Authors: Terry Goodkind
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
Richard woke with a start.
They were back.
He had been having a bad dream. Like all of his dreams, he didn’t remember it. He only knew it was a bad dream because it left behind the shapeless feeling of breathless, heart-pounding, undefined, frantic terror. He threw off the lingering pall of the nightmare as he would throw off a tangled blanket. Even though it felt as if the dark things in lingering remnants of the dream were still clawing at him, trying to drag him back into their world, he knew that dreams were immaterial, and so he dismissed it. Now that he was awake, the feeling of dread rapidly began to dissolve, like fog burning off under hot sunlight.
Still, he had to make an effort to slow his breathing.
What was important was that they were back. He didn’t always know when they returned, but this time, for some reason, he was sure of it.
Sometime in the night, too, the wind had come up. It buffeted him, pulling at his clothes, tearing at his hair. Out on the sweltering waste, the scorching gusts offered no relief from the heat. Rather than being refreshing, the wind was so hot that it felt as though the door to a blast furnace had opened and the heat were broiling his flesh.
Groping for his waterskin, he didn’t find it immediately at hand. He tried to recall exactly where he’d laid it, but, with other thoughts screaming for his attention, he couldn’t remember. He would have to worry about a drink later.
Kahlan lay close, turned toward him. She had gathered her long hair in a loose fist beneath her chin. The wind whipped stray strands across her cheek. Richard loved just to sit and look at her face; this time, though, he delayed but a moment, looking at her only long enough in the faint starlight to note her even breathing. She was sound asleep.
As he scanned their camp, he could just make out a weak blush in the eastern sky. Dawn was still some time off.
He realized that he’d slept through his watch. Cara and Kahlan had no doubt decided that he needed the sleep more than he was needed for standing a watch and had conspired to not wake him. They were probably right. He had been so exhausted that he’d slept right through the night. Now, though, he was wide awake.
His headache, too, was gone.
Silently, carefully, Richard slipped away from Kahlan so as not to wake her. He instinctively reached for his sword lying at his other side. The metal was warm beneath his touch as his fingers curled around the familiar silver-and-gold-wrought scabbard. It was always reassuring to find the sword at the ready, but even more so at that moment. As he silently rolled to his feet, he slipped the baldric over his head, placing the familiar supple leather across his right shoulder. As he rose up, his sword was already at his hip, ready to do his bidding.
Despite how reassuring it was to have the weapon at his side, after the carnage back at the place called the Pillars of Creation the thought of drawing it sickened him. He recoiled from the mental image of the things he had done. Had he not, though, Kahlan wouldn’t be sleeping peacefully; she would be dead, or worse.
Other good had come of it, too. Jennsen had been pulled back from the brink. He saw her curled up beside her beloved goat, her arm corralling Betty’s two sleeping kids. He smiled at seeing her, at what a wonder it was to have a sister, smiled at how smart she was and all the wonders of life she had ahead of her. It made him happy that she was eager to be around him, but being around him made him worry for her safety, too. There really wasn’t any place safe, though, unless the forces of the Order that had been unleashed could be defeated, or at least bottled back up.
A heavy gust tore through their camp, raising even thicker clouds of dirt. Richard blinked, trying to keep the blowing sand out of his eyes. The sound of the wind in his ears was aggravating because it masked other sounds. Though he listened carefully, he could hear only the wind.
Squinting against the blowing grit, he saw that Tom was sitting atop his wagon, looking this way and that, keeping watch. Friedrich was asleep on the other side of the horses, Cara not far away on the desert side of Kahlan, putting herself between them and anything that might be out beyond. In the dim starlight Tom hadn’t spotted Richard. When Tom scanned the night in the opposite direction, Richard moved away from camp, leaving Tom to watch over the others.
Richard was comfortable in the cloak of darkness. Years of practice had taught him to slip unseen through shadows, to move silently in the darkness. He did that now, moving away from camp as he focused on what had awakened him, on what others standing watch would not sense.
Unlike Tom, the races did not miss Richard’s movements. They wheeled high overhead as they watched him, following him as he made his way out along the broken ground. They were almost invisible against the dark sky, but Richard could make them out as they blacked out stars, like telltale shadows against the sparkling black curtain of night—shadows that he thought he could feel as well as he could see.
That the crushing headache was gone was a great relief, but that it had vanished in the manner that it had was also a cause for concern. The torment often vanished when he was distracted by something important. Something dangerous. At the same time, even though the pain was gone, it felt as if it were simply hiding in the shadows of his mind, waiting for him to relax so that it could pounce.
When the headaches surged through him, the nauseating pain was so intense that it made him feel sick in every fiber of his being. Even though the crushing pain at times made it difficult for him to stand, to put one foot in front of the other, he had known that to remain behind, where they were, would have meant certain death. While the headaches were bad in and of themselves, Richard wasn’t so much concerned about the pain as he was about the nature of the headaches—their cause.
They weren’t the same as the headaches he’d had before that he so feared—the headaches brought on by the gift—but they weren’t like those he considered to be normal headaches, either. Throughout his life he’d occasionally had terrible headaches, the same as his mother used to have on a more regular basis. She’d called them “my grim headaches.” Richard thoroughly understood her meaning.
These, however grim, were not like those. He worried that they might be caused by the gift.
He’d had the headaches brought on by the gift before. He had been told that as he grew older, as his ability grew, as he came to understand more, he would, at times later in his life, be confronted with headaches brought on by the gift. The remedy was supposedly simple. He had only to seek the help of another wizard and have him assist with the necessary next level of awareness and comprehension of the nature of the gift within himself. That mental awareness and understanding would enable him to control and thereby eliminate the pain—to douse the flare-up. At least, that’s what he had been told.
Of course, in the absence of another wizard to help, the Sisters of the Light would gladly put a collar around his neck to help control the runaway power of the gift.
He had been told that such headaches, if not properly tended to, were lethal. This much of it, at least, he knew was true. He couldn’t afford to have that problem now, on top of all his others. Right now there was nothing he could do about it; there was no one anywhere near who could help him with that kind of headache—no wizard, and even though he would never allow it, no Sister of the Light to put him in a collar again.
Richard once more reminded himself that it wasn’t the same kind of pain as the last time, when it had been brought on by the gift. He reminded himself not to invent trouble he didn’t have.
He had enough real trouble.
He heard the whoosh as one of the huge birds shot past low overhead. The race twisted in flight, lifting on a gust of wind, to peer back at him.
Another followed in its wake, and then a third, a fourth, and a fifth. They slipped silently away, out across the open ground, following one another roughly in a line. Their wings rocked as they worked to stabilize themselves in the gusty air. Some distance away, they soared into a gliding, climbing turn back toward him.
Before they returned, the races tightened their flight into a circle. When they stroked their huge wings, Richard could usually hear their feathers whisper through the air, although now, with the sound of the wind, he couldn’t. Their black eyes watched him watching them. He wanted them to know he was aware of them, that he hadn’t slept through their nocturnal return.
Were he not so concerned about the meaning of the races, he might think they were beautiful, their sleek black shapes silhouetted majestically against the crimson flush coming to the sky.
As he watched, though, Richard couldn’t imagine what they were doing. He’d seen this behavior from them before and hadn’t understood it then, either. He realized, suddenly, that those other times when they’d returned to circle in this curious fashion, he had also been aware of them. He wasn’t always aware of them or aware of when they returned. If he had a headache, though, it had vanished when they returned.
The hot wind ruffled Richard’s hair as he gazed out across wasteland obscured by the dusty predawn gloom. He didn’t like this dead place. Dawn here would offer no promise of a world coming to life. He wished Kahlan and he were back in his woods. He couldn’t help smiling as he recalled the place in the mountains where the year before they had spent the summer. The place was so wondrous that it had even managed to mellow Cara.
In the faint but gathering light, the black-tipped races circled, as they always did when they performed this curious maneuver, not over him, but a short distance away, this time out over the open desert where the buffeting wind unfurled diaphanous curtains of sandy grit. The other times it had been over forested hills, or open grassland. This time, as he watched the races, he had to squint to keep the blowing sand from getting in his eyes.
Abruptly tipping their broad wings, the races tightened their circle as they descended closer to the desert floor. He knew that they would do this for a short while before breaking up their formation to resume their normal flight. They sometimes flew in pairs and performed spectacular aerial stunts, each gracefully matching the other’s every move, as ravens sometimes did, but otherwise they never flew in anything like the compact group of their sporadic circling.
And then, as the inky shapes wheeled around in a tight vortex, Richard realized that the trailers of blowing sand below them weren’t simply snaking and curling aimlessly in the wind, but were flowing over something that wasn’t there.
The hair along his arms stood stiffly up.
Richard blinked, squinting into the wind, trying to see better in the howling storm of blowing sand. Yet more dust and dirt lifted in the blast of a heavy gust. As the twisting eddies raced across the flat ground and passed beneath the races, they swirled around and over something below, making the shape more distinct.
It appeared to be the form of a person.
The dirt swirled around the empty void, silhouetting it, defining it, revealing what was there, but not. Whenever the wind lifted and carried with it a heavy load, the outline of the shape, bounded by the swirling sand, looked like the outline of a man shrouded in hooded robes.
Richard’s right hand found the hilt of his sword.
There was nothing to the shape save the sand that flowed over the contours of what wasn’t there, the way muddy water streaming around a clear glass bottle revealed its covert contour. The form seemed to be standing still, watching him.
There were, of course, no eyes in the empty sockets of blowing sand, but Richard could feel them on him.
“What is it?” Jennsen asked in a worried whisper as she rushed up beside him. “What’s the matter? Do you see something?”
With his left hand, Richard pushed her back, out of his way. So urgent was his headlong rush of need that it took concentrated effort to be gentle about it. He was gripping the hilt of his sword so tightly that he could feel the raised letters of the word TRUTH woven in gold wire through the silver.
Richard was invoking from within the sword its purpose for being, the very core of its creation. In answer, the might of the sword’s power ignited.
Beyond the veil of rage, though, in the shadows of his mind, even as the anger of the sword thundered through him, Richard dimly perceived an unexpected opposition on the part of the flux of magic to rise to the summons.
It was like heading out a door and leaning his weight into the howl of a gale, and stumbling forward a step at unexpectedly finding less resistance than anticipated.
Before Richard could question the sensation, the wave of wrath flooded through him, saturating him in the cold fury of the storm that was the sword’s power.
As the races wheeled, their circle began coming closer. This, too, they had done before, but this time the shape that moved with them was betrayed by the swirl of sand and grit. It appeared that the intangible hooded man was being pulled closer by the black-tipped races.
The distinctive ring of steel announced the arrival of the Sword of Truth in the hot dawn air.
Jennsen squeaked at his sudden movement and jumped back.
The races answered with piercing, mocking cries that carried on the howling wind.
The unmistakable sound of Richard’s sword being drawn brought Kahlan and Cara at a dead run. Cara would have leapt protectively ahead, but she knew better than to get in front of him when he had the sword out. Agiel clenched in her fist, she skidded to a halt off to the side, crouched and at the ready, a powerful cat ready to spring.
“What is it?” Kahlan asked as she ran up behind him, gaping out at the pattern in the wind.
“It’s the races,” came Jennsen’s worried voice. “They’ve come back.”
Kahlan stared incredulously at her. “The races don’t look like the worst of it.”
Sword in hand, Richard watched the thing below the wheeling races. Feeling the sword in his grip, its power sizzling through the very marrow of his bones, he felt a flash of hesitation, of doubt. With no time to waste, he turned back to Tom, just starting away from securing the lead lines to his big draft horses. Richard mimed shooting an arrow. Grasping Richard’s meaning, Tom skidded to a halt and spun back to the wagon. Friedrich urgently seized the tethers to the other horses, working to keep them calm, keeping them from spooking. Leaning in the wagon, Tom threw gear aside as he searched for Richard’s bow and quiver.