After the massacre he insisted on at Brennidon, but before the terrible realisation that the Seeker lived, Darken Rahl took it upon himself to travel the lands he ruled. His father before him had once taken this walkabout, in disguise, so as not to be recognised, in order to see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears who was loyal and who was not.
Giller procured an amulet and worked some very dangerous magic upon it. It was bathed in moonlight, in sunlight, in water from an ancient well, in the flames of a fire that was burning spell parchment, in rainwater collected from the highest point of D'Hara, and in fresh blood. It was, Rahl thought, well worth the risk involved; to wear this amulet would give him protection that would offset the dangers inherent in his planned tour of his lands.
Now, Rahl slipped the golden necklace over his head and settled the cold metal against his chest. He admired himself in the long mirror in front of him. The metal chain gleamed in the candlelight, the disc itself, with its six points like a tiny sun, sitting against the hollow at the base of his collarbone. Not too feminine, not too ostentatious and so likely to draw unwanted attention. He was most pleased with it, and tilted his head to make the disc catch the light. One of his serving maids entered the room with a bundle of fresh sheets.
"Oi," she yelled, startled and began backing towards the door. "You can't be in the chambers of Lord Rahl!"
When he refused to move, she opened her mouth again, as her head turned towards the door, presumably to call for the guards. Rahl lifted the amulet from his skin and glared at the woman. She blinked, then took a step back.
"My Lord," she gasped, dropping to her knees. Her arms, still clutching the bed linen, were trembling. "Please, forgive me. I…I did not recognise you."
Rahl let a smile cross his lips upon hearing the woman's words. It was a complete success. The amulet did nothing to alter his appearance – for his vanity forbid that he hid his beauty – but, while he wore it, he would not be recognised by any except a wizard of the First Order.
Rahl told few of his plans. Giller knew, of course, as did General Nass, who would take care of the day to day business while he was away. Nass had expressed some concern regarding safety, but Rahl was, after all, a dictator, and could do as he pleased.
Taking only a small satchel with a day's provisions and a change of clothes, Rahl dressed in peasant clothing of leather and rough linen. He missed his velvet cloaks, and disliked the chafing at his elbows, but he would endure the minor discomfort for this mission. He slipped a small dagger into his boot; he was no coward, but he was no fool, either.
At first, things went well. He met other travellers and spoke with them; they were loyal to Lord Rahl and spoke of the security that a fort near a town could provide from threats like the gar. Some he met shared their meagre rations with him. The daughter of a blacksmith at a local village eyed him with obvious interest and she leant against a post seductively until he walked away.
He should have taken more money, he reflected, but a large purse was just asking for trouble, and now both his coinage and supplies were gone. Resigned, Rahl offered his services to the next homestead he passed. The widow there let him chop firewood for her and gave him a meal and a handful of coins.
When he reached the edge of D'Hara and crossed the border into the Midlands, it was raining, which he took to be a bad omen. He trudged through the woodland and onto a trail that was growing increasingly muddy. He slipped, fell to the ground, and cursed aloud. Perfect. Now he was wet *and* muddy.
A man stepped out from behind a tree, clothed in green and brown clothing that helped camouflage him. He approached Rahl and held out a hand.
"Hey, stranger," the man greeted. "Nice weather."
In the People's Palace, only Rahl was permitted to be sarcastic. Swallowing down another minor annoyance, Rahl nodded and allowed the man to help him to his feet.
"Where are you off to?"
"Just travelling," Rahl pointed to the trail. "I'm seeking work. My village was destroyed by a gar before the D'Haran guard could kill it." It was a reasonable enough story. The man nodded in sympathy.
"Would you like to warm yourself a while by a fire, friend?"
Rahl followed the man, Payne, along a barely visible track and back round into the woods. Ducking under branches and stepping over tree-roots, he also took note of Payne. As tall as Rahl was, broad, with blue eyes and a strong jawline sporting brown stubble. Payne wore a sword and dagger, and a heavy cloak over lightweight clothes, yet Rahl watched his movements and was puzzled that nothing in Payne's stride made him think "soldier."
At last they came to a clearing. Canvas shelters had been erected between sturdy trees, with clothing and bedrolls safely stored under them. A fire was burning under a large cooking pot, and the pot and the denser foliage above them protected the flames. Another man was huddled under one of the shelters, his cloak pulled up around his ears, while a woman was sitting cross-legged by the luggage, mending a hole in one of the blankets.
"Vina," Payne called brightly. "I have found a traveller!" He made it sound like he'd found a treasure chest, Rahl thought. Were there no highway robbers where Payne was from, to take strangers back to his camp without a second thought?
The woman looked up. She had blonde hair and green eyes, and her thin, pink lips quirked in a smile. She put aside the blanket and called to the other member of their party.
"Trace! We have company."
The man under the cloak emerged from his woollen shelter and regarded Rahl suspiciously.
Payne related Rahl's cover story and how he'd found the stranger sprawled in the mud. Rahl silently fumed at the recollection of his embarrassing slip. Such a thing had never happened to him in D'Hara, where there were paving stones on the paths around the People's Palace, and horses with carriages, so he didn't have to traipse through mud in such inclement weather. Still, no-one laughed, which was lucky, for there were limits to his temper, even while disguised.
"The weather is cruel this week," Vina agreed. She stepped in front of Rahl. "What is your name, stranger?" And he paused, momentarily thrown, for Payne hadn't asked for it even though he'd given his own.
"Quinn," he said confidently. It was not too uncommon, nor too noble a name.
Vina reached out and Rahl almost took a step backward at this impropriety. Instead, he steeled himself to stay still as the woman touched his cheek gently.
"You're bleeding. Let me clean that up." She stepped back and gestured toward his clothing. "Take off your cloak."
"Best do as she says," Payne said with a laugh. "She's a bossy one, but she's usually right."
With that, Payne took the weathered cloak from Rahl and hung it on a branch beneath one of the canopies where it could dry so that the mud could then be brushed off. Vina handed Rahl a rough woollen blanket which he pulled about himself with some relief. Then she bid him sit near the fire.
"We keep water boiling," she said, fetching a rag from her pack. "You never know when you'll need hot water – and it makes preparing dinner easier."
"If you catch anything," Trace grumbled, rubbing a calloused hand across his nose. "I'm sick of eating apples."
"Ignore him," Vina said firmly. "*He* hasn't caught us anything to eat for a week now."
"I'm a woodsman," Trace said. "Without me you'd have no firewood."
"That's the only reason we keep him around," Payne joked. "Better we put with his long face than freeze to death."
Vina lifted the lid off the pot and dipped one end of the cloth into it. She replaced the lid and gently massaged the cloth until all of the rag was both warm and damp. She then crouched in front of Rahl.
He nodded, wincing as she applied the warm material to his cold skin, aggravating the cut he hadn't even know he had received until Vina had drawn attention to it. She worked quickly and carefully, removing all of the mud from his face, then pressed the cloth into his palm so he could clean off his hands and arms for himself.
Payne glanced up at the trees.
"I think the rain is slowing," he said and flashed a smile. "Ah, maybe you're a good luck charm, Quinn."
Payne polished his sword while Trace took out his axe and sharpened the blade. Vina quickly tied back her hair, exposing the curve of her neck. She ran a critical eye over some arrows and took up her bow.
"I'm going to hunt," she said decisively. "See if we can't do better than apples for supper. Trace, more firewood. Payne, see if you can find something green and edible for the pot."
At the edge of the clearing, she paused and looked back over her shoulder. She touched her tongue briefly to her lips and then favoured Rahl with a coy smile. "Quinn, would you like to come with me?"
He had no desire to assist the morose Trace with the wood gathering and something about the ever-cheerful Payne irritated him, so he agreed. Besides, she was rather attractive, for a peasant, with pert rounded buttocks beneath the male hunting trousers she wore. Vina had retained a feminine shirt, and the corseted front lifted and displayed admirable cleavage. Yes, her company would be far more pleasant. She was certainly trying to entice him, he thought, feeling a stirring in his loins as he recalled the sight of her pink tongue teasing her lips.
They walked for a while, the rain now barely a drizzle. Rahl's cloak was just about dry and he was glad to have it back around his shoulders.
"We've been camped for five days," Vina said. "We could travel in the rain, I suppose, but the directions are vague enough without trying to look for landmarks in such overcast darkness and terrible weather."
"What directions?" Rahl asked.
He bit back a retort at being told to be silent. She wasn't being impertinent, he realised, as he saw, a little way ahead, a group of rabbits.
Rahl watched as Vina nocked an arrow, and took aim. The rabbits took no notice, browsing hungrily. Vina loosed the arrow and it hit its mark, taking down a large rabbit. His companions scattered in fright. Smiling, Vina headed over to retrieve her kill.
"Rabbit stew tonight," she said in delight.
Rahl nodded mildly. Peasant food was not to his liking, but a hungry traveller like Quinn would never turn down such a meal.
"You're skilled with the bow," he observed. "Who taught you?"
"I taught myself." There was evident pride in her tone. "I watched the men teach the boys to shoot and then I practised until I could best any one of them."
"So I can see. But why? Most women prefer to cook food than to hunt for it." Maybe, he thought, he'd gone too far, for Vina shot him an angry look.
"I mean no disrespect," he amended hastily. She would be more forthcoming with information if he kept on her good side. "I am merely curious."
"I cook almost as well as I hunt," Vina told him. "Better than Payne, that much is certain." It was supposed to be a joke of sorts, and he smiled in acknowledgment.
"You seem close, the three of you," Rahl pushed.
"Payne is family," Vina said simply and then changed the subject. "Come on. We need to get back so I can prepare the stew."
As night fell, Trace added more wood to the fire and Vina stirred the stew in the cooking pot. Rahl had no assigned task and watched; the three of them worked well together. As the smell of the food permeated the camp, even Trace grew more cheerful and the jibes exchanged became more light-hearted.
"Perhaps our guest should try the stew first," Trace said. "You know, in case." He mimed choking, both hands to his throat.
"Keep that up and you'll go hungry," Vina threatened, but there was no actual malice in her tone.
The stew was as good as any rabbit stew could be, in Rahl's opinion, and the accompanying stale bread was edible enough once dipped in the stew. The ale Payne doled out was palatable. Compared to some of the rations he'd partaken of during this journey, this was almost as good as supper at the People's Palace.
The sky was now clear and the half-moon peered through the leaves as the wind shook the branches of the trees. They'd exchanged news and gossip for a while, but Rahl chose to move to a subject of more direct interest.
"How do you fare, under Lord Rahl's rule?" He was expecting a favourable response. These were decent people, the sort who shared their food and sleeping quarters without a moment's pause, who took pity on forlorn travellers, and who were skilled enough to make their way through life without undue hardship. He was impressed with Vina's bowmanship – and other attributes, of course – and was conscious of the fact that under his rule she was technically free to hunt as a man could should weigh in his favour. Some sections of society might frown on her prowess with a deadly weapon but he had never forbidden women to learn any form of martial arts; weren't his Mord'Sith the most feared enforcers and interrogators in D'Hara?
Trace spat at the fire in response, and Rahl noted the way that it sizzled.
"Better than those in Brennidon," he muttered after a pause.
"Indeed." Was that a condemnation? Hard to be sure. Rahl reminded himself that they couldn't know he was not Quinn, humble traveller, and so he was in no danger. It was always the quiet ones though who were the most dangerous, liable to strike with no warning.
"Our benevolent leader, Lord Darken Rahl," Payne scoffed. "Darken. It's hardly a name is it? More like a verb."
There was a ripple of laugher through the camp. Rahl, however, closed his fist so tightly his short nails dug into his palms, keeping his temper at bay by a fierce act of will.
"Trace's father was a soldier in the D'Haran army," Vina explained. "When he was killed during the raid on Brennidon, Trace and his family were thrown onto the streets. They resettled in the Midlands. His brother took holy orders and his sister married last year."
*Thrown onto the streets*. Rahl ran that through his head a few times. When a soldier was killed, his family were given a reasonable amount of coin in recompense. It made for better morale, and assured the future soldiers of D'Hara that they and their loved ones would benefit from their service to the public good.
Of course, if Trace and his religious-minded brother couldn't be bothered to work to support themselves and their sister, or if they'd squandered the money, there could be no sympathy. Rahl couldn't help those who were unwilling to help themselves.
Payne took a last swig of ale and belched.
"What about you?" Rahl asked. "What's your story?"
"My father was a wizard, but I didn't get his gifts. He left when I was just a child. When my mother died I was sent to live with my aunt, Vina's mother. I helped with their farm until a pestilence fell upon it. Nothing grows there now. Story is, it was a rogue wizard, but others say it was a punishment from Lord Rahl."
Rahl hid his surprise. "Punishment for what?"
"A serving girl stole something from his palace and settled in our village, so he set a plague upon the whole area."
Oh, *that*. Yes, Rahl remembered now. Scrawny little child, if he remembered rightly, and she'd dared to steal a ruby ring. He'd sent guards after her, and when they had found where she ran to, a tiny village just over the borders, he'd commanded them to open a box containing a swarm of red beetles. The magical creatures attacked every plant in a five mile radius. The beetles died shortly afterwards but so did the plants – crops, grass, trees, alike – and the ground itself turned red – which Rahl thought fitting given that it had been a ruby that had been stolen. The soil would be unusable for seven years.
"These last years we've been taking work where we can," Vina said. "And training."
"Training for what?" Rahl asked intently. He was tired of these vague hints about their purpose; back in the Palace he'd have handed them over to the Mord'Sith by now.
"There's a resistance movement," Payne said proudly. "We're trying to find them and join up."
A resistance? Rahl almost choked on his mouthful of ale.
"I told Vina to cut her hair, try to pass as a man, but she won't," Payne went on. "Said if Confessors and Mord'Sith can fight, why can't a woman become a resistance soldier?"
Confessors were a sore point for Rahl; they were powerful women who refused to bow down to his rule. Like his favoured Mord'Sith, they were often skilled fighters, but with a power beyond that of the leather-clad interrogators. There wasn't anything Rahl wouldn't do to have the power of the Confessors at his fingertips.
Trying to keep in character, he kept his anger under control and instead, told Vina, "Your hair is lovely. I do not blame you for wanting to keep it. Besides, one would have to be blind or a fool not to see that you are plainly a woman, long hair or no; and a beautiful woman at that."
Her hair would be the least of her concern in passing for male, he thought, glancing at her shirt front. She bowed her head; maybe she blushed at his compliment, but it was hard to tell by in the light of the fire, with shadows dancing across her face.
"We're going to rise up and defeat Lord Rahl," Trace said. "We shall conquer him as he has conquered our lands and united them under his despotic rule. We shall try him for his crimes, then execute him. And put his head on a pike." It was the most the man had spoken since Rahl had come to the camp, and unlike his usual complaining tone, this was said with passion and determination. In addition, the fact that execution was a foregone conclusion, negating the need for the trial, seemed to have escaped him, but there was no reasoning with peasants.
"You all hate Lord Rahl so much?" Rahl said silkily. He'd expected to hear a few complaints, but nothing as serious as this. Still, people were inherently stupid and would prefer to think they could rule themselves in what would almost certainly be anarchy, than to live peaceful and productive lives under his leadership.
"We all have reason to," Payne said. "And we've not suffered the worst of his wrath. He's a tyrant, make no mistake."
Rahl put down his mug and tucked his hair behind his ears. If there was a resistance movement, he'd find it, and have it stamped out before the insanity of such a movement could spread. With any luck he'd only have to destroy one or two villages. Time for Quinn to develop a sympathetic back-story.
"I too have suffered," he said, with mock grief. "The guards that came too late to save my village were on some trifling errand for the tyrant Rahl instead of being there to protect us."
Payne looked convinced, buying into the story hook, line and sinker. Vina and Trace weren't so easily swayed though.
"Where were you?" Trace asked.
"I was asleep when the gar attacked." Rahl looked at his lap, as if unable to meet their gaze. "I was woken by the cries coming from the square. I grabbed for a dagger, but by the time I got there, almost everyone had been killed. Only the spirits know why I was spared."
"Perhaps because you were a coward," Trace sneered. "Hiding while those around you paid the price."
Rahl gambled that a violent response would serve him better in the long run. Neither he nor Quinn would easily suffer to be called a coward. He was on his feet and across the camp in an instant, both hands around Trace's throat before the man could react.
"How dare you," Rahl yelled, squeezing just hard enough to let Trace know he meant business. "You were not there! You didn't see your best friend torn into pieces!" With sudden inspiration, he added, "You didn't lose…
Rahl released Trace so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. Vina and Payne were both on their feet, Payne's hand on his sword hilt. Trace rubbed at his bruised throat.
"Quinn?" Vina asked gently.
Rahl bit the inside of his lip and squeezed his eyes shut. Tears would seal the deal. He turned damp eyes to Vina. "I'm sorry. Forgive me."
Payne glared at Trace.
"It's lucky you don't speak much," he said. "Every time you open your mouth you cause problems!"
Trace, understandably, was furious at this. "He tried to strangle me!" he pointed out.
"Ha! We'll face worse than that once we go up against the D'Haran army," Payne scoffed, the first hint that he had any idea what he was getting into.
"My anger is misplaced," Rahl said, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. "It is Rahl's fault that those I loved died." Vina reached out and touched Rahl's shoulder. Now it was two of them siding with him; Trace was outnumbered and any objections he had would be overruled.
As if the idea had just occurred to him, Rahl said, "The resistance; perhaps I could join you." Just long enough to find and destroy the movement before it became a real threat.
Payne nodded eagerly.
"You would be most welcome, Quinn. We've been training to fight because we were never soldiers before this, but you…what work is it you were looking for? Your arms and chest speak of great physical prowess. I think you would take well to soldiering."
"I am a blacksmith," Rahl said. None of the three seemed to have any experience of smithing to ask him awkward questions about the craft of which he was largely ignorant, and it was a vocation that required physical strength to work the iron and to handle horses. It was also a craft he wouldn't be expected to put to sudden use out here in the woods and thereby expose his deceit.
"You will be able to mend our weapons, once we reach the resistance," Payne said in delight. "They will welcome you with open arms!"
Not, Rahl thought, for long. He would kill the leader first, to cause panic and show his strength. These deluded peasants he'd keep until last, let them watch their hopes die with the traitors that had sown such dissent. Of course, if the resistance was already well-established there might be more men than even he could kill alone. He needed more information; where the camp was, how many men they had, what sort of weapons he'd be facing.
Vina stood and stretched. She gazed up at the moon. Quinn, would you like to walk with me a little?""
It was not polite to refuse such a request, and he had no desire to do so anyway; this was an ideal opportunity to quiz Vina further, away from Trace's suspicious eyes and ears. Perhaps she knew where the resistance was gathering.
"Of course, Vina." he said and followed her lead out into the woodlands. They walked in silence for a while. Once they were well away from the camp, Vina drew close to him.
"Quinn," she said. "You are a very handsome man. You do know that? Have you a wife?"
"No." He shook his head. "I was betrothed, but –"
He paused as if overwhelmed and let Vina draw the inevitable conclusion.
"What happened to her? Was it the gar?" she asked, wide-eyed. He nodded and took pleasure in the look of sympathy in her eyes.
"Trace should not have called you a coward," Vina said. This was better than he'd hoped; he'd physically assaulted Trace but now Trace was the one in the wrong!
"Her name was Kayla. I hadn't known her that long, but we had our whole lives to get to know each other. Or so we thought." The lies came quickly and easily, each one another page in the fictional Quinn's biography, every lie evoking sympathy and making him seem a perfect companion for the would-be resistance fighters.
"Oh." Vina stopped suddenly and leant against a tree trunk. "I'm so sorry."
Rahl shrugged. "I will always miss her, I imagine. But I cannot grieve forever. I wanted to move on. I couldn't bear to stay and help rebuild the village, so I set out to find somewhere I could start anew." He ran his eyes over Vina's figure, lingering at her breasts for longer than was polite, letting his interest be known.
"And find someone new?" Vina asked softly.
"Of course." Rahl stepped closer to her. "I am a young man, with desires that will not go unheeded. I am ready, I think, to find love elsewhere."
If his mourning period was a little short, Vina wasn't about to call him on it. That she was lusting for him was clear and unsurprising. A wandering swordswoman wasn't going to be most men's first choice of mate, and of her companions, one was family and the other was a miserable woodsman. He was probably the best male prospect she'd had in a long while, and he was a rather spectacular prospect if he did say so himself.
Taking her cue, Vina brushed at imaginary lint on her shirt, drawing attention to her breasts.
"Quinn," she said, carefully. "Am I…you said I'm ….do you find me…"
"Yes," he said, and this at least wasn't a lie. She was no potential queen but she was spirited and attractive enough to hold his attention for a while. "You are most becoming."
She laughed at that.
"Becoming! That is a most noble word."
Was it? To distract her from wondering further about Quinn's vocabulary, Rahl made his move. He leant in close, pressing against her, feeling her breasts against his chest, smelling her feminine scent as he pressed his lips her skin, just below her ear. He heard her gasp in surprise and pleasure, and pressed his lips to her skin again, trailing kisses down across her neck, to her throat, to her cleavage. She bucked against him, hips thrusting forwards, and her hands were now entangled in his hair.
He sought to loosen her corset, his fingers tugging at the laces that constrained her breasts beneath the off-white linen shirt. He managed to slip one hand beneath the material and cup one breast, fingers brushing the nipple, already erect in her desire.
Vina gave sharp cry of excitement and wrapped both arms tightly around his neck and pressed her back to the tree as hard as she could in order to gain purchase enough to wrap her legs about his waist.
Rahl admired her hunger, but surely, he wondered, she realised that they would have to disengage in order to remove enough clothing for an actual sexual act to occur. Lord Rahl he might be, but even he couldn't perform coitus through two layers of clothes.
"Quinn," Vina begged. "Oh, Quinn."
Her desperate urgings left a sour taste in his mouth. Of course, she wanted to make love to Quinn, not Darken Rahl. Still, she saw his face as it truly was, and thought him handsome, and she was ready and willing to make love, so it wasn't a total loss. Beside, there would be, he thought, a perverse pleasure in his taking possession of her body, knowing what she was oblivious to – that she was making love to a man she despised.
"We must be sure to stay together, after we reach the resistance," Rahl whispered.
"Yes, yes," Vina agreed, though in her arousal she would probably agree to be whipped naked when they reached the resistance.
"Are they close by? I'm eager to join them."
Vina buried her face in his neck and nipped at the skin there.
"Later, Quinn. They're not far. Betwixt two mountains, under a lake, left of a tree, right of the wind. Stupid, nonsensical directions, but I think we're close. We're headed for the foothills…later, Quinn. Kiss me."
There was a yell. Rahl froze and Vina dropped to the floor, struggling now to get away.
"What was that?" she asked fearfully. There was the sound of a fight, sword against sword, men yelling at each other.
"Wait here," Rahl said, angry for half a dozen reasons at this interruption. If it was a quad of D'Haran guards causing this disruption he'd be having serious words with the leader.
When he reached the camp, Trace was already dead, his axe still grasped in one hand. A man lay nearby, also dead, one arm hacked off by Trace in a last desperate struggle for survival. Rahl would have preferred to have the pleasure of disposing of Trace himself, but there was little time to reflect on that now. Who dared to interfere with his mission?
Two other men were battling Payne, who was cornered by the trees surrounding the camp. Bandits, Rahl thought. Not guards, just a few miserable thieves and robbers who would prey on anyone with anything worth stealing.
Rahl bent and picked up the dead bandit's sword. The other two men were so busy with Payne they hadn't heard his approach. He strode over and grabbed the shirt of the nearest one, hauling him away from Payne with one hand while using the other to bury his sword in the bandit's chest.
Payne looked both surprised and impressed as the bandit fell dead, but his greatest concern was his wounded attempts to beat off the other man.
Seeing a new and more immediate threat, the last bandit smacked Payne across the face with the flat of his sword and advanced on Rahl. He was unaware, of course, that he was about to accost Lord Rahl, who trained daily against his own guards.
Rahl and the bandit exchanged blows. The bandit was a better swordsman than Rahl had given him credit for, and a particularly fierce blow sent him staggering backwards as he tripped over the body of the man he had killed moments before. The bandit took advantage of Rahl's position, leaping forward and grabbing him in a headlock.
Rahl threw back his head, catching his assailant on the chin. The man gave a cry of pain and let go. Rahl stood back to strike a killing blow, but a blur of colour approached far faster than his sword . The bandit looked down and Rahl followed his lead, noticing the arrow embedded in his chest. He looked blindly at Rahl as his hands grasped at the shaft, then he fell, dead to the floor.
"I told you to wait," Rahl snapped, not looking at Vina who was close behind him. He would have bested the bandit in another minute; her interference was unnecessary and emasculating.
"I am to be a fighter too," Vina said through clenched teeth. She bent down then and touched Trace's cheek. The fight went out of her. "Trace…oh, Trace."
Rahl had moved to Payne, but he too was dead, had bled out while the fight had gone on without him. In a moment of compassion that he later told himself had been for Vina's benefit, Rahl pulled Payne's eyelids down over the now sightless eyes. He heard Vina sob.
"I'm sorry," he said and stood, turning to face her.
Through her tears, Vina stared at him and took a step backwards. She was still clutching her bow, and had reloaded, though as far as Rahl could tell, only three bandits had been in the raiding party and there was no further danger.
"Lord Rahl," she said breathlessly.
Rahl's free hand went to his chest, but his questing fingers found only bare flesh. He felt a surge of panic. The amulet must have been wrenched free in the struggle and, in the confusion, he hadn't noticed its absence. For the first time since he'd met her, Vina saw him for who he really was. That she should be stunned was understandable, but it wasn't reverence that made her gasp. He watched as she raised the bow, cold determination written across her features
"Vina," he began, trying to choose the words that would prevent her from making a fatal mistake. There was no time, however. She loosed the arrow and Rahl raised his sword.
The sword deflected the arrow, which flew harmlessly into the undergrowth. He bent and pulled the dagger from his boot, throwing it with an uncanny accuracy. It embedded itself in Vina's chest. She staggered backwards and fell. Rahl approached her, knelt at the dying woman's side.
"You fools!" he railed. "How dare you try to defeat me! I try to contain this chaos, to prevent such malice as these bandits and in return you would try to kill me! You simpletons! You think yourselves great heroes of the resistance and yet you can be killed by a few bandits! How could you have ever stood up to my D'Haran army? You reckless idiots, to take in a stranger and talk openly of the resistance when you know nothing of him!"
Vina let out one last, laboured breath and was gone. Rahl let out a howl of rage.
A search of the camp found his amulet where it had fallen when he had been wrestling with his attacker and he slipped it back around his neck. Clearly this was dangerous country for an unguarded Lord Rahl.
He made his way out of the woods and back to the trail. Three horses were tethered, awaiting owners who would never come back for them, and he took the finest of them, urging it back the way he had come, back towards D'Hara.
He made one stop at the nearest township to tell the people that his companions had been killed along with the bandits. This was greeted with some joy; the bandits were a known problem in the area. A village elder promised to give his companions a decent funeral. This, Rahl reasoned, repaid his debt to the people who had shown him kindness while they were ignorant of his identity. They had turned out to be traitors, of course, but he could rise above the pettiness of letting them rot out in the woods, predated upon by animals.
Rahl made excuses as to why he couldn't stay, and headed onwards. He had one more errand. The resistance must be crushed, no matter what the cost. Vina and the others had suffered some minor misfortunes that they attributed to him, but without the lure of an organised uprising they would have no doubt settled in another village and made decent lives for themselves. The promise that his rightful rule could be overthrown by strength of numbers had surely been the deciding factor in their downfall. The resistance's propaganda, casting him as a villain who could and must be destroyed, had led to Vina's death. Now the resistance would suffer his wrath. That anyone should seek to stand against him was insolence enough, but to corrupt the hearts and mind of others and cause them to commit such treason was appalling.
Rahl didn't rest until he reached the nearest D'Haran outpost He slipped the amulet from his neck and hammered upon the doors of the fort until a surprised and obsequious general let him in.
They pored over maps of the area until Rahl found the most likely site of the resistance camp. Beneath a lake meant south of it, he reasoned, and the other cryptic clues were not as clever as the resistance leader clearly thought – then again, too clever and they'd' never gain any new members, given Payne's lack of intellect, he thought.
With a fresh horse and an accompanying quad to guard him, Rahl made his weary way back home.
Back in the People's Palace once more, Rahl bathed for an hour in water that was hot and scented with rose petals. He dried himself in front of a roaring fire on the finest towels that money could buy. Then he slipped into his favourite red robes, downed a glass of his best wine, and lay on his comfortable bed, staring at the embroidered canopy above his head. He'd grown used to such luxury and spending a number of nights sleeping on the unforgiving ground had sharpened his appetite and appreciation for the comforts that his position entailed.
That night Rahl slept peacefully. Many miles away, the fledgling resistance movement was crushed by the might of the D'Haran army. Rahl's walkabout had been a great success.