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Authors: Terry Goodkind

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BOOK: Severed Souls
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“Well,” Richard said, “we made it here and we were able to fight them off. We set up camp with a tight defensive line. You were unconscious—”

“I healed you,” Zedd repeated, apparently trying to get across how difficult it had been without complaining directly.

“Was it hard?” Kahlan asked him. It was dawning on her that he was trying to say something more without saying it. “Was it extra difficult … for some reason?”

Zedd leaned back on his heels. “Yes, it was hard,” he confirmed with an earnest nod. He lifted one eyebrow. “Quite difficult, actually.”

Kahlan decided to cut through the dancing and turned to Nicci. “Why?”

Nicci didn't shy from the question. “You were injured—one of the half people tried to steal your soul by eating you. The ever-present threat of death within you used that opportunity, when so much was going on, when you were weakened by the struggle, to try to pull you in. You were pretty far gone and it took all day and part of tonight, but Zedd managed to pull you back.”

Kahlan put a hand up to the top of her shoulder and felt only smooth skin. She thought she remembered the pain of teeth sinking into her flesh there. She remembered the terror of it. Then there was only blackness and the terrible feeling of being forever lost to it.

She smiled at the wizard. “Thank you, Zedd.”

Samantha leaned in, eager to tell the story. “Lord Rahl chopped the head off the man that was biting you so fast and with such power that I bet we were halfway here before it ever hit the ground.”

“You were unconscious, though,” Irena said, considerably more worried-looking than Samantha.

“Some of the men carried you,” Samantha said as she leaned past her mother, eager to get to the meat of the story. “That way Lord Rahl could fight off the Shun-tuk. You were bleeding pretty badly. Lord Rahl and the men—”

“We made it here,” Richard said, not at all interested in the drama of the tale. “Once we were here we were able to gain control of the situation and begin to reduce their numbers—”

“And then the Shun-tuk disappeared,” Samantha put in, not happy with Richard's pace at storytelling. She snapped her fingers. “Gone, just like that.”

“We set up a defensive position,” Richard said, “so that Zedd and Nicci could heal you.” The ghost of worry reappeared on his features. “Or at least heal your more obvious wounds.”

Nicci laid a hand on Kahlan's arm. “You know we can't get the poison of death out of you, at least not here, or we would. We did the best we could to give you strength.”

“It's getting worse, isn't it?” Kahlan asked.

Nicci nodded. “I'm afraid so. It was touch-and-go for a while, there. We were worried that this time we wouldn't be able to bring you back.”

Kahlan nodded. “Me too.”

“Ba,” Zedd said with a dismissive gesture. “Nicci was afraid. I knew I could do it.”

Nicci smiled at last. “Yes, Zedd, this time you proved yourself to be the wonder you have always insisted you are.”

With a wave, Kahlan cut off the small talk. “What about the men? Are they all right? Were any of them hurt or killed? Did we lose any of them?”

“Surprisingly enough,” Richard said, “we didn't lose a single man. The First File knows how to fight. Half people typically don't, although these are Shun-tuk, and they're more trouble than the other half people we've encountered in the past. They don't just attack randomly. They execute their attack according to a plan. That makes them more dangerous than the half people we've fought before.

“Worse, some of these obviously have an ability to use occult powers. We know how dangerous they are. After all, they've overwhelmed and captured these battle-hardened, elite troops and our gifted once before and took them beyond the barrier, so they're confident they can take us again. Even though we managed to escape, it wasn't before we lost a lot of men back beyond the barrier. It's pretty clear that the Shun-tuk don't give up.”

“What about the man we went to help?” she asked. “Is he all right, too, then?”

Richard nodded. “While Zedd and Nicci were working on you, Samantha helped by healing some of the men who were injured. None of them were as seriously hurt as Ned, the man we went to help.” He gestured to Samantha's mother. “Irena healed him.”

“Ironic, isn't it?” Nicci lifted an eyebrow as she looked up at the other sorceress on the opposite side of Kahlan. “She healed the man she would have had us leave to be eaten alive.”

Irena met Nicci's glare in kind. “These men are Lord Rahl's guard. Their duty is to protect him at all costs, even if that cost is their lives. That is their calling. They know the risks and accept them willingly. Yes, we saved him, but it was at a risk to Richard's life that was not the wisest choice. It could all too easily have turned out quite differently.”

“And if we allow those men to be needlessly lost, then Lord Rahl loses their protection, now doesn't he?” Nicci asked in cold challenge. “They can't very well protect Lord Rahl if they are dead.”

Irena had used “Richard.” Kahlan noticed that Nicci clearly didn't think the woman was entitled to be so familiar as to call him “Richard.”

Everyone but individuals close to him called Richard “Lord Rahl.” To everyone else, he was “Lord Rahl.” To some, it was a term of deep respect. To some, that name, attached to Richard, meant liberty. To others, it was tantamount to a curse.

Even Cara, his closest personal guard and close friend, had called him “Lord Rahl,” not out of duty, but because he had earned her respect. The Lord Rahl before Richard had enslaved her into service to him as a Mord-Sith. Richard had freed her from that servitude, and out of respect for him she called him Lord Rahl. Even though it was the same title, it meant something unique when applied to Richard.

Richard had wed Cara to her husband, Ben. He had been there when they had lost Ben. And, he had been the last person she came to see before she'd left.

Richard was not only the leader of the D'Haran Empire, he had created that empire out of war-torn, fragmented lands in order to win freedom from a world falling to tyranny. He had become Lord Rahl in every sense of the term.

To most people, titles were important touchstones of power and widely employed as a mark of that power. Kahlan, as the Mother Confessor, was all too familiar with the power a title represented, and the fear it engendered.

Richard didn't do the things he did for a title to represent his power, or for power itself, or to impress anyone. Titles didn't really matter to him. While others concerned themselves with titles, Richard simply did as he needed to do. He judged people as individuals and by their actions, not by their title, and expected them to judge him the same way, not by his title.

Nicci was one of the few for whom such familiar use of his name seemed to come naturally. To her his title meant something else. Kahlan wasn't exactly sure what.

“We lost the horses,” Richard said, changing the subject. “One broke away and ran off in the confusion.”

Kahlan was brought out of her thoughts. “What? How?”

Richard gestured vaguely into the distance. “When we went after Ned, some of the Shun-tuk used the opportunity to go after our horses. They want to slow us down. They drew us away so they could cut the horses' throats. One of the mares managed to get away and run off. We were able to get it back, but one horse won't do us much good.”

Kahlan leaned forward. “Slow us down? You mean you think the whole attack was a diversion to draw us off just so they could get at the horses?”

Richard nodded. “I think that at least in part their plan is to prevent us from being able to get to the People's Palace to warn them that Emperor Sulachan is heading their way with an army of half people.

“These Shun-tuk seem smarter than the ones we've fought before. Rather than simply relying on brute force, they're employing rudimentary strategy, such as killing our horses to slow us down. This attack was part of a larger plan and I'm not sure what the rest of it is, except that it is meant to have us all in the end.”

“But they were trying to eat us in hopes of capturing our souls for themselves,” Kahlan said, remembering quite well the teeth sinking into her neck. “That's what all the others we've fought before wanted.”

Richard arched an eyebrow. “They didn't eat Ned when they had the chance. They wanted him making a lot of noise in order to draw us into coming to his aid, probably so that some of them could then get at the horses. Up until then the horses had been protected within our camp. We chose to try to save a life that was in immediate risk and that left the horses unprotected. Along with the horses, they also destroyed the carriage. All of that makes it easier for them to limit our ability to move swiftly.

“They're acting more like a wolf pack, working together to take down their prey. But once that prey is down, it's every wolf for itself.”

Richard and Kahlan had both been riding in the carriage most of the time. With both of them weakened by the poison of death rooted deep inside them, the more of their strength they used up, the sooner death would take them. Riding in the carriage helped save their strength and thus prolonged their lives until they could get back to the People's Palace, where the poison could finally be removed.

Richard was right. Losing the horses would slow them down and make them more vulnerable. It also continued to leave the palace in the dark as to what was coming their way.

Before anyone else could say anything, a breathless soldier ran up to them.

“Lord Rahl!”

“What is it?” Richard asked.

“We got one of them.”

“What do you mean, you got one of them?”

“We caught one of those pale bastards. We captured him as he was trying to sneak up to spy on our camp.” He pointed off toward one of the other fires. “We're holding him over there for you to question.”

 

CHAPTER

11

As they made their way across the camp to one of the other fires where the captive was being held, Kahlan met the gazes of young men cleaning weapons, repairing gear, standing watch over the dark forest beyond, or having a bite to eat before bedding down. She returned hopeful smiles, easing their concerned looks, reassuring them that she was all right.

She knew most of these men by name. All had fought in the long and bloody war with the Imperial Order, a war they had won. Now it seemed that the victory and the brief peace that followed had only been an illusion, because the ancient events that had sparked that war had flared anew, as if leapfrogging across time to come after them.

It seemed to Kahlan that most of her life had been lived in one war or another, first with Darken Rahl, then Jagang and the Imperial Order, and now with the long dead Emperor Sulachan, come back to life to finish what he had started thousands of years before.

These soldiers had come to the Dark Lands to protect her and Richard and get them safely back to the palace. It should have been a relatively easy mission after Richard had defeated the Hedge Maid. It had turned out to be anything but easy.

As it turned out, the Hedge Maid had been a harbinger of the evil that had finally managed to escape its long banishment. Her deadly touch had taken Richard's gift and Kahlan's power. She ached for her ability every waking moment. Her Confessor power was who she was. She had been born with it. It was part of her. And now she was cut off from it.

The camp was quiet, with all the activity subdued so some of the exhausted men could catch up on needed sleep. From what Kahlan could see when she was able to get a glimpse between the soldiers in the tight ring guarding the prisoner, it was obvious that the captive wasn't going anywhere.

As they made their way to where the man was being held, she saw that the entire encampment was in a fairly tight but open space at the foot of a cliff. Since they were camped on what was mostly open ledge, it was free of trees and brush. Some of the closest trees beyond had been felled for firewood. Since the wood was green, it crackled and popped as it burned, sending snapping sparks billowing up in the acrid smoke.

With the cliff backing them, the enemy were able to attack from only one side. A heavily defended perimeter all the way around, from the cliff face on one end of the encampment to the cliff face on the other end, bristled with steel defenses. Having the men concentrated close together made it easy for reinforcements to move swiftly from point to point in the line to fight off any sudden charge of the bloodthirsty Shun-tuk.

Such a fortress strategy meant there would be no guards posted at distant points beyond their perimeter as an early warning of an attack, nor any scouts on patrol to gather information. Instead, all the men were being kept together so they could all watch over everything and one another.

While it did deny them advance warning of an attack, it also denied the enemy the opportunity to pick off softer targets, such as outposts and patrols, in order to gradually reduce their numbers. They didn't have a lot of men to begin with and couldn't afford to lose any.

The fires lit their encampment so that they could more easily spot anyone trying to slip into their midst. They also lit some of the forest beyond. That must have been how the men spotted and captured the Shun-tuk trying to sneak in closer.

Such a tight layout was generally not the best defensive tactic for an encampment, since an enemy force outside their perimeter could get in fairly close, hide among the trees, and use arrows or spears to pick off soldiers out in the open of the camp. While the enemy could hide off in the darkness, campfires inside the camp lit targets for them. But the half people didn't have those kind of weapons, so in such circumstances a fortress encampment like this was the safest way to prevent vulnerable lone scouts or small groups of sentries from being attacked and killed, and it made for a hardened defensive line that was extremely difficult for a lightly armed enemy to penetrate.

BOOK: Severed Souls
7.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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