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Authors: Terry Goodkind

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic

Naked Empire

BOOK: Naked Empire
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To Tom Doherty, always a champion in the struggle of good against evil

Chapter 1

“You knew they were there, didn’t you?” Kahlan asked in a hushed tone as she leaned closer.

Against the darkening sky, she could just make out the shapes of three black-tipped races taking to wing, beginning their nightly hunt. That was why he’d stopped. That was what he’d been watching as the rest of them waited in uneasy silence.

“Yes,” Richard said. He gestured over his shoulder without turning to look. “There are two more, back there.”

Kahlan briefly scanned the dark jumble of rock, but she didn’t see any others.

Lightly grasping the silver pommel with two fingers, Richard lifted his sword a few inches, checking that it was clear in its scabbard. A last fleeting glimmer of amber light played across his golden cape as he let the sword drop back in place. In the gathering gloom of dusk, his familiar tall, powerful contour seemed as if it were no more than an apparition made of shadows.

Just then, two more of the huge birds shot by right overhead. One, wings stretched wide, let out a piercing scream as it banked into a tight gliding turn, circling once in assessment of the five people below before stroking its powerful wings to catch its departing comrades in their swift journey west.

This night they would find ample food.

Kahlan expected that as Richard watched them he was thinking of the half brother that until just recently he hadn’t known existed. That brother now lay a hard day’s travel to the west in a place so naked to the burning sun that few people ever ventured there. Fewer still ever returned. The searing heat, though, had not been the worst of it.

Beyond those desolate lowlands, the dying light silhouetted a remote rim of mountains, making them look as if they had been charred black by the furnace of the underworld itself. As dark as those mountains, as implacable, as perilous, the flight of five pursued the departing light.

Jennsen, standing to the far side of Richard, watched in astonishment. “What in the world…?”

“Black-tipped races,” Richard said.

Jennsen mulled over the unfamiliar name. “I’ve often watched hawks and falcons and such,” she said at last, “but I’ve never seen any birds of prey that hunt at night, other than owls—and these aren’t owls.”

As Richard watched the races, he idly gathered small pebbles from the crumbling jut of rock beside him, rattling them in a loose fist. “I’d never seen them before, either, until I came down here. People we’ve spoken with say they began appearing only in the last year or two, depending on who’s telling the story. Everyone agrees, though, that they never saw the races before then.”

“Last couple of years…” Jennsen wondered aloud.

Almost against her will, Kahlan found herself recalling the stories they’d heard, the rumors, the whispered assertions.

Richard cast the pebbles back down the hardpan trail. “I believe they’re related to falcons.”

Jennsen finally crouched to comfort her brown goat, Betty, pressing up against her skirts. “They can’t be falcons.” Betty’s little white twins, usually either capering, suckling, or sleeping, now huddled mute beneath their mother’s round belly. “They’re too big to be falcons—they’re bigger than hawks, bigger than golden eagles. No falcon is that big.”

Richard finally withdrew his glare from the birds and bent to help console the trembling twins. One, eager for reassurance, anxiously peered up at him, licking out its little pink tongue before deciding to rest a tiny black hoof in his palm. With a thumb, Richard stroked the kid’s spindly white-haired leg.

A smile softened his features as well as his voice. “Are you saying you choose not to see what you’ve just seen, then?”

Jennsen smoothed Betty’s drooping ears. “I guess the hair standing on end at the back of my neck must believe what I saw.”

Richard rested his forearm across his knee as he glanced toward the grim horizon. “The races have sleek bodies with round heads and long pointed wings similar to all the falcons I’ve seen. Their tails often fan out when they soar but otherwise are narrow in flight.”

Jennsen nodded, seeming to recognize his description of relevant attributes. To Kahlan, a bird was a bird. These, though, with red streaks on their chests and crimson at the base of their flight feathers, she had come to recognize.

“They’re fast, powerful, and aggressive,” Richard added. “I saw one easily chase down a prairie falcon and snatch it out of midair in its talons.”

Jennsen looked to be struck speechless by such an account.

Richard had grown up in the vast forests of Westland and had gone on to be a woods guide. He knew a great deal about the outdoors and about animals. Such an upbringing seemed exotic to Kahlan, who had grown up in a palace in the Midlands. She loved learning about nature from Richard, loved sharing his excitement over the wonders of the world, of life. Of course, he had long since come to be more than a woods guide. It seemed a lifetime ago when she’d first met him in those woods of his, but in fact it had only been little more than two and a half years.

Now they were a long way from Richard’s simple boyhood home or Kahlan’s grand childhood haunts. Had they a choice, they would choose to be in either place, or just about anywhere else, other than where they were. But at least they were together.

After all she and Richard had been through—the dangers, the anguish, the heartache of losing friends and loved ones—Kahlan jealously savored every moment with him, even if it was in the heart of enemy territory.

In addition to only just finding out that he had a half brother, they had also learned that Richard had a half sister: Jennsen. From what they had gathered since they’d met her the day before, she, too, had grown up in the woods. It was heartwarming to see her simple and sincere joy at having discovered a close relation with whom she had much in common. Only her fascination with her new big brother exceeded Jennsen’s wide-eyed curiosity about Kahlan and her mysterious upbringing in the Confessors’ Palace in the far-off city of Aydindril.

Jennsen had had a different mother than Richard, but the same brutal tyrant, Darken Rahl, had fathered them both. Jennsen was younger, just past twenty, with sky blue eyes and ringlets of red hair down onto her shoulders. She had inherited some of Darken Rahl’s cruelly perfect features, but her maternal heritage and guileless nature altered them into bewitching femininity. While Richard’s raptor gaze attested to his Rahl paternity, his countenance, and his bearing, so manifest in his gray eyes, were uniquely his own.

“I’ve seen falcons rip apart small animals,” Jennsen said. “I don’t believe I much like thinking about a falcon that big, much less five of them together.”

Her goat, Betty, looked to share the sentiment.

“We take turns standing watch at night,” Kahlan said, answering Jennsen’s unspoken fear. While that was hardly the only reason, it was enough.

In the eerie silence, withering waves of heat rose from the lifeless rock all around. It had been an arduous day’s journey out from the center of the valley wasteland and across the surrounding flat plain, but none of them complained about the brutal pace. The torturous heat, though, had left Kahlan with a pounding headache. While she was dead tired, she knew that in recent days Richard had gotten far less sleep than any of the rest of them. She could read that exhaustion in his eyes, if not in his stride.

Kahlan realized, then, what it was that had her nerves so on edge: it was the silence. There were no yips of coyotes, no howls of distant wolves, no flutter of bats, no rustle of a raccoon, no soft scramble of a vole—not even the buzz and chirp of insects. In the past, when all those things went silent it had meant potential danger. Here, it was dead silent because nothing lived in this place, no coyotes or wolves or bats or mice or even bugs. Few living things ever trespassed this barren land. Here, the night was as soundless as the stars.

Despite the heat, the oppressive silence ran a chill shiver up through Kahlan’s shoulders.

She peered off once more at the races barely still visible against the violet blush of the western sky. They, too, would not stay long in this wasteland where they did not belong.

“Kind of unnerving to encounter such a menacing creature when you never even knew such a thing existed,” Jennsen said. She used her sleeve to wipe sweat from her brow as she changed the subject. “I’ve heard it said that a bird of prey wheeling over you at the beginning of a journey is a warning.”

Cara, until then content to remain silent, leaned in past Kahlan. “Just let me get close enough and I’ll pluck their wretched feathers.” Long blond hair, pulled back into the traditional single braid of her profession, framed Cara’s heated expression. “We’ll see how much of an omen they are, then.”

Cara’s glare turned as dark as the races whenever she saw the huge birds. Being swathed from head to foot in a protective layer of gauzy black cloth, as were all of them except Richard, only added to her intimidating presence. When Richard had unexpectedly inherited rule, he had been further surprised to discover that Cara and her sister Mord-Sith were part of the legacy.

Richard returned the little white kid to its watchful mother and stood, hooking his thumbs behind his multilayered leather belt. At each wrist, wide, leather-padded silver bands bearing linked rings and strange symbols seemed to gather and reflect what little light remained. “I once had a hawk circle over me at the beginning of a journey.”

“And what happened?” Jennsen asked, earnestly, as if his pronouncement might settle once and for all the old superstition.

Richard’s smile widened into a grin. “I ended up marrying Kahlan.”

Cara folded her arms. “That only proves it was a warning for the Mother Confessor, not you, Lord Rahl.”

Richard’s arm gently encircled Kahlan’s waist. She smiled with him as she leaned against his embrace in answer to the wordless gesture. That that journey had eventually brought them to be husband and wife seemed more astonishing than anything she would ever have dared dream. Women like her—Confessors—dared not dream of love. Because of Richard, she had dared and had gained it.

Kahlan shuddered to think of the terrible times she had feared he was dead, or worse. There had been so many times she had ached to be with him, to simply feel his warm touch, or to even be granted the mercy of knowing he was safe.

Jennsen glanced at Richard and Kahlan to see that neither took Cara’s admonition as anything but fond heckling. Kahlan supposed that to a stranger, especially one from the land of D’Hara, as was Jennsen, Cara’s gibes at Richard would defy reason; guards did not bait their masters, especially when their master was the Lord Rahl, the master of D’Hara.

Protecting the Lord Rahl with their lives had always been the blind duty of the Mord-Sith. In a perverse way, Cara’s irreverence toward Richard was a celebration of her freedom, paid in homage to the one who had granted it.

By free choice, the Mord-Sith had decided to be Richard’s closest protectors. They had given Richard no say in the matter. They often paid little heed to his orders unless they deemed them important enough; they were, after all, now free to pursue what was important to them, and what the Mord-Sith considered important above all else was keeping Richard safe.

Over time, Cara, their ever-present bodyguard, had gradually become like family. Now that family had unexpectedly grown.

Jennsen, for her part, was awestruck to find herself welcomed. From what they had so far learned, Jennsen had grown up in hiding, always fearful that the former Lord Rahl, her father, would finally find her and murder her as he murdered any other ungifted offspring he found.

Richard signaled to Tom and Friedrich, back with the wagon and horses, that they would stop for the night. Tom lifted an arm in acknowledgment and then set to unhitching his team.

No longer able to see the races in the dark void of the western sky, Jennsen turned back to Richard. “I take it their feathers are tipped in black.”

Before Richard had a chance to answer, Cara spoke in a silken voice that was pure menace. “They look like death itself drips from the tips of their feathers—like the Keeper of the underworld has been using their wicked quills to write death warrants.”

Cara loathed seeing those birds anywhere near Richard or Kahlan. Kahlan shared the sentiment.

Jennsen’s gaze fled Cara’s heated expression. She redirected her suspicion to Richard.

“Are they causing you…some kind of trouble?”

Kahlan pressed a fist to her abdomen, against the ache of dread stirred by the question.

Richard appraised Jennsen’s troubled eyes. “The races are tracking us.”

BOOK: Naked Empire
2.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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