Disclaimer: Legend of the Seeker (TV) belongs to ABC Studios/Disney. No copyright infringement is intended. This is fanfiction, written solely for love of the show.
Author's Notes: Written for legendland's alt big bang for the prompt 'sun' and the theme of 'longing'. Title from 'Poems On The Naming of Places' by William Wordsworth.
Thanks go to Aithine for the beta.
Summary: The Morrow Woods were dark and deep, old beyond reckoning. The age of them was all she could feel and all she could hear was whispering leaves rustling together, pressing her down.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep
- Robert Frost
The Morrow Woods were dark and deep, old beyond reckoning. The trees themselves were gnarled with age, twisting up into the sky; the moss covered them so deeply that Kahlan's fingers sank into it whenever she paused for breath and leant against them. And she paused frequently, watching Richard leap ahead. It was almost as though he didn't feel the weight of the woods when the age of them, the feel of ancient trees, was all she could feel and when all she could hear was whispering leaves rustling together, pressing her down.
Kahlan envied him that grace, that ease as she followed him along the barely trodden paths that he picked out from the undergrowth, ones she would never have been able to find without him leading the way. It was warm - there was very little breeze, not this far in, not with the trees growing as closely packed as they were and blocking out the sky; what little breeze there was, was swallowed by those leaves. It left the air standing thick and still, sweet with the scent of pollen and with nothing to stir it and send it on its way. Under the oldest trees, those spiralling the farthest up into the gloom above them, the little light that reached the ground was shaded green, cool and tranquil, like being underwater, down so deep; that had to be why Kahlan sometimes found herself panting for breath. Their pace was too slow to cause it, but the sense of history, the age of the living forest around them, hemming them in... Yes, that might be enough to steal her breath away.
The towering trees and tangled undergrowth made Kahlan nervous, although she could never share that with Richard; he fit here in a way that Kahlan didn't and probably never would. She'd grown too used to the spires of Aydindril; they, too, had spiralled up to the heavens, but they'd never blocked out the sun. Instead, they'd shone in the sunlight, gleaming white marble and rose coloured stone, rich and warm against pale blue summer skies that stretched forever. At night, when the sun had sunk below the horizon and shaded the sky with red and purple and gold, the many lights in the towers had shone out into the darkness, rivalling the stars for sheer brilliance, like a thousand fireflies in a hundred different shades flickering above her.
But she couldn't see the stars now, or the sun, even though she knew they had to be up there above them; the trees grew so sturdily, so profusely the further they moved into the forest, that night now was only marked by the gathering gloom, which thickened until she could no longer see her hands in front of her face.
And Aydindril had fallen to Darken Rahl. The woods wouldn't care - not about such short, human lives. The woods were here long before Aydindril; they would be here long after Aydindril had crumbled to dust.
The thought wasn't a comfortable one and she shivered, picking up her pace to follow Richard. She could match him step for step through fields and valleys, but he moved so quickly here that she found herself floundering; pride would not let her ask him to slow down just to accommodate her. He would if she asked, she knew, and be shamefaced that he hadn't noticed, that she'd had to ask in the first place, but she still held her tongue.
It wasn't just pride, not entirely. It was watching him in his element, stepping easily over half-hidden stumps with a small smile gracing his face, as light-hearted as the boy she'd first met, the one he'd been before she'd come through the boundary and stolen his innocence away. He wouldn't see it like that, of course, not Richard. He'd never blame her, or Zedd, for bringing a howling storm to his door, but sometimes - for his sake - she wished he'd been able to live his life the way he'd probably always thought that he would. As a wood's guide, with a family, with people he loved around him. Safe.
He may have been born to be Seeker, but he was born for this, as well. He left no trace of his passing that Kahlan could see as he moved swiftly and silently through the bracken that covered the forest floor. Richard would disagree with that as well, of course, if she was foolish enough to share the thought. He'd take her hand and guide her back along the path they'd just taken, pointing out each broken twig, each bruised stalk, that told their story - that Richard and Kahlan had travelled this path together.
That thought was more comfortable, and it shouldn't be. More than once, over the past few days, she'd felt herself weaken, swaying towards him with the words already forming on her lips just so that he would wrap his fingers around hers, his eyes alight with the joy of sharing. And sometimes, when she was at her very weakest, she closed her eyes, stealing one brief moment of time for herself, an indulgence she couldn't spare, and thought of it, how it would feel. How she would feel. It was easy to imagine Richard's hand in hers, the feel of the calluses on the pads beneath his fingers as their palms pressed together. His hand would be warm and solid, and the skin over his knuckles would be rough if her thumb drifted across them, a caress she could never permit herself, not anywhere outside her head.
She could never hold his hand like that, not with a sweetheart's touch the way she ached to. Even the ache was new; she'd held herself apart from others for so long, unable to reach out, not even knowing it was possible to have another walk next to her, touch her without fear. And just that - just having Richard look her straight in the eye, smile at her without any of the trepidation she was used to - made her giddy with possibilities, like a foolish young girl.
She'd never been that young, but with Richard she was beginning to fear that she could be that foolish.
"Are you tired?"
Richard's voice started her out of her reverie, and she stared at him blankly for a moment, feeling the colour begin to rise to her face.
"No," she said, and the sound came out low and breathy, swallowed by the sounds of the leaves. Or perhaps that was the blood rushing in her ears as he stepped closer, his head tilted and a small, concerned frown on his face. If she reached out now, she could touch him. Place her hand firmly in the centre of his chest and feel his heart beat, steady and sure, underneath her fingertips.
"We can stop if you like. We've made good time, and there's no sign of Zedd."
Her face burned as she swayed towards him, caught on the cusp between protest and submitting to the siren call of his concern. It would be so easy to give in.
It would destroy him.
She pulled back, letting her fingers uncurl and hang limply by her side. "I'm fine," she said, summoning up a smile for him from somewhere. But he'd told her more than once that she wasn't a good liar; he hesitated for a moment, that frown still gracing his face, before he sighed and settled his pack more firmly on his shoulders.
"If you say so," he said, giving her another smile, soft and sweet like his smiles usually were, but shaded, this time, with worry for her.
"We should go." Again, she resisted the urge to reach out and touch him, the temptation too great to give into. "Zedd might already be waiting for us somewhere up ahead."
Richard snorted, for once not pushing her even as his eyes lingered, holding hers. "And if he is, no doubt he'll be complaining about the fact he hasn't had supper yet."
She had to smile at the comment - it summed Zedd up so perfectly - and after a second Richard smiled back, not soft and sweet, not this time, but brilliant, as bright as any sun.
"Come on," he said, slowing his pace until he was walking next to her. The path they walked along now was narrow, barely more than a furrow through the undergrowth; every now and then her hand brushed against his arm or his hip touched against hers, a gentle pressure she didn't lean into, not entirely. She should slow her steps and let him get ahead again, or speed them up and let him fall behind.
She did neither; she walked next to him, her steps measured and steady, and her heart racing.
The trees began to thin out, sunlight slipping through the canopy to dapple Richard's hair with gold. He paused for a second, tilting his head again as though he was listening to the songs the birds were singing, a faint trilling in the background. When she paused, it wasn't to hear them; it was to watch him, feeling the need for him singing through her veins.
"There's a clearing up ahead."
"How do you know?"
He smiled again, but the skin around his eyes creased as he struggled with how to explain it to her. "I just know. It's... It sounds different. The forest. The birds, I suppose. As though... it echoes." And then he shrugged, his smile taking on a slightly sheepish air. "Or maybe that it doesn't echo in the same way. I can't really explain it." He ducked his head, the way he did when she teased him a little and he would smile so sweetly about it until her heart ached with it. "But we can stop for a while, if you like."
"I'm not tired."
"No," he said, his eyes tracking across her face, probably seeing everything she wasn't hiding very well. "But I think I am."
She conceded defeat with a sound that was half sigh and half snort, and this time when his hand brushed against hers as they walked, she curled her fingers and let her knuckles press against his for a moment, as close to a caress as she dared. And she should have trusted Richard in this, as she did in everything; he was right. It wasn't long before the quality of light changed, from green and deep to yellow and gold, sparkling dust motes dancing in the air, stirred by the faintest of breezes.
The clearing was small, carpeted green with grass and thick moss that sprung back as soon as they stepped off it. And in the centre, the reason for this brief respite from the gloom of the deep woods - the remains of a vast tree, bleached bark rearing up from the forest floor like the bones of some ancient sea creature washed ashore.
Richard stopped in the centre of the clearing, closing his eyes and turning his face up to the sun. His face was smoothed out, all of the lines that their journey - that his quest - had begun to map there vanishing in the warmth of the light that bathed them.
She kept her eyes open and watched him, drinking in the sight of him the way that the plants around them drank in the sunlight and letting it warm her, right down deep. Something tight in her uncurled, turning towards it, as powerless as any flower was not to bloom.
Richard opened his eyes again, his expression peaceful. "We can stay a while," he said and it wasn't a question, not quite, even though he turned towards her again. "It's as good a place as any to wait for Zedd to catch us up, don't you think?"
She couldn't find the words, the sun's warmth - and the warmth of Richard's presence - drying them all up until all she could do was smile, a pale imitation of Richard's. "Yes," she said. "We can stay a while." And Richard smiled again, so brightly that she swayed towards him, knowing that her face had to be reflecting at least some of that brilliance back at him. It had to, because she was powerless to resist.
"Here," he said, leaning in towards her, his nimble fingers reaching up towards her hair. When he pulled back, he held a dandelion seed gently between his finger and thumb, the bright, white tufts pulsing gently as he twisted it. He brought his fingers to his mouth and let it go as he puffed out a breath; she watched as it sailed up into the air again, dancing on the breeze, launched to a new life.
Richard watched it go, too; her eyes were inevitably drawn back to him and it was easy to find joy in his simple pleasure, even without looking for it.
"You love this, don't you? Being here."
She hadn't intended to speak but the words tumbled out of her and Richard's head tilted to one side again as he looked back at her. "Don't you?" he asked softly. "No D'Haran soldiers lurking in the trees. No shadrin to slay." He reached up again to smooth out her hair, his fingers lingering there for just a moment as his expression grew more sombre. "No dark wizards."
For a second - for a split second - her control slipped and she reached up to catch his fingers in hers, holding them for a beat too long as she stared into his eyes, knowing that nothing was hidden in hers. "I like the no D'Haran soldiers part," she said, finally letting go. His fingers slid away slowly and his dark eyes were serious, now, everything in them that they couldn't say.
"Yes," he said. "I love it here." He smiled again, but she didn't miss the things that flashed through his eyes, caught by the sun but for once not warmed by it. Old pains and new regrets, not all of which were down to her.
The Morrow Woods were dark and deep, trees twisting up to the sky and older almost than she could bear, weighing her down; she wasn't like Richard, a child of the woods and the dales, but here, standing in the sunlight with Richard, for Richard, she could bear it.