Chapter 1: Poisoned
Flashes of thought staggered through his mind as he himself staggered through the woods. He would die here, for the fourth and final time. How many beings could claim such? Truly, he was magnificent even in death.
It never hurt any less. He could feel the Keeper pumping in his veins… Ah, the illusions the mind conjured when faced with mortality.
One foot in front of the other, trying not to grimace at his ill-fitting boots. Why had he not demanded more comfortable clothing from the Mord'Sith before his departure? Or even a uniform from the soldiers… There had been a reason. A good one. He never did anything without a good reason. But he could not remember now.
He slipped as he pushed his way between the trees, and released a growling hiss as his world narrowed to a sharp white point. He fell against a tree, pressing into his poisoned wound. Black spots danced at the edge of his vision.
It was not as painful as holding an Agiel, and so all the more humiliating when he could not make himself rise.
He would die here. For the fourth and final time.
So this would be the final end of the great and terrible Darken Rahl, born beneath a staggering prophecy of treacherous deeds. A hoarse laugh, a vague whimper, and he would be no more. A plaything of the Keeper.
How utterly pathetic.
As his eyes slid shut, he thought of his brother.
Chapter 2: Found
He awoke to prodding hands. They skimmed his face, cool and soothing. Ghosting over his closed eyes, they paused under his nose until he exhaled against the skin.
The hands moved down, plucking at his clothes. He tried to force his eyes open, but it was as if his mind was no longer connected to his body. He felt the hands from far away.
A confused notion of alarm sluggishly fought to the fore of his awareness. Who did the hands belong to? Were they there to help or hinder?
Perhaps he had been found by his brother… No, that was not right, anyone who knew him would not treat him so gently.
A dark bubble of thought frothed from his cracked soul. Perhaps he would be robbed and his suffering ended by a bandit's blade. Better yet, let them be a baneling! A more ignoble and ironic end could not be asked for.
Perhaps it would be someone sufficiently in awe of his countenance to be ordered to aid him. He need only find the strength to make the command to escape the Keeper's wrath a little longer.
He made a valiant effort to pull his mind from darkness, but was thwarted when the hands found his bandaged shoulder and tore the wrapping away. It felt like a cry was wrung from his lips as he sank back into unconsciousness, but in reality it was a breathless wheeze.
The helping hands rubbed the malodorous slime oozing from the wound between two fingers, and came to a decision. As gently and quickly as the hands were capable of, the fallen man was wrapped in a cloak and dragged away.
Chapter 3: Healing
Awareness, like a fog, crept to his mind, interrupting the recriminations of the Keeper. Content to let his focus come in its own time, he drifted on the top of consciousness, skimming the edge of the waking world.
He could feel fabric against his skin. His head ached. His teeth were grimy, and a bitter acid had taken up residence in his throat.
So he was alive.
Rustling and footsteps, the sounds of liquid sloshing. He could smell wood smoke.
He opened his eyes and immediately shut them against the light, holding his breath to keep his captor from knowing of his awareness.
Opening his eyes the tiniest of slivers to allow them to adjust, he observed his surroundings. A ramshackle cabin, reasonably clean. Everything looked well worn, yet serviceable. Darken himself was on a pallet on the floor, a surprisingly soft rag of a blanket his only covering.
All of these things he took in within a moment. It was the woman with her back to him that captured his attention. With long, somewhat tangled blonde hair, she was wearing the garb of a Sister of the Light. She was not wearing the veil and her robes were stained along the hems, but there was no mistaking what they identified her as.
She stirred something in a pot hanging over the fire in the fireplace in the corner. The sloshing sounds… soup, or medicine.
She must have healed him… but why? She could not be a Sister of the Dark. They had their orders from the Keeper to send him back to the Underworld. He doubted that a Sister of the Light would grant him aid unless they wished for something in return.
A hatchet sat with a basket by the door, most likely for gathering fire wood. If he was silent and quick, he could reach it before she knew of his return to the world of the waking.
He shifted his weight, preparing to make his escape.
"I would not do that were I you," said the Sister, her voice pleasant.
He froze, briefly considered rolling over and feigning sleep, but decided against it.
"What, pray tell, was I going to do, Sister?"
"Something foolish," she answered as she picked up a clay jar from the mantle and sprinkled its contents into the pot over the fire.
He stiffened, his first desire to strike out at the one who dared speak to him so… but he could not deny the merit of her words. Running from the cabin clad only in a blanket and armed only with a hatchet when he had no idea where he was – it was most definitely foolish.
As he pulled himself into a more comfortable position, the Sister began spooning the slop in the pot into a rough clay bowl.
"I have been feeding you soup and water the past few days, but it was difficult to get you to swallow enough. You will need to eat now."
She turned, staring down into the soup bowl, taking careful slow steps to avoid spilling.
"Days? How long-"
She interrupted, "Three or four. It is hard for me to keep track."
She slowly, and not ungracefully, knelt at his side, still staring down into the bowl.
"Do you need any help sitting up?"
He was already sitting up, and had just opened his mouth to question her intelligence when she looked up and her milky white eyes met his.
She was blind.
Chapter 4: Names
His shock was momentary, hardly noticeable to the blind woman who held a bowl of soup out in offering. He took the bowl from her firm grip as his mind spun with comprehension.
The Sister could not see, was not capable of recognizing him. She probably thought she had helped some poor hunter who got caught by a gar. He would not disabuse her of the notion. Who knew how far her kindness might extend?
He schooled his features into a suitable expression before realizing he needn't have bothered. She could not see the wry twist of his lips as a smirk sprang to life.
"You are D'Haran," she said, instantly wiping the unseen smirk from his face.
Wary now, he answered, "Yes."
She smiled, a bit crookedly, as if she did not do so often... or perhaps did not know what one should look like.
The Sister held out a spoon and he guided her hand to his, taking it. She seemed inordinately pleased by this action, and swiftly rose and took a measured step back so as not to hover over him.
"I knew as soon as you spoke. It's the accent. Very few outside D'Hara pronounce their vowels that way."
That crooked smile again, and an expectant look. Did she want his praise?
Uncertainty was not a feeling he appreciated, and one he had been dealing with much too often as of late. He quietly ate the bland soup, not answering the woman for now. He would not commit himself to a course of action until he had studied her further.
Her smile faded, and she turned, walking to a corner of the room where a cupboard stood. She ran her hand along the door until she found the latch, then opened the cupboard and pulled out a bundle. When she turned to face him once more, he could see that she was holding his clothes. They were tattered, but appeared cleaner than when he had last had them on. Darken suspected she had washed them while he slept.
She stood there, waiting.
With a mental sigh, he asked "Are those my clothes?"
She perked up at that. Excellent. A droopy blind priestess that craved conversation.
Perhaps he should have stayed with his brother.
She stepped forward to place the clothes within his reach, and only his quick reflexes kept her from stepping in the bowl he had discarded. She did not seem to notice her near miss, instead measuring her steps back toward the fireplace, saying as she did so, "I'll heat water for you to bathe in. There is a river nearby, but it is a bit cold. I don't think your body is ready to deal with it yet."
A surge of annoyance at his implied weakness. True, he was not functioning at his peak, but he felt much better than he had any right to. He closed his eyes and forced the annoyance away, reminding himself that any strength he now possessed was thanks to the blind priestess twittering over his bath water.
Infusing his voice with the deadly charm that he was famous for, he pushed his way from the bed. The action made his head swim for a moment, but it was not of consequence.
"I thank you for your... hospitality, Sister. But I am afraid I must decline. I have no wish to trouble you further."
She turned, a frown creasing her brow, and started toward him with a hand held out. Whether it was an entreaty or to prevent her from bumping into him, Darken could not say.
His attempt to evade her was met with little success. The cabin was simply not big enough to allow him escape. He found himself standing naked, pressed against the cupboard where she had stored his clothes, with her rough hand laid against his chest.
She closed her milky eyes and he felt a pulse of magic, once, twice, in time with his heartbeat.
Her eyes snapped open, and for a startling second appeared to see. But the spark of recognition died quickly and he was able to dismiss it.
"You will stay and have your bath. Tomorrow, you will help me gather firewood. After that, you may leave or you may stay. It is up to you."
"Because you need healing."
"You cured me of the blood poisoning. I am well enough."
"Are you?" she said with that crooked twist to her lips he was already coming to loathe.
He could feel his face hardening into a snarl, "Your riddles are not enough to hold me here, Sister." He put a sneer in his voice, and raised his hand to remove hers from his chest.
She let him go, and stepped back, sensing the temper smoldering beneath his skin.
"No Sister. Just Hali. Hali of the Healing Hands."
His eyes widened. Many questions now needed answers, but before he could give them voice, she put forth a question of her own.
"Have you a name? Or shall I call you 'The D'Haran'?"
He hesitated only a fraction too long before answering,
"Derek. My name is Derek Cypher."
Chapter 5: Pride
Darken was not entirely sure how he came to be helping a blind woman collect fire wood, but he was entirely sure that he did not like it.
From whence came this recent trend of manipulation? The Keeper used his life to tear a hole in the veil separating worlds. His brother bested him not once, but twice: first with the dacra, then with the Listener. Darken could not help but be perversely proud of his brother, who was more Rahl than either of them would ever admit.
And now he was being made to do menial labor by Hali of the Healing Hands.
And how was he chained to her? With a yoke of his own curiosity.
When still a lord with a library at his disposal, he had read, ravenously, of every strategy and phenomena that could help him hold his empire. He had come across few references of those with Healing Hands, but he had read of them.
Not always women, but always compassionate. Some rot about righting the balances of the world. Able to heal with a touch upon wounded flesh. No incantations, no ill effects as would befall a wizard. There was nothing they could not heal in time.
But this was not what tethered him to the bothersome woman who was even now shouting at him to keep up. Physical healing was not so rare: wizards could do it, the Mord'Sith had the breath of life, it was not impossible for powerful Sisters of the Light and Dark.
Those with Healing Hands were said to go beyond the physical. They nurtured the spirit, soothed the mind.
She had said he needed healing.
He scoffed even as he broke into a light run to catch up to Hali.
She heard his footsteps and waited. Once he had reached her, she held out the hatchet in his direction, waiting for him to take it. He did so, and then surprised her by removing the basket from her arm as well. Seeing her delight at his chivalry, a plan formed in his mind. He was not above gallantry if it got him what he wanted. If treating the healer gently would get him answers faster, then he would chop and carry her wood, guide her along the path, and find a suitably furry young animal to present her with.
"Thank you for helping me, Derek," she said. "It is not often I have a chance to store excess firewood."
He tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, the better to lead her on the forest path.
"I would imagine that it is difficult to cut wood when you cannot see." Darken paused, waiting for the typical feminine outrage at having her flaws addressed, his pretty speech of contrition waiting on his tongue to turn her head.
She said, "Yes, it is."
Changing his tact, he guided her around a root snaking through the path as he asked, "Why do you live so far from the village?"
"I have Healing Hands."
He waited for her to elaborate. When further explanation was not forthcoming, he gritted his teeth and prompted her again.
"The villagers know I can heal with a touch," she answered. "Living half a day's walk into the woods ensures that only those who have real need of me seek me out."
She turned her face to him, that ever present crooked grin in place, "When I lived in the village, I was once called on by the headman to heal his son. There was nothing wrong with the child but an overindulgence in sweets."
She paused, her faced troubled, and the air around her seemed to quiet.
He said, "There is another reason you left the village."
She tilted her head, her matted hair tickling his elbow. Seeming to reach a decision, she replied, "They wouldn't let me heal D'Harans."
Darken was not surprised. He would not allow his enemies a healer unless it served a purpose of the empire.
Hali was very quiet. Perhaps waiting for a response. He should give one.
"I will not tell them I am of D'Hara."
"You should not."
He could feel the tension ease from the hand tucked in his arm. Had she been afraid for him? What a novel feeling.
No. More likely she was familiar with D'Haran pride, and wished to spare herself a scene.
"Perhaps..." she hesitated.
Looking straight ahead, she continued, "It would be best if you covered your face if you ever enter the village. You could use bandages and say I was tending you. A gar attack. Or a bear. Your choice."
He was surprised by this. She did not know his identity, he was sure of it, so why?
He pretended to stumble and pulled Hali to him, a little awkwardly with the basket and hatchet, to 'keep his balance.'
"You think me ugly then?"
He would tease the answers from her.
She reached up slowly, as if he were a skittish horse, and cupped his face in her hands. She ran her fingers across his brow, traced his lips, outlined his jaw, and finally ran them quickly through his recently washed hair.
"You have strong features, and long hair for a D'Haran commoner. You speak well and are heavily muscled. You were either a high ranking officer of the Dragon Corps or you are a former member of Lord Rahl's court."
She pulled away from him and moved ahead. He let her go, once again taken aback by this strange intuition of hers.
As he began to move after her once more, she called over her shoulder, "Either way, I won't risk you being recognized."
Chapter 6: Confusion
Wood gathered, Hali guided, and a jar of foraged berries later, and Darken was still no closer to understanding what had moved the healer to insist on his staying.
He was also not sure why he stayed.
His curiosity was peaked, yes. He idly considered ways to manipulate Hali into helping him escape the Keeper permanently, but his legendary focus deserted him in that endeavor.
He had even been so blunt, so artless as to ask her precisely what she had meant. Her reply?
"You will know when you no longer need me."
He did not need her now.
But it had occurred to him that she needed him. Her cabin, as clean as a blind woman was capable of keeping it, needed new thatching. One of the roof's supporting beams was obviously rotten where it was exposed to the elements. She had a meager supply of firewood, and seemed to survive on water and the bland soup she had fed him earlier, made from boiled roots that grew in crooked rows in a tiny fenced in garden.
She wore the same robes every day, and washed them while she bathed. She could not stray too far from her cabin without being unable to find her way back. Until she touched something she was familiar with, she could walk in the wrong direction and never know it.
She would be indebted to him. Indebted enough to help him obtain the Stone of Tears?
She had obviously once stayed with a Sister of the Light, even if she had never been one herself. He did not know. She may have heard the prophecy foretelling the failure of his brother. She need not know his reasons for wanting the stone. Let her think he wished to save the world.
When last Darken had seen his brother's compass, they had been heading in the general direction of the nearby village. It would not be so difficult to find them, and with a bearer of the Healing Hands in tow he could... what?
What benefit could she possibly be in his quest to bask in the Creator's light?
Something told him that Hali was important to his future. He had always attributed this sixth sense to the power of the Rahl bloodline, but the body he inhabited now was not truly that of a Rahl.
Interesting. He was not as dependent on his wizard blood as he thought.
It was his intuition, the voices that whispered through his bones that had led him to victory in many endeavors. He would heed them now. If he could not convince Hali to help him in time to find his brother and take the stone, then they would travel to the Pillars of Creation and wait.
Staying with Hali did not make sense, and yet he could not bring himself to leave. Every time he seriously contemplated it, a noxious anxiety would form just below his thoughts until he gave up on the notion.
She was important. She would be useful to him. Healing Hands were rare. That they appeared in the form of Hali now could only mean that they were connected somehow to the struggle between the living and the dead.
His mind was filled with confusing thoughts.
Chapter 7: Gift
The villagers stopped asking about Darken’s bandaged face when he spread the story that he had been disfigured by a Mord'Sith.
It amused him.
He chopped wood and traded it to a villager for a bow. It was a small game bow, but rabbit stew was an improvement over the gruel he had been subsisting on. Hali's crooked smile as they ate made him think his plans were progressing nicely.
She was just like Jennsen. Show the face they want to see and they will play into your hands. With that thought in mind, he set out towards the village, a string of rabbits and small game birds at his belt.
A visit to the headman's house left him with with no game and a hound pup. Darken had had to promise the head of the first stag the dog felled, but as he had no intention of still being in the area once the dog was large enough to undertake such hunting, he had no compulsion in giving his word.
When he presented the dog to Hali, she smiled and ran her hands over the pup and said, "What will you name her?"
"I got her for you, Hali. You name her."
She gave him a wistful look and replied, "I cannot take a gift that is not honestly given."
"You deny my gift?" An instant rage filled Darken’s blood. He clenched his fists and reminded himself that he must tread carefully with Hali. She would not bend to force, and he had no means to break her and ensure she lived through it.
"The gift, no. The sentiment behind it, yes. You bring me this dog because you wish for me to feel gratitude. You have no joy in the giving."
She was in the cabin before he could formulate a reply not warped in his rage.
He aimed a kick at the dog, but the beast ran into the woods barking its head off before he could connect.
With a strangled exclamation he set out after it.
An hour later, he decided that if it ever returned he would kill the beast, that reminder of his rejection.
At dusk, when the bitch dropped a mangled squirrel at his feet, he decided he liked it.
He named her Denna.
It amused him.
Chapter 8: Coming
Darken whistled for Denna as he caught sight of the cabin. The bitch went into paroxysms of joy as soon as she saw him, rushing eagerly forward to lick his boots. A taste of the old devotion, a welcome reaffirmation of his worth. He patted her on the head.
"Derek, is that you?" Hali emerged from the cabin, and he went forward to meet her. Once close enough, he clasped her outstretched hand and guided it up to his face.
A flash of the crooked smile and another hand joined the first as she removed the bandages disguising him.
"What did you do in the village?"
"Bargained with some men to re-thatch the roof. I tire of it leaking," he answered.
She hummed under her breath as she rolled the bandages for the next time he would use them. Reaching out a hand, she pressed it through a gap between the ties of his shirt, momentarily resting it against his chest. It was an eccentricity of hers he had become accustomed to. The touch of the woman was not unwelcome. His heart thumped twice.
Hali sighed, and raised her milky eyes to his. She withdrew her hand and fidgeted with the rolled bandages.
"Why are you getting the roof fixed?"
"Because it leaks."
She huffed at him.
Darken held onto his roiling temper by a razor's edge. With this woman it was never enough that he did something – always, always, always she wished to know why!
A glitter entered his eye, and a calmness of demeanor that used to spell death.
"Does it matter?" he answered in his most seductive tone. "Is it not enough that I have seen to your comfort?"
The velvet of seduction could not quite hide the steel undercurrent of his outrage.
Hali, as always, was unmoved. He could sooner move a mountain than the bearer of the Healing Hands.
"Whose comfort are you seeing to, Derek? Truth."
A supreme act of will kept his hands at his sides and the blistering snarl clenched behind his lips.
It was really quite funny. He was defying the Keeper of the Underworld, only to be brought low by this small, ungrateful, ill kept woman.
When Darken Rahl regained his power, he would chain her for his personal pleasure. Her screams would echo night and day throughout the People's Palace. She would then appreciate the kind Derek who had tried to give her a dog and fix her roof.
The image did much to calm him, and he, a little too successfully to be genuine, infused his voice with good cheer.
"Do you wish to know the rumor sweeping the village?"
Hali narrowed her white-blind eyes, but allowed the change of topic, understanding the precipice she walked. Balance was key.
"What do the villagers say?"
She tucked the bandages into her robes, then reached out to grasp Darken’s belt, running her fingers along it to search for the strings he hung his game from. It reminded him of both his masculinity and her dependency, and had yet to fail to soothe his rages.
Arousal simmered below his skin as her nimble fingers grazed his sides. He would not push the issue: a wrong move would undo all the progress he had made with her.
He would not allow her to reject him.
"They say the Seeker is in the area. The headman is preparing a festival in his honor."
Hali smiled a different smile, and stepped forward, embracing him. He was shocked, but after a moment lightly wrapped his arms around her waist.
"So he finally arrives," she breathed into his chest, "I thought I would have more time."
Darken tightened his arms around her waist, enough so that the press of their bodies was painful. His voice was tauter still.
"You have been waiting for him."
They were always waiting for the Seeker.
"He has been coming for me my entire life. But that does not mean I'll go," the last part was said more to herself.
"Why is he coming?"
He felt her eyelashes wisp across his skin, and her body stiffened as if bracing for a blow.
"He comes for the Stone of Tears."
Chapter 9: Hope
Darken could not sleep. His nerve endings tingled, his body thrumming with elation, a dark satisfaction.
The taste of victory weighed heavy on his tongue.
He had beaten his brother to the Stone of Tears unwittingly. His intuition was correct. Hali was important in the battle.
She had seemed frightened when she revealed to him that she was the stone's protector, but not of him.
Now what to do with this information? His mind whirled with the possibilities. He could convince her that they should take the stone to the Pillars of Creation themselves. He would be her hero, her protector. And then he would use the stone to seal the veil, thus earning a place in the Creator's light.
He could wait for his brother and the merry band. They could do the heavy lifting, he could spend some time with Richard... the Seeker would be reluctant to kill him at the end of their little adventure if he was useful, Cara was proof of that.
Both plans depended on his control of Hali.
He reached across the enlarged floor pallet to trail a finger along the back of her hand. Eyelids fluttered, then opened, sightless eyes staring into his soul.
She slid her hand into his.
When her breathing became deep and even once more, he took the opportunity to study her face. She seemed frail and ordinary in her sleep. When she was awake her milky eyes lended her a sense of otherworldliness, world weariness.
But asleep she was just a woman in her child bearing years.
There was a thought.
If Darken allowed his brother to find them, he would have to contend with Hali discovering his true identity.
Would she betray the father of her child? He doubted it. And it was not a gift she could give back.
But he had little time, and he must do it gently, lest he send her running into Richard's arms. Experimentally, he leaned over and brushed a kiss against her forehead, allowing himself to grin into her hair.
She did not wake, but she did turn to face him, pulling his arm to clutch against her chest.
Hope grew within.
Chapter 10: Time
In the end, Darken had less time than he thought.
The festival for the Seeker and his followers was to take place in four day’s time. Darken planned to have Hali bedded by then. They would be married by the headman at the festival, and he would announce the imminent birth of their child after the nuptials, before revealing his face.
He did so love to make an entrance.
Hali, while not ecstatic about the idea, had been amenable to his proposal.
He had brought her fragrant flowers, and the gift of a comb with which he had brushed out her hair as she sat between his sprawled legs. They sat at the river's edge, watching his fishing lines, though Denna's antics further upstream were most likely scaring all the fish away.
"You will want for nothing if you marry me."
She did not answer, merely leaned heavily into his chest, trapping her tresses between them. She turned her cheek against his skin, her slightly parted lips warm and moist.
His heart thumped twice.
"If I marry you, I will have to stay with you."
Darken prepared to stay his more violent impulses. He would have to have patience.
Breathlessly, sightless eyes closed, she gave her answer, "Yes."
She did not question him, or the gifts of the comb and flowers.
Despite himself, he found it unnerving, though he would never reveal it.
They had not spoken of it again, though he had been to the village to make the arrangements and spent an excruciating length of time allowing a flock of women to question him as to the specifics. He longed for the days when a sharp look would have sent them to their knees, stammering apologies.
A messenger dispatched to locate the Seeker had returned triumphantly to tell them when the Seeker would arrive. All bought him drinks in the village tavern as he recounted the tale of his conversation with the Seeker, who promised to attend the festival after he finished some business nearby.
The business turned out to be Hali.
Darken was splitting logs on the chop block he had set up near the cabin when Denna began to bark. He ignored her, thinking it was most likely she was chasing some diminutive creature of the forest.
Then he felt the sword point against his back.
"What are you doing here, Rahl?"