Chapter 4

The answer, when it came, arrived in such an unexpected guise that Zedd thought that the Creator's intervention must have been at work.

Almost forty-eight hours had passed since Zedd had been left to his own devices. He had tried strolling to Darken's chambers as if he were expected, only to be met by four grim-faced officers at the end of the corridor. The wizard could not get within twenty yards of the prince's rooms.

Refusing to admit defeat, he strode grimly to the great palace library in the dim hope of finding an ancient scroll of Rahl magic which could be used to break through the barriers. Pouring over tome after tome, he lost track of time, and as the candle guttered out, he slumped forward over the table in a troubled sleep .

He was roused by a calloused hand gripping him by the shoulder. "Wizard – wake up. There isn't much time."

"Huh! What? Who's there?" Zedd jolted upright in his chair, bleary-eyed, knocking over the brass candleholder, which was only prevented from clattering to the marble floor by the same hand that had shaken him awake.

"Quiet now! No noise." It was a familiar voice, a voice accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed.

As Zedd's vision cleared and his eyes adjusted to the dark, he could make out the form, then the face.

Captain Egremont had pulled up a chair next to him, and was leaning in so close that Zedd could feel his breath against his cheek.

"I didn't think I would ever find you," the captain growled. "This place is too damn big and full of hidey-holes. I always like to have a clear view of my surroundings."

For the life of him, Zedd couldn't grasp why Egremont would be searching him out. Gruff and inscrutable, the captain was almost always at Lord Rahl's right hand, impeccably loyal.

"What do you want, captain? As you can see, I was doing some research and fell asleep."

Egremont wasn't interested in Zedd's study habits.

"Lord Rahl is an impatient man," he declared without preamble, his face as expressionless as always. "When he orders something done, he expects results."

A quiver of unease crept up Zedd's spine as he began to suspect what the captain might be hinting at. "What is it that Lord Rahl wants done so quickly?" he asked, taking a gamble. "I know he's worried about the prophecy – "

"Not just the prophecy, Wizard. Lord Rahl is not pleased with the son he already has, and wants a new one. He desires a son he believes will give him complete control of the three territories and who carries no weight of prophecy." The captain was impatient to get to the heart of the matter. "Lord Rahl is not willing to wait for the birth of your grandchild. I have my orders directly from the king. Darken Rahl is to be killed tonight."

Zedd felt a great weight pressing against his ribs. He had known Darken's fate was grim, but had assumed that Panis would wait until Taralynn had birthed a healthy male heir before harming his oldest child.

"He doesn't want his hands on the deed, says he doesn't need to see the body, says it would be better if there was no trace. He trusts me to carry out his wishes to the letter." The captain's voice carried no inflection, but Zedd thought he saw a flicker of something close to contempt in the man's eyes. "Lord Rahl knows that if he orders me to kill his son, then I will kill his son." Egremont's disgust was now unmistakable.

"And – " Zedd urged, hope springing alive in his heart.

"I don't murder children," Captain Egremont stated flatly. "Certainly not children who name their pets after me." A ghost of a smile touched his lips, than vanished so quickly that Zedd thought he must have imagined it.

Egremont fixed his eyes on Zedd's, by sheer strength of will commanding him to listen. "I will have no part in harming the boy, but Darken Rahl will disappear tonight and can never be seen or mentioned again. It must be as if he never existed." The soldier raised a brow as he studied Zedd. "Lord Rahl has become quite suspicious of you, Wizard. I don't think he'll be too disappointed that I had to kill you when you tried to protect the boy. Do you understand me?"

Zedd understood. He tried to push thoughts of his daughter aside to deal with the immediacy of the danger.

"Then come, Wizard. There are a few men who put loyalty to me about their loyalty to Lord Rahl. We will get you through the barriers and on your way, but the rest is up to you."

oOoOo

Darken barely stirred as Zedd struggled to pull the unfamiliar clothing over the small body. He had already changed into the rough woolens provided by Egremont

The captain shoved their former attire under Zedd's robes. "Nothing can be left behind. You'll have to burn these when you put enough distance behind you." He thrust another packet toward the wizard.
"Take this– you'll need food for the early days of your journey. My wife is a fine cook." he muttered gruffly, refusing to acknowledge Zedd's dazed look of gratitude.

As the trio crept down the back stairs and through myriad circuitous passageways and tunnels Zedd hadn't known existed, Egremont continued giving instructions. "Stay low, travel only at night, keep to the back roads, stay in the woods whenever you can. Your face and that of the young prince are known in these parts," The captain advised as they emerged into a clearing beyond the city gates. Zedd's legs were aching with fatigue. They must have already trod several miles.

"This is as far as I can go," the captain's voice was hushed. "You're on your own now." Reaching into his cloak, Egremont withdrew a small leather pouch which he proffered to Zedd. "You will need this – I came upon it in your chambers when I was searching for you." His gaze was unwavering as it held the Wizard's. "You can't get through the boundary without it."

Zedd's fingers closed around the small packet, feeling the familiar weight and hardness of the night stone. The captain must have known exactly where to look for the magical artifact, the only object, with the exception of a nightwisp, that could get them through the boundary between the Midlands and Westland.

"How did you - ?" he began, but Egremont cut him off harshly.

"Don't look so shocked, Wizard. You know as well as I do that the prince will be no safer in the Midlands than he is in D'Hara. The Mother Confessor in Aydindril opposes D'Hara, and is well aware of the prophecy concerning Darken Rahl. The most clever disguise in the world won't protect him from the eyes of a Confessor."

"I don't know how I can ever thank you." Zedd wished there was something he could give the man in return for his help, but he didn't even own the clothes on his back.

Just then Darken stirred in Zedd's arms, still half-asleep. Peering over Zedd's shoulder, he recognized the captain. "Eggy!" he croaked drowsily, the corner of his mouth quirking up in a lop-sided grin. Gazing around the clearing and up at the stars in wonder, he queried, "Where am I? Is this a dream?"

Before Zedd could reply, Egremont approached his prince one last time, pulling the hood up over the boy's head and face. Then backing away, the man sunk to one knee and solemnly clasped his fist over his heart. "Lord Rahl." With those parting words, he rose to his feet and disappeared into the dark.

"Where are we, Zedd? Father will be angry if I don't get back soon." Darken was squirming to get down. The Wizard lowered the boy to the ground and knelt down in front of him, speaking with quiet authority. "We're going on an adventure, Darken, like in the stories you've always heard about. But it's a secret adventure. Nobody can even know who we are or where we came from. Are you brave enough to do that?"

Intrigued, Darken nodded vigorously. "Does this mean I won't be seeing Father again?"

"Never again," Zedd assured him.

"Good," Darken sighed with relief. "When do we start?"

oOoOo

Wizard and boy traveled for weeks, crossing the boundary into the Midlands without interference, careful, when trekking through that territory of the Confessors, to avoid any villages where the women in white were rumored to be sitting in judgment.

They had a close call once, waking up in an abandoned barn to find that a confessor had arrived only that morning to hold court. Worried that he might be recognized, knowing that he had already put the spell off for too long, Zedd made the final break with his past. As Darken looked on, fascinated, the wizard closed his eyes, murmured a brief incantation, and passed his hand over his face, transforming the youthful visage into that of a much older man.

"You're all gray and scraggly, Zedd!" Darken snorted, wiping his nose with a grubby hand.

"You might as well get used to it, boy," Zedd retorted with a rueful smile. "I can't say I'm happy about losing my irresistible good looks, but this is how it has to be from now on."

"But you're still you, right?" Darken asked, looking suddenly fearful that the only security in his life might be slipping away.

"Always!" Zedd vowed , tousling the boy's tangled mat of dark hair. "I haven't changed, and I'll never leave you."

It would not have been an easy journey for the most experienced traveller, and they had both lived lives where every material need had been provided for without question. But as the days, weeks and months wore on, and they became accustomed to the backroads, the open air and the unexpected kindnesses of open-handed strangers, their muscles hardened, feet calloused and endurance grew.

Zedd had been surprised and gratified by the ease with which Darken adapted to his new existence. The boy still struggled with Zedd's new name, but had seemed to shed his own name, as rare as it was ill-omened, and his old life, with the resiliency of youth.

But for the wizard, who had once been honored, rich, important, the Zorander name known far and wide, the adjustment to itinerant fugitive was a constant struggle. Now the only family left to him was the small boy trudging by his side. His daughter's plight pulled at his heart, but until he found refuge for the child he couldn't permit himself the luxury of grief.

Zedd was intent on putting as much distance between them and D'Hara as possible, but they couldn't keep walking forever. He longed for the Wizard's Keep in Aydindril, but Egremont was right, he could never risk taking the boy there. The Palace of the Prophets would be a sweet oasis but, again, the child born under a dark prophecy would not be welcomed or protected by the Sisters of the Light.

The only choice was to cross the boundary into Westland. Once there, in a land devoid of magic even while enjoying its protection, they would hopefully find shelter. Zedd had no idea how he was going to provide for them once they arrived. He possessed no practical skills in a society where the only craft he knew had no value or use, but his strength and intelligence had kept them alive this long, He was sure some opportunity would present itself.

He was a man of many talents.

The night before they crossed the boundary, after they had chatted about what the morrow would bring, Zedd quizzed the boy one last time.

"Who is Darken Rahl?" he asked.

"I never know how to answer that," the boy once called Darken Rahl sighed. "Am I supposed to not even know about him?"

"Six-year old boys, even princes, aren't generally known beyond the borders of their own land, especially to other six-year old boys," Zedd admonished gravely. "I doubt that a boy of Westland would be concerned about what was going on in D'Hara, if he'd even heard of it."

"Then I don't know who he is," the boy shrugged.

"And who are you, boy?" the wizard asked.

"Richard. My mother died when I was born, but she wanted to name me Richard." The boy recited, smiling. Zedd had told him about his mother during their journey. "I like Richard better than Darken anyway. It's a happier name. Don't you think so, Zedd?"

"And who am I?" Zedd asked. This was always the hardest question – for both of them.

"Joseph – your name is Joseph, Ze -, Joseph." The boy flushed under Joseph's frown. Richard couldn't afford to make any mistakes or the man he used to call father would find them. There were other people who knew about the prophecy, people who would hate him if they discovered that he had once been that boy he barely remembered. He and Joseph would have to protect each other.

"Never forget my name, Richard, and never call me Wizard. If anybody finds out who I am, they'll find you. Darken Rahl and First Wizard Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander are dead and must always remain so. Bury them in the ground right here where we lay tonight and never think on their names again. Will you promise me that?

"I promise, Joseph." Richard vowed. "But what are our family names? You've never told me."

Joseph regarded the small quizzical face upturned to his, the clear blue eyes, and the dark hair - fortuitously so unlike his father's.

The face of a dead prince who would never be king.

And what am I? Joseph asked himself - a disowned son and brother. A man deprived of the only livelihood he ever knew.

A prince and a wizard , disappearing into the void, Joseph mused, suddenly pierced with sorrow, for the boy, for himself, for the daughter he could only mourn in his heart, the grandchild he would never see.

Their old selves were dead, their new identities formed out of the ether.

"Cypher" The Wizard declared firmly. "Our names are Richard and Joseph Cypher."

"Cypher" The boy said the name as if tasting it, rolling it around with his tongue. Then he nodded in approval. "It's easy to remember."

"Joseph, are you Richard's father?" Joseph started at the simple query, shaken to his core. Neither Darken nor Richard had ever asked him this before, but he somehow realized now that this was the most important question in the world.

"Do you want me to be?" Joseph's throat tightened as he blinked back the moisture in his eyes.

"Yes!" Richard whispered without the slightest hesitation. "I used to pretend that you were my real father."

Joseph didn't answer at first, suddenly finding it terribly important to fiddle with heating the water for their supper. After he'd had a chance to wipe the cinder out of his eyes, he finally spoke in a voice hoarse from the smoke . "Then that's how it will be."

oOoOo

There was no drama the next day when father and son crossed the boundary into Westland, the road was just as dusty and the sun was just as warm as anywhere else in the world, but there seemed to be a different scent in the air.

They both seemed to know what it meant.

Joseph and Richard Cypher, father and son, for so long wanderers in a strange land, had come home.

END