Kahlan stood quietly in the shadows, watching, as evil knocked softly on the door. Huddled under the small overhang, off to the side, she hoped that no one would answer that knock. As much as she would like to spend the night in out of the rain, she didn't want trouble to visit innocent people. She knew, though, that she had no say in the matter.
The light of a single lantern flickered weakly through the slender windows to either side of the door, reflecting a pale, shimmering glow off the wet floor of the portico. The sign overhead, hung by two iron rings, grated and squealed each time it swung back and forth in the wind-borne rain. Kahlan was able to make out the spectral white shape of a horse painted on the dark, wet sign. The light from the windows wasn't enough to enable her to read the name, but because the other three women with her had talked of little else for days, Kahlan knew that the name would be the White Horse Inn.
By the smell of manure and wet hay, she judged that one of the dark buildings nearby had to be a stable. In the sporadic displays of distant lightning, she could just make out the hulking shoulders of dark structures standing like ghosts beyond the billowing sheets of rain. Despite the steady roar of the deluge and the rumble of thunder, it appeared that the village was sound asleep. Kahlan could think of no better place to be on such a dark and wretched night than bundled up under bed covers, safe and warm.
A horse in the nearby stable whinnied when Sister Ulicia knocked a second time, louder, more insistently, evidently intending herself to be heard over the riot of rain, yet not so loud as to sound hostile. Sister Ulicia, a woman given to reckless impulse, seemed to be taking a deliberately restrained approach. Kahlan didn't know why, but imagined that it had to do with the reason they were there. It also might have been nothing more than the random nature of her moods. Like lightning, the woman's smoldering bad temper was not only dangerous but unpredictable. Kahlan couldn't always tell exactly when Sister Ulicia would lash out, and just because she so far hadn't didn't mean that she wouldn't. Neither of the other two Sisters was in any better mood or any less inclined toward losing their temper. Kahlan supposed that soon enough the three of them would be happy and quietly celebrating the reunion.
Lightning flashed close enough that the blinding but halting incandescence briefly revealed a whole street of buildings crowded close around the muddy, rutted road. Thunder boomed through the mountainous countryside and shook the ground beneath their feet.
Kahlan wished that there was something -- like the way lightning revealed things otherwise hidden in the obscurity of night -- that could help illuminate the hidden memories of her past and bring to light what was concealed by the murky mystery of who she was. She had a fierce longing to be free of the Sisters, a burning desire to live her own life -- to know what her life really was. That much she knew about herself. She knew, too, that her convictions had to be founded in experience. It was obvious to her that there had to be something there -- people and events -- that had helped make her the woman she was, but try as she might to recall them, they were lost to her.
That terrible day she stole the boxes for the Sisters, she had promised herself that someday she would find the truth of who she was, and she would be free.
When Sister Ulicia knocked a third time, a muffled voice came from inside.
"I heard you!" It was a man's voice. His bare feet thumped down wooden stairs. "I'll be right there! A moment, please!"
His annoyance at having been awakened in the middle of the night was layered over with forced deference to potential customers.
Sister Ulicia turned a sullen look on Kahlan. "You know that we have business here." She lifted a cautionary finger before Kahlan's face. "Don't you even think of giving us any trouble, or you'll get what you got the last time."
Kahlan swallowed at the reminder. "Yes, Sister Ulicia."
"Tovi had better have gotten us a room," Sister Cecilia complained. "I'm in no mood to be told the place is full."
"There will be room," Sister Armina said with soothing assurance, cutting off Sister Cecilia's habit of always assuming the worst.
Sister Armina wasn't older, like Sister Cecilia, but nearly as young and attractive as Sister Ulicia. To Kahlan, though, their looks were insignificant in light of their inner nature. To Kahlan, they were vipers.
"One way or another," Sister Ulicia added under her breath as she glared at the door, "there will be room."
Lightning arced through the greenish, roiling clouds, releasing an earsplitting boom of thunder.
The door opened a crack. The shadowed face of a man peered out at them as he worked to button up his trousers under his nightshirt. He moved his head a little to each side so that he could take in the strangers. Judging them to be less than dangerous, he pulled open the door and with a sweeping gesture ushered them inside.
"Come on in, then," he said. "All of you."
"Who is it?" A woman called out as she descended the stairs to the rear. She carried a lantern in one hand and held the hem of her nightdress up with the other so that she wouldn't trip on it as she hurried down the steps.
"Four women traveling in the middle of a rainy night," the man told her, his gruff tone alluding to what he thought of such a practice.
Kahlan froze in midstride. He'd said "four women."
He had seen all four of them and had remembered as much long enough to say so. As far as she could recall, such a thing had never happened before. No one but her masters, the four Sisters -- the three with her and the one they had come to meet -- ever remembered seeing her.
Sister Cecilia shoved Kahlan in ahead of her, apparently not catching the significance of the remark.
"Well for goodness' sake," the woman said as she hurried between the two plank tables. She tsked at the foul weather as the wind drove a rattle of rain against the windows. "Do get them in out of that awful weather, Orlan."
Streamers of fat raindrops chased them in the door, wetting a patch of pine floor. The man's mouth twisted with displeasure as he pushed the door closed against a wet gust and then dropped the heavy iron bar back in the brackets to bolt the door.
The woman, her hair gathered up in a loose bun, lifted her lantern a little as she peered at the late-night guests. Puzzled, she squinted as her gaze swept over the drenched visitors and then back again. Her mouth opened but then she seemed to forget what she had been about to say.
Kahlan had seen that blank look a thousand times and knew that the woman only remembered seeing three callers. No one could ever remember seeing Kahlan long enough to say so. She was as good as invisible. Kahlan thought that maybe because of the darkness and rain the man, Orlan, had merely made a mistake when he'd said to his wife that there were four visitors.
"Come in and get yourselves dry," the woman said as she smiled in earnest warmth. She hooked a hand under Sister Ulicia's arm, drawing her into the small gathering room. "Welcome to the White Horse Inn."
The other two Sisters, openly scrutinizing the room, took off their cloaks and gave them a quick shake before tossing them over a bench at one of the two tables. Kahlan noticed a single dark doorway at the back, beside the stairs. A fireplace made of stacked, flat stones took up most of the wall to the right. The air in the dimly lit room was warm and carried the distractingly enticing aroma of a stew in the iron pot hung from a crane pushed to the side of the hearth. Hot coals glowed out from under a thick layer of feathery ashes.
"You three ladies look like drowned cats. You must be miserable." The woman turned to the man and gestured. "Orlan, get the fire going."
Kahlan saw a young girl of maybe eleven or twelve years slip down the stairs just far enough so she could see into the room from under the low ceiling. Her long white nightdress with ruffled cuffs had a pony stitched in coarse brown thread on the front, with a row of loose strands of dark yarn making up the mane and tail. The girl sat on the steps to watch, tenting her nightdress over her bony knees. Her grin revealed big teeth that she had yet to grow into. Strangers arriving in the middle of the night apparently was an adventure at the White Horse Inn. Kahlan dearly hoped that that was all there would be to the adventure.
Orlan, a big bear of a man, knelt at the hearth, stacking on a few sticks of wood. His thick, stubby fingers made the wedges of oak look to be little more than kindling.
"What would possess you ladies to travel in the rain -- at night?" he asked as he cast them a look over his shoulder.
"We're in a hurry to catch up with a friend of ours," Sister Ulicia said, offering a meaningless smile. She kept her tone businesslike. "She was to meet us here. Her name is Tovi. She will be expecting us."
The man put a hand on his knee to help himself up. "Those guests who stay with us -- especially in such troubled times -- are pretty discreet. Most don't give their names." He lifted an eyebrow at Sister Ulicia. "Much like you ladies -- not giving your names, that is."
"Orlan, they're guests," the woman scolded. "Wet, and no doubt tired and hungry, guests." She flashed a smile. "Folks call me Emmy. My husband, Orlan, and I have run the White Horse since his parents passed away, years back." Emmy gathered up three wooden bowls from a shelf. "You ladies must be famished. Let me get you some stew. Orlan, get some mugs and fetch these ladies some hot tea."
Orlan lifted a meaty hand on his way past, indicating the bowls his wife cradled in an arm. "You're one short."
She twitched a frown at him. "No I'm not; I have three bowls."
Orlan pulled four mugs down from the top shelf of the hutch. "Right. Like I said, you're one short."
Kahlan could hardly breathe. Something was very wrong. Sisters Cecilia and Armina had frozen dead still, their wide eyes fixed on the man. The significance of the couple's chitchat had not escaped them.
Kahlan glanced to the stairwell and saw the girl on the steps leaning toward them, gripping the rails, peering out, trying to fathom what her parents were talking about.
Sister Armina snatched Sister Ulicia's sleeve. "Ulicia," she said in an urgent whisper through gritted teeth, "he sees -- "
Sister Ulicia shushed her. Her brow drew down in a dark glare as she turned her attention back to the man.
"You are mistaken," she said. "There are only three of us."
At the same time she was talking she prodded Kahlan with the stout oak rod she carried, shoving her farther back into the shadows behind, as if shadows alone would make Kahlan invisible to the man.
Kahlan didn't want to be in the shadows. She wanted to stand in the light and be seen -- really seen. Such a thing had always seemed an impossible dream, but it had suddenly become a real possibility. That possibility had shaken the three Sisters.
Orlan frowned at Sister Ulicia. Holding all four mugs in the grip of one meaty hand, he used his other to point out each visitor standing in his gathering room. "One, two, three" -- he leaned to the side, looking around Sister Ulicia, to point at Kahlan -- "four. Do you all want tea?"
Kahlan blinked in astonishment. Her heart felt as if it had come up in her throat. He saw her . . . and remembered what he saw.
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Goodkind