It was market week in Lamston, but few in the tiny hamlet seemed in a celebratory mood. The aromas of the paltry autumn harvest were overwhelmed by the stench of human desperation as villagers jostled each other aside at vendor's stalls, each determined to get first choice of the meager offerings.
Ever since Darken Rahl's death had torn the Veil between the Underworld and the world of the living, the soil had yielded little sustenance, and people were starving. Banelings now walked the earth, renegade D'Haran soldiers raped, plundered and murdered at will, and chaos ruled the land.
Despite rumors that the Seeker of Truth was on a quest to save the world from the Keeper's wrath, Richard Cypher's fabled exploits meant little to those struggling to survive from one day to the next.
After smoothing down her coarse linen dress and checking to make sure that her voluminous shawl was still in place over her head and shoulders, pulled forward sufficiently to shadow her face, Denna busied herself with the task of re-arranging her few remaining wares on the tail gate of her wobbly cart.
She couldn't help seething at the thought of how close she had come to setting things to rights.
With General Grix's feeble wits at her command in Richard Cypher's mortal body, Denna would have controlled the power of the Rahl bloodline, binding the Dragon Corps, Third Battalion, and the Mord'Sith to her will. She would have been – should have been – the ruler of D'Hara by now, instead of being reduced to an itinerant peddler of potatoes, apples, and pears.
Three times Denna had failed to gain the power that was her due – first by losing the Boxes of Orden to the Seeker, then by underestimating the loyalty and determination of Richard's friends in bringing his spirit back from the Underworld, and finally, through Cara's deadly accuracy with a bow and arrow .
Denna had always under-estimated Cara, but no longer.
One day, very soon, she would pay the Seeker's pet Mord'Sith back in kind.
At that moment, Denna's musings were interrupted by the ravings of a drunken tradesman, who emerged, lurching and weaving, out of a nearby inn, almost colliding with the cart Denna had so painstakingly loaded with her foodstuffs. She managed to shove him out of the way before any damage was done, sending him sprawling into the dust. The oaf, too inebriated to get to his feet, just lay where he fell, staring up at her groggily, a stupid grin plastered across his imbecilic face.
"Come'ere, sweetheart….let me buy you a - Ahh! " The idiot let out a yowl of pain as the tip of Denna's boot caught him in the midsection. Without another sound, he curled up in a self-protective ball on the ground and promptly passed out. Grimacing in distaste, Denna rolled his inert body into the mass of humanity crowding about the square. Fortunately, nobody in the vicinity had been paying them any mind.
The last thing Denna needed was to bring unwanted attention to herself.
Not when she was so close to her goal.
Not in this small village where she and her sisters had so often descended in their raids for recruits.
The Mord'Sith temple at Jandrilyn was only a few leagues away. Once she was there, everything would fall into place.
This time she would not fail.
Until then, the legendary Denna Mord'Sith would remain dead to the rest of the world.
Before setting out on her journey to Lamston, Denna had taken great precautions to transform her appearance, wrapping her long blonde hair into tight braids around her head - not the single braid of a proud Mord'Sith, but the plaits of a simple farm woman from the countryside. Anxious to blend in with the multitude, Denna never discarded her shawl, tugging on the fabric constantly to ensure that no stray golden strand of hair escaped.
The fact that Denna still drew breath was a miracle.
Denna hated being in anyone's debt, but she would not be alive to see this day if it had not been for the aid of a woman Denna would once have scorned even to notice.
Mattie, herself a shy recluse from society, had been out gathering herbs when she had found Denna's broken and torn body at the foot of the cliff, lying in a dried up riverbed. The older woman had somehow managed to load Denna's inert form onto her cart, and taken her to the tiny isolated cottage that Mattie called home.
Skilled at the healing arts, Mattie had tended to Denna's concussion, her infected wounds, the fractured leg, cracked ribs and punctured lung. She had nursed and fed Denna as if she had been her own daughter. The younger woman often wondered where Mattie had gained such abilities, but her benefactor had only said that she came from a long line of women proficient in tending to the sick and outcast.
Once she had regained consciousness, Denna had recounted to Mattie the sad tale of how her life as a pious Sister of Solitude, sworn to a vow of chastity and poverty, had been ripped to shreds on the day when D'Haran soldiers had set upon her, pierced her through with an arrow as she tried to escape, and then, not caring whether or not she still lived, tossed her body off a cliff.
Mattie, her eyes soft with compassion, had believed every word.
Over the next few months, hidden away from the world, ensconced by Mattie's warm protectiveness, Denna was determined to gain back her strength as quickly as possible. As impatient with her own weakness as she was with the weakness of others, she pushed her body a little further every day in the effort to build up the limits of her endurance, at first by helping Mattie with the household chores, the gardening, gathering firewood. Then, as she grew sturdier, Denna started roaming further away from the small homestead, taking long walks, stretching her muscles, and plotting out her future.
A few times, in an attempt to find her precious agiel, she had ventured back to the site of her fall, but her efforts had been for naught. Denna couldn't recall whether she had dropped the weapon upon the arrow's impact, or if she had still been clutching it in her hand when she had gone over the cliff. No matter, it was not to be found.
Mattie had made no secret of her desire that Denna remain with her, and Denna, not unmindful of a certain obligation to the older woman, kept putting Mattie off with vague answers, never committing herself. But in her heart, Denna was having none of it. She was not about to live out the rest of her days in obscure poverty.
She was Mord'Sith.
She had suffered grievous injuries before and lived to fight another day, and would do so again.
Denna had come so close to death, yet, against all odds, had recovered.
It had to be destiny.
She knew there were still great things in store for her, but she would have to make them happen.
During the months of her recovery, Denna had tried to force the memory of her near-death to the back of her mind. But her sleep was still sometimes haunted by visions of Darken Rahl, his eyes lit by green fire, glittering with triumph at her defeat, his hands reaching out to yank her into the Underworld, his silken voice promising her the torments of the damned.
But his efforts had been in vain.
Denna had cheated Darken Rahl – and the Keeper – of their prize.
As the weeks passed and Denna's muscles hardened, the stabbing pain in her back and chest subsided to a dull throb as her ribs and lung healed, and her agility began to return. She still occasionally found herself short of breath when she tried to run to fast or too far, but her stamina would improve over time. The bone in Denna's right leg had knitted itself in such a fashion that the limb was slightly shorter than the left, causing her to walk with a slight limp, but with each day of exercise and stretching, she felt more confident that this infirmity, too, would eventually disappear.
A long jagged scar ran from Denna's temple down to her chin, most, but not all, of its length veiled by her luxuriant hair even when she wore no head covering, the result of her collision with the rocky face of the cliff before the trees had broken her fall. The wound had closed and healed, but the scar would always remain. As vain of her beauty as she was of her steely resolve and physical strength, the weal served to further goad Denna with the necessity of restoring herself as First Mistress of the Mord'Sith.
Once the time was right, once she revealed herself, once she had resumed her rightful place, Denna would bear the scar as a badge of honor.
The Sisterhood of the Agiel, once Denna was back in command, would soon bring D'Hara to heel, filling the power vacuum that had thrown the land into chaos, and when, and if, Richard completed his mission, he – and Cara – would have to deal with Denna, the Mord'Sith, and the entire D'Haran army.
Before that could occur, she would first have to get to the Mord'Sith temple at Jandrilyn and re-establish the dominance she had once held there, and at every other Mord'Sith temple in D'Hara. Denna had felt certain that, under the present state of lawlessness, her Sisterhood would welcome back the one person who could restore their preeminence.
But Denna was nothing if not a realist. The year before, she had made herself a renegade by her desertion, choosing to escape rather than face her punishment, thus setting herself at odds with her sisters. She realized that once she arrived at Jandrilyn, Mistresses Garen and Dahlia would be particularly reluctant to trust her, or to relinquish their authority.
Denna would have to bring all of her powers of persuasion to bear in justifying her past actions.
When the Seeker of Truth, after snatching the Boxes of Orden, had granted Denna a reprieve,she had wasted no time putting as much distance between her and every Mord"Sith stronghold, knowing that Darken Rahl, his men hard on her heels, would exact a terrible vengeance for her betrayal.
But the previous Lord Rahl presented no threat to Denna now, Richard Cypher was far away, and the time was ripe for Denna to return to her homeland and take up the reins of leadership.
One moonless night, while her gentle benefactor lay snoring on her cot, dead to the world, Denna had taken the few coins Mattie had to her name, harnessed the old mule up to Mattie's cart, loaded up everything of value she could glean from Mattie's small stores, and taken to the road, hobbled slightly by her limp, a little short of breath, but eager to return to her old domain.
Mattie lived off the land and could fend for herself, and Denna had the greater need. Once she had the means, she would make sure that Mattie was amply rewarded for her generosity.
She was sure that Mattie would have wanted it that way.
Now, here she was, in this noxious little town, trying to sell off the paltry remainder of her goods while devising a plan to bring her sisters at Jandrilyn to their knees. The money was already gone, as was the mule, and Denna had yet to settle upon a strategy that she was confident would succeed. The venture had seemed so flawlessly logical when she had plotted it in the safety of Mattie's cottage was going to take every ounce of her skill and cunning.
Just this morning, Denna had hidden herself in the crowd, watching as Garen and Dahlia strutted through the village square, the cowed villagers parting like a wave before them. With a great effort, she had stifled her fury at their presumption of authority, forcing back the impulse to accost the women who had once been her minions. Instead, she had tugged the shawl even more closely about her face, averting her gaze from their measured pace and predatory eyes.
Denna was grudgingly beginning to understand that she would not be able to just walk into Jandrilyn, talk a good game, and resume control.
A new factor had to be taken into consideration. One she could never have anticipated.
Since arriving at Lamston, Deanna had been hearing strange rumors. Apparently, ridiculously, the Mord'Sith at Jandrilyn still swore loyalty to Darken Rahl, and refused to recognize Richard as their master.
Upon being confronted with this state of affairs – this incomprehensible devotion to a dead man – Denna's task had become much more challenging. She would not only be blamed for deserting the Sisterhood of the Agiel, but for helping to bring about Darken Rahl's defeat. After all, it was Denna who had provided Jennsen Rahl with the information needed to steal the Boxes of Orden from Darken Rahl, leaving him vulnerable to his greatest enemy.
Denna, much as she was loath to admit it, was going to need help.
But from where, and from whom?
The only woman strong enough to be a useful ally would be another Mord'Sith, and Denna, at this juncture, was still a pariah among those still loyal to Darken Rahl.
She would need a man to assist her. Preferably one as physically strong and easily manipulated as General Grix. There had to be somebody in this backwater who fit those requirements.
Denna knew she wasn't the only person skulking around D'Hara in disguise during these troubled times. While many D'Haran soldiers had turned brigand, preying on the helpless; others had deserted, throwing off their uniforms in a frantic attempt to blend in with the masses, trying to save themselves from the revenge of the people they had once oppressed.
The Mord'Sith at Jandrilyn, as misguided as they might be in their continued loyalty to Darken Rahl, at least held true to something, not only refusing to hide their devotion, but taking pride in it.
Denna shoved the uncomfortable comparison aside. She was nothing like these spineless ex-soldiers, but was a law unto herself, merely biding her time, regaining her strength, until it was time to emerge from the shadows.
But the time had to be soon.
Studying the throngs of people milling around in the square, Denna chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully, trying to espy a likely candidate for her purposes. She needed a servant who was physically strong but obedient, somebody knowledgeable of the ways of D'Haran protocol, somebody easily controlled.
At that moment, a man who had heretofore escaped Denna's notice paused for a second in front of her stall, blocking her line of sight as she was searching for an ally. Before she could order him out of her way, his hand darted out and snatched one of Denna's precious apples from her cart before moving on, strolling nonchalantly over to another vendor's stall without even sparing her a glance.
Furious, Denna bolted to her feet, opening her mouth to shout after the thief, then thought better of it.
Don't call attention to yourself.
The sheer effrontery of the act made Denna's blood boil as she glared after the miscreant. He had made no attempt to hide his ill-gotten trophy, even now biting into the fruit as he casually scanned the marketplace.
Of medium height, but strongly built, the man was broad shouldered, and clad like a peasant, his clothing torn and stained with dirt and sweat. A black hood shielded his face from view.
Yet there was something about the creature, the way he moved, that made the hairs on the back of Denna's neck stand up.
That made her hesitate.
A year ago she would have killed this thief without a second thought.
A year ago no man would have dared to have taken what was hers.
Had she really grown so soft?
Just then, the man seemed to spot something on the other side of the square that caught his interest, and began to wind his way through the rows of vendors and customers. Denna, still irate, but now also curious, her senses tingling, abandoned her cart and started tracking him, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. It was foolish to leave her only valuables unprotected, but she had very little left anyway.
She had closed the distance between her and her quarry to about twenty feet before he turned his head slightly toward her, granting her a brief glimpse of his profile before he pulled the hood further over his brow.
Denna felt the blood draining from her face as her knees threatened to give out from under her. Reaching out blindly to support her weight against the nearest stall, she felt her throat close as she fought to breathe, her ribs tortured with the effort.
How could this be possible?
It had to be some kind of mistake.
Darken Rahl had been dead for a year. She had seen him in the Underworld, waiting for her when she had hovered at the threshold of death.
Denna had feltDarken Rahl die.
She had been broken by Lord Rahl, and the link between them had once been very strong. Even after her betrayal, even after her flight over such a great distance, Denna had still felt the blood magic that bound her to him, as frayed and tattered as it was. But then one night, she had felt that bond dissolve, and she had known that Darken Rahl no longer walked the earth.
Yet there he was.
Closing her eyes, too rattled to worry about the consequences, Denna reached inside herself, searching for any remnant of the blood bond.
She felt no connection to this man.
But how could Darken Rahl's doppelganger be rambling through the marketplace only a stone's throw distance away?
Then it came to her.
The only plausible explanation.
Denna was shamed by the tears of relief that sprang to her eyes.
How could she have been such a fool as to have forgotten about Walter?
Denna's breathing slowed as cool calculation replaced apprehension.
This man could only be Darken Rahl's body-double, Walter. That would explain the clothing, the features kept shielded from view under the black hood. Walter would be forced to hide his eerie resemblance to his one-time master at any cost. The mob would rip him apart if they believed Darken Rahl was back in their midst.
But Denna couldn't afford to take any chances. She had to make sure. Inching closer while the man was engaged in conversation with a young woman selling sweetmeats, Denna's eyes raked over his exposed skin.
Walter's body would always bear the patterns left by Denna's agiels during the years he had been in Darken Rahl's service. He had been such a cringing coward, such a weakling, that she had found his dread of her intoxicating. Walter had always been a convenient target, a substitute upon whom she could vent her own rage, and Lord Rahl had never interfered with Denna's games as long as she inflicted no permanent damage on his double.
She knew every welt and weal that adorned Walter's body, just as intimately as she knew every mark on Darken Rahl's body - and her own.
Finally catching sight of what she was looking for, Denna felt a surge of triumph . A thin scar ran up the inside of Walter's arm between his wrist and the curve of his elbow. There was yet another at the base of his thumb where it met the palm of his hand.
Denna's lips curved into a smile at the fortuitousness of fate. The solution to all of her problems had just fallen into her lap without the slightest effort on her part.
Thank the Creator that Walter had been desperate enough to steal one of her insignificant apples. The loss paled in comparison to what Denna had just gained.
Walter had been to the Mord'Sith temple at Jandrilyn many times. Since the Sisterhood there was so fervently loyal to Darken Rahl, they might be gullible enough to believe that he had come back from the dead, and that Denna had been the one responsible for his resurrection.
Thanks to Denna, the Sisterhood of the Agiel would once again have their Lord Rahl to worship.
True, Walter did not carry the Rahl bloodline, but if the Mord'Sith seemed so fanatical to Darken Rahl's service despite his death, it would make little difference. It was the memory of the man himself who seemed to inspire them, not his bloodline.
Armed with this knowledge, Denna could make her sisters believe that Lord Darken Rahl walked among them once more, and Walter, under her thumb, always so eager to please, would do whatever she demanded of him. Denna would rule D'Hara through Walter, and the Mord'Sith would follow her.
The simplicity of the plan almost made her laugh.
Denna contented herself with hanging back out of sight until Walter had completed his purchase and was making his way across the village square. The late afternoon sun was starting to sink beneath the rooftops as she resumed stalking her prey. Now that she had made her plans, Denna allowed herself a few moments to enjoy the thrill of the pursuit, to imagine the look of startled terror in Walter's eyes when he recognized her. It had been so long since she had been able to relish the hunt, the capture and the taste of conquest.
Just as Walter paused at the entry to an alleyway leading away from the square, Denna made her approach. The crowd was starting to thin, the vendors were packing up their few remaining items for the next day, and families were dispersing back to the shelter of their homes.
Without a sound, Denna slipped up behind Walter and clasped his wrist firmly with one slender hand, sliding her other arm around his shoulders, leaning her head against his upper arm. She knew that to any casual passerby, she would appear to be just a young woman surprising her lover.
Feeling Walter's muscles tense under her touch, Denna placed her lips next to his ear. "Hello, Walter," she breathed. "You never know when you're going to run into an old friend, do you?" Not waiting for a response, nor expecting one, Denna guided her companion into the deepening shadows of the alley where they could be alone, and pulled him into a tight embrace just in case somebody might stumble upon them. "I can't tell you how happy I am to see you again, Walter. I've missed our little games."
Wrinkling her nose at the grime from his cloak that smeared her face, Denna waited for the familiar squeak of alarm that Walter had always let out when she had ambushed him in better days.
It was not forthcoming. Instead, Walter stood stock-still, frozen in her grasp, completely mute.
Disappointed at his lack of response, Denna pulled away slightly to gaze into his eyes, which she knew would reveal abject panic. But it was now too dark to see the features hidden under the hood shielding his features.
Perhaps he didn't recognize her yet.
If that were the case, she would just have to remind him.
With a fluid motion, Denna slipped the confining shawl away from her hair. It was a careless move, but she felt safe now, almost euphoric. It was such an incredible piece of luck to have this perfect tool for her purposes in her grasp.
Leaning forward so closely that her lips brushed against his cheek, Denna whispered conspiratorially, "I have great plans for the two of us, Walter."
"Plans – for us? Do I know you?" Walter asked mildly, his voice as soft as hers, but containing no hint of fear.
To Denna's amazement, her prey had made no move to escape, and a vague sense of unease tugged at the back of her mind before she brushed it away.
This was only Walter – compliant, timid, harmless Walter.
He would know that any attempt to flee would be useless. Denna had always had an almost hypnotic hold over him.
Or possibly, he was just as weary of hiding as was she.
They had found each other at the perfect time. Walter would play the part of Lord Rahl, and she would pull the strings. He would enjoy her protection as long as he did her will.
Denna's exhilaration returned. Quelling the giggle of anticipation that bubbled up in her chest, Denna continued. "How would you like to be Darken Rahl again, Walter? I can make you the ruler of D'Hara as long as you follow my instructions to the letter. If you don't, of course," Denna hissed, no longer smiling,"I'll make you sorry that you were ever born."
"Darken Rahl," Walter repeated the name quietly. "Why would you think that I would ever want to be Darken Rahl again?" He sounded as if he actually believed he had a choice in the matter.
Denna sighed with irritation. She was going to have to be more forceful. It seemed as if the past months of scrambling by onhis own must have given Walter delusions of independence
He didn't even sound like his old self. The timbre of his voice was deeper, the cadence slower. But most annoying was the fact that he seemed totally unafraid of the woman who had once been able to reduce him to a sniveling wreck.
"Don't you know me even yet, Walter?" Denna demanded, her voice a little more shrill that she intended. "I find that hard to believe. You can't fool me, you know, so don't even try." With a mocking laugh, she then reached up and pulled Walter's hood away from his face and down to his shoulders.
For the first time since she had spotted his familiar features in the marketplace, Denna's eyes met Walter's.
Confronted with the piercing gaze leveled at her, the laughter died in Denna's throat.
Her arms dropped to her sides as her knees threatened to buckle. As if from afar, Denna heard herself gasping for breath, her ribs throbbing as she struggled to draw air into her lungs.
Darken Rahl did, indeed, walk the earth once more.
Denna would never forget those eyes. She could never forget them, those eyes that haunted her nights.
Walter's body might be standing in front of her, but Walter wasn't there.
Denna's thoughts flashed back to the last time she had seen those eyes at the Mord'Sith temple in the People's Palace, when they had glittered at her like blue shards of ice, with the same cold malice that she saw shining in them now.
She was paralyzed by the sensations and memories flooding over her.
Denna. Why do you make me hurt you like this? In her mind's eye Denna saw Darken Rahl picking up the agiel with maddening deliberation, envisioned him circling her like a cat before moving in for the kill.
She saw herself, hanging in chains, helpless.
I deserve my punishment.So fearful, so desperate – hating herself.
Did Denna only remember saying the words, or was she uttering them again? All sense of time seemed to be sliding away from her.
She had failed to break Richard, but she would not fail Lord Rahl again.
She had promised.
Release me and I will show you such pleasure that all will be forgiven.
I will not fail.
Denna recalled the burning touch of Lord Rahl's mouth on hers, the burning graze of the agiel under her chin, sending threads of magic, pain and pleasure pulsing through every nerve ending.
She remembered the iron grip of his fingers digging into her cheeks making it as hard to breathe then as it was now.
But you would not want to disappoint meagain, Denna.
Darken Rahl had given Denna a second chance, had trusted her with the most important mission of all, but instead of honoring that trust, she had done much more than disappoint him. She had flouted him, betrayed him.
She had tried to take Orden's power for herself.
With humiliating sharpness, the image of herself pleading with Richard for death swam before Denna's eyes.
Leaving me to Darken Rahl is worse than killing me.
And the Seeker had also given her a second chance. He had told her to run, and so she had.
Denna had fled to the furthest reaches of the empire. She had escaped, had plotted, then had failed and plotted again.
Now, a wild animal caught in a snare, she was back where she started.
She could still run – if only her right leg weren't throbbing so painfully. Under Darken's withering glare, Denna realized that she was favoring it slightly.
Why didn't she at least try?
Darken Rahl wasn't even touching her. If Denna could just make it back to the village square then….
She had nowhere to go.
All these weeks traveling to Jandrilyn, making her plans, had been for nothing. In Denna's absence, without her help, Darken Rahl had returned.
"Yes, Mistress Denna," Darken Rahl's voice purred out of Walter's mouth. "I do remember our games, but the time for games is long past. I also remember your betrayal. The betrayal that led to my defeat."
"But..I don't understand," she stammered, holding her hands against her ribs as if she could force the stabbing pain to stop. Reaching through the mind-numbing fear that held her in its grip, Denna tried to catch her scattered thoughts, but nothing was making sense. "Darken Rahl is dead. He is in the Underworld. I saw him. You're Walter. You have to be…Walter."
Denna had always prided herself on the ability to think on her feet, but now she was at a loss.
Then she began to recall the little things that she should have noticed earlier.
The old Denna would never have been gulled so easily.
Walter would never have snatched an apple out from under anyone's nose. Walter would never have strolled around the marketplace as if he owned it.
The corner of Darken's lips quirked up in a smile as he studied her reaction, his expression sending a frisson of recognition down her spine. "Your powers of observation have dulled since we last met, Denna," he said reflectively. "I was beginning to find the Underworld a little…confining, so I decided to put Walter's body to good use, and the Seeker was all too glad to lend his assistance – up to a point."
Denna was more confused than ever.
What did the Seeker have to do with any of this?
"Are you helping the Seeker now? Why?" Every time Denna thought she was regaining her mental footing, Lord Rahl knocked her off-balance again.
"Let's just say that, for now, Richard's success in finding the Stone of Tears will work to our mutual benefit, and leave it at that," Darken drawled, offhandedly brushing the dust from the alley off his cloak. Even in the rags of a peasant, he managed to look like a king.
How could she not have noticed?
All hint of levity then vanished from Darken's countenance. Turning away from her abruptly, he strode over to the side entrance of an inn, where a burning torch overhead cast a dim glow onto the narrow lane.
"Come here," he ordered, with a familiar two-fingered gesture of command.
No Mord'Sith hurried out of the black night to attend him, no soldiers stood at the ready. It was just the two of them, alone, in a village alley that was completely deserted.
Darken still had not touched her.
Why didn't she try to escape?
But instead Denna obeyed, drawn by his gaze like a moth to a flame. Limping to his side, she did not resist as he took her chin gently between his thumb and forefinger, tilting her face up to his. Denna waited for Darken's grip to tighten, for the pain to shoot through her jaw, but the contact remained light, almost caressing. His voice spellbinding.
"You're looking a little the worse for wear, Denna, but then so am I," he murmured, threading the fingers of his left hand through her braids, loosening her long tresses until they fell about her waist, a ripple of silver-gold. "Only my Denna could have survived an arrow through the back and a fall off a cliff."Denna found herself leaning into Darken's touch as he stroked her cheek. "I was so looking forward to the prospect tormenting you for all eternity, but since I'm now back among the living, I have to admit that I'm glad you're still alive. We are alike, you and I, survivors despite everything life has thrown at us."
Life had thrown Denna into Darken's hands while she was still a child. She had been given no choice in the matter.
No choice but to survive, and to take pride in that survival, and in the ability to live by her wits. Denna prayed to whatever Being that might be listening that those wits would not desert her now.
At that moment, just when Denna had been lulled almost into a state of trance by his soothing tone, Darken queried, so softly she could barely hear him, "What should your punishment be, Denna? What should I do with you – my strongest, my bravest, my most treacherous Mord'Sith?
A flash of clarity came to her. There might still be a chance that Denna could not only survive this encounter, but profit from it.
"I deserve whatever punishment you deem fit, My Lord," Denna recited dutifully, looking up at him with soulful eyes.
It was the truth.
In fact, Darken Rahl was the one person in the world to whom Denna could never utter a falsehood. She could betray him behind his back, but she had never been able to lie to his face, and made no attempt to do so now. "But," she added, "I can still be of use now that Mistress Cara has deserted you."
Denna was quick to catch the slight wince her words had inflicted. She might not be able to lie to Darken Rahl, but she could still exact some pain with the truth, especially if it could win her an advantage. She had never been held as dear to Lord Rahl as had Cara, but this might be the perfect opportunity to climb back into his good graces.
She had to convince Darken Rahl that he still needed her.
"Mistress Cara's betrayal was far worse than mine, Lord Rahl," Denna insisted, trying to keep the quaver out of her voice. She had to impress him with at least the appearance of confidence. "Once the Seeker has completed his mission, I swear that I will bring Cara back to you, obedient and broken once more, to do with as you will." Darken's eyes flickered with an emotion that Denna resented, even as she strove to turn it to her benefit. "Just as you said, I was always your strongest, your bravest Mord'Sith. I still am, I still will be, if you just give me the chance. My Lord, you know that neither Mistress Garen nor Mistress Dahlia is my equal."
Then Denna made the most important promise of all.
"I will help you regain your throne."
Darken let out a bark of laughter at her words. "Denna, even if you had proven yourself loyal, you're damaged goods." She flinched at the mockery in his voice. "Look at you – lame, barely able to walk without getting winded, even your famous beauty is marred." Darken's thumb traced the ridge of her scar. "If you were my most valued stallion and suffered such injuries, I'd have you put down - a quick merciful death. But, unlike my horse, you have done nothing to deserve my mercy." Denna felt the heat rise in her face at the insult, even as she felt the sting of truth in his words.
"I've only had a few months to heal, Lord Rahl. I vow to you that in the span of a few weeks, I will be as fit and strong as ever, and as for…this," Denna dared to place her hand over Darken's, bringing his thumb back over her scar once again, "It will be a constant reminder to me of the consequences of my disobedience to the true Lord Rahl."
The words stuck in her throat, but Denna would do whatever she had to do to regain even a small portion of her power, and she knew that, in Richard's absence, Darken Rahl was the only route to that power, and, try as she might, she could not deny the mesmerizing thrall he had always held over her.
Darken looked intently at her, a gleam of reluctant admiration in his eyes, then shook his head. "No, Denna. I can't use you anymore. It's a pity, because it's the very qualities that make you irresistible – your ruthlessness, your intelligence, you cunning and independence – that make you so dangerous. You can't be trusted out of my sight, and I don't have the patience to keep a watchful eye out for the knife you would be all too willing to stick in my back given the first opportunity."
Denna jerked away from him, shaking her head in silent denial, surprised again that he made no attempt to stop her. Then out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed movement. Turning, Denna saw Garen ambling toward them from the direction of the village square. Whirling around in the opposite direction, she caught sight of Dahlia converging on them from the other end of the alley. Both were smiling back at her with expectation, agiels at the ready, as if daring her to put up a fight.
Other figures began to take form, emerging from the darkness.
Denna's red-clad Sisterhood, many of whom she'd broken herself, were gathering around her in the dusk.
In her present state, not fully recovered, unarmed, Denna could not hope to defeat any of them.
How had they been beckoned to this place?
She turned to Darken, the burning question in her eyes. He gazed back at her with his usual composure. "I didn't come to the market in search of you, Denna. I was hungry for the crisp sharp taste of an apple, I saw one, and I took it. That was all." He contemplated her with a hint of regret. "Of course I recognized you once you started following me. Even lamed, I knew your walk, the way you carried yourself. I sent a message to Mistress Garen by way of the girl at the sweetmeat stall."
Reaching under his cloak, Darken withdrew his own agiel, beckoning toward Garen and Dahlia with his other hand. They approached slowly, cautiously, alert for any sign of resistance or flight, then stopped a short distance away – waiting.
For the first time in her life, Denna felt the hopeless terror of an injured animal surrounded by a pack of ravenous wolves.
"Was it really worth it, Denna, coming after me for taking one small apple?" Darken's tone was bemused. "If you had just ignored me, I would never have been the wiser, and you could have continued with your life, such as it was. I had more pressing concerns on my mind than you."
Hadit been worth it?
Was an existence of tedious obscurity among her inferiors worth living?
Denna wanted her old life back. She still had her determination, her confidence and the power of persuasion at her command. She refused to admit defeat.
Squaring her jaw, Denna considered her lack of options, then, dropping down on her knees before Darken Rahl – Lord Rahl - she clasped her fist over her heart and began speaking the words that had shaped her early years, the words that had created her.
"Master Rahl, guide us, Master Rahl, teach us, Master Rahl, protect us."
Denna heard the creaking of leathers as her sisters followed her lead. If she was ever going to make an attempt at escape, this would be her last chance. The possibility shone like a beacon of hope for one brief moment, then vanished as she pictured herself hobbling down the alleyway. They would be on her in seconds.
"In your light we thrive, in your mercy we are sheltered. In your wisdom we are humbled."
Although his footfall was silent, Denna was aware that Darken was standing over her as she came to the end of the Devotional. She gazed up into his eyes as she finished the time-honored words, but his expression was unreadable.
"We live only to serve. Our lives are yours."
Tears streaked Denna's face as she appealed for one last chance to prove herself, one last chance at glory. "My life is yours, Lord Rahl."
Darken smiled gently, taking Denna by the wrists and raising her to her feet, pulling her gently against him with one arm so that her head rested against his chest.
She was forgiven.
Denna's heart sang in triumph and her, Denna heard a quickly suppressed hiss of anger from Mistress Garen.
The first thing she would do when she regained her strength, Denna swore to herself, would be to put Garen in her place.
There could be only one First Mistress.
"Denna, look at me," Darken demanded, but with a silky drawl in his voice that heretofore she had only heard him use with Cara. With her most practiced and seductive smirk, Denna complied. From this moment, she would show herself worthy of the renewed trust Lord Rahl was placing in her.
Darken's lips brushed against Denna's, first gently, then more insistently. As she opened her mouth to his, Darken thrust the tip of his agiel into the soft underside of her jaw, and she shuddered with ecstasy as the burning pain and pleasure of the agiel-magic coursed through her body. After an endless moment, Darken pulled his mouth away from hers, breathing into her ear," You're right, Denna. Your life does belong to me." Then, still holding her gaze with his, Darken Rahl, with a grimace of disgust, released his hold and shoved Denna away, sending her sprawling onto the cobblestones before she could catch herself. She lay coughing in the dust as he gestured curtly to Garen and Dahlia, who strolled to his side as if they had all the time in the world. "She's all yours now, First Mistress Garen."
Dazed, comprehension slowly dawning on her, Denna watched as Darken Rahl, without sparing her another glance, turned on his heel and strode away into the night, leaving her to the mercy of his wolves.
A/N: Thanks to Dorothydeath for not only being a remarkable beta, but for being a source of constant encouragement while I was writing this story. I've been suffering from a horrible case of writer's block, and had truly believed that I might never be able to write anything again. She helped me regain some of my confidence.
Thanks again, sweetie. I love you!