Read Naked Empire Online

Authors: Terry Goodkind

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic

Naked Empire (2 page)

BOOK: Naked Empire
8.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Chapter 2

Jennsen frowned. “What?”

Richard gestured between Kahlan and himself. “The races, they’re tracking us.”

“You mean they followed you out into this wasteland and they’re watching you, waiting to see if you’ll die of thirst or something so they can pick your bones clean.”

Richard slowly shook his head. “No, I mean they’re following us, keeping track of where we are.”

“I don’t understand how you can possibly know—”

“We know,” Cara snapped. Her shapely form was as spare, as sleek, as aggressive-looking as the races themselves and, swathed in the black garb of the nomadic people who sometimes traveled the outer fringes of the vast desert, just as sinister-looking.

With the back of his hand against her shoulder, Richard gently eased Cara back as he went on. “We were looking into it when Friedrich found us and told us about you.”

Jennsen glanced over at the two men back with the wagon. The sharp sliver of moon floating above the black drape of distant mountains provided just enough light for Kahlan to see that Tom was working at removing the trace chains from his big draft horses while Friedrich unsaddled the others.

Jennsen’s gaze returned to search Richard’s eyes. “What have you been able to find out, so far?”

“We never had a chance to really find out much of anything. Oba, our surprise half brother lying dead back there, kind of diverted our attention when he tried to kill us.” Richard unhooked a waterskin from his belt. “But the races are still watching us.”

He handed Kahlan his waterskin, since she had left hers hanging on her saddle. It had been hours since they had last stopped. She was tired from riding and weary from walking when they had needed to rest the horses.

Kahlan lifted the waterskin to her lips only to be reacquainted with how bad hot water tasted. At least they had water. Without water, death came quickly in the unrelenting heat of the seemingly endless, barren expanse around the forsaken place called the Pillars of Creation.

Jennsen slipped the strap of her waterskin off her shoulder before hesitantly starting again. “I know it’s easy to misconstrue things. Look at how I was tricked into thinking you wanted to kill me just like Darken Rahl had. I really believed it, and there were so many things that seemed to me to prove it, but I had it all wrong. I guess I was just so afraid it was true, I believed it.”

Richard and Kahlan both knew it hadn’t been Jennsen’s doing—she had merely been a means for others to get at Richard—but it had squandered precious time.

Jennsen took a long drink. Still grimacing at the taste of the water, she lifted the waterskin toward the empty desert behind them. “I mean, there isn’t much alive out here—it might actually be that the races are hungry and are simply waiting to see if you die out here and, because they do keep watching and waiting, you’ve begun to think it’s more.” She gave Richard a demure glance, bolstered by a smile, as if hoping to cloak the admonishment as a suggestion. “Maybe that’s all it really is.”

“They aren’t waiting to see if we die out here,” Kahlan said, wanting to end the discussion so they could eat and Richard could get some sleep. “They were watching us before we had to come here. They’ve been watching us since we were back in the forests to the northeast. Now, let’s have some supper and—”

“But why? That’s not the way birds behave. Why would they do that?”

“I think they’re keeping track of us for someone,” Richard said. “More precisely, I think someone is using them to hunt us.”

Kahlan had known various people in the Midlands, from simple people living in the wilds to nobles living in great cities, who hunted with falcons. This, though, was different. Even if she didn’t fully understand Richard’s meaning, much less the reasons for his conviction, she knew he hadn’t meant it in the traditional sense.

With abrupt realization, Jennsen paused in the middle of another drink. “That’s why you’ve started scattering pebbles along the windblown places in the trail.”

Richard smiled in confirmation. He took his waterskin when Kahlan handed it back. Cara frowned up at him as he took a long drink.

“You’ve been throwing pebbles along the trail? Why?”

Jennsen eagerly answered in his place. “The open rock gets blown clean by the wind. He’s been making sure that if anyone tries to sneak up on us in the dark, the pebbles strewn across those open patches will crunch underfoot and alert us.”

Cara wrinkled a questioning brow at Richard. “Really?”

He shrugged as he passed her his waterskin so that she wouldn’t have to dig hers out from beneath her desert garb. “Just a little extra precaution in case anyone is close, and careless. Sometimes people don’t expect the simple things and that catches them up.”

“But not you,” Jennsen said, hooking the strap of her waterskin back over her shoulder. “You think of even the simple things.”

Richard chuckled softly. “If you think I don’t make mistakes, Jennsen, you’re wrong. While it’s dangerous to assume that those who wish you harm are stupid, it can’t hurt to spread out a little gravel just in case someone thinks they can sneak across windswept rock in the dark without being heard.”

Any trace of amusement faded as Richard stared off toward the western horizon where stars had yet to appear. “But I fear that pebbles strewn along the ground won’t do any good for eyes watching from a dark sky.” He turned back to Jennsen, brightening, as if remembering he had been speaking to her. “Still, everyone makes mistakes.”

Cara wiped droplets of water from her sly smile as she handed Richard back his waterskin. “Lord Rahl is always making mistakes, especially simple ones. That’s why he needs me around.”

“Is that right, little miss perfect?” Richard chided as he snatched the waterskin from her hand. “Maybe if you weren’t ‘helping’ keep me out of trouble, we wouldn’t have black-tipped races shadowing us.”

“What else could I do?” Cara blurted out. “I was trying to help—to protect you both.” Her smile had withered. “I’m sorry, Lord Rahl.”

Richard sighed. “I know,” he admitted as he reassuringly squeezed her shoulder. “We’ll figure it out.”

Richard turned back to Jennsen. “Everyone makes mistakes. How a person deals with their mistakes is a mark of their character.”

Jennsen nodded as she thought it over. “My mother was always afraid of making a mistake that would get us killed. She used to do things like you did, in case my father’s men were trying to sneak up on us. We always lived in forests, though, so it was dry twigs, rather than pebbles, that she often scattered around us.”

Jennsen pulled on a ringlet of her hair as she stared off into dark memories. “It was raining the night they came. If those men stepped on twigs, she wouldn’t have been able to hear it.” She ran trembling fingers over the silver hilt of the knife at her belt. “They were big, and they surprised her, but still, she got one of them before they…”

Darken Rahl had wanted Jennsen dead because she had been born ungifted. Any ruler of that bloodline killed offspring such as she. Richard and Kahlan believed that a person’s life was their own to live, and that birth did not qualify that right.

Jennsen’s haunted eyes turned up to Richard. “She got one of them before they killed her.”

With one arm, Richard pulled Jennsen into a tender embrace. They all understood such terrible loss. The man who had lovingly raised Richard had been killed by Darken Rahl himself. Darken Rahl had ordered the murders of all of Kahlan’s sister Confessors. The men who had killed Jennsen’s mother, though, were men from the Imperial Order sent to trick her, to murder in order to make her believe it was Richard who was after her.

Kahlan felt a forlorn wave of helplessness at all they faced. She knew what it was to be alone, afraid, and overwhelmed by powerful men filled with blind faith and the lust for blood, men devoutly believing that mankind’s salvation required slaughter.

“I’d give anything for her to know that it wasn’t you who sent those men.” Jennsen’s soft voice held the dejected sum of what it was to have suffered such a loss, to have no solution to the crushing solitude it left in its wake. “I wish my mother could have known the truth, known what you two are really like.”

“She’s with the good spirits and finally at peace,” Kahlan whispered in sympathy, even if she now had reason to question the enduring validity of such things.

Jennsen nodded as she swiped her fingers across her cheek. “What mistake did you make, Cara?” she finally asked.

Rather than be angered by the question, and perhaps because it had been asked in innocent empathy, Cara answered with quiet candor. “It has to do with that little problem we mentioned before.”

“You mean it’s about the thing you want me to touch?”

By the light of the moon’s narrow crescent, Kahlan could see Cara’s scowl return. “And the sooner the better.”

Richard rubbed his fingertips across his brow. “I’m not sure about that.”

Kahlan, too, thought that Cara’s notion was too simplistic.

Cara threw her arms up. “But Lord Rahl, we can’t just leave it—”

“Let’s get camp set up before it’s pitch dark,” Richard said in quiet command. “What we need right now is food and sleep.”

For once, Cara saw the sense in his orders and didn’t object. When he had earlier been out scouting alone, she had confided in Kahlan that she was worried at how weary Richard looked and had suggested that, since there were enough other people, they shouldn’t wake him for a turn at watch that night.

“I’ll check the area,” Cara said, “and make sure there aren’t any more of those birds sitting on a rock watching us with those black eyes of theirs.”

Jennsen peered around as if fearing that a black-tipped race might swoop in out of the darkness.

Richard countermanded Cara’s plans with a dismissive shake of his head. “They’re gone for now.”

“You said they were tracking you.” Jennsen stroked Betty’s neck when the goat nudged her, seeking comfort. The twins were still hiding under their mother’s round belly. “I never saw them before now. They weren’t around yesterday, or today. They didn’t show up until just this evening. If they really were tracking you, then they wouldn’t be gone for such a stretch. They’d have to stick close to you all the time.”

“They can leave us for a time in order to hunt—or to make us doubt our suspicion of their true intent—and, even if we keep going, they can easily find us when they return. That’s the advantage the black-tipped races have: they don’t need to watch us every moment.”

Jennsen planted her fists on her hips. “Then how in the world could you possibly be sure they’re tracking you?” She flicked a hand out toward the darkness beyond. “You often see the same kind of birds. You see ravens, sparrows, geese, finches, hummingbirds, doves—how do you know that any one of them aren’t following you and that the black-tipped races are?”

“I know,” Richard said as he turned and started back toward the wagon. “Now, let’s get our things out and set up camp.”

Kahlan caught Jennsen’s arm as she headed after him, about to renew her objections. “Let him be for tonight, Jennsen?” Kahlan lifted an eyebrow. “Please? About this, anyway.”

Kahlan was pretty sure that the black-tipped races really were following them, but it wasn’t so much an issue of her being sure of it herself. Rather, she had confidence in Richard’s word in matters such as this. Kahlan was versed in affairs of state, protocol, ceremony, and royalty; she was familiar with various cultures, the origins of ancient disputes between lands, and the history of treaties; and she was conversant in any number of languages, including the duplicitous dialect of diplomacy. In such areas, Richard trusted her word when she expressed her conviction.

In matters about something so odd as strange birds following them, she knew better than to question Richard’s word.

Kahlan knew, too, that he didn’t yet have all the answers. She had seen him like this before, distant and withdrawn, as he struggled to understand the important connections and patterns in relevant details only he perceived. She knew that he needed to be left alone about it. Pestering him for answers before he had them only served to distract him from what he needed to do.

Watching Richard’s back as he walked away, Jennsen finally forced a smile of agreement. Then, as if struck with another thought, her eyes widened. She leaned close to Kahlan and whispered, “Is this about magic?”

“We don’t know what it’s about.”

Jennsen nodded. “I’ll help. Whatever I can do, I want to help.”

For the time being, Kahlan kept her worries to herself as she circled an arm around the young woman’s shoulders in an appreciative embrace and walked her back toward the wagon.

Chapter 3

In the immense, silent void of night, Kahlan could clearly hear Friedrich, off to the side, speaking gently to the horses. He patted their shoulders or ran a hand along their flanks each time on his way by as he went about grooming and picketing them for the night. With darkness shrouding the empty expanse beyond, the familiar task of caring for the animals made the unfamiliar surroundings seem a little less forbidding.

Friedrich was an older, unassuming man of average height. Despite his age, he had undertaken a long and difficult journey to the Old World to find Richard. Friedrich had undertaken that journey, carrying with him important information, soon after his wife had died. The terrible sadness of that loss still haunted his gentle features. Kahlan supposed that it always would.

In the dim light, she saw Jennsen smile as Tom looked her way. A boyish grin momentarily overcame the big, blond-headed D’Haran when he spotted her, but he quickly bent back to work, pulling bedrolls from a corner beneath the seat. He stepped over supplies in his wagon and handed a load down to Richard.

“There’s no wood for a fire, Lord Rahl.” Tom rested a foot on the chafing rail, laying a forearm over his bent knee. “But, if you like, I have a little charcoal to use for cooking.”

“What I’d really like is for you to stop calling me ‘Lord Rahl.’ If we’re anywhere near the wrong people and you slip up and call me that, we’ll all be in a great deal of trouble.”

Tom grinned and patted the ornate letter “R” on the silver handle of the knife at his belt. “Not to worry, Lord Rahl. Steel against steel.”

Richard sighed at the oft-repeated maxim involving the bond of the D’Haran people to their Lord Rahl, and he to them. Tom and Friedrich had promised they wouldn’t use Richard’s and Kahlan’s titles around other people. A lifetime’s habits were difficult to change, though, and Kahlan knew that they felt uncomfortable not using titles when they were so obviously alone.

“So,” Tom said as he handed down the last bedroll, “would you like a small fire for cooking?”

“Hot as it is, it seems to me we could do without any more heat.” Richard set the bedrolls atop a sack of oats already unloaded. “Besides, I’d prefer not to take the time. I’d like to be on our way at first light and we need to get a good rest.”

“Can’t argue with you there,” Tom said, straightening his big frame. “I don’t like us being so out in the open where we could easily be spotted.”

Richard swept his hand in a suggestive arc across the dark vault above.

Tom cast a wary eye skyward. He nodded reluctantly before turning back to the task of digging out tools to mend the breeching and wooden buckets to water the horses. Richard put a boot on a spoke of the cargo wagon’s stout rear wheel and climbed up to help.

Tom, a shy but cheerful man who had appeared only the day before, right after they’d encountered Jennsen, looked to be a merchant who hauled trade goods. Hauling goods in his wagon, Kahlan and Richard had learned, gave him an excuse to travel where and when he needed as a member of a covert group whose true profession was to protect the Lord Rahl from unseen plots and threats.

Speaking in a low voice, Jennsen leaned closer to Kahlan. “Vultures can tell you, from a great distance, where a kill lies—by the way they circle and gather, I mean. I guess I can see how the races could be like that—birds that someone could spot from afar in order to know there was something below.”

Kahlan didn’t say anything. Her head ached, she was hungry, and she just wanted to go to sleep, not to discuss things she couldn’t answer. She wondered how many times Richard had viewed her own insistent questions in the same way she now viewed Jennsen’s. Kahlan silently vowed to try to be at least half as patient as Richard always was.

“The thing is,” Jennsen went on, matter-of-factly, “how would someone get birds to…well, you know, circle around you like vultures over a carcass in order to know where you were?” Jennsen leaned in again and whispered so as to be sure that Richard wouldn’t hear. “Maybe they’re sent with magic to follow specific people.”

Cara fixed Jennsen with a murderous glare. Kahlan idly wondered if the Mord-Sith would clobber Richard’s sister, or extend her leniency because she was family. Discussions about magic, especially in the context of its danger to Richard or Kahlan, made Cara testy. Mord-Sith were fearless in the face of death, but they did not like magic and weren’t shy about making their distaste clear.

In a way, such hostility toward magic characterized the nature and purpose of Mord-Sith; they were singularly able to appropriate the gifted’s power and use it to destroy them. Mord-Sith had been mercilessly trained to be ruthless at their task. It was from the madness of this duty that Richard had freed them.

It seemed obvious enough to Kahlan, though, that if the races really were tracking them it would have to involve conjuring of some sort. It was the questions raised by that assumption that so worried her.

When Kahlan didn’t debate the theory, Jennsen asked, “Why do you think someone would be using the races to track you?”

Kahlan lifted an eyebrow at the young woman. “Jennsen, we’re in the middle of the Old World. Being hunted in enemy territory is hardly surprising.”

“I guess you’re right,” Jennsen admitted. “It just seems that there would have to be more to it.” Despite the heat, she rubbed her arms as if a chill had just run through her. “You have no idea how much Emperor Jagang wants to catch you.”

Kahlan smiled to herself. “Oh, I think I do.”

Jennsen watched Richard a moment as he filled the buckets with water from barrels carried in the wagon. Richard leaned down and handed one to Friedrich. Ears turned attentively ahead, the horses all watched, eager for a drink. Betty, also watching as her twins suckled, bleated her longing for a drink. After filling the buckets, Richard submerged his waterskin to fill it, too.

Jennsen shook her head and looked again into Kahlan’s eyes. “Emperor Jagang tricked me into thinking Richard wanted me dead.” She glanced briefly over at the men engaged in their work before she went on. “I was there with Jagang when he attacked Aydindril.”

Kahlan felt as if her heart came up in her throat at hearing firsthand confirmation of that brute invading the place where she’d grown up. She didn’t think she could bear to hear the answer, but she had to ask. “Did he destroy the city?”

After Richard had been captured and taken from her, Kahlan, with Cara at her side, had led the D’Haran army against Jagang’s vast invading horde from the Old World. Month after month, Kahlan and the army fought against impossible odds, retreating all the way up through the Midlands.

By the time they lost the battle for the Midlands, it had been over a year since Kahlan had seen Richard; he had seemingly been cast into oblivion. When at last she learned where he was being held, Kahlan and Cara had raced south, to the Old World, only to arrive just as Richard ignited a firestorm of revolution in the heart of Jagang’s homeland.

Before she’d left, Kahlan had evacuated Aydindril and left the Confessors’ Palace empty of all those who called it home. Life, not a place, was what mattered.

“He never got a chance to destroy the city,” Jennsen said. “When we arrived at the Confessors’ Palace, Emperor Jagang thought he had you and Richard cornered. But out in front waited a spear holding the head of the emperor’s revered spiritual leader: Brother Narev.” Her voice lowered meaningfully. “Jagang found the message left with the head.”

Kahlan remembered well the day Richard had sent the head of that evil man, along with a message for Jagang, on the long journey north. “‘Compliments of Richard Rahl.’”

“That’s right,” Jennsen said. “You can’t imagine Jagang’s rage.” She paused to be certain Kahlan heeded her warning. “He’ll do anything to get his hands on you and Richard.”

Kahlan hardly needed Jennsen to tell her how much Jagang wanted them.

“All the more reason to get away—hide somewhere,” Cara said.

“And the races?” Kahlan reminded her.

Cara cast a suggestive look at Jennsen before speaking in a quiet voice to Kahlan. “If we do something about the rest of it, maybe that problem would go away, too.” Cara’s goal was to protect Richard. She would be perfectly happy to put him in a hole somewhere and board him over if she thought doing so would keep harm from reaching him.

Jennsen waited, watching the two of them. Kahlan wasn’t at all sure there was anything Jennsen could do. Richard had thought it over and had come to have serious doubts. Kahlan had been amply skeptical without Richard’s doubts. Still…

“Maybe” was all she said.

“If there’s anything I can do, I want to try it.” Jennsen fussed with a button on the front of her dress. “Richard doesn’t think I can help. If it involves magic, wouldn’t he know? Richard is a wizard, he would know about magic.”

Kahlan sighed. There was so much more to it. “Richard was raised in Westland—far from the Midlands, even farther from D’Hara. He grew up in isolation from the rest of the New World, never knowing anything at all about the gift. Despite all he’s so far learned and some of the remarkable things he’s accomplished, he still knows very little of his birthright.”

They had already told Jennsen this, but she seemed skeptical, as if she suspected there was a certain amount of exaggeration in what they were telling her about Richard’s unfamiliarity with his own gift. Her big brother had, after all, in one day rescued her from a lifetime of terror. Such a profound awakening probably seemed tangled in magic to one so devoid of it. Perhaps it was.

“Well, if Richard is as ignorant of magic as you say,” Jennsen pressed in a meaningful voice, finally having arrived at the heart of her purpose, “then maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about what he thinks. Maybe we should just not tell him and go ahead and do whatever it is Cara wants me to do to fix your problem and get the races off your backs.”

Nearby, Betty contentedly licked clean her little white twins. The sweltering darkness and vast weight of the surrounding silence seemed as eternal as death itself.

Kahlan gently took ahold of Jennsen’s collar. “I grew up walking the corridors of the Wizard’s Keep and the Confessors’ Palace. I know a lot about magic.”

She pulled the young woman closer. “I can tell you that such naive notions, when applied to ominous matters like this, can easily get people killed. There is always the possibility that it’s as simple as you fancy, but most likely it’s complex beyond your imagination and any rash attempt at a remedy could ignite a conflagration that would consume us all. Added to all that is the grave peril of not knowing how someone, such as yourself, someone so pristinely ungifted as to be forewarned of in that ancient book Richard has, might affect the equation.

“There are times when there is no choice but to act immediately; even then it must be with your best judgment, using all your experience and everything you do know. As long as there’s a choice, though, you don’t act in matters of magic until you can be sure of the consequence. You don’t ever just take a stab in the dark.”

Kahlan knew all too well the terrible truth of such an admonition. Jennsen seemed unconvinced. “But if he doesn’t really know much about magic, his fears might only be—”

“I’ve walked through dead cities, walked among the mutilated bodies of men, women, and children the Imperial Order has left in their wake. I’ve seen young women not as old as you make thoughtless, innocent mistakes and end up chained to a stake to be used by gangs of soldiers for days before being tortured to death just for the amusement of men who get sick pleasure out of raping a woman as she’s in the throes of death.”

Kahlan gritted her teeth as memories flashed mercilessly before her mind’s eye. She tightened her grip on Jennsen’s collar.

“All of my sister Confessors died in such a fashion, and they knew about their power and how to use it. The men who caught them knew, too, and used that knowledge against them. My closest girlhood friend died in my arms after such men were finished with her.

“Life means nothing to people like that; they worship death.

“Those are the kind of people who butchered your mother. Those are the kind of people who will have us, too, if we make a mistake. Those are the kind of people laying traps for us—including traps constructed of magic.

“As for Richard not knowing about magic, there are times when he is so ignorant of the simplest things that I can scarcely believe it and must remind myself that he grew up not being taught anything at all about his gift. In those things, I try to be patient and to guide him as best I can. He takes very seriously what I tell him.

“There are other times when I suspect that he actually grasps complexities of magic that neither I nor anyone alive has ever before fathomed or even so much as imagined. In those things he must be his own guide.

“The lives of a great many good people depend on us not making careless mistakes, especially careless mistakes with magic. As the Mother Confessor I’ll not allow reckless whim to jeopardize all those lives. Now, do you understand me?”

Kahlan had nightmares about the things she had seen, about those who had been caught, about those who had made a simple mistake and paid the price with their life. She was not many years beyond Jennsen’s age, but right then that gulf was vastly more than a mere handful of years.

Kahlan gave Jennsen’s collar a sharp yank. “Do you understand me?”

Wide-eyed, Jennsen swallowed. “Yes, Mother Confessor.” Finally, her gaze broke toward the ground.

Only then did Kahlan release her.

BOOK: Naked Empire
8.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

False Finder by Mia Hoddell
Relatively Strange by Marilyn Messik
Howtown by Michael Nava
The Ides of April by Lindsey Davis
True Colors by Melissa Pearl
Page by Pierce, Tamora