(Part of the 'Horizon' series.)
He watched her from a distance. Cara had been right before, there was something different about her. A new shadow had been cast in those blue eyes everyone had grown so fond of peering into.
“Talk to her,” Cara offered from her seat upon a collapsed stone pillar. They’d stumbled upon these ruins during their blind trek through an unnamed forest in a foreign land. It was a much safer shelter than the canopy of the unknown. Still, Richard was unsettled. For seven grueling months they had searched for the Sorceress. True to his word, he had sailed through the worst of weather. He had come for her, and yet - - she did not wish to be saved.
“Lord Rahl,” Cara spoke again. There was a command in her voice which drew his attention from the pillars cast beneath the stars several feet off. Her eyes were lit brightly by the fire, but there was a dimness to them now. He was sure his own were a mirror, the things that they had seen - the things that they had done - it was enough to give even the Dream Walker nightmares, if the man were among the living.
Expelling the air building in his lungs, he gave a nod and threw another piece of wood into the fire. She was right. He did need to speak with her. Swallowing the anxiety welling in his throat, he forced his protesting knees forward. His age had never been more apparent as it was now, and to think this entire journey had begun a little under nine years ago.
Her blonde hair and pale skin glowed beneath the moonlight. Light from the fire barely reached this far, yet he still saw the flames dancing shadows upon her back.
His approach was not lost on her. She spoke before he could utter a single word of greeting. She knew what he’d say, and she didn’t want him to say it.
“You shouldn’t be here, Richard.” She peered at her feet; at the worn, brown moccasins and the boots that came to stand beside them.
He’d expected something like that, resisted the urge to laugh for it would be humorless anyway. Of course she was angry with him. Nicci had always insisted he put D’Hara above everything else. Perhaps not Kahlan, but at least before her. It frustrated him that even after all these years, there were moments such as this where Nicci felt unworthy.
Unstrapping the Sword of Truth from its place at his hip, he came around the stone she sat upon only to set the sword between them as he took a seat next to it.
Deciding to push the conversation in the direction it would inevitably head anyway, he laced his fingers together and rested his forearms on his knees. Richard didn’t look at her as he spoke, “Why not?”
Her eyes closed as she scoffed.
She’d expected him to say that, too.
“They invaded D’Hara, they nearly took the Midlands. And they would have destroyed Westland if they’d have managed to get as far. We agreed a long time ago, Richard, that the people came first. I am not the priority, here. I can’t even imagine what the Council will have to say about this.”
From his peripheral, he saw her reach up to brush a hand through her once golden locks. Her hair was shorter now. Richard remembered the explanation he’d been given by a prisoner of the same camp as she. Long hair was a sign of nobility and strength. He’d known the moment he’d seen her that they had cut it to prove a point. That here, in this land, she was nothing. It hung in butchered chunks around her face, the front longer than the back. It was dirty, unwashed, and matted.
His eyes caught the silver glint of the metal around her wrists. Skin conforming bracelets which performed much the same as a Rada’Han. She wore five of them. One for each limb, and a choker around her neck. Unlike the Rada’Han, they had branded it into her skin. He couldn’t help but remember her past. He couldn’t help but grow angry because of it.
“Richard,” Nicci whispered, and he looked away from the metal on her wrist. Her eyes were on his hands, and when he looked he noticed that his knuckles were white and his hands were shaking as they clasped one another. With some effort he let go, and flexed his fingers. Watching as the blood flow began to regulate itself.
He cast a disheartened glance at the Sword of Truth - a weapon that had never failed him until now. Not that it was the swords fault. There was simply not room enough for him to free her from her shackles. Furthermore, he’d been told that if he so much as tried, removing one without simultaneously removing the rest would kill her.
The only hope they had left was their shared magic, but the moment he’d embraced her after first finding her had proven painful for him. Their shared magic had been rebuffed by her restraints, thus sending a powerful shock through his body. He could still feel the twinge of discomfort encasing his bones with every move.
She had refused to be touched by him since.
“Be that as it may, Nicci,” even to him, his voice was rough and thick with emotion. The sound of it sent chills down her spine, she had no choice but to look him in the eye. “You’re my priority.”
Her lips parted at his words, her eyes shifting in and out of focus as they welled with tears she refused to shed. It felt like someone had run a sword through the middle of her chest. And when he lifted a hand to cup her cheek, she inhaled sharply and stood.
Nicci heard him stand just as quickly, and she wrapped her arms around herself protectively and squared her shoulders. “Don’t,” she could feel his warmth through the leather armor she wore. He was close, too close. Painfully close. “Just, don’t.”
Wordlessly he stepped even closer. Without touching her, he lifted his arms and wrapped them around her body. Nicci trembled as her tears fell, her eyes closing tightly. She could just barely feel him, the ghost of his body around hers.
“I meant it when I said that I needed you.” he muttered into her ear, “I have come far enough without you, I couldn’t have gone any farther.”
She didn’t believe that, but the sincerity in his voice nearly broke her. She wanted nothing more than to revel in the comfort of his strong arms.
She felt him moving, and moments later he was gone. Blinking, her eyes fell to the pendant that now hung around her neck - the same one he’d given to her years ago.
The same one she’d left behind for him.
Clutching it, she turned to see him sitting back down at the fire, and her wet eyes caught Cara’s.
She remembered what the Mord’Sith had told her when Richard had been gathering their firewood for the evening. About that day on the beach, and all of the days that had followed. He’d shown the enemy no quarter, and had sailed their dead back to them as a message. She shuddered at the thought of his promise, and why he’d made such a merciless vow.
Tucking the pendant beneath her clothes, she took a breath to calm her racing heart and rampant emotions. While she didn’t feel any better about his decision to rescue her before everything else, she at least felt relieved that he had a plan.
Richard always had a plan.
For now, she would focus on learning just what that plan was.