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Authors: Terry Goodkind

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic

Naked Empire (8 page)

BOOK: Naked Empire
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“But look,” Richard said, gesturing out into the burning wasteland from where they had come. “It runs back toward the Pillars of Creation.”

As the things growing thinned and eventually ceased to be back that way, so too did the lifeless strip. It became indistinguishable from the surrounding wasteland because there was no life to mark where the line had been.

“There’s no telling how far it runs. For all I know,” Richard said, “it’s possible that it runs all the way back to the valley itself.”

“That part makes no sense to me,” Kahlan said. “I can see what you mean about it maybe being like the boundaries up in the New World, the boundaries between Westland, the Midlands, and D’Hara. That much I follow. But the spirits take me, I don’t get why it would run to the Pillars of Creation. That part just strikes me as more than odd.”

Richard turned and gazed back to the east, where they were headed, to the rumpled gray wall of mountains rising steeply up from the broad desert floor, studying the distant notch that sat a little north of where the boundary line ran toward those mountains.

He looked south, to the wagon making its way toward those mountains.

“We better catch up with the others,” Richard finally said. “I need to get back to translating the book.”

Chapter 9

The spectral spires around Richard glowed under the lingering caress of the low sun. In the amber light, as he scouted the forsaken brink of the towering mountains beyond, long pools of shadow were darkening to the blue-black color of bruises. The pinnacles of reddish rock stood like stony guardians along the lower reaches of the desolate foothills, as if listening for the echoing crunch of his footsteps along the meandering gravel beds.

Richard had felt like being alone to think, so he had set out to scout by himself. It was hard to think when people were constantly asking questions.

He was frustrated that the book hadn’t yet told him anything that would in any way help explain the presence of the strange boundary line, much less the connection of the book’s title, the place called the Pillars of Creation, and those ungifted people like Jennsen. The book, in the beginning that he’d so far translated, anyway, appeared mostly to be an historical record dealing with unanticipated matters involving occurrences of “pillars of Creation,” as those like Jennsen were called, and the unsuccessful attempts at “curing” those “unfortunates.”

Richard was beginning to get the clear sense that the book was laying a careful foundation of early details in preparation for something calamitous. The nearly quaking care of the recounting of every possible course of action that had been investigated gave him the feeling that whoever wrote the book was being painstaking for reasons of consequence.

Not daring to slow their pace, Richard had been translating while riding in the wagon. The dialect was slightly different from the High D’Haran he was used to reading, so working out the translation was slow going, especially sitting in the back of the bouncing wagon. He had no way of knowing if the book would eventually offer any answers, but he felt a gnawing worry over what the unfolding account was working up to. He would have jumped ahead, but he’d learned in the past that doing so often wasted more time than it saved, since it interfered with accurately grasping the whole picture, which sometimes led to dangerously erroneous conclusions. He would just have to keep at it.

After working all day, focused intently on the book, he’d ended up with a fierce headache. He’d had days without them, but now when they came it seemed they were worse each time. He didn’t tell Kahlan how concerned he was that he wouldn’t make it to the sliph’s well in Tanimura. Besides working at translating, he racked his brain trying to find a solution.

While he had no idea what the key to the headaches brought on by the gift was, he had the nagging feeling that it was within himself. He feared it was a matter of balance he was failing to see. He had even resorted when out alone, once, to sitting and meditating as the Sisters had once taught him in order to try to focus on the gift within. It had been to no avail.

It would be dark soon and they would need to stop for the night. Since the terrain had changed, it was no longer a simple task to see if the area all around them was clear. Now there were places where an army could lie in wait. With the races shadowing them, there was no telling who might know where to find them. Besides simply wanting a break to think about what he’d read and what he might find within himself to answer the problem of his headaches, Richard wanted to check the surrounding area himself.

Richard paused for a moment to watch a family of quail, the juveniles fully grown, hurry across an open patch of ground. They trotted across the exposed gravel in a line while the father, perched atop a rock, stood lookout. As soon as they melted into the brush, they were again invisible.

Small scraggly pine trees dotted the sweep of irregular hills, gullies, and rocky outcroppings at the fringe of the mountains. Up higher, on the nearby slopes, larger conifers grew in greater abundance. In low, sheltered places clumps of brush lay in thick clusters. Thin grasses covered some of the open ground.

Richard wiped sweat from his eyes. He hoped that with the sun going down the air might cool a little. As he made his way along the concealment of the base of a runoff channel in a fold of two hills, he reached for the strap of his waterskin, about to take a long drink, when movement on a far hillside caught his attention.

He slipped behind the screen of a long shelf of rock to stay out of sight. Taking a careful peek, he saw a man making his way down the loose scree on the side of the hill. The sound of the rock crunching underfoot and sliding down the slope sent a distant echo through the rocky canyons.

Richard had expected that as they left the forbidding wasteland they might at any time begin encountering people, so he had had everyone change out of the black outfits of the nomadic desert people and back into their unassuming traveling clothes. While he was in black trousers and simple shirt, his sword was hardly inconspicuous. Kahlan, as well, had put on simple clothes that were more in keeping with the impoverished people of the Old World, but on Kahlan they didn’t seem to make much difference; it was hard to hide her figure and her hair, but most of all her presence. Once those green eyes of hers fixed on people, they usually had an urge to drop to a knee and bow their head. Her clothes made little difference.

No doubt Emperor Jagang had spread their description far and wide and had offered a reward large enough that even his enemies would find it hard to resist. For many in the Old World, though, the price of continued life under the brutal rule of the Imperial Order was too high. Despite the reward, there were many who hungered to live free and were willing to act to gain that goal.

There was also the problem of the bond the Lord Rahl had with the D’Haran people; through that ancient bond forged by Richard’s ancestors, D’Harans could sense where the Lord Rahl was. The Imperial Order could discover where Richard was by that bond, too. All they had to do was torture the information out of a D’Haran. If one person failed to talk under torture, they would not be shy about trying others until they learned what they wanted.

As Richard watched, the lone man, once he reached the bottom of the hill, made his way along the gravel beds lining the bottom of the rocky gullies. Off to Richard’s right the wagon and horses were lifting a long trail of dust. That was where the man seemed to be headed.

At such a distance it was hard to tell for sure, but Richard doubted that the man was a soldier. He wouldn’t likely be a scout, not in his own homeland, and they weren’t near the hotbeds of the revolt against the rule of the Imperial Order. Richard didn’t think there would be any reason for soldiers to be going this way, through such uninhabited areas. That was, after all, why he had picked this route, heading east to the shadow of the mountains before turning to a more northerly route back to where they had been.

There was also the possibility that the bond had inadvertently revealed Richard’s whereabouts and an army was out looking for him. If the man was a soldier, there could shortly be many more, like ants, swarming down out of the hills.

Richard climbed the back side of a short rocky prominence and lay on his stomach, watching over the top. As the man got closer, Richard could see that he looked young, under thirty years, a bit scrawny, and was dressed nothing at all like a soldier. By the way he stumbled, he was not used to the terrain, or maybe just not used to traveling. It was tiring walking over ground of loose, sharp, broken rock, especially if it was on a slope, since it never provided any solid place for a steady stride.

The man stopped, stretching his neck to peer at the wagon. Panting from the effort of making it down the slope, he combed his fine blond hair back repeatedly with his fingers, then bent at the waist and rested a hand on a knee while he caught his breath.

When the man straightened and started out once more, crunching through the gravel at the bottom of the wash, Richard slid back down the rock. He used the intervening lay of the land and patches of scraggly pine to screen himself from sight. He paused from time to time, as he moved closer, to listen for the heavy footsteps and labored breathing, checking his dead-reckoning estimation of where the man would be.

From behind a freestanding wall of rock a good sixty feet tall, Richard carefully peered out for a look. He had managed to close most of the distance without the man being aware of his presence. Richard moved silently from tree to rock to the back side of slopes, until he was out ahead of the man and in his line of travel.

Still as stone behind a twisted reddish spire of rock jutting from the broken ground, Richard listened to the crunch of footfalls approaching, listened to the man gulping for breath as he climbed over fingers of rock that lay in his way.

When the man was not six feet away, Richard stepped out right in front of him.

The man gasped, clutching his light travel coat beneath his chin as he cringed back a step.

Richard regarded the man without outward emotion, but inside the sword’s power churned with the menace of rage restrained. For an instant, Richard felt the power falter. The magic of the sword keyed off its master’s perception of danger, so such hesitation could be because the smaller man didn’t appear to be an immediate threat.

The man’s clothes, brown trousers, flaxen shirt, and a light, frayed fustian coat, had seen better days. He looked to have had a rough time of his journey—but then, Richard, too, had put on unassuming clothes in order not to raise suspicion. The man’s backpack looked to hold precious little. Two waterskins, their straps crisscrossed across his chest, bunching the light coat, were flat and empty. He carried no weapons that Richard saw, not even a knife.

The man waited expectantly, as if he feared to be the first to speak.

“You appear to be headed for my friends,” Richard said, tipping his head toward the thin golden plume of dust hanging like a beacon in the sunlight above the darkening plain, giving the man a chance to explain himself.

The man, wide-eyed, shoulders hunched, raked back his hair several times. Richard stood before him like a stone pillar, blocking his way. The man’s blue eyes turned to each side, apparently checking to see if he had an escape route should he decide to bolt.

“I mean you no harm,” Richard said. “I just want to know what you’re up to.”

“Up to?”

“Why you’re headed for the wagon.”

The man glanced toward the wagon, not visible beyond the craggy folds of rock, then down at Richard’s sword, and finally up into his eyes.

“I’m…looking for help,” he finally said.

“Help?”

The man nodded. “Yes. I’m searching for the one whose craft is fighting.”

Richard cocked his head. “You’re looking for a soldier of some kind?”

He swallowed at the frown on Richard’s face. “Yes, that’s right.”

Richard shrugged. “The Imperial Order has lots of soldiers. I’m sure that if you keep looking you will come across some.”

The man shook his head. “No. I seek the man from far away—from far to the north. The man who came to bring freedom to many of the oppressed people of the Old World. The man who gives us all hope that the Imperial Order—may the Creator forgive their misguided ways—will be cast out of our lives so that we can be at peace once again.”

“Sorry,” Richard said, “I don’t know anyone like that.”

The man didn’t look disappointed by Richard’s words. He looked more like he simply didn’t believe them. His fine features were pleasant-looking, even though he appeared unconvinced.

“Do you think you could”—the man hesitantly lifted an arm out, pointing—“at least…let me have a drink?”

Richard relaxed a bit. “Sure.”

He pulled the strap off his shoulder and tossed his waterskin to the man. He caught it as if it were precious glass he feared to drop. He pried at the stopper, finally getting it free, and started gulping the water.

He stopped abruptly, lowering the waterskin. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to start drinking all your water right down.”

“It’s all right.” Richard gestured for him to drink up. “I have more back at the wagon. You look to need it.”

As Richard hooked a thumb behind his wide leather belt, the man bowed his head in thanks before tipping the waterskin up for a long drink.

“Where did you hear about this man who fights for freedom?” Richard asked.

The man brought the waterskin down again, his eyes never leaving Richard as he paused to catch his breath. “From many a tongue. The freedom he has spread down here in the Old World has brought hope to us all.”

Richard smiled inwardly at how the bright hope of freedom burned even in a dark place like the heart of the Old World. There were people everywhere who hungered for the same things in life, for a chance to live their life free and by their own labor to better themselves.

Overhead a black-tipped race, wings spread wide, popped into sight as it glided across the open swath of sky above the rise of rock to each side. Richard didn’t have his bow, but the race stayed out of range, anyway.

The man shrank at seeing the race the way a rabbit would shrink when it saw a hawk.

“Sorry I can’t help you,” Richard said when the race had disappeared. He checked behind, in the direction of the wagon, out beyond the nearby hill. “I’m traveling with my wife and family, looking for work, for a place to mind our own business.”

Richard’s business was the revolution, if he was to have a chance for his plan to work, and there were a number of people waiting on him in that regard. He had more urgent problems, first, though.

“But, Lord Rahl, my people need—”

Richard spun back around. “Why would you call me that?”

“I’m, I’m sorry.” The man swallowed. “I didn’t mean to anger you.”

“What makes you think I’m this Lord Rahl?”

The man painted his hand up and down in front of Richard as he sputtered, trying to find words. “You, you, you just…are. I can’t imagine…what else you want me to say. I’m sorry if I have offended you by being so forward, Lord Rahl.”

Cara stalked out from behind a rocky spire. “What have we here?”

The man gasped in surprise at seeing her as he flinched back yet another step, clutching the waterskin to his chest as if it were a shield of steel.

BOOK: Naked Empire
10.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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