Chapter 1

"This is a deer, I can tell by this ridge here" her dark hair hung down around her face as she studied the print, pointing to the edge of dirt. She looked up, her soft brown eyes looking for confirmation. When she got it she stood and gestured up the hillside, "She ran this way."

"She?" Her father asked.

The young girl didn't even falter, her voice full of confidence, "Yes. The impressions are large enough to be adult, but not deep enough to be male. This animal is lighter: Female. She."

Richard smiled, impressed at his daughter's ability. Just twelve years-old, she was certainly a fast learner, not only in this, but in all her studies. Her younger sister, Mia, while a quick student of the forest, didn't take as readily to her Confessor's studies. She was back at the Keep now with Kahlan and Zedd trying to catch up on her work. She'd been very unhappy to learn she would miss out on the afternoon tracking lesson. Richard knew Mia loved the woods as much as he did and he promised to make it up to her. He would take her fishing, just the two of them, once she was caught up in her books.

Taralynn led the way following the tracks, her long, white dress a vibrant contrast to the muted greens and browns of the misty forest. She let out a startled gasp. A woman with long auburn hair was suddenly standing there on the trail, seemingly appearing from nowhere. Richard grabbed Taralynn by the arm, pulling her back, shielding her with his body, his other hand resting on the hilt of his sword. "What do you want, Shota?"

A shock of fright ran through Taralynn at hearing the name. She'd never actually seen a witch woman before, but she'd learned of them in her studies and knew this name well. She knew she was a powerful witch, one with frightening abilities. "Don't be alarmed Seeker" the woman said, "I'm only here to talk to you."

Whenever Shota came to 'talk' it rarely turned out well. With his daughter here, Richard was alarmed indeed and held tight to her arm. Through his grip, Taralynn could feel the witch's magic, the steady stream running strong through her father and bleeding into her where he held tight. She sensed his Han fighting against it. Taralynn knew women like this used magic to bewitch people to get them to do what they wanted. Though she tried, she couldn't fight it like her father could. Warmth flooded her and she felt an odd lure toward this seemingly captivating woman. Her wide eyes took in Shota's long, wavy hair, her almond shaped eyes and elegant features. Taralynn thought she was the most beautiful woman she'd ever seen and found herself wanting to please her. She wondered if her father felt the same way or if his Han was protecting him. She wondered, too, if he realized how tightly he squeezed her arm, so much so it hurt.

When she winced with pain, he released her and held up a stern finger, "Stay here." His hold released, the lure she had felt toward the witch instantly vanished. She wasn't pretty at all Taralynn thought now, relieved that her mother was still the most beautiful woman to ever live. Fear for her father rose in her throat, knowing Shota's magic still flowed into him.

Richard moved closer, his tone terse, "Talk then and be gone." He didn't like her being so near his daughter.

"Relax, Richard. I'm not going to harm your little one. What kind of monster do you think I am?"

His hard glare told her to get on with it.

"Things have been peaceful in the New World, have they not? You're D'Haran Empire has seen many years of harmony. Surely you don't expect it to last forever? The time is coming."

"Time for what?" Why did witch women always speak in abstracts? "What are you talking about?"

Her eyes leveled on his, betraying none of the fear she felt. "Darkness is coming, in a way like never before."

Richard's tolerance was at an end. He cast a quick look toward Taralynn making sure she was still at a safe distance before looking back. "I don't have all day, Shota, out with it."

"Very well." She leaned toward him to speak in a hushed tone so as not to let the young one hear her words, her fingertips resting on his shoulders.

Taralynn held her breath. She didn't like Shota being so near her father, seemingly so familiar. She couldn't hear what the witch said but she watched her father's expression darken.

Richard listened, Shota's words dripping like that of a serpent, "There is only one way to tame the beasts and send them back to whence they came," her eyes slid to his young daughter, "or the darkness will have us all."

In a blink, Richard drew his sword. "What are you talking about?" he seethed through gritted teeth, trying desperately to control his rage.

Shota ignored the blade at her throat. "Killing me won't take it away, Richard. I am merely the messenger and the only one who can show you...guide you. Be careful you do not go too far."

"Show me what?" he growled, on the verge of slicing her through. She had already caused a lifetime of anguish to him and the woman he loved. Now she was threatening his daughter: He would not have it.

The young Confessor knew her father was the Seeker and through her teachings had learned all that that meant. Through her studies, she knew she might even one day be called upon to aid some future Seeker. Though she had learned of the rage and something of how it worked, she'd never once seen her father draw his sword in anger. The power he wielded now terrified her. He was shaking with frightening fury. Tears sprang to her eyes but she bit them back, forcing herself to be brave. As the witch whispered once more in his ear, telling him things she could not hear, Taralynn had no doubt had she not been there, the witch would already be dead.

His rage barely contained, Richard hissed in warning, "If you lay one finger to her, I will kill you dead. Do you understand?" His eyes were wild but Shota didn't flinch. "You can play your games all you want with me, but if you so much as think of toying with one of my daughters, you will die." Richard didn't wait for a response. He slammed his sword back into its scabbard and took Taralynn by the arm, storming off into the woods.

Richard pulled her along for some distance, her feet barely touching the ground as she tried to keep up. Finally he slowed their pace and stopped. Kneeling down in front of her, he pulled her to sit with him. She was crying quietly, no doubt terrified by what had happened. Richard wiped her tears with his thumbs and hugged her to him. "I'm so sorry" he said softly. He hated that she had seen him that way, so fierce and full of rage, but the witch woman had gone too far.

Taralynn thought his big hand on her head felt so strong as he held her to him. It made her feel wonderfully sheltered and safe. She hugged him back, tight around the neck, her tears subsiding. Just hearing his voice, knowing he was himself again, made her feel better. "It's alright daddy, I understand."

He knew she did. She was quite the little woman, strong and brave, so much like her mother. He told her so.

She sat quietly in his lap listening to how proud he was of her as he gently rocked her. Feeling better, she sat up straight, "One day, I'll protect a Seeker, just like mommy."

Dear spirits, he hoped not. Richard hugged her close, hiding his darkening mood. "Let's get you home."

xxx