Authors: Terry Goodkind
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“Bring us our dead.”
At the same time as he heard the voice, Richard felt the touch of an icy hand on the back of his shoulder.
He drew his sword as he spun.
As it cleared its scabbard, the blade sent its distinctive ring of steel through the hushed, predawn air. The power contained within the weapon answered the call, inundating him with rage in preparation for a fight.
Standing in the darkness right behind where he had been on watch were three men and two women. The dying campfire burning in the distance off behind him cast the faintest flicker of reddish light across the five stony faces. The gaunt figures stood passively, shoulders slumped, arms hanging limp at their sides.
Besides the hint of impending rain, the air carried the smell of wood smoke from the fire back at camp, the scent of balsam trees and cinnamon ferns growing nearby, their horses, and the musty smell of the damp leaf litter matting the ground.
But Richard thought he also detected a trace of sulfur.
Even though none of the five looked or acted threatening, having the crackling power from the ancient weapon he held in his fist thundering through him had his heart hammering. Their passive poses did nothing to ease his sense of threat or his readiness to fight should they make a sudden move to attack.
What concerned Richard more than anything, though, was that he had been watching and listening for any sound or movement in the predawn stillnessâthat was the whole point of standing watchâand he hadn't heard or seen the five come up behind him.
In such a dense, uninhabited woods it was unimaginable to him that not one of them had made a sound by stepping on a twig or crunching any of the dry leaves and bark scattered about on the ground.
Richard was more than used to being in the woods and it was virtually impossible for so much as a squirrel to sneak up on him, much less five people. When he had been a woods guide he had played the game of sneak-up with other guides. He was well practiced at it and it had developed in him a kind of sixth sense for any living thing near him. People rarely if ever successfully snuck up on Richard.
Yet these five had.
The trackless wasteland of the Dark Lands seldom saw travelers. It was far too dangerous a place to take any chances. Any traveler would know that and not tempt trouble by sneaking up on a camp.
Richard was but one wrong word or sudden move away from unleashing his restraint. In his mind, the deed was already done, every move calculated and decided. If they did anything wrong he would not hesitate to defend himself and those in camp behind him.
“Who are you?” he asked. “What do you want?”
“We have come to be with our dead,” one of the two women said in the same sort of emotionless voice as the man who had spoken first.
The gazes of all five seemed to be staring through him.
“Bring them to us,” the second woman said in the same disembodied tone. Like the others, she looked to be little more than skin and bones.
“What are you talking about?” Richard asked.
“Bring us our dead,” one of the other men repeated.
“What dead?” Richard asked.
“Our dead,” a different man said in a voice equally devoid of emotion.
The circular answers were getting him nowhere.
Back in the camp behind him, Richard could hear a soft, calculated commotion as soldiers of the First File, awakened by the sound of his sword being drawn, threw off their blankets and sprang to their feet. He knew that they would be snatching up swords, lances, and axes at the ready near where they had been sleeping. These were men who were always prepared for trouble.
Without taking his eyes from the five any longer than necessary to snatch quick glances to either side in order to watch for other threats, Richard knew that the soldiers behind him would be giving hand signals for defensive positions. As distant as they were, as careful as they were, he could hear a footstep here, the rustle of leaves there, the squish of mud underfoot to the side as some of them moved swiftly through the forest to surround the strangers.
These men were the best of the bestâexperienced soldiers who had worked hard to join the elite corps of the First File. They all had seen years of combat. A number of their ranks had already given their lives after coming to the Dark Lands in order to help get Richard and Kahlan safely back to the palace.
Unfortunately, they were all still a very long way from home.
“I don't know who you are talking about,” Richard said as he watched the distant gazes of the five people before him.
“Our dead,” the first woman said in a lifeless voice.
Richard frowned. “Why are you telling this to me?”
“Because you are the one,” the man who had touched him said.
Richard lifted his fingers one at a time, flexing them in a wavelike motion, readjusting his grip on his sword. He looked from one blank face to another.
“The one? What are you talking about?”
fuer grissa ost drauka,
” another man said. “You are the one.”
Goose bumps tingled up the back of Richard's neck.
Fuer grissa ost drauka
meant “the bringer of death” in the ancient language of High D'Haran. It was a name prophecy had given him. Very few people, other than Richard, knew the dead language of High D'Haran.
Perhaps even more disconcerting was how these five would know that it referred to him.
Richard kept the point of his sword toward the five, making sure none of them could approach any closer, even though none of them tried. He wanted to be sure he had fighting room should he need it.
“Where did you hear such a thing?” he asked.
“You are the oneâyou are
fuer grissa ost drauka:
the bringer of death,” one of the women said. “That is what you do. You bring death.”
“And what makes you think that I can bring you your dead?”
“We have long sought our dead,” she said. “We need you to bring them to us.”
“Bring us our dead,” another man repeated, for the first time with a trace of dark insistence that Richard didn't like.
It seemed to make some kind of sense to the five people, but it didn't make any sense to Richard, other than in a decidedly perverse way. He knew the three ancient meanings of the term
fuer grissa ost drauka
and how they applied to him.
These five were using it in an entirely different way.
Behind him, he could hear Kahlan racing back toward him. He recognized the unique sound of her boot strikes and stride. She had been sharing some quiet time with him before dawn and had only moments before started back toward the camp. As she came rushing up behind him, Richard held his left arm out to make sure she stayed out of the way should he need to use his sword.
“What's going on?” she asked as she came to an abrupt halt not far away.
Richard stole a quick glance back over his shoulder. The tense concern of her expression did nothing to diminish the flawless beauty of her familiar features.
Richard turned back to the five to keep his eye on them.
They were gone.
He blinked in surprise and then looked around. He had looked away for only a fraction of a second. It was impossible, but all five people were gone.
“They were right there,” he said, half to himself.
There was nowhere they could have hidden in the brief time he had glanced back at Kahlan. The sloping, rocky ground where they had been didn't offer any cover. It was a few dozen feet to the closest trees. That was why Richard had picked the spotâit was open enough that no one could hide or sneak up on them.
He saw that the decomposing leaves and forest debris that had drifted in across the ground where they had been standing beside the exposed ridge of granite ledge looked untouched. He would have heard them move. They would have disturbed the leaf litter. They couldn't have taken a single step without making a sound, nor could they have gotten out of his sight and to cover that fast.
“Who?” Kahlan asked as she leaned to the side, peering around him.
Richard stretched his arm out, pointing insistently with his sword. “Only seconds ago there were five people standing right there.”
The small bits of sky that could be seen through gaps in the heavy forest canopy were beginning to turn a leaden, muted gray tinted red by the approaching dawn. Kahlan knew better than to discount what Richard said he had seen. She scanned the near darkness to both sides.
“Were they half people?” she asked, the worry evident in her voice.
Richard could still feel the icy sensation from where one of the men had touched his right shoulder.