Choice

The sun had already sunk below the horizon by the time Rachel reached the edge of Doilgheas Wood, and the trees were starting to rustle in the night breeze.

She dismounted and unsaddled Shadow, taking a moment to lay her face against his warm flank, remembering the day he was foaled. Rachel pictured herself tugging on her father's sleeve, trying to make him hurry to the stables.

That little girl was such a stranger to her now.

Rachel led Shadow into the forest, following the cairns that marked the path. After an hour's travel, they came upon a clearing surrounded by massive trees. Tying his reins loosely around a small tree, Rachel tarried for a moment, talking to Shadow as he munched on the tender grass. Finally, afraid that she would lose her resolve, she turned on her heel and trudged into the dark.

It was as if she had stepped into another world. Doilgheas Wood was alive with a much older magic than that which flowed through her veins.

When she was a child, Rachel and her father had come here often. Leaving their horses to graze in the clearing, they would wander together into the ancient forest while he regaled her with tales of the folk who had lived here in the distant past, long before his family had come to this land. She would shiver at the scary parts, and laugh, and pester him with endless questions. Often they didn't talk at all.

Rachel was so Intent on threading her way through the trees that the sound of rushing water caught her by surprise. She hadn't realized she had traveled so far so fast. Through the undergrowth, the sun's reflection glintied against the surface of the stream.

But the placid brook of her memory, fed by the spring rains, was now a swift and treacherous current.

Even years before its beauty had been deceptively gentle, the quiet surface hiding unseen depths.

Stay away from the edge, Rachel.

She started in alarm. For a moment it seemed as if her father walked beside her.

Rachel gazed upstream to where the channel narrowed and was relieved to see her old perch still intact. Many years before, lightning had split a massive oak, toppling half of the trunk across the width of the stream. One of her rare forays into adventure as a girl was running across the makeshift bridgewhen her father's head was turned. But usually she would just stretch out on the grass and let the river's music wash over and around her, lulling her to sleep, knowing that father was close and would always keep her safe.

Rachel sat down a few yards away from the river's edge and closed her eyes, trying to recapture that long-ago sense of peace – if only for a moment.

Something cold and wet touched her cheek. Crying out, Rachel reached up to brush it away but her hand met nothing but air. Twigs cracked underfoot as a wild creature bounded away into the dark.

Rachel pulled her cloak tightly around her as she settled back against a tree. Even though it was midsummer, the night was growing chill. The splashing of the stream and the rustling of the forest were the only sounds to be heard. The full moon drenched the forest in silver.

Rachel felt as if a hand were gripping her throat. How could a place so beautiful make herhurt so much?

If only she could stay here forever, hidden away .

Her parent's voices clamored in her head, shattering her fragile sense of peace.

Mother's voice was filled with anguish and rage.

Father's dripped with bitterness and contempt.

She had caused so much grief, ruining Jonathon's life in a thoughtless flash of anger, destroying her mother's hopes out of childish spite.

Rachel would never have carried out her mother's wishes, but if she had just kept silent, nothing would have changed.

Instead, she had unleashed misery upon them all .

I wish to the Creator you had never been born.

Perhaps Mother had been right .

Maybe Rachel had never been meant to exist.

The dream, Rachel – remember the dream.

She ignored her inner voice, not wanting to remember the cursed dream, or think about the Seeker. Somebody else would have to help him.

She wasn't strong enough, never had been. Soon her father's hopes would be crushed, too. The line of Confessors would end with her. There would be no living descendant to confess Richard when he arrived.

Rachel would never have a daughter to wear her great-grandmother's necklace.

Was that such a terrible thing? Nobody should be able to enslave another with a touch. A Confessor's power didn't come from love, it only called forth a mockery of love.

What Rachel planned this night went against everything she had ever been taught. She would pay a price in the Underworld, but no longer cared.

It was time. She couldn't risk being pulled back to this world with the Breath of Life

As she scrambled to her feet, a crunching noise drew her attention to the riverbank. She slipped closer, heedless of danger, but seeing nothing, hiked toward the oak bridge.

The crackling grew louder, and suddenly, on the opposite side of the stream, a white hart emerged from the safety of the trees. Rachel froze, not wanting to startle him. Over the years, she had heard stories, legends, about such creatures, but had never heard of one being seen.

The stag was magnificent – and mortally wounded. As the beast struggled to the water's edge she could see the jagged shaft of an arrow sticking out of its throat and the trail of blood winding behind him. It was a miracle the hart was still alive, but he would never survive the night.

Stricken with pity, Rachel watched as the lovely animal tried to lower his head to drink, the wooden shaft hindering his movements.

Prodded by an impulse beyond conscious thought, Rachel gathered up her skirt in one hand and stepped up onto the felled oak. Striding across the makeshift bridge, she approached the stag without hesitation, questioning whether she had lost her wits. Despite its injury, the animal had a wicked set of antlers, and even in its weakened condition, could easily gouge her to death.

Raising its head at her advance, the hart stood motionless, gazing at her with eyes dulled by pain.

Feeling as if she were in the midst of a dream, yet somehow knowing that she was fully awake, Rachel reached out and gently patted the warm hide, murmuring soothing words as she stroked him. The animal's muscles tensed under her fingers, then relaxed.

Take it out, Rachel.

Dream-Rachel, strong –Rachel had returned. Maybe she had never left.

I'll kill him, she tried to argue back.

Just do it!

Her fingers slick with blood, Rachel managed to get a firm grip on the arrow with one hand while bracing herself against his body with the other. With a silent prayer to the Creator, she yanked the shaft free in one smooth motion and stepped back.

The hart dropped to its knees, and she was certain he was dying. Then, with a heavy groan, the animal heaved itself up again. Turning his massive neck, he regarded her without fear as the gaping wound left by the arrow began to close. Astounded, she rubbed her fingers lightly over where the injury had been, but could feel nothing but firm skin. Rachel could sense the strength flowing back into the great body. For an endless moment they stared into each other's eyes before the stag turned and crashed back into the forest.

Her hands were still sticky with blood, the arrow clutched in one fist. Blood clotted in the dirt where the stag had tried to drink.

Kneeling down on the river's edge to cleanse her trembling hands, Rachel tried to sort through what had just happened.

"Thank you, girl!" A female voice rang out.

Rachel whirled around in alarm, but there was nobody in sigh.

"Your father is a terrible shot! He wasn't even aiming for my stag, didn't even see him. But the Mord'Sith took down the other one after he had been driven out into the open, so there was nothing I could do. It's a pity – over the past hundred years, I only had the two, and now one is gone."

"Where are you?" Rachel whispered, her eyes darting over her surroundings – the river, the clearing, the bridge, the woods.

Nothing.

"I'm here - under the trees." The woman's form seemed to materialize out of the air, at the very spot where the hart had jumped back into the forest, but it could have been a trick of moon and shadow. "Come to me, girl. I've been watching you."

Rachel obeyed without a qualm. Nearing the canopy of trees she could see that the other woman looked to be her own age, slender, tall, long dark hair, pale skin reflecting the moonlight, carelessly adorned in a homespun dress.

"Who are you? Why have you been watching me?" Rachel asked, surprised by her lack of fear.

"I watch everyone who comes here," the woman answered with a dignity belying her years. "This is my home, and I look after it well. Sadly, my protection does not extend beyond the boundaries of this forest. That is how I lost my other dear one." Her eyes glistened with unshed tears.

"I'm so sorry." Rachel had known nothing about the other stag, but regretted that her father's hunting party had brought about the animal's death." But why do you do this?" Father had men who guarded against poachers, but she had never heard him speak of a woman who lived in the forest.

"I do it because somebody must, and because I always have. What better reason could there be?" Rachel was uncomfortably aware of the woman's keen scrutiny. "As for my name – you can call me Ida. I have others, but that's as good as any. Names can be very powerful, but sometimes they get in the way."

"How long have you lived here…Ida? Do you work for my father? Why haven't I ever seen you"" The questions tumbled out as she struggled to make sense of the woman' s words. Rachel could see now that Ida was older than she first thought. The woman's skin, which had at first appeared so pale and smooth, now looked weathered by the sun and wind, lined by laughter and sorrow. The glossy hair was shot through with white.

Ida smiled, her eyes shining with wry humor. "I answer to no man – or woman. You've never seen me because I haven't wished to be seen. I was here before your father's father was born, or the first of his family. I have been here since the beginning." She shrugged at Rachel's look of disbelief. " I don't expect you to understand. The passage of time means little to me."

"Were you created by the wizards during the war?"

Ida snorted with distain. "Ah, the great Wizard War! I lost so many of my children during that havoc. Tens of thousands were cut down and slain by both sides, all for power and greed." For a moment the woman seemed to gaze inward at something only she could see or remember. "I was here before the wizards, or the Confessors they created. I am content to stay in my world and leave them to theirs."

"I'm a Confessor, "Rachel blurted out. "I wish I weren't, but there's nothing I can do about it, and I've done terrible things." Her voice hitched in a sob, ashamed at lapsing back to her old weak self.

"I know exactly who and what you are, child," Ida said softly, putting her arm around the girl's quivering shoulders and pulling her down to sit beside her. "Just because I live apart from your world doesn't mean I'm ignorant of it."

Rachel bowed her head as Ida continued to talk. Her voice sounded like music.

"I know who your parents are and how they came to be married. I know that Richard Cypher was, and still is, the Seeker, and your uncle. I know that he will re-appear in forty years, and that your mother married Darken Rahl in the hope that her child would return the Seeker to that earlier time when she traveled at his side."

Ida took Rachel's chin in her calloused hand, turning the girl's face to hers.

"I know why you came here tonight, Rachel Rahl."

Rachel tried to turn away from that inscrutable gaze, but Ida's grip was firm. "I have to do it, there's no other way," she muttered.

"There's always another way, child, but even I can't see everything clearly. You did me a good service this night, and I want to do you one in return."

"I didn't do anything, " Rachel argued. "I didn't help the stag. He would have died regardless of anything I did. You are the one that healed him." She wasn't sure of how she knew the latter to be true, only that it was.

Ida's voice was quietly relentless. "But you didn't know I was there. Instead, you tried to help, just as you tried to help Richard find his path. You are braver than you give yourself credit for.

"That was a dream," Rachel retorted. "I didn't understand what I was doing."

"Are you so sure it was only a dream?" Ida queried as she stood up, brushing stray twigs and leaves out of her clothes. "Come with me. I want to show you something." She stepped onto the riven oak spanning the river, walking nimbly to the center, then turned and gestured to Rachel.

"Here! Don't be afraid – I won't let you fall."

Rachel followed, tentative and awkward. She had run across this plank only moments before, but then her attention had been fixed on the animal's plight, now she was aware of narrowness of the span and the swiftness of the current. She clung to Ida's steadying hand as the other woman's helped her sit down.

For a few minutes both sat without speaking, listening to the rush of the river beneath their feet. Rachel could feel the cool spray of water against her skin. She no longer questioned what was happening or why.

She just waited.

Then Ida stretched out her hand before her, moving it in slow circles above the river's surface. A fine mist began to rise around them as the current slowed, eddied and then pooled, becoming as smooth as still as glass. The forest went silent around them.

"Tell me, Rachel," Ida asked, her attention seemingly focused on the river, "why do you think your life is so unimportant?"

"You don't understand!" Rachel protested, feeling weak and selfish. "I have failed everyone – Mother, Father, Jonathon. I have failed myself. I can't stand the way they look at me. I can't stand knowing that my parents despise me. I hate what I've done to Jonathon, but at least I can still free him."

"I can't do it anymore. I'm weak, and I'm tired, and I just want it to stop - the demands, the anger, the expectations that I can never fulfill, all the betrayals." For the first time in her life Rachel didn't hold back. Tears streamed down her face as she gave vent to the anger and fear dammed up over the years.

"You feel weak and hopeless, Rachel, but have you ever imagined how your mother must felt on the eve of her marriage?"

Stung by Ida's betrayal, Rachel started to get up, tottering precariously on the ancient limb.

The older woman caught her hand. "Rachel, sit back down and listen to me. I'm not saying that your mother was right, or that I agree with what she did. But don't you think it's possible that she considered taking her own life?"

"No, I don't think it's possible," Rachel snapped, surprised by the bitterness in her voice. "Once she learned that Richard was still alive, Mother had no doubts. She had a plan and nothing was going to get in her way. Father would have loved her if she had ever given him the chance."

"But yet she must have known that she would probably be dead before Richard arrived," Ida mused. She was studying the palm of her hand as if pondering some deep mystery. "So many things could have gone wrong – did go wrong - for her. But she took the chance anyway."

"Why are you on her side?" Rachel cried. She had thought Ida was trying to help her. "Don't you know what she wanted me to do?"

"She wanted you to help Richard," the forest woman said with maddening calm.

"Not just help him. It wasn't enough to just help him. Mother wanted Richard back. I was supposed to sacrifice myself and father so she could be with the man she loved. Our lives didn't matter. Her grandchildren's lives didn't matter." Rachel almost sobbed with frustration. She wanted to pound her fists against the wood. Why did they have to talk about her mother?

Ida regarded her thoughtfully. "Yes, your mother's plan was desperate and foolish. Even if I could justify her reasoning, no sane person would have carried out her wishes. She let her own despair and need get mixed up with prophecy, and refused to consider other possibilities. Her inflexibility could only lead to grief - for everyone."

Rachel stared back at her, somewhat mollified but still confused.

Ida let out a deep sigh, running slender fingers through her tangled hair. "Rachel, whether you like it or not, Richard and Cara arrive in forty years. Your father will almost certainly be dead by then. If you die tonight, what kind of welcome will Richard receive? What sort of land will he find? I have seen things – visions of what could happen that terrify me. Whatever your feelings, Richard is your uncle, he is the Seeker and he carries the Rahl bloodline. While that means very little to me, it means a great deal to the outside world."

Richard! Always Richard!

Rachel tried to push her resentment aside. Ida was only stating the truth. The dream she had tried so hard to forget over the past day sprang vividly to mind. She again saw Richard standing in front of her, heard the words spoken between them, once more felt the damp chill of the crypt and remembered her hand passing through the doorframe.

"I was dead, Ida - in my dream," she said with sudden clarity. "I was afraid to walk into the crypt with Richard. I didn't let myself think about why, but now I know. When I was talking to Richard I was already buried there with my parents." Rachel fought to control the panic rising in her chest. "And my father's throne room was empty, deserted. There was no king, no queen….there were no children." She looked over at her companion with a dawning realization. "But Ida, I wasn't thinking about killing myself when I had the dream. That didn't happen until after I confessed Jonathon. Doesn't that mean when Richard arrives, I'll be dead anyway?"

Ida didn't answer right away, staring into the distance. Finally, she spoke, the words coming slowly. "I know what you saw, child, I know what you said. Now I want to show you what I have seen. Are you willing to look?" She turned to Rachel, her eyes gentle.

Her heart pounding against her chest, Rachel nodded. She had ventured too far into the unknown to turn back.

Ida closed her eyes for a few seconds as if gathering some force from deep within herself, then she stretched out her hands over the glistening mirror of water.

For a moment nothing happened, but then images began to swirl and form on the surface, a montage of the past.

Mother, young and radiant with hope, was holding a newborn babe in her arms as Father looked on, his happiness reflecting hers.

Ten-year old Rachel glanced up at her parents with worry, trying to figure out how to make them like each other.

Father was giving Rachel her grandmother's pendant, his expression soft with tenderness.

Rachel was reeling with sickness after performing her first confession.

Mother's eyes glowed with determination as she explained to Rachel why she had been born.

The three of them stood in her mother's rooms, Father's face twisted with bitter triumph hiding betrayal and pain, Mother's with grief, rage and anger, while Rachel retreated from them both in horror.

"I already know all of this, Ida." She didn't want to live through it all again. "There is no mystery to what's already happened."

"Be patient, child," the forest woman intoned as the reflections of the past whorled into nothingness. "Now see the future caused by your self-destruction."

The river turned blood-red beneath Rachel's feet as visions emerged of her father gone mad with grief and rage.

Father was clutching Rachel's body against his breast, his hands dark with gore. Mistress Alix and Jonathon lay motionless at his feet, their throats slit;

Father was slashing out at everyone around him in his fury– Mother, Alice, Jonathon, Margaret, even poor Shadow - all murdered.

Father was huddled in his library for days, months, years, bent over arcane scrolls, seeking out wizards and sorcerers for a potion to prolong his life, desperate to find a way to rip Orden from Richard's grasp when he arrived.

Father snapping her sister's neck as soon as she was born, leaving Mistress Theta to bleed to death.

Father slumped on his lonely throne, while the land descended into chaos and blood.

Father dying alone, aged and decrepit, abandoned, as his men and Mord'Sith fought for dominance of a war-torn country.

Cara slaying Richard with an agiel to the heart within moments of their arrival forty years hence.

A barren landscape stretching for endless leagues as civil war ripped apart the last remnant of the peace her parent's marriage had secured.

"Stop it. Stop it! Make it stop!" Rachel screamed. Her fingernails clawed into the wood as she tried to crawl away from the tableau of devastation that was already dissolving into the depths.

"I dreamed you would come here tonight, Rachel, and I knew what you planned to do. These visions came to me, I did not summon them, and they are the same now as they were then. Nothing has changed." Ida's voice was deep with sorrow. "Even my forest will be destroyed in the bloodbath to come."

"What are you asking me to do?" Rachel sobbed. "I can't change what will happen. I've never been able to control anything in my life."

"Don't be a fool!" Ida barked, for the first time losing patience. It was strange how much the woman sounded like Rachel's dream-self. "You can choose to live. You can convince your father that Richard's destiny is to succeed him, not to destroy him. You can protect your sister. You can understand that your life, regardless of how short it might be, can still change everything."

Ida's voice became gentler. "Rachel, you already know this. In your dream, you rejected the course each of your parents had planned for you and for Richard. Your uncle doesn't belong in the past. That path is forever closed to him."

The woman grasped Rachel's hands in her own. "Don't you see, Rachel? Everything depends on what you decide. You are the bridge. Not a bridge to the past – that was your mother's delusion - but Richard's bridge to the future. Without you, he'll never find his way."

Regardless of how short it might be. The words echoed in Rachel's ears.

"And if I do what you ask, is there any way to know that things will turn out differently?" Rachel asked, gazing intently into Ida's eyes. "If my life is going to be so short, even if I don't end it tonight, won't everything I've just seen still happen?"

"I can only see what will occur if you die tonight, child." Ida sounded tired. She had aged further, her hair now gone white, her face furrowed with wrinkles.

"Because I need to know – I have a right!" Rachel insisted. "Nothing can be worse than what I've already seen, and if you want me to believe you, I have to have some hope."

"Very well, child" Ida said wearily, stretching a withered arm out over the water. "I have pushed my strength almost to the limit this night, I don't know if I can do anything more. What may come is as unknown to me as it is to you."

Rachel said nothing, staring at her own reflection in the liquid mirror. For what seemed like an eternity, nothing happened, and then the river once again began to eddy and flow, the current gaining speed as it resumed its journey to the sea.

Now she would never know.

"I'm sorry, Rachel. There's nothing more I can do." Ida was so hunched over she could barely struggle up from her arthritic knees. Her voice sounded feeble and weak, hardly more than a whisper.

Rachel helped the old woman to her feet. Wracked by despair, she tried to summon up words, but didn't know what to say. She put her arm around the frail shoulders as they trudged over the bridge.

Once their feet touched the ground, Ida's strength gave out and she sagged into Rachel's embrace. Supporting the woman's weight, the girl half-carried her faltering companion over to the spot where Rachel had first seen her. Settling Ida against the giant roots, Rachel knelt beside her, unsure of what to do next.

Let me help you, Rachel.

Let me show you what you want to know.

Startled, Rachel glanced at Ida to see if she had spoken, but the old woman was fast asleep.

Don't look at Ida.

Look inside, Rachel. Close your eyes and see me.

I'm part of you. I've always been part of you.

It was dream-Rachel.

Let go of your fear. Let go and I will show you.

Trust me.

Hopeless and too exhausted to argue, Rachel shut her eyes – and let go as the future swept over her.

XxXxXxXxXxXx

Unafraid, Rachel stood in her father's library, arguing, cajoling, persuading. His expression was tight with frustration and disbelief. She was telling him she would never allow Richard to be confessed, that she would refuse the Power of Orden.

He didn't want to listen, but she refused to give up. Someday he would understand about Richard. She was sure of it.

oOo

Rachel sat at her mother's bedside, dabbing a moist cloth against Kahlan's forehead as she struggled for breath. Sunlight streamed through the window, but brought little comfort as she watched her mother die. Alice sobbed behind her, leaning over to close her mistress's eyes.

oOo

Rachel was scribbling furiously in a journal, recording everything she could remember about her encounter with Richard and Cara. She was frustrated that Father was so stubborn, but she wasn't going to give up. Someday he would understand. She was certain of it.

oOo

Rachel held her baby sister in her arms, marveling at the tiny, perfect fingers and toes. Her father refused to have anything to do with the child, but had grudgingly allowed her to care for the child. When Rachel asked how he could love one daughter but not the other, he didn't respond.

After much deliberation she had chosen a name. Amanda – worthy of being loved.

oOo

Rachel was gazing up at Jonathon, her husband, as he regarded her with love-struck eyes. She tried to quell the sadness in her heart at what he could have been, and resolved that she would make a life for both of them. It was her duty, and she owed him more than she could ever repay. Together, they would love and raise her sister Amanda.

They would be a family.

oOo

Rachel struggled in childbirth, wracked by pain that left her gasping. Finally, exhausted from labor, she fell back against the pillows, only to see the healer shake her head with sorrow. The child had come too soon.

Her husband and father comforted and cossetted her, but her father's eyes were dark with worry when he told her there would be no more children.

oOo

Rachel leaned over the table, urging her father to consider the future, trying to convince him to prepare for Richard. His face was set stubbornly, but he didn't turn away. He was starting to listen.

oOo

Rachel was fighting to breathe as the flames licked through the curtains, the tapestries and finally the bedding. She heard Jonathon calling her name, but she couldn't answer. The smoke filled her throat as the world turned white.

oOo

Father's face was lined with grief and defeat as he stroked the cheek of the marble effigy. He leaned over to kiss Rachel's likeness before leaving the crypt.

oOo

Jonathan and Miranda were getting married. He wore the insignia of a general, but that was immaterial on this day of joy.

Arriving at their new home, Jonathon laughed as he swung first Miranda, then a giggling Amanda, over the threshold to start their life together as a family. Jonathon was the only father the little girl had ever known.

oOo

Father sat alone in his study, lost in thought, as he turned the pages of Rachel's journal.

He was worried about what would happen after his death. Richard wouldn't arrive for another thirty-five years.

Would his brother have the slightest idea of how to rule? Would he be wise enough to seek Cara's loyalty?

Heaving a resigned sigh, he sent a retainer to fetch General Egremont. It was time to tell Jonathon about Richard.

oOo

Jonathon listened as his king told him everything that must be done, nodding in solemn agreement. He would serve his king as loyally as his father ever had, even beyond death. He had once made a promise to Rachel, and he had never forgotten it, even after he had been released from the fog of confession.

He owed it to Rachel, to his king and to Amanda.

He would not fail.

oOo

Father dropped the quill for a moment to rub at his eyes. It was getting harder for him to see but he could show no sign of weakness.

His journal lay open on the table in front of him. This book and Rachel's were secrets known only to himself and General Egremont.

He longed for his bed but there was still so much more to write. With grim amusement he wondered if Richard would be willing to read anything written by the monster, Darken Rahl.

There was still twenty-five years left. It seemed so impossibly far away.

oOo

It was Amanda's wedding day. Dancing with her father she laughed at his efforts to perform the intricate steps. He smiled back at her, basking in her happiness.

Afterward, content to lay her head against her husband's shoulder, she absently caressed one of her wedding gifts. The amber pendant felt so warm under her fingers.

Despite her father's high position, Amanda had only seen the king from afar, and didn't understand why he had given her such a great honor.

It looked very old. She wondered who had once worn it.

oOo

Father could scarcely make out the words on the page. Not only were his eyes failing, but his joints were so swollen and sore that he could barely hold the quill in his shaking hand. His writing had become too cramped to read. He would soon have to start dictating the instructions to Egremont.

The book wouldn't do Richard any good if he couldn't read it.

oOo

Father had ordered everyone but Jonathon out of his chambers. Sheer willpower had carried him into his late eighties, but there was little time left to him.

Once they were alone, Jonathon drew a chair up against the bed, ready to listen to his master's final words.

It was time to tell Egremont about Cara and her son. The general would have to know everything before Richard arrived, even the darkest secret of all.

oOo

Jonathon stood watch beside the crypt. His king had been buried only days before and Egremont had been named Lord Protector.

He would need all the strength at his command to hold the kingdom together over the next seven years.

He prayed that he would prove worthy. He hoped that Richard would listen – and read.

As he turned to leave, Jonathon paused beside Rachel's effigy. For a few moments the years dropped away from his face as he touched the cold marble. It was hard to believe that she had been gone for over twenty-five years.

oOo

Magic flashed over the mountainside of West Granthia where Jonathon waited and watched. He had not been certain of the exact day so had been camped here for weeks. He missed his wife, his children, his grandchildren. Maybe when things were in order he could spend more time with them.

With a crack of thunder two figures appeared in a glare of light.

Finding himself surrounded by soldiers, Richard Cypher Rahl instinctively reached for the sword that wasn't there. It took four men to restrain a snarling, kicking Cara from lunging at the Seeker.

His king had insisted that Richard would need her, and Jonathon would obey. She would not be hurt.

Stepping up to Richard with brisk assurance Egremont held his fist to his heart and dropped to his knees. His men followed his lead. Richard and Cara could only gape in bewilderment.

The next Lord Rahl had arrived.

oOo

Richard knelt by Kahlan's tomb, his face streaked with tears. Cara stood at attention by his side, no longer restrained. She stared impassively at the tomb which held the father of her child.

Neither of them glanced at Rachel's effigy.

She meant nothing to them.

oOo

Jonathon was trying to get Lord Rahl to see reason. Richard wanted vengeance for Kahlan, not seeming to comprehend that everyone at fault had died years before.

Screaming a curse, he had thrown Father's journal at Egremont, saying that he would never do the bidding of a monster.

He refused to believe that Darken Rahl had been his brother.

Richard wanted no part of being Lord Rahl.

Jonathon picked up the book and handed it back to his king.

He was a patient man.

oOo

Richard stood by Kahlan's tomb, mournful and pensive, his brother's journal in his hand. He was still staggering under the burden of a duty he had never anticipated, and for which he was totally unprepared.

He would never understand how or why the man he most hated had come to the point of recognizing Richard as his heir.

Reluctantly, he thumbed back to the first page of the journal and started to read.

Dear Brother -

oOo

A roar of acclamation greeted Lord Richard Rahl and First Mistress Cara as they strode out on the balcony of the People's Palace. Richard seemed uncomfortable in his royal garb but acknowledged his people with a smile. Stumbling a bit over the first few words, he gained confidence as he spoke of a new era for his countrymen.

His posture still straight and proud despite his advancing years, Jonathon watched as his efforts were finally rewarded.

He had fulfilled his duty to a king, and to a girl long dead.

Richard would never know about Rachel's efforts on his behalf, and might not have thanked her if he had.

There were some secrets that could never be shared.

XxXxXxXxXxXx

At the sight of the small crumpled form lying in the grass, Darken felt his heart jump into his throat. He had known where to search, but had feared that Rachel's body might have been swept downstream if she had drowned herself, but maybe she had found another way, or perhaps she had been killed.

"Alix – Over here! Now!"

The Mord'Sith was hard on his heels, with Jonathon close behind, as Darken tore over the gnarled bridge. Scooping Rachel up in his arms, he crushed her to his breast, where she stirred - warm, breathing, alive.

At that moment, nothing else mattered.

"What were you doing? What were you doing?" he whispered into her ear, barely coherent, pressing frantic kisses against her cheeks, her brow, the crown of her head.

"It's all right, father. I'm fine," Rachel said softly. "I'm not afraid anymore."

Drawing away slightly, Darken cupped his daughter's face in his hands, a question in his eyes that could not be uttered. He had never asked forgiveness from anyone, and even now couldn't force himself to say the words. Rachel was a Confessor. She would understand.

She smiled at him and nodded, then peered over his shoulder. "Father, there was an old woman who helped me last night. Is she still asleep?"

"There's nobody here, Rachel. You were alone when we found you." Darken gestured for Alix and Jonathon for check the surroundings. Both came back in short order, shaking their heads. Jonathon couldn't take his eyes off Rachel and resumed his hovering stance behind them. It was very irritating, but Darken supposed he would have to learn to put up with it.

"There's nobody else here, my Lord, " Alix reported. "But I did find this. It looks as if one of our quarry escaped yesterday." She showed him a broken arrow shaft, stained dark with blood. "Someone must have removed it."

Darken waved her off. He wasn't interested in the hunt.

"Father, I'd like to look for her myself. I want to thank her." Rachel spoke with a quiet assurance he had never heard before. "Then I want to go home. There are things we need to talk about." She regarded him steadily.

That was certainly an understatement.

Reluctant to let his daughter out of his sight again, Darken grudgingly loosened his embrace and watched as she marched toward the forest. "Don't go too far, Rachel."

Her voice wafted back to him. "Don't worry, father. I'm not a little girl anymore."

Rachel scoured the line of trees, but Ida seemed to have vanished into the mist. Disappointed, but not surprised, she wondered if the woman would ever make herself known again.

Retracing her steps, she pondered over the loss of the burden that had haunted her since birth.

Fear had been Rachel's constant companion since birth. She had always been afraid of displeasing one parent by loving the other, afraid of disappointing them both, afraid of faltering in her duty to her mother, afraid of angering her father, afraid of her own powers. Every decision in her life had been driven by fear.

Until, with Ida's help, she had faced the demon and cut the chains that weighed her down.

Rachel knew that grief and pain lay in wait and it saddened her, but there was also joy. There would be days when her old enemy stalked her again, but now she could see the hope that shone beyond.

Her thoughts turned to the Seeker and how their lives had revolved around each other, even though they would never meet.

Richard would always be more of an idea than a man to her, and could never be her only reason for living. There were others who needed her just as much, and on whom his future also depended.

Rachel loved her father, as capricious, selfish and cruel as she knew him to be. She knew he cared for her and that he craved her love in return. He needed her help in so many ways.

She loved Jonathon, marveling at his courage and loyalty. He, more than anyone, would give up his life for Richard, and would never be thanked for it.

Rachel would never bear a living child, but she would have a sister to love, even if father rejected her. Maybe, in his heart, he knew that Amanda would have a happier life away from him.

As if summoned by her thoughts, his voice sliced through the dawn "Rachel, It would be nice if we had the luxury of waiting for you to explore, but I do have three territories to rule." She smiled as how quickly he had reverted to form.

"I'm coming, father," she called, picking up her pace.

What about your mother, Rachel?

Startled, Rachel glanced over at the trees. "Ida? Is that you?"

Can you finally forgive your mother?

She blinked back sudden tears. Why had she always found it so hard to love her mother? Even as a small girl she had always run to her father first. Had she felt the coldness even then?

The distance?

Was that why it had been so hard to forgive herself?

Let it go.

"I forgive you, mother, "she whispered, and the last link of her chains fell away.

"Rachel" her father's voice came from the distance, edged with concern. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine. I just wanted to say good-bye."

It was time to go home.

The End


A/N: Thanks to all of you who have read and followed this story. I appreciate each and every one of you.

Flidhais (Ida) is the name of a Celtic woodland goddess. Traditionally, she sometimes assumes the form of a doe.

The white hart or stag is prominent in mythology and folklore. To the ancient Celts, the animal was a symbol of doom, a messenger sent from the Otherworld. The sight of a white hart was thought to be a sign that a profound change was about to occur in a person's life. In Authurian legend, the sighting of a white hart was a signal that Arthur and his knights were to set out on a new quest.