Authors: Terry Goodkind
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
Kadar Kardeef had been part of it all. More than once he had taken wounds to save Jagang’s life. Jagang had once taken a bolt from a crossbow to save Kardeef. If Jagang could be said to have a friend, Kadar Kardeef was as close as any came to it.
Nicci first met Kardeef when he had come to the Palace of the Prophets in Tanimura to pray. Old King Gregory, who had ruled the land including Tanimura, had disappeared without a trace. Kadar Kardeef was a solemnly devout man; before battle he prayed to the Creator for the blood of the enemy, and after, for the souls of the men he had killed. That day he was said to have prayed for the soul of King Gregory. The Imperial Order was suddenly the new rule in Tanimura. The people celebrated in the streets for days.
Over the course of three thousand years, the Sisters, from their home at the Palace of the Prophets in Tanimura, had seen governments come and go. For the most part, the Sisters, led by their prelate, considered matters of rule a petty foolishness best ignored. They believed in a higher calling. The Sisters believed they would remain at the Palace of the Prophets, undisturbed in their work, long after the Order had vanished into the dust of history. Revolutions had many times come and gone. This one, though, caught them up.
Kadar Kardeef had been nearly twenty years younger, then—a handsome conqueror riding into the city. Many of the Sisters were fascinated by the man. Nicci never was. But he was fascinated by her.
Emperor Jagang, of course, did not send such invaluable men as Commander Kardeef out to pacify conquered lands. He had entrusted Kardeef with a much more important task: guarding his valuable property—Nicci.
Nicci turned her attention away from Kadar Kardeef and back to the people.
She settled her gaze on the man who had spoken before. “We cannot allow anyone to shirk their responsibility to others and to our new beginning.”
“Please, Mistress…We have nothing—”
“Disregard of our cause is treasonous.”
He thought better of disagreeing with that pronouncement.
“You don’t seem to understand that this man behind me wants you to see that the Imperial Order is resolute in their devotion to their cause—if you don’t do your duty. I know you have heard the stories, but this man wants you to experience the grim reality. Imagining it is never quite the same. Never quite as gruesome.”
She stared at the man, waiting for his answer. He licked his weather-cracked lips.
“We just need some more time…. Our crops are doing well. When the harvest comes in…we could contribute our fair share toward the struggle for…for…”
“The new beginning.”
“Yes, Mistress,” he said, bobbing his head, “the new beginning.” When his gaze returned to the dirt at his feet, she moved on down the line.
Her purpose was not really to collect, but to cow.
The time had come.
A girl gazing up at her snagged Nicci to a stop, distracting her from what she had intended. The girl’s big, dark eyes sparkled with innocent wonder. Everything was new to her, and she was eager to see it all. In her dark eyes shone that rare, fragile, and most perishable of qualities: a guileless view of life that had yet to be touched by pain or loss or evil.
Nicci cupped the girl’s chin, staring into the depths of those thirsting eyes.
One of Nicci’s earliest memories was of her mother standing over her like this, holding her chin, looking down at her. Nicci’s mother was gifted, too. She said that the gift was a curse, and a test. It was a curse because it gave her abilities others didn’t have, and it was a test to see if she would wrongly exert that superiority. Nicci’s mother almost never used her gift. Servants handled the work; she spent most of her time nested among her clutch of friends, devoting herself to higher pursuits.
“Dear Creator, but Nicci’s father is a monster,” she would complain as she wrung her hands. Some of her friends would murmur their sympathy. “Why must he burden me so! I fear his eternal soul is beyond hope or prayer.” The other women would tsk in grim agreement.
Her mother’s eyes were the same dull brown as a cockroach’s back. To Nicci’s mind, they were set too close together. Her mouth, too, was narrow, as if fixed in place by her perpetual disapproval. While Nicci never really thought of her mother as homely, neither did she consider her beautiful, although her friends regularly reassured her that she most surely was.
Nicci’s mother said beauty was a curse to a caring woman and a blessing only to whores.
Puzzled by her mother’s displeasure of her father, Nicci had finally asked what he had done.
“Nicci,” her mother had said, cupping Nicci’s small chin that day. Nicci eagerly awaited her mother’s words. “You have beautiful eyes, but you do not yet see with them. All people are miserable wretches—that is the lot of man. Do you have any idea how it hurts those without all your advantages to see your beautiful face? That is all you bring to others: insufferable pain. The Creator brought you into the world for no reason but to ease the misery of others, and here you bring only hurt.” Her mother’s friends, sipping tea, nodded, whispering to one another their sorrowful but firm agreement.
That was when Nicci had first learned that she bore the indelible stain of some shadowy, nameless, unconfessed evil.
Nicci gazed into the rare face looking up at her. Today this girl’s dark eyes would see things they could not yet imagine. Those big eyes eagerly watched without seeing. She could not possibly understand what was to come, or why.
What kind of life could she have?
It would be for the best, this way.
The time had come.
Before she could begin, Nicci saw something that ignited her indignation. She whirled to a nearby woman.
“Where is there a washtub?”
Surprised by the question, the woman pointed a trembling finger toward a two-story building not far off. “There, Mistress. In the yard behind the pottery shop are laundry tubs where we were washing clothes.”
Nicci seized the woman by her throat. “Get me a pair of scissors. Bring them to me there.” The woman stared in wide-eyed fright. Nicci shoved her. “Now! Or would you prefer to die on the spot?”
Nicci yanked free a well-worn, reserve studded strap bunched with several others and secured over Commander Kardeef’s shoulder. He made no effort to stop her, but as she gathered up the strap, he seized her upper arm in his powerful grip.
“You had better be planning on drowning this little brat—or maybe cutting off hunks of her hide and then stabbing out her eyes.” His breath smelled of onion and ale. He smirked. “In fact, you start in on her, and while she’s screaming and begging for her life, I’ll begin separating out some young men, or perhaps I’ll select some women to be an example. Which would you prefer, this time?”
Nicci turned her glare down at his fingers on her arm. He removed them as he growled a warning. She turned to the girl and whipped the strap twice around her neck to serve as a collar, twisting it into a handle in the back so she could control the girl with it. The girl squeaked in choked surprise. She had probably never been handled so roughly in her entire life. Nicci forced her ahead, toward the building the woman had pointed out.
Seeing how angry Nicci had suddenly become, no one followed. A woman not far off, undoubtedly the girl’s mother, began to cry out in protest, but then fell silent as Kardeef’s men turned their attention on her. By then Nicci already had the perplexed girl around the corner.
Out back, drab laundry, deformed and crumpled from its ordeal on the washboard, and now stretched and pinned to lines, twisted in the wind as if struggling to escape. Smoke from the fire pit peeked over the top of the building. The nervous woman waited with a large pair of shears.
Nicci marched the girl up to a tub of water, drove her down on her knees, and shoved her head under the water. While the girl struggled, Nicci snatched the scissors from the woman. Her chore completed, the woman held her apron up over her mouth to muffle her wails as she ran off in tears, not wanting to watch a child being murdered.
Nicci pulled the girl’s head up out of the water, and while she sputtered and gasped for air, began clipping her dark, soaking wet hair close to the scalp. When Nicci had finished cutting it off in sodden clumps, she dunked the girl again while leaning over and scooping up a cake of pale yellow soap from the washboard on the ground beside the tub. Nicci hauled the girl’s head up and then began scrubbing. The girl screeched, flailing her spindly arms and clawing at the strap around her neck by which Nicci controlled her. Nicci realized she was probably hurting her, but from within the grip of rage, it was only a dim realization.
“What’s the matter with you!” Nicci shook the gasping girl. “Don’t you know you’re crawling with lice?”
The soap was harsh and as rough as a rasp. The girl squealed as Nicci bent her over and put more muscle into the scouring.
“Do you like having a head full of lice?”
“Well, you must! Why else would you have them?”
“Please! I’ll try to do better. I’ll wash. I promise!”
Nicci remembered how much she hated catching lice from the places her mother sent her. She remembered scrubbing herself, using the harshest soap she could find, only to again be sent off to another place, where she would get infested with the hated things all over again.
When Nicci had scrubbed and dunked a dozen times, she finally dragged the girl to a tub of clean water and swished her head about in it to rinse her off. The girl blinked furiously, trying to clear her eyes of the stinging, soapy water as it streamed down off her face.
Gripping the girl’s chin, Nicci peered into her red eyes. “No doubt your clothes are lousy with nits. You’re to scrub your clothes every day—underthings, especially—or the lice will just be right back.” Nicci squeezed the girl’s cheeks until her eyes watered. “You are better than to be filthy with lice! Don’t you know that?”
The girl nodded, as best as she could with Nicci’s strong fingers holding her face. The big, dark, intelligent eyes, although red from the water and wide with shock, were still filled with that rare sense of wonder. As painful and frightening as the experience was, this had not dispelled it.
“Burn your bedding. Get new.” Given the way these people lived and worked, it seemed a hopeless challenge. “Your whole family must burn their bedding. Wash all their clothes.”
The girl nodded her oath.
Task completed, Nicci marched the girl back toward the gathered crowd. Forcing her along by the studded strap used as a collar, Nicci was unexpectedly struck by a memory.
It was a memory of the first time she had seen Richard.
Nearly every Sister at the Palace of the Prophets had been gathered in the great hall to see the new boy Sister Verna had brought in. Nicci lingered at the mahogany rail, twining around her finger a lace dangling from her bodice, only to pull the lace straight and then to twine it again, when the pair of thick walnut doors opened. The rumbling drone of conversation, sprinkled with bright laughter, trailed to an expectant hush as the group, led by Sister Phoebe, marched into the chamber, past the white columns topped by gold capitals, and in under the huge vaulted dome.
The birth of gifted boys was rare, and a cause of expectant delight when they were discovered and finally brought to live at the palace. A grand banquet was planned for that evening. Most of the Sisters, dressed in their finery, stood on the floor below, eager to meet the new boy. Nicci remained near the center of the lower balcony. She didn’t care whether she met him or not.
It came as something of a shock to see how Sister Verna had aged on her journey. Such journeys typically lasted at most a year; this one, beyond the great barrier to the New World, had taken nearly twenty. Events beyond the barrier being uncertain, Verna had apparently been sent off on her mission too far in advance.
Life at the Palace of the Prophets was as long as it was serene. No one at the Palace of the Prophets appeared to have aged at all in so trifling a span of time as two decades, but away from the spell that enveloped the palace, Verna had. Verna, probably close to one hundred and sixty years old, had to be at least twenty years younger than Nicci; yet she now looked twice Nicci’s age. People outside the palace aged at the normal rate, of course, but to see it happen so rapidly to a Sister…
As the roaring applause thundered on in the huge room, many of the Sisters wept over the momentous occasion. Nicci yawned. Sister Phoebe held up her hand until the room fell silent.
“Sisters.” Phoebe’s voice trembled. “Please welcome Sister Verna home.” She finally had to raise a hand to again bring the clamor of applause to a halt.
When the room had quieted, she said, “And may I present our newest student, our newest child of the Creator, our newest charge.” She turned and held an arm out in introduction, wiggling her fingers, urging the apparently timid boy forward as she went on. “Please welcome Richard Cypher to the Palace of the Prophets.”
Several of the women stepped back out of the way as he strode forward. Nicci’s eyes widened; her back straightened. It was not a young boy. He was grown into a man.
The crowd, despite their shock, clapped and cheered with the warmth of their welcome. Nicci didn’t hear it. Her attention was riveted by those gray eyes of his. He was introduced to some of the nearby Sisters. The novice assigned to him, Pasha, was brought before him and tried to speak to him.
Richard brushed Pasha aside, a stag dismissing a vole, and stepped out alone into the center of the room. His whole bearing conveyed the same quality Nicci beheld in his eyes.
“I have something to say.”
The vast chamber fell to an astonished hush.
His gaze swept the room. Nicci’s breath caught when, for an instant, their eyes met, as he probably met countless others.
Her trembling fingers clutched the rail for support.
Nicci swore at that moment to do whatever was necessary to be named as one of his teachers.
His fingers tapped the Rada’Han around his neck.
“As long as you keep this collar on me, you are my captors, and I am your prisoner.”
Murmurs hummed in the air. A Rada’Han was put around a boy’s neck not just to govern him, but to protect him as well. The boys were never thought of as prisoners, but wards who needed security, care, and training. Richard, though, did not see it that way.
“Since I have committed no aggression against you, that makes us enemies. We are at war.”
Several older Sisters teetered on their heels, nearly fainting. The faces of half the women in the room went red. The rest went white. Nicci could not have imagined such an attitude. His demeanor kept her from blinking, lest she overlook something. She drew slow breaths, lest she miss a word. Her pounding heart, though, was beyond her ability to control.
“Sister Verna has made a pledge to me that I will be taught to control the gift, and when I have learned what is required, I will be set free. For now, as long as you keep that pledge, we have a truce. But there are conditions.”
Richard lifted a red leather rod hanging on a fine gold chain around his neck. At the time, Nicci hadn’t known it to be the weapon of a Mord-Sith.
“I have been collared before. The person who put that collar on me brought me pain, to punish me, to teach me, to subdue me.”
Nicci knew that such could be the only fate of one like him.
“That is the sole purpose of a collar. You collar a beast. You collar your enemies.
“I made her much the same offer I am making you. I begged her to release me. She would not. I was forced to kill her.
“Not one of you could ever hope to be good enough to lick her boots. She did as she did because she was tortured and broken, made mad enough to use a collar to hurt people. She did it against her nature.
“You…” His gaze swept all the eyes watching him. “You do it because you think it is your right. You enslave in the name of your Creator. I don’t know your Creator. The only one beyond this world who I know would do as you do is the Keeper.” The crowd gasped. “As far as I’m concerned, you may as well be the Keeper’s disciples.”
Little did he know that some of them were.
“If you do as she, and use this collar to bring me pain, the truce will be ended. You may think you hold the leash to this collar, but I promise you, if the truce ends, you will find that what you hold is a bolt of lightning.”
The room was as silent as a tomb.
He was alone, defiant, in the midst of hundreds of sorceresses who knew how to harness every nuance of the power with which they were born; he knew next to nothing of his ability, and was collared by a Rada’Han besides. In this, he may have been a stag, but a stag challenging a congregation of lions. Hungry lions.
Richard rolled up his left sleeve. He drew his sword—a sword!—in defiance of the prodigious power arrayed before him. The distinctive ring of steel filled the silence as the blade was brought free.
Nicci stood spellbound as he listed his conditions.
He finally pointed back with the sword. “Sister Verna captured me. I have fought her every step of this journey. She has done everything short of killing me and draping my body over a horse to get me here. Though she, too, is my captor and enemy, I owe her certain debts. If anyone lays a finger to her because of me, I will kill that person, and the truce will be ended.”
Nicci couldn’t fathom such a strange sense of honor, but somehow she knew it fit what she saw in his eyes.
The crowd gasped as Richard drew his sword across the inside of his arm. He turned it, wiping both sides in the blood, until it dripped from the tip. Nicci could plainly see, even if the others could not—much as she saw in his eyes a quality others did not see—that the sword united with, and completed, magic within him.
His knuckles white around the hilt, he thrust the glistening crimson blade into the air.
“I give you a blood oath!” he cried out. “Harm the Baka Ban Mana, harm Sister Verna, or harm me, and the truce will be ended, and I promise you we will have war! If we have war, I will lay waste to the Palace of the Prophets!”
From the upper balcony, where Richard couldn’t see him, Jedidiah’s mocking voice drifted out over the crowd. “All by yourself?”
“Doubt me at your peril. I am a prisoner; I have nothing to live for. I am the flesh of prophecy. I am the bringer of death.”
No answer came in the stupefied silence. Probably every woman in the room knew of the prophecy of the bringer of death, though none was certain of its intended meaning. The text of that prophecy, along with all the others, was kept in the vaults deep under the Palace of the Prophets. That Richard knew it, that he dared declare it aloud in such company, augured the worst possible interpretation. Every lioness in the room retracted her claws in caution. Richard drove his sword home into its scabbard as if to punctuate his threat.
Nicci knew that the profound importance of what she had seen in his eyes and in his presence would forever haunt her.
She knew, too, that she must destroy him.
Nicci had to surrender favors and commit to obligations she never imagined she would have willingly done, but in return, she became one of Richard’s six teachers. The burdens she had taken on in return for that privilege were all worth it when she sat alone with him, across a small table in his room, lightly holding his hands—if one could be said to lightly grasp lightning—endeavoring to teach him to touch his Han, the essence of life and spirit within the gifted. Try as he might, he felt nothing. That, in itself, was peculiar. The inkling of what she felt within him, though, was often enough to leave her unable to bring forth more than a few sparse words. She had casually questioned the others, and knew they were blind to it.