Richard had memorized were spoken true—verifying if that key component to opening the boxes of Orden was genuine. The book itself stipulated the means of verification.
The means of verification was the use of a Confessor.
Kahlan was the last living Confessor.
Richard summoned his voice only with the greatest of difficulty.
“What you say is impossible. I have put nothing into play.”
You are named as the player.
“Named? Named by who?”
That you have been named as a new player is what matters. You are forewarned that you have one year from this day—and not one day longer—to complete the cleansing. Use your time well, Richard Rahl. Your life will be the price if you fail. All life will be the price if you fail.
“But it’s impossible!” Richard cried out as he lunged, locking both hands around the throat of the figure.
The cloak collapsed.
There was nothing inside it.
He heard a small, soft sound, like a doorway into the world of the dead closing.
He could see the little clouds of his panting breath rising into the black winter night.
After what seemed an empty eternity, Richard finally lay back down, using the cloak to cover his trembling body, but he could not force himself to close his eyes.
To the west distant lightning flickered at the horizon. To the east the dawn of the first day of winter fast approached.
Between lightning and dawn, in the middle of an enemy numbering in the millions, Richard Rahl, leader of the D’Haran Empire, lay chained to a wagon thinking about his captive wife, and the third child of trouble.
Kahlan lay on the floor in the near darkness, unable to sleep. She could hear Jagang’s even breathing in the bed above her. On an ornately carved wooden chest against the far wall a single oil lamp, its wick turned down low, cast a weak glow through the gloom of the emperor’s inner sanctum.
The burning oil helped, if only to a small degree, to mask the stench of the encampment: the smells of soot from fires, fetid sweat, rancid refuse, the latrines, the horses and other animals, and manure all mingled together into a ubiquitous stink. In much the same way that the horrific memory of all of the maggot-infested, rotting corpses she had seen along her journey invariably brought to mind the unforgettable, unmistakable, gagging smell of death, it was impossible to contemplate the Imperial Order encampment without it also bringing to mind its singular, pervasive stink, a thing as vile as the Imperial Order itself. Since arriving in the encampment she was always reluctant to draw a breath too deeply. The smell would forever be linked in her mind to the suffering, misery, and death that the soldiers of the Imperial Order visited upon everything they touched.
As far as Kahlan was concerned, the people who believed in, supported, and fought for the convictions of the Imperial Order did not belong in the world of life among those who valued it.
Through the gauze fabric covering the vents in the top of the tent, Kahlan could see the furious flashes of lightning to the west illuminating the sky overhead to announce the approaching storms. The emperor’s tent, with its hangings, carpets, and padded walls, was relatively quiet, considering the constant din of the sprawling encampment out beyond, so it was hard to hear the thunder, but she could occasionally feel rumbles of it through the ground.
With the cold weather settling in, the rain would make it all the more miserable.
As tired as she was, Kahlan couldn’t stop thinking about the man from earlier that day, the man who had looked out from that cage as it had rolled through the camp, the man with the gray eyes, the man who had seen her—actually seen her—and had called out her name. It was a galvanizing moment for her.
For anyone to see her bordered on miraculous. Kahlan was invisible to almost everyone.
wasn’t really accurate, though, because they actually did see her. They simply forgot having seen her as soon as they had, forgot that they had been aware of her only an instant before. So, while she wasn’t really invisible, she might as well have been.
Kahlan knew well the icy touch of oblivion. The same spell that made people forget her as soon as they’d seen her had also wiped out every memory she had of her past. What ever there was to her life before the Sisters of the Dark, it was now lost to her.
Among the millions of troops sprawled out across the vast, barren plain, her captors had found only a handful of soldiers who could see her—forty-three, to be exact. These
forty-three were men who, like the collar around her neck, the Sisters, and Jagang himself, stood between her and freedom.
Kahlan made it her business to know every one of those forty-three men, to know their strengths, their weaknesses. She studied them silently, mentally making notes about each of them. Everyone had habits—ways of walking, of observing what was going on around them, of paying attention or failing to pay attention, of doing their job. She had learned everything she could about their individual characteristics.
The Sisters believed that an anomaly in the spell they had used was responsible for a handful of people being aware of Kahlan. It was possible that out among the Order’s vast army there were others who could see and remember her, but Jagang had so far not discovered any more. The forty-three soldiers were thus the only men able to serve as her guards.
Jagang, of course, could see her, as well as the Sisters who had used the spell in the first place. Much to the Sisters’ horror they had been captured by Jagang and they, too, had ended up with Kahlan in the wretched encampment of the Imperial Order. Other than the Sisters and Jagang, none of those few who could see her really knew her—knew her from her forgotten past, a past that even Kahlan didn’t know.
But that man in the cage was different. He had known her. Since she didn’t remember ever seeing him before, that could only mean that he was someone who knew her from her past.
Jagang had promised her that when she finally had her past back and knew who she was, when she knew everything, then the real horror for her would begin. He delighted in explaining in vivid detail exactly what he intended to do to her, how he would make her life one of
endless torment. Since she didn’t remember her past, his promises of retribution didn’t mean as much to her as he would have liked. Still, the things he’d promised were terrifying enough in and of themselves.
Whenever Jagang promised such vengeance, Kahlan returned only a blank look. It was a way of walling off her emotions from him. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her emotions, her fear. Despite what it would mean for her, Kahlan was proud to have earned the contempt of such a vile man. It gave her the confidence that what ever she had done in her past, her convictions could only have placed her in direct opposition to the will of the Order.
Because of Jagang’s ghastly oaths, Kahlan greatly feared remembering her past, yet after seeing the raw emotion in the captive man’s eyes she longed to know everything about herself. His joyous reaction to seeing her stood out in sharp contrast to all those around her who despised and reviled her. She had to know who she was, who the woman was that could be held in such regard by that man.
She wished she could have looked at the man for longer than the brief glimpse she had gotten. She’d had to turn away. If she had been caught showing any interest in a captive, Jagang surely would have killed him. Kahlan felt protective of the man. She didn’t want to inadvertently bring trouble to someone who knew her, someone so obviously overcome by the sight of her.
Yet again Kahlan tried to put her racing mind to rest. She yawned as she watched the flickers of lightning in the little patch of dark sky. Dawn was not far off and she needed sleep.
With that dawn, though, came the first day of winter. She didn’t know why, but the very idea of the first day of winter made her uneasy. She couldn’t imagine a reason. Something about the first day of winter seemed to knot her
insides with anxiety. It seemed that beneath the surface of her ability to remember lurked dangers she could not begin to imagine.
Her head came up at the sound of something falling over. The noise had come from the outer room, the room outside Jagang’s bedroom. Kahlan propped herself up on an elbow, but she dared not get up from her spot on the floor beside the emperor’s bed. She knew well the consequences of disobeying his orders. If she was to endure the pain he could give her through the collar around her neck, it would have to be for something more than moving from the carpet.
In the darkness Kahlan heard Jagang, just above her on the bed, sit up.
Sudden cries and moans broke out on the other side of the padded walls of the bedroom. It sounded like it might have been Sister Ulicia. Since being captured by Jagang, Kahlan had had occasion enough to hear Sister Ulicia sobbing and crying. Kahlan herself had often enough been brought to tears, all because of those Sisters of the Dark, but especially Sister Ulicia.
Jagang threw the covers off. “What’s going on out there?”
Kahlan knew that for the crime of disturbing Emperor Jagang Sister Ulicia was soon going to have even more reason to be moaning.
Jagang stepped down onto the floor, straddling Kahlan on the carpet beside his bed. He looked down deliberately, making sure that in the dim light of the lantern glowing atop the chest, she saw him naked and exposed over her. Satisfied with his silent, implied threat, he retrieved his trousers from a nearby chair. Hopping from one foot to the other he pulled them on as he started for the doorway. He didn’t bother putting on anything more.
He paused before the thick hanging that covered the doorway and turned back, crooking a finger at Kahlan. He
wanted to keep an eye on her. As Kahlan rose to her feet, Jagang drew back the heavy covering over the doorway. Kahlan glanced to the side and saw the latest captive woman to be brought in as a prize for the emperor cowering on the bed, the blanket held in her fists up under her chin. Like almost everyone, the woman didn’t see Kahlan and had only been more confused and frightened the evening before when Jagang had spoken to the phantom in the room with him. That had been the least of the woman’s cause for fright that night.
Kahlan felt a jolt of pain sizzle down the nerves of her shoulders and arms—Jagang’s reminder through the collar not to linger in doing as she’d been told. Without letting him see how much it hurt, she hurried after him.
The sight that greeted her in the outer room was confusing. Sister Ulicia was rolling around on the floor, arms flailing as she babbled incoherently between moans and cries. Sister Armina, hunched over the woman at her feet, shuffled to and fro, following as Sister Ulicia writhed around on the floor, afraid to touch the woman, afraid not to, afraid of what might be the problem. She looked like she wanted to collect Sister Ulicia in her arms and quiet her lest she create a disturbance that would get the attention of the emperor. She didn’t yet realize that it was too late for that. Usually when one of those two was in any kind of agony it was agony inflicted by Jagang through his control of their minds, but now he, too, stood watching the strange sight, apparently unsure of what could be causing such behavior.
Sister Armina, already bent over the woman floundering on the floor, suddenly noticed Emperor Jagang and bowed deeper yet. “Excellency, I don’t know what is wrong with her. I’m sorry that she has disturbed your sleep. I will try to quiet her.”
Jagang, being a dream walker, didn’t need to speak to
those whose minds were his domain. His consciousness wandered at will among their most intimate thoughts.
Sister Ulicia thrashed around, one wildly swinging arm knocking over a chair. Guards—the guards who had been specially selected because they were the few who could see and remember Kahlan—had all backed off in a circle around the woman rolling on the floor. They had been tasked with seeing to it that Kahlan didn’t leave the tent without Jagang. Sisters were not their responsibility. Other guards, Jagang’s personal elite guards, huge brutes all covered in tattoos and metal studs piercing their flesh, stood like statues near the doorway of the tent. The job of the elite guard was to see to it that no one entered the tent without invitation. They looked only mildly curious about what might be happening in their midst.
Off in the darker corners of the expansive tent, slaves waited in the shadows, always silently at the ready to carry out the emperor’s wishes. They, too, would show little reaction no matter what might happen right before them. They were there to serve at the whim of the emperor and nothing more. It was unhealthy for any of them, individually, to distinguish themselves in any way that might bring them notice.
The Sisters, sorceresses all, were Jagang’s personal weapons, his personal property and marked as such with rings through their lower lips. They were not the responsibility of any of the guards unless specifically instructed. Jagang could have cut Sister Ulicia’s throat, or raped her, or invited her to tea, and his elite guards would not have batted an eye. If it had been tea the emperor wanted, the slaves would have dutifully fetched it. If a bloody murder had been committed right before their eyes, they would have waited until he was finished and then without a word cleaned up the mess.
When Sister Ulicia cried out again, Kahlan realized that
it didn’t look, as she had at first thought, like the woman was in pain. It looked more like she was…possessed.
Jagang’s nightmare gaze passed among the dozen guards. “Has she said anything?”
“No, Excellency,” one of the special guards said. The rest of the soldiers, those who could see Kahlan, shook their heads in agreement. The emperor’s elite guard did not dispute the account of the lesser men.
“What’s wrong with her?” Jagang asked the Sister, who looked ready to fall to the ground and grovel at his feet.
Sister Armina winced at the anger in his voice. “I don’t have any idea, Excellency, I swear.” She gestured toward the far side of the room. “I was asleep, waiting until I could be of service. Sister Ulicia was asleep as well. I woke when I heard her voice. I thought she was speaking to me.”
“What was she saying?” Jagang asked.
“I couldn’t understand her, Excellency.”
Kahlan realized, then, that Jagang didn’t know what Sister Ulicia had said. He always knew what the Sisters had said, what they’d thought, what they were planning. He was a dream walker. He wandered the landscape of their minds. He was always privy to everything.
And yet, he was not privy to this.
Or, Kahlan surmised, perhaps he didn’t want to say aloud what he already knew. He liked to test people that way, asking questions to which he already knew the answers. It displeased him greatly whenever he caught anyone in a lie. Only the day before he had erupted in a rage and strangled the life out of a new captive slave who’d lied to him about having taken a bite to eat off a tray coming in for the emperor’s dinner. Jagang, as heavily muscled as any of his elite guard, had accomplished the deed with one powerful hand around the gaunt man’s throat. The rest of the slaves had waited patiently until the emperor had fin
ished the gruesome murder, and then dragged the body away.
Jagang reached down and with one meaty fist hauled the Sister to her feet by her hair. “What’s this about, Ulicia?”
The woman’s eyes rolled, her lips moved, and her tongue wandered aimlessly in her open mouth.
Jagang seized her by the shoulders and shook her violently. Sister Ulicia’s head whipped back and forth. Kahlan thought he very well might break her neck. She wished he would; then there would be one less Sister for Kahlan to worry about.
“Excellency,” Sister Armina said in a confidential tone of discreet counsel, “we need her.” When the emperor glared at her, she added, “She is the player.”