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Authors: Terry Goodkind

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic

Naked Empire (9 page)

BOOK: Naked Empire
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Tom, his silver knife to hand, stepped up out of a gully behind the man, blocking the way should the man decide to run back the way he’d come.

The man turned in a circle to see Tom towering behind. As he finally came back around and saw Kahlan standing beside Richard, he let out another gasp. They all were wearing dusty traveling clothes, but somehow Richard didn’t suppose that at that moment they looked at all like simple travelers in search of work.

“Please,” the man said, “I don’t mean any harm.”

“Take it easy,” Richard said as he stole a sidelong glance at Cara—his words meant not only for the man but the Mord-Sith as well. “Are you alone?” Richard asked him.

“Yes, Lord Rahl. I’m on a mission for my people, just as I told you. You are of course to be forgiven your aggressive nature—I would expect nothing less. I want you to know I hold no feelings of resentment toward you.”

“Why does he think you’re the Lord Rahl?” Cara said to Richard in a tone that sounded more accusation than question.

“I’ve heard the descriptions,” the man put in. Still clutching the waterskin to his chest, he pointed with the other hand. “And that sword. I’ve heard about Lord Rahl’s sword.” His gaze moved cautiously to Kahlan. “And the Mother Confessor, of course,” he added, dipping his head.

“Of course,” Richard sighed.

He’d expected that he would have to hide the sword around strangers, but now he knew just how important that was going to be whenever they went into any populated areas. The sword would be relatively easy to hide. Not so with Kahlan. He thought that maybe they could cover her in rags and say she was a leper.

The man leaned cautiously out, arm extended, and handed Richard his waterskin. “Thank you, Lord Rahl.”

Richard took a long drink of the terrible-tasting water before offering it to Kahlan. She lifted hers out for him to see as she declined with a single shake of her head. Richard took another long swig before replacing the stopper and slinging the strap back over his shoulder.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Owen.”

“Well, Owen, why don’t you come back to camp with us for the night. We can fill up your waterskins for you, at least, before you’re on your way in the morning.”

Cara was near to bursting as she gritted her teeth at Richard. “Why don’t you just let me see to—”

“I think Owen has problems we can all understand. He’s concerned for his friends and family. In the morning, he can be on his way, and we can be on ours.”

Richard didn’t want the man out there somewhere, in the dark, where they couldn’t as easily keep an eye on him as they could if he were in camp. In the morning it would be easy enough to make sure that he wasn’t following them. Cara finally understood Richard’s intent and relaxed. He knew she would want any stranger in her sight while Richard and Kahlan were sleeping.

Kahlan at his side, Richard started back to the wagon. The man followed, his head swiveling side to side, from Tom to Cara, and back again.

Since they were headed back to the wagon, Richard finished what water remained in his waterskin while, behind, Owen thanked him for the invitation and promised not to be any trouble.

Richard intended to see to it that Owen kept his promise.

Chapter 10

Up in the wagon, Richard dunked Owen’s two waterskins in the barrel that still had water. Owen, sitting with his back pressed against a wheel, glanced up at Richard from time to time, watching expectantly, as Cara glared at him. Cara clearly didn’t like the fellow, but as protective as Mord-Sith were, that didn’t necessarily mean that it was warranted.

For some reason, though, Richard didn’t care for the man, either. It wasn’t so much that he disliked him, just that he couldn’t warm to the fellow. He was polite and certainly didn’t look threatening, but there was something about the man’s attitude that made Richard feel…edgy.

Tom and Friedrich broke up dried wood they’d collected, feeding it into the small fire. The wonderful aroma of pine pitch covered the smell of the nearby horses.

From time to time Owen cast a fearful eye at Cara, Kahlan, Tom, and Friedrich. By far, though, he seemed most uneasy about Jennsen. He tried to avert his eyes from her, tried not to look her directly in the eye, but his gaze kept being drawn to her red hair shining in the firelight. When Betty approached to investigate the stranger, Owen stopped breathing. Richard told Owen that the goat just wanted attention. Owen gingerly patted the top of Betty’s head as if the goat were a gar that might take off his arm if he weren’t careful.

Jennsen, with a smile and ignoring the way he stared at her hair, offered Owen some of her dried meat.

Owen just stared wide-eyed up at her leaning down over him.

“I’m not a witch,” she said to Owen. “People think my red hair is a sign that I’m a witch. I’m not. I can assure you, I have no magic.”

The edge in her voice surprised Richard, reminding him that there was iron under the feminine grace.

Still wide-eyed, Owen said, “Of course not. I, I…just never saw such…beautiful hair before, that’s all.”

“Why, thank you,” Jennsen said, her smile returning. She again offered him a piece of dried meat.

“I’m sorry,” Owen said in polite apology, “but I prefer not to eat meat, if it’s all right with you.”

He quickly reached in his pocket, bringing out a cloth pouch holding dried biscuit. He forced a smile at Jennsen as he held out the biscuits.

“Would you like one of mine?”

Tom started, glaring at Owen.

“Thanks, no,” Jennsen said as she withdrew her extended hand and sat down on a low, flat rock. She snagged Betty by an ear and made her lie down at her feet. “You’d best eat the biscuits yourself if you don’t want meat,” she said to Owen. “I’m afraid we don’t have a lot that isn’t.”

“Why don’t you eat meat?” Richard asked.

Owen looked up over his shoulder at Richard in the wagon above him. “I don’t like the thought of harming animals just to satisfy my want of food.”

Jennsen smiled politely. “That’s a kindhearted sentiment.”

Owen twitched a smile before his gaze was drawn once again to her hair. “It’s just the way I feel,” he said, finally looking away from her.

“Darken Rahl felt the same way,” Cara said, turning the glare on Jennsen. “I saw him horsewhip a woman to death because he caught her eating a sausage in the halls of the People’s Palace. It struck him as disrespectful of his feelings.”

Jennsen stared in astonishment.

“Another time,” Cara went on as she chewed a bite of sausage, “I was with him when he came around a corner outside, near the gardens. He spotted a cavalry man atop his horse eating a meat pie. Darken Rahl lashed out with a flash of conjured lightning, beheading the man’s horse in an instant—thump, it dropped into the hedge. The man managed to land on his feet as the rest of his horse crashed to the ground. Darken Rahl reached out, drew the man’s sword, and in a fit of anger slashed the belly of the horse open. Then he seized the soldier by the scruff of his neck and shoved his face into the horse’s innards, screaming at him to eat. The man tried his best, but ended up suffocated in the horse’s warm viscera.”

Owen covered his mouth as he closed his eyes.

Cara waved her sausage as if indicating Darken Rahl standing before her. “He turned to me, the fire gone out of him, and asked me how people could be so cruel as to eat meat.”

Jennsen, her mouth hanging open, asked, “What did you say?”

Cara shrugged. “What could I say? I told him I didn’t know.”

“But why would people eat meat, then, if he was like that?” Jennsen asked.

“Most of the time, he wasn’t. Vendors sold meat at the palace and he usually paid it no mind. Sometimes he would shake his head in disgust, or call them cruel, but usually he didn’t even take notice of it.”

Friedrich was nodding. “That was the thing about the man—you never knew what he was going to do. He might smile at a person, or have them tortured to death. You never knew.”

Cara stared into the low flames of the fire before her. “There was no way to reason out how he would react to anything.” Her voice took on a quiet, haunted quality. “A lot of people simply decided that it was only a matter of time until he killed them, too, and so they lived their lives as the condemned would, waiting for the axe to fall, taking no pleasure in life or the thought of their future.”

Tom nodded his grim agreement with Cara’s assessment of life in D’Hara as he fed a crook of driftwood into the fire.

“Is that what you did, Cara?” Jennsen asked.

Cara looked up and scowled. “I am Mord-Sith. Mord-Sith are always ready to embrace death. We do not wish to die old and toothless.”

Owen, nibbling his dried biscuit as if out of obligation to eat since the rest of them were, was clearly shaken by the story. “I can’t imagine life with such savagery as all of you must live. Was this Darken Rahl related to you, Lord Rahl?” Owen suddenly seemed to think he might have made a mistake, and rushed to amend his question. “He has the same name…so I thought, well, I just thought—but I didn’t mean to imply that I thought you were like him….”

Stepping down from the wagon, Richard handed Owen his full waterskins. “He was my father.”

“I didn’t mean anything by the question. I would never intentionally cast aspersions on a man’s father, especially a man who—”

“I killed him,” Richard said.

Richard didn’t feel like elaborating. He recoiled from the very thought of going into the whole dreadful tale.

Owen gaped around as if he were a fawn surrounded by wolves.

“He was a monster,” Cara said, appearing to feel the need to rise to Richard’s defense. “Now the people of D’Hara have a chance to look forward to a future of living their lives as they wish.”

Richard sat down beside Kahlan. “At least they will if they can be free of the Imperial Order.”

Head down, Owen nibbled on his biscuit as he watched the others.

When no one else spoke, Kahlan did. “Why don’t you tell us your reasons for coming here, Owen.”

Richard recognized her tone as that of the Mother Confessor asking a polite question meant to put a frightened petitioner at ease.

He dipped his head respectfully. “Yes, Mother Confessor.”

“You know her, too?” Richard asked.

Owen nodded. “Yes, Lord Rahl.”

“How?”

The man’s gaze shifted from Richard to Kahlan and back again.

“Word of you and the Mother Confessor has spread everywhere. Word of the way you freed the people of Altur’Rang from the oppression of the Imperial Order is known far and wide. Those who want freedom know that you are the one who gives it.”

Richard frowned. “What do you mean, I’m the one who gives it?”

“Well, before, the Imperial Order ruled. They are brutal—forgive me, they are misguided and don’t know any better. That is why their rule is so brutal. Perhaps it isn’t their fault. It is not for me to say.” Owen looked away as he tried to come up with words while apparently seeing his own visions of what the Imperial Order had done to convince him of their brutality. “Then you came and gave people freedom—just as you did in Altur’Rang.”

Richard wiped a hand across his face. He needed to translate the book, he needed to find out what was behind the thing Cara had touched and the black-tipped races following them, he needed to get back to Victor and those who were engaged in the revolt against the Order, he was past due to meet Nicci, and he needed to deal with his headaches. At least, maybe Nicci could help with that much of it.

“Owen, I don’t ‘give’ people freedom.”

“Yes, Lord Rahl.”

Owen evidently took Richard’s words as something he dared not argue with, but his eyes clearly said that he didn’t believe it.

“Owen, what do you mean when you say that you think I give people freedom?”

Owen took a tiny bite of his biscuit as he glanced around at the others. He squirmed his shoulders in a self-conscious shrug. Finally, he cleared his throat.

“Well, you, you do what the Imperial Order does—you kill people.” He waved his biscuit awkwardly, as if it were a sword, stabbing the air. “You kill those who enslave people, and then you give the people who were enslaved their freedom so that peace can return.”

Richard took a deep breath. He wasn’t sure if Owen meant it the way it came out, or if it was just that he was having difficulty explaining himself in front of people who made him nervous.

“That’s not exactly the way it is,” Richard said.

“But that’s why you came down here. Everyone knows it. You came down here to the Old World to give people freedom.”

Elbows on his knees, Richard leaned forward rubbing his palms together as he thought about how much he wanted to explain. He felt a wave of calmness when Kahlan draped a gentle, comforting hand over the back of his shoulder. He didn’t want to go into the horror of how he had been taken prisoner and taken from Kahlan, thinking he would never see her again.

Richard put the whole weight of emotion over that long ordeal aside and took another approach. “Owen, I’m from up in the New World—”

“Yes, I know,” Owen said as he nodded. “And you came here to free people from—”

“No. That’s not the truth of it. We lived in the New World. We were once at peace, apparently much like your people were. Emperor Jagang—”

“The dream walker.”

“Yes, Emperor Jagang, the dream walker, sent his armies to conquer the New World, to enslave our people—”

“My people, too.”

Richard nodded. “I understand. I know what a horror that is. His soldiers are rampaging up through the New World, murdering, enslaving our people.”

Owen turned his watery gaze off into the darkness as he nodded. “My people, too.”

“We tried to fight back,” Kahlan told him. “But there are too many. Their army is far too vast for us to drive them out of our land.”

Owen nibbled his biscuit again, not meeting her gaze. “My people are terrified of the men of the Order—may the Creator forgive their misguided ways.”

“May they scream in agony for all eternity in the darkest shadow of the Keeper of the underworld,” Cara said in merciless correction.

Owen stared slack-jawed at such a curse spoken aloud.

“We couldn’t fight them like that—simply drive them back to the Old World,” Richard said, bringing Owen’s gaze back to him as he went on with the story. “So I’m down here, in Jagang’s homeland, helping people who hunger to be free to cast off the shackles of the Order. While he’s away conquering our land, he has left his own homeland open to those who hunger for freedom. With Jagang and his armies away, that gives us a chance to strike at Jagang’s soft underbelly, to do him meaningful harm.

“I’m doing this because it’s the only way we can fight back against the Imperial Order—our only means to succeed. If I weaken his foundation, his source of men and support, then he will have to withdraw his army from our land and return south to defend his own.

“Tyranny cannot endure forever. By its very nature it rots everything it rules, including itself. But that can take lifetimes. I’m trying to accelerate that process so that I and those I love can be free in our lifetimes—free to live our own lives. If enough people rise up against the Imperial Order’s rule, it may even loosen Jagang’s grip on power and bring him and the Order down.

“That’s how I’m fighting him, how I’m trying to defeat him, how I’m trying to get him out of my land.”

Owen nodded. “This is what we need, too. We are victims of fate. We need for you to come and get his men out of our land, and then to withdraw your sword, your ways, from our people so we may live in tranquillity again. We need you to give us freedom.”

The driftwood popped, sending a glowing swirl of sparks skyward. Richard, hanging his head, tapped his fingertips together. He didn’t think the man had heard a word he’d said. They needed rest. He needed to translate the book. They needed to get to where they were going. At least he didn’t have a headache.

“Owen, I’m sorry,” he finally said in a quiet voice. “I can’t help you in so direct a manner. But I would like you to understand that my cause is to your advantage, too, and that what I’m doing will also cause Jagang to eventually pull his troops out of your homeland as well, or at least weaken their presence so that you can throw them out yourselves.”

“No,” Owen said. “His men will not leave my land until you come and…” Owen winced. “And destroy them.”

The very word, the implication, looked sickening to the man.

“Tomorrow,” Richard said, no longer bothering to try to sound polite, “we have to be on our way. You will have to be on your way as well. I wish you success in ridding your people of the Imperial Order.”

“We cannot do such a thing,” Owen protested. He sat up straighter. “We are not savages. You and those like you—the unenlightened ones—it is up to you to do it and give us freedom. I am the only one who can bring you. You must come and do as your kind does. You must give our empire freedom.”

Richard rubbed his fingertips across the furrows of his brow. Cara started to rise. A look from Richard sat her back down.

“I gave you water,” Richard said as he stood. “I can’t give you freedom.”

“But you must—”

“Double watch tonight,” Richard said as he turned to Cara, cutting Owen off.

Cara nodded once as her mouth twisted with a satisfied smile of iron determination.

“In the morning,” Richard added, “Owen will be on his way.”

BOOK: Naked Empire
13.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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