An Altered Life
Verna came to consciousness with a startled gasp, still filled with the despair of what she had just witnessed.
"Sister Verna – welcome back to the world of the living." Darken Rahl's voice was heavy with bitterness "I'm so happy one of us survived."
Dragging herself up on her hands and knees she looked over to where Darken knelt by the hearth. She half-expected his face to be charred with the mark of the Keeper, but, notwithstanding the mirthless grin that split his face, he seemed quite healthy.
Noting the difficulty she was having in gaining her equilibrium, Darken reached over to help her, but his hand went through her as it had before. He could no longer touch her.
Verna's body felt so tangible to her in Darken's presence, despite the fact that she knew it had never left the Palace of the Prophets.
They were back in Darken's bedchamber, safe and sound, but it was no longer Rahlmas Eve. The first light of dawn was creeping across the sky.
Verna should have been back at the Palace of the Prophets by now, in spirit as well as body.
She felt so lost, so confused.
"Happy Rahlmas, Sister," Darken said with feigned good humor. "Now that you and I have spent the evening together, I have grasped the point that my life has been a hopeless disaster, that I am beyond redemption, that my brother will triumph and that my death is imminent. I can't thank you enough for the trip." Beneath the mockery of his tone, Verna could hear the same note of fear and despair that she was experiencing.
"No," she managed to stammer. "I can't believe that this was all for nothing. The Creator had a reason for sending me here. She told me…She told me…" Verna struggled to remember. "She wanted us both to see, to understand."
"I understand everything, Sister," Darken snapped. "I trusted you and saw only my own death and condemnation."
"No! "Verna felt strength begin to flow back into her spirit. "If the Creator had only intended to step aside and let Richard destroy you then She wouldn't have sent me. She told me to help you – that was my task. I didn't want to do it, but I trusted Her, just as you finally trusted me."
"It's too late," Darken said flatly. "My path was determined long before you ever arrived. I wanted power, so I took it. I knew there would be consequences."
Verna shook her head. "Maybe your path isn't determined yet, Darken." She didn't know at what point during their time together she had started referring to this man by his given name, but given their shared experience, it seemed silly to revert to the old way of thinking.
The old way of thinking.
That was the key!
"I argued with the Creator, Darken. I told Her that you couldn't be forgiven, and She said that it wasn't for me to decide who was beyond forgiveness." Verna tried to catch his gaze, but his eyes were empty caverns. Now that she could no longer touch him physically, Verna was desperate to reach out to him, to give him hope.
"You can change, Darken. It's not too late. You already have changed – I felt it." Verna heard her voice gaining in power. "That's what the Creator wanted you to know. She needed to show you not only your own past, but the living present and the possible – not inevitable - future. She wanted both of us to understand that there was still time, that you could decide to take a different path.
"I felt everything with you, Darken, not only your hate and fear. I felt the grief for your mother, your longing for a family, your regret about your sister. I felt the remorse and guilt you could not acknowledge - even to yourself."
"I saw you at your most vulnerable. You admitted things to me that you've never told anyone."
Verna played her last card.
"I felt the love you have for your son, and for his mother. You want him to have the happiness that was never yours."
Darken's eyes blazed at the mention of his son. "Joseph is Ungifted. He presents no threat to you or the precious Seeker. Leave him alone. How do I know you won't betray his whereabouts to your sisters, or to my brother." He began to pace the floor.
At least his agitation was a sign of determination, of life, far preferable to the dead-eyed resignation he had shown moments ago.
"Because I give you my word," she vowed. "No matter what happens, I will always protect Joseph." Verna felt a twinge of unease. An oath was a serious matter, but she would trust her instincts on this. "But it's up to you to make a start. Make peace with your brother. Put an end to this devastating war and tyranny."
Darken paused before the window, staring out at the dawn. "Richard will never believe anything I say." His tone was without inflection, a simple declaration of a fact.
"Maybe I could help." Verna offered, regretting the words almost immediately. She had believed herself done with traipsing all over the countryside. But there seemed to be a gentle presence behind her, urging her on. "If you are sincere, if you're willing to make the attempt, than I will act as an intermediary between you and the Seeker. But there can be no more deceit."
Darken snorted. "I can just imagine what the Prelate will think about that idea. Isn't the prophecy of my demise engraved on your palace wall?"
Verna remembered the Creator's words about prophecy. The ones that didn't come to pass were soon forgotten. "Leave that to me," she said with more confidence than she felt. If the Creator had brought her this far, surely She would lend Verna guidance.
Sister Verna, you sisters are waiting.
It's up to you now, Darken Rahl.
The voice rang like a bell in the quiet room.
"Who was that?" Darken turned to face Verna, his brow furrowed in a puzzled frown. "What's up to me?"
"You heard it, too?" Verna's heart sang with joy. If Darken could hear the Creator's voice, then he had already begun the journey. "She meant exactly what She said. You have to make the first move – toward your brother, toward peace, toward your people."
"Of course I heard it! I thought we were alone." A growing comprehension filled his eyes. "This isn't possible. I am already sworn to… " Darken's voice trailed off.
Verna didn't know how a vow to the Keeper could be broken. There must be some precedent somewhere. She would have to do some research on the subject, as would Darken. But Verna could do no more here. She was beginning to feel more and more insubstantial, as if she were fading away.
"I have to return to Palace of the Prophets now, Darken. Don't forget anything. Listen to Her voice. Don't lose hope." Verna felt a sense of urgency as she tried to say as much as she could in the little time she had left in this place.
"Wait! You can't leave yet." Darken shouted, trying to catch Verna's arm as she floated out the window. "If I need your help, how can I reach you?"
"Ask Her," Verna replied, as Darken Rahl, the People's Palace and then D'Hara disappeared around her.
Darken drew his hand back against his chest, embarrassed that someone watching might have seen him reaching for someone who was no longer there.
Recalling the visions and sensations of the night, something cold and hard began breaking apart inside his chest, and Darken wasn't altogether certain he liked this new feeling of being exposed and unprotected.
He had so many questions, and the Seeker of Truth was still hot in pursuit, armed with Orden's magic. Yet Verna had been so certain that there was still time.
Settling himself down as the desk where he had been scribbling the night before, Darken pondered on how best to approach his brother. There was no time to lose.
Sister Verna had offered her aid, but the Voice had said that the first step was up to him, and Darken was woefully unsure of how to begin. He was just beginning to jot down a few notes when the bells of the palace began to peal, ushering in Rahlmas Day, the holiday Darken had been so intent on abolishing only hours before. He glanced at the speech he had begun to write before Sister Verna's arrival.
Darken recalled the loneliness and bitterness of so many Rahlmas Days of the past, remembered the joy he had felt in the house where his son now celebrated Rahlmas, the happiness on Cara's face as she embraced Dahlia. He reached for a new sheet of parchment. Contacting his brother was urgent, true, but his subjects would already be gathering for his annual Rahlmas Day proclamation.
Before Darken could reach out to Richard, he would have to reach out to his own people. Darken would tell them that Rahlmas would no longer be a day devoted to the House of Rahl, but instead would be a day to celebrate new beginnings, a chance for peace, a day of forgiveness.
Today, Darken would ask his subjects for their forgiveness and for a second chance.
Darken had almost completed re-writing his address when he heard a sharp rap on the door. Glancing at the hourglass, he realized that it was already mid-morning. That must be the seamstress, arriving with a fresh set of the ridiculous Rahlmas ceremonial garb.
He still had to bathe, and that ludicrous outfit usually took at least an hour to put on.
That was a tradition Darken would discard this year, another sign of beginning anew. Perhaps next year, if he were still around, Darken might even start dressing in white at Rahlmas, although red suited him so much better. Darken wondered with some amusement if he would ever be able to convince Richard to wear red.
It was best not to get too far ahead of himself. Richard had not been won over yet.
"My Lord," General Egremont called to him from the hallway. "I took the liberty of bringing you breakfast. May I enter?"
"Yes, of course, Egremont." Darken's felt a sharp pang of guilt. During the celebration in the general's household last night, Darken had resolved to send a messenger to his home granting Egremont the additional day's leave he had requested. So much had happened since that it had completely slipped Darken's mind.
The general, looking remarkably well rested and refreshed, strode into the room bearing a covered platter. "Good morning, my Lord. If you will forgive me, I didn't stop by the kitchens, but brought you a plate prepared by my wife. She always remembers how much you like her dumpling soup. There's also some of the meat from yesterday, and a loaf of bread fresh out of the oven." He set the platter down on the table.
Darken's stifled a grin at the memory of Alice's grumbling from the night before, and wondered if she had been seething at his ingratitude as she prepared Darken's meal. Still, the fact that she had done it at all was a thoughtful gesture.
"Thank you, Egremont, and thank your wife, also. I trust your family is well." Darken's mouth watered as he peered under the napkin. The food smelled wonderful.
"They are, my Lord, each and every one of them. I'm a lucky man." Egremont looked almost apologetic over the last words. Darken usually didn't engage him in casual conversation, and the general appeared as if he were afraid of saying something amiss.
Darken recalled the gathering of the night before – the warmth, the good will, his son's happiness. "You are indeed, Egremont, and you have been a loyal servant, not only to the House of Rahl, but to me." The words sounded so stilted, so inadequate.
"Thank you, my Lord. Is there anything else you require before I resume my duties?" The general asked, bowing slightly at the acknowledgement.
"Yes, I need you to go home and rejoin your family for the rest of the day, and for the next two days as a matter of fact. I can manage on my own until then." Darken smile faded as he saw the color drain from Egremont's face. "Is something wrong? I reconsidered your request from yesterday evening and decided to grant it. In return for your trouble in coming in today, I would like to give you the additional day off."
The general's features relaxed into an expression that was as close to a smile as he ever displayed in Darken's presence. "Thank you, Lord. I am more than happy to obey."
"Then be on your way, but first – "Darken halted, unsure of how to continue, wary of crossing the invisible divide between Lord Rahl and counselor, and uncertain of his own emotional control. He was venturing into new terrain. "Before you leave, I want you to know that I've never forgotten…that ever since I was a boy, you were…" he took a deep breath and began again. "I just wanted you to know that you are one of the finest men I've even known, and that Joseph is lucky to have you as a great-grandfather," Darken finished in a rush, needing to get the words out before he became even more tongue-tied.
"Now – be off with you." Darken ordered before the astonished Egremont could form a coherent response.
There was so much that needed to be done! The speech first, then the letter to Richard, which must be scribed and sent by nightfall.
And soon, very soon, before he encountered Richard, Darken would have to tell First Mistress Cara that their son was not being brought up in the harsh environment of a far flung Dragon Corps outpost. Darken knew he should have consulted with her before the child was placed with Egremont's family, and it had grown harder with each passing year to broach the subject. Cara deserved to know that her son was safe, that he was loved, and Darken hoped that she would be content with watching Joseph grow up from afar.
Darken's musings were interrupted by the clatter of boot heels echoing in cadence down the hallway drawing nearer with each measured step. "I certainly hope you're right about this," he spoke to whatever spirit might still be lingering in his chamber, then, gathering up his Rahlmas proclamation in one hand, Darken closed the door behind him.
"My Lord. It's time!" Mistress Riona announced, standing respectfully at the head of his retinue. Behind her waited a score of Mord'Sith, Dragon Corps and officers from the Third Battalion, all lined up in perfect formation in readiness to escort their leader onto the great balcony.
Darken nodded and took his place, a re-born man, ready to take the first step into a new world.
Sister Verna limped into the great dining hall of the Palace of the Prophets to for the culmination of the Creatormas celebration, and gingerly lowered herself into her seat at the huge table. She was no longer a young woman, and hours of kneeling on a stone floor while her spirit had dashed about hither and yon through time and distance had taken a toll on her body.
When the Prelate had remarked that Verna might be carrying her Creatormas devotions a little too far by staying up all night in meditation, Verna had only smiled, imagining the horrified reaction had she revealed that she had spent the night with Darken Rahl. It might have been amusing to see the Prelate's eyes pop out of her head, but this was not a matter to be taken lightly.
The Palace of the Prophets was steeped in rigid tradition and strict adherence to prophecy, and Verna knew she would be treading on dangerous ground when she proposed her ideas. While she had promised Darken Rahl that she would act as an intermediary between him and his brother, Verna had no firm plan as to how she would ever convince her sisters to pursue a course they would consider blasphemous.
Still, if Darken Rahl was serious about seeking a truce, and Verna believed he was, she would do her part. If only she could have had a few more moments to speak with him before she had been pulled away. The man had still seemed so shaken and unsure, but he had heard the Creator's voice.
Verna would not let herself give up hope.
Finally, after every sister had taken her seat, the Prelate rose to her feet at the head of the table and began to lead them in the Creatormas liturgy. It was a beautiful service, sung rather than spoken, and Verna had long since memorized every word and note, yet this year she was content to just listen, letting the music flow over and around her.
Strengthen me, oh Creator, to defend your light.
Eyes closed, Verna was lost in the elegant simplicity of the liturgy when she felt a gentle nudge at her shoulder.
Verna – open your eyes.
Verna obeyed, but all she could see as she looked down the long slab of marble were her sisters, their faces serene and peaceful.
Then, slowly, their forms seemed to melt and fade and others took their place.
Verna found herself seated at another table, in another palace, in another time, leagues away from the Palace of the Prophets.
Darken and Richard Rahl sat at the head of the table, Richards' brow furrowed in concentration as he listened to something his brother was saying, nodding in agreement. Both men were dressed in the royal red of D'Hara.
Mistress Cara sat at Darken's side, watchful, protective and alert, the fingers of one hand intertwined with his, while the other rested lightly on Dahlia's arm. Kahlan Amnell, her white Confessor dress glowing like a beacon, sat on Richard's left, leaning against his shoulder, a jeweled Rada'Han gracing her throat, attentive to the conversation between the two brothers, while First Wizard Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander fidgeted next to her, avidly eyeing the fruit that was being brought to the table. Jennsen Rahl, also adorned in red, sat next to her grandfather, her attention divided between her two brothers and a dark-haired Mord'Sith sitting across the table.
Verna's gaze traveled down the length of the table to find General Egremont conversing with Chase Brandstone, while the families of both men mingled in the shadows, the children playing tag with each other as they dashed around the throne room. Joseph Egremont kept darting in and out amongst the others, easily evading any pursuer. Verna thought she caught a glint of amusement in Darken's eyes when his son scampered under the table. As Anna rushed out of the shadows to retrieve the wayward boy, her eyes met Cara's for one fleeting look of shared understanding.
Then, just as suddenly as they had appeared to her, Richard, Darken, Cara and the others began to fade away, coalescing once more into the forms of Verna's sisters.
Verna's eyes blurred with tears. She knew it was only a vision, a hope, a possibility. She knew that a successful peace would take years to forge, that doubts and resentments would linger on both sides, but it was a goal that now at least seemed within reach.
Someone tugged at her sleeve again, but this time it was only Sister Merry, one of Verna's closest friends in the sisterhood. "Verna, stop wool gathering. It's your turn. What is your wish for Creatormas?"
Verna stood up on stiff, wobbly legs. She had nothing to say that others couldn't express far more eloquently, but she would do her best.
"I wish for healing, forgiveness and peace, for every land and every soul. I wish that we will have the wisdom to know what to glean from the past, and the strength to know when to let go of the past. My wish is for the Creator's blessing on everyone."
Sinking back down to her seat, Verna felt the soft brush of a hand against her cheek.
Well done, Sister Verna. Well done.
1. Verna's lack of knowledge about Richard's bloodline: Since this is a fable, I've tinkered with Sister Verna's Show!canon storyline in several respects, having her escape from the D'Harans rather than being captured, and more significantly, making her unaware that the wizard she seeks is a Rahl. (As Riona suggested, perhaps show!Verna only discovered this fact after Darken's death in canon after so many D'Harans proclaimed Richard as Lord Rahl.)
2. The laws of astral projection: In making Verna's at times have physical substance in Darken's presence, I've played a little fast and loose with whatever laws there are concerning spirits. I felt it was important for there to be physical contact between Darken and Verna as they journey through time and distance, and felt it important that the contact could not be forced on Darken but only offered to him. This is a Rahlmas fable and, after all, the Creator works in mysterious ways.
3. The Egremont family: If there is confusion as to the gaggle of Egremonts at the Rahlmas feast, or anywhere else in the story –Alice is the general's wife; Ben, the young man being dispatched to the Midlands after the holiday, is Egremont's great-nephew – his sister's grandchild; Anna is General Egremont's married grand-daughter and Ben's cousin; and Joseph is Anna's adopted son and General Egremont's adoptive great-grandson. Hope this helps. :D