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Blood of the Foldby Terry Goodkind
At the exact same instant, the six women suddenly awoke, the lingering sound of their screams echoing around the cramped officer's cabin. In the darkness, Sister Ulicia could hear the others gasping to catch their breath. She swallowed, trying to slow her own panting, and immediately winced at the raw pain in her throat. She could feel wetness on her eyelids, but her lips were so dry she had to lick them, for fear they would crack and bleed.
Someone was banging on the door. She was aware of his shouts only as a dull drone in her head. She didn't bother trying to focus on the words or their meaning; the man was inconsequential.
Lifting a trembling hand toward the center of the coal black quarters, she released a flow of her Han, the essence of life and spirit, directing a point of heat into the oil lamp she knew to be hanging on the low beam. Its wick obediently sprang to flame, releasing a sinuous line of soot that traced the lamp's slow, to-and-fro sway as the ship rolled in the sea.
The other women, all of them naked, as was she, were sitting up as well, their eyes fixed on the feeble, yellow glow, as if seeking from it salvation, or perhaps reassurance that they were still alive and there was light to be seen. A tear rolled down Ulicia's cheek, too, at the sight of the flame. The blackness had been suffocating, like a great weight of damp, black earth shoveled over her.
Her bedding was sodden and cold with sweat, but even without the sweat, everything was always wet in the salt air, to say nothing of the spray that sporadically drenched the deck and trickled into everything below. She couldn't remember what it was like to feel dry clothes or bedding against her. She hated this ship, its interminable damp, its foul smells, and the constant rolling and pitching that turned her stomach. At least she was alive to hate the ship. Gingerly, she swallowed back the taste of bile.
Ulicia wiped her fingers at the warm wetness over her eyes and held out her hand; her fingertips glistened with blood. As if emboldened by her example, some of the others cautiously did the same. Each of them had bloody scratches on their eyelids, eyebrows, and cheeks from trying desperately, but futilely, to claw their eyes open, to wake themselves from the snare of sleep, in a vain attempt to escape the dream that was not a dream.
Ulicia struggled to clear the fog from her mind. It must have been a simple nightmare.
She forced herself to look away from the flame, at the other women. Sister Tovi hunched in a lower bunk opposite, the thick rolls of flesh at her sides seeming to sag in sympathy with the morose expression on her wrinkled face as she watched the lamp. Sister Cecilia's habitually tidy, curly gray hair stood out in disarray, her incessant smile replaced by an ashen mask of fear as she stared up from the lower bunk next to Tovi. Leaning forward a bit, Ulicia glanced at the bunk above. Sister Armina, not nearly as old as Tovi or Cecilia, but closer to Ulicia's age and still attractive, appeared haggard. With shaking fingers, the usually staid Armina wiped the blood from her eyelids.
Across the confining walkway, in the bunks above Tovi and Cecilia, sat the two youngest and most self-possessed Sisters. Ragged scratches marred the flawless skin of Sister Nicci's cheeks. Strands of her blond hair stuck to the tears, sweat, and blood on her face. Sister Merissa, equally beautiful, clutched a blanket to her naked breast, not in modesty, but in shuddering dread. Her long, dark hair was a tangled mat.
The others were older, and adeptly wielded power tempered in the forge of experience, but both Nicci and Merissa were possessed of rare, innate, dark talents--a deft touch that no amount of experience could invoke. Astute beyond their years, neither was beguiled by Cecilia or Tovi's kindly smiles or gentle affectations. Though young and self-assured, they both knew that Cecilia, Tovi, Armina, and especially Ulicia herself were capable of taking them both apart, piece by piece, if they so chose. Still, that did not diminish their mastery; in their own right, they were two of the most formidable women ever to have drawn breath. But it was for their singular resolve to prevail that the Keeper had selected them.
Seeing these women she knew so well in such a state was unnerving, but it was the sight of Merissa's unbridled terror that really shook Ulicia. She had never known a Sister as composed, as unemotional, as implacable, as merciless, as Merissa. Sister Merissa had a heart of black ice.
Ulicia had known Merissa for close to 170 years, and in all that time she could not recall having ever seen her cry. She was sobbing now.
Sister Ulicia was first horrified and then disgusted to see the others in a condition of such abject weakness, but then her revulsion turned to silent satisfaction; in fact it pleased her; she drew strength from the sight. She was their leader, and stronger than they.
The man was still banging at the door, wanting to know what the trouble was, what the screaming was all about. She unleashed her anger toward the door. "Leave us! If you are needed you will be summoned!"
The sailor's muffled curses faded away as he retreated down the passageway. The only sound, other than the creak of timbers as the ship yawed when struck abeam by a heavy sea, was the sobbing.
"Stop your sniveling, Merissa," Ulicia snapped.
Merissa's dark eyes, still glazed with fear, focused on her. "It's never been like that before." Tovi and Cecilia nodded their agreement. "I've done his bidding. Why has he done this? I have not failed him."
"Had we failed him," Ulicia said, "we would be there, with Sister Liliana."
Armina started. "You saw her, too? She was--"
"I saw her," Ulicia said, masking her own horror with an even tone.
Sister Nicci drew a twisted skein of sodden blond hair back off her face. Gathering composure smoothed her voice. "Sister Liliana failed the Master."
Sister Merissa, the glaze in her eyes ebbing, flashed a look of cool disdain. "She is paying the price of failure." The crisp edge in her own tone thickened like winter's frost on a window. "Forever." Merissa almost never let emotion touch her smooth features, but it touched her face now as her brows drew together in a murderous scowl. "She countermanded your orders, Sister Ulicia, and the Keeper's. She ruined our plans. This is her fault."
Liliana had indeed failed the Keeper. They wouldn't all be on this cursed ship if it weren't for Sister Liliana. Ulicia's face heated at the thought of that woman's arrogance. Liliana had thought to have the glory to herself. She had gotten what she deserved. Even so, Ulicia swallowed at the memory of having seen Liliana's torment, and didn't even notice the pain of her raw throat this time.
"But what of us?" Cecilia asked. Her smile returned, apologetic, rather than merry. "Must we do as this...man says?"
Ulicia wiped a hand across her face. They had no time to hesitate, if this was real, if what she had seen had really happened. It must be nothing more than a simple nightmare; no one but the Keeper had ever before come to her in the dream that was not a dream. Yes, it had to be just a nightmare. Ulicia watched a roach crawl into the chamber pot. Her gaze suddenly rose.
'This man? You did not see the Keeper? You saw a man?"
Cecilia quailed. "Jagang."
Tovi raised her hand toward her lips to kiss her ring finger--an ancient gesture beseeching the Creator's protection. It was an old habit, begun the first morning of a novice's training. Each of them had learned to do it every morning, without fail, upon arising, and in times of tribulation. Tovi had probably done it by rote countless thousands of times, as had they all. A Sister of the Light was symbolically betrothed to the Creator, and His will. Kissing the ring finger was a ritual renewal of that betrothal.
There was no telling what the act of kissing that finger would do, now, in view of their betrayal. Superstition had it that it was death for one who had pledged her soul to the Keeper--a Sister of the Dark--to kiss that finger. While it was unclear whether it truly would invoke the Creator's wrath, there was no doubt it would invoke the Keeper's. When her hand was halfway to her lips, Tovi realized what she was about to do and snatched it away.
"You all saw Jagang?" Ulicia regarded each in turn, and each nodded. A small flame of hope still flickered in her. "So you saw the emperor. That means nothing." She leaned toward Tovi. "Did you hear him say anything?"
Tovi drew the coverlet up to her chin. "We were all there, as we always are when the Keeper seeks us. We sat in the semicircle, naked, as we always do. But it was Jagang who came, not the Master."
A soft sob came from Armina in the bunk above. "Silence!" Ulicia returned her attention to the shivering Tovi. "But what did he say? What were his words?"
Tovi's gaze sought the floor. "He said our souls were his now. He said we were his now, and we lived only at his whim. He said we must come to him at once, or we would envy Sister Liliana's fate." She looked up, into Ulicia's eyes. "He said we would regret it if we made him wait." Tears flooded her eyes. "And then he gave me a taste of what it would mean to displease him."
Ulicia's flesh had gone cold, and she realized that she, too, had drawn her sheet up. She pushed it back into her lap with an effort. "Armina?" Soft confirmation came from above. "Cecilia?" Cecilia nodded. Ulicia looked to the two in the upper bunk opposite. The composure they had worked so hard to bring back seemed to have settled in. "Well? Did you two hear the same words?"
"Yes," Nicci said.
"The exact same," Merissa said without emotion. "Liliana has brought this upon us."
"Perhaps the Keeper is displeased with us," Cecilia offered, "and has given us to the emperor so we may serve him as a way of earning back our place of favor."
Merissa's back stiffened. Her eyes were a window into her frozen heart. "I have given my soul oath to the Keeper. If we must serve this vulgar beast in order to return to our Master's graces, then I will serve. I will lick this man's feet, if I must."
Ulicia remembered Jagang, just before he had departed the semicircle in the dream that was not a dream, commanding Merissa to stand. He had then casually reached out, grabbed her right breast in his powerful fingers, and squeezed until her knees buckled. Ulicia glanced at Merissa's breast, now, and saw lurid bruises there.
Merissa made no effort to cover herself as her serene expression settled on Ulicia's eyes. "The emperor said we would regret it, if we made him wait."
Ulicia, too, had heard the same instructions. Jagang had displayed what bordered on contempt for the Keeper. How was he able to supplant the Keeper in the dream that was not a dream? He had--that was all that mattered. It had happened to all of them. It had not been a mere dream.
Tingling dread thickened in the pit of her stomach as the small flame of hope extinguished. She, too, had been given a taste of what disobedience would mean. The blood that was crusting over her eyes reminded her of how much she had wanted to escape that lesson. It had been real, and they all knew it. They had no choice. There wasn't a moment to lose. A cold bead of sweat trickled down between her breasts. If they were late...
Ulicia bounded out of bed.
"Turn this ship around!" she shrieked as she flung open the door. "Turn it around at once!"
No one was in the passageway. She sprang up the companionway, screaming as she went. The others raced after her, pounding on cabin doors as they followed. Ulicia didn't bother with the doors; it was the helmsman who pointed the ship where it was going and commanded the deckhands to the sails.
Ulicia heaved open the hatch door to be greeted by murky light; dawn was not yet upon them. Leaden clouds seethed above the dark cauldron of the sea. Luminous foam frothed just beyond the rail as the ship slid down a towering wave, making it seem they were plunging into an inky chasm. The other Sisters poured from the hatchway behind her out onto the spray-swept deck.
"Turn this ship around!" she screamed to the barefoot sailors who turned in mute surprise.
Ulicia growled a curse and raced aft, toward the tiller. The five Sisters followed on her heels as she dashed across the pitching deck. Hands gripping the lapels of his coat, the helmsman stretched his neck to see what the trouble was. Lantern light came through the opening at his feet, showing the faces of the four men manning the tiller. Sailors gathered near the bearded helmsman, and stood gawking at the six women.
Ulicia gulped air trying to catch her breath. "What's the matter with you slack-jawed idiots? Didn't you hear me? I said to turn this ship around!"
Suddenly, she fathomed the reason for the stares: the six of them were naked. Merissa stepped up beside her, standing tall and aloof, as if she were dressed in a gown that covered her from neck to deck.
One of the leering deckhands spoke as his gaze played over the younger woman. "Well, well. Looks like the ladies have come out to play."
Cool and unattainable, Merissa regarded his lecherous grin with unruffled authority. "What's mine is mine, and not anyone else's, even to look upon, unless I decide it is so. Remove your eyes from my flesh at once, or have them removed."
Had the man the gift, and Ulicia's mastery of it, he would have been able to sense the air about Merissa cracking ominously with power. These men knew them only as wealthy nobility wanting passage to strange and distant places; they didn't know who, or what, the six women really were. Captain Blake knew them as Sisters of the Light, but Ulicia had ordered him to keep that knowledge from his men.
The man mocked Merissa with a lecherous expression and obscene thrusts of his hips. "Don't be standoffish, lass. You wouldn't of come out here like that unless you had in mind the same as us."
The air sizzled around Merissa. Blood blossomed at the crotch of the man's trousers. He squealed as he looked up with eyes gone wild. Lightning glinted off the long knife at his belt as he yanked it free. Yelling an oath of retribution, he staggered ahead with lethal intent.
A distant smile touched Merissa's full lips. "You filthy scum," she murmured to herself. "I deliver you into the cold embrace of my Master."
His flesh burst apart as if he were a rotten melon whacked with a stick. A concussion of air driven by the power of the gift slammed him over the rail. A bloody trail traced his course across the planks. With scarcely a splash, the black water swallowed the body. The other men, near to a dozen, stood wide-eyed and still as statues.
"You will all keep your eyes on our faces," Merissa hissed, "and off everything else."
The men nodded, too appalled to voice their consent. One man's gaze involuntarily flicked down at her body, as if her speaking aloud what was forbidden to look upon had made the impulse to view it impossible to control. In ragged terror, he began to apologize, but a focused line of power as sharp as a battle axe sliced across his eyes. He tumbled out over the rail as had the first.
"Merissa," Ulicia said softly, "that will be quite enough. I think they've learned their lesson."
Eyes of ice, distant behind the haze of Han, turned to her. "I will not have their eyes taking what does not belong to them."
Ulicia lifted an eyebrow. "We need them to get back. You do remember our urgency, don't you?"
Merissa glanced at the men, as if surveying bugs beneath her boots. "Of course, Sister. We must return at once."
Ulicia turned to see that Captain Blake had just arrived and was standing behind them, his mouth agape.
"Turn this ship around, Captain," Ulicia said. "At once."
His tongue darted out to wet his lips as his gaze skipped among the women's eyes. "Now you're wanting to go back? Why?"
Ulicia lifted a finger in his direction. "You were paid well, Captain, to take us where we want to go, when we want to go. I told you before that questions were not part of the bargain, and I also promised you that I would separate you from your hide if you violated any part of that bargain. If you test me you will find that I am not nearly as indulgent as Merissa here; I don't grant a quick death. Now, turn this ship around!"
Captain Blake leaped into action. He straightened his coat and glared at his men. "Back to it, you sluggards!" He gestured to the helmsman. "Mister Dempsey, bring 'er about." The man seemed to be still frozen in shock. "Right bloody now, Mister Dempsey!"
Snatching his scruffy hat from his head, Captain Blake bowed to Ulicia, careful not to let his gaze stray from her eyes. "As you wish, Sister. Back around the great barrier, to the Old World."
"Set a direct course, Captain. Time is of the essence."
He squashed his hat in a fist. "Direct course! We can't be sailing through the great barrier!" He immediately softened his tone. "It's not possible. We'll all be killed."
Ulicia pressed a hand over the burning pang in her stomach. "The great barrier is down, Captain. It is no longer a hindrance to us. Set a direct course."
He rung his hat. "The great barrier is down? That's impossible. What makes you think..."
She leaned toward him. "Again, you would question me?"
"No, Sister. No, of course not. If you say the barrier is down, then it is. Though I don't understand how what cannot happen has happened, I know it's not my place to question. A direct course it is." He wiped his hat across his mouth. "Merciful Creator protect us," he muttered, turning to the helmsman, anxious to retreat from her glare. "Hard a-starboard, Mister Dempsey!"
The man glanced down at the men on the tiller. "Hard a-starboard, boys!" He carefully raised his eyes and asked, "Are you sure about this, Captain?"
"Don't argue with me or I'll let you swim back!"
"Aye, Captain. Get to the lines!" he shouted at men already slipping some lines and hauling in on others. "Prepare to come about!"
Ulicia surveyed the men glancing nervously over their shoulders. "Sisters of the Light have eyes in the backs of their heads, gentlemen. See that yours look nowhere else, or it will be the last thing you see in this life." Men nodded before bending to their tasks.
Back in their crowded cabin, Tovi wrapped her shivering bulk in her coverlet. "It's been quite a while since I had strapping young men leering at me." She glanced to Nicci and Merissa. "Enjoy the admiration while you're still worthy of it."
Merissa pulled her shift from the chest at the end of the cabin. "It wasn't you they were leering at."
A motherly smile wrinkled Cecilia's face. "We know that, Sister. I think what Sister Tovi means is that now that we're away from the spell of the Palace of the Prophets, we will age like everyone else. You won't have the years to enjoy your looks that we've had."
Merissa straightened. "When we earn back our place of honor with the Master, I will be able to keep what I have."
Tovi stared off with a rare, dangerous look. "And I want back what I once had."
Armina slumped down on a bunk. "This is Liliana's fault. If not for her, we wouldn't have had to leave the palace and its spell. If not for her, the Keeper wouldn't have given Jagang dominion over us. We wouldn't have lost the Master's favor."
They were all silent for a moment. Squeezing around and past one another, they all went about pulling on their undergarments, while trying to avoid elbows.
Merissa drew her shift over her head. "I intend to do whatever is necessary to serve, and regain the Master's favor. I intend to have my reward for my oath." She glanced to Tovi. "I intend to remain young."
"We all want the same thing, Sister," Cecilia said as she stuffed her arms through the sleeves of her simple, brown kirtle, "But the Keeper wishes us to serve this man, Jagang, for now."
"Does he?" Ulicia asked.
Merissa squatted as she sorted through the clothes in the chest, and pulled out her crimson dress. "Why else would we have been given to this man?"
Ulicia lifted an eyebrow. "Given? You think so? I think it's more than that; I think Emperor Jagang is acting of his own volition."
The others halted at their dressing and looked up. "You think he could defy the Keeper?" Nicci asked. "For his own ambitions?"
With a finger, Ulicia tapped the side of Nicci's head. "Think. The Keeper failed to come to us in the dream that is not a dream; that has never happened before. Ever. Instead comes Jagang. Even if the Keeper were displeased with us, and wanted us to serve penance under Jagang, don't you suppose he would have come to us himself and ordered it, to show us his displeasure? I don't think this is the Keeper's doing. I think it is Jagang's."
Armina snatched up her blue dress. It was a shade lighter than Ulicia's, but no less elaborate. "It is still Liliana who has brought this upon us!"
A small smile touched Ulicia's lips. "Has she? Liliana was greedy. I think the Keeper thought to use that greed, but she failed him." The smile vanished. "It is not Sister Liliana who brought this upon us."
Nicci's hand paused as she drew the cord tight at the bodice of her black dress. "Of course. The boy."
"Boy?" Ulicia slowly shook her head. "No 'boy' could have brought down the barrier. No mere boy could have brought to ruin the plans we have worked so hard for, all these years. We all know what he is, about the prophecies."
Ulicia looked at each Sister in turn. "We are in a very dangerous position. We must work to gain back the Keeper's power in this world, or else when Jagang is finished with us he will kill us, and we will find ourselves in the underworld, and no longer of use to the Master. If that happens, then the Keeper surely will be displeased, and he will make what Jagang showed us seem a lover's embrace."
The ship creaked and groaned as they all considered her words. They were racing back to serve a man who would use them, and then discard them without a thought, much less a reward, yet none of them were prepared to even consider defying him.
"Boy or not, he has caused all this." The muscles in Merissa's jaw tightened. "And to think, I had him in my grasp, we all did. We should have taken him when we had the chance."
"Liliana, too, thought to take him, to have his power for herself," Ulicia said, "but she was reckless and ended up with that cursed sword of his through her heart. We must be smarter than she; then we will have his power, and the Keeper his soul."
Armina wiped a tear from her lower eyelid. "But in the meantime, there must be some way we can avoid having to return--"
"And how long do you think we could remain awake?" Ulicia snapped. "Sooner or later we would fall asleep. Then what? Jagang has already shown us he has the power to reach out to us, wherever we are."
Merissa returned to fastening the buttons at the bodice of her crimson dress. "We will do what we must, for now, but that does not mean we can't use our heads."
Ulicia's brows drew together in thought. She looked up with a wry smile. "Emperor Jagang may believe he has us where he wants us, but we've lived a long time. Perhaps, if we use our heads, and our experience, we will not be quite as cowed as he thinks?"
Malevolence gleamed in Tovi's eyes. "Yes," she hissed, "we have indeed lived a long time, and we've learned to bring a few wild boars to ground, and gut them while they squeal."
Nicci smoothed the gathers in the skirt of her black dress. "Gutting pigs is all well and good, but Emperor Jagang is our plight, and not its cause. Nor is it advantageous to waste our anger on Liliana; she was simply a greedy fool. It is the one who truly brought this trouble upon us who must be made to suffer."
"Wisely put, Sister," Ulicia said.
Merissa absently touched her breast where it was bruised. "I will bathe in that young man's blood." Her eyes went out of focus, opening again the window to her black heart. "While he watches."
Ulicia's fists tightened as she nodded in agreement. "It is he, the Seeker, who has brought this upon us. I vow he will pay with his gift, his life, and his soul."
Copyright © 1996 by Terry Goodkind
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